It had become routine by now. I was hardly shocked when the sound of shattered glass woke me. Through half-open eyes, I made out a figure: Simon, at the foot of my bed. His hand lay wearily on the corner of my shelf where a framed photo of me and my family used to sit.
“What’s going on?” I croaked.
“It’s happening. We have to be out at 5, so we can get to the field by 5:15. Hurry. Oh, and uh, sorry about the photo.”
The sun had barely begun to creep through the blinds.
As I opened my eyes wider, my world grew foggier. They said the transitions would get easier, but each one still shook me and threw me into a whirlwind of nausea and migraines.
Simon scrambled out the door, and I closed my eyes for just a minute. I needed to soak in the last time I would lie in this bed.
This placement was one of my favorites. The counselors were kind, and Prestudies, the placement for ages 16-18, was one I had long anticipated with excitement. At this one, we could run our humble fingers through the bed of sweet, sweet freedom.
We were allowed 20-, sometimes 25-minute intervals to stroll into the woods or the nearby creek within the predetermined boundaries, though most scarcely wandered into that territory. The board figured that little whiff of independence was just enough to fuel our motivation, but the time frame was intentionally short so that we couldn’t explore too much. Besides, it was easy to get preoccupied with preparations for the upcoming placement, and with it, our next stage of life.
The traveling echoes of the placement manager, or the PM, jolted me from my thoughts.
“You know the drill. Pack only your most essential belongings, and make yourselves presentable. That shouldn’t be hard; I know we’ve taught you well,” she bellowed through the halls.
“Don’t bring anything extraneous. If you’re unsure, refer to the checklist. There is no room for div— uh, extraneous items.”
Divergence was like a curse word around here. It was fiercely forbidden, though its opposite was chanted religiously. Convergence was one of the five pillars. But if our tongues grew familiar with the D-word, our PMs worried we might dare to experiment.
I finally gathered the strength to swing my legs out from underneath my bourbon-colored blanket. My feet landed with an unexpectant thump. I slowly rose, and it felt like I was fighting against a belligerent species of gravity. My body felt heavy. I hovered my left hand over my chest. My heart felt heaviest of all.
I grabbed a tattered backpack from underneath my bed. I always kept it where I knew I’d have easy access. The backpack had belonged to my sister; we weren’t supposed to bring childhood objects. In fact, we weren’t allowed any items of a previous placement, except those outlined on the checklist. But it reminded me of home, and Simon knew how much it meant to me, so when I met him in our third placement, he suggested I stuff it in the stale black bag they distributed to everyone.
I unzipped the front pocket and fumbled for a flimsy photograph. I was 6 in this one. My toothless smile almost exceeded the surface area of my face. I had just mastered the somersault.
I threw in one pair of jeans, two T-shirts, socks, underwear, a toothbrush. My frayed backpack wasn’t made to carry during transitions, but I grabbed an extra pair of pants and a sweatshirt I was hoping I could somehow pack with it into the larger carrier.
I glanced down at my KwikStap sweatpants — KwikStap was one of our shorter placements. The pants still had a hole just above the right knee where a spark had seared the cotton at a campfire two placements ago. The hole was only one of a few signs that the pants probably wouldn’t survive many more placements, but it signified an important memory, and it differentiated me from my peers, despite the fact that we all shared the same basic uniforms.
I’ll never forget our conversation from the night of the campfire. We were in our ninth placement, and it was the first time I had ever really ventured to talk so explicitly about the whole thing. The transitions, the placements, the conformities, everything. Off to the side of the fire, Simon, Iris and I contemplated it all.
We discussed how within each placement, all we knew was that placement. How informational outlets to other placements were blocked and how we only got to see our family two to three times a year. How creativity was obstructed.
There was always talk about Purpose, which was some obscure topic I never really understood. When I realized I was good with numbers in my fifth placement, they set me on the technical path, and things have stayed the same since.
“But don’t you ever want to stop and question why we do this in the first place?” I had incessantly pushed that question back then. “You have to wonder.”
Iris shrugged. She had this ghostly look in her eyes. “We’re not supposed to question.”
She recited those words on beat, almost like she had rehearsed it for the past 15 years. Simon sighed.
“There’s no time to stop and think. We’re here to obey. We’re here to work toward Purpose,” he asserted.
I knew he could tell I wasn’t content with his response, but he just shook his head.
“We shouldn’t talk about this. Someone might hear.”
In my room, I hovered over the shattered glass where Simon was standing earlier.
I swept up the family photo and followed the herd of people clambering toward the staircase. Simon had waited at the top for me, and together, we descended.
Outside on the front porch, I paused.
“Hey, we better go,” Simon called out from a few steps in front of me.
I gazed up at the eucalyptus trees that were towering over the building. They looked like they extended for miles.
The sun felt warm on my cheeks, and with a deep breath, I absorbed the world around me for just a few moments. The trees were by far my favorite part about this placement. They made me feel limitless. Somehow important and unimportant at the same time. Every morning and every night, they greeted me without fail. They had been the most consistent thing about my life here.
“I just want to appreciate these trees one final time, Si. I’m really going to miss them. They’re… different. I’m really going to miss them,” I murmured.
This goodbye was going to be harder than I expected.
“Aren’t you going to miss these, Si?” I asked.
He glanced over at me, and then up.
“Hmm,” he replied. “I never noticed them.”
And he turned his back on our home for the last time.
Contact Shaked Salem at [email protected].