August 17, 2041
I didn’t expect the person killing me to yawn in boredom.
The small print under her name, Hannah, reads transition specialist. I recognize the title from the online permission form: she’s one of the many “thoroughly trained, warm-hearted associates who provide essential services to our heroic volunteers.”
She probably exhausted her warmth earlier in the day. She said I’m the fourth volunteer since noon. I counted at least three more in the reception area nervously anticipating their final moments in this very room. Hannah will be eating a late dinner tonight.
I never met the physician. I guess that’s to be expected. Doctors don’t take temperatures or check blood pressure. They delegate routine procedures like mine. I’m just another lame horse needing a swift, painless end to my misery. No, not a horse. Horses, at least, bring value to the farm. I’ve been pure expense to Mom and Jeremy for eighteen years, dead weight at a time when humanity needed all hands on deck.
Hannah lifts a dressing gown that looks like an ugly bedsheet.
“We need to get you out of those clothes and into this.” She speaks loudly, like I’m deaf. Or slow.
I sense Hannah’s apprehension. I can tell she’s never worked with someone so incapable. Most volunteers probably have a semblance of mobility. But I can’t offer any help as she struggles to remove my shirt. I feel her cheek graze mine and taste the salty aroma of nervous moisture on her face as she wrestles my lifeless arm from its sleeve. Then I feel her unfastening my belt to remove my pants and underwear. She quickly covers me with the gown. It’s too thin. The room turns cold and suddenly stark.
Hannah’s blush diminishes as she wipes my arm with alcohol. The scent stings my nostrils. On her third attempt to locate a viable vein, she sighs at the inconvenience of such gaunt limbs. At eighteen, I’m around seven decades younger than her usual client. I’m sure she expected less aggravation. I guess every job has its little annoyances.
I feel like I should make small talk.
So, tell me about yourself.
Got a partner? Kids?
What’s a good-looking girl like you doing killing a guy like me?
Laughter eases tension. But I’ve never made people laugh. I’ve always made them uneasy—like an unsightly, but harmless, bug. They instinctively back away. I suppose laughter would be out of place here anyway.
I know what Hannah’s thinking. “How could any parent put a child through so much suffering?” The inverse of my question: “Why should any mom make such a sacrifice?"
And none of it necessary.
The sleepless nights.
The condemning stares.
Precious years and a small fortune spent helping me cope in a world designed for those far more capable.
Such a waste.
Hannah glances at my chart. “So, I see you just had a birthday.” Her own attempt at small talk.
I wonder if she noticed that my birthday fell on the precise day demographers projected America would cross the tipping point toward depopulation. They were off by three, but that doesn’t matter. The date was symbolic anyway. It’s been the topic of every headline, talk show, political commentary, academic symposium, and bar stool debate this entire week. I suppose it’s fitting that my transition appointment landed on the actual day. We are now officially in the same leaky boat as the rest of the developed world.
So I’m doing my part. Since I turned eighteen on Thursday I no longer need Mom’s consent. Mothers have never liked it when their sons enlist. But I know I’m doing what’s best.
As the first drops of yellow toxin begin seeping into my bloodstream, Hannah studies the healthy habits chart hanging on the wall over my left shoulder. Though much younger, she reminds me of Mom. Not in her features . . . in her movements. She carries herself with a sturdy yet motherly persistence. I want Hannah to look in my eyes. She doesn’t. She can’t.
I kind of wish Mom had come with me to hold my hand or rub my arm. But she never was good at this sort of thing. I remember the time she rushed me to the emergency clinic after my big brother shattered a vase, embedding long shards of glass in my foot. She willed herself to stay by my side while the nurse removed the bundled rags Jeremy had used to slow the bleeding. Then she apologized and slipped out to stand in the hallway. The nurse told me not to cry, that I would see her in a few minutes when my stitches were done.
During our farewell dinner last night Mom said her heart ached like it did when Dad left. What else would she say? Those were hard days. That’s when Jeremy told Mom he hated God. I never understood what God had to do with it. Still don’t.
I can’t remember Dad’s face, just the scent of his aftershave. I miss his smell. Mom said she misses his playful whispers in her ear. She blushed when she said that.
I’m pretty sure Dad secretly blamed Mom for me. Like most sensible people, he wanted to stop after one child. But Mom had insisted Jeremy needed a sibling. They imagined a healthy girl.
They call enlisting to transition a “heroic service to the public good.” In truth, I’m doing it for Mom. She deserves to have a life. Besides, I’m tired of living on the debit side of the ledger. No one has ever called me a debit directly, but the slang fits. They instead feign sympathy while mentally tabulating the costs. The latest numbers show another significant drop in the ratio of productive workers to elderly and disabled dependents. The math no longer works. People like me divert young and healthy workers from desperately needed innovation and growth. I won’t let that continue. I know I’m worthless, but I have my pride.
