Currency

After a cataclysmic event irrevocably changes Earth as we know it, life finds a way and Terra Two begins.

I’m fourth generation Terra Two.

In 2225, a Deep Impact style apocalyptic event happened on Earth and wiped out almost all of the population. Some saw it coming, those who weren’t prepared were lost. High profile politicians were placed in bunkers all around the world. In the fallout, the dust killed almost all of those who survived the initial blast. In our history cards, the event was recorded as cataclysmic. Earth was unable to bounce back and within one year, scientists declared that the remaining survivors were running out of time on the planet that had sustained life for billions of years. My great-great-grandfather was one of those survivors. He wasn’t rich or powerful. He owned a small corner store with a deep basement, a ton of supplies, and a radio. When the blast was announced, he took people in until the final siren rang. Then, the Earth shook all around them.

Then there was nothing.

*

Waves crash at my feet and the salty air brushes against my face, the breeze a welcome distraction.

History is a funny thing. It’s a series of documents that create a timeline for those who care enough to see where it begins. I am Cassandra. I work for Andromeda History – Earth. I work with the ministers to maintain order, referring back to historical events of chaos – those we remember anyway – to avoid past mistakes.

Due to the impact… floods, fire, or dust ruined almost everything. Earth’s climate was severely unbalanced, off-tilt from the force and spiraling out of its intended orbit at a rate that would suffocate the survivors in less than two years. Anyone who could help was tasked with creating a shuttle of some sort, something that could sustain the population off planet for an extended period of time.

Time began to mean more to the people. If the survivors – those we refer to now as the Founders – didn’t figure something out fast, Earth, and the life on it, would cease to be. In the chaos of uncertainty, one thing that all of the Founders could agree on was the importance of time.

Terra Two is actually a pretty cynical name for a shuttle. There is no terra, no earth or dirt. There is metal and there is plastic and there is nothing else. Many of the Founders aboard Terra Two in its first stages couldn’t handle the differences. A significant spike of death by suicide cut Terra Two’s meager population again within the first ten years of space travel.

*

Sand, soft and white, leads me to the warmth of the crystal blue waters. I look up to the sun, the rays freckling my pale skin.

When the shuttle was ready, survivors were told to pack one bag – just the necessities. My family Founder couldn’t have realized at the time, the importance of his most treasured item.

A secret heirloom passed from father to son, and from his son, now to me, the only fourth generation Terra Two bloodline of the Williams clan. A daughter. My secret heirloom is the only relevant reminder of what was. And would be the only thing left with the Williams name inscribed in it, now that I was getting married. It was my most valuable, but also my most secret possession.

On Terra Two, there is no need for money, not in the way Earth knew it. What Terra Two residents realized they needed was time. In the first fifty years of Terra Two, unnatural and immoral experiments took place in a secret facility on the shuttle. These experiments were never talked about, but it wasn’t something anyone volunteered to help with either. It wasn’t long before a new form of currency began to rule Terra Two. There was a phrase on Earth, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” On Terra Two, “money” was time, and it didn’t buy happiness, it bought survival.

Time used to be a metaphor for something that was lost in (in)action. That metaphor led to the heinous practice of time as cost on Terra Two. Everything costs something here. A hydroponic apple will cost a child thirty-five seconds. A whole chicken will cost a father with a family three minutes. Medication could cost a pregnant mother years if the demand was high enough.

My great-grandfather realized quickly the actual cost of survival on Terra Two and left notes in the secret heirloom that he passed to his son, my grandfather. His suspicions urged him to investigate the practices of the other ministers. One night, my grandfather remembers his father rushing to his side, the heirloom cradled in his hands. “It comes to you now” was all he said. He handed his son the item and left. The next day, the community learned the meaning of “Your time is up.”

Quickly enough, my grandfather learned to play Terra Two’s game. His brain worked unlike any other. He created a subconscious system for Terra Two residents that hooked up to the cerebral cortex. Users could be mentally transported to places from Earth. My grandfather’s invention was so unique that he earned years of time to perfect it. Those who used the simulators could sense everything in their “world.” This invention staved off the suicide issues on Terra Two. Restlessness eased and a utopia began. Those who questioned the time charges were silenced without protest, everyone else too distracted by their Earth simulations to see anything else.

*

Seagulls caw from the shoreline, looking curiously at me as I pace in the surf.

I do my best thinking on the beach. Before my father died I was given a box with metal and paper inside. He told me the story of our legacy, of how the Founders valued time in a different way. He emptied something he called a piggy bank onto the kitchen table and handed me a silver circle. “A quarter,” he whispered. “Our family Founder used this, not his life, to pay for bread.” He handed me a crumpled up piece of paper with scribbled writing on it. One day I’ll buy my girl the ring she wants. “A promise,” my father said. “This box holds our past and the promise of our future. It must remain a secret until the time is right.”

After his funeral, I spent weeks on the simulated beach. My skin pink, a path worn in the sand, the box always on my mind. “Until the time is right.” The irony of that statement has never left me.

Cimmerian Salon

To say that Audrey Williams is a little stressed would be a gross understatement. To say that it is all her doing would be a perfectly accurate assumption. She loves the work, loves being stretched for time, pushing her deadlines, but frankly, as April comes and goes, she is just about ready to crack. Her undergraduate thesis is almost complete, but still needs a few things, a few finishing touches, her courses are coming to a close;  papers galore. Audrey has even taken it so far as to reject all of her friends’ invitations, even those from her two best friends, Cali and Roxy.

When Roxy and Cali walk into Audrey’s apartment, they are equal parts disgusted and in awe. There are takeout containers on the counters, coffee cups from the campus coffee shop overflowing in the trashcan, and sink, and a not-so-tidy pile (see; explosion) of clothes and textbooks scattered on every available surface.

Cali holds her nose dramatically as she goes to open the window to let in some fresh air. After a few seconds, the stale stench of lo mein and barbecue chicken dissipates, leaving behind the permeating smell of dirty laundry.

“Williams, this is fucking gross,” Roxy calls out, effectively waking Audrey up from her studying stupor. “We should be wearing Haz Mat suits, Cali.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Audrey moans, pushing herself up from the desk, the Accounting book – her former pillow and drool deposit – being pushed aside and closed. She wipes at the corner of her mouth and stretches, wiping the sleep out of her eyes and readjusting her sports bra. She cracks her neck and yawns.

Cali gasps in absolute horror. “Audrey, sweetie, we didn’t know it was this bad! Are you like… agoraphobic now?”

“I’ve been busy, Cali. I’m a double major, and it’s not as if computer science or business is easy… but I’m not afraid to leave my apartment.” Rolling her eyes, she stands and continues to stretch.

“When was the last time you left the atomic bomb drop zone?” Roxy asks, pulling a pen out of her purse to pick up a stiff and starchy tank top off of Audrey’s desk. “This is disgusting, I hope you weren’t hoping to get laid in this dump, the guy would catch something.”

“For your information, Roxanne,” Audrey sighs irritably. “I left my apartment four days ago to meet with my thesis advisor. And then just this morning to get coffee.” She takes the dirty shirt from the tip of Roxy’s pen, her cheeks heating as it crunches in her hand. “The intern work’s just got me working overtime lately, but it’s already paying off. I’m getting hired on as the PR Assistant at the end of the term.”

“That’s great Audrey, but they’ll take the position right back if you look as strung out as you do. I’m surprised you don’t have track marks on your arms,” Cali says, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “We’re staging an intervention, Audrey Williams. You’ve got three minutes to put on some clean clothes-”

“Hey! These are clean,” Audrey protests. “Kind of.”

Cleaner clothes then. Roxy and I are staying here to clean up this hell hole while you meet with my ambiguous big brother, Cole.”

“Cali set up the GPS in your less-than-cared for car, so just follow the directions. Alex’s gonna meet you at the salon and take your car, keys, and school shit – because we know you’ll sneak some with you to work on – and make sure you get into Cimmerian.” Roxy looks pleased as punch… Audrey just wants to punch the shit out of her smug face. Roxy pulls out a pair of rubber gloves and pulls them onto her well-manicured hands. “We know what’s trash, and what’s not, so don’t think we’ll throw your homework and shit away.”

“And,” Cali continues, looking just as smug. “If you think about leaving, Cole will call us. He’s doing yours truly a mondo favor by putting you in for the full treatment, so be good.” Cali says, pointing to herself.

“Plus, Alex’s taking your car to get a tune up and then to get it detailed. It’s almost as disgusting as this apartment,” Roxy shivers. “You’re in desperate need of an oil change.”

“You can say that again,” Cali says. The double entendre is not lost on anyone. Audrey rolls her eyes and pulls her tangled and greasy red hair up into a messy bun.

“Now, be nice to Cole. He’s sweet, and he cleared his day for this,” Cali tells her. “I know how bitchy you are, but please remember that this will be his first impression of you. He’s successful, and amazing, and talented, not to mention my brother, so be good.”

