The first thing Mason Lindholme noticed upon waking was that his breath hung in the air a little longer than usual. The thin scratchy blanket covering his torso did nothing to stifle the bitter chill that came in through the cracks in the walls and he knew he wouldn’t be able to feign sleep for much longer.
Knowing that if he stayed still any longer the chill may overpower him, Mason pulled himself up to a sitting position and shivered. His body was trying to warn him that it was too cold but his body should have grown accustomed to the cold chill that the winter brought for it wasn’t an unnatural occurrence. Moving quickly, and trying to avoid being undressed for any lengthy period, Mason pulled on his shirt and trousers and raised himself from his bed. It was a familiar creak when he stood, the one that he had never figured out whether it came from the floorboards or the bed, both of which were a fair assumption. Mason picked up his boots from the end of his bed and plodded through to the kitchen.
Mason sat himself down in the old rickety kitchen chair. They only had one for that was all Miss Johnson, a few doors down, was able to spare after she lost her husband. They didn’t need more than one chair though for Mason and his family rarely ate together. This wasn’t for lack of trying, more that when Mason had finished work and studying then both his mother and brother were in bed. He had barely seen them all week because his days were spent tending to the farm in the morning and then he would have to dash off to the exam in the afternoon. It had just been for this week though, today was the last day it would happen because it was the day of the ceremony.
Out of the corner of his eye Mason could see his mother in her bed. She wasn’t asleep but, Mason thought, neither was she fully awake either. She had caught a fever a few months back and, at first, thought nothing of it. As the months passed Mason could see her deteriorating. No longer could she spend the hours on the farm like she used to do. No longer could she haul the huge bales of hay over her shoulder like he remembered from his childhood. No, now all she was able to do was sit in bed and watch the day pass by out of her window.
Thomas was curled up where he always was, in a small little arm chair next to his mother’s bed. Beside him, on the table, was a glass of water and some small tablets. Thomas, upon knowing his mother was sick, took it upon himself to tend to her. He was only young, being only twelve years of age, but knew when he was needed. He couldn’t help Mason out on the farm because, at six years his junior, he wasn’t prepared for the difficulty that came with the job. Mason also wanted to keep Thomas as young as possible, to keep him enjoying his youth, because he knew that in six years time Thomas would be sitting the same exams Mason was struggling through.
Mason didn’t have time to get sentimental, to worry about his brother and his mother and how they coped during the day when he wasn’t there. He always tried to do his bit to help out but always felt ashamed when he was sitting his exam and praying for a better life while all his mother could do was watch the sun travel slowly through the sky and then set again. Every day. But this wasn’t a knew feeling, it was a feeling he had managed to push down because he had to.
He laced up his boots and opened the front door, quickly slipping outside and shutting it behind him to not let the cold air in. It was a fruitless attempt because the wooden walls of their hut were so thin and dotted with holes that, should any cold want to get in, it could easily find a way. Outside of the house was cold, but that was due in part to the sun still being reluctant about poking its head over the horizon. The only light was a small twinkling in the far distance from Liberty. The people in Liberty had electricity and their lights were on throughout the day. There was no reason for the people to turn their lights off. For Mason, and the others in Ashdale, electricity wasn’t necessary and so they had it when the Mayor of Liberty allowed them to have it. This was a rare occurrence and, in Mason’s eighteen years, he had only seen the use of electricity a handful of times.
