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A Better World

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A Better World

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Author: Sarah Langan
Publisher: Atria Books, 2024

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction / Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Dystopia
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You'll be safe here. That's what the tour guide tells the Farmer-Bowens when they visit Plymouth Valley, a walled-off company town with clean air, pantries that never go empty, and blue-ribbon schools. On a very trial basis, the company offers to hire Linda Farmer's husband, Russell, a numbers genius, and relocate her whole family to this bucolic paradise for the .0001 percent. Though Linda will have to sacrifice her medical career back home, the family jumps at the opportunity. They'd be crazy not to take it. With the outside world falling apart, this might be the Farmer-Bowens' last chance.

But fitting in takes work. The pampered locals distrust outsiders, snubbing Linda, Russell, and their teen twins. And the residents fervently adhere to a group of customs and beliefs called Hollow... but what exactly is Hollow?

It's Linda who brokers acceptance, by volunteering her medical skills to the most influential people in town through their pet charity, ActHollow. In the months afterward, everything seems fine. Sure, Russell starts hyperventilating through a paper bag in the middle of the night, and the kids have become secretive, but living in Plymouth Valley is worth sacrificing their family's closeness, isn't it? At least they'll survive. The trouble is, the locals never say what they think. They seem scared. And Hollow's ominous culminating event, the Plymouth Valley Winter Festival, is coming.

Linda is warned by her husband and her powerful new friends to stop asking questions. But the more she learns, the more frightened she becomes. Should the Farmer-Bowens be fighting to stay, or fighting to get out?


The Sinking Ship

"Some people aren't suited. It's nothing personal," Jack Lust said. "They're simply a wrong fit."

This guy was a clown. The creepy kind. Linda Farmer didn't like him, but she smiled at him because she had to.

"For instance," Jack said. He enunciated every syllable like a disappointed preschool teacher. "Character is paramount. When we hire people who are going to live in our town, mix with our top-level executives, become top level, we need to know they'll behave."

Linda nodded as if to say: We have character! We ooze character!

"You'll have no cause for concern with us," Linda's husband, Russell, said. They were sitting together on the sunken couch, looking up at Jack Lust in the high wingback chair like a couple of kids who'd been caught doing something bad.

"Our community is small and like minded. We prefer collaborative types. It's counterintuitive: to get to this place that you're at today, an interview for a coveted company job in a jewel like Plymouth Valley, you must outshine all your competition," Jack said. His bespoke black suit hugged his bony body like shrink-wrap. Linda pegged him at a vim and vigorous seventy-five years old. Cosmetic surgery, healthy living, clean air--company town people kept it tight. Nobody in their seventies looked this good on the outside.

Jack was accompanied by a small entourage of likewise elegant men, none of whom he'd introduced. Two appeared to be taking notes and two were security, waiting outside the Farmer-Bowens' apartment door. Linda hadn't checked--this had all moved too fast--but she suspected that the leather straps across their chests held pregnant holsters.

"But once you're in Plymouth Valley, you must be a team player," Jack said. His primness, his perfect posture and absence of expression, vibed to her like contained rage. This was a huge leap in all logic--it definitely wasn't true--but he reminded Linda of one of those guys you hear about on the news streamies, who murder people in weird, excessively neat ways. They lure the random unhoused into their lairs, then exsanguinate and store their blood in jars on their freezer doors. They sneak incrementally larger arsenic doses into a friend's tea over months and years, just to watch with secret pleasure as their hair and teeth fall out. But she was thinking this only because she was nervous. This three-piece-suited company shill had a lot of power over her life. Her family needed for Russell to land this job. My God, they needed this job.

"Your record is the strongest I've seen in a decade. You must have worked night and day to get to this place. Am I correct?" Jack asked.

"Yes," Russell agreed. He was nervous, trying too hard. She didn't blame him. "I had days off, but I didn't take them. My inbox was always too full."

"The next step is to bring you to Plymouth Valley to interview with our science department. This is a rare opportunity. We almost never open our doors to outsiders. Even when we outsource, it's typically through other company towns."

"I'm so honored," Russell said.

"It is an honor. But it's an honor you've earned," Jack said.

Linda grinned at the compliment despite its smugness. "What's it like inside a company town?" she asked.

"They're all different. Plymouth Valley is the best. Very safe. Very happy," Jack answered. His beady eyes connected with hers. He didn't smile. She pictured the shining, bright kitchen in his perfect company town house, maybe a severed head or two in the subzero freezer. It was a game now. A tension release that made this interview less horribly momentous. "If you're lucky, you might see for yourself. If you're even luckier, you might get to stay. The reason I'm here, that I asked to meet you in particular, Linda, is that these hires can get tricky. Relocating and housing entire families is costly for the company. We avoid it when we can."

"Totally," Linda said. She waited for him to say something like: But we'd be glad to have you! The more, the merrier! This didn't come, so she elaborated. "We're a very happy family. The twins are practically grown. They've never been in trouble. None of us have been in trouble."

"We know that from the background check," Jack agreed.

"Thank you..." she said, flustered. Had she and Russell agreed to a background check? They must have.

"What I'd like to impress upon you both is that Plymouth Valley is a privilege. We have many customs. To an outsider, they might seem peculiar. But you'll understand them with time. The longer you live in Plymouth Valley, the clearer the picture."

"We're prepared for anything that comes," Russell said.

Linda nodded, suppressing a cough. She'd heard that company people thought outsiders carried disease and didn't want to give anybody the wrong idea, even though this year's super bloom was hell on her allergies. "We're easy people. We get along. We can adapt to any culture," she said. She had no idea whether this was true. They'd only ever lived in Kings.

Jack leaned forward, talked even more slowly. Did he think they were half-wits? Yes, she realized. He did. And it probably wasn't personal. He likely thought everyone he knew was a half-wit, and that went double for outsiders. "The first year is the hardest. But if you make it in our town, if you're accepted, you're set for life."

