As the last few oh-so amazing people were announced to take spots in the top twelve electees for the best government positions, everyone’s metal clipboard lit up and dinged. I looked down at mine and noticed my bank information on it. My account was already in the thousands, I lived at home with my dad for so long and was saving to get a decent place. But my bank account, now read half a million. I gawked as I continued to read the page, as it said I would be getting a monthly payment of fifty thousand for the entire year to cover any and all expenses. I looked at James, and his account was roughly the same, though he showed he was a few hundred thousand above me. Because of his already booming business.
“You have all been given half a million into your accounts, on top of whatever else you had before. You will be given monthly payments of Fifty Thousand until the end of your year. Even if you’ve found your mate, and settled in a new place In our world, you will continue to receive the payments until the end of the year.” Mayor Laura Winston stated.
“Next you will see a list of items you will be receiving by the end of the day. These items will help prepare you for your career in the future. Those of you, who were lucky enough to be chosen for the 12 elite positions, will be receiving weekly shipments of files you must read before you start your career. Of course, all of this will be sent once you make the final decision on accepting or rejecting the offers on your individualized screens. Be aware though, the higher the position offer, especially of you 12, the higher the sensitivity in information distribution.” Laura motioned to the screens behind her where five images appeared on the screen. Emoji’s, each one a different color. The first, was yellow with a thumbs up, the second, orange with a caution sign, the third, red with a badge, the fourth was blue with a shushing finger, and the fifth was white, with black tape on its mouth.
“The first sign, means you don’t have to worry about sensitive information, the second, means you will be dealing with some sensitive information, the third, you will have to deal with sensitive information frequently, but still not have to worry too much. The fourth is for those dealing with information about health, this is for those in the medical and science fields, and should be taken seriously. The fifth and final is a warning that you will have sensitive information on a daily basis and will need to have surveillance and guards at all times. Only the 12, and a few others, will see this sign. You are being offered a career that will help lead the world into better and more prosperous opportunities, so making sure you are keeping the information we give to you safe, is beyond important. Please, take care in your decision-making. You all must make a decision until you leave today.”
I narrowed my eyes at her, she was so small now, being so far away. I wished she was that small, so I could pluck her by her hair and toss her in a river. I looked at James, and he seemed to have the same expression on his face. He looked back at me, and with a slight nod, he whistled once, quick, and high, before pointing towards his clipboard.
It had been years since we used our secret code. It was a mix of whistles, words, and body language. It wasn’t easy to crack, most of the time it was just silly things we did to pass time. But a few times it saved my life when we were little. I sighed and nodded at him. He was asking if I would accept, and I nodded.
Sensitive information. I’d need it to figure out what I would be up against. I was offered the best position ever. Inside the government that lied about our families. I looked at my clipboard and glared at the strange emoji. Then with my thumb, touched the accept button, and watched as the screen cheered then announced it would be sending my first shipment by the end of the day.
I heard the same message come from James. Then the Mayor spoke again. “As you all make your choices, you will be informed of when your first shipment will arrive. Please, keep these special tablets with you at all times, as they will inform you of your shipments and payments and any other information needed. These devices can be folded as such.” Laura Winston took a tablet-clipboard-thing and folded it in half diagonally, then in half again vertically so it was shaped like a thick phone.
I looked at my device seeing no way of folding it like she had, but attempted it nonetheless. It clicked and bent without resistance the way it was shown to us. As soon as it was small enough to be in my pocket, it lit up just like a phone. Asking if I was ready to receive information… on my mate.
“These will be the key to your career success. As well as give you information on your Mate. That’s right. Once you’ve made your decision on what your career path will be, you will receive notification on your Mate. This will ask if you are ready to receive any information on their location and age, only if they agree to release that information. As we all know, it’s a long-standing tradition that you find each other by yourselves, with the connections you have formed when your marks came in full bloom.” Laura Winston opened her arm out, and a man stood up and walked to her side.
“This is my Mate, Ash Winston. He and I were on different ends of the earth, and we both chose to go the traditional way, until about 6 months into our year. We decided we had to meet, and we contacted each other, and met in Paris where we then spent the last year traveling together.” She beamed at him, and he smiled back.
