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Rated: 13+ · Novel · Young Adult · #1912943
Scar's learned to keep her mouth shut. Until she finds a cause worth dying for. DRAFT 1
In a society where people are abducted during the night and replaced with more compliant replicas, seventeen-year-old Scar has learned to keep her head down and her mouth shut. That is, until she finds a cause worth fighting for.

This is the first draft of a dystopian thriller. Any thoughts?



Part 1

The Taking

CHAPTER ONE


Taking Quarter

12:01 A.M.



Its past curfew and I’m sitting on the factory roof when I hear it. We’ve been fighting, Puck and I, and I can’t sleep. Night sucks me up in its cold embrace and I don’t want to let go. I want to stay here forever. On the roof, I can see over the Wall that separates our Quarter from the next. At night, the Replacement Quarter is dazzling. Gleaming buildings pulse against the moonlight. Compared to this place, it is paradise. I feel a longing to be there, to experience what it feels like to walk over smooth roads and live in a house that’s not falling apart. But to cross the border means something worse than death.

A woman screams. Her voice is a bloodcurdling wail that splits the air and sends goose bumps rippling through my spine. I glance down to a nearby house that sits in the darkness of our Quarter. Dark shapes haul the woman by her wrists through the darkness. Her eyes are tear-streaked, her face pale as death in the moonlight. She’s not fighting back. They never do.

I turn away and try to ignore it like we’re supposed to. Look the other way, don’t make eye contact, and forget…

The woman screeches again. The soldiers grip her arms. She’s begging them now, but they don’t seem to hear. A black craft lies in wait near the curb and they shove her inside, not bothering to be gentle. I look away and try to block it from my mind, try to forget…

That’s when I notice the child. He’s staring out from the kitchen window, plump face pressed so hard against the glass that his breath fogs. Tears smear against his fingers. He can’t be more than six years old, too young to work. He must have heard the screams.

I stand and inch my way from the roof’s edge. But my eyes are fixed on the scene. One of the soldier’s eyes lock on mine and a shudder runs through me. His gaze are cold, cruel. My heart beats in my chest.

He’s going to take me too, I think. He will. I should never have gone out past curfew. I never should have watched. Then the soldier ducks behind doors that snap shut and the craft speeds away. The Taking must have lasted no more than a few seconds, but it feels like a lifetime.

“Scar!”

I am too scared to answer.

“Scar!” The voice hisses again. There’s desperation and dread in the sound, but still I can’t bring myself to respond.

Rapid footsteps pound below and before I know what’s happening, two hands latch onto the factory’s edge. With remarkable power and grace, a boy flings himself onto the flat roof. His golden hair is scruffy and his eyes are wide. He’s shirtless in the night, but he doesn’t seem to notice the cold.

“Scar,” Puck gasps again. “Where were you? I thought they took you! I thought-”

“I’m fine.” I shake my head in shock and cast one last glance behind me to the dim house. “I’m fine.” I say it again, one more time to convince myself.

“It’s past curfew! Do you know what they could do to you? They could take you for breaking the Law.”

I’ve heard this lesson more times than I can count. Over time, I’ve developed a skill of disregarding Puck’s advice. So far, it seems to be paying off.

“There’s a boy down there,” I say.

He sighs, his eyes rolling. “We don’t have time for this. We’ve got to go home. You know that place where we’re actually halfway safe?”

“He’s only six, I think. Not a worker yet.”

“And?” Puck’s eyebrows crease into a frown I know all too well.

“And he looks scared. I’m just going to see if he’s alright.” I remember seeing my first Taking. How could you forget?

“He’ll manage.”

“How do you know?”

We did, didn’t we?”

Silence stretches between us and I look off to the towering barrier that separates our Quarters. He has a point, but I don’t tell him that. Puck seems to have forgotten what day it is tomorrow. I haven’t. After tomorrow, my life may as well be over. I start down the fire escape, clinging to the rails, my bare feet muffling the metal’s groans.

“Where are you going?” Puck hisses at me.

“To help him.”

Puck leaps beside me, his feet landing noiselessly on the fire escape. Glancing down, I can see the gleam of his switchblade pressing into his thigh. He thought the soldiers were coming for me, I realize then. If it came to it, there’s no doubt he would use it against them. He snatches my arm gently, but firm. Puck is stronger than me and taller by a foot. Not to mention three years older. But he never uses force–not unless it’s critical.

“We’ve got to go home,” he says. I can tell he’s serious. But then again, my brother always is.

“But-”

“Now.”

There’s something else in his expression too, something I’ve been trained to detect. He tries to hide it, but I can tell. I can always tell.

