The Mark

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The Mark

by Forrest Brazeal

The sun assaulted the roadside vegetable stand with mindless intensity. The air smelled of hot tar and hot pasture. Selah did not wear a sun hat because even a worldly woman might wear such a hat in such weather. She wore a small mesh cap that perched on the back of her coiled braids like a coffee filter. It showed the world she was different. Her face and neck peeled red.

Cars streaked past on Highway 81 at a regular rate of about two per minute, each throwing its fine spray of dust and gravel against the faded wooden sign on the front of the vegetable stand. The sign read MILLER ORGANIC PRODUCE. NO CHEMICALS, NO GMO, NO WAY, NOHOW! Underneath, in ornate script that was the result of an afternoon’s effort by two of Selah’s five younger sisters: BY THEIR FRUITS YE SHALL KNOW THEM. MATTHEW 7:20 KJV.

A black pickup truck, dust-spattered, slowed as it approached the stand, and Selah rose from her chair expectantly, shaking out the folds of her denim jumper. The truck pulled off the road onto a bare patch of ground and out clambered a man a few years older than Selah’s own age, which was nineteen. He was short, pudgy, prematurely balding, with dirt-blond strands of hair growing long over the spot.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi.” Selah watched him carefully as he wandered past the bins of heirloom tomatoes, snow peas, zucchini. He wore heavy boots that made imprints in the hard-baked ground.

“What are these?” He pointed to a wicker basket on the card table near Selah’s weighing scale. “Tomatillos?”

“Ground cherries.” She shucked the papery husk off one and offered him the round grape-like fruit. “They’re kind of tart-sweet.”

He popped it into his mouth, chewed tentatively. A drop of green juice squirted over his fleshy cheeks as he grinned at her. “Umm. I like it.”

“They’re five dollars a pound.”

He bought the whole basket, not complaining when she asked for cash, even though she could tell he had a chip in the back of his neck. Lots of people didn’t buy things at the stand when they found out they couldn’t pay with their chips, which Selah’s mother said was persecution.

Later that afternoon she spotted him driving down the highway in the opposite direction. He lifted his hand to wave at her, silhouetted in the window of the truck cab. She waved back.


Two days later he stopped again. She did not have any ground cherries this time, but he bought a long yellow squash and said he knew how to make bread with it. “My name’s Joel,” he explained as she entered the sale meticulously in her little graph-ruled notebook.

She nodded politely, the little cap moving up and down.

“Are you Amish?”

She smiled as she handed him the squash. “Nope. Just conservative.” It was the standard response.

“Oh. Cool.” He seemed unsure what to make of this and tapped the table with one hand. “Were we in high school together?”

“I was homeschooled.”

“All right. Cool,” he said again.

His eyes turned inward, losing focus, and Selah slipped once again into the deep embarrassment of her otherness. She had volunteered originally for vegetable stand duty because there was a certain vicarious fascination, dangerous to admit, in watching the world stream by. As long as nobody came too close, she could pretend that she was driving one of those sleek cars on some inscrutable errand. Meeting Joel up close shattered the illusion. He was confident, worldly: nothing like the quiet, awkward boys at church.

If I had a chip, maybe I would understand him. How did that thought pop into her head? Probably because she hadn’t been praying much lately. She scratched her sunburned neck.


After that he stopped pretty regularly, two or three times in the next week, always buying something and always paying with crisp five-dollar bills, keep the change. He said he worked at the mill in Boonville and apologized for his truck being so dirty.

She told him her name was Selah Miller, and that she understood about the truck because her brothers had an old Chevy that they used on the farm and it was always disgusting.

On some days her sister Zilpah helped her at the stand. Joel did not stop on those days, though he would wave as he drove by.

“Who’s that?” Zilpah asked.

“I don’t know,” said Selah. The half lie did not bother her conscience as much as it should have.


On the Monday of the third week he asked if she would go out with him. He sounded casual about it and seemed puzzled when she explained that he would have to ask her mother.

