I can still remember the smell of the cleaner used in the exam hall where I took the Science Track exam. Myself and four hundred and ninety-nine hopefuls, crammed into the County Hall in Denver County 146. I’d travelled by State bus for about half an hour to get there from County 289 where I called home. As the hall in 146 was the largest auditorium in the Counties the exam was always held there. I always found it interesting they called the slums counties, from the few fiction books I’d been able to find in my elementary school’s closet that we laughingly called a library, counties were always described as lush, rural places. Not exactly the rundown slum I viewed from the one window in our roach infested two room apartment that I shared with my father. Certainly not a place where shanties and half collapsed brick buildings were crammed between smoke and ash spewing factories where men like my father slaved to build guns, bombs, and poisons.
We had saved up everything we could so I could take the exam. It was exactly one hundred dollars a student just to attempt the Science Track exam, then an additional hundred to take the follow up health screening. If that was passed, then we’d have to find a way to afford to send me to a Science School. There are none in Denver, the last was shut down when I was ten because there were almost no students. I had hope though. I’d heard a rumour not long after my mother died of the inoperable plague that if a student did well enough on the exam they may receive a scholarship as long as they passed the health screening, which would also be provided for free. The Free States were facing a serious lack of people entering the Science Track, so it made so much sense that the top students would be welcome with open arms.
Sitting down, I felt a renewed confidence running through me. I’d been studying almost non-stop since I was five. After my mother was diagnosed with the inoperable plague, I buried myself in every text book I could find. At first it was a way to ignore her increasingly worsening state. I knew then it was a plague that started in her belly, or what I later learned was uterus. It had already spread by time it was caught, and even though she was in the Science Track herself, she was too forgone to stop the spread, and we did not qualify to receive the medicine that could have saved her life.
After she died I tuned out much of the world, diving even deeper into the world of my books. Even when I hit puberty and boys stopped pulling my hair and started asking if we could hold hands I tuned them out. I had one goal, entering the Science Track and finding a way to beat the plagues. My father was going to be thirty when it was time for me to enter my career track, and I knew that at any moment he could show signs of the plague. I couldn’t lose him like I did my mother.
At eleven I started doing odd jobs for neighbours and my father started picking up extra shifts at the armoury where he worked. I never had to ask, he knew my dream outright and was always there for me. Even at a young age my father and I were in sync. My mother joked that we could see into each other because we shared the same bright green Irish eyes. Looking at me was like looking at my father, the same looks we gave her, the same gleam when we laughed. While I loved my mother so, her kindness, her beautiful golden skin and her lovely smell, we never were in sync like my father and I. I got his eyes and freckles, I got her Indian skin and dark hair that flashed red in the sun.
Sitting in that hall, that freshly cleaned hall, I was ready. In a sea of those about to turn fourteen, I felt like the only adult. I knew all the answers, I breezed through the questions. Multiple choice, equations, essays, and especially the portions why I described why I was a better fit in the Science Track over the Military Track. I had four hours to complete the exam, and was done with enough time to spare that I reviewed my answers three times over. I was lucky to inherit my mother’s attention to detail and memory. In fact, my elementary teacher often accused me of cheating my memory was so good. I only had to deal with another month of that woman, a woman much older than most of 289, her grey hair made her stand out in out county.
It was only a week later when the results had been posted at the County Hall. I approached the board where the scores were posted with confidence. I heard lots of disappointed mumbles, and saw a few tears. Over eighty percent of students did not pass the exam, but I knew I would be part of the minority. As I had assumed with great confidence I was at the very top of the list of scores, and easily passed with a score of ninety-eight percent.
“Are you Raina Quinn?” a man in a suit with the logo for those in the science track said as he tapped me on the shoulder, bringing me back to the here and now. He was young, younger than my father at least, and had a big smile.
“Yes!” I beamed at him. I tried to hold back my joy, but I couldn’t. With scores that good there was no way I couldn’t be accepted with scholarship to a Science Track school, no way at all.
“Please come with me,” he said as he put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “We want to go over the details of where you’ll be headed for school next month.”
I followed him to an office to the side of the notice board where the scores were posted, almost skipping with glee. Another person, a woman who looked almost as old as my elementary school teacher was waiting. She couldn’t be from our county, anyone with grey hair is rare enough to have been noticed before. She wore the same jacket with the same logo as the man who had met me in the hall.
