It was a pity that their first meeting was their last, but rules were established to keep society moving forward. Safety allowed for the rebellious to find danger. And those in the right permitted those in the wrong space to roll around in the detritus of their poor decisions. Still, knowing all that he did, Wyatt regretted so hastily selecting a locale for this date. There were a dozen or more to choose from, but he hadn’t bothered scrolling past the first screen, wrapped up in the reckless moment of signing on. Of course, the other party had a choice as well, but considering they were locating Wyatt’s soul mate, he wasn’t at all surprised that they’d both selected a speakeasy from the 1920’s, complete with flapper décor and distilled liquor.
“Sir, a light?” The waitress giggled. Her lips were drowsy with red lipstick, and her shoulders quivered in tandem with the fire wiggling at the end of the lighter. Smoking was illegal, but the rules no longer applied to Wyatt who had made his choice.
“No, I don’t smoke.” He found himself responding as if he were still a free man.
“But did you ever want to?” she teased, clearly invested in wanting to see him smoke. Lighting the cigarette wasn’t enough. The waitress desired a taste of his irresponsibility, and out of a sense of duty he nodded and put the cigarette between his lips. The smoke pulled in easily and curled up around his lungs, his body warm and energized.
“Tell me.” She dropped her voice as if the officials weren’t listening to every moment. “What made you choose this?”
“You seemed disappointed, so I took the cigarette,” Wyatt said softly. His voice had always owned a rather booming quality, and he didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. She’d volunteered to miss a day of work after all to help him with his last day.
“Silly, I meant why here.” She swept her arms around her like windshield wipers, and Wyatt suddenly appreciated the details more. The facets of the smoky crystal. The gravelly rumble of the antique radio broadcasting news of the time.
“I woke up three weeks ago, and there was too much cereal in the pantry. I’ve been buying for two people so long I can’t eat it all myself. And the ad came on tv, so I took it all to be a sign.” Wyatt didn’t know exactly what to expect in the café. He just knew that the twenty-four-hour timer didn’t start until the other person walked through the door. He found himself leaning back and slicking down his black hair in the mirror behind the bar. It was an odd sensation to worry about someone else assessing his appearance. It didn’t matter, once the other participant walked through the door, they were locked in to the date regardless of looks. Wyatt swallowed the guilt of summoning someone else. One you requested your soul mate, they would receive the invitation and it all spiraled from there. It wasn’t terribly shocking that Wyatt had received instructions just three weeks later to enter the van that came for him.
“I’ve never thought about my cereal.” The waitress grimaced and subsequently jumped as if someone had poked her firmly between the ribs. Her smile snapped to attention. “Like some hooch, sir?”
“Yeah, the strongest you’ve got.” Wyatt adjusted the wide lapel of his pinstriped blazer and gratefully knocked back one-two-three shots of an amber liquid that smelled like pistachios and burnt wood.
“Enjoy.” When the waitress left, her gait was robotic. She’d clearly been reprimanded for engaging with him, and now Wyatt worried he’d corrupted two lives with his foolish wish to be us and not him. The radio clicked back and forth between news and jazz. The air smelled old, and he realized that the officials had gone to great trouble to create an authentic scenario. His watch vibrated under his skin, and he knew that she had to be in the building.
“Do I hunt for her?” he called out into the 1920’s air, but nothing responded.
“Is she here?” Wyatt let his voice loose from its cage. The words echoed back, and he started to lose his nerve. Was one day worth his life? If he was the one, of course, who survived the twenty-four hours. The rules were clear that only one of them would survive the day as punishment to make this choice. To look towards anyone else for their own happiness. The survivor lived as a martyr, to show on their faces, in their bodies, how ruined another person could make someone. How disgusting it could be.
“I’m leaving,” Wyatt announced, storming the door, but it was sealed. It was natural to panic. He noticed strange vents at the corners of the room and understood that one of their deaths would be humane. This calmed him and he sat back down, feeling how smooth his skin was without his beard. Shaving was a luxury. For this occasion, he’d been required to shave.
“Hello?” A buttery voice echoed along the walls of the bar followed by footsteps and dragging chains. Wyatt knew the sound because at the factory he’d worked on the line for years and dragged metal along metal. He had burns in his arm where the metal shards lodged inside and would never come out, like tattoos.
Wyatt reached for his beard. He reached for the loops on his uniform. Everything was too smooth. His thumbs couldn’t loop anywhere, and he felt like he was sliding along the floor.
“I’m here, too,” he called back.
The woman was older, dressed as sharply as he was, carrying an odd purse with chains hanging from the edges. It made each of her steps a trial. Still, she moved more confidently encumbered than Wyatt did with so much weight removed.
“Your name?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“I’d prefer not right away. Habit.” No one shared names unless they were attending work or church. Even then, only when asked by someone who mattered.