It’s fear.

+ + +


“Try and be nice this time okay Scar? This isn’t a game. This is serious,” Puck tells me. He’s pacing again, his fists clenching and unclenching and his fists wiping the sweat from his rough palms. He’s more nervous for my selection day than he was for his own.

Selection day. It is when they choose our fates, when they assign each and every high school graduate to a factory job that will last the rest of their lives until they are old and crippled and can no longer perform the task.

“Look them in the eye. Use manners,” Puck says.

“Next you’ll be telling me to courtesy and bow. Relax. I’m not going to do anything stupid.”

“You better not.”

“Or what?” I say.

“Or else they’ll-”

“Take me like they did Mom and Dad? Thanks again for reminding me,” I snap.

I want to tell him that anything’s better than this, that having your life planned out for you isn’t my idea of a fulfilling existence, but I don’t. Puck’s scared and speaking my mind will only make it worse. There’s a one in a million chance the judges will send you to be a domestic at the Replacement Quarter. This of course is what Puck is afraid of. Girls are told to earn high marks in school, that it’ll set them up for a life of luxury. In reality, only the beautiful are chosen. This is why girls spend hours raking their manes into place, smearing makeup on their faces, and squeezing into dresses that are ten sizes too small. Some boys don’t even bother wearing shoes.

I’ve been told that with a little grooming, I’ll be easily chosen. I hope not. Replacements like cattle they can herd and frankly, I like to kick.

Puck’s eyes drop and he stops pacing. He reaches in his pocket and hands me something. “Here,” he says. “I’ve been saving this for today.”

It looks like a slip of paper, but I quickly realize that it can only be one thing. The image is trapped in a box. A photograph.

“Who are these people?” I ask.

There are two of them; adults, with their arms wrapped around one another laughing into the camera as if they don’t have a care in the world.

“Mom and Dad,” Puck says.

My throat begins to choke up and I hold the photograph tighter, staring at the image. It’s customary for pictures of family members to be burned after a Taking, but Puck has kept the photograph all this time. He looks like our mom with golden, straight hair and jaded olive eyes. I look more like Dad; narrow jaw, full lips, and dark lashes that act as petals around sapphire eyes. Though Puck has Dad’s bronze skin.

“How did you-”

“They missed this one,” Puck says with a shrug. “So I tucked it in a crack in the floorboards.”

I’ve never known Puck to break a Law, though I knew he could. “Have you ever considered using your powers for evil?” I tease him.

“Only good,” Puck answers, smirking.

I take in the picture until my eyes water. When I close them, I see my parents. I see Mom dragging a brush through my tangled locks and twining the ends into braids. I see Dad scooping me up in his arms and pressing me to his chest to sing in his deep, rumbling voice. These are gaps in my memory that have never been filled…until now.

Our parents broke the Law when I was seven years old. Even now, ten years later, I can feel the cold stares of those around us. It’s almost unheard of for both parents to be taken, especially the same night. And with kids. The neighbors helped some, dropping off food and old clothes and checking in to see how we were fairing. But mostly, it was Puck. Even as a kid himself, Puck raised us both. I’ll never forget that.

“You were too young to remember them well,” Puck says gently. “So I figured this would help.”

More than you know, I think. “Thanks. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. Just keep it safe.”

The bell to start the day sounds. This is the same bell that beckons us to work, summons us to our allotted lunch break, and later releases us for the day. That is, until the hour of eleven when curfew begins and another bell sounds.

Puck jumps at the noise, his eyes stretching in something like dismay. This is the most afraid I’ve ever seen him. Usually, he’s a rock, stone-faced and detached, but not today. Today, he is terrified. I tuck the photograph of our parents into the holster of my belt and tug my shirt over it.

A mass of people both old and young spill from their houses like rats from the sewers when we step outside. After the bell sounds, the city wakes. Fast-talking vendors crowd the streets though hardly anyone buys from them. We don’t have money to waste. Like everyone in the Quarter, Puck and I are poor, but it amazes me how much worse it gets. Twice, I stumble over men bundles in wool sheets, some with only the shredded clothes on their backs. Homeless. It’s a wonder why they haven’t traded their memories for money. A year’s past would buy them ten years housing. Something tells me their histories aren’t anything they would want to remember anyway. I pass by them quickly, my fist clenched around the coin I’m supposed to use for lunch. I’ve never been mugged, but it happens. God knows it happens.

The Taking Quarter is a cluster of one-room shanties and brick high-rises. Gray factories and warehouses dominate the narrow streets. A beggar reaches out his knotted fingers and Puck pulls me away. We walk fast.

