Here’s my short story Expiration Day, which is currently being expanded into a full novel. The story follows Kingsley Jeraboam, who wakes up on the morning of his 35th birthday to the news that he’s going to die. However, things aren’t always what they seem…
Kingsley Jeroboam wakes knowing that he is going to die. Wrapping the thick silver blanket tighter around his body he is loath to remove himself from the cocoon. He wishes he could linger within its radiant warmth forever. Scratching absent-mindedly at the scar on his left forearm, he reaches out and whips the covers back, allowing the chill morning air to wash over him.
Today is his birthday and today he is going to die.
Surprisingly, he feels very calm. Fresh coffee waits pre-brewed downstairs and he is eager to try the new sourdough bread he purchased from what his friends lovingly refer to as the “yuppie market.” Kingsley doesn’t care whether or not his food is organic, free-range, non-GMO, gluten-free, or all-natural. He does, however, have a weakness for quality baked goods. Bread in particular.
Making his way downstairs, he puzzles over the appeal of food conscientiousness. Life is short, so why not eat what makes you happy? As his hand ventures into the temperature-controlled bread box to retrieve the unopened package his phone buzzes and goes skittering angrily across the marble countertop.
Miffed, he grabs it before it can fall to the floor and accepts the call after Nole’s photo gives him a cheesy thumbs-up on the screen behind two basic command buttons. Green circle for accept, red circle for decline.
He’s been fond of that red circle lately.
Because Nole is his closest friend and today is the last day he has to hear his obnoxious voice, Kingsley slides his finger over the green circle.
“This better be important,” Kingsley begins, attempting to cradle the slim phone between his shoulder and ear.
“When are my calls not important?”
“In the morning when they interrupt my routine,” he chuckles and rips off the protective packaging that encapsulates his coveted sourdough loaf.
“Well, first I want to tell you happy birthday!”
“Uh-huh, go on?”
“And I was wondering if you made any plans for tonight. When it was Ben’s day to turn himself in he rented out an entire movie theater, remember?”
“Of course I remember idiot, I was there.”
He shakes four pieces of bread from the bag and pops them one-by-one into the polished chrome toaster.
“It was the best, though! Especially when they had to come and personally escort his ass to The Center because he slept through his appointment,” Nole continues.
“Ben being Ben until the very end,” Kingsley reminisces.
The mouth-watering scent of toast wafts through the kitchen lifting his spirits and lowering his reservations. Perhaps he could throw a little get-together with Nole and some of the guys from work. As long as it’s nothing too over-the-top, he thinks. I’d hate to arrive at The Center with my head in the clouds.
“Forget I mentioned Ben… can I stop by later?” Nole inquires.
“I don’t know buddy, I have so many important things to tend to before I die… like eating breakfast. Give me a second here to think,” Kingsley gives up trying to balance the phone, switching it over to the speaker setting and placing it back on the countertop.
Pop! Kingsley plucks each slice out and quickly plops them onto his last clean plate before they can singe his fingertips, then smoothly slides over to the fridge in his stocking feet to retrieve his nearly empty tub of spreadable butter.
“Alright sure, we can do something this evening,” Kingsley relents, “seeing as my scheduled arrival time isn’t until ten tomorrow morning.”
“But,” Kingsley interrupts, “nothing crazy. You know how I feel about parties of Ben’s caliber.”
“Depends on your definition of crazy, King, because I’m cooking up a huge surprise.”
“Yeah. Hey listen, I have to run and tie up some loose ends. Do me a favor and pack up some spare clothes and food, I’ll be at your place at five sharp. Later!”
Kingsley breathes a sigh of relief as the call ends and resumes scraping butter over his toast. I wonder what in the hell Nole is planning with that last odd request. Nothing to concern myself over, I suppose. After all, the men who escort lawbreakers to The Center must be used to the usual hijinks by now. When people are given a single day to empty their bucket list, who can really blame them?
