Elara smothered a grimace as Madame Amélie wrestled her long hair into an intricate bun and adjusted the off-shoulder collar of her navy dress. After a few minutes of unbearable fussing, Madame Amelie finally turned Elara toward the floor-length mirror.
Her breath caught. She looked like… a woman. She shook her head, feeling slightly ridiculous for having such thoughts on Graduation Day. Of course she looked like a woman. Today would mark the last day of her childhood and her first as an adult.
Elara could hardly believe it. She had been anticipating the day the officials would test this year’s graduates for months, but simply knowing the day would come eventually and actually getting prepared for it were two different things. She certainly didn’t feel like an adult yet, but perhaps that would take some time getting used to. She only hoped that she would be chosen — and follow in the footsteps of her parents.
An unpleasant sensation filled her at the thought of the parents she never got to know but she quickly shook it off. Nothing would ruin her day. She had been waiting for today ever since she started primary school ten years ago. Now that the day had come, she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. Every little thing mattered if she wanted to attend the University and pursue her dreams.
“Ready, Elara? We will be late if you don’t hurry,” Madame Amélie asked, a slight French accent lacing through her words.
Elara nodded. "Let's go," she replied quickly. The nerves she had struggled to tame for the past week sprung into action and, as she followed the older woman across the courtyard to the district square, she couldn’t help but feel disoriented. Sensing her uneasiness, Madame Amélie reached down and squeezed her hand reassuringly. Elara took a deep breath and squeezed back.
“I’m ready,” she tried to say, but her voice failed her. Trying again, she raised her voice. “I can do this.”
Madame Amélie gave her a small smile. “I know, darling. I —”
Without warning, she grabbed her daughter in all but blood in a tight embrace. “Your parents would be so proud,” she whispered in a trembling voice. “I know I am.” Elara blinked back tears and clutched her mother figure harder.
After a moment, Madame Amélie pushed her away. Elara tried to hide a knowing smile. Madame Amélie was never one for affection.
As they entered the bustling square, Elara instinctively scanned the room for Pierre. Finding the familiar mop of dark curls, she hurried over and wrapped her arms around his tall frame.
“Hey,” she mumbled against his sophisticated indigo suit. “I haven’t seen you in forever and a half.”
He laughed as he turned from his sister, Juliette, and returned her hug. “I’m sorry. I was… busy.” His voice sounded strained, and an awkward silence followed.
“Ready?” he asked. She shook her head. There was no use hiding things from him.
“I’m nervous, too,” he told her gently.
“You have no idea,” she replied, finally looking up, green eyes meeting blue. “I have to get chosen. Both my parents were. I waited forever — I don’t think I can accept rejection.”
A strange look passed his features, but it was gone as soon as it came. “Yea, well…” his voice trailed off as he mumbled the rest of his sentence under his breath. Though Elara couldn’t be sure, it sounded suspiciously like “I can.” She shook her head. That was ridiculous — Pierre and she had spent hours fantasizing about life in the Capitol. They would meet with the graduates of other districts and master their skills. He would never want to be spared the chance of being selected.
A loud “Ahem” broke the two apart. All talking ceased as everyone focused on the gray-haired man in white robes — a Capitol official — at the podium at the front of the stage. As though rehearsed, all well-wishers made their way to the far end of the square, leaving the graduates directly in front of the stage.
“Welcome to the 75th Annual Graduation Ceremony in the East District. I am Official Mark Vandenberg. Graduates of this year, please follow me.” He walked off the stage and led them to a meeting chamber within Warden Alastair’s three-story home.
“The President has a message.” His voice was quiet but it rang with a sense of authority that kept the attention solely on him. “Today marks the day you cross the bridge between innocence and maturity. It is an honor to be a graduate, but it comes with responsibility. Any inappropriate behavior will result in immediate removal, and perhaps, banishment, from this colony. Where you are to remain is the decision of the President. However, mark my words, it will not be a five-star experience for you.”
Wary glances were exchanged amongst the graduates. There had never been such a severe warning issued before, if issued at all. Elara noticed Pierre purposely avoided eye contact and a twisting sensation formed in her gut. Was she missing something?
“Now, follow me. No foolish behavior will be tolerated.” He directed the graduates back to the square where Warden Alastair waited. The two men went up to the podium as the graduates took their positions behind them onstage.
Warden Alastair leaned into the microphone. “Happy Graduation Day. Today is an exciting day for all of us. This year, in particular, has shown to be a very fruitful year. As you can see, the number of graduates is higher than it has ever been. A sure sign that our district is prospering.”
The crowd clapped politely. The district leader waited for silence before continuing. “The young men and women behind me are the leaders of our future. Among them, two will become among the most powerful members of our nation. They will be counted on to champion the progress of not just our district, but to drive the success of the other districts as well. As our nation’s founding fathers and mothers arranged seventy-five years ago, only the best among us will be the moving force behind this nation. That does not mean that those of you not selected are any less important. Our nation would not be where it is today if not for the hard work of ordinary citizens, working alongside high officials. I know most of your careers are not determined, but know that wherever life takes you, we are excited to see how you use your skills to help our nation.”
