This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
The envelope looked important, but Enid wasn’t expecting anything important. Her life was uncomplicated; nothing was pending. She’d been living in the same apartment for nine years, had kept the same job for nearly 10. She had no children, no debt. Both her parents were dead and that, too, had been dealt with.
Until she read her own name on the pale blue paper, she’d assumed it to be for Tomas, as people so often conclude, in shared homes, that any norm-deviation stems from the other, and regardless of how tidy Tomas so often was, and despite Enid’s practice to regularly empty the catchall closet as a way to limit its catch, and despite their joint effort to keep the pantry strictly organized and inventoried, living with another person eventually leads to a crumb trail of complication.
The letter seemed to be from the government, though both Enid and Tomas kept as far from the government as they could, and in fact, this was one of the reasons they’d never married—not to transform their knowledge of each other’s nudity into a civic object.
And still, Enid thought as she held the envelope, the municipal has its ways of slipping in.
Inside was a large photograph printed on thin paper, an image filling the whole sheet. The photograph—a grainy shot of a woman jaywalking across a street with a large blue purse tucked under one arm—had been taken from a high angle. On the left edge of the photograph a white car was visible, headed directly toward the woman, and on the right side a bit of a pedestrian walkway could be seen. A citation was printed on the back—this woman, it explained, was Enid, and Enid had illegally crossed Z Street last Thursday at 3:34 in the afternoon. The fine was enough to buy a week of modest groceries.
Enid went to retrieve her checkbook, which she kept in the snakeskin sleeve that her mother had given her 20 years ago. The sleeve gave check-writing a maternal feeling, but she rarely had the chance to use it, since hardly anyone accepted checks anymore, and few banks still printed them, as most people felt unsure, when holding a check, that it was real.
But as Enid wrote the check, she was stopped by the realization that she couldn’t possibly have been crossing Z Street on that day, at that hour. Enid took the photograph to the window to study it more closely, as it was possible she’d failed to recognize herself, but no—this face was not her face, and even though it can be difficult to know your own face, as they so often appear to us in the dullest moments, Enid felt sure this person was not her person. Also—she didn’t own a blue purse. And last Thursday from 3 to 4 she’d been in a companywide meeting, and several people must have seen her there and perhaps a few of them could remember it and maybe one of those few could help her contest this citation by submitting a statement on Enid’s behalf, though she’d never directly interacted with her government’s legal system and was unaware if it was even possible to assert that you had not done the thing that a photograph seemed to prove that you had done. Such photographs, once rare, now common, had ceased to be points of debate, and were now understood as utterances of reality itself.
And anyway, perhaps Enid should not become one of those people who tangles the world with details, with insistence, with arguments against reality. Things don’t go well for those people with all their wanting and asking, and everyone knew that life itself was so often incomprehensible, and sometimes the most basic concepts of time or space or death or love seemed warped beyond Enid’s comprehension, so it was quite possible that Enid may have once been this woman with the blue purse and simply did not remember. She was often forgetful. Sometimes she even forgot to wake up, and would end up sleeping through to the next day, crawling out of bed like a wet cat.
When Tomas came home, she showed him the photograph.
“You were jaywalking? That’s not like you.”
“It’s not like me,” Enid said, auditioning the fact, “because … it isn’t me.”
“It isn’t you?”
“It’s not. I don’t own a blue purse.”
“I thought you did.”
“I don’t. And I was in a meeting when this photograph was taken.”
Tomas studied the photograph more closely, then looked at the envelope.
“Is it possible that you missed that meeting because you were on Z Street?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Is it possible that you are mistaken about the particular date and time of the meeting?”
“I suppose it is possible.”
“There are many such meetings at your work.”
“And your name and address are right here,” he said.
“Yes,” Enid said. It was true. Her name and address were right there, clear and accurate.
“And this woman looks like you, as much like you as anyone might.”
To this Enid had nothing else to say.
“They sent it to you because … it is you,” Tomas said, troubled in a way that Enid could not assuage.
“Yes. That is what it seems,” she said, redoubling her doubt of her doubt.
Enid and Tomas cooked their supper together and ate it and did their dishes and their laundry and went about other tasks they completed at home, the private hours that vanished into similar hours, and as the night went on Enid thought of her trouble less and less until she was hardly thinking at all. But just as she was slipping into sleep, the face of the woman with the blue purse crossed her mind. She sat up in the dark.
