1: erased. (77)
They took us out of our house, the house we’d dreamed of and yearned for and clawed and scratched to get. Right in broad daylight, neighbors washing their cars and mowing their lawns, they took us. Them, in their riot gear, black, semi-automatic assault rifles held high. Their helmets clung close to the sight of those rifles, they broke down the door, tackled me to the ground on my stomach, grabbed my wife by her wrists, and picked up my little girl by her belly. Then they pushed us out, in front of those neighbors, the shame and humiliation etched on our faces, tears streaming down my wife’s face. The air, thick with my daughter’s crying. The guns at our backs. Hands tied. Like common criminals.
They put them in the back of one of their black cars, and me in another. I haven’t seen them since. I don’t know where they are, and any time I asked, I’d be slapped upside the head. At first, all they did was hit me. I tried to kick, but my legs were tied to the chair. My pants reeked from sitting in my own putrid waste. I kept hearing them say how pathetic I was, how utterly disappointing this was becoming, and then my chair tipped over and a boot would crash into my stomach.
Through the pain and humiliation of being completely broken down, of pissing and shitting myself, covered in blood and bruises, ready to pass out, I’d remember their faces. My wife, my beautiful and amazing little girl – a tiny titan with the spark in her eye that she could do what I never could: change the world. And I’d wonder with gleaming terror where they’d been taken.
And I’d ask again.
Then a fist would crash down on my jaw, and I’d spit teeth out onto the blood-stained ground. They shattered my jaw in three places. Finally, unconsciousness came over me, the unbearable weight of the void crashing down.
I woke up in the middle of surgery. The air, rank with burning bone, dissipates to reveal the machine over me; a laser drill aimed into my mouth. A man with a white mask over his mouth directs the machine. It occurs to me through the haze that he must be correcting what the guards had done.
My head jerked to the side and I felt a deep burning sensation on the side of my mouth. I tried to suppress a sharp scream.
“Stop. You’re going to interrupt the process,” the man said, coldly. I’m wondering if I’ve had any anesthesia at all, or if all I can expect is more pain.
I want to ask why they’re doing this, but with the laser in my mouth, I don’t want to saw off my tongue. Once the procedure is finished, there’s a sharp sting at the back of my skull, after which consciousness recedes like a somber wave.
My jaw seemed to be wired shut. In the following days, I received an injection directly under my jaw bone, which hurt every single time. Trying to communicate was even worse; unable to speak, and they wouldn’t give me paper to write on or anything.
There was no trial, there was no habeas corpus. Only me, in a quiet room that wasn’t exactly a cell, being looked down on by the guards who’d put me in this condition, and that needle that would come in every day.
After they stopped the injections, they told me that I didn’t have a name anymore. The memory of my life was being erased from the place that had been my home. My family, my job, my hobbies — everything. They said to forget my wife and forget my daughter. Even the guards wore paramilitary riot gear, so when they’d speak, their voices were muffled by the flat plastic mask over their face. Clutching assault rifles to their chests. Those flat, empty voices.
Then, one day, I woke up in a real bed, not just curled up in the corner of a cell like a rat. It felt like a dream, but I still couldn’t talk. It was a white room, with no barred windows on the door. You could actually see the sun coming in through the blinds. I wore a white medical gown, as though I were actually someone’s patient. My feet swung down to the white tiled floor, and I got up to walk to the window. The light fell on an open closet that displayed several of those gray jumpsuits hanging together on a rack.
Outside I saw green grass and even a few trees. A few men and women in grey jumpsuits walk around. I felt the need to inspect the gray jumpsuits in the open closet. On the left breast of all of them: the number “77.” Outside, it’s difficult to see from the sun’s glare on the window, but everybody has a number on their left breast. There’s 81 speaking with 62 as if they’re old friends. The oddness of it all was enough to make me want to pass out again, and a whimper cracked through my locked teeth.
“Hello, Seventy-Seven,” a female voice rang through the air. I didn’t even hear the door open, but there she was, clear as day. “Welcome Home.” Dressed in white, with a little nurse’s cap on top of a tied-up bundle of blond hair. She also wore a gray cardigan sweater over her white uniform.
I brought my hand to my jaw and grunted a little.
“Yes, I know. You can’t quite speak yet. Don’t worry, you’ll get better. You’d be amazed at how many new arrivals require surgery, Seventy-Seven.”
My head shakes at the thought, remembering my recent past, being strapped to a chair and beaten down, humiliated to the utmost. My family stripped from me. I grunt again, but with as much disdain as I could muster. God knows how many guards are in this place, itching for a reason.
It’s improbable this is the same place I’d been staying for the last few weeks, though the possibility still existed. I thought of the riot gear again, and shuddered. The Nurse was carrying a gray tray that consisted of a bowl of some godawful sludge and a straw. More of the same garbage. I found myself wanting to grab the tray and splatter the sludge across the wall. Instead, I sit back down on the bed, covering my lower half with a blanket.
For now, I only cower, grunt like a pig, and be talked at instead of talked to. After all, to these people, I’m inhuman.
What made them come for us? Meetings? Online postings? Status updates? It’s not like protests are allowed anymore. There were ways around the government filters on the Knowledgebase, but it’s not like I was out searching for dissident material. I wasn’t downloading anything illegally. I paid attention to the bans. I let the inspector in politely, each week.
It occurs to me, with my jaw wired shut, it’s a good thing I don’t have to vomit. Even with all the pain and torture. Then again, there’s probably a bit of anti-nausea medication in the gruel they feed me.
“I’m to understand that you worked for NMAC before you were brought here, is that right, Seventy-Seven?” the Nurse asked me. “We want to get you up and going before too long. You may not be able to speak, but surely you can work?”
