2 1 - the neutral zone

WILLIAM

I never asked my parents why there were no children in our country. I didn't do it because I didn't have the courage, but because in winter we hardly ever spoke. We lived more like books, hot chocolate and a fireplace. I never went to school, my mother taught me and my brother Dylan to read, write and do the main mathematical operations. They taught us everything we wanted to learn, we cultivated passions. My parents were almost always absent, and when I was almost 12 and Dylan was 13, we spent our days in the garage building toy cars out of wood, as our father had taught us.

I remember the day when everything went down like it was yesterday: Mum had finished working earlier than usual and told us to go to our room and close the roller shutters taking care not to make noise. I didn't understand why, because with the blizzard, you wouldn't hear anything at all, so I didn't move an inch. But Dylan immediately did as we were told and two seconds later I found myself alone in the garage with a piece of wood in my hand. A few hours later, Dad arrived too. He was always calm, quiet and cheerful despite the tiredness, but that day as soon as he set foot in the house he started to put food, blankets and clothes in some bags with my mother, staring insistently at the door. They told us to take some bags from the wardrobe and to take the heaviest clothes we had. After twenty minutes, when we were supposed to be at dinner, we were out in the middle of the storm covered with balaclavas.

Walking over the snow was harder than I imagined, so although we had only run about a hundred metres, I was already exhausted. Despite the anxiety I looked around me, letting the snow fall on my cheeks giving me shivers and I looked up to the sky, hoping to see the stars, but it was covered by a thick blanket of clouds. We heard a gunshot behind us and immediately afterwards one on our right. Dad told us to keep running and not to stop for any reason.

My knees were stiffened by the cold and I started not to feel my fingertips anymore when in front of me, I saw that the snow was getting thinner and thinner until it completely stopped snowing.

Now I could clearly see a kind of borderline, separating the snow from a carpet of leaves. We heard a shot coming from our right, even closer than before and Dad took a bunch of keys from the sack. He didn't have time to get the right key and we heard laughter behind us, then someone started talking: <so we meet again, Einar. Konstanty, you haven't changed at all since thirteen years ago! Did you really think you could get away? I really think that you should have started preparing the sacks a long time earlier, more or less... since they were born. We will put everything back in its place in your house.> The man who had spoken had a physiognomy that was completely unknown to me. He had dark skin, pitch black hair and was wearing a white jacket covered in snow that contrasted with his complexion. Two boys who looked very much like each other came running up behind him. They both had dark hair, olive skin and the same frightened expression. They looked very young, they must have been just over eighteen years old. The man turned to me and Dylan:< and so they are your children. Your other children. You have not only broken one law, but two. You were forbidden, if I am not mistaken, to have any more children after Jesse. And anyway, after you had them, you should have sent them to the neutral zone, not keep them with you for thirteen years.>

I had already heard that name during a discussion with my parents when I was a child. Mum wanted to take us away, take us to another Season, a Middle Season, she said. She said that they were poorly controlled and that with the government busy we would be able to escape without being too conspicuous. Dad was furious and said that we had to stay in Winter, where there were no controls at all at that time. He said that if we were discovered we would end up like Jesse and all the efforts they had made to keep us hidden would be in vain.

The man continued: <you have five minutes to talk and hug each other one last time.>

They took us back into the storm and Mum ran to hug me and Dylan, as tears began to flow down her cheeks.

<Who are they? > asked my brother. <A bunch of bad people. Very bad people. People you must never become> replied my mother.

<And where will they take us?> asked Dylan again with his playful eyes.

<In a beautiful place. We assure you, we have been there. You'll have a perfect life. It doesn't snow all year round there, there's the sea, there's the sun, there are the stars> said dad with a broken voice, looking at me after his last words, while he too was crying.

<And where will you go?> I asked. My parents looked at each other. My mother burst into tears and said: <we don't know. But we will always stay with you. We will always be here> she pointed to my and my brother's heart with her hands, then she continued: <and you will always be here> this time she pointed to her heart.

<Last minute> said the man. <Nuru, wait> said my father. Nuru turned slowly:<So thirteen years weren't enough for you?".

