I can't stop my hands from shaking. Hell, my entire body has been quaking for the last nine months, give or take. And the sour taste of bile rising in my mouth daily makes me want to vomit. The never-ending stress of this whole fucking thing will kill me before anything else does. I look at my face in the bathroom mirror, and I seem to have aged a lifetime in a few short months. How is that possible?
I chose this Option, willingly. Foolishly. I chose to live a privileged version of a life I've never had instead of going to prison for twenty-to-life. At least twenty years of my already wasted life potentially rotting in a six by eight concrete cell before my parole date even rolls around. No thanks. The putrid ammonia odor from urine is permanently seared into my nasal passages from my last stint seven years back. Never again, I swore to myself. I was going straight, leave my old ways behind. That never happened, so here I am.
I consider myself a weak, pathetic specimen of flesh, with no trace of moral character now. Not a man who is living his life, but merely waiting to die. Wanting to die actually. You know what they say, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." Every night I replay my sentencing hearing over and over again like a bad movie on repeat. The pompous Judge, his black robe, and his tortoiseshell glasses outdated by a hundred years or more, but well suited to his face, looks down at me. His thinning grey hair greasy and matted down to his scalp.
"You have been shackled in front of me before, haven't you, Mr. Lewiston, more than once? Two previous times according to your docket, once for armed robbery, and once for carjacking. For this third and final crime, you have been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Given your continued disregard for the laws of United Countries of North America, you are now eligible for our enhanced program of reformation. You will be given two Options here today, on this 3rd of March, 2171."
He took a deep, slow wheezy breath, and gave a long glance at the lookie-loo vultures in assemblage at today's proceedings. Then in a booming voice, he began again.
"Option Number One will include your incarceration for a minimum of twenty years with a maximum sentence of life. After twenty years, you will come before me again for the only parole hearing you will ever receive. There are no guarantees, Mr. Lewiston, of being approved for parole given your repeated penchant for crimes against others, no matter how good your prison behavior may be. Here are the terms.
You will be issued a finite amount of credits each month to spend in the prison commissary. You will only be allowed out of your cell for a period of thirty minutes each week. And finally, you will not be allowed visitors for the duration of your confinement.
I'm sure you've heard of these conditions before, correct?"
I nodded. Yes I was well aware of these conditions. You yourself warned me of them the very last time I stood here before you. "Yes, your Honor, I am aware."
The degenerates in attendance glared down at me from above, their eyes bursting with excitement.
"Option Number Two will include lifelong membership in the Gentlemen's Club. The rules are simple.
You will enjoy a life of luxury from this day forward as a free man, free of charge to you. A furnished apartment is ready for your occupancy in Skytop Towers. Your wardrobe will be provided. Unlimited credits will be issued to your All Access Body Chip. You will be free to travel and live your life as an elite member of society.
The only condition is that you meet with all club members once a year at their arena headquarters, on the 31st of December at midnight."
He smiled a devious grin, his teeth crooked and yellowed from age, looked even more revolting than they had before. "I'm sure you know how the club works, right?"
Once again I nodded. "Yes, I do your Honor."
He chuckled, as did the drooling masses. "You have thirty seconds to choose."
If only they gave the guilty at least a minute to think. Think clearly about the whole fucking thing. Thirty seconds isn't long enough to choose what toppings you want on your cheeseburger from Dirty Dave's for fuck's sake. My ears were ringing from all the voices echoing throughout the court, bouncing off the glass walls like supersonic dodgeballs I couldn't duck to escape. And the massive crowds outside, their faces pressed against the glass, were salivating like dogs waiting for a bone. At the same time, I watched the colossal clock behind the judge tick away my time down to zero. Eighteen, seventeen, sixteen. The chime made my teeth rattle it was so loud. My thirty seconds gone in what felt like the blink of an eye.
"Well, Mr. Lewiston, what Option will you choose?" The judge's lips curled up into a grin befitting Scrooge, while his left eyebrow arched upward.
The thousands of spectators egging me on from each of the three balconies were rabid by now since I was the eleventh convict to come before them. "Take it! Take it!" they shouted, erupting in euphoric cheers the second I uttered the words, "Your Honor, I choose Option Two."
The Gentlemen's Club was indeed a club by all standards. Membership was not open to the general public. And not the type of club I would ever consider joining under any circumstances, but yet here I am. And yes, myself and everyone else in the world knew how it worked. It's been in existence for fifty-seven years. Its numbers swelling every day, and shrinking every night at midnight on the 31st of December.
Mr. Huntley was the oldest surviving member, and he welcomed me with open arms on my first day. "I admire those who chose Option Two," he said as he shook my hand firmly. "I am always thrilled to welcome a new member into our folds. I've been here for almost twelve years now. Seems absolutely extraordinary to me. New faces always remind us of how lucky we truly are. Well, how lucky we will be on the 31st of December if all goes well."
