2. Sociality

"Name?"

"Lay Skyler."

"Staff?"

"New Flinch."

The Community Service lady was older than most of the leftover peole still straggling behind, resisting or waiting for someone's eighteenth. Made she had one last child to wait for before her Flinch, or maybe she just didn't have the courage to go.

She held out one hand, purple-inked stamp already poised, for my record.

My record contained all of my past's information, although it was mostly Community Service data because there wasn't much else to show. Purple smudges were everywhere, the words New Flinch printed over and over across the tops of fifty plus pages in bold letters.

The Community Service lady thumbed through it, stamping as she went, and adding new pages into the mix. She handed it back without a word and pointed down the hall to her right.

I knew the drill.

Right hall, New Flinch. Left hall, Flinch-lift. There were partner assignments in the first room, then another hall to the observation room.

I nodded to the lady, a wasted gesture as she had already turned her attention to the wall, and dodged her desk to get to the hallway. The walls were bare cement, a foreboding analogy of how Unfeeling looked from the inside out. I sighed, keeping things bottled up like this was so greivous. I wondered how other people handled it so well. So well that they didn't even seem like they had a thousand burning conversations and questions itching under their skin. But they must. I was one of them, I thought what they thought. So they must.

I pushed the glass door away from its frame, entering the hollow partner assignment room. There were two other teenagers lounging against the walls, waiting for their designated Service mates to show up. The one adult beckoned me over impatiently, like I was late.

"Name and records," he barked.

"Lay Skyler," I sighed, handing him my thick folder.

He scanned a list of names attached to a clipboard, approving me. He jerked his thumb at a scrawny girl with platinum blonde hair clipped around her ears.

"Taylor Quist!" he cried, "Service mate!"

The blonde girl heaved herself onto her feet and squirmed over to us.

The man looked at us, and then at the door with a point intended, "Get going."

The girl and I walked off, awkwardly and without the knowledge of what to say to the other.

The Community Center's observation room was split into two sections by one flimsy divider, like cubicles in an old office. One section was labeled "Welcoming" and the other, "Paperwork". The wall facing the landing pad was mostly smudgy glass, so that the arrival of a Flinch would be obvious. There were four rolling chairs, all empty at the moment, divided among the two sections and two desks. Instructions for our jobs were posted on every wall twice.

Since the other pair who would be working in the second cubicle hadn't showed up yet, we were inclined to move first. Out of habit, I turned to Paperwork, a tedious, humdrum chore that was guaranteed to last the whole week. But the pros outweighed the cons, in my opinion. There was never any of the drama and action that Welcoming was always so full of, I didn't ever have to deal with Feeling, stress, or toil.

Just I as turned to the Paperwork desk, my Service mate swiveled towards the Welcoming box. I raised my eyebrows to question the girl, daring her better logic.

"I like the challenge," she said defiantly.

Groan. So she was going to be one of those kinds of Service mates. Community Service was a big enough pain without help from the types of partners that were convinced to take the hard route. When I was sure that nothing would sway her, it was there written blandly on her flinty eyes, I gave up and retreated to the second Welcoming chair. Her face was turned, but I saw her smirk out of the corner of my eye. I sighed.

"Why don't you like Paperwork? It's easier," I asked her.

"Exactly," she sniffed, "why go with the easy way out?"

"Less pain."

"Less work."

I rolled my eyes, surrendering, "I'm Lay Skyler."

"Taylor Quist." She stuck one hand out, offering a handshake. I took it but shook halfheartedly; I already didn't want to spend a whole week with her.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, until I was forced to pick up my Welcoming manual out of boredom. There were three new pages, all unique for this certain Flinch, with data numbers, the dorms we all would have to stay in for the week, and addresses to their new housing quarters. It surprised me when I recognized one of the addresses, it was below my apartment. The family that lived there must've moved on, and left their home for the extra generation's use. I took up the manual itself next, it outlined what we had to say, what questions were optional, and what route we had to take them on for the tour.

The map of Chicago was outlined with yellow lines, blue buildings, and red circles to tell us what to say and when to say it. There were always nine dozen questions that weren't in the book, but we were supposed to know when to fill in the blanks. The tour took us all over Chicago on foot, it started the day they arrived and sometimes lasted so long that the duty was transferred to next week's Welcoming staff had to take over. At the end of each day, we went downtown to the dorms. Everyone slept in one big room on hard planks with a sleeping back on each. It was uncomfortable and sore, but somebody needed to keep an eye on them through the nights.

Most people weren't too impressed; the city hadn't changed much since their time, only drabbed down. They did like some of the stories, though. The history that had happened while they were away. Even though the history got more and more muted to the point where there were barely any stories to tell, when Unfeeling took hold of the nations and the people gave up to a lesser life, they listened in earnest to know the fate of their Earth.

I yawned loudly, flipping the page to one I knew very well, the first scripted Welcome as we opened the shuttle, helped the passengers out, and lifted their baggage onto the wheely carts.

Comm. Serv. No. 1: Welcome back, friends. Your journey was courageous and a complete success.

Comm. Serv. No. 2: Please step out of the shuttle and while we help you with your things. How was your voyage? Is everyone in top shape?

(WAIT FOR RESPONSE)

Comm. Serv. No. 1: You're citizenship is a work in progress, so we ask that you stay with us for the week and tour the city. We'll answer any questions you have along the way.

Comm. Serv. No. 2: The year is 2269 and you are in Chicago, Illinois. Is there anyone we can look up for you?

(WAIT FOR RESPONSE)

Comm. Serv. No. 1: Excellent. We'll get going as soon as possible. Our names are and . We'll be your guides for your first week in the future. We look forward to getting to know you more.

Comm. Serv. No. 2: First things first, we need all of your names, and records if you have them with you. We have to get these going through the processing department before the end of the week so that you can get going in the community.

(TAKE RECORDS AND NAMES)

"How old are you Lay?" Taylor asked somewhat harshly, skimming her own Service manual like I did.

"Seventeen and two months," I replied, eyeing Taylor. She looked about fifteen. "What about you?"

"Sixteen and six months. How many to you expect we'll get on this next shuttle? I hope ten," she changed the subject.

"Ten?" Ten was the maximum they ever sent in the shuttles, although now we knew that we could send up to thirty in a single cramped Flinch.

"Yes, ten." Taylor said, "How many do you want? None?"

"That'd be great," I replied, figuring that this was an argument that wouldn't end well, and staying out might be a better thing for myself. It was the best to be on friendly terms with the person you had to eat, drink, and sleep with for a solid week.

"Well I think that'd be so boring," Taylor said after a minute, opening the argument back up.

"What do you hope for? Ten crazy Feelers that run off to the Dead countries and show up the first day we come here?"

"That would be so exciting!"

"I've done a Flinch like that. No one wants it! You don't know how it is; the people are deranged and unpredictable. You can't catch them! They ended up killing a man, and wounding seven others, just to run off to be killed themselves! It is not a Flinch anyone wants to have."

Now it was Taylor's turn to be placid as I ranted like a lunatic, "Sounds pretty challenging."

"You don't even know, Taylor," I hissed, but I was cooling off, Unfeeling strangling my minute anger. Taylor was still younger, and less experienced. She just didn't know how it was, so I couldn't blame her.

"Maybe I'm just a bit braver than you," she had a mocking edge on her voice that I ignored.

"Whatever," I retorted, blowing her off.

The day ended unproductive. I was gleeful and Taylor was glum. She was the type of person who got incredibly crabby when she didn't get her way, one the few who still managed that even with Unfeeling. I closed all of the sarcastic conversations she started just to tick me off, and signed out of the Community Service room before Taylor could even stand up.

Freedom.

I skipped home in the dusky light, loving the aloneness. Community Service hours ended at eight-thirty on a day without a Flinch. Flinches arrived from nine in morning until five in the evening, barely ever in the hours of late night and early morning.

I groaned as I thought about spending another day with Taylor Quist. The two other people called on Community Service were silent as the grave, they did nothing but listen to Taylor and I quarrel.

They had come in ten minutes after us and raised their eyebrows suspiciously at the empty seats next to the Paperwork desk. Why hadn't we taken Paperwork when we had the chance?

They spoke only once, introducing themselves as Chuck Newbury and José Ortega before slithering back to their desk at watching the empty landing pad in front of them with glazed eyes. They made no attempt to keep Taylor quiet, although I'm sure she was bothering them as much as she annoyed me.

Our apartment door wasn't locked; I let myself in and slouched to the sofa. My older brother, who was nineteen and married, sat on the couch with his wife and my father.

"No Flinch today?" Sagittarius asked, watching his feet kick the front of the couch.

"Nope."

"That's lucky. Last time I was on new Flinch the shuttle arrived half an hour after I showed up," he said distractedly.

Sagittarius, my brother, was tall and soft and thoughtful. He and his wife, Alexia, weren't the best match in my opinion but that wasn't my place. Alexia was prettier than most of the extra generations, blonde and long-legged with a turned up nose. She was incredibly impatient, and vicious when needs be. Although she was Sawyer's older sister, they didn't seem related. I secretly didn't like her, but she was my sister-in-law so I didn't say anything to anyone.

I sunk down next to Alexia on the couch, resting my head on my hands.

"I'm beat," I announced.

"Why? You didn't even have a Flinch to take care of today," Father remarked.

"Still… my Service mate was a bit… persnickety."

"Don't complain," my mother warned from the tiny kitchen, "No one is that bad. Try working with the extra generation all day long! They mope and whine all the time, I'm always so glad to see Unfeeling settle in." I heard her heave a heavy sigh, and then she strode into the living room, wiping her hands off on a dishtowel. "I really shouldn't say those things," she sighed again, "because their lives must've been so hard back then, with all the Feeling and wars. We have it good here."

Everyone nodded in approval, and Sagittarius was quick to change the subject.

"Sawyer was on Community Service today, wasn't he, Lay?"

I cringed, I had purposefully avoided his company in going to the Community Center in the morning, but I'd forgotten all about him on the way back. He was probably still waiting in front of Building B for me. Unless he already got his Flinch, and was in the dorms.

