“The electricity ration must have ended, sorry.” Hugo rises from the couch. The television screen stares back at us like a pitch black empty void, dying in front of its audience.
“It’s OK. We’ve had that a few times.” I respond. We stand in darkness for a few seconds, and I hear him make cautious footsteps towards the kitchen to find the emergency lighting switch. It can only be used when the main supply is down. However, it also has its own time limit of just twenty-four hours, and it’s not as bright.
“I’ll just ask my mother to top the ration up on the way home.” He fiddles with the switches until a row of small lights flare up across the ceiling of the apartment, casting a dull illumination on everything. The lighting enhances Hugo’s expression, darkening the contours of his face. I take notice of his newly trimmed hair and how the light settles on each golden strand. He must have used up some of his leisure & maintenance ration to get his hair done, or possibly had done it himself. Most people don’t get the chance to top up any of their rations, or spend money on fancy haircuts until their assigned update, but being as Hugo descends from the elites in the Higher Division, he is one of the few citizens who are given a few more privileges.
“I should go now, anyway. Our End of Intermediate exam results could be sent home any time soon, and my curfew is almost up.” I glance at the L.E.D on my wrist tag gleaming orange.
“Oh yeah, those,” he frowns. “I’m not looking forward to it.”
“Why not? You’ll end up studying in the Higher Division whether you like it or not. And your parents can just pay for it, if it ever comes to that.” I don’t intend to sound snide, but my words escape my lips in that tone.
He rolls his eyes, ahead of reaching for the refrigerator. “The difference between you and me, Eden, is that you’re intelligent. If you get a spot in the Higher Division, you would have worked for it. And I would be getting the spot handed to me. Do you think that makes me feel good? Knowing that I don’t really deserve it?”
“You don’t know your results yet. You can’t be so sure you did terribly.” I attempt reassurance. He laughs in response. “I’ll be lucky to pass anything academic. I know I’ll excel in Athletics, but everything else, I know I did terribly in.” He pours himself a drink, and then offers me a glass.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I shake my head, turning towards the exit of his apartment. “I’ll see you tomorrow, OK?’
“Yeah,” he mutters. “And, Eden?”
“Good luck with your results. Though I feel like I should be granting you advanced congratulations. We all know you did well.”
I chuckle, grasping onto the door handle of his apartment. There’s not much else I feel like saying, so I finally leave, making my way through the hallway and taking numerous turns past numerous doors until I reach the main floor lift. There are only a few other people in here, as the rush hour has long passed. I check the time on my watch to find that it is almost six, and I hope my mother doesn’t worry like she normally does.
My apartment is two floors down in the complex, lost within a labyrinth of others; hundreds of duplicates and reflections of the same interior layout. Every residence looks identical, containing the same quantity of rooms, immaculately built into the same measurements. There is scarcely enough space in the Fourth Division for a broad variety of more creative architectural designs. There are too many citizens for us to sleep in king-sized bedrooms holding king-sized beds.
The lift I decided to take is the one right on the edge of the apartment complex, meaning I can peer down into the centre of our Division and watch the activity and motion of the people below. I observe the children entering the other apartment complex entrances eagerly with their parents lugging closely behind, exhausted from another day’s work.
Hugo Alden and I became close friends in childhood, after finding out we that lived in the same apartment block wing, and we shared an interest in being reckless and unhindered individuals. Even with the signs among the trees in the parks that warned passers-by of electric shocks if they dared touch one, we were always willing to try it out. We soon discovered that touching the trees actually resulted in a subsequent tingling sensation in our hands for a few hours, and that it was the neurons and signals in our bodies trying to find their purpose again. The only real harm it did was disrupting the Division’s electricity bill, and our families would get a chunk off of our rations for going against any Division rules – especially those written in bold, black capital letters in the park. Luckily for Hugo, his family could pay any fine off.
