This story is by Lina Dimitrov and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
It’s April 1st. I look at my ribcage again in the mirror, confused. Well it is April Fool’s Day… But they wouldn’t do that. I would think the government is much too serious for that. I look again. In black ink on my honey-toned skin, it still says “March 2017,” just like it has for the past 20 years.
My parents’ date tattoos are set to a much later date (each different of course) but this we always knew. It’s not just a set time span after birth. It’s not based on anything really, as far as we know. A random number generator makes them, so our death dates are set completely at random, we are told. And mine was set for March 2017 (with no specific day of course, that would be horrifying).
But clearly, obviously it was incorrect because I am still here, standing in my PJ’s in the bathroom in my house at the end of the street. I tuck a rogue strand of my long violet hair behind my ear and stare straight into the reflection of my golden eyes. Maybe I am the one exception, like in all the best movies, that one character who doesn’t fit the mold. This idea makes me feel stupidly ecstatic and forget my anxiety for a minute. But it doesn’t last. What will my parents say? We’ve been preparing for this. When I went to bed last night we had already each said everything we wanted the other to know for all eternity—one of the many beauties of the death date. You can never have a last moment of regret, something that was left unsaid (unless you are an utter idiot and take the whole month for granted but I’ve yet to hear of someone who would do such a thing). I already said goodbye to my friends so long ago when I went on my cruise around the planet. I felt ready, actually, and was happy that it seemed pretty promising that I would go peacefully in my sleep as so many of us do. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a little scared, but I was ready.
But I didn’t go peacefully in my sleep. A prickling shiver sears through my spine. All thoughts of being the special heroine have disappeared. Now I am truly scared. How long will it take them to find out? It surely won’t take too much time before the government knows and I’m sure agents will be sent for me immediately after. And then who knows…will they execute me? This idea seems frightening beyond belief and I wish more than ever I had just died quietly in my sleep. What had gone wrong??
My mind grows cloudy with worry but I catch myself before I fall down a pit of despair. I can’t fall apart. I must stay focused. I rush to my room and grab my traveler’s sack I’d brought on my trip around the planet because who knows how long I’ll have to hide. Think quickly. What will you need to survive? I hurriedly scavenge around my room for necessary items and am ready (as I’ll ever be) in about 10 minutes. My parents will be awake soon, I need to make it out immediately. They will hear the door if go out the front so I squeeze through my window. There’s a wood less than half a mile from my house, one of the few preserves of untouched land in my residential zone. It’s the only place I’ll have even a chance of hiding so I head straight there. I run past the rows of durable platinum houses, sweat building on my forehead despite the chilly air. Every time I hear a sound my heart jumps into my throat.
Once I reach the wood I run in blindly, not knowing where I am going. I haven’t been in here since I was six years old. My friends and I were playing hide and seek and I had the clever idea of hiding in the woods. Most kids were too scared to come in here, but that just made it all the more perfect for hiding in my opinion. Actually too perfect, as it turned out—no one dared to come in here and I stayed for hours until finally, disappointed, I made my way back to find that my friends had given up the search. Before I went back out though, I remember seeing something I thought was strange, like a weird robotic bird. I had all but forgotten this, but now that I was back in here so many years later it came back to me. I remember it sitting in one of the higher branches, almost hidden. When I had gotten close, it turned toward me immediately and fluidly, like a machine.
Suddenly I hear a ruffle and turn, startled back into the present. The sound had come from above. I look up. And I see—-but it can’t be…
It is the very same robotic bird I’d seen so many years ago, turned towards me. I look to the next tree and see another. Cameras. these are not birds but cameras. They can see me. I’d never even had a chance of escape after all. And now I have two choices, to be found cowering or to walk forth bravely and face my fears. I choose the latter.
As I walk out of the wood I am not surprised to find someone waiting. I, however, surprised that I am being met not by men and women with large guns, but a single, unarmed woman.
“My name is Agent Moore. Would you please come with me?”
