Flawed / Perfect
Flawed / Perfect
FLAWED AND PERFECT Flawed, Perfect 2 Book Collection
This e-book collection first published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2017
Copyright © Cecelia Ahern 2016, 2017
Cover art © HarperCollins Publishers 2016, 2017, Cover Photography: Trevillion Images, Road © Shutterstock
Ebook edition © 2017 ISBN 9780008266103
Table of Contents
About the Publisher
For you, Dad
Table of Contents
FLAWED; faulty, defective, imperfect, blemished, damaged, distorted, unsound, weak, deficient, incomplete, invalid.
(Of a person) having a weakness in character.
I am a girl of definitions, of logic, of black and white.
Never trust a man who sits, uninvited, at the head of the table in another man’s home.
Not my words. The words of my granddad, Cornelius, who, as a result of saying them, landed himself the farthest away from this table, and won’t be welcome back anytime soon. It’s not necessarily what he said that was the problem; it was the person he said it about: Judge Crevan, one of the most powerful men in the country, who is once again, despite my granddad’s comment last year, sitting at the head of our dining table for our annual Earth Day gathering.
Dad returns from the kitchen with a fresh bottle of red wine to find his usual place taken. I can see he is put out by it, but as it’s Judge Crevan, Dad merely stalls in his tracks, jiggles the wine opener in his hand a bit while thinking about what to do, then works his way around the table to sit beside Mum at the other end, where Judge Crevan should have sat. I can tell Mum is nervous. I can tell this because she is more perfect than ever. She doesn’t have a hair out of place on her perfectly groomed head, her blonde locks twisted elaborately into a chignon that only she could do herself, having had to dislocate both shoulders to reach round to the back of her head. Her skin is porcelain, as though she glows, as though she is the purest form of anything. Her make-up is immaculate, her cornflower-blue lace dress a perfect match for her blue eyes, her arms perfectly toned.
In truth, my mum looks this beautiful to most people every day as a model in high demand. Despite having the three of us, her body is as perfect as it always was, though I suspect – I know – that like most people she has had help. The only way you can know that Mum is having a bad day or week is when she arrives home with plumper cheeks, fuller lips, a smoother forehead, or less tired-looking eyes. Altering her appearance is her pick-me-up. She’s pernickety about looks. She judges people by them, sums them up in a sweeping once-over. She is uncomfortable when anything is less than perfect; a crooked tooth, a double chin, an oversized nose – it all makes her question people, distrust them. She’s not alone. Most people feel exactly as she does. She likens it to trying to sell a car without washing it first; it should be gleaming. The same goes for people. Laziness in maintaining their outside represents who they are on the inside. I’m a perfectionist, too, but it doesn’t stretch to physical appearances, merely to language and behaviour, which bugs the hell out of my sister, Juniper, who is the most unspecific person I know. Though she is specifically unspecific – I’ll give her that.
I watch my nervous family’s behaviour with a sense of smugness because I don’t feel an ounce of their tension right now. I’m actually amused. I know Judge Crevan as Bosco, dad to my boyfriend, Art. I’m in his house every day, have been on holidays with him, have been at private family functions, and know him better than my parents do, and most others at that. I’ve seen Bosco first thing in the morning, with his hair tousled and toothpaste stuck to his lip. I’ve seen him in the middle of the night, wandering sleepily in his boxers and socks – he always wears socks in bed – to the bathroom or to the kitchen for a glass of water. I’ve seen him drunk and passed out on the couch, mouth open, hand down the front of his trousers. I have poured popcorn down his shirt and dipped his fingers in warm water while he slept to make him pee. I’ve seen him drunk-dance on the dance floor and sing badly at karaoke. I’ve heard him vomit after a late night. I’ve heard him snore. I’ve smelled his farts and heard him cry. I can’t be afraid of someone whose human side I see and know.
However, my family and the rest of the country see him as a terrifying character to fear and revere. I liken him to one of those talent show judges on TV, an over-exaggerated cartoon character who gets a kick out of being booed. I enjoy mimicking him, much to Art’s delight. He rolls around laughing while I march up and down being Bosco in judge mode; whooshing my homemade cape around my neck, making scrunched-up, scowling faces and finger-pointing. Bosco loves a good finger-point whenever the camera is on. I’m convinced the scary-judge persona, while important for his job, is all an act; it’s not his natural state of being. He also does a mean cannonball into the pool.
Bosco, known to everyone else but me and Art as Judge Crevan, is the head judge of a committee named the Guild. The Guild, originally set up as a temporary public inquiry into wrong-doing, is now a permanent fixture that oversees the inquisition of individuals accused of being Flawed. The Flawed are regular citizens who have made moral or ethical mistakes.
I’ve never been to the court, but it is open to the public and available to watch on TV. It’s a fair process because in addition to witnesses of the event in question, friends and family are called to testify on the accused’s character. On Naming Day, the judges decide whether the accused is Flawed. If so, their flaws are publicly named and their skin is seared with the F brand in one of five places. The branding location depends on their error of judgement.
For bad decisions, it’s their temple.
For lying, it’s their tongue.
For stealing from society, it’s their right palm.
For disloyalty to the Guild, it’s their chest, over their heart.
For stepping out of line with society, it’s the sole of their right foot.
They also have to wear an armband on their sleeve with the red letter F at all times so they can be identified by the public and set an example. They are not imprisoned; they haven’t done anything illegal, but they have carried out acts that are seen as damaging to society. They still live among us, only ostracised, and under separate rules.
After our country slid into great economic turmoil because of what was believed to be the bad decisions of our leaders, the Guild’s main aim at its origin was to remove Flawed people from leadership roles. It now manages to oust people before they even get into those roles so damage can’t be done. In the near future, the Guild boasts, we will have a morally, ethically flawless society. Judge Bosco Crevan is seen as a hero to many.
Art gets his good looks from his dad – blonde hair, blue eyes – and with his messy blonde curls that can’t be controlled and big blue eyes that twinkle like a naughty imp’s, he always looks like he’s up to mischief, because he usually is. He sits directly opposite me at the dining table, and I have to stop myself from watching him all the time, while inside I’m jumping up and down that he’s mine. Thankfully, he doesn’t share his dad’s intensity. He knows how to have fun and let loose, always throwing in a funny comment when the conversation gets too serious. He has good timing. Even Bosco laughs. Art is like a light to me, illuminating the darkest corners of everything.
On this April day every year, we celebrate Earth Day with our neighbours the Crevans and the Tinders. Earth Day celebrations are something Juniper and I have always loved since we were kids, counting down the days on our calendar, planning what we’re going to wear, decorating the house and setting the table. This year I am more excited than ever because it’s the first year Art and I are officially together. Not that I plan on groping him under the table or anything, but having my boyfriend here makes it more exciting.
Dad is the head of a twenty-four-hour TV station, News 24, and our neighbour and other dinner guest Bob Tinder is the editor of The Daily News newspaper, both of which are owned by Crevan Media, so the three of them mix business with pleasure. The Tinders are always late. I don’t know how Bob manages to stick to publication deadlines when he can never make it to dinner on time. It’s the same every year. We’ve had an hour of drinks already in the parlour and hope that moving to the dining room will somehow magically hurry them up. We’re now sitting here with three empty chairs, their daughter, Colleen, who’s in my class, being the third guest.
“We should start,” Bosco says suddenly, looking up from his phone, ending the casual chat and sitting up more formally.
“The dinner is okay,” Mum says, taking her newly filled glass of wine from Dad. “I allowed for a little delay.” She smiles.
“We should start,” Bosco says again.
“Are you in a rush?” Art asks, looking quizzically at Bosco, who suddenly seems fidgety. “The trouble with being punctual is that there’s nobody there to see it,” Art says, and everyone laughs. “As I should know, waiting for this girl all the time.” He gives my foot a light tap under the table.
“No,” I disagree. “Punctual is acting or arriving exactly at the time appointed. You’re not punctual; you’re always ridiculously early.”
“The early bird catches the worm,” Art defends himself.
“But the second mouse gets the cheese,” I reply, and Art sticks his tongue out at me.
My little brother, Ewan, giggles. Juniper rolls her eyes.
Bosco, seemingly frustrated by our conversation, interrupts and repeats, “Summer, Cutter, we should start the meal now.”
The way he says it makes us all stop laughing immediately and turn to look at him. It was an order.
“Dad,” Art says in surprise, with an awkward half laugh. “What are you, the food police?”
Bosco doesn’t break his stare with Mum. This has an odd effect on everybody at the table, creates a tense atmosphere, the kind you sense in the air just before the thunder rolls. Heavy, humid, headache-inducing.
“You don’t think we should wait for Bob and Angelina?” Dad asks.
“And Colleen,” I add, and Juniper rolls her eyes again. She hates that I pick on every little detail, but I can’t help it.
“No, I don’t think so,” he says simply, firmly, not adding any more.
“Okay,” Mum says, standing and making her way to the kitchen, all calm and placid as if nothing has happened at all, which tells me that, underneath, her legs are paddling wildly.
I look at Art in confusion and know that he feels the tension, too, because I can sense a new joke forming in his mouth, the thing he does when he feels awkward or scared or uncomfortable. I see how his lip has started to curl at the thought of his punch line, but I never get to hear what he has to say because then we hear the siren.
The siren rings out, long, low, warning. It makes me jump in my seat, startled, and it sends my heart beating wildly, every inch of me sensing danger. It is a sound I have known my entire life, a sound you never want directed at you. The Guild calls it the alert signal, a three- to five-minute continuous siren, which rings out from the Guild vans, and though I’ve never lived through any war, it gives me a sense of how people must have felt then before being attacked. In the middle of any normal moment, it can invade your happy thoughts.
The siren sounds close to home and it feels sinister. We all momentarily freeze at the table, then Juniper, being Juniper, who speaks before thinking and is clumsy in her actions, jumps up first, bumps the table, and sends the glasses wobbling. Red wine sploshes on to the white linen like blobs of blood. She doesn’t bother to apologise or clean it, she just runs straight out of the room. Dad is close behind her.
Mum looks completely startled, frozen in time. Drained of all colour, she looks at Bosco, and I think she’s going to faint. She doesn’t even try to stop Ewan from running out the door.
The siren gets louder; it’s coming closer. Art jumps up, then so do I, and I follow him down the hall and outside to where they’ve all gathered in a tight huddle in the front yard. The same is happening in each yard around us, old Mr and Mrs Miller in the yard to the right of us hold each other tightly, looking terrified, waiting to see whose house the siren will stop at. Directly across the road, Bob Tinder opens his door and steps outside. He sees Dad, and they look at each other. There’s something there, but I don’t quite understand it. At first, I think Dad is angry with Bob, but then Bob’s face holds the same stare. I can’t read them. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s a waiting game. Who will it be?
Art grips my hand tightly, squeezes it for reassurance and tries to give me one of his winning smiles, but it’s wobbly, and too quick, and only carries the opposite effect. The sirens are almost on top of us now, the sounds in our ears, in our heads. The vans turn on to our road. Two black vehicles with bright red F symbols branding their sides, letting everybody know who they are. The Whistleblowers are the army of the Guild, sent out to protect society from the Flawed. They are not our official police; they are responsible for taking into custody those who are morally and ethically Flawed. Criminals go to prison; they have nothing to do with the Flawed court system.
The emergency lights on the van roofs spin around, rotating their red lights, so bright they almost light up the dusk sky, sending out a warning beacon to all. Clusters of families celebrating Earth Day cling to one another, hoping it’s not them, hoping one of theirs won’t be plucked from them. Not their family, not their home, not tonight. The two vans stop in the middle of the road, directly outside our house, and I feel my body start to shake. The sirens stop.
“No,” I whisper.
“They can’t take us,” Art whispers to me, and his face is so sure, so certain, that I believe him. Of course they can’t take us, we have Judge Crevan sitting in our home for dinner. We are practically untouchable. This helps my fear somewhat, but then anxiety turns to the poor, unfortunate person they are targeting. This surprises me, because I’ve always believed that the Flawed are wrong, that the Whistleblowers are on my side, protecting me. But because it is happening on my street, at my front door, that changes. It makes me feel it’s us against them. This illogical, dangerous thinking makes me shudder.
The van doors slide open, and the whistles sound as four uniformed Whistleblowers leap out, wearing their signature red vests over black combat boots and shirts. They keep blowing their whistles as they move, which has the effect of numbing my mind and stopping me from being able to form a single thought. In my head is just panic. Perhaps that’s the intention. The Whistleblowers run, and I stand frozen.
But they don’t run to us; they go in the opposite direction, to the Tinders’ house.
“No, no, no,” Dad says, and I can hear the surge of anger in his voice.
“Oh my God,” Juniper whispers.
I look at Art in shock, waiting for his reaction, but he stares ahead intently, his jaw working overtime. And then I notice Mum and Bosco still haven’t joined us outside.
I let go of Art’s hand and rush back to the door. “Mum, Bosco, quick! It’s the Tinders!”
As Mum races down the corridor, hair from her chignon comes loose and falls across her face. Dad acknowledges her and shares a look that means something only to the two of them, his fists opening and closing by his side. There is no sign of Bosco joining us.
“I don’t understand,” I say, watching as they approach Bob Tinder. “What’s going on?”
“Shh and watch,” Juniper silences me.
Colleen Tinder is now in the front yard with her dad, Bob, and her two little brothers, Timothy and Jacob. Bob stands in front of his children, blocking them, protecting them, puffing his chest up and out against the Whistleblowers. Not his family, not his home, not tonight.
“They can’t take the babies,” Mum says, her voice sounding slow and far away, so that I know she is right here and panicking.
“They won’t,” Dad says. “It’s him. It must be him.”
But the officers walk straight by Bob, ignoring him, ignoring the terrified children, who have started to cry, and waving a sheet of paper in his face, which he stalls to read. They enter the house. Suddenly realising what is happening, he tosses the piece of paper in the air and chases after them. He shouts at Colleen to look after the boys, which is a hard task because they’re starting to panic now, too.
“I’ll help her,” Juniper says, making a move, but Dad grips her arm tight. “Ow!” she yelps.
“Stay here,” Dad says in a voice I’ve never heard him use before.
Suddenly there’s screaming from inside the house. It’s Angelina Tinder. Mum’s hands fly to her face. A slip in her mask.
“No! No!” Angelina wails over and over again until, finally, we see her at the door, held at both sides by a Whistleblower. She is almost ready for our dinner, wearing a black satin dress, pearls around her neck. Her hair is in curlers. She is wearing jewelled sandals. She is dragged from her home. The boys start to scream as they watch their mother being taken away. They run to her and try to reach her, but the Whistleblowers hold them back.
“Get your hands off my sons!” Bob yells, attacking them, but he’s pushed to the ground, pinned down by two large Whistleblowers as Angelina screams wildly with desperation not to be taken away from her babies. I have never heard a human cry out like that before, have never heard a sound like it before. She stumbles and the Whistleblowers catch her and she limps along, the heel of her shoe broken.
Bob shouts at them from the ground. “Let her have some dignity, goddammit.”
She’s taken inside the van. The door slides shut. The sound of the whistles stops.
I’ve never heard a man cry like Bob. The Whistleblowers holding him down speak to him in low, calm voices. He stops yelling, but his crying continues. They finally let him go and disappear into the second van. They drive away.
My heart is pounding, and I can barely breathe. I cannot believe what I’m seeing.
I wait for the outpouring of love from my neighbours. We are a tight, close-knit community; we support one another. I look around and wait. People watch Bob sit up in the grass, pulling his children close and crying. Nobody moves. I want to ask why no one is doing anything, but it seems stupid, because I’m not, either. I can’t bring myself to. Though being Flawed isn’t a crime, aiding or assisting a Flawed carries the risk of imprisonment. Bob isn’t Flawed, his wife is accused, but still, everyone is afraid to get involved. Our neighbours Mr and Mrs Miller turn around and head back into their house, and most of the others follow suit. My mouth falls open, shocked.
“Damn you!” Bob shouts across the road. It is quiet at first, and I think he’s saying it to himself, and then I figure as he says it louder he’s saying it to the vans that have disappeared, but as he gets even louder and the anger increases, I see he’s directing it at us. What did we do?
“Stay here,” Dad says to us, then he gives Mum a long look. “Everybody, back inside. Keep it calm, yes?”
Mum nods, and her face is serene as if nothing has happened; the mask is back on, the loose strands of hair already back in place, though I don’t recall her fixing it.
As I turn around to look back into my house, I see Bosco standing inside at the window, arms crossed, watching the scene unfold. And I realise it’s him that Bob is shouting at. Bosco, the head of the Guild, is the head of the organisation that took Angelina away.
He can help; I know it. He’s the head of the Flawed court. He will be able to help. It will all be okay. Normality can resume. The world will be turned the right way round again. Things will make sense. Knowing this, my breathing starts to return to normal again.
As Dad nears Bob, the shouting dies down, but the crying continues, a heartbreaking sound.
When you see something, it can’t be unseen. When you hear a sound, it can never be unheard. I know, deep down, that this evening I have learned something that can never be unlearned. And the part of my world that is altered will never be the same.
