It is hereby declared that all people in this land are free and shall thenceforth be considered free forever more.
The plaque—fake-bronze and not yet dusty—hung above the doorway of the large room. Rory couldn’t stop staring at it, even though he’d read it enough times for the words to have become meaningless symbols. Free forever more. Except not quite yet.
The woman with the pad tapped her screen. “I know it’s difficult,” she said, like she was reading from a script. Or worse, probably: like she had it memorized. “Please be as honest as you can in describing your ordeal. All physical details and other descriptors will be kept entirely anonymous and cataloged only as part of the Forgiveness Project. The Forgiveness Project is a movement to empower the formerly enslaved…”
Rory tuned her out. He’d heard the Forgiveness Project spiel at least three times a day back at the “Re-entry Academy.” Which was something like summer camp, except it was in the middle of the desert and you never got to go home. (A tent city in the desert, but they were not supposed to call it “camp.”)
Well. Some of them went home. Not Rory. The law was very clear: former owners were forbidden from contacting former slaves. There was an entire chapter in the textbook about it. (They didn’t call it a textbook. They called it a handbook. And Rory had read that chapter at least three times, searching for loopholes. There weren’t any.)
“Please begin,” the woman said, stylus hovering over screen.
The din of other voices faded as Rory attempted to concentrate on the woman across the desk.
“Sometimes the easiest way to tell a story is to just begin with whatever you first think of.” Her voice changed. Warmed, by a degree or two. “What comes to mind when I say ‘slave,’ Rory?”
Kneeling at Master’s feet and losing myself for hours while he worked. Knowing that eventually he’d rest his hand in my hair.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have to use the facilities. May I—” He pulled up short. Did he have to ask permission for this? They worked on it a lot, at camp. He pictured the relevant page in the textbook. Bodily functions did not require permission.
The woman waited, like she was used to slaves stumbling all over their words.
A script, a script. Rory reached for the script. “I’m using the facilities. I’ll be back shortly.”
She nodded, looking vaguely pleased with him. He almost expected a treat. Look, the dim dog can learn a new trick! He memorizes phrases and strings them awkwardly together in order to please his—
No. No master. Not anymore.
Rory swallowed and hid in the slaves’ toilet for as long as he could justify it, readying his own non-standard script for that exchange: “Stomach troubles, yes, I have been feeling off lately.”
Do not cry. Do not cry.
Twelve months, and in those twelve months he hadn’t cried. Twelve months since they dragged him out of Master’s house. (Master’s voice had followed him: “I’ll get this straightened out, Rory! Get off me, you—”) At the time, it had brought him comfort. But now?
Chapter Three: Protections for Former Slaves and Laborers. There shall be no contact between persons who once lived under a contracted arrangement such as consensual slavery or indentured servitude for a period no shorter than five (5) years, and for as long as the formerly indentured person so desires.
Rory had completed the entire re-entry program, but he wasn’t being released. This farce of Forgiveness Project interviews really only highlighted the truth: he had somehow failed to “fully acclimate to freedom,” and now he’d be sent back to camp for another endless six months. Remedial courses in freedom?
He couldn’t tell how much time had passed, but he was certain that someone would be in to drag him out any moment now. (No such thing as legal slaves’ bathrooms anymore, but he noticed no free people ever seemed comfortable walking into the ones that still existed.) Freedom did not include unlimited bathroom breaks.
In the early days, he’d indulged in near-constant fantasies of what he’d do when he got home. Oh, he’d make elaborate desserts, ingredient-intense entrees, beautiful appetizers. He’d finally commit to soufflés. The visions had grown increasingly bittersweet. At this rate, he may never leave camp, let alone go back to Master’s expansive kitchen.
He missed it. His greatest secret in freedom: he missed being a slave.
The door slammed open.
“Fuck! Fucking bastard! I’ll fucking—I’ll fucking—” Crash. “Shit.”
Rory tried to curl up very small, but the cursing turned to muttering, and whoever the person was, they didn’t leave.
It would be fine. He’d just wash his hands and walk out. No big deal.
Rory flushed the toilet he hadn’t used and opened the door as unobtrusively as he could.
