I take a deep breath and stare at the small pill in my hand. It's a gift from my friend Ade, who says it'll turn me invisible for 3 hours. I've been instructed to only use it on Ascension day, to slip in unnoticed.
Oh wait, I can see you're frowning, reader. Don't you know what Ascension day is? I apologise, I didn't know things are done differently where you're from.
Ascension day is the day after children finish their education. They all convene at Ascension Tower, where they are given careers to secure their livelihoods with.
Seems simple enough, right? Well it has a sinister side, a slimy underbelly I'm intent upon exposing. All my friends who have gone to Ascension Tower have come back kind of...boring. Like their spark has fizzled out. They talk about taxes and politics when we used to talk about books and travelling. So naturally, I'm wary.
But this pill changes things. I steady my hand and take another deep breath, before swallowing it and snapping my head back for good measure. I don't feel any different. Maybe it only works on a full stomach.
Suddenly, my body erupts in hot itches, like a thousand tiny mosquitoes feasting on my flesh. I yell and start scratching everywhere, but the itching subsides are fast as it had come. I raise a hand to my face and see...nothing.
This is so cool- I'm invisible. I wave my arms around for a bit and giggle to myself secretively. Okay, I have 3 hours to see what goes down at Ascension Tower, and I mustn't waste a moment.
My bus approaches the stop for Ascension Tower, a tall black cylindrical beast looming in the background.
There's a queue of boys and girls, all jostling for front place, as people are admitted one by one through a black gate.
I slip passed the guards and follow a group of girls into a room, where lots of people have sat down. A portly man waddles in and clears his voice before speaking into a microphone.
'Hello all, thank you for coming to the 189th Ascension Day. Today you enter the world of work, where you'll be able to make a difference and fulfil your dreams!'
There's a smattering of applause, but I feel uneasy. That spiel sounds too rehearsed, and he didn't smile when he said the word dreams. And, most importantly, what really sets me on edge is the fact he's a fucking grown-up.
'Please all take a Bauble from the plastic trays going round, do not crack them!' the man says, raising his voice around the hubbub.
I stealthily tiptoe to the front of the room, feeling paranoid when anyone even looks in my direction.
I observe the tray of Baubles and very nearly pick one up, stopping at the last moment. A floating Bauble might very well blow my cover. The Baubles are made of clear glass, a little larger than tennis balls. They're perfectly sealed and polished.
'Okay, I think you all have Baubles now' the man yells, casting an eye around the room, 'yes, that's everyone. Very good. Now, under your seats there's a small bottle of Drizzaloo, please hold it up so I can ensure everyone has one.'
Before long, everyone in the room is proudly holding up a small bottle of aquamarine coloured liquid. It looks like mouthwash to me, but I withhold judgement and lean casually by the table at the front of the room. I'm beginning to enjoy observing this show- they're all so excited over something they have no idea about.
'Fantastic, you've all got your bottles. Minesha here can keep her job!' the portly man jokes, as the woman beside him smiles uncomfortably and looks down.
I grit my teeth. He just made a grownup joke. He's evidently made it hundreds of times before, because I saw some ever so subtle eye-rolling from Minesha.
'Now, please listen intently,' the portly man says, putting his hands together as if in prayer. No...it's not as if in prayer. He's scheming.
'Drizaloo is a formula the team here have perfected- it's harmless and has been tested thoroughly. All it does is extract the essence of your character, so we can take a better look at your dreams and hopes. All you do is gargle the Drizaloo and then spit it onto your Bauble. Your Bauble will then reflect all your dreams and hopes, clear as day! Saves all those boring interview stages. Now we can take one look at your Bauble and ensure you find the perfect job!'
There's an uneasy silence.
'97.8% of people who have used their Bauble to find a job have said they've never been happier, so I assure you it's just the first step in what I'm sure will be glittering careers!'
I feel like shouting out, because he's just used a number to measure happiness, which is crap. I'm still trying to get my head around the whole concept- so everyone gargles the Drizaloo, spit it onto their Bauble and it then shows their inner-most dreams and hopes? I'll believe it when I see it.
'Please proceed to gargle and spit, we don't have much time until the next cohort,' the portly man urges.
Slowly but surely, the teenagers uncork their bottles of Drizaloo and down them, gargling for a few moments before spitting it onto their Baubles . I crane my neck to get a closer look and see a young Asian girl spit out the Drizaloo onto her Bauble. I stare in fascination as colourful shapes start swirling inside of it- there must be hundreds of beautiful shades dancing within it.
'Wow...' I whisper.
She turns around suddenly and looks straight at me, before turning back to her Bauble. It shows colourful shapes of horses, which morph into a couple dancing, then a pen, followed by a small plane and finally the Eiffel Tower. She certainly has a lot of dreams in her heart.
'Excellent, you've all done a superb job of activating your Baubles!' the portly man says. 'Now when you're ready, please follow me through to the room of metamorphosis where you'll be given your new careers!'
