I thought I saw her again today. It’s been 26 days since this year’s Immolation. Students walk furtively through the halls, smiling speciously, holding hands, some even skipping through the morbid, white passageway. I guess that’s the reason I’m an outcast: I don’t smile. I know it’s all a ruse. I don’t skip down the hall emitting happiness. I don’t pretend that the government didn’t belligerently slaughter half of my classmates because they didn’t think they were smart enough, didn’t think they were worthy of living. Which is why I don’t see any reason to smile, not when the Immolation is so hushed up. The Immolation was designed to contain the world’s population, disposing of those who are deemed ‘unfit’ or ‘stupid’. The system also always finds a way to mysteriously get rid of those who publicize the injustices of the government’s ways. The system was planned in secret for years, shielded from the public’s scrutinizing eye.
When I walk down the halls, people make way for me faster than Moses parted the Red Sea, murmurs constantly run through the crowd. My name is never pronounced, though, as if it were a taboo. People look at me with contempt, look at me as if I were not even human, but rather some alien creature who had come to earth to foil their obscure plans. I walk with confidence, putting on a sort of bravado, almost derisive, challenging anyone in a 50-foot radius of me to look me in the eye. But no one ever does.
My life wasn’t always this lonely. I used to have a friend. Her name was Cheryl and we had been best friends for as long as I can remember. I never had any friends apart from Cheryl because people were afraid to upset me, afraid to do something to bother me, afraid that if they did the smallest thing wrong I would report it to my father. You see, my father is the current administrator of the Immolation, which is why I am exempt from the process. In fact, I come from a long line of administrators. Administrators decide who dies and who lives. Sure, the decisions are mostly made by the computers, but the administrator and his advisors get to reach the final verdict, adding to the kill list those who rebel against the system.
When I think of Cheryl, I think of many things, I think of how the Immolation brought so many unneeded injustices into her life.
* * *
Throughout our childhood, summer was always the happiest time of the year for us. I remember Cheryl telling me how she loved the feeling of warm rays of sun seeping through her skin and into her bones, how she loved running around in the green grass as the fireflies glowed and flew around her. But what she loved the most about summer, was meeting new people. Cheryl adored meeting people who didn’t go to our school because they had absolutely no prejudices about her and were usually much more sincere. That particular summer, when Cheryl was 10, she had met a girl whose name was Sara, and according to Cheryl, she was one of the most affectionate people she knew. She had met her at a summer camp her parents sent her to. They had great fun at the camp, but soon, it ended, and they both had to go back to school and prepare for their next series of tests. Cheryl passed, of course. She was overjoyed, even though she didn’t really know what would happen to her had she failed because she was so small, but she tried her hardest each year because she knew how happy her parents were when she passed. A couple of days after the Immolation, her parents came into her room with sad faces. And it was with those sad faces that they told her that Sara was dead, with no further explanation. Imagine being told that one of your best friends is dead, but they won’t tell you how she died, when she died, or why she died – or if there even was a reason for her death. So that is how Cheryl lived the next 5 years of her life, not knowing how one of her friends died. Making new friends was, from then on, so terrifying that it was out of the question. The Immolation caused her to put walls up around her heart and to be afraid of getting close to people, because she knew that they might just die after the tests.
* * *
Life was unfair, that was a known fact, but little did Cheryl and I know that things were only going to get worse. It was a sunny afternoon in the middle of last November, strange considering the time of the year. But, as Cheryl and I strolled down the rows of cars of our local mall’s parking lot, we did not question it, preferring just to enjoy the warm rays of sun instead. That day was not just any day, it was the end of Test Week, Friday. The mall was packed with worried families, deciding to spend what might be their last day with their children all together. That night the announcement would come out, people would find out whether they were in or out. A lot of the kids on the list were put in the ‘uncertain column’ which meant you would have to go in for one last test before they decided.
Cheryl was a brilliant student, so she was never very worried about the results, therefore, when we hung out after the exams, there was never too much tension. Little did we know that everything would all change with one phone call.
My arm was slung over her shoulder as we walked out of the mall when her phone rang. She answered in a relaxed fashion, with a simple ‘Hello?’ I watched her, I saw it, I saw the fraction of the second where her face went from calm to frantic, burdened, sad, confused, and angry all at the same time. She took a big breath, and with a shaky voice said, ‘Thank you, goodbye.’
When she ended the call, I looked at her inquisitively, wondering what the cause of her distress might be. She turned her head towards mine, our eyes locked, and she started crying. In a croaky voice she muttered, ‘She’s dead, Aunt Mary is dead,’ before bursting into tears again.
Cheryl’s Aunt Mary was the most sensitive woman you could ever meet. She was also very against the system and was not afraid to speak out about it. I guessed it had finally backfired on her – my immoral father must have put her on the Immolation list and made it his duty to get rid of her in the first rounds of the killings.
So for the rest of the night, and the night after that, I sat on Cheryl’s bed, stroking her auburn hair, while drops of bitter crystals slid down her porcelain skin and fell on her white sheets, endlessly and with no relief in sight.
