A few years ago, an author posted quite a few installments of a story based in a setting of their own creation and invited others to write stories in that setting as well. It apparently never caught on, but I found it extremely intriguing. So, I figured I’d pen such a tale and post chapters of it here. I tried to recap the gist of the setting itself so readers wouldn’t have to hunt down the original story.
I hope you enjoy it.
Today marks the third anniversary of my parents relocating to Preston, Kansas. It was on that day that my life changed forever. How could an almost-eighteen-year-old girl’s life be transformed so completely merely by moving to a new city? Well, that’s kind of a long story. But since you obviously came here to read a story, I’m guessing you won’t mind too much. Settle in and get comfy, because you may be here a while.
So, back to my question of how something so minor could create such an upheaval in one’s life. The answer is both simple and complex. You see, Preston’s not exactly what could be defined as a normal Midwestern city. Far from it!
I don’t claim to know all the particulars, but here’s what I DO know. Up until about a decade and a half ago, Preston was a town that was circling the drain. It had once been quite a hub of activity, thanks to a major railroad company making it their primary headquarters back in the day. The city picked up even more steam during World War II when its small ammunition plant received a massive government contract and exploded (no pun intended), creating more jobs than ever. But by 2005, the railroad had long since moved their main offices to Texas and the ammunition plant had gone belly-up, leaving behind a city that was a shell of its former self. Jobs were scarce, crime had risen and more citizens abandoned ship with each passing month. Like I said, Preston was circling the drain.
That’s when a mysterious man from the deep south came into the picture. His name was Lucas Budd and he was freaking loaded! More cash than anyone could spend in five lifetimes. The rumor goes that he also had government connections in high places. And by that, I mean that practically all the bigwigs owed him for something or he had incriminating dirt on them. Or both. Who knows? The point is that he was able to use money and influence to gain total control of Preston. Total control.
Here’s where things start getting crazy, but hang with me, okay? The total control I mentioned went way beyond anything that had been done before. Lucas Budd enacted laws of his own creation that even contradicted the Constitution itself. He must have caught a lot of government folks in the most lurid, illicit affairs imaginable to have pulled this off! He created a Patriarchy-based society that existed solely within the confines of a small city. It was extreme stuff too; not just the way it was in the 1950s. In a nutshell, women had no rights and had to be owned by men. The unowned women were essentially placed in the custody of the city government and, well, it wasn’t pretty. Oh, sure, there were laws that placed limits on what men could do to the women they owned, but that didn’t detract from the sickening fact that women were property.
So, Lucas Budd and his family ruled over Preston. By all accounts, Budd comes off as a real charmer. You know the type. Classic Southern gentleman. But it’s all a facade. He’s one fucked up dude. I mean, that’s pretty plain to see, right? Some even claim that he possesses superhuman abilities of some vague nature. Whatever. His wife, Shyla, is some pillar of the community or some such and everyone just adores her. She organizes events, sets up fundraisers, blah, blah, blah. He has kids and a brother too, but I don’t know much about them.
Can you see where this is all going? If not, you will momentarily.
Now that the stage is set, let’s meet the cast of the fucked up theatrical play that is my life, starting with yours truly, Joella Myers. I used to go exclusively by “Jo”, but I’m no longer allowed that luxury. I really miss it too. It may not sound like much of a big deal to you, but it was an important part of my identity. I was “Jo”. Jo, the fearless tomboy. Jo, the headbanger chick. Jo, the badass who could handle just about anyone in a fight. Jo, the… well, you get the idea. I was a jeans-and-tee-shirt kind of girl and I was happy with that. I found my niche. My parents didn’t care much for all that, though, and attempted to dissuade me whenever they could. Eventually, they gave up, which made my life a lot easier. What can I say? I’m a rebel.
Since we’re already on the subject, let’s talk a bit about my parents. My father, Kenneth Myers, was raised in Preston, but his parents headed to the east coast when he was twelve years old. That was in 1992 or so, long before Lucas Budd infected the town with his patriarchal rubbish. Dad did okay for himself, though. He went to community college, which is where he met my mother, and then went on to business school. He managed a clothing store for quite a few years, but left that job when he decided to uproot and move back to Preston.
My mother, Lillian Myers, is pretty much the exact opposite of me, in that she’s docile and feminine to the point of it being annoying sometimes. She defers to Dad on almost every matter. Sometimes I think she’d have been better suited to having grown up in the 1950s when women were expected to dote on their husbands and all that nonsense. Still, it’s hard to blame her, as her parents were into gender roles big time. So it was really all she ever knew. She has never worked as far as I’ve ever heard, but she sure keeps one hell of a spotless house.
Then, there’s my younger sister, Megan, who’s just one month shy of being three years younger than myself. Megan is a bit more complicated than my parents. On one hand, she’s quite girly like my mother, but on the other hand, she has some of my father’s dominant personality traits. She’s not too big on Patriarchy though, which is her one saving grace in my eyes. Like most siblings, our relationship had its ups and downs when we were young, but when she turned thirteen, my parents decided that she would be left in charge when they were away. That changed our relationship for the worse… and that’s an understatement!
Look, I know Megan was the quintessential good girl, always doing “the right thing” (whatever the hell that is) and obeyed every rule my parents instated. And, yeah, I also know that I had gotten into trouble at school prior to their decision, and once even had a cop bring me back home at three o’clock in the morning when a couple of friends and I snuck out of the house after curfew, but come on. She was three years younger than me, for shit’s sake! You can imagine how that rule settled with me. I already had a chip on my shoulder because she was so much taller and more developed than I was. So this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. From then on out, my behavior took a nosedive. In fact, I avoided home as much as possible, especially on weekends. I started hanging out a lot with Byron Kimball, a trans male whose parents were super lax. I went to school with him, though he was in the grade ahead of me. He was super “book smart” and kind of weird. He was into metal and horror flicks too, so we became friends about as soon as he moved to town. My parents didn’t like Byron much. They said his parents should “take a hand” with him and make him live as a girl. I hate that old fashioned mentality so much!
So that was my life up until two months before we packed up and moved to Hell. I mean Preston. Same thing. I know what you’re thinking. “There has to be SOME catalyst that caused them to pull up stakes so suddenly.” You’d be right in thinking that and I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could rewind time and do things differently.
Without going into all the particulars, I’ll just say that Byron and I ended up at a party that was raided by the police and, well, we were caught. The fact that we were both heavily intoxicated may have had something to do with why they managed to snag us so easily. All hell broke loose when the officers delivered me to my parents’ doorstep only for me to puke in the foyer. I was sent to bed and told that this would be dealt with in the morning. Pretty much standard issue parent crap. Or so I thought.
My hungover ass was brought downstairs at the buttcrack of dawn by Megan. Mom and Dad were waiting for me in the living room with their “pissed off and disappointed” faces on. I knew I was in for it, but I had no idea just HOW much I was in for it. They explained that they weren’t going to stand by and watch me send my life into the gutter or some overly dramatic drivel like that. I was on a bad path and yadda, yadda, yadda. That’s when they hit me with the whole Preston thing. I was floored. How could a town like that even exist? We live in the 21st century and women have long since obtained our freedom.
They went on to say that there would be big changes in store for us as a family, but that everything would be much better in the long run. They didn’t go into any detail whatsoever and wouldn’t divulge more no matter how much I pried. They kept everything under wraps for a couple of months. All I knew was that we were going to be moving to a town that strips women of our hard-earned rights. There was never any mention of the rest of their plans.
Even my sister was pissed about the prospect of moving. After all, she wasn’t into patriarchy and had made a lot of friends. Of course, she blamed me more than my parents, but in retrospect, I can kind of understand that. To this day, I have no idea how much information they gave Megan. All I know is that the closer moving day we got, the more terrified I was. Mom and Dad spoke in hushed, conspiratorial voices, often while huddled around their laptop. Something major was happening and not knowing about it just about killed me.
What kind of awful fate awaited me in the city of Preston, Kansas? The answer to that question was far more intense than I ever could have imagined.
As we moved closer to moving day, I devised an idea that I thought might very well work. My eighteenth birthday was going to be a bit more than two months away and once I reached that magical age, I would be free to do whatever the hell I wanted. In fact, I wondered if that was the reason my parents were putting a rush on moving in the first place. They knew if they waited until I was an adult, I wouldn’t have to move there with them. If they could get me to Preston before then, however, I would be forever under my father’s thumb. After all, women in Preston have to have an owner, thus effectively making them minors for as long as they live. That’s the simplified version of it anyway.
My plan was simple. Beautifully simple. I would play along and act like I planned on going with them, only to ditch at the last second and go into hiding until my birthday. Then it would be too late for them to make me step foot in Preston. Problem solved. The devil is always in the details, though, so I grasped that some major preparation would have to be done. With time being of the essence, I had to get busy!
The first order of business was to secure a place to hide out for a couple of months or a bit less by that time. I recalled Byron talking about a house that his parents inherited when his grandfather passed away a couple years back. It was way out in the boondocks, ten miles from anything resembling civilization. Best of all, his family never really went out there. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Needless to say, it didn’t take much convincing to get Byron to agree.
With that taken care of, I turned my attention toward gradually gathering supplies to take with me. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, especially because Megan was frustratingly observant of everything that went on in the house. Each day after school, I stopped by the store with Byron to purchase canned foods and the like. Actually, I gave him the money and he purchased it, just in case my parents or sister happened to spot us. I was very careful.