“I’m not asking to, like, marry you,” said Joel. “I just thought maybe we could do something sometime.”

“Sorry. We still have to get permission.”


“Because my mother…well, because that’s just the way it is.” Nineteen was not too old for a whipping in the Miller house.

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Are you going to buy something or not?”

He bought some basil in a paper sack and hung around the stand for a while, sniffing the fresh herbs and scuffing his boots into the ground.

“Do you have a chip?” he asked eventually.

Selah shook her head.

“Why not? They’re awesome.”

The correct response, familiar as a catechism, came automatically to her lips. “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads,” she quoted. “And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”

“What’s that mean?” Joel peered at her with bright interested eyes.

“You’ve never read the book of Revelation?”

“You mean the Bible?”

“It’s a book in the Bible.” The weight of contending with Joel’s ignorance, what her mother would call “striving with the enemy”, overcame Selah. She slumped back in her chair, embarrassed for him but mostly for herself, until he took the hint and left.


The vegetable garden was her mother’s vision, nearly an acre of square four-by-four-foot wooden boxes set close together, each with a frame of PVC pipe curving over it like the hoops of a covered wagon so it could be protected by a tarpaulin from unexpected frost. A deep, rocky ravine separated the garden from the woods beyond, like a castle moat. The boxes yielded from March well into December.

Selah worked side by side with her mother in the early mornings, filling baskets with produce and watering the rich soil inside the boxes. Mrs. Miller was forty-eight, scrawny, sun-dried, beady-eyed. A canyon-like wrinkle worn by time and frustration pulled her lower lip toward her neck. She had never been talkative, even when her husband was alive. Now she spoke mainly to give commands to her daughters.

“The tomatoes are drooping. Get another cage.”

Selah crumbled earth in her fingers. “Momma. Did you ever have a chip?”

Mrs. Miller made no reply. She compressed her lips tightly and yanked weeds out of the Swiss chard.

Selah tried again. “You have that little scar on your neck. And I wondered…”

Mrs. Miller exhaled grimly through her nostrils. “Long time ago. There was sin in my life.”

“What was it like?”

“Sin?” Mrs. Miller stopped weeding and rocked back on her heels to stare at Selah. “Like fire in the soul. There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

“I mean, what did it feel like? To have the chip? To know things?”

Mrs. Miller rubbed the back of her neck. “It was a long time ago,” she said again, turning back to her work.


On the first Saturday in August the entire Miller family left the farm in their fifteen-passenger Dodge van to protest outside an abortion clinic in Charlottesville. Only Selah stayed behind to run the vegetable stand. Joel could not possibly have known about the protest, but he appeared in his truck less than fifteen minutes after the van pulled onto the highway.

“Just close the stand and come out with me for a little while,” he urged her. “We’ll go to Boonville and get ice cream. Do you like ice cream?”

She liked ice cream all right, though the stuff her mother churned in a tub with rock salt and ice was perpetually disappointing. “I can’t go. I’ll get in trouble.”

“No, you won’t. We’ll be gone an hour, tops.”

“What if someone comes by the stand and I’m not here?”

“Then they’ll plunder your ground cherries and it will be a gigantic scandal.” Seeing her look of alarm, he laughed and pulled her hand. “It’ll be fine. You leave the stand every day for lunch anyway.”

How did he know that? Before she quite knew what she was doing, she was up two steps into the truck and perched on the leather seat of Joel’s tricked-out cab. He put his arm over the back of the seat as he reversed onto the highway, and she flinched away from his touch.

“Seriously. We have to be back in an hour.”

“Relax.” Joel fumbled with the radio. “You like country?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s find out.” A twangy ballad thumped from the speakers behind her head. “Good?”

“It’s okay.” She craned her neck to look out the side window as the vegetable stand receded, hugging herself with her arms.

Joel nodded his head in time to the music. “Everything’s okay.”


