“Where were you earlier?” Charlotte asks, coming up beside me as I make my way toward an empty marble coffee table on the President’s expansive front lawn.
Every year, the President holds a party at his mansion after the Ceremony where the parents mingle, congratulate, and secretly judge peers on their new family members. None of the Matches themselves are ever present, instead staying home with their new partners. I’ve never been on the President’s property before, but it’s as grand as the reporters have made it out to be every year. The warm spring air and light breeze are welcome after being inside for so long.
The only down side is that reporters are also prowling the grounds, insinuating themselves into conversations with miniature microphones and holographic cameras.
I sit down on the purple leather banquette and cross my legs, a habit I picked up from my sister, much to our mother’s dismay. I fiddle with the ridiculous lavender bow at my waist. If I knew Mother wouldn’t have thrown a fit, I’d have taken a pair of scissors to it a long time ago. “I was with Kalli.”
She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “You got to see the Marking? What was it like?” She shakes her head and holds out a hand. “Wait, don’t tell me. I’m not supposed to know.”
I laugh. She’s always doing stuff like this.
“Gosh, I wish I could have seen it… Anyway,” She pauses and glances around to make sure no one is listening. “I saw the President looking at you. What was that about?”
“I have no idea.”
She cuts off when Jasper sidles next to me. I scoot over to give him more space, but he catches my hand, making me still. I don’t think he even realizes it because he lets go immediately and says, “You two look serious. What have I missed?”
“Nothing,” I answer, looking away.
“Is it a girl thing? That time of the month?” he asks, wrinkling his nose like he used to when we were five. He’s speaking nonsense. Doctors figured out a way to make periods short and painless during the 100 Years’ Peace after World War III. He smiles and leans closer to me. “Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
Charlotte sighs. “We were talking about the Ceremony.”
He turns toward her. “Great job this year.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
Jasper just rolls his eyes, tugs on a loose ringlet of my hair, and I sit back down. He doesn’t let go and proceeds to twirl it around his finger. “Sometimes, I don’t understand how you can be Kalliope’s sister.”
Scowling, I swat his hand away and he releases my hair. “I trust the Matchmakers to make the right decision for me. What’s wrong with that?” I add when I see a line form in between his eyebrows, a sign I’ve come to recognize as a precursor to a lecture.
“Nothing,” he answers too quickly.
I narrow my eyes and am about to press him for more when I see a female reporter coming our way.
Charlotte seamlessly covers for me and says loudly, “It’s so strange to think they’ll all be talking about us in a year. Who do you think our Matches will be?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the woman inching closer to us, aiming the small box in our direction, no doubt broadcasting our “private” conversation to the rest of the Heartland.
“Well, I feel sorry for whoever ends up with either of you,” Jasper quips with a grin.
I shove him lightly and he laughs, righting himself.
Charlotte scoffs, “Yeah, because you’re a real charmer. I feel sorry for the girl who gets you. Maybe I’ll send her a condolence gift basket.”
He sighs. “How you wound me.” He pauses, waiting until the reporter realizes we’re done entertaining and walks away before he says, “Seriously, though, if you’re unhappy, I’m just a call away.” He stares at me as he says the last part and I quickly look away, already feeling heat rise to my cheeks.
“Now that you’re caught up to speed…” Charlotte prompts, trailing off melodramatically, “could you leave us alone so we can finish our conversation?”
He stands up and winks at me. “See you later.”
I watch him retreat until he starts talking to his parents, mine and Charlotte’s parents, and their colleagues before I turn back to my friend. “Why did you send him away?”
“Did you want to tell him that the President was eyeing you during the Ceremony?”
“You make it sound so creepy when you put it that way.”
She rolls her eyes. “Do you know what I think?”
I shrug, knowing she will tell me anyway.
“I think you’re going to end up with the President’s son. Think about it,” she says, when I start to interrupt. “The President’s son is being Matched next year and the whole First Family was watching you… It makes perfect sense.”
I shake my head. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
She waves me off. “You could be living here in a year.”
I’m about to reply when my parents wave me over.
“Good you’re here,” Jasper whispers to me when I stop beside him. “They’ve been speculating about next year for the past five minutes.”
My father clears his throat and Jasper steps away from me.
“We’re leaving, Rosemary.”
My mother turns to say goodbye to her friends. I go to hug Jasper and he lifts me a few inches off the ground.
“Put me down!” I lightly punch his arm, smiling. “You know how much that scares me.”
“Lighten up,” he teases back, putting me down, not letting go of my waist until I’m steady on the ground.
“My turn.” Charlotte steps up and hugs me. She lets me go and I wave goodbye to their parents before turning to my own.
My father quickly says his farewells and ushers us towards the car. From inside, our chauffeur opens the door and I wait for my parents to climb in.
I settle myself into my normal seat, look out the window, and see the President’s mansion disappear out of sight as the car pulls away from the curb.
