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Spark: Careen's Prequel to the Resistance Series

SPARK

Careen’s Prequel to the Resistance Series

Tracy Lawson

SPARK

© 2015 Tracy Lawson

Cover design by Rachel Bostwick

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.

All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

978-0-9966108-7-2

DysCovered Publishing

TracyLawsonBooks.com

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Chapter 1

September 22, 2034

3:35 PM

Quadrant OP-439

Dear Dad,

I meant to start this letter on the bus, but the roads were so bumpy there was no way I could’ve written anything legible. I couldn’t pass the time reading, either. Gave me a headache and an upset stomach.

Well, I’m finally off to university. I know you would’ve been thrilled for me. Mom, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to feel that way. She was gone when I woke up this morning, at least that spared me having to say goodbye. When something she doesn’t like happens, she avoids it, or turns the attention back on herself with some meaningless drama. I know that sounds disrespectful, Dad, but everything that’s happened in the past nine years must’ve changed her. A lot.

You left me a huge mess, Dad. I know it wasn’t your fault, but that doesn’t change the facts.

There was so much I didn’t say to you on our last day. When you said, ‘tell me what you’re learning in school,’ you were trying to distract me and keep me calm until someone found us and pulled us out of the rubble. You wanted me to think of something happy.

I didn’t tell you that when I gave an answer in class that day, some of the kids made fun of me for using a four-syllable word.

I didn’t tell you I was learning that it’s bad to be even a little bit different than my peers. The other kids seemed to fit inside pre-ordained parameters I didn’t understand.

I didn’t tell you I was learning it was better not to be noticed at all.

After it happened, everyone noticed me for a while. Teachers, especially, treated me differently. I think they were afraid, as if the terrorist attack had left some kind of taint on me.

I thought the taint had faded, but it’s back. I had to dredge it all up to apply for the Victory Scholarship. But I got it. Four years. Full ride.

That has to be the reason you died. Otherwise nothing makes any sense.

As you know from my past correspondence, I’ve been trying to make sense of your death for years. I read through all my old journals before I burned them. I didn’t have room for them in my bag and didn’t want to leave them for Mom to read. Ha. Like she hasn’t read them already.

I’ll always regret that I didn’t say goodbye to you. But I didn’t know. I was too young to understand what was happening. I was too scared to see how badly you were hurt. You were my dad. You were the best, strongest, kindest man in the world. You should have lived forever.

There was far too much time to think on that interminable bus ride. I’m finally here, a mere twenty-seven hours late. I missed the appointment with my advisor, and I’m sitting in the hall now, waiting for her. I don’t mind, though. I’ve got to get everything I’ve been thinking about down on paper so I can sort it out.

I have a feeling I’m going to need my tough outer layer to do well here. But I’m ready to stand on my own. Living with Mom taught me how to be independent; someone had to be the grownup after you were gone.

I know you wouldn’t want me to feel that way about her, but here’s another fact: if you were still here, she wouldn’t be like this.

[_ Well, that’s me, your only daughter. Careen in a nutshell. First day as a college freshman. *takes bow _]

I wonder: If my shell shatters, will I hatch like a baby chick, soaked and helpless? Or will it be more like springing from my chrysalis ready to fly?

“You’re late.”

Careen shut the journal and looked up. The thin, middle-aged woman who stood in front of her gave her an appraising glance, then folded her arms and inclined her head in a ‘follow me’ gesture that made Careen jump to her feet, stuff the journal and pen into her backpack and hastily grab the duffel bag’s strap. It slid off her shoulder with a jolt as she staggered down the hall. Even the click of the woman’s heels sounded impatient. She turned into an office and Careen glanced at the nameplate. Dr. Lindsey Pimentel.

Careen let the duffel bag drop to the floor and held out her hand. “I know I’m more than a day late. The bus—well, I got here as soon as I could.” The woman ignored the proffered handshake, and Careen let her arm fall as she perched on a chair facing the desk.

“The reason you are late is not important. Registration is closed.”

“But, I was accepted. I sent back the forms saying I was coming. I’m only a little bit late. It was out of my control.”

The professor’s lips made a thin, hard line as she picked up a file with a large purple V stamped on the front. “You’re our Victory Scholar.”

“Yes. Careen. Careen Catecher.”

“To be honest, Careen, we’re reluctant to accept Victory Scholars at this university because, frankly, we’ve seen this kind of behavior before. Try as you might, you’re not quite up to our standards.”

Careen’s remaining confidence shriveled. The band t-shirt that had been her mom’s, the well-worn jeans and boots, and the army surplus jacket had seemed like a perfect I’m-finally-leaving-for-college outfit, but after a day and a half of travel, the residual smell of the bus clung to her clothes, and she knew she looked tired and rumpled. Had the professor guessed that all her worldly possessions were crammed into the two bags at her feet? She raked her fingers through her hair and drew a shuddering breath.

