The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.
“Test Day” by Emily Krauss, Pleasant Hill High School
Second Place, High School Level, 2023
Pleasant Hill High School
Test Day. The day we’ve trained our whole lives for. Failure to execute means death. I’m told that long ago, failing used to be fine. You could get whatever grade you wanted and not have to worry about it. How nice would that have been?
My head is pounding and I swear the butterflies in my stomach have turned to angry vultures—tearing me apart from the inside out. I walk from the doors of the train to the gray looming building in front of me.
A million thoughts rush through my brain, but one that seems to surface quite a bit is, Why? Why am I here? Whose sick twisted joke to humanity was it to pit us against each other like animals? But then again, I wasn’t there for the worst of it.
The famine, and the sickness that spread through cities like lightning—striking everywhere it touched. That’s why they started the tests, I suppose, to try to control us: the modern take on population control.
All you had to do was score in the top 45 percent of society, and you were free to go on with your life. If you were the bottom 55 percent? Well, you were taken away and never heard from again. It was the country’s new way of “saving humanity.”
All of these thoughts and a million more rush through my head as I walk in a single file line with all of the other sixteen-year-olds here trying to earn their right to be in the world. We march silently through the arching hallways, past what feels like hundreds of big metal doors.
I can’t help but wonder if all the other testing facilities look the same—or if they have a breath of color in them. We finally enter a huge amphitheater and sit in the hundreds of chairs laid out in front of a huge screen the size of a small house. I look above me and see layers of balcony seats above.
The entire building is completely silent, and the cold air is filled with the smell of anxiety and sweat. It seems as though everyone is holding their breath, and when the screen at the front of the room finally clicks on, it’s a relief.
I don’t recognize the woman who comes on, but I know she has an air of importance about her. “Hello, students,” she booms—louder than she probably means. “Today is the day that you have trained your whole lives for: your testing day.” She pauses for a second, as if expecting a reaction from the waves of children who stare back at her with glassy eyes. “Your test will consist of three parts. The first will test your overall knowledge of math and English. The second part will be a test of logic, the third—a surprise for everyone who makes it that far. Use every resource available to you. ”
The screen flickers off and a young woman in treacherously high heels stumbles her way up the steps to the stage. She holds up a microphone and starts calling out directions to the different sections.
“In a single file line please, follow the people in front of you. Follow the test administrators in the front.”
I’m seated towards the back, so I’m one of the first people out the door. The quiet rustling and whispering from inside the amphitheater vanishes almost immediately when you exit. The large man in the very front leads us to the testing rooms. For the test, he explains, we will each be in our very own testing room to prevent cheating.
We are then led like lambs to the slaughter to the hundreds of rows of rooms. One by one we are each dispensed into one. When I get into mine, it occurs to me that they seem way more like prison cells than I would like.
The administrator seems almost apologetic as he closes the door, but it hardly matters to me as my brain has switched into survival mode. Focused only on surviving this test.
The rooms are small: about six by six with a small desk and chair in the center. The walls are a stark white and the only other defining feature is the small clock shoved in the corner.
As soon as I enter the room, the clock starts a one hour countdown. I sprint to the desk, where the test and a couple pencils are laid out. Initially, I’m a little worried because there’s a large packet that’s set on the table. But when I inspect closer, I find that there are only two problems on the whole test.
The first question—labeled Part 1—says in small print at the top of the page, “To complete this section of the test, open the lock on the door.” I look up expectantly at the small padlock on the door, to no avail.
“How could I possibly be expected to know that?” I mutter to myself. “There’s not enough variables given.” I stare at the paper, racking my brain, trying to figure out how on Earth I could solve that one.
After a couple minutes, I decide to skip to the next question, thinking it might be easier. I can come back to the first one later. The second problem is labeled Part 2—Logic. This question reads in even smaller print, “Tell me why you’re here.”
I’m not quite sure how logical that question is, but it seems easier to answer. Thinking about it some more, I don’t know what to say. I mean, I can’t exactly write down, “I’m here because the government didn’t know any other way to manage the population.”
I know that I probably should write something that everyone will want to hear like, “It’s to protect us, and the world will be a better place.” But honestly, I don’t know if I believe that anymore. Watching hundreds of people sit there and wait for their fate does something to a person.
