Just to clarify - this isn't supposed to be some sort of great work of literature. It's just a bit of fun, so please don't, like, over-analyse it or anything. I wrote this ages ago, and I just thought I'd post it on here so that you could read it if you wanted to. It's not finished - and it probably won't be finished any time soon. Still, I have a few more chapters that I could post, if anyone reads this. It's a bit of humour and a bit of romance and a bit of action all thrown in one. Enjoy.

I was entered into The Program when I was fourteen years old. On our estate it was just a given – any couple that neglected to sign up their child once they came of age were deemed social rejects and banned from going to neighbourhood parties or hanging out in any public spaces. Apart from going to school and work, you were pretty much confined to your house. There was only one family who I knew had refused to sign up – the Waltons lived two blocks from me, in a house with a picket fence that matched ours, but their windows had been smashed in so many times that they had given up and boarded them over, and their front door had graffiti littering the wood. Chase Walton was in my year at school – he sat by himself at lunch, never had a lab partner, and outside of school, only ever had his brother and sister to accompany him. It was kind of sad, actually.

I was at school when the first questionnaire came through the mail. My parents tried to hide it when I got back, but my mom was being a little too enthusiastic when I wondered if I could eat dinner in my room instead of around the dining table like every other damn night.

"What's going on?" I asked sweetly, as if I didn't already know. My mom frowned, feigning confusion.

"What do you mean, darling?"

"You're hiding something behind your back," I stated, giving them my best 'I'm not impressed' face. Mom laughed, but the sound was too high-pitched and slightly frantic.

"I don't know what you mean, sweetheart. Now, why don't you go and grab a snack from the fridge and make a start on your homework? I'll call you down when dinner's ready."

"I'm not hungry, and I don't have any homework. Let me see it."

"See what, honey?" Mom was still intent on carrying on the facade. My dad rolled his eyes.

"Oh, for goodness sakes, Crystal, just show her the damn questionnaire," he snapped, grabbing the paper from behind my mother's back. Her mouth gaped open, searching for words, but came up with none. My dad held the questionnaire out, allowing me to snatch it from his impatient grasp. I flipped the cover of the booklet open and scanned the words inside.

"Your mother filled it in, so don't yell at me. I'm going to meet Darren at the bar. I need a drink."


Too late. The door had already slammed shut, my father gone from the house. Before Mom could protest, I sprinted up the stairs with the questionnaire tucked safely under my arm and sat down at my desk to study it.

The first page was a thank you letter from the officials at The Program. Apparently they really appreciated our signing up. As if we had another choice. I flipped it over without bothering to read more than the first two sentences, and came face to face with a list of Faults and specification boxes. As my gaze flickered down the page, I realised exactly why my mother had decided to hide this from me. I was definitely not my parents' pride and joy.

I stormed back downstairs once I had had my fill of things that were wrong with me, and confronted my mother in the kitchen. She continued stirring the pasta she was cooking, all her attention focussed on the wooden spoon she was brandishing.

"Mom, what the hell is this?! You've changed every box. Am I that bad?! Seriously – 'intelligence is too high'?! Too high?! Do you want me to be a mindless freak? 'Alex reads too much'. What is that opposed to? Watching TV and having my brain cells leak out of my ears? 'Hair needs more volume and lacks strength'. What's wrong with my hair?! It's perfectly okay! 'Eyes are too dull'. Dull. Honestly? That's the best you can come up with? Seeing as though you're the one who gave birth to me, you're awfully picky. Don't you wonder where I get my 'skinny frame' and 'excess facial hair' from?"

"I just want what's best for you, sweetheart. I want you to have a good start in life. Appearance is everything – you should know that."

"Okay, fine, my nose is a little big and I'm not saying I'll miss that birthmark on my ear, but the rest of this is absolute crap. Where will making me less intelligent get me in life? Do you want me to live off the state?"

"Of course not, sweetie, but people can be intimidated by intelligence. That isn't the kind of impression you want to have on future employers and colleagues-"

"And get this – my voice is too low. It sounds normal to me!"

"That's because it's inside your head. Everyone else hears it differently," Mom points out.

"Do you hate me, Mom? Are you really that displeased with me that you want to get rid of my entire personality? 'Behaviour could be massively improved'. I clean my room! I let you and Dad watch TV when there's something better on!"

"You swear too much. And you argue back. And you treat me like dirt-"

"And why d'you think that is? You're not exactly acting like my mother right now, are you? Mothers are supposed to be proud of their kids-"

"I am proud of you, sweetie! You know I am, but this opportunity doesn't come along every day. We need to seize it by the handles and make the most of it-"

"I'm not going," I said.

"Of course you are! You're already signed up!"

"Then deregister me. I'm not going. I refuse to be made into another brainless robot like all the people that come back on visits. I won't do it, Mom."

"You have no choice in the matter. Go to your room, Alex. I'll bring your dinner up."

