Black Walls

Every time Henry would listen for sounds coming from his neighbor’s rooms, pressing his ear against the cold, dark iron walls, he would only hear his own heartbeat. He knew he had neighbors, he just couldn’t hear or see them. J.P.’s side was on the left, where Henry’s desk sat, and Delilah’s side was on the right, next to Henry’s bed. They had all known each other for as long as any of them could remember. They were all coworkers, printing reports from their laser­etch typesetters, sending the reports and analyses through the pneumatic tube system for Management to look over at the end of the day. They all exercised at the same time every morning, 0730, facing the sunlight that streamed through the window slot near the ceiling, bending, stretching, running in place, making sure all of their joints were in working order. They’d eat their lavish meals that were delivered to them every day at 0900, 1330, and 1830 through the matter replicator machine. But they never saw each other. Henry could imagine them all perking up the same way he did when the cheerful jingle chirped out of the horn­shaped loudspeaker, and the cranking of the gears signifying that the replicator machine was about to spit out a meal. But he never saw them and they never saw him.
 
 
 
Despite these barriers, Henry liked J.P. and Delilah; they would communicate through the pneumatic tube system, sending letters laser­typed onto the reams of thick paper that never seemed to run out. Their letters would trade stories from their day, describe what sort of books they were reading, and share ideas about what the next day might bring. Sometimes Henry would just get a quick, “How are you?” with a smiley face, always from Delilah. He really liked her and frequently wished he could see her face, what she looked like. He also liked J.P., but in a different way. They usually played a guessing game about what report they’d have to file on a given day and whoever lost would have to draw the other one a picture of something the winner chose. J.P. and Delilah had other neighbors on either sides of them, but they rarely talked to them, mostly confiding in Henry. He always found himself wondering who was on the other side of these thick, iron walls, imagining what they looked like, how their voices sounded, and he was sure J.P. and Delilah were wondering the same thing.
 
 
 
One day, Henry came up with a plan. He would petition the Management to renovate the walls so they could see one another. Perhaps a window or a mail slot. Even a peep hole would suffice. He voiced his plan to Delilah and J.P. and they sent thrilled letters back. “Great idea!” and “Why didn’t I think of that? Why hasn’t anyone thought of this?” Henry quickly went to work, typing up a carefully ­worded and polite request to Management and leaving room on the back for the signatures. He sent the petition to J.P. first, followed by a note instructing him to send it in his direction until it circled the floor with all the signatures. He was certain that other people on the floor felt the same way as he and his friends. Maybe even everyone in the Building felt the same way. This could change everything. When he finally received the petition again in his pneumatic tube, he saw that the back was crammed with signatures, and smiled when he saw that the last one was Delilah’s with a smiley ­face next to it.
 
 
 
After weeks of waiting, Management finally decided to renovate. Henry woke early one day and noticed something different: his room was brighter. His ceiling was still the same, iron and corrugated, but he never noticed how ugly it was until that moment. He was wondering why he’d never noticed this before when he sensed movement to his right. He turned his head and the first thing he saw was a beautiful face. It smiled at him. He realized he was smiling too because he knew it was Delilah. He stared in silence for several more moments before sitting upright in bed and faced her, cross­-legged. He slowly put his hand against the crystal ­clear barrier between them and Delilah did the same and they began to laugh. There was a knock on the wall behind Henry and he turned to see a tall, lanky figure standing there, smiling at both of them. Delilah waved excitedly and Henry smiled. J.P. pointed at an unfamiliar device affixed to their transparent walls and then at their familiar loudspeaker systems. He walked over to his device and pressed a button, paused, and said one word: “Hello.”
 
