“You are now and always will be my friend, Aston, no matter what happens,” Mercedes soothed. “No matter what happens, I know in your heart that you’re one of us.” The words streamed off the raven-haired beauty’s tongue like a gentle brook.
Aston wasn’t convinced. And the lithe hand on his shoulder might as well be making things worse, not better. They weren’t kids anymore; they were nineteen now and had to register for the Lottery last year in accordance with their laws. Now that that they were entered, well, what if he won? Could they really remain friends?
“Excuse me while I worry anyway, ‘Sadie,” Aston muttered as he shook the young woman’s delicate hand off his shoulder. His fine blonde hair whipped on the wind as he skewed his chiseled jaw.
“Two babies were born last year and only one person died,” Aston continued in his crisp English. “Of course there’d wind up having to be a Lottery this year, just one year after we registered. What are the odds? Dammit.”
“It’s the price we pay to live the way we do. You know that,” Mercedes confirmed as she stroked her diamond necklace. She replaced her hand on Aston’s shoulder and turned him about with all her meager strength. She stared wide-eyed into his.
And the young man was soothed. Those clueless, doe-wide brown eyes of hers; they always got him. She just believed in it so much. His beliefs weren’t quite on the same level.
“I suppose,” Aston relented a touch. “At least your ex, Jaguar, is in it, too.” Aston never liked Mercedes’ ex, at least not since the pair hooked up about this time last year just when Aston began to have feeling for Mercedes. Mercedes and Jaguar broke up shortly afterwards, Mercedes saying they had different perspectives on things though she never said exactly what the difference was. “A good twist of fate will see to it that he wins,” the nineteen year old said dryly.
“Spoken like a gentleman,” Mercedes nodded softly.
Did she even hear me or is she actually that stupid? the young fair-haired man wondered. He didn’t really know why they were friends or why he liked her so much. Maybe she was the necessary antidote to his intellectually induced pessimism. Ignorance is bliss, after all. Or maybe it was biology; they were both young and hot. But then so was most everyone in their community. Aston turned back around towards the stage and tried concentrating on determining the future.
“There he is! The minister is approaching the podium,” Aston popped. He reached back to grab Mercedes’ hand and nearly crushed it with equal parts fear and excitement. She winced, then smiled, then brought her lips near Aston’s ear while the baby-faced officiant took up the stage.
“Aston, have you thought about what will happen if I win? Will you still be my friend?” Mercedes was forced to step back as Aston shooed her with both hands and said something like ‘sure, sure.’ His ambivalence went unnoticed by the young beauty’s naivety. She shrank back as the minister approached the microphone. Aston rose to his tippy toes and obscured Mercedes’ view.
“Bugatti Venyon…” the priest dribbled.
Aston’s fist rocketed into the sky, self-preservation assured. Best tp lay the part at any rate. “Wooo! Yeah! Bugatti! Get out of here you miserable slumdog!”
Aston’s theatrics were infectious to the point of violence. The prim-and-proper crowd of elitists began to boo and hiss like snakes. Like wolves, they began tearing at the tuxedo of the man whose name was announced.
The minister raised his hands simultaneously and scowled. “Settle down! Everyone settle down! Mr. Venyon forgot to sign his Agreement to Disperse Property form, that’s all. Settle down!” Aston and the crowd slacked back, fixed their ties and smoothed their dresses. Everyone raised their eyebrows and shrugged their shoulders at each other. No big deal.
Mr. Venyon, checking a scratch across his cheek with a white handkerchief, approached the stage, signed the form handed to him by the minister and settled back into the crowd, his eyes leery of his neighbors.
“Alright then,” the minister said as he placed the form on top of a large stack beside him on a table, “Let’s get on with the business at hand.” The smooth-faced magistrate reached into a bowl, whirled his hand, then quickly withdrew a folded strip of paper. He unfolded it, squinted, confirmed the name with the priestess beside him and approached the microphone once more. The crowd before him was silent, their mouths gaped like fish with hook in mouth.
“And the winner of this year’s lottery is…” A pin dropped but nobody heard it, “Mercedes McLaren. Mercedes McLaren.”
Aston spun around to find his best friend pale as a ghost. Her arms were folded across her chest and her chin brought low. “Aston?” she barely spoke. “You’ll still be my friend, right?” her broken voice and crooked brow asked. “You could come visit me. It’s allowed.”
He was trying to stare into her eyes but her eyes were closed to the dark energy reaching out to grab her, assail her, to reject her. In Aston’s peripheral vision, a score of hands emerged to blot out the sun. A sack of coal lodged in his stomach while his mind scrambled for something to say.
