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The Key

A Dystopian Short Story

By Brynne NelsonPublished 3 years ago 7 min read

Everyone in my country is given a heart-shaped locket at birth. In it is our assigned Calling; our job in the community.

We don’t get the locket’s key until we turn nineteen.

Which means that for nineteen years, we walk around with the weight of our futures hanging around our necks. It’s not technically illegal not to wear it, or anything—the government grants us that much. But everyone keeps her—or his—own locket close.

I never liked my locket. It’s bulky, obvious, a heavy copper heart with details on details carved into the front, and a dumb little mirror that warps my reflection in the middle. But I do like the concept. I like knowing that my future, for better or worse, is planned and prepared. I have a place in a centuries-old system. There’s a spot just for me, a short girl with outrageously curly blonde hair and a habit of chewing her nails.

The morning before my big nineteenth birthday was unusually quiet. My brother, Akon, had been climbing in my bed in the night for weeks, citing nightmares. I didn’t think it was just nightmares, I thought it was depression, but you can’t say that to a ten year old. Besides, our family isn’t important enough for mental health services. There is one problem with centralized health care, I guess.

That morning Akon wasn’t in bed with me. He wasn’t in our dads’ room, either. I poked my nose out onto the apartment balcony and found him perched on the creaky old folding chair, knees supporting his chin and wrapped up in his arms.

“Do you think it was always like this, Sar?” He asked me.

“Like what?” I replied, blinking a few times as my first caffeine shot of the day finally hit my system.

“So… controlled.” His black hair shone, wet, in the light of the rising sun.

“You mean, like, organized?”

“No, I mean…” he still stared out at the crowded cityscape. “Our whole lives are planned.” Almost unconsciously, he grabbed his Heart in grasping fingers. “Every train that whooshes through the sky, every lesson in school. It’s all prepared by someone else.”

“Well, no, then,” I said after a second. “You’re ten now, right? You’ve covered the Dark Histories in school. Racism and slavery, nuclear war, abuse, school shootings, drugs, pollution… letting people live in disorder did a lot of harm to the world. Sure, there might be a few problems with the system we have, but at least the worst things are under—well, control.”

“And you think that’s good?” Akon asked.

“I think it makes sense,” I said after a moment. He looked at me, then.

“I made you something,” he said. There was a wisp of a smile on his face now, so it seemed that something in my answer had soothed him.

“What is it?” I asked. He held out a string with beads on it. In the middle was a little plastic heart, an imitation of a Heart locket, except that this one wouldn’t be locked.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling at him and taking the offered gift. “For my birthday?”

“I figure you’ll probably have to leave,” he answered, turning his head away again. “To trade school, maybe a university. Wherever they need you.”

“I’ll still keep in touch,” I said, knowing the offer was lame. We’d lived together for ten years; Akon was part of who I was. Leaving him would hurt. It would hurt us both.

“Open it,” he said.

I slid my fingernail—hands shaking, now, because of the medication—between the halves of the plastic heart, opening it with a little popping sound. A scrap of paper fell out, drifting to the balcony floor. I bent to scoop it up. In pencil, in Akon’s round handwriting, was a single word:


“In case you ever start to forget,” Akon said quietly. I stepped closer to him, wrapping my arms around his little body and squeezing.

“Impossible,” I said. I stretched the necklace’s string, placing the Heart around my neck.


School that day flew by. A few people asked awkwardly if I was nervous for the next morning; I lied and said that, no, I was excited. It was a dumb question. Who wouldn’t be nervous? An old aphorism, dating back to the Dark Histories, was painted on a school wall.

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” it read. Never had the words made more sense, or unsettled me to such an extreme degree.

At home, Dad-Remil and Dad-Perk were making dinner and joking with each other, like they did most nights. Akon sat quietly at the counter, drumming out the rhythm to some song that only existed in his head.

“Big day tomorrow, Sar,” Dad-Perk said, grabbing me and planting a kiss on my head. “You’ll be an adult. You’ll Know.”

“I always thought that term was kinda creepy,” Akon said, shaking his head. “You’ll ‘Know,’ it sounds like you’ve never learned anything important before, like who you were just gets… erased.”

“I like it,” I said, twisting open a soda and plopping down next to my brother. “You’ll ‘Know,” like the whole universe is going to make sense to me.”

“If it does, let me in on it,” Dad-Remil said. “I know I’m not a Scheduler, but I’d love to understand things more than I do, at least.”

“You’re implying that I’ll have an important enough role to understand things,” I argued. “Maybe I’ll be an Engineer, and just execute other people’s plans all day.”

“Maybe you’ll get lucky, and be a Parent,” Dad-Perk said with a grin.

“All that school? No, thanks,” I said.

“A little school never hurt anyone,” Dad-Remil countered.

“Parents have to study a bit of everything before they’re assigned kids, you said,” I argued, and swallowed, wincing as the soda’s bubbles burned my throat. “That’s a lot of school.”

“I’d love to be a Grandparent, though,” Dad-Perk mused. I laughed.

“That’s not a real Calling,” Dad-Remil chuckled.

“What do you want to be?” Akon asked, his wide eyes quizzical.

“Does it matter?” I responded. “I’ll be what the Greater They have chosen. No sense in worrying about it and getting disappointed.”


The next morning, there were six of us from Fegali National City lined up in the official chambers. I vaguely recognized the other five; Dad-Perk had taken me to playgroups with others of my birth date as a kid, before we started our various schools. The Officiant, dressed in the gray robes of his Calling, held out a tray of keys before us.

Each tiny key had a drastically different shape to it, a different color. I spotted the copper one right away; it was a little bulkier than the others, a little too heavy. It matched my Heart. It even had little carvings in the top.

“Primi, 0852 hours,” the Officiant said. Primi, a girl with dark skin and hair, stepped forward. Her eyes were so vividly green that I wondered if she’d had them tattooed, though if she had, she’d spent a fortune to get them so detailed. She took the key on the far left of the tray, bowing to the Officiant and stepping back. I watched her out of the corner of my eye; it would be rude to stare as she unlocked her Heart and read her Calling, but I was curious.

“Emes, 1110 hours,” the Officiant said. A boy who was at least two full meters tall stepped up, taking the smallest key on the tray. There was something funny about the contrast, and I stifled a giggle, hoping no one would notice. He stepped back, and I looked down at my boots. A drop of sweat formed above my left eyebrow, and I dashed it away.

“Sar, 1438 hours,” the Officiant said. I took a quivering step forward, reaching for my key. My name was on the label, along with Dad-Remil’s and Dad-Perk’s, and my place and time of birth.

My ears filled with a pounding sound. My heartbeart? I didn’t know. My hands shook, and I blinked a few times, trying to clear the cobwebs from the corners of my vision. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so petrified.

I slid the heavy key into the lock in the back of my Heart, twisting it to the right. There was a little thock, and my Heart popped open. I squinted at the interior, where letters were carved in a wide font.



science fiction

About the Creator

Brynne Nelson

I'm a writer. I'm a wife and a mom. I'm a human.

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