“School,” Natalie said, like a curse word.
“School,” Ross agreed, and Jasper found himself nodding along too. He really didn’t like school all that much. He didn’t like waking up before the sun, he didn’t love the constant assessments that appeared on the class calendars every week or so, and he most certainly did not appreciate the endless assignments that all the students received underneath the age-old guise of homework. And from his friends’ expressions, Jasper knew that those same thoughts were running through their heads as well. For the briefest flash of time, all three teenagers looked at one another in a way that could, conceivably, have suggested some form of enlightenment. Then they returned to their work.
No. If he was being entirely honest with himself, Jasper hated school. Of course, he would never admit as much out loud—none of them would. Nowadays, everyone knew that you never knew who was watching.
Ross cleared his throat. An angry, purplish burn discolored his otherwise dark skin as it traveled from the tips of his fingers up his arm, disappearing beneath his shirt. His black hair, combed so carefully to the side, gleamed faintly under the artificial light, and the chair in which he sat seemed to balk beneath his bulk. Ross was the type of kid that, only a couple decades earlier, would have been labeled as a jock. He never would have been found hanging out with the likes of Jasper and Natalie.
This was, at least in part, because Natalie was the polar opposite of Ross. She was small, and thin, and the owner of pale, milky skin of a perfect complexion. She had a quiet, even disposition and blonde hair with a series of gentle curls that cascaded down. She was, by all standards, beautiful—with one heartrending exception: a gaping space took the place of her left eye. The area was covered by a patch now, as it always was in public, yet Jasper had seen it before. Once. He could vividly recall his younger self jumping back in fright, then leaning forward once more with a sort of abstract curiosity. The pit in her skull had seemed to lead back into her very soul.
Thankfully, Ross uncapped his highlighter just then, and the quick click threw Jasper free of the unpleasant memory. He shivered and sighed.
Ross capped the utensil a short second later, though, and then proceeded to uncap and cap it three more times in quick succession. A quiet moment passed. Then he uncapped it once more. It didn’t take long for Jasper’s relief to give way to frustration.
“Ross?” Jasper said, eyebrows raised.
“Sorry.” Jasper inclined his head and bent forward to scrutinize his textbook. He hadn’t been working for long, though, when he heard the highlighter cap itself one more time.
“Then be quiet.”
Ross stewed in silence for an instant. Then he said, “It’s just, well…”
Natalie delicately folded her arms over her homework. “Out with it, Ross. What’s wrong?”
“It’s, umm…” He crossed his arms over his chest and let out a great sigh. “What happens if I make a mistake tomorrow? What if I faint mid-test or blank on every question? I heard there was a kid two years ago who had a nervous breakdown with just an hour to go, and he vomited and couldn’t finish the exam.”
“You’ll be fine,” Natalie said. But she didn’t sound particularly convincing, and she didn’t offer any further encouragement.
“What happens if all my pencils break or all the batteries in my calculator die?”
“Or if I don’t make it to school in time?”
Jasper didn’t blame Ross for worrying. The Education Evaluation Test (the EET) was scheduled for the very next day, and every high school junior in the country was going a little crazy stressing over it. After all, if broken down to its essentials, the standardized test determined people’s lives. A high score on it was of paramount importance in the college application process, and, indeed, most colleges had stiff cutoffs; a top tier university would scarcely consider an applicant with a score under 90. In theory, the EET separated the deserving from the undeserving, the strong from the weak, the pliant from the rigid. In practice, though, as every student knew, the EET had more to do with luck and preparation than it did with actual education.
“Just think—we only get 99 points to prove our worth,” Ross muttered.
Jasper massaged the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “That’s really not helping.”
“One mistake can change our lives forever.”
“Shut up, Ross,” Natalie snapped. He did.
They all three took up their work again. Jasper read through his history textbook and then moved on to study a series of French articles. Ross scrawled notes down on a piece of paper while Natalie typed away at an essay of some kind. But the peace couldn’t remain for long. This time, it was Jasper’s own fault.
