Before You Stands the Future. The dark-red banner strung across the storefront awning matches the dozens of others lining the streets of the shopping district. Each one with the same clock counting down to Acceptance. Tomorrow morning can’t get here soon enough.
I push the glowing blue button and the door slides open with a staccato puff of air. Overhead, an electric bell dings as I shuffle into the upscale boutique packed with other Candidates. Cheryl is right behind me, bouncing on her toes with each step. My mother would die of embarrassment if I showed the same lack of decorum as my best friend, but I’m bouncing on the inside. Our mothers walk in behind us and the door slides shut with another whoosh of air.
We visited half the shops in Cardinal City this morning in our search for the perfect dresses and dyed-to-match shoes. I got a thrill buying my first pair of silk gloves, Cheryl and I gushing over the tiny pearl buttons, but this is the purchase I’m looking forward to the most.
Shelves bursting with dance cards cover every square inch of wall space. Dozens of girls sigh and squeal over the small books we’ll use to record the names of our dance partners for tomorrow’s ball. I wipe damp palms against the cool material of my skirt and force myself to focus on the goal. One of these books is the perfect one for me. Hopefully, by the end of tomorrow night, it will hold the name of my future husband.
“Isn’t anyone going to help us?” My mother stares through the crowd of sixteen-year-old girls fawning over the books covering the display cases.
“Now, Mavis, we can hardly expect too much out of the salesmen.” Cheryl’s mother’s smile covers her face like a masquerade-ball mask. “Their pay is even less than a processor’s.” She lays a hand on her chest, appearing absolutely scandalized to the untrained eye.
“Dreadful,” my mother responds, her gloved fingers gripping the top of her handbag. “Of course, we both know all the money in the world can’t buy good manners.”
I’ve been watching this back-and-forth all day. Cheryl’s mother making little comments about how expensive Cardinal City must be for some people, knowing full well that my father’s processor salary doesn’t make a trip like this easy. My mother responding about the number of things money can’t buy, being equally aware that Cheryl’s occasional lack of refinement is a sore spot for her mother.
Maybe shopping together was a bad idea, but this is such a special weekend and I can’t imagine not sharing it with Cheryl. We only get one Acceptance ceremony, one chance to make the right first impression on our entrance into society. Between the ceremony and the celebration ball later in the evening, tomorrow is the most important day of our lives. I grab Cheryl’s elbow and lead her over to one of the less-crowded cases so our mothers can snip at each other without us.
Cheryl takes one look at the case and turns back toward the most crowded section of the room. “Rebecca, these books are so old-fashioned. I’m looking for a dance card that speaks volumes about the kind of woman a man can expect me to be.”
Speaking volumes is one of the first things he’ll notice about Cheryl.
I bite my lip for even thinking such an ugly thing. My mother must be rubbing off on me today. Cheryl may be chatty, but she’s the sweetest person I know. Any young man would be lucky to sign her dance card. “I think the newer books are closer to the front of the store. You go ahead. I want to wait until it clears out a bit first.”
Cheryl gives my arm a squeeze and practically skips over to the other cases. The books here are older, but there’s something charming about them. The newer ones in the display window have a small screen on the front that flashes the owner’s name. Gentlemen can type in their name to reserve dances for the ball or even scan their OneCard once we get them after the ceremony.
I’m sure plenty of girls think having everything so automated is the height of elegance. For me, there’s something unromantic about asking a young lady to dance the same way you pay for lunch or clock in at work.
A light-blue book catches my eye and I lift it off the soft velvet stand, fingering the raised silver filigree along the edges. Inside, the paper is stiff and slightly yellowed. This dance card has to be at least twenty years old. A relic from the days when people still used ink pens instead of sending messages through a Noteboard.
The flowing script leaves a spot on each page for a single dance partner to sign his name, with plenty of pages for an entire evening of dancing. The girl who can fill this book will leave the ball tomorrow night with sore feet and several potential suitors.
“I must say.” A white-haired salesman, moving too slow to still be working, but with an endearing smile, walks out from a room behind the display cases. “It’s nice to see a young lady take an interest in a card that doesn’t go flash, bam, whiz at the touch of a button.”
I smile back at him because that’s the polite thing to do, but also because he makes me feel smart for wanting something so old. “It’s beautiful.”
“That it is, and this dance card has something those modern imitations don’t.” He takes the book and flips back all the pages to show the inside of the thick cover. Hidden in the binding is a small clasp he flicks with the tip of his nail. The back cover bends open to reveal a hidden pad of paper tucked inside.
“A false binding,” I say, keeping my voice down as if we’re discussing national secrets. “What is it for?”
