Displaying items by tag: fiction
“Dude, please, you gotta take me with you this time.”
Kalek perched on a low branch of a Platinum Oak, his Elven ears poking through a massive mound of ragged curls. I cringed at the way his onyx eyes gleamed. He’d convince me, I was sure, but I wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“No way,” I said, “I’m going camping. Alone. That means without you, so forget it.”
He jumped down from the tree, lithe as a panther, and stood in front of me. “C’mon. I’ve never been off the island. Just this once.”
“Your father will be furious.”
“I know, dude, all the more reason.”
I should have known he’d say that. He’d never admitted it, not outright anyway, but that was pretty much the reason he’d befriended me. There wasn’t a person on the island his old man hated more than me. Why he’d stayed friends with me, I’ll never know. Tattooed Elven rockers and homebody farm boys generally have little in common, but somehow we’d become brothers. My camping trips were the only times I insisted he stay away.
I couldn't wait to get my Social Monitor and start rating people. Was this weekend ever going to end? Because our Dear Azure Leader had brought down the Age of Rating to sixteen, I intended to be among the first citizens to engage in the supreme civic duty.
But first, I had to pass the Trials.
Mother didn't share my enthusiasm; she had just received her updated Rating, and a frown ruined her beautiful face. She checked her hand mirror.
“What’s wrong, Mother?”
“Some bastard downrated me! I'm no longer mid-Green. Can you believe it? I was above average just last Sunday! People are mean, Anglus."
I tried to cheer her up. “Don’t you worry! When I get my Social Monitor, I’ll uprate you, I promise.”
She half-smiled. "Oh, my innocent Anglus. Just like your father. You don't waste your credits on family members, dummy! Better pay attention in school this week; you must get your Monitor." She wiggled her left wrist. I had seen it ample times before, but it still impressed me; the oversized wristwatch, its round screen glowed green--Mother's current Rating--with a number four blinking in the center: her scale within the Green Rating. At the top, there was a bright number zero that showed her remaining credits. They'd reset to five at midnight.
Holland Hills High seniors line the hall outside the gymnatorium, shrouded like a bunch of priests and priestesses in their red polyester gowns, waiting for their names to be called. Everybody wants to escape this conformist teen nightmare. Probably the only thing I have in common with my classmates, other than these stifling robes that smell like starch and great expectations.
Our families are all out in the bleachers rooting for us. All except for my dad, at least so far. On the way in I checked every dark corner, the shadows between the floodlights. The places where Death might stand to watch his daughter walk across the stage. But those places were all empty. He said he would try to make it. He’s got about fifteen more minutes, which I intend to spend staring into space. Awkwardly, no doubt.
“I’ll be so glad to get out of here for good,” Brian Martin says, stretching his arms upward to reveal wet circles under his armpits. He’s not talking to me. Nobody here does, if they can avoid it.
They don’t know what I am, not exactly, but deep down they know something is off. They never fell for the trappings my high-end mom insisted would help me fit in: my healthy tan, my long, black hair, my lash extensions, my limited-edition Louis Vuitton. They also didn’t bother to see the girl underneath, the gamer who laughs a little too loudly and still loves pastel locker decorations. All they feel when they see me is their mortality humming in their bones, so they down a glass of denial and choose to ignore me. Given my paternity, I guess I can’t blame them.
The sun radiated molten fire as Michael & I walked home from school. Around us, San Francisco suburbia hummed with activity as people bustled from place to place; walking dogs, picking up kids, returning from work, and so on. I stopped to wipe some sweat from my eyes as the concrete sidewalk bubbled beneath the heat. Michael kicked absentmindedly at the grass, watching the cars blur by; with his screen-addict eyes, overweight physique, and unshaven chin– he did not cut a very imposing figure.
“Are you going to Sam’s thing tonight?” asked Michael, with the deep squeak of adolescence.
“Dunno,” I said. “Did you understand what he was going on about earlier? Automated programming, neural networks, pattern recognition… way over my head.”
I readjusted my backpack, and we continued walking. I wished—as I always did—that I’d remembered to pack a water-bottle and cursed my past self for subjecting me to this torture, as the temperature eased towards the hundreds. My feet rubbed unpleasantly against the sides of my sneakers.
“He was talking,” said Michael, “about a process of automation that would allow an AI to generate certain patterns of text.”
Dad must be in a great mood tonight.
I can tell because his signature stench of rancid whiskey breath isn't flowing down the hallway as strong as it usually does most evenings. Instead, I can hear the sounds of some old, 60s war flick blaring from the living room where I can assume he's slumped in his recliner, sucking down what I hope is only bottle number one or two and nothing more. Even then, that's fine, as long as he's found a better way to spend his time than hurling inebriated verbal attacks at me until I feel so torn my only instinct is to take the razor blades under my pillow and carve in more scars for what feels like the umpteenth time this month. I've lost count since yesterday, when he told me I was an accident best left buried way beyond underground where even the worms can't crawl on me.
