The past tense is so pretty. Everything seems better in the past tense, right? When we think of the past, our brains lather the bad in soap and honey and leave everything polished and sweet. And sticky. But we don’t mind that too much. The friends we had, the way life was, the classes we took, the trips we went on, and the memories we made always seem so much better only and forever in hindsight. We forget that life was riddled with uncertainty, the classes we took made us want to bash our heads against desks, and that the memories are just a souvenir.
Today I’m going on an undercover trip to the Blue Diamond Dairy Factory, which I’m sure is just a grand coverup for the people behind the Silver Ordeal, an official order that separates rich from poor. The morning sky has a dark green aura to it…very strange normally, but nothing is normal and what’s strange is fine now.
“We’re just going to take you through this back door.”
“Thank you,” I say to their security guard with a curt nod.
They think I’m here to write about them in the Shining Gazette, a Silver Ordeal-approved news outlet. What they don’t know is I’m here on my own time.
The security guard is far over six feet tall, with a square jaw and beady icicle eyes. He’s doing the most for dairy factory security. He tells me to wait for the director.
In my waiting, I take note of my surroundings: cotton candy-pink walls, glossy photographs of cows, little girls with blonde pigtails holding glasses of milk-white…well, milk. Other children feast on candy-stuffed ice cream, college-aged boys guzzle chocolate milk…It’s all very… comforting. I tuck a strand of shoulder-length straightened black hair behind my ear
, and smoothe out my white ruffled blouse and gray skirt.
“Lacy Meister,” a woman about the width of a telephone pole says, dryly. She flashes me a sewn-on smile.
“Margot Davis,” I return, my eye twitching. “Thank you so much for having me.”
On the tour, we pass big silver vats of cold dairy products
, and a patch of greenery that is supposedly used to feed the cows I’ve yet to see. I try to see between cracks in the wall. I write notes about how the strawberry milk looks a little plastic, how something feels off.
When the tour’s apartentally over, Lacy stares at me for uncomfortably long then etches on another thread and needle grin.
“Perhaps you’d like to visit our souvenir shop.” I follow Lacy’s finger. It’s more like a convenience store that I assume is for the employees. It does, however, have little cow keychains and t-shirts with Blue Diamond written on them in a curly font. “I look forward to reading that piece. In the Shining Gazette.”
I’m missing something.
I brush my fingertips along the soft, synthetic cotton t-shirts, plastic snow globes…I pause near a set of bracelets: simple chains with a star charm. I glance down at my own bracelet. Identical.
In my whirlwind confusion, my heart stops. Standing right next to me is Parker Jenningsons, dressed in a freshly pressed tuxedo: someone I thought I’d never see again.
“Margot?” Parker asks.
I look away so quickly my brain bashes into my skull. I move frantically towards the exit.
“Ma’am! Are you stealing?” the cashier demands.
The bracelet.? The bracelet Parker gifted me long ago…
“No-no,” I stammer, all of my guts and wit spilling to the floor, probably to end up in one of their scary milk vats.
“Yes, you’re the one!” the cashier says.
Parker lunges forward, grabs my arm, and flings us into what appears to be a back hallway.
“Where are we—”
We don’t stop until we’ve escaped through an emergency side door and become one with the city. The busy streets give way to the relieving feeling of being anonymous. I glance at Parker and smile, surprisingly exhilarated by our escape rather than horrified like everything else usually leaves me.
“Wait!” I say, coming to a halt. I glance over my shoulder more than a few times. “I would say that there’s a very high chance that they saw you running with me!”
He smiles at this.
“No, I used this.” Parker has a ring on, a black band. “It’s supposed to hide me from everyone’s eyes when I click this button here. I didn’t want to bother with anyone on my lunch break, so I guess it worked out.”
“Then how did I see you?”
He gestures to my bracelet.
“I have something I need to explain to you.”
We walk down the sidewalks of the hazy, electric-night city. My thoughts race the way the cars do: slow motion and perpetually so fast they move as if they were never there at all… My heart lurches in my chest, remembering who we used to be before everything was changed and memories were forcibly removed. It’s the same Parker. Not a strand of floppy auburn-brown hair out of place, childlike wonder-smile.
“I’m sorry,” Parker says abruptly.
We’ve stopped on a boardwalk.
“That I’ve become this,” Parker says, motioning to his suit.
“It’s not your fault. They decide who gets put in which category. It was always out of our control.”
He’s right, but still, it makes me feel sticky and sour and nauseous inside that everything happened anyway and we couldn’t stop it.
“Sometimes I fear it’s affected me anyway…”
“You just helped me escape.”
He smiles modestly and gives a small shrug like a puppet whose shoulders were drawn up by a string.
“They couldn’t see me.”
“What do you mean?”
“The new Pairing system. They’ve programmed computers to pair people up, romantically.” He gestures to his ring. “If we can see each other, it means we’ve been paired,” Parker continues, hope welling in his dark eyes.
He gets this stormy look about him, and mutters a few words under his breath. He suddenly smiles.
“Why are you grinning like that?”
“Because it’s you.”
I blink rapidly, each flutter of my lashes leaving me just as, if not more perplexed. “Your bracelet.”
He brings his ring to my bracelet
, and taps the two together. For a split second, I’m sure he’s crazy, but then they glow, and on a tiny screen, both pieces of jewelry reads: PAIRED
Our eyes lock.
“I’m not sure how. I thought it wasn’t possible,” Parker says.
I don’t realize it right at first, but I’m grinning. Even though I’d stuffed it far away, deep under the bills on my kitchen table, under the scrapbooks that held the better memories, my feelings for him never fully died.
All around us people receive notifications, alerting them to their pairings. Those who’d been pretending to ignore each other embrace, others glare around with disgust, most are completely lost.
“Margot, we can be together again.”
The boardwalk suddenly gets a huge crack down the middle of it. It all happens so quickly. We try to run, he tries to catch me, but I lose my balance and fall into the dense, green river water. My vision is clouded by dark, midnight velvet.
My eyes open and reveal the insides of a small boat. There
’s are fifteen of us, floating down the river. Everyone’s panicked and confused, but I just let the boat take me.
A backdrop of skyscrapers gives way to abandoned middle-class homes, and then wealthy mansions, all littering the waterfront. The boat stops. I sit slumped in my damp clothes.
Lacy appears by the dock and offers one of her smiles. We follow her when she beckons.
“Are we going to that mansion?” I ask, indifferently gesturing to the Victorian mansion.
She doesn’t say anything, we just follow her inside and sit at a long wooden table. A red curtain looms behind us. I take notes in my soggy notebook.
“Welcome to the Silver Mansion,” Lacy says. Servants materialize carrying trays of sugared fruits and sweet breads. “You’re probably wondering why you’re here.”
I hold my notebook and meet Lacy’s eyes.
“You’re all very lucky. You’ve been paired with someone of the opposite lifestyle as you. We do apologize for the dramatic journey, it was the only way not to draw attention.”
I laugh audibly. Too quickly, I understand us to be idiots. The curtain is revealed to show us fifteen opposite people dressed in expensive garments. It doesn’t shock me to find Parker sitting on a couch, surrounded by women who wear beautiful jewels around their necks. The servants lower their heads and back into the shadows.
Parker doesn’t look at me, not really. He looks only once to grin maliciously, but I don’t show my pain. I want to kill him, and then I feel very, very sorry for him. More sorry than I feel for myself. Trapped to the very thing I sought to avoid and reveal. They always know.