The Time of the Cull: Fiction by Laurence Klavan
The Time of the Cull
by Laurence Klavan
On the day he celebrated yet another sixty-fifth birthday, Cosmo was having his monthly brunch with his old pal, Parkus. The two had known each other since childhood (separated by one year: Cosmo was older). They had grown up on the same street, lost touch during college, then rekindled their friendship once they got married and (in Parkus’ case) had kids. They were so physically similar—slightly paunchy, with bland, pleasant, forgettable faces—that they were often mistaken for twins. They were the kind of people who not only finished each other’s sentences but each other’s meals: At this moment, Parkus was polishing off half of Cosmo’s bread-free bagel, topped with a “shmear” of an algae-based spread.
“You know what I mean?” Parkus said, seconds after stealing the food, mouth full.
“I’m trying not to.” This was the style of conversation they specialized in: insulting yet good-natured. “I’m trying to eat.”
“You finished eating. I’m the only one still doing it. And I brought the subject up.”
“You have some tofu dangling from your unshaven lower lip. It’s blending in with your white stubble.”
Parkus licked the area, found nothing, and realized his chum was yanking his chain, busting his chops, or whatever was the old expression, simply to shut him up. He was undeterred.
“I’m saying it all means the same thing.”
“I heard you the first time,” Cosmo said.
“As if it’s the point of everything. Of life. And maybe it is.”
“That’s a thrilling thought.”
“’An evening constitutional.’ ‘An apple a day.’ ‘Good for what ails you.’ I mean, those archaic expressions—already archaic when our grandparents were young—are all euphemisms for the same thing.”
“I get it. I got it the first time.”
“Everything is a laxative. On a nostalgia Web site, I saw an old cereal called ‘Organic Warm Cinnamon.’ Why didn’t they call it ‘Organic Warm Laxative’?”
“Good question,” Cosmo said.
Parkus paused, then shook his head. “You’ve never been inquisitive. That’s been your problem for the thousand years that I’ve known you.” And Parkus was only barely exaggerating about the time.
“So that’s your philosophy? The words you live by? ‘Everything is a laxative’?”
“No. Maybe ‘Everything is a euphemism.’”
They were quiet then, each considering the question and the answer. Parkus licked a finger, pressed it on his plate, and put a few crumbs onto his tongue.
“You know what else is a euphemism?” he asked.
For a second, Cosmo didn’t know what he meant. Then he remembered and shrugged, as if at a universally dismissed belief. “Right, right.”
“What are they calling for? A lottery? A vote?”
“Something like that. I haven’t paid much attention.”
Parkus was disappointed at the prospect of no more conflict. This was how he communicated, fearing positive engagement might lead (as it had in his childhood) to rejection and heartbreak. Of course, knowing him since childhood, Cosmo knew this.
“You’re aware of what it really means, right?” Parkus pushed, condescendingly. “’Maximizing Youth’?”
“Yes. It’s about overcrowding. Something a politician floated about overcrowding.”
“More than one politician. A bunch.”
“They’re saying that we’re reaching the saturation point. Of citizens.”
“Privileged citizens. Others die off nicely, naturally, and just in time. Besides, don’t politicians always say that?”
“They always hint at it. This time, they put it in an official report. ‘Maximizing Youth.’ And that’s the euphemism.”
Cosmo found himself glancing around the faux-rustic diner. Robotic waitrons were decked out in top hats, plaid vests, and white gloves to evoke other gentler, more rarefied times (the Victorian period? The 1980s? They were all mixed up together). If his attention was drifting it was because Cosmo was both fed up with Parkus’ contentiousness and afraid of what he was saying. Reluctantly, he brought his eyes back to his friend.
“A euphemism for…”
Parkus was glad to have the argument back on track. “They’re saying that, because of the length of people’s lives…”
“Privileged people’s lives.”
“Because of the length of privileged people’s lives—the people like us who’ve been genetically modified to age slower and not get diseases to which they’re naturally prone— resources are being exhausted. So the population should be culled. Youth has to be favored. After a certain age, people should submit to a lottery or a vote to see who ought to be, as they put it, ‘eased into non-government-dependent status.’ And if that’s not a euphemism, what is? The age they floated was sixty-five.”
Cosmo nodded, his focus fading further, he couldn’t help it. Parkus’ hysteria had always had this effect on him, even when they were children. But was it hysteria today, he wondered? Cosmo signaled a waitron whose electronic 1950s-style bow tie lit up before approaching. “Right. And they’re going to be organized enough to establish a system that decides who should be…” He pressed “Espresso” on the server’s front plaid abdomen screen, realizing he was exhausted, not just beat. It was the subject matter, wasn’t it?
Parkus perceived that Cosmo seemed enervated and that his own tone had become too hostile. Parkus was a coward, truth be told.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s forget it. Happy birthday, pal.”
The endearment swiveled Cosmo’s head like a slap. Sixty-five (which, yes, he had turned more than once) got your attention, he thought. Ordinarily, Cosmo was happy to reach any age, an old-fashioned idea, given how his DNA had been altered preemptively. He always felt lucky to be alive and concerned that his luck could run out. Cosmo’s beating the dead horse of this recent (he hoped specious) headline had complicated his reaction.
“Resolutions?” Parkus asked, to cheer his pal, whom he feared he had alienated with his pugnacity (which was no worse than usual, right? Parkus wondered, as usual innocent to the impact he had).
“Yes. Just one. To eat alone more often.”
Parkus enjoyed the rebuke, the only kind of affection he trusted. Then he toasted his old friend with a steaming cup of coffee made from processed green beans.
The next month, when they met again, things had changed. On this day, Cosmo ate with little appetite and Parkus didn’t finish his friend’s food. They sat unspeaking for a long time before Parkus (who distrusted silence as much as expressions of love) said…
“It’s…you know, we’ll have to see what happens.”
“Right, sure, yeah.”
Parkus’ tone was not as jocular as it often was—it was downright downbeat—and Cosmo’s shaky reply reflected how much that disturbed him. He knew that Parkus’ baiting of him was always a way to keep the dire things he predicted from ever happening: it was a form of black magical thinking. Now that he had actually been proven prescient, Parkus was chastened, bothered, and consequently subdued. And this convinced Cosmo of the seriousness of recent events, which made him uneasy, too.
“Maybe it’ll get vetoed,” Parkus said.
“I mean, if a lottery was considered too arbitrary, why won’t this?”
Neither believed it but they were clutching at straws. Parkus clutched at an actual straw, tamped it on the table to poke the head violently out its paper cover, like the alien through the astronaut’s stomach in the old film. He stuck the straw into his orange juice and sipped it like a thirsty child, barely taking a break to take a breath. Cosmo watched him, grateful to have something else—even this small—to think about.
“Anyway,” Cosmo said while Parkus was occupied, “a lot of things could change before the vote takes place.”
“Sure.” Parkus dared to inject an old goading tone. “Like what?”
“Like…” Cosmo struggled and failed to think of anything before he, too, resorted to eating (a sausage made from cow muscle cells). The food gave him energy without making him optimistic. “They could make the age to be ‘voted out’ older than sixty-five.”
“Of course, then millions of other poor bastards would get screwed. But at least I’d be in the clear, right? For a little while.”
Cosmo’s tone was a parody of insensitivity, not the real thing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell intention from reading words and not hearing them.
“Even if they don’t…the odds are good for you. You’re a worthwhile and valuable…I mean, you wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice to…” Parkus sought as inoffensive a phrase as possible, finally giving up.
“Sure.” Cosmo was unconvinced.
Relieved it had been settled, Parkus went so far as to saw off a corner of Cosmo’s brunch with his fork. Cosmo let the theft occur. Yet when he spoke again, he had burrowed deeper into the truth of their new reality and not backslid into the comfort of old diversionary attitudes, like Parkus. “To be honest, what difference does it make?”
“If I’m not deemed worthy. If I’m ‘voted out.’ Why not me, you know?”
An even more awful silence fell over them.
“That’s a weird thing to say,” Parkus said.
“I mean, other people have used their endless time on Earth in more…constructive ways.”
“Come on,” Parkus’ scoffing was sincere: he felt his friend had gone too far for fun.
“What have I done? I’ve had the same marriage, the same job, even lived in the same house the entiretime. I can’t even count how many years.”
“Why is that something to apologize for?” For all his fearfulness expressed as aggression, for all his neuroses, Parkus had managed to have six lifelong marriages and four gold-watch-given careers in his (much more than) sixty-four years. Secretly, he was proud of this and sometimes mocked Cosmo for his stability. He didn’t do that now.
“It’s inertia,” Cosmo cut himself no slack. “Connie and me, no kids, my online column, 24 Grayman Lane. No change. If the majority of voters decide it’s been enough, who am I to argue?”
