Finn sat alone at the counter. In the kitchen of her two story house all was still. Her hands shook as she gripped her mug.
Al sat on the floor of his two-room house at the edge of the city, his mother beside him, both their hands shaking as they ate.
It was test day.
“Today, all across our great nation, the 361st day of testing begins for our precious twelve year olds. Only five days remain in the year, five days left to take the test!” The news lady said with her tinkling voice.
“Yes, now Wanda, do you remember when you took the test? I, for one, was terrified, but it turned out pretty well after all, I mean look! I’m here today with you!” The news man chuckled at his own joke and the news lady joined in with her high pitched squeaks.
“Of course! Nothing to fear, kiddos! The test is designed perfectly, you can trust your government to know where you belong!” She looked at the camera with a sugar-coated smile, and then the screen turned black.
Finn breathed heavily, holding the remote, but she made no noise. She could barely see her father sitting in the next room, but felt, as she always did, that he was right next to her, watching her every move. His words followed her around, “You have to be better than this! How would it look to the public - the people that look to me for guidance! How would it look if my daughter was hanging around that ruffian scum?” Finn’s face hardened as she remembered that day, years ago, when she had brought Al to her house, hoping to show him her backyard. Her father had thought that he was like them, living on a well kept, cream-colored-house kind of street, until Al rolled up his sleeves, just an inch, and he saw the tattoo that marked him; 2-6534. A child of a non-speaker. Finn’s father told Al that he had to leave, at once. Now. Before he called the guard! Finn still remembered her friend’s face, he looked defiant, but confused. His eyes were narrowed, but Finn could see the hurt in them. Her eyes looked to her father, who grabbed her wrist, exposing her own tattoo. 1-2210. “He is not allowed in our home,” he spat. “We are 1’s!” He pulled her from the door.
A few miles away, Al’s mother pulled him by the hand from the door. He had to leave for the test, the five mile walk could not be ignored, but he knew his mother was worried. She looked into his eyes.
Alonzo. A few seconds passed, then she put her hand to her heart, and then to Al’s. Alonzo. I love you. She smiled, and opened the door for him.
Walking against the wind, Al thought about his mother. Alone for the day, until he came home, working silently for rich ladies with jewels and pearls, who sat and gossiped while she cleaned their homes. Homes like Finn’s, where he had only been once. It had been easy for her to pay for the test, the 50 dollar fee had taken him years to save up for. But she had waited for him, she wanted to take the test together. It was last week, when he had finally gotten to the 50 dollar mark, but he was ashamed at how it had happened. He had been sitting on the floor, counting his savings, even though he knew he did not have enough. With eight days left of the year, he had given up. He felt tears welling up in his eyes and covered his head with his arms. He couldn’t pay for the test. Even if he had words to describe how angry, how miserable, how let down he felt, he would never be able to say them. That was when he felt his mother’s hands on his shoulders, pulling him up to face her. She put her arms around him and he cried against her chest, his ragged breathing eventually slowing down to the point where the only thing he could hear was her heartbeat. She pulled away and lifted his head so their eyes met. Alonzo. She pressed money into his hands, nodded, and left for her night shift. Al had stood there, dumbfounded, looking at the wad of bills now in his hand. And now, today, he felt the same shame he had felt in that moment. Gratitude, yes, but overwhelming shame more than anything. Shame that he had to depend on his mother, that he couldn’t help her. The test would change that. If he passed, he could speak. Speak, and have a chance to give his mother a better life. Al’s steps quickened and he held his chin higher, he was going to pass the test.
Finn could see Al coming down the street and she jogged to meet him at the corner. A few miles away from her house, the city-center stood in between the wealthy and poor parts of the city, the only place where speakers and non-speakers ever truly saw each other. That was where she and Al always met, running, waving, smiling. Now they walked slowly to the testing facility. The test. It had been in her mind since the day she turned 12, ten months ago. She needed to pass. What would her father do to her if she didn’t?