The ride back home is silent. Both my parents are engrossed in their correspondences, no doubt still bragging about Kalli’s Match, and I'm left alone to my thoughts. Without my friends to distract me, my earlier loneliness returns at full force and I feel my adrenaline from the day melt away, making me struggle to keep my eyes open.
At some point, I doze off. When we finally pull up to our home, I rub my eyes with the heels of my hands. Our chauffeur clears his throat. I drop my hands into my lap and notice that I’m the only one sitting in the back.
“Your parents are waiting for you, Miss.”
“Thank you, Stanley.”
He just nods at me and I exit the car. When I reach the top of our stoop, my father places his eye in front of the scanner and the door swings open. We step inside and our butler takes our coats from us.
“Thank you, Alfred,” I say.
He smiles at me and bows. “My pleasure, Miss Young.” Then he disappears down the hall.
I see my mother roll her eyes. She has never understood why I bothered to learn our workers' names. I don’t understand why she hasn’t.
I turn to her. “May I go rest?”
“Yes, I don't see why not. When you wake up, remember your father and I are not to be disturbed. Dinner is at seven.”
I nod, trying to hide the blush I feel spreading on my cheeks. Kalli told me last year what all couples did after the Ceremony and imagining my parents doing that is worse than any nightmare I could ever dream up.
“How do you think we were born?” my sister had teased, laughing even more when I cringed at the thought.
I watch my parents ascend the stairs and disappear into their room before I go into my own.
After changing into my sleep outfit, I snuggle into bed and say, “Wake me up in time for dinner at seven.” The lights go out and my clock beeps, indicating my alarm has been set. I close my eyes and find myself back at the President’s Theater, but this time, I see Kalli and Geoff sitting next to my parents. I see President Clark standing beside me and realize that I am on stage. Smiling, I turn to my right to see my Match, only to find empty air.
Suddenly, the President’s words become clearer to me. “The Matchmakers were unsuccessful in finding you a suitable Match, Miss Young.”
Was that even possible? I swallow around the lump in my throat and nod. He shakes his head at me and I take that as my cue to leave. I make my way down the stairs to sit with my family. My parents won’t look at me, but Kalli gives me a sympathetic glance before squeezing Geoff’s hand tighter.
When the Ceremony ends and everyone stands up, applauding, I lose it and start weeping.
Then I hear a blaring in my ear and an explosion of light goes off behind my eyes. I sit up. “A dream,” I mutter. “It was just a dream.” Even so, I can feel tears drying on my cheeks.
Squinting as my sight adjusts, I get out of bed and walk to my bathroom. “Shower,” I mumble, too tired to manually key in the command. The jets turn on and soak me in a brief downpour. Machine hands automatically lather my hair until the shampoo and conditioner are foaming and my body is covered in soap. More water covers me. When pure water begins to run down the drain, the jets turn off and a wave of hot air blasts me from all angles.
I grab my robe and enter my closet. “Dinner outfit,” I say.
“Location?” the machine prompts in a feminine voice.
“Home,” I reply, wishing the interface could process requests faster.
“Level of formality?”
“Relaxed?” I can’t imagine needing to dress up fancier than that for a private meal.
“Please give a definitive answer.” Leave it to the technology to inherit my mother’s intolerance of uncertainty.
“Family dinner,” I finally say.
“Compiling outfit,” it says. Moments later, the machine presents a sleeveless, knee-length silk lavender dress. Thankfully, there are no frills or bows. I hit the clothe button and raise my hands. The mechanical arms drop the garment over my head and zip me up. Not as simple as the Preparation room’s dressing chamber, but it does the job.
“Jewelry and shoes,” I prompt the machine.
Silver teardrop earrings, two cuffs, and matching heels appear. I stand still as the accessories are fastened on and face the mirror.
Forgoing any makeup, I leave my room. Alfred is waiting for me. “Your parents are in the drawing room, Miss Young.”
When I enter, my father is sitting in his leather armchair, and my mother is sitting on the matching nearby loveseat.
She notices my presence first. “Now we can eat.”
I follow my parents to the dinner table and sit next to my father in Kalli’s old seat, opposite my mother. I now notice that the fourth chair—where I used to sit—has been removed.
One of the kitchen staff, Avery, comes out and takes my father’s plate, filling it with an assortment of vegetables, meat, and mashed potatoes. She presents it to him and starts to serve my mother. By the time she is finished meeting my mother’s complicated dietary demands, I am ready to get out of my seat and serve myself—I control the urge, however, knowing it would only further exasperate Mother.
When Avery sets my plate down, I begin counting in my head for my father to take the first bite, praying my stomach won’t grumble and give my impatience away. I watch him cut a piece of meat and bring it to his mouth, only for him to put it back down and say, “You’ve been unusually quiet today. Did you like the Ceremony?”
I swallow my groan of disappointment and say, “Yes, I did. It was very interesting.”
