Ask and ye shall receive, my fellow quarantined friends. Enjoy!
THE TWELVE: CHAPTER TWO
The Great War exploded the year before my mother died, when I was six. I only know of the war what I have learned in my church history classes; I barely remember my life before. Government debt in the states had spiraled out of control. The then-President was sending the military to countries where our country had no business being. The leadership of what was then The Sect thought that they could handle the country better. The Great War ensued, where the The Sect leaders eliminated those who were not supportive of the good of the country as a whole. The people, rising up behind the The Sect because they favored a decrease in debt, gave The Sect the forces they needed to propel their plan forward. When the government fought back, it was slowly eliminated; this resulted in the disintegration of many cities that refused to cave in to the new way that was taking over. The population of the country greatly decreased. The loss of the government as the country had known it resulted in the creation of The Sect, the front arm of The Sect and a governing force over all of the citizens of the basin. The last remaining survivors of our species.
The Sect resides in what used to be Estes Park, Colorado. Prior to the Great War, it was the base camp for the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a village, but one that catered to resort life and mountain adventures. It was a large tourist attraction, surrounded as it is by mountains. But now it is nothing more than a mountain headquarters, a place for The Sect to be secluded, yet still able to maintain control. Their leadership expands from our main headquarters of The Sect all the way across the Estes Park basin. Many small settlements litter the mountains, but I never leave The Sect. I have no reason to.
Our school is located in a big hotel that used to be called The Stanley. It was the set of a movie once where a man killed a lot of people; this is not a movie we would ever be allowed to see. People would come from miles around to take ghost tours through it. I have never seen a spook, not once in ten years, or at least not one that wasn’t toting The Book. The complex is surrounded entirely by trees with no view of the surrounding area down below. Our classes are held in rooms throughout the building; all of the children of The Sect stay in dormitory like sections within the hotel. There is a large playground in the back yard with a view of the mountains where the childcare women take the children to play. After today, I will be one of them. I will be graduating from the program.
“Good morning.” Beaty tapped her desk with a pen as I entered the classroom.
“Good morning, ma’am.” I had learned from the beginning how to behave properly. How to answer right away, and more importantly, speak to my elders and to men only when spoken to. I had always been a fast learner; Beaty told me that frequently.
I took my place among the other students. There were twelve of us in all. I was the last one to arrive.
Beaty stood up and walked around to the front of her desk, slapping her pen against the palm of her hand. “Now that we’re all here,” she said with a pointed look at me, “let’s begin.”
I checked my watch—I wasn’t late. I was two minutes early.
“Today, you will be graduating from the program into adulthood.”
We exchanged looks but remained silent. She was not directly addressing any of us in particular.
“At graduation, you will receive your assignments for your function within our workforce. In one week, you will attend your Combining, and will learn who your rest-of-life partner will be. I have faith that you have all studied well and will be positive assets to The Sect, both in propelling our society forward and helping to spread our good word to those who still remain outside of it, as few as they may be.” She looked at each one of us in turn. “The most important thing that you can do now, as adults, will be to uphold the tenants of The Book and of The Sect, and to make everything you do for the glory of our society.”
Beaty went into the coat closet and rolled out a rack of white graduation gowns. “These are one size fits all robes,” she explained. “You will wear them through the ceremony to signify that your purity and your dedication to The Sect.” After a pause, she added, “Does anybody have any questions before we get ready?”
After glancing around the room at each other, we all shook our heads. We got up as a unit and went to the rack, each of us taking a white robe and pulling it over our clothes.
“Can you help me fasten the back button?” my friend Maria asked, turning to face away from me. I obliged, and then turned so she could also fasten mine.
“Thank you,” I said.
She nodded back at me and turned to see where Beaty was. Upon noticing she had stepped into the hall, Maria whispered, “Who do you think we will be Combined with? How do you think they choose?”
I shrugged, my eyes on Beaty’s back as I whispered back, “I’m not sure that’s for us to know.”
She nodded in understanding and turned to help another girl with her robes. Once the twelve of us were all fully gowned, we formed a line at the door and stood in silence as we had been taught since kindergarten. We followed Beaty down the hall, our white robes trailing along the red carpet, down the hallway and down the stairs. In the main room of the building, in front of the old gray stone fireplace, were lines of folding chairs filled with students. Only the youngest were talking, sitting in the front and swinging their legs back and forth against the chairs as they were shushed by their teachers. The twelve of us took our seats facing the other students and folding our hands quietly in our laps while we waited.
