“I’m so sorry, your father passed away a few minutes ago,” I say. Immediately, the woman breaks down in sobs. I sigh, my face devoid of any emotion. I’ve done this way too many times. Enough that my own mother’s passing did not stir me at all. It’s unfortunate. Just imagine going to your mother’s funeral and not feeling anything. Staring with a blank face into the coffin of the person who raised you. Sometimes I wish I’d have gotten tagged as a teacher, or engineer, or even just a regular doctor. But no, I am a nurse. A nurse whose job is to watch people die and then tell their families. I have no one to thank for that but myself.
Growing up, I didn’t know what specifically I’d do as a nurse. I was happy because it meant helping people. That was what my mother told me. But being a nurse in her time was much different than how it is now. It all changed after the dreadful pandemic of 2020.
Nobody was prepared for that year. They had plans for earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and fires, but no plan for a pandemic as deadly as this. So when a vaccine was finally created, and coronavirus was cured, people started to realize something. A pandemic like this could happen again and they needed to be prepared. Many businesses had gone bankrupt in 2020, and a lot of people were laid off. The number of homeless people had gone up drastically. So after a while, the government came up with a solution called tagging. Your DNA and your brain is altered so that you serve a certain role in the community. Tagging can affect your job, whether you get married or have kids, and how much money you make. My parents were born in 2060 when these changes had just started to set in, so they had it much easier. Anyway, tagging ensures that every business has enough people to work for them, and makes sure nobody is homeless. It’s almost perfect. There are only three scenarios where something could go wrong.
The first way is you can get tagged as a beta tester for the government. A beta tester’s job is to test out all the new technology and medicine that is created. Often, this doesn’t end well, at least for people from poorer zones. The government treats it as an honor. To be tagged as a beta tester is just a way to say, “You’re going to die now.” I live in Zone X, one of the poorest there is. People from richer zones are more likely to stay alive as beta testers, or just in general, because they’ve probably never been hungry a day in their lives, and because they are usually exposed to much safer medicines and technology.
The second thing you could do is try to escape your zone, or disobey the government. In Aldwynne’s 54 years of existence, only two people have ever successfully escaped. The first was a 73-year-old man named Robert Green. After months of searching for him, the authorities finally realized it was hopeless. The government tried to keep his escape a secret, but everyone found out eventually. Word travels fast in Aldwynne. After this, a lot of people tried to escape, thinking if a senior citizen could do it, why couldn’t they? 27 people were caught and killed by the police as they tried to escape. These 27 were mostly from poorer districts because obviously, life in rich districts was much better. After this happened, no one tried to escape for another 30 years. Until Coral Jackson.
Coral was only 23 when she escaped. She was an inspiration to everyone. She had a heart of gold, and everyone loved her. She had been tagged as a banker, something she never wanted to do for a living. In Aldwynne, you are required to start working for whatever business you were tagged for between the ages of 18 and 22. Coral had been raised in her mother’s bakery and wanted to do nothing more than spend her days there. So she ignored her tag. In late September, a few weeks before her 23rd birthday, Coral received a letter from the government, reminding her that she had to start working before her birthday. She was devastated of course, but she knew it was her duty. However, later that week, she was informed that her job would require her to move to Zone R, which was very far from Zone U, where she lived. Coral refused to do so, saying she could not leave her family. And by this time, the government had had enough. Coral knew they were coming for her. The government hated people like her. People who challenged their methods. The government knew how much the people of Zone U loved her, and they knew that if they let this go far enough, there might be a rebellion.
On October 18th, Coral set out with only her willpower and a few pastries from the bakery. She was never caught, and she remains a hero to Zone U especially. Now, for all we know, she could be in a different region, from Feyurea to Spezania. Or perhaps she’s dead now. We have no way of knowing.
And finally, the 3rd way is you can disobey the tag completely. This is actually not the same as running away. After Coral’s escape, the government made it nearly impossible to run. You were bound to your job. But once in a while, there is one special person who cracks the code. Except they usually don’t try to run away. They try to start a rebellion. I know of only one person who has tried this, and he was my best friend.
