Are you happy? It was an obsolete question these days. Everyone was happy. No one was happy. In the absence of sadness, there can be no contrast necessary to define happiness. Everyone was content. Or perhaps numb would be the right way to describe it.
It was a systemic contentedness administered by the State. Happiness was the law because a happy man was no threat to anyone. Give a man his job and his pills, and he would live quietly and die quietly. This was the philosophy of the State and had been for generations. No one had tipped the balance, and perhaps no one would.
Yet none of these thoughts entered my mind that particular morning. I held a pill on my tongue and a cup of coffee in my hand as I stared out the windshield of my car. I was slightly late for work, so I had skipped my usual breakfast at home. The pill dissolved slowly as I watched the sun rising over the buildings in the east, a perfect mixture of the synthetic and the natural. I suppose it was beautiful, though it was hard to tell.
It was called Flexan. One pill three times a day was enough to relieve a man of all the cares in the world. It started as a government relief effort during the last depression; a way to alleviate people's suffering when their lives were crumbling around them. However, even after order returned, the Flexan distribution continued indefinitely. No one minded. To my knowledge, there wasn't a single person who gave up the habit. Maybe the State intended for that to happen or maybe it didn't.
I swallowed. Everyone did. It was as natural as breathing these days. I took a sip of coffee to help the pill go down easier. The effects were almost immediate: permeating warmth that clothed the body for a moment, then quickly dissipated, leaving a calming numbness. I stared at the same horizon, the sun slightly higher in the sky. It meant nothing to me. At that moment, nothing did. I exited my car and strode casually toward the radio tower.
The tower of the radio station was the largest building in Mandela. It burst through the canopy of the skyscrapers nearby to broadcast its signal across North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. From its small island nucleus in the Azores, the State sent forth messages that would boom through city after city without pause or delay. At any time of any day, someone was in the tower reading the news in a monotonous drone. As it turns out, I happened to be one of those someones.
"Good morning Mr. Fleming," said the receptionist as I walked through the door. I returned her greeting and continued onward to the staircase that would lead me to the second floor offices. The inside of the building was as unimpressive as the outside. Everything was sterile. The floors and the walls and the ceilings were completely spotless, illuminated by the fuzzy glow of fluorescent lights. There was no pretext at ornamentation, no paintings or flora or even a single window to bring the slightest glimpse of beauty indoors. Everything that counted to the State was manifested in the utilitarian functionality of this one building. Sometimes I wondered why I worked there.
As I walked down the hallway, I passed a number of closed offices. Besides my boss and the few people with whom I worked, I knew no one else in the building. Yet it was undeniable that we were all working toward the same goal as determined by the State. None of us knew what that goal was or our progress, but no one asked questions.
The newsroom was the largest office in the complex. It was spacious, but the row of cubicles on either side of the main walkway gave the impression that the room was actually rather small. Despite the incessant noise of typing and hushed phone conversations, the room seemed oppressively quiet.
I had never seen most of the people working aside this main path. Each cubicle was designed to enclose its occupant in a shell of privacy that could not be disturbed. No windows. No openings whatsoever, except the door that was always closed.
I left the last row of cubicles behind me and entered the more comfortable part of the office where the broadcasting took place. The man who read the news before me was still leaning into the microphone. He stared through thick glasses at a piece of paper he had never seen before and would never see again after he left. More than likely, I would simply be repeating everything he had just been saying over the next few hours. But this was important work. It needed to be done. We were told when we started that we were fulfilling our duty to the State. For what more could a man ask?
The clock on the eastern wall struck six. Six of the same high-pitched, synthetic beeps. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Each one the same as the next. But what could you expect? Church bells? There were no church bells. The idea was ludicrous.
My colleague pressed the button that would take him off the air and removed his headphones. The national anthem of the State was playing in thousands of towns and cities throughout the world. Meanwhile, I was returning pleasantries to the man who had been haranguing for the last few hours. He always left with a look of utter exhaustion. I presumed he had been doing the job for many years. He was old and had a booming voice capable of awakening the early workers from their slumber.
I took my seat by the microphone and began situating the equipment to my liking. My boss, Mr. Derringer, walked towards me from his private office carrying the latest news.
"Good morning Fleming," he said gruffly. He handed me the few pages of releases that would keep me going to the lunch break. Luckily, there were a number of breaks during the morning that gave me some free time to rest my vocal chords: group exercises at seven to revitalize the morning labor force, the requisite speech from the State Director outlining the government's base and patriotic goals at nine, and a number of interviews with officials more intimately connected with the news than I would ever be.
