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