Chapter 5 – The Heat of the Moment

I pushed through the narrow, dank passages. Released from the confining braids, my hair pulled away from my scalp on a rush of wind created by speed. The utility corridors that ran below the complex, outside the walls of the 14th floor, were off-limits to everyone but staff. So of course, every senior class had found a way to sneak in and party. The heat was almost unbearable, but it was the only place I knew I could be completely alone. Everyone else was preparing for the graduation party. Our last hurrah before our move into adulthood.

This was our defining moment, and, as was tradition, there was going to be a huge party in our honour. Tomorrow, several days of placement shuffles would begin. But tonight, everyone would party at our first legally sanctioned shindig. For everyone else that meant making sure they looked their absolute best. For me, that meant no one would be expecting to talk to me for at least another two hours.

After telling my parents I wanted to work off some of the ‘excitement’ of the day, I’d snuck into an empty service elevator that would take me down to the 14th floor. We weren’t supposed to associate with the low level kids outside of school. Unlike the dating and partying rule, this was a rule few of us broke. Sure, I knew the kids, how could I not, I’d been in the same classes with them since I was a 3, but I’d never really associated with any of them. Upper level students were never partnered with lower level students. For anything. Not work. Not school. Definitely not relationships. This was just the way it was.

As soon as the elevator doors opened, the air that hit my face was noticeably warmer than the upper levels. Not uncomfortably so, but enough to make a bead of sweat jump to attention on my forehead. I’d hurried through the empty hallway to a small side hallway with a large, silver cylinder running up into the floor above. I had no idea what it was for, but it wasn’t tight against the wall and some of the cinder blocks around its base had eroded away. The space seemed like nothing, definitely not big enough that the community would worry about fixing it, especially not down here. But sometimes being tiny came in handy. Sliding my skates in first, I shimmied my body through the gap. Even at my size, the broken wall still scraped against my back.

The heat slapped me like a wall as soon as I passed into the utility corridor. Temperature control in here was basically non-existent. Air circulation was kept only high enough to ensure that the workers didn’t pass out. The sweat that had started to form on my skin in the living quarters now ran freely along my hairline. It took seconds to put on my skates and push myself into the thick, cloying air. The torrent of thoughts running through my mind, well, that took longer to sort through.

The one thing I’d dreaded the most had finally happened and there was no recourse. So, as Winslow suggested, I was just going to have to suck it up and deal. Losing Shauvon was a blow, but at least I got to keep Riley. And then there was Jeremy. Anger drove me faster down the hall. Leaning into a turn, my fingers skipped across the smooth painted concrete of the floor. Why did Jeremy have to get a place in continuance? Why couldn’t I just be rid of his annoying, non-hint-taking ass? What could they possibly see in his genes that they would want to pass on to a new generation?

As much as all that stuff was bothering me, it wasn’t what was bothering the most. There was one thing that got to me even more: losing my virginity to someone I didn’t chose. Someone I had no history with. Someone I would only meet because it was my communal duty to purify. That was the person I was going to give my body to. Even if I was attracted to whoever he was, I hated the way I was being forced into it. I felt my stomach heave. Acid burned in my throat.

With a screech of my wheels, I jarred to a stop just in time to empty my stomachful of celebration cake onto the floor. With a hand against the wall, I stabilized myself and wiped sticky spit from my mouth with the back of my other hand. Taking a deep breath, I pushed back away from the wall, and looked around for something to clean up the mess. For the conveniently located button that would summon janitorial staff and clean towels. But there was nothing down here. Nothing to remind me of the comfort I’d always known. That was the point of coming down here. Why I had chosen here to hide.

I pulled at the hem of my shirt, wiped it against my mouth, and skated back the way I’d come. The hot air now pressed into my skin. Constricting. Oppressive. My stomach threatened to revolt again.

At the entrance, I sank to the floor. My head strained toward the slightly cooler air fluttering through the small opening. I had to sit there for a few minutes to make sure squeezing through the hole wasn’t going to make me sick again. Vomiting while stuck between aluminum and cinder block struck me as about the worst idea of the day. And that was really saying something.

I finally wedged myself back through the opening and swung my skates over my shoulder instead of putting them back on. I needed solid ground right now. I was about to step into the main hallway when footsteps sounded much too close for comfort. Glancing cautiously around the corner, I saw what I already knew, someone was headed my way. There was nowhere to go except back into the corridor, and I didn’t have time to shimmy through again. I pushed back against the wall and hoped whoever it was wouldn’t look in this direction. No such luck.

“Jerrica?” His voice was smooth, comforting, like when you played your fingers through the mist of a humidifier.

“Cole.” My breath rushed from my chest. The hint of recent vomit made me inhale sharply so he wouldn’t notice. Cole was a guilty pleasure. Completely adorable. Super smart. It was unfortunate he was a bottom dweller.

“What are you doing down here? Especially tonight.”

“Skating.” I jerked my head towards the tunnel. His eyes shifted from the opening to me and back.

“There is no way a person could fit through that hole.”

“You discovered my super secret power. I can walk through walls.” I smiled for the first time in hours.

“Jerr, if you can wedge your way through that hole, you must have super secret powers.” He shook his head. “A little freaked about your placement?”

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“I’m pacing the halls cause I’m completely freaked about mine. I thought you might be doing the same thing.” He glanced behind him to make sure the hallway was still empty. “You got a few minutes?”

I nodded and followed him. Cole stopped at a door ten feet down the hall. Instead of activating the scanner, he wound a wheel on the wall and the panels of the door spilt to open. The process took much longer than the scanner activation of the upper levels. We stepped into a tiny apartment, the sitting room smaller than my bedroom. The rooms were silent except for a dull thwomping coming from behind the walls. I had no idea what the source was, but I would go crazy if I had to listen to it all the time.

“So, this is your house?” I looked at the colorful but worn blankets thrown over the back of the battered couch. Piles of pillows and blankets littered the floor in front of the small video screen.

“Nope. You know Frances Mark in sixteenth?”

“I think so. He’s got kind of giant ears, right?”

He chuckled, “Yeah, that’s him.” Sliding down onto the couch, he waved for me to take a seat. “His parents and a bunch of the older kids are part of the set up committee for tonight’s party. The younger kids have been farmed out to other families until they’re done.”

“And you just let yourself in? Where was the lock scanner?” The locks activated with a palm scan, only suite residents could access a unit. There was no way around it. Riley and I had tried several times.

“Unlike the lux, we don’t have scanners.”

“The lux?” I raised an eyebrow.

“You think we don’t know you call us dwellers? We have names for you too. That’s one of the nicer ones.”

“Mmmm, hmmm.” I started to think about what the other names might be, but decided it was probably better not to. “If you don’t have scanners, how do you unlock the door?”

“Old fashioned keys. These doors don’t autolock like your fancypants ones upstairs. In fact, most of us never even lock the doors.” He flipped a long metal key through his fingers and hid it away in one fluid motion. “Frances and I have been friends since we were kids. Our homes are basically interchangeable. Besides, my family has a spare key in case of emergency.”

“And this counts as an emergency?”

“If you’d seen your face, yeah, it kind of does.”

“Oh,” I stared into my lap, unsure what else to say.

“You got a continuance placement didn’t you?”

“Yup.” I took a deep breath, my mouth still felt kind of pasty. At this moment, there was nothing I wanted more than a toothbrush. “And this is where you tell me to stop pouting about getting an amazing placement. The cream of the cream. What everyone wants. I have nothing to complain about.”

“Yeah, no.” He scratched his eyebrow distractedly, “I know exactly how you feel.”

“How can you possibly know how I feel?” I shook my head at his presumption. His silence made me look up. A hurt expression covered his face. “I’m sorry, Cole. But dwellers, I mean, you know, shit… stop me, please.” I felt the words tumble over my lips. I seemed to have no control of my mouth today.

“But people that live below the 9th floor aren’t given continuance placements. We’re just left to pop out babies at will to supply cheap labour for the uppers?”

“Yeah, something like that.” I mumbled, embarrassed. “I know it’s degrading and whatever, but at least you get to pick your own partner. You’re allowed to find someone you love and have children. Or not have them, depending on if you want them.”

“As long as that person lives in the appropriate four floor radius and isn’t related to you. Well, you hope they’re not related to you. We don’t get official records or anything.”

“But at least it’s some form of freedom.”

“It is what it is. And don’t fool yourself into thinking we don’t have to have kids.” He clenched his lips tightly. “You’re given your lot in life and you make the best of it. It’s what I’ve grown up knowing. I was hoping that I would at least get a management position. I know I’m smart, and I can do more than menial labour. I’ve busted my ass since I started to understand how the system worked just to see if they would place me in a position I deserved. Maybe, if I was really, really lucky, they would place me on the 9th floor and I could try to work my way out of this life.” His voice was thick, edged with something I couldn’t place.

“That almost never happens, Cole. You can’t be too down that they didn’t do that.” My hand reached across the couch and squeezed his before I even realized what I was doing. “It’s unfair, but it is what it is.”