“I’m Wyatt. You should know, since I called the number.” He referred to the advertisement that ran on tv late at night, a siren’s call to those who couldn’t sleep. Who wouldn’t sleep when they were supposed to.
“I’ve got two sons named Wyatt, I think.” She put her purse under the table, winding the chains around the metal base, anchoring it to the floor. “Three?”
“Good thing I’m not one of them,” he joked, and then reached for the cigarette again. She followed his hand and extended her own. He handed her the cigarette only she pressed her palm against the embers and startled back. “I needed a reminder.” She pressed her palm against a glass of sweating water.
“Didn’t that hurt?”
“This hurts.” She pointed to the two of them. “I suppose we ought to kiss or figure out what makes us so compatible.” She started to unbutton her blouse and Wyatt took off his jacket and held it up like a movie curtain.
“I’m not ready.” He knocked his chair back and came around to her back, wrapping the coat like a straitjacket, holding her in.
“Then you shouldn’t have called the number.” She shrugged him off and continued to unbutton, revealing something softer and more comfortable beneath. “They insisted I dress this way, but I smuggled my own clothes underneath. I wouldn’t have you kissing me in that.” She shed the dress and tipped it onto the floor, scowling at it.
“Oh. I shouldn’t have assumed. I thought we’d know each other better than this.”
“Wyatt, why did you call the number and ask for me?”
He shrugged and turned to a static noise coming from a door leading downstairs.
“We should follow it, yeah?”
The two descended to the basement where a sofa and living room had been made up, neatly in yellows and lime greens. They’d jumped handily from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, and the woman shook her head.
“This room should have been to my taste, only they’d prefer to tuck me away here.”
She and Wyatt sat down and the coils moaned beneath them. Wyatt decided to follow suit and stripped off his dress shirt so he sat in undershirt and slacks. He wrapped his arm around her because he felt the clock ticking against his bones and knew that hours could whisk away in certain situations. He’d lost a month reading a book, once. A year hiking through the remains of the Midwest.
“Where did you want us to be?” he asked her.
“Under the moon somewhere. I wanted to hear crickets and wind. Not fabricated storms. Real, uneven wind.” She pressed her head against his chest so they both felt the clock accelerating. Or maybe it was his heart. Impossible to discern the two.
“I asked for the upstairs. I wanted to go a hundred years back but maybe that wasn’t enough.” Wyatt shifted and the two of them watched the blank screen of the tv. They practiced holding hands, locking their fingers around one another in a variety of formations.
“Why did you call the number?” she asked again once they’d settled on her folding her hand inside his.
“Too tempting not to. I haven’t slept well in months, and I wondered what a soul mate might look like. Who he or she would be. They’re weeding out the people with no impulse control. Those who can’t handle solitary confinement.” Wyatt found himself tightening his grip and released her, embarrassed he’d forgotten his strength, leaving fingerprints along her skin.
“Do I look like one?” she asked. “Do I look like a soul mate?”
“I don’t know the answer so I’ll say yes, and you should trust me.” Wyatt grinned because she’d climbed back to his side and offered him a photograph of herself as a child. Photographs were kept by the officials. Wyatt loved her momentarily for having something she shouldn’t have.
“Did they give you one before you came here?” she asked him.
“There was an envelope,” Wyatt said. “But I didn’t look inside. It said not to open it until, unless…”
“Today is about not listening to commands written on envelopes. I wish you’d brought it along. I was lovely as a little girl. My curls died the longer my hair grew. But still.” She shyly wound her hair around her fingers as if she could reinvigorate them.
“I didn’t look at myself until I was twenty, but I imagine it was just this without a beard.” He framed his face with his hands.
“You don’t have a beard now,” she flirted. “It’s unusual. Now I know they’ve been hiding everyone away beneath beards and long hair. Long straight hair.”
She stood up quickly and moved to a cabinet, wrestling with the drawers frantically.
“I asked for one to be unlocked. One with my belongings.” She shook and then moved to another cabinet and squealed when the drawer slid open. She took a pair of scissors from it and turned, tips pointed at Wyatt. He nodded, again predicting that she’d perhaps suggest slicing the clock from his chest or both of them taking their own lives in a bloody protest. He’d seen men snip their veins like electrical wire, watched the spark drain. It might have been the lack of sleep but he wasn’t afraid. He just wondered what took him so long to call the number.
“Cut my hair.” She disappointed him, but he dutifully snipped away. The shorter the brown hair got, the curlier until she was the little girl swinging in the photograph. She clapped her hands on his body and the two of them were intimate on the sofa the way people had appeared to be in movies, in books, before disaster struck. Before the woman turned heavy with a baby unlike the neat and scientific way reproduction was handled by the officials in a lab. Before the man lost his mind and ripped apart the woman or the bed because that was impulse. That was a heartbeat not subjugated by a clock.