“Raina?” she asked as she stood to shake my hand. “In all my time as the head of the Denver Counties examination committee I’ve only seen scores like these a handful of times. I want to offer you my congratulations.”
“Thanks” I said, trying to seem mature and calm, despite how much I was shaking with excitement.
“Have you thought about which Science Track school you may want to attend?” I had, I didn’t want to be too far from my father, which meant the school in Casper was my best bet.
“Casper ma’am, it’s only a few hours away if I take the State train.”
Nodding her approval, she sat back in her seat behind the metal desk. “Excellent. Not a bad school at all, better than most to the North at least. All we need to do is pass the health check. I see your mother died of the in-op at twenty-three, correct?” I nodded and she continued. “Hmm, a bit young considering her heritage. We’ll book that for next Sunday. I trust you have the fee to cover that?”
“Um, I’m sorry?” I said with a stutter. “The fee?”
“Yes, yes,” she said as she went over my medical history. “The scanners aren’t cheap as I’m sure you’re aware and it’s procedure. Better to find out now and not later on these things.”
I could feel my throat drying up. “I, um, I only had enough money for the exam.”
“Hmm,” the woman said in one of the most disapproving tones I’d ever heard. “Everyone is aware of the fee, at least they should be. It was explained to everyone who entered the examination hall.”
“You see, ma’am” I said, licking my increasingly dry lips. “I heard that if one got a good enough score on the exam that some of the fees were, you know, put aside.”
“That’s the problem with rumours,” she said to the man who had brought me to the office with a slightly chuckle. “They just disappoint people.” Turning back to me she made a frown and said in a stern voice, “Well my dear, this has been a disappointment. If you don’t have the fee for Sunday, we have no choice but to rescind this Science Track offer.”
My stomach hit the floor. There was no way to afford the scan. Those who were going into Science Track needed to pass a full health check which involved everything from a blood check to a full body scan to check for both the op and the in-op plagues. “No sense putting in all that training if they’re just going to die in a year,” people said. My father and I had been skipping meals, skipping getting much needed clothing, and so much more for just the test. Had he always known that there was no chance? No, he wouldn’t do that to me. We worked so hard for so long.
“Gareth, please show Miss Quinn out would you? I don’t have time for this right now,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Quietly he put a hand on my shoulder and showed me out of the office. It was all I could do to hold my tears until the door closed behind me, but the moment I heard the door click closed I couldn’t hold it any more. Hot, angry, tears flowed down my cheeks. For a minute the young man whose name I had just learned let me cry into his jacket, the lovely navy one with the Science Track logo. After a while he pulled me away and said softly, “Don’t worry, let it out now but it’s not the end of the road.”
I tried to away the tears on my lashes, but more kept flowing. “It’s not?” I asked, really looking at him for the first time. He was much younger than my father, probably just out of school himself, maybe twenty at the oldest. His sandy blond hair fell softly over his forehead, a haircut only allowed to those who went into Science Track. His kind brown eyes looked at me not like most adults did, but with a softness I rarely saw in our County.
“If you work hard and prove yourself, things will work out. I’m certain.” He winked at me and smiled. “Here,” he said, taking off his suit jacket. “Keep this, I have dozens more. One day you’ll have one of your own.”
Sniffling, I thanked him and bundled the jacket up in my arms. It was warm and smelled softy of cologne. “But,” I sniffed. “I still have to go to Military Track. They could send me anywhere! I can’t leave my father, not that far.”
“They never send you far without a good reason. And I’m sure it will be closer than Casper.” This was true, but Military Track gets less days away from school, and a only one week break period, unlike the three those in Science Track get. “Don’t worry, with scores like those they won’t ignore your talents. I’m proof!” Gareth gave me a proud wink with a chuckle. “There are other ways to get into the career you want. Don’t give up over one set back.”
I nodded, still blinking away tears. “Go home, enjoy your last few days at your school, and you’ll realize this isn’t the end of the world.” As the kind words continued to flow out of his mouth, all I could do was nod and cry. I think it took him a few minutes to realize now matter how nice he was, I just wasn’t going to be able to form words to thank him, so with a pat on my shoulder he went back to the office with the weirdly cruel old woman and I was left in the hall. Alone with nothing but a stranger’s jacket.
