She's always been different, but now different could get her killed.
Dust and dirt swirls up as I spin and twirl in the pit, creating a blinding whirlwind. My messy blonde hair flies around me as I pound my fist repeatedly against the ball, smashing it into peoples’ legs. I reach down and flick another handful of dirt into the air, obscuring the rest of the players’ vision. The ball gets knocked out of my reach, but the boy next to me passes it back quickly. Aiming for the next person, I don’t even have to squint to see through the chaos around me. Drawing my arm back I fake power in my swing and the girl in front of me jumps to avoid the ball, but I barely tap it and the girl comes crashing down on the ball instead. Two people are left other than me. One of which is my best friend with whom I’m allied with, and the other is a short wiry brunette who looks terrified.
Without a second thought I punch the ball and it shoots backwards between my legs and hits the little wiry girl in the shin, who then throws herself out of the pit like she’s extremely glad to have been pounded by a dodgeball going at least 10 miles an hour. I take a second too long to watch the girl climb out of the pit and am shocked to feel the ball slam into the back of my legs.
“BRAYDEN!” I shriek.
“I didn’t hit you Ryan,” my best friend calls from outside the pit.
Slowly, I turn around to meet the gray eyes of the victor. He flashes me a Colgate smirk and sticks out his hand to shake.
“You really should watch your back,” Luka says, with a false sense of helpfulness.
Gritting my teeth, I reluctantly place my hand in Luka’s. His hand is freezing and his touch chills me to the core as we shake hands. My blood turns icy for a second until he releases my hand and flashes me another hellion smile. My blood flows smoothly like the past couple of seconds never occurred, and I dismiss it to the fact that I absolutely hates every fiber in this kid’s body.
“Congratulations on winning for once, I thought I was gonna have to let you win soon,” I snap giving him my own sarcastic smile.
“You must be mistaking me for someone else, like maybe your friend over there, cause this is the first time I’ve played Pit Ball,” Luka says, not losing his smile for a second.
“That’s pretty obvious,” I’m quick to retaliate, fed up with his nice boy act.
“Hey don’t be a sore loser, I won’t be here tomorrow so maybe you could win then,” he says, sending me a pitying look.
Hissing air between my teeth, I jump the wooden wall of The Pit and am greeted by a very indignant Brayden.
“I hate that guy like seriously, I don’t hate very many people but if there was a list of people that could be wiped off the face of the earth and it wouldn’t bother me in the least he would definitely be number one,” He grumbles shouldering his book bag.
“Just like he is with everything else,” I mumble.
Pit Ball is the one place that I can escape the people at school and their judgments, because it doesn’t matter what you look like, or what grades you get, or who you are. This is a game of skill, and if you’re good or bad is the only thing that you’re judged over. Everyone forgets what a weirdo I am and the rumors circulating around me and my friends’ families. The Pit is my safe haven- or was, seeing as how my number one tormentor has joined the game.
Brayden and I have already walked a good distance away from The Pit, but I can still hear Luka gloating to his friends, and spreading the already well known rumors. A bitter taste fills my mouth and I drag Brayden away before I can turn around and make things worse.
We’re followed by a giggling group of 16s. I think Brayden’s looks protect him from most of the drama and rumors surrounding us. After all, how could someone as attractive as him be anything less than perfect? At least that seems to be the logic most people use for him. Brayden’s thick messy brown hair combined with his constant color changing eyes and lean physique pack quite a punch on the females at my school and the only thing preventing from him being just as popular as Luka is his association with me as my best friend.
“Don’t mind him, he’s an idiot,” Brayden says, trying to make me feel better.
“True,” I say, giggling in spite of myself.
“Not as big of an idiot as you of course,” he reasons genially.
“Take that back or you’re going to lose so bad at Pit Ball tomorrow that you’ll be sneezing out dirt for a month,” I growl, feigning seriousness.
Suddenly our playful banter is interrupted by the school bell, encouraging us all to move on to our last class of the day. Everyone has seventh block as a free period, which I and a good portion of the student body spend playing Pit Ball, because it’s the teachers’ conference block, but all 16s have Numbers eighth block. So, Brayden and I get swept away to the gym where Numbers is held. Our school has such a high attendance level this year that classes had to be moved to the three gyms that we have and even the cafeteria and auditorium, while the classrooms are renovated to fit more kids.
As Brayden and I settle into the mass of kids and find open desks, I get a nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something. Kids yell and romp around until our teacher, Ms. Chester, walks in. She’s the type of person who emits authority and demands respect by just walking into a room, so everyone automatically takes a seat and quiets down. She walks in looking how she does every day, with her too tight black pencil skirt and pin-striped blazar paired with her bun, which is tied up in a tight knot at the back of her neck, but something’s off. I can’t quite put my finger on it and before I have time to mull it over she launches into a detailed lecture involving pi and a few other new things that shouldn’t be allowed in numbers and I’m forced to give my full attention over to what’s sure to be the cause of a serious migraine.
