Elisha Wilder is a debtor. You shouldn’t even know his surname—Third Right. It does not matter that he worked hard on his community’s farm, in the outer-counties of Maryland, so his family could fend off debt collectors and cops. Nor that he cared for his mother, who spent ten years as a Docile before him. Nor that he walked thirty miles into Baltimore city on a January night, leaving behind his good boots for his younger sister. Elisha is a debtor, but when he became Alex Bishop’s Docile he refused Dociline—refused the drug that would turn him into a polite shell of his former self, like happened to his mother. Elisha may be contracted to the scion of Bishop Laboratories, but, whether they are amidst the glittering horrors of trillionaire society or alone in bed, Elisha refuses to forget his frustration. To succumb to the pleasure and comfort, or care about Alex. To lose himself.
K. M. Szpara’s Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, available from Tor.com Publishing on March 3, 2020
After today, I will have seven rights.
“One,” I whisper. “Retention of the right to vote in a public election. Two: the right to adequate care: food, water, shelter, hygiene, and regular medical attention.”
Abby rolls around in her little bed. The old wood squeaks as she settles back under the covers. That’s the only right that would’ve done my younger sister any good. Here, she’ll make do with the occasional medical clinic and home remedies.
“Three: the right to anonymity of surname.” I squeeze my eyes shut. Pressure builds between my brows. After today, I won’t be a Wilder.
“Four.” I pluck the photo of my family from the windowsill. “The right to one personal item.” It’s the same one Mom took with her. She won’t miss it. She probably can’t even remember it.
That visit was the last time she was anything like herself. We had our picture taken by a man at the fair. His camera had an old-fashioned lens that reminded Dad of his childhood.
It was years ago, anyway. Abby was only a baby, all wrapped up in swaddling. Dad still had his beard, a smile nestled in the middle. I’d just grown one tiny hair on my chin and couldn’t wait to show Mom how manly I was becoming.
“Five.” I resume my count. “The right to personal physical safety.” My heart beats a little faster. “Six: the right to sexual health and protection from pregnancy.” A breeze cools the heat on my face.
Between school and work and helping around the house, I’ve never had time for relationships. And I’ve certainly never had time for sex. Where would I have done it, anyway? On my mattress on the floor, next to my little sister’s bed? I know a few guys who use the community barn, but between the squawking and cow shit I could never bring myself to join them.
Besides, I’m counting on Seventh Right to save me from anyone who tries to violate Sixth. “Seven: the right to refuse or demand Dociline, and at any time to change your mind.”
I rise from bed as quietly as possible and pull on my jeans. No sense in changing my shirt. I put on an old pair of sneakers, leaving my good boots for my sister. She’ll grow into them eventually. I doubt they let Dociles keep their clothing.
One personal item.
I slip the family photo into my pocket and tiptoe out of our room without waking Abby. Regret tugs at my heart as I close the door. I didn’t even say goodbye, not a word or a kiss on the cheek while she slept. Nothing. Not for her, not for Dad.
I linger at his bedroom door for a moment before going to the kitchen. Mom doesn’t look up from the floor. She sweeps back and forth over the same worn-down spot, even when I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, Mom, it’s Elisha.”
I hold on to the moment when I can pretend she remembers I’m her son, and that it’s not ten years of Dociline bending her to politeness.
“I miss you so much.”
“That’s nice,” she says, her voice smooth as fresh-churned butter. “I wanted to let you know I’m not mad at you.” I take the broom with no resistance and lean it against the wall.
“Okay.” She smiles, but her eyes are empty, expressionless. “And I love you.”
“I understand why you left us. And when you’re better, someday—”
I pause. It would be easier if she didn’t reply at all, rather than in that monotone voice, following the same script, over and over.
“Someday, I hope you’ll forgive me for doing the same.”
“I need your signature.” I flatten the Office of Debt Resolution form on the table and find her a pen. My parents aren’t married—not legally, anyway. Get married and you—and your children—inherit your partner’s debt. Like each of them don’t have enough separately. No, this is the form that signs both of my parents’ debts over to me, so I can sell it. Sell it all.
