Tragedies of the Week

Monday was the massacre in northeast New Country. Thirty-eight people cut down, some as young as nine. The Big City Screen (BCS) ran reports for the requisite four hours. Then, two hours of permitted Social Feedback (SF) went the usual way. My zip feed was full of sad faces and little black flowers and hands pressed together in prayer. I’ve heard that The Board might cut down the SF block from two hours to one hour since everyone is familiar with the new drop-down menu options now and it takes no time at all to post. I tend to stick with the “So Sad” response when I want to convey Emotion Without Engagement (EWE).

Sometimes, I get a random loony that responds with something I can’t figure out, like a smiley face. I’ve thought about reporting those responses but I usually don’t since everything on my zip feed will be wiped clean when the SF block ends and the next 24-hour cycle begins. 

After I posted “So Sad,” I walked out to the city center to see The Statement on the BCS. The Board hit the usual main points—we won’t be defeated, the perpetrators will be punished, let’s band together in prayer, etc. We stood for two minutes of silence. Some “incidents” get one minute, but this one beat the “twenty people dead” threshold. All in all, The Statement and silence bit usually takes thirty minutes. That leaves plenty of time to get more work done, which is the Main Objective. 

The Board employees handed out royal blue pins as we went back into our Productivity Time (PT) buildings, but I’m not sure why The Board chose royal blue for this one. I thought royal blue was for “fewer than ten victims, including serious injuries” but I might be confusing that with aquamarine.

Tuesday, I went back to the office wearing the royal blue pin until the news broke about West City. I put the pin down on my desk out of respect for whatever color I should be wearing for West City. Apparently, the people struck down were on the verge of missing curfew. The BCS showed selected images highlighting the importance of keeping to schedule. 

I embarrassed myself on Wednesday because I wore the royal blue pin when it was supposed to be the mossy green one for West City. I must have grabbed the wrong pin off my desk. Jerry caught me out, though, and I know Jerry wouldn’t report it. He has one Warning Mark (WM) already for not responding according to protocol. He said it was an accident, that he was tired and he scrolled down too far and that’s why he posted a “Happy-Surprised Face” instead of a “Crying Face” like he’d meant to. I’m getting in the habit of throwing the pins in the bin under my desk. Less confusion that way. Sometimes I look down at the bin, all the colors of the discarded pins mingling like confetti left over from a grand party, and I can’t help but smile. 

Wednesday was quiet, for the most part. During lunch Jerry wondered if we might have a Clear Day (CD). It’s been nearly a year and a half since we had a CD. Sam, who sits in the Productivity Stall behind me, heard us talking and wanted to start placing bets. I didn’t think it was a good bet since a CD is so rare now. Sam is always trying to predict how things turn out. I stayed out of it.

It wasn’t until well after nightfall when Wednesday’s incident happened. Some sort of siege on a single block in the Lowland. Hostages and that whole deal. Most of the news reports ran into the early morning hours. I know we’re permitted to watch the Individual Screen after lights out when an incident occurs at night, but I was just too tired to watch for more than an hour. I set my zip feed to automatically post “So Sad” during the SF block and went back to sleep.

Thursday was a red ribbon day, since the whole hostage thing ran from one day into the next. I had a few ribbons at home so I would be ready. I think that walking to work with the ribbon already affixed to my lapel, the sharp contrast of the crimson ribbon on my gray suit, showed that my zip feed reaction reflected sincere EWE.

The Lowland Siege didn’t end well, but these things never do. I noticed a few other workers wearing their red ribbons, too, when we all lined up in the City Square. I nodded at the woman in front of me when she noticed mine.

Strange how it was like any other day, all of us lined up for PT, as every morning, until a bullet screeched by my ear and somebody screamed. Not a second later, another bullet flew into the line of PT workers queued next to ours. A man I recognized from the PT cafeteria, because he must have been almost six and a half feet tall, went down like a building. His legs buckled under him and each floor of his body collapsed on top of the one before, until his head fell to the side and hit the pavement, making even more of a mess than the initial bullet hole did.

All that blood sent everyone scattering across the City Square. Some tried to retaliate with their Standard-issue Arms, but they went down fast. Some tried to open the PT building doors, but they don’t open until Start Time (ST), exactly eight o’clock. Not one minute earlier. Not even that day.