“Let’s address the elephant in the room,” Bosco says suddenly, reaching for the red wine and filling his glass generously. He insisted we all sit back down at the table, though there isn’t anyone who feels hungry after what we’ve just witnessed. Dad is still with Bob. Mum is in the kitchen preparing the main course.
“I don’t understand,” I say to Bosco. “Angelina Tinder is accused of being Flawed?”
“Mmm-hmm,” he says good-naturedly, his blue eyes dancing as he looks at me. It’s almost as if he is enjoying my reaction.
“But, Angelina is—”
Mum drops a plate in the kitchen, and it smashes and it stops me in my tracks. Was that a warning from her? To tell me to stop talking?
“I’m okay!” she calls, too chirpily.
“What were you going to say about Angelina, Celestine?” Bosco eyes me carefully.
I swallow. I was going to say that she is nice, that she is kind, that she has young children and she’s a great mum and that they need her, that she has never said or done anything wrong in all of the time I’ve spent with her. That she’s the most talented piano player I’ve ever heard, that I hoped I could play just like her when I’m older. But I don’t because of the way Bosco is looking at me and because Mum never usually breaks anything. Instead I say, “But she teaches me piano.”
Juniper tuts beside me in disgust. I can’t even look at Art I’m so disappointed in myself.
Bosco laughs. “We can find you a new teacher, dear Celestine. Though you raise a good point. Perhaps we should think about stopping Angelina from playing. Instruments are a luxury the Flawed don’t deserve.” He tucks into his starter and takes a huge bite of carpaccio, the only person at the table even holding his cutlery. “Come to think of it, I hope that’s all she was teaching you,” Bosco says, his smiling eyes gone.
“Yes, of course,” I say, frowning, confused that he would even question that. “What did she do wrong?”
“Taught you the piano,” Art teases. “Her downfall, if anyone’s heard you.”
Ewan giggles. I smile at Art, thankful for the break in nervous tension.
“It’s not funny,” Juniper says beside me, quietly but firmly.
Bosco’s eyes move to her immediately. “You’re correct, Juniper. It’s not funny.”
Juniper averts her eyes.
And the tension is back.
“No, it’s not funny, comical, but it’s funny, peculiar,” I say, feeling slapped.
“Thank you, Thesaurus,” Juniper says under her breath. It’s what she always calls me when I get bogged down by definitions.
Bosco ignores me and continues to direct his gaze at my sister. “Did Angelina teach you, too, Juniper?”
Juniper looks him square in the eye. “Yes, she did. Best teacher I ever had.”
There’s a silence.
Mum enters the room. Perfect timing. “I must say, I was very fond of Angelina. I considered her a friend. I’m … shocked by this … event.”
“I did, too, Summer, and believe me no one feels more pain than I do in this moment, seeing as I am the one who will have to tell her the verdict.”
“You won’t just tell her, though, will you?” Juniper says quietly. “It will be your verdict. Your decision.”
I’m afraid of Juniper’s tone. This is not the correct moment for one of her soapbox airings. I don’t want her to annoy Bosco. He’s someone who should be treated with respect. Juniper’s language feels dangerous. I’ve never seen anyone speak to Bosco in this way.
“You just never know what those among us, those we consider friends, are really like,” Bosco says, eyes on Juniper. “What lurks beneath those you consider your equals. I see it every day.”
“What did Angelina do?” I ask again.
“As you may well know, Angelina travelled outside this country with her mother a few months ago to perform euthanasia, which is illegal here.”
“But she accompanied her mother on her mother’s wishes, to another country where it was legal,” Juniper says. “She didn’t do anything to break the law.”
“Nor is the Guild a legal courtroom, merely an inquisition into her character, and we feel that in making the decision to travel to another country to carry out the act, she is deemed to have a Flawed character. Had the government known her plans, it would have had a case to stop her.”
There’s silence at the table while we take this in. I knew that Angelina’s mother had been terribly sick for years; she had been suffering with a debilitating disease. I had not known how she had met the end of her days, but we had all been at the funeral.
“The Guild doesn’t take religious views into account, of course,” he continues, perhaps sensing our doubts on his judgement. “We merely assess the character of a person. And strictly observing the accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, in allowing Angelina Tinder to return to this country having done what she did, the Guild would be sanctioning anguish and pain. Whether or not it was in a different country and whether it was legal or not are beside the point. It is her character that we must look at.”
Juniper just snorts in response.
What is it with her? I hate this about my sister. In everybody else’s opinion, we are identical. Though she is eleven months older than I am, we really could pass for twins. However, if you knew us, we would never get away with it, because Juniper gives herself away as soon as she opens her mouth. Like my granddad, she doesn’t know when to shut up.
“Did you know that Angelina Tinder was planning on travelling to kill her mother?” Bosco asks, leaning forward, elbows on the table, focussing on Juniper.
“Of course she didn’t know,” Mum says, her voice coming out as a whisper, and I know she’s only doing that because otherwise she would be shouting.
Juniper stares down at her untouched starter, and I silently beg her to keep quiet. This isn’t fun. A room full of people I love, and my heart is pounding as if something dangerous is happening.
“Will Angelina be branded?” I ask, still in shock that I could actually know a Flawed person, have one live right on this street.
“If found guilty on Naming Day, yes, she will be branded,” Bosco says. Then to Mum, “I’ll do everything to keep it out of the press for Bob’s sake, of course, which won’t be difficult, as the Jimmy Child case is taking over all the airwaves. Nobody cares about a Flawed piano teacher right now.”
Jimmy Child is a football hero who was caught cheating on his wife with her sister for the past ten years and faces a Flawed verdict, which would be disastrous, as it would mean he couldn’t travel overseas for matches. Among the many punishments the Flawed face, they must give up their passports.
“I’m sure Bob will appreciate your discretion,” Mum says, and it sounds so smooth and easy that I know she really feels awkward and stilted in her mind.
“I hope so,” Bosco says, nodding. “I certainly hope so.”
“Where will she be branded?” I ask, obsessed with this. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it and can’t understand why nobody else is asking questions. Apart from Juniper, of course, but hers are more accusing than anything else.
“Celestine,” Mum says harshly, “I don’t think we need to discuss—”
“Her right hand,” Bosco says.
“Theft from society,” I say.
“Indeed. And every hand she goes to shake from now on will know just what she is.”
“If she’s found Flawed. Innocent until proved guilty,” Juniper says, like she’s reminding him.
But we all know Angelina Tinder has no chance. Everyone who goes through the Flawed court is found guilty; otherwise, they wouldn’t be taken in the first place. Unlike Juniper, I understand rules. There is a line, a moral one, and Angelina crossed it, but I just can’t believe that I could know someone who is Flawed, that I could sit in her house beside her at her piano, a piano she touched then I touched with my own fingers. I want to wash my hands immediately. I try to think back on our last conversation, all our conversations, to see if she showed any hint of a dent in her character. I wonder about her daughter, Colleen. Can I still talk to her at school? Probably best not to. But that doesn’t feel right, either. I’m conflicted.
“Where is Cutter?” Bosco suddenly says, looking at Mum angrily.
“He’s with B. I’m sure he’ll be back soon,” she says politely.
“That doesn’t look good,” he says. “He should be here.”
“I’m sure he’ll be—”
“I hope she can still play piano,” Juniper interrupts Mum, out of nowhere. “With her hand seared.”
“Do you feel sorry for her?” Bosco asks, his irritation rising.
“Of course she doesn’t,” Art pipes up, mouth full of food, knife and fork squeezed between his huge man hands and pointing up at the ceiling like he’s a caveman. He waves them around as he talks, food spraying off and flying on to the table. “We’re all just shocked, Dad, that’s all. I mean, come on, you could have given us a head’s up that our dinner guests were about to be taken away? When that siren went off, poor Celestine looked like she thought she was about to get carted away to the madhouse, which between me and you is where she belongs, but she doesn’t need to know that.”
He says it so easily, so fresh, so well judged that it seems to remind Bosco of where he is: in his neighbour’s dining room with his son, and not in his courtroom.
“Of course.” Bosco looks confused for a moment, and then he looks at Ewan, who has been remarkably quiet at the table. He reaches out a hand and pats my hand warmly. “Sorry, dear Celestine, I didn’t mean to scare you. Let’s start again, shall we?” He picks up his glass of red wine and holds it in the air with a beaming smile. “Happy Earth Day.”
When I hear that the quiet murmuring has ended in my parents’ bedroom, which lasted decidedly longer tonight than usual after the evening’s events, and the house has settled for the night, I make my way to the summit, where Art and I have been meeting most nights for the past three months.
I have spent more time with the Crevans over the past few months than with my own family, often wishing I could stay with them for good. I feel like I fit in with them more, that everything with them is logical and makes sense. I have always believed in the workings of the Guild. I am one of Bosco’s greatest supporters. I like to hear him regale people with stories of the courthouse over dinner, how he Ousted a charity board member for taking a golden payment pension package, or branded a celebrity who’d made millions from the sale of her fitness DVD but was discovered as having a secret tummy tuck. Every day, he has interesting stories coming through his courtroom, and I love sitting down and hearing about them. I understand what he is doing. He is preventing people from being deceived. I know the difference between right and wrong. I understand the rules. But today I feel that the rules have been blurred, because today they were literally on my front doorstep.
It is eleven pm. The summit overlooks the sleeping capital city. We live in a valley surrounded by mountains. Atop one of those mountains, Highland Castle dominates the city. Lit by powerful red uplighters at night, it watches over us menacingly. There since 1100 AD and once the seat of the High Kings, Highland Castle is a fortress. It stands above us all, the tallest round tower in the world, its powerful eye seeing far and wide. The scene of centuries of invasions and massacres, it now houses state conferences and dinners, guided tours of its architecture, museums of ancient artefacts, and, of course more famously now, the offices of the Guild.
We sit on the summit opposite the castle; to the left of us, the lights of more cities dot the night and stretch on for ever, the castle keeping its watchful eye on them all. To the right are farmland and industry, where my granddad lives. Humming is the largest and capital city of Highland, and it is rich in history and beauty. Tourists flock from all over the world to visit our city, our bridges, our fairytale castle and palace, our cobblestoned pathways and our ornate town square. Most of its buildings have survived the violence and destruction of the twentieth century, and it is a hub for appreciators of our Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance-era architecture. Humming Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world. At thirty feet wide and over six hundred yards long and built in the fourteenth century, it crosses the river and leads to Highland Castle. It, too, is a beauty at night, lit up at its six arches, three bridge towers and the statues from our history lining the bridge to protect it.
I like to travel the world on holidays, but I intend to continue to live here after school. Art and I have talked about it. We want to study at the city university: me, mathematics; him, science. We have it all worked out. Juniper wants to leave as soon as she can, become a snowboard instructor in Switzerland by winter, a lifeguard in Portugal by summer, or something like that.
Art says he likes going to the summit because it gives him perspective. He’s had a tough year. His mother passed away, and I think this place helps him rise above the worries on the ground, to look at them from a height, detached from his grief, which is lessening with the months. I, on the other hand, see it as a place where it is Art and me against the rest of the world. While the one million people sleep in the city below us, Art and I are together, and it makes our bond even stronger. It makes me feel invincible, alive. I know how the castle feels watching over everybody: untouchable.
It is only over the past six months that I have felt this way about Art. We have been friends since we were twelve; when we started school together the teacher placed us beside each other on the first day. We hung out together in a group, me with the girls and him with the boys, yet we always found ourselves side by side. We would never have met up alone despite living across the road from each other. It was only a year ago, when his mum passed away, that Art suddenly began to seek me out, not caring about the others’ perception of us. We’d come here together and talk, him grieving and slowly coming to terms with his mum’s death; he watched her slowly die of cancer. And then the grieving gradually flickered out, stopped being the main reason for our meeting… and it became something else.
The rush of butterflies when I saw him, the silly smile that would appear on my face at the very thought of him, the nervous bubbles in my stomach, the jolt of electricity when his skin brushed mine. Suddenly I cared about what I wore, what I said, how I looked. This didn’t go unnoticed, particularly by Juniper, who watched me each day as I obsessed over my reflection before I dashed out of the house. Art noticed, too, and then I stopped flustering over myself for a moment to notice it in him. We’ve been together for three months.
I finally reach the summit, and seeing his shape lit by the moon turns me into jelly as usual. He is always early, always waiting for me, sitting on a blanket, his face a picture of perfect concentration as he gazes out on the sleeping city below. Perfect is a word I use a lot to describe Art or any moment with him.
“Hello, early bird,” I say.
He looks up, the sadness replaced with a smile. And do I see relief?
“Hello, mouse. If you’re looking for your cheese, I ate it.”
“Worms and cheese,” I say, sitting beside him on the blanket. “Yum.”
“This is yum,” he murmurs, pulling me closer for another, longer, more passionate kiss.
I feel there is something different about him tonight. I pull away slowly and study his face, his eyes.
“How about we make a deal to not talk about tonight?”
“Good idea,” I sigh. “I have a headache just thinking about it.”
He kisses my forehead and leaves his lips there. We’re both silent, lost in our thoughts, both obviously thinking about the sights and sounds of Angelina Tinder being dragged away. We can’t stay quiet for long. Art pulls away.
“My dad …” He trails off, looking out at the tips of roofs and chimneys and I see his anguish over what happened tonight. Ever since his mum passed away I’ve seen it as my role to make him feel better, to get rid of the sadness. And despite my conflicted feelings about this evening, I need to pull it together for him.
“Look, Juniper should not have spoken to him the way she did, but you know what Juniper is like. She needs to learn how to keep her trap shut. She’s just like my granddad.”
“Juniper was only saying what she thought,” he says to my absolute surprise.
“She shouldn’t be saying these things to him.”
He smiles sadly. “Everything is so black and white to you, Celestine. We’re neighbours; we were in your dining room celebrating Earth Day, not his courtroom. And he must have known that was going to happen to Angelina tonight. I mean, why wouldn’t he at least tell her, if not us? They’re friends. At least she could have been ready and not dragged out like that in front of her family, her kids …”
I’m surprised to hear this from him. Art has never spoken out about his dad. They’re buddies, a team, the only two left, a connection made stronger after his mum died. They’re survivors, or at least that’s how they act. The two who came out of her loss alive. I can see he is as confused about all this as I am.
“He was following the rules,” I say simply, and I know it’s not good enough. It doesn’t feel good enough to me, but it’s the truth. “What happened to Angelina was horrible, but I don’t think you can blame your dad for that.”
“No?” he asks, bitterness in his voice.
“It’s his job. A Flawed being taken into custody happens almost every day somewhere in this country. Your dad is under pressure to maintain perfection. What would happen if he turned a blind eye to some and not to others?” I ask, airing some of my own thoughts. “I mean, what then? Judge Crevan on trial for being Flawed for missing a Flawed?”
Art looks at me. “I never thought about it like that.”
“Well, you should. Because he’s your dad. And he’s powerful. And some people adore him, practically worship him. And that makes it harder for you to have a dad like that, but that’s who you’ve got, and he loves you so much. And he’s one half of what made you, and that makes him a genius.”
He smiles, takes my face in his hands, makes a disgusted face. “I don’t really want to think of his part in making me, thank you very much.”
“Gross.” I laugh.
“Black and white.”
“All the way.” I smile, but my smile feels a bit wobbly, my footing not as sure as it was before. Convincing Art is easier than convincing myself.
Art clears his throat. “I wasn’t going to do this until your birthday, but after tonight … I think you deserve it now more than ever.”
He lifts his left leg and moves it beside me, pulling me in closer to him so that I am trapped between his thighs. Suddenly my uncertainty disappears and I am right where I want to be.
“I got you this for your eighteenth birthday, but I want to give it to you now to let you know that despite everything else going on in the world, you are the one thing that makes sense to me. You are beautiful.” He runs his finger down my cheek, across my nose, over my lips. “You are clever, you are loyal.” He drops his hand and hands me a small velvet box.
My hands are shaking so much I’m embarrassed. I open it and lift out the delicate silver chain, so fine I’m afraid I’ll break it. On the end is a symbol.
“And you are perfect,” he whispers, and it sends a shiver running through me, and my skin breaks out in goose bumps.
I examine the symbol, unable to believe what I see.
“I had a man at Highland Castle make it for me specially. You know what it means?”
I nod. “Circles are regarded as a symbol of perfection. All the radii bear a ratio of one to one to each other, showing there are no partial differences between them. They are proved to be in a state of harmony. Geometric harmony.”
“Perfection,” he says again, softly. “It’s hard to get one up on the mathematician, you know.” He laughs. “I had to do a lot of research. I think my brain is still sore.”
I laugh through my growing tears. “Thank you.” My words come out as a whisper. I attempt to wrap it around my wrist, but he stops me.
“No. Here.” He takes it from my trembling hands, and he uncrosses my ankles delicately. He moves back from me and straightens my leg, sliding my jeans up my leg slowly, his fingers warm on my skin. He fastens the chain around my ankle, and then he moves forward again, closer this time, wrapping my legs around him.
