It wasn’t the death of Mark’s friend that really bothered Kiri. That was natural enough. But something about the way he went, right there, in her apartment, on her birthday, couldn’t help but overshadow the rest of her day.
For years all Kiri had dreamt of was to be older, to finally be free of the little ones, and now, all too soon, there she was and she felt worse than ever. Sixteen, what a terrible age to be!
All that day, Kiri’s friends had been trying to be nice, bringing her presents, smiling and joking like everything was normal, but it only made her feel lonelier, even further away from everything. How come none of them seemed to be bothered?
They chatted easily as if they had at least ten years ahead of them, like there was nothing to worry about. She was finally a major, she had a great new apartment with a pool and a private cinema, she could have anything she wanted, and yet this dark cloud hung over her thoughts, even before Mark arrived.
‘Thanks for coming guys,’ she said, attempting to turn her smile up to full beam. There were only eleven of them altogether and Kiri was surprised even that many had turned up.
Most of her friends had already moved into their new apartments, trendy places nearer to the centre, and already people were checking their phones to see where the real party would be later. They might have a beer or two and go for a dip in the pool but they would probably not stay too long.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ Rachel, her old roommate, said as she gave Kiri a hug.
She had lived with Rachel for two years and though they had never had blazing arguments, like some of her friends had with their room-mates, she had been glad when Rachel had turned sixteen three months earlier and moved into her own apartment.
‘I’ve got a couple of years to go yet,’ Kiri tried to sound jokey. ‘You’re only across town.’
Rachel winced, regretting her choice of words.
‘Of course, I’ll still see you hon,’ Rachel started. ‘I meant I’ll miss having you as a roomie.’
‘Well thanks for coming,’ Kiri said. ‘It’s weird to finally be here. It feels so grown up.’
‘You are grown up now,’ Mark said, and feeling herself start to blush, Kiri quickly got up and pretended to look out the window.
Mark was her new neighbour from across the hall. He was older than the rest of them and Kiri knew it would be his eighteenth birthday soon. He was one of the oldest people that she knew, a real man already. She didn’t know anyone else that was over seventeen, never mind nearly eighteen. How did he seem so relaxed?
Mark had tousled brown hair and his eyes seemed to sparkle when he spoke. He had been a tutor briefly in one of her classes two years ago but she doubted he remembered who she was. He opened another beer and took a long drag.
He had already finished two bottles of beer in twenty minutes. That was probably part of how he stayed so calm. No doubt he would be leaving for one of those parties soon. She hoped she would get a chance to speak to him before he left.
A lot of the apartment blocks in the centre had constant parties with majors drinking and taking drugs all day and all night but the building that Kiri had moved into had been chosen based on her character and was known as one of the quieter blocks.
Kiri could understand why some people felt the need to do that. If she had longer she would love to party all the time but the thought of spending her last two years out of her mind was too much to bear. She needed to taste every breath of air she had left, appreciate every second.
The apartment was luxuriously furnished with polished quartz floors and tall wooden cabinets along one wall. The system that controlled the building had been fed all her data in advance to make sure every detail matched her requirements, her meals, the heating, the height of the tables was all suited perfectly to her needs.
The sound of the service buzzer rang and startled Kiri, she hadn’t expected it to ring so soon. They had ordered pizza barely four minutes ago and it had arrived already. This apartment was obviously a priority delivery address for the service bots. Being a major had some perks!
Greedily, her friends crowded around the boxes, guzzling slices of hot pepperoni and Hawaiian. Kiri didn’t feel like she had much of an appetite but managed to swallow down one slice before retiring to the sofa.
Her new apartment had an enormous lounge with four deep sofas, more than enough room for her small group of friends. Double height glass windows stretched out onto a balcony. Suddenly she felt very small in this new place.
For a moment, the smiling faces in front of her all swam together into a blank swirl and instinctively she turned to find Ben. Only he seemed to understand what she was feeling. He gave an apologetic grin as if to share her pain.