"No," I scoff, crossing my arms over my chest, "I don't feel like it."

"You're just being childish."

"Oh, yeah, that's another thing to add to the long list of Faults. Just go ahead and keep reeling 'em off, Mom."

"I'm not having this discussion with you, Alexandra."

"Well, it seems you are, because you're still talking."

She fell silent, turned the heat off the stove and removed the pan. For a second I thought she was going to bash me over the head with it, and stepped back warily. She just drained the water off the pasta and turned her attention to the sauce.

"I'm going for a walk."

"But dinner's almost done-"

"I don't want any."

I was out of the house before she could utter another word.

I was walking at the edge of the park when I ran into Sally Turke. A chubby, brown haired girl who was in my class at school, Sally usually latched onto me at lunch because neither of us had anyone else to befriend.

"Hey, Alex! What's wrong? You look like someone stole your favourite T-shirt."

"My family hate me."

"Oh! Well, gee, that's awful. I'm sure they don't- Hey, did you get the first questionnaire?"

"Yep," I said curtly. Sally frowned.

"Aren't you excited? That means it's not long now! Before we leave for The Program! Oh, um, is that why you're upset?"

"No comment."

"What are you changing? I'm getting a tummy tuck, a nose job, and I get to dye my hair blonde! Plus a load of other stuff, of course. I mean, I'm not changing anything major like my eyes, but I want my legs to be slimmer and more tanned. I so can't wait-"

"My mom is changing everything."

"Everything? As in... everything?"

"Yup. As in, the whole list of Faults have something written next to them."

"Oh, well, that's... I'm sure you're going to look perfect."

"You mean I'll look like a 'perfect' freak."

"No, of course not, I meant-"

"Look, Sally, it doesn't matter. Honestly. I need to go. I have to be somewhere."

"Oh, okay. I'll see you in school tomorrow, then. Have a nice night!"

I didn't reply, just began walking again, kicking pebbles into the gutter as I did so. I walked the entire perimeter of the park and down a few side streets before coming out near the school. I kept my head down as I neared the bike sheds, in case there was a couple going at it behind there, not wanting to intrude, but when I risked a peek out of the corner of my eye I saw there was no couple making out in the shelter of the shed. There was only Chase Walton, lying unconscious on the ground, a pool of blood forming at his head. I started to walk away again. Wait a second – lying unconscious on the ground? Oh, shit.

I froze and began to back-pedal, not sure if what I had just witnessed was a hallucination induced by undiluted fury and paranoia about someone telling me to get the hell out of there, but, sure enough, there he was. Lying unconscious on the ground. With a pool of blood forming at his head. Did I already mention that?

I rushed to his side, sinking to my knees when I reached him. His face was swollen and bruised, his eyes closed. The blood seemed to be oozing from a cut at the base of his neck, which was still flowing freely. It looked like he had hit his head pretty hard. I knew exactly what had happened, of course – a gang had approached him because he wasn't tucked safely in his house yet. The Waltons basically had a curfew – if they didn't make it home within twenty minutes of finishing work or school, they were anybody's meat. I'd seen Chase, Cherese and Daryl walking back before – people threw things at them which usually made connection with their faces/shoulders/heads. They'd keep going, totally unfazed by the assortment of stale food and flat sodas pelting them from behind, because they all knew that if they tried to fight back they'd be dead in the road before they could protest. Chase had obviously grown tired of this treatment and tried to fend off his attackers, but one guy against about ten others? So not a fair fight.

I didn't know what to do. I couldn't exactly lug him to the hospital, could I? Even if I ran back to retrieve Sally we wouldn't be strong enough, and that was if she actually agreed to assist Chase Walton and risk being confronted at school.

Thankfully, Chase stirred before I had chance to make any rash decisions. He blinked a few times, trying to raise his head and failing, taking slow, laboured breaths.

"What-" he tried to say, then noticed me crouching beside him and tried to scuttle backwards, "Please, just leave me alone – here, you want money? You can have money. Here-" He thrust a handful of bills at me, letting them flutter to the ground when I made no move to take them from him. He watched me with wary eyes.

"I don't want your money, Chase." I tried not to sound threatening, to make my voice gentle.

"Then what do you want? Whatever it is, just take it, please, I-"

"I just came to see if you were okay. Evidently not. You know, the blood and everything? You should get that seen to."

"You wanted to... help me?" He sounded as if this was a new and extremely unfamiliar prospect. I nodded slowly.

"You'd better get to the hospital. You want me to walk you there? Actually, no – I'm not giving you any choice. You'll probably pass out before you make it the whole way. Come on – let's go." I offered him a hand up, but he didn't take it. Instead he painstakingly raised himself to his feet and leaned against the bike shed for support.

"Why are you doing this?" he wondered. Why indeed. He was being a royal, ungrateful pain in the ass.

"Because I didn't want to leave you bleeding out on the floor?" I guessed, hoping it was the answer he desired, "You could have died."