I should give up and go home. Except I can’t. She bit her lip, willed the tears not to start, and then raised her chin. “I was accepted at this university because my grades and my standardized test scores were more than adequate. The Victory Scholarship doesn’t define me—it’s just how I’m paying for my education.”

Dr. Pimentel shrugged. “For now, anyway.” She handed the file across the desk. “Take this to Admissions before they close for the weekend. Have your ID card made, get your housing assignment, and transfer your Essential Services deliveries to your campus address before you come back to one of the computer portals in the common area to schedule classes. I must warn you, there won’t be many course options left for this semester. What were you planning to study?”

Careen stood and slung her backpack onto her shoulder. “Business.”

“Interesting choice.” The professor’s sour expression melted away as she glanced past Careen. She scrambled to her feet, her voice and manner intending to flatter whoever stood at the door. “Please come in! I’ve been expecting you.”

Careen stepped back, pulling her belongings closer to avoid being trampled by a young woman and her parents as they crowded into the office. The girl’s outfit was almost identical to Careen’s, but new and artfully distressed, rather than vintage, which was just another word for old and worn.

The professor beamed at the girl. “Welcome! We’re thrilled that you’re a member of our incoming freshman class!”

The man patted his daughter on the shoulder. “We hope it’s not too inconvenient that we’re registering her a day late.”

“Not at all, Senator. Unforeseen circumstances arise, and we pride ourselves on being accommodating, especially when it comes to an exceptional student like your daughter. I’ll personally bypass the regular enrollment process and sign her into whatever classes she chooses.”

Unnoticed, Careen lugged her bags out of the room and dragged them down the hall. She was the only one in line at the Admissions office, and before long, she had a plastic photo ID card. The clerk slipped a key into an envelope and sealed it.

“You’re in scholarship housing. Got the last suite, as a matter of fact.”

“Okay. Which dorm is that?” She’d had the university’s brochure taped up on her bedroom wall for over a year, and had spent the months since she’d been admitted fantasizing about living and making new friends in one of the redbrick buildings.

“Scholarship housing is off campus. When you leave here, turn right past the university gate. Go three blocks and up make a left, and then another five blocks. You can’t miss it.”

“Got it. Thanks. How soon will my Essential Services deliveries transfer?” She’d eaten her remaining pre-packaged meals from last week’s delivery while on the bus.

“Like lightning, honey. Just three to five days.”

“Three to five days? What am I supposed to eat for three to five days?”

The clerk seemed puzzled. “Go home, honey. Get settled, take a shower, and go eat in a café or one of the restaurants. Your meal delivery will transfer in three to five days.”

“Are meals in a café or restaurant covered by my scholarship?”

The clerk consulted the computer screen. “Your stipend is being processed. Any overage will go to your debit account, and you can use that however you want.”

“But when? When will the stipend be available?”

“Two weeks. Maybe longer. Good luck, honey.”

Black snow flew around the edges of Careen’s vision as she hoisted her bags back into position. She took a deep breath, steadied herself, and resolved not to think about food. It’ll be great to unpack and quit lugging these bags around. Now all I have left to do is my class schedule.

She passed a group of students in the hall, but felt too harried to bother smiling. She hitched the duffel bag strap up higher on her shoulder and behind her, someone giggled.

Dad, why do they look at me and see what they want to see without getting to know me? They just got here, too. Why do they already seem to belong?

A few years ago, there was this boy I liked. Dylan. I think every girl in our class liked him. They liked him because he was tall and blond and good at sports and nice looking—I mean, really nice looking. Believe me, I appreciated all those things about him, but I liked him most of all because his smile reminded me of you.

I never told anyone. Who would I tell? If Mom knew I had even a passing interest in a boy she would’ve gotten way too excited and ended up making a scene.

As it turns out, complete humiliation was possible without her intervention.

You know how the high school campus had covered walkways between buildings, right? It was a pretty old school, and even though they built a security wall when all the schools went to max, the potential for a breach gave the Quadrant Marshals an excuse to maintain a presence on campus. Some of the parents thought that wasn’t enough, and complained, saying the quadrant should update the school and eliminate the risk altogether.

I’m sure those parents choose not to remember how they used to sneak out between classes for a smoke or a quick hook-up. Everyone needs a minute to breathe every now and then. But I’m getting off topic.