"I forgot about him," I moaned softly, getting stern, disapproving looks from everyone, even Sagittarius.

"Do you think he got his Flinch?" I asked, half curious and half changing the subject again.

"Maybe."

"I don't know."

"Guess we'll see."

Everyone lost interest in the topic, and turned their thoughts somewhere else. Unfeeling made us uncaring quickly, and unable to focus thoroughly. My father stood, and paced into the kitchen, Mother following and muttering into his ear. I sighed, because I knew what they were discussing. I could almost make up their conversation, even though I couldn't hear it.

She forgets things too easily, Leona. She might not be worth it, Father would convince my mother.

But it is less than a year away. Who is to say that we won't need all the strength we can get?

Leona. The girl doesn't have strength. That's what I've been telling you.

My mother would sigh loudly, and go about a simple task in the kitchen, while she was really sorting the pros from the cons.

Larger numbers though, Marcum. If there is a battle, we want the greatest advantage.

Battle? What sort of a battle could we win with one other soft girl? Father would laugh at Mother, making her angry and belligerent.

She's your daughter, too, Marcum. I can't hold all of the responsibility for her.

You won't need to if we Flinch a bit early, she'll be safe here with Sawyer and the Flanneries.

Sawyer! What about Sawyer? He's young and strong; he would be a welcome addition to our Flinch!

Well don't the good things outweigh the bad ones? Leaving Sawyer might be a sacrifice, but it is a risk we'd have to take!

I don't know…

Think it over, Leona. Father would put a hand on Mother's shoulder, almost comfortingly.

I know, I know. I will. And Mother would be wrapped up in my father's words. They made sense to her. They made sense to me. She'd wipe her hands with the dishcloth again, and then head outside to watch me, to see if I had worth.

I was still on the sofa; Sagittarius and Alexia had left a minute ago for their couple dorm on the floor above. I was making up the vicious, desperate conversation that my parents were having on the other side of the sound proof wall, when my mother came out, just as I'd anticipated. She was absently drying her hands with a dishtowel, slowly and methodically as she stared at me.

I turned my head, like I didn't notice, but I could feel her cold, Unfeeling eyes. The hairs on my arms prickled involuntarily, like they had in my dream, but there was no reassuring dream conscience in the back of my head. I squirmed uncomfortably, even though this was my mother.

The door banged open, saving me and distracting Mother. Sawyer stood, a light smile on his lips, in the doorway. He closed the door behind himself and came to greet my mother and I.

"Lay!" he exclaimed, "Leona!"

"Good evening, Sawyer," I replied evenly, "How was Community Service?"

"Fine, thank you," we went into the old ways of the extra generation, a delightful, scripted thing. "I'm in Paperwork, with a mate named Rebecca. The other two are nice folks, Hugh and Claire. We just chatted the whole time, no action. What about you, Lay?"

"I got Welcoming. My Service mate is named Taylor. She's…" I stopped myself, and glanced at Mother from the corner of my eye, "She's different. The others were José and Chuck. We didn't talk much."

I saw my mother nod once, as if in approval, and then slip across the hall into her bedroom without a word to Sawyer.

"I waited for you for a bit," Sawyer said, after watching our mini exchange. He wasn't perplexed, even curious. He was the picture of perfect Unfeeling. "Building B, right?"

"Yes," I said, "I got out a bit early, I hope I didn't keep you waiting long."

"No, I figured you'd left after a couple minutes. No big deal."

"Good," I sighed, my mind had switched places, dropping that subject like a boring book.

"I think I'm going to bed now, I'm sleepy," I told him.

"Okay…"

I stood up, righting the pillow on the sofa before taking a step in the opposite direction, heading for my room.

"Lay," Sawyer called after me.

"Yes, Sawyer?"

"Have you… Have you given any thought to what I said yesterday? Alexia was bugging me, she told me to ask you again."

I winced, "Oh, Sawyer, I don't know! I can't make up my mind, can you?" Inside, I knew what I wanted. I wanted my family to wait so that we could all go together. I wasn't going to say this out loud, for fear of having the wrong answer in Sawyer's eyes. So I kept my answer deflective, giving it back to Sawyer.

"Not exactly," he said, "But it does make a lot of sense, doesn't it? It gives us both a chance to be happy. I don't see why we need to stick with our current family after we Flinch, we'll have a new one, right?" That was his answer, right there. It killed me, that knowledge, so I didn't let him see that I understood. He was still leaving it up to me, but I could see that my decision was the wrong one for my family and for Sawyer. That left a whole new set of questions, all involving if I would let my family go happily, or force them to stay and get my way. Unfeeling didn't let me be torn; I simply tried out all of the possibilities each in turn.

"I'll sleep on it, maybe I'll think of the right answer in the morning, Sawyer. I can't do anything about it now, though. I'm too tired," I said, which was only a half-truth. I was tired.

I waved over my shoulder, not letting him reply anything besides "Good night" and wandered into my bedroom.

I changed into my pajamas robotically, and was in bed without remembering climbing under the covers.

Sleep was just behind my closed lids, and I brought it on like inhaling air. Hours ticked by on the second hand, time was distorted by dreams that I didn't remember and the taste of sleep on an early morning tongue.

I thought that it was my alarm clock that brought me out of a midnight reverie, but it was the soft trill of my telephone, echoing only for me to hear.

It was illegal to let a telephone ring in the night, because the calls were all the important kind. I threw myself across the bed to reach for the phone, sleepy fingers still dragging me back to the pillow.

"Hello?" I gurgled into the mouthpiece, laying the receiver on my shoulder so that my head could balance it.

"Lay Skyler?" A sharp voice whisked through the line.

"We need you at the Community Center," the female voice commanded, "There is a late night shuttle that just came in on Landing Pad B. We haven't touched it yet, that's your job. How fast can you get down here?"

I scrutinized my appearance for a millisecond.

"Five minutes?"

"Make it two," she said quickly, and the line went dead with a loud click.

I jumped up, exchanging my pajamas quickly for the clothes I had been wearing yesterday. I pulled a comb through my hair while slipping on my shoes. The clock said two forty-one when I was knotting my shoelaces. I jumped up, knowing the pressure of the situation and sprinted for the door as quietly as I could manage on hurried feet.

I spun when I reached the door, though, and scribbled the words "EARLY MORNING FLINCH" on an old paper of Sagittarius's, then ran for the exit again.

I was outside in a flash, I couldn't remember if I even shut the apartment door or not, and was on the next street before I thought it was possible. The street was dark, but lit by an iron lamp at the end of the row.

I was soft-muscled and not a runner, so I was wheezing when I finally reached the Community Center.

The door was ajar, thankfully. I probably would've run into it if someone hadn't thought to pull it open. I tumbled through, not stopping until I reached the exit to the landing pad in the observation room.

The big shuttle was just sitting there, all shut off and silent, but I knew that there were at least five terrified extras in there that must think the world had ended. I tripped along to the back of the huge vehicle, to the one door that opened on the outside. There was an emergency hatch on the inside, but it would take a while for any of the extra generations to figure anything like that out.

I found Taylor already there, typing into the keypad and lifting the restraints and levers to the hatch.

"Hello, Taylor," I mumbled breathlessly, helping her lift a wrench-lever from its locking position. My fingers were too weak to be of any help, I just followed her hands and copied her movements without effort.

"Just move your hands, Lay," she yapped, starting on another row of combinations.

I let my arms drop wearily, and watched Taylor finish the project. She moved quickly and irritably, I could sense the grouchiness from her lack of sleep. Her hands rattled the locks off one by one, impatiently, until there was only one left. The air lock.

Taylor pressed her hand firmly into the safety-catch, almost reverently, and released it just as deliberately.

The heavy, circular door released as slowly as usual. I spun away from itself in a snail shell curly-cue. The oxygen lock caught at the end, like a quick gasp before the climax of a movie. Then, with a sigh, the door made its final rotation, revealing its treasure buried inside.

The shuttles were fairly plain; you couldn't be too extravagant when you were mass-producing. There were two long, hard plastic benches lining the spaceship, overhead cabinets for luggage, and tall compartments for food, water, and emergency oxygen stores. The lighting came from one, long dim EverLast light bulb that stretched across the low ceiling and cast its shadowy glow over the heads of seven weary passengers who were staring at Taylor and I like the aliens they had learned not to believe in.

It would be an easy shuttle, I could see that much from just studying their cautious faces. Only the three towards the back appeared to have any leftover spark of Feeling at all.

The front four were all part of one family. There were two pale, golden-haired parents, wearing looks of pre-mastered Unfeeling. Gray pores on gray faces that held no expression besides the traditional lined mouths of losing Feeling. A pair of little, pale-haired daughters sat next to the mother and the father, obedient and still like any good Unfeeling children. I approved immediately, and my eyes skipped to the next girl who sat directly next to the small girls.

She was maybe twenty, African-American, and dressed in a winter parka even though it wasn't cold. There were blue braid extensions added to her own black hair that twisted around her shoulders like creeping vines. She had Feeling still, it was easy to pull the aura off of her subtly glowing skin. I had confidence, though. It should be only a day or two before she was as Unfeeling as me.

The last two sat in the farthest corner of the shuttle, underneath dark, blackened shadows where the dim fluorescent bulb's light wouldn't reach. Their fire of Feeling still burned, I recognized grimly.

I could see that it was a boy and a girl, both in their teens or very early twenties.

They watched us more suspiciously than the other five, their eyes lit with more Feeling and intelligence.

The girl surprised me by being beautiful.

The girl was caramel-blonde, with enormous doe's eyes. Her hair was worn straight down, and her bangs were thick and long and parted over her forehead, sweeping down to cover her right eye completely. Her clothes were extra retro, a red bull's eye was painted on her white tee shirt, and shocking jeans that were dyed brighter red than blood. Her earrings were massive hoops that made my earlobes ache just watching them hang there.

And the boy continued to surprise me, because he was even more beautiful than the girl.

