Now a days, you want to be anything but high profile. That's why the demand for things like doctors, lawyers and politicians is so high. The money's good but you either have to be suicidal or have friends to protect you to enter into any of those "top" professions. Since most people don't fall into either of those categories, we tend to live by the advice "In this world, the best thing you can be is invisible."
I sit on the lone chair in the living room in front of a television that was probably purchased new back in the 90s. The rest of the nearly empty studio apartment boasts similar old furnishings that have seen better days. Nothing is extravagant and there is nothing unnecessary. The only natural light comes from a single window covered with thick, steel bars. Looking down from the fifth floor, you can see the street below. The streetlights shine down on the vacant block and illuminate a black patch that pops up on the street. To anyone just gifting it a passing glance, it would look like an oil spot, but a closer look would reveal that the spot isn't black at all, but actually tinted slightly red. Everyone knows what that means.
As I wait for the daily announcement to be made, I glance toward the front door. Heavy footsteps fall up to my door and I hear a quiet jiggle of the door handle. My hands tense as I slowly reach under the chair. I pause as the footsteps can be heard going back down the hallway. I release my hand that had clamped tightly upon one of the many essential items stowed out of sight and stand up, silently making my way to the door. It could have just been someone looking for a place to stay the night, I think, but odds are, I'm dead wrong. Well not dead, just wrong. Through a small hole at the bottom of the door, I peer into the darkened hallway, the lights streaming under surrounding doors giving me limited visibility. Suddenly a large black pair of boots appear in front of my door once again.
"Open up little piggy," a deep, gruff voice growls, "or I'll knock this door down just like last time."
I jolt upright in the chair that I slumped down in. Panicked, I look towards the front door and see it safely closed with all of the locks engaged. My heartbeat begins to slow as I stare at the television. The logo of the news station flashes on the screen. A bit unnecessary I think, since it’s the only one around anymore. The announcement begins with a series of numbers. 14 uptown, 23 downtown, 6 in the outskirts and 9 in the central city where I live. Then the names of each number appear on the screen. I breathe a quiet sigh of relief to see that all of the names are strangers to me. The screen then flashes another list with more names. This list is accompanied by pictures and a series of numbers after each person, like a barcode. I lean in to get a better look at each person. Below each picture is a name from the first list, the victim. After that, it switches to a video clip that shows some of the "survivors" stating their reasons. "He stole my wallet." "Her dog wouldn't shut up." "She flirted with my boyfriend." The reasons were always the worst part. I watched as clips flashed on screen of these people being tattooed with the barcode and walking away down the street. Sometimes the same street where a stray body still lay, awaiting pickup by the designated collectors.
The announcement dramatically switches to a young woman, sitting behind a news desk. I’ve learned it’s not worth keeping track of names. They usually get picked off quickly.
"Congress met today to make a scheduled ruling on Governor Jensen's appeal to pass limitations to the O.F.K. statute. It was unanimously decided to postpone the ruling another two months to give Congress adequate time to reach the best verdict."
All of this was politician speech for "never going to happen". In fact, they were probably hoping someone would off Governor Jensen before they had to actually make a ruling. I hate to say it, but chances of that were pretty high.
I don’t care to hear any more about what Congress will never do so I switch off the television. I double check the locks on the door and pull the blinds down over the single window in the apartment. I don’t want to see the spot on the street outside. I grab the flashlight from the floor next to the door and turn it on, simultaneously turning off the light. Silently I curse myself for falling asleep earlier and being so careless. A light on after dark is basically the bullseye on a target.
Careful not to shine the light near the window, I make my way to the small cot on the opposite side of the room. Laying down on the bed, I turn the flashlight off and set it on the floor. In my head, I go through my plans for the next day. I need to go check on my aunt. I haven’t heard from her in a few days. I need more food. I’ll swing by the store on my way back from seeing her. Then I’ll come back here. I don’t want to risk being out there longer than I have to. I made that mistake once, and it proved to be a fatal one. I shake the memory from my head and close my eyes, ready to go to sleep.
Just as I’m about to drift off, I hear loud voices outside and hear a scream. Pushing the pillow against my ears to block the sound out, I eventually manage to fall asleep.
