The Future is Bound to Repeat by Theresa Panuski

“Are we capitalizing prepositions in headlines now, or not?” Eddie drops a stack of marked up pages on Maureen’s desk.

“Check the style guide.” Maureen’s eyes stay focused on the screen in front of her, but her left hand pushes the stack of papers—and indirectly Eddie—towards the edge of her desk.

“Oh, who knows what the style guide says. Damn thing is always changing. We can’t go two issues with the same rules—”

“Alternate rules. The style guide uses alternate rules and you’ve been a reporter here long enough to know the government issued style guides are mandatory reading at the beginning of every news cycle.”

“But the damn things—”

“If you’re telling me you haven’t read the guide I can’t file your story.” Maureen swivels away from her computer screen and fixes Eddie with the stare that earned her the reputation of most ferocious copyeditor on the night rotation. “Are you telling me you haven’t read the style guide?”

“Whatever.” Eddie leaves his copy on Maureen’s otherwise pristine desk and turns around. “It’s editorial’s problem anyway,” he says before walking out of earshot.

Maureen sighs and pulls Eddie’s stack over for review. She only needs a cursory read to tell most of it is unusable. Eddie hasn’t used the updated style guide and the statistics he cites all fall on the unverified and unusable list. She doesn’t bother to check why the statistics were blacklisted or if there’s a contextual exception that would allow the numbers to be published. It’s not worth the time, and Maureen can’t afford another sanction for “looking the other way while historic numbers published when futuristic numbers would have been more accurate.”

Maureen gets up to stretch before starting on what little usable copy Eddie’s turned in. As she twists left she sees the government issued company motto:

History is in the past. Our future is the future. Look to it; stay informed.

She twists quickly right to face a blank, cinderblock wall. It’s been a while since the office has felt lively and relevant, but tonight it feels especially desolate.

“Prepositions of four letters or longer should always be capitalized,” Maureen says to her computer, sitting back down. It’s one rule of journalism that hasn’t changed. Maybe the only one.

The cursor flashes and Maureen scrolls through the layout of what will become the Tuesday morning edition. There are still large blank spaces on every spread, but once Maureen gets a link to the approved images she’ll be able to pull out the most promising and leave it to layout and design to finalize.

The front page headline isn’t bad, “Nuclear Winter Avoided, Sixteen Year Triumph,” but the ancillary stories need work. It’s been fifteen years since the new protocols, but the reporters still had trouble writing compelling stories about tomorrow’s news. The futurist mandate was hard on everyone, but it was hardest on journalists. (And, perhaps, former history professors, but no one had heard from them in ages. That would have made an excellent front page story, but it happened in the past, which disqualified it from the alternative news cycle.)

“Midnight!” The stringer’s cry is followed by an alarm that sounds eerily similar to the sound emitted by the smoke detectors.

In the past, the stringers could always be counted on for a last minute, local interest piece, but because the government hadn’t—yet—made it possible for stringers to travel into the future, there was nothing for them to report on. Instead, they worked on rotation in the office, coming in to help with the midnight shift and wander around the office looking for purpose.

Maureen took one more look through the blank spaces in tomorrow’s spreads. It made her wistful for all the pictures and stories that used to fill them. She shook her head to clear those thoughts, put her computer in sleep mode, and followed a herd of editors, reporters, and stringers to the elevators.

“How long do you think it’ll take tonight?” A reporter near the back of the elevator checks his watch.

Maureen looks for his reflection in one of the elevator’s metallic sides. Abram. His copy was always late. He was probably hoping he could make it back to his desk before Maureen got to her cube. Then he could come by an hour after deadline and honestly say she wasn’t there when he came by the first time. He’d done it before. It didn’t matter that his copy hadn’t been by Maureen’s cube with him.

“Shouldn’t be too long. Our number of subscribers went up tomorrow.” It’s a stringer in the front. Maureen doesn’t know her. She’s from after.

“They posted our numbers in the style guide this week for ad copy. Had one of the kids on circulation verify it.” Another stringer.

The editors don’t chime in. They don’t have to verify facts anymore.

“Which is weird. Because I could swear the piles are getting bigger.” Abram again.

Maureen smiles. Not physically because someone might see it, but in her mind she smiles. She’ll let the late copy slide tonight.

“The mind plays tricks. That’s why we trust the numbers.”