Returning home was the hardest thing I had every done up to that point in my life. Even my mother’s death had seemed easier as I had no way to fight against that. This was different. I’d fought as hard as I could and my goal was still out of reach. I sat in the darkness of our shabby home until my father returned, and my eyes fought to adjust to the light he turned on as he entered.
“Raina!” He said with a start. “I didn’t realize you were home.” He barely had time to step in the door when the tears started fresh. “Oh honey, don’t cry.” He seemed to move across the room so fast to be by my side. “It’s okay if you didn’t get in, really!”
I’d been sitting for hours trying to decide how to tell my father we couldn’t afford Science Track, not wanting him to feel like he’d failed me. In those few words he’d solved one of the many problems my mind had been fighting over. “I choked, dad,” I sobbed. “I wasn’t even in the top half of the scores.” It was a lie, but so much easier than the truth. I couldn’t let him think he’d failed me. Even when he looked at me, knowing I’d never choked on a test before, questioning just a little, I held on to that lie like it was a life preserver at sea.
We spent the last month before Military Track trying to pretend it wasn’t only a few weeks until I was leaving for six months while still preparing details. Getting my personal items together, writing letters of thanks to people who had helped me get to this point. My father always receives lots of these in August when people were going off to Military Track. He always had a kind word, and was willing to pick up shifts for people at the factory so they could spend time with their kids before they left. Now it was our turn, but my father never missed a shift. I still wrote letters to the people who offered. I wrote one to my teacher, and some to my fellow students more out of protocol, rather than actual thanks. If anything I should receive tons as I was always the one people turned to for help in school, but I only got a couple myself. Being quiet and keeping to myself helped me with school, but not so much with friends.
I wrote one letter, to Gareth the kind young man at the County Hall, but had no idea how to get it to him, so instead I held on to it, tucked inside the pocket of the jacket he had given me that I kept in my personal belongings pack, ready to go whenever I heard word of the school I was assigned to.
I didn’t have to wait long. Out of the fifty students I graduated elementary school with in 289 I was one of the first to get the knock at the door during school break. Two women, both who looked to be in their mid-twenties, were at the door in traditional army fatigues. One had horrible acne scars and a terrible scowl, and the other, slightly plump as she was, looked bored out of her mind. Neither said much, and both looked impatient while I said good-bye to my father. I’d see him again at January break, and he’d be informed of my Track location once I was settled. I wanted to thank him for not crying, I would have lost my mind had he have started. I couldn’t bare to see my father cry.
The two women led me to the waiting truck, a plain box of a vehicle. Acne Scars, as I’d already mentally nicked named her, got in the driver seat, and Bored-O showed me into the back before getting into the passenger seat. I’d never been good at nick names, so those were generally the best I could do. I sat quietly, and finally Acne Scars looked in the review mirror and told me we were picking up five more students and making our way to the train station in the center of Denver.
Because my father and I had been saving so much for the chance at Science Track, I hadn’t been much outside our County, only to take the exam and occasionally to the directly neighbouring Counties. Once we had gone to Hamlet 34 when his boss had my father come deliver him some papers from work. I’d never been inside the city proper, but my apprehension at the thought of having to enter Military Track overcame my curiosity to see the city.
I said quietly in the back of the truck as we made out way through 289, snaking through the narrow streets between Counties until we reached a sign that announced we were in County 134. “Only one more from a County,” Bored-O said to me as they were getting out of the truck. “Not often do many county kids end up at the same place as Hamlet kids.” I’d heard that before, but I hadn’t put much thought into it. In fact, I’d never really thought of it because of how sure I was I wasn’t heading to Military Track.
Like Science Track, some schools were better than others. Unlike Science Track, were as long as you passed the exams and health checks and could pay for it, you could go to any school you wanted. Military Track put you in the schools deemed best suited for your proven records. Kids from Hamlets often had the resources and money to do better in school. Things like tutors were available, and they usually had enough food to be healthy and fit. They got into the better schools, made better money, and then their kids went to better schools and made more money. The cycle continues.
I sat in silence as we picked up a boy from County 134. He was big , and the truck rocked as he threw himself into the row of seats behind me. “Hey,” he said as he leaned over the back of my seat. “Name’s Mitchell. You?”
I turned back to respond and was immediately overwhelmed by the size of him. His broad shoulders seemed to take up most of the back of the truck, and he cut an imposing profile. If we were headed to a top Military Track school, his size and obvious strength were a dead give away as to why he was chosen.
“Raina.” I said, turning back to face the front of the truck.