The salesman beams at me, any trace of tiredness eclipsed by his wide smile and the mischievous twinkle in his eye. “The front pages are for the young men to make their intentions known, but these pages are for you. A place for your memories.” He folds the false cover back in on itself until a small click indicates it’s secure before closing the book up and holding it out to me.
“Thank you so much.” I clutch the book to my chest, its glorious potential pulsing in my hands like a living thing.
“For a beautiful young lady such as you,” he says, winking, “it’s my pleasure.” He pushes back from the counter, and shuffles off to help the next Candidate looking for the perfect dance card.
I twirl a golden curl of hair around my finger and scan the room for Cheryl and our mothers. The salesman called me beautiful, but that might be stretching the truth a bit. I’m pretty, at best. It’s a good face; not beautiful, but pretty.
Leaning back against the counter, I enjoy a rare moment of solitude. It doesn’t last long.
“Rebecca, there you are.” My mother strides as fast as she can across the plush carpet in her ridiculously high heels and pulls my hand down to my side. “If you insist on wearing your hair loose, the least you can do is leave it alone. You’ll knot it to death and we still have lunch.”
I hold my breath and wait for her ‘importance of appearance’ lecture, but lucky for me she’s distracted by my book choice. She plucks the blue dance card from my hands and examines it from top to bottom. After picking out my entire outfit for tomorrow, I should have known she’d want to weigh in on this as well.
She may have an opinion on everything, but her choices for me are almost always spot-on. It makes life easier for both of us if I go along with whatever she suggests, but picking out a dance card is the one thing I really wanted to do on my own. Letting my mother select it takes some of the romance out of attending my first ball.
She glances over at the newer books, with their flashing screens, and I prepare to be disappointed. “It reminds me of my Acceptance ball dance card.” She tucks it under her arm, the barest trace of a wispy smile on her bright-red lips. “It’s a lovely choice. Now let’s be sharp. I want to be at lunch when the most people will be there.”
I follow her across the room to the sales desk in a state of shock. My mother approved of one of my choices. Maybe now that I’m about to become an official member of society she’s seeing me in a different light. As a woman who’ll start a family of her own in a few years.
Cheryl and her mother are already at the sales desk where a younger man in a cheap suit is helping them. He wraps a bright-emerald book with a crystal-embossed ‘C’ on the front cover in airy tissue paper before settling it into a lacy white bag. Cheryl’s mother spins around, bag in hand, and raises an eyebrow at my selection. “I suppose the older books are a bit more affordable.”
I strap on my best ‘I am a lady’ smile. I love Cheryl like a sister, but sometimes her mother drives me to the brink. “I rather fancy the idea of something a bit more traditional. Plus, a boy signing your book is so much more intimate an experience than scanning his OneCard.”
Cheryl’s jubilant smile comes crashing down and her shoulders sag. Of course, the book she selected would be fitted with the newest bits of technology. She probably doesn’t even realize how hurtful her mother’s comments are. I’d certainly never bring it up, but in my haste to put her mother in her place, I’ve put a damper on my best friend’s excitement.
“Cheryl, please,” I grab her hand and give it a quick squeeze, “With your beautiful smile the boys will be staring so much, you could ask them to sign your shoe.”
The sheer force of will it takes my mother not to roll her eyes at me is astounding. Her facial muscles actually tense with the effort. She takes my dance card to the desk and Cheryl and I step outside to wait.
Spring is in full swing in Cardinal City and the events of the weekend make the warm air whirl with life. Down the street, the setup is going on in the central square. The gathering space here in the capital is at least three times as big as the one back home. A huge screen covers the entire side of one of the buildings flanking the grassy area where the Acceptance ceremony will take place. A projector flashes the official Acceptance slogan “Before You Stands the Future” in bright-red letters against the white backdrop.
“Can you believe it?” I say, fighting to keep the squeal out of my words. “Tomorrow everything changes. We’ll go through Acceptance, attend our first ball.”
“And meet our future husbands.” Cheryl does squeal out the words, but I can’t blame her. This is our one and only chance to meet young men from the other Territories. Thanks to my mother, I’ve already met every eligible boy back home and none of them are right for me.
I want a husband who can walk in the room and command attention. A man who deserves my respect and admiration. I need a husband who I know will always be there to take care of me and our children. If I want to meet the man of my dreams, and avoid a Compulsory marriage to a complete stranger, tomorrow is the night.
In the square, a team of red-uniformed workers rolls a lacquered black podium onto the stage. That’s where the Cardinal will give the traditional opening speech before the ceremony starts. For as long as I can remember, I’ve sat on the green floral couch in our living room and listened to his speech on the radio. His stern voice pumped through the speaker as if he was talking directly to me. The thought of seeing him in person sends chills of excitement and fear up my arms. “Sometimes the Cardinal gives me the creeps.”
