It was a lazy Friday afternoon in the downtown streets of New York City. The air hung heavy, clinging to the sweat soaked bodies of the less fortunate. Emory wandered aimlessly down the ravaged streets of her home, a slight breeze washing over her. Her street was an abandoned mess of shattered pavement and plant life filling every crack and crevice. Faded, dusty light filtering in and out of the shadows. Discarded chunks of metal and plastic from now useless machines, scattered around the overgrown fields. She glanced around the hollow buildings, the terracotta pink of the walls wearing down to grey, assaulted by weather and time. She could hear the sweet sound of her mother’s voice, softly singing her way through the day’s chores.
Emory jolted back into consciousness. In the back of her mind, she could hear the steady sound of water leaking into her cell, coupled with the feel of her tears, warm against her cheeks. Each droplet felt like the earth moving beneath her body, oversensitive nerves alert to every movement in the dark, dank unit. Despite the damp concrete scraping her already scarred bare skin, and the eerie silence interrupted with the dry retching and heaving of her companions, this cell was the only place she felt a sense of safety anymore. Finally alone, after hours of vigorous tests and looks of disapproval, she was able to escape.
Emory was lucky, she got a cell with a window. Grasping the rusted bars of her cell, she dragged herself off the floor, ignoring the familiar sensation of blood trickling from the scraps on her knees. She clambered slowly onto her feet, stomach heaving with the effort to hold herself upright. Gasping at the intense pain that she had come to associate with standing, the feeling of her protruding ribs digging sharply into her side. Starved and dehydrated, just like the rest of the poor souls she saw leave the testing rooms each day, she craved the pain caused by gripping the jagged metal bars of her cell just a little too tightly, hard enough to draw blood, her only connection left to the life she had once lived. A lifeline to the world, a reminder of the cruelty that was swallowing all of them whole. She knew what happened to them in there, it was the same thing that happened to them all. Cold, mechanical doctors dressed in white, using there power to tighten the noose around the necks of people’s freedom. The pain reminded her of her reality, gave her a brief release from the numbness she was drowning in. Aside from the sting of betrayal she felt every time she saw the emotionless faces of the people she had once known, some she had even loved, gazing out of the well lit square embedded in the concrete wall of her cell was all that was left to provide her with comfort. The gap between the end of her bars and the wall was the most difficult part of her journey, her only compensation being the purpose that small carved space gave her. A reason to wake up in the morning, a way to surface from the injustice that was eating her alive. This particular morning, the window gave way to a chilling scene of ice and mist. Cloud hung close to the ground, lingering between the trunks of the trees, planted to thinly veil the tall, barbed fence that seemed to close closer in on all of their throats with every passing day. Emory let her mind drift and flow from one detached thought to another. It was easier for her to focus on the picture in front of her, the subtle changes in the landscape, rather than focus on the happiness she had left behind, forsaken the day she had taken the test.
“Today’s the day,” Emory forced herself to roll over, blinking at the glaring morning light her mother had left into her dark room, “We don’t have much time, Em. Get up.”
The aptitude test. A compulsory analysis of the inner works of every young adult on their eighteenth birthday. She groaned, burying her body further into the warm, soft comfort of her bed. Her mother huffed, gripping the blanket around her and stripping it from her body, “If you don’t get up soon, they’ll accuse you of treason.” The ultimate punishment for refusing to attend you aptitude test; arrested for treason and sentenced to death. “Okay, okay. I’m getting up,” Her mother cast one more disapproving look before softly closing the door. Twisting herself from the sheets, Emory noticed a large yellow poster, tapped to the wall across from her window, flapping slowly in the wind. The words were bold, shouting from the paper “Get Your Aptitude Tested Today.” Beneath a picture. A mother, smiling as her children look up at her. The very depiction of the happiness the government run testing can provide. Knowing your place in the world, knowing where you belong. Emory swallowed, nerves boiling in her lower stomach. The posters never show the truth. They never reveal what happens when the test doesn’t work, when your mind refuses to conform. Emory shuddered, casting her eyes over the empty copper frame in the corner of her bedroom, that had once held the smiling face her older brother. Now it sat in the center, noticeably blank, surrounded by the photos of family and friends. A tribute to him, erased from her life without warning, on the day her turned eighteen. “Emory! We’re going to be late.”
