As You Mean To Go On
No one was sure what actually happened, even after it happening for so many years; decades, centuries even. What everyone really wondered was the why.
Even though it was a regular occurrence, as predictable as clockwork, it still surprised people. It surprised Jimmy O’Donnaugh anyway.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it,” he said as he took a bite of his over done toast gone black at the edges, and looked over at Larissa.
Larissa shrugged and dipped her toast in a soft boiled egg. “I don’t think we’re meant to get used to it. I think that’s the point.”
You’d think you’d get used to something that happened every year. Every year of his life, as regular as the sun rising, and he was used to that. Jimmy sat up straighter and stared at his girlfriend. “You think the point of it is just to keep us all on edge? What’s the purpose of that?”
Larissa shook her head and shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
“And it happens all over, not just here, you know,” Jimmy went on, going into lecture mode.
Larissa frowned at him over her eggs. “Yes, I know. We were in San Francisco last new years, remember? We saw it. So did everyone else.” She shuddered. “I hate how they show it on TV, make a spectacle of it. It’s a horrible thing, a private thing.”
“A private thing?” Jimmy asked, his brows knitting together, his expression perplexed. “How is it private when so many people are there? It’s not private. It affects everyone, all of us. The whole town.” He thought of San Francisco with the thousands, crowded and clustered together like atoms in a cell. So many bodies pressed together in the circle. There were a few people nervously pacing on the outside, glancing upwards to the sky, looking at the stars that were beginning to poke through the increasing darkness of night. Those unfortunate ones that couldn’t fit in to the space that was painted on the ground. And there were many. He’d never been anywhere on that day where there were so many people, where it was such a big circle and there were still people that were outside of it. “Or city, or village or wherever you live.”
“It’s private for the families. It shouldn’t be shared with all of us,” Larissa said lowering her eyes and pushing her eggs away. They were only half eaten.
Some people tried to beat the system. Every year people camped out in the circle, even a few days early, staking a good spot, if not at the centre then close to it, with no risk of being stuck outside the edge, where the white paint clearly marked the inside from the outside. Jimmy couldn’t really blame them. It was life or death. Though being inside the circle didn’t really guarantee your safety. That was an illusion, something that the World Government had thought up, Jimmy was fairly certain. As a way to keep people in line.
Larissa thought the circle was more for the spectacle of the thing. To have everyone, or mostly everyone, in one place. For the TV cameras.
Larissa had got up from the table as Jimmy had been thinking about it all.
“Do you ever wonder why?” he asked her suddenly. She was at the sink, rinsing her plate.
She laughed, short and sharp but didn’t look at him. “All the time. Every year. Especially today.”
Today. The fateful day. He wondered if he should follow his neighbours lead and go underground, in one of the old shelters in the back yard. Most people had them after all. For what reason exactly, Jimmy wasn’t sure. They were old, old and crumbling, the metal cracking and rusting and falling apart. They could’ve been from wars, or to protect in natural disasters.
Now people used them to hide in on New Years Eve. A false sense of security, Jimmy thought. It didn’t matter if you hid, or if you were outside or inside the circle.
The sky was already growing dark outside. Larissa always liked to eat breakfast at dinner on new years. It was her little tradition, to make the day seem longer. So that the time when the clock struck twelve would seem further away than it actually was, she explained.
“Come on, we better get going,” Jimmy said. “Or else there might not be any more space left in the circle.”
Larissa nodded solemnly, even as she said, “We’ve never not been able to get in the circle before.”
Jimmy agreed. Every year he, and the rest of his family, had always managed to get in the circle. One year it was just barely, and Jimmy had squished himself up next to his father so that his feet were just a few inches away from the painted barrier. But he felt safer.
He remembered his father and mother’s arms around him and his sister holding them tight. “You’ve been good this year, haven’t you?” his father had asked and Jimmy nodded confidently. His father nodded reassuringly. “Well then you’ll be safe, won’t you?”
Jimmy had nodded then, and as he squeezed him and Larissa into the now packed circle that encircled a number of city blocks, seeming to grow larger each year as more and more people moved to Seattle.
The sky above had darkened now, the brilliant points of the stars standing out like snowflakes. But then the cauldrons around the outside of the circle were lit and the light from the flames ate up some of the stars.
Larissa slipped her hand into his, and Jimmy watched the clock on the tall stone tower warily. Would this year be the year? His mind flickered over the last year, as if leafing through pages of a book, trying to remember everything he had done. He’d been good, he thought. But had he been good enough? He wondered. He had always wondered that. What was classed as good? What was classed being bad? Bad enough to disappear.