"Important stories today Fleming." Every day was filled to the breaking point with important stories. "People are itching for the news this morning." Derringer would have led me to believe that millions of people were crowding around speakers waiting for me to speak. In all likelihood, most people had adapted to the unique timbre of my voice and tuned it out long ago.
I imagined Mr. Derringer as the epitome of State virtue. He was unflinching in his resolve to perform his job as news director. All other concerns for personal self-enrichment and entertainment were decidedly undermined by his all-encompassing will to see the State triumphant over its foes. He thought that by handing his broadcast announcers a series of press releases, he would help rid the world of the uncivilized...or at least the uninformed.
"Thank you Mr. Derringer," I replied, taking the documents apathetically. I flipped through them to acclimatize myself to the day's stories. Derringer lingered by to see if there was anything necessitating his action. There wasn't. The clock reached quarter after six. Time to immerse myself in the monotony of radio news.
It was the same thing every day. A hodgepodge of military, political, economic, and social figures, all of which were impressive and most of which were fabricated. At least that's what I think. Nevertheless, I continued to come to work every day. I had learned how to separate myself from the stories I was reading as if they were actual fiction (which they probably were). I could speak for hours about a strange place on another planet in another galaxy that was actually my own home. "Forces put down the insurrection in China...Factory output in Japan up 8%...Test of the latest nuclear warhead in the Saharra...Massive storm brewing in the mid-Atlantic...should reach land in the next twenty-four hours...." All this and more till lunch.
The good weather held that afternoon. A light breeze kept the palm trees swaying as the clouds passed disinterestedly above. I sat outside a café eating lunch with Angela Hart as usual. She was the woman who joined me on the air every day after the lunch break. She was a capable announcer with a clear, soothing voice. She was tall with wavy black hair and smooth, sun-tanned skin. We had developed a polite friendship over the months we had worked together. She was appealing to me.
"How is Molly, Victor?" Angela asked as she daintily ate her sandwich. Molly was my wife of five years. Angela herself was unmarried, though she and I were the same age. I suppose our relationship would have been unacceptable if the officials knew about it. Yet I was glad to conceal this one thing from the State. Besides, we were just polite friends.
"She's fine," I replied before taking a sip of tea.
"I imagine you've heard all about the storm that's set to hit tonight?" Angela inquired with a hint of interest in her voice. The storm that had been forecasted was one of the few news stories I talked about that actually affected Mandela. They said it was to be one of the roughest in years. I was unconcerned.
"Sounds like it's going to be quite the event," I responded while looking at the sky. "You'll be safe when it hits?" I knew she lived in an apartment complex in another area of the city, but I wasn't sure if they had made the proper accommodations for the coming tempest.
She affirmed the safety of the apartment.
Then we lapsed into a period of silence that characterized all our meals together. For a few moments, we would fall into a contemplative peace devoid of awkwardness. With all the usual pleasantries exhausted, there was no other subject we dared to breach. It always felt to me as if there was something we both wanted to say but couldn't, something more meaningful we had been dying to discuss. I felt this every day I sat by her, but I had no idea what it was I had been meaning to say all this time. I wondered if she felt the same thing. Somehow, I knew she did. I glanced at her as she watched the people walking by on the street. Something stirred in my mind, but I couldn't sense its origin or purpose.
I took a Flexan pill from the bottle I kept in my breast pocket. Angela did likewise.
"Cheers," I said unenthusiastically, as I placed the pill in my mouth and drank the last bit of tea from my cup. Angela and I then entered into another interlude of silence that was nothing like the one that preceded it. I looked at her again, but the stirring was gone.
"I guess it's time we get back," Angela offered. I agreed, and we left the café together and returned to the radio tower to finish our broadcast.
I returned home feeling the same exhaustion I imagined the man who went on air before me felt every day when I arrived at the tower. It was taxing to talk for hours about things that didn't matter to me. I pulled into the driveway of my home, situated in a suburb just outside the city. I sat in the still car for a few moments breathing deeply. Clouds were amassing on the horizon. Collecting myself, I entered the house.
"How was work Victor?" Molly called from the kitchen. I responded that it was fine, that it was just like every other day. "That's nice," she replied. I doubted that she had been listening, or maybe she really thought it was nice. Our marriage was heralded by the State as the image of perfection. According to the personality tests we took as college students, she and I were exceedingly compatible. We had married years before most people did because of that. Neither of us could complain about our situation. We never had serious misunderstandings, and I felt that we agreed on most things, though I suppose our contentment left no room for feelings of disdain or love. I set my things down and stretched out on the sofa. My mind was blank as I awaited the coming of night and rest.