I take a deep breathe and step after her as she turns. A heli-jet floats down and I follow her in. It all happens so fast, I almost don’t believe I am in the air once we take off.
Agent Moore turns toward me.“I’m sorry for the startling beginning to your day.”
“Are you going to kill me?” I blurt out before I can catch myself.
Astonishingly, Agent Moore just laughs. “Don’t be silly. The death date is for you to be able to live your life, why would we punish you for our own miscalculation?”
This is not at all what I had expected. I am also rather confused.“To be able to live my life? What are you talking about?”
Agent Moore looks like she is about to elaborate but then thinks better of it.
“Just look.” She pulls up a video on the large screen in front of us and hits play. The video starts. People are milling about, going from place to place in a seemingly purposeful manner but not actually doing much. For a second I think it’s in fast-forward but quickly realize the movements are too organic and these are just fast lives I’m watching. The video focuses in on a man in suit. He enters a tall building and rides up an elevator with lots of other suited men, some suited women. They go to a room where they sit at isolated desks and seem to be typing important things on computers. The video then does go into fast-forward mode and shows an elapsed time of 8 hours. Nothing much happens during this time—people get up, sit down, eat bagels, type.
Now the video is focusing on a different workroom—you can tell by the subtle change in color and the different arrangement of the desks. Once again, the fast-forward begins and everything looks the same but with different people. A few more of these are shown, intermittently focusing on various locations where people are moving from place to place. And now there’s a grocery center. People are silently picking out vegetables.
I finally have to interrupt: “How much more of this are we watching? Why are we watching this?”
“ Well, um, they move quickly, but don’t really do anything? I don’t know what I am supposed to say. Has someone forced these people into these rooms?” To be honest, I don’t understand at all what is going on right now.
“No, they have not been forced into these rooms.”
“Oh.” I think for a moment, wishing that she would just tell me what she needs to tell me without being so cryptic. “Why are we watching specifically these scenes about these people? Is this a documentary?”
She smiles sort of slyly, which is weird and unsettling.
“These are satellite videos of humans on Earth. We’ve been gathering this data for quite some time and we could go through many more hours of these videos, but most of the time this is pretty much what you would see so I won’t pain you with more, unless you would prefer that of course.”
Oh so these are real, actual people? Voluntarily confining themselves to this existence?
“So these are real people, and they do this of their own accord?” I repeat my thoughts out loud.
“Yes,” she says. “You made a keen observation a few moments ago. They are moving quickly, but not really doing anything. Anything worthwhile that is. What you are seeing is an Earth-wide epidemic caused by the lack of awareness of death, life’s great end date. These people know, obviously, that they will die one day, but there’ no tangible sense of it. Life seems to drag on indefinitely and so, as a result, they never really grasp the idea of death until it’s almost too late. They live their lives for ‘later,’ for tomorrow, never knowing when there will be no more tomorrows but rather choosing to imagine that they will continue to come indefinitely. But the very awareness that life is finite is what makes life worthwhile. ”
“So you really mean not one of these people knows…?”
“Well some do, although not like we do here. These exceptions occur in cases such as certain illnesses, where people often receive an estimate of when they will die. These people usually form something called a Bucket List, which essentially equates to the way we live our entire lives here.”
This is kind of a lot to think about all at once and frankly rather astonishing to me and I don’t know quite what to say so I just nod and don’t really say much and probably look pretty dumb (judging from Agent Moore’s expression) so she carries on.
“Ok so we’ll begin the paperwork immediately for your transfer.” My transfer? “Like I said, this situation is fairly rare but we have an excellent survivor protection program in place for these exact kinds of cases. We have a survey for placement. Let me get you started with that.”
She begins rifling through paperwork. For a moment, she pauses and looks back up at me.“Have you done everything you’ve wanted to?”
An odd question.“Well obviously. Why wouldn’t I have?”
She smiles that way again like she knows something I don’t.
I run my hand over my sweater where the month and year on my rib cage are hiding underneath and think of the sad Earth people.