“Hoorah,” Audrey cheers mirthlessly, her hand waving faintly through the air as she goes through her apartment looking for cleaner clothes.

“John and Cali are on laundry detail, and after Alex gets your car dropped off, he’ll head back over here to help clear up this quarantine zone,” Roxy explains. “After that, we’ll leave you alone. We’ve got dinner with the ‘rents right after this anyway.”

Looking at her watch, Cali gasps and grins, clapping her hands together. “Audrey, your appointment is in twenty minutes! Go! Go! Shoo! Alex’s already at the salon, waiting to introduce you to Cole.”

Audrey wants to protest – so, so bad! – wants to say, “Get the fuck out and let me finish my spreadsheets, you harpies,” but she knows better than to fight both Roxy and Cali. Plus, she can take her iPhone and work on some of her emails while she’s getting the “full treatment.” Can’t she?

Grumbling about shitty friends, Audrey grabs her messenger bag and her keys and heads off to her car. There’s a post-it on the steering wheel from Cali with the address of Cimmerian Salon. “Just in case you fuck up the GPS, love Cali,” Audrey reads aloud, then sighs. “I have the shittiest friends, ever!”

The trip from her apartment to the salon isn’t that far, nor is it hard to find. When she arrives, she automatically finds Alex. His broad stature is clearly viewable from miles away, and he’s standing with someone off to the side of the salon. Taking a closer look, Audrey pulls up her sunglasses to take in who she’s sure is the newest Preston to make her acquaintance.

He’s tall, but much thinner, leaner – like a track runner – than she expected. His hair is in perfect disarray, but clearly spent a long time and not small amount of product to get it that way. Audrey rolls her eyes,  “I mean, if it’s obvious he spent time to do it, why make it look like he just ran his hands through it?”

His tight skinny black jeans accentuate his firm thighs and calves, down to his high-top Chucks. They’re dingy, like they’re well-loved and well-worn. His shirt is a thin white cotton-like tee and is just tight enough for the vague appearance of a toned chest and stomach. She thinks she even sees the faint outline of a tattoo on his chest. The shirt is long enough until he raises his arms, barely covering his belt from view.

Audrey’s momentarily stunned. He doesn’t look much like Cali, aside from the fact that they’re both easy on the eyes (very, very much so in fact). She looks down at herself and curses the fact that Roxy and Cali let her out of the apartment in gym shorts and an old ratty tank top.

Something Cali said comes to mind then, the “ambiguous big brother” comment. From his looks, Cole could quite possibly be gay. Not that she’s one to judge on looks alone, but like. There was also the fact that he’s a hairdresser. Slapping her forehead, she groans, “Stop spouting stereotypes, idiot.”

Well, straight or otherwise, the points are clearly not adding up in Audrey’s favor. She looks like yesterday’s garbage that missed the can, and he looks like freshly tussled god.

“Damn.”

Sighing, she pushes her sunglasses back down to the bridge of her nose and carefully tucks her iPhone into the elastic band of her gym shorts for safe keeping. She’s ready to relinquish the rest of her work (life) to the saboteur that is Alex Adler, but not her baby. Her iPhone is almost always in contact with some part of her flesh, and even if she has to give up everything else, the iPhone stays. Period.

As she gets out of the car, she doesn’t bother locking it since Alex will just be stealing her only means of transportation (escape) here shortly. She keeps her eyes on the boys and moans to herself, biting her cheek, as Cole “I’m-Most-Likely-Not-Interested-in-Your-Nether-Regions” Preston takes a long drag of his cigarette, his perfect sea glass eyes targeted on her. As she walks toward them, she tries not to break eye contact with him, not until he looks away and says, “That her?” to Alex, just loud enough for her to make out.

To which, Alex turns and replies, “Audrey Williams, even during finals you’re hot as hell!”

Such is the normal – and quite frankly –expected greeting from Alexander John Adler.

“Yeah. If Roxy wasn’t my best friend, I’d home wreck the shit out of you.” She smirks and winks at the boys.

Sex-In-Chucks sputters out a cough, laughing through the exhale of smoke as Alex grins in her direction.

“Audrey,” Alex points to her, and then Cole. “Cole. He’s the middle kid, a regular Jan Brady.”

“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” Cole squawks, winking at Audrey as he crosses his arms petulantly, carefully ashing his cigarette.

“What’s your boyfriend’s name again?” Alex asks Cole, nudging his shoulder. Cole just rolls his eyes and sighs, like its nothing new. “I’m not gay,” he flatly voices. “I’m comfortable with myself, and I’m good at my job. Now shut the fuck up or I’ll tell mom.”

“Cole’s the ambiguous mystery of the family,” Alex explains. “I mean, seriously, look at his outfit… it screams-“

Before he can finish, Cole says, “Well put together.” Audrey says, “Sexy as hell,” and Alex replies, “Into everyone with legs.”

Audrey laughs at all of their descriptions.

“‘Sexy as hell,’ Audrey, really?” Alex asks, looking mock-affronted. “Audrey, his pants are so tight they’re sticking to his legs. That’s not sexy, honey. That’s questionable.”

“Knock off the gay jokes, Al, they’re obnoxious,” Cole says, rolling the cherry out of the butt of his cigarette, tossing the burnt out end into the trashcan.

“Cole, bro, you know I love you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Cole replies affectionately. “Now, Audrey, let’s get this train wreck,” he points to her. “Off the streets and into my salon.”

“See! That’s what I’m talking about,” Alex laughs. “Bring the boyfriend to dinner tonight.” He reaches for Audrey’s purse and keys, looking through the bag thoughtfully, searching. “Books, check, notebook, check.” He turns to leave and walks a few steps before doubling back, putting his hands on her hips and pulling her to him, effectively feeling the clandestine iPhone.

“Naughty girl, Audrey,” Alex says and reaches under the elastic band to get the phone.

Audrey pouts and waves at the electronic device as it’s taken away. “Bye bye, Humphrey, I’ll miss you baby!”

“You named your phone Humphrey?” Cole asks as Alex leaves them.

“No, that’s Alex’s code name in our affair,” Audrey says, rolling her eyes. “Of course that’s the name of my iPhone. You know, of the Bogart persuasion?”

Cole nods. He laughs and lifts the left sleeve of his shirt. The tattoo work is impeccable, and just another sexy detail about Cole Preston that Audrey doesn’t quite know what to make of.

“I wanted to be a film student, a director actually, before I got into hair dressing and cosmetology. I was twenty-four before I changed my mind. I have a degree from UCLA’s Film School. Casablanca’s one of my favorite movies. I got the scene marker my sophomore year, after we got our first short film finished. My junior year, I added in the scene and take number from my favorite part of Casablanca. Then after I changed my mind, after I got my degree and everything, I got ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ added to the bottom.”

The half sleeve has more than just a movie marker and some words. Above the whole piece are the words, “LABELLE AURORE”, Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood star off to the right of the marker, a piano, and a music staff of “As Time Goes By” on the left of the marker. The last part of the tattoo is a map of Morocco, a small star marking Casablanca.

“Is that a canon’s fire, or is that my heart pounding?” Audrey quotes. She puts her hand over her heart and flutters her eyelashes.

“You’re my kind of girl, Audrey Williams. Definitely my kind of girl.”

Audrey rolls her eyes and shrugs, looking nonchalant, but inside, she’s doing a happy dance, adding one point to the straight side of the ‘Cole Equation.’ “Well, aren’t you lucky, Cole, my schedule was conveniently cleared, just for you. So, for the rest of the day, I’m yours,” she winks, a smirk firmly in place.

“Good, I’lll get to show you what this place is all about. Cimmerian is newest venture – my second in a series of life’s pursuits. I’ve been happy in each of my moments, in film school, I was the happiest I’d ever been, and now I can say the same. I own this place, and love every minute of it. I get to make people feel the best about themselves as they’ve ever felt.”

“Hey Cole?” Audrey asks, grinning as she thinks about what she’s about to say. When Cole turns around, she winks. “Why do Alex and Cali tease you so much?”

“Because I don’t want to settle down. I’ve got a great job, and my whole life ahead of me for the house with the fence, the wife and the two point five kids. Right now, I’m just content with being me.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I get the feeling that Cali has a cupid plot going on with this shindig. I’m way into my work and finishing my degree, and she doesn’t understand that sometimes. I mean, I’m twenty-two for Christ’s sake. I don’t need to go out every night, or you know, do laundry… like ever.”

Cole nods in understanding and backs away, all the while laughing. He opens the door to lead her into the establishment with a large, albeit contemplative grin on his face.

“Cole!”

In a flurry of movement, there’s a woman at his side, talking and asking questions, and if Audrey didn’t know any better, she’d think that he’d planned this. Hands on her hips, Audrey watches as Cole answers the questions as they come, about tinting, length, and styles, and after a minute or so, the girl stops, looking at Audrey.

