Good News First
by Morris Marshall
Enius Baysten watched the “Good News” wall monitor in his living room every night at eleven. The stories were always the same: a cat rescued from a tree, a miraculous new vitamin that could cure anything, a new type of meditation that, when practiced, allowed people to live to one hundred and fifty.
All day long, the New Regime played these stories. During intermissions, there was relaxing music. The New Regime suggested closing your eyes, placing both your hands on your chest just above your heart and breathing deeply as bright colors and words danced across the screen and a computer-synthesized voice said, You are happy... Life is wonderful... Be joyful... Don’t worry...
Don’t worry; be happy, Enius thought morosely as he listened to one of the ads. He’d heard those words years before in his teens. They came from an eighties singer named Bobby McFerrin. Back then, the news had featured doom and gloom: stock market crashes, terrorist attacks, wars, car accidents, murders and earthquakes.
Negativity was attractive. People stopped their cars on the highway to stare at gore. Enius hadn’t seen any bad news since the New Regime had passed a law requiring the installment of a “Good News” monitor in every residence three years ago.
* * *
One Friday evening in July, he was watching a story about teleportation. Scientists were close to developing a new body transportation method that didn’t involve breaking down a body’s cells and reconstructing them in a new location.
Without warning, several knocks sounded on the front door. Strange time to be calling, Enius thought. I don’t have any friends in this building and salespeople don’t usually call at night. He lived alone, never used the Internet, and refused to answer the door. He kept the chain lock in place while at home.
Before Enius could get off the couch, his front door burst open. The chain lock tore out of its mechanism and the doorknob slammed against his hallway wall. A puff of plaster drifted to the floor.
Two young men dressed in long black robes entered the living room. One was slim, with shoulder-length blond hair. An electronic force-field initiator hung from a belt around his waist. The other man was muscular, with short dark brown hair.
Enius stared at the blond man. “Galen? My God!” He rushed forward.
Galen removed the force field initiator from his belt and pointed it directly at Enius. “Don’t move!”
Enius stopped and raised both hands. “I haven’t seen you since you left for university five years ago. We were so worried, son. When your mom and I didn’t hear from you, we feared the worst.”
Galen scanned the apartment. A picture of his mom sat on an oak mantle near the “Good News” monitor. She had curly chestnut brown hair that fell to her shoulders, bright blue eyes and a warm smile. “Where is she?” he asked, motioning toward the photo with the force field initiator.
“She died of brain cancer three years ago, just before the New Regime was formed.”
Galen put his free arm to his forehead. “Brain cancer? No one told me.”
“Her last words were ‘Tell Galen I love him.’ Your mom always hoped that you’d go into Christian ministry like your grandfather.”
“Religion has only caused strife, and we’re a society of peace,” Galen said.
Enius seemed to ignore the words. “Let me look at you, son. It’s been so long. I wish we could spend some time together and catch up.”
“I’m too busy now. I joined the Gatekeepers after I graduated from law school,” Galen said.
Enius stepped forward. “Law school! That’s impressive. Son, do you remember the time—”
“Stop right there!” Galen said, his hand trembling slightly as he raised the force field initiator.
“Do you remember the time we went bass fishing up north when you were twelve? You caught a perch and left it on the line. The bobber disappeared and a large bass jumped out of the water. Must have been at least six pounds. You were so excited. We pulled it in together.”
Galen said nothing. “Tony,” he said to his partner, “search the place for the evidence. We know it’s here.”
Enius continued: “How about the father-and-son trip we took to Cuba the summer when you were ten? It was the first time you played tennis. While you were swimming in the ocean, a jellyfish stung your foot. You must remember that.”
Galen’s blank stare conveyed the answer. He was taller and his face had matured but retained its boyish features. Before he’d gone to university, Galen had been outgoing with a good sense of humor. He’d volunteered at the local food bank and nursing home. He’d cared for stray cats. As a child, he’d never even so much as thrown a punch let alone picked up a gun.
Enius approached his son slowly, his arms still reaching into the air. “You wouldn’t shoot your father, would you?”
