Sola Herrington has not attended a September Demonstration
Sola Herrington is attending Coral's 17th!!!!! tonight (touch to follow link)
I shove my digipad back into my jeans. The last place I want to be is at Coral's birthday party, but Dad needs to get cosy with the Shepherds' Liaisons if he's ever going to get promoted. Unfortunately, Coral is the daughter of such a Liaison. 'You received an invitation and it would look strange if you weren't there,' so Dad thinks.
Really, it wouldn't be strange at all, seeing as Coral hates my guts and was probably forced to invite me, but there's no way I can tell Dad that. So now I'm standing on the rail, obsessively checking Debtbook for updates of a cancellation.
I recognise a couple of girls from school farther down; they hold onto the handles like clothes dangling in a wardrobe as we trundle through the city. I stay back, rearranging the silver pin which holds my frizzy hair in place. It's shaped like a four-leaf clover and is supposed to bring me luck. I figure I'll need it tonight.
One of the girls, Moni, carries a Book of Red Ink under her arm. Suck up.
'Uh oh . . .' Moni studies her digipad. 'Coral's written on Debtbook that she's wearing red and if anyone turns up in the same colour they'll be sent home immediately.' She looks down at her crimson halter-neck.
Now why didn't I think of that?
The other girl examines the screen. 'Hmm, she's put LOL, but maybe you should go back and change just in case. You don't want to miss you-know-who!'
She leans forward and whispers something to cause Moni's eyes to widen.
'The Demonstrator?' Moni asks as the rail begins to slow.
I wait until the girls have hopped off the metal platform before scanning out myself. I have another rail ride and two short walks before I reach Coral's. The rail is the only way to get anywhere around here and the electric tracks run in perfect circles, situated a mile apart from each other until they reach city Juliet's border. Sometimes I imagine if I looked down from the sky all the circular tracks would look like target practice, with the Stadium sitting right in the bull's eye.
The girls must have decided to change, because when I arrive at Coral's street there's no one around. Not even Herd officers. I do a little run and jump up her path, just because I can.
'Sola.' Coral's tall, thin father opens the door before I've even knocked. His fixed smile makes me want to shrivel up and disappear. When he turns away to look back down the long hall behind him, it's as if I can hear the creak of his bones moving.
'Evening, Mr Winters. I'm here for the party,' I say, batting a drifting balloon away from my face. The whole house is covered in them, like colourful bubble-wrap.
He turns back.
'Coral is in the guest-living-room. The Demonstrator is giving a speech so please slip in quietly.'
I repress a shudder. Why does he speak so slowly? It's as though everyone to do with the Shepherds are forced to pronounce each and every syllable: heaven forbid we miss one precious word of theirs. Still, I'm quite impressed he managed to remind me I'm late while implying no one will be happy to see me all in one greeting. Hey, like father, like daughter.
I run the scan chip in my palm over the discreet scanner fitted into the front door and step in. The stench of new leather hits me straight away. If Mr Winters wasn't walking right behind me, I would cover my nose. He follows me through the hall until he finally turns into his study. It's silly, but I always associate Coral's father with needles. I think it's because when I was eight, I walked out of school with a cut knee. Mum was waiting with Mr Winters and when I showed her my leg he produced a needle from his Liaison uniform pocket. I remember crying, but he acted like he had misinterpreted my tears, voicing something about cleaning the wound. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was the tip of the metal disappearing into my skin.
Urgh. The perks of having a Liaison as a family friend.
I push the guest-living-room door open a fraction and peek through the gap. Standing opposite me, at the front of the room, is the Demonstrator. I recognise his face from Debtbook. Half the girls at school are in love with him, spending hours trawling over his profile. Yet I wasn't expecting that voice. It's low, his speech a song of unusual inflections and intonations.
His qualities aren't lost on anyone else, either. Every girl at the party practically salivates at the sight of him, and even the boys are paying attention to his speech. Coral lies to his side in a blood-red dress, taking up a whole chaise lounge to herself. Her sweet perfume mingles in with the leathery smell of the furniture.
I watch the Demonstrator as he talks, his voice creaking gently when he goes too low and his eyes never catching Coral's despite her legs writhing together like two snakes. Something about the way he occasionally gestures with his hand-a seemingly unconscious flick here or there, as if he's trying to conjure his thoughts into words-makes me smile. I'm still gawping when his gaze darts to the back of the room. He's staring right at me.
