Booming, throbbing bass bludgeoned her brain while blackened goth revelers thrashed and bobbed about in a daze, a grotesque menagerie bewitched by the darkness and the dead. Garish locks and bloodied bodies blazed beneath demonic strobes spiraling above the dizzying hoard worshiping in the night’s mass. A macabre brew of black and sweat dripped and smeared across Clisby’s blanched face, rendering a vision of walking death, a coveted ticket to conformity. But the bedlam disturbed the nauseous beast bathing within her sloshing belly, and she bolted for the dark passage through which she had descended into the gloom, bombarded and bruised along the way by blurry, bumping bodies pulsing and gyrating to the blaring cacophony.
She released the beast unto the night as she passed through the dungeonous door opening into the dark and dreary alleyway, slamming shut the unholy blight behind her. She stumbled a few paces before colliding into a graffiti-laced wall, then crumbled into a pathetic heap upon the trash-strewn sidewalk.
* * * *
She was awakened an hour or so later by something gently snuffling along her lethargic, fish-netted leg. She sat up and was horrified to find a large rat scampering up her thigh. She screamed and sent the rat flying ungracefully along the inebriated wind. The ruckus roused a few ruffians reclining within the darkness, who slowly and quietly drifted into the shadowy broken light. Sensing danger, Clisby stood as quickly as she could manage in her saturated state and ran for blocks, refusing to look behind her.
* * * *
Exhausted, she plunged through the doorway of the X-bound Luge and collapsed into a seat in the empty compartment. Seconds later, several bedraggled passengers followed, a couple of whom looked upon her menacingly, slinging catcalls in her direction, but her mind was too foggy to be bothered.
She shivered as she glanced down at her tattoo-sleeved arms and tight black clothing and vowed to delete that suit once she got home. She always regretted selecting that suit, but she had paid good hard-earned money for it and didn’t want that money to go to waste. But she had reached her limit; “Goth Girl” was not her. It did not “suit” her, and she was embarrassed that she had purchased it.
Her brain screamed continuously during the insufferable commute, an angry protest to its recent abuse, so she eagerly exited when the Luge finally came to a stop in the X Quadrant. Averting her gaze from any passersby, she walked swiftly away from the Luge platform and toward her flat, the clean and orderly decor and white walls of which soothed her lost spirit.
As soon as she entered, she ran to her bedroom and retrieved her Multiple Appearance Suite Kinetic Device (“M.A.S.K.D.”), scrolled through the glistening suite, and selected “Baseline.” Pointing it at her face, she initiated the device and swept it down the length of her body. When she finished, her appearance faded, blinked and then restored to her natural one.
She grimaced at her image in the mirror. Instead of the edgy and perky twenty-something partying Goth Girl, stood a pudgy and saggy middle-aged woman with auburn-colored hair and anxiety-worn features. She turned and squealed as she examined her backside, then hastily chose the “Soccer Mom” suit on the M.A.S.K.D. and was quickly transformed into a toned middle-aged woman with chiseled features and long blonde hair. She smiled at her reflection, satisfied with the transformation.
She sat on the edge of her bed and scrolled through the M.A.S.K.D. suite, which stored all of the user’s characteristics as suits and collected them in a suite along with the fake suits purchased by the user. She passed over the “Supermom,” “Scarlet Letter,” “Depressed,” “Happy,” “Professional,” “Stressed Divorcée,” and “Beach Bod” suits and stopped on “Goth Girl.” She stared at it for several minutes with her finger hovering over the “Delete” button. The perky girl stared up at her with a smile, dancing joyfully, with no hint of the dangers of her lifestyle. Reluctantly, and with a deep sigh, she disposed of the suit and tossed the M.A.S.K.D. aside. Done. Now she could sleep peacefully.
* * * *
The next morning, she woke to the sound of the hologratube coming from the family room, which was blaring a commercial for the latest and greatest M.A.S.K.D. suits. Clisby’s daughter was curled up in her chair enchanted by the glistening images of the “Vintage Barbie” suit.
“Mom, who is Barbie? She is very beautiful. May I have that suit, please?”
Clisby cringed at the name “Barbie,” a long-forgotten doll credited with ruining so many young girls’ self-esteem generations before. Although Clisby loved M.A.S.K.D. suits, and wouldn’t be caught dead in public in “Baseline” mode, she always experienced an uncomfortable twinge in her gut when it came to her daughter. Her daughter already had a beautiful “Baseline,” but not many walked around in “Baseline” mode anymore. “‘Baseline’ is so passé,” it was commonly said.
“Baby, why don’t you change the channel? There has to be something better on.”
When her daughter protested, Clisby waved her fingers in the air and turned off the hologratube.
“Besides, baby, we need to get ready for church.”
“Aw, mom! Do we haveta go to that stuffy place? Can’t we just hang out here today?”
“No, baby, we need to go. It is important for us to be seen at church. Plus, you just got that new ‘Church Girl’ suit you haven’t tried on yet.”
“Oh yea! I forgot about that!” Her daughter immediately brightened and bounded off to her room to find her M.A.S.K.D.