She had known Ben since they had first been in junior nursery together and he was the one person in the world that she felt she could trust completely. Always there to offer a hug. Ever since they had first shared a class Kiri had felt protective of him as if he were her younger brother. He had been sickly as a child, one of the few people she knew who wore glasses, and Kiri often worried about his health, that he might not make it.
She flopped down on the sofa next to him.
‘So, sixteen already, K,’ he said. ‘Can’t believe that you’re a major now.’
‘No neither can I,’ Kiri replied. She felt safer now having Ben next to her. ‘It’ll be you soon.’
Ben was about to say something but was caught by a fit of coughing, Kiri put her arm around him. If it wasn’t for everything else on her mind the sight of Ben wracked with coughs would have been enough to have Kiri in floods of tears.
‘Exactly, have you found out where yet?’
‘Yes, I wanted to tell you earlier - we are going to be neighbours. I’m moving into the apartment two floors down from here.’
Kiri threw her arms around Ben in excitement.
‘Ben that’s awesome, that’s the best news I could have on my birthday! When did you find out?’
‘Only this morning. They were considering a block closer to the medical facility but my last tests looked ok so they said I can move in here.’
Kiri felt a tear coming to her eye and quickly shifted, turning her face away from the group standing by the pizza boxes before she had a full blown meltdown.
Having filled up on pizza her friends drifted outside to the balcony and turned up the music so they could hear it better out there. Mark had arrived with a friend Liam and now Kiri watched the two of them walk to the far corner and light something. Liam held the roll-up and exhaled a grey cloud of smoke.
Kiri had never met Liam before and had been unsure what to say when he had turned up on her doorstep with Mark. She guessed he was the same age as Mark but couldn’t tell. He had barely said a word to anyone apart from Mark and wore a disgruntled expression that warded off any attempt to approach him.
As he smoked, Kiri could see that Liam’s hand trembled and although he was obviously speaking in a hushed tone she could tell he was getting angry. At one point Mark tried to calm him by placing his hand on his shoulder but Liam angrily shrugged it off, turning away from the window to stare at the view from the balcony.
In the distance the setting sun approached the horizon, splashing golden rays across the balcony. Kiri let go of her breath, suddenly glad she was left alone inside with Ben.
‘How does it feel,’ Ben asked. ‘To be a major now? Does it feel...different.’
‘Well I’ve got a new apartment. That’s different I guess’
’No but… I don’t know I thought it might feel different?’
‘No, I’m just the same Kiri.’
‘I know that,’ Ben said. ‘But it is different now. You can think of when to start bearing?’
‘No,’ Kiri snapped. ‘It feels just the same.’
Ben’s mention of bearing upset her. The familiar feeling of pressure built up behind her forehead. She knew she should be happy. She was now able to experience the wonder of bearing, to feel another human growing inside her, to give birth to the next generation, but she just wasn’t ready.
Ever since she had been taught about the cycles she had felt this pressure but what was she running from? It was natural after all, to become a major at sixteen, to bear, to reach the unwinding. Any time somebody raised the subject she felt her mood turn foul and she desperately tried to change the subject but it did no good.
‘Sorry, sorry Ben I didn’t mean to snap. Its just… being that much closer to unwinding…’ Kiri could feel the familiar frustration, the anger that she had to face it at all.
‘Don’t worry, Its normal. You have plenty of time,’ Ben looked unconcerned.
‘Does it now worry you? That you won’t be here? That we won’t be able to sit and talk like this in a couple of years?’ Kiri felt her anger building. ‘Don’t you never wish there was something we could do about it all?’
‘I guess but what could we do?’ Ben spoke quietly as if hoping Kiri would follow suit and calm down. ‘You think you are going to discover the secret of everlasting life?’
‘No,’ Kiri’s head was buzzing, ‘not everlasting…. Just…. oh I don’t know. Just a little bit longer that’s all.’
‘I guess, you know, when I was little I thought I would be lucky if I made it till I was a major, so…’ Ben’s voice was almost a whisper.
Kiri felt her eyes well up and had to force herself not to give in to her emotions. The last thing she wanted was to burst into tears at her own birthday party. If there was one sure fire way of losing friends as a major it was being a downer all the time. No-one wanted to spend their final years with someone who was constantly bursting into tears or fretting about their unwinding.
