263M watched as 274F pushed her mop across the factory floor. The cans of carrots were backing up, but his hands had broken into a slippery sweat. His job was to check for quality; was each can sealed properly, was the simple label on straight?
The labels held no words, only images. The man could not read. Could not remember what words were.
Every day, 274F came through, pushing her mop, her long brown braid tucked under a hairnet. In and out of the steam she moved, always focused on her mop as it danced across the floor.
Every day, his heart beat faster.
Every day, he grew more distracted.
Every day, he questioned this sensation, this desire to look at the woman with the number 274F stamped on her sleeve.
Every day, the burning in his chest made him want to hold his breath until his heart calmed among the sounds of the factory.
Worker 263M had no name other than the one stamped on his uniform. He had no history that he remembered, and up until a week ago, he had no emotion or thought.
These had been taken from him.
He had no memory of the before, and so it had been no great loss.
“263M! You’re falling behind!”
In that moment, she looked up at him. Her eyes, a pale grey, linked with his. Her forehead wrinkled as she tilted her head.
She tilted her head.
An image flashed through his.
He was surrounded by golden grasses, tall to his waist. A young girl stood in front of him. His body was small and they looked eye to eye. The sun was setting and trees lined the horizon.
She held something up to him, a round object with brown hard spikes that curved inward.
Pinecone he thought, finding the unfamiliar word.
Her eyes were pale grey and she tilted her head. She smiled as he took the prickly cone into his hands.
263M felt something heavy come down on his right shoulder as the pain radiated into his hand. He heard the heavy clunk of the can he had been holding as it hit the floor.
The factory came into focus, the whites of the walls, and 263M realized that everyone had slowed their progress. Everyone’s cans were backing up.
“Back to work!” yelled the man at the top of the stairs, overlooking them all.
274F looked back down to the floor, her mop moving side to side, as she disappeared beneath the stairs.
263M’s arm burned. He reached down to pick up the can of carrots, now dented and unsuitable for domestic consumption. He tossed it in the bin under the conveyer belt and continued to check the cans.
As 263M lay down in his bed, the top bunk in a long room, the walls lined with other beds and other numbers, he thought back to 274F’s pale grey eyes.
These sensations were unfamiliar, foreign.
Building inside him, they seemed unreasonable, and yet there was a part of him that sensed unknown pleasure.
He rubbed the scar on the back of his head, a small raised ridge. Each of the male numbers had one, easy to see under their shorn hair. He found himself wondered if 274F had one under her long dark hair.
Other women worked through the factory; cleaning, doing laundry. All carried the flat affect of the men. All wore hair nets and, as he rubbed the scar on the back, he began to wonder if they all had the mark as well.
He lay there, his eyes closed, and saw his hands reach out to her hair, the woman with the pale grey eyes, his hands caressing the back of her neck, testing with the tips of his fingers for the ridge.
The girl in his mind turned to look at him, she was taller now.
She wore a simple linen shift and he could see the shape of her breasts and the curve of her hips. Her pale grey eyes held his gaze.
“Why must you always play with my braid, Gideon? You know that the elders say we aren’t to touch.” But her voice was sing-song and teasing.
A forest of trees stood behind her, a yellow blossom was tucked behind her ear.
“Let’s go in the forest,” she whispered, “where no one can see us.”
She brushed her hand against his and they each turned back, looking through the field, checking for any eyes upon them. Seeing no one, she grabbed his hand and pulled him, laughing towards the trees.
The thick forest surrounded them with dappled light.
As they moved into the shadows she turned and pressed her body into his, pressing him into a tree. She pressed her mouth onto his lips, warm and sweet.
He felt an old ache, deep in the pit of his groin.
“Let go to the treehouse,” she whispered, her lips tickling his ear.
He couldn’t catch his breath and allowed her to lead him, deeper into the forest. She continued to look back at him with her pale grey eyes.
They came to the ladder, branches that they had pieced together and wound with twine when they were children.
This was their hidden place, their childhood home where they snuck to tell stories and imagine their lives together.
It was where they found their first kiss, where their intimacy grew.
He followed her up the ladder to the nest they had made with old blankets.
“What’s this?” she exclaimed as he climbed through the small opening within the wooden planks.
He smiled, knowing she had found his surprise.
He pulled himself through the hole and sat next to her, tracing her ear with his finger. She was focused on a small bark box, with a bow of twine.
“Can I open it?” she asked.
He nodded, watching the light reflect in her pale grey eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, staring at the dark lump sitting at the base of the box.
“One of the traders had it. He said we are supposed to eat it, something called chawk-uh-late. He said it came from the other side of the world.”
“Why did he give it to you?” she asked.
