The digital clock blinks from my desk: I am not pleased with the time. It's not nearly close enough to the end of the day. I sign and lean back in my chair. The door to my office creaks open as my supervisor steps in. Making eye contact, she hands me a list.
“Hannah submitted a request for these names. Please decide if any of them are eligible for swapping.”
I accept the list and straighten a stapler.
She closes the door behind her as she leaves.
I look down at the paper.
Group 93: Jackson, Mason, Avery, Noah.
Too soon. I think. I just finished with the last group a week ago and they are still fresh in my mind.
To control the number of humans in the world, a system was created. Divided into 900 sectors, each sector is assigned 200 names for each gender (400 total). When you are born, you get assigned 1 of these variable names available in your sector. Available meaning no one else has that name. But you can lose your name faster then it’s given. If you age over 80, fall fatally ill, or are disabled, your name will be taken away. If you don’t have a name you aren’t allowed to exist. The names help regulate the number of living people in each sector because they act as a ticket; once the tickets are sold out no more vacant seats. Therefore without a name, you are killed. There are no duplicates. New babies are born, some are eradicated immediately, but enough names are taken often enough for at least 20 names to be open "tickets" each year.
The only exception to this system is money. Those with money to spare can buy any name they want for their children, whether or not it belongs to someone. This is called swapping. However, sometimes the wealthy people want to buy names belonging to people that are not considered “expendable.” As a solution to this problem, they submit four names they want, kind of like a wishlist, and for the right price, they receive the most eligible name.
My job is to decide which name, or rather person, that will be. To do this, I spend two weeks taking notes and studying the listed name owners until I am able to come to a conclusion of who is the least valuable.
I try to remain distant and detached from those I observe in order to get the most accurate results. However, despite that, it always gets complicated.
I stare at the list. An unwelcome, but familiar feeling creeps into my stomach. I feel sick knowing that my decision will end someone’s life.
I dislike my job for obvious reasons, but I stay because the status of my position protects my name from getting bought in the same sales I help make.
To begin the deduction process, I start by entering each name in my computer, reading a short summary of each one’s important characteristics, recording their address of work or school, home, and then making a copy of their profile picture for identification purposes.
Typing in the names, I easily find what I need. It does not make me feel any better.
Jackson is a green-eyed blonde 5th grader. He’s creative and has a passion for soccer. 1243 South.
Mason is in a sophomore in college and pursuing his dream to become an architect. 1244 South.
Avery is 37 and is married to Saddie. Together they have two little kids. 4589 West.
Noah is a 3-year-old, working on potty training. 2235 North.
Even though the person I choose in the end won’t have a choice, my work requires me to notify them (or their guardian) about their situation. In the notice, I tell them their name is being requested for a swap, and that I will be evaluating what they personally contribute to the sector as compared to the others in group 93. I remind them of the guidelines they need to comply with and finally, I wish them good luck.
Tomorrow I will go to the addresses and spend a brief but hopefully informational 10 minutes at each one.
I meet Noah first. He is the farthest away, so my strategy is to work my way back to my office. His Grandmother, Jade, opens the door.
“Hi, I’m Jerod. From the name processing center. I sent a notice yesterday that I would be coming over.”
She nods solemnly and steps aside to let me in.
Another downside to my job is that no one is ever happy to see me. It’s discouraging, but I understand.
“This is Noah.” Jade points to a small boy playing in the living room. “He likes to play with blocks and he’s a very fast learner, He can already count to 10 and sing the alphabet on his own.” She adds.
These kinds of comments are normal. When I am meeting with kids under 18, their parents or loved ones try hard to advertise the child’s best qualities, knowing that is what matters in the end.
I give her a kind smile, acknowledging her words.
She’s right. Noah is cheerful and bright, excited to meet me, showing good social skills. I make a note on my clipboard.
We watch as Noah builds a “tower” and knocks them down. He laughs.
I check my watch and see our visit is running too long. Today is about meeting everyone not about giving a full evaluation of them.
“It was nice to meet you both, thank you for being so welcoming,” I say as I head out the door.
For convenience’s sake, I go to meet Jackson and Mason next. Strangely enough, they are neighbors. Maybe the families are friends.
