Age: 13, Grade: 9
School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Adam Casdin
Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy
When Erzo was five, his aunt pinched his rosy cheeks and declared that he would trade his happiness for money.
“The child is bursting at the seams with joy. Go about this right, and he could be a goldmine.”
“Gold?” Erzo asked, toddling around. He tugged on the end of his aunt’s ragged dress and grinned cheekily. “Gold! Shiny!”
“Yes, gold.” His aunt smiled, her eyes alight with the prospect of wealth. “Imagine, Isadora,” she turned to her sister, “an actual house, not this dingy hut in the slums. Four walls, a working door. Three meals a day. Money to spare, even, and we’ll finally be able to go on that vacation to the moon you’ve been dreaming of since you were two.”
“But do you reckon it’s right?” Isadora asked. “After all, Erzo’s just a child.”
“Pshaw, he’ll be thanking us for this when he’s older.”
“Well,” Isadora turned to her husband for help.
He only shrugged. “It’s not a bad idea.”
“It’s settled then,” Erzo’s aunt clapped her hands with an air of finality. “The first extraction will be tomorrow.”
When Tanya was five, her uncle examined her closely and shook his head. “There’s something wrong with the child. Her cheeks are too sallow.”
And, with a haughty air of a self-conceited physician, he prescribed her with bottled happiness.
Tanya’s mother tried to explain that she was merely ill, but her uncle would have none of it. He placed an order for a crate of three dozen bottles and a little one-ounce shot glass. Tanya’s mother gave her brother an exasperated look, but seeing as he was the primary provider of their wealth, decided to humor him. Physicians, even quacks, made a lot of money.
A few days later, when the shipment arrived, her mother brought up her reservations once more. “Phius, are you sure this is absolutely necessary? I’ve heard the dreadfullest stories of people getting addicted to this stuff. According to Marion, young Luci Galzine overdosed on it a few months ago. It burned her brain right up.”
“Now, now, Zera,” Phius chided. “Who are you going to listen to, the town gossip or a renowned physician?”
Zera sighed. “I suppose you have a point.”
“Now come here, Tanya,” Phius waved his niece over, pouring a glass full of golden bottled happiness. “Take your medicine like a good little girl.”
Tanya glanced at her mother and took the shot glass shyly, sipping from it. Her eyes lit up and she devoured the rest, licking her lips greedily. “Why, it’s delicious! Might I have more, Uncle?”
Phius laughed, stroking his mustache and looking rather pleased with himself. “Oh, I suppose so. But just this once!”
Tanya giggled, feeling strangely light on her feet. A bubble of anticipation welled up within her as her uncle refilled her glass, ignoring a reprimanding look from his sister.
Later that night, Tanya felt strangely heavy. She shook her head to clear it and decided that she must have had too much excitement that day. Yawning, she dragged herself into bed and fell asleep immediately.
“Come now, Erzo, put down those toys; it’s bedtime.”
“I don’t wanna go to bed! Just leave me ALONE!” Erzo snapped with a stomp of his foot. At his mother’s shocked look, he drew back and burst into tears. “I-I’m sorry, Ma, I d-didn’t mean to–”
Isadora drew the child into her arms, holding him and rocking him gently. “Shh, shh, it’s alright, Erzo. You’ve had a lot of excitement today, that’s all.”
Erzo nodded, wiping his nose on his sleeve. After the extraction, something strange and ugly seemed to have emerged from within him. Erzo didn’t know what it was, but it scared him and made his stomach churn.
After Isadora sang her son a lullaby and ensured he was sound asleep, she slipped out of the hut and caught her sister’s arm. “Gia, do you really think the extractions are healthy for Erzo? He’s been acting a bit… strange today.”
“Well, today was his first time, after all. Let’s wait until his body gets used to the extractions. I’m sure he’ll be perfectly fine then.”
“Are you sure?”
“Remember the moon, Dora. Your son is our golden ticket.”
“But he’s a person,” Isadora pressed, “and he’s only five, besides.”
“Oh, you fret too much.”
And Gia walked back into the hut. Isadora bit her lower lip and followed silently.
In his room, Erzo was curled up in a ball, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
What’s wrong with me? he thought. Why is it so hard to be happy today?
Tanya bounded up the cobblestone walkway in front of her house, her pigtails bouncing on her shoulders. She emitted an almost unnatural glow, and her cheeks were flushed with what seemed to be too much life.
“She’s a strange one,” her elderly neighbor mused to her husband. “You can’t say she’s unhealthy, but there’s something not quite right about it all.”
“How so? She seems a lively enough child to me.”
