Me and Grampa are eating breakfast together like we do every day. But today is special. I say, “Happy birthday, Grampa!” and give him a big hug.
He squeezes me tight and asks, “Do you know how old I am today, Jenny?”
“Yup! You’re fifty-five, but I’m still eight.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“Today is your retirement day!”
“It also means we get to have a party!”
“Yeah. I guess it does.”
I’ve never seen a birthday party before. Grampa always tells me stories about when he was my age. He says they used to have a party for every birthday back then. They also used to have these things called kars and playnes that people used to go all over the place on things called vaykashuns. Grampa said he even got to see the oshun a few times. The farthest I’ve ever been is the wire fence around our apartment building.
Sometimes Grampa draws me pictures of the places he saw when he was little. There are places with beautiful cities, green mountains, and blue water that stretches out as far as you can see. I keep them all under my mattress. They’re my favorite things in the whole world. I don’t think the places are real. I think Grampa makes them up just for me, but I never tell him that.
Grampa doesn’t seem very happy about retiring. He’s been in his room for hours.
There’s a knock at the door and Mommy opens it. There’s a man in a suit like the ones on tv. He has two of the scary black helmet men with him – the ones that watch us from the towers along the fence outside.
The man in the suit smiles and says, “AF8075342631?”
Mommy just stares at him.
He smiles again and says, “I’m here for Mister Abner Finch. Serial number AF8075342631.”
Grampa comes out of his room and says, “I’m Abner.”
The smiling man says, “Of course you are. On behalf of our Generous Community Director, Benevolent Provincial Authority, and the Glorious Leader, I present your retirement feast.” He pushes a cart with a bunch of plastic containers on it into our apartment. “Happy retirement day! You are required to report to the courtyard for transport in three hours.” Then he and the others leave.
It’s the first time I’ve ever had real meat. Mommy takes the roll from the plastic tube and cuts some slices. She puts two of the gray circles on my plate. There’s another container of yellow mush labeled ‘corn.’ Some green mush labeled ‘peas.’ Some white mush labeled ‘potatoes.’ Grampa taught me how to read. It’s our secret. He says I’d get in big trouble if anybody found out.
It’s the best meal I’ve ever had, but it’s not the way I imagined a birthday party. I’m the only one smiling. Mommy has the same stare she always does. She looks at me, but doesn’t really see me.
The last thing Mommy opens is the ‘cake’ container. It’s just big enough for all of us to have a piece, but I get two. Grampa gives me his. He’s not hungry.
After the party, Grampa calls me into his room. It’s small. There’s just enough room for me to sit by him on the edge of his bed. He reaches under his mattress and says, “I have a present for you.” He hands me some small square papers. They have pictures on them. The edges are crumbly and yellow. “Don’t let anybody know you have these. I hate to think what they’d do to you if they found out.”
I ask, “Did you draw these?”
Grampa smiles. “No, these are called photographs. My father took them with a camera when I was your age.”
“It was a machine that drew exact pictures of whatever you looked at.” The fotografs look like the pictures Grampa drew for me. “I know you don’t believe these places are real, but they are – or were. See? That’s me next to the big tree. And that’s my brother and our mother.” His eyes look sad. “They were real, too.”
“Thank you Grampa, but I can’t keep these. You should take them with you when you retire.”
“No, they’re yours now. I won’t have any use for them where I’m going.” He presses them into my little hands.
“My friend Katie says retirement means that they cut you open and take all the parts they can use then grind the rest of you up to make Nutrifeed. Is it true?”
Grampa pats me on the head. “Let’s go outside for a nice walk before I have to go.”
From the courtyard I can see other buildings through the wire in the fuzzy distance. Most are buildings like ours. Others I don’t know. But I know one of them is the retirement center. The wind is blowing from that direction today. It smells like dead things.
The retirement bus rolls in the gate and stops close to us. It’s almost time.
I ask Grampa again, “Are they really going to turn you into Nutrifeed?”
Grampa hugs me tight and whispers, “Promise me you’ll find a way out of here. Promise me you’ll find the places in our pictures.”
He’s crying. I am, too. “I promise, Grampa.”
He kisses my forehead. “Don’t forget the things I taught you. Teach them to your children and their children.”
“I will, Grampa.”
“You’ll have to be very strong. Can you do that for me?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Grampa.”
He tells me to stay put and gets on the bus. So do a few others.
I eat breakfast alone the next morning. His chair is empty. I want to cry, but I won’t. I have to be strong for Grampa. I will find a way out, but not today.
Today I’ll just be strong and eat my Nutrifeed like a big girl.