To the people suffering on the war-torn mainland, Bliss Island seems like an idyllic place. And it is: except for the fact that the island is a set, and the islanders’ lives are a performance. They’re the stars of a hit TV show, Blissful Days—Characters are adored by mainland viewers, yet in constant danger of being cut if their ratings dip too low. And no one really knows what happens to cut Characters.
Nettie Starling knows she’s been given the chance of a lifetime when a producer offers suggestions to help her improve her mediocre ratings—especially when those suggestions involve making a move on the boy she’s been in love with for years. But she'll soon have to decide how far she's willing to go to keep the cameras fixed on her. . . especially when she learns what could happen to her if she doesn't.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||949 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I like the hallway after lunch, when the sound of lingering Characters fills the space like a choir. Crickets with cameras on their shoulders weave through the crowd, searching for good scenes. Our lockers are right in the middle of it all, halfway between the school’s entrance and the cafeteria. I watch everyone from here, but my eyes keep coming back to Callen.
“Selwyn, tell us now,” Lia insists, pushing her flame-colored hair back as she kneels to rummage through the bottom of her locker.
Today, at lunch, Lincoln Grayson said he’d closed up with a girl at his parents’ beach house last Saturday, after the Apocalypse (Lincoln likes his parties to have grandiose names) officially ended. We tried to guess who it was—Geraldine Spicer? Caren Trosser?—but he shook his head at each name we threw out.
Lia grumbled about the sin of secrets between friends, then accused him of making it up. Neither tactic got her a name. We left the cafeteria in a huddle, speculating feverishly, until Selwyn admitted that she knew the real story—“It’s not like he said. I heard the girl’s side.”
“I can’t say anything else.” Selwyn fidgets with her liberato beads. “I overheard her talking to her friends—Lincoln will kill me if I give it up.” I’m worried about the audiotrack: Selwyn’s voice is naturally soft, and with the noise in the hall, I can barely hear her. Last quarter’s mark landed me on the E.L., so I need to make sure all my scenes are fit for broadcast. With a quick flick of my fingers (to the Audience it’ll look as if I scratched my neck), I straighten the microphone pinned to my collar and step forward an inch, closing the gap between us.
“We’ll keep our mouths shut, right, Nettie?” Still crouched down, Lia jabs my ankle with her elbow. Her eyes flit up to me, searching for support.
I always say what she needs to hear. “I won’t tell anyone,” I promise, tracking Callen as he moves away from his locker, accompanied by Rawls Talon, the Pigeons’ second baseman. Callen’s hair, so blond it’s almost white, makes his path through the mass of Characters easy to follow. He ends up in front of the principal’s office, checking out the poster tacked to the bulletin board.
I can’t see it from here, but I know it by heart. I was with Lia when she wrote it.
SCHEDULE AND GUIDELINES
The Seventy-Third Apprenticeship Announcement
10 A.M. Mayor’s Speech
10:15 A.M. Poem
10:30 A.M. Ceremony
Semiformal dresses for girls
Suits and ties for boys
Selwyn gazes intently at her liberato moccasins, until finally, she squares her tiny shoulders and coughs it up. “Mollie Silverine.” She grins, relieved the pressure’s off. The smile turns lopsided as she curls her lip down to conceal the chip on her upper left canine tooth. No one but her notices the flaw, but she’s still self-conscious about it.
Lia smirks. “Mollie Silverine? You’re kidding. I guess this won’t make her gossip column.” She’s stopped rummaging, focused on our conversation.
“It’s not like that. She was sleeping, and Lincoln tried to, like, nuzzle her,” Selwyn goes on, “and she seriously thought he was the dog and pushed him away. Didn’t sound like a close-up to me.”
“Of course there was no close-up,” Lia says scornfully. “I don’t think Lincoln’s ev—”
“Shhh, keep your voice down.” Selwyn flaps her hand, eager to avoid the scrutiny of the Characters crowding the hall.
“Lincoln’s never even kissed anyone,” Lia whispers.
“He probably wanted her to play Spate with him,” I joke, miming Lincoln briskly dealing cards, my tunic’s clumsy bell-shaped sleeves fluttering in the air. Lincoln loves Spate. He’s gotten so into games that he’s knocked down glasses at our lunch table in his playing fervor.
“Lincoln and his Spate.” Lia sighs. Selwyn giggles. I roll up the sleeves of the blouse. I can’t wait for the motif change; I’ve about worn this shirt out. A smile lingers on Lia’s face as she starts sifting through the junk in her locker again. She’s one of those Characters whose smile transforms her. Without it, the even, defined lines of her face—high cheekbones, firm jaw, and hard green eyes—make her seem cold.
Selwyn moves closer to me and Lia, trying to seal us off from the rest of the hall. “Remember, it’s a secret.”
