I walk past the Inspectors for the nth time. My legs are killing me. This trading shoes idea is pure awful for me as well. My feet are covered in blisters. I grit my teeth ignoring the pain. I’m going to be shot in four years, so it might be beneficial to raise my pain tolerance levels. The dust is always present, a fog billowing around me. It takes all my power not to sneeze every few feet. I can not believe I’ve lived in this place for months. Every day I go to sleep with the hope that this will be all over. People in other groups often try to commit suicide. We are all going to die anyway.
The signal sounds and the air is once again filled with the shouts of the Pre-Inspectors. I stumble back towards my home. As I head back, a Pre-Inspector grabs me.
“73125A?” he asks.
“Yes….” This is the first time in a month that anyone besides Blonde Beard has talked to me.
The Pre-Inspector pulls me with him. I yelp and push away. Turning quickly, I try to see Old Man and Blonde Beard. Suddenly, I see him. Blonde Beard has just finished his loop and seems to be looking...for me. I see the concern on his face. I usually meet him there. Springing forward I try to reach him, but the well-fed and rested Pre-Inspector has no trouble catching me. I blame it on the shoes I am wearing. They are huge. Cursed be this stupid escape plan. My heart pounds. My mouth opens; my mind commanding it to call out to Blonde Beard. No sound emerges. Shock floods me. I have no idea what Blonde Beard’s name is. I never asked. In my head I call him Blonde Beard, but...I can’t shout that out to him. Who would answer to that? Drowning in terror, I have no choice.
If the words sounded weird in my head, they sound preposterous when spoken. I feel like a lunatic. The Pre-Inspector probably knows I am. My vision goes blurry. What’s happening? Why this...again? Suddenly, I hear a voice. I feel tugging from all directions. Flump! Sinking to the ground, the dust billows around me. I collapse. Will I last the four years? Is this how I will die? Maybe the date of my death isn’t as fixed as I’ve believed.
Someone pulls me up into their lap, gently cradling my head. I look up. Concern fills Blonde Beard’s face as he looks down on me. Relaxing, I sigh, letting the stress flee. His grip tightens. My eyes reopen. Surrounding us is a circle of people. The Pre-Inspectors’ faces are cold and hard, but other faces are curious, concerned, and kind. Their faces have expression. Up till now, I have only seen blank faces and Blonde Beard’s deranged smile. Deep down people must still have emotion.
A Pre-Inspector reaches down and pulls me up. Blonde Beard is pulled up by another one. Pleadingly I gaze at the people around me. What is happening? Blonde Beard is pushed off to the side, the Pre-Inspector towering over him, angry and menacing. Stepping forward I go to intervene. They will not harm my friend. Something covers my mouth. I look down just in time to see a handkerchief over my face. All goes black.
Bang! I hit something and ricochet back. My eyes flicker open. It’s dark...all I see is metal. Glancing around, I begin to piece together what is going on. I’m in a conveyor truck, the same kind that brought me to Derevitle. They have the lights off though. It must be night. Despite the fact that we are driving down the road quite quickly, I am not strapped in. How long have I been asleep? Why wasn’t I strapped in? Why was I asleep?
The memories burst upon my mind like a firecracker show on a dark night. Before my mind’s eye, I see the form of Blonde Beard...cowering. What did they do to him? Was the Pre-Inspector just being domineering, or did Blonde Beard actually get hurt? I can not bear the thought of anything having happened to him.
My eyes focus more, and I see several pairs of eyes watching me. My skin crawls. This is so creepy. Slowly, one of the forms reaches out its hand. I hesitate, but I grasp the hand. Stiffness fills every corner of me. I limp onto the closest bench and buckle in. Inspecting the others, my heart stops. There are four other young girls. This is my group. I’m heading into the system.
I turn to see the girl who helped me up trying to smile at me.
“My name’s Madison.”
I’m silent for a moment. It’s not that I am trying to be rude, but...It’s so hard when you’ve barely talked for the last few months to just hop into socializing without trouble. My throat is parched, my lips cracked. Can I speak?
“S...sorry. I...I’m not...really...ah...um…”
“Sane? Don’t worry, there always needs to be some lunatic in a group.” A different girl pipes up, her voice not unkind, but distinctively sarcastic.
