I opened the door marked A for Adults. The other choice had been C for Children, but somehow, I suspected that both doors would lead to the same result.
We emerged in a living room straight from a home design magazine. The decor was simple and elegant. An antique chandelier hung from the ceiling. Fitted furniture plastic covered the leather couches, and the carpet was immaculately clean and groomed.
“Come, darling, it’s time to eat,” said Haley, taking my arm. She was dressed in a tasteful cocktail dress, and her reddish curls were collected in a bun at the top of her head. I looked down to find myself dressed in a similarly formal fashion, complete with a suit jacket. She led me out of the living room and into a grand dining room with a wide oak table. There was space enough for ten people, but only four occupied it at the moment: a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl. All four of them resembled each other in a generic way, as if they were four iterations of a clone with brown hair, brown eyes, and placid expressions. The woman―I assumed she was the children’s mother―rose from the table.
“Won’t you sit down? Dinner has just been served. We don’t have company often, so you’ll have to excuse the kids’ lack of table manners.” She laughed nervously and made a helpless gesture. At the table, the two brown-haired children were shoveling the chicken and broccoli on their plates into their mouths by the forkful, barely chewing before swallowing. The girl looked slightly older than the boy, though I guessed that they were both between the ages of ten and thirteen.
“Sure, we’d love to join you,” Haley said sweetly, nudging me forward. Across from the adults sat two plates loaded with salad, cutlery neatly arranged at the edges of the plates. I couldn’t take my eyes off the savage consumption taking place at the kids’ half of the table. They ate as if they hadn’t eaten in months, but they weren’t skinny; quite the opposite, both were chubbier than the average child their age. The girl finished first, slammed her plate on the table, and declared, “I’m done! Can I be excused?”
The boy finished shortly afterward. “Me too! I want to go play on the computer!”
“Yeah, let us go play! Please, Mom! Can we go?”
“If you have finished all your food, you may be excused,” the mother said in a tone that barely disguised her annoyance. The kids vanished from the table, leaving behind their dirty plates and glasses.
“You’ll have to excuse them,” the father explained. “They got a new computer game last week, and now it’s all they want to do. We’ve tried to give them alternatives, but they throw a huge fit, so we figured out years ago that it’s just easier to comply,” he chuckled.
Haley and I sat down at our places at the table. I had lost my appetite, but I politely picked at the broccoli.
“It was so nice of you two to come over! We never have time anymore, especially with the kids,” said the mother.
“Why did you have kids in the first place?” asked Haley.
Leave it to Haley to dive right in with an uncomfortable question. The couple shifted in their chairs and looked at each other.
“You know, we never really thought about it,” said the wife. “I guess we felt incomplete without kids, so when I got pregnant for the first time, we took it as a sign.”
“Besides,” said the husband, “We have to keep the human race alive somehow, right?”
His wife shot him a dirty look. “He’s joking.” She turned to us. “I don’t know. I guess I want to leave something behind, a part of me to survive me when I’m gone.”
“How arrogant. What makes you think that this world would want any more of you? What makes you so special?” Haley’s mocking tone cut like a knife through the air. No one spoke a word. Before the couple could recover from their shock, Haley pressed on. “Everyone believes that they can live through their kids. Well I have a piece of news for you: Your kids aren’t you, and they never will be. For all you know, your son could be the next Hitler. Do you think that his parents would have given birth if they knew what their child would become? They were just like you: clueless animals creating life out of boredom, unaware of the responsibility. I expected better from two educated individuals such as yourselves.”
Stunned silence. Suddenly, the father slammed his fork on the table. “All right, you want the truth?!” he exploded. “We have no idea why we ever decided to have kids! Everything was fine! We both had good jobs, we’d just bought this huge apartment, and we were saving for a new car! I don’t know why we decided to ruin it all!”
“Shut up! You know why!” cried his wife. “We thought that a baby would fix us! Those were our options: divorce, or hope that a child would bring us together―give us a purpose beyond ourselves, something to fill the void in our relationship and our lives.”
Haley said, “So, you created a human life? A whole consciousness equipped to experience fear, anger, pain, and the overwhelming questions of their existence, just because your marriage needed some ‘spicing up’? That has to be the most selfish crime I’ve ever heard of.”
“It didn’t start out that way,” said the mother. “We tried to teach our children how to be responsible members of society. I volunteered all my free hours to help improve our educational system and community. It was all for them―to give them a better chance, a brighter future. From the moment they were born, I knew that it was my responsibility.”
“Yeah, well, a fat load of good that did them,” said her husband. “They’ll live and die in front of that computer. We’ve done nothing except create a couple of robots doomed to enslavement to the commercial and cyber world. And when they grow up and leave us, what then?” He turned to his wife. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll go back to wondering what the hell we’re doing with our lives. Except this time, it will be too late to do anything about it.”
A heavy silence descended. There was nothing more to be said. After what seemed like an eternity, the wife straightened up. “Who wants dessert?” she said, pasting on a fake smile.
“I think your son has something he wants to say to you,” said Haley.
Our heads snapped toward the doorway. The son stood, silently watching. His face showed a mixture of pain and malice.
“You didn’t want me,” he said flatly. His parents looked at each other, then back at the child. He was holding something in his right hand, something black and small.
“James, baby, we’re sorry,” the mother pleaded. “Mommy and Daddy were just kidding. Let’s not throw a fit.”
“Shut up!” James raised his right hand. The woman shrieked.
“Put that down right now, or you’re grounded forever, do you understand?” said the husband, raising his hands in a defensive gesture. Now I could see clearly―it was a pistol, and the barrel was aimed directly at his father’s chest. James’s eyes, which had seemed so innocent before, were now cold and emotionless: the eyes of a convict serving a life sentence.
“I want an answer, Dad. Why did you have me? Tell the truth, or I’ll shoot.” His hand remained steady on the trigger.
Haley chimed in. “If it makes you feel any better, precious darling, your father isn’t the only one responsible for bringing you into this world. No human being alone has this power. You were a product of his momentary boredom, and he foolishly believed he could shape you into whatever he wanted you to be. But look at you now! Holding the power of his life in your hand! I bet your life he didn’t intend for that to happen.”
James’s eyes widened, and I saw a momentary flicker of fear. I couldn’t tell if Haley was trying to defuse the situation or pour more petrol onto the fire. “Mom?” he asked. “Was it true? Did you have me because you had to?”
The woman could not speak without dissolving into loud sobs. “James―I’m―I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ple―Please forgive me.”
Haley laughed. “Come on, you little shit. Pull the trigger. They gave you life without your consent. I’m sure you can take it away without asking for theirs. Look at them. They are the same people who created you as a momentary diversion. They wanted the parental experience. It doesn’t matter that their choice saddles you with around eighty years of life’s struggle, if you’re one of the lucky ones. Go ahead. End them. They don’t deserve to live. End them like you do with the characters in the computer games you play all day long.”
The boy cocked the pistol and aimed. The husband held his wife, whimpering and begging for mercy. It was a horrific scene. I could witness no more. I averted my eyes just as the shot rang out.
I kept my eyes down, not wanting to see whom the boy had decided to execute for their crimes against humanity.
>>> This is a chapter from the book: THE MANUAL: FOR A LIFE THAT CAN STAND THE TEST OF TIME