“We know.” Lia doesn’t look up. Old play programs and candy wrappers float down like autumn leaves. A pen clatters to the floor, and she snatches it up with a triumphant flourish. It’s the slick red pen her dad gave her two seasons ago for her fourteenth birthday. She uses it when we work on the Diary of Destiny—she thinks it’s lucky.
“Thank God. I need all the help I can get for the chemistry test,” she says, standing up and shoving the pen in her pocket. She crushes the books and papers back into her locker and shoves the entire side of her body against the door to force it closed.
“You’re as bad as Callen about that stuff. He sets his mitt underneath the oak tree in his backyard the night before every game for good luck,” I say, cringing as soon as the words leave my mouth. Mentioning him to her is a pinch I can’t resist giving myself.
The corner of Lia’s mouth turns down, and she mutters, “Callen.”
I can’t let it go. “What do you mean? What about him?”
Selwyn hums, flipping the top buckle on her cello case up and down in an uneven rhythm. She’s caught in a middle that Lia doesn’t know about. Around us, the swirl of Characters intensifies as they move out of the hall toward classes.
“He did that with his mitt last year,” Lia reports, “but I don’t think he cares anymore. He actually forgot to bring his mitt to practice yesterday.” She rolls her eyes. “That reminds me—I’ve got to talk to him about tonight. His parents are going to be out late. Maybe we’ll finally.”
Nonono. I whip around and start twirling my combination with jittery fingers, getting it wrong on the first try. Lia just won’t stop talking about how Callen won’t close up with her.
“Why do you think he won’t, Nettie?” she asks, smiling.
“Scared?” I suggest. At last, I hear the click and my locker opens. Would he be scared with me? I feel my skin heating up, and poke my head into the locker so no one can see my embarrassment.
“Poor Callen,” Selwyn says behind me.
“Poor Callen?” Lia squawks. She leans her back against her locker, her face inches away from mine. She surveys the hall like a queen. “Poor me. Something’s wrong with him. What could it be?”
I grab my math book and back out from the locker, calmer. “Maybe it’s a ritual, like with the mitt.” I think it’s a reasonable guess. “Like if he closes up during baseball time, he’ll lose games.”
“Maybe,” Lia says, drumming her fingers on her locker. “Whatever it is, he needs to get over it. I’m ready, you know what I mean?” Selwyn snorts with laughter, resorting to pressing her face against her arm to smother the sound.
I shrug. “Not really.” She knows I’ve never closed up before.
Lia sighs. “Well, he better not cancel again. I want to get home late tonight anyway. Mom’s been on a rampage.” The drumming stops as she realizes she’s said too much. Her eyes dart to the camera, risking a fine but hoping to make the footage unusable.
She succeeds in escaping the Audience, but not Selwyn.
“What rampage?” Selwyn asks hesitantly. Her inky black eyes are wide.
“Hmm? Oh, well, you know how mothers can be.” Lia picks up the stylish straw bag she got for liberato, ready to make a run for it to escape the conversation. She’s kept her mom’s alcohol problem a secret from other Characters and tries to avoid talking about it on-camera, even though the Audience probably knows.
“My mom doesn—”
“Where’s Callen?” Lia cranes her neck, scanning the hall. “This is the last chance I’ll get to talk to him before practice.”
“By the bulletin board, talking to Rawls,” I report. They aren’t looking at the poster anymore. Now Rawls is gabbing away, and Callen is listening, as usual.
“Okay, great.” Her eyes flick past him and land on Mollie, the tall, coltish girl who spurned Lincoln, sauntering through the hall with her friend, brawny Thora Swan, Selwyn’s apprenticeship rival. “Mollie really dodged a bullet,” she muses. “She’s so nice, and he’s so Lincoln. What if we sent a blind item about it in to her column? She might not even realize it’s about her, and he’d be so mad. What do you think?”
I shake my head.
“You’re right,” she says, adjusting the bag under her arm. “Too mean. Okay, I’m going to try to catch Callen. God, I should put a blind item in her column about him.”
I play along. “What precocious pitcher . . . ,” I begin while Selwyn starts fiddling with the buckle again, embarrassed.
“Can’t close the real game,” Lia finishes with a chuckle. “Bye.” She rushes down the hall, hollering his name. He looks up, grins, and waits. I like the way he waits. When Callen is still, he reminds me of a river, fixed in space yet coursing with inner energy. Lia catches up with him, and their hands join. They don’t look right together. Her purposeful stride, his loose glide.
What a nightmare.
“So weird and sad for you.” Selwyn squeezes my shoulder. She has a light touch. She’s like a doll come to life—her small, flat nose, inky black eyes, and wide face. Everything about her is mild and unthreatening, especially her girlish, whispery voice.
“Let’s talk about something else.” I wiggle free from her grasp and glance up at the clock across from our lockers. Ten minutes until class. “How’s orchestra?”