“Shelly!” a different girl reprimands and then turns to me, “Don’t mind her, she’s just grumpy. I’m Meg.”
Now that I am beginning to wake up I think, I do believe my ability to talk is returning.
“Hi... It’s ok, Shelly. Sometimes I don’t believe I’m sane, either.”
Smiles flit across most of the faces, Shelly’s excluded. I do not think she will be mean or annoying, but I can see a fire in her eyes. A clear distinction between her and most everyone else. The fourth girl doesn’t speak but sits quietly in the corner. Shy, probably.
Silence reigns over us. It’s not like there’s much to talk about anyway. None of us knows anything. We do not know where we are going or what will happen to us. What can we talk about? Our past? Depression will come quickly if we do that. Our future? Same problem. Present? Nothing to talk about here. I close my eyes. Even with my habit of processing before I go to bed, I still have nightmares. Sometimes I just wish I could feel rested without having to give up my control of consciousness. Every night, though, I give in. Sometimes I am rewarded with a good rest, but more often than not I jump up, shaking. Now I do not even have Blonde Beard to come and comfort me. No, I do not plan to go to these girls for consolation, at least not yet. They probably are having nightmares too.
SCREECH! We all fly forward, hitting against our seatbelts. Thankfully, I am no longer on the ground. If I had been... I would just, I don’t know, probably be dead.
Shelly groans as we try to relax our jarred bodies.
“Is everyone ok?” Meg sweetly asks.
Shelly gives Meg a withering look.
“Definitely the question you want to ask people who are going to die!”
Madison and I laugh. Surprised, I look down, almost embarrassed. When condemned to die, it doesn’t seem proper to laugh. Though to be perfectly honest, I think it more reasonable to laugh now more than ever. Soon we won’t be able to anymore. Enjoy it while we have it.
Shriek! The familiar sound of metal grates against my ears. The doors to the truck burst open and light pours through...so much for it being night. Squinting, I try to see, but nothing is revealed. Finally, a blurry darkness appears coming into the trunk. The Pre-Inspector grabs the shy girl and leads her out. Soon, four other Pre-Inspector come and grab the rest of us.
We find ourselves in what appears to be a small village. The sky is dark with clouds, and the cold wind whips around our shivering frames. Dragging us down the grey cobblestoned street, they lead us to a concrete house. It seems so similar to the one we just left. Grimly I wonder how much better this will be than Derevitle. At least the door is not hanging on its hinges. My OCD thanks you. The door is metal, with bolts and a patch of rust in the corner. Still, the government obviously is not liberal on materials. Creeeeek….I shiver. The sound of the door opening is worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.
As the five of us enter, I am surprised to see that the interior of our new home is a definite improvement to our last accommodations. The beds are now proper cots with sheets. There are windows and even a wood stove in the corner. Maybe life will be slightly more tolerable. Exhausted, we all pick a mat and fall asleep. I pick the cot on the far right near the wall...just like where I slept in Derevitle. I guess I really am a creature of habit.
The next morning I wake up, thankful that for once I have slept soundly. I am confused, though, for the sun is already high in the sky, yet nothing has woken us up. Surely there is some structure in the system. Slipping out of my bed, I start putting on my shoes. A movement, catches my eye, however, and I jump back. Before the lighted wood stove is the small figure of the other girl, the shy one who didn’t talk. I creep forward and sit next to her. She doesn’t turn, but I can sense her stiffening. It would be so easy not to form a relationship, we are going to be killed soon after all, why bother? At the same time, I don’t want to give up that one part of me that is still human: my ability to love. Drawing up my courage, I give her my warmest smile.
“Hi...my name’s Olivia.”
The girl glances up at me. I am immediately entranced by those sweet, delicate eyes. How can such a soft creature make it through the trials we will face. I briefly converse with her trying to pry some words out of her. I know she has a soft heart. The fact that she had thought to light the fire shows such care. The only thing I learn of her, though, is her name: Quinlyn. I smile, a beautiful name for a beautiful person. SLAM! Both of us jump and turn. Shelly, panting and sweating, stands before the door.
We stare as Shelly gives us a nod and then collapses on the floor. I sigh. This group is going to be really interesting.
