BY ANNA BLAUVELDT
MARCIA REACHED OVER TO the postbox, pushed up the lid and pulled out the neon pink envelope. It was instantly recognisable, and not in a good way. With fancy curlicue writing and a white swan silhouette on the seal flap, it looked like an invitation to a Barbie-themed birthday party. But its contents were way more sinister than that. The unlucky recipient of one of these envelopes was at risk of being disappeared.
She’d had nightmares about this moment. Now that it was actually happening, she was beyond terrified. And about five seconds from puking if she didn’t get fresh air fast.
Just open the door all the way. Go over and sit in Dave’s old Adirondack chair. Then take a deep breath. Take a hundred deep breaths.
In the Before Time, those few steps would have been easy. Not anymore. Marcia hadn’t left the safe shelter of her home in ten weeks, and she struggled doing it now. Being out on the porch felt weird to her. Like she was naked or something.
Avoiding the notorious pink envelope, and what was in it, was the reason she’d hidden inside for so long. It was why she’d kept her curtains closed and had her groceries delivered to the back entrance. The doorbell, when it rang, was never answered. And instead of taking her rubbish to the curb, it went to a growing pile in the garage. The air in there was toxic, and she’d have to do something about it soon, but she wasn’t sure what.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ was her thinking. If nobody noticed her, nobody would report her. It worked for a while. Then it didn’t. The envelope was proof of that. It meant someone had ratted on her to the ‘Fat Police’ of the Ministry of Health.
Who the hell did it? One of the folks on her street? Of course. It had to be. She wouldn’t put it past any of them. It was an understatement to say the neighbourhood wasn’t the friendliest place to live. Schadenfreude seemed to be built into the community DNA. Whenever the grapevine got hold of a delicious tidbit about one resident’s bad luck, she could almost hear the others squealing in the throes of a collective orgasm. It was always like that, even before the National Austerity Program was introduced nine months earlier.
Through narrowed eyes, Marcia looked first at the house across the way, then at the ones on each side. Which of the delightful people living around her had done the deed? Was it the Dicks, who hosted the annual Christmas drinks gathering but never said two words to her otherwise? The Smileys, who let their dogs shit all over her lawn and rarely scooped it up after? And what about the Hogwoods, whose taste for middle-of-the-night thrash rock at a bazillion decibels she didn’t share?
Maybe it was all of them together. A cozy little cabal, with her as its victim.
Were they watching her now? Concealed behind their picture window drapes, binoculars up to their beady little eyes and predatory drool running down their chins? Maybe I’m paranoid, she thought, then corrected herself. Nope. I’m suspicious. It’s not paranoia if the threat is real. It was real, all right. And no longer just a threat.
In case they were spying on her, she put on her best fake smile, raised the pink envelope in the air and waved it back and forth like the miniature flags at one of those tedious jubilee events.
“WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?” she shouted above the growl of a distant lawnmower. Then she stood, signalled her contempt with a flick of the usual raised fingers, and went back inside. Nobody would get to see her in distress. It would give them too much pleasure.
It was a different story when Marcia collapsed on the banquette bench in the breakfast nook. Once her tears started, they wouldn’t stop, and it was a good ten minutes before she worked up the courage to rip the envelope open.
Inside was an invitation to the New Start Spa, of course. But it wasn’t really an invitation. It was a summons. That was because the recipient didn’t get to turn it down. And it wasn’t a spa, either. ‘Spa’ was the government’s euphemism for its mandatory weight-loss facility. God forbid the bureaucrats running the place actually used the words ‘weight loss’. Instead, people were invited there for ‘right-sizing’. The sugar-coating didn’t fool anyone. Rumour had it the Spa, nicknamed the ‘Flab Lab’, was a no-frills institutional complex of locked-down dormitories with barred windows.
Dear Citizen, the invitation read.
You have been selected to join us for a getaway like no other. The New Start Spa is a special experience...A respite that will inspire, encourage, facilitate, and celebrate the achievement of your wellness goals!