“My Mate and I believe it is your choice, and we will not push these decisions onto you.” Ash Winston spoke. “So take your time, and enjoy your year!”
The arena burst with applauds, and I just rolled my eyes and said no to the notification on my device. I looked at James, and he said no as well. “You didn’t do that for me did you?” I asked.
“No. Not really at least. If I’m going to find my mate, I’m going to do it the old fashion way, and do it with my best friend.” It was a refreshing answer, nice to know that he was sticking to our plans.
We sat and listened to the Mayor talk about how our shipments would arrive at the same time every week, or every day depending on our career choice. She said that we could spend all the money at once, or save it up, but that it was ours to use how we please. She then motioned to the large field.
“And here, we will have some meet and greets with travel and fiancé professionals to help you get settled if you so choose their help.” She smiled at groups of people setting up tents for us. “And with that, you are free to leave when you’ve made your choice!” Another applause from the arena started, but I just grabbed my bag and pushed through the chairs with James to the exit.
I had tons of people telling me thanks, or apologizing to me for my father, or telling me I should be dead too as we left. James got the same. We just ignored them as we walked out of the arena and down the street. Tow trucks had tons of cars hooked up and leaving the arena. My dad’s car was one of them. I didn’t fight it. I just walked with James beside me. We were silent as we strode through the streets. The people passing by were happy and excited, talking about their days, how they couldn’t wait to get home to their kids or their mate.
I kept picking up speed, walking faster and faster as I realized where we were going. I didn’t realize I had ran to the door until I heard the hostess welcome me.
“Welcome to Piranha! Oh! Nova! James! How was the Ceremony?” She asked.
I looked at her, not remembering her name, and just walked to James’s office. It was through the kitchen and in the back corner. I heard James stop and apologize for me, and say the ceremony went well, and that she should close the store and send everyone home after they finish whatever prep they were doing. He went on for a bit more, but I was out of the earshot at that point and slamming myself into one of his desk chairs and holding my head in my hands as the tears just started to fall.
He came in a few minutes later, locking his office door behind him and dropping to his knees in front of me. “Nova. Nova, please.” He took hold of my hands and was gently rubbing the back of them with his thumbs.
James’s office was like any other, but more organized despite how busy he gets. He had a hand in building the place, so he requested his office walls be thick and soundproof, and for the corners to be built with drawers. He had a place for everything, with labels on all the drawers. Employee’s pay stubs, Resignations, Employee exterminations, Rodent and insect Exterminations and inspections, he was very fickle about having routine inspections since some customers and an ex-employee thought it would be a quick cash scheme but saying there were dead rats in their food. They were caught on camera. James’s camera system took over one side of his wall, along with the alarm system and the automatic fire extinguisher for the entire kitchen.
His desk had a huge printer, a nice computer, and a line of walkies and earpieces for the crew along with a few file trays marked for server’s order pads and extra pens, sharpies, and notebooks that he gives the employees and guests if they have requests for the restaurant menu. He spent long nights reading over those notes and sometimes does specials if a certain meal is requested enough times. It was a cozy, well-mannered room, whereas I was a complete wreck, breaking at the seams.
“Nova, listen, we’ll be okay alright? We can get your sister later, go to the airport, set her up at home in the countryside of New Zealand like she always talked about. We’ll get through this.” James wipes the tears from my cheeks. My eyes felt swollen, and my chest felt weak. I shook my head no and quickly stood up.
“James. I have an elite position with the people who sanctioned to kill our parents. It is not going to be okay. Might not even be alright!” I felt my chest tighten and my breath became harsh and rugged. I was hyperventilating. My hands were cold, and my neck was sweating, and my heart was fluttering. “How do I-I.”
“Breath Nova breath. What’s in the room? Name it all out loud. One by one and tell me what you’re feeling.” James said holding my hands still.
“O-o-okay.” I tried to take a deep breath, but it just kept racing. I looked around the room, looking for things to name. “Notebooks.” I looked at his computer. “Computer.” His pens. “Pens.” I looked back at the door. “Door.” I looked at him. “Best friend.” My body felt tingly. Like a million stars exploding in my body, but I wasn’t hyperventilating anymore, and my mind was feeling clearer, just slightly.
“A little better?” James asked with a gentle rub of my hands.
