Short Stories

Short Story: Supreme Efficiency

He watched as the big clock of the office wall ran its seconds in bold red numbers. He waited for them to round up into the perfect equilibrium. Their beauty and meaning decided by someone with enough titles to know what is proper and functional to arrive at supreme efficiency. It was just that he had never felt like he fitted the ethos of effectualness. Around him, others were happy to tap on until a sound marked the end of their shift. Then they would get up simultaneously and leave in an orderly fashion while he staggered up, trying to collect all his things before running out of the seconds. Others would exit the building into the tube system, knowing exactly where they went. And he, he would look for gate 56 as if it kept changing its place every hour of the day. Even in his one-room apartment at block 349 with the title 3655, he saw those red numbers flash. Sometimes he pictured the world outside the fences as if there were more than the ticking clock and the endless commands to follow. A lie he had gotten stuck in, obstructing the inner harmony others had achieved. The fault was his and his wandering mind.

And there he was, back sitting at his desk, glancing up the clock every minute, surrounded by the same faces into perpetuity. Then at the tube, there they were again and again at his apartment, slipping into their containers to emerge again at the same time as he did. He would break the tap, tap of his existence on rare occasions. On his sanctioned supply runs, seeing unfamiliar faces and getting to select the cans to stock up. But he would steal a glance at where they kept the plants in the pots. He dreamed of them when the red numbers let go of the possession over his subconsciousness. There was something hypnotic in the patterns branches created. The same symmetry sought by his existence. Yet, he never stepped off his aisle. He let the most meaningful second disappear in hopes it would reappear when everything else failed.

The plant in its pot stood in front of his eyes. Or more like he imagined it there as he could no longer look at the big clock to see the seconds run. It had been noted that he was inefficient. Thusly his head had been strapped so he saw only the monitor and the incoming numbers and names. He had started blinking a lot more and counting them. There was a number to arrive, meaning liberty. Occasionally he missed a beat or fluttered faster, yet deviation wasn’t much. At the end of the day, the woman next to his desk was tasked with unstrapping him. She never looked him into his eyes and hurried afterward away from him as fast as she could. He had a similar effect on everyone else in his shift. Bad for morale. That was what he was. He had only come across one such person in his first year. He had been afraid of her and her unauthorized haircut and clothes. Had she had a plant? He couldn’t remember. She had been removed.

The plants were taken away from his communal shopping area. There was no explanation. Just more sanctioned affordable items like a soothing black, white, and gray geometrical patterned canvas. There was a similarity to the plant, and he almost spent his saved extra money on it. The money he had been nipping off from not buying coffee. It would show the others that he was like them. He could speak about it at the commune to work. But when he had it in his hands, he put it away and went back to his aisle and bought canned mushroom ravioli.

He told about the painting to his coworker while she unstrapped him. All she did was look startled and flee when he was free. Then came the complaint. His behavior was against the regulations, which had been added to his permanent records. He could now choose to be pre-programmed or removed from his tasks. They gave him a day to decide, sending him to his container early with a stack of pamphlets. Tomorrow morning, he would have to go back and let them know. To know what exactly was not that easy to grasp. He felt stupid and criminal, unable to decipher the paths laid on him. The pamphlets were full of boxes, dashes, lines, and letters, clearly stating what would happen to him. Yet the only lines he understood were order is to be respected, efficiency is our salvation, chaos is not to be accepted, human nature is lawlessness, so is the natural world. The lines they had taught him at school. He knew them by heart, and if he closed his eyes, he could see his teacher making him stand up and repeat them in front of the whole classroom. He had gotten a golden ruler that day.

He searched for that ruler, finding it at the bottom of his underwear drawer. It had lost its shine, and the gilding had chipped away. He stared at it for hours, trying to piece together what it meant. The ruler had lost all its meaning. Finally, he chucked it into the bin and, for the first time in years, headed out of his front door without a clue where he was going. Yet his feet knew. They took them to the vast wall circling around the city, making it impossible to see outside. He had been nowhere else. He wasn’t sure if there was anywhere else, just the bureau, his container, and the tube system. Somewhere the plant had to have come. Not from the city. Not from the underground mushroom farms. Somewhere forbidden.

He glanced around, searching for a way through the wall. He saw he wasn’t the only one there. He was one of the plenty, and he recognized their lost looks. It was something he saw every morning in the mirror while he brushed his teeth twenty times per instructions. Some of them were holding the beige pamphlets he had received. Some had drawn patterns on them so familiar that it made him ache. Why couldn’t his hand create freedom?

The sound of tap tap echoed against the wall. He was sure he was daydreaming again, and he was at his desk. But when he faced the sound, he saw that those who had drifted here with him were falling on the ground. He had seen nothing so red as the asphalt turned underneath them. Was it even an actual color? Nothing could be so vivid. So mesmerizing. Tap, tap the sound went and one by one they were breaking the group down. The only thing he could think of was that they wouldn’t like this. This was against the regulations. This was chaos. The fallen bodies were in disarray; the red was too bright, too there. Too here. He watched at his gray blouse, clutching on his stomach. The same red was oozing out of him. 

Thank you for reading. Have a lovely day ❤

© K.A. Ashcomb

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