You fill in the blanks with your best friend’s complete name—written repeatedly over grade school friendship slam books.
Content warning: descriptions and mentions of death and feelings of anxiety
There is no way that you are going to fail this exam; you know—knew—your best friend like the faint lines etched onto your palm. In two hours, you’ll be seated in one of the corporation’s private theatres, watching the highlights of your best friend’s life flash on a shadowed screen. Highlights that the emergency neurologists extracted from your best friend’s dying neurons, bleeding on the hospital bed. Highlights containing hyper-specific details turned into questions printed on the test papers cradled in your hands. Highlights you’re bound to know because you anointed each other “best friend” in third grade and never revoked the title, even though the next few decades were full of rain checks, late replies, and unsent messages. But you have to sit through this exam first—and as your best friend’s mother texted you this morning, every word roped between smiley faces and exclamation points in an attempt to conceal her mourning, certainly pass with flying, soaring, gliding, fluttering, colours.
The test administrator hands you the stapled stack, face-down, and recites a standard monologue: the test is an hour and thirty minutes long. No double-shading the bubbles for true/false or multiple-choice questions. The word-identification questions have a line for each word’s letter. If the word you have in mind is even a letter over or under, it’s incorrect. No extensions. Your test score will be calculated in an hour using the corporation’s automated machines. If you get three-fourths of the test correct, you will be permitted to view your dead best friend’s life reel. At the instructor’s command, you flip the pages to begin answering the assessment. You guide a chewed-through #2 pencil onto the top of the first page. You take a deep breath, and your exhale is a shudder tinged with adrenaline. Each question asks for a piece of your best friend’s biographical information.
Other people dread test taking, but you couldn’t be further from them. Warm tendrils of confidence travel down your spine. The testing room’s clock, grating with its incessant tick-tick-tick, and the faint whir of the air conditioner fade away. You fill in the blanks with your best friend’s complete name—written repeatedly over grade school friendship slam books. Birthdate—memorised to compare each other’s astrological charts. Childhood pet names, postal addresses, summer vacation destinations, dream jobs, favourite meals. Your pencil flies across the pages, leaving your responses in glittering, dark charcoal.
It had taken two days for the news to reach you. That weekend, you shut yourself from the world. Your cellphone: switched off. Your TV: unplugged. Your laptop: installed with software to block non-academic websites. You polished the reference list of your thesis to a shine by Sunday, but the burgeoning triumph melted away when your phone screen illuminated, logging ten missed calls from your best friend’s mother. “We were able to get a life reel,” she gasped when you finally returned her call. “There was just enough time.”
Those words explained everything unsaid. Your best friend had died, but not in the terrible way of paramedics coming to collect a corpse. A life reel signified someone had survived their ordeal long enough to reach the hospital, giving time for the emergency neurologists to catalogue the highlights flicking through the person’s mind before the brain went dead. Life reels were once distributed to grieving family members and partners, but following the explosion of counterfeit life reels, the corporation sealed them behind chambers. Chambers unlockable only after acing a test.
You’re halfway through that very test when your hand stops on the page. Your brows furrow and confusion causes your stomach to clench. The question: Favourite hiking spot.
You didn’t know your best friend hiked. Heart pounding, you mull over the three unfamiliar options—all locations you’ve never heard of—and shade the first one. You’ll return to it later; this was probably something insignificant, added to trip you up.
You move on to the next question, hoping for a restoration of confidence, but your heart maintains its frenetic pace. Most rewatched movie. You know the answer, but it isn’t in the options. Again, you hedge a guess; one of the choices is a title you’re certain your best friend mentioned over a phone call. A thin sheen of sweat begins to coat your forehead. It’s not fear, but frustration—and the feeling trails you through the next few pages.
What was the language your best friend tried to learn in college?
Which partner did your best friend break up with over the phone?
How did your best friend like coffee?
You force yourself to breathe, press your fingertips to your eyelids, and watch the words on the papers swim. When your gaze refocuses, your hope plummets. The questions remain unchanged, and there are still ten more pages to go. The items have become more convoluted and unanswerable.
Unanswerable. The thought shakes you, and you try to push it down, but it coils into a chant that gains speed and traction and power. You flip through the pages, tally the questions you’re sure you’ve answered correctly. At this rate, watching your best friend’s life reel is growing into a dream and fading as a promise.
And, you surmise, you can’t bear to hear the words confirming your failure, delivered in the unfeeling, detached tone of the corporation’s test administrator. We know how much your best friend meant to you, she’d likely begin, her ruby lips pressing into a straight line. But the scores of the reel life assessment do not reflect the intimacy of your relationship. As such, we cannot permit you to — The #2 pencil clatters to the floor, a blank gunshot of surrender.
Later that night, an upbeat chirp pulls you from an uneasy sleep. Your shaky arms scrabble for your cellphone, the solitary bright figure on the sofa, and you squint at the screen. A text from your former friend’s mother reads, innocently, sweetly, lovingly: What did you think of the life reel?
You pause. Think. Then text back: I loved it.