MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
On the cobblestone walk of a city sheathed in ice and snow, I slam my frostbitten fist against a Plexiglas cashier window. “Excuse me!” I call out for assistance that never arrives. Five minutes till closing, and the bank has already snapped the blinds shut.
“Excuse me!” I shout again. “I’m dying tomorrow!” I bang harder, my frustrated breath smoking the chilled air. My wool coat, missing four buttons and brandishing more than a few torn holes, warms me less than my irritation. Which grows with the incoming silence.
I’m truly dying tomorrow, but death is normative. I die. You die. We all die. The only difference between the bankers and me—I will die at seventeen.
I die young.
They die old.
And so it goes.
I spot a bulky camera positioned on the brick of the Bank Hall’s outdoor window. You see me, don’t you? They just refuse to answer. “I’m allowed my Final Deliverance check! Do you hear me?!” I yell up at the lens while simmering in place.
Behind me, men in sleek tailored suits and fur-lined wool coats amble along the alabaster-white sidewalk. Their hot, disparaging gazes heat my neck. They can act all miffed by me, but Fowler Street, Avenue Thirty-Four contains every shop for every type of person: hair salons, dentists, pubs, quaint overnight inns, and most importantly for me—the only bank.
And all the grand streets—all the ones with cigar parlors and high-end fabric shops that smell of rose petals and fig—hug the grimy ones. The streets with cheap apartments, crumbling brick, and foul, pungent odors with each step past. So in the end, the rich-clothed men have always seen as much of me as I’ve seen of them.
We just might not end up in the same place.
I watch some strut ahead, careful on slick cobblestone, scarves bundled up to their lips. They disappear past the warmth of a stone pub, nestled on the corner of Fowler. The opulent Catherina Hotel is only one block away, and by the men’s attire alone, I imagine that’s their true destination.
Really, they’re not a priority to me. Not today.
Most definitely not tomorrow.
With numb fingertips, I dig in my pocket for my identification. I raise the card toward the camera lens. “I’m Franny Bluecastle,” I declare, possibly speaking to no one. “Can you see my deathday?” I point at the print beneath my name. “I’m dying tomorrow.”
A shadow passes behind the window, someone stirring. Blinds rattle and I press my nose against the chilled glass, scraping my fingers down. “Please! I’m on time!” Backbiting insults and curses nip my tongue, and I swallow them, going down bitter like blood.
The blinds suddenly spring upward, and I’m met with russet curls, thin lips of boredom, and stern, auburn eyes.
I speak before the fortysomething woman can. “I need to collect my FD check. In bills.” I keep a watchful eye on the old mechanical drawer beside the window. She has to dispense my cash, and once the drawer opens, it’ll finally be in my hand.
Most plan out their deathday to the finest detail.
At six years of age, I watched my mom die.
I traced her steps around her bed, a single-room apartment above a butcher shop. The scent of slaughtered pig clung more to our well-worn clothes than to the musty air.
She lit candle after candle and hummed to the gods, casting smiles back at me. Youth sparkled in her gaze.
And I’d known, like any stranger could see, that we did not match. It wasn’t only my cool, beige skin and silky black hair—but the differences of our eyes, the heart shape of my face to her squared, and as I grew, I didn’t develop curves or a chest like hers.
Even knowing she’d die by twenty-four, my mother found the will and courage to provide me a home when she was just eighteen. She adopted me as an infant, and I always knew that I’d say goodbye to my mother in only a handful of years. She prepared me for the day, so I’d be at peace with her.
And I was.
Moments after her smile, she blew out the tender flames and crawled onto the squeaky bed.
“Be careful of how you die, my little Franny,” she told me. “You can set your terms but not the day.”
Without question, I nodded in reply.
When we’re born, we all know the day we’ll die. It’s been this way for over a thousand years.
Maybe someone solved a mathematical equation.
Maybe a scientist drummed up this revolutionary discovery.
I can’t recall our history front to back like an Influential. I never attended school or read their books, and I didn’t really care to listen.
I only have so much time to live, so why waste it on a history that won’t be mine for long?
My mom snuffed the candles, avoiding Death By Fire as her ending. In my country of Altia, people about to experience their deathday must follow Injury Prevention Laws. Like me tomorrow.
Stay away from large groups of people.
Relax. Stay calm.
Be at peace.
Defying the first two could lead to mass accidents.
A boy of fourteen dumbly and selfishly took a joyride around Bartholo’s packed and icy city streets on his deathday. The car spun out and collided with Mr. Rosencastle who was innocently locking up the butcher shop.
Since Mr. Rosencastle won’t die until he’s seventy-seven, all he lost was an arm. Not his life.
And ever since I witnessed my mom’s death—the serenity in her upturned lips, the warm flush in her cheeks before her heart slowed to a stop—I’ve dreamed of my own deathday.
I might have planned it poorly, but I dreamed well.
I imagined using the last of my money for a one-night stay at the Catherina Hotel. Where harpists welcome guests through revolving doors, men in tuxes offer gold-foiled chocolates and sweet liqueur, where feathered pillows and satin sheets blanket beds made for five bodies.