My stomach turns as everyone stands up and excitedly makes their way towards the door, all holding their Baubles up proudly. I see a rainbow of colours in every Bauble, which change shape effortlessly.
At the door, the portly man instructs everyone to make a queue. 'Only one at a time, it's a delicate process!' he yells, 'now young lady, looks like you're first!' he beams.
It's the Asian girl I was observing earlier. Her hair is jet black and curly, she has grey eyes and she wears colourful rings of all different shapes and sizes.
'Follow me, my dear,' he says, ushering her through the door.
I slip into the room with her, accidentally treading on someone's foot on the way.
Inside, there's a huge machine, a contraption so large that it snakes across the entire room, with pulleys and dials dotted around it. It's noisy and metallic, with steam escaping from some of the pipes.
The girl wrings her fingers nervously, her cardigan weighed down on one side by the Bauble in her pocket, which is glowing brightly through the fabric.
'How's it going today, mate?' A bodiless voice says, echoing around the room. 'Wanna strangle any of the little shits yet?'
The portly man rolls his eyes and sits down. 'Swings and roundabouts Boj, I'll be eligible for a pension review soon enough.'
I frown as he undoes his tie and takes off his jacket. 'Boj, over to you mate.' he says in a coarse voice.
A tall skeletal man emerges from the shadows and leans against the machine, staring at the young girl.
'What's your name?'
'Fizz...my friends just call me Fizz.'
'Well, Fizz, are you ready to find a job that fulfils all the dreams and hopes in that Bauble?'
Fizz smiles and nods her head eagerly.
'Then give me that Bauble and we'll make it happen!'
Fizz takes out her Bauble and hesitates. 'I'd rather hold onto it, if that's okay? It's very personal...I mean, it's all my dreams and hopes...'
Boj stares at her for a moment. 'Dangerous stuff it is, indeed. What do you like getting for Christmas, Fizz?'
Fizz smiles and bites her lip. 'Ohhh that's such a tough one! Well, I love candles and visits from family, and handmade stuff that has a weird vibe to it, like these rings I wear!', she says, holding up her left hand, 'the two red ones thrum when you clang them together!'
'Fizz, if you want to survive in the real world, you're going to have to make some changes. Give me the Bauble, or we can't give you a career, I'm afraid.' Boj says seriously.
Fizz frowns and shakes her head, 'I just...it's really personal to me, I thought you'd just take a look at it whilst I held it...'
'Give us the Bauble in the next 10 seconds, or you'll never have a career.' Boj sneers, pointing his bony finger at her.
I feel like punching Boj in the face, but I know that won't do any good.
'Um, gosh well okay...I guess I do want a job and I have been told it's amazing by everyone...so well...here you go...please don't take my career away from me!' She says, tears springing to her eyes as she hands Boj her Bauble.
'Good choice.' And with that, Boj strides over to an open pipe and drops the Bauble in it. Suddenly, the machine whirs into overdrive with the most cacophonous noise. I see Fizz biting her fingers.
The portly man yawns and scratches his belly, before nibbling something on the end of his fingernail.
'Didn't you have a noise reduction upgrade in the budget for this year, Boj?' he yells above the noise.
'Tried it- didn't work. Bloody machine always puts up a fuss no matter what. Plus they're gonna redesign the Baubles this year instead- they shatter too easily.'
The noise dies down and on the far end of the room, I see two pipes shaking. I run over and see one pipe spit out a rough piece of what looks like coal, and the other pipe dribble out a yellow liquid, which is collected in a small vial fixed below. Boj strides over to me and grabs the coal and the vial of yellow stuff. It's the same colour as urine, and the smell of it makes me retch.
'Right.' Boj says, pulling up a chair, 'This piece of coal is your Bauble, we've modified it a bit.'
The colour drains from Fizz's face. 'Modified?! What...what do you mean?!'
'This wonderful contraption here, is the GUAM - the Grown Up Accelerator Machine. It artificially catalyses growing up, and places the stresses of life, finances, bills, mundane working schedules and deadlines onto your little Bauble. This usually takes decades to happen, but the GUAM makes it happen in seconds, not years.
'Boj, do you really need to explain it every single bloody time?' the portly man says, biting his fingernails.
Boj ignores him and hands the piece of coal to Fizz. 'This is what your dreams look like in the real world.'
Fizz sobs and her shoulders shake. 'I was intending to follow those dreams, every single one! And I still will!'
Boj shakes his head. 'Fizz, when you drank the Drizaloo, it quite literally extracted your dreams from you. Within an hour you'll forget all of them- every single one. The only way to stop it is to break the Bauble and let your eyes drink the colours, which will put the dreams back inside of you again.
Fizz's eyes widen in alarm, 'then give me the Bauble- are the colours still in there? I want to drink them and leave, please.'
