Hotline

Van Hall

Van Hall enjoys constructing thought-provoking environments within a variety of genres including science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  He has other stories soon to be published and under consideration; however, ‘Hotline’ is his first ghost story to be accepted.

For Van Hall, the ‘Hotline’ story concept was obtained from a law concerning hate speech declared as a crime in several existing societies.  Hate speech is: ‘speech, gestures, conduct, writings, or displays’ which disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.’  Starting from the seven human emotions (joy, anger, anxiety, surprise, trust, grief, fear, and love), Van Hall chose to explore what a society might look like and how it might react should the emotion called ‘love’ be outlawed.

It was a challenge for Van Hall to write his story from the ghost/redemption perspective.  Van Hall is pleased that he was able to define an environment from which, perhaps, readers might have their heart-strings touched or generate the desire to question how such a declaration on words could contribute toward a dystopian culture.

Returning from her daily tot visit, the old woman, once a raven-haired beauty, carefully stomped each of her feet on the old style hard wood floor as she stood within a tiny foyer that made up part of her apartment.  She had existed in this apartment complex her whole life.  Snow clung to the soiled rabbit fur that ringed the top of both of her scarred, leather boots.  It refused to be dislodged, clinging tenaciously to the coarse, brown-black animal hairs.

Inside her apartment, diffused early afternoon light stretched itself like a dirty hand beyond a hazy window’s hardwood frame that faced west.  The dingy sunlight illuminated the top half of a large wall.  Had other people been present, their gaze would have been on a scene of near abandonment.   Their eyes would have quickly scanned a tiny apartment and come to rest on a wall-mounted mirror, a coat rack, a pedestal-style floor lamp which possessed a discolored shade, and a dusty four-legged table.  Resting on top of the table, they would have recognized an aged vidi-phone and a clock positioned to the right of the vidi-phone.  The clock’s hour hand was fixed at three o’clock.  Both objects were severed from their relevant purposes.  On the dusty floor and near the base of the table, a cane-backed chair lay on its side next to an over-turned plastic bottle and a stiff, caked cleaning rag.

It was the day before the winter solstice.

The old woman reached behind her and closed the door to her apartment with her left hand and then began to slowly unbutton her threadbare, woolen overcoat.  Her breath came in pants as she scrutinized each black, plastic coat button before methodically releasing it through its respective button hole.

She was exhausted.  Her legs and hips ached from the cold and the laborious climb on worn concrete stairs which connected the floors of her apartment complex.  After a few minutes to catch her breath, she cautiously limped, favoring her right foot most of all, to the coat rack tucked unobtrusively in one corner of the foyer wanting to hang her coat on one of its dull tines.

The base of the coat rack was marred by casual wounds of abuse by unconcerned, long-gone users.  Some of the scars were from thoughtless people who had scuffed the rough soles of their shoes across the top of its expertly crafted, mahogany legs.  Other gouges and dents adorning its legs were derived from numerous shuffles from one room to another or from one abode to the next.  At its top and covering one of its brass tines, dangled a thick brown scarf, one similar to another still wrapped about the old woman’s neck.

She reached forward and carefully hung her coat on a sister tine, then, unwound the scarf from her neck and draped it on a third tine such that now, all totaled, two brown rags and a tatty, grey, dirt-streaked coat adorned the tired coat rack.  A minute later, her boots were neatly tucked adjacent to the coat rack’s legs, both shoes resting side by side and out of the way.  She then insulated her feet with a pair of grubby slippers she used to shuffle about her apartment.

The old woman turned on the light, picked up her chair, and repositioned the vidi-phone with its dusty keys.  It appeared to have been moved.  She retrieved a rag and ancient bottle of cleaning solution from the floor, placing each back on the top of the ebony table.  She sat momentarily in her chair to catch her breath.  The dim floor lamp cast her shadow against another wall.  It was a negative of a peasant woman somehow transfixed in time, lost in aged retrospect.  It was a pose she would replay within her apartment for many thousands of times.