Putting that moral dilemma on the backburner, I flip back to the first page, determined to figure out how to get the door open.
There has to be a way to solve this; they wouldn’t give us an impossible problem. I slam my fist on the table rather dramatically, and cause my pencil to roll down off the table and under my chair.
Sighing, I bend down to grab it, but before I can, something else catches my eye. It’s a small engraving on the bottom of the chair—almost nothing at all. But it flashes when the light catches it.
It reads, “The beauty of nature rises in mysterious ways.” I sit and think about the riddle for a second before deciding it has to be East. Although the sun may not shine as bright anymore, I hear it used to be amazing.
There’s also a small arrow by the clue, pointing upwards. I glance up on the ceiling and see another small engraving. I’m not quite tall enough to reach it, but I use the chair to get a better vantage point.
This engraving just says “Sets” which I’m assuming means West, as that would be where the sun would go down. There’s another arrow pointing towards the side of the room with the clock; which now reads thirty minutes left.
Feeling quite rushed, I hurry over the clock but can’t seem to find any engravings around that area. I’m about ready to give up when I notice a small indentation just under the clock. It’s nothing really, just a scratch.
It’s what’s under the scratch that catches my attention. The walls, which are a stark white, seem to be slightly discolored here. Only by the tiniest bit, but definitely different.
Since nothing here is a coincidence, I have to think deeper about what it could be. Suddenly my head snaps to the light switch, which is stationed right by the door frame.
I run to turn the lights off. As soon as the harsh fluorescents click off, soft green words shine on the walls. Just as I thought—invisible ink. Splattered across the wall in what looks like serial killer letters are the words “South” and “North.”
At this point, the clock reads twenty minutes and I can feel the anxiety coursing through my veins. It’s as though I could run a whole marathon and the burst of adrenaline does not make it easy to focus.
I write down the clues on the paper to see if I can figure out the code from looking at them. The lock on the door, which I haven’t examined extensively until now, functions similar to a padlock. It’s a flat square box that has a screen on it.
On the screen there are places for four different letters to be typed in using the keypad. Figuring that the different directions have to correspond to the code that’s needed, I quickly type in EWSN, since that’s the order I found them in.
My hopes are quickly crushed with the jarring buzzer sound, and the screen turns red: a note flashing “Incorrect.”
My brain feels like it’s also about to explode. I can feel my breathing begin to get quicker and my palms start to sweat—making it nearly impossible to type in different words.
After fifteen tries, I feel like crying and just giving up, and at this point the only thing motivating me is the sheer will to live.
I sit there trying to unscramble the letters, but my hands are shaking and the clock in the background is just
Ticking . . .
It isn’t until the clock on the wall reads two minutes left that I find the winning combo with news that the screen blinks green.
I don’t have any time to relish in my victory, and instead sprint back to the table to write my answer. I finish writing, my pencil madly scribbling, just as the clock timer hits zero. This sets off the most horrible alarm that I have ever heard in my life, and the door swings open as if it has a mind of its own.
A tall guard stands just outside the door and motions for me to follow him.
I stand up, and walk forward—my body on autopilot. I keep my head down as we walk through the halls, but I can tell that there are people to all sides of me.
I assume that we are all going to the same place, but then my guard takes a sharp turn down a small corridor. I sneak a quick look around me and see all of the other kids walking in the opposite direction.
Whatever that may mean, I adjust my gaze forward to where we’re going. At the end of this hallway, there is a singular square door.
After what feels like ages, we finally get to the room, and the guard opens the door allowing me to examine the place. This square box is considerably larger than the last one, but still looks like a prison cell. The main difference though—there’s someone else in here.
The guard nudges me farther into the room and slams the door. I look on with trepidation and bravely take a step forward. I look towards the figure on the other side of the shadowy room. A woman looks up from the stool that she’s sitting on.
The woman looks very familiar, but I can’t figure out where I know her from. She is around forty five, I would say, with brown hair, brown eyes, and very tight features. She looks a bit like a doll—a little too perfect.
“Come forward,” she says. And slowly, I walk forward. There’s a chair right in front of her, but I’m happy just standing.