Nole wants me to get food ready, eh? Assuming some kind of surprise party is in the works he concludes that he’s going to need to do a little grocery shopping. Tossing the plastic tub of butter back into the refrigerator he remarks on its emptiness, nothing on the racks but tubes of condiments and two beer bottles. The cupboards equally barren.
There was nothing at the Hiraeth Online Market I wanted to purchase yesterday other than the bread that new co-worker recommended, he consoles himself. Which turned out to be unremarkable and bland. Kind of like my life, he thinks and rubs his arm. Despite being disappointed by the bread, he gobbles down each slice and leaves a trail of crumbs behind him as he heads over to his computer.
Reclining back in his chair he pulls up SupplyDirect from his bookmarks folder. They always served me well in the past—albeit expensively, draining credits from my bank account faster than water down a drain—whenever I need to order groceries, medicine, or that time I impulsively bought a parrot.
Juniper had his moments, especially when he picked up many curses and quips from Ben and Nole. I still miss the little bastard, and wish I could tack on a new pet to this order. But let’s be realistic, what will happen to it once I’m gone? I certainly can’t hand it over to Nole, he can’t even keep a betta fish alive for more than a week.
Selecting the typical party fare he adds chips, sandwiches, and copious amounts of finger food to the cart. During check-out he remembers to select “rush order” from the drop-down menu before hitting SEND. Glancing at the digital clock on the bottom of his monitor he notes the time at 9:37am. Satisfied—the order not scheduled to arrive for another two and a half hours—he decides to hop into the shower.
My last shower, he sighs, how strange.
Standing beneath the penetrating hot water he permits his thoughts to wander freely. Bright drops splatter across his forearm, which glows bright red, creating the illusion of running blood. A mark of the cursed, it announces to all that his expiration day has come. He secretly wishes he could pry the chip out and pitch it clear across the room, but doing so would end in the same result.
They surgically implant the chip in all citizens during infancy. It can turn red any time after the owner’s eighteenth birthday, notifying The Center they are due to be collected. Compliance has always been a non-issue, the last known escape attempt logged into the Database almost forty years ago.
In school when his sixth-grade teacher Mr. Fetter disappeared his replacement, Mrs. Kutchinson, told the class that the day of Expiration is one to be celebrated. A citizen’s highest honor.
Where has my life gone?
Every day from the past thirty-five years blur together in his mind. He feels responsible for the devastating collapse of his marriage, remembering the insults Tamara slung the day the doctor informed them Kingsley was sterile.
I could never bring myself to blame her. From the time they are young female citizens dream of having children. A piece to leave behind after collection. To be fair, us men dream of it as well, even if we feign indifference. I was unable to give her the family she desperately craved, so she filed online for divorce. That was nine years ago. The last time I visited her online profile I noted she is still alive and happier than ever. Raising two boys that look just like her new husband.
He also feels embarrassed thinking of all the shameful pranks he pulled during his youth. Will The Center see all of these memories when they extract every piece of my soul? Will they record the data forever in our great Database, or will they find it all inconsequential and dispose of it as easily as a person erases shameful browsing history?
The thought makes him want to scream.
I wish I could tell them that the mastermind behind our childish escapades was always Nole. Ben pitched in because he was free-spirited and impulsive. I went along grudgingly, afraid of being excluded.
Afraid of being utterly alone. Even though what we did was wrong, I miss those moments. I miss being young. Life seems so fleeting. You live for a moment, a tiny blip on the earth, and then you die. Your memories living on forever as they buzz around in an endless stream of data. Will the memories I made with Ben and Nole float alongside the recipe for that awful sourdough bread?
He contemplates how it must have felt when Ben’s father Roland had been collected. After all, the man had lived an incredible life. Roland was always an aberration to me. The lines on his face and salt-and-pepper hair like something from another planet. Roland’s chip glowed like fire beneath his forearm the morning of his sixty-second birthday.
“I’m calling to say goodbye,” he had grumbled, “and to ask you to watch over Ben. That boy has always been nothing but trouble.”
Kingsley could hear the smile in Roland’s voice.
