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- ISBN: 9780399257339 (hbk.)
- ISBN: 0399257330 (hbk.)
- Physical Description: 325 pages ; 22 cm
- Publisher: New York, NY : G. P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 
"Nettie Starling has spent all her life on the set of a reality show, but as her friends mysteriously get cut, she learns that her seemingly-perfect world hides some dangerous secrets"-- Provided by publisher.
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Young adult fiction.
I like the hallway after lunch, when the sound of lingering Characters fills the space like a choir. Crickets with cameras on their shoulders weave through the crowd, searching for good scenes. Our lockers are right in the middle of it all, halfway between the schoolâs entrance and the cafeteria. I watch everyone from here, but my eyes keep coming back to Callen.
âSelwyn, tell us now,â Lia insists, pushing her flame-colored hair back as she kneels to rummage through the bottom of her locker.
Today, at lunch, Lincoln Grayson said heâd closed up with a girl at his parentsâ beach house last Saturday, after the Apocalypse (Lincoln likes his parties to have grandiose names) officially ended. We tried to guess who it wasâGeraldine Spicer? Caren Trosser?âbut he shook his head at each name we threw out.
Lia grumbled about the sin of secrets between friends, then accused him of making it up. Neither tactic got her a name. We left the cafeteria in a huddle, speculating feverishly, until Selwyn admitted that she knew the real storyââItâs not like he said. I heard the girlâs side.â
âI canât say anything else.â Selwyn fidgets with her liberato beads. âI overheard her talking to her friendsâLincoln will kill me if I give it up.â Iâm worried about the audiotrack: Selwynâs voice is naturally soft, and with the noise in the hall, I can barely hear her. Last quarterâs mark landed me on the E.L., so I need to make sure all my scenes are fit for broadcast. With a quick flick of my fingers (to the Audience itâll look as if I scratched my neck), I straighten the microphone pinned to my collar and step forward an inch, closing the gap between us.
âWeâll keep our mouths shut, right, Nettie?â Still crouched down, Lia jabs my ankle with her elbow. Her eyes flit up to me, searching for support.
I always say what she needs to hear. âI wonât tell anyone,â I promise, tracking Callen as he moves away from his locker, accompanied by Rawls Talon, the Pigeonsâ second baseman. Callenâs hair, so blond itâs almost white, makes his path through the mass of Characters easy to follow. He ends up in front of the principalâs office, checking out the poster tacked to the bulletin board.
I canât see it from here, but I know it by heart. I was with Lia when she wrote it.
SCHEDULE AND GUIDELINES
The Seventy-Third Apprenticeship Announcement
10 A.M. Mayorâs Speech
10:15 A.M. Poem
10:30 A.M. Ceremony
Semiformal dresses for girls
Suits and ties for boys
Selwyn gazes intently at her liberato moccasins, until finally, she squares her tiny shoulders and coughs it up. âMollie Silverine.â She grins, relieved the pressureâs off. The smile turns lopsided as she curls her lip down to conceal the chip on her upper left canine tooth. No one but her notices the flaw, but sheâs still self-conscious about it.
Lia smirks. âMollie Silverine? Youâre kidding. I guess this wonât make her gossip column.â Sheâs stopped rummaging, focused on our conversation.
âItâs not like that. She was sleeping, and Lincoln tried to, like, nuzzle her,â Selwyn goes on, âand she seriously thought he was the dog and pushed him away. Didnât sound like a close-up to me.â
âOf course there was no close-up,â Lia says scornfully. âI donât think Lincolnâs evââ
âShhh, keep your voice down.â Selwyn flaps her hand, eager to avoid the scrutiny of the Characters crowding the hall.
âLincolnâs never even kissed anyone,â Lia whispers.
âHe probably wanted her to play Spate with him,â I joke, miming Lincoln briskly dealing cards, my tunicâs clumsy bell-shaped sleeves fluttering in the air. Lincoln loves Spate. Heâs gotten so into games that heâs knocked down glasses at our lunch table in his playing fervor.
âLincoln and his Spate.â Lia sighs. Selwyn giggles. I roll up the sleeves of the blouse. I canât wait for the motif change; Iâve about worn this shirt out. A smile lingers on Liaâs face as she starts sifting through the junk in her locker again. Sheâs one of those Characters whose smile transforms her. Without it, the even, defined lines of her faceâhigh cheekbones, firm jaw, and hard green eyesâmake her seem cold.
Selwyn moves closer to me and Lia, trying to seal us off from the rest of the hall. âRemember, itâs a secret.â
âWe know.â Lia doesnât look up. Old play programs and candy wrappers float down like autumn leaves. A pen clatters to the floor, and she snatches it up with a triumphant flourish. Itâs the slick red pen her dad gave her two seasons ago for her fourteenth birthday. She uses it when we work on the Diary of Destinyâshe thinks itâs lucky.
