Part I: Under
Vanity was not a quality to possess when working with bleeding mothers and crying newborns. But it was my last chance to see Grandfather, so I made sure my orange uniform was lint-free. I cursed the pocket flaps of the long sleeves and pants, hooking onto bed corners, door knobs—basically any protrusions of a fingernail length or more. Makes it tough to exit quietly when you’re living in a 500 square foot compartment. Double tough with nine of us filling it up.
I tiptoed to the main door, past Ryo’s crib, silently thanking that chunky three-year-old for getting me the luxury of nursery duty. I slid the door shut behind me and walked down the hallway, the dim glow of the floor and ceiling lights guiding the way down the long passage. My boots faintly echoed dull thuds as I passed many similar doors of other families dotting the hall before entering the circular core room. The elevator sat with doors open on my level. I stepped in and pressed the I button. Infirmary.
The lift descended nine floors in its usual smooth fashion, dizzying when you thought about it too much. I wondered how much further the elevator could go before feeling the heat of the earth’s core. My stomach growled as the doors opened on the fourteenth floor. Breakfast wasn’t a possibility if I wanted to get time in with Grandfather.
A small foyer separated the elevator from the glass-doored entrance to the Infirmary. I scanned my badge and the two doors slid open. Motion-sensor lights by the check-in kiosk triggered as I walked by. The patient rooms were silent and unlit for the most part, minus the chemical burn patient at the end of the hallway to the right. He worked in the solutions lab, and three days ago splattered a corrosive on his face, burning most of the exposed flesh, including part of his left eye. The pain was so excruciating that, even with the meds, he couldn’t help but moan throughout the day and night.
I walked past his hallway and beyond the other three before reaching the end of the corridor. The doors to my left closed off the delivery ward. There was a fifty-fifty chance Grandfather was there, but I looked through the glass doors to the nursery first for any signs of him. The nursery sat in the far back, mainly for noise purposes, but also to decrease newborn exposure to the rest of the patients. Twenty incubators arranged in rows were set to ‘soothe’ mode. I could tell from the hum of the light vibration. Most people weren’t able to hear it, but working there for so long it was hard not to. A caretaker sat in the back corner, dozing off in the dim light.
I scanned my badge again for the delivery ward, light chatter emanating from the hall. The glow from Room 4 spilled into the hallway. I peeked in the entranceway. Grandfather sat next to a woman’s bed in his white uniform. Just like mine, but issued only to those sixty or older. The woman rubbed her swollen belly, nodding her head to whatever Grandfather said. I knocked on the side of the doorway.
“Oh, good morning,” Grandfather said. “Terus, this is Patient 147F, otherwise known as Shemra. Shemra, this is my granddaughter, Terus. She’s very good with patients, and I’m sure she’ll take great care of you once that baby is ready to come out.”
Grandfather approached me for a briefing. “This is Shemra’s eleventh delivery.”
“Impressive,” I said, looking at the patient with a smile.
“She came in overnight with early contractions, but they’ve been under control for about,” he checked his watch, “four hours now. I wanted to check on her before the leaving call.”
I swallowed hard and nodded. The reality of Grandfather not being around was truly sinking in. He was great at his job, and I tried to learn as much as I could once I started working in the Infirmary. Being a medical care provider was about one-third knowledge, one-third listening, and one-third caring. Unfortunately, even after nearly three years working there, I still lacked in the knowledge category, and Grandfather wouldn’t be there to teach me anymore. His guidance, patience and warmth. All will be gone. The other providers weren’t so knowledgeable, or easy to handle. They weren’t Grandfather.
Patient 147F spoke up. “What if I just push right now? What will happen?”
We both looked at her. I couldn’t tell if her twisted face was from another contraction, or one of despair.
“Now, you know better than that,” Grandfather said. “Just relax. She’ll be out soon enough. She’ll be full term in a week or so.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “And I’ll make sure Terus is assigned to you and your baby. You couldn’t be in better hands.” He stared at the patient until she smiled and nodded.
“Other than mine,” he added.
She chuckled and laid her head down on the pillow. I stepped into the hallway and Grandfather followed, closing the patient room’s door behind him.
“I guess that’s it for me,” he said, half smiling.
“Well, for here,” I said. “Maybe they’ll use you up there.” I couldn’t imagine Grandfather not caring for people. But he had worked so much of his life down here, he deserved time Above, to feel the sun and wind and rain. He earned the right to be happy.
“We’ll see,” he said.