As Mason crossed over to the farm opposite his house he could see the market setting up in the distance. This was a small comfort to Mason, knowing that he wasn’t the only person having to wake himself up before the sun to get his day started. But, as he got to the edge of the family farm, he knew he wouldn’t get to visit the market today. The old fence gate, that had been just hanging on one hinge, was now completely torn off and strewn in the middle of what was once a wheat field. Mason didn’t know whether it was animal or human that had done it but whatever had torn the fence off hadn’t stopped there. The tracks in the soil were definitely animal, the claw marks and paw prints trampled over the wheat were definitely foxes tracks. Whilst the wheat hadn’t been eaten by the foxes, it was little comfort as they were still inedible due to the foxes trampling them down. The compressed wheat was speckled with little drops of red. The red on the wheat became stronger and more prominent the closer Mason got to where the animals were kept. It was unmistakable now what the red was. The side of the chicken coop had been torn off and chickens lay dead or dying around the wheat field. It wasn’t a surprise for Mason to find half of a chicken still in the coop while the other half was a mile away in a bed of wheat. Mason cursed himself, he knew he should have fixed the gate the day before. He had promised himself he would do it but time caught up with him and he found himself having to dash across the village for his exam before he could even consider fixing the gate.
It didn’t take Mason long to realise there was nothing he could do to make up for this mistake. He wouldn’t be able to sell the wheat or the eggs at the market and he would have to replant the entire farm again and try to barter in town for replacement chickens. He knew he could maybe get a chicken or two from sweet talking some of the other farmers. He didn’t enjoy doing this because everyone in the village was in the same position, but everyone in the village also understood the importance of working together. Occasionally Mason had to gift a chicken or a calf to another local farmer because their had been taken as part of The Collection or they had lost it to animals like Mason had.
Mason spent most of the morning, before the sun rose, cleaning chicken carcasses off of the wheat-field and trying to fix the fence gate with the basic tools he could find. He ended up throwing most of the wheat away and salvaging handfuls here and there. No one was going to buy contaminated wheat, no matter how desperate they were for food.
“Mason!” The voice was one that Mason could never forget. Thomas. He was glad, at this point, that the blood and chicken bodies had been disposed of first so Thomas wouldn’t have to see the horror that had greeted Mason that morning.
For the first time that morning Mason smiled. Seeing little Thomas run across the field, his bony little legs barely able to keep him up, made something inside Mason smile. Thomas looked helpless much of the time so, to see him running and jumping through the field brought a grin to Mason’s face.
“What’s up?” Thomas reached Mason and stood in front of him, his eyes level with Masons chest. He looked up at his older brother, tears staining the blue eyes that ran through their family. “What’s wrong?” Mason knelt down on one knee, taking himself to just below his brothers height to make Thomas feel like he wasn’t a child and this was a conversation between equals.
“The Colls.” He was out of breath and his hands flailed wildly to the east where some of the other farmers lived. “The Colls.” It was like Thomas didn’t know any other words or, if he did, none of them were as important as the ones he was saying.
“Yes, it’s that time of the month.”
“No…yeah…but…” His words trailed off and so, instead of trying to find them again, he grabbed Mason’s hand and lead him across the field to the edge of their farm.
The was the bit of farm that overlapped, so technically belonged to both Mason’s family and their neighbours. This occurred because they had no way of regulating who owned what land and so, when the farms had first been established many years ago, the length of farms had just been in numbers. It wasn’t until Mason started working the farm that he realised the length of the farms didn’t fit into the total space allowing for them, so some of them overlapped into other farms. Their particular farm overlapped with The Bundy family farm.
“The Colls.” Thomas repeated, pointing at The Bundy’s house.
It was a small house, more of a shack or a hut like Mason’s, but inside he could make out at least half a dozen people. He knew that Mr and Mrs Bundy lived there with their two sons, so the other two people must have been The Colls that Thomas was talking about. They watched as The Colls emerged through the back door and into the farm. Their farm, like Mason’s, had been subject to a fox attack recently and so they had only just managed to get it back up and running a few days previous. It wasn’t nearly enough time for the crops to grow to feed the animals. The wheat was barely as high as Mason’s ankle and so The Colls were not going to get what they were expecting. Standing at the edge of the field now was the entire Bundy family with two large portly men wearing slick grey uniforms. This was Coll uniform. Mason could see Mr Bundy talking to one of the larger men while his wife and sons stood back. The Bundy children were between Mason and Thomas’ ages and so did what they could to help out on the farm. But three pairs of hands were still futile when nature interferes.
