At the center of Flatland there was a tall sky-scraper, thirty stories high. In the skyscraper were many offices, filled with workers who spent their days typing at their ledgers, recording the business of Flatland that they could see out of their windows.
After their work was finished every day, they left the skyscraper and went to their homes. They lived in houses and farms spread around the town-â€ the only town in Flatland.
Flatland was not very big. Perhaps as big as sixâ€ football fields.
Fotheringay, the CEO of the skyscraper in the center of Flatland, lived on the thirtieth floor. He watched from the windows as the workers went to their homes. He walked up and down the aisles, checking the ledgers, adding a note here, revising there.
There was very little business in Flatland. There were only a few hundred people. What goods they had they bartered for. But the skyscraper was there, and so were the ledgers. So Fotheringay brought the workers in and they kept the ledgers. Some of them watched the farmers at workâ€ and wrote about their tilling, the clothes they wore, the crops they had planted,â€ and which were sprouting tubers.
Others watched the school, where the young people were at study, and made notes of the things the teachers wrote on the black-boards, and about which children giggled, and which passed notes, or made paper airplanes from their textbooks’ pages.
Of course, they all used telescopes.
Fotheringay was a thick-set older man. He wore a monacle and carried a cane. He dressed in black suits with white shirts and black cravats. He never smiled. He kept the workers in line. He often began sentences with the phraseâ€ “in life as in business,” orâ€ “in business as in life.”
He made the rules for the skyscraper, and he made the rules for the town. A set of his rules was written on signs on every floor, and stamped on the side of every telescope, and on the side of every typewriter.
All the rules were about the edge.
1.â€ Do not look at the edge.
2.â€ Do not look near the edge.
3.â€ Do not look at things that are near to the edge.
4.â€ Do not look at people that are near things that are close to the edge.
To match this rule, all of the telescopes were mounted with chains so that they could not be raised to the correct angle for viewing the edge.
The edge was the edge of Flatland, where the sixâ€ football fields or so of space ran out.
And so nobody looked, and of course nobody ever went near the edge. They knew they needed Fotheringay, even if he didn’t pay them much, and even if his ledger books held no real meaning. They needed him.
That is, until the children started disappearing.
It began with Johnny Applecart. His father was the town butcher. He had been out with friends playing manhunt in the tiny fields and forests at the edge of the town, and somehow fallen off the edge.
As soon as he heard, Fotheringay immediately locked the doors of the skyscraper, keeping almost all of the inhabitants of Flatland inside, got into his chauffeur-driven limousine, and ordered the driver with unusual alacrity to make for the edge.
The town police officer Barnaby Roy was already there, as were the butchers, Mr. Applecart and his wife, Mr and Mrs. Mills, the crazy couple with elevenâ€ children who worked in the windmill, Sgt. Trunk, the general of the army barracks, Vicar Heath,â€ who presided over the church, and Old Man Charlie,â€ who lived in a shack down by the lake.
They all stood at the top of the edge embankment behind a rope-line Barnaby Roy had set up. It said,
POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS
They stood and they stared out to the edge.
None of them dared to go too close. None of them dared to look over.
They looked at each other. They looked out into space.
Johnny’s mother began to weep.
“We must build a wall,” declaimed Fotheringay abruptly. “Four fathoms high and all the way around, so that this might never happen again.”
“What about rescue?” asked Sgt.â€ Trunk, his bushy moustache standing to attention over his top lip as he spoke with military precision.
Fotheringay cast a steely eye upon him.
“We’ll tie ropes around the top of the skyscraper,” said crazy Mr. Mills, “and we’ll go spelunking off the edge, and see if we can find little Johnny.”
“Spelunking!” cried Old Man Charlie. “Are you quite mad? We ought to freeze the river somehow, and use its frozen waterfall to climb down and off the edge, and see if we can find poor Johnny!”
“Freeze the river?” guffawed the vicar. “Not without an act of God. We should all retire to the church, and ring the church bells, and pray for a sign.”
“We need action, not pretty words,” stormed Fotheringay. “In life as in business, we must meet the challenge head on. We must build a giant wall that will hold in all the little children, and their toys.”
“Nonsense!” cried Mr. Mills, ignoring Fotheringay. “If not the river, then we must freeze the rain. We can use the frozen rain like we might use steps, and step our way down.”
“Spoken like a true miller!” chimed in Old Man Charlie. “The waters do not hold still like the grain for chopping, sir.â€ We must simply lasso the boy from here. It doesn’t do to go over the edge. Perhaps a lasso with a slice of beef on the end would draw him out, as he knows meat so well.”
And so it continued. Barnaby Roy tried to keep the peace, and Fotheringay simply watched and listened.
Mr. and Mrs. Applecart stood there silently.