At last, today’s the day I’ll learn about magic!
I straighten my jerkin with its runaway button now sewn back on. My father looks me over from head down to newly-shod toes, and his gaze lingers there a moment as if admiring his handiwork in the hand-burnished leather. “Now be very respectful and do everything your master says. He didn’t have to apprentice you, mind. You’ll have to earn his favor.”
“Yes, I know.” I feel like I’m made of squirrels about to jump apart and scamper in different directions. The alchemist chose me as his apprentice! And why shouldn’t he, since he has no family to take up his trade? Our little town needs only so many shoemakers like my father. For once, being the youngest of four brothers means I get first pick of what I want. And I want magic—to send miracle-making sparks out of my fingertips and harness the energy of the heavens. Assuming that’s how it works—but I’ll find out today.
“So, how was your summer?” Lucy fixes her eyes upon me as we walk to school.
Butterflies flutter in my stomach and I resist the temptation to look down at the floor. “Fine, thanks.”
“Fine?!” She stops and whirls around, catching my arm with the strap of her rucksack.
“Yeah.” I rub my arm. “What about yours?”
“It was boring without you to hang out with. But I’m not the one whose parents took her on a cruise around Europe! Come on, Vicky, you can’t just say ‘fine’. Give me something to go on.”
I take a deep breath. This was the conversation I had been dreading. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything! For a start, did you make any friends?”
“You can’t just stay in your room the whole time.” Mum frowned at me.
I shrugged. “Of course I can. I’ve got a TV in my room, music on my phone and loads of books on my Kindle. I’m all set.”
The school smelled like waxed floors and bleach. None of my friends were in my classes. So far, eighth grade was a dud year.
I stood at the front of the class -- my back to my classmates. Picking up the black marker made me seethe. I hated math. Writing in front of everyone was like an appointment at the dentist. The marker in my hand tasted like the drill -- I imagined flecks of enamel flying into my throat. I suppressed a cough. My mouth salivated, and I swallowed. I glanced at the clock on the wall, one long minute until the bell, almost 10:00. Breathe.
“Okay, Tuesday, here’s your next question. What does x equal if seven x minus two x equals 25?”
Uh, what? I picked up the marker, tasted the metal again, and wrote the question out, my jaw clenched tight.
There should be a support group for people like me, people with my terrible curse…
I'd say, “Hi, I’m Tuesday, my parents named me after a Cheryl Crow song.”
“Hi, Tuesday,” all the others like me would reply.
“My taste buds are weird; I taste everything I touch.” I’d explain that to them, and that the couch tasted like soap.
They would nod; they’d believe me. It wouldn’t be a secret anymore.
The bell rang, pulling me out of my daydream.
I charged out the door, a smile on my face, freedom, and the taste of oranges dancing in my mouth as my hand pushed the wood open.
“Hi, Tuesday, how’s math?” Mika smiled at me, and then closed her locker.
The walls are an irritating white and Eli hates them so much that he wants to tear away the paint to get at the harsh grey drywall underneath. He could rip that away, too — right down to the wooden support beams and the copper piping and the multi-coloured wires that run through the entire building.
He could, but he’s strapped down to the bed and his wrists aren’t strong enough to snap the padded restraints.
So he sits there, staring vehemently at the bright walls and the broken ceiling and his bag on the chair in the far corner, until the door flies open and his mother makes her entrance.
“Eli,” she sighs, half disappointed and half exhausted. Her hair is as much of a frazzled mess as her marriage, held together by a thin elastic precariously close to slipping off. Her clothes are loose, baggy, and Eli realizes belatedly that she’s still wearing the Pokémon pajama pants he got her for Christmas as a joke. The bags under her eyes are so prominent that he almost feels guilty for costing her even more sleep.
“Stay safe and be good,” Andrea’s mom said as we hopped out of the black SUV.
“We always are.” I grinned back.
Andrea lingered for a moment, peering into the car. I leaned down to hurry her along in time to see a serious look across her mother’s face.
“Yeah, I know,” Andrea said, slamming the door. She turned her back to the car and rolled her eyes.
“What was that all about?”
“You know. Mom stuff. Always worried I’m gonna get into trouble or somethin’.”
I nodded. Moms always assumed the worst the moment we left their sight. What could happen? I mean, we were both fifteen years old and had never been in any trouble at all. Well, except the one time in first grade when I shoved Billy Anderson to the ground for yanking on the new girl’s curly pigtails at recess. Which didn’t actually count. Even Mom wasn’t mad.