Note: The following short story was originally a submission to a writing zine with the prompt being “birth and death” with a 1,500 word character limit. The story wasn’t selected for the zine, so I figured I’d share it with all of you.
*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678545. Candidate OH-1-3678545 please report to assessment area six at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678545 to assessment area six.*
Isidora stared at her candidate card and carefully reviewed her number. OH-1-3678549. Only four more to go. This was the most stressful part of birthdays for Isidora. Arrive, politely decline assessment, leave. It was redundant, painful, and emotionally exhausting. Accepting assessment, however, would be worse.
A tall man walked through the entry way, crossed the room, then took a seat beside Isidora. She watched as he reached into his wallet, pulled out an emerald green card — the telltale color of assessment cards issued within the nation — placed it carefully in his left hand, then replaced his wallet in his pocket. The man was visibly upset, tears streaming down his face.
“First time here?” Isidora asked. She knew it wasn’t his first time at the Bureau. Everyone has to report to the Bureau yearly on their birthday upon turning 17 unless they choose to receive assessment. If a person chooses to receive assessment, they are no longer required to visit the Bureau until age 80 or three years before they die, whichever is set to come first.
“No,” the man meekly said, his voice trailing off as he spoke.
“Every time feels like my first time here,” replied Isidora. “I hate it just as much every time.”
The man shuffled his assessment card in his hands, flicking his fingers over the rounded edges. As he did so, the overhead lights reflected off the card, allowing Isidora to see the number. OH-1-3678551.
“You’re only two after me,” she stated. “Born around 2:30 pm in 2136?”
“2:36 pm,” said the man softly.
Isidora reached out her hand to shake the man’s hand. The man stared at her hand for a moment, then cautiously presented his own.
“Penn. Penn Carrington.”
“You mean like the singer?” Isidora asked.
“Yeah, like the singer,” Penn replied. “It’s a good thing the Bureau gives us these numbers, otherwise I’d be mistaken for him all the time. Well, that and the fact that I’m tall, black, and quiet and he’s none of those things.”
*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678546. Candidate OH-1-3678546 please report to assessment area eleven at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678546 to assessment area eleven.*
“You’re telling them no then?” Penn asked.
“Yeah,” responded Isidora. “I know assessment’s an accepted practice now, but I just don’t feel right knowing when I’m going to die. You know?”
“I get it,” replied Penn.
The transmitter on Penn’s left wrist lit up orange, indicating a restricted communication arriving. Penn touched the transmitter, hiding himself from Isidora’s view in the process. She waited quietly, watching as the previously called candidate made her way across the room. The candidate was a young woman, much like Isidora, though she was wheelchair bound. An orderly wheeled her to the door leading to assessment area eleven. Isidora wondered how long the candidate had to live. She often found herself wondering when those she came in contact with would die. But she didn’t want to know her own expiration date.
*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678547. Candidate OH-1-3678547 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678547 to assessment area two.*
Penn ended his transmission, coming back into view for Isidora and those around. He had reverted back to crying, much like he was when he first walked in.
Isidora reached into her clutch and produced a small package of tissues. She handed them to Penn. He gratefully took them from her, removing one of the tissues from the case and wiping his eyes with it.
“Thank you,” Penn said, handing the package of tissues back to Isidora. He held his lone tissue tightly in his left hand, balling it up atop the candidate card.
“Is everything alright?” Isidora asked. “If that’s not too personal, that is.”
“Not particularly. Trying to take care of the affairs of my wife.”
“Oh dear. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”
“You couldn’t have known. It’s a bit of a birthday downer, even more so than a trip to the Bureau.”
“May I ask what happened?” Isidora asked.
“She um…,” Penn stammered, trying to collect his thoughts. “she died two weeks ago. Heart attack at the age of 27.”
“That’s so sad!” Isidora exclaimed.
“I didn’t know it was coming. None of us did. I mean, we knew there was a chance that Mira — that was my wife, Mira — would have heart issues. Both of her parents died from heart conditions in their fifties. She…”
Penn took a deep breath and stared into the room in front of him. He watched as a young man walked out of the room, a large packet of papers in hand. The man was clearly shaken. Like Mira, he’d die soon. The assessor had confirmed as much.
“She felt she had time to live her life without worry before she had to worry about getting assessed,” Penn continued. “We were both planning to get an assessment done when we turned 40. Halfway to the required visit age seemed like as good of time as any to know.”
*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678548. Candidate OH-1-3678548 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678548 to assessment area two.*
“They must have said no,” said Penn. “I always said no. So did Mira. She’s gone now though. I’m a 28-year-old single father. I need to know if I’m going to be around for my daughter or if I need to make plans for her.”
Isidora stared at her assessment card. Only one spot until she would be called. She grabbed a tissue out of her case, handed it to Penn, then took one for herself. Isidora wiped away the tears that had begun to well up in her eyes.
“Do you have anyone you’re responsible for, Isidora?” Penn asked.
“No,” she responded, “not yet. No kids, no spouse, no partner. My roommate will be living until age 83. My parents each have at least 25 years left and none of my grandparents will be passing for the next five years.”
“So they all know?”
“Everyone in my family knows. My roommate’s father was an assessor before he died. I’m the only person I know personally who doesn’t know when I’ll die.”
“Why not?” Penn asked.
“Because my creators gave me a choice. My parents sat me down at a young age and told me about how assessment worked, my choice, and the consequences of knowing and not knowing. It’s scary not knowing, but I’d prefer not to be counting down the days until I get hit by a bus, die from cancer, or never wake up from sleep.”
*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678549. Candidate OH-1-3678549 please report to assessment area four at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678549 to assessment area four.*
“That’s you,” stated Penn.
Isidora rose from her seat and started walking towards the assessment room. She stopped and turned back to Penn.
“Regardless of what you find out today,” she said, “you should get some cake and ice cream for you and your daughter. It is your birthday after all.”
“Happy birthday to you too, Isidora,” replied Penn.
Isidora entered assessment room four. She proceeded towards a single white stool in the sterile white room. Across from her stool, a gangly woman in a white lab coat sat on a white stool with a white computer on a white desk in front of her.
Isidora sat down on the stool.
“Candidate OH-1-3678549, given name Isidora Pía Lorca Cabrera. Born March the 11th, 2136 at 2:32 pm. Please confirm your identity.”
“I am as you say I am,” said Isidora. The required identification response still seemed forced to Isidora, even after years of saying it.
“Thank you. Candidate OH-1-3678549, do you wish to undergo assessment?”
“I do not,” Isidora replied.
“Please confirm your denial of assessment formally.”
“I, Candidate OH-1-3678549, hereby decline assessment for one calendar year.”
“Thank you. Please exit.”
Isidora rose from her stool and made her way back to the Bureau lobby. Penn was gone, off to his assessment room to learn his fate. Isidora zipped her jacket up and walked out of the building, striding through the late winter snowfall to her transport.
She sat inside the transport, her warm breath fogging up the cold windshield. With a long sigh, she spoke into her transmitter.
“Remind me to receive assessment next year at this time,” said Isidora.
Isidora let out a deep breath and pressed the button to start her transport. A loud explosion ripped through the air, its force tearing apart both the transport and Isidora alike. As the Bureau building caught fire, those inside evacuated out the back. Penn was happy to learn he wouldn’t die that day. He only hoped the same was true for Isidora.