I slowly open my eyes as the light streams in through the gaps between the blinds. The room looks dull even with the sunlight attempting to brighten it up. I rub my hands over my face and push my hair back as I sit up. Yawning, and trying to block the sound of the scream last night out of my memory, I stand up and saunter into the bathroom slowly. I’ve learned enough to know to keep my footsteps as quiet as possible. I don’t want to draw any extra attention to myself.
Once in the bathroom, I turn on the light and stare at myself in the mirror. Two brown eyes framed by dark circles that have become a staple the last few years stare back at me with the sad, tired look I have come to know so well. Instinctively, I run my hand through my short brown hair while flashes of my old long, blonde hair appear in my mind. I miss the old me, I think for a split second. I miss my old life. My family, my friends. My heart clenches as I think about my sweet little sister, always willing to help, and my parents who just wanted to make the world a better place for us. Their job to lock up, or in some cases not, was the root of their eventual demise. I hate to think about how their helpful actions were actually just marking them as targets. I shake my head roughly and expel the thoughts from my mind. This is the world now, and I had to adapt to this new world. If my family’s fate had taught me anything, it was that I needed to blend in, not stand out. I needed constant camouflage.
It had been hard though. So many people were trying to do the same thing I was. In the end, I chopped my hair short with a knife and used whatever color of hair dye I could find. Of course, after my cousin Brandon was killed, I needed to camouflage again. At that point though, there was nothing left for me to use and instead, I became more withdrawn and paranoid. No one blamed me though. I was following the actions of thousands of other Americans.
I turn on the sink for just long enough to splash water onto my face. I stare at my face in the mirror again and squeeze my eyes shut. As I grip the sink tightly, my plan for the day runs through my mind.
Don’t talk to anyone. Keep to yourself. Stay safe.
Keep an eye out for the men. If you see them, run as fast as you can. Don’t bring them back to the apartment. Confuse them. If you have to, use your kill.
I open my eyes slowly, purposefully avoiding glancing at my haunted reflection, and head back into the living room. I pull on a worn pair of running shorts and a faded t-shirt. I reach into the cardboard box next to the bed and pull out my last granola bar. Mentally, I bold my plan to stop at the store in an effort to help me remember. I rip open the package and munch on my last bit of food while staring at the door. I don’t hear anything from the hallway outside, but I have to be sure before I open it. I can never really be sure though. Leaving is always a gamble. Making my way to the door, I toss the wrapper into the corner with all of the others. I grab a knife from the chair and tuck in into my shorts out of site. Then I lean down and peer out of the crack under the door. It’s darker in the hallway than in the apartment but I can see that it is deserted. That’s sometimes worse.
I stand up and take a deep breath while undoing the locks on the door. Slowly, I crack it open. The hallway is still empty but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. I lock the door and shut it gently, desperately trying not to make a sound.
Suddenly an apartment door directly to my right opens. Instinctively, I grab my knife.
“Sydney.” I let out a sigh of relief and shuffle into Mrs. Dechtor’s apartment at her bidding. It’s not safe to talk out in the open. She shuts the door behind me and locks it securely. “I was worried something had happened to you. I heard it last night.”
“I did too. But I’m fine. No one’s come.” No one talks about anything directly anymore. Issues are skirted around and talked about in vague terms, or ignored altogether. Even with people you can trust. Mrs. Dechtor is one of the few people that I can trust anymore. She’s looked out for me since my family and Brandon, well, you know.
“Good.” Her wrinkled face looks more tired than I have ever seen it. I can tell that something is weighing on her more than usual. She grabs my shoulders and pulls me in closer to her. Whispering, she says “Now you should know that yesterday while you were out, there were some men in the building. I don’t know if they’re your men, but they were walking up and down the halls like they were looking for someone.”
My body instantly tenses up. “Did you get a good look at them?”
“Not really, unfortunately. There were four men. Looked to be middle aged and white. I tried to get a better look but I didn’t want to risk tipping them off to me.”
“I understand. You need to be putting your own safety first. Thank you for telling me though.” I smile faintly at her. It’s hard to find something to smile about these days.
She clasps my hand in hers. “Just be careful, please.”
“I will, promise. You too.”
I check under her door again and she slowly undoes the locks, repeating the same process I had to leave my own apartment. The hallway is still empty but I can hear voices from somewhere, so I cautiously slide down the hallway to the stairs on the other end. The voices grow louder and when I reach the stairs I look up. Faintly, I spot a group of teenagers standing on the landing a few flights up. All people I recognize, and nothing to be worried about. However, they are being careless and careless could mean bad things for me.
