Authors: Dawn Rae Miller
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Short Stories, #Teen & Young Adult, #Romance, #Science Fiction & Dystopian, #45 Minutes (22-32 Pages), #Single Authors, #Paranormal & Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian
The man with the caterpillar eyebrows won’t stop talking. So far, he’s told me about his school days–years and years and years ago!–and his off-campus exploits to places I’ve never been. Places I never hope to go.
My lips ache from smiling and my feet definitely don’t care for the shoes I’ve forced them into–four inch, two-tone, lace up booties. They match my dress, but even their smart fabric won’t save me from needing foot salve after this.
I continue to force a smile and I fight the urge to touch my fingers to my lips, a nervous habit my housemother, Bethina, made me promise not to do.
But I also promised not to lose sight of Beck, and I’ve already broken that one. As soon as he and I stepped into the packed ballroom, I was pulled one way and he was swallowed up by the crowd. Which makes me nervous. Not because I’m worried about him–Beck charms everyone he comes in contact with. But rather, I hate this type of social gathering and rely on him to protect me from the hordes.
“The Channing boy came with you, did he not?” Caterpillar Brows’ voice booms out of his tiny head. “I thought I saw him at the ceremony.”
A nervous titter moves through the group. Based on their green wristlets, most of them are State officials–colleagues of my Mother. All eyes are on me as they wait for my answer.
My hand flutters toward to my lips, but at the last moment settles onto the crinkly fabric of the black bow that sits on my shoulder and drapes down the front of my dress.
A wiry woman, in a gown that is twice as wide as she is tall, wrinkles her nose. “Do you ever grow tired of his company?”
The noise of the room rings in my ears and I struggle to keep smiling. I’ve never been good at this kind of thing–talking to strangers. That’s Beck’s area. He’s the one people gravitate toward. He’s the one who lights up the room. I’ve always been content staying in his shadow.
“Excuse me,” I say, making my way through the crowd. “I need…fresh air.”
The whole night–the sheer, tiered evening gown I wear, the passed trays of food with names I can’t pronounce, and the endless stream of people wanting to speak to me–makes me feel like an imposter. These people expect me to be like my mother–or at least, more like Beck. But I’m not. My idea of a fun evening is studying in my room or spending time with my friends. Not hob-nobbing and kissing up to State officials.
As I walk, the silly boots pinch my toes and I wince. Why did I agree to wear such a ridiculous outfit? Bethina warned me I wouldn’t be comfortable, but I didn’t listen. Instead, I selected the gown I thought was the prettiest.
And it is pretty, if uncomfortable. So at least there’s that.
All around me, visiting dignitaries from the five Societies mingle. I catch snippets of conversation in the high-trilling accent of the Eastern Society intermingled with the lightening fast rhythm of the Center Society. It’s truly the binding of the year and I should feel lucky to be here.
I should. But I don’t. I feel a little trapped.
In the middle of the room, I pause and tap my wristlet. There’s no way I’ll find Beck by wandering around. “Locate Beck.”
“Fifty feet to your left, near the rear exit,” my wristlet replies.
I scurry through the crowd, taking care to hold my dress aside so that it doesn’t become wrinkled or damaged. Last thing I need is a reprimand from Bethina.
As I near the far end of the room, I dodge a particularly boisterous man who seems intent on speaking to me.
“Lark,” he says, “come, join us!”
Just as I’m about to step into their tight circle, I catch a glimpse of Beck.
“I’ll be right back,” I say before hurrying past.
Beck leans against the wall, with his blond head tilted down and his eyes on his blue wristlet.
And oddly, there’s not a soul within feet of him.
When the invitation to my brother’s binding ceremony arrived, I couldn’t stop admiring it. Mother spared no cost. A small, iridescent box with a thick bow of green ribbon hovered before me and when I flicked my hand, the ribbon unraveled, sliding down the sides of the box and pooling at its base.
Excitement bubbled in me as the box opened and dozens of butterflies swirled in the air. Their beating wings shimmered in the sunlight.
I’d never seen anything like it before.
“Do you want to go?” Beck asked from just over my shoulder.
I tapped off my wristlet and the butterflies and the box disappeared. “No. But we don’t have a choice.
It’s my brother’s binding, and Mother summoned us.”
Beck’s eyes took on a distant look. Not that I blamed him. The last time we had visited Mother’s estate, my brother Callum took immense pleasure in tormenting Beck and me. He even locked Beck outside, without protective gear, in a snowstorm.
But three years had passed and I hoped we were all beyond such childish things.
I reached up to pat Beck’s cheek, and wanting to sound mature, mimicked formal State speech. “I’m the one who dislikes this type of thing, not you.”
Beck sighed. “I’m…I’m worried about you. That’s all.”
I tossed my chestnut ponytail over my shoulder and squeezed his hand. “You don’t need to worry. I’ll be okay. I’ll practice what to say with Bethina.” I gave him a reassuring smile. “Besides, I’ll have you with me.”
Beck ran his hand through his shock of blond, wavy hair. His olive colored eyes rested on my face and my heart thrummed. “I’ll never leave your side.”
Unlike other children, Beck and I had been paired off as infants–selected by the State as each other’s perfect mate. Our own binding ceremony was less than three years in the future.
“I know you won’t.” If there was one thing I could always depend on, it was Beck.
He pointed to my wristlet. “What’s her name–Callum’s mate?”
“Annalise.” I turned on the invitation and the box reappeared. “Annalise Delacruz.”
I slink between the last layer of people separating me from the vast empty space around Beck. Normally, people clamor to talk to us, so finding him alone like this is a bit odd.
“Where is everyone?” I joke as I slide up to him. “It hardly seems fair I have to endure all the attention on my own.”
