Laura was woken by her father; something that he had not done since she was a child. As her thoughts slowly swam back into focus, she was suddenly sure that she had slept naked and he had seen her, but to her relief she was wearing her baby-blue pyjamas. God, what was he doing in here anyway?
“Come on, you,” he said brightly, opening the curtains and letting the sunlight in. Outside, she could hear a lawnmower running, perhaps in the next street, and what could’ve been birdsong. “It’s Button Day, remember? Get dressed, put something nice on. We’re leaving in an hour.”
Laura stirred, her voice groggy. “Dad, what the hell? Couldn’t you just knock? What if I’d slept nude?”
He didn’t look at her, he was too busy admiring his garden from the window. “Oh, you’ve nothing I haven’t seen before. I’m your bloody father, I‘ve wiped your arse many a time before now.”
“Not the point, Dad.“ Squinting, Laura sat up, rubbing her eyes, and remembered what he’d just said.
“Dad, did you just say ‘Button Day’?”
“Well, yeah. What, did you forget?” He laughed as he crossed the room to the door. “You were only talking about it last night.”
“Wait – what?” She frowned, not understanding. Something was wrong here. A fine way to start the day, really. She hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet, and she was already getting weird shit. “What are you talking about?”
He shook his head, still smiling as he left the room. “Get dressed. Breakfast is ready.”
He left her sitting up in bed, holding the covers to her breasts, a look of confusion on her face. Eventually she got out of bed, and began to pull some clothes on that were to hand. Familiar sounds floated up to her from downstairs: pots and pans rattling, the TV on low, the muffled tones of her family talking to each other, a short, harsh laugh – her brother. No doubt laughing at the TV.
She did her zipper on her jeans, and stood for a second before finally saying out loud, “Button Day?”
Downstairs, her mother was washing the dishes, humming to herself. Sunlight filled the room, making it warm and fresh. Her father and brother were sitting at the table, eating toast. There was a plate set for her, and she sat down, pulling it towards her.
Her brother was wearing a crisp white shirt – and he never wore shirts. She doubted that he even owned one. This was one of her father’s, she recognised it.
“What’s with the shirt?” She asked, picking her toast up, and his eyes never left the TV, which was typical of him. A year younger than her at fourteen, he was arrogant and know it all to boot.
“It’s Button Day, isn’t it?” He mumbled through a mouthful of toast, and her mother turned around, and tutted loudly at him.
“Mark, don’t talk with your mouth full.” She saw Laura and sighed. “Laura, you could dress a little better than that. At least make an effort.”
“What for?” Laura said, then looked at the ceiling, irritated. “Oh wait, let me guess. Button Day. Am I missing something here?”
Her mother shook her head, turning back to the dishes. “Don’t be so childish, Laura. It doesn’t suit you. Please make sure you get changed into something else before we leave.”
“I wanted to see Michael today. I’m not going with you, sorry.”
A hush fell over the kitchen as everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her in surprise. Warily, Laura said, “What?”
“Are you crazy?” Her brother asked. “You can’t go out today, you’re coming with us!”
“Laura, you made plans? Today, of all days?” Her father asked, and she pushed back on her chair as a dull anger rose in her.
“Yes, I made plans! What the hell is going on this morning?”
No-one answered her. They were staring at her as if she’d took a crap on her plate. She got up, pushing her plate away. “You know what? Forget it.”
“Laura, stop this, right now,” her mother snapped. “You knew perfectly well what we were doing today. It’s been planned for a long time. Now you can just call Michael and tell him why you’re not seeing him.”
“That’s just it!” Laura yelled. “What do I tell him? I don’t know why I can’t go! It’s just you telling me I can’t!”
“It’s Button Day,” her brother said. “That’s why.”
“Button Day?” She cried. “What the hell are you all talking about? I’ve never heard of Button Day! You’re all acting like-” She suddenly stopped, comprehension dawning on her face. Her family were playing a joke on her. This was all a joke. With a warm rush, a huge weight lifted from her shoulders. Now she understood.
