I’m ready for the brand new year.
I’m ready to start over.
To get a new job, a new family, a new home, a new life, he told himself.
I’m ready for things to get better.
I’m ready for a change.
Maybe things will get better with time.
It’s the only hope I have, he whispered in his mind.
After a worldwide suicide epidemic, the UN decided to make a change. They decided to take action, rather than wait as their population slowly died away. And that’s why on April 1 at midnight, the celebration starts and the old year dies. And that’s when the people get another chance at life.
It was March 31, and he was quite ready for midnight. The year had been an uneventful one, filled with nothing. He had learned how to make an origami crane. He had memorized the periodic table of elements. He’d read the newspaper every day. The sun had been out every day as far as he could recall. He’d attended a movie every other day. He had no friends.
Of course, no one had friends these days. Most people had forgotten what friends were like. But then again, no one had enemies. As the saying went, you either get good and evil, or you get something in between. It was true, and Stewart Nagel agreed. He’d rather feel nothing than feel pain. Almost everyone agreed, except for them. They had no name Stewart knew, because no one mentioned them.
They were the only chaos in everyone else’s order.
They were outsiders, and everyone could tell them by their clothing. They wore either bright colors, blinding to the eye, or dark colors, dampening everyone’s spirits. They were proud of their feelings, and openly cried and laughed. They were spontaneous and giggly and eccentric. They called themselves The Freed. No one knew what that word quite meant, as it was not in the dictionary. But The Freed seemed proud of their name, as if they knew something we did not. They did not celebrate April 1 at midnight.
They did not make the change.
But they didn’t care.
In fact, they had an air about them, as if they were being saved by skipping the change. They never got a new family, a new job, or a new name. The Freed stayed the same throughout their life. They only knew what it was like to be married to one person. To raise the same kids until they were grown. Never once did they have their eyes changed, their hair dyed, or their complexion reconfigured. They were a mystery to most everyone. The only solution was for the rest of the population to ignore them. They were a disturbance to the peace the UN had created for everyone.
Stewart had agreed with everyone. Until March 31, that is.
“Hello, Mr. How ya doin’ today?”
The Freed caught him off guard as he walked in the park that night. This one was a bit more normal than the rest. She had red hair and blue eyes. She wore a T-shirt with a plaid blue shirt tied around her waist, flip-flops and jean shorts. Still, she was one of them, and he ignored her comment.
“Mr?” there was a pause in her voice, a hesitation. “Mr, don’t you just feel empty?” she asked.
Stewart stopped walking. He stood in the middle of the paved road, and looked down at the flowers that were growing. He had in fact felt empty that still morning as he had awoken. He had realized he had no memories worth remembering from this year. The Changers always asked you if you wanted to keep any memories from that year before they erased them all to prepare you for the New Year. They let you keep only a few, he had heard. Stewart had never had anything worth remembering, but for some reason, he’d thought that this year might have be different.
He did indeed feel empty.
He turned around and stared at the girl’s ocean blue eyes. Inside, he saw genuine concern, and inexplicably, he trusted her. And so he answered her question.
“Yes, miss. I do,” Stewart replied.
The girl looked at him. She seemed to ponder deeply what to say next, and they stood there a few moments.
“Well, Mr., are ya any good at keeping secrets?” she asked.
“I really can’t say. There aren’t very many secrets where I come from,” he answered honestly.
“You look the trustworthy type. Come ‘ere. I’ll tell ya,” she said and gestured for him to come over.
There was something magnetic about her. A strange calling, a pull. He walked over, without a second thought.
He sat down next to her.
She extended her hand. He looked at her hand.
She looked up at him and laughed.
“Of course. Sorry, I forget you POW’s don’t know what a handshake is. Grab my hand, and move it up and down, slowly,” she said gently.
Stewart did so, although he felt somewhat foolish.
“What next?” he asked.
“Now I tell you my name and you tell me yours. I’m Cameron. What’s your name?” She looked at him expectantly.
“Oh. I am Stewart Nagel,” he answered quietly.
“Very nice to meet ya, Mr. Stewart,” Cameron said cheerfully.
“It’s- it’s very nice to meet you too, Cameron,” said Stewart.
Cameron smiled at his awkward greeting, and her eyes shone with kindness. She was an odd girl, Stewart decided. Odd, but kind.
“What is a POW?” Stewart asked.
“A POW is a Prisoner Of War. It’s all of the people who go through the change,” she told him.
“But there are no more wars in the world. And I’m not a prisoner,” he said curiously.
“Yes you are, Stewart. You’re a prisoner to a monotone life with no feeling or deep meaning. You get settled into life and then leave. You never accomplish anything worth telling. You have no real family. No friends. There’s a silent war going on inside of you,” she told him.
Stewart was offended. This girl was telling him that in his whole life, he had never done anything worth doing. Every year marked by April 1 was pointless. She said all of it so defiantly, as if she knew everything.
Deciding to take the chance, the girl asked another compelling question.
