I pull the trigger, the gun lets out a thunderous BANG. The bullet finds its mark in the man’s chest with a sickening thud. What have I done? I think. What have I done?
The mark. It looks like someone smeared silver paint under your left eye. Once you turn 15, you get the mark. You wake up on the morning of your birthday and it’s there. No one knows how you get it, but everyone has it. Tomorrow, I turn 15.
I am kind of an outcast. I used to have friends, but then I was moved up a grade. Everyone is turning 16 this year, but because I was moved up, I’m turning 15. The kids in my class used to be nice to me, but then they started getting the mark. The kids who had the mark started to become popular, and they started to only pay attention to the people who also had the mark. Slowly, as everyone turned 15, they stopped paying attention to me. Now I am the only one without the mark, but that will all change tomorrow. I will wake up with the mark and finally fit in again.
“Navin,” Ms. Talton barks. “Are you paying attention?”
“Yes Ms. Talton, I was paying attention,” I reply.
“Then what is the answer?”
“Seven squared times the quantity x minus the square root of 73 all over y.” I speak the answer easily, almost without care.
Ms. Talton looks at me, the astonishment clearly showing on her face. She looks down at her book, scans a passage, and then looks back up at me.
“How did you do that?” She asks, obviously shocked that I had gotten the answer right.
“I was paying attention.”
“No you weren’t. I saw you. You weren’t paying any attention to anything I was saying.”
“I was listening, even if you think I wasn’t.”
“Navin, please tell the truth, who told you the answer?” I can tell she is getting mad, her mark seems to flash with anger, getting brighter as her temper rose.
“No one told me. I got that answer all on my own.”
“Please stop lying Navin. Who told you the an-” Just then, the bell rings, signaling the end of class. I hurriedly gather all my books and race for the door.
“Don’t forget to do the work on page 596 before tomorrow,” Ms. Talton yells in vain after her students as they race towards the freedom of outside. I run all the way home, not stopping once, despite the burning in my lungs and legs. I only slow when I am at the front door, turning the handle. I open the door and close it with a bang.
“Navin, how many times have I told you not to slam the door?”
“How many times have I slammed the door Mom?” She smiles and hugs me, her mark seems to glow warmly with love and happiness.
“How was your day sweetie?”
“Ugh, Mom I’ve told you I don’t like it when you call me sweetie.”
“You are my kid, I can call you whatever I want.”
“Well I don’t have to like it. I’m gonna go start on homework,” I say as I start towards the staircase that leads to my room.
“Hold on Navin, I want to talk to you about something.”
“Tell me at dinner,” I yell down the stairs as I reach my room.
“But I really think we should-.” Then I slam the door to my room. I throw my bag onto the floor next to my desk, sit down, and get down to work.
“Knock knock,” my mom knocks on my door two hours later. “Dinner is ready.”
“Be right there,” I say and get up off the bed and put away my finished homework. I walk over to the speaker, turn off the music I had been listening to, and go downstairs.
“Hey sweetie,” my mom said as I walk into the kitchen.
“Mom, what have told you about calling me sweetie.”
“Navin, I can call you whatever I want, but I was hoping we could talk about-”
“What’s for dinner Mom?” I interrupt, cutting off her sentence.
“Homemade chicken noodle soup, your favorite, but I was hoping we could talk.”
“How about later, I still have tons of homework,” I lie.
“No, I really think we-”
“Mom! I have homework due tomorrow that needs to be done.” I get my soup and head for the stairs, for the safety of my bedroom.
“NAVIN! Stop! We need to talk. Now! Sit down, we’ll eat like a family.”
“You know we can never be a family without Dad! How could you think we could be a family without him!” I yell, regretting saying it the minute it comes out of my mouth. The hurt look in my Mom’s eyes was like a billboard on the side of the highway. She sits down looking like the effort of breathing is too much. Her mark dims a little with the sadness and pain of the memory.
“I’m sorry Mom, I didn’t mean it.”
“Sit,” is all she says pointing at the other chair at the table.
“You are turning 15 tomorrow.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“I’ll get the mark. I will finally fit in and belong.”
“No? What do you mean no?”
“Remember who you are, and never forget that.” She looks up at me like a frightened doe. “Never forget who you are.” Then she gets up and starts towards her room. I sit there, not knowing what to do, too shocked to move. When I finally come to my senses, she is almost to the door of her room.
“Mom, what’s going on? What are you talking about?” I start to run towards the door of her room.