Later when he joined Ben and Nole to celebrate Roland’s life, Ben confessed that Roland had been secretly relieved his expiration day had finally come, having lived longer than he felt he deserved.
Rumors claim the average age of collection is somewhere around fifty. Reaching twelve years beyond that is seldom heard of. To Kingsley, the entire collection process felt random. His father was collected right before he was born. His mother learned to force a smile and be strong for him when he’d cry for the father he had never known. Rocking him in her arms, she’d say all life is temporary and precious. That his father lives on eternally in the Database, in him, and in her heart.
Historical data lacks information on the person who first decided to regulate the out-of-control populace by Expiration, or as Ben sometimes called it, the death lottery. Many citizens secretly opposed the law, but kept quiet for fear of being overheard. To speak ill of the country in any way results in banishment.
A punishment worse than early collection.
To be sent into the Wastes and have your memories vanish forever as your body collapses, turning to dust, is a horrifying concept. Even digging too deep for answers could land you in an official interrogation. Few return after interrogation, those who do are forever altered.
Kingsley had never been curious about the government, or the process of collection. Like countless others he dedicated his time to completing menial day-to-day tasks, taking immense pleasure from routine. It’s easier to forget your mortality and focus on safer things instead. Ben and Nole, on the other hand, were the type to pry from their toddler days.
It was from them that Kingsley learned forbidden statistics, unspoken names, and countless pieces of history he grew to find interesting. He has a hunch that Ben’s early collection on his twenty-fourth birthday was a really of his excessive research, and the fact that he could never manage to keep the information to himself.
“The country didn’t always have an Expiration Day,” Ben blurted out one evening.
“Oh yeah? Let me ask you this, how can you be sure this stuff you’re finding on the net isn’t sourced from some wild conspiracy theorist? Or worse, a lawbreaker hell-bent on spreading destructive propaganda. There are nuts out there who want to overthrow the government and let people die what they call “natural” deaths, their lives forgotten instead of being recorded.” Kingsley shuddered at the thought.
“I understand your concern, but you do realize that this information has always been available, and people are just too scared to look? Or let me be more specific, they’re scared the wrong person will catch them looking and have dragged off to be Interrogated. So they look away because it’s safer—because it’s easier.”
“And by the way, I commend those wild conspiracy theorists as you call them. I think they’re fighting for a noble cause.”
“Be that as it may, you should still be skeptical about what you read.” Kingsley asserted.
Kingsley remembers sitting there watching Ben page through his newest notebook, feeling afraid for his friend. Wanting to rip it from his hands and burn it.
When they were young Ben used to step in and act as Kingsley’s protector, fending off the older kids even though he was a full year younger and a full foot shorter than Kingsley himself. Ben was born fearless. It gave him a sharp edge in a world dulled by fear.
“Wouldn’t you want to live to be a hundred?” Ben asked, excitement lighting up his face.
“I couldn’t imagine living to be half that,” he replied honestly.
As Kingsley reminisces he finds himself comforted in the possibility of reuniting with Ben in death. Though he has never been overtly religious, he keeps an open mind.
Nothing is outside the realm of possibility, right?
The day passes uneventfully. He nibbles on the food after it arrives like a glutton and gathers spare clothes as instructed until the doorbell rings heralding Nole’s arrival. Kingsley embraces him in a bear hug and pats him roughly on the back for good measure.
“You’ve been eating too much gluten my friend. It’s making you round in the middle,” Nole jests.
“I prefer it that way,” he smiles and pats his belly.
“I also see the food you picked out. Terribly unhealthy!” He shakes his head.
“I guess it’ll have to do. How about the clothes, are they ready to go?”
“Yeah, they’re ready. Kind of a strange request though,” Kingsley rubs the back of his neck nervously.
“What exactly do you have planned Nole?”
“I’ll get to that later. First, help me box everything up and take it to my car. If you have anything personal you’d hate to never see again toss it in the box as well. I’ll explain everything once we’re on the road.”