Someone leaving the hall jostles her cello case, and she hugs it closer. It’s almost as big as she is. “I’m practicing. A lot. Can you believe how close the Double A is?”
I stuff my math book into my book bag. “April twentieth is still a month away.” The nearer we get to our Apprenticeship Announcement, the less excited I feel about what’s supposed to be the most important day of my life.
Selwyn peers closely at me. “You’re not excited?”
“I haven’t been to Fincher’s much lately,” I confess. It’s typical to put in a lot of hours at the apprenticeship you want before the Double A—like a pre-apprenticeship—so the Characters you’ll be working with can get a feel for you. Mine, the repairman apprenticeship, would be at Fincher’s Fix-Its, so I trudge down there every so often to tackle broken clocks and malfunctioning toasters. It’s mind-numbingly boring. Imagining a life stuck in a dusty shop is depressing, but the alternative—getting anyassigned into some lame job no one wants—is worse. When I feel depressed, I try to remember that lots of people in the Sectors don’t even have lifetime jobs. Compared to the Reals, I have it easy.
Selwyn glances over her shoulder to make sure no one’s eavesdropping, then turns back to whisper, “Is it because of Witson?”
“No, not because—well, not just because of Witson.” Unfortunately for me, Mr. Fincher is my ex’s father, and Witson gets lurky whenever I’m there. But he always blows his own cover by stumbling over paint buckets and nail boxes, then stammering apologies while I watch him pick the stuff up, thinking, I can’t believe our lips ever touched. “I’d be okay with Witson if I felt better about the apprenticeship.”
“You feel bad about being a repairman?” Selwyn’s cello case rocks, pushed by some geeky sophomore girls standing behind her, and she reaches out and steadies it. “It seems to fits you so well, though.”
“Mom agrees with you. She thinks it’s perfect because I like to build stuff. But the garage feels like a bat cave, and the work all seems the same after a while,” I say. “It’s too late to switch.”
“Technically not too late to do something else.” Selwyn purses her kitten lips and twists the buttons on her flowery cardigan as she thinks. “The apprenticeship lasts a year, but your profession is forever. You can write whatever you want on the Double A application . . . or leave it blank.”
“If I put something new in, I’d be up against people who’ve already put in time. And blank means anyassigned, which would be a disaster. Face it, I’m stuck.” I turn back to my locker, snagging the tunic sleeve on the handle. “Literally.”
“Aw,” Selwyn croons, rushing forward to help me untangle myself. Lia would have laughed.
I’ll be wearing this tunic after school when I bike to the Center for my Show Physical. I’m so tired of billowy liberato fashions. Like I’m tired of Fincher’s. Like I’m tired of Lia and Callen.
“Think of the positive. You get the parts you need for your own projects free, like that diode thing for the radio you’re making,” Selwyn says, running her hand through her long midnight-black hair.
“Yeah. Great.” I gaze into the locker’s void, then pull out my chemistry book. “That’s nice, but it doesn’t help when I’m in the garage, ready to claw my eyes out.”
Selwyn sighs. “At least you know you’ll probably get the repairman apprenticeship. I don’t know if”—she lowers her voice—“if I can beat Thora Swan for the orchestra one. She practices constantly. She’s a beast. I’m going to end up anyassigned to trash collection—”
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. I dimly register the sound of footfalls, their rhythm regular, mechanized. Selwyn stiffens and complains about how her parents won’t buy her a new cello. Then she stops talking, and so, I realize, has everyone else—the hall is silent except for those footfalls. I turn my head from my locker, dread fluttering through me, remembering my last ratings mark.
The Authority pass behind Selwyn, steps resounding loudly, and Characters move to the side to make room for them. They rush down the hall, a black blur. Five. Their guns jostle in their holsters.
“My cello sounds old—and out of—doesn’t work right,” Selwyn pulls at her necklace, which closes around her neck, tight as a noose. I recite in my head what Mik, my producer, told me: Patriots are a natural part of life on the show.
Selwyn’s voice trembles as the Authority stampede out of the hall, into the cafeteria. The choir grows louder as everyone struggles to get back into show mode.
“You’re more fun than Thora, though, and the orchestra considers personality,” I say, moving my chin so that my mouth is directly over my mic. Selwyn bobs her head, incapable of speech.
• • •
Lia finds me on the stairs. She’s going down at the speed of a missile, her mouth tight, and I’m plodding up, on my way to calculus, my shoulders hunched, my ratings mark blaring in my head. Before I can say anything, she drags me over to the side, by the railing, forcing Characters to break around us as they hurry to their classes.
“What’s up?” I say on-mic. I step up, and she bends down, and I let my hand fall over my mic. “Who was it?”
She straightens and taps her foot while she calculates how much time we have. Her catlike eyes sweep the space, on the lookout for crickets.