Dad already signed, assuming it was for Abby, like we’d discussed. It was that or wait for the police to drag us all off to debtors’ prison. They only send out so many notices.
I trace the scar tissue that patterns the inside of my left wrist. The mark stands out, dark and ropey from years under the sun, a fat “S” with a “U” slicing down its middle. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the dollar sign burning into my flesh, hear the cop calling me a drain on society.
Mom finishes her signature, dots the i’s in “Abigail,” and stares at me, still smiling. Waiting for my next order.
“Thanks, Mom.” I kiss her cheek.
“You’re welcome, Elisha.”
I fold the paper and hold it tight, afraid to lose it. One more stop before the ODR. I lock the door behind me and bury my key in the flowerpot on the porch. When I look up, I see the Falstaffs’ front door open and close, one house over. Dylan stuffs her socked feet into oversized boots. She crosses her arms to secure an old crocheted blanket over her pajamas and hops over, still squeezing her shoes into place. “Where’re you running off to? Can I come?”
The two of us have snuck out more times than I can count. Midnight swims in the reservoir; talks on the bridge, our bare feet dangling over the edge; that time we walked to Hunt Valley for a party in one of the old office buildings and ended up sleeping in an abandoned unit overnight, talking about what we’d do if we didn’t stand to inherit our parents’ debts. I’d go to the University of Maryland, get my teaching degree, put all the tutoring I’ve done to good use. She’d travel to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand that she read about in an old textbook. I told her it probably didn’t exist anymore; she told me to mind my own dreams.
I smile at the memory, but hers fades when she sees the forms in my hands. I tuck them under my arms, but it’s too late. Dylan knows me better than anyone; she’s practically my second sister. After her father took his life and it became clear that my mom was no longer herself, Dad and Nora began spending more time together. We have three surnames between us, but we’re still a family. Even after what our parents went through—what we’re dealing with, now.
“I have to.” I have trouble looking into her eyes. “We received a final notice. The interest is—”
She wraps her arms around me before I can finish. Warm together inside the blanket, I never want to leave.
“I don’t want you to go,” she says, voice muffled against me.
“I don’t, either, but it’s me or Abby.”
“I know,” she says. “Just seems like everyone’s leaving, lately, and too few of them come back. Even fewer like their regular selves.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let that happen to me.”
“Well, do what you have to, but if it gets too hard, talk to your caseworker.” Her father hadn’t. He didn’t make it.
“And I’ll see you in six months, okay? For your visit.” Dylan drapes her blanket around my shoulders. “Don’t fucking freeze to death on your way.”
She shouldn’t waste it on me—I’ll have to give it up—but I’m too cold to refuse.
When I slide out of her grasp, I know I can’t go back for another hug or I’ll run back inside and do the same with Dad and Abby and then I’ll never leave. There’s no time to waste. Last I heard, the walk from Prettyboy Reservoir to Baltimore City took twelve hours.
I don’t have a watch, but the moon hangs high overhead when I make it to the entrance ramp for the interstate. A single strip of undisturbed pavement lines the center of 83 South—a path barely wide enough for a car and mostly used by bikes and pedestrians. I doubt the pockmarked road has seen much action since the last police raid.
I count the few cars that pass instead of thinking about how I’m going to miss my sister growing up or wondering whether Mom will ever snap out of it. I’m up to thirteen—the last car sunflower yellow and shaped like a cat ready to pounce—when soggy fields transition to neighborhoods and the pavement to a darker, smoother texture. My fingers are numb where they poke through the crocheted blanket.
South of Exit 20, cars crowd 83. I fall into line with the other pedestrians who exit onto the local road. A metal sign reads: “Welcome to Hunt Valley!”—one of a few struggling towns along the way. A diverse group of smiling cartoon people wave at me; I do not return the sentiment.
I thrust my hand into my pocket and rub the wad of cash, worn soft by too many hands. The only thing I need in order to register with the ODR is a state ID. The amount of money and red tape that stands between me and one of those isn’t worth the hassle. I started saving for a fake one the day Dad told me his plan to register Abby with the ODR.