“Do you guys ever wonder what college is gonna be like?” he asked all of the sudden. He immediately reached up and laid a hand against his mouth, as if surprised to have spoken.
Natalie blinked—a rather disconcerting motion when she attempted it on her left side. “We have to get accepted first.”
“Yeah, yeah, but what do you think it will be like when we do get there?”
A quiet descended over the three of them. “I don’t know,” Natalie finally said. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“Me neither,” Ross and Jasper said at the same time. And it was true. To them, college seemed much more like a distant dream than an actual eventuality. They had spent the better parts of their lives worrying about the admissions process and how to gain an edge of their peers, and how to fill their time with extracurriculars and with activities that showcased their leadership skills.
“Hey, guys?” Natalie said, squinting at something on her computer screen. “How many hours do you think I need to volunteer for the humane society to make it worthwhile on my resume?”
When the rim of the sun had spread its fingertips down to grasp the horizon, Ross excused himself. “I need to take a couple more practice tests at home,” he explained. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jasper and Natalie worked for a while longer until, by unspoken agreement, they stood up and packed their things. Outside, the air had cooled to a brisk chill. Leaves spun crazily in swirls of color, and they filled the wind with ceaseless swishing and rustling as they brushed across the pavement.
The two friends split up at the corner. Jasper continued toward his car with slow steps, sunk down into the seat, and started the ignition—always a difficult task with only his left hand. He waited just long enough for the heaters to begin blasting feverish warmth before he peeled out into the road. Jasper loved driving. He loved the feel of the world rushing by in a kaleidoscope of colors, the ability to command so much power, the freedom to do anything and go anywhere—really the only freedom he possessed in his life. Getting his license had been a hassle, but he had ultimately passed the VDE (Vehicle Driving Examination) without any issues.
Thus, with a smile plastered onto his face, Jasper headed for home, his left hand clutched onto the top of the steering wheel with a death grip…
… for where Jasper’s right hand should have been, there was only a stump of smooth, soft, sallow-looking skin.
“How was school?” his mom demanded the moment Jasper walked through the door. She stuck her head out from the kitchen, a smile gracing her lips.
“Just good, not great?” his dad called out from one room over.
Jasper grinned a little in spite of himself. “Fine, it was great.”
“Just great, not amazing?”
“Just amazing, not phenomenal?”
His mom sauntered into the room, still smiling. “Tell us how your day went, honey.”
Jasper shrugged. “It was good.”
“Did you do anything?”
“Not really, no.”
“Nothing memorable happened?”
“Well, what did you learn?”
Jasper considered that for a moment. “Nothing much.”
“There must be something.”
Jasper made a show of rubbing his chin. “Not that I can think of.”
His parents looked at each other. They looked back at Jasper. And through all of this, they never ceased their smiling.
“Did you get any grades back at least?” his dad inquired.
“… nope,” Jasper responded in a small voice.
“I talked to my colleague today about this new leadership camp in Washington DC. He said his daughter did it, and it’s supposed to look great on your resume.”
“Ooh, I almost forgot to tell you,” his mother said. “Speaking of colleges, I talked to my mother this morning and guess what?”
“I got her to legally change her race! Now, on all your official documents and papers, you can write, ‘other’ when it asks for your race.”
“Because you’re 13% Cherokee Indian now!” his dad chimed in.
“Oh.” Jasper refrained from rolling his eyes only with supreme effort. “That should help.”
“Oh, it’ll do more than help. Colleges love mixed-race applicants.”
“The white Christian male just isn’t enough anymore.”
Jasper nodded but didn’t offer any words in return.
“So, are you ready for the EET?” his dad demanded.
Sensing an opportunity, Jasper raised his thumb to point vaguely toward the stairs and began shuffling backward. “I’ll be ready by tonight, but I should go and study a bit more right now. Just to make sure I know everything.”
