The Death Warrant
Author: Anika Kapoor
When I see it, I feel nothing. The two most dreaded sentences to most Americans fill my screen. Still, I feel nothing. I simply stare at them, my mind blank, almost as though I haven’t seen them over and over again when the heroine of every horror film receives them and every main character in a book vows to be the first one to prove them wrong. I spent almost all of my nineteen years in fear of these two sentences, but as I read them now, a wave of numbness washes over me as though I just received anesthesia. I will wake up from this.
I convince myself that it’s some sort of mistake. Just because the government hasn’t messed up before doesn’t mean it can’t happen, I reason to myself. There is no way that they always get it right. That’s not possible.
Satisfied with this, I sit back down on the bed.
Some may call it naiveté. I call it self-preservation.
I know what Alia would say if she were here. She’d tell me that I’m being stupid, believing in a fantasy that will never be. She would say to get my head out of the clouds and come back to reality. Don’t lie to yourself like this, I can almost hear her say in my ear. You can’t run away forever.
I shut this down. Alia isn’t here.
My chest loosens for the first time since I received the message. The two sentences remain lit up on my screen.
“Your name has been selected. We are sorry to lose you.”
I shake my head in amusement. I will live to see another day.
My phone buzzes, and I know who it is before I even look down to read the name. In all the chaos — brief internal chaos — I forgot to text Emery. I pick up the phone, and before I can even say anything, I hear him yelling.
“What happened?!” he yells, his voice cracking with panic. “Why didn’t you answer my text?”
“Sorry, I just forgot. Fell asleep,” I lie, expecting him to be satisfied.
“No you didn’t,” he says. “Your lights are on.”
I walk over to the window above my desk and push the curtain away. I see him through his own window, in the housing building across the street, looking at me angrily. His stare burns a hole through the glass. I push the curtains back.
“So you’re stalking me now?” I say playfully. “Don’t go all Joe Goldberg on me.”
I thought for sure that my You reference would make him laugh. It always did. We watched the show together a few months ago, binging it over our winter break from school. I wait to hear a twinge of recognition through the phone. He doesn’t laugh.
“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t get why it’s such a big deal anyway,” I say, sweeping the curtains back so that I can see his face through the window. He looks pained. Exhausted. Very non-Emery.
“Yes you do, Kaia.”
When Alia received the message, she and I were fighting. I don’t even remember why. We hadn’t talked in weeks. I was ready to apologize, honestly, even though I didn’t even remember what for. But one morning I got a call from my mom, and through sobs she told me what had happened. My sister was dead, she told me. She received the message. Alia hadn’t called to tell me. It was too late.
I hung up on my mom while she was mid-sentence, because I couldn’t listen to her anymore. All I remember feeling was a mix of numbness and rage. Numb because I couldn’t grasp the fact that my older sister was dead. Rage because she had twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes before she’d cease to be, and she’d decided that calling to tell me wasn’t worth the time.
I ended up calling Emery after a few minutes of just sitting in my dorm, because I didn’t know what else to do. My roommate had an early class and had left before I had even woken up, so it was just me in the room, surrounded by emptiness. When he came, I remember him just holding me. Stroking my hair until all I could feel was the heat from his fingertips.
Before Alia’s death, mortality was not something that crossed my mind. I remember Mom having a conversation with me when I turned eighteen, reminding me that from that point I would be eligible to receive the message. The death warrant. I’d taken AP Macroeconomics. I knew that the United States was overpopulated. I knew that demand was way greater than supply. I knew that we weren’t headed on a good track. I knew that the government saw these warrants as the only solution. The only way to manage overpopulation. Still, I didn’t grasp it. I went through every day thinking that I had an infinite number of years left. That life would just never stop. That time would never be the thing to hold me back. Alia changed everything.
Emery made me promise to text him everyday right after 12:00 am to confirm to him that I would be living another day. He did the same. We never, ever forgot a day. Not only was it a promise to him, it was a promise to Alia.
One that, today, I had broken.
I break down into a sob so violent, the phone drops from my hand. My chest tightens again, my hands turn to ice, my legs turn to stone. My eyes are blurred with the hurricane of tears and I fall over, my head hitting the corner of my desk. I don’t feel the pain. I don’t feel anything, actually. Nothing except the air squeezing from my lungs, the gargantuan weight on my chest. I lay there, not knowing what to do, how to get up. I lay there wishing the world would disappear.
Because I know, deep down, that Alia was right. The fantasy that I’d created, the one where everything always went my way and that the only thing that would ever hold me back would be myself, didn’t exist. The government hadn’t made a mistake. The government had issued my warrant.
I had officially run out of time.