Teleboards flicker overhead, pushing snapshots of beaming dirt-smeared faces with slogans that say: Work is The Way. The Ideal Family billboard always cracks me up. A mother and father standing with their hands placed on the shoulder of a child, a boy or a girl. Sometimes both.

Every now and then, a man in his fifties appears on the screen and addresses the Quarter, his silver eyes piercing straight through. He is William Stronghold, the head official from the Replacement Quarter and leader of the Regime. Today, his usual speech is addressed to the selection day students. As if he cares. Puck glances up when Stronghold emerges, his frown deepening with more ferocity that I’ve ever seen before. Then Stronghold’s face vanishes along with Puck’s expression. We keep walking.

Another teleboard plays an ad for the Regime’s brain chips. A medical miracle, they call them. It’s strange to think that somewhere in my skull is a small chip calculating every breath I take, every beat of my heart, but I guess it’s better than nothing. If something happens to me, the brain chip will alert every doctor in the Quarter. Legend has it they can read your mind too just like they can store your memories, but I think that’s just a tall tale.

When we reach the school, Puck places a hand on my shoulder and touches his forehead to mine, our Quarter’s gesture for farewell. It is then that I realize he must know something.

“They won’t choose me to work in the Replacement Quarter, will they?” I ask him. “They’ve got to be crazy to do that.”

He won’t look at me, though his eyebrows are drawn in a frown. I can’t ask him anything else. I have to go. Being late to school is against the Law.



CHAPTER TWO


“Did you hear? Did you hear?”

I turn at a tugging on my arm. Skinner nearly pops my elbow out of my socket, she’s so excited.

“What?” I say. I clock in and we head to the benches where our work tools wait for us. The only thing is no one’s using them. In fact, no one’s even working. This is almost unheard of unless there is some sort of protest, but I can’t even remember the last time someone has boycotted a factory.

“Another Taking,” Skinner breathes. “The third this week.”  She peers at me behind crooked bangs.

My stomach turns and suddenly I don’t want to work. I remember the girl from last night. We’re not supposed to talk about Takings. We’re supposed to forget them, but Skinner doesn’t seem to get the concept.

“But get this,” another voice cuts in. My friend, Ruben, twirls a wrench in his hands. “It’s not who you think it is.” Ruben works the repair shop as a mechanic, fixing skycrafts up better than any adult I know. I face the both of them, hoping my exhaustion doesn’t show.

“Long night?” Ruben guesses.

I nod. “You have no idea.”

“Don’t worry. None of us could sleep. I can’t believe graduation is here already.” He brushes his curly hair from his eyes and flashes me a smile.

This is hardly the reason I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t tell him that. The scream echoes in my ears. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the woman was calling to me.

“You guys have all day to talk about the selection,” Skinner groans. “Don’t you want to know about the girl?”

“What girl?” I ask.

“Didn’t you hear?” Ruben says. “The girl from the Replacement Quarter, she-”

A sharp whistle cuts him off. Our supervisor stands in the doorway, looking tense. As usual, I can’t help glancing at his hands. It’s the first thing I notice. They tell you about the hazards after you sign up for the class. That way, it's too late to bail. They tell us to wrap our hair–or better yet–cut it so that it doesn't get caught in the machines. None of the girls wears anything besides leather leggings and tank tops or else our clothes could get caught in the machinery too. Some of us can't afford shoes. I've never seen it, but my friend knows a guy who had what they call 'factory foot' where your skin cracks and peels.  They also tell us to keep our hands close so we don't get our appendages chopped off.

Our supervisor is a walking case in point of what not to do. He's missing two fingers on either hand. He has a habit of wiggling his remaining fingers at us as we pass by, flashing us a crooked-toothed grins and telling us that we’ll end up like him one day, fingerless and miserable. The first time he said this, I felt like throwing up, my mind filling with the image of mangled limbs. Now his warning is familiar...almost calming.

“Listen up workers!” he shouts. “There’s been a change in agenda today. Normally, we would be working like animals until our bodies are numb and our backs are drenched with sweat. But since today is your selection days, I figured I’d go easy on you.” He chuckles as if he thinks this is funny. Nervous laughter follows. Then his face suddenly grows serious and he takes a step forward. “Today, we’ve received the dreadful news that our fellow neighbor in Zone 6 will no longer be with us.”

A series of boos fill the air. Ruben’s voice carries as one of the loudest along with his friend, Simeon. I think of the boy pressed up against the glass and my stomach sinks.

“It’s a shame, but life goes on,” the supervisor says over the uproar. “In other news, a girl from Replacement, daughter of the honorable head of security, has gone missing. It seems she’s either been kidnapped or run away.”

