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My head rocked back and forth, and my surroundings blurred. Was my jaw unhinged? And what was that rusty smell? Blood?
I opened my mouth wide until a loud popping sound echoed in my ears.
Why was everything so fuzzy? How hard had he hit me?
I blinked hard, trying to clear the haze.
Suddenly, the man grabbed me from behind and my heart skipped a beat. My heels scraped the floor as he dragged me through a series of doors.
“No!” I wanted to shout, but I was too disoriented.
Instead, I reached everywhere I could, clawing the air as I tried to latch onto something solid enough to stop this man from dragging me. But I was too weak. Everything I touched slipped away.
“Since you want to be a hero,” he growled, “you can go next.”
Although I couldn’t see his face, the way he spoke made it sound like he was smiling.
He was enjoying this.
When the door next to me blasted open and a powerful gust of wind blew in, I knew exactly what was about to happen—I was going to die.
They spoke about Selection Day as if it were like winning a large sum of money—whatever money was. I’d read about it but didn’t quite understand it. Grandma told me that in the old days, people used something called money to spend however they liked. She explained that this money could be exchanged for food, toys, clothing, and even vehicles.
I hadn’t understood what a vehicle was, so she explained it to me, too. Something about a metal frame on wheels, like a horse chariot, only it was run on oil and gas. It sounded like science fiction to me, like something that could only exist in the future, not the past.
And how was it even possible to buy belongings? To own property?
Freedom, Grandma had called it. I always wondered what that kind of freedom felt like.
Some days, I fantasized about walking into something Grandma referred to as a grocery store. She’d described it as brightly lit and full of vibrant fruits and vegetables. The more she spoke about the past, the more I wanted to travel in time like the characters in an old book I kept hidden under my bed—The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.
“I need it more!” Grunwalt said, leaning back in his wooden chair and smoothing the wrinkles on his face. “Ya see these? Ain’t no goin’ back from this.”
Poor Grunwalt. I felt sorry for him. Not because he was old and grumpy, but because every time he talked about his life, it sounded empty. No partner, no children, no friends… His entire existence, or at least what he talked about, had revolved around him trying to get a dose of the Ambrosia Serum.
Kiatha sat next to him. She leaned forward until her dark elbows formed indents in her thighs. She smiled, the light of the fire making her brown skin look creamier than usual. “What I wouldn’t do to feel thirty again.”
Kiatha was in her midforties. But like everyone else in Division 9, all she ever spoke about was Selection Day. I didn’t blame her or the others. Everyone wanted to be selected to join the Elites.
We couldn’t go back in time, but we could join the Elites. That was everyone’s dream. That was the reason people worked so hard all year long: to earn a chance at a life that was said to be eternal bliss.
To be ageless.
To be immortal.
To live like royalty and never want for anything.
“Thirty years I been waitin’ for this,” Grunwalt said. “It’s finally our turn. It’s gotta be.”
By turn, he meant Division 9’s turn at being selected to take part in the lottery. Every year, the Elites chose one division from all of Lutum, and from this division, they selected a single person. The odds of being selected were roughly 1:2000, which according to Grandma, were great odds.
“You don’t want to be a Producer your entire life, do you?” Grandma would often say to me.
It was like she’d given up on the idea of eternal youth and only wanted the best for me. And now that I was seventeen, winning the lottery was a real possibility.
Did I want to leave Division 9? Yes, but not by joining human beings capable of making countless others suffer so they could live comfortable lives. Every evening, Producers from within our section gathered around a fire and spoke of joining the Elites like it was the same thing as receiving a gift from the gods.
I’d always wondered why the Elites couldn’t share their serum with everyone. According to Grandma, more than 98 percent of the world’s population was wiped out during the war—a war caused by the serum… chaos caused by human beings wanting to live forever, but not having the means to afford the serum. But now, with only 2 percent of the world’s population remaining, why keep it from us? Why not let everyone live in abundance? It didn’t make sense.
Closing my eyes, I pictured Grandma’s face from the day before. She’d been hunched over with a rounded back, working hard in the gardens. When she sensed me approach, she pulled her face out from the bushes, a thin layer of dirt coating her veiny, bulbous nose. “It’s all for control, Silverstasia.”
Grandma was the only one who ever called me by my full name. Everyone else called me Silver.
“How would they survive without us?” she said. With a muddy finger, she tapped her translucent temple next to her salt-and-pepper hair. “Think about it. We’re basically slaves. If we were all ageless and immortal, we wouldn’t care about anything. We wouldn’t feel the need to work our butts off to gain points every year.”