They went to a café that sold soft-serve ice cream, something she had never tasted before. She enjoyed it so much that she could not speak until the last bite had disappeared. Joel sat opposite her at a little iron table on the sidewalk outside the café. He watched her with studious concentration, like an anthropologist observing an alien species.

“How come you wear that little hat or whatever?” he asked finally.

She touched it self-consciously. “Every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.”


“First Corinthians. It’s a commandment for women to cover their heads.”


She scraped her spoon around the inside of her styrofoam cup, assembling a half-bite of melted dregs. “I guess you don’t go to church?”

“I’ve been,” said Joel. “A lot of people listen on the chips now, you know. Easier than going out somewhere.” He touched the circular welt on the nape of his neck.

“Aren’t you afraid of the government controlling your mind?”

Joel laughed. His laugh rolled from somewhere deep in his belly, shaking the doughy superstructure of his body all the way up to his two chins. Selah fought the urge to laugh with him. “If the government wants to control my mind, they’re welcome to it. Maybe they can make me smart enough to get out of this town.”

“What’s wrong with Boonville?”

“Look around.” Boonville’s main street stretched for two blocks in either direction, its red brick buildings half deserted. Beyond lay the bus station, a jumble of rail yards, and the mill. “There’s nothing here. I want to go to Richmond, maybe even Baltimore or DC.”

“What would you do there?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I could learn to code. You can make good money writing programs for the chips.”

He leaned forward, shifting his weight onto his elbows and causing the table to rock crazily toward him. “What do you want to do? Run a roadside vegetable empire?”

She laughed this time, feeling cool on the inside from the ice cream and warm on the outside from sun and nervous excitement, a small headache building behind her ears. “Get married, I guess. Have a bunch of kids.”

“Mom of the year. I can respect that.” Joel looked at her thoughtfully, sidelong.


In the end they were gone for an hour and nine minutes, which he apologized for and she said was all right. When he dropped her back at the vegetable stand—everything untouched, and no sign of the family—she felt so relieved that she hopped up and down in her flapping jumper.

“You know, you could be really hot,” said Joel. “If you tried at all.” Seeing her confused look, he added, “Pretty. Beautiful. I think you’re beautiful.”

She looked away and laughed, embarrassed. “Stop.”

“No, I’m serious. You could model.” He reached out and grasped her arm lightly, just above the elbow. “Hey. Thanks for coming out with me.”

“It was fun,” she said.

“Sure,” he agreed. He leaned his face toward her, the downy hairs on his cheeks glistening in the afternoon sun, and after a surprised moment she realized he wanted to kiss her. She held her body rigid as he placed his lips briefly on hers. He tasted like sun and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

“Bye,” he said. “See ya, Selah.”


She carried the secret of Joel in a small closely-guarded place in her heart, where she could pull it out and revel in it during the lonely hours of the day. Her happiness infected the rest of the family, and even her mother commented that the long hours at the roadside stand must be good for her soul.

On the third Saturday in August, Selah received permission to leave the stand for most of the day and visit a childhood friend who lived across the valley. She disliked the friend and had no intention of seeing her. Instead, Joel picked her up in his truck and they drove to the outlet mall in Charlottesville.

“You should get some clothes,” he said as they walked hand in hand past Forever 21.

“I have clothes.”

He looked at the denim jumper with a raised eyebrow. “And how you stand them I don’t know. It’s four hundred degrees out here.”

He insisted on buying her a pair of shorts and a tank top. She hadn’t shaved her legs and was too self-conscious to change, but she carried the package under her arm, feeling adventurous.

They passed a store called Chip Chapel and Joel stopped, tugging on her hand. “Selah. Wanna get a chip?”

“Oh…I don’t think so.”

“This is the perfect chance.” He grinned down at her, his rather large ears framing his face. “It’ll change your life. We can message each other whenever we want, without anybody else knowing.”

“My mother would kill me if she found out.”