“Just a little.” A deep breath fell out of me, and I closed my eyes tight before opening them again.
“James… I just clicked yes. Without really thinking. I just… I wanted a way to break them down from the inside out.” My hands tightened around his.
“Sounds like you did quick thinking like always.” James commended. “You’ve always reacted like this when it’s something big. You remember that cold case you helped the cops with a while back? What did you do when you saw the guy?”
I thought back. It was maybe a year and a half ago, while I was still studying. I was working on an old case of a missing person, who was presumed dead. I was at the location the missing person was at last and was ordering coffee when the suspect walked in. I had narrowed it down to two people, and the one that came in immediately came to me. I had made sure to wear my clothes in a similar style as the missing person, colorful and baggy. I look young for my age, so I appeared as a teenager. He talked to me asked me why I was there. I came up with a sob story on the spot and he asked me to follow him. So I did. I acted naïve and innocent and scared, and he took me to an old rail yard with a shack on the side. There were at least ten girls there. All missing, and the cold case, she was now a teen, and she was scared so much that she had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome. She had thought that if she fought, she’d put her family in danger, so she never did, and ended up tending to the guy like another father.
I had a tracker and a wire on, and I knew the cops would come, but one of the girls recognized me, she knew my sister. She said my real name, and the man had turned around, he was going to hit me and in that moment the world slowed and ducked. The man ran his fist into an iron pole and took advantage and slammed his head into it. It was a brutal fight, and I dislocated my shoulder. The guy was caught though, and with therapy, and the cold case girl was reintroduced to her family, and she went on to write a book, and helped many others.
James knew that I had to think quickly when I was recognized, I told him about it. I was sure the guy knew at that moment who I was. People would talk about me all the time when someone went missing.
“And I don’t mean when you beat the guy up if that’s what you’re thinking,” James said. “The officer wasn’t sure on sending someone out there, and you just up and volunteered on the spot. You voiced over everyone you were going to do it anyways and walked out saying you’d come back in the early morning. You came straight here and started hyperventilating worried you’d get found out and killed or you’d just fail and be a laughingstock. But you went back in, and you did it all and you saved all those kids.”
I balked, “I didn’t even realize I had done that.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been your best friend since we were still in diapers. I remember every time I got bullied, you would toss your toys, or kick your own sandcastle, and just sucker punch my bullies then start panicking after. Most of the time people would think it was you who got bullied and the guy would get into trouble. You always would act first think later. You have a heart of gold and a head of steel.” James kissed my hands and stood uplifting me with him.
When my weight settled on my feet, I felt a little weak. All the crying and the stress of the last few hours had drained me already, and it wasn’t even lunch yet. “I need to start getting better at that then. The not panicking after I do something.”
“We’ll work on it together, like always.” James fixed my hair for me and pulled out a drawer and handed me a tissue. “We’ll swing by the school. Get your sister. Go pack, and then head to the airport. Okay?”
“Sounds good,” I said wiping my eyes free of tears. “Can you make me some James-amazing-sandwich?”
“A sandwich? Honey, you’re in my kitchen, you’re gonna get the James-All-Special.” He crinkled his nose in a smile and opened the door. “I’ll make you something just go wash your face and sit down, I’m sure Adria is still closing up she’ll get you a drink.”
I nodded and we both left the office. I walked towards the front and saw Adria, the hostess that greeted us, clearing up a few tables. She looked up, a stack of menu’s in one arm, and a serving tray full of salts, peppers, ketchups and mustards and A1 sauces in the other.
“Nova! I cleared off most of the tables, if you want to just sit somewhere I’ll bring you a drink.” Adria stated as she maneuvered through the tables and pass me into the back.
Adria was a sturdy woman, forty-two years old, and looking like she was twenty-one. She was the first person James hired for the position as they worked together before he opened his own restaurant. She had long golden-brown hair she kept in a tight bun at the top of her head, and her eyes were a soft hazel. Whenever I saw her, she was always all smiles, the kind that light up her face and makes you feel a little brighter. As she passed me, I could see a hint of worry, and something like disgust. I wondered if she saw the program. I wonder if she knew James and I were children of a crime.