The boy looked older than the girl by a few years. He was tall and fair-skinned with hair that was windblown around his face, even coming from the windless shuttle. It was the deep, absolute color of ink and his eyebrows matched extremely. His body was remarkably long and slender, with extra lean, willowy limbs. His clothes were even more retro-chic than the girl's. He wore a loose tee shirt over a tight-armed long sleeve. You wouldn't think that such a slight frame might have muscles, but then you looked under the tight-fitting shirt that accented his surprisingly menacing, sinewy muscles that ribbed up his arms. His long, slim thin-legged jeans made a show of his tall, slender legs. He was all eyes.

But their faces were so difficult to look away from, that their alienism and striking strangeness didn't even faze me. They were both more beautiful than any other extra generation I would yet to have seen, prettier than Sawyer and Alexia. Good looks were a thing that just came up randomly now; they were not a tool for attraction like they had been a hundred years ago. But still… their faces drew me in. Overwhelmed me.

The girl's features were blended, smooth and feminine, with a single brown freckle painted a centimeter above her mouth. She would be heart breaker in the extra generation, if not here in the common generation.

But the boy defied her. His eyes were a good part of his face, blinking deep and stunning and forever celestial. They were the fairest crystal blue, like they had been washed out in the rain. All of his facials were perfect, chiseled deep and long into his thin face. His slim eyebrows arched severely over scowling, nocturnal-sized eyes. His features were sharp and slender, with aggressively bladed cheekbones that outlined the hollows under his eyes, full, delicate lips, and a tough, square jaw that framed his lovely face. His black eyelashes were so long that they touched his cheekbones when he blinked, dripping ominous black shadows down his flawless face.

In studying their features, I realized that I'd made a terrible mistake when I first judged them. They were more Feeling than the dark-skinned girl, more Feeling than I'd ever expected. The glow radiated off their skin like radio waves, lit their lovely eyes and shimmered the air that surrounded them.

They might be trouble.

"Welcome back, friends. Your journey was courageous and a complete success." Taylor's voice shattered my aspiring thoughts, cutting the silence with a tongue that was double-edged.

I recovered, shut my mouth, and then opened it on the familiar dialogue we'd been trained for, "Please step out of the shuttle while we help you with your things. How was your voyage? Is everyone in top shape?"

In the space where we were to wait for a response of health from the Flinchers, nobody moved. This was how it always went, so Taylor and I climbed in the shuttle to help them stumble out. I offered the young, pale mother my arm, she took it willingly enough, and reached for the hand of her nearest daughter. The girl stood mechanically, her hand wrapping around the mother's. They faltered along after me and Taylor, who was helping the short black youth out.

Taylor went on with the script, "You're citizenship is a work in progress, so we ask that you stay with us for the week and tour the city. We'll answer any questions you have along the way."

"The year is 2269 and you are in Chicago, Illinois. Is there anyone we can look up for you?" I recited, stripping exact text from the manual.

There was another silence intended for the new arrivals to give us the names they wanted us to search for them, but they were quiet once again. Taylor returned to the shuttle for the second young girl, and I followed after her. The father was stepping out, shaken obviously, but proud enough not to accept the help of a short, teenage girl. I turned to the other two, sticking out an elbow as a suggestion. The boy was standing, impossibly longer and leaner than I'd first observed, and presented the girl a long fingered hand. She took it without a word, and let him help her up. They slid past me, careful to not make contact. The boy moved on the balls of his feet, or maybe half rose onto his toes, giving him an arch, floating grace as he lugged the tripping female along after him.

I shrugged and followed them out as Taylor continued.

"Great. We'll get going as soon as possible. Our names are Taylor," she pointed to herself, "and Lay. We'll be your guides for your first week in the future. We look forward to getting to know you more."

I scrambled for my line, "First things first, we need all of your names, and records if you have them with you. We have to get these going through the processing department before the end of the week so that you can get going in the community."

I stepped back into the shuttle when I remembered their luggage; it was always scanty and light, and swung open an overhead cupboard.

The bags inside were small, easy to lift out and hand to Taylor, the pretty-faced boy, and the father who were all waiting outside politely.

I made four, silent trips back and forth to get the seven tiny suitcases, three backpacks, and two little-girl-sized purses out of the storage cabinets.

TAKE RECORDS AND NAMES. I quickly remembered the directions on the bottom of the Welcoming page and so I repeated my lines; "We need all of your names, and records if you have them with you. We have to get these going through the processing department before the end of the week so that you can get going in the community."

They were silent still, challenging each other with their eyes as they stared around from person to person.

Taylor grew impatient, "Names, please?"

"Gabrielle Tide." It was the pretty, Feeling girl with caramel hair. The gorgeous boy next to her threw her a sharp glare.

Taylor drew the sticky-backed, blank nametags from her manual where she was keeping them like a bookmark.

"Can you spell that for me?"

"G-a-b-r-i-e-l-l-e T-i-d-e."

Taylor scribbled in on the tag for her, ripped the backing off, and slapped it down on the front of Gabrielle's tee shirt. She raised her eyebrows. "And you?" She asked the man and his blonde-haired family.

"Arnold Golar. G-o-l-a-r. That's Jordan," he pointed to his wife, then at the little girls, "and Judy and Kayla." Taylor threw them their nametags.

"Penuche Bryce." The black girl with blue braids spoke up with a Brooklyn accent, one I didn't hear too much. Taylor made her spell the name twice before she handed her a nametag.

Taylor and I both swiveled expectantly to the appealing boy.

"Brooke London." Each syllable sounded as if he was singing it in a startlingly appealing voice. Each sound was a different a cappella note, exquisite even without his honeydew tenor and dulcet intonation. Carried beneath was a lone, crystally undertone of an accent, a swift European bell that only added to the singing charade. I could barely detect what was left of it; it only subtly rounded the rough edges of the American tongue. I didn't recognize the accent, so I heard myself asking, "Where are you…?"

"France," he replied in the same singsong as before. He reached out and accepted the last nametag from Taylor.

"France?" Taylor asked disbelievingly, "France went under in the 2062 bombing. Nobody survived." She frowned, "Besides, even if you had stayed alive, you'd be sixty or seventy by now."

Brooke raised one eyebrow, "We left in 2070, I was nineteen."

Taylor and I gasped, locking shocked gazes for a minute before training our eyes on Arnold and Jordan.

"Is that true?" Taylor demanded.

The Golar parents nodded in unison, "What's the problem?"

"The Flinches we're currently receiving have all been from 2158 or later. We haven't had a first extra Flinch in… at least one hundred years. Maybe longer."

"We thought you were all gone," I added quietly, in awe.

"We were one of the last shuttles they were offering, it was then or never," Gabrielle piped up, "Are we really that old?" she sounded extremely perplexed as she glanced up at Brooke for reassurance. He didn't offer any, just wrinkled his forehead.

"So what has happened to the people from our time? Some left this morning, last week…?" he trailed off, guessing.

"They're gone," I muttered, and Taylor nodded Unfeelingly. "All the better, though. Plenty of new friends here in the common generation." Taylor added, something we were encouraged to say, to apply Unfeeling in thick amounts. Penuche looked troubled, the Golars stayed blank. Nobody spoke up in protest, so we carried on.

"It's about three fifteen in the morning, so we're going to all go down and get some rest. Maybe they'll even let us sleep in a bit," Taylor announced.

"Where are we supposed to go?" Jordan proposed, "We have no money."

"The dorms for a week with us, by then you'll be registered for your own apartment."

"Just like that? No money?" Her voice was shocked.

I shook my head, "Money stopped working out a few decades ago. There are ration scans and supply records now."

"Doesn't anyone steal?" Penuche wondered.

"They used to," I told her thoughtfully, "But the police are too good. They're always caught."

Arnold whistled under his breath, but the noise didn't manage to sound that impressed. Impression was an inherited trait from Feeling. "I 'spose that we have some more to learn about the future then."

Taylor nodded dismissively, "We'll explain in the morning. Right now we're all supposed to be asleep. C'mon, Lay. We need to go get our things from our apartments," she turned back to the group. "You woke us up, you see."

"We're sorry," Gabrielle stated solemnly, but everyone else disregarded the last comment.

Taylor ignored her, "You see those little cameras?" Taylor and I pointed to the black lenses trained on us, "A few of our friends are watching you right now. We're going to leave, but you all just stay here and act like humans. I don't want any problems from a single one of you."

She glared at them each in turn, the tiny girls included.

The seven new arrivals all nodded, but I saw Brooke and Gabrielle exchange a heavy look. I might have to keep a closer eye on them, I thought.

I turned away without a word, and Taylor caught up to me backwards, still keeping both of her eyes on the seven we were leaving behind.

"I think we got a pretty good Flinch," she remarked when I held the door open, and she finally turned around to walk regularly.

"Yeah," I said.

"The Golars are pretty normal already, but those two, Gabrielle and Brooke, they might actually put up a fight. I've never had to go on an extra-chase. Might be worthwhile.

My eyes widened into full, horror-struck rings, "What?" I yelped, "You want them to fight back?"

"Well that might be more fun… Oh, stop looking at me like that. We'll catch them, easy. Don't you ever want a little bit more action in Community Service ever? Something a bit less boring than Unfeeling?"

"No!" I exploded, flushing with anger, "No, I do not want a more Feeling group! Have you lost your mind? I've been there! Done that! It isn't as glamorous as you think, Taylor. Even the police couldn't catch the whole group."

"Three of the six, right?" Taylor raised her blonde eyebrows.

I sighed, defeated. I had failed to make her see it my way once again. She was an utterly new species of human. More Unfeeling than me, but equipped with a terrifying glut of Feelings like excitement and mischief.

"Chill out, Lay," Taylor snickered, edging away onto the backstreet as we entered the outdoors, "I'm just a little bored." She spun around and ran down the alley, away from me. "See you in two minutes!" she yelled.

I humphed, but gave up and walked down my own dark street. Fear was a feeling that nobody got that much, only in the presence of pain or an overexcited extra generation that was still in possession of some dangerous Feelings. The darkness had scared some younger extra generations that I remembered, but I could never see why. I studied the blackness around me, but in it I found no danger. It was irrational to believe in evil things that hid behind buildings, lurked in the coverage of blue-black shadows. The police would score out anything like that, even though it didn't exist. Darkness was only a change in the light, a cooler, more thoughtful period of the day.

