"Be Prepared" by Cyril Sinel.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
"In a World Gone Mad" was the winner of this year's Joust 24h writing contest.
Competitors were emailed a first and a last sentence. They then had 24h and 1,000 words to span the two.
IN A WORLD GONE MAD
by Ilana Masad
They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. You never knew where you’d end up, and that scared you. It scared you more than leaving your house did – that was the first step of your therapy – and it scared you more than walking to the corner store – that had been the second step. Your third step had been going to see a movie at the new 3D complex in the middle of town. Your fourth had been to take a taxi to your therapist’s office.
You’d done all of it, but now, with the train tracks back to front and the sharpening edges of your vision increasing your fear, you didn’t think you could go through with the final step. You stood at the machine that spit out tickets to places you might never get to. The world had gone mad since you’d first sequestered yourself in your house, and there was no order to things anymore. The confusion caused by the tracks were celebrated in blogpaper articles and street corner holograms. There were advertisements for new ways to brush your teeth without opening your mouth on all the billboard screens and pop-ups for hair growth remedies on the sites you frequented.
For twenty years you’d experienced that madness from the inside of your apartment, painted a cool blue that reflected what the sky used to be before, and you were perfectly happy. It wasn’t until your sister contacted you, two years ago, that you realized you were needed outside of the confines you had accustomed yourself to. She’d said she wanted you there with her, to help raise the baby she’d had, a baby with feathers for hair and bumps that looked suspiciously like budding wings on its back.
Nobody who was born these days looked anything like what humans used to look like, and when she’d sent you the picture of baby Icarus, you’d seen not an abomination, which was what you’d been expecting, but a chicklet of a creature that needed love and care and an environment free of fear. And your sister, though she conducted her business outside in the world and bought both a stroller and a tether for her son – in case he unexpectedly started to fly when she wasn’t looking – was afraid. Being a mother was terrifying.
So you’d started working on your own fears. You’d found the online therapist and begun the steps. You’d told your sister that you were trying, you would get there, even if it took some time. She accepted your explanation, she believed you, but recently she seemed to have given up. And you knew it was time to do it, to really do it. So there you were, standing at the ticket machine that giggled loudly and requested your money in what was supposed to be a funny voice but only made you think of ancient horror movies involving clowns.
“Don’t know where you want to go?” A girl stood beside you, young, in her early teens. “I’m going to visit my dad. He sent me to school here but it’s boring so I’m going back home.”
“How will you get there?” you asked. “It’s all random.”
She scanned your face for something that you were certain wasn’t there. “You’re new to this.”
“You just go. You’ll get there eventually. Just remember your charger and you’ll be fine. Or buy some paper books. I know people your age prefer those.” She pointed to a store selling both chargers for devices and – you could barely believe they still existed – actual paperbacks.
“Actually, I haven’t read a paper book in twenty years.”
“Huh. Well. If you’ve got your gadgets with you and some clothes, you’ll get to where you’re going. Just be patient is all.” The ticket machine in front of her finally spit out her ticket and she grinned. “Cool. I’ve never been to the Philippines.” She showed you her ticket and it said she’d be ending up in a place called Talaga.
“Isn’t that a really long ride?”
“Not really. Maybe two hours? Three?”
“So it’s all faster now.” You should have figured. You’d probably read about it someplace or another, at some point, about the trains being faster, the tracks supercharged for rapid transit, but it was hard to connect that information with what looked like such a normal station. It was a classic design, a holdover from the old days, and its high ceiling was green, with faint white characters constellating around it. They were moving, which you were pretty sure hadn’t been the case last time you saw it.
The girl was staring at you with her head crooked sideways. “You’re like really new to this.”
“Yeah. I am.” It made you smile to know that teenagers still spoke and sounded somewhat the same. If you could have clung to this girl born after the world had gone mad, with her probably vast amounts of information, you would have. But you didn’t, because there were things you didn’t do, even in a world gone mad, and that was one of them. “Have a good trip,” you told her and she nodded and walked away, a backpack shaped like a hedgehog swinging behind her.
You put your money in the ticket machine and waited for it to spit something out. You got Yekaterinburg, Russia. Your sister was far from there. But this was how it worked. You’d need to transfer, and then again, and maybe again.
But there you were, doing it. You left the building with your ticket and walked onto the platform your ticket assigned you to. You stood there, on the antiquated concrete under the cheap plastic roof. You waited and watched. The rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. She is the founder of The Other Stories, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She's been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer's Row, McSweeney's, The Toast, The Butter, Hypertext Magazine, Split Lip Magazine and more. Books are her hashtag bae. You can find her at slightlyignorant.com or @ilanaslightly.