After the war, my city decided that we should all act the same, for survival and our wellbeing. If we don’t, then we are relocated. But I don’t agree.
When Rose discovers a house full of objects she doesn’t recognise and a mysterious boy, she begins to question the soundness of her city’s rules.
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I stare into the shiny silver object, polished wood running around the edges. It is mounted on the wall of the abandoned house just outside the outskirts of Eodem. This house contains a lot of objects I don’t recognise. Like this, for instance. Inside the reflective object that reaches the floor is a girl, five foot five, with shoulder length, caramel coloured wavy hair.
Her coffee eyes look deep into mine, her skin is tanned and she holds herself in the exact same position as me, down to the wavering outstretched hand.
I have been coming to this house for over a year, puzzled by the girl trapped in the object in the wall, who mimics my every move, even trying to speak when I do. Every time I come here I try to reach out to make contact with this trapped girl, but my courage fails and I leave. Not today. Today I turned thirteen.
In my city everyone has to think, act and say the same things. If anybody has a thought that is even slightly their own, Victoria Gunthrob’s band of mindless followers send them to the nearest city; Rochalim.
Rochalim is just an average, everyday city. Except that it is the complete opposite to where I live. Their rules are ours, but flipped. Rochalim believe that thinking the same weakens a city; that having an original thought makes it quicker and more efficient to find a solution to a problem.
They hold a council every Wednesday, where every member of Rochalim gathers in the town hall and they discuss the main problems within their city. The minister, Arthur Leones steps onto the podium and announces that week’s problems. He then states his solutions. Anybody who raises their hand is also allowed to present their ideas to the audience.
Arthur Leones, after everybody has had their say, tells the city what he and his ten accomplices have decided are the best solutions. Arthur frightens me.
Every year, both of our cities get together and hold a meeting. The most important people discuss what their city has done to improve our wellbeing. They show the meeting on the television but my parents never let my brother and I watch it. Once, when I was nine years old, I woke up with a burn in my throat.
As I crept down the stairs to replenish my thirst I noticed that the living room door was ajar. The flickering light illuminating the hallway told me the television was on. After I quietly filled a cup from the sink I stood in the doorway and watched the screen.
Arthur Leones was arguing heatedly with a reporter. Red splotches had appeared on his usually pale cheeks and he was shaking his hands threateningly towards the man. My parent had muted the sound so I only watched in terror as I saw the reporter’s mouth move and Arthur bare his teeth in a snarl and lunge for the man’s throat.
The microphone that the man was holding dropped to the floor and two men dressed in black wrenched Arthur’s arms behind his back and led him into a building. The cup I was clasping slipped from my hands and thudded to the floor, water flooding everywhere.
It was silent for a moment, then I heard the creak of the sofa as somebody shifted, and I fled up the stairs, leaping into bed. Across from me, I saw my twin brother Seth’s eyes flicker open. I put a finger to my lips and his barely visible eyes disappeared.
My father came in, checked we were both asleep and kissed us, then left. That night, my dreams were disturbed by the image of Arthur Leones, trying to rip out that reporter’s throat. Over the years, he has never had another incident like then, but some part of me has never eased up, always waiting for another loss of control.
Victoria Gunthrob, on the other hand, never loses control, which is unfortunate, considering you almost never see her apart from the annual meeting. Her approach to our city is that in order to squash any ideas of rebellion, a group of people will decide the solutions to our problems and our city will meet in the town hall to hear them.
Instead of everyone having free speech, Victoria says what the people (six people) have decided and we repeat the sentences three times as a city. That is another example of our unison and equality.
If anyone is heard to disagree with the decisions, they are relocated to Rochalim. These are mostly children, too young to be able to control their opinions. My city seems to think that curiosity is a bad thing. Victoria monitors every house, park or anything with people. Except for this house.
In the war that wiped out millions of civilians, this house was the only one far enough from the city to remain unscathed. As it was full of things that are unknown to me, but presumably would make people feel different to everybody else, the government left it alone.
Every morning, at seven AM, the whole city takes a pill to strengthen the need to act the same as everybody else, by altering their facial appearance. Every time I look at somebody, it is the same face as the previous person, with an alter in hair length depending on the gender.
But in this house, there are things that make me feel different, like the object I am gazing into. I remind myself of the reason I came here today and steel myself. I touch the surface. The girl in the object meets my hand, but where warm skin should be, is only cold glass. Weird, I think. She isn’t real.
