Count

If anyone ever asked, June would rattle off the date of two day’s prior with a practised ease. Everyone, especially the older folks and the young folks not old enough to think beyond lessons of older folks – everyone asked. It was an automatic part of greeting one another; it was ‘hello’, 'how are you?’, 'when did you count last?’. The older folks have words to say on manners and impolite language, but of late the common shorthand is 'last count?’.

June isn’t sure if they are supposed to respond to that. Sometimes it is so quick and in passing, that they are left on the street awkward and fumbling the date of the day before yesterday.When meeting someone proper, the question feels authoritative. Perhaps not from the person asking. From everyone as a whole, asking.

 

Last count?

 

“The fourteenth,” they reply. There is nothing conversational about this question, here in the hubbub of voices surrounding, June is bored of this non-interaction.

 

Their answer always garners the same response, that they should count again within the next day.

 

This new stranger instead says, “Ugh, again soon.”

 

June’s boredom drops at the sudden change in script. They blink and refocus on the person sitting opposite.

 

She had introduced herself as Fatima. In this crowded shop that persuades strangers to sit with one another, her meal appears comprised entirely of vegetables; she had said she was 'busy’ but said in such an upbeat fashion she was evidently not burdened by such realities. “I did last night,” she says, with a laborious voice. “But I won’t again for as long as I can.”

 

“It’s so tedious,” June agrees with her own begrudging view. This was another common line among people her age; Fatima was older, June is testing the waters.

 

“I just have so much else I have to do, all the time. It’s a pain to squeeze it in.” Fatima catches onto June’s smirk from the comment and adds, “Into my schedule.”

 

“I wish I had a busy schedule,” bemoans June. “I feel like I do nothing, waiting around, until I have to–” they don’t want to say it, they don’t have to; it is implied. “–again.” The lunch in front of them was forgotten with all their newfound interesting conversation. “What is it you do?”

 

Fatima smiles and forgets her meal as well, she talks about how her job is too much paperwork and not enough fieldwork. Fatima smiles because June smiled first, not knowing that June has not smiled earnestly with another person for some time.

 

June is contributing to the hubbub of conversation in a shop. They respond with their desire for nearly any kind of work, but that they don’t have the energy for physical tasks and long hours. The placement centre in their burrough has always misread their attempts to acquire employment, and positioned them in perhaps perfect jobs, but entire burroughs away.

 

The city’s transportation system was built for bicycles. June cannot ride bicycles.

 

“And the metro is so designed for them too!” Fatima jumps in. “I have to enforce my space just to take an elevator down. Or take an industrial lift.”

 

“What!?” Industrial lifts, tunnels and conveyors, carry import and export throughout the city. They are how grocery stores restock, how construction and building maintenance are supplied, how any large goods are moved out, in, or around the city. June is aghast. “That is disgusting. Like, how can an accessible infrastructure not result in an aware culture.”

 

“Entitlement,” Fatima chirps, she absently twirls a spindly fork to address her meal. “Don’t spread that around though. I don’t want to encourage that as an option.”

 

June agrees it’s definitely not an option.

 

Their conversation trailed into the standard discussion about the burroughs they lived in, whose was more of a food desert, new initiatives on energy consumption, and further considerations on how hard it was to get from their respective burroughs to the places they needed to all about the city. Fatima had a straightforward commute. June could wax poetic for hours about being in the most access considerate burrough and how difficult it was to get out.

 

“It feels pretty fenced in,” they say, tossing their lunch’s remains around their utensil. At some point, the two of them had remembered their meals. As June turns gloomy again on the topic of their neighbourhood, Fatima makes polite preparations to leave. “Back to your paperwork?”

 

“Back to my paperwork,” Fatima beams. June smiles back.

 

June watches Fatima wheel away and instantly regrets not scarfing down the rest of their lunch then and there as some other person eagerly takes the empty seat in the busy shop.

 

“Last count?”

 

Their smile drops and June sneers. The intruder on June’s short happiness is greatly offended but refuses to march off in a huff. It was a very busy shop.

                                    

After another standard week of nothing much, of the honestly unassuming but entirely probing constant interrogation of 'last count?’, June looks up Fatima on the public census. They know her name, a guess of an age group, and where she lives: it was easy. Remembering the woman’s existence and her differing attitude than the status quo, June is content for several days just knowing that Fatima exists.

 

An elderly neighbour in their apartment complex hall, harrassing them about needing to count soon, about doing it more regularly maybe, about this new device developed for the elderly in case June was too lazy to count herself – as though someone so young couldn’t possibly have physical issues – all this and the day-to-day every person always asking 'last count?’, June caves.

