They are coming tonight, the men without names, and we can do nothing but bolt the iron door to our apartment and wait. ‘They will choose the thirtieth floor this year,’ says my father, ‘I just know it will be the thirtieth.’ He smiles at me, then turns to the window again to stare at the Bridge to Nowhere. My friend Isaac lives on the thirtieth floor, and I think about how there are so many of them – five boys – that they can probably afford a visit this year. We are on the sixteenth floor, which has been visited only twice before. There was a time when entire floors would be abandoned, families seeking refuge with people they knew in other buildings, but they soon caught on to this trick, and instead of visiting once every two years, they came more often, without warning, to punish those who had tried to outsmart them.
I chew on my fingernails and listen to the sound of the government helicopters circle overhead, going from building to building. They won’t do anything to stop the men without names, they have learnt not to interfere. They tried once, at the beginning, and the electricity to the city was turned off for six months, so now they just watch and record the event to identify those who are taken so that the families can be compensated. My father told me that people used to put in false claims, but since they reintroduced the census this doesn’t happen anymore.
The city is in darkness, and will remain so until after the Choosing. The gates to the Inner Circle were closed hours ago, once government officials and those who won this year’s lottery had gone through, protected from the men without names. They will be watching tonight, just as my father is watching from the window, waiting for the first shadows to emerge onto the Bridge, for the tension swirling around our heads to be broken at last. ‘Go to bed,’ says my father. ‘There’s no point in staying up worrying when all will be fine. Go to bed and I will wake you up in the morning.’ I stare at him and he knows that I will not sleep. I’m old enough to understand the importance of what is to come, old enough to appreciate how much is at stake. At eighteen I have lived through enough visits to know that tonight might be my last. They do not discriminate by age, race or sex. Only those inside the Inner Circle have immunity. So I sit with my back to the wall of our living room and wait, the night stretching on as it always does, time itself knowing that something is about to happen.
It all started after the storm, almost two centuries ago. This city used to have a name, but that name has not been spoken aloud since the storm subsided and those few who survived congregated to mourn their dead and rebuild. In school they taught us just enough to know the seriousness of what had happened, but not enough for us to understand our past. The storm killed more than could be recorded, and this city, like the others that still exist, closed itself off from everything else. In our history class they showed us videos of what this place was like before the storm, of how our ancestors lived. It was the Peaceful Age, but no one could have predicted the storm, its severity, how it seemed to hit without warning and take all that mankind had achieved. It was almost as if the earth had decided to cleanse itself of us. Billions reduced to millions in a matter of days.
My mother died when I was a child. The men without names had taken two of her siblings. My father still has family here, but we never see them. He told me once, after too much drink, that his childhood had been an unhappy one, and as soon as he could he left his parents apartment and got a job in the city’s printing press, where he still works now. He doesn’t talk about my mother and I remember just enough of her to not have to ask him questions. I look more like her than I do him, and this is something we are both acutely aware of.
‘I think I can see something,’ he whispers. I move from the wall and crawl along the floor to where he sits. I have never looked at the Bridge to Nowhere on nights like tonight, afraid that somehow one of the men without names might be able to see me watching them and decide to come to our home. But anyone who lives in an apartment with a view of the bridge will be looking now, all too afraid to not look. At first I can’t see anything, but then the darkness begins to move and split, and I can see their outlines, their masks made from gold glimmering in the night– a gift from a government long gone – and then I can hear the sound of their boots against the wood, and I have to move away from the window and close my eyes. The clock on the wall ticks on, but they will not come for anyone just yet, they will split up into pairs and each pair will be assigned a building, and in each building a floor will be selected, and on the selected floor a door will be knocked upon and those inside will have to invite the men without names in to choose one person, and that person will leave and never come back. Quite a simple process really, even if no one understands the reason for its being.
All week a strange sense of excitement has engulfed the city, like a sandbank being taken by the rising tide. Age restrictions have been implemented, with only adults allowed out after dark. Isaac knocked on our door one evening asking if I wanted to go out, and it took a few moments for me to realise that I could, that this year we could go and experience the city before a visit from the men without names. My father was working late so I wrote him a note and left it on the kitchen counter, then left, Isaac putting an arm around my shoulder and saying ‘we are going to make the most of tonight, just you wait.’
