Give Me Truth or Give Me Silence
by, Melissa R. Mendelson
The office wasn’t quiet. The air conditioner rattled overheard, sending icy chills down the walls. The thunder of keyboards, fingers pounding plastic, echoed across the room. Coughs nearby raised an eyebrow. Laughter held motion on pause, but nobody spoke. Nobody wanted to open their mouths in fear of not saying the truth, and all eyes fixated upon the computer screens, mindless numbers eaten by machine. And another day at the office droned on.
The stacks of paper, the data entry dwindled on my desk. My supervisor’s door remained closed. She barely came out these days, and I was afraid to knock on that door and disturb whatever she was doing. I had to make this work last, at least until noon, and then I would dare disturb her to get more work. It was only ten-thirty, so I paused, gingerly reaching for the phone, and the women nearby eyed my every move. But I had to kill some time.
“Did you hear from them,” I asked as I held the phone tightly to my ear, trying to keep my voice low.
“No,” he responded on the other end. “They haven’t called yet.”
“I don’t know why they have to do this a year later.”
“It’s the rules. Besides, there is now only a five percent fatality rate,” he said.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Jessie, there’s nothing that we can do, and we have to wait for their call. Then, we can decide which one of us will go.”
“I should do it,” I said as I curled the cord around my finger.
“I can do it,” he replied.
“David, I should be the one.”
“Shhhhhhhh,” a coworker next to me snapped, and then she huffed around her breath, shaking her blonde head from side to side.
“Whatever,” I said to her, and then I shook my head. “How’s work going?”
“Work’s work. You?”
“Jessie, it’s almost eleven,” and when he said that, I looked at the time, feeling my stomach drop. “You can’t be on the phone at eleven. Rules are rules.”
“I know. I’m… I’m just worried about her.”
“She’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.”
“Okay, David. I’ll see you later,” and I hung up the phone.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” another coworker said, but then she winced, rubbing her neck. “I don’t know why I bother,” and she returned to her work.
I glanced at the time on the computer. 10:42 a.m. At eleven, I would have to be at this desk, in front of the computer, but not right now. Now, I could escape to the bathroom, and as I slowly got up, everyone looked my way. I could see their fear, their suspicion shine against the computer’s eerie light, but nobody would say anything. They would keep those thoughts to themselves.
“Hi, Jessie,” another coworker said as she washed her hands in the bathroom. “How are you?”
“Good,” I replied and then flinched at the pain in my neck. “Actually, worried. Today’s that day.”
“I’m sorry,” but then she flinched. “She’ll be okay,” but she flinched again. “I have to go,” and the coworker hurried out of the bathroom.
I ran my hands under the cold water. It felt nice. I wanted to stay like that, but the lights overhead flickered. First warning. It was nearing eleven, and the next warning, if I wasn’t in front of a television or computer screen, would be a violent shock to the body. I hated those things, and I pulled my shirt collar down to stare at the silver object in my neck. It reminded me of a quarter, but it wasn’t a benefit. It was a punishment for someone else’s crimes, and I could feel it beginning to vibrate, gearing up for that razor sharp zap. So, I hurried back to my desk.
I made it back to my desk just in time. My body was already preparing for that shock. I experienced it once before, nearly biting off my tongue. Somebody did bite off their tongue. At least, that’s what I heard. Another went into shock and died. All this just to make us watch, and the lights overhead went out. I was surprised that my supervisor appeared, hurrying out of her office and over to the nearest computer screen. And then we waited, and the computer screens went black, followed by a long pause.
The woman that appeared on the screen was a news reporter. She had found a way around the system. Some said that she didn’t feel. Others said that she liked the pain. It didn’t matter. You weren’t supposed to lie, and she got caught. And the man dressed in black approached her, pulling the gag out of her mouth, but that wasn’t in kindness. That was for us to hear her scream, and the time was now eleven a.m.
“In memory of the 1100 that died,” the man in black said in a booming voice. “We have found you guilty of lying,” and he placed what looked like a plastic gun against the silver object in her neck. “Give me truth, or give me silence.”
“Give me truth, or give me silence,” I and my coworkers echoed back, and the man pulled the trigger, ripping the silver object from the reporter’s neck, and severing her vocal chords.
The reporter screamed, but her scream was cut short. Blood flowed down her neck, and the man in black shoved her gag into the hole. He then cut her binds, releasing her, and the reporter burst into tears. But nobody could hear her crying. They could only watch the tears flow in silence, and then the screen went to black.
A moment later, a pale-faced man appeared, reading the report that was written for him. “Tonight at eleven p.m., we will have Mr. Forester, a deli shop man, who was caught lying to his customers. He pretended to speak the truth on the quality of his meat and the maintenance of his store, but as more people grew ill, it was found that he had lied, telling the truth but in secret serving up spoiled meat in a rat-infested store. See you at eleven,” and the screen went black. And the lights came back on.