"Great," Linda said.

"Your children will be set for life."

"We'll be the luckiest people in the world," Linda said, smiling big, eyes wide, voice enthusiastic but not flirty. "I'm so glad you've come, Mr. Lust, so I have the opportunity to tell you in person. We're all in. One hundred percent."

Jack surveyed the apartment for the first time. He'd avoided this before, made a point not to look at all, as if to spare them the shame. Now, he didn't compliment their framed kid-art hung askew, or the rack over the dining room table, from which she'd hung long spoons that, in moments of whimsy, they all played like an instrument. It wasn't a nice place to live. The furniture was threadbare, the big screen cracked. Josie's dirty soccer crap had migrated to the corners of this living room like rats' nests. Still, you had to admit: their apartment on Bedford Avenue had character. The Farmer-Bowens had character.

"Our predictions show that this part of town will be underwater in ten years," Jack said.

"That soon?" Linda asked.

Jack nodded. "We're not worried about that in Plymouth Valley. We've thought of everything. We have everything. We think of PV as the last lifeboat."

"I'd like to emphasize how hard I'll work to make this happen. To make myself and my family an asset," Russell said.

"No need to emphasize anything," Jack said as he stood. He didn't grunt like most seventysomethings. He was creepily graceful. Exsanguinator, she thought. Heads in a freezer.

"Thanks for your time. Someone will be in touch."

His entourage preceding him like they'd choreographed this, he was at the door. He shook both their hands, firm and with eye contact, but still didn't smile.

From their window, Linda and Russell watched the men in tight black suits cross the weed-broken sidewalk and city detritus-sprayed lawn: paper waste, dead tricycles, rusted tires. Jack stepped high and wide like all of it was dogshit.

The black van pulled away.

Linda hacked four wet, pent-up coughs to clear her lungs, then asked, "Does this mean you're getting a second interview or not getting a second interview?"

This happened in a different but nearly indistinguishable world.

It was the Era of the Great Unwinding. The institutions, laws, and even the bridges and roads that people had come to depend upon were falling apart. Everything got automated, but broken-automated. You called your health insurance to ask why they'd dropped coverage despite cashing your check, and your complaint got fed into a system that took three months to process it. By then you no longer needed the surgery because your appendix had burst. The on-call doc had saved your life, but they'd done so without getting prior approval from said insurance company, which was using that as a reason to deny your claim. You appealed this denial, which took six months. In the meantime the hospital's collection agency repossessed your car. This was a thing. It happened in banking, hotels, libraries, schools, the IRS, and every other bureaucratic system. Some version of it happened to everyone.

The weather stopped making sense. Fires and storms raged. Blackouts rolled through the country like waves at a Kings' Stadium Dodger game. A lot of people stopped making sense, too. They were angry and mad and sad all the time. They were indignant over all they'd lost. They were indignant over what they'd never had. In the absence of knowing how to fix any of what had gone wrong, anger spread like a virus, building from one person to the next. Its expression was a delicious release that felt like action.

This unwinding had been happening for decades, accelerating with every passing year. Then a hydrogen bomb accidentally detonated in the Middle East. For two days all over the globe, smoke blocked the sun. The anger went still. Everything went still.

But humanity is resilient. It recovered from this nearly fatal wound, and it persisted, even as it carried its pain with it. The anger returned. The sound returned. The light returned. People ventured out again, resuming the same arguments they'd been having, only the tone was one octave more panicked.

No one could say whether or how things would get better. They wanted to believe that they would. But the organism, the human condition, was sick. There arose no healer to guide them. No strong, honest Prometheus. Alone, they saw no obvious path to health.

Linda Farmer had been a part-time pediatrician at a free clinic for almost fifteen years. Russell Bowen had been a science adviser with the regulatory department at the EPA. They'd lived in the same Kings apartment all that time, hoping to save up money to move to one of the gated communities over the bridge in Jersey, but never managing it.

Mostly, heads down, they stayed positive. The world was falling apart, but they were okay. They had a home, they loved their kids and one another, and their work had value.

Their marriage was typical, in that it was unlike any other marriage and utterly idiosyncratic. She talked when she was happy, and also sang, and maintained ongoing monologues with herself when alone. He talked when nervous but was otherwise laconic. She felt things deeply and expressed those emotions. He held his feelings so close he often wasn't aware that he had any. For instance, if asked a simple question like "Did you like your father when you were growing up?" Linda would have beamed happily and said she'd loved him very much, then described all the good memories she had about him and a few bad ones, too. There were plenty of bad ones. Russell would have looked at the person who'd asked, thought for a moment, and replied with sincerity: "I don't know. I've never thought about it," and been very happy once the subject was changed.

Opposites attract. Linda and Russell complemented one another, each fulfilling a need. And then the kids came along, and life happened faster. They spent less time together. Their differences became a problem.

The years accumulated small crimes between them--words spoken in anger, dismissive behavior, rolled eyes. Sometimes, Linda picked fights. After long, exhausting days at the office, where he was treated badly, Russell didn't have it in him to fight back, and ignored her. This made her angrier. She teased in a mean way to get his attention. (You're awkward, nerdy. And once, during a very hot argument that she still regretted: You're weak.) He retreated deeper. Days later, licking their wounds, needing the house to function, the food to be cooked, the bank statements to stay black, and the kids to feel safe in an unsafe world, they came together. They still loved one another, after all. This love was apparent and deep. So, they pretended the fights had never happened. They left resentments behind them, like a dirty river.

Then Black Friday came.

The news streamies were clever for once, likening Congress to a mad King Solomon, who'd made good on a bad promise and cut the baby in half, rendering both parts useless. The federal government slashed more than a million jobs.

Russell showed up to work and found his entire department weeping like mourners at an Irish funeral. At his desk, he found a box, his name misspelled in Sharpie: Bussel Rowen. No severance. No unemployment. No nothing.

In the face of such an emergency, they put aside their resentments and got along better than they had in years. They were still a team. They were the Farmer-Bowens.