Even though, yes, Parkus sometimes teased his pal about the tedium of his life, as with his predictions, now that Cosmo agreed with him, he felt frightened. Parkus went so far as to reach a hand over to touch Cosmo’s hand, a move which he abashedly changed at the last second to a playful and macho punch of his shoulder. “That’s no way to talk.”
“Bring it on,” Cosmo shrugged. “I’m ready.”
He signaled a waitron with a flick of his first finger. Parkus watched with alarm as Cosmo pressed the “Bloody Mary” button on its left, polka dotted buttock cheek. His friend rarely drank and never so early in the morning. Pretending to find it funny, to normalize the situation, before the robot could swivel away, Parkus chimed in with…
“Make it two!”
The old companions drank the day away, not saying much more. Each beep of a news update on their devices (one worn like a crucifix around Cosmo’s neck, the other perched on spindly legs grasshopper-like on the table before Parkus) made them jump, as hard as they tried to remain aloof. Mixed in with bulletins about the impending vote were messages from Cosmo’s wife, Connie, which Cosmo intentionally avoided. She called more often the less he picked up.
“You’re ready, right?” Cosmo said at last, before standing unsteadily.
It was scarily unclear to what he referred. Coward that he was, Parkus noticed with alarm that the sun had begun to set.
Cosmo walked part of the way home—stumbled would be a better word. He was found face down on a drought-tolerant lawn and put into a passing self-driving communal car by its concerned passengers. Once he remembered, Cosmo told them where he lived, taking long enough to alarm everyone onboard.
As the car pulled away, Cosmo stood in front of his home on wobbly legs, his shirt stained by green paint from the fake grass on which he’d collapsed. As he’d said to Parkus, he had lived for too many decades to mention in this two-room, two-story dwelling at 24 Grayman. Over the years the air rights had been sold many times for small payments the government “recommended” he accept or they would bulldoze the place to rubble. Now, housing more of the rich, a seemingly impossible skyscraper of one-room habitats hovered above it, tilted as precariously as plates in the sink of a mega-prison’s kitchen (or so Cosmo imagined. He had never done anything wrong enough to warrant incarceration, which he now saw as a character flaw, his fear of punishment, his inability to transgress, his being so Goddamn dull). Cosmo sensed that soon it could all come crashing down on him, and why shouldn’t it? He staggered toward the front door.
In the front hallway, Cosmo bellowed like the last man on Earth, plodding through a deserted city (he’d seen movies with this scene; they never portrayed a future filled with too many people and not enough world, instead of the other way around).
Holding onto the banister of his staircase—the same boring banister and staircase as always—Cosmo made the great and grueling effort to reach the first step, then the second. He passed the same wallpaper as ever, elegant and cream-colored with tasteful and adorable sketches of open windows and families inside them, of Mommy rocking baby, Daddy petting dog. He and Connie had picked it out and so he and Connie were elegant, tasteful, and adorable, too—in other words, drab enough to deserve to die.
On the second floor landing, Cosmo heard the muffled sound of his wife’s voice. To whom was she speaking? Not to a lover, certainly. Neither had ever been unfaithful, had ever been interesting enough to be unfaithful, Cosmo thought, stumbling down the boring hall runner, stepping on boring moons and planets and other elegant, tasteful, and adorable images they had chosen for the thin, removable rug.
Then Cosmo reached the threshold of the bedroom and saw her. Connie sat on the bed, her face haloed by the headset of her phone. She was typing into a device something said by the person on the other end. She looked up with an expression that combined affection for him with what the other person made her feel, compassion plus concern. She was always emotionally multi-tasking like this, loving him while helping others: this had been her way for too much time to count. Now her unending decency dismayed Cosmo, for it had never been and never would be anything else. Connie raised a finger that said, “Hold on, okay?” which she followed with a wink—balancing what she was doing with letting him know that he was not forgotten, that he was loved. She had never failed to achieve this balance.
Connie was a year younger, so she would not be voted on this time. It was Cosmo’s acceptance of her that was the issue, his need of her, love of her—so predictable, tedious and untenable. Why shouldn’t everyone think it had gone on long enough?
“Why shouldn’t they?” he said, blearily, squatting onto the soft white chair which had always been opposite the bed.
Connie looked at him, her brow moving toward her nose, realizing that he was drunk, which he almost never was—right before his ass missed the chair and he landed on the floor, his legs splayed like a puppet’s after a child decides she’s too old for it and flings it to her feet. Pain shot up through Cosmo’s colon, stabbed him in the heart and shattered his brain, drawing darkness down over him. Cosmo’s last glimpse of life was his wife’s confused, fond, and indulgent face as she returned to the phone, still achieving balance, achieving it for good.
“They’re warehousing them” were the first words Cosmo heard when he existed again. Light was reappearing as if after an intermission, when a curtain is raised on another act, the last. “In some massive, empty house that’s being used as a jail.”
It was Connie’s voice. She was still or again on the phone, sitting next to him in bed as he lay beside her, somehow having moved or been moved from his flattened position on the floor. As Cosmo fluttered open crusty eyelids, he realized that the light wasn’t artificial but true, pounding through the bedroom window like beautiful blaring old rap music, the daylight deafening him. Cosmo shut his eyes to close his ears.
“Can you believe,” Connie started to say, and there was a second before Cosmo realized she was addressing him, “that someone would have actually secretly rented a place here to illegally house homeless people?”
Why wouldn’t I believe it? Cosmo opened his mouth to say, but his lips felt tied together by tape, his teeth bound by the rubber bands of those braces he had had as a teen (for too many years to mention). “Yes” was all he managed to make emerge.
“Me, too,” Connie said, returning to the phone.
It was a typical conversation. Soon Cosmo remembered what was about to happen. Could Connie not know that the vote had been announced? She was always preoccupied by whatever injustice to the underprivileged she was seeking to reverse (being a lawyer and a lover of…well, others) and so she might not have heard about a wrong that would affect just the rich. Yet would it be a wrong? Cosmo had already decided it would not.
“There’s something else,” he said, when she began to remove her headset.
“Something awful someone else did?” Connie seemed almost amused to imagine what other ill-gotten gain had occurred.
“Then what? Oh! Right.”
She did know. Propped against pillows, Cosmo gazed up at Connie like a child or pet that lived on a lower plane of existence and always saw her looming above, better than him. He realized that he yearned to know what Connie thought about this new nightmare before he blurted out his belief. When she didn’t offer an opinion, he fished for one.
“Well,” he said, “if you already know…”
“Of course I know. The news about the cull is all over the place.”
“And? Then? What?” Cosmo tried to stay detached and grimly fatalistic. But lying sober and so close to his wife broke down his determination. Now he knew that he could not live without Connie: it would have been like scooping out handfuls of himself the way a sculptor turns a realistic statue into an abstraction; so many aspects of himself would be lost that he would not know who he was, he would be unknowable. And becausehe could not live without Connie, he did not want to die, no matter how many other people might think he should.
Someone had to help him, and that someone had always been her. Suddenly, Cosmo felt hot water scald his neck and hands and realized he was so enraged and afraid that his tears were falling and blistering him.
“Help me,” he said.
Cosmo wrote a daily fifty-word column about life’s quirky and comical aspects. He was a creature of habit and a homebody who wore the world like an old sweater, eager to find comfort in it where he could. Connie was the kind who tugged at the strings of the sweater until it unraveled and she could sew it into something else, a piece of more beautiful clothing. Whatever the marriage had been, it had worked.
“We’ll see what we can do,” Connie told him, and her lack of certainty chilled Cosmo even as he was aflame. He burrowed into her arms in as small a ball as the baby he had always been and always wanted to be with her.
At three AM, Parkus’ impeccably sensitive home alarm went off. It alerted him and the robot sex worker who shared his bed (his sixth wife, Celinda, was away with her own adultery machine) to the approach of an intruder, the expressed sweat of whom it had detected. An automatically triggered spotlight revealed a figure on Parkus’ front lawn. It was bent over as if in supplication. The head was extended upward, seeking a sign.
Parkus peered through the vast window of his living room, kept dark so he could better see outside. He realized with horror that the stranger was Cosmo and the one from whom he begged an answer was himself.
After a second, he opened his door and let his oldest friend in.
Once he had recovered and heard what Parkus suggested he do, Cosmo wasn’t sure how he felt about it. It had taken several cups of (actual) coffee to make him recover, a feverish pep talk and half a powerful new pill Parkus had been prescribed for hysteria which he had used once and then discarded. (Maybe he had missed hysteria; it was his way into the world?)
“What’s your problem with doing it?” Parkus asked.
“And death is dignified?”