Except neither happened and both were exhausted, ready to settle in and switch on the television that offered three stations. Two newscasters speaking, a family bicycling through a scenic park, and a camera replaying the two of them since they’d been upstairs.
“That last one is for us to repent,” she advised, kicking at the strands of hair liberated from her head on the floor. “One of us should demand to live, and the other is doomed.”
“You’re guessing.” Wyatt stretched and felt the warmth from the cigarette still enlivening his limbs. Her smell had crept along his body, and he wondered if the perfume was just for this occasion. There would be no repenting on the sofa. No repenting in the corners of his mind.
“It happened last time.”
The warmth drained from him as easily as water escaping a sink through the drain. He reached for her only she’d stood up and was admiring her hair. Wyatt bent over the sofa’s arm and vomited hard. He’d purposely eaten nothing the day before and felt the acid ripping him apart from the inside first. The smell was wretched, and he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and jumped at her, hoping to smell the perfume again.
“You’ve been called once before? Or you work for them.”
“Neither. Eleven times I’ve been here, and every time I’ve advised my partner to be the one who goes upstairs. That’s the way to end things, and I’ve never raced them. Not once, because it would be the selfish thing to do.”
“Were you the first person that they paired me with?” Wyatt’s foolish mind raced by all of the faces he’d seen in his life.
“No. Of course not. They’re tucked snugly in their beds right now, dreaming of the next day and the next.” She picked up the photo and kissed its face. “I wish I’d seen your picture. Wyatt as a little boy. Wyatt believing in gremlins and ghosts.” Her voice was lower and miserable. He wondered if she was a junky who sat by her phone, waiting for the officials to call her again and ask her to come back.
“I won’t go upstairs.” Wyatt stood behind her and the two reminded him of portraits he’d seen in history books. “They’ll have to drag me.”
“Your brain will be on loop, Wyatt. You’ll never forget this, and it will cast a peculiar filter on everything. The motions of the machines in the factory, the words in the hymnals at church, all will sound different. Your food will taste sour. Your air, polluted.”
“If you know this, all of this, then why do you keep saying yes? Why do you carry those chains?”
“They’re making it harder for me to say yes every time. But I won’t stop.” She was his strength for the moment, because he knew that she’d never stoop her shoulders or show the others what she missed, and he didn’t have the faith in himself to do that. He would miss her or at least the idea of her too much. “I’ll go upstairs, when it’s time.”
The two sat silently on the sofa, not wasting a moment on the television or stripping off each other’s clothes again. Instead she told him about the other scenarios, an act that would have been sacrilege to some, pornographic, only he wanted to know her experiences and when the buzzer rang and the building vibrated because their day together finished, he stepped confidently up the metal stairs, letting her know in his stride that he appreciated the way she would let him end things.
“Hum, would you?” he asked.
She nodded and complied, and she hummed a song he’d heard many times, Anne’s Escape, an approved song that often played through the factories. He’d always liked the name Anne and felt well-informed to have met one. Upstairs, he found the waitress again and suddenly turned to try and make it back down the steps only the door had been sealed and a nasty hissing could be heard through those oddly shaped vents.
“Another drink, before you return home?” The waitress looked haggard as if they’d forced her to stay up all night waiting for him to emerge.
“I’ll never know,” he said to himself. Wyatt took the drink and another, then another and soon his mind, like a seesaw, tipped back and forth between the idea of her tricking him to leave so she could die, or the officials deciding it was her time and not allowing Anne a choice anymore. Either way Wyatt had only one path, and pulled back his shoulders to smile at the waitress.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asked him.
“Better than ever,” he managed despite the low-lying ache building behind his sternum. “I’d like to leave, please.” His voice wasn’t booming but rather soft and sweet.
The waitress opened the outside door and there were officials to make sure he made it home and didn’t try to throw himself in front of a train or lie down in the dirt ditches. They monitored him for days, disappointed with the uptick in his productivity and the neatness of his home. Even his beard was trimmed as it grew in because he’d smuggled the scissors home with him, and Wyatt waited every night by the phone in case he was called. The officials weren’t happy about that, but it was a calculated risk. And strangely enough, they didn’t pay any mind to the real threat.
That night the waitress returned home and stayed up all night, trying to find the exact words for her coworkers the next day. Words that chronicled the look on Wyatt’s face after what should have been his destruction. What words would suit, when redefining heaven and hell?
Sarah Clayville writes and dreams in Central Pennsylvania. A high school English teacher and freelance editor, her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured both online and in print. She is also an assistant editor for the online journals Mothers Always Write and Identity Theory. Her work and musings can be found at SarahSaysWrite.com.