We don’t go far before Shytas turns into an even smaller room than the waiting area. It has an uncomfortable looking chair situated in the middle, along with a large machine sitting in the opposite corner from me. It looks like a huge rectangular, metal box on wheels, with four large tubes in a row about chest level. There’s also a long, flat screen that’s about three inches tall and about a foot across just above the tubes.
An image of Micah at 16 sitting in that same chair pops into my head. His confident smile never wavers. He doesn’t look worried at all about the test. He seems excited about what his future holds. In an instant, the image disappears and I’m back facing an empty room and the reminder that he’s been gone for six long years…
“Make yourself comfortable,” Shytas chirps, gesturing towards the chair. I can’t help but think, that’s easy for her to say… She probably did her Rite years ago and didn’t have so much pressure on her shoulders.
Still, I can’t avoid or prolong the inevitable. I take a deep breath and walk towards the eerie looking chair. The closer I get, the more I can smell a strong antiseptic. It’s good to know that it was cleaned before my turn. I take my time sitting down and adjusting myself. Thankfully, Shytas doesn’t rush me. She simply stands to the left of the machine, waiting for me to be ready with that reassuring smile on her face.
I lay back and stare up at the ceiling. The healer grabs something from the other side of the machine, but I already know what it is. I’ve heard rumors from my classmates about the large needle that gets placed into your arm for the test. I force myself to turn my head and look at what’s going to decide my future. It isn’t what I expected. The needle is about six inches long but not thick, and it’s connected to a long tube that stretches back to the machine. My anxiety lessens a bit, but doesn’t dissipate completely. I still have to have that ridiculous thing poked into my arm until the test is done.
“You’ll feel a pinch,” Shytas explains, preparing to insert the needle.
I nod. I can’t talk yet, I’m still too nervous. Looking back up at the ceiling, I clench my fists in anticipation. The pinch never comes. Instead, a burning sensation runs up my arm as the needle pierces my skin, and is run from my elbow and up my bicep. I moan, but bite my lower lip to keep myself from screaming. The feeling lessens but doesn’t go away.
“Great job,” Shytas cheers, as she places tape over the needle to make sure it doesn’t move at all. “Just relax, and I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes.”
My voice is caught in my throat so I’m not able to respond how I want to. Instead, I’m screaming in my head: a few minutes?! I know they take a lot of blood, but wow…
She exits the room with a bounce in her step. She must be on her way to check on one of the other teenagers that came in for their test today. Her lack of presence makes it more difficult for me to relax. Although her demeanor is oddly bright, it’s comforting. Without it in the room, the reality of my situation is brought back to the forefront of my mind.
I take a deep breath and lift my head to see the blood flowing from my arm, through the needle, and up the tube. I can’t see where it goes inside the machine, but I can see the four strange, large tubes beginning to fill up the longer blood is drained from me. I can feel the prick of the needle as it sucks the life out of me with each second that passes. It isn’t long before my vision begins to blur. I try to stay awake, my eyes open, but I’m unable. My head slips back onto the chair, and my vision goes dark. I know that I’m not dead, but it feels like I’m floating. It’s actually quite interesting. If only the nagging burning sensation would go away, I would think I have fallen into a dream.
When I wake, my eyes flutter to a gray tiled ceiling that is different than the one I had blacked out in. I’m woozy, so it takes a few seconds before my head is clear enough for me to lift it off the gurney I’m lying on top of. A sharp pain digs into the front of my brain as I raise my head, threatening to blind me. Gritting my teeth, I let out a groan while the white spots blotting my vision slowly fade away. Blood isn’t getting to my brain fast enough. My body isn’t creating new blood cells fast enough to replace what it is losing from the test.
“You’re awake,” a male voice says, several feet in front of me and off to my left. “It isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. What about you?”
“Still under examination,” I say, blinking repeatedly until I see that it’s Alec speaking to me. He’s sitting on a gurney similar to mine, and he has a needle stuck in his arm that’s attached to a machine to his left. I look to my left and see that I’m still attached as well. “This thing hasn’t stopped taking blood yet?”
“Not until the Rite is complete,” Alec informs me. “When it’s all said and done, you’ll have given about 1.5 liters of blood. What percentage is yours at?”
I look again at the machine next to me. The screen above the large tubes has a bar filing up from left to right, with 94% written across it. Thank Geha… I’m not sure how much more I can handle of this.
“How long have I been out?” I ask, trying to take my mind off my impending future.
“You were rolled in here on the gurney by a two healers a couple minutes ago,” Alec explains, calmly. “I don’t know how long you were unconscious before they brought you here, though, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I sigh, rubbing my temple with the palm of my right hand. “How close is your test to being done? Where are the twins?”
