Chapter two has arrived! I hope you enjoy this chapter. I don't think much happens, but I'll make up for that in my next post. I still have a few chapters to post after this one, so don't fret, my little petals.
The next day at school, I heard the alarming news. Sally sprinted up to me when I was entering through the gates and gripped my arm dramatically.
"You will never guess what!" she squealed. I blinked, dazed, at her.
"What?" I echoed. I hadn't had the best night's sleep. So sue me.
"Chase Walton signed up."
"What?! You mean- Signed up? For The Program?"
"Yup. I just heard some of the guys talking about it. Apparently he was jumped last night when he was walking around, 'cause he was seriously stupid enough to be out of his house at that time, and his mom finally snapped and signed him up."
"Isn't it too late?" I asked, grasping at straws. Chase couldn't have signed up. Why would he?
"That's what you got from that? Too late? He was jumped. He signed up. For The Program. And all you can say is 'isn't it too late'?"
"Well... isn't it?"
"Okay, okay. He signed up. Big deal."
"Now you're getting it. Of course, everyone thinks he's just doing it so they'll go easy on him, so Jeffrey Knowles scratched him up pretty badly when he was walking here, just to prove him wrong. He's in the nurse's office."
"Oh. That's awful."
"Don't tell me he didn't deserve it! All those years, his parents have just sat back and let their kids be bullied and taunted, and they did nothing about it!"
"Maybe they honestly didn't want to be signed up."
"What, looking like they do? Come on, Alex. Look at them. They aren't exactly GQ models."
Yeah, like she could talk. I didn't point that out, though. Instead, I began to absent-mindedly make my way up the steps to the main entrance. I couldn't exactly stalk up to the nurse's office and demand to see Chase, and why would I want to? He meant nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. Before last night, I hadn't even spoken to him before. I was just consumed by an infuriating urge to- To what? To ask him a question to which his answer would almost certainly be a lie? To assure myself that he hadn't been 'scratched up' too badly by Jeffrey Knowles?
"Where are you going?" Sally asked from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder at her. She was waiting by the steps, frowning at me.
"Inside where? The bell hasn't gone yet-" Right on cue, the bell trilled. I was so not looking forward to Sally's relentless pestering and analysing my every reply, but I supposed I was going to have to just grin and bear it.
See what I mean about the clichés?
The week progressed slowly. Lessons, especially, were sluggish, seeing as though they were mostly about The Program and how long it had been going, blah, blah, blah. As far as I could tell, nobody knew very much about what went on when you actually arrived. It was all history. How it had been set up by a bunch of perfectionists way back when. How they were incredibly smart and innovative just to have come up with the concept, not to mention actually setting it up and making it happen. I spent hours doodling in my notebook and drooling on my sleeve. I dozed off more than once. Sally woke me every time my head began to slump on the desk, which I suppose was a good thing, but I didn't appreciate it at the time. The one time the teacher did notice got me sent straight to detention after school. Another long hour filled with drooling, etc.
All the time, I never had the chance to speak with Chase. He was avoiding everyone now, being extra suspicious of every word uttered to him. I shot him shy smiles across the classroom which he never returned, tried to approach him in corridors and was bitterly rejected. He almost slammed into the quarterback in his haste to get away from me. I wasn't sure what I'd done wrong, but I let it go. Whatever issues he had, they weren't my problem. I had better things to concern myself with.
Like the second questionnaire. It popped through the mail a fortnight after the first, and this time I actually had to stoop to eavesdropping outside the dining room door to hear what was being said.
"Okay – interests. What do you think, Brian?" My mother was addressing my father in a cool, business-like manner. I could only visualise his shrug.
"You can choose up to ten. Shopping, definitely. How about.. Interior design? Ooh, fashion. It's always good to have a taste for clothes... Reading? No – she does too much of that already. Gardening? What about knitting? Is that a little too 'last year'?"
The lack of input from my father was slightly frustrating. He may have been the only one who could have possibly redeemed the situation, and he was choosing to lie back and let my mother trample all over him-
"Sports could come in handy. For staying fit and stuff," Mom continued, "Cooking? Crafts? What about art? Music? Finance?"