“Welcome to Cimmerian,” she says sweetly, for Cole’s benefit, Audrey’s sure. The face the girl is sporting isn’t exactly one of excellent customer service, more like an “I’ll cut you” face. Audrey wouldn’t trust this girl with a pair of kindergarten scissors, let alone hair cutting shears. “I’m Tina, do you have an appointment?”

“Mhm,” Audrey says, her voice is downright angelic. She blinks and smiles wide at Tina. “Maybe you can help me find my stylist, Tina?” She catches Cole’s amused grin. “I have an appointment with… shoot! I plum forgot his name,” she sighs dramatically. “My best friend made the appointment for me. Said he’s a total heart throb.”

Tina looks less than amused, but nods. “Well, Kyle’s in the back, but he’s got a customer right now, not to mention married, and Nick’s off for the day. What’s your name, I’ll see who you’re supposed to be with.”

“Oh! I remember now,” Audrey exclaims, hand over her heart. “Cole!”

“I think you’re mistaken, sweetie, Cole’s schedule is cleared for the day for a family friend, but I can see if Kyle can squeeze you in, or maybe his wife, Lizzie.” Tina adds, emphasizing the word ‘wife’ quite a bit.

“Tina,” Cole says, laughing. “That’s the family friend. Now, Nicole is waiting for her low-lights. Remember, just because she says go platinum, give your professional opinion, remember what happened last time? She wants highlights, not frylights.”

“She walked out looking like a dead beat,” Tina says petulantly. “It’s not my fault she asked for the whitest blonde we have.” She walks away after that, tossing that same dirty look at Audrey before heading over to her station.

“Did you have fun, Audrey?” Cole asks, still laughing.

“Absolutely. Now, where do we start? I don’t mean to be rude, even if you are hot, but I’ve got a thesis to finish, and a powerpoint project to complete for my internship, I’m all tapped out on time, and this little intervention is a time-eating beast.” She reaches up and pulls the hair band out of her ratty hair and shakes her head easily, the red tresses reaching about mid-shoulder.

“Jesus, I didn’t know what we were working with. This will take a lot longer than I thought it would,” Cole says, pulling a comb from his back pocket. “What kind of cut do you want? Obviously something low maintenance, but still something professional and provocative. Right?”

“That sounds about right. What about something old school, like traditional 50’s or something? Like a bob?”

Cole tilts his head to the side, pulling her hair back to see what it would look like. “I’m thinking more modern for your face shape, perhaps an A-Line like Beckham’s wife?”

“Actually, let’s do that.”

“Suivez-moi.”

Audrey blinks her eyes open as Cole takes her hand and laces their fingers. ‘Finding Nemo’ might just be her second favorite movie of all time, and … well, for him to use the French accent and voice, and… then she finds herself saying dreamily,  “to the ends of the Earth” with a pathetic little sigh. As soon as it’s out of her mouth, she wishes she could suck it back in, like she was in a cartoon.

Instantly, she groans and attempts to pull her hand away – mostly just to cover her now beet red face – but McHot-Hair-Dresser doesn’t let go, instead, just chuckles, shakes his head, and continues to lead the way.

She follows like Cole’s lost little puppy, cheeks warm, eyes downcast, as he pulls her behind the curtain of his station. He sits her down in a soft chair covers her with a bib. “Let’s see what I’m working with.”

 He runs his fingers through her hair a bit, and then looks at her length. “So we’re definitely doing the cut, but you’ve got great coloring, obviously. But it’s all washed out, so if you’re not opposed, we’ll add a few low lights just to add some depth?”

“I’m not really opposed to anything, Cole. Really. I don’t care; I’ve got deadlines…”

“So, you’re looking for a ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ kind of deal? In. Out. On your way?” Cole asks. He’s smiling brightly, and Audrey nods earnestly.

“Alright, well the low lights will take the longest, but we’ll get started now, and call in a rain check for the rest of the appointment?”

“You can’t tell Cali,” Audrey says. “She told me to be nice.”

“Well, perhaps, while the foils are on, and your head’s under the dryer, I can convince Alex to bring Humphrey back, and instead of just sitting there, making awkward conversation with your lowly hair stylist, you can get some work done?”

There’s a hint of amusement there. Audrey doesn’t feel as if she’s being rude, just dedicated and understood by a fellow professional. “I can multi-task like a pro, Cole Preston, you just wait. If you get me my phone back, not only will I feel useful, but I will also guarantee perfect conversation as well as my rapier wit.”

As Cole begins to part her hair into sections, he looks at her through the mirror and says, “You’ve got yourself a deal, Audrey Williams, but I’ll be expecting damn fine conversation.”

Cole pulls his phone out and dials for Alex. “Alex, hey, it’s Cole, I need you to come back to Cimmerian,” he pauses. “No, she’s fine, I just need you to bring her phone back. Yes, I know it’s Sunday. I don’t care. She has to have her head in foils for thirty minutes; she needs something to do, so let her work. Bring the phone back.”

As Cole hangs the phone up and stuffs it back into his pocket, Audrey smiles wide, “I could just kiss you!”

Audrey almost stands up to give him a hug, but at the last minute, decides against it. She decides instead to sit still with her hands folded, bored and waiting for her phone. It takes a couple of minutes, where Cole is idly brushing her hair, and she’s trying not to look awkward, but Alex finally shows up with Humphrey and hands it over.

“So how’s my apartment?” she asks, almost afraid to know the answer. “I’m scared to see how it’s gonna turn out.”

“I don’t know about your place, but your car was a wreck, babe. You were low on oil, brake fluid, water, everything. Your tire pressure was low. You were running on fumes, and you’re interior smelled like crusty, old bread.”

“I’ve been busy,” Audrey defends herself automatically, holding Humphrey closer, like Alex’ll take it away again.

“You’ve been neglectful,” Alex argues.

“Don’t even start, Alex, I get enough from Cali and Roxy.”

“Because they care about you. You could have died in that car. It was so bad it leaked, the car could have overheated and you wouldn’t have even noticed.”

“Cut it out, Alex,” Cole intervenes. “Just go fix it for her, and get Roxy and Cali out of her place. I’ll be done in an hour.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Alex mumbles, heading out the door. “Mom wants you at dinner right after, and don’t even think about ditching out. She misses you.”

Cole rolls his eyes and flips Alex off, waiting for him to leave the salon completely.

“So, uh, thanks for that,” Audrey says shyly. “Alex means well, but he’s like… a major pain in the ass when he pulls the big brother card on me.”

“I’ve dealt with that card all my life,” Cole laughs, nudging her shoulder softly. “I’ve got your back. And anyway, you’ve got your phone now, so I can start with the coloring, and voila, we’ll be done. Then you can go back to work, and I can go to my oh-so-amazing family dinner.”

“You could ditch it,” she grins, feeling somewhat back to normal after Alex’s mini-lecture. “I mean, what would it hurt? You can just go see your mom tomorrow or something, right?”

“I like the way you think, Williams. Deceiving, yet thoughtful,” he laughs. “I’m just gonna head back and get the color ready, I’ll be right back. You have fun with your emails.

The process goes quick enough, and as it goes, Audrey tries to keep her word, asking questions of Cole, about Cali and Alex and how being a middle child influenced his choices.

“Well, see, Alex’s the oldest and from Mom’s first marriage – hence the different last name. His dad died when mom was pregnant. She met our dad about a year after Alex was born and that was that.”

Audrey nods, finding something new out about her best friend’s man. Alex had been in her life so long, but she never really put it together that his last name was different than Cali’s. She really had been in her own bubble for too long. “So, like, what about being the middle child?”

“Oh yeah, naturally, everything Alex screwed up, I knew to avoid. And with Cali as the baby, I didn’t get any special treatment, but I was also kind of off the hook for a lot of things. Alex and I are way too overprotective of Cali, but we’re her big brothers, so that’s our job. I’m much more responsible than Alex and much more carefree than Cali. My mother says I’m the best of both worlds,” he says with a huge grin on his face as he stares at Audrey in the mirror. He even brings his hands up under his chin. What a cherub.

“We have dinner every Sunday, and now that Cali’s engaged to John and Alex is seeing Roxy, I’m the main topic of conversation at our little get-togethers.”

“I know how that goes,” Audrey laughs, scrolling through her intern server emails. “My mom and dad live in Georgia, so when I do go out there, it’s all about how I need to settle down and be the southern belle I’m supposed to be. Like…. One, do they know it’s the twenty first century? And two, do they understand that I’m just not interested in that right now?”

After a while, he looks under one of the foils to see if she’s ready to wash out. He tilts his head over toward the shampoo station so she follows him along.

Cole turns on the taps, waiting for the water to warm up before he begins to dampen her hair, carefully making sure to get every strand before getting three pumps of the shampoo. When he starts lathering the product in her hair, he sighs.

When Audrey opens her eyes, she asks, “What?”