He lifts my chin and we are nose-to-nose, the moonlight between us. He tilts his head and kisses me softly, smoothly, sweetly. His lips are succulent, his tongue delicious, and I lift my hands through his hair and am lost in him, in this moment.
When I think back to that moment, my heart soars as it did then, and everything is heightened, magical, musical and mystical, almost too good to be true. I could live that moment for ever, his lips on mine, our bodies pushed together, both of us hungry for more, our future as wide open as the vista before us, as bright as the moon. It was just us on top of the sleeping world, invincible, untouchable.
It was the most perfect moment in my life.
It was the last perfect moment in my life.
I wake up, and the first thing I do is slide my leg out from under the duvet to check my ankle. Anklet still there. It was not a dream, not some juicy figment of my imagination that dissolves as soon as I wake. I snuggle down under the covers to relive it in my head and then realise that delaying this morning would delay spending time with Art. He will be waiting for me, as he always is, at the bus stop, where we will go on to school together.
Despite my joy, my sleep was fitful, with so much to absorb after the Angelina Tinder scene. I feel unsteady on my feet as I get dressed. Something has been shaken, stirred within me. My feeling of security has been tested, and perhaps my trust, though not with Art, whom I trust more than ever. Oddly, I think it is with my own self.
I don’t need to think when I dress; I never do, not like Juniper, who is swearing and sighing as she pulls yet another outfit over her head in frustration, never happy with how she looks. She gets up half an hour earlier than I do just to get dressed and still ends up being late every morning.
Most people who don’t know our personalities can’t distinguish between me and Juniper. With a black dad and a white mum, we have both inherited Dad’s skin. We also both have Dad’s brown eyes, his nose and his hair colouring. We have Mum’s cheekbones, her long limbs. She tried to get us into modelling when we were younger, and Juniper and I did a few shoots together, but neither of us could stay at it. Me because posing for a camera failed to intellectually stimulate me, Juniper because she was even more awkward and clumsy under people’s gazes.
When it comes to how we act, how we dress and everything else about us, though, we couldn’t be further apart.
I put on a cream linen dress and baby-pink cashmere cardigan, with gold gladiator sandals that spiral up my legs. It’s hot outside, and I always wear pastel colours. Mum likes to buy pastels for all the family. She thinks that we look more like a unit when we’re dressed that way. I know of some families who hire stylists to help co-ordinate not just the clothes but their overall look as a family. None of us wants to look out of place or like we don’t belong, though Juniper often likes to do her own thing, wearing something that’s not a part of our family colour palette. We let her do just that – her loss, though Mum worries that it makes us look fragmented. I think the only person who looks fragmented is Juniper.
As usual, I’m downstairs before my sister. Ewan is at the table eating breakfast. He’s wearing cream linen trousers and a baby- pink T-shirt, and I feel happy we match. A good start to the day.
Mum is staring at the TV, not moving.
“Look what I got last night,” I sing.
No one looks.
“Yoo-hoo.” I circle my ankle in the air, graceful like a ballerina.
Ewan finally looks at me, then down at my ankle, which I’m dangling near his face.
“A bracelet,” he says, bored.
“No. A bracelet is an ornamental band for the wrist, Ewan. This is an anklet.”
“Whatever, Thesaurus.” He rolls his eyes and continues watching TV.
“Art gave it to me,” I sing loudly, floating by Mum to get milk for my cereal from the fridge.
“Wonderful, sweetheart,” she says robotically, as though she hasn’t heard at all.
I stop and stare at her. She is completely engrossed in the TV. I finally pay attention and see it’s News 24, and Pia Wang is reporting live from Highland Castle. Pia Wang is the correspondent for the Guild. She covers every case in extreme detail, providing a profile of the Flawed, during the trial and after. It’s never a favourable profile, either. She does a good job of burying whomever she wants, though to her credit, she’s covering Flawed cases, people who have made bad decisions, so she’s not exactly trying to glamourise them.
I look out the window. Dad’s car is gone. He must have been alerted to the story and had to take off early. That happens a lot.
“This case has garnered more attention than any other,” Pia says, her face perfect with peach-blush cheeks. She is wearing peach, and she looks like you could eat her, a perfect china doll. Glossy black hair, a fringe framing her innocent-looking, petite face. So perfect. “Even gaining attention around the rest of the world, which is reflected here in the turnout outside the Guild court in Highland Castle, with record numbers of people turning out to support their football hero Jimmy Child, Humming City’s best striker, who has led us to victory for so many years. And today he is victorious again, as he left the court only moments ago having been deemed by Judge Crevan and his associates not to be Flawed. I repeat, breaking news to those who have just joined us: Jimmy Child is not Flawed.”
“What?” I say. “Has that ever happened before?”
Mum finally breaks her stare from the TV. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I … maybe once,” she says vaguely.
“Not a surprising result when a Crevan owns a share in the football team,” Juniper says suddenly from behind us. I turn to her.
Mum’s face looks pained. “Juniper …” she says simply.
“Damon Crevan. Owns a fifty-five per cent stake in Humming City, but I suppose everyone will tell me that’s just coincidence. If you ask me, it was his wife they put on trial,” Juniper says. “And that dirty man got away with it.”
Nobody disagrees. Jimmy Child’s glamorous wife has been on the front page of every newspaper for the past few weeks as her lifestyle was thrashed out for all to see. Every aspect of her, every inch of her body, was fodder for gossip sites and even news sites.
“Go to school,” Mum says in a warning tone. “Any more talk like that and they’ll come for you, missy.” She clips Juniper’s nose playfully.
She was almost right.
When I step outside, I see Colleen standing at her family’s car. The front door of her house is open, and she looks like she’s waiting. I guess she won’t be going to school today, probably heading to the courthouse to her mum’s trial. My heart beats wildly as I try to figure out what to do. If I say hello, I might get in trouble. Anybody could see me speaking to her from their home, and I might be reported. What if Bosco sees me from one of the windows of his monstrous mansion, or as he leaves for work? Saying hi may be seen as disloyalty towards the Guild, as support for her and her mum. Would that be seen as aiding and assisting a Flawed? I don’t want to go to prison. But if I ignore her, it will be rude. It is Colleen’s mother who’s Flawed, not her. She looks over at me and I can’t do it. I look away quickly.
Behind me I hear Juniper say, “Good luck today,” to Colleen. It annoys me how easily she does it and then puts on her headphones and ignores everyone.
Art is already at the bus stop waiting for me, as usual, looking delicious, as usual. I leap on him as soon as I get to him.
He kisses me, but I pull away quickly, excited to discuss the news.
“Did you hear about Jimmy Child?”
I expect Art to be elated. Jimmy Child is his hero, and up until a year ago he had his posters plastered all over his walls. Most boys did. Throughout the trial, Art had the opportunity to meet him, though a quick meet and greet in a holding cell before court wasn’t what he’d been dreaming of throughout his boyhood, and he hadn’t wanted to discuss it much.
“Yeah,” he says. “Dad left at the crack of dawn this morning. He wanted to push the verdict through first thing, in time for the morning news.”
I think about how I should have said hello to Colleen; I should have known Bosco wasn’t home to have seen me, he was at court early, and what harm would it have done anyway to simply say hello? I’m angry with myself.
“I can smell your brain burning. You okay?” He sticks his knuckle into my frown and screws it around.
I laugh. “Yeah, I was just thinking. I didn’t know they had secret Naming Days. I thought it was always public. That’s so sneaky.”
“Not as sneaky as you and me,” Art says, fingers creeping up my top.
I laugh and stop his hand from travelling, something suddenly on my mind. I look over at Juniper, who is listening to her music so loudly I can hear every word from here.
I lower my voice. “Do you think Jimmy Child’s wife was put on trial?”
“Serena Child?” he asks, surprised.
“Yeah. When you think about it –” because I have been thinking about it, ever since Juniper said it, and on the walk to the bus stop with my new wobbly legs that haven’t been working since I stood up this morning – “every day it wasn’t about him or about what he’d done, but about how she was so annoying and so fake and such a woman, how could he not cheat?”
Art laughs. “I don’t think that’s exactly what Pia said.” He smiles at me fondly. “‘Reporting live,’” he says, imitating Pia. “‘Isn’t Serena Child such a woman? How could he not cheat?’”
I laugh, realising how stupid it sounds, then turn serious, wanting to be understood. “No, but the way they talked about her looks. The surgery. The clothes. Her past … her cellulite. She’d kissed a girl – so what? Her tan being too orange, her eating disorder when she was fifteen. She went to school with someone who ended up being a bank robber. She never cooked a meal for her husband. He had to keep going to that diner. We learned everything about her. Like she was the one who was Flawed. Not him.”
Art laughs again, enjoying the ridiculousness of what I’m saying, or perhaps the fact that it’s so surprisingly out of character for me to say it at all. “And why would they put her on trial?”
“So he gets away with not being Flawed. People say she wasn’t a good wife, so how could he not have cheated? And the star player is still the star.”
His smile instantly fades, and he looks at me like he doesn’t know me. “Celestine, be careful.”
I shrug like I don’t care, but my heart is pounding from even saying this aloud. “I was just saying.”
Juniper has got to me. I was unsure already, and what she said this morning niggles at me more and has me considering the truth in her words. I can’t stop thinking about it as we wait for the bus. I think about Colleen, on her way to the courthouse to see her mother, her mother who is about to be branded Flawed for travelling to another country to help carry out her own mother’s wishes. Does that really make her Flawed? I’m not ready to park this thought yet. It’s Art, the person I share everything with. Surely I can share one more. He can help sort out these muddled thoughts.
Art reaches for my hand and I feel safe.
“Do you think it’s bad what Angelina did?” I say quietly.
He looks at me.
“Because I’ve been thinking about it. All night. And I don’t think it’s that bad. Not if it’s what her mum wanted. I mean, I can think of worse.”
“Of course there’s worse.”
“So even though there’s worse, everyone gets branded the same?”
“She will only get one brand. On her hand. Some people get two.”
He’s not thinking about this properly. I know he’s not. I know him. His answers are too quick. He is defensive, though I’m not attacking him. This is how it gets when people have discussions about the Flawed. Everyone has such strong opinions it’s almost like it’s personal. Only it’s even more so for Art because his dad is the senior judge of it all – his grandfather was the founding member of the Guild. I was always in awe of them for that. I still am. Aren’t I?
Once on the bus and in our usual seats, I concentrate on the Flawed lady in front of us, in the reserved place that only Flawed people are allowed to occupy. There are two seats for the Flawed on the bus, because rules state that three or more Flawed are not allowed to gather together at any one time. It’s to prevent the riots that broke out when the Flawed punishments were introduced. However, I wonder for the first time why they didn’t just put another two Flawed seats at the back of the bus or somewhere else away from them. Alternate Flawed and regular people’s seats. Very often there are Flawed standing when the bus is filled with empty seats, which has never bothered me in a moral way, but does bother me when I’m getting off the bus and have to squeeze by them. I swear some of them don’t move deliberately, making me squish up against their Flawed bodies to get past. The Flawed seats have bright red fabric and are at the front of the bus, facing all the other passengers so that everybody on the bus can see that they are Flawed. I used to find it uncomfortable when I was a little girl, having to face them throughout the journey, but then, as I got used to it, I stopped seeing them.
I watch the Flawed woman sitting alone on the seat, her armband with the blood-red symbol identifying her.
I see the symbol on her temple, too, and wonder what bad judgement she made to land herself in this predicament. The scar on her temple is certainly not new. It doesn’t have the red-hot, crusted look of newly seared flesh as some Flawed have. She has been Flawed for quite some time, and I wonder if this means she’s worse now, if Flawed get more Flawed with age or if the branding, the acknowledgment of it, stops it from spreading and growing.
She is texting; and when she rests the phone on her lap, I see the screen photo of her with children. For the first time I wonder what it’s like for the Flawed to live life in the same world as everybody else they love, but under different rules. It has never occurred to me before. I think of Angelina and her children. Angelina will have job restrictions, curfews, travel restrictions. How can she mother her children if she is living under different rules? What if there is an emergency in the middle of the night? Can she break her curfew to bring her children to hospital? What if the Tinders go on a family holiday abroad and Angelina can’t go? What if Colleen decides to work and live abroad? Her mother won’t be able to visit her. Ever. And why have I never thought of these things before?
Because I never cared, that’s why. Because if people have done something wrong, they deserve their punishment. They’re not criminals, but they’re just missing being physically behind bars. Only… if Angelina, who could never hurt a fly, can so easily be considered Flawed, then perhaps this woman before me is no worse, either. I have never spoken to one before. It’s not that we’re not allowed to; it’s just that I wouldn’t know what to say. I step around them when they’re near me; I avoid their eye contact. I suppose I act like they don’t exist. They’re always in the Flawed section of the supermarket, the one I pass through aisles to avoid, buying their grains and oats and whatever else they have to eat as part of their basic diet for their basic living. A life with no luxury is the punishment. I never thought it would be such a bad thing; it’s not like they’re behind bars. But then I never thought of having to live like that when your husband doesn’t, or your kids don’t, or the rest of society doesn’t. And then they’re not really allowed to socialise together. No more than with one other at a time. For every two Flawed, there needs to be a regular person just for numbers. I think of a Flawed wedding, a Flawed birthday party, and shudder. I wonder what they even talk about with each other. Do they swap stories of how Flawed they are, show their brands and laugh with pride, or are they ashamed, as they should be?
I feel Art’s lips on my earlobe. “If you don’t stop thinking, your head will explode,” he whispers. His breath is hot, and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I want to stop thinking. I really do, but I can’t. For once he doesn’t have my full attention. He’s trying to bring me back to him, but I can’t go there. I’m caught in this thought, in this moment.
The bus stops and a woman with crutches gets on. The driver helps her and guides her to the Flawed seats, which have the most legroom. The seats are deliberately set further away so people don’t have to touch them or bump against them, reinforcing that distinction between us and them. She sits beside the Flawed woman, who smiles at her.
The other woman throws her such a look of disgust that I’m embarrassed for the Flawed mother, who looks away, hurt visible in her eyes. She senses that I’m looking at her, and our eyes meet for a minuscule moment before I look away, heart pounding from having made contact. I hope no one has seen. I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on her side.
“What is going on with you today?” Art asks, a slightly bewildered and amused expression on his face.
“Oh, nothing,” I say, trying to smile. “I’m just perfect. That’s all.”
He smiles and rubs the palm of my hand with his thumb, and I melt.
Juniper sits across the aisle from us, her body pushed so far up against the window she couldn’t possibly get any further away from me and Art, or anyone else on the bus for that matter.
I don’t know when things became like this between me and Juniper. Photos and stories prove that we were extremely close as children. Juniper is the big sister by a small amount, but she enjoyed mollycoddling me, taking on the role of nurturing big sister. But when we began high school, things started to change between us. Though we were in the same year, we were in different classes and made our own friends for the first time and the divide began. I excelled in school – I adore information and am always hungry to know more. I read books, I watch documentaries, my favourite subject is maths and I hope to study it at the city university when I finish school this year. My aim is to win the Fields Medal, the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, viewed as the greatest honour a mathematician can receive, like a maths Nobel Prize. You have to be under forty to win it. I’m seventeen. There’s time. Test results so far show that I’m on course to get into my university programme with ease. Juniper isn’t the jealous type, but the difference in our marks at school was the first thing to set us apart.
My results were celebrated; hers weren’t. They were never bad; they just weren’t perfect. Everybody always wanted her to do better, to be better. And I understand the pressure she was under, but I could have been there to help her, not be the one she eventually blamed.
She thinks I’m a know-it-all, which she has told me plenty of times, and I try not to be, I really do. I know I have a habit of correcting people’s grammar or recounting dictionary definitions, but that’s just me. Doing it does not make me feel I am better than the person I am saying it to. It is just an expression of who I am. I try to ask her questions, the meaning of things, pretend not to know something that I do know, but she finds this patronising. She’s right, but I don’t know what else to do. My striving for perfection includes wanting to have the ideal relationship with my sister, like in the movies I see and the books I read, the stories that tell you that sisterhood is the one real true love and relationship you will have in your life.
Juniper is dyslexic. She sees this as another failure, another trait that has let her down, but I can see that it makes her view things in a different way. I’m a problem-solver. I read the signs, the proof that I see before me, and come to a conclusion. Juniper is cleverer than that. She reads people. I don’t know how she does it, but she watches and listens and arrives at conclusions I could never imagine, and usually she’s right. I look at things straight on; her perspective seems to curve round things, wind and twist, turn things upside down to reach the answer. I have never told her that I think this about her. I tell myself it’s because I don’t want to come across as patronising, but really I know it’s because I have a jealousy of my own.
I think about what Mum said earlier about Jimmy Child maybe not being the only person to have been found not Flawed.
“Did you know that there might be other people who went through the Flawed court and were found to be not Flawed?” I whisper to Art.
I feel his grip on my hand loosen as he turns to me. He’s annoyed I won’t let go of this. “No, I didn’t know.”
“I think there must be other people found innocent that we don’t know about. Has your dad ever said anything?”
“Bloody hell, Celestine, drop it, will you?”