A grin formed on his face and he turned to the two boys: <Damian, Zenas, take them.>

I remember Mum screaming and squeezing us hard, Dad hugging us and suddenly someone put a wet handkerchief on my nose.

I heard Nuru behind us reloading two guns and I started to lose consciousness. Immediately I began to see blurred, I heard my mother's voice shouting: <we love you!> and immediately after that my father's voice saying: <we're sorry.>

The last thing I remember are the screams of my parents silenced by a gunshot and a red stain spreading in their chests. Immediately afterwards I fainted.

When I woke up I was no longer in my house. I was wearing very light trousers, which surprised me, as I didn't think I had a pair in my wardrobe. I looked around and I almost missed them again. In front of me, there were two guys staring at me, and when they saw that I had opened my eyes, they started talking to each other. I looked for my brother's familiar look but didn't see him. I was about to ask where I was, when I heard a door open and a shrill voice say: <two new boys arrived!> then she took a little break and said: <I see you have already met them...>.

After about ten seconds, I heard quick steps in the corridor that stopped right where the person who had spoken was standing.

I sat down calmly to avoid having dizziness due to my previous fainting spell. My head turned a bit dizzy, but after closing my eyes for a moment, I was able to sit down. I noticed that the people who had arrived in the room were two girls, one with brown hair and one blonde. When she saw me, the brunette smiled and approached my bed. She was wearing braces to her teeth and had her hair gathered in a very disheveled ponytail, with tufts falling on her forehead. She was wearing a green short-sleeved shirt and white shorts. <I am Sophie and she is Emma> she said to me always smiling, holding out one hand and alluding to the blonde with the other. I shook her hand and said looking into her green eyes: <W-william>; then I protruded to see her friend. Her hair was much tidier, her hair was tied in a braid that fell on her shoulder, she didn't smile, she looked alarmed; even from a few metres away I could see her blue eyes that looked cold as ice, just like my mother's eyes.

At that thought fear invaded me again and I stood up, but my head started turning again and I almost fell on the ground, if it hadn't been for a boy who seemed a few years older than me who took me by the wrist and lifted me without too much difficulty. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and put me back on the bed. Sophie came closer to me and said to me, dishevelling my hair:<you can't get up that quickly!>

A noise was heard in the corridor, like other footsteps approaching and Emma whispered: <Sophie, we have to go! >; the brunette said without worrying about her tone of voice: <good night guys, see you tomorrow morning, and you> continued to turn to me and start giggling: <don't fall down>. Then she ran silently to the door and closed it without making a sound.

Twenty seconds passed and the door opened again, showing a boy in his thirties with red hair and freckles, wearing glasses and when he saw me, he noticed: <you are awake>; then he looked at another bed, next to which there was only one boy and said in a louder voice: <Micheal, is his brother still unconscious?

<I am awake> said Dylan and immediately I felt calm: at least I still had someone I trusted.

<Well, tomorrow morning you will have to come to the main offices and we will give you all the information you need to stay here, go back to sleep> he said and then go out slamming the door.

<Where are we?> I asked.

<We are in the neutral zone> someone answered. I looked up in search of the person who had spoken and he spoke again, making things easier for me: <everyone has been coming here since the first day of birth>. It was a short boy who had spoken, with glasses and braces.

<All who? > asked my brother on the other side of the room. <All the children> said another one, this time blond and with freckles.

I looked instinctively at Dylan, who, as if he had read my mind, said: <can we have information tomorrow? I am tired and I think William is tired, too>.

I nodded.

<Certainly. We are in your roommates, by the way. I am Alvin, call me Al> said the boy who had prevented me from falling.

<I'm William, call me Willy, this is Dylan> I said to Alvin. <Can we continue tomorrow with the introductions?> replied my brother and then went back under the covers and turned to the wall. <G-goodnight, then> I said imitating him.

I heard all the other boys walking towards their beds and one of them turned off the light.

It was almost an hour before I could fall asleep again, I was too afraid to dream everything, to find myself in my house again in front of my parents' lifeless bodies, I was afraid to have nightmares, to wake up and discover that I was dead.