Six months after Black Friday, they were sitting at the dining room table beneath the hanging spoons, itemizing unpaid bills on a yellow legal pad. It had been weeks since their "pre-interview" with Jack Lust, and despite Russell's many follow-ups, they'd heard nothing.

"We could sell my engagement ring," Linda said.

"I looked it up already," Russell admitted. "Even the good places won't pay more than a few hundred dollars for a half-carat diamond."

"Oh," she said, twisting the diamond around her finger, imagining him calling pawn shops, which should not have felt like a betrayal, but nonetheless did. "I talked to Fielding about more hours. She said next month I can do seven days a week, which'll give me overtime. But it's only temporary. The clinic can't really afford overtime."

"How much is that?" Russell asked. His voice was flat, his movements slow. He'd tried to use his time effectively, sending résumés, making calls, cleaning the house, engaging the kids for the first time since... ever? But he'd lost weight since Black Friday, his button-down shirt hanging off scarecrow shoulders. Without work, there was a hole in him.

"Hmm... an extra two grand next month, but then back to my regular salary--four grand a month. Plus, we'll all need to be on my health care, so that'll take us back down to... twenty-five hundred?"

Dutifully, methodically, Russell wrote this out with his mechanical pencil.

"The Jam?" he asked.

With all the trains down from so much flooding, the Jam was their only way out of the city. More practically, a car is a kind of house, with four walls and a roof. You can live in a car.

"Naw," she said. "It's worth more to us than the cash."

"College fund?"

"We'll get killed on the taxes if we cash that in," Linda said, trying hard to greet this logically. But more than her ring, or her winter coat, or even her hair, she loved that college fund. It represented every ice-cream cone never bought, every vacation never taken. It meant they'd done at least one thing right.

"Forty percent penalty. It'd be a huge waste," Russell agreed. Then again, that money might float them. The Legal Aid lawyer had told them not to waste another dime on rent--just wait for the eviction. Then use this college fund to rent something smaller and deeper into the messy part of town. But what then? That money would run out, too, eventually.

People were dropping out all over this city. One day, they were your coworker or neighbor or that harried parent at drop-off with the crazy hair. The next, they were squatting in abandoned buildings. They were the disappeared.

She'd been denying it for a while now, but the inexorable weight of it hit her right then: her family might become the disappeared.

"Russell," she said, her voice cracking. She was trying not to cry, but it was happening. He didn't react right away, and she knew it was because this was too much for him. He felt too bad about how things had turned out.

"Don't mind me. Ignore me," she said.

"It's okay," he said, soft. "Let's just get through this."

That was when his device rang. Instead of an area code, the screen blinked a steady stream of rolling names. A scam, she assumed. Another grifter offering water rights in Siberia or sham iodine pills for radiation. Russell answered it anyway, probably for the distraction.

"Yes, this is Russell Bowen," he said. His spine perked, his voice coming to life. "That's right. I met with Jack Lust... Really? That's great. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That's great."

As he talked, his eyes watered. He circled college fund instead of crossing it out, then made a sunshine of exclamation points all around it, and she felt a great and gruesome sympathy for him, for all of them, for the whole messed-up, unwinding world.

BetterWorld was one of the smaller multinationals, known mostly for a polymer called Omnium, whose main ingredient was recycled plastic. Hailed as a miracle product, Omnium was used for things like rope, clothing, bags, packaging, fabric, upholstery, machine parts, and even ship sails.

It was biodegradable in the presence of a GRAS-rated (Generally Recognized As Safe) solvent called GREEN. You applied GREEN at home, in your bathtub, and your fabric turned into a thin green slurry that ran right down the drain, or you deposited your Omnium at local collection sites, where it was taken to special waste facilities, and the solvent was applied there. GRAS-rated products were the "natural flavors" you might find in a bag of chips, or the thickening agent in your fake milk. In other words, they were so safe you could eat them.

Quickly after BetterWorld's founding, Omnium replaced plastic as the most popular global synthetic. BetterWorld couldn't make enough of the stuff, opening mills across the globe. All that plastic in the oceans shrank. Dolphins, whales, and sea turtles--the ones that could tolerate the acidity--lived to swim another day. The company prospered, extending its reach into pharmaceuticals, banking, construction, and mining.

Though in recent years sentiment had turned against the big corporations, whom protesters accused of resource hoarding, BetterWorld was spared the worst publicity hits. They paid the highest wages to contract workers, contributed to charity, and had literally cleaned the planet. Or they'd done their part cleaning the planet. The planet needed significantly more tidying to sustain life over the next few generations.

Plymouth Valley was BetterWorld's crown jewel. Located along a distributary of the Missouri River, it was established as the site of the first Omnium mill. Though that mill had closed in favor of larger-capacity factories across the globe, the town was reconceived as the seat of operations, where BW's top executives lived.

Over the course of Russell's interview process, Linda read everything she could find about Plymouth Valley. There wasn't much. High walls protected its residents from crime. A filter called the Bell Jar cleaned its air. Their mascot was something called a caladrius, a bird indigenous to the area whose cartoon likeness BetterWorld used as its emblem. Their local culture was called Hollow. Like most company towns, its architects had built a subterranean survivor shelter.

In his old job, Russell had reviewed the safety and efficacy of polymer-based products. Jack Lust was interested in hiring him as a science adviser in BW's Plymouth Valley office. He would follow Omnium from creation to disposal, read and initiate studies, and testify on his findings.

With unemployment hovering around 25 percent, people all over the world were trying to get into company towns--places with laws and order and guaranteed work. Places where you could go to the grocery store and exchange pleasantries without getting shot by a stray bullet. But like everything else, even company towns were shrinking. Access to outsiders was practically impossible. Unless you were born to the privilege, you had to be exceptional. A genius, even. The residents weren't the 1 percent. They weren't the .01 percent. They were the .000001 percent.