“Cool, you’re cute.” He flopped back against the seat of the truck, and I could feel the truck shake. How a kid of thirteen could be that big I had no idea. Maybe something in the water, I’d heard the hormones could make people grow quickly, but he had to be over six feet tall and was muscular behind comprehension of someone our age.
I sat quietly as Mitchell tapped his foot and fidgeted for the next thirty minutes until we entered the first Hamlet as we left the Counties. Hamlet 34, the same one my dad’s boss lived in. We picked up another boy, and for the next leg of the trip Mitchell and the new boy, Bryan, chatted while I sat quietly. As we made our way closer to the city and the numbers outside the Hamlets got smaller and smaller, the houses seemed to get bigger and bigger.
We stopped outside a large brick house in Hamlet 16 and another girl joined our group. She was plain in every sense of the word, but it was obvious she loved to talk. The boys didn’t seem to notice her, and she tried to chat with me, then Acne Scars, then Bored-O but finally gave up and sat in silence when no one was as keen for conversation as she was.
In Hamlet 9 we picked up another girl who wore thick glasses as had long dark hair and was as frail and tiny as a bird. She was about to join the boys in the back, but quickly reconsidered and joined the other girl and I in the middle row.
Finally we reached Hamlet 1. Large houses loomed over us, the homes had lawns and large bright windows. Everything looked like the castles I‘d read about in history books. The Hamlet itself was small, maybe fifty houses or so, but each house was so large it was probably bigger than Hamlet 9 where we picked up the bird like girl. Everyone in the truck was quiet as we pulled up to one of the biggest houses, even the rowdy boys were too occupied staring at what had to be a the largest house any of us had ever seen.
As Acne Scars and Bored-O left the car even I couldn’t help but join in when the girl from Hamlet 16 couldn’t hold in her disbelief. “I’d heard the single digit Hamlets had big houses, but this is crazy.”
“This is bigger than the apartment building my dad and I live in,” I said in awe.
“She speaks!” Bryan said, and everyone chuckled as nudged me with his elbow. I flushes with embarrassment, but then Bryan cut in saying “Wait, here they come!” he pointed before I could come up with some sort of reply. Instead I joined everyone in looking out the window at the group of three coming back towards the truck.
We couldn’t have been any more obvious about our gawking as the final member of our group came to the van. With soft tanned skin, long blond hair, and a waif like body, even Bored-O seemed to be paying attention. She practically floated to the van, and with a big smile threw herself into the back of the truck with the boys.
“Hey guys,” she said with a winning smile of straight, perfect white teeth. “My name is Matilda, but please just call me Mattie!”
I’m not oblivious. Before Matilda got in the truck I was obviously the one the guys had their eye on. I had hit puberty early and was developing curves like my mother. Add her large eyes and high cheekbones, I knew I was pretty. The moment Matilda entered that truck I became no more attention grabbing than Acne Scars. She held the boys attention and she knew it. Behind those bright blue doe eyes and flippant smile was something that was definitely calculating its next move. Right now she held the power over the boys through their hormones, and the girls through her confidence that the rest of us lacked and she knew it.
As we entered the city proper Matilda, or Mattie as she insisted on being called, continued to flirt and joke with the boys, and make a serious point of ignoring the five women sitting in front of her. It was becoming quite obvious there was a game going on, but what the point was I couldn’t quite figure out. Even as we pulled into the station where a train awaited us Mattie talked about how excited she was, and teased about needing the boys to hold her hand because she was also “Just so nervous!”
Five other trucks were in the parking lot waiting when we pulled up, and a group of workers got to loading our bags into a freight car as soon as we pulled into the station. We could keep one bag with us in the seating car, and I grabbed for the bag that held the suit jacket, not chancing that it might get lost on the trip.
“Okay, gather round!” Acne Scars hollered to our group of about thirty. “Exciting news for you guys,” she bellowed, not sounding very excited at all. “You lucky lot are the newest students of Military Track 31-109, the finest within the Mid-Band of the Free States. Pat yourselves on the back.”
Like most, I had heard of 31-109. It was definitely one of the best Military Tracks one could hope for, but also one of the hardest. You were only selected if you excelled on one or more areas. As I boarded the train, my one personal bag over my shoulder, a little fleck of excitement began to grow. Maybe Gareth was right, maybe there was another chance at my goal here. There was only one way to find out.