The months slip by, each day blending into the next. The day after we moved in, another group, a group of five young boys, moved into the mansion across from ours. We often peer out our windows and laugh at them exercising, but besides this, we have no other connection with the outside world.
One day, we walk into the dining room, not even looking at each other’s faces. We all know what we are thinking. We begin eating, silently. Melanie seems not to notice, but she carefully watches us. Finally, it is Quinlyn who speaks.
“Hey, I know this is hard on everyone, but at least we get to go through this together. What makes things difficult is when we try to handle it on our own.”
I look up, surprised. She speaks so infrequently that it is amazing when she does. Quinlyn traces her finger around the design on her cup of peach tea.
“It’s a month till we are going to be executed. Just in case nobody happened to notice the countdown, we only have one more month together, one more month before we die.”
Wow! That’s a way to rip a band-aid off a wound. Who knew such strength rippled beneath her calm demeanor? The room is so silent you could hear a pin drop. I see tears slowly trickling down Meg’s cheeks.
“You’re right, Quinlyn. We need to draw together.” Madison agrees.
Shelly just looks at her food, unspeaking, but I can see understanding in her eyes.
Thankfully, Melanie breaks the awkward pause.
“I have good news for you. The system has agreed, due to your record of good behavior, to allow you to have contact with the outside world. I must warn you; it will be very hard. You have talked to no one outside of government officials and yourselves for the last three years. At the same time, it can be really fun. Here, though, are some regulations.”
She unfolds a crisp letter, the government seal still impressed on it.
“The members must not reveal themselves as such to any other individual. They must not purposefully make contact with any non-member, but must wait for the civilian to approach them. If any misdemeanor takes place, disciplinary actions will immediately be put in place. Regulations on food and contraband are still binding outside the system.”
We all glance at each other. We get to leave? We get to see regular members of society? I am tremendously excited, but... fear seems to swallow me. What will have changed? Will I be able to fit in without looking obvious? I hear my heart pumping in my ears.
For the first time in ages, we see a conveyor truck pull up, and we all pile into the back.
“This is going to be so fun!” Quinlyn whispers, her face shining.
“I’m so excited! I wonder what we’ll see?” Madison adds clasping her hands together.
Shelly grunts, almost seeming upset at having to go.
We are taken down a little country road, up and down those green, grassy hills. Finally, we approach the forest. The car pulls off to the side of the road...what are we doing?
Melanie leads us along a little foot trail through the waving grass. We all laugh and jump, rolling about like children. Meg, Madison, and Quinlyn each have a bouquet of small wildflowers. After we beg her, Melanie waits while Quinlyn and Meg weave flowers into my hair. As we continue along, we keep asking her where we are going, but she only gives us a small smile. We finally get to the edge of the forest. A gurgling creek winds its way between the small clumps of willow and aspen. We see several young families with little children all around each having a picnic or playing in the creek. Tears fill our eyes. It has been years since we have seen a baby or a child.
We all split up and find places along the creek, each hoping a child will come to us. A few toddle over to me, and I gently play with them and splash around in the water with them. They are so young. They have so much hope and potential. Even though I am going to die, life will still continue. Babies will still be born and grow up. People will still be happy, and everything will be alright in the end. I wonder if any of these little ones here will have to experience the horrors of the system. A small girl sits on my lap pulling my hair with her fists. I smile. Who knew such small pleasures could mean so much?
I imagine my family. I hope they are doing well. I wonder if the thought of me still deeply pains their hearts. I hope they can move on and enjoy life. I hope they won’t be miserable because of me. I wish I could tell them I was happy during the four years in the system, and that I do not fear death, especially since I have friends to share it with.
All too soon we are heading back. Watching the sun set in brilliant colors, we wrap our arms around each other, yes, even Shelly. Melanie gives us a few moments by ourselves and then we all crowd back into the truck. Our first day of our last month is done.