Grandma was right. In every division, Producers were awarded points for good behavior and strong production. After every lottery, the score was wiped clean and we started over again. Both divisions and Producers were selected to take part in the draw based on their points. No one understood it, but some speculated that if you fell within a certain range of points, you were included in the draw.
So only the top-producing divisions in all of Lutum were placed in the lottery, and once a single division was selected, only the top producers from that division were placed in the lottery. This meant everyone was always on their best behavior.
Mother’s footsteps echoed behind us, shaking me out of my daydream.
“You all know the serum doesn’t reverse aging,” she said, her tone bitter. Although I refused to look up at her, I sensed her eyes narrow on me. “Now quit your dreamin’ ’n get to bed before the Defenders get involved.”
Without a word, Grunwalt stood, picked up a bucket of dirty water, and spilled it over the fire.
Don’t mind your mother,” Grandma said. She swept my hair over my shoulders and let it fall behind my back. With a twinkle in her eye, she pulled a bright red elastic from her pocket. “For luck.”
“Where’d you find that?” I asked.
Bright colors were forbidden in Lutum… something about heightened emotions. Everyone was given the same clothes: beige hemp suits that turned brown after a few days of work.
The worst part? These clothes weren’t even provided by the Elites. They were sewn internally by Samara, our seamstress.
“What makes you think I’m even in the lottery this year?” I asked.
I was only a farmer; I helped Grandma with her chores, and that was it. How could I have possibly earned enough points to be in the lottery? Without a word, she moved behind me and smiled, making a wet clicking sound.
“Whether it’s today or another day, sweetheart, you will make it to Olympus.”
I’d always thought the name Olympus sounded funny. It wasn’t until Grandma explained Greek mythology to me that I understood why the Elites had picked such a unique name. They thought of themselves as gods.
“What if I don’t want to be in Olympus?” I asked.
Her grip tightened around my ponytail. “I won’t let you turn out like your mother.”
Mother was cold and distant. The last thing I wanted was to end up like her. Ever since I was a child, Mother had been this way. It was like she hated me, and I’d never understood why.
Swallowing hard, I stared at my bare feet.
We sat in silence for what felt like hours as Grandma prepared me for Selection Day. With a sponge soaked with cold water, she wiped mud off my cheeks and hands and from underneath my fingernails. Then, she reached for something underneath a tuft of grass and extracted a purple flower.
My eyes popped. “Where’d you find that?”
Flowers, due to their vibrant colors, were also forbidden in Lutum.
“I’ve been growing a garden of flowers in secret,” she said, placing a finger over my lips.
“Grandma—” I tried, but she wouldn’t listen.
Why would she do something like that? If she got caught—
“Here,” she said, dabbing the flower against my neck. “To smell clean.”
I breathed in deep, salivating over the floral scent.
Then, she scrunched the flower with its leaves and tucked it inside my pocket. “Also for good luck.”
I smiled. “You’re very… What’s that word again?” I asked.
“Superstitious,” she said, tapping the tip of my nose as if I were a five-year-old child.
Her large, hazel eyes narrowed on me. “Are you still reading every night?”
I nodded. “I do, but Mother says Producers should spend more time resting than reading.”
The truth was, Mother had thrown many of my books into the fire, but I didn’t bring it up. Grandma already didn’t like Mother, and as cold as Mother was with me, I didn’t want to get her in trouble.
Grandma frowned, the folds on her face deepening. “I swear, that batshit crazy woman—”
I chuckled. Grandma always talked funny. She spoke in slang and used words that most Producers would likely never hear in their lifetime. Where did she come up with these things? Were they words people had once used in the Old World?
“I have a secret stash under my bed,” she said. “Every evening before supper, while your mother’s busy preparing the meal, I want you to pick up a book and read, okay? Don’t let anyone see you. Sit quietly and read.”
Ever since I was a child, Grandma made it a point to read something to me until I learned how to read myself. Reading, as she described it, was power. She’d always tell me that knowledge was power, and reading was how a person obtained knowledge. Most Producers didn’t read, and Grandma often told me that the more time went on, the more people would forget the English language… that they would speak in broken English. When people spoke funny or broke sentences up, she’d often lean into me and say, “See what happens when you don’t read? You can’t talk worth shit.”
It always made me laugh. I liked the way Grandma spoke. It was so straightforward and funny. She described English from her time as laid back and creative. She said people would communicate about all sorts of things using unique words and that oftentimes, people would even make up words and they’d become official. Or at least, official online, whatever that meant.
It meant a lot when Grandma said that my vocabulary was good for a farmer. Vast, I think was the word she used.
Grandma grabbed me by the shoulders, kissed my forehead, and handed me a scrap piece of metal. “There, you’re ready.”