I climbed my apartment stairs with two glowing, beauteous beings on my mind, even though I tried to extinguish theirs images.

The door was left opened when I reached it; I scowled and shut it quietly behind me. Everybody appeared to be in place still, no one was disturbed in my surely noisy departure.

I went to my room and found the duffel bag I kept under my bed for instances like these.

A week's worth of clothing and toiletries found their way into the bag, a blanket, a notebook, and a pair of shoes. I turned back on my bedroom, scanning for something that I had missed. My eyes fell upon my soft, unmade bed.

My back prickled when I thought of lying on the hard platforms we'd be sleeping on for an entire week. The sterilized sleeping bags were warm, but not much in the comfort department. A sleepy wave of lethargy swirled around me, drawing me to the ruffled surface of my bed like a magnet.

My mind made excuses. Just for one minute. Just to rest my eyes. I shook off the greedy thoughts. I have to go now.

I found my scratchy, not detailed note face down on the corner of the counter. I hurried to write a more specific letter, but still kept it hasty. I threw my first note in the wastebasket with my left hand as my right began to write.

A late night Flinch arrived for us.

I'm already gone, room 418 in building F if you need me.

Have a nice week.

-Lay

I flew to the door, carefully closing it behind me before running for the stairs. I'd been at home for a good ten minutes, and Taylor only allowed me two. She'd be cross.

The running woke me up again, but I could just imagine how satisfying the hard cots would look as soon as we were in the dorm complex.

My breath had failed me by the time I reached the Community Center. There was a stitch under my ribs, but I walked in, cautious of Taylor's temper. Everyone was gathered in the front office, around the night watch and Taylor. She had a similar bag draped over one shoulder, and an irate glare set on her face.

"Nice of you to show up, Lay," she commented sourly. I frowned minutely, but went to help her sign everybody out and get things moving.

The night watch, a thin, grayed man, spoke grimly from the front desk, "I'm sorry, but no police are on shuttle duty at this hour. Looks like you'll have to walk to the dorm building." He didn't sound too sorry, just Unfeeling.

"That's all right," Taylor said, "It's not that far."

Luckily, it wasn't that far of a walk. Our Community Center was close enough to the downtown dorms; sometimes we didn't even get lifts from the police shuttles during daylight hours.

"Nobody's afraid of the dark?" I asked, looking especially at the two young ones. They might be a problem. But Jordan shook her head, "We're all fine." And we headed into the dark without further ado.

Penuche glanced around curiously at the tall structures and surroundings.

"We'll tour these parts tomorrow morning," I said to Penuche, "It's dark now and we all need our sleep." Penuche nodded absently. I noted that her light was already wavering, casting doubtful shadows on her Feelings every other minute. Fabulous. I turned to the pretty pair, I didn't like to look at them because of their absolute Feeling, and found them unchanged. Brooke was leaning over Gabrielle's shoulder, speaking into her ear in a low, purring tone. Oh well. They'd be the same as us in a manner of days and hours.

The dorm building loomed above its neighbors, menacing black concrete in the dull lighting form the moon. The door was opened, but a night hand slouched behind the counter to check papers and legitimacy.

"Night Flinch?" she guessed uncaringly.

We all nodded, and Taylor went forward with the records and paperwork.

"Taylor?" the girl behind the counter squealed.

"Wha… Kaija! I didn't even recognize you! Since when are you working nights? That must be torture." Taylor knew the girl from somewhere, they continued rudely for some long, solid moments.

"We'd better get up to our dorm," Taylor finally said, starting to be bored by Kaija's monotonous drabble.

"Go right ahead, Taylor."

"Good night."

"'Night."

"You know her?" I asked when we were on the stairs, heading to the third story, a fair climb.

"From public school," Taylor replied dryly.

"Public school?" I gasped.

Public school was unheard of. Only for the poor people who were struggling because their parents hadn't been given any sort of job. Times were getting worse, since the population was accelerating out of control, but public school was still only for the extra generation's children in bad times.

"Yes."

"Are you… are you an extra?" I asked hesitantly. It wasn't too personal of a question, but something about Taylor made me not want to ask. She surprised me by being very nonchalant about it; she was perfectly cool as she shrugged.

"I once was. My family Flinched here in 2261. I was eight, but I went to public school until I was fourteen."

"You weren't legal for six years?"

"Well… we Flinched illegally. It took us a while to sort everything out with the law."

"Flinched illegally?" I blurted rudely.

We were on our floor now; Taylor was searching the room numbers for 418. She turned to glare at me, but quickly resumed counting door.

"I have five brothers."

"Five?"

"Five," she said matter-of-factly.

"Wow," I breathed. Three children was the law in extra times. I'd never seen anybody come with more than four, and that was risking it. Six must have been impossible. I felt slightly awed.

The seven ghosts behind us were as silent as the grave, probably lost in their own complicated thoughts at the moment.

"Four eighteen," Taylor announced, stopping so abruptly that Arnold, one of the little girls, and I all bumped each other slightly.

Taylor unlocked the door with a key Kaija must've given her and we all followed each other inside, inspecting our room.

It was the lightest gray cement, not like the dark concrete in the halls. There were fifteen hard, plasticy cots lining two of the walls, with a brown and red sterile sleeping bag rolled atop each one. The bathroom door was shut, but I knew to expect fifteen clean towels and washcloths, fifteen tiny bars of ivory soap, and fifteen toothbrushes and mini toothpastes. Twelve was usually the maximum, but they were always prepared. Besides all that, the room was bare; bare shelves along the walls for bags and possessions and empty laundry baskets for the end of the week.

The sleeping platforms didn't look as appealing as I thought that they would, but the bundled up sleeping bags did hold some promise.

I dove for the bathroom, but felt rude, then paused. "Who is up for the bathroom first?" I glanced at it longingly, but I knew that the new arrivals had just gone through such a tough time that they deserved it probably. Brooke snickered, and Gabrielle shut him up with an elbow in the gut.

"You can go first, Lay," Brooke sang, not offering a chance for the others to speak up. The Golar family looked disgruntled, but not up to arguing and Penuche just stared at the floor like it had just tried to bite her.

"Taylor?" I questioned, but I really wanted her answer to be no.

"Thanks, Lay," she scoffed, taking advantage in my opinion. She flounced off the bathroom with her duffel in one hand. She practically skipped to rub it in. Brooke and Gabrielle scowled after her, but it was wasted because I forgave her.

Taylor didn't take long; she was out of the bathroom in three minutes flat, dressed in plain green pajamas straight and white socks. She didn't say one word to me; just threw a sort of disbelieving glance at Brooke and then flopped onto the closest cot. She unrolled the sleeping bag around herself, a difficult maneuver, and was breathing in a relaxed quality before I could even look at the bathroom.

I raised my eyebrows at the other seven, offering them the chance to go first again out of politeness. Brooke loped forward sarcastically, a painful attribute from the extra generation that I saw no humor in, and drove one slim hand into my shoulder to force me into the bathroom. He closed the door behind me, ignoring my fierce, shocked expression.

I dressed and washed as quickly as possible, but exhaustion dragged me down. I marveled at how delicious the warm water felt as it tumbled over my cupped hands. I made myself finish, and unlocked the door so that I could hurry back to bed. Morning time wouldn't be easy, there was too much sleep lost in one night.

I stalked around Brooke and Gabrielle, for a reason that I didn't know, but bid Penuche and the Golars good night before flying to my sleeping bag. It was unfolded in record time, and I tucked myself in with a satisfied sigh. Sleep dragged my eyelids back down, but somehow it evaded me as I listened to Jordan and her two daughters clatter around in the little powder room. It was somewhat soothing, the stir of water, the sound of bare feet on cool concrete. I listened until they were done, finding their sleeping bags and falling into them like they suddenly couldn't keep themselves standing.

Gabrielle followed, and returned in silk pajamas the same blood red color as her pants had been. I was shocked to see her arms under the spaghetti strap tank top; they were muscled and tight, almost like a boy's. She sighed, wished us a whispered good night and let her creamy hair fan across the sleeping bag under her head. Her eyelids blinked heavily, she looked like she was defying sleep for a minute, but surrendered to the sweet, lazy haze that closed our eyes involuntarily.

Arnold followed Gabrielle; he slept on top of his bag like he just didn't have the energy to unroll it, and began to snore in a soft, rhythmic pattern.

Lastly, Brooke came out, clad in a thin white tank top and baggy gray pants, cinched tightly around his thin waist. Again his out-of-place muscles surprised me on his skinny arms. But they were even more threateningly than Gabrielle's. He float-walked to the bed next to Gabrielle's, the two away from everyone else's, and unrolled the sleeping bag quietly. He perched nimbly on the edge first, watching Gabrielle's sleeping form as if to make sure he approved. He saw something written on her elfin face, and relaxed limply onto his back. His long arms folded behind his head, and his cosmic eyes slid closed in a strange sense of loss. His stiffness eased away and his even breathing became audible. He didn't snore like Arnold, but somehow his whispered breathing turned to a song like his voice. He lulled me to sleep, a surprisingly difficult thing to do for one so tired.

With the last of my energy, as Brooke's sighing killed off the last runaway threads of my hyperactivity, I wished for something. I wasn't really awake anymore, but I was conscience enough to know that I wasn't dreaming. It came as the last bit of a nighttime thought, one that had more to it before, but I didn't remember that part. It was an echo, a phrase caught halfway between to winds, sweeping by each other in opposite directions. The words made sense once, but the breeze tore them, made them illegible in my head.

I wished for them. Gabrielle. Brooke. Two strangers that I didn't wish to help. But I wished for them. Then I closed my eyes, and Brooke finally got his way and sang me to sleep.

A dorm worker woke us up, the usual way that they did it. My brain tried every technique it knew to shut back off, to rest. My eyes felt just as heavy as they would if I had been woken up ten minutes after I'd fallen asleep, so I had no way of knowing if they had let us sleep in or not.

At first all the people in the room were strangers, I had to sort through random names and faces for each person before anything came to me. I was satisfied that they were all part of the Flinch, and that they'd all be Unfeeling by tonight if I was lucky.