“Never forget,” she says dreamily, and then slams the door to her room in my face.
“MOM!” I scream at the door. I reach for the handle a second too late. I hear the click of the lock, like the slamming of a cell door, blocking me from answers. I pound my fists against the door.
“MOM!” No sound comes for behind the door.
“WHAT’S GOING ON! MOM!” Still no response. I run to the phone thinking to call someone, anyone to help. I hold it up to my ear. No sound. No dial tone.
“MOM!” I yell. I run up to my room thinking to try to call someone on my cellphone. I slam the door behind me, unzip my backpack, and start throwing things out of it to try to get to the small device that is my last hope. It isn’t here, I think. How can it not be here? I search my entire room, looking for the phone, but it isn’t anywhere. Maybe I left it downstairs somewhere. I go to the door and try the handle. It doesn’t move. That can’t be right. I jiggle the handle again, resulting in the same outcome. It must be jammed. I pull on the handle again, much harder this time. Nothing. What am I going to do? The window! I run to the window and pull at the handle. It doesn’t move either. What is going on? I’m trapped! I sit down on my bed, and try to come up with what I could do to escape.
CLICK. The sound is a crack of thunder in the deep, thick silence that came before it. I jerk to alertness, glancing at the clock. It reads 11:02. I turn to the door, staring at where the sound came from. It slowly eases open, like in a horror film. I find I am frozen in place, unable to move. Two figures step into the room, barely fitting through the doorway. They are built like brick walls, tall and muscular, making me insecure about my thinner frame. I don’t have time to react before they have each grabbed an arm and begin to drag me down the steps. I try to escape their hold, realizing it is like being held in iron shackles. I know that unless both of them let go of me, I’m not going to escape. They lead me to the basement door, one of the men letting go of my arm just long enough to open the door. Then they drag me down the steps into the familiar setting of my basement. I am taken towards one of the walls that is mostly covered in shadow. I hadn’t paid much attention to it before, but as I look at it closer, I notice the faint outline of a doorway carved into the brick. One of the men presses a series of bricks and the door clicks, cracking open slightly. The man pulls on it, obviously exerting a lot of effort, even for him. It finally opens enough for them to be able to fit through. I look into the doorway and notice a small hallway. A little ways ahead, I see stairs curving out of sight, signaling the start of a spiral staircase. Medieval torches are on the wall, but they provide little light. The man that had been holding me releases his iron grip, but before I realize what has happened, I am pushed down through the doorway. I stumble a few feet before catching my balance. I look up to find the men coming towards me, closing the door behind them.
“Move.” One of them says and, out of fright, I turn around without arguing and walk forward. I hesitate when I reach the beginning of the stairs, and they push me forward down the spiral staircase. I stumble again, then continue moving forward down the shadowy stairwell, a prisoner heading to their execution. The towering figures loom behind me, blocking my escape. I notice they have marks like everyone else, but theirs are different, unlike anything I had ever seen. Instead of a metallic silver like everyone else's, they are a steely grey. I turn back around and continue walking. Our footsteps echo as we forge on down the stairwell, the walls whispering their responses. I start to think this is all a horrific nightmare, that I fell asleep in my room and I’m dreaming the whole experience. But no matter how hard it tried, my brain couldn’t have come up with such a terrifying experience. The walls are a trash compactor, closing in more and more the farther down we go. I start to lose track of time. Down, down we go, to who knows where.
“Where are we going?” I ask timidly, finding it hard to speak.
“Keep quiet,” one of them says gruffly. “Don’t ask questions, just keep moving.”
“But,” I say, but I’m cut off.
“QUIET!” he booms. The walls shout their agreements, slowly dying back into the whispers they were before and I continue to walk again. Down. Down into nowhere. Down into oblivion. Slowly, I start to notice a change in the surroundings. It is so subtle, I can’t place what it is, but something is definitely changing. Suddenly the stairwell flattens out, and we are walking down a long corridor, with connecting shafts leading to places unknown.
The man directs me through the maze of tunnels, making it impossible to remember how we got here, and if needed, how to get back. We continue on through the labyrinth, the men directing me where to go until suddenly, we are in an enormous cavern. It’s so big, I can’t see the walls that make up the room. I start to wonder if it even has walls, if it just goes on forever, no end. In what I assume to be the middle of the room, there is a chair with a spotlight shining on it, almost like a skylight streaming onto the chair. When I look up to see the source of the light, I see nothing but inky blackness, just like the walls around me.
