For most, today would appear to be an obnoxiously normal Tuesday. Every detail about this day appears to be completely mundane from a far. The identical stone houses sit perfectly still underneath the lilac Chicago sky while people pour out of their homes. It is all so predictable. Even a person who over analyzes everything would not see a single glitch in this day. It’s practically perfect. Practically. What somebody from a neighbouring town would not know is that the people leaving their homes are not going to work or school. They are going to “Home Base” to watch all of the eighteen year olds in the city find out when they are going to die and I get to be one of those lucky teens.
I walk down the road towards the daunting white brick box a few blocks away. In hopes of distracting myself, I recount all of the history I know about the test. It’s been 47 years since Doctor Alice Ainsley came up with the idea to construct a medical test that determines when exactly somebody will die. It’s been exactly 34 years since scientists perfected the test. It has been 32 years since scientists decided that it would be eighteen year olds who would take the test, and It’s been exactly one minute since I last freaked out.
As a kid, you don’t really believe your eighteenth birthday will ever come. It is this abstract concept that the mind cannot comprehend. Taking the test itself isn’t that nerve wracking. There are about two weeks in October when you get called in for a 20 minute surgery and hour testing process. It’s easy and painless. The aftermath is what’s truly terrifying. I know I shouldn’t be worried. The test has never failed anybody in my family before and I completely trust it. Thanks to the test my mom and dad got jobs they would have never been able to get. The reason the test was created in the first place was to determine what positions in society people get. If somebody is going to die in one year and needs at least two years to finish a certain job then that job will not be assigned to that person. Our Mayor always says that this is why Chicago is the most advanced city in the world and that we model what “efficient living” is supposed to look like. So, I walk towards Home Base to play my part in society.
Clusters of teenagers saunter towards Home Base. Eyes stare at the ground refusing to close because each blink brings an unwanted tear. The girl next to me walks at a cheetah’s pace despite her short legs. Unlike the others, she looks foreword, determination spilled across her face. It seems like she thinks we are racing so I play into her game and pass her with ease. She lets out a chuckle and becomes one with the wind. After a minute all that I can see are wisps of her chestnut hair. Finally I arrive at the glass double doors. My feet guide me past an abundance of security and down what feels like hundreds of stairs. I can’t help but fidget with my hands as I am led down a cleared out hallway. It’s deathly cold and looks like a hospital wing. I bet if I tried I could see my breath in the air. Instead I keep walking, letting my heartbeat lead the way.
Finally we reach the lab. It’s a medium sized room with glass doors and a floor that you can see your reflection in. All the furniture that was once in the room is gone and all that remains is a chipped wooden table. Neatly placed on the table are hundreds of watches all with names stuck onto them. Each watch has a specific countdown to the corresponding teen’s death day. A short pudgy women greets us at the table. She lets out a ferocious cough then begins.
“Hello teens,” she croaks. “I am Amelie Korsinger, Head of Watch Distribution. I am going to call your name and you will be given your watch. Do not linger. Please. After you get your watch a guard will escort you to your mandatory surgery. In this surgery you will get your watch permanently inserted into your wrists. Standard protocol. Do not object.” She smiles.
“Please. Now we will begin.” The room collectively inhales as Ms. Korsinger groans out the names. “Mandy Underwood.” The girl with the auburn hair bounces to the front. She glances at her watch then laughs. However this is not the soft chuckle she let out when we were racing. This is forced. It is as if somebody was reaching down her throat and pulling at her vocal chords. Ms. Korsinger’s lips form a tight line as she gestures to two shadows in the corner.
“This is not correct,” Mandy begins to continuously shake her head. “I am in perfect health.” Her soft voice begins to travel up an octave. “Twelve years? This isn’t correct. You made a mistake.” She points accusingly at Ms. Korsinger who stands behind the desk as if it was a shield. The shadows emerge, taking the shape of identically dressed men. In unison the guards grab Mandy by the arm as she continues to laugh hysterically. Ms. Korsinger glances up from her papers as if she was immune to the situation going on around her. She locks eyes with Mandy and points to her own watch. Ms. Korsinger shakes her head in mock disappointment.
“Tick tock,” she mouths, and with that Mandy is escorted out of the room.
If it is even possible the room’s temperature drops. Ms. Korsinger stands poised at the front, clutching her papers and tapping her foot. She examines each teen before her.