“What’s going on?” Thomas tugged on Mason’s sleeve but Mason didn’t really want to answer him. He knew he could explain it to Thomas, he would definitely understand, but he didn’t want to him to have to understand it. A twelve year old, in Mason’s mind, should not have to deal with the problems of not being able to provide for a family.
“Nothing. They’re just talking about the farm and how much they owe them.” Mason tiptoed around the question and made sure he didn’t lie to Thomas. He couldn’t lie to Thomas.
The situation escalated without any warning when one of The Colls pulled out a baton from his side and struck Mr Bundy across the back of the head with it. Mr Bundy fell the floor immediately and blood slowly trickled from his head onto the farm. It reminded Mason of the scene that morning, his farm strewn with chicken blood. Thomas’ eyes were wide and Mason grabbed his hand, leading him back to their house. Mason turned back once only to see one of the Bundy children break free from his Mother’s grasp and run towards his father. The Colls, not understanding the boy wasn’t looking to fight, struck him across the cheek with the solid metal baton. The boy doubled over in pain, clutching his face, falling beside his father who hadn’t moved.
Mason took Thomas inside and told him to stay there. Their mother was still in bed and so he told Thomas to stay with her and make sure nothing happens to either of them. Thomas, whilst reluctant to let go of his brother, did so and sat at his mother’s bedside.
Mason ran around to the back of his house, picked up a few bags, and vaulted the fence leading to the other side’s farm. Their house was surrounded by The Bundy family on one side and The Miller family on the other. He got to The Miller’s back door and bashed on it with an open palm. No one came and so Mason bashed again, his hand stinging but his strikes being frantic and panicked. This was the side he didn’t want Thomas seeing. He always wanted Thomas to think of him as the older brother, the person who could hold himself together no matter what happened. He kept this thought in his head as he bashed away at the back door of The Miller’s house. Eventually Mrs Miller appeared in the doorway.
“The Colls.” He handed over two large bags to Mrs Miller who invited him inside. “I can’t stay long. Do we have the usual arrangement?” Mrs Miller nodded, placing both of the bags by the back door, and handing Mason a key. “I’ll be back when The Colls move on.” He hugged Mrs Miller and disappeared out of the back door, tucking the key into his pocket and vaulting back over to his side of the fence. He swept in the back door just as The Colls came in through the front.
“I tried telling them…” Mason’s blue eyes met his brother’s and it was the look Thomas had come to realise meant for him to let Mason handle it.
“Yes. He said you don’t have anything for us.” Mason could see the baton hanging from The Coll’s hip, still red with Mr Bundy’s blood. It made Mason’s stomach turn just looking at it. Chicken blood wasn’t a problem, human blood was real. Mason laughed which took both Colls by surprise.
“He doesn’t work the farm, sorry.” He took command and, with an air of confidence, took both Colls over to the farm. He handed them a large sack containing what he could rescue from the farm. “This is half of the produce from our farm this month.” The Colls looked down at the bag. It was over half full but they didn’t seem pleased.
“This is all you have made from your farm?” Mason shrugged.
“What can I say?” One of The Colls reached for his baton again and Mason was glad his brother had stayed with their mother. If this was going to get ugly then he didn’t want Thomas seeing it. “See for yourself.” Mason gestured his hand across the farm, as if he was selling it to prospective buyers. “Nothing left here.” He opened the gate and they walked through, kneeling down occasionally and running the dirt through their fingers.
“Freshly harvested, he ‘aint even replanted yet.” Mason kept his smile inside and instead just shook his head like he had made some huge mistake in not replanting the crops. “Any animals? I saw you got a chicken coop, why ‘aint we got no eggs?” Mason lead them over to the chicken coop. During the morning’s run Mason had managed to hang the edge of the coop back on so it looked like it was still in tact.
“Look for yourself, no chickens. They all died a while ago and we haven’t been able to get any replacements. Didn’t you wonder why you didn’t get any eggs last time?”
