The City of the Lonelies

I am sitting beside my current mother, waiting for the Administration’s representative to finish the same long, boring speech that she recites at every Assignment Ceremony. I am waiting to hear my name. I will miss Kate’s warm smile and hug that greets me every day when I return home from school. Even though she is not my original mom, I have a special connection with her. Tears are forming in her eyes, but she is brushing them away before they have a chance to fall. I also feel like crying, but I’ve gotten good at holding it in after seven Assignment Ceremonies.

Finally, the representative finishes her speech with the familiar phrase, “For the sake of peace, let us begin assigning your new families!”

I hold my breath.

“Bea Aaronson,” she announces.

I walk up to the stage and feel 5,000 pairs of eyes staring at me. Members of the Administration are sitting in the back, behind the podium. They are not allowed to have children. These are the people who force us to leave our parents.

I almost trip, even though I am wearing my sneakers and jeans, unlike like some girls who dress up in high heels and short skirts. I feel for my charm bracelet to calm me down; it has one charm from each of my assigned families over the last seven years.

“Your Assignment is with David and Michelle Thompson. A doctor and teacher on the Upper West Side. They have made peace with thirteen children.” The crowd applauds. “Please step forward to accept your assignment,” she announces, and then mumbles the rest of her script, “or choose to live in The City of the Lonelies.”

I step up to the microphone, palms sweating and knees shaking. “I choose… to live in The City of the Lonelies.”

The crowd gasps. The Administration soldiers, who are not allowed to show any emotion, try to hide their surprise. I walk off the stage as quickly as possible to the rows of empty chairs that are almost always there just for show. Everyone knows these chairs are for The Lonelies. For us… for me.

The representative, flustered, stumbles as she returns to the microphone to call up another name. “Alex Abrams!”

Alex, a ten-year-old boy, starts to sob as he hugs his father, who has to force him onto the stage. I don’t know him, but I know that he, like all of the other children, has promised to follow me. This is the deciding moment. Will they stick to their promises or leave me alone in The City?

***

I walk down the street of The City. Ominous clouds cover the sky. I see a group of teenage boys surrounding a little eleven-year-old boy. He is screaming for help as the older boys try to take his monthly government-provided food bag.

I watch a fifteen-year-old boy stealthily steal a jacket from a young girl as she sleeps. It looks too big for her but is probably all she could find. The kids who have ended up on the street were not aggressive enough to win a home to live in.

I smell the loose garbage that was thrown out onto the street. I remember the boy whom I saw throw-up in a pile of empty food cans and wonder if he was taken care of.

The worst part is that I am so overwhelmed by it all that I cannot do anything to help… except maybe I can.

I am the one who started this society, so I am determined to lead it.

Now with a purpose, I walk to my small, plain apartment and begin to write a speech: a speech that will change everything.

“Children, as you can see, our society is not what we had hoped. There is no security, no food, no medical system, no structure; there is stealing, starvation, and chaos. We need a change, and we need a change immediately! When all of us chose to live in this society, we dreamed of a successful society run solely by children, without the pain of leaving our families every year. We dreamed of forming our own, lasting families while still living in peace. We do not need to live with everybody in order to be able to work with everybody!”

The crowd cheers and applauds.

I am sitting in my office waiting for the eighteen-year-olds’ reports of their students’ progress. So far, over the last few months, grades have continued to go up. I am hoping that the computer-grading program that the Computer Science group created is fixed and that the teachers are easily able to send me their reports.

I hear a knock on the door.

“Come in!”

Four eighteen-year-olds enter the office. A week ago, I had sent them to scout the Administration’s city.

“Anything interesting?”

“You’ll like what we’ve found!”

The crowd quiets and I continue.

“I have a plan! We are going to split up into age groups. Each group will have a different role. All eighteen-year-olds will teach the rest of the children. You will teach the subject you are strong in: math, English, art, athletics, science, architecture, cooking, fashion, and more. The rest of you will go to school from 9:00 to 2:00 and while you are not in school, you will each have a responsibility to The City. Seventeen-year-olds will be doctors and nurses, and all jobs relating to health. Sixteen-year-olds, you will be the police. You will prevent theft and crime throughout the city. Fifteen-year-olds, you will cook the food in the dining halls, which you will be responsible for establishing. Fourteen-year-olds, you will be in charge of growing food and distributing it to the dining halls. Thirteen-year-olds, you will design and sew all of the clothing as you will be taught by the eighteen-year-olds. Twelve-year-olds, it will be your job to clean the city streets and public facilities. Eleven- and ten-year-olds, your jobs will be to go to the main city and convince your friends who will face their first assignments next year to join us, allowing the society to continue even after we, the first generation, grow older.”

