Cameras were outlawed when the Transition Time came. Cell phones, too. Computers.
Even the ancient things: iPods and iPads. Blackberries.
The government no longer trusted its citizens with
technology. Officials went door to door in
blood-red uniforms, tearing apart houses, gathering up digital devices and
taking them away in great boxes.
They took everything.
And the people no longer knew what to do with themselves.
Joseph supposed he’d lucked out: The officials took one look
at his 35 millimeter Nikon and burst out laughing. “Keep that piece of junk,” they spat. The camera wasn’t a threat to them: Film was
no longer available.
Or so they thought.
For years, Joseph had been hoarding film, picking it up
wherever and whenever and however he could, hiding it throughout his apartment—some
stuffed into the government-issued bag of beans. Some tucked into his regulation-white
socks. Some hidden in the cinderblock walls
of the apartment basement. It was easy
enough to chunk out a piece of the wall.
Easy enough to put it back just so.
No one—not even Joseph—could tell from a distance that the wall had been
Every Sunday, after the proclamation, Joseph switched off
the two-way television; pretended to go out for his mandatory run. Instead, Joseph sneaked to the basement. Joseph sneaked off to his darkroom.
Joseph liked working in the dark, doing things by feel. He liked pulling the film from the canister
and threading it onto a reel. He liked
the pungent smell of the chemicals; the clock with the glow in the dark
On Mondays, after mandatory inspections, Joseph would sneak
to the basement and print his film. And
then, when he put the paper into the developing solution, the magic would
happen: Where there once was only white paper, an image would appear.
Developing film, printing pictures, was what kept Joseph
You might say that pictures kept Joseph alive.
But on this particular Monday, Joseph couldn’t print his
film. This particular Monday after
inspections, Joseph had his mandatory physical.
The conveyor took him to the office and stopped. He stepped and waited. The doors whisked open. The conveyor took him to the elevator which
had been preprogrammed to take Joseph to the top floor. No music played. No buttons glowed. There was just the slow, mechanical sound of
the elevator heading to the third floor.
The elevator stopped. The doors
opened. The conveyor moved Joseph to a
white plastic chair. He sat.
Schmidt?” A nurse appeared at one of the
doors, clipboard in hand. The conveyor
led him to the back. He stepped off at
“Oh, that won’t be
Joseph frowned. “But
it’s required. Every year.”
She shook her head.
“Not this year.”
The conveyor took him to a windowless room. Joseph sat upon the examination table. The white paper crinkled beneath him. He rolled up his sleeve. “Don’t bother, Joseph,” the nurse said,
leaving the room on silent shoes of black.
The doctor entered, carrying his laptop. Doctors, being employees of the government,
were permitted computers. “Hello,
Joseph stopped swinging his legs.
Sat a little straighter. Again, the
paper crinkled noisily.
“Let’s see. Stitches.” The doctor clicked his mouse.
“Just two. A minor
“You must have the wrong file, doctor. The computer…”
The doctor glanced at Joseph. “Obesity.”
doctor. I never miss a day of mandatory exercise.”
“The population is getting too high, Joseph. The government needs us to Eliminate.”
“You missed two days of production, Joseph. I’m going to recommend Elimination.”
“But you can’t…”
“I can. Doctors are
quite powerful, you see. We can save
lives. And we can…” He shrugged.
years old. It’s…”
“I’m sorry, Joseph.”
The doctor leaned in. “Unless…”
“Unless what?” Joseph whispered. He could feel his hands shaking in his
lap. Could feel the sweat rolling down
“I would consider a small payment.”
“How much?” He held
Joseph’s heart sank. “I
don’t have that kind of money.”
The doctor shrugged.
“My report is due at the end of the week. Once you have the money, call this number. “He
scratched a twelve-digit number on a blank piece of paper.
“Where am I supposed to find a telephone?”
The doctor smiled. “I
had one installed in this building. For emergencies only. I’d say, Joseph, that this
is a bit of an emergency.”
“When you have the money, walk to the back of the building. Go up four flights of stairs.”
“This building has three floors.”
“It’s so easy to deceive people who have fallen asleep.” He smiled.
“You commoners and the
government. I keep all the contraband up
there, Joseph. My music. My movies.
I have cigarettes and potato chips and all the money I need to keep me
in illegal goods forever. I’ll be
That particular Monday, Joseph skipped mandatory inspections. What were forty lashes when one’s life was in
danger? He grabbed his camera and a roll
of film from the bag of beans and he headed back to the doctor’s office. Joseph went to the back of the building,
stood before a non-descript double door that refused to open for him. Joseph wedged his fingers between the doors,
forced them open.