 

It is a sunny afternoon, it is often a sunny afternoon, and June sits barefoot on the ledge of rooftop they have access to. Their feet swing in the breeze and the fifty foot drop to street level. Their burrough’s demand for more residences in a place incapable of annexing surrounding burroughs had made development move upward. June’s view is the building opposite with its obvious difference between the original architecture and newer, ecologically smarter materials that made an additional two storeys. June had sat on this ledge before the developments, and now feels that even the sky is being fenced in.

 

Sunny afternoons did naught to lighten the oppressive feeling. June sends Fatima a message. They were not expecting to receive an immediate response. Apparently Fatima is at their desk, dealing with the unfortunately high ratio of paper to field work, and so is free to manage her inbox. Her reply is bright and reads as friendly, even in the face of June’s standard but awkward greeting. The fact that the words 'last’ and 'count’ do not appear together in the message is a breath of fresh air.

 

June immediately breathes, big, large huffs of openly complaining how rude it’s considered to exist and yet how entitled people felt to know about your health.

 

Fatima’s jovial reply was about how real that was, as she commiserated.

 

They make a lunch date, during a time that was actually lunch and not June’s strange eating habits. Jokingly, Fatima made note of this; it was the first time she sounds her age. And June doesn’t mind.

 

They make several lunch dates. June doesn’t mind walking and Fatima was just as fine, so they slowly explore the burroughs neighbouring. Even just as two people, their presence fed confidence and starved isolation. It was easier to take space and impose right of way on sidewalks, across streets, and in all public venues. They easily run out of and recirulate topics, often enjoying companionable silence. June has to remember to keep track of when they say they last counted, just in case it comes up in conversation.

 

“No one else I know seems too concerned.”

 

June hums, eyes intent on strings of protein spinning onto their utensil. They are thoroughly invested in the conversation, but have great difficulty eating at this time of day.

 

“There’s no follow up, after formal education. I’m sometimes scared I put it all back in wrong.”

 

“Right?” June doesn’t notice exactly how many people’s attention they gathered from their exclamation, but it’s more than a few. “It’s been so long.” They are torn about speaking further, but Fatima has learned to read their face well.

 

She ensured everyone else had returned to their respective attentions, then leans into their table space. “Criticizing the system in public is not seen acceptable.”

 

June waits for the palpable 'but’.

 

Fatima cocks a brow. She leans back in her chair when June smiles. “Legitimate, constructive criticisms though. We should be able to have a conversation on those. Public opinion regardless.”

 

“Right,” June drolls. They are cautious. This is a shop full of people, and any one of them could potentially report them and Fatima. June couldn’t be investigated, it would not go well.

 

“Social taboos just condemn progress,” Fatima continues, much less bothered than June by the threat of their neighbours.

 

June wholeheartedly agrees. Over the past two months, the two had become extensive friends; they agreed or had similar opinions on every topic but for the ones they could still then discuss on length from their differing views. June was ravenous for someone they could bear the company of, and had never considered themself a very talkative person up until their time together. They do not stop Fatima as she treaded into the inappropriate topic.

 

“Taboos like talking about disability,” June chips in.

 

Fatima dives on June’s contribution, she now talks with more energy than June has ever witnessed in her. “Exactly. The whole system needs reform.” June is nodding along and it feeds Fatima’s fire; she talks about the current inadequacies. Her conversation partner agrees but doesn’t have fully formed opinions on the minutiae of the few, lacking measures in place.

 

“And maybe certification. Regular workshops – that people can opt out of – because they only ever teach you once. There needs to be reassurance, and opensource education in public works.”

 

June is crushed. They try not to look it. These were great ideas, and they thoroughly believe Fatima should run for Health Minister, but these were not ideas that applied to them. Which was fine, it was still exciting, they could still have this talk. They just weren’t included.

 

“Ugh, and sanitation practises.” Fatima’s lunch was long forgotten, and her time constraint is equally in the wind. “People just don’t do enough. I have wipes, disinfectant, the whole works. My pharmacist says hardly anyone buys any of it.”

 

“That is,” June agrees, then looks down at their plate, “disturbing.” They will not finish this meal.

 

Fatima is too fargone to notice. Where normally she would soothe June’s concerns, she instead talks on about how even she is not staunch enough, though she takes so many precautions. And about how unregulated the production of assistive devices is. She keeps away from gathering the attention of everyone in the shop, but is so focused she doesn’t see she has lost June’s. “Oh! Sorry.”

 

June had shifted into propping their head on a fist, and was completely unaware of wherever their eyes had settled.

 

“I get really into it, I know.”

 

“It’s fine,” June murmurs.

 

Fatima is aware of two things: she needs to return to her office, and June is placating her. “No, it’s not. Tell me when we aren’t communicating.” She presses a hand over the one June had dropped from her chin onto the table. “Unfortunately, this is a quick apology. I have to head back to work.” As she withdraws her hand, June looks quite touched and she smiles. “Honestly though.” The smile loses force as June nods mechanically, but obligation forces her to depart without another word.

