By Theo Volschenk
‘I’m not sure how else to say this, Mr…?’
‘Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, two, three, double seven.’
‘That’s right. Double eight for short?’
‘No, sir. Just Eight, eight, five, nine–’
‘That’s okay,’ the instructor waved a hand. ‘I got it the first time.’ The man smiled with the pencil between his teeth and looked down at the clipboard. The man felt the student’s eyes crawl over his bald patch, the boy’s ashen face shivering as his life flashed before his eyes.
The man could sense the thoughts: I can’t believe it would end in this gray block of a room with that fluorescent light flickering on this bald man’s head.
‘As I was saying, Mr. Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, three–’
‘Oh, two, three–’
‘Right, oh, two, three, double seven,’ the man tapped the rubber-end against his lower lip. ‘Quite an interesting name.’
‘Thank you,’ the student wormed in the plastic seat. ‘Named after my Father.’
The man could hear the capital F and it made his chest twist.
He’s so young and innocent. And he can’t help he failed the test, could he? Could he? But, this is how we do things, isn’t it? Been doing it for decades, so the answers would be common knowledge by now. Won’t they?
‘Yes, well, back to the scores, my good sir,’ the man scribbled onto the test results and waved over the student’s head.
The room had a fourth wall made out of glass, which functioned as a two-way mirror for the assessors. Those who would fail caught on early and were terrified about what was on the other side.
This student just gazed over the man’s shoulder.
‘I’m sure that you’re aware of what happens when a student fails the standardised test.’
The student kept his green eyes on the air con as it hissed behind the man. The assessor sighed.
‘Son, are you listening to me?’
The student looked into the man’s eyes. A pang of pain fisted, twisted, and gutted what little empathy the case hardened teacher had. The green eye’s cold-chill danced with the conditioned air, and goose pimples pricked his freckled skin. He never had sympathy for these fails.
But was this sympathy or empathy? He cussed himself for letting the feeling slither in like a snake in your bed.
‘Good,’ the man cleared his throat. He held a hand up towards the mirror and scribbled into the results. The pencils dragged and echoed into the silence and shook his head when he counted it up. He sighed again.
‘I mean, son, we briefed you about this. We briefed all of you about this. You had your whole life to dodge this bullet and still you landed up here. It’s a simple test. This is the most important test you’ll take. I mean did take. And we make sure, always very, very sure that we don’t allow imbeciles or mentally degenerate folks into the chambers where you are now. We can’t function as a society if we allow–’
The man wanted to say retards and pinched his lips. He knew political correctness has gone to hell inside these iron walls; no one would even flinch at the word. It was just him, the boy in front of him, and what was behind the glass wall. That’s it. This kid didn’t have anyone else. Well, his folks were waiting outside, hoping that he’d graduate into adulthood. They’ve probably bitten their nails right down into the white half-moons. That never bothered him before. Hell, he wasn’t just doing his job. That’s Eichmann’s defence and he never needed one. Society depended on him executing his duties, so why was he being sensitive? It didn’t make any sense.
He walked down those roads almost every day. Living in Jongno-gu, Seoul, he’d tread down Tongil-ro 8-gil, past the Presbyterian church, around the corner and right into Songwol-gil, through the larges building’s courtyard with the harmonica facade, the building where The Test happened every week. It was an easy walk, and he enjoyed the sun on his face before he entered the sterile building most citizens were terrified of.
He could imagine them now, outside in the sun, dancing on the balls of their feet, wringing their hands, waiting to see who came out, where the parents sobbed, cried, harangued, and dreaded the result, him just strutting and whistling past them like he was on a picnic trip.
But why this kid, why now?
‘I know you’re not stupid,’ the man gave an uneasy smile, ‘and I know you have folks out there waiting for you to join them. Maybe getting you a pizza or milkshake or something while they ruffle your hair in an “attaboy!’’’
No response. Only the grove stared back, the eyes watering from the one-way Q and A.
‘I mean don’t you care? Everyone else back there,’ he pointed to the door the boy came in, ‘knew what waited for them. They knew. You knew. You wouldn’t have written the test if you didn’t know or understand–’
The glass wall tapped and the man jerked his head. His brow knitted and he waved a hand back, mouthing “wait.”