I sat down in my normal corner, near the back, next to the tinted windows that let you look out to the beauty of the city. I pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my chin on top as I stared out the window. I let out a deep breath and started mapping out the day in my head. I’d go get Avina with James, pull her out before school ends with an excuse. The schools never watched the ceremony days, it was against the law just in case the children of those executed ran away in the middle of class. It was a crime to pull students out on ceremony day without an excuse. Saying simply there was a family crisis, wouldn’t cut it either. I had to figure something out. The school Avina was at, James and I went to years ago. It was renovated before Avina started, but I still knew some secret ways in and out. Maybe I could…
“Here you go, sweetie.” Adria handed me a full bottle of the hardest whisky. “Today was different.” She said sitting down across from me place three glass cups on the table. “James’s Mom was like an older sister to me. I know what she did. I know what your parents did. Hell, when my time came, they helped me out. Turns out for me, natural causes took my so-called mate from me. Then the government took the person I chose. I’m infertile. So I’ll be picked off soon enough anyway.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as she poured the whisky in each cup until the liquor breeched the rims.
“I mean, I can’t contribute to the repopulation of the world. So, I’m a crime.” She set the bottle down when she finished pouring the last cup and handed me one. She took her cup, and drank deeply until it was as empty as it was when she first set it out. “It’s not as well known, but it’s why there are some missing cases even you couldn’t solve love.”
“The government sanctions this shit?” I asked appalled.
“Yup. I was surprised that they broadcasted the Ceremony on all channels today. They even demanded that the students watch it.” She leaned back in her chair. Her eyes getting darker. “They’ve been getting more and more ballsy with how they do things. They want to control people, down to how they think and breath if they could.”
“They showed the schools?” I asked sitting up quickly, I banged my knees against the table, the two cups of whisky spluttering some of the liquor on the table. “My sister would have seen it I need to get her.”
“They’re not going to give her to you,” Adria said flatly. “Not until the end of the school day.”
“They’re still forcing the kids to stay in school after making them watch that?” I shouted.
“Like I said, they want total control.” Adria poured herself some more whiskey. “My grandparents said that they were never right for each other.” She stated, “They said they had my dad because the government was telling them if they didn’t have a kid before forty, they’d be killed. My father had me with my mother for the same reason. I actually liked my so-called soulmate. Not in a loving way, but he was a good friend. Your parents, they helped me out with his death. They said I was pregnant when he died, they acted like they would take me to doctor visits, and then we sort of fakes losing a child. It’s a horrible thing to do by the way. So many women out there actually losing their children, and there I was. Faking losing a pregnancy when I couldn’t even get pregnant. The government left me alone for a long time. They came by this morning. Told me, that since I didn’t have a child… I’d be “reassigned” on my career path. But I know the truth.”
She took a sip of her cup this time, letting it settle again before speaking some more.
“They’re exposing this Ceremony Day for a reason. I don’t know what reason that is, but whatever it is, I’m sure it’s something they are against. They want to re-invoke the fear into people, make them see that they are the law, and if you don’t obey you’ll die. Honestly, it’s a barbaric practice to “mate” people together based on their markings. They stopped teaching it when I was in elementary, but my parents told me all the time that they hated each other. They were a perfect match though, each curve and spike of their marking, perfect. But they would get into such terrible fights. Sometimes there was blood.” She took another sip. Silence falling between us.
“I’m sorry,” I said a few moments later. “That sound’s tough.”
“It was and is life for many people.” She smiled at me, “But you should know, you and your sister, and even James, you guys were born out of true love.”
I gave her a soft smile in return, but it quickly faded into a frown. “My sister has got to be freaking out… And I can’t get her until school is out?”
“They reported it on the news before it started. You have to be there waiting for her before it lets out. Hell, don’t go home and just go straight there once you and James are done talking here.” She sighed and chugged back the last of her whiskey. “You were chosen for a high position, so be careful with how you talk about things. They won’t set it up until tomorrow, but they will send you a package, and they will activate the tracker on your little device. They give everyone a free pass on Ceremony Day to talk about everything they saw and experienced. No matter how bad. So use this time to get things straight with your sister. And leave. No matter how important you are for getting that position… they will watch you… and they will try to hurt you if they think you’re anything like your parents.” She stood up and pulled a card out from her apron pocket. She handed it to me. “You and James make sure you keep me updated. I’ll find you guys if I must. I promise both your parents to watch over you two. There’s an address on there, it’s a friend in Paris. Make sure you see him first before you go anywhere else with your sister.”
