Kelsen held her boys hand and watched the elders put the box on the platform. It looked so small to her now. So confined. “How does anyone fit in there?” she thought and yet she had seen children step into the box countless times. Every three years since she could remember to be exact. The sight of it had never sickened her as much as it did now.
Brayden’s small hand twitched in hers, calling her attention. “Look, there’s daddy,” he said. He pointed a thin arm toward the high fence and the barrier beyond where the men stood. Kelsen squinted her eyes against the sun to scan the crowd of masculinity and thought, “How can it be sunny today of all days?”
Her eyes finally found Brent and they locked together in a single stare of emotion. She shared most of his emotions; fear and sadness, but she could see anger there as well. It was in the stiffness of his shoulders, the way he clenched the barricade’s railing with white knuckles, and his eyes, (oh it was most definitely in his eyes) a rage barely being contained within him. She saw this, acknowledged the bravery of it but then remembered its danger, and hoped he would do nothing. Shame at this wish made her look away from him.
She stood, with all the other women of her village, on the inside of the ring. Holding a small boy who trusted her and waiting with the rest of the cattle to be marked or unmarked. She wanted to run. Brent wanted to run. She had almost given in to him last night as he begged her to run to the burnt out desert.
“You know we can’t make it Brent. Those people never do.”
“You don’t know that,” his voice was a hard chip. Her head rested in its accustomed spot on his shoulder while his hand drug lazily through her hair. There was nothing harsh or threatening in this gesture and yet she could feel the tense stringy muscle of his arm twitching beneath her. It made her neck ache.
“They don’t ever come back.”
“Maybe that’s because they don’t want to. No one knows what’s out there K. Maybe it’s better.”
“Death is out there Brent.” She snapped the covers around her with her arm, and rolled away from him. He did not reach out to her. “Death and radiation and nothing else. You want us to die of thirst with our skin boiling off?”
He was quite for a while and the rolled to face his own wall before saying, “Maybe there is something beyond that. We could try to get past the belt. Even trying would be better than just watching it happen.”
“It might not happen at all,” she whispered. “There have been a lot less cases in the last few years. Besides, he’s a good boy. He doesn’t show any signs of violence.”
“What about the cat,” he asked?
“That was a mistake,” Tears came to her eyes that he would even mention it. “A child’s curiosity. He never meant to hurt it. Are you going to tell me you never pulled the wings off a fly when you were a kid?”
“Of course I did.” Now he sat up and turned back to face her, “I want to pull the wings of a few people today. Does that mean the box was wrong when I was a kid? How can we trust it K? How can YOU trust it?”
She lay silent until he shut off the light and lay back down. After a long moment of silence, he whispered, “My heart can’t take the risk K. We need to run.” There was no conviction in his voice, only a soft pleading like a child asking for Santa to be real when he knows the truth of it deep down. When she heard this, she rolled over to snuggle into his backside wrapping her arm around to his chest. He put his hand over hers and she felt his ragged breath choke out in a silent cry. She kissed the back of his neck and they had cried together in the dark. They both knew that inside the fence, there was a chance. There was at least a chance.
“Momma, can I go say hi to daddy?” Kelsen’s hand instinctively gripped harder on Brayden’s. “Owe,” he said trying to twist out of her grip. She checked herself and relaxed her hand.
“No, you have to stay with me. Remember,” she whispered. “We have to be good today. The best we can be. We have to have happy thoughts and stay good.” When she heard the pleading in her voice she thought, “Be careful Kelsen. He’s so smart, he’s so perceptive. Be careful you don’t get him riled up.” Her stomach cramped and rolled over inside her. She looked around at all the other faces. At the other mothers standing in the center ring of the crowd of women. She sympathized with their worried faces and, at the same time, compared her situation to theirs with aggressive scrutiny.
A young girl of perhaps twelve darted from her mother toward a friend. The mother looked around the crowd nervously as she tried to call the girl back. Kelsen noted it with opposing emotions of enthusiasm and sadness. Another woman a few feet away caught her eye. Her name was Carley or may have been Carol, something with a C, and she had lost two of her five children in the box so far. Kelsen remembered feeling so pitiful for her at the last reaping. Now she found herself hoping the woman might lose a third. She hated her mind for having the idea but did not chastise herself too harshly.
“Not my Brayden,” she thought for the thousandth time, “not my boy.”