In the middle of the lecture, while Chester’s quizzing a random 16, I finally realize what’s off about her. Her near black eyes don’t hold their usual malice at being able to torture innocent 16s with numbers. This fact is strange because she loves asking questions over material we haven’t learned yet and giving out unfair detentions when we don’t know the answer. Thinking about her issues makes my impending headache pound behind my eyes so I drop it and focus back on Chester’s monotone voice. Maybe if I just don’t listen I won’t get a headache. The thought is laughable, because if I don’t listen I’ll still get a headache and I’ll probably fail our next pop which Ms. Chester has been kind enough to mention more than once will be over the material covered today.
Sure enough, by the time the release bell rings my head is pounding and even Brayden, who’s a whiz with numbers, is mentally exhausted. As we’re gathering our things, someone bumps into me and sends all my books flying. I spin around, bristling, and glare into a pair of gray eyes.
“Watch where you’re going,” I snap.
“I was,” Luka replies haughtily.
I watch his retreating form until he disappears from view, then I gather my things from the floor. Suddenly another pair of hands joins me in the clean-up. I start to thank Brayden before I realize that his hands aren’t shriveled and claw like. Choking back a shriek, I look up to meet Ms. Chester’s cold dark eyes. Up close I see that her eyes aren’t near black, they are black. That’s not possible though, because a person can’t have black eyes. My blood runs icy in my veins once again, and I blink to clear the image of her black and pitiless eyes. When I manage to meet her gaze again Ms. Chester’s eyes are dark brown again and she looks slightly concerned.
“Are you all right dear?”
“Oh yeah- I mean yes ‘mam,” I stutter, noticing how the gym has completely emptied and I’m alone with the creepiest teacher in the whole school. Brayden must have ditched me for Kat or something.
“Well you better hurry home, wouldn’t want to miss tonight,” She says ushering me out of the gym.
“What’s tonight?” I ask, but Ms. Chester’s not listening.
She’s already bustling away humming quietly, which is definitely not like her. Shouldering my book bag and trying not to look too weirded out, I allow the end of the day crowd to sweep me out of the front doors and scan the crowd of chaotic kids for my brother Mathew, who’s an 18. Finally I see his tousled blonde head above the crowd and somehow manage to make my way to him.
“Liza,” he shouts, pulling me into a hug.
“Don’t call me that,” I say, crossly.
Elizabeth is my first name but I hate that name so hardly anyone knows that it is and everyone just calls me by my middle name, Ryan. The few people who actually speak to me that is.
“Oh don’t be a stiff Ryan,” Mathew says, ruffling my hair playfully.
“Shut it, Matt,” I say, rolling my eyes.
By this time, his friends have all crowded over and I’m forced to the edge of the group. I don’t belong with a group of eighteens anyway, after all I’m still 15. Suddenly it dawns on me, I officially become a 16 at midnight tonight. That must be what Ms. Chester was referring to. I’m jittery and excited until I remember that not one person all day has mentioned my sixteenth. Not even Brayden. Tonight is when I finally get my earbud and no one seems to care. An earbud is just like a phone but it’s extremely small so that it can fit in your ear and its voice controlled. Everyone gets a phone when they become twelves but by sixteen the government deems us mature enough for an earbud. Sadness covers my excitement but then I imagine having the earbud and my heart warms. Besides maybe everyone’s trying to pull off one of those surprise things that I’ve read about in books.
With a slight skip in my step I turn my feet homewards. I live fairly close to school so the buses don’t run in my neighborhood and both of my parents are doctors so they work late at the hospital and can’t pick me up, so I walk. I enjoy the quiet though, or as close to quiet as The City of New can get. I follow a sidewalk next to the school into a quaint little suburban neighborhood with identical houses all lining one side of the street. The other side is bordered by a dry grassy field and beyond that I can just make out the hazy smudge on the horizon that is the only evidence that The Section of Old still stands.
The Section of Old was destroyed about 15 years ago, when I was only a One, by a huge explosion. The cause was never found because most of the city was leveled and a toxic gas was released. The explosion killed thousands of people, but what really got everyone was the gas. The gas was colorless and scentless and no one knew it was there until people started dropping dead. It was the main killer, but after a while of chaos the government realized that our homes were hazardous and inhabitable so the pulled themselves together and evacuated everyone. The Section of Old was once named Dallas, but after the explosion the government ruled that names were no longer needed for things that no longer existed. That’s why when someone passes away their names are no longer used or said aloud. It’s like they were never here. Most of us still use the names, but only when we’re alone.
