Chapter 1. The Morning Of…
I’m running. The air fills my lungs like battery acid. My tendons and ligaments stress and stretch with every step. I push farther, claudication sending pain through my legs. Why am I running? What’s following behind? Wait, where am I? I stop and turn to look, it’s-! *BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!!!* I jerk awake from my sleep and turn off the alarm. It was only a dream. I flop myself back against my pillow and take a deep breath. *Inhale… Exhale...* The musty smell of the room crept into my nostrils. Letting out a groan of irritation, I rolled off of my mattress and walked into the bathroom.
At one point, it probably looked like the average restroom, not now, though; it had a toilet, which leaked, and a small rusted tub with no running water piped to it. I kept two buckets: one in the tub for sponge-bathing, the second, on the busted sink top, was for rinsing my face. I was given fresh water for my buckets every three days, so I typically tried to stay clean in order to preserve it.
I was washing the sleep from my eyes when the door burst open, “Do you have any idea how late it is? We should have been on our way ten minutes ago! But nooo, you had to get your beauty sleep.” My foster mother carped, giving the back of my head a wallop with her palm. I dried my face with an old rag and looked up at her.
She was about 5’6, skinny, blonde from too much box dye. She wore a black pencil skirt with a bright red blouse and exuded the stench of perfume and cigarettes. Breathing mud would be easier, I thought to myself. *Mhmm* she cleared her throat. I lower my head, focusing my eyes on the floor, particularly her cheap high hills, “I’m sorry mother, I forgot what day it was.”
“Stupid little bitch.” She muttered as she exited the room. I rushed out behind her, throwing on my usual jeans and T-shirt that were still dirty from yesterday’s work. The rest of our home was like any other, furnished with all the pretty little dressings. I kept it clean and tidy, although I didn’t spend much time in it other than that. Tris, my foster mother, preferred I stay upstairs. ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ She would say.
Walking out onto the stoop, I stopped, taking in the morning air. It wasn’t often that I could enjoy tiny pleasures like this. In the town of Stonewood, girls don’t just get to go outside or venture freely; this is an old town with old rules. Never changing. Girls are homeschooled; taught to cook, clean, manage laundry, garden, etc. We’re not permitted to leave our parents’ properties unless the reason is warranted. Circumstances, such as routine wellness checks at the local doctor, or medical emergencies, fall under what is deemed to be justified. This law is enforced until we come of age, 23.
Most men of the town, are laborers either working in the field, in construction, or doing odd jobs around the town that nobody else will take. If you’re a man and haven’t fallen into these categories, you’re probably in the medical profession; having shown some God-given talent that the council has deemed worthy of a different position.
One rule is certain and applies to everyone: No one is to leave town under any circumstance. Rumor has it that there are creatures beyond the Town; creatures that could swallow a human whole. Previously, men were drafted as hunters, venturing out beyond the towns’ limits looking for game. Most never come back, so they stopped sending them…
I was looking up at the overcast sky when a hand of bony fingers wrapped around my arm. “I swear,” Tris griped, proceeding to drag me down the walkway. “Such a stupid little bitch! I swear to God if you make us late or make me look bad, I will beat you senseless.” I picked up the pace, knowing she would make good on her word. We continued like this; walking down the street, Tris muttering curse words under breath, me trying to keep up.
We were on our way to the town hall so that she could enlist me into this years’ ‘Harvest Pageant,’ which she hasn’t been looking forward to on account of the fact that people would now see me and could possibly associate me with her. It would be bad for her image. She doesn’t get a choice in the matter though, it’s mandatory that all girls enlist to participate in the pageant when they come of age, and I turned 23 last week.
This is the age when we are considered eligible for marriage, so the ‘pageant’ is sort of like a coming-out party for us to meet and talk to people. The town has other shindigs which females are permitted to attend, once of age, but this one is kind of odd; it’s held out near the old church on Mr. Larson’s’ farm. There is supposed to be dinner, dancing after, then the harvest pageant.
We arrived on time to find a slew of girls, with their mothers, standing in a line that stretched all the way down the concrete steps. “I didn’t know there were so many in our town.”, I observed, and they were all so pretty, their hair tidy, clothes pressed, like something from a magazine. I couldn’t compare. They waited, twiddling their thumbs, fidgeting, some making introductions, some chattering with their mothers. “It doesn’t matter how many there are. Just stay quiet and stand still.” Tris said harshly, squeezing my arm tighter. I winced, knowing a bruise will have formed by tomorrow.
We worked our way closer to the doors as the line grew shorter. I daydreamed about what it would be like to be one of those girls. The ones who just spoke to anyone around and so easily seemed to make friends. What would I say if they spoke to me? What if they asked for my name? What would I tell them? Stupid little bitch. No. That’s definitely not what I’d tell them. Maybe-. “Name?” A monotoned voice asked, bringing me back down to earth.