“I did think it strange.” One of The Colls knelt down beside the coop and looked inside. Mason found this amusing because, if there had been chickens inside, you would have at least heard them without needing to bend down. “So this is it?” The Coll lofted the bag over onto his shoulder and took it back out to his cart. “You better try harder next time.” It was a threat but an empty one. As every farmer knew, you were only as successful as nature allowed you to be. The Colls couldn’t do anything as long as you gave them what looked like half.
“Is that all for now? Are you sure you don’t want a drink or something?” The Colls didn’t take too kindly to being mocked and just ignored the offer, moving on to the next house. As Mason got to the front door of his house he saw Mrs Miller open the door of hers.
Mason swept through his house, not even stopping to talk to Thomas, and out the back again. He vaulted over the fence and fished the key out of his pocket. He slid it into the lock and cringed when he turned it and it made a loud click. He hoped no one had heard it. Mason gently pushed the door open and could see, around the edge of the door, The Colls still talking to Mrs Miller at the front of the house. He crept inside and snatched the two bags off of the floor, the ones he had delivered earlier, and then took them back outside and slipped them through the back door of his house.
The Colls didn’t stay long as The Miller’s house. They were good people who always gave over half of what they earned so there was no need to interrogate them. They had searched the house though and noticed nothing worth noting. Mason watched the whole thing from his back door. When they had gone he picked up one of the sacks from earlier and took it across to The Miller’s. He unlocked the back door and Mrs Miller was still shaken up slightly. It was a nerve racking experience having to deal with The Colls and it came with practice.
“Did they hurt you?” Mason knew Mr Miller was probably down at the market selling whatever The Colls weren’t going to take.
“No, dear.” Mason set the sack down on the kitchen table and handed the key back over to Mrs Miller. She exited momentarily into the bedroom and pulled a sack from underneath the bed. She handed it to Mason who hauled it up onto his shoulder. “I’ll see you again in a month?”
“I’ll be back in a month.” As Mason got to the door he remembered the exams he had been sitting all week. The business with The Colls had his head shaken and the ceremony was this afternoon. He turned back to Mrs Miller, who had already opened the sack and was putting various boxes and cartons into cupboards. “Oh, you don’t happen to have any chickens spare, do you?” Mrs Miller crossed the kitchen and looked out of the back window.
“We have a few that are maturing soon. Will they do?”
“Perfect.” He quickly hugged Mrs Miller before crossing back over to the door. “Tell Mr Miller I said hi.” He swung the door shut, vaulted back over the fence and walked back into his house. It was a difficult job, dealing with The Colls, but it was a rewarding one when it meant they kept half and then exchanged their third quarter with The Miller’s who gave them a quarter of their product.
“Thomas,” Mason entered his mother’s bedroom, the one she shared with Thomas, and found them in the same places as always. “I’ve got to go to The Ceremony now, are you going to be okay? I’ll be back this afternoon and hopefully we can go back to normal then. We can eat dinner like a family.” Thomas smiled as Mason hugged him. He ruffled Thomas’ hair and then kissed his mother on the cheek. She was much less responsive but Mason knew, had she been able to, she would have wished him luck.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to your graduation ceremony.” Mason was in a long line of people his age, all awaiting the same fate. The graduation ceremony was held annually, after a week of exams. The exams ran from Monday through to Thursday and took up the majority of each afternoon. They could run from midday through till midnight if candidates were being unresponsive or unruly. The graduation ceremony was the reprise final hurdle during exam week. For the students though, the eighteen year-olds filing into the town square, this wasn’t anything they could avoid. Graduation was a result, a culmination, of how well each student did during their exams. Here is where they would be assigned their future. This is the future that Mason hoped would change everything. This would be future that would get him off of the farm and change his life around for not just himself but for his family as well. If he got assigned a good job then he could get his mother the medication she needed and his brother would have a good education to lead the family on to a better life in six years time. But this was what everyone strived for during exam week. Every eighteen year old would work their tail off for a chance to work in Liberty and not be stuck as a farmhand, factory worker or miner.