My mother's enthusiastic monologue was beginning to fray at the edges. Her excitement waned when my father merely grunted when she mentioned sculpture, foreign languages, scrap-booking and diving.
"I'll choose them, then." She paused for a second to, I imagine, scrutinize the list. There was a few minutes of silence while she scribbled them down, then prepared to read them out loud to my father.
"Okay, so we have... Shopping, fashion, sports, cooking... Um, interior design, technology, music, photography and crafts. How does that sound?"
My dad grunted in reply.
I could imagine myself when I returned from The Program – a wrinkled old woman with a stoop, who played sports once upon a time and couldn't read a single word and did crafts for fun. And cooking. Did Mom want me to be a boring old housewife? Wait – don't answer that.
"Personality traits. We only need seven. Confidence is key. What do you think, Brian?"
"Trustworthy. Write that down."
My mother went quiet again. It seemed Dad had struck a nerve. What the hell was this about? Why were they feuding all the time?
"Friendly. I want her to fit in with her own neighbours," Mom announced a few moments later.
"Mature and caring," Dad suggested. I could only hear the scratching of a pen until Mom cleared her throat.
"Responsible. And, um, courageous. There. We have seven. Are you okay with the list, Brian?"
"Yep." The one word seemed to be all he could stretch to.
"Okay, next question... Bad habits. She bites her nails," Mom reminded my father. I glanced down at my uneven nails. Bad habits define a person. I think I'd read that somewhere. I didn't want all of mine erased.
"She scratches her head in public. And clicks her tongue."
"I think I heard her crack her knuckles a few times."
"Okay, got it. We're almost done. I just need you to sign here."
Taking this as my cue to leave, I crept almost silently upstairs and went to hide my face in a pillow. They hated me. That was the only explanation.
A few nights before the third and final questionnaire made its appearance, Julia Walton, Chase's mother, knocked at our door. I was the one to get it, since my mother and father were busy arguing about who hadn't turned the lights off in the den. I yanked the door open and came face to face with Julia, who looked like she had risked everything just to be here. Thinking about it, she probably had. She was huddled in a worn cardigan, her dark brown hair lying limp on her shoulders, plastered to her forehead. She smiled timidly up at me.
"Uh, hi," I managed, too shocked to muster anything more coherent.
"Evening. I just came to thank you for the other night." For a second I had no idea what she was talking about. The other night? The incident with Chase happened weeks ago... I shook my head, trying to erase the confusion, and forced my lips to form words.
"Oh, it... It was nothing. Really. I, um, only made sure Chase got home okay..." I was hoping against hope that I was on the same page as she was. Apparently we were both talking about the night Chase had been jumped, because she smiled.
"Well, it meant a lot to us. Here – he wanted me to give you this." She held something out to me, but I couldn't see what it was, aided only by the moonlight. I took it tentatively and brought it into the light so I could study it properly. It was a small silver compact, similar to the one Chase had broken. I opened it gingerly and my reflection looked back at me. Well, that proved it was a working mirror. That was good enough for me.
"Oh, thank you. It-it's beautiful. Would you tell him I said thanks?"
"Of course. I-"
"Alex? What in hell is going on? What is that woman doing here?" My mother appeared behind me, clamping a firm hand on my shoulder. I spun round, a thousand excuses bubbling to my lips, but Julia beat me to it.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I'm just going around the neighbourhood collecting stuff for the recycling centre? If you have anything to give, we'd really appreciate it..." It was a good lie, as far as lies went. Julia did work at the recycling centre on the other side of town. I smiled gratefully at her when Mom couldn't see.
"Well we don't have anything. And I'm not sure we'd let you get your grubby hands on it, even if we did. Alex, get inside. Now," she growled. I flinched and ducked under her arm, feeling queasy. I realised why Julia had said 'the other night' now. Slipping the compact in my jeans pocket, I made my way through to the lounge and flopped on the couch. They must have saved for weeks for this, stuck in mediocre jobs with hardly any income coming in. Julia obviously hadn't wanted to dwell on that, hence saying 'the other night'. But why hadn't Chase delivered it himself? Surely he wouldn't risk his mother out on the streets alone just so he could hide inside. There were questions buzzing around in my head, but I couldn't answer any of them.
