The digital clock on the wall across from me reads 5:24am. I sigh. No use trying to go back to sleep now. I will have to get up in less than an hour anyway, when the electricity is turned back on. Instead, I take a deep breath, staring at my bare toes, and release it slowly but my body continues to tremble.
The power is strictly sanctioned, so my room is dark besides the clock and moonlight shining through my small window. I think it began as way to ensure we, as a people, didn’t consume our resources before they could be replenished and it sort of became a tradition that stuck over the years. Now, it’s only accessible at certain hours of the day. At 11pm sharp, the lights are turned off and don’t come back on until 6am the next morning, when everyone is to start their day.
Everything else is turned off, also, so that we can’t possibly waste any resources. The only objects allowed on during the night are clocks, which are digital and attached to the walls. All power is run by natural electricity. Wind turbines and solar panels keep our planet from becoming polluted like Earth-that-was. Nothing is wasted here.
The solar panels are built into the dome covering the city, making them virtually indistinguishable from the opaque structure of the dome. It’s a nifty invention, but doesn’t ease the nerves dancing along my limbs and congregating in my chest. Nothing is going to distract me from what awaits me today.
I sit up in bed, unable to stop my body from shaking. The dream seemed so real this time that I’m having a hard time calming down. Placing my hand on my forehead, I can feel a slick layer of sweat. With a groan, I throw off my gray, felt blanket and swing my feet over the side of the bed, allowing them to touch the cool tiled floor.
Looking around my room, I try to wash away the image of Micah, my missing older brother, still floating around in my head. The room almost seems smaller than it did before I fell asleep last night. It is eight feet by eight feet; standard for a four person family. My twin-sized bed is pressed against the wall and a night stand sits near the head of it, to my left.
The opposite wall is bare besides the clock that hangs there, and a small closet juts out from the wall to my right. Inside are lots of dull colored dresses, skirts, and blouses. There is even a small dresser in the closet that holds all of my undergarments and tights. The exit door rests on the same wall as the closet, but in the far corner from where I am and slightly inset compared to the closet.
I lay back onto the bed so that the back of my head is against the wall, my hands folded on my slim waist. Closing my eyes, I pretend Micah is still in his room on the other side of the wall from where I am even though a pressure returns to my chest at the thought of him. His room is essentially a museum as is, since our parents didn’t remove anything of his from inside it. When I couldn’t sleep, he was always there on the other side of the wall to talk with me.
We would send each other messages using Morse code so we wouldn’t wake or concern Mom and Dad. It’s taught in elementary school as a second language, along with Chinese, Japanese, German, French, and Spanish. I’ve always thought it strange since no one speaks anything besides English - at least within the walls of Geha, the city I was born.
Still, if Micah was Unfavorable, then how is it he was able to learn, and teach me before I even entered elementary school, to use Morse code? It is one of the many things I’ve wondered about since he disappeared. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap my head around why he didn’t make the cut.
Quickly, I wipe the welling tears away and sit back up. I pull open the drawer in my nightstand a bit forcefully, and take out a small candle and a matchbox. Using the box to strike and light a match, I cautiously light the candle, blowing out the match. Picking up the plain white, scentless candle up in my left hand, I saunter over to the bedroom door, opening it and peering to see if anyone else is awake. I need to flee from the memories flooding my mind.
The hall is eerily quiet. Mom and Dad’s bedroom is across the hall from Micah’s old room, and the bathroom is next to their room – directly across from mine. I walk left and take two steps before the hall opens into the kitchen and dining area. With no hesitation, I cross the tiled floor and place my candle on the kitchen counter, grab a glass from the cabinet, and immediately turn on the faucet.
Water is the one resource we have an abundance of and can use without limitation. It’s an irrigation and recycling system that was perfected after Nevada Geha, our society’s founder, passed. But that was long before I was born. Still, in this moment I’m grateful for lack of restrictions to the liquid.
I fill up the glass a third of the way and empty it into my stomach before stopping the faucet. It cools my throat but isn’t enough to clear my head. I place the glass in the sink, disappointed. With the impending day ahead of me, the lingering thought that I might disappear like Micah clouds my every rumination. I know nothing is going to help me feel better, but I decide to try a bath anyway. Micah would take a hot bath when his studies became too stressful in an attempt to ease his mind. It worked for him.