Suddenly, I hear a sound floating into the room from the living room. Someone else is here. Cautiously, I move downstairs and into the room with the black box that is now emitting sounds. Somebody is sitting on the stool, their back to me, fingers sweeping along the varying black and white lengths of some material that looks like bone. Maybe ivory. As the person presses down on each individual strip a different sound is heard.
I realise that I have unconsciously crept forward, mesmerized by the box. I have been fascinated by it for years, but never knew what it did. “What are you doing?” I ask the back f the unknown person. They start and turn around. I let out an involuntary gasp. It is a boy, but his features are distorted. He is not the same as everyone else.
He grins at me. “Playing a piano.”
“A what?” I breathe. He turns back to the box and points at it. “This is a piano.” He then points at the strips of ivory. “These are keys.” He presses each key in turn. “And these are notes.” He plays a set of keys. “This is a tune.” I edge closer. “Can I try?” he nods and stands up.
I sit on the stool and tentatively press down on a white note. As soon as my finger makes contact with it a sound comes out of the open gap in the piano. I jerk away and land on the floor. The boy laughs as I sit there, confused and in shock, and stretches out his hand. I stare at it. In my city touch us forbidden. The most you can get away with is brushing against a shoulder accidentally.
This type of deliberate contact is enough to get relocated. “Come on,” the boy says. “Victoria doesn’t watch this place.” It takes only a few seconds for me to accept his hand. I grasp it and he pulls me up. I let go. His hand was warm and strong, enjoyable to hold. What is so wrong about that?
I sit back down and press a note again. This time the sound doesn’t startle me and I play another. The boy crouches beside me and plays the same tune as before when I entered the room. I watch carefully and try to copy him, to no avail. The tune is played again and I press each key in turn. Still not right.
The boy plays each note slowly and I copy. He speeds it up and I still imitate it. Finally he plays it at the original speed and I play it back. “Yay!” I yell. He holds up his hand. I look at him, confused. “It’s a hi-five.” I slap my palm against his and he grins. “You are learning!” I laugh and glance out of the window. The sun is setting. Almost seven. I sigh and stand up. “I’ve got to be back for dinner.” The boy catches my hand. I don’t jerk away. “What’s your name?” he asks.
“Rose.” I answer. I was named after a blooming rose my mother saw outside the window a few hours after giving birth. The bright colour reminded her of my reaction after I was born. I stared up at her, my eyes already dark and smiled. Later she told me the smile was so beautiful, just like the rose, that there was no other name for me.
The boy says, “That’s a pretty name. I’m Logan.” I smile at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Logan.”
“Sure.” he answers quickly. I am smiling when I step outside into the cool breeze, shutting the door behind me. The wind whips my hair around my face, strands floating in the breeze. I look over my shoulder. Logan is waving from the window. I wave back and begin walking towards the city.
When I open the door to our house and walk in, I smell bacon. Sliding into the kitchen, I sigh contentedly. “Aah, bacon sandwiches.” My mother stands with her back to me, her hair falling over her shoulder. As she slices the bread she says, “You’re late.” I saunter over to the frying pan and take a piece of bacon. “No, I’m not!” I say, lifting the bacon to my lips. “Late is when you have a watch and can confirm it. Last I checked you don’t have a watch.”
My mother smacks my hand. “Hey, leave some for your brother and father.” The bacon lands on the island after burning my fingers. “Oww!” I complain. My mother says, laughing, “Serves you right!” She slides the bacon in between two slices of bread, places it on a china plate, and hands it to me. I am about to bite into it when she yells, “Seth, Rose has your dinner.”
There is a thud as Seth clambers down the stairs. My mother whispers to me, chuckling, “Only time he’s come downstairs today.” Seth appears in the doorway, hair dishevelled. He snatches his sandwich from me. “Thanks,” he says, and starts to head upstairs. I grab my lunch and am about to follow suit when my mother says, “Family dinner!”
We both groan in unison. Once every week, my mother decides that Seth and I are ‘too isolated’ and calls a Family Dinner. We all sit around the kitchen table and eat our dinner, whilst my mother chatters about random topics until we can leave. It is always awful, but we stick it out. Today, however, I decide to play the ‘revision’ card.
“Mum,” I begin. “My exams are coming up and I need to revise… so can I eat in my room?” my mother sighs, and pushes her fringe back from her forehead. I watch hopefully as she deliberates, a slight frown creasing her forehead. Finally, she nods. I thank her and rush up the stairs, glancing at Seth’s annoyed face with glee. I leap onto my four-poster bed.
As usual, the sheets, duvets and hangings are exactly as everybody else’s in the city. The sheets for the winter are white, folded on the edge of the bed. The duvet is sky-blue with a light shade of orange decorating the edge, as are the hangings.
