It’s bleak. Chilly. The ever bitter taste of another melancholy fall. Wet, golden leaves stick to the soles of my shoes. The rancid smell of bottom-rotting pumpkins fills the air. Birds shiver in nests hidden in high places. Raindrops splatter and roll off the clear plastic of my umbrella, joining the rest of the muddy water rushing into the storm drain. The lakes will surely be filled to the brim by nightfall. It hardly ever rains this much in Michigan. Especially in October.
October. My mother always says it’s the dreariest of the twelve months, but garlands of multicolored leaves blowing on the old wooden porch across the street remind me that I never seem to agree with her—about most things, actually. Our definitions of comfort differ greatly. She finds it in places where it’s difficult for me. October is my favorite month.
The portal honks a tune from a distance causing the eagerly waiting people around me to dance on their toes at the edge of the curbside. The gray vehicle’s sleek, curved, long body slithers into view, splashing milky water as it comes to a halt and rests beneath the neon stop sign. The red glow is heavy against the morning sky, turning rain into blood. How appropriate for the season. Small, tight glass doors abruptly slide open. People stand, and shuffle, and sit. Some stay frozen in place.
“Ya gettin off or what!” the portal driver hollers to the exiting passengers taking their time.
Feet quickly pick up and a handful of Bourgeoisies and Palores alike disperse around me like bees from a hive, each politely tipping their hats my way with downcast eyes. Mumbles leave their breath as they pass. It’s not every day they have to share the portal with a Beau Monde. In fact, it’s rare.
An elderly Palore lady behind me dressed in frayed cheetah print and cracked red lipstick seems displeased at my lack of enthusiasm to get on the bus, but she doesn’t know that I don’t want to be here anymore than she wants me here. But, after a strongly argued debate with myself and mulling over French toast and three cups of hot tea, I decided it was my best option. My parents have clearance for a vehicle, but even still, I didn’t want my mother driving her twenty-year-old daughter to her first day of College Elite—or anywhere, for that matter. So, like many others, I’m taking the portal. And besides, these heels are from Vienna. They weren’t intended for prolonged walks.
Brushing a few rain droplets off the fur of my coat, I steady myself aboard.
The ceiling curves high from one side to the other, creating a narrow dome above us made completely of glass, but everything in this day and age seems to be translucent: tables, chairs, bookshelves, bathtubs, buildings, most ceilings, and even some articles of clothing. It’s all just a trend that became a staple in today’s style—unlike others that faded out quickly; heterochromia in newborns and agarwood scarves are the first two that come to mind.
As soon as I’m on the portal, a little Palore girl with torn pink ribbons tied around each pigtail stands up, offering me her seat at the front. She looks six. Maybe seven. Small hands show off her seat like a carnival prize; her smile bright. My fingers smooth out the back of my coat as I take it. The girl moves to a seat behind me on the right side of the portal, near the window. I glance back. She tilts her head deep, watching my every move. We share a glimpse and she smiles brightly at me.
Looking around the portal, everyone seems busy. Occupied with their own burdens, they carry on. Ducking down, I slide her a small blue bow I had stuffed away, lost in my purse.
“Thank you,” I say, my voice hushed. Her gray-green eyes grow wide as does her mouth. She gives a slight gasp and I throw a finger to my mouth. Her lips now pressed tight, she marvels at the shiny bow and clasps it in her hair as she hops off at the first exit. Her little fingers wave goodbye to the portal before she runs away down the dark, dank street to join a huddle of more Palore kids. Some in raggedy coats, others in flip flops. They were waiting for her. That’s what she was on here for. Pity. Survival. Anything to get a good meal for the night. I swallow down sympathy with the last bit of toothpaste still on my tongue, keeping my purse closely pressed to me with a hand over my necklace.
This necklace was given to me by my grandmother last winter just before she passed away. It’s a collection of pearls hand plucked from the Pacific, with small diamonds the size of poppy seeds as decoration in between. Those are from Japan, if I remember correctly. They were my mother’s first; she wished for them so badly she convinced my father to sneak them from his mother in her old age, but they soon became mine after reading my grandmother’s will. Personally, I think it’s a bit old, but it is elegant and still smells like her. I hardly go a day without wearing them.