‘I know what’s going to happen, mister. I know what’s going to happen.’
It was a midsummer’s morning during fall and it was the best time to get the kids to ease into the unknown. Finches were singing, toddlers were rolling their red balls onto fresh-cut lawns, and sedans hooted their greetings outside the government building where The Test was done, giving encourage for those still in the dark.
It was also the best time to scramble a child’s brain with a black captive bolt pistol, the man reminded himself. With an air velocity of 340m/s, the Chinese Sprinter (as the folks around here cooed over it) had a strong grace which gave the man a shiver. He liked to think of it as the exit strategy for the current agency, the argument being it would decrease deviant rates, child mothers, general delinquency, and all the other unsociable behaviours, which is what The Test tested. But looking into those emerald eyes, he never asked himself if The Test was correct, up to date, even just on the right path. He looked down at the results and wondered himself who made the numbers next to the answers, the numbers that gave the final total to determine the child’s future delinquency behaviour. Could they predict the future?
‘So, if you know what’s going to happen–as a boy at your level should–why did you fail?’
The man knew it was a stupid question to ask, but he was numbed as to how the boy could land here at age 17.
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
‘You’ve been doing The Test every year since you were 6 years old. You managed to make it all this way, jump every hurdle, and now’s the day you didn’t make it? Why? Why, Mr. Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, two, three, double seven?’ The words seethed through his teeth and the enamel went cold with the sound.
The boy shrugged his shoulders again.
‘You understand why we do The Test, don’t you? Of course you do. You’ve been doing this for, what, ten, eleven years? You’ve made it nine out of ten times and today, for some reason unbeknownst to me, you decided to just write the worst possible results I’ve ever seen. And some of these kids are so jumped and scared that a sloshed crab has a better time of writing something eligible.’
The air con hissed as a finger tapped on the glass again. The man, face flushed and exhausted, waved the sound away. He mouthed “I said wait!” but a sliver of his voice escaped the parched throat. The man coughed, cleared his throat again, and took a sip from the lukewarm water. He swallowed it down and wiped the droplets from his chin. It must be five o’ clock, the man grumbled to himself.
‘Do you know what the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis is, son?’
The boy shook his head. It was the most mechanical ‘negative’ the man’s ever seen. Once to the left, then the right, left again, stopping in the middle.
‘Basically, if The Test removed those with a “crime friendly” disposition, then we’d be doing the future generations a service. Most kids that turned into deviants came from unwanted pregnancies. Some would say son-of-a-bitches and whores-for-a-mother, but I’m not going to do that.’
The man got up and walked over to the stainless steel trolley. ‘Would you like some water, son?’
The boy just shook his head again. Left, right, left again, dead centre. It gave the man the creeps.
‘As you wish,’ the man poured himself from the cracked jug and the glass clanged against the iron surface. The man wiped the bottom and sat back down. The bright grove eyes leered back and through the man’s own charcoal gaze.
‘Like they did in 2017 when the government legalised pregnancy terminations, you know? You know. When abortions go up, crime and civil irregularities goes down with it. That simple. That’s the DL theory, anyway. That’s what we tell you kids every single year. Instead of wasting millions on rehabilitation, crime prevention, and all that hoo-ha, the administration thought: Why not pluck the root? Unwanted pregnancies. There’s no use plucking the flower of the weeds if the roots are dark, damp, and untouched. Let’s kill the mothers that make these bad decisions in the first place. Let’s break the chain and choke that bitch out.’
The last part scared him a bit. Why was he justifying himself?
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–’
‘I know what’s going to happen.’
The glass tapped for the third time. The assessor could see his bald head wobble in the mirror.
‘Christ, all right! I said wait, didn’t I! I’m not done!’ The man slammed the table on each sentence. It was an outburst and he’d never done that before. It was unprofessional. The boy, expected to shake in his boots, never kept his eyes off the freckled bald man.
‘I think it’s time for a glass of water, kiddo,’ the man heaved and got up, waiting for some kind of response.