The crowd quiets down, but the anger burns just as deeply.

“What?” I whisper. The head of security’s daughter? Run away?

“That’s what I was trying to tell you!” Skinner hisses.

“So they’ve got one less princess to spoil. What’s your point?” someone calls out. It’s Ruben.

Laughter bursts around the room and I can’t help giggling. Ruben flushes with pride. It’s then that I notice the three men through the factory window, walking with their arms locked behind their backs. The instant the class spots them, the laughter chokes and dies.

Skinner frowns when she catches sight of them and Ruben’s face pales. They are clad in boots and buckles with long rifles. Instead of the typical drab brown and gray of the Quarter, they are dressed in navy blues and blood reds. Their faces are stone cold as they scan over us through the window. Replacement Quarter officials. No doubt they’re getting ready for the selection day. Or possibly, they are searching for the missing girl.

“To your places,” the supervisor yells.

We scramble to find our work stations and plop ourselves down. Skinner sits on my right and Ruben takes a place at my left.

Today, we’ve gotten assembly line duty. Together, we package boxes of multi-colored pills to send to the Replacement Quarter. What they use them for is beyond me. It could have been much worse and I'm only thankful we've escaped the meat packaging job. Aside from woodshop, that's the one I hate the most. I can't count how many splinters I've gotten. The conveyer belt moves slowly at first, but it soon picks up speed. I hold up my end of the deal, taping the boxes shut over and over until it becomes as routine as breathing. We work in a rhythm together. There is unity here. That, and mind numbing boredom.

This is the last time I'll ever have to do this, I think.

Through the window, the first official stops and the two soldiers trailing at his heels do the same. Now that we’re working, their eyes skim over us in satisfaction. Then they move onward, disappearing behind the factory’s cement walls. The moment only lasts a few heartbeats, but the silence lingers.

+ + +


There is one bathroom in the auditorium. Stumbling to the bathroom sink, I throw my arms out to catch myself and wait for the nausea to pass. I splash some water on my face and gargle with the rest of it, spitting the taste of vomit from my mouth. Then I cut the tap and stare at my reflection. At Puck’s urging, I’ve worn my best today. Knee high boots made of leather clinch my chins. A belt straps my waist and bracelet cuffs line my arms. I’m dressed entirely in black. Appropriate, since I may as well be attending my own funeral. The only color lies on my eyelids which are dusted orange and red, a fiery blend that sends my eyes aflame.  I blow a lock of hair out of my face. Nerves squirm in the pit of my stomach. Some people have butterflies. I have moths. Ugly, disgusting moths.

“Are you alright?”

The voice comes from behind. I jump and look to the mirror to see the reflection. It doesn’t take a second look to tell me the boy looking back is from Replacement. A wine red suit hugs his body with cuffs as white as snow. He’s leaner than Ruben, but not skin and bones like Skinner. It isn’t because he can’t get food, but that he’s probably too picky in eating it.

‘What do you think?’ I want to ask him, but I don’t. “I’m fine,” I say.

The boy can’t be much older than Puck’s age. Dirty blonde hair is slicked back behind his plum ears. He’s wearing so much grease, I’m sure he’s poisoning the planet just standing there. His face is as bare as a baby’s bottom. No facial hair. No dirt smudges. No signs of physical labor. I figure he’s one of the sons of the board or a friend of a friend’s son. Not important, but still a Replacement which I guess by default makes him important.

“Can I help?” he asks.

“Not unless you can change the date. But I doubt you can,” I say.

He frowns at me as if what I’ve suggested genuinely puzzles him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was calculating the scientific possibilities of changing a calendar day.

“Didn’t think so.”

“Well, maybe I can do something else,” he says. His hands are shoved in his pockets which isn’t a bad idea considering he’ll most likely be pick-pocketed as soon as he walks out the door.

“Do I know you?” I ask.

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

He’s trying to act mysterious, but it’s only making me dislike him more. “Don’t you have a limo waiting for you or something?” I tell him. “We’re not even supposed to be talking.”

“Ah. Segregation for equality.” He’s quoting from the Law. “Subsection B. Never should a have be near a have not nor exchange heartfelt hellos for thou shalt die. ”

I can’t help laughing. “That’s not what it says.”

“Well, basically. I’m only off by a few words, right?” He smiles sadly and twirls a silver pocket watch in his hands. The hologram emerges, revealing the time. Its 5:25–five minutes before the selection begins. I’ve never seen one of those before, though I’ve heard rumors they exists. Luxury is for the Replacements.

“I didn’t get your name by the way,” the boy says, sensing that he’s just reminded me of a sore subject. He places the watch in his pocket.