One day I was crossing the courtyard to my next class when an argument broke out between two kids. A marshal tried to break it up with a warning shot. I’d opened the door, and when the shot sounded, someone tackled me from behind as they dove into the building. We skidded across the floor, backpacks, legs, and arms all tangled. It was Dylan. That was the closest I’d ever been to a boy before, Dad. I can still remember how amazing he smelled. His face was only an inch away, and when he looked down at me, I was paralyzed. He’d pushed me out of harm’s way, like you did on our Last Day. His smile was just like yours. God help me, I started to cry.

Before he could ask me what was the matter or help me up or whatever, a girl—one of those girls—stood over us and sneered, “Why did you bother saving her?”

He pulled me to my feet and shrugged. “She was in my way.” He helped me collect my books, and then he walked away and never looked at me again. But for the next three years, that girl never missed a chance to tell me I was In. Her. Way.

Careen looked around. The hall was empty. The Admissions clerk stepped into the hall and locked the door. “Go on and finish up, honey. You’ll be fine.” She left with an encouraging wave, and Careen managed a weak smile in return. At least I’m here. Here is still better than there. She plodded toward the registration portals, dragging her bags behind her.

She keyed in her ID number, and found she had been automatically enrolled in Navigating Your Freshman Year and Personal Care and Wellness, both required for first-semester students. Okay, fine. Now how about a real class or two? She scrolled through the lower-level course offerings and found a seat in an 8 AM section of Calculus that met Monday through Thursday. Nice. I can sleep in on Friday mornings.

Her happiness was short-lived. The remaining Intro to Business courses conflicted with those required by the university. She tried to delete one required class, then the other, without success. She pounded her fist on the counter in frustration.

“Catecher?”

What? Careen resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she turned around. A man with pleasant crinkles around his tired-looking eyes beckoned her toward his office. He’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button on his rumpled shirt, and looked almost as worn-out as she felt. She pushed her duffel bag a few feet toward the door with her foot, and he stepped into the hall and took the strap, holding out his free hand for her file. She followed him into the office, where he shut the door, set her bag on the floor, and settled into his desk chair.

“I’m Dr. Gareth Rourk. Please, have a seat.”

She sank into the chair facing the desk and slumped forward, hands on her knees.

He was silent for a few moments. She looked up when he closed her file.

“I’m very glad you’re joining us here this year, Careen. We don’t get many Victory Scholars. Your admissions essay doesn’t reveal exactly what happened to make you eligible.”

“The instructions didn’t say that I had to.” He leaned forward in his chair as if expecting her to continue. Great. “Terrorists bombed the plaza in front of my parents’ café. It was a long time ago. When I was nine.” She dragged her fingers through her bangs. “My dad was killed. If he hadn’t pushed me under a table to shelter me from the blast, I’d probably be dead, too.”

“You were actually there and survived the bombing? Wonderful!” His eager expression fell away and he redirected. “What I mean to say is, we don’t have many students with your unique experience. Your presence on campus will lend a new dimension—a much needed dimension—to classroom discussions.”

“Since you read my essay, you know I don’t want to dwell on what happened. It was half my life ago. I came here for a fresh start.” Is everyone here going to pry into my personal life?

He nodded as he steepled his fingers, elbows on the desk. “Have you finished selecting your courses?”

“I need one more for full time status, but there aren’t many choices left.”

“Freshmen rarely take upper-levels, but I’d be pleased to enroll you in the advertising seminar I’m teaching this semester.”

“Advertising? I wasn’t planning on studying advertising.”

“It counts as an elective toward your business degree. Part of the class focuses on how what we see and hear influences our decision-making—and how it can play on our fears. Propaganda is very much like advertising. It’s just selling a different product. I’ve put in a request to gain access to some rare footage from the Cold War era. It promises to be a very special experience.”

She nodded. “Yes. I think I’d like that. Thank you.”

He led the way into the hallway and soon her schedule was done. Careen put it in the front pocket of her backpack and slid her arms into the straps. He turned to leave, and she burst out, “how do I eat in a restaurant?” She went on in a rush without waiting for an answer. “I know that must sound strange, since you know my parents owned a café, but that was—“

“It was a long time ago.”

“Yeah. I was too young to have my own debit account back then. I don’t use my card very often. I’ve never bought food. We don’t have restaurants in my quadrant anymore.”

“There’s no better time to learn—and I’d be happy to have a dinner companion.”

Before she could protest, he slung the duffel bag strap over his shoulder. She followed him outside, past the campus gate, and across the street to a small storefront decorated with university memorabilia. As he pushed open the door, her knees nearly buckled in response to the mingling aromas of things cooking. She sank into a booth, picked up a laminated menu from the condiment holder and scanned the entrees. “I remember menus. The prices though—“

“Don’t worry about that. Just get what you want.”