“Do you ever feel like you’re just lonely? Like, all that shit that Alex teases with, you know? I’m happy with my career, and for my house and everything, but at the end of the day-”

“You still go back to your empty apartment room with three-day-old Chinese?” Audrey asks, finishing Cole’s sentence.

“Exactly.”

“Sometimes, I guess. I’ve been so busy for the last four years that I really haven’t thought much about it, you know? I suppose I’d like to sleep next to someone, or tell someone about the mundane details of my day, but…” She lets the sentence trail off, and Cole doesn’t try to finish it.

As Cole finishes up with Audrey’s shampooing, he towel dries her hair out and views the tips. As they continue through the appointment, Audrey follows through with her multitasking promise, getting to know Cole better and proving that she can, indeed, do more than one thing at a time.

When he spins her around to look in the mirror, Cole nods in what looks to be satisfaction.  “This is a really good style for you, Audrey, and I think it will be manageable for you for a long time. You won’t have to touch up the low lights, they’ll fade naturally with the sun and with time, and the cut should flow out well as your hair grows.”

She doesn’t obviously, but looks into the mirror, standing to see her hair better, fingering the ends as she examines her new look. “I really like it, by the way. I think it’s great.”

“It looks good on you,” Cole nods. “It’s short, kinda sassy.” His teasing does not go unnoticed, and Audrey turns to face him hands on her hips.

“I am not sassy, I’m confident. There is a difference, Preston,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I just want to get Cali and Roxy off my back. If it’s not my apartment, it’s my internship, and if it’s neither of those, it’s my relationships, or lack thereof. Can’t I just be a slob until graduation?”

Cole laughs, but nods, understanding exactly how Cali is, knowing that Alex is no better. “Alex is a huge jerk to me about stuff like that, but he’s my brother, and he wants me happy. I get that. He just doesn’t get that I am happy. Cali’s no better, but I love them both.”

He pats Audrey on the shoulder and looks at her in the mirror. “All done, Miss Williams. Now let’s get you back home, so you can see how much damage the girls have done to your place.”

She groans and follows behind Cole as he locks up Cimmerian and waits for him to lead her to his car. The black Mazda is sleek and so clean she’s afraid to sit in it with her dirty gym shorts, and when she tells him this, he just laughs at her and pulls her into the passenger seat.

She directs him back to the apartment, the time spent relatively quiet except for Audrey’s minor directional comments. When they get into the parking lot, she smiles sadly, not truly wanting to say goodbye, and wonders if he’s feeling the same way.

“So, thank you for this,” she says, her tone a little defeated, but trying to hide it with faux-happy.

“Would it be weird for me to ask to see you again? I mean… I don’t really have too many friends beside the happy couples. Single friends are hard to come by at our age,” he makes a joke out of it, and Audrey lets out a relieved sigh. She hands him Humphrey and takes his phone, adding her number to it as he does the same.

“If you go to the dinner tonight,” Audrey says, getting out of the car, leaning in through the open passenger window. “Have a good time. See you around.”

She pulls out her keys and walks with caution up to her door, grimacing as she smells the cleaning products from all the way in the walkway. She turns around and waves a final farewell to Cole and walks into her apartment.

The place, as the smells led her to believe, is spotless. Her counters don’t have trash or dirty clothes on them. She can see her carpet, her furniture upholstery, and can even see the marks from the vacuum on the rugs. Her desk is free of all the papers and notes she’d taken and –

“Wait, where are my notes?”

Cali and Roxy look up from the kitchen table which is cleaner than she’s seen it in months. “You mean the scribbled pages on top of the pizza box by your desk?” Cali asks with a smirk. When Audrey nods, she continues, “We put all the questionable papers in the mail bin, unsure what the scribbles meant, we didn’t want to throw anything away.”

“Also, your laundry took up five washing machines. Five whole loads. Shit, I mean, I know we like to drag you shopping, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to wash your old clothes, Audrey.”

Audrey rolls her eyes and squats down next to the bin of all of her notes. All the pages are balled up and crinkled from when Cali and Roxy threw them there.

“Your hair looks so cute, Audrey,” she says to herself in a high pitch mocking tone. “Cole really did a great job, didn’t he?”

“No need to get melodramatic, Audrey,” Roxy says, sighing. “Of course your hair looks amazing. We get our hair done by Cole. We wouldn’t have sent you to an amateur.”

“It would have been nice for you to say something about it, I mean, you two are the ones who exiled me, taking all of my work, and thrust me into a shitty situation.” She stands, tossing her notes back into the bin to go through later. Walking to the cupboard, she reaches up to get out a cup for water and finds all of her dishes rearranged.

“Where are my cups?”

“Your kitchen was such a mess, you seriously don’t even know. I had to rearrange everything just to get all your mismatched dishes to fit,” Cali says, shrugging.

“My cupboards were fine the way they were,” Audrey says, trying not to get even more mad then she already is.

“You put your cups next to your spice cupboard? That’s ridiculous.”

“I put my cups where I want to put my cups,” she says through gritted teeth, immediately at her boiling point. “I like my cups next to the sink because I like to wake up at ass-o’clock in the morning for water without having to look through my mismatched dishes to find them.”

“We were just trying to help you, Audrey, the least you could do is thank us,” Roxy says, crossing her arms. “You don’t have to yell at us. This place was a disaster. It smelled like rotting food and dirty clothes, and I wasn’t even sure if you had a couch anymore because all of the trash. And then, you walk in after the day we planned for you and immediately jump down our throats about everything.”

“Not to mention all of the clothes everywhere,” Cali adds. “The laundry was out of control. You seriously should get out of this place more often I mean-”

Before Cali can finish her sentence, Audrey throws the glass against the wall, watching it shatter all over the pristinely cleaned kitchen tiles.

“I like disorder! I like not having to worry about clothes or dishes or anything besides my schoolwork, and the intern work. If you’d have bothered to ask, you’d know that I was done in a week. I’d be having this same sort of deal with myself then. But you didn’t ask, you demanded! Shit, guys, I love you. You’re the best friends I could ever ask for, and I know you all care about me, but Jesus fucking Christ!”

She picks up her phone, her keys, and walks to the door, turning for a moment so she can finish her tantrum. She pauses for a second. Takes a breath. Then, still staring at the door, says, “Thank you for what you did today. Don’t clean up the fucking glass. I’ll do it when I get home. You can lock up.” As she goes to open the door, there’s a knock.

She pulls it open quickly and sees Cole’s hand still up in a knocking formation. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard a glass break. Is everything ok?”

She screams in exasperation, stomping her foot. “Everything is just fucking fine!” She pushes past him, and he looks inside her apartment to see Roxy and Cali both stunned into a frozen-like silence. He laughs, waves, and closes the door behind Audrey as she leaves.

“So,” he begins, following next to her. “I didn’t know if the guy-rules applied, but I didn’t want to wait a week before I got to see you again. Want to go get some coffee?”

“What about dinner with your mother?”

“I’m sure Roxy and Cali will tell her about your little screaming match, and tell them that I followed after you. So… coffee?”

After a deep breath, she nods, still walking briskly away from her apartment. “I need the caffeine.”

“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Audrey,” Cole laughs, catching up with her.

“Here’s looking at you, kid,” she replies, nudging him in the shoulder when he does, smiling softly.

Heart Song

“Tillion, if you keep humming to yourself all the time you’ll never be matched.”

Tillion, whose head was always stuck in the clouds, did not stop humming or twirling her pencil aimlessly.

“Tillion, do you hear me? I said stop that humming.”

“Yes, Nana.”

With a sigh, Tillion’s humming and twirling ceased. Staring up at her grandmother, she folded her leg underneath herself and sat up straight at her desk. It had always been like this for Tillion, ever since she could remember there’d been a song stuck in her head that made her different. No one she knew woke up one day with a song that wouldn’t leave them. No one she knew had moments where they couldn’t control their own bodies to stop from humming in moments of silence. Tillion did, and she was the only one she knew. Her grandmother reminded her every day that she was different – and not in the way a grandmother might be expected to do so, to make their granddaughter feel special and loved. Tillion’s grandmother reminded Tillion of her difference so that she could hide it away, so that she could be the Timber heir they needed her to be.

“Time to get back to your lessons, dear. You’re three months away from the SMP. I have a lot of history to share with you. Now… where was I?” Nana looked back at her book and flipped a couple of pages. “Oh yes, that’s right, World War III.”

The global pandemic of 2095 led to a series of battles where the rest of the world banded together and attempted to conquer the US – where the pandemic hit hardest.  The United States, after decades of vile political leaders made a lot of enemies before the Plague resurfaced, and when it hit – from bacteria found in the melted runoff of ancient glaciers – the United States was deemed Ground Zero.   After the Plague was finally contained, the death toll around the world ranged upwards of two billion people.

“And who was blamed for the Plague?” Tillion’s grandmother prompted, looking up from the book.

