It was the best day to have a birthday, the earliest possible day. Day one of the recruitment. The day I became legally free. Seventeen.
I pulled on my boots and crept toward the front door. Early morning was the perfect time to break away. Mom was passed out on the couch, and the chances of waking her were slim. Still, I was careful. She wasn’t much with dates, and it was entirely possible that she hadn’t remembered my birthday at all. But today was the day that I became a commodity. To her. To the government. Today was the day she needed to convince me to stay for just one more year.
But I wasn’t staying.
I slipped down the staircase of our fourth floor walk-up. At five in the morning, none of the neighbors made a sound. The good folks, immigrants mostly, stayed quietly in their apartments, their doors and windows locked tight. The rest of them were quiet at this hour of the morning, too tired or too drunk to continue on.
The recruitment would last only five days. That meant I would have the entire five days to pass, and I knew I would need every one of them. No amount of training would have given me a leg up on these tests, though. Sure, I could run five miles without stopping. I could lift myself for fifty pull ups. The usual.
But I was little. I’d seen the soldiers walking through Brooklyn, the ones who made it past the first year, and they were huge. Mostly men, too, though I knew that more than half of the new squads were always women. Funny, I never saw the women parading themselves in the streets. I wondered if they were all on the front lines, expendable. The first to enlist, the first to die. It didn’t matter, though, what gender you were; not for recruitment. It wasn’t easy to get in no matter what or who you were. And it was harder still to survive.
Funny how the government wanted only the best recruits as their soldiers, when so many of them were going to die by the end of the first year anyways.
I walked past an advertisement for the enrollment. It was stuck to a brick wall, moss crawling through the mortar. Two men in battle uniform, rifles on their shoulders. They looked hard, dirtied, scraped up with their camera-ready scowls hinting at courage.
“Defend the Nation” read the sign.
From what? I wondered.
It didn’t matter.
The payoff … twice the average annual salary for five years, the unwavering respect of ordinary citizens, a chance to pull myself out of the gutter and make it somewhere above ground. They payoff was what mattered.
And a chance to get away from Mom. Because really, where else could I go? Alex’s wasn’t an option; he had his own problems. And anywhere seemed better than where I was coming from … almost anywhere.
I had seen the street people before. They lived behind the wall, squatting in the upper floors of the long-abandoned high rises that used to line downtown. With not enough room in the boroughs, and none of them willing to take on government jobs, there was no stipend for them. Mom only got her checks because my dad had died in the service, leaving a child behind. Me. Once I was gone, her money would go, too.
No matter where I ended up, there would be no more smelly apartment with her, wasted on the couch, barking out orders. No more standing over the half-broken stove, trying to pry burned noodles from the bottom of the pan, scavenging a dinner for myself. She might notice that I left, but it would take her all the way until stipend day before she cared. Then she would be frenzied in her search, and eventually she would realize I was gone for good. If I had stayed, it would have meant one more year of government money for her. But once I was gone, there would be no going back; after she missed the first month’s stipend without me there to prove eligibility, I knew she’d be just sober enough to beat me bloody the next time I saw her.
Fifty percent. Those were my chances of surviving year one. Thirty percent, year two. After that, it was officer jobs, or maybe something behind a desk, worst case scenario. Either way, there’d be the money.
She might treat me differently then.
The trains weren’t running at this hour, even though the curfew ended at four. I killed some time on my way down Livingston. We didn’t have a wall like they did in Manhattan, so it was just raw ocean in places along Atlantic. No more stores. Just people desperate enough to live right on the edge of the sea where rents were next to nothing. We all paid a price, though, even those who could afford to live higher up. During storms the only place to survive on the ground was Park Avenue. Most people just stayed on the higher floors of their apartment buildings and hoped for the best.
I stopped in front of a ratty looking store front, images of flowing gowns gliding across the viewscreens. I stood in front of the mirror, and the electronic voice read my lens and spoke.
“Welcome Livia Taylor,” the computer said in a floaty woman’s voice.
Immediately it offered ten choices for me, and I moved my hand up to the first box, flicking my finger slightly to make my selection. Instantly a black gown was fitted to my tiny frame, as realistic in the mirror as if I were wearing it now, in the street. I turned, checking out the gown from all sides, wondering what it was going to feel like to have the five thousand dollar asking price. Because I was going to have it. I was going to survive. To tell myself anything else would have been suicide.
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