THE GRADUATION GIFT • by Sheryl Normandeau

Anya’s earworm was malfunctioning.

There could be no other explanation for what she was feeling: she had caught herself several times humming the melody of a tune that wasn’t her graduation song.  Just this morning at breakfast, her fingers had developed an impromptu twitch, tapping out an unfamiliar rhythm on the top of the kitchen table. When her father headed off to his job in the Translation Department, Anya locked herself in the bathroom and sang loudly and raucously to the mirror, the words forming unbidden, the noise in her head crashing out around her. Afterwards, she sat on the cold floor and cried because she had never felt so happy in her life.

She had heard stories of this happening, of course – the implants everyone received at birth didn’t always take, although Anya was pretty sure there had never been a case of a teenager having a defective model. Babies sometimes required surgery to remove the implant and have a new one inserted, but their immature brains could tolerate the stress of the procedure and there were rarely problems with the replacement. Anya wasn’t sure what having her earworm removed would do to her brain. She didn’t think she wanted to find out.

The earworm couldn’t have gone rogue at a worse time. Graduation was two days away and, like all of the members of her class, she was scheduled to perform in front of the Minister and the other heads of State, for a nationally-televised live broadcast. The earworm she had been given at birth had designated her as a singer, and once she was finished school, her job was to join other singers and musicians in performing all of the music required by the State. Celebrations of births, deaths, marriages, political appointments and corporate deals – she would be obligated to sing at them all. The earworm had always given her a voice and told her what to sing, and now, just before the most important day of her life, it seemed to have relinquished control.

Anya boarded the train and headed to practice. She bit her tongue to keep from singing on the platform, and she kept her hands clasped tightly in front of her. On the train, she was careful to sit quietly, although the song that wasn’t her graduation song was roaring in her ears and making her body feel twitchy. She wanted to sing. She wanted to get up and move, grab the hand of the stranger next to her and swing into his arms.

Anya’s friend Peter was waiting in the student lounge for her after she straggled out of the auditorium. He had two cups of coffee in his hand. He passed one to a grateful Anya and flung his scarf over his shoulder. The two of them followed a crowd of chemistry pre-grads in lab coats into the courtyard.  “How was practice?” Peter asked. “You look worried.”

Anya tried to smile. Peter’s implant, a heartmurmur, had designated him as a paramedic.  It would be his job to take care of people in emergencies, but she didn’t think he’d been trained for her particular emergency. The Head of the Music Department, Mme. LaFlamme, had been less than enthusiastic about the way Anya had performed during practice. Anya had not wanted to sing her graduation song, not with that other song filling her, threatening to burst from her seams and bounce off the walls. She had struggled to keep herself together, but Mme. LaFlamme had sensed something was wrong. Anya was terrified that she might soon find herself on a surgeon’s table with her skull spliced open instead of graduating with her friends. And there was something else: she could not bear to lose the earworm now, not after she had felt the rush of the other music. She was convinced that never knowing that joy again would kill her.  “Can I tell you something?” she asked.

Peter listened, wide-eyed but calm. He would need to draw on that stillness when he performed on Graduation Day. He was scheduled to save the life of a volunteer suffering induced cardiac arrest. Failure wasn’t an option for him, but then again, his heartmurmur wasn’t defective. He had completed his training, and he would know what to do when the time came.

“What if it’s not your earworm?” Peter asked when Anya was finished.  “That maybe it’s you – that you’re overriding the implant somehow?”

Anya frowned. “Do you think that’s even possible?” she whispered. But she thought it might be. She had read the histories, knew that her ancestors had made music and art and literature for themselves, not the State. She had been taught that it had all been destroyed in the Purge, long before she was born. But what if she had tapped into it somehow?

“What are you going to do?” Peter asked. “I mean, about Graduation Day and all.”

“I’ll sing,” Anya said. She sounded braver than she felt.

It wasn’t her graduation song that Anya heard in the sudden hush as she stood there before the cameras on Graduation Day, the Minister and the rest of the heads of State seated in the balcony high above her, her father and her classmates and Mme. LaFlamme deep in the bowl of the stadium. She felt her fingers move. She wanted to snap them together, clap her hands, punch out a backbeat for the words she had spun together. But instead she placed them tightly at her sides, smoothing out her satin skirt.

Peter sat with the rest of their class, in the first row. Anya caught his eye. He looked upset, although he had easily rescued his cardiac patient a few minutes earlier.  She knew he was worried for her, and she wanted to tell him he needn’t be: she had thought long and hard about this graduation gift, and she intended to keep it.

Sheryl Normandeau is a Calgary-based writer. She spends an inordinate amount of time at the public library (mostly because she works there). Her work has appeared in several North American publications.

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