Beaty greeted the room from her podium, and teachers and students alike fell silent. “First, the boys will become men,” she said. The six boys stood up, and when she called their names they crossed the stage to stand beside her. “Brandon Bane,” Beaty called the first name. “Construction.” I stopped paying attention and missed the other five; before I knew it the boys were finished. The audience applauded politely and the boys returned to their seats. Beaty moved on to the girls. “Alana Fischer. Culinary. Maria Samuels. Mending.” Three more names, and then it was finally my turn. “Melanie Johnson. Childcare.” I stood up and took my place beside the other girls before my brain could stop me. Children. Childcare. I had never been fond of the little ones, but it was my place to do what The Sect dictated without question. The six of us stood together, girls becoming women, while our fellow students and former teachers applauded our achievement. We took our seats and Beaty closed the program with the same words we had earlier about how we would be good, pure disciples of The Sect and uphold all of the rules established by The Book. I had heard it all so many times, I had to pinch the inside of my arm more than once to stay awake. She closed by directly addressing us: “Tomorrow, you will join the workforce. Tomorrow, you will do us all proud. Even more so than you have today.”
As I stared into the small pool of children sitting in the math classroom that day, Beaty’s words from the day before rang in my head. I wasn’t so sure this was for me, childcare. I had reported to the childcare center that morning to find out that I would be responsible for the four and five year olds. I wasn’t the only one in the room; they were not only my responsibility. But it still felt like a lot. I wanted to be successful, but I was uncertain as to my skills or to the level of devotion I could provide to the task. I wasn’t sure I wanted it enough, or that I would even be a good leader. But it was where I had been placed, so it was where I would be.
A tiny little boy with blonde hair was staring up at me. I knew that the appropriate response was to tell him he needed to wait to speak until spoken to, but he was too cute. I simply replied, “Hello.”
“I’m five.” He held up his hand and spread out his fingers to make sure I could see them all clearly. “One, two, three, four, five.” As he counted out loud, he folded the fingers down into his palm.
I smiled, unsure of how to answer him.
He continued, unaware of my discomfort with our conversation. “Do you know what that means?” He was bouncing up and down on his toes, so I assumed it meant something good.
I sank down into a squat so that I was more on his level. It seemed like the natural thing to do. “I don’t,” I admitted.
“That means I get tested today. Well me and my friends. To find out how smart we are and where we place.”
“That sounds…fun,” I replied after a moment’s hesitation. It didn’t really. But I didn’t know what else to say.
There was a knock on the open door behind me. I rose and turned around to see Beaty behind me. “Good morning,” she nodded to me.
“Good morning, ma’am.”
She said good morning to the other two leaders in the room and then turned back to me. “I’ll need you to help escort the five year olds up to the testing room. Today’s the day we will place them into their new class, provided that they pass their tests. Would you gather them please?”
I nodded, never finding myself more uncertain than I did in that moment. I didn’t know who was five among the children in the room, other than the little boy I’d spoken to. I hadn’t been in the room long enough to even know how many children were in it. If this was a test for me on my first day, it was a test I would fail. “I…” I stumbled.
“Here!” The little boy I had spoken to earlier beamed at me as he waved over eleven other children. “We’re here!”
I raised my hand, trying to appear more authoritative than I felt, and gestured for them to get into a line. They did as I asked without question, all of them seeming as excited as the little boy I had met when I first arrived. “Follow me,” I commanded. They fell in like little ducklings directly behind me as I walked ten paces behind Beaty.
When we arrived in the testing room, they seemed to know what to do without being told. Each of them took a seat, filling up the twelve desks. Beaty stood in the front of the room by the chalkboard, and I folded awkwardly into the corner by the door, unsure of where else to stand. Beaty thrust a stack of papers at me. “Melanie, please distribute these packets to the students.” As I took the papers, I noticed the large stopwatch that was hanging around her neck. “Place them upside down on each desk.” I walked up and down the aisles, doing as I was told, while she addressed the children. “Today, you will take a math test. This test consists of fifty questions to gauge how much you have learned over the course of your beginning education. It will be timed. You have thirty minutes to complete it once the timer begins. You may not ask for help. You may not look at anyone else’s paper.” I returned to the front of the room. “When you are done, turn your paper over and put your head down on your desk.”
The little boy from earlier raised his hand, no longer bouncing.