“Name?” Mason was stopped at a large wooden table full of papers and various stickers with numbers written on them. Behind the desk sat two women who looked less than pleased to be there.
“Mason. Mason Lindholme.” One of them women ran down the checklist of names she had in her hand and ticked next to the name. She handed Mason a sticker with the number 147 written on it.
“Please display this sticker at all times. This sticker is how you will be identified during your graduation ceremony. Please make sure your sticker is visible and not obscured by any item of clothing or hair.” This might have been a problem in Liberty, but in Ashdale any sort of frivolous clothing wasn’t worn. If it wasn’t necessary then it wasn’t worn. Mason looked around and could see that, even in the cold winter chill, some people weren’t even wearing coats. He was lucky to have his father’s coat which was a bit too small for him but kept him reasonably warm nonetheless.
Mason followed the line through and it opened up into a large area with a podium at the far side, a projector set up in the middle and hundreds of empty seats scattered around. There were already people on stage, none of which Mason recognised and probably wouldn’t have been expected to either. He followed the line until people started breaking off to find their seats. Each seat was a shiny metal contraption that made an awful screeching noise when dragged across the stone floor. After searching, for what felt like an eternity, Mason finally found seat number one hundred and forty seven. He sat down and noticed immediately behind him the whole place had begun filling up.
No one looked enthusiastic to be there. Though this didn’t come as a surprise to Mason. He never understood, to begin with, why they held these events in the winter. Logic told him it was because winter came at the end of the year and so you had everyone who had turned eighteen that year. But this would have proved a hundred times nicer for those living in Liberty. They wouldn’t be shuffled into an open air town square. Mason couldn’t even imagine the kind of luxury that Liberty students experienced.
The cold metal sent a shiver through Mason and it reminded him of being in bed and waking up that morning. At the beginning of the week he thought exam week was going to kill him, like he was never going to make it through the entire week. He felt a certain sense of accomplishment at just making it to Friday, whatever the outcome of his future was going to be.
“Ladies and gentlemen, can we please take our seats?” A woman stood up front in a clean, slate grey suit. The woman didn’t seem to feel the cold and stood firmly, and without shaking once, at the front of the podium. She tapped the microphone and the sound reverberated through the make-shift sound system they had set up for. Mason realised then that they hadn’t been setting up for market that morning, they had been rigging this whole contraption up. This probably took hours of work, and Mason couldn’t even imagine how long it would take if they actually cared about the comfort of these students. “My name is Miss Knight and I shall be hosting your graduation ceremony today.” Miss Knight had no emotion in her voice and there were cold, dead eyes behind her glasses. Mason wondered for a moment if her eyes were colder than the temperature of the air, is that why she didn’t feel the chill?
A man, dressed in dark black khaki trousers and a tight fitting thermal black top, walked to the front of the stage and handed her a clipboard. Miss Knight adjusted her glasses and stared at the names for a moment, as if she were judging everyone on the list based solely on their names.
“Today is the end of a long fought journey. You have been working your entire lives to get to this point in time. A congratulations should be in order just for making it this far.” She lingered too long on the word ‘should’ for the comment come across as sincere. To her, whatever status they attain through this graduation, it will never be good enough. “You have been tested all week. You have had your intelligence pushed to the limits and then pushed even further.” This speech, had it been given in any other context, would have received a round of applause every time she paused. However, facing a few hundred students waiting eagerly to find out their fate, when she paused she was just met with silence. These students had already lived tough lives and for everyone this was their chance to make a better life for themselves and everyone they know. “These tests have been used for years to help assign people their roles in life and put them into jobs which they are qualified and competent enough to do. Today shall be no different. Today, ladies and gentlemen, you shall find out where your future will take you.” No one could debate her merits as a public speaker, she was calm and collected, but Miss Knight was not charismatic. She was not here to win friends or to get people to take her side, she was here to tell people where they belonged in life.
