“D47,” the intercom wheezed. “D47,” as if Brian would miss his number after waiting 38 minutes in this khaki dungeon full of malcontents on hard benches. He darted to the counter and sat before a bespectacled government employee.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “I would like a usage license for the question mark and exclamation point please.”
“Are you 15 yet?” she had a voice like a leaf falling to the ground. A big crunchy leaf.
“Yes ma’am, and I’ve passed the aptitude tests.”
“For the question mark and exclamation point?”
“Yes ma’am,” Brian placed his papers on the scratched and stained counter.
“The hashtag license is free, but there is a charge for misuse, the semicolon test is much more difficult than either of these, and quotation marks are only licensed to certified journalists. Do you want any other punctuation usage licenses today?”
“What about emoji?”
“There’s no test for the emoji permit, but the fee is $200.”
“Oh. Well. Just the question mark and exclamation point please.”
“$120, and you have to sign the terms and conditions.”
She dropped two file folders on the desk, Brian flipped to the end and pressed his thumbprint on the signature box. He tapped his card on the payment panel and held his breath until the charge cleared his now worrisomely underfunded account.
“Have a nice day young man, your phone will reprogram and update your access right away.”
Brian said “thank you” and hurried outside into the enthusiastic sunlight while D48 shuffled forward. He watched the progress bar’s glacial movement until the phone restarted. Finally, he thought, after weeks of waiting and saving, I can finally ask her out. His fingers darted over the keys:
—Gabriella, I’ve wanted to ask this for a while. Would you like to go to a party this weekend with me?