When I arrive, I am not surprised to see Jackson playing with his soccer ball in the street. He’s good, very good for his age. My eyes follow the ball as it's bouncing on one knee to another.
He stops and waves when he notices me watching. Waving back but feeling slightly guilty, I clear my throat and go past him to knock on the front door.
It’s his turn to stare. It doesn’t appear that he knew I was coming or for what reason. For that I am glad.
When the door flies open not two seconds later, I realize that his parents must have been waiting. They look nervous.
I greet them as I had the Grandmother. They don’t say anything.
Because it’s not my place to uncomfortable, I don’t. I ignore the tension by continuing the conversation.
“Your son, Jackson, he plays soccer. Does he have other interests?”
This time the mother doesn't hesitate to speak up. “Oh, yes. He does all kinds of things. Most of his interests are outside-based but this morning he was helping me cook!”
Jackson’s father cuts in. “He’s also very well-liked, a lot of the kids his age go to him when they need help.”
I frown. Normally these things are great, but being such a seemingly good kid at such a young age only makes it harder for me.
To the parents, I say, “Then it appears that Jackson has great potential for leadership roles. That’s important.”
They beam at each other.
“While I’m here,” I say. “I don't know if your close, but I hear your neighbor Mason is going to college to be an architect. What do you think of him?”
“Oh! Is he on the list too?” The Father looks both surprised and upset. “He’s a really nice boy. Hardworking.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I tell them. “I think I will make my way over there then. It was nice meeting you.”
I can feel their eyes follow my back as I walk over to their neighbor’s doorstep. Uncomfortable, I turn and give them a kurt nod.
With a ring of the doorbell, I find the door open to a tall, lanky young adult. I stretch out my hand for him to shake. He ignores it.
“Hello, you must be Mason.”
“I am. You must be the man who wants my name.” His response is abrupt, cold.
“I don’t want your name, I’m only the middleman. Sorry for the confusion.”
“There has been no confusion. I won’t let you take it because I’m not done with it yet.”
I sigh. The next 2 weeks are going to be difficult. We are still standing in the doorway, it doesn’t seem like he is going to offer to come inside so I begin.
“Mason, you’re smart, top of your class. Do you enjoy literature, math, or science?”
“I like them as much as the next person. What I really love is improving things, making things better.”
“Ah, so that’s why you are studying to be an architect.” I reason.
Mason nods and looks down. I decide it would be better to get to know him more on another day.
“I have one more stop today, have a good day,” I wish him in goodbye.
“That chance has come and gone.” Comes his angry jab at me.
With a tight smile, I leave.
I’ve only met three of them and I’m exhausted. The visits were short, none of them very long, but it is already nearly evening. All I want to do is go home and give up.
My only hope is that Avery makes it easy for me. My decision is less difficult when the person I can choose would not be a great loss to the community. Then again, having a wife and kids might put him in the lead.
To my disappointment, Avery welcomes me into his home with kindness.
He seems to understand my weariness and does his best to put me at ease. He introduces me to his two daughters and his lovely wife, all of whom treat me warmly like I’m a dinner guest and not a threat to their happiness.
His house is cozy and we sit down together at the table. His youngest girl, Amelia, climbs on his lap while we’re talking.
“When I graduated, it was due to a lot of work from myself and the teachers who helped me scrape by. If books smarts are what’s going to protect me, I can’t give you much.”
“While academic success is a major factor, it is not the only aspect I take into consideration," I reply. "I don’t want you to lose, I am your advocate, my purpose is to identify why you are an important name owner and why you should keep it.”
Avery smiles sadly. “I hope that is true. I love my family. I don’t want to leave them. I hate that I have to raise them in a world where their lives can be ruined because someone was allowed to take their name.”
I don’t react to his comment.
Because of my position at the name processing center, I am unable to encourage or engage in negative comments about the name system. If those rules where not in place, I would whole-heartedly agree with what Avery had said. But I cannot speak my mind aloud or else risk losing my job.
After a minute of silence, I take the liberty to leave their house.
Out of respect for the hospitality they had shown me, I wave goodbye.
It was a nice visit and it is disappointing that the circumstances we had to meet were so unfortunate.