After that phone call, BetterWorld's search committee flew Russell out to Plymouth Valley. He stayed three days. Linda spent the time acting falsely cheerful and sometimes genuinely cheerful: Dear God, what if he got this thing?

"Well?" she asked when he called on his flight back home.

While Russell spent the day at the library, studying for his final interview, she prepped the kids.

"We're flying out in two days," she explained. "They want to meet the family. No cussing. No rudeness. No interrupting. I need you to be on your best behavior."

"What the fuck?" fifteen-year-old Josie asked. To correct for her own childhood, in which the people around her had nourished their secrets like beloved lap dogs, Linda had always encouraged open discussion. Lately, as it pertained to Josie, she was starting to think she'd overcorrected.

"If your dad gets this, we're moving," Linda said.

"I'm not moving," Josie said. "I'm the only sophomore starting center forward in Brilliant Minds' history."

Linda explained the situation in plain terms: there weren't any other jobs.

For Hip, who was neither a good student at Brilliant Minds Prep (a prep school only in name), nor a big man on campus, reality clicked right away. Either the Farmer-Bowens moved up to Plymouth Valley, or they moved down and out, to someplace much worse. He nodded. Behind his glasses, his eyes were wet.

"I don't get it. You hate company towns. You said they're for uptight assholes," Josie said.

"That's because I didn't think we'd ever get invited into one," she answered. "Now, I think they're great."

"What about my team? Our apartment? Why can't you get a job, Mom?"

"I tried," Linda explained. "Most of what I do's been automated. The work's either in free clinics, where the pay isn't enough to support our rent, or with really rich people as a private doctor, and I don't have those connections, Josie."

Josie spent the afternoon kicking a soccer ball against the brick-walled back of their building. Feverish--that allergic cough had bloomed into a bronchial infection--Linda cleaned the kitchen, mopped the floor, disregarded the bills piled on the counter. She made a snack for Hip, who had food anxiety bordering on anorexia. He liked lentils and he liked tomatoes and sometimes he picked at brown rice. She left the plate on the table as a hopeful temptation. God bless this kid, he ate every bite, then told her to sit down--take a load off, Mom--just to make things easy.

Hours later, Josie returned through the back door, the bib under her armpits and around her neck sweat-drenched. Russ finished his research. Hip came out from his room. Having arrived from separate places, they all four sat at the supper table. In poker terms, this job, this potential move, was a Big Blind. They had no idea what was coming. But they were rational people. They understood that this chance was their best option.

They caught the BetterWorld private jet at the airfield in Ronkonkoma, then zoomed over the congested tri-state with its patched, sea-broken roads, its kudzu and mold creep. They flew over the Great Lakes, and then the plains of Iowa. The closer they got to Plymouth Valley, the more the country flattened and spread like pulled dough. The land turned brown. Houses were dilapidated. Rusted tractors and combines perched silently along desiccated grain fields.

"Jesus, it's Ozymandias out here. I had no idea it was so bad. How are they even growing corn and wheat?" Linda asked.

"Wait," Russell told her.

From a plane's-eye view, they passed Plymouth Valley's border wall. A lush oasis emerged. The Omnium River wasn't the dirty Hudson of her childhood. It was blue. As they descended, she saw solar-powered cars cruising paved roads. Hedges stemmed long driveways that bloomed into outsized houses, all lined in neat rows.

"They've got a pipeline to the big aquifer. The Ogallala," he said. "The corn farms were about ten years from depleting the whole thing, so BetterWorld bought them out. I get the argument against company towns like this, but it's not really resource-hoarding if everybody else is resource-destroying."

Upon landing, Russell kissed her quickly, waved to the kids, and joined the search committee to convene with the BetterWorld board of directors for a daylong gauntlet. Zach Greene, one of Jack Lust's many assistants, introduced himself.

"Color me lucky!" Zach said. Like Jack, he put weight on every syllable, enunciating all his letters. They all talked like this, she would later learn. It was the PV accent. "I'm PV's resident tour guide and I get to spend the day with you fine people. Whatever you do, please do not think of this like an interview. It's just for fun!" Then he did prayer hands at them, his fingers bisecting his curlicued goatee. "Please have fun!"


Like the one Jack had worn, Zach's suit was skintight. But instead of black, it was bright yellow and pink, and styled with zippers like a tracksuit. Unlike the Omnium fabric back home, which people tended to toss after a season, his was lined and double stitched.

As they rode in the back of Zach's giant white SUV, past the airfield and south along the self-sustaining farm and the field of wind turbines, everything seemed extra crisp, like kids' drawings that have been outlined in metallic.

They passed a park with a wide swath of green ahead of a playground. Colorful maypoles lined its roadside. Grosgrain ribbons hung down, their edges grazing the ground. These encompassed every color, including black.

"You've heard of Hollow?" Zach asked.

"A little," Linda said. The air was so clean that she could feel the swelling in her bronchi and sinuses go down: a literal loosening in her chest and back, a squeak under each cheekbone. It felt so good. "It's the culture here? There's not much online."

"There wouldn't be anything. You've probably already figured out we keep our business private. This place is the repository for BetterWorld R&D. Lots of corporate secrets. We're a satellite no-fly zone, and we store everything important in analog," Zach said. "But you have it right. Hollow's a set of customs based on gratitude. Some outsiders think it's a religion, but it's not. We're secular. We just enjoy tradition. We've got four local festivals. You just missed Beltane--that's what those maypoles are about. It's terrific fun. Lots of competitions. Lots of winners and losers. The winner becomes the annual Beltane King. It's been Keith Parson every year for the last fifteen. The man's a legend. So strong! If you move here, you'll get to see his crowning in September."

"I'd love that. We all would, wouldn't we?"

"Yes!" both kids gamely agreed.

The ride was smooth--no potholes, no jerking electric power from chewed-up converters. When they got to the residential section, she noticed dog shelters punctuating the front lawns of the large, freestanding houses. These had low mansard roofs over rectangular bases.