Clisby poured herself a cup of coffee and returned to her bedroom, retrieving her own M.A.S.K.D. She scrolled through all of her many suits and stopped on “Church Woman.” It wasn’t her favorite suit because it was quite plain, but one had to be careful at church, where members tended to be judgmental. Thus, it was important to look well put-together and yet not stand out; blending in was the key.
She pressed the “Initiation” button and scanned her body. In seconds, she morphed from “Soccer Mom” into “Church Woman.” She sighed while looking in the mirror. Though she found the fake suit boring, she knew she would never be welcomed in any of her other suits in her M.A.S.K.D. suite, especially the Goth Girl one, which she was relieved to have deleted.
She met her daughter in the entry hall, who was wearing an equally bland “Church Girl” suit.
“I don’t really like this suit Mommy. It doesn’t make me look very pretty.”
“Oh, baby, I know they are kind of bland, but you are always beautiful to me. And anyway, these are the best suits for Church if you want to blend in.”
* * * *
The X Quadrant Church of the Most High was an elegant glass structure, which towered over the surrounding plain block buildings that resembled military barracks. After the Western War, all the old beautiful buildings were so heavily damaged that they had to be demolished. In their place, the new government erected standard low-cost structures, since none of the citizens had any money to invest in infrastructure, needing everything they could scrape together for food, shelter and suits.
As Clisby and her daughter entered the church, a group of equally bland-suited women greeted them enthusiastically and engaged them in seemingly endless chitter-chatter about everything great going on in their lives. The convenient thing about suits was that everybody had perfect lives–perfect spouses, perfect children, grand vacations, perfect jobs, and no one had any struggles or problems. That made church very easy. It was a place where one could go and simply checkout mentally and yet be seen by the important business and society people. As long as one stayed within his or her bland suit, no one would ask any bothersome or embarrassing questions.
The lights flickered, meaning that it was time for the service to begin, so the chitter-chatter faded, and they entered the sanctuary en masse and took their seats. As soon as the bland music started, a hush enveloped the room. There would not be a peep until the first bland hymn. Once the bland singing was through, the bland preacher rose and launched into his long and bland sermon. The bland congregants began pecking away at their electronic devices, as they entered their suited up social media lives, which they far preferred to in-person communication because it was easier to maintain their perfect façades.
A loud disturbance from outside the church interrupted the preacher’s hum-drumming and the congregants’ electronic socializing. The congregants perked up and craned their necks toward the disturbance. When the yelling outside began, the sanctuary erupted into hen house speculation.
A bland church employee entered the sanctuary, a bit breathless, and announced: “Everybody stay calm. A group of M.A.S.K.D. protesters has gathered outside and attempted to barge though our front doors, but it has been subdued. Preacher, please return to your sermon.” The nervous employee wiped sweat from his brow and exited the sanctuary toward the site of the disturbance.
The M.A.S.K.D. protesters, commonly referred to as “Baseliners,” were rapidly growing in number. Baseliners objected to the pervasive usage of M.A.S.K.D. suits, which they felt was destroying humanity. One could expect to hear of at least one such protest daily now, although rumors suggested that far more protests were suppressed than the government would admit. The government favored the suits and even issued M.A.S.K. devices for free to anyone who wanted one because they kept the citizenry under control. Far less disputes broke out and far less government dissension was expressed when people were focused on conformity.
The bland preacher stumbled over his words until he regained the bland rhythm of his bland message, which settled the hen house chatter. The congregants resumed their rudely interrupted electronic socialization.
Moments later, blandness turned to excitement when a loud “boom” shook the sanctuary. The congregants squealed and stood up in a panic. The bland preacher stood paralyzed and stone-faced at the pulpit, at a loss as to what to do outside the structure and order of the bulletin. Another loud “boom” caused the lights to flicker and a few glass panels high above them to crack. Still the preacher stood motionless. Following the third “boom,” an electrical pulse flowed through the church, once again causing the lights to flicker and spark.
As the congregants stood helplessly, looking up at the flickering lights and cracking glass, their appearances started to blink. Then, each person’s appearance slowly scrolled through all the many suits in his or her M.A.S.K.D. suite until settling on the most frequently initiated one. Blood curdling screams from the horrified congregants caused several glass panels to fall and crash into pieces upon the floor of the sanctuary.
One woman stood with bulging eyes and mouth agape in her “Drug Addict” suit, with disheveled hair and dark circles under her eyes. A man gasped while standing in his “Absentee Father” suit, with a golf bag draped over his shoulder. Another man stood helplessly in his “Pornography” suit, a magazine dangling shamefully from his hand. A woman bawled as she stood in her “Overwhelmed Mother and Wife” suit, which stood in stark contrast to her previous “All-Together” suit. Looking down at her body, Clisby’s stomach lurched as she found herself standing in front of all those church people in her “Goth Girl” suit. Attention was then drawn to the sound of whimpering at the front of the sanctuary, where the preacher stood lifelessly in his “Politician” suit, which caused an uproar within the hen house.
But the bedlam did not reach its pinnacle until, in a flash of bright light, all returned to their “Baselines.” At that, the congregants threw their hands into the air in horror and surrender and hastily fled the church with shrieks and hollers, leaving behind a cloud of torn and shredded bulletins, which rained down amongst the shards of glass littering the sanctuary floor.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.