His parents watched him go, beaming like fools all the while. As Jasper stumbled up the stairs, his mom called after him. “Jasper, I—” She visibly struggled to gather her thoughts together. “Well, I just want to make sure that you’re feeling okay, honey. This stuff can be… stressful.”
Jasper met her gaze. “I’m fine, mom.” And as he scaled the stairs, he heard his dad hiss, “See? I told you he’s fine.”
Dinner was a quiet affair. With the interrogation out of the way, his parents seemed content to talked amongst themselves while Jasper slurped up his food as fast as he was able, then excused himself once it became polite to do so.
When he went to sleep that night, he dreamt that his alarm didn’t go off the next morning, and he missed the entire EET. Suffice to say, it was a nightmare.
The following morning, Jasper took the EET. It was as bad as he expected—worse, even.
He arrived at the school early, located his room from the list of names on the front board, took a seat where the proctor directed, and waited. The classroom slowly filled up with other kids.
All had circles under their eyes.
All seemed resigned to the task at hand.
None looked happy to be there.
The proctor shut the doors at precisely eight o’clock, then returned to the front of the room, where he proceeded to read a slew of generic instructions from a book entitled The Official EET Proctor’s Guide.
Then, without further preamble, the examination commenced.
Jasper stared at the first question for a full minute: “If you were forced to choose one of the below items from your burning house, which would it be?” The options included a book, a computer, a pet, a full set of clothes, or a passport. After a few more moments, Jasper shook his head and chided himself for wasting precious time. He circled the first choice that felt correct and thereafter trusted his gut, rather than his brain, to answer the EET’s questions.
After 55 minutes had elapsed, the proctor called, “Time. Please set down your pencils now.” He read off a new set of guidelines for the EET’s ensuing section, then allowed the class to begin.
“In what state was Donald Trump born?” the examination demanded of Jasper. And so the day went.
When it finally concluded, Jasper made no attempt to rise from his desk. Some part of him felt relieved—he had finished the EET, and he would never again be forced to take the test! But another part of him felt irritated and enraged at the helplessness of his situation; with the EET officially on his record, his future had largely been reduced to a series of numbers and precious else more. Jasper knew it was stupid to feel the way he felt, but when he met Natalie and Ross in the hallway afterward, he was gratified to learn that he wasn’t the only one with such bleak thoughts running rampant through his head.
“What did you think?” Natalie asked at once.
“Not bad,” Ross said, “but something weird happened halfway through.” Natalie’s expression betrayed her confusion, but Jasper’s, if anything, brightened. “I started thinking about how stupid all of this is.”
Natalie frowned. “What do you mean?”
Ross sighed. “I mean, think about it. Colleges say they care about who we are as people, and what our interests are, and how we want to remake the world… but they don’t care about any of that. Not really. They care about our test score on the EET; they care about our grades and our GPA’s; they care about who are parents are, and how much money we have. That’s it.
“But it wasn’t always this way, you know. When our parents were kids, things were so much simpler. Nothing was as competitive as it is now. It was an accomplishment if you went to college at all—not an expectation. And nobody cared how well you did in school because you could find a job anywhere.”
“That sounds like a fantasy,” Natalie said drily. Jasper nodded his agreement.
Ross regarded them. Then he leaned in and indicated for Jasper and Natalie to do the same. “Have you ever asked your parents why you’re impaired?” he whispered, breath hot on their skin. They bobbed their heads. “Whatever they told you, it was a lie.”
Jasper let out a little laugh. “A lie?”
“Yes, a lie. Our parents did it on purpose.”
All at once, Jasper became aware that he was absently rubbing his stump. Natalie, too, had reached up to touch the hole where her eye should have been. Both of them realized their actions at the same time and forced themselves to stop.
“That’s preposterous,” Natalie said at the same time as Jasper asked, “What reason would they have for doing that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” And Ross laughed at their helpless expressions. “To help us get into college!”