45 Minutes

Art by Seager Wakil.

Work ended early today, which was unusual. Afternoon traffic wasn’t bad. Grey buildings lined the bleak sky above as I drove through the near empty city streets. Pulling into the driveway, the speaker with a voice asked for my name and I said it slowly even though the latest technology existed in government buildings. Say your name too quickly, and the machine would mishear you, mismatching your ID with the printed name. You would have to repeat the same tedious process all over again. Access was granted, and I drove into the building.

The parking lot was clearly marked depending on what you were there for. My section had only one spot, because only one was needed. I followed the signs to the entrance. It was only my second time, but already there was a familiarity: I felt natural, normal, like the moments to come were simply a task to be dealt with, and they were. The elevator had no obvious odour other than cleaning products. It almost smelt medicinal.  But this was the furthest thing from a hospital.

The woman at the front desk called my name.

“Yes,” I told her, “that’s me.” Her eyes never left the computer screen.

“You’ll be down the hall in room one. You’re scheduled to start in 15 minutes, and the estimated time of procedure is,” and she finally looked up, I smiled at her.

“45 minutes,” I said. She smiled back mildly, with no teeth.

“The dressing room is to the left, and you’ll be expected and ready to go at 3 p.m.” I thanked her.

A friend of mine once told me she’d heard of someone taking three hours, so I suppose the time varies based on the situation. Still, it makes you wonder what it was about. 45 minutes was what they told everyone.

The procedures started changing 50 years ago. They used to take place in a big room with many people, not just one. People voted, and the verdicts were reached based on the votes, all run by a professional mediator. But that took too long, or at least that’s what they told us. You could barely find any records older than 50 years, they’d all been destroyed. But I think they’re still out there, somewhere, the records. I’d never go looking, though. If they find out you’re looking, they’d find you first.

The hallways were bare, coated in burgundy coloured paint, lined with dark wood trimming. It felt as though I was alone, the only audible sound being that of my heels against the floor. But surely I wasn’t alone. Inside the dressing room was a washroom stall with a toilet and sink, a small bench, a shelving unit, and two hooks on the wall. They shouldn’t call it a dressing room, there’s nothing to get dressed into. You’re only meant to lock up your belongings and prepare.

The main room itself wasn’t too big, just big enough for a table with two chairs. There were no windows, but on the wall across from the chair I was sitting in, there was a large mirror that spanned its width. I wondered how many people were on the other side.

“Good afternoon, are you ready to start?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Excellent. We’ll start with the prepared information.”

He took the seat across from me and started a somewhat detailed account, providing me with all the information necessary. Or perhaps all the information they wanted me to know. The stack of pages wasn’t high, but I knew he’d have a lot to say about them. There is always more than what you find on a page. The room smells freshly cleaned, to my unease, and I allow my mind to wander.

Why must this room be cleaned so thoroughly? What happened here before I stepped in the room?

“So what have you decided? Do you find them to be innocent or guilty?” The man in front of me looks serious. I can’t help, but look over his shoulder, at the others.

I knew what was coming, but I had to ask anyway.

“What is the penalty if the verdict is guilty?” He gave the answer I knew he would. “And if they’re not guilty?” He gave the answer I knew he would. Reflecting briefly, I decided on my answer.

When the procedure ended it was only 3:45 p.m. It only took 45 minutes, just like they said.