Dressed traditionally, we stand in straight lines waiting for the bus. Two arrive. They’re gray, made of iron. There aren’t any windows; it’s just a long vehicle with great black tires.
The doors open, and we file in from the back. The inside is just as plain as the outside, with lines of benches that we sit on. They wait for us all to get in, and then they bolt the door closed.
We sit silently and wait until the vehicle jumbles to life and we drive away. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever been away from school.
For years, I watched girls leaving in these buses for their new lives. I met their daughters, babies in the school nursery, but I always stayed in the same place, always watching out the window.
Now I’m the one leaving. I’m the one moving away, and those girls who I ate and slept with will recognize one of my daughters and remember me. It’s the circle of life.
I long to look out a window, to stare at my school for the last time. I had walked through the hallways, saying goodbye to friends and rooms, all morning, and I found I had no tears to cry.
I’m too excited, too nervous, to cry. I’m not even sad. My heart races and my stomach has butterflies, but I’m not sad. I don’t think I’ll miss school. I think it is my time to leave.
It’s time for me to become a mother, time for me to serve my nation. It has offered me seventeen years to live and learn; now I must give back. And I intend to.
Beth sits next to me, grinning. Every so often she turns to glance and wink at me. We hold hands tightly.
The trip isn’t long, but the road is bumpy and outside we hear bombs exploding in the distance. It makes us cringe.
The war has ravaged this land over and over. The outside air is so full of toxins that it’s deadly to be exposed for even a few seconds.
It’s what causes Defectives and Cripples to die too early in their factories. The factories aren’t as well sealed as the schools, establishments, and nurseries.
I’m twirling my hair around my finger when the bus stops. We wait until we hear the bells chime. We fasten our gas masks on as we’re told and wait.
The doors are unlocked and pulled open, and we’re dragged out of the bus. I only have a few seconds to glance at the establishment before I’m ushered inside.
Like all Albion buildings, it’s high and gray, like the land. Its edges are rough, the windows small, and the walls coated with cement.
Inside, we find ourselves in a small gray room. There are tables and chairs, sofas, and armchairs; a trembling chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and silver curtains line the windows.
The other girls and I stuff inside and wait, staring at the luscious cushions. They’re like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
We don’t wait long. A Perfect appears. She’s obviously past her prime; her skin is just as gray as the land.
She looks at us. “You’re the Perfects from School 64?” she asks.
We nod, though we’re still not used to being called Perfects. She nods, writing something down on her pad of paper.
“Congratulations. You will have a room each in this establishment until your first child. Then you’ll be sent to a nursery. As I call your name, I need you to come into this room with me here.”
She points at a door behind her before continuing. “I have a few questions, then you will be shown to your room and prepared for tonight.”
She eyes us all seriously. We nod. She does as well, then calls out number 987,533,512.64.5. Louise steps forward, her head held high.
Again we wait. We’re used to waiting. We’ve been waiting all our lives.
We wait to say our pledge each morning before eating, before class, we wait until midday when the blinds are lowered, the morning smog has disappeared, and we can look out the school windows at the gray earth.
We wait until the end of classes when we can gather in the main hall and talk for half an hour before supper. We wait until our tenth birthday, when we’re allowed to take our hair out of pigtails and leave it out.
Then we wait until our fifteenth birthday, when we’re allowed to pull our hair up into high ponytails. We wait until the Testing. Then we wait to become Perfects. Now we’ll wait to get pregnant.
“958,687,487.64.4,” the Perfect says, peeking her head out from behind the door. I rise immediately and hurry over to her. She holds the door open for me and then closes it behind me.
We’re in a sizable room with gray carpet and darker gray walls. There’s a window, but the blinds are down. A bulb hangs from the ceiling, basking the room in a yellow glow.
In the center of the room is a desk. It’s old; I can tell it was made before Albion. It’s made of dark-brown wood, and it’s been worn smooth over the edges.
The Perfect sits down behind it on an iron chair. She leans back against a gray cushion and indicates for me to sit across from her on a similar chair.
When I have done so, she leans forward and picks up a paper on her desk. The writing on it is very small, to use up the least amount of paper.
“I’m 98,439,718.104.22.168.6. You can call me ‘Eloise,’” she tells me with a small smile. “I think I might have known your mother. Do you know where she is now?”
“She died giving birth to my brother five years ago. He was her eighth, though, so she had a full life.” I shrug.
“There was a girl in my school two years younger than me named Alexandra.” She nods to herself. “Now, you’ve recently turned eighteen?”
“Yes, almost exactly one month ago.”
“And your first period was…seven years ago?”
“Any problems? Pains, irregularities?”
