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?”
“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.
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.
“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.