She’d heard a statistic once, which she used like a talisman now. “Only one in six,” she silently whispered. “Only one in six has the gene.” She had no idea if it were true but that didn’t stop her from taking inventory of the children she guessed to be examination age. If it were true, she thought the odds might be in her son’s favor.
A moan went through the crowd and Kelsen turned to see one of the elders climb the old wooden steps to the stage. “This year,” he announced, “there will be nineteen children to take the test.” He pulled a square device as ancient as the box itself from one of the large pockets on his robe and placed it on the podium. “When the child’s name is read, they are to come forth immediately. The mother may escort them as far as the stairs but must relinquish custody at that point.”
Kelsen knelt to her only son. She used a finger to turn his face from the elder her with gentle urgency. Other mother’s in the crowd who had heard this speech many times did the same, preparing their children as much as she now prepared hers.
“Remember,” she told him with a smile, “you are a good boy. Keep your thoughts pure. Apples in the fall and your crayons. You love your crayons! Think good, happy thoughts.”
“If I focus on apples do you think I will get a pie this year,” he asked. Her heart skipped.
“You are a good boy. You can get a pie either way so you don’t have to try to trick me.”
A frown creased his brow. “I’m not trying to be tricky momma,” he said and she thought, “I’m making it worse oh why did I say that oh man I’m making him doubt what will it see what will it say oh man I’m making it worse.” She straightened his tiny tie and smoothed back the stubborn cowlick that plagued his hair. She aimed a forced smile at him and prayed it was enough to relieve his anxiety.
“Of course you’re not being tricky.” She said, “I know what a good boy you are and I know you wouldn’t hurt or trick anyone. It’s just that I want the rest of them to know it too. Can you show them for me?”
He still looked solemn but he nodded just the same. She hugged him to her and it took all her will not to squeeze him forever. She let go and only looked toward the stage to hide the tears in her eyes from him.
The elder called out the first name, “Abraham 1”. Sweat broke out on Kelsen’s body and she saw a surge toward the fence as a boy of about seven or eight stepped forward. His mother escorted him to the stairs while the crowd beyond the fence swayed.
The men never stayed behind the barricade the whole time. Eventually the anger and need to protect made one of them step forward. The rest would follow and sooner or later, someone would get pushed into the fence. The electric shock would go through whoever had touched the fence and sometimes, if he were touching others, a group of men might fall to their knees in pain. Reminded of the consequences, the sway would back from the fence until the next aggravation too large to bear brought them forward again. Usually this mutiny didn’t happen until deeper into the selection so when the crowd of menfolk started to move on the first calling, the elder looked up in disdain.
“Remember gentlemen, we are here because we are trying to stop violence not start it.” The forward momentum of the crowd settled but the low rumbles of defiance did not. Abraham had made it to the stairs now and his mother smiled bravely at him, reassuring him. No one really knew how the box determined who had the gene but many, Kelsen included, believed it could be suppressed with the right upbringing. Many assumed that fear or nervousness could bring forth what was otherwise hidden so mothers took great care to restrict these emotions in their children.
“Go on,” the Abraham’s mother urged. Kelsen hoped she could be that brave when her time came.
The boy walked up the steps onto the shaky platform without the help of the two masked guards. He approached the opaque box with confidence, a good sign, and stood in front of it facing the crowd. Someone nearby started to cry. Kelsen couldn’t take her eyes from the boy’s face. “let it be you, don’t let it be you, oh you’re so beautiful but let it be you, don’t let it be mine, not my boy, one in six yes one in six, let you be one in six.”
The elder waved a hand at the boy, who had been on this stage at least once before, and the child backed into the box. Almost immediately, the box began to glow a soft blue (another good sign) and a lid came sliding down. The entire town held its breath waiting to see if the door would slide back up. After less than three seconds it did. Abraham stepped out and the breath the community had been holding released in one giant exhalation. His mother ran to the exit platform on the other side of the stage weeping huge sobs of relief.
“Stop it,” a woman in the front scolded her, “you want to upset the lot of them?”
“Remain at peace dear mother,” the elder spoke to her and then raised his voice once again to the crowd. “Averey 4”
They called the children alphabetically and so it was common for people to name their child in hopes that he or she tested first. Superstition dictated that the odds were in favor of the first child of the year going free. This was highly debated and many declared it false. Stories were exchanged supporting both sides and were argued over. The fact was that no one knew why the box worked, only that it did. That alone seemed the significant point to everyone without a child currently of testing age.