"Do many people here have pets?" she asked.

"Oh, no," Zach said. "With the caladrius, we discourage that. They're lazy guys, but in the spring they tend to hunt in packs. Domesticated animals don't fare well here."

"The caladrius is your mascot, right?"

They stopped at a flat, grid-shaped intersection with freshly painted meridian lines. "There's one!"

Out from one of the shelters, a funny-looking creature appeared. Its plumage fanned like that of a peacock, only its feathers were all white, its neck was stubby, and it had carnivore teeth. It reminded her of a squat vulture.

"They're real?" Josie asked with an amused laugh. "I heard about them, but I wasn't sure. But I also didn't believe in narwhals until someone showed me a picture. I'm still not sure I believe in narwhals."

"You're narwhal agnostic," Hip said.

Linda shot them a simmer down look.

"The caladrius is definitely real!" Zach answered. "Genetically engineered, obviously."

The bird waddled but didn't fly. Linda wanted to be charmed, but its dirt-crumbly undercarriage dragged as it waddled. It seemed, somehow, inbred, like those dogs whose eyes spontaneously pop out of their sockets. "Are they friendly?"

"They know we feed them," Zach said. "Friendly would be a stretch. But that hardly matters. What matters is that they reproduce very quickly, making them an excellent food source. Very high in the B vitamins and iron. They were invented to replace chickens, but they turned out to have fragile lungs. They're dependent on our Bell Jar. That's why you've never seen one outside. They can't survive."

"And they live here, in doghouses on people's lawns?"

"Birdhouses," Zach said. "They're heated for winter. Very comfortable."

Linda watched the sad thing. Found herself pitying it as it wobbled like a drunk. "Why?"

"We could pen them all up on the farm, sure, but they're our birds. We made them. Why not honor them? Why not take individual accountability for their survival, because the existence of these creatures might also one day mean our own survival?"

"Huh," she said. "I guess that's smart. More ethical than factory farms, for sure."

"We're smart!" Zach announced.

Their first stop was town. Zach took them to Parson's Market, whose produce was so fresh it seemed about to burst, then to the fabric store, where residents had their clothing and upholstery made bespoke. Last was Lust's Bakery, apparently owned by Jack's cousin, where they settled into a table with donuts and day-fresh goat milk whose cream rose to the top. Linda dunked. Made noises of pleasure. Stopped doing that, as it sounded obscene.

Zach explained the rules. Like most company towns, BetterWorld had done away with salaries. Instead, it offered benefits. There was no cap on dependents. Families could have as many children as they pleased. But more than two was frowned upon. Cars, houses, meals in restaurants, education, health care, and everything else in PV was free. New employees paid a small settlement deposit that was refundable, so long as they lived and worked in PV at least twelve months. This kept the company from losing its investment.

Employees underwent annual reviews every year for twenty-five years. The first review was the toughest. "It's a test, to be honest. The whole year's a test, to make sure you fit, and also to get you to fit," he said. "But isn't it worth the extra effort to live someplace so safe?"

"What are the exam questions?" Linda asked. He looked at her blankly. "How are we tested?" she followed up.

"Nothing formal. It's really just for fun. You'll understand as you go. Most people work out fabulously." Quickly, he moved on, telling her that if they passed those twenty-five reviews, they'd receive what was called a golden ticket: they got tenure and could live in PV for as long as they wanted, and retire there, too. Children had grace periods. They were allowed to stay with their families until they turned twenty-two, at which point, presumably, they'd secured their own employment. "Then, they get jobs in PV and live next door to their parents, like me!"

There wasn't an elected government. The big things were decided by the BetterWorld board of directors. The rest was decided by volunteers who worked together in clubs like the PV Beautification Society and the PV Civic Association. Laws were identical to those on the outside, and when people broke them, which was rare, PV retained a small police force and typically outsourced criminal trials to the justice system in New York. Misdemeanors it handled on its own.

"You seem organized," Linda said, noticing the passersby outside. Like Zach, they dressed in tight, brightly colored clothing suitable for both exercise and work. "But what happens to the people who don't pass their first review?"

Zach made gratitude prayer hands, bisecting that terrible goatee once again. It looked like a gigantically hairy slug had died on his face. "The same thing that happens to the people who don't pass their twenty-fourth reviews. They leave Plymouth Valley without golden tickets, but with excellent résumés. You can't lose. This place opens many doors--"

"How much is the deposit?"

Zach put his hand on Linda's arm. It felt performative. She liked him better than Jack. At least he smiled, even if it was fake. Still, his personality was... greasy. "Don't you worry about the money. That's never an obstacle."

When they toured the local K-12, they learned that all the meals were fresh, the teachers had PhDs in their subjects, and university-level courses began in seventh grade. "You'll notice everyone has notebooks. We don't believe in screens. Screens are for consumers. Our children are producers."

"Is this place magic?" Linda asked, because back home, all the exams were online, only sometimes blackouts erased everything, and the kids had to take them two and three times before getting an automated, often erroneous grade. Last year, a clerical error had removed Josie from the honors track in math, so she'd been remediated. It had taken Linda six months and the threat of a lawsuit to get her back in Honors Trigonometry instead of Building Blocks of Mathematics. Hip lost his lead seat in cello when the music department was canceled. His heartbroken orchestra teacher tried to give him the school-issue cello as a parting gift, but the assistant principal confiscated it, so now that cello sat inside a locked room on Clark Street, getting dry rot.

After the school, they drove north. Zach tuned the radio to the only station that got reception: Plymouth Valley Radio, which was also volunteer run. The Brahms violin concerto played. "The hills look like baby cartoon bunnies and kitties and puppies holding hands," Josie said. She was intimating what they were all feeling: this place was too good to be true. And also: Were the Farmer-Bowens good enough for it? Everybody but Zach laughed.

"But they kind of do," Hip said.

"Yup," Linda said. "Or cherubs. Baby angels."

