The regret sets in when they hit Iowa.
“We shouldn’t have left,” she says. Knees drawn up to her chin, lower lip trembling. “It was a mistake.”
He can’t disagree. He pulls the rental car into a gas station, the front bumper only barely scraping the back of an idling truck. The truck driver, a red-faced, big-bearded man, exits the cab. His massive slab of a hand buries itself in the driver’s-side window. The shattered window looks like the stars that used to sparkle above the spires of the Solved City, except not really as nice.
“A big mistake,” she says.
He frowns at her. She is his beloved, but right now she’s not helping anything.
After a few moments, the truck driver turns and leaves, though not before launching a projectile of spit on the destroyed window. He waits until the large ruddy man is long gone, then goes into the station.
Hot dogs with cheese. It sounds hearty enough. He fishes the crumpled slips of paper money he’d received from the town alders from his pocket and lays them out on the clerk’s counter.
Her eyes widen. “Mister, you’d better put that away.”
He squints at the bills, does the math. “Is it not enough?” The hot dogs with cheese carry no price tag.
The clerk rolls her eyes and slides three of the bills back to him. She pockets the rest. With a burning shame, he realizes what he’s done, but it’s too late to correct it now. He slides the bills back into his pack.
He hands one of the hot dogs with cheese to his beloved, and takes the other for himself. The unfamiliar food roils in their stomachs, and they both spatter the interior of the car with bits of fatty pork and too-sweet soda.
They sleep in the car.
That was the first day.
The first thing you lose when you leave the Solved City is the name of the city itself. Its location, its coordinates, are cut from your mind like a tumor and replaced with some of the things necessary to survive in the world beyond its gates.
The second thing taken is your name. You can get another one, but it won’t be the same. Out of the Solved City, your true name becomes unpronounceable.
“I’m Blank,” says the nameless woman. She’s finally stopped crying, four days after they left those gates behind forever, though her stomach still hasn’t settled from the alien food.
“I’m Cipher,” says the nameless man.
What you take isn’t worth nearly as much as what you lose, and everyone knows it.
With the rest of the bills, they rent an apartment in a tumbledown building where rats run through the halls every night. There were no rats in the Solved City.
Lots of peacocks, though. And golden horses with manes that glowed like the sun, and chittering bats that ate right out of your hands.
Blank takes a job at a titty bar down by the harbor, dancing for drunk men who ogle her soft brown skin. Sometimes she comes home with beer sloshed on her ankles, soaking through her socks. She goes through a lot of socks.
Cipher slings sandwiches at a food cart in the local park, under the watchful eye of a gruff man whose drawling accent Cipher can barely understand. Cipher teaches himself not to gag at the barrels of pickled meat crusted with pink slime, and the wafts of odiferous sweat that drip from the gruff man’s armpits.
Only once does the gruff man attempt conversation. “Where you from, kid?” He knows Cipher isn’t from here. The man from the Solved City has no credit, no government identification, and must be paid from the till instead of through a seamless, paperless online exchange.
“I don’t know.”
After that, the conversations stop, though Cipher still gets his fistful of cash every week.
The dirt path that leads from the Solved City is worn with the footsteps of hundreds of reverse pilgrims. Thousands, maybe. Almost half the footsteps appear to halt at a point perhaps fifty feet from the gilded gates, where they circle back toward the city where they belong. But there’s no getting back once you’ve left.
There are more corpses on the path than you’d expect there to be, desiccated by the heat of the sun. Empty eye sockets baking, worms in some of them. Mouths outstretched toward the cruel outdoors.
The Solved City is temperate, but the land around it is not.
“Maybe it’s in Arizona,” Blank says, looking at a map spread out on the pockmarked floor of their apartment. “New Mexico?”
“No,” Cipher says, shaking his head. He’s seen photographs of those desert lands, and they are nothing like the land that surrounds the Solved City.
“But it has to be somewhere!” she cries out. The map is pimpled with likely locations marked out in pink and yellow highlighter. “It exists.”
“Of course it exists. We were there. We were born there.” He outlines a highway in yellow. “We’re so close.”
She hates the children because they remind her of the child.
They crowd the outside of Blank and Cipher’s apartment building, the children, squatting amid the discarded condoms and half-rotted rat corpses. He’s learned to give them small trinkets: a scrap of food, a bit of lint, pennies that have been through the dryer. They snatch the offerings from his hand like greedy birds, and in return, don’t bother him too much when he comes back to the apartment from another long shift.
