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Quae Est Vita

She looked down at her meager ration of soggy cereal with a few droplets of murky milk. She hid behind her lanky hair and scanned the crowded room for food that she could salvage. Spotting a stale bread crust near the sterilizing cabinets, she felt her heart begin to race.

“Evelyn Fletcher!” barked the larger-than-life law enforcer on the pedestal in the middle of the cafeteria. “6293 Fletcher!”

Evelyn mentally cursed herself for letting her emotions get the best of her. Law enforcers attached a high-tech Pulser to everyone’s wrists at lunch to track their heart rates; fast pulses were known to precede threatening and illicit plans. With this in mind, Evelyn calmly finished her breakfast and rose to sterilize her tray. As she placed it on the cold, gray, metallic rack, Evelyn lost her footing and tumbled to the floor, slipping the bread into her pocket.

“6293 Fletcher!” yelled the tenacious law enforcer behind her. Strong hands grabbed Evelyn and pulled her to her feet. “No sudden movements!”

Evelyn steadied herself against the flimsy wall and neutralized her facial expression before heading back to her seat. She knew the law enforcer’s patience was wearing thin; it couldn’t be easy having to defend a regime with such immoral principles.

Evelyn felt her government-issued phone vibrate in her pocket as an ear-splitting bell rang to signify the end of yet another insufficient lunch. She pulled her long brown hair into a loose ponytail and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes before checking the message. It read:

Breaking News: Pax Provincia has conquered China. Millions of Chinese were killed, though Pax soldiers spared many out of the goodness of their hearts. Celebrations begin tomorrow at sunrise.

Already, the rumors were beginning to circulate.

“Did you hear?” whispered a woman behind Evelyn. “Those peasants were barbaric and old-fashioned! I heard they tried using the atomic bomb.”

Tucking the phone back into her pocket, Evelyn hurried to the thirteenth floor of the building where she was handed a script, taking care that she wasn’t late; she’d heard about the harsh punishments inflicted upon the procrastinators. Evelyn was placed in front of a bright green wall that seemed out of place in the dingy, gray room.

“You’re live in three,” said the law enforcer standing behind the camera, “two, one.”

“Breaking news,” Evelyn began with a well-practiced smile that lit up her face, though not her eyes. “Pax Provincian armed forces have conquered China in a fast, easily-won war. Millions of Chinese peasant-soldiers were executed, though Pax warriors spared many out of the goodness of their brave hearts. Celebrations to commemorate this imminent victory will begin tomorrow at sunrise.”

“Cut!” the law enforcer said with a nod of approval. Evelyn let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding, as did the rest of the newscasters in the room. To them, victory celebrations could only mean one thing: food.

*******

Evelyn turned on the dim lights in her kitchen. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of mildew and the brown spots on the once-white walls. This house had been in pristine condition back when her parents were alive. Now, Evelyn couldn’t even set foot in a maintenance store to buy supplies without being given dirty looks or shoves from the tired-out workers. “You’re the reason we’re stuck here,” they would say. “Your family did this to us.” In fact, rarely was there a store in which Evelyn did not receive this treatment. She knew to expect it, but it still surprised her that she could be blamed for her mother’s deeds.

Turning on the television and flipping to a random channel, Evelyn slipped the ever-present phone out of her pocket and set it on the seat of the armchair in front of the screen; it was her feeble attempt at fooling the government regarding her whereabouts (her mother had discovered that all phones had tracking devices). Evelyn grabbed a flashlight and quietly made her way downstairs to the small, cold basement, peering into the smooth darkness. She switched on the weak light and searched the room. At last, the thin beam of light landed on a skinny figure covered in blankets. Evelyn sighed with relief when she saw the little girl’s chest rise slowly.

“Hey,” Evelyn said softly. “I brought you some bread.”

At the sound of her voice, the girl stirred and lifted her heavy head from the pillow Evelyn had given her weeks ago. “Evie?” the girl whimpered weakly.

“I’m right here, Claire,” she said reassuringly, handing her the bread crusts. Evelyn had named Claire when she appeared on her doorstep to give her a new identity and protect her from the authorities. “There’s a victory celebration tomorrow. You know what that means, right? Food.” Evie had a hard time cheering Claire up, but she tried anyway. Evelyn’s dad had died trying to save Claire when he was fighting in Rome, so Evie did her best to keep that orphan alive.

