The Black Path

Black bus it is. Maybe the traffic won’t be too bad today. Hopefully, you’ll make it to work by seven.

Unfortunately for you, you live in Obezag, a dictatorship that you wish you could escape from. The trashed streets and extremely impoverished residents are reflective of the corrupt, selfish government that rules over you. You work at the ONOC, the Obezag National Office of Censorship. Your job is to scan all mail entering and exiting the country and censor anything that could potentially be illegal or treasonous. In Obezag, all mail must be officially deemed “lawful” and certified with a green stamp to pass through the system. If an ONOC worker, including you, finds a piece of mail to be dangerous or possibly treasonous, a large “W.F.I.” will be stamped on it in bright red, indicating a warrant for investigation. If mail is flagged with a red stamp, it is sent to the head of the ONOC, where it will be probed and inspected by several officials for any suspicious messages or double meanings that could prove dangerous to the government.

Regardless of the content of the letter, once it gets sent to the ONOC head, the writer is done for. He or she will inevitably be disappeared by the state.

In an attempt to flee the country secretly, you have written your sister Maria a letter containing information that could lead to your removal from the country. Your personal mission is to clear the letter through the censoring floor and make sure it gets sent to her. This is the only way you will ever be able to escape the country. Your fate lies in the specks of ink and shoddy penmanship that cover the creamy yellow paper, currently hidden in a thick orange envelope in the pocket of your briefcase.

“Damn it,” you murmur as you look down at your wristwatch.

7:08, it reads. You need to hurry off the bus and get into work. The elderly woman in front of you is holding you up as she can barely walk down the steps of the bus. Her walking cane clacks on the ground with each tiny step she takes. Frustrated, you squeeze past her and scurry up the ONOC stairs. A drizzle begins to fall from the grayish clouds, spotting your clothes with raindrops. You quickly open the door of the building and rush inside, hoping your boss, Mr. Castigo, doesn’t notice you’re almost ten minutes late.

You step off of the elevator onto the second floor, which consists of one large room filled with huge plastic boxes of letters, magazines, and packages. Your eyes flicker towards your desk, the desk that you have sat at every day for the past four years, but it looks different today.

Someone who you have never seen before is seated in your chair.

“Hi there… Are you new here?” you ask, visibly confused. “That’s my desk, sir.”

He looks up at you and then looks away. He lifts a box of mail off of the ground and places it on your desk, still seated in your chair.

“Excuse me, that’s my desk,” you repeat. “Hello? Sir?”

He picks a piece of mail from the box and grabs a pen from your drawer, continuing to ignore your presence.

“Okay, then.” You stomp back towards the elevator with a scornful glower on your face and click the button labeled with a down-facing arrow. The elevator is taking forever today. You jab at the button again.

“Come on,” you groan. You hit the button a couple more times until the light above the elevator finally blinks white.

Ding. It opens at last. As beads of sweat begin to form on your forehead, you press the button for the first floor. Unlike the floor on which you work, this one consists of offices walled with glass, a large wooden centerpiece with a coffee pot, and potted plants sitting in each corner.

Through the glass that surrounds his office, you see Mr. Castigo at his desk. As you stride towards his office, he looks up at you and down again, just as the mysterious man did.

“Sir, may I come in?” you ask, gently knocking at the door.

 “Come in,” his voice booms from inside.

“Sir, I was just wondering if you knew anything about the man sitting at my desk.” “That is Mr. Ladrón. He is the overseer of the mailing room.”

“Uh, sir, is that no longer my position?” you ask, still unsure of what is happening. “You are sixteen minutes late,” Mr. Castigo replies, looking down at his watch. 

“Do you know what that means?”

“I’m so sorry, sir. The bus-”

“What it means is that you have been replaced. Please leave my office, sir.” 

You stare at him blankly. What does that mean?

“Sir, I’m confused,” you respond. “What do you mean I’ve been replaced, sir?” 

“You no longer work here,” he stares at you with his blank, cold eyes.

For a few seconds, you stare back at him in disbelief and confusion. Your legs feel heavy and immovable, but you force them to walk towards the door and out of the building.