âThank God. I need all the help I can get for the chemistry test,â she says, standing up and shoving the pen in her pocket. She crushes the books and papers back into her locker and shoves the entire side of her body against the door to force it closed.
âYouâre as bad as Callen about that stuff. He sets his mitt underneath the oak tree in his backyard the night before every game for good luck,â I say, cringing as soon as the words leave my mouth. Mentioning him to her is a pinch I canât resist giving myself.
The corner of Liaâs mouth turns down, and she mutters, âCallen.â
I canât let it go. âWhat do you mean? What about him?â
Selwyn hums, flipping the top buckle on her cello case up and down in an uneven rhythm. Sheâs caught in a middle that Lia doesnât know about. Around us, the swirl of Characters intensifies as they move out of the hall toward classes.
âHe did that with his mitt last year,â Lia reports, âbut I donât think he cares anymore. He actually forgot to bring his mitt to practice yesterday.â She rolls her eyes. âThat reminds meâIâve got to talk to him about tonight. His parents are going to be out late. Maybe weâll finally.â
Nonono. I whip around and start twirling my combination with jittery fingers, getting it wrong on the first try. Lia just wonât stop talking about how Callen wonât close up with her.
âWhy do you think he wonât, Nettie?â she asks, smiling.
âScared?â I suggest. At last, I hear the click and my locker opens. Would he be scared with me?I feel my skin heating up, and poke my head into the locker so no one can see my embarrassment.
âPoor Callen,â Selwyn says behind me.
âPoor Callen?â Lia squawks. She leans her back against her locker, her face inches away from mine. She surveys the hall like a queen. âPoorme. Somethingâs wrong with him. What could it be?â
I grab my math book and back out from the locker, calmer. âMaybe itâs a ritual, like with the mitt.â I think itâs a reasonable guess. âLike if he closes up during baseball time, heâll lose games.â
âMaybe,â Lia says, drumming her fingers on her locker. âWhatever it is, he needs to get over it. Iâmready, you know what I mean?â Selwyn snorts with laughter, resorting to pressing her face against her arm to smother the sound.
I shrug. âNot really.â She knows Iâve never closed up before.
Lia sighs. âWell, he better not cancel again. I want to get home late tonight anyway. Momâs been on a rampage.â The drumming stops as she realizes sheâs said too much. Her eyes dart to the camera, risking a fine but hoping to make the footage unusable.
She succeeds in escaping the Audience, but not Selwyn.
âWhat rampage?â Selwyn asks hesitantly. Her inky black eyes are wide.
âHmm? Oh, well, you know how mothers can be.â Lia picks up the stylish straw bag she got forliberato, ready to make a run for it to escape the conversation. Sheâs kept her momâs alcohol problem a secret from other Characters and tries to avoid talking about it on-camera, even though the Audience probably knows.
âMy mom doesnââ
âWhereâs Callen?â Lia cranes her neck, scanning the hall. âThis is the last chance Iâll get to talk to him before practice.â
âBy the bulletin board, talking to Rawls,â I report. They arenât looking at the poster anymore. Now Rawls is gabbing away, and Callen is listening, as usual.
âOkay, great.â Her eyes flick past him and land on Mollie, the tall, coltish girl who spurned Lincoln, sauntering through the hall with her friend, brawny Thora Swan, Selwynâs apprenticeship rival. âMollie really dodged a bullet,â she muses. âSheâs so nice, and heâs so Lincoln. What if we sent a blind item about it in to her column? She might not even realize itâs about her, and heâd be so mad. What do you think?â
I shake my head.
âYouâre right,â she says, adjusting the bag under her arm. âToo mean. Okay, Iâm going to try to catch Callen. God, I should put a blind item in her column abouthim.â
I play along. âWhat precocious pitcher . . . ,â I begin while Selwyn starts fiddling with the buckle again, embarrassed.
âCanât close the real game,â Lia finishes with a chuckle. âBye.â She rushes down the hall, hollering his name. He looks up, grins, and waits. I like the way he waits. When Callen is still, he reminds me of a river, fixed in space yet coursing with inner energy. Lia catches up with him, and their hands join. They donât look right together. Her purposeful stride, his loose glide.
What a nightmare.
âSo weird and sad for you.â Selwyn squeezes my shoulder. She has a light touch. Sheâs like a doll come to lifeâher small, flat nose, inky black eyes, and wide face. Everything about her is mild and unthreatening, especially her girlish, whispery voice.
âLetâs talk about something else.â I wiggle free from her grasp and glance up at the clock across from our lockers. Ten minutes until class. âHowâs orchestra?â
Someone leaving the hall jostles her cello case, and she hugs it closer. Itâs almost as big as she is. âIâm practicing. A lot. Can you believe how close the Double A is?â
I stuff my math book into my book bag. âApril twentieth is still a month away.â The nearer we get to our Apprenticeship Announcement, the less excited I feel about whatâs supposed to be the most important day of my life.
