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I wake to a soft humming noise reverberating through the utter darkness. I flick my grey eyes, accustomed to the absence of light. I push the lone sheet off of me and leap to the floor, my sock-less feet barely holding my weight as I hit the cold concrete.

“Ten?” I call out. Ten is my only friend in the Below. Older than me by several months, but weaker and more pathetic than me by several years. I guess that makes him less my friend and more my responsibility. I don’t mind though. He listens to me. Because he can’t say anything back. His tongue was cut out for speaking out against the Invisibles. The government down here. They’re known as such because they act through screens and monitors instead of real people. Anyway. Obviously Ten doesn’t reply, so I scoot over to his bed. His eyelids are shut, but the humming is definitely coming from him.

“Ten. Hey Ten shut up.” He opens his eyes. They’re grey like mine. Like everyone’s. “Ten what the hell you doing? I’m tryna sleep.” Ten closes his eyes again. “Thanks.” I murmur.

I can’t help but kneel by his bed a moment longer. Today Ten turns 18. Leaving me with all these other idiots. I glance around. Four bunk beds, one in each corner. I swallow forcefully, climbing back into my cold, lonely bunk. A god damned tear slips out before I can stop it.


At five o’clock sharp, the lights switch on. The eight of us shuffle about, not speaking. By five fifteen, we leave the room and make our way with hundreds of other Numbers to the cafeteria, a large, dimly lit room with yellowing floors and stark white walls and an air of misery and despair. Or maybe the last part’s just me.

A cold, grey meal later, we all trudge to a massive auditorium filled to the brim with foldable metal chairs congregated in front of a rectangular, raised platform. A television screen looms over the procession displaying a single, dark silhouette of a man. Ten places his hand on my shoulder and guides me further into the room. He knows I hate being in here, herded like sheep into the slaughterhouse.

Once a week all of us Numbers are required to observe as our oldest members turn eighteen and move out of training and into the real world. They’re assigned new numbers and thus naming them to a certain job. Ten has spent most of his training to become a soldier. Unlike all the other soldiers, however, Ten isn’t insanely built with broad shoulders and massive biceps. He’s quite special in his class actually. He was trained to be a wicked sniper, small, quick, agile and absolutely deadly with a rifle. I’m happy for him I suppose. He seems to really like it and he better. He shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near weapons considering his less than obedient record. But I guess they needed him or something. In fact, come to think of it, a lot of the soldiers named recently have gotten in some sort of trouble sometime in their lives. It’s a bit curious. Maybe they just make for a better army, more wanting to prove themselves? Not sure.

I ease queasily into a chair at the end of the last row. My heart sort of clenches as Ten sidles past two boys as he makes his way to where the kids being named are. I roll my eyes. That stupid bastard will be bragging about this in that silent way he has for the whole entire day now. Then my heart wrenches itself into a knot again. I’m not going to be a soldier. I’m trained to be a builder. Once you’re named, you basically stay only with your fellow workers. Today is the last day I’ll spend with Ten. It’s not like I hadn’t realized this before. It’s just that today it became so tangible.

My eyes jump around the room, analyzing faces. Children as young as two or three sit rigid and adorned in the prim, grey suits as is per regulations. Their faces are hardened, wearing solemn expressions. Down here in the Below, children are raised as quickly as possible so as to begin training as soon as possible. They barely even know their mothers before they’re even old enough to walk or talk. If I thought about it, I suppose I would find it quite sad, but that’s the point. Don’t think about it, just do as you’re told. Trained to conform flawlessly to the Invisibles’ rules, anyone who disobeys is never heard from again except for a select few like Ten. I look back to him, standing proud on the stage as numbers are announced. If Ten could talk, I’d never hear the end of it about how amazing being Soldier Ten instead of just Ten is. The simple guy. I’m not sure he would talk about much if he could actually. I’m glad he doesn’t though. I can imagine he could be obnoxious from time to time.

Anyway the dark figure on the screen begins to talk in that droning, deep voice so frequently heard announcing news over the intercom system. I deduced over almost eighteen years, yes I know not a too terribly generous amount of time, that this figure is the general overseer of affairs in the Below. As soon as the voice kicks in, I steadily begin to doze off when suddenly, the other Numbers around me stand to attention and file out of the auditorium. I had been totally consumed in thought and I’d managed to miss the whole ceremony. I’d never hear the end of this. But then again I actually would. Ten’s leaving tonight. Forever.