Everything remained the same to her.  There were no variations in her life as the years stretched on.  She sought no change.  Her contentment and wealth resided in one corner of the apartment.  Those possessions, coincidentally, were opposite the largest wall with the exception of the mirror.

The gold-gilded mirror hung on the wall by itself.  From her chair, one corner of the mirror would brightly reflect a ray of sun into her eyes, dazzling her with a kaleidoscope of colors.  It was as though a door way to God’s kingdom had breached through the dirty light, beyond the dust covering the glass, to entice her.  The mirror was her most treasured possession.  No reflection of her could be seen from it.  The sun consoled her.  Its warmth eased the dreary winter months trickling away like stained water would through a choked sieve.

Today, the same blemished walls, washed-out paint and scored, hard wood floors greeted her, absent of all but of that already spoken.  Long ago, the garden pictures and splendid furniture which had brightly overflowed her apartment had been stolen or pawned.  The last of the grand furnishings disappeared for the privilege of continuing her residence.  What was once an upscale dwelling was now just another dismal abode in a rotting city center for the ancient and forsaken.  Even the mildew which stained the ceiling corners was beyond the rank and sour.

The second important portion of her daily rituals included cleaning the gilded mirror to which she started immediately.  With a meticulousness bred from lonely years, she rose and removed the mirror from its mount, relieving the wall temporarily of its singular burden.  Sitting back down, she cradled the mirror to her in the chair while taking the rag in one hand and the bottle in the other.  She tipped the top of the crusty bottle to the rag, moistening it with a dab of liquid.  The rag was like a piece of dried papier-mâché, stiff and matted by layer upon hardened layer of dried cleaning solution.

Her routine began at the mirror’s ancient crown.  She gently scrubbed each nook, ridge, every fold, and convolution saving its mirrored face for last as to be assured that every streak and each smudge would be lovingly removed from its surface.  She was to be satisfied only when she could see the clear reflection of the yellowed ceiling.  When done, she re-hung the mirror against its original spot, concealing the only newness on an otherwise blank wall.

Time passed before she decided to make another telephone call.

“Hotline.”  A dispatcher’s young voice answering the call remained carefully neutral. All incoming calls were routed through a central switchboard then dispersed to regional jurisdictions based on the caller’s location.  From there, thousands of calls were distributed daily to local Hotlines.

The caller’s image was to automatically appear on the dispatcher’s vidi-phone screen; but, his screen remained black.  So, he touched a switch, from a battery of switches positioned at his front, which actuated an override of any local attempts to remain anonymous.  The black screen resting before him was replaced with the image of an elderly woman.  The caller’s screen remained black.

“Yes.”  He heard her voice.  Like her image before him, it was ancient and worn.  He noted her ill-kept hair and pale, wrinkled skin, and rheumatic eyes.  This one’s not like the vibrant, young woman last night, he thought to himself.  The thrill of that mysterious encounter still excited him.

“I’d like to report something I saw a few minutes ago,”  she began.

“Yes ma’ am.  You say something that happened just a few minutes ago?”

There was a silence before she responded. She began again with an apology.

“Well, I waited a little while because I wasn’t sure I needed to call.  I’m cautious, you understand.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“After all…,” she continued, “…it is a major event, making a report.  You do understand my hesitation, don’t you?”

“Completely.  How long ago was it?”

“Maybe a few hours, I think?”  she replied, apology still in her voice.

“Thank you, ma’am.”  He placed a bare document in front of him and readied his pen.

“What did you see?”

“Well, I saw them in my stairwell…,” she began.

“Your stairwell?”  he asked.

“The stairwell leading to my apartment.”  She corrected herself.  “I live at the Starcroft Apartments.”

“Are those in Los Diego?”

Los Diego, the capital city of Bahania, the first Colonial state to secede from Greater Mexico.  Bahania was now an independent country whose Pacific west coast line started in frigid arctic waters and stretched just beyond the ancient Panamanian canals while its eastern border ran along the muddy shores of the greater Mississippi River.