At the orphanage, I sleep on a narrow bunk, coiled springs bruising my back. Only with my Final Deliverance check can I afford this single-night luxury. I’ve only heard stories, never seen it with my own eyes, but I still dream.
I want to lie against those sheets and gaze up at the hand-painted ceiling mural and smile as I drift off, as my heart slows or as my brain shuts down, as the gods take me.
The banker presses a button, and her monotone voice crackles through the speakers. “We’ve closed out today. No more transfers, deposits, or withdrawals until tomorrow at six o’morning.” She reaches for the cord to the blinds.
“No wait!” This is not how I end. “You can’t botch this for me! Listen to me. You have to listen to me.” My desperation curdles my stomach, and I claw at the window, my hot breath fogging the glass. “I need this money now. I could die at midnight.”
The banker scrutinizes my long hair: black roots growing in among vibrant blue and green knotted strands that contrast her natural hue. She homes in on my silver piercings: stuck along my black brow, a ring beneath my nose and another hooped around my lip.
It’s possible that she ignored me because of the bright dye and piercings.
“All Fast-Trackers receive a Six-Week Decline payment,” she says. “If you didn’t waste your money on drugs and ale, like you all do, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”
I blister inside. My nails scratch the glass as I dig closer to the Influential banker. “I worked twelve hours every day since I was eight for Fast-Tracker benefits. Have you ever used Purple Coach? Have you been driven safely around the city?” My voice breathes fire, roiling with the last hours of my life. “I never once wrecked. Never once harmed a passenger. I spent every day driving people down these dangerous roads.”
When I only had six weeks left to live, I had to retire from the job I loved.
That boy of fourteen who took a pointless joyride right into the butcher shop—I knew him. Purple Coach employed him too. We attended the same training courses, and at eight, we sat behind a wheel and began transporting people wherever they paid us to go.
Only Purple Coach employees know how to drive, especially in these harsh conditions. No one beyond us even has access to a vehicle, but some pity our jobs, thinking there are better ways to live and more valuable skills to learn.
I couldn’t think of anything I would’ve rather been. Anything I would’ve rather done.
Maybe I shouldn’t be rewarded for not being a complete wart and destroying a butcher shop and injuring a man. Maybe it’s just expected of me, but at least I didn’t steal a car as a means to die.
Her eyes flit to my nails that scratch at the window.
I shiver once, craving just a little warmth.
If I tilt my head and lift my chin, I won’t meet the sky or the blazing sun. Purple smoke sputters from chimneys.
Like thick clouds, muddled sheets of lilac shield the apex of stone buildings.
All Influentials, Fast-Trackers, and little Babes know that burning a purple mineral called casia gives off the strongest kind of heat. I’ve heard that no matter how far you travel—to the other three countries, the iced seas, the barren mountainsides, or even the Free Lands—the lilac haze remains inescapable. Blocking the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars.
People joke that one day the lilac clouds will kiss the white, white snow. Some days, I do believe the smoke has lowered, but no one wishes to live in this frigid climate without the comfort of heat.
Not even me.
“So,” I breathe heavily, the cold burning my throat raw, “don’t you tell me that I have enough already. The FD check is part of my compensation for my labor.”
She settles her gaze on mine, hers softening a fraction. As though understanding what I contributed in order to be repaid later on. “What do you wish to do on your deathday? The Six-Week Decline payment is a hefty sum and should help fulfill your goal.”
She’s still harping on about my previous benefit. I open my mouth, but I struggle for a rebuttal. Like I mentioned, I planned this poorly. As soon as I retired from Purple Coach six weeks ago, I spent everything I earned on Juggernaut. I banked on the FD check for my deathday.
I’ll have enough to die in luxury then. I’ll have enough to die in luxury then. I’ll have enough to die in luxury then.
I’ve spent my free time on my bunk, reaching for invisible lights and believing I was floating over a thawed ocean. I never heard of a warm ocean before, but a girl at the orphanage said that long ago, they once existed. Large bodies of water and no ice. Make believe, I countered with a sluggish laugh. Then I floated some more.
So I was high.
Juggernaut, my drug of choice, always gives me a headache after it loses potency, practically willing me to swallow another pill, to float more often, to snatch up all the lustrous stars. To empty my pockets of bills in exchange for an out-of-body experience.
I like to indulge, but most Influentials choose not to—and we’d all like to believe we’re not a bit jealous or sour by the other’s perks of living fuller or longer. We are at times, but I wouldn’t ask for another day. I wouldn’t swap places with the banker.
I lived hard, fast, and full, like a Fast-Tracker.
She will live easy and long and slow. She’s not better than me. We’re just standing on two opposite ends of a cavernous hole, unable to ever reach the other side without dying first.
“What if the bills I have left won’t help fulfill my last wish?” I ask her in all seriousness.
“Then maybe you should lower your goal to one that you can reach.” At this, she tugs at the cord and the blinds tumble down.
