We find the old man facedown on the beach. Thin legs, wrinkled and pale, stretch like twigs from the ends of his tattered pants. His shirt bunches around his shoulders.
“He wears the mark.” My companion points. My companion. My match.
Not my wife. Not my lover. Not even my best friend. Lucy was assigned to me by the king.
In third grade, just before we graduated, we sat at our wooden desks and took our final test. The teacher told us to respond to the questions honestly, that that no answer was wrong. We knew better. That morning, our parents had peppered us with answers. Correct answers. “You love routine,” my mother said, as she scrubbed behind my ears.
“Brussels sprouts,” my father whispered, glancing at the cameras before secreting a pinch of forbidden sugar into my gruel.
“Shakespeare.” My mother.
“No, the Bible,” my father corrected.
“Don’t choose what feels right,” my mother said, brushing a hair from my shirt collar. “Choose what feels wrong. With every question. Choose what feels wrong.”
I trudged to school and folded myself into my wooden chair, placed my arms on the desk, then removed them immediately: Arms on the desk is a sign of laziness. The teacher passed out long answer sheets with flat blue ovals and stubby pencils with no erasers: Once we made a mark there was no changing it, no reconsidering, no going back.
Legend has it that in the time of antiquity, students used to take similar tests to determine how suited they would be in a place of learning far distant, when a golden bridge spanned The-Sea-That-Takes-All. Near-men and women would sit and stare at books for hours on end and eat the food brought to them on silver platters.
“Stuart.” Lucy is watching me. It’s unusual for me to wait this long before responding.
“Many wear the mark.” We are compatible enough, I suppose. But I cannot say I love Lucy, cannot say I think of her throughout the day when I am at work studying the compatibility test results of the next generation, assigning William to Danielle based upon their IQs, their preference for vegetables, their professed adoration of rules.
Of course what I decide is never final. My pairings are sent on for further scrutiny: William’s and Danielle’s DNA will be examined by a doctor. If either is subject to disease or obesity or, God forbid, an Aberration, the match is called off.
Finally, the packet of matchings is sent to the king for final approval.
Cruel you say? Perhaps. But we have disease mainly eradicated. We enjoy good health. Still…”You remember Clarissa, Lucy?”
She nods. “Who could forget her?”
Clarissa. The one who chose all the wrong answers. Rather, the one who chose all the right answers. The one who dared to walk, head high, proudly displaying the heterochromia that colored one eye brown, the other blue.
“I was in love with her.”
Lucy grins. “I think we all were. I wonder whatever happened to her.”
“Killed, I suspect.”
Lucy gestures to the man on the beach. “That’s what we should have done with him.”
I shake my head. “The Sea-That-Takes-All has beat us to it.” If you try to cross it, try to venture out even a foot, the waters will surge up, suck you out and devour you.
We pick up the body of the old man, struggle him up the hill towards the Big House which overlooks The-Sea-That-Takes-All. “I always thought Clarissa was put on the sea,” I say, huffing a little. Despite the thinness of the man, his weight is considerable.
Lucy nods. “She would have liked that, floating on her back on the forever water, staring with her exotic eyes at the sun.”
Conversation must stop. The hill is steep. We are breathless when we arrive at the front door. I lift a hand but the door opens before I can knock.
I find myself staring into mismatched eyes. One brown. One blue. “Clarissa?”
She smiles then glances at our burden. “So the old goat is finally dead. Thank God. Leave him there. The men will take care of him.” She stands back. Opens the door wide. “Come in.”
“Clarissa,” Lucy is frowning. “How can it be that you’re here, in the king’s house? You were an Aberration.”
She smiles. “I was what the king was looking for. An Aberration. Unfortunately, I wasn’t looking for him.” She leans forward. “I poisoned him! Poisoned him and lead him to the edge of the sea.” Then she claps her hands, child-like and full of glee. “Charles!” She turns and calls into a dark corridor. “Charles. Come meet our guests.”
A pudgy beast waddles into the room, a scowl permeating his face. “What is it?”
Lucy, in love with even the most dreadful of children, kneels. “And who is this little man?” She reaches out to pinch his cheek, trying, I suppose to tease a smile from the child.
“Hands off,” he roars. “My father is the king!”
I bite my lip, try to keep from laughing at this wee child.
“No, honey.” Clarissa wraps a purple robe about his shoulders. “You are.”
I head out to notify the sentries. The king has been found.