Chapter 1

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It was a cold April night, the coldest I could remember in my twenty-one years. I had been home all day, half-asleep on the sofa with the TV turned on. To keep my mind occupied, I was trying my best to pay attention to the airing programs. The channel I was tuned on was History One, my favorite from when I was a kid. A documentary was showing the great reform that changed the social system of the entire world a hundred years before: the birth of the Universal Cities and the First Government. In other words, this was the very beginning of the New Era. When my great-grandmother was still alive, I used to ask her a lot of questions about that period. I couldn’t even imagine a world divided into Continents and States, each with its own political system, often strictly connected to religion or culture. Of course in each City there was freedom of belief and anyone could keep the customs of their former land, but for those ideas to influence the government was just absurd. I remember how I was astonished thinking they had no internet, no cameras, no watchpads. We basically have owned watchpads since we were six. They give them to us during the first year of elementary school, when we start earning credits. Since credits are a perfectly valid currency and can be converted into money, it would be almost impossible to live without watchpads ever since. In the Uptowns of the Cities almost everything can be bought by credits, and money is usually used only in the Downtowns, the slums, which have the reputation of hosting drug markets, brothels and being the most squalid places of the city.

“People can’t just live in a world too perfect, son,” my great-grandmother used to tell me. “You do your best to try to have everyone get along, but there will always be someone who is not happy about it. They can’t compromise, or can’t just give up on transgression, that’s it. But who knows? Maybe it’s better this way.” She was a clever woman, a surgeon who worked in the first global medical team of the First Government. She really earned her place in the Uptown of Rosedeer.

There are always new people coming and going from Downtown. They teach us in school, “Anyone can become anything,” so it’s utterly normal for a person born in Downtown to gain a fairly important position in Uptown companies, exactly like it’s pretty common to see Uptown people waste all their family’s credits and move to Downtown afterward. But my family has always lived here, to the point that we are known in the neighborhood for that. Not that I ever even cared about that, especially in those days, when every time I went out I felt everyone’s eyes on me. I knew they talked about the great “misfortune” that fell on our family, and that they were “sure that boy won’t meet the expectations of anybody at this point.” They heard I had dropped out of the police academy right after passing the entrance test, apparently. Even being in my own house was becoming suffocating for me. I had told my parents I wanted to go away for a while, but they wouldn’t let me. I could understand their worry; they were afraid I would do something stupid. I appreciated it, but still, it wasn’t enough.

That night I had lost track of time. I turned the TV off and went to my room. I sat on the bed and kept staring at the wall in front of me, without really looking at it. I could hear the wind howling, crashing against my window, but I wasn’t able to listen to any sound. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t angry, and I wasn’t scared either. I was nothing.

Shallie Lindsay, my girlfriend, had been found dead under the oak near her house two months before, after being missing for another month. When she was found by a guy taking his dog for a walk, apparently he thought she was sleeping. She didn’t have any injuries, no signs of violence on her body, not even a scratch. So what was it that had taken her life? The police suspected a suicide. “She might have taken some sort of drug,” they said. But no traces of that were found either. No suffocation, no heart attack, no aneurysm. Nothing. Apparently, what killed my girlfriend was nothing. How could that even be possible? And where had she been for that month? There were so many mysteries about her death that at a certain point I had even stopped asking myself any questions, falling into the deepest apathy.

I was home alone. My parents wanted to take me somewhere with them, but I refused without even asking where, and I insisted for them to go on their own. They were trying their best to cheer me up, I really knew that, and so were my best friend Sean, other friends, old schoolmates and whoever came to talk to me in the previous two months, but it was asking too much of me. Finally, a growing frustration urged me to get up, so I left my room and started wandering around the house. That was no good; soon the memories of my childhood passed before my eyes, reminding me that, after all, I was alone. I picked up the framed picture of An, Dan and me placed on the dresser in the corridor, and found myself talking to it. “How could you leave me? Both of you.” Hurt and lonely, I ended up thinking of Shallie’s words, of the trust she had in everyone, of that strength in her voice that would always make everything alright. “I think your relationship with them is wonderful and unique,” she used to tell me. “Life sometimes can be unfair, it bends you to the breaking point, and often your efforts don’t bring any result. But things can change, and you can change them! Look at you, after seven years, with sparkling eyes every time you mention them. I think they never really left you, Drew.”

“But where are they now, Shallie?” I said, replying to her words in my head, “I don’t even have you anymore.”

Suddenly I grew angry, and the weight of loneliness fell on my shoulders. These were first emotions I had felt in a while. I suddenly couldn’t stay in that house anymore. I put some things in my backpack, wore my watchpad, grabbed my keys and left home. I didn’t know where I was going, but I walked down the street breathing the cold night air and letting the rain fall on me. I arrived at the park where I used to play when I was younger, and I looked around to every detail: the position of the trees, the benches, the grass, the view. And finally I cried all the tears I had held back in the previous three months. I threw my backpack in the air and screamed, then cried again. When I finally ran out of tears, I was lying on the grass, exhausted, but at the same time I was coming back to life. I felt that, at last, I was able to think clearly again. I slowly got up and sat on a bench, remembering all that happened in the six years that Shallie and I spent together. The first time we met, how she hit me with a fastball during the girls’ baseball practice match. The way she laughed with her friends in class. The first time we held hands. And then the breathtaking kisses, the love she gave me, her understanding, the complete trust, a shoulder to cry on, and her smile… how she smiled. I wanted to see her smile for the rest of my life. I wanted to make her happy. I wanted to treasure her the most.