“Yes?” asked Beaty, pointing in his direction.
“What if I need a pencil?”
“You have two pencils on your desk,” Beaty snapped back, her voice illustrating a loss of patience.
“But what if I need more?” he protested.
Beaty shot the little boy a look that could only be described as condemnation. He was instantly quiet, his chin going down to his chest as his hands folded upon his flipped over test packet. I finished distributing the tests and returned to the front of the room as Beaty held up her stopwatch, clicked the button on top, and called “Begin.”
The children flipped over their booklets, ripping the testing seal off the side, and began frantically scribbling. The timer hung around Beaty’s neck, glowing orange, and I watched the minutes tick away. Thirty minutes didn’t seem like much time for fifty math problems, especially not for a five year old. I wondered what types of problems were in the test book, but I didn’t want to ask to see it unless Beaty offered it to me first. It didn’t seem right; I was not her equal. I didn’t remember taking this test. But maybe I hadn’t. I was not five when I came to The Sect.
“Fifteen minutes,” Beaty called out.
The scratch of pencils against paper increased. A little girl in the front pressed down so hard that her pencil snapped. She quickly threw it to the floor and grabbed a new one with barely a pause in her frantic writing. I looked at the little boy, the only one I had met. He was sitting quietly, no longer writing, but his head wasn’t down. Did that mean he wasn’t done? Or was he simply not following directions? I took a step forward to check on him, but Beaty held out a hand to stop me. When I looked over at her, she shook her head. I stepped back to lean against the wall and wait. The time dwindled down. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
“Time. Flip your booklets over and put your hands behind your head.” Beaty nodded in my direction, which I took to mean I was to collect the books. I stepped forward and went down the aisles grabbing papers while the children held their arms up with their fingers interlocked behind their heads as if they were in trouble. When I got to the little boy, his hands were still folded on top of his test book, not behind his head. I tried to take the booklet, but he wouldn’t lift his hands.
“Brian,” Beaty said from the front of the room. “Please remove your hands from the test booklet and put them behind your head.”
As I watched, his chin began to quiver, but he continued to stare straight ahead without lifting his hands.
He still didn’t move. I collected the remaining tests booklets and placed them on the desk in front of Beaty, looking to her to figure out what I should do. After dismissing the rest of the children, she crossed the room and slid the booklet out from under his arms. As she flipped through the pages, she noted, “Most of this is blank.”
Brian’s jaw was hard, his teeth ground tightly together, none of the joy from early remaining in his features.
“Why is it blank? You had thirty minutes.” Beaty’s eyes bore into him like knives.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Beaty clutched his booklet in her hands. “You will answer the questions.”
Brian looked at me uncertainly as his fingers tightened around the pencil that was still in his grasp. “Is it too late?” The tremor in his voice broke my heart.
Beaty produced a thick wooden stick from her back pocket and slapped it against her palm. “You will answer the questions,” she said against, emphasizing each word with a whack against her palm.
Brian looked back and forth between Beaty and I.
“Nineteen times two,” Beaty barked.
“I…I…” Brian stammered.
Thirty eight, I willed him to say.
“Thirty six?” It was obviously as the words left his mouth that he knew they were wrong.
Before I could even take a breath, Beaty had struck him across the hand with the wooden stick. Bright lines of blood laced across his knuckles, and he burst into tears. “Nineteen times two.”
He shook his head, tears streaming down his face. He tried to get up, but Beaty ordered me to hold him down in the seat. I complied, placing my hands upon his shoulders. I tried to make my grip as gentle as possible, but he still squirmed underneath me.
“Nineteen times two.”
When Brian didn’t answer, she hit him across the hands again and again. After the first time, he didn’t try to move. He didn’t try to run away, or hide his arms. He seemed to understand that there was no hope. While I watched, his knuckles split and cracked blood ran freely. Brian sobbed so hard that tears and snot streamed down his cheeks and he was gasping for breath.
And then, just as suddenly as it had began, it stopped. Beaty took a step back, her fingers clutching the fabric of his jacket. He stood up and followed her silently out of the classroom while I sank into one of the desks, alone. When I closed my eyes, it hit home that this would be the rest of my life. Forever.
That night after dinner, as I sat alone in my room, I flipped through The Book and searched for some sort of sign, an answer. A reason why. But there was nothing. No magical glowing neon sign that made what had happened to Brian okay. I was used to opening The Book and seeing the answers. But not this time.