After the server took their order, she continued to study the menu, weighing the prices against the balance in her debit account until she realized it was rude to ignore him. She put the menu away and glanced about the restaurant. “This is actually legal?”

“Very. This place is an institution. The local state representative’s grandfather started it fifty years ago. When the Restrictions went into effect, it was one of a few that was allowed to retain its license to sell food.”

“It’s so strange.” The server brought their drinks, and when he was gone, she lowered her voice. “I barter sometimes. Not for food, of course. That’s really difficult. For the past few years, I worked in a store. Kind of a junk store that sold a little bit of everything. I know it’s illegal to transact any kind of exchange of goods or services without using official debit cards, but what I earned went to help with rent and other expenses. I traded for things like books, clothes, and sometimes makeup.”

She looked down at the table. “I can’t believe I just told you that I knowingly broke a Restriction. It was wrong, and I’m going to study hard so someday I’ll have a good career and I won’t have to break the law—any law—to have what I need.”

She chanced a look at him, and saw something like sadness flicker across his face.

He also kept his voice low. “My mom used to say that ‘kids only lie to their parents when parents force them to.’ Do you feel the same way about your decision to break the OCSD’s Restrictions?”

“Maybe. I guess so. I don’t like being dishonest or sneaky. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No. I wouldn’t ever do that.” He took a sip of water. “Where do you come from?”

“MA-334.”

“That’s quite a long way to travel. What made you choose this university when there are others closer to home?”

She shrugged. “I wanted to get as far away as possible. That, and a degree from this school will change my life.”

“What if you could change more lives than just your own?”

“I don’t have time to worry about anyone else. Not now.”

“I see. Just something to think about. Classes haven’t even started yet.”

The conversation stopped when their food arrived. Careen’s stomach growled as the server set down her plate, and she attacked the food, knowing it was the last full meal she’d eat until her Essential Services account transferred. When she had eaten the last morsel, Dr. Rourk handed her the menu again.

“Why don’t we choose something for dessert?”

She was scraping up the last crumbs from her slice of chocolate cake when he signaled the server for the check and a to-go box. He transferred the uneaten half of his sandwich and his slice of pie into it, and pushed it across the table. “For tomorrow.”

“I’ll pay you back once I get my stipend.”

“Don’t worry about it. I enjoyed the company. Do you need me to walk you to your dorm?”

“Oh, no. I got this. Really. I feel much better. Once I find my room and get settled, everything will be great.”

“What building?”

“No idea. They said it was off campus a few blocks. I’m the slacker who was late for registration, remember?” She pulled the envelope out of her pocket and recited the address.

He reached for the duffel bag. “You shouldn’t go wandering around in the dark alone.”

She took the strap and settled it on her own shoulder. “Look. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me today. You bought me dinner, and that was kind of an extravagant thing to do. I don’t want you to have…expectations. I’m not my mother. I can take care of myself.”

He looked puzzled, then shocked. Her face flamed. “Okay. Wow. I just say way too much. I’m seriously going now.”

She tried to side step him but he threw up a hand to stop her. “People can be kind or helpful without expecting anything in return. I hope you’ll get used to it after a while.”

She let him lead the way down the dark streets to a neighborhood that never would have made it into the glossy university brochure.

Well, Dad, that was humiliating. I guess you saw it all. Since I’m acting under the assumption that somehow you can see me and hear me, I also have to believe you’ve been watching and know what’s been going on since you died.

That means you know about the men in Mom’s life, so I don’t have to go into that.

He stopped in front of a faded door, and the skin on the back of her neck crawled with the feeling someone was watching them as she fished out her key. She tried to keep her voice cheerful. Grateful. “Thanks for everything. See you in class on Tuesday.”

The doorknob rattled loosely as she turned the key. She hurried inside, shut the door against the perceived prying eyes, and flipped on the light switch. Tears welled up in her eyes as she surveyed the living room and kitchen.

The ancient stove was missing three of its four knobs. The sofa sagged, and three mismatched chairs were grouped around the scarred table. She and her belongings didn’t seem to take up any room, even in the modest space. She dragged the bags into the bedroom.

Sheets and a thick, heavy coverlet lay folded at the foot of the narrow bed. The casement window on the opposite wall was open a few inches; when she turned the crank, she discovered that was as far as it would shut. The weather was still warm. Maybe it wouldn’t matter, at least for a while.

She made the bed, took off her boots, and fell asleep with the lights on.

***

The next morning, Careen ate half the slice of pie, and then walked to campus and spent a few hours exploring, knowing she’d feel more confident if she knew her way around. On the return trip, she walked around the apartment complex, expecting to meet other students. The buildings appeared occupied; though she saw no one, she had the sense that she was being observed from behind the sagging blinds and dirty windowpanes. She hurried inside and shut the door.

