On Day Forty We Checked Out by Lucy Goldring

To begin with, nobody noticed the pattern. They only noticed that their kids, their older kids, were going missing at an alarming rate. Everyone was alarmed but the parents with missing kids were most alarmed of all. It was an average sized town – a wealthy town – with an average proportion of teenagers. Like everywhere else, the teens were vastly outnumbered by the elderly and infirm. The town could not afford to lose them.

There was no sign of kidnapping. No evidence of online grooming or dodgy older lovers (in any case, ‘taking a lover’ was no longer a thing). No, these apparently average adolescents – averagely self-centred and averagely endowed with the unfogged vision of youth – had simply packed some essentials and slipped away. There was nothing spiteful about it. In fact, the notes left behind said ‘Try not to worry about us’ and ‘You’ll see this is for the best’.

The grown-ups wondered why their children were leaving one at a time, when their words hinted at a common destination. Wasn’t there safety in numbers? On this and related topics, the remaining kids were tight-lipped. They had ‘zero clue’ what was going on and did ‘not appreciate being interrogated’.

But soon, the adults worked out the pattern. A child was disappearing at a rate of every forty days. For a while thereafter, they would anticipate the fortieth day and do what they could, both physically and emotionally, to prevent them from leaving.

It didn’t work.

The kids were communicating via a platform the parents could not locate let alone understand. It may as well have been telepathy. And there was still no discernable logic to who was going missing. Were they being selected from afar? Based on what criteria?

Staying awake all night is harder than you may imagine. Less than half the parents managed it. The rest drifted off, this most fundamental of needs overriding the instinct to watch, to protect – to act.

It wasn’t that the sleepy lot cared less. It was simply that they found it more exhausting. Bone-numbingly, brain-drainingly exhausting. They just weren’t built for it, they explained to their elders. You’re doing it all wrong, the boomers countered, supportively. You care too much.

So on Day Forty eve, most of the teenagers’ guardians nodded off. They nodded off calculating the odds: one in every 4,718; one in every 4,717 and so on. They hoped these figures would keep them conscious. They may as well have counted little fluffy clouds.

Soon, the adults gave up trying to stem the leakage. Every forty days they sat about in listless groups, marinating in red wine and despair. ‘D40’ became something of a bank holiday. After all, people couldn’t be expected to work in the face of such anxiety. Reduced services, reduced business hours, reduced schooling – only the organic community bakery ran as normal. In fact, it extended its opening hours. A bustling team of boomers kept it going round the clock, their sweat and tears salty offerings to whoever/whatever was responsible for stealing their children’s children.

The collective worry of the town played out in unpredictable ways. Parents of all ages developed cravings for sweet pastries in the dead of night. The boomers were only too happy to yank up their flour-encrusted sleeves. Meanwhile, their offspring resumed old drug habits or developed a brattish candour about existing ones. Weekly cocaine binges resulted in bouts of inappropriate optimism. Phat bifters, smoked round disorderly barbeques, inspired a laidback fatalism that was entirely unhelpful. Infidelity rates in the 40-54 age bracket skyrocketed. This was as unexpected as it was exhilarating. The culprits had assumed they were far too knackered for such pursuits.

The word went round that, actually, it was just as likely that your teen would be involved in a car accident as abscond on D40. Apparently, these were odds that the town had already lived with. Most of the parents relaxed but some found their anxiety doubled. Their newfound vehicular angst was infused with a queasy note of guilt for all the years they had let their children travel in cars without due concern. They had failed to perform the necessary rites. Now they owed dozens of backdated prayers or equivalent acts of secular cosmic bargaining. What other rituals had they neglected to perform?

In the before times, they had reassured their kids that, in the bold vernacular of their own youth, ‘things were not fucked’. But then Ship Greta cruised into view and, my, how she sailed.

So they had sympathised. They had wept. They. Had. Separated. Their. Waste.

But, if they were honest, they had avoided discussing ‘the biggies’. And if they were frank, they hadn’t really addressed their main areas of impact. Radical lifestyle change was difficult, wasn’t it? Adjusting one’s holiday parameters was hard. Unless you had aviophobia, which was cheating, obviously.

On day 442, a message spread like wildfire through the parental ecosystem: an exclusive report on the six o’clock news. The kids weren’t dim. They were aware that their olds belonged to the last generation to occasionally sit down and browse the news.

They had used a grainy filter with a sepia tint. The parents, fidgeting with anticipation, could just make out some trees and vegetation in the background. The first to speak was Tilda Anderson. Her mother gasped and held her breath as her father began to weep. Tilda looked tired and grubby but resolute. The first of the procession of absent adolescents, she delivered her line with glacial detachment – with the grace of a poet.

Parents and guardians.  
We know you think you’re trying.
We’re relieved you got over the idea that ‘educating our children is the solution’.
But your focus is all wrong.
We get it. Transition is difficult.
Old habits die hard – no matter the stakes.
Conditions here aren’t comfortable but we have each other.
We have each other’s back.
Know that we are safe. 
Know that we are preparing.
And know that what follows is a list of our non-negotiable demands.

Biography: Lucy Goldring is a Northerner hiding in Bristol, UK. Lucy has a story in Best Microfiction 2022 and will appear in Dr. Tania Hershman’s charity anthology of winning flash. She’s been shortlisted by the National Flash Fiction Day three times and twice selected for their anthology. Twitter: @livingallover Website: livingallover.com

Image: unsplash.com