“Come with me to the bathroom,” she says. “I need to redo my lipstick.”
“Okay,” I agree. We can frall safely about the cut there, since bathrooms are off-camera. She grabs my arm, and together, we jog up the stairs, barging into the bathroom at the end of the hall, interrupting Mollie Silverine, Thora Swan, and Terra Chiven, who are clustered outside the stalls.
“Hi.” Mollie sniffles, twirling her long honey-blond hair around a finger, fat tears rolling down her wan cheeks. Her blue eyes seem to well up even more when she sees me. My breath catches in my throat; she’s probably thinking, Nettie will be next.
Thora, the cellist built like a linebacker, grunts hello.
Terra, a senior, unlike the other two, and their chubby little leader, steps forward and glares. Mostly at me. As usual. “Shouldn’t you be in class?” She sighs, knitting her thick eyebrows together. Her pigtails make her look a lot more innocent than she is. Terra’s intense about everything she does, from managing her social life to maintaining her grueling doctor apprenticeship to being extravagantly rude to me because she thinks I’m into her crush, Scoop Cannery.
“Shouldn’t you be in class?” Lia retorts. “I’m fixing up my makeup.” She marches over to the window and plops her straw bag onto the windowsill.
“Nettie, have you thought of wearing makeup?” Terra purrs. “I hear Delton’s is having a sale on starter kits. But I guess it might be a little expensive for you, even with the sale.”
“Uh, no,” I bumble, unable (as usual) to think of a plus-ten retort. Like Lia, Terra lives in Treasure Woods, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the island. The Arbor, where I live, is firmly middle class. I can’t afford to buy toothpicks at Delton’s. While I’m struggling to think of a comeback, Terra and her friends start mouthing to one another. Characters learn to lip-read from an early age so they can frall without getting fined. The trio peppers their conversation with decoy on-mic remarks about makeup and other Delton sales.
“She should check out the sale on Shake-It-Off,” Lia murmurs to me when I join her by the mirror. Shake-It-Off is a popular weight-loss drink that comes in candy-cane-striped cans. Sometimes I see empty cans at Lia’s house—she says her mom chugs them down before Show Physicals because her weight target is too low for her to achieve naturally. Which reminds me again that I have to go to the Center for my own Show Physical after school. Ugh. I want to just go home and forget about today.
“Shhhh,” I hush Lia, worried Terra will overhear. It’s funny but too mean. I actually do feel bad for Terra when I see how ruthlessly Scoop ignores her. I relate far too well to the torture of being infatuated with someone who’s unattainable.
“She deserves it.” Lia strides over to the sinks and turns on all the faucets. Then she returns to the window and heaves the sash up. Cars zoom outside. The idea is for Media1 to blame the cars and gushing water for the mashed audiotrack. She shoves aside her straw bag and sits on the windowsill, draping her long legs over the radiator.
“Belle,” she mouths. “She turned sixteen two weeks ago. They got her in the cafeteria.” She brushes radiator dust off her fawn-colored skirt while waiting for my response.
“Belle Cannery?” I mouth, stomach lurching. Scoop’s sister. Slight and timid, with mousy brown hair that drooped onto oversized tortoiseshell glasses. I’d see Belle when I went to visit Mom at the library. “Belle is a Patriot?” No wonder Mollie is so upset; I’ve never heard of someone being cut so soon after they became eligible. It’s rare for anyone who’s still in school to be cut.
Lia tugs my tunic, grabbing my attention. “Let’s do the Diary tomorrow morning, okay?” she says on-mic.
“Yeah, come by around ten.” My gaze drifts behind her, toward the street with the cars and trucks and vans. Belle is probably inside one of the white Media1 vans right now, on her way to the Center.
“All right, great. Oh, it’s on with Callen tonight.” Lia coughs lightly to refocus me. I drag my gaze back to her, but seeing her eyes makes me want to crumble, so I stare at the peeling linoleum floor. Off-camera places are never as nice as sets. “His house,” Lia continues, undaunted by my lack of response. “I’ll give you all the dirty details tomorrow.” It’s a testament to how swerved off about Belle I am: these statements barely register. I keep my eyes on the sad, decrepit floor, in a fog.
Lia nudges my leg with her foot. I look up again, blinking.
“Are you okay?” she mouths briefly.
“Remember my last mark?” I mouth back. Media1 starts giving us ratings marks when we’re ten. For twenty-four quarters, reduced payments are the only consequence for Characters whose marks fall 10 percent below their targets. But after we turn sixteen, if our marks are 10 percent below target, we end up on the E.L., the Eligibility List, and can be cut at any time until the next quarter starts—then the clock resets. I turned sixteen six months ago, and found out that I was on the E.L. at my most recent Character Report.
Lia nods briskly. “What was it again? One eighty-two?”