She, however, isn’t as charitable.
“Look at those things,” she says, peering down at the street through a slit in the blinds. The abandoned playground across the street is full of spindly children, who cavort on the rusted equipment until the drug dealers drive them out around dusk. “Little animals. They barely even know where they are.”
“They’re not animals.” But he knows, he knows, that she’s not talking about these children. She’s talking about the child.
The child doesn’t know where it is. It has no idea that it lives in a vault five stories below the central plaza of the Solved City. It is a milk-white little bug, left so long in the vault that its eyes have mostly ceased to work. It knows only a few phrases, like “fuck you” and “nasty thing” and “you little shit.” Sometimes it repeats the words and the city alders wash its mouth out with soap.
It has no gender, because that would increase its humanity, and decrease the potency of the violence-magic.
It has no name, because then it might be a person.
It has no wants, no interests, no friends and no family.
It’s what keeps the Solved City afloat, and it’s the reason they left.
When you turn seventeen in the Solved City, the alders show you the child. It’s an event, like your first period, or the first time you climb by yourself onto the back of one of the golden stallions that roam the streets.
The alders take you into City Hall. You’ve been there before, on countless school trips. They lead you to a perfectly normal steel door with no markings on it. Its lack of markings is a marking.
You are led downwards. All the way downwards. You’ve never been so far underground. As you descend you start to hear voices. You feel cold in a way you’ve never felt before. Just inside the edges of your vision you see a movement, as if from an animal.
Inside, on a pad of filthy burlap, sits a child of perhaps seven. Its skin is the color of new paper. One of its arms has been ripped off at the elbow, leaving a rotted stump. When it sees the group of visitors, it soils itself, audibly.
“Look at the child,” the alderman says. “He suffers so you can live.”
The teenager who will grow up to be Cipher feels his lunch of roasted pheasant and heirloom tomatoes rise in his throat. He forces it back down, and makes himself look at the child. Around him he can hear his classmates shifting uncomfortably.
“Your lives are pleasant. You know that out there,” the alderman continues, not having to qualify the out there, “there are things worse than this. Sweatshops. Gangs. Mass murder. We only have this child. And we take care of it, in our own way. That’s more than they’d do out there.” He pats the child on its head, mussing its sparse, limp hair.
Cipher looks around, his breath catching. He wants to run up there, tear the shirt from his back, and wrap the child inside, carrying it away from this horrible place. But something he can’t identify holds him back.
Most of his classmates are nodding. He keeps his head still, his mouth closed.
An alderwoman enters the ill-lit basement. She’s someone Cipher has seen before, a kindly fair-haired merchant who never has a harsh word for anyone. He likes her. But now her eyes have a different cast to them. She takes a switchblade from the depths of her robe.
“You fucking piece of shit!” screams the alderwoman in an unearthly tone as she deftly slices one of the child’s fingers off, producing a gush of sickly, pinkish blood. Cipher’s stomach lurches and he moans, earning him a sharp look from the alderwoman.
The boy at Cipher’s side faints, his head coming down hard on Cipher’s shin.
“This is for you!” the alderwoman says. She picks the child up from its burlap mat and shakes it until its teeth rattle. Suddenly, she drops it and becomes calm, slipping into a choreographed speech she’s recited to countless parades of adolescents. “Paradise always comes at a price. Here in the Solved City, we torture not the many, only the one. We have concentrated the suffering to a single point, so that all of you may live in peace. There is no other way, do you see? Somebody must suffer, and this child knows nothing else.”
“We give it purpose,” the alderman says. He removes a small medical kit from his pocket and dresses the child’s wound. “The child needs us. Truly, it’s no worse off at our hands.”
No, Cipher thinks. No, it’s wrong. I have to help it! But what can he do? They won’t let him snatch the child and spirit it away, and he can’t bring himself to attack either of the alders. He pushes the unconscious boy from him with a toe.
Suddenly, the alderwoman drops her blood-spattered knife and stares at the teenager who will be Cipher. “Are you going to take its place?” She points at Cipher, jabbing her finger into his chest until he stumbles backwards. “Just come up here right now, kid.” She flicks her wrist at the filthy corner where the child lays.