After patting my friend on the back and profusely congratulating the poor, naive bloke, I dash through the day’s classes and sneak away to the east wing instead of heading back to our room where I’d have to face my issues. I round the corner after a good ten minutes of pushing through the crowds on their way to the dorms. Underneath a flight of stairs lays a lone door with the engraved word Supplies front and center. The word has long faded away until only a grubby set of scratches remain. It once held a plethora of cleaning equipment, but now is only home to dust and nothing more. The perfect escape as no cameras or microphones were ever inside. I withdraw from my jacket pocket a scraggly piece of wire I ripped from my mattress years ago. A minute or so later, the door clicks open. With a quick backward glance I slide inside. The familiar darkness hugs me as the sharp lights of the hall disappear.

Over my years spent here in the Below, this vacant closet has been my escape from the harsh outdoor world. I pat around until I find it: a small strand of braided rope intertwined with little bits of silver and gold and a variety of colors. When Ten and I were younger, we would spend our free hours searching every crevice for something, anything, that was different than the grey, monotonous scene around us. Finding bits and pieces of past objects brushed into corners or behind furniture we distracted ourselves from the awful things around us instead focusing on the little treasures. That was until Ten rebelled. He never explained why to me. Not before or after. He just did and I didn’t see him for awhile and then suddenly, he came back. But we never searched for little pieces to add to our bracelet. I know it sounds cheesy and pointless but to me it’s the only thing I have that makes me me. So from then on I came here to escape from everything. Sighing, I tie the rope around my wrist, concealing it with my uniform sleeve, and head back to see Ten off.

Ten’s sitting on his bed, bag in hand, black hair combed back. He stares fixedly at this one spot in the wall. A little chip in the wall. It seems so strange that he would remember where that was, what happened. It was a stupid accident, not even momentous. We were just moving the beds when my hand slipped and the edge knocked into the wall. It wasn’t even important. Ten keeps looking at the chip.

“Hey buddy.” I whisper. Ten looks up, a feeble smile appearing. “So you’re all grown up now.” He laughs and I swallow a growing lump in my throat. “So I found this. Thought you might wanna have it. Help you remember me. Not that you would ever forget me obviously.”

The joke hangs stagnant in the air as neither of us laugh too consumed in our own heads. I swallow again.

“So here.” Shaky fingers wrestle with the knot. I take Ten’s hand and tie the thin rope around his skinny wrist. Recognition fires in his dulled eyes and suddenly he pulls me into an embrace. I’m going to miss this bloke. But all that stupid stuff is done now. As soon as he’s gone, I’ll move on most likely. It was a nice phase in life, but now I have my own career and life ahead of me to look forward to.

Before I realize what’s happening, tears gush down my pale cheeks. Ten sits me down on his bed, opens my palm, and set the bracelet there. I close my fingers around it, feeling the familiar threads and pieces. I know there’s no way Ten will take it now. He brushes the tips of his fingers over my eyelids, gently closing them. I claw the air frantically, desperate for him to stay here with me. I open my eyes. The room’s desolate. Ten’s gone.

Like the pathetic idiot I am, I press my face into his pillow. It still smells faintly like gunpowder and smoke, like Ten. You must think I sound ridiculous. An the truth is I really am. It dawns on me that maybe Ten was taking care of me the whole time instead of the other way around. A silent guardian. Now I really sound stupid. God I can’t stand myself sometimes. I’m a wreck. I crawl up the ladder to my own bed, still clutching the pillow to my chest. I lay down and yank the blanket over my hollow body. A letter flutters to the floor. I scramble to get it. Greedily tearing open the envelope, I find only a mere four sentences flourished across the page in Ten’s elegant swoops and curves. It’s addressed to me. It says To Finn across the top. That’s what Ten called me in place of my stupid number, Twenty One. He said he read it somewhere and thought I was a little bit like the Finn in the story. I hadn’t heard his voice in so long I could barely remember what it sounded like. The letter says:



To Finn,

Hope things go well for you. I don’t know what all to say to you. But thanks for everything. So get out there and enjoy what little life we’re given.

-Ten
P.S. Sorry I can’t put everything into words.


It was so quietly written, so characteristic of Ten. So simple but so meaningful. Then, I ripped it up and threw it away. I was never going to see him again. Might as well move on. I know this is a crappy take on things at the moment but I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t think straight. I took a shaky inhale and untied the bracelet as well. I held it over the trash bin for awhile, clinging to the last piece of Ten I had. I let go.



The next day there would be a new kid in Ten’s bunk. I probably would say hey, tell him my number, not like we’d ever speak again. I would go about my daily work until my naming then start a new routine in a different part of the Below. Ten might cross my mind occasionally and I might smile at our good memories. For that’s what he would be. No more, no less. A simple, surreal memory. And I would never be called Finn again.



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Skiman said...
Jan. 4 at 2:37 pm:
I really like the plot of this story and I think the ending is great. I could follow this story all the way to the end. I think with a few edits changing certain forms of words, creating more fluid sentences, and getting the character descriptions out when you bring them onto the scene this could be really good. I also think 21's number should've been introduced sooner. All in all it was good.
 
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