The following story won an Honorable Mention in last year’s StoryADay Short Story Contest.
She wouldn’t break eye contact. A film of anxiety glistened across her forehead. In her hands she turned over a small trinket, again and again—a good luck charm. She’d need it. The baggy hand-me-downs didn’t hide the frail condition of her body, nor her spirit.
I glanced at the paperwork in my hands.
Mary Emerson – 8 yrs – Sole Survivor of Glendale
Eight years old is too young to be a trainee, too young to be sitting the across the table from me tonight. I’m the evaluator. I’m the one who gets to choose who will stand watch in the night. It’s the job no one wants.
Each evaluation begins with a simple statement: This is not a test. But the young are eager to please. When I was a child pleasing our elders involved passing Math, or cleaning our rooms without being asked. Now, childhood ends when you can aim and shoot a target at fifty feet. This ghost of a girl wasn’t ready.
I made motions to cross her name off the list, when her small voice broke the silence.
“That’s what you miss the most?”
Chocolate. I tried to hide my amusement, but my facial muscles had other ideas. When was the last time I’d had chocolate?
“No, wait,” she said. “Batteries!”
“Better answer. Why?”
“Because, batteries generate electricity and we can use them to power machines, like flashlights and Thomas’ defibrillator.”
Eager and intelligent, she could be a malnourished version of me ten years ago. I’d been twelve and eager too. I’d sat with a group of ten other children, in the rain, shivering, waiting to be called inside. The room had been dark, like this one, but instead of a single candle there’d been a single dim light bulb.
Damn. I miss those generators.
“Okay, next question. You’re on the wall. You spot Leuks. What is the first thing you do?”
Her fingers squeezed the life out of the trinket in her hand. I’d had one of those too, a lucky rabbit’s foot. The silly souvenir was a gift from my father.
“I confirm with my binoculars. If there really are Leuks, I ring the bell four times.”
I pretended to make a few notes. There was no right or wrong answer, only reactions to measure.
“Next question. Leuks breach the wall. What do you do?”
Tomorrow could be the day. A raid now would obliterate this settlement. I wish my brother were here. Were we fighting the inevitable?
I tore my thoughts away from what I’d lost and focused on her fear filled eyes. Her need to prove herself had hidden the truth. But now I saw the jagged nails and torn cuticles. Who had she lost?
“What is it, Maggie?”
“Ma’m, are we are going to make it?”
“What?” Then I heard them. The bells were ringing. Shouts and screams began to pierce the darkness. Stay calm.
“Of course, we are,” I said and forced a smile.
I pulled a tattered white rabbit’s foot from under my collar and placed it around her neck. We all dealt with the stress in our own way. Some became shells of their former selves. While some heard the call of the blood, an overwhelming need to survive.
© Amanda Makepeace