CHAPTER 1--HAPPY BIRTHDAY
My tenth birthday was the worst day of my life. Dad had to work late because his replacement didn't show up on time. Mom and I waited for him to come home.
Eight years later, we're still waiting.
Most kids would've requested a Vacation Pass for their eighteenth birthday, but not me. I'd rather forget the whole thing and help Gus prepare the chilled bodies in the hospital mortuary. I drag myself out of bed and pull on teal scrubs. I fumble for socks and shoes, and a ray of early sunlight glints off my dad's picture hanging on the gray wall across the tiny room. Once again, his blue eyes capture mine as if he needs to tell me something important. On the floor, beneath the photo, sits a memory trunk full of how things used to be. But I won't open it today. I just can't.
Dishes clink in the kitchen. Mom calls out, "Hurry up, Silvia. I've got a surprise for you." She sounds happy, but I can't tell if it's real.
Since Dad's death, both of us have done a lot of pretending. So far this year, we've been able to avoid Psychotherapy Services and Mandated Medications, but sometimes I wonder if I was sent down to Mortuary Sciences to push me over the edge. Fortunately, I find autopsies intriguing, not depressing. And since I never got to see Dad's body after the accident, caring for other people's dead soothes the empty ache inside.
My boss, Gus, is an excellent teacher and the closest thing I have to a best friend. He always knows what to say to me and what not to say.
Too bad Mom doesn't have a clue.
Mom glances up from her green tea as I enter the copper-colored, modular kitchen. "I planned a big surprise for your birthday."
I tense. "What is it?"
Mom slides over a bowl of organic oatmeal topped with raspberries, normally my favorite. "I got us Park and Art passes today."
"I'm not hungry." I shake my head. "And Gus is expecting me."
"No, he's not. He knows all about it. I told him weeks ago."
"Really?" I cross my arms, not sure if I believe her. "He must be good at keeping secrets. Gus didn't even mention my birthday yesterday."
Which proves he knows me better than Mom does.
She frowns. "At least eat the raspberries, even if you're not hungry. I had to barter for them. And if it makes you feel better, we can pretend it isn't your birthday. It's just some other day instead."
I want to protest more, but there's a determined gleam in Mom's brown eyes--one that hasn't been there for a long time. And I don't want to be the one to snuff it out.
I half-heartedly take a few bites of breakfast, swallow my eight prescribed supplements, then return to my bedroom to change into jeans and a long-sleeved, green T-shirt. All my clothes are soft and plain, without decoration, made by hands like my father's. Only Dad proved himself to be Gifted, so he didn't make Basic Worker Level clothes for long. Instead, he got promoted to Government Level clothing production--a promotion which cost him his life.
"Hurry up!" Mom calls from the front door of our small apartment.
We clamber down six flights of whitewashed cement steps, the stairwell so brightly lit with safety lights that one almost needs sunglasses. Once we arrive on the main floor, we push out into the swarms of people flooding the streets. Dashing across the busy bike path and two empty car lanes, we reach the closest walkway heading toward the park.
Traffic is orderly today. No bikers stray across the wide, white painted lines separating their lanes from ours. Men and women wearing blue scrubs of various shades hurry toward the hospitals and medical facilities. Those in green coveralls rush toward the monorail station to speed off to one of the numerous Plant and Protein Production Facilities.
I glance back at a beautiful, dark-skinned woman, trying not to feel envious of her green uniform. Normally, I don't mind my job. In fact, I feel more at home in Mortuary Sciences than anywhere else. But part of me still longs to spend all day surrounded by plants. Nothing can be done about it now. The Occupation Exam is over, and I've been placed where I'm most effective.
The streets are crowded this time of day. People whoosh past us on bikes as those on foot press constantly forward. Only the car lanes remain vacant. Flapping flags in the New Order colors of red, white, and blue crack overhead. I shiver a little in the cool morning breeze.
We march past rows of tall silver-gray building--offices on the first two floors and apartments up above. We make good time until we hit the Citizen Family Planning and Reproductive Services Building. Traffic stalls. A tall man ahead of us shifts from side to side, waiting.