We walked out of the delivery ward and stood in front of the nursery doors.
“I feel very fortunate to have worked with you, Terus,” he began, once again putting his hand on my shoulder. “You’re a great caretaker. I think you’ll work your way up to nurse in no time, and eventually run this place.”
I smiled, although the idea of managing the Infirmary wasn’t appealing.
“I was disappointed with your father for so long for never taking an interest.”
“I know,” I said. “But he does feed us after all. That’s important too.” As a cultivator, Dad maintains the vegetation keeping us alive, and develops new strains of tastier plants.
“I would have asked his cousins, but they make it hard to know who’s who around here, what with as many births as we have. I’m not even sure I’d be able to point out all your uncles, let alone their names.”
I didn’t know all their names. It was too hard to keep track.
“But you working here, I felt I really got to know you. And that’s something special I’ll keep with me.” He pulled me in for a hug. My eyes started to water, but I pressed them into his uniform to absorb the tears.
He released me, keeping both hands on my shoulders. “Don’t make this such a sad thing,” he said. “Your grandmother and I are lucky to have been selected, so early in our sixties. It means we get more time enjoying Above.”
It was true that most selected were in their seventies or eighties. It made his leaving that much harder. They stole him away from me too soon. I nodded, pretending to be content with his reassurance.
“Do me a favor and do something fun today, will you? Don’t spend all your time here.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Tevin has his eighteenth birthday celebration tonight.” My boyfriend of four years, Tevin’s age transition was a big deal. He’d move up to a yellow uniform for eighteen to thirty-nine and update his badge. And someone transitioning meant a big party. No one in their right mind refused to attend a party. Not many occasions or permissions for them.
“Well then, may I change the favor?”
I looked at him and smiled. “What do you mean?”
“More of a favor to yourself.” He looked at me with sympathy, making me feel like I was a little kid again who did something silly and didn’t know any better. “I know you and Tevin have been seeing each other for a while now, but don’t get too attached to him. You are a very smart young woman, and you don’t need him to be happy.”
“I never thought I did,” I said, feeling defensive.
“You know, he’ll be with the eighteen and overs now, and maybe now’s the time to find someone your age.”
“Grandfather, I’ll turn eighteen in eight months. The age thing is not that big of a deal.”
“I know it doesn’t seem like it now,” he said. He must’ve seen the anguish on my face, trying to figure him out, because he moved on. “Make sure you find your own way.”
The overhead speaker beeped, followed by the announcement. “All Selected must report to the Loading Bay in fifteen minutes.”
“That’s my cue,” he said. He hugged me for the final time. The last grip of his aged hands and scruffy face.
“I’ll see you off,” I said. We walked to the front of the Infirmary, past the moaning patient and front kiosk, now manned by a first-shift co-worker. The lights were on in all the hallways and patients were rising.
Grandfather took one last scan of the Infirmary, a place he had put in so many hours of his life. We moved to the elevators, and I pressed the top button. The Loading Bay was an offshoot of the main atrium on the highest of floors. The top floor was the largest, from what I could tell, of our whole community and housed the Common Area, Mess Halls, Library, and anything else that appealed to the masses. Most social interaction with others outside of my family and floor neighbors happened there.
We stood in silence as the doors opened. Other elevators dumped out the Selected and their family members who cared to give them a sendoff. The large hall was a swirl of brown and white uniforms, dotted with yellow. I was the rare Orange of the crowd.
“All Selected must report to the Loading Bay in five minutes.”
We walked across the main atrium. Above housed the 360 degree view of the outside world. A live feed displayed on the dome, giving us Underlings a sense of the weather, and providing a sense of the natural light most of us would never see. Or not at least until we were old. But I’d rather have it than not. The sun was coming up in the east, painting the dome screen pinks and oranges. It was refreshing to have such hues shine down on us other than the sterile uniform glow of artificial light bouncing off the gray walls that confined us.
To the west side lay the Loading Bay. A decent crowd gathered around the carrier, a large moving craft with wheels and rows of seats. Only the Selected ever got to ride on one. From what I’ve heard in the various forms of gossip of Above, the Selected got to have their own smaller versions of the carrier to ride around in. It baffled me. Above was so big they’d all have room to ride around in machines.
“There you are,” Grandmother said as she weaved through two others in the crowd. She was one of the few plumper people I had ever seen, filling out her white uniform more than most. Her short white hair lay on her head oddly, like it was placed there haphazardly and never adjusted.
