Census

I found my lover’s body twisted out of shape like a piece of modern art. His breath was short and strained. When he saw me, he gurgled, words becoming bloody bubbles at the corners of his mouth. I knelt down by his knotted form and tried to find somewhere familiar I could hold, but the pavement had forced all familiarity from his body. His legs had invaded the space formerly occupied by his torso, causing his arms to wrap around and within themselves in form of compromise to allow for the shifting of space. He turned his face away from me despite causing his entire body to convulse in pain, all just to hide his embarrassment of his botched suicide attempt. ‘Ryan, I’m going to get you help ok, you’re going to be fine.’ He had obviously misjudged the height of the roof of our building and hit the ground with an impact only strong enough to contort his being. Ten floors were plenty for living the high life but not ending it. I took my hand and placed two fingers below what was left of his chin and turned his face back towards me, not caring of any extra pain I was causing him. I’d never seen him look scared before. Now I could tell from his eyes that he wasn’t scared of dying but of living. ‘They made me remember… I can’t… I can’t…’ I heard him say beneath the bubbles. I knew there was no point in trying to save him, not even to reassure him. Once they force you to remember there’s no going back. I took my fingers from his shattered jaw and placed them around his oddly fine nose and squeezed. I placed my other hand around his throat and tightened it, feeling bones snap and cartilage pop beneath my fingers. When I was sure he was dead, I left his body where it had landed and returned to our flat knowing his body, along with every record, every notion him, would be gone by morning. His letter was waiting for me on the kitchen table. I opened it and picked up the first book I could reach. Without actually taking in the content of the letter, I underlined each word he had used in the book in the order he had used them. All that I left out were our names. When I had done, I tore up the letter and set it alight on the hob and waited. It was 2.00am when they knocked on my door with their piteous smiles and black armbands over green sleeves. I let them shuffle in, accepting their condolences with silence before shutting the door behind them. I stood in the bedroom doorway and without looking at them I said: ‘I’d like to remember him if that’s alright,’ before getting into bed and leaving them to work. * It started as a personable way for the government to collect information. They would knock on your door, dressed in their green blazers and their smiles, and ask if the time was right for you. If it wasn’t they would come back when convenient and if no time ever was, you would never see them again. But most people let them in—there was something about their smiles you just couldn’t deny—and soon kettles would be on, biscuits would be out and you would talk. When they had everything they needed, they would pack up and go, never outstaying their welcome or being too quick. They would leave when it was just right. The information they collected through these chats began as fairly standard issue: religion, wage bracket, the harmless things the government liked to know. As the myth of terror grew more persuasive, however, so too did the questioning: ‘Do you feel safe? What are your opinions on the refugees?’ Of course, the questions were rarely that blunt, they would arise as naturally as they would in the pub and answers would never be explored or debated, just accepted. More and more intelligence was being gathered and nobody noticed. With all the issues surrounding online privacy, no one thought anything about face to face privacy. People were just glad to have somewhere other than a computer screen to share the most mundane corners of their lives. No one knows for certain when they started taking secrets. By the nature of it, no one can really remember giving them; at most you would remember they had visited and have some vague feeling of release. Word spread before it became official; the census would listen to you, to things you don’t want to feel or remember, and they would take them away. They called it absolvement. It was based on the idea of the confessional, picked from the remains of the Catholic Church, meaning whatever you told them was confidential. Even if they took abhorrent memories away from you: murder, paedophilia, they would do nothing other than free you from the burden. Until you stepped out of line. It turns out dangling an individual’s darkest flaw in front of them is an excellent form of coercion. If you take away a person’s guilt they will do whatever you ask of them and, if they don’t, you only have to threaten to give it back. Now nearly everyone has been absolved, even me. Obviously, I can’t remember what for and I don’t want to remember, because most who are forced into reminiscens disappear. Some commit suicide, some end up in prison; some, like Ryan, fuck it up and have to hope someone who loves them is there to finish them off. After