The announcement came at 1 PM.
My husband and I sit on the love seat in front of our fireplace. I play with a loose thread on the cushion. We’d only taken the price tags off yesterday. I place a hand on my stomach. It’s deceptive — flat and smooth. But, the tests said otherwise.
Ilan twists his wedding ring back and forth. It’s his nervous tick.
My fingers wrap with his, and a small exhale escapes his lips. I run my thumb over his knuckles, and he pulls my hand up to his mouth, pressing a small kiss on each finger. My hand falls to my side. Our caresses won’t save us.
It’s 2:55 PM. General Calvin Might interrupted our afternoon football and said Collection begins at 3 PM. Two hours, that’s all he gave us. Two hours to sit and stare into the flames of our fire and say nothing at all.
I eye the carpet, bite my lip.
Ilan fidgets beside me. I know he’s not happy with the situation, but his comfort is still needed. I still need my husband. I reach to take his hand again, to grip it this time, but he stands from the couch, not noticing. He’s still in his church clothes — khakis and a striped button-up. He begins to pace back and forth in front of me, rubbing his temples and pinching the bridge of his nose. Ilan grabs his hair, tousling it and squeezes his eyes shut.
“We should run,” he says.
“We’d only be prolonging the inevitable,” I answer.
The alarm we set to warn us goes off. It’s 3 PM.
“Come on.” Ilan takes my hands in his, pulling me to my feet. “Pack a bag.”
I look down. “Ilan, where would we go?”
He frowns, blinks a few times to hold back tears, and pulls me into a hug. “I don’t want to lose you.” Then, he places a hand on my stomach. “I don’t want to lose it either.”
I suck in a breath. “How did you know?”
“I saw the pregnancy test in the bathroom trash can.” Ilan gives me a quick kiss. “This whole thing is idiotic. Why now? Why do they have to start the program now?”
“I don’t know.” My hair falls in my face. “It all feels so planned, but this is the first we’ve heard of it.”
It — The Void — a program that splits up life. Tears rush down my cheeks. No more husband. No more soon-to-be baby. No more new house. I sob.
Ilan and I hold onto each other in grief. We startle at the bang on the front door. It’s 3:15 PM. That’s all it took — fifteen minutes — to separate the families in the three homes before ours.
I compose myself and open the door. A pair of soldiers wait for us, guns against their shoulders and safeties flicked off.
“Mr. and Mrs. Finch?” A blonde soldier steps forward, cap pulled down to shade her face. Her name tag reads Dot. She can’t be older than twenty.
Ilan grips my shoulder, standing behind me. He pushes me to the side, maneuvering his way around so his body is between theirs and mine. We clasp hands.
“We need you both to step outside,” Soldier Dot says.
Ilan pulls me outside. I grip his hand tighter as I look down the street at the homes before ours. I wish I hadn’t. Covering my mouth, I turn and press my face into my husband’s shoulder. My neighbors must’ve resisted. Or maybe we are all meant to be shot down. I look up at Ilan. His face is pale. There’s a fury behind his eyes, igniting them.
Soldier Dot points to three buses. They’re all empty. “Women are in the blue bus, men in the red, and children will go in the yellow,” she tells us. Her pals form a blockade around her, blocking our view of the massacre at the house next to ours. Soldier Dot clears her throat. “We’re under strict orders. Anyone who does not comply must be taken care of.”
Ilan shakes. I run my free hand up and down his arm trying to soothe him. He eyes Soldier Dot. “So, if we don’t want to be separated you’ll kill us, but if we get on those buses…There’s no clarity. Do we die either way? What really is The Void, Soldier?”
Soldier Dot clasps her hands together. “The time for questions will come later.”
Ilan grits his teeth. “This is bullshit.”
I yank his arm. “Ilan.”
“This is! They can’t seriously expect me to just leave you.” He pulls me in close. “I won’t.”
“Ilan, please.” I move from foot to foot.
“No,” he says. He looks at Soldier Dot. “I’m not leaving her.”
Soldier Dot motions to one of the soldiers with a gun.
“Ilan, please, just cooperate.” New tears form in my eyes.
He shakes his head. “I won’t leave you.”
A gun fires. The shot is deafening.
I topple over, still holding onto my husband as he goes limp. A feral yell escapes me as I clutch his shirt. “No.” Hands grip me under my arm pits and lift me away from Ilan. I shake my head. “Stop!” They force me to face away from him and toward Soldier Dot. She doesn’t look phased. “You’re a monster. You’re all monsters.” My body convulses in rage. A soldier raises his gun at my forehead.
“What’s your decision?” Soldier Dot asks me.
I crane my neck to look at Ilan. His eyes are still open. Someone needs to close his eyes. I try to break away from the men holding me in place, but their grips tighten.
