Time stood still for Collins before the woman with knotted red hair and the old man wearing overalls stirred. Awakening, they started Collins’ clock ticking again. The sun fell hours ago. She had sat back on the floor against her refrigerator when the woman asked her where the fat man and young man with the broken face were and why the television was dark.
“Out,” was all Collins mustered. It hurt to even flick that simple word.
Elaboration required speaking of acts she did not wish to acknowledge. There is not always a definitive line between knowing what was necessary and knowing what was evil. That line blurs further when ideas of necessary evils come into play. Collins wondered if what they did, and what she set the fat man and young man with the broken face to do, constituted both necessary and evil.
Catching the old man’s eye, she saw what he knew. His heart would have sunk if what he experienced earlier that day had not already robbed it of the little life it pumped through his cool veins. Instead, the old man’s chest simply caved in on itself as he breathed.
Not able to handle the deafening silence as it left her continuing to consider what she could not say, the woman with knotted red hair meandered to where the fat man and young man with the broken face sat much earlier and turned the flat panel television back on. What she saw turned her motionless. Collins peered over and froze as well. Watching tears well in her eyes, the old man wearing overalls did not join; instead he rose, even slower than usual, walked to the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
Long lines echoing those of concentration camps of Jews in Europe or Japanese in the United States sprawled the width of the wide screen. Almost no movement was visible in any pale blue Wretch waiting their turn to have their identification cards checked and their Internal Passports stamped. Their faces were sunken skulls that stared into emptiness.
In post-industrialized societies such as this, one expects lines of this length and nature to be filled with people shuffling their feet or sitting out of impatience. One expects to hear voices of participants speaking or at least complaining under their breath. Perhaps an occasional cough, sneeze or sniffle. None of this was seen or heard.
In place of these human qualities were shells of carcasses waiting their turn. Each person in line was alive, breathing, but only just. Not even their eyes shifted. Twenty-four hours into their regulated humiliation and they had already been transposed from a thriving world of commerce to one of putrid refugee camps so tired, so accustomed to their station in life that flies feasting on morsels on their noses did not bring them to shoo the pests.
The news ticker along the base of the television did not use the term “concentration camp. Such terms suggested concepts no respectable forward-thinking society considers among its list of tools to control. Instead, the lines were simply called checkpoints. The hours spent in line were blamed on the Wretches themselves. After all, as one pundit was quoted, “Nobody is being held in captivity. That would be barbaric. What we have here is a simple means of keeping order. Of course, a Wretch’s Internal Passport can only be stamped seven times in a given week. Once their ration of social interaction is reached, it is their obligation to remain indoors. We are not forcing anything but the most essential necessities to maintain order and security.”
Only when the camera panned to the line’s head did any movement twitch the eye.
At the front, four uniformed guards stood in sets of two. One checked a Wretch’s identification card and Internal Passport. The other patted the Wretch down. Collins wondered what one hoped to gather from patting down a Wretch. Of all attacks rumored, the only documented attack suggested assailants used their bare hands and teeth. Were they looking for weapons? Concealer perhaps? Maybe authorities hoped to find someone with a note, or better still, a map with addresses of other conspirators.
The camera focused in on the face of one Wretch who just handed over his necessary paperwork. As the other guard frisked him, a glimmer of curiosity flashed on his face. Then, like his brethren ahead of him and those to come after him, the curiosity fell off his face before the guard removed it for him.
The camera panned out to catch the two guards on either side of the Wretch. Disappointed, the guard patting him down rolled his eyes and took a step away waving him through to the University campus. The guard fingering the Internal Passport and Identification Card shoved the documents into the Wretch’s gut. He caught them like a bored football receiver. The assembly line inched forward by one body length. The guard who held the Wretch’s documentation wiped his gloved hands on his pants before reaching for the next set of documents.
Similar lines formed at newly designated exits to campus and around the city. In solidarity, the entire country followed suit. Though an attack only happened once since the outbreak more than six months ago in one small city, as the President said, “One could not be too careful when security of the state is at stake.”
The President’s comment, along with similar comments by other high ranking officials in his cabinet and throughout the government, replayed in news snippets in an almost endless loop. Rumors were treated as truth when those rumors vilified Wretches. Rumors by opposition candidates and leaders that the government was overstepping boundaries or fabricating were treated as treason.
When asked about why only Wretches seemed to be forced to use strategically placed checkpoints around the country, one Congressman running for reelection said, “Only Wretches are questioned because only Wretches are dangerous to the greater society.”
The same reporter, playing devil’s advocate for ratings’ sake asked a follow-up question, “But checkpoints are in place to identify Wretches trying to sidestep the system.”
“Your point,” the Congressman asked with irritation.
“Would it not be more prudent to ask all law abiding citizens to use checkpoints to catch those refusing to follow protocol?”
“Sure,” the Congressman spat, “lets waste all our government’s resources so we stunt the economy further, punish law abiding citizens by forcing them to prove they are following the law. And, who do you suppose will pay for all that? You?”
“I think your audience would be happy to know if the news anchor they’re relying on for their information wants to raise their taxes and punish them for following the law.”
Nearly foaming at the mouth, the Congressman turned to the camera with a silent demand for the camera to come closer. It obliged.
“This traitor” only able to see the speaker, one was forced to assume he meant the speechless news anchor, “believes you should have to wait in long lines to prove your innocence.”
“Now wait a minute,” a voice spouted from off camera.
“This country was founded on principles of innocent until proven guilty, individualism, and freedom. If you do not agree with this country’s moral foundations, the door is always open to leave. This is not about different ways of life. When innocent people are attacked and killed for the simple pleasures of the few, the government must step in to ensure the needs of the many outweigh the feelings of the few.”