the initial action, they come back in their green blazers, with added black armbands and a sombre smile, and remove every piece of evidence of that person’s life. Even their memory if asked. I didn’t want to forget Ryan because something didn’t feel right. In truth, he was boring. So the question wasn’t what he had remembered, but why he was reminded. What had he done that made the census interested in a random accountant in the city? * The sun woke me the next morning. My body was the same aspirational foetus it had been when I went to bed. I left the apartment without looking at anything. I stopped for a coffee on my way to the office and drank it in a park feeling oddly fine. There had been a subtle shift in the office. Everything felt normal but misplaced. Amy always asks me about Ryan but instead her conversation went straight to summer plans. Then there was Todd who asked me if I wanted to go for a drink after work, just the two of us. I declined. My office appeared untouched but I could tell they had been by a pile of misplaced files in the centre of the desk. When they performed an erasure on someone’s existence they didn’t leave any official documentation. To leave evidence of an erasure would be a paradox. Instead they would politely let whoever remained know that they had been by leaving something obviously out of place. I had only been in my office for a few weeks so there wasn’t much in there anyway. I tried my best not to think about a completely empty office across the city; clean scabs on dusty concrete walls where framed pictures will have been torn off. The only personal item I have in my office so far is a framed photo. I spent my morning focusing on tasks away from it; reading files and chasing people up. I didn’t look at it until lunchtime. If anyone had looked at it yesterday they would have seen me and Ryan arm in arm above a mountainous vista. Today they would only see me, smiling by myself with my arm sticking out at an awkward angle. But because I chose not to forget him I could see something different. At first my eyes were only drawn to me but as I stared harder I could make out the shape of something else. It was like the photo had been physically folded, trying to halve him out of the pictures’ reality. His body had crumpled and his face had changed, as if his eyes had been moved further apart, his nose lowered and his lips shrunk into his chin. It was barely recognisable as a face let alone his. When you choose to remember a reminiscens casualty the only place they are allowed to continue to exist is in your memory. All physical remains of them are erased completely. This means the bereaved never complain, never fight back. It’s hard to hold up a martyr only one person can remember. Once I was aware of the photo I stopped paying the day the attention it craved. I made myself look busy by pretending to sort through files until I could leave. I remember on my way back I stared at the people I passed wondering how large a mark they had made on the world and how easy it would be to scrub out. Back at the flat I was struck by how quiet it was. We were never a loud couple but now there was more space on the walls for the silence to echo. My first act was to take all the photos and put them in a drawer, just like in the office. To get rid of them seemed like a betrayal but to look at the swirled features of each one would be nauseating. I surveyed the rest of the flat, wanting to inspect every fresh patch of skin after its treatment. I wanted to find my pain for Ryan in the spaces he left. But instead I needed to know his reason so I went straight to the bookshelf and picked up the book containing his letter. On the whole, it was self-defacing, apologetic and sentimental. I can’t go on knowing and this way it won’t affect you. Whatever he remembered must have been from a long time ago. When I knew him, he hadn’t done much worth remembering let alone forgetting and they say the longer you’re absolved from something, the harder it is to live with again. There was one sentence I didn’t understand. Those streets are still safe. Irritated by it I left the book and paper on the breakfast bar and went to introduce myself to my new-old life. Any items that were obviously just Ryan’s had been taken, along with a few shared items, only to be replaced with something almost identical. It reminded me how big the flat was. You might not be able to measure a person by their possessions but it’s certainly a good way to measure their absence. The only items that had been left that weren’t mine was an assortment of maps Ryan had recently gotten into collecting. The census sometimes misses the odd small thing; an infallible attempt to seem fallible… As the only physical remains of him I sat down and studied them, tracing their lines as if they were the cracks of his skin. They were all of the same busy area of the city—not far from where he worked—going back several years. The maps had grown more concentrated over time as streets were imagined out of existence. In one map what was a wide-open street was lost in the compression between two rows in a later