“Please, just let me tell him good-bye.” I yank toward him again.
“We need your decision, Mrs. Finch,” Soldier Dot says.
I glare at her.
“Aim to fire,” Soldier Dot tells her gunman.
Fear fills me. I think about Ilan lying dead on the ground, and I think about the baby in my stomach. “Just kill me,” I beg. I won’t live without Ilan, and I won’t raise a kid in a world if it’s going to be like this. “Kill me.” The soldiers push me to my knees.
Soldier Dot pulls out a gun and walks up to me. She places the tip under my chin and forces my eyes up to hers. She gives me a good, long look — her hazel eyes tracing my face. She puts her index finger on the trigger.
I shut my eyes.
Her cellphone rings.
I jump at the sound, and she pulls it from her front pocket. She hangs up after a minute or so and lowers her gun. “No time to waste with this one. Take her and strap her in. We don’t need any runaways.”
I’m lifted to my feet, and Soldier Dot moves on to the next house. I panic, look for an escape. I don’t want this. I want to die. I want to be with Ilan. My arms flail and my legs kick, but the soldiers keep hold of me as they drag me onto the blue bus for women.
The bus seats are equipped with restraints. They tie me in, like a straightjacket, and I take in quick, sharp, painful breathes. I can’t breathe. I rest my head against the window and my hair blurs out children being yanked from their parents, and men and women being shot down for protecting one another.
I don’t know what time it is, but it’s a long time before someone else is on the bus with me. She’s strapped in next to me, her face hard and passive. Her eyes aren’t red-rimmed like mine. Yet, her bottom lip quivers.
Other women join the bus. It seems the more that die, the less resistant families become. They’re more willing to hope to live than die. I wish Ilan had thought of that. I wish he was here.
The bus comes to life when the sun sets. Soldier Dot drives, but we don’t know where to. Every woman expresses some kind of grief, even those who didn’t watch their husbands or their children die.
I peek up at the stars. I wonder if Ilan is watching me. Maybe he didn’t really leave.
The bus winds along an empty road. I fall asleep at some point, waking to the bus going over a large bump. My head aches and my face is swollen from crying. I try to get more comfortable but the restraints don’t allow it. They’ve caged us like animals.
I think back to the election of General Might. The nation was united under one President at the time. War had ceased. In fact, General Might and his soldiers were a dying breed. I can’t remember how he’d done it — how he’d managed to convince us he was the right man to take over.
More buses join us on the road. All of them are blue.
Our own bus slows down, matching the pace of the others. Soldier Dot speaks with someone on the phone. Eventually, we come to a full-on stop, waiting in a long line of blue.
My head falls back against the bus seat, and I let out a breath of frustration and sorrow. Ilan would know what to do. He’d know how to escape. He had always been the inventive one — the one with a plan — and I was always the one that helped him accomplish it.
I twist my legs together, my bladder full.
General Might announced The Void to us an hour before he announced the Collection. “The Void is a program that will help humankind become more independent, instinctual, and intelligent. It will prepare us for a future of hardships and make us stronger as a nation,” he had said, his voice booming through our TV. Scientists had been predicting the end of Earth to be near. General Might thinks The Void will be the solution to the problem.
The bus moves forward a bit. A tall metallic tower comes into view. It’s lit up with blue and white lights, and the parking lot is full of blue buses. Soldier Dot’s voice comes in over the bus’s intercom.
“Ladies, welcome to the Women’s Center for The Void. General Might wanted me to thank you in advance for your future cooperation.” She grips her handgun tighter. “When we exit, you will follow in a single file line into the tower. Any women under thirty will exit through the back door.” She points toward the back of the bus. “The rest of you will exit up front.”
I look toward the back of the bus, as do most of the other under thirty women. Why are we being separated again?
Women raise their voices in protest, concerned and confused. The bus parks, the restraints loosen, many of us pull free in relief. I look over at the woman who’d been sitting next to me. She’s shucking off her restraints and making a beeline for Soldier Dot.
“Where are my children?” she asks as she gets closer.
Soldier Dot unbuckles and stands, raising her gun. “Calm down.”
The woman turns to us. “What are you all doing? These people have ripped us from our families and they expect us to just comply and shut up.” She glares at Soldier Dot. “I think it’s time we get some answers.”
Several women nod in agreement, but none are brave enough to stand up with her. I get the remaining of my restraints undone, playing with my wedding ring as Soldier Dot clicks her gun’s safety off.
“Get back to your seat,” Soldier Dot says.
The woman stands her ground.
I tremble, turning away as the gun goes off. There’s a thud as the woman hits the bus floor. Screams escape many women and I gag. The blood ventures under the bus seats, crawling toward me. I squeeze my eyes shut, only to be met with the image of Ilan’s lifeless body imprinted into my mind.