It still baffled her, these people and their ability to forsake all empathy, have so little compassion for those who were different. They filled cell block after cell block with pathetic pawns of the government, those who were different to what society wanted, by no fault of their own. People whose minds were alive, able to freely move and think, to accomplish more than one thing in a lifetime. As a child she had believed in the system, believed it was fair that the test was used to delegate jobs, so people go to do a job they had a natural talent for. Now, sitting in her damp cell, lonely but never truly alone anymore, she understood the true purpose of the test; to induce fear over the population, to identify those who threaten to overthrow the system. Emory had been so lost in thought, taking in the subtle changes in the outside world, that she had failed to noticed the sound of heavy, leather boots thudding against the concrete of the hallway. She was wrenched from her reminiscence by a guard in uniform. A tight black suit, strapped with weaponry, a government soldier ready to do their duty and nothing more. In the beginning, Emory would have kicked and screamed, held onto the bars of the window and refused to move. That was before the life had drained out to her, the fight dragged from her body with every invasion of her consciousness. Now, all she could do was take the support he offered, letting the numbness settle back over her, like a wave washing away her awareness.
Emory shuffled, unused to the comfortable feeling of the smooth seat beneath her. The room was different from what she remembered. The usually plain white wall seemed longer, mounted with metal equipment. Using her last ounce of energy, she shifted to glance around the unfamiliar room. The wall moved in front of her, the sterile white surface giving way to fathomless black. She snapped her neck back to the ceiling. It was better when she didn’t see the emotionless faces of the people who had been compromised. Their pale complexions and cautious movements stung in the back of her throat, pity pulling her back under water. Emory tensed, the familiar scent of sunshine setting her nerve endings alight. A sense of comfort swallowing her before she knew what was happening. Her body reacted, to fast for her mind to comprehend, she sat upright, all exhaustion forgotten. Mind racing, she willed her eyes to focus on the figure in front of her. Her mind reeled, brain barely processing flashes of different memories she associated with that smell. Late nights huddled in front a roaring fire, watching sparks light the night sky. The smell of the weeks rations being changed, manipulated into something edible. The warmth of sunlight streaming in through towering windows, illuminating the faces of her family, for once absent of desperation and despair. Family. She swallowed gulps of filtered oxygen, blinking to clear her mind, focusing on the eyes of the person in front of her. A vibrant blue, fused with forest green. Emory had the sensation of falling, like she was being torn away from what she’d come to know as her reality. She remembered the day they came for her, brutal guards destroying her family home. The sound of her family shouting after her, the thud of them hitting the ground echoing in her mind. She clung to the life line in front of her. Those luminous eyes, like a thread dragging her back to her past. Lungs burning, Emory felt the dry unused skin of her face crack and strain. Expending every last drop of hope, she let out a breathless “Mom?”
The withered, kind face of the women in front of her sparked some kind of fight in the depths of her body. Her mother. Still alive. She scrambled forward, limbs all of a sudden mobile. Clasping her mother’s weak hands in her own, watching as they crumbled before her eyes. Skin, bone, the foundation of her mother decaying to ash from where she had touched, “Mom? Mom!”
Her screams echoed through the empty room, her mother fading into a pile of dust at at the foot of her seat. Tears streaming down her face, Emory starred as a man in a long white coat stepped from behind where her mother had just stood. He quirked an eyebrow, glancing quickly from her to the floor, “And to think you were doing such a good job of playing dumb, they were two seconds away from writing you off as brain dead.”