As you walk back out onto the street, a feeling of freedom mixed with embarrassment that turns to anger overcomes you. You hate that job. After four years of feeling shackled to a desk and treated like replaceable garbage, you certainly feel more relief than sadness. The only problem is- how are you going to send Maria the letter now that you no longer work at the censoring office?

A few days pass, but the question continues to linger in your mind. That letter is the only hope you have to leave this awful country, but it would surely get flagged if you sent it through the mailing system and didn’t intercept it. You concoct a plan- not a great one, but maybe it will work.

During the thirty-minute break in which ONOC employees eat their lunch, you will secretly and stealthily enter the building, making sure not to catch the eye of Mr. Castigo. You will go up to the mailing floor using the staircase, not the elevator, to minimize the number of employees who could see you. Then, while the mailing floor employees are away eating, you will sneak into your old desk and clear your letter for mailing with a big, green stamp. Once that bright orange envelope gets stamped, you will be one bit closer to never having to step foot in Obezag again.

After almost a week of fine tuning the plan and pondering whether or not sending the letter is worth the risk of getting caught, you decide that it is your only option. If you get caught with the letter, you are bound to be disappeared by the state, but if you don’t, you will wither away in this country for the rest of your life. Might as well take the risk, you tell yourself.

Finally, you summon up the courage to follow through with your plan. It’ll work, you reassure yourself as you open up your briefcase and see the orange envelope shining through the mesh pocket in which it has sat, unmoved for the past week. You zip up the briefcase and with a deep breath, lift it up off the ground. To avoid being late again, you take the white bus this time.

As you sit in the ripped seat, the scent of gasoline and sweaty passengers mixed with your own anxiety about breaking into the office gives you an uneasy sensation in your stomach. Despite your qualms, you know that sending this letter is the only chance you have at freedom.

As the bus comes to a halt in front of the ONOC, a feeling of pure terror paralyzes your body. Sneaking through the ONOC and clearing a letter is much easier said than done, you think to yourself. Getting caught with the letter itself, let alone sending it, would be punishable by death.

“Man, you’re holding up the line,” a voice echoes from the back of the bus.

“Sorry,” you mumble. Feeling forced by the audibly angry passengers behind you, you make your way off of the bus.

You step onto the concrete ground and stare up at the monstrous, gray building. The ugly industrial design of the building and dull color give the ONOC a gloomy feel. The building has eleven floors, and it makes even the tallest men feel tiny and irrelevant.

You feel nauseous just looking at the building, but you know that you’re running on a tight schedule. You can hardly breathe, and you feel your stomach churning, and before you even realize your feet are moving, your hand is on the door handle.

Hesitantly, you open the door and step into the building, feeling a sweat starting to break out even though the room is freezing cold. You glance at Mr. Castigo’s office, its glass walls now covered with bright white blinds.

12:04, your watch reads, indicating that their lunch break just started. You walk swiftly towards the stairwell, holding your head down and avoiding eye contact with anyone who passes by. You walk up one flight of stairs and fish  your old ONOC ID out of your briefcase and swipe it through the card reader on the side of the door. With a beep, the door unlocks. Before stepping into the room, you scan the floor for any employees. Your desk, as well as the others, is empty. Now is your chance.

Taking a deep breath, you push yourself out of the doorway and take a few steps towards your old desk, trying as hard as possible to stay silent. You hear voices coming from the floor above you, and you reassure yourself that there is no one else on your floor. Making sure to keep watch of the elevator and stairwell, you continue over to your old desk. You take a seat in your old chair and place your briefcase onto the desk, your eyes still watching the door. Your hand shakes as you pull out the letter, the bright orange envelope now sporting a few creases due to its time spent smooshed in the briefcase pocket.

Creak. You drop the envelope and nearly jump out of your seat, your heart pounding in your chest. It was just the old floorboards, you decide with a sigh. You swipe your old ID into the card slot on the desk drawer in which the certification stamps are stored. You wince at the loud beep of the card reader but feel relieved that your old ID still works. You open the drawer and grab the stamp and green ink pad. You firmly press the stamp onto the ink pad and shakily hover it over the letter. This is it, you think to yourself. This is your chance to be free, to leave this horrible country, but if even a whiff of what you’ve done gets out, you will likely be dead by sunrise.

Do you stamp the letter?