I don’t even realize that I’m awake, sitting up on my bed with a cup of water in my hand. I don’t realize until I feel Emery’s hand on my back, his other hand pushing my hair, stuck to my forehead with tears and sweat, away from my face.
This is real. This is all real.
From the way Emery looks at me, I know that he knows. Thank god. Telling him may have been the thing that killed me.
His usually tan skin is flushed, almost to a pasty white, and his eyes are bloodshot. I don’t remember letting him into my apartment. I don’t remember ever standing up, feeling the solid ground beneath my feet.
“Here,” Emery says, handing me a pack of goldfish with trembling hands. I lift my hand slowly, skeptical of its mobility. I let him drop the bag into my hand.
“What do I do?” I don’t realize that I’m speaking until I feel the soreness of my throat, each word like a knife.
Emery looks back at me, and I can tell that he doesn’t know what to say. He takes a moment to gather himself, and then grabs my hands. He smiles at me — a tightlipped, cautious smile. “Live.”
Emery still has my hand in his and he leads me through College Avenue, the campus where I live, and for the first time in my three semesters living here, it has lost its charm. The streets, lit up by signs and streetlights, feel too bright, the buildings too crowded, and the music from cars driving by too loud.
The blood in my veins feels like ice. I’m cold despite the warm April evening.
Emery and I stop at the bus station and he sits down. I sit down next to him, my hand still clutched tightly in his. He holds it with such an intensity I’ve never seen from him, even in the seventeen years that we’ve been best friends. He holds my hand as if to save my life. He holds my hand as if to save his own.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask him, my voice still hoarse. He doesn’t look at me.
When he says this, I feel my entire body, my entire being tense up.
I can’t go home. I can’t face my parents.
My parents, who fought for me, started a new life in a new country just so I would never feel held back. My parents who barely survived Alia’s death. My parents, who will die before I even utter the words.
“No,” is all I muster before the lump in my throat threatens to take over.
Emery turns his head sharply to look at me, confusion flooding his face. “What do you mean, no?”
“I can’t go home,” I say quickly, afraid that I’ll start crying again. I can’t cry. He needs to know that I’m serious about this.
“Kaia,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t not see them.”
I look away for a minute, consumed with my frustration. After a minute like this, I feel a weight on me. I turn my head slightly and see Emery leaning on my shoulder, the side of his face buried in my shirt. His back rises and falls as if his breathing is shallow for a moment. Suddenly his breathing becomes rapid, and I realize that he is crying.
For some reason, this makes me feel incredibly guilty. I’ve never seen him like this. We both had walls that even nearly two decades of friendship couldn’t force down. We were guarded.
I look at my best friend, my other half, my favorite person for the first time. And I finally see him.
Neither one of us says anything as we cram in next to each other on the bus. I can tell that he’s embarrassed. His cheeks are red, and even though his eyes are covered with his brown hair, I know he isn’t looking at me.
With the last ounce of energy I have, I manage a smile and bump his shoulder.
“I’m in charge today,” I say, waiting for him to finally make eye contact. He does, pushing his messy hair out of his eyes.
“You are?” he asks, confused.
“Of course. I’m the one who’s dying,” I tell him, surprised with how calm I manage to sound. Internally, I am panicking.
He smiles cautiously. “You’re really going to play that card, huh?”
“Okay, so,” he starts, “what first?”
“I’m dying. We can just get that out of the way.”
“Wow, thanks, Kai,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Totally forgot.”
Something about the bluntness of that statement calms me, as counterintuitive as that is. Knowing that there are no nuances to this, that it is a simple, objective fact, helps me make it through the sentence without falling apart.
“I’m dying,” I say, this time under my breath, testing the words out again.
The bus keeps moving, and I look out the window. The brightness of College Avenue passes us by until all we can see is the streetlights of Bishop Street. Student parking is in view. I realize that Emery is serious about going home.
“You’re weirdly calm about this,” he says.
I ignore him, keeping my eyes glued to the window, staring at the parking lot as it gets closer and closer. I wonder if this is the last time I’ll ever be on campus. I wonder if my parents will have to go to my apartment to get my things and I think about the absolute nightmare that it’s become since my roommate moved out. I try not to think about that. I was never the type for cleanliness. That was Alia.
“Can we go somewhere else first?” I say, keeping my eyes on the window. “I don’t want to go home yet.”
“You’re in charge,” he says, bumping my shoulder.
Emery takes his keys out of his pocket and unlocks his grey Honda Fit. Before he asks where I want to go, he puts in a destination and turns the phone away from me. I lean back in the familiar seat, close my eyes, and let him take me wherever he wants to go.