“Very funny, guys,” She said, her voice calm and collected. “You really had me going there.” She turned and left the room, heading for the front door. As she went, her mother called after her, “Laura! Please be back in an hour, we can’t leave without you, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Laura called back. “I wouldn’t want to miss Button Day, would I?”
The short walk to Michael’s house gave Laura enough time to feel guilty about how angry she had gotten with her family. As she’d gotten older, her temper had shortened. She planned on apologising later – she had an hour, right? Wasn’t that what her mother had said?
I wonder where we’re going, Laura thought, watching a plane a few miles above cut a white line across the sky. Or was that a joke too? Was it that they really were going out, and it had been a planned thing, and she had simply forgotten all about it?
She could see Michaels house from here, with the white fence and broad front lawn. She began to jog, eager to see him. As she crossed his driveway the front door opened and Michael came out with a look of shock on his face. He had seen her coming up the street.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Laura asked, and to her dismay he suddenly looked a little angry.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“What, did we fight, and I missed the memo?”
“You told me this was your family’s Button Day,” he said, and there was movement behind him.
Laura blinked, her mouth open in surprise. A blonde girl came to the door, squinting in the light, and slinked her arm around Michael. She was wearing a nightshirt and nothing else, and her hair was tousled.
“Go home,” the blonde said, and Laura backed away, blinking back sudden tears. Michael would not meet her eyes, so she turned and ran.
Her mother caught her just as she was about to run into her bedroom.
She pulled Laura close, holding her as she sobbed. “I know, I know. Let it all out.” She stroked Laura’s hair, rocking her a little. “Men are bastards, aren’t they?”
Laura pulled back to look at her mother, sniffing. “…You know?”
“You’ve just come back from his place in floods of tears. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what happened.”
“He’s got himself a blonde. A blonde! I’ll bet that’s why he wanted me to dye my hair!”
She cried for a little longer, and her mother held her. “There, there. Come on. Let’s get you changed for our trip.”
“…So we are going out?”
“Of course we are, silly! Here we are, this is a nice blouse. Your best, I think. Put this on, I want us looking our best for our Button Day.”
Laura’s stomach rolled lazily. She suddenly remembered Michael mentioning Button Day, too. This wasn’t a joke. This was real. It was all real, and she didn’t have a clue what was happening.
“Mom, listen to me a minute. Something here is very wrong.”
“I know. You really liked him, I know you did. It’s terrible that he’s upset you, on this day, of all days.”
“That’s just it, Mum – I don’t know anything about Button Day. I’ve never heard of it, and since this morning I feel as if I’m the only one who hasn’t the faintest idea what’s going on!”
“Well, to be honest, I’m no expert. I know it was the Governments idea to combat overcrowding, but other than that-”
“No, no. I mean at all. I’ve never heard of it.”
There was an uneasy silence, in which her mother looked at her for a long time. Her mouth was set in a hard line.
When she finally spoke, her voice was calm. “I know you’re upset, so I’ll play along with your little prank, okay? Just get changed – here’s your blouse – and I’ll see you in the car in five minutes, okay? We’re waiting for you.”
Her mother walked away, leaving Laura alone and frightened, her best blouse in her trembling hands.
The next thing she knew, she was in the car. Everything was flowing by in a fluid, carefree motion that made her feel more and more uneasy. What the hell was going on? Why did she not recall anything about this day that everyone was talking about?
She could see everything in absurd detail, slowed down to super slow motion: The fluff on the back of her mothers headrest. A bit of stubble that her fathers razor had missed. A crack in the pavement as they passed. She suddenly felt more lucid than she had ever felt in her whole life, yet she was unable to speak, trapped inside her own body. It was as if she were a puppet, walking on strings made from fear’s own web.
Somewhere deep inside, she was still clinging to an ocean-battered rock of hope, a charred crater of sense that told her that this was all a massive joke, a huge, elaborate hoax. As they pulled up outside the white, box-like building, squat and stern, that hope faded.