Grabbing the candle, I tiptoe back down the hall in a huff. Passing my bedroom, the door still open, I take a left into the bathroom, shutting the door softly behind me. No need to wake Mom and Dad so early. They will have enough on their mind with the Bleeding Rite today. They are even allowed to take the day off of work for the occasion. They deserve to sleep in after how much they have been worrying about the test. Maybe even more than I have.
The faucet attached to the bath yields easily to my grip. Running the water freely into the tub, I let it get warm before plugging the drain. Thank Geha the water and its heating system is run on the irrigation structure rather than electricity. The tub is in the far left corner of the bathroom as you walk in, with the toilet in the opposite corner.
A sink with cabinets below it rests on the right hand wall with the toilet, and a small closet filled with toiletries and towels is on the right near the door. I place my candle on the back of the toilet before opening the closet door and grabbing a towel. The material is soft, cotton, and remains a dark gray like the rest of the fabric in this world. I set it on the edge of the sink, as I always do, before sneaking a peek at myself in the mirror above it.
My skin is paler than my usual ivory skin tone, as if I’d seen a ghost. With the memories flashing through my mind as if I’m reliving them, it’s no wonder. My chestnut hair falls about my shoulders and half way down my back in natural waves. It’s one of my best features. My abnormal and striking sapphire blue eyes stare back at me as if I’m looking into the eyes of a stranger. I’ve started to feel like unfamiliar to myself as of late, so that is no surprise.
The light gray, cotton nightgown I’m wearing hides my slim figure and ample breasts. I’ve been blessed with clear, soft skin that I’m told is attractive, but I don’t see it myself even as I gaze into my reflection. I don’t actually like looking at myself in the mirror – I never seem to recognize myself. Not since Micah left us. It doesn’t matter how many times or how long I stare into the mirror – my features don’t ever seem recognizable.
I turn away, biting my lower lip to fight back the tears that always seem to want to escape whenever I think of my older brother. Taking a step back towards the bathtub, I turn off the water before lifting my nightgown over my head and letting it fall gently to the tiled floor next to the toilet. I lower one foot into the liquid, letting it wash away my uneasiness as if it were dirt on my skin. Once the other foot is in the tub, I sink down slowly, making sure to enjoy the warmth as it kisses my curves.
I’m not sure how long I sit in the tub and it doesn’t bother me. I let the water seep into every pore and take away some of my anxiety over the Bleeding Rite. The early morning darkness fades into day while I lay there forgetting my surroundings. I don’t even notice when the water becomes cold. I’m in my own little world when Mom knocks on the bathroom door, startling me, the water splashing around my body.
“Al, are you okay in there?” she asks, an almost indistinguishable shake to her tone. “You’ve been in there a long time…”
“I’m okay, Mom,” I call back to her, waves of shock evident in my voice as I speak. “I’ll be out in a bit.”
“Good, breakfast is almost ready.”
She sounds unusually chipper this morning. It’s a little off-putting with all the pressure on studies she and Dad have placed on my shoulders over the years. Since Micah’s Rite. It’s a refreshing change, but one I find a bit suspicious. I’ve done my best to ready myself for the Rite, but I’m not sure it’s enough to fool the Main Frame into thinking I’m something more than an undesirable.
My stomach churns queasily at the thought of eating anything. I splash my face with water, cleaning it before pulling the stopper up to let out the bathwater. Standing up, I grab my towel carefully and angle my body so that I don’t see myself in the mirror.
Drying myself quickly, I open the door and bounce on the balls of my feet back to my bedroom. Shutting the door behind me, I turn to see that Mom has already picked an outfit for me and laid it on my bed. I definitely must have taken longer than I anticipated in the bath, but it was worth it. They aren’t gone, but my nerves have eased back a bit.
On the bed is a plain, gray dress with a collar and black tie attached, as well as a navy blue sweater to go over it. That isn’t what I imagined wearing for my Bleeding Rite, but I don’t want to make Mom uneasy by selecting something else to wear. This could be my last morning with my parents, I don’t want to spend it fighting with them. That’s not how I want my last conversation with them to take place.
Not that I have much else to choose from, either. My entire wardrobe consists of the same dull colored clothing that everyone in Geha adorns. Clothing color ranges from light gray, to black with a little bit of brown or navy splashed in. Fashion was deemed unimportant to evolution before Geha landed on Leda, my home planet.
I take my time getting dressed. Unfortunately, I don’t get to control my future, but I’m going to control how fast I get ready for the day. I take my time zipping up the dress in the back and putting on the tights underneath. Something small to make me feel like I have some sort of say in what happens to me. Grabbing the sweater, I casually make my way to the kitchen as if it were any other day and not my sixteenth birthday.