“I’m just asking.”
“You’re not really supposed to.”
“Not here, anyway,” he says, looking around nervously.
I go quiet. I can only look ahead at the Flawed woman, head swirling with unfamiliar thoughts. Dangerous thoughts.
At the next stop, the Flawed woman gets off and a rather large lady gets on. She recognises the woman with the crutches and sits down beside her, and they chat.
At the next stop, an old man gets on the bus, and I almost call out to him. He looks so much like my granddad that I’m convinced it’s him, which doesn’t make sense because my granddad lives on a farm in the country, but then I see the large F symbol on his armband and I shudder, annoyed with myself for ever thinking someone like him could possibly be related to me.
My prejudice strikes me. I had been repulsed by the reaction of the woman with the crutches to the Flawed woman smiling at her, but I hold equal views of my own without ever realising it.
The man is in his seventies or eighties. I’m not sure. He’s old, and he is dressed in a smart suit and polished shoes, as if he’s on his way to work. From this angle, I can’t see any signs of branding, though it could mean it is on his chest, tongue, or foot. He looks respectable, and again I study him, surprised by his appearance. I always thought of the Flawed as less than us, and I can’t believe I have admitted that to myself. He is unable to sit, because the two Flawed seats are taken – by two women who are not Flawed but who are so busy chatting that they don’t notice him. He stands near them, holding on to the pole to stay upright.
I hope they notice him soon. He doesn’t look like he will go very far standing.
A few minutes pass. He is still standing. I look around. There are at least a dozen free seats where he could sit, but he is not allowed to. I’m a logical person, and this does not seem logical to me.
I look across at Juniper, who has taken off her headphones and is sitting up, poker straight, alert and looking at the same situation that I am. Juniper has always been more emotional than I am, and I can see her on the edge of her seat, ready to pounce.Instead of fearing she will do something stupid, for once I am glad she and I feel the same.
The old man starts coughing. And then he won’t stop.
His breath is wheezy, barely still for a moment before he coughs again. He takes out a handkerchief and coughs into that, trying to block the germs and noise. His face goes from white to pink to purple, and I see Juniper move closer to the edge of her seat. She looks at the two women chatting, then back to the old man. Finally, he stops coughing.
Moments later he starts again, and all heads turn away from him and look out of the window. The fat lady stops talking to look at him, and I’m relieved, knowing she will finally let him sit in the seat he is entitled to. Instead, she tuts as if he’s bothering her and continues her conversation.
Now I straighten up in my seat.
The coughing is bothering her. It is bothering everyone on the bus. His loud gasps for breath can’t be ignored, and yet they are. Rules state that if anyone aids a Flawed, they will be imprisoned, but not in this case, surely? Are we to watch him struggling right before us?
The coughing stops.
My heart is pounding.
I let go of Art’s hand. It feels clammy.
“Can’t you hear that?”
He looks around. “There’s no one coughing.”
The coughing starts again, and Art doesn’t bat an eyelash when he looks at me intimately and says, “You know I can’t wait to be somewhere alone. Why don’t we miss the first class?”
I can barely hear him over the coughing, over my pounding heart. Does nobody hear the old man? Does nobody see him? I look around, flustered. All eyes are staring out of the window or on him in disgust, as if he’s about to infect us all with his flaws.
Juniper’s eyes are filled with tears. My own flesh and blood agreeing with me is validation enough. I make a move to stand up, and Art’s hand suddenly clamps around my arm.
“Don’t,” he says firmly.
“Ow!” I try to move, but instead his grip feels like red-hot iron. “You’re hurting me.”
“And do you think when they sear your skin it won’t hurt more than this?” He squeezes tighter.
“Art, stop! Ouch!” I feel my skin burning.
“How is this fair?” I hiss.
“He has done something wrong, Celestine.”
“Like what? Something that’s completely legal in another country but that people are prosecuted for here anyway?”
He looks as if I’ve stung him.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Celestine,” he says, sensing he has lost the argument. “And don’t help him,” he adds quickly.
“I have no intention of helping him.”
How I walk by this coughing, wheezing, struggling-to-breathe old man is beyond me, but I do, seeing the faint F scar on his temple as though it has been there a very long time, like it’s as much a part of him as the freckles and hair alongside it. I walk straight to the two women in the Flawed seats. They are chatting about making jam, as if nothing is wrong.
“Excuse me,” I say sweetly, offering them the most polite smile I can muster. They respond immediately with their own bright smiles. Two polite, friendly women from the suburbs willing to help me with anything. Almost anything.
“I was wondering if you could help me.”
“Of course, dear.”
“Could one of you sit in any of the available seats here? Or I could offer you two seats together where my boyfriend and I are sitting so that you can continue your conversation?”
As I look up at Art, all I can see is terror on his face. Funny, I no longer feel it. I like solutions. The problem was disturbing me, and fixing it just made sense. I’m not doing anything wrong; I’m not breaking any laws or rules. I’ve always been complimented on my timing, my perfection. I come from a good home. I have a pleasant manner. The anklet of geometric harmony proves it.
“May I ask why?” the woman with the broken leg asks.
“Well, this man here – ” I point to the old man – “is clearly Flawed, and you are in the Flawed seats. He can’t sit down anywhere else. And he is struggling.”
I notice a few faces turn to stare at me when I say that. I expect them to understand. I expect there to be no further conversation. I even expect the few who have overheard to step in and agree, make sense of the situation. But they don’t. They look confused, some even scared. One man looks amused. This is illogical. This is Juniper’s territory, not mine. I look at her. She has the same expression of terror as Art. She is not moving. If I ever thought she was going to back me up, I know now that she won’t.
“But we’re talking,” the other woman says.
“And he’s choking,” I say with the same smile on my face, which I know looks a little psychotic, because we are no longer being polite.
“Are you trying to help him?” the woman with the crutches asks.
“N-n-o,” I stutter. “I’m not. I’m trying to help the situation …” I flash her a brilliant smile, but she recoils from me.
“I want nothing to do with this,” she says loudly, attracting more attention.
“With what?” I laugh nervously. “Your leg is fine. Perhaps if you just move to another chair and your friend stays here …”
“I’m staying right where I am,” she hollers.
Now we have the attention of the entire bus.
The old man, who is beside me, can barely stand. He is bent over coughing. He turns to me, face purple, and tries to talk, but he can’t catch his breath.
I don’t know what he’s trying to say. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what medical help to give him. Even if I knew what medical help to provide, I wouldn’t be able to give it to him. Think, think, Celestine. I can’t help, but a doctor can.
“Is there a doctor here?” I call down the bus, and I see Art put his face in his hands.
There’s an audible gasp in the bus.
I look around at everyone, the judgmental faces of surprise. I feel dizzy and confused. This man is going to collapse, maybe die. My eyes start to fill.
“Are we going to just watch this?” I scream.
“Stop it, dear,” a woman says to me in a hushed voice. She is clearly upset about it, too. It’s not just me, but she’s warning me. I’m going too far.
This is completely illogical. Have we no compassion for this human being, Flawed or not, that we won’t help?
Heads look away. Eyes are averted.
“Okay, okay,” I say to the old man, who by now is panicking severely. He continues to cough, and I can see the F on his tongue, which makes me recoil slightly. I can’t imagine the pain of receiving it. “It’s okay.”
He punches his chest, starts to fall to his knees.
I pull him up under the arms, and I bring him to the nearest open seat.
“Stop the bus!” I yell.
The bus stops, and I assure the old man everything will be fine.
I look over at Juniper and see that she is crying.
“It’s okay,” I tell her and Art. “It’s going to be fine.” My heart is still pounding. “This has all been so very ridiculous.” My voice is high-pitched and shrill; it doesn’t sound like mine. And then I hear the siren, loud, close, intense and threatening.
Everybody stays still in their seats, waiting, my heart beating loudly over the silence. Two Whistleblowers climb aboard blowing silver whistles so loudly most people block their ears. They make their way towards me and the old man.
“See? I told you it will be fine,” I tell the man over the noise. “They’re here. Help is here.”
He nods faintly, his eyes closed. I expect them to go to the old man, who has passed out on the seat, exhausted and taking short breaths, a fine layer of sweat covering his skin. But they don’t go to him. They come for me.
And then they take me away.
Juniper screams at them to leave me alone, held back by Art, who doesn’t look much better. As they hold me under the arms and drag me away by the elbow, Juniper screams, “My sister! My sister!” They lead me down the steps of the bus and into their van, the sound of the whistles ringing in my ears.
Before I was born, there was a great recession in this country; banks folded, the government collapsed, the economy was ravaged, unemployment and emigration soared. People were blindsided by what had happened, and the leaders were blamed. They should have known; they should have seen it coming. It was their bad judgement, their bad decisions that had led to the country’s collapse. They were evil; they had destroyed families and homes, and they were to suffer. They were the morally flawed people who had brought about our downfall.
As a result, anyone who made the smallest error in judgement was immediately punished. These people were publicly ridiculed, held up as examples of failure and forced to resign. They were named and shamed. They weren’t criminals, but they had made bad decisions. Society demanded leaders who would not have to learn from hindsight – leaders who would not make mistakes in the first place. No second chances, no sympathy, no explanations allowed nor required. Anybody who had made mistakes in the past couldn’t take leadership roles in the future. And as hundreds of thousands of people marched on the government, it was decided that any person who made any error of judgement was to be rooted out of society entirely. Hindsight would be a thing of the past. Everybody would always – always – look ahead before it was too late, no mistakes made.
Could perfection be bred? Many ways to achieve this were tried and tested and what the government eventually settled on was Crevan’s Guild and its Flawed brandings. No matter what you do, your Flawed title can never be removed. You hold it till death. You suffer the consequences of your one mistake for the rest of your life. Your punishment serves as a reminder to others to think before they act.
I’m taken to a holding cell in the basement of Highland Castle and guided to a desk upon which sits an information pack containing all the information about the Guild that I need to know. It has a chapter dedicated to the rules you must adhere to, living as a Flawed. It even has a comprehensive section on the searing of the skin: the process and how to treat your brand afterwards. I slam the pack closed and look around.
The holding cells are pleasant; they are newly renovated. There are four in total, two on each side of the room, separated by a walkway in the centre and enclosed by bulletproof and soundproof glass. According to the information pack, the glass represents the transparency of the system, but I feel it is to prepare us for the lack of dignity coming our way and the invasion into our lives. Each cell contains a table with four chairs, a single bed, a bathroom, and some randomly placed chairs should the desire for a holding-cell party take me. Everything is painted in earthy tones, to make us feel like this is the most natural place in the world.
Of the four cells, I am the only occupant. The two opposite me are empty, the one beside me has been recently occupied – I can tell from the clothes, the items of belongings scattered. I assume this person is in the courtroom now, awaiting his or her fate. The bathroom, thankfully, has solid walls, but it has been made so small that you can barely spend a minute in there before feeling suffocated. It is where I ran to cry, though I may as well have stayed here and done it in full view because my tear-stained face and red eyes are a giveaway, and there’s nobody here to see me anyway.
I have not had the opportunity to speak with anyone yet, to analyse, dissect and discuss what has happened. I was registered at reception by a nice lady in a Whistleblower uniform, who introduced herself as Tina, and then I was brought to this room beneath the Clock Tower, where the Guild has its offices. I know this from watching trials on television, seeing Pia on every live report following the accused from the Clock Tower, all the way across the cobblestoned courtyard, to the Guild court, heads down and being hurled abuse by the public, who come to boo and hiss and show their support for the Guild.
I am definitely in shock. I must be. I cannot fathom how I can be here, me who doesn’t do anything wrong, who is a people-pleaser, whose every report card is filled with perfect As, whose boyfriend’s dad is the head judge of the Guild.
I go through my actions on the bus again, over and over in my head. I go through it so much it starts to blur, like an overplayed song. I think about what I did, what I should have done, what I could have done better. I become confused as to what actually happened. I watch it happen over and over in my head; it’s like staring at somebody’s face until that person eventually starts to look different. I sit on the bed, my back against the only solid wall of my cell, and push my head to my knees, hugging my legs. I don’t know how long I sit like this – it could be minutes; it could be hours – but my heart flits from calm to panic as I reason with myself.
I can’t be Flawed. I can’t be Flawed.
I am perfect.
My parents say so, my teachers say so, my boyfriend and even my sister – who hates me – say so. My sister. I think of Juniper’s screams of defence as I was taken away, and my eyes fill. My big sister, who was flailing against the unmoving Art to get to me. I hope she’s okay. I hope they didn’t take her, too. She will be forced to say she didn’t agree with my actions, and I worry instantly. I don’t want to drag her into this. Who knows what Juniper will say? And what about Art? How is he feeling right now? Is he in trouble? Will his dad help me or never speak to me again? Will Art ever speak to me again? The thought of ever being without him makes me feel sick.
Around and around it all goes.
A door slams and I look up.
Tina and a male guard escort a boy who looks about my age, maybe a little older. They pass my cell and take him to the one beside mine. I can tell by his familiarity with the place that he isn’t new here, unlike me – as I was being led in, I frantically looked around to examine my new surroundings. His T-shirt is covered in white powder, and so is his hair. There are splashes of it on Tina and the male guard, too, which confuses me. The boy is tall, broad. He has a bold, stubborn face, a guilty look. He’s young like me, but his face looks older.
The fact that he is young makes me sit up. I want him to see me. I want to share a look, a glance, something to comfort him, and to comfort me. The guards aren’t as polite and gentle with him as they were with me, and this, selfishly, gives me hope that this has all just been a great big misunderstanding and I’ll be able to walk out of here as normal. I watch him, his mean, tough, bold face, and will him to look at me. I wonder what he has done. It can’t be a criminal act or he wouldn’t be here, but it must have been close. Whatever he has been accused of doing, I have no doubt that he did it.
He looks up at me once he steps into his cell and sees me through the transparent wall we share. My heart flips. Contact with somebody, for the first time in hours. But as quickly as he sees me, he looks away again and strides with his long, lean legs and sits with his back flat against the transparent divide, so that all I can see are his back muscles, rippling through his soiled T-shirt.
Insulted, scared and suddenly feeling even more alone, I sense the tears start again. They comfort me; they make me feel human and remind me that I am human, even in here, in this box within a series of boxes.
The guards lock his door and leave. They disappear out the main door and I’m alone again, but this time with a boy who won’t look at me.
The main door opens, and I see Mum, her face worried and frantic, and my dad, stern, wide jaw working overtime to contain himself. As soon as Mum sets her eyes on me, she becomes composed again, like she’s taking a walk in the park and enjoying her surroundings, so I know that it must be bad. When Dad sees me, his face collapses. He’s never been one to hide his feelings. Tina unlocks my cell door and as they enter I rush to hug them both.
“Oh, Celestine,” she says, voice laden with grief, as she squeezes me tightly. “What on earth possessed you?”
“Summer,” Dad says harshly, to which she reacts as if she has been slapped.
I feel stung, too. The first real contact I’ve had since this happened and I was hoping for defence, for back-up, not for an attack, not for my own mother to agree with them and point the finger at me. I knew that I was in trouble, but now it is really setting in.
“Sorry,” she says gently. “I didn’t mean to, but it is just so out of character for you. Juniper told us what happened.”
“It didn’t make any sense,” I say. “The whole thing defied logic.”
Dad smiles sadly.
“The man was coughing. Wheezing. He was about to pass out, probably die, and the fat woman and the broken-leg woman just kept on ignoring him! They were in his seat!” I’m talking quickly, leaning forward, in their faces, trying to make them understand. I’m almost pleading with them to see my side of the story, telling them how disgusting and unfair the entire thing was. I get up and pace. I start the story from the beginning, elaborating, maybe exaggerating, maybe the fat woman was fatter, maybe the coughs were more life-threatening. I try to get them to see what I saw, to say that they understand, that if they’d been in my shoes, they would have done the same. To tell me I am not Flawed.
Dad is watching with tears in his eyes. He is struggling with all this. It is Mum who jumps up suddenly and grabs me by the shoulders. Surprised by her grip, I look around and notice that the guy in the cell beside me is no longer sitting with his back to me but is instead on his bed, where he can see us. I wonder if he has in some way understood what I said, if he read my lips, but Mum grips me tighter and turns my focus back to her.
“Listen up.” Her voice is a low, urgent whisper. “We don’t have time. Judge Crevan is coming to see you in a few minutes, and you have to use every charm you’ve got. Forget everything we taught you. Right now, forget about right and wrong. This is for your life, Celestine.”
I have never seen or heard Mum like this, and she’s scaring me. “Mum, it’s just Bosco; he’ll under—”
“You have to tell him you were wrong,” she says urgently. “You have to tell him you know you made a mistake. Do you understand?”
I look from her to Dad in shock. Dad is covering his face with his hands.
“Cutter, tell her,” Mum says quickly.
He slowly lowers his hands and looks so sad, so broken. What have I done? I crumple into Mum’s arms. She moves me to a chair at the table.
“But if I tell Bosco I was wrong, it will mean admitting I’m Flawed.”
Dad finally speaks. “If he finds out that youfeel you wereright to do what you did, then he will brand you Flawed.”