Growing up, I heard many stories about how special these pearls are. Grandma Odette claimed the necklace held spirits of good luck, but she was old and into some weird hobbies like crystal healing and palm reading.
My father has her meekness, from what I can remember of her. I see it in him daily, so in a way she’s still here which helps ease the vacant hole of her rambling witchery. She claims to have been one—a witch. She went to the grave believing it, but I never did. Her kookiness never rubbed off on me—never seemed convincing enough, but it always made for good entertainment. She was a rare breed for being Beau Monde. My mother couldn’t stand her, naturally, and they never got along or gave any effort to try. That’s why I didn’t grow up seeing her as often as my father would have liked. Her kindness toward the people she met scared my mother, I think. But I admired her words and the way she spoke of the lower classes. They weren’t animals to her, trying to claw their way to the top, they were people. Equals. Of course, she could never outwardly express this ideology, but it didn’t matter. She wore it like a second skin.
My mother knew this too, but as the right-hand to the head of our state, Governor Xardin Creel, we often had to keep her quiet.
The portal enters the front gate, pulling up to its stop alongside the cherry grove that fills the acres of the school’s front lawn. The tart fruit litters the ground around the uncomfortably uniform trees with paved walkways intertwining between them. Palore workers are sporadically among them with their ladders and wooden baskets collecting the scarlet fruit. Water drips off the shiny skin. I wait for the crowd to die down before getting off, focusing my attention on the glistening buildings I’ll be visiting for the next year. They’re pearly with whites and silvers and accompanied by large rows of windows similar to ancient clerestories. Lights shine at all joints of the buildings, making sure not one part of the glorious architecture goes overlooked. At the center of it all sits a large towering fountain. The neon blue water can just barely be seen behind the front building. Every new angle that presents itself is just as alluring as the last.
College Elite has a pretty face compared to its tasteless inside. I decided at a young age I would never attend. The idea of being stuck in a classroom learning about one subject for a year only to be stuck working a job over that same one subject for the rest of your life seemed…horrific.
But my father always encouraged his kids to have a fertile mind. His library is filled with wonders and different worlds, and so my interest in fascinating stories about people’s lives blossomed. Although it’s forbidden for state historians to let anyone but themselves into their study, it’s where my father spends most of his time with me whenever he isn’t working on one of his many projects or with Portia, our homekeeper, to perfect his making of lobster frittata—my mother’s favorite dish.
My father didn’t want me to give up on College Elite just yet, so following his advice, I signed up for Humanities, a course to learn about how to process and document the human experience.
“Miss, mind me askin’ if you’re gettin’ off here?” The portal driver’s calm voice echoes from the front of the transport, eyes directed down. His shaky hand rests on the open and close door button.
“Yes! Sorry!” I say. He nods, and I swing my legs over the seat and squeeze out of the sliding doors. I’ve heard sometimes portal drivers make decisions for other Palores and Bourgeoisie if they take too long to get off.
The moment my peep-toe heels hit the marble street, the portal is gone. I’ve always thought of them like eels: slick, flexible, and fast. They look as if they’re swimming in air. It’s beautiful, really. I watch it until it’s so far off in the distance that it becomes a blur of shadows.
I wander through the walkways with people rushing past me right and left. All seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere with books and steaming cups of coffee in hand. The further into the building I get, the more signs there are directing me in all kinds of directions. One sign points toward a small café, while another points to the main administration building. They all have destinations, but none that hold any significance to me. I pause by a bench to remember my building and room number—this hesitancy seems to have followed me all the way from the sneering Palore at the portal stop.
The steps of the entrance sparkle with small pieces of beautifully luminescent quartz. I step over them gently, making my way through the front doors. The ceilings are tall and made of a thick glass, similar to the portal’s. Rain splashes against it creating a mosaic art overhead. I walk up to the classroom entrance and remember how some of the library’s stories say that rain is good luck. Taking a breath, my posture straightens before walking through the doorway.