"Alexandra, if I find out you're in cahoots with that despicable woman-"
"Cahoots? Seriously? Is this some kind of lame-ass detective movie?"
"If I find out you're mixing with the Walton family, I will lock you in your bedroom until The Program starts. That's a promise."
"Sounds more like a threat," I muttered, then added, "You do know Chase Walton has been signed up, right?"
"That doesn't make a difference. All these years, they've just sat back and let everybody else sign up, not given anything back to the community-"
"Because you won't let them! Who d'you think does the disgusting jobs that you look down on? The Waltons. Do you realise how badly they're treated, Mom? It's not like they're missing out on civic duties. So they don't get to go to parties. Big deal. I don't see how that gives you any right to treat them like chewing gum stuck to the sole of your shoe."
"Go to your room, Alex."
"Why should I? Because I'm right?!"
"Because you're being insolent. Go to your room. Now."
"Fine! I hope you miss me when I'm gone!"
"I can't wait," she retaliated. I scowled at her and stomped up the stairs to my room, where I threw myself on my bed and allowed the tears to come spilling out for the first time in years.
The last few weeks of school were uneventful. Everyone had pretty much gotten over Chase signing up – they left him alone at lunch again, and, as far as I knew, nobody tried to beat him up again. I tried to thank him for the mirror but he was still avoiding me like the plague. I wondered if his parents shared my mother's views about mixing with others. I sure hoped not.
The third questionnaire was by far the most talked about – it was the official measurements for the changes that were going to be made to your body. I didn't bother listening at the door or demanding to see the answers after that one – I already knew that my mother was insistent upon the fact that my feet and ears were too big, despite me only fitting into a size six shoe. Sally wasn't the only one getting a tummy tuck – half the school had changed that particular box. My mother also had very resolute views that girls shouldn't have more muscle than is required to move. I knew most of the guys at school would be returning with full six packs. So not a good look. I'd always thought they looked so forced and pretentious.
Our whole estate was on the brink of going slightly crazy when we got the letters detailing what we should pack. Clothes. Toiletries. No electrical wares or recreational items were allowed. We could take up to three of our favourite possessions. Only three pairs of shoes, one pair for exercise, one for formal occasions and another for everyday wear. I decided to wear my most comfortable flat sneakers for the journey. My mother went into a frenzy – we spent a whole day at the mall. She blatantly ignored my boredom and insisted on returning to the same three stores several times before she was satisfied we had the right stuff. The queues were out of the door in every single shop. My favourite purchase by far had to be my new black and white suitcase that had four hidden pockets so my compact mirror could fit comfortably inside without there being any chance of my mother discovering it. She made me parade in front of my father in the lounge wearing my new clothes – half the batch we bought in my current size, the other in the size I would be when the change was complete. My new jogging shoes were black and pink. We had compromised on that pair – I liked the black, my mother the pink. My mother had chosen the formal pair of her own accord – black stilettos with a five inch heel. She had only given in to my wish for dark shoes because they 'match everything'. I probably wouldn't ever wear them. I'd break my ankle. Or worse.
I was only humouring her with the shopping because I couldn't leave things the way they were. As much as I resented her decision to send me away like the rejects from the clothes store we'd been in and out of about thirty times in the past week, she was still my mother. If something happened while I was gone, I'd probably regret being hostile with her for the final weeks we had left to spend together. She didn't make it easy, though – the whole time we were shopping, she enthused about how much better I'd look when the transformation was complete, blah, blah, freaking blah. Every time I was forced in front of a mirror I'd feel as if I was being scrutinized from all angles.
My father stayed well away from the excess of carrier bags that were overflowing from the den. When my mother finally surrendered and allowed me to pack my case earlier than she would have liked, which meant taking half the clothes from my wardrobe out and folding it into the case, she insisted we do it in the lounge just to spite my father. When he protested, she merely said 'you're the one complaining in the first place'.
"So which three items are you going to take?" Mom wondered as she squeezed another pile of garments into the case. I shrugged.
"Probably my blanket."
"That scruffy thing? Are you sure you want people to see that?"
"Fine. I'll run it through the wash. What else?"
"Maybe Nana's brooch. The butterfly one."
"Hmm... It doesn't really match anything, but okay. Last one."