“Don’t lie about what you did, but tell him you made a mistake. Trust me,” Mum whispers, afraid of being overheard.
“But … the old man.”
“Forget the old man,” she says sternly, so coldly, so devoid of all the love that I know her to have, that I don’t recognise her, and that means I no longer recognise the world. They are my roots, my foundations, and they sit before me now uprooted and saying things I never thought they’d say. “You will not allow a Flawed to ruin your life,” she says, and her voice cracks.
We sit in silence as Mum tries to compose herself, to put the mask back on. Dad rubs her back smoothly, rhythmically, and I sit there, stunned. My thoughts are barely thoughts at all as they hop unfinished from one to the other over what they have just told me.
They want me to lie. They want me to say that what I did was wrong. But to even tell a lie is to be Flawed. To gain my freedom, I must for the first time become Flawed. It doesn’t make sense. It is illogical.
The door opens, and Mum and Dad bristle. Judge Crevan is coming.
I notice the boy in the cell sit up, too. I see the flash of red before I see him. Judge Crevan is like a winged man with his floating blood-red cloak. I see his sparkling blue eyes and his blonde hair, and I think of Art and I feel at home. He smiles at me through the glass, his eyes crinkling at the sides as they always do, and inside I relax. I feel safe.
“Celestine,” he says, as soon as Tina lets him into the cell. He flashes his perfect white teeth and spreads his arms, and as he does, he looks like he’s lifting his wings, about to take off. I run straight into them, and he closes his arms, the red robe wrapped around me. I feel protected. In his cocoon. It will be all right. Bosco will take care of me. He won’t let this go any further.
As he hugs me, my cheek is pushed up against the rough crest on his chest. I am face-to-face with the Guild’s crest and motto, “Purveyors of Perfection”.
He kisses the top of my head and releases me.
“Right, let’s sit. We have a lot to discuss, Celestine.” He fixes me with one of his infamous stern gazes, and just as I always felt before, it looks comical, cartoonish. This is not the man I’m used to seeing in his house.
I hide the nervous smile that is twitching at my lips. Laughing now would not be good.
“Things are going to be very difficult for you over the next few days, but we’ll get you through them, okay?”
He glances at Dad, who suddenly looks completely exhausted, and I think for the first time what he’s had to tell people at work. How can he work at a news station when his own daughter is making the headlines?
“You’ll have to listen to me and do as I say.”
I nod again, feverishly.
“She will,” Mum says firmly, sitting poker straight in her chair.
Bosco looks at me to respond.
“Good. Now.” He takes out a tablet and taps and swipes his documents. “This nonsense on the bus this morning.” He sighs and shakes his head. “Art told me all about it.”
I’m not surprised by this. Art wouldn’t have had a choice in the matter, and I am sorry again for how my actions have affected the people I love. I assume Art told him the truth. Art would never lie to his dad, but would he to protect me? I’m suddenly unsure of the story I am to tell, particularly after being told by my parents to lie.
“Unfortunately, already there are people using your connection to Art to take advantage and undermine the work of the Guild. The minority, of course. You may be used as a pawn in their game, Celestine.” He looks at my parents and then back to me. “This is just extremely bad timing in light of the Jimmy Child verdict this morning, where people think I was too lenient. But, Celestine, you have always been one of my greatest supporters. You’re going to be just fine.”
I smile, relieved.
“I have my notes, but I want you to tell me what happened this morning.”
I wonder what Art has said, but then I settle for the truth, hoping I’m not getting him into trouble. After all, there were thirty other people on the bus who will testify to seeing exactly the same thing. All I have to say is that I know I was wrong. That should be easy.
“There were two ladies sitting in the Flawed seats. One had broken her leg and sat there because there was room to extend it, and the other was her friend. An old Flawed man got on the bus. He had nowhere to sit. He started coughing. He could barely stand. He was getting worse and worse. I asked the lady who didn’t have the broken leg—”
“Margaret,” Bosco interrupts me, staring at me intently, his eyes moving from my eyes to my lips, narrowed in suspicion, analysing my every word, every facial expression, every little movement. I concentrate on the story.
“Right. Margaret. I asked her if she would move so he could sit down.”
“Because he was disturbing the passengers on the bus, that’s why,” he interrupts. “Because his Flawed, disgusting, infectious cough was infecting the good people in our society, and you were concerned about them and yourself.”
I pause, mouth open, unsure of what to say. I look at Mum and Dad. Mum is nodding coolly, and Dad’s bloodshot eyes are focussed on the table, not giving anything away. I don’t know what to say. This is not what I expected.
“Continue,” Bosco says.
“So she wouldn’t move, and eventually I called out for a doctor—”
“To stop his disgusting condition from spreading,” he says. “You were thinking of the people on the bus. Protecting them from the dangers of the Flawed.”
“So then I called for the driver to stop the bus.”
“To get him off the bus,” he snaps. “To get rid of him. So that the air of your fellow passengers would be cleaner, wouldn’t be polluted. You are, in fact, a hero. This is what the people outside believe. This is the story that Pia has been telling for the past two hours. People are gathering outside to see you, the hero who stood up to the Flawed.”
My mouth drops and I look across at Dad, now understanding why he looks so shattered. Has he spent the whole morning spinning this story?
“But there’s a problem,” Bosco says. “You helped him into a seat. A seat for the flawless. And that is where my colleagues and I cannot agree, and I have spent the past hour discussing it with them. We have failed to mention this part to Pia, but, of course, there were at least a dozen people on that bus who will come forward with the story. They probably even have video.”
He looks at my dad again and my dad nods. He has received a video already, something recorded on someone’s phone on the bus and sent directly into the news station. He’s probably spent the morning fighting for it not to be shown. He knows what will happen if it is.
“Rest assured, your dad will do everything in his power to make sure that video doesn’t hit the airwaves.” It sounds like a threat.
“I told you I’m doing everything that I can,” Dad says, looking him firmly in the eye.
Bosco holds his stare; they look at each other coldly.
Mum clears her throat to snap them out of their stare.
“So,” Bosco says, “after hearing that testimony, I would say this accusation is a grave injustice, as someone who was, in fact, aiding the Guild cannot be condemned to life as a Flawed. However, my fellow judges disagree. With me and with each other. Currently, Judge Jackson, who is normally a sound man, regards your act as a moral misjudgement and would like a Flawed verdict. Judge Sanchez sees your act as aiding and assisting a Flawed, which carries a punishment of imprisonment.”
Mum gasps. I freeze. Dad doesn’t do anything. He probably already knew this.
“As you know, the minimum prison term for aiding a Flawed is eighteen months, and considering this act was carried out so publicly, on public transport, in full sight of thirty people, it carries the highest penalty. We have argued this back and forth.” He sighs, and I hear the weariness, the genuine discontent, at what is happening. “And we have reached an agreement of three years. But you will be released in two years and two months.”
“What?” I say. Two years in prison? But it’s like I’m not there; they’re talking about me like I’m not there.
“It is unfortunate timing for Celestine to have … slipped up,” he says to Mum and Dad. “The vultures out there are willing to make an example of her. Pia can only hold her ground for so long. Cutter, you and your team, of course, are pulling your weight and covering the story as you always should, but there is extreme opposition from the other side. This isn’t so much about Celestine being on trial as the Guild being on trial, and we cannot allow that. We cannot allow that.” He sits up, puffs out his chest. “Cutter, I’ll need your team to step it up. Candy has commented on the fact there has been some recent … upheaval at the station. I think, for the sake of your daughter, the reporting should be in strict keeping with the style and philosophy of the network. No wandering off …”
Is that a threat? Did I just hear Bosco threaten Dad? Candy is Bosco’s sister; she’s in charge of the news network. My head snaps around to look at Dad, and it looks as though there’s another version of him underneath his skin just trying to get out but being contained, restrained with force.
“The pessimists who look backward to some mythical golden age of journalism are mistaken. The golden age is now – and even more so in the immediate future. Candy has quite rightly given Bob Tinder some time off due to personal issues. With the atmosphere as it is now, I need him to be on his toes, performing at a high level to keep the gossip-mongers and the opportunists at bay. The naysayers assume that Celestine will get away with this, that the Flawed court isn’t entirely fair. She is the girlfriend of the son of the judge; she will get special treatment. And that is really what I want to do, Celestine,” he says sadly, genuinely sad. “You make Art happy, the only person who can do that since his mother passed, and I know that he thinks the world of you. But, unfortunately, my colleagues, my own people, also see you as a pawn. They see you as a perfect example to show our doubters how the system is fair. How even the seemingly perfect girlfriend of the son of the head judge can be deemed Flawed. I am fighting two sides, dear Celestine.”
I swallow hard.
“And I agree that no one can be seen to be above the Guild. No one can be seen to escape the justice of the Guild.”
I think of the definition of what the Guild is: it is not a function of the Guild to administer justice; its work is solely inquisitorial. I want to say it aloud, but I know I shouldn’t. Now is not the time for my black-and-white logic, though shouldn’t it be?
“Do you realise just how much trouble you are in, child?” Bosco asks.
“Child,” I say suddenly. “They can’t send me to prison. I’m not eighteen for another six months.”
“Celestine,” he says, “an individual over sixteen can be deemed Flawed, and for a punishment of imprisonment, we can delay the start date until the day of your eighteenth birthday.”
Bosco had said I could have a party on his yacht for my eighteenth birthday. Instead, I could be spending my first night as an adult in prison. I don’t deserve this. Do I? Does anybody? Angelina certainly didn’t.
I look over at the boy in the next room, who is sitting on his bed, with his head down. I wonder how long he has been here; I wonder what he did. Bosco follows my gaze. As if sensing our stares, the boy looks up and looks directly at Bosco with a cold, hard stare, eyes filled with hate. Bosco matches the boy’s look but holds such disgust and contempt for him that I shrivel and almost want to apologise on his behalf.
“You shouldn’t be in here with such scum,” Bosco says simply, and I’m glad the boy can’t hear.
“What did he do?”
“Him? He’s Flawed to the bone,” he says, disgusted. “Though he doesn’t know it yet. I don’t even need to listen to the facts of the case to know his type. I can see it in him. Not like you, Celestine. You are pure. You should not have the future that is destined for him.”
“What do I need to do?” I ask, voice shaking.
“You repeat the story we just discussed, and when they ask you about helping the old man into a seat, you say that you did not, that he sat there himself.”
My mouth falls open. “But the old man will be punished for that.”
“Yes, he will. He’s old and very sick. He’ll probably die before Naming Day anyway.”
The old man did not sit down. He did everything in his strength to stay standing. It was me who helped him to the seat.
“I can’t …”
“You can’t what?” Bosco looks at me.
“I can’t lie.”
“Of course you can’t,” he says, confused, looking at me as if he doesn’t recognise me. “To lie would be to prove that you are Flawed. I would never ask you to lie,” he says, as though insulted. “It is the only way you will go free, prevent being branded for life. It is the only way. What we discussed here now is what happened, and you will confirm that in court, you will say loud and clear for all to hear that society must seek out and oust the Flawed scum in our society. It is the Guild’s work, and you, in full support of the Guild and its values, were working under its rules. You didn’t aid a Flawed. What you did was aid the Guild and, in turn, aid society. That’s what you will tell them. Are we agreed?”
I’m the poster girl. One side wants to use me to prove the Guild is biased; the Guild wants to use me to prove that it isn’t. The perfect girl to prove its power. It wants me to feed the fear.
“Agreed,” I say shakily.
My hearing is this afternoon. The boy in the room beside me, whom I have nicknamed Soldier, has continued to ignore me. I’m sure that seeing me embrace Bosco didn’t do much to sway his initial feelings about me. The word that Pia Wang has been pushing on behalf of Crevan is that I was trying to get rid of the Flawed man from the bus, not help him. If Soldier has seen these reports, which I’m sure he has because Flawed Court TV is the only station we can get on the tiny television in our cells, then that is why he isn’t looking at me. I can only gather from this that he is not anti-Flawed, that he feels my actions were unfair. If only he knew the truth, then he would know he had an ally in the cells. I know this untruth will save my life, but I can’t help but feel embarrassed that this is the perception out there of me. I feel Soldier’s disgust through the wall, and I don’t blame him, but I wonder, if he had the same chance to get out of this, would he take it?
Dad goes back to work and Mum stays with me. She has brought with her a suitcase of my clothes for the trial, and it looks like she went into a clothes store and grabbed every item from the racks. Soldier watches with a sarcastic look as Mum lays out the clothes on my bed, hangs them from every point of the cell she can. He shakes his head and goes back to pacing. I feel self-conscious about all the fuss in my cell when he has been alone all morning, but I try to put his presence out of my mind and concentrate on saving my own life.
“That’s a lot of pink,” I state as I run my eyes over the selection.
“We’ve got pale pink, baby pink, orchid pink, champagne pink, pink lace, cherry blossom pink, lavender pink, cotton candy, hot pink …” Mum lists the shades as she moves along the line, already eliminating the ones she doesn’t like and tossing them back into the suitcase. The hot pinks, candy pinks and lace are removed. The suggestive tops with the low fronts are taken away. We settle on baby pink: skinny cropped trousers and a blouse so light pink it is almost white, buttoned up the centre with ruffles, and a pair of ballet flats. A walk across the cobblestoned courtyard in heels is too much of a stage set for a tripping/heel-getting-caught disaster. Not a good look for the cameras and the hysterical public, who will be there to watch me. The flats are pink and tan leopard print.
“They’re sweet, but they say ‘don’t mess with me’, too,” Mum says. “Remember, in this world, image is everything.”
Tina arrives with a male mannequin, then leaves.
“Sweetheart, this is Mr Berry,” Mum says. “He will be representing your case. Judge Crevan recommended him, says he’s the best. He represented Jimmy Child.”
The mannequin suddenly moves. He offers me a big smile, a smile I don’t believe, a smile that is as fake as the smooth skin on his face. From the neck down he looks sixty; from the chin up he looks thirty. He wears a dapper suit – like he’s just walked out of the airbrushed pages of a magazine – shiny shoes, a handkerchief perfectly positioned in his pocket and gold cuff links to match his gold tie. His face shimmers where his cheekbones have been accentuated, and I definitely see powder on his skin. He’s perfect, and yet I don’t trust him. I look over at Soldier, who is glaring at my newly appointed representative with suspicion. I must say I agree, once again, with his instincts. Our eyes meet, and he shakes his head as though I am nothing and then walks to the far corner of his cell, as far away from me as he can physically get.
“Celestine,” Mum says. She jerks her head in Mr Berry’s direction, and I realise I haven’t acknowledged him yet.
“I’m sorry.” I move forward hastily, as if I’ve been pushed.
“I understand,” he says, devoid of all understanding and affection, through his big white teeth. “So let’s get to it.” He takes his seat and bangs his briefcase down on the table before him. Gold clasps spring open. “Today is just procedure. You won’t be required to say or do anything at all apart from deny the Flawed claim, then they’ll set a time for your trial tomorrow and send you home.”
I breathe a sigh of relief.
“Celestine,” he says, noticing my nerves, “you just stick with me, kiddo, do as I say, and we’ll both be fine. I’ve done this a million times.”
The both is not lost on me.
“Of course, your situation is unique. I don’t usually have every member of the press and MTV outside my door. Not even for Jimmy Child, but then young women in the media are always more interesting. We found that helped us in Jimmy’s case. They were more interested in his wife and her sister than him.”
“You’re a pretty seventeen-year-old girl from a good part of town, no serious problems, girlfriend of the son of Judge Crevan. What’s not to love about this case? Plus they’re looking for a new reality show, and it looks like you’re their newest target. You represent a generation that will be obsessed with every detail of every aspect of this case, a generation that is pliable, mouldable and just so happens to have more disposable income than any other demographic. Whatever shoes you wear today, they’ll want tomorrow. Whatever earrings you’re wearing, they will sell out by the end of this week. Whatever perfume you wear, there will be a waiting list for it tomorrow. It will be the Celestine North effect. The fashion and sales industry will love you.”
He speaks so fast I can barely keep up with him, and he talks through a smile, which makes it difficult to read his plumped-up lips, which rarely move.
“Every single medium is going to use you for its own motivations – you remember that. You’re a poster girl for the Guild, you’re a poster girl for Anti-Guild, you’re a poster girl for the clothes you’re about to wear and for the lip gloss they’re going to wonder about. Does your daily eating plan include carbs, and how many ab crunches do you do a day? Who styles your hair? How many boyfriends have you had? Have you had a boob job? Should you? Plastic surgeons are lined up and ready to talk about every aspect of you, Celestine North, and I care about all those aspects because they affect the outcome of the biggest question at all: are you Flawed?”
I don’t know if he’s waiting for an answer or not. He is simply studying me, all of me, with his snake-like eyes, which stare at me from under his eyelid-lift, so I don’t respond. I will not give him the benefit, and I wonder again where this stubbornness comes from.
“Everyone is ready and waiting to use you for their own good, just you remember that.”
Everyone? “And what’s your angle?” I ask.