"God is dead," Josie said in an unnaturally deep voice. She and Hip laughed. From the passenger seat, Linda shot them another stuff it glance.

"I've always thought they looked like caladrius," Zach mused.

"Oh, I definitely see that," Linda said.

"Me too," Josie agreed.

"Yeah," Hip said, adding now to the story. "That ripple in the hill looks like wings."

They pulled up a long, circular driveway. At the center was a giant colonial three stories tall, with a wraparound deck. "Should things work out, this house will be yours," Zach said.

The kids went bananas. They ran from room to room, claiming potential bedrooms, standing over the fireplace like it was magic: Does it work? Hip asked. We could roast marshmallows! Josie cried. Then she did a hula hip dance, shouting, S'mores!

The thing about fifteen-year-olds: they act like they're thirty, and they act like they're three.

The smart house was four hundred square meters and came with a maid. Handprints opened every door. The windows darkened or became transparent by voice command. Food got ordered and delivered that way, too. Though the furnishings tended too much toward red velvet and gold paint, it was sumptuous, with the kinds of small details, like plaster molding and blown-glass door handles, that cost a fortune back home.

When Linda'd seen pictures of places like this--screenies showing trillionaire lifestyles--she'd never really believed they existed. She'd assumed they were fantasies generated by sophisticated AI.

...Russell was great at his job. But was he this great? Was anyone?

She breathed, practically high off the sweet, clean air (it was so fresh!), and pictured her family in this big house, walking from room to room, laughing. They could host plenty of dinner parties. The kids could invite scores of friends to basement sleepovers. With all that company, she'd keep the fridge permanently stocked and she'd never have to say: Sorry, no milk this month; no fruit this week; it's all cans until the farm shipments arrive, because they lived on the farm. It was all here.

Their tour ended with the underground shelter. There were six entrances across town. The access point Zach chose was at the lip of Caladrius Park.

They climbed down a stone staircase, where Zach pressed his palm against a steel door. It opened, leading to a wider, grander set of stairs with bright motion lights that tripped as they walked down, down, down, until her ears popped.

"Cave-in is impossible," he said, as if reading her mind. "This structure is meant to survive a ten-kilometer-wide asteroid. It's stronger than Offutt Air Force Base. Better funded, too."

The landing brought them into the Labyrinth, a five-kilometer network of winding tunnels that ran the perimeter of the actual shelter. To defend against invaders, walls moved and tunnels led to dead ends. You had to know your way to penetrate the belly of the place.

They walked a long stone hall until they came to a crossroad. Looking in any direction, each crossroad led to another crossroad. Labyrinthine was accurate. It would be easy to get very lost.

"Watch," Zach said. He pushed his hand against the wall. Like footage of high-speed cell proliferation, a glinting, handle-like protrusion birthed from the stone. Zach pulled on that. A four-by-four strip of wall separated from its base. He let them through, and the wall closed behind them, blending utterly.

"Super cool, right?" Zach asked the twins with put-on excitement. It's hard to get your tone right when talking to a teenager. They smell phony like a gas leak. He didn't get it right.

"Kinda, yeah," Josie said. "Unless we're trapped and die here."

It was cheerier now that they were past the defensive shell and inside the actual shelter. The floors were Spanish tile, the air dry, the soft lights following their movements like flowers in bloom.

"Is this technology using intuitive biometrics?" Hip asked.

Linda had never heard of intuitive biometrics. The world moved fast, and it should not have surprised her that her son knew something she did not. And yet, every time this kind of thing happened with either of her kids, she wondered: Where had they learned this? What was the shape of this future they were about to inherit, and would it be very different from the present she inhabited?

"Exactly!" Zach said. "You'd do well here to study that, by the way. We always need engineers. This shelter is the only place in PV where dayworkers aren't permitted. That means we have our executives and our scientists--the best of BetterWorld--but we also need nuclear engineers, biotech specialists, architects, and even plumbers and sanitation specialists. There's something for everyone. This doesn't just have to be a buy-in for Russell Bowen. It can be a buy-in for your whole family."

They toured the shelter's various amenities: two libraries, several gymnasiums and lecture halls, and a sustainable garden. The bathing areas were communal, and the bathrooms were the European style, using little water, and connected to sewer pipes that funneled into a large tank with a bilge pump that pushed its contents to the surface. They also passed through the barracks: deep round rooms with spacious bunks, and an enormous kitchen, painted light blue and equipped with giant industrial ovens whose vents made a complicated architecture along the ceiling. Entire rooms on either side of it were stocked with canned and frozen goods.

"This is the showstopper," Zach announced as they came to another set of stairs, going down, down, down, for what looked like a half kilometer. The landing was open, but she could see metal pipework down there, and more tunneling. She was relieved when Zach pointed instead of descending. A day of touring had mashed her leg muscles into cooked spaghetti. It wasn't so much the exercise, which she was used to, as being on someone else's schedule; having to act cheerful and enthused was exhausting.

"There are three nuclear reactors built for the sole purpose of transmuting radioactive particles in North America. These absorb and stabilize radioactive nuclei. In other words, they reverse the harmful effects of nuclear radiation. We have one such reactor. Fat Bird is online and standing by. No matter what happens outside this town, Plymouth Valley will survive."

"You're kidding. That's a nuclear reactor?" Linda asked as she peered over the railing and down.

"A mini one. In the event of ambient radiation, we're safe. In the event of a direct hit, we're still safe. Though we'd have to live down here for a lot longer than any of us would like."

"How long?"

"I can't speak for the rest of the world, but it would take twenty-five years to clean the Bell Jar. We could surface before that, but the snow would be neon green."

Back home, the streams shrieked all the time about nuclear disaster. She'd never allowed herself to worry about it. The whole idea was too scary. Now, she gave it real consideration. In the chaos of the Great Unwinding, no one was watching the nukes. No one was safeguarding the reactors out in Asia or Pennsylvania, and making sure they didn't leak now, or in transport to the bottoms of mountains, upon decommission. Leaks had happened in Nevada. In New Mexico, too. As for Tehran, it was uninhabitable.

