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THE CULLINGKelley Armstrong
We grew up with stories of how the Cullings saved us. Stories of the famines and the aftermath, a world that once grew grain and corn in abundance, the forests overrun with rabbits and deer, lakes and streams brimming with trout and salmon. How all that had come to an end, the water drying up and everything dying with the drought — the grain and the corn and the rabbits and the deer and the trout and the salmon. And us. Most of all, us.
Left with so few resources, it was not enough to simply ration food and water. Not enough to reduce birth rates. Not enough to refuse any measures to prevent death. We needed more. We needed the Cullings.
The Cullings removed surplus population by systematically rooting out "weakness." At first, they targeted the old and infirm. When that was no longer enough, any physical disability could see one culled. Even something that did not impair one's ability to work — like a disfiguring birthmark — was said to be enough, on the reasoning that there was a taint in the bloodline that might eventually lead to a more debilitating condition.
The population dropped, but so did the water supply, and with it, the food supply, and eventually more stringent measures were required. That's when they began targeting anyone who was different, in body or in mind. If you kept too much to yourself, rejecting the companionship of others; if you were easily upset or made anxious or sad; if you occasionally saw or heard things that weren't there ... all were reasons to be culled. But the thing is, sometimes those conditions are easier to hide than a bad leg or a mark on your face. It just takes a little ingenuity and a family unwilling to let you go.
* * *
"Who are you talking to, Marisol?" my mother says as she hurries into my room.
I motion to my open window, and to Enya, who had stopped to chat on her way to market. She says a quick hello to my mother and then a goodbye to me before carrying on down the village lane.
I murmur to my mother, "A real, living friend. You can see her, too, right?"
"I was just —"
"Checking, I know." I put my arm around her shoulders. Having just passed my sixteenth birthday, I'm already an inch taller and making the most of it. "I have not had imaginary friends in many years, Momma."
"I know. It's just ... I've heard you talking recently. When you're alone."
"I argue with myself. You know how I am — always spoiling for a fight. If no one's around to give me one, I must make do." I smack a kiss on her cheek. "I don't hear voices, Momma. I'm not your sister. I have a little of what she did, but only a little, and I know how to hide it. I don't talk about my imaginary friends, even if they're long gone. I don't let anyone see my wild pictures. I don't tell anyone my even wilder stories. I am absolutely, incredibly, boringly normal." She makes a face at me.
"What?" I say. "It is boring. But I will fake it, for you and Papa."
"For you, Mari. Our worries are for you, and yours should be, too."
"But I don't need to be worried, because I am very careful."
"The Culling is coming."
"As you have reminded me every day for the past month. I will be fine. I'll even stop arguing with myself, though that means you'll need to break up more fights between Dieter and me."
"Your brother will happily argue with you if it keeps you safe." "It will." I give her a one-armed hug. "I'll be fine, Momma." Liar, the voice whispers in my ear. I squeeze my eyes shut, force it back and steer my mother from my room.
* * *
I have heard whispers that the Culling will be worse this year. Rumours say one of our two wells is running dry. The man who started the talk was a runner, one of those who carted the wheeled barrels from the well. The council called him a liar and a traitor. Said he'd been paid by another town to sow dissent. They executed him in the village square. But that hasn't stopped the rumours. If the well is drying up, this will indeed be a terrible Culling. And I must be prepared.
I do what I always do when I need a reminder. Because sometimes I do. There are nights and, yes, days, when the voice in my head says I shouldn't be so careful. I shouldn't need to be. That I should stand up and fight back. That I am a coward if I do not. But that is, I recognize, the sickness talking.
Fighting back is not an option. It absolutely is not, and it's madness to think it could be. I must remember that my aunt was the same age as me when she was culled. I must not comfort myself with my parents' insistence that my sickness is not as severe. Any defect — mental or physical — is cause for Culling.
I walk through the village square. At the far side is a wooden box, barely the height of an average person and even less wide. Inside is a man. He sits in the back corner, thin legs pulled in as he hums to himself. His hair is matted and filthy. His naked body reeks. We might not have the water to clean ourselves as we used to but we have adapted, and there is no excuse for this. No excuse other than that he does not care, is beyond caring, cannot even bring himself to let others run a damp rag over his skin.
He doesn't just smell of old sweat. There's the stench of urine and feces too. The notice beside his cage explains that he used to have a bucket, but it was taken away because the only use he made of it was to beat anyone who opened his door.
The man is here as a warning, lest we feel sympathy for something as harmless as talking to oneself. That was how his sickness started, the sign explains. As a boy who'd whispered to himself and then talked to himself and then shouted at himself, and others and the voices in his head.
This is you, that voice in my own head whispers. This is what you'll become — naked and stinking in a box.
I squeeze my eyes shut to silence it. It's quiet most of the time, like the girl in the corner of the class who rarely speaks, and you can almost forget she's there. Almost.
I come here to remind myself that she's there — that voice, that sickness.
