A Short Story
“Name, date of birth and expiration hour?”
I’ve been asked thousands of times, and the answer slips through my lips smooth.
“Anomaly. Birth Date: 05 25 ___.”
The clerk nods and raises an eyebrow. Most people raise an eyebrow when they hear my ‘name.' I wasn’t supposed to make it past initiation because I was too small. I’m shorter than average in a world where the tall are superior. The more inches, the more wealth, intellectually and physically. My mere four and a half feet is far lacking. That’s why I’m here. I’ve been marked with an expiration date.
The clerk is a thin, lengthy thing with large blue eyes and a skinny smile. I’m reminded vaguely of stretched taffy. “Expiration?” she prompts.
Reluctantly, I fold down my collar, and she scans the tattooed bar-code on my neck. “Expiration date: 6 AM 07 15___” she murmurs. “Funny. That’s my granddad's birthday.”
I don’t know quite what to say to that. I just want her to finish scanning and let me into the cafeteria. “Okay,” I eventually reply.
But the clerk isn’t listening. She hums a song I’ve never heard as she checks my bar-code on the computer. “It looks like everything is in order. You’re scheduled a once a day meal plan?”
“Good heavens, no wonder you’re so short. How are you supposed to be graduated before expiration if you hardly ever eat?”
I shrug because there isn’t an answer to that question. The clerk isn’t looking for a response anyhow. She presses a button, and I walk through, quiet and small as usual.
The food is bland. The people around are just as tasteless and pale as my vaguely burrito-shaped meal. I devour my food anyhow as I watch my fellow entries. Most of us vary on the short side. We’re all a part of the program. It’s meant to grow us up, quite literally.
I’m not growing up. I’ve been here three years now, and I look exactly the same as I did when I arrived. Pale. Stick thin. And very, very tiny. My long hair is pulled into a messy sort of braid down my back, and if I was allowed to go in the sun, I might have freckles to boast of. As it is, I’m a blank slate.
My expiration date is a week away. Funny how the clerk didn’t notice that. No one ever does, though. We’re a part of the Program, and if we fail, we aren’t worth thinking about.
If I grow eight inches by next week, I’ll graduate instead of expire. My tattooed bar-code will be burned from my neck, and I’ll be set free as a useful component of society. I sigh to myself and poke my food with my finger.
I’m not going to make it.
It should disturb me, I think, that I am so calm about this simple fact. I’m too small, and where I live, height determines value. I’m hardly a person at this size. I should be mightily disturbed, but instead I feel numb, empty. If I try hard enough, I can dig up vague notions of fear. I think it’s the drugs, dulling my emotions. They give you more and more drugs the closer you get to the expiration date. I suppose it’s to keep us calm.
It seems to be working because my thought process confuses me.
I get up lethargically, and a few lifeless faces turn to look at me with dead eyes. Do I look like that, I wonder? But then the thought slips away, and I deposit my disposable ill-ease in the trash along with my disposable tray.
I don’t recall how I got there, but suddenly I’m walking down the hallway, fluorescent lights illuminating my way. I blink up at the harsh bright and the light splinters into colors. I pause and stare, entranced. Maybe when the time comes, I’ll ask to see the sky just one last time. I’d love to see a real rainbow again, to feel sunlight on my face and rain on my tongue.
I don’t remember what snow feels like. The smell of wet dirt evades me. Perhaps at one point I was someone who knew this, but not anymore. I am as empty as I can be, stripped of my identity as well as my soul.
Didn’t I use to have a sense of humor? I used to be sarcastic, I think. Or maybe that was my brother. When I was a somebody, I had a brother.
He was tall. Always taller than me. I remember telling him he wasn’t allowed to have a birthday until I could catch up. We’d measure, back to back. I only reached his ribs. He had a white grin, impish. A quick hug. Twittering fingers. Tapping feet. I always wanted to be like him. He’d play his guitar, and I’d watch from around the corner.
Or maybe it was the piano.
My breath hitches. I don’t remember. I should remember. It’s important. It was important.
Then I sigh, and my fear slips away, dripping to the floor like a melting candle. I feel like melting with it. My brother isn’t important any longer. I’m not a someone anymore. I’m Anomaly.
I stretch the word out like a piece of gum and continue stumbling along. Annnnoooommmaaaally. My dorm number is 24. Or 42. Something like that.
I reach the door and fall inside. They must have upped the drugs in my food because I can feel the fire rushing through my veins this time. It’s supposed to make me stronger. It’s supposed to stretch me, pull me into the right shape. I guess I’m not pliable.