“No, she wouldn’t. And anyway, your hair will cover it if you wear it down. It can be our secret.”

She hesitated, one foot on the doorsill. “I don’t know.”


“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” said the kid who was apparently the sole employee of this Chip Chapel. He touched the decorative stud in his tongue. “This thing hurt way worse.”

Selah lay face down on a little table in the back of the store. All around her, brightly-colored advertisements stretched from floor to ceiling. They showed young people dancing and laughing, pressing a hand to their necks as if receiving some delightful communication. She drew a deep breath.

Joel, sitting next to her, squeezed her hand. “Relax. It’ll be fine.”

The kid pulled down the neck of her blouse and pressed something cold and metal against her skin. “You’re gonna feel a slight prick, like getting a shot, and then your vision is going to go black for a couple of seconds. Ready?”

The mark of the beast. Her body shook. “I can’t do this,” she mumbled.

The kid paid no attention. “Here we go.” A thin bright pain like a cattle prod shot straight down the center of her spinal column. Her vision swam black under a field of scattered lights: first red, then yellow, and finally green. She heard a sharp shrieking sound and realized it came from her own throat.

Joel was peering anxiously into her face when her vision cleared. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” She struggled to a sitting position and immediately fell over onto her other side, swimming in vertigo.

“Give it a minute,” said the Chip Chapel kid. “The dizzies will pass.”

With her cheek on the sticky vinyl of the table, she was surprised to feel a sudden vibration in the base of her skull. A piece of information presented itself to her, not something she knew or had remembered, but simply offered into her brain like a letter arriving through a slot. Dizziness lasts less than fifteen minutes for most new chip recipients. If you experience symptoms longer than twenty-four hours, seek medical attention.

“Oh!” she exclaimed.

Joel laughed. “It works, eh?”

“Yes. I think so. It’s so weird.”

“Let me try something.” He put his hand to the base of his neck for a moment, concentrating.

Another vibration swelled in her brain. Hey, Selah. Welcome to the future.


“Did you get that?”

“That was from you?”

“Sure. The chip network knows who we are. So, if you think of me when you send a message, it will match your mental image of my face to my chip and route everything to the right place.”

“What if I think of somebody else’s face?”

“Then you’d send the message to them. Wrong number. Happens less than you might think.”

She sat up again, holding onto the table with both hands. “I don’t know about this.”

“You’re doing great. Go on, message me back.”

She stared at Joel’s round earnest face and thought: You have changed my world. She thought the message so hard that she felt her face getting red and her eyeballs popping out. “Did you get it?”

“No. Oh, I forgot, you have to cue up the chip first. Just say the word ‘READY’ in your mind.”

READY. Think of his face. This is harder than walking and chewing gum.

A small zipping sensation traveled down her spine. Joel’s face broke into a smile. “Got it! Walking and chewing gum. Nice! I promise you it will get as easy as breathing.”

She jumped up to hug him, half-toppling into his arms, and they laughed together.


All that ride home she felt powerfully different. Stronger, smarter. A guilty knowledge, like Eve in the garden. She could feel the chip against the skin of her neck, beneath the loosened mane of her hair, like a small tumor. She and Joel alternated between speaking aloud and communing through the implants. He was right—it did get easier.

They stopped at the stand and he helped her down from the high cab. He looked through her eyes right into her soul. Hey. I’m so proud of you. You got out of your comfort zone today and did amazing things.

Think of his face. I couldn’t have done it without you.

He placed his hand on the small of her back, pulling her close to him, and spoke into her ear as he kissed her. “I love you, Selah.”

I think I love you too. She hadn’t really meant to send that as a message. It just popped out of her mind and into his. He laughed, kissed her again, and she felt his tongue pushing into her mouth, which made her pull away in momentary alarm. Then they both laughed some more.


She slipped into the farmhouse by the back door and hid the package with the worldly clothes under her bed. The house was quiet in the late afternoon shadows, with most of the children out in the barn or the fields. Moving soundlessly in her white cotton socks, she went to the kitchen for a drink of water.