I heaved myself onto an elbow to observe what one night's rest had one to effect the three with leftover Feeling. Penuche muttered groggily her herself, trying to wake up. Gabrielle kneeled on Brooke's bed, digging her hands into his shoulders to him moving. They appeared the same as before.

Penuche was wavering between Feeling and Unfeeling like a tower that swayed, ready to topple with the slightest persuasion.

Brooke and Gabrielle… weren't giving up that easy. It was clear that they loved each other. What kind of a bond that was, I didn't know, but danger screamed off of the pair them like flashing neon lights.

Love was such an odd Feeling. In my observations of the extra generation, I diagnosed it as a mental illness, a disease. It drove people mad on the inside, eating holes in their organs like parasites. I felt pity for the ones who gave themselves over to the emotion, too weak to resist. I'd seen it dozens of times in the new arrivals. They sacrificed themselves for the ones they thought that they "loved", and were arrested by the police in return. Usually the person that they had given themselves up for was caught, too, or they were the one to turn the other over in the first place. I could say that it was their own fault.

But I also decided that love was almost like Unfeeling. It had the opposite effect, one that was surely less desirable, but maybe it worked the same way. I couldn't speak for myself, I knew too well to ever fall for love, but the idea appeared similar on those that I had watched.

Love ate emotions up, twisting them until they all tasted of the same thing. When it took hold, it was tricky to shake, maybe impossible. Unfeeling was like the same type of virus, but with a different cell structure. It ate things alive, and then concreted them until it made a new person. One made a lovesick fool, the other made an emotionless ghost. If only there were a vaccine to the first.

Something must be done about Brooke and Gabrielle. Soon.

Taylor was up, chatting to the dorm worker dryly. She was dressed already, but she was still rumpled like she meant to be asleep.

I watched Jordan return from outside with her little daughters and walk sullenly back to the cots to attempt to wake her husband again. The two girls sat on the end of a bed, and watched with eyes of glass. They were the most Unfeeling children I'd ever seen. They were gray spirits, voiceless and blind. They only qualified as alive because their bodies were convinced that their organs were still pumping and there couldn't be anything going wrong inside of them.

I yawned and stretched, disturbed, but not enough to check myself. I craved a lazy day even though I was guaranteed a busy one.

"Where to first?" I asked Taylor and hopped out of my sleeping bag to search my duffel for today's clothes. The air had no temperature; it was dry and motionless, pleasant.

"Back to the Community Center," she decided, "we never got to explain all of that."

"Good idea."

I skidded into the bathroom with my necessary goods, jumping into the shower with more enthusiasm than I'd had all week. Taylor or Jordan had used the shower before me, the floor was wet, and there was a sudsy bar of soap left on the tray. I hoped that warm watcher would last for my turn and the others who were planning on showering after me.

I turned to dial and let my skin soak up a hundred pounds of liquid stress reliever. My mind eased, almost as if I was asleep, and I let go of common, petty worries. Complete Unfeeling evaded my barely-conscience mind, and for one split second I wished to be like Brooke, Gabrielle, and Penuche for a day. Just a day, to be able to Feel. Perhaps I could cure them after I'd Felt, I could cure everyone. But then I'd know what drove them insane. It didn't seem like it hurt, they were decidedly at peace with love and hate when it wasn't driving them to vicious extremes.

Unfeeling returned, after fading at the exact moment that I needed it, and I was horrified at myself. All former peace drained out of me, ran down my sides with the shower water, and pooled at my feet. I flipped the dial back off, and watched the last of the water slide down the drain hole like molten crystal ribbons.

I changed into myself, and I met the day dully, without enthusiasm. I dressed in my soft, colorless clothes and left my hair wet so that the others would have enough time in the bathroom.

"It's someone else's turn," I called to them, and Penuche slithered in behind me, already waiting by the door.

"We need to be out of here in five or ten minutes," Taylor reported, studying her maps and manual, "As soon as possible."

"Okay."

I sat on my bed, without anything to do but wait. Wait and watch.

Brooke and Gabrielle caught my attention and I turned to inspect them for the first real time this morning. They sat very close, huddled together, and were talking seriously. The words didn't carry enough for me to hear, but the tones of their voices came musically over to my spot on the platform.

I let myself be mesmerized for a minute, watching their faces with amazement. Last night it had been dark, they were even prettier in the light. I compared them with Arnold and Jordan, trying to see what gave them more beauty. It was as difficult to pick out what made them different, as it was easy. They were all just humans, with the same face structures and shapes, but there were a thousand differences, plain and evident in the space between them.

Gabrielle and Jordan were both women, but Gabrielle was distinctly more feminine than Jordan. Her chin was small, her face round and soft-featured. The plains of her cheeks showed delicately where Jordan's didn't, and her eyes rebelled against viability. The aliveness there, the light, was only something that made her all the more striking.

Arnold was bigger fellow, but he seemed all the more porky when compared to Brooke. Brooke was so slender and trim, but he couldn't be called fragile. Something about him made him seem less breakable than even Arnold or Taylor. Arnold's face had no character; it was all flesh, baggy eyes, and a squat nose. Brooke's face was all angles, slopes, and a mixed element of fire and ice. Where Arnold's face was round, Brooke's was straight, where Arnold's features were blended and full, Brooke's were sharp and fine.

I smirked to myself, normal people turned ugly next to the grace of Brooke London and Gabrielle Tide.

"Take a picture, it'll last longer." Taylor brushed by me, sniggering to herself.

I flushed, as Brooke, Gabrielle, Jordan, and Arnold all glanced up at the sound of her voice. I busied myself with my suitcase, but I could see Brooke studying me with interest.

Penuche returned a moment later, "Anyone else?"

"Me." Brooke got up, and lithely drifted to the bathroom.

"I'm sorry, I don't think that there is much hot water left," Penuche apologized.

"No, no. I don't mind," Brooke crooned, his accent and voice crystallizing the common words.

Taylor groaned, "Well, be quick about it! We have to get going if we want to have any free time at the end of the week."

"I'll try!" Brooke laughed melodically as he shut the door.

I shook my head. How could he still Feel here? How could he be… cheerful in conditions as gray as these, with people like Taylor Quist nagging him? I was feeling depressed for him. Maybe it was easier to be positive if you still Felt.

Taylor beckoned me to her hard platform, where she sat, brushing the cowlicks out of her short, wiry blond hair.

"We need to set up an agenda for the week. I'm thinking two, maybe three days of free time at the end."

"Three days?" I questioned doubtfully, "How are you going to manage that?"

"Listen. If we fit the Community Center and downtown in today, we can do stories and records tomorrow and finish touring downtown. Unfeeling is always on the third day, and questions follow that. I figure that if we rush things, and cram the rest of the touring process, we'll have a lot of spare time."

"Maybe."

"Lay!" she complained, glancing over my shoulder at the other people sharing our dorm. "C'mon! Help me out! We can get this over with if you put some effort into it."

"All right, all right. Why are you so eager to spend your free time with these people anyway? You know that we have to stay here with them, even if they are all Unfeeling."

"I know that."

"Then why…"

Brooke interrupted me with his arrival, he was clothed similarly to yesterday, in retro-fashionable clothes that screamed for attention. Modish, sleek black leather jacket over a shockingly blue tee shirt; faded jeans that were tight to his skin. The whole bit. He was easy to forget about when he wasn't there, but his exquisiteness was hard to ignore when he flounced into a room.

"Good! You're here!" Taylor crowed, and hopped up from the bed. She pulled out a fanny pack, packed ahead of time with all of our necessities for touring and explaining. The first day was always the worst, worse than the date especially named for questioning.

"Are you going to tell us our history, what happened after we left?" Jordan asked.

"Yeah, we'll get to all of your questions. We do have six days."

Jordan appeared to be satisfied, and she went about tying elastics around the ponytails of one of her vaporous daughters.

"Are they twins?" I asked, for I couldn't remember either of the daughters' names. They were practically identical, but one had a good four inches on the other.

"No, not quite," Jordan answered absently, "Judy is nine, Kayla is seven."

The one she was working with appeared to be the taller one, Judy. I quickly compared their sizes to confirm it, and made a mental note. Judy is tall, Kayla is small.

"Let's go," Taylor whined anxiously, stationed by the door, "You can leave all of your stuff here."

I got up and followed her nonchalantly, the others on my heels.

"Where are we going first?"

"Community Center," I responded, but didn't elaborate anymore than that. They'd know as soon as we got there.

"Did you call a police shuttle for us already?" I suddenly remembered to ask.

"Who needs shuttles? We walked here at three-thirty AM, we can most definitely walk back without any grief," Taylor countered.

"Whatever."

Everyone was quiet during the short walk, although Gabrielle and Brooke talked animatedly in unintelligible voices the whole time. I couldn't catch words, like this morning, only syllables, carried like wordless music to my place in line. Gabrielle's voice wasn't soprano yet, but it was certainly higher than Brooke's, and mixed with his singing speech like a duet. I wondered what they were saying. From their tones, it sounded as if they were… plotting something.

Yeah right, Lay. You're losing it.

I held the door open to the Community Center; none of them seemed to recognize it. The night before was probably a smudgy blur, they were so sleep deprived that perhaps they didn't even remember the place. I barely could recall any of the events that had occurred.

There was a new twelve-year-old boy, ready for his first day of Community Service, being lectured about how new Flinch staff operated. He yawned ahead, not out of focus, but clearly not paying enough attention, as he should be. The tween girl who was lecturing him paused to look us over.

Can I help you?" she asked, and it was evident that she hadn't been enlightened on the night Flinch's arrival.

"Yep, these guys showed up at three AM last night. We're touring."

The girl was skeptical, "We have no records of… Oh," she clacked into the clunky laptop on the table, "Oh, I guess, I guess you're right. Wow, three in the morning! How long were they gone?"

"They're from 2070."

"2070?" Her eyes showed the same suspicions that we had felt, too.

"2070," Taylor confirmed, "We're not sure what went wrong up there."