Now he’d done it. Much to his own shock, Parkus had blurted out the word they had been dancing around for a month. Maybe it was the fatigue (he and Cosmo had been “working together” all morning). Maybe it was impatience with his incapacitated pal. Or maybe it was resentment that Cosmo had assumed the role Parkus always played, the raving man who needed to be humored or gentled into composure, and Parkus wanted his part back. For whatever reason, he’d said it: “death.”
“No,” Cosmo said, softly, “it’s not.” More dignified, he meant.
“So why not?”
“Because…” slowly, Cosmo began to regain his energy, “it’s gross.”
“Everybody’s doing it.”
Parkus called up an article on his device. It trumpeted an overnight jump in online searches for “How to Hire a Campaign Manager.” Such a specialist was in-demand now that the vote had been announced, to help those privileged and sixty-five or older avoid…what Parkus had just said.
Cosmo sighed, beaten, turning the device back around after Parkus shoved it in his face. “Yes. Okay. I’ll do whatever I have to.”
“Good. I know a guy.”
Parkus hadn’t had to repeat the word: saying it once had done the trick. This time, he didn’t hesitate taking Cosmo’s hand and the other man let his hand be held.
A week later, the waiting room wasn’t crowded. This surprised Cosmo. Where were all the other hysterical oldsters come to hire The Regis Agency to plead their case for survival?
“Um…” Cosmo leaned forward in his chair to address the receptionist. “Is Mr. Regis in?” He was impressed she was a human; it attested to Regis’ high income.
“Oh, he’s in,” the woman replied, as if Cosmo was in for a treat. “He’s in all right.”
“Then…uh…where are all the other…”
“We go carefully through the profiles of those looking to employ him. And take only the most qualified applicants.”
Cosmo knew that “qualified” meant most able to pay big. On the application, he had listed Connie’s job at the law firm, for his online writing gig was no windfall. He tried not to think about those who had been turned down.
A device on her desk buzzed. “Okay, Mr. Regis will see you now.” The woman practically clapped her hands with excitement.
By comparison, the campaign manager was all business. Impeccably styled in a twentieth-century suit, Regis was younger than Cosmo (Cosmo believed) but not so young as to be able to skirt this new vote for long himself. Perhaps—like a surgeon in the days before operations had been severely reduced—he was so afraid of death that he worked determinedly, efficiently, and overtime to thwart it. Or was he just cold?
“I will always tell you the truth,” Regis said. “I’m here to fill the objectivity gap. I’m here to correct any faulty assumptions, like, for instance, that you can’t lose the vote.”
“I don’t assume that.” It was as if Cosmo hadn’t spoken. Regis merely continued his well-prepared spiel.
“I won’t hesitate,” Regis said. “I will always pull the trigger. As Napoleon said, ‘I may lose battles, but I don’t lose minutes.’ And I don’t lose many battles.” His laugh seemed rehearsed, too (and Cosmo realized Regis didn’t know much about the leader he had quoted, since he had stressed the first and not second syllable of his name. Using quotations in his column, Cosmo had learned that most historical figures were now recognized in name only—Napoleon, Hitler, Jesus—and, anyway, his mind was rambling from anxiety or maybe because Regis was now discussing money).
“I always budget backwards. I figure out what you need to win, then I budget it. And I always watch the money. As J. Paul Getty said, ‘Look after the pennies. The dollars look after themselves.’” Giving a hollow chuckle, he pronounced the last name of this forgotten celebrity with a soft and not a hard ‘G’.
Then Regis doused the lights with an unseen button. It dropped a screen spanning the wall behind his head. Only what sun was allowed in through his windows’ closed steel slats illuminated the room.
“This is my ad for another client,” Regis said. “If you think voters can connect dots on their own, you’re wrong. As Dale Carnegie said, ‘Tell them you’re gonna tell them. Tell them. Then tell them you told them.’” (Carnegie with a soft and not a hard ‘G.’)
Regis pressed the same button and on the screen a commercial began. To soft classic rap music, the story of one Tony Bethany played out in words, photos, and videos. Here were the four beautiful families and five brilliant careers that had led Tony (several times) to the age of sixty-five, the dazzling life that had made him deserve more of it. At the end, Tony’s great-great-granddaughter, age four, innocently implored the viewer to “Vote No on My Gate Gandpa” (sic). Then the screen faded into nothingness and the lights came back on.
“It’s a little complicated.” Regis sounded as thoughtful as he could be. “A vote of ‘Yes’ means you die. ‘No’ means you stay alive. But I hoped the child would simplify it.”