“Rebecca!” Cheryl stares at me wide-eyed, newly manicured fingers covering her gaping mouth.
I shouldn’t have said that out loud. The Cardinal’s rules are the foundation that keeps us from sliding back into violent chaos. Acceptance weeds out the violent criminals, Assignment makes sure every man has a productive role to benefit society, and Compulsories keep families intact.
But just because I understand why the rules are in place doesn’t mean I have to like them all. How can Assignment be such a great idea if my father’s job makes him miserable? He would never say a word about it, but it’s hard not to see how bored he is with the menial work or hear my parents’ regular arguments over money.
It’s a good thing negative thoughts about the Cardinal won’t jeopardize my Acceptance. Only criminals and deviants are Rejected. Still, it’s bad form to speak ill of the man who brought the United Territories out of a spiral to destruction. Without him, there wouldn’t be any jobs to complain about or an Acceptance to attend.
“Sorry.” I roll the thin, knotted pendant of my necklace between my fingers. “I’m just nervous about tomorrow night.”
Cheryl pats my hand, always willing to overlook my random outburst. “Don’t be. It’s going to be magical.” Cheryl’s eyes glaze over and the goofy grin on her face is a sure sign she’s lost in thoughts of charming suitors and romantic waltzes.
“What if it’s not?” I drop my pendant and weave an arm through Cheryl’s. “What if there isn’t a boy out there perfect for me that also meets my mother’s expectations?”
Cheryl presses her lips together and nods. My mother has made no secret about her desire for me to “marry up”. But I’ve seen what happens when a girl marries for stability instead of love. A part of me thinks a Compulsory would be better.
“You can’t think that way,” Cheryl says, giving my arm a little squeeze. “Mr. Right is here. I can feel it.”
“Lunchtime. Let’s go, girls.” My mother lets the door slide shut behind her and takes off down the street without a backward glance.
I dismiss my thoughts about Mr. Right and scurry after her, Cheryl right beside me. Tomorrow, everything changes and I have to believe Cheryl’s right; it’s going to be magical.
* * *
My stomach growls as we walk past a nearly empty restaurant. “Couldn’t we just eat the sandwiches in the icebox back in the hotel room?”
My mother shakes her head without missing a step. “After all,” she says as we pass yet another tempting deli door, “how can the boys get a good look at you if you spend the whole day hidden away in the hotel?”
We all stop in front of a bustling eatery, both our mothers nodding their acceptance. Inside, a smiling greeter shows us to a small, round table. All around the café, tables are packed with other teens and their families here for Acceptance. Once again, my mother is right.
A small man with a pleasant smile arrives at our table to take our order. Cheryl’s stomach is unfazed by tomorrow’s importance. She orders an expensive steak in a voice loud enough to be heard across the crowded restaurant, giggling when our server says, “Excellent choice.” I stick with a salad. Despite my hunger, ordering a bigger meal would be pointless. The nerves flittering in my stomach about the ceremony happening in nineteen hours and twenty-seven minutes will probably keep me from doing much more than pick at my food.
The waiter gathers our menus and heads back to the kitchen, winding through the tightly packed tables like he’s dancing one of the waltzes from tomorrow’s ball. The back of his head bobs in time to silent music as he hurries away.
“What are you looking at?” My mother cranes her neck around to see what has captured my attention.
“The waiter. What did the Assignment see in him when it decided his optimal career would be food server? Does he have a naturally helpful disposition or strong arms for carrying heavy trays?” More importantly, is he happy?
My mother laughs, a short, terse noise making it clear I’ve said the wrong thing. “What does it matter why he’s a server? That’s his role; end of story.”
I’ve stuck my foot in it, now. Still, with the ball tomorrow night, this is information I need to know. “It’s just, if I can’t tell why a man was Assigned as a waiter, how can I tell which boys will be Assigned good jobs like doctor, lawyer, or accountant?”
“Oh.” My mother taps the tips of her fingers against the edge of the table.
Shortly after her own Acceptance Ceremony, my mother caught the eye of the bank manager’s son. She started planning for a life on the high side of society. There was every reason to believe a young man from such a prominent family would do well in life. My parents got engaged only a few short months before his Assignment came down as paper processor. No one was more disappointed than the future Mrs. Stanley Collins.
Mother could have broken off the engagement, but by then they were both already eighteen. If she didn’t marry my father she’d only have three years to find another husband before she’d be forced into a Compulsory marriage. In my opinion, nothing is more humiliating than being forced to marry a complete stranger because neither of you could find a partner on your own. My mother must have felt the same way.
