Editor’s note: Welcome to The Root’s Sunday series highlighting the best in black fiction writers: It’s Lit! Each week we’ll feature a new story across all genres—from Afrofuturism to those stories that will bring a tear to your eye. Want to submit your short story? We’re looking for well-crafted works of fiction of no more than 10,000 words. Simply fill out this Google document and we’ll contact you if your story is chosen. And yes, if it is picked, you’ll receive a payment for it!
Kuokoa B. Mchango was certain that it was the last night he would be alive, for you see, tomorrow was his 28th birthday. As he lay in his fold-out cot and stared at the low ceiling, he realized with a twinge of sadness that this fact didn’t bother him nearly as much as it used to. After weeks of obsessing, he’d finally accepted it.
It wasn’t like there was much else he could do.
“You can’t fight City Hall,” he thought.
To be honest, he didn’t even blame the government. After a lifetime of following the system, he knew that it was nothing personal. The government was just doing what was best for society. The world was overpopulated, had been for about a century and a half. At first no one knew what to do about it.
Living conditions were the first to change. Except for world leaders and a handful of other wealthy individuals, no one lived in houses anymore like many people did centuries ago. Skyscrapers were built higher and higher, while apartments got smaller and smaller. Hell, Kuokoa’s 153rd-floor, 7-by-7-foot apartment was considered roomy by some standards. Prisons had been done away with immediately. For minor crimes the sentence was time in a labor camp, where offenders slept outside on the ground. Major crimes were considered a forfeiture of life, so the sentence was always death.
Every country passed laws limiting the number of children a couple could have. In countries like the good ol’ US of A, a Procreation Authorization Request Form had to be filled out and submitted to obtain the government’s permission to conceive even one child. Unauthorized pregnancies were terminated. Kuokoa had submitted two requests in past years, both of which were denied, and he even had one pending at the moment, as if it mattered now. The request forms helped to combat overpopulation a little, but the overall impact was minuscule. Babies were born in secret overseas, and the global population continued to grow.
Food and water were scarce and had to be rationed. Clothes too. The fashion industry had died out years ago. The lack of materials forced designers to manufacture the same few styles of clothing repeatedly. Not to mention, because of a problem with the atmosphere, even the world’s air supply was being depleted.
Kuokoa never considered himself a thinking man, but when you don’t expect to live past the next day, everyone becomes a philosopher.
“The problem isn’t that there are too many people,” he said out loud to her picture as if she could hear him. “The real problem is that there just aren’t enough resources to go around.”
And that was why the Consumer Monitoring Act had been passed. Everyone was issued a Consumer Card and implanted with an Oxygen Rationer. Consumer Cards were used for everything. In order to buy food, drive a car or even turn on a light switch, people had to swipe their Consumer Card first. It recorded exactly how much energy or natural resources a citizen consumed.
The Oxygen Rationer essentially did the same thing for air. By law, citizens were only allowed to consume a certain amount of oxygen in their lifetimes. Once implanted, the Oxygen Rationer monitored exactly how much air a person breathed in. If desired, it could even be adjusted to allow a person to take smaller breaths and consume less oxygen. In Kuokoa’s younger days, he’d done that all the time. Many people did, as the Annual Citizen Inspection Bill was passed almost immediately after the Consumer Monitoring Act. According to the bill, every year on their birthdays, citizens had to go to City Hall to be examined by the Department of Population Control (DPC).
First there was a routine medical examination, during which the Oxygen Rationer was analyzed to ascertain exactly how much air the citizen in question had consumed over the previous year.
Next, consumer records were reviewed. This was done by scanning a person’s Consumer Card to quickly calculate exactly how much energy and resources they’d consumed.
Finally, the birthday celebrant was brought before the Population Regulatory Board (PRB). Even though the government never stated it officially, everyone knew that this was the most important part of the Annual Examination. Citizens were required to describe and, if necessary, justify all of their actions from the previous year.
