I woke with a start, covered in cold sweat and pale as a sheet of paper. My breathing was hoarse; I was still in the nightmare. For a moment, I had no recollection of where or who I was. The grey walls and black window seemed foreign. Reality was intertwined with my fears, and every dark corner of the room was a menace — every shadow or silhouette looked like the monsters I had always imagined when I was younger. After a few seconds, however, color returned to my face and my pulse steadied.
I looked at my alarm clock. Its light blue dial glowed in the semi-darkness, reading 3:57 and, with a pang, I realized I would be getting ready for the biggest day of my life in only a few minutes.
I was tired and I could not close my eyes to rest, so I laid back on my pillow and stared at the ceiling, lost in thought. It had taken me hours to fall into an uneasy sleep, every time waking from a new nightmare of the day to come. How long until my fate would unfold, I did not know, but every few seconds, a wave of terror rippled through me like a hot tsunami.
I jumped a little when my alarm clock sounded. I slid out of bed uneasily and proceeded to the bathroom. I stared into my mirror; my bright blue eyes puffy from sleep, my fiery red hair tangled and snagged from my pillow, my thin nose covered in freckles, and my pointed chin and sallow skin pale with nerves.
I blinked; my reflection blinked too. I pulled my hair up and twisted it into a thick, red bun. I undressed and turned on the shower, turning the temperature nearly all the way into the red. I washed my face, ears, and neck. I clipped my nails, scrubbed my feet, and shaved my legs. Though hygiene was a requirement, I couldn’t remember the last time I had cleaned myself so thoroughly with such downward results. The feeling of fresh bare legs and smooth wet hair almost always made me feel brand new, but today, I felt as bland and dry as sandpaper.
I walked back into the room and donned a white tank-top and black leggings. Sudden movement from the other side of the room startled me, but I relaxed when my wild-eyed brother, Charlie, sat bolt upright and looked as if he had had his own imaginary terrors as well.
“Morning,” I said casually as I bent down and laced my shoes.
“G-morning,” he said in a higher voice than usual as he slid out of his bed and crossed to his dresser, pulling out his clothes. Once he was dressed, he left the room silently, shutting the door behind him. By this time, the sun should have already shown signs of uncovering itself from behind the many mountains that grasped themselves outside the window, but it was merely a very deep shade blue that was noticeably lighter than the blackness that surrounded me.
I stared out the window a moment, wondering if this was the last time I would ever see this view again.
You see, my family, being quite lucky moneywise for a Deserter, was able to get a home near the edge of the city, where you can see the stars at night if you look to the south, and where you can see the Rockies spread far across the horizon. In many cases, my parents were lucky. They were gifted a boy and a girl right off, as my brother and I were twins, and therefore did not have to suffer through any forced abortions like most other Deserters who had more than one boy and one girl.
But in many other circumstances, they were very unlucky. Charlie and I were generation 21 Orlo. An odd-numbered generation meant the Punishment within every Deserter family. The Orlo family — my family — must lose both their children in one day to the Punishment, since Charlie and I had the same birthday and were therefore both eighteen years of age.
I shivered. Now was not the time to be thinking about this. I had had my entire life to do so.
Charlie was already ready to go. He was fiddling with something in his hands — a charm of some kind — but he stuffed it in his pocket when he saw me coming. I could see how pale he was, and I realized I wasn’t doing so hot myself. My legs were barely cooperating as it was.
My mother was the first to pull me into an embrace. She squeezed me so tightly, I could barely breathe, but maybe it was the paining sensation of sobbing. I rarely cried; in fact, this was the first time I had in months, but this moment called for it.
Next was my father. My mother moved on to Charlie, who was stroking her hair as she cried, saying it would be all right….
But my father didn’t cry. He just grabbed me and held me in his arms for a long time. Then he bent over and whispered in my ear.
“Whatever happens, we will always be there for you.” I pulled him tighter and cried into his shoulder. When we finally parted, we had one big family hug before our departure. We went out the door and hopped into the car.
The drive wasn’t extremely far, since we were already so close to the Deserter’s Capitol building, but those from elsewhere would have had to travel via train or a two-day drive. It only took about an hour to get there, and by then the sun had risen ever so slightly above the mountain. The roads were backed up with cars all headed to the same place. We parked only a few blocks down from the facility, which wasn’t bad, since we had to make this trip annually to watch the Punishment be inflicted on other eighteen-year-olds. Now we were the next guinea pigs, and I couldn’t be more terrified.
We walked through the front doors. A large booth kept us from going any farther.
“Finger, please.” I held out my left pointer finger, nail upwards, towards the woman who had spoken. Except it wasn’t a nail at all. It was a slim black and red chip with a fool-proof protective polish. These were our ID chips, so the government could keep tabs on all Deserters. The woman held out a scanner. It blinked green. “You may go forward, Miss Orlo.”
I went forward past the booth and waited until my family joined me. Then we reached another booth, which was split in two. A sign to the left read:
BELOW OR ABOVE 18
And one to the right read:
18 YEARS OLD
We glanced at each other, then we all embraced.
