It was beside me on the bed when I woke up — the little bag to pack my most cherished belongings before leaving to take the test. Our dorm has eight living in one great room and none of us heard anything in the night. No one ever does. This is the second time this week. The other bed is still empty.
The news of my test spreads like lightning. People are differential, but mostly avoiding me. What can they say? “Good on your test, bud. Wish it was my turn…not.” We live for the test. Years go by, sometimes, before a person gets visited in the night by the bag messenger. We’ve all heard stories of people spending their entire lives without taking the test. That’s the worse fate, I guess. But it’s not mine. I’ll take mine today. I have a whole day to myself to say goodbye to my friends and teachers, to the only family I’ve ever known, to the only place I remember ever living.
I don’t have much to pack. We are all issued identical uniforms and supplies. That’s why the bag is so little — I can only take a memento or two from this place. Some have taken dried flowers, others a small patch of cloth ripped from the uniform of a friend or a loved one. I have a little gray feather. It was bird chick I found on the grounds outside. I nursed it to health, giving it little scraps of food from my food and letting it sleep in my bed. One day I woke and the bird was gone. Only a little feather was left. I like to believe that it’s free somewhere out there. Perhaps I will see the bird after I pass my test…if I pass.
There’s no information about the rate of passage. We never see people after they’ve taken the test. They move on…one way or another. There are rumors, of course. A friend of a friend of a friend in another dorm committed suicide the day of his test — couldn’t take the pressure. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to leave? When you spend your whole life living our lives, change, any change, is difficult. We study and practice all day, every day, for the test. But I know that some hope that they’ll never have to take it. I’m not like that. I want change. I want to be free like my little gray bird. I carefully put the feather in the bag.
My stomach is cramping up and I have to rush to the lavatories. I know I’m not sick — we are always monitored. Our beds measure our heart rates and oxygenation levels. Our food is carefully adjusted to match our metabolic needs. Even my waste will be analyzed for pathogens and parasites. Today, they’ll know that I’m near panic, but everyone taking the test is, right? I’m no different. I’m not very special. But I still hope to pass the test. The test is everything.
When I return to bed, there’s a little-polished stone on my pillow. I know who placed it there, and of course, our minders do too — we are always recorded. For how else could they teach us if they don’t know what we lack? We study in groups, but we each get individualized curriculum. My best friend and I found the stone in a rec room one day, a few years ago. Something broke in there before we entered, and this was one of the pieces that were overlooked by the cleaning crew. That’s a rare thing — our spaces are spotless, nothing is out of place. I spotted the rock first, but my friend got it. It was jagged with sharp edges. But now it was polished smooth. My friend rubbed it between his fingers every day for all these years. It shines now in the morning light. My friend has been here longer than I. The rock was his most precious possession. I rub it between my fingers. I can almost taste the blood and tears on this small pebble. I gently put into my bad. A rock and a feather — my most precious possessions in the entire universe.
They come for me, and I don’t even have a chance to say thank you and goodbye. I know my friend will forgive me. It’s the day of the test, everything is forgiven.
They don’t need to tell me, I strip naked and take only my small bag. We’ve been told this much about the test day. Only the bag goes. All else stays. By the time my dorm mates return to the room, my bed will be stripped bare too. Soon, there will be another in my place. I glance at the empty bed of the other test taker from this week. I wish I’ve met the new person. We seldom get to meet new people. It’s a precious gift, to be savored and cherished. My friend will meet two new people. Soon he will forget me, but I will always remember him. I have his pebble. I’ll never forget.
We march down the empty hallways past the doors that open only for the test takers, only on their test day.
They leave me alone in a gray room. There’s a desk in front of me. On the left, there’s window showing a bustling metropolis. There’s so much newness there that it pains me to even look away. I want to go that way. I force myself to look right. The window shows an empty desert. I guess that’s where those who fail the test go.
I wait. And wait. And wait. I get tired of standing, but I stand. I get cold. I look only at the world of success. I want to be there. With them. With so many different thems. More time passes. Perhaps I’m just not ready for the test. What if I fail even before taking it? If I’m not good enough to even take the test? I panic. I want to be out there so much. I finger the little rock and wait.
Waiting is hard. We’ve been taught to wait. Those who are good at it are rewarded. I force myself still. But my heart rips. Before I realize what happened, my fingers curl around the rock, my arm swings, my hand lets go. I watch the little rock as it flies towards the window of freedom. It hits and the glass cracks. It only took a moment, less than a moment, a microsecond of a microsecond. The vision of life outside crackles and fazes out. There is nothing out there. Nothing. And then it’s full of bustling life again.
I can’t tear myself away from the spidery cracks. The little rock my friend gave me lies just below the window frame. I should pick it up. It’s precious. One of the two most precious things I’ve got. But I can’t. I can’t make myself move again. I force myself to believe in that world out there. But I can’t make myself unsee what I’ve seen.
“Human enough. Pass,” voice booms in the room.
I look around. There’s still no one at the desk, but the door out of the room leading left is now cracked open. I can leave and join that beautiful world. I move and pick up my pebble. But I can’t stop my body from leaving right. Did I pass the test?