He stood there for a moment, getting his bearings. He was in the back of the building, facing a
metal stairwell. They startled him: Besides
those he’d discovered in his apartment building, Joseph hadn’t seen stairs in
years. He glanced at the corners of the
ceiling. No cameras. No listening devices. The area was silent as death.
Joseph tiptoed up the stairs. At the second floor, he paused to listen; to
strain his ears in the silence.
Again he continued up the stairs, more quietly this time. More slowly.
Third floor. The
floor that contained the doctor’s office.
He paused, hand on rail.
Joseph took the last flight two stairs at a time. At the top there was a red door marked Danger. Toxic Chemicals. Next to the door there was a telephone, also
red. Joseph grasped the door
handle. Locked. He glanced at the telephone. Picked it up.
Listened to the dial tone.
Joseph stood back.
Kicked at the door.
The door held.
Again, he kicked.
Again and again, not worried about the sound he was making. He was,
after all, one floor above the doctor’s office.
And the office—like all governmental offices—was soundproofed.
His foot throbbed.
His ankle hurt. Again, he kicked.
Finally, the door opened.
Joseph stepped in.
There was television—an old-fashioned one way television—in the
room. And a stereo. He counted three computers and a plush purple
couch—a color outlawed ten years ago.
Joseph went into the kitchen.
Opened an old refrigerator and found food—real fresh food—inside. Apples and oranges and carrots and lettuce.
Joseph made his way to a back room; a bedroom. There was a shelf full of books, also
contraband items. Joseph grabbed one and
flipped it open at random, reading, soaking in as many words as he could. His watch beeped. It was dismissal time. He had to make it home quickly before the
authorities checked the streets
Joseph went from room
to room, snapping pictures as he went, opening drawers, searching for anything
that could help him.
The watch beeped again.
He was supposed to be home now.
The doctor…would he be coming up the stairs tonight?
He continued searching, looking beneath cushions, rolling
back rugs, think, Joseph. Think.
And then, just as he was leaving, he found it, sitting in
plain sight. A book of records. A column of dates. The
names of patients he had bribed. The
money received and the corresponding date.
And then a fifth column: Date of Elimination. Each patient had been Eliminated one day
after the money had been received. The
final name on the page was his own. Joseph
raised his camera. He snapped one
picture before the film ran out. He ran
from the room, not bothering to close the book; not rolling back carpets or
fluffing up cushions. He didn’t even
bother to close the door behind him.
At mandatory bedtime,
Joseph sneaked to his darkroom. He
developed his film nervously, clumsily fumbling with the roll. Slow
down, Joseph. Relax. He pretended his was at work. Did what his boss told him to do: He forced
his mind from the process, let his body take over: film, canister, water,
developer, water, fixer. Hands shaking,
he held the negatives to dim lights.
He held his breath.
He squinted at the last picture.
It was good.
He printed two sets of the pictures and hid one in the cinderblocks
of the basement.
In the dark, Joseph walked to the doctor’s building. He walked up four flights of stairs. The
door, he noticed, was still open. He picked
up the red telephone hanging upon the wall.
“You work quickly, Joseph.” The
doctor said into the telephone. “Bring
the money to my office tomorrow at nine.
I’ll rearrange your schedule.”
* * *
“I’ll wait here,” Joseph told the nurse the next day.
“He won’t come out here.”
Joseph smiled. “I’m betting he
The doctor emerged from the back rooms.
He wore a frown on his face. “This
is highly irregular Joseph.” He extended
Joseph gave him the envelope. “You
might want to count it.”
The doctor opened it.
“I have another set of those hidden away.”
The doctor glared at him. “I
could make you disappear right now.” He
flashed a syringe held in his left hand.
“Three people—three entirely unrelated people—know about these pictures
and where to find them. I disappear;
those prints go to the Governor. You
see, Doctor. Pictures are powerful, too.”
“Get out of here,” the doctor snarled.
“I want your reassurances.”
“You’re completely healthy. You
won’t be Eliminated.”
Joseph smiled and turned aside.
He refused the conveyor and instead took the sidewalk on foot.
From the belt of the conveyor, a passerby glanced at him. “You’re limping.”
Joseph glanced at his foot. It
was swollen and, now that he thought about it, it hurt. He remembered the door he’d kicked in.
“You really should see a doctor,” the passerby said over his shoulder.
“I’m good.” Joseph smiled. He continued walking along the sidewalk, feeling more alive--and awake--than he'd felt in years.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kat challenged me with "Use these words in your story: doctor, roll of film, stairwell, telephone" and I challenged The Lime with "What if Socrates didn't drink the hemlock?"
Labels: Fiction, Indieink Writing Challenge