Mrs. Miller sat by the table in a wooden rocker, a colander of snap peas tilted in her lap. Her beady eyes fixed Selah. “Where have you been?”

“Grace Harmon’s. You know.” Selah made a limp motion toward the window. She felt her face flushing.

“No. She was here for those chicken fryers about quarter past three. Said she never saw you.”

The chip in her neck fed her a small piece of information. Your blood pressure is rising. You appear stressed. Try a deep breath. She breathed deeply. “Well, fine then. I was out with someone else.”


“A friend.”

“What friend?” Mrs. Miller set the colander on the table and stood up, towering four inches over Selah. “Zilpah told me some man was hanging around the stand.”

“His name is Joel. He’s a nice guy. You don’t need to worry.”

Mrs. Miller scowled. “I’m worried that you’re running around behind my back. You know the rule. You want to go out with a boy, you ask me first.”

“I asked you that one time about Danny Wentworth. You wouldn’t even listen.”

“Danny has a lazy eye. And he’s not Separatist-Anabaptist.”

“Well, maybe I’m not Separatist-Anabaptist either.” She tossed her head, and the coffee filter hat slid from its precarious position on her mass of hair and dropped on the kitchen floor.

Her hair swung away from her neck, and Mrs. Miller started forward with a new gleam in her eye. “Hey. What in the…”

She clapped her hand to the red welt on the top of her spine, too late. “Momma.”

“Is that a chip? Tell me that’s not a chip.”

“Momma, it’s okay. It’s not bad like you think.”

“God help us.” Mrs. Miller fell backward a step, supporting herself with one hand on the table. “You took the mark.”

The chip chimed in, causing her to jerk her head involuntarily. Separatist-Anabaptists are classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not like that. Don’t be stupid, Momma.”

Mrs. Miller looked up through her straight salt-and-pepper bangs. The wrinkle on her lip pulled her face into a faintly comical grimace. “Nobody in this family thinks I know what I’m talking about. But I know. I know.”

She grabbed Selah’s wrists, speaking rapidly and without blinking. “Listen to me. These men—they come around, buy you things, make you feel good. They get you a chip. Now they can track you, can hear what you’re thinking. They’re in your head all the time. They take you away to the big city and make you do whatever they want.”

Actually, augmentation chips are one of the single greatest forces in human trafficking prevention. “Momma, Joel isn’t like that.”

“I don’t care what he’s like. He’s part of the world. And that’s what the world is like.”

“What do you know about the world?” shouted Selah. “You barely leave the farm.”

“I’ve done my leaving,” said Mrs. Miller, “and I hope you have too.”

With a sudden and astonishingly powerful motion she spun Selah around and pushed her down face-first onto the kitchen table. Selah’s hair fell into her eyes. “Momma!”

Mrs. Miller pinned her to the table with one brown arm. Selah heard her fumbling for something with her other hand. “If thy right eye offend thee,” she chanted, “pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Selah squirmed and struggled fruitlessly. “Let me go!” Joel’s face swam before her eyes. “READY. Please help. Please help me.”

The vibration of the message in her spine seemed to enrage Mrs. Miller further. A knife scraped across the table. “Hold still. Hold still!”

She felt a hideous pain in her neck and spine, so much worse than the pinprick of the chip going in, deeper and more fundamental than a tooth being drawn. The breath came right out of her and Joel’s response to her message cut off right in the middle like a dream interrupted by thunder. What’s the…

Mrs. Miller’s arm released her, and she spun around on the table, shielding her back, blood spreading warm between her shoulder blades. Mrs. Miller lifted to the light a gory metal thing with a long flexible pin dangling from it like an insect’s thorax. She held it at arm’s length with two fingers, as though it might bite her. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” she said. She walked two steps to the window and flung the chip away as far as she could. The ravine behind the house yawned to receive it. Neither of them heard the chip land.