My hammock is soft and gentle and just the right shape. I curl up, my knees in my chest, and pull my hair down so that it covers me like a shield. If anything, the drugs make my hair grow. It nips my ankles when I wear it down, and it’s heavy. Maybe I should cut it. But I don’t have any scissors. They don’t let us keep sharp objects because they don’t want us to hurt ourselves. Only the officials can use scissors. No official would bother cutting my hair. I’ve only got a week left. What would be the point?
I think at some time I get up from my hammock because the next thing I know a bell sounds, and I find myself sitting at my desk. There’s a blank space on the wall in front of my desk where I used to have a mirror. I can’t recall if they took it but I assume they did. I used to be angry that the program kept me here. Why was I so mad? What was all the fuss about?
I think I smashed the mirror. Yes, I smashed the mirror. I remember the drops of blood. I remember they made me clean it up.
The clanging alarm brings me to myself, and I stand. It’s an assembly. Probably someone is graduating. Or expiring. I don’t know what time it is, but the lights were out in the hall. I can assume its night. Someone flicked on the lights so that we could find our way to the assembly hall. People expire at all hours, although usually they try to keep expiration hours at times that are convenient.
I turn the door knob and join the river of shuffling, yawning, short people. A few people give me glances laced with concern. Do I look that bad? Then again, I can hardly keep my head up. My hair is in my eyes, and I don’t have the energy to brush it out of the way. I continue looking through my veil. I imagine that it separates me from reality; that I’m looking through a screen and watching someone else’s life. But I’m not someone else. I’m Anomaly. I wasn’t supposed to survive all the way to my expiration date. The drugs, they said, would be too much of a strain on my system. It didn’t stop them, however, from pumping me full of them.
Isn’t that funny? I try to laugh. But I’m not happy. I’m not sad. I’m choking. Numb. Drowned.
A sense of indignation fills my chest and for a second I want to scream and burst into tears and run in circles. But it passes.
Soon I’m standing in the assembly hall. I sway with the mood of the crowd and watch unblinkingly. A shining young man stands on a stage. Officials in white coats smile approvingly at him. Oh good. Not an expiration, a graduation. Then again, you can’t tell the difference until the very end. Two doors. Left or right. He could be deluded into thinking he’s safe, held high and curled up in their palm. Some of the more gullible of us embrace the officials before they lead them to the door on the left.
Everyone agrees that the left door means expiration, but there isn’t really a way to be sure. Maybe if I were closer, I could see their faces as the entered. Are they afraid or full of joy?
Either way, this boy seems to think he’s safe, and I can see why. The steroids appear to have done their job for once. He’s strong. He’s tall. I can see his muscles underneath his shirt and even before the officials examine him, I know that he’s going to make it. Good for you, ol’ boy.
He’s grinning when they lead him away. He waves before the door shuts, and I wonder if it is the last thing he will ever do. I doubt it. That wave was the end of the beginning for him.
The ceremony was simple, and soon everyone is on their way back to their dorms. I sway as I walk, like a sailor on a ship. Except this is dry land and everything is moving so fast that I can’t stop it even for a single instant.
I don’t realize I’m on the floor until my knees crack against the tiles. Wait, what? No!
I can’t give out now. I’ve gotten this far. Only eight more inches.
It might as well be a million. Several words of profanity slip past my quivering lips and my numb hands don’t have enough strength to pull me to my feet. I’m stuck. On the ground.
Everyone has left me behind. They didn’t see me fall. The lights are out now. I fell in the dark. I’m too small. My eyes useless, my body uncooperative, I sit cross-legged against the metal wall and for the first time in a long time, I get a moment of stark clarity.
I gasp in sudden agony and fear and curl in on myself. My hair falls over me again, and I gulp back the metallic taste of tears in my throat. I’m going to expire. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t big enough. Did I not try as hard as I should have? What did I do wrong?
I’m so caught up in my pain that I don’t hear here until she’s feet away. A short gasp. Jingling keys. A bouncing light. Flashlight?
“Oh, you poor girl.”
I lift my head up and stare into the light. No one’s called me a girl in a long time. I’m Anomaly. That’s it. Who would make such a mistake? I squint at her and recognize a uniform.
My eyes travel up to her face, and I blink slowly. It’s the same clerk who scanned me into the cafeteria earlier. Her bright blue eyes brim with concern. I don’t understand. Why is she worried?
She should be worried about people. I’m not a person. I’m too small.
But the clerk is concerned all the same. Very slowly, as if I am glass, she kneels down and places her flashlight on the floor. It rolls but she doesn’t try to fetch it. “Hey,” she murmurs, “let me help you to your dorm. Can I help you?”
No, I should say. You shouldn’t.