Cipher’s face burns with shame, and he shrinks at her touch. He starts to choke out a reply, but by the time he can speak, she’s already halfway down the line of onlookers, asking them the same question. It’s just another part of the routine.
The alderman claps his hands, calling them all back to attention. “We have a gift here in the Solved City, a precious resource. See it. Know it exists. Remember it. Are there any questions?”
There are, but nobody says a word.
The child picks up its severed finger and pops it into its own toothless maw.
Blank’s out of the house tonight. She’s often out of the house anymore.
Cipher eases himself into the recliner they pulled from a Dumpster. It smells like hot dogs with cheese. His body hurts right down to the bone. He pops the top off a beer, which is far inferior to the elixirs they had in the Solved City, but it will do.
The maps remain on the coffee table. They haven’t looked at the maps in weeks.
He dozes, awakening at some indistinct point when Blank comes through the door. Her hair is wet and matted from the rain.
“Where were you?” he asks, though he doesn’t really care. Blank’s life is her own to live.
Is that guilt he senses in her lovely, sylph-like face? What could Blank possibly be guilty of? He shrugs it off. “I didn’t make anything for dinner.”
“That’s all right. I’m not hungry.” In fact, she looks radiant. Or at least better than Cipher, anyway.
“I am.” He heaves himself from the recliner and goes to the kitchen. He opens a can of ravioli laced with unpronounceable chemicals. Cipher gags as he eats; even after six months away, he’s still not used to the food here.
She drops her purse on the coffee table, right over the marked-up maps. He frowns a little at this.
After she leaves the next morning, there’s a red spot in the middle of Wyoming. He stares at this spot for a long time.
When you leave the pleasant order of the Solved City for the sun-blasted world beyond, you are not the only one who is changed. The minds of the ones you leave behind are similarly erased.
Cipher thinks about this. He knows that there are people he went to school with who suddenly didn’t exist, but he doesn’t recall their faces. He doesn’t recall their voices or their names or mannerisms. There is a lack there, soon to be filled up, like a hole in sand before the tide rolls in.
It doesn’t make you sad, this lack. It’s just there.
Cipher is glad that his parents don’t remember him. The Solved City wouldn’t be much of a paradise if parents longed for their lost children, if lovers were separated because one of them could stand the existence of the child and the other one couldn’t.
Cipher, of course, remembers everything.
Once, when they were still living in the Solved City, Blank asked Cipher if the child’s mother remembered it, if she thought about it at all. That should have been the first sign that there was something wrong with Blank.
On a day when they’re both free from work, Cipher convinces Blank to sit down in front of the maps and keep searching. They spend a few hours drawing lines across the crumpled gas station map when Blank starts screaming and upends the table.
“It wasn’t worth it! Do you want to know what I saw today? A dead kid, frozen in the alley. She’d been there for days, Cipher. The rats had eaten her nose.”
Cipher blinks. He doesn’t know what to believe. “Did you call the police?”
“Like they’d give a shit.” She starts to pace, running her hands through her black hair. “Ten people were killed last week, all across the city. Gangs, drugs, beatings. There was nothing like this where we came from. Nothing.”
“No. There was something worse.”
She laughs, darkly. “Was there? At least we kept it contained. At least we … harnessed it somehow. The child, it suffered for us. What do these people suffer for?”
Cipher tries to think of an answer that won’t stoke Blank’s anger. “Freedom?”
“Yes, the freedom to live in a shithole.” She wheels around and slams the door to their bedroom.
Cipher waits a few beats, and then rummages through Blank’s purse. He needs money for takeout. It’s not just free here.
Inside he finds money and also a nose wrapped in clear plastic. He pockets it, leaving the cash.
It’s not that the gentle folk of the Solved City don’t think about the child. In fact, they think about the child a lot. They think about the child every time they take the solar-powered tram to the central square. They think about the child every time they brush their golden stallions.
The child shows up in their dreams. Sometimes it appears whole and happy. Sometimes it appears as it is, mangled and full of one-way hate.
What the people of the Solved City don’t do, what they have never done, is talk about the child. Once you leave the child’s oubliette, the existence of the child becomes a conversation you hold with yourself alone. You live well for the child. Because its life is terrible beyond the comprehension of any person in the Solved City (though not beyond the comprehension of those outside), your life must be wonderful. To make the child’s suffering worth anything at all, you must live. And you do.
This is the violence-magic. This is the city’s, and the child’s, gift to you.