The young officer began to make notes as required by regulation number twelve from the old Orgo-California penal code ninety-seven point seven which states in layman’s terms to record all conversations for future admission into the Neo-Apocalyptic Courts.

“Yes sir.  They are.  On MeClan Boulevard right off San Mateo Drive.  I’ve been living here for forty five years.”

“Yes ma’am.  Please describe the event.”

“Well, they were standing on the landing which is part of the third floor stairwell.  I passed by them as I was climbing the stairs.  You know, the elevators never work anymore, and I have to use the stairs to get to my apartment.”

“They were just standing on the landing in between floors?”

“That’s what I said, didn’t I?”  she responded testily.  “I don’t report anything that’s a lie.  They were standing close together on the third floor landing.  Both were whispering with their backs to me.”

“Whispering?  Did you hear them whisper?  Did you hear specific words?”

“Yes, I heard them whispering but no specific words.”

“But, you didn’t see them whispering?”

“No.  I thought I heard them.”

“So, you walked by them and heard them whispering to each other?”

“Yes.”

“Is there a window on that landing?” he asked writing again.

“Yes.  Both of them were looking out the window.”

“Who was standing at the window, ma’am?”

“The boy and the girl.  The boy and girl were standing together looking out the window.  I thought it was strange they would be doing that.  I mean, the window is so filthy.  You can barely see out of it with all the dirt streaked across the panes of glass.  I can only see muddled colors and vague shapes when I look out that window.”

“You looked out the window, too?”

“Not then.  Not as I walked by them.  And not very much anymore.”  She paused before continuing.  “When I think about it, I can’t really remember when I looked out of it last.”

“Were they alone?

“Yes, that’s what I said wasn’t it?”

“No, ma’am, you said they were standing.  You did not say they were alone.”

“Alright, then.  They were alone.  No one else was with them,” she repeated.

“How many people live in your complex?”

“I’m not sure.”  She replied.  “Maybe five or six people.”

“That’s a big complex isn’t it?”  He asked.

“Very large, sir.”

“And only a few live in it now?”

“It’s old,”  she replied.

“No one wants to live there?” he asked.

“Times have changed.  Most everyone who lived here has died.”

“I understand now, ma’am.  Do the boy and girl live in the apartment, too?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I mean, I haven’t seen them in the building before.”

“Is it possible they just moved in?”

“No.  I would know about anyone moving in.”

“So, they were visiting someone, perhaps?”

“I guess that’s possible. Maybe. But why would they stand in the stairwell?” she replied in a doubtful tone.  “After all, I’m the only one on the third floor.  I think there are two or three people on the first and maybe one on the fourth.”

“They could have wanted a little privacy,” he replied.

“That doesn’t make sense.  Why stand in a stairwell?  There are plenty of empty apartments for them to hide in.”

“What did they look like?”

“They’re just like all other boys and girls,” she responded, thinking that everyone knew what young people looked like.

“What were they wearing, ma’am?”  His voice sounded more patient.

“The girl was wearing a school uniform as was the boy.  You know, blue and white for the girl and brown and white for the boy.”

“School uniforms?”  It was more of a question for himself than the caller.  He said it as he wrote.

“Yes…,” she said, “…those are the school colors here in San Mateo Home School.  You should know that.”

“Ma’am.  I live in Portland, Canada…,” he replied, “…and school colors were abolished about fifty years ago.  That’s why I asked.  I realize each city is different, though.  I’ll have to check with my supervisor about the retroactive date for the Los Diego area.  What made you suspicious of them?”

“Well, they must have heard me coming up the stairs because they weren’t holding hands anymore.”

“Did you see them holding hands?”  His voice sounded a bit incredulous.

There was a bit of a pause before she answered.

“No, I didn’t actually see them holding hands, but their hands were very close together.”

“How close?  You mean they were touching?”

“No.  Maybe three or four inches apart.”

“What makes you think they were holding hands?”

“It’s a strong suspicion, I guess.  It seems to fit in with the other things I saw, like their shoulders.”

“What about their shoulders?”

“They were almost touching.”