She’ll fetch the most, Dad said. She’s got the most life ahead of her. But I’m twenty-one, old enough to consent. I’ve heard stories about trillionaires fucking their Dociles, and trillionaires? They pay. If I could sign with one of them, I might be able to sell off all our debt. I might be able to keep the collectors and cops from ever coming for my family again.
So, while Dad’s smile faded and his energy dropped, I pocketed a few dollars from our take at the Hunt Valley farmer’s market and stayed out late tutoring kids who couldn’t make it to their “local” schoolhouse an hour away; a dollar per hour isn’t bad, out here.
Our neighbor Shawna’s the only one who goes into Baltimore City regularly. She and her wife have a tandem bicycle, and since they both work for the government, it’s not too bad of a deal. She hooked me up with the forger in the city. Fifty dollars, she quoted. I re-count my money as I pass the patchwork houses that pop up the closer you get to the city. Dad told us they used to be called McMansions. The ones out our way crumbled to the foundations, long ago, before everyone with money moved into the center of the city. We built them up with logs and stones and makeshift cement and what house parts we could scavenge from abandoned neighborhoods. Here, the first floors are still intact and squat looking without the former second floors to top them off.
Locals inhabit abandoned chain stores and restaurants. Office buildings house people instead of corporations. A grocery store spills out into the parking lot where folks trade and donate canned goods. And an Empower Maryland banner hangs over an old movie theater advertising supplemental education, daycare for working parents, skills training, and public assistance. They’ve come to our farm a few times. Donated winter boots, blankets, a bike every few years. They help some, I suppose, but we sure haven’t felt it in Prettyboy.
Buildings thicken the closer I get to the center of the city, and corporate-sponsored clothing thins. People in these neighborhoods can afford to buy their own. Cold claims the sweat on my back, as I fold Dylan’s blanket over the TruCare Insurance logo on my shirt. It was free.
No one seems to notice, all too busy speed-walking to work or breakfast or whatever they do for fun in the city. I’ve only been a handful of times and never for fun. Heard they ride bicycles that don’t move and soak in bathtubs full of chemicals. Along the city blocks, trees grow from predesignated holes in the ground; their branches are trim and tidy, their roots don’t sprawl. Pink and yellow flowers—colors you shouldn’t see yet in January—hang from streetlamps in metal baskets with some sort of fake brown grass.
I wonder if anything here is real or if it’s all plastic. Like I’m walking through some child’s play set. Even the buildings look unreal, the marble shaped into arches and frills and angels, painted baby blue and gold and red.
Ahead, a hand-painted sign reads: “Eddie’s of Mt. Vernon.” My destination. I didn’t think people worked until 9:00 a.m. in the city, but the clock tower in the distance only reads 8:00 and already shops are opening. It smells like filth and perfume.
I walk around back of the grocery store until I come to the dump-ster. When she sees me, a woman nudges the man beside her. He stomps out his cigarette and heads inside.
“You Shawna’s friend?” she asks, wiping her hands on her coat. She looks more like a butcher than a forger.
I nod and hand her the fifty dollars.
“She told me a guy from the county was coming in for a fake.” She counts the cash and pulls out a tablet. “Stand against the wall. Don’t smile.”
No problem, there. I stare at the tablet, while she takes my picture, then glance left and right.
“Stop looking so suspicious,” she says. “We’re just two friends taking pics.”
Easy for her to say. Someone is bound to see us, and I cannot get arrested. Not when I’m so close. She shoves a plastic card into her tablet, then pulls a stylus from her coat pocket and moves it over the screen, like she’s writing in a foreign language.
“Write in your full name, address, age, and so on. Skip whatever you don’t know and I’ll make it up.”
The stylus slides too easily over the tablet, but I know most of the answers, and hand it back to her when I finish. After a few more minutes, she rips the plastic card out and hands it to me, still warm.
“There you go, kid.”
I examine her work because I feel like I should, not because I know what to look for. “This’ll fool the card readers?”
“Don’t mention it. There’s only one reason someone from the county buys an ID.” She pushes up her sleeve to reveal a scar that looks like mine did ten years ago.
“The ODR’s about a mile down Charles Street.” She eyes the blanket Dylan gave me. “You going to make it?”
