Words By Jamie Stewart, Art By Marianna Stelmach Vuzel
It was the first letter she’d ever gotten. Nothing came by mail anymore. Everything was digital.
Across the room Mallory rifled through pages on the coloring table. Her mother watched, hoping the others would take her place. The female to her left with curly red hair and perky breasts. The leggy blond sitting by the block tower on the floor. The woman with placid skin trying to feed her toddler sauce from a squeeze pack.
Let it be theirs. Let their lives be chosen. Let them hog the sorrow.
It was a horrible wish. The mother chastised herself for thinking it. But she didn’t deny it’s what she wanted.
None of them belonged in that waiting room in the first place. They were still young, still fertile, with entire lives ahead of them. And yet they had come. If you received a notice, you had no other choice.
The lands to the north had followed through on their promises. After their steel wall went up three years ago, no one from the Republic could cross the border anymore. No one could switch sides. Republic schools were stopped for the war in order to protect the children. International travelers were summoned home. If you were a monk or a pacifist the Republic brought you along for good measure to fight the north.
After the last uprising the Republic believed they’d finally gotten it right. This time the infantry would be dynamic and obedient. As females, compliance was embedded in their DNA. It was their nature to obey.
In every possible scenario the mother could imagine, they all still ended up in that very same room together. Naptime or daycare didn’t change things—she’d tried. Bring the toddlers. Bring the strollers. Bring the Tupperware distractions, if you must.
If you didn’t come, the Republic had ways of finding you.
The mother braided her silky fingers together. Her hands showed no signs of wrinkles yet. Mallory was only three.
Mallory reached across the table for a marker. The mother imagined a gun in her hands. She pictured crawling like a child along a gnarled dirt floor. She swallowed back the need to cry. Then the television screen rebooted.
The acrylic seascapes on the wall were fading.
“Patient one-nine-five-five, please. Patient one-nine-five-five.” The numbers appeared on the screen. The automated voice was heartless. Cold and metallic.
The woman with the flawless skin raised her head. Then she screwed the cap back on the uneaten squeeze pack. Holding her child against her hip, she stood. A pocket door slid open before her. She disappeared inside.
On the left side of the room, tucked behind a protruding corner of wall, another door opened. An even younger woman emerged. She wore thick-banded trousers and walked like she was in pain. Her hand pinched her lower back. Her belly button protruded through the front of her shirt. Nevertheless, she was smiling. Smiling like she’d won the lottery.
She was safe.
One in, one out. After the exchange, the room grew quiet. The monitors buzzed softly. The sound filled the room with an uncomfortable ache. Soft enough, yet unrelenting. Steady. Constant. It was almost like being pregnant again. The mother untangled her fingers. Mallory took Purple Mountain Majesty to a tri-folded page.
Mallory put the crayon in her mouth. The mother let her chew on the purple wax. When Mallory uncapped a scented marker, she let her probe its cherry tip with her tongue. If she was selected to go, who would protect Mallory? The child added a black licorice pen to the cocktail. After a taste, she wrinkled her nose and spat it back out.
The plant in the corner of the room was wilting.
Outside in the car was a clear container filled with wheat cereal. The kind from the yellow box that Mallory liked. She’d have to remember to buy extra in case they ran out while she was gone. She’d have to tell someone Mallory’s favorite bedtime story—the one about the boy whose drawings came to life. She’d have to remind Mallory to wash her hands and look both ways before crossing the street. The television screen rebooted.
“Patient two-zero-two-one, please. Patient two-zero-two-one.”
As the mother stood up to go, the side door flew open and the flawless-skinned woman walked out. Red blotches covered her face. The makeup had been removed, wiped clean off. The eyelashes were plucked bare. Without its paint, the face looked ugly. Raw. The nerves were visible through her translucent skin. As she walked across the room, she attempted to regain her composure. A frazzled hand shoved registration papers into her shoulder bag. The child riding on her hip rifled through the bag, looking for a new plaything.
The squeeze pack was empty. It had been sucked dry.
The buzzing. Mallory looked up as her mother approached. She removed a graphite pencil from her mouth and gathered up her drawings. When her mother reached out, Mallory stood obediently and took her hand.
The sliding panel withdrew to let them pass.
On the other side, frosted-glass doors lined the hallway. Arrows lit up along the floor as they walked, directing Mallory and her mother to the exam room. When they arrived, the door itself glowed.
After she changed into her gown, the two of them sat side by side on the pleather recliner. The mother moved over so there would be enough room for Mallory. The parchment, roused by this motion, crinkled under her bare butt. The mother squeezed her daughter’s hand. The room looked like this: Pea-green paper gown. Pale, porcelain skin. Stirrups. Thick, black tubes.
The inner ear diagram on the wall curled yellow at the corners.
“Hello there. I apologize for the wait.” The door clicked shut. The doctor was in her late fifties. She wore her slate gray slacks belted high above the navel. Loose curls, unrestrained by the bun at the nape of her neck, framed the edges of her face. “I believe a congratulations is in order, my dear,” the doctor announced, flipping her chart closed. She looked up at them with joyful eyes. “You’ve been approved to serve.”
The needles on the countertop were rusting
“We’ll check your vitals first. And your intelligence. Then we’ll get you fitted for a gun.” A washing of hands. “Is there any reason patient two-zero-two-one should not serve?” Two pumps of foam. A dry paper towel. There was only the faintest trace of humanity left in the doctor’s voice. Patriotic conditioning, mandatory for all Republic staff, had tamped out the rest. Resistance obliterated.
The mother’s head began to spin. There was no chance of escape. She would be deployed with the rest of them. She would be dropped in who-knows-where with a loaded gun. She’d be hurt. She’d get lost. She might die.
The parchment paper crinkled. There was a prolonged silence.
“No,” she answered. Mallory looked up at her mother. Her eyes were wet with fear.
“Splendid. Now lay back, patient two-zero-two-one, and we’ll get started.”
Mallory slowly reclined. Then the doctor parted the paper gown and pressed a stethoscope to the child’s naked chest.