The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 17, No. 3

The Not-Needed Forest

by Diane Cook

I am told I am Not-Needed by a man in a suit. This only happens to ten-year-old boys, and only some. My mother cries and cries on the suit, and the man’s face budges not a bit. He says simply, as she is sobby, Ma’am, would you like the State to make a status exception for just your boy?
     Of course, I know this trick from school, but Ma makes grateful saucer eyes and wiggles, Oh, would you?
     So I hold her arm to steady her because it’s clear she’s not ready for his two-punch.
     There are no exceptions from the State.

The next day I put my belongings to the curb, and the Needed boys come for the good toys—my bike, skates, mitt—the things any ten-year-old wants; their mothers search for clothes that fit and are warm, shoes of the right size. My pile is not the only one on the block.
     Birds smother the trees, and to pass the time we throw rocks at them, hover while they sit stunned and blinking on the ground. We don’t mess with them there. Once they rise back up to the branches, we try to hit them again. I stun the same bird three times, which cheers me. It’s a hard game, but I’m good at it.
     At dinner my father swirls his brown drink, looks at my mother with this expression I don’t know. Maybe he can’t settle on a feeling. He shrugs as if to say something.
     My mother throws a spoon at him, yells. I know her look.
     Ma, I cry. It’s no one’s fault.
     My father’s face crumples.
     I say, It’s random.
     Ma says, Oh random, my eye.
     I’ve never seen her so ugly.

In the morning, I board the bus. It’s a solemn ride. We look out the windows at our city disappearing. People on their way to work, girls in pretty dresses lined up outside a school. We hear the hollow huts of boys playing football. Boys we’ll never be. Then we’re speeding by dumps, by corn and cows and silos, reservoirs and fields of tree stumps, new swamps. We drive for hours, and many of us fall asleep.
     We jolt awake at the Processing Hub, dead center in a mud lot of buses coughing darkness, buses full of boys like us.
     I’m draped in a thin paper smock. My shoes are taken. I wait for hours that seem even longer in a line that coils and squeezes itself as we jostle for some last breathing room. Boy after boy, stoic or weepy, slides into the Chute. Here, the Chute is just a hole that makes a sucking noise. But beyond, it’s a long, snaking tube that leads to the Incineration Center. It’s a means to an end.
     At the front of the line, a white-coated processor sits at a cluttered desk, his hair flying up, sucked by the Chute. He holds a clipboard of bulging paper, and when I tell him my name he rustles through the pages and jots the time in a column, ENTERED CHUTE.
     The processor says, Please get in the Chute.
     I remind myself that this is my status, this is just the way things are. I tell myself, You had a nice time; even, Maybe it’s better this way. I allow one last, fun, deep, muscle-straining breath, the kind you take before you dive into the quarry—the breath of being most alive—and I slide into the Chute.

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