“Yeah, thanks,” I say, pocketing the ID.
“Maybe I’ll see you around.” She opens the back door of the grocery.
We share a shrug and I leave in the direction she pointed. The only things I look forward to are the heat and sitting down.
A middle-aged white man at the front desk gulps his coffee. “Welcome to the Office of Debt Resolution; how can I help you?” Little brown drops stick to his graying beard. He dabs at them with his shirt sleeve.
He taps at his computer. The keypad flickers under his touch. “ID?”
I pass the fake over the counter. The man scans it without a second look.
“Elisha Wilder.” He pronounces it “E-lish-a.”
“E-lie-sha.” I correct him, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Probably no one will, from here on out.
“Twenty-one years old, biological child of Abigail Wilder and David Burns. Are you here to represent both lineages?”
“Multilineage Debt Resolution Consent Form, please.”
I dig the signed paper from my pocket and hand it to him.
“All right.” He stamps it and scans it into the system. “How much debt do you want to sell off?”
“All of it.”
For the first time, he looks at me—all of me, like he’s buying me. “Not sure you’ll fetch three million. Maybe with some cleaning up.” He checks my ID again. “Well, you are over eighteen. That’ll boost your price.”
I’ve never been so conscious of my appearance. No one in the county cares about scraggly hair or freckles. Only that you’re strong enough to help raise a barn or dexterous enough to patch up clothes.
“Sign here.” He pushes a clipboard in front of me. “And initial next to the life term clause, in case someone goes for it.”
The words “life term” send a chill through me. Mom sold almost a million in debt for ten years. Of course, terms must go longer—I knew that deep down—but hearing someone say it? With a breath to center myself, I do as instructed, and the man scans it alongside my consent form.
“You will receive your ID back upon completion of your service term. Hold on to this”—he hands me a new card—“for now. It contains your rights, calendared alerts for all forthcoming elections in compliance with First Right, a copy of your parental consent form, and the agreement you just signed.” He punches a hole in the top of the card and hooks an ODR lanyard through it, then continues in the same droll tone. “Report to the second floor for the remainder of processing. Per Third Right, all interactions from this point forward are anonymous. Disclose your surname at your own risk. If at any time you feel your rights have been violated, please contact this office per the information on the card. Thank you and have a nice day.” The man returns to his computer, as if bored by the speech he’s forced to give over and over.
“Thanks,” I mutter, and head for the stairs. I expected the inside of the ODR to be marbled and bright, like the rest of the city, but, inside, the carpets are worn and the only elevator is out of order.
On the second floor, a Latina woman with warm skin and a bob of shiny black hair takes my new card and scans it. Age lines frame her smile and eyes. “Confirm your name, age, and gender, please.”
“Elisha—” I stop with the Wilder “W” formed on my lips.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Everyone does it. I promise to forget your personal information.”
I return her smile. “Elisha, twenty-one, male.”
“You passed the quiz. My name’s Carol; I’ll be your case manager.” She pulls up one of my documents on the flimsy little card. “Says here you’re trying to pay off three million.”
I bite my lip to stop myself from making excuses. Not all the debt’s ours, personally. According to Dad, everyone in our family used to attend college, graduate school—for generations they became doctors and artists, professors and architects.
But when the Next of Kin laws went into effect, all their debt passed down to their kids after they died, and to their kids, accumulating over decades before people got smart about that kind of thing and stopped getting married. Combine that with credit card debts, student loans, utilities, mortgages, and healthcare, and suddenly you’re living in the outer counties of Maryland, four million under. It’s taken us years to get even this far—to fend off debt collectors and the threat of debtors’ prison. Took Mom ten years and she only sold off one million. Look what that got her.
But Carol doesn’t react like the man downstairs. “It’ll take the right Patron, but we might be able to make that happen. Come on.” She takes my hand like I’m a small child.
I hold tighter than I mean to.
“First, a shower. Changing room’s over there; you can drop your clothes in the donation bin and put on a pair of scrubs when you finish. Place your Docile card and personal item in this resealable bag for safekeeping.” She holds it open.
“You’ll get them back after you’re cleaned up, I promise. Fourth Right.”