My parents say my aunt never hurt anyone, that her voices never commanded her to do anything worse than draw wild pictures, beautiful and haunting pictures that she'd sketch in charcoal on wood slabs, before scrubbing them clean to reuse. My parents kept the last one she did, before she was Culled, and sometimes I pull it out and lose myself in it, and I weep because I see so much in them. Because I understand them — the fancies and the dreams and the nightmares within them, equally horrifying and beautiful.
I come here to remind myself of what I must keep hidden. Of how hard I must work to hide it. For my sake. For my family's sake.
Before I leave, I'll whisper to him and slide food between the bars, and feel guilty as I do so, as if I'm treating him like an animal. But it is all I can do. Repayment for the lesson he provides.
"Marisol?" a voice says behind me, and I turn to see Enya, market basket over her arm. She covers her nose with her free hand. "What are you doing here?"
"Reminding myself," I say.
Her brows rise. "Of what?"
"Of what the council protects us against. When the Culling comes, I will feel pity for those who only seem a little different and not at all dangerous. I'll remind myself of that." I point at the notice, which explains how he killed his entire family before being captured.
She nods. "It's hard sometimes." A wry smile. "Most times, I think, for anyone with a heart. But we must remember why it is done."
I say, by rote, "For the protection of all. So that we may be healthy and safe, and may bear equally healthy children who will contribute all that they can."
"Exactly," she says and loops her arm through mine. "Let's see if I can sell the rest of my wares, and we'll buy a treat and forget about the Culling. It does not concern the likes of us."
Oh, but it does, the voice whispers. It really does.
* * *
The Culling begins with a physical examination. With my clothing off, two physicians inspect me from top to bottom. It doesn't matter if I've been undergoing this since birth. It is done every year in case some physical deformity, like a curve of the spine, appears as we grow into adulthood.
Next come the mental tests. These used to stop when we reached puberty, the assumption being that if we were slow of mind, it would have appeared by then. Now they continue until we are twenty, looking for signs of other mental impairment, the kind they believe might come with a sickness like mine. I have no such problems, though, and I fly through the tests.
The final stage is the psychological examination. That's the one I most fear. It's the one everyone fears. If we are quick to anger or sadness or even joy, might it be considered a sign of impairment? If we display the behaviour they call "obsessive" or "compulsive" or if our pattern of thinking is deemed to be different from the norm, might that be enough? Even to be overly anxious about the testing itself could see us labeled unfit.
My parents, using the example of my aunt, have trained me how to answer these questions. How to give the "normal" responses. I take a light sleeping draught for three nights before, to ensure my worry doesn't rob me of sleep. They feed me the best food available, a luxury even on their generous salaries. They give me half their rations of water. They brew teas meant to calm my nerves. In short, they do everything possible to ensure I am alert and happy and healthy and that nothing as small as being hungry and irritable might make the inquisitors take a closer look at me. I have always passed the tests with ease. As I do again this year.
I'm in the village hall with my brother, Dieter. No parents are present while the youth are being tested. It is allowed, but parents fear that even normal anxiety over their child's results could be misconstrued. So they stay out. Dieter and I are at the table together, receiving our results.
"Marisol Perret," the woman drones, not even looking up from her paper. "You have successfully passed this year's tests, as has Dieter Perret." She hands us two circles of paper. Both are yellow. "Please report to the next room to await further testing."
I look at my yellow circle and then at Dieter. He frowns and says to the woman, "But we passed. Our tests should be complete; our circles are green."
"There has been a change this year," she says, making a note in her book. "Those with a family history of impairment will undergo additional screening. You may proceed to the next room."
"But —" Dieter says.
She looks up sharply at that, cutting him short. "Do you wish to lodge a complaint, Dieter Perret?"
"No," I say quickly. "He's confused by the change, that's all. No complaint, ma'am."
She grunts, as if disappointed. A complaint is almost always accompanied by inexplicable test failure. I shoot Dieter a look. He mouths an apology, but worry clouds his eyes.
I lead him away and whisper, "I'll be fine. I always am."
Pure luck, the voice whispers. And it cannot hold.
* * *
I sit across the table from the head inquisitor. I've never spoken to her before. I duck away whenever I see her coming in the streets. Now I keep asking myself what I've done to warrant her personal attention. Dieter is being tested by one of her underlings. But she came in especially for me.
I tell myself it's our family history and, since I am older than Dieter, I am more likely to show signs of the illness our aunt suffered. A simple matter of probability. Not suspicion. But as I sit there, watching her scratch in a notebook, having not yet said a word to me, sweat dribbles down my face and the voice whispers, She knows.
There is a cup on the table. She brought it with her. I thought perhaps she was bringing water, a subtle reminder to me of the danger we face as a village. Or a reminder of who she is, that she can drink so freely.
Yet she has placed the cup closer to me. I know it is not a peace offering. Not intended to put me at ease. I stare at that cup, and a drop of my sweat falls onto the table.
"Marisol Perret," she says finally, looking up. "Do you solemnly swear that all answers you have given in your previous interview are correct?"
I discreetly swallow before answering, so I don't stammer. Another trick my parents have taught me. I look her in the eye and say, "Yes, I do."
