Matched, p.2
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       Matched, p.2

         Part #1 of Matched series by Ally Condie
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  As the streets flash past on our way home to Mapletree Borough, I glance over at Xander. The gold of the lights outside is similar to the color of his hair, and his face is handsome and confident and good. And familiar, for the most part. If you’ve always known how to look at someone, it’s strange when that directive changes. Xander has always been someone I could not have, and I have been the same for him.

  Now everything is different.

  My ten-year-old brother, Bram, waits for us on the front porch. When we tel him about the Banquet, he can’t believe the news. “You’re Matched with Xander? I already know the person you’re going to marry? That’s so strange. ”

  “You’re the one who’s strange. ” I tease him, and he dodges me as I pretend to grab him. “Who knows. Maybe your Match lives right on this street, too. Maybe it’s—”

  Bram covers his ears. “Don’t say it. Don’t say it—”

  “Serena,” I say, and he turns away, pretending that he didn’t hear me. Serena lives next door. She and Bram torment each other incessantly.

  “Cassia,” my mother says disapprovingly, glancing around to make sure that no one heard. We are not supposed to disparage other members of our street and our community. Mapletree Borough is known for being tight-knit and exemplary in this way. No thanks to Bram, I think to myself.

  “I’m teasing, Mama. ” I know she can’t stay mad at me. Not on the night of my Match Banquet, when she has been reminded of how quickly I am growing up.

  “Come inside,” my father says. “It’s almost curfew. We can talk about everything tomorrow. ”

  “Was there cake?” Bram asks as my father opens the door. They al look back at me, waiting.

  I don’t move. I don’t want to go inside yet.

  If I do, that means that this night is coming to an end, and I don’t want that. I don’t want to take off the dress and go back to my plainclothes; I don’t want to return to the usual days, which are good, but nothing special like this. “I’l come in soon. Just a few minutes more. ”

  “Don’t be long,” my father says gently. He doesn’t want me to break curfew. It is the City’s curfew, not his, and I understand.

  “I won’t,” I promise.

  I sit down on the steps of my house, careful, of course, of my borrowed dress. I glance down at the folds of the beautiful material. It does not belong to me, but this evening does, this time that is dark and bright and ful of both the unexpected and the familiar. I look out into the new spring night and turn my face to the stars.

  I don’t linger outside for long because tomorrow, Saturday, is a busy day. I’l need to report to my trial work position at the sorting center early in the morning. After that I’l have my Saturday night free-rec hours, one of the few times I get to spend with my friends outside of Second School.

  And Xander wil be there.

  Back in my bedroom, I shake the tablets out of the little hol ow in the base of the compact. Then I count—one, two, three; blue, green, red—as I slide the tablets back into their usual metal cylinder.

  I know what the blue and green tablets do. I don’t know anyone who knows for certain what the red tablet does. There have been rumors about it for years.

  I climb into bed and push away thoughts of the red tablet. For the first time in my life, I’m al owed to dream of Xander.

  CHAPTER 3

  I’ve always wondered what my dreams look like on paper, in numbers. Someone out there knows, but it isn’t me. I pul the sleep tags from my skin, taking care not to tug too hard on the one behind my ear. The skin is fragile there and it always hurts to peel the disk away, especial y if a strand or two of hair gets caught under the adhesive on the tag. Glad that my turn is over, I put the equipment back in its box. It’s Bram’s turn to be tagged tonight.

  I did not dream of Xander. I don’t know why.

  But I did sleep late, and I’m going to be late for work if I don’t hurry. As I walk into the kitchen, carrying my dress from the night before, I see that my mother has already set out the breakfast food delivery. Oatmeal, gray-brown and expected. We eat for health and performance, not for taste.

  Holidays and celebrations are exceptions. Since our calories had been moderated al week long, last night at the Banquet we could eat everything in front of us without significant impact.

  Bram grins mischievously at me, stil wearing his sleepclothes. “So,” he says, shoving one last spoonful of oatmeal into his mouth, “did you sleep late because you were dreaming about Xander?”

  I don’t want him to know how close he is to the truth; that even though I didn’t dream of Xander, I wanted to. “No,” I say, “and shouldn’t you be worrying about being on time for school?” Bram’s young enough that he stil has school instead of work on Saturdays, and if he doesn’t get going, he’l be late. Again. I hope he doesn’t get cited.

  “Bram,” my mother says, “go get your plainclothes on, please. ” She’l breathe a huge sigh of relief when he moves on to Second School, where the start time is half an hour later.

  As Bram slouches out of the room, my mother reaches for my dress and holds it up. “You looked so beautiful last night. I hate to take this back. ” We both look at the gown for a moment. I admire the way the fabric catches the light and plays it back, almost like the light and the cloth are both living things.

  We both sigh at exactly the same time and my mother laughs. She gives me a kiss on the cheek. “They’l send you a little piece of the fabric, remember?” she says, and I nod. Each gown is designed with an interior panel that can be cut into pieces, one for each girl who wears the dress.