The applause came louder this time. The warden stepped aside and Madame Amélie took his place.
“Welcome. It is an honor to present the names of our achieved youth who will pass from their preliminary studies to adulthood today.”
Elara’s stomach clenched. That was the last moment of her childhood. She didn’t know if she was more terrified or thrilled at the prospect of an entirely new chapter of her life opening up for her.
Elara could barely focus as the students’ names were listed. Time was hurtling them too quickly for them to catch up. It seemed like years ago when Madame Amélie had hugged her behind the district square and wished her luck.
Elara’s legs turned to lead. She couldn’t go up there. It was too soon — she wasn’t ready yet.
She forced herself to take a deep breath and move forward. The world blurred as she shook hands with Warden Alastair, Madame Amélie, and Official Vandenberg. Her mind drew a blank as the crowd applauded and cheered.
She hardly registered what was happening around her as Madame Amélie finished listing the students off the roster. It was when Official Vandenberg took the podium that Elara’s brain finally took hold of the situation.
“I am pleased to announce that the President has made his choice in this year’s selected students to attend the prestigious University in the Capitol. This young man and woman have shown excellent academic achievement and character throughout primary and secondary school. It is with great pleasure that we invite these two students to our University — Elara Sinclair and Pierre Averell!”
The crowd’s roar was deafening. Elara couldn’t believe it. She had done it!
She had never felt so close to her parents as she did then. She closed her eyes and smiled, savoring the feeling, taking her time to get lost in the moment —
Then, screaming and chaos as everyone ran to find safety.
Elara’s eyes snapped open. A second later, she felt Pierre pulling her behind a row of nearby houses.
“Come on, El, follow me! I know a way out!”
Her heart raced. What was happening?
Her legs, numb only moments ago, now pounded furiously on the stone ground as Pierre led her through a maze of houses, shops, and trees. Her brain worked overtime, trying to catch every detail. Somehow, she knew she would never return to East District.
BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG!
The gunshots fired away from behind them. Every shot sounded only yards behind her. She resisted the urge to turn around to find her friends and family.
Madame Amélie. Juliette.
She would never see them again.
Pierre suddenly crouched, pulling her down with him. She stumbled, but he caught her immediately. “Quiet,” he whispered urgently, and only then did she process where they were.
The electric border.
Her body stilled. “Pierre,” she hissed. “This —”
“I know, El. Now, please, shut up.”
Elara glared at him but did as she was told. She watched as he began to work with the wires. It seemed so natural to him —
With a jolt, the veil obscuring Elara’s vision lifted. That was where Pierre had been going off to all those times he sent a message saying he was “busy.” That was why the gunshots didn’t faze him in the slightest. That was why he acted as if he had done this countless times before.
Because he had.
A sinking realization twisted in Elara’s stomach. They were supposed to trust each other. And yet, he had kept this entire side of his life away from her for months.
“Done. Come on, El. I know you have questions but now, you need to do exactly as I say. Alright? Or you can choose to stay and die, I suppose. So, do you trust me?” His eyes were expectant.
She didn’t know what to say. She trusted him, but this Pierre was not the same. This Pierre was part of something much bigger than she could comprehend, and she didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
“I don’t trust you anymore.” A hurt look flashed across his eyes and his collected demeanor faltered. “But I do want to live, and I suppose the only way I can do that is by following you. So, lead the way.”
He took a moment before standing up. “El…”
“No. I don’t want to hear it.” Elara’s voice wavered as waves of anger and betrayal crashed into her. “You knew — no, you let it happen! Think about everyone out there. Our friends, our family! Madame Amélie! Juliette, your sister!”
Pierre’s face was unreadable. “They’ll be fine. We have to get out of here,” he replied, his tone clipped. She sprung away from him. Who was this imposter?
Like it or not, she didn’t have a choice but to follow him. They ran for hours through a devastated land. There was nothing but charred earth and dead clumps of what might have once been vegetation. When her legs were about to collapse, Pierre stopped her. “We’re here.”
She scanned their surroundings. Rusted train tracks lay ahead of her, behind her was the scarred land they had run across. If she concentrated closely, she could hear the faint whistles of an approaching train. The abandoned station where it would stop was only a few yards away. A sudden thought formed in her head.
“We’re not leaving, are we?” she asked hoarsely.
“We have to,” was the only reply. He helped her into the train. The metal creaked under their weight.
“Is this thing safe? It looks like it’s from the Old Age.”
“It’s safe. Trust m— Just know I don’t want either one of us to die today.”
Guilt crept up Elara’s spine but she brushed it off. If he was fine with other people dying, then he was no friend of hers.
