Gus Yeager, Age 17, Los Alamos
Jude was scared. Truly scared. He had only known the kind of fear from the frightfulness of wakeful nights due to the monster in his closet, or the panic that accompanied the pain of a bee sting. This was different. He couldn’t stop the tears as the policemen led his daddy out of the house. He heard his mommy sobbing, and wrapped his arms around her a little tighter, burying his face in the folds of her skirt. He heard the door shut and his mother’s sobs became louder, crescendoing into piercing shrieks on anguish. It did all the more to upset Jude, who crouched down and held his stuffed rabbit tight against his chest, just wanting it all to stop, wanting his daddy to come back through the door. He wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, but there was one word from last night that had stuck with Jude. His father was being fastened.
Jude had crept down the stairs from his bedroom, pulling his rabbit along by its long, floppy, tattered ears. His parents had been yelling, and as any child of six might do, he wandered down to see what the commotion was about. The living room light was on, but just as he was about to turn the corner into the living room when he heard his mommy say something.
“Fastened, Michael? You’re really being ... fastened?”
No response came from his father.
“Oh, God ... oh, God, Michael,” his mom murmured. “What, what exactly are they doing to you?”
His father paused for a moment, then spoke. His tone was even, trying to be calm, but a tremor still stuck in the flow of his words. He explained that contacts would be fitted over his eyes and miniature speakers would be inserted deep into his ear canals. The reality he saw and heard would be a living hellscape. Jude, of course, knew none of what this meant, but the way his dad was talking made him fearful.
“Michael. Michael, why did you have to go and do what you did?”
“It was an accident, Roseanne!” he snapped “You know that. I didn’t see him in the road. It’s gonna be fine. It’s only 18 months. I can make it through.”
“Micheal, we’ve both seen the statistics. Only 5 percent of people who are fastened don’t ...”
Jude peeked around the corner when his mom stopped; he saw her slowly make a gun shape with her fingers. She brought it up to her temple. Jude gasped softly, and ran back upstairs. He knew what that meant. Some of the older boys at school had done that after Scotty’s uncle was fastened. Scotty’s uncle had shot himself.
Downstairs, Michael left the living room. His wife was in near hysterics, and he just wanted to sleep. It was perhaps the last peaceful sleep he would get before they came in the morning. At the bottom of the stairs, he paused and bent down to pick up the rabbit. Micheal walked the stairs and entered his son’s room. He lay in his bed, breathing deeply and evenly. Micheal knelt by his bed and placed the rabbit in the boy’s small arms, which instinctively squeezed it against his body. He stroked his son’s hair.
“Hey, bud,” he whispered, “things are gonna be different. I’m still going to be here; it’s just going to be ... well, I’m not going to know you’re there. I’m not gonna be able to talk to you. But I love you. More than anything.” And with that, Micheal stood, took one final look at his precious child, and went to bed.
The policemen brought his dad back an hour later. They led him through the door, guiding him. Jude saw his eyes were all grey now, and he started to run to him, but his mommy held him back.
“Jude, I need you to wait in here. No matter what, just stay here until I come and get you, OK?” his mommy asked.
“But I wanna go see daddy,” Jude replied.
“Jude, listen to Mommy. I need you to wait here. Promise me you’ll wait here,” she pleaded. Jude slowly nodded his head. His mommy went into the living room, where the police officers had taken his father.
“Let’s activate him,” Jude heard a gruff voice say. Jude then heard a peculiar sound. It was a cross between a wheeze and a moan. It grew louder slowly, and he recognized hints of his dad’s voice in it. Jude smiled to himself. Maybe his daddy was gonna be OK. Then it got louder, and deeper. Jude felt his smile fade. He covered his ears when the sound turned to a bloodcurdling scream. ◀
Mark Meana, age unavailable, Los Alamos
One day, when I was walking Ellie back home from school, Ellie asked me, “Grandpa, are you real?”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “Well, of course I am,” I croaked.
The young girl pouted.
“That’s what everyone tells me,” she said. “But I’m not so sure.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“Damien told me that his brother said everyone just thinks other things exist. But we can’t be sure anyone else exists, or even that anything else exists. We’re just imagining all of it.”
I sighed. “You need to stop listening to Damien so much,” I chastised. “He keeps putting crazy ideas in your head.”
“But how do I know you’re real? How do I know I’m not just imagining everything?”
She sounded close to crying, and I couldn’t bear to see her like that. I thought about it. Then I smiled wanly. “That, my dear, is an excellent question.” I pulled off my glasses. “Hold these, will you?”
Ellie gingerly grabbed the glasses and looked at them.
“What are those?” I asked her.
She stared at them. “Uh ... they’re your glasses.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’m holding them.”
“Exactly,” I said. “You know they exist because you can feel them with your hands and see them with your eyes.”