But she is gone, said a voice inside my head. Why? Suicide? What are they talking about? It’s impossible. Absolutely. Even if it makes no sense now, there must be a reason. Something happened, in that month she was missing. There must be a reason she was missing in the first place. Someone had to do this to her.

I wondered how I could have just ignored all of that for two months. What had gotten into me? Shallie wouldn’t have wanted it, and she didn’t deserve it either. Whatever happened to her, it was something terrible and shady. And I would find out. I stood up and ran as fast as I could, all the way to the graveyard. It was two districts away from the park, but even when I was about to fall from fatigue, I forced myself to keep running. I was sweating and panting, but I didn’t even stop to catch my breath. When I got there the gate was open, as always. I searched for her, and found her grave. I knelt in front of it, and as soon as I stopped moving, my chest tightened and a burning pain spread throughout my muscles.

Ignoring my physical distress, I looked at that cold stone, and said, “Shallie, I know you. And you know me. I will never give up on you. I’ll find out what happened to you. I’m leaving home, I’ll do anything, and I swear, I won’t let anybody think that Shallie Lindsay has taken her own life. Forgive me, Shallie, for taking so long.”

I caressed the picture on her grave, looking at her smile. I was alone, but I had found a reason to live again. I was ready to do anything. I smiled at her, with tears in my eyes, as the world around me was gaining back its colors and its sounds. It was just me and the noise of the rain hitting the ground, but it wasn’t lonely at all.

“Drew?” a familiar voice called my name. I was startled by it, as I thought I’d be alone there, at night. I didn’t turn around for a couple of seconds. Maybe I had imagined it. Soon I heard steps coming closer. My heartbeat increased, as nervousness grew into me. “Drew.” This time it was almost a whisper, but I heard it clearly. I guardedly turned my head to him.

“Dan.” Pronouncing his name was like a throwback to a distant past. After seven years without seeing each other, we met again just like that.

“What happened to you?” he asked me. I couldn’t see him well in the dark, but he was soaked in rain as much as I was. I didn’t answer. I must have had an awful look, after the crying, the rain and the mud I had all over me. His presence there was unexpected, and also quite disturbing. I was finally enjoying my time alone, I had just found what I really wanted to do next, and that person, with the same selfishness he showed when he left seven years before, had just shown up in my life again. He offered me his hand to help me stand up. I hesitated, but finally I took it. I wished he would just go away soon.

“Are you alright?”

“I am,” I told him. “What are you doing here?”

“I came for An, I’ve just come back from the countryside.”

“At this time of night?” I wasn’t sure what time it was, but I guessed pretty late.

“You’re one to talk.” He had a point there, as usual. I hated how he talked as if nothing had happened between us. “What were you doing?” he asked me.

I looked at Shallie’s grave, then back at him. “She is my girlfriend,” I said. I hoped I made him understand he was getting in the way.

“I’m sorry,” he lowered his eyes and looked away. We walked toward the exit of the graveyard, without a word. The rain had now stopped. I was freezing, and I had a strong headache. Standing in front of the gate, I looked at him again at the light of the lamps. He had grown a lot and was almost as tall as I was now. He was thin, or rather skinny, and his face was pale. His hair was longer than before, tied in a short ponytail, falling on his neck. I tried not to meet his eyes. He was wearing a jean jacket on top of a winter sweatshirt. His gaze was on me too, and the sad look he had on his face irritated me even more. You have no right to feel sorry for me. I don’t need your pity.

“I don’t know what happened to you, but you seem shocked. I’ll walk you home,” he said.

“No. I’m not going home anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been a bit stressed out recently. I need a break. I’m not going home.”

“Okay and… where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet,” I admitted, and he looked at me, saying nothing. “I will find a hostel or something,” I added.

A sigh followed. “Where? Here in Uptown? Drew, do you realize it’s almost 3 a.m.? And who’s gonna let you in dressed like that? You look like a drug addict.” His words were sharp, but the sound of his voice was calm. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t really considered what time it was. I wasn’t even sure what time it was when I left home. All that time I had the watchpad with me without even looking at it. This time I stared at it for a while. He was right, it was 2:57 a.m. Suddenly fatigue got the best of me; deciding to leave home, finding out all about Shallie, and then meeting him. I had a lot of things to think about, and it was a lot of thinking to do for a person who had just barely come back to life.

“You can come to my place,” he said after a short while. I was very confused. I just wished he would go away until a moment before, and he was standing there instead, inviting me to his house. So selfish, just as I thought. We had just met again, after he had left me in one of the worst periods of my life to move to Downtown with his mother. And now he was back and acting like he never went away. What the hell does he want from me after all this time?

Again, Shallie’s words came to my mind. “I think they never really left you, Drew.” I didn’t trust him. I didn’t know who that person was, after so much time. But I accepted his offer. Be that as it may, I needed to sleep. I planned to leave his house as soon as possible the next morning.

“Alright, I’m coming with you,” I told him.

“Good.” He led me to a motorcycle parked near the entrance of the cemetery and gave me a helmet to wear. “Hold on tight, you’re not gonna fall on the street, right?”

“I won’t.”

He came here on this with that rain. He’s totally insane, I thought. I was glad it wasn’t raining anymore. I didn’t want to die yet. Not after the promise I made to Shallie.


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