I scream out and slam my knuckles against the Plexiglas, over and over, but only my spirits crack. After a minute or two, rage simmering, I press my forehead to the spot my breath warmed. I have nothing in my pockets for a Purple Coach ride back to the orphanage.
I never meant to return.
And I can’t exactly reach out to any friends from my old job. They’re all with the gods now. The rest of the employees at Purple Coach, I’d barely even consider shaking their turds for hands. I grimace at the thought of groveling for a ride to Oron or Gustel—with no bills to give.
I’d rather find my own way.
And where will that be, Franny?
“Mayday,” I swear, still briny about the rejection, but I can’t just slump here and wallow. I don’t have much time left.
I straighten up.
Dressed in a tux, overcoat, and evening scarf tucked to his rich brown cheeks, a nearby young man lengthens his stride. Trying to pass me quickly.
And he’s not alone.
He hugs a girl in a dazzling sapphire gown to his side. She twirls her blond hair over her glittery earrings, hiding them from my view. Then she fixes her white fur hat and pulls her fur coat tighter. I wouldn’t steal from them.
I try to soften my scowl, but I’ve never been good at appearing as anything other than what I am. I look and breathe like a Fast-Tracker.
I’m not afraid to hold his gaze. A warning hardens his eyes, but I don’t listen as much as he’d like. I’m not afraid.
He breaks contact first.
With a new impulsive plan, I follow their snowy footprints.
We turn the corner, skipping past the warm pub.
Then we cross the busy intersection. Each lavender-painted car, adorned with an Altian eight-pointed star, honks at one another to go when they should be stopped. The air nippy, I try to warm my hands in my wool coat.
We turn right to climb slippery steps, the Catherina Hotel in sight. Golden molding decorates the ornate building, doormen at the ready in top hats and tuxes.
Ahead of me, the girl bundled in fur must sense my lingering presence because she peeks over her shoulder. Ruby lips pursed. She murmurs in the man’s ear.
I’ve never felt more like a wart.
As the young man rears to a halt, eyes plastered on me, I slow too.
I should start with good manners, like they tried to teach me in the orphanage. Say excuse me and say please and don’t forget your thank-yous. I forgot enough that Miss Hopcastle would smack my wrist with a wooden spoon. Hard until a bruise formed.
I clear my throat, my voice still raspy. “Excuse me—”
“I don’t know you,” he cuts me off. “So please stop following us.” He sets a protective hand on the woman’s shoulder, tucking her to his chest.
I haven’t met a Fast-Tracker that believed in coupling like this. It’s a waste of time, most of us will tell you. Commitment takes decades longer than I have. I didn’t need to find the one—just someone for the moment, people I can easily say goodbye to.
Before the young man whips around, I speak fast. “I’m out of bills and my deathday is tomorrow. I was hoping to stay at the Catherina for the night. Is there anyway you can—”
“No, no.” He raises his hands at me. “We don’t owe you anything. You knew you were going to die tomorrow. You should’ve made arrangements years ago. I’m sorry.”
I lick my chapped lips, my gaze dropping almost at the point of agreement. The bank owed me something, not them.
As they forge onward, I hear the girl mutter the word beggar.
I’m not special because I’m dying. Everyone dies, and everyone knows when.
Yet, I still hoped for a different outcome. I’ve seen stubborn Fast-Trackers barred from entering the Catherina Hotel before, the spectacle loud with curses and disruption.
I don’t want that on my last day.
I meander aimlessly along the cobblestone walk and into a dim, deserted alleyway, squeezed between a firehouse and a laundromat. Feet numb in my boots, arms quaking, tongue stuck dry to the roof of my mouth. I expect to meet another street, but instead I stare wearily at a brick wall.
If this is irony from the gods, I’m too nippy to laugh.
Something wet drips from my nose. With trembling fingers, I brush the liquid. Red. Blood. I’ve never had a nosebleed before.
Maybe this is the start of my death.
No fear in my bones, I dig in my pocket for the last of my Juggernaut and count them in my palm. Three blue pills. I look up, only to be met with churning purple smoke. Icy slush crunches beneath my boots.
So this is where I end?
This is where I’ll die.
“At least let me go without pain,” I whisper.
Stay away from large groups of people.
Relax. Stay calm.
Be at peace.
I take a seat beside a rusted bicycle and a dumpster. I might not be able to fulfill all of these laws, but I will die regardless.
I might as well do it on my terms.
I carefully inspect each round pill. Most Fast-Trackers will go out just like this, but usually forgoing some rules and surrounding themselves with friends. Not alone in an alleyway, with iced sludge soaking their bottom and seeping up the hem of their slacks.
It’s not midnight yet, but maybe this will be enough Juggernaut to knock me out for much longer than that. If the drug won’t kill me, the cold will.
I toss the pills back and swallow.
A weak smile inches my lips a bit higher. “Happy Deathday, Franny,” I say, congratulating myself. It’s not the celebration or finery I’d hoped for. I’m certainly not staring at a hand-painted mural, but this one day didn’t define the rest of them.
And I lived hard and fast and full.
Now I can be at peace.
Copyright © 2018 by K. B. Ritchie