I scrolled through the other dresses, pretending I was a wealthy woman, able to afford all of these and more if anything were to catch my fancy. The last in the list was bubblegum pink. My hair was colored just a shade darker than the dress, and as I spun in the early morning dawn, tiny crystals in the skirt caught what light there was along the dingy street.
Of course, I wouldn’t keep the hair. They would shave it when I made it into the service. I had just colored it for fun, anyways. Alex had mocked me for the change.
“You look like some sort of … I don’t know, a demented doll or something,” he said. “If I had a little sister she could braid your hair and stick bows on you.”
“Shut up,” I said, shoving him.
We were walking down Bridge on our way to school. The acidic stench of the burning plants hung low on the streets, making my eyes water. I rubbed them and my lens jogged inside my vision.
“So,” he said, “just four more weeks until recruiting day.”
I shrugged. Talking to Alex about recruitment was something that took a delicate hand. We both knew he was going. He wanted me to stay out of trouble, though, even trouble that could land me half a million dollars a year. Truth was that we’d both seen how many women made it out of the first year. Not many.
“They’ll haze you on the first day with that hair,” he said, appraising.
“Yeah, well, I won’t be keeping it for very long, will I?” I said.
The other kids at school hadn’t batted an eye when I’d shown up at school with it. With their eyebrow rings and branded skin, they were playing on a whole other level.
I knew why those kids hurt themselves. I felt the same way, too, only I was too squeamish to go under the iron. I wanted to scream, though. All the time.
“You could stay, too, you know,” I said quietly.
He didn’t answer. Instead we walked the remaining two blocks in near silence. I looked up at him a couple times as we trudged along. He had a new bruise swelling on his left cheek.
Alex had it worse than me.
For both of us, there was nowhere else to go. It was either the stilts or the military. Or, if you were willing to risk it, a job at the burning plants. But those jobs didn’t have a much better rating of survivability than the military, to be honest. Sure, you might last a couple years longer, but the chemicals would seep into your eyes in the end. I’d seen more people near blind than I could count. They could try to hang on with the government money, but it was nowhere near enough to survive on, nowhere near what Mom got for keeping me around.
There were other jobs to be had in the city, too. But lack of pedigree or college, which almost no one could afford, and there was no breaking into that crowd.
I swiped my hand left and watched as the dress faded away, leaving just me to look at. Worn out jeans. Imitation military boots. Ratty t-shirt. You’d never guess a dingy girl like me dreamed of riches and gowns. You’d never guess that of a lot of girls. But most girls liked glitter as much as the next, I figured, even if they hid it. Of course, who would wear something like that around here? I was surprised the store had hung on in this part of town at all.
I moved away from the shop and continued walking toward the station. It was one of the few that was still in working order, only because the track ran above ground all the way into the city. I shuffled the coins quietly in my right pocket. Pocket money was a joke in my world, and it had taken a few careful months of sneaking tiny bits of money from the grocery stipend to gather enough to go, missing a few meals in the meantime. Tickets to the city weren’t cheap. Not anymore. The city people, they were as closed off beyond that wall as it was possible to be. They may as well have been another country for all I knew.
I had only been into the city once, when my dad was still alive. I was little, maybe three or four, and he’d taken me in to the New York City headquarters for an afternoon. The headquarters was boring and smelled like dust and decaying carpet, but Dad had made up for it later in the day when he bought me my first, and only, ice cream. It was May, and the weather was just starting to get hot. A late rain had washed the chemicals down from the atmosphere and into the drains, so everyone could breathe the clean air. Dad had just finished his first year in the service, so we had some money for things.
“Soon, we’ll be moving out of our apartment,” he said, looking around. “Would you like to live here in the city?”
I would’ve agreed to anything through that mouthful of praline and cream. I had never experienced something so wonderful. I looked around as my tongue chased a melted drop on the cone and nodded.
“Me, too,” he said, sitting back against the bench. For some reason he looked worried. “Just two more years and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
He left again the next day, and things were good around the house for a while. There was money now for things like bread and sometimes chocolate. Everyone ate the nutrition squares provided by the government, so we wouldn’t have gone hungry without the extra food. But the texture of the treats brought new sensations to my mouth and stomach, and instilled in me a desire to get more sugar, more milk, more bacon At any cost.
I couldn’t wait for Dad to get back so he could try these sorts of things. This time I would be introducing the delicious delicacies to him.
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