The Erasure

By Jason A. Bartles

“Would you like to stop a minute?” Mayer asked.

“Yes, please,” the guard replied.

“Lean on me,” Mayer suggested when they got under way again.

—Calvert Casey, “The Execution”

By tomorrow the remaining evidence of the life of Mabel will be erased. The announcement streamed across a rose banner at the top of each screen in our building.

(Image courtesy Jason Bartles.)

Mabel had been arrested while working from home over three months ago on charges of crafting and disseminating a false historical record. I heard them knock across the hall. The Open Officer unlatched the door, turned on the lights, drew back the curtains—she always preferred the dark, which made no sense to me given the biometric tools broadcasting our every heartbeat and breath of hot air to one another, but that was her right—and asked for permission to search her home. She freely gave her consent. I watched from my screen as they opened her kitchen cabinet, as they pried floorboards and removed ceiling tiles. Their hands returned empty to the white-walled one-room apartment that, like mine, like everyone’s, boasted a sleeping mat, a microfridge, a shower stall, a toilet, a clothes rack, a metal table, and a screen. These are the privileges, including access to a home with filtered air, plus two meals and up to two gallons of recycled water per day, afforded to us in compensation for our skilled labor and civic duties.

“Do you know why you must be arrested?” asked the OO.

“I do,” Mabel replied, pointing at the piece of paper the OO had taken from her table.

“Then, let’s be on our way,” suggested the OO. “After you.”

“Thank you.”

I remember watching Mabel on my screen as she stepped into a pair of sandals and led the way down the stairs to the lobby. She held the door for the OO, and together they climbed into a car waiting outside. Behind the tinted glass, her face disappeared, and I can’t say I was unhappy at her decision to leave at the time.

As is my right, I accessed the recording of her arrest from the Archive and zoomed in on the piece of paper to read its contents. Possession of paper is not a crime in and of itself, but citizens are restricted from creating documents in order to preserve the historical record. On the paper in question appeared a long list of names with a few words written about each one. Helen, distributing medicines. Norma, teaching literacy. Luis, disabling firewalls. Those names traced the outlines of rose-colored ghosts I preferred not to notice for they were the ones we had erased. Yet, against all logic, here they were. More of their lives had remained on that piece of paper in Mabel’s apartment than in any of our collective memories or records. A face filled with conviction, whose name I had made myself forget, then reappeared in my mind. I searched for him on the list, but before I reached the middle, the erasure algorithm blurred its content. Now it is only a blank piece of paper, and soon the entire recording will be gone.

On the morning of her arrest, Mabel had wished each of her older twin brothers a happy birthday in separate messages, copied an aspirational quote, something about the incomparable beauty of repetition, written a non-committal reply to her mother about visiting the next weekend, and clicked her support of our downstairs neighbor’s desire that certain individuals in the building learn to walk more quietly in the evening. I don’t understand why Mabel felt the need to take Tim’s side on this issue. I had told her the day before that I was practically walking around on tiptoe as it was and that he would just have to acclimate to living in an apartment building. He should be more grateful for getting accepted here in the first place. For that last sentence I stared right into the central camera for him to see, provided he had even learned to work his screen by then. I’ll never understand how a son of erased origin could be granted such a quick promotion to our building, but that’s the way things are these days. Mabel suggested I try to remember what it was like to be new here but promised to speak with him later that day. The next morning, to my surprise, she officially supported him, and others in the building did the same. I never could compete with her.

By the time I checked, only one message remained on her stream from the day before her arrest. Mabel had expressed her interest in attending an Eating. Though not strictly illegal, Eatings encroach on the boundaries of accepted behavior. During one iteration, each diner prepares a single portion of the same dish in their own apartment, and at the agreed upon time, they open multiple windows on their screens to view the others. One by one, they photograph their dinner plates, experimenting with different angles and sanctioned filters. They never hold a conversation—Eatings are not political—but once everyone’s photo is uploaded, they vote on their favorite style. Had she been there, Mabel’s would have been a serious contender; she knew how to get people to like her. The chosen photograph is then recreated as precisely as possible by each of the diners to curate a collection of indistinguishable images of the dishes prepared by so many hands. Then they watch one another eat in friendly silence. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never been interested in such things.

