The ceremony is over now. The people have all left, and I sit alone in the hotel room. I don't know how to feel. Relieved, I guess. Knowing the day, you will die is strange. It filled me with a sort of anxious expectance until today. Now I just want it to be over with.
The ceremony was nice. It is designed to be. A big party, all of the friendly faces of those you love hugging you, saying goodbye, trying to be pleasant and not too sad. It's difficult to be sad when there is an expectation of a celebration, but I always felt like that somehow took away some of the weight of someone dying. Just because you know they are going to die and lived a good life doesn't mean that you can't feel sad because you are going to miss them.
The dark, glittering beads of the bracelet on my wrist sparkle against the soft light in the luxurious hotel suite. Opulent drapes and bed coverings, soft chairs, and warm lights. It is customary to come here to die. No one really knows how it happens as it is also customary to be alone. I just know that it always happens as predicted. When you are born, the certificate you are given also determines when you die. Some people get thirty years, some get over fifty, and a lucky few get to be into the early hundreds. Unfortunately for me, I got twenty-seven and a few days. I was relieved that I would not have to experience my parents' deaths. I have not had to face many deaths of those I love. I guess that is the upside of having a death date so young.
I twist the bracelet slowly around my wrist. The bracelet is given to you a year before your date. Over time the beads fade, one by one, from a bright colour to a dark, glittering hue. It is one of multiple rituals that happen beforehand. The customs are meant to make the passing easier for those that are left behind. I'm not sure that they are easier for me, though. I'd rather not have all of this build-up to the day. Finally, the last bead on the bracelet has faded out. You're not meant to, but I take the bracelet off and place it beside the bed. I don't need the reminder anymore. I have done everything I wanted to.
I lean back on the bed and look at the ceiling above me. It is clean and white. I wish I were at home instead, with the stars I painted sparkling above me. I find them relaxing.
A small knock on the door. I open it to find a server standing there in a simple white uniform. She smiles and hands me a warm glass.
"To help you sleep," She says.
"Thanks." I take it from her and start to close the door.
"No." Her words aren't unkind but insistent. "You drink it here. I must make sure you are relaxed."
Fine. I drink the warm liquid. It's sort of like warm, sweet milk, but with a slightly unusual flavour.
I hand the glass back to her, and she smiles and leaves. I close the door again and go to stretch out on the bed. No stars. A blank ceiling. No life. Empty. Empty. Empty.
Nausea swirls up in my throat, and I rush to the bathroom. I throw up again and again. My emotions are hurling themselves up at me just as violently as my stomach is heaving out its contents. I won't get to see my siblings graduate; I won't get to see my parents' hair turn grey. I didn't have time to get married or have my own family. We all say knowing your time and how to plan your life, so you don't waste time is a blessing. It's a blessing to be able to prepare yourself, but I don't know if I agree with that anymore. I lay on the ground, waiting for the feeling to subside finally. I now wish I had taken the anti-anxiety pills I was offered earlier by the nurse. I close my eyes and feel the marble tiles cooling my skin. There's nothing I can do about it now anyway. Sometime tonight, I will die, and that will be it. I have prepared myself, said what I needed to, written letters to family, and done all the things I wanted to. Well almost.
I can't lie on that bed anymore. Instead, I turn the lights out and sit near the window, staring up at the stars. I am so high up that I feel I could almost touch them. If only I were just a little higher. The open window lets the night air cool my face, bringing with it pleasant scents from the trees below. I stand up and lean out a little bit, enjoying feeling alive. There is a sort of metal trellis that goes up and down the building. Below me, the jasmine plants are weaving their way up it, but above it is just a part of the architecture, reaching up to the sky. I'd rather be up there.
I take a small blanket from the closet, roll it and tie it across my chest. I carefully climb out of the window. I've never been afraid of heights, and I enjoy climbing, I regularly would go bouldering with my sister, but I have never climbed anything quite this tall without ropes. There's not much point in being afraid of taking risks now. I'll die tonight one way or another.
Slowly, inch by inch, I grasp the frame, pull myself up, get a higher grip and do it again. the metal railings are cold beneath my touch, my fingers and toes curling around them as I move up step by step. There is only one more floor to get past, and then I am pulling myself over a small ledge onto the roof.
I smile and take in the view. The city is sprawling between me and the mountain, the buildings clawing up with glistening lights like bejeweled steps to the heavens above. I wrap myself in the blanket and lay down; the stars sparkle above me, singing a song I cannot hear, but that calms me nonetheless. They've been watching down on me my whole life, silent, steady, always there. They'll find me up here tomorrow. At least I can spend my last night, my final moments, under the familiar lights. Cuddling up in the blanket, my eyes close for the last time, and I drift to sleep in the company of the stars.
Shouting. Why can't I just leave in peace? Wait. I am still alive. I sit up quickly. I am still on the roof, and I can hear loud voices from below. The sky is just beginning to light up in the east. By now, I should be dead. I know that much. Was my date wrong? Can that even happen? I should climb down and let them know that I am here.
When I walk over to the edge, though, and look over, I suddenly realise for the first time how high up I am. It didn't seem that bad last night. Then again, last night, I thought I would die anyway, and falling to my death wouldn't have made that much difference. There must be another way down. The roof is flat with a small ledge, but there is also a door near the centre in a small building. That must be for the stairs.
I make my way over. It's locked. Well, now what. I walk around the small outcropping, and before I can get to another side to see if there might be a fire escape, the door bursts open, and I hear laughing.
"They have searched, though. The whole building." A young female voice laughs.
"So she's just gone?" A male voice, young as well.
