I didn’t sleep at all last night. The whole evening I was thinking about Micah. Ryder, too, but only whether he was being honest with me or not. Whether he really knows my older brother or not. If Micah has been alive this whole time, then why haven’t I heard anything from him since he disappeared? I guess Loyals wouldn’t want to send messages back and forth for Unfavorable who they believe to be below them. Literally and figuratively.
The main question is, do I trust Ryder? That’s really what matters right now. It’s what will help me make my decision to go back or not. What if he’s telling the truth and Micah really is alive. What would he be like? Would he still care about me as much as he used to? Or would he have forgotten me years ago? I don’t know what to think. There’s a sharp pain in my chest when I think about him discarding me like our parents did with him. For that reason alone, I’m not sure I even want to see him or not.
A knock at my bedroom door takes me out of my reverie. I shoot up in bed to a sitting position, not even realizing anyone else is awake this early. I check the digital clock on my wall to see it’s much later than I expected: 7:09am. The lights are on already.
“Alora, honey,” mom calls from the other side of the closed door. “Are you going to join your father and I for breakfast this morning?”
“Yeah,” I groan, rubbing my eyes with my palms. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Okay, dear,” she announces, her footsteps retreating to the kitchen. My last day of rest before I have to choose a career path. Might as well spend it with my parents.
I kick my legs over the side of the bed and push myself to stand. I don’t remember changing into my nightgown last night, but apparently I had. Not caring if my clothes are appropriate for breakfast, I exit my room and drag my feet the whole way to the dining room, where dad is already seated and reading something on his tablet. Mom is finishing up whatever is for breakfast, standing in front of the stove. Unimpressed, I take my usual seat, unsure what to expect from them this morning. They seem oddly cheery. It probably has something to do with my outburst from last night.
Mom places a bowl of cream of wheat in front of me before doing the same with dad, then taking her place. They both dig in, but I can’t help staring into my bowl at how bland the food looks. I’ve had cream of wheat many times for breakfast, and I normally like it, but after the blue apple yesterday, nothing seems as appetizing. I take my spoon and push the mush around my bowl, debating whether I want to eat or not.
“Are you not hungry, honey?” Mom asks me. “Are you feeling alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I assure her, taking a spoonful of the slop and shoving it into my mouth for good measure. “Mmmm…”
“How’s the soul searching coming?” Dad quires, still staring at his tablet. He’s most likely reading some Developer research papers that were recently published. He places the device on the table waiting for my response. “Have you picked a career path, yet?”
“No, not yet,” I admit.
“You know you have to return to Central Hall tomorrow to give them a decision, sweetheart,” Mom pushes, an odd sweetness to her tone.
“Are you sure?” Dad pushes. “You don’t seem to have made much progress in your decision, sweetie.”
What’s with all the random pet names today? I think.
“I’m aware, dad,” I insist, a note of annoyance in my voice. “I’ve spent the last couple days learning more about the different paths, and today I’m going to spend meditating on all the information to make a final choice.”
I don’t like lying to them, but it gets them off my case. I’m sure they’re concerned I’m not taking this seriously with my attitude last night. They eat their breakfasts in silent excitement while I play with my glop. Though I know it is probably a lost cause, I can’t help trying at least once more to bring up Micah to them.
“What do you think happened to Micah?” I ask. Both Mom and Dad cough, almost choking on their cream of wheat. “Do you think he’s still alive?”
A short silence ensues. I stare at the contents within my bowl, but I’m guessing they take a moment to glance at each other before silently deciding who will respond. Dad coughs while whipping his face with a napkin, and Mom sets her spoon down on the table, folding her hands in front of her as she looks at me with the most natural expression she can muster. Taking a moment to glance at her, she looks like she’s sucking on a lemon.
“Why would you be thinking about Micah right now?” She inquires. Mom’s staring at me like I’ve lost my mind. Her tone is sweet. Too sweet. Like the imaginary lemon contorting her features. I, suddenly, feel like I’m 10 years old again. Is it really so childish to wonder about the disappearance of my brother? “You’ve got much more important things to be thinking about than reminding yourself of him.”