"What went wrong?" Penuche echoed, alarmed into Feeling again. Her eyes sparked, alive once more, and they caught the Community Center girl's attention.

"Have you explained Unfeeling yet?" she asked, her eyes trained on Penuche, although her flame was flickering uncertainly.

"We haven't explained anything. No time to," Taylor answered.

"You'd better," she glanced exaggeratedly at Penuche.

"Yes, well…"

That was when Brooke and Gabrielle made their appearance, flittering out of the empty space behind a wall. Both the Community Center worker, and the younger boy who was waiting patiently for his turn, gasped. I myself accidentally sucked in a sharp, shocked breath as well, but covered it with a wide, false yawn.

"But they're…" the girl breathed.

"Yep." Taylor was palpably enjoying this. I wondered at the boy and the girl's reactions. I'd gasped because of the beauty, but that didn't appear to be the biggest issue for them. They squinted, like the glow burning off the two extra generation's skin hurt their eyes. Taylor hadn't been this way, I hadn't.

Whatever.

"You can go through to the observation room now. I don't think Paperwork will show up for a while." The girl nodded to the door.

"Let go," I spoke up for the first time, and we lead the way back to the observation room.

They'd been there last night, but like the outside of the building, it didn't seem to strike any chords with them. They all stared out the big, glass observing window and out onto the empty, asphalt of the landing pad. Their shuttle was already gone, off to the big plants to be developed more for a Flinch from our own time.

"What is this place?" A French voice chimed.

"The Community Center," I replied.

"Like a rec center?" Arnold requested.

"A rec center?"

"Yeah. With a swimming pool, and weights and a gym?" he felt foolish; we clearly didn't have those in present times.

"I don't think we have those," I said.

Taylor cut in, taking the lead of everything again.

"The Community Center is where Flinches from your time land. They are all built around your old space centers to make sure everyone has a fine place for landing."

"That's what they said you would do. Or, that's what they hoped," said Jordan.

Taylor nodded, "We have teams of Community Service staffs come in every week and welcome you. We have you filed in the system, and get you settled for the first week. That's what Lay and I are doing this week for you. We'll make sure you all know the drill before you file for a real apartment."

"Is it that easy?" Penuche asked.

"Sort of," Taylor responded, "Families are the only ones who really get spacious apartments. Couples and legal-aged singles live in dorms still. They're much better than the ones we stay in. You get real beds and furniture and everything."

"Will I live in one of those?" Penuche conjectured.

"Well how old are you?"

"Twenty-three."

"Definitely. Usually you have one or two more singles to stay with, or a coupled pair."

Jordan interrupted, "So we get a big apartment?"

"Yes, your family can file for a full-size."

"What about us?" Gabrielle asked, gesturing to Brooke and herself.

"You're a couple?" I blurted.

Gabrielle started to shake her head, "Not really…"

Only from where I was standing could I see Brooke pinch the back of her arm. She didn't react, but changed the statement.

"I mean… Well, sure. Yeah, we're a couple, I guess."

"You'll get a dorm, you'll stay with another couple or a single, if you get lucky," Taylor said.

"Oh."

Gabrielle twisted to say something softly into Brooke's ear. He looked at her sharply, and for a second I thought he might strike her. It was Feeling that shone out of his gemstone blue eyes, but it was the bad kind. The kind I was never jealous of. It made me remember why I clung to Unfeeling like a life vest in high waters. Gabrielle shrugged, apologetic for her unheard comment, and the revulsion in Brooke's eyes dimmed, showing fluttery, lovely Feelings from behind his eyes. I balked, turning myself away to apply a new coat of Unfeeling. It was easy when I wasn't looking at them.

This was bad; I never was this attracted to Feeling. They made Feelings appear lovely, appear glamorous. But I knew. Or, I should know better.

This was familiar, because I had been drawn in this much to six other people, two years back. They'd had the same look behind their eyes, the same light that filtered out of their pores. I imagined what love would Feel like, even though I knew it was wrong. I imagined that it Felt all red and pink, soft and sort of heady.

That was the impression I got from the other six, the way they looked at each other, at their lovely sons and daughters, at their big, thriving family.

Love caught the father, and the two oldest sons. They never escaped, and it was all for an invisible force called love.

Love is made-up, I convinced myself, they sacrificed themselves for nothing. A mirage.

And I would not turn myself over for something as worthless as that. Unfeeling was irreversible anyway.

"The Community Center is split into two sections, the landing pad, and the launching pads. They're in the eastern building, but we aren't allowed in." This was the place where we were supposed to lead into the Flinching age laws. My eyes searched for my manual, but I realized that I'd left it back at the dorms. I cringed inwardly, and went for Taylor's.

Taylor started off the dialogue without prompting or the written text.

"Here in the future, we take more precautions," that particular line always sounded smug, like a jab at the extra generation's discipline, "We do not allow Flinching from minors. Eighteen is the age when space travel becomes legal. It helps children build their own opinions, get their own views before making such a drastic choice." Like they ever saw it differently. There were no other opinions, no other views.

Taylor paused, then turned to me expectantly. I recognized that it must be my turn to speak, and blushed. She handed her booklet to me without a word.

I flipped through, searching for the page entitled, "The Community Center".

"Um," I skimmed the text, finding my spot, "There are two options if you are thinking about Flinching again, if you have younger children or siblings holding you back. The first is to simply wait for them to grow up. Or you may leave the younger ones with a trusted neighbor or friend, someone who is willing to wait. Do not abandon them, contact the police instead. The police can find a home without harming the kids," I read.

"Flinching with minors is illegal, a federal offense. Illegal Flinching will be caught, there is no way to escape the police force," Taylor continued, quoting the manual almost word-for-word. I knew that the next sentence was a direction, to ask any families with young children what their choice would be.

"Arnold? Jordan?" Taylor asked, "Are you going to wait with your girls? It'll be over ten years."

They nodded without consulting one another.

"We'll wait."

"Do you have any questions about the Center?" I reiterated from the book.

They all glanced around, trying to read a question to ask off of the walls. I wasn't really paying attention to any of their faces, so Brooke's voice startled me.

"So is that it? We have to Flinch if we are over eighteen?" Brooke hissed, his angry voice still managed to sing, but it was less melodic than usual.

"No, it isn't necessary," Taylor replied coolly, "Most of us do though. Living here is sort of…"

"Sort of what?" he snorted. What was his problem? He'd Flinched here, hadn't he?

"Sort of boring. People leave everyday, just like in your time."

He nodded, but his mood was still darker. Gabrielle touched his arm, looking sympathetic.

"Are we done here, then? Ready to tour the city?" I said to distract them.

"Yes," Taylor confirmed, "Let's go, then."

We breezed out the front door, the girl behind the desk looking surprised. We'd only taken a few minutes, five tops.

"See?" Taylor addressed me as soon as we were in the fresh air again, "We have all day to tour. That was faster than I thought!"

Taylor skipped along, clearly thinking about all the free time at the end of the week. I really didn't see her excitement. All we would ever get the chance to do is sit around in our dorm. It would be boring, like every other single day of our lives. Sometimes it was better to be on Community Service.

We stepped off of the curb, onto the opposite side of the road to start the tour. The tours were all the same, pointing out buildings of consequence, places they might have known. They were allowed to drill us with questions, although I was never up to that part. Questions bored me, tired me out. There was never an end to their obvious inquiries. They were all the same, and I was so sick of voicing them that it made me irritated to just think about them.

I let Taylor point out the places on our maps, all highlighted in blues and reds. I just shuffled along, jabbering to myself inside my own head. I tuned everyone out, they were already asking away, curious and hard to satisfy. The questions were the easy kind, the same kind that aggravated me to no end. Taylor was fine with them, so I didn't feel guilty when I let her take over completely. When the questions, or the answers, did occasionally penetrate my day-dreamy bubble, I was disappointed. It seemed like they could make some interesting remarks to puzzle us with.

Gabrielle and Brooke were quiet, only listening and watching. I was sure that my ears wouldn't tune out the sound of Brooke's singsong, fading accent, and Gabrielle was almost as interesting, but I never caught their voices.

I wasn't sure how much time had passed, but I did realize that I was getting hungry, and Taylor hadn't bothered to let us stop for a bite to eat. It was past breakfast time, I was sure the others must have been craving food, too.

"Taylor?" she looked back at me, it seemed that I had interrupted her as she resolved somebody's question.

"What, Lay?" she demanded, annoyed for sure.

"Don't you think we should go for breakfast soon? I'm sure everyone is getting hungry."

She looked down at her stomach, as if to verify that.

"I guess you're right. Everybody hungry?" she inquired of the group.

We all nodded silently.

"Let's go to the cafeteria," I said, "We haven't got there yet, but we're close."

"Do we always eat in a cafeteria? Is that where everybody meets?" Arnold asked.

"No, only the new Flinches who are touring, or if you are out in the city and don't have the time to stop back at your apartment."

"They'll give us a portable lunch to carry, so that we won't have the need to come back," Taylor added.

We sped up, and I could see that it was a good call to go to breakfast now. They all looked ravenous.

Penuche swirled one of her acrylic blue braids around her finger, "What's for breakfast?" She tensed, like she wasn't sure if it was a suitable question to ask.

I suppressed a laugh, just because all of the new Flinch extras were all the same, nervous about offense. They couldn't register the fact that we were humans, too, however changed we were.

My suppression of laughter wasn't a complete success; I still let out the briefest snicker in response. It made me appear even ruder. Brooke glanced up, his attention drawn to me for a second. His expression confused me; it looked like he wanted to laugh along with me, and his smirk was deep and pared into his lovely face. I looked away, to Penuche. Her stock of bright, silvery Feeling was running to the floor now, almost all gone. Somehow it made me fleetingly sad for her sake, even though I knew that it was the best thing in the end.

"It changes all the time," Taylor answered when she decided that I wasn't going to, "Don't worry. There'll be something that you will like."

"This is it," I announced when I caught sight of the tall, tinny building. The cafeteria was the second story, the rest were all office spaces.

Everyone was eager for food when we went through the doors, into the empty lobby. Taylor just pointed to the wide, solid staircase in front of us, and we all took to the steps without further stimulation.