“The road? The ROAD? Nole… I’m not sure if you realize this, but now’s not exactly a great time for a road trip,” he protests, gesturing to the glowing chip in his arm.
“Wrong, I think it’s the perfect time. Hurry up and get your junk in the car.” Nole folds his arms across his chest.
Any other day Kingsley would have argued. Would have cited every law they were breaking and insisted they return before the deadline so his thoughts could be collected with some semblance of honor.
Then again, what is the true meaning of honor? And what’s the point?
My memories are useless reminders of a life not fully lived. I’m sure they’ve planned for rebellions like this, which means we won’t get very far. If None wants to have a little fun for my sake who am I to say no? Maybe if we get banished together we’ll roam the Wastes and track down some of Ben’s conspiracy theorists.
Kingsley arranges the boxes neatly in the back of Nole’s car—a sleek new Matsu Aeon he’s envied from the moment Nole purchased it. Securing himself in the passenger seat he waits. Once Nole is positive Kingsley isn’t going to renege on his decision and launch himself out of the car as they drive away, he begins unraveling the plan.
“I don’t remember if I ever mentioned this, but I went through Ben’s notebooks. They sat gathering dust for almost a decade, and are parts of him that were never collected. I wanted to reconnect somehow, and thought it would be a waste to let his research rot away in storage. I guess I missed his whacky ideas. I missed that part of Ben. What’s left of him in the Database is too clean and polished, it’s not Ben.”
Kingsley forces a smile.
“Do you know he had more than a dozen notebooks in total, all full from front to back?” Nole asks.
“I thought we agreed Ben’s notebooks were dangerous. It’s why we hid them in a storage unit in the first place.” Kingsley feels sick to his stomach. He has a feeling he knows where this is going.
“True, but think of all the years he dedicated to this, it was important to him. Hell, I remember smacking one out of his hands back in high school. It was the only time he ever snapped at me, said I hope you die breathing toxic fumes in the Wastes, or something.”
“Try to understand, King. I couldn’t help wanting to know what he cherished so much.”
“I suppose I can live with that,” Kingsley sighs.
“In one of the notebooks, he talks about how discovering the maps we’re taught in school are wrong. Purposefully inaccurate.”
“Maps?” Kingsley narrows his eyes and turns his head.
“The ones that show our country surrounded by ocean, to the south the Wastes, and far out to the west the string of Forbidden Islands. The lands the traders go are left out, for our safety they say.”
“Ben wrote that we’re not the only country, we’re one of three that make up something called a continent,” Nole taps his hands on the steering wheel.
“Continent? I don’t follow.”
Kingsley fights the urge to tell him to stop and turn back around.
“Meaning if we’re currently located at the northernmost point of a central country, then there must be another country right above us.” Nole ignores Kingsley’s visible unease as he points to the sky.
“Don’t you find it strange no one is allowed to drive north through the forest roads? Ben drew a new map highlighting an abandoned service road snaking alongside the main highway. It looks like it goes around the blockade. He wrote there’s a pretty good chance this one goes all the way up, and if someone were to follow it they might find themselves in the other country.”
“You’re taking us to an abandoned service road?” Kingsley groans.
“And what happens when we follow it to the end and find nothing… or worse? The road is blocked because the area is dangerous, remember?”
“I don’t know. We’re both going to die. I have a feeling my expiration day won’t be long after yours.”
Nole’s tone grows solemn.
“This is our last shot. If there’s nothing up there fine. At least we’d know… for Ben. If we stayed at home we’d die knowing nothing. They’d scrape these pieces of Ben I learned out of me. I don’t want that.”
“I know you don’t. If there really is something there,” Kingsley says gently, “we’ll have a shot at living and dying naturally like Ben wanted.”
“Exactly,” Nole brushes away the tears and focuses on the drive ahead.
They find the service road exactly where Ben marked it, bumping along its uneven surface for what feels like an eternity. Nole flips through music on the center display impatiently, attempting to calm his nerves and succeeding only in worsening them. Kingsley tries to go back to being as calm as he was when he woke that morning.
