The male assistant waved at him from across the room, indicating the Body. Joe rose from the cafeteria chair, slugged back the rest of his burned coffee, and crossed to his narrow white office. The Body reclined on the metal table.
When Joe first started, the nudity, both male and female, shocked him. He wasn't accustomed to it, but over the years he stopped seeing it. Now he noticed the canvas of the body, the frame, the material he had to work.
Dark eyes stared at Joe, who looked away, not willing to react or counter. The assistants strapped the Body down for its own protection. The constraints couldn't cover the expanse of flesh, due to the inking, so they were attached to the end of each limb and then fastened at head and feet. The male assistant had inserted a "mouth guard," a molded plastic piece, into the Body's mouth and fastened it around the head to prohibit biting and, in some cases, screaming.
Joe checked his tools as he got ready. They had been sterilized and placed out like silverware. Joe didn't have to reference the map on the wall: a step-by-step illustration of how to ink the flag onto the Body. There was no deviation from this method. After eleven years Joe knew how to do it on his own. Still if Joe skipped a step or mixed it up, he would have to backtrack, removing what he mistakenly put in, a very painful process, and then have to start anew wherever he had made a mistake. But he hadn't done that in over a year.
He washed his hands and slid on the blue latex gloves. He sat in his plastic chair with the fabric seat next to the Body and started diagramming it with removable chalk, numbering the areas as to how they were to be done. Even after all these years, he still did this because it made the inking easier, especially if the Body kept moving because of the pain. The straps held it down pretty well but any movement could be troublesome for the flag. The final product was always inspected at the end of the process, photographed from all angles and evaluated based on strict guidelines agreed to by the general oversight committee. Joe's annual reviews were based on these evaluations, workplace attitude, meeting attendance and other details.
His right arm trembled. Not from fear but exhaustion. Joe could feel his age coming on. He didn't have the stamina anymore. Now he had to sit down more. He had to rest his arms on the Body because he couldn't hold them up for long periods of time. He rubbed his right bicep. It was always sore. He noticed the shaking of his hand. Bad sign. Joe had to ink the flag exactly. But shaking hands. That could be the end of this. No twenty years, no pension. Joe figured he'd cut down on the coffee. Maybe that would help a little, but the tremor was always there now, lurking.
Luckily, Joe worked alone. If he needed help, he smacked the black button right above his head. In emergency situations, he could get doctors or male nurses or security, depending on the number of times he hammered it. Mostly, he was left alone.
He turned on his ink machine and held his gun, as he called it, to the Body and began to fill it in, inserting the ink underneath the skin. The Body tensed up but Joe kept tattooing. Usually he could think about other things while he worked.
No conversation transpired between Joe and the Body. He was not allowed to talk to them. He was to do the job that he was given. He didn't know who the people were or where they came from. He could see their eyes and felt their bodies jerk under the gun. He once tried reading their eyes – defiance, fear, pain, happiness?—but he could never tell what they were exactly feeling, if they were here voluntarily or not. Joe didn't know why these people were chosen to be inked. No one he knew did. The employees knew better than to talk about it. They learned not to be curious. People who were curious tended to not return to work. The government paid him to ink the Body. Joe didn't feel bad about that. For whatever reason, the Bodies were getting flagged, that's how it was.
He never saw a Body again after it left, not that he ever looked at the faces. Normal clothing would cover the flag tattoo since Joe didn't ink the hands (stopping at the wrists), feet, necks or any of the head. He could have run into one on the street and wouldn't know it.
He made good money here at the Factory, but, then again, it was a nice government job his parents always talked about. He didn't have to pay federal taxes, earned a decent income, and participated in a great health plan. Just had to do his job and enjoy the good life. Yes, he could have made more in the public sector, but he knew he wasn't the best since he sometimes got the colors mixed up. No big deal but he couldn't risk losing this job especially with so many other artists living in their little country island.
The others called this place by its nickname. The real name was a very long acronym that Joe could never remember. Everyone who worked here called it the Flag Factory. He didn't think about it too much.