Thankfully, Tillion, although she hated history, found the memorization of history a simple task. “The United Nations – of which the United States was no longer a member –held the United States responsible for the spread of the disease, Nana,” Tillion recited from memory.

“And…” her grandmother pressed.

“And thus, World War III began. In the end, the United States staved off defeat until an armistice was signed, due in large part to the threat of nuclear annihilation, but after that, everything changed for Americans. After WWIII, the United States successfully closed the borders for decades.”

Her grandmother nodded, impressed. “Very good, my dear. Very good indeed.”

Tillion’s attention to her studies wavered, and back was the song in her head. When she got caught doodling and humming, for the third time this hour, her grandmother scolded her and shook her head in defeat. “We decided to home school you for your own protection, Tillion. Our family name means something, lucky for you, or else you’d be stamped and carted off to Leeward. You understand what’s at stake, don’t you?”

“Yes, Nana.” But in all honesty, she didn’t want to think about the stakes. Tillion couldn’t be bothered with the future her family wanted for her. Her thoughts and attentions were always centered around the song in her mind. Sometimes, although she’d never admit it for fear of really being sent to Leeward, she felt this magical pull, like her wrist was tied to a string almost, that pulled her further and further away from Timber Industries. It pulled the hardest when the song was loudest. It was so intense that sometimes the skin of her wrist was red and irritated afterward. She did recognize that she was lucky, however. Homeschooling was a privilege but it came at a cost. Because she was rarely in public, her impulse to hum at inopportune times was hardly seen by anyone outside of her family. Not ever being in public though, meant that rumors could spread about the Timber heir, rumors that could jeopardize her place in the Soulmate Match Program.

“You must learn to control your impulses, my girl.”

With a sigh, Tillion nodded. “Yes, Nana.”

“Enough history for today, yes? Let’s move on to your cotillion studies.”

A stern clap had Tillion out of her seat in an instant and with another deep sigh, she followed her grandmother out of the study and into the kitchen. “While you will probably not do the cooking or cleaning in your home, you will most certainly be asked to host. Now, let’s jump into acceptable topics of conversation, shall we?”

Tillion and her grandmother walked out of the study and into the kitchen to put on their gardening aprons. Tillion’s apron was dirty and tattered, indicative of the time she spent in the gardens pruning the roses and sitting in the soil. Her grandmother’s apron was pristine, which Tillion found very fitting, as her grandmother merely looked at the roses, but never got her hands dirty. As Tillion tied her apron around her waist, her father walked into the kitchen to grab the paper. His hulking stature was intimidating at the best of times. He seemed to fill the entire doorway as he approached. Tillion lowered her head to look at the knot she’d made in her apron.

“And remember, dear, our money and influence are not proper topics of conversation,” reminded her father with a stern look on his face. “Don’t forget about what happened at the Stevenson’s house last month.” He didn’t look like he’d forgiven Tillion for those events, despite how trivial it seemed to her. That was the thing though, things she felt were nothing, meaningless, seemed to grate on him in unpredictable ways. She seemed to always be failing him in some way. Seemed to always be doing the wrong thing. The look on his face, even now, reminded Tillion that she’d never be the heir he wanted. Every time he looked at her, it was clear that all he saw was damaged goods – a damaged daughter that would never amount to anything. He gave her one last scathing glance, grabbed a cup of coffee and his paper, and then left the kitchen without another word.

“Yes, you do happen to say just the wrong thing, don’t you dear,” Tillion’s grandmother sighed, fixing her apron around her. “If you were in my shoes when I was your age, perhaps you’d be a little less careless.”

“Yes, Nana,” Tillion groaned. This was a story she’d heard hundreds of times. Ever since the song started, Tillion’s grandmother did her best to remind her that their lives could be very different without their public image.

Tillion’s grandmother was one of the wealthiest women in the United States now, but that wasn’t always the case – she was married into the Timber family, not born into it. The Timber family profited from the 2095 outbreak by being in the pharmaceutical business and their research lab, Timber Industries, manufactured a lot of the post-plague drugs for the entire country. Because of their clout, the Soulmate Match Program (SMP) meant very little in terms of the chemistry behind it these days. All families were tested, but the data was regularly skewed for a few choice families – like those families that funded government aid and research after the war. In the rebuilding stages, biologists, looking for ways to avoid other catastrophic events stumbled upon the Soulmate Algorithm, a chemical sequence in the DNA that was once described as “the answer” to the population crisis. After the pandemic and the war, the United States’ population was down over thirty percent, which at first seemed like its own answer to the problem to overpopulation prior to WWIII.

“Tillion, why do we have a Soulmate Match Program in the first place?” her grandmother cued, waiting for the textbook response.

“Timber Industries created the medications that eradicated the Plague, but it sterilized thousands of people,” Tillion recounted, rolling her eyes. How this topic of conversation was appropriate for “cotillion studies” Tillion would never understand. “Our family – full of war defectors who claimed that their research could “stop the war and save the country” – were not immune from the side effects either. They too, were unable to conceive to further their family line.”

“We know better than to bring up defection, Tillion, dear. Rephrase, if you please.”

With a soft sigh, Tillion nodded. “Even the wealthiest families in the country were not immune from the side effects. They too, were unable to conceive, and so the country seriously funded the Soulmate Algorithm to jumpstart the SMP.”

“Better,” her grandmother said, her tone clipped, almost annoyed.

According to the Closed Country Television, the US population in the last one hundred years had steadily increased, thanks to the SMP. At first, the SMP was developed to combat the sterilization of the country. In an act of desperation, the country enacted a law that everyone at age 17 would provide a DNA sample to their local SMP office to be placed into the national database for compatibility matches. Top scientists and doctors across the country worked to match DNA compatibilities in order to pair people together whom they believed could conceive. The trial series of matches were a success. All samples were stripped of any identifying information in the beginning – each double helix was anonymous so that scientists could match people solely based on their chemical makeup. The program, finding compatible partners or “soulmates,” publically paired a lower class young lady with Theo Timber, CEO of Timber Industries, and with that, Tillion’s grandmother became the wealthiest woman in the United States.

It didn’t take long for the elite families in the United States to buy their way around the system. After the first generations of matches were found to be successful in terms of pregnancies, DNA samples were coded for the elite, so that more “suitable” matches could be made. Some families, like the Timber family, went so far as to bypass the DNA compatibility process completely. The DNA samples of every Timber heir after Theo didn’t make it into the national pool, but got set aside for a “private match.” Everyone in the Timber family expected a great match for Tillion, the only heir to the Timber family name, but at sixteen, Tillion couldn’t care less. She knew that the match would be whoever her grandmother and father deemed most eligible, not most compatible anyway. With these kinds of thoughts in her head, it seemed like the song grew louder and louder, until she could think of nothing else.

Cotillion classes were worse than history lessons because for a lady, the only acceptable topics were gardening, poetry, and the home. She wanted to travel, write books, sail the oceans. She hated how boxed in she felt at the Timber home. Every time she was out of the house, she longed to run as far away as she could, but death was the only outcome if she were to try. No one escaped the SMP. Even after the original publicity for the SMP wore off and less families found successful compatibility matches, the consequence for avoiding the SMP was tantamount to being a traitor to the country.

“Shall we take a lap around the rose garden then, Tillion?” Her grandmother asked, putting out her arm for her granddaughter. “It’s such a lovely day for a walk, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Nana.”

Of all the places on the Timber estate, the gardens were Tillion’s favorite. When she was alone among the flower gardens and shaded trees, she felt free. On warm summer days like this, she could lie back in the long grasses, breathe in the smell of the Jasmine flowers, and listen to the song in her heart as long as she’d like. Walking brick paths and stopping at the small fountains were generally things that soothed Tillion’s caged-in feeling, but that was not the case when she walked them with her grandmother.

“You know, the Soulmate Match isn’t all bad. I had a loving marriage with your grandfather. And your father loved your mother, in his own way. He just… he didn’t know how to show it,” Tillion’s grandmother said as they walked through the gardens. “There’s talk that you’ll be paired with Cain Stevenson. He was so taken with you, even after you began to speak.”

Tillion didn’t hate Cain, but she hated the SMP on principle. Her mother had killed herself on Tillion’s seventh birthday, leaving no note to explain. At that age, Tillion couldn’t understand any of it, but as she got older she began to. Her father was a cruel man. He was pompous and arrogant and threw money around for his own personal gain. Of course Tillion would be paired with Cain. Being put into the SMP database was a farce for the public. Their samples would never actually be introduced into the system, but an “official” record would be released. Theodore Junior got what he wanted, and he wanted a Stevenson alliance.

“Cain will be a good match for you. He’s motivated… patient. At least, that’s what his mother tells me.”

“Yes, Nana.”

Tillion needed someone patient. She was sharp tongued at the worst of times, and inattentive at the best. She hummed a tune wherever she was, out in the gardens, in the library, at the dinner table, in front of guests – it didn’t matter. It was something she’d done since she was a child, and it was something she couldn’t shake. In her meetings with Cain, she tried to temper that side of her, attempted to subdue the song, but that always made it worse. She’d been to supper at his house three times since her sixteenth birthday and each time asked him to repeat himself no less than five times each night.