I glance down at my now empty hands and groan. When I leapt onto the bed my sandwich landed on the floor. Luckily the bacon is saved. I scramble onto the dust-free floor and pick it up, blowing on the bread to get rid of any unseen bacteria. Then I sit cross-legged on my bed, munching my dinner.
In about a minute it has disappeared down my throat. I reach for my revision cards lazily, trying to will them to fly into my outstretched hand, so I don’t have to move, with no luck. With a loud sigh, I stand up and snatch the cards off of my immaculate (by my standards) desk.
My idea of immaculate is to be able to see at least one spot of cream paint amidst my school books, homework, various brushes, random brushes and notebooks and my vase of roses and irises, a symbol of my mother and I, whose name is Iris.
Seth and my father, Horace, are named after Seth and Horus, the gods of a religion called the Egyptians. They worshipped these gods around seven thousand years ago. Luckily, our names are the only parts of us that do not have to be identical to everybody else. It’s odd. You would think that people having unusual names would be more of a danger to dissimilarity.
I lie on the bed and spread out the revision cards in front of me, my mind trying to decide which subject is least tedious. I finally settle on maths and begin memorizing the correct way to work out Simultaneous Equations.
A couple of thousand years ago children and adults were taught a variety of different subjects with no boundaries as to what they learn. Now, my city learns Maths, science with no ‘own words’ questions, history and geography. These subjects all have been eliminated of ‘your own thoughts and ideas’ questions.
In Rochalim, however, they are taught almost everything. English, Science, History, Geography, Art, DT, Drama and Music. These subjects are eliminated of the questions that can cause pupils to write the same answer. If two students do write the same answer, the person who wrote the answer down the latest is relocated to Eodem.
In Eodem, if pupils write completely different answers to the manuscript answer written by the writer of the test, they are also relocated. It is almost impossible not to get relocated in these tests.
After what seems like a day my mother calls to me, “Rose, get ready for bed!” I gather up my revision and place them on my desk. I undress and slip into my red and black pyjamas, brush my hair and teeth and walk downstairs. “Night Mum and Dad,” I say. They glance up from the sofa to check I am dressed and reply, “Goodnight.” I run back upstairs and shut the door, turning off the light.
Then I lay in bed, too excited to sleep, wondering what amazing things Logan is going to teach me tomorrow. I remember the way his face looked, distorted, like the pill he took didn’t quite work on him. I blink, getting rid of the strange thoughts and turn onto my side. Sleep takes a while to come, but I eventually drift off.
When I wake there is no sound of movement in the house. Blinking to get rid of the sleep in my eyes, I silently pull on the black jeans, white v-neck shirt and leather jacket my city wears on Sundays. Then I hurriedly brush my tangled hair, pulling it back into a low ponytail, and run downstairs to the kitchen, only pausing to stop a coat falling off of the banister.
I creep into the kitchen; grab an apple from the bowl of fruit on the island and dash from the house, eager to learn more about the mysterious objects in the abandoned house. The house is about ten minutes away, if I walk.
To get to it; I have to pass the all-day monitoring room. If Victoria spots me I will be hauled up to the town hall, where I will have to state my reason for wandering around the city for purposes other than collecting the food from the food storage building.
If my answer isn’t satisfactory, then I will be relocated. Just thinking about it makes my palms tingle with dread. Then I think about the piano and countless other wonderful things that I could learn about in that house, and my fear disappears.
I straighten my back, square my shoulders and walk confidently into the centre of Eodem. I pass the school I attend, doors shut and windows closed. The building where our food arrives daily, is bustling with people, waiting patiently in line, all with their hands folded behind their backs.
Of course. Today is Sunday, so today is roast chicken, with plenty of vegetables. Victoria wants us all to be equally healthy, to prove to Rochalim that we are the best city. At six forty five every day, one member of the family must pick up the daily food assigned to them. Today it is my father’s turn. I inconspicuously search the crowd for him.
I spot him near the front; head bowed, and quickly move on. After a while, I reach the boundaries of Eodem. After checking that no one is watching, I break into a run and sprint towards the house in the distance. It is in the middle of a field, the grass growing wild and unkempt, a shocking change to the neat, normal grass in Eodem. Mud clings to my ankles and holes in the ground cause me to stumble a few times.
I am so excited. Finally, I will know what that house holds. I reach the house and bend over, panting. The door is slightly ajar and I smile. The prospect of seeing Logan makes me stand up, breathing slowing. I push the door open fully; it creaks in a comforting way. A flowery smell drifts out of the open door, almost like a rose. I walk into the house, carefully shutting the door behind me, and turn towards the living room.