The next portion of preparation was the easiest. I simply protested, pouted and grumped about relocating to some backward-ass town that legalizes treating women like shit. They knew me too well and if I didn’t kick up a fuss about it, they would have become suspicious. So I played my role of rebellious teenager being forced to move to a town I hated, all the while smiling wryly inside, secure in the knowledge that I wasn’t going anywhere near Preston fucking Kansas.
I bided my time until the day of the big move. My parents had already removed me from my school a couple days earlier, so I couldn’t just leave from there and go to my new hideaway. I called Byron and told him to meet me at the tiny, overgrown park (if you could even call it that with a straight face) three blocks from my house. Luckily, he kept all my supplies in the back of his rusty old VW van, so we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with loading it all up at the last second. My family was busily loading the moving truck, which was my big chance. Distraction was my best friend. I slipped out the seldom-used back door, cut through some yards and found Byron waiting for me at the alleged park, leaning on “Big Corndog”, the junky van he was so proud of. I have no idea why he named it that and was, frankly, a bit afraid to ask.
“Ready for your adventure?” A wide smile adorned his face. Byron loved anything that could be construed as rebellious or against the grain. He was slightly diminutive and stocky, with a twinkle in his eye anytime orneriness was afoot. His hair was short and sometimes looked dark brown, while other times looking as black as coal.
“Fuck yeah,” I replied, hopping in the passenger seat and lobbing my duffle bag over my shoulder and into the back. Chucking the duffle bag was no easy task for me, given that I was even shorter than Byron and lacked the broadness of his build. I was ridiculously small in stature, a fact that I always hated.
“Buckle up, Puke. We’re getting the fuck outta dodge.” I hated the nickname “Puke” for a while, mainly because of how he arrived at calling me that. When drinking, I have a two beer limit before I start blowing chunks. It’s like clockwork. I’m okay after polishing off two cans, but is I so much as take a sip from a third can, you’d better get me a bucket to hurl into or there’s going to be an epic mess.
The drive was pretty fun and once we exited the city limits, I was able to fully relax. Up until that point, I was still scared that we’d get busted. With Dying Fetus cranked as loud as Byron’s rattly old speakers allowed, we ventured out into the next chapter of my life. I felt relieved and maybe even a little proud of myself for managing to coordinate such an elaborate scheme to ensure my freedom. I had won. Joella Myers: 1. Kenneth and Lillian Myers: 0.
Byron wasn’t kidding when he said the house was out in the middle of nowhere. It was a ramshackle place, though most of that was due to the encroaching weeds and the paint that the elements had their way with the last couple of years. From what I could tell, it was structurally sound, which was the most important part. An old, dilapidated barn stood toward the back of the property. A few large trees dotted the area, giving a nice bit of shade.
“Here it is,” said Byron, getting out of the van and slamming the creaky door, “Casa de my grandparents.” He seemed mildly proud.
“Cool. This will be the perfect place to hunker down until my B-day.”
He unlocked the side door of the house and entered, with me following right on his heels. Aside from layers of dust, the interior of the structure was much nicer than I could have imagined. Sure, it smacked of “old people” decor (complete with wood panelling), but I wasn’t too concerned with aesthetics. It would be a safe place to hole up for a while. That’s what mattered most.
Byron clicked the light switch and seemed surprised that the electricity was still on. “Huh,” he muttered, “I’m surprised Mom and Pops keep the light bill paid. They’re normally fucking cheapskates. I guess I brought along all those candles for nothing.”
He and I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning the place up. By the time we were done, it was totally liveable. Cozy even.
“Alright, I need to jet back to my house so that no one will be the wiser. If you need anything, text me if you can get any bars. Otherwise, smoke signals are an option.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I owe you big time for this.”
“Yeah, you do,” he quipped, flashing that smartass smile of his. “I’ll slip back out here in a few days to check on you and bring some more reading material.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Byron started to leave, but poked his head back in. “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. There’s only one other house around here and it’s just down the road at the end of the mile section. They were friends of my grandparents, but I have no idea if they’re even still alive. They were like super old. Even older than my grandparents. So, y’know, just kind of keep a low profile.”
“No worries. It’s not like I was going to have big, loud parties out here or anything. Shit, who would I even invite?”
He looked deep in thought. “Make no mistake, the wildlife around here love to party. One might even say they’re… wait for it… party animals.”
“Ugh, you suck at comedy,” I said, tossing a sponge I used to clean the sink at him.
“Later, Puke.” With that, he left and I was all alone. All alone in an unfamiliar house, in an unfamiliar area and with potentially unreliable means of communication. The gravity of the situation kind of hit me all at once. My parents were going to be terrified that something bad happened to me. I really did hate that thought. But do you know what I hated even more? The thought of being property for the rest of my life. Yeah, that was something I hated far worse.
I would ride out the storm and do all the necessary damage control on my birthday, when I was safe from oppression.
Or at least that was the plan. Somehow, things never seem to work out the way I want them to.