“How nice of you to see us off, Terus.” Grandmother knew my name, but that was about the extent of our relationship. Mom and Dad were behind her in their yellow uniforms, Dad looking tense with his tight shoulders and clenched jaw. It looked like Mom carried a stretched out tomato in her arms, but it was just Ryo, his chunky ankles and wrists poking out of his red uniform. Mom stretched out her free arm to Grandfather.
“I’m so happy for you two,” she said, hugging him and then Grandmother. It was obvious with my mom’s contrasting sleek black hair she was an in-law. And thank goodness her hair genes overrode my dad’s, else my two sisters and I would have that white clump to look forward to.
Grandfather shook hands with Dad. He looked at me and then back at his son. “You keep feeding these kids, will ya?”
Dad’s eyes opened in shock at first, then he smiled. They hugged. I had never seen Dad and Grandfather interact like that, like a father and son. It pained me a little, thinking such a reconciliation was too little, too late.
The operator of the carrier, a Watchman, stood on the first step of the vehicle for the final announcement. “Any remaining Selected must board now.”
Grandmother and Grandfather looked at each other in bittersweet excitement. “Goodbye to you all,” Grandfather said. “Oh,” he leaned toward me, “you’re on my list of receivers, so check your messages. I’ll keep you updated.”
“I will, and thank you.” I had completely forgotten about correspondence. Others in my class would boast about their loves ones enjoying the freedom and freshness of Above. Now it was my turn to hear the details of the elusive world at the surface, through Grandfather’s eyes. I wouldn’t want it conveyed any other way. My heartache melted enough to smile.
I stood with my parents and Ryo as we watched the two line up to board. Their badges were scanned and they waved from the doorway. Three more passengers in white boarded, then the Watchman got on and sealed the door. The carrier whooshed on. The crowd of friends and family members, overcome with tears and joy, waved to the carrier as it rolled through the bay door and out on its journey to Above.
I was supposed to be happy but my body disagreed. I trudged my way to the Library, a piece of me taken away to never return. No way would anyone else mentor me as well as Grandfather did. But he was on the outside. Fresh air and natural lighting and no gray walls to keep you trapped. He deserved to live the rest of his years that way. And with his wife. They were lucky to be selected at the same time. That doesn’t always happen.
The Library was situated at the northern end of the atrium. The sun was now in full view but still low, reminding me I didn’t have anything to eat yet. But first I had to chew out Pike.
I walked into the Library, metal shelves upon metal shelves vertically smashed together. Most housed the history of Underlings over the last five centuries, as well as research performed in developing products, food, and processes that made our lives manageable. Only one shelf housed books, apparently a medium the world knew before my time and the time of Underlings. These had yellowed sheets of words in faded ink, telling stories that were made up. I had never been afforded the opportunity to read one. Nor had my brother Pike, and he worked here. The books were under strict security, and only those with approved clearance could touch them.
Pike stood between two separated shelves, inserting the rectangular plastic disks of our time back in their places. He too was lucky with his assignment, especially since he got it to start with at twelve. He wouldn’t dare admit his luck, though, since he loved complaining about life Below. Didn’t matter what the topic, he complained—assignment, Overseers, or school. He and I couldn’t be more different academically. I excelled at school and was liked by most of the teachers. Pike not so much. He either defied the teachers or didn’t bother studying. I think they gave him the Library job to be surrounded by our history in the hope he might eventually accept it. Either that or it was especially cruel punishment.
I walked up to him and tapped his arm. At fifteen, Pike was an inch taller than my five and a half feet. It annoyed me but at the same time it made me feel more secure around him. As with the rest of my family, it was easy to tell he was one of us with his shiny short black hair.
“Too good to see Grandfather off?”
He shook his head. “For one,” he said, pausing his disk returning and staring at me, “I didn’t know Grandfather like you, his precious Terus. None of us did.” He added snarkiness to his last words. It was true, though. Our aunts and uncle and their children were separated from us by floors to ensure limited contact. A way to prevent inbreeding. However, I always wondered if the immediate family was as important as they stressed, then why separate siblings once they had families? It didn’t make sense. Separating from my siblings depressed me. But I still had a bone to pick with Pike while we still had each other.
“And for two?”
“For two, I didn’t want to have to get up that early.” He smiled, sticking his tongue out slightly in a taunt.
“You’re terrible.” I shook my head, but I couldn’t resist smiling, seeing his goofy face awaiting my reaction. He slid more disks back in their places.