You stamp the letter. I went through all this trouble to get here, so might as well, you tell yourself. You hear the stamp squish as it pushes the ink onto the envelope. You lift the stamp off of the paper and stare at it for a second, both in fear and in awe of what you’ve done. It feels almost surreal to see the stamped letter in your hand. You remind yourself that you need to hurry up and get out of the building. You place your letter into the box labeled “LAWFUL” and put the stamp and pad back into the drawer. You throw your ID back into your briefcase and rise out of your chair.

Ding, the elevator chimes. It’s not the creaky floorboards this time. Within a second, your eyes widen and your heart nearly jumps out of your chest. There is nothing you can do except freeze. You try to move your legs, but they are glued to the ground. There’s nowhere to run or hide. It’s just a big room.

Your replacement walks in the room. He looks up at you, startled. He recognizes you. “What are you doing here?” he asks. His initial look of confusion has shifted to one of

contempt.

“I dropped by to get some of my things out of my old desk, that’s all. And I was about to leave, actually. Sorry if I startled you, sir. I’ll get going now.” The words spew out of your mouth before you have time to think of a better response. You walk past him briskly, staring at the floor, and enter the elevator before he has any more time to think about your story.

As you push open the door of the building, a cold breeze hits your face and turns your cheeks pink.

You stare at the street ahead in silence. If only you had arrived a few minutes earlier. Now, your fate rests in the hands of a man who clearly hates you. Maybe he won’t even look in the mail box, maybe he won’t ever see the letter, you think. But he probably will, and you  probably will be dead soon.

I can fix this, you tell yourself. I’ll kill him.

If you kill your replacement, your letter will undoubtedly get sent to Maria. But maybe you’ll be arrested for murder before she even gets it. If you don’t get rid of him, though, he’s bound to find the letter and report it.

Do you want to kill him?

Yeah, he’s gotta go.

If he doesn’t die, he will either find the letter or report you for being in the building unauthorized. You must kill him, and you must do it as soon as possible. If you wait even an hour, he will have already reported you, and you will probably be dead.

You turn around and run back inside the building, panting. Before you can even ponder the consequences of getting caught murdering a man, you run up the stairs, sweating through your shirt. You grab the ID out of your briefcase and fling it towards the card reader. It beeps, and you throw open the door and step onto the second floor.

Your replacement sits in your old desk, his legs crossed. Before he even notices your presence, you storm towards him. You have nothing to hit him with other than your briefcase, and maybe one of the boxes of mail sitting on the floor. Clearly, you didn’t think this plan through very well.

He looks up at you, but for some reason he doesn’t look scared at all. He looks towards the elevator, but you continue towards him. As you approach him, a smile begins to form on his cheeks, and an uneasy feeling overcomes you.

Before you can reach his desk, you hear the elevator chime. You don’t have to turn around. You know exactly who it is. You stop moving, and you bow your head down. Behind you, you can hear a few pairs of boots stomping off of the elevator.

“Sir, turn around with your hands behind your head.” He already reported you.

I can’t kill an innocent man. Don’t be crazy. He won’t think to look in the mailing box.

You take the bus home, but this time it doesn’t matter which bus you take. On the ride home, you think about what you should have done differently. Get there earlier, for sure. Or maybe just don’t get fired in the first place. Give the replacement a better excuse why you showed up to work unannounced.

As rain starts to pour over the streets of Obezag, you look out of the window and follow the droplets of water as they run down the window. You hum a song softly as you look at the puddles covering the side of the road. Your briefcase sits in your lap, your arms wrapped around it tightly. The twenty-minute drive home seems exceptionally long today. For some odd reason, you feel at peace on the bus, despite its screeching tires and the thunder booming above.

When you get home, you take off your shoes and your clothes and hop into the shower. For nearly an hour, you stand under the hot water, still humming. Once your fingers begin to wrinkle up, you step out and wrap yourself in a towel. You stare at your face in the mirror.

It’s only three in the afternoon, but you get into bed. You’re not tired, but your eyes close anyways. You can feel yourself breathing slowly as the warm blanket surrounds your body.

Voices outside wake you up. It’s dark now. You hear a knock at the door, and more voices outside. You already know who it is. After one more knock, you hear a loud thud. You decide to close your eyes again and go back to sleep.

 

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