There was a bold side that declared that we were in the right spot, and we trudged through the heavy double-doors, encouraged by the smell of edible things.

The cafeteria was always smaller than I thought it would be, with faux-wood tables every few feet that never actually filled up. There were two openings to the kitchen area, the places where lines would usually form, but today nobody was waiting. We filed through the left door, meeting up with a heavyset lady, forty or so, who looked us over with nothing but gray boredom behind her traditional blue-gray eyes.

I was grateful that Taylor had remembered to bring the supplies in her pack; it was a relief when she pulled out our Community Service verification card. She slid it over the scanner, skimming the information and validating our pictures on her tiny, dusty screen. She motioned for us to carry on through the line, and we allowed the extras to pass by us. Brooke refused, letting us pass by him, holding onto his Feelings of generosity. It was one of my favorite things about the past, about the extras with Feeling. I never failed to be delighted, and a bit surprised when a new extra generation offered up a show of politeness. It was something that the Unfeeling common generation had lost. Chivalry, generosity, courtesy: all dead.

I kept my tone impassive when I thanked him, even though I was inwardly smiling.

Sometimes Feelings were so attractive.

Breakfast was cold cereal and skim milk. There were a lot of different choices, all prepackaged in little boxes of appropriate-sized servings. I grabbed two anyway, because one box was never satisfying.

The Golar family was sitting at a small, circular table. I saw Penuche seek Taylor out and slide in across from her on a long table. I had beaten Gabrielle; she was still selecting her meal when I came out.

There weren't many other people, one group of new extra generations, identifiable from their white nametags that matched the ones on our troop. They were spread out over two or three tables, they ate solemnly and silently.

I selected a seat on a rectangular table on the far side of the cafeteria, preferring to eat alone over sitting with Taylor and Penuche. I swiveled to pick out Brooke and Gabrielle, curious to see if they'd go sit with Taylor or find their own table. Something about them made me sure that they would choose to eat alone.

I couldn't find them behind me, so I searched the other tables to the right. Taylor and Penuche were still alone, as were the Golars, and the other tables were still just as vacant as I had left them. I huffed, sort of annoyed, and turned irritably back to my boxes of dry cereal.

I started, when I found that it was me who wasn't alone.

The two prettiest extra generations I had ever met sat motionlessly across from me, watching my reaction to their arrival. I stared at them with big eyes, confused. Why had they come to sit by me? Maybe it was more of Brooke's politeness, and he didn't want to let me be alone.

As he watched my response, Brooke chuckled softly, raising his eyebrows at Gabrielle. Gabrielle was skeptical, she grimaced back at him.

"Do you mind if we sit with you, Lay?" Brooke sang lightly, and his dazzling eyes flicked back up to me. He still wore a half smile, and I realized that I was being intoxicated by beauty again, by Feelings and things that shouldn't be of consequence.

I shook my head gravely. "Go ahead," I told him.

We ate in silence for a few minutes. The only sounds were ripping cardboard and crunching cornflakes.

Finally Gabrielle looked back up at me, intending to speak.

"Do you get paid for this, Lay?" she asked me, "For taking us around all week?"

"No, but we don't have money really. We aren't allowed to have a lot more than everyone else. It is sort of about equality, so that everyone gets fed."

"Communism," Brooke chortled musically.

"No, not Communism," I disagreed sourly, "We still have rations. Some still have more than others." Even though it wasn't particularly true.

"Communism," Brooke sang.

I shook my head, but didn't keep the argument going. Something told me that Brooke was trying to get something out of me, awaken something that was asleep. Or dead.

Gabrielle sighed, and cocked her head towards Brooke, a wordless phrase that only he would understand. He shrugged, and remained looking rebellious to whatever their conversation had been before they sat down by me.

"How old are you?" Gabrielle asked, and I wished they had sat somewhere else.

"I'm seventeen and two months. You?" I asked, truly curious. She seemed a lot younger than Brooke, but I couldn't really tell. If they were a couple, their ages would match up pretty evenly.

"Fifteen," she replied, to my shock. "And eight months," she added.

"What about Brooke?" he appeared older than me. If they were at such odds, they couldn't possibly be a pair. Siblings, maybe?

"I'm nineteen."

"Nineteen?" He could Flinch again, and leave Gabrielle behind. Siblings weren't as big of a deal as sons and daughters to parents, so Gabrielle would be left alone. My forehead furrowed.

"Lay?" Brooke's voice became persuasive, Feeling and liquid, "Can you answer me a question?"

I looked down, shook my head, for I knew the question that would follow. I had answered it two years ago, and lost three people to the Dead countries.

"Save it for questions day, in two days."

"Are you sure? It's an easy question."

"Ask Taylor, she's better at questions than me," I said desperately.

"I don't think so." But they stood in a graceful unison, and Brooke dragged Gabrielle away as he bounded off. I could see her protesting as they went.

After my brief episode with them, breakfast was unexciting. I picked at my food until Taylor called me over sharply. She'd gathered up our lunches, but we each had to carry our own.

"Let's get moving," she commanded, and then we were off again. I fell into my absentminded stupor again, preoccupied by myself. Less and less penetrated the fog, only clips of the questions that Taylor solved to perfection. Penuche was the worst, firing off hundreds of questions a minute. Curiously, all of them seemed alike to me, like she was just changing the phrasing. Taylor tried to be more creative with her answers, she tried to add new information, but it was useless.

Jordan and Arnold had grown more pensive, but they each slipped in questions when something came up. Brooke and Gabrielle remained tranquil through the whole thing, only sometimes did I catch them whispering furiously into one another's ears.

"That's the police station, right there," Taylor's voice popped my bubble of serenity. Again.

She pointed out the police station with her whole palm. It was plated with mirrors that reflected an odd assortment of red and orange lights that wrongly echoed the real colors in front of it. The building was inauspicious against the monochrome canvas all around it, as ominous as a shiny knife.

"What do the police do? Just fight crime like they used to?" Penuche interrogated.

"Not really," Taylor was thoughtful, picking out her words so that they'd sound right. "The policemen are more connected to the government now. There isn't really a lot of crime on the streets anymore, although there is some illegality. Most of their job is stopping underage Flinching and control over the Dead countries."

My eyes widened, catching her mistake before she did. She got it though, and in half a second her eyes flashed up to my face, alarmed.

"Dead countries?" Penuche clarified, and there was nothing for us to do besides nod.

"What are the Dead countries?" she grilled, her eyes flicking back to a more Feeling venue. I'd thought that it was all drained out of her, but I must've underestimated her capability to Feel.

They were all interested now, Jordan and Arnold, Brooke and Gabrielle, even the two young girls who were all but vegetables most of the time, gaped up at Taylor, the designated tour guide.

Taylor looked at me for help, but I just nodded in half encouragement.

"Well. We don't really know too much about the Dead countries, but the police make sure we know enough," she stated, and scrambled for more words.

"The Dead countries are in the extreme west of the United States and Canada, but they are their own embassy now. They claim freedom from our system of government, but they are under the rule of the Dalai still."

"The Dalai?" Jordan asked, perplexed.

"We don't really get too much information about the Dalai," Taylor admitted, "Just that he is the ruler, the founder of the Dead countries. The policemen say that he rules painfully and harshly. They're not even sure if the Dead countries are populated anymore."

"Is that why they are called the Dead countries?"

Taylor brought her pointer finger to her chin thoughtfully, "Hmmm. I guess that is somewhat true. The policemen say it is because they are virtually dead. Dead to us, I mean. The people are wild; they do not respect our laws. They told us that the Dalai kills whomever he wishes to, anytime. He is ruthless, or so we are informed."

"It is illegal to go into the Dead countries," I added, "And illegal to come back out."

"Why would you go into the Dead countries?" Penuche cried incredulously, "If they're only going to kill you anyway?"

"Good question," I muttered. That never made sense to me either.

"I guess it is because some people think that they'll find "freedom" there," Taylor said.

"What happens if you go into these countries?" Arnold said.

Taylor's nose wrinkled, "Well, that is for the Dalai to know, and you to find out, I guess."

Brooke actually laughed, while the rest of us gawked at him in dismay.

"You mean…" Jordan started, "You mean, the Dalai kills the people who try to come into his country?"

"That's what authorities believe. It's logical, and no one ever comes out."

"Oh, no!"

"Oh, yes. They'd just as soon be arrested if they came back out anyway, though, but I'm sure I'd rather be in police custody than dead."

"Do very many people go into the Dead countries?" Penuche wanted to know, "All the time?"

"No, no!" I declared, "Very, very few go into the Dead countries. Most Community Service members go through their entire lives without having one shuttle of people who leave. It's very uncommon."

"Have you ever seen anyone go?" said Penuche.

"Me? Well…" I wish it had been Taylor to speak, "Well, yeah. Once, two years ago. There were six of them, a mother and father, three sons and an aunt. But it was just bad luck that I had that shuttle, Taylor hasn't hadn't one ever."

"What happened to them?" Penuche gasped.

"The mother got to the Dead countries safely, and the aunt and the oldest son. The younger ones and the father were captured before they got there," I replied softly, "They were arrested. I don't know what happened to the three that made it, but isn't it inevitable? The Dalai must've caught up to them when they were in his territory. Our forces couldn't do anything else, the law said that they were free…" I trailed off, half in horror, half in disgust.

Everyone nodded solemnly, accepting the loss.

"That's terrible," was the last comment made.

After that, everyone was thoughtful, silent, even Penuche. We ambled along, stopping at a crosswalk bench to rest and eat our lunches.

There was still more to see, the rest of the day's worth, but we'd covered the most important places: the Community Center, the police station, almost all of the government buildings, the downtown stores, the Chicago Building, and the city office. The rest would be miscellaneous stores, offices, and apartment complexes, with a few stops settled in between. The day felt spent, even if the clock hadn't tolled one yet.

We all finished our lunches together, and started off without a sound. We were still quiet, not ready to fire up the Q and A rounds again, not for a while. Taylor and I lead the way, scanning our highlighted maps, in search of our next big destination.

It seemed that the one of the last government locations was our next stopping point, and we still had plenty of time for me to sweat off the earlier conversation.

