I can hear my heartbeat.
My knees are pressed up to my chest, my eyes squeezed shut. The celebratory drum beats outside sound like a funeral march, the fake paper mache rocket they’ve set up on the stage is a pyre.
I cover my ears, drowning out the laughter and the buzz of excitement and fear that’s everywhere.
I can hear my breathing - erratic and quick and too loud, loud enough for them to hear. My heartbeat is the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings - unsteady and unpredictable, and it’s the gongs they sound to draw everyone out of their houses and into the square where they announce it - booming and inescapable.
My mother once said that it would be better to die than to go up onto that stage and board the ship. She gave me and my brother a bottle of sleeping medicine (any sort of poison or weapons were illegal and heavily monitored) and instructed me to take all of it if I got called up.
My brother got called up first.
They took my bottle away after that, and then they took me away from my mother. I’m not sure whether to envy my brother, secure and untouchable in his death, or to mourn him for his life that was cut short, or to hate him for leaving me.
I decide to envy him.
If - when - I get called up, I won’t have insurance. I’ll only have this spot, tucked out of the way, hidden from everyone and everything.
They said that you could find a new frontier, opportunities, a chance to start again, on the moon. At first, people were eager to go. My father was one of the ones who left willingly. And then the disappearances started, though it was only a few people at first. People started to talk about the things that came out when the lights were out and snatched you away if you weren’t inside. They all came back of course, but they weren’t the same.
The government said they’d been through a shock, that they would get better. They did not. People started to call it star sickness. They didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, just sit out and stare at the sky. Most of them withered away and died. Some of them left the protective bubble of oxygen and warmth around the colony. People said that they saw them, wandering around through the silver dunes, features distorted, smiles plastered to their faces and eyes huge and empty and full of the reflections of stars and shadows. The government said it was fake, a hoax.
People started to beg to come back. My dad sent letters to the government, to my mother, to whoever he could, pleading to go back to Earth. But they needed more people, especially now that the majority of the colony was dead or lost.
So they sent more people. They liked to send whole families, picking them off one by one. If they left some family members, they could protest, get their brothers and sisters and parents back. Once you were safely tucked away on the moon, you had no say in anything.
My father was first. My brother was next. Now it’s my turn.
On the day before the announcements, my friends and neighbors distanced themselves from me, as if the Lunar Colonies were some contagious disease that they could catch if they stayed too close to me.
Now, I curl myself into a tighter ball, trying to drown out everything.
I can hear my breathing, and I force it to slow down.
The sound of a crowd clamoring forward, wondering who has been picked this year.
There is apprehensiveness and excitement and anticipation floating on the air. I hear someone clear their throat, and the crowd goes quiet. The silence is pregnant, full of hope and bitterness and prayers and fear.
“This year, the subject that will go join our Lunar Colonies is . . .”
I stiffen when my name is called, though I expected it. They will not find me. I will be fine. I can hide until the rocket leaves. I will be okay.
Except I won’t.
“Alex, will you please come to the stage?”
I’ve uncurled slightly to better hear the name that she calls. It’s a fatal mistake. I see people looking around, and my eyes meet someone else’s, someone in the crowd.
I beg them silently. Please don’t give me away.
But it’s too late. They’re pointing at me, and there are hands pulling me out of my hiding place, pushing me to the front, onto the stage, next to the woman who will lead me to my death, who smiles at me.
I glance at the paper mache rocket they’ve placed on the stage to give it a more “festive” air. This will be the pyre I burn on. I have no medicine, no hiding places.
“Alex, if you could come with me,” the woman says, extending a hand to me. I take it, and I know that I have just tightened the noose around my neck.
She leads me away. The crowd has begun to disperse. My execution will not be a public one. I will slip softly, unnoticed, unmourned, from this life to the next. Perhaps I will die before my body does. Perhaps I will become one of the people that wanders the moon long after my death. Perhaps my features will melt like wax until I’m unrecognizable.
I’m dimly aware that they’re helping me into a suit, and then I’m in the rocket. I’m aware of a count down. I’m aware of my breathing.
I can hear my heartbeat. I wonder how long it will last. I wonder how many people on the moon are still alive. I wonder how long I will survive there. I realize with a pang of sadness and fear that I don’t want to die. Even though I always knew I would get called and led to my death, I have clung to life, enjoyed it.
It still doesn’t seem real to me.
I try not to think.
I listen to my heartbeat.
In a few months it might stop, but for now it is a drum beat inside me, a constant, the last thing I have to hold onto. I am adrift in an ocean of stars. I am lost. I am aimless.
I can hear my heartbeat.