I took the card and nodded. She then quickly cleaned up the few spills of whiskey, and took her cup, and walked into the back. As she walked in, James walked out, looking confused as he was also handed a card.
He walked towards me, a platter in one hand as he looked over the card. “Adria just gave this to me. Do you know why?” He asked.
“The Government broadcasted Ceremony Day to everyone. Even Schools.” I answered. “She’s just trying to help.”
“What? Schools? Are you serious?” He said placing the platter before me. “What does that mean? How does this card help?”
I looked at the spread James made for us, it was simple, a tossed salad, some mushroom soup, and spicy fried chicken.
“Well…” I took a deep breath, and when I let it go, I told him what Adria told me.
We talked about it as we ate, brainstorming how to handle the so-called tracking devices and everything else. I had a decent understanding of computers enough to hack the police department for files on missing people. A crime, I know, but I did it to solve those cases. Besides that, though, I didn’t know much. We talked for an hour, and once the clock chimed one P.M. we cleaned up our food mess and headed by cab to my sister’s school.
We were just two of many, many worried adults waiting for their kids to get out in 30 minutes. 2:15, the time kids were let out of school, seemed so far away. James and I pushed through the crowd and headed towards a back exit, one that my sister and I used many times to avoid crowds.
I reached for the handle of the door and looked through the window. Already a pair of soft hazel eyes met mine. Avina. I could see the concern all over her face, and the hint of urgency. She mouthed some words to me, then pointed behind her and down the hall. There were armed guards, to stop anyone from taking their children early. I nodded at her and stepped back from the door and just sat on the steps next to James.
“I’ve never seen this before,” James muttered. “What are they so afraid of? Let people take their kids home for damn's sake.”
“It’s the whole idea of control Adria was talking about. They want the fear to settle in the people and their kids, keep them in line so they don’t do what our parents did.” I pulled out the device we were given and snapped it open like a flip phone. I read over my file; they had every little detail of my life up to this point on it. Every doctor’s visit, every school I went to, every friend I ever made, any visit to any nurse, or anytime someone took my vitals. Everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if they could estimate how often I passed my bowels.
“I was looking at mine in the cab,” James said pointing at my device. “They have you Red Named on mine like how I am for you here.” He smirked. “It means we’re close, so they’d be calling me first if something happened to you. Kind of nice to know you’ll always know when I’ll fall even if I can’t tell you.”
I smiled and elbowed him. “Yeah, and you being best friends with someone that’s going to be pretty high up in the world is going to come with some pros and cons. I bet we both get armed guards following us everywhere we go, and the only time they’ll let up is when you bake them your strawberry chocolate creme brulee.”
“Chocolate and Strawberry. It can be hard getting the strawberry chunks in it, so it still bakes right.” James snickered.
“Cooking, I’ll never be good at it but it’s okay because I got you to cook for me.” I teased.
“Only until I find ‘The One and then you’re stuck with your burnt mac and cheese and cup-ramen-noodles.” We laughed together when we heard louder and louder shouts from the front.
Parents were demanding their kids be released. “It’s getting rowdy,” James muttered. “Good thing we’re here. I don’t want to see what people will say when they see us.”
“I don’t care what they’ll say. They’ll shut up about it soon enough.” The shouting only grew more aggravated and let out a heavy sigh wrapping my arms around myself and leaning on James’s shoulder. “J, I never dreamed today would go like this.” My voice was just a soft whisper, almost carried away by the angry screams of parents.
“Neither did I Nov, Today’s been long enough… and we still have so much more to do.” James rested his head on mine and started humming. It was our favorite song, by a local band that broke up ages ago.
I was lost in the memory of going to that band’s concert, feeling the rush of adrenaline while jumping with the crowd. The times I danced with James or a random stranger beside him. I could feel the sweat on my face again as if it was truly happening. It was one of my favorite memories with my best friend. I remembered how young he looked then, tall, and gangly, with no facial hair yet such long red hair he decided to wear in dreads. I felt such a strong connection with him, ever since we met as kids.
I heard him laugh, and I was pulled from my memory. “Remember when I had dreadlocks? I looked so weird.”