My father said the class was predicted to be large, and as expected, there are students teeming around the edges of the classroom. The room is a bright white box, deep with proportionally spaced, single-chaired desks all lined up in rows stretching from one side of the room to the other. Large, circular crystalline chandeliers hang over each row, and a long pastel collage of stained-glass acts as a middle aisle separating the two sections of desks. It stretches from the back of the classroom and extends toward the front where the professor is standing in a full-length white coat. When I signed up for this course, I was told that there would be three hundred others attending it as well, but only sixty students at most seem to be occupying the vast array of seats.
203. Is this 203? Am I on the right floor? No. Maybe. 303?
“Amelia Vanderbilt?” The professor’s voice rings from the other side of the room, piercing my ears like a needle. Her face narrows to a point with skin as white as milk. Her albino-like physique flatters her short platinum hair, which is slicked back on her head—making her even that much more intimidating to look at.
“Yes?” I say.
“Take a seat. You’re late.”
I scan the room for the nearest desk in the back and seat myself promptly.
“Now, as I was explaining before Ms. Vanderbilt interrupted me,” she continues. Embarrassed, her voice grows numb in my head. “I am Professor Rowan Adderley and you are all signed up for my Humanities course, which is precisely what you’ll be learning, although...” she smiles a bit unevenly, “I’m altering that definition a bit. Can anyone tell me the definition of humanity?”
A Beau Monde girl in the front row that I’ve seen a few times when attending fashion shows answers first. “Well, according to our Governor’s Council, humanity is the role we play in the status system.”
Adderley shakes her head. “I’m not asking for what the Governor’s Council’s definition is, I’m asking for your definition. What do you define humanity as?”
“You could define it by adoption standards.” Another Beau Monde, a boy this time. Alexander Veers, a friend of the governor’s son, chimes in. “Adoption has given us, the people of the states, a safer society to live in. As Beau Monde are the first to choose, then Bourgeoisie and so on, society is perfect now. We’re more uniformed and maintained in equilibrium. Exactly placed in the status we are supposed to be in. This is who we are.”
A Bourgeoisie girl a few desks down from me says, “With all due respect to everyone in the room, but I think humanity could mean how we live amongst each other. Our interests, opinions, likes, and dislikes.”
“Hmm,” Adderley hums. “Anybody else want to add their thoughts?” The room stays quiet and she doesn’t wait any longer. “That’s fine. However, I am grateful for the participation, but every answer given was wrong in some way or another.” A few eyes glance around the room nervously as she grabs a small white handheld clicker. “As stated, this will still be a Humanities course, but with a specifically strong emphasis on Human Sexuality: the human body, mind, the act of sex and reproduction. Sexuality is imperative to our humanity. Therefore humanity, by definition, cannot exist without it.”
“Sex?” I murmur under my breath. The word leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Why? That’s not even natural. Isn’t teaching it illegal? Besides, all their answers were correct.
Before this class, I have only ever heard the word “sex” used once—when I overheard the news my parents were listening to—but that was years ago. Now here it is, in the highest realm of education possible, being spat in my face.
We are humane, dignified, and the global elite. This is how we show ourselves to the world. This is who we are. This is who we are. This is who we are.
The Governor’s Council used this creed to unify the states after the former presidency dissolved. It is preached about with great dignity and sacrifice, shown with pride by our governors, and exemplified by their respective families. They are the ones who took care of our union’s issues: overpopulation, rampant violence, and spontaneous recession were all replaced with more-perfect systems, like our adoption system and the status system.
As Professor Adderley continues to talk, the lights dim, and the clicker reveals images of women and men across the holographic screen behind her. Women with men, women with women, men with men—people are shocked and a couple of Bourgeoisie girls shriek.
There’s a violent outburst from a group of guys, one of whom I recognize as Troy Briggs, the son of one of my mother’s coworkers. “My mother and father will hear about this!” he calls out. “You’re dead! You hear me? You’re dead!”
