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

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