“Hello Navin,” a formal, seemingly royal voice says from behind me. I whirl around to see a man, dressed in dark clothes, giving off a vibe of authority and power.
“Where am I?’ I ask, trying to hide the fright I am feeling inside, but my voice betrays me, cracking as I question the man.
“I am the director. You are about to become part of K-I-L. It stands for Kids Initiation Link. Have you noticed the mark Navin?”
“Yeah.” I say noticing his mark for the first time. It isn’t silver like the citizen’s marks or grey like the men, but an inky black. Instead of just a smear of paint, it has a design. It stretches across the left side of his face, accenting his jawline and cheek bone, making his face look sharper and more angular.
“Why is yours different?” I ask.
“Because I come from a very powerful bloodline. One that has controlled the mark for centuries.”
“Yes, controlled. We administer the test and give the mark. The first born male of my family controls the mark. You see, the mark links the brain into a hive mind, currently controlled by me. Those who pass the test, receive the mark. No one has ever not passed the test, so I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After the test has been administered, the citizen gets the mark. Then, they wake up. Their head is a bit foggy, but other than that they're fine. No one remembers how they got the mark and they slowly forget they have it.”
“What do I do to get it?” I ask eagerly. I imagine being popular, having everyone know my name. Saying hi to me in the hallways. Having people talk to me during class. Getting in trouble because I was talking to my friends. Having friends. And it is all so close. I just have to do one thing and it will all be mine.
“This man,” says the director pointing to the empty chair, “is a criminal that has been convicted of a crime.”
“What criminal?” I ask, but when I look back at the chair, it is no longer empty. A man sits in the chair in chains. His clothes are baggy and covered in grime. His cheeks are hollow, and he looks like he hasn’t eaten in days. I notice that under his eye, he doesn’t have the mark, which is strange, because he looks to be about 20-25 years of age.
“What crime has he committed?”
“That is unimportant. All you need to know is he is guilty, and he needs to be punished.”
“How?” I ask, picturing the popularity, so close I could almost touch it.
“Kill him,” says the director, holding out a gun. I reach out and grab it hesitantly. I stare at him in stunned silence. Feeling the popularity slip out of my fingers.
“I have to do what?”
“Kill him. Shoot him. He needs to be punished for the crime he has committed.”
“Is that what everyone does to get the mark? Is this the test?”
“Yes. Everyone has done it. Your classmates, your teacher. Even your parents. But none of them remember it. And neither will you. Picture all the popularity, all the friends you will have. You will never have to remember what you have done, and you will forget this night all together. You just have to shoot him.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“That is not an option. Everyone does it, and now it is your turn. Shoot him.”
“No,” I whisper.
“What did you just say?”
“No,” I say louder. “I will not kill him no matter what he did, I will not kill him.”
“That is not a choice, you will shoot him.”
“No! I will not!”
“Yes,” the director says more forcefully, pulling out his own gun from his belt.
“NO!” I scream one final time, pulling the trigger, but not on the criminal, on a person much worse. It finds its mark, burrowing deep into his chest with a sickening thud. The director falls to the ground, his mark slowly fading as the light leaves his eyes. I look at the two other men to see them clutching under their left eyes in agony. They seem to be shrinking, growing smaller until they are only piles of ash on the ground. I run to the doorway and to the maze of hallways. I turn right, opposite the direction I remember us taking last. I find the staircase almost immediately. I dash up it and I’m back in my basement almost immediately. I run upstairs to find my mother.
Colette was jerked awake by an imaginary force, like many others throughout the city. She sat up in bed gasping for breath. What had woken her up she did not know. She looked around her room, but everything looked as it should. Suddenly, the skin under her left eye started to sting. Faint at first, but growing in intensity very quickly. She rushed to the mirror in her room and looked for what could be causing the pain. Nothing was there. Wait, that’s not right. I normally have the mark. What happened to my mark. I’m 16, I should have the mark. Then, suddenly she remembered her door opening, the two men coming into her room, grabbing her in the middle of night, dragging her into the cavern, and her shooting the women accused of the crime. The tears rushed down her face, a waterfall of guilt finally breaking free of the dam of memory loss. Then, she remembered getting the mark, the needle the director held, and him telling her she wouldn’t feel any pain. Then, she remembered waking up and forgetting about the mark. But now she remembers everything. Why? Why did I do that. Why? Then she fell to the floor crying at the memory. At what she did for popularity.