“The twins finished just before you came in. Mine looks to be just about finished, only a few more seconds.”
The excitement in his voice is unencumbered. I envy him. I wish that I could be excited for my results. As each percent ticks by, I hear Micah’s voice in my head growing louder. It’s the same voice from my dream. He’s calling out to me. It’s so loud that I can’t hear what Alec is rambling about anymore.
A buzzing disrupts my thoughts. I look up to see Alec staring at the machine next to him in horror. Following his gaze, my eyes land on his percentage bar. It had reached 100% while I was distracted. The number and bar had disappeared completely, and now only showed the word ‘unfavorable’ in all capital letters scrawled across the screen.
“Unfavorable?” I ask aloud, unsure of what would happen to him now.
In the next instant, a door opens to the right of Alec. Two Loyals come barreling in with stun guns in hand, Shytas right behind them. She has just enough time to remove the needle from Alec’s arm before the Loyals pick him up from the gurney and drag him, kicking and screaming, out the same door they burst in from. I didn’t even have time to react, it all happened so quickly.
“Shytas,” I breathe. What I really want is for Micah to comfort me knowing that this is exactly what happened to him the day of his Bleeding Rite, but the only person I know in the room is the healer. She hears my soft cry and rushes to me, worry lining her features. It’s an odd contrast to the smile that is normally plastered on her face.
“It’s alright, dear,” she coos. “They’re just taking him to a place where they can help him with his condition.”
Condition? What is she talking about?
“Relax,” she comforts. “Your Rite will be over soon.”
That isn’t helpful at all. I can’t seem to open my mouth and tell her that, though. Once she notices that I’ve calmed down, she exits the room where the Loyals exited. I look over at the machine I’m attached to and see that it’s reached 98% in the confusion. Time seems to slow as I watch the numbers continue to climb. It feels like it takes eons for the bar to reach 99%, and even longer to reach the final 100% point. The bar and number disappear from view, and I wait for the results. Nothing shows up. After several seconds, Shytas comes back in to look at the results herself. Confused, she goes to the back of the machine, opens a compartment, and punches a few buttons on – what sounds like – a keyboard.
“Wow,” she whispers, breathless.
She hesitates for only a moment before turning the machine so that I can see the monitor contained on the other side. It shows a bar graph with all the different possibilities I could have received from the Bleeding Rite. The strange part is that everything listed – Loyal, Healer, Developer, Player, Drudge, and Artist – have bars reaching up towards the top of the screen. The only one without a bar is the category “Unfavorable”. I should be grateful for the outcome, but I’m not sure what it means. Even then, I’m a bit sad that I won’t be able to find out what happened with Micah or Alec for their Unfavorable grades.
“You’re proficient in everything,” Shytas informs me, explaining my results. “The Main Frame isn’t able to choose a career path for you, so you have the opportunity to choose your own, now.”
“What?” That seems weird. I’ve never heard of that happening before. There’s always a proficiency in something. How is that possible?
“It hasn’t happened in a long time,” the healer continues, back to her cheerful and bubbly self. It’s annoying now, rather than comforting, though. “Thankfully, healers are all taught what to do in just such an occasion, in case it does. It isn’t uncommon for someone to be proficient in more than one area. I haven’t ever seen these sort of results before, though! Anyway, you’ll have three days to make your decision. If you have not returned to Central Hall by this time on the third day, then Loyals will track you down and bring you here.”
“That’s ominous,” I mumble. Unfortunately, Shytas has ridiculous hearing and catches what I say.
“It isn’t meant to be,” she insists. She leans over to begin taking out the needle from my arm, now. “We simply don’t want to waste time with someone who has so much potential. The idea is to pick a course and start it right away.” I nod, not wanting to press my luck. I’m surprised I’m not scolded for my outbreak to begin with. “You’re free to go home now that your Rite is over with. You are excused from school the next few days while you make your life-altering decision. Please remember to take care of yourself during this time. You may have free time, but you are not relieved of the pressure yet.”
Yeah, no pressure at all…
Shytas gestures for me to follow her, and I oblige. There’s no telling what would happen if I don’t do as I’m told at this point. I slip off the gurney and skip to catch up to her. We exit through a door opposite the one Alec was dragged through. I don’t recognize anything from the halls we walk down until we reach the entrance again. Even if there had been exit signs helping to guide me, I never would have made it out of this place without getting turned around and lost several times. I focus on following Shytas and getting out of this place rather than what I had witnessed only moments ago. She leaves me to fend for myself at this point – the entrance hall of the building. I know where to go from here, so I thank her for all her kindness and make my way home.