Pierre tapped something on the metal door. A code. A balding man with a bushy mustache peeked out. “Ah, eef eet eesn't our Pierre! Cahme een, cahme een! Ahnd ziss ees ze young meestress, no?”
Elara’s blood turned to ice. Why did this man look so familiar, and how did he know who she was?
He took them to a compartment and shut the door. “You two wahnt your preevahcy, yes? I will be een ze frahnt eef you need ahnytheeng.”
Pierre nodded. “It will take two hours, right?"
The man chortled, his big belly heaving. “Oh, no, only one! We fixed ziss old bahby. Eet used to tahke two hours een ze Old Ahge, sahn. Naht ahnymahre.”
Pierre cracked a small smile. “Oh, of course! Thank you, Monsieur.”
The man nodded and strolled off humming merrily. Elara couldn’t help but stare. She knew she would have remembered a man like him, and yet...
Pierre took a seat across from her. “Look, I never wanted you to find out like this. I —”
Elara’s temper flared. “Oh, really? Well, I’ll tell you this. Running away every other day is not how you inform someone of something!”
Pierre raked his fingers through his hair. “Elara… hear me out, please? I promise it’ll make sense.”
She dropped onto her seat with a huff. “Twenty minutes.”
He held her gaze for a moment, before taking a deep breath. “I met Monsieur Arsenau at the annual fair. Remember when I had to go to the bathrooms?”
Elara nodded. No wonder he looked so familiar.
“He pulled me aside and asked if you were the Sinclair girl. I was confused at first, but he told me why he asked. He knew your parents, El. Your father was his best friend, and he knows why they were killed.”
Elara sucked in a harsh breath. “You’re joking.”
He shook his head. “No. I knew I had to figure out more before telling you. You wouldn’t stop to think, and it would get you in trouble. Your parents worked in the chemistry field. You know, inventing new chemicals to make the soil better, air cleaner, fixing up the world after global warming destroyed everything. But has it ever occurred to you that they should have been able to find some way that worked in seventy-five years? They did, but exposing that would mean losing their control. If the earth becomes good again, what use is the whole ‘separate country’ rule? We would be free to travel since all the bad stuff they warn us about would not exist anymore. When people discover new things, the government simply gets rid of them after a while. Every so often, they announce a new discovery — one that doesn’t work as well, mind you — and proclaim it to be a ‘sure sign our nation is prospering.’ They’re all liars, Elara, and they murdered your parents. All because they discovered something that could clear air pollution rapidly. They let you go since you were a baby. They wanted to show that they are cruel to those who disobey them, but there should be no need to disobey since they’re so ‘merciful’ — since they saved the baby — you. You’ve got to believe me, El. They’ll kill you, too. They discovered your talent with chemicals, and they’re scared.”
She decided it was too much for him to make up. “You’re not lying.”
He frowned. “I swear, El, I’m not. I wouldn’t lie, especially about this.”
Elara’s mind whirled as she tried to take in the information. Her parents were murdered in cold blood, all because they did their job well.
“I believe you, it’s just… a lot to take in.” Tears sprang to her eyes.
“Oh, don’t cry. Come here,” Pierre lifted his arms, and Elara all but jumped into them.
She didn't know how long they sat there together. Next thing she knew, the train had stopped and it was dark out.
A knock sounded on the door. “Cahme on, we're here!”
They quickly hurried out. “Where are we?”
Pierre laced his fingers through hers. “England.”
“Mm-hmm. A rebel country. It’s different here. You’ll see what I mean in just a bit.”
He was right. Though it was dark, she could feel the difference. Everything radiated tranquility and warmth.
Pierre wrapped an arm around her waist. “El, look up.”
She did and lost her breath. “What — what are those?”
His smile was gentle. “Stars.”
“Stars? Real ones?”
“But… didn’t they all disappear? Since the sky was so clouded with smoke and stuff in the Old Age?”
“Yes, but England has actually used the inventions of people properly. What we see now, it’s basically what the world used to be.”
She let out a contented sigh. “They look so bright, Pierre. I— I think I want to stay here.”
“Forever. I mean, if you want…”
“Of course, El.”
She beamed at him. “Our home… under the stars.”
He grinned. “Wait, let me think for a bit…”
She stared at him. “What now?”
He shook his head. “No, just something Monsieur Arsenau told me once.”
“Alright, then, go on.”
He furrowed his brows in thought. “I got it! Notre maison sous les étoiles — or something like that. It’s French for what you just said, ‘our home under the stars.’ I thought it would be nice to say, since, you know, French is known to be the language of love.” He waggled his eyebrows.
She laughed. “Stop. You’re so full of it.”
“Whatever you say, ma chérie.”
They stood there in silence for a while, watching the stars.
“You know, I like that… notre maison sous les étoiles.”
“Me too, El. Me too.”