“It’s difficult not to after my Bleeding Rite,” I surmise. “It all reminds me of his and makes me wonder all over again why he never came home.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” Dad pipes in, lecturing me. “You passed your Rite with flying colors, and that’s what you need to focus on. I don’t think you understand how rare it is to be proficient in everything, Alora. The possibilities for your future are endless. Micah is a part of your past, not your future. It’s time to settle down and pick a career path.”
Settle down? I’m only 16, the beginning stages of my life. If I were going on 24 and hadn’t “settled down” with whoever the Main Frame has chosen for me, I could see him saying something like that. This is all just a ploy to get me off the topic of Micah again. They’re so done with him that it’s awkward talking about him now. I’m never giving up on him, but I’m giving up trying to discuss him with them. I didn’t see it before, but they let him go years ago. They probably saw my potential long before I did, and discarded his memory for whatever it was they thought I could provide for this community.
I poke at my cream of wheat, pretending to let go of the topic. My parents seem satisfied, and go back to their own bowls of slop. They finish without noticing I’ve hardly tasted my breakfast, and are practically bouncing out the door within minutes. They only spared a few seconds to kiss me on the top of my head, like I’m still a child, before sauntering off to the rest of their day. I have no idea how they can find their lives fulfilling. The same menial research day in and day out, with no meaningful interactions. If that’s the foreshadowing of the way my life is going to end up, I’m not looking forward to it.
Although I still can’t decide whether Ryder was telling the truth or was sincere with his apology, I need to know for sure whether that is where Micah lives. Whether he has been alive and well all these years. Since our parents have pushed his memory aside for my success, I owe it to him. To continue and honor his memory where our parents have failed. I’m not going to let his memory die with them. He stays alive with me. No matter what, I’ll find out whether he’s truly alive, even if I have to interrogate the whole village.
Even though I’m highly motivated to get back to Landow, I’m pokey getting dressed to leave the house. No matter what I pick, I’ll end up changing so I can blend in again with the rest of the Unfavorable. It’s almost silly picking out something clean. Still, I can’t walk around Geha in dirty clothing. Someone will notice. The people pay attention to the most frivolous of details, which I’ll never understand. Maybe I’ll never fit in here.
It takes me several minutes to pick out a pristine, dark colored outfit. I’ll be able to blend in with the rest of Geha without a problem, though I’m getting tired of the dreary clothing I’m made to wear day in and day out. I adorn a navy blue shirt, with a matching cardigan and knee-length skirt. My socks are pulled up just below my kneecap, and black shoes to finish up the ensemble. Bland attire to go with this bland society.
I’m out the door and making my way to Central Hall soon after I fully dress. The streets are strangely occupied today. Mostly Loyals patrolling for teenagers trying to hide from their Bleeding Rite, or making sure adults aren’t forsaking their duties. Every once in a while there’s an artist meandering, too, either carrying new supplies or on their way to get some. Otherwise other careers are hard at work. There are some people who whisper to companions after looking at me, but it’s all the attention I receive on my walk. I’m sure they’ve heard of my Rite.
There isn’t a whole lot of traffic in or out of Central Hall when I arrive. Thankfully it makes sneaking around back a bit easier. I should have waited an hour so that the streets were empty, but I couldn’t. I have to see Micah. I’ll wait outside the hut Ryder pointed out to me all day and night if I have to. The closer I am to reaching the Boiler room, the more careless and impatient I become. I don’t even wait to see if Loyals will be coming out of the building any time soon before I’m rushing down the alley towards the hidden trapdoor. I have no idea how I’m not seen by anyone while I’m lowering myself into the clay staircase.
Carefully, I tiptoe down the stairs. I’m descending so quickly that I begin to feel dizzy when I finally reach the bottom. The routine is easy: I grab the keyring from the wall, sneak into the Boiler room, and dash behind piles of coal until I reach the designated room. This time I’m going straight for the blueprint room, hoping Ryder placed the leather pack here with the stash of dirty clothing for me after I tossed it to him last night. I shut the strange door quietly behind me as I enter the room, leaning against it to listen for anyone following me. No footsteps or shouts come anywhere near the door.
