Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Weekly Short Story: Neighbourhoods

writing, fiction & once upon a time 5 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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Sometimes I look at my son and I think what an odd time it was for him to be born. The pandemic changed so much for us, but nothing for him because he arrived during it. He’s only a year or so old, but which reality will he grow up in: ours from the past, or the one we current inhabit, or — more likely — some third option we’ve yet to experience, as a compromise between the first two?

I wonder if he’ll come to resent the freedom we had, and indeed the freedom we abused. That much seems certain. I try to imagine the world he’ll inhabit and inherit, and I find it harder than ever. We’ve learned that everything can change, and anything can be taken away, in a shockingly short time. It’s made me appreciate our immediate surroundings and those who live close to us. I wonder, too, what shape those familiar pockets of existence will have in the years to come.


Things have changed so much, but only for our parents. We were born into the only world we’ve ever known. Just as everyone is.

The walls are everywhere. Almost perfectly clear, and with warning strips to avoid collisions. You can look into the distance, through dozens of them, and you forget they’re even there. We watch each other, and only young children bother to place their hands against the almost invisible barriers anymore.

There were riots for years when the walls went up. It’s not surprising. People had the view that their personal liberty was somehow separate from everyone else’s right to be safe. Our generation doesn’t understand that idea. It’s the clearest thing in the world that we don’t all care about each other to the same degree. It’s obvious, from everything we see and hear and read and do. But a desire to put personal liberty above all else implicitly assumes that people will use it responsibly, which is where the argument breaks down. Freedom has to be limited precisely because so many of us fail to live up to our shared standard of behaviour.

The riots passed, in time. So many were killed, or injured, or imprisoned, but the governments and their militaries stood strong. The very survival of our civilisation, they said, depended on it. They mostly meant our economic prosperity rather than our culture, but they weren’t wrong. The controls and the limitations were necessary. We wouldn’t act in our collective best interests otherwise.

The pathogens didn’t care either way. For a time, there were so many. Mutating and adapting, spreading and infecting. One of humanity’s darkest eras. The articles said that the herd was thinned, and the extremists said that the strong survived. The undertakers worked constantly. But that, too, has passed.

Our postal districts were subdivided into small groups of streets, and the walls went up. We call them neighbourhoods, and they have numbers and letters. We also give them names, but while those are unofficial, they’re encouraged by the government. The names are as beautiful as the names of the streets they contain — with so many mentions of groves, and views, and gardens — but they’re all surrounded by the walls. And the surveillance equipment.

Private vehicles are gone now; there’s nowhere they could go. Every neighbourhood is sealed, and the privileged few essential travellers must use the public transit system that snakes between the walls, each carriage a set of isolation booths with no shared air. More than ninety percent of us spend most of our lives hearing the transit cars go by, and watching them through the walls, without being able to reach them.

Holiday is the exception. Once a month, for a few assigned hours, each neighbourhood’s residents all get to leave as a group, and are taken beyond the cities. The countryside is a paradise. The waterways are crystal clear again. The farms aren’t overcrowded. There’s no noise beyond what nature causes. We all cherish those trips. They’re mandatory, but they don’t need to be. Who would choose to stay behind?

And then we return, to work from our homes, and go for our walks around the perimeter of our neighbourhood, and to live our lives. It’s a good life. Everything we need is provided, and also some of what we want — not that the government allows us to want too much. Aspiration is the enemy of contentment, they say, and again they’re not wrong.

Our water is clean. Our homes are warm. There’s always food, and power, and bandwidth, and entertainment. The air is free of pollution. And we’re alive, which is the foundation of everything else.

On the way to Holiday, we have our boosters. Every doorway in the world has a chip reader to inspect our last vaccination date, and we receive a new one just before we depart for the countryside at our assigned time. It’s all automated. We assume that someone controls it all, but no-one from my neighbourhood is involved, so we have no way to know. We don’t worry about it.

Our mood is stable. I vaguely remember hearing that some of us questioned why that was so, back when the walls went up. They said it was because of the water; that there was something added to it, to keep us calm. It wouldn’t be hard to believe, but what’s the alternative? The riots, and tearing down the walls, and breathing the same air as someone from a different neighbourhood? No more barriers, and chip readers, and knowing that the person standing before you has been vaccinated recently? I can’t imagine how people ever lived that way.

The fear there must have been. The risk, constantly, and the unpredictable waves of illness. People used to die all the time. There were hospitals, and doctors, and so many of them because so much of it was preventable. It’s difficult to understand how anyone would want to bring a child into such a world. I’m so glad it’s gone now.

I work from my home, and the hours are reasonable. The deliveries arrive with the food we need, and the power supply never falters. We have our families, and our friends, always at hand within our neighbourhood. Everyone is in the same situation, and we stick together. We do sometimes consider what we’ve lost, but it seems so unimportant.

My next Holiday is only a week away, and I look forward to seeing the fields and the rivers. I look forward to smelling the grass and the flowers. But I’ll also look forward to coming back home. There’s too much out there; too big a world. So much space, and so many dangers. Lots of them can’t even be seen.

I prefer to be here, where I’m safe.


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.