“Kai?” Emery says, shaking me awake.
I open my eyes and see that we’ve stopped driving. I look out the window, stretching my neck out to see where we are. “What?” I ask, shocked. “How?”
“I come here almost every weekend. I knew that it would be empty tonight.”
I squint at the house skeptically. “This isn’t illegal, is it?”
Emery laughs, really laughs for the first time in what feels like forever. “If you consider breaking and entering into a house within the parameters of the law, then no. Totally legal.”
I don’t laugh. “You have a key, don’t you?”
“Kaia, I lived here like ten years ago. Obviously the key doesn’t still work.”
“I’ve never broken a law before,” I tell him. “Unless you count the time I accidentally stole an eraser from the school store in fourth grade.”
“Didn’t you cry about that for like a week?” he asks, and I can tell by how he says it that he is smiling.
“I still feel bad about it,” I tell him. “I considered fessing up a few times. Decided not to, though. I didn’t want to get expelled.”
“That seems kind of unlikely. Weren’t you like nine?”
“Yeah,” I say, my voice trailing off. I think about nine-year-old me. Young, wide-eyed, with a zest for life. I think about what happened to that girl. I miss that girl. I almost don’t recognize who I’ve become. Who middle school, high school, and college made me.
We still stay seated in the car, my head resting against the window. I don’t want to move, but I’m afraid to stay still. I’m afraid if I stay here, I will never want to leave. Emery takes the keys out of the ignition, and the AC shuts off suddenly. I feel a wave of heat wash over me. “Come on,” he says, opening his car door. “Live a little.”
We walk for five minutes before we even approach the property. As we walk up the driveway, the memories flood in. The cracked concrete, which was the origin of our ‘superstitious phase.’ We jumped over every crack in fear that I would return home to see my mother with a back brace and a wheelchair. Even now I avoid the cracks. On a day like today, you can’t be too careful.
Emery jams something into the lock, and I look away. Plausible deniability, I tell myself. He quickly looks over his shoulder and scoffs. “Relax. It’s like two in the morning. No one is paying attention to us.”
“You are way too chill about this,” I tell him, tucking my curly black hair behind my ear.
I don’t want to admit it, but even though what we are doing is objectively wrong, it sends a thrill through me. A feeling entirely unfamiliar. All my life I was taught to do the right thing, to be honest, to act with my head and not my heart. But right now, standing here beside Emery as he breaks at least three laws, I feel something that I’ve missed out on all my life: spontaneity.
Emery pushes the door, and shuts the door quickly and quietly behind us. He turns on the lights and adjusts it so that it dims. “Don’t want to make it too obvious,” he says.
When my eyes adjust to the light, my eyes wander across the rooms, thanks to the open floor plan. I can see the living room, dining room, and kitchen right from the front door. But even as I look at them, I don’t feel the blanket of recognition warm me.
“Looks completely different, right?” Emery says, walking towards the kitchen.
“Yeah,” I reply, unsure what to think. “You sure this is the same house?” Whoever lived here now took everything that this house used to be, the character that it had, and destroyed it. “Looks right out of an episode of House Hunters.”
There is a painful silence between us as I follow him to the kitchen. I sit on the barstools at the island. The countertops are a white marble and there is a chandelier above our heads. I roll my eyes. “Who needs a chandelier to eat?”
“The Hendersons apparently,” he says, enunciating each syllable with contempt. “They took down the walls and added construction because the house wasn’t big enough for their huge family of three.”
I remember when Emery was forced to leave this house. We sat together, huddled in his room with the door cracked open, listening to his mom talk to my parents downstairs. Emery’s mom said that they were being evicted. That she missed too many payments. I remember him asking me what ‘evicted’ meant. We were maybe eight years old. I told him that I didn’t know. I told him that I would ask our teacher the next day.
When I didn’t see Emery at school the next day, I asked my mom about it. “Don’t worry, Kaia,” she told me. “Emery will be alright.” That evening, Emery came to my house. He stayed here for a few months. “Until his mom gets back on her feet,” my parents told me. I didn’t care. It was like a dream come true. Which is why it confused me when, for those first few days, Emery didn’t stop crying.
When Emery moved back with his mom, he refused to ever talk about what happened. It was a sore spot for him, one that would trigger his temper. The first time that I tried to ask him what had happened, if there was anything that I could do to help, his face reddened with rage. I’d never seen him so upset, so angry, so embarrassed. He told me never to bring it up again. And I never did.
Ever since that day, things felt different. There was a huge part of Emery’s life, his history, that he didn’t want me to be a part of. His shame, his rage, his sadness was palpable. But I couldn’t do anything to help him. He’d decided to shut me out. Even now, I can’t say that it doesn’t kill me inside.