“That’s all the time we have for tonight, folks.”
“You are either with us or against us.”
Before commercials overtook the feral pundit one could hear a faint comment to cut the feed.
The first commercial advertised new and improved anti-bacterial facial masks. No claims were made to their effectiveness. Instead, trendy colors, brand labels, and entertainingly shaped mouths donned their newly improved fronts.
Another commercial began by asking its viewers if they liked being around Wretches before cutting away to a happy family of people without infection with a voice over, “Then come in today to stock up on home improvement supplies. Now is the best time to replace that pock marked kitchen counter top or old bathtub.” Through the shiny kitchen window of the happy uninfected family a single Wretch, clearly a Normal wearing pale blue paint, stood drooling in their perfectly pruned backyard which could also be purchased at the same retailer. These were followed by a string of political ads demanding action by lawmakers or from politicians promising to be harder on Wretch employment than their opponents.
Then a political advertisement showed a Normal husband and wife sitting at their kitchen table buried under a mountain of paperwork and a ticker claiming the footage as coming from a not-so-distant future. The Normal husband asked his wife if they could afford to pay this month’s rent. Then a dire voice from off-screen bellowed, “The government wants you to pay for these Wretches. Tell your Representative you don’t want your money going to pay for the lazy and immoral. On election day, vote your Representative out of office. Maybe then, he will learn.”
Finally able to pull her gaze away from the television, the woman with knotted red hair shifted around to face Collins who still sat on the floor with her back against her refrigerator.
“What we did the other night was wrong.”
“Why do I feel like we did not do anything wrong?”
Collins wondered if she knew what the woman meant. Something in the woman’s eyes told Collins not to ask for clarification.
“Did we start something bad?”
This time she raised her hands to answer without knowing what word might fall from her fingers.
“We did not start this war. Did we?”
Collins just Signed a ‘No”.
“Why would God make us this way? Did we do something wrong? Did I do something wrong?”
The stream of consciousness line of questions kept Collins silent, listening.
“Why do i feel dirty? I do not want to feel dirty anymore. I want to see my little boy. I did not think I would ever say this but I wish I could talk to my husband again. I am no different than they are. Not really. He left me and took my little boy with him a week after I got sick.”
Tears trickled down her blue face. She stared up at the ceiling as her hands continued moving.
“All I want to do is go home. Forget all this happened. Pretend life is normal. Why can I not have that? I did not ask for this. I do not want this anymore.”
Her hands fell limp on the back of the couch, her lips quivered silently. Collins wanted to hold her, console her, but figured the woman with knotted red hair would only recoil at her equally infected touch.
“God didn’t do this to us,” Collins finally retorted, “Our government did.”
Just then an abrasively loud noise pierced their self pity and self hatred.
“Breaking news,” barked a new news anchor. “We have just received word from sources that City Councilman Robert Coleman and his entire family may have been attacked by Wretches in their home earlier this evening. Emergency crews are reportedly on scene. One of our camera crews are en route to confirm this report.”
Collins did not look up from her linoleum flooring. She knew what had happened. The fat man and young man with the broken face succeeded in at least one attack.
“On the line with us now is the Chief of Police. Chief, can you hear me okay?”
“Yes, sir. I can.”
“Great. Can you update us on what you know so far.”
“Well, there really is nothing we know as of yet other than it looks like the entire Coleman family was attacked earlier this evening.”
“Is everyone okay, Chief.”
“Unfortunately, as it appears, there are, uh, no survivors.”
“Good God,” the news anchor said, trying to sound surprised. “Is there any current indication as to the perpetrators who did this?”
“All possibilities are on the table. However, the M.O. is consistent with that of the Stevens family the other night.”
“The Stevens family being the family brutally attacked two nights ago by what can only be described as an unhuman attack against innocent people.”
“That is accurate. Yes.”
“Do you have any leads or suspects?”
“As I mentioned, the M.O. is consistent with that of the attack the other night. Beyond that, we are not willing to share any details with the public at this time.”
“We understand, Chief. Are there any details about this case tonight that you can share with us?”
“Information is still coming in. But it appears that Mr. Coleman was in his study. His wife was found in bed, as was their only daughter. Even their…”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, Chief, but we are getting a report coming across the wire as we speak of another attack. Yes. It appears another Council member, Councilwoman Martha Horowitz’s home, was attacked. Chief, if you are are still on the line, can you tell us anything about this?”
“I have no knowledge of a second attack but then again, I’m not at my post at the moment.”
“I understand, Chief. But if this report is true, would it not be safe to assume that this is an orchestrated attack against the government?”
“Without any evidence, such an assumption is…”
“But if these stories are true, Chief?”
“Well, if they are accurate, it may be fair to make such an assumption. But again.”
“Thank you, Chief. Please keep us informed of any information as it becomes available. We understand you are probably very busy. We’ll let you get back to protecting this fine city.”
Without allowing the Chief a chance to respond, “On the line with us now is the former Homeland Security advisor and currently a columnist for the Times. Welcome, sir.”
“Oh, sorry, I just assumed. Well, anyway. There are reports of at least two attacks on elected officials in the last few hours. What does this mean for the country?”
“If these reports are accurate, this is a significant turning point in the battle against the Wretches and their draining of state tax coffers.”
“But could this just be coincidence?”
The columnist chuckled.
“In my many years as Homeland Security advisor to the President before becoming a regular columnist at the Times, I have come to only one conclusion.”
“And that is?”
“There are no coincidences in the world. Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens on purpose. This was no coincidence. What we are seeing is an act of terrorism against a state trying to protect its citizens from vicious, barbaric things. The people who did this are not human.”