“Is that why you came here, interrupting me at my duties, for the betterment of the community?”
“Yeah,” I said, returning the smarminess. “One of the reasons. And now that we’ve established you are heartless, the other is that I haven’t had anything to eat yet today. Want to come with me? I know you for sure have a stomach.”
He put the last disk in its proper order on the shelf then faced me. “You’re asking a teenage boy if he wants to eat?”
“I figured you’d say yes.” I smiled and hit his arm again. “Let’s go.”
We walked to the front desk and Pike scanned his badge to clock out. Not every job afforded such flexibility. Some were rigid with the schedule, while others, like mine, depended on the demand. Pike’s job had little to no demand. Again, lucky.
We walked the northeastern edge of the atrium. Three Mess Halls made up the eastern edge. The furthest entry left was our hall, for the Reds and Oranges. The middle entry was for the Yellows, eighteen to thirty-nine. The Browns and Whites, the oldest folks, forty and above, were on the right. The Wrinklers, the White Hairs, the Crooked Backs. I usually refrained from saying the nicknames, though, since I respected Grandfather too much.
We entered the left hall and melded with the swarm of orange uniforms. The Mess Hall air perpetually held moisture from the many boiling pots of cooked greens. It took a minute or two to acclimate to the harsh smell, but my stomach never ceased to respond to the aroma with a rumble.
We waited in line with our trays. Browns and Whites dished out our food, an amalgamation of green leaves and shoots and berries. The same selection day in and day out. Occasionally the cultivators and researchers came up with a modification, upping the sweetness of a stalk or omitting the mushiness of a bean. But that hadn’t happened in months.
I set my tray down in front of the points collector. She scanned my badge and 249 popped up on her screen. I banked a serious number of points during an influx of deliveries last month in which I worked without little rest. My remaining points could last me five more weeks or so if I only spent them on food.
Pike’s badge was scanned. 7. “Ugh.”
I chuckled. “Not spending enough time in that Library.”
“I blame it on you,” he said, as we found a table against the wall. “Did you already log more points today?”
“No,” I said, dousing the leafy greens in condiments. I preferred the tartest sauce to balance out the woodsy blandness. “I went down there and glanced in on the nursery. I think we have twenty occupied incubators at the moment. And Grandfather introduced me to a patient I’m sure I’ll see in a few days or so. But I didn’t clock in.”
“Doesn’t it all strike you as odd?”
“Here we go,” I said, preparing myself for the conspiracies. Pike was the most skeptical person I knew. That didn’t say much since I wasn’t close to many people outside my family. But with Pike, everybody had an angle, and it involved messing up his life. “What’s odd?”
“We were drilled in school how we are down here because of overcrowding up there. That we proliferated so much, Above couldn’t sustain all of us any longer. And that’s why we’re down here, and we practice population control Above, and have our selected few going every couple weeks.”
“I’m failing to see the oddity yet,” I said, continuing my meal. Pike hadn’t touched his.
“Well, if resources are low up there, and we know they’re limited down here—I mean, we pass down our uniforms, water and food are strictly regulated…”
I waved my hand for him to get to the point.
“Why let so many babies be born? Fewer babies down here would mean more freed up resources.”
“That’s nonsense talk,” I said. “We are already so restricted in our freedom. We’re living in a pit for goodness sakes. People find comfort in family. And if people want to have children, they should be allowed to.”
“All I’m saying is, have you never thought that if we’d stop having babies, we’d all be able to go Above?”
Before I could think about the implications and answer, he continued, “Doesn’t it seem weird we only send the old folks to Above?” At this he must’ve felt a sort of victory in making me think, for he took his first scoop of beans drenched in his favorite creamy sauce.
“That’s not a mystery,” I said, refusing to let him win. “It wouldn’t be fair to let everyone die down here, not ever seeing Above. So we send the oldest when slots are available, so they can at least experience nature for a little while.” I sipped my water to flush down the vegetation.
“Besides, a few younger ones have been selected before, like that teenager a few weeks ago. But you saw how hard it was on his family to see him go, even if it is a privilege.” I’ve passed his moping and mournful mother on a few occasions. I couldn’t imagine how he felt being able to go to Above but having to leave his family down here. But obviously he agreed to go rather than stay. They all did.
“All right,” he said. “So there was one our age that has gone.”
“Actually, he was eighteen,” I said, weakening my argument. “But you wouldn’t want to send any under eighteen without parents. And maybe that’s too much of a liability for those above to handle.”