We bought whiskey in a bodega and drank straight from the bottle, moving towards the Outer Circle where the bars and clubs were. Cars were broken into and shop windows smashed with anything that could be found nearby, the glass shattering in all directions before the looting began. Isaac drank deeply from the bottle and then passed it over to me, and pulled a knife from his pocket, just enough so that I could see the blade, then said ‘for safety, you never know what’s going to happen.’ Army tanks patrolled the streets but their presence was purely for show. I wondered whether this is what the city descended into during the storm, when people realised what was happening to them.
Two groups of men were fighting with each other, but it wasn’t until we heard a gunshot that we were able to comprehend just how free people felt. We ran down a side street and I counted three more shots before the shouting stopped. By the time we reached the Outer Circle the whiskey bottle was empty, and I let Isaac lead me down an alleyway to a large brown door. We had not gone to the bars and clubs, but Isaac winked at me and then knocked on the door, said ‘my brother told me about this place.’ I could hear a key being turned, a series of locks releasing and then the door opened with a rush of air so hot hitting me in the face it almost knocked me to the ground.
A young woman stood in the doorway, and smiled at Isaac before moving to let us through. She closed the door behind us and took our coats, handed us each a mask to wear and said ‘put them on. Tonight you will be men without names.’ She took us into a poorly lit room where she told us to strip off our clothes and then pointed to a spiral staircase that went down into the floor. I wanted to leave, but couldn’t bring myself to say so. Isaac was already going down the stairs, disappearing into darkness. The woman laughed and pushed me playfully in the back, so I took off my clothes and as I descended, unable to see, I could feel all my other senses heighten. I seemed to be in a corridor, and moved like a blind man, feeling the air. I felt a hand on my chest, and then another on my shoulder, then a third lifting my mask up to my forehead. A familiar voice in my ear saying ‘go with it,’ and lips against my lips, a tongue against my tongue, then more hands exploring my body, and I was almost overwhelmed by the excitement of it all. Moans then, unmistakable moans of pleasure, and soon I was moaning, and touching and kissing and I had no idea how many people were around me. I knew that some were women and some were men, all masked and all naked and all here for the same reason. This seemed to go on and on until a red light appeared on the ceiling and I could make out the shapes around me, could see masks but not faces. I moved against the wall towards the spiral staircase and emerged to see the young woman from earlier standing in front of me, holding out a towel. She pointed to a cubicle and said ‘You can shower over there, your friend is waiting for you.’
Isaac was outside, and laughed when he saw me. I was shivering, the air colder than I imagined it could be, and he handed me a bottle to drink from, and I felt the alcohol move down through me like life itself. I didn’t ask where he had gotten the bottle. ‘Well?’ he said, looking at the brown door. ‘What did you think of it?’ I tried to answer but no words came. We walked back towards our building in silence, and I no longer feared anyone out on the streets. More gunshots came from nearby and I could hear a woman screaming for help, but she would find none tonight in a city without rules.
In the lift I watched the floor numbers light up as we rose, and on the sixteenth floor the doors opened and I turned to say goodbye to Isaac who smiled at me and said ‘We’ll do this again before the next visit,’ and I could see for the first time the fear in him, because there was no knowing that there would be a next visit for the two of us. My father was sitting up waiting for me, turned when I closed the door and said ‘I won’t ask, and you won’t tell. You’re young. This is the way of the world,’ then went to his bedroom without saying goodnight. I lay down on my bed and wished for a different existence, somewhere far from this city, somewhere without fear.
My father turns his head sharply and says ‘they’re coming.’ I move over to the window and watch two tall figures walk towards our building, I watch pairs of men without names move towards all of the buildings in sight, all at the same pace, all with such purpose. My father closes the blinds and holds out a hand for me to take. I think about the special report that will be on tomorrow’s news, of the pictures of those who are chosen flashing up on the screen, of families being interviewed of their experiences with the men without names. We sit in silence, in darkness for so long, but we know that the knock may come at any moment, that the men without names sometimes walk down a floor, only to get back into the lift and choose another. I think I can hear footsteps outside, I think that I can hear their breathing, I think that I can hear them standing on the other side of our door, and then the lights turn back on and I look to my father who is crying.
We open the blinds and watch as the men without names move away from our building, towards the Bridge to Nowhere, with another walking behind them. I don’t recognise the man they have taken, look to my father who shrugs his shoulders. Soon there are many standing on the bridge, and as they walk across it, I think about those being taken this year, and feel like I am a survivor, like I am watching a storm subside right in front of me.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney