They branded the black letter “C” across his face a couple years ago. He could be more specific and say 4 years, 3 months, and 28 days. He could pinpoint it to hours and minutes if he was so inclined. He could do this because it was his prison sentence. He had become a “C.”
C sat at his usual table at the little outdoor park on the island, overlooking the bay. He had the table to himself as he did almost every day. The tables surrounding him were packed. He ate lunch here every day, but C always sat alone, unbothered. Because he was a C.
The prisons had been full. There was no more funding for feeding or caring for the inmates and so everything had changed. Prisoners were released back to the public. Each was branded. The released prisoner was told of the due date of release and it was incumbent on him or her to appear on that date to have the C removed. Of course, there would be remaining scar tissue. C’d seen a guy who did his time. The guy’s face didn’t look the same. It was sunken and watery-looking like an old ball deflating in a puddle. Some former Cs were judged by it, but C would rather have the scar tissue and freedom than what he had now.
He looked around at the civilians ignoring him. It was still hard getting accustomed to it.
When you were made a C, your personal identity stopped existing. You were only C. All of them were only C. After you served your time, after you were free, then you regained your name and whatever else. Until then you were C. You were to be non-existent: you didn’t speak or react to others. No one. Not the civilians. Not the other Cs. Only at the day job, provided by the government, were you allowed to respond or inquire, but it was mandated to be work specific, nothing else. If civilians were caught interacting with a C more than that, they themselves would become Cs. If you were a C caught interacting with another C, then both of you were fucked.
C awaited his day of freedom in a couple more years. Until then this was the highpoint of his day. He was alone in the morning in his unit, walking across the bridge to where his office was, alone all day in his cubicle where he saw no one and this, on lunch break, before he trudged home back across the bridge to be alone again, to be empty again, to be afraid again. To be here was invigorating, tremblingly tantalizing. To be so close to other people for his strict hour before returning to his cubicle where he again saw no one else. He wasn’t allowed to look at those around him, to beseech them with his eyes. But since the sun’s bright and sunglasses were allowed, C was able to get away with side glances at the bodies around him, the pale faces and the wrinkled ones, the wild colors of the hair and what they’re wearing today. He would save some of them for later when everything in him was breaking, and he wanted to die because of the loneliness: he could remember the smiles and laughter of the people around him, the life that he didn’t have back yet.
He felt alive only here in this spot. Everywhere else was death to him, empty and cold. Always afraid. Counting down the days, afraid to get in trouble, afraid his sentence would get extended. In a way, he was a C to his fear. That’s how they wanted it. And yet here for an hour per day, he lived as if he wasn’t a criminal.
Yes, everyone with a “C” brand said that they were innocent. He had said it at his trial. His terrible attorney had said it. But that didn’t matter for his circumstantial verdict. It didn’t change the time given, the time already served and the time to be served.
And once you had the “C” on your face, it didn’t matter what you said because no one, according to the law, would be listening.
C rose from his table, keeping his head down. He wouldn’t see anyone else for almost a day. A whole day. It was enough to make one crazy. C had been holding up. Some nights were tough, but he was still here counting out his days like chips.
The next morning he could barely contain himself. He considered going to the park a tiny bit earlier, but he knew if he got busted by the cops, it could mean more time served. Finally, noon arrived, time for lunch.
When he arrived at his table, it wasn’t unoccupied.
Someone sat there. Someone eating.
He looked around the park, at the crowded tables, thinking perhaps he wandered off and ended up in another section but, no, it was his table. This was the only table for Cs at the park. The rest were for civilians.
He could wait here until the other person was done and finally decided at their leisure when to leave.
He could leave, throw away his food, and return to work.
The person sitting there turned and stared right in his direction. There was a black “C” branded across her face. She was a small blonde woman with pale skin, most of it around the brand, always rough and broken, always healing but not. Her name would be C as well. All their names were C.
Disappointed, he pitched his food into the orange wire trashcan and returned to work.
The next day he returned. That other person sat at his table, she sat there, that other C.
There were no rules that C’s couldn’t sit with others: the free people or even other C’s. It just made life clearer, avoided any potential legal issues, not to do it.
But it was his fucking table. He clearly had established it and life was shit enough as a C. He wasn’t going to surrender his only hour of companionship. He needed it. It was all he had left. So he sat at the corner of his table, the farthest away from her, dropping his tray loudly enough to signal his presence. He sat down onto the bench and consumed his thin salad.