When I step into the room I see that somebody has placed a vase of roses on the piano. I creep closer, and touch one of the beautiful red buds. “Pretty!” I whisper. Then I remember Logan. “Logan?” I call. Nobody answers. I frown. “Logan?” I say again, a little louder. Still no answer. I glance out of the window, mesmerized by the swaying trees, and someone clamps a hand over my mouth and pulls me onto the floor, one hand around my waist.
I bite down on their hand, hard, and they release me with a small cry of pain. Then I elbow them in the stomach and scramble away, adrenaline pulsing through me. I race upstairs, glancing over my shoulder to check whether my attacker is pursuing me.
Then I turn my head back to the direction I am running, just in time to see the low wooden beam slam into my head. I carry on running for a few seconds, sway and collapse on the floor, my vision going dark at the edges. I fight to keep my eyes open, head inches away from the floor, then I lose my strength and it slams onto the floor. My vision goes black.
Bright lights swirl around my close eyelids, sometimes accompanied by purple circles. My forehead throbs, and something warm sticks to my neck. I groan and open my eyes, touching my temple to ward off the pain, and see Logan above me, distorted face scrunched up in concern. “Hey, someone left a beam up there,” I say, trying to stand up and clutching him for support.
He smiles. “That was really stupid, you know,” he tells me. Even though he’s smiling I can see the worry in his eyes. “When did you get here?” I ask. Then I realise why I hit my head and say, “Someone was chasing me! That’s why I hit my head!” Logan looks almost sheepish. “What?” I ask.
“It was me. People were watching the house and they would have seen you.” My original confusion and anger over his confession has been replaced by worry. Are they still here? Why? Who told them that we were here? Are we going to get relocated?
I voice all of these questions out loud and Logan says, “I don’t know, but we can find out.” He reaches into his back pocket and brings out a red and white striped pill, the complete opposite to the ones taken in the morning. Those are black and yellow, like a bee, and taste like a wasp’s sting in your throat. I glare suspiciously at the pill. “What… does it do?” I ask, narrowing my eyes.
Logan begins to explain. “Well, you know the pills that the whole city takes in the morning so that everybody looks the same.” I nod. “The pill erases any difference in your face to anyone else’s.” He holds up the pill. “This erases any effect that the pill has on you.” My brain begins spinning. “You mean I will be able to see what people really look like?” He nods.
Tentatively, I reach out my hand and grab the red and white pill with my thumb and forefinger. I stare at it closely, examining it for any sign to mistrust it. “Do I just swallow it?” I ask Logan without looking up.
I take a deep breath, hold my nose and place the pill into my mouth. It is small enough to swallow without biting it so I gulp loudly and it slides down my throat. I gag inwardly. It tasted disgusting. Then I look up and gasp. Logan’s face is no longer distorted. His chestnut-coloured eyes shine brightly and his light brown hair sticks up in all directions. “You’re beautiful!” I say in awe.
He turns red then says, “Now see what you look like.” Logan grabs my arm and leads me along the corridor to the room with the trapped girl. Just before he enters the room he covers my eyes with one hand and presses the small of back to move me forward with the other. He leads me a few paces forwards, then uncovers my eyes and says, “That’s you!” I stare in confusion at the girl in the shiny object I had puzzled over yesterday. “No it’s not!” I scoff.
‘Yes it is,” Logan replies. “You’re looking in a mirror. It reflects what you look like; the pills don’t work on it. That’s why you’ve probably never seen one before in your life.” That’s me? I stare at the girl, and she stares right back at me, her caramel hair resting lightly on her shoulders, like mine is doing now. She wears exactly the same clothes as me, and her coffee eyes are wide in shock, like mine.
I reach out and touch the glass again, fingertips inches away from meeting the girl’s. Where our fingers should meet is only cold glass. I turn to face Logan and ask, “How did you discover this? And why?”
“My parents don’t notice me. At all. They pretty much left me alone so I started to wonder why we all looked the same. I used to be friends with a girl who was originally from Rochalim and she gave me this book. The characters were described in so much detail; their hair and eye colour, clothes and personality. I didn’t get why we didn’t all look different. I asked my friend if there was any way to reverse the effects of the pill and she gave me these.”
Logan reaches into his back pocket again and holds out a clear plastic packet of the pills. I take them and shove them into a pocket. “How will these pills help us discover why they’re watching us?” Logan stares at me. “What did my face look like when you had taken the pill that wasn’t good?” I think for a minute. “It was distorted. I had no idea what you looked like.” He looks impressed.