"What's going on?" Mom cranes her neck and rises on her toes. "Can you see?"
Indistinct voices argue up ahead. Strangers murmur but avoid making eye contact. After a long pause, the people in front of us begin to shuffle past the building. A few cast furtive glances over their shoulders. Everyone's in a hurry to get somewhere. Now I see who is causing the fuss—a red-haired girl, who looks to be about my age, shoves an orderly away. The crowd behind us pushes forward. Tears stream down the girl's pale face. She backs away from the building and turns as if to run before doubling over. She cries out in pain and clutches her swollen belly, breathing hard.
In her moment of weakness, the Suits surround and restrain her.
"I won't do it! I won't do it!" the pregnant girl screams as they drag her away.
"Let's get out of here." Mom grabs my shoulder and steers me onwards.
"What won't she do?" I refuse to move, staring as the bawling, red-haired girl disappears behind the Family Planning sliding glass doors.
"Hush, Silvia. And don't gawk."
"Tell me what's going to happen to her," I beg.
Mom's eyes widen as the crowd spills around us.
An older woman grumbles, "Get out of the way. Get out of the way."
Mom slips a slender arm around my shoulders and propels me ahead, whispering in my ear. "Don't make a scene. Don't ruin your birthday."
I pull back. I'm not the one who ruined my birthday.
She pushes harder. "Silvia, it's none of our business. She's probably having a bad day. Pregnant women get very emotional. I certainly did when I carried you."
Scowling at her non-reply, I step away, almost into the path of the first car we've seen all morning. A staccato of horn blasts chases me back into my proper lane of traffic. The long, black limo eases past as we hustle on our way. I peer into the dark-tinted windows but can't see a thing.
"Come on!" Mom grabs my arm, and we melt into the crowd.
"I just want to know who's in there."
She shakes her head. "You're always too curious for your own good. What difference does it make?"
"What's wrong with being curious?"
She winces. "Your father used to say that."
"Really?" My ears prickle. She never talks about him. "Tell me more. About Dad."
She takes a shaky breath. "Not today, honey. Okay?" She pats my arm, a guarded smile on her face. "Try to be more careful, okay?"
We rush on in silence for the next three blocks until Mom pauses at Genetic Testing and Counseling.
"Why are we stopping?" I ask.
She averts her gaze. "You're eighteen now. You have to get tested."
"Today?" I can't believe this. "I thought we were going to the park."
"We are. But as a condition of both of us getting the day off, we need to stop in here first." Her appeasing tone switches to don't-mess-with-me-now. "Don't give me that look. It won't take long. I promise."
"Fine. Let's get this over with. It's not like I'm afraid of blood or anything."
The overhead bell jingles softly as we enter the cool waiting room. Bamboo flooring muffles our footsteps as we approach the counter of nurses checking in patients. The bright blue banner over their head reads: Genetic Testing: It's the right thing to do. Be proactive and informed about your health!
We are next in line. I cross my arms and tap my foot. This better not take too long. I don't want to waste any time we could spend at the park.
"Patient's name, age, and heritage?" a middle-aged nurse asks, clipboard in hand.
Mom nudges me forward.
I clear my dry throat. "Silvia Wood… eighteen years old, exactly." I turn so she can check the microchip embedded in my upper right arm, careful to keep my wrists covered with my long sleeves. "Half Japanese, half White European."
"Well, happy birthday to you." She smiles as she scans the microchip and records my Citizen Number. Her perfect teeth seem even whiter against her coffee-colored skin.
I tense, but her eyes are kind. She has no idea what this day means to me. "Thank you," I manage to choke out.
She leads me down a hallway. "We can take the first room on the right. Mrs. Wood, you're welcome to join us. We encourage family participation."
Once we reach the room, she flicks on the occupancy light over the door. "Please take a seat. My name is Lucinda Mayer." She smiles again. "It will only take a second to enter you into the computer, and then I'll ask you a series of questions."
"Okay." I sit on a wooden bench, surrounded by walls the same green as a fig tree leaf.
"No need to be nervous, young lady. I'm very good at drawing blood. It will only sting for a second."
