by Charles C. Cole
Barney Pepper was replacing his basement stairs which had rotted over the years. The house was old with a dirt floor, and the dampness had finally won out. He’d started from scratch, completely removing the old set and carrying the pieces out the bulkhead. He looked up the deep hole to the first floor above him, glad he’d only had to do this once in a lifetime. He was wishing he had locked the basement door when the doorbell rang.
“Busy,” Barney mumbled. The doorbell rang again, insistent. Barney climbed out of the bulkhead and greeted his unexpected guest on the front stoop. He was a young fellow in a neat suit.
“Can I help you?”
“Barney Pepper?” said the stranger, quickly flashing a badge.
“I’m Agent Rand. Mr. Pepper, I’m here as an agent of the Bureau of Resource Management. There’s no easy way to say this: you’ve been culled.”
“Do you watch the news, sir?”
“Don’t even have a TV.”
“You might recall in more turbulent times, the use of a draft for military conscription. It was temporarily discontinued in 1973. A couple of years ago, you may not have heard, when faced with calamitous overpopulation and world hunger, we were forced to reactivate the program.”
“So you’re drafting me in a war on hunger?” Barney asked.
“Resource Management? Culling? You mean, if you kill me, there’ll be more resources for others?” Barney commented.
“I don’t like to use that word, sir. We’re very compassionate at BRM.”
“Why me?” asked Barney. “We’re off the beaten path. Can’t see another house in any direction. Wouldn’t it be easier to ‘cull,’ as you put it, from the big cities where humanity is more densely populated?”
“As I understand it, top scientists came up with something they thought was fair and equitable. And there you are.”
“And this doesn’t bother you?” Barney asked.
“I don’t mean to be glib, sir, but I guess I figure it’s a necessary evil, like paying taxes.”
“Assuming I go along with this, can I leave a message for my wife?” asked Barney. “How is she to know what’s happened?”
“We’ve got a phone number she can call and a generous condolence package. It’s a little formal, I admit, but we didn’t want to make it too personal; folks would accuse us of being insincere.”
“Imagine that,” Barney commented dryly. Then more seriously, “You know I’m a vet. I’ve already served my country.”
“We thank you. But that was a different war, wasn’t it? Honestly, this one’s a little bigger. And this was the best we could come up with. We take selectees out on a little drive of sorts.”
“What do you mean, a little drive?” asked Barney.
“We’re not here to alarm anyone. Keep the dirty business out of sight. No need to shock your wife. We try to keep the things running like a Swiss clock. That’s the government way. Think of it as giving your best for your country. So there you are.”
“You keep saying that, but it doesn’t sound like for much longer. You going to tell me what’s going to happen?”
“No, sir, we wouldn’t want to scare you with the gory details. We have a nice cash benefit for your wife, in recognition of your sacrifice, to make sure that she’s taken care of — unless her number comes up, too. But that’s unlikely. The odds are astronomical. Her number coming up, that would be a surprise, wouldn’t it?”
“Let’s hope your scientists took that into consideration.”
“They’re very bright, compassionate people,” said Agent Rand. “Speaking of which, I need to call the office, and I can’t seem to get a signal, even my GPS is acting up. Solar-induced ionospheric oscillation. That's why I need to get moving.”
“They’ll find me eventually,” said Agent Rand. “They know I’m in Maine, at least. We get some flexibility on how we do this. I thought I’d work the list by county. Well, shall we go?”
“I don’t suppose I need to pack?” asked Barney, stalling.
Agent Rand burst out laughing. “That’s a good one, sir.”
“Do you suppose I can write a quick farewell to the great love of my life? After forty years, she’ll be made as hops if I leave without a note.”
Agent Rand was silent a moment. “You can do that, sir, but in all honesty we find, as folks review their lives, it makes leaving that much more challenging. But it’s your choice.”
“Thank you. That’s very understanding of you.” Barney grabbed a piece of stationary from his wife’s hutch and sat down at the kitchen table.
“I should remind you, though, the government doesn’t like to wait.”
“You’ve got to make your quota or get in trouble with the boss, is that it? Some things don’t change.”
“That’s very understanding of you,” Agent Rand said.
“Can I ask you something, son? Is it just a numbers game? I mean do your bosses care who you take? I’ve got a neighbor with three broken-down trucks in his driveway and a tendency to public drunkenness. Rumor has it he beats his wife, though I don’t have any proof in the matter.”
“We tend to stick with protocol.”
Barney began to write.
“Pretty old farmhouse,” said Agent Rand.
“She requires some upkeep.”
“I’m a city boy myself,” said Agent Rand “Is it true these old places have honest-to-God dirt basements? I’ve never seen one.”
“Take a look for yourself,” said Barney. “That door over there.”
Curious, Agent Rand went for a quick peek.
“Careful, son!” yelled Barney, but too late.
Later, after he’d hidden Agent Rand’s car in the barn, Barney heard his wife return from grocery shopping. He was on the phone with her brother.
“Chester, you’ve been telling me for years to borrow your RV and see the open road. Well, now is as good a time as any.”
Copyright © 2012 by Charles C. Cole