This story is by J. M. Gill and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The bell rang jolting me from my light slumber and broadcasting our arrival at the testing center. My stomach lurched as I felt the bus come to an abrupt stop. We all lined up to exit the bus. I tugged at my down jacket in a futile attempt to shield myself from a cold gust of morning air. Somberness cloaked our small group as we prepared our minds for what might happen next. With every day that passed, fewer passengers boarded the bus to the testing center. Today was different though… it was the last day of testing. We all knew that many of us would not live to see tomorrow’s morning light. We entered the building, where we were assigned to individual desks with computer monitors and given pencils and scrap paper.
I sat down at my desk and lined up all of my pencils so that their pointed ends faced the outside of the desk. Each one sharpened until its point diameter was comparable to that of a needlepoint. I’ve always hated unsharpened pencils. The dullness of their pencil-lead points reminded me of undisciplined swordsmen, lacking precision and dexterity. I thought about all of the hours I spent these past several months preparing my mind and my body for this week of final testing.
I made it through the first four days of agonizing physical and mental tests and today was the last day of this nightmare I now called my life. It hadn’t always been this way, but everything had changed since their invasion.
I closed my eyes to rest them. Then I saw her smile; the one that would make my heart beat faster than a cheetah could run, and the skin of my cheeks flush. A beeping sound stirred me from my reverie. My eyes searched the room for its source. A gigantic digital timepiece at the front of the room flashed in synchrony with the beeping sound. 6:55 a.m. By 9:00 a.m, I would know the fate of my life.
The beeping sound stopped, and the screen in front of me lit up. The test instructions flashed across the screen. “If you miss more than ten questions, you will fail this test and be terminated.” The first question appeared on the screen. It was a paragraph long, but it appeared to be asking me to deconstruct the force vector. Oh no… I remember there were two formulas for this, but which one is the right one? I tried to use both of the formulas separately. They brought me to different solutions… neither of which was one of the multiple choice answers. I glanced up at the clock. 7:10 a.m. I squeezed my pencil between my fingers. At this rate, I’m not going to finish on time. My stomach knotted within me. I selected answer D and pressed the submit button on the screen. A gigantic red X flashed across the screen. This couldn’t be happening. I just missed the first question on the test!
Question 2 flashed across the screen. Three paragraphs long and with each multiple choice answer a paragraph long, the question seemed daunting. With caution, I read through the question and answers, concluding that the answer was B. I pressed submit, and a green check mark flashed across the screen. That’s two down and 198 to go. I looked back at the clock. 7:13 a.m. I now continued at a steady pace until I reached number 55. At which moment, I felt a sharp and lingering pain in my lower back. I realized pain meds were starting to wear off. I started taking them after I fell down performing a hurdle during one of the physical tests earlier in the week. I recollected the rigors of the this week’s physical tests and wondered how Violet, my small framed fiancé, had made it through them two weeks prior. At least she had passed all of her tests and was safe for now. I couldn’t say the same for most of her cohort… only five out of one-hundred had passed and she was one of the lucky ones. I’ve never believed in luck. What was I thinking? I couldn’t leave anything up to chance. I had to pass… for her. I moved on to the next questions. 8:00 a.m.
The screen suddenly blackened. The words “5-minute intermission” flashed across the screen. I breathed out a deep sigh of relief and jumped up from my seat. “You may not leave your desk,” said a loud audible voice from an unknown source. The others glared at me; terror and disgust filled their eyes. I sat down, bent over, and rested my head on my crossed arms on my desk. The pain in my lower back intensified and the burning sensation in my eyes deepened, triggering a sharp pain in my forehead. I lifted my head, and I looked up at the clock again. 8:02 a.m. Time was now passing too slowly.
I returned to my previous position and closed my eyes. Her emerald eyes met mine, and she smiled, “I bet you can’t catch me.” With her raven-black hair flowing behind her, Violet ran ahead of me. As I chased after her, turquoise waves crashed gently on the shore beside me. The buzzer sounded jarring me from my dream and announcing that intermission was over. I looked up at the screen and reality set in. I now lived a world where only the physically and mentally fittest were allowed to survive. Those who did not meet the bar were of no use to their superior society of beings that had been bioengineered for centuries. They had cleverly devised a week of testing to physically and mentally exhaust us so that we would never make it to the last day of testing. I made it this far… I had to pass.
Question 87. I had to complete 113 questions within the next fifty-five minutes. My stomach felt as if it had dropped thirty feet. My eyes focused on the screen and I began to work my way through the remaining questions.
8:35 am. I had already read question 140 three times, and it still wasn’t making sense. My eyes blurred and the warmth of sleep tugged at me. I grabbed my bottle of water, chugged some down, and poured some on my head wetting the paper on my desk. I returned to question 140, reread it, selected an answer, and moved on to the next questions.
Question 200 was of the biochemical-immunological nature. Each answer choice was two paragraphs long. I eliminated answers A, B, and D. C and E were the same answer. That couldn’t be. I read the answers again. The only difference between answer C and E was answer E used Interleukin 4 instead of Interleukin 13. Both of these Interleukins have very similar functions. So, was the answer C or E? This was the last question, and I had already missed nine questions. I looked up at the clock. 8:50 a.m. I clicked on E nodule. No, the answer couldn’t be E. The answer to the previous two questions had been E. I clicked the nodule for answer C and read answer C again. I pushed my pencil against the paper on the desk, breaking its tip. There had to be a reason to choose between Interleukin 4 and Interleukin 13. Again, I reread the question. It made reference to the type I receptor. I tried to remember back to five pages of notes where I had mapped out the receptor signaling pathways for a number of important interleukins. But, all I saw in my mind were blank pages. I looked back at the clock. 8:59 a.m. My heart thudded in my chest and, my life flashed before me. I clicked on nodule E and pressed submit. 9:00 a.m.