We look forward to welcoming you at the Spa at 8 o’clock a.m. on September 1st, 2025!
Marcia crumpled it up and tossed it on the table. Maybe it was her imagination, but her fingers burned where it touched them.
What a load of bullshit! How did they know what her ‘wellness goals’ were, or even if she had any at all? The goals were theirs, not hers. The fact they wanted to impose them on herbody wasn’t an issue for them.
And she had two weeks to get ready. Marcia had heard about the advance notice. It was an opportunity for those summoned to the Spa to get their affairs in order first.
There was no escaping it. If she didn’t show up on the designated date, Ministry staff would come looking for her. More than once, she’d seen the official van on the prowl for truant invitees. Nobody could miss it. The same neon pink as the invitation, it had flashing cherry lights on the top and, on the side panels, those same damn swans circled by the words “Division of Corrective Care Services—Ministry of Health.” Always attracting onlookers at the scene of a pickup, the van was obviously designed for maximum humiliation of the people they were apprehending.
And how did they know where to find them? Microchips. Starting in late 2024, they’d been implanted in every citizen’s left hand and used for all sorts of tracking purposes. Tax collection, census data, military conscription, and everything in between. Non-compliance was not tolerated: avoidance or removal of an implant was punishable by incarceration. Not that anybody would want to go without one. You couldn’t buy groceries or gas or other necessities without your hand being scanned.
It was the first step in the Government’s austerity program. An “unfortunate but unavoidable measure,” the Prime Minister’s Office stated in the press release at the time. One it was “reluctant, but felt compelled, to implement.” The economy was reeling from the outbreak of World War III, post-pandemic goods shortages, and severe meteorological events brought on by climate change. Each citizen had to play a part in limiting consumption, reducing waste, and cutting back on the demand for services. All for the greater benefit, of course. And the only way to ensure success was to monitor the activities of the entire population.
Like everybody else, Marcia and her husband Dave lined up for their implant appointments early in the New Year. By February, Dave was dead from sepsis that started at the site of his microchip incision.
Over the spring, food essentials dwindled even further as a result of droughts, ongoing supply chain disruptions, and geopolitical conflict blockades. Supermarket shelves were slow to be restocked with bread, dairy and other basics. Luxury items disappeared altogether.
At first, rationing was floated as an option. Protests outside Parliament confirmed it was an unpopular one, and the government, soon to seek re-election, noticed. Imposing such a program would be the last resort, the Prime Minister promised in the House of Commons. And anyway, why should everybody be punished with grocery quotas? Until the situation became truly desperate, only those citizens who obviously consumed more than their fair share would be targeted. An example had to be made of those who persisted in such selfish indulgence.
In May, the Food Control Measures Act became law. Obesity was now a crime, and a tip line was set up to assist the government in enforcement. A tax reduction was offered for information leading to a conviction.
There were no trials for suspects. Why bog down the justice system when the evidence was indisputable? Instead, after they received their pink invitations, they would either present themselves, or be taken, to one of the New Start Spas set up across the country. There, they would be measured and weighed against state-regulated standards. Those found guilty would be taken into custody and escorted to their designated dorms. In handcuffs, if necessary.
It wasn’t clear what happened to detainees after that, other than be placed on restricted diets. Were they psychologically reprogrammed to eat less? Forced to undergo bariatric surgery? And after they’d reached their ‘wellness goals’, what then? Would they be released back into the community? Nobody Marcia knew had answers to these questions. But from what she read online, not a single person who entered the Spas was ever seen coming out.
Being judged on how she looked was nothing new to Marcia. She’d heard about it all her life. Comments about “baby fat” started in her daycare nursery years. In school, none of the other kids wanted to be her friend; they teased her instead. Weight-shaming followed in secondary school and, later, in social network postings. Even her mother joined in. “You’d be SO pretty if you lost a few pounds,” she’d said countless times over the years. “Just look at Sarah!” Sarah, the slender sister. The attractive one. In response, Marcia tried every diet du jour. They worked for a while, but the weight always came back. Eventually, she gave up.
