The instant the door closes, I lean my ear against the cool metal as I count.
One, two, three…
I can hear Loyals yelling at Burners, and they begin raising their voices back. They are getting blamed for my thievery.
Four, five, six…
The yelling gets louder. Protests are coming from the Burners. I’m getting nervous that a riot is going to break out.
Seven, eight, nine…
The man’s voice is clear above everyone else’s now. It sounds really far away – as if he ran to the furthest corner away from me.
No time to waste now. I fling open the door and dash towards the gate, stopping for only an instant to look back at my savior. He’s in the far corner making a scene with one of the other Burners. It looks like he started a fight. Everyone’s attention is on them, and a few of the Loyals are trying to break it up. I have to fight against my instincts to go and stop it myself. Instead, I do as I was told and unlock the gate before making it to the other side. I toss the keyring into the Boiler room before running back up the stairs. I run as fast as I can, never looking behind me or stopping to catch my breath. Not until I get back home.
I open the door and slam it shut, leaning my back against it. I’m overjoyed my parents aren’t around so they won’t ask questions. I lower myself to the ground, breathing heavily, gulping in air as quickly as my lungs will allow. My breathing begins to slow, but my anxiety creeps up behind it. I lift myself up enough to see out the window to the right of the door, kneeling on the floor. I pull back the curtain just enough to ensure I wasn’t followed. Paranoia satisfied, I’m able to fully regain my composure.
Well, almost. There are still too many questions that need answering. Even more so now that I talked with that strange man. How could anyone be born Unfavorable? Why didn’t he seem interested in coming back to Geha? The most unnerving question is why did I feel comfortable enough to almost tell him about Micah? Maybe I should have asked him about my brother. If that’s where Unfavorable are taken, then he would know something about where he was taken. I wish I had more time to explore, or at least ask questions. There’s so much I still don’t know about our world.
Even if I wanted to go back, it’s too late now. I wouldn’t make it home before dark, and mom and dad will be home soon. Tomorrow I will return and find that man. Tomorrow I will get the answers I’ve been waiting for the last six years. Until then, I’m resigned to spending the evening with my parents. I get up off the floor and make my way to the kitchen. I don’t have much of an appetite, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something nice. While I wait for them to get home, I start whipping up dinner: a rather plain meatloaf. If I weren’t so distracted by the image of that shirtless man in the Boilers, I would have made something spectacular. This will have to do. Mom and dad arrive home as I’m setting the meal on the table. They seem to be in a particularly good mood but I don’t really notice. I can’t stop thinking of that strange man. I wish I had asked for his name…
“Al,” mother calls from her seat. I didn’t realize I was so deep in thought until she brought me back. “Are you alright? You haven’t really touched your dinner.”
“Yeah,” I lie. It’s not like I can tell them I met this really handsome boy down in the Boilers this afternoon. “I’m just really missing Micah today.”
“Oh, honey,” she says, almost chuckling. I hadn’t realized I said something funny. “That is in the past. It’s over and done with. We have you and your fabulous Rite results!”
“What?” I exclaim in disbelief. How can she blow of Micah as nothing but a memory? “But what if he’s still alive out there somewhere?”
“You’re mother’s right, sweetie,” dad interjects. “It’s time to focus on the positive rather than living in the past.”
I want to argue but hold my tongue. There’s no talking to them. I found evidence that Micah could still be alive, but I have no idea how they will react finding out I’ve ventured below the city. Instead, I play along. I smile and eat a few bites of dinner to appease them. Mom and I clean while dad readies the front room. He sets up a few candles around the room to make it more relaxing. Mom talks at me about my future again while I ignore her. I nod every once in a while so it looks like I’m paying attention but I don’t really hear anything she says.
Tonight is spent like any other: family reading time in the front room. I used to love this time with them reading a good book, but tonight it seems tainted. Mom is deep in her Healer guide printed a couple centuries ago, while dad is studying from a newly printed Developer textbook written by a colleague of his. Those that become too old to help in their given fields become teachers. I’m not even sure what I’m reading. There’s a book in front of me and I see the words, but I’m not comprehending them. I chose a book that I’ve read before so I wouldn’t have to concentrate on it. I’m too anxious for my trip tomorrow to pay attention to anything else for any length of time. I’m just not sure which I’m more excited about: knowing for sure what happened to Micah, or seeing the mysterious man again.