"Yeah. I mean, that's what I would do. Leave the tracker, and slip out quietly. Go live far away. Or just show up undead and blow the whole scheme." She laughed.
I very carefully peek around the small building housing the stairs. They have walked a few steps away and are facing away from the door. The female lights a cigarette and holds out the lighter to the male. He accepts and lights his own cigarette.
Whilst they are distracted, I quickly slip around the building and into the unlocked and slightly ajar door. I feel as though every light barefoot footstep is unnaturally loud. As soon as I am inside, I descend the stairs quickly, my mind trying to keep up with the information I had just acquired. They weren't surprised that I wasn't dead. How is that possible? If it is an event that happens naturally and to which, in recent decades, the doctors are able to predict with accuracy, why did it not happen to me? It didn't make any sense... This had never happened before. Or at least I don't think it has...
As much as I trust the people here who are meant to keep us comfortable as we pass, I am now weary. They were wrong about me, and I'm not sure what to think of that. Maybe if I can just get out of here, I can find someone who can explain it to me. Perhaps I should just go back to my room and ask someone what happened? But, no, that doesn't seem right. The girl on the roof said I should run. But why?
I rush around a corner in the stairwell and almost run straight into a doctor in a white coat. His face shows confusion and shock before settling into a neutral, pleasant, welcoming smile.
"Hello, what are you doing here?"
"I-I was just leaving."
"Hold on," his voice is soft and kind. "Wasn't your ceremony yesterday?"
"Yes... but something went wrong."
"It's okay. He gently takes my elbow and leads me back up the stairs. "Every once in a while, they get the date one day out. It isn't a big deal. We'll make sure you're uncomfortable."
He speaks so calmly but yet my inside squirm uncomfortably, like when you eat something that tastes good, but later you realise it has made your stomach unhappy.
"Why didn't it happen as they said?"
"As I said, occasionally they get it slightly wrong. It's not a big deal."
"Can I talk to my family?"
"I don't think you want to do that. They've already said their goodbyes. You don't want to upset them, do you?"
We exit the stairwell on the 9th floor. The floor I was on last night. He leads me back towards my room. There are nurses and a couple of doctors walking around. Some orderlies are pushing a stretcher with a white sheet spread across it. Beneath the sheet, I can see the shape of a person. That was the man who also had his celebration last night. I'm sure of it.
The doctor gestures to the nurse who brought me a drink last night. She walks with us back to my room.
"Please make sure Miss Amber is comfortable. I'll come back to discuss this with you in a few minutes, okay?"
She walks me to the bed, gestures that I should sit, and pulls a small bottle of pills out of her pocket. "Here." She hands me a small white pill and then the glass of water from beside the bed.
"What is this for?"
"To help you calm down. You seem flustered." She smiles and encourages me to take the water. She has a sweet face, but somehow, her eyes seem colder than anyone I have ever spoken to before. My mom said that to become a nurse in the old days, you had to be kind, patient, and empathetic. Unfortunately, those don't seem to be the characteristics of this nurse past her smile and plastered facade.
"I didn't have to take it last night. I don't think I need it now."
"You should take it." Her gaze doesn't waver. This doesn't seem like a suggestion anymore.
Pill. Water. Swallow. She gestures for me to open my mouth to ensure I have taken it.
"Just rest for now. The doctor will be back soon."
She helps me lay down and then smiles at me and leaves, closing the door quietly behind her and locking it.
I jump up and quietly pad over to the door. I can hear voices.
"Did she take it?"
"Okay. Stay here. Make sure nothing happens. We can't lose her again. I'll be back with the medication in a moment."
I wasn't in this room last night when it was meant to happen. Is that why it didn't? Could the location have something to do with it? Or... I can't fathom that this could be true... Could it be the people? Could those who are meant to be the ones ensuring a peaceful passing on our predetermined dates be the ones initiating the passing?
The room doesn't feel stable, and I feel like I might pass out. I manage to get myself onto the carpet quietly and sit there holding my head.
Is it possible that the reason that we know when we will die is that those dates were manufactured and not from some medical advancement?
Maybe I should have swallowed the pill I hid and still hold in my hand. Maybe I wouldn't be facing this news now. Maybe I would accept my fate more readily and peacefully. Like the man on the stretcher.
I have to leave this room. It is too small, too little space for me to think. I have to get out.
The only way out is the window, but that will only get me back to where I started this day, on the roof and having to navigate my way past many doctors and nurses in order to get out.
I walk over to the window, and my toes curl into the carpet as I look down. The wind whips my hair into my face and stings my eyes.
Well, I guess I could die today one way or another.
I push the window open further and pull my weight up onto the ledge. I close my eyes for a moment, clutching the edges. When I open my eyes, I stare ahead at the mountains far away. I try to imagine myself flying, light as air, enjoying the breeze, and landing gently on the mountain top.
I gently rotate my body and extend a leg down to the side to find the trellis. Slowly shifting my weight, I tightly grip it with one hand and then the other. Slowly I start to move down, one step at a time, holding tightly to the bars.
All I can think of is the cool trellis and the plants I have to work my way past. Slowly. Slowly.
My toes touch hard, cold concrete. I made it. I know I have to run, I have to get far away from here so I can figure out what is going on and how to stay safe. For one moment, I pause and look up at the tall building that I just climbed down. The height of it momentarily steals my breath and makes my head spin. For the first time in my life, I am scared of dying. For the first time, I have to wonder when that may be and how. For the first time, there is uncertainty. I don't know what happens next.
I take off running.
This is the first day of the rest of my life.