“It’s falling apart. Almost all of the adults have lost their jobs. Without us kids, the teachers have nobody to teach, the toy stores, clothing stores, gaming stores and more have been forced to close because they have very few customers. Theaters are closing.”

“When you complete the cycle, you are given the opportunity either to remain a teacher or choose which job you would like to return to and help the younger children in that age group. There will be some exceptions to these jobs; some people will be chosen to fulfill necessary tasks for all of us that do not require many people.”

“The doctors have lost many patients and medical costs are rising. People have so little money that the Administration has stopped funding public transportation so they can pay for peoples’ food and homes.”

“You will divide yourselves into groups of people that you will live with. Each group will consist of one child from every age group. Every year, if you choose to, you can switch where you live and/or whom you live with. Each year, there will be a lottery of available homes for the people who want to switch.”

“I saw my last mother on the street. She begged me to get the children to come back.”

A sorrowful silence fills the room. “I will see what I can do to help our former families. Thank you for your report.”

The four children walk out and close the door behind them. Soon what they discovered will spread to everybody in The City.

“Our society will be run by an elected government consisting of two members of each age group elected by their own group. It will be the job of members of government to lead their age groups in the tasks they are responsible for; the older children in government will assist the younger ones. There will always be one leader of government who is elected by the entire city each year and can be older than eighteen.

“I will meet with each age group separately to specify your responsibilities, starting with the eighteen-year-olds.”

I am not sure what to feel. Of course I am sorry for our old families and want to stop their suffering, but I cannot help feeling pride that our society, run completely by children, is thriving while theirs is failing. There has to be a way to help our parents while maintaining a successful society independent from the Administration.

“I have faith in you! I have faith in this society! Our dreams will come true!”

***

I hear the crowd of kids shouting to be heard over the noise, constantly pushing and shoving. We are all at the huge gate on Opening Field.

I stand at the front of the crowd, right behind the gate, impatiently waiting to see the buses arrive; they are filled with our parents. Blocking my view are rows of Administration soldiers, each carrying a shotgun. They are facing away from us, also looking for the buses.

Are they going to prevent our parents from entering? Of course they are, why else would they be here? What if our parents try to get through them? The soldiers wouldn’t shoot… would they?

I fidget with my charm bracelet as I wait.

The buses finally arrive. The row of buses continues farther than we can see.

Immediately, all of the children quiet down and hold their breath.

The first bus empties out, and the first person I see is Kate. After a few seconds, she notices me in the crowd and smiles. I had called her, telling her to convince everybody they could to come to the City of the Lonelies. She did well.

I had not anticipated the soldiers. How had they found out? How would our parents get past them?

Luckily, the soldiers do not confront our parents; they just stand still and wait for what will happen next.

I get the chills as a breeze blows past my face.

Kate calls out to the rows of soldiers, “Let us through! We want to see our children!”

One soldier takes a step forward to respond to Kate. He is tall and is wearing a special, gold badge on his uniform. His face is expressionless. He is clearly the Commander. “We cannot let you through!” he calls out. “If you attempt to pass through us, we will have to use force to keep you out of The City of the Lonelies.”

“How did you feel when you were torn from your children, or parents, or siblings?” Kate shouted back. “Don’t you want to return to them? Who cares what the Administration tells you to do! Now is your chance to do what you want! Without you, the Administration will not have the power to separate our families!“

I am remembering all of my Assignment Ceremonies and I hope that the soldiers are too.

The soldiers do not lower their defense.

“Look behind you! Your children are there waiting!” yells Kate.

One boy at the front of the crowd calls out, “Daddy? Daddy!” It is Alex Abrams, the ten-year-old who chose The City after I did.

The commander looks back and sees his son. There is a look of longing on his face.

“Daddy, come home with me!”

***

At night, I walk down the street of what used to be the Administration’s city, holding a torch. It is empty: all of the homes and shops are deserted; all of the lights are off. All of its inhabitants are now in the City of the Lonelies—my city. As I walk past the Assignment building, the one that has given me countless nightmares, I take my torch and light it on fire.

Grace Gilbert, Age 15, Grade 9, Abraham Joshua Heschel School, Silver Key

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