Anyone can visit the child, assuming they don’t try to go outside of the normal city hall business hours. You can just walk right on inside. But why would you want to?
The day after their argument, Cipher follows Blank down to the harbor. The titty bar where she works is lit up with Christmas lights half burned out and flickering.
He doesn’t go inside. He doesn’t want to see Blank like she is at work, her creamy skin sloshed with beer and engulfed with cigarette smoke. He doesn’t even want to be here at all, but he has to know.
When she leaves, he follows her, through the streets of this new shithole that is now their home. She doesn’t go to the bus stop. She slips into a warehouse.
Cipher waits five beats and goes inside.
It’s black as pitch in there, black as Blank’s hair. He used to love burying his face in that hair, breathing in the essence of her. Blank won’t let him touch her any more.
“Honey?” he says. He takes his cell phone out of his pocket and turns on the flashlight app. The warehouse is like so many warehouses outside of the Solved City. It hasn’t held actual products in at least twenty years, and is now home to rats, mice, spiders, termites, stray cats, and occasionally, people.
No people here now, though. That’s good. Cipher continues to plumb the warehouse’s depths, swinging the flashlight before him like a beacon.
“Blank?” he says, calling out her false name a little louder.
Down one of the narrow corridors, there is a cry. A cat? Does Blank have a stray cat down there? It’s his only lead, so Cipher follows it where it goes.
It leads to an unmarked door frosted with rust. Cipher pushes all his weight against the door. Blank is there, a bat in her hands. A cage is also there. So is a child.
During their long ride from the Solved City, at a flea-infested Motel 6 in Moline, Illinois, Cipher laid awake. Beside him, Blank was locked in an uneasy slumber, her regret causing her limbs to seize and twitch.
Had leaving been his decision? Or hers? Or both of theirs, together? Certainly, she had been more immediately contemptuous of the violence-magic that held the Solved City together. She hadn’t wanted to leave at first. She wanted to tear the whole system down.
He can’t imagine his life without her. But if he’d stayed behind, surely he’d have still been happy. Surely, the lack that appeared after the disappearance of other emigrants would have showed up for her too until eventually, she’d be a shadow of a memory, and maybe not even that. He’d have found another lover, a woman or man who managed to live happy despite the violence-magic, or if the science was true, because of it.
She’s worth it, he thought on a cold night as arguments echoed across the motel’s parking lot, isn’t she?
She is. She has to be.
He swings the door shut and vomits all the contents of his stomach across the concrete floor. She doesn’t come out to see if he’s all right.
When he feels able to face it again, he pushes the door back open and she’s still there, above the iron cage, the metal bat in her hands.
“What are you doing?!” Cipher finds some reserve of strength hidden like lint in the bottom of a pocket. He lurches forward and wrests the bat away from Blank. There’s hair on it. “What are you fucking doing?!”
Her mouth gapes open. She doesn’t have a response.
“I’m … I’m gonna have to tell someone about this.” But how can he? When he knows what they’ll do to her in prison, this naïve woman of the Solved City, not to mention that she makes four-fifths of their combined rent?
“I’m making people happy!” She spits at the mostly dead child in the cage and stalks out, slipping only slightly on the upchucked sandwich fixings at the door’s threshold.
Cipher looks down at the mess in the cage. Whereas the child beneath city hall radiated a bouquet of emotions, from fear to hate to perplexity, this child shows only terror. Terror of Blank. Terror of him.
It won’t survive long, so he does the merciful thing.
When he returns to their apartment, most of her belongings — not that there were ever many — are gone. So is she.
Before long, so is he.
He rents a house with two guys from Craigslist who seem to tolerate him okay. They don’t ask him many questions. He doesn’t ask them any questions at all.
He takes a normal name like Tom or Mitch. Maybe that was his real name back in the Solved City. It’s definitely his real name now.
He doesn’t look for the city, though he thinks about it every moment of his life for the rest of his life. He doesn’t look for Blank. He thinks about Blank less often than he thinks about the Solved City, though still too much. That wound doesn’t glaze over and there is no lack.
He grows old. He moves to a different city, one less pockmarked by violence and ruin, but when you come from the Solved City, any violence is too much. Any violence except that visited upon the child, the child that makes the magic happen.
Ten years later, after he has his own child with a woman he met in the elevator at his new job in his new city, he walks out into the desert and lets the sand erase his path.