I am 1,237 years old. I only recently discovered my age. Age is a new concept. Not time. Not minutes or hours, everyone knows what those are, but longer periods of time. Existing in time.
Today the Voices will send a message to all the homes; “Happy New Year, New Vista residents! Enjoy another year of safety and security. Peace be among you.” The message will be accompanied by a music that is familiar but unidentifiable. Music for the in-between times. An annual five minute celebration of nothing changing. Ever.
A year is 250 days for our society. I know because I counted. Twice.
Inside my closet on the back wall, behind my daytime clothes, there are 251 marks. Each mark has been etched into the wall with a fork. The same fork that my partner had noticed missing each day for the past year. We have six forks. Two for each meal. Each morning the five remaining stare out of the drawer begging to know where the sixth has gone. I know. It is in my winter shoes waiting to be removed each morning to make a mark. Today is special, there is a circle on the first and now on the last mark too. Today is message day.
My partner will be disrupted by my actions. Marking on the wall is not something that is part of the daily routine. I can’t help myself. He wouldn’t understand. He never met the stranger and likely never will unless the stranger crosses his routine. We all have a routine and now it feels like a trap. It is one thing to be part of something bigger than yourself, a collective effort, but to recognize a system – to feel swept along by that system- is quite different.
I can’t help but question myself as I sit expectantly in front of the large flat viewing screen in the eating area, my banner. I am waiting for the screen to flicker to life as I stare at myself in the glassy blackness. My hair is falling around my ears and brushing my shoulders. It looks dark brown or black in the shadowy reflection but in the outside light it is dark green. Hair color is something out of the routine that we are allowed to change, within reason. Even my hair color choices follow a pattern.
The stranger crosses my mind as my eyes drift to the green numbers on the eating area wall, 08:59. Only one minute until the message. A chance to see through the cracks of my existence. I know that finding something out of the ordinary is a small chance at best but I am at a dead end.
My partner is in route to his work time. Todd. His name is Todd and I rarely ever talk about him as Todd. I’m not sure why. Todd is in route to worktime. Mine starts after the lunch hour. Today I’m glad to be alone with my thoughts. I need to see something for myself without being told to look. It is the only way I can believe.
The stranger had some many questions that I couldn’t answer, coincidental evidence. “Have you ever been past the mountains to the west?” he asked once with a hint of a smirk. Like a smart kid who knows the answer before asking the question. I don’t have an answer but I reply, “Why is that important?”
“Maybe it isn’t important. Who is the last person you remember that died?”
I was struck by the thought. Something inside me knows the concept of death but the moment that he asks I freeze. “I… don’t remember. That still doesn’t prove anything. We have doctors and medicine right? That isn’t impressive either.”
“Maybe it’s not. But just in case… My name is E.J.” He places two fingers to his forehead in some kind of half-hearted salute, “I have a suspicion that I may be the first person you know who will die.”
“Are you sick?” I did a quick count and he was right. I couldn’t remember anyone being sick or dying, ever.
“No, not like you would imagine. Just likely to…leave. I would be careful who you share with though. What I have might not be a disease but it could be contagious.”
He was sitting on a mound of grass beside the sidewalk in front of my house. His hands were clasped together in his lap and he was looking at the horizon. Deep in thought. That was the last time I saw him. All I really remember is his short sandy hair, a stubbly beard, and a soft blue shirt. My mind wants to think the shirt was cotton but I’m not sure. I should have told him my name, Katherine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he already knew.
At hour 09:00 the message brings my banner screen to life. I sit up straight on the high bar stool, arch my back, and take a deep breath. I push E.J. from my mind. My eyes quickly began to search the screen inch by inch. A blue and hot-pink background with showers of different colors glimmered as giant silver words jumped off the screen. I know what they say without reading. The background gets brighter and then darker as the smooth and steady cadence of the Voice reads the words aloud. I am busy looking for something…anything that is different. I know that the screen won’t be on for very long. The message will be over and the glassy blackness will return. My blackness, my reflection, my questions. They will all remain. There will be 250 fresh scratches on my closet wall while I wait for my next chance to question my world.
Then I see something at the bottom edge. Small block lettering, ANNUAL MESSAGE 1237. So small and low that it might never be noticed but I notice it. I feel a mix of excitement at finding something new and a strange new emotion – fear. A sudden knowledge that makes me feel exposed. The fear hangs tight to my chest and I feel naked. I have questioned the world and received my answer. E.J. is right.
This place is strange.
I feel the burning curiosity and the feeling that by trying to understand my world I may break it. I want to go back. Before the first day he appeared.
For as long as I can remember I have walked in the mornings from 06:30 to 07:30. Daily exercise. This morning, E.J. is moving down the sidewalk in perfect step to line up with me as I turned out of my yard and onto the sidewalk. This is not ordinary. He should slow down to prevent potential social discomfort by allowing me to stay ahead but he does not. I can see his short beard is a little wiry and his eyes are bright. There are details to his skin that catch my attention, a stray mole on his cheek or slight wrinkles at the edge of his eyes. I don’t see many wrinkles… or moles, for that matter. Perhaps I stared at him moment too long.
“Hi there.” He says just loud enough for me to hear.
I smile and offer a small wave of the hand. Acknowledgement but not an invitation. He doesn’t take my hint.
“Do you not say hello to a friendly neighbor?”
“Are you my neighbor?” I do not turn to look at him as I answer but I listen for his steps and he is still close beside.
He talks like we are old friends, “Where are you walking?”
A ridiculous question. “I’m getting my daily exercise.”
“Why? Because they tell you to?” He looks behind us as if someone is watching.
“No. Who do you mean by ‘they’?” I don’t know anyone who would be watching daily exercise.
“Whoever tells you what to be and what to do.” He stares past me momentarily at something in a neighbor’s yard, “This is a really strange place.”
“No one tells me. I just walk for my health.”
He is matching stride beside me and he doesn’t seem to believe me, “I see. Just like every other Stepford Wife on the block. Leave at 6:30 and get back at 7:30. Everyone has the bright idea for the same one hour walk?”
“I don’t know what a step-wife is or what you are even talking about.”
“It’s a movie… never mind. Look around you. Ever female on this street came outside at the same time and you are all walking the same route. A circle of two miles and then back to your homes.”
I looked up along the sidewalk and saw that what he said was true. I stop for a moment. He wraps my arm in his and tugs me forward while chuckling.
“Don’t stop here, you will confuse the others.” He seems amused at our whole conversation. “You honestly have never noticed have you?”
“No. I don’t suppose I have.” My feet continue to walk but my mind is considering other things. Why are we all walking? When did I start walking in the mornings?
E.J. talks into the space ahead of us, like the words will hang in the air and fall into our ears as we pass. It feels that he is telling secrets out loud. “This whole place is such a rigid routine. I have been watching for a few weeks now. Every night is something different but the days of the week are all the same. Tuesday night is card night with the neighbors, right?”
Tuesdays are card night. “How do you know that?”
“It is card night for every house on this block.” He holds out his arms to show me the houses all around us. “The even houses go to the odd houses across the street. Have you never noticed that either?”
“No.” E.J.’s questions make me feel lazy. Should I notice these things?
“Amazing.” This time he stops to stare.
We continue with his questions and my lack of answers until the sidewalk has circled around back to my house. 07:28. Almost time to be done with the daily exercise. I notice the other women leave the sidewalk and approach the front door of their homes at almost the exact same time. I never noticed it before.
A clock on the eating area wall comes into focus and I realize I have been lost in thought. The clock is a plain white circle with two skinny black hands. There are no numbers. The message on my banner screen has long since gone dark and for the first time I am not sure what to do next…