For the hour, they both ate at opposite ends of the table, ignoring each other. His Freedom Hour was somewhat redeemed although it irked him to know she was there. But he ignored her and when his time was up, he snagged his tray with the dirtied plate and returned to work. He did glance at her while he was leaving, pretending to clean up after himself. She seemed about his age, in good shape, and clean, a positive for a C. Some C’s gave up hope and dirtied themselves first physically and then emotionally. Many got hooked on drugs not being able to withstand being a C. This C, she didn’t look crazy so being near her wouldn’t get him into trouble.
The next day, she was there again, and then every day. They ate in silence, ignoring each other, the world ignoring both of them.
The eleventh day, a small scrap of paper the color of the wood table lay where he normally sat. Written on it in blue ink was a small “hello.” He jerked up his head and looked at her at the opposite corner. She was looking away, a whole apple in her hand. Then he realized he had broken a rule and looked back down immediately. According to the law, even a look could be construed as communication and time would be added to his sentence. He assumed it had come from her. He’d never had this happen before. He quickly glanced around at the civilians at the other tables, to see if anyone was staring at him. No.
He crumbled up the paper scrap into a tight ball and wadded it up in his brown napkin. The remainder of his hour he spent looking at the water in the bay and then threw everything in the orange waste basket. He didn’t glance at her again.
Seven days later while he was eating his salad, a crumpled ball of paper landed on his plate. He looked up in the direction it came from. Her direction. The she C. But she stared away to the water. He wondered if he should just sweep it to the ground. It could be a trick. The police were known for tempting Cs, getting them to break the rules in order to extend their sentences. He pretended not to see the ball of paper and knocked it into his lap with the handle of his plastic black fork. There over the next hour, he slowly and surreptitiously opened it up. It said “hello” in blue ink in the same handwriting as before.
He left immediately.
That night in his small room, he reclined on his bed, the tiny scrap between his dirty fingers. As a C, he wasn’t allowed any entertainment devices: computers, phones, anything. He wasn’t allowed to read books. Other Cs broke the rules, they had to in order to stay sane, but the police checked up. Random searches. Two a.m. surprises. C wanted to keep counting down his sentence.
What did she want from him?
He rolled the ball of paper between his fingers and tried to remember any song from his past to hum to himself. He couldn’t remember anything but happy birthday so he hummed it repeatedly until he was confused what the words actually were and he drifted to sleep.
The next day he returned to his table. She wasn’t there.
The next day he returned to his table. She didn’t show.
The third day he returned. She sat there.
He didn’t look at her once.
Toward the end of the hour, she rose, taking her tray. She threw the waste in the can and put the tray next to it. She walked through the crowd of civilians unnoticed.
Impulsively, he followed her. At crossings, he’d hang back behind other people or in a doorway or behind a sidewalk food stand. No one noticed him. They weren’t supposed to notice him. So they didn’t. He was invisible, a C.
She never looked back.
He did, however, have to keep watch for the cops. They moved in packs and they were allowed to scan the chips planted somewhere unknown in his body. They were allowed to see who he was, where he was supposed to be, and why he wasn’t. He turned away from them, hiding the C brand on his face as if he was on a phone call. They passed by not even noticing.
To not be is to not be perceived.
He followed her to an office building, still on the island, where she stopped and waved a security badge in front of the red sensor. It beeped to green and she entered.
This must be where she worked. Other Cs also entered the building so it seemed legitimate. Perfectly normal.
Unless she was a plant, an undercover cop whose job was maintaining the inexistence of Cs. These undercovers were always testing the Cs: were they maintaining their silence, their remoteness, their lack of existence in society?
To be C was to be completely alone.
Or she could be a real C, wanting to catch a break with the authorities. Trip up another C, get your sentence reduced. Too many possibilities that could go wrong for him.
He didn’t think she was an undercover, but he wasn’t completely convinced yet. If he found her out, and distributed the information to other Cs (they had their solitary ways of communicating by dropped messages), and perhaps save a couple of them, he would be rewarded in the community. Nothing big. No party or going out for drinks. But an extra pack of cigarettes on his work desk left anonymously or an inexpensive bottle of red wine placed outside his housing unit.
He had never done anything like that before, reaching out to the group because he merely wanted to do his time and be free, but this was personal to him. She had sought him out, and if she were undercover, he wasn’t going to allow her to disrupt things.
He walked back to his job and filed papers for a couple hours before leaving slightly early. He hurried through the island streets, not too fast, not fast enough to catch anyone’s attention or to draw focus on himself. At a moderate pace, he arrived in front of her office building right before 6 p.m. He waited across the street, projecting his practiced “empty face” onto his face: a face that didn’t register anything, that didn’t imply anything, that would keep him safe. He merely waited, staring and not-staring at her office building.
About ten minutes later, she exited the building and turned right on the sidewalk. He again followed her from a distance through the crowd of bodies, across streets and between cars on her way to the bridge.