“Line up,” Soldier Dot shouts, “Do as you’re told or be made an example.”
I slip past the dead woman and line up with the other under thirties. We file out the back of the bus, soldiers lined up to guide us toward the Women’s Center for The Void. All of the older women are being led onto new buses. Where are they taking them?
The line into the Women’s Center is long. Every minute, I take one step forward. It’s exactly 60 seconds every time a woman is allowed entry into the center. After 142 minutes, I stand at the gate. It’s freezing outside, my thin cardigan not doing much to shelter me. I have my hand wrapped around my stomach, terrified of what fate lies ahead for pregnant women.
When it’s my turn, I’m handed a stack of gray clothing. I’m patted down, checked for weapons, and sent toward an escalator. A pair of glass doors slide closed behind me. Soldiers are all about, preparing for our arrival. I wonder if they got to keep their families while they shot down ours.
I step up onto the escalator’s first step and let it carry me upward. Metal walls are on either side of me. I have no idea where I’m going.
The ride lasts a solid ten minutes to the top. A soldier waits for me. He doesn’t wear a cap like many of the others. He escorts me to a second pair of glass doors, enters a code, scans his hand, and the doors slide open. I follow him inside, weary and hungry. My bladder is still full, making my back and lower abdomen ache.
We walk within a metallic hallway, iron doors lining it like a prison. There’s a soldier stationed at each door except one — mine. Madeline Finch, it reads, Identification Number 143. My escort unlocks the door and nods inside.
I shift from foot to foot, grasping the gray clothing. “What is this?”
“This is your room.” The soldier pulls out his gun. “It’s time to go inside.”
I stare at the gun. “Do you have a family?”
He doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“Did they have to leave you?”
“Then, why are you doing this? Surely, you feel pain.”
He lifts the gun toward my face. “General Might is a great commander. He knows what’s good for his people. Now, get in your cell or be forced.”
I frown and move past him into the room. It’s exactly what he said it is: a cell. There’s a cot, a toilet, a sink, and that’s it.
He points at a box in the corner. “After changing, put your old clothes in the box. Someone will retrieve them when they bring you your dinner.” He shuts the door and closes me in.
I use the bathroom first. Then, I crawl onto the bed. There’s no blanket or pillow, just a mattress. I pull my knees to my chest and sob. There’s no windows, no clock. I’m stuck living the same day. Ilan’s death replays in my head, his blue eyes flash with pain before he and I hit the ground. I could have easily stood up with the other woman on the bus and died. I could have easily disregarded my escort’s words and died. Why didn’t I? I think of the baby, but I know it’s not why. It’s not the whole reason, anyway.
I rock back and forth until the door to my cell opens. I wait, expecting a soldier to bark an order at me, but instead there’s nothing.
I stand, move toward the door, and peer out into darkness. It’s pitch black, not a light in sight. “Hello?” I ask, gripping the door of my cell.
There’s nothing, not even my echo.
I take a step forward and my cell door slams shut behind me. I spin around and lunge forward for it, but there’s nothing. I keep reaching, keep moving forward, but I never grasp ahold of anything.
A light flickers on above me and I find myself lying down on a table. Confused, I try sitting up, but I’m strapped down. My heartbeat beeps on the monitor next to me and my feet are cold. I feel different. My body is numb.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
A figure appears above me, shadowed by the overhead light. “Patient 143 is active,” she says.
A second figure appears. “She’s stitched up. Give her some pain medication and put her back to sleep,” he tells her.
She messes with a tube hooked up to me and I become groggy. My eyelids droop close, and I’m back in the darkness again.
I stumble forward and find the metal handle of my prison cell. I tug on the door and it clangs open. I scramble to my cot in fear of the darkness — the nothingness. The longer I sit and stare, rocking back and forth, the brighter things become. I look down at myself, clad in the gray uniform I don’t remember putting on, stomach no longer hungry, and realize too late what has happened.
I clutch my stomach, a roar of anger leaving me voiceless, and play with the wedding ring no longer on my finger. I search the cot for my ring but it’s nowhere in sight. I scream at no one and at everyone. “Give them back.” I pound on the door of my cell. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill all of you.”
They took Ilan away. They took my baby away. And, if I had a mirror, I’d see they’re taking me away too.
I fall against the wall and slide to the floor in agony. My face falls into my hands, my shoulders hunch over, and my body wracks in sadness. I raise my head at the sound of static. A projection appears on the opposite wall. I don’t know where it’s coming from. I scream at it too as it transforms into a picture of General Might.
He smiles at me, folds his hands together in his lap, and I howl. I howl loud enough that I’m sure he can hear my fury, but he stays steady. He keeps smiling, and as I punch the metal wall he’s housed inside he says, “Welcome to The Void.”