“What is this?” I ask her. “Is the test here?”
“Oh, there is no test,” she says, looking me up and down with her x-ray eyes.
“So—” I ask, pausing as I figure out how to phrase this question in the least offensive way possible. “Why am I here then?”
Naturally, my question is blatantly disregarded. “Aya Zepar,” she starts, and my heart stops at hearing my government name. “Age sixteen. You scored as one of the highest in the country for both athletics and academics in your schooling. Is that correct?” she says, pausing to address me.
“Uhm, yes, ma’am,” I respond, not quite sure where this is going.
“Well, you should be proud. You were the only person here to complete the entire test in the hour time limit,” she tells me, but not in a congratulatory way.
“Oh,” I say, not quite as relieved as I should be.
“Do you know who I am?” the woman asks, taking the conversation in an entirely new direction.
“I feel like I should,” I respond, doing my best to not anger her.
“My name is Natalie, and I created the test this year,” she tells me, maintaining scary eye contact.
Of course, she was the woman on the screen in the auditorium.
“Nice to meet you,” I lie. “Do you meet with all of the people who complete the test?”
“Only the ones I feel I need to,” she responds in her cool tone. We sit in uncomfortable silence for a minute before she continues. “You were our top performer on the test, but can you explain to me your response to the second question, ‘Tell me why you’re here.’? You said, ‘Because someone was scared.’”
I pause as I can tell I’m walking out on thin ice here. “Yes. I figured you wanted my honest opinion.”
CRACK. I can feel the hairline fractures begin to spread beneath me.
“Honest opinion?” Natalie repeats, standing up and beginning to pace around me. “Your honest opinion is that you’re here because we’re scared. That the government is scared?” She pauses as if waiting for an answer, but continues on anyway. “This test—the one you just took—is so that we can help control what happens in our world. Without it, there’d be pandemonium.”
That was it. “Control what happens? You want to be the little puppet master who gets to decide exactly what happens and when. Every year you bring sixteen-year-old CHILDREN here and make them take a test. If they fail this test, then you kill them. Some perfect world.”
CRACK. The ice breaks and I can feel myself plunging into the icy waters below.
Natalie starts laughing. Not like a funny laugh, but more of an evil possessed laugh. I freeze, unsure how to react. Luckily, she calms herself down, but the smile that remains can only be described as sinister.
“You really think that’s how it works?” she asks me as though I’m the biggest idiot in the world. “You think that we take only the ‘smartest’ of the bunch.”
“That’s what we were all told,” I tell her somewhat defensively.
“Well, you’re wrong,” she tells me harshly. “In order to maintain the balance we have in our cities, we need people to be able to listen to what we say. Without questions. Do you think that the people who listen the best are the free-thinking people? No. They always try to come up with better solutions to the world and lead rebellions. They can never accept that this is the best that humanity can do.” She pauses to take a breath, or maybe for dramatic effect, and then continues.
“We don’t kill the dumbest people. Why kill the people who listen to what we say without any questions? The whole point of this test isn’t to figure out who’s the smartest person in the room. It’s to figure out who blindly follows directions. You want to know who we see as the biggest potential problem? It’s you,” she tells me. “Aya Zepar. You are our number one Flagged this year.”
She pauses to let the terrifying truth settle in.
“So what, because I passed your little test, you’re going to kill me?” I ask her in an impressively calm voice.
Natalie sneers back at me, “I’m going to have you killed because you don’t have enough respect to be in this world. Let me guess, you have ideas on how we can make this system better?”
“Well, THIS can’t be our best bet,” I respond quietly.
“This is the problem with our world. No one can just accept defeat. You always have to try and make everything perfect. You need to accept that there is no perfect option.” With that final statement she walks towards the door, as it smoothly swings open.
This time there are more guards outside, who rush in while Natalie stands behind them. The guards grab me and pin me against the wall, making struggle impossible.
“Sorry it had to end like this, Aya,” Natalie calls from across the room.
Then one of the guards takes a needle out of his bag, and I feel it jab into my arm. Natalie makes sure the last thing I’ll ever remember is her face, staring at me from across the room, promising that she will do her best to make sure nothing ever changes.
Maybe it isn’t the worst place to leave.