But my mouth doesn’t form those words. I nod jerkily instead, and a look of relief fills her features. Carefully, she reaches forward and helps me to my feet. I shiver at her touch, and she pauses. “Is… this alright?”
“Yeah,” I croak. “I just... haven’t been touched in a while.”
The clerk blinks long lashes, and I can see her thoughts tumbling like leaves on a blustery day. She’s wondering. She’s wondering like an anomaly wonders, not like a person. It’s dangerous, and I applaud her for her bravery. “What’s your dorm number?” she asks after a moment.
“Good. Not too far.”
I don’t remember the walk there. She murmured softly in my ear, and I lost myself in her quiet, small voice. She had a beautiful voice, even in speech. I bet she can sing like an angel.
We reach the dorm, and she flicks on the light. Her mouth forms a little ‘O’ at the size. It’s large closet, really, with a hammock I can curl up in. There’s a small desk as well, and that’s it. Some people have pictures on their walls but if I ever did they’re gone now.
“Just sit down, alright?”
I nod and collapse gratefully into the chair. The drugs in my system still rage, attempting to grow up something that just won’t grow, and it takes all my effort to meet the clerk’s eyes. When I do, they’re shocked and maybe even a little afraid. I don’t think she realized. She’s just a clerk, and she’s been taught that I’m Anomaly, not to be bothered with or carefully looked at. Poor thing.
For a moment, we’re quiet. I can see her struggling, twitching, fighting what she’s always known.
“How…” she starts after a moment. “How can I help you?”
My breath catches in my lungs, and I don't’ respond for several seconds, so surprised am I.
“Can I make you more comfortable?”
I gulp. No one’s thought about my comfort in a long time. I don’t know what to say.
I make a decision quickly. “Would you cut my hair?” Is that too much to ask? I’m not sure.
The clerk lets out a sad sort of laugh, the kind that I used to excel in when I still could feel sorry. “Yeah. Yeah, I can. Actually…” She reaches into her purse and pulls out a pair of scissors. “I have some scissors with me. I can’t guarantee it will look fabulous, but I can get rid of some of that weight.”
I attempt a smile, and she cocks her head when she returns the expression. A moment later, I’m sitting straight, and she’s behind me. I hear the scissors, snip, snip, snip, and my hair falls in Auburn ribbons to the floor. The weight slowly lifts, and I can hold my head up without hair in my eyes. She gives me bangs, and I feel the soft edges of my mane trailing across my neck. She’s cut it shoulder-length.
Finally, the clerk lets out a satisfied hum. She sweeps up my hair and digs in her bag again. “I know I have it somewhere,” she mutters. “Ah, here we go.”
Quickly, she circles my chair and puts a hand-held mirror in my grasp. I struggle to lift it and with a concerned purse of her lips, the clerk wraps her hand around mine. Together we hold the mirror up, and I stare into the glass.
She’s given me a stylish, dare I say pretty haircut, and if one doesn’t look carefully, you can almost miss the dark circles under my eyes and the blue shade of my lips. A sudden bubble of emotion fills my throat, and I don’t say anything for a long time.
“Well?” the clerk finally prompts. She looks almost nervous, biting her lip. “Do you like it?”
I blink, bringing myself back. “Thank you,” I whisper. “It’s good.”
The clerk’s face lights up, and it’s almost blinding as if I’ve given her the biggest compliment on the planet. “Yeah? I’m… I’m glad.”
I clock my head, wondering why she cares.
“Here,” she says. Her movements are quick now, but still gentle. “Let me get you into bed.” Softly, she lifts me up and helps me to my cradle. I curl up in the hammock, knees to the chin and stare at her with wide green eyes. I want to ask her why she's so kind, but I’m too tired. She pats my hand and for a brief moment, I glimpse anguish sweep across her features like a rotten storm, but she tucks the feeling away and smiles. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers.
I shrug. “Not your fault.”
I must have drifted off, because when I wake again, it’s dark except for a flashlight that she left for me. I grip it in my hand and make shadow puppets on the wall. Before darkness overwhelms me, I realize I never asked the clerk her name. She is the kindest person I’ve met in years, and I don’t think I will ever see her again.
I don’t think I’ll see anything again.
I’m not going to make it to my expiration date.
But that’s alright. I’m ready to go. I’m scared. But that’s a good thing. I’d rather feel scared than not feel anything at all.
As I settle in deeper, I wonder what would have happened if I’d met her sooner. Would we have been friends? Could we have laughed together, cried together, loved together?
I’ll never know. She is my final grace, and I cherish the feeling of gentle hands for as long as I can. In my dark hammock, I close my eyes. I turn off the flashlight. I take a deep breath.
And I let go.