by Caitlin Paolucci
All was chaos when the United States had crumbled in 2184. It had remained that way for nearly a century before the government restored order and created the Reticence Territory. One of the first laws created by the government to create order was the Tranquility Act; this law states that, “any speech that is slanderous or inquisitorial against the government shall be punished to the highest order.” In the beginning millions were “ punished to the highest order” and that was when the government developed the procedure. Everyone must get the government mandated procedure when your first word is spoken. Most people get the primary procedure, a simple running stitch across their lips and a feeding tube inserted into their abdomen, but if you were a part of the elite you would get the overstitch. The overstitch guarantees that you will never be able to utter a single word. This stitch is a blessing to anyone who receives it.
This is the first time since my birth I have been left alone in my parents’ home. In this rare instance of solitude I don’t know what to do with myself. I wander around the house looking at things I have seen a million times. I walk up and down the halls pretending as if they were something new while completely faking my interest, and then I realize I don’t have to pretend with myself. I stop in front of the mirror in the hall and stare at my face. This isn’t something I normally do because, as of recently, I just can’t quite look at myself. I don’t know why I can’t stand the sight of myself because my face has been the same all my life. Yes, my features have hardened by growing up but everything is still the same isn’t it? I still have my grey eyes, my blonde hair, my pale skin, my upturned nose, my overstitch on my lips, and yet my face isn’t the same, it almost disgusts me.
Standing here looking at myself, it reminds me of a girl in grade school. She wasn’t anything special; she was just like every other girl in school. She would have her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail; she would wear her stark white government issued clothes that everyone wears in order to maintain equality and similarity to improve efficiency but one thing she did have that no else did was a smile. This girl was one of the very few who never got the procedure. I always wondered why, but the only reason I ever heard why someone wouldn’t was on the news feed once, and the speakers said that only designated professions such as speakers or teachers that required an open mouth could have their procedure waived. One day in grade three we were learning about the Black Years, the years where millions were punished for speaking against the government, when she said,
“ That was mean of them.”
The teacher all of a sudden had this empty look on his face. He went to his desk and got something shiny out of it and put it behind his back. He walked over to her desk and asked her to open her mouth, After that all I remember was hearing her scream at the top of her lungs and that there was a lot of blood-the same blood that had covered the front of her shirt. Later that week, she came back to school with a half shaved head and a crescent moon incision in the center of it. Later on, I learned they had removed the part of her brain that controlled her ability to speak as required by standard protocol in instances of disobedience and insubordination. But that first day when she came back, I saw her staring at her own reflection in the window, and I almost think that, she hated herself as much as I do now. Some days at school, I see her cleaning the hallways while we all move from class to class like an army of ants answering to their queen. Even though her lips were never stitched after the incident, I have never seen her smile since that day in grade three.
When I came back to my senses, I return to studying my face. Despite everything I have been told, that I have been telling myself I could still see something wrong with my face. Perhaps it was the scar on my right eyebrow. Maybe it was the titanium plates that spotted almost every inch of my skull or maybe it was the screws in my jaw that made it sit a little crooked. It was possible my left eye was a little darker than the right because I was a little blind in that eye. Reciting all the little unnatural things that lie under my skin brings me back to the moments I got them. The little scar on my eyebrow was when father’s ring caught my skin when he backhanded me for crying for that little girl in grade three. The screws in my jaw were from the time when father heard me try to speak through my over stitch. The titanium plate on my left cheek and the blindness in my left eye were from the time he heard me humming a song. A song I heard a crazy man, who may have been waived of the procedure, sing. A song the crazy man told me to live by, a song he called the “Star Spangled Banner”, it didn’t mean anything to me but it did to father. All the other things that hid under my face were from all the other times he noted he was enforcing the will of the government on me, and he was right, I had violated the law in some minor way each time but a part of me honestly thinks he just used that as an excuse. The beatings weren’t even the worst part. The worst part of it all was me trying to scream for my mother to help me. The worst part was that in the times I couldn’t defend myself against my father, there was no way for me to cry out for help, there was no way for me to apologize, there was no way for me to beg for mercy.