Selwyn peers closely at me. âYouâre not excited?â
âI havenât been to Fincherâs much lately,â I confess. Itâs typical to put in a lot of hours at the apprenticeship you want before the Double Aâlike a pre-apprenticeshipâso the Characters youâll be working with can get a feel for you. Mine, the repairman apprenticeship, would be at Fincherâs Fix-Its, so I trudge down there every so often to tackle broken clocks and malfunctioning toasters. Itâs mind-numbingly boring. Imagining a life stuck in a dusty shop is depressing, but the alternativeâgetting anyassigned into some lame job no one wantsâis worse. When I feel depressed, I try to remember that lots of people in the Sectors donât even have lifetime jobs. Compared to the Reals, I have it easy.
Selwyn glances over her shoulder to make sure no oneâs eavesdropping, then turns back to whisper, âIs it because of Witson?â
âNo, not becauseâwell, not just because of Witson.â Unfortunately for me, Mr. Fincher is my exâs father, and Witson gets lurky whenever Iâm there. But healways blows his own cover by stumbling over paint buckets and nail boxes, then stammering apologies while I watch him pick the stuff up, thinking,I canât believe our lips ever touched. âIâd be okay with Witson if I felt better about the apprenticeship.â
âYou feel bad about being a repairman?â Selwynâs cello case rocks, pushed by some geeky sophomore girls standing behind her, and she reaches out and steadies it. âIt seems to fits you so well, though.â
âMom agrees with you. She thinks itâs perfect because I like to build stuff. But the garage feels like a bat cave, and the work all seems the same after a while,â I say. âItâs too late to switch.â
âTechnically not too late to do something else.â Selwyn purses her kitten lips and twists the buttons on her flowery cardigan as she thinks. âThe apprenticeship lasts a year, but your profession is forever. You can write whatever you want on the Double A application . . . or leave it blank.â
âIf I put something new in, Iâd be up against people whoâve already put in time. And blank means anyassigned, which would be a disaster. Face it, Iâm stuck.â I turn back to my locker, snagging the tunic sleeve on the handle. âLiterally.â
âAw,â Selwyn croons, rushing forward to help me untangle myself. Lia would have laughed.
Iâll be wearing this tunic after school when I bike to the Center for my Show Physical. Iâm so tired of billowyliberato fashions. Like Iâm tired of Fincherâs. Like Iâm tired of Lia and Callen.
âThink of the positive. You get the parts you need for your own projects free, like that diode thing for the radio youâre making,â Selwyn says, running her hand through her long midnight-black hair.
âYeah. Great.â I gaze into the lockerâs void, then pull out my chemistry book. âThatâs nice, but it doesnât help when Iâm in the garage, ready to claw my eyes out.â
Selwyn sighs. âAt least you know youâll probably get the repairman apprenticeship. I donât know ifââshe lowers her voiceââif I can beat Thora Swan for the orchestra one. She practices constantly. Sheâs abeast. Iâm going to end up anyassigned to trash collectionââ
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. I dimly register the sound of footfalls, their rhythm regular, mechanized. Selwyn stiffens and complains about how her parents wonât buy her a new cello. Then she stops talking, and so, I realize, has everyone elseâthe hall is silent except for those footfalls. I turn my head from my locker, dread fluttering through me, remembering my last ratings mark.
The Authority pass behind Selwyn, steps resounding loudly, and Characters move to the side to make room for them. They rush down the hall, a black blur. Five. Their guns jostle in their holsters.
âMy cello sounds oldâand out ofâdoesnât work right,â Selwyn pulls at her necklace, which closes around her neck, tight as a noose. I recite in my head what Mik, my producer, told me:Patriots are a natural part of life on the show.
Selwynâs voice trembles as the Authority stampede out of the hall, into the cafeteria. The choir grows louder as everyone struggles to get back into show mode.
âYouâre more fun than Thora, though, and the orchestra considers personality,â I say, moving my chin so that my mouth is directly over my mic. Selwyn bobs her head, incapable of speech.
â¢ â¢ â¢
Lia finds me on the stairs. Sheâs going down at the speed of a missile, her mouth tight, and Iâm plodding up, on my way to calculus, my shoulders hunched, my ratings mark blaring in my head. Before I can say anything, she drags me over to the side, by the railing, forcing Characters to break around us as they hurry to their classes.
âWhatâs up?â I say on-mic. I step up, and she bends down, and I let my hand fall over my mic. âWho was it?â
She straightens and taps her foot while she calculates how much time we have. Her catlike eyes sweep the space, on the lookout for crickets.
âCome with me to the bathroom,â she says. âI need to redo my lipstick.â
âOkay,â I agree. We can frall safely about the cut there, since bathrooms are off-camera. She grabs my arm, and together, we jog up the stairs, barging into the bathroom at the end of the hall, interrupting Mollie Silverine, Thora Swan, and Terra Chiven, who are clustered outside the stalls.