The walls we built all those years ago were still up. I can’t die without knocking them down.
“You know what, I have the perfect idea,” Emery says, reaching for my wrist to hold.
“I’m afraid to ask,” I reply, letting him lead me out of the kitchen.
We round the corner, and keep walking down the hallways. The hallways are narrow, the oak hardwood floors creaking beneath our feet. With each creak, my anxiety spikes. But I’ve never felt so alive.
He opens the door to the basement, and skeptically, I follow him down the dark stairway. He turns on the lights and the entire basement lights up before us.
The first thing I notice when the room is illuminated is the huge TV mounted on the wall. I look over at Emery to share my astonishment with him, but he’s unphased.
“You’ve been here before?” I ask.
“Duh,” he tells me, walking right up to the Blu-Ray disk player. “You think I’ve been here but just skipped the basement?”
I never knew Emery to be like this. I never knew truly how much coming back to this house had meant to him. I try to swallow the hurt in my voice. There isn’t enough time to be upset.
He pulls out a DVD from a stack by the TV. He holds it up to my face. “Remember this?”
I squint, focusing my eyes on the words. “Oh my god,” I say. The nostalgia comes rushing back, and suddenly I feel the same excitement that I did when I was ten. Hotel Transylvania. I smile at this memory, wider than I had in a long time. I wish I could return to that feeling of being ten. Being invincible.
I know I never will. I know that this is just the way the story goes.
We curl up on the Hendersons’ couch, having way too much fun with the recliners.
“You know, I’ve never actually been on a recliner couch before,” Emery says, fumbling with the settings on the remote to turn the movie on.
“No way,” I reply. “Liar.”
He puts one hand on his heart and raises his hand holding the remote above his head. “Truth.”
Even though Emery and I are best friends and have been for most of our lives, there are still little things about him that I never knew. Things that I should know. Things that we should be open about.
I need to say something. I can’t die without saying anything. “Let’s see if the Hendersons have any popcorn.” I grab his hand, hoisting him up.
When we get to the kitchen, I make a weak attempt at sifting through the pantry. I don’t care about the popcorn.
“Em, I just have to ask you,” I start. He looks over at me, anticipating my question. “There are all these things, these little things, I never knew about you. Why?”
He instantly becomes defensive. “What are you talking about?” He turns around quickly. “Is this about the stupid recliner thing?”
I need to know. I can’t leave this now. “I don’t care about that, Emery. I mean, you know, everything with your mom. And this house. Everything that happened,” I say. “You’ll never tell me what’s going on.”
“There are some things that I want to keep private, okay? I’m allowed to keep things to myself, you know,” there is a dangerous edge to his voice.
I will not back down. “Yeah, but that’s little things. This, though? Major life things?” As I keep speaking, I become more comfortable. I’m dying anyway, I say silently to myself. “Seeing you hurt, and feeling like I couldn’t be hurt with you, killed me, Em.”
He softens. I see his shoulders relax and his stance become more comfortable. He sighs. “I know, Kai.”
“Yeah?” I reply, waiting for him to continue.
“Yeah. It’s hard for me, you know. Everything that happened. I don’t like thinking about it. That’s the part of my life that I hate,” he walks over to me and wraps me in a hug. I reciprocate, holding him tightly against me. Holding on for dear life. “You’re the part of my life that I love.”
We stay like this for a minute, and that’s when I realize that I’m crying. It’s not a violent, life ending sob like it was earlier. It’s grief. The pain of knowing that this is all temporary. The pain of the realization that there was all this time that I had wasted.
No do-overs. No retries.
I glance over at the clock, my teary eyes slightly clouding my vision.
I have twenty-one hours and thirty-six minutes left to make up for it. God knows I’ll try.
I release myself from Emery’s embrace and turn to look where he is. Flashes of red and blue fill our eyes.
Emery pulls me so that we’re both out of sight.
“Should we hit the lights?” I whisper, feeling my hands start to shake.
“Too late now. They know someone’s in here,” he says. “Do you trust me?”
I consider this. “Yeah.”
As soon as I say this, we hear a bang on the door. “Voorhees Township Police. Open up!”
We ignore it. “Emery?” I say, desperately. For the first time since this endeavor, I see fear wash across his face.
The commands from the police only become more menacing. I cannot stay here.
He shakes his head, as if to clear it. “There’s a side door across the hall. Follow me.”
Never did I ever think that I would be in the situation where I am fleeing a scene, but here I am. I’m running faster than I’ve ever run in my entire life. My ankles feel like they’re on fire, my lungs aching. Somehow, hours before my death, I feel like I’m actually living.
