Two minutes left on the clock. Three questions remaining. I glance at the first one. Area of a cube, easy enough. The calculations zip through my brain and I find the correct answer on the sheet in front of me. A, one minute thirty seconds remaining. Next question, it’s a ‘what do you add to get this average’ type, I could use elimination, but that might take too long. I glance at the clock, one minute twenty seconds remaining. I’ll come back to this if I have time. Last question, perimeter of a quadrilateral on a coordinate plane. Solving it takes time, but the answer is B. Ten seconds left, I glance back at the question I skipped, not enough time to solve it. I jot down E and place my pencil on the desk as the proctor says, “Times up everybody. Pencils down. You’ll get your results in a couple of days. Merry Christmas.”
The three other students that are taking the test with me sit up and stretch. One looks excited, she probably did well. Another looks discouraged and keeps glancing back at his sheets, probably not as satisfied with his answers. The last girl just stands up and leaves immediately. Confident? Or just running on the clock? I stretch my arms and roll my shoulders. I should be going too, I can’t afford to miss the bus today if I want to be home in time.
I nod to the proctor as I grab my small bag, exit the official testing building, and step straight out into a blizzard. Shivering, I carefully make my way over to the bus stop, trying to make sure I don’t step on any ice patches. I don’t have the money for hospital bills for a broken ankle or leg, I barely have enough for the bus fare after the Christmas present I bought for Ash.
The bus is crowded today. Since it’s Christmas eve, everyone wants to do last minute shopping. I stare out the window. Offices blur by, everything streaming together in the night becoming a mass of shining christmas lights reflecting off the snow, metal, and glass of the city in winter. Eventually the bus slowly empties as we leave the electric Christmas lights behind and arrive in my neighborhood, glowing candle light in some of the windows and darkness in others. I trudge my way through the snow, which isn’t falling nearly as hard now, and finally make it home.
“Elm!” Ash shouts excitedly as he greets me at the door, his voice echoing in the otherwise empty house. “How did you do on the numbering test?!”
“Pretty good I think, little bro. But we’ll see when my results come out. Mind if dinner is a little late tonight? I need to take a minute to myself in our room before I start.”
Ash’s tiny pale face continues to smile and his dark eyes glitter eagerly. “I don’t mind Elm, but you don’t have to make it tonight. I made something special just for you because it’s your birthday!”
My emotions jumble up inside of me, as I lean over to hug him and ruffle his messy black hair. “Oh Ash, you shouldn’t have! But thank you.” My eyes almost begin to tear up, it’s been so long since someone’s made me supper. I quickly wipe at them but Ash notices.
“Don’t cry Elm! It’s supposed to be your present! Did I choose the wrong thing?”
“No, no, you didn’t choose the wrong thing, you silly, adorable boy. It’s perfect. That’s why I’m crying, now do you mind giving your older sister a minute in our room before supper?”
Ash smiles at me, crisis averted, and skips off to the kitchen. I push aside the curtain to our room, climb up into my bunk on our shared bed, and carefully wrap Ash’s present. I sniff the air, wondering if I can tell what we’re having by scent alone. I haven’t had a meal I’ve not cooked myself in nearly three years now. Ash used to cook with our parents, but then they died, and I had to drop out of school and work during the day. Between when I got home from whatever work I’d found and when Ash returned from school I’d make him some supper made out of leftovers or something I’d bought while I was out that day. Then I’d study till late at night in the dining room of our tiny house.
“Elm!” Ash shouts from the dining room. “Whenever you’re ready!” I stuff his nicely wrapped Christmas present under my pillow and scramble out of the bunk bed.
“Happy Birthday!” He calls as he enters the dining room carrying a pot of chunky, slightly burned but still excellent, cream of mushroom stew. His big grin as I happily dig in is better than the stew itself when it comes to birthday presents.
After we are done eating, he looks a little worried, so I ask him what’s wrong.
“Well, Elm, it’s just that, your birthday and your Christmas present will have to be the same thing this year. I didn’t have enough food rations from school left over to make you something else tomorrow.” He says sadly, glancing down as if ashamed.