âHi.â Mollie sniffles, twirling her long honey-blond hair around a finger, fat tears rolling down her wan cheeks. Her blue eyes seem to well up even more when she sees me. My breath catches in my throat; sheâs probably thinking,Nettie will be next.
Thora, the cellist built like a linebacker, grunts hello.
Terra, a senior, unlike the other two, and their chubby little leader, steps forward and glares. Mostly at me. As usual. âShouldnât you be in class?â She sighs, knitting her thick eyebrows together. Her pigtails make her look a lot more innocent than she is. Terraâs intense about everything she does, from managing her social life to maintaining her grueling doctor apprenticeship to being extravagantly rude to me because she thinks Iâm into her crush, Scoop Cannery.
âShouldnât you be in class?â Lia retorts. âIâm fixing up my makeup.â She marches over to the window and plops her straw bag onto the windowsill.
âNettie, have you thought of wearing makeup?â Terra purrs. âI hear Deltonâs is having a sale on starter kits. But I guess it might be a little expensive for you, even with the sale.â
âUh, no,â I bumble, unable (as usual) to think of a plus-ten retort. Like Lia, Terra lives in Treasure Woods, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the island. The Arbor, where I live, is firmly middle class. I canât afford to buytoothpicks at Deltonâs. While Iâm struggling to think of a comeback, Terra and her friends start mouthing to one another. Characters learn to lip-read from an early age so they can frall without getting fined. The trio peppers their conversation with decoy on-mic remarks about makeup and other Delton sales.
âShe should check out the sale on Shake-It-Off,â Lia murmurs to me when I join her by the mirror. Shake-It-Off is a popular weight-loss drink that comes in candy-cane-striped cans. Sometimes I see empty cans at Liaâs houseâshe says her mom chugs them down before Show Physicals because her weight target is too low for her to achieve naturally. Which reminds me again that I have to go to the Center for my own Show Physical after school. Ugh. I want to just go home and forget about today.
âShhhh,â I hush Lia, worried Terra will overhear. Itâs funny but too mean. I actually do feel bad for Terra when I see how ruthlessly Scoop ignores her. I relate far too well to the torture of being infatuated with someone whoâs unattainable.
âShe deserves it.â Lia strides over to the sinks and turns on all the faucets. Then she returns to the window and heaves the sash up. Cars zoom outside. The idea is for Media1 to blame the cars and gushing water for the mashed audiotrack. She shoves aside her straw bag and sits on the windowsill, draping her long legs over the radiator.
âBelle,â she mouths. âShe turned sixteen two weeks ago. They got her in the cafeteria.â She brushes radiator dust off her fawn-colored skirt while waiting for my response.
âBelle Cannery?â I mouth, stomach lurching. Scoopâs sister. Slight and timid, with mousy brown hair that drooped onto oversized tortoiseshell glasses. Iâd see Belle when I went to visit Mom at the library. âBelle is a Patriot?â No wonder Mollie is so upset; Iâve never heard of someone being cut so soon after they became eligible. Itâs rare foranyone whoâs still in school to be cut.
Lia tugs my tunic, grabbing my attention. âLetâs do the Diary tomorrow morning, okay?â she says on-mic.
âYeah, come by around ten.â My gaze drifts behind her, toward the street with the cars and trucks and vans. Belle is probably inside one of the white Media1 vans right now, on her way to the Center.
âAll right, great. Oh, itâs on with Callen tonight.â Lia coughs lightly to refocus me. I drag my gaze back to her, but seeing her eyes makes me want to crumble, so I stare at the peeling linoleum floor. Off-camera places are never as nice as sets. âHis house,â Lia continues, undaunted by my lack of response. âIâll give you all the dirty details tomorrow.â Itâs a testament to how swerved off about Belle I am: these statements barely register. I keep my eyes on the sad, decrepit floor, in a fog.
Lia nudges my leg with her foot. I look up again, blinking.
âAre you okay?â she mouths briefly.
âRemember my last mark?â I mouth back. Media1 starts giving us ratings marks when weâre ten. For twenty-four quarters, reduced payments are the only consequence for Characters whose marks fall 10 percent below their targets. But after we turn sixteen, if our marks are 10 percent below target, we end up on the E.L., the Eligibility List, and can be cut at any time until the next quarter startsâthen the clock resets. I turned sixteen six months ago, and found out that I was on the E.L. at my most recent Character Report.
Lia nods briskly. âWhat was it again? One eighty-two?â
âOne sixty-eight,â I correct her. One hundred eighty-two is as low as Liaâs mind can go, ratingswise. âMy target was two thirty-two.â
Her mouth twitches like she just got stung, then her eyes soften, and she mouths, âYouâre not going to be cut, youâre impââ
âIâm on the E.L., Lia. When the producersâ circle was making their choice, my name was on the list, just like Belleâs. I could be next. I could be a Patriot.â
Just like my father.