“You’ve been assigned room 312, which’s on the third floor. You take the staircase on your left when you leave the room; it will take you to the hall. That’s where we greet the young soldiers,” she tells me.
“You’re expected there every night at exactly seven o’clock. Your only excuse is illness or, of course, pregnancy. I also need to know, when was your last period?”
“About three weeks ago,” I reply.
“Hmm, that’s good. And you are regular?”
“Do you already keep track?”
“Um, no. I have an idea, but I don’t write anything down.”
“You must. The second you know you’re pregnant you’ll be transferred to the nursery, where you and your growing child will be cared for. We cannot lose a child.
“Perfects are so precious. Did you know that only forty percent of babies born turn out to be Perfects? That’s half the amount of Perfect babies born fifty years ago.”
“I didn’t know.”
“And more and more Perfects are becoming Defectives as well,” she tells me seriously. “I see so many girls pass through here, stay a year, then they are sent away.”
“But they are tested before declared Defective, aren’t they?”
“Of course. But they never stay.” She puts my file down and gazes at me. “Keep track and show me your calendar each morning. Be in the hall at seven this evening. You’ll see everything will go smoothly.
“For the rest, the girls will tell you how it goes. Prepare to have fun, Alexandra, you are a woman now. A Perfect woman. Learn to bask in it.”
She winks at me, then stands up. I quickly copy her, and she guides me back to the door. “Good luck,” she murmurs before pushing me out of the door and calling Veronica in after me.
I make my way back through the small entry room and then take the stairs on the left side. They take me upstairs, and I emerge into a well-lit charcoal room.
Long tables line the room, and curtains hang in front of the windows. There are thick gray sofas and armchairs full of Perfects sipping drinks and laughing.
They’re all older than me: girls who arrived here six months ago, girls who have already had children. The older ones, in their twenties, might even be waiting to produce their eighth and final child.
They’re dressed traditionally, with their blond hair pulled back tightly. They look so glamorous.
A few girls from my school stand to the side, sipping drinks and watching them with wide eyes. Beth stands in one corner talking to one of the older Perfects.
I make my way toward them slowly. Beth notices me and gives me a small smile. “Alex, this is Juliet,” she says, introducing me to the older Perfect.
Juliet beams at me and tosses her loose hair. “Alex?”
“Yes.” I nod, and she laughs lightly.
“We got put in adjoining rooms,” Beth tells me. “Teacher Ingrid arranged it for us.” She grins. I let out a small sigh of relief and smile at Beth.
“I’m in room 313, on your other side, Alex,” Juliet tells me. “Need anything, anything happening, just come to me. I’m happy to help.”
“Are you girls ready for your first night?”
“What’s it like?” I ask.
Juliet detaches herself from the wall she was leaning on and gazes at Beth and me. “Why don’t I show you to your room?” she suggests.
We nod and follow her as she moves across the room to a door. “So, what is it like?” Beth presses.
“Surprising,” Juliet answers finally, pushing the door open and revealing an iron staircase at the end of a dim hall.
“312 and 311 are on the third floor. We’re close to the hall, which means we’re close to the food. We get breakfast first.”
“What did you mean by ‘surprising’?” I ask as she guides us up the stairs.
She doesn’t look back at us when she talks. “I won’t lie to you. It’s scary. It hurt the first time, quite a bit. But then it starts to feel nice.”
We emerge into a long hallway. She walks us down it, and I notice the numbers on the doors. She stops at number 311.
“Yeah. Sometimes. You’ll see. This is you, Beth. The doors don’t have locks.” She pushes it open. “And you’re here, Alex.” She opens the next door along, and I peer inside.
My room is dark gray with a white carpet and one window with charcoal curtains. In the middle of the room is a large bed, the biggest bed I’ve ever seen. It’s covered with a thick gray cover and four pillows.
There’s a wardrobe hanging open and full of gray and red clothes. I glance at Juliet, who indicates for me to enter. She leaves the door open behind us.
I discover a door on the side wall, and I open it into Beth’s room. She moves into mine wide-eyed.
“These are yours then. Until you get pregnant. You won’t spend much time here. Just your nights and evenings with a soldier. The toilets are just down the hall. We spend most of our time in the hall.
“We go downstairs at ten each morning for breakfast, then we go to the working hall. I’ll show you later where we help the soldiers some more. We make whatever needs to be made. You’ll see. We have fun.”
Juliet fingers the covers on my bed.
“How long have you been here?” I ask her.
“About five months now. I’m starting to get worried,” she admits. “I’ll be down tonight. Maybe it’ll be my lucky night!”
I nod, and she laughs again. “I’ll let you get settled in, and see you downstairs at seven.”
I nod again as she leaves my room and closes the door behind her. Beth and I stand in my room, staring at the bed for a few seconds, then glance at each other.