The force field initiator discharged with a flash of light. Enius clutched his chest and doubled over. His entire body tingled. A force field surrounded him for about two feet in each direction. The slightest movement and he’d sizzle like barbecued meat.
Galen looked down the apartment hallway while keeping the initiator trained on his dad. “Did you find the evidence yet, Tony?”
“I’m still looking. There’s a lot of stuff here to go through. Man, your dad’s a real hoarder.”
Banging sounds erupted against the bedroom’s hardwood floor, followed by a steady tapping sound.
A few minutes later, Tony came back into the living room and dropped several books on the living room floor. “He hid these under the floorboards.”
Galen bent down and picked up a thick black book. He opened it and leafed through the pages. He looked at Enius. “You used to read me stories from this when I was a kid. I always liked the one about David and Goliath. I even made a slingshot once just like David’s.”
“So you do remember some things, son?”
“What difference does it make now, dad? You know better than anyone that obscene material is forbidden in Equilibria. All religious books were ordered burned when the New Regime took over at the height of the Faith Wars.” Galen ripped up the Bible and threw the remaining pieces of paper on the floor.
“That belonged to your grandfather,” Enius said. “He left it to me when he died. You read it as a boy when you went to Sunday school, when the churches and other places of worship were still open.”
“And these,” Galen said, throwing several books on the floor. They landed with a dull thump. “Mein Kampf. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. You should have burned them all. Why did you keep this filth?”
“You can’t erase the negative parts of history, son,” Enius replied. “That’s how we learn to avoid future mistakes.”
Enius had been a high school history teacher in the Old Regime. At the end of each term, he would take his students to the local museum. They would look at exhibits from ancient Greece and Rome, the Civil War and both World Wars. The New Regime had closed it down and erected a technology exposition in its place.
“The past is the past,” Galen said firmly. “Only the future matters. I have to take you in.”
Surrounded by his electric force field, Enius followed Galen and Tony to a dark blue car that waited on a monorail on the street outside his building. The prisoner sat between the Gatekeepers in the back seat.
“What ‘s the charge?” a computerized voice called out from the dashboard up front.
“Possession of obscenity. Request permission to take the suspect to the Gatekeeper’s Sanctuary.”
“Request granted,” the car replied. “Bring him in for Thought Obscenity Cleansing.”
“We’ll be there in ten minutes,” Galen said. “Gatekeeper’s Sanctuary,” he said to the car.
The door locks clicked and there was a whir as the car powered up and glided along the main monorails into downtown Equilibria. A steady rain was falling onto the dark, empty streets lit with splashes of bright red and purple emitted from computerized monitors broadcasting messages such as “Keep Calm” and “Be Happy.”
* * *
The Gatekeeper’s Sanctuary, a red two-story building surrounded by a force field, came into view. The car stopped, and Tony and Galen escorted Enius up a long set of stairs. Galen removed his force field generator from his belt and pressed a button on it. The Sanctuary force field disappeared. Once they were inside, it reappeared.
When they arrived in the basement, the Gatekeepers strapped Enius to a black leather chair and reclined it backward until his feet stuck up in the air at a sixty-degree angle. The blood ran to his head, giving him a head rush. Heart thudding, he took a deep breath. “Keep calm,” he whispered under his breath. “This is just like being at the dentist’s office.”
Galen slipped a blue ring over his father’s forehead. It reminded Enius of the blue inner tube he’d played with as a kid at the family cottage. The ring fit snuggly around his head and covered his eyes as well. Slowly it began constricting.
Enius had had several acquaintances, all over fifty years of age, that he suspected of undergoing Thought Obscenity Cleansing. Things didn’t always go as planned. The machine was supposed to erase only the obscene parts from your mind but wasn’t always as accurate as the New Regime claimed.
Jeff, his tennis partner for twenty years, had taught religious studies at a local college. One evening, about a year ago, Enius had met Jeff at the grocery store and asked him to set up a match, but was met with a blank look. Before he could ask what was wrong, Jeff walked away.
Then there was Rick, a college professor who’d worked briefly for the New Regime in the Computer Monitoring Division. As they had dinner one evening just weeks before, he divulged to Enius how to cheat the Thought Obscenity Cleansing machine and warned him not to tell anyone. Enius never saw him again.