âI get it, Nettie. Youâre on the E.L. But so are a ton of other Characters, and most of them arenât going to be cut. Especially not at our age. Youâre just scaring yourself,â Lia mouths. âYouâll be off in a few months.â Her back is to the sun, and her face is shadowed, the swirl of freckles around her eyes just visible. She looks majestic with her chiseled cheekbones and long neck. Her green eyes are glittering, framed by long, light eyelashes. She looks like she believes what sheâs saying.
I wish I could.
I see my faint reflection in the window, my wavy, dark hair hanging behind me. I grew it out forliberato, and it just passes my shoulders now. My features are friendly: heart-shaped face with slight lips, and a small, rounded, upturned nose. Itâs a good face, but suddenly, desperately, I wish it were more. I wish it were enough to entrance the Audience.
âYou donât know what will happen next quarter,â I mouth, turning to the other girls to escape Liaâs ineffective consolations.
âBelle didnât care enough about her ratings,â Thora mouths, crossing her muscular arms.
Mollie wipes her eyes on her sleeve. âI wonder if Scoop knows.â
âIâll be there for him,â Terra mouths solemnly. As if a sacred duty has been placed in her hands.
Lia pokes me, and I glance back at her. âI think sheâs the youngest Patriot in seven seasons,â she mouths. The bell rings, and the others trot out of the bathroom, laughing and talking about weekend plans as they get back on-camera. The door closes, and the noise from the hall slowly fades as everyone heads into classrooms.
Every year, around twenty-five Characters are cut. About two a month. The longer I live, the more likely I am to be one if my ratings donât improve.
Lia is watching me while she picks distractedly at the paint chipping off the windowsill. âNettie, youâre not like Belle,â she whispers into my ear.
âI might not be like her, but my ratings are like hers. Lia, youâre used to high ratings. Itâs never been easy for me. It wasnât easy for my father, either.â
Liaâs eyes glint with determination. âListen. Belleâs better off working for the company. You belong here, Nettie, not in the Sadtors, anddonât talk about your dad.â
Donât talk about your dad. When we were ten or eleven, I was obsessed with knowing where he was and what he was doing. What I really wanted was to knowhim, but that was impossible, so I tackled the where and what questions instead. Sometimes I try to solvelife, like itâs math or one of the toasters at Fincherâs.
The Contract says âPatriots are enlisted in the service of Media1 and are given lodging and food provisions for their lifetimes.â No more, no less. Still, rumors aboundâIâd heard that Patriots become producers for the show, that they receive new identities and assimilate into the Sectors, or that they do grunt work for Media1âmaintaining cables and building sets. I think Iâd heard about seven rumors altogether, and investigated all of them, dragging Lia along with me.
Iâd hover around the Center, hoping to catch glimpses of Patriots who had become producers. Iâd shadow crickets, hoping to catch them talking about the Patriots. Iâd pester Lia for ideas. Finally, sick of my obsession, she wrangled the truth out of our producer, Bek, who swore her to secrecy, then revealed that the Patriots work on publicity for Media1 in Zenta, the capitol of the Sectors. Writing about the show for magazines, creating posters and books for fans, giving interviews.
Not awful, but not for me.
âI just want to stay on the island,â I mouth. âI donât want to watch you on television from the Sectors.â The Sectors, the country the Originals fled from, where the Audience lives, is huge and varied, but thereâs no real stability like we have on Bliss: there are no guarantees about getting jobs or healthcare or even having a home.
Lia hops off the windowsill and puts her hands on her hips. âAll we need are some exciting plotlines for you. Plotlines that would make you branch out more. Make new friends. Or new more-than-friends. You havenât so much aslooked at anyone since Witson. A lifetime ago.â
Iâve looked at Callen. But I canât say that. Iâve thought about milking my crush to get off the E.L.âbest friends liking the same boy is a great plotlineâbut I donât want Lia to find out. So I confine myself to sneaking small glances and making little complaints to Selwyn.
âFour months since Witson, not a lifetime,â I mouth, moving closer to the window, my jeans pressing against the radiator. Snowney covers the hill leading down to the street, sparkling in the sun. The lawn is usually a blinding green, enhanced by paint the crickets spray on. Commenting on the snowney would be a good bet if I want some scenes on the show. Even if Media1 doesnât have footage of me, they can still work my dialogue over picturesque scenes such as snowney-blanketed hills. But all I can think is,Snowney machines kept me up late last night. Fralling.
