Toni headed back to Education. Her vision was gray again, but it wasn’t the misty gray of her weird run down the trail.
It was the gray of depression, as if someone had drained the world of color.
I must be in shock.
She had known her father hadn’t filed permission for her marital alignment, but she had not expected TaRAM to publicize it.
Now everyone in Sherwood would be after Marcus for their own daughter.
I have to act normally. Now more than ever.
If she stayed in alignment, and stayed sharp, maybe she could convince her father to give his permission — and TaRAM to approve the match.
But whatever had just happened on the trail — whatever new skill she had just acquired to help her get away from the wolver — was joining with her shock to hijack her alignment. Her heart refused to slow, and the adrenaline racing through her limbs kept prompting her to jog. She caught herself over and over in an odd, jerky rhythm — quick jog, abrupt, stumbling slow step, quick jog, a stumble, slow walk. Over and over. She must look like a total fool.
Definitely not in alignment.
She had to calm down. She had to catch her breath. She had to stop her knees from shaking so much, and she had to stop herself from obsessing.
Impossible. All impossible.
Is that beast filing a report? Is Kelsey?
A vision of the wolver, grunting into his mirror tech, transmitting the results of his sniff tests, appeared, shimmering, in front of her. He was standing next to Kelsey, who also had her mirror tech out.
So, yes. They were both filing CR’s on her.
Will my father file —
Toni shut the question down before she could finish it. It did no good to ask about the future. There was almost never one answer. Whenever she asked a “what will happen?” type of question, she received multiple answers, overlapping and piling up on top of each other like leaves in a storm. She used to try to find out which of those futures was most likely, but the only ones she could predict with consistent success were her own actions. The actions of other people were impossible to predict. The wind currents just would not settle the flurries.
It was like everyone had multiple bodies existing in the same space, splitting off from each other as they made their separate decisions, creating multiple new paths through their lives in each second. It was exhausting to try to track them all, and flustered her. They were wind people, and the slightest breeze from each other’s decisions caused their paths to collide, recombine, re-multiply.
So, no, she wouldn’t think about how the reports from the wolver and Kelsey would affect her father’s likelihood of filing his permission for her marital alignment.
She would just have to wait and see, like everyone else in TaRAM.
And she’d have to be on her Very Best Behavior.
This thought was, finally, enough to pull herself into alignment, which she kept as she approached Education and followed the path around to the front of the building.
“On the right.” An orderly line of girls passed her on the right side, the players from the field game. Kelsey veered out of line and turned to Toni, jogging backwards in front of her as they approached Education’s entrance.
“Hey, you feeling good now?”
“Yes — thanks for your help, Kelsey.”
“Oh, no trouble at all. I was glad I was there to run into you.”
Kelsey’s smile was sweet and simple, like a small girl’s, like a baby pigeon’s, but the corners of her eyes were stiff, and her pupils were narrow. Toni knew what that meant: Kelsey was suspicious, and she either wasn’t trying to hide it or she needed more practice in espionage. As a member of the Caliph Research Group Young Citizen Training Program and an Agent in Training, she should know better than to betray her thoughts like that.
“Is everything aligned, Kelsey?”
The briefest flicker of anger flicked across Kelsey’s face before she softened everything and smiled brilliantly, a small giggle escaping her lovely lips.
“Of course! I was just worried about you for the tiniest little minute. You have so much going on right now. I may not be your best friend, but I’ve known you for a long time. I’ve always felt badly that your CATs don’t reflect your genetic capacity, and honestly, I’m the teensiest bit worried that you’re not going to be maritally aligned this month. It just … makes me feel so sad about your future. It gets to me, I guess. But everything’s fine with me, naturally… I just found out that I’m off to Caliph in a few weeks to be trained as a Recruiter!
She flashed a gigantic smile, and, still jogging backwards, picked up the pace before she whirled around to head off down the trail, throwing her last words back over her shoulder with a self-satisfied beam.