"I'm not sure yet."
"Well I was going to wait until we see you off... but here. I want you to have this." She fumbled with her locket for a second, undoing the clasp, and strung it around my own neck. I knew exactly what pictures it contained – one of my mother and father on their wedding day, and one of me as a baby. My mother treasured that locket. Gold with a floral pattern engraved on the front, studded with real diamonds. It had been an engagement present from my dad.
"A-are you sure? I mean, whoa, mom, it's... Really?"
"Yes. I want you to have it. Though if you lose it I will wring your neck. So be careful with it. Please."
"I will. T-thank you."
I was not going to cry. I was not going to cry. Goddamn it, I was crying. I brushed the stray tear away with the back of my hand and kissed my mom on the cheek.
"I'll be up in my room getting the rest of my stuff. Thanks, Mom. I mean it."
The only downside to the locket was that I currently didn't have enough space for the mirror. My mom put my baby blanket in the washing machine and tidied it up for me so I could pack it away, so I couldn't change my mind about that. I decided to replace Nana's brooch with a similar butterfly hair clip that I had in one of my drawers, replacing the back of it with a pin so it looked like a real brooch. Mom would never even notice. I could easily discard it before our possessions were checked. I packed the mirror safely in my case and did another sweep of the room, making sure I hadn't forgotten anything. The fact that we weren't allowed to take any recreational items was faintly annoying – was this so that they couldn't influence our personality changes? Would I ever read a book again?
My toiletries were all packed away in a bright pink bag. I'd even added a bottle of perfume for good measure. It couldn't hurt to smell good. Now that all my things were packed, the reality of the situation was setting in. I wasn't going away for a short spell at summer camp. I would be gone for seven years, only returning on a single visit per year after the first changes were done with. I probably wouldn't miss my parents – before I had been signed up, we hardly spoke, only making polite small talk around the dinner table or when I got back from school. It was everything I would miss – the estate, despite its many flaws, was my home, I'd grown up here. We'd only ever left once, to visit my grandmother in one of the surrounding estates, when she was gravely ill. We were only there for a week – she passed away six days after our arrival. The outside world was waiting for me, I knew, and someday I had planned to leave, but not like this. Not for them. I would see the world for me, not because people told me to, but here I was, getting ready to leave for The Program.
"Alex, honey, are you okay?" Mom appeared in my doorway, hands on hips. She was probably wondering where I'd gotten to. I gave a vague nod, certain that, if I opened my mouth, all the words I had sworn not to say, for my mother's benefit as well as my own, would come spilling out.
"Well, your father wants to order take-out. What kind of pizza would you like?"
"Any. I don't mind."
"Uh, okay. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah, Mom, I'm fine. Promise," I lied. She gave me a quick smile and disappeared downstairs again. I shook my head to clear it, and sunk down on my bed. I wondered if they would convert my room into storage. Probably. All my stuff would be packed into boxes for a few months and then thrown away when my parents decided they just didn't have the room to spare. Maybe they'd auction it off – some of it was expensive enough. My parents were rich, there was no shame in admitting it. They were respected in the neighbourhood. That was part of the reason that my mother wouldn't hear of me brushing past Chase Walton in the halls, never mind talking to him. Their reputation would be ruined. My father could lose his job as manager of the car dealership, my mother would be demoted at the university for sure. None of this mattered now – Chase was ignoring me, and I had no choice but to be shipped away. All my stuff was ready, the questionnaires filled in. All that was left to do was bid my farewells, and I'd be gone, away from our estate, away from all the familiarity it held. The only friend I'd have in this new, foreign place would be Sally Turke, and let's face it, she wasn't the smartest person out there.
The thought made me want to start sobbing, but I bottled it up and forced my lead-like legs to march my body downstairs. One step at a time. I'd eat pizza with my parents, maybe watch a movie. Then I'd go to sleep in my bedroom and rise again the next morning, go to school, return. I'd keep busy – seeing Sally almost every evening just to fill in the gaps. We'd purposely avoid the subject of The Program, if only for my sake. Sally would keep her mouth shut, else I'd tape her lips together.
Yeah, one step at a time. Now all I had to do was get myself to believe that would work.