“Ash,” I say, standing up, coming over behind him, and giving him another hug. “I don’t care how many presents you give me, the fact that you remembered and you tried is plenty. But if you really feel the need to give me something on Christmas, how about we eat the leftovers of your delicious stew then? That way I get some on my birthday, and some on Christmas.” Ash’s face blossoms into a smile once more, and he hugs me back.
“That works perfectly, Elm. You always have the best solutions for everything!” I grin at him and ruffle his head.
“Now it’s time for you to go to bed Ash, come on, I’ll even tuck you in if you want.”
“Nope! I’m eight now! I don’t need to be tucked in!” Ash says proudly.
“And I’m eighteen, and I still want to tuck you in.” I say smiling at him.
“Well, if you insist I suppose I don’t mind.” Ash says, I follow him to bed, tuck him in, and secretly retrieve his Christmas present.
“Elm?” Ash says as I’m about to leave. I quickly hide his present behind me as I turn to face him.
“What happens when you get results? Will we be separated?”
“No.” I state firmly.
“But you’ll be sent away to get a job based on your number. Family’s aren’t allowed to come with you, I researched it in the school library.”
“I won’t let it happen. You have no one else to stay with you, so you’ll have to come with me.”
“But what if they say I’ll go to an orphanage?”
“Well then I’ll go up to the capital building and beg Law for an exception. I’m sure he’ll see that he can’t possibly allow my precious little brother to be separated from me.”
Ash chuckles sadly. “That won’t sway Law, Law can’t be swayed by anything, that’s how he keeps the tests fair.”
“Well, good thing I’m not asking him to change the tests then.” I say, and push aside the curtain that divides the dining room from our bedroom. I feel my face fall into a frown as I place Ash’s present on the table. In reality, I don’t know what I’ll do if someone tries to separate us. I’ve been able to keep Ash out of an orphanage for so long because I’ve been able to beg for jobs to get money to support us, because I’ve managed to keep this house and food on the table, because I’ve been lucky enough to be able to take care of both of us. But the law says you leave family members behind after you take the test and are assigned a number. You can visit, but you can’t take them with you. Legally, he might go to an orphanage, and I don’t honestly think my begging Law will change everything. Law is in charge of the tests and the numbering system because he is impartial and powerful enough to find and stop those who would cheat. Why would he care about two kids whose parents were sevens who might be split up?
I fall asleep at the table wondering just what I can say this time to keep the remains of my family together.
I start upright at a loud thumping at the door. No light peeks through the windows and a quick glance at the small computer in one corner of the room tells me it’s four a.m. Definitely not casual visitors.
I rush to the door and open it to see five city guards in uniform. What the heck?
“Elm Revera?” The one in front says glancing at me.
“Elm?” I hear Ash call out from his bunk. “Who is it?”
“Go back to sleep Ash!” I call back to him, worry making my voice crack.
“Nuh-uh, something’s happening! Who’s at the door?” Ash calls out and I can hear him getting up.
“Ms. Revera, you have been summoned to the capital by Law, failure to comply will result in your immediate arrest.”
“I’ll come, no need for force.” I say quickly. What is the matter? Why would Law summon me? I briefly think about Ash, wondering if somehow Law already knows our situation and is summoning me to talk about it. But why the show of force then? Why all the guards?
“Why does Law want her? Elm hasn’t done anything wrong, she’d never cheat on the tests, right Elm?” Ash says appearing behind me. “You’d never try and sneak in cheat sheets, or bribe the proctor for hints, or write down answers on the inside of your wrist, or have pictures of previous tests, or have an earpiece with someone feeding you answers on the other side, or swap test sheets with someone else, right Elm?” I almost groan at his list of ways to cheat. I’m not sure how anything could make me look more guilty of cheating besides his listing of ways to cheat. Where did he even come up with all these ideas?
“Of course Ash, but I need to go with the guards so they can clear everything up.” One of the guards raises his eyebrows at his cohort, obviously skeptical.
“But why? You did nothing wrong, can’t Law just read your mind or something?”
“Maybe it doesn’t work at long distance or something,” I say, “Don’t you worry, we’ll be back before you know it.”
“You’d better be. You hear me?” He says looking at the guards sent to escort me. “You’d better take good care of my older sister and bring her back before sundown, or- or- I’ll-” He’s still trying to come up with something threatening enough when I shut the door and go with the guards.