Dinner was usually a rather quiet affair. Molly was an exquisite cook. She occasionally proposed that I come home for lunch since I worked so close to home. I always very politely declined.
"Have you heard anything more about the storm? They say it'll be like nothing we've ever seen before. No one I've spoken to has any idea what to do. The neighbors are all in a tussle. Do you think we're ready Victor?"
"Mm-hmm," I assented. There was nothing more to be done. The house had been reinforced to withstand a bombing raid, and there was no risk of flooding here. "It'll be fine Molly," I reassured her. "It probably won't be nearly as bad as they say."
"I hope you're right dear," she added with a sigh.
I wasn't. The storm hit that night. It was like nature had unleashed all its pent up anger and frustration on the helpless inhabitants of our small island in the Azores. Thunder sent a palpable shaking to the air and the house. The lightning flashed violently in seemingly regular intervals, illuminating the night horizon in an eerie blue light for a split second. Molly and I lay in bed together, neither of us able to sleep with the sound of nature's wrath in our ears. My mind was more troubled than usual. Thoughts and questions began to creep up and then vanish quickly. This had never happened before; I had always been able to fall asleep immediately. Then I remembered. I hadn't taken my Flexan pill at dinner.
I awoke the next morning with a slight headache. It amazed me because I hadn't been troubled by a headache since college. The storm still raged outside but with slightly less violence. I sat down to breakfast rubbing my temples in a vain effort to relieve the pain. The thoughts that had kept me awake most of the night remained, troubling my mind. I looked at the Flexan bottle I had neglected the night before. I knew that if I took one, the pain would go away, but something held me back. The thoughts and memories that had streamed back to me over the night and early morning intrigued me. I decided not to take a pill, and I proceeded to eat my breakfast with the dull pain in my head.
It was chaos at work that morning; the electrical surges from the storm had damaged much of the radio equipment. Practically everyone had been called in to help alleviate the problems.
I walked into the newsroom, and it was astir with people checking and replacing all manner of broadcasting mechanisms. Mr. Derringer accosted me before I was able to ask anyone the extent of the damage.
"It's bad Fleming, very bad," he reported as I neared my desk. "Almost everything on the island is shut down. We've got the generators running, but the equipment is still wrecked. Then again, I'm not even certain the audience would be able to hear us if we did get the tower operational again. It's a bad day for the Mandela listening audience, I can tell you that."
Ignoring Mr. Derringer's melodramatic declarations, I agreed that the situation was not exactly ideal.
"You haven't heard the worst of it Fleming," he continued gravely. "A shipment of supplies was set to arrive in Mandela early this morning. I heard the ship went slightly off course and hit a rocky shoal not far from the port. Everything on board was lost."
"You had to expect something like that with the weather so bad," I answered, trying to cut the conversation short.
"But you don't understand," Mr. Derringer replied urgently. "It wasn't just any mundane commodity on that ship. It was the island's new supply of Flexan. Don't you realize what this means? In a few days, we'll be completely out. The meteorologists say the storm is gaining strength as it moves closer to the continent. The docks and airports will be so damaged that we probably won't be able to get another shipment in over a week."
The gravity of the situation was now clear to me. Without Flexan to calm everyone down, the people of Mandela were liable to go into hysterics. I confirmed that the situation was pretty dire. Mr. Derringer had nothing more to add, so I moved on, leaving him dumbfounded in the middle of the newsroom. I noticed Angela working on the telephone system, and I decided to join her.
"That was quite the evening," I said. My attempts at small talk were weak. The stirring had come back into my mind almost immediately upon seeing her; I couldn't keep my thoughts straight.
"Yes," she responded, "lightening struck the apartment complex and started a nasty fire on the roof."
"Are you alright?" I asked impulsively.
"Of course," Angela answered.
My sense of relief was great. I suddenly realized that I had been thinking about Angela intermittently during the night and morning. She pervaded my thoughts like a tune I couldn't get out of my head.
I joined in the recovery effort around the station, but by the time the tower was capable of producing a signal, my timeslot was over. Angela and I left the station together. I hadn't taken a Flexan pill all day, and the headache still lingered.
"Do you think you're going to be alright without Flexan?" Angela asked me. "You seemed a bit stressed today."
"No; I'll be fine," I said, a bit flustered by her observation. How could I tell her she was a part of the reason why I had been so unnerved that day? I was only beginning to explore the feelings I had for her. I gave her my regards and left for home. The atmosphere in the city was tense as people became aware of the fact that their precious lifeblood would soon run out. In a world used to so much consistency, the slightest change could be catastrophic. The rain had stopped falling, but the clouds still smothered the sky. It looked as if the storm could burst again at any moment.