“Back to work,” my supervisor declared, casting a look my way, and then she disappeared into her office.
“How could that guy lie and tell the truth at the same time?”
“Selective memory,” I said to my coworker, and then I heard laughter. I looked up to see two women giggling next to each other. They looked at each other’s computer screen, obviously at some kind of message, and then they looked my way. Their smiles faded a bit, and then they looked at each other. And they went back to work.
“My daughter was funny this morning,” my friend, Ann said as we now sat in a small kitchen area. “She called me fat. Just like that. She said, ‘Mom, you’re fat.’ Doesn’t she realize how hurtful that is,” she said as she stuck a spoonful of yogurt into her mouth.
“She can’t lie, Ann,” I said as I checked my watch. “12:15.”
“We got fifteen minutes left. Are you just eating a salad?”
“I don’t know,” and she flinched. “I hate salads. How’s your daughter? Have you heard anything yet?”
“No. Nothing yet,” I replied.
“She’ll be fine,” but Ann flinched again. “I hate these things.”
“Rules are rules,” I said.
“You sound like David. How’s he doing?”
“He turned into a book worm.”
“Well, publishing’s booming again. Nothing else is the same. I can’t even lie to my daughter about the old movies, and radio? It’s all automated now. News is just the news like in the old days.”
“Well, nothing we can do about it,” I said.
“If they just didn’t die…”
“But they did, and now we pay the price for it.”
“I just hate it,” Ann sighed. “My daughter thinks I’m fat,” and she finished her yogurt.
“You’re not fat,” I said, but then I flinched. But I tried to hide it, but Ann saw right through me. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, at least, you’re honest about that. We should head back. More data entry. Yay,” and we both laughed at that.
Around two p.m., a coworker’s phone rang. The room went quiet, even more quiet than usual. There was really no point these days to talk on the phone. You couldn’t lie. You couldn’t exaggerate. It had to be cold, honest facts, and the color on her face paled, mirroring the white walls. She gingerly reached for the phone as all eyes including mine fell on her, and she pressed the phone against her ear. And then I realized that today was also her day, and I leaned forward a little, hoping to catch a little of what was said. But nothing was said. She just listened, and then she hung up the phone. And she burst into tears, running from the room, followed by at least two other women.
“Her son didn’t make it,” one coworker said.
“They did say that there is now only a five percent fatality rate,” another coworker said. “Just bad luck, I guess,” and she flinched. “I mean it’s terrible,” and she flinched again. “I mean… Fuck it,” and she went back to work.
“You just don’t care,” the first coworker said to her, but the woman did not reply. “It’s not your problem, right? You don’t have kids.” The coworker looked my way, holding my gaze for a moment, and then she slowly lowered her head, returning to her work.
The day dragged on, right up to three-thirty when my phone rang. My blood ran cold. A million eyes fell upon me. My hand moved as if in slow motion, and my breath caught in my throat. My mind tried to think, but it couldn’t. I couldn’t even speak. I just raised the phone up against my ear and listened.
“She’s ready,” a sharp voice said on the other end. “What time shall we expect you?”
“Um…” I looked at the time on my computer. “Four.”
“Be here at four,” and the line went dead.
I quickly finished the rest of my data entry. Tomorrow, a new stack would be waiting for me, but right now as long as my desk was clear, my supervisor should let me leave. I set the computer on shut down and pushed in my chair. Before I moved toward my supervisor’s office, I laid a gentle hand on my coworker’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” my coworker responded, but she did not look at me. She must hate me for not getting that phone call, but there was nothing that I could say. There was nothing that any of us could say, and I walked away instead.
As expected, my supervisor allowed me to leave. This was after all special circumstances, and the facility was right down the road. I called David to let him know that I was going to get her, and he said that he would meet us at home. I hoped she was alright, but the process was over. She should be alright, but I did not feel comforted by that thought until she was placed back in my arms.
“Your daughter will be groggy for the rest of today and maybe tomorrow,” the doctor said as I held her tightly. “Do not remove the bandage. Leave it on, and do not get it wet. In three days, it will peel off by itself, and then she should be okay. If there are any issues, call me,” and he stuck his card in my hand. And then he walked away.
The drive home was quiet. Cars passed by, and its drivers looked my way. They must have seen me leave the facility, knowing why I was probably there, but I didn’t have a choice. Anyone found not having the process done was not shown any mercy. Instead, their vocal chords were cut, sometimes humanely, most times not, and they were called the silent. My daughter would not be one of them, and home was coming up soon. Once we got there, I would show her all the love and kindness that I struggled to keep inside. Maybe, one day, she would understand. Maybe, one day, she would say, “Mom, you’re fat,” and I smiled at that.