“Let’s continue,” she declares and we do just that. With perfect enunciation Ms. Korsinger reads names off her beloved list. The two guards that took Mandy out have been replaced by two similar looking men and it is like Mandy’s hysterical laughter never graced the lab. Although Ms. Korsinger has blocked that image out of her mind, I know that everybody else in the room has Mandy’s meltdown playing in their minds on loop. You would think that it was a Top 50 pop song or something.
Each time a name is called the group focuses in on the death day recipient. We watch how many breaths they take before leaving, how quick they are to blink and if they smile. It has become a game and we are too good at it. Ms. Korsinger continues to spit out names and eventually lands on mine.
“Lavender Scott?” I nod my head and quickly walk up to the front. I can feel the eyes of my peers watching me, memorizing my movements. Ms. Korsinger’s steady hands give my trembling a watch.
“31,390 days!” I yelp with joy. Oh god. I said that out loud. The room relaxes their shoulders and smiles creep across what were once blank faces. Ms. Korsinger glares at me as I raise my hands up in defeat. I mouth sorry and let the guards escort me to my surgery. I float down the hall, following the man in blue uniform. I knew I had nothing to worry about. I caused myself unnecessary anxiety for no reason and now it’s done. I let the guard lead me through halls and to yet another empty room. In the middle is a metal stool and mattress.
“Just wait here for 7-10 minutes and your doctor will come. They will take you to a waiting room after your surgery. A nurse will direct you back here after surgery. From here, I will escort you out.” I nod soaking up the information.
“Good luck.” He shuffles out and I wait.
I wake up staring at a spinning ceiling fan. I sit up noticing a white haired nurse standing on the other side of the room. She waddles over to me.
“How are you feeling?” she squeaks and lets out a large smile
“Okay.” I sit up taking in the bleak room around me. She continues to hold her smile like this is a crest toothpaste commercial. I notice her fidgeting with her sleeves. She sees my eyeline and lets out a bigger smile.
“You know that ugly watch. Got to cover it up!” she laughs and then I notice mine. Dark grey with a black band. Engraved like a monogram into my skin.
“When you’re ready, feel free to leave. You can exit out the front entrance.” She points to the wooden door in front of us.
“I think I have to go back to the surgery room. My guard told me to meet him there so I can be escorted out.” The nurse blinks a couple of times then continues to fidget with her sleeves.
“Well then, you can go right ahead!” She quickly abandons the room.
“Wait, I think you are supposed to show me!” I call after her but she is gone. I stand up, making my way to the door. A surge of dizziness comes over me as I stare down the vacant hallway. I have no idea where the surgical room is. Dragging my feet, I knock on doors. Not one person opens a door. I go down a few flights of stairs, hoping that I will find myself in a crowded area. No such luck. Finally, I reach the basement. How have I not found the main lobby? Unlike all of the wooden doors up on the higher levels, all of these doors are made of metal. The floors are etched with dirt and the walls have dozens of cracks. I continue to walk down the interminable hall until I hear a single cry. I walk faster down the hall and turn right, following the echo. At the end of this hallway there is a concrete door with a small window lined with wire. I see four or five faces squish against it yelling with pain. Or I think it’s pain. Their eyes all are filled with fear. A crinkled up women looks at me and a smile of triumph plays on her lips. I stand 5 feet away from the door.
“Darling, young lady. Come a little closer,” her voice is muffled but I can hear the sturdiness. The people that were once crowded around her have taken a few steps back.
“Please darling, a little closer.” She waits as I come a step closer. What is this place? Is it a mental hospital?
“I need you to open the door,” she motions to the knob.
“The guard left the key hung up on the door. We are dying honey. Are time has run out.” she points to her watch, which has changed into minutes. Four. But, I won’t die you see. They help. They help and I need you to change that. She begins to cough as red liquid slides onto the floor.
“Just help us please.” All of the sudden a loud stomping rattles through the hallway. I grab onto my own wrist, why – I don’t know.
“Participants in your beds now.” A short brown haired guard stomps over to me and motions for me to follow her. I read her name tag. Emily Jay – “Death Day participant keeper.” What is that? I follow her up a few flights of stairs. The bright fluorescent lights and clean floors greet me like i’m home.
“What is your name?” Emily demands, her voice is harsh but I can see her hands shake.
“Lavender Scott and I would really like to explain–” she hushes me.
“What were you doing down there?” Emily looks me up and down like I am a war criminal. Her fingers play piano against her thigh.