Left, right, left again, dead centre.
The man slammed the table and flinched from the pain in his own hand. It was pink from the outburst.
God damn this boy, the man thought. He must’ve gotten his head scrambled before he even walked into the examination room. Couldn’t they pick up the kid wasn’t… right? He had to have something wrong with him. How else could he land up here this way? He hated all these fucking questions.
‘We’ll, you’ll get one in any case. Do with it what you want.’
The man walked over to the glistening trolley and shivered from the ice draft upper head. He closed his eyes and focused on the machine’s breath.
A red mist blew around the man’s neck and damped the steel tray. The glass jug, now pink from the mist’s film, slipped like condensation under the man’s hand. His brow folded and he wiped with the back of his hand the spray away. The boy’s head slammed against the table and the man flinched. He sighed and breathed out as loud as he could.
A bow of snot arced over the boy’s nose and mouth. The man crouched down to open the bottom drawer. The steel scraped and yelled from the jerk as the man rummaged to find the washed brown towel. His face itched and the bristles stood straight like a dog’s back. The cheap perfume of washing powder burnt his face. He breathed in the burn since he didn’t want to look at the mess.
It’s a boy, damn it, not a mess. It was a boy and you knew he shouldn’t have been here. Someone fucked up royally and I’ll get to the bottom of this. But not now. If I seem spooked, then my shit is cooked.
‘I know we can’t let them know when the shit hits the fan, but do we need that stun gun? Christ, I feel baptized every time you use it.’
‘Why did you take so long, Triple seven, one, two, four, nine, three, oh?’
‘Jesus, Forty-Five, I know you like to keep things professional and all, but that’s a bit stiff, ain’t it? Let’s keep it to Seven-Thirty, alright?’
‘Why so long, Seven-Thirty?’
The man, known as 730 to his colleagues and family, rubbed the slick film of blood from his head and arms. The dog bristles made his skin pink and it looked strange with the blood red, ginger freckles, and pink skin. He never noticed the schema before and always tried to get the mist off him.
45 looked at him with his granite eyes and 730 was struck by the boy’s emerald eyes in his memory. He never noticed their eyes, like you wouldn’t notice certain cockroaches and their traits when you’d bring your boot down.
‘I asked you to wait. Why couldn’t you give me time? I had to make a thorough assessment.’
‘You had plenty of time, Seven-Thirty,’ the man’s voice was like two concrete slab scraping. ‘You never take this long with a failure. It’s dangerous to get attached.’
‘I wasn’t getting attached,’ 730 threw the stained cloth over his seat. ‘Don’t tell me what happened, Forty-five. You had no right–’
‘It’s my job. I did what I had to do. The kid failed The Test, you need to check if he’s healthy enough to’ve taken The Test; I come in and tick the last box. Done. You were dragging your feet.’
45 lowered the canister down and dropped the nozzle on the floor. It clanged and 730 yelped from the smack.
‘Don’t do that! It scares the shit out of me every time you do that.’ 730 wiped his hands on his chest. ‘And I didn’t drag my feet!’
730 walked back to the trolley to see if the jug’s contents was also tainted or just the outside. He was parched from all the talking. He jumped when the corpse slumped over and slapped the floor. It head cracked on the surface and 730’s eyes were wide-spread.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ He swallowed down a yelp. He sounded scared and it would raise red flags if 45 heard it.
‘The kid’s big. They’re heavy when they’re dead, Seven-thirty. It makes it easier to drag them out if they’re on the ground.’
‘He’s not that big,’ 730 pointed as the scarlet speech bubble growing next to the boy’s head. ‘Barely one-sixty. I’ve seen you carry twins over each shoulder without breaking a sweat!’
45’s eyes contracted. 730 forgot that they we’re only 6-years old at the time and scraped at 52-pounds each.
‘They were chubby,’ 730 grumbled. He felt his cheeks burn. ‘Never mind that now. Warn me next time, alright? No use getting me all jumpy and I can’t do my job,’ he tried smiling, but it looked like rotten fruit sloshed under his tongue. He swallowed the attempt and waved the corpse away.