"I'm not worried about that." Still unnerved by the crying girl a few blocks back, I try to sound braver than I feel. "I work in Mortuary Sciences. Blood doesn't bother me."
"Then there's nothing to be anxious about. Now let's get started."
Nurse Mayer fires off questions. Mom answers most of them before I can even open my mouth. I nod and grit my teeth, trying to hide my irritation.
Ever since my Occupation Exam, Mom keeps looking for opportunities for me to get ahead, to "stand out and shine" as she puts it. She is so disappointed I didn't test "exceptional" like she and Dad did. Instead I've been labeled "empathetic."
Empathetic? I'm not sure how they came up with that. I certainly don't feel very kindly toward my interfering mother at the moment.
"Are you currently sexually active?" Nurse Mayer asks.
Mom clamps her mouth shut and turns to me.
Nurse Mayer continues. "There's nothing to be ashamed of if you are, young lady. Just answer the question truthfully. It's important."
"No. I don't even like boys."
"Do you prefer girls? Because that alters which genetic tests we'll run. But either answer is perfectly acceptable."
"I know it is. But, no, I didn't mean that. I don't like anyone." I flush and stammer. "I mean, they don't like me. Most of my friends stopped talking to me when I started working in the Mortuary."
Mom throws me a warning look which says: try not to look like a social pariah.
"Not that I'm complaining. I like my job." I fake a smile to assure the nurse I'm perfectly Normal.
The nurse raises her eyebrows. "You like your job?"
"Yes. It's interesting." I glance at Mom for support. "Aren't I supposed to like my job? Isn't that what the Occupational Exam is for? To make sure everyone likes what they do?"
Mom cringes. "Please answer the questions, dear. Don't make up so many of your own."
Nurse Mayer chuckles. "My daughter is about your age. Just starting out, too."
"What does she do?" I ask to be polite.
"She works in Food Growth and Management."
"That's part of Plant and Protein Production, isn't it?" I swallow my jealousy. "Does she like it?"
"Of course." The nurse types with lightning speed. "Okay, only one last series of questions regarding your general health."
"Have you ever used any tobacco products?"
Mom leans forward. "No, she hasn't. I check her clothes for traces every day."
"You do?" I don't know if she's telling the truth or covering for me the one time I came home from work reeking of burnt hair. "I haven't used any of the Forbidden Drugs or Products. I wouldn't want to. I've seen first-hand what their use can do to the body."
Nurse Mayer glances at her computer screen. "Do you exercise the required thirty minutes a day?"
Mom interjects. "She insists on taking the stairs every time. She never lets me use the elevator, and our apartment is on the sixth floor."
Poor Mom. She so wants other people to be impressed with me.
I clear my throat. "I'm a member of 37th Street Health and Productivity Gym. You can check my account. I'm there every day after work from four until at least six. Even longer on my days off."
"Thank you. I'll include that information with the report. Now there's only one more question, but I'll check your vitals first," Nurse Mayer says.
"Why?" I ask.
Mom's face reads: don't ask why.
"Stress affects a person's blood pressure," the nurse explains. "Wouldn't want to submit an artificially elevated reading." She measures my height, weight, body fat with calipers, and blood pressure. "All your values are with normal ranges. Physically, you appear to be a very healthy young lady."
"I run at least an hour a day at an eight-minute-per-mile pace," I say and then cringe. Great. Now I'm the one trying to impress her.
"That's very good." Nurse Mayer laughs. "I could only do that if I was being chased."
"Who would chase you?"
"Hopefully that fine-looking actor in the latest James Bond movie, but then I would let him catch me." The nurse winks and sets aside the blood pressure monitor.
"I haven't seen that movie." Gus thinks I don't watch enough movies for a young woman my age. Maybe he's right.
"You should." She turns back to me, but now her face is somber rather than joking. "Are you ready for the last question?"
"Okay." She takes my cold hands in her warm ones. "Now, Silvia, be honest. How many times have you attempted suicide since your father's death?"
Released by Curiosity Quills October 2015.
Dead Girl Running is dedicated to
the memory of my father, Jerry Anderson,
who died from complications
of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Find Reviews, Interviews, & Giveaways
on my RELEASE WEEK BLITZ blog page.