I stand on a grassy hill looking out over the green waves that reach to the dark forest. It’s so beautiful, sharp against the stunning blue sky. My mouth stands open. My eyes hurt with unshed tears. It seems unreal. I’m going to die today. I’m just seventeen! It seems so young, now. I wish this was a dream. I pinch myself, hoping against hope that I will suddenly pop up out of bed. I shake my head at my imaginings. This is real life. This is actually happening. I am really, truly going to be killed. Today. I turn and see Shelly behind me. It’s time to go back “home”...for one last time.
Silently, we walk back. “Wouldn’t this be crazy if this was a dream?” I ask with a laugh. Shelly looks at me unconvinced.
“Olivia, this isn’t a dream.”
“I know...but wouldn’t it be crazy if this was?”
Shelly sighs. I know it’s unfair of me to make her think about this, to make her think about hope. I continue anyway. Gazing across onto the other side, I see the boys hard at exercise. The first few were taking their last day of exercise seriously, but the last two were quite slow.
“Look across at the boys’ group! If this was a dream it would be so detailed. I know every single one of those boys. “Mylo, Porzton, Adam, the Jr. Inspector: Mr. Strad, Zander Costin, and Jacob Johnson.”
Shelly is silent.
“I wish this was just a dream and that I could wake up and tell Madison about it in the morning…” I let my voice trail off as I desperately pinch myself. What am I thinking?
“But this isn’t a dream. This is real life, and I’m going to die today.”
Shelly grimaces. “Glad you finally came to terms with it.”
Melanie meets us on the steps of our little mansion. Her face seems to be torn between two emotions. Immediately, Shelly and I tense.
“I’ve heard news from the government.”
I feel my blood turn cold. What...what can have changed.
“Unlike typical custom, you will not be brought to the Plaza for execution. The execution will take place here, right down the hill. This means the execution will take place a little earlier.”
“Why?” I murmur.
Melanie seems torn, but she merely shrugs her shoulders. “Must be more convenient.”
Fear chokes me. Something’s wrong. Closing my eyes, I sigh; one way or another, I’m going to die. Does where matter all that much?
We spend most of the day silent. Madison and I sit together, sometimes talking…sometimes quiet. Meg and Quinlyn shed a few tears too, but for the most part, we are calm. We have been prepared for this.
The five of us walk, slowly, down the hill to the place of our execution. People have already gathered to watch, but they barely even look at us now. Without the platform and courtyard structure of the Plaza, everyone moves about or talks in clumps. To my surprise, a few reporters and other news people are there broadcasting the event as well. Is our execution this important?
The two parallel ropes are already laid out, and we are lined up along it. The boy’s group, however, are still not lined up. They are talking or randomly interspersed among the Pre, Jr. and actual Inspectors that are gathered to watch. Looking down, I notice the two parallel ropes are also much further apart than usual. What is going on?
Suddenly, from the corner of our eye, we see a black object point toward us. Click.
Screams erupt all around me. I flinch, ducking down. Shelly and Quinlyn are shaking, clinging to each other on the ground. I turn and look. My fear sinks as a blush rises into my cheeks. It’s a camera. The boys from the other group chuckle. A few of them even laugh at us. “Wow, the system sure didn’t make you brave enough to die.”
Anger burns in my heart, and all I want to do is slap them. Though, when I think it over, slapping a guy who laughed at me isn’t on my top ten things to do right before I die...so, it’ll have to wait.
A hush stills over the audience. An Inspector with a handheld mike turns to us.
We freeze, fear coursing through us. What is going on? The only time they have you step forward, in between those two parallel ropes, is when you are going to be shot. Are they just going to kill us all now? All in one go? The boys from the other group aren’t even lined up in front of us either. With bated breath, we all take the step forward together. My eyes are clamped shut, my body tense. I expect at any moment to hear that dreadful Bang! and feel my blood trickling from me...but it never comes.