Crap. He pauses mid-sentence. I need to do something-anything . . . Yet all I can concentrate on is the heat flushing my face. I've never gone along with the Demonstrator crushes, so what's wrong with me? Coral gives a little cough.
'Sorry, Miss Winters, but another one of your guests has arrived.' The Demonstrator speaks with a slight smile, not taking his eyes from me as he gestures to the door.
'Really? Oh, it's only Sola. Anyway-' She leans over and gives him a playful tap on the arm. 'I told you to call me Coral; everyone else does.'
Not everyone, I think. Not when you can't hear me, you spiteful, spoilt-
Her glare interrupts my thoughts and for a panicky moment, I worry I've been talking out loud. But I realise I'm still hovering in the doorway, and the Demonstrator is obviously waiting for me to come in. Ignoring everyone's eyes on me, I tiptoe across the room. A few of the boys shuffle away when I pass, but I just stare straight ahead, hoping the Demonstrator doesn't notice.
'Any other questions?' he asks once I've sat. His resigned tone tells me he knows there will be, and sure enough, most of the girls dart their hands up. A few wrestle and chuckle with each other, trying to stick the other's hand in the air. I can guess what kind of question they want to ask.
Eventually, a boy sitting near the front shouts out, 'What was it like being chosen to be a Demonstrator?'
'Not good,' the Demonstrator replies. When it's obvious the whole room is expecting more, he sighs.
'I found out from the status update on my Debtbook. I had been chosen to help pay back the Nation's Debt.' He stresses the last bit. I get the impression they're not really his words. 'My parents explained that I would help the Debt by either becoming a Demonstrator or working at the Demonstrator camp. What they didn't tell me was that only the elderly work at the camp, and, as you all know, I wound up in the tryouts.' His musical tone flattens during this speech.
'How did you survive?' a girl asks.
'By doing what I've done nearly every day since. By killing.'
I cringe at the gasps from the party-goers. They don't seem to register that this man isn't play-fighting, isn't spinning off propaganda for effect. He's telling the cold, hard truth. The excited questions go on and on. 'How many criminals have you killed?' 'Can you teach us some moves?' 'How much Debt do the other cities owe?'
'Where are you from?'
I look up at this one. The Demonstrator, whose name I now know is Dylan, smiles for a flicker of a second.
'City Victor. But it used to be called Belfast, Northern Ireland.'
An excited whisper spreads through the guests. We're not supposed to know the old names, and definitely not allowed to talk about them. If this was anyone else's home, the trigger camera would have sprung to life with that comment, but it hangs placidly in the corner. I doubt it's even wired into the system.
City Victor. I've heard what they're like over there. People say they believe in so many superstitions that they'd kill someone on sight who wasn't from their city. I'm pretty sure we've paid more of our Debt back than them; otherwise, Dylan probably wouldn't be so welcome.
'I thought so,' Coral says, nodding her head. 'Now, will you answer my one and only question?' She leans up so she's resting on one elbow. 'Do you like coming to these kinds of parties?'
I hate how perfect her smile is.
'Aye, it's my favourite part of being a Demonstrator,' he replies. His tone is still hard around the edges. If Coral had half a brain, she would notice that he was being sarcastic. But she doesn't, so she bites her lip and giggles.
'I lied. One more question! Will you stay for some drinks?'
'I'm contracted to stay for another 96 minutes, so yes, I'd be delighted.'
I don't stifle my snort quickly enough. Coral shoots me a glare but overall seems thrilled with his comment. She even moves up to let two of her friends share the lounger with her.
Within seconds, conversations have sprung up between groups, making the gap between me and everyone else devastatingly obvious.
The moment I stand, headed for the bathroom to kill some time playing on my digipad, Coral's silky voice calls out to me.
'Oh, Sola? Get us some more drinks if you're going that way?'
It isn't a request. I breathe in slowly, as if the extra air could quash my rising frustration. At least fetching drinks will take up more time of this awful party. Coral has already turned back to the Demonstrator and evidently does not intend to shout her order across the room, so I walk through the groups and over to the lounger.