We were a duo who loved to push boundaries whilst growing up – from actions as trivial as discovering the empty textures of park plant life, to getting into useless brawls in the canteens over a stolen drink or a sarcastic insult thrown towards us. We were a messy pair, always leaving buttons undone and shirts hanging out from where they should stay tucked. I was fascinated with Hugo’s character.
Unfortunately, we slowly began to lose contact overtime. Three years ago, by the time I had turned thirteen and we had been rotated from class to class until our paths could no longer cross, our phone calls became rare and our conversations began to wither into quick smiles between Division transits. Then his father came back from the war after deciding to withdraw from his position, and it caused us to separate further, as it was clear he wasn’t too fond of me. Maybe he was too afraid I would end up being Hugo’s life partner. Despite my stable home and academic intelligence, there was something about me that bothered Hugo’s father. It probably also had something to
do with their family’s elite status; any marital bond Hugo had with someone who wasn’t at least a descendant elite could bring them down in financial power. That’s something no citizen would desire.
The main reason we began getting back in touch was because the last term of the Intermediate Seminary threw us into the same Math class. There really was no harm in trying to keep in touch, even if it is all short-lived. And besides, I was beginning to miss company. All the time I spent alone was beginning to weigh heavily on me. I needed someone.
My mother appears ahead of me at the front door of our apartment and stands still for a moment, staring at me in relief. “You’re here,” she sighs. Her dark, straight auburn hair hangs carefully trimmed above her shoulders, and she’s still wearing the grey suit jacket and pencil skirt that is required for her work as a Language teacher.
“Your E.O.I results haven’t come,” she says.
“Really?” I respond in confusion, entering the apartment before leaning on the white hallway wall. The bag I carry around for seminary classes instantly drops to the ground; the sheer weight of it pulls at my bones, like the weight of anticipation.
“Your results were supposed to be here a while ago – every student’s parents were alerted of it. I checked my emails, the seminary database... everywhere. Your exam details are empty.” She shrugs, walking into the kitchen - the same one Hugo was attempting to solve his electricity cut in. Obviously not the same, but the only things different are the numbers on our front doors and the interior decor.
“I don’t understand,” I mutter. “But maybe I’m not the only one.”
“Maybe,” she responds, getting out some fresh vegetables from the food drawer, ready to dice for a meal; probably soup.
Everybody is given a rationing card for food, electricity, water, clothes and a smaller leisure and maintenance ration for things such as books, film tickets or salon visits. Everyone in each Division is allocated a week every month in which their ration is updated. Updates depend on how many credits they have left over in each category, so if you are still quite close to full in the leisure and maintenance category for example, you will just be topped up with what you have missing. Nobody can ever go over their ration – running out equals the certain category being cut off until you earn enough. That can sound brutal, but most people have learnt how to manage their rations. And anybody who even thinks of buying more than they need would be considered to have lost any sense of logic. There isn’t enough of everything to go around, and that’s why it is crucial to always be aware of how much money you have left. My mother always stressed to me as a child how important it was for me to do well in seminary classes. From the minute I began the Junior Seminary aged four, and once I started the Intermediate Seminary aged ten, leading up to this moment, she instilled a hard work ethic within me. I’ve always known that whatever I got at the end of the Intermediates was basically my job application for the future. And obviously, higher-paid jobs call for higher-paid rations.
I watch mother slice the small vegetables as water now boils over the electronic stove. It looks like tonight will be mainly carrots and onions, with whatever flavouring of soup. I was planning on calling my father first thing, once I found out my results.
My mother never talks much about my father, even just to fill the silent gaps. I can understand how much pain there must be, even just to mention his name. But sometimes the framed photo of him that hangs directly behind my mother’s head at the dinner table is enough to feel like the silence should be broken. He would want us to acknowledge him dead or alive. And sometimes there is more pain in the things you don’t say; the omission of words can be just as harmful as saying them out loud. When the death tolls would be announced every two weeks with many soldiers sometimes dying by the day, my mother would end up not holding her breath anymore. She’d just be waiting to see his face appear in the Central Division Square with all the other dead men’s faces. She wouldn’t look nervous, afraid. She’d look so neutral. And I think sometimes that’s the most concerning reaction; not to care anymore.