I open my eyes. Glancing around I see all five of us are still living and breathing in between the parallel lines. A rustling noise comes up beside us. Two Inspectors are dragging two tarps in between the lines. What? This has got to be a dream. What is going on?
“Please step onto the tarps.”
Slowly we shuffle forward. My mind is whirling, stars shooting off in all directions. I know what’s happening. I have heard of this before. Every now again, for no apparent reason, the government decides to pick one member of the system to go free, to return to regular life. Typically, though, the person is determined by a test.
My mind screams, and a terrible headache rages. The five of us are not going to all die together. One will be chosen to live...to move on. The question really is: Do I want to live? I have been through this system. I have been through four years of all this training just to prepare me to be killed. I have expected it, processed through it, and accepted it. Now this all might be changed?
“Mop the floor.”
I’m so confused. We don’t have mops, and there isn’t even a floor! Groaning inwardly, I grab an imaginary mop and begin wiping it across the “floor”. Shelly, Madison, Quinlyn, and I all twist around on our little tarp. Shelly and I stick close, while Madison and Quinlyn stay together as well. Wait...where’s Meg?
I turn and look. On the other tarp, Meg is kneeling, scrubbing the “floor” with her hands. My shock is complete. Of course! Each year the regulations have become harder, the rooms neater, and everything cleaner. Melanie and our other Jr. Inspectors often mentioned the importance of organization and working hard. Meg understands. In this moment I realize she is going to be saved. I sink to my knees, barely thinking of what I’m doing. With all my might I begin scrubbing the tarp with my hands. To my surprise, none of the others notice. I gaze up at them. Don’t they realize what is happening? Maybe what I'm thinking doesn't make sense. Suddenly, I see an Inspector go up to Meg and lift her up. I knew this...I really knew this. I was right. She is going to be spared. The Inspector leads Meg away. I keep my eyes glued to the tarp. Seeing her leave tears at my heart. It is the first time in 4 years we have been separated. It’s ok. I tell myself. You’re going to be dead soon anyway.
A hand grasps my shoulder. Looking up I see an Inspector. The lady pulls me up and to my surprise, she begins asking me detailed questions. She asks me about my old address, my name, my number, and a whole list of personal information. I’m ashamed to realize I have forgotten almost everything about my family, or anything related to my old life. My memories of anything outside the system are all in shambles. The Inspector gives me a hard look.
“It’s so hard to say...you nearly...hmmm. You nearly fit the criteria. You’ll have to be interrogated by the Head Inspector. I not sure, you might be killed, or you might pass. I really have no idea.”
The Head Inspector? My mind reels. How is this happening to me? In horror, I see myself pulled away from my fellow friends. My heart burns, and an ache settles in my throat. My eyes beg me to cry, but I can’t. They are all going to be killed...Shelly, Madison, Quinlyn. There is nothing I can do about it. I can’t even share it with them. What if I don’t pass? I’ll be killed...alone, without my friends or any companion. What if I do? I’ll be forced to live some sort of life, and I will have to live it with the scars of this system and the faces of my dead friends seared upon my mind. Which is worse?
I am taken to a large building complex. Its sprawling wings and side buildings make it terribly confusing. The Inspector pushes me through the main lobby. It has multiple floors, each crawling with Pre, Jr., and regular Inspectors. With much effort, we make it to a pair of doors that leads us into an ante-chamber. It is filled with plush carpet, pillows, and rich decorations. I feel so small. The Inspector points to one final wooden door.
“The Head Inspector is right through that door. He’s expecting you.”
Swallowing, I walk forward and grasp the cold, metal handle with my hot, sweaty hand. Pulling the door back, I am met with a small office with stuffed bookshelves lining the walls. A stiff, cold looking man sits at a desk, also littered with books, and his features are hid by his dark shades. I turn around to close the door behind me, almost fearful of turning my back on such a high official. I notice that behind the door is a coat rack made of polished mahogany wood. Before I turn around, I hear the Head Inspector’s voice.