Averey4 came up on the stage to take her turn. She was a tall girl, nearly out of testing age, and she too passed right away. She too met with grateful tears from her mother as she exited stage right. A loud long weeping sound floated from the group outside the fence. The girl’s father had seen her though another reaping.
Three more children went before Brayden’s name was called and, as the box glowed soft blue and the door opened on each one, Kelsen found that her comforting mantra (only one in six) was starting to turn into a curse of damnation. Her internal prayers increased and she began to rock. She couldn’t help it. Her small boy unconsciously rocked along with her. His big eyes stared around unsure.
“Brayden 1,” the old voice registered in her ears and she froze. The crowd looked around and the tension peaked for a moment. The masked men stepped closer to the stairway, prepared to come down. “Brayden 1,” the awful voice called again. “Move damn you don’t make him scared act natural MOVE,” she thought. She got her feet moving. Brayden followed her slightly behind, pulling on her arm. She turned to him and smiled. Her voice cracked and she cursed herself for being weak as she told him, “You’ll do fine honey, just like the other kids.”
Brayden lifted his chin and gave her a smile right back. “Apples and crayons,” he said and Kelsen felt her heart break. She would have said more but her throat had suddenly twisted itself into a tight ball. This was his first reaping. He had no idea what could happen, only that everyone was scared and still, she knew, he was trying to be brave… for her. Sadness washed over her and just as quickly as her pride in him tried flushing it away.
“I love you,” she finally choked out and thought, “how many times has a mother had said those three words to a child over the course of time?” It seemed too inadequate a phrase to have held up over the years. Too simplistic to express the depth of what she felt for him at that moment. She would have handed over her soul to save him without a moments question if she could and yet now all she had to give him was those three words. Civilization should have been able to come up with a new, more expressive language for her to present her son at a time like this. Since it had not, she repeated, “I love you.”
He climbed the steps for the first time by himself. He looked back at her once while being led to the box. In the end, it was his father he sought while standing on that wide stage. The elder waved a hand but Brayden didn’t move until his father raised his palm, standing on his side of the fence, and pushed it out in a step back motion. He was crying. Kelson could see it from here. Brayden recognized the motion, stepped back, and the door slid silently down. The Box didn’t glow.
Kelsen saw in the blink of an eye all that was on the line. She remembered giving him his first bath, washing the visceral from him with a sponge and wondering how she could ever love anyone this much. A thousand still pictures dance across her mind in no order. .
Brayden suckling her breast.
Brayden walking arms outstretched.
Brayden throwing his toy in frustration.
Brayden in the box looking strong and confident, staring at a man he now resembled so much.
Brayden learning to walk.
Brayden trying to tell her a joke and giving the wrong punchline. His smile when she couldn’t stop laughing.
Brayden in the box now searching out her eyes.
Brayden crying and asking her to kiss his tiny foot.
Brayden laughing as she tickled him until he had to pee.
Brayden in the box, fear in his eyes.
“The box, why wasn’t it opening?”
Brayden as the man as he was sure to grow up to be.
Brayden in the box. His mouth making the shape of the word mom as he called to her.
Brayden as a husband to a beautiful young girl with honey colored hair. Brayden holding her future grandchild.
Brayden’s hand going to the closed door on the front of the box.
“Why is he still in the box? Why is the door still down?”
Brayden looking at her for help, pounding on the door now.
“Oh Jesus why is he still in the box? One in six, One in six, oh no not my Brayden.”
Brayden smiling at her from his highchair.
“Oh God please open the box!”
Brayden looking at her.
“The box, no not my boy, the box, please, one in six, the box, the box, open the box, open the fucking box!”
Kelsen felt her body moving to the stairs. She sensed the masked men’s hands on her shoulders. She pulled against them and somewhere in the distance, she heard Brent scream out, “Noooooo!”
“Brayden, I have to get to Brayden”, she thought. She started up the stairs and the box was suddenly empty. One moment he was there, his eyes locked with hers and the next he was gone. The door was still shut but her son was gone. Her son, whose tiny hand was once so small he could only hold her finger.
A scream was ripping out of the air surrounding her and she realized it was her own. It echoed in her mind. It followed her into the blackness. She saw the empty box where her boy should still be but was not. As she drifted into a darkness that would rescue her mind from the pain of what her heart already knew, she thought, “one in six… Brayden… one in six…”