“Celestine.” Mum gasps. “I’m sorry, Mr Berry, but Celestine has the tendency to be so literal about everything.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Mr Berry says, studying me with his big smile, looking and sounding like there is everything wrong with all of that. “Like I said, today is procedural. You’ll deny the charge, then you’ll go home, and you’ll wait until trial tomorrow. It will all be over by the end of tomorrow. You need to think about character witnesses. Parents, siblings, best friends who’d die for you, that kind of thing.”
“My boyfriend, Art, is my best friend. He’ll speak for me.”
“Sweet,” he says, flicking through his documents, “but he won’t.”
“Why not?” I ask, surprised.
“Better if I ask the questions,” he says. “But seeing as you asked, Judge Crevan has decided he’s off-limits.”
I can tell he’s uncomfortable with this decision, and I understand why. Bosco could not ask his son to lie about my helping the old man to the seat. It makes sense to me, and yet I feel deeply disappointed not to have Art on my side. I need him, and I wonder how hard he fought to speak up for me, or if he fought at all.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Nobody needs to hear how your boyfriend thinks you’re perfect. Every boyfriend either thinks that or will lie about it even if he doesn’t. And he won’t be called as a witness to the scene, because there are thirty other people who are leaping at the chance to do just that. In particular, Margaret and Fiona, the two ladies involved.”
I silently fume, then think hard. “My sister, Juniper.”
“No,” Mum says. “Juniper won’t be taking the stand,” she says to Mr Berry.
They look at each other for a while, speaking a silent language that I don’t understand.
“Why not?” I ask.
“We’ll talk about that later,” she says, smiling, but her eyes are warning me to leave it alone.
So Juniper won’t speak on my behalf. Paranoia tells me she is ashamed of me, she has turned her back on me. She won’t lie for me, or my parents won’t let her lie. They don’t want me to drag her down with me. Why lose two daughters when you can just lose one? My bitterness takes me by surprise. Earlier I hadn’t wanted her to get into trouble, and now when I’m sinking deeper into it, I’m angered by those who are stepping away.
“You have other friends, I assume, and not just your sister and your boyfriend. We only need one.”
Art became my life after his mum passed away, and by spending so much time together, we managed to alienate our group, who, though they understood, also felt a little betrayed and left out. But I know Marlena, my closest friend since childhood, will support me, despite how left out she’s felt lately.
“You’ll be out of here by tonight,” Mr Berry says.
“They won’t keep me here?”
“No, no. They only do that in special cases, for those who are at risk of running, like that young man beside you.”
We all look at Soldier, and Mum visibly shudders. He looks so lost, so angry, he doesn’t stand a chance.
“Who is representing him?”
“Him?” Mr Berry snorts. “He has chosen to represent himself, and he is doing a very bad job. You would almost think he wants to be Flawed.”
“Who would want that?” Mum asks, turning away from him.
I think of the Flawed I pass every day, the people I can’t look in the eye, the people I take steps around to avoid even brushing against. Their scars as identifiers, their armbands, their limited possibilities, living in society but everything they want being just out of reach. You see them all standing at the curfew bus stops in town, to be home by ten pm in winter, eleven pm in summer. In the same world but not living in the same way. Do I want to be like them?
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“I have no idea,” Mr Berry says, bored, wanting to move on.
I look at him alone in there, me here with my selection of clothes, my mum, my representation, the head judge himself. I have people. He must hate me, yet that’s what I must do to get out of here with my life intact. A light goes on for me. I could be in a far worse position. I could be in his situation. All that separates me from him is a lie. I must become imperfect to prove that I am perfect. I have to do everything Mr Berry tells me to do.
Tina brings me a tray of food before I cross the courtyard to the court, but I am too nervous to eat. In the next cell, Soldier gobbles every bite as though his life depends on it.
“What’s his name?” I ask her.
“Him?” She gives him the same look as everyone else has, though she hasn’t treated me like that from the moment I arrived.
“Carrick,” I say aloud. Finally, he has a name.
Tina looks at me, eyes narrow and suspicious. “You should stay away from that boy.”
We both watch him, and then I feel the weight of her stare on me as I watch him.
I clear my throat, try to act like I don’t care. “What did he do?”
She looks at him again. “He didn’t need to do anything. Guys like him are just bad eggs.” She looks at my tray. “You’re not eating?”
I shake my head. I’d rather eat when I get home later.
“You’ll be fine, Celestine,” she says gently. “I have a daughter exactly the same age as you. You remind me of her. You shouldn’t be here. You’ll be at home tonight, in your own bed, where you belong.”
I smile at her in thanks.
“They’ve called me upstairs for a meeting.” She makes a face. “First time that’s happened. Wonder what I’ve done wrong.” She makes another face, and then, at my reaction, she laughs. “I’ll be coming back, don’t worry. You’re doing great, kiddo. We’ll go across to the court in thirty minutes, so eat up.”
I can’t touch my food. A new guard, Funar, appears, opens Carrick’s door, and says something to him. Whatever it is, Carrick is eager. He hops up and goes straight to the door. Funar comes to my cell next.
“You want to get some fresh air?”
I jump up. Absolutely. He unlocks my door and I walk behind Carrick, realising, as I see him up close for the first time and not through the glass, how solid and large he is. The muscles in his upper back are expansive, his biceps and triceps permanently flexed. I think about Art and feel guilty for even looking. Funar tries the side door that leads outside, but it’s locked.
“Damn it, I’ll have to go back for the key,” he says. “Sit there and don’t move. I’ll be back in a minute.”
He points to a bench by the wall in a corridor, and we both comply, sitting down side by side.
Our skin isn’t touching, but I can feel the heat from Carrick’s body from where I sit. He’s like a radiator. I’m not sure whether to say anything to him. I don’t even know what to say. He’s not the most approachable person I’ve ever met. Do I ask him about his case? It’s impossible to shoot the breeze in this situation. I sit, frozen, trying to think of something to say, trying to look at him when he’s not looking in my direction. I finally sense he’s about to say something when six people suddenly turn the corner into our corridor. The women are crying and huddling into the men, who are also red-eyed. They walk by us as though they’re in a funeral procession and enter through a door beside us. When it opens, I look in and see a small room with two rows of chairs. It’s facing a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass, which looks into another room. In the centre of the other room sits what looks like an oversized dentist’s chair, and there is a wall of metal units. I see a guard I met earlier named Bark, open one unit, and there is hot fire inside. Confused, I stare in, trying to figure it out.
Then a man, flanked by two guards, is brought down the corridor. He doesn’t look at us. He looks scared, terrified, in fact. He appears to be in his thirties and is wearing what I’d consider a hospital gown, but it’s blood red, the colour of the Flawed. The guards lead him through a separate door from the one the crying women entered, which I’m guessing leads to the room with the dentist’s chair. The Branding Chamber.
Carrick and I both peer in. The door slams in our face. I jump, startled. Carrick sits back, folds his arms and stares ahead intently with a mean look on his face. His look does not invite conversation, so I don’t say anything at all, but I can’t stop fidgeting, wondering what is going on inside that room. After a moment, our silence is broken by the terrifying, bloodcurdling scream of the man inside as his skin is seared by the hot iron bearing the Flawed brand.
I’m stunned at first, but then my body begins to shake. I look across at Carrick, who swallows nervously, his enormous Adam’s apple moving in his thick neck.
Funar strolls up the corridor with a smug look on his face. “Found them,” he sings, jingling the keys in his hand. “They were in my pocket the entire time.” He smiles and unlocks the door, revealing a narrow stairway that leads outside.
Carrick stands up and storms out the door. Once outside, he looks back at me to join him.
Everything around me starts to move. The walls come closer, the floor rises up to meet me. Black spots blot my vision. I feel like I’m going to be sick. Carrick looks at me in concern. I pass out.
We never did speak.
Half an hour later, with quivering legs, I stand at the enormous wooden double doors, with their elaborately carved embellishments, that lead out to the infamous cobblestoned courtyard. I know it from the daily news, seeing people walk back and forth from the court to the Clock Tower, giving the public and the media an opportunity to see the accused and vent their feelings. Mum and Dad are on one side of me, Mum linking my arm, and Mr Berry is on the other side. We are flanked by Tina and Bark.
Mr Berry adjusts his tie. “Is this straight?” he asks Tina.
Tina nods and then throws Bark a look that is easily deciphered.
I take a deep breath as the doors open, and I am greeted with sights and sounds that I could never have prepared myself for. The first thing I see is a cabbage that flies directly at me and hits me square in the chest. Boos and hisses fill my ears and my head. Mr Berry starts walking, taking me along with him. For a moment I can feel Mum’s hesitancy, but then, as though she’s on a catwalk, she gets into her stride and I follow her lead, lifting my chin, trying to avoid the flour, eggs and spit that are flying from the public.
Mr Berry is giving me orders through his big smile: Smile, don’t smile, chin up, don’t look worried or guilty, don’t react, ignore that man, watch out for that flying dog shit. All this he says through a perfect smile. Dimples and all.
I link Mum even tighter, moving my body closer to hers, and take a quick look at her. She is holding Dad’s hand, her head up, her face completely serene and her hair in an elaborate chignon. I try to copy her, nothing out of place, composure, innocence, serenity, perfection.
The cameras are in my face; the flashes are blinding. I hear some questions, but others I can’t.
“Are you Flawed, Celestine?”
“Who are you wearing?”
“Do you believe the Guild will give you a fair and balanced trial?”
“Are you hoping for the same outcome as Jimmy Child?”
“Who’s your favourite music artist right now?”
“Is it true you got a nose job?”
“What is your opinion on the government and the Guild’s current relationship?”
I think of the many people over the decades who have walked this walk, who walk over perfect and walk back Flawed, through a courtyard of catcalling and convictions, over cobblestones of prejudice. I think of Carrick, who returned this morning with flour on his T-shirt. I understand why now. We are to be held up to the rest of the world as a mirror of their worst nightmares. Scapegoats for all that is wrong in their lives.
Cameras are in my face, and this feels like the longest walk ever. Microphones, jeering, catcalls, wolf whistles. I feel the muscles around my eyes tremble and wonder if it’s noticeable. I quickly search the faces in the crowd. They are the faces of normal, everyday people, but filled with loathing. Some are merely interested to see what’s going on; others throw themselves into it. One woman gives me a nod. It’s respectful, and I’m thankful for that one effort.
And then we are inside.
“I see people need convincing of our story,” Mr Berry says, a little shaken as he brushes down his suit.
Three judges in blood-red robes sit at the head of the room, at a raised level. The majority of the room is laid out with rows of chairs. It is not a typical courtroom, because it is in a ballroom of the old castle. There is not a free seat. At the back, people are crushed and standing. I assume they are the press, but on closer inspection, I see that they are all wearing armbands and that they are all Flawed. They stand in twos, broken up by a member of the media or a public spectator in accordance with the Flawed gathering rules.
I sit at my table at the head of all the seating, beside Mr Berry.
Mum and Dad sit in the front row behind me. There is no sign of Juniper. I look around desperately for Art, hoping for the energy that simply seeing him will give me. No sign of him, which breaks my heart. I see my granddad and I almost weep. He tips his hat.
Bosco asks me to stand.
“Celestine North,” he begins. “You stand before me charged with the offence of being a Flawed citizen of this country, for acting on an error of judgement, and as a result face ousting from regular society. Do you deny or accept this accusation?”
“Deny,” I say, my voice tiny in the large room, and I’m glad it’s over, that it’s the only thing I have to say today, because I fear that my legs, which are shaking so much, will crumple beneath me.
“Very well. We hear your plea and will over the course of your trial hear from witnesses to both the event and your character. Based on that, we will announce our findings. You may leave now, go to your home, and return to us here tomorrow morning at—”
“Just a moment, Judge Crevan,” Judge Sanchez interrupts. “Myself, and Judge Jackson, would like to put forward the motion that Ms North remain in our holding cells until the trial is over.”
Bosco looks surprised to hear this.
“We feel that due to the status of Ms North, and the attention garnered, that her going back to her home, to her life, could give her opportunity or give others opportunity to use her and her situation to their advantage.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” Bosco says angrily. “And I am opposed to the idea. We only detain the accused if they pose a risk of running, and Ms North is not a threat. It would be impossible for her to disappear given the attention on her.”
“Indeed, Judge Crevan, but given the attention on her, we would like to prevent a circus, a spectacle being made of such a serious case.”
“But if she stays in her home, speaks to no one?”
“This was the same for Jimmy Child, and we know that the parameters put in place were breached.”
Bosco bristles at this, as though it has been directed at him personally. “Ms North is not Mr Child.”
“No, but we have learned from it. We feel that it is in the best interests of the Guild and the accused to confine this case within the walls of Highland Castle.”
“We need to discuss this in my chamber. This is not something that can just be—”
“I propose it now,” Judge Sanchez says coolly.
“And I favour it,” Judge Jackson agrees.
“And I oppose it,” Bosco says, bewildered. “She is just a child.”
“She will be eighteen in six months, and she is being held away from the other detainees. Only one other accused is in the same chamber as her, an eighteen-year-old detainee, which is the best we can do given the circumstances.”
Bosco is speechless.
“And so it is passed. Celestine North will return to her holding cell for the duration of her trial.” Judge Sanchez bangs the gavel against the block and looks smug.
The room erupts.
Mr Berry stares at Bosco in stunned silence, while the rest of the room is in constant movement, spinning.
“How can this happen?” Mum is asking Mr Berry, who is so still it is as though he can’t hear her. She grabs the arm of his suit, which is pin-striped with pink fine lines. “How could you let this happen?”
“There’s something going on,” he says, more to himself, but I hear him.
He looks at me, and there is a crack in the smooth exterior. I see pity in his eyes, and that, from him, terrifies me. “I’m sorry, Ms North. It appears even Judge Crevan’s enemies have decided to use you as a pawn in their game.”
When I return to the holding cell, covered in I-don’t-know-what was thrown at me on the return journey, Carrick immediately jumps up. He is as surprised to see me as I am to be back here. I am dazed and confused. Tina guides me into the cell. I have already said goodbye to my parents. Carrick follows me all the way from the door to my bed, the entire length of the cell. For the first time since I got here, he demands my attention. Even though this is what I’ve wanted since I saw him, I can’t look at him. He wants an explanation. Everybody thought I’d go home; everybody thought I’d get away with this. Carrick thought he knew the rules, but the rules changed. He needs to know what is going on more than anyone else. If I am doomed, then so is he.
I can’t be bothered to give him an explanation. I don’t have one. I feel completely numb. I sit on my bed, staring into space, still feeling his eyes on me. He stands at the glass, two hands pressed up against it, almost ordering me to look at him. I want Art. I need Art. Only he could make everything all right, right now. I lie down and turn my back to Carrick, and I don’t move all night, because I don’t want him or anyone else to see me cry.
After a night of nightmares, of hearing that man in the Branding Chamber screaming in anguish, of dreaming of bleeding tongues and of ghoulish Flawed reaching for me and grabbing at me from the barricades as I walk through the courtyard, I wake up feeling exhausted and scared, confused as to where I am. It is the day that I will testify on my own behalf. The day I tell Bosco’s lie. It is Naming Day.
I’m awake at five am, lie still until five-thirty and then get up, pacing like a caged animal waiting for everything to commence. Carrick wakes at six and lies in his bed, sleepily watching me from under his blankets. After a while, he sits up, back against the wall, knees raised, elbows resting on his knees, already familiar with this routine. This frustrates me even more. There is nowhere I can escape him, apart from the small toilet, but I can’t spend any amount of time in there longer than necessary. I’m sure they’ve made it the size of a hole for a reason.
At eight am Tina and Funar come to our cells, and we are guided to the showers. I expect Carrick to ignore me as he did most of the day yesterday, but he gives me a light nod, and there’s something softer behind his eyes. Perhaps I’ve gone up in his estimation in not being sent home yesterday, and I understand. I have always felt that he and I are in this together, ever since I saw him walk into the holding cells. For him, it took about eighteen hours to agree. Even in all the times I woke up during the night, afraid and disoriented, I looked across at Carrick and immediately felt oriented. He was the trigger to calm me, nothing else in the room. I don’t know if having someone of his build on my side is simply wishful thinking. I know this connection seems so intense over such a short period, but I feel as though I’m in a pressure cooker, and he is the only person in it with me who could possibly understand. Experiencing it at the same age only adds to that connection.
I smile a good morning, and he holds out his hand to let me walk ahead of him. Funar whistles lightly, childishly, a whit-whoo, and Tina tells him to shut up. I smile and look behind me quickly to catch Carrick’s reaction. Not so much a smile as a light behind his eyes. Maybe they’re green. Our eyes meet to share the joy of Funar’s embarrassment at being silenced, and then I quickly turn back to follow Tina. I feel self-conscious that Carrick’s behind me, and I’m also hoping we’re not being taken for another “lesson”. I guess that we’re not, seeing as Tina is here, and I wonder if I should tell her what happened yesterday when she was upstairs, or if I should suck it up as Carrick has done. Perhaps there are rules in bravery. If so, I will follow Carrick’s lead.
