This story is by Erick Morin and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My eyes focus on the light beaming from the screen in front of me. A picture of a tree appears with vibrant green leaves and a yellow bark. I can feel the small sensors scanning my face, looking for any micro-changes, searching for any proclivities—the frame changes to an image of a man holding a door open for a woman. I’ve come to despise the whir of the machine, day in and day out in this white sterilized room with nothing but the chair I’m strapped to, computer-like machines, and a screen. My cheeks twitch with frustration. The image changes, and now there is a black and white photo of two small children playing. Stillness flows through my pupils and into my retinas. I don’t know what they will find, but if they could read my thoughts, they would hear the shouts of despair.
I try to adjust my body, but straps hold me in place, constricting any freedom. I can’t recall how long I’ve been in this facility; a guess would be at least a couple of months. But it might as well be days, minutes, seconds. Time isn’t something you measure when locked in a cage—it will only cost losing your mind.
I do know how I got here. A slip of the tongue, an intolerable slur, a mistake. It didn’t matter whether I apologized either. Atonement means nothing anymore. As long as you are in defiance of the tolerable narrative, you are the enemy.
Another picture flashes, this time a couple and a dog. It makes me think of my family, the life I had. Questions of uncertainty run through my mind, but I have no answers. All I have is a dying sense of hope.
The pictures stop, and the mechanical whir subsides. My chair shifts, bringing me to a reclined position. An automated door clicks, and plodding footsteps inch toward me. A rolling stool is dragged towards my chair, and a button is pressed. Papers begin to print out, and a man in a lab coat shuffles them together.
“Let’s see, Mr. Martin,” the lab coat says. “I don’t know what we are going to do with you. Your resistance is proving to be a challenge that I am not equipped to solve. I can suggest another round of role-playing therapy, but I don’t see them helping change your perception. If these harmless procedures aren’t helping you, then I will have to submit you to level four realignment.”
Harmless? How can being forced to do something against your will be harmless? Does this man expect me to give up my humanity? And change my perception? They are trying to force me to believe what they think is correct. All in pursuit of what they keep telling me will be a better world. None of it ever makes sense. My perception is only a problem in relation to theirs. I try not to think about it too much; I don’t have the energy to divert to such invaluable queries.
“Level four readjustment?” I ask, wondering what level I’m at. “I don’t understand. Why don’t you all leave me in my cell to rot.”
“It’s not a cell, Mr. Martin; it’s a rehabilitation room,” the lab coat says, interrupting my plea. If I could turn my head, I would probably see him giving me an apathetic stare.
“I won’t change who I am,” I say, continuing my lament. “I don’t know what you are expecting. All of this for some stupid Tweet that I apologized for. I was a teacher, damn it. I taught children for ten years, and never once did my actions reflect my post. I treated everyone with the same amount of respect. Sure, I made some mistakes but learned from them. I…” What else can I say that I haven’t said before. All I want is to see my family. I exhale my final words.
“Mr. Martin, you know there is more to just one incident, even if not expressed out in the open. It is up to you to recognize your transgressions and accept your part in the torment of this world. Once you’ve succeeded in doing so, our tests will determine your acceptance. Until then, you will be given the treatment that will best equip you to purge your system of all intolerable preconceived notions. We are on the cusp of a new era, and antiquated thinking will not help the world be a better place. Society is divided, and with the help of this institute, we will bridge the divide. Society will be whole again. Equality is what we strive for, and for society to succeed, we need to deconstruct what we know about the world and embrace change. I will leave you with this: what world do you want for your children? ”
A fine speech for someone who gives a damn. They think that the problems of the world will be solved if everyone stopped being human. We are all different, and there is nothing wrong with that. This notion about equality is only a disguise—control is the end game, and if they can’t control you, they will twist your emotions until you do.
“Kill me then. I already told you and everyone here…” My words are silenced—no, shushed, like a child.
“Kill you?” The lab coat asked. “We’re not savages? Death will not change you. You must learn for your children’s sake, for the future’s sake.”
Words formulate in my mouth, but it’s futile to convince him of the hypocrisy. The notion of people holding different ideas is absurd to them. I suppose they can’t help it. This is what we get when our lives are encased in a box, when all you hear are the pleasant sounds of similar voices. I don’t try to argue, so I listen to the heavy wheezing as the man gets up and presses the intercom to let the guards know I am ready for transport back into my cell.
The walk from the testing room to my cell takes less than a couple of minutes. A narrow path from my cage to the torture chair, leaving me no room to run away. I’ve thought about it multiple times, but I’m no idiot. I know they would be able to surround me in a matter of seconds. The metal door clicks and opens, the guards guide me through, and I enter my box.
The bed beckons me. I could use the sleep, but I am not that type of tired. My mind is so warped I don’t want to be here anymore; I just want this to end. I sit on the bed and stare at the door—a thought pulses through my mind.
The lab coat told me they wouldn’t kill me, but what if I commit the act? What if death is the only freedom I have left? But what of my family? The thought of Elijah and Elliot losing me is unbearable. My boys. I can feel their arms trying to wrap around me as we wrestle on the floor. Their laughter. Their warmth. And what of Sophia? Those hazel eyes catching me as I pick up one of the boys into the air. I would give anything to stare back into them. But have I already let them down? These tests are not going to change anything. I don’t know how much longer I can hold out. I am not as strong as I thought I was. Forgive me.
I stand up and walk to the door. I let out a guttural howl. The first hit takes time to register within my body. I bang my head another time, and I feel a crunch. Yes! Freedom oozes down my forehead. My determination fights through the pain as I swing my neck back for the final hit.
I awaken to my body strapped to a chair and a screen in front of me. The pain in my neck radiates down to my spine. I didn’t die. Fuck! I try to focus my thoughts, but a flash of light from the screen disrupts them.
A ceremony of sorts. I process the details in a jumble; everything is happening too fast. Wait. Elliot? Elijah? Sophia? I try to move my body, but the pain stops me. I concentrate on the screen and what is being said.
“We would like to welcome our graduates of the realignment program. They are now suitable to rejoin our society of respect, unity, and tolerance. We welcome them with our open arms of inclusivity.”
More words flow through the speakers, but I don’t focus on them. Hazel eyes bear into my soul. Sophia, my darling. They broke my spirit. I cry out to death, but all I get are empty lungs and a broken heart. The screen goes black, and then a picture of a tree appears with dull red leaves and a brown bark.