Unpacking would help fill the afternoon that stretched before her. A glossy photo of a city skyline lay inside the top dresser drawer. When she picked it up, she noticed a small, dark disc beneath it, wedged into the joint of the drawer. A penny.

Dad, remember how you used to tell me that Grandma dropped pennies from heaven as a sign that she was watching over us? I’d give anything to believe this is a greeting from you, especially since we don’t have pennies anymore. Even if I could spend this, it wouldn’t buy much of anything. How about you drop me a debit card? Loaded, please. No idea how long it will be until my food account transfers.

Even though she took her time, the clothes and books in her duffel bag took less than half an hour to put away. She propped Dee Dat, the ragged stuffed cat that was the only relic of her childhood she’d brought with her, against the pillow on her bed.

She taped the photo on the wall above the desk, and put her half-filled notebook and some pens and pencils in the drawer.

It was Paris. She was sure.

She wedged a doorstop against the crank on her bedroom window, to make it harder for anyone to force it open from the outside, and then there was nothing left to unpack, and nothing else to do.

On Sunday, Careen went to the restaurant and ordered the least expensive thing on the menu, knowing she had to make the credit on her card last until her meal delivery resumed.

She was in no hurry to return to her empty room, so she headed toward the campus green, where clusters of students basked in the last of the summer sunshine, lying on blankets or sitting in groups around the monuments and fountains. She was too shy to make eye contact or speak to anyone. Could they know she was getting by on one meal a day?

She concentrated on being invisible as she passed a group of boys. She hadn’t gone far when she heard a rush of footsteps, and turned just in time to watch the dark-haired one leap to catch a football that was spiraling directly at her. He grinned. “I saved you.”

“No, you didn’t. I saw it coming.” She tried not to cringe at the hooted reactions from the other boys. She couldn’t relax until she was safe at home and had locked the door and closed the blinds.

Where I live doesn’t matter. Friends don’t matter. My studies are the most important thing. One day I’ll look back at this, but I won’t be laughing. I will have won.

***

On Monday morning, Careen crossed her fingers before she opened her front door. No box from Essential Services. Still no food. She sighed and got ready for class. She’d seen a coffee shop that sold bread and pastries, and all weekend she’d resisted the temptation to try it. Now, she’d have to spend more of her carefully hoarded funds.

The line was out the door. Nearly everyone carried a reusable coffee carafe with some sort of screen on it. As the line snaked forward, she watched the barista scan a carafe and load it into the brewing system’s conveyor belt. The mugs and the people moved at the same pace, picking up their orders without missing a beat.

When Careen reached the head of the line, she felt as though she was ruining the choreography, or interrupting a factory’s assembly line. “Umm, do you sell coffee in paper cups?”

The barista shrugged. “Sure. What’ll you have?”

“Just regular coffee. Small. Two sugars. And one of those—” she pointed into the pastry display case. “I’ll take the broken one.”

The line flowed past her to the right as the barista filled her order. She eyed the moving customers. “What are those coffee mug things?”

“Program-a-Gos? They’re new. You input your order on the mug’s keypad, and the brewing system here reads it and prepares it. No mistakes. Fresh coffee, untouched by human hands.” He handed her the cup and a paper bag. “You must not be from around here.”

Calculus, her first class every morning, was predictable. It would be doable.

She crossed campus to the required course Surviving Your Freshman Year. All the other students that crowded into the classroom were carrying Program-a-Go mugs.

The instructor began by asking everyone to state their names and how many times they’d called home each day since they’d arrived. Careen’s eyes widened. Surely we’re going to talk about stuff we need to know—like how to plan ahead when we enroll in classes so we can graduate on time?

Suddenly everyone was looking at her expectantly. “Umm—I’m Careen. I haven’t called home yet.”

The instructor looked shocked. “I’m surprised your mother hasn’t called campus security!”

“I’m not close with my mom.”

Silence.

“I usually talk to my dad.”

The instructor shook her head unbelievingly and moved on to the next student.

For the remainder of the class, the instructor described in detail how to resolve a conflict with a roommate or friend, cautioning that the first step was not to argue or try to solve the problem—but to immediately seek help from an adult.

There were two paths to resolve a conflict with my mom. I could either tell her she was right, or stand my ground until she wore me down, and then admit that she was right. I’m glad I don’t have a roommate. I’m going to enjoy four years with no conflicts…

When her class let out, Careen headed to the Admissions office. The same clerk was behind the counter.

“I’m here to check on the status of my Essential Services transfer.”

The clerk pecked at the keyboard and squinted at the computer screen. “It’s gone through quick, just like I said! You’ll get your next delivery on Thursday, like you did at home.”