âFour months is more than a whole ratings quarter. Iâll think up some plotlines tonight and we can talk about them when we do the Diary tomorrow.â Lia bites her lower lip, a habit she slides into whenever she gets away from the cameras. âBut you know what might really helpâhave you heard of the Initiative?â
âNo.â Itâs so rare for me to misread her. âThe Initiative,â she mouths again, more slowly. âHave you heard of it?â
âNo, what is it?â Sounds like one of Lincolnâs parties. I always hear about them through Lia. He never invites me directly.
âUm, never mind,â she mouths. She whips out a pale pink lipstick, thrusts her face in front of the mirror, and deftly applies it. âWe have to go to class. You have calculus, right? You should talk to Scoop.â
âAnd say what?â Scoop and I are friendly, but weâre not close.
âI guess, talk about whatever it is you two talk aboutâlike, triangles?â Lia suggests, only half kidding, as she turns off the faucets. âThe last Character he needs to see today is the Terror That Is Terra. Sheâll try too hard.â She gives me a once-over. âYou look really upset. Like, sickly. Crickets are right outside.â Now that she mentions it, I do hear cameras buzzing behind the door.
âDo this.â Lia pinches her cheeks.
I glimpse my pallid face in the mirror and obey Liaâs direction, then flex my fingers and roll my neck. Like Iâm about to step out into a brawl, but thereâs no enemy to prepare for. Just the Audience.
â¢ â¢ â¢
I walk into the classroom and slip into my seat next to Scoop. Weâve sat next to each other since the beginning of the school year. He started itâmostly so he could get me to help with his homeworkâbut now weâre sort of friends, strange as that might seem. Heâs this popular, charismatic, gorgeous senior, and in this class, Iâm quiet, raising my head only to answer questions. A lot of my shyness is because Iâm the only juniorâsave for the couple of days a month when my classmate Revere joins us, helping out Mr. Black in order to lock down the math teacher apprenticeship.
No charisma for Scoop today. He stares out the huge classroom windows that overlook the snowney-white lawn.
Iâm not sure what to say, so I study my deskâs surface until I find fresh graffiti scratched into it.The Initiative Sux. Lia didnât seem to think it was so sucky.
Mr. Black is always late, so Characters have spread across the room like an oil spill, talking and laughinghard, overcompensating for the shock about Belle.
âLet me know if you have any questions! Iâm here to help!â Revere Yucann calls out in his singsongy voice. Heâs in a button-down plaid shirt and jeans that have been pressed flatâhe always dresses well on his math-help days. Even his stringy hair is pulled back in a neater-than-usual ponytail. He flits from student to student, offering help with a dazzling smile. He winks as he passes me. Weâre not super-close, but Revere is one of the Characters I admire most. Always cheerful and generous with his time, even with the most duncelike seniors. Heâll make a great math teacher.
A cloud moves outside, and sunlight warms my cheek. Okay. Conversation idea. I think this is the longest Scoop has ever gone without talking.
âItâs so warm, youâd think it was summer,â I say. Too late, I remember the Missive from a week ago that said weâre supposed to pretend itâs cold. Hence, the snowney. The company likes it if our weather roughly coincides with that of the most-populated regions of the Sectors; sometimes they manipulate the weather with chemicals, sometimes they have us pretend, sometimes both. Bottom line: my flub wonât make broadcast.
Scoop turns his head, dubious, as if Iâve spoken in another language. My pulse quickens. With high cheekbones, a cleft chin, and dark brown hair that swoops over his brow like an ocean wave, he qualifies as handsome in a universally acceptable sort of way. Girls kind of melt around him. I found it hard to look at him when he first started talking to meâLia called it the Scoop Swoon. Sometimes she jokes about how we should date, even if the swoon wore off long ago.
âYou must be running a fever or something, because itâs freezing,â Scoop says finally, unenthusiastically. I exhale, relieved. He points to the knitted hat on top of his book bag. âI actually had to wear the hat inside, at morning assembly. Side benefit: I couldnât hear Martin.â
I laugh like itâs the funniest thing Iâve heard all day. Martin Fennel, the senior class president with the paunch of a fifty-year-old, transforms weekly announcements into extended soliloquies. Heâs an odd one. He and Lia used to go out, and sheâd chosen him to take her virginity (âdispose of her virginityâ is how she put it). Afterward she reported that heâd fumbled through the whole thing and talked the entire time.
My laughter seems to energize Scoop, who grins. âNinety-nine or a hundred?â he asks.
âWhat do you mean?â I smile back tentatively. He seems to be keeping it together.
âYouâre going to aim higher? Hundred and ten? Is that possible?â Scoop shifts sideways toward me.
âDo you mean the test? I think a hundred.â Math is my best subject; itâs always come easily to me.
He moves closer and glances at the cameras on the ceiling. I do the same. Only one is aimed at us.
He puts his hands around his mouth. âIâm worried about Belle. Where do you think your father is?â
Donât talk about your dad.