If I squint I can just make out the tall jagged spike rising into the air that used to be the Community Center, where people would host all kinds of events and people all over the world would gather. Most of the fatalities were from when the building collapsed. Only the West side of the tower fell away while the East side remained vigil in the demolished city. I don’t remember the explosion at all, but I know that my family and I lived on the outskirts of the city so our house wasn’t as effected, and the thing that really forced us to move was the gas. The government couldn’t ever get rid of the gas so they just quarantined the city and started fresh with The City of New.
Some people believe that the explosion was caused by unregistered science and experiments, but I think that’s ridiculous. It was most likely the result of careless plumbers when the gas lines where put in place. What type of science could cause an explosion large enough to level a whole city?
Others bring up the fact that my parents had been missing for two days before the explosion and they miraculously showed up in the aftermath. Apparently my brother and I were being watched by our grandparents at the time and they evacuated us to the safe space about 10 miles out of the city where my parents showed up 24 hours later. Unharmed. Not a scratch was found on them. The government ruled them innocent, but my family remained suspects in everyone else’s’ minds. For a while I thought we might have to move and live in the ruined city, but then the government revealed their plans for The Section of Old.
Most of the people that live under the poverty line live in The Section of Old. They’re called Scroungers, because they can’t afford to live in the cookie cutter houses that the government designed, and they can’t really afford basic living so the government just kind of left The Section of Old to them. So with it being the only way for them to survive, they scrounge for what they can which is where they get the name Scroungers from. Once you sink below the poverty line there’s really no coming back because the government doesn’t allow anyone who’s been below that line to get a job because it “corrupts” the work place. They think that if they let Scroungers have jobs then the Scroungers’ bad habits will rub off on the hard working people of their “perfect” society.
Over the past two years the government has become more and more stringent over every little rule. Nothing gets past them, not even the smallest of offenses. I remember one time last winter when our thermostat mysteriously turned itself up way past the normal temperature, and the government shut off our heat for two weeks. It happened after me and my parents got into some stupid argument and my parents thought that I was forcing my body temperature to rise because I was so mad, but then the Society Soldiers showed up and reprimanded us for having our heat on past regulation temperatures. The punishments are pretty extreme but there’s nothing that anyone can do other than follow the rules and hope they don’t screw up.
Suddenly I realize that I’ve stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and I’m staring at The Community Center transfixed. Shaking off my stupor I continue on to my house, which is the 13th house on the street. I guess our number matches our reputation. Stepping up to our front door I see that my parents have arrived before me for once. Surprised yet pleased I try the door handle to find it unlocked. Stepping into my house I immediately feel that our usual cool atmosphere is now charged with tension and all is quiet.
“Mom? Dad?” I call out as I shut the door softly behind me.
“We’re in the kitchen sweetheart,” My Mom responds.
I nervously hang my book bag up by the door and pad lightly into the kitchen, to find the dining table laden with food. There’s a steak and a twice baked potato on a plate at my spot, but my parents’ and brother’s plates have a simple chicken salad. It’s a tradition to cook your child’s favorite food when they officially turn sixteen and the rest of the family gets the regular meal of the day. Glancing down at my plain silver banded watch I note that its only five thirty and dinner isn’t to be eaten until seven.
“Happy Sixteenth honey,” My parents chime together.
My mother’s golden blonde hair is down and tousled which is a first because she always has it up and out of her face. My father’s smile looks slightly forced and his salt and pepper hair is disheveled and all over the place. I’m confused, but I’m still happy that they’re home.
“What are y’all doing home so early?” I ask happily.
“We got off early to celebrate your sixteenth because we have a really late night tonight and we didn’t want to miss your big day,” My mom says with a strained smile.
Thank you is all I can manage to say, as I’m pulled into my father’s arms for a bear hug. When I pull away I see tears glistening in his eyes.
“Daddy what’s wrong?” I ask, alarmed.
“Nothing sweetheart,” he replies with a bittersweet smile, “you’re just growing up so quickly.”
By this time Matt walks in and the festivities begin. First we all take a seat at the table and dig into dinner. Matt gives us a play by play of him winning in Pit Ball against a group of his Eighteen friends over in the advanced pits, and my parents loosen up a bit as they laugh along and my dad gives him pointers. By the time Matt’s described his triple hit for the third time we’ve all cleaned our plates and Mom’s pulling out apple cobbler.
“Yum,” My dad exclaims, his blue eyes lighting up.
The whole family gets desert but I get the first plate. I don’t even bother waiting for everyone to be served, and I dig in as soon as my Mom sets the cobbler in front of me. The crust melts on my tongue and I savor every bite of sugary goodness. We aren’t allowed sweets very much so I mean to make it last a while but before I know it I have one bite left and my brother’s eying it greedily. Tonight’s my night though, and I gobble it down without a second thought.
“So who thinks it’s time for presents?” My Mom asks mischievously.
“ME!” I shout excitedly.