She slowly walked her way through the crowd on the bridge, the crowd that magically parted for her. Civilians didn’t want to touch a C anymore than they wanted to see them.
They crossed the bridge that spread across the bay, linking the island where he worked to the city where he lived. This was the bridge that many other Cs crossed over, their journey, their starting points and end points being nearly the same as his. And many Cs, either on the way to work or on the way home, casually stepped over the guard rail and jumped. Usually it happened quickly and even if it didn’t, no one would intercede because that was against the law. Cs are not seen or heard. Therefore, one standing on the slim edge of the bridge was not seen or heard not even as they leaped into the water.
C didn’t know if the prison authorities decided to make the Cs walk this path to test them. C would never know that answer.
On the mainland, she glanced at passing store windows, at dress shops and shoe stores, a hardware store and lingered a little too long outside the bookstore. If the police had seen that, they would’ve taken her in. No media of any kind was allowed to a C and that included window shopping.
She stepped inside a ShopMart, disappearing behind the outside tables of produce, fresh green vegetables like broccoli and cabbages, behind the lines of bright yellow bananas and sturdy crates of oranges. He bided his time, until she casually exited the store with a small white bag of goods.
At 6th, she entered a four-story 1920s pale yellow brick building. He knew the place: well-known unit placements for Cs.
If she were an undercover, she hid it well. But undercovers had been known for imitating the C life perfectly.
So what did she want from him?
He returned to his unit and sat alone in the silence, the balled-up piece of paper between his fingers, the blue ink from it lightly staining his skin. His 60-watt bulb barely lit his one room, which was good since it hid the stains and the mess in shadows. He turned on his side, staring at the wall, running it again through his mind.
Inside him, C could feel it. As if all his cells, his very being, wanted to scream all at once. The emptiness was crushing. Sometimes C thought about ending it. It was not discouraged by the authorities. He had a belt. He had rope. He had access to pills. He had a dirty bathtub. He had razor blades. That’s how empty it was inside. Sometimes he slapped himself hard across the face to snap himself out of it. If that didn’t work, he’d headbutt the wall a few times until he drew blood.
But it still remained with him: the emptiness that was also the hunger. C didn’t understand it but he didn’t need to since it existed within him. He had to fight it. Count down his time. Fight it. Count. Fight. Count. Fuck them, C thought, the blood fresh on his forehead, I will not let them win.
In the cold morning, bundled in a black coat, black being the mandatory assigned outfit of the Cs, no matter what the sex, like a shadow, like an absence. C followed her, while pretending to be poorly exercising, from the apartment and back to her office.
At work, he could barely focus on the data entry he had to do, wondering what would happen at lunch. He made several input errors that took him the rest of the morning to track and fix.
At lunch, she was at his table. She stared at her food, nibbling on a hard roll, staring at nothing with her empty face. He sat down, putting on his empty face, and ate his salad. He didn’t glance in her direction.
Twenty two minutes into his hour, he pretended to stretch and heaved a small crumple of paper in her direction. The wind caught it, blowing it back towards him, where it landed somewhere on the ground.
He panicked. That paper ball was evidence. He couldn’t let it be found. It obviously would point to Cs. There could be a round up. It could get ugly. If it ever was discovered that C had somehow caused it, there might be retribution from the other Cs. The deaths of Cs were common and not too thoroughly investigated, the usual line of reasoning going, Hey, one less C, who cares.
He stood and stretched again, emphasizing the largeness of the stretch for the benefit of anyone watching. He pretended that his right foot was asleep so he walked around the table, shaking the foot and stamping it on the ground. No one looked at him. When he passed behind the other C, the she C, she kept her eyes down. Maybe she knew what was happening or maybe she didn’t and was afraid. He stomped around for a few minutes that way and finally saw the paper scrap between some grass blades. He bent down, grabbing it while pretending to tie an errant shoelace. From his position, he tossed the little ball onto her tray. He saw her head move, her eyes track it, but she didn’t move to grab it or even cover it up. She dutifully chewed on her roll as if nothing happened.
He stomped one more time as if finally waking up his foot and returned to his seat on the bench at the opposite end from her. He ate his salad. He returned to work. It was up to her to make the next move.
As he filed documents, he began to fear. He regretted reaching out to her. If they spoke in person and were caught, their sentences would be doubled. It could be a tremendous mistake for him and he wasn’t even sure why he did it. Why did he respond? He couldn’t even rationalize it to himself. Something inside him drove him to do it. And now he cursed himself, what a fool, what a mistake, you’ve worked hard for years to get out, to get clean and innocent again and then you literally, knowingly, break the law. And for what? So maybe she’d talk to him. Or maybe for a secret smile or the attention of an attractive woman for a short period of time lasting seconds perhaps but those seconds could change him.