I debate whether to tell him. But then again, I figure I’ll never see him again in my life. And anyway, the least I could do is throw him a bone.

“Scarlett. Zone 10.” I curse myself for giving him my full name. “But call me Scar.”

I wait for him to give his. It’s mere cordiality, but he doesn’t. “Scar,” he repeats like he’s tasting it. “Empowering yet symbolic. I like it.”

He’s definitely not from around here. “Good to know,” I say, giving myself one last glance in the mirror. I don’t look half bad. Sucking in a deep breath, I try to block the kid out of my mind and pretend he’s not there. I grip the sink and am pleased to find that nothing more comes up.

Today is the day, Scar.

When I look back at him, he’s still watching me with curious, round eyes that makes him look more like a child. Still, there’s intelligence there and I can practically see the wheels turning within his skull.

“Like what you see?” I tease, cocking an eyebrow.

He frowns. “That’s not…I wasn’t…” he clears his throat and starts over. When he speaks, his words are slow and practiced. “I was just wondering what it feels like to have your entire like planned out for you…and to have no say about it.”

My throat catches. I stop smiling and stare at him. He looks so naïve, but I can tell he really wants to know. Coming from a guy who has probably never worked a day in his life, this must be difficult for him to understand.

“In a way?” I say. I’m not sure how to respond, not sure how to even begin summing up the feeling. It’s not like I have to be honest. I could lied, could tell him it’s actually pretty fun. But I don’t. “It’s like losing everything you’ve ever dreamed of…everything you thought you could do,” I tell him. “Like losing yourself.”

I’ve never felt so close to tears before this but I can’t cry. Not in front of him. With a deep breath, I head for the door back to the auditorium where the ceremony will take place.  Before I go, I look back at him, the Replacement who has never known the sting of sorrow. “But you wouldn’t understand, would you?”

His eyes latch on mine. “More than you know Scar,” he says softly.

Then I turn and leave, letting the door clatter behind me, his words echoing in my mind.

+ + +


There you are.”

Ruben pops out of the thick of students cramming for the front of the auditorium’s stage. Though he is wearing a smile, his eyes betray him. He is on edge.

“Where were you? I was looking all over for you,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to miss the show would you?”

“Don’t worry. I’m here now,” I say.

Doubt shows on his face, but he swallows his nosiness. I glance down to the shoes on his feet–they’re scuffed black ones with rubber soles. A collared shirt button up to his throat, the sleeves rolled up as far as they can go.

“Where’s Skinner?” I ask, changing the subject.

Ruben leads me through the crowd, carving paths with his broad shoulders. Skinner stands five feet from the stage where the judging table sits, hands clasped over her tattered dress in excitement. Though it’s not her selection day, she made an effort to dress up. Most of her scabs are concealed under bandages. Her shoes are sewed and patched with cloth and tape and the clay has been scraped off her face and neck. Without the dirt, she is three times lighter.

“It’s about to begin!” she gasps. She’s more excited than I am, but then, she has less to lose.

Someone has made a point to fix up the auditorium. A banner hangs above the stage, the words Selection Day printed in blocky letters. They line us up like pigs to the slaughter. Together, we are hundreds, a massive throng of sunburned faces. There are no general rules to who’ll go first. You always think it’ll be that way. That they’ll go in alphanumerical order or something. In any other Quarter but ours, I’m sure that would happen. Not here.

“Welcome all to the fiftieth annual selection day,” one of the men barks. “For years all of you have prepared for the honorable task of serving the Regime. Today you will be assigned a trade. Now who among you is willing to go first?” He’s wearing the usual; an angel white suit made of silk that symbolizes everything pure and rich and greater than us lesser beings. “How about you?” The student he points to doesn’t bother making eye contact. With a sigh, he shuffles forward, dragging his feet, and stands before him. I admire his enthusiasm.

“Name?” the same man asks. It occurs to me that this man will be the one deciding our trades. Sometimes I think they purposely pick these people to get on my nerves.

“Flynn,” the boy says. “Zone 8.”

He’s only got one name. It’s the same for each of us. I’m told there was a time there were other names too that came after the first. Ones like Baker, Chung, Patel, and Gonzalez. Now, we only say our zones. They’re going in order of regions. Puck and I live in Zone 10 which means my name is coming up fast. I scan the auditorium and try to pick out how many more are left, how many would be in the zones before me, but it’s no use.

“Quit fidgeting,” Skinner says. “You look like you’re having a seizure.”

“Two more zones,” I hiss. “Two more and then it’s us.”

“Funny,” Ruben says. “I wouldn’t think you’d be so excited.”

