My wrist beeped and vibrated. Startled, I jumped up off my cushion. I should be used to these alarms by now. They ran our lives. Why was I still such a jumpy mess? And damn I needed just another 15 minutes to get through this last chapter or two. Daria had to race to Ethan before that evil skank Lucy married him and moved away forever.
But Daria’s mad dash to her beloved Ethan would have to wait I guess. My literary escape was over. The Glendale Admin Center wouldn’t appreciate me being late. Especially today of all days. I had 15 minutes to get myself back to the Health Administration for today’s important afternoon shift.
I unscrewed the top of a hollow beam under the floorboards, unveiling a hidden library. I liked to think it was one of the biggest in Glendale, maybe in the entire Collective. The Superiors didn’t see the need for novels. Sure, each region had their own traditional verbal stories and schooling textbooks. But stories for entertainment or new ideas were deemed inappropriate, unnecessary, and illegal. I didn’t really get it. Everyone could use a little escape from life.
I closed the small entrance to my hidden library. The Superiors must have had a good reason. I was just some Health Admin in the smallest region in the Collective. What the hell did I know?
That didn’t mean that the Superiors or other Collective officials had to know about my solitary acts of literary rebellion though. I threw my anxious body off the porch cushion and made my way to the front garden. There was one person who knew about my illicit reading. That would be my partner evaluator down at the Health Admin, Jessie. We had initially been paired together because we were by far the youngest evaluators in Glendale. I guess they thought our similar ages would make us the perfect match. That close partnership meant that she was the only person who understood the burden of our work. Everyday we made impossible decision after impossible decision that changed real people’s lives. Despite our best efforts and training, there was no way to escape the emotional strain. Jessie for sure didn’t condone my escapes but knew how badly I needed them. She kept my little secret, though it came at the cost of her constant scolding.
I passed my mother slaving away in the front garden. Without pausing her attack on the resisting mutant weeds, she asked, “Enjoy your nap? Dream of anyone special?” Damn, she knew just how to hit my sore spot. My upcoming match made me so uncomfortable, and my mother enjoyed teasing me mercilessly about it. This match was inescapable. I just wish I knew when it’d be happening and to whom. No doubt it’d be a tad bit less dramatic and full of real feeling as Daria and Ethan in my book.
Not that it mattered much, my time in this house was coming to an end soon. I wanted to cherish these last moments with my family, even if they involved me getting teased the entire time. I squinted and rolled my eyes. “Just resting before the afternoon shift, mother. No dreams.”
“Sure, sure. Very convincing honey,” she prodded as she continued her assault on the pesky genetic hybrid weeds that seemed to grow thicker with each growing season. My mother used every inch of our plot as a garden to feed her boys. She had dedicated her life to ensure her boys became strong, disciplined, contributing members of the Glendale community. Nothing shifted her focus from achieving that singular goal, particularly after my father’s retirement. My older brothers Troy and Liam were already matched and had started their own family units. They spent their days working as woodworkers out in the thick Glendalean forests like father. No way I could spend my days cutting down our perfect forests. I had always been destined for the Health Administration.
“Seriously Aaron, you’re about to face a lot of changes. Your Health Admin assessment today and of course your pending match. Keep your mind clear and focused.” Dropping her gardening tools, she turned toward me. “I know how you can get lost up in that mind of yours. You don’t have that luxury right now. Think clearly, logically, and quickly. And then take action. No hesitation or weakness. You know how these things work.”
“I know Mum.” I nodded trying to end the parental speech. “I’m one of the best evaluators here in Glendale.”
“You need to start thinking bigger than little old Glendale. You’re competing against evaluators from all of the regions now. Be disciplined. Be assertive.” A flash of a cheeky smile spread across her solemn face. “Plus, I know I’m excited to see who you’ll be matched with. Should be coming up anytime now.”
I could only shake my head, wishing the topic away. “Not thinking about that matching nonsense right now. I’ll deal with that mess later. I have no control over that, and you know how much I hate not having control. I have control during the evaluations today though. I make the decisions.” Crap, I needed to move. “Gotta hustle Mum. Need to make it to the rendezvous point almost on time.” I said as I walked away and stuck my tongue out back at her. Although she got under my skin like no one else could, Mum also had the ability to shake me out of my own cerebral world and bring me back to reality. A balance of gentleness and forcefulness to direct me down the chosen path.