“Here we are,” her father said cheerfully, and she felt herself pull the door handle and step out of the car. She stood trembling in the sun like a baby deer, the building bearing down on her as if it had teeth.
Acting as if they were at the seaside, her family got out of the car, chatting animatedly. They set off towards the main entrance, Laura trailing behind. A sign stood over them: GOVERNMENT PROPERTY – KEEP OUT. She saw the security cameras watching them, and hurried after her family, her footsteps flat and dead.
The door to the building was made of glass, and as they pushed through into the clean lobby, Laura saw a receptionist busily typing on a computer. The receptionist looked up with a professional smile at her father as he approached.
“Hi, we’re the Krandalls. Here for our Button Day,” he said, and she smiled.
“Go on through, sir. Just keep walking that way.”
Her father thanked her, and on they went, down a long brightly lit corridor, lined with brass plaques which gleamed. There was something engraved on them all, blocks and blocks of text, and she drew closer as she walked to see what it was. She saw her own reflection looking back at her, and in the harsh fluorescent lights, she looked haggard.
Names. Hundreds and hundreds of names, thousands of names, one after another. Hogg. Wilson. Carpenter. Buxton. Bell. Palmer. Rowe. Brown. The list went on, seemingly endless.
Her family walked on, still chatting as if they were on holiday, and up ahead the corridor was coming to an end.
The corridor opened up into a large, white room. In this room, four small, waist high pillars stood, each with a red button on the top. Beyond them was a long polished desk, with three Government officials seated at it. The Government insignia hung on a huge banner over it all. The room was silent, and sterile.
Laura watched her family each step up to a pillar, watching the officials expectantly, leaving a pillar for her. Her very own button. Trembling, she stepped up to the pillar, only to notice with a jolt that the floor around them all was on a slight incline, angled towards a drain behind that she hadn’t noticed when she had first arrived. One of the officials spoke, his voice echoing in the open space.
“Krandall family. The Government has deemed this to be your Button Day. We thank you for your sacrifice to your country, and to your people. Your names shall join those in the long Hall in your honour.”
“We’re proud,” her father said, and her mother nodded, sincere. Her brother looked as if he were about to weep with pride.
The official continued. “Then please, in your own time, push your buttons. May God be with you all.”
Her father turned to his wife, his son, and his daughter, and smiled. “I’ll go first, to show you how easy it is.” He pushed the button on the pillar, and it depressed with a loud, satisfying click.
As Laura watched, her fathers face turned red, as if he’d been jogging. She remembered how easily flustered he got with exercise, and assumed he’d just walked too fast down the corridor, or something. That was when a crimson teardrop slid down his cheek, and plopped fatly onto the hard, white floor.
Laura watched, frozen, as blood began to pour from her fathers eyes, nose, ears and mouth. It ran down his shirt, over the belt that she had bought him for his birthday, and down his trousers. It splattered onto the floor. All at once, his eyes burst like over-ripe plums and hung on his cheeks, still connected by red strings. Liquefied brain ran from his eye sockets.
As his body crumpled to the floor, her mother and brother looked at each other and smiled, pushing their buttons at the same time. They turned to Laura, holding their hands out, blood seeping from their eyes and noses, tricking from their mouths. They assumed Laura had pushed hers, too.
Laura drew in a breath to scream, but the soft pop of her mothers and brothers eyeballs made it catch in her throat. They fell over backwards, landing on top of each other. Blood was being channelled to the drain, which drank quietly.
All was silent.
Numb, she saw the officials watching her closely.
“Miss Krandell, overpopulation is destroying our towns and cities. Your country needs your action today.”
She stared wide-eyed at the official. To her side, her brothers hand twitched, the last of the nerve impulses fading. Blood was already congealing in his empty eye sockets.
The official was standing up slowly, and she saw that he was a tall man. Taller than most, no doubt.
“Humanity has called,” he said, his voice dropping to almost a whisper. The world had faded away to the button under her fingertips. It was smooth and red. Pushable.
“…Will you answer?”