Finding Atlas

Annabelle Tate doesn't remember what life was like before the Colony. All she knows is that life during it is dreadful. When a citizen turns 17 they're automatically tested on their loyalty, agility, intelligence and mental well being. If they fail they go through an elusive process known as "fixing." When Annabelle fails she's whisked into a world of espionage, archery, instinct and brutality to fight and inspire a dying nation she once sought allegiance to.

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2. Bated Breath

BATED BREATH

 

               

                “Anna it’s time for you to get up,” and just like that I was shaken awake by my mother's insistent hands. I mumbled incoherently and opened my bleary eyes to scant amounts of sunlight reflecting off of the massive caverns from my window. I kicked off my sheets and flustered about in what must have looked like a comical state because my mom laughed good naturedly. All the while I kept thinking that I might never see her again with the tightened crow’s feet around her eyes that appeared when she smiled. I’d never get to see my dark haired mother beautiful and imaginative and wild.

 

                “You look like a silly seal Anna,” Ellie laughed as mom wound her hair the color of mud into hastily done plaits. I stuck my tongue out at her, she returned the favor and then mom turned to me all serious business. Her voice was somber and it instantly reminded me of the heaviness of my fate, the weight of my life settling onto my thin shoulders.

 

                “You think you’re ready for today?”

 

                “No way, can I just please bury myself into my blankets again, let me suffer in despair and sleep mom,” I sighed overdramatically, my weak joke failing to lift my spirits. I really was dreading the idea of having to sit through four back-to-back examinations with 15-minute windows scheduled as “breaks.” The idea of being categorized was daunting, what if they placed me in Province 1 or heavens forbid Province 3 where I’d be forced to tutor screaming rabid children? What if I was to be purged? And my stomach somersaulted and I felt bile rising up the column of my throat. I stared at the crisscrossing pattern of my tattered quilt and wrung it in my hands.

 

                “Didn’t you study?” Mom’s expression became tender and she absentmindedly sent Ellie off to go brush her teeth in the adjacent bathroom. I heard Miles’s heavy footfalls as he padded to the kitchen. I thought of him—sturdy and strong and capable. I thought of him melting down metals and cooling them down, refining them to be made into tools. I thought of his powerful body in comparison to my pitiful gangly limbs. Then I pictured myself trembling, my name outlined in red with ‘to be purged’ stamped next to it.

 

                “I did but I just … I don’t think I’m ready mom,” and I was sure I could taste the saltiness of fear in my mouth. Moments later I realized I’d been biting my cheek swollen.

 

                “Just tell yourself that you can do it and that there’s no other way,” mom’s painter hands scrubbed raw of acrylics and watercolors touched my cheek then. I pressed my face into it and I decided to let my tears fall. Some of them clung to my lashes and she gently wiped them away. I sniffled inaudibly and I tried to will away the fear that gripped my stomach. I was just seventeen I wasn’t ready to face the delicate balance of life and death. I had years of little moments to experience: boys to kiss, a job to be sorted into, more friends to make, and I had a family to love and cherish. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to be ready.

 

                “… You’ve got to be strong Anna, think of Ellie and your father and I … think of your friends,” and I did: I thought of Collin, James, Diana and Josephine. I thought of how we’d spent hours killing time at the Pavilion, wandering into stores, laughing at stupid merchandise we’d found on shelves. I thought of us shrieking and pushing each other down the aisles of stores in shopping carts. I thought of Collin’s freckles spattering his nose like paint and Josephine so annoyingly sure and confident. James’s raucous laugh was a little too loud and Diana had a way of never softening the blow but just intensifying it.

 

                “I’ll try,” was all I could say and this time I swallowed the bit of blood and iron in my mouth. Moments later I went through the robotic motions of brushing my hair and pulling it into a messy French braid. The moment my eyes flitted over to the flat iron my mom had exchanged with one of our old cell phones, I opted to not try and tame my wavy mane of ebony hued hair. I scrubbed myself raw in the shower and willed myself not to tremble while trying not to sob. I had to remain strong and resolute. I had to be like dad and Miles. I squared my shoulders and lifted my head while pulling a faded blue short-sleeved dress over my head.

 

                I took a look at myself in the cracked mirror hanging on our bedroom wall. My black tights had two holes in them and my face was the color of warm coffee. I had dark circles—a culprit of insomnia—darkening my lower eyelids. My lips were cracked and my right cheek was slightly swollen from where I’d bitten the inside of it. Overall I was the antithesis to the hot girls in my school; prancing around in short skirts baring long legs and wooing boys with their “come hither” eyes.