“That’s why I tell Cheryl, make sure a young man’s family is present before he signs your dance card. Of course, we all know good lineage can only take a man so far.”
“Mother, you are so old-fashioned,” Cheryl says, laughing loud enough to draw the glances of several good-looking boys to our table. She’s oblivious to the sharp jab her mother shot at mine. That, or she pretends to be so we can both stay outside of our mothers’ squabbles.
Cheryl pulls out her new dance card and holds it up so all the boys glancing in our direction can get a good look. Apparently, she’s decided to tempt fate. It’s tradition for boys to wait until after the ceremony to ask for dances. It stems back to when the Acceptance was first put into place and a much higher percentage of teens were rejected.
That was what the people clamored for. An answer to the paralyzing crime rates that crippled the United Territories with fear. But that was a long time ago, back when the Territories were states and there was no way to tell if someone was a criminal until they committed a crime.
Things are better now, with the deviants removed from society and families able to raise their children without the constant threat of violence. When the Machine was invented, over eighty years ago, the Acceptance ceremony was tense with apprehension and fear. Now, it’s almost all formality. Everyone knows that the kids brought in on gasoline buses, with parents who spend their money on contraband liquor and tobacco instead of Acceptance dresses and transport tickets, are the ones most likely to end up in the Permanent Isolation Territory.
Despite the tradition of waiting until after the ceremony, it’s become a new tradition for the most eligible bachelors to ask for their first dance the day before. Clearly, Cheryl hopes to receive one of those coveted and rebellious invitations.
I look around the restaurant, watching the other families enjoying Acceptance weekend while I wait for my salad to arrive. Across the room, a young man sits with his parents, and I find myself drawn to their interactions.
He’s certainly handsome with his blond, wavy hair and angular jaw, but that’s not what catches my attention. It’s the way he holds himself, with his back straight and arms demanding a place of importance at the table that makes me want to know more about him. He has a rare air of confidence.
He pivots in his seat and meets my stare with clear, blue eyes. I turn back to my own table, head down, but not before I catch his warm smile that raises the hair on the back of my neck. Busying myself by refolding the napkin in my lap, I lean in and try to pay attention to Cheryl, who’s demonstrating the high-tech features of her flashy new dance card.
“Excuse me, ladies.” A deep voice falls across the table from over my shoulder. “I apologize for interrupting your lunch. My name is Dr. Harold Dunstan. I’d like to introduce my son, Eric.”
“No apologies needed,” Cheryl’s mom answers right away. “I’m Mrs. Thomas Pierce, and this is my daughter Cheryl.”
Cheryl stands, the picture of perfection in her stylish dress and smooth ponytail. The boy with the straight back shakes her hand and polite hellos are spoken. Eric turns his attention to me and his warm smile brings a flaring heat to my empty stomach.
“I’m Mrs. Stanley Collins, and this is my daughter Rebecca.”
Eric takes another step closer to me. I stand and lift my hand to shake his, but he takes my wrist and lifts it to his lips to kiss the back of my hand. “Rebecca, my name is Eric Dunstan. Very pleased to meet you.”
All the air rushes out of my chest and there’s nothing left in my lungs to say anything. It doesn’t matter, really, since I have no idea what I’m supposed to say when a boy I’ve just met kisses my hand.
Eric laughs, a light chuckle that makes his blue eyes twinkle, but doesn’t miss a beat. His eyes stay glued to mine. “I realize this is a little early, but I was hoping you’d allow me to sign your dance card for tomorrow.”
I suck in a quick gasp of air. Behind Eric, the bottom half of Cheryl’s face breaks into a huge grin. Clearly, she’s thrilled, but it’s my mother’s opinion I need now. Her eyes are wide and bright, but her bleached-white teeth bite her lower lip. I wait while her brain works at warp speed to calculate the risk of an early dance invitation against the prestige of the asker. She nods her head, reaches into the lacy bag and pushes the soft-leather book into my hand.
“Of course,” I say, handing over my card with a smile I hope doesn’t show my nerves. This is the exact scene I pictured in my head when I chose the light-blue book with the swooping silver scrollwork along the edges.
“A pretty card, for a pretty lady.” Eric pulls an old-fashioned fountain pen from a pocket inside his jacket and signs his name in the spot designated for the first dance, the traditional opening waltz. “I look forward to our dance.”
Eric and his father walk back to their table, and I sink into my chair. My mother is beaming next to me. She runs the tips of her fingers under Eric’s name, careful not to smear the wet ink, and slides the priceless book back into the bag. Tomorrow can’t get here soon enough.
Rite of Rejection by Sarah Negovetich
Available in Paperback and Ebook on December 4th, 2014
Pre-order your copy now on Amazon and Smashwords