“A vivid portrayal of the passing of time and a very clever allegory for the way invisible expectations and routines can control us. Beautifully written – you can feel the seconds ticking away as you read, almost like you are the protagonist.” – Marianna Spring, specialist disinformation and social media reporter for BBC News and Orwell Youth Prize judge 2023
The tangy, metallic scent of blood hung thick in the hot air. Somewhere, far away she could hear the rushed shuffling of feet and feel gravel on her cheek. Her head hurt. What time was it? Her eyes searched for her wristwatch, the timer on her bag, the clock in the square, anything. Oh she’d be late. Late late late, the worst thing you can be. Reaching for a fractured pocket watch, her vision went dim.
17 seconds. 16. 15. 14 seconds for her to finish washing her hands and start her next task. Today she was allowed to hum while she worked, providing it did not make her fall behind. She would never fall behind. Sometimes she thought about what would happen if one day she decided to simply… stop. She wondered if that was even possible, if she could bring herself to do it. She, of course, never would. Her watch vibrated against her damp wrist, the timer flicking to the next countdown. Humming an old tune she had heard once in a dream, she made her way to the kitchen to hydrate. Hydration is very important, they explain. Seven times a day you must drink, and seven times a day it appears on the Schedule. Only 40 seconds to get the beverage, only two minutes to drink it. Cool, pure water trickled down her throat. She had been drinking for twelve seconds now. She rested the glass on the countertop, allowing herself a small break, perhaps only a few moments. She would have to gulp down the rest of it afterwards to make the time. Reaching for the half-drunk water, her hand brushed another empty glass next to it. Her precious two minutes seemed to slow as the crystal fell to the floor, shattering into what looked like a thousand different pieces, some flying toward her bare feet and leaving stripes of red leaking onto her hardwood. She knew that it hurt, but was too shocked to feel it. The cup… fell. Her feet were cut, and she would have to clean the floor. She didn’t understand. Her wrist began to buzz, taking her out of her daze. She rushed toward her Schedule lying on the table, only vaguely registering the crunching beneath her feet. Nowhere did it say a glass should fall. Nowhere did it give her time to clean up. Her breathing quickened. What would she do? And now, she was standing in the middle of the room, clutching her Schedule and leaving bloody footprints across her kitchen instead of washing her dishes like it said to do. She- she had to focus. Hard, cold floor. Even, sharp steps of the others outside. The burn of lemon sterilizer and blood in her nostrils. She felt calmer now, clearer. She had to analyze the situation, and find a way to fix it.
‘Now,’ she thought, slow and controlled breaths rattling in and out of her trembling chest, ‘what happened?’ What had happened? She had broken out of the Schedule. Simply put, she had done the impossible. Stolen moments of rogue thought across her life of What if? had finally been answered. A small whimper escaped her lips as her hands fell to her side, her Schedule drifting onto the blood-speckled wood. Her fractured mind began to wander to criminal places, her fingers twitching and itching to break more things, to further stray from their required path. She was… free. It had never even occurred to her that she wasn’t free before. It had been only 1 minute and 32 seconds since before, but she felt the clear divide between the person she was then and the woman she was becoming. Pulling out a chair, she sat. Sat and sat and sat and sat for seven minutes. Nothing had happened. No great earthquake, no fire raining down from the heavens, nothing. Her door had not been broken down by the Keepers, no bullet put through her skull. She was sitting, of her own free will, and faced no consequences. A laugh bubbled up and broke out, and soon she was bent over giggling with tears streaming down her cheeks. She was free! Free! Driven by her newfound elation, she leapt up from the chair and swung open her front door, racing down the stairs and bursting into the street. She ran into the middle of the road, rough stone scraping against the already torn flesh of her feet. The others, hurriedly walking along to their places, spun to look at her but never slowed their pace. A sudden sadness washed over her, seeing the others. They were trapped, controlled by the clocks and the Keepers.
“Stop!” she cried, “Just stop!”
None of them stopped. Frightened glances were the only response she could see. For one hour every three years, the Keepers allowed some families guided freetime. Once, when she was nine, her family had been chosen. Her father had taken her to the beach to see the ocean, a rare thing, he told her. She had been overwhelmed by the size of it, a dark, never-ending expanse. She remembered wandering to the edge of the water where small rings of rocks housed hermits and crabs and small, darting fish. She wondered if they too, were overwhelmed by the size of the sea, scared of its endless waters. She watched those creatures for the whole hour, and for that whole hour they stayed sheltered in their rockpools, not once daring to swim into the ocean.
“Stop!” she called again. “You’re living in rock pools! You’ve forgotten about the sea!” A few more people turned to stare at her, but none paused. She was kneeling on the gravel now, not remembering when she had fallen. Hot tears continued to run down her face. They were all trapped. They had the key, but just didn’t want to unlock the door. A tall, faceless Keeper strode into the square, marching straight toward her. He held a large gun in his hands.
Priya Floura is a junior winner in The Orwell Youth Prize 2023