"Don't let me scare you. We hope never to use it," Zach said, patting the stone leading down with pride.

"Right," she said. But a survivor shelter industry had emerged over the last few decades. Companies had them and rich people had them and some families even pooled all their money together to reserve single spots, as if these places were Noah's Ark, and they needed at least one of their own to survive... Would people really spend trillions on something they'd never use?

"We'll cast shadows for eternity," Hip said in that awed way kids have, when they're too young to know the apocalypse isn't cool. They think they'll survive it, and from the wreckage learn kung fu.

"What shadows?" Linda asked.

"When it hits," Hip said. "Our bodies'll melt against the walls. We'll cast shadows for eternity... Or until the octopus robots scrape us off and throw us away."

"You wish," Josie said. "We'll be vaporized. Atomized. Sub-atomized. Silicone life-forms from the fifth dimension'll be breathing us from colonies on the moon."

"Your father and I've kept you safe for more than fifteen years," Linda said. "Inside or outside, there isn't going to be a bomb. Stop saying that."

"Totally will," they said at the same time.

"There might," Zach conceded.

Linda looked down into the darkness. Something looked back with beady eyes. It was lighter than the pitch, its movement slow, its size gargantuan. Fear lit up her hind brain like a pinball hitting jackpot.

"What is that?" she asked as she reared, arms extended to hold Hip and Josie back.

"What is what?" Zach asked.

"There's something down there."

Making prayer hands, Zach grinned with fascination as he leaned over the metal railing. "I don't see anything."

"It was moving," Linda said.

"Maybe a bird or two. They wander in sometimes."

Linda peered into the grim. "The caladrius?"

"They sneak down during festivals. It's perfectly safe. We've put up electrical fencing around the reactor to keep them out."

"It was big, though. Huge."

"I don't know what else it could be," Zach answered with a note of impatience.

"My mom has a big imagination," Hip said.

"She really does," Josie agreed.

Linda watched the dark. It was still now. Nothing there.

They lingered, Zach delighted by the grand architecture, Linda wondering whether this shelter's cold, dead walls would one day nourish the last pocket of humanity. Then they were heading out through turns and winding halls. Zach talked. Linda pretended to listen. On her mind was the thing in the dark.

Surely her kids were right. She'd imagined it. Even so, its beady eyes had seemed intelligent. Knowing.

"Hollow's tenets are three-pronged: First, through good works, we recognize the disparity between our little town and the outside world. Omnium is a good work, but we also contribute to charity.

"Our second prong is ceremony. Each residence is equipped with at least one Hollow altar, where residents offer tokens of gratitude. This is optional. The four Hollow-based festivals are mandatory. These take place on Beltane, Samhain, Thanksgiving, and at the Plymouth Valley Winter Festival. We bunch them around the cold months to keep things interesting. You'll especially like the Winter Festival," he said, directing this last comment to the kids. "It's the best party on earth.

"Hollow's final prong is the feeding and caring for our caladrius. When they're sick, we nurse them. When they're cold, we ensure their roost is properly insulated. Circle of life. To cull the population, we sacrifice them regularly, particularly for our town-wide feasts. They're delicious. You can eat the eggs any time, too.

"There's more to Hollow, but it's not worth getting into." When he saw her worried expression (Not worth getting into? Had she done something to hurt their chances?), he added, "People learn through experience. That's the best way."

"Right," she said. "We hope we get to be a part of it!"

Linda watched closely as Zach pressed his hand against the wall. She now saw a faint seam. It looked like a spiderweb crack, only the crack spread in five directions, for the placement of fingers. The handle emerged.

Then they were on the other side, in the wild Labyrinth. "Can you guess which way is out?" he asked. They each pointed in a different direction. None was correct. The stairs were straight past the crossroads and then left. They walked up, up, up. Her ears popped again. As soon as they saw sky, the kids ran ahead, grateful, she suspected, to be out from that covered place and in the open.

"What do you think?" Zach asked.

"Incredible," Linda said.

"Overwhelming?" Zach asked.

Linda considered buttering him: This is the town of my dreams! It's the best place in the world! I'm not freaked out at all! But despite the clown outfit and the greasy personality, he seemed smarter than that. Or maybe smarter wasn't the word. Cunning. More cunning. "Yes, it's a fantasy. Perfect in every way. But overwhelming for that reason, too."

"You understand that we don't let people tour. Certainly not entire families unless we're already prepared to make an offer."

Linda waited, her breath caught in her throat.

"You're a fine family. The kind we look for, to create a little variety, but not too much variety. Your husband will be offered the position."

The kids were laughing now, each on one end of a seesaw, threatening to make the other go flying. It was heartening to see them acting so free. Back home, she didn't let them out. It was school and home and don't talk to strangers.

"I'm so grateful," she said.

"Is there anything holding you back?" Zach asked.

"No," Linda said. "We're in."

For the first time, Zach cut the bullshit. She saw it happen on his face, in his demeanor. His posture slackened. His voice became less grand and more like that of someone she'd once met on a nearby barstool, during her wild days. "Seriously, Linda. This town doesn't work for everyone. We follow Hollow. We believe in community. Acclimation that whole first year can be grueling. If you don't want to commit to all that, this isn't for you."

She could tell him that they had nothing else. She could tell him that compared to outside, this place was a literal paradise and they both knew it. But she kept it short. "We want this. Very much."

"Wonderful. Interview over. I told you it would be painless!" Zach said, clasping her hand between his lotion-soft fingers. "Welcome to Plymouth Valley!"

That weekend in Plymouth Valley was the vacation they'd all needed. They swam in the Omnium River near the old mill and ate like horses. As if their bodies were healing from poison--which, given the particulate content of New York's air, seemed likely--they slept like the dead. She and Russell had sex for the first time in weeks, and it wasn't the itch-scratching kind; it was luscious.