“Because I was willing to trade.”
He smiled, “Let’s try it.”
“Gideon! Those morels were hard to find and they were worth more than this little clump of… chawk… what did you call it?”
“Chawk-uh-late, …something like that.”
But he leaned in and kissed her, stopped her from reprimanding him.
As he pulled back, he said, “The morels will grow there again, and it’s our secret. How often does the trader come through with something new?”
She knew he was right.
She took the piece chocolate from the box and took a tiny bite.
Her forehead wrinkled and she tilted her head in the way that made Gideon love her.
“Bitter,” she said. “But warm and melty. Here, you try.”
Instead of handing him the box, she bit a piece off and held it in her mouth. She pulled Gideon on top of her, pulling his face down to hers, pressing her mouth on his, the warmth of the chocolate melting between them.
The alarm pulled 263M from his dreams.
The men around him sleepily climbed from their bunks in their white shorts, bare feet on cold concrete, and headed to the showers.
263M was slower today, his mind remembering the dream where 274F pulled him to her. He felt himself blush among the emotionless faces, quickly washing in the cold shower.
Today, he felt the cold, felt it run over his skin and felt the discomfort. He wanted to be warm, wanted to be wrapped in her arms again with this food called chocolate melting in their mouths.
“263M!” came a yell from the man at the doorway.
He tried to straighten his face, tried to look empty like the other.
He couldn’t remember how he would have once responded.
“They want you in the infirmary, 263M!”
The men, washing in the cold showers slowed, seemed to shake their heads a bit as if unaware of where they were.
263M wrapped himself in a towel and pulled on a clean uniform, labeled with his number hung at the far end of the hall. Everyday a new jumpsuit, every night the white uniform was thrown in a large cart for washing.
He passed a guard at the door, his face shielded by a dark visor.
“You are expected in the infirmary, 263M.”
263M said nothing but an expression must have shown on his face. The guard looked at him curiously and began to speak, but then seemed to think better of it and said nothing.
263M walked alone down the hallway.
A woman pushed a cart with laundry down the hall. She didn’t acknowledge his existence, only looked straight ahead, her face expressionless.
Sentries stood at different points along the way. As he passed them, they ran a hand held device behind his head.
“Infirmary,” each little machine said and the guards shuffled him off in the proper direction.
The walls were white, the halls were long, and the 263M did not know where he stood within the building. He began seeing red crosses marked in the hallway with arrows pointing in the direction he moved.
There were more women here, washing and cleaning. He watched for the girl with the grey eyes, hoping he would see her again, see her away from the factory. He imagined bumping into her, touching her hand.
He came to a large door with a red cross on it. It opened for him and he found himself inside a large empty white room with hard chairs seated around the edge.
He stood for a moment, looking around, unsure on what to do. Finally he sat. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He imagined the sensation of her hair. Imagined his feet tangled with hers in the treehouse; just a dream but so real. He could smell the chocolate on her skin and taste the bitterness.
“263M?” said a deep voice.
He jerked up into his chair, eyes opening.
A man with glasses and a clipboard stood in front of him. His hair was light and slicked back as if it were wet.
“I’m Doctor Mislio. You had an event yesterday?”
263M wasn’t sure how to respond. He had never had someone ask him a question before. The men on the floor didn’t speak. The guards directed them and no one spoke in return.
“Come into my office?” said the doctor, and he turned and walked through a white nondescript door.
There were no guards here.
As he walked through the door, he let out an audible gasp.
The walls were not white, they were a deep shade of blue and there was a picture window that looked out past a large concrete field. At the edge of the concrete were two layers of barbed wire fencing. Beyond that stood dense trees, a forest.
Forest, the man thought. Another unfamiliar word.
On the other wall was a dark mirror and 263M was intrigued by the the man staring back at him. He saw the reflection of the doctor behind his desk and understood that the other man was him.
He was tall, much taller than the doctor. He looked strong. His hair was darker than the girls and his eyes a deeper grey. He thought he saw movement behind the glass, and so he turned away.
“Do you like the color?” asked the doctor, sitting down. “Of the walls? I heard your breathing get a bit heavier as you walked in. You must get so used to the white–everything white. I’ve told them they should add some color as enrichment, but they don’t think your people need it.”
263M stood in the middle of the room, unsure on whether he was to respond.
“Sit. It’s all right.” The doctor pointed at a soft grey chair against the wall.
263M sunk into the cushion and immediately felt himself relaxing. He had not know what it was to feel comfort.
“You’re here because you had an event yesterday in the factory. Do you remember?”
The doctor waited, staring at him, saying nothing else.
263M waited, and finally, after minutes seemed to have passed, he nodded.
