In Berkeley, California, Benny brims with pride—he has officially survived the school day having only slept during three out of five scheduled naptimes. No other fifth grader in his class could stay awake that long. He has been training independently for the school-wide Presidential Fitness Test, increasing his stamina in gradual increments—walking to Jeremy’s house at the end of the block instead of taking the bus; practicing elongated breathing to strengthen his lungs—and just the other day, he zoomed around the perimeter of the public library to the tune of 3.8 miles per hour. And what’s more, today he has consumed just three-quarters of his 8-oz. bottle of nutrient-rich Chocolate Melk since his hunger feels more like a Stage 3 instead of the usual throbbing Stage 4. He can’t wait to tell his mother.
In Savannah, Georgia, Cyrus and Zoe make love on her twin bed while her mother watches Jeopardy in the living room. They pretend to ignore the announcer’s auctioneer drone wafting through the thin plaster into Zoe’s bedroom. (Contractors have long abandoned building houses over one story high, as no one wants to expend valuable energy climbing the stairs.) Cyrus’ hands skim the marble contours of Zoe’s hips; her jutting clavicle, over which her papery skin stretches taut like a crossbow; her xylophone ribs that plink a muted melody beneath his knuckles. Zoe shivers, half from pleasure, half from the icy kiss of his freezing fingertips. Their bodies knock together hollowly like wooden dolls.
In an ornate office in Paris, France, the Chief Officer of Resource Control for the Global Alliance examines the quarterly data spreadsheet sent over from Analytics. The spreadsheet details the dwindling stores of fresh water and the remaining dregs of fertile soil, long exhausted by monoculture. He feels depressed. He sighs and issues an advisory to the Media and Public Image department to decrease the Recommended Caloric Intake by another .4%. Then, despite the twinge of remorse that quells his appetite, he slowly finishes his breakfast, savoring the salty film of bacon fat on his tongue.
Excluding a very select few, the planet is starving. As industry sapped the earth of its natural resources and biodiversity over a period of several centuries, heart rates slowed, skin grew sallow and eyes sunken, hair thinned, osteoporosis sucked bones dry. Two hundred years ago, with no hope to control supply, the inter-governmental body overseeing resource management initiated a plan to slow the inevitable extinction by the only means left—lowering demand for food.
At first, gluttony paralyzed progress. The pandemonium at Sustenance Stations was unseemly, grandmas whamming teenage boys on the head with their purses over a loaf of bread (back when bread was still a viable product). The Resource Control Board eventually took command of the media in order to manage the human predilection for excess. State-sponsored advertisements slapped words like “STRENGTH” and “ENDURANCE” on images of filament-thin women and pencil men. Television shows were barred from depicting characters eating—apart from the rare sip from a bottle of Melk—unless it was to shame the offender for his self-indulgence. It was a long-term solution, admittedly somewhat of a gamble, but the campaign ultimately succeeded. After a generation or two, the secret police that enforced compliance became nearly superfluous. People obsessively policed their own resource intake with an austerity previously only found in sufferers of anorexia nervosa. Now, life has become a matter of subsisting on the lowest possible amount of fuel. Death is a confession of weakness, an inability to persevere. Families mourn their dead in secret, flushed with shame for their fragility.
There still remain some stubborn DNA strands that undermine the Resource Control Board’s goal to enforce total disremembering of the past—thyroid conditions, obesity, and the like—but the Resource Control Board prohibits reproduction if any of these symptoms are exhibited.
In Chicago, in a vacant 14th-floor apartment with peeling paint and a padlocked door, Mickey sorts through stacks of banned magazines and photo albums with quiet concentration. She pauses on a snapshot of a couple at the seaside, laughing with abandon. Mickey envies the blood glowing in the apples of their cheeks, the puff of fat spilling over the women’s spandex bikini bottoms. She was first shown a picture like this at a meeting of the underground anarcho-syndicalist student group in college. (This was also where she first heard whispers of an invisible class of men, many occupying the highest rungs of the Global Alliance, with privileged access to the planet’s final stock of raw materials.) It awakened in her a hunger she had been previously unable to name, so undulant it felt like nausea, a visceral revulsion at her own translucent flesh and distended belly. Mickey plucks the photo from its plastic sheath and adds it to the Anti-Propaganda Pile. She is tired of life clinging to the precipice by her fingernails.
Like Mickey, some still resist. Underground publications have launched their own media war to restore the public’s corroded perception of beauty, to inspire nostalgia and longing for the time when all bodies were celebrated and deprivation was diagnosable. When no body shape was illegal. Before the shame set in, before the fear of occupying too much space.
In New York City, on Lexington and 33rd at 10:30am, a young woman drops dead on the sidewalk in a puddle of urban grime. The passersby step gingerly around her body, averting their eyes in embarrassment on her behalf.
Lena Crown is an emerging writer from the Bay Area in California. She recently graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Latin American Studies and Writing. She currently resides in St. Louis, where she writes for ALIVE Magazine.