“Just think,” Jess Lewis said, her voice trembling on the last word, “It’s our last day together.”
The tone in the room shifted, my entire family quieted at the sound of my best friend sniffing. In the corner of my eye, I saw my parents glare at her from across the restaurant, her words a tough reminder on this otherwise happy day.
“Don’t remind me,” I grinned, leaning back against the booth’s leather upholstery.
My face was burning from the attention I’d been getting and the fruity alcoholic drink that sat half finished in front of me. The streamers that exploded from the top glistened under the restaurant's half-lit hue. But it was the balloons that were drawing the most attention. My nan had attached them to her husband's’ wheelchair on the way in, having to push them through the door frame because they were so huge. They alerted everyone that today was my day and I hated every minute they floated.
18, they read in star-spangled numbers. Shining in holographic gold, just bright enough to make people stare. But I knew it was just because they knew what it all meant once someone turned 18 and I didn’t need Jess to rub it in.
She has another 2 months to spare.
It was stuffy in the restaurant, my whole family was packed into the cupboard sized back room of our local pub at my Dad’s insistence. All trying to avoid that it was my last day on earth.
Everyone’s trial is scheduled for the midnight of their birthday and mine was tonight. 3 hours away.
Our food came and everyone gathered around the table, and Jess’s drawn out sighs registered as shouts in my mind.
I squinted, “Are you… crying?” I asked, incredulous. When we’d met two years ago, I’d have taken Jess to be the bitchy type. Always done up, always perfect, only sometimes a touch judgemental. All the same, she’s stuck with me. Hers was the longest friendship I’d ever had.
Her mascara flaked onto her cheek and she swept away but a big fat tear.
“No,” She lied, her voice thick now.
I elbowed her, “We’re going through the same door remember, I’ll see you in, like, two months,” I beamed.
She gave her eyes another candid wipe before Lady distracted us all, standing tall and proud at the head of the table.
Joe slouched beside her, gripping the arms of his wheelchair, unhappy to have been forced into the shadow of my balloons.
Jess and I had decided within two weeks of first meeting that we’d going through the same door for our trials and it was between three. Three doors I’d only ever seen in school textbooks. It was always a toss up between the doors that offered forever wealth, eternal comfort and perpetual freedom. We’d pick wealth and live in twin mansions that share a garden. Our future children can play together and our husbands would be the hottest men we’d ever seen.
Those three doors were the path to our future and that was it. You couldn’t change your mind once you’d gone through and left your family behind forever because, after all, they’d already made their decision when they were my age.
I don’t think 18 years is ever enough to make a decision like that. I’ll forever be proud of the ones who drew straws or flipped coins to figure it out. God knows I could never do it, so I relied on Jess. That way even if I thought I’d picked wrong at least I’d have her.
The table we sat at was long and made up of five tables slotted together. Jess was to my left and my Dad dropped himself down onto my right, gripping my hand as Lady started her speech. I enchanted the fact that she’d given this speech once or twice before, though she wasn’t my actual Grandma and neither was Joe, she might have given the speech to her own children.
I practically had to squint to see her elegant figure as she raised her glass, her words began with a sigh.
“It’s a true fact that today’s generation is the most selfish,” she said. We groaned inwardly.
“But I suppose it’s a sign of the times.”
“I remember when I made the decision myself.” She smiled, “But then again, I’d have been happy with a warm bed to sleep in back then.”
Joe rolled his eyes so hard I swore I could hear them move. Concentrating on Lady’s brooch as it glistened on her chest, below her my Mum lit my birthday candles with a shaking hand.
“Back then, things were different then I suppose.” She blew out a sigh within her cloud of nostalgia.
“All I wanted was a simple, comfortable life, where I could find a husband.” She reached down to grip Joe’s shoulder, whose end of life moodiness was unrelenting.
“And find some amazing people.” Her eyes glinted in the candle light, “I hope you make the right decision.” And she raised her glass.
Don’t be selfish, she might as well as just said it. Though it’s true, people tend to swing towards wealth because we young people are a little selfish. Who’d say no to having everything you ever wanted?
Dad drove us home in silence. The radio was turned off as I watched the headlights illuminate the country roads in front of us, Cat’s Eye’s flashing white. Lady and Joe were the first to retreat, claiming they wanted to freshen up before my trial started. Then went the cousins I didn’t know and my aunties patted me on the head and handed me presents. Now that I had nothing to distract me, the thought of what I was about to do hung over me like a knife- so bizarre that it felt like it wasn’t actually going to happen. An hour, that's all I had left.
I thought about Jess and how I’d say goodbye to her, imagining where we’d meet in this invisible place we’d agreed on. A place I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
I felt obligated to be doing something special, hugging my parents, just sitting with them even. But it felt like I was being asked: “If you knew you were going to die today, what would you do?”