"Drink the contents of that cup, then, and we will be sure."
"We have obtained a potion used by other villages to ensure honesty in the Culling interviews. Of course, we cannot afford to use it for everyone. But when there is a family history, combined with irregular responses in the interview —"
"Irregular?" My voice squeaks, and I struggle to deepen it before saying, "Irregular how, ma'am? I was told that I passed."
"Drink the contents of that cup, and I will re-conduct the interview."
"Are you objecting, Marisol Perret?"
"N-no." Control, Mari. Get it under control. "I just ... I don't understand. I'm not yet eighteen and if there is a change to the proceedings, my parents ought to be notified before I — "
"Are you objecting?"
"No, I —"
"Are you challenging the prerogative of the council?"
"Never. I just ... I just want to understand."
"Drink the potion. Answer the questions. That's all you need to understand."
I hesitate just for a moment. She gets to her feet and calls to the guard posted behind her. "Please note that Marisol Perret has challenged the authority of this inquisitor and the Culling."
"No!" I leap up. "I never said —" I grab for the cup to drink, but she snatches it before I can.
"This interview is at an end. In refusing to participate, Marisol Perret has proven that she has something to hide. On that basis, she will be Culled at midnight tomorrow."
The guard strides forward and grabs me. I struggle as hard as I can, protesting that I didn't argue, didn't challenge her authority, that I'll take the potion, answer her questions ...
He drags me out the door. The inquisitor is already gone.
See? The voice whispers. You cannot win.
* * *
I am to be Culled. Not because of my sickness, but because they need to Cull more people this year, and I am as good a candidate as any. It is almost ironic, that after years of hiding my sickness, it isn't even that which damns me. It is a simple matter of logistics.
They need to reduce the population. My family has a history of sickness. I briefly questioned this new technique for revealing it. Anyone would have questioned it, feared it would reveal some hidden thread of sickness. We all worry about that in this world. We can't help it. We analyze every thought and emotion for the signs that could see us Culled.
I remember when I first started showing symptoms. My mother had tried to calm my fears. We all show "signs," she said, to some degree. We are sadder some days, more anxious on others. We have the occasional wild imagining. We may have a voice in our head that encourages us to do wrong or chides us when we do. It is a matter of scale. At the one end, yes, there are those like the man in the cage, where the sickness has eaten his mind. But they deserve care, not fear. And for the rest, like me, it is a matter of dealing with the symptoms as one would any minor ailment and allowing me to remain a productive member of society.
I don't know if I believe her. I've seen the man in the cage, and heard the words of the council too many times. I feared his fate was, indeed, my future.
Yet it is not. My future is to be dragged into the desert beyond the village and executed before I can consume any more precious resources.
My future ends at midnight.
"We've bought the exemption, Mari," Dieter whispers outside my cell. He's snuck in. No one can visit those waiting to be Culled, but there are ways. Just as there are ways to avoid execution. My family has paid — dearly, I'm sure.
That does not mean I will be allowed to stay. Only that my life will be spared. That I will be freed once I'm taken to the place of execution. Freed to die in a barren desert wasteland. Because that's the only option, no matter how much desperate families convince themselves otherwise.
My family has paid for hope. And that's why I won't tell them to keep their money. However steep the cost, my mother still blames herself for not being able to scrape enough together when my aunt was Culled. My family needs that hope, to believe I have survived, found others who've been exiled, living like nomads in the desert. It is an impossible dream, but I owe it to them.
Once I'm freed, I'll find a quick way to die. It may not be as merciful as the executioner's axe, but it will grant me dignity. Choice.
I hug Dieter as best I can through the bars, and we both cry, but I tell him I'll be fine. I'm resourceful and determined. My sickness is far from debilitating. So, I'll be fine. Just fine. Better even, without the specter of the Culling hanging over me. I'll miss them all, but in the end I'll be better off.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strangers Among Us"
Copyright © 2016 Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law.
Excerpted by permission of Laksa Media Groups Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Lucas K. Law, Introduction by Julie E. Czerneda, The Culling by Kelley Armstrong; Dallas's Booth by Suzanne Church; What Harm by Amanda Sun; How Objects Behave on the Edge of a Black Hole by A.C. Wise; Washing Lady's Hair by Ursula Pflug; The Weeds and The Wildness by Tyler Keevil; Living in Oz by Bev Geddes; I Count The Lights by Edward Willett; The Dog and The Sleepwalker by James Alan Gardner; Carnivores by Rich Larson; Tribes by A.M. Dellamonica; Troubles by Sherry Peters; Frog Song by Erika Holt; Wrath of Gaia by Mahtab Narsimhan; Songbun by Derwin Mak; What You See (When the Lights Are Out) by Gemma Files; The Age of Miracles by Robert Runté; Marion's War by Hayden Trenholm; The Intersection by Lorina Stephens; Afterword by Susan Forest, Acknowledgements, About the Contributors, About the Editors, Copyright Acknowledgements, Appendix: Mental Health Resources