“I don’t think that would constitute a violation….”  His voice assumed its bored tone.

“And the tears in their eyes.”

“They were crying?”

“Nothing obvious, you know.  I could see from the sunlight the streaks of tears that wet their cheeks.  Their eyes were red as if they had been crying.”

“Did you say anything to them?”

“No.  They kept their backs to me and looked out the window.”

“What did they do when you reached them?”

“They just stood there like they were waiting for me to pass them by.”

“They didn’t turn to look at you?”

“No, sir.  They just stood close together with their backs to me.  They didn’t say anything; they didn’t do anything.”

“What color hair did they have?”

“I couldn’t see the boy’s hair.  He had a dark colored woolen cap pulled over his ears; but the girl’s hair was black.  Their book bags were lying against the wall below the window sill.”  She made a tisking noise as if in disgust.  “I wish the super would paint the walls.  They’re so filthy.  A long time ago, they were painted a pale yellow; now, you can’t tell anything except the water streaks of brown and the pale stains of mildew.”

“Book bags?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure they were book bags?  Classroom teaching has been outlawed for over forty years now.  That is a major offense that must be investigated.  Only home schools are allowed.”

“They were book bags,”  she replied assuredly.

“Anything unusual about their shoes?  Can you provide me any other details?”

“Just the typical snow boots.  She wore leather boots; his were a workman’s rubber.  I think he was older than she was.  I looked twice at him.  It’s so hard to see with their backs to me.  But, I think he was older.  Her head was hung down a little while his was turned slightly away from her.  Like they had just had a fight but didn’t want to be apart from one another.”

“But, you said you thought they are in school, right?” he queried.

“Yes.  Not higher school.  She is about fifteen years old.  He looks like he’s seventeen or so.  Oh, and they were standing in a puddle of water together.”

“Classroom school definitely is a major offence,”  he stated as he wrote.  “Stood in water?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s snowing outside.  They must have been standing for a while on the landing.  They had to have been.  They probably tracked in snow on their boots, and it melted while they stood together.”

“I understand,” he said as he wrote. “Well, Mrs…,” he replied waiting for her to respond.

The Hotline was advertised as an anonymous connection.  This report sounded like it was going to turn into a good contact.  He wanted her real name to pass on to the local authorities that he had silently notified a few minutes before.  They should be tracing this call already.  He would easily keep her talking until the vidi-phone trace was completed.

“Did you continue walking or did you stop on the landing?”

“I know my duty…,” she responded indignantly, “…I stopped and glared at them.  I know they’re not supposed to be on the landing.  They’re supposed to be in their apartments and not standing hand in hand displaying any kind of affection.  It’s obvious they were in love.”

“You didn’t tell me they were displaying affection.  And you said they were not holding hands.  You said they weren’t touching.”

“No.  But, I bet they had been.  Why else would both be crying?”

“Why did you say love?  That is a very severe accusation, ma’am.  Do you realize how severe the punishment is for displaying love?”

“Of course I do.  You don’t think for a minute I’d be wasting your time on a trivial call do you?  I know it’s against the law to report false sightings of affection, particularly on the Hotline.  I know what I saw.”

“You could be arrested, ma’am, if this report turns out to be a false report.  I can send you to the penal colony tomorrow if you are not telling me the whole truth,” he warned her.

The old woman’s image remained silent in front of him.  He noted her pursed lips and resolute tone.

“Well, ma’am, the crying along with the standing close together are considered suspicious activities.  Those are criminal facts, but I’m not sure its enough to initiate a formal inquiry.  I could note everything down and forward it onto the San Mateo investigating agency,” he said to drag out the conversation.

“Well, young man.  You do what you’re supposed to do.  That’s what I am doing.  I’m reporting a crime.  I saw what I saw.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Did I mention her glove?”

“The girl’s glove?  What about her glove.”

“It was tucked in his coat pocket.”

“If it was in his pocket, how could you see it?”

“It wasn’t completely in his pocket.  The fingers of her glove were sticking out of his pocket.  I could see the fingers of her glove.”