“Ah! There you are! There is something happening in there. I thought there might be, I noticed you looking in the mirror. You wouldn’t do that if the chip was still functioning properly. Wouldn’t look out the window either.”
263M continued to say nothing, realizing that the little nod of his head was all the man needed to confirm he was now different than the others.
“Tell me, what was it that triggered you to start feeling again? Do you even know?”
263M stayed silent but thought of the woman’s grey eyes.
“No matter, your chip needs an extension. I think you’re fine for today, but we will schedule you for tomorrow, first thing. You will return to the line.”
263M continued to sit in the chair, staring at the doctor behind the desk.
The doctor didn’t look up when he said, “You can go now, Gideon.”
Gideon. The girl with the grey eyes called me Gideon in my dream. Is my name really Gideon then?
The doctor pressed a button under his desk and a guard came to the door.
“Escort him back to the factory line. Keep a watch on him, he’s starting to remember. We’ll fix it in the morning.”
The guard nodded and pulled 236M from his chair, grabbing him by the upper arm and moving him out of the office, out of the empty room, and down the hallway.
As the guard led him through the white halls. He saw more women here, pushing carts, cleaning floors. They seemed to glance at him, make eye contact, and then look away. Their faces were not as empty, their faces showed life.
They gave a little scratch of their ears or cheeks. They pulled up an eyebrow or the side of a lip. But always, they returned to flat affect as quickly as they had shown him emotion.
The guard took him to the factory floor.
“Find your spot, work your day. Whatever you think you’re feeling will be gone in the morning. You might as well enjoy it.”
The guard released his arm and pushed him in the direction of the other men. He moved to his spot at the conveyer belt and the wave of cans began. He checked them, he tossed them in the bin if there was an error, he pushed them on if they were in good shape.
He daydreamed of the woman.
Daydreamed of his fingers in her hair, of her mouth on his.
He daydreamed of her hand tracing his arm.
They sat on the forest floor, a book spread out between them. She was older again, her hair loose now around her shoulders.
“I can’t believe you were able to trade this for the morels,” she said.
“I can’t believe no one has followed us and found our spot,” he said.
She traced her finger over the illustration in the book; a heavily muscled man with a thick beard holding a scepter. Lighting bolts flew through an illustrated sunrise, an eagle sat on his shoulder.
“I wish I could read the words,” she said.
“The trader said it is called a book, from a land called Rome, and this was their king. His name was Jupiter. It was said that Jupiter struck down his enemies with lighting and eagles.”
“Eagles?” she asked doubtfully?
236M felt something tap against his foot. He had managed to keep the cans moving, although he didn’t think he’d given them any glance. He was sure he had allowed bad ones through, but no longer cared.
Looking down he saw a mop, pushing back and forth against his foot, slopping water over his thin shoes. His eyes moved up the mop to the woman who held it.
Her pale grey eyes looked intently at his. Her mouth smiled slightly and for just a second, she reached her right hand out and delicately touched his hand which held a can of carrots.
“Remember me,” she whispered and then moved away with her mop.
He saw her under a canopy of trees with yellow blossoms. Their hands were wrapped in twine and she wore a crown of flowers, her hair cascading to her waist. He slipped a thin golden ring on her finger, a negotiation from the trading wagon.
“We are bound, Gideon. You are my husband and I am your wife, forever.”
He looked into her pale grey eyes.
“We are bound, Rebecca, forever. You are my wife and I am your husband.”
They kissed under the yellow trees.
“263M! Pay attention!” yelled a voice from the stairs.
Gideon forgot the cans and begin to turn, looking for the woman. She was near the wall now, near the stairs.
“Rebecca!” he yelled. She looked up at him, her eyes widening.
He felt hands close on his upper arms, pushing him down.
They were back in the forest, hiding in the depths of the shadows.
“You have to run, Gideon. I’m not as fast as you are.”
“I’m not going to leave you.”
“You have to,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “Come back for me, if you can. But you have to get away.”
Hoods came down over their heads. Hands tightened around his shoulders. In his memory, he heard her screams.
The tide of memory came down over him.
His childhood friend, his Rebecca, playing with toys in the dirt as their fathers farmed and their mothers processed the yellow grain. Running through the fields. Running through the forest. Building a ladder that could be pulled up and hidden in their little playhouse in the trees. Finding where the morels grew, sneaking there together, having enough for the village, having enough to trade for exotic treasures. The morels brought attention to their little home. They were no longer hidden from the world.
The hands pinched into his flesh, pushing him down. He was back in the white walls of the factory. The men moved like robots as they checked the cans of vegetables moving down the conveyer belt.
Rebecca, standing under the stairs, was looking around frantically, like a bird searching for escape.
Gideon heard a thunk, the hands loosened on his arms, and the man holding him sunk to the floor.
Behind him stood number 102M; older, grizzled, grey. He held a can up in the air, its lower rim dripping red blood.
“Run,” the old man said, his expression flat.
Gideon turned to Rebecca, her hand reaching out to him.
Whistles blew. Guards ran in, down the stairs, from corners.
The men at the conveyor belts slowed until they were frozen and flat.
And then a can flew through the air.
And then another.
The air was full of heavy projectiles. Cans of carrots and potatoes knocked the guards to their knees.
Gideon reached Rebecca and she dropped her mop, leading him to a side door hidden just beyond the staircase where she stood, the inner workings of the factory.
Women inside were cutting the vegetables, steam filled the room as they were blanched in huge metal cauldrons. The women did not look up from their cutting. A guard lay dead on the floor, a paring knife jutting from his neck.
An older woman, number 212F, stood holding the door open on the opposite side of the room.
This led to a long white hallway and as they ran, more doors opened. More women ushered them silently through, saying nothing, leading their way through a maze of hallways, upstairs, downstairs, through open rooms and tiny closets.
Finally, they found themselves in a dark hallway with a single light at the far end. This light was different. It was golden and reflected through a barred pane of glass.
They reached the door together, a key stuck out from the doorknob.
They turned the knob and saw the expanse of concrete stretched out before them. A gate stood at the end of the concrete pad, unlatched and slightly open.
A guard stood at the gate.
Rebecca slipped the key from the door into her hip pocket and said, “Are you ready? We have to run.”
“What about the guard?” he said.
She reached up and felt the scar on the back of Gideon’s head. “The guard is like us, he was implanted this morning.”
They ran, hand-in-hand across the expanse of concrete.
The guard stood silent, his eyes glazed over, no expression on his frozen face.
Gideon and Rebecca slipped through the gate and into the forest. They ran through the duff, under the dark canopy, and finally, hearing no one behind them, stopped to rest in the hollow opening of an old tree.
They slid to the ground, catching their breath, slowly calming their hearts.
Finally, Gideon turned to the woman with the grey eyes. He reached his hand up to caress her face. She rested her cheek into his hand and gazed at him, her head tilted in the way he had come to love.
Rebecca leaned forward, pressing him against the inner bark of the tree, pressing her mouth to his.
“I knew you could remember” she whispered against his mouth.
“What about the others?” he asked.
“Our rebellion has only begun,” she said and pulled him down into the warm earth.
Our Prompt This Week
Week 25 –
When I was a little girl, somewhere around third grade, I used to spend the night at my best friend’s house. It was a two-door house—one in the front, one in the kitchen—two bedrooms and a single bath with a combined living room and dining room. Just past my best-friend’s bedroom was another room. A dark room with little light and old wood paneling on the walls.
I imagine the room was something else at one point, perhaps an add-on or something unfinished, maybe an old storage shed.
They set it up to be a guest bedroom with a bed and a TV. That’s where we would sleep.
My best friend had something my family didn’t, and I looked forward to every moment we were allowed to watch; HBO. MTV. These were the days of unending music videos.
We would lay in that bed with music videos running all night.
It felt secretive. It felt like lying to my parents. Was I allowed to watch MTV back then? I don’t think so; that and Three’s Company were off limits.
It also felt creative and exciting and mind bending.
One night, and it is possible it was a dream, a video came on long past my best friend had gone to sleep. Even now, some 40 years later, I remember the impact it had on me.
The entire video was in shades of white and involved humans without emotion. It was very long to my child’s mind—like a short film—much longer than the other videos of the time. I believe it was all instrumental.
The subjects were workers of some sort and they moved in 80’s stilted robotic fashion.
The man, the focus of the video, soon began to feel. He fell in love with a woman still trapped in her numb automation. He tried to wake her up, tried to make her love him back.
She reported him to the authorities, not understanding emotion or love. The authorities took him to surgery, opened his brain, and disconnected the center that allowed for love.
He went back to his routine robotic life.
Suddenly, she woke up and realized she loved him too.
He was simply a robot once again and she was heartbroken.
That was my inspiration for this story.
I never saw that video again in my life but I’ve always wondered what it might be. If you have any idea what this was, please leave a message below or email me; firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to my daughter, isobell.dohn.art on Instagram, for providing me Rebecca’s face and specifically her eye.
If you liked this story, please share it. Sharing it really does make a difference to my life.
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Next Week’s Prompt
Week 26 – A dystopian glimpse of the future
Include: wheelchair, Labrador, throne, jungle, prescription, railroad, trunk, gulley, wasp, photosynthesize