I make my way down the stairs, swiftly but cautiously and sneak out the front door. I glance at the people milling around the street but don’t recognize any individual faces. I know who to look out for, and I know I don’t see them out here. I had learned quickly that despite the O.F.K. statute, people generally aren’t a threat unless you do something to provoke them. That was true most of the time. The men I am watching out for though are the exception to that rule. I am their target not because I personally had done something to provoke them, but because my parents had. My parents and sister had paid dearly and now I was constantly watching my back, making sure I wasn’t the next victim. Or rather the next ‘Deceased’ as they called it, taken out by a ‘Survivor’. It’s ridiculous, but it is how things are and you don’t dare voice opposition. It isn’t worth your life.
I make my way down the street and to the bus stop at the end of the block. No one here wants any trouble so everyone keeps to themselves, a few yards away from the next person. After a short wait, the bus slows to a stop next to the curb and we quickly replace those who had gotten off. Inside the bus, there is silence. Like I said, no one wants any trouble and no one wants to risk upsetting anyone else.
I look over at the man sitting next to me. Quickly, I glance across the aisle at the woman across from me. Both have tattoos on their forearms signifying they have used their free kill. Even though I know they are harmless to me, it still spikes a nervous flutter in the pit of my stomach. It is weird to know you could be so close to people who were murderers, yet had walked from their crime, free of any punishment.
I cast my eyes down not wanting to take notice of anyone else’s tattoos or have anyone take notice of me. I keep my eyes down through the first few stops. As I roll up to mine, I calmly climb off the bus and make my way out onto the street. There are more people out on the street now that I am closer to the center of the city. I scan each face for recognizable features but I see none. Breathing out an unconscious sigh of relief, I begin the walk down the main street to my Aunt’s house, hoping she is okay but nervous that she isn’t, nonetheless.
As I am about to make my final turn, I pass an alleyway. Glancing down it briefly, I see a body yet to be picked up by the Collectors, seeping blood from a visible head wound. I will myself to look away and not stop walking. Stopping at a body means inadvertently showing your displeasure with the statute. Camouflage yourself, I think as I focus my gaze forward and turn down my Aunt’s street.
My stomach drops. One look at her house and I know that something is wrong. Nothing looks out of place, but I just know. I cautiously stepforward up the sidewalk to her front door. I knock lightly and peer to my sides while I wait. No one comes. I knock again, and still no one shows. Panic rising in my chest now, I jiggle the handle roughly and realize the door is unlocked. My breath catches in my throat, that is never a good sign. I grab the knife out of my shorts and slowly open the door. What hits me first isn’t the smell, or the visible blood on the floor, or my Aunt’s body lying halfway in the kitchen. It is the piece of paper lying directly in front of me on the floor.
You’ve evaded us for two years,
But soon you’ll have to pay.
Even though we got your parents and sister
We’re not finished with the Bays.
We almost got you once
But your cousin got in the way
Now we got your Aunt
And we’re coming for you, today.
The panic that was rising before suddenly rips through my body as I stumble backwards out of the house. I didn’t even know they knew about my aunt. I never thought they would target her to get to me. I never thought they would know I was coming here. But they did.
I knew it had to have been a trap and the men would appear at any moment so I sprint down the sidewalk and out to the main street. These men are experienced and that experience has made them good at what they do. Three used their kills to murder my family the day the O.F.K. statute went into effect. One used his kill on my older cousin, Brandon. One used his kill to take out my aunt. That meant there is one left. That I know of, I think. I dash up to the bus stop and glance around me quickly, looking for any sign of the men. I knew they had been in my apartment building earlier, but I didn’t want Mrs. Dechtor to know that and worry. I had hoped it was just a coincidence. Now I know for a fact, it wasn’t. They knew where I lived and there was no way, I could ever go back now.
I get on the bus and jump when it rumbles to a start and try to calm myself down enough to go over my plan in my head. I’m going to ride as far as I can away from the city and then hide. Maybe, just maybe, if I could go out West I could leave this behind me forever. Maybe I could even find some way to get into Canada. I don’t know. I just need to get out of here.