The next few days were lonelier that I anticipated. I had no outside communication and my only entertainment came in the form of novels and listening to my old school boombox. There was an ancient 1970s television in the living room, but it wouldn’t pick up any stations at all. My phone was useless from anywhere in the house and believe me, I mean ANYWHERE. I tried every spot in every room. That’s how desperate I was.
Byron finally showed up four days into my sabbatical, for want of a better word. Man, was he a welcome sight! He could tell I was happy to see him when he walked in because I ran up and gave him a huge hug.
“Damn, Puke, careful with the spine, okay?”
I eased up on the hug. I knew he was joking, but thought maybe I was getting carried away. “Sorry. I’ve just been deprived of human interaction for so long.”
“It’s only been four days. You sure you’re gonna be able to hack it for a few more weeks?”
“Yeah,” I replied, plunking myself down onto one of the kitchen chairs, “it’s just really boring out here.”
“I’ll bet. I used to come out here for a week or two during summer breaks, so I feel your pain. After a week, I was dying to get back to civilization. And that was when they had cable TV hooked up out here and two people to converse with. Plus, running water. So I can only imagine how sucky it is for you. Just keep your eye on the prize. Before long, you’ll be in the clear.”
“God, running water sounds fucking magnificent right now. I’m so ripe!” To emphasize my point, I raised an arm and sniffed my armpit. “Whew!”
Byron chuckled. “There’s a little creek out past the barn a ways. I used to swim in it when I was young. It has a rock bottom and the water is pretty pretty clear, so you could probably get clean there. Just watch out for snakes.”
“Now I have to weigh the factors. Which do I hate worse: snakes or being stinky as fuck?”
“Come on. We’ll go out there together if that’ll make you feel better. I’m a legendary snake fighter. Those danger noodles don’t stand a chance against me!” He picked up the broom and pantomimed battling a snake with it. He always knew how to put me more at ease.
“Okay, you dork. Let’s go.”
On the walk to the creek, I addressed the elephant in the room or, woods in this case. “So…,” I said, letting it kind of linger in the air.
“You want to know if everyone is out looking for you, right?”
There was a silence before I answered, rather scared to hear his response. “Umm… yeah.”
“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath, “your parents came to my house the next day, asking if me or my parents had seen you. I acted worried and said that you hadn’t contacted me in a while and that I chalked it up to you not being good at saying goodbye and all that shit. They bought it. I even teared up. I should totally be a fucking actor, dude.”
‘And that was that?” The trepidation in my voice was pretty obvious.
“No, that wasn’t that. There was a missing person report filed and your parents have been all over the place looking for you. The cops even stopped by to feel me out. I played it cool and stuck to the story. I made it clear that I was worried too. In fact — and this was a fucking masterful touch, if I do say so myself — I started going around and asking people if they had seen you. I gave the cops a few leads as to where you might have gone. Like remember that Rachel chick you hung with for a while until she moved to Columbus?”
“Dayton,” I interjected.
“Columbus, Dayton, who gives a shit? I sent them off on a wild goose chase to Ohio. That’s the point. I covered our asses, so we should be all good.”
“That’s a relief,” I said, only half meaning it. I was still worried.
The creek was just as Byron described it. Clear, rock-bottomed, well hidden. It was quite serene, actually.
He pointed to a cluster of three really large rocks hugging the bank and informed me that he used to jump off of those over and over again for hours. To demonstrate, he climbed up onto the smallest one and, from there, onto the largest. All told, he was about ten feet up.
“You’re gonna just jump into the water with your clothes on?”
“Well,” he stated matter of factly, “It’s not like I knew we were going swimming. Besides, I’d have just put on shorts anyway. You know I can’t go bare chested for obvious reasons.”
“Isn’t it too shallow to jump from so high?”
“No, it’s pretty deep over here where it’s wider. Like I said, I’ve done it before.” Without another word, he leapt from the rock and, with a massive splash, hit the water.
“See? I told you,” he said as he popped up from the deeper-than-it-looked water. “Your turn!”
I had a harder time ascending the rocks than Byron, which prompted no end of playful insults from him. “Laugh it up, dickhead. It’s not my fault that I’m half a foot shorter than you.” We teased each other like that all the time. If someone who didn’t know us was ever nearby, they would probably think we hated each other. That was just our dynamic.
It took me a while, but I finally managed to get to the highest point of the big rock. With my arms raised above my head, I loudly proclaimed, “I’m the queen of the mountain, motherfuckers!”
And off I went. Well, sort of. My right foot slipped a bit before takeoff, causing me to instinctively reel backward. Huge mistake! My other foot then slid out from under me and I fell back as I “jumped”. The back of my head slammed into the rock on my way down and everything went dark. I only vaguely remember hitting the water and hearing Byron yell out my name. I was out like a light.