Chicago, North American Republic – 7/4/2067
“You look like a toothpick with arms,” says the gangly boy with frizzled orange hair. He sits cross-legged in the only chair in the room with a broken seat, and I wonder if that’s some visible indicator of latent rebelliousness or if he’s doing it on purpose to piss off the people on the other side of the camera near the doorway.
“You’re one to talk. You’re six feet of calcium and cartilage. What do you bench? Five?” My voice is too steady for a twelve-year-old who’s been summarily tossed into a draft office waiting room, but I’m far past the point of caring whether or not I come off as a budding psychopath. Plus, it’s only gangly boy and me. And the (probably bored) people glancing at the one screen out of fifty or so in the centralized security room in the building’s basement.
He scoots a bit farther back in his seat, scrunching his nose up in a way that almost succeeds in hiding his smattering of freckles. “You talk older than you look.”
“You talk like someone who’s never had a grammar lesson.”
“You bite. No wonder you got drafted.”
“Not why I got drafted, but at least you understand the kind of people that do.”
“Of course I do. I’m one of them. They take anyone who isn’t rich, who isn’t lucky, who isn’t docile. Least that’s what Charlie told me. He…” A murmur behind the door on the right side of the room shuts gangly boy up, and he waits, a bead of sweat forming on one temple, to see if it’s his turn to face the physical doctor. Now, if you are not deemed fit for service, said the woman with the austere posture and ever-present frown, you will instead be assigned to an appropriate alternative occupation.
The voices leave us, heading down the whitewashed hall I caught a glimpse of earlier. Twenty rooms. Thirteen examination rooms. A supply closet. Four doctors’ offices. And two rooms without labels on their doors—also known as laboratories stocked with dangerous chemicals.
“So, who’s Charlie?”
Gangly boy starts and stares at me, wide-eyed. “You’re not scared at all.”
“Why should I be?”
“They’re going to send us to the desert. You know what happens there? The Coalition shoots us. Or we starve. Or we die of heat stroke. Or we mysteriously end up dead in a ditch somewhere. We’re, what’s the term, cannon fodder?”
“You’re only cannon fodder if you let yourself get shot. Or blown up. Or do something stupid that warrants a mysterious death.” I cross my legs and tap one foot in a slow cadence against the dull tile floor. “So, who’s Charlie?”
“He’s…he was my brother. Got killed in the West Side Riots last year.”
“My condolences.” I don’t sound very sorry, and something in me wishes I could muster more sympathy. But whenever I hear dead or killed, nine times out of ten, what I think of is at least eight or nine times worse than the sob story I’m being told. “My parents were shot in our front yard when I was six. At 11:34 AM.”
He bites his lip and avoids eye contact. Or tries to, anyway. But Gangly Boy is the kind of person who’s curiosity would kill twenty-five cats if it got the chance. “W-what did they do wrong?” He whispers, glancing at the camera like it’s got a microphone. It doesn’t. It’s too old a model. If anything, his suspicious hunched posture and tendency to lean forward like he’s spilling state secrets to the enemy is what will do him in. In all likelihood, the army will help him a great deal. If he doesn’t die during basic training.
“I suspect it’s what they did right in sight of the wrong people.”
“But they didn’t kill you, too? I mean, a family in my neighborhood all got executed because the dad did something wrong. But they only killed your parents?”
“My mother hid me behind the couch.” With a baby blanket wrapped around my ears—don’t take it off, honey, and don’t listen, and just pretend you’re somewhere else. “They did kill our next-door neighbor, though. She wouldn’t stop screaming after they were done with my parents.”
Now Gangly Boy is chewing on his thumb. “How can you be so calm about everything?”
“Because I’ve had more than enough time to feel everything worth feeling about my unfortunate circumstances. There’s no point in being scared. There’s point in crying. All that’s left is vengeance and justice.”
His shocked stare lasts fifteen seconds before he whispers, even lower, “You’re awesome. I’m Dock.” He reaches out, beckoning me to shake his hand, as if he either expects my arm to reach eight feet across the room or for me to get up from my cozy corner seat to accommodate his laziness. After a moment, he gives up and reclaims his hand, cradling it against his chest like my refusal wounded him. “You know, you kind of act like you’re not really human.”
A spark of genuine interest flutters through my chest. “Do you think I’m not?”
He shakes his head, orange tufts falling into his eyes. “Do you?”