"I'm fine," he snapped.

"You don't look fine. Here – you want a mirror? I have a compact..." I began to rummage in my purse and dragged out a small silver compact which had been buried underneath a candy bar wrapper and an old tissue. And it was only a little sticky. Bonus!

I offered it to him, and he took it slowly, like a nervous pet coming to eat out of your hand. He fumbled with the clasp for a second before the mirror slipped out of his big hands and shattered into a thousand glistening shards on the blood encrusted concrete.

"Dammit! Oh, God, I'm sorry-"

"Don't be sorry to me. You've got seven years bad luck, buddy." I told him.

"I'll- I'll get you a new one, I swear-"

"It doesn't matter. It's not like I ever needed to use it anyway. I mean, look at me. Flawless," I grinned. Glimpsing his perplexed expression, I added, "I'm joking." Looked like the guy needed some serious lessons in sarcasm.

"Oh. Right," he muttered.

"So. Hospital?"

"No. I mean... I'm fine. It's just a cut."

"It looks pretty messy-"

"I'll clean it up at home. I'm fine. Really. Thanks for... this."

"At least let me walk you home," I pressed. He considered it for a second.

"Are you sure you want to be seen with me? After... this?" He gestured to his face and neck. I flinched.

"Well, we don't want a repeat of the incident, do we? Don't worry – I can handle myself. Besides, I'm rebelling today."

"Oh, yeah? Against what exactly?"

"My mother signing me up for The Program."

"You don't want to go?"

"Of course I don't want to go. Have you seen the people that come back from there? They're like... zombies or something. Like they've been brainwashed." I wasn't exaggerating. They looked like they weren't on the same planet as everyone else. Despite their perfect skin, slender figures and glossy hair, there was a look in their eyes that I didn't like. Nobody else seemed to notice it – especially not Sally. She was majorly excited about having a tummy tuck – she didn't care enough about the rest to let it get in the way.

"I thought it was every girl's dream to look... like they do."

"Yeah, well, I'm not 'every girl'," I almost spat the words. Chase raised his eyebrows slightly.

"No, you're not," he sounded almost entranced. I risked a peek at him – he was staring at me. When he caught me watching him he quickly averted his gaze to the floor.

"So who did this, anyway?" I wondered, changing the subject. He seemed to grasp that I was talking about whoever beat him up because he fingered the bruises tentatively.

"Just some guys from school. They were pissed off at me because- Well, you know why. 'Cause our family never sign up. It's like that gives everyone a free pass to treat us like shit-"

"I'm sorry," I said suddenly, although I wasn't sure what for. It's not like I wasthe one who did that to him.

"Yeah. So am I. Daryl and Cherese never got it this bad. Never."

"I'd say they'll get bored soon enough, but if I'm honest I don't think they will. If it's the guys on the football team, then they're so immature that it'll carry on even when we get back. But at least you'll get a few years alone."

"Yeah - working. It's not like school carries on when everyone's gone. My dad managed to get me a job in the kitchens at some restaurant, and even they weren't keen on taking me on."

"You can cook?" I was faintly impressed. Maybe he held more substance than he let on.

"No. I can clean."

"Oh. Urgh. That sounds awful. Maybe you'll find something better."

"Who in the right mind would hire me? My dad got fired from his last job because he didn't sign Daryl up. He's currently working at the dump."

"Oh. I'm sorry." Again with the apologising-for-nothing thing. I never apologised for anything. Not even for stuff that was my fault, as my mother had pointed out in the questionnaire. So why was I starting now?

"Yeah, well. It doesn't matter. Maybe they'll have finished me off before I have to start paying my own rent."

I didn't know what to say to that, so we carried on walking. We were at the end of his road by now. Just a few more steps and I'd probably never have to speak to this guy ever again.

"Thanks again for walking me home. My head feels a little fuzzy – I'm not sure I'd have made it on my own."

"Well, what did I tell you? That's another thing my mom wrote. I'm 'deluded into thinking I'm always correct'."

"Your mom's crazy," Chase said, and then what he'd just said registered and his cheeks paled beneath the mask of bruises.

"Sorry. I didn't mean-"

"Preaching to the choir, honey. I hate her guts right now, remember?"

He laughed – it was the first time I'd heard it. His laughter flowed like the beautiful notes of birdsong. Like water from the highest falls. Like- What the hell was I doing, conjuring up metaphors and clichés like nobody's business? Urgh. I was seriously starting to freak myself out.

"I'd better go, then. My parents will be worried. I'm sorry again about the mirror."

"It's really fine. I only kept it there for when I decide to blind the guys in class." I hoped he understood that I was joking about this. A faint smile appeared on his lips.

"I'll replace it. Promise," he said, and bounded up the front steps to his house before I could assure him, once again, that it was 'fine'.

He offered me a small wave when he reached his front door, and I returned the gesture almost sheepishly, then turned to go. Who knew – maybe I'd be home in time for dinner.