“Exactly! I knew it was a long shot. So, imagine my surprise when I went into my placement this afternoon and they told me they were making an exception and I was being given continuance.”

“What?” My head snapped up to look at him. “You’re being moved to the continuance program? How? What? How?”

“I know! Well, technically, I don’t know, but you know what I mean.”

“I may actually need a schematic to find my way through that sentence.” We chuckled together. “It’s a little weird, but knowing that you’ll be there almost makes this a little easier for me.”

“It’s not like we were friends or anything, but…” He shrugged.

“If we’d been allowed to, we might have been.”

He nodded, a smile pulled up one corner of his mouth, “I’m not allowed to tell anyone about my placement. It’s going to be a whole subterfuge thing, throw me on the bus at the last second kind of thing. They don’t want the news getting out and people getting into a tizzy, and trying to overturn the decision. Besides, people down here wouldn’t take too kindly to me getting this snooty placement anyway. So, mum’s the word. Got it?” He brought a finger to his lips and grinned before his eyes flicked towards the time panel above the door. “I should probably start thinking about getting ready. The banquet is in an hour.”

“Shit.” I twisted my neck to release some tension. “Can you check the hallway for me?”

A few minutes later, I was inside the elevator on the long way up to the fifth floor. I thought about what Cole had said. On the upper floors, continuance was honoured, cherished even. But for Cole, it wasn’t a blessing, it was something to be hidden. For the first time, I actually understood the difference a couple of floors could make.

Chapter 4 – Hard Choices and Handshakes

“Jerr-Bear!” Shauvon flopped onto the couch beside me. The excitement radiating from her was almost tangible. Two hours had passed since the assignment period started. Over half of the class had received their placements already. The rest of us waited, some with looks of anxiety, but most, like my bubbly friend, were so excited they practically bounced around the room.

I leaned my head against her shoulder. “I’m bored.”

“Bored! How can you be bored? I’m so excited I can hardly sit still.”

“What are you hoping for?”

“Well, a continuance placement is number one, obviously.” She played with the ends of her hair. “Otherwise, I guess I’d probably want teaching. What about you?”

“I’m hoping for something in government, maybe in policy writing. Maybe business law.” I repeated these careers over and over in my head, hoping that strength of will would make it true.

“After a continuous placement of course.” Shauvon smiled, as she waved towards friends on the other side of the room. I mumbled something that sounded like agreement. “Riley should be done soon.”

“Speak of the devil.” The double doors across the room swung open. Riley skipped out, a big smile plastered across her face.

“I got it! I got it!” She rushed toward us. “I got a continuance placement. I am so excited.”

“Amazing! That is so awesome.” Shauvon jumped up and caught Riley in a big hug.

“Awesome, Ry.” I forced a smile onto my face. Now my options had withered to getting the job and life I wanted but never seeing my best friend again, or the dreaded continuance placement needed to stay with Riley.

“Shauvon Ronson.” A voice called from the doors Riley had just exited.

“Wish me luck guys.” Her blond hair floated behind her as she zipped across the room. As the doors swung closed behind her, I turned to Riley.

“You’re really excited aren’t you?” My fingers worried together in my lap.

“I am! I can’t believe I was so uncertain this morning. This is how things are supposed to happen. The system works, Jerr.” She looked at me with her sparkling green eyes. “Oh, I know you’re all nervous and stuff, but don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.” She patted my hand absentmindedly. “I’m so glad Winslow came today. I can’t wait to tell her before she moves.”

“I thought they waited for the kids to turn one before they moved people.”

“That’s what I thought too, but Winslow explained it. They move the established families right around graduation so that the new couples can get into houses and free up the dorms for us.” Riley danced in her chair. “They try to wait until the kids are one, but if they’re close, sometimes they need to move them earlier for space. Winslow is getting moved for us.”

“Right now, it’s just you.” I reminded her. “Did they tell you much about what you’re expected…” I began, as the doors to the boys meeting room swung open with a loud thump. Jeremy strutted out of the room, his face as smug as I’d ever seen it.

“Guess who gets to spread his seed? Yeah, that’s right. Me.” The sound of skin slapping skin in obnoxious high fives filled the room. With a quick look in our direction, his eyes caught mine. His lips hooked up on one side into a self-important smirk. In a few short steps, his hands were on the back of the couch. He hovered above me. lording his supremacy. “Have you gotten your assignment yet, gorgeous?”

“Go away, Jeremy.” I tried to lean away from him, but his fingers had moved to my shoulders.

“Come on, Jerrica. You know we’re meant to be together.” He knelt down until his chin rested on the back of the couch, his face even with mine. The spicy smell of his cologne was more appealing than I wanted to admit. “Why do you keep fighting it?” His fingers brushed through my hair. I pulled away instantly.

“We are never going to be together. Never. Ever. Deal with it.”

He leaned closer and whispered in my ear, “When you get your placement, and they pair us together, you won’t have a choice. I always get what I want.” Without waiting for a response, he pushed off the couch and made his way coolly back to his friends.

“No matter how many time you tell him, he really doesn’t get it, does he?” Riley watched him go. “Do you want me to do something about it?” She slapped her hand into her palm.

“Awe, Ry, you’re always looking out for me.” I chuckled. For as long as I could remember, Riley had always been super protective of me and Shauvon. When the boys used to pick on us in year three, Riley would kick them as hard as she could and then drag them across the ground scraping their noses against the cement. Her techniques were a little more refined now, but she could still be counted on if we needed her. “But no, he’s not worth the trouble.”

“What did he whisper?”

“Nothing important.” My stomach clenched at the thought of being forced to be with Jeremy. I pushed myself off the couch and headed towards the pop machine in the corner. I refused to let Riley to see how upset I was. The machine rattled as the glass bottle made its way to the bottom of the machine. The cap slid easily into the bottle opener, but my hand were shaking so badly I couldn’t complete the motion. I took a deep breath and steadied the bottle with both hands. The doors to the girls’ room opened. From Shauvon’s expression, I knew she hadn’t gotten the continuance placement.

“Vaugh, you look sad.” I handed her the now open bottle of pop.

“Yeah. I mean, I guess I’m kind of happy. I get to teach the threes, and that was my second choice. But I really thought I would get a continuance placement.” Her lips pursed in disappointment before she brought the bottle to her lips.

“Look on the bright side, you get to be with kids all the time now, and you love that.” Riley threw an arm around her shoulder.

“And you get to choose who you marry, or if you want to get married at all.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. My two oldest friends turned towards me slowly. “I mean, it’s better to get a continuance of course, but I thought we were aiming for the bright side here. I mean, cause it’s not like…” The words tumbled from my mouth like verbal diarrhea. I couldn’t seem to stop them.

“Jerrica Mikkalcha.” The sound of my name from the doorway was almost a relief.

“I guess it’s my turn.” In my hurry to get away, I forgot how much I was dreading this meeting. For just a second. Then I stepped through the doors and remembered just how badly I didn’t want to do this.

“Jerrica, please take a seat.” Principal Freedman smiled from his seat at the end of the table. Three of my teachers sat at the table. I slid into the chair across from my principal; the chair beside me was noticeably empty. “You know your teachers, obviously. Also joining us today is Mrs. Rudolph from the mayor’s office, Mr. Jenkins from the chamber of commerce, and, ah yes, here she comes, this is Ms. Carter.” He pointed to a door at the back of the room where a woman I’d never seen before had just entered through a side door.

I instantly noticed her pulse flashing in a slow rhythmic white. Shockingly noticeable in a room filled with brilliant orange. My heart instantly sank in my chest. Her presence could mean only one thing. As she sunk into the chair beside me, the woman’s face brightened with a happy smile.

“Hello, Jerrica. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” Her grip was firm and confident when she shook my hand. “You’re even prettier in person than you are in your photos.” Under the weight of her heavy gaze, I felt like a piece of furniture.

“Hello.” My tone was sullen as I slouched in my chair. I no longer felt the need to pretend to be excited. There was no one in here I needed to fake it for. Her mouth pinched instantly.

“So, Jerrica,” My principal intertwined his fingers on the table in front of him. “We’re pleased to advise you that you are being given a continuance placement.” They all looked at me expectantly. Confidence blanketed their faces.

“I thought we were supposed to get a couple options to choose from.” My fingers found a loose thread on my sleeve and began to pick at it.

“Excuse me?” Ms. Carter’s voice was deeper than it had been moments ago.

“I was told we would get options.”

“I don’t think you understand. You’re getting a continuance placement, Jerrica.” Principal Freedman’s looked confused. “Everyone wants a continuance placement.”

“No. If she doesn’t want it. We can offer her something else.” Ms. Carter surprised me by interrupting him. The light on her wrist sped up as she pulled a piece of paper from a folder on the table in front of her. “It appears you also have a placement available in the accounting department of the crystal mines. Or…” she flipped to another page “a tenement manager on floors 12 through 14.” She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back into her chair. Her face appeared calm and collected, but the pulsing light gave away her frustration. “If you feel you’re more suited to those positions, then you can certainly take them over the continuance placement.”