She grins and pulls out a metal box and a few other boxes varying in sizes. The metal box is my ear bud but I didn’t expect my parents to get me anything else. My parents look pleased at my surprise and make me put in my earbud first. Opening the metal box I see a small circular object that looks kind of like a hearing aid. My Mom makes me read the directions first and finally my dad takes the ears bud from me.
“Are you ready?” he asks me, that bittersweet smile covering the lower half of his face again.
“Absolutely,” I say without hesitation.
My father brings the bud up to my ear and very gently he inserts it into my head. He lets go and slowly a miniscule wire snakes its way into my ear canal and sends shivers down my spine. I can’t feel anything for a few seconds but then a sharp pain shoots through my skull. I shriek and grab my head, but the pain passes as soon as it comes. I look up slowly to see my family looking at me proudly.
“Let’s see those other presents,” I say, grinning from ear to ear.
My mom laughs and hands me a small box that fits in my palm.
“So much for sentiments,” She says watching me eagerly.
Laughing, I tear into the wrapping paper to find a little paper box. Gently lifting the lid, I discover a pair of diamond stud earrings. Tears fill my eyes as I realize whose earrings these used to be.
“Oh Mom, you shouldn’t have,” I say hugging her tight.
“Nana would have wanted you to have these,” she says, squeezing me.
My grandparents perished in the process of helping to evacuate people from the ruined city 15 years ago.
“Ok, ok that’s enough tears, she’s only sixteen,” Matt says, breaking through the sad atmosphere.
We all laugh and my dad passes me a package crudely wrapped in brown paper wrapping. Pulling away the tape, I unwrap a leather bound book. It looks like a journal of some sort. I begin to leaf through the pages, but my dad covers my hand with his.
“Not yet,” he says smiling warmly at me.
“Thank you dad,” I say, pulling him into a fierce hug.
He responds by lifting me off of my feet and crushing me in a hug of his own.
“Shouldn’t y’all be heading back to work now?” Matt asks.
“Yeah I don’t want to get y’all in trouble,” I say glancing at my watch and seeing that it’s seven in the evening.
“Right, of course,” my Mom says looking sad.
I think they’re upset about having to work on my Sixteenth.
“Don’t worry Mom we can celebrate more in the morning,” I say smiling at her reassuringly.
“Yeah, definitely,” She says, looking on the verge of tears.
I don’t want to upset her more so I usher my parents to the door with the help of Matt.
“Don’t rush me,” My dad says chuckling.
There seems to be no humor in his laugh either. This is beyond weird, but maybe they’re just tired. My mom is halfway out the door before she rushes back inside and gathers me up in another hug.
“Mom calm down, you’ll be gone for like three hours, I’ll see you in the morning,” I say hugging her back.
She doesn’t respond, but gives me a sad smile and disappears through the front door her brown eyes riddled with sadness. My dad steps up to me after he whispers something to Matt and hugs me too. After a second he disappears as well.
“I love you,” I call out into the night, as my parents climb into their car.
My dad mouths I love you too as my mom makes a heart with her hands. Matt’s gone quiet and I look over at him to see him staring after them, his eyes blank. I say his name a few times but he doesn’t respond.
“Eh, earth to Matty,” I say waving my hand in front of his brown eyes.
“Don’t call me that,” He snaps back, breaking out into his usual grin.
We withdraw into the warmth of our house and Matt picks up the kitchen as I slip upstairs and get in the shower. I have a bad feeling about tonight and I keep remembering my mother’s last sad smile to me. The warm rush of the shower helps soothe me and when I climb out I’m calmer and can’t wait to call Brayden on my new earbud. Toweling off, I slip on some pajamas and study myself in the mirror. I certainly don’t look like a sixteen. A lot can change in a person’s looks in a year, but I don’t think I’ve changed in the slightest. I still have the same dirty blonde hair, heart shaped face, and golden eyes. Not a thing has changed, except maybe my height. I’m still short but I’m a little less short than I used to be.
Still mulling over my parents strange behavior, I throw myself down on my bed. I know Brayden’s pin number by heart so I call him right away. Clicking a small button on my ear bud I speak aloud.
My ear bud beeps a few times but Brayden doesn’t pick up so it eventually goes silent and asks if I want to leave a voicemail. I almost hang up but then I decide to actually leave him a message.
“Hey B, this is Ryan, I finally got my ear bud, call me when you get this,” I say before powering down my ear bud and running downstairs to the kitchen.
My grandmother’s earrings and my father’s journal are on the kitchen table where I left them and I carry them upstairs to my room. Crawling into bed I slip the earrings under my pillow and hold my father’s journal carefully. I’m about to open it, but I’m hit by a wave of fatigue and I decide to go through it in the morning. Putting the journal under my pillow with the earrings I wrap myself in my duvet and immediately drift into a dreamless sleep.
A/N: First chapter