The procedure should take “an average of forty-five minutes.” The clock on the wall says I have twenty-one to go. Hannah checks her watch before retrieving a transparent mask hanging on a hook beside my right leg. She unwinds a bit of slack for the attached air tube: the next step in a tired but efficient sequence. Placing the mask over my mouth and nose, she gently stretches an elastic strap over the back of my head before typing my weight into the digital regulator.
I suppose I’m a lavish coward for choosing the optional sleeping gas. I know they’ve perfected the treatment to eliminate pain. I just prefer drifting into slumber to counting down final seconds like on New Year’s eve. Besides, the extra fee was nominal.
“Just breathe normally.” Hearing Hannah’s voice brings comfort. I’m glad my transition specialist is a woman, maybe even a mom. I bet she took this job out of a maternal instinct, to create a better world for her newborn child, or perhaps a niece or cousin. She believes this is best for everyone, especially me.
I don’t notice the music until a hallway disturbance interrupts its purring melody. Hannah looks away from the chart with a twinge of concern. She listens deliberately, as if hoping an intercom voice will confirm a false alarm. But the noise increases. A door opens and slams. Another slam, this time accompanied by muffled conversation.
“Please, ma’am, you need to return to the waiting room.” A woman speaks with hushed intensity, like a church usher scolding an irreverently disruptive child.
Hannah appears alarmed. This has happened before.
“I don’t care about your idiotic policies. I want to see Antonio!”
Hannah moves toward the door and reaches for the lock. Too late. It swings inward, knocking her off balance toward my bed. I feel a slight prick from the jolted needle. No harm, just the embarrassment of a mother interrupting my first and only act of independence.
“Ms. Santos?” Hannah asks, regaining her professional composure. “I must insist that you leave. We’ve entered a delicate phase of this procedure and . . .”
Hannah’s voice and body freeze. Twelve inches from the tip of her nose a small, razor-thin scalpel threatens. At the other end of the knife I see Mom’s trembling, extended arm.
“Stop this right now! I’ve changed my mind.” An odd thing to say since she never consented.
I’m surprised to see Mom with a scalpel. She must have grabbed it from another transition room. I had forgotten about the organ donation process. They’ll extract my useful parts from this very bed.
Over Mom’s shoulder I see the blue shirt of the building security guard arriving on the scene, short of breath and winded from the urgent, three-story climb. The scene unfolding before me feels sluggish, like a film in slow motion. I notice the twenty on the clock become twenty-one. Nineteen minutes left.
“Please, ma’am.” The guard looks young and sounds frazzled.
“Let me just . . . can I please walk you back?”
Our eyes meet. In a fraction of a second Mom and I silently converse through forming tears.
“Let me go, Mom. You deserve this.”
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“You know it’s best. I’m a burden for you, Jeremy, everyone.”
“You’re part of me. Part of us.”
“I want to go.”
The look in her eyes tells me this is more than last-minute theatrics of regret. It is an act of sturdy, motherly persistence. Mom waves the scalpel toward the needle and the mask. “Please. Remove these now.” A tender plea from one woman to another that is also a nonnegotiable demand.
“I can’t do that,” Hannah says sternly. “A portion of the solution has already entered his system. If I cut it off now your son could suffer a slow, painful death.”
“But he . . .”
“The treatment is cumulative,” Hannah interrupts. “Even a small dose is fatal. The more he receives, the quicker the process.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“Please hear me, Ms. Santos. It’s too late. Give your son this one mercy.”
The words sting. A clear indictment. “How could any parent put a child through so much suffering?” Mom failed to screen out genetic defects. She forced me to live imprisoned in a twisted, sickly body. Must she also profane my final moments, my heroic act?
Our eyes meet again.
“Forgive me, Antonio.”
“I did what I thought was best.”
“I know. I understand. Now let me go.”
I feel woozy, struggle to keep my eyes open. A long blink before forcing them back. Sixteen minutes remain.
Sensing his opportunity, the rumpled blue shirt lurches forward, awkwardly wrapping itself around my mother from behind. The guard tries to force her arms downward and knock the scalpel loose, but the surprise causes her body to react instinctively. The knife lunges forward, grazing the lower right side of Hannah’s jaw.
Both the guard and Mom fall forward, disappearing from sight. I hear a brutal thud and feel the force of crushing skull against the metal edge of my bed. I see Mom’s convulsing body topple into view.
Is an act still heroic when it kills the person you were trying to free?
I can no longer open my eyes. I don’t want to.
I sense commotion and shouting, but the noise fades.
I submit to approaching waves of slumber.