Unlike the other inkers, Joe hadn't put up pictures of his wife and three kids in his office. He preferred to keep the walls empty except for the required Body map. Sometimes it surprised Joe that there were four other people in his life. Sometimes he would sit up, pull the gun away from the Body because that fact would hit him -- boom, I have a wife and three kids. They depended on him, and then he'd go back to inserting the ink. He loved his family more than anything else.
The Body tried to move under his gun but then stopped.
Joe had nine more years on top of the already-worked eleven to get through so he could claim his annual bonuses and the pension. The pension was the gold. Enough to live on for the rest of his life. Put his kids through college, pay for weddings, cover what it cost to survive.
The most burdensome part was the occasional screaming of the Body. The rare times the mouth guard loosened and fell to the concrete floor. That, sometimes, was when the Body was not merely a body. Joe couldn't think about the person who was going to get inked as people. As a man. As a woman. Or as any combination. Too dangerous if he humanized them. Even with the ear plugs, he could hear the screams. Joe had tried out several different types of ear plugs. He finally paid to have a pair custom made by some guy who built them for rock stars, but even the expensive ones didn’t fully block the cries.
Some of the bodies died. The Flag Factory kept all the statistics; they reported that the percentage of deaths remain minutely small. During Joe's inking session, about a third of them would die. That was his rough estimate. Sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the very end. If things went bad, he hit that black button on the wall and the doctors would rush in. But Joe could usually tell who was going to make it and who wouldn't survive the inking.
When he first got the job eleven years ago, when the interviewer told him what he was inking, he thought the young woman was kidding.
The flag? he asked.
Don't ask, she responded and that was the last time Joe did.
It's not an easy job given the nation's flag. He mixed the colors of their small country -- violet, leafy green, and gray -- and inscribed the required lines and emblems. That's the deal. He inked the entire front and back of the Body with a copy of the national flag. No exceptions. Every inking was the same. Nothing could be changed or altered. If the Body lived, it would go away. And if it didn't live, it would still go away.
There was a rumor that, before Joe started, the Flag Factory had tried automating the inking of the flag on the Body. However, there was a malfunction somewhere in the process and it didn't go well for the Bodies. So the Flag Factory went back to the old way of inking by hand.
There was nothing that could be done for the Body once the shock set in as a reaction to the dyes. Even with all the testing that the Flag Factory did, no one knew, in advance, how a Body would respond to the ink. Two-thirds of the bodies had no problem with it. The others died quickly usually to respiratory failure or a heart attack.
Joe had noticed a pattern over the past few months. Those with smaller frames were chosen more often. Larger-framed people tended to expire. Perhaps it was the quantity of ink being introduced into their systems. Smaller-framed people died as well but not at the rate that the larger ones succumbed. The assistants who brought in the Bodies said it was random.
His most recent Body had died. But not the usual way. Somehow the Body got the mouth guard out and bit off the tongue, bleeding out before the doctors could stop it. Joe didn't know if the Body bit off the tongue accidentally or on purpose. Maybe the Body tired of listening to its own screams. That’s what Joe suspected. Joe thought the Body smiled before it died, but he could have been wrong. And he was almost done with it: the front had been totally inked and all Joe had left was the back of the legs. The next thing Joe knew, the Body's severed tongue stretched across the top of his boot, forever discoloring it.
Out of the corner of his right eye, Joe could see this current Body staring at him, unblinking. He turned away. The Body reminded him of someone, but it wasn't his fault the Body shivered here.
He noticed his hands were shaking. He turned his back to the Body and returned to the sink, pretending that one of the gloves had somehow torn and he was throwing it away and trying to find a new one to wear. While doing this, he tried to control his hands by holding them together as if in prayer. He calmed his breathing, slowly getting it under control.
He resumed his seat and grabbed his gun. Moving the device over to the first area to be done, he applied the needle to the skin, injecting the ink deep into it. The Body writhed. Joe then knew for sure it would end badly for this Body. He lifted the needle and let the Body breathe. Sometimes that helped.
He reapplied the point, pressing it into the flesh. The screaming started again. Joe glanced at the face. He normally didn't do that. Ever. But Joe had forgotten for a second what he was doing and, reacting to the situation, leaned to the Body as if to ask, How can I help you stop your pain? The sorrow came from its dark eyes, from its twisted mouth, a scream that was no longer a scream.