I snap out of my thoughts when the bus starts to approach its final stop and realize that I’m the only one on the bus. I can’t even recall if I was always alone. It doesn’t really matter at this point. Panicking I stand to get off when the bus speeds past the stop and throws me back against the rows of seats.
My eyes widen as I meet the bus driver’s eyes in the mirror. To my horror, I recognize them.
“Why don’t you just kill me now? You’ve got me alone. Why prolong what you’ve been waiting for?” I scream at him, while gripping my knife in my hand.
I see him smile at me. In any other case, he wouldn’t be a scary man. The O.F.K. statute changed people though. “I’m not going to kill you. I already used my kill.” He holds up his arm to display his tattoo. “I did find satisfaction in prolonging your Aunt’s death though. So don’t get your hopes up for something quick and painless. I don’t know what he’ll want to do to you.”
I shudder and keep my eyes on him as I run through my options in my head. I could try to crash the bus, maybe killing both of us. I could try to make a run for it when he stops. I could use my kill. No, I think. That would only make my problem worse. Suddenly I realize we are heading back towards downtown. He is whistling a peppy tune and I sit, resigned to my fate. There’s no way for this to end unless I die, I think hopelessly. Even though I wish it wasn’t true, I know that even if I managed to escape these men, my life would never be free from worry or pain. I would always have to peek around corners while holding my breath. A part of me would never feel safe in my life. As these thoughts rush through my head, I know. I know that this is it for me, and no part of me is scared. I want the old Sydney back. My old hair, my family, my friends. I want my old life back. And this is the way to get it.
The bus slows and eventually comes to a stop. “Get out,” he grunts at me, his smile not matching his tone.
I take a deep breath and step out of the bus. The sun casts a shadow against the faces of the five men surrounding me, all with similar smiles of pleasure.
“Sydney. So nice of you to finally join us. We’ve been looking for you for a while now.”
“I know,” I say firmly.
The man motions to the dead-end alley behind him. “Why don’t you come in here? I’d like to have a little chat with you.” I feel at this point that there is no point for me to argue, so I do as I am told and step past the smiling men into the alley. All five men turn to face me. “Do you know why we came after you and your family?”
I nod my head. I had put it together after my parents were killed. I knew.
The man’s gaze hardens as he starts to tell me anyway.
“My brother was named Marcus. He was murdered by a man who was acquitted in court, despite overwhelming evidence. You know who defended this man in court? Your father. He knew the man was guilty but he defended him and eventually that man walked free.” He pauses. “When I first heard about the O.F.K. statute, I knew immediately I was going to go after the man who murdered my brother. Getting revenge on him would have been enough for me. Unfortunately, two weeks before the statute was passed, the man overdosed and died. That was the final straw for me. This man had taken away my brother and then your father took away the chance for him to rot in jail, then finally, drugs took away the chance I had to kill him myself. But I still knew that I needed revenge. And wIfound a chance to get it by going after your family.” He looks around at the others.
“We’re not troublemakers Sydney, but all of us were denied justice because of your father. He needed to suffer for what he’d done. We joined together in our mutual anger to take out your family. Unfortunately, you were not home at the time we got your parents and sister. This is why we’ve been playing this game of cat-and-mouse over the years. And now you’re here,” he stands in front of me and smiles, “and our quest for revenge finally ends here tonight.”
One of the men behind him passes him a gun. “I’m sorry to have to do this Sydney.” He loads the gun. “But this is how we get our peace.” I takes a deep breath. This is how I get my peace too, I think. I take a step back as he points the gun at my head, and squeeze my eyes closed as he pulls the trigger.
I feel the bullet strike my forehead and enter my body. But I don’t fall. Instead, I stay standing. I look slowly at the scene around me. The sun slowly sinking in the sky. The worn down brick buildings. The group of men and the one still holding a gun walking away under a streetlight. The pavement lining the street underneath my feet. And the body lying behind me with a head wound rapidly leaking blood. It occurs to me that I recognize that body and that name that will be on the news. I am dead. Without deciding to, I start walking away from the body, my body, following the man with the gun killing time before I am taken away from this world. Soon I catch up to him and walk beside him, waiting as he gets his tattoo, waiting as he gives his reason, waiting as he watches my name flash across the news screen. Just waiting. He goes to sleep, but I stay awake waiting. When morning comes, he leaves his house and I follow once again. Suddenly I hear a voice.
“In this world, the best thing you can be is dead.”