“So do you, but you’re never so angry,” I noted.
“Yes. But your mother and I have different ideas of what’s best for you.” He flashed me a smile. I got my mouth from him—both the look and the tendency to say innocent things that got me into trouble. The temper was Mom’s doing, but she was better at holding her tongue if it really mattered. Not me. Like right now…
“Dad, if I wanted to marry a Six or even a Seven, and he was someone I really loved, would you let me?”
Dad set his mug down, and his eyes focused on me. I tried not to give anything away with my expression. His sigh was heavy, full of grief.
“America, if you loved an Eight, I’d want you to marry him. But you should know that love can wear away under the stress of being married. Someone you think you love now, you might start to hate when he couldn’t provide for you. And if you couldn’t take care of your children, it’d be even worse. Love doesn’t always survive under those types of circumstances.”
Dad rested his hand on top of mine, drawing my eyes up to his. I tried to hide my worry.
“But no matter what, I want you to be loved. You deserve to be loved. And I hope you get to marry for love and not a number.”
He couldn’t say what I wanted to know—that I would get to marry for love and not a number—but it was the best I could hope for.
“Go easy on your mother. She’s trying to do the right thing.” He kissed my head and went off to work.
I sighed and went back to filling out the application. The whole thing made me feel like my family didn’t think I had any right to want something of my own. It bothered me, but I knew I couldn’t hold it against them in the long run. We couldn’t afford the luxury of wants. We had needs.
I took my finished application and went to find Mom in the backyard. She sat there, stitching up a hem as May did her schoolwork in the shade of the tree house. Aspen used to complain about the strict teachers in the public schools. I seriously doubted any of them could keep up with Mom. It was summer, for goodness’ sake.
“Did you really do it?” May asked, bouncing on her knees.
“I sure did.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Mom can be very compelling,” I said pointedly, though Mom was obviously not ashamed at all of her bribery. “We can go to the Services Office as soon as you’re ready, Mom.”
She smiled a little. “That’s my girl. Go get your things, and we’ll head out. I want to get yours in as soon as possible.”
I went to grab my shoes and bag as I’d been instructed, but I stopped short at Gerad’s room. He was staring at a blank canvas, looking frustrated. We kept rotating through options with Gerad, but none of them were sticking. One look at the battered soccer ball in the corner or the secondhand microscope we’d inherited as payment one Christmas, and it was obvious his heart just wasn’t in the arts.
“Not feeling inspired today, huh?” I asked, stepping into his room.
He looked up at me and shook his head.
“Maybe you could try sculpting, like Kota. You have great hands. I bet you’d be good at it.”
“I don’t want to sculpt things. Or paint or sing or play the piano. I want to play ball.” He kicked his foot into the aging carpet.
“I know. And you can for fun, but you need to find a craft you’re good at to make a living. You can do both.”
“But why?” he whined.
“You know why. It’s the law.”
“But that’s not fair!” Gerad pushed the canvas to the floor, where it stirred up dust in the light from his window. “It’s not our fault our great-grandfather or whoever was poor.”
“I know.” It really seemed unreasonable to limit everyone’s life choices based on your ancestors’ ability to help the government, but that was how it all worked out. And I suppose I should just be grateful we were safe. “I guess it was the only way to make things work at the time.”
He didn’t speak. I breathed a sigh and picked up the canvas, setting it back into place. This was his life, and he couldn’t just wipe it away.
“You don’t have to give up your hobbies, buddy. But you want to be able to help Mom and Dad and grow up and get married, right?” I poked his side.
He stuck his tongue out in playful disgust, and we both giggled.
“America!” Mom called down the hall. “What’s taking you so long?”
“Coming,” I yelled back, and then turned to Gerad. “I know it’s hard. It’s just the way it is, okay?”
But I knew it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay at all.
Mom and I walked all the way to the local office. Sometimes we took the public buses if we were going too far or if we were working. It looked bad to show up sweaty at the house of a Two. They already looked at us funny anyway. But it was a nice day out, and the trip was just shy of being too long.
We obviously weren’t the only ones trying to get our submission in right away. By the time we got there, the street in front of the Province of Carolina Services Office was packed with women.
Standing in line, I could see a number of girls from my neighborhood in front of me, waiting to go inside. The trail was nearly four people wide and wrapped halfway around the block. Every girl in the province was signing up. I didn’t know whether to feel terrified or relieved.
“Magda!” someone called. My mother and I both turned at the sound of her name.
Celia and Kamber were walking up behind us with Aspen’s mother. She must have taken the day off to do this. Her daughters were dressed up as neatly as they could afford, looking very tidy. It wasn’t much, but they looked good no matter what they wore, just like Aspen. Kamber and Celia had his same dark hair and beautiful smiles.
Aspen’s mother smiled at me, and I returned her grin. I adored her. I only got to talk to her every once in a while, but she was always nice to me. And I knew it wasn’t because I was a step up from her; I’d seen her give clothes that didn’t fit her kids anymore to families who had next to nothing. She was just kind.
“Hello, Lena. Kamber, Celia, how are you?” Mother greeted them.
“Good!” they sang in unison.
“You guys look beautiful,” I said, placing one of Celia’s curls behind her shoulder.
“We wanted to look pretty for our picture,” Kamber announced.
“Picture?” I asked.