The voices of gossip had gone with the winds of winter as LROP dragged me into a building blinded with lights of all colors. I was surprised that for a little thing like her, she had the strength of a thousand men. Her grip that bounded my wrist was enough for me to believe had I pissed her off like #64, a simple snap would've erased my existence.
However, being the clueless idiot and surrounded by overwhelming stimuli, my eyes failed to notice the sight of young students marching and saluting with such perfection towards a statue of what I presumed is a caricatured version of their Leader.
The glimpse of their sparkling grins caught me off-guard the moment their heads all turned to stare at me without much of a single blink.
I noticed there were holiday decorations painting a welcoming picture all over the building's chairs and tables. Cardboard cutouts of snowflakes and candles, and several boxes of candy canes meant to make the kids laugh had been set at one side of the hallway.
And at the other, was the ominous room LROP greeted me in.
"#21, HAVE A SEAT," LROP placed her scrawny, pale fingers onto my shoulders. A cold touch.
I sat down, pondering why I was now stuck in a room lacking personality. It screamed emptiness, and I did not want to feel like I was about to be interrogated.
Then again, everything about this city was simple. The structures, the windows, the walls; every single detail was carefully managed by those who wanted similarity. Even rebellious designs that stuck out from amateur coloring only went so far in creativity. Other than polka dots and dartboard patterns, complexity was apparently non-existent.
Is this why I renounced my birthplace?
LROP had stated that this was my home, but I couldn't remember anything of these strange practices. Yet the sense of deja vu stayed heavy within my chest.
So, for the first time, I opened my mouth.
"LROP, can you tell me why everyone is-"
"PLEASE HOLD," the girl lifted a finger, "YOU DO NOT HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO SPEAK UNLESS I GIVE MY CONSENT."
I gulped, clearly feeling the intimidating aura of some murderer seeping through LROP's dry skin.
LROP's footsteps fluttered across the room, her smile never wavered and her posture remained unnaturally stiff. To witness a walking corpse, with the puffiness of her Christmas attire gleaming under the fluorescent lights, heightened the anxiety that's engulfing my stomach.
"I'M SO GLAD YOU HAVE COME BACK TO US, RENEWED," LROP locked her fingers and leaned forward after taking her seat, "AFTER ALL, OUR GLORIOUS CITY IS A PLACE OF SECOND CHANCES."
That hideous smile never once configured into a different expression. Her dehydrated eyes were fixated on me as I heard the rhythmic taps of her foot hitting the floor.
"NOT ONLY THAT," she lowered her voice, "BUT THERE ARE ENDLESS OPPORTUNITIES. I HOPE THIS TIME, YOU CAN REMAIN SATISFIED WITH THE HAPPINESS OUR LEADER PROVIDES."
I raised an eyebrow to signal I wanted to say something and it looked like LROP caught onto it, for she blinked once before nodding.
I don't understand how she continued to plaster that disgusting grin on her face. How long has it been, 2 hours, or 5 hours at most? Time felt displaced, I hadn't detected any clocks during my time strolling around this forsaken place.
"Um, LROP, I know you've said that positive reinforcement is heavily encouraged to-"
"Ah- yes, required, because it makes people feel good about themselves and of course, we don't want to offend anyone, so the practice of mindfulness is equally important."
"GOOD JOB," she clapped, "SO THIS TIME YOU DO REMEMBER WHAT I'VE DISCUSSED EARLIER. WELL DONE #21!"
"SO WHAT DID YOU WANT TO SAY?"
"I- oh, well, I don't really know actually, I guess I'm confused."
A twitch at the corner of her grin. It was barely unnoticeable, although LROP started to drag her elongated nails across the table for a few seconds before intertwining her fingers once more.
"WHAT IS IT THAT'S CONFUSING?"
"I mean, the- you know, the clapping-"
"...Right, but, then what about the children saluting-"
I gulped. "Okay, I suppose that's understandable. But when I came into town, literally everyone started greeting-"
"B-but it's just...I don't know I'm just not comfortable!"
"WHY IS IT UNCOMFORTABLE?"
I didn't answer.
"GO ON, YOU CAN SPEAK. I AM HERE IF YOU NEED TO TALK. EVERYONE MATTERS. FEELINGS ARE VALID. THAT IS WHY WE ARE HERE TO HELP YOU FIX THAT."
Empty words did not encourage me to speak exactly what was on my mind.
"See, LROP, I think that's the issue- w-with me that is- but I don't think feelings should be 'fixed', at least not all the time. Everyone has good intentions but it doesn't feel genuine."
The air in the room felt tense, and the anxiety crawled all over my body. My legs shook restlessly as the silence between the both of us became deafening.
But it was the unchanging, very friendly smile of LROP that's keeping me from taking one step out the door. Without her...permission.
"#21, WHAT'S NOT GENUINE ABOUT A PERSON BEING THE BEST VERSION OF THEMSELVES?"
"RESPECTFULNESS, FRIENDLINESS, AND MORE IN OUR RECITATION, THESE ARE THINGS WE CAN AGREE SHOULD BE PRACTICED, WHICH IS WHY OUR GRACIOUS LEADER EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING GOOD."
"I know but I also think," I paused, my eyes wandered to the side desperately pondering of the right words to say, "that while encouraged it shouldn't be forced."
Chills tickled my spine for the aura of the room changed. I dared not to look.
For within my peripheral vision, was the disappearance of her wonderful smile and what I assumed to be LROP's first frown towards me.
But as briefly as it occurred, the familiar set of black teeth meant to send me puking revealed themselves. What a quick recovery.
"#21, HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF OUR YOUNGINS TREATED YOU RUDELY?"