I breathe deeply and forfeit my belongings. After Carol closes the curtain, I do the same with my clothes. I wince as I pull my shoes off, exposing my blistered feet to the air. They go into the donation bin first. Each item of clothing, one at a time, another part of myself gone.
Only the crocheted blanket remains, still on the bench where I tossed it. It’s going to be donated. Someone cold will feel my family’s warmth. I hug it tight against me one final time, breathing in the scent of the wood stove in Dylan’s house and the cat her mother, Nora, refuses to kick out during winter.
I drop it into the bin and force myself to get in the shower. From now on, all my needs will be provided for. That’s exactly what Dad was clinging to when he suggested Abby. But what good is a comfortable house and new clothes when you’re drugged out on Dociline?
“Scrub everything real good in there!” Carol shouts over the rush of water.“Rinse and repeat. And use conditioner; I don’t care how short your hair is.”
I haven’t used a conventional shower in years, much less all these products. Seaweed and saltwater shampoo? I could have jumped in the reservoir before trekking down here.
I step out smelling like minerals and chemicals, an imitation of the beach. The scrubs I put on are loose and comfortable; still, I glance at the donation bin. What’s left of my life is in there.
“There you go, much better.” Carol squats down to examine my blistered and bleeding feet. “Grab your personal item and Docile card and follow me.”
There aren’t any licensed doctors in my town, just people who know what to administer for a broken bone, or burns. I’ve had to drag my family into the city for regular checkups—Mom for blood tests—every year, despite Dad’s objections. What’s the extra medical debt when you’re millions under? But this ODR doctor applies medicine and real bandages for free. He draws blood and injects vaccines. By nightfall, I feel like one of the farm animals.
“I’ll be back for you in the morning.” Carol leaves me in a room full of metal-frame bunk beds.
A few men look up when I enter. Some look freshly scrubbed like me, others tired and rumpled from a long day of interviews. I discard any notions of solidarity or conversation and settle into an empty bed. In a few days, they’ll all be loaded up on Dociline, happily serving out their terms.
“There,” Carol says, smoothing my hair into place. “Who knew you had a face under that shag?”
I never cut it in the winter. Warmer that way. But I smile for her in the mirror.
I’ve spent all morning imagining home. No one’s called to report me; Dylan must’ve told them, but, if not, Dad will find out when the ODR sends him notice of all debts cleared.
“Please let him make it,” I whisper.
“What was that?” Carol finishes scrubbing the calluses down on my hands.
She puts down the pumice, rinses away the dead skin, and rubs thick lotion into my palms.
“Today, someone is going to inspect every inch of you to determine if you’re worth the price you’re asking for. They’re going to ask you a bunch of personal questions you aren’t prepared for, and if they decide to take you home with them—” She holds my chin and forces my eyes onto hers. “—you will spend the rest of your life speaking when spoken to. So, for god’s sake, son, if you have something to say, say it now.”
A thin layer of tears seals my lashes together. When I open them, her face runs like rain before my eyes. She called me son. Her voice didn’t sound much different than Mom’s in that moment.
“It’s okay. The Dociline makes it easier.” She touches her wrist like so many debtors do. “Seventh Right.”
“Can I tell you a secret? You won’t tell the Patrons or write it down in my file?”
She nods and holds my hands, still tender from her cleaning.
“I’m going to refuse.”
Carol flinches, then laughs. “No.”
Her smile fades, lips thin to a line. “You shouldn’t tell anyone that.”
“You’re not going to—”
“No, and neither should you.” She nudges me onto my feet. “It’s for everyone’s good, you know. They want a happily obedient drone, and you don’t want to be too aware of what’s happening. Trust me.”
She pushes me into a room full of clothes and starts throwing them at me. “Put these on. Hurry up.”
I duck behind a curtain, too shocked to move.
“No one’s going to buy a sluggish Docile.”
“I don’t have any underwear here.” I sift through the pile.
“You won’t need any. Go on.”
I hike up the jeans. I’ve never worn a pair so tight before. The shirt hugs the lines of my arms and chest in ways that would make farmwork uncomfortable.
