Elle: The Good Child
Every family has one: the Good Child. The one who does their chores, comes home before curfew, smiles sweetly, and doesn’t get suspended for knocking a teacher into a swimming pool while chasing a ghost she doesn’t believe in.
In Elle’s family, that wasn’t her.
Elle’s top five unjustly punished acts of rebellion – scribed passionately into her diary with heavy pencil, extensive underlining and exclamation marks – were as follows:
1. Shouting at her parents when they were not listening.
2. Fighting with her sister when she was being annoying.
3. Going out past curfew, even though curfew is stupid.
4. Covering her windows when she wanted some privacy.
5. Not believing in the Gods just because everyone else does.
On the afternoon that everything started, she was sitting on her bed, hugging her knees, and trying to focus on the music playing loudly in her headphones, rather than the shouts of her parents from downstairs. The ‘teacher in pool’ incident had not occurred yet, but this was not an unusual scene.
Today’s shouting was not directed at her. It was even worse, because this time her parents were arguing about ‘what to do with her’. Elle pulled her knees in tighter and turned up the volume, trying to lose herself in the comforting thumps that became one with her heartbeat as if made just for her.
Elle was fourteen years old. She loved listening to music (good music), the feel of pencil on paper, her best friend Raine, and her science teacher, Dr Cowby. She hated everything else. School was mostly boring. Her village was death. Almost all of her teachers were dictators. Her parents were unforgiving overlords, and her sister was their ever-present spy.
It was two years until she could apply for a place at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) and leave her family home and village. Two years until she could take control of her life. Two long years too many.
Elle’s screen beeped through her headphones, silencing the music and letting her know that someone was trying to reach her. Looking down, she saw that it was Raine and happily accepted the call.
‘Raine! You saved me!’ she announced dramatically into her screen. ‘They’re killing me over here.’
‘Oh no! What’s happening?’ Raine asked, clearly trying to sound serious but already erupting into laughter at her dramatic best friend.
‘Honestly, they are!’ Elle replied. ‘Working out my next punishment is all they’ve talked about since they got home. I’m grounded at the very least.’
‘Ouch, I’m sorry. Is it because of breaking curfew, or your argument with Kay, or maybe the fight with Ebb?’
‘Erm, whose side are you on?’ asked Elle. ‘You know what they’re like,’ she continued, rolling her eyes. ‘They’re always finding something to complain about.’
‘They are,’ agreed Raine. ‘But maybe it would be good to avoid any arguments for a few weeks. Just to let things settle down.’
Elle was not enjoying this conversation remotely as much as she had expected to. If it was anyone other than Raine, she would already have switched off her screen.
Raine was a wonderful person, though. In fact, she was Elle’s favourite person. She was quiet and reserved, and always looked like she was concentrating on something (which she probably was). She was terrible at sports but brilliant at everything else. Tall and slim, her wild black hair spiralled against gravity in all directions, yet somehow appeared perfectly positioned. Her large eyes were filled with intelligence and kindness, and she was blissfully unaware of how lovely she was to look at.
In many ways, Raine was the opposite of Elle, who was short and ‘sturdy’ in the words of her father. Except for science class and swimming, school was not where Elle excelled. Her green eyes were filled with mischief. Her pale skin was covered with a chaotic mess of freckles, and she had thick, shoulder-length red hair that resisted all attempts to tame it. She tugged on it distractedly while she considered how to best convince Raine that none of the things she’d done wrong recently had actually been her fault.
‘So, something happened today,’ Raine interrupted Elle’s pondering with a mysterious statement.
‘What? Tell me!’
‘I had some alcohol,’ Raine answered in a hushed voice.
‘What?’ Elle was surprised. This was the last thing she expected from her rule-abiding friend.
‘I didn’t really want any,’ continued Raine, ‘but grandfather was so sad when I said no. It was a special liqueur that he had kept hidden from my parents since the ban.’
‘What was it like?’ Elle tried to hide her envy. Alcohol was on her list of things she really wanted to try, but there was of course none in her boring family home.
‘Disgusting,’ whispered Raine, pulling a face that made Elle burst into laughter.
‘Did you feel any different?’
‘No, I don’t think so’. Raine shook her head. ‘I think you need to drink more of it before it gets dangerous. But it still makes me nervous just knowing it’s in the house.’
‘It will be fine, Raine,’ Elle responded, smiling patiently at her. Everyone worried so much about the Ministry, but she was sure they had bigger concerns than an old man having a sneaky drink or a teenager breaking a few pointless rules.
Without warning, her father’s bearded, spectacled face appeared from behind the door. He was saying something to her with a weary look on his face, and with a reluctant sigh Elle waved goodbye to Raine before pulling off her headphones.
‘What?’ she asked sulkily.
‘We need to talk, Elle.’
‘No, not here. With both of us, downstairs.’
Elle swung her legs off the bed and, feeling slightly sheepish for her rudeness, she followed him through their hallway. Her mind raced to work out which of her many crimes this was likely to be about, so she could develop an excuse.