* * *
The days passed, her moods varied from sad to angry and back to sad again. The first few days after the traumatic phone call, Cheryl would just lie in her bed, hugging either me or the pillow that had been drenched with tears. Occasionally, she would leave her bed to use the bathroom, but only if she absolutely needed to. She would rarely eat, and her parents frequently voiced their concerns about her with me. This self-destructive behavior ended after a couple days but was soon replaced with fits of ever-lasting anger. She was not only angry at my father, but she started getting angry at the whole society we lived in, uncontrollably enraged at the Immolation – not that I was against her view of our society, I was just incredibly worried that she was going to act on her hatred and get herself killed, just like her outspoken aunt.
I wasn’t worried that she would complain about the system, as almost everyone did once in a while, I was worried she would start campaigns, make signs. To be blunt, I was worried she would attract my father’s attention.
* * *
I was right to worry. It started out small: harmless little things like complaining to classmates, or breaking curfew by a few minutes. Nobody commented on it, nobody considered it out of the norm, because it wasn’t. People, especially teenagers, liked to complain about the hard tests, and how unfair the system was. I should have noticed, I should have paid attention to her actions.
I should have seen how she was spiraling down into an abyss you and I call ‘death’, and the following week, students at our high school, when they arrived in the morning, found themselves in front of a long white strip of cloth hung across the whole front facade of the building, on which was written in bold red letters ‘STOP THE IMMOLATION’ and right below it ‘THEY ARE JUSTIFYING MURDER’. I remember walking up to school that day and stopping in front of the now-controversial building, I remember my books falling to the cold cement with a bang, I remember freezing because I didn’t need anyone to confirm my suspicion – it was Cheryl.
Cheryl had put herself in a position of helplessness. I couldn’t help her, nobody could. The worse part was that she didn’t stop, she kept acting out, and no matter how many times I pleaded with her to stop, I reminded her how dangerous her actions were, how fatal a situation she was in, she kept going. It was inevitable, Cheryl would be killed in the next Immolation.
* * *
My fears were confirmed the day my father called me into his office. The details of that dreaded afternoon are blurred in my mind, all I really remember is my father greeting me with a sad and disappointed look on his face, telling me that he had to put Cheryl on the Immolation list. I was expecting this, so I wasn’t really surprised. That didn’t make it hurt less though. The worst part was that I couldn’t tell Cheryl, it was classified information until the list came out, so I just had to keep living a lie, soaking up all the moments with Cheryl I could, like a sponge. Cheryl was a ticking time bomb, and nobody knew how to defuse her.
* * *
The day came. Cheryl appeared on the list. Her family and I were sitting in her living room, sharing a large cheese pizza. Everyone was enjoying themselves, but not me. I was just kept looking at Cheryl, staring so intently that she called me out on it several times. I was in the room when she found out, I saw her expression morph into one of panic and despair. She dropped the sizzling slice of cooked dough and cheese onto the black, fuzzy carpet and fell to her knees. Her mother, who was in the kitchen cutting up a carrot, walked out and stumbled backwards, bursting into a fit of tears. Her father on the other hand, looked at me with a malevolent countenance, and shouted words that I was not able to process, but understanding his will, I stood up, cast one last glance at Cheryl, looked solemnly at her afflicted form, and walked out of their home, not daring to look back. I could do nothing. I had talked to my father multiple times, but it was useless, the rules applied to all civilians, whether I cared about them or not.
I didn’t sleep that night. Cheryl and her parents refused to talk to me or my father, fully aware of the fact that my father was the one to write Cheryl’s name on that list and that I had known this was going to happen long before anyone else. The night the list came out was the last time I would ever see Cheryl, because although I thought I knew everything, I didn’t. Even though Cheryl was angry at me, we had agreed to meet one last time the following morning, the day of the Immolation. After all, we had been together since the beginning. But that never happened, because, what I didn’t know was that all students put on the list for speaking out were secretly taken while they were sleeping. I never saw her again. I would never forgive my father for this, never. He had taken my joy away, he had stripped me of my happiness, so I decided that I would do the same to him.
* * *
The next few weeks were unbearable. I hardly ever got out of bed. I didn’t feel like doing anything, least of all going to school. I was slowly being consumed by sadness, loneliness, but mostly, the secret anger I held against my father and his ways. I think that’s when, in a cynical, sociopathic section of my mind it clicked – I had to get revenge. The sane part of my mind saw that what I needed was to avenge Cheryl, not get revenge on my father. But at the time, in my distressed state, revenge felt like my only option.
So the next week, after days and days of planning, I exited my room, leaving the door half open so I could run back to it after my plan had been successfully carried out. I snuck into his room, in the dead of night, creeping across the wooden floorboards, being careful not to make a sound. The door to his bedroom was completely open, as he liked to let the air in and out, so I tiptoed in, one small step at a time. Finally reaching the bed, I hovered over his sleeping form, gloves on, the cold kitchen knife in my hand, sending chills down my spine. I didn’t think, I just did it. One second I was standing there, the next I was running back into the instinctive safety of my blue room, the knife no longer in my hands. Rather, it was stuck inside of the now-dead man whom I called my father.
Part of me died that day. I think Cheryl was the thread that had been keeping me from falling apart, and now that she was gone, I had nothing holding me together anymore except the certainness I felt throughout my body. I was going to stop the Immolation, one injustice at a time. I would soon learn that I was not alone in this fight.