Today I am going to die, but at least I am not going to die alone. I’m going to die alongside Nole for Ben’s dream. I’m going to die for a purpose.
The thought comforts him.
Trees begin to thicken around them as the car presses indomitably onward. Nole dodges debris and detritus strewn across the road, his knuckles white as he squeezes the steering wheel. Kingsley daydreams about the first time he learned to drive with Ben and Nole.
“Hey,” Nole tugs at Kingsley’s jacket startling him and causing him to jerk in his seat.
“God damn it! What?”
“Look over there!”
In front of them an old checkpoint rises out of the fog. Surrounding it is a crumbling wall that appears to be hundreds of feet high. Kingsley cranes his neck and finds himself unable to see the top.
Large holes had been blasted through it, enabling them to drive straight through. Kingsley shifts uncomfortably in his seat as they start up a steep hill on a much smoother road. He’s not sure what they’re going to find on the other side.
“Ben also wrote that at one point people used things called passports to travel between countries, which must be what those checkpoints were for. He didn’t mention a wall though, I guess he didn’t know,” Nole laughs nervously.
“I thought traveling outside the country is something that has always been forbidden? No one travels the ocean except for Traders.”
Those things back there say otherwise.”
“I guess,” Kingsley agrees.
As they crest the top of the hill the scent of pine trees blossom in Kingsley’s nose causing it to itch. Rubbing it he notices twinkling lights off in the distance.
Definitely a city, he determines. Whether friendly or hostile is something we’ll find out soon.
They drive up to a car parked at the side of the road with its lights flashing for assistance. Nole pulls over and pushes a button on his steering wheel to roll the windows down. A gentleman bearing a striking resemblance to Roland walks towards them brushing grease off on his jacket.
“Afternoon gentlemen, can you give me a jump? Out of charge I’m guessin’. I’m a fool for not checkin’ the damn panel before setting off,” the man grunts.
“Hey, sure thing—oh! Can you do us a favor and tell us what city that is down there?” Nole nods to the beckoning lights.
“I think we’re a bit lost,” Kingsley chimes in.
“New Vancouver,” the man replies, running a hand through his unkempt gray hair.
“Can’t say I’ve seen car tags like yours before, but I’m not exactly a traveling man. Aha! You lads must be from Saskatchuin’ right? Must not get out much seeing as they say you guys see some nasty winters, eh?” Leaning on the car the man cackles and gives them a wink.
Nole’s face turns the color of ash. Kingsley senses this is the time for him to step in.
He rests a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Can you pop open the back? I’ll grab the wires and get this nice man on his way, ok?”
Nole brushes off Kingsley’s hand and stretches over robotically to press the button on the lower command console featuring an animated image of a door opening and closing. While attaching the cables Kingsley has a dark thought. The wires might not be compatible and the man will figure out we’re escaping illegally into the country. Squeezing shit his eyes he connects the wires.
Fortunately, everything works as it’s supposed to. The old man waves out the window and thanks them again as he drives away.
Kingsley breathes a sigh of relief and waits for Nole to continue driving… except he sits frozen behind the wheel looking both terrified and awestruck.
“You alright?” Kingsley asks.
“New Vancouver… d-do you know what that means?”
“The old man was crazy?” Kingsley jabs Nole in the side.
“It means we did it, we made it! There’s no city called New Vancouver back home, not even a mention of it—and his tags… good god did you notice his tags? So odd!”
“I noticed, which means people down there will notice ours. I think we should probably take them off and claim some kid stole them,” Kingsley suggests.
Nole laughs and reaches into the box below his seat for a knife.
“We made it,” he says again, “we made it into Canada, Ben. You were right.”
Kingsley holds the knife and stares out the window for ages admiring the beautiful lights sparkling before him. Today is his birthday, and years later when he celebrates his ninetieth birthday with Nole, his wife Helena, and son Benneth, he’ll tell them the story again for the thousandth time. Will end by admitting it was the best birthday he ever had.