Excited? I groan. I couldn’t be feeling worse. I open my mouth to say this, but Skinner squeezes my wrists and points ahead.

“Look,” she whispers.

The boy from before, Flynn, has been assigned a trade–welding. It’s weird. I didn’t take him for the blazing metal type. He doesn’t seem completely upset about it, though. But that’s not what Skinner is pointing at.

“Fifth person from the left,” she squeals. “Do you know who that is?”

Following her gaze, my eyes land on a boy sitting among the board members. He looks distracted, his trimmed eyebrows furrowed as he stares anywhere but where he’s supposed to. A girl hangs on his left arm, her hair as red as a robin and her face spotted with freckles. Every now and then she latches on tighter and giggles or whispers something in his ear. You’d expect him to look happy having a girl practically falling over him, but he doesn’t look happy at all. My heart nearly jumps out of my chest.

“No,” I whisper. “It can’t be…”

”Who is that?” Ruben whispers, noticing my distress.

“Liam Stronghold,” Skinner says with a smirk. “Heir to the Stronghold wealth and throne.”

“Throne sounds a little dramatic,” Ruben mutters.

“Careful,” Skinner jokes, “Your jealousy is showing.”

By now, my shock has surfaced so much that that Skinner notices.

“Do you know him?” she asks me.

I shake my head, but it’s not very convincing. Skinner snorts like I’m lying to her which technically I’m not. I’ve only seen him once and that was in the bathroom of the auditorium when I told him my name and I’d actually joked and laughed with him and…I won’t even bring myself to think flirted. This is bad. Somehow this is bad. I just don’t know how yet.

Liam has found me in the crowd now. His face brightens, though the girl wrapped around his arm doesn’t notice the exchange. My face burns. I’m thankful for my sun baked skin or else I’m sure Skinner would have jumped at the blush of my cheeks.

“Really?” says Skinner, doubtfully. “He sure looks like he knows you.”

“She says she doesn’t know,” Ruben snaps. “Cut it out.”

He looks at me, giving me that expression that says: Are you okay? You can tell me if something’s wrong. Only, I don’t want to tell him.

“I was just wondering,” Skinner whines.

“She’s nervous. We need to give her some space.”

Skinner rolls her eyes, but doesn’t say anything. It’s not her selection day, so there’s not much she can say. I give Ruben a thankful look and he shrugs like he’s only doing his job. This only makes my smile drop and I quickly look away.

They call a girl up next. She’s from Zone 10, our zone, and it’s nerve-wracking to hear it. I’ve been so preoccupied; I barely remember seeing anyone from Zone 9. Ruben seems to notice this.

“There aren’t anymore kids our age in Zone 9 remember,” he whispers.

I don’t, but I don’t bother telling him that.  The selection board skims over the girl and reads her scores aloud. She did well in pottery class, in fabric making, even in home economics. I’ve seen her before. I’m sure we were in a class sometime in some grade. Maybe it was fabric making, a course I’m pretty sure I failed. The girl’s a real catch and not just for her skills. She’s kind of pretty too. It must’ve cost a year’s rations to buy the kind of clothes she’s wearing.

“Based upon but not limited to your rank in your institution, we have determined that from here on out you will be most suitable for a vocation in sewing,” the man on the board calls out.

This will be her trade for the rest of her life. The girl is noticeably crushed, her painted lips parting in an ‘O’ that leaves her jaw inches from the floor. A sob bubbles up from her gut and gushes from her mouth. She thought she would be sent to the Replacement Quarter to be a mindless ditz. I can’t bring myself to feel sorry for her. I guess, sometimes, kind of pretty doesn’t cut it.

This time, they call a boy’s name. He introduces himself as Simeon. He’s a friend of Ruben’s with skin the color of night and swollen arms. It’s not surprising when they assign him to the coal mines.

Simeon walks back over, wagging his head. “Good luck,” he murmurs to Ruben. Then he turns to me and flashes me a forced smile. “Wish I had your face,” he jokes. “Then all I’d do is serve Replacements all day.”

A sickly feeling creeps its way up my spine. “You’ll be fine.”

“Most guys who go into those mines never make it out,” he reminds me.

“But you will,” I say. “You’re strong.”

“Yeah,” Skinner speaks up. “You will.”

Simeon doesn’t try to hide his pain anymore. His eyes cloud and he turns away, anguish filling his face. We don’t say anything after that.

The man standing before us points. His finger would have landed on me, but Ruben steps in front. I’m too surprised to thank him. I’ll have to remember it later. That is, if I ever see him again. He walks forward, chin up, arms back. I try and guess what he’ll get. Ruben is strong and trustworthy. He’s reliable. They can’t send him to the mines.