“I’ll stop by tomorrow to help you get ready for the Exchange with Marcus — if it’s going to happen!”
“Wonderful — thank you!” Toni hurled at her back, the exuberance in her tone matching the hatred that had risen inside her heart.
Kelsey thought she hid her intentions so well — but Toni always knew she was spying on her, ever since Caliph had first assigned their friendship at age five. Spying, and reporting, and spying, and reporting. Ugh.
A question swelled up suddenly:
Why hasn’t he filed yet?!?
And her response:
But she couldn’t stop herself from mulling over the situation. Anthony’s resistance to filing was surprising. She had expected her mother to block the match — but her father had never seemed concerned about her genetic expression the way Sarah was. Toni had really expected him to just file it, without much thought or consultation with her or Sarah.
Maybe he’d just forgotten, and the public announcement would remind him to get it done. It wouldn’t be the first time he had gotten too absorbed in his work and neglected something his daughter thought was important.
In which case, the lack of filing today was not really a bad sign for her future.
But Kelsey’s sudden appearance, twice, this afternoon was a bad sign. It meant TaRAM was keeping tabs on her today.
Kelsey was well on her way to her career, and had been since she first scored off the charts for Unity Recruiting — at age four. She had a talent for endearing others quickly, ingratiating herself instantly, making her an excellent candidate for missionary work outside of TaRAM. With her combination of persuasion skills and natural authority, Kelsey was likely to bring hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be-Citizens to TaRAM.
And her favorite person to test her skills with was Toni.
No one else seemed to think of Kelsey as an enemy, but Toni knew she was, for her. And as a friend, she was even more dangerous. If Kelsey was “worried” about Toni’s marital alignment to Marcus, Toni should be worried, too. Either Kelsey knew something about her alignment Toni didn’t know — or she was ready to influence it. Either way, she preferred Kelsey just stay away from her.
The sound of pounding feet interrupted her thoughts, and she caught herself, again, jogging. Toni slowed to a walk. No more mistakes today.
As she rounded the corner of the Education building, Toni made sure her face was arranged with its most lovely, beaming smile. It helped to think about Marcus, of course. Looking into his beautiful face as he looked back at her, and feeling his strong hand holding hers, always made her feel calm, hopeful and safe. In alignment.
And there he was, standing with a group of young citizens.
And there was Sileagh, lovely, popular Sileagh, who had just been so hateful in class, standing in what looked like an embrace. With Marcus. Leaning back from him, looking up at him, and letting loose her most musical peal of laughter, while everyone else watched the two, smiling.
Toni fought a wave of nausea, and kept her smile in place as she approached the couple. Was he already gone, then?
Maybe. His face was stamped with fondness as he gazed down at Sileagh.
The beetle nesting deep in Toni’s skull woke up and began crawling along his itchy, irritating route to just above her right eye.
“Hi.” Toni’s voice sounded small and strangled, even to her, and Marcus and Sileagh didn’t even look her way. She cleared her throat and tried again, this time stepping in and adding in a playful cuff on his shoulder.
Her hand had somehow turned into a fist at the last moment, and Marcus whirled around, hand to where she’d punched him, his eyes dark and narrow.
“Hi. Uh, sorry,” Toni half whimpered. Her smile was definitely not pleasant, at this point. On the official scale of Grimace to Beaming it was much closer to grimace. So much for not making another mistake.
Marcus’ glare relaxed a little, and then melted away entirely as he started to laugh.
“Toni, you have got to ease up on the woodcraft — your hands are like iron,” he teased. And then he was drawing her in for a warm hug, looking around at the startled faces on the witnesses.
“She’s all mine, everyone,” he said. “Keep your distance!”
Everyone took his cue to treat the incident like a joke, quickly realigning themselves as they turned back to their conversations.