Her father had always been the easier going of her parents. If she could appeal to his sympathy, maybe this would be over and done with quickly and she could get back to the solace of her bedroom. Her mother would be the harder one to persuade. She was tough on Elle, tougher than on her sister, and never took her side. Everything was always Elle’s fault. Apparently, she needed to ‘grow up’, ‘behave’, ‘be like everyone else’, or even worse ‘be more like her sister’. She knew it would have to be a really good excuse to prevent her from getting grounded, lectured, and pushed further still into the depths of her mother’s bad books.
Elle’s mother was seated at the table where they ate their meals each night. It was a round, wooden table that formed the centre of the open downstairs space, with the kitchen to one side and sofas to the other. She held a piece of paper in front of her, folding it and unfolding it slowly. There were pale grey circles under her eyes, and her well-worn frown lines seemed deeper set than before. Her loose-fitting cream dress was crumpled, and her dark blonde hair was pulled back messily into a ponytail. It was so unlike her usually immaculate appearance that for a moment Elle could see the family resemblance.
Eventually Elle's mother looked up at them.
‘I’m sorry about—’ Elle started to speak, but her mother raised her palm to stop her, fixing her with a familiarly cool glare.
‘Elle, we don’t want another bout of your apologies and excuses. It’s gone past that now.’
‘But what have I done? What do you mean?’ Elle hated it when adults got so dramatic; she couldn’t do anything these days without someone getting cross with her.
‘What have you done?’ Her mother seemed incredulous. ‘The missed curfews? Missed classes? The disrespect you show at school and in your own home, to your own parents?’ She clenched her fists around the piece of paper and Elle wondered what exaggerated crimes someone had detailed within it.
‘That’s so unfair,’ Elle argued. ‘Has Kay said something? Or if this is about Ebb I can totally—’
‘Unfair?’ interjected her mother with a harsh laugh. ‘You think this is all unfair on you? One day you’ll have children of your own, Elle. Then you’ll know what unfair feels like!’
‘Urgh, I’m not having children,’ Elle replied. ‘I don’t care what the Ministry says.’
Her mother’s anger was palpable. Elle was standing close enough to see red blotches blossom in her cheeks and neck as she rose from her seat, her face contorted.
‘I’ve had enough!’ she shouted. ‘I don’t want to hear another word!’
‘It’s not my—’ Elle tried again, but her mother and father both stopped her at exactly the same time, as if this had been practiced beforehand.
‘No, Elle,’ they said loudly and decisively in unison.
It was unbearable, not even being allowed to speak. Everything, well almost everything, had a perfectly good explanation! Elle had an uncontrollable urge to yell, to hit or kick something, to push her mother out of the way, to run from her angry tomato-coloured face and never come back.
Without thinking, her arms moved forward, and she was close to hitting out at something, anything, when she was frozen by what felt like an electrical current running through her body.
‘Don’t!’ said the air around her.
The air? That was ridiculous. The air could not talk. Confused, she stumbled forward and grabbed the dining table for support. She looked from her mother to her father and back again.
‘Who said that?’ she asked wildly.
‘Elle,’ said her father, ‘that’s enough.’
Baffled into silence, Elle said nothing.
Her father motioned with his outstretched arm to a chair at the table. Her mother sat back down, her face still flushed. Elle could feel the heat from her own cheeks and knew her face was red too. Her father, in contrast, had gone very pale.
When all three of them were seated, her mother took a deep breath and spoke again.
‘The school have written to the Ministry of Justice and Equality, Elle. They are recommending a home assessment.’
The words hung heavily in the room. This was a big deal. Her parents had always been rule-abiding people, carefully following every stupid order. They didn’t go out a minute past curfew, never did anything to block visibility into their home, and never spoke a word against the Ministries. They had the recommended two children, resided in their allocated district, and lived their allocated lives.
Yet despite all this, they had an ongoing fear of the Ministries. It seemed the more they stuck to the rules, the more afraid they were. Which was, in Elle’s humble opinion, a reason to relax and not take it all so seriously.
But this was something different. To be singled out for a home assessment, especially by an official complaint from the school, was something she’d never heard of before. Her parents’ fear hovered in the room around her, and her confidence wavered. Could they be right? Hidden away in Oakley, the smallest village in District 3, they had never seen a Ministry assessment and had no idea what it entailed. And her parents weren’t the only ones who were fearful of the Ministry. Most of the villagers followed the rules without question and spoke of them in hushed tones. Elle had always made jokes about them and bent the rules; her parents had always overreacted. But she never thought they would really come after her.
‘We need you to stop this, Elle. All of it,’ her mother said, clenching and unclenching her fists and taking several deep breaths. ‘We need you to make this right and stop this assessment from happening.’
Gods, Elle thought, so much drama. But she could feel the hairs rise on the back of her arms and a ball of fear in the pit of her stomach.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I’ll stop it. I can stop it.’
How on earth she could do that? She had absolutely no idea.