I just sat upstairs, staring at my the yellow walls of my bedroom. Even now, I couldn’t get it into my head that I’d never see this place again, the three doors just a thought hovering on the edge of my imagination.
My suitcase sat open beside me like a clam, everything I’d thought I’d need rolled up into neat little sausages and shoved into the case. I’d figured I’d be able to buy what I needed on the other side of my door.
Lady was right, it was just a plain fact that my generation was the most narcissistic therefore we all choose wealth. Every other generation before me chose comfort and no one ever chooses freedom, unless they pull the short straw.
Freedom’s vague, no one quite knows what they’re getting. It could be different for different people. I only know one person who chose it, who I knew was brave enough all along.
Standing up, I paced my room, feeling the familiar fibers of carpet beneath my feet. Biting my nails, I paused to listen as my Dad’s voice bellow up the stairs. My parent’s argument was as clear as day.
“Jenna’s as indecisive as Chloe was,” Dad shouted.
“She won’t do it,” Mum said, as calm as ever.
“We all know she’s going to do what Jess tells her.”
“John!” Mum scolded.
“I just don’t want her to make the same mistake Chloe did.”
My heart constricted at the sound of my sister's name.
“She chose the wrong door.” Dad’s voice cracked. I sat back down on the bed again, exhausted by everything I was overhearing. My heart beat fast in my chest.
I zipped up my suitcase, a penultimate action, and heaved it onto the floor with a bang that silenced my parents’ pointless argument. I buzzed with the heat of hearing something I wasn’t supposed to as I tried to set my face with a plain expression.
11:45 (fifteen minutes to go)
I trailed Dad as he dragged my suitcase out the front door on its faulty wheels. His slight frame nearly buckling under its weight.
“Ready, Love?” Mum asked, folding herself behind the wheel. I kept quiet, though, sitting in the back seat behind my parents. The sky had faded to night, and I was only now starting to panic. As we drove, the street lights flicked off one by one as we rolled steadily out of the driveway. I felt like I didn’t know what to do, but what do you do when you’re leaving home forever?
I’d taken photos of every room in my house and I was happy I’d thought to do so. But that didn’t stop me from taking one more photo from back window as we drove away.
It wasn’t far and the car park was packed with cars and families like my own. The community center was a squat beige painted building with a pub in the back room. A hollow sounding hall with familiar dusty floorboards. I went to play school here, and Brownies too but back then the doors were hidden by a heavy velvet curtain so I’d never seen them.
Mum and Dad were silent the whole way here, the space in the car taken up by the sound by Mum bobbing her foot on the floor. She gripped my hand as the reality began to set in. Mum’s eyes brimmed with tears that refused to fall, her eyes set on me. But my Dad’s words weighed on me, loud in my ears as though he’d actually said it to my face.
I never thought my sister’s decision was wrong. They just don’t know how to live a life others don’t understand. The thought warmed me in the cold of the night.
I jumped when Jess knocked on the window, but the movement was slow and sad, her puppy eyes dropped like raindrops onto the glass. Guilt throbbed in my chest because I wasn’t crying too. Still, something like sadness bloomed in my chest.
All I wanted was to know what was behind them, whichever one I chose.
Jess linked her arm through mine, jarring me out of my nervous stupor.
“Ready?” She smiled, half-heartedly. I thought I’d been ready for weeks, now I’m not so sure. I didn’t say a word but returned her encouraging smile because worry was clawing at my throat.
She held the door for me and we entered. The entryway was teeming with fidgeting parents, all packed into such a small space. Jess spotted my grandparents first and dragged us over, their sagging faces were forlorn under the depressing fluorescent lights.
Behind them, my little cousins squirmed behind the backs of my aunties, forced still. As a group, they grimaced.
“Ready?” Dad asked, clapping a hand on my shoulder. He raised his eyebrows expectantly. But I choked on the speech I’d been daydreaming about.
I’d always loved the idea of people missing me, I’d always imagined my passing as a dramatic event, but now that I was actually here I didn’t think it was going to turn out that way.
“I don’t know why people keep asking me that,” I whispered to Jess, “It’s not like I have a choice.”
My grandad’s head popped up at the sound of my voice. “No,” He answered, blinking his milky eyes. I tipped my mouth half heartedly and all Jess could do was shrug. I appreciated his honesty, at least.
Jess looked up at me, still gripping my arm, “Just remember,” She said, eyes glassy with unshed tears.
“We’ll be together soon,” Her mouth stretched hopefully and I nodded, returning her certain smile, uncertainly.
Soon enough I was on my own, my family and Jess sat inside the glass cage that stopped anyone from getting through the doors. I kept my eyes on my parents for as long as I could, her face was red and shining with tears. Her mouth a twisted red line.