Walking down the wooded trail, I tried to clear my mind and focus on my upcoming shift. My brain had to be alert and quick. A arrow whizzed in front of me and plunged into a massive oak. “What the!” I yelped, jumping back.
“Oh calm down,” Marit laughed as she easily hopped over the wooden fence and strolled up the path with her bow. “You seem a little out of it today Deyes.”
“Well, a rogue arrow did just fly in front of my face,” I joked. “But yea, I guess you’re right. Just spent a little too long lounging on the back porch. Not quite recovered yet.”
“Fair enough,” Marit said, pulling the arrow out of the massive trunk in one swift movement. “I probably spend way too much out back with bow and arrow myself.”
We started meandering down the path with little regard to needing to get to our rendezvous points. “Trust me, I’m aware. Every time I’m back on our porch, I’m petrified of a stray arrow of yours or Eric’s coming our way.”
“Give me a little credit Aaron. I never miss. Didn’t miss just now, did I?” Marit flashed a smile before responding with a soft push.
I couldn’t help but smile back at her glowing face with a few stray strands of dirty blond hair flowing around her cheeks. “I guess not. I don’t even understand why your family chose to have a mini-archery range as your perk. The local Citizens Department only gives you one.”
“We all have our reasons and ways of coping.” Marit’s face had morphed back into her typical indecipherable expression. “Just as good as some silly porch or spring like that girl you work with.”
“I suppose,” I offered with a shrug. Of course, she would bring up Jessie’s spring. I didn’t need any of their nonsense today. “At least, the ridiculous sibling rivalry between you, Eric, and Lisa has given me the perfect opportunities to practice my sarcastic commentaries.”
That brought back that trademark smirk and twinkle in her piercing blue eyes. “True, you’ve been getting better lately. Though all of us will have to start thinking about our own family perks soon enough.”
“And with that, I’m out of here.” I giggled out of awkwardness. “Already going to be so so late for my shift.”
With a smirk and a hint of redness in her strong cheeks, Marit disappeared into the woods maneuvering her lithe body through the brush and braches. Now even Marit was mentioning our upcoming matches? She had to be just as apprehensive about it as I was. We weren’t leaving our families forever or anything ridiculous like that. But we’d have to form a lifelong partnership with someone. Probably someone I’d known most of my life. They would go from an acquaintance to the most important person in my life. Not exactly like I’d read in my books. No wooing, passion, or anything like that. Just a decision in an envelop in some austere ceremony that decreed the rest of your life. How lovely.
Staring up into the branch-covered skies, I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling of longing. Neither Mum’s nor even Marit’s arrow had knocked me out of my daze. My mind drifted back to the desperately in love Daria. I had to know if she would get to Ethan in time and hold onto the only real thing she’d had in her life. The only thing I did know was that my time with her, Ethan, and hell even the awful Lucy was racing toward its end. The end, that is. How I hated those two little words! Even if that all-powerful writer gave me a sense of closure, all I would end up feeling were betrayal and jealousy. I had ceded all control over my feelings and emotions to the whims of this faceless stranger. He or she knew what happened after so casually writing those two awful words. I didn’t! I had invested so much time and emotions into their characters and journey. Then with no concern, he or she would rip them away from me. I was never ready to let go.
I couldn’t help but marvel at this power though. Without any real interaction, this writer could take me on a journey across time and space. Their words made me question my own thoughts and what so much more from my world. What was it like to hold such power? Were you even aware of it? Maybe I could continue Daria’s journey myself with my own words. That could be the agenda for next few scheduled breaks. Crap, I needed to shake myself out of this introspective tailspin before Jessie noticed. We had such little time away from the Health Admin and other scheduled activities. When I did find time for myself, I spent most of it lost in the uncontrollable world of my books and thoughts on my family’s creaky porch. All of that needed to be entirely distinct from my life as a Health Admin evaluator. I needed to focus. Plus, I’m didn’t want to force Jessie to slap me upside the head to knock me out of this world of literary whimsy.