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.