Erase Me: Positron, Episode Three (Excerpt)

In the third installment of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed dark comedy “Positron,” Stan wakes up immobilized, not knowing whether he’s being used as the sexual plaything of a subversive member of the Consilience social experiment, or is facing a fate that’s far worse.

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  1. Stan tries again. He uses all his strength, pushing up with his arms and thighs against the straps—they must be straps, though he can’t see them. No dice. What is this, Jocelyn’s warped idea of another kinky sex game?

    “Charmaine,” he tries to call. His throat slurs, his tongue is like a cold beef sandwich. Why’s he calling her anyway, as if he can’t find his socks, as if he needs help with his top shirt button? What kind of a help-me-mommy wife-whine is that? Maybe part of his brain is dead. Dumbass, he tells himself: Charmaine can’t hear you, she isn’t in the room.

    Or not so far as he can see, which isn’t far.

    Wait, Stan, he tells himself. Relax. Let’s do a recap here. What was it that Jocelyn was telling him just before she put him under? Let’s take the facts in order.

    First, Jocelyn is a Security kingpin in the Consilience/Positron model town-and-prison. Correction: queen pin. Second, she has the power to manipulate the identities and data files of everyone inside the walls, and she’d manipulated his to trap him in the Consilience house where he lives during his civilian months. That put him under her thumb, right where she’d wanted him; while meanwhile his flake of a wife, Charmaine, had been kept out of the way—locked up in Positron for far longer than she was supposed to be.

    Third, after tormenting him with various twisted mindfucks, she’d revealed in the backseat of the car that she was only pretending to be a power-mad sex-crazed dragon lady who enjoyed making him dance while she cracked the whip. Really she was some kind of weird double agent bent on—what? Something to do with undermining the Consilience model, because it’s an evil plot aimed at taking over something or other: democracy, the country, whatever. He’s not thinking so clearly after all, because he can’t remember exactly how that part goes; and since they never get any real news from outside the town walls, only platefuls of verbal pet kibble, who knows what’s happening out there?

    Though inside the walls, the climate is definitely changing. That march-past of people in shackles, with their faces covered—when was that? Yesterday? He’d never seen anything like that in Consilience before. They’d been treated like real prisoners, not like folks playing the role of prisoners. It wasn’t dress-ups, not like the usual Positron getup. And it was chilling, the way his work buddies at scooter repair didn’t want to talk about that difference, or ponder the explanation for it. The fear quotient definitely shot up.

    So maybe that’s why Jocelyn has turned against the Consilience plan, and wants to use him as her errand boy.


    Two o’clock. The first procedure of the afternoon is scheduled for three. After leaving the dining area, Charmaine heads back to her cell to spend a little quiet time alone. She needs to prepare herself, both physically and mentally; and also spiritually, of course. Do some meditating, fix her makeup.

    But when she opens the door to her cell, there’s someone already in it. It’s a woman, in the standard orange boiler suit but with a hood over her head. She’s sitting on the bed. Her wrists are attached together in front with zip-tie handcuffs.

    “Excuse me?” says Charmaine. If it weren’t for the hood and the cuffs, she would have pointed out that this is her cell, and as far as she knows there hasn’t been a change of cell assignment. And then she would have said, Please leave.

    “Don’t …” says the woman’s voice, muffled by the hood. Then there’s something else that Charmaine doesn’t catch. She goes over to the bed—a little risky, because what if this is a maniac who might snap at her or something—and lifts the hood up and back.

    It’s an older woman, maybe mid-fifties. She stares at Charmaine with pink, blinking eyes. “Don’t talk to me,” she says. “It’s better for you if you don’t.”

    “But,” says Charmaine. “But what are you doing in my cell?”

    “It’s not up to me where they put me,” the woman says, with a sad little smile. She lifts her hands, then tilts her head, indicating her leg. It’s chained to the bed.

    “Are you a … a criminal element?” Charmaine asks—has to ask, though maybe she shouldn’t. The criminal elements she’s used to dealing with at Medications Administration have all been young men. She can’t really imagine this woman murdering anyone, or raping them, or any of the other things that end with you being strapped down five ways on a Medications Admin rolling bed.

