The letter came. His scheduled exit date was the first of July. The irony, he thought. Just a few days before Independence Day. If you received a scheduling for the Fourth you were automatically given a stay for a full twelve months from the ballot. There was a good chance your number wouldn’t come up again. He was reminded of another holiday where the custom was to pardon a turkey: Thanksgiving. The turkey would live out its days on a farm, chaff beneath its thick bird claws, being kept warm through winter in a barn. He envied it, this pardoned turkey.
He pulled his calendar out from the drawer and circled the date with a red pen. He stuck it to the fridge with some magnets. He had a little over two months. He looked around the room. A small table, four chairs, a large gilt framed mirror over the mantelpiece reflecting back a single incandescent bulb hanging from the ceiling rosette.
His eyes came to rest on the sideboard. Empire Oak. He saw the glass tumblers his aunt had bequeathed him catch the light.
He thought of the turkey pardoned from the dinner plate.
The man called his manager and and a few chosen family members; he had no one close. The rest could read his name in the Government gazette if they wished. He did not overthink it.
The next morning at work he cleared out his desk, fielding the usual platitudes. Some asked the inevitable question, but he did not answer. The ones who had reason to be concerned, avoided him. He decided not to go back once the paperwork was in. That was it, the State would support him till his exit date.
He wanted to see the lake. If he left now he’d be there by evening. The drive was a familiar smooth thing, like stroking an animal in sunlight. He stopped once to fill up his tank. By the time he pulled off the road, twilight was nearly through. He could still make out the footings of some of the old cottages dotted among the trees. He walked the tidal line smelling the freshness of pine needles; the crispness of the night air folded around him. He kicked at broken glass, bent down to test its sharpness against his fingers, felt a snag as the rough teeth bit an edge of flesh. A light above turned his gaze upward. The lanterns. Even here they floated in the sky.
His grandmother spent her final days in her cabin on the lake’s shoreline. The municipality demolished the place after her death; after all the old people had died. He spent his boyhood holidays here. He chopped wood for his grandmother. In the long, icy winters when the wind stole across the surface of the lake turning his breath to frost, his grandmother made her soup. It had the consistency of thick gravy with flakes of chicken spooned through. He smelled the soup when he was in the yard, under the bare sycamore, its limbs a thousand arms held against the pale sky. His grandmother made stock from leftover chicken bones and when the meat had fallen off, she would open the screen door with its hinges sighing and call that she’d saved him the wishbone. They would place it on the windowsill and watch as the sun blanched it.
When he stayed with his grandmother, it was his job to select the chicken to be butchered. He would open the door of the coup and stare at the chickens and decide which one was to have its neck wrung. He watched, trying to find one that looked better prepared to die. He looked to see whether it had a dullness to its feathers, or an unsteadiness to its bird legs? Sometimes the chickens got into fights and received wounds from hard beaks breaking the surface of flesh.
On those occasions he chose a wounded bird to have its neck wrung. His grandmother with a sharp twist of her wrist would snap its neck—its life gone. The dead chicken jumped and spasmed. His grandmother said that even though the chicken was dead, the message was yet to make its way through the bird's system. He would watch this death dance feeling an uneasiness clench in his stomach. Once the boy noticed one chicken in particular was looking poorly. It was missing more feathers than from just the odd scrap. When he asked his grandmother, she said it was henpecked, the others would gang up on it and peck at it, sometimes to death.
At the coup he saw a larger bird—more aggressive than the rest—the ringleader, he suspected. His grandmother never questioned his choice, but handed him a blue spray to apply to the wounded bird. He coated the feathers and flesh; he used a Q-tip and gently applied it to the worst wounds. He wanted to make sure the bird didn’t get an infection. Unsettled, the bird flapped its injured wing; a painted feather detached and floated in the gray light.
The next time he visited he asked about the bird he’d saved. His grandmother took a wishbone off the windowsill and placed it in his hand.
When he broke a wishbone—if he won—he always wished the same thing. To live out his days just like his grandma. By then the laws had come in. Governments had quotas to fill. The statisticians were consulted. They would choose from a large demographic pool, it would be fair. They wouldn’t look at age alone, nor gender or race. It would be a combination of traits making sure no one group was targeted unfairly. Once you were chosen you could be guaranteed that every box had been ticked: You were representative of your particular set of characteristics. The man’s thoughts turned once more to the turkey, how the bird came to represent all the other Thanksgiving turkeys; but none of the other birds were free.
As the man walked around the lake breathing in the chill air, he thought about the other choice open to him. He could kill someone who had the same characteristics as himself, effectively taking his place. He would need to find another middle-aged man who had lived for the same amount of time. They would work in the same area, perhaps they attended the same elementary school, shopped at the local market garden. Perhaps this man had comparable experiences to himself? Possessions even. Maybe they drove the same car. He could not take the life of an old lady on life support. He did not know why, but it had something to do with fairness.
That night when he drove back into town, his thoughts turned to his neighbors. On his left were the Ocanos, but they were an old couple; the husband was in his seventies. On his right, a run-down two-storey Victorian housed a man with three children. The lawn was overgrown, the guttering needed to be replaced and the weatherboard stripped and repainted. Two windows round the back remained broken, like busted teeth. He had noticed the father out the front tinkering with repairs; there was always some next-thing falling apart in his hands. The father, he guessed, was around his age. He would need to verify statistics with the Department of course; and he would need to submit the paperwork.