Careen managed a smile. “Thank you.” Her stomach growled as she turned away.

On Tuesday, the lecture in her Personal Wellness class centered on nutrition; specifically, how the Freshman Fifteen was a thing of the past since the Essential Services department was responsible for planning healthy, balanced meals.

The instructor explained that as part of the coursework, they were expected to take part in some form of physical activity three times a week. She read a list of activities, and Careen was astounded how many people grumbled as they signed up for walking. She chose running.

The advertising seminar met that afternoon, and was the class she’d most been looking forward to. Dr. Rourk greeted her by name when she entered the lecture hall, and she noticed he seemed familiar with several other students as well. She got her notebook and pen out of her backpack, but when he stood behind the lectern and began to speak, she forgot to take notes.

“Advertising is a mix of art and science that finds its origins in the need to distinguish between similar products or services.

“Has anyone ever seen examples of tavern sign art? No?”

He clicked the remote to bring up slides of different colorfully painted wooden signs bearing primitive images.

“Well, a few centuries ago, taverns were independently operated, and their owners chose names like The Cross Keys or the Sign of the White Horse, to distinguish their business from others in the area. They hung painted wooden signs like these outside their establishments to attract travelers in need of a night’s lodging. Many of those travelers were illiterate, so the image on the sign influenced where they chose to eat and sleep while traveling.

“Advertising was a tool used by businesses to set a product or service apart from other similar products or services. Of course, these days, food commercials have nothing more than historical significance because we don’t make choices about which foods to buy—at least, not often enough for advertising to be necessary.

“When two things are extremely similar, advertising is used to try and make one seem more appealing than the other, often with claims that can’t be proven, like ‘ladies, men will find you attractive if you use this type of shampoo,’ or ‘you’ll have more fun if you drink a certain beer or soft drink.’

The class ended too soon for Careen. As she joined the line of students filing out of the lecture hall, Dr. Rourk caught her eye.

“Did you get everything squared away?”

“Yes,” she lied. “Everything’s fine.”

It can’t be proven that I belong here. Or can it? I’m different because everyone else acts like nothing bad can happen to them. It’s like they’re inside some kind of bubble, and I’m still in some kind of nutshell. Wish I could go dormant until they start delivering my food.

She stopped at the coffee shop on the way home, and bought a day-old baguette.

***

As the first few weeks of the semester slid by, Careen began to forget the sharp edges of life in MA-334, where frequent terrorist attacks had made life unpredictable and no one cared about anything as unnecessary as a college education. Here, in OP-439, a smart girl could go after what she wanted. She wanted someone else’s life.

Once her food deliveries resumed, she had plenty of energy. She felt strong when she ran on the track during Personal Wellness class.

She was easily managing the workload in all her classes, and looked forward most of all to Dr. Rourk’s lectures.

“How many times do you need to see a message before you start to believe it? Before you start to desire a particular product? Before you accept something as truth?”

Careen spoke out without raising her hand. “Recognition occurs after eight to ten exposures to a message. Within twenty exposures, we can be convinced we need whatever’s for sale in the ad.”

“What would happen if you were exposed repeatedly, for years, to a message?”

Another student chimed in. “We’d think about it more often.” Everyone laughed.

Dr. Rourk smiled. “Maybe we wouldn’t think about it at all. It would just become part of the landscape. Think about where you live with your family. Who can tell me: what color is your next-door-neighbor’s front door?”

About half the class raised their hands.

“Yet if you saw a photo of that front door right now, you’d recognize it. It’s in your subconscious. Just like the messages we see—and maybe even believe we ignore—all the time.”

As she walked across the campus green, Careen studied the other girls’ clothes. What kind of message am I sending to the people who see me?

The overage from her scholarship transferred to her debit account. She’d never had that much money before, but she had to make it last all semester. She’d been debating how, or if, to spend it. Now it was clear. She needed to buy a few pieces of clothing and some accessories that would put her more on par with her acquisitive peers

She needed to somehow distinguish herself from other students that, on the outside, were basically the same. How strange that to get noticed, I’m trying to make myself look more like everyone else. Once I convince everyone I belong here, I can distinguish myself. Fitting in has to come first.

Her wardrobe consisted of boots, jeans, sweaters, and t-shirts. Many of the other girls dressed as she did, but their grunge wear came from boutiques, not basement thrift shops. OP-439 was not the kind of place where people congratulated themselves on finding a bargain.

She window-shopped up and down the street until finally, she took a deep breath, pushed open the door to a boutique, and stepped inside.