“Oh, because the Crooked Backs aren’t?”
I laughed with a huff. “Maybe the older folks are ready for death when their time comes.” Would that ring true with Grandfather? I wasn’t so sure. “But the younger ones would demand more care. And that would take more resources.”
“Explanation for everything,” he said. I took that as a victory. But apparently he wasn’t finished.
He leaned in closer over the table. “Why no Specials chosen?” Specials were the one group I couldn’t explain away. They wore bright blue uniforms yet ironically were rarely seen. Specials tended to not socialize at all. Unless they did with each other, but none of us would ever see it happening. No one knew what their assignments were, and they weren’t supposed to discuss them with the rest of us.
I looked for an angle to win. The elusiveness of Specials worked for me in this case. I leaned in even closer. “How do you know they’re not chosen?”
His lip curled in a sneer. I had him.
“For all we know, they could have their own Loading Bay, their own carrier. Everything they do is secret, so why wouldn’t their selection be secret too? They may be sending more Specials above than us.”
He laughed as he backed away, back into his chair. “See,” he said. “I’m not the only one in the family with the knack for conspiracy theories.”
“It’s not conspiracy,” I avowed. “It’s logic. I simply think the most logical explanation tends to be the right one. I generally don’t think the Overseers are trying to be deceptive. We have a good balance down here for the most part. There’s no need to be deceptive.”
“That’s your greatest flaw,” Pike said, waving his finger at me. “You think people are better than they are.”
“It’s a good thing too,” I said. “Else I wouldn’t ever hang out with you.” We both laughed, and I finished the last remaining bite of my meal. I skipped the beans, though. They were so mushy it would’ve taken starvation to consider eating them.
“I think you’re being too serious,” I said, putting my fork down. “I know what’ll lighten you up.”
“This coming from the person making fun of me for having seven points left in my name?”
“Oh, come on. I had to say goodbye to Grandfather today. Cut me some slack.”
Pike tapped his hands on the table.
“If you go with me, you can use my points.”
His tapping ceased and smile returned. “You certainly know how to sell me,” he said. “First food, now points.”
I clapped in excitement, taking that as a yes. I stood and disposed of my tray in a serving bin, and waited for Pike to do the same.
I hoped a room was free at the Game Hall. Pike and I hadn’t played together in over a week. The hall was one of the few activity spaces not on the top floor. We took the stairwell down one flight. The second floor from the top contained the Game Hall covering one half, and the supply store in the other. We entered the Game Hall, dimly lit in the front to minimize light interference in the playing rooms.
“Room for two?” I gave the lady at the kiosk my badge to scan, deducting three points per beep.
“Room 6,” she said, pointing to the left behind her. We walked the corridor past the first five rooms and stopped in the vestibule to Room 6.
“You first,” said Pike. I scanned my badge and the doors opened to a room with a bench and uniforms hanging on either side. I handed Pike my badge.
“Just give me three minutes and then scan in.”
After the doors locked behind me I picked a jumpsuit of my size, which looked like my uniform except it was black and lighter in weight. Within the fabric were hundreds of monitoring micro-sensors. I was tying my boots when Pike scanned in.
“I’ll wait in the ring,” I said. I entered the game ring, a circular room completely black except for the glow of the vestibule light through the glass doors. Pike followed a minute later.
“Shall we?” he said, standing by the glass doors.
“Let’s do it.”
Pike hit the start button on the wall then joined me in the center.
Game loading scrolled across the 360 degree screen around us. Resume from last play?
“Yes,” we both answered. The view faded in. We stood on a road of rubble, between two walls of buildings. The structures were a hodgepodge of brick blocks, glass, and stacked boards, as if the civilization kept building on top of a previous building with whatever materials that could be scrounged up until the sky couldn’t be seen.
In our peripheral view, our life stats displayed, moving to the outskirts of our vision as we moved around the room. Our heartrates were monitored, as well as blood pressure and body temperature. The stats were used to assess when we’d become thirsty, hungry, tired, distressed.
“I’m good to go,” said Pike.
I reviewed my stats. My hydration level was down to one-third, but that would keep me going for this round.
“Hydration is marginal, but not a problem yet,” I said.
“Review supplies,” commanded Pike. Two squares popped up in front of us, listing our collection over the course of the game. Between the two of us, we had three jugs of water, two food packets of seeds left, two pieces of flint, and a satchel to carry the supplies.