Five days had passed. Flexan hadn't entered my system in almost a week, and my body screamed for the feeling of chemical happiness. I had donated the rest of my pills to Molly. She wasn't coping too well with the thought of the unknown, and I had no other way of reassuring her than with my sacrifice.
I continued to go to work throughout that time. Communication with the continent was sparse, but the State officials insisted that our broadcasts were necessary. The damage on the mainland was catastrophic. Tidal waves had torn apart the ports and ruined many of the supply ships that could save Mandela from its progressive fall into chaos. The airports held some hope for supplies, but as of the night before, nothing had been announced.
I awoke that morning from the restless sleep that characterized my nights since the storm. I felt like I was going mad from the stress. I couldn't achieve a moment's rest with the combined force of the splitting headache that only increased with time and the constant barrage of thoughts.
Work was no help as I found myself thinking about the ridiculousness of every word that left my mouth. Even lunch was no longer my refuge. I could not reconcile myself to the formidable confusion that plagued me every time I looked at Angela. The stirring that once whispered in the deepest recesses of my brain now forced its way to the forefront. I struggled to find some understanding, but it was all in vain.
I stared out the windshield of my car as I sat in the driveway. I needed some time to collect myself. I started the car and began driving, knowing that the radio tower would not be my destination.
It had been months since I had gone to the beach. It was deserted today, which should have made me suspicious, but at that moment, I wasn't concerned. Sitting in my car, drizzle falling as the last remnants of the storm, I realized the pastoral beauty of the ocean and the waves. For a moment, everything was clear, and I was content. Then my mind started to race as a lifetime of thoughts demanded my consideration after so many years of dormancy in the back of my head. I was consumed with questions and propositions that seemed to originate from different sides of my brain, which bounced around like a birdie in a badminton match. I was helpless to stop their steady progression, but I neither welcomed nor resisted the meditative onslaught. To be honest, my mind had never been so active as it was in those few days. But then again, a simple mind can only think simple thoughts. I understood that my psyche had been dumbed down over the years.
Steadily, I began to realize what I had to do. People had to be freed from the enslaving numbness of Flexan; it had to stop. We had to learn to how to live again. As my plan became more resolute, Angela kept popping back in my mind. It finally dawned on me that it was love I felt for her. I realized that I had never been truly in love during my life, but that this feeling for Angela must be love. Though I knew her only from our regular lunches, it was clear that she was the only woman with whom I wanted to share my life. I cursed myself for not having realized all these things before, but it all boiled down to Flexan. The numbness prevented feelings of true love; it prevented all manner of strong feelings. Passion was unpredictable, and it had been the goal of the State for generations to eliminate unpredictability. I struggled to organize all my revelations; I was almost giddy with my understanding of what was truly going on and what truly must be done.
I started the car and drove toward the city; this time, the radio tower was my destination. I had spent so much time in contemplation on the beach; I didn't realize it was almost time for the lunch break. I walked into the office complex. The receptionist greeted me, but I said nothing. My unwavering resolve drove me toward the newsroom. Emerging out of the lane of cubicles, I saw someone had taken my place at the microphone. I walked up to him, ready for anything.
"Stop the broadcast," I said. "Get out of the way."
The replacement, whom I had never seen before, gave a sign of protest, but seeing my disheveled look, he quickly gave up his seat. I sat down and began moving the equipment around. Everyone in the newsroom was staring at me, including Angela, who was probably getting ready to have lunch with me. As much as I wanted to talk to her privately, I figured that now was as good a time as ever to say everything that needed to be said.
With everything ready, I pressed the button to go back on air.
"Attention everyone," I announced, "this is your regular announcer, Victor Fleming. As a result of the recent storms, I have been without Flexan for almost a week now. In fact, everyone in Mandela has not had a single pill in at least a few days. I come to you now to encourage everyone within the sound of my voice to share in our sacrifice. Throw away your bottles of Flexan; give them up forever."
My colleagues in the office were dumbfounded. One person made a move as if to stop me but then thought better of it and remained still. Unperturbed, I continued:
"Over the past few decades, the State has provided us with drugs to control our emotions, which have put us in a state of infantile dependence. We've traded our ability to love or question for a perpetual, synthetic happiness. I implore you all to cast off this slavery; stand up for your right to think freely, and allow yourself to experience life in all its good and bad. It is only our weakness that keeps us ensnared in this mire of numbness.