“I’ve seen a lot of Dociles, Elisha; I know how to sell them.” Carol yanks the curtain aside. “You have a nice body. Let the Patrons touch you. Don’t aim for three million; aim for five. Don’t speak unless spoken to, or do anything unless you’re told. Don’t lie, but definitely don’t tell them you’re going to refuse Dociline. Got it?”
I barely nod. The clothes are only the first chip off any notion of dignity I’d brought with me.
Carol checks her watch. “The Patrons should be arriving. You ready?”
She pinches my cheeks until they burn. “You look like a ghost.”
The slam of the heavy metal door still echoes in my brain. Carol’s left me in a room with two chairs across a small table. I step toward the closer chair, then stop.
Don’t do anything unless you’re told. Aim for five million.
I clasp my hands behind my back to still them.
A loud buzzer signals the door. I straighten to my full—though unimpressive—height. My heartbeat radiates through every inch of me.
The door bursts open and a white woman with an unnatural-looking tan saunters in, still eyeing a tablet. My file, probably. She sits across from me and looks up, lips pursed, eyes darting everywhere.
“Turn around,” she says.
I move slowly, dropping my hands to my sides. Feels more like I’m trying on clothes in a fancy boutique than selling myself.
She swipes to a new page on the tablet, her inch-long fingernails scraping the glass surface. “My daughter’s going to the University of Maryland. I don’t want her getting involved with anyone she shouldn’t. You know how college is.” She waves her hand like my answer is “yes.” It isn’t. “Take your shirt off; let me see your muscles.”
I comply, draping it over the free chair.
“Yeah.” She smiles. “Not bad. We’ll bulk you up. But my daughter, she’s into those punk skinny boys anyway, so whatever. You know how to handle a girl, right?”
“You know, in bed.”
Does she want me to have sex with her daughter? “No, ma’am.”
“Eh.” She winks. “We can fix that, too.”
I picture myself smashed between this woman and her daughter, in bed at some fancy university. I realize then that I might cave. I might take the drug.
She walks over and squeezes my arms. Then my crotch. I tense under her touch, trying my hardest not to recoil.
“Three mil, huh?” She plays with a strand of my hair.
A buzzer sounds and the attendant opens the door. After the woman leaves, I let out a sigh so big I think I might pass out.
The next Patron has salt-and-pepper hair and looks like he hasn’t seen the sun in a decade. He wears a vest and pressed slacks. He doesn’t sit; he walks right over to me. I haven’t even put my shirt back on.
You have a nice body. Let the Patrons touch you.
“How much can you lift? From the ground.”
We don’t have weights, at home, so I hope my answer doesn’t sound off. “Around two hundred pounds, sir.”
“Any experience with manual labor?” I nod.
“I’ve worked on a community farm most of my life, sir.”
“That’ll do,” he says, and walks out, not waiting for the buzzer. Him I could live with. It would be like back home, except without my family or friends, or hope for a future.
Three others interview me, but I immediately dismiss them as options: a young woman who silently measures various parts of my body; a couple, who ask if I have experience raising children, because they’ve just had screaming triplets; and an older man who asks about my threshold for pain.
After him, I wait—five minutes, ten, fifteen. Cold air tickles my skin. I want to put my shirt on and sit down, but that would probably cost me three million dollars.
Finally, the door opens. This man is younger than the others, white, probably late twenties or early thirties, and dressed in colors as bright as the flowers outside.
He sits opposite me and casually unbuttons the top of his shirt, the fluorescent light glinting off a ring on each of his fingers. “Put that shirt back on and have a seat.” He brushes his blonde hair out of his face, but it falls across his tan forehead, like the model on the shampoo bottle I used this morning.
It’s inevitable that I’ll hate anyone on the other side of this table—anyone who could make my family’s debt vanish with a single paycheck. Yet I relax in his presence. It’s the way he treats me—like I’m an equal part of this interview. Then, I imagine him fucking me. If he’s a trillionaire, like I suspect, it’s inevitable. Despite his money, he is attractive. And I realize, out of everyone I’ve interviewed with today, I want him to pick me.
Excerpted from Docile, copyright © 2019 by K. M. Szpara.