In my excited state, I climb over the top of the desk to the other side before opening every single drawer looking for the pack. My anxiety climbs with every drawer. Finally, the bottom left drawer is where I find the pack. I grab it and toss it onto the desk, greedily removing its contents. They clearly haven’t been washed but I don’t mind. The dirtier they are, the more I’ll be able to blend in with anyone I might come into contact with. I put my, now slightly dirty, Geha garb into the pack and stash it back into the desk. Rushing to the door, my excitement heightens exponentially. The day has just begun, but there’s no time to waste. It’s time to find out for sure whether my brother is alive. After today there will be no more guessing, no more waiting to find out.
Hopefully looking casual, I open the door to begin my travels to Landow. My good mood crashes to a halt seeing Ryder standing two feet in front of the door, waiting for me. There’s a grin on his face, but it’s not cocky. I bet he’s wooed lots of girls with that same crooked smile stretching across his cheeks. I dig my fingernails into my palm to remind myself I’m not sure if I trust him. To make sure I keep the butterflies calm in my stomach. I wasn’t expecting to be happy to see him again, not with how things ended yesterday.
“I knew you couldn’t stay away,” he teases.
That’s all he had to say to bring back my contempt for him. I shoot him a glare that I hope eats at his insides, then stomp off towards the exit. Out of side view, I see him lower his head to the ground, disappointed with himself. With all the commotion of the Burners doing their jobs, I don’t know if Ryder is following me. I don’t care. I keep walking towards the woods so I can get back to Landow on my own. The noise immediately dies down the instant my feet touch fresh grass. It allows me to hear Ryder hot on my heels, too.
“Please, stop,” he pleads. “I’m sorry, okay?”
Nowhere near ready to accept any kind of apology, I keep walking. Maybe if I ignore him long enough he’ll go away. Probably not though, since he’s as stubborn as I am. I break out into a run trying to gain some distance. It doesn’t work, and I’m not exactly surprised. He grunts and is right behind me in no time. He keeps up with me without problems, but his frustration gets the better of him. The Boiler room well out of sight, he grabs my arm and stops us. He’s not rough, but he turns me around so I’m facing him. His expression is pleading, which I combat with another glare.
“Please, just listen to me for a minute,” he insists.
“You just don’t get it,” I mutter, yanking my arm from his grasp. I maintain a walking pace away, but don’t hear him following me.
“What can I do to make it up to you?” He calls to me. It makes me stop walking. He’s probably trying to bait me, but the sincerity in his voice stays my feet.
“You just don’t get it,” I spit at him, the words like venom. “I’m just a conceited Favorable to you. You wouldn’t understand anything I have to say.”
“Try me,” he dares. His confidence infuriates me to the point where I actually take him up on the challenge.
“Okay, fine,” I accept. He better be ready for this. “I get that being Unfavorable isn’t the ideal lifestyle, but you have no idea what it’s like in Geha. Since I was 10 years old, I have been absolutely terrified of the day I would take my Bleeding Rite. After my brother disappeared and not knowing if I would, too? My parents were so worried that I would end up the same that they put an overwhelming amount of pressure on my shoulders to do well in studies. I had to be best in every subject, everything I did, or they would throw in my face that Micah didn’t make the cut and disappeared because of it.”
“Even after all that,” I continue. I start out condescending and mean, but my tone starts to switch to frustration and sorrow now. “After I get the best grade on my Rite that anyone has gotten in centuries, it doesn’t mean anything. All they care about is what it means for Geha and the possibilities my Rite provides. The terror and pressure they put on me for six years means nothing to them now that I got a good grade. And they’ve practically forgotten that Micah ever existed now that they know I’m not Unfavorable. They don’t care about him at all, they don’t care about me, only what I can offer the community.”
By the end of my speech, tears are flowing down my cheeks. I don’t even know when it happened, but my knees must have given out at some point, because Ryder is holding me close, I’m sobbing uncontrollably. My legs are curled underneath me, and my left hip is sitting on the dirt below. All the pressure, sorrow, uncertainty, and fear overwhelmed me, and came out in ugly weeping all over him.
He didn’t complain or moan at all. Ryder just sat next to me, my head on his shoulder, and wrapped his arms around me tight. He does nothing but sit with me and hold me. It’s as if he understands exactly what I’m feeling and is taking it upon himself. Completely relieving me and absolving me of everything that’s taken a toll on me the last six years.