So this was how they did it, I nodded to myself. They took away your choices. Either, you gave yourself over to the continuance, or got relegated to bowels of the earth. For just a second, I seriously considered taking the crystal mines placement. Maybe I could find that guy Winslow had told me about. The only other person known to have turned down a continuance. At least we would have something in common. A cough to my right indicated people were getting uncomfortable with my silence. I should have been excited. There should have been no question of acceptance. I inhaled deeply and looked up at the people staring at me expectantly.

“Continuance placement it is.” I worked my face into a semblance of a smile. “I know you’re probably surprised that I didn’t get excited right away. I know this is a huge honour. I was just really hoping for a placement in government. I want to be able to have an impact on policies and governance and things like that.”

“Oh, Jerrica,” Ms. Carter placed her hand over mine. “Of course you’ll be put into a position more suited to your skills once your placement is over. This is simply what you’ll be doing for the next three or four years. You’ll still be training for your future while you’re there.”

“Well that’s a relief.” I smiled phonily. “Can you explain to me how the program works?”

“The day after tomorrow, you’ll move to your continuance community. Everyone chosen for this year will move together.”

“What do you mean my continuance community? Isn’t there only one?”

“There are about half a dozen in North America. Sometimes, people are sent to areas suffering from population issues. However, this year, everyone from your school is going to our region’s community. That means you get to stay with your friends.” Ms. Carter removed her glasses and wiped the lenses with a small piece of fabric. “For your first year, you will live in the dorms. Because of your excellent scores, you’ll get one of the better rooms. You will, of course, still have a roommate, but instead of three you’ll only have one.”

I felt my cheek twitch when she mentioned scores. I couldn’t help but feel responsible for the position I now found myself in. I cursed myself for not slacking off more often.

“During the year, you’ll be working for one of the new families. They might be expecting a child, or already have one. Your family placement hasn’t been decided yet. You’ll be partnered with another resident and assist with the household chores and taking care of any children. In essence, you’re…”

“A grunt?” I chuckled and raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. A grunt worker.” She smiled. “That’s the meat of it. While you help that family, we’ll be determining who you will be partnered with for your placement. Those decisions are announced at the end of your first year.”

“Have you ever had pairings that don’t work out? What if the couple really doesn’t like one another?”

“Never. We’ve never had a couple ask to be separated because of a personality conflict. That’s why it takes us so long to decide who you’re going to be paired with. Not only do we take your strengths and assets into consideration, we also look to see how well you get along, and how attracted you are to one another. A happy coupling is much more likely to result in successful childbearing.”

“Can I have a drink, please?” My throat felt like it was closing over. My English teacher pushed a glass across the table towards me. “Thank you.” I took a long drink. The cold water relaxed my throat only slightly. “How often do you pair people from the same community? Like what are the chances of me ending up with someone from my class?” My guts twisted at the thought of Jeremy.

“Never. That would completely defeat the point of the program. We do this to ensure that the bloodlines remain clean. We keep meticulous records to ensure that your pairing is both clean and successful. Having two people from the same community reproduce would muddy up to waters too much.”

“So, what happens after you pair us together?” I relaxed into my chair a little; at least that horror was cleared up.

“Once you’re placed into your coupling, you’ll be moved to the new couples’ floor. You’ll have one year to try to become pregnant. If you do, we perform the marriage ceremony and you continue onto the new family floor. You’ll be assigned a new resident to do the job that you’ll be doing this year. While you go through your pregnancy and begin to raise your child, you will also be taking classes for your eventual career.”

“What if you don’t get pregnant?” The thought made my heart skip. Maybe there was a way out of this after all. I could survive two years if I had to. If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, this whole thing could be doable.

“That doesn’t happen very often, but in the rare occasion that it does, you and your partner will go through the preparations required for non-familial community members. Then you will return to your home communities to live in the non-family units. You’ll be placed in the position that you were studying for while in the continuance community.”

“But what if the partnership is working? Like what if I actually like the person you guys pair me with but we can’t have a baby? Couldn’t we just move together? Back to one of our communities?”

“You know how communities are designated right, Jerrica?”

I nodded and pointed at my wrist. “By colour.”

“Exactly, so if you don’t have a child, your colour doesn’t change. Unless you’re paired with someone from your own community, which we just said never happens, you can’t move with your partner because you haven’t undergone a colour change.”

“So, you pull us from our homes, put us with people we’ve never met, in a place we’ve never been, figure out who’s best for us, and then, if we don’t become baby machines, you pull us apart again? Yeah, that seems totally fair.” I couldn’t restrain my feelings. I felt insulted to be treated like the cattle in the farming communes.

“Jerrica! Why are you acting like this?” Principal Freedman looked at the woman with the white light instead of at me “She’s not normally like this. She’s normally a very respectful young lady.” He finally turned to face me “I think you should apologize to Ms. Carter.”

“Actually,” The woman to my left interjected “This isn’t all that abnormal. There are usually a couple students who react strongly to the way the community continuance program is set up, and those students are usually the ones who go on to have careers in government.” She smiled at me. “You see beyond the cushy respectability of the placement, Jerrica. I respect that. It confirms that we’ve made the right decision by choosing you.”

I couldn’t help but feel a glow of pride. A small smile pressed onto my lips.

“Once you actually move and get settled, you’ll see that it isn’t the horrible factory setting that you’re picturing. The program is a requirement to make sure that we continue having a strong, healthy community with diverse skills. We need to control the population growth. That is why only people in the program can have children. And if there are fertility issues, we need to keep people with their original communities in order to measure trends and see if there are extenuating circumstances.” She leaned towards me, her face reassuring and calm. “Does that help make you feel a little better about what you are being asked to do?”

All of my reservations seemed to lift for a moment. Listening to this woman made me think that maybe this was the right place for me. If it got me the job I wanted, would it be such a bad way to spend a couple of years? “It does, yeah. Thanks.” My hand extended to shake hers before I even realized what I was doing.

“I just need you to sign this form stating your acceptance and then we can file it away and be done with this meeting.” My principal slid a clipboard across the table toward me “Then you get to go have one last night of fun with your friends before it’s time to prepare for the big move.”

Resigning myself to my fate, I flipped the pen in my fingers once before I signed my name across the bottom of the page. After a few quick handshakes, I pushed through the heavy door to see my friends waiting expectantly. All it took was a quick nod for them to run across the room and smother me in hugs. Over Riley’s shoulder, I saw Jeremy standing in the corner; his usual smug expression firmly in place. He waved a finger between the two of us, smiled, and nodded before he walked out of the room. The fear I’d let go of behind closed doors, suddenly came rushing back.

Chapter 5

Chapter 3 – Alcoves of Truth

An hour later, stuffed to the point of puking, I sank down onto a cushion in a conversation alcove, closed my eyes, and took a deep, settling breath. My fingers gently rubbed my over-full stomach, trying to convince the food to work into a more comfortable position.

“Hey, Jerrica.” A quiet voice interrupted my attempts not to puke. “Mind if I join you?”

“Hey, Winslow.” I took my feet off the seat beside me and shifted into a far less comfortable position. I’d always been a little jealous that Riley had a sister. There were only three people in my class with siblings. I know my parents had thought about another kid, but the way our community was set up didn’t make it easy. Community assignments determined in the continuance placement lead to permanent living quarters for each family unit. The couples with children moved into the larger, two bedroom units. They remained in that unit until their child graduated. Then everyone went through reassignment. That’s where my family was right now, waiting for our new assignments. If I got a continuance placement, all of us would be moving.

Each family floor contained ten living quarters, and in each of these were anywhere from ten to fourteen families. The apartments were set up in an identical fashion: an entryway that led to a living room, kitchen, and main bathroom off to one side; then a den and two bedrooms on the other side of the living room. This was the perfect layout for two parents with one child. But some families, like Riley’s, chose to turn the den into an additional bedroom and give up that space to a second child. This was the maximum number of children allowed to any one family. With such confined living quarters, population control was paramount.

The higher the floor number, the bigger the unit. The living quarters on the third floor were designated for the political families, so they were huge. So big that there were only eight living quarters with eight apartments instead of the normal ten. The apartments got smaller as they went lower. My family was located on the fifth floor; my mom was a dentist and my dad an engineer. Their jobs were considered important so we had a very nice living space. The lowest floors were another story. Our community goes down to 14. Anything below the ninth floor is designated for the dwellers, people not meant for anything better than menial labour needed to keep the community functioning. Their units are the smallest in the community. There are twelve living areas instead of ten. They are also the only families without access to familial cap surgery.

The way the community was set up meant that sometimes aptitude wasn’t the only thing that went in to determining career placement. The availability of living spaces also factored into figuring out what career choices a student was given when they graduated. You might be perfect for a career as a lawyer, but if there were no openings on floors five or six, the position would not be offered. A suitable career would be chosen from a floor with available space. The whole thing was more complicated than I’d ever thought about. Until lately. Lately, it was the only thing I thought about. I counted students, tracked rooms, tried to figure out who would go where and what spaces would open up. Anything to get an orange placement, regardless of what that job might be. Hell, at this point, I would take store clerk if it kept me here.