Because their assigned house wasn't yet ready, they stayed at one of the guesthouses on the farm. After supper, she and Russell went for a walk. The sky went vivid red as the sun set.

"Well?" he asked.

"It's storybook."

"They want us in two weeks. I think that's enough time. Don't you? We'd need to get here before school starts, anyway."

"Are we absolutely sure this is the right thing?" she asked.

"Even if we could have our old life back, my job, would you want it, after seeing all this?"

She looked out at the sun, which in that short time had sunk behind the wall, leaving the farm awash in a sullen afterglow. "No."

For this first time that she could remember, Russell got down on his knees. He was wearing his usual pleated trousers, a button-down shirt. "It's a house with stairs. It's fresh air and the best schools, the best everything."

Of course we'll move, she wanted to say, and she knew that they would. It was logical. Inevitable, even. But she was thinking of the shadow down in the tunnels; it had felt so knowing and real. She was thinking of Jack, who'd avoided looking at their apartment, under the false assumption that his eyes on the detritus of their messy lives ought to cause them shame.

"I know I haven't done the things I was supposed to do, partner-wise," he said. "I've left a lot on your shoulders and maybe I should have asked. I should have asked. I know that now... I understand why you wanted that divorce when they were little. I get it, now," he said, like he was forgiving her for something. He was being the bigger person. "But it worked out for the best. You did good with them. The kids. I love you and I want us to survive. I want our family to survive. We need this."

Russell was not a communicator. She'd been hoping for something, anything, like this, for a long time.

He wrapped his arms around her waist, his hot breath pressing into her groin. "This can be a fresh start. We'll be different. Better. Like we used to be."

She wanted to believe these words and was glad he'd said them. They were pretty. "Thank you. I appreciate that. I know I should just be happy about this. I'd be crazy not to be overjoyed, and I am overjoyed. But there's something about this town that frightens me," she said, realizing just then that it was true. "I mean, the big house. The free everything? I can live with Hollow. The parties sound like fun and I'm happy to feed some ugly chickens. But doesn't it feel like there's a catch, here? Like it's too good to be true?"

"It is too good to be true," he said. "There's always a catch."

"But what is it?"

He looked at the place where the sun had fallen. "I don't know. They say the first year's the hardest, but they've assured me that so long as I do the job, we'll pass the review."

"So long as we're a good fit. It's a little ominous, isn't it?"

"They seem to like us."

"Do we like them?"

"Does it matter?" he asked. "It's like those old game shows: a prize behind a door. Do we take the cash that won't last us six months, or do we trade it for whatever's behind door number two?"

She shrugged, knowing the answer but still uncertain.

"I wanted this my whole life," Russell continued. "A company town. Can you imagine if my dad was still alive? This is probably the one thing that might have made him like me. But now that we've got this brass ring, I can see that we'll lose something, too. In a way, everyone here will be our boss. They'll have experience and connections. We won't. That'll be tense... My whole life is tense. I've always felt uncomfortable around other people. It's probably why I got fired even though they needed me to run that department--"

"No--" Linda started to interrupt, but Russell stopped her.

"--I'm not good with people. I know that. You don't have to protect me from it. I know I wasn't popular over at the EPA... Around here, they don't seem to care about whether I go out for drinks or crack the right kinds of jokes. They care about the work. It'll be fine for me. Better than home. You're the one who'll need to adjust. You like your friends. You like mouthing off."

She felt no need to defend herself. She knew it wasn't an insult. She did like her friends. She did like mouthing off.

"...But in the end, I don't think any of that will be a problem. We'll get used to it. I know Jack's a cold fish, and from what I saw of Zach, he wasn't great, either. But the guys in my department were okay. I think the people who live and work in this town aren't so different from us. You'll find your friends. I'll... I'll work. We'll feel good, physically. We'll eat well. It's unfortunate that this place is so cut off that we'll never be able to have visitors. But very quickly, I think you'll forget what's left behind. We all will. That's the trade-off. For you more than me. We'll become the kinds of people who live behind walls."

She said what she'd known she'd say all along. "Let's bet the college fund on door number two."

There was hardly time for good-byes. She reassigned her patients and sent out a brief email--not enough, but all she could do. Her mentor, Dr. Fielding, called the day they left.

"You can't move to a company town," Fielding said. She'd just turned seventy-eight and was still practicing despite a hacking cough, which she'd x-rayed in the office, and self-diagnosed: Stage four. Guess I should have gotten more X-rays!

"Pretty sure I can," Linda told her.

"I'll up your hours. Overtime for three months," she said, her voice all rasp and exhale. Linda pictured her, vaping in the supply closet. It was illegal to do indoors, but no one in the position to enforce such things was paying attention.

"Not enough," Linda answered.

"Honey, you can't even vote there. Stay in New York. It's a broken democracy, but it's a democracy. You think if a bomb drops, you'll want to survive it? You won't."

"I have to do this," Linda said.

"You've got a career here. What do you have there? They can dress it up as the prettiest pig at the prom, but it's still a pig. Those people can't handle real life. They're not living, they're avoiding death. It's a tomb."

Linda was trying hard not to cry. She'd been thinking about her young patients all day, imagining their parents reading the prosaic note she'd sent: Dear families--I've loved serving you for the last fourteen years but now it's time to move on. I wish you the best! Some of those children were very sick and needed her to testify in housing court about the effects of mold in their bedrooms. They needed regular paperwork filed to get their medicine. They needed Dr. Linda Farmer.

"If we don't get out of here, it might be my kids who are patients."

"The mom card." Fielding sighed. "Okay, you win." Then she told Linda to take care and keep in touch, to punch Russell in the nuts for her, which she often said, about everybody. And then the Farmer-Bowens were gone. Their belongings packed and shipped by BetterWorld, they boarded the private plane without encumbrance. She watched the outside world get small beneath her feet. A speck of nothing beneath the great blue sky.

Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Langan


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