They read off his scores. He did well in sports, especially team ones. He followed directions, but was a jokester which can easily be taken as disrespect. But then again, that’s just Ruben. After a while, the board stops deliberating. I notice Liam’s eyes on me which only makes me squirm more. I try to ignore him.

Ruben swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a rubber duck. He keeps tugging at his collar like it’s too tight.

“Based upon but not limited to your rank in your institution, we have determined that from here on out you will be most suitable for a position in your Quarter’s militia,” the official says, addressing Ruben.

My shoulders droop, but I can’t release the breath I’ve been holding. I can’t tell if it’s a good thing or not. All around me, the faces look puzzled. There is a smattering of clapping. It is unusual for someone to be chosen to work for the government. Most of us end up in jail at least once. Though I can’t remember the last time Ruben’s broken a rule so I guess it suits him.

“That’s great!” I tell him when he returns.

Skinner shoves me out of the way and hugs him.

Ruben looks baffled like he can’t tell whether to be relieved or upset. He sighs. “I guess that isn’t so bad.”

“No strenuous work,” I tell him. Soldiers spend most of their time patrolling the border that separates the quarters, but since the Wall is pretty much indestructible, they hang around and count sheep more than they actually guard.

“Yeah.” Ruben looks at his feet. “I just feel bad for Simeon and everyone else.”

“Don’t think about it,” I tell him, nudging his chin up.

“Um Scar?” Skinner calls.

But I’m not looking at her. “This is your day,” I tell Ruben. “Enjoy it.”

“Scar,” Skinner says again. She tugs at my sleeve.

“What?” I turn around and that’s when I notice the eyes on me. The man at the podium is pointing and his gaze has fallen on me. From the board, Liam stares. I swear I see a smirk.

It’s my time for the selection.

Ruben reaches for me. He grips at my top, but I push him away. “It’s okay,” I whisper, quickly. “If I don’t come back, get Puck. Tell him what happened.”

Ruben is shaking his head, his curls flopping over his ears. “But he’ll come after you. He’d die before he lets them take you.”

“They won’t take me,” I tell him.

He nods grimly. “I know. I wouldn’t let them.” I don’t know why, but at that moment, something enters my mind. We were ten, Ruben and I, the first time he said he liked me and I’d always ignored it as a childish crush. What will happen if they take me? What if I never find out?

Reuben slips a hand on my shoulder. His forehead is presses against mine, his breath and we stand so close, his breath drapes over my face, sending shudders though my spine. The official clears his throat and Ruben lets go, his eyes a mirror of my own inner turmoil.

“Farwell,” he murmurs.



CHAPTER THREE


“It says here you’ve received multiple marks for…misbehavior. Skipping class and refusing to participate in certain activities. Is this true, Scarlett?”

I clear my throat. Not good. Not good at all. The Replacement Official standing before the board doesn’t give me a chance to answer, to explain myself. This is probably good seeming as I won’t have to come up with an answer. It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong when I skip. Sometimes I would sit on the border that separates the East Wall from the rolling waves of the beach. Other times, I would crouch on a crumbling building top and watch the marketplace, listening to the cries of vendors selling noodles and trinkets and everything in between.

You’re always perched on some roof like a bird,” people would tell me. “Why’s it so hard to stay on the ground like the rest of us? We should clip your wings. Then you’d have to stay down here.”

Try it and I’ll peck you,” I’d tell them, only half-joking. What’s so wrong with wanting to be free, to soar?

The official clears his throat loudly and I snap back to attention. His dark eyes frown at me, his lips puckering. Liam watches me as if he’s wondering what I’m thinking.

“You did well in athletics it seems. Satisfactory in other things. It says here, you have an inquisitive, spirit about you.” The official looks up from the notes and gazes at me behind golden-rimmed glasses only a Replacement would wear.

“Inquisitiveness can be dangerous,” he remarks. “Do you agree?”

“In certain situations,” I say. “In others, it’s completely necessary.”

The official’s nose flares and from the end of the table, I can see Liam snicker. Somehow, this makes me smile, as if we’re sharing a joke.

“Do you enjoy sewing?” he asks me.

This is the part where they pretend to take into consideration what you want to do, but I hate sewing. “Not really.”

“Then what do you enjoy?” he demands.

“Being different.”

With a look of revulsion, the man whips around and whispers something to the judges. They too look irritated, but also amused. After a moment, the man turns to me. “Please join this group of females on the left,” he says. “Your occupation shall be determined with the rest of them.”

I do what he says, sneaking a glance at Ruben. He’s biting his lip, looking anxious.