“How do you know it was her glove?”

“It was small like a girl’s glove.  It was vaguely familiar as though I had seen one like it long ago.  It was red, and I don’t know of any boy who would wear red gloves with his brown school uniform.”

“I see.  That makes sense.”

“And you know…,” she paused in thought,  “…his sideburns were wet.  At first I thought it was the snow, but the more I think about it, I bet they were wet with tears.  I would wager that she was crying on his shoulder; and, her tears wet his sideburns.”

“That could be another indication. Yes ma’am. That could be. You mentioned sideburns, ma’am, so you could tell me his hair color, then?”

He recognized the surprised look on her face.

“Why yes…” she said after a long pause, “…I guess I could.  It was brown.  His hair was dark brown.”

“Thank you, ma’am,”  he replied with a smile satisfied with pulling out another clue from this old woman.

“I bet if they had turned their faces to me or at least showed the front of their coats, I bet their coat fronts would have been rumpled from holding each other, too.”

“You didn’t see that, though, did you?”

“No. The more I think about it, their sleeves were all crumpled up as though they had been holding one another.  You know how cloth looks after it has been held a long time. Yes, their sleeves were wrinkled.”

“You saw that?”

“Yes, I saw the wrinkled sleeves. And, I bet their fronts were wrinkled, too.”

“Yes, ma’am.  But you only saw the sleeves?”

“Yes.”

He set the alarm. This was definitely a violation. Here were at least three felonies and maybe a death penalty for the boy if one or two more reported items can be substantiated.  The young girl would be subjected to retraining as would this old woman.  Both would have to endure the debriefing and then inevitable rehabilitation. The old woman probably wouldn’t survive the rigors of her rehabilitation. It was unfortunate, but she has been tainted.

“Well young man, I’m done. I’ve done my duty. I’ve reported what I should have reported.  Goodbye.”

“Do you really need hang up, ma’am?”

The question caught her completely by surprise.

“Yes, I really do.”

“Of course, ma’am. Would you please call back in a few minutes for confirmation?  You know, I don’t mind hanging on if you need just a few minutes to do something else,” he stated.

She was flustered. Did she do the right thing? She wondered before she responded to the man’s voice.  All she was trying to do was do the right thing. Wasn’t she required to report crimes? I saw the couple, I know I did. And the girl looked vaguely familiar.  Perhaps the boy, too. At least from the position she saw them, they did look familiar.

“I’m done reporting. I have nothing else to say.” She reached for the screen switch and turned it off.

The officer muted all sounds that could be carried across the Hotline.  He watched patiently as she rose from the front of the vidi-phone.  He recognized an old chair in the back ground and noted on the form that the old woman was clad in a threadbare, rose-colored, terry-robe. On a second line, he wrote that she slowly shuffled in what sounded like slippered feet toward a bathroom.

This was standard operating procedure. All calls were terminated from the station, never from the caller.  It was the only way to make sure there were proper arrests to all documented reports.  He noted that it was several minutes before she came back into the room.  She looked withered.  Worry wrinkles creased her face.

Several minutes passed before she shuffled back to the vidi-phone to redial.  That was enough time for the local police to arrive at her apartment.

“Yes.”  She began.  “I was talking to a nice….”  He interrupted her.

“Yes ma’am.  It’s me.  I have you again.”

“Oh my.  How did…”

He interrupted her again, this time to eliminate her suspicion.  It happened to all redials. “The computers reroute calls back to the originating officer,” he said.  The comment never made sense to him but seemed to answer the question for all Hotline callers.

“Oh.  I understand,” she replied after a brief pause.

The officer really wondered if she did.

“Did you recall something else, Mrs…,” He attempted a second time to coax her name from her.  Oh, never mind, he said to himself as he actuated another pushbutton.  He recorded her image even though her screen remained black.

“Their hands were red.  I don’t know if that is significant.”

“Yes it is.  If they were holding hands, they would be warm and therefore, red.  Their hands would be moist.  The blood in the capillaries of their hands cause a capillary expansion, allowing more blood to flow thereby causing a flush to the hand.”

