They always told me I looked like Joseph Anthony. “My paystub says otherwise,” I would usually joke. How else could I respond? How does one react to being likened to the High Chancellor? Our infallible leader? I’ll tell you what I always wanted to say: “Go **** yourself.” Not because they pointed it out. No, I can’t blame them for that. But because they smiled while doing it.
Always fake smiles. Beaming grins with nothing behind them. “It’s safer that way,” my parents had told me. “You don’t want to stand out.” What they meant was that I didn’t want to get informed on. To say the wrong thing to the wrong man. To wake up the next morning to a knock on my door. Black suits and blacker shades. You can guess the rest.
Nobody wanted to inform. But you never knew. What if it was a test? It happened to my dad once. Some stranger at the bar. Dad called him Bill. Guy must have had too many. “People can’t live like this,” Bill had mumbled into his pint. “Someone should do something.”
Dad didn’t want to do it, but mom made him. “You know he could be a plant. You have a family, Rick. He’s probably a plant.” And so he made the call. Anonymously, of course. He never talked about it, but he didn’t sleep for a few days. He went back to that same bar a week later. Came home early, punched a hole in the drywall. I never asked him what happened to Bill.
Dad smiles in public.
After that I looked at people a little differently. I saw their ******** smiles and I understood. There was something behind them after all. There was a father, selling his soul every day for pocket change, but keeping his wife and son safe.
I got it. I still wouldn’t smile back, but I got it. And when the curfews started, and my neighbors thanked the armed patrolmen, I got it. When Joseph Anthony’s weekly “Citizens Address” replaced the private news networks and nobody complained, I got that too. But I took a screwdriver to the control board on the TV. I even got it when Anthony started rounding up citizens and scanning them into some kind of massive tracking database, and everyone let him do it. And when my eighteenth birthday came around, I obediently lined up to get tagged and cataloged myself.
The queue snaked back and forth on itself. Fifty people waiting that afternoon to have their DNA scanned for Joseph Anthony’s records. Fifty people and one armed guard. One. I remember thinking: “Why doesn’t someone just tackle him? Pry the gun out of his hands? Bash his face in and empty the magazine into as many of them as he can before he goes down?” But I got it. I wasn’t about to try it. Everyone in line smiled. The guard shoved me into a cubicle.
I sat down in front of a man named Dave. I knew his name was Dave because of the cheap plaque on his desk; he didn’t bother with introductions. Not that day at least.
Dave’s eyes were glazed over, his chin resting in his palm.
“Finger,” he sighed, waving vaguely towards the small machine. He didn’t even bother looking up from his monitor. I complied. It hurt. The monitor lit up.
ANALYZING. . .
Dave drummed on his cheek.
ERROR 500: DNA INDEX ALREADY REGISTERED. MORE INFO (SHOW/HIDE)
Dave stopped drumming. He pressed a key.
OCCUPATION: HIGH CHANCELLOR IFC
Dave looked at me once, then he lifted his mug of coffee and poured it on his computer. It sparked and died. That really ****** with me at the time.
“We’re having a technical issue,” he said calmly. “You’ll have to come back next week.”
I could only sputter. “Next week? What did that—why did you—?”
“There’s been a mistake. You’ll have to come back,” he barked, more firmly this time. He was on his feet now, ushering me out of the cubicle. And placing something in my hand.
I was halfway home before I found a quiet enough section of unoccupied street. I was gripping the thing in a shaking fist. I let my palm fall open and unfolded a ripped piece of paper. A scribbled address and nothing else.
There wasn’t a decision to make. By the time I’d realized I was doing it, I was already turning off onto a side road. Off towards the old shopping center. Into the mall, empty and dilapidated. Meeting a stranger, a lone scout. Into step behind him, quieter now at his request. Following him down a flight of stairs, through a damp darkened hallway. Through an unassuming door, into a room lit by candles. Filled with people.
They were all smiling. Just like outside. But their smiles were different. Their smiles reached past their mouths and touched their eyes. Smiles with something behind them that didn’t make me think of my dad. Or Bill. They were the smiles of people that had hope, and a plan.
And I smiled too.