“It just… it comes across as so forced.”
Tanya swung the bright red door open and hopped inside, suddenly breathing hard as she leaned against the wall, sliding down. Black dots swam in her vision, and she grasped for another shot of bottled happiness. Her hand met her uncle’s instead, and she glared at him petulantly.
“Now, now, Tanya, you’ve had five today. It’s not very safe to have more.”
“But I want to be happy again.”
“I’m sure you can do that without the help of bottled happiness.”
“No. I can’t.”
But her uncle was already walking away, taking the half-empty bottle with him. Tanya pouted, her head pounding as she made her way to her bedroom for a power nap.
Gosh, why was she so tired and moody all of a sudden? Just a minute ago she’d been feeling perfectly fine.
It’s all Uncle’s fault, she thought, and I hate him for it.
With a groan, the ten year old fell onto her bed, clutching her head and sniffling with tears.
I’m miserable and it’s all his fault.
“Erzo? Are you feeling alright?”
The ten year old heard his mother’s worried questions but, slumped on the floor, he couldn’t find it in himself to respond.
The door to his room (they’d moved out of their hut and now had fully functioning doors) cracked open, and Isadora peeked in.
“Erzo!” She rushed to her son’s side, propping him up. Despite the extra food and nutrition they now had, Erzo was still stick thin, his cheekbones too gaunt and eyes too hollow. Isadora almost wanted to stop the extractions, but at this point they were relying on them to pay for everything they had.
And besides, she still dreamed of going to the moon.
“Ma…” he croaked, sagging into her. “I’m so… tired.”
“You had a lot taken outta you today. I’d be surprised if you weren’t tired.” Isadora offered a gentle smile and wrapped her arms around him. He didn’t react, and Isadora found herself wondering where that grinning little boy had gone. “Let’s put you to bed, okay?”
Erzo nodded, letting his mother carry him to bed, tuck him in, and kiss him goodnight.
Later that night, a terrified scream jolted Isadora from her sleep. Panicked, she sprinted to Erzo’s room and found him crumpled on the floor, curling up into himself and spasming violently. She ran to his side, holding him and running her soothing hands down his trembling spine. As she pressed him to her chest, she didn’t see the haunted expression in his eyes. It was the same fear in the eyes of a aerabird, caught in the sharp light of a spacecraft just before the metal tore its fragile body apart.
Erzo’s voice was so small, trembling with sobs. He heaved dryly, his hands digging into the soft carpet. His stomach turned at the sensation.
“Ma-” his voice broke, “why is it so scary to fall asleep?”
“Announcement. Announcement. The planet’s attention is required. Announcement. Announcement.”
Tanya listened. It had to be important to be broadcasted directly into civilians’ homes like this.
“Announcement. The production of bottled happiness has been banned. All extractions and consumption must stop at once. I repeat. The production of bottled happiness has been banned. All extractions and consumtion must stop at once.”
Sheer panic tore through Tanya. She took an instinctive swig from the bottle in her right hand–she had long since given up the tiny shot glass, which no longer had any effect on her level of happiness. The long gulp calmed her slightly.
The timing for the announcement couldn’t have been worse. They were running out of bottled happiness–there were only two crates left in the basement. Seized with a sudden fear, Tanya threw open the door to the basement, yanking the lever so hard it nearly came out. The conveyor belt began to move, and Tanya breathed a sigh of relief when two unopened crates of bottled happiness moved up the ramp. Taking another swig for a boost of energy, she hauled the crates into her room. Tanya drowned the rest of the bottle in her hand, a familiar tingle running through her body, and tossed it aside, where it clinked against the other bottles littering the floor and rolled into a corner. Her face was flushed, and she absentmindedly fanned herself.
Tanya was tearing open the first crate when voices came drifting down her hallway, towards her closed door.
“…the president’s daughter? Apparently she overdosed on bottled happiness and now they’re banning it everywhere.” Uncle Phius’s tone was condemnatory.
“What’s Tanya going to do?” Her mother sounded worried. “She’ll be incredibly ill without it!”
Phius opened Tanya’s bedroom door, jolting back in surprise at the sight of his niece on the ground, tearing open a crate. She looked back, and alarm shot through Phius at her crazed eyes.
“Uncle Phius!” she gasped, throwing herself at his feet. “Th-they’re banning bottled happiness and-and-”
Suddenly, her hands were clawing at her chest. She looked around, panicked, struggling to draw in breath.
“Tanya!” Phius bent down, stroking her back soothingly. “Breathe. Breathe. In through your mouth, out through your nose.”