“Are you looking forward to finding out your assignment?” Winslow peered at me with knowing eyes.

“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be? This is the big day, right?” I smiled the fake smile I’d been using all day.

“Uh huh.” She glanced back towards the rest of the celebration. “You certainly don’t seem as excited as everyone else.”

“Didn’t you have doubts? You know, worries… about what was going to happen?” Winslow had graduated four years ago and been given a continuance placement. We’d only seen her one other time since she moved.

I looked across the room at Riley’s family. They stood with a man I didn’t know, a little boy I’d never seen before asleep on his shoulder. It was so strange to see unfamiliar faces here. I looked at the orange light that slowly pulsed beneath the skin of the people of my community. My home. But Winslow’s was bright pink. I’d always known her to be orange, but now, it was instantly clear that she no longer belonged. As much as I loved her, I no longer felt that connection of sameness. And that made me sad in a way I couldn’t put into words. “Isn’t it, I don’t know, weird?” I held my arm next to hers. Questioning the program always made people look at me strangely, but I had an opportunity in Winslow I’d never had before. I had to ask her what it was really like while I had the chance.

“You’re worried about getting into the continuance program?” Winslow fingered the inside of her wrist. Her lips curled up gently at the corners. “Worried that you won’t get in? Or that you will?”

“Everyone keeps telling me that’s where I’m going to get placed.”

“I imagine you will. You’re smart, athletic, pretty. And you have a creepy good level of coordination. Those are the things they look for when choosing who to place.”

“Great.” I heaved a big sigh. My good mood slowly slipped away. “So, being forced into a marriage with someone you don’t know. Being forced to have a kid. To move away from your family. Your friends. To have no say in your life. You were okay with all of that?”

“I hate that I don’t get to see mom and dad and Riley, but the other stuff, yeah, I’m okay with it. Now. It took some time, but I’m pretty happy now. The weirdest thing to get used to really is the colour change. We’re taught all our lives to identify with our communities. That the light is your identity, and then suddenly it’s taken away from you. It took a really long time for me to get used to this.” She continued to finger the skin of her wrist. Her thoughts seemed to wander as she watched the light flash at a slow even pace. “It’s almost like losing yourself. That’s the part no one talks about. You’re told what an honour it is to be chosen. That you’re doing your part. How important you are. But no one says that a part of you is going to be stripped away without your consent.”

“But you’re given a choice, right? You can turn down a continuance placement. Right?” I could hear the desperation in my voice.

“That’s what they say.” Winslow slowly lifted her eyes to look at me. “But do you know anyone that’s turned down a continuance?”

“No. But that just means no one here has done it. You’d still get other work, right? You choose another job? They give you options? It’s not like they kick you out or anything?”

“It’s all speculation really. But there was this guy in my class. He was so smart, and funny, and good looking. He was a three. Threes always get the best placements. There was no way this guy wasn’t getting into the continuance program. He went in for his conference just like everyone else, but no one talked to him afterwards. And then he suddenly wasn’t at the party that night. Everyone goes to the graduation party. And the next day we found out he was placed in the crystal mines.”

“The mines? But those jobs go to the dwellers. No one over floor 12 works in the mines. Ever.” My forehead crinkled. The crystal mines were hot, deep, and extremely dangerous.

“Exactly.” She crossed her hands in her lap. “No one talks about it. His family was completely ashamed. If you ask about it, they pretend not to know what you were talking about. They don’t talk about Josh at all anymore. It’s basically like he never existed.”

“So, what you’re telling me is, should I be offered a continuance placement, I should just say yes.”

“You’re a smart girl. Don’t make a decision without seriously considering your future.” Winslow patted my hand. “Whatever you’re worried about, it’s not that bad.”

“You love him?” I tilted my head toward the man across the room.

“Yes, I do. The placement staff do the best they can. That’s what the first year is for. You work for a year with the other newbies. They watch your interactions, and then they place you. Peter and I got along from the beginning. And now, we have Jake. We’re on our way to our settlement community now. This is just a pit stop on the way to Jacksonville. I’ll start my new placement as a teacher. Peter will start his, and things will be exactly the way they’re supposed to be. You give up a few years of the work you want for something that you’re going to end up cherishing.”

“So, suck it up and stop sulking.” I grudgingly replied.

“Basically,” Winslow laughed as she pushed herself out of the chair. “You’re a cool kid, Jerr. Accept what they give you and make it your own. We’re pretty blessed. Don’t pull a Josh.” She patted me on the shoulder and headed back towards her husband and child.

I wandered over to the food table where Riley was piling strawberries onto a paper plate. Fresh fruit was a bit of a luxury, even for those of us on the higher floors, that we ate as much as we could when we got it.

“It’s time.” I nodded towards the clock. “I’m just running to my room for a second and then we should leave.”

“I’ll go say bye to my family.” The smile that spread across her face was toothy and genuine. “Ten minutes.” She threw her arms around me in an unexpected hug before she skipped away.

I walked slowly down the hall towards my apartment. This would be one of the last times I got to call it mine. In my room, the door slid closed behind me with a soft hiss of air. The wall felt hard and reassuring as I sunk to the floor, my head pressed against my knees. Tears of frustration refused to stay where they belonged. “I don’t want to do this.” I tried to regain my composure. “Fuck.” My hands press flat against the cold, smooth surface of the floor as I pushed myself back into a standing position. “Grow up, Jerrica.” I told my reflection in the mirror across the room. “It’s not like you haven’t had years to prepare for today.” I roughly wiped away the black smudges of mascara beneath my eyes. One deep breath and I was back out to the hallway to find Riley propped against the wall, my skates hanging from her hands.

“Ready?”

“Let’s do this.” I grinned, and almost meant it.

Chapter 4

Chapter 2 – Ceremonials

I felt like little more than a floating head in a sea of orange polyester as we took our seats in the auditorium. One small, insignificant part of a being I had no control over. Before I knew it, it was my row’s turn to stand. Although the ground was now cool and solid against the soles of my feet, I felt less stable than in my skates. Everything around me shifted as the girl in front of me stepped away.

“Jerrica Mikkalcha.” My name came over the speakers. With a deep breath, I stepped up onto the stage. The principal’s hand engulfed mine as he passed over the rolled white scroll. This was a ceremony that had been brought forward through the generations from before we moved down below. That scroll highlighted the significance of the day even further. Paper was a coveted product. It was extremely hard to make and was used only for the most important of documents. As much as I dreaded this afternoon, this was something I would actually cherish.

“Thank you.” With a polite nod, I headed towards the edge of the stage. My eyes scanned the audience for my parents. I waved quickly for my father and his camera before stepping down the stairs. Then we waited some more.

Too much down time allowed me to worry myself silly. But then, the procession was over, far too quickly, and Mr. Freedman was announcing the graduating class as a whole. I smiled and cheered along with my fellow classmates. Part of me really was genuinely happy. If only I knew that I was getting a job in government, then I would actually be able to celebrate.

The throng of students filed out of the gymnasium into the hallway. Parents waited to greet their children. Hugs spread like an infection. My parents stood off to one side, waiting for me. Seeing the glowing smiles on their faces, I suddenly realized that this part of the day was really for them.

“We’re so very proud of you, sweetheart.” My father pushed a loose strand of hair behind my ear.

“Thanks, Dad.” I grinned sheepishly.

“You looked beautiful, honey.”

“I told you no one would see my outfit, Mom.”

“Mmmm, hmmm.” My mother grinned down at me “Go get changed and meet us at home for lunch. No dawdling. You don’t want to be late for your session this afternoon.”

Her reminder instantly twisted my stomach into knots. “I have to go get my skates and turn my robe in.”

“We’ll see you soon.” Dad looked at his watch distractedly.

The walk back to the classroom felt like it took forever. Walking always felt so slow and useless. Shauvon ran up to me as soon as I slipped through the doors of the make shift change room. She grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards Riley.

“We need a picture!” The three of us leaned as close as possible as she stretched out her arm. The flash went off with blinding accuracy.

“Perfect!” She giggled before showing us the image with my face half cut off as Riley stared at some far off point. “Just like they always turn out.”

“Because you refuse to use the self-portrait mode.” I rolled my eyes towards her.

“This is way more entertaining.”

“And the other way points out that you have stumpy ass arms, Von.” Riley grabbed the camera from her. “Let me do it.”

“It’s tradition, you party poopers.” Vaughn laughed and wiggled between us.

“Do you guys want me to do it?” A male voice interrupted.

“Sure. Thanks, Oliver!” Riley handed over the camera. Arms wrapped around one another, we grinned like fools. “’kay, do you mind taking one without the robes?”