"I will admit that in reaching this understanding, I have suffered interminably. But in coping with this pain and frustration, I have gained a consciousness whose rewards are greater than anything I have ever felt." Caught up in the emotions I was trying to convey, I began to sob lightly as I struggled to reach my audience. "Happiness is not happiness unless it's obtained through one's own effort. My friends, I beseech you; learn how to hate again." And the next phrase I spoke whilst looking directly at Angela to make my intention clear to her: "Learn how to love again." Angela's face slowly became one of profound pity as she watched my speech. Seeing her beauty only made me more resolute in my self-appointed mission.
"I have rediscovered both love and hate after a lifetime of complacency, and this is the fundamental truth that I have found—" But my confession was cut short as the force of the billy club violently took away my new-found consciousness.
I awoke to find myself in utter darkness. I was lying on the floor of what I imagined was an office complex like any in Mandela. The same migraine pounded in my brain, but I figured its origin was more the cause of the blow to the head I had recently suffered than the Flexan withdrawal. I sat up, and as I did so, a voice met me through the darkness:
"Are you happy Mr. Fleming?" the voice asked. It was cold and passionless, but somehow, I felt as if I had heard it before. I rubbed my head in an attempt to relieve the splitting pain and chose not to answer what I assumed was a rhetorical question.
"Are you not satisfied with your life Mr. Fleming?" This time, I felt obliged to respond.
"I thought so," I began with trepidation, "but I'm not anymore. I have nothing of my own, nothing to make me proud. Everything around me belongs to the State."
"And do you not enjoy these things?" the voice interrupted. "You have a good job, a faithful wife, and a life without pain or uncertainty. Is that not what you want?"
"Yes; I do want those things, but if I do not choose them for myself, then they are just hollow pleasantries. I have lived a meaningless life so far. I just want the opportunity to add some significance to my reality before I am dead."
"How do you know that what you have so recently professed is a way to find meaning? Millions of people around you have lived and died under the joys of Flexan. What makes you so certain that you will find importance in this new life?"
I could not foresee where the voice was leading me. It questioned me as if its originator was interested in what I had to say, but I could not conquer my uneasiness. I decided to continue with my answers, even though I knew not to what end they would lead me.
"I am not certain; I don't know if I will ever be certain again. Still, I understand that the pain I have endured has been the pain of a free man. These past few days my mind has twisted itself into an unbearable knot, but in doing so, I have severed my ties of bondage to the State."
The voice interrupted with a furious rebuttal: "You will never escape your duty to the State. Everyone will do their part obediently, and once completed, they will reap the benefits of the order and stability I have brought to the world." I suddenly realized that the voice belonged to that of the State Director, whose call for blind patriotism had invaded my broadcast every day. It was the leader of the State who spoke to me, and I suddenly became choked with fear. "You have been most disobedient Victor. I have given you and the rest of the world a chance to live in complete harmony. Understand that no one will join you on this crusade you announced over the airwaves. Happiness is a state for which most people will give anything. You will be alone and miserable; nothing will be given to you, and you will earn nothing for your efforts. Now I will give you this one last chance: will you return to living like a good citizen?"
I began to weep as I contemplated the enormity of the question I had been pressed to answer. While the hopelessness of my future loomed before me like a mountainous shadow, I knew that I absolutely could not go back to living as I had before.
"I cannot go back," I said between sobs. And with that statement, my fate was decided.
"Very well," the Director returned calmly, "then know that you shall never be happy again." When the reverberations of the State Director's voice died out, I knew that I was irrevocably lost to the world. A door opened to my left, flooding the room with the natural glow of sunlight. I rose and exited the building.
I used to wonder why the Director decided not to torture me that day. As time has passed, I've realized that he didn't need to. I am no threat to the State. My broadcast, if it ever made it through the dense clouds of the storm, fell on deaf ears. A Flexan shipment had reached Mandela the morning of my announcement, which accounted for the absence on the beach and in the city, as everyone was queuing to receive the new supply. Everything went back to normal, except me.
I sometimes ask myself if I'm happy despite being alone, without a job, struggling to scrape together even the basest existence. I have not seen Angela since then, nor do I know if she loves me. Yet I know that I have achieved much of what I wanted. Now I know the sunrise is beautiful; I no longer have to guess. I see the world clearly and believe that I am better for it. Sadness is joy. Despair is hope. Suffering is love. Someday, we will understand. Someday, the rest of the world will join me in my sadness, in my despair, and in my suffering. A smile crosses my face as I consider these thoughts. Yes, yes, I am happy.
BIO: John Sahrmann is a college student at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. His works were formerly published in the Francis Howell Middle School literary magazine. His favorite authors include John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Albert Camus.