Eddie. Maureen hadn’t seen him get on the elevator. She’s surprised he’s the one pushing numbers when he doesn’t even know what they are. If his copy was any indication, he hadn’t read the style guides in months.

The elevator dings and the doors open onto the circulation floor. Stacks of Monday’s news for tomorrow— now today— sit neatly bundled on long tables. There are hundreds of stacks, thousands of papers, now obsolete.

“All right, team, you know the drill! Shred and burn!”

The circulation controllers march down their assigned rows, turning around when they reach the end to march back up. Staff didn’t have assigned places, but the familiar brought routine and Maureen always stood in the same spot. She had a particular shredder she liked to use. It was efficient but loud— loud enough to drown out the rest of the room.

“Pulp?” A controller stands in front of her with a large plastic garbage can.

Maureen nods, dumping the lines of old paper from the bin of her shredder into the can.

“Thank you,” the controller gives a curt nod before moving down to the next shredder. “Pulp?”

“Fire!” Someone shouts.

This happens at least once a night. The incinerators are difficult to control and loose sparks fly into the cans of pulp waiting to go in. Everyone turns to look even though it’s a common occurrence.

This is Maureen’s chance. She takes a paper and hides it under her shirt, tucked into the waist of her pants so there’s no chance it’ll slip out until she makes it home. The whole paper would be impossible to hide so Maureen settles for the front page and another one or two from the center. She wraps the spreads around her middle so the bulge won’t be too pronounced. She’d always worn loose fitting blouses to work, so as long as the paper stayed secure it was hardly noticeable.

Maureen had front pages going back ten years. She hadn’t started at the beginning, like everyone else she assumed the protocols were temporary. When the finality set in it took another year to get up the courage. Now stealing the contraband news was as routine as destroying it.

“Pulp?” The controller stops in front of Maureen again. She empties her bin into the can and the controller moves down the line.

When her shift is finished, Maureen takes the stairs back up to her floor. Everything smells like smoke now that the incinerators are running. Being trapped in the elevator with that smell, pressed up against her coworkers, always made Maureen anxious. The stairs offer a small freedom before getting back to work.

“Oh, uh, Maureen.” Abram greets her, unintentionally, at the exit from the stairwell. He was walking passed on his way back to his desk. “I was just by to see you. But you were, uh.”

“Not there?”

“Right. Not there.”

“I can take your copy back with me though.” Maureen grins, looking at Abram’s empty hands.

“Oh. Well. Yeah. It’s just.”

“Have it to me in an hour,” Maureen chuckles.

Abram’s shoulders sag in a mix of relief and defeat. “You got it.”

Maureen walks back to her cube and picks up a story left on her chair. Someone else must be cutting it close to deadline. She turns over the pages to read the headline: “Managing Editor Arrested, Apartment Filled With Contraband News.” She sets the story by her keyboard and sits down. There’s an empty box outlined on the top page, room for a photo of her collection, or her apartment, or even the information controllers marching her off to wherever they took people who lived in the past.

“I expect a front page slot!” Eddie calls as he walks by. Friendly banter on his way back to his desk? Or a knowing threat?
Maureen grabs her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk. She has to get home.

“Hey, Mar, sorry about—”

Maureen shoves Abram out of her way. She has to get out. She has to go.

It’s 2am, well into the night shift, and the streets are empty. Maureen makes record time back to her apartment, but it’s empty. The door is still locked. Her collection intact and untouched. She breathes, standing alone in her bedroom where all the contraband news is sorted by date and filed in cabinets along the back wall.

***

            The paper delivered to Maureen’s door that morning doesn’t have the lead story she’d placed there. Instead, there’s a picture of her in her apartment, standing in front of her papers, with the headline: “Managing Editor Arrested.”

***

            The news controllers stay behind to clean out the contraband. Even with the notice Maureen hadn’t been able to save her news. No one would take it; no one could be trusted.

One of the controllers pulls out a paper, flipping the front page out to his partner. “You think this is true?”

She shrugs, walking out with a box of old headlines.

The controller looks at the headline, then to the doorway. He folds up the page and tucks it away in his jacket.


Theresa Panuski is a nonfiction editor by day and a creator of short fiction by night. She hopes to one day grow a short story into a whole novel, but until then she can be found @ResaWrites and resawrites.wordpress.com

 

 

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