Time passes, we are all awake now. There is nothing to do...no food. Nobody has come, nothing is happening. Shelly and Madison are curled up trying to sleep. Quinlyn still sits by the fire, and Meg has gone to join her. I stare out the window, at the ever grey sky and the grey cobblestone road and the empty grey houses around us. This must be a ghost town. A part of me wants to go and explore, but at the same time, it feels useless. What’s the point? It will just expend energy that I really don't have.
Shelly pops up. “I’m starving.”
Slipping on her shoes, she heads out the door. All of us stare. Does she know where food is? I put on a pair of shoes that are by the door, 73,125A blazoned on the side. Together the rest of us follow Shelly through the streets. She jogs along, making the rest of us run. We enter an old rundown store and to our surprise, there is food inside. No workers, no other people, just a place filled with food. Shelly goes straight for the cooler and grabs a soda.
“Wait, Shelly! What are you doing?” Meg exclaims.
“Can we just do that?” Madison asks.
Shelly shrugs. “Why not?”
The rest of us rush forward, looking for stuff to eat. Most everything in there is junk food, but there is a little bit of fruit in the back. When we finally head back to our new home, we are laden with snacks and fruit.
That evening Shelly is bouncing on the bed reading a magazine she found. We all know where that energy is coming from. She’s munching on her fifth bag of M&Ms. The door of our home swings open and a Jr. Inspector walks in. We freeze. This is the first time we have really dealt with a Jr. Inspector, before this all we have really seen are Pre-Inspectors.
We jump up and are soon seated in a truck much similar to what we were in yesterday. Are we ever going to come back to our home?
“I should have brought the M&Ms.” I hear Shelly grumble.
We bump down the road for around a half hour, and then the doors of our vehicle are thrown open. Stepping out, we see that we are in a grey cobblestone courtyard. Our Jr. Inspector leads us up a flight of stairs to a balcony where we can view the entire courtyard. To our surprise, we see other trucks filing in bringing other groups. The whole courtyard is filled with them. A drop of rain falls on the railing in front of me. In it, I can see my reflection bent and distorted. I shake my head. Why am I focusing on a raindrop? I really am starting to worry about my sanity. Concentrating, I try to understand my surroundings. At the furthest end of the courtyard is a concrete platform. Two Jr. Inspectors come and lay two ropes parallel to each other all the way down the middle of the platform. My heart jumps into my throat. Can this really be happening?
Two groups are marched onto the platform. The two groups are put on opposing sides of the ropes. The group facing us has the same lifeless expression I remember seeing in everyone in Derevitle. An Inspector-not a Pre-Inspector or a Jr. Inspector, but a real Inspector steps up onto the platform. The microphone squeaks.
“Today we are gathered to watch the execution of group 71,448. Please hold a respectful silence as these brave members complete the system.”
Her voice is flat. Droning on like she is completely bored. How can she be so...cold? I watch as a line of soldiers with guns are lined up on a balcony above the platform. The Inspector stands to the side, holding a handheld mic. “71,448E report.”
The person at the end of the line steps forward to the space between the two parallel lines. I cannot see their face, but the person across from them looks like they are going to be sick. Bang! 71,448E crumbles, a hand stretched forth to the person before them. I can see the other shudder, horrified by what they have just had to witness. I stare, petrified, as I watch 71,448E’s shirt turn red.
The Inspector barely even looks up. “71,448D report.”
One by one the group steps forward, and one by one they are shot. I grasp the railing before me trying not to let my hands shake. This is my fate. I hear a meadowlark gurgle in the distance. How can there be such life in the midst of such death?
“Here we have witnessed the completion of group 71,448. Please acknowledge the upcoming group 71,449. Report.”
The group that had stood opposite group 71,448 during the execution steps forward between the bodies of their previous companions. We all salute. This is their last full day alive.
We are brought back to our house, but none of us dare sleep. Quinlyn sits by the fire again, tears of shock slipping down her cheeks. Silently comforting her, Meg puts her arm around Quinlyn’s shoulders. Shelly just sits on the bed eating her M&Ms as if nothing had happened. Madison and I sit by the window. I want to talk about it, but I’m afraid. It seems like if I speak about what we just saw...it will become more real. The crazy thing is, that really isn’t logical. The only way any of us will ever sleep again is if we process through this together. I turn to Madison.
“Do you want to talk about it?”