Selah screamed then, dry racking hysterics. She could not stop and did not want to.

“Go to your room,” said her mother. When Selah did not move, her mother grasped her under the arms and dragged her bodily, placing her face-down on the bed. She wrapped a loose bandage over the wound on Selah’s neck. “Come out when you believe in God again,” she said, and slammed the door behind her.

Selah lay sobbing for a long time. Gradually she subsided into silence, but she continued to lie on her face. She could hear the sounds of family life in the rest of the house as the long shadows merged into darkness. At some point she smelled food on the other side of the door and heard her mother’s voice, softer, calling her name, but she did not answer.

When it was quite dark, she got up and washed her face from a glass of water beside the bed. Her neck had stopped bleeding; it ached dully and sent little shivers of pain down her spine. She took the bag with the worldly clothes and all the money from the week at the vegetable stand. Moving softly in her flat white shoes, she opened the window and scrambled out. It was a long drop to the ground and her denim jumper made her clumsy. She landed hard on her ankle and danced away the pain in the long grass behind the house.

Nobody followed her, so she made her way around the house to the edge of the ravine. The rocky slope was slippery in the dark, and without a flashlight she could see very little. She judged the distance of her mother’s throw as well as she could, looking from the kitchen window to the rocks and back again, and began working her way slowly down the slope, turning over every rock and tuft of grass.

Partway down, she became aware of a dim light on the other side of the ravine. She sat back on her haunches, flushed and panting, and made out headlights in the trees: low beams. Two vehicles, a long white car and a black truck. Joel’s truck.

She saw multiple figures flitting back and forth in front of the lights, carrying flashlights of their own, searching the ground and the surrounding trees. Not searching—tracking. Drawn by the chip.

He came for me. She was about to call out when she heard a half sentence floating across the ravine. Joel’s voice, ugly, low. “When I find that bitch…” His heavy boots scuffed on the rocks.

She sat quietly, not moving, while the men continued to move purposefully over the slope of the ravine. Despite the warm night and the exercise, she felt suddenly very cold. When the flashlights were not pointing in her direction, she scrabbled backwards on her hands and heels until she got back to level ground. She began to run. She ran past the house, past the barn and the garden. She passed the vegetable stand, grabbing a handful of ground cherries as she ran. She got in the weeds beside Highway 81 and moved as quickly as she could.

After a while she stopped and took off the denim jumper, replacing it with the tank top and shorts. She had never worn so few clothes outside her own room before. The night air on her skin mixed with the warm breath of the ground: shame and exhilaration together. The sore place on her neck tingled like a devil’s kiss.

She got to Boonville about one in the morning with hair in her face and a stitch in her side. Everything closed but the bus station. A gray coach bus whickered outside the terminal with RICHMOND scrolling endlessly on its marquee.

A fat elderly woman sat at the ticket window, turning pages in a thick little book.

“How much to Richmond?” asked Selah.

“Thirty-one seventeen.”

She counted out the crisp fives. “You can get good work in Richmond, you know,” she informed the woman. “Learning to write for the chips.”

“I prob’ly guess so.” The woman did not look up from her book.

Selah boarded the bus and took a seat in the back, poking her unshaven legs under the seat in front of her. The bus departed with a lurch and a blast of noxious smoke. She leaned her face against the window and watched the shadowy hills sweep past.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help… The words floated through her mind, but she could not remember the reference.

Her stomach rumbled; she found the ground cherries in the bottom of her bag and sat eating them one by one, shucking off the papery outer skins and letting them fall unheeded at her feet. She did not sleep.

Forrest Brazeal is a software engineer, writer, and cartoonist based in rural Virginia. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Abyss & Apex, StarShipSofa, and elsewhere. Find him at or on Twitter @forrestbrazeal.

“The Mark” by Forrest Brazeal. Copyright © 2019 by Forrest Brazeal.

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