Dad notices the time before I do. He shuts his book with a sigh and touches mom’s shoulders to let her know it’s almost the time for the lights to go out. She gently closes her book and places it on the table next to her chair before getting up to follow dad. He smiles at me goodnight, while she waves and blows me a kiss behind him. I smile back but it isn’t genuine like mom’s. I close my novel and set it on the coffee table, dragging my feet all the way to my bedroom. I can’t even comprehend sleeping right now. I feel like I’m on the edge of something huge and it’ll slip through my fingers if I wait too long to grab it. Would that man be in the Boilers right now if I were to visit? Do the Burners work through the night even though the power is off? They must since we’re still able to use hot water…
With all these thoughts running through my head, I’m not able to fall asleep right away. I toss and turn. I can’t find a comfortable spot on my bed. The lights are off for several hours before my eyelids start to droop. I’ve always found the lights off ritual to be oddly relaxing but can’t explain why. There isn’t a sound when they turn off. Sometimes I expect something similar to a generator running out of power, but that’s never what happens. Instead, the lights simply fade away. Fade into the shadows to wait until morning when they can brighten up our world once again. Tonight, I don’t find comfort in their disappearance, though. It just means I have several hours before I have the opportunity to search out Unfavorable territory again. With sleep nowhere on the horizon, it’s going to be a long night. Minutes feel like hours and hours almost feel like days. There’s no reprieve.
When I do fall asleep it’s well into the night. The last time I looked at the clock on the wall, it was 3:14am. I’m tormented by nightmares, too. I didn’t expect to get a restful night’s sleep, but the dreams I have make me wish I had kept myself awake through the night. One in particular haunts me the most. I’m in the Boiler room again searching for Micah. I find him, but he’s angry with me. He asks me questions like ‘why didn’t you ever come looking for me?’ over and over. His voice grows with every iteration, too, until he’s yelling at me. His face turning purple from anger and the force of his screams. I try reaching out to him to calm him down, but Loyals grab him before I can get close. He continues to shriek, not really paying any attention to the ones dragging him away from me and towards the Boilers. I try to run towards him but my feet are heavy, and don’t allow me to move very far. The Loyals open one of the Boilers and throw Micah inside while he continues to screech at me.
When they close the door on him, I finally wake. Not gracefully either. I’m on the floor wrapped up in my blanket with a cold sweat covering my face. Breathing heavily, I use my blanket to wipe away the sweat. Righting myself, I stand and make my way into the kitchen to see if my parents are around. The house is oddly quiet – there’s no ruffling of them getting coffee or mom making breakfast. Rubbing sleep from my eyes, I enter the kitchen to see no one there. Even the dishes have been cleaned from breakfast. They must have left for work without waking me up. Strange.
I’m a little disappointed I slept so late. I know how to make myself something to eat, but I like mom’s cooking. Okay, I really just like the time I get to spend with them together. It’s a non-spoken tradition between the three of us and now it feels like it’s been broken. Another metaphor for our family dynamic. I know I’ve been distancing myself from them a bit, but this comparison digs into my inner child, cutting away some of my innocence.
I walk over to the table, empty of breakfast dishes, a piece of paper situated in my spot with neat, curvy writing scribbled onto it. Only mom could have written it. Dad’s is much tinnier and definitely not as legible. Already assuming what it says, I pick up the piece of paper and read it entirely. As expected, it explains that they left for work and let me sleep thinking it’ll help me make my career decision. I sigh, forgetting that deadline is looming. It’s the last thing from my mind right now with the clues I’ve dug up about Micah’s possible whereabouts. Even now it isn’t a burden I’m ready to face.
Quickly, I bathe and dress myself for the day, preparing to require another bath as soon as I get home later on tonight. I want to make my parents happy and proud, but the only thing on my mind is finding Micah. Or finding out what happened to him, at least. I’m throwing on my sweater as I’m running out the door, slamming it shut in my haste. I’m embarrassed to mention it, but it definitely startled me. I’m so focused on getting out of the house and back to the Boilers that I didn’t expect it to be that loud. I only hesitate momentarily before I’m running down through the streets towards Central Hall.
As soon as I reach the building, I veer to the back of the building while making sure to keep my eyes open for Loyals. I arrive at the corner in time to see two Loyals walking back inside Central Hall. Being an opportunist, I make my move. Sneaking towards the familiar alleyway, I tiptoe to the entrance of the tunnel leading back to the Boilers. It isn’t until I’ve lowered the trapdoor on top of myself that I begin feeling anxious. The mysterious guy I met yesterday obviously worked in the fields with the Drudges, too, who’s to say he’ll be in the Boilers when I get there? I can’t imagine anyone else down there being as friendly towards me as he was. He helped me get out of there without getting caught. I kind of owe him, which sucks. I don’t like owing anyone anything.
