The Process of Elimination: Jerome Berglund

Jerome Berglund

Eli felt he had to acknowledge, as he trudged back in from retrieving their mail out of the box at the end of their winding driveway, that there was something celebratory about the mood of this new affair.  He stomped his boots on the mat to shake the remaining wet, sticky snow off them, brushed his coat with a few quick whacks to jostle the bits of still falling fluff which had accumulated over the course of his momentary sojourn, and set the parcels in an orderly pile upon the side table by the entryway while he unlaced his boots.  Eli could not bring himself to look at his feet, for his gaze was still locked on the stack, which alongside the usual bills, solicitations, junk advertisements and coupons, contained four discreet, coffee colored cardboard boxes.

            One for he, his parents and his sister, and in fact for a change early on this Sunday morning the entirety of them were all up and at ’em, dressed and scattered nonchalantly about the downstairs doing their utmost to pretend airs of casual normalcy.  Eli’s father sat at the kitchen table with his espresso and a biscotti, filling in a Sudoku.  Mum was on the couch leafing through the latest gossip magazine.  His younger sister was sprawled out across the carpet before their large television, restlessly surfing through the channels one by one, clicking the remote control every few seconds like a steadily ticking metronome. 

They weren’t entirely absorbed in their businesses though, for all had seen the postman pass by, and been staring out the window fixedly for an interminable period afterwards until Eli at last could take the suspense no further and bundled up to investigate. 

            Were this an average, ordinary weekend day his dad would have been the one to fetch the mail from outside, at his leisure when he’d had his caffeine and bowl of fruit salad and gotten around to it.  But it was a singular morning, and Eli had proved unable to contain himself or put the task off any longer, for who could blame him?  Indeed, while no one had mentioned the significance of this day and those extreme consequences it might augur, each member of the household despite their best attempts to convey coolness and indifference, upon close scrutiny was perceptibly on edge to varying degrees. 

Wordlessly, Eli distributed the packages to each person in his family, who received them with different reactions.  His sibling accepted hers automatically, attention remaining on the screen, setting it aside without any obvious concern.  Whether that conveyed her true feelings or was a response feigned for the rest of their benefits remained to be seen.  It would certainly not be unreasonable if she were in shock about the whole situation, unsure of how best to cope with things, inclined to flee her responsibility wrapped up within that packet, rather than—as some others would—perceive in the contents armament or shield with which to charge into battling. 

There were in fact a great many who upon hearing of the initiative had proclaimed volubly their intention to boycott, not participate in the entire adventure, and that was also an option of course, they were well within their rights to do so.  Still, no one would know whether they stuck to their guns or not, and from a self-preservation standpoint that alternative was not without its disadvantages, could produce imprudent and undesirable results if not played just right.  Eli had considered this possibility long and hard, might in fact determine it to be the best strategy, a caution to err on the side of.  It would all depend on how things played out here, now, today, within their particular microcosm of society, on this orderly suburban game board they had been cast against their ostensive wills and bidden to vie for survival upon.

Eli’s dad looked the box he’d been handed over gravely, but also did not immediately open it.  He did, however, after scrutinizing the thing turn his eyes up meaningfully at his son’s and stare into them long and hard.  What was he communicating with that glance, Eli wondered? Was there fear in those baby blues, accusation, hate?  Eli met the gaze unabashed, without expression or emotional coloration, did his best to effect an obscured cipher, the dark sunglasses Saudi card sharks wore to a poker tables.  Indeed, in truth he was not entirely sure precisely how he felt, should feel, and was hoping each of these interactions might help him better interpret and discern that in some unclear way.

Their mother, conversely, opened hers directly with a steak knife, removed the contents and spread them laid out across the tiles of their recently refinished ceramic countertop.  She glared down at each component with a distinct loathing, like a vile intruder gained entrance to the home, breaching their sanctuary and bringing disease and danger to shatter existing calm with the interloping. His mom remained frozen there, never taking her eyes from that payload, as though it were a rattlesnake she had cornered with difficulty, and must keep tabs on lest the grotesque creature slither away and become hidden somewhere about the property to commit mischief.  As the rest of Eli’s family drifted off to the privacy of their own customary spaces, only she remained there trembling, panting rapidly in short, shallow breaths.  From the frame at border of his bedroom her son appraised this matriarch one last time before gently closing the door and bolting it behind him.

Like a child with uncontained excitement he tossed the box onto his pillow and dove backwards, bounced upon the soft bed.  It was early March, but through the window he noted colorful lights were still up in full blinking display, and he thought he could just barely pick up a smattering of holiday music blasting from a stereo somewhere on their block.  And in actuality there was certainly something akin to Christmas morning in the air, his flurry of nervous exhilaration as Eli tore open the covering and rifled through its contents.  They were unusual, but not extraordinarily exceptional if one did not comprehensively appreciate their import.

The package contained one ostraka, a piece of shattered earthenware encased delicately in bubble wrap, along with a permanent marker to draw upon it with.  Accompanying the unusual cargo was a short, legibly worded set of instructions—relayed simultaneously in the eight languages most common spoken throughout the city, organized in descending order of relevance—outlining the intended usage for anyone living in a cave who had been superstitiously avoiding their television, radio, newspapers, every channel of which had been positively roiling with discussion and debate about this initiative in the months preceding its implementation, nitpicking and dissecting every possible nuance and detail, moral implication and philosophic ramification, haranguing and disputing the most judicious and advisable approach each participant should pursue depending upon their unique circumstances. 