I pulled from him and looked at him confused. “When we were at the concert?”
“Yeah, it was fun right?” He asked elbowing my side.
“I was thinking about it too. I think we followed that band up to when they broke up.” I rubbed the back of my head, the sounds of shouts still echoing around the school.
“Damn, I wish they’d shut up.” James rubbed his head, and I could tell he was dealing with all this just as well as I was. The way he would rub his temples, then tuck his hair behind his ears he had a few stray strands, but it was one of his biggest tells for when he is stressed out.
The day started off so well, but it was all a pretty bow on a shit-filled gift of a day. Or maybe it was just my dad’s way of telling me and my sister, he loved us. Trying to give us a normal, and perfect morning. I stood up, stretching my hands above my head, looking at the cloudless sunny sky, the sought adventure and joy. The feelings inside myself were anything but joyous.
I heard the final bell toll, and my sister was the first out the side door. She rushed to me, and James stood up before he got trampled by other kids. He placed his hand on Avina’s back, and that’s when I realized she was crying into my chest. Her cries had been drowned out by the bell, and by the shouting parents at the front, and the now screaming kids.
I held her tighter than I ever had and kissed her all over her head. “Come on, let's go,” I said ushering her towards the back of the school. We would take a cab home on the other end of the block away from the patrol of parents. We started walking in silence as Avina gripped my hand like she was three again. Tight, close, small, and seeking comfort from her older sister who she always said was brave and strong. I felt anything but brave and strong. I felt broken and torn. Confused and frightened.
When we got to the other side, James hailed a cab. I turned to Avina and frowned at her puffy eyes. “We’re leaving. I’ll explain when we’re home but we must pack up. Alright?”
She nodded at me, then crawled into the cab as James opened the door for us. We loaded in, and I felt my world shudder as sat down. I saw, instead of leather seats and a windshield, a red puddle. Thick and dripping down a table to the floor. I bent over and picked up a knife, it was stained with blood, and when I looked down my body, I saw a smooth chest, milky white, with bloodied cuts. Then I looked to my left, knowing there was a mirror there, but before I could see the reflection, I was thrown somewhere else. Grass. I felt it around me, and I was looking at the leaves in the tree talking about all the people I watched die today with my best friend Misty. Misty was blonde and blue-eyed with freckles. She was my friend since high school. I told her then, that I was suddenly seeing the inside of a taxi cab. And as I explained the taxi cab, the voice, I realized, wasn’t mine. It was deep, sultry, like velvet ice cream. As the voice continued the description of the cab, from the dice on the rearview, to the scent of vanilla and amber, I was pulled back to the previous scene. The blood, the pain as the not-me clutched not-my-wounds tight. I was turning down a street in the cab, hearing this sultry voice explain it, while I was also clutching my chest and looking for something to bind my wounds.
As the voice grew louder, describing where I was, another voice started to speak. It called out to me, with my name, husky and ragged.
“Nova Lee…” It was a whisper, but it was much louder than the other. “Nova Lee… Until we meet… again…”
I flashed between the bloodied room, and the leaves in the tree, back and forth until finally I was smacked by James, and he was asking me to get out of the cab.
“Nova, come on,” James demanded
“She’s just getting them for the first time, right? Happens sometimes. Today It’s on me.” The cabbie said. “Just be safe guys.”
“Thanks, man, come to the restaurant any time and you’ll get a free dessert.” James helped me out of the cab, and as soon as I stepped on the sidewalk and the door was closed behind me, I dropped to my knees, vomiting.
“Jeezus, Nova are you okay?” James asked helping me back up.
“I’m just… I’m dizzy.” I stumble towards my front door, James holding on to me as Avina unlocked the door.
“She looks like crap.”
“Get some water, I’m going to put her on the couch.”
I moved with James, the dizziness growing as we inched towards the couch. Once there, he plopped me down, and I held my head as I leaned over. I groaned and waved a hand towards the kitchen. “Bag. Something. Please.”
James shoved a small empty trash bin in my hands, and I hurled again. I felt better with at one. I wiped my face and leaned back. “That was… intense…” I sighed.
“What happened?” James asked.
“I’m not sure… Is there a chance… that I can have two soulmates?”