“Exit,” he said. The squares went away, and the game clock resumed.
We both took a defensive stance, backs to each other.
“Remember last time. Those weird animals may still be around.”
Pike didn’t have to remind me. The four-legged hairy creatures larger than us were swift and hostile. We dodged and squatted and climbed so aggressively my muscles ached the next morning. “Keep your voice down,” I reminded him.
We traveled through the narrow passage, keeping an eye on the windows above and nooks around every corner. Pike and I worked well together. I was methodic and calculated, while he took risks. We balanced each other out. I don’t think I could have reached so far in the game without him.
We passed a store front, the sign faded and windows taped up. “Should we get any more supplies?”
Pike watched my back as I peeked in the store. “No,” he said. “It’ll be too much too carry at this point. Sap our energy levels.”
The room rumbled, the screen shaking. The floor vibrated under my feet, nearly knocking me over.
“We need to run,” Pike said. He grabbed my arm and I looked behind. Different beasts we had fought over the course of the game gathered together, running toward us, pummeling the front of the buildings and kicking up dirt.
He ran a few steps ahead of me, shouting at me to move faster. The floor adjusted its movement, scrolling with our speed and direction to accommodate our running. He cut over to a side path and I followed. My heartrate monitor flashed in the corner of my eye. Must’ve been above 150 bpm. Pike stopped short and I body-smacked him. A fence blocked our path. The animal pack’s rumbles and yelps neared.
“Climb,” I said. A slot in the floor opened, a metal fence rising up to the ceiling. Pike and I jumped onto the fence, digging our boots into the tight gaps and pulling up with our arms. As we climbed, the fence retracted into the ground until we could scale over it to the other side and fall to the ground.
We ran down the path, sloping downhill, and ending at a stream of water flowing around the side of the complex.
“Now what?” Neither of us could swim. I spun around, checking all angles. “I think the only choice is to go back,” I said.
Pike stood in silence, motionless. “Well?”
The animal pack attacked the fence, pushing hard. The fence shook, and bolts loosened on one end. Pike grabbed my arm above the elbow and looked in my face. “Jump!”
He jumped and knocked me over with him. The game display changed angle, giving me a feeling of dropping through the air toward the water. I screamed and closed my eyes.
I didn’t hear a splash. I fell to my knees next to Pike. The screen turned black. An alarm blazed and words flashed on the monitor. Winner! Winner!
I stood, and looked at Pike, thoroughly confused. An automated voice sounded overhead.
“Congratulations, you have surpassed the high scorer. Game Over.”
We looked at each other, and Pike smiled. I smiled back and we laughed, and jumped. I couldn’t believe it.
“We beat the high score!”
“I’ve never made it to the end of a game before,” I said.
“You will be awarded ten points each,” the voice said.
“All right!” Pike raised his arm up for a high five.
I slapped it, and started laughing.
“What? What’s so funny? I can’t believe we did this. We should be proud.”
“It’s not that,” I said. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. “Don’t you get it? I paid for the both of us.”
Pike’s precious victory face melted into realization. “Are you kidding me?”
I laughed again. “Sorry,” I said. “Looks like you helped me earn twenty points.”
Pike made way for the glass doors of the vestibule.
“Oh, come on, where are you going?”
“To the Library,” he said. “It’s depressing.”
The doors to the vestibule opened and he entered, turning around to answer me. “That I had better success in an alternate life than I do down here.”
I brushed my hair, the black locks reaching past my shoulder blades. I hardly ever wore it down due to working in the nursery, but Tevin liked it. And it was his birthday. Most people had four major birthdays—one at twelve, when you finish school and get your work assignment; eighteen, when you are considered an adult and get to switch your social circles; forty, when you surpass the cutoff for having offspring; and sixty, when your workload is lessened and you have more of a chance to be selected.
I went through my bin by the sink and picked out a crystal blue ribbon, the one that matched my eyes. I tied it past my bangs and hid the knot at the nape of my neck. There wasn’t much one could do to dress up, but the small things were always noticed. I opened a small box, my little treasure from Tevin. He worked as a mechanic under his dad’s teachings. One day he surprised me with a bolt with the corkscrew end broken in half. Spare parts were rare to come by, so it definitely meant a lot to receive it. He had tied it on a string to put around my neck, under my uniform. It wasn’t something to show off to everyone or there would be questions. But whenever Tevin saw the string peeking out from under my uniform, he knew I was wearing it.