“One sixty-eight,” I correct her. One hundred eighty-two is as low as Lia’s mind can go, ratingswise. “My target was two thirty-two.”
Her mouth twitches like she just got stung, then her eyes soften, and she mouths, “You’re not going to be cut, you’re imp—”
“I’m on the E.L., Lia. When the producers’ circle was making their choice, my name was on the list, just like Belle’s. I could be next. I could be a Patriot.”
Just like my father.
“I get it, Nettie. You’re on the E.L. But so are a ton of other Characters, and most of them aren’t going to be cut. Especially not at our age. You’re just scaring yourself,” Lia mouths. “You’ll be off in a few months.” Her back is to the sun, and her face is shadowed, the swirl of freckles around her eyes just visible. She looks majestic with her chiseled cheekbones and long neck. Her green eyes are glittering, framed by long, light eyelashes. She looks like she believes what she’s saying.
I wish I could.
I see my faint reflection in the window, my wavy, dark hair hanging behind me. I grew it out for liberato, and it just passes my shoulders now. My features are friendly: heart-shaped face with slight lips, and a small, rounded, upturned nose. It’s a good face, but suddenly, desperately, I wish it were more. I wish it were enough to entrance the Audience.
“You don’t know what will happen next quarter,” I mouth, turning to the other girls to escape Lia’s ineffective consolations.
“Belle didn’t care enough about her ratings,” Thora mouths, crossing her muscular arms.
Mollie wipes her eyes on her sleeve. “I wonder if Scoop knows.”
“I’ll be there for him,” Terra mouths solemnly. As if a sacred duty has been placed in her hands.
Lia pokes me, and I glance back at her. “I think she’s the youngest Patriot in seven seasons,” she mouths. The bell rings, and the others trot out of the bathroom, laughing and talking about weekend plans as they get back on-camera. The door closes, and the noise from the hall slowly fades as everyone heads into classrooms.
Every year, around twenty-five Characters are cut. About two a month. The longer I live, the more likely I am to be one if my ratings don’t improve.
Lia is watching me while she picks distractedly at the paint chipping off the windowsill. “Nettie, you’re not like Belle,” she whispers into my ear.
“I might not be like her, but my ratings are like hers. Lia, you’re used to high ratings. It’s never been easy for me. It wasn’t easy for my father, either.”
Lia’s eyes glint with determination. “Listen. Belle’s better off working for the company. You belong here, Nettie, not in the Sadtors, and don’t talk about your dad.”
Don’t talk about your dad. When we were ten or eleven, I was obsessed with knowing where he was and what he was doing. What I really wanted was to know him, but that was impossible, so I tackled the where and what questions instead. Sometimes I try to solve life, like it’s math or one of the toasters at Fincher’s.
The Contract says “Patriots are enlisted in the service of Media1 and are given lodging and food provisions for their lifetimes.” No more, no less. Still, rumors abound—I’d heard that Patriots become producers for the show, that they receive new identities and assimilate into the Sectors, or that they do grunt work for Media1—maintaining cables and building sets. I think I’d heard about seven rumors altogether, and investigated all of them, dragging Lia along with me.
I’d hover around the Center, hoping to catch glimpses of Patriots who had become producers. I’d shadow crickets, hoping to catch them talking about the Patriots. I’d pester Lia for ideas. Finally, sick of my obsession, she wrangled the truth out of our producer, Bek, who swore her to secrecy, then revealed that the Patriots work on publicity for Media1 in Zenta, the capitol of the Sectors. Writing about the show for magazines, creating posters and books for fans, giving interviews.
Not awful, but not for me.
“I just want to stay on the island,” I mouth. “I don’t want to watch you on television from the Sectors.” The Sectors, the country the Originals fled from, where the Audience lives, is huge and varied, but there’s no real stability like we have on Bliss: there are no guarantees about getting jobs or healthcare or even having a home.
Lia hops off the windowsill and puts her hands on her hips. “All we need are some exciting plotlines for you. Plotlines that would make you branch out more. Make new friends. Or new more-than-friends. You haven’t so much as looked at anyone since Witson. A lifetime ago.”
I’ve looked at Callen. But I can’t say that. I’ve thought about milking my crush to get off the E.L.—best friends liking the same boy is a great plotline—but I don’t want Lia to find out. So I confine myself to sneaking small glances and making little complaints to Selwyn.
“Four months since Witson, not a lifetime,” I mouth, moving closer to the window, my jeans pressing against the radiator. Snowney covers the hill leading down to the street, sparkling in the sun. The lawn is usually a blinding green, enhanced by paint the crickets spray on. Commenting on the snowney would be a good bet if I want some scenes on the show. Even if Media1 doesn’t have footage of me, they can still work my dialogue over picturesque scenes such as snowney-blanketed hills. But all I can think is, Snowney machines kept me up late last night. Fralling.