Seeing my parents makes me pause at the end of the hall. They’ve put so much pressure on me that I’m worried about what their last minute statements will be to me. I can’t help but notice how worn they both look this morning – I can see wrinkles beginning to form on their foreheads and the corner of their eyelids. Although I didn’t hear them stir this morning, it looks as if they were awake about the same time as me judging by the bags under eyes.
Dad is sitting at the table in his usual seat at the head of the table, furthest to my right as I watch him. He has his tablet and he’s reading the news released by Arbiter Cizius Cloudore, our current leader, and his aids. He’s wearing a brown suit with matching socks and shoes, and a pale brown undershirt to finish. It accents his chocolate eyes rather well, but I can see he isn’t actually reading the tablet in front of him. His short, spiked dark brown hair is the same as Micah’s, barely an inch above the scalp.
Mom, while finishing up cooking sausage, is wearing a midnight blue colored, long sleeve dress that ends at the middle of her calves. The sleeves are rolled up to her elbow while she cooks so they don’t get dirty. Matching flats adorn her feet to complete the outfit. With her back currently to me, I’m unable to see her eyes and decipher how she’s feeling this morning. Her hair is the same color as Dad’s, but has a natural wave to it like mine. She has it wrapped up in a bun on top of her head now, though.
Enough stalling, I chide myself. This day is going to happen whether I want it to or not.
I force my feet to move and take my seat to the left of Dad, my sweater lying on my shoulders, and say good morning to both of them. Their motions are tense, and I can hear it in their jaw and mouth as they respond.
“Morning sunshine,” Dad acknowledges. He seems pretty chipper this morning, too. I sense a conspiracy going on. They’ve been dreading this day almost as much as I have, perhaps more so. It isn’t possible that they would actually be in a good mood. “Did you sleep okay?”
“As well as can be expected,” I shrug, trying to act normal. I refuse to put on a fake smile, though. “I had that nightmare again.”
“About Micah?” Mom adds, turning her head toward me, worry heavy in her voice. I nod and swallow heavily, unable to speak his name out loud without crying. It may have been just over six years ago, but it still feels like only yesterday my best friend was ripped away from me.
I woke with my arms outstretched again, remembering the dream. He was right in front of me – it seemed so real… I was reaching out to him. Micah. It’s the same dream I’ve woken up from every night the past week leading up to my Rite. In it, he’s calling to me with his hand stretched out towards me, like he used to when we were little and he would try to drag me around on his exploration adventures around the city.
Even though he had seen every inch, every nook and cranny, he never stopped searching for new discoveries. However, in my dream, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to reach him. I can still hear his voice as if just yesterday he begged me to join him on an expedition.
“Alora! Come on, Al, we have loads to explore today!”
It’s been six years, one month, and four days since he was forced to leave us. The day of his sixteenth birthday, he went to Central Hall and didn’t come home. Loyals were sent to our house after his Bleeding Rite to let us know he had received an ‘Unfavorable’ score and was sent away. I didn’t understand what it meant back then, and I still don’t. We weren’t even given the chance to say goodbye or wish him good tidings. He was simply gone.
We were all shocked when we heard the news, even if I didn’t comprehend the meaning of it all. Mom and Dad didn’t leave the house for about a week. I had never heard of anyone getting an Unfavorable score before, so I didn’t know whether that was normal or not. At almost six years old myself, I didn’t know how to feel. I simply waited for him to come back, thinking he got caught up in his explorations and forgot to come home.
After a few days without his return, I began to understand that something was amiss. Mom is one of the most respected Healers in the colony and Dad the Developer held in the highest esteem of this generation. He is the one that created the dome-like cover over the colony that keeps all insects and birds from dirtying our streets and spreading disease, yet allows in sunlight and air. It is, also, able to control the climate – so even if it is snowing outside the walls, it is warm enough to need only a sweater inside. Year-round, the weather is perfect.
With how highly regarded and talented my parents are, how on Earth-that-was could their firstborn have received an ‘Unfavorable’ grade? That leaves little hope for me, even though Mom and Dad did what they could to prepare me for this day over the last six years. Today, I turn sixteen. Today is the day I take the Bleeding Rite.
I glance at the chair opposite me, where Micah used to sit. Empty. The same way it has been for so long now. I can remember the day of his Rite still, watching him eat his pancakes and bacon without a care in the world. He was delighted. Ready to take on anything that life wanted to throw at him that day.