It takes me longer to get home than it did walking to Central Hall, once I’m able to get myself walking. I stood frozen outside for several minutes before my feet would move. My thoughts are so focused on what happened to Alec that it is difficult to keep a brisk pace. It takes me a while to realize my body is shaking. Not from the results of my Rite, but from the shock of witnessing exactly what happens to those who receive an unfavorable grade. Someone I have known and attended school with for several years is now gone. Vanished from my life because he didn’t quite make the cut. Just like Micah.
The longer I walk, the clearer my mind becomes. I realize that the only way I’m going to get answers is by asking my parents. They’ve been through this themselves, so they know much more about the process than I do. Especially mom, since she’s a healer. I give myself hope knowing I might actually get some answers, and it helps me pick up my pace. Within moments I’m running home as fast as I can so that I can ask my questions. I don’t stop or slow down until I see my house again. My breathing isn’t much labored, but I hesitate thinking about the answers I might get. They may not be what I want to hear, but I need justification.
My hand freezes just before I touch the door handle. More hesitation. I take a deep breath and think of Micah. He’s always been my strength and still is. Remembering that I need to do this for him, I open the door to face my parents. I shut the door and call to them as I walk towards the dining room. I’m halfway there when I see them coming to meet me. They must not have moved very far after I left this morning.
“Alora,” mom cries. “Oh, thank Geha…Any longer and I was going to storm Central Hall looking for you.”
“I’m okay, mother,” I sooth, trying to release myself from a vice grip hug. I don’t get any reprieve, either. As soon as she let’s go, dad takes her place. I’m also not in the mood for their antics right now. I have questions.
“Al, I’m so glad to see you,” he chimed in. He doesn’t hold me for nearly as long as mom had, though. He grabs my shoulders and pulls me away. His expression is completely wiped of cheer and exchanged with determination. “What were the results?”
“Oh, uh…” I hesitate again. Will they be disappointed I wasn’t placed into one of their fields, or put pressure on me to choose? “Apparently I am proficient in everything.”
“What?” Dad says, surprised. His hands lower to his sides, staring at me in disbelief over the news. “You’re joking.”
“Really?” Mom says incredulously.
“Yes,” I insist. “I wouldn’t lie about this.”
“That’s fantastic, sweet pea!” Dad cheers. “What happens now? Does the Main Frame pick something for you or what?”
“Oh, she gets three days to choose her career!” Mom answers for me. It’s good she knows this already, being a healer. I didn’t feel like trying to explain it to him. I just want my answers and I will be happy. “She can either shadow someone in any given profession to get a feel for it, or take this time to reflect and meditate.”
“Well then, it’s time to celebrate!” He announces.
I don’t even have time to stop their commemorative exploits to ask questions. I’m pulled into the kitchen to start making a big dinner with them for tonight. I have a strange, nagging feeling that something is wrong. That it doesn’t feel right to celebrate. Yeah, I didn’t receive an unfavorable grade, but Micah is still missing. It doesn’t make up for him being gone. Not for me at least. My parents don’t seem to be burdened by his disappearance now. It must not matter to them as long as they have one child who made the grade. It gives me indigestion, but I do my best not to show it. It’s been a long time since my parents were able to relax and enjoy themselves rather than worry.
Knowing now that it only took my Bleeding Rite proficiency grade to essentially erase their memories of Micah, I’m not sure that my parents are the right ones to ask. I resign myself for now, to enjoy the evening with my parents. After all, I have three whole days to figure out what I’m going to do with my future. I know the one person I can ask my questions to without any judgement, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.
My parents and I cook dinner as a family. Which is something we’ve never done before, so it is interesting trying to weave around each other to help. They allow me to pick the dish, so I go for a basic chicken and noodle soup. While it simmers, we play rounds of chess and badminton until dinner is fully cooked. Mom and dad chat excitedly amongst themselves that they don’t notice I haven’t said a word since I arrived home. I smile when they refer to me, and it’s enough to sate their momentary interest. Clean up is quick since we continue every event as a group. Thankfully, we spend a quiet evening playing cribbage until it’s time for the power to be turned off. Mom and dad trade turns winning on every game, not once noticing my lack of interest.
They hug me goodnight before skipping off to their bedroom for the evening. It’s so strange hearing them chatter for hours like teenagers. It’s good that they’re so happy now, but how can they be so forgetful about their firstborn son? I listen to them for several hours after the power has been turned off before they finally rest. Even then, it takes me over an hour to fall asleep myself. I don’t even get the comfort of a restful night’s sleep. I toss and turn with the same nightmare that’s been plaguing me for a week now: Micah reaching out to me like when we were younger.