Except Sileagh. She watched Toni with an expression that would earn a mandatory Unity Retraining Session if a TaRAM agent saw it. When she spoke, the music was gone. “Perhaps you should keep your distance, Marcus. The way Toni greeted you just now was really … unsafe.”
Toni turned to look at her, and felt the beetle reach the back of her eyeball. He pinched it, hard, and Toni winced, just as Sileagh’s perfectly symmetrical face erupted with a brilliant smile.
“Well, I’ve got to be going,” Sileagh said, eyes still hard despite her best efforts. She threw her arms around the two of them and squealed, “Group hug!”
Dropping her voice, she half-whispered in Toni’s ear “Marcus tells me his mother is getting ready for a certain someone’s Genetic Exchange! I’m soooo excited. I know your dad will file his permission soon. Won’t he? Oh, I’m sure he will. I’ll be the first to reJOICE!”
On the last syllable, she somehow widened her smile all the more, leaving Toni dazed from the glamour coming off her.
Sileagh dashed off to join a group of girls, her curls bouncing above her narrow waist. Toni watched, putting a hand on her own hair, barely tamed from her wild run. She looked up at Marcus, and he was watching Sileagh go off, too. The queasy feeling in her gut intensified. But it melted when he looked down at her from his great height, and leaned down to nuzzle her nose with his.
“I’m sorry,” Toni whispered.
“That’s OK. Rough day?”
The tears threatened to spill if she spoke, so she just tightened her arms around his waist and nodded against his chest.
“You have to be careful, Toni. You have to be so careful. Especially now. Right?”
She nodded again, lashes welling up with salt water.
He hugged her tightly for a minute more, waiting for her body to stop quivering.
“Ready to go home?”
She burrowed her face deeper into his chest, sighed, and nodded. They turned together, arms slung around each other’s waist, and boarded the ramp up to the moving sidewalk, standing to the side so other young citizens could walk past them.
The two of them had glided home together every day for so long it was a ritual. They waited until the ramp joined the main sidewalk, high above the housetops, before starting their daily debrief session.
“So, I had an interesting experience in Introduction to Advocacy today,” Marcus started off.
Apparently they weren’t going to talk about her punching him, or the fact that he and Sileagh had been standing so close. Or about their Genetic Exchange, or the fact that her father had not filed his permission when he was supposed to.
“Really? Do tell,” Toni exclaimed, perhaps a little sarcastically.
But Marcus didn’t notice, or more likely pretended not to. He chattered about advances in mirror tech monitoring strategies, and Toni let the words flow over her, calming her down. As far as she knew, he didn’t speak as much to anyone else as he did to her, and she liked hearing him enthuse about Advocacy, his favorite subject, and his most likely Career Assignment.
Not because she liked Advocacy herself. The idea of monitoring mirror tech for the rest of her life just to make sure fellow citizens were following all the rules of TaRAM sounded like hell to Toni. Way worse than changing diapers and planning meals, which was likely to be her life for only a year or so before their offspring were assigned permanent maid-bots.
As he recited, word for word, the speech he’d made that afternoon on ensuring Proper Meal Times for Optimum Digestion and Nutrition — Toni found it challenging to keep her smile genuine and in alignment. He was no longer calming her — he was grating on her. She was relieved for an excuse to interrupt him, which arrived with the signal from the moving sidewalk that the Cedar Grove stop was approaching.
“Do you want to go see the house? I’ve been saving my first walk-by for you,” Toni said, trying not to sound too wheedling as she interrupted him.
Marcus shifted his pouch from his right shoulder to the left and stopped walking.
“I don’t know — I kind of need to get right home.”
“You were coming over to my house to work on our Genetic Exchange speeches. And you were going to save me from dinner alone with Sarah.”
Marcus looked uncomfortable. He hated to go back on his word.
“I know. I feel bad. But there’s just a few things I have to do at home that can’t be put off. It turns out Grandma is coming tonight, and I have to be home for dinner. I’m sorry. Uh, of course, I would rather spend time with you.” He shifted his pouch again, trailing off unconvincingly.