“Of course, that would explain it,” she replied.

“Were their noses red or their cheeks?”

“I couldn’t see.  Remember, their backs were to me.”

“Not even for a moment?  I want you to think hard, now.  Had their backs always been to you?  Perhaps, they turned for a moment and you saw their faces.  Maybe just for a second as you climbed the stairs toward them?”

“Well…, she replied hesitantly, “…I don’t remember.  I don’t think so.”

“I want you to think hard, now,” he said carefully.

A male hand appeared in front of him holding a note.  He read it carefully.  The Los Diego police had successfully traced the call.  A swift reaction squad was in route to the apartment of this caller.  Good.  He might receive a commendation for this.

“What about the position of their legs?  Were they as though they had, at one time, turned toward each other?  If so, this would be another indication of your holding suspicions.”

“They might have been.  Yes, they might have been,”  she repeated.  “Oh, it’s terribly difficult to remember those kinds of details, officer.”

“I understand, ma’am.  And, what about their noses?  Were they, too, red?”  He continued to probe.

“Well, officer.  Remember, they were facing away from me.”

“Of course, ma’am.  What time did you say you saw them?”

“It was a few hours ago,” she replied.

There were several seconds of silence.  The old woman appeared to grow agitated.

“Why did you wait so long before you called?” he asked.

“I guess time just got away from me.  I was so tired from the climb, and I was hungry.”

“You should have called as soon as you got to your room, ma’am.”

“Well, I wasn’t sure if I had really seen anything.”

“You doubted, yet you eventually called?”

“It wasn’t eventually.  You make me sound like a criminal.  I’m the one reporting a crime.  I’m not a criminal.”

“Yes ma’am.  What time do you have now?” he asked.

She looked at her small clock on the table.  The hour hand read slightly past three.  She told him.

“Thank you.  So this incident took place perhaps around one o’clock then?”

She thought for a moment now regretting the wait before she called.

“Yes, I guess so.  About one o’clock.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“I believe so,” she replied, a bit more apprehensive now.  “Why would it make so much difference?”

“They are probably gone, don’t you think?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “Maybe, maybe not.  Do you want me to go and look?”

“No.  That’s all right,” he said.  He was sure the two on the stairwell landing had escaped.  They probably left the building right after the old woman had passed them knowing how dangerous it was to be together.  Young people knew the laws.  You were never to be alone.  That’s why they arranged to met in a stairwell, or an abandoned room, or one of the many alleyways as so many other reports revealed. “Now, tell me how you feel, ma’am.”

“Why?  I’m just doing my civic duty and reporting a crime.  That should be enough.”

“Yes ma’am, and I appreciate it.  Tell me what you think about all of this.”

The old woman was flustered.  Why would they want to know such a thing?  She didn’t care about those two young people.  All she wanted to do was get out of the cold weather and get warm.  She was hungry.  Just let her fix her meager dinner and be left alone; she wanted to say out loud to this rude man.

“Officer, I really don’t see a need in telling you how I feel.  I mean, what does that have to do with what I saw in the stairwell?”

“It might add some light as to who you saw,” the man replied.

The old woman thought for a moment before responding.  Now how would that help, she wondered?

“I’m confused by your question.  I have reported what I saw and…”

Just at that moment, there was a sharp loud rap at her front door which the Hotline officer heard over his vidi-phone.  Less than a minute later came a rending sound as the front door suddenly buckled in from an obviously powerful force applied to it.  Following closely behind the shattered pieces of door were four men dressed in full armor and carrying assault rifles.

The Hotline officer, who had been talking to the old woman, was momentarily distracted by sudden noises which he recognized as a forcible entry.  He took his eyes off his screen.  The sounds of the police pleased him. As his eyes refocused on the screen before him, he saw the old woman was gone and only the top of an empty table seemed to fill the screen before him.  His screen suddenly faded to black.  He was alerted that there was no visual signal.  There was no sound from the elderly Hotline caller.

The police fanned out within the apartment with military precision.  Within a few minutes, they had finished exploring the tiny apartment in search of a reported criminal.  They found nothing, only dusty floors and rotten furniture.  There was no old woman as reported by the Hotline dispatcher.  There were no footprints except their own that left solitary tracks across the dusty floors.  It was obvious that no one had lived the apartment for years.

The four policemen finished up their sweep and congregated in the living room.  They cataloged their discoveries, a dilapidated chair lying on the floor beside an empty bottle and dirty rag, a coat rack barely able to stand by itself near the door, a table with a broken clock and antiquated vidi-phone sitting on it, and burn-out light bulbs still attached to a reading lamp.  They investigated a tarnished mirror hanging on the wall only to discover its glass destroyed by age.

The Sergeant called in on his radio.

“Hey dispatch…,” he began, “…are you sure of the address?  There is no one in this place.”

There was a pause before the Sergeant received a response.

“The address is correct.  Are you at the right building?”  You could see the Sergeant bristle.

“Yes, I am. But you got it wrong.  There isn’t anybody here.  How about a confirmation?”  He said into his radio.

“Look at the vidi-phone in front of you.  Turn on the screen.  It’s blacked out on your side but clear on my side.”

The sergeant made his way to the table.

“So, what about this piece of crap?” the Sergeant asked.

“Turn it on,” the Hotline officer replied.

“You got to be kidding.  Who do you know that wants to pull my leg?” the Sergeant asked in an annoyed tone.

“Turn the damn thing on,”  the Hotline dispatcher replied.

“The screen’s shattered.  It looks like it’s been that way for ages.  I haven’t seen one like this since basic police training; and then, it was labeled as archaic.”  The Sergeant turned to his men.  “Let’s go.”  As he left, the Sergeant spoke one more time into his radio.  “How about getting it right before sending us out again?”

He motioned toward his police vehicle. “Let’s get back to the station.  There isn’t anything here.  We just got sent on another phantom chase by our illustrious Hotline dispatcher.”

The dispatcher overheard the disgust in the sound of the Sergeant’s voice and bristled with anger.  The dispatcher filed his report, frustrated with the police.  They probably did go to the wrong building again.  The noises he heard coming from the old woman’s vidi-phone were probably the police breaking into the apartment next to hers.  This wasn’t the first time the police had been called out only to lose that same young couple.  He reviewed the computer log.  They had been reported several times before.  Where was the old woman?  She’s been corrupted just as all the other callers who made reported.

The new laws were quite clear.  Love is a crime, as is lust.  Procreation was for the young in the spring of their lives and monitored closely by the state.  His job was to eradicate the world of all who violate these laws.  He was an eager part of the new creed.

He recited his simple duty.  My charge is to stamp out all emotional contamination and bring the populace back to sanity.  I will not be selective in the application of the Emotion Laws, only consistent.

Where in hell was that old woman?  He asked himself once again.  She needs to be purged.  A short time later, he was absorbed by another Hotline caller.

The next day the old woman, once raven-haired, entered the foyer to her apartment complex and slowly walked to her third floor apartment.  Her bones ached badly because it was so terribly cold outside.  The snow clung tenaciously to the fir which topped her boots as she tried to stomp it off.  She removed her one red glove, her coat, and leather boots and placed them neatly near the coat rack tucked into one corner of her apartment.

The old woman picked her high-backed chair, with its dark, stiff legs, up from the dusty floor and repositioned the lamp so that its mahogany base sat near a narrow, ebony table where a shattered vidi-phone rested near a clock.

She bent and retrieved a filthy rag and empty bottle which had somehow been knocked to the floor; and then she decided to rest.   All these objects resided in a favorite corner which juxtaposed the largest of the old woman’s apartment walls.  And, of course, there was her gilded mirror.

This was her existence.  She had been weak and confessed to the authorities and paid the ultimate price.  So for atonement, each day she made her tot visit to the grave of her brown-haired boyfriend to ask his forgiveness.

It was solstice day.

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