He’s taken left; I go right. After the shower, I dress in fresh clothes and I’m taken back to my cell. Carrick is already in his cell, sitting at a table with a dumpy man in a tattered suit. Carrick’s hair has a shine to it, still wet, and he looks freshly shaven and is in a new sludgy-green T-shirt. I’m sure Mum would have chosen something else, something warmer, to bring out his eyes, whatever colour they are, but I like it. It’s like he’s a soldier, because it strikes me that he’s not looking for clemency, he’s looking for a fight. I study him when he’s not looking, to see what colour his eyes are. I don’t know why I’m obsessing over this. I suppose it’s because Art’s are so clearly blue. You see them before you see him. They’re one of the things I love most about him, whereas with Carrick, his eyes seem black, but they can’t possibly be. Perhaps his pupils are just constantly dilated from anger.
The dumpy man in Carrick’s cell has a red, flustered face, and it looks like breathing is a difficult act for him. He rifles through papers. They’re talking and it’s intense, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. The man is explaining something. He is hot and bothered, and Carrick’s face is angry already.
My door opens. It’s Tina.
“Who’s he?” I ask.
I notice she never uses Carrick’s name.
“But I thought he was representing himself.”
“He is, but he still needs assistance. Paperwork to be filed, et cetera. Paddy is his mentor. You would be sent one, too, but you have Mr Berry.”
I look at Paddy, who seems like he’s about to die of a coronary, and I’m once again grateful for Mr Berry despite the fact that in any other situation, I wouldn’t trust him. Just enough to trust him with my life.
“There’s someone here to see you. In the canteen.”
My heart flips. Art. I need him. I want to be back on the summit with my legs wrapped around him, feeling his heartbeat through his chest. I know that as soon as I see him, I will feel calm and human again, and not like this caged animal.
As we’re walking by Carrick’s cell, something, a flash of colour, attracts my notice. I don’t hear anything, because the glass is soundproof, but I see it out of the corner of my eye. I stop walking and look to see a tray of food fall from the window to the ground, cups and saucers and food lying in pieces on the floor of his cell. Behind it is an angry Carrick, the one responsible for firing it directly at my head, his face twisted in anger and aggression.
I’m stunned. It was clearly aimed at me, but I can’t figure out what I’ve done.
Tina surprises me by laughing. “So I guess he just found out.”
“Found out what?”
“Bark! Funar!” she calls. “Bad egg.”
Funar appears at the guards’ office door and grunts.
She turns back to me, and we continue walking. “He’s learned that his case is on hold until yours is finished,” she replies. “That’s the fourth time that’s happened. First Dr Blake, then Jimmy Child and then Angelina Tinder.”
“How long has he been here?”
“A few weeks.”
“Weeks?” I ask, shocked. “And how much longer will he be here?”
“Whenever you’re finished. He’s a flight risk and has anger issues, obviously. Can’t risk letting him go. Been trouble ever since he got here. Serves him right, to be honest. If he didn’t act like such an animal, his case could have been pushed through by now. Now come along this way. You can get breakfast here, too.” She takes me by the elbow and pulls me along.
I look back at Carrick. He stares at me with his cold, hard eyes, chin raised, chest heaving up and down at the exertion of his fit of rage. Tina called him an animal, but I don’t blame him at all. A few weeks in this place and I’d start to behave like one, too. I try to give him a look of apology, but I’m not quite sure how to pull that off. I need words, and he and I have never shared any. I half-walk, half-run along as Tina pulls me. He stands still, hands on his hips, and watches me all the way out the door, probably wishing I’d never come back. Maybe his eyes really are black.
My heart is pounding when I arrive at the canteen, and it is a remarkably different atmosphere from the one I’ve just left. It feels like civilisation, and I can hardly believe it was only yesterday morning that I, too, was walking around freely. People having breakfast meetings before work, lots of dark suits with heads close together, tablets out on every table. Free people who come and go when they want. And Art. Somewhere in this room is Art. My stomach flutters.
“He’s over there.” Tina points and backs away. “I’ll come back in half an hour so you can get ready for your big moment.”
I swallow hard at the thought of it.
I go in the direction Tina pointed me to, searching for Art, for his white-blonde hair, for his turquoise-blue eyes, but I can’t find him anywhere. I’m aware of all the eyes on me as I weave my way between the tables. When I get to the end of the room, I look around, confused, then I start walking back again.
I feel a hand, a rough grip, around my wrist.
“Ow,” I say, pulling away. An old, wrinkled hand with protruding veins grips my arm. “Granddad!”
“Sit down,” he says harshly, but his face is soft.
I embrace him quickly and then slide into the seat before him, happy to see him, but trying to hide my devastation that Art hasn’t come to see me. I wonder if it’s because he’s not allowed or because he doesn’t want to.
I don’t get to see Granddad as often as I used to after he and Mum had their falling out last Earth Day. He’s welcome in our home, but only when invited, and he isn’t invited as much as he used to be. It is all on Mum’s terms now. Grandma passed away eight years ago, and he lives alone, tending to his dairy farm.
He looks around conspiratorially, and for once he’s not just being paranoid. Most of the people here are staring at us.
“We have to keep our voices down,” he says, moving his head close to mine. “Did you see this?”
He reaches inside his jacket and retrieves a newspaper. It’s folded lengthways, and he slides it across the table to me. “They won’t want you to see this one, that’s for sure.”
I open the paper and am shocked by what I see. My photograph takes up practically the entire front page, with only a small space for a dramatic headline and the rest of the story inside. My mouth falls open. The headline shouts, the face of change?
He slides another across to me. It’s a variation of the same photo, with the headline north. NEW DIRECTION FOR FLAWED CAUSE.
“What? Which papers are these?” I ask, not recognising them.
“You won’t see these around here,” he whispers. “They’re not Crevan’s. He doesn’t own them all, you know.”
“He doesn’t own any of them, Granddad. They’re his sister’s, Candy’s,” I correct him, scanning the articles.
“In name only. You’re about to learn Crevan’s more involved with those papers than anybody else is. You’re all over Crevan’s papers, too. However, their slant is slightly different. All about the girl who protects society from the Flawed. You’re a hero on both sides. Or a villain, depending on your opinion.”
Which explains the reason for the level of anger outside in the courtyard. I’ve annoyed just about every side you can imagine. Nobody comes to watch a Flawed cross the courtyard to support them.
Granddad’s conspiracy theories are what Mum fought with him about. It was fine and harmless for him to believe them on his own, on his farm, in the middle of nowhere, but when he kept bringing them to her doorstep, he was, as she said, bringing danger into our home. Particularly when he was sitting at the same table as Bosco. I thought it was funny at the time, the comments he used to make, but now I see why Mum was afraid.
The sight of me on the front pages is overwhelming, the things they are saying about me, how they are analysing and dissecting my actions when I, who actually did these things, gave them much less thought. If I am who they say I am, which side am I to believe? I don’t think either of them knows me at all.
“Granddad, have you spoken to Juniper? Do you know anything? Is she okay? She won’t be a character witness for me. Does she hate me?”
“I haven’t seen her and I’m sure she doesn’t hate you. Your mother won’t let me into the house. I’ve tried, but she thinks I’ve lost my mind. It’s just that I’ve got all this. This proof.” He starts taking out scraps of paper from every pocket of his jacket, some cut-outs, some with scribbles on them. “I’ve been collecting information. A lot of which I think will help you. Your mother won’t listen, but you need to. There are two very important names to remember, Celestine: Dr Blake and Raphael Angelo. Forget Mr Berry. They can help you with your case. We need to find them—”
“Granddad, stop please,” I say gently, closing my hands over his. “It’s going to be okay,” I say, sounding calmer than I feel. The Branding Chamber really shook me up yesterday, and I know it was a warning from someone. I’m not about to ignore that warning. “Bosco is helping me.” I keep my voice down incredibly low. “We’ve talked already. I just need to do what he and Mr Berry say, and it will be okay.”
But the old man won’t be okay, my conscience tells me. The old man I’m about to accuse of breaking the Flawed rules. The man who reminded me of my own granddad. How could I do it to him? I push it to the back of my mind, knowing I must stay in survival mode.
Granddad snorts. “Celestine, whatever that man has promised you, I would not rely on it. He was double-crossed yesterday by his own two judges. Sanchez and Jackson have had enough of him and his double standards, and it will happen again. They’re not happy about his decisions lately. They feel he’s using his ties to the media to push through whatever decisions he wants, trying to convince the people of his beliefs, not to mention what he did to that poor newspaper editor’s wife. There’s a war brewing, Celestine. Don’t let them use you.”
“Bosco wouldn’t use me, Granddad.”
He studies me. “Do you believe in what you did, love?”
I look down. Then back at him and nod.
“What are you afraid of then?”
“Being Flawed! The pain, the scars, the rules, the curfew, the life, the Whistleblowers, losing my friends, people laughing at me, staring at me. Being thought of as one of them. Yesterday they made me listen to a man in the chamber, Granddad. He screamed so loud I’ll never forget it,” I say, my eyes filling.
“Ah, love,” he says, taking my hand. “They’re playing tricks on you, you know that. It’s all mind games. It’s about power. Control. This society we live in.”
He loses me with his conspiracy words again.
“Live with me,” he says, suddenly full of enthusiasm. “It’s a simple life, but you can live as you like, no one looking over your shoulder telling you what to do and who to love. I won’t bother with the curfews, don’t bother with the diet nonsense. You can go to bed when you like and get up when you like, eat what you like, go out with whatever fella you like. It’s not like here in the city. You can be as free as you can be.”
“They have Whistleblowers in the country, too, Granddad,” I say gently, grateful for the thoughtful offer, but it’s not something I could even contemplate. “I can’t do it. I can’t be Flawed. And I’d miss Art. Tell me, have you seen him? Has there been anything about him in the paper? I thought maybe he’d visit me or send me a message or something …” I chew on my nail.
Granddad goes quiet and studies me, concern in his eyes.
“I just …” I pull my finger from my mouth. “It’s not just a childish thing, you see, me and him, it’s serious. We have plans. We’ve talked about everything we want to do after school, together. I really, you know, love him.” I haven’t even said this to Art myself yet, but I will. As soon as I get out of here, it will be the first thing I’ll say as I feel it more now, away from him, than ever before.
Granddad looks sad. He reaches inside his pocket, and I wait to see another newspaper, but instead he slides an envelope across the table. “This is from him. I didn’t want to give it to you. They’re not your sort, Celestine, that family.” He shakes his head. “You’re better than them. But I can’t play God in your life. You have to make your own decisions now. And you’ve some big ones to make.”
I nod, barely hearing what he’s saying. I’m so excited about the letter, wanting him to leave so I can rip it open straight away and see Art’s words.
“But just think about this, love: Do you think your friend Bosco will let you go near Art when you get out of here? Even if you’re not Flawed? I’d think twice about that if I were you. Prepare yourself. Nothing will go back to being exactly as it was before.”
I have thought about that, in the deepest, darkest corners of my mind, but as Art is the only thing keeping me going, thinking about losing him would tip me over the edge.
“You tell the truth in court today, Celestine. And if they tell you that you are Flawed, then you wear that like a badge of honour. Look at what these papers are saying! You are in a position to make a change. You already felt that yourself. You went with your gut, with what felt right, and you have inspired people.”
“Inspired?” Tears fill my eyes. “An old woman spat at me yesterday, Granddad. A nice, decent old woman.”
“Well, then there was nothing decent about her. The people who want change are just begging you to be their girl. Don’t let the Guild wrap you up in their bloody red wings and make you think you’re one of them. You’re not, and you never will be. Seize the moment, Celestine, and say it. Give a voice to those who are silenced.”
His eyes are shining with excitement, filled with tears, filled with hope that his granddaughter can be this person he so wants me to be.
“I’m not like you and Juniper, Granddad,” I say sadly, feeling defeated. “This isn’t who I am. I follow rules, I like logic, I solve problems. I don’t speak out of turn on things I know nothing about. I don’t want to stand out. I want to fit in. I don’t want to be a poster girl for anything.”
“Oh, but you already are, Celestine. The tide is changing, and whether you wear the branding of the Flawed or you walk out of here a free woman, you’ll never be the same girl you were. They’ll be watching you, all of them, and who would you prefer they watch? You or the girl you’re pretending to be?”
Hi, Perfect Girl,
I hope you’re okay in there. I can’t believe they didn’t let you come home, but Dad says he’s doing everything he can for you. I want to be there for you, but I’m not allowed. Too much press, etc. Hope you understand, but I’m watching you on TV all the time. You look hot. I hope you’re wearing the anklet. You’ll always be perfect to me. Do whatever Dad and Berry Boy say, and we’ll be back on the summit before you know it.
I’m on your side.
P.S. What did the elephant say to the naked man?
How do you breathe through something so small?
I giggle and fold the letter into a tiny square and tuck it into my pocket. Love always! Love always!! Okay, it wasn’t I love you, but it’s close, isn’t it? Is it the same?
I don’t look at Carrick in the next cell, who’s lying on his bed with his back to everyone, no doubt hating me even more than he already did. Art’s words have given me hope that when I get out of here, there is a future for me and him. I hold on to that thought. I feel lifted, like I’ve been connected to the real world and this whole Flawed thing is a misunderstanding easily fixed. I didn’t even notice Mum and Mr Berry enter the cell; and when I look up, I realise it’s time.
“Green,” Mum says, displaying the most beautiful dress I have ever seen. “The colour of nature, youth, spring and hope.”
The dress is not entirely green. It contains the most beautiful scene, a picture of green leaves, flowers, exotic birds, a canvas of nature, of natural beautiful things.
“It’s also the colour of envy,” Mr Berry says, adjusting his green silk tie. “And that’s what we’ll be – the envy of every Flawed person in the country,” he says with a grin. “For today is the day, dear Celestine, that you will walk away from here exactly as you walked in.”
I find it a bad analogy. I will never be the same again. But maybe he wasn’t mistaken. I will be as judged when I leave as I was when I walked in. Granddad’s right. It will never end.
Before I leave the cell, I look at Carrick for something, a response of any kind. He is up from his bed now and his eyes run over my dress. I feel naked under his stare, but I can’t move.
He nods at me. A goodbye, a good luck, I don’t know, but it’s not angry. I nod back. I take a mental picture of him, knowing it’s the last time I’ll ever see him as our lives go in two very different directions.
Dad, Mum, me and Mr Berry, flanked on either side by Bark and Tina, stare at the closed double doors ahead of us. Something is going on, because Bark and Tina are holding riot shields, which seems to unsettle Mr Berry. He checks his green tie at least five times. They all know something apart from me. As soon as the doors open, I see that the security and crowd have doubled since yesterday, as have the media. The crowds are being held back by barricades, and security wear helmets and hold blood-red riot shields in their leather-gloved hands. The sound from the crowd is unbearable. I can’t make out anything anyone is saying, but if you could trap anger in a jar, this is what you would hear each time you twisted the lid.
A can of something goes flying before us and emits steam. Security bundle around it, and we all quicken our step. Mum shows no sign of wobbling today; her head and chin are up. And as much as I want to keep my eyes down, she forces me to follow suit. If I can’t feel it inside, then I at least want to appear as strong as her. Today there are people shouting at me for being Flawed, and there are people shouting at me for hating the Flawed. The only thing they have in common is that they detest me and are here to see me branded Flawed and Ousted from society. Nobody comes here to offer support; it’s merely to vent frustration, to use me as a punching bag. I don’t know how Bosco and Pia’s media campaign is going in persuading people to think I’m the Guild’s hero, but judging by the reaction today, somebody is losing: me.
Despite my terror, I look around. Maybe if I can put faces to the sounds, it will make me feel better. I see Pia Wang reporting from her raised platform, in her perfect clothes, with her perfect hair, even more doll-like in reality. A familiar woman with a pixie cut nods at me again respectfully, just as she did yesterday. A strange-looking man at the barricades blows a kiss at me. There is something familiar about him, but I’m sure I have never seen him before. He has a beard and long hair, hippie-like, but he seems too youthful to have such growth on his face. He wears a childish, elephant-shaped woolen hat. The large, floppy, oversized elephant ears cover his ears, and a trunk protrudes from his head. It is a bizarre thing to see on a man his age, as well as at this time of year, when it’s not cold. As I near him, I study him more, and he winks. It’s the blue eyes that give him away. Art. I knew he’d find a way to come. I almost stall in my tracks, but Mum and Mr Berry keep me moving. I think of the elephant joke in Art’s note and know that the hat is a reference to that and that he’s trying to cheer me up. It’s not something that’s going to make me laugh in this situation, but it lifts my spirits. I try hard not to smile, though.
“Celestine! Pia Wang from News 24,” she calls. The camera is on me, the red light on. “We’re live. Can you wave to the people at home?”
“Smile,” Mr Berry says through his teeth, and I lift my face to the camera on the raised platform and give a small wave with a tiny smile. I don’t want to look like I’m enjoying this.