 

They watch Fatima move away and wheel out onto the narrow street that the two had been admonishing on their way in. After a moment, June remembers their meal and Fatima’s forgotten lunch. They remember how everyone was so unsanitary except themself, they no longer consider the plates as food. Their hand sits on the table still, unmoved from where Fatima held it in place. They didn’t mind.

 

It’s not even mid-afternoon on the same day when June receives a message from Fatima. Her check-in is courteous and encouraging, and in the mix of emotions June feels about the situation, they feel a bit better. Their feet swing in the open air from their seat on the roof. When they finally return to their apartment, they pass the building’s maintenance attendant carrying a sign stating NO ROOF ACCESS.

                                    

At the next lunch date, June looks glum. Fatima had initially tried business-as-usual but now felt as though she was trying to make up for her transgression. It’s not a feeling she enjoys, she overcomes her souring mood and asks what is the matter.

 

“My building won’t let me sit on the roof anymore.”

 

Fatima doesn’t think before she says, “That sounds dangerous.” June’s shoulders raise defensive and she reconsiders her response. “But you like it there.”

 

Today the two eat at a shop with more manufactured options. Fatima wanted to try the things people were doing to augment the flavours of vegetables, and June hasn’t been able to stomach a hand-prepared meal since they last ate together. The shop is not far from June’s apartment; June doesn’t know where to find these places outside of their burrough and, since the last lunch date, they had become intimately familiar with all the ones in their immediate neighbourhood.

 

“It’s where I feel reprieve.” June rereads the back of a foil bag to make sure no human hands have touched their meal.

 

“That’s an interesting word choice.”

 

They shrug.

 

“You know, that stuff will rot your gut.”

 

“I really don’t care about my guts.”

 

Fatima perks up. “How do you mean?”

 

June stares hard at the label in their hands, eyes wide open. “I mean,” they calculate how suspicious their words, they figure since there is suspicion, they might as well try an innocuous hint. June’s experience has been that once suspicions were raised, they never truly went away. “I was having lunch when you met me.”

 

Fatima had been, like everyone else in the shop that day, having her dinner at that time. Prior to their schedule of lunch dates, Fatima had refrained from leaving her work – at home or at the office – for lunch, given the inaccessibility society afforded her wheelchair. It had been dinner time and June was eating lunch. “I mean, some people do that! I didn’t think too much about it.” She feels sore, she feels sore not knowing about her friend. She feels sore until she calculates the ramifications of June’s words and her own position. “You don’t count.”

 

The shop is quiet, not many people are eager for manufactured foods when the city is so based on eco-friendly farming permaculture. They sit in the back, where the only wheelchair-height table is. So June speaks openly.

 

“I don’t count.”

 

Fatima is gaping.

 

“I don’t count. It takes so long, I can’t.”

 

“There are things for that,” Fatima latches on. Just last week she had critiqued the unregulated production of these tools.

 

June hisses, “We shouldn’t have to count!” They are aware that Fatima, their friend, is balking at them. They are aware that Fatima, their friend, is as wrapped up in this enforced procedure as everyone who follows 'hello’ and 'how are you?’ with 'last count?’. They are all too aware that this person is no longer seeing them as a person.

 

“There are reasons why it’s standard practice,” Fatima urges. She isn’t considering June’s perspective, but to her merit she hadn’t jumped to reporting them. “Outside of the risk.”

 

“That no one ever needed to know before,” June returns. In past iterations of this conversation, they had been bored and tired of stating their opinions to people who had no open mind. Fatima is their friend, and Fatima now knows they don’t count. Their emotions and entire future are invested in this exchange. “And we shouldn’t have to count.” This was their argument, their chant, their unwavering belief.

 

Fatima blew out her cheeks at June’s silly notions. She asks derisively if June had been in favour of abdomen ports and scanning facilities, and the strain that would put on municipal and medical resources. The city couldn’t be this accessible utopia, she reasons, if all the money that went into transportation and aid devices was spent on testing sites, one on every block just to manage the demands of the population. “But no, you would have been too young,” Fatima has never sounded this condescending.

 

June is giving up. They don’t see a way to navigate this conversation, they don’t see a way out either. Sitting back in their chair, they wait for the end of Fatima’s running commentary and diatribes and platitudes to see what she plans on doing with this information about them. It doesn’t take long.

 

“You have to count.”

 

When June shakes their head, Fatima insists.

 

Fatima sounds like she’s pleading. June does not move an inch.

 

“June. I work for the Bureau of the Health Ministry.” She continues as June’s face fails to stay stoic, “I’m a spotting agent. I work on ways to find people who don’t count. It used to be a field, search job, I used to interview people. I used to track down people who do what you do.” She frowns at the wording and is correcting herself with 'don’t’ when June snarls.

 

“You’re the reason people can’t even have conversations about reform.”