'Ah, well we can't do that now can we,' Boj says, holding up the vial of yellow liquid. 'This machine took the colours and injected them with things all grown-ups need- stability, safety, politeness and letters from the bank. It's then coloured it with the scent of library fines to override any lingering childishness.'
'Wait. So you've poisoned my dreams with all this grown-up stuff?!'
'You're the one who wanted it Fizz, you came in here so confidently. You handed us your dreams, we didn't snatch them from you. It's a simple exchange - in the real world we can't have such childish notions slowing us down. Are you now ready to be a grown-up?'
'I guess...I don't have much of a choice.' Fizz said quietly, hanging her head.
'Drink the yellow liquid- it'll help with the transition.'
Fizz's bottom lip quivers as she gulps the yellow liquid and doubles over, writhing on the floor. She grunts words, and I make out 'interest rate', 'down-payment' and 'debt-collectors'. She wheezes on all fours and makes guttural noises, snarling at the ceiling. 'Sensiblesensiblesensiblesensible!' She grunts.
I stand there petrified. I make a move to help her, not caring about my cover any more, but she suddenly stands up. She looks vacant and she gazes straight ahead. Slowly, she takes off all her rings, one by one, sending them clattering to the floor.
Boj stands up and looks at her closely. 'Hello Fizz. What do you like getting for Christmas?'
Fizz looks at him blankly, the last glimmer of light leaving her eyes. 'Socks.'
'Okay she's all sorted,' the portly man booms, 'I'll prep the next one. You've got 5 minutes to finish up with her.'
Boj nods and picks up the piece of coal from the floor. 'Fizz, through that door is the world of work. To prove you're one of them, I want you to eat your Bauble. Eat it in front of me.'
Fizz hesitates for a moment, but she slowly takes the Bauble and bites into it. I can tell it tastes bitter because she scowls as she eats it, black smudges peppered all over her face. She takes another bite and there's just black dust inside, just ashes of ambition. She finishes it, her teeth black from the dust and her dress covered in tiny debris.
'Great. You're now officially ready for the world of work! Go through that door, and someone will assign you a job in an office. And remember, just be happy you have one! It's a tough world out there so don't go complaining now.'
Fizz nods and walks through the door, which shuts quickly behind her.
I realise I've just witnessed the murder of a dream, and begin shaking. There must be something I can do to save everyone else from the horrible fate of Fizz. I stare at the ground and spot Fizz's rings on the floor. And then it hits me. I scoop up the two red ones she mentioned and slip back into the room where all the boys and girls are waiting.
My body erupts in hot itches and I realise I'm becoming visible again. I don't have much time left. The portly man is ushering a boy into the room Fizz was in, so I take a deep breath and break cover.
'STOP!' I scream, waving my arms. There are startled cries as everyone turns around. 'You've been tricked. The fat guy isn't going to give you a career, he's going to DESTROY your dreams. I've seen it happen- he's going to turn you into grownups!'
There's silence, and then everyone begins laughing at me, ribbing each other and pointing.
'I promise you, what they're taking from you is FAR more valuable than what they'll give! We all know deep down we don't want to be grown-ups, but we're only here because we've been told it's the sensible thing to do. Well, I say SCREW sensible today! Claim back your dreams and give them a chance to at least breathe for a moment - don't let Ascension day suffocate them!'
I run over to the abandoned mic and take out both red rings from my pocket, praying that my plan will work.
'What do you plan to do now, you stupid boy?' the portly man says with a smirk, 'you have no idea how a Bauble works.'
'Except I was in that room with you when you murdered Fizz,' I reply, as the colour drains from the portly man's face. 'I know the weakness of every Bauble in this room, and I know how to set their dreams free.'
And with that, I clang Fizz's rings together, right next to the mic. They make a high pitched thrum, sending the portly man to his knees with his hands to his ears. I see the Baubles shuddering slightly and clang the rings again, this time holding it even closer to the mic. The high pitched noise reaches a crescendo and I grit my teeth, my eyes roving in their sockets at the noise.
'This one's for you, Fizz', I whisper, as I clang them together, one last time as hard as I can.
Suddenly, the Baubles begin to burst, splashing all the children in colourful dreams, their eyes bright and sparkling with mischief.
The portly man stares at them with his mouth wide open. 'What have you done?!'
The glass Baubles now lay discarded on the floor, remnants of caged dreams and the twisted charade of grown-ups. The boys and girls laugh and begin to dance, running, jumping and cartwheeling around the room whilst screaming in delight.
I walk amongst the boys and girls, the colours splattered all over their faces as they smile gleefully.
Boj comes storming through the door and scowls, marching towards me with a murderous look on his face. I give him the middle finger as I run out of the room, leaving everyone reborn as children drenched in Drizaloo, dancing in the colours of their dreams.
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Your stories always have a great spin, a different feeling that makes them fresh to read. Great writing.
Thanks Graham, that's wonderful feedback!