It helped that they were all issued a digital Per Annum Self-Assessment Log to document the events of each day and, more importantly, what they’d personally accomplished. When a citizen was standing before the PRB, the log was valuable evidence of what they had contributed to society. Of course the entries were carefully scrutinized to verify their accuracy.
In the end, the Population Regulatory Board took three main factors into account: If the citizen’s oxygen, energy and resources consumption met the Board’s standards, then they were sent home to enjoy the rest of their birthday. If the PRB decided that the opposite is true, on the other hand, then one of two things happened, neither one of them pleasant.
The first applied to anyone less than 21 years of age. If they didn’t meet the Board’s requirements, which included not keeping up with their studies in school, then they were sentenced to work at a labor camp for varying lengths of time. These were the same labor camps that minor criminals were sent to.
It was the second punishment that made everyone dread their birthday, however. If a citizen from the over-21 crowd didn’t meet the Board’s requirements for the previous year, then they were promptly “liquidated.”
Damn, Kuokoa was just now realizing how much that term annoyed him. If the almighty Population Regulatory Board had to take the lives of citizens, then they should at least have the decency to call it what it was. It was not liquidation; it was murder.
When he’d first met his wife, Imani, she used to rant about the term “liquidation” and how it was a cowardly term. She had a reason to be upset, after the whole situation with her uncle. But then again, that was par for the course. Children had been emotionally scarred by the adults in their lives probably since the beginning of time, but nowadays it was a given.
Kuokoa was more than a little scarred by his father, who had always lived in fear of the PRB. This was no doubt where the young Mchango had gotten his conservationist mentality from. The elder Mchango had been a tough man, seemingly afraid of nothing. Then his birthday would roll around and he would suddenly become edgy and nervous. He always went to extreme measures at the last moment to ensure his survival. One year he even starved himself for a month, making 6-year-old Kuokoa lock him inside the closet to keep him from food and water, just to meet the Board’s requirements. The older man wound up in the hospital after his birthday, emaciated and dehydrated, but the PRB requirements were met and he hadn’t been liquidated.
Maybe it had been their parallel childhood traumas that had brought Kuokoa and Imani together. They’d been in their late teens, and at the time, he was harboring a deep-seated resentment, and she was filled with nothing but contempt for a system whose approach to the world’s problems was to reduce the number of consumers instead of working to increase what was consumed. However, his resentment only manifested itself as anonymous anti-government graffiti, rebelliously written on bathroom walls and carved with frustration into barroom counters.
Imani, on the other hand, had always been smart, ranking third in her class in high school, and as in any society, it was always the smart ones who often entertained themselves by finding ways to circumvent the rules. Imani did this by enjoying all the things life had to offer that Consumer Cards couldn’t measure. Things like butterfly watching and cloud gazing. Things like giving compliments and helping people. Things like whistling and dancing.
Things like Kuokoa.
The doomed man picked up his wife’s picture and stared at it tenderly. When they’d first gotten married, their love had seemed like a loophole in the system, something that never ran out, that didn’t need to be conserved, something that cost nothing but was worth everything.
He remembered how they watched sunsets turn into sunrises hours later. The long nights spent talking about things in their lives that had been and things that one day could be. They made each other laugh until their stomachs hurt and often, given their decreased oxygen intake, until they almost passed out. They lost track of time within each other’s kisses.
In an age when every aspect of life was parceled out and consumed in small sips and nibbles, they gorged themselves on life’s free pleasures and cheap thrills.
And then she died.
With no warning and no one to blame but the sky.
In an age when the government had found myriad reasons to end a life and so many high-tech ways to do it, having someone close to you die the classic way, for no earthly reason at all, seemed like a cheat. It felt like making all the right moves and still losing the game.
Kuokoa now had no doubt that he would be liquidated; in the eyes of the law he simply had not done enough since his last birthday to deserve to see another. It wasn’t that he was lazy; he’d just lost the will to do anything after his wife’s passing, eight months ago. Still, the PRB would see his year as a waste; he was certain of it.
Denial was common among birthday celebrants. Kuokoa’s best friend, Tyron, had refused to believe that he was going to be liquidated when he turned 22.