 

It was true, Fatima was an active member of the system. But she believes in the altruism of their society, that no one would report a person without reason, that their investigation process was thorough but just and did no harm to the person being investigated. She didn’t say anything; that line of conversation was a shouting match, it was a place where her words didn’t belong.

 

The ramifications of June’s outing still run on a constant loop in their head. They move to leave when Fatima stops their other every thought.

 

“You have to count.”

 

“I won’t.” The words are immediate, decisive.

 

Fatima, legally, is required to keep June in her sight. She insists that they have to. She knows June is humouring her when they agree. “I’ll come with.”

 

Her voice is supportive, but June is a caged animal and the words hurt. They agreed to count without any intention to do so, and now they guide their friend around the block to their apartment complex.

 

“It really is the burrough with the best infrastructure,” Fatima chirps. The sidewalks are wide and could fit three mobility chairs side by side, the building entrances have antechamber doors instead of a step that would need a ramp, and every curb-cut was graciously sloped. The cross walks had speakers for the blind and sign panels at the signal button for those with low vision. These were considerations across the city, but not fully implemented as they were in this burrough.

 

There were more considerations, June knew them all. When June was school age, they had been on the youth panel for public works in what had been the neighbouring burrough; which was successfully annexed into this one at a time when they had lived elsewhere. When living elsewhere they had played a role in council, and had advocated for city-wise measures. Their return to this burrough was a quiet retirement, a defeat.

 

Returning to their apartment with Fatima in tow was a defeat.

 

The door unlocks to June’s hand on the knob, to June’s intent to go inside. “You can go now, you don’t have to watch me.”

 

Fatima can read June’s intent to do nothing once they were inside. “If I leave you, you’re not going to count.”

 

June doesn’t want to do this, they drag their feet. They don’t argue, because they are with an agent of the Health Ministry’s Bureau, and there are worse things Fatima could do right now. They open their apartment and step inside, Fatima follows them around furniture stacked with half-read books and half-started hobbies, to where they slump on a settee.

 

“Here?”

 

June glares at her, and continues to do so as they pull themself from the couch and trudge to the bathroom, just to show Fatima the options. The bathroom is not a viable option. Knowing this, June leaves Fatima to contemplate ceramic surfaces that don’t quite reflect light. When Fatima returns to the room that is the entire apartment after unsuccessfully foraging for supplies, June has at least moved the rug out of the way. Books titled 'Sectioning the Heart: On Social Divides’ and 'Deaf, More’ now sit on the couch’s armrest.

 

Fatima waits.

 

She waits a very long time until June peels their shirt off. They are warm from the sunny afternoon – afternoons are always sunny – and it shows on their skin. Their incision is old, Fatima’s lips draw a hard line at the sight of the horizontal line that had grown back together.

 

June would call it healed, but anyone else would call it reason for quarantine. They would call it unacceptable, they would call it profane, disgusting, unbearable to even think of.

 

“Do you have anything to open that up?” Fatima asks.

 

“No.”

 

A clock runs in the kitchen, a half hour passes as June stares down Fatima. Her lunch hour is over, but that is okay: she is currently at work.

 

June does not want to do this, but understands Fatima will either wait until they do, or call someone else if June takes so long that Fatima leaves. They press their fingers on either side of the line just below their ribcage, and push at the scar tissue. It takes effort, and June is slow to inflict pain on herself, but the sides of the hole had scarred over already before they had healed what they could together – they eventually give way.

 

It stings. June’s hands – that they didn’t even wash – hold open the window to their intestines. Their expression is a neutral mask to avoid giving into the pain, but they can’t help their eyes welling up with tears.

 

“You start at the end of the duodenum, press your thumb against the suspensory muscle. Do you know how wide your thumbs are?” June doesn’t protest the instructions, Fatima would insist on them given the scar’s signifier of how long ago last count had been.

 

“I don’t,” June hisses through their teeth.

 

“It’s okay, we’ll measure after.”

 

June’s tears start falling; it is not okay. “I can’t do this.”

 

“I’ll keep track for you.”

 

“I don’t want to do this.”

“You have to.”

The hole is no longer wide enough for June to fit their hand in, it tears further as they force in. With a former ease, they find the start of the jejunum. They wouldn’t forget how to do this, Fatima’s instructions are unnecessary. The abandoned hobbies around the apartment display the kind of dexterity June uses to rearrange folds of intestine so that they don’t have to reach their whole other hand inside. They are still crying; they look up to Fatima looking back. The thumb of their second hand lines up with the first’s, knuckle pressed against knuckle, intestine pressed between thumbs and forefingers.

“Two,” Fatima says.

June removes her first hand, the second holds its spot while they replace their thumb and forefinger on the other side.

 

“Three.”

 

June continues to cry, they repeat the motion with their other hand.

 

“Four.”

 

End