“But that’s the point,” she puffed impatiently. “I’m just imagining that I’m holding glasses, and that they’re black and clear and have all the bits glasses have. And I’m just imagining you giving me these glasses. You can’t even prove you’re real!” She threw the glasses on the floor and sat down, tears streaking down her red cheeks.
I bent down to retrieve the dented frames. “Really?” I muttered. “I just purchased these.”
“Who cares?” Ellie shouted. “It’s not real. Nothing is real!” She buried her face in her hands.
I remained calm. I was starting to see how to help her. “But you thought you had glasses in your hands,” I pressed.
She sniffled. “Yes.”
“You felt them and looked at them and you said they were glasses, correct?”
She pulled her hands away from her face and glared at me. “Yes.”
“So you used your eyes and your fingers to grab a thing,” I explained, “and you decided that thing was a set of glasses.”
“That means you used your senses to obtain information,” I said. “You used your head to make sense of that information and reach a conclusion. You put together what you know about glasses and what you sensed about the thing in your hands and concluded that you were holding a pair of glasses.”
Ellie’s eyebrows scrunched together. “What?”
I placed the glasses back over my eyes. “Okay,” I tried again. “What do you do in school?”
She picked at a scab on her knee. “Learn.”
“Yes. And when you learn, you add that new knowledge to everything else you’ve learned. You take everything your teacher shows you and combine it with everything else you’ve seen and heard, what you’ve felt and what you’ve tasted and smelled.”
“I don’t get it.”
I sighed. “If your head is filled with all the things you’ve learned, then what’s keeping it all together up there? Why doesn’t it all just fly away?”
I watched as Ellie worked through this thought.
“Because there’s something holding it there?” she asked.
I beamed at her. “Precisely! And you’re not the one doing that, are you?”
“I ... I guess not.”
“Indeed. That something holding it all together is a set of rules that let you know things. And they’re the same rules that let me know things, and that let every human on earth know things. The rules are your mind and your senses working together. And that lets you look at things and decide for yourself what those things are.”
“Like a pair of glasses?”
“Yes. That means you are not the only person in the universe, because you can perceive things other than yourself and then think about it.”
“Huh.” A fresh thought made Ellie’s face contort with disgust. “But sometimes I’m wrong about things. And adults are wrong too. So what’s the real truth?”
“No one knows,” I admitted. “We may never know.”
“So the truth could be, ‘No one except Ellie exists,’ ” she muttered sullenly.
I decided to play my strongest card. “OK, Ellie,” I said softly, “have you thought about how I could say the exact same thing about myself, that I’m the only human that exists? That you’re just a figment of my imagination?”
Ellie looked askance. “But I’m real!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, you are,” I said. “So is it fair of me to think that you’re not real, just because I can’t prove to myself that you are?”
“No, of course not!”
“So we’re both real. Everyone you see is real and alive. We’re all alive. So don’t say I don’t exist, because I do.” I held my hand out to her. “Now let’s stop talking about such weighty matters and go home, shall we?”
She looked up in my eyes, then took my hand. “All right, Grandpa.”
We began walking again down the sidewalk. ◀
THINGS I NEED TO REMEMBER
Cora Thompson, Age 14, Santa Fe
I sat at the head of the boat. The wood was gnarled, rough, yet comforting to the touch. Behind me sat an old man. In his dry cracked lips sat a large glowing cigar that smelled of old couches and grandfather clocks. His captain’s hat was tipped down below his eyes, allowing me only a glance at his wrinkled features. I turned around fully to watch him row, studying the smooth movement of his tired body as he manipulated the boat through the dark lake. As I looked to his hands, I found they seemed to meld with the ores. They too were gnarled rough, and faded with age. They moved with the rhythmic pattern of a machine yet still held onto a drop of human familiarity. A sort of warmth that only the living could produce.
This sentiment provoked me to jerk back my hand that had started creeping toward the black waters surrounding the boat. As I peered into the inky waves, a part of me began to panic at the thought that even the sun could not penetrate its depths. If I were to stumble into its suffocating tides, there would be no hand reaching, clawing me back to safety. In that moment, I made sure to secure myself on the roughed wooden bench, and drew myself toward lighter thoughts. This was neither the time nor place for this type of thinking, and if I wasn’t careful I might get us lost. Here, I assumed, even your own head could betray you.
“Here” is unfortunately an unknown variable. Whether direction exists is a question that will go unanswered. I pondered over how my unknown guide had managed all these years. Experience and guesswork mostly, I assumed. Even as we came to the shore, his brittle bones still managed to drag the boat up to the dock with ease. And, as I jostled my way out, he managed to still the boat in seconds, a sight which to me resembled most the image of a man comforting an old friend. I paid my fee and waved goodbye (to which I got no response), hoping one day the man might be a passenger himself, given the opportunity. ◀