“I got lost. I was in the waiting room after my surgery and my nurse told me to just go ahead and leave and I didn’t remember where to go to meet my guard because she didn’t show me and i’m really sorry. I don’t even know what that was and I don’t need to know honestly. I can just go home. I swear I just have a really bad sense of direction” I blurt out everything I can think to say. Emily’s face remains cold.
“I don’t empathize with people who go to places they shouldn’t. However everybody knows our government does not keep secrets so I am obligated to tell you. That was where the people whose time have run out go to die. The last day makes them go slightly crazy. There is nothing we can do about it. Home Base tries to spare everybody from the sight so my apologies that you had to see that. However, I must ensure you do not share this information with others.” She pauses and straightens out her grey suit.
“Of course, I would never tell anybody. I completely understand the situation and I would never want to jeopardize Home Base’s plans.” Emily nods along to every word I say.
“Glad we are on the same page. Turn left here and you will get to a flight of stairs. Go down two flights of stairs and you will arrive on the main floor. Go home.” Her voice turns from a rock to a feather. As I scurry away I can hear cries from the distance. But I completely understand.
The city is still bright, a great contrast to the dim basement of Home Base. I walk in a straight line, focusing on the identical houses in the distance. Soft music plays from the car beside me and for some reason I turn to see the driver. By the time I turn, the car is gone and I will never know if this person had frizzy or straight hair, or what ornaments are hung on their dashboard. If they liked the music they were playing or if they were about to change it. Their life is a complete mystery to me and if I hadn’t heard this indie pop music, I would have never known they existed. I keep walking, thinking about the person in that car. I wonder how many days they have left.
I completely understand why Emily did not want me or anybody else knowing about the basement. Those people are sick and nobody needs to see that. Those faces pressed against the wall weren’t healthy people anymore. Their lives had disintegrated into nothing. Most of them are all probably gone now. They all looked like they were already dead. Except the woman. She came to life when she saw me. Her voice was steady. She could have been the teller at the bank or the head chef at a restaurant. She could have been anybody. Nonetheless, her words did not make sense and now she is no longer a person.
I know that Home Base is the most truthful organization the government has ever created. They work systematically and efficiently. Of course they have flaws, but they don’t have any huge ones. Most of all they are trustworthy. My parents always talk about “the things we don’t see” but I think it is all transparent. The guard didn’t have to tell me what that room was. She did, and all it has done is add to my admiration of my city. The elderly women was dying. She was trying to escape death and of course she was babbling and making things up. Everything makes complete sense.
Two kids skip past me and I realize I have arrived into my neighbourhood. I walk past a few houses until I reach mine. The same grey stone as the others, but a small red reef on the door. My mom says it’s to add festivity. I just thinks she wants us to be set apart. After some banging on the door, my dad opens it.
“I was working down there.” He grabs his brown glasses from the top of his head and puts them on properly. He then tilts his head slightly to the left.
“Your watch!” he exclaims. He grabs my wrist and continues, “Oh, thank goodness. That’s a good number. Although you’re a little late, I was going to call after I wrote an email. That was three emails ago…” he rambles on for a few minutes and then shuts the door.
“You know you really can talk a lot.” I squeeze his shoulder.
“Oh, come on! I would just like to say that babbling is a smart person’s tool. You use it when you have something really important to say but don’t know how to convey it to others. I admire people who babble.” He laughs and points downstairs.
“I have to finish a few more emails. See you at dinner!” He chuckles once more and then runs down our carpeted steps.
I let myself collapse into my bed. Dad, makes a good point. I mean I can’t tell if that was a joke or not but I see the truth in his statement. I babbled when I was trying to explain myself to Emily. I knew exactly what I wanted to say I just didn’t know how to say it. The elderly women in the basement. She was babbling. She knew what she wanted to say, but she didn’t know how to say it to make me listen. She could be just crazy. However she could also have been completely sane. My hands fumble on my desk, looking for a pen. Once I have found one, I grab a piece of paper. I will just write down everything I know. Turns out I don’t have any concrete evidence to prove anything. There are my speculations. Maybe the women was put there by mistake, maybe she’s just crazy, maybe I should just stay in my own lane. Too many maybe’s not enough facts. There are the elderly woman’s words that play in my mind. “I’m not dying. They help.” It’s pretty clear the they is Home Base. But, the women was dying. The red liquid pouring out of her mouth proves it. My fingers tap a steady rhythm on my bed. A slight ticking sound joins in. It comes from my watch. Probably just a technical glitch. I glance at it. 10 days is scrawled across the metal.