I keep my composure until I reach the landing with the gate leading to the room with the large Boilers. It’s at this point that I realize I’m not going to have an easy time trying to find my helper. I don’t even know if he’s going to help me. I’m taking a leap of faith that I’m really unsure will actually work out. I’m not going to let my anxieties keep me from finding out the truth, though. I’ll find that man and get my answers. I’ll wait all day and night if I have to.
I grab the keys off the clay wall and carefully creep into the Boiler room. Using the same sort of strategy as the first round here, I duck behind piles of coal while men are working diligently against the opposite end of the room. My best bet is to see whether he’s in the same room I bumped into him before. I take a risk and bolt to the room with piping. Closing the door, I whip around so he can’t sneak up on me if he’s here, my back against the cool metal. I search the room twice hoping he’s hiding behind the monitor next to the back wall, but there’s no one in the room besides me. I’m more disappointed than I expected. I kind of wanted to see his face again, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing him shirtless.
In an attempt to feel close to him, I walk towards the monitor in the back corner. That’s where I found him yesterday. The piping seems much thicker and old up close. I turn to the monitor, curious whether I would be able to read what’s on it. Instead, I find a piece of paper left lying on top of it. My heart flutters. Maybe it isn’t meant for me, but I can’t see who else it could possibly be for. I pick it up and unfold it carefully to read the tiny scribbles written upon it. His handwriting is worse than my dad’s, but I find it endearing even though there isn’t anything personal or romantic written on it. The note simply gives me directions to another room like this one a little ways down the wall. I can’t stop the thought of a trap from forming in my mind, but I dismiss it immediately. After helping me get away safely yesterday, there’s no way he would set up a trap for me. It doesn’t feel like something he would do.
Going with my gut, I pocket the note and take long strides back towards the door. I take a deep breath before opening it and rolling back behind a pile of coal. I glance at the door to make sure I shut it completely before dive-rolling to the next pile. I’m only about five feet away from the room with piping along inside, but I try to look for the other room. Down the wall several feet is another door identical to the one I just came out of. It blends in with the wall much more than the door to the piping room, though. My eyes pass it several times before my gaze finally lands on a discolored spot near the floor.
The only problem I see in getting to this next door is how far away from my position it currently is. There are coal piles situated further apart here, and they are placed in a way that will make it easier for me to get out of the Boilers and into the sun. Outside the walls of Geha. It’s really tempting. I’ve never felt the sun on my face without the dome that covers the city. I sigh, and make a run for the second door. I’ll be able to feel the sun on my skin in time. First, I need to see what this guy wants and what he knows about Micah. This door isn’t as cooperative as the one with the piping. I have to push it open enough for me to slide through, and then shut it with all my might. It only moves an inch at a time before it slowly closes behind me.
The view before me is exquisite. This room is the same size as the one with the piping, but has a desk situated in the middle, and rows and rows of shelving built into the clay walls stretching from the floor up to the ceiling. Within the shelves, there are scrolls upon scrolls stacked on top of each other. I’m not sure what they contain, but I’m curious. I want to get my hands on each one and study them individually until I’ve memorized them all. Instead, I see the mysterious man that helped me escape the day before, grabbing a scroll from a shelf in the wall to my right. He rolls it out onto the desk in front of me, glancing up at me for an instant to acknowledge my presence. I can feel heat on my cheeks.
In that moment, I realize that I’m happy to see him again. I’m not sure why, but his very aura seems to relax me. He leans to his side, opening a drawer and digging around inside of it for something I can’t see. Hoping to use this as an opportunity to demand some answers, I speak with as much confidence as possible.
“What happens to those that are banished here from Geha?” I ask.
He glances up at me again, but continues to riffle through the desk drawer without answering me. I try again.
“What does it mean to be born Unfavorable?”
I wait, but he doesn’t even look at me this time. Either there is a lot of stuff in that drawer, or he’s stalling. I don’t think he would kidnap me after saving me yesterday, but he must be unsure whether he should open up to me. My heart clenches with the realization. I’ve been feeling the exact same thing.
“Why did you help me yesterday?” I try once more.
He stops riffling momentarily to sigh. His head even seems to hang a bit lower after hearing my question. Still he doesn’t answer. He shakes his head, his hair creating a shadow over his eyes, like he’s trying to push away a thought.
“What’s your name?” I ask him hesitantly. Again he disregards my question.
In one swift movement, he grabs something from the drawer and stretches it towards me, holding it in his hand. It’s a leather pack filled with something. I look at it but ignore it, confused at what he wants. We stand in silence for a few moments. I’m waiting for him to speak and he’s waiting for me to take the pack. I ignore it and restart my line of questioning.
“What happens to those that are banished here from Geha?” I question. When he doesn’t answer, simply continues holding out the back to me, I try a different tactic. “I’m not doing anything until you answer my questions.”
