Chapter 1 - Caleb
I hate tests. When will this be over. I wonder how I am doing. Why do they do this to us?
‘Stop worrying. You are doing fine and will be fine!’
‘Stop reading my thoughts Alex!’
‘Well you’re thinking so loudly, it is impossible not to!’
‘Just go away!’ I rage at her.
“Oh, yes, sorry. What were you saying?” I grimace.
She has a pinched expression on her face. “I said we are done here. You are free to go.”
“You will be taking the third and final part of the test Friday. Be here at eight o’clock.”
I leave before she changes her mind and makes me take more tests. Some of the questions seem so unrelated to anything we do here and too personal. I don’t understand how any of them will help them decide what my future should entail. How do they know if I would be good at working with tools when they ask me my feelings on the order and structure of this place?
A hand on my arm startles me out of my thoughts. I looked up to see Hannah’s beautiful face, so round and perfect with soft black curls to hug her cheeks She is a few inches shorter than me and I love the way when she looks up at me with her deep green eyes.
“You must be deep in thought. I called your name many times. Did you have a rough day?”
“Yeah, I just got done with my second test and still haven’t figured out what they are all about or how they help them find out what job we will do best.”
“Oh those…..I have to take them next year. There is a lot of pressure to do well, good luck with the last one.”
She gives me a shy smile and my heart skips a beat. Red creeps into my cheeks and wonder if she can see. Does she have a clue how I feel about her? Unlikely, since I’ve never told her. I’m such a coward. I really wished I could just tell her how I feel and hold her hand or spend as much time with her as we wish, but I can’t. This place won’t allow it. They dictate our lives and who we love.
“Get any plans for Sunday?” I’m not sure where my boldness is coming from.
“I’m not sure yet. Jane and I might go hang out by the water.”
“That sounds like fun.”
She smiles. “You can come along if you’d like!”
I want to shout out ‘Yes!’. But I keep my cool. “Sure. I’d like that.”
“Well I just wanted to say hi, I have to head home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, talk to you later,” is all I can say. I watch her till she rounds the corner then continue on home.
At home I find Alex making a spaghetti dinner. It’s crazy how much she is starting to look like grandma Betty. Straight light brown hair with a heart shaped face. Her eyes even remind me of her, dark brown and set a bit farther apart than most. She is taller than mom, but finally shorter than me now since I grew half a foot this past year. Though none of us are as tall as dad.
She smiles. “Hey, I’m making your favorite.”
“You feeling better?” she asks.
“Yeah, those tests are brutal though. She even ran over today because the machine wasn’t working in the beginning so I missed afternoon duties. Not that I wanted to clean toilets, but it might be better than taking these tests.”
“Yeah that was a long one for you today, but you’re doing fine. It will be over soon and you will be free from tests forever. Now come over here and help me cut up vegetables.”
I cut the mushrooms and start to ask her about her day but she breaks in with her own.
“So how is Hannah?”
I turn red, wishing I could have blocked Alex from my mind the whole time, “Fine, why do you ask?”
“Oh, you know Caleb. You can’t hide your feelings for her from me. I like her you know. She is nice and smart. The rules here are so strict. I mean, why can’t we like who we want.”
Just then our mother walks in, “What are you two talking about in here?” Our mother is one of the most beautiful women in the whole encampment. Second to Hannah. She is fit with shoulder length black hair that she usually pulls back in a ponytail. Her hazel eyes are huge with brown speckles and they always make me feel safe and loved.
“Nothing much, just working hard to finish dinner,” Alex says with an exaggerated smile.
There is doubt in moms eyes. “Thank you for making dinner. Work has been rough lately, with all the farming injuries and your father will be home a little late, due to all the testing.” She pauses. “By the way, Caleb, how did it go today?”
“Fine, I feel good about my answers and have the final one on Friday.”
“Good to hear. You know how important these tests are for your future.”
“We know, mom. Everyone knows. These tests help determine where we work, if we stay in our class and possibly who we will marry. Nothing too drastic or anything. Caleb will do awesome and everything will be fine. No big deal.” Alex must feel my anxiety and wants to save me.
“Thanks.” I mentally say to her.
“Mom, there is a letter for you on the table. I found it by the door.”
“Oh…thank you.” She heads off, confusion all over her face.
I look over at Alex. “Who was the letter from?”
“There was nothing but mom’s name written on it.”
“Isn’t that a bit weird?”
“Yes. I’ve never seen a letter at our door or anyone elses. Must be why she is as confused as us. Do you know how hard it was for me to not open that thing?”
I smile. My sister is one of the nosiest people I know. “It must have killed you!”
