This is the first chapter of my book, The Last Ginger. If you’re interested in reading more or in doing an unpublished works trade for critiquing, please comment, message or email me at email@example.com.
Thanks for reading.
Chapter 1: A waver of doubt
I swear I didn’t know it was going to happen. We aren’t hiding from the States on purpose; we aren’t even hiding from the policer. Although he might have some other impression of the situation.
She’s so upset after the exam she starts hyperventilating on our walk home. It’s ugly and I want to ditch her, but that’s against the Law of Courtesy. Instead I pull her into our elderberry bushes, which we claim when there’s something to talk about. We can sit next to where the river disappears down a long tunnel under the south wall without being seen; the bushes stay tall and leafy until at least October.
I kneel in the mulch, not caring that my skirt rides up to my thighs, not checking for dirt or insects.
“I – That was stressful,” she stammers, red-faced.
I almost hug her – anything to get the frail look off her face – but catch myself. Once I picked a leaf from her hair without asking permission and she smacked my hand. “It sucked.”
“City help me if I get a laborer,” Erica bursts, then claps her hand over her mouth to contain any further incriminating words. “If I don’t get Jason I don’t know what I’ll do.”
She could tell me she wanted to fly for the reaction I’d give her, except maybe to slip her a thermometer. Maybe I should check for a fever, because no one should want to get the best grade on the exam. No one should want to marry into Congress.
I say, “Be serious.” And I strip a stem of its berries and drop them into her apron. “Why?”
“Imagine! The security.” She raises her eyebrows wisely, flicks a berry at my stomach and waits to laugh about it until I do.
“We live in a walled city with cameras everywhere. You want security?”
Wrinkling her face, she says, “Did you forget there’s a war going on?”
“Which hasn’t touched our dear City thanks to the aforementioned wall.”
“The war could touch us some day. Of course the Congress protects us. Of course. But you never know.” She winces at the sky, expecting an army to parachute on us as she speaks. They’re always warning about parachuters.
“Jason’s boring.” I take berries from her lap and wonder if they’re edible.
Erica opens her mouth to retaliate but I toss a berry at it. I miss, but she spits and gasps anyway. “You’re lucky that didn’t go in my mouth!”
“You’re lucky you’re smart, Erica.” Sometimes you have to say her name to get her to focus. “I think you should stop worrying. Everyone knows you do the best hem stitch.”
She nods slowly. “Imagine! Jason tripping over his robes because his wife doesn’t understand a hem stitch.” She watches me twirl my hair around my pointer fingers. No bad habits fill Erica’s idle time. “Who do you think you’ll be paired with?”
“Oh, you know…” I try to give her a name, any name, but suddenly I can’t remember a single person from the class I’ve been going to school with for fourteen years. “It would be an honor to marry any of them.” Before she can press the question, I turn the talk back to her. “Maybe you’ll get paired with Thomas. How would that be?”
“He’s handsome.” Erica grins, and we burst into giggles. He is handsome, after all.
“Who’s laughing?” a voice calls from nearby.
I clap a hand over Erica’s mouth before she can stand up and announce our presence. She widens her eyes, but I put up a shushing finger. Her lips strain against my hand, warm and soft. I wonder if mine are the same.
“I’m a policer of the good City. Show yourself at once!”
Then the sky sets off in fire and light.
It starts as a whistling, and Erica and I forget about the policer and exchange a confused look. The pitch rises until it stops.
An explosion cracks through the afternoon sky, sending light across the City from over the west wall, raining panic on our elderberry bushes. Erica and I stare at each other for only another second.
Forget not getting in trouble, let’s not get blown up.
We jump to our feet and shock an already-bewildered policer nearby, who’s staring with his mouth hanging open at the west wall. “Girls!” I might recognize his blond hair that looks like a lemon; he’s years older than me. His shoes are polished white and his communicator obscures his whole ear.
A waver of doubt plays across Lemonhead’s face as he tries to prioritize, writing us up versus responding to explosions. “Are you okay?”
Erica nods enough for the two of us, and we look into the sky. Orange and red sparkles fade out in a circle, pale but conspicuous against the clouds. What in the name of the City is going on? I grab for Erica’s hand at the same time she grabs for mine, which we’ve never done before but it’s the only way to make sure we’re both safe.
My best friend, Lemonhead and I stand in stunned silence, wondering if he should write us up or if we should all run away or if Erica and I could maybe just slink back into the bushes and pretend we didn’t hear anything.
Then the next explosion goes off. Light, vibration and sparkles in the sky. There aren’t many people strolling past the river, but I know Citizens are silently working their ways as far as possible from the west wall.
“Come with me!” Lemonhead says as the lights fade out. He grabs me and Erica and points us toward the heart of the City, and the three of us take off at a run. Running is against the Law, and I’d be terrified to try it in front of a policer if he wasn’t urging me to go faster.