“That depends on what’s under the robes.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“You’ll just have to wait and see.” Shauvon teased, turning away from him. Her hips began to sway from side to side as she removed the pin from the neck of the robe and tossed it to the desk. With a sly glance over her shoulder, she pushed the ugly orange fabric off her shoulder to expose an expanse of pale, soft skin covered with a healthy sprinkling of freckles. Oliver’s eyes widened with surprise. His cheeks reddened instantly. In a smooth motion, Shauvon jumped to face him and dropped the robe. He inhaled automatically, prepared for even more bare skin. His mouth twisted into an annoyed smirk when he saw the long black pants and the pale green sweater pulled down off her shoulder.

“Asshat.” He chuckled with feigned disappointment, as his eyes took in the curvy figure barely contained under the thin fabric. Shauvon was so used to being the centre of attention that flirting was a natural extension of who she was. But, she was so sweet it was impossible not to love her. “Now you two, derobe yourself and get in the picture.”

“Man, this sucks.” He frowned after the camera had been returned to Shauvon.

“What does?” Riley searched through the rolls of fabric for her pin.

“There is no way the three of you don’t land primo continuance placements.”

“Bite your tongue!” The words were out of mouth before I could stop them. “You don’t know that.” I backpedaled. “No one knows what their placement will be before the meeting. You might jinx us.” Into getting that damn placement, I finished in my head.

“They always take away the pretty girls, and leave us with the scraps.”

“Awe, Ollie, you’re pretty. Maybe you’ll get a placement too.” Riley patted him on the top of the head.

“I am not pretty!” He pushed his chest out “I am damn manly.”

“Uh, huh.” She leaned in toward him. “I’ll take a display of that manliness at the party tonight.” Her words were quiet.

Even though dating was forbidden. Riley and Oliver had been seeing each other for most of the year. They liked each other a lot, but, as with any school romance, it had an expiration date. A continuance placement would mean being paired up with someone from another community. Not getting one meant that they could be together but could never have children, which Riley really wanted. Just one more perk of our perfect system.

I leaned against a table on the side of the room and waited for my friends to finish their goodbyes. I felt, more than saw, someone sidle up beside me. He waited for me to acknowledge his presence. I didn’t.

“Hey beautiful,” Jeremy finally gave in

“Jeremy.” My voice was dry and cold.

“You ready for our last night together?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, I’m obviously going to get a continuance placement. So, tonight is your last chance to get with this.” His hands waved in front of his not at all unattractive body. His tone was comedic, but completely self-assured. Jeremy and I had been playing this game all year. He kept asking me out. I kept turning him down. Not that he wasn’t attractive, but he knew he was. He could have almost any girl he wanted. I was not one of those girls, so of course, I was his pet project.

“Well, you’ve won me over. How can I possibly argue with that?” I fingered my hair back into place and stifled a yawn. “But, why wait until tonight. You should just take me now.” I hopped up into the tabletop. He hesitated for only a second before stepping forward, his hips pressed into my knees.

“Seriously? Sweet! I knew you’d give in eventually.” He placed his hands flat on either side of me and leaned in close. “And you look particularly saucy today.”

“You like saucy, do you?” My fingers trailed lightly through the hair behind his left ear, and down his neck.

“Hells yeah.”

My lips brushed against his earlobe. “Then why don’t you and your left hand go and have a saucy time under your robe.” With a quick twist, I pushed away from him and off the table. “You are never going to learn, are you, Jeremy?” Behind me, Riley snorted a quiet giggle. I jerked my head towards the door. “Ready to go, Ry?”

“We’ll see you at 2:00, Von.” Riley called to the blonde in the midst of more picture taking. Shavon blew us each a kiss before diving into another pile of arms. Instead of taking the elevator with the other departing students, we made our way to the ramp on the far end of the school. My eyes twinkled as I shot my best friend a sidelong glance.

“Race?”

“Go.” Riley pushed off instantly, her feet passed through the sensor for the automatic door. Her black hair flew behind her as she picked up speed on the curved incline. I pushed onto the ramp behind her, knees bent, muscles activated. Riley slowed into the first turn; this was where I always caught her. My fingers tickled along her arm as I shot in front of her. Neither of us attempted to slow our speed as we went into the last curve. The breeze we created pulled long strands from my braids. The feeling against my face and body, the resistance of the air, made me feel freer than I had in days. My mind was clear, unobstructed by life and decisions. My blood pumped with reckless adrenaline. Hopefully, there was no one in the hallway at the end of the ramp.

The doors slid open as my legs zoomed through the sensor. The hallway was blessedly empty. The turn was sharp, but led into a long straight section. Riley was catching up. I pushed harder when the sound of her wheels changed from the grip of the ramp to the smooth painted cement. The end of the hallway approached at break neck speed. With practiced ease, I twisted my body to face Riley as she skated towards me. She had already started to slow down for her stop. I counted three beats, dropped my toe stops to the floor and slid to a quick stop, my back centimeters from the wall.

“I win.” I threw my arms up in the air, and commenced my well-practised victory dance.

“Someday, I swear I will beat you.” Riley ground to a stop beside me, hands on her knee as she tried to catch her breath.

“It’s your corners.” I shrugged “That’s where I always catch you.”

“Stupid corners.” Riley waved her hand in front of the wall sensor. A rush of cool air hit us at the same time as the wall of noise.

“Congratulations!” In the common room of our living quarters, crouched under a giant banner were the ten families that had lived with us our entire lives. Beside them was a table piled high with food and presents. In the centre was a giant orange cake. My parents, Riley’s parents, and her older sister beamed from the front of the group.

“Winslow!” Riley cried and rushed to her sister. Everyone seemed move at the same time and before I knew it, I was celebrating the end of what little independence I possessed.

Chapter 3

Chapter 1 – Impending Doom

Nothing was the way it was supposed to be. Familiar but foreign. The only light in the dark room came from a dull, thrumming glow I couldn’t explain. My arms hung limp by my sides, hands palm up in my lap. I stared at the azure light pulsing beneath the delicate skin of my wrist. The longer I stared, the faster the beats came. My toes curled around the thickness of the strangely familiar bedding as I tried to figure out where the colour had come from. Instinctively, I knew this was my bedroom, but it wasn’t the room I’d grown up in. The only bedroom I’d ever known.

I forced my arms to move, sweeping to the side, my fingers searching the bed for the small stuffed doll that still made a home there. Where it should have been there was nothing. The blue light flashed in the darkness, mocking me as it matched my pounding heart. The sound of unfamiliar voices rose from the hallway, calling my name. How could I not know them? There was no one here I didn’t know. I threw myself under my blankets and prayed for this to start making sense as the door to my room opened with a menacing hiss.

My body jolted as I fell out of the dream, my heart racing. It took me only a minute to absorb the familiar surroundings of my bedroom, my real bedroom, not the one from the dream, and start to calm myself. The dim orange glow of the lights running along the base of the wall indicated it was around 5:00 am. A quick glance at my arms showed the familiar tangerine I’d known all my life. I didn’t need a visit to the community therapist to explain this nightmare. I pulled the orange haired doll out from its place half under my pillow, and drifted back into a surprisingly easy sleep.

It felt like mere seconds had passed when the beeping of the alarm shook me from a now dreamless sleep. Any other day, I’d roll over and hit the snooze button a few dozen times, but today, well, today that wasn’t an option. The room’s lighting brightened automatically as the morning inched towards day. I could see it behind my closed lids as I felt blindly along the wall behind me. The room fell into a blissful silence when my fingers finally found the right button. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and cradled my face in my hands, allowing my eyes to close again.             “Jerrica!” An anxious voice erupted from the intercom by the door, “It’s time to get up.”

“I know. I know.” I muttered to myself as I stumbled towards the little black panel near my reading chair. A quick swipe along the bottom activated the speaker. “I’m awake.” I mumble in a barely audible voice. Mornings have never been my forte.

“Hurry up, sweety. You can’t to be late today.”

“I know, Mom.” I rubbed my eyes to force away more sleep.

“It’s an important day, Jerrica. It’s not everyday…”

“That I graduate.” I interrupted. “We’ve talked about this all week. I’ll be out for breakfast in a bit.” A quick jab activated the do not disturb function and alleviated a little of the unreasonable petulance that had been festering all week.

I stumbled across the room, shedding my clothes as I went. My long, white blonde hair sprayed out in its usual unruly fountain of curls. I tried to push my fingers through it, but they made it no more than a few inches before tangles forced them to a halt. My eyes shot towards the drawers where my scissors were nestled. For a few glorious seconds, I considered grabbing them and hacking away the hair I was growing to hate. The trademark everyone seemed drawn to. Then I pictured the look on my mother’s face and sighed to myself. Maybe tomorrow. If I managed to live through today.

As I drew close to the wall, my exposed skin activated the sensor panel. The shower stall door faded from grey wall colour to clear glass as the lights came on and the water began to flow. My finger deftly adjusted the temperature and wash cycles with a few swipes of the wall panel. As I closed my eyes and let the machine do its work, I tried to relax, but even the heat of the water wasn’t strong enough to distract me from thoughts of the events to come later in the day.

Graduation was the most important day for any student who had completed the mandatory eighteen years of schooling. Today, me, and all the other students on the cusp of adulthood had our futures laid out in front of us. The ceremony would take place this morning. Each member of the class would march across the auditorium stage in front of their friends and family to receive their diploma. The very last thing they would do publicly as a child of the community.