Looking nervously at each other, Finn and Al made their way through the streets. There were a few other people walking in this part of city, but the cold, drizzly weather meant most people were taking the city transports. At the city-center though, the transports were not allowed, meaning that today, along with little pedestrian traffic, the testing facility seemed to tower before Finn and Al with nothing in it’s way. They looked at each other before entering, as they were lead to the waiting room, and one last time before they left with their separate monitors. Al walked away with his head held high, his monitor struggling to keep pace as he marched onward. Finn looked after him for a little while longer, wondering how he could be so confident while she felt like jelly, wobbling after her monitor. The test had begun.
“Thank you all for joining us today, we will now announce those who have passed.” The woman looked around at the twenty of them, sitting stiffly in plastic chairs, as she stood above them at the podium. Finn’s knees knocked together as she tried to steady her breathing. She could see Al sitting a few rows in front of her, had he passed? Had she passed? She gave up and let herself take a few shaky breaths. The woman coughed, her eyes remained fixed on the piece of paper in her hand. She stood straighter, and began to read.
“2-3429.” The boy sitting directly in front of Finn stood up, smiling.
“1-6673, 1-4507, 1-3678.”
Al clenched his fists, digging his nails into the palms of his hands as he closed his eyes. His mother was probably cleaning toilets right now, he thought in disgust. This was for her. He had to pass.
Finn closed her eyes and thought about her father. On the phone complaining to his secretary. About her probably. She had to pass.
“And finally, 2-6534.”
Their eyes snapped open. Al’s widened in shock, then elation, then…. he looked back at Finn. She turned to him and smiled as he turned to walk out the door with the five other new speakers. Speakers. The word rolled around in Finn’s mind, speak, speak, speak. The smile slid off her face and she struggled to understand, Al was moving on, she was left behind. Behind, behind, behind. She was led from the room, and out the doors of the building, along with 14 other children just beginning to realize what had happened.
Finn sat on the steps of the testing facility for a long time. Waiting. Or stalling. Or.. something. She did not know what. What to do, what to think.
A few hours later, Al came up behind her, he did not know what to do either. What to do, what to think, what to… say? Speak! He could speak and he was thrilled.
“Hello Finn.” He could almost taste the words on his tongue, the sweetness making him giddy with excitement. He had been transported from the testing facility to the Speaking Services building as soon has he had left the room, where he had his vocal restrainer removed. He had spent two hours in the orientation for new speakers, testing out the new wonder he was experiencing for the first time.
Finn stared up at him.
“Hi, my name is Al.” He stuck out his hand jokingly, Finn did not take it, but he did not notice. “It feels so good to say that, my own name. Al.”
They began to walk, turning down the back street that would lead them out of the city square.
“Al, Al, Al, Al, it sounds weird when you say it so many times! Have you ever noticed that?”
Finn stopped abruptly and Al turned around.
“What? Don’t you want to come and see my mother, she’s going to be so happy.” His smile was so genuine that Finn almost forgot her newfound anger. But she clenched her fists and glared at him, not moving.
“Come on Finn, I thought you were happy for me too. I deserve this.” His face hardened. “I deserve this. My mother deserves this.”
They stood still, eyes locked, neither backing down.
“Fine.” Al said, crossing his arms. “Go home to your rich old Daddy in your mansion, maybe I’ll see you around. My mother has cleaned your house before, you can hire her out again.” His words felt like a slap to the face and Finn stumbled backwards.
“I’ve worked harder than you ever will in your life!” His voice grew stronger with every blow, Finn was on her knees. “Your entire life’s been paradise, mine’s been as garbage as the dumpster I live next to!” Al screamed, Finn felt tears well up in her eyes.
Al took a step closer to her, trying to slow his breathing. “Go and tell your father that you’ve finally quit being friends with that ruffian scum.” His spit on the ground as Finn burst to her feet. In one move her fist exploded from her side, connecting with Al’s nose in a burst of red. Blood splattered on the pavement as Al fell backwards and Finn ran away down the street, both of them crying out in pain.