That past shuttle always took its toll on me, always wore me out.

Most people who'd had an experience like mine blew it off, like it was any old thing. I wondered why I was different.

Of course I knew, but I didn't like my conclusion, no matter how right it was.

I'd been sort of attached to them, for that firs week when they appeared. The glow on their skin was like a blush, the sparkle in their eyes always looked tearful in the gleeful sort of way. Their Feeling words, their softest touch. They'd looked out for the three others in their Flinch, watched over them while they could. I'd been fascinated by the way they took the whole world onto their backs, problems that weren't theirs to worry about, burdens that they didn't necessarily need to carry. They took the world and ran with it, and only three escaped.

If escape was the way you looked at it. Maybe it was the other three, the father and the two eldest sons, who had really gotten away. Maybe they were the lucky ones.

It had shaken me up, I felt loss for a while, but I healed quickly. It was in our Unfeeling nature to get over things, and I survived.

The problem now, was that Gabrielle and Brooke, reminded me so much of the other six. Maybe even in a strangely stronger dose.

They were so pretty, their Feelings all the more lovely. And that worried me deeply.

"How did they get there?"

He didn't need to clarify past that point, the conversation was still swimming through all of our heads.

It was Brooke who voiced it, his a cappella voice black, but the suppleness of it was still stunning. He was right over me; willowy and graceful as he leaned down to speak in my ear.

It wasn't a question for Taylor.

I glanced up warily, only to let my eyes flicker back to my own fingers. His gaze was intense, expecting an answer that I couldn't give.

"They just went west," I whispered, finding my voice gone.

"How?"

"They, they stole a police sh…"

"Lay!" Taylor yelped, "That information is illegal, Brooke," she snarled his name, "Don't try anything funny."

Brooke batted his eyelashes, looking innocent and guiltless. He straightened back up, tall and elegant next to me, and slowed his pace to let the two young children pass by him. Gabrielle drifted back, too, and I heard him begin whispering swiftly into Gabrielle's ear again.

My face was bloodless; I could feel the pallor of my skin. I peeked at Taylor, but she was fuming, marching ahead to take the lead again. I felt humiliated, deeply so, but it was already fading into a nothing Feeling.

It was like some sort of trance. I knew I wasn't supposed to tell them that, not when they were still this new, not when they were still Feeling. I shook my head. I'd have to remind myself not to so much as look at Brooke anymore.

Our trip was short from that point, Taylor was pointing even before all of my guilt had subsided.

"That's one of the last government buildings in Chicago. One of the smallest ones, too. But they're the best, they keep a whole fleet of police shuttles and services right there in the back," she exclaimed.

"The outskirts of the city are right beyond there," she pointed to the visible line where the skyscrapers abruptly stopped, "But the next city is within a ten mile radius."

"Does everybody live in big cities like this one?"

"Pretty much, that's where all of the launching pads were, back in your time. We just sort of built the cities around the old Flinch sites, so that we wouldn't miss anyone."

The sun, always behind the fog at this time in the year, could be seen dimly, arching towards the western horizon, the closest place to the Dead countries. We were still circling around the border of Chicago when I announced that we needed to go back to the dorms for dinner before it got dark.

"You're right." Taylor was surprised by the low climax of the sun's position. She squinted into the sky but stayed inert.

"We've got to get back now, everyone up for walking?" she asked the group.

We all nodded back, our walk hadn't been strenuous at all. Even Kayla and Judy weren't tired yet, although we had covered all of our touring sites in one day. I was amazed by how quickly the time had flooded by today. Usually it was the opposite, I was shocked by how little of time had droned by.

We set off for the cafeteria first; it served food late for troops like ours that had taken a longer route to save time. The walk back was never hard, it went by quickly when everyone was hungry, their questions for one day satisfied.

When we got back, the sun appeared to be at the same approximation as when we had left it, almost like time had stopped in order for us to have light to travel by.

We raced each other up the stairs, bursting through the doors like an explosion. Although all that walking hadn't been too difficult, it still stirred up hunger pains.

"Looks like pasta or sub sandwiches," observed Taylor, she took the front of the line and lead us in. I drifted along, eager for dinner, but still in a passive state of mind that allowed me to be lazy.

Brooke waited patiently for me to pass before he got his meal. It would have bothered me, if I weren't too flattered to feel any irritation.

I selected a tray of food, with soft, dainty noodles adroitly heaped into a small, lacy pile on the plate. I didn't opt for either of the sauces, preferring my pasta plain, and went out to find my own table. It looked like everybody was sitting together this time, on one long table. I hesitated before it, and then swiveled around to find a seat somewhere else. I studied my fingernails as I rankled my food, bored again.

Brooke and Gabrielle found me like they had this morning, and I cringed and cursed myself for not taking a seat at the crowded table. They didn't sit down, though, like I thought they would. They stood behind two chairs and studied my face for an instant before Brooke sighed.

"Won't you come and sit with us, Lay?"

I shook my head. "I like it better this way."

They were gone in a flash, and I was truly pleased that they had picked an easier route, one that didn't bother me.

It would be that much easier if I didn't have to remind myself when to shut up around them.

I studied Gabrielle, for she was facing my way. She talked to everyone now, not just to Brooke. Her smiles were small, but they lit up the room.

Brooke had selected a chair that faced directly away from me, so that he could look at Gabrielle. It was enough, to just watch the back of him, his windblown black hair, the way his hands moved with spidery grace to make one point or another.

I sighed, and moved on to a less than interesting subject.

Taylor sat next to Gabrielle, her attention was on Brooke as he talked, but I saw her eyes flicker over to my lonely place. She smirked, as if she were smug, and raised her eyebrows. A challenge? But she just threw herself back into Brooke's conversation, animated like she was sure someone was watching her.

I looked back down, and wondered why I was the one who had to get this Community Service staff. It wasn't just Brooke or Gabrielle; Taylor was one of the bad things.

I picked at my food, but started inhaling it more quickly when I realized that I must have been starving. My noodles were as tasteless as everything, but pleasantly filling. The way I gobbled them up, I was certain that I must be the first one done.

So it surprised me when Gabrielle whisked by, already carrying three other trays, and scooped mine up before I had the chance to open my mouth.

I just shrugged, and walked back over to the bigger table.

"Are you happy with today? I mean: did we hurry fast enough, Taylor?" I asked sardonically.

She nodded happily, unperturbed by my tone. Taylor's expression reminded me that nothing bothered her.

"Faster than I thought. We'll have plenty of time to relax at the end of this week." Something in her voice caught my attention, like she thought I was missing something apparent.

Gabrielle returned then, ready to go, so I couldn't open Taylor up anymore. I'd just have to ask some other time…

"Let's go," Taylor commanded, "I'm worn out."

"Same here," I agreed without hesitation. All I wanted to do was sleep. No matter how hard those platform beds were back in the dorms.

We were at the dorms before I could blink, and I didn't remember moving my legs to take me there. I was the first in the bathroom, taking no account for being polite or whatever.

Chivalry was dead, anyway.

A line had formed for the bathroom when I came out, all fresh and dressed up in my bland pajamas. I let Taylor pass by me, and dropped onto my sleeping bag. I curled up, turning away from the five gray souls that waited by the door. The golden ones were there, too, but I didn't picture them, for fear of another slip.

Instead, I put my mind elsewhere, and imagined my angel.

It was a silly bedtime thing I came up with when I was a little kid, one of my only memories from Feeling times.

It was only an angel because they were apparently guardians, peaceful beings who were supposed to watch and protect from some cloudy haven. It was my comfort as a frightened child, when I had no one who Felt enough to bother with my irrational nighttime fears. It was always an unmoving image, like a photograph rather than a shifting picture, and he never said anything at all.

He was tall and leonine, as all angels should be. A polished gold band adopted the air above his hair, and thick, feathered wings budded from his broad shoulders. His arms were thick, bulkier than Brooke's, but in many ways less dangerous. His eyes were blue, less startling than the color of Brooke's, the sort of blue I saw on the streets of the city. His face was peaceful and pretty, although I couldn't seem to think he was as divine as I had two days ago. He had almost girly features, golden curls, fat, indented dimples, and full lips that mirrored the ones on Brooke.

He bore an uncanny to a fifteen-year-old boy who hadn't gotten away two years ago.

I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was unsatisfied with my angel. I put him out of my mind and tried to lucidly find sleep in some obscure part of my mind where I had misplaced it.

Sounds were intensified by my silence, magnified to the point where they were causing insanity to bubble up inside me. I put my hands over my ears as I convinced myself that I was getting more and more absurdly annoyed.

But the gag that my hands created was nice, it helped a bit, and my eyes shut more readily now.

I thought that I was asleep, all the way until Gabrielle's soft, cooing voice whispered in my ears, and I came to the conclusion that I must be awake.

I didn't need to move; I just opened my eyes to a dark room, where shapes and lumps could be made out, but not the sleeping people I knew were there. Arnold was snoring, and the others quieter but they were slumbering just as deeply.

At first it sounded like it had earlier that day, I could pick up the tones of their voices, but only syllables and sounds. The words didn't travel far enough.

Then I realized that their voices were too loud, in too quiet of a room, for me not to hear. I strained to understand, justifying it by thinking that I had to stop them if they were planning anything irresponsible, but still couldn't make any sense of it.

Another language? I guessed to myself, and then it dawned on me open-handedly.

French. They were speaking French. Brooke's language. How Gabrielle understood was beyond me, she was as American as peanut butter.

Regularly, in the consonant English tongue, Brooke's subtle accent and elocution made our speech flow, turning our rough, lippy words into music. He gave each inflection a new note, a sentence becoming a mini masterpiece.

But in French, the dialect I'd never heard, it was almost unbearably sweet. The language was all vowels and J's, liquid like the bubbling song of a stream. Even Gabrielle's words sounded like music when she spoke in French. On its own, French was a toneless song, the cadences of speech dawned the taste of the sun and the moon.

But Brooke made it sing.

I hushed off my angel's image all together so that I could listen.

Voice silken, he presented me with a lullaby of silver words.