“That’s just a spook story they use to scare kids,” Ty had said. “You just pay a fine or do a stint at a labor camp. They never really liquidate anyone.”
But Tyron had been liquidated. Kuokoa accompanied him to City Hall himself. His friend was so sure of his survival that they’d planned to go to a bar after his Examination. Kuokoa ended up drinking alone that night.
So the widower knew firsthand that denial was futile, but that still hadn’t prevented him from falling into it when his fate became apparent to him a month ago.
“They won’t liquidate me,” he’d told himself, “not after I’ve lost Imani. They’ll understand.”
But he’d known they wouldn’t. The Department of Population Control had already given him a two-month grief period, during which he was exempt from having to meet the Board’s requirements. That was the most they could and would do. It was just unfortunate for him that he ended up grieving a lot longer than the time permitted.
“They won’t liquidate me,” he’d told himself again, “not after a lifetime of conservation.”
It was true that he had lived his entire life to meet the Board’s requirements and then some. He breathed less air, ate less food, used less energy and took up less room for as long as he could remember. Surely the Board would take that into account when they decided his fate. However, he’d known that wouldn’t save him, either. In the weeks after his wife’s passing, he’d kept the lights and television on pretty much 24 hours a day. Darkness and silence were unbearable and to be avoided at all cost, as it was then that his thoughts caught up with him.
A couple of days ago the denial had worn off and he nervously weighed his options. There were rumors, whispers that flitted from ear to ear, that there was hope for the doomed if only they escaped the cities and fled to the toxic desert wastelands and other uninhabitable areas. The stories went that fugitives of liquidation had created tribes out there in the wilderness, where they lived off of the land and hid from the government in caves. All they had to do was reach such a tribe and they would be taken in as if one of the family. As with all rumors that have a scent of truth about them, the government never publicly acknowledged the urban legend, not even to refute it. The fear being that to even deny it could be interpreted as a subtle admission that there existed something worth being denied, and that would only lend credence to the tales.
For the briefest of moments, Kuokoa had entertained the idea of trying to skip the country and seeing for himself just how true or false the rumors were. In the end, however, that dream lasted all of 10 minutes. Maybe if he were still the anonymous graffiti artist he had been 10 years ago, he would have made a go of it, but not now. He was too old to run.
Two days before his birthday, he considered just not showing up for his Examination, but he knew that would only be a temporary solution. Every other year or so, there was always a story in the paper about somebody barricading themselves in their apartment on their birthday to avoid the Examination. It never worked. DPC Enforcement Officers would show up and break down the door. Often they would liquidate the person right then and there, considering resistance and disobeying the government to be hostile acts.
That’s what had happened to Imani’s uncle. She’d been 9 years old, and her uncle had come rushing into her family’s apartment the morning after his birthday. Her parents tried to convince him to leave, but her uncle wouldn’t budge. Finally, at around 8 o’clock that night, an army of boots pounded down the hallway and the door was kicked in. Kuokoa had often cradled his wife when she had nightmares about how she and her parents had huddled in the corner so that they wouldn’t be seen as a threat while the DPC officers rushed in and promptly liquidated her uncle with a cylindrical tool that swiftly injected a thin blade into the base of his skull and severed his brain stem.
As he lay sleepless on his cot, Kuokoa made his peace with the knowledge that thoughts of escape were useless at this point. They were really going to kill him, and that was all there was to it. So after he watched his last sunrise, he got up, got dressed, kissed his wife’s picture for the last time and set out for City Hall. The line was long, like it always was. Insult to injury—not only was Kuokoa going to get liquidated, but he would have to calmly wait his turn. No one in line was happy, not even those who were sure that they would pass the Examination. After all, one could never really know for certain. The standards were updated on short notice all the time.
Finally, what seemed like centuries later, it was Kuokoa’s turn to be examined. He filled out all of the paperwork and surrendered his Consumer Card and Per Annum Self-Assessment Log. Then he went thought the medical exam. It was all routine; he could have done it in his sleep. It pained Kuokoa to think that this would be the last time he went through this procedure.