Thankfully, Emery thought to park further away from the actual house, because there is no way that we would be able to go back now. He fumbles for his keys and unlocks the car. We jump in, eager to get out of there as quickly as possible.
After we are finally driving, I look over at Emery. I’m still breathing heavily from the running, but I feel a smile creep across my face. “Emery,” I say.
He looks at me for a quick second before looking back at the road. “Kaia.”
“Only you would almost get me arrested hours before I…” I start, teasing him. Suddenly it doesn’t feel funny anymore.
I can see that he is shaken. He looks over to me, almost guiltily. “You know what I’m thinking?” Emery says. “I think you should talk to your parents.”
Any ounce of exhaustion that I felt before is gone when he says those words. It feels like I’ve just been punched in the face. I know I have to talk to them. I know that I can’t leave without telling them. I know that I have to say goodbye.
Say goodbye. Those words were like salt in a wound.
I glance at the clock. It’s almost five o’clock. I didn’t realize that we had been there for that long…
I squeeze my eyes shut. I know that telling them this is what is going to make it all become real.
Without thinking twice about it, I dial my mom’s number. I can’t back out today.
She answers on the last ring. “Kai?” she says, her voice thick with sleep. “Is everything okay?”
“No, Mom. I need to see you and Dad. I’m at Emery’s. Can I come over?” I rattle this out as quickly as possible.
I hear her fumbling with something in the background, probably to wake up my dad who could sleep through a hurricane.
“Of course you can,” my mom says cautiously. “We’re waiting for you.”
Without another word, I hang up. There is nothing left to say.
As much as I don’t want to, I need to do this on my own. I convinced Emery to go home and get some sleep.
Before I even insert my key into the lock, Mom opens the door and envelops me in a hug.
“What’s going on, Kai?” she says, leading me into the living room. My dad is already there, his face stricken with worry.
I can’t think twice about this. I don’t have time to think.
I don’t realize that the words have come out of my mouth until I see my mom slide to the floor. Instead of trying to help her back to her feet, Dad lays down beside her.
The ‘weight’ that I’ve heard is meant to lift from your shoulders when you admit something life changing doesn’t come. If anything, I feel heavier. I wish I could go back to five minutes ago when they didn’t know and I could still pretend that this all wasn’t real.
After a minute of not knowing what to do, I lay between them, just the way I used to as a kid. Feeling the warmth of both my parents beside me was always enough to calm me down.
I wait for the familiarity to return. I wait for the nostalgia to take me away from this moment. It doesn’t.
Without a word, Mom hugs me. Dad follows. It doesn’t feel the same. Nothing will ever feel the same.
“Kaia,” my mom says between sobs, holding me tighter and tighter with every second that passes.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I say. “It is what it is.”
I know that I’m not being honest with how calm my voice sounds. Mom knows this. But she lets me fake it.
Mom holds my face in her soft, gentle hand and I immediately melt into it. I feel my eyes droop and my head grow heavier.
Dad lifts me up, holding me in his arms, and carries me to bed. I fall asleep before my head even hits the pillow.
At first, Mom and Dad tried to go through the day as if everything were normal. I could tell that it hurt, that it went against everything their hearts were telling them. I could sense the pain in their eyes everytime they looked my way. They didn’t want to scare me. I was already scared. After they realized this, they took off their masks.
I hadn’t contemplated before what happens after you die. I’ve never been religious. But now, knowing that by the end of the day I will cease to exist, I wonder. When Alia died, my parents and I became closer than ever. We called each other every day and I visited them as often as I could. This fact made everything so much more difficult. We spent the rest of the afternoon going through old pictures and recounting old memories. Just being with them made it all easier.
Mom and Dad invited Emery over for dinner. They didn’t say it, but it was for a final goodbye. I knew this. But I didn’t want to believe it.
I’d asked Mom to make pasta for dinner. It was my favorite meal, and the very first thing I learned how to cook. It was the familiarity that I needed.
I felt my social meter drain as we sat there, mainly in silence. I could tell that no one knew what to say. All that mattered was that we were together.
This is the last thing that I remember before I walk away to my room. I just want to be alone.
I can hear my parents and Emery talking in hushed whispers. I can even hear them cry. I try to shut it all out.
Eventually they come into my room, holding me tightly. I can tell by the way they hold me, that the time is almost near.
“I love you,” Mom says between tears. All I can do is cry. I’m sure that Dad and Emery say it too, but I can’t hear them anymore. I focus on their touch, the heat of their bodies against mine. I take deep breaths.
This may not be fair. But all I can do is hope it won’t be this way forever.
I hope that they recover. That’s all I can do.