In the end, everybody went home. The next day, work began on the wall.
Flatland was a somber place after that. Everybody wore black or grey. Mr. Applecart could often be found crying into his meat.
“Everyone’s too afraid,” said Johnny’s friend Matt one day. He was sitting in the tree-house with Johnny’s other friends, Chris and Jocie. “They’ve always been afraid of the edge.”
“What, and you’re not?” asked Chris.
“Of course I am. Just, do we want to see him again? It could have been any of us. Shouldn’t we do something about it?”
“They are doing something about it- they’re building a wall.”
“No, I mean us do something, ourselves.”
“Ourselves?” scoffed Jocie. “That’s like asking us to just go and die, just ’cause poor Johnny died.”
“We don’t know he’s dead,” said Matt. “He might be down there. Just out of arm’s reach. Maybe he’s shouting for us to come get him.”
“You’re an idiot if you think that,” said Jocie. “He’s gone. He’s dead. We should just think about something else. Who wants to play manhunt?”
That night Matt went down to the edge. He’d grown up with Johnny, playing cannonball run in Johnny’s backyard.
He tied one end of a long rope to the beginnings of the fence. He tied the other end around his waist. He threw the slack out over the edge.
He shuffled backwards, closer to the edge, the rope tight in his hands. He shuffled until the backs of his heels were against the straight-cut edge itself, and his heart was hammering in his rib-cage. He took his weight in his hands and began to lean backwards.
He took a step down the side. He took another step down the side.
Matt’s parents couldn’t find him in his bed when it was time to wake up for school the next morning. They searched the bathroom and under his bed. They searched the park nearby, and the schoolyard, and the treehouse. They called round to his friend’s houses in their nightgowns.
At Jocie’s house, Jocie told them Matt had been talking about the edge. About looking for Johnny.
They raced to the edge. They saw the ropeline.
The furore began over again.
The grown men of the town claimed they would climb down. Many followed suit and claimed they would take up the rope and follow after Matt, and after Johnny.
Fotheringay only pointed to the wall, and said,â€ “In life as in business, we must build up the tariffs, build up the protection, service the need. We must complete the wall as soon as we are able, lest more children tumble to their deaths.”
Mr. Mills ignored this and suggested a flying auto-car. The vicar suggested they all gather up handfuls of grass and sod and toss them over the edge, that Matt and Johnny might have something to stand on.
Barnaby Roy,â€ the policeman, suggested they toss food over the side in case they were there and needed to eat, in case they were hungry in the space beyond the edge.
The townsfolk gathered food and clumps of dirt and threw them over the edge. They threw food and dirt as if laying flowers on a grave, or throwing life buoys to drowning sailors.
They shouted at the edge for Matt and Johnny. But they heard nothing back.
The next day, work on the wall resumed in earnest.
A joint funeral was held for the two boys. On the morning of the funeral, Johnny and Matt’s friend Chris went missing.
The wall crept higher, and further around the circumference of Flatland, but somehow more children must have fallen off the edge, as soon after that more children went missing. The school’sâ€ numbers crept down to 127 students. Then 121. Then 99. The Millsâ€ lost all eleven children within three days.
The adults set up watches at night surrounding the town, standing beside the wall, as none dared to stand atop it. They set up roadblocks. Fotheringay led them and bolstered them from his limousine, standing up through the sun-roof, bellowing them onwards, in life as in business.
Life inside the skyscraper documenting life outside the skyscraper grew dull and morose. All the people were at the edges watching for another run-away, another child to make a break for an escape over the edge, but the ledger-takers could not use the telescopes to look at the edgeâ€ as the chains stopped them.
So they watched the empty town and made unmotivated notes about the sheep in their pens, or the one wild dog as it paced outside the butcher’s shop waiting for scraps.
Fotheringay geed them on, inside and outside. His limousine roved around the town, and soon he affixed bull-horns to its roof, so that he could save his voice while bellowing encouragement to all and sundry.
More children disappeared. The adults were standing at their posts until they fell asleep, then waking and falling asleep again in spite of themselves, and still children crept through the gaps. People were sneaking out of the locked skyscraper, heading towards the edges, to help, to be where the children wanted to be.
Fotheringay set up a podium in front of the skyscraper’s grand double doors, stood atop it with his waistcoat and top hat on, lined up all the remaining staff before him,â€ and gave them their orders.
They must all set to the blockades. The work of ledgering could wait. They must utilize all the tanks, and all the cars, and the jail and the barracks, and block all the streets, and lock all the children in.
“Do not till the fields!” he roared from his podium. “Do not cut the meat, or heal the dying and sick. Do not stop the crime, or put out the fires, until our children are safe!”
The crowd roared. Even though he paid them to do so, it inspired the rest of the townsfolk.