Still, I smirked reassuringly as me and the other boy were ushered into hard backed seats.
The room had been painted since the last time I’d visited, from a blush pink to an even uglier pea green. The glass cage made up the better half of the hall so that the room resembled a court.
I placed my suitcase beside me in the chair, holding tight to the handle until I could feel it biting into my skin. I thought they’d at least give us something comfortable to sit in, for today was our special day. Foam coughed from the seat as I sat down, below the stage I had to bend my neck to catch a glimpse of the doors.
Their wood was chipped and painted red, set into the wall like we’d open them and fall into the car park. The wall itself differed from the rest of the room, made with ancient looking stones edged with dark green moss.
When the room wasn’t being used for trials, the doors were always locked and bolted with heavy keys, kept at the waist of the counselor. I watched him walk towards us in his traditional blue velvet robes, pausing with the toes kissing the edge of the stage. There, he swayed back and forth and every time I imagined him falling on me. I’d be flattened by the weight of him, for sure.
The counselor was a man I’d only ever seen in print, on the front of local newspapers. Our town was too small for him to be issued in school textbooks but the effect was the same. He was like a celebrity of sorts. He looked less intimidating in real life, to my surprise. His large body cast a dark shadow over me as he stood before us and the crowd. His grinning smile undermined him.
I swallowed the nerves that fizzed in my stomach, eyeing the boy next to me instead. Green faced and sweating he kept his eyes fixed on the doors, eyes towards the counselor as he spoke. But in my mind, his mouth moved with no sound. He mouthed the words “Final decision,” in slow motion as my heart began racing a million miles a second.
The more I watched his mouth move the more nervous I got with the sudden realization of what I was going to do, what I wanted to do. Heat coursed through my veins at the thought, and I could only force myself not to look back at Jess and my family. I couldn’t stop the dawn ebbing its way into daylight.
The rest of my life is settled on what I do when they call my name.
My hand spread out like a bone starfishes on the legs of my black trousers, feeling cold but clammy. Numb despite the warm thrum of the radiators. My stomach shifts uneasily and my mind registered that the councilors mouth had stopped. He’s looked directly at me.
“So,” He breathed in a long confident breath, “As per procedure, I think we’ll go in order,” In his hands he held a clipboard, holding it ready. I watched him trail a finger through our list of two. Me or the boy.
“Simon,” He smiled, “Why don’t you get up first?”
I saw boy jumped at the sound of his name and someone in the crowd laughed. Sweat pooled in rings under his armpits and in a slowly growing line down his spine.
“Don’t forget your bag,” The counselor said, encouraging another laugh.
Slowly, the boy ascended the stairs to the side of the stage, trying to trip in front of all these people.
The counselor shook the boy's hand, grimacing from the squelching feeling it probably had. With a sweeping gesture, the counselor pointed to the doors.
From below the stage, I watched the boy swallow, gripping his bag tightly and giving one final smile to his family. He wavered for a second between the first two doors, but then he seemed to pick himself up and march determinedly towards the door, placing a hand on COMFORT’s metal door knob. Then he was gone.
My feet were cement blocks. He beckoned me with a long finger, and I forced myself to stand. The bones in my knees were the first to leave me, like jelly plates under my skin rather than the hard surface. I allowed myself to close my eyes for a second, ignoring the crowd behind me. With my whole body trembling. I moved towards the stairs. My heart hammered in my chest like a subwoofer on full volume.
The counselor took my hand firmly in his own, but I could barely feel it and I found myself surprised as to how I’d gotten onto the stage so quickly. My legs felt numb and my hand barely registered the door handle beneath it. Slick with my sweat, I had to concentrate on twisting it open. Wind curled my hair as the door opened inwardly, with my eyes shut I took a sure step forward.
I couldn’t turn around.
I felt like I’d been standing there forever and the shout that came from the crowd only made me move faster. It was only when the door slammed behind me did I realize what was happening. My mind tipped over the edge of shock.
Water. Rolling white waves that plummet towards me, or I towards it. My suitcase was a swirling mass in the background of the sea, seeming to float in the air until it opened and my clothes flew from it. My possessions splayed like plastic bags in the wind. Catching in the air and landing in the water like jellyfish.
The rolling plane got closer and closer with every second that flew past me. My mind rushing up into the sky. Shock turned my limbs to stone as I hit the water and I barely had time to shut my mouth- my screams quieted by the influx of salt water.
The first time my head bobbed above the water, I panicked after only a second. My whole body burning forced downwards into the sea, my limbs seized with shock. It was like being submerged in jam, everything refused to move and my mind wouldn’t connect.
Through blurred eyes, my hair rose around me like black seaweed. Swaying softly in the current. In the quiet, I look up, watching the roof of the sea roll above me through my hair’s dark tendrils.