“Well that’s uncalled for,” Adderley retorts while the others storm out of the room and slam the door behind them, shaking the chandeliers up above. The class is silent after this, but the outrage created a following, because half the people around me get up and leave the room as well.
“That’s exactly the response I expected to get,” says Professor Adderley as she turns it off. “Let me start again by saying that all those who just left the room will have no effect on the progress of this class. Our world rejects the idea of sexual experiences. Serum V completely suppresses all of our innate human desires so that we successfully bend to our manmade purpose. As if our natural biology is something to be ashamed about, but sex—an instrumental part of our humanity—has been taken away from us. In fact, to engage in such an act is against the law—even to teach it is considered grounds for punishment. But I disagree with that outlook.” She pronounces the idea as if she is a boisterous show host.
Through it all, my whole body is senseless; I can’t feel my legs enough to leave like the others. Instead, I tug at my skirt, wishing the material would reach my knees in hopes of her voice resuming quickly.
I’m going to get in trouble just for being here. I need to leave.
“We all need to be aware and informed on this topic. There are so many things you should hide from in this world. Your own humanity doesn’t need to be one of them.” She moves around the room, staring at each of us intently. Her gaze passes over me with the weight of her eyes pressing down on me like a warden. It creates a coldness in me that reminds me of my mother’s.
“This class will be set up in a partnered arrangement. Partners will be based on the compatibility assessments you all took when signing up for this course. The results should allow you and your partner to see how like-minded you are. Though clearly, since some of our classmates have chosen to opt out, we can adapt.”
She takes a step back to look down at a metal band around her wrist before raising her head again. “Oh, and before I forget…to the Palores who are still here, College Elite thanks you for joining us as a part of this course. Any benefits you requested will be given once this class terminates.” She breathes slowly to release some obvious tension in her voice.
“You and your partner’s goal will be to rediscover what sex is, what it means, and its role within humanity. You’ll learn the significance, and hopefully by the end of the term, you will feel differently about the act. Are there any others who wish to leave now?”
No one moves, and anxiety has crippled my confidence to get up long before this moment. I look around, and a good twenty-two of us remain. In a room set up for nearly three hundred, I feel immensely small amongst the others.
“Good, at least we still have an even number of people,” Professor Adderley remarks.
The Bourgeoisie girl speaks again. She raises her hand and clears her throat. “Will we be instructed to perform this—”
Professor Adderley lifts her hand, stopping her midsentence. “I will not be encouraging the physical act of sex, but what you do with the information learned is…up to you,” she says as her snake-like eyes jet my way yet again, “And your partner.”
Her stare is hard enough to solidify water, but before I can look away, class is dismissed. Grabbing my things, I make sure I’m the first one out of the room. I have to quit. I hate myself for even thinking about it, but I know there is no way my parents would tolerate this.
But, I know that if I quit, I would disappoint my father. It’s clear to me that my mother is and always will be disappointed in me, but my father’s encouragement could turn into distaste if I stop now.
What if I just don’t tell them?
Out of all the textbooks my father has stashed away in his office, I’ve never read any that discussed sex. But I can’t ask him either.
I shouldn’t worry about taking on the responsibility for Professor Adderley’s actions, even though that feels the most natural. I don’t need to tell anyone, I think. The people who walked out of class have most likely already outed our professor, and if they haven’t they will. My parents should also understand my silence. I can lie until then, I’m good at that. At least until Governor Creel orders his Loyalists to kill Professor Adderley. By keeping quiet, I can steer clear from the guilt of her execution without performing a part of the scheme that leads to her death.
I sit in silence while riding the portal home. Shutting out everything around me seemed like the only way to get my thoughts in order. I just wanted to be a journalist. Publishing fashion trends, reporting on government travels, and documenting public executions. The important stuff.
Still, I can’t stop thinking about what happened in front of me half an hour ago.
I feel the track slow, pulling up to the stop. People float under the clear awning, bags of groceries in hand and children on their hips. I don’t want to move. My head is heavy, only increasing in weight from the eyes that dart back and forth behind me and wait for me to leave my seat. They won’t move until I do.
It’s time to go tell them. It’s what I need to do.
I stand up and immediately see the tension leave the enclosed area. I walk briskly toward the walkway of our house.
The ivory mansion at the top of the hill feels minuscule as I approach along the winding pathway through the gardens. The gardeners in their cornflower uniforms tip their hats, say their greetings, and return to their work. Although, at this moment, I can barely smile in their direction.
Opening the front door, I welcome the cool, brisk air from inside.
The mammoth chandelier lights are turned on, candles are lit, the marble floors are polished, and the smell of cinnamon and pumpkin hangs in the air. Portia must have made dessert. My first day. How typical of her.
I drop my coat at the stairs and follow the sweet smell of autumn until I can taste it on the edge of my tongue. I walk to the kitchen and down the hallway to the master bedroom in the back. Nobody’s here.
I give myself a minute to collect my thoughts. Maybe something will give me an answer for how to tell them that I am dropping out. Bending down to take off my heels, I slump into a chair and let them echo against the ground.
“Thank god,” I mutter, massaging my heels. I play with the small deflated bubbles of skin now at the back of my ankles. They sting and pull like rubber. I pinch them open with my fingernails to let them dry out before closing my eyes and dozing off.
My body melts into the pink velvet of the chair and I try to consider my options one last time, but losing my concentration, I start to feel weightless, as if I’m tanning at our summer home on Lake Michigan. I always appreciated the warmth of the sun and the cool of the water’s surface. Imagining coarse sand between my toes, I’m back. The waves rise and fall, larger and heavier each time they pull into the lake bed until I feel consumed by the same coolness that I welcomed a moment before.
“Why would we ever do that? And yes, don’t worry about grabbing his itinerary. I can send it to him in the morning. He’ll want it early or not at all.”
My eyes spring open at my mother’s voice and two sets of footsteps coming from down the hall. She must have brought a coworker over, I think before clawing my way out the chair and tripping over the chest at the end of their bed before making it to the door. I stand, pressing my body against the flat white wall, listening intently.
“I wouldn’t dream of delivering it to him late, again. I know how he can get.” It’s a man’s voice, unfamiliar to me.
“Mm-hmm…don’t we all.”
Their voices begin to grow distant as I slowly push my way through the door opening. I slip out, watching shadows round the corner and head down the opposite end of the hall and up the stairs to my bedroom, but my mother is already there, muddling around in the drawer of my nightstand.
“Mom!” My voice is frantic. I wasn’t expecting to speak with her so suddenly. “I thought you were with a coworker. I heard voices.”
She turns, closing the drawer with the point of her heel. “I was,” she sighs. “Now I’m just looking for those earrings you borrowed a few nights ago. You know, I’ve been asking you for them. Thought I would have time to check around before you got home.”
“Guess you’re surprised to see me then,” I tease.
She shoots me a look as if I should be apologizing. “Yes.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I should have given them back by now. I’ve just been so caught up with starting College Elite and if you have some time, I can tell you more about it—”
“Mm-hmm. Amelia, I’m sorry, but I don’t have time. At least for that. It’s a busy week.”
“Could I just tell you about my first day? It can be real quick! Two minutes!”
She huffs, forcefully squinting her eyes into a smile. Her foot taps away, the annoying echoes of ebony filling the room.
“You know what? How about you talk to Portia? I’ll send her in!”
Before I can even take another breath, she exits the room and Portia gracefully walks in, her hands neatly folded over her cornflower dress. The distressed blue makes her freckles shine across her nose like stars.
“Ms. Amelia,” she grins, bowing her head slightly. My mother smiles, squeezing the sides of Portia’s arms before releasing a hard sigh.
“Catch up! But don’t keep her,” she instructs me. “Portia has a lot of work to get done for me before I leave in a few days.”
“Wait you’re leaving again?”
“Yes, Governor Creel asked me to join him for the last governors meeting of the year.”
“But you were just in California last week,” I say.
“Amelia, you know that was for something different. This meeting—it’s big. Everyone will be there this time, including Texas’s Governor Davis and California’s Governor London. I need to go.”
“So just like that you're going back? So quick.”
“Yes, well, that’s what happens when you have a job—I don't need to explain myself. You two make this quick.” She exits the room and closes the door behind her. Portia's smile fades into a small frown and her hands follow, slumping down to her sides.
Portia is our homekeeper. She’s called to keep the house and meet all our needs. Born a Bourgeoisie, this was her best option, and why wouldn’t it have been? Loads of Bourgeoisie women take up this position. Plus, she gets to live in the home of a high-ranking Beau Monde family. What could be any better than that?
“Hey, loser.” Portia moves toward me. Her apron snags on the edge of the bed as she sits.
I can’t tell Portia about class—she doesn’t need to be brought into this. Yet I consider telling her as I watch her sullen expression turn into confusion over my silence.
You don’t need to tell anyone, remember?
My cheeks begin to burn from smiling. Fresh tears kiss my eyes as I absorb the last bit of patience I have left. “Hi.”
Why should I be surprised? My mother hardly ever takes time to talk to me anyway—about anything. When it’s her idea, sure, she’ll make the time, but when it’s my idea? Hardly ever.
But I’m happy to see Portia. She was fifteen when she started working for my family, a year before my brother was adopted. She’s fiery and in her forties and we’re friends, even
if we aren’t supposed to be. A friendship that seems to be on-again, off-again, depending on the day. At times, we’re cold to one another, neglecting nice gestures and ignoring eye contact until we start to feel guilty. Other days we spend as much of the day together as we possibly can without my family knowing: making pies, picking from the herb garden, reminiscing about her days as a little girl growing up in her house. She misses her mom. All the recipes my family has grown to adore came from her mother. Portia describes her as a virtuous and capable woman. I wish I could dress my mother in the same light; maybe someday.
“Alright, what is it?” Portia pulls out a tissue from the pocket of her apron and shoves it in my hands. “Come on, don’t make me yank it out of you. I have a lot of work to get done as you heard the woman say,” she says, snapping her fingers, and my lips wrinkle into another sad smile.
“Yeah, I bet!” I say, making her sigh in annoyance. The kind of sigh she makes whenever my father makes a stale joke that she genuinely doesn’t find funny, but feels inclined to laugh anyways. “But really, it’s not anything important. Just first day stuff.”
“I meant the crying.” Her voice hushes.
I stare at her blankly and grind my teeth. Her eyes are wide and open; I could tell her anything and she would keep it a secret, I know. It wouldn’t be smart, but I could. I want to.
“Do I need to make you tea?” she asks.
“No, I’m fine.” She looks at me suspiciously. “Seriously,” I assure her.
A knock at the door jolts Portia away from me. Her hands now sit nicely in her lap, legs stiff and crossed. The posture of a professional automaton with her long brunette hair hanging in a low, sleek ponytail down her back. She plays the part well.
“Portia! Dinner?” My mother’s voice pounds along with her fist on the other side of the door.
“Yes! Sorry, Mrs. Vanderbilt!” She turns to me one last time before leaving. “You’ll tell me later?” she whispers.
I don’t answer. I just push the unused tissue back into her hand and turn away.
“I’ll see you at dinner,” I sniffle, tightening my smile. She stands, ignoring my comment, and flattens out her dress against her glazed skin.
“Portia! Chop, chop!” my mother persists. “Literally!”
Portia walks out of the room, leaving only her indention in the duvet of the bed. I stare at it as it slowly begins to rise back to its previous position. More tears want to sting the corners of my eyes, but it’s not their time. I throw myself onto the bed and massage the soreness out of my throat. My head throbs against the choking tangle of my mother’s voice replying over again in my mind. As much as I try to be, I’m not in charge of her feelings. I shouldn’t feel responsible for her emotions, for not wanting to know me or for me to know her. I thought I did at one time, but that was when my brother was still here. Some part of her left when he did. He took her with him. I wonder if my father feels it as much as I do.
Reaching my hand up, I clutch onto the necklace, the smooth pearls cooling my skin.
Grandma Odette, you wonderful witchy woman.