“I love you,” My mother said as the tears streamed down her face. Charlie and I went past one booth while our parents went past the other. A slim hallway packed with eighteen-year-olds was moving by quickly. We made it to the end in nearly a minute, then made it to yet another booth. We scanned our IDs and a small ticket printed with our seat numbers and names. Charlie and I would be separated since he would be in the ‘C’ section of the ‘O’s and I would be in the ‘R’s. With a pang I realized this could very well be the last time I saw him. It seemed my twin had the same idea, and just as I hugged him tightly, knowing that I would have to receive my Punishment after he did and therefore I would have to do it alone, he held out a small metal necklace. It was a locket in the shape of a flower.
“Oh, Charlie, this is beautiful.” He leaned forward and kissed my forehead then we pressed ours together and closed our eyes in silence, knowing that no number of words would suffice.
“Everyone, please take your final seats,” came a mellow-toned voice from a speaker. “The ceremony will begin momentarily.” My double and I shared only one glance before we separated and found our seats, dreading for it to begin.
After a few minutes, the lights dimmed. My heart hammered inside my chest. My life’s outcome was going to be decided on the stage near the front, and I could not be more petrified.
“We will now begin.” A light blinked on the stage, illuminating a tall blonde woman with rosy lips and high eyebrows and cheekbones. She was a Pure One, based on the absence of the grey tattoo that all Deserters wore on their necks. Mine read 21 Orlo.
The woman held a tablet of some sort in her hands to read from. “Allison, Aaron.” A boy at the very front at the very end stood expectantly. “You have been decided as an Unheard.” The boy nodded and walked onto the stage. The woman gestured to the booth that was waiting and he disappeared around the corner.
An Unheard. One of the three Punishments. Unheard, Unseen, and Unspoken. That boy would be deaf for the rest of his life. Any who were sentenced as an Unseen would become blind, and those who became an Unspoken would be mute. It was a punishment that every Deserter deserved, or so it was said.
“Unheard, so you might never hear of rebellion. Unseen, so that you may never see the destruction you have caused. Unspoken so that you will never speak your lies.”
After World War Four, the new government decided that those who did not fight were traitors and should be punished accordingly. Those who did were known as the Pure Ones. Those who had not were Deserters, and every other generation of Deserters would receive the Punishment for their ancestors’ crimes. Each child was considered by a jury and would be punished based on the decision. You lost your hearing, your eyesight, or your tongue. In a way, it was a punishment not knowing which it was going to be.
I watched as a girl was called as an Unseen.
“Why a punishment?” I had asked my father once. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
He knelt in front of me and held my shoulders. “Because they want us to think we did. They want us to be Unseen, so we will be blind to the truth, Unheard so that we will be deaf to it, and Unspoken so we cannot spread it.”
“Why?” I said slowly.
He smiled sadly. “This world isn’t what it used to be. Though I hadn’t been born yet, life used to be a lot better here. You had the right to speak your mind. But they think it’s dangerous. They think it’s a problem. And so, they punish those who did not fight to stop our freedoms because we know that we need them.”
“Are we free now?” I asked.
He seemed to hesitate. “Not unless we stop this madness.”
I had never known what that had meant. How does one stop an entire government from punishing Deserters? You can’t. Maybe my father was just hopeful for that outcome.
After a while, they got into the O’s. I tensed when Charlie’s name was called. He stood slowly a row in front of me.
“You have been called to be an Unseen,” said the woman.
Blind. I thought. He walked onto the stage and paused. He picked me out from the crowd and stared at me. I knew why; this would be the last time he would ever see me, or anything, for that matter. But then he turned and was gone.
As the rows went on, over half went blind or mute, and the other deaf. My name was called. “Orlo, Ryan.” I stood shakily, holding my breath. “You have been called as an Unspoken.” I breathed out in something like relief. I would still see the sunset. I would still hear the birds in the morning. I went up to the stage, turned to the other half of the crowd and saw my parents watching me. I walked to the booth and scanned my ID. As I went past, I came into a hallway. No one was there, but that was probably because they had already left. I walked down the hallway and into a large main area. A crowd of eighteen-year-olds were mingling with one another, but there weren’t many. They were going through another booth. A jade green one, for Unheard, bright red for Unseen, and yellow for Unspoken. I craned my neck, but I could not see Charlie. I closed my fist around the locket he had given me.
When I reached the yellow booth, a woman held out a needle instead of a scanner. “Hold out your arm,” she said.
My mind whizzed. I knew there would be an operation, But now? While I’m standing up? Was it a sedative? I looked around. No one was passing out at all past the booths. In fact, those who had just gotten the needle poked into them looked rather relaxed as they made their way to the correct rooms. Uncertainly, I held out my arm. The woman stuck the thin needle into my vein and clicked the plunger. At first, I felt normal, but then a strange feeling washed over me. Relief?
Better be seen and not heard, said a voice in my mind. I smiled. Better to leave the truth unspoken.
Nicole Quinn has been writing since she was able to hold a pen and has been submitting via submittable to multiple literary journals since she was 14. She lives in Utah and loves to stay active through sports, hiking, leisurely walks, and biking. She loves to read dystopian as well as write in the genre and has a special place in her heart for The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. She loves music and composes her own via piano, guitar, and ukulele. She loves telling stories, whether it be on paper or through her own voice.