I can hardly stand still as my mother straightens my celebratory red tunic and tucks a strand of light brown hair behind my ear. Finally she turns me and I look in the reflector on our living area wall. Red. I'm wearing red. No more pink. I am an adult. Seeing evidence of that tickles my stomach.
"Are you ready, Cia?" my mother asks. She, too, is wearing red, although her dress is made of a gossamer fabric that drapes to the floor in soft swirls. Next to her, my sleeveless dress and leather boots look childish, but that's okay. I have time to grow into my adult status. I'm young for it at sixteen. The youngest by far in my class.
I take one last look in the reflector and hope that today is not the end of my education, but I have no control over that. Only a dream that my name will be called for The Testing. Swallowing hard, I nod. "Let's go."
Graduation is held in the colony square among the stalls filled with baked goods and fresh milk because the school isn't large enough to hold all the people who will attend. The entire colony attends graduation, which only makes sense since everyone in the colony is related to at least one of the students crossing over to adulthood or celebrating their promotion to the next grade. This year is the largest graduating class the Five Lakes Colony has had. Eight boys, six girls. A tangible sign the colony is thriving.
My father and four brothers, all dressed in ceremonial adult purple, are waiting for us outside our dwelling. My oldest brother, Zeen, shoots me a smile and ruffles my hair. "Are you ready to be done with school and get out into the real world with the rest of us slobs?"
My mother frowns.
Zeen and my other brothers are definitely not slobs. In fact, girls practically throw themselves at them. But while my brothers aren't immune to flirting, none of them seems interested in settling down. They're more interested in creating the next hybrid tomato plant than starting a family. Zeen most of all. He's tall, blond, and smart. Very, very smart. And yet he never got chosen for The Testing. The thought takes away the shine from the day. Perhaps that's the first rule I will learn as an adult — that you can't always get what you want. Zeen must have wanted to continue on to the University — to follow in Dad's footsteps. He must know what I'm feeling. For a moment, I wish I could talk to him. Ask him how he got through the disappointment that most likely is awaiting me. Our colony will be lucky to have one student chosen for The Testing — if any at all. It has been ten years since the last stu dent from Five Lakes was chosen. I'm good at school, but there are those who are better. Much better. What chance do I have?
With a forced smile, I say, "You bet. I can't stay in school if I plan on running the colony by the time all of you are married."
Hart and Win blush. They are two years older than me and the idea of marriage and dating makes them run for cover. The two of them are happy working side by side in the nursery, growing the flowers and trees Dad has created to withstand the corrupted earth at the outskirts of the colony.
"No one will be doing much of anything if we don't get moving." Mother's voice is sharp as she heads off down the path. My brothers and father quickly follow. Zeen's and Hamin's lack of marriage prospects is a sore spot for our mother.
Because of Dad's job, our house is farther from the center of the colony than most. My brothers and father have made the ground around our small house bloom green with plants and trees, but a hundred feet past our front door the earth is cracked and brittle. Though some grass and a few scraggly trees do grow. Dad tells me the earth to our west is far worse, which is why our leaders decided to place the Five Lakes Colony here.
Usually, I ride my bicycle to town. A couple of citizens own cars, but fuel and solar cells big enough to run them are too precious for everyday use. Today, I trail behind my family as we walk the almost five miles to the colony's community square.
Square is really the wrong word, but we use it anyway. It's shaped more like a turtle with an oval center and some appendages to the sides. There is a beautiful fountain in the middle that sprays clear, sparkling water into the air. The fountain is a luxury since clean water is not always easy to come by. But we are allowed the waste and the beauty in order to honor the man who discovered how to remove the contamination from the lakes and ponds after Stage Seven. What is left of the oceans is harder to clean.
The ground becomes greener and birds sing the closer we get to the center of the colony. Mom doesn't talk much on the way. Zeen teases her that she doesn't want me to grow up, but I don't think that's the case.
Or maybe it is.
Mom and I get along fine, but the past couple of years she has seemed distant. Less willing to help me with my homework. More interested in getting the boys married and talking about where I will apprentice when I finish school. Any discussion of me being selected for The Testing is not welcome. So, I talk to her less and less and to my father more and more. He doesn't change the subject when I speak about going further in my education, although he doesn't actively encourage me. He doesn't want to see me disappointed, I guess.
The sun is hot and sweat drips down my back as we trek up the final hill. The sounds of music and laughter from just out of sight have me quickening my step. Just before we reach the top, Dad puts his arm around me and asks me to wait while the others go on ahead.
The excitement over the hill pulls at me, but I stay put and ask, "Is something wrong?" His eyes are filled with shadows even though his smile is bright.
"Nothing is wrong," he says. "I just wanted a moment with my little girl before things get too crazy. Everything changes the minute we go over that hill."
"Are you nervous?"
"Kind of." Excitement, fear, and other emotions swirl inside me, making it hard to tell what I'm really feeling. "It's weird not knowing what I'm going to do when I get up tomorrow." Most of my classmates have made choices about their future. They know where they will apprentice or if they will move to another colony to find work. Some even know who they are going to marry. I know none of these things, although my father has made it clear I can work with him and my brothers if I choose. The option seems bleak at best since my thumb is anything but green. The last time I helped my father I almost destroyed the sunflower seedling he'd spent months creating. Mechanical things I fix. Plants I kill.
"You're going to get up and face whatever comes. I'll be proud of you no matter what today brings."
"Even if I don't get accepted for The Testing?"
"Especially if you don't get accepted for The Testing." He smiles and gently pokes me in the stomach. When I was little, that never failed to send me into fits of laughter. Today it still makes me grin. It's nice to know some things never change even though I doubt my father's teasing words.