“Almost!” She smiles at me. “Are you done with those tomatoes? We need to puree them with the carrots and add the mushrooms soon.”
“Just finished. How do you think you’ve done on your tests?”
“I did amazing, you know me! I should find out soon. They will tell me I’m meant to be a healer, because there is no way I can be anything else.” She beams at me.
I envy my sisters confidence. She has always had that way about her for as long as I can remember. No doubt, no second guessing. Just always so sure of herself. I try to learn from her and feed off her fearlessness, but most of the time I fail. You’d think, being twins, we would have more things in common, but we are two completely different people.
She looks at me with assurance. “You did great. You will do amazing on Friday and get a wonderfully boring job, teaching annoying children to read or something.” She punches me.
“Owe, I’m glad you are so sure of my abilities.”
“I am, and you should be too, now set the table.”
Alex hums an old campfire song we learned as kids. She has a beautiful voice and it always soothes my nerves.
“You know grandma says back when she was a kid she remembers listening to singers on the radio. All different kinds of music, and they used to get paid to sing! Can you believe it?”
“No I can’t. That is not a job. Who would pay for that? And how would that even work?”
“Don’t be such a downer Caleb. I’m sure there were lots of glamorous jobs back in the day when things were much different than they are now.”
“It was probably the same as it is now, and will always be the same. Grandma was so young back then, what was she, nine? Who remembers anything correctly at that age?”
“Can’t you just let me believe this fairy tale life, Caleb? I want to dream that people had a choice in what they became. That people sang and danced for fun at any time and there was a place for that in the world.”
“What good would it do you? We don’t have that now and never will. It’s probably just a myth, but fine, I’ll play along.”
She smiles. “Thank you. It’s fun to dream of other possibilities. Exciting life choices you know? Grandma said she remembers life being completely different than it is now. So I dream of happy lives, where you can wake up and choose what you want to do or where you want to go. No one dictates any of it.”
I shrug, not sure if any of that could have ever been possible. It is hard for me to think of any life other than the one that we live now. My whole life has been routine and ordinary, with all these rules.
She rolls her eyes. “Never mind, I forget how tunneled your mind works. Why do you think it wasn’t even possible to have had this kind of life.”
“I sort of understand where you are coming from. It would be nice to do what we want, when we want and have that freedom, but it’s hard for me to think beyond our lives now. That life seems so impossible, so it seems like a waste of time to think about it.”
Her face falls. “I know, but it’s fun for me to fantasize. It’s an outlet for my frustration and a fantasy place for me to live out my dreams since I can’t do it here.”
The urge to cheer her up over powers me. “I’ll try to play along. What would you do if we could have any job in the world?”
She flashes me a smile. “Ooh, that’s a good one. I would either be a singer or an artist. Something creative and fun. What about you Caleb?”
“Well…I would teach, I guess.”
“No…pick something you can’t do now. Make up a job, create something new to do with your life other than what you can do now.”
She grins. “Not if you let your mind escape. Try!”
“Fine…I…I guess I would create new technologies. I would make life easier with new creations.”
“Really? That’s cool! I wonder why we don’t have that now?”
“Have what?” Our dad walks in the kitchen.
Alex saves the day, “We were talking about creating new technology and developing new gadgets. Do we have jobs like that?”
“You know we don’t have that kind of job Alex. We only have the jobs we need. The jobs that better our world and keep our lives running smoothly.”
Alex pushes. “But wouldn’t new machines and equipment make our lives better in a way?”
He frowns. “I don’t want to talk about the impossible, Alex, end of discussion. When will dinner be ready?”
I can sense Alex’s annoyance. “Ten minutes.”
He leaves the kitchen and Alex turns to the sauce on the stove.
‘You know he is just stressed out, Alex. Plus, he is a rule follower, not a dreamer like you.’
‘I know, but why does he have to be so mean about it? It was just a question.’
‘Administering those tests takes a lot out of him. Let’s not think about it.’ I try to think of something to take her mind off of it, my mind wonders to Hannah. ‘Who would you date if you could date anyone?’
She shoots me a look. ‘You know there is no one I like, Caleb.’
I smile. ‘At least that’s what you say!’
She pushes me. ‘It’s the truth!’
I hear her sigh. ‘Do you think Grandma could be right? That things were different back then? Or do you think she just wants to remember it that way?’
I don’t want to smash her hopes. ‘It’s entirely possible. It was over fifty years ago, but some of what she remembers has got to be true, don’t you think? It can’t all be her imagination. Plus we still remember a ton of stuff from when we were young so she must too.’
She flashes me a smile. ‘I think so too.’