Every time she was at the Stevenson house, the pull and song was so intense that she nearly couldn’t take it. It put her on edge, which made her speak without thinking it through. She made the mistake of criticizing both the SMP and her family’s wealth all at once at one of the dinner parties. Cain laughed, of course, and patted her hand in appreciation. He enjoyed her company though, it seemed, and was prepared to marry her if they matched. He appeared to appreciate her like boys appreciate wild horses, admiring their peculiarity as a trait they can mold to fit their needs.

*

In the remaining months that led to her cotillion – the day where her DNA was officially entered into the SMP, Cain acted as her escort. Cain kept her present, and tried to keep her focused, but the song was so loud that he regularly had to squeeze her hand or tap her shoulder to bring her back to the conversations she was in the middle of. The pull made her heart pound in her chest, and every time she looked around the celebration, she felt like she was going to burst.

By night’s end, Tillion was exhausted and engaged. The SMP produced a match in record time, to Cain Stevenson of course. By the time she’d been formally introduced as Tillion Timber, she’d been reassigned Tillion Stevenson. Her whirlwind engagement lasted only a week. It didn’t need to be prolonged since it had been planned for years. On her wedding day, she was the epitome of a beautiful, blushing bride. Her cheeks were reddened not by her nerves for her wedding vows or the happiness she felt with Cain, but because the song in her heart pounded in her ears so loudly and the pull on her wrist stung so badly. She nearly fainted while saying her vows, doing everything she could to keep herself focused and in the moment.

It took less than six months for Cain, motivated and patient Cain, to realize that Tillion wasn’t the perfect, moldable wife he’d thought she’d be. He, at first, told her that he liked her quirky sensibilities. As he continued his studies at the local university, he felt refreshed by her antiestablishment ideals. The way she questioned the SMP, the way she called out the wealthy, he told her, kept him honest. He reminded her how much he enjoyed how she questioned her father at dinner parties, how she’d always hum a tune while reading or walking around – he called her endearing. But as his studies progressed, Cain began to meet more and more with the elite, and less with those that he’d previously found engaging. Tillion’s attention to him wavered. Tillion could tell that Cain no longer found her humming endearing, but instead, distracting. No longer was her quick wit a quirk he seemed to enjoy, she saw his exhaustion. He was no longer proud to be married to the Timber heir, instead, it was clear, that he found her to be an embarrassment.

His patience had worn thin with her, until finally, he filed for a “damage release” from his marriage on their fifth anniversary. Tillion did not, he claimed publicly, have the faculties to be a wife, let alone a Stevenson. The Closed Country Television reported on the damage release proceedings for the public to follow. Cain Stevenson planned to run for local office, and at twenty-three, had already made waves in the political arena. Tillion understood that he needed someone that could handle the scrutiny of public life, more so than being a Timber ever asked of her. In her mind, Tillion felt that a damage release would be best for both of them. She wasn’t happy in their marriage, and his demands for the spotlight only added to her stress.

The divorce was in all of the papers and a prominent story on the Closed Country TV programming. “Tonight on CCTV, the Timber/Stevenson split is finalized. Cain Stevenson was granted his release from his marriage to Tillion Timber today in marriage court after three weeks of delegation. Timber will be registered at Leeward Asylum, and Stevenson will go back into the SMP in one week. Fingers crossed ladies.”

Leeward Asylum was a high end convalescent home for the elite. Patients were largely left to their own devices while there, which was why Cain insisted that Tillion be placed there. As a Timber, it was a guarantee, but Cain Stevenson, in front of the Closed Country Television monitors, wanted to appear as the heartbroken husband who lost his wife to mental defect. And so, Tillion was shipped to Malibu, California where she would convalesce in peace. The Timber name was good for a few things –and Leeward Asylum was one of them. The treatment program included meditation, relaxation, spa appointments, a library with hundreds of books… all things Tillion wished she could enjoy, save for the song in her head that never gave her any peace.

Over the last five years, the song had taken its toll on Tillion. No longer was she the beautiful heir to the Timber family name. No longer did her long strawberry blond hair dance on the wind while she hummed and pruned the roses. No longer did her green eyes shine. Upon arrival to Leeward, the first thing anyone could notice about the Timber heir were the bags under her eyes and the short cropped hair that fell just above her shoulders. She seemed at once on edge and exhausted, as if sleep had eluded her for five long years. All the other Leeward patients gave her a wide berth, afraid to catch whatever mania she had. And thus, the isolation of Leeward began to drive Tillion even deeper into her own mind.

*

Every day, Tillion was given free reign of the library for hours at a time. It was the only time of day where she felt like she was relatively normal. She hummed the song in her head to herself as she ran her hands over the stacks of books in the library, seemingly idly until eventually she settled on one. Each day was the same routine for her, and slowly, the bags under her eyes disappeared. The color returned to her cheeks, the shine came back to her eyes. At Leeward, a place she once feared more than anywhere else in the world, she felt free. She didn’t have to hold back at Leeward. She could hum at breakfast, hum in the library, she could even sing on her walks around the grounds and in the gardens. She found most solace in the library. Once she’d selected her book, she’d sit in the screened-in porch and read by the light of the sun rays that pierced their way through the clouds each day.

One particular day, when Tillion walked into the library, she found it empty. The attendant who’d previously watched her had disappeared, the librarian was nowhere to be found either. It was silent in a way that Tillion hadn’t felt for as long as she could remember. The lights of library flickered, the sun seemed to dim, and it seemed almost as if time stood still. A tingling feeling flew through her as she stood in the center of the room, making her freeze in her place. The pull at her wrist, something she hadn’t felt in years returned with a vengeance. All at once, the silence was replaced with a quiet ticking, slow and steady from somewhere in the stacks. Tillion blinked and shivered as the ticking sped up, in a way that made Tillion feel like she was running out of time. The pull on her wrist lead her forward, toward the sound. The sound of the ticking grew louder and louder and then Tillion ran. She ran into the stacks toward the sound instead of away, a crazed smile on her face.

“Where are you?” She screamed, pulling random books off the shelf and to the ground, never slowing her pace. The ticking continued, and the pulling intensified as she got closer to the sound. The sound, louder than the song ever seemed to get, finally stopped as her fingers gripped an ancient text. Tillion pulled the text away from the shelf, her fingers almost glued to its spine, and turned it on its side to examine the spine: Roman Myth and Superstitions.

The silence of the library returned with the book in her hands. Tillion felt a relief she’d never felt before, but at the same time, didn’t know if she could move from her spot. From her place in the stacks, she could hear the door open and the quiet pattering of her attendant return. After a few brief seconds, the annoyed sounds of the librarian caught her attention, he’d probably found the slew of books that Tillion had left in her wake. The humming in her mind slowed, almost stopped completely as she pulled the book up to her chest, which disoriented her. As she cracked the spine, it creaked, as if it had never been opened before. The pages of the text were crisp and thin, delicate in a way that nothing in Tillion’s life had ever been. She closed the book and made her way to her normal place on the porch to read. On her way back to the center of the room, she passed the librarian, clearing the aisles, and her attendant, standing with his arms at his sides at the doorway. To them, Tillion didn’t seem to be any different. To her, everything in her life seemed tied to the book in her arms. It was exhilarating.

After finding her place on the porch, Tillion opened up the book again carefully. After tales of Romulus and Remus and some of the deities walking among mortals, she came upon a section called Heart Song, an account of Julius Ceasar’s motives for his conquering campaign. In the text it explained that part of Julius Ceasar’s campaign was driven by the need to find what he called his “soulmate” – the woman who sang the song of his heart. The words on the page detailed out the symptoms – or “blessings” – felt by someone whose soulmate coexisted in their lifetime – something that the Romans considered a rarity. Some of the symptoms were an inexplicable feeling of isolation, a constant unknown melody playing so only the person could hear it, inattention to surroundings, and sudden, violent bursts of depression. When connected to their soulmate, the pair would instantly feel at ease, the song would disappear, and life would continue for them peacefully. If one were to die before being paired, the other would shortly follow. All of this felt too real to Tillion. She couldn’t believe that anyone could capture what she’d been feeling her entire life. She took the book with her back to her room to show Jeanie.

When Tillion first arrived at Leeward, she said nothing. She didn’t speak at her intake meeting, she didn’t speak at her sessions with the doctor, and she didn’t speak in group. She’d been in enough situations where her mouth got the best of her, and with the constant pounding of the song in her head, she couldn’t trust herself to say the right thing. So, she remained silent for weeks. It wasn’t until her case was handed over to Jeanie that Tillion felt comfortable speaking. Jeanie was soft, gentle. She didn’t pry at their meetings, she didn’t take excessive notes at their sessions. She told Tillion more about her.