‘Please take Mr. Eight, eight, five, nine, oh, three, double seven with you and send in Double-nine. She needs to get rid of this mess before we send in the last one for the day. I need to get home and… It doesn’t matter.’
730 cut himself short as 45 ignored him. He dragged the body and the assessor flinched when the boy’s head banged against the door’s frame.
At that same moment, 99, with her red eyes and ashen face, stalked inside with a bucket in each hand. She dragged her left side heavier than the right, and 730 surmised it must be the water. He nodded in greeting, but the black-haired girl walked passed him and darted to the spot first. The two buckets, one empty and one filled, clanged as she lowered it. Moving to the trolley, she squatted and rummaged through the drawers, pulling out the supplies needed to clean up the blood. Double-nine always cried when she hears the nozzle going off, 730 thought. It must be exhausting to cry for those who fail.
99 gripped the bleach and headed to the spill. She crouched down and pooled the crimson into the cloth. With the steel buckets next to her she wringed out the towel in the one, syrup that oozed into the steel, and drenched the other in the water. The liquid turned pink and she mopped the remaining pool with the wet towel. He forgot that he wanted to check if he could salvage some water, but left it. If he drank another glass now we would have to go to the toilet which seemed like too much effort now. He’d rather wait until the last one was done for the day.
The wooden scrub’s yellow bristles scraped against the concrete floor and the sound made him nervous. He looked at the taut white dress covering the young buttocks and he felt shame creeping like a snake. He tried to focus on her motion, but the bleach-water-blood solution made tiny sprays. Just like the pink mist every time 45 fired the captive bolt.
45 stepped in and nodded to 99. She nodded back and 730’s stomach turned.
‘Came to fetch Chinese Sprinter.’ The man chuckled under his breath and 730 resisted the urge to smack the boulder of a man.
‘Don’t laugh. Just take the thing, will ya? No need to scare the kids and make it impossible to talk to them.’
‘Right,’ 45 winked, ‘No need to spoil the surprise.’ He chuckled again and nodded to 99 as he left the room. The door, hidden in the glass wall, shut and the mirror wobbled. 730 looked like the world’s biggest infant as his bald head grew and shrunk on the surface. He tried looking away, but the malleable image fascinated him.
99 worked fast and the soap layer was white again. The bleach striped the signs of any life taken between the iron walls. When she was done wiping the spot dry she gripped her supplies and returned them. The steel drawers open their mouths with pleasure, gulped the mechanical gulps, and stood in attention for the next customer.
The woman exited tapped on the glass wall and 45 opened from the outside. The mirror shook the man’s image still inside as the door closed behind her, and the assessor sat down when a knock came from outside the test chamber.
‘Just a minute!’
730 walked over to his seat and dragged the towel from his seat’s backrest. He shoved the towel in the bottom drawer, careful to be as quiet as possible, and gripped the clipboard on the steel trolley. The pages screamed in the room as the assessor flipped it over to the last page. He shook his head at the results and sighed as he sat down on the plastic folding chair.
He saw the emerald eyes surrounded by red and made a mental note. It was a pair of stunning eyes and now his folks, broken for the rest of their lives in about 30 minutes–not a fail, a girl!–would have no pizza or milkshake or something to cheer about while they ruffled their son’s hair in an “attaboy!”
He would find out who did the sifting today. The boy should not have been here. Someone made a mistake and an innocent life was taken.
730 sighed and tapped the pencil’s rubber-end against his lower lip. He was thirsty and wanted to get this one done. He had work to do. Work outside this building. He would start with the screeners and work his way, perhaps, back to himself. He hoped it would be an answer where he didn’t make the mistake. He never made mistakes, but the first of every bad thing was usually the worst.
He sighed again. All that would have to wait.
The assessor plastered a smile on his face and leered at the door, yelling ‘Come on in! Don’t be scared!’
As a barefoot rural kid from South Africa, Theo began writing stories using his favourite colour crayons, moved to H2 pencils, and ended on an old PC. If he does not try to scare people with his stories then he spends his time with his family and watching classic black and white movies.