'What would you like?' I ask, putting on my sickly sweet voice. It's not only for Dad's promotion that I have to suck up to Coral, but for our whole well-being. One wrong move and we could be monitored for a week; I know Coral has her influential parents wrapped around each ruby-painted fingernail.
'We'll have three virgin mojitos, and Dylan will have . . . ?' She looks up at him through curled lashes. Instead of answering her, he does the unthinkable. He turns to me.
'Are you a server here?' he asks. That heavy lilt makes it hard for me to think. I shake my head.
'Getting drinks is just my favourite part of being at a party,' I say, nearly quoting him back.
He raises his eyebrows, then laughs. A low chuckle which sounds like hollow bamboo sticks knocking against each other.
'In that case, I'll have whatever you're having.'
I have no idea what I'm having and doubt Coral planned on wasting a drink on me, but I turn away before I can say or do anything stupid.
There's a refreshments table set up in the hallway with a cocktail recipe stuck to the board. They're all non-alcoholic, seeing as most of us are seventeen, and I giggle at the ridiculousness of a virgin mojito. Without the rum it's just mint leaves and ice. Oh well, what the lady wants, the lady gets!
I pour two cokes for Dylan and me and load them onto a tray. As I go to pick it up, a manicured hand slaps down beside the glasses.
'I'll take those.'
Coral. Her red hair bounces around her back as she ushers me out of the way.
'Dylan's nice, isn't he?' she asks over her shoulder. 'My father paid the Shepherds a lot to get him here for me.'
She smiles at me, obviously expecting something. I twist my hands together and give her a half-smile that I hope says good for you. When she holds out a coke I go to take it, but Coral doesn't let go.
'Look, I'm saying this as a friend, Sola. Don't come back into the party. I know it's not your scene, and it's kind of embarrassing. To be honest, I only invited you because Father made me. I didn't expect you to come.'
'Oh. Right,' is all I manage. Coral's unfaltering smile slips into a genuine one and the full weight of the drink falls into my hand. With a flick of her hair, she retrieves the tray and floats back into the living room. All it takes is a delicate kick of the door, and I'm alone in the hallway.
I stare after her, unable to breathe. To stop my hand from shaking I take a controlled sip of my drink but the coke tastes bitter and lonely in my mouth. For a stupid, brilliant moment, I really thought I would be drinking and chatting with the others.
Humiliation burns behind my eyelids.
I can't run home. Dad will know something went wrong. I can't hang out on the streets, the Herd officers will have me escorted back in minutes. Most of all, I can't stay in this hall, waiting for my tears to break through.
I slam my drink onto the table and run through the kitchen, bursting out into the back garden. I used to play here all the time when I was a kid so I know the house inside-out. Sometimes I think it's the reason Coral hates me, because I know so much about her childhood. Or maybe it's because we were forced to be friends through our parents, but she became cool, I didn't, and now it's the most embarrassing thing in the world to have known me.
The worse thing about it all is that, if I'm honest, I miss her.
I breathe in that fresh, dewy smell of the garden, but as I reach the far end the scent goes bitter, like decaying plants. They keep a massive trampoline tucked away down here. It's covered in autumn leaves, and in the twilight, they kind of look like scales. I close my eyes, kick off my boots, and pretend I'm a kid again. Clambering onto the trampoline, I imagine it's a giant tortoise which will take me out of the city. It will keep me safe, and I'll see the sky without pollution, and the stars will shine so brightly that the light will burn into my eyelids forever.
I stretch my arms up and jump as high as I can. The leaves spin around me as if I were caught up in a tornado. They rustle together, crunching underneath my feet as the springs launch me into the sky again and again. When the wind rushes past my face, I pretend it's travelled all over England and Ireland and touched the faces of millions of people just like me.
Then I remember that anyone outside of Juliet would want me dead, and I stop pretending altogether.
Slowing down, I stretch my legs out so that I land on my bum. Trickles of sweat fall down my face and I gasp to catch my breath. With my hands tucked behind my head, I lean back, panting amid the bouncing array of cold leaves. As usual, the misty film of hanging, polluted sky blurs the image ahead. I wonder if the stars really are those dull shiny smudges or something more.
