When I woke up that morning, I was the luckiest man alive.
Isobel had dragged me back out of the darkness engulfing me. She came into my life, like an angel at a time of need, and everything she touched became light. The tentacles of loneliness lay limp now, in my memory. She wouldn’t tell me why she loved me, after all, she could have looked higher. And there wasn’t enough gratitude in the world for what I felt.
That day I was going to propose to her. We would be married before the New Year and, in our newly assigned home, we would finally reflect life’s smile. I was getting dressed as the news from the downstairs television reached my ears.
Convinced I had not heard correctly, I stormed down the stairs only to hear the message repeat, without any walls of doubt to cushion my fall this time. I sank into a chair at the table as my mother began her usual tirade.
“Are you getting her flowers? What kind of flowers are you going to get her? Did she tell you what she likes?”
“Mum.” My voice was so feeble, I didn’t think she’s heard.
“Did you ask her to a special place tonight? Or would you rather make it a surprise?”
“Mum,” I said with more force this time. Being annoying without realizing it. I inherited that from her.
“I’m so excited for you, honey! She’s so perfect for you! I can’t wait to see the two of you officially together!” she gushed, clapping her hands.
“MUM!” To keep my anger inside I tried to get the next words out one by one. Slowly. Deliberately. “WHAT IS SHE?”
“She’s 86426, you know that! I’m telling you this is the hand of God right…” Confusion washed across her face as I turned and threw her a hard look. Then horror. “Oh my God!” she mouthed into her hand.
Why did my mother have to take the worst day of my life and pour acid on top? I got up from the table and headed to the basement where I knew I would find my grandfather, up early as usual and working on his car. The old man was the only one in my family who really understood me.
He turned as I opened the door.
“They cut the threshold, Pa. They cut it to one thousand!” I said with a cracking voice that didn’t sound at all like mine.
“I know, son.”
Compassion and sadness were etched on his timeless face.
“I love her, Pa. I love her so bleeding much!” I sobbed as I fell into his embrace. Even as an adult, I knew I could break into pieces and he would handle it.
“Sometimes a memory comes to me, unsought, like a butterfly landing on my hand. At those times, I turn it slowly, caress it with my fingers, then gently let it go.”
It was his quiet, story telling voice, the one that never failed to turn my tears into a smile when I was little.
“I remember the day I got my omniScore. I came back with a T-shirt they gave me, omniScore: the future is here. When my dad saw it he threatened to beat the dust out of me unless I took it off. Ehh…
It will sound strange to you, son, but we didn’t always have numbers to gauge and group us. It all started in the early 1900-s, when they came up with some tests they forced all students to take. They measured skills in English and maths and gave those with a higher score the implied right to consider themselves superior. They were the ones everybody admired, they were the ones going to the top colleges, they were the ones to whom you turned for answers.
Things went slowly from there, until they had numbers for practically everything. You had a number for how smart you were, another one for how physically strong, one for your beauty, one more for the probability of your children being healthy, and so on. Then in 2031 they introduced omniScore. At the time, the idea was revolutionary. A five-digit number to encompass everything about a person, a unique answer to all the interview questions, a single number instead of all the pages in the resume. I was eighteen then, and I jumped on the bandwagon pretty quickly. The older people obsessing over scenarios of dystopia were paranoid, as far as I was concerned. This was the future!
When the war started in 2039, they made omniScore compulsory, if you wanted protection from the state. It streamlined our society. Optimised our world. It was the very thing which turned the war in our favour. A single look at your number to decide whether you had to join the army or work in the office. One simple subtraction to tell whether the one standing in front of you was worthy of your attention or not.
The war ended eventually, and omniScore stayed. By then we got used to the law-imposed threshold, banning prolonged relationships between people whose numbers differed by more than ten thousand. We lived in separate sectors, according to our numbers. It was great! There were no more idiots to dodge daily, and the ones much smarter than us no longer spent their days pointing out our ignorance. Newborns began their preordained lives by being assigned omniScores based on genes.”
The rest I knew. Wake up. Wash. Dress. Eat. Flash my omniScore at the door, which opened at my familiar 85143. Work in the office for five hours. Socialize. Come home. Smile at my mum. Eat. Wash. Go to sleep. Repeat.
The old man watched the slideshow of feelings on my face.
“Go see her, Dave. You can still be together. No one has to know about it.”
And it was true. He was still tinkering with his antique motorcar thirty years after they have been declared illegal. No one had to know about it.
Hands trembling and jaws clenched, I went to see her after all. No flowers. No rings. I knew she hated it when I bought her things. She also hated crowds and loud places. My mum was right, for once. She was perfect for me. That day she was dressed all in white, her hair falling seamlessly on her shoulders. I don’t know how it happened, but every time I saw her she was more beautiful than how I remembered her.
We met in a wordless embrace, as so many other times. Merely holding her in my arms was heaven. Then she broke away and for a moment I could see my silent question reflected in her eyes, before it was replaced by something else. The blank expression of a store clerk, or the weather girl on BTN.
“I’m sorry Dave. We’re not compatible.”
I was falling into that tunnel of darkness again, her departing figure being the only bright spot on my retinas. Isobel…
When I finally fell asleep that night, I was just a number.
Warm thanks fly over the tubes to:
- Alex, for comprehensive proofreading and insightful suggestions (you might also want to read this study);
- FreeMind, for answering some questions in the dark (i.e. without having read the text);
- Everybody who ever worried over SATs and the TOEFL, for inspiration ;)