We sit down at the dining table in our usual silence, with only the clang of metal spoons in bowls to cover it up. Normally my first reaction to my uneasiness is to begin asking a series of questions; just shooting them out of my mouth. It’s my way to cope, ironically – to cope with a lack of answers that I won’t gain.
“When do you think I’ll get them?”
My mother looks up at me. “I am not sure. They should have really arrived today. I’ll call up your seminary and ask in the morning before you go. Or you can go and find out yourself; either way works.”
I toy around with the remaining soup. “I wanted to tell Father. Does he know they’re due in tonight? Should we still call him?”
“One question at a time.” She grabs my bowl from me before I can sabotage the tiny chunk of the food we have. She hates it when I don’t tell her I’ve lost my appetite and I end up wasting food. Leaving both our bowls on the counter, she then leans over it and looks at me. “It’s late. Father’s just got back to the base camps. There’s no point in ringing and creating false alarms. Leave him for now.” She slides the bowls into the sink and runs the tap until the water limit has been hit, causing it to beep. Technology like that is implemented to keep us within our ration before we can waste the water and run out.
“Do you miss him?” I blurt.
“Now is not the time for this kind of talk.”
“Well, why not? It’s a simple yes or no question.”
“It will lead us into a longer conversation. I know you very well. You’ll keep throwing more and more questions. And I’ve had a long day. I’m tired.”
“But do you? I mean, you never say much about him, except ‘Father’s on the phone’, or ‘Father wants to know how you’re doing’. I don’t understand it. He could die any minute. Do you really care?” The sudden hostility in my voice takes us both away. I wish I knew when the omission of words was also sometimes best.
“I’m just trying to cope. That’s all.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.” I mutter before swiftly leaving for my bedroom.
There’s a window alongside my wall and at night it changes colour. Normally the light makes everything bright inside here; then when dusk arrives, everything in the window melds into a soft peach, before being dipped in violet, and then slowly drained into black. The window helps us know when the day is beginning or ending, or how long until the lights of the city go off. Most of the time, stars speckle the window when it turns black. Sometimes, a full moon shows up. It tends to spill light on everything inside my room and it signals the first day of the next month. There are twelve full moons in a year.
You can choose to cover up the window, if you don’t like the sight of the stars disrupting your sleep. But I like to pretend that I am submerged in it. That’s normally how I fall asleep; imagining the impossible. That’s how I dream.
Before I go to bed, I decide to call Hugo out of curiosity. Picking up the phone on my dresser, I count the amount of times it rings before I hear his voice on the other side. I look up to the ceiling, knowing he’s two apartment floors above me right now.
“So, what did you get?” He asks. His voice seems quieter and more reserved, and I fear for what may have been in his envelope when he opened it.
“For some reason, I didn’t get mine. I’m not sure why.”
“Strange.” He murmurs oddly, as if it was a forced reaction.
“What about you? Did you get yours?”
The silence that follows is ominous; too quiet to be joyous news. I sense that he might have ended up with horrible career choices. Maybe his spot in the Higher Division wasn’t as apparent as we thought – though it does take a few more weeks to be given an invitation anyway.
“Eden, I was only given one choice when I opened the envelope.” I can hear him trying to keep his voice steady.
“What do you mean?”
“...There was only one occupation written on the letter. You know, you are supposed to have three, right? I just had one.”
“Well, what is it?” I hold my breath.
“It says that I have been assigned to a mandatory position in the war between the Empires. They are running low on soldiers. Our city is close to defeat; it’s a last resort.”
“Are you serious?” My heart begins to race frantically.
‘They’ve assigned me to the war, Eden. That’s the only choice they gave me. I’m going into the war.”