His name was Kai Matthews. He was just like Coral, reckless, and kind-hearted. Too reckless, maybe. And the last thing he wanted to do was let the government boss him around. His willpower was all he needed to crack the code. He taught himself that being a car mechanic was not what he wanted to do in life. Kai wanted to create art. I’d seen his art. It was breathtaking. But not in the way Michelangelo’s art is breathtaking. Kai’s paintings were amazing on a completely different level. He did a lot of abstract art. And you may look at abstract paintings in an art museum and think about what they may represent. But when you look at one of Kais pieces, they feel strangely familiar. It’s a weird sensation, very difficult to explain. I guess the best way to put it is you feel at home. You feel safe. And when he’s not painting abstract, his paintings are about life before the regions. When the USA was a thing. We’ve learned about it at school. Unfortunately, Kai’s not around to share any more of his work. He was taken by the government after he did something no one could have ever imagined.
I met Kai when we were in 1st grade. Over the years, he was the only person who supported me. He was my best friend. One day when we were both 12 years old, Kai had said to me, “Hazel, I don’t want to be a car mechanic.” This was the first time we’d ever discussed our tags, and it caught me off guard. I had replied, “Well, you have to.” without thinking about it much. We didn’t speak of this again for three years. That’s when Kai started to become rebellious. I worried about him, as this could be a very dangerous thing for both of our families. I tried to convince myself that it was just a phase, that all teens were a bit reckless. But Kai was special. As I mentioned, after Coral escaped, the government made it impossible to disobey your tag. They made you like your job. It’s like you’re in a trance. But Kai was special. When he was tagged, there must have been some issue, because for as long as I can remember, he never seemed like the rest of us. It always felt like he was more down to earth. I never understood this, until one day, on my 24th birthday, I went down to the car mechanic shop to celebrate with Kai and didn’t find him there. I went back to his house, thinking that perhaps he was on lunch break, like me. As I got to the front door, I found Kai’s house keys sitting on the welcome mat. This was very strange. Kai always paid attention to detail, he would never leave his keys right in front of his house. I took this as a sign. Slowly, I opened the door and stepped inside. Kai was nowhere to be seen. I searched the entire house, but when I got to his bedroom, I found a note on the bedside table. It was addressed to me. The note said,
I’m sorry I couldn’t stay to celebrate your birthday, but I had to go. I cannot stay here in a place where I am not free to follow my dreams. I am no car mechanic. I am an artist. And you are no nurse. Do you see what they are doing to us? Forcing us to do these things that don’t make us happy. You’ve been so withdrawn and boring lately. I want to travel to all the zones, helping people find their true calling. I want to end this tyranny. I will be waiting by Leah’s bakery until 4 pm if you decide to join me. If not, then I will miss you, Hazel. Tell my family I will miss them too.
Your Best Friend,
After this, I cried for days in my house, barely eating. Kai was all I had, and now I’d lost him. But along with this grief came another feeling. For once, I didn’t feel happy being a nurse. I didn’t like my tag. Unlike Kai, I didn’t have enough courage to stand up to the government, but I realized this was not what I wanted to do.
It was a few years before I saw him again. I had just gotten home from work when I heard a knock on the door. This surprised me, since no one, not even my own family wanted to visit me anymore. When I opened the door, he was there. I stood in shock for about 5 minutes before I gave him a big hug and cried into his shoulder. We spent the rest of the evening catching up, and he told me about what he’d been doing the last 3 years. Thanks to him, almost everyone wanted to follow their dreams. He’d traveled to all the zones helping people, and now he was home. Just as Kai was about to leave to visit his family, we heard pounding on the door. Within 5 seconds, police had broken down the door and swarmed in, grabbing Kai’s arms and dragging him away. The whole thing only lasted about 30 seconds but it felt like hours. The next day, Kai was on the news. The government had killed him. After that, I cried the entire night. I didn’t even bother going to work for a week. Finally, I got a letter telling me there would be repercussions if I didn’t go to work. I ignored the letter and stayed home. A few days later I was arrested and brought to the police station for 3 months of jail.
After I got out of jail, I realized something. Now that Kai was gone, I would never be free. I’d be a nurse my entire life. Same for the other people of our Zone. Aldwynne would always be the same corrupted place it was now. What would Kai say if he were here? Probably something like, “Hazel, I’m not always going to be there for you. Take my place and make a change.” I couldn’t imagine myself ever having enough courage to do what Kai did. But if I could start a rebellion big enough, I might just have a chance.