The arms of the clock inched ever closer to midnight. Jimmy could feel the thousands of bodies that were clustered around him in the circle, and even those who were so called ‘unlucky’ enough to be outside the circle, collectively hold their breath as the second hand travelled unerringly around the clock face.
Larissa squeezed his hand reassuringly. He tried to smile but felt his stomach twist in knots. Every year he felt like this. He was sure others did too. It was the uncertainty. Would this year be the year? That one minute you were standing in the circle, or in your house, or in your shelter, or perhaps filling a church to bursting, and the next minute, as the bells of the new year rang out its last, that you would suddenly be gone?
He had never got used to the screams that followed the final ring of the New Year’s Eve bell, as the clock struck midnight. The screams and crying that filled the circle, and the streets. It seemed to Jimmy that the whole town was crying. But in reality, it wasn’t. It really was just a few hundred people, sometimes less, sometimes more. But that was in Seattle alone.
But it was always more than zero, and never just one, either. Jimmy tried not to think about how many people disappeared at the start of each year, around the world. Thousands? Millions?
Each year, as he left the circle with the scores of others, plodding back to their houses, in stunned silence, grateful that he had been spared yet again, he always felt a bit guilty. Because always his first thought was that the new year would be that much better, that much safer, now that the people who should be gone, were. He thought as he woke up the next morning and looked out his bedroom window, that the world looked bright and shiny and new again in the fresh, cold light of day.
He felt a bit sorry for the families and friends of the…victims? That a person that they knew and loved were…taken. But that was how it was. And really, it was their own fault, in the end, Jimmy thought, rationalizing. They had chosen to do something bad, something wrong, something evil enough to warrant them being deleted from the earth.
The clock continued its uninterrupted march towards midnight, and people began to count down with thirty seconds to go. The roar of voices was almost deafening, as if perhaps people wouldn’t be taken this year if people drowned it out with noise.
Ten, nine, eight… Jimmy gripped Larissa’s hand tighter. Seven, six, five…he noticed his voice had joined in with the others. Four, three, two…Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to see what happened. He still remembered seeing what had happened to a young man who stood just a foot away from him, outside the circle, the year he was only a few inches inside what he used to think was a protective barrier, like being in an invisible snow globe, his mother had said.
The man had been standing there, twisting his hands together nervously, and then with an almost inaudible pop, the man collapsed in on himself, shrinking impossibly fast to the tiniest point and then disappearing into nothingness. But Jimmy had seen the silent scream on his face before he had dissolved. He wondered what the man had done. Something horribly awful, he thought.
One. The shouts of the crowd yelling the final number merged into the familiar screams and cries as people disappeared. He opened his eyes to Larissa kissing him. He hadn’t been taken. Not this time, anyway. There were never any fireworks. It wasn’t a celebration, after all. Except for those who were the lucky ones.
As he stumbled out of the circle, he tried not to look around, not to see if he’d notice who had been there that was there no longer.
He shuffled along the clogged streets with all the other citizens, in the familiar silence where everyone was too afraid, too stunned to say anything and no one really knew what to say anyway.
The PA system speakers positioned throughout the city came to life with a burst of static. “Thank you,” the voice of the mayor was saying. He found his words, Jimmy thought numbly. “Thank you everyone. We understand how difficult this is, each year. But it is something that must be done. It is for the best, as I know you are all aware. The culling rids the world of those who should no longer populate it.”
Jimmy held Larissa’s hand as they made their way slowly up the street like fish fighting up stream. It was a slow process.
As he opened the front door, he heard the mayor’s voice add something he had never heard before. “Starting this year,” the mayor’s voice was hesitant, unsure, and shaky. “It seems that the rules have changed somewhat. It seems that whatever causes the culling is no longer ridding our world of those who do not belong, those with evil in their hearts, but it seems to be…” there was a long paused and then the mayor’s voice continued, “decreasing the surplus population.” The mayor sounded as stunned as Jimmy felt by the annual NYD – new year disappearances.
Panic and fear gripped Jimmy and he burst through the front door and ran through the hall to the living room where the phone sat. His hands shook so much he could barely dial the number.
“Mom? Dad?” he said as no one but the answering machine clicked to life. “Are you okay?”
He held his breath, waiting for one of his parents to pick up the phone.
There was only a staticky silence. And then he heard screams and cries afresh from the neighbouring houses, mingling with his own.
This year, the rules had changed.