It was among these thoughts that I fell asleep for the first time without feeling cold.

The next day I woke up with the sunlight filtering through the shutters. My father had told me that in winter, the last time they had seen the sun, it had been fifteen years earlier, after which it had always snowed, drizzled or the sky had always been overcast. I felt my eyes filling with tears thinking of him, but I threw back my tears and said I would calmly discuss it with the officers and have them explain everything to me. I got up and found the boy with glasses awake reading a book by the light of a lamp. When he saw me standing, he approached my bed and whispered, pointing to a wardrobe in the corner of the room: <your clothes are in that wardrobe, they came to bring some shirts and trousers just before you woke up tonight. They are not bad, but if you don't like them you can go to the storeroom and get some more. There's everything you need> then he went back to his bed but he got stuck:<I'm Chase. If you need help with your homework, I have no problem helping you. Except history. I can't stand it.>

<Thank you> I whispered a smile and then walked over to the wardrobe. With the faint light I could distinguish the shirts from the trousers and to my amazement I noticed that they were short. I chose a white shirt and blue shorts, or at least they seemed to me to be of that colour, since with the little light I couldn't understand it. I looked around and saw a door smaller than the entrance door and imagined it was the bathroom. I got closer and opened it.

The room was huge: the floor was made of water green marble tiles, while the wall was made of white and blue mosaic bricks. There were five sinks, each of which had a glass of the colour of the floor marked with a name with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a box of dental floss inside. Next to each sink were stools with a stack of towels of all sizes. Still amazed, I noticed that there were two more doors, one glass door and one light wood door. I opened the glass one and saw that it led to the showers and dressing rooms, which were five, then I opened the wooden one that led to the toilets, which were also five. I went back to the washbasin room and noticed that there was a big clock on the wall that marked half past seven. Since it was early I changed in that room, sure that no one would enter. When I got dressed, I went to the sinks, underneath which there was a cupboard. I opened mine and saw that it contained a brush, a metal razor blade, shaving foam, shampoo, bath foam and other items for personal hygiene. I combed my hair and went through the locker and found a bottle of perfume. I sprayed some and went back to my room just as my brother was getting up complaining about the light. Chase whispered to me: <if you're finished, go to the canteen for breakfast, if you wait for the others you'll risk going to eat at ten.> I giggled and left the room. A scent of biscuits invaded me and following some signs I went into the dining room. I was a bit out of place, but after settling down, I took a tray and went to the buffet, where there were croissants, doughnuts and biscuits of all kinds, all things we could never afford in Winter.

The room was very spacious, with lots of tables throughout. There weren't many people there at that time and among those few faces I recognized a familiar one, so I walked towards her.

Sophie was sitting at a table on the side and eating breakfast while reading a book.

<Hi> I told her when I was behind her. She raised her head and turned towards me. When she saw me she smiled and said: <Do you want to sit here? >; < with pleasure> I answered her by placing the tray on the table and sitting on the bench next to her.

I realised that the night before I hadn't noticed a lot of things: she had freckles, they weren't as marked as my blond roommate's, but they were so bright and her hair was reddish. I was probably still dizzy from fainting, but I hadn't noticed.

<Have you recovered? > she asked me closing the book and putting it in a backpack. <Yes, I'm still very confused but I feel better. At least I didn't fall down anymore> I said, giggling. She smiled and her eyes lit up. <Pardon my impertinence, I am too curious...> she said lowering her gaze and then continuing looking at a fixed point in front of her: <where are you coming from?

I'm sure I'm bleached and I couldn't feel my legs. I was reminded of the last images I remembered of my house, the wet handkerchief on my face and it seemed to me that the shot was even stronger in my mind. <I-I...> I started, but I couldn't go on, the words stuck in my throat. <It's okay, I can understand how you feel. Or rather, I can imagine it, excuse me> he said while drinking a sip of milk.

<I don't feel like talking about it...> I finally continued in a hoarse voice.