No, Enid said. No, I won’t accept this. She turned to Tomas, dear little Tomas, asleep beside her. Neither of them had any trouble sleeping, not like other people, but Enid did have a habit of waking up around midnight and darting out for a drink at the corner pub, during which Tomas would not wake or stir or ever seem to know she was gone. But that night Enid didn’t go out. She crept to the other side of the bed and crouched beside Tomas and studied his face until she could see him without feeling or bias or history, the way a camera might, then she went to sleep and dreamed of absolutely nothing at all.
That week, after much silent disagreement and disagreement with her own disagreement, Enid went to the citation’s return address. She had to push through a turnstile to enter the building and when she did it emitted a ticket bearing the number “877” and below it Enid read a line of narrowly printed text, “Please wait for your number to be called,” but Enid hardly had a chance to wait before an automated voice said “877” and a series of flashing arrows indicated a kiosk. Enid approached the kiosk and found her full name and address on the screen; below it were two options: “This is me” or “This is not me.”
Enid was Enid, so she touched “This is me.”
Two new options appeared: “I am here to pay a ticket” or “I am here to contest a ticket.”
With confidence she chose the latter, and at once the screen filled up with large red letters: “I AM CONTESTING A TICKET” and below it there were two new options: “Continue” or “Go Back.” Enid chose, after a moment’s hesitation, “Continue.” The screen went dark for a moment, then the image of a ticking clock appeared, then the computer screen read: “I am sorry. You are not eligible to contest this ticket.” Briefly, almost too briefly to notice, the image of the woman with the blue purse flashed on the screen, proof, poof, then it was gone.
A young woman appeared beside Enid, gloriously beautiful and smiling, and with two hands and sustained eye contact the woman handed a pale blue receipt to Enid wrapped around a credit card that Enid recognized as her own. Enid could not recall having ever handed the card to this young woman—but no matter. It was her forgetfulness. It must have been her forgetfulness again. Just when Enid forgot her forgetfulness, her forgetfulness would remember her.
And that was almost the end of it, a matter settled, something paid off to make life easier, less mysterious, less upsetting, and after all, who was she to say who she was and wasn’t? Who knew the world better than the cameras, all the cameras aimed on high, cameras without human eyes or human memories to flaw them? Whatever else may or may not have been true, Enid felt sure that such questions were better not to be asked, or answered, or even briefly entertained. Each night Enid slept easier than the last.
But a month later, three more tickets arrived, each with a photograph. It seemed that Enid had illegally crossed Z Street again, and also X Street, and another time just west of the intersection of Y and F. There was the blue purse. There was the high forehead, the familiar nose. In one of the photographs the woman looked right up at the surveillance camera, squinting at it in a helpless, reflexive way, like a child waking in a bright room.
Perhaps if it had just been one citation Enid would have written a check and been done with it, but this trinity arriving all at once had tipped something over in Enid, and it would not be set right again. She began to amass a dossier on herself, her whereabouts, her habits and associations. She collected signatures from her co-workers, all of whom were hesitant to contribute to a legal document, and a few of whom refused completely, and though Enid was disappointed in those who would not sign off on her dossier, she understood and respected their desire to stay out of it, to stay out of everything. One of her co-workers even said, “She looks more like you than you look like you,” and Enid knew she would have done anything to be the woman speaking that sentence instead of the woman being spoken about.
By the end of the week, Enid had color-coded each entry in the dossier—all the receipts and statements, the photographic evidence, the time-stamped data. She dressed as if for the funeral of some great dignitary, then walked to the same municipal building as before. Through the turnstile she went, taking the ticket, following the arrows, but when she came to the screen that asked Enid to confirm that she was herself, Enid did nothing but clutch her dossier and stare. Soon the same young woman appeared at Enid’s side and escorted Enid to another room where several people—each of them having denied being who they were believed to have been—were waiting.
Eventually a voice came over the loudspeaker indicating a room number, and though no name or ticket number was spoken, Enid knew this must have been her turn because the voice that came over the speaker belonged, impossibly but undeniably, to her mother. Enid was aware that this was unusual, that voices died when people died, and though she was sure in one sense that her mother was absolutely dead, there had always been, quite stubbornly, a part of Enid that could not believe that her mother was fully gone— a fist holding nothing.
In the room that her mother’s voice had indicated, Enid found a chair facing a wall-sized screen. The door shut behind her. She sat in the chair.
“Enid,” the screen said, still using her mother’s voice, “what do you have to tell me?”
Enid held out her dossier and said, “I have been confused. I am not the woman in the photographs.”
“Give me that,” her mother said, and a rectangular slot opened at the center of the screen the exact size of the dossier. Enid pushed the dossier in and watched it vanish.
“I see,” her mother said from within the screen, and at once Enid felt a seamless assurance, a clear and bottomless trust that she could put into her surroundings, her society, her entire life.