I remember my gloomy days about Dad all too well. I could save Scoop the gloom by telling him that theyâre doing publicity, but Lia swore me to secrecy, because she doesnât want to get Bek in trouble. I look down and start pushing the worn corner of my textbook back and forth, wishing we actually could just talk about triangles.
âHere, Iâm here.â Mr. Black bumbles in, wiggling his doughy torso to straighten the wire connecting his mic to its battery pack. As he contorts, we get a view of his ever-expanding bald spot, shiny as an egg. Everyone returns to their desks, moaning and groaning about the test. Mr. Black kicks haplessly at the doorstopper. Five tries later, the stopper is dislodged and the door swings shut. Heâs so awkward. A camera horror.
âLet me just, erghâone secondâum,â he says, pulling out papers from his briefcase. He begins passing them out, squeezing down the aisles between desks. âPut away your book, Ella. Only prayer can help you now.â He guffaws at his own joke.
Scoop gamely tilts his face to the camera-studded ceiling, closes his eyes, and joins his hands in mock-prayer. He and Belle have similar pillowy lips and hazel eyes. This is as close as Iâll ever be to Belle Cannery again.
When he opens his eyes, he catches me staring at him, and I blurt out, âIâm sorry.â Everyone hears me practically fralling on-mic, and the Terror That Is Terra exchanges a look of disapproval with Mollie.
âThat you didnât study for the test,â I add hastily.
âMe too,â Scoop says, tapping his pencil on his desk. Mr. Black passes out the tests, and I place my palms on the white sheet, trying to focus, but an uncomfortable feeling rises inside me, making my chest tight.
Belle didnât deserve this, even if the Originals did sign a Contract that allowed sixteen-year-olds to get cut. Even if Liaâs right about Belle fitting in more in the Sadtors. Belleâs too young to be torn away from her family.
I look sideways at Scoop. Should I tell him? Heâs jotting down answersâwell, guessesâon his test. He feels my gaze, raises his head, and grins his fast, electric grin, and I think about how he may fool the Audience, but he canât fool me. I canât forget the worst days of obsessing about my father: the turmoil, the uncertainty, the questions that build a cage around you.
Iâm done with the test twenty minutes early. Mr. Black dismisses me, and I bolt down the hall, slowing by the history classroom. Liaâs sitting at her desk near the front, next to Callen, her hand in her chin and her face relaxed. Iâm sure sheâs stopped thinking about Belle. Lia gets over stuff fast. I wave. The gesture catches her eye, and she lifts up her hand, smiles, and mouths, âEverythingâs okay, okay?â fast as lightning. I nod, and she turns back to the map of the island hanging at the front of the classroom.
Bliss Island looks like a four-leaf clover surrounded by endless blue. Everyone knows that itâs inaccurate, though. A chunk of the mainland Sectors, across from Avalon Beach, should be shown to the east. On the other side of the island, in the southwest, across from Eden Beach, should be at least some of Drowned Lands, an island chain, of which, strictly speaking, Bliss Island is partâI think Media1 leased the island from the Sectors government. The Drowned Lands, separated from the mainland by thousands of miles, are constantly causing problems for the rest of the Sectors by threatening secession.
But we just get the infinite blue because Media1 doesnât want us to think too much about what goes on out there.
I look away from the map and steal a glance at Callen. Heâs sitting next to Lia, in a faded red T-shirt and dark blue jeans, slumped back in his chair, his right arm dropped to his side, hand flexing unconsciously, a habit that began when he started pitching. I hear a long sigh echo through the empty hall and realize with horror that the sound came from me.Time to get out of here.
When I reach my locker, I stuff my books into my bag fast, as if they are hot coals. The more I think about Callen, the more I want him, and the more I want him, the farther away he seems. Which is absurd, because we actually live next door to each other; we used to sit on his porch and hang outâit was all so utterly normal. No foggy brain. No heart skipping. But our friendship got shaky once I became aware that I wanted more, then it collapsed completely when he started going out with Lia.
I got together with Witson to get Callen out of my head, but the main lesson I took from that relationship was that feelings canât be builtâor dismantledâthe same way clocks and radios can.
â¢ â¢ â¢
I lock my bike up in front of the Character Relations Building and hurry to the entrance, breezing past the display case containing the Contract and the seasonâs Missives. I hear a buzzing sound undercut by a shrill whistle, and I lift my head to the skyâfighter jet. There have been a lot lately, crisscrossing our airspace on the way to and from the Drowned Lands. Itâs okay for me to look at them in the Center, since weâre off-camera. In the past, when thereâd be flurries of jet activity, I chalked it up to training. Nowadays . . . well, either theyâre training a lot or the Drowned Landers are causing serious trouble.
I type my code into the number pad next to the door. It unlocks, and I walk into the lobby, which is overflowing with loud, fast-talking, sloppy Reals.