Toni felt an icy prickling behind her eyes. Tears. Again. Ergh. When would she get herself under control?
“You have to come, Marcus. I’ve had … a really hard day. I really need to spend time with you tonight. To plan for my future, and to keep my hopes up that my life really will change for the better in a month. Do you really have to go?”
She smiled bravely up at him, but inside she was still wincing. She was really getting sloppy, asking questions out loud. She could feel the answers hurtling at her, like the winter winds through the mountain canyons all around Sherwood — icy, angry, determined.
No, he does not have to go. But he wants to go. He does not want to spend time with you, tonight, or at all, really, lately. He has other plans. Plans that do not involve you. Plans that include
She stopped the thoughts with another sharp SHUT UP. The words ceased, but she was left with the emotions — sadness, deep grief, a tinge of despair. Oh, no. The tears sprang up again, filling her eyes right to the edge of her lashes. She kept smiling, hoping that he wouldn’t notice.
But of course he did, and his always-perfectly-aligned face trembled just a little bit. She saw sadness, and then, just a flicker of anger, and then, definitely, annoyance.
“I’m sorry, Toni,” he said, softly, “I just can’t do it. We’ll go see the new house next week, after the Exchange. It won’t officially be ours until then, anyway.”
He ran his thumbs along the lower lashes of both of her eyes, tipping the tears out and wiping them away in the same motion. He was always so good at being kind, and she was just … so not good at it. He leaned down and kissed her nose.
“It’s not like it’s a special house, anyway — just a standard issue Seventeen Twenty first home. It’ll be like every other house on the block.”
“No it won’t!” Toni said a little too harshly. “It’s number 1720 Cedar Grove, Sherwood, TaRAM. It’s my home, it’s where I will live with you, and where my children will live when they’re small, until we are assigned a larger place. It’s where my life will begin. It’s special, even if it’s the same as the next house. It’s mine, and it’s not my mother’s, or my fathers.”
“I mean, it’s ours,” she said, as she registered his slightly hardened expression.
They stood in silence, while the sidewalk moved them by the Cedar Grove stop. Neither of them moved to take the off-ramp.
“Yeah,” Marcus said, finally, “it would be ours.”
They stood quietly, facing ahead as the sidewalk moved them toward Science and Advocacy sectors.
“If your father actually files his permission.”
“What?!?” Toni swung to face him, willing her face to beam, while inside she shook so hard that her muscles turned to jelly. He stared back, his gorgeous face threatening in its beauty and its neutrality.
Doesn’t he want to be aligned? Is this his way of saying he’s glad, that he is backing off? SHUT UP.
“I, um, don’t know why he hasn’t yet. He’s probably going to do it tonight.”
“Yeah, that must be it.” Marcus turned to face forward again. “Sure. Tonight.”
They stood together, an thin pane of icy silence separating them, while the moving sidewalk carried them deeper into the residential section of Sherwood. Toni wrapped her arms around her shoulders, to keep the jelly from entering her bones, the ice from taking over her head, and her mind from thinking a single other thought.
Her exit ramp was coming up fast, so she started walking in order to get off gracefully. From behind, Marcus grabbed at her elbow.
“I’ll walk you all the way home.”
“That’s OK,” she smiled at him, while pulling her arm out from his grip a little more firmly than was necessary. “Don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
“Toni, don’t be like that. Don’t make this more difficult than it already is.”
“See you tomorrow.” She left him standing on the moving sidewalk while she skip-ran down the off-ramp to the cement sidewalk. She turned and looked for him, now a dark silhouette high above her in the late afternoon sun. He raised his hand, but she turned away before he could complete the wave.
Toni sped up the street toward home, counting her steps as she walked, feeling her rage building inside. She would not think. She would only count. If she thought, she would wonder, and if she wondered, she would ask a question, and if she asked a question, she would get an answer.
She didn’t want to hear that answer.