 

             “Get over here kiddo,” and dad pulled me into a fierce hug as soon as I’d made my way to the kitchen. He smelled like earth and cologne. Mom was scrambling eggs in a skillet and Miles was shoveling a stack of pancakes into his mouth by the forkful. I caught Ellie swinging her legs back and forth and she winked at me as I pulled away from dad. I couldn’t resist the urge to wink back.

 

             “I’m not ready for tomorrow dad,” I murmured into his shoulder as I pulled him to me again. For all intents and purposes I was the daddy’s girl and Miles was the momma’s boy. All three of us had another twenty minutes before the tram arrived at the Hub to pick us up. The Hub was a series of tram stations where bullet trains traveled through a series of tubes to each Province. In total there must have been at least sixteen stops or so.

            

             “You have to be, Anna and I know you will be because you’re a smart girl. Don’t doubt yourself alright? I’m sure you’ll do fine,” he winked at me and I blinked back tears smiling despite myself. A few minutes later, plates were cleared and I’d filled my stomach with pancakes and eggs. Ellie, Miles and I shouldered our backpacks and set off after bidding goodbye to our parents. I held Ellie’s hand and fell into step with Miles as we traveled across a world of filtered sunlight through widened cracks of the ceiling of the caverns. All about us other residents milled around and I turned my head as I heard twin shrieks of my name called:

 

             “ANNABANANA!”

 

             I shook my head at my childhood nickname and allowed a smile to slip onto my face. Josephine’s wild red tresses came into view as she tore across the median as tram cars zipped by on electric tracks.  Diana beamed as she followed close on the younger girl’s heels. Diana was older than me by a few months and Josephine was the baby, being two months younger than myself. I wrapped them in hugs, realizing how much I missed them.

 

             “Hey girls you’re looking particularly yummy today,” Miles waggled his eyebrows and gripped Ellie’s hand. I noted his thumb rubbing small circles into her palm, most likely trying to relax her. Both of her siblings were going to be tested on whether they’d be lined up for slaughter—“for the good of the Colony”—I scoffed as I recalled one of the lines from our textbook.

 

             “Hey to you too lover boy,” Diana punched him playfully on the arm and they neared each other slipping into easy conversation. As much as I used to shudder at the prospect years ago, I could see my brother easily falling for the headstrong Diana. I couldn’t help but think of how they’d be such a good match for each other. Five minutes later we were rushing into the tubular tram, a black sign reading ‘TO PROVINCE 3, 4 & 5 ONLY’ swung precariously overhead. We stood atop a platform and conversed about our fate, silently jealous that Ellie had years to enjoy with her fellow children to be unlabeled and unrestricted.

 

             There was a downside to control.

 

             “I’m so not ready for this damn test man,” Miles huffed.

 

             “I am, I studied for two freaking weeks, and I better ace it. I’m hoping I get into Province 1, you know I’ve always been into pyrotechnics and stuff. Time for me to light stuff up,” Diana’s eyes took on a bright gleam and she laughed and we fell into an easy laughter too.

 

             “Damn girl well I’m sure you’ll get in, Miss I-study-for-two-weeks-and-neglect-to-webcam-with-my-best-guy-buddy!”

 

             “Please, as if you’d lose sleep over my not going on webcam for you for one day, a girl’s got to keep those grades up.”

 

             Diana swung her long waterfall of obsidian hair over her shoulder in a mockery of those pretentious hair commercials we saw across our holo-screens. Holo-screens were holographic images that acted like projectors. They were everywhere—in tram stations, perched above buildings and spiraling skyscrapers and floating on massive mechanic airships.

 

             I didn’t miss the way Miles looked at her and I silently cheered my brother on.

 

             “What about you Ann, you ready?” Josephine looked at me with a small smile and I shrugged noncommittally, squeezing Ellie’s hand as she found my fingers and winked at me. I looked down at her and the answers forced its way out of my throat even if I didn’t one hundred percent believe them:

 

             “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” nothing wrong with a partial truth right?

 

             School was a massive building coming into view amidst the cloudiness of smog and thick puffs of black smoke. It was an imposing cold gray building jutting out of the outcrop of rock chiseled away by machines crafted by machinists. Most of the tens of hundreds of people on the long bullet trains were students of various ages from children escorted by anxious parents to worried young adults.