Dad went to the University. That's where he learned to genetically alter plants and trees to survive in the blighted soil. He doesn't talk about it much or the colony he grew up in, probably because he doesn't want us to feel pressured by his success. But I do.
"You think I won't get accepted."
My father frowns. "I think you're smarter than you give yourself credit for. You never know who the search committee might pick or why. Five of us from my grade were selected and tested. The other four always did better in class, but I was the only one who made it to the University. The Testing isn't always fair, and it isn't always right."
"But you're not sorry you went. Look at the amazing things you do every day because of it." The trees next to us are filled with blooms promising apples in the months to come. Bushes of wild blackberries grow next to daisies and other flowers I never learned the names of but know Dad was a part of creating. When I was small, these things didn't exist. At least not the healthy versions dotting the hills today. Even now I can remember the empty ache of going to bed hungry. Food had been scarce as Dad worked with farmers to make things grow. And they had. In Five Lakes Colony, we are careful not to waste, but hunger is no longer our primary concern. My father is the reason why.
"I can't be sorry about something I had no choice in." His eyes go far away as the birds chirp around us. Finally, he smiles, although his eyes never clear of whatever memories are capturing his attention. "Besides, I wouldn't have moved here and met your mother if I hadn't gone to the University. Then where would I be?"
"Probably living at home with your parents and making your mother worry that you'll never get serious about your future."
The clouds disappear from their depths and his eyes twinkle as he ruffles my hair. "Sounds like a fate worse than death." Which is what my mother makes it sound like every time she tells Zeen that life is passing him by. "Come on. Your mother is going to sound the alarm if we don't get moving. I just want you to remember one thing. I believe in you. No matter what."
Arm in arm we start up and over the hill to join the festivities. I smile, but deep in my heart I worry that Dad has always expected me to fall short of his achievements. That I will disappoint — no matter what.
Because the colony is spread out over many miles, this is the one guaranteed occasion every year when the entire population of Five Lakes gathers together. Once in a while we all congregate when there is a message from our country's leaders that needs to be delivered to everyone, but those occasions are rare. At just over nine hundred citizens, our colony is one of the smallest and farthest from Tosu City, where the United Commonwealth government is based. We don't rank much attention, which is fine by most of us. We do well on our own. Outsiders aren't shunned, but they aren't exactly embraced with open arms. They have to convince us they belong.
The square is quite large, but the space feels small with so many people dressed in their ceremonial finery. Shops for candles, baked goods, shoes, and all sorts of household items line the outside edge of the square. The shops will close when graduation begins, but now they are doing a brisk business as citizens who don't often get into town purchase or trade for necessary items. The United Commonwealth coin is rare in our colony, but the few people on the government payroll, like Dad, use it.
"Cia!" The waving hand catches my attention as my best friend Daileen comes barreling toward me. Her blond hair and pink dress flutter as she dodges groups of chatting citizens to reach me. She clutches a cone with rapidly melting pink ice cream in her hand. Squeezing me in a tight hug she says, "Can you believe you're graduating? This is so exciting. They're even giving away free ice cream."
I hug her back, careful to avoid the melting cone. My mother will have a fit if I get a stain on my new dress before graduation begins. "Exciting and scary. Don't forget the scary part."
Daileen is the only one I've talked to about my fears of the future if I don't get chosen for The Testing. She looks around to make sure no one is listening and says, "My father heard there's a special guest who's supposed to speak today."
Graduation day has a lot of speakers. Our teachers will speak, as will the magistrate and a number of other Five Lakes leaders. When the entire colony gets together there is never a lack of things to talk about. So the special guest doesn't sound all that special until Daileen adds, "My father says the guest is from Tosu City."
That gets my attention. "Someone from Tosu is here?" The last time an official from Tosu came to Five Lakes Colony was three years ago when our old magistrate died. Two men and a woman came to the colony to select the new colony leader. Mostly Tosu City communicates with us through proclamations or radio communications with our magistrate.
"That's what my father heard." Daileen licks the melted ice cream streaking the back of her hand. "Dad thinks he's here to escort a candidate for The Testing. That could be you." For a minute her smile falters. "I'll really miss you."
Daileen and I are only two weeks apart in age and have been best friends since the age of three. Her parents enrolled her in school at the mandatory age of six. My parents decided to send me at five, which is why we are not in the same class. She is the shyer, smarter, and gentler of the two of us. She is also the one less likely to make new friends unless someone else is there to get the conversation going. Without me pushing her to engage others in conversation during lunch and hang out after classes, she will probably eat alone and go home to an empty, sad house long before everyone else leaves the school grounds. Her mother died two years ago in an accident and her father, while nice, isn't home much, leaving Daileen alone to deal with the chores and the memories. I try to keep her in good spirits while we're at school, but some days the shadows overwhelm her. I worry one day those shadows will swallow her whole without someone to chase them away.
I give her another quick hug and say, "Every year there's a rumor about a Tosu official coming to graduation." Although a small part of me can't help yearning for this year's rumor to be true. To distract myself as much as Daileen, I add, "Now, I want to get some of that ice cream before it's gone. Okay?"
I enlist other friends, many of them going into their final year of school, in our search for strawberry ice cream, hoping that one of them will take Daileen under her wing when classes begin again in a few weeks. If not, I will find a way to make things easier for Daileen.
My mother waves at me and frowns so I leave a smiling Daileen with the other students and cross the square to the fountain where she waits. Almost everyone I pass waves or says hello. Our family moves to new dwellings almost every year — to whatever section of the colony the magistrate thinks needs Dad's skill the most. All the moving makes it hard to feel attached to a home, but unlike most citizens who only know their neighbors and former schoolmates, I know the majority of the people in our colony by sight.