I finish setting the table while Alex finishes with the sauce. My mind wanders to our conversation about jobs. The only job that comes close to making equipment is in manufacturing and they only make the same equipment we already have like clay pot coolers, carts, and tanks for water. Plus they are class four. Dad would never allow me to even think about working at that level.
“Is it time to eat?” Mom interrupts my thoughts, with dad walking in right behind her.
“Yep, I just finished the sauce.”
We sit down and pass around the food, then as if on que dad starts with his dinner time ritual of questions.
“How was your test, Caleb?”
“It went well.”
“Oh, how exciting. You two must be so happy to find out what your future has to offer you!”
“Sure, it’ll be nice to find out what the next few years of training will bring.”
My mom tilts her head and smiles. “I remember when we tested for our jobs. It was so long ago, yet it doesn’t seem like it’s been twenty years.” She gazes at my father. We were so happy with our test results, weren’t we dear?”
“We sure were and it will be the same for you two.”
“I guess….but….what if we get a job we don’t like?” Alex asks.
Dad sighs. “We have talked about this, Alex. The tests are meant for good. They find out what you are best suited to do. The job that is the best fit for you and will help our community as a whole. Sometimes what is best is not always what we want at the time, but it will work out in the end. It always does.”
“Did you always want to be a teacher, dad?” Alex presses.
“I honestly cannot remember what I was hoping to be, but am glad I became a teacher. It was the profession best suited for me. The testers were correct and I am happy to be where I am and you will too. Just wait and see.”
My mom pipes in as the eternal optimist. “I always had my heart set on being a healer. I just knew I was meant to help people. To fix what could be fixed for people.” She smiles at Alex. “I can see it in you also. You are bright and like to help people. So maybe you’ll be chosen to be a healer.”
“Thanks mom. I’m sure it will all be fine.” Alex wants to end the topic of conversation.
’Why do they always refuse to answer tough questions or try to look at things differently than what they were taught? It’s so frustrating.’ She asks me.
‘I guess it’s what they are used to and don’t know anything different. They are not like you, Alex. They don’t question things.’
‘I don’t understand how they can’t question anything. We do.’
I think about that. ‘I guess I do sometimes, but it does not come easily to me. Mostly I have learned to question things from you. I doubt I would have ever learned without you.’
‘Huh…I never thought of it that way. We have been in each other’s minds since we can remember. We must influence each other.’
‘True.’ I smile at my sister, then look over to find my mother eyeing us with suspicion.
We learned long ago to hide our mental conversations from everyone, even our parents. It freaks people out because they don’t understand. We don’t even know how it works. Our abilities have been with us for as long as we can remember. It’s a part of who we are and we can hide it from everyone. Everyone, except our mother.
I force a smile. “How was your day mom?”
“It was good. Busy, but good.”
“What made it so busy?” Alex is still curious about the letter.
“Well, there were two farming accidents today and then a few other random cases came along.”
“What do you mean by random?”
“You know, a few colds, pregnancy issues, achy bones, the usual.”
“Oh, I see.” My sister is dying to ask about the letter, but knows better, we fall into silence as we finish our dinner..
After, my mother helps us clean up as my father attempts to fix the clay pot cooler that has been leaking for two weeks. The design is simple with a larger pot buried in the ground, followed by a smaller pot inside of that, with sandy soil in between that we keep wet at all times. It is meant to keep any perishable food cooler than room temperature but sometimes it fails or leaks. Then we hand wash yesterdays clothes, which is a pain in the neck, but has to be done since we each only have two sets of clothes. We each take a job; scrubber, rinser, and ringer. Tonight I get the hard job of scrubbing.
Right before nine dad lights the candle and cranks the radio then we sit in the living room and wait for the daily news to start.
“Good evening Ladies and Gentleman. We’re glad you could be with us tonight.”
They say that as if we have a choice.
“In today’s news: the lack of rain has left its effects on the farming community, pushing them hard to get the irrigation working to water the crops, causing them to make careless mistakes. Remember everyone, think before you act and look out for each other. We all need to work together.”
For the next half hour, Mr. Bryant on the radio feeds us the daily happenings, both good and bad and lectures us on working together as a community to make our lives easier. It’s the same rhetoric each and every day, but listening is mandatory.
One time, I zoned out to think about one of my many contraptions I was tinkering with and missed half of the news cast. Sure enough, the next day we had one of our random quizzes on current events and I got half of the questions wrong because I wasn’t listening. That prompted a load of questions from my teacher, followed by a trip to the head masters office and a long lecture from my father.
You can be sure I never let it happen again.
“Now remember everyone, we are in this together. Our community relies on all of us doing our jobs well and living in harmony. Now have a great rest of the night.
Our dad turns to us. “Your mom and I have a few things to discuss. I’m sure you both have homework to finish. How about you do that in your rooms tonight.”