Finally it was time to face the dreaded Population Regulatory Board. Kuokoa was led into a small room. The room was empty except for a desk. At the desk sat a man, a representative of the PRB, referred to as a judge. Kuokoa had never met him before, but it didn’t matter. This man was like all the others before him: unrepentant, cold, heartless. Pleas, threats and bribes would have no effect on him. He could not be swayed by any human emotion. He was simply there to do a job, and nothing would stop him from doing it. Kuokoa stood 5 feet in front of the desk. The judge shuffled a few papers before he began.
“Good morning, Mr. Mchango,” the judge’s voice was a monotone. “Your medical exam was satisfactory. Your cholesterol is a little high. Nothing serious, though.”
He shuffled through Kuokoa’s file. “Your Consumer Card shows that you have exceeded the determined allotment deemed desirable for resource consumption.”
Kuokoa nodded, already accepting his fate.
“Lastly, your Per Annum Self-Assessment Log shows that you have contributed little to nothing to society this year.”
Kuokoa looked up at the ceiling.
“Here I come, babe,” he thought, speaking to his wife’s spirit.
The judge went on. “The loss of your wife has been taken into account. You have been granted two months’ exemption. That leaves 10 months to account for. The first four months were satisfactory, so the problem lies with the last six months.”
Kuokoa was impatient. Why did the judge have to talk to him like he actually had a shot at surviving? They both knew he was doomed. He finally understood why some people jumped off of buildings on their birthdays. If they had to die, at least they could do it on their own terms, on their own clock, instead of wasting their last day on earth being patronized by some pencil-necked pencil pusher.
“Since your wife’s death was not a result of liquidation, you inherit her resource allotment,” the judge explained.
That got Kuokoa’s attention. “What?”
The judge ignored him, reading his file instead: “With the addition of her allotment, the Board has found that your consumption is satisfactory for … ”
Kuokoa held his breath as the judge looked the file over.
“ … five months.”
Kuokoa felt like he had been kicked in the stomach. He was only one month short! He had almost made it. He almost burst out laughing on the spot at the cruel absurdity of it all.
“Then there is the loss of your child to take into account,” said the judge.
Kuokoa was hardly listening at this point. “I never had a child,” he said absentmindedly.
“No, but you would have,” replied the judge, looking the file over once more. “It appears that you wife was in the early stage of pregnancy when she passed.”
The words hit Kuokoa like a bullet. At first he didn’t feel anything; his mind refused to believe what he’d heard.
“Seeing that your Procreation Authorization Request Form was approved three months ago, the child, though unborn, is recognized as a lawful human life by the Department of Population Control,” the judge continued. “Therefore, as the sole surviving parent, you inherit his or her minimum allotment of one year of resources and predicted contributions. With the aforementioned allotment, your previous year has been deemed satisfactory by the standards of the Population Regulatory Board.”
A wave of emotions crashed over Kuokoa, and he was sinking to his knees before he knew it.
“You will not be liquidated,” the judge finished formally, but Kuokoa didn’t hear him.
Tears ran freely down his face and he cried deep, wracking sobs. He cried out of despair. He cried out of joy. He cried out of sorrow. He cried out of guilt at the sick sense of relief he felt, in spite of at whose expense his relief had come. He cried because his life was safe. He cried because the two most important people in the world to him (one of whom he would never get the chance to meet) had lost theirs. He cried like he had never cried before, for while everything else in the world was rationed, tears were a free indulgence.
Eventually Kuokoa managed to pull himself together, nod his thanks to the judge and make his way to the door.
He was just about to walk out of the room when the judge said, “Oh, and Mr. Mchango?”
Kuokoa looked over his shoulder, eyes red, mucus running from his nose.
The judge sat with his hands folded, face expressionless.
Jason Douglas Louie is a proud Washington, D.C.-born Howard alum. Louie can be found online under the moniker JDL-evision and on his website. In between working to get his novel published and patiently waiting to meet Debbie Allen, he occasionally wonders if Marvin ever did figure out exactly what was going on.