“Enid,” her mother said, “I must tell you something very important and it is this: We simply do not allow for human error anymore, and why should we? We realize that it is still possible for a camera to make an error, but it has been determined that camera errors occur far less often than human errors and it is believed that these errors are worth their benefit to society, and as you know we must, as a society, always think of society. And we must understand that the integrity of society in general is of a greater importance than of society in specific, that is, people are more important than a person. Certainly you, Enid, agree with this, you who loves order, you with your menacingly detailed recipe box. Certainly you agree, don’t you?”
But before Enid could answer her mother, the young woman was beside her again, handing her another receipt wrapped around her credit card and ushering Enid through a side door, and back into her life, that fateless progression of days.
Another envelope was waiting for Enid when she arrived home that day, and in that envelope there was a document explaining that her case was being processed, that a jury would be assembled for a hearing, that a verdict would come, that a clear and steady justice was approaching. In a narrow block of gray text at the bottom of the page, Enid discovered that her hearing would be held silently, that the jury would be a dozen computers approximating a dozen reasonable human minds. The verdict, it explained, would be complete and final, inarguably flawless.
But hadn’t she already paid for the citations? In fact, when Enid consulted her receipt, she found that she’d been billed for LEGAL FEES, an amount that exceeded the sum of the citations, but it was simply too late to dispute anything. There was her signature. There it was.
That night Enid went out for a midnight drink alone. Yet after Enid finished her drink she—though she’d never done so before—ordered a second, and each time she made eye contact with the bartender she was possessed with a desire to consume him, to drop him whole down her throat, to annihilate him and to annihilate herself in the process, but there was nothing sexual about this gnaw, as what she wanted was total obliteration, a desire to both be obliterated and to obliterate everyone she’d ever been or known, from the inside out and the outside back in again.
And as she drank her second drink and scowled at the bartender, it occurred to Enid that she must have been that jaywalker, that woman with the blue purse. There, in the middle of the night at the bar, she saw herself the way a camera would. She walked home alone and limp, promising herself that tomorrow she’d be herself again and no one else.
Enid woke up the next morning and felt she was neither “Enid” nor “the jaywalker,” but rather that she’d fallen into a gap between those two women. Tomas was brushing his teeth, smiling at himself in the mirror. Where did it all go wrong, she wondered, easing out of bed, uncertain of what to do with herselves, uncertain of which self was her self and which self was someone else.
How difficult it is to carry around multiple selves when one is burden enough! Enid—if she was, indeed, Enid—knew that the only way out of this situation was to find the woman with the blue purse and undo the fantasy—and it must have been a fantasy—that she was more than one person.
There was a bench near Z Street where Enid sat for several hours that week, watching the crowd flood from sidewalk to crosswalk, studying the suited bodies to find the one with the blue purse, the one impersonating her, the one she always was. This plan seemed more hopeless by the day, but just as Enid was about to give up, the woman with the blue purse darted across the center of Z Street, so Enid stood and shouted “Enid, wait!” which did nothing to stop the woman, so Enid rushed out into the street, was narrowly missed by a truck, then separated from the woman with the blue purse by an idling bus, and once it moved on, the woman with the blue purse was nowhere, and Enid, standing on the dotted line at the street’s center, looked up and caught her own reflection in the black eye of the camera above. There was nothing else to do but go home, await the citation, and pay it.
On the way home, however, she thought of how pleasant it was to cook for Tomas and how pleasant it was when Tomas cooked for her. Hardly anyone was still possessed of such a habit, as most people had come to believe that cooking was something best left to the professionals, that meals were not something you made, but rather something you had delivered from hidden pits in the city where people who were paid to cook labored in the heat. Fewer and fewer people stopped to wonder where these foods were being cooked or by whom or how it was that they arrived so promptly—sometimes almost immediately— after being summoned. Most people had concluded that the world, at least in this one regard, was magic.
All human lives were destined for employment—that was the true way of things, that was the great ethic of labor—and though Enid and Tomas each held a private sadness about how this had rendered home kitchens nearly extinct, even they had to admit that this was simply how progress occurs, that every generation is liberated and obliterated by what they’ve never known.
But the future had not yet come and Enid could still find a few dusty grocery stores on short streets where shopkeepers smiled over garlic heads in crates. Enid found such a store off Z Street and chose a few items—tarragon, capers, rice—but when Enid came to the counter the shopkeeper didn’t do anything, just looked at Enid until Enid looked behind herself.
The shopkeeper pointed to each corner where a camera had been installed. “You see there?” she asked Enid. “And over there too. And there’s one right above us, and another by the door. I don’t lose track of anything.”