On the line of text where the time of the Eating had been listed, the erasure algorithm was removing each letter and number with a sparkling animation, steadily working its way toward the present. Mabel’s prior messages, her support, her photos and videos, her disputes and broken promises and gestures toward reconciliation, her favorite quotes, her daily offerings of joy after a successful shift, the entirety of Mabel’s record was dissolving. We know what has to be done. The encroaching void gently guides us to purge her from our speech and our streams, lest the erasure algorithm for Mabel be set to work, without appeal, on our own records. I watched as Tim swiftly deleted anything that even tangentially related to the month during which Mabel helped him settle into his new life. I will need to erase her as well, but that can wait a bit longer.

The erasure proceedings began their live stream, and the recording function on our screens was temporarily disabled. Mabel stood hooded and cloaked in front of a rose-colored backdrop that extended under her feet. The presiding OO sat behind a crystal table in the courthouse. The exposed rafters and white marble floors shone waxy in the natural light that flooded the room from massive windowpanes on every wall. Facing the single camera, the OO declared that a fair trial had taken place, that clear evidence of the defendant’s crimes had been carefully studied, and that her guilt had been proven beyond doubt.

“The Court recommends that the falsified document be destroyed to restore the Archive. Furthermore, it recommends erasure of the guilty as punishment for her crimes. Do you accept this verdict?” asked the presiding OO.

“I do,” replied the hooded figure.

“Then, let’s begin.”

“Thank you.”

The erasure algorithm first blurred the hooded figure’s outline, along with its subtle shadows and highlights, into a uniform dark gray. Mabel had become an erroneous text, a smudge on our screens. Starting at the top of the hood, each gray pixel was replaced with a rose one, dissolving the silhouette of her head, of her arm, and then of what I think was an ankle or maybe just part of the cloak. I tried not to blink as the last pixelated row of Mabel’s captured form was erased, leaving only the rose-colored backdrop. Another OO rolled it up, dismantled its stand, and carried it out of the courtroom, and the cameras were turned off. Moments later, the recording function of our screens was restored. In less than twenty-four hours, all records relating to the trial will be destroyed as the final act in the erasure of Mabel.

I never cared for Mabel. I rarely even watched her. Almost anyone else in the building would know more about her than me, until tomorrow when Mabel’s name will refuse to leave our mouths and the memories of her life will insist on their own untruthfulness. I can’t explain what incited me to write the little I know of her, these insignificant, unflattering details, some of the only ones remaining after the trial. I’ve never risked falsifying the record for anyone. Not even for him, and I had said I loved him. I did nothing to resist his arrest nor his erasure, since there is no great form of refusal or disagreement possible here. I knew then as I do now that there would be no revolution, no revolt or collective uprising, no successful acquittal in the end. “I do,” his hooded figure had replied, just as Helen, Norma, and Luis had done before him, just as all of the erased always do. He and I both accepted his erasure, but now I wonder if his name had been on Mabel’s list, if I had skimmed over it by mistake, if someone else might have another copy, or if this is all that remains. Mabel. Mabel, my neighbor. Mabel, the one who tried to remember them all. Mabel, whose name I won’t forget, because Mabel would have reminded me of his name had I ever dared to ask.

I hope someone hears the knock at my door.

This story first appeared in Here Comes Everyone “The Tomorrow Issue” 2018.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Jason A. Bartles, originally from West Virginia, now calls Philadelphia home. He lives with his husband and two dogs, a blue-eyed husky and a pit-mix who will lick your face off. He teaches Latin American literature and Spanish at a regional university, but he promises his stories are entirely fictional.