The hospital shut down. The butcher’s shop shut down. The church and the millery and the pubs and shops all shut down.
The town was locked down. The children were locked in, in their homes, or in the school, or the jail or the barracks.
Days passed, then weeks.
The children talked amongst themselves. They hated to be locked in. They hated to be confined.
They climbed up the walls. They smashed their beds to pieces. They sang long and loud and ignored their parents when their parents commanded them to be quiet.
And Flatland fell into anarchy.
There was no food as the farms were not being tended. There were pigs and sheep running wild through the town. The Mills’ stepped out with their shotguns and could be heard shooting out over the edge at all hours. The children grew lank and wild-eyed.
The mill no longer produced bread, so there was no bread. The chickens had all run the coop because the children were no longer there to tend to the eggs. Foxes ran the alleyways and cows lowed their way through the marble foyer of the skyscraper.
“What do we do?” people asked.
“We hold the course!” replied Mr. Fotheringay from his podium. “In life as in business. Hold the course, and ride out this squall. This is nothing but a passing malaise in our town. Hold the course!”
The town held the course. Until adults started disappearing.
The first to go were the Mills. Mrs. Mills ran into town weeping telling of how her husband had fallen off the edge when drunk and shooting.
She left to call for him. She was never seen again.
The townsfolk huddled in their homes, as if a monsoon was approaching. As if the edge was creeping up on them. They peered out of letterboxes, slits in the curtains, watching the silent and litter-strewn streets.
Occasionally the half-starved town dog, now wild, would scamper by. A cow would meander past. And sometimesâ€ a maddened person would sprint for the edge.
The air hung still and thick over Flatland.
Fotheringay drove round in his limousine, now tethered to the skyscraper by metal chains for security. He bellowed loudly through his bull-horns.
“Don’t be afraid. We’re through the worst of it now!”
But it wasn’t true.
More and more of the townsfolk were disappearing. Old Man Charlie hadn’t been seen in days. Barnaby Roy had gone after both his children snuck out of their padlocked room at night through the roof tiles. The Applecarts went missing one day, the butcher’s shop left in immaculately clean condition.
Fotheringay drove his limousine himself. He drove around the empty town, only occasionally stopping to yell something at some hold-outs.
Soon, he could no longer find any hold-outs.
He walked freely in and out of people’s homes, those of families that he’d known. People who had worked for him. Their possessions were scattered round their rooms as if they’d just left for a few minutes, and were coming back soon. He made notes about what he saw in his portable ledger book until the book was full, then threw it by the way-side.
He left his bowler hat in the dust. He left his caneâ€ and suit pants. He locked the doors to the skyscraper, and he moved to the Mills’ farm.
He taught himself how to bake bread from the notes in the ledgers he’d brought with him.
He tended a patch of vegetables. He caught some chickens and reined in some cows and fenced them in, cooped them up, learned how to milk, how to slaughter, how to gather eggs.
He lost weight. His fat paunch from days spent sitting behind a mahogany desk withered until he was fit and lean and thin.
Every day, after his chores, he walked the whole of the town. He pretended to talk to Mr. Applecart in the butcher’s shop, about his son, and how the cuts of tongue were. He pretended to while away the hours chatting with Roy Barnaby in the police station, asking after Old Man Charlie, and had the Mills’ brood been up to any nuisance recently.?
He pretended to talk to the people on the street, the vicar in the church, the general in the barracks.
But they were not there, and he knew it.
He continued to lose weight. He grew thin and sallow. He slaughtered all his chickens and his cows, for their incessant mooing to be milked and clucking to be let out was driving him to distraction.
He sat on the great millstone in the Mills’ windmill and rested his aching head against the cool of the mill-shaft.
Outside, it began to rain.
The next day he trudged to the edge. He walked up to it without any sign of fear. The world was thin and empty around him. He stood by the rope, and peered down.
Nothing. Nothing but blackness, all the way down.
He strained to see something. He strained to hear something.
But there was nothing. Nothing but silence and blackness.
Tears rolled down his emaciated face.
He walked back into the town.
He opened up his skyscraper doors. He climbed the steps to the thirtieth floor and let himself into his dusty office. He turned to the stack of dusty ledgers, as yet unchecked, and set the first on the expensive mahogany desk.
He sat at his plush chair, and opened the first page.
He read that little Johnny Applecart had just found the first conker of the season. Jocie Grey had been watching him while Chris Avaldis was running around in circles underneath an elm tree.
He read about the Mills arguing over something. They kept running into their kitchen and bringing out bigger and bigger kitchen utensils, pointing at a hole in the ground. Eventually, Mr. Mills knelt to the hole with only a wooden kitchen spoon, and began to fill in the hole, while Mrs. Mills watched.
He kept on reading. He didn’t know what else to do. He kept on reading for a long, long time.