“Shall we begin?” It was less of a question and more of a command. The way her hair was tight up tightly, so much so that it didn’t wave or flicker like normal hair should, suggested to Mason that this woman never asked questions to people. She was the sort of woman who, if you disagreed with her, you were immediately wrong. Miss Knight was never wrong. “So, who is first?” She looked back down at the clipboard and then at the front row.
“Number One. Miss Rebecca Anderson.” The way Miss Knight hissed the s at the end of words made Mason nervous about going up and collecting his certificate. A little girl with big eyes stood up and walked to the end of the stage and climbed the steps. She walked across to Miss Knight, her knees trembling with nerves. There was a moment of silence as she stood, face to face with Miss Knight. Mason expected Miss Knight to be outraged that someone from Ashdale dares to stand looking at her, but this was her job. “Nurse.” The word came out clear and crisp as Miss Knight handed Rebecca Anderson her certificate. No doubt, inside that rolled up piece of paper, it simply said Rebecca Anderson: Nurse. It was no more than she was told but the paper confirmed your future.
Unsurprisingly Rebecca was quite happy about being a nurse and it gave everyone in the audience the hope they had been looking for. Nurse was, in Ashdale, one of the best ranks to achieve. It meant her family would live comfortably but in Ashdale. Nurse was one of those titles that meant you were good, but you weren’t good enough to get out of Ashdale. As such she faced a much harder work load than anyone who was given Doctor. Doctor meant you lived in Liberty and would treat the sick and wounded there. Medicine was much better in Liberty so it meant Doctor’s had to do less work. Nurses confined to Ashdale would be rushed off their feet trying to treat illnesses that could have only been the source of nightmares in Liberty.
“Number Two. Mr William Logan.” The boy, sat next to Rebecca, stood up and made his way up the stage and across to Miss Knight. “Factory Worker.” This, for William, would have been like a punch to the gut after following a nurse. A factory worker was almost bottom rung of Ashdale. Factory worker was boring, repetitive and required very little intelligence to do the job, as such he had only just borderline passed the exams.
“Number Three. Mr Maxwell Smith.” Maxwell Smith, sat next to William, got up and walked onto the stage. This would be the graduation ceremony. It wasn’t classy and it wasn’t bells and whistles, not for Ashdale anyway. Miss Knight would simply read the names and numbers of all of the people followed by their job title. “Underclassman.” A loud gasp rang out over the students sat. Maxwell, who was stood on stage, froze in place. Miss Knight tried to hand him his certificate but he seemed adamant not to take it.
“There’s got to be a mistake.” Miss Knight glared at Maxwell like he had just insulted her honour.
“Boy.” She made note to speak into the microphone so that everyone would be able to hear her. “We don’t make mistakes. If you failed your exam then you were an underclassman and there were no arguments about that.” Maxwell took the certificate and slumped off stage back to his seat. There was nowhere further down he could go. Underclassman were the lowest grade you could get and meant that you had failed your exam. As an underclassman you wouldn’t be fit to work any sort of unsupervised jobs and so you serve others, you become a servant to those in Liberty. On one hand you move out, on the other hand you fall lower than before.
“One hundred and forty-seven. Mason Lindholme.” After one hundred and forty-six names and numbers, Mason was finally called to the stage. As of yet no one had acquired a job that would allow them to live comfortably in Liberty and take their family with them. He ran his hand through his brown hair, making sure to look presentable as he climbed the steps. He kept his head down and walked forward, only raising it when Miss Knight handed him his certificate. Mason took it with a smile but it seemed Miss Knight had learned from her mistakes. As the paper passed between their hands she leaned into the microphone. “Underclassman.” The word rang like a shot through his skull. His blue eyes widened and he could feel the stares of hundreds of students as he stood on stage holding the certificate.
Mason composed himself, brushed down his clothes and walked off stage with his head held high. He got back to his seat just as number one hundred and forty-eight was walking up on stage. Whispers were being passed around, no doubt about Mason. It wasn’t until Mason sat down again, and felt the cold shiver of the chair, that he thought about Thomas and his mother at home.