Entangled, by Liam Hogan
The chains grow heavier every year.
The ones the midwife attaches before they cut the cord are no more than that by which a bathtub plug dangles, the ball at its end a baby-fist sized toy.
By the time it gets replaced, a year later, it will have been gummed and sucked and bashed by pudgy fingers, unable to hide the glee at the noise it makes. And why should they? They know nothing of what it represents, what it will become.
When they take their first halting steps, the chain will be thicker, the weight dragging at every second step. They’ll have to relearn how to walk when the cuff switches ankles again, another year on.
Throughout their childhood pinch-faced school inspectors will prod and poke, deciding how much a child can bear.
It’s supposed to be equitable, supposed to be fair. But the slight are tormented for their lesser burdens, as the heavyset are mocked for theirs.
School-yard bullies tug at the chains of the unwary, spilling them to unforgiving tarmac.
Older kids twine chains with another’s, slow, sweaty-palmed entanglements behind the sports shed. Some of the boys use the weights to their advantage, some girls let them.
I look on, from afar, with hate and envy.
At university I discover, to my surprise, that I am not the only one who dreams of freedom, who loathes the system that dogs our every movement. Some first-year students refuse to turn up for their annual inspection. I’m mindful to join them, until I’m told I am to follow a different path.
The rebellious students are expelled. Education, proclaims the Dean’s announcement in their wake, is a privilege, not a right. It has to be earned.
I earn my position in the administrative body that records every chain, every burden. Tedious work. I smuggle copies to the resistance, ready myself for more decisive action.
I’m caught, of course. Betrayed, unable to escape, chains rattling as blows rain down. And then I am tried, found guilty of treason, await my punishment.
When the judge solemnly announces that my shackles are to be removed, I cannot, do not, believe them. In the yard, the prison guards follow the sentence through. For the first time in three decades, I am free, as light as a feather.
The guards stand back as my feet lift from the ground. A gust tugs me into the air, and I sail over the high walls. The guards ignore my whoops, my escape. I quickly lose sight of the prison, rising through damp, cold, endless cloud.
In short order, I’m hungry, chilled to the bone, and sick to the stomach.
In the distance I glimpse a floating figure, waving. I furiously windmill the air, though it’s probably contrary currents that eventually spin me close enough to pick out the tattered clothes, the sightless eyes, the bleached bones, rattling in the wind.
There is no way down, and never have I longed more to be chained to the ground.
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details here.