"I-I guess upset."
"AND DO YOU LIKE FEELING THAT WAY?"
"Of course not."
"PRECISELY. AND HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF NONE OF YOUR NEIGHBORS WERE FRIENDLY? NO SOCIAL GATHERINGS, NO CHECKUPS, WHERE IT'S AN 'EVERY PERSON FOR THEMSELVES' KIND OF WORLD?"
"When you word it that way," I finally crossed my legs to prevent one from uncontrollable shaking, "I guess I'd feel lonely."
LROP stood up, her posture straightened and her head held high. She glanced at the door behind me which produced the corniest jingle when opened.
It was KIP.
And #64 was no longer with him.
I didn't want to ask what happened.
A laptop was all that came with the man. It was a sad old little thing, for it had scratch marks on the sides and dried bloodstains. Nonetheless, it was my stupidity for not speaking up. I was scared. My body froze and allowed these peculiar people to perform their duties.
And, just like LROP, his deceiving grin paid no mind to how uncomfortable I got.
LROP stood beside me, her right hand finding its place to rest on my shoulder. I wanted to state how it was getting unnecessary that she's been invading my personal space for a while here, but even I knew better than to anger an internally raging scorpion.
"A VIDEO," KIP finished plugging the laptop and carefully placed it right in front of my eyes, "AN INTRODUCTION TO YOUR HOME."
"Wait, I don't think I ever said I wanted to live here thou-"
Their eyes loomed over my presence.
"Ok look, I'll give it a watch."
The setup was done, and with a blink, I was alone.
However, the silence which rang in my ears didn't last long, for the video rumbled and played its lousy welcoming music before the screen displayed a panoramic view of the city. It was shot during the months of winter, where decayed snow was shown hugging streetlights and houses.
To my surprise, the video showed KIP.
He waved at the camera, a big smile glued on his pale face, before revealing rows of students lined up behind him.
I thought he was going to talk, but a narration of his voice soon took over.
"MERRIMENT CITY, A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE CAN BE THEIR BEST SELVES AND ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO DO GOOD. WE WELCOME YOU IN OUR TOWN WITH OPEN ARMS. IN A WORLD WHERE NEGATIVITY SPREADS LIKE A DISEASE, YOU SHALL HAVE NO WORRIES OF EVER FINDING DISTURBANCE WITH US."
The video focused on a female adolescent, who smiled and stared at KIP with a salute very telling of high confidence.
"I AM #1, A PROUD CITIZEN OF MERRIMENT CITY. TODAY, MISS BASHAM TAUGHT US THE CORE TRAITS OF CITIZEN RESPONSIBILITY!"
"THAT IS AMAZING, #1," KIP nodded in approval and then shifted his attention to the kid standing next to the young girl, "SAME CLASS, CORRECT?"
The boy proudly puffed his chest and saluted to KIP. "YES SIR."
"RECITE WHAT WAS LEARNED."
"I AM #1, A PROUD CITIZEN OF MERRIMENT CITY. TODAY, WE LEARNED ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPECT AND POLITENESS."
"AND WHY IS THAT?"
"BECAUSE," the boy hadn't blinked once and inhaled, "WE ARE BEING MINDFUL OF PEOPLE'S FEELINGS. I RESPECT MOM AND DAD, AND THEY RESPECT ME."
"HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?"
"IT MAKES ME FEEL HAPPY!"
"AND HOW DO YOUR PARENTS FEEL?"
"IT MAKES THEM HAPPY!"
Then the entire class cheered. The waves of clapping and roars of inaudible praises were enough to boost the esteems of young individuals coated with potential. At least, the potential to carry on this tradition in the city.
As my headache and thoughts of whether I misheard two students stating the same numbers when they referred to themselves emerged, the room felt cold once more.
But I didn't turn away from the video.
No, it was too late now, I was engaged and I needed answers.
KIP's narration took over while the video showcased several clip compilations and scenes of their beautiful, little society.
"HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHY THERE IS PRACTICALLY NO CRIME? HOW, WHEN YOU WALKED WITH US, WELCOMED BY US, EMBRACED BY YOUR FELLOW CITIZENS, THAT EVERYONE IS ENCOURAGING OTHERS TO DO THE SAME?"
The faint sound of a corny jingle barely entered my ears. Quietude. I was entirely focused on KIP's motivational speech.
"BECAUSE ALL OF US HAVE FOUND HAPPINESS."
"All," I mumbled, "have found happiness."
"THE CORE TRAITS ARE ESSENTIAL TO ENHANCING EVERYONE'S HAPPINESS TO THE FULLEST."
And with his lecture came clips showing examples of how these wonderful citizens displayed their contributions to making their utopia.
"RESPECTFULNESS. VALIDATE EACH OTHER'S UNIQUENESS AND STATUS."
"POLITENESS. SPEAK IN THE WAY YOU WANT OTHERS TO SPEAK TOWARDS YOU."
"FRIENDLINESS. LOOK OUT FOR EACH PERSON'S WELLBEING."
"True," my eyes burned from the powerful bright lights of the laptop but I continued to watch.
"KINDNESS. TREAT OTHERS THE WAY YOU WANT OTHERS TO TREAT YOU."
I looked away for the first time ever since the video started.
And saw KIP and LROP towering behind me with the biggest smiles ever depicted.
Alas, it was contagious. They approved of what they saw, and I felt...
LROP had apparently been holding my wrist, which after she gracefully let go, revealed the bracelet everyone else wore.
"AND REMEMBER," KIP synced his voice with his own recording in the video, "WE ARE BEAUTIFUL."
I agreed. "YES. WE ARE BEAUTIFUL."