Then would come the family ceremonies and the private portion of the day. The behind closed doors portion. The portion I was dreading with my entire being. Where each student would be presented with two or three positions perfectly suited to the skills he or she has displayed since starting school at three years old. At a table with teachers, the principal, and two or three community representatives, each student would decide what they were going to do with the rest of their lives.

Unless, you were one of the chosen few. One of that handful of students who were selected to ensure purity and social survival. These were the lucky ones they say. The best of the best. The ones who had no say in what they got to do with their life. I’d always been lucky. Today, I wanted nothing more than to be ordinary.

Once I’d wasted as much time as possible in the shower, I wrapped a puffy towel around myself and walked towards the oval mirror embedded in the wall above my drawers. Hollows had formed under my eyes from weeks of bad dreams and placement stress. Everyone kept telling me that I was guaranteed to be one of the members of the continuance plan. Guaranteed. That I was lucky. I did not agree.

“Continuance.” I muttered to myself. The word left a horrible taste in my mouth. “Gross.”

Continuance was made up of those select few students chosen from each community to maintain the population. Always the cream of the genetic crop, the best looking, smartest, most athletic students, chosen to partner with someone from another community. To mate. Like the animals they taught us about in school. The ones that used to live on the surface. An ensured survival of the fittest. My face twisted just thinking about it. Disgusted by the idea of being placed with someone I’d never met, from a community I’d never been to, in order to keep the bloodlines clean. It was the highest of all possible honours. And I wanted nothing to do with it.

I swiped black liner and mascara to highlight the pale blue colour of my eyes. Heavy lines to hide behind, so no one could see my terror. And now, the epic, daily battle with my hair. I worked massive amounts of hair into several thick braids and twisted them around the back of my head.

From my closet, I grabbed a strapless, navy blue dress with a tight bodice and ruffled skirt. A starched white collar snapped around my neck and blue and white striped knee socks and half sleeves completed the look. I knew I looked great and, more importantly, Mom would hate it. Grinning, I stepped into the hallway and walked to the kitchen. The orange glow cast by track lighting along the base of the smooth walls made the hallway cozy and familiar.

Orange was our community colour, a bright, happy orange called tangerine. It was named for a fruit I’d only seen pictures of, but our Upper History teacher had once brought in a bottle of oil that was supposed to smell like one. It was the most divine thing I’d ever smelled, sharp and sweet and vibrant. It was one of the reasons Upper History was one of my favourite classes. Everything from before they moved below the surface seemed so fantastical.

Technically, our town was called Ottawa, but communities were usually referenced simply by colour. Every community had a designated colour: orange, violet, mint, flamingo, lavender, and so on. Ours was a fairly average sized community made up of 14 levels: the first four were designated for government officials, their offices and their families, shopping centres, and the school; everything below were living quarters for the remaining members of the community. Here, orange was the only light we ever saw: the pulses beneath our skin; the tract lighting that ran through all rooms and public areas. This was how you knew you were home.

It was extremely rare to travel outside your own community. Getting from one community to the next was done through the tunnel systems and took an extremely long time. Buses took daily commutes to shuffle the dwellers that worked on the farms and in the mines that serviced our home. Personal vehicles were reserved for those serving in the highest levels of government and only used to travel outside of the community on business. Within the walls of the community, we skated or walked. Skating got you places faster than the buses. I knew this for fact, a sneaky, rule-breaking fact.

This was the way it had been this way since the population moved down here, since it became impossible to live on the surface. At least, that was what they taught us. As a fourth generation grounder, this was all I’d ever known. I found the stories they told us of individual people owning huge personal vehicles just to drive to the store seemed so lazy. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea. Worse was the freedom of movement from place to place. How did anyone ever know who they were if the people around them were constantly changing? Moving to new communities. Why would anyone ever want to leave?

Our school had gone on field trips to two other communities: Montreal, which was an emerald green, and Vermont, which was a pale shade of lavender. It had been so strange to be in a place where you were instantly recognized as an outsider. I’d never felt so out of place before in my life. Until today, when I knew, without a doubt, that no one else felt the dread I did.

“Oh Jerrica, what are you wearing?” My mother’s voice sounded as I entered the kitchen. It grated my nerves in a not entirely unpleasant way.

“What I always wear.” I grinned to myself as I grabbed a box of cereal from the cupboard and a container of soymilk from the fridge.

“Couldn’t you wear something sensible and appropriate, just this once?”

“Sensible and appropriate is over rated.” My words were muffled by the mouthful of granola.

“Just for today, when everyone is going to be taking pictures, couldn’t you try to look normal?”

“In about an hour, I’m going to be covered in eighty feet of orange fabric. No one will even know what I’m wearing.” I pushed around the food in my bowl, “Besides, I do everything else you ask, don’t I? Why can’t I just have this one thing?”

“Don’t be petulant, Jerrica. You are twenty-one years old. You are too old to be acting like this.”

“By that logic, I am also too old for you to be critiquing my clothing”

“You are no longer a student. No longer a child. It’s time to become an adult. No more easy student living. If they make you a teacher or a politician, you’ll need to dress the part. If you’re lucky enough to be given a continuance placement, you’ll need to follow the rules. You need to stop doing things just to annoy me, Jerrica.”

“Yeah, right. Lucky.” I muttered under my breath. My stomach clenching, I pushed away my mostly full bowl. “I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

In the entryway, I grabbed a pair of socks from the bag by the door and touched the panel to open the door to my skates. I quickly pulled them on, tested the wheels against the smooth floor, grabbed the bag with my dress robes, and headed into the main corridor of our living quarters.

“Beep, beep.” A voice called as a girl whizzed by me. “Hurry up, Slowpoke.” My oldest friend called over her shoulder.

“Slowpoke, my ass!” I called, pushing into a run with my toe stops before the wheels slid into the momentum. Soon, I’d caught up and passed her, the plastic of my garment bag tucked tightly under my arm.

“Sweet outfit.” Riley’s black hair trailed behind her in a long, flowing cape as we fell in stride beside one another. “Your mom flipped out, I assume.”

“That was entirely the point. “ I grinned and jumped around to skate backwards, preferring to face someone when I talked to them. “You ready for this?” I indicated the garment bag.

“As I’ll ever be.” Riley grinned, more excited about today than I was. “Does it seem a little nauseating? Like we’re just supposed to flip from a student to a grown up? Like okay you’re done. Be all responsible and stuff.”

“Ry, you are, without a doubt, the most responsible person I know.” I raised an eyebrow. “This should not be hard for you. You were born to be a responsible adult.”

“I don’t feel like it today. This feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And my parents are all, be a grown up. Be responsible. Blah. Blah. Blah.”

“I think they forget what it was like. How scary it is.” I wasn’t used to seeing Riley like this. She’d always been my steadfast friend. “But I have no doubt that you are ready for this.” I squeezed her hand and turned back around as we veered around a curve in the hall.

“Whatev, we’ll get through. Everyone does. And if we’re lucky, we’ll both get continuance placements and we won’t have to worry about this adult nonsense for at least another year.”

“Yeah… sure…” I shook my head and leaned into the last turn before the elevators.

“You going to tell me what’s wrong with you, Jerr?” She reached over and squeezed my fingers.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been so quiet this week. Are you worried about your placement?” She waited for me to answer, but I didn’t know what to say.

“Hey, who’s Blue?” I changed the subject as I remembered the dream that had woken me that morning. “I had a weird dream last night about my colour changing.”

“I bet that’s a sign that you’re getting a placement.” Riley grinned a wide, happy smile.

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly what it was, now stop changing the subject.” Jerrica quickly changed the subject back to her dream. “You were always better at Geography than me.”

“I know. You always copied my assignments.” She raised her judgmental eyebrow. It was a look I knew well. We slid to a stop in front of the large elevators at the far end of the complex. Students were congregating, matching garment bags thrown over every shoulder or arm. “But Blue? Well, Chicago is a navy blue. And Palm Springs is like a glassy blue – kind of the same colour as your eyes. There are like twelve I can think of off the top of my head. Can you be a little more specific?”

“Well, um, it was just a dream so it’s fading…”

“Are you guys as excited as I am!!” Shauvon suddenly pushed between us. She bounced up and down with excitement; her curvy body drew the attention of every boy in the vicinity. “No more of this school crap! Now it’s fun time!” The elevator doors slid open and the three of us skated inside.

“Fun time? You’re aware that fun time is supposed to be over now, right?” I put on my happy face. The genuine smiles of the people around me made me wonder if there was actually something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want this as much as everyone else? We’d all grown up together, with the same values and lessons. Why did they want this and I didn’t? As the elevator rang to signal their arrival on the fourth floor, twenty-five sets of toes touched down to brace for the jarring halt.

“Holy topside, I wish they’d find a way to make these damn things smoother.” Riley caught herself against the wall. “Just one more reason to hope for a continuance placement. That place is supposed to be glorious.”

