By 8:30, it was already sweltering outside, with the sun high in the sky on this spring day. My blouse started to cling to my body from sweat, a small pool of perspiration collecting at the base of my spine. It was just a short walk from my Detroit suburban home to the school. I was fortunate that I lived within walking distance, as most of the students needed to be bussed in from various regions. Of all the high schools in the city, it was the most densely populated.
I enjoyed my daily walks to and from school. It was the only time that I wasn’t hard wired to technology. Even though the heat and air quality was almost unbearable even in late spring, I relished being in the outdoors.
Today my thoughts went back to my cousin and best friend Laurel. We usually walked together most mornings, but she had been gone for two weeks now, and I hadn’t heard a peep from her. As I approached the school, everyone was filtering in through the front doors. I must have been running late. I picked up my pace, and scooted up the front stairs as the last of the crowd filed through the front door.
It didn’t matter how many times I heard that sound, it was always a relief to hear it.
“Morning, Calla,” Donna, one of the two student monitors said. “You’re running late today.”
Donna was in my chemistry class and we usually sat next to each other. Her only identifying symbol as monitor was a black armband with a white embroidered letter “M”.
The popular students made fun of the monitors, but I knew why they did it. It offered them some advantages – extra food credits for their families. My father would never let me participate in the program, even if it meant more food on our kitchen table. He was already humiliated enough working at a factory farm as a general labourer.
“Hey, Donna,” I said. “I guess I was running late.”
“Better go. The bell hasn’t rung yet,” she said.
With rations stretched to the limit, the State installed a lowered body mass index censor: a new red box installed above the main door. It looked out of place against the steel grey framework and the institutional design of the high school. Two weeks before, I was with Laurel one morning and Donna had been on duty, when Laurel set off the alarm. It was a first time we both witnessed a student set off the alarm. The new standards trumped Laurel’s previously acceptable weight, even though it was ridiculous to think that they would consider her fat.
I’ll never forget the look of terror on Laurel’s face that day.
“Calla?” Laurel looked to me for answers, but I didn’t have any.
“There must be a mistake!” I said.
Laurel started to cry, and all I could do was comfort her.
A few students had stood around watching the scene, but Kyle, the other monitor had shooed them away.
“Sorry Laurel, but I have to follow procedure,” Donna said. I could see she didn’t get any joy out of doing her job and I think that’s why I liked her. She didn’t abuse her power.
I insisted on escorting Laurel to the office.
“Calla, I can take it from here. You’ll be late for class.”
“She’s not a criminal. I’m going with her.”
“Fine,” Donna said.
As we walked to the office, I wrapped my arm in Laurel’s with tears streaming down her cheeks. It was just a short jaunt down the hall, but it felt like miles.
“Don’t worry. Everything will work out,” I said.
Laurel looked at me with red rimmed eyes. “How?”
“You have to believe it will,” I said.
I had my doubts. The State rarely made mistakes, or so they told us. Laurel might have suggested that they fudged the numbers.
At the office doors, they were waiting for her. The alarm signaled the central office and dispatched the guards. I’ll never forget the look on her pretty face, except I was helpless to do anything except hug her for dear life. She didn’t want to let me go, but Donna pried Madge’s hands off me.
“We’re here,” Donna said. It was gentle and kind. I’ll always be thankful she was on duty.
I knew that my Uncle and Aunt would be called, and from there she would be sent away.