Lydia Oven is an amateur writer in the twelfth grade, who runs on green tea and Spotify. She cautiously experimented in composing a narrative for an assignment in English IV, and consequently fell in love with the process of creative writing.
“Next unit in room 7.” The man walked cautiously into the sterile white space, leaning heavily on his right leg. “Sit here,” the nurse closed the door behind the wisp of a man and motioned to a bench. She pulled out a thin blue folder. “Unit 53116, male, white, 37 years, 3 months, and 12 days,” she read off. “Is this information correct?”
There was a slight pause. “Yes, ma’am,” he breathed. “Please state your reason for abandonment.” Her pen was poised over an open page in the file. “My leg, ma’am,” he looked dolefully at the thin, crooked leg stretched out at an awkward angle beneath him. “They took one look at it, termed me ‘incompatible,’ and threw me out with all the others.” The pen stopped scribbling for a moment and her eyes flickered over to his strained face.
“We are currently reevaluating the formerly declared incompatibles, and we will determine if there is a place for you where you may reenter society.” It was a rehearsed speech that the nurse knew she was required to say. They had given careful instructions on what to say and had discouraged any interaction with the units beyond what was necessary. Nonetheless, she couldn’t help but give an encouraging half-smile to the despondent man. She examined his leg and finished writing a few more notes.
“It looks like you are compatible to reenter society. I’m recommending that they place you in the government filing department.” The long thin face relaxed and relief flooded his eyes. She closed the file and placed it at the top of a tall stack of similar folders. “I have to say, it’s not the most exciting job, but they’ll treat you well there. And, you, go easy on that leg, alright?” The man looked up suddenly, surprised that she was talking directly to him–saying more than she was required.
“Yes, ma’am.” The faintest smile spread across his sallow face. “Oh please, don’t call me that,” she laughed. “Everyone says it and it just makes me so nervous. I’m Josie.”
“Thank you… Josie,” he said over his shoulder as she opened the door and he gingerly walked out.
“Next unit in room 7.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of it?” She was sitting with another nurse in the break room sharing lunch.
“Tired of what?” the woman asked Josie with a quizzical look. “I don’t know… tired of saying the same things to these people over and over again.” “They’re units, Josie, not people–at least not until they’re termed compatible,” the woman corrected her. “And no, I don’t get tired of it. I mean, we’re saving so many of them from being incompatible for life. Finally the government has realized that many of them can actually be very useful to society. We’re giving them a new chance at life. Don’t you want to help them?” “Yes I do, of course I do.” Josie’s mind wandered back to the agonized expression of the man with the crooked leg. What was it about his face that gave her such an uncomfortable feeling? “Good,” the woman said shortly. “The government is doing what’s best for these units, and we are doing the best we can to help all of them.” Josie gave her best smile and tried to look satisfied with the answer, but something kept nagging at her.
“Unit 53186, male, black, 54 years, 2 months, and 6 days” He was the 70th unit–the last one for the day. Josie ran through the questions automatically, barely lifting her eyes from the folder.
“Please state your reason for abandonment.” “My daughter.” She blinked, looking up. He was a burly man with a tall frame and salt and pepper dreads spilling out of a faded beanie. His clothes were in tatters, filled with more patches than Josie could count, and there was a faint odour of smoke and something foul wafting from him. He met her questioning eyes unflinchingly and Josie could see the sorrow and grief written in the soft wrinkles that were creasing his face.
“I’m… I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand. Your daughter was the reason for abandonment?” Josie had heard hundreds upon hundreds of people give their reasons for having been termed incompatible, and forced by the former government to commit abandonment; but in her many months of assessments, never had she heard this reason before. “She was incompatible with society. Or so they told us. In reality, I think society was incompatible with her.” His deep, thick voice was filled, not with anger, but grief. He was about to say more but then stopped there, placidly waiting for Josie to continue on with the prescribed questions.
“What do you mean?” She was accustomed to hearing the routine abandonment reasons: physical disability, mental illness, terminal disease. The incompatibility of a relative was not even on the government issued list of approved reasons. He let out a long breath.
“I wasn’t going to let those white shirts tear apart my family. So we left.” Josie was frozen with the weight of his words. “We chose voluntary abandonment for the three of us,” he said, his gaze never leaving Josie’s incredulous face. There were stories and rumors now and then of people who had committed voluntary abandonment–the waywards they were called. Josie couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily leaving society for a non-approved reason. It was well-known that anyone living outside cities’ walls was as good as dead.
“But you’re here now.” It was more of a question than a statement. Josie was still wrapping her head around this man’s story and she surveyed him as if he had just resurrected from the dead.
“They said they would leave us be, that we would more than likely be killed by the wild beasts within days. I should have known it was all lies. We survived for years on our own, but they eventually hunted us down and… and murdered my wife and my daughter,” he paused closing his eyes. “They shot me too, but they apparently weren’t thorough enough.” A wry smile split his face as he rubbed his right shoulder absentmindedly.
“Why… why would they–” “Why wouldn’t they? No one knows, and even if they did no one cares. It’s the way they keep us all in line. It’s the way they control us. They round us into groups and rank us according to our usefulness. We’re just their toys and if we’re of no use or if we show any deviation, they throw us away. Why do you think all the jobs they’re giving these former incompatibles are working for them? It’s all lies, all of it.” His voice was steady, matter-of-fact.
“It.. no it can’t,” Josie whispered under her breath. She slowly rose, not knowing what to do. None of this could be true, or could it? People would frequently make up tall tales in front of her just to get some sympathy and perhaps a better job placement. She looked over at the man sitting erect in the corner. Before she could respond an electric voice interrupted her.
“Ms. Frank, please finish your assessment and exit the building as soon as possible.” It was her boss over the intercom reminding her that the center had closed almost twenty minutes ago.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I’ve been keeping you late.” He gave a polite smile. “Oh… no don’t worry about it,” Josie automatically responded. Her mind was racing faster than light. It was all starting to make sense in a sick, twisted sort of way. She had never truly been helping these people. Benevolently proclaiming them compatible, then sending them off to a mind numbing government job that no one else wanted to do. Or deciding them to be incompatible and shipping them to who knows where.They were not units of property to be done with however the government wished. Josie thought of the man with the crooked leg. These were people. Real people. Real, living humans who were different, yes, but beautifully different.
“What was her name?” Josie couldn’t even recognize her own voice. “Your daughter, what was her name?” The man smiled and this time it was a wide grin that accounted for the deep crinkles in his cheeks.
“Leah. She was the sweetest little ray of sunshine you ever saw.” His eyes were glistening now and Josie knew this man was not a liar. Every word he spoke was true.
“No.” Josie started to shake her head. “No, this isn’t right, there had to be something we can do. Why doesn’t anyone try to stop them? Why doesn’t anyone–”
“I thought you’d never ask,” the man chuckled. He stood up and pulled a small slip of paper out of his pocket. “Seven thirty tonight, meet me at this address.” He pressed it into her hand and turned to leave.
“Wait, at least tell me your name first,” Josie asked. He looked over his shoulder and met her eyes.
“They call me Moses.” He silently opened the door and added just before disappearing: “Welcome to the Underground, Josie.”