The procession continues. The girls I’m standing with have one thing in common–they are beautiful. Full lips, striking eyes, and curvy shapes. We are apart of a smaller ceremony, a private one.

A different man walks over towards us. He’s dressed in a lavender suit, his black hair pressed to the sides of his skull. His gaze rakes over the room. He picks someone at random from the middle of the group of girls, a bony-legged seamstress with doe-eyes. Her fingers are trembling, her cheeks a deep crimson. Another girl is chosen soon after. Her eyes are fixed at the ground and she brushes back a lock of hair dyed the color of raspberries. The man motions and another girl’s dress sweeps across the concrete floor as she walks forward. Her clumsy footsteps lack grace, but she is attractive nonetheless. Finally, the stranger’s eyes land on me and something in his expression changes. A deep interest passes over his faces. I stare back at him, defiantly, before he peels his gaze away. It’s only a passing look, but something tells me it means much more. He points at me with a manicured finger and I walk step forward obediently.

The official ushers the four of us into a separate branch of the auditorium and the door slams, rattling inside of me. We’re herded into different rooms. They don’t tell us what it’s for, only that we may have the opportunity to serve out Quarters in special ways. I hope they don’t plan on making us join the army.

“Name,” the man says. They’ve brought me to a large supplies closet which is big enough to stretch out in, but it still seems a strange location.

“Scarlett,” I say.

The man pauses as if waiting for something else. “Do you have a last name, Scarlett?”

“No.” I don’t know what else he expects me to say, but he doesn’t seem satisfied. I wasn’t aware there were surnames in other Quarters.

“Any family?”

“What’s this about?”

“That’s for us to know.” He peers at my face, though he’s not exactly looking at me. His eyes roam to my feet and travel up my legs to my stomach to my chest and neck and face, until I feel thoroughly violated. His hand reaches up and he strokes me hair, fingering chestnut strands. I snatch away. He grabs for me, but I duck before he can touch me, leaving him groping through the air. The official’s stumbles forward and stops, wheeling on me, his frown deepening.

“How dare you-” he starts, but someone slaps a firm hand on his shoulder. The hand belongs to Liam Stronghold.

“No need for anger,” he says. He must’ve slipped through the door before it closed. Cunning.

“She has less manners than my dog!” the man protests.

Liam nods. “Point taken.”

“And you’re satisfied with that?”

“She’s got an intriguing spirit about her,” Liam says. “Don’t you agree?”

I don’t need your help, I think. The last thing I need is his help. The first official scowls at me, but the second grins.

“I’m guessing that’s not a good thing,” I say, to show that I can hear them. To show them I’m no toy they can trifle with.

“Trust me. It is,” says Liam. “You’re stunning. Isn’t she stunning?”

The official only glares back at me, his mouth clamped. He can’t say anything. Liam is the son of the wealthiest man in the world who just happens to be the chair of the government. Oh yes…he certainly can’t say anything.

I must have flushed red, because Liam chuckles and steps away. “You’re free to go,” he says.

“What do you mean, free to go? Isn’t this my selection? Aren’t I supposed to get a trade?” The fact that he’s altered my results doesn’t seem fair. Not that I know what the results are.

“It means,” the official snaps, “that against my better judgment you will be a part of the working class of the Replacement Quarter. A domestic.”

My heart drops in the pit of my stomach. Suddenly, I can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t see straight. The man’s voice rings in my ears. A domestic? This is the job I’ve been dreading, the worst sentence I could possibly get.

“No,” I murmur.

Liam seems to misread my expression and grins as if he’s just achieved something great. “Yes,” he says, practically beaming. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

I feel like a poor animal that’s just been snatched from the forest by an ignorant do-gooder. The forest may be rough, but it’s my home. I want to scream these words at him, but they won’t come.

“No,” I say again. “No, that’s not possible! Tell him he can’t do this to me!” I scream at anyone who is willing to listen.

Liam’s face falls, replaced with a look of baffled confusion. “Isn’t this better than working at a factory?” he says.

Icy fingers clasp my wrist then. Instinctively, I tug away, but the official clamps on tighter. A needle sinks into my skin like fangs, the black ink drawing the shape of a jewel. We are coal. They are jewels.  This small picture represents wealth and luxury, superiority and dominance. But it is not my own. I am not one of them. I belong to them. Chin quivering, I look up pleadingly at Liam, but his image is blurred beneath my tears. He's no longer smiling.

Are you happy? I think to him. You just made me someone's slave. Before I know what's happened, the official swabs my skin and thrusts me away like a branded cow.



Read on!

"If They Take Me (Chapter 4-6)
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