The following day is my day off and I squander it, as I usually do, by doing housework. I’m in the basement doing laundry and Willie is trying to prove his indispensability by helping me fold, something he does so earnestly and poorly I’m choking back tears and massive gobs of phlegm. Wide-eyed, he tells me he always tries to do what I tell him, and to do it perfickly.

His mispronunciations are cute. I once showed him my very old globe from social studies when I was scarcely older than he and he began referring to one of the dead nations listed on it as The Unitem States. One of those Unitem States? Wisconsom.

As the dryer finishes a second load, I see dark shapes move slowly and softly around my house through the diaphanous curtains doubled up over my basement windows. One of the dark shapes, human, bends low to peek into the house. I don’t know if he sees us. Probably not, if it’s Centralli. If it is the much more capable, much more aggressive Mishralli, we may have a really big problem.

I tell Willie as seriously as I have ever spoken what is happening and what he must do. He goes into the dryer and buries himself in the clothing.

Finally, there is a rap at the back door, and I climb the stairs to answer it. As soon as I do, smiling like it’s an old friend or some other innocuity with whom I have equal standing, I’m shoved back by a swagger stick, then slapped in the face with the leather gloves clasped in the other hand.

It’s the Mishralli.

They’re the other secret police institution of the state, easily detected like the Centralli but nowhere near as garish. They dress in understated suits and overcoats, in grim shades: slate, anthracite, grey. It’s primarily the swagger sticks which give them away, but they’re taller than average, clearly well-nourished, never look like they’ve been crying or even feeling anything at all.

They pour into my home, four of them, the ringleader lingering with me in the kitchen as the rest rifle through every room, every nook, every piece or article of anything looking for something.

We’re here conducting a follow-up visit stemming from your recent contact with Centralli agents, he informs me.


He glares at me for probably a full minute before adding that review of their video showed those diapers could not possibly have fit me.

they’re snug but i can pull one on

Prove it.

I go to the tall cabinet just outside the bathroom and grab one from a stack. He asks where the rest are. I say they’ve been used. He snaps his fingers and one of his men responds. He tells the guy to scour my trash, the neighbors’ as well.

I do the humiliation ritual, stunned that I could pull the thing on. He inquires why I like them so small. I tell him I don’t know.

The man returns, says the trash was collected that morning. Inwardly, I’m so relieved I almost collapse.

Another comes up from the basement, stares at me for a moment before saying there’s nothing down there.

The last returns from upstairs, shakes his head.

The leader looks over his handheld device for a moment, then starts laughing.

It says here you used to have a title.

I swallow deeply, nod in the affirmative.

Why don’t you piss and moan that I don’t call you that?

I shrug and he whips me in the arm with the stick. It’s shockingly painful; at impact, I scarcely noted it, then a delayed reaction sent me howling to the floor. He tells me to stand the fuck up. I do, head bowed, holding my damaged arm. He shoves the stick under my chin and raises my head.

Look at me. You look at me when I talk to you. You look at me when I tell you to.

I nod and he shoves the stick into my throat, pinning my head against the cupboards.

You fucking speak to me. You don’t gesture.

Okay, okay, I insist, weakly. I just thought it was more respectful, okay?

You asking me or are you telling me? They all laugh.

I’m…telling you.

Then he strikes me across the quads with the stick, an electric whip searing through both legs, all the way to the bones. I collapse almost instantly, my legs spasming so hard in extension I worry my knees are going to snap the wrong way.

You don’t tell me anything.

I say nothing, unable to, gasping, tears streaming down my face, my hands drawn to clutch my thighs and the feeling of peeling, sunburnt skin when I do.

He asks me what my title was, and they snicker again.

It was doctor, I manage to choke out.

Doctor of what?

For the sake of clarity, I start to explain the Doctor of Philosophy title pertains to a wide range of academic topics outside the specific realm of philosophy and he cuts me off while the rest leer at me, still giggling.

Doctor of what?

Economics, I whisper, weeping softly. He hisses the word in reply, spits on me. He demands again to know if he’s being asked or being told. I try to hedge, say I’m just answering his question the best I can, and he tips my ceramic sugar jar off the counter with the stick, slowly shoving it toward the edge, seemingly daring me to stop him or even object. I just watch it fall and shatter, a mound of sugar building itself in a flow upright from the broken jar. It was over a hundred years old. He calls me a kiss-ass, scrunches his index finger and thumb into anus shape, then shoves his nose into it.

Then they march out, the cell leader smashing the window on my kitchen door as they do. I wait, and I wait, and I wait, then I exhale in a throaty, screaming gasp, and I hobble into the basement as fast as my nearly broken legs will carry me.


For all installments of “The Engineers,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3