The woman sitting on the sinks was black, and he thought she was in his group at camp. He’d definitely seen her before. She always spoke way too loudly whenever they shared a class, and her name was a little strange, but he couldn’t remember it at the moment.
She’d been an indenture, not a legacy slave like Rory. The indentured work program had been an alternative to jail. Legacy household slavery—which he’d always considered the norm—was apparently a very small, very regional operation. He’d only met former indentures at camp.
“Hey, I know you. You’re the one on suicide watch. Huh. What’s your name again, kid?”
He bristled. “Rory.”
“You don’t like it when I call you ‘kid’?”
“My name is Rory.”
“Nah. Rory’s lame. Roar, though. That has potential.” She jumped down. “So, you in for another six, too?”
Rory looked up. “I’m not the only one?”
“Hell no, Roar. There’s a whole little bundle of us dunces too stupid to be set free in the wild.”
He made a face, and she grinned back at him.
“I hate this place,” he said. “I hate camp even more.”
“I hear that, Roar.” She held out her hand and stepped forward, the light surrounding her short hair in a weird double-afro that looked almost angelic. Then she spoiled the effect by saying, “I’m Demon. Good to officially meet you. So. You want to bust out of this bullshit with me?”
Bust out. “What do you mean, bust out?”
“I mean, Roar, that I’m not going back to camp. Not no way, not no how. I’m a free bitch, and I’m getting the hell out of here.”
“But—we can’t just—can we?”
“How do you feel about running like hell? I got a whole escape route planned, and they’re all complacent. Nothin’ to see here, just some dumb slaves, don’t know what’s good for them.” Demon smiled and raised her eyebrows. “Or hey, you can go right back to camp. I think it’s stew tonight. Again.”
“I hate stew.”
“Everybody hates stew. This is not how I remember fucking freedom, man. So what do you say? You in, Roar?”
He could have walked away. Except this Demon girl had just expressed exactly what had been bothering him. “I don’t understand how all their workbooks tell us that we’re free now, we’re responsible, we have agency, but we don’t, not really.”
“Oh, sure we do, Roar. Like you and me, right now. Let’s go.”
“When they’re least expecting it.”
“Did you really plan this?”
Demon shrugged. “Does it matter?”
No. “I guess not. What if they catch us?”
“What’re they gonna do? Beat us?” She nudged him, shoulder-to-shoulder. “You’d rather go back out there and keep answering their fucking questions?”
“Definitely not. Okay. Let’s give it a shot.”
“Give it a shot, yeah, Roar. Let’s give it a shot.”
Rory’s heart was pounding. He tried to look normal, but it was impossible.
“Don’t walk behind me like a slave,” she said, not even whispering. “Walk right here, like a free man, Roar.”
“I’m going to faint.”
“Nah, you’ll be fine.”
“No, really, sometimes I—”
Suddenly they were on the stairs.
“Stay cool. No one’s shouting yet.”
Stay cool? He was about to hyperventilate. And his heart was going to explode. “I’m not sure about this, Demon.”
“Okay, well, then you can go back upstairs. No? I hope you’re ready to run, Roar.”
The front door came into view, with an entire world on the outside of it. How was this even possible?
“Hey. Hey! You two!”
“Time to go,” Demon said, and grabbed his hand. “Run, boy!”
They slammed out the doors and pounded down the sidewalk, taking a right turn, then a left. Rory couldn’t hear anything but their own shoes hitting pavement as they sprinted and Demon laughing, like some sort of crazy person.
Stop laughing, they’ll catch us. But he couldn’t speak, could hardly breathe.
They ran until he thought he’d be sick, and then she pulled him behind a sliding gate and shoved him to the ground.
“There,” she said, panting in his face, maniacal laughter now reduced to a mere maniacal grin. “Welcome to freedom, Roar.”
And the truly crazy thing? He couldn’t breathe or think, and he still hadn’t ruled out fainting. But at that moment, Rory laughed, too.
“There you are, Roar! Dammit! I can’t believe you just fucking did that with me. You’re insane!”
“I’m insane? You’re—”
Oh no. The edges went gray, Demon’s face blurred. I really should have told her—