They lead me to a dark sleek car with tinted windows. I’m placed in the back with one of them, a bit roughly but not violently. As we begin to leave Ash pops his head out the window and yells “I’ll do to you whatever dad’s do to boys who keep their daughters out too long!” A soft chuckle escapes the lips of the driver while the rest just glance at each other in shocked confusion.
The icy streets stream past, I wonder if Law is calling me up because something is wrong with my test. Perhaps there is an abnormality in my scores? I know I didn’t cheat, but these guards don’t seem to know that. Cheaters are dealt with harshly. Law deals with them personally. The guards wouldn’t have to be nice to someone who tried to cheat, which would explain their rough actions. But I didn’t cheat, I know the risks, and they aren’t worth it. If Law can really read minds, surely he knows this. Why would I need to be summoned?
Speaking of being summoned, no one ever sees Law. Mainly because if someone could figure out his identity it would be easier to kill him and then the whole system would fall. So do they plan on killing me after I see him? I suppose if a lot of stuff like this happens they can’t kill everyone who meets Law because that would be barbaric. Law is supposed to bring justice to this system, killing innocents because they’ve seen too much isn’t justice. Perhaps I won’t be meeting with him in person. I glance at the guard beside me but his straight face doesn’t invite questioning.
If I’m going to meet Law, it will be a good chance to beg to be allowed to take Ash with me. Once they realize I didn’t cheat, if they aren’t planning on killing me, perhaps they’ll allow me to plead my case.
We arrive at the capitol building and I’m escorted inside. Already, even on a holiday, it is busy. Grownups in business suits head back and forth some with folders, briefcases, coffee mugs. Most of the guards escorting me disperse, I suppose my submission means that they don’t think I’ll run. One remains beside me though, and, after signing us in at a desk with a curious receptionist, he herds me over to a cushioned chair to wait. There are magazines on a table in front of us, but I’m more interested in watching the people. There are some men and women who obviously work here, most seem unhappy to be working early Christmas morning, which isn’t unexpected. Then there are a few lawyers, identifiable by their fresh suits, briefcases stuffed full, and steaming mugs of coffee. They normally hang together in groups. There are some visitors, mainly rich elites, relatives of politicians and super successful business people. They walk around like they own the place, and their clothes suggest that they might be rich enough to do so. The variety of people going to the capitol building on a holiday astounds me. There is even a kid here at one point. Her light blond hair curls softly around her ears and her pale blue dress falls to her ankles. She can’t be any older than Ash. She is being escorted by a guard, and looks to be every inch a child of one of the politicians. Is she looking for one of her parents? She notices me in my corner and looks rather surprised. She reaches up, and tugs at her guards elbow, he leans over and she whispers something in his ear, probably about me. I glance away, not wanting to be caught staring. When will Law call for me? After all, he summoned me, why am I the one kept waiting?
Another five minutes of staring at passing visitors before another guard comes over and escorts me to a different room where I have to fill out paperwork confirming my name, birthday, address, and status of all relatives including listing siblings. Then I have to go through a metal detector and an old fashioned pat down just in case I was carrying non-metal weapons. After that I’m led to an antechamber where there is a table, a metal chair, a curtained off section, and a single light overhead. The guard shuts the door behind him when he leaves, and I cautiously take a seat at the table.
“Your name is Elm Revra correct?” Says a smooth, almost melodic male voice from behind the curtain.
“Yes,” I falter, thrown off guard. I didn’t realize someone was behind there.
“Parents deceased in a factory explosion three years ago? One remaining sibling?”
“Yes to both.” I fold my fingers together on the table in front of me nervously.
“Hmm.” The male voice says, and there is a slight pause as if he is noting something down.
“Sir, may I ask why I’m here?” I ask hesitantly into the silence.
“I’d have thought you’d have guessed it by now.” The silken voice replies immediately.
“Well, I did take the test yesterday Sir, could this have something to do with that?”
“What else would it be about?” He replies, effectively evading my question.
“Nothing that I can think of, you are the test watcher, aren’t you Sir? You are Law right?”
“That is what people call me, yes.”
“But I still don’t really understand why I’m here, was there some sort of irregularity in my test?”
“Tell me Elm, where did your parents go to give birth to you? What hospital did they go to?”
“I-” I blink, confused by his line of questioning, “I don’t know. Is it important to the topic of our meeting?”