Enid found she couldn’t remember how to be spoken to, if this was just a part of it, the shopkeepers telling you things, the randomness of it.
“I bet you’re one of those people who thinks it’s too late,” the shopkeeper said. “I bet you’re one of those young people who thinks this is the last moment in your life that you can still make choices,” so Enid put the tarragon and capers and rice each back where they belonged and the shopkeeper kept talking, telling her that nothing was quite as good or bad as it seemed, but that Enid would have to get old before she could see it.
“And what’s more,” the shopkeeper added, “it is also true. It is too late. The time for choices has long passed.”
Halfway home Enid saw Tomas walking a block ahead of her, and instead of hurrying to join him, she matched her pace with his, kept a distance, but when Tomas should have turned right onto H Street, he turned left into an apartment building that looked much like theirs, but wasn’t. Instead of following him, Enid turned right onto H Street, behaving just as she should, going where she belonged, and yet she could not help but turn back to look at the building that Tomas had entered and when she did it wasn’t Tomas she saw in one of the perfectly square windows on the fourth floor, but the woman with the blue purse staring squarely at Enid, through Enid, past Enid, beyond Enid and into her past. And it was a good thing, Enid thought, that she hadn’t bought those groceries because she would have had to throw them into the street—it is simply too much to consider, again and ever again, all the people that we are not.
Enough of that. Enid went home. She thought she’d have the apartment to herself, a solitude she would need, though she wasn’t sure what for, but when she arrived there, Tomas was already home, stirring soup at the stove.
“Do you ever worry there’s someone out there who looks a lot like you,” she asked him, “someone who would do things you’d never do, someone running up tabs in your name?”
“You’re worried again,” he said, “but it’s not like you to worry, but then again it is like you to worry. It’s like you to behave like you.”
She wanted to tell him that he, too, should be worried, that the future was sinister and possibly even the present was sinister, that there might already be another Tomas somewhere and who knew what he might be doing, but she had no proof for this worry. Enid never had any proof. Could her lack of proof somehow be Tomas’ fault? Somehow—yes, it must have been his fault. That’s the thing about living with other people. They’re always over there while you’re over here.
The citation for Enid’s actual jaywalking arrived a few days later, accompanied by a greeting card decorated with little blue birds flying in a formation that spelled out “Congratulations on Your Loss,” and inside the card, in her mother’s cursive, a short note—You must cease to consider other lives and they will cease to consider you.
And that wasn’t the sort of thing her mother would ever have said or written, but she retrieved her checkbook anyway, wrote the check, sealed the envelope, and sent it in. All at once she was certain she wasn’t going to go around being confused anymore, that it is simply true that we’re all mistaken for who we are and who we are not. All anyone was ever doing was undoing something they’d done or hadn’t done, so Enid went that afternoon to the shop off Z Street, and it was there she found the woman with the blue purse, standing at the counter with the rice and capers and tarragon.
“I don’t want to think of the future by thinking of the future,” the woman with the blue purse told the shopkeeper. “I’d rather think of the future by thinking of the past.”
“You’re a fool to imagine this in the abstract when it is so obviously happening in the specific,” the shopkeeper said, and Enid recognized her mother’s voice, again, coming from the shopkeeper’s mouth. “The same goes for you,” her mother, the shopkeeper, said to Enid. “You think you’re doing something by not doing something.”
“That’s not true,” Enid said.
“No, that’s just the trouble with you,” the shopkeeper said. “For instance, you think you didn’t marry when in fact you simply are not married.”
“I want to remain myself,” Enid said, her voice surprising and embarrassing everyone with how pleading and childish it sounded. “I want to remain who I am.”
“No, you don’t,” the shopmother said.
“I do,” Enid said.
“No one wants that,” she said, and finally Enid was convinced. It all became clear, thank God, the whole world was finally scrutable and Enid would never have to be just Enid anymore, she was a part of something much greater and more sinister than any one person can be. The cameras all around Enid were seeing everything and recording nothing. What a relief. Knowing she was replicable released her from the fear of being replicated.
Then the woman with the blue purse was gone and Enid was gone and so was the shop and its keeper and everyone was happier wherever they were or if they weren’t happier they at least didn’t know what, precisely, had gone wrong.
Read a response essay by Nani Jansen Reventlow, a human rights lawyer.
More From Future Tense Fiction:
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“Paciente Cero,” by Juan Villoro
“Scar Tissue,” by Tobias S. Buckell
“The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” by Joey Siara
“Legal Salvage,” by Holli Mintzer
“How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
“The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
“Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
“The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
“Speaker,” by Simon Brown
“The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
“The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.