He now expected to get arrested. Would they come here to his work? No, his unit. Or would they do it tomorrow at work or, even worse, in order to make a statement, at the lunch table. That kind of arrest in public would make all the media headlines. Serve as a warning to the C population.
What should he do now? Run? That would certainly get him into trouble. He could avoid his lunch spot but any derivation from normal behavior, if noticed, would be followed up with questioning. The authorities loved to question Cs. They might even bring the she C in if they placed her there. Even if she were really a C, who knows what she might “confess” to if interrogated. His absence of not going to the park might alert the authorities. His presence might do it as well.
There was no easy answer.
Wait, what if she was another C? What if she was like him and she’d reached out to him because she was scared or alone or on the edge of not being able to face another day as so many other Cs had done before. It had been so long since he’d trusted someone. Maybe he wasn’t even capable of it any longer. After his wife had left him post-sentencing, because she didn’t want to be the wife of a C, he burrowed into himself, deeper and deeper. Everyone was a threat, someone to be afraid of. He thought he could handle it. He thought he could train himself to do it. Like an endurance race. He would train and train and train and one day he’d know that he could survive his sentence as a C.
Now he wasn’t sure if he could. Time to go home, a weekend of loneliness. He tried not to think about it.
As he walked the bridge, he could see the rough waves of the ocean, rolling and thrashing. He noticed a C standing on the other side of the guard rail, the wind whipping the hair that stuck out from beneath a faded black ski cap, one hand holding onto the guard rail.
He tried not to look. He put his head down, staring at the asphalt pavement in front of him, watching his footsteps, one after another after another. Do not look up, he told himself. Do not. But at the last second before passing the C, before putting the C behind him, he glanced. It was her. It was the she C who had shared his table.
He faltered. His even footsteps broke and he slowed. No, he told himself, keep walking.
He slowly moved on. Yes, he was a C but he was a person too. He was a human being. How much could he close his eyes too? Did he want to become like the rest of them?
And he stopped.
There were only a couple other civilians in the nearby area. All three were engaged with their screens. He turned around and walked back the way he’d just come. He tried to watch her, the C, out of the corner of his eye. Was she still there?
She was. Hanging on by one hand, leaning forward, the wind whipping her clothing, her blond hair, her ski cap now gone. She stared straight down at the water.
He was afraid. Not afraid to go to her, not afraid to stare down at the terrible things she was facing. He knew what she was facing. He’d been there. He had been there once on the edge of the bridge.
He was afraid of getting caught. Of doing what was illegal for a C: to be.
He slowed his walk, looking down as if lost in his own thoughts but staring at her out of the side of his eye. She didn’t see him. Everything else, except the choppy waves below, didn’t exist for her. That look on her face. She would do it. If not today, maybe tomorrow or the day after. Or now.
He kept walking and passed her. No, it wasn’t his business. Then he stopped because he knew he couldn’t let it happen.
He headed her way, quickly glancing around: who else was here? No one, not in the immediate distance. It was just the two of them.
He was heading right toward her.
Her gaze down didn’t break. She was trying to embrace it from within.
Her hand trembled on the post, the thing holding her to the earth, her fingers blood red because of their grip on the beam.
Don’t do it, he thought. He broke into a run. He hadn’t run in so long he wheezed with each stride.
Her knees bent a bit as if she was on a high diving board, just the little push to get her going before the earth took over and finished it off.
He got to the guard rail, his breath like an engine that couldn’t catch. He had to grab the rail to support himself. Surprised, she looked over as he yelled: “Don’t.”
She blinked at him and then smiled and was gone.
He saw the motion, a blur of black, maybe he heard the splash or maybe it was something else.
She smiled and was gone.
He looked down into the choppy water. The waves breaking. He didn’t see her. Nothing. As if nothing has dropped into it. And nothing had come out. He couldn’t jump in after her because he wouldn’t make it back.
Gone. He suddenly hurt inside.
The authorities had arrived. Either they had seen the commotion or sensed it was going to happen.
He could barely hear them over the waves. C had broken the law or so they were saying.
C started laughing. It was the first time he laughed in over four years. He was laughing so hard that the two male cops stopped and looked at each other in surprise. He eagerly held out his wrists to them.
He finally felt free.
As they led him away, the waves broke against the unmoving pillars of the bridge, incessant, unstopping, the waves continued to roll in, the sound of them slapping against the posts over and over, endlessly, one day to eventually bring them down.
Ron Burch lives in Los Angeles with a parrot who bites. Twitter: @burchre