The official government communique furthermore directed citizens interested in learning more to review a series of didactic videos posted online several places, and if they needed additional directions, a translator to clarify this or that, or just general counseling and support there were operators standing by phone lines ready to assist them 24 hours a day.  Eli almost considered giving one of their operators a ring, half on a larf, but decided against it, being undesirous of monopolizing their limited resources for purposes frivolous, for at bottom this was no laughing matter, he reminded himself had to be taken very seriously.

The brainchild had come about obscurely, with no one willing to take credit for its inspiration for understandable reasons, following the prolonged spate of plagues, when ruling authorities had taken note of what a boon the widespread mortality had made turning around the environment—not to mention tightening their collective, administrative belts, mitigating strapped overextending of programs and the hemorrhaging apparent on practically insolvent bottom lines—reducing carbon footprints and getting the planet back on track from the brink of destruction they had been so long skirting.  The most renowned scientists sheepishly came crawling out of the woodwork to admit they previously had thus far given up all hope essentially, in ever achieving a sustainable equilibrium for the species, been counting on mankind’s imminent collapse and eventual destruction via wars, famines, and climate induced natural disasters within the decade, but all the population reduction was suddenly working absolute wonders for reducing consumption, waste, and maximizing effective resource utilization.   

But the population controlling had still not gone far enough, experts explained apologetically.  Optimally if humans desired to remain on their planet, and circumvent devastation and Armageddon, each nation would positively need, have no choice but to reduce their populations by between a quarter and a third.  That would mean making some tough judgment calls for the greater good. 

This current enterprise was based on the popular practice of ostracism observed annually with great success during ancient times in Athens, whereby through democratic means a public figure would be voted by the masses into exile from the city.  In this present case, three votes could secure a person’s banishing from their own proverbial islands, as one might maneuver in a tropical reality program.  Unsurprisingly, this was contemporarily to be employed responsibly, and might only be orchestrated within strict parameters and among a specific, controlled sampling and demographic.  For the first trial run, they were instructed to confine their selections within two degrees of biological separation, that was to say only the immediate nuclear family (siblings, parents, children) and those closely extended (aunts and uncles, grandparents).  Cousins were three jumps apart on the family tree, and thus proved ineligible for picking, jotting their names on the shard and dropping it back in the mail slot.  Which was unfortunate, because that would have been the simplest, most unobtrusive option, the easy one everyone presumably would have then taken leaving distant relatives the world over quite imperiled.  But no, unless one was going to boycott the entire procedure—and some would, surely—they must be forced to choose someone near and dear to them, at least genetically. 

Eli wondered what his own fam were planning.  They had not discussed anything at length or even passingly, foreseeably well may not before or after casting their votes (or abstaining).  On the shows with survival competitions, people plotted and schemed, formed alliances, enacted betrayals, got embroiled in all sorts of disgraceful tomfoolery.  Eli was disgusted and somewhat intimidated by the prospect of such obligations necessitating, even if they could mean the difference between life and death for him. 

There was also the unconventional option of writing one’s own name on their piece of jar, taking the mandated bullet, being selfless and making a noble sacrifice.  That was a great opportunity, a lot had been said and made about those electing to pursue the laudable avenue.  Specific incentives and rewards were in place should persons be willing to accept one for the team, it was universally understood. 

Grandparents were the safest bets, it had been alleged, had lived longest and could demonstrate possessing the least to lose—in terms of time and potential opportunities predictable.  But they could also turn things around on then, out of spite should any suspect their own culling was being premeditated.  Parents also had financial incentives, to alleviate costs by eliminating children or expedite inheritances by knocking off their own folks.  Sibling rivalries might be settled with some collaboration and cooperating.  Beleaguered spouses finally had a concrete way out offered to them.  Where personal interests and urgent jeopardy were at play people theoretically might find themselves agreeing to all sorts of compromises, should they be deemed the lesser evil available to them on the table.  Many moving parts and considerations were undoubtedly at play in each case, and merited thoughtful reflection in the twenty-four hours they were allotted to make their decisions and return the ballots.

Eli could hear the rest of his family about the house, engaged with various things presumably to take their mind off making their hard decisions, however they elected to vote.  His father was grinding coffee, his mother listening to salsa music now—pulling out tools and products in preparation for a deep clean—and his sister was tucked away somewhere whispering intensely into her cellular phone.  Eli dressed again and strode out across the yard to their detached garage, with a mind to channel his surging anxiety into a sound throttling upon a hard bag hanging up in the shadowy corner there. 

He neglected the gloves today, nor did he powder his knuckles or wrap his wrists, for the pain of the scratchy leather on his skin was just what the boy felt he needed to distract him from the task at hand momentarily.  And indeed, he thoroughly lost himself briefly for a wonderful hiatus of not having to think or make decisions, until he at last ran out of steam and had to stop, hands bleeding, the material speckled with dozens of sticky black marks that resembled measles.  Hands on his knees, gasping and wheezing, Eli at last came back to his senses.  The epiphany which accompanied was not dramatic or stagey, but his eyes did flash for just an instant with clarity and intent.  He lifted the ostraka from the tool bench, made an inscription on it, and slid the thing back in his pocket.  They were directed to either mail them in for transportation, or to hand deliver themselves, to their city’s Covid monument at the center of town square, where officials would be collecting and tabulating their results.  Eli was not sure which was preferable, he would ultimately opt for.

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