You have to hide your obscene thoughts from the machine, Enius thought, trying to ignore the pain in his head. Just focus on your “happy place.” Don’t let them see what you’re really thinking. That’ll confuse the machine and keep it from wiping out all your memories.
The blue ring made a high-pitched whirring noise as it constricted his head. It felt like a large hand was crushing his skull. A sharp pain ricocheted through his forehead, temples, eyes, nose and mouth. It slithered down his spinal cord.
Enius closed his eyes. He was immediately with Galen in Cuba years before, holding his ten-year-old son up in the clear, warm turquoise water, teaching him to swim. The beach in front of their five-star hotel was blindingly white. Enius could almost feel the hot, golden sand that burned his feet when he stood on it too long, and the frosty, tangy mohitos as they slipped down your throat and doused the fire in your body.
Within seconds, everything went black.
When Enius awoke, he was lying in a bed in the Gatekeeper Recovery Area, shivering despite the blankets pulled up around his neck. He had no idea how long he’d been out. His brain was humming like electric wires on a hot summer day. His eyelids felt as if someone had sealed them together with Crazy Glue. He reached up and slowly pried them apart. A line of fresh stitches traversed his forehead where the blue ring had been.
The sun slanted through the blinds on his bedroom window, making bright rectangular patterns on the blue linoleum floor. The faint hum of driverless cars sailing along the monorails during the morning commute wafted in from outside. The clinking of dishes and cutlery came from the hallway. Enius closed his eyes.
Sometime later, he awoke to the sound of shoes swishing against the hallway floor. The door to his room swung open and a middle-aged, heavyset nurse entered, carrying a tray, which she set down in front of him.
“Welcome back,” she said.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Nine-thirty. You’ve been sleeping for almost four days. Do you remember anything about your past occupation or faith?”
Enius paused. He shook his head.
“What’s your name?” the nurse asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Your vital signs seem fine. If nothing changes, you’ll be discharged tomorrow morning.”
“I don’t remember where I live.”
“Your old residence is still waiting for you. The New Regime has repainted and completely refurnished it. They’ve repaired the damage to the doors, wall and floor. In the meantime, you must be very hungry. Enjoy your breakfast, but take it easy. You need to get used to solid food again, and I don’t want you to get sick.”
Enius looked down at the tray. The egg yolks stared up at him like two eyes and the bacon strips resembled a smiling mouth. Don’t worry; be happy, he thought. He tasted the food. After finishing half of his breakfast, he lay down in bed, folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes.
Enius opened his eyes and looked up at the young blond-haired man standing over his bed. “Who are you?”
“I’m your son, Galen.”
“I don’t remember having any children.”
“Don’t you remember me, Dad?”
“How about Mom? You were married twenty-five years before she died of cancer. You told me. Remember the photo of her on the TV set? You must—”
Galen ran up to the nurse, who had just entered the room. “What’s wrong with my father?” he asked. “You were only supposed to remove the obscene parts of his memory relating to his previous occupation and faith. He doesn’t remember anything now.”
“You’ll have to speak to the doctor, sir, but she won’t be in until this afternoon. Your father’s going to need constant care when he’s discharged.”
Galen went to his father’s bedside and grabbed his hand. “Dad, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I do remember all those things you mentioned: the trip to Cuba, the fishing trips up north. I thought I could forget, but I couldn’t. I’m going to talk to the Gatekeepers. Maybe they’ll give me some time off so I can care for you.” He sighed and left the room. His footfalls disappeared down the hall.
Enius got up, went to the door and looked both ways down the hall. Smiling, he ran back to his bed, sat down and finished his bacon and eggs. Tears trickled down his cheeks as he ate.
On the wall above his hospital bed, the “Good News” monitor buzzed to life. The screen flashed purple, orange, and relaxing music spread throughout the room. Enius closed his eyes and put his hands on his chest, just above his heart. He took several deep breaths. “Don’t worry,” the computerized voice said. “You are happy. Life is wonderful...”
Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall