Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.
Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.
The Pornomarts were shut, though, and there were no longer any Feels on Wheels vans and Bun-Dle Buggies circling the Square. But I wasn’t sad to see them go. We all knew what a nuisance they’d been.
It’s high time somebody did something, said the woman behind the counter, at the store where I usually bought my cigarettes. It was on the corner, a newsstand chain: papers, candy, cigarettes. The woman was older, with grey hair; my mother’s generation.
Did they just close them, or what? I asked.
She shrugged. Who knows, who cares, she said. Maybe they just moved them off somewhere else. Trying to get rid of it altogether is like trying to stamp out mice, you know? She punched my Compunumber into the till, barely looking at it: I was a regular, by then. People were complaining, she said.
The next morning, on my way to the library for the day, I stopped by the same store for another pack, because I’d run out. I was smoking more those days, it was the tension, you could feel it, like a subterranean hum, although things seemed so quiet. I was drinking more coffee too, and having trouble sleeping. Everyone was a little jumpy. There was a lot more music on the radio than usual, and fewer words.
It was after we’d been married, for years it seemed; she was three or four, in daycare.
We’d all got up in the usual way and had breakfast, granola, I remember, and Luke had driven her off to school, in the little outfit I’d bought her just a couple of weeks before, striped overalls and a blue T-shirt. What month was this? It must have been September. There was a School Pool that was supposed to pick them up, but for some reason I’d wanted Luke to do it, I was getting worried even about the School Pool. No children walked to school any more, there had been too many disappearances.
When I got to the corner store, the usual woman wasn’t there. Instead there was a man, a young man, he couldn’t have been more than twenty.
She sick? I said as I handed him my card.
Who? he said, aggressively I thought.
The woman who’s usually here, I said.
How would I know, he said. He was punching my number in, studying each number, punching with one finger. He obviously hadn’t done it before. I drummed my fingers on the counter, impatient for a cigarette, wondering if anyone had ever told him something could be done about those pimples on his neck. I remember quite clearly what he looked like: tall, slightly stooped, dark hair cut short, brown eyes that seemed to focus two inches behind the bridge of my nose, and that acne. I suppose I remember him so clearly because of what he said next.
Sorry, he said. This number’s not valid.
That’s ridiculous, I said. It must be, I’ve got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.
It’s not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it’s not valid.
You must have made a mistake, I said. Try it again.
He shrugged and gave me a fed-up smile, but he did try the number again. This time I watched his fingers, on each number, and checked the numbers that came up in the window. It was my number all right, but there was the red light again.
See? he said again, still with that smile, as if he knew some private joke he wasn’t going to tell me.
I’ll phone them from the office, I said. The system had fouled up before, but a few phone calls usually straightened it out. Still, I was angry, as if I’d been unjustly accused of something I didn’t even know about. As if I’d made the mistake myself.
You do that, he said indifferently. I left the cigarettes on the counter, since I hadn’t paid for them. I figured I could borrow some at work.
I did phone from the office, but all I got was a recording. The lines were overloaded, the recording said. Could I please phone back?
The lines stayed overloaded all morning, as far as I could tell. I phoned back several times, but no luck. Even that wasn’t too unusual.
About two o’clock, after lunch, the director came in to the discing room.
I have something to tell you, he said. He looked terrible; his hair was untidy, his eyes were pink and wobbling, as though he’d been drinking.
We all looked up, turned off our machines. There must have been eight or ten of us in the room.
I’m sorry, he said, but it’s the law. I really am sorry.