Dad told me that my great-grandfather used to live in the countryside-before England got into Debt and the cities had borders. I used to imagine him looking out a window with the sun on his face and no blanket of dead air in between. In school, they say the heat used to burn people, making their skin peel off and causing deathly diseases to spread within their bodies. I don't believe that. Thinking of the sun's undiluted rays makes me warm from the inside out. I bet it's like delving into a hot bath, only less like sinking and more like flying.
'You're enjoying this party about as much as I am.'
The low voice sends sharp impulses through me. I jolt up, trying to find purchase with my hands on the trampoline. They skid on the leaves, making my whole body bounce. After what seems like an age of making a fool of myself, the springs steady and I look out toward the voice. The outline of the Demonstrator's jagged hair is silhouetted from the lights of the house. He stands at the edge of the trampoline, facing me.
'You startled me,' I tell him. Witty, I know, but it's all I can think of.
His eyes are on me once again, and I get that same gasping excitement he stirred in me earlier. I try, unsuccessfully, to lean back onto the trampoline with grace.
'Aye, but you scared me too,' he replies.
'How on earth did I scare you?' I hope he doesn't notice the wobble in my voice or that my breathing hasn't calmed yet. He moves around the trampoline, getting closer.
'Well.' The leaves rustle once more. The trampoline dips slightly. Risking a glimpse over, I see he's leaning both elbows on the surface, palms cupping his face. 'I saw you jumping around with all those leaves and I thought you were being attacked by some sort of bush monster.'
I laugh a little too hard.
'So you came out here to rescue me then?'
'Hmm. Unfortunately, I came out here to rescue myself.'
Ah, Coral and her gaggle. No doubt they're scouring the house to try and find him right now.
'She's not that bad really,' I say. I don't know why I'm defending her, but I know how horrible it is to like someone only for them to dismiss me.
'I think you're being kind, Sola.'
He remembers my name. The sound of it in his voice makes my skin tingle, like every hair on my body is jumping up. For some reason, I'm not even surprised that he's nothing like the other people from Victor. I wonder what they say about our city where he's from.
Dylan pats the surface beside me.
I swallow and shuffle over. Suddenly I don't know what to do with my body. How was I lying before? Everything seems unnatural; nothing fits into place like I want it to. Thankfully, he doesn't lie down, just sits up near my head, his legs dangling over the edge. He brings with him the faint smell of dirt and metal. I sense his eyes are on mine so I look directly ahead, acting as though I don't notice.
'Grand night, isn't it?' he asks. I keep my gaze upwards. I can't believe a killer is making small talk with me. Then again, he doesn't act like a killer. Ignoring him would be rude.
'It would be nicer if we could see the stars.'
'Aye. You're not wrong there.' He tilts his head back so I take the opportunity to glance over. His wild brown hair sprouts in layered tufts, sticking out in an adorable way. His cheekbones are high, his jaw set, and those deep blue eyes look through such long, thin eyelashes. His only imperfection is what looks like a twice-broken nose. Unfairly, it makes him more beautiful.
Without warning, he brings his gaze back to me. I let my lips part in surprise, unable to take my eyes from his. Maybe it's the leaves which surround us, the night which hides us away, but when he whispers that maybe one day he could show me the stars, I close my eyes.
His lips are on mine.
I don't have time to think, I just move my mouth gently. He tastes sweet and bitter all at once.
With a jolt in my stomach, my senses kick in. What on earth am I doing? One sweet line and I'm kissing a stranger? I push him off me in a violent movement and sit up straight, my breathing quick and shallow.
His eyes dart around wildly. 'I'm sorry. I don't know what I was-you just looked so-ah. I'm sorry.' He grabs the edge of the trampoline and pushes himself off in a fluid motion, before turning to me once more. His mouth opens. Nothing comes out. Eventually, he runs his hand through his hair and hurries back inside.
For the second time tonight, I've been left alone. But for the first time in my life, I've been kissed. I touch my bottom lip. When I look up, I swear I see two stars twinkling in the distance.
The stars move. An outline solidifies and Coral steps out from the shadows. She stares at me with eyes so narrow all of the light I saw before disappears.
A moment later she stalks back inside the house and it's as if I had never seen her at all. Yet I know I'm going to pay for my kiss with the Demonstrator.
A million different words jam into my mind, vying for my attention. Demonstrator, killer, murderer, sweet-talker, party-goer, rule breaker?
Or maybe, a strange part of my brain murmurs, just Dylan.