 

             Diana, Ellie and the rest of us went our separate ways to our respective ‘classes.’ Although we were all taught in the same building we each went to a respective ‘class’ based on our age. I had to drop off Ellie to ‘Class B’ for young five year olds to eight year olds. She clung to my hand like a death vice and I knew why. Girls as young as her didn’t know the particulars about the purging but they understood that sometimes older sisters and brothers didn’t come back once they were selected. Ellie understood it and that wealth of knowledge was a dark shadow behind her eyes.

 

             “I don’t want you to go!” And she buried her little cherub face into the hem of my coat. She barely skirted my waist at 4’7. I wasn’t much taller at 5’1” but still … Ellie was a tiny girl for her age. I stood like that with my little sister pressed into the cotton fabric of my jacket.

 

             “I’m not going anywhere you hear me?”

 

             “But sometimes—sometimes people don’t ever come back. Sometimes awful things happen, Anna and I don’t want anything to happen to you,” and Ellie was pulling my body to hers and I looked around helplessly, more nervous and frayed than anything else.

 

             “Nothing’s going to happen to me, I promise,” I pulled back and looked into my sister’s clear brown eyes. She was too young to know what death was—how permanent it was. She didn’t deserve to have her innocence stripped away in a ritual steeped in blood.

 

             “You promise?”

 

             “You have my word, Ells.”

 

             Parents pulled their children closer together, a few cast disheartened and curious glances my way. An encounter like this wasn’t rare to witness—a young child clinging to their older sibling on the day of his or her reckoning.

 

             Truth be told, I didn’t want to go either, I was completely petrified. I’d read of the Purging in textbooks and I’d witnessed it more times than I felt comfortable to count. You never forgot the sound of pleading voices, a man’s voice gone hoarse from shrieking … the sound of electricity singing skin and melting it away. You never forgot certain visceral imagery like that.  Eventually I had to pull myself away from my little sister, I had to walk her to class and swipe the tears away from her chubby cheeks. I watched until her retreated form was swallowed up by teachers and other children before I walked to my own class. I was in ‘class E’ which was the final one out of the five and in which all seventeen year olds were grouped together.

 

             There were massive walkways overhead, metal bridges that yawned under the weight of trampling feet—students leaning against walls. Boys were blowing cigarette smoke into the air and girls were popping gum in their mouths, talking on their holographic phones. I waved to a few acquaintances I recognized from my class: a young Asian girl with wide hips and beautiful dark eyes, a black boy with darker skin than myself who habitually listened to music on his cracked music player while walking to class.

 

             Finally I was face to face with my classroom after trailing down the massive epicenter of the school. Every wall was plastered with holo-screens advertising everything from condoms to razors and shaving cream. Censorship wasn’t exactly valued in our world.

 

             “You’re not on time, Miss Tate,” my teacher narrowed her gray eyes at me they reminded me of angry cumulus clouds. Mom had told me about them once when I was much younger—they were the clouds that gathered before the storm.

 

             “I’m sorry Professor Bingham, it won’t happen again.”

 

             “Oh I’m sure it won’t,” and with that she heaved a thick stack of electronic tablets onto the metal desk at the center of the room. Our classroom was enormous with vaulted ceilings and tube lights that emanated artificial blue lighting around the room. The desks were rows of long tables and uncomfortable metal benches jutted out of the floors. I found my place between James and Collin, sandwiching myself between them somewhere in the fifth row of about ten rows of benches.

 

             Professor Bingham announced the procedures of the four exams we were to take determining our place in the Colony. Miles and I used to joke that she probably owned about twenty different breeds of cats as lovers. Now I was finding myself even willing to go to her class if it meant that I could spend more time with my family and friends. I smiled shyly at Collin, the boy with a spattering of freckles.

 

             Collins was half white and half Korean on his dad’s side. His green eyes crinkled when he saw me and his face broke into an easy smile. I was sweaty palmed and felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest—telltale signs that you had an unrequited crush on your best friend. Part of me was sure I’d never see Collin again. The thought terrified me.

 

             “As you all know, you’re to take four portions of the Quarterly Aptitude Test for Societal Placement. The sections are: the assessment of intelligence, then psychological wellbeing, physicality, and finally loyalty. There’s to be no talking or your test will automatically be voided. No cheating or your test will automatically be voided,” she walked around passing out the tablets to each row.

 

             She instructed us to pass our tablets down and we did as we were told. What was once alive with chatter of plans for the weekend and what our grades would be like soon died down to nothingness.