As I remembered these moments, I felt my tears streak down my face with each passing second. I could feel the fear wrap itself around me like a claustrophobic cocoon that tightened its grip around me with each passing breath. I crumbled to the floor giving into the fear and pain. I rocked back and forth crying like a little child trying to catch my breath, but all I was doing was suffocating myself. I pushed myself off the floor and staggered to the bathroom to get some facial tissue, and once I had cleared my sinuses I was effectively breathing again. I looked up into the mirror and saw my eyes were bloodshot and had a wild fear in them. My eyes reminded me of something I saw today at the health center. Today, everyone spent a day at their future work facilities so we would be more accustomed to our soon to be daily requirements and duties. I was at the health center because I was to be one of several surgeons of my quadrant. We were given a very detailed tour and then escorted to one of the galleries to watch a standard stitching procedure, a procedure that was guaranteed to occur multiple times a day. It was not particularly long to my fellow peers who found it absolutely fascinating but for me it felt like an eternity because for me watching him do this twisted my stomach into a thousand knots. When it was finally over, we were taken to the archive room to research and watch any operation we wanted. My fellow peers wanted to view the latest and most grounding breaking procedures done in medicine, but I honestly had no interest in the matter. All I wanted to do was wander around the room and look at the thousands upon thousands of files and video records. The longer I walked around, the room the older these files became. You would think there would be no end but an end did I find. I saw the file was listened only as “ Government Mandated Solution”. The age alone peaked my curiosity, but the title of the document made it seem important. I retrieved the file from its dusty perch and went to a viewing station. I opened the file and found it was a crude set of instructions to do a basic stitching procedure but the thing that was more troublesome than crudeness of the instructions was that a majority of the file was redacted. I flipped through pages and pages of blacked out notes trying to find out what had happened with this procedure but found nothing.
I closed the file and was about to carry it back to where it came but then a video card fell out of the file. I picked it up and saw that it was quite an old design and was fairly damaged but I thought it just might have a shot in the computer. I put the card into the computer and waited for it to load. When the computer finally recognized the video, it started to play the video, which only gave me static. I waited several minutes and was about to remove it from the computer when the image started to clear up. The video showed a doctor and a nurse standing over a patient but there was something odd about the patient. He was breathing too fast to be under anesthesia or any paralytic and he was strapped down to the operation table. Then I realized he was staring right into the camera, his eyes bloodshot and wild with fear.
Once the doctor and nurse had finished prepping the patient, they left to go scrub down. I didn’t see him speak, but the computer told me increase volume to hear the audio. As I turned up the volume that same gut twisting feeling I felt in the gallery came back with each click of the volume. All I could do was watch his wild eyes as he spoke. I heard him say,
“ They have been doing this to us long before they declared that we had no right to speak. For almost a century they took us out of our homes in the middle of the night and cut out our tongues or scrambled our brains but now they just sew our mouths shut because it’s quicker. The government is our butcher who will never stop mutilating us as long as they are in power. They will never get enough silence from us. This was never a choice for us. This was forced upon us.”
Then the doctor and nurse came back into the room. The doctor picked up his needle and without hesitation started to sew this man’s mouth shut. The man started to cry out in pain as his lips started to be mended together and struggled against his restraints but not once did those wild red eyes leave the camera. Then his cries became muffled and weak when the doctor tied off the last knot.
I could have almost sworn the eyes that were staring back at me were not my own but the man’s on that operation table. He had no choice in getting the procedure. They forced him to have it, just like society forced me to have it to be “safe”. But I feel no safety in this thing across my lips. All this has ever given me is pain and heartache despite it being my only protection against the law. How did they convince us to mutilate ourselves in order to keep to keep them happy? Should it not be in reverse? Now I know that even with our cooperation, we are still their victims and will continue to be until our way of living turns to ashes. Our stitches not only bind us to silence but also bind us to be their slaves. I take one more look at myself and realize what I hate so much about my own face. It wasn’t the titanium plates, or the screws, or the scars, but the silvery wire that coiled itself around my lips. The silvery wire that was supposed to protect me against myself, that was supposed to be a part of me, that was supposed to be my blessing and salvation is only a burden. A burden that I now refuse to bear!
I pulled the drawer open beside me and searched for something that could liberate me from their metal contract that made me their slave. I found a pair of nail scissors that had recently been sharpened. I hooked the scissors blade under the first loop that made my silence. I knew that what I was doing was almost an act of treason but I couldn’t bear the thought of another moment of silence. I could no longer let myself stand by and watch the government hurt innocent people. I couldn’t let myself be their victim. I then felt the scissors break the first stitch, releasing a very small portion of my mouth. Something about that small freedom didn’t scare me but only encouraged me to keep going. I kept cutting those little metal loops, and I felt like a bird being able to fly for the first time. I felt whole for the first time in my life. Once all the stitches had been cut, I had to pull out the metal wires by hand one-by-one. As I did, I mangled my fingers and my lips. I looked into the mirror and saw that I was crying but not for a second did I doubt that they were tears of joy. I continued to pull out those metal shards and maim my own face and bleed everywhere but I didn’t care because this is what I had to do. This is what I had to do in order to be a person again instead of another part in their machine. Once I had removed the last one, I looked at myself one more time to see if I still hate my own reflection; however, what I saw was overwhelming, I saw a person who has experienced some joy. I saw a future of happiness, I saw myself. My tears started to rush down my face, and my knees started to go weak all because I removed the protection that was given to protect me from myself but I didn’t protection from myself. I didn’t need anything, but the voice I have kept locked away for so long. I opened my mouth and in a quiet whisper I said,