The man got home late and opened the thirty-year-old bottle of scotch the colour of molten honey. When he held it up towards the light, he saw flashes of gold. He took one of the cut crystal tumblers from the sideboard. His aunt’s set from the Brilliant period: the vanguard of American glassmaking. It felt substantial in his hands. He took the tumbler to the fridge, it too was antique; an old Frigidaire—it buzzed with an electric hum. It was his one constant source of sound through the small hours. He had grown used to it, but since his letter arrived the man noticed it once more. He stood in front of the icebox and removed the metallic trays, pulling the lever to release. The ice cracked like bones. His skin fused to the metal momentarily. He stuck three fingertips to the cubes and pulled them up from the tray. He paused and waited till his body temperature melted the ice and they dropped from his fingers and chinked in the glass. Weren’t you supposed to have old scotch undiluted? He shook his head. No matter. He didn’t have to worry about any of that now, what you were and weren’t supposed to do. Who was to say? He poured. Goosebumps ran up his arms. Night was thick with midsummer.
The man sat on his porch. Nightfall was long ago and the ice had melted in his glass. It was a still evening with barely a hint of breeze, his shirt clung to his back with a misting of perspiration. He could see the sky lanterns, little fireflies high in the ink sky. A pinprick of light heading into blackness. The government had taken the tradition from the Thais, the lights used for celebration, for wishes and worries carried off to the heavens. A sign of faith.
Not here. Each candle signified the end of a person's allotted time on earth. A quota had been met and a name crossed off a list on the Departmental register. He sipped his scotch and re-poured, wondering about the man next door. His broken house; his whip-thin children.
By morning he had the information. His neighbor was the same age. He was not born in the area but moved here as a boy. His occupation was listed as ‘currently unemployed.’ Previously, he’d been a prison guard. The man didn’t have an opinion about being unemployed, or working as a prison guard. He only thought that being unemployed would make looking after his children, and his house, difficult. He looked at the paperwork. If he killed the man next door, he would take on his debts, his house, his children. His own property would be sold by the state. He thought about his house, the antique fridge. His aunt’s glasses.
The broken windows of the house next door.
The man wondered whether it was enough that he had been randomly chosen by a group of statisticians who fed information into a database, and he chose his neighbor from the mere fact that he was the same age and lived in close proximity. Was it randomness, or luck? The man pondered these things as he marked his remaining days off on the calendar. The horizontal lines across the square boxes told him that he had three days, or seventy-two hours remaining. Should he talk to his neighbor, or should he talk to the children. Would it help?
He decided to go for a drive. He couldn’t sleep in the evenings and drinking scotch was making him sleep longer during the day. The humidity was oppressive. He pressed two fingers to his temple, not wanting to waste what could be his last hours with a hangover. He felt his dull head thump in time with the indicator as he flicked it left or right. He wound the window down and felt air currents pass over the hairs on his arm. His sleeve flapped loosely in the damp breeze: the heat was only bearable when he was driving. He stopped at the lights and felt the intensity of it rising up from the bitumen on the road. He saw it as a low-lying haze that enveloped the whole street. His pulse throbbed to its own internal song and the cicadas screamed in the overhanging trees. For a moment he thought he might pass out. He waited for the lights to change, the indicator tick, tick, ticking. The vehicles behind him were honking with their heat-exhausted drivers. He saw the distended face of the driver in the car behind reflected in his rear-view mirror. He saw his own.
He turned left onto Lombard Street and stopped outside the general store. His neighbor’s kid—the girl was there—standing in the shade; brown dirt knuckled between her toes. She looked at him, shielding something in her hands.
“Jodie, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She squinted through her fringe.
“What do you have there?” he nodded at her hands. Her eyes narrowed; she appeared to cup the handful tighter.
A bright cheep rose from between her palms.
“Ah,” the man said, “I used to keep chickens when I was about your age.”
The girl’s guarded expression remained. “This one is mine.” She clasped the bundle closer.
“Does it have a name?” he asked.
She avoided his eyes, flicking dirt between her toes. “No, it’s just a chick. You don’t name chickens.”
He walked towards the store feeling a damp chill—remembering the wishbones on his grandmother’s windowsill.
In the general store he bought three frozen meals in individual portions, 3-for-2 on special. There would be one left over. He thought about it in the back of the Frigidaire. Almost empty of foodstuffs, the machine was louder at night than it ever had been. It was like the cicadas, the sound of the insects piercing his brain. The man turned the key in the ignition.
He pulled into his driveway and got out to open the garage door. His neighbor was watering the wilting vermilion climber. He took out his small package containing the frozen meals and placed them on the porch.
“Hello.” the man said to his neighbor as he returned to shut the car door.
“Damn hot,” his neighbor replied. And, “too hot for shopping.” pointing towards the man’s bag of groceries with his hose.
“Damn right,” the man sighed, stopping to mop his shirtsleeve across his brow.
“You smoke?” his neighbor mumbled between occupied lips. He cupped his hands to light the cigarette.
The man shook his head, “Gave it up.”
“Ah.” said his neighbor, nodding then shaking his head as if he was having a hard time understanding why anyone would willingly give it up.
“But I’ll take one now.” the man said, fingering his pocket for the bone.
“You smoke Lucky’s?” he asked as he walked the pack to the man passing it over the low hedge. The man took one before handing it back. His neighbor turned the hose off and threw him the light: a toss like a pitcher winding up, it arced up at him, outlined against the white bright of the sun. The man caught it at shoulder height. He lit his cigarette and threw the lighter back in a straight line at his neighbor’s head.
The two men stood smoking, watching each other.
The man pulled the white bone out of his shirt pocket—held it up to the sky.
KA Rees' debut poetry collection Come the Bones was published by Flying Island in 2021. Her work has been awarded and shortlisted for national and international prizes and published in anthologies and journals in Australia and the United States. Kate has written nocturnes among swallows at the Sydney Observatory, and once spent a year at the State Library of NSW as their café poet. Kate was awarded a 2019 fellowship at Varuna, the National Writers’ house for her manuscript of short fiction.