 
 
They would talk every day while they were working and when they were finished. No rules had been established forbidding them from doing so, just simple instructions sent to them through the pneumatic tubes on how to use their new devices. Every day Henry woke up with new excitement. This was a monumental achievement, a breakthrough like never before! They had never been this connected to one another. It had all been up to them to envision what everyone else’s lives were like, and now they had documented proof. Every night at dinner, they would share stories like they used to, and even told stories they were all sure had already been heard, but it was all to hear the sound of each other’s voices. J.P.’s voice was husky and raspy, like he had inhaled the replicator machine’s fumes, but it had friendly warmth to it, like he wanted you to know you could confide in him at any time. Delilah’s voice was softer, and Henry thought it sounded like music, something he told her once, which made her blush. Every time he heard her voice through the intercom, it felt like the dinner chime had just rung and he rushed over to his device to talk to her.
 
 
 
Eventually, things started to change. Management had come and modified their devices again one night so they could carry them with them throughout the day and communicate with everyone on their floor individually. A note in the pneumatic tube explained that it was designed to maintain productivity. But with this new-found freedom, other things began to change. Henry was beginning to feel uneasy with this shift. Before, he knew if his friends were going to talk to him or each other because they would hurry over to their walls where their devices were. Now they would carry the devices with them wherever they went and sometimes it seemed like Delilah was talking to J.P. much more often than she used to. Henry once saw them talking when he woke up in the middle of the night and when they saw that he was awake, they seemed surprised but waved and ended their conversation.
 
 
 
Henry began to feel like J.P. was looking over his shoulder, maybe even watching him while he slept or while he worked. But every time he felt this way, he’d see J.P. minding his own business, typing up his daily reports or sleeping. Delilah was always friendly and continued to smile whenever they looked at each other, but Henry was always under the impression that she was secretly speaking about him behind his back with J.P. He began to increasingly distrust both of them. They were watching him, waiting for him to fall asleep every night, taking notes on what he was doing, building a case against him. They must be! Why would they do this? He asked himself this over and over again, until one night when he couldn’t sleep, and he knew: it was because they could see him! They knew everything now: where he slept, how quickly he ate, how slowly he sometimes worked, how he slacked off during the morning exercise. How was it any of their business? It wasn’t like before where they all had their own lives. Now their lives were one life.
 
 
 
It didn’t get any better. Henry hoped it would; maybe it could all go back to the way things were, he thought. Maybe he just wasn’t used to having his friends, or anyone for that matter, see into his life. But he knew that couldn’t be true. J.P. and Delilah continued to conspire and Henry began to feel unsafe. Eventually, making sure Delilah and J.P. couldn’t see what he was doing, he covertly sent a requisition form to Management. After a brief back-­and­-forth over the next few days where they made sure this was what Henry truly wanted, Management sent up the two gallons of black paint and thick paintbrush and the tools to dismantle his intercom handset. Henry got to work late one night after J.P. and Delilah had gone to sleep and covered his walls, furiously like he was trying to erase a dirty word he regretted writing. When he was finally finished, he sat down, contented, and stared at his opaque surroundings.
 
 
 
Delilah and J.P. immediately sent him letters through the pneumatic tube, asking him why he covered his walls. Was he being punished? Was he all right? He quickly wrote letters back saying “I’m fine.” This seemed to satisfy them because they began sending letters to him like they used to. He would read them, but never respond. They would tell him how they were meeting other people from not just the entire floor, but other departments throughout the Building and how interesting and funny they were. He would crumple the letters and quickly throw them into his incinerator tube, pretending they never came. He began to dread the thunk of a new letter from Delilah or J.P., telling him about the new people they had met or asking if he wanted to play the drawing game like they used to. The letters came less and less frequently and eventually they stopped coming at all.
 
 
 
Henry was content again. He knew that this was what he wanted. He wasn’t ready for the transparent walls, the openness. He needed his privacy. But he sometimes felt more restless than before, like he had forgotten to eat one of his meals or hadn’t finished one of his assignments. Late one night, he was having trouble sleeping. He thought he could hear voices from the other side of his black walls. He sat up in bed and slowly put his ear to the spot where he first put his hand against Delilah’s and strained, trying to hear, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t hear anything except his own heartbeat.

Front page image by Roey Ahram.

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