‘Hey don’t worry,’ Ben put his skinny arm around her, ‘We’ll have a great time as majors.’
Kiri shut her eyes and tried to calm down. She had two whole years ahead of her. A lot more than some people, a lot more than Mark for instance.
‘Yeah of course we will,’ Kiri managed, her eyes becoming moist as she spoke, ‘we’re going to have an amazing year.’
A commotion from outside startled them and they looked up to see Liam shouting at Kiri’s friend Becky across the balcony. Mark had his hand on his friend’s shoulder but Liam would not be restrained. Kiri and Ben scrambled to their feet, rushing outside to see what the confrontation was about.
‘…. What do you know about anything? You’re an idiot. A middleager.’ Liam was shouting and waving his arms in the air near Becky’s face. ‘You don’t have any idea about any of it.’
Kiri felt her heart rising into her mouth. She had never seen a confrontation like this in real life. Liam was a big guy and he looked like he was working himself up to punch someone any minute. Becky was a good friend of Kiri’s and as timid as a mouse. She cowered next to him about to cry. It was surreal, like a scene from a vid.
‘Calm down, man,’ Mark was tugging at Liam’s arm trying to calm him. The more he tried to restrain Liam the more violent his friend became. Kiri swallowed deeply and stepped up to him.
‘Please leave,’ Kiri said calmly trying not to let her fear show.
Liam stopped, his eyes locked on Kiri. Up close he had an intense, ferocious look in his eyes. Half-terrified, half-terrifying.
‘Look, this is my apartment and I don’t know you. I want you to leave,’ she added, not quite believing that the words were coming out of her mouth.
Liam still held the cigarette in his hand and slowly now he ground it into the balcony railing. For a frozen second Kiri felt sure he was about to hit her as he stood there, about to explode. Fear gripped her.
It was Mark that broke the silence, patting Liam gently, speaking softly in his ear. ‘Man, come with me, lets take a chill.’
Just as suddenly as Liam’s anger had risen it now seemed to drain away, leaving him shrunken.
‘You think I wanted to come to this lame party?’ he muttered, ‘You’re a bunch of children.’
Kiri felt herself breathing out. She was shaking. Ben was beside her. Mark was leading Liam back inside. Becky had collapsed on the floor and was sobbing. The air outside suddenly seemed very thin.
‘Wow Kiri are you ok,’ Ben asked, holding Kiri’s arm.
‘’Yeah I’m fine, I just want him out of here,’ she replied. Secretly she wished Liam would drop dead. This was not how the party was meant have gone. The rest of the group crowded round congratulating Kiri.
Anne fetched some more drinks and Kiri felt her heart rate returning to normal when there was a loud crash from inside, followed by a series of smashes. Kiri’s heart jumped again. What was going on. Had Liam attacked Mark?
The whole group rushed inside to see what was going on and found Liam and Mark in the kitchen. Liam was lying on the floor and Mark was huddled near the oven a look of horror on his face.
There were red stains all over the kitchen and for a moment Kiri thought they had smashed a can of tomatoes before she realised it was blood. Liam was writhing around on the floor and screaming now. Blood pooled on the tiles near his body.
It was too much to take in. Kiri looked at Mark but he was lost. Staring at Liam as if in a trance. She shook him and his head moved towards her unnaturally slowly.
‘Mark, what’s happening? What happened to Liam,’ Kiri said.
‘I…. I don’t… it’s the unwinding,’ Mark was frightened.
The sound of the front door startled them as a medical bot entered the apartment. The bot was a small vehicle capable of transporting a person to the medical center. It barged its way towards Liam and extended a number of appendages. In a matter of seconds it had administered several injections and sprays and Liam stopped moving.
Instantly, the bot formed into a bed-shape and loaded Liam on board. Finally, it passed around the kitchen cleaning the traces of blood. It disappeared out the door no more that four minutes after it arrived.
The group looked at each other open-mouthed. It was clear that the party had now ended.