    “I must be, in the minds of some,” says the woman. “I’m a dissident. Now you should put the hood back on and go and call a guard. They’ll realize they put me in the wrong cell and clear me out of your way.”

    “But I can’t just …” says Charmaine. “What will happen to you?” She feels as if she’s about to cry. This is wrong, it has to be wrong! They must have made a mistake, like the mistake they made about her own identity, when they put her in Towel Folding. “Just do it,” says the woman. “You have no choices.”


    The white ceiling is even more boring than Consilience TV. Hardly anything’s going on up there, though there has been a fly, which has helped to pass the time. Scram, fly! He would think at it, to see if he could control it by broadcasting his thought waves. But he couldn’t.

    He closes his eyes; drug is dragging him under, but he should stay awake if possible. He concentrates on the chain of causes and effects and lies and impostures—some of them his—that has stranded him in this tedious or possibly terrifying cul-de-sac.

    For instance: Phil the chauffeur, dutiful spouse of Jocelyn, is also the cheating lounge lizard, Max, who’d led his clueless wife, Charmaine, astray, not that it seems to have taken that much effort. He’d seduced Charmaine not because he enjoyed it in any way (and if Jocelyn believes that part, she’s not as smart as she thinks she is) but merely to help out with Jocelyn’s double-agent sabotage plan, whatever it is.

    But whatever it is—now it comes back to him!—will involve Charmaine in a lab coat walking in here in about five minutes, or at least he hopes it’s that soon, because he really needs a piss. The poor little mutt will think she’s about to send some serial killer or child murderer or old-person batterer to the next life. Although it’s not talked about openly at Positron, it’s no secret that Medications Administration is charged with exterminating the original denizens of Positron Prison—the incorrigible criminal elements—so everyone else can live the good life without having their sleep disturbed by thugs, rapists, and psychopaths.

    But when Charmaine approaches the trolley or whatever it is he’s strapped onto, it won’t be an unknown criminal element awaiting her elimination ministrations: it will be him. Her husband, Stan.

    What will she do then? Scream and run away? Throw herself onto his prone body? Tell Positron there’s been a terrible mistake?

    Jocelyn planned this. She told him that it’s her idea to get him this far along on the conveyor belt of death so the Positron officials will think he’s been terminated and will scratch him off the list of the living. Maybe she’s coached Charmaine, let her in on the deception. Maybe Charmaine will flick a hidden switch to deflect the concealed videocams to some other room, and then she’ll unstrap him, and they’ll hug each other, and she’ll whisper, “Can you ever forgive me for cheating? I don’t know what came over me—it’s you I love,” and so on, though there won’t be time for the drawn-out groveling and cringing apology he has the right to expect. But he’ll squeeze her reassuringly, and then she’ll show him—what? A trapdoor? A secret tunnel? A set of clothes to wear as a disguise?

    He’s watched way too much TV over the years. On TV there are last-minute escapes, and tunnels, and trapdoors. This is real life, idiot, he tells himself.

    Or it’s supposed to be.

    But there has to be some last-minute trick like that, because Charmaine would surely never stick the death drug into him, or whatever it is she does to the pond scum who end up in here. She’d never go the whole hog. She’s too tenderhearted. As he’d told Jocelyn, just before she’d ambushed him with that stealth-attack needle.

    Unhuhuh, he says to the ceiling. Because now he’s not sure of that. He’s not sure of anything. And what if something’s fucked up and the Positron spooks have caught up with double-dealing Jocelyn and arrested her or maybe even shot her?

    And what if, when the door opens, it isn’t Charmaine who walks through it?

    They’re probably watching him right now, through a light fixture or a nail hole. They’ve probably tortured Jocelyn, made her cough up the entire plot. They probably think he’s in on it.

    I didn’t know! It wasn’t me! I’ve done nothing! he screams in his head.


    Shit. He’s wet his pants. But it doesn’t seep, it doesn’t trickle. Have they got him in diapers? Crap. Not a good sign.

    So he can’t be the first person who’s been here and done the pant-wetting thing. And more. You can’t say they don’t cover the angles.



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Originally published in Byliner, December 2012