“I-I’m trying, b-but it’s not working!” she cried desperately, tears streaking down her cheeks.
Tanya’s mother knelt on her other side, looking as if she too were about to break down.
Oxygen. Tanya needed oxygen, and she knew that as she tried again to draw in a breath. Oxygen.
But more than that, her brain whispered, more than oxygen, you need bottled happiness.
Tanya grabbed a bottle and took a swig.
Her breathing calmed.
Erzo stumbled into the all too familiar room, letting his body fall limply into the metal chair. Metal bars automatically shot out, binding his limbs and torso to the chair. He let his head loll to the side, catching a glimpse of his mother’s worried face through the opaque glass. She was always worried nowadays, even though they were richer than they’d ever been.
He was dimly aware of the electric blue lights shining in the walls, shooting out the beams of radiation that took away Erzo’s happiness. His head was foggy, and if he hadn’t been bled dry of tears, he’d be crying. He was always crying nowadays, silent tears flooding down until they ran out. He didn’t notice them anymore, and besides, it took too much energy to reach up and wipe them away. So he just let them fall, sliding down his pale, pale cheeks.
Erzo’s body spasmed once, his bare chest slamming into the restraints hard enough to bruise before falling back. He felt something wet on his collarbone. He must’ve been crying again. The metal bars slid away.
Move, a small voice in his mind whispered, but Erzo’s body didn’t respond.
Come on, move.
“Extraction finished. Subject may leave the room.”
That’s your sign to leave.
Erzo blinked, his eyelids moving sluggishly, before using all his energy to push himself upright. He lurched forward, not feeling the cold stone floor under his bare feet. Not feeling anything.
The floor was getting closer. And now he felt it, and he felt it all over. Everything was tingling, a dead cold spreading throughout his body. There was something reddish, too, but not completely red. It was inching away from him, staining the stone.
He felt something warm on his back. It was a familiar warmth, but Erzo couldn’t move in response.
“…zo …se Er… p…” a voice was fading in and out. He couldn’t make out the words. Was he supposed to know what it was saying?
He was just so tired.
“Announce… ent… net… requir…”
There was a voice, and Erzo couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be coming from the walls, from the ceiling, from all around him.
“The prod… happ… been ban… extractions… mus… nce.”
What was it saying?
Tanya was burning up. Some rational part of her told her that she should be saving the rest of the bottled happiness, spreading it out through the next few weeks, months even, to get as much out of it as possible.
But she couldn’t. In the span of a day, she’d gone through all but three bottles, which were now resting on her bedside table. Tanya lay in bed, her whole body flushed and warm. Tingles and pops were running through her bones, coursing through her veins and trying to force themselves into her already overloaded brain.
Tanya took another swig of bottled happiness, praying to feel that familiar life spreading through her. That feeling like she could fly. Where was it?
Another long gulp. The bottle fell to the ground. Two left.
Her hands, moving on their own, opened another bottle. Into her mouth it went.
Last bottle. Her hands trembled so violently it took her three tries to get it open. And by that time her breath was quickening again. Her chest ached with lack of oxygen.
The life-saving serum went in, and Tanya could breathe again.
Half empty now.
Three-quarters of the way.
One last gulp, and the bottle was empty. Just like all the others. Tanya tipped it upside down, hoping to get one last drop out, but it was bone dry.
Her hand convulsed, and the bottle fell onto the floor with the others, shattering into a million pieces. Tanya lay in bed and, as her brain overloaded–was it bursting into flames?–she felt completely, absolutely wretched.
It was bottled happiness, wasn’t it?
Then why the hell wasn’t Tanya happy as she died?
Erzo was cold. Freezing. His whole body trembled. It was like all the life had been leached out of him. He lay in bed, blurry faces swimming above him.
Something warm was holding his hand. What was it?
It squeezed. A voice, broken sounding, whispered. “I’m so sorry, Erzo.”
It took all of his strength to turn his head to the side. His eyes, wide and sunken, focused on his mother’s face.
“My baby,” she breathed.
Erzo felt something fall onto his face. A tear. Whose tear was it? He didn’t know anymore.
“Ma…” his eyes found his mother’s once more. Desperate tears shone in them. He reached for a distant memory. Something smeared with dirt and outlined by a dingy hut in the slums.
It slipped from between his fingers.
And Erzo had never felt so lifeless. So numb. So broken. So… lost.
Happiness. He heard it all the time, the three syllables that had come to equate riches he’d never asked for, never wanted. Was it what he was missing?
He didn’t know anymore.
What does it mean to be happy?