"Why me?" the man mouthed to Joe.
His gun dropped to the floor. Even with the mouth guard in, Joe knew what the Body had said.
Joe turned, lifting his gloved hands up to this face. He felt as if he'd been slapped. Roughly, he rubbed his thumbs into his eyes in order to get beyond the feeling.
His youngest son. That's who the Body reminded him of. Same eyes. Same color hair and facial features. He, the Body, wasn't Joe's son, but in a few years when his son grew, he might look like this Body. Joe put down his gun and turned away, drinking deeply from his water bottle. He stared at the small black scuffmark on the wall while he drank, trying to stop himself from thinking, trying to recall the lyrics of that song he liked a long time ago. He could only think of the same one line over and over.
He probably needed to take a vacation. In order to make the money, he had gone the last three years without a full vacation. He took off days here and there for doctor or dentist appointments or to see one of the kids at a school presentation. But he hadn't gotten away in a long time. It was probably what he needed. After he finished this Body, he'd put in for a week off. Maybe he and the family could go to the beach. They hadn't done that in a couple years.
The bottle went back on the shelf and he picked up his gun, checking it over. Everything seemed to be in working order. He was stalling. He could do this. There's a whole team, twenty-five inkers, at the factory. And there were more waiting in line, waiting for a chance to get this job; if Joe couldn't do his job, he knew they would find someone else to do it for them. He promised himself that he wouldn't look the Body in the face. Joe would follow his numbers on the Body and fill them according to the system. That's why the factory had the system. To make it easy for the inkers. The less distractions the better, even for the Body.
He stopped himself. He was thinking again. First thing the factory taught Joe was don't think. Don't ever think. It led to bad shit. Do your job. Not do your think.
The Body moved behind Joe. He could hear the sheet rustling as the Body moved under it. It was choking. That happened. The mouth guard kept the saliva in the mouth and the Body could choke on it. Usually, the Body swallowed and it was no longer a problem, but it was choking and it wasn't getting better. Joe looked over at the man from the corner of his eye, and the man's eyes were wide, afraid; he was jerking on the straps trying to get free while gagging.
"Calm down," Joe gently said, his back still to the Body. The man's breath started coming faster. If the Body wasn't careful, he'd start hyperventilating and then would be unable to breathe. Joe had seen it before.
"Swallow," he said, without looking. The Body's coughing sounded worse. Joe said the word again but it didn't get better. Shallow and fast came the breathing.
Finally, Joe stepped over to the man. "I'm going to remove the guard. This will allow you to spit. But then I have to put it back in. From now on, swallow."
He removed the hard plastic, and the man forced his head to the side and coughed it out, sounding harsh and ugly and lasting too long for Joe. The breathing slowly settled and returned to normal. Joe remained staring at the wall, at the black scuff above the metal table. He wasn't looking at the man but waited for the choking sound to stop. Then Joe would put the mouth guard back in. According to the rules, there should be an assistant there to perform the procedure while Joe left the room. Once that person took control of the situation, Joe would return, per the stipulations, and recommence inking. Joe hadn't even thought of contacting the staff. He was in violation but hopefully no one would know that he did this and his paycheck wouldn't be docked for a couple weeks.
When the choking sound slowly, but eventually, subsided, Joe took the guard in his hands and, without looking at the man still, fit it back in. He had done this so many times, he didn't need to look.
"Please, don't," the man whispered. His voice was low, hoarse.
Joe was having trouble with the mouth guard. Usually, it went smoothly.
"Please," the man said again, "don't."
Something seemed caught so Joe couldn't hook it closed. He was going to have to look at the mouth guard. If he were to call the assistant in now, he would definitely get in trouble.
He turned to the man. "I'm sorry." Joe roughly shoved the guard into the Body's mouth. The Body struggled and Joe turned away again. It bothered him more than anything else he had seen in the past eleven years.
"Please don't struggle," he said. "It will only make it worse."
There was too much blood leaking from the small section Joe had already done on the man's shoulder. He took a clean cloth and wiped off the blood, smoothing the area. Tears rolled out of the man's eyes, down the side of his face, disappearing into his black hair, but he made no sound. Joe tossed the bloodied towel onto the metal table and sat down again.
