Genres: mystery, dark academia, speculative fiction, dystopian, psychological horror.

Rated T(14+): profanity, mentioned abuse, blood, mentioned drugs, violence.

One year.

You're given one year of high school before they ship you off to the Academies. That's one year to prepare you for an experience that some say is just as brutal, if not more, than being sent to war. But you're not meant to shoot down enemy soldiers or fire nukes. You're only required to do three things: study, do your homework, and pass tests. It's the same thing we've been doing since grade school, so why all the fuss?

"Hey, hey, did you ever get one last hookup before graduation?"

Barbara whispered the childish question into my ear, which immediately lit up. I suppressed a giggle as I adjusted the flat cap on my head "Shut up, it's way too late to be worrying about that now."

I had to wear my hair down in order to fit the cap over my head. I didn't like the feeling of my thick, wavy hair brushing against my ears. It felt hot and itchy, which wasn't much better than the bone-chilling frigidity of the cold silk gown and dress. I didn't see the point in wearing my prom dress underneath my gown since no one would see it, but my mom insisted.

Barbara was smart. She wore her hair in a bun and, supposedly, was wearing flannel pajamas under her gown. Though, I doubted her parents would let her get away with that.

"I'm just saying," she chuckled "The chance you'll end up in the same Academy as whoever you're crushing on is pretty slim. You should have been trying to get a date before the semester ended."

Almost everyone did, hence why the last week of April was always called Last Minute Fuck Week. After all, there was always the chance that your significant other wouldn't be able to pass the Academy. Then graduation night really would be the last time you got to see them.

"I think it's better not to have to worry about your sweetheart failing and not being able to leave with them," I said.

Barbara wagged her finger with a knowing smile "Hey, it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all."

"In other words, don't die a virgin?"

Barbara shushed me "Geez, don't set everyone on edge by dropping the d-bomb like that!"

I gave a half apologetic shrug. The last thing any of the graduates wanted to hear tonight were any variant of the word "die". Truth be told, it scared me, too, but this had been going on for so many generations that such a dark ceremony was only a stressful nuisance. Kids were able to have sarcastic conversations about it just like Barbara and I. That's how you create a cultural norm, after all, just laugh about it until it's funny.

The chatter of the students dissipated into murmurs as we noticed the lights dimming. Finally, after what felt like years of sitting on these cold benches, the ceremony could start.

The big, clean television in the front of the room turned on and three adults stood at attention. To the left was our principal, a kind bespectacled woman with a quirky sense of humor that I loved. I remembered how she would take the time to talk to students one-on-one if she saw that they weren't having a good day. She had endless patience, and her smile on the screen mirrored that of a proud mother.

To the right was our Dean, a good-natured family man with countless years of experience with kids. He didn't sugarcoat things, but he wasn't malicious. If anyone needed a life coach it would be him. I could see the glistening remains of tears on his steel eyes. I wondered if he was emotional because he would miss us or because he felt sorry for us.

In between the two adults was the prime minister, himself. I had only ever seen him briefly on TV when he was hosting other graduations. It was almost surreal seeing that pearl white face framed with dusty brown hair. He seemed ageless.

"Good evening, Faraday Clark High School!" he greeted with the voice of a talk show host "It is an absolute treasure to be with you and share this experience. I know your parents are all watching at home, and just like me, I know they are very proud of you."

I felt my cheeks heat up. This was not news to any of us, but being so thoroughly congratulated and complemented still embarrassed me. It was like having your grandma pinch your cheeks and marvel at how much you've grown.

"In fact, the whole country is watching this spectacular moment, the moment you start your future," he said "Now remember what the teachers told you to do: Keep calm, relax your body, and lean back your head hits the cushion…"

And not the floor. I could recite that mantra without even having to think about it, and I really couldn't since that's when the packets of juice that were served earlier started to kick in.

I heard someone say "Damn...they really timed it right on point..."

The room became engulfed in a fuzziness that can only be described as what you see before you fall asleep. One by one, the graduates started to fall. Some managed to fall back against the bench. Some fell against the person next to them.

I remember my graduation hat flopping off as I slipped further away. I reached up to grab it, my dopey state rationalizing that it was a priority, but unconsciousness grabbed me first.