“Four months is more than a whole ratings quarter. I’ll think up some plotlines tonight and we can talk about them when we do the Diary tomorrow.” Lia bites her lower lip, a habit she slides into whenever she gets away from the cameras. “But you know what might really help—have you heard of the Initiative?”
“No.” It’s so rare for me to misread her. “The Initiative,” she mouths again, more slowly. “Have you heard of it?”
“No, what is it?” Sounds like one of Lincoln’s parties. I always hear about them through Lia. He never invites me directly.
“Um, never mind,” she mouths. She whips out a pale pink lipstick, thrusts her face in front of the mirror, and deftly applies it. “We have to go to class. You have calculus, right? You should talk to Scoop.”
“And say what?” Scoop and I are friendly, but we’re not close.
“I guess, talk about whatever it is you two talk about—like, triangles?” Lia suggests, only half kidding, as she turns off the faucets. “The last Character he needs to see today is the Terror That Is Terra. She’ll try too hard.” She gives me a once-over. “You look really upset. Like, sickly. Crickets are right outside.” Now that she mentions it, I do hear cameras buzzing behind the door.
“Do this.” Lia pinches her cheeks.
I glimpse my pallid face in the mirror and obey Lia’s direction, then flex my fingers and roll my neck. Like I’m about to step out into a brawl, but there’s no enemy to prepare for. Just the Audience.
• • •
I walk into the classroom and slip into my seat next to Scoop. We’ve sat next to each other since the beginning of the school year. He started it—mostly so he could get me to help with his homework—but now we’re sort of friends, strange as that might seem. He’s this popular, charismatic, gorgeous senior, and in this class, I’m quiet, raising my head only to answer questions. A lot of my shyness is because I’m the only junior—save for the couple of days a month when my classmate Revere joins us, helping out Mr. Black in order to lock down the math teacher apprenticeship.
No charisma for Scoop today. He stares out the huge classroom windows that overlook the snowney-white lawn.
I’m not sure what to say, so I study my desk’s surface until I find fresh graffiti scratched into it. The Initiative Sux. Lia didn’t seem to think it was so sucky.
Mr. Black is always late, so Characters have spread across the room like an oil spill, talking and laughing hard, overcompensating for the shock about Belle.
“Let me know if you have any questions! I’m here to help!” Revere Yucann calls out in his singsongy voice. He’s in a button-down plaid shirt and jeans that have been pressed flat—he always dresses well on his math-help days. Even his stringy hair is pulled back in a neater-than-usual ponytail. He flits from student to student, offering help with a dazzling smile. He winks as he passes me. We’re not super-close, but Revere is one of the Characters I admire most. Always cheerful and generous with his time, even with the most duncelike seniors. He’ll make a great math teacher.
A cloud moves outside, and sunlight warms my cheek. Okay. Conversation idea. I think this is the longest Scoop has ever gone without talking.
“It’s so warm, you’d think it was summer,” I say. Too late, I remember the Missive from a week ago that said we’re supposed to pretend it’s cold. Hence, the snowney. The company likes it if our weather roughly coincides with that of the most-populated regions of the Sectors; sometimes they manipulate the weather with chemicals, sometimes they have us pretend, sometimes both. Bottom line: my flub won’t make broadcast.
Scoop turns his head, dubious, as if I’ve spoken in another language. My pulse quickens. With high cheekbones, a cleft chin, and dark brown hair that swoops over his brow like an ocean wave, he qualifies as handsome in a universally acceptable sort of way. Girls kind of melt around him. I found it hard to look at him when he first started talking to me—Lia called it the Scoop Swoon. Sometimes she jokes about how we should date, even if the swoon wore off long ago.
“You must be running a fever or something, because it’s freezing,” Scoop says finally, unenthusiastically. I exhale, relieved. He points to the knitted hat on top of his book bag. “I actually had to wear the hat inside, at morning assembly. Side benefit: I couldn’t hear Martin.”
I laugh like it’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. Martin Fennel, the senior class president with the paunch of a fifty-year-old, transforms weekly announcements into extended soliloquies. He’s an odd one. He and Lia used to go out, and she’d chosen him to take her virginity (“dispose of her virginity” is how she put it). Afterward she reported that he’d fumbled through the whole thing and talked the entire time.
My laughter seems to energize Scoop, who grins. “Ninety-nine or a hundred?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” I smile back tentatively. He seems to be keeping it together.
“You’re going to aim higher? Hundred and ten? Is that possible?” Scoop shifts sideways toward me.
“Do you mean the test? I think a hundred.” Math is my best subject; it’s always come easily to me.
He moves closer and glances at the cameras on the ceiling. I do the same. Only one is aimed at us.
He puts his hands around his mouth. “I’m worried about Belle. Where do you think your father is?”
Don’t talk about your dad.