“Food,” Claire repeated in her broken English. She absent-mindedly traced the identification number tattooed on Evelyn’s arm. “Pax Provincia. War.”

“Yes, the government claims we won it,” Evie explained. “And now we get food to celebrate. It’s the government’s way of recruiting warriors.” Evie’s efforts were rewarded with a nod from the girl.

Evie lay in bed that night with her phone in her pocket, massaging the crick in her neck from weeks of pillow-less nights. She mused over the fact that, if her mother hadn’t betrayed the government and revealed countless secrets to society, Evie’s walls would still be white, there would be food in her fridge, and the people in this overpopulated city wouldn’t blame her for the restrictions that followed her mother’s crimes. Evelyn laughed quietly to herself as she realized they’d hate her even more if word got out that she was hiding a prisoner of war.

*******

Evelyn awoke at dawn to the sound of a blaring siren, indicating the beginning of the victory celebration. Of the many bells that dictated her life, the victory bell was Evie’s favorite. She leaped out of bed and ran a hand through her tangled, dirty hair; Evelyn had used her ration of shower water to bathe Claire.

The city had been transformed overnight. Instead of drab-colored buildings, every surface was covered in red, white and blue streamers that glinted in the sunlight. Huge posters sported big, bold letters that said, “Pax Provincia: Conqueror of the World.” Masses of people crowded the streets as they rushed to the center of the city. Evelyn joined the organized stampede and found a spot by a faded, antique sign that read, ‘T mes Sq are.’ She marveled at the sight of the feast before her: platters of juicy meats rimmed with citrus fruits, trays of pastas drowned in sauces and bowls of bread were among the many plates covering the tables. Shielded by hundreds of people on either side, Evie was able to slip some food into her pockets for Claire.

“I know your secret,” whispered a faint voice in Evie’s ear. She whipped around to identify it, but was greeted only by the familiar dirty looks from her peers and the blood-chilling glares from the law enforcers lined up on the edges of the crowd.

“You cannot hide from us,” hissed the voice again. Evie hands started trembling. “Do not fool yourself. The government sees everything.” Evie shook the feeling of fear from her shoulders as one does with snow and returned to the banquet, but her emotions followed her home like a persistent dog. Putting her phone on the couch, Evelyn quickly went downstairs and checked on Claire.

“I brought you some food,” Evie said softly. She emptied her pockets into Claire’s hands. Claire’s eyes grew as big as saucers when she saw what Evie had brought for her. Claire ate slowly, savoring each bit.

“I think someone knows about you,” Evelyn went on. “I…I don’t know what to do. I tried to help you, ever since my dad brought you here. He died to save you! Because of that, I knew you were special. My dad,” Evie said as the first tear rolled down her cheek, “was a cold man. My mom was the real warmth in the family. That’s why I was surprised when he saved you! I know you can’t understand me, but I just want you to know that, whatever happens, I’m sorry for everything that you’ve been through.” Evie knew it was only a matter of time before the authorities knocked down her door.

Claire’s little hand snaked out and wiped away Evelyn’s tears. With a shaking voice, she whispered, “Quae est vita.” That is life.

That night, Evie brought Claire upstairs and sat with her in the kitchen, waiting for the storm that was the government. Claire was stoic through it all; maybe it was because she did not understand what was happening, or maybe because she understood it all too well.

At around two in the morning, Evelyn’s door disappeared and law enforcers took its place. Evie watched the whole encounter as if from afar, looking down at her own body next to Claire. It was all very surreal. The law enforcer from the cafeteria led the charge as authorities filled the tiny kitchen like sardines in a can. Evie’s sleeves were yanked up to reveal her left forearm where her identification number was tattooed: 6293. They ripped Claire’s sleeves too, confirming she was not a Pax Provincian. Evie received a kick to the back of her knees and she sank to the floor. She came-to with a shriek and launched herself at the law enforcer restraining Claire. Evie just couldn’t deal with it—the government had taken away her freedom, her rights and her family, and now they were taking away her last hope for humanity: Claire. Evie was not going to let that happen.

“This isn’t right,” she groaned with a feeble attempt at blocking an incoming punch headed towards Claire’s face. The law enforcer swatted her aside like a pesky fly. “This isn’t how it’s meant to be. This isn’t--”

Evie didn’t even feel the blow to her head, nor did she remember slipping out of consciousness. The only thing that broke through the blackness enveloping Evelyn’s mind was the sound of Claire hopelessly screaming her name.



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