OUR TORTURER

What happens when you succeed in eliminating most ordinary crime? That is, crimes of profit, of passion, of desperate survival? Almost wiped out. The crime stats are way down. The commissioner’s happy, the mayor’s happy, the courts are happy, and their corporate sponsors are as pigs in shit.

However, when those crime numbers dwindle down to next-to-none, it is only the most atrocious and maddeningly incomprehensible of crimes that persist. Crimes that make people vomit or faint or drive off the road upon hearing about it on the radio, straight into a chemical waste pond, kids in the backseat phone-filming the crash and descent, the golden retriever howling in ecstasy, until the final family breath plops upward through the surface in a sizzling acrid bubble.

For that reason, the city decided to reinstate the practice of torture.

By this time the traditional carceral system had, due to the plummeting of the crime industry, transformed so much that it hardly appeared any different than much of the live-work projects which made up the outer metropolitan area. 

Many prisons were actually converted — over night it sometimes seemed — into these bustling communities, the former inmates being given residency status in exchange for a portion of their extractable libidos, while the current residents were given the choice between remaining or relocation to the new suburban communes further out from the city. All remained. A few neighborly spats were reported. Negligible casualties.  

The city torturer would become a new institution unto itself. A single-person operation. Born, bred and ideologically engineered to torture the very few remaining — but very dangerous, or unpredictable to say the least, or honest — doers of crimes who refuse total self-abnegation.

***

Many people had made the mistake of assuming that, to breed the perfect torturer, we’d have to focus on characteristics such as: cold-heartedness, cruelty, apathy, sadism, inertia, misanthropy, imagination, (world-)weariness and mania. A lot of those mistaken people were eventually forgiven. Those who weren’t spent the rest of their careers apologizing, which eventually turned into one of the world’s most popular reality TV shows: The Apology Machines.

The city decided that the kind of torturer they needed had to be, above all else, relatable. Another word that was tossed around the city halls and think tanks and ad agency conference rooms was approachable. One 13-year old copywriting intern suggested affable but they were quickly ‘disappeared’ to city warehouse duty. Humane was also briefly on the board, then scratched out. Dull ultimately made the list. But the final term the city’s linguists and jurors and influencers could all agree on was average.

***

An average family was chosen: The Smithsingsteins. Dad a plastic surgery nurse. Mom a community college professor in political science and absurdist theater. Two children, 17 and 13, both exceptionally middle-of-the-road when it came to looks, school grades, athletics, creative arts, daydream-to-nightmare ratios, as well as levels of acceptable stomach, brain and identity parasites.

Dad and Mom Smithsingstein were treated to a five-star dinner atop the city’s main flak tower which now housed a shopping mall and sex-themed amusement park: pulse-based steak and scab of potato with red claret simulate made of pressed cochineal and recycled waste water. 

Later that night the married couple conceived a child, and after the standard four-month gestation period, a baby girl was born. And then immediately seized by the state. The whole Smithsingstein clan were remunerated with life-long exemptions from the city’s lauded MVL program (mandatory-volunteer labor).

***

Her name was Alice. As fate would have it, she’d have blonde hair, blue eyes, red lips, pink skin, tiny feet, big ears, button nose, dimpled cheeks, and an outie belly button which, if poked, would start her screeching for hours. 

Her education was the city’s top priority. As the embodiment of humanity’s necessity to torture its most aberrant subjects, every meal, book, show, movie, song, opinion and critical theory Alice consumed would be carefully chosen by a panel of technocrats. Child psychology experts, office lobby decorators, sensitivity gurus, party propagandists.  

These experts mostly mined material chosen from the Western-Anglo world between the fall of the USSR and the 2008 global financial crisis. Sitcoms where pleasant people were always meeting up for coffee or cocktails — and never seeming to work jobs — were prioritized.

Alice was also carefully shielded from most other human contact that wasn’t strictly pre-planned, monitored and controlled (often from the spectator mezzanine over the glass dome where she was raised). 

Play dates would be brought to her from the city’s orphanage for the criminally timid. Romantic grownup-style dates were provided by the city football league’s hospital for the too-frequently concussed. Intellectual companions with whom Alice was meant to feel “challenged”  — with the aim that she would “grow as an individual”  — were, for the most part, computer simulations based on algorithms owned and copyrighted by a consortium of investment banks, for-profit liberal arts colleges, big-vitamin companies, and mutant-livestock R&D firms.

***

For years, Alice has been doing relatively well — physically, mentally and appearance-wise — as our torturer. She’s rarely ‘actively’ torturing anyone, seeing how, sadly, so little crime remains. In her spare time she reads: old TV guides, discarded takeout menus from restaurants long condemned, outdated appliance instruction manuals, bibles of various faiths and languages and prejudices.

The last time Alice was put to work was when a man, also named Alice, had one day decided enough was enough and drove his family off the road and into a chemical waste pit. The wife, kids and dog died but the man, Alice, was forcefully revived so as to stand punishment to ease the simmering uneasiness of the population.

The pair of Alices would spend hours and days locked into their mutually-validating roles. Torturer and tortured. Understanding and misunderstood. Ever-forgiving and endlessly apologizing. 

They fell in love (before a national audience who’d been taking bets on that very possible outcome; 100 to 1 odds that they indeed would). 

The city granted them their union and their freedom to enjoy it. The city’s sponsors showered them with vouchers: erectile energy drinks, fertility mindfulness classes, and lifetime supplies of diuretics, laxatives, emetics and non-lethal bullets. The one condition was that they had to procreate and donate their next child to the city to become our next torturer. 

They had the child. Named it Zane. Gave it up while it was still blindly reaching after Alice’s swollen teat. 

***

Someone, in another part of the city, was planning a crime so despicable and mind-bendingly inscrutable that neither the commissioner, the mayor, the courts nor their corporate sponsors knew how they’d turn this heinous act into something “positive” (or at least profitable). 

But Zane would know. 

At least that was partially the point of reinstating the barbaric act of torture in the first place.  

— Michael Zunenshine is a collection of mismatched machine parts, some of which do writing while others do posting as @RealityTVDinner on IG and Twitter.