1. [ you are not special. ]
Paige sat in her favorite swing in Serenity Park, unable to stop her nervous fingers from playing with the stray thread on the edge of her skirt. She mentally chided herself, a few times, and managed to get her fingers to succumb to obedient stillness, but then her thoughts wandered again and her fingers followed suit. It seemed to help her, to some extent, to keep this steady motion going of twisting the thread between two fingers, of feeling its sturdiness, its near-perfection in its recycled cotton-polyester blending. If she kept herself thinking about the fabric, about its life cycle, kept herself soothed by the repetition of the rocking motion of the swing, she could keep herself distracted.
"Doing all right, there?"
Paige gave a brief shiver in her swing. She hadn't heard the crunch of footsteps in the sandbox, but perhaps that was because Mott had approached her from the front. That should have been less alarming, Paige thought, but she hadn't seen him. She rolled the thread around in her fingers more rapidly. It tugged a little further out of its place at the edge of her skirt.
He laughed as he approached, reaching for the swing next to her. "A little anxious, are we?"
Paige said nothing. She had been anxious. His laugh had made her annoyed. She twisted the thread more vigorously, pulling a little more of it away from her skirt, but he placed his hand on hers. Her fingers stopped at last, but not out of calmness.
"You'd better hope a Peace Enforcer doesn't walk by," she told him.
"Snippy tonight," he said easily, refusing to relinquish his hold on her hand. As much as the action had initially stunned her, Paige had to admit that his hold comforted her, if only a little. It was uncommon, but familiar. It was the same hand that had pulled hers to many games of Tag when they were younger, reluctant on her part but enthusiastic on the part of their peers. But now that they were older, now that they were in the middle of puberty and that hand-holding, while not illegal, was frowned upon so close to their Matching Ceremony, this familiar hand surprised her in its seldom contact with hers.
A moving light made contact with her eyes, and Paige seized the opportunity to slip her hand away to shield her face.
"Curfew's up soon," said the approaching Peace Enforcer, and as he stepped into the static lights of the playground, Paige caught his gaze flashing briefly at each of their hands. He nodded at each of them, dropping his flashlight to his side. "Mott, Paige. Don't oft see the two of you out this late."
"Only taking time out to meditate, Enforcer Tim," said Mott cheerily. "We'll be heading home shortly."
Enforcer Tim squinted at them for a moment, as if they were secretly plotting something. Paige looked around herself, on the ground, expecting to see something outrageously out-of-the-ordinary – Theorist paper poking out of the sand, perhaps (not that Theorist paper even existed anymore, or that she would be able to recognize it when she saw it, even) – but saw nothing. She chanced at glance at Mott, who seemed merely amused, as if a mild chastisement by a Peace Enforcer forty-five minutes prior to curfew could be considered "good fun" instead of the more-typical "producing unease" that Paige was currently more inclined to identify with.
There was no penalty for staying out until curfew. This fact didn't explain why Paige felt suddenly nervous. She'd known Enforcer Tim her whole life – he'd received his Role Assignment the year she was born. He was gruff, but fair and gentle. Paige had always been a little afraid of Enforcer Tim, but she'd always liked him. She liked his large hands and sturdy stance and how, when he put his hands on his hips as he did now while scrutinizing the two of them, he puffed his chest out a little, which made the well-worn copy of the Statutes that he kept in his shirt pocket stick out, as if it were being presented, offered, like the good source of human reformation that it was. Paige had her own copy that she kept in her skirt pockets, but her cover wasn't as soft as Enforcer Tim's looked. The silver engraving that bore the full, official name – The Statutes of Equality of the Town of New Standard – was still bright on hers, but on Enforcer Tim's it was dulling, the indentations of the letters still present but the silver cracked and faded almost into oblivion. Sometimes, Paige hoped to be assigned as a Peace Enforcer just so her Statutes could look as admirable and well-studied as his.
Mott, however, who frequently forgot his Statutes at home, had no fear of Enforcer Tim of his well-worn books and walked himself backward with his swing seat still underneath him. "Any problems tonight?" he said, so casually that it could have been mistaken for madness, and then picked his feet up and swung forward.
"None tonight," said Enforcer Tim, eyeing Mott warily. Paige almost smiled. For as long as she'd known Enforcer Tim, he'd been after Mott for some reason or another. "None yet, anyway."
"Won't be any, be assured," called Mott, swinging higher and higher.
Enforcer Tim sighed and looked at Paige. "I can count on you to call me if there's trouble, yeah?"
Paige nodded, feeling the smile form against her will. For a moment, she forgot about the thread, left it dangling and ignored just below her knee.
"All right, then," he said, shaking his head and turning around, flashlight out again and pointing toward the empty park lawn. "I'll leave you to, uh…meditate." He waved his hand sharply, just once, in the air. "G'night, Paige. G'night, Mott."
"Good night," Paige called, and soon all she saw was his silhouette, and the reassurance she'd felt from his exchange with Mott, from his familiar Statutes, was gone.
Mott slowed his swinging, now releasing control to gravity, to inertia. "So what's wrong?"
Straightforward, as usual. Paige could count on that. Out of all the things that would be changing in the next week, this would not be one of them.
"Oh," she said, "you know."
He shrugged. "Stop thinking about it," he said, as if it were as simple as that.
"Yeah," she said.
"You're still thinking about it."
Paige shot him a glare.
He manipulated his swinging, just a little, by digging his toes in the sand and rocking himself forward and back. Paige's hand edged toward the thread again, but stopped as she came to her pocket and the Statutes contained within it.
"It's less than a week away," said Paige.
"Haven't you thought that maybe you're being too egotistical?" Mott teased, then pulled up his posture in his swing seat and pretended to look very serious. "This is a position of great honor."
Paige could tell that it was meant to inspire some sort of relieved, genuine smile, but instead something clenched up even harder in her abdomen. The whispers that had been seeping in between the conversation cracks among the Age-16 females made it more difficult to ignore. The older community members all wondered who would be bestowed this great honor, the parents all gossiped, the younger children were unendingly curious, and all the while the Elders watched. They had to pick well, the decision had to be perfect, for the greater good, to avoid the mistakes humans had made all-too-often in the past. So they watched. Paige could feel them sometimes, over her shoulders, in crowds.
"A great honor," she repeated. "For the greater good."
"The chances are so slim anyway," he said. "It's what, one in a hundred? That's one percent."
"Still. There's always a favorite, every year, and this year's not you."
He tried offering her a smile, bright and earnest under the moonshine. His reassurances, while logical, weren't helpful, because percentages could only do so much. Luck, chance, probability – things they'd learned as Age-13s. But when it came down to it, there were only two options: they chose her, or they didn't.
Mott swung forward and off the swing, extending his hand to her. "Come on, let's get back before Tim wanders back again."
"Don't be such a petty-forcer, Paige."
"Don't be such a Theorist, Mott."
They grinned at each other, as if the grins could evaporate the mild discomfort. She took his hand and hopped down from her own swing, dusted off the dirt on her skirt. Her fingers caught at the thread. It was starting to fringe.