Juries were a thing of the past now, and had been for decades. The Judge was the sole person to decide your guilt since innocence was rare these days, and you alone decided your sentence. I had enjoyed the Club in the first few months. Who wouldn't? I was treated like a fucking God. Everything I ever wanted, desired, or needed at the ready. My personal servant Bernard was at my beck and call day or night. I didn't have to work or lift a finger. I pranced around like a peacock in full bloom. But each night, the gnawing would begin until finally it reached a fevered pace and chewed at my insides day in and day out. The 31st of December was approaching, and nothing I did would stop it.
The nation would tune in to watch the names as they were randomly selected. They would cheer louder with each name as if these men were winning some grand prize. The ones who's names were called were absolutely the lucky ones. They no longer had to live with the stress for an entire year.
They got to leave. Permanently.
I grabbed onto the edge of the cold marble bathroom counter to steady myself as I stared into the mirror. Nine months and a handful of days had transformed me. My reflection was not a person I recognized at all. For better, and worse. I need to leave, or I'll be late. I'm dressed impeccably in my designer suit, shirt, and tie. My handmade leather shoes are polished to a high sheen. My dark hair styled so that every strand looks as if it were placed individually. I look devastatingly handsome, like the centuries old iconic images of Cary Grant that I've seen.
The Gentlemen's Club currently has one-hundred and fifteen members. There's a formula to calculate how many will be leaving the ranks—a percentage of some sort. No one knows until tonight how many exactly, it changes with each passing year.
I can't catch my breath as I enter headquarters. My head throbs and spins and my stomach lurches. It's my first visit, and possibly my last at the same time. I secretly pray it will be my last.
You see, this elite Gentlemen's Club executes some of its members every year on this very night, beginning promptly at midnight. With a click of a button, you are vaporized when he activates the kill mode on your All Access Body Chip. This life is the sentence I chose willingly. I could have hunkered down for the rest of my life and stayed alive. But what life would I have had? I mean, what the fuck kind of life would I have had behind bars? None. Just merely an existence. But Option Two allowed me to live. Live a life I could never have lived. I finally took a breath as I took my seat. I chose this. I knew the risks. Every man here knew the risks, but yet we still chose this. Willingly.
The meeting is called to order by the Judge. His black robe is dressier tonight, more elegant. His teeth are the same putrid yellow. And his smile even more insidious since he's the one pressing your death button. He utters a few worthless remarks to titillate the already frenzied crowd of one-hundred thousand plus, and it begins. Millions upon millions more are glued to their portal view boxes at home to watch tonights events. I used to be one of those people. And popcorn sales this year for the kiddies topped last year's. The thought of that nauseates me even more.
When your name is announced you are the solitary center of attention. The crowd drowns out any anguished cry should it escape your lips. One by one, they rise when their name is called, some rock steady, others stumbling. The rules stipulate you must ascend to the center of the arena unassisted. Alone, they slowly step up onto the stage, surrounded by a large circle of chairs, four rows deep, in this vast arena headquarters. The massive spotlights shine down upon the single life of the chosen one, as the cameras move in for an up-close shot of his face. Every emotion captured live. Every bead of sweat. Every tear and flex of the jaw. Some are hunched over, some are standing tall. The crowd is wildly intoxicated with jubilant screams. And then the Judge's barbaric smile splays across his wrinkled face as he presses the button.
One by one, they are turned to dust. Particles of what's left of their bodies float through the air upon vaporization, glistening like stars on a clear winters eve, eventually settling on the shoulders and laps of those men in the first circle of chairs. A surreal dusting of what was once a life. I am in the first circle of chairs since I am a new member. I slowly brush off my pants, all the while keeping my head upright, my eyes focused on the Judge for the next name.
One last name has yet to be announced. I can't breathe, and I'm drenched with sweat as my body quivers. My mind is almost willing it to be me. Then it will be over. No more gnawing gut pains. No more anxiety. No more anything.
The Judge calls out the last name. The crowd is beyond deafening. My upper lip flinches ever so slightly as I inhale through flared nostrils. I stand shakily, the reality setting in, alongside every remaining man, as we all stand as a tribute to the last man to be executed. We watch his final walk.
I think I'll celebrate with a cheeseburger from Dirty Dave's for fuck's sake. And I'll take my sweet old time choosing my toppings tonight. The living men are patting each other on the back in celebration. The crowd starts yelling, "Happy New Life!"
My New Year's resolution will be to live this life to the fullest for the next twelve months without fear of what may come. Because I know it may be the last twelve months I may have. This unusual resolution seems fitting given the Option I chose. Especially since I'll be back next year on the 31st of December at midnight for another gathering of The Gentlemen's Club.