I took off for an alley I sometimes used if I was running late for ST. Some damned Operational Machine was parked right at the end, blocking my way out, but I couldn’t turn back. The bullets were coming like hail, with no breaks between each bang. I crouched down as small as I could get, which isn’t very small for a broad-shouldered guy like me, and pressed myself so close to the alley wall you would have thought I was trying to climb inside of it. I lowered my head, tried to slow my breathing, and waited. 

Then I thought of what I saw on the BCS last week. A girl crouching in a corner of a vast concrete building. She didn’t look up and never knew what hit her. I figured I should be aware of what was going on, so I peeked, just a little bit, around the edge of the wall. I couldn’t really see anything but the empty square where we would normally be lined up for ST. Then the BCS flickered in the background and came to life, as though a sort of supernatural being made it so. There it was, the City Square reflecting back at me on the screen lording over the city, an alternate two-dimensional universe side-by-side with the real one. The scroll began at the bottom of the screen: BREAKING NEWS! MID-CITY SQUARE UNDER ATTACK! WATCH LIVE!

The view on the BCS panned out, searching for something to focus on. I imagine an empty square wasn’t much for viewers to look at, so the picture cut to the east. The camera zoomed in on a pair of legs sticking out from behind a refuse receptacle, not very well hidden, especially considering the number of cameras around the square. Everything was very quiet for a while before I heard the footsteps, first not too far from me, and then echoing from the BCS speaker. Then, shots fired. Then, a scream.

When the guy leaned over to grab his bloody legs, I knew it was Jerry. I could see his face as clear as anything on the BCS. I don’t think that I ever noticed just how old Jerry looked until I saw his face enlarged on the screen like that. He was only in his early forties. Damn, that picture was clear.

It wasn’t easy to see the gunman finish him off, no matter how many times I’d seen it end like this before. At least it was quick, and the camera didn’t linger for too long.

Everything went silent again for a minute after that, or maybe that was in my head. The BCS flashed back to the empty square and then flipped through every camera angle in the area it could access in quick succession. That’s when I saw my face on the screen.

It almost didn’t look like me. I had never been on the BCS before, not even when the news block people asked our PT workers to comment on the Independence Day Tragedy that unfolded one square over from ours. I hadn’t known what to say.

But there I was, my face scrunched up and eyes wide like a confused animal’s for all to see. I swatted at the air, hoping the BCS people would get my meaning and turn the camera away. It didn’t work.

There wasn’t much I could do. I had no way out unless I was willing to dart across the square. I froze. The footsteps started again, echoing. Heavy and thundering and louder by the second. His shadow eclipsed the light illuminating my face on the BCS.

He stood in front of me, his two hands on the rifle, looking sort of bored, like this was procedure, like when I hand out the Salary Slips every Friday, moving from desk-to-desk and laying them out one-by-one.

He lifted the rifle up to his eyes and readied it. My chest felt like a motor on the edge of explosion. I didn’t look to the BCS. I don’t know exactly why, but I slid my right hand under my lapel and pulled it forward to show him the red ribbon. He lowered the rifle and cocked his head, just for a moment, before raising it up again and taking aim. All I could do was close my eyes. This time, I couldn’t watch.

They tell me that’s when all hell broke loose. People started running through the square. You couldn’t tell who was who, who had a gun, or where the bullets were coming from. They tell me the guy holding the rifle to my head ran off right when he was about to pull the trigger. A bullet hit my shoulder at some point in the commotion. Apparently, it was all very edge-of-your-seat. Lucky for you, they said, it could have been much worse. I might have seen it for myself, but everything was wiped clean before I came to.

I think I remember the sound of the shot rattling inside me, like dropping a penny into an empty jar, or maybe I just dreamed it. I didn’t open my eyes until Sunday. By that time, the Mid-City Attack was old news. Friday began with the North Village Extermination and Saturday was a bad time for East Falls Township. 

Sam came into the Recovery Ward and told me he took over my zip feed while I was unconscious. He posted an all-caps “SO SAD” response with black flowers on my account after the incident that Thursday. He said he thought it would be appropriate, considering what happened to Jerry. I was still alive so I could’ve received a WM for a non-response. That Sam, he’s a good guy. I guess you never know who will be there in the end.

DOROTHY BENDEL's work can be found in Catapult, Electric Literature, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The New York Times, and additional publications. Follow her on Twitter @DorothyBendel and learn more at