Beck looks up at me, and a floppy piece of hair droops over his eye before he brushes it away. “I never thought I’d hear you complain about finding me alone.”
“I’m not complaining. It’s just different.”
“This whole day has been different,” he says with an unusual lack of energy.
“What do you mean?”
Beck stares at noisy crowd. “I’m your shadow today.”
He doesn’t sound bitter or angry. Just factual. That’s one of the things I like about him–he never sugar-coats things.
“Well in that case, you’re not a very good shadow! You disappeared as soon as we stepped into the room.” Unlike earlier, when I was surrounded by States people, my smile is genuine. “And how do you know they weren’t begging me for an introduction to the elusive Beck Channing?”
He chuckles and flicks the tip of my nose. “Because
are Malin Greene’s daughter and we’re at your brother’s binding. Why would anyone care about me?”
It is odd, the way no one, other than Caterpillar Brows, has mentioned Beck. And at the ceremony, people stared at us and whispered behind their hands.
“Have you spoken to Malin yet?” he asks
I shake my head. Since we arrived yesterday, I’ve only glimpsed my mother sitting in the front row at the Binding Hall. She never came to welcome us. Not that I expected her to–the handful of times Beck and I have visited her home, she’s barely acknowledged our presence, instead leaving us in the care of her household staff.
“I’m sure she’s busy. Throwing a binding like this must be time consuming.”
Beck rests his hand on my bare arm and rubs his thumb back and forth. That small gesture tells me he knows how upset I am, but he’s kind enough to not say it aloud. All week, I’ve practiced what I’d say to Mother and dreamt of our conversations.To not speak to her is a disappointment.
The tempo of the music changes and the crowd shifts to accommodate dancing couples at the center of the room.
Beck holds out his hand. “Shall we?”
Newscaster cameras zoom over the dance floor, zeroing in on unsuspecting couples. So far, they’ve left us alone, but we both know as soon as we step onto the floor, we’ll be mobbed.
“C’mon, Lark. You love to dance. Don’t let the cameras stop you.”
He’s right. I love the feel of music vibrating in my core, the rush of air across my skin as we twirl and spin. But the cameras. I knew I’d be subjected to them by coming here, but it doesn’t mean I accept the invasion of my privacy.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to be all over the gossip feeds tonight.”
He wiggles his hand at me. “Better say ‘yes’ before I change my mind.” His eyes sparkle and the dimple in his cheek sinks a little deeper. When he looks at me like this, I can’t control the rapid beating of my heart.
“Fine,” I say, rolling my eyes. “But if the cameras attack, I’m done.”
I place my hand lightly on his and let Beck guide me to the dance floor. He bows low and I curtsey, taking care to hold my dress out on each side as Ms. Jensen, our music and dance teacher, has taught me.
He takes my hand and leads me through the first set of steps. “If the cameras come too close, I don’t have any snowballs to fire at them.”
I giggle. At school, Beck and my housemates have made a game out of pelting the cameras with snowballs. “Just don’t step on my toes, and I’ll be fine.”
With all the other couples around us, I don’t feel exposed. We’re just another couple.
Dancers swirl past us, keeping beat with the frenzied music. Beck’s hand presses against the small of my back and his fingers tighten around my hand. Step, step, step, twirl, shuffle left, step, twirl, shuffle right. We keep the appropriate amount of distance between our torsos, taking care to touch only where absolutely necessary. We don’t need people gossiping about how we flaunt the rules.
My toes cramp, reminding me that I should have practiced dancing in these shoes before actually having to do it. Balancing on my tiptoes while performing the rapid moves proves to be more challenging than I expected.
“The way that bow flutters off your shoulder reminds me of a bird,” Beck says, dipping his head toward mine so that his mouth grazes my ear. His breath feels warm against the side of my face and I shudder a tiny bit. “Birdie.”
Step. Step. Spin. “What?”
“Birdie. That’s what I’m going to call you.”
I tilt my face up to his, but he’s staring off past my shoulder. “I didn’t realize I needed a nickname.”
Flashes of crimson, gold, eggplant, and emerald whirl past. Next to them, my dress must look dull. Shimmering ecru with a thick, black band along an assymetric hem that exposes my knees. It’s not brilliant, but as my best friend Kyra proclaimed, it’s stunning. Or at least I hope it is.
“Everyone needs a nickname. Birdie.” The word rolls off his tongue.
I shift my weight as he spins me beneath his arm. When he catches my free hand, I squeeze it hard. “So
I should come up with a nickname for you?”
He laughs again. “I’m bigger than a nickname, don’t you know?
“Kyra’s going to love this.” She finds Beck and me nauseating as it is. I can only imagine what she’s going to say about the nickname.
The music changes to a round-robin dance. Beck raises his eyebrows and I shake my head. Dancing with Beck is one thing; dancing with a stranger is something else. We rest along the far wall, in a space all of our own, as if no one dares get too close to us. But I don’t care. Let them leave us alone. I don’t need anyone but Beck.
A gentle ringing of a bell announces the end of the dancing hour and the start of the formal dinner. Beck holds out his arm in the appropriate manner and I accept. I keep my shoulders back and head high, just like I’ve seen Mother do during broadcasts of State events. Maybe if I pretend to feel confident, I can make it true.
As we walk toward our assigned seats, a hush falls over the room. Next to me, Beck stiffens and when I glance at him from the corner of my eye, I notice the hard set of his jaw. My stomach plummets. This isn’t anything like dancing. This is being the center of attention. And I hate it.
“It’s okay, Lark,” he whispers as my breathing becomes shallow and rapid. “They just want to get a good look at us.”
I should be used to this, but I’m not. All our lives, we’ve lived in the public eye, our every move documented by annoying gossip feeds. But never have we made a room go silent.