“Perhaps, but not really.” Law says, confusing me instead of clarifying. “Where did you go before you took the test? Who were you with?”
“Well, I left the house early that morning because I wanted to stop by the shopping district before I took the test.”
“I wanted to grab a Christmas present for my little brother.”
“Did you meet anyone you know there? What did you buy? What time did you leave there?”
“I didn’t meet anyone, I bought him a rubix cube, I left there on the 11:15 bus to arrive at the testing site 15 minutes before the test began.”
“Why fifteen minutes?”
“That’s the suggested time, and I wanted to make sure everything was in order.”
“Did you meet anyone there, or bump into people on the street?”
“I had to push past a couple of people on the bus, but I didn’t meet anyone I knew, no.”
“Hmm. What about when you got into the testing room, who was there?”
“Not a lot of people, three other testers I think, and the proctor of course.”
“Did you know any of the other testers, or their names?”
“No, none of them were from the same school as me, they also didn’t look like they lived in the same district. Why are you asking about all these people?”
“Did you meet anyone you knew between your house and the testing site?” Law says, ignoring my question again.
“No, but I already answered that.”
“You said none of the other testers were from your school, but you haven’t been to your registered school in months, care to explain?”
“I meant when I went to school, I’ve been studying via online classes at home since I had to drop out of school to get a job to feed Ash and I.”
“Why didn’t you just go to an orphanage? You could have stayed in school then.”
“We might have gotten separated. I didn’t want to risk that. What does this have to do with why I’m here?” Law doesn’t address my question, but he does change the topic.
“What did you think your score was going to be, since you had to drop out of school?”
“I think I’m going to get maybe a five or a four if I’m lucky. The reading and English passages are okay, the science is pretty easy to practice along with the spatial intelligence part, the math portion is always tricky because of the time limit. The interpersonal and intrapersonal parts I tried my best in, but I’m uncertain about. Coordination has never been my strong suit, but I heard that part was more for work assignment than the numbering process. I was really hoping that my artistic intelligence would make up for that bit, although it’s also rumored to also be mainly for job choices.” I look at the curtain, wishing I could see the person behind it to try and read their expression. “Why ask that though? What was my score?”
“Elm Revera, can you swear on your life that you had no help whatsoever on the test and did not cheat in any manner in regards to the answers you chose or the grading of those answers.”
“Yes, but can’t you tell I didn’t cheat, by reading my mind or whatever it is that you do? Why do you need to ask me all these questions? What is my score?”
“Is that your final answer?”
“Yes, I didn’t cheat! Why won’t you answer any of my questions?!” Law stays silent behind his curtain. “Can’t you just read my mind, know I’m not lying, and tell me my score?” I say, almost crying as the full weight of what’s happened today hits me all at once. “It’s Christmas and I was basically arrested in front of my only family at four a.m. I don’t even know what time it is now, but he is probably worried sick! Meanwhile you keep questioning me and won’t even give me a straight answer as to why I’m here! I just want to go home, can’t I at least do that? Or at least see your body so it feels like I’m talking to a real person. You can wear a mask or whatever to hide your identity, I don’t care.”
Law stays silent for around ten seconds, as if considering my request.
“Sign the documents on the other side of the table.” He eventually replies in his soft voice. “They allow me to wipe your brain of my image after this meeting, you can look through them first if you don’t believe me.”
I glance at the paperwork, but it seems to be exactly what he said. “I didn’t know we had such technology.” I comment, putting my signature on the requested line.
“Most don’t, it’s not something the government likes to talk about.” Law says, I hear some rattling behind the curtain. “Have you signed it?” He asks.
“Yes, you can read my mind to know I’m not lying.” I reply, suddenly curious. What does the fabled Law look like? Will he be tall, short, thin, fat, ugly, handsome, plain? But what finally emerges from behind the curtain isn’t any of these.
Law, it turns out, is short and rather thin, but Law isn’t a he at all.
Law is the little girl from the capitol building’s lobby.
She smooths down her blue dress, and her little blond curls bob near her ears as she takes off a headset. “There’s a small problem with that.” She says, in a clear childish ring that is typical of someone around her age. “I can’t read your mind at all. And that’s a problem because you had the highest composite score ever of anyone on the test who didn’t cheat.”