I could call a company car to pick me up, but I need to take some time to think about everything that has happened today.
Why is this group so difficult.
I am frustrated and confused. Nothing about this is fair. Right now there are 17 unoccupied names available and I don’t understand why Hannah (the buyer) can’t be happy with one of them. None of the people I met today deserve to lose this competition -the only fitting word for it- They have so much they can still do with their lives, their family and friends love them and need them to be there.
All I have to do is circle one name, explain why I chose them out of the other three, and send it to the name committee. After that, I will never have to deal with any of them and I will be assigned to another group. But like always, the person I choose will be dead and the life they left behind will never be the same.
The next couple of weeks are no more fun than the first day. Every evening I come home tired and upset by the notes I’ve taken. By alternating each of the name-owners on different days throughout the two weeks, I end up spending hours shadowing and making observations. I watch as they go about their daily activities, as they interact with others, I look out for consistent patterns in their behavior and compare it against everyone’s data in the group.
At the end of each week, I am required to look over the information I’ve collected to tally up points. (I think of it as tallying points because that is essentially all it is). So far it is looking bleak.
Noah is smart and friendly. Because he is just a toddler, he still has his whole life in front of him, he could be anyone; unless I take that opportunity away from him.
Jackson is happy, healthy, and surrounded by people who love him. He is forgiving and kind. While his characteristics are common and replaceable, the effect it will have on the community is overwhelming.
Mason was bitter and cold when I first met him, but from heavy observation, I came to see that he is selfless and cares greatly about helping the development and improvement of others and the environment.
Avery has a family. He’s lived a good life. But he has a responsibility to protect his wife and kids and he won’t be able to do that if he losses his name.
It is truly a difficult situation.
By 8 am on Monday, I need to have selected the name most eligible name for swapping. To close my interaction with group 93, I send a notice (it’s way too messy to do it in person) that tells the name-owner that their name was chosen and that they will be collected for eradication within the hour. It is not a task I am not looking forward to doing. I can only imagine the despair and fear they will feel to receive the news. I also separately notify the three others to let them know they are safe.
The weekend blows by. I spend most of it avoiding my job, putting it off till the last minute. Every time any thought about it comes into my mind, I push it aside and distract myself with other matters.
Finally, I have no other choice. I sit down and get to work.
On Sunday night at 12:09 am, before I go to bed, I make my decision.
I get up early to make my selection official and submit it to the name processing center. I barely feel anything as I circle the type the name in the form.
I write: after much hard thought, I have concluded this name to be the most eligible for selection. Their contribution to the sector is the least, but they will nevertheless be grieved.
The digital clock on my desk blinks up at me. Time is dragging by; it feels like fifteen, but it’s only been a minute since I last checked.
My supervisor opens the door. She silently places a slip of paper on my desk. A new list of names. I pick it up and sign. Pinching the bridge of my nose fails to release the pressure behind my eyes.
I’m used to this routine, but it is tiring.
By now the name-owner I chose last weekend no longer exists; or rather the person is gone but the name has been swapped to another.
I need to get out of my office, go for a walk to clear my mind.
In my cool office, my body forgot it’s afternoon. The sun glares down on my black suit, making me uncomfortably warm. I look at my shoes which are also black.
I start walking to the park down the block, looking forward to sitting on the grass there.
I don't make it far.
I look up into the eyes of a dead boy.
Or at least I had thought he was dead. But there he is, right in front of me on the street.
By his side were two officials, holding his skinny arms like he was trying to get away.
“What is this?” I ask.
“He ran and hid. We couldn’t find him until this morning when he turned himself in.” The taller of the officials said to me.
Jackson looks into my eyes and smiles. What he says, punches me in the gut.
“Thank you for trying. I know you wanted to help. My parents say you did your best.”
This is wrong. It’s sick. I can’t allow them to take this little boy’s name.
I kick the tall official in the shin and wrench Jackson’s wrist out of the other grasp. Taken by surprise, the officials don’t know how to react. They pause for a moment. A moment long enough for the boy and I take off running…
That’s what I would have done if I was brave. Instead, I stand there, unmoving, as Jackson is dragged away.
It’s too hot outside. I turn away and head back to my office.