“I’m a second generation health care professional,” Jeanie explained. “It was the only way I could get out of the SMP,” she added. “Health care professionals at asylums, like me, are exempted from the SMP. Did you know that?”

Tillion didn’t know that, but she wished she known that sooner. Perhaps this all could have been avoided if she’d just said she wanted to be a doctor or a nurse. Would that have been less of an embarrassment for the Timber family than being a “damage-release”?

“My mother, actually, is the reason why health care professionals aren’t placed in the SMP,” Jeanie told her one day while they sat in the library. “My mother was placed in the SMP, had me, and then made a medical breakthrough for asylum patients across the country. She argued with the Supreme Court that she would have been able to do more had she not be placed in the SMP. She couldn’t be tied down to a husband and be a doctor.”

“Didn’t that hurt your feelings, having a mother who told the world that she didn’t want to have you in the first place?” Tillion asked, her first words at Leeward.

“Me? Oh no, I was almost of age for the SMP by that time, and she’d told me all about why she wanted out. My father was an abusive man. I was her pride and joy, but she didn’t want me to be in a relationship like hers,” Jeanie confided. “So, she went up the chain of command, all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, we’re like the Nuns of old. Our calling comes before our marriage vows. I don’t have to marry as long as I do this job.”

Amazed, Tillion whispered. “No one ever told me.”

“Well of course they didn’t, silly. You’re Tillion Timber. No one would want you to be a sterile health care worker when you could produce the next heir to the US Dynasties,” Jeanie laughed, patting Tillion on the head like a child. It was then that Tillion realized she could trust Jeanie. Jeanie understood her. Which was why, as soon as she found the book, she knew she needed to tell Jeanie about it.

She showed Jeanie Roman Myths and Superstitions and all the research she had already found in the library. She explained that she was more and more convinced that her soulmate is getting closer and closer to her location and Jeanie, when she could, helped her to learn more. Tillion read pieces of the book to Jeanie during their sessions, explaining how she felt when her own song hummed in her veins. “This is what it feels like, Jeanie. Caesar, he felt it too.”

The book detailed out Caesar’s journey to find his soulmate. As she read, Tillion took notes in her notebook about the things that she’d felt herself, things she wanted to talk to Jeanie about. Jeanie, as a medical professional, tried to explain some of the side effects in a scientific way, but a lot of it was just as foreign to her as it was to Tillion.

“Caesar’s own soulmate,” Tillion read, “Would only be found if he attempted to conquer the known world, and he would only stop once he found her. Despite taking three wives, none were his soulmate. He wrote in his journals that the song in his heart was loudest in Gaul, and louder still around Matina, a Druid priestess. The song was loudest for me when I was getting married, like it wanted me to run away,” she explained. “It’s like magic.”

“I’m a scientist, Tilly, I don’t believe in magic,” Jeanie sighed, rolling her eyes. “Just because Julius Caesar needed to justify his “I came, I saw, I conquered” ideologies by saying he was looking for a soulmate, that doesn’t mean it’s magic.”

“No, no, keep listening, Jean, I promise. I’ve been dealing with this my whole life, just listen.”

Tillion continued to read more about Julius Caesar and Matina. Matina was born and raised in the Gallic way, but she found that somehow, she was able to understand and communicate with the foreign invader, the man who was hell bent on destroying her way of life despite not speaking the same language. She hated everything he stood for, but felt at peace with him in a way she’d never felt before. In the Gaul tradition, hearing the Heart Song was the mark of glory, a pathway to the divine. She was praised and followed as a leader in her village. She thought, her village thought, that the Heart Song would stop the wars between Rome and the Gauls.

“Caesar loved her instantly. He believed that once he’d found his Heart Song, that he’d be able to stop his armies and return to Rome, but he was wrong. When he tried to lead his armies away from Gaul, to end the wars with peace, his generals fought against him, determined to break the spirits of the Gallic people for Rome. They reminded him of his own words, “Veni, vidi, vici.” Realizing that he could not stop his forces, he went to Matina to beg her to make her people see reason, to tell her that he couldn’t stop his forces,” Tillion read. “See, he didn’t want to conquer her village and build Rome’s legacy, he just wanted her.”

Jeanie rolled her eyes, but motioned for Tillion to continue reading.

“Matina was torn between the love of her people and the love her soulmate, and cursed the gods for putting her in the position she was in. She grew weaker and weaker as the Roman army became victorious in the Gallic Wars. Her people called her a traitor, a woman no longer blessed by the gods, and was exiled from her lands. Caesar promised her a new life back in Rome, a life free from pain and death. She couldn’t deny her feelings for her soulmate and knew that she couldn’t survive without him.  He too, felt weaker when she was away from him, and on the journey back to Rome, realized just how powerful his connection to her was. The long and difficult journey was too rough for Matina in her weakened state. Caesar, a torn and broken man, carried her lifeless body into Rome alone, and in isolation. He lived the last five years of his life with a lock of her hair braided around his wrist, listless and in constant sorrow.”

After showing Jeanie the book, and doing her own research, Tillion’s previous waywardness dissipated as if the pull at her wrist had lifted her out of the fog she’d lived in for so long. Everything she’d read from Caesar was everything she’d ever felt. After reading the book from cover to cover, Tillion spent every available free moment in the library, which was nothing new, but instead of idly watching the sun pass through the clouds and skimming the words of books, she did everything she could to research the Heart Song legend without arousing suspicion. She knew that anything she said against the SMP could be considered traitorous. So she kept to herself in a way she hadn’t done before.

After exhausting every text in the library, Tillion realized that she’d need to get access to the World Wide Web (WWW). After 2095, the United States, in an effort to control the flow of information, created the United States Internet System (USIS) which was monitored and censored for the “safety” of the people.  The USIS wouldn’t have anything on the Heart Song, she was sure. She knew that her only hope would be getting Jeanie on board. Medical professionals had WWW access in order to review new finds in medicine around the world. From the books she’d read, she determined that her soulmate couldn’t be far away since the song was forever pounding in her head at a deafening pace. Caesar, and other legends wrote that the Heart Song was loudest just before the soulmates met each other, almost like a homing beacon. Without WWW access, she didn’t know what else she could do.

Jeanie was all too willing to help Tillion continue her research. She slowly started coming around to the idea that what Tillion had discovered might have merit. Plus, had secretly been working with a group of underground rebels for years to try to dismantle the SMP from the inside, and helping Tillion find more concrete evidence that went against the findings of the Soulmate Algorithm would be in their favor. She was honest about her motives from the start, and told Tillion that when they had enough information she would devise a plan that would help Tillion escape Leeward.

“You’re the answer, Tillion. Your research will demolish the SMP for good,” Jeanie whispered to her one night during her medical rounds.

The more Tillion researched, the more she realized just how isolated the US had become. Where foreign nations were thriving after WWIII and the Plague, the US was only surviving. Peace between nations was at an all-time high outside the country. One thing that she continued to see, regardless of her search, was how countries, former allies, thought of the US now. The country was behind in medical advances, in education, and because no new data had been given out for global studies, many nations thought the country would implode in on itself in a matter of decades.

“You saw how foreign nations view the US now. You know,” Jeanie told her one night. “My oath means I’m sworn to secrecy on penalty of death, but you, you’ve made no oath.”

“I know,” Tillion replied, running a steady hand through her hair. “I don’t know what to do about any of it though. No one will believe me. I’m damaged.”

“The underground will. You don’t know how far that network travels. Once we get you out of here, you’ll see,” Jeanie smiled. “Just you wait and see.”

Getting out of Leeward wouldn’t be easy. And putting her trust in a bunch of strangers in the underground wasn’t going to be easy either. Tillion started to research the underground network, using her library access liberally. After a few months of a clear head, her attendant began to notice some of her strange, almost secretive behavior but he didn’t seem to take it too seriously. He did walk a little closer to her on his passes in the library, and they were more frequent than they had been before, but she was already a little strange when she arrived at Leeward, so Tillion didn’t think he’d make any new connections to her behaviors. The more Tillion learned about the Heart Song and foreign relations, the more excited she got about leaving for the underground network. The underground network used social media and coded phrases like “BEETROOT” to get their safe house locations out to those who needed it. She would need to rely on these once she got out of Leeward. She was grateful that the network spanned across the country with a pipeline straight to Mexico, a country that openly accepted immigrants and SMP refugees.

Finally, Jeanie and Tillion decided on a plan to get Tillion out of the Leeward Asylum. Jeanie explained that Tillion would need to be rushed out via medical transport and then fake her death.

“This has worked hundreds of Soulmate Match rejects all over the country, Tilly. No one wants to deal with the paperwork for reject deaths anyway,” Jeanie smiled. “We’re golden.”