I grunt again, wanting to shake my head no, but I nod anyway. Perhaps work would be a good distraction. Maybe I could forget the pain inside, forget the inability to speak, forget my family. Bury myself in something constructive, even if it is for them.
Them. They. Do they even have a name anymore?
“You must have enjoyed working as an engineer there. It’s a shame really. I understand NMAC is one of the top places to work these days. At least, that’s what I hear. The staff here sometimes does background research on the incoming erased. Helps us socialize a bit, and also streamlines integration.”
I mumble assent as best I can. Not that she’d understand me.
“People are erased for all kinds of reasons,” she says as she sets the tray down on my lap. My eyes are peering off toward the window, marveling at the façade of a beautiful day. “It helps to know why,” she continues, “you know, to find ways to communicate. Common ground. That way, the erased can be properly treated.”
The veneer of sunshine. The insincerity of the blue sky and green grass. The whole world makes believe that a day is gorgeous, so it must be. I got the same feeling from the passers-by outside the window, with their smiles and good days. I try to speak again, still muffled by my teeth, but she can still understand the intent. “What is this place?” The words exit my clamped mouth with great strain.
“You can call it Home. It’s our job to get you rehabilitated.”
Rehabilitation. I had the distinct feeling that she was lying to me. She fluffs the pillow behind me. Such matronly lies.
“You should do your best to eat, Seventy-Seven. I’ll have someone show you around as soon as you’re finished.” That’s when I notice the small black box in the upper right-hand corner of the white room. It should’ve stood out to me before now, in stark contrast, but I had been acclimating to my new surroundings. She walks over to the door, and before exiting, speaks, “When you’re finished, you can slip on one of your uniforms and perhaps you can get to work if you feel up to it.”
My gaze was transfixed on the small black box, with its protruding eye. A small red light beneath the lens flashed in short intervals. Naturally, I was being watched. That desire to sling the gruel across the room became much stronger, but this time my anger narrows in on that small black box. I began to wonder how long I could survive without food. If I’d be punished. If they’d allow me to wither away. You never hear of suicides on the outside. The thought was swept away almost as soon as it had arrived; how long could I really stand the self-punishment? I’m no martyr.
77 is my new identity. 77 is my new reality. The rest has been erased.
I did my best to slurp the sludge through the straw she left me. I practically held my hands to my jaw the whole time, since the act of sucking through a straw hurt like you wouldn’t believe. Made me wonder if there was any pain medication in the gruel – probably not; they wouldn’t be so kind.
I didn’t even have to ask – as soon as I put on a uniform, someone’s in the room. He identified himself as Orderly, a black man in as stark a white uniform as the Nurse, except for the contrast of his black belt armed with a collapse baton. “Alright, Seventy-Seven, you’re coming with me.”
There was a long, white, tiled hallway, which made it feel like a hospital, as well as a glassed-in station for the Nurse. Other Orderlies pass us by, as do several of the other numbered individuals. 54. 26. 19. I kept twitching my lips open to show off my clamped teeth – as though this small act of rebellion is a badge of honor. Might something I’ve said be powerful enough to merit physically wiring my mouth shut? Can a voice be that dangerous?
Outside, you can see a number of other dormitories with fresh recruits wandering the premises, accompanied by other Orderlies. There are trees here, real trees that glisten green in the bright sunlight. All of these dorms are painted an ugly, buttermilk color. Orderly leads me out to a small building detached from the main “campus” of Home, for lack of a better term.
Inside was a small office where the Orderly signed in, and he asks me to do the same. “Remember, you’re Seventy-Seven now. Any other name you may have known for yourself has been erased. It is your identity now. It is your reality.”
I sign the sheet of paper on its clipboard without reading, marking a clear “77.”
“One of the previously erased left a little handiwork for us, and we find it to be true providence that you arrived here when you did. It was an escape attempt.” He clearly prefers not to elaborate, and with my jaw, it’s not like I could prod him to continue. Around the corner from the office are two elevator doors, and Orderly pushes the small button between them.
We travel eight levels under earth. “You’ll be down here at least 8 hours a day, which is more than adequate. Usually we assign work based on severity of dissidence, and some come down to these stocks for much longer. It also depends on the work we have for you. You’re lucky – you’re a specialist.”
I would’ve responded with, “I thought I was erased,” if I could speak. I find myself inordinately aware of a pulse in my vision. And a minor chirping in my ears. The dull ache of my teeth resonates at the base of my skull. The colors just between reality bounce like a beat, tick like a clock. After all, the pulse is the tick and the body is the clock. That’s what brought me into my line of work.
When I was fourteen, I found out why people put cologne or perfume on their wrists or on their necks, or even some people behind their ears. It’s because those are pulse points. If you place some sort of fragrance on one of those spots, the heat caused by the pumping of blood vessels nearer to the skin than other places on the body acts as a sort of perfume pump. The fragrance becomes stronger with the heat.
It was at that point that I realized how perfect a machine the human body is.
As the door opened, I heard something sparking inside. In the darkness, you could see twitching. “He’s been like this for almost two weeks now. Since the attempt,” Orderly almost whispers. “What could have put him in a state like this?”
Its face was lifeless, practically frozen into a snarl. Its left arm dangled by sparking cables and wires next to the limp mass hunched on the floor. Once I got closer, I could see the uniform just like mine. Burnt patches everywhere. I call the thing “it” because in its inaction, it no longer had the characteristics of a him.
Its pulse is gone, therefore it is dead.
“You can fix this thing,” Orderly states. Half of me wonders if those words form a question – the other half refuses to care. In the light from the door, I could also see its left leg completely detached, but aligned perfectly to where it should be. It looks like the casualty of a bomb blast that rocked the left side of his body, and they just decided to stack him here, in this room, and let him wait for me to come. To restore the characteristics of a him.
Tags: erased, habeas corpus, work