A wave of students skated down the hallway with garment bags fluttering behind them, creating a kind of surreal parade. A celebration of finality. At the end of the corridor, we headed into the large room where we’d taken our history lessons. I smiled at the posters on the walls. The one I loved the most was the giant blue expanse called an ocean. The thought of that much water in one place was staggering. The most water I’d ever seen in one place was on the floor of the shower. My brain couldn’t even begin to grasp what something that vast would actually look like.

I threw my bag down and looked around the room. Students struggled to look attractive in the long, orange robes required for the ceremony. These weren’t the beautiful orange that pulsed beneath our skin, but a more rotten, faded looking colour. Each robe was held closed with a large silver pin emblazoned with the community crest. Ours was a swirling, leafy semi-circle. Unlike our colour, the crest was a matter of ceremony, not of identity.

“Damn it.” I dug frantically through the pockets on the inside of the robe’s fabric.

“What’s up, sugarlips?” Shauvon searched through folds of fabric for her armholes.

“My damn pin is missing. It must be in my locker.” I kicked at the pile of fabric.

“Tsk, tsk, you’re awfully forgetful when you’re excited.” Riley glanced at me with a sly look in her eye. The side of her mouth tucked in wearily. I looked away before she could resume our conversation from earlier.

“I’ll be right back.” I gingerly stepped through the maze of classmates, trying not get my skates twisted in any fabric before I made my way to the doors. The hallway was strangely silent without the hum of excited voices. The shock of it helped me clear my head before I slid towards my locker. The air that rushed by my face felt amazing. The wheels spun against the smooth painted cement beneath my feet. I closed my eyes and skated from memory.

At my locker, I pressed my thumb into the lock and waited for the familiar pop of the door. This was the last day I would ever open it. Tomorrow, for the first time in eighteen years, it wouldn’t respond to my touch. It would be reprogrammed for a first year student, just like every other locker in this hallway. For tiny, excited people, anxious to press their thumbs into their own panel. To have something that was just theirs.

There on the top shelf, glimmering in the bright fluorescent lighting, was my pin. I leaned against the open door, my forehead pressed against the cool cinderblocks of the wall. My chest was suddenly on fire. For a second, I thought I was going to collapse into a big, soupy puddle right there on the cement. I couldn’t do this! I definitely could not do this! I wasn’t ready to know where my life was going yet. To be forced to… I pushed the thoughts of continuance away. If I thought about it too hard, I might not go through with the ceremony.

“Jerrica?” A voice called from down the corridor. Mr. Derksen, my history teacher, was standing at the end of the hall.

“Hey, Mr. Derksen.”

“What are you doing? You should be getting ready for the ceremony.”

“Forgot my pin.” I held up the shiny piece of metal.

“Well you better hurry. They’re going to start shortly.”

“Yup, I’m just heading back.”

“Relax Jerrica. You’re going to end up with an amazing placement. I just know it.”

I waved what I hoped looked like thanks over my shoulder as I pushed myself away from my favourite teacher and towards my impending doom.

Chapter 2

Chapter 28: A Beginning in An End

Closing his eyes against the bright glare of the afternoon light, Ash feels the warmth of the sun on his face. It’s a bright day. Too bright for October in British Columbia. The first day all week it hasn’t been pouring rain. Ash would have preferred it to be dark and grey and drizzly. It would have suited his mood. The crowd shuffles around him as the Minister standing beside the coffin delivers sentiments about loss and shadows of death. Silent tears run down his face as he stares at the glossy wood, knowing that just beyond that lid is the body of his sister. Only two days have passed since he regained consciousness and he still hasn’t been able to wrap his head around everything that has happened.

He’s been flip flopping all day between wishing his parents had had an open casket so he could have one last look at his sister and thankful that he doesn’t have to look at the place where those bruises were. Even covered in make-up or clothes, he would know they were there. He holds onto his last memory with her. Of playfully fighting over food in the cafeteria. But sitting here in this chair, the pulling of scabs and settling of bruises all over his body reminds him of what would have happened to his sister. He fingers the skin at the base of his neck. Feeling the bruises from Staal’s hands. The twin of his sister’s. The last thing they’ll ever have together.

From the chair on the other side of Sullivan, he can hear Rowena’s sobs. Her long blond hair hiding her face. Emmette’s hands rest comfortingly against her back. She’s been having as hard a time as he has with Penelope’s death. A harder time, maybe. Over the last few years, she’s been closer to Penelope than he’s been. The two girls had been best friends since they were children and nothing anyone has done seems to be helping her.

He can’t blame her, nothing has helped him either. His friends are trying to be supportive, but they can’t understand. Sullie has been at his beck and call, but all he’s wanted to do is huddle in Penelope’s room and think about all the things he could have done to change what happened. If he had just pushed her harder to make sure she’d really broken up with Staal. If he had reported Staal. If he had told his parents. There were so many things he could have done. So many ways he’s responsible for his sister’s death. Rowena’s the only one who can really understand his pain because she carries her own guilt. The same guilt.

“Ash.” Sullivan’s elbow presses into his side. “Pay attention.”

“What?” He whispers.

“It’s your turn.” Jutting her chin towards the expectant minister, she whispers. Ash looks at her with confusion. “For the eulogy.”

“Right. Right.” He nods, glancing around. A swarm of silent people watch him, most with worried expressions on their faces. He pushes himself out of his chair, hugging his father and kissing his mother’s cheek before he steps up next to the coffin. They’ve placed a chair there for him, knowing he can’t stand for more than a few minutes at a time. He positions himself so that he can rest his hand above where Penelope’s would be inside the coffin. A gesture of comfort more for himself than anyone else. Except maybe his sister.

“Thank you all for coming. I know Penelope would have been…” He paused for a moment. “Well, honestly, she would have been surprised that so many people showed up for her. P was always a bit of a loner. At her happiest when she was running. She was always like that, even when we were kids. Except for summer camp. She thrived in the outdoors. In competition. It was the one place where she was able to be the leader I always knew she was born to be. I remember this one year. Her favourite summer, even to this day.” Choking back sobs, he brushes a hand across his lips. “Penelope led a day long game of capture the flag, with military style ranks and strategies. And if her team members stepped out of line…” He chuckles, “Well, Frasier, you know, you suffered her wrath.” He glances at his friend, who nods in agreement. “Needless to say, her team won, and they won by a landslide.” Ash pauses to catch his breath as a wave of familiar laughter ripples through the attendees.

“I wish things could have stayed as simple as they were at summer camp. Where everything was warm fuzzies and sing-a-longs.” He rubs his forehead. “But that’s not the way real life is. This isn’t a movie with a happy, tidy ending where everything turns out for the best. Penelope and I had our problems, like any siblings. We fought, and we made up, and then we fought some more. But she was my twin. The other part of me. And without her,” His breath comes in a painful shutter “I am incomplete. She could be endlessly frustrating, but she was loyal to the core. I wish I could talk to her just one more time. Just once. To tell her how much she matters to me. No matter what.” He looked down at the coffin, placing both hands flat on the surface. “I love you, P. I always will. Always.” With a deep, shuddering breath, Ash pushes himself up to a standing position and looks at his parents. “Penelope meant the world to me. My parents. To most everyone here. And someday, someday, we’ll get the closure we need to move forward.”

Ash steps away from his sister and slides into his seat as the Minister wraps up the service. Taking his mother’s hand in his, he looks over to make sure she was okay with what he’s said. She smile travels to her eyes as she wipes away tears.

“Thank you, sweetheart.” She whispers, “Your sister was always very proud of you.”

Nodding, Ash squeezes her fingers and stands to follow his parents as they begin the procession to place a sprig of bluebells on top of the coffin. Penelope’s favourite flower. Dainty and gentle and nothing like her. The perfect companion to his strong-willed sister.

Ash finally breaks away from the stream of well-wishers, and makes his way to where his friends are standing a few meters away from the gravesite. His fingers find Sullivan’s. Her skin pleasantly cool in the warm afternoon. He leans into her, letting the weight of the afternoon finally settle on him.

“Do you need to sit down?” Sullie wraps her arm around his waist.

“Can we get out of the sun?” He tugs at the collar of his shirt, pulling his tie loose. Sweat pooling everywhere.

Emmette leads them to a tall tree away from the string of traffic making its way out of the cemetery. The five of them settle into the pool of shade provided by the overhanging branches. Ash strips off his suit jacket before leaning up against the rough bark of the trunk.

“Fuck. This day sucks.” He rubs his fingers against the scabs around his eye. Small flecks come away on his fingers.

“I might be able to make it a little bit better.” A shadow falls over them. They all stare up at the stranger blankly for a moment.

“Officer Daniels.” Rowena reaches forward to shake his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”

“I didn’t know you were coming today.” Sullivan adds.

“I usually don’t announce my presence, but today, I wanted to share something with you. We’ve charged your former teacher with your sister’s death.”

“You have?” Ash starts to get up but the pain forces him to remain sitting.