His thoughts were interrupted by the clarity of a memory though, of him sitting at his desk at home in the early evening with an ancient quill and ink well, spokes of sunlight piercing the thin white drapes, drafting his high school graduation essay on why the lottery should be abolished. The lottery wasn’t fair – an accident of birth landed the citizens of this community in their privileged society. So what if everyone agreed to participate? The choice not to got you sent off to the slums anyway. Who wouldn’t agree to stay? Then there was the matter of all people being created equal…
The lad remembered dotting the final sentence of his essay by driving the wet quill through the paper. Aston remembered staring at the essay for a long time after that, until well after the sun went down. Alone in a dark room, he carefully shredded the paper into small pieces. He tore it so slowly he could hardly hear it. He had to be gentle with the essay. Aston imagined there was a time ideas were respected and not blindly followed. As he swept the paper bits out his window onto a light breeze, a metal taste swept through the young man’s mouth when he realized his cowardice. He couldn’t blindly follow his own ideas, could he? At least he could defy them all somehow with littering.
Mercedes’ whimpers stirred Aston. Fingers, claws, were inches from her, ready to cast the lady down. Aston swelled with adrenaline; he knew he was strong enough. He could fight them off; break their fingers, rend their claws, frighten them into backing down. Only he’d never actually been in a fight, not one of them have. There was no fighting here; that’s what the poor did. Violence was reserved to give notice to those who’ve been outcast, to let them know they were unwelcome now. Those were the rules and they made sense to Aston, insofar as the lottery could make sense.
Aston, an unusual boy, saw his action potential stymied by his need to reason, to think things through. He saw it was too late to save Mercedes who – clawed dress and all – was hoisted above the seething crowd. This was the rule, there were no except…
“Proxy!” Aston shouted as loud as he could. The crowd froze and craned their necks back in the young man’s direction. “The rules state a proxy can take the winner’s place.” He said this knowing this had never happened before; no one had ever brought it up.
No one made a sound; not Mercedes, not the crowd. Everyone just kind of looked at each other. One man, almost 35 and soon too old enough for ritual death, finally broke the still. “Are you saying that you want to take her place?” he asked politely.
Aston stammered. “I…I’m just saying that’s the rule. I…” Mercedes, high is the air, hung her head upside down and shot her big brown eyes at him, wider than ever. Her mouth lingered just a touch open, waiting for her friend to come through. “It’s just that…that’s the rule. It’s a thing. I just wanted to remind everyone of that.” Mercedes’ eyes went super-moon as the crowd erupted.
“I will proxy for her!” a suave young Hispanic man with short, shaggy black hair roared. Not an ounce of fat on him, Jaguar’s muscles rippled from out his unbuttoned shirt. The conviction in his voice was as tall as he was. Mercedes was carefully placed back on her feet and the crowd lingered, thinking long about making a move on Jaguar.
“Step aside and I will leave this place quietly. None of you have to get hurt,” Jaguar spoke. The crowd parted like the Red Sea to either side of Mercedes. The Hispanic moved on air passed a dumbfounded Aston. He approached Mercedes and looked down on her, radiating love, burning her with sacrifice.
“I wouldn’t do it for you,” Mercedes whispered and turned away.
“I know, bomboncita,” Jaguar squinted. “But I could not live with the thought of you in the slums, dirty and scratching to survive. You don’t put up a fight against the rules, thinking you stand so little chance of winning the lottery and then winning anyway. Will you really go to live among those you’ve been taught to despise so that the rest of us can eat caviar? Do you know what really happens out there? You grow old if you are lucky, bombon, but if you are lucky you will lose your sweetness. I could not bear that in my heart. Besides, you know how I feel. I will still be the same man out there as I am here. Everyone is created equal no matter where you are from. Out there I will die with honor. Here, I cannot go into ritual death having never stood up for what is right.”
Aston throat burned with acid. Jaguar was taller, more muscular and better looking, and he’d slept with Mercedes. In what other damn ways could Jaguar be superior to him? Jaguar could love. Jaguar could sacrifice. All this superiority was intolerable.
“No! I will proxy for Mercedes,” Aston announced stepping towards the former lovers.
“Nooo,” Jaguar immediately lulled. “I do not think you will survive out there for long. I am stronger. I will do it. For Mercedes.”
“I, Aston Martin, will proxy for Mercedes Pullman. I volunteer to go to the slums and preserve your society. There, in the slums, I will be as equal among the people as I am here.” The whole town could hear Aston rev. “I won’t have your riches, your security, but I will have a dignity you could never take away from me!”
The young minister nodded and two men grabbed Aston by his arms. They fast-tracked him towards the town gate before he could spew any more nonsense. Jaguar winked at the hero and patted his shirt pocket as he was dragged by causing Aston’s face to curdle. With one hand around Mercedes’ waist, Jaguar’s other hand lifted a folded and heavily taped paper from the pocket and kissed it. Aston’s heart hollowed out. His head throbbed for an explanation. Thrown into the dirt outside the town’s gate he finally figured it out: Jaguar was smarter than him, too.
As Aston staggered away he thought he could hear Mercedes’ angelic voice. “You’re the best friend I ever had. You’re still my best friend.” Maybe she’d come visit him in the slums. Would Mercedes waste what little time 37 years gave her though? He wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.
All Rights Reserved (c) January 2018 John J Vinacci