  The scrap, along with the silver box that held my microcard, wil be the mementos of my Matching.

  But stil . I wil never see this dress, my green dress, again.

  I knew the moment I saw it that it was the one I wanted. When I made my selection, the woman at the clothing distribution center smiled after she punched the number—seventy-three—into the computer. “That’s the one you were most likely to pick,” she said. “Your personal data indicated it, and so did general psychology. You’ve picked things outside of the majority in the past, and girls like their dresses to bring out their eyes. ” I smiled and watched as she sent her assistant into the back to retrieve the dress. When I tried it on, I saw that she was right. The dress was meant for me. The hemline fel perfectly; the waist curved in exactly the right amount. I turned in front of the mirror, admiring myself.

  The woman told me, “So far, you are the only girl wearing this dress at the Match Banquet this month. The most popular gown is one of the pink gowns, number twenty-two. ”

  “Good,” I told her. I don’t mind standing out a little.

  Bram reappears in the doorway, plainclothes wrinkled, hair askew. I can almost see the wheels turning in my mother’s mind: Is it better to comb his hair and make him late, or send him as he is?

  Bram makes the decision for her. “See you tonight,” he says, sprinting out the door.

  “He’s not going to be fast enough. ” My mother looks out the window toward the air-train stop, where the tracks light up to indicate the approaching train.

  “He might,” I say, watching Bram as he breaks another rule, the one about running in public. I can almost hear his footsteps pounding on the sidewalk as he runs down the street, his head lowered, his school pack bumping against his skinny back.

  Right when he gets to the stop, he slows down. He pats his hair into place and walks casual y up the steps toward the train. Hopeful y, no one else has seen him run. A moment later, the air train pul s away with Bram safely inside.

  “That boy is going to be the end of me. ” My mother sighs. “I should have gotten him up earlier. We al overslept. It was a big night last night. ”

  “It was,” I agree.

  “I have to catch the next City air train. ” My mother pul s her satchel over her shoulder. “What are you doing for your free-rec hours tonight?”
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  “I’m sure Xander and everyone wil want to play games at the youth center,” I say. “We’ve seen al the showings, and the music . . . ” I shrug.

  My mother laughs, completing my sentence. “Is for old people like me. ”

  “And I’m using the last hour to visit Grandfather. ” The Officials don’t often al ow a deviation from the usual free-rec options; but on the eve of someone’s Final Banquet, visiting is encouraged and permitted.

  My mother’s eyes soften. “He’l love that. ”

  “Did Papa tel Grandfather about my Match?”

  My mother smiles. “He planned to stop by on his way to work. ”

  “Good,” I say, because I want Grandfather to know as soon as possible. I know he has been thinking as much about me and my Banquet as I’ve been thinking about him and his.

  After I hurry and eat my breakfast, I make my train with seconds to spare and sit back. I may not have dreamed about Xander while I slept, but I can daydream about him now. Looking out the window and thinking about how he looked last night in his suit, I watch the Boroughs slide by on my way into the City. The green has not yet given way to stone and concrete when I notice white flakes drifting through the sky.

  Everyone else notices them, too.

  “Snow? In June?” the woman next to me asks.

  “It can’t be,” a man across the aisle mutters.

  “But look at it,” she says.

  “It can’t be,” the man says again. People twist, turn to the windows, looking agitated. Can something wrong be true?

  Sure enough, little white puffs drift past on their way to the ground. There is something strange about this snow, but I’m not exactly sure what. I find myself holding in a smile as I look at al the worried faces around me. Should I be worried, too? Perhaps. But it’s so pretty, so unexpected, and, for the moment, so unexplainable.

  The air train comes to a stop. The doors open and a few pieces drift inside. I catch one on my hand, but it does not melt. The mystery of it does, however, when I see the little brown seed at the center of the snow.

  “It’s a cottonwood seed,” I tel everyone confidently. “It’s not snow. ”

  “Of course,” the man says, sounding glad to have an explanation. Snow in June would be atypical. Cottonwood seeds are not.

  “But why are there so many?” another woman asks, stil worried.

  In a moment, we have our answer. One of the new passengers sitting down brushes white from his hair and plainclothes. “We’re tearing out the cottonwood grove along the river,” he explains. “The Society wants to plant some better trees there. ” Everyone else takes his word for it; they know nothing about trees. They mutter about being glad it isn’t a sign of another Warming; thank goodness the Society has things under control as usual. But thanks to my mother, who can’t help talking about her work as a caretaker at the Arboretum, I know that his explanation does make sense. You can’t use cottonwood trees for fruit or fuel. And their seeds are a nuisance. They fly far, catch on anything, try to grow everywhere. Weed trees, my mother says. Stil , she harbors a particular affinity for them because of the seeds, which are smal and brown but cloaked in beauty, in these thin white tendrils of cotton. Little cloudy parachutes to slow their fal , to help them fly, to catch the wind and glide them somewhere they might grow.

 
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ALLY CONDIE SERIES:

Matched