Matched, p.16
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       Matched, p.16

         Part #1 of Matched series by Ally Condie
Page 17


  Blankets patchwork the play yard on the side of First School. It’s a real picnic—food eaten outdoors on the grass. The workers rush around the yard, trying to get the right meals into the right hands. It’s a bit of a hassle and I can see why they don’t do this very often. It’s much easier to have food sent to people’s homes, schools, workplaces.

  “I don’t think Piper and Ky signed up in time,” I say. “Because of work. ”

  Someone waves at us from a blanket in the middle of the yard. “There’s Em,” I tel Xander, pointing, and together we weave our way through the blankets on the grass and say hel o to our classmates and friends. Everyone is in a good mood, giddy with the novelty of the whole activity. Looking down, trying not to step on anyone’s blanket or in anyone’s food, I walk right into Xander, who has stopped. He turns to grin at me over his shoulder.

  “You almost made me drop my dinner,” he says, and I tease him back, giving him a little shove. He flops down on the blanket next to Em and leans over to look in her foilware container. “What did they send us?”

  “Meat-and-veggie casserole,” Em says, making a face.

  “Remember the ice cream,” I say.

  I’m almost finished eating when someone cal s out to Xander from across the grass. “I’l be right back,” he tel s us before he stands up and makes his way through the crowd. I can track his progress through the mass of people; they turn to watch him pass, cal out his name.

  Em leans over and says to me, “I think something’s wrong with me. I took the green tablet this morning. Already. I meant to save it for later this week. You know. ”

  I almost ask Em what she means and then I feel like a terrible friend, because how could I forget? Her Match Banquet. She meant to save the tablet for that night, because she’s getting nervous.

  “Oh, Em,” I say, putting my arm around her, hugging her. She and I have been drifting apart lately, but not by choice. This happens, as you get closer to your work assignments and vocations. But I miss her. Nights like this, especial y. Summery nights, when I remember how it was to be younger and have more time. When Em and I used to spend so many of our free-rec hours together. We had more of them, then.

  “It’l be a wonderful night,” I tel her. “I promise. Everything’s so beautiful. It’s exactly like they tel us it wil be. ”

  “Real y?” Em asks.

  “Of course. Which dress did you pick?” They redesign the dresses every three years, so Em has the same pool to choose from that I did.

  “One of the yel ow ones. Number fourteen. Do you remember it?”

  So much has happened since I stood in the Matching Office and picked out my dress. “I don’t think I do,” I say, searching my mind.

  Em’s voice becomes animated as she describes the dress. “It’s very light yel ow and it’s the one with the butterfly sleeves . . . ” I remember now. “Oh, Em, I loved that dress. You’l be beautiful. ” She wil , too. Yel ow is the perfect color for Em; it wil look lovely against her creamy skin, her black hair, and dark eyes. It wil make her look like sunshine, the spring kind.

  “I’m so nervous. ”

  “I know. It’s hard not to be. ”

  “Everything’s different now that you’ve been Matched with Xander,” Em tel s me. “I’ve been, you know, wondering. ”

  “But my Match with Xander doesn’t make it any more likely—”

  “I know. We al know that. But now we can’t help but wonder. ” Em looks into her foilware container, at her nearly untouched dinner.

  A chime sounds from the loudspeakers and we al automatical y begin to gather our things. Time to work. Em sighs and stands up. Traces of worry stil line her face, and I remember how it felt when I waited for my Match.

  “Em,” I say impulsively. “I have a compact you can borrow, if you want, for your Banquet. It’s golden. It would look perfect with your dress. I’l bring it over tomorrow morning. ”

  Em’s eyes widen. “You have an artifact? And you’d lend it to me?”

  “Of course. You’re one of my best friends. ”

  Red-blossomed newrose plants sit in black plastic tubs, waiting for us to plant them into the ground in front of First School. First School always looks so cheerful. I can picture the inside of the school with its bright yel ow wal s, green tile floors, and blue classroom doors. It’s easy to feel safe here. I always did when I was young. I feel safe here now, I tel myself. There’s no poem left. Papa’s problems are over. I’m safe here, and everywhere else.

  Except, perhaps, on the little hil where, in spite of my decision to stay safe, I often find myself glancing over at Ky, wondering. Wishing we could talk again, but not daring to take the risk of saying anything to him besides the common things, the things we always say.

  I look over my shoulder for Ky, but I stil don’t see him.

  “What kind of flowers are these?” Xander asks as we dig. The soil is thick and black. It comes apart in clumps as we lift it.