Nature made me this way, she conceded. Why fight it?
The world never stopped reminding her how undesirable she was. Ads for weight loss plans appeared in every magazine, and she was repeatedly ambushed by television commercials with ‘before’ and ‘after’ success stories. Clothing catalogues and websites featured size 4 models. Granted, in the past few years, they’d thrown in some token plus-size models, too. But ‘plus size’ usually meant 16 or 18. Marcia was size 22.
She hated her appearance so much that, when Dave proposed in their final year of university, she suspected it was partly out of pity. Time and time again over their marriage, he proved her wrong. He really did love her. But the insecurity was always there.
And now, receiving the pink envelope, Marcia went from misfit to suspected criminal. She knew she’d be found guilty at the Spa. What on earth could she do about it?
On the last day of August, Marcia filled the car with gas. After that, she joined the queue at the one remaining McDonald’s Drive-Thru in the city. A symbol of the Before Time, all the others had closed due to low supplies and the reluctance of customers to be seen at them. Only the politically well-connected, not the slightest bit worried about getting Spa invitations, went to this one. Only they could afford it. Burgers there went for twenty-five bucks.
Marcia didn’t care about the cost. She ordered a Quarter Pounder and a Large Fries. She liked the idea that anybody seeing them, even from a distance, would recognize the red and yellow packaging. That was because she planned to eat what she decided to call “The Last Supper” on her front porch as the sun set, defiantly toasting the neighbours with her favourite Pinot Grigio. This time, she hoped they would all be watching.
It was a perfect evening, even if she drank two glasses too many and stumbled going back into the house. Later, tipsy as she was, Marcia couldn’t sleep. The Hogwoods were at it again, playing Anthrax at full blast just after midnight. It didn’t bother her much. She had a lot to do before leaving and she’d set the alarm for four a.m. anyway.
In the dark, she got up, showered, dressed and went downstairs. Her packed suitcase was waiting at the back door, but she headed to the kitchen instead. She’d already placed a paring knife, Tylenols, tweezers, and her first aid kit beside the sink. Now she was ready to use them. Still, for someone who had to look away when she got her implant, this was going to be torture.
First, she swallowed the Tylenols. Then she picked up the paring knife. Her right hand was shaking when she pressed the point of it against the skin on her left hand. Not hard enough, though. It barely made a scratch.
She tried again, deeper this time. It stung like hell, but the knife still didn’t go in that far.
FOR GOD’S SAKE! Stop screwing around! Just DO it!
With a stabbing motion, she pierced the flesh between her thumb and her index finger. The wound wasn’t that big, but the pain was so sharp her whole body flinched and the knife, slipping out of her hand, clattered to the floor. In seconds, blood was everywhere. On her T-shirt, down the side of the sink and now on the linoleum, too. More and more kept coming out of her. Seeing it made her gag.
Jesus! What a mess! So much blood from such a small cut!
Marcia leaned against the counter to steady herself.
Get a GRIP! Why care about the mess? In half an hour, I’ll be gone.
But she had to finish the job first. And she was dreading this last part the most.
It’s better to do it fast, like ripping off a bandage.
She picked up her tweezers, jabbed them in the wound, grasped the microchip and pulled it out. All in seven seconds flat. It made her feel faint, what she was doing. The sight of it. The fierce raw burn of it.
Suck it up, girl! It’s not major surgery, for God’s sake. But DAMN that hurts.
Marcia placed the microchip on a plate beside the sink. The Tylenols started to kick in as she cleaned and wrapped her incision in gauze. There was still pain, but the worst was over.
Marcia checked the kitchen clock. Changing out of her bloody T-shirt with a wounded hand took time. And after that, there was one more thing she couldn’t resist doing before leaving. She went to the living room and opened wide the window on the Hogwoods’ side.
“Alexa! Play polka music! LOUD!”