one. If they could make you forget a person, why not a place as well? Finding the maps scared me. I wish they hadn’t missed them, but they had. Captivated, I reached for the letter: Those streets are still safe. * It seems the best way to kill a street is to erase all knowledge of it. The city must be littered with packets of space that don’t appear on any map, GPS, or even by sight. Even if you were to absent-mindedly wander into one you would start to feel as if you had entered some kind of void. All sense of place would leave and you would give in to an overbearing instinct to turn around and walk back toward the living. Or at least you would if you weren’t fearless like Ryan was. He would spend his lunch breaks walking. He loved his office and his job but felt to truly appreciate it he needed to get out when he could. So, every weekday at 12 o’clock, he would set off. I had thought the walking and the maps were just dull, eccentric habits. If I’d known they had been connected and where they would lead, I might have tried to stop him. I don’t know which came first for him: the walking or the streets. I presume that one day he just found himself on one and just decided to carry on walking. I don’t for one second think he was doing it out of some radical notion, he was probably just interested in the architecture. But being the only thing that could put him on the radar of the census I had to look into it, to follow his stupid footsteps. The maps varied a little but each contained one area that seemed especially interesting. It was once a circular plaza that had seven streets leading to it. It was only a short distance from where Ryan worked and was surrounded by shops, hotels, businesses and one of the city’s iconic markets. As the maps got newer though, streets were vetoed until only one remained. Ryan must have chosen to explore where he wouldn’t be noticed slipping away. There he must have found something he shouldn’t have and was caught doing so. * I went on lunch hour. It was an ordinarily pleasant day and the plaza was teeming. Tourists swatted around taking pictures and workers sat with their jackets off, eating lunch talking loudly about business. It was clear no one else was aware of the conjoining streets; even I could barely spot them. Without thinking about it I threaded myself through and crossed the threshold. My muscles tore at me to turn back but I forced myself to carry on. There was nothing peculiar about the street beside its emptiness. Above me towered a metropolitan hotel. Red velvet flags hung moulding in the breeze; lanterns on the wall were filled with rainwater. Through the frosted glass, I thought I was being watched. There must be people that take refuge in places like this. People who were forced to remember or people who just chose not to forget. Other elements had been disturbed. There were posters and bits of graffiti, all connecting to a counter-culture Ryan must have encountered. He had always had a thing for lost causes, they wouldn’t have had to try very hard to seduce him. When I figured this out I turned, wanting to leave without being dragged into the mess Ryan had contaminated himself in. As I turned to run I noticed a larger section of graffiti on the wall behind me. It isn’t just our secrets they hide blazoned in big red letters on the beige concrete. My breath froze in my throat and cut into my mouth and I started sweating acid. I could hear footsteps approaching me, wanting to drag me further in so I ran whilst I still could. All this had made me suffer enough by losing Ryan’s life without taking mine as well. I emerged onto the plaza from behind a phone box gasping for clean air. The rest of the world had continued as normal. I looked at everyone wondering if they would want to know what I had found out. I envied their ignorance. As I looked around I made eye contact with two men in green blazers. I tried to escape their gaze by making my way around the plaza but their eyes followed me, never pausing and barely blinking. They knew what I had seen and they would be coming for me. I collapsed into my knees, sweat mingling with tears. When I regained my composure, they were still there, watching me from the same spot. They wouldn’t take me now, they don’t like making a scene. I nodded at them, and started making my way out of the plaza through the living street and headed back towards the flat. * I sat in the darkness waiting for them to appear. They were either going to force me into a reminiscence or, if what I had been absolved of wasn’t horrifying enough, they would do something worse. In the flat the prospect of becoming just another absence after an erasure felt too real, so I headed up to the roof. Three days ago, I woke up and my life was fine but only because I couldn’t know if it was any different. If I had known where all of this could end would I have just forgotten him? Life would have been good again, it would have been life. But now ten floors up I wondered if I deserved all this; whether I was guilty not for what I might end up remembering, but for having chosen to forget in the first place…

Chad Bentley