Crowds flowed on the sidewalks, jostled and knocked over unsympathetically during rush hour. Streets overflowing with refuse, coupled with a government entirely focused on mass exportation of the optimal product born out of factories churning out black smog into the skies, turned an empathetic population into mindless robots. And today was no different.
Eva walked among the crowd, dressed in the uniform for her manufacturing plant. Black utility slacks, a grey button down shirt with a flaming phoenix emblem on the left breast pocket, and no-slip sneakers produced specifically for factory work. Took her a little longer to get to work today, perhaps a four and a half minute delay. The subway had been late.
“Just a routine check, ma’am, be patient,” the man in the navy uniform had told a frazzled, red haired woman who had been complaining to the officer as she waited. She was standing on the edge of the along the concrete, grimy subway platform. Everyone impatient: tapping their feet, glancing around nervously, and checking their government-issued tablets. Echoes of an approaching subway car filled the cavernous space; no one made conversations—they avoided eye contact. Eva glanced over the shoulder of the man standing in front of her. The screen flashed through the list of the current reminders, courtesy of the State. An orderly mind means an orderly State. A healthy citizen means a healthy State. And so it went on for pages and pages. Years ago, back in her schooling days, she could recite them all from memory. Generally the plasma tablets were used for new government policy, reminders of current policy, information from their respective factories, or the list of deviants who had recently been incarcerated for crimes against the State.
When the subway finally rolled into the station, clanking and rattling reverberating through the nearby tunnels, the front was curiously covered in yellow plastic, blocking even the glass windows in the front. Eva noticed a sickly scent, almost sweet. More navy-suited men appeared seemingly out of thin air, cutting a line through the murmuring crowd.
“Everyone step back, make room please,” a sharp featured man, his voice as harsh as his features —an official, according to his tag—wielded his nightstick in one hand and his tablet in the other hand. He was reading aloud the scrolling text in an authoritative voice. “This is now a State issue, everyone step aside. Anyone who disobeys will be documented and punished. We have this under control. No one has permission to speak to those coming off the commuter rail. Continue with your business. A productive citizen makes for a productive society.”
People began to panic; the murmuring reached a crescendo. But no one resisted. The faces of each citizen as they stepped off the subway read varying degrees of upset—some looked as if they were about to cry, some looked lost, some angry. Each was ushered in a neat line, propelled by the police force off to some unknown destination away in the direction that we had all come. As Eva boarded the train she couldn’t help but notice the way that the plastic clung to the subway. Some dark, thick substance was smeared and speckled across the entire windshield and down the body of the front.
The following weekday, Eva went to work as usual. Her arms ached by the time the bell clanged loudly, signaling the end of the work dayshift, reminder of the tedious motion of taking the small metal cylinders off the conveyer belt and packaging them carefully in their proper boxes. Some days were better than others, it depending on what job she was stuck with.
As soon as her feet hit the pavement outside of the factory, she breathed in the smell of fresh air. The pollution level went unmonitored but outside air was a welcome respite from the dusty and suffocating factory floor. Some of the workers wore masks, the ones who worked in the main building of the assembly line. That seemed a little overzealous to Eva, but who was she to judge?
The grocery store was only a few blocks from the industrial park, in the not-so-nice neighborhood. Decrepit bars lining the side streets. The Bucket, the most popular dive bar, crawled with late shift workers looking for a buzz.
Two men sitting on a bench marked up with graffiti outside were talking angrily, their words reaching Eva simultaneously with smoke from their hand rolled cigarettes.
“—was there today at the Commuter rail. Dunno what happened there.”
“Yeah, they—uh tried to cover it up with some story about mechanical failure, routine checkups. That’s some bullshit if you ask me.” The second man’s accent was hard to place, but he slurred the last part of his words together drunkenly.
Slowing her pace, Eva glanced at the two of them. One was dressed in factory worker attire—dark shirt, workers pants, the emblem on his shirt was too far away to place. But the other wore casual denim jeans and a black t-shirt, signaling that he was either a higher up or a stranger who wasn’t stopping on his way back to work. Casual clothes were a rare sight on a weekday, many tended to avoid dressing deviantly just to avoid negative attention from officials. The man in the jeans murmured something low, Eva strained to listen, “ suicide rate’s been skyrocketing lately.”
Almost out of earshot at this point, the man in the uniform added one last point, “I don’t understand how these robots keep swallowing everything spoon fed from those goddamn communist pigs. It’s disgusting.”
Eva’s heart raced. She hurried away. Sneakers meant to be worn on the tiled factory floor made squeaking noises on the cracked concrete. She imaged that both men looked up at her, wondering how much of their conversation had been overheard. They were off the bench, whispering to each other about robots, conspiracies, and eavesdroppers. They were following her now—the casually dressed man in hot pursuit, waiting for the perfect moment to snatch away her tablet and smash it on the ground, strip her of her money and possessions, and leave her bleeding in some godforsaken alley.
Eva’s palms were sweaty; she had passed the market completely in her hurry to get away from the drunken men. The sidewalk was moving in the wrong direction and her legs were not working. Darkness crept around the edges of the street, and one of the streetlights was flickering. The air smelt like a long forgotten basement, suddenly suffocating. About to scream, or subject herself to the fate she well deserved for listening in, Eva whirled around. There was nothing behind her but empty street. She had walked blocks and blocks past her destination, past any sort of inhabitable buildings.
“Paranoid,” she whispered aloud, watching the shadows continue to creep in alleyways. Her walk home was ridden with anxiety-ridden glances toward any person she passed. The commuter rail was nearly deserted, the cavernous space no longer smelling strangely as it had earlier, but now back to the familiar scent of metal and filtered air. Then the men’s conversation returned to mind. “Communist pigs?” She murmured to herself as she boarded the last train home.
It was Sunday—the only resting day that Eva had. Maria Westford had coerced her sister into a sympathy visit. Eva and Maria sat stiffly across from each other in the dining room. It was a fancy affair—brunch complete with a rose patterned tea set and the necessity for upscale dressing. Eva wore an uncomfortable slim black skirt, a cream colored blouse, and low heels. She shifted every now and then, her fingers tapping nervously on the table. There was a grandfather clock with cardinals ticking in the corner. Eva stared at it, avoiding eye contact with her sister.
Maria had decked herself out in pearls, a pink cardigan and flowered dress—the picture of a perfect housewife in her lovely, spacious, and carpeted apartment. At the moment, Mrs. Westford was talking about her new husband’s duties as head official of the Education sector. There was a coy sweetness in her tone that bordered on condescension
“Perhaps you should re-enroll for a few more classes; you never gave it much of a chance, dear.”
Eva’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly at the word dear, and managed to murmur a reply. “Mm, perhaps. Mother would have liked that, no?” Raising the tea cup to her lips, the sweet scent of black tea and lemons bolstered her to take a sip and continue, “Maybe you could join me? Especially since you have so much free time now. Must be nice not to have to continue factory work anymore.”
Maria blanched, touching her hand to her chest at the mere suggestion. “Factory work is too….” She sipped her tea, ungracefully clanking the cup back on the plate. She sighed, “it’s just not for me.”