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<Don't worry, I was wrong> she lowered his empty cup, winking at a smile and stood up. <I have to go... I'll see you around, okay? > she articulated looking first at the floor and then at me. <Look, I wasn't offended> I pointed her out. <It's not that, I have things to do. Will you sit next to me and Emma at lunchtime? > she proposed. <Yes, all right> I answered confused by her sudden coldness.

She left without saying anything else and I finished eating breakfast among my thoughts.

After I finished I went back to my room, when a boy in uniform stopped me in front of the door and in a deep voice asked me: <are you William Bergling? I nodded.

<At ten o'clock, you and your brother will have to come to the administration room, we will give you information as I think you have already been told tonight>. I nodded again. The man went away and I finally went to my room, where I found Dylan selecting all his clothes. I noticed that the shutters had been raised completely and I took the opportunity to look around. There were five wardrobes leaning against the wall. Three were decorated with stickers and felt-tip pens, while two, mine and my brother's, were made of birch wood and clean. Five beds were arranged in no apparent order for the room. I noticed that opposite to the bathroom there was another door: it led into a small room with five desks and five bookcases. I saw that there was a table with my name on it, and I imagined it must be for me. There were books, notebooks and a lot of stationery. I looked in the bookcase and noticed that there were some novels, so I took one and brought it to my room just so I wouldn't get bored.

I made my bed and lay on it and started reading without stopping until 9:30, when I told my brother to get ready to go to the administration room. A quarter of an hour later we were out of the room wearing a light shirt and jeans shorts. It took us more than ten minutes to find our way and finally at ten o'clock we appeared in front of a small glass door.

We knocked and after about five seconds a woman with black almond-shaped eyes opened the door. She was wearing an office suit and her hair was also black, gathered in a tidy bun on the back of her neck. She signalled us to follow her and after walking down a small corridor, we entered a room furnished only by an office desk and three swivel chairs. The man sitting inside smiled at us and said: <come in! Have a seat, don't be shy>. We approached the chairs hesitantly and sat down. We found ourselves in front of a man in his forties, big, dark-skinned, and I remembered the man who had shot my parents the day before.

<So> he began: <you must be very confused I imagine. I start by telling you that you should have been here long, long time ago, since you were born. But as I think you know, winter is the most remote season of all, it's easy to have secrets there. Your parents managed to keep you with them for a long time without getting caught just because the government was busy with very urgent business. I think you know everything about the world, don't you? What is his situation> he stopped and imagined he wanted our answer. I was about to open my mouth but my brother preceded me:<no, we don't know anything about anything, and we would like to understand why you killed our parents, they were very good people, you had no reason to do it>. I knew that he was getting angry.

<Here, see? You don't know what happened, so you can't know why we shot your parents. We did it because they didn't respect the law, as it had already happened five times before this one> he stopped again, as if to see if we had something to add.

<And what does the law consist of?> I asked him.

<The birth of someone has to be communicated to the government, so that the children can be brought here and educated in the right way, and then, at the age of eighteen, be sent to the season deemed suitable for them>.

He did to continue but Dylan said: <and by what criteria are we sorted?>

<The season is chosen on the basis of character, ability, strength and many other factors that I cannot tell you, I have already told you too much> he replied.

<No, you are wrong, you told us too little, we have the right to know. You killed our parents> he articulated the word parents well <for this stupid law, we have the duty> he stressed duty <to know> my brother said.

The man became dark in the face. <I wish I could give you this information, because as you say, you have the right, but I cannot, otherwise I would not respect the law, just as you cannot say anything about what I have told you now to anyone here. Everyone will know, but at the right time. Having said that, let's change the subject: if you don't like your clothes you can change them in the warehouse, it's like a huge shop. You can take books from the ordinary bookshop and keep them, as long as you write on the appropriate sheet of paper which book you took. You will find the opening hours of the canteen attached to the notice board at the entrance of the hall. The dormitories are divided into pavilions and the rooms have been decided according to age. You can't go to the women's dormitories either during the day or at night> he stopped and lowered himself and then opened a drawer and took something, then continued:< these were the main rules, I recommend you to read this>. He handed us some stapled sheets of paper and then smiled and said to us leaning on the back of his swivel chair and spreading his arms as if to indicate everything around him: <welcome to the neutral zone!