“Is it normal that I’m scared?” she asks me.
“I think so.” I give her a small smile.
“Five months.” She takes a breath. “That’s long.”
“She still has seven more,” I reply, reaching up and pulling my hair out. It tumbles down my back, and I shake it out.
“Yeah, but still.” Beth bites down on her bottom lip. “She might be Defective. She might contaminate us.”
I frowned. “I don’t think she can contaminate us until she’s declared Defective,” I reassure her.
“You really think so?” She takes another breath, and I nod firmly.
I glance at the clock on the wall. “We have an hour,” I tell her, counting the numbers on the clock face slowly.
Beth nods and takes a sip from my drink. She makes a face and then sips it again.
“It’s for our people,” I remind her.
“I’m proud to be producing Perfects for Albion,” she says, but it sounds like she’s reciting from a book.
“You should be proud. Very proud to be chosen, to have the privilege of seeing a Perfect soldier, and giving him and this land a Perfect child.”
She nods. “I’m going to lie down for a while,” she tells me, turning and disappearing through the adjoining door.
I wait for it to close behind her before sitting down on the gray carpet and hugging my legs to my chest.
Thoughts jumble inside my head. I remember a teacher, a Perfect. Teacher Emma, she was called. She had eight sons and was an impressive Perfect, very well-respected.
I remember being in complete awe when I saw her step into the classroom in the early afternoon to teach us how to assemble bombs.
It was difficult for us; we were five when we started that class, and our chubby childish hands had a hard time finding the right slots for each piece of metal and wire.
They had to be perfect too; we weren’t allowed to make mistakes. But the bombs back then were only the simple ones. The older we got, the more technical the weapons became. I was ten when they first let me use a welding iron.
I remember, being five, leaning over my bomb, twisting wires together with my tongue stuck out. Teacher Emma stopped next to me and kneeled.
“Keep your tongue inside your mouth, Alexandra,” she told me.
I nodded and sucked it in loudly. She laughed lightly, and I remember grinning at her. But then the joy left her eyes as our gazes lingered. Her hands balled into fists, and tears sprang to her eyes.
“How old are you, child?” she whispered.
“Five and three months,” I told her.
“Twelve years,” she said. “Twelve years, then you’re leaving this place.”
“Yes, Teacher Emma,” I replied.
“Are you excited?”
“Yes, Teacher Emma! I want to serve my country! I would leave earlier if I could! Can I? If I have my bleed earlier, can I have babies for my country earlier?” I asked.
A single tear trickled down her cheek, and she quickly wiped it away.
“I remember being five and three months,” she told me. “I had a very good friend. Her name had been Melissa. Do you have a good friend?”
I’d pointed at Beth, who was wrapping her wires in her hair and laughing. Teacher Emma glanced at her, then back at me. “Melissa was just like that.”
“Yes, she was declared a Cripple at our Testing because her teeth were too large.”
I remember making a face at this.
“I stopped talking to her that day, and I left for the establishment the next morning when she left for a factory. I only found out she was dead when I saw her name on a list in the nursery after my fourth son.
“I remembered her suddenly and felt very sad. She’d been blown up. Though the factory was in a dangerous zone, they hadn’t warned them or given them any sort of evacuation. They were sacrificed, I don’t know what for.”
“Eternal Albion,” I’d informed her.
Teacher Emma just stared at me, then wiped another tear from her cheek. “Girls. That’s all we have left. Girls and boys. All my boys are dead.”
“For Eternal Albion.”
“Oh, Alexandra, you’re such a pure child. You have such potential.”
She’d stared at my meticulous mix of wires, all designed to connect perfectly to the explosives without separating and causing an explosion before they were set off and hurting any Perfects.
“Such potential,” she’d repeated. “You are a very organized and logical child. I’m not used to seeing such craftsmanship before the age of ten.”
I’d beamed at her praise.
“Will my bomb kill Foreigners?” I asked.
She gazed at me, then nodded. “Yes, it will kill many Foreigners,” she answered.
I smiled, pleased with her praises and my work.
“You’re so innocent. So innocent. You don’t know anything yet, and it will all be too late when you finally do understand.
“Alexandra, I wish I could tell you. I wish you could understand me. You shouldn’t look forward to anything, everything. Your future is gray. Gray and ashes and death. Forever.”
Then she bowed her head to sob.
I’d spoken about her sadness to Teacher Francis the next day, and that same day Teacher Emma was declared a Defective despite her eight Perfect soldier sons.
I was watched closely by my teachers for the next year for any signs of being contaminated. But I showed no signs; I had great potential for becoming just as fine a Perfect as Teacher Emma had once been.
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