“You have to do it.” He tells me as he brings a cigarette to his dry yet still pink lips. He draws a breath, slowly inhaling the smoke, and then exhales it through his nose.
“I know,” I sign, “I just don’t understand why he wants me to do it.”
“He is known to have odd requests. I don’t know, but it would be suspicious if this happened in any other way. We don’t want to test him.” He says with frustration hugging his words.
Many words enter my head about how stupid this whole way of running a society is and how angry I am about it, but none of them leave my mouth. It would be useless to repeat them at this point. Everyone has a distaste for Mr. Goose. He sends out messages to one person in every family each summer. The message comes in a beautifully hand-crafted envelope; there are rumors that they are sealed and stamped with the blood of those who have failed to complete the missions.
If the chosen person fails to do the task or refuses to complete it, their family is killed almost immediately. I’ve seen it happen to neighbors and family friends. Usually, one of the older people is chosen for the mission, but this time around, Mr. Goose has chosen people from nearly every age category.
My boyfriend, Ezra, and I flew out of the city of Bunt a few days ago and have been staying at a nearby motel, watching the days pass as it got closer to the first day of Spring.
It makes sense that he is frustrated by this. We have been on edge for days, dreading the first day of spring.
I gently wrap my lips around the cigarette and take a big draw, praying that the instant gratification from the nicotine will give me such a big head high that it makes me float away. But that is just my need to avoid confronting my problems. I pass the cigarette back to Ezra.
I take the crumpled note out of my back pocket and run my eyes over it again.
Come to the abandoned middle school in the city of Bunt on the first day of Spring. Meet at 2 pm in the parking lot. Come alone.
Ezra looks at his brown vintage watch, and my eyes follow his.
“It’s almost time.” He says anxiously. He finishes the cigarette and stomps it out on the newly paved asphalt. I hug him goodbye, and he holds me tightly for a few seconds; it almost feels as if he isn’t expecting to see me again. It feels like a final goodbye.
I don’t doubt his emotion and hug him back as though this is our final goodbye. People rarely make it out of these missions alive, so almost half of those tasked either don’t complete it or try going into hiding or running away. It never works. He gets into his car and drives away, leaving me standing there alone in the parking lot.
The knowledge that a member of every family has been tasked with a similar mysterious request gives me some level of comfort. At least I’m not completely alone in this.
As soon as the hand on my clock shows me that it’s 2:00 P.M, a man in a suit appears from the middle school and walks up to me slowly. I stare at him with dread, not knowing what will happen next.
Once he is in front of me, he brings out a white piece of cloth and an unmarked bottle and then douses the fabric with the liquid. Once he is finished, he holds the cloth out and says, “Breathe into the towel.”
I freeze for a moment, every cell in my body wanting to run away, telling me not to follow this strange man’s instructions.
But I know that I have to do it, so I swallow the alarms that are going off in my head that are telling me to run from the situation and force my nose into the towel, inhaling deeply.
My vision is quickly consumed by black spots, and my body goes limp.
I wake up in a haze and slowly open my eyes. I jump a little when I realize that my surroundings are not familiar but then the memories of what happened before I lost consciousness flood back into my head. I remember what I am doing and felt the dread and anxiety settle into my gut again.
I am seated in a beige chair in an empty classroom. The windows have black garbage bags taped around them, but the door to the classroom is open. I am seated in the middle of one of the rows of empty desks, right at the center of the room. On the desk in front of me lies a basket filled with what looks like candies with a note in front of it.
I pick up the note and read the instructions:
Eat one of the candies.
That’s it? I just have to eat one of the candies.
The basket is filled with identical candies. All of them are small, and all of them are wrapped in the same way. I take one of the candies that sit at the top of the basket.
My fingers move delicately across the pink opaque wrapper, twisting at both sides and unraveling a perfect cut-out heart-shaped candy drop. The wrapper glistens, a view similar to observing the northern lights show while wearing rose-tinted glasses.
I pluck the candy out of its beautiful, crinkly envelope and delicately plop it into my mouth. The first impression of the wonderful strawberry delight quickly turns into a lasting memory. A sigh leaves my lips. Bliss.
As the candy settles, it begins to melt, engulfing itself in my warm saliva. I appreciate the candy slowly, with my eyes closed and the powerful, artificial taste of strawberry singing the siren’s song in my mouth.
The candy sits on the center of my tongue, looking up at the textured roof of my mouth, sitting there in complete darkness. So much darkness that she isn’t even able to appreciate the pink and red beauty of the room that she is so blindly entrapped in.
Once it gets a little tiring, a little less exciting, I swoosh the heart from the center of my tongue and in between the clasps of my back teeth. As I bite into the now soft, hard candy, I open my eyes and look at the wrapper that is still held tight between my rigid, unmoving fingers, spread open as it was when I first began enjoying this candy.
My eyes slowly move across the message that is imprinted at the center of the wrapper.
Without hesitation, I twist my body in the chair as I stand up and immediately throw myself into a sprint. I can feel the rush of energy burst through my body from the sudden, drastic shift in movement. My body tries to keep up with the demands that my brain is making, rapidly pumping blood to my legs as alarms go off in my head, my mortal parts going into panic mode. I am trying to pick up as much speed as I can.
As I was running, I could feel my throat and cheeks begin to swell up. A reaction that is similar to when I eat strawberries, as I am severely allergic to them. My brain panics, and I immediately want to stop running as soon as I realize that I have probably just consumed a candy that was created from real strawberries. It wasn’t artificial; it was real. The swelling and itching in my mouth and throat make it extremely hard to breathe as I run, and it feels like my head will explode.
My run has now been reduced to what can be barely considered a jog as I wheeze and try to get as much oxygen as I am able to into my lungs. My legs are on fire from running through hallways that look identical. I feel like an experiment mouse in a maze.
At the end of the hallway, I see a small object on the floor. I am barely jogging anymore as I get closer to the object, and it feels as though my lungs are about to give out. It’s hard to focus on what I’m seeing as my reaction is getting worse, but as I focus my attention on the object that’s on the floor, realization hits me.
I pushed my jog into a sprint because my life depended on it. As soon as I’m close enough, I immediately fall to the floor, grab the pen, roll up my right pant leg and inject the EpiPen into my thigh.