At home, she lay the shopping bag on her bed and slid her fingernail under the foil sticker that held the tissue paper around one of her new sweaters, and broke the seal. The paper fell away with a luxurious rustle, and she stroked the kitten-belly soft yarn, so pristine, without a single pill or pull, and no loose stitching in the collar or cuffs. This one was a rich, deep purple. This and the others, royal blue and vibrant pink, would be bright spots among the blacks, grays, and denim staples in her wardrobe. She’d also bought a patterned scarf that went with almost everything in her wardrobe, and a messenger bag that seemed more sophisticated than the backpack she’d used in high school.

She had stared at the Program-a-Go mug display in the campus bookstore for ages before choosing black, even though it had been the pink one that caught her eye. All the girls in her classes had black mugs. So black it was.

Her outer layers were closer to reflecting who she intended to be someday.

Another week passed. Careen stood in line to have her Program-a-Go filled each morning. It was strange, like she was on an assembly line, but the other students’ faces began to look familiar. She wasn’t the girl who slowed down the line by asking for her coffee in a paper cup any longer. She belonged in the line.

By mid-October, she concluded that she might not stick out like a sore thumb anymore, but she might never truly fit in with her classmates. They took life in the Bubble for granted. They partied and skipped class. They didn’t jump at unexpected noises. They lived as though the dangers in the outside world couldn’t reach them. Careen couldn’t let her guard down. She knew the Bubble could pop at any time.

***

“Terrorists have never attacked this quadrant…” Dr. Rourk waved a few late arrivals into the lecture hall as he spoke. “…yet the threat of such an attack can influence the way we live. Today, we’ll continue to examine how propaganda plays on our fears. Our first example is a film from the Cold War era.”

Careen rummaged in her bag for a pen. As she glanced up, pushing her long brown bangs out of her eyes, a backpack swooshed into view and brushed against her Program-a-Go. She made a desperate grab and caught the mug just as it tipped over the edge of the desk. The owner of the backpack smiled as he sat down in the seat next to her.

“Nice save.” He reached over and pushed at the mug playfully, threatening to tip it over on purpose.

She flashed a quick, kind-of-exasperated smile in response and pointedly moved the mug to the other side of her desk, then turned her attention to Dr. Rourk. This was was her favorite class, and she didn’t want any distractions.

“In the 1950s, millions of American schoolchildren watched the government-produced film Duck and Cover. Was this film an effective way to teach children how to survive an atomic bomb blast? Or was it a political tool designed to perpetuate fear of our former enemy, the Soviet Union? Take a look and we’ll discuss.”

Several students giggled at the black and white cartoon, which featured a turtle in an air-raid helmet. Then the narrator spoke. “We all know the atomic bomb is dangerous, and as it may be used against us, we must get ready for it, just as we are ready for many other dangers that are around us all the time…”

Someone in the row behind Careen muttered sarcastically, “Ooh, I’m so scared…”

Careen shivered and pulled her jacket around her shoulders. On the screen, a classroom full of elementary school children listened, eagerly attentive, as their teacher warned about the impending threat of a nuclear strike.

“First, you have to know what happens when an atomic bomb explodes. When it comes—and we hope it never comes, but we must get ready—it looks something like this…”

Careen jumped at the bright flash on the screen. She shut her eyes, but it was too late to stop the panic, and she began to tremble as memories of a much more recent bomb blast replayed in her head.

“…duck and cover underneath a table or desk…”

Laughter erupted around her. “You can’t hide from a nuke under a desk.”

“Seriously, is this going to be on the midterm?”

“If my dad hadn’t pushed me behind a table that day, I’d be dead, too.” Careen spoke without thinking. Everyone turned to stare, and she shrank into herself a little.

The professor paused the video and looked up at her. “Ms. Catecher? What do you think of what you’ve seen so far?”

“Telling a bunch of little kids that if they follow directions they’ll be safe is as good as a lie. I mean, you can do everything right and still end up dead.”

A boy two rows in front of her turned around. “That’s pretty fatalistic. The OCSD is there to protect us. My father says—”

“The OCSD can’t protect us. Aren’t all the terrorist attacks proof of that?”

Another girl turned angrily toward Careen. “My father works for the OCSD, and he says they prevent a terrorist attack a week. Sometimes more. There are statistics to prove it, but they’re classified. My father says if people want to be safe, they should follow the rules.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder, pulled out her phone, and keyed in a text.

Dr. Rourk reclaimed the class’s attention. “Despite the efforts of the OCSD and other law enforcement agencies, many people have suffered losses. Over the summer, my dear friend and colleague Tom Bailey and his wife were killed in a car accident. Even though the Restriction banning most Americans from owning cars was intended to keep potential weapons out of terrorists’ hands, it seems those who were trusted with the privilege were not made any safer by the Restriction.” He paused for a moment, head bowed, before he went on. “Careen, I think everyone in the class would benefit if you would share your experience, since you are the only one in the room who has survived a bombing.”