“Sure thing, dad.”
Alex gives me a look as we head to our rooms. ‘What do you think is going on? Do you think it’s about the letter?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe?’
‘I bet it is. What do you think it says?’
‘Probably healer related stuff.’
‘But she gets all of that at work. Why would this come here?’
‘I guess I don’t know. We probably won’t ever know. They don’t exactly tell us things.’
‘I know! It’s so irritating!’ She follows me to my room. ‘Hey, do you still have that sound amplifier you made forever ago?’
‘No reason. I just wanna play around with it.’
‘No way! I’m not getting into trouble.’
‘You won’t.’ She winks at me. ‘Please! I’m dying to know!’
‘Fine! But leave me out of it when they catch you.’
She shrugs. ‘Of course, but they won’t catch me.’
I dig in my basket for the amplifier. ’Here. Now go before they catch both of us.’
She smiles and takes off for her room.
I pull out my math homework but find it hard to concentrate. I’m not as nosy as Alex, but I have never seen a letter at our house. Is it bad news or good? Could this mean trouble for mom? She did not seem worried at dinner, but she hides her feelings well.
I almost can’t take the unknown and go spy on my parents with Alex, but I force myself to work on the math in front of me.
The second to last problem is giving me trouble when Alex bursts through the door.
“You will not believe what I just heard, Caleb. Oh….my….gosh! There are people getting sick and mom’s been dealing with it for a couple of days as if it’s some kind of normal flu, but then the anonymous letter came and now she’s questioning everything.”
“What are you talking about? None of that made any sense! Slow down and start at the beginning.”
She takes a deep breath and sits down on my bed, next to my table. “Okay, so you know mom’s been busy at work lately.”
“Well it turns out she has been dealing with a weird sickness that has been going around in the farming community. No one really understands why they are getting sick or how to treat it. Well that letter was written by some anonymous resident and warns mom of a possible increase in the number of affected people and the person even says the illness will also get more severe and may even lead to death if left untreated or not dealt with correctly. This is all so crazy!”
“Does the letter give any hint as to who they are or how they know any of this?”
“According to mom, she has no idea who the person is or how the heck they know anything about this or how they even know anybody is getting sick. She is freaked. Most of her wants to just ignore the person, but this person knows too many details. They say this has happened before, decades ago and it was because of some sort of food contamination.”
“Maybe she should ignore them. It could be nothing. This person may have no clue what they are talking about.”
“I don’t think so. Mom said the person knows too many details already. Dad says she should learn more before jumping to conclusions or bringing it up to anyone else.”
“I agree with dad. This sounds too crazy. Nothing like this ever happens here.”
“Exactly. Nothing like this ever happens here, so it has to be real.” She gets up to pace the room.
“Alex, let’s not get too hung up on the whole thing. Maybe we should wait and see what mom comes up with before we get too excited about any of this. Okay?”
“But maybe we can help find out information.”
“What can we do? We are only sixteen and besides, we have no idea where to start and no one to go to.”
“Come on, Caleb. Where is your sense of adventure? This could be fun.”
“This is not my idea of fun. I’m not adventurous. You are! I follow the rules. I do what I’m told.”
“Not all of the time. You seem to be forgetting your little brush with the law a few months back.”
“Stop, Alex. I don’t want to talk about it.” I bury my face in my hands.
“Why, Caleb? It was so cool! You shouldn’t be ashamed. You built that amazing contraption and broke into the communication system.”
“It was an accident! And I got into so much trouble. Mom and dad were so mad at me. What a nightmare!” My face is still covered so it comes out muffled.
“But I was so proud of you and it’s not like you did something horrible. You spoke a few words, then realized what you had done and shut it down. No harm done.”
“If it wasn’t so bad, then why did the officials come to our house?”
“You know this place. They can’t have anybody doing anything out of the ordinary or trying to be inventive. They don’t even want people creating new useful pieces of equipment for gods sake. They crush all of that, so of course they had to crush your invention.”
“I’m not proud of it and now it means I need to play even more by the rules. I can’t get into trouble like that again. Who knows what they would do to me.”
“Suit yourself, Caleb.”
“What does that mean? What are you going to do?”
“Nothing! I will do nothing because no one will help me or believe me. Besides, even if I was going to do something, you won’t help me so what does it matter to you? I’m going to bed.” She spins around and stomps out of my room.
I almost run after her, but know better. She does not like people to talk to her when she is mad and needs her space to calm down.
It’s late and I need rest so I brush my teeth and climb into bed. Maybe Alex will be over the whole thing tomorrow and I won’t need to talk her out of doing anything crazy. One can only hope.