No matter what the hour, theyâre always working, purple and green nylon jumpsuits scratching, sneakers pounding as they circulate, gibbering to one another. I keep my head down as I walk to the stairwell thatâs reserved for Characters. I wonât get fined for acknowledging Reals in the Center, but that doesnât mean I want to interact with them. Lia says you can see a layer of grime on the Reals if you look close enough. Itâs probably because the Sadtors are such a mess. Thereâs lots of sickness since they donât have mandatory vaccinations and consistent medical attention, plus thereâs tons of pollution.
I climb to the fourth floor, Show Physicals. The lights are low here, and a custodian pushes a mop down the floor. I sidestep him on my way to Dr. Kanavanâs office near the end of the hall. My ears detect a low stream of sounds, and sure enough, when I reach the doorway, I can see that the television perched on her cabinet is on. I squint, taking in what I can ofBlissful Days.
The Bliss Elementary playground, at recess. The sinuous slide, the pine tree scarred with initials, the creaky seesaw. Kids tumbling around and laughing.
Things were different then, I brood, watching the television. No fines, no payments, no ratings. No E.L.
Dr. Kanavan, springy blond curls piled on her head in a messy bun, glances at the television every few seconds, her head popping up like an overambitious cuckoo clock. My producer, Mik, says Reals are addicted to the show. I donât know how they do itâI get antsy a half hour into Liaâs Drama Club productions. But Mik says the Reals can watch it for days on end, and Media1 gives them the opportunity to by broadcasting hour-long episodes back-to-back, twenty-four hours a day.
Dr. Kanavan doesnât spend all her leisure time on Blissful Days. Sheâs a travel fiend, and in between glances at the television, she crosses off days on the calendar sheâs mounted above her desk. Countdown to her next furlough. The goal date box always has a new place in thick black marker. Todayâs is Zenta! In the past, there wasKyliss! Misk! Sheâs an adventurerâin her clothing choices too. Free from following motifs, she has on a glittery green sequin top beneath her lab coat; it flashes and winks when she moves.
In the ten seasons Iâve been coming here, Iâve never seen Dr. Kanavan repeat a trip. The Sectors are a thousand times the size of Bliss, and she seems to want to visit every inch. I donât get why. Ilike the familiarity of the island. Thanks to great set designers, anything I could ever want to seeâcliffs, waterfalls, plains, orchards, hills, valleysâare all less than an hour away.
My shoulders ache, and I slide off my book bag. Dr. Kanavan whirls around. âNettie,â she squeaks, rising and running over to the television, blond curls bouncing behind her. Her high heelsâgreen satin to match her topâsound like rain hitting a tin roof. She turns the television off and taps over to me, shamefaced, as if itâs the first time Iâve caught her with the television on.
Dr. Kanavan is cute for a Real, with her messy curls, ruddy cheeks, and button nose. Still, like most Reals, sheâd look out of place on the island. All the Characters are better looking than the Reals, since the Originals were cast for their appearances.
Another difference is that Reals talk faster than Characters. But the ones used to conversing with us adapt, and I have no problems understanding Dr. Kanavan.
âPunctual as always,â she says, ushering me away from the television. âYou get that from your grandmother. On last nightâs seven oâclock episode, I saw that Violet showed up right on time for her weekly bingo game. Reminded me of you.â Dr. Kanavan has always been more forthcoming talking about what sheâs seen on Blissful Days than Mik.
âPlus ten,â I murmur, wincing a bit at the irony of my words. âPlus tenâ comes from when a Character earns bonus money for getting more than 10 percent of their ratings markâa situation that has never happened to me, but is Liaâs ratings reality and probably Callenâs, too, since he started baseball.
âHere you go.â She passes me a pale green paper smock, and I go behind the screen to change. As I fold my tunic, a foghorn blares from the beach behind us, and the walls shiver. I wonder if Belle is on the sand now, being escorted onto a ship bound for the Sectors. Now I shiver. When I come out from behind the screen, I take off my shoes and socks, then step onto to the scale near the door. I clench my fists as I watch the electronic display make up its mind.
âYou hit your weight target.â Dr. Kanavan makes a note in my file.
âGreat.â I relax my fingers. If only it were all so simple. If I donât make my ratings target, the solution isnât as simple as cutting my candy intake. I can guess what the Audience wants to see, but Iâll never know for sure. At my last Character Report, I asked Mik if he had any idea why my ratings had fallen, but he just clucked genially, patted my head, and reminded me of Clause 57, which limits how much the Reals can interfere with the show, the clause meant to keepBlissful Days natural and lifelike.
I sit on the metal table in the middle of the room and watch as Dr. Kanavan types out a code on a number pad next to a cabinet. She lifts the cabinetâs cover and pulls out a tray of vaccination tubes, which she brings over and places on a table next to me. I stretch out my arm, and she preps the needle, then feels for a vein. I watch impassively as the needle slides under my skin, smooth as a diver slipping into water.