“Even the one about my name?” He teases, half grinning. His voice is so low and soft that it takes me a minute to recognize he had spoken at all. He sets the pack down on the edge of the desk since I don’t move for it, and folds his arms against his chest. He’s pretending to be indifferent about my presence but I can see through it. He’s as excited about interacting with me as I am with him.
“Yes,” I say, not wanting to be made a fool.
“Not here,” he insists, looking down at the desk as he speaks, the grin gone. His tone is suddenly serious instead of playful. “I brought clothes for you to put on so you can blend in while we move to a place that is safe to talk.”
“What do you mean ‘blend in’?” I inquire, confused. I’m too flustered to think straight, otherwise I probably would be able to figure it out without asking. “Why would I need to blend in anywhere?”
“You clearly have questions or you wouldn’t have come back,” he says calmly, still looking at the blueprints on the desk. He’s right, but I’m not going to admit that I wanted to see him, too. I didn’t even know myself until I saw him again. “I prepared this knowing you might come back. This is not the place to answer your questions, though. It isn’t safe. I’m going to take you somewhere that is, but you’ll have to change so you don’t stand out. Unfavorable aren’t too fond of those deemed Favorable. You don’t want to be caught outside the city. Even the Loyals won’t help you.”
“You said that yesterday.”
“Well, it’s true,” he responds, dully, fingering the scroll. “Most Unfavorable aren’t kind to abandoned and lost Favorable, unless they have become one of us. Just looking at you will give you away. It will be less obvious with the change of clothes.”
“You’re not going to lead me somewhere and abandon me, are you?”
“No,” he smirks, trying to hide a chuckle.
I want to say something more but I resist. Why is he so eager to answer my questions if most would want to harm me? I don’t even know what about my question is so entertaining for him, but it warms my heart seeing his half smile. My pride wants to have the last word, but my logical side knows he’s being honest and sincere. I grab the bag off the edge of the desk, nervous realizing I’m going to have to change with him in the room.
“Uhmm, can we switch places?” I request, awkwardly.
“What?” He questions, looking up at me like I’m crazy. His brow furrows over his hazy green and gray eyes. I can feel warmth on my cheeks as he stares at me. It’s like he can see right through me and know who I am to my core without me saying a word. It’s unsettling, humbling, and exhilarating all at the same time.
“Please?” I beg, shyly. Bringing the bag up to my chest, I wrap my arms around it trying to comfort myself and ease my anxiety. It helps a little.
His lips twitch but he controls the urge to giggle. Shaking his head, he steps around the desk to my right and straight towards me. He’s wearing a shirt today and pants that match the ones he wore yesterday, but his muscles seem accentuated. I can see every muscle ripple underneath his clothing with the swing of his hips and arms at his sides. Every bulge of his thighs and biceps. Biting his lower lip, he walks towards me with a glint in his eye. He saunters right up to me, his body less than six inches away from my own, and winks at me before turning to look at the door, placing his hands on his hips.
I let a grin spread across my lips, my breathing becoming shallow. I’m aware from my studies that this means I’m attracted to him, but knowing is different than experiencing. Now is not the time to be experimenting, though. I take careful steps around the desk. Not a whole lot of coverage, but it’s better than nothing. I place the dirty clothing on the desk next to the pack and begin taking off my clothing. Each article is folded and carefully situated into the leather bag to keep it from getting dirty. When one piece is removed, it’s immediately replaced with the decoy clothing. My delicate skin isn’t exposed to the elements longer than a few seconds.
The outfit is a little strange. There’s a long sleeve, dark brown sweater underneath a mahogany jumper that reaches down to the middle of my thighs. To top it off, there are a pair of shorts that don’t show underneath the jumper, and knee-high, dirty white socks. There are even a pair of tan moccasins. Even though the clothing isn’t pristine, I feel much more comfortable in them than I arrived in. It’s a much different style, but I like it. The brown hues are a welcome change to the dull grays and blues I’m forced to wear in Geha.
“All done,” I announce, extremely self-conscious. I enjoy the outfit, but I’m anxious about what my mystery man will say.
He slowly turns back towards me, angling himself so that the first thing he sees of me is my feet. His gaze hesitates briefly before taking in my entire form. Up my calves to my legs, up my thighs to my hips, and up my torso to finally reach my shoulders and face. He can’t quite make it to look up into my eyes, though. He clears his throat and shakes his head before bringing back his cocky half-grin, and looking at me.
“Not bad,” he appraises. Even with his teasing nature, I can tell that he’s being honest about his opinion. “You just need some finishing touches and you should be able to blend in with the rest of us.”