“What do you have worth living for, Mr. Stewart?”
He started to get up and leave, tired of this girls’ strangeness and too personal questions, when he realized what Cameron had said was true. He sat down on the sidewalk, silent. Cameron saw the defeat in his face.
Looking back, he couldn’t remember any other way of life than this one. He had no memory of any of his parents. He didn’t even know if he had real siblings. The kind people used to grow up alongside. What was it like to live in the same house, year after year? What was it like to have one person go through all of life with you? What was it like to wake up next to the same woman every morning, and know that she would be with you next year, and the next, and the next? What was it like to watch a baby grow from something so small to a child, to a teenager, to an adult?
What was it like to be able to walk to your neighbor’s house, and say, ‘remember that one time, when….’? Was that kind of life easy? Was it hard?
Stewart supposed it was hard. Waking up to only one woman every single day of his life? Only having the same co-workers to work together with on a project every time? And what happened if you didn’t like one of them? What happened if your child didn’t like you? Were you supposed to still teach and cherish them, even if they hated you as the adult for some reason?
But maybe it was worth all that work. Because Stewart craved to feel something- anything at all. He wanted to know that someone liked him well enough to make their friendship last for longer than one year. He wished he could look at his wife, and recount the story of how they first met, like those people before the suicide epidemic had done. He wished he had funny stories to tell, maybe of when he was a toddler, and couldn’t quite speak all the sounds yet. But most importantly, he wanted to get up from his bed every morning, knowing that he wasn’t alone. And knowing that the people in his life had chosen to be there, with him.
What was the point of saving lives, if no one was living at all?
“I don’t… I don’t know what I have to live for. Everything I’ve had, everything I’ve lived through, it’s just been a river of nothing. They trick us into thinking we’re swimming ahead, getting closer and closer to the ocean. But we never reach new waters. We’re all just trudging along in circles in a pool of murky water.”
Stewart didn’t understand. How could The Changers think this was better?
“I know,” Cameron said. “I know how it feels. I felt that way when Marlin first told me. Just that one question makes you look at everything differently.”
So Cameron had been apart of The Changing, too, Stewart thought.
“You had the same look as you walked by me today that I had seven years ago. We look for people like you. You’re one in a million, Stewart. You’re the first person I’ve told since I became a Freed.”
Cameron waited many moments, letting him reflect. Finally, she asked, “would ya like to hear a song?”
He stared blankly. “What is a song?” he asked. The alien word sounded strange to his ears; calm and yet enticing.
Cameron smiled. “You’ll see. Trust me.”
She picked up a smooth box with black lines running across it. There was a hole in the center and odd shapes sticking off the top. She placed it in her lap, and moved her fingers across the black lines.
Something in the air stirred. Stewart’s mind came alive with a- a feeling. It reverberated across his whole being, crossing his body, his mind, and his senses. He felt awake, energized. He couldn’t explain what he felt. It wasn’t something he could touch or smell. He couldn’t see it or taste it. He could only hear it and feel it.
He stared at Cameron. She was lost in her world as she played the box with black strings. He watched, mesmerized, as she made the song with her fingers. As it ended, Stewart gaped at Cameron.
“Wha-what is that? It was….. I don’t even know what it was, it was just incredible,” he said with a sort of reverence.
“Told ya you’d like it. It’s called music. And only the Freed know how to make it.”
“It’s beautiful,” Stewart told her.
“Yes,” she said, “Yes it is.”
“How are you free, if we are imprisoned?” he asked.
Cameron grinned at his question, as if seeing her pupil finally understand a concept.
“We’re free because we choose to be. We choose to never get another life, Mr. Stewart, because we know what it is to live as you do, and we have decided that it is better to feel pain than to feel nothing at all. We choose to live life and go through the ups and downs on an exciting and frightful ride rather than sit in the same position on level ground and never move.”
“But don’t you ever feel sad? Don’t you ever just want to give up?” Stewart asked, confused.
“Sometimes it feels that way. I’ve felt that way before, still do sometimes. But life is just a hope that things will get better. Whether that hope comes true or not I can’t say. But I can tell you this: I’d rather be grateful for the happy times while living in bad ones than never experience any happiness, love, joy, or hope,” Cameron explained.
“But how do you survive? How do you go, day after day, feeling all those feelings and thinking all those thoughts?”
“How do we survive, Mr. Stewart? That’s easier to answer than you’d think. It’s really quite simple. We survive on Music and Memories.”
“Can I join?” Stewart asked.
“We’d be honored to have you. Welcome to The Freed, Stewart,” said Cameron as the clock struck midnight on the clocktower.
“You’re no longer a prisoner. You’ve escaped,” she paused and looked at him intently and proclaimed, “You’re free.” Cameron got up and turned to the clocktower. She sighed. “Music and Memories, Mr. Stewart. Remember. Music and Memories.”
Mr. Stewart Nagel gazed at the odd girl. He knew something in that moment. He would always remember this first memory, filled with music, freedom, and finally, finally life.