I remember my gloomy days about Dad all too well. I could save Scoop the gloom by telling him that they’re doing publicity, but Lia swore me to secrecy, because she doesn’t want to get Bek in trouble. I look down and start pushing the worn corner of my textbook back and forth, wishing we actually could just talk about triangles.
“Here, I’m here.” Mr. Black bumbles in, wiggling his doughy torso to straighten the wire connecting his mic to its battery pack. As he contorts, we get a view of his ever-expanding bald spot, shiny as an egg. Everyone returns to their desks, moaning and groaning about the test. Mr. Black kicks haplessly at the doorstopper. Five tries later, the stopper is dislodged and the door swings shut. He’s so awkward. A camera horror.
“Let me just, ergh—one second—um,” he says, pulling out papers from his briefcase. He begins passing them out, squeezing down the aisles between desks. “Put away your book, Ella. Only prayer can help you now.” He guffaws at his own joke.
Scoop gamely tilts his face to the camera-studded ceiling, closes his eyes, and joins his hands in mock-prayer. He and Belle have similar pillowy lips and hazel eyes. This is as close as I’ll ever be to Belle Cannery again.
When he opens his eyes, he catches me staring at him, and I blurt out, “I’m sorry.” Everyone hears me practically fralling on-mic, and the Terror That Is Terra exchanges a look of disapproval with Mollie.
“That you didn’t study for the test,” I add hastily.
“Me too,” Scoop says, tapping his pencil on his desk. Mr. Black passes out the tests, and I place my palms on the white sheet, trying to focus, but an uncomfortable feeling rises inside me, making my chest tight.
Belle didn’t deserve this, even if the Originals did sign a Contract that allowed sixteen-year-olds to get cut. Even if Lia’s right about Belle fitting in more in the Sadtors. Belle’s too young to be torn away from her family.
I look sideways at Scoop. Should I tell him? He’s jotting down answers—well, guesses—on his test. He feels my gaze, raises his head, and grins his fast, electric grin, and I think about how he may fool the Audience, but he can’t fool me. I can’t forget the worst days of obsessing about my father: the turmoil, the uncertainty, the questions that build a cage around you.
I’m done with the test twenty minutes early. Mr. Black dismisses me, and I bolt down the hall, slowing by the history classroom. Lia’s sitting at her desk near the front, next to Callen, her hand in her chin and her face relaxed. I’m sure she’s stopped thinking about Belle. Lia gets over stuff fast. I wave. The gesture catches her eye, and she lifts up her hand, smiles, and mouths, “Everything’s okay, okay?” fast as lightning. I nod, and she turns back to the map of the island hanging at the front of the classroom.
Bliss Island looks like a four-leaf clover surrounded by endless blue. Everyone knows that it’s inaccurate, though. A chunk of the mainland Sectors, across from Avalon Beach, should be shown to the east. On the other side of the island, in the southwest, across from Eden Beach, should be at least some of Drowned Lands, an island chain, of which, strictly speaking, Bliss Island is part—I think Media1 leased the island from the Sectors government. The Drowned Lands, separated from the mainland by thousands of miles, are constantly causing problems for the rest of the Sectors by threatening secession.
But we just get the infinite blue because Media1 doesn’t want us to think too much about what goes on out there.
I look away from the map and steal a glance at Callen. He’s sitting next to Lia, in a faded red T-shirt and dark blue jeans, slumped back in his chair, his right arm dropped to his side, hand flexing unconsciously, a habit that began when he started pitching. I hear a long sigh echo through the empty hall and realize with horror that the sound came from me. Time to get out of here.
When I reach my locker, I stuff my books into my bag fast, as if they are hot coals. The more I think about Callen, the more I want him, and the more I want him, the farther away he seems. Which is absurd, because we actually live next door to each other; we used to sit on his porch and hang out—it was all so utterly normal. No foggy brain. No heart skipping. But our friendship got shaky once I became aware that I wanted more, then it collapsed completely when he started going out with Lia.
I got together with Witson to get Callen out of my head, but the main lesson I took from that relationship was that feelings can’t be built—or dismantled—the same way clocks and radios can.
• • •
I lock my bike up in front of the Character Relations Building and hurry to the entrance, breezing past the display case containing the Contract and the season’s Missives. I hear a buzzing sound undercut by a shrill whistle, and I lift my head to the sky—fighter jet. There have been a lot lately, crisscrossing our airspace on the way to and from the Drowned Lands. It’s okay for me to look at them in the Center, since we’re off-camera. In the past, when there’d be flurries of jet activity, I chalked it up to training. Nowadays . . . well, either they’re training a lot or the Drowned Landers are causing serious trouble.
I type my code into the number pad next to the door. It unlocks, and I walk into the lobby, which is overflowing with loud, fast-talking, sloppy Reals.