His short, dark hair followed his head as it turned to talk excitedly to Mom and Dad about what sort of career he might receive. His deep brown eyes looking into my own as he described the next adventure he had planned for us after he was to get home from the test. My chest aches imagining what it was he was so eager to show me…
A plate is placed in front of me with two slices of French toast and sausage, bringing me back to the present. My parents continue to seem oddly cheerful today, considering the circumstances surrounding it, and I can’t shake it. I take a closer look at Mom as she sits down after giving Dad his breakfast and paying attention to her own. As she takes her first bite, I can see the tension in her movements and how she struggles to swallow the small bite of French toast she had taken from her plate. She’s doing all she can to keep a calm demeanor for me.
Dad isn’t doing any better, either. I sneak a peek at him and he’s glancing at me over his coffee while he pretends to read the news tablet. They must have talked about remaining as calm as possible while I was in the bathroom to not freak me out after what happened with Micah. The pressure already on my shoulders is debilitating enough, they don’t want to add to it. It’s sweet they are trying, but their attempt is only causing me more discomfort.
The recurring dream I’ve been having must really be worrying them, too. Hell, it worries me… If I believed in omens, I would barricade myself in my room. If only that would work. It’s a worse idea than going to the Rite. I’ve heard stories that Loyals are sent to storm your house to retrieve you if you aren’t on time, though.
Breakfast passes quietly. I’m too nervous to finish my plate, so I make sure to eat half of my French toast and one sausage link so Mom doesn’t worry more than she already is. I can only imagine what is going through her head, and Dad’s. I want to eat everything she cooked but I don’t feel like throwing it all back up before my test. Embarrassment is not something I need on top of the Rite.
I get up from my chair and take my plate to the sink, focusing on keeping my breathing steady. My parents are doing their best to be calm for me, I can try for them as well. They deserve a bit of reprieve at this point. Hopefully, my attempt won’t crash and burn, and give them some relief. I’m actually a bit surprised neither of them ask me why I didn’t finish my plate. It looks like we’re all on the same page today.
“Well,” I start, faking a bit of the cheer they’ve expressed and turning toward them. “I guess it’s time to get going, then.”
Mom stands, not even half of her breakfast eaten, and walks quickly over to me. She wraps me in a tight hug that makes it difficult to breath. She does a great job of hiding it, but there’s terror in those blue eyes I inherited. My heart cries out to her knowing she’s in so much pain. I want so bad to take that away from her.
“Oh, honey,” she breathes into my ear. I detect the slightest waver in her voice, but she hides it so well that I almost second guess myself. “Good luck. We’ll be waiting right here to discover your results. Be brave! We know you’ll receive fabulous marks.”
She slowly lets go and Dad is there behind her, startling me a little. I didn’t even hear him stand from his chair. He has the same fake smile plastered on his face that Mom does. Dad isn’t able to hide the fear in his eyes either, but it’s hard for me to look at them. Not because of how scared he is, though. Micah had Dad’s deep brown eyes, so I see my brother whenever I look into my Dad’s eyes…
“Hey, big girl,” he whispers, also hugging me close.
I almost start balling right there in the kitchen hearing his soft, comforting tone. Almost as if it might be the last thing he ever says to me and he knows that. He wants to make sure the last words he speaks to me are gentle and comforting. Like he’s trying to say ‘it’s going to be okay’ with simply his voice.
He holds onto me longer than I expect him to. We’re all afraid of what my scores will be, but he’s taking it the hardest. I think he’s having a hard time letting me leave for the Rite – even more so than Mom. I never thought of myself as a daddy’s girl, but maybe I am. It wouldn’t be the worst title to have in this world. They’re both afraid a Loyal will arrive at the front door again instead of me being able to tell them my results.
“Come home to us, okay?” he murmurs in my ear.
Dad lets go and all I can do is nod as I look at the floor. Although I love those brown eyes him and Micah share, it’s too much for me to take right now. My voice is caught in my throat with the lump that’s formed there. I’m trying to swallow it but I’m having trouble. I wipe the tears from my eyes before they have a chance to fall down my cheeks.
“I love you Mom and Dad,” I choke out to the floor, my body shaking.
I’m scared but I have to stay strong. I clear my throat as best as I can and smile at them with as much faux confidence as I can muster. They need to believe I’m going to come home, even if I’m unsure. I can’t even imagine how difficult this must be for them, having to watch me leave and then wait to see if they are going to lose another child.