He took up his gun in his right hand and began to apply it to the upper area he was working. The man tensed up under Joe's arm and the blood flowed again. The man didn't make a sound, but he was biting into the mouth guard so hard, blood started to drip from his lips. Joe inked more of the area, the national flag starting to slowly take shape, but he was having trouble focusing. His right arm and then hand began trembling again and he cursed to himself and stopped.
The man, the blood from his mouth sprinkling to the floor, stared at Joe. In rare cases, the administration, after consulting with the medical staff, might intercede and allow the Body to be anesthetized in order to carry out the procedure. Doing this, however, increased the death rate. Given Joe's previous experience, this Body probably wouldn't live through the anesthesia and the inking,
Joe put the needle against the skin. He only had to press the trigger to start up again. But he merely sat there.
He couldn't do it. For whatever reason, he couldn't do it. Maybe the young man reminded Joe too much of his son? What if it had been his son? What would Joe do? Or maybe he was just tired from the fear and the screams and the looks. He had seen too many of those over the years.
Whatever it was, it broke inside him.
This type of thing happened to some of the inkers. Even the most hardened of them cracked. Some drank, some didn't come back, and a couple killed themselves. As far as Joe knew, there were only one or two who never broke. They made it to the ends of their terms and collected their pensions somewhere else now, probably in the warm sun on a beach, or that's what Joe liked to imagine. But most inkers didn't make it. The job ate away at them and eventually they left before collecting the pension.
Joe wanted to get up and take a walk. Put all this away and go outside. There was a small park, a couple blocks away, where he occasionally ate lunch. He would throw off this blue surgical uniform and change into regular clothes. He would listen to the wind and accelerating cars and the sound of busses stopping in the distance. He might call his wife and check in with her, see if there was anything going on with the kids. He usually tried to call her during lunch. Early in their marriage, she would join him at the small park since it was between their jobs, but they both were now so busy.
But he was still in this white room with the Body. Don't think, he told himself. Don't think. But it was too late.
He stretched for the black button with the flat of his hand and stopped. If he turned this man back in, he knew what would happen to him: anesthesia and not good odds.
Joe reached out a trembling hand to the man, who tried to draw back, suddenly afraid, but the restraints held him in place. Joe undid the straps, first the right hand, then the left. Then the left ankle and the right ankle. He gently slipped off the mouth guard and covered the man's mouth with his hand. "Shh."
The man didn't move. Joe crossed over to the cabinet and found a loose blue gown and off-white robe that looked as if it should have been in a budget hotel room in a tourist destination. He turned his back to the man and, with one hand, indicated the clothing. Joe heard the sheet rustle as the man slid out from under it and then the whisper of clothes being put on. For footwear, Joe only had two blue footies in the cabinet. The man quickly slid them on his feet.
"Take a left and then another left," Joe said without turning around.
"Thank you," the man replied. He headed to the door, the booties a soft slap against the floor.
Joe turned. "Try to get the ink off you so they can't use it to catch you."
The man nodded.
"But have it done under the table. No doctors or hospitals."
The man nodded again, opened the door, and slipped out, closing it behind him.
Joe let a Body, a man, go. He had never done this before. He decided to give the man time to get away, to slip out of the Flag Factory. The exit was close and normally this never happened so no one was watching out for a Body.
Joe could lie. He could say the man, who looked athletic, somehow slipped out of the restraints while Joe went to the bathroom. Bathroom breaks were allowed with the Body being not supervised by any of the staff. No one had ever escaped before but there was always a first for everything.
He didn't know what to do next. He assumed that the staff would figure out the situation and it would come back on him. He assumed they would reprimand him, although doubtful, but, most likely, he would be fired and lose his pension. Eleven wasted years. He hoped his wife would understand.
He had heard the factory wouldn’t release inkers back into the world, and that once you failed, you became a Body yourself.
He could leave the factory before anyone understood what had happened. He would drop by his wife's place of work, which was only a few blocks away, and see if she wanted to go out. It'd been a long time since they last had lunch together in the small park. All he could hope for was to have enough time to change into street clothes and go outside and be a regular person. He would listen to the birds and maybe the cries of the young kids who played there for a while.
Before they certainly came and dragged him away.