*

A loud commotion on the steps of Leeward Asylum stopped Tillion the day of her escape. She knew better than to draw attention to herself, but for some reason, she couldn’t walk away. The pull at her wrist led her straight into a pool of blood. The smell of smoke in the air made her freeze. She shook off her fear and made her way through the crowd, gripping the strap of her knapsack closer. A small pyre had been lit at the top of the stairs and a lifeless body was held up with strong rope. A sign, “Traitor” was pinned to the scrubs and the pyre was lit. Through the blood, Tillion couldn’t see who it was, but a part of her knew immediately. As the flames licked higher and higher, the lifeless body spasmed back to life and terrified eyes found Tillion’s in the crowd.

Jeanie.

“Run,” she seemed to say, her body being engulfed by the flames. In that instant, a scream so loud, so full of pain, so tortured ripped from the nurse’s throat as the flames began to eat away at her flesh. The only thing that could be heard was Jeanie’s screams. Then, as the screams subsided, the owner of the Asylum came forward with her medical attendant at his side.

“This is the punishment for a traitor to the country,” his loud voice boomed over the sound of flames. “Jeanie Williams was found conspiring against the United States. She was a traitor to us all. She had to die. Anyone found in league with her will also be punished. An investigation is already underway. All of you will be questioned.”

The silence returned and a violent shiver went through Tillion. Tears fell down her cheeks and a sob threatened to rip through her. A thousand questions were going through her mind. A moment of silence passed, the song silenced in her grief. It was then that she noticed that the silence of the library was back. Not a sound was heard, not even the sounds of the wind. A tingle tinged her skin again, just like the day she found the book. When she looked around, she realized that everyone around her was frozen in place, the terror and pain marking their faces like stone. When she wiped at her eyes, she noticed the bright red of her wrist, a perfect bruised circle that immediately started to pull her away.

Then the ticking began.

*

Tillion didn’t hesitate to run this time. She ran toward the sound of the ticking in a way she didn’t know she could before. Instead of leading her into the library, this time, the ticking led her toward the gates of the Asylum. Louder and louder the ticking pounded in her ears, drowning out her Heart Song and her heart beat. She didn’t stop to breathe or rest, she just ran and ran until she couldn’t run anymore. When she paused to breathe, the ticking grew incessantly louder, pushing her further and further until finally, it stopped altogether.

The sounds led her to an old cabin, one she’d seen before in her research, and without understanding how it came to be, Tillion realized that she’d been led directly to the closest safe house for the underground. With only her small knapsack on her back, she walked into the cabin and sighed in relief. There was a weightlessness in the cabin that she’d never felt before. The freedom she thought she felt at Leeward paled in comparison to the genuine liberty she felt now.  It was like she’d been so layered in oppression that only running away from her life, her name, her title, could free her completely.

The silence of the cabin surrounded her. She was alone. The pain and heartbreak and guilt she felt for Jeanie exploded out of her in loud, violent sobs. Without a care, she dropped to her knees to breathe and heave through her cries. “I’m so sorry, Jeanie. I’m so sorry.” As her tears subsided, the silence returned, until the darkness and the silence enveloped her completely.

“Beetroot,” she whispered, breathless into the empty room. It seemed deserted, almost abandoned. “Beetroot,” she whispered again, louder this time. “Please, if anyone can hear me. I’m seeking refuge.” She rested her sweat covered face, bright red from running and crying, in her hands and collapsed on the floor. “Beetroot.”

After a charged few minutes of silence, the sound of a turning lock was heard not too far from where Tillion fell to the ground. “Welcome to the underground.”

*

Tillion only stayed at the cabin for the night before she asked to be moved south. She told the cabin refugees as much of her story as she could muster without breaking down, and they didn’t ask her for anything more. They mourned Jeanie’s loss with her that evening, and showed her he way to the next safe house. They gave her a change of clothes and an identification card for underground access through to Mexico. The song in her heart seemed to dim with the death of Jeanie, as if the grief was eating the part of her soul that could be matched to someone else. The guilt she felt was all-consuming, but she didn’t stop moving, she still felt the pull. Jeanie’s dying act was to get Tillion out of the Asylum, to safety. So Tillion did what she could to honor Jeanie’s memory. She told everyone she knew about what she’d learned about the SMP and how it was corrupted. She told everyone at every safe house about the Heart Song.  She told them all about Jeanie and how she’d saved Tillion’s life by giving her own. She told everyone that there was a magic in the world that she couldn’t explain, that drove her to keep moving.

Slowly, the song came back to her. At first a wisp of a sound in the dead of night, while she waited for sleep to claim her. The more she spoke about Jeanie, the more she spoke about the Heart Song, the louder it became. The more she disavowed the corruption of the United States, the more the song came back to comfort her. Her pain and her grief helped to spur a sense of rebellion throughout the underground. The idea that the Heart Song – a natural, unexplainable force was neglected in favor for a failing, corrupted Soulmate Match Program left many in the underground network distressed, especially since the SMP – when it was followed “properly” neglected sexual orientation completely. Other people, inspired by her story of the Heart Song, being to share their family histories too. They talk about times before the Plague, of a mythical green giantess who welcomed anyone and everyone into the United States to start their lives over.

In her studies, she’d learned that once upon a time, The United States was a country of immigrants, one that welcomed everyone who wanted to start a new life. Once upon a time, there was a statue that welcomed people, regardless of where they came from. This “green giantess” became the symbol of the underground. It was spray painted on subway walls, drawn on flyers, included in the underground communications. It became the symbol of peace and liberty.

Seeking that liberty for herself, Tillion found that she had allies in every corner of the underground, but especially in the LGBT population who helped spread the word and helped her move from safe house to safe house toward the Mexican border. Everywhere she went, people thanked her for galvanizing them all to do something. The stories of the United States from the past coupled with her exposure of government corruption spread like wildfire.  In Chula Vista, the last safe house before the border, Tillion wrestled with her conscience. The song in her head had pounded in her head for days, but the thought of her leaving the rebellion to others hurt her. She felt like she was a traitor. She felt like leaving all the people she’d met behind was something akin to abandoning them. Jeanie told her once that she would be the one to change it all, but… running away felt like an act of cowardice.

On her last night at the Chula Vista house, Tillion found that she couldn’t sleep. She left her bed to take a walk around the safe house property. The song, louder than it had ever been, pulsed in her head as she sat, staring at the stars. So loud was the pounding that she didn’t hear someone walking up behind her. Jumping practically out of her skin, she whipped her head around, only to notice that the song in her head had stopped completely. His chocolate skin of his face highlighted his golden eyes, rimmed with the same bags from sleepless nights as Tillion’s own.

“You,” she breathed, unable to break eye contact with him, despite the awkward angle.

“I’m Dean,” he smiled back. “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

The song, now silent but somehow still somewhere inside of them, gave way to a calm that neither had ever felt before. Tillion was reminded of how Caesar explained his meeting with Matina, how he’d felt whole for the first time in his life, and now she understood it in a way she never thought possible. In all of her research, throughout her journey, she never thought it would be possible to find her soulmate, the match to her Heart Song.

Dean had always been at the edges of her life, in fact, he’d been a guest at her wedding to Cain. He’d grown up in a middle class family that worked for the Stevensons. He told her that on his 17th birthday, he was put in the SMP but hadn’t been matched. His DNA had been an anomaly and he’d been deemed “damaged” from the start. He was allowed to stay at home with his family to take over the business from his father, but after her wedding, something had broken in him.

“I thought it was the idea that someone else was getting a happy ending and I’d be stuck without a soulmate forever,” he told her as they sat in the gardens of the safe house. “I thought I’d be broken forever. Something in me snapped. They moved me to an Asylum in Ventura, but the song didn’t go away. One day, I heard this ticking, there was this pull, I just… I followed it to the underground.” He lifted his hand up to the moonlight where he could show her the identical bruise he had around his own wrist.

Tillion was amazed that he’d been so close to her. She understood now why the song was so loud and distracting, he’d always been right there, but just far enough to be removed. Now that they’d found each other though, it was like the pieces of her life finally fit in their proper places.

“On my wedding day,” she whispered, lacing her fingers through his. “I thought I was going to die, the pounding in my head was so intense. The song was so loud, I thought I was going to burst,” she confessed. “Had we met then, what do you think would have become of us?”

Tillion never believed in fate or that things happened when they were meant to more than in that moment. Had she met Dean then, the two of them would have been imprisoned or killed, she had no doubt about that. Cain would never have let her go, neither would her father. For all of her outbursts, she didn’t know anything about life then. She’d learned so much in her time at Leeward.

From Jeanie.

From the underground.

It could only have been now.

“None of that matters,” Dean replied, as if reading her thoughts. “What matters now is what we do with what we know; with what we have.”

What he was asking her was clear: Did they cross the border and live their lives together in peace or did they stay and fight?

As they looked into each other’s eyes, small smiles on both of their faces, they both nodded. “We stay and fight,” they said in tandem. As Dean lowered his lips to hers, Tillion realized that nothing had ever felt more right than their decision, come what may.