Regis waited for affirmation from Cosmo, but none came: Cosmo was paralyzed by doubt and embarrassment and enough unhappiness and fear he would have cried if he could. Regis threw out a figure that was supposed to start a negotiation but Cosmo accepted it, for he felt he had no choice besides do this or croak.
“Great,” Regis said, probably unwilling to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially an old nag like him, Cosmo thought, who might be about to be put down. “Let’s get started.”
Taking out a tablet, Regis asked Cosmo about his life. Cosmo recounted the details—and kept recounting them, for there were only so many in his life. Soon Regis stopped taking notes. Unable to remain polite, he waved his immaculately manicured hands, saying:
“Okay, okay, I get it.”
Cosmo blushed. Quickly, Regis’ tone again became measured and restrained.
“I mean,” he said. “your life’s been wonderful. And don’t worry. I know just what to do with it.”
Regis had one more service to offer. “I’d love to take you and your wife to dinner. It’s important to me to build our relationship. And when I need an ally who’s got my client’s ear, there’s no one better than his or her better half.”
Cosmo suspected how Connie would feel about his doing this—and paying what he was—so he hadn’t told her yet.
“No, thanks,” he said.
At the door, Regis’ handshake was strong enough to pull him back from a brink, or at least Cosmo hoped so. He walked out through the waiting room amid the few well-heeled-enough-to-be-acceptable-customers. They looked at him for reassurance. Cosmo gave them a nervous shrug, then a shaky thumbs-up.
Months later, Cosmo and Parkus had brunch again. Cosmo poured a healthy drizzle of faro-based syrup on a huge stack of lab-generated hotcakes. Anyone watching might have thought it a condemned man’s last meal. Yet, smiling, Cosmo made little mmm-mmm noises when he forked a fat helping into his mouth. For his part, Parkus began sliding slices onto his own plate, like a greedy winner scooping up poker chips.
They had skipped a few meetings: Cosmo had initiated an (undeclared) separation. Now he’d called it off. He knew it had been gutless to blame Parkus for his having agreed to hire The Regis Agency. And he was aware he was a hypocrite for no longer shunning Parkus only when the worst was over. Yet he cut himself some slack: an impending and avoided execution could make anyone petty.
Cosmo had won his vote 58% to 42%.
“Hey, hey, easy,” Cosmo said, when Parkus poised his utensil to swipe more of his meal. He wished to return to their usual badinage; anything else would remind him of what had almost occurred, which he wanted above all else to forget.
“What’s your problem?” Parkus asked. “You can’t eat all that.”
“Just watch me.” Making a goofy gluttonous face, Cosmo started to lift and cram into his mouth another whale of a serving.
Parkus thought he had never seen his friend this relaxed. He was so un-self-examined that he didn’t understand Cosmo’s freezing him out. Now, after Cosmo’s “No” vote, he had simply picked up where they left off. He didn’t get why Cosmo wouldn’t answer when he asked,
“Feeling better? Relieved? Glad you took my advice?”
The question made Cosmo’s jokey expression fall like melting skin in an old horror film. Left in its place was blankness, as if Cosmo wore a mask beneath his face, and not the other way around. Parkus didn’t pick up on this, either.
“I have to admit,” Parkus went on, “I laughed when I saw some of the scenes in that ad.”
“How so?” Cosmo’s voice was as tight as his question was terse.
“It seemed like you’d lived a million exciting lives. I give that Regis credit—he’s a master of bullshit. Lots of people must have believed it, though, because…well…you know!”
Parkus’ inability to place any of this in its actual grave context revealed his true shallowness: Cosmo felt he had never really seen or heard him before, not in all the uncountable years.
“Why so quiet?” Parkus asked, as always rattled when faced with silence. “Is it…”
“Nothing,” Cosmo cut him off. For good? He didn’t know. Suddenly, the reminder of what Regis had done to convince voters made him lose his appetite. Looking at the uneaten portion of pancake on his plate bleeding brown-red syrup, Cosmo was nauseated.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. He rose, intending never to return and never to tell his old friend.
Cosmo felt a huge sense of relief when he walked into his home. He slammed the door, shutting out uncertainty, his fear of disappearing, death itself. He no longer considered the familiar furnishings—front hall light beneath faux-radish fixture, imitation Impressionist prints on the wall—things to be considered or condemned. All of that was over. He would live with them far into the unforeseeable future. He would live without changing. He would live.