“Not a nuclear one, but…okay. They bombed the plaza in front of my parents’ café when I was nine.” Careen dragged her fingers through her bangs and glanced around. Everyone was staring at her. And this is how I go from anonymous to oddity in 3.6 seconds. “You said the threat of an attack changes how we live, and that’s probably true, but it’s nothing compared to how you react when you’ve lived through one. I…I don’t think I can explain so any of you would get it. I’ll just…never feel safe again.” She crossed her arms on her chest.

The professor cleared his throat and clicked the remote to resume the video.

“The man helping Tony is a Civil Defense Worker. His job is to help us when there is danger of the atomic bomb. We must obey the Civil Defense Worker…”

Careen kept her eyes on her Program-a-Go for the rest of the class period, and hung back until the room had emptied. Then she approached Dr. Rourk.

“Why did you single me out like that?”

“I thought you understood. I want your voice and your experience as part of this class.”

“That wasn’t fair. I’d rather be anonymous than some kind of oddity. I can’t believe you outed me.”

“You had more sympathizers in the room than you realize. As for the others, boosting their awareness wouldn’t hurt. Many of them have led insulated lives. It’s hard to affect change unless influential people—the kind of people who could help—understand what’s wrong.”

“None of those kids are influential.”

“But their parents are. Someday, they will be, too. I’m trying to plant a seed, and I was counting on your help.”

“I don’t want to be some kind of poster child. What happened to me and my dad was random. There’s no way to prepare for random. You just have to live with it. Don’t you think I’d rather be happy and clueless?”

“Maybe it wasn’t random.”

Before she could push him to explain, his gaze had moved past her. Careen turned, and clutched her notebook to her chest. The girl who had made a big deal about her father working for the OCSD stood in the doorway, flanked by Dr. Pimentel and two men in suits Careen didn’t recognize.

Dr. Rourk smiled, but his words carried weight. “You’ll be late for your next class, Careen.”

She nodded and walked past the group at the door, glancing back as she left the lecture hall. Once she was out of the building, she ran the rest of the way home. Had Dr. Rourk known something about the bombing? She wasn’t sure what upset her more—the possibility that her father’s death hadn’t been an accident, or the look on Dr. Rourk’s face as she left. What had he meant, the attack on her father wasn’t random?

***

The advertising seminar didn’t meet again for two days. Careen stopped by Dr. Rourk’s office each morning and afternoon, but he was never in.

She hurried from lunch to his class, and as she walked down the hall, she passed several students from the class headed in the opposite direction. The boy who had sat beside her during the previous class spoke to her. “Class is cancelled.”

“Why?”

“The note on the door says Rourk had a family emergency. The class is cancelled for the rest of the semester, and we’ve all been reassigned to one of Pimentel’s history classes.”

The students flowed past her, but Careen stayed rooted to the spot. How will I ever get answers when can’t talk to either my father or Dr. Rourk?

Find out what happens next in

Counteract: Book One of the Resistance Series

Counteract: Book One of the Resistance Series (2014) is the story of a guy, a girl, the terrorist attack that brings them together, and their race to expose a conspiracy that could destroy their country from within. What Tommy and Careen learn about the true nature of the terrorist threat spurs them to take action, and their decisions lead them to run afoul of local law enforcement, team up with an underground resistance group, and ultimately take their quest for the truth to the highest reaches of the United States government.

Download it for free at: http://tinyurl.com/counteract-free-book


Spark: Careen's Prequel to the Resistance Series

Is it too much to want a fresh start? Though Careen Catecher survived a terrorist attack when she was nine, her childhood ended on that awful day. Now, nine years later, she’s ready for her life to truly begin. A full scholarship to a prestigious university far from her beleaguered home quadrant seems like a dream come true, but when she arrives on campus, she’s perceived as a charity case, despite grades and test scores that prove she’s the academic equal of the best students there. Careen knows she’s tough enough to survive just about anything, and fitting in with her acquisitive peers—at least on the surface—is necessary if she’s going to leave the past behind and claim the stable future she craves. But her past won’t stay buried. She’s only been at school for a few weeks when a cryptic message from an unlikely friend raises questions that may put her in danger all over again. Check out this novella-length prequel to the award-winning Resistance Series, “a promising new YA series about a totalitarian America.”

  • ISBN: 9780996610872
  • Author: Tracy Lawson
  • Published: 2016-10-21 13:35:15
  • Words: 7841
Spark: Careen's Prequel to the Resistance Series Spark: Careen's Prequel to the Resistance Series