No matter what the hour, they’re always working, purple and green nylon jumpsuits scratching, sneakers pounding as they circulate, gibbering to one another. I keep my head down as I walk to the stairwell that’s reserved for Characters. I won’t get fined for acknowledging Reals in the Center, but that doesn’t mean I want to interact with them. Lia says you can see a layer of grime on the Reals if you look close enough. It’s probably because the Sadtors are such a mess. There’s lots of sickness since they don’t have mandatory vaccinations and consistent medical attention, plus there’s tons of pollution.
I climb to the fourth floor, Show Physicals. The lights are low here, and a custodian pushes a mop down the floor. I sidestep him on my way to Dr. Kanavan’s office near the end of the hall. My ears detect a low stream of sounds, and sure enough, when I reach the doorway, I can see that the television perched on her cabinet is on. I squint, taking in what I can of Blissful Days.
The Bliss Elementary playground, at recess. The sinuous slide, the pine tree scarred with initials, the creaky seesaw. Kids tumbling around and laughing.
Things were different then, I brood, watching the television. No fines, no payments, no ratings. No E.L.
Dr. Kanavan, springy blond curls piled on her head in a messy bun, glances at the television every few seconds, her head popping up like an overambitious cuckoo clock. My producer, Mik, says Reals are addicted to the show. I don’t know how they do it—I get antsy a half hour into Lia’s Drama Club productions. But Mik says the Reals can watch it for days on end, and Media1 gives them the opportunity to by broadcasting hour-long episodes back-to-back, twenty-four hours a day.
Dr. Kanavan doesn’t spend all her leisure time on Blissful Days. She’s a travel fiend, and in between glances at the television, she crosses off days on the calendar she’s mounted above her desk. Countdown to her next furlough. The goal date box always has a new place in thick black marker. Today’s is Zenta! In the past, there was Kyliss! Misk! She’s an adventurer—in her clothing choices too. Free from following motifs, she has on a glittery green sequin top beneath her lab coat; it flashes and winks when she moves.
In the ten seasons I’ve been coming here, I’ve never seen Dr. Kanavan repeat a trip. The Sectors are a thousand times the size of Bliss, and she seems to want to visit every inch. I don’t get why. I like the familiarity of the island. Thanks to great set designers, anything I could ever want to see—cliffs, waterfalls, plains, orchards, hills, valleys—are all less than an hour away.
My shoulders ache, and I slide off my book bag. Dr. Kanavan whirls around. “Nettie,” she squeaks, rising and running over to the television, blond curls bouncing behind her. Her high heels—green satin to match her top—sound like rain hitting a tin roof. She turns the television off and taps over to me, shamefaced, as if it’s the first time I’ve caught her with the television on.
Dr. Kanavan is cute for a Real, with her messy curls, ruddy cheeks, and button nose. Still, like most Reals, she’d look out of place on the island. All the Characters are better looking than the Reals, since the Originals were cast for their appearances.
Another difference is that Reals talk faster than Characters. But the ones used to conversing with us adapt, and I have no problems understanding Dr. Kanavan.
“Punctual as always,” she says, ushering me away from the television. “You get that from your grandmother. On last night’s seven o’clock episode, I saw that Violet showed up right on time for her weekly bingo game. Reminded me of you.” Dr. Kanavan has always been more forthcoming talking about what she’s seen on Blissful Days than Mik.
“Plus ten,” I murmur, wincing a bit at the irony of my words. “Plus ten” comes from when a Character earns bonus money for getting more than 10 percent of their ratings mark—a situation that has never happened to me, but is Lia’s ratings reality and probably Callen’s, too, since he started baseball.
“Here you go.” She passes me a pale green paper smock, and I go behind the screen to change. As I fold my tunic, a foghorn blares from the beach behind us, and the walls shiver. I wonder if Belle is on the sand now, being escorted onto a ship bound for the Sectors. Now I shiver. When I come out from behind the screen, I take off my shoes and socks, then step onto to the scale near the door. I clench my fists as I watch the electronic display make up its mind.
“You hit your weight target.” Dr. Kanavan makes a note in my file.
“Great.” I relax my fingers. If only it were all so simple. If I don’t make my ratings target, the solution isn’t as simple as cutting my candy intake. I can guess what the Audience wants to see, but I’ll never know for sure. At my last Character Report, I asked Mik if he had any idea why my ratings had fallen, but he just clucked genially, patted my head, and reminded me of Clause 57, which limits how much the Reals can interfere with the show, the clause meant to keep Blissful Days natural and lifelike.
I sit on the metal table in the middle of the room and watch as Dr. Kanavan types out a code on a number pad next to a cabinet. She lifts the cabinet’s cover and pulls out a tray of vaccination tubes, which she brings over and places on a table next to me. I stretch out my arm, and she preps the needle, then feels for a vein. I watch impassively as the needle slides under my skin, smooth as a diver slipping into water.