Cosmo took the stairs two at a time, feeling vital, healthy and—yes!—reborn.
He found her where he usually did: on their bed, under the halo of her phone, trying to rectify unfairness affecting someone less fortunate than herself. Today Connie was reacting as she almost never did—with tears in her eyes. Cosmo knew the reason.
As he entered, Connie begged off the phone and removed the headset. Then she covered her face with her hands and gave full vent to her grief, her relief, to whatever she felt. Cosmo approached her, about to cry himself, for the first time since the voters’ verdict. He sat besides Connie and reached for her hand.
She pulled it away.
“Are we?” she asked, her voice soaked.
“Are we what?”
“Are we so privileged? Not only can we afford to stay alive but we can afford to advertise to stay alivelonger?”
Cosmo had ended up never telling Connie about using Regis. To pay, he’d taken money from their joint account in increments, so as not to arouse her suspicions. He figured it would all come out in the end. If he was voted down, it would be moot. If he won, she would be happy. Right? Wasn’t that the case now? “I was going to tell you.”
“It wasn’t fair.” She addressed the air. “Don’t you see? We’re not fair.”
“Well, I guess I see, but…”
“Do you? I mean, it was bad enough to pay for a campaign not to be culled. But to lie about us…”
“I tried to talk Regis out of that …” Cosmo sort of had, sort of hadn’t, if truth be told.
“Drone surfing? High-altitude ballooning? When did we…”
“Well, it was just to give a sense of…it was just the essence of what we…”The CGI Regis used to impose Cosmo’s and Connie’s faces on more adventurous people in stock footage had been so impressive that Cosmo hadn’t objected. Or had he been too intimidated? Or afraid?
“We didn’t meet at an underwater hotel,” Connie said, witheringly. “And if we ever killed an intruder together, I never heard about it.”
“That was just to convey a…to give an impression of how we’ve lived, and…” How had Regis put it? Cosmo couldn’t remember.
“What about all the other people? The ones who weren’t rich enough to do that? Or so unprincipled? The ones who didn’t win their vote? And what about all the people who will just die anyway, in due time? Or who are being held here in homes illegally? What about them?”
“What about me?” Cosmo blurted out. He had not intended to say anything like this—because he had never thought he would have to. “Aren’t you even happy that…I’m here?”
Connie didn’t answer. She sat, blinking, tears escaping her eyes. She herded them with her tongue and penned them in her mouth, as if they were the savage, uncivilized, and disobedient things she couldn’t say.
Cosmo stood, fled the room and then the house, running from his wife’s self-righteousness. Or was it her guilt? Or her goodness? He ran from whatever it was that made Connie love him less than she did morality, love him less than he thought she had, less than he needed to be loved. Cosmo ran through a hometown he no longer recognized, wondering if his life had finally and at long last changed. Or had it always been like this and he had never known? And now would he know for as long and as long and as long as he lived?
Laurence Klavan has had short work published in The Alaska Quarterly, Pank, Failbetter, Stickman Review, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, among many others, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," was published by Chizine. His novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, "The Show Must Go On," was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015-2016.
"The Time of the Cull" asks a question without an easy answer: how do we bridge the gap between societal constructs and personal experiences? Here, Cosmo has to choose between a fate society has decreed necessary for the good of all, namely his death, over fighting to protect his personal world, as banal and inane as it may be, as he has created it over the past centuries. It is a question Socrates was asked, and he chose to abide by the dictates of his jury. Cosmo originally agreed with the sage, saying at one point that he would abide with what the government decided, but when it came to that moment, when his own life was on the line, he chose his self-interest over that of the group. And while we may fault his choice as selfish, or empathize with it as deeply human, when put in a situation where existence can go on indefinitely, the question takes on a new weight. And this leads to a variety of other questions. If life is potentially never ending, does that make it worth less, or more? In a world where death is only for the poor, what does morality even mean? How would familial relationships shift and change? Political ties? Religions values? Everything would change, even if on the outside nothing does. It makes us wonder, what lengths would we go to protect ourselves? And perhaps the answer can be found in our social media posts. Cosmo spent a fortune to bend the truth as far as it would go to create a public persona, a sympathetic life, a life worth saving. While immortality is not on the line for most of us, what lengths do we go to in order to impress those around us that we’re worthy of a better life? And in the end, what would we do to protect the image we’ve created and shown the world? And what does that say about us, and the world we’ve created?