“We have. One of the other girls on Sullivan’s list came forward. And there were some pretty distinctive bruises on her hands, and yours there, Ash. They match bruises found on Gina Strand’s body. We’re re-opening that case as well. I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen, but he has been charged.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” Ash sighs, leaning back against the tree.

“And when you’re done school,” Officer Daniels points at Sullivan, “You better make sure you work somewhere in the justice system. You have an undeniable talent. Keep in touch and will look at internships and references.” He shakes her hand. “I hope you all get some closure from this.” He nods at them and walks away.

Ash takes a deep breath. “Well I guess that’s something.”

“I guess it is.” Sullie nods, leaning against his shoulder.

“It’s not over, but it’s a start.” He closes his eyes and relaxes for the first time since the police showed up on his doorstep. “It’s a start.”

The End

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Chapter 27: Whatever Gets You Through

His head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. His fingers feel like they weigh even more as he tries to bring his hand up to his face. A low guttural sound escapes his lips.

“Ash? Sweetie?” A reassuring voice sounds from beside him.

“Mom?” His voice is thick. His lips feel about the size of hot dogs. The big ones they sell at those roadside stations.

“Hey, honey.” He feels a cool cloth touching his face. His eyelids flutter as he slowly opens them. The light in the room is dim, but he can see his mother sitting beside his bed.

“Where am I?” He forces his tongue to form words.

“At home. You were in the hospital for a while, but they let us bring you home a couple days ago after you regained consciousness. Your injuries look bad but are mostly superficial. Except for that broken nose.”

“I was? I did?” He glances around, taking in the flowery décor of the spare bedroom. “My nose?”

A sigh rushes through her lips. It’s a sound of complete and utter relief. “You haven’t been very coherent, but you’ve been awake on and off the last couple days. The drugs have kept you pretty loopy.” She wets the cloth again from a bowl on the nightstand and begins loosening the scabs around his eye. “You really scared us, Ash. How could you do that? Right after what happened to Penelope.” Her voice catches, tears welling up in her eyes. “How could you put your father and I through that after we’d just lost your sister. To get that call, from the police. Again. In one day. Twice in one day to be notified that your child has been beaten almost to death. You can’t have any idea what that feels like Ash.”

“Mom.” He reaches for her hand. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean for it to go this way. I don’t even really remember what happened. I just remember being so angry. I couldn’t just let him get away with it.” As the last vestiges of sleep-induced fog clear, Ash’s thoughts become clearer. “I can’t ever remember being that angry before.”

“How did you know? How could you have hid this from us for so long?”

“I don’t know, Mom. I just did. It’s a really long story. I didn’t know I was keeping anything from you. I thought she had ended things with him.”

“We’ll talk about it later, when you’re better.” She puts the cloth in the bowl. “And I will be angry, Ash. I’m just glad you’re okay. I’ll be back in a minute.” Standing, she leaves the room after kissing him lightly on the forehead.

Ash pushes himself up in the bed, his head falling back with an unexpected rush. “Yeah, not going anywhere.” He mutters to himself.

“Hey, dumbass.”

Ash looks towards the door, where his four friends stand huddled together. His face breaks into as much of a smile as it can. “Hey guys.” He mumbles.

They make their way into the room, Sullie propping herself up on the bed beside him. “Where’s Penelope?” He looks behind the others. Their silence triggers the memory his brain is trying to protect him from. “Never mind. I remember” His voice almost a whisper. He takes Sullie’s fingers in his, and smiles up at her. “Sorry about everything.” His voice is sheepish.

“You better be god damn sorry.” She pokes him in the chest. He winces as her finger connects with a knee shaped bruise. “I’m not sorry about that. Don’t you ever, ever scare me like that again!”

“I don’t really see this being an issue again.” His voice is sombre. “So what’s happened? The last thing I remember is Staal confessing just before I passed out.”

“We must have gotten to the house right after that happened. You were already unconscious.” Emmette leans against the wall across from the bed.

“Emmette and I made sure that he couldn’t hurt anyone else until the cops got there. Which took way longer than it should’ve.” Frasier adds.

“Yeah, that was my fault.” Rowena sheepishly leans on Emmette’s shoulder. “I called Officer Daniels, but I was having some kind of panic attack and I couldn’t get out the address. It took him a while to figure out what I was trying to tell him.”

“I don’t think anyone really blames you for the panic attack, Row.” Frasier smiles. Ash can feel the bond that’s developed between the four of them.

“How long was I out?”

Sullie’s voice in low and even. “A long and terrifying six days.”

“She’s not exaggerating, Ash.” Emmette’s voice mirrors Sullie’s. “This has been the worst week of my life. Of all our lives. We’ve been holding vigil at the hospital together since it happened. Then we moved here. I’ve seen these three more than my parents.”

“Did they get Staal?” Ash finally asks the only question he really wants to know the answer to.

“They’ve arrested him, but I don’t know if they’ve pressed charges yet. I’d guess so, since he’s been there for like four days. They found Penelope’s phone and purse in his house, and her car down the street. Sullie gave them all that information she collected. I don’t know if it’s enough though. They’ve been waiting to talk to you.” Emmette fills him in on the details.

Sullie plays her fingers through his hair gently. “Everyone’s kind of been waiting on you. The school’s been in turmoil. No one can believe what’s going on. None of us have been back.”

“What about the other girls? Will they report him?”

“I’ve been given very, very specific instructions not to speak to any of them.” She smiles. “I’ve been too worried to try.”

“Sullivan, this isn’t the time to hold out on me, okay?” Ash forces his arm through the painful motion required to brush her hair back behind her ear.

She just stares down at the bed. A tear falls from behind her hair onto the blanket. Ash looks from her to the others. He gestures towards the door with a nod of his head and Frasier and Emmette slip silently into the hallway, dragging Rowena with them.

“Sullie.” Ash’s voice is low, trying to keep her calm and relaxed. “Sweetie, can you please tell me what happened. Tell me what I need to do to help you through this.”

“Stop being so god damn pulled together.” Sullie’s voice is coloured with an animosity Ash doesn’t understand.

“What?”

“You’re lying here in bed. Beaten almost to a pulp. Hell,” She throws up her arms and pushes herself off the bed, “not almost. You are a pulp. Look. This is what I see when I look at you.” She grabs the little vanity mirror from the dresser and holds it in front of him. Ash gasps when he seems his face. The skin around his eye looks like hamburger that’s been left on the counter for too long. The left side of his face is so bruised it’s almost black. A row of stitches stretch up his jawline. A plethora of scrapes and cuts cover his face.

“I look disgusting.” Gritting his teeth against the pain, he explores the side of his face with his fingers. “No wonder you won’t look at me. I understand if you want to reconsider your options.”

“Stop it! Just stop it!” Sullie shouts, putting the mirror away before coming back to the bed. “This is what I’m saying. Stop trying to make me feel better! Of course, I’m not going to leave you. I’m not that shallow.” A quick smile passes across her lips. “But I want you to understand what happened to you. To your sister. Stop trying to make me feel better and grasp that this is very real. You’re going to have to testify. You’re going to have to learn to be without Penelope. Your sister is dead.”

“Are you trying to depress me?” Ash cocks his head. “I don’t really understand where you’re going with this.”

“You’re a strong person, Ash. You’ve never pussyfooted around an issue to save someone’s feelings. So don’t do it on account of me. I’m not a weak person. If I was, you wouldn’t be with me.” Sullie’s posture slumps as she relaxes. “I don’t really know what I feel right now. I don’t know what I expect you to feel; I’m just so glad you’re back. That you’re finally awake. Do you understand? I thought I’d lost you, and we’d just found each other. I couldn’t lose my best friend and my boyfriend in the same day. And then I feel guilty for feeling bad when your parents have it so much worse. So when you don’t let yourself hurt and get angry so that I feel better, I feel even more guilty.”

“You’ve got to give me some time, okay?” Ash took a deep breath and closed his eyes against the pain. “I’ll grieve and get angry and all that stuff, but in my own time. Right now, I just need to… just let me do it at my own pace, alright?” He opened his eyes to find her staring at him.

“Fine.”

“Now, apparently it’s been a week since I kissed you. So, come here.” He smiles at his girlfriend. Sullie leans forward, careful not to put any of her weight on him. Their lips meet in a soft, but hungry kiss.

“God, I’ve missed you.” Sullie’s breath is hot against his skin as she breaks the kiss but doesn’t move away.

“I’m glad we’re going to be okay. You really don’t know any more about what’s going on with Staal, do you?”

Sullie shakes her head. “I don’t. None of us do. They won’t tell us anything. Your parents probably know more, but we haven’t asked them.”

“Okay.” He nods. “Let the others back in.”

Sullie nods before walking to the door and opening it.

“What about…?” Ash stops, taking a deep breath. “What about the funeral?”

“Your parents have been waiting for you to wake up before they scheduled anything.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Closing his eyes, Ash leans back against the pillows, keeping Sullivan’s hand in his. Sliding back into sleep, he feels the weight of everything pressing into his chest and wonders how he is ever going to get through this.

Chapter 28