  “Newroses,” I tel Xander. “You probably have some growing in your yard. We have them in ours. ” I don’t tel him that they’re not my mother’s favorite. She thinks the ones we have in the City in al the gardens and public spaces are too hybridized, too far from their original selves. The oldroses took a lot of care to grow; each blossom was a triumph. But these are hardy, showy, bred for durability. “We don’t have newroses in the Farmlands,” my mother says. “We have other flowers, wildflowers. ” When I was little, she used to tel me stories about those different flowers that grew wild in the Farmlands. The stories didn’t have a plot; they weren’t even real y stories as much as they were descriptions, but they were beautiful and they lul ed me to sleep. “Queen Anne’s lace,” my mother would say in a slow, soft voice. “Wild carrot. You can eat the root when it’s young enough. The flower is white and lacy. Lovely. Like stars. ”

  “Who’s Queen Anne?” I’d ask, drowsy.

  “I can’t remember. I think she’s in the Hundred History Lessons somewhere. But shhhh. That’s not important. What’s important is that you see the lace in front of you, too many little flowers to count, but you try anyway . . . ” Xander hands me a newrose plant and I pul it from its smal plastic tub and put it in the ground. The strong, stringy roots have grown in circles around the inside of the pot, for lack of anywhere else to go. I spread them out as I put the newrose plant into the ground. Looking at the soil makes me think of the dirt my shoes col ect while we hike. And thinking of hiking makes me think of Ky. Again.

  I wonder where he is. As Xander and I plant the flowers and talk, I picture Ky working while the rest of us play, or listening to the music piped into the almost-empty auditorium. I imagine him walking through the crowds at the recreation building and taking his turn playing a game that he wil likely lose. I see him sitting in the theater watching the showing, tears in his eyes. No. I banish the images from my mind. I won’t do this anymore.

  The choice is made.

  I never had a choice to begin with.

  Xander knows I’m not listening to him as closely as I should. He glances to make sure no one can hear us and then he says softly, “Cassia. Are you stil worried about your father?”

  My father. “I don’t know,” I say. It’s the truth. I don’t know how I feel about him right now. Already the anger is giving way—almost against my wil —

  to more understanding, more empathy. If Grandfather had looked at me with his fiery eyes and asked me to do him one last favor, would I have been able to tel him no?

  The evening slides in slowly, darkening the sky by degrees. There’s a trace of light left when the chime rings again and we stand up to survey our work. A smal breeze drifts across the grounds and the flower beds ripple red in the dusk.

  “I wish we could do this every Saturday,” I say. It feels like we have created something beautiful. My hands are stained red from some of the crushed petals; and they smel of earth and newrose, a sharp-flower smel that I like in spit
e of my mother’s comments about the oldrose perfume being more subtle, more delicate. What’s wrong with being durable? What’s wrong being something, someone, that lasts?

  Standing there looking at my work, however, I realize that al my family has ever done is sort. Never create. My father sorts old artifacts like my grandfather did; my great-grandmother sorted poems. My Farmlander grandparents plant seeds and tend crops, but everything they grow has been assigned by the Officials. Just like the things my mother grows at the Arboretum.

  Just like we did here.

  So I didn’t create anything after al . I did what I was told and fol owed the rules and something beautiful happened. Exactly as the Officials have promised.

  “There’s the ice cream,” Xander says. The workers wheel the freezer carts along the sidewalk near the flower beds. Xander grabs me by one hand and Em by the other and pul s us into the nearest line.

  It takes the workers much less time to hand out our foil cups of ice cream than it took them to pass out dinner because the ice cream is al the same. Our meals have our specialized vitamins and enrichments and have to be given to the right person. The ice cream is a nothing food.

  Someone cal s out to Em and she goes over to sit by them. Xander and I find a place a little apart from everyone else. We lean our backs against the sturdy cement-block wal s of the school and stretch out our legs. Xander’s are long and his shoes are worn. He must be due for some new ones soon.

  He digs his spoon into the single white scoop and sighs. “I’d plant acres of flowers for this. ” I agree. Cold and sweet and wonderful, the ice cream slides across my tongue and down my throat and into my stomach, where I swear I can feel it long after it melts. My fingers smel like soil and my lips taste like sugar and I’m so awake right now I wonder if I’l be able to sleep tonight.

  Xander holds out his last spoonful toward me.

  “No, it’s yours,” I say, but he insists. He is smiling and generous and it seems ungracious to push his hand away, so I don’t.

  I take the spoon from him and pop the last bite into my mouth. It’s the kind of thing you could never do at a real meal—share food—but it’s acceptable tonight. The Officials wandering around supervising don’t even bat an eye. “Thanks,” I say, and then Xander’s act of kindness inexplicably makes me feel a little like crying, so I have to joke instead. “We shared a spoon. That’s practical y kissing. ” Xander rol s his eyes. “If you think that, you’ve never been kissed before. ”

  “Of course I’ve been kissed before. ” We are teenagers, after al . Until we’re Matched, we al have crushes and flirt and play kissing games. But that’s al they are—games—because we know we’l be Matched someday. Or we’l stay Single and the games wil never end.

  “Was there anything in the guidelines about kissing? Anything I should remember?” I ask, teasing Xander.

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