The smell of pancakes awakens me. After waking up so early the day before, it surprises me that the power is on when I open my eyes. Mom and dad are chatting again in the kitchen about something or other. All I here is mumbling from my room, but I can deduce that it’s me they’re discussing again. I’m getting quickly annoyed with their complete lack of feeling towards my brother – their son. Still, I decide the best course of action at this time is to not act out of the ordinary. I force myself out of bed and go into the dining area to eat breakfast with them before they leave for work.
The experience is similar to dinner the night before. They both talk and discuss my future while I sit quietly. I’m beginning to feel the pressure of what my results mean. They keep mentioning about all the possibilities that are available for the community with me testing so well. No matter what career path I choose, I’ll be expected to do great things. I’ll be expected to create advancements to make our lives here easier. All eyes will be on me. They already feel like they are. This isn’t what I want out of my life.
Mom and dad clean up before they leave for work, refusing to allow me to help. They say it’s so that I can focus on what path I want to take, but I have other things on my mind. I can’t get the image of Alec being pulled away by Loyals out of my head. As they leave, I remain seated at the dining room table, frozen with the knowledge of my destiny. Flustered, I shove my chair away from the table and rush to dress myself. I can’t wait any longer to get answers. I quickly clean myself and put on a navy blue dress, gray sweater, long gray socks, and navy shoes. Dull and muted, just like everything else in this city.
I leave the house headed towards the nearest art studio. I’ve always liked art, but Micah had a friend there that he trusted with everything he had. Kayan. If I’m going to get any answers, it’ll be from him. They probably wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for the studio being so close to the house. I’m glad that I have someone in this city that I can trust. It’ll be awkward starting the conversation, but I know he’ll be straight with me.
Within 10 minutes, I reach the studio. The building is large, with several small rooms inside it for artists to share. I enter through the front door, and make my way down the long hallway, searching for my companion. I haven’t seen him since Micah disappeared, so it’ll be good to see him. He must have changed spaces within the last six years, though. I pass his old studio to find a different, younger artist sculpting something out of clay. It’s interesting walking through the building. Each room is separated by clear walls, so that anyone visiting can look in on the newest creations without disturbing the artist. It’s like a live action museum almost.
I’m beginning to worry I won’t find him as I grow closer to the end of the hall. It is a large place, but there are only so many rooms. Losing faith with each step, I begin debating whether I should ask someone for help or give up entirely. It isn’t until I reach the end of the hall that I find Kayan’s room on the left. His back is to me, and he’s working hard on his latest, colorful painting. If I remember right, he called his style “Afremov-esque”, but I have no idea what that means. I just see beautiful colors depicting rainy days and bright lights. I have always enjoyed his work. Seeing it again is like a blast from the past. It fills me with nostalgia and a little bit of sorrow.
He turns around when I knock on the glass door. A smile adorns his lips seeing a familiar face, and without hesitation he waves for me to enter. His dark skin is just as shocking now as it was the last time I saw him. He isn’t the only black individual in town, but there are few who can match his skin tone. It’s a strange contrast to my porcelain skin. His hair is long and braided into dreadlocks with gray strands weaving within them. It makes him seem wise beyond his years to see the slight change in his hair color. He’s wearing a dull brown outfit, vest and pants, which match his skin wonderfully, giving him a glow. His eyes are a light brown that feels like they hold the world in their irises.
I do as directed and make my entrance, unable to stop a grin from spreading across my cheeks. It’s good to see him again after so long. I shut the door behind me and take a seat in the corner to my right as he greets me.
“Well look who it is,” he teases. He doesn’t get up from his stool when he talks. Rather, he looks me up and down, noticing how I’ve changed over the years. I’m amazed he’s able to recognize me at all. “Little Al, long time no see! What brings you around these parts?”
“Kayan,” I acknowledge with a nod. I’ve always found him a bit too emotive, but I used to ignore it for Micah’s sake. Now I’m doing so again, but for answers. “It’s good to see you again,” I fib. I want it to be true, but it brings up too many painful memories seeing him after all these years.
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” he jests with a chuckle. I know it’s a jab at my lack of visits, but I dismiss it. He continues talking to me, but goes back to his panting while we converse.
“I know,” I admit. “I am sorry I haven’t visited. It’s been really painful and difficult since Micah disappeared…”
“I understand,” he comforts, focused on his work. “It still would have been nice to see how you were doing every once in a while. Now then, I know you didn’t come here just to see me, what’s bothering you?”
“I don’t want to be rude,” I start. I realize my folly right away. Of course he would know I want something by coming here.
“It’s alright. I may be old but I’m not senile yet. Out with it!”
“Okay,” I hesitate. It’s been six years since I’ve seen him. I know I can trust him, but that doesn’t stop doubt from clogging my throat. I clear it before asking my first question. “What does it mean to receive an Unfavorable grade?”