He nods and finally begins his meal. Before another interruption can delay my eating, I dig in.
“How is work, dear?” He asks my mother, moving his seat closer to hers.
My mother sets her silverware down and replies, “Busy. I’ll be leaving earlier than usual tomorrow. The judicial panel has shifted the trial three days early.”
“Which case is this?”
She stares at my father for a moment and some type of silent communication passes between them.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m not allowed to share the details of my cases,” she answers, picking up her glass and taking a sip. “You know the rules, Rosemary.”
“Surely we can tell her the facts? It’s been in the news, after all, Helen.”
My mother shakes her head. “I’m under oath.”
My father turns to me. “A former, disgruntled employee stole some very important and unstable materials from Dragoste Laboratories.”
“Ryan!” my mother exclaims.
He shrugs. “I never promised to keep public knowledge a secret. Besides, she deserves to know about this man. He could be dangerous.”
“What will happen to him?” I ask.
“When he is found guilty,” my mother starts, “he will be required to return what he took and will be Relocated.”
I take a sip of my sparkling lemonade and force myself to eat a few more bites now that I’m no longer hungry. Somehow, the mention of Relocation always makes me ill, even though it’s much more humane than any previous legal punishment. “May I be excused?”
“Aren’t you going to finish your meal?” my mother asks, concern tinting her words.
“Chef Gordon can give it to someone to take home. Or keep it himself,” I say.
She looks like she’s about to argue when my father says, “You are excused.” He winks at me then turns to her, taking her hand in his. “It’s been a taxing day. Let Rosemary rest. Actually, I think we should follow suit. I wouldn’t want you to lose the case because you were sleep-deprived.”
“Like that would ever happen,” my mother scoffs, not moving to leave.
“Goodnight, Rosemary,” my father says before leaning in and whispering something in Mother’s ear.
I take that as my cue, stand up, and retreat to my room. After quickly changing into my sleep outfit, I climb into bed and fall asleep within minutes.
The next morning, my alarm sounds louder than usual. “Snooze for five minutes,” I say. The blaring continues and my blankets are suddenly pulled away.
I open my eyes and see Alfred standing over me. Despite the early hour, he is already wearing his uniform.
I sit up. “What’s going on?” I ask. He never gives me wake up calls anymore—hadn’t since I was seven.
“There’s been a terrible fire.”
I sniff the air and don’t smell any smoke. “Where?”
He retrieves my robe from my closet, hands it to me, and escorts me into the living room where my parents are already sitting, watching the holographic newscast. He points me to sit in between my parents. I follow his silent command and he stands in the corner of the room with the rest of our staff.
The noise subsides and I can hear the reporter’s words. “We’ve just received more information on the attack. It has been confirmed that Mr. Theodore Barlow and four of his accomplices are responsible for the fire that started in Matchmaker Mitchell’s home. Thankfully, she and her staff evacuated before anyone was harmed and only part of her house was damaged.”
The alarm sound restarts as the display splits into five, each showing the Matchmakers’ estates. The siren turns off and my father turns up the volume.
The same story is repeated in the four other locations, partial fire damage and sudden evacuations of family and staff, leaving three words ringing in my head: Barlow, arson, and attack. Suddenly, all the holograms converge into one featuring a reporter outside the President’s mansion.
“Mr. Barlow, the former employee of Dragoste Laboratories, and four of his coworkers escaped from the Courthouse where they were being held to await trial for removing classified research materials without proper authorization. Until these men have been apprehended, it is imperative that everyone stay inside. You will be alerted when it is safe to resume your daily routine.”
The projection converges into a single ball of light before disappearing. I hear clanging and turn to see titanium plates expanding over windows until we are plunged into darkness. The room begins to shake. I feel the room drop before slowing down and then it continues to descend more smoothly.
“What’s happening?” I ask, grabbing my parents’ hands on either side of me.
My father answers, “During World War IV, all upper class homes were rebuilt with defensive mechanisms to survive the nuclear attacks.” He pauses and even though I can’t see him, I imagine him frowning as he considers whether or not to continue. “They worked for the most part, but when the Matchmakers assumed power, they made a few improvements.”
The room lurches to a stop and the room is suddenly flooded with light. I groan and blink until my vision adjusts.
He turns to my mother and says, “I assume the trial will be postponed until he is found?”
“I doubt one will be necessary now.”
My father’s communicator vibrates. He looks down to see who’s on the other end and holds his hand out to my mother. They rise and leave the room.
My head is spinning with all the new information and I hang my head between my knees, hoping it will solve the problem. I hear my parents reenter the room.
They stay in the corner, talking in hushed tones. I start to feel better and stand. They stop talking.
I yawn and sway on my feet. “Can I go back to sleep now?”
They nod and I return to my room. I climb back into bed and close my eyes, the images of the Matchmakers’ damaged homes burned into my memory.