I grabbed the metal and stared at my distorted reflection. Although I wasn’t used to seeing my hair tied back, I liked it. It stayed out of my face and made me look proper. I reached for it, touching my dark brown roots, and smiled. “This is great. Thank you, Grandma. And I smell wonderful.”
She reached for my cheek and pinched it hard—something I always tried to avoid. “Yes, you do! And you look pretty damn good too, kiddo.”
I liked that.
No one else used this word, but Grandma always called me kiddo, so the word became special to me.
“What’s goin’ on here?” came Mother’s voice.
I always hated when she barged into people’s rooms. She did this often to me, and despite my room being only large enough for me to stick my arms out, it was still my bedroom.
With her hands on her hips, she gave me the stink eye. “Silver, stop playin’ around and get outside. The Elites are goin’ to be here any minute.”
Somedays, I hated how much I resembled my mother—green eyes, long dark brown hair, and skin neither pale nor dark. I had an athletic build like her, which she always criticized, and the same cheekbones, which weren’t that prominent, but they were noticeable.
The only reason Mother even bothered to look interested in the Lottery was because she hoped that one day, if I won, I’d find a way to bring her into Olympus. She never seemed to think she’d win herself, and every time I asked her about it, she told me that it was disrespectful to question others and that I should mind my own business.
In fact, no one questioned Mother. There was a hardness to her that made everyone afraid of her.
Some days, I wondered if my father was taken to Olympus, which would explain why my mother was so bitter. But there was no way of knowing—she refused to talk to me about him, or about anything, really.
Even Grandma seemed on edge when I questioned her about it. She’d say that it was up to Mother to talk to me about it. I hated secrets more than the idea of living with the Elites.
Mother’s tone hardened. “Get outside, now.”
Grandma didn’t seem too bothered by Mother’s attitude, but I never liked annoying Mother, even if it felt like she hated me. Smiling at Grandma, I stood up and followed Mother outside toward the common area.
I wasn’t one to visit the common area often—Mother rarely allowed it. It was where most Producers gathered to socialize after a long day of work. It was plain, with a dirt floor and many large stones to sit on. The space was large enough to fit several thousand bodies and sat right next to Division 9’s main gates. Most people steered clear of the gate area, which was guarded by two heavily armed Defenders dressed in some scary red and black suits. Sometimes, little lights flashed on their suits. They must have been powered by something.
No one ever talked to the Defenders. They knew better. I’d heard of stories about their weapons being able to disintegrate people on the spot, and that was enough for me to keep my head down.
I preferred to disappear into my room and read after a long day in the garden beds.
Mother stormed through the crowd, elbowing everyone as she went. When people saw who she was, they didn’t tell her to watch her step or to be careful. What were they so afraid of? Was Mother that cruel to everyone?
“At the front,” she ordered, and I did as I was told.
The crowd continued to expand, filling the air around us with so much noise it was like being surrounded by huge swarms of flies. I stomped my way through the mud, my toes covered in a gooey brown—the result of heavy rainfall from the day before—until I found myself standing next to a boy my age with scraggly chestnut brown hair, light brown eyes, a flawless pale complexion, and hills for cheekbones that made it impossible for me to stop staring. He ran a hand through his hair, revealing a star-shaped scar on his wrist. It was odd. I’d never seen a mark like that before.
The moment he smiled at me, I bowed my head and looked away.
“First time?” he asked.
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I wasn’t used to talking to people I didn’t know.
At once, Mother nudged me in the back. “Silver, it’s rude not to respond when spoken to. For God’s sake, you’d think you would have learned that in those stupid books of yours.”
This time, I made eye contact, and it looked like the boy felt sorry for me. He glanced at Mother, but only briefly. Not long enough to upset her.
“Y-yes,” I said.
Again, he smiled. “You must have just had your seventeenth birthday.”
Behind me, Mother sighed heavily as if the idea of my birthday was overwhelming. I’d never understood why she hated my birthday so much. I’d heard of children being celebrated on their birthdays. Grandma tried her best every year to make me feel special, but for some reason, Mother was always cruel with me on that day—more cruel than usual.
He could probably tell how uncomfortable I was. He reached out a hand. “I’m Rolie. Got transferred from Division 6 ’bout a month ago.”
Why was he giving me his hand? I stared at it, not knowing what to do.
His lips pulled up on one side only. “Pleasure.”
Behind me, Mother sighed.
Why did she always do that? It was embarrassing and made me so uncomfortable.
Rolie stared at my face. “I’ve seen you around here… I’d never forget a face like yours.”
I sucked in a quick breath, my cheeks warming. I’d never seen him before. Were people too afraid to approach me because of Mother?
He parted his lips to say something, but all of a sudden, Division 9’s massive gates opened up, and through it came a lineup of Elites riding on white horses.
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