Written by Erin Nust
Art by Miguel A. Padrinan
“It’ll be our turn soon,” Orion’s voice jumped with enthusiasm. Jimmy wished he could share his feelings. In front of them, hundreds of small heads waited in a row which moved steadily towards The Machine.
“Come on, Jimmy! This is exciting!”
“Is it, though? What if I end up with some embarrassing skill? It’s big deal.”
Jimmy had Fiona’s brother in mind, who after the Machine’s evaluation ended up with the gift of speaking to fish. Fish. The town didn’t see him for six months; he locked himself in his bedroom trying to figure out how he was supposed to move on with his life with a ‘gift’ like that. What job would anyone offer someone with such a useless ability?
The Machine hovered above them like a gigantic monster, its running wires hanged in loops like tentacles. The fiery steam warmed the children’s skin like a hot day on the beach.On Jim’s forehead, two perfectly formed beads of sweat ran until they reached his jaw and slid down to the sparkling white floor.
“My brother told me they put wires on your temples and then, poof! You know.” Orion turned to talk to Jimmy. Jimmy knew his friend only wanted to cheer him up about the whole process, but the only thing he managed to do with his vivid descriptions was increase the rate of his heartbeat.
“Are we supposed to share about our gifts?” Jimmy asked but soon discovered it was a silly question. How else would he know about Fiona’s brother if he hadn’t told anyone? The law commanded every child at the end of primary school to be processed by the Machine, but it didn’t state they couldn’t be open with what gift it gave them. Some of the children ended up lying because the Machine had a wicked sense of humour and found it funny to ruin people’s lives. Lies that accompanied them until they were adults. Lies that only lasted until they had to prove their ability in a job interview and they got caught. The same was even more unbearable then.
“Promise, we’re sharing what we got right after we’re done.” Orion sounded dead serious soJimmy nodded. No matter how embarrassing his gift was, he would share it with his best friend; especially if it was something ridiculous like getting a dog’s ears every time he lies.
Children were stepping closer and closer to the Machine. Jimmy could now see the process with his own eyes if he craned his neck. Standing on his tiptoes, he saw a girl with strawberry hair and funny freckles–her name was Chloe– sitting on a chair. A friendly woman in a white robe, asked the girl for her name, while a man with the same attire prepared two wires with two suckers attached. Jimmy inhaled sharply and nailed his foot on the earth. He wanted to discover the rest of it when it was time.
The Machine above them rumbled and moaned. Electronic sounds and colourful buttons dazzled Jimmy’s eyes. The more Jimmy approached the chair, the more he felt he hated the process, the law, and those who passed it. He couldn’t live with the constant fear that his life would be a living joke after the end of the process. Jimmy wished he would be one of the lucky ones: those who could turn invisible, or fly, or run like a cheetah. They had the best jobs, and the best lives. They were superstars. Was it fair a machine would decide the rest of their lives? Jimmy thought it wasn’t. Although his parents, especially his mom, had made great efforts into believing the Machine was never wrong and there was a good reason behind the gift it gave. All people had to do from then on was to find the reason for their gift.
The long row of heads that previously blocked his view had dissipated. There were only three children in front of him. Orion’s restlessness was glaringly obvious. He hopped in place and made small, awkward dances. Jimmy pulled his feet with difficulty.
“It’s time, buddy!” Orion said and the heat made his face red, covering the first pimples of puberty.
Orion sat on the chair and answered all the questions the lady with the white robe asked him with vigour. The man with the wires seemed to enjoy Orion’s enthusiasm for the process. The suckers touched his temples and he closed his eyes. Jimmy noticed Orion’s fat belly jiggle a little and he was scared running electricity was involved in the process. He didn’t want to watch more; he only wished he could run.
Only seconds later, Orion opened his eyes and smiled triumphantly. Jimmy’s anxiety had given its place to curiosity. His insides burned to find out what was his best friend’s gift, but Orion took his coat and walked to the exit. Jimmy hoped he would wait for him to finish when the gentle voice of the woman with the notes in her hand called him. “Next one, please.”
His palms were suddenly wet and soggy. He could feel the skin on his armpit soaked with sweat. He sat on the chair, aware that if he showed any signs of fear, the whole bunch of kids waiting for their turn would know.
“Jimmy. Ehm, I mean, Jim. Jim Colins.”
The woman smiled at him, crossing out his name. The man carefully put the suckers on his temples. He hoped the Machine didn’t record his pulse or they would send for a doctor. As Orion had done, Jimmy closed his eyes. The wires brought with them funny dizziness and his eyes swam. In the darkness of his mind, strange images popped up. He could recognize some of them as memories of past years, like when he and Orion didn’t sleep all night to catch the last episode of Push n’ Pull– their favourite TV show. Like sea waves, images of wires, buttons, metal came and went … and then there was nothing.
Jimmy opened his eyes, the man unplugged the suckers and he walked towards the exit confused.
“Hey,” he said to Orion who was already on his bike.
“You go first,” Jimmy said getting on his bike next to Orion.
“I am shapeshifting! Can you imagine that? Me, changing forms. Just think, think of the possibilities.”
Jimmy nodded carelessly, although he was happy for his friend.
“What about you? Is it bad? That’s why you’re blue?”
Jimmy put his foot on the pedal, but he didn’t push it.
“No. I mean, yes. It’s not what I expected. I’m confused.”
“Well? What is it, then?”
“The Machine taught me how to destroy the Machine itself.”