Citizens are in a flurry like we are, except in a million different directions and with more poise than us. You can sense the panic under the calm – a mother shouting to her children to keep up. Tense clips of conversations trying to figure out if someone is running errands or still at work. Constant, urgent glances at the west wall, squinting to discern if anyone is standing on top or knocking it down.
As we run down Broad Street the City speakers crackle and it’s loud, so loud, with a speaker on every corner. The policer skids to a stop to listen, and Erica and I stand together but away from him, holding hands for the second time in our lives. The block is at a standstill.
Then a voice rings through the streets, clear and composed. “Citizens, please make your way calmly but quickly toward your homes and remain on lockdown until further notice.”
I throw a look at Erica, whose eyes are round with fear. We’ve practiced lockdowns our whole lives, but we’ve never had to for real.
Lemonhead presses a finger against his communicator, listening with his face screwed up. Then he says, “I have her here.” Then, “No, there’s another.” He grabs Erica’s tag from her neck and skims it. “Erica Baxter.” He listens again, nodding at no one. “Okay. Right.” His eyes refocus on Erica and I. “Let’s go, ladies. Miss Danner, please lead the way to your house.”
Why did he call me ‘Miss Danner?’
Erica doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. I shouldn’t care either, and I don’t anymore. At least, not when the third explosion goes off. I rocket toward home like something’s chasing me. And, for all I know, something totally is.
When we get to my house Lemonhead gestures that I should go in first, probably because I live there.
Mom jumps up from the couch when she sees us, but Theodore barely glances from the book he’s reading. “Where have you been?” he snaps.
“We had our exam and we were discussing it after,” I say, and since I’m so excited I have to focus the whole time on saying it without any attitude.
“Well, in case you didn’t notice we’re in a lockdown.”
“We noticed,” barks Lemonhead, and I secretly thank him. “Where’s your master?” he asks Mom.
“Still at work, sir,” she says. “At least, I think so. He won’t be in for the lockdown.”
“He works at the hospital?” I guess my family’s famous; we have the best doctor and the only redhead in the City.
“Excuse me, sir, but I’m worried my mom’s going to make herself sick wondering where I am,” Erica interjects.
“No worries,” he says. “She knows you’re here.”
Lemonhead flops onto the couch next to Theo, causing my brother to scoot away with a rude expression. The policer lets out a windy sigh and sits up straight – remembering, finally, he’s a City policer.
Mom hurries into the kitchen and puts on water for tea, and Erica goes to help her. I don’t, since I’m not a guest, it’s not a task, and I may have run out of oxygen on the run home.
“So what’s happening?” Theo asks.
“Explosions,” I gasp.
“From States,” the policer says.
“Outside?” Theo and I repeat at the same time. No one notices I said it too.
“Yes. Definitely outside. We saw it ourselves.”
“It was outside?” Theo asks again, turning to me.
“I… I don’t know. I was distracted.”
Mom serves tea and Erica finally sits on the couch, the trembles of her hands making the cup tink against the saucer. We drink in silence, awaiting further instructions or explosions.
I feel intensely unlike myself, to be sitting on my own couch with a cup of tea, relaxing. There are chores to do even in a lockdown, aren’t there? Erica moves her hands around like they don’t know how to be still.
When Mom collects the dishes Erica says, “Will you take me home now?”
Lemonhead nods slowly. “They’re sending over a man to take you home and another to stay here with me.”
“Stay… here?” Even Mom can’t cover her surprise with courtesy. I blink stupidly at him.
“Naturally,” Lemonhead says, waving his hand. He doesn’t offer any more information, and it’s none of our Places to ask.
Within a half hour two more policers appear at the door, knocking then letting themselves in. Their dark blue uniforms are identically pressed, but the men are ragged and sweaty.
Lemonhead leaps to his feet. “Boys!” And before they can do more than nod he ushers them into the kitchen to have a whispered conversation.
“Are you okay?” Mom asks because Erica’s mouth is pursed shut like she’s trying to keep something in.
Erica tries to smile. “I’m wondering if our delegation will still be tomorrow. Do you think they’d postpone it?” Her face deteriorates with concern.
“It depends,” Mom says.
“Alexandra!” Erica presses her fingers together so they become white in the wrong places. “Do you think it’ll be postponed?”
“I hope so,” I mumble, but not in a way where no one can hear it. I’m too worked up with energy; I can’t be just saying these things.
Erica and Theo send me glares from the couch, identical enough that I flinch.
“Alexandra,” warns Theo.
Mom clears her throat. “How was your exam?”
A policer walks Erica home, and Mom offers the others the couch. She fixes snacks, and I realize I better help her – it wouldn’t be good for policers to see me hanging out while my mom does all the work. Also, men like you better if you feed them.
Also, why are they here again?
“Mom,” I whisper, and she comes close in the kitchen. “He called me ‘Miss Danner’.”
“Did he,” she says with a thinking face, eyeing me sideways like it’s my fault they’re here.