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.