 

              Satisfied she continued on, “You’ll be administered four break periods of fifteen minutes after which you’ll take the next test. When you’re done with all four, put down your writing instruments and sit quietly until I come around to collect your tests. Please pass your test down to the end of the row. I will now administer the first section, no talking, and no cheating … I wish you all good luck.”

 

             There’s a certain kind of fear that chills your spine, when the weight of your existence is determined by answers to seemingly harmless questions. A cold sweat broke out onto my brow as I picked up my stylus with tremulous fingers and resisted the urge to bite my nails. There was already crusted blood on a few of my fingers. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Collin furrowing his neat brow in concentration. I thought of telling him we could hang out at the Pavilion later. I thought of Miles telling Diana how much he liked her. I thought of Ellie with the whole heaviness of a promise in her hands.

 

             What seemed like hours trickled by quickly and we took scheduled breaks to grab lunch at the canteen and refresh ourselves for the next sections. My mind felt fuzzy when I sat down to the final section and it took two cans of disgusting energy drinks to get me buzzed enough. I plowed through the ten questions with relative ease and finally put my stylus down. A loud exhale streamed out of me and I felt utterly deflated and exhausted. Collin gave me a thumbs up which I returned half-heartedly. I saw Diana and Miles two rows behind me—well I saw the back of their heads and they high-fived each other. Josephine looked utterly pensive, her bottom lip gnawed red, and she was as retrospective as I was.

            

             Our tests were collected and then we waited for an additional hour while the tablets were carted away to another room called the ‘Sorting room’ to be evaluated. Our results would automatically be calculated. I never felt more outside of myself than I did then. I wanted to scream and cry and pull at my hair. My whole life hung precariously and was to be determined by an automatic result. I was anything but internally calm and in “my space” right now as Josephine would say.

 

             “How do you think you did, Anna? Hey by the way,” it was Collin that touched me gingerly. I’d almost jumped out of my skin, stifling a shriek behind nail bitten fingers. I tasted copper on my tongue and pressed it to the smarting ache of my cheek wound.

 

             “Hey to you too, I think I did utter crap on it to be honest Collin. Ugh, I was so exhausted,” I knew I sounded whiny but with Collin I felt safe enough to at least admit my imperfections. He was the sort of guy to soothe you over with comforting words. He had a way of twisting the bitter medicine of honesty into something you actually wanted to hear. There was that and he was an amazing guitarist, he’d salvaged an old acoustic model one time at the Pavilion by exchanging for a bag of old clothing. Some people would trade anything for a necessity like a sweater or a pair of jeans.

 

             Now he was watching me skeptically and just shook his head: “You’re so optimistic Anna.”

 

             “I know right, I should be the poster child for optimism. Annabelle Tate, putting smiles on the Colony’s faces since 1991,” I pulled a cheesy grin and he chuckled while I rolled my eyes despite myself.

 

             Then my whole world came crashing down in a matter of minutes. Professor Bingham reentered the room with the cart full of electronic tablets. Those devices held our fate. We held a collective breath and instantly chatter died down again. I wondered how many people had sat in my seat, twisting their fingers into the hem of their skirts or pants. How many people had sat in my seat pondering their existence and whether they’d keep living to the end of the week or die prematurely? I was in their position now—that’s what mattered. Professor Bingham read out the results robotically, tapping each tablet to life by pressing their ‘Home’ button on the bottom.

 

             “Asia Wong … Province 1,” a dark haired Chinese girl with pigtails particularly skilled with electronics smiled and high fived a few of her friends clustered to the back.

 

             “Collin Chang … Province 3, congratulations,” and this time Professor Bingham smiled because Collin was an overachieving student and she actually liked that about him. I smiled at him although it was comparably weak to his face-splitting grin. I’d always known that he’d be in Province 3. He did volunteer a lot to help the younger kids in classes ‘A’ and ‘B’ and Ellie had always been fond of him.

 

             “Jade Price … Norman Beatty … Lester Hendricks … James Caraway … Elizabeth Hendricks … Josephine Cousteau … Diana Lam,” each tablet she read was a new result. So far four other people had been selected to be purged. None of them had thankfully been my friends and so far Miles was safe. He’d been, as I’d predicted, sorted out to Province 4. He stuck his tongue out at me and I did the same but underneath I was secretly tearing myself up into shreds. I felt like someone had scrubbed me raw with an abrasive brillo pad.

 

             Then it came like the echo of a resounding gavel.

 

             “Annabelle Tate … you are to be purged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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