Like yesterday, there are plenty more flying objects, though the riot shields do a good job of blocking most of it. Still, some manage to splatter my dress, but Mum is prepared this time. As soon as we step inside, she whips out wipes and cleaning products, and I am once again immaculate. Once inside, it’s clear that we are all shaken. Mr Berry asks for a glass of water and takes a moment to compose himself. Mum rushes to the bathroom.
Dad takes me aside.
“No matter what happens today, sweetheart, you know I’m proud of you. No matter what, I will love you,” he says with urgency.
He looks around, seems strained, unsure of whether to say something or not.
“Dad, tell me,” I say, voice low.
“I haven’t said much during all this. Your mum said it was better I don’t, but I think I need to. It’s just that … I don’t want you to think that because of what I do, it means that you can’t … that you can’t use your own voice. You understand?” He looks at me intensely. He looks exhausted, like he hasn’t slept in days. His eyes are bloodshot. “Bob took a stand at work, he wanted to use his own voice and … well, he was punished for that. Angelina was punished because of him. It was a warning to us all. I will defend you no matter what, Celestine. I have no problem with that. I’ll tell whatever news story Crevan tells me to do, because that’s my job and I try to protect Summer, you, Juniper and Ewan, but don’t be me. You do what you have to do.”
Now? He says this to me now? Angelina Tinder was branded because Bob wanted to speak out? And yet, as soon as he said it, I know that I knew it already, somewhere deep down, somewhere I was afraid to say it out loud.
I swallow hard and nod, almost afraid of the intensity of his look, by his grip on my arm. I know Dad is trying to be helpful, but I can’t help but still feel confused as to what he thinks I should do. The plan was always to lie.
To not be deemed Flawed, I must betray the old man on the bus.
To be true to myself, I will be deemed Flawed.
I stand in the corridor, mind reeling.
I am seventeen years old, and though I have fought with my parents about my being more responsible than they give me credit for, I am not ready for this decision. I enter the courtroom, my mind far from clear, my focussed plan now a blur in my mind. I don’t even know what the right thing is any more. Me, who is always so sure. My black and white is now fuzzy and grey.
I scan the room for Art. Even though I know we have just left him in disguise outside, I still remain hopeful he has entered through the public entrance. When I look at the back of the courtroom, I can’t believe what I see. Carrick is standing at the back of the courtroom, his cap on low over his face, arms folded, shoulders up as if he’s a bodyguard watching the door. Our eyes meet, but neither of us reacts. He even stands with the Flawed at the back as though he already is one. I’m beyond moved by his presence, and my eyes fill. I wonder if he has chosen to watch my trial or if they are making him, just as they forced us to listen to that man being branded. And if they are making him, then a lesson is about to be taught in order for him to learn. Either he is supporting me or they want to scare him.
Granddad grins broadly at me and gives me a thumbs-up. Juniper sits beside him, looking tiny and terrified. She gives me a small smile. I’m glad she’s here. My mind is at peace with her being ashamed of me at least.
The trial begins by listening to the first of my character witnesses, Marlena, my friend since I was eight years old. She is nervous, but she is loyal, telling stories of how I have always been mindful of correct behaviour, even when around those who aren’t. I think she sums me up well: logical, loyal, fun, but always staying within the rules. It is the first time in two days that I recognise myself in somebody else’s description of me, and I’m glad of the general description of my being considered boring for a teenager.
“Ms Ponta, is it your belief that Celestine North’s character is Flawed?” Bosco asks.
She looks at me, and there are tears in her eyes, but she speaks firmly, “No, not at all.”
“Thank you, Ms Ponta.”
Dad speaks on behalf of him and Mum. He talks about how he took me to work with him when I was younger, to the TV station, and how I had to be removed from the editing suite because I wanted everything to be perfect and I kept pointing out imperfections and continuity issues. “Celestine is a logical child. She is a mathematician; she scores top marks in her class; she wants to study at the School of Mathematics at Highland City University; and her December results show that she is on course to receive far above the required points. She is a very bright young woman, a pleasure to have as a daughter. She likes things to be in their rightful place; she takes problems and, using theorems, solves them. She follows rules.”
I smile at Dad. This is me.
Judge Sanchez looks at Dad, with her bright red lipstick visible from the moon, and smiles, a sneaky look on her face. “Indeed, Mr North, but I’d like to quote Kaplansky when he talked about mathematics: ‘The most interesting moments are not where something is proved but where a new concept is involved.’ Mathematics takes basic concepts, but these varying applications have led to a number of abstract theories. Is this the kind of mind your daughter has, Mr North? The mind that creates new theories, new concepts, takes risks and goes against the grain?”
Dad thinks about this and looks at me. “No.” He pauses. “I would never have said that Celestine was the type of person to go against the grain. Never.”
I understand what he’s saying. To go against the grain in this circumstance is to go against myself. I have never been the type of person not to do what I believe. He’s telling me to follow my heart.
Judge Sanchez smiles and hears the same thing I heard. “And what about now, Mr North?” she says in her honey, dulcet tones. “Our children have the ability to take us by surprise. They change when we haven’t noticed.”
Dad looks at me and almost views me as if seeing me for the first time. I wonder what on earth he is going to say.
Bosco interrupts, annoyed. “What Judge Sanchez is asking, Mr North, is is it your belief that your daughter Celestine North’s character is Flawed?”
Dad turns back to face him. “No, sir. Under no circumstances is my daughter Flawed,” he says, working hard to keep the anger out of his voice when I know he just wants to jump up and scream and shout and punch whoever is closest.
“Thank you, Mr North.”
Then Margaret and Fiona have their moment of glory. When I hear their testimony, it sounds like they’re talking about somebody else. That’s not me. I was never that brave. But then I also hear a group of clowns speaking completely illogically. What they are saying about the rules of the Flawed and us no longer makes sense to me. They only confirm to me that I was right to do what I did on the bus, if not doing it would mean I was one of them.
Mr Berry’s act is not like a performance, as I thought it would be, like in the movies, bringing on the razzle-dazzle, sashaying around the floor as though he’s dancing. He is perfectly normal and straightforward, and for that he is even more credible. But he is quick, and he is sharp, and he picks up on tones and nuances and pauses quicker than I believe even Juniper would. The women are dubious about him but can’t help liking him. He is charming and interested in them; he is not – yet – calling them liars. He shares with them the theory that Bosco created, that I was trying to protect the people on the bus from the Flawed man.
They mull it over.
The first lady, Margaret, concedes that it’s possible; the second, Fiona, with the crutches, is adamant that it was not so.
“I don’t care what story the defence are trying to push,” Fiona says. “They can’t brainwash me. I know what I saw. That girl –” she points her cane at me – “helped that Flawed man to his seat.”
The public erupts at her accusation, and a few members of the media rush out to make their reports.
Bosco announces that the CCTV in use on the bus at the time of the event, when seized by the Guild, was, unfortunately, deemed ineffective and cannot be considered as proof. I have no doubt this is Bosco managing to twist things in my favour and hold back the proof that could destroy me. Bosco announces that we must take into account it is merely the view of the people on the bus and not something we can witness ourselves. I suppose being able to witness my act themselves would be more damaging to me, at least they can make their own decision on whether to believe the witnesses or not. I’m thankful for his deception.
It occurs to me, as everyone speaks of the old man, that I don’t even know his name. I never asked and it has never been mentioned, like it isn’t important. The case revolves around him, and yet he is brushed aside as though he is nothing. I don’t want to ask Mr Berry. I don’t want it to seem like I’m pitying the man, like I have sympathy for a Flawed. I need Mr Berry to believe in me more than anyone ever has.
As the proceedings finally break for lunch, I quickly turn to my granddad before I’m taken away. “Can you get information to me about the old man?” I whisper in his ear. He nods, face intense, and I know he won’t let me down.
Everyone goes back to their lives after my entertainment, and the reporters continue their reports outside. I’m thankful we can wait in a room near the court so that I don’t have to cross the courtyard again.
I sit with my parents, Juniper and Mr Berry in the waiting room, picking at charcuterie and crackers, feeling sick from the hunger and unable to eat at the same time. I appreciate everybody’s company, but I don’t speak. I am happy to be away from all the noise, away from the unwanted attention, without having to worry about every part of me being analysed: my facial expressions, my reactions, how I sit, how I walk. I can just be.
Tina enters the room and hands me an envelope, and I know it’s from Granddad. He hasn’t let me down. Unaware of who it’s from, Mr Berry and Mum eye it like it’s a grenade, and when I read its contents, I feel like it might as well be.
What I learn from Granddad’s note is this: Clayton Byrne, the old man on the bus, was the CEO of Beacon Publishing. With a degree from the prestigious Humming University – he studied English literature. He met his wife in college and married her when they were twenty-six. They have four children. He became CEO of Beacon Publishing when he was forty-two years old and at the time was praised for his leadership skills, his ingenuity and his ability to take the company forward. He took risks, all of which paid off apart from one. Because of his failure, due to risk-taking, he was forced to resign from his position and, as a signal to all future employees of the company, was brought to the Guild and found to be Flawed. For making bad judgements in business, he received a brand on his temple, and because he lied about it to his colleagues and tried to cover his tracks, his tongue was also seared. His wife passed away two years ago, and he is suffering from emphysema. He had left the house that day without his oxygen.
Finally, I take the stand. The room is bursting with people. I see Carrick standing at the back, arms folded, beside the woman with the pixie cut who nodded at me in the courtyard. Juniper is in the front row beside Granddad. Granddad looks at me, and I nod, letting him know I received his envelope. There is still no sign of Art, though thinking he could be outside, in disguise, is better than nothing.
“We know the story of what happened on the bus,” Judge Sanchez says, beginning it all. “We’ve heard it repeated time and time again in this court over the past two days, and we could spend another two days listening to the testimonies of the other thirty people on the bus who witnessed the same thing. Your representative, Mr Berry, has kindly told us that you have waived that and accepted what they saw, and the court appreciates your understanding and respect of our time, so we will not ask you to tell us again what happened. We also understand that the only difference between your story and theirs is that they say you were helping the old man, and you say you were trying to get rid of him. And where the majority saw you as helping the man to his seat, you say he sat himself? Is this true?”
I take a deep breath.
Suddenly there is an outbreak of noise and protest within the courtroom. Four people, two women and two men, are standing and shouting, punching their fists in the air, pointing their fingers at me. They shout a single word.
They shout it over and over again.
“Liar. Liar. Liar.”
“Order.” Bosco bangs the gavel. “Order.”
“If you do not silence yourselves, you will be removed from the court,” Judge Sanchez says, raising her voice.
Three of them stop shouting and sit, but one woman continues. “Our dad did nothing wrong! Our dad followed all the rules! You are a liar, Celestine North! You should be ashamed; you should be disgusted with yourself!”
The guards make their way over to her; and as soon as they lay their hands on her, the other three jump up to defend her, their sister. I’m so close to calling out I’m so sorry to Clayton Byrne’s children, but my mouth goes dry and my heart beats manically.
“It is not right what you are doing,” one son shouts, glaring at me.
“You will be reminded to stay quiet,” Judge Sanchez says. “If you have one more outburst, you will be removed from the court.”
The four of them go silent and sit down. One daughter starts crying and is comforted by the other.
My heart starts to palpitate; my breathing is irregular. All eyes are on me, judging me, thinking these things of me. All this to prove that I am not Flawed, and by doing so I feel less than perfect. It feels wrong.
“Okay, Celestine?” Mr Berry watches me intently.
My eyes dart around the room as I tally the people I am letting down: Granddad; Juniper; Dad; even Carrick at the back, who must know by now I’m lying; and the woman with the pixie cut who nodded at me with respect both days. Art, who is waiting for me somewhere outside, who told me to do exactly what Mr Berry said. Myself. The people I will actually let down if I admit to being Flawed is far fewer.
“Can my client have a drink of water?” Mr Berry asks.
My mind races as I see him pouring a glass of water and bringing it to me. I take a sip, my mind still racing, and suddenly I notice that Mr Berry is trying to get my attention. The judges are talking to me and I haven’t been listening.
“I’m sorry, pardon?” I ask, coming back into the room.
“I said, what possessed you, Celestine? It’s a simple question, isn’t it?” Judge Sanchez is looking at me over the rim of her red-framed glasses, which match her lipstick.
It is the question my mum asked, that countless others asked. What possessed me? I never had an answer for them, but now I do. It’s not the answer I rehearsed with Mr Berry, but they are the only words my mouth will allow me to say.
“He reminded me of my granddad,” I say, and it’s as though there is no air in the room. Not a sound. I see Carrick stand more alert. I can now see his eyes, which were hidden beneath the cap. He’s looking right at me. Something about having his eyes on me makes me feel stronger.
“The old man, his name is Clayton Byrne,” I say closely into the microphone, the first time his name has been said. “When Clayton got on the bus, I thought he was my granddad.” I think about how I felt then as he started coughing. “He was coughing, and I thought he was going to die. I didn’t care if he was Flawed; I just saw a person, a human being, who reminded me of my granddad, who no one was helping. So to answer your question, as to what possessed me … the answer is, compassion. And logic. He didn’t take a seat, I helped him into it. At the time,” I address everybody now, willing them to understand, “it felt like the perfectly right thing to do.”
Outrage. Mania. Noise. Bang, bang of the gavel.
I look around the courtroom and see madness. The media are in a scuffle to get out the door to make their exclusive reports; members of the public are standing and throwing their arms at me in disgust. Those who supported me are feeling betrayed. I see my friend Marlena bury her face in her hands. She vouched for me, and I didn’t back her up. The Flawed in the back row appear genuinely moved, some angry that I took it this far in the first place, that I even allowed a day to go by with Clayton Byrne’s name being tainted. My mum is in tears and is being comforted by Dad, who has her head on his chest and is rocking back and forth at the same time as wrapping his arm around Juniper, who is staring at the ground in shock.
In the midst of all the madness, Granddad stands and claps with a proud smile on his face. I focus on that look, on that face, while inside my mind and body try to deal with what I have done.
The judges are banging their gavels, fighting to be heard over the public, fighting to be heard above one another.
The Flawed are emotional, as though it’s a win for them. They embrace one another, careful not to gather together in more than twos. The old man’s children fall into a huddle, weeping and rejoicing at their father’s cleared name. I don’t expect them to show any gratitude for something that should have been said from the beginning.
I see Carrick in the back row. His hat is off and his chin is high. He’s standing still and solid in all the mania around us, nodding at me in support, his eyes on mine, not moving. I focus on him. For once not judging me, for the first time not laughing at me. I didn’t realise it was his respect that I wanted so much, but I know now that it was, that without our ever speaking I knew his thoughts about me and I agreed with him. I know this because, despite the terror that’s inside me over what is about to come, I am satisfied.
I focus on Carrick, even as Tina and Bark come to take me away. I watch him, still, strong and silent, like the rock he was named for.
Tina and Bark take me out of court and lead me back into the waiting room where I had lunch not long before. My head is still spinning from what has just happened. It’s all a blur already, and I need someone to help bring it all back to me, to remind me of what has happened. What did I say?
I notice Tina’s grip on my arm is tighter than usual, and so is her face.
“Tina?” I hear the terror in my voice. Gone is my earlier certainty and bravado, if that’s what it is called. I’ve learned that to be courageous is to feel fear within, every step of the way. Courage does not take over; it fights and struggles through every word you say and every step you take. It’s a battle or a dance as to whether to let it pervade. It takes courage to overcome, but it takes extreme fear to be courageous.
Tina ignores me, purposely turning her face away from me, but I can see the scowl. “Do you have any idea how stupid you’ve made me look? I believed you. I told everyone who listened that you were a good girl.”
“Tina, I’m … I’m sorry. I don’t know what …”
“It’s done now,” she snaps.
She leads me into the room, and I look around, suddenly very afraid, uncertain of what will happen with every new second. Bark closes the door behind them. I hear the lock and I’m alone.
I hear footsteps coming in my direction, down the hall. Loud, urgent steps. There is only one pair. I stand in the middle of the room and brace myself.
“Open it!” I hear Bosco shout, and I jump, startled.
The door flies open and I see the flash of a red cloak. It is Bosco, but it is not Bosco as I’ve ever seen him before. His face is like thunder, and red to match his robe.
“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he yells, louder than I’ve ever been spoken to before, and I’m stunned.
Tina gives him, then me, a nervous look and swiftly, quietly closes the door, leaving me inside alone with him.
“Judge Crevan!” he yells. “You will address me as such at all times, do you understand?”
I nod manically.
He seems to notice the effect he is having on me, and he calms a little. He lowers his voice.
“Celestine. You gave me your word. We discussed what we would do. I put my word, my career, on the line for you, and you betrayed me.”
“I didn’t, I mean, I didn’t think—” I stammer, but he cuts me off.
“No, you didn’t bloody think at all, did you?” he says, pacing, lost in thought, and I’m glad to be removed as his target of anger. “They’re having a field day out there with this. My own press, and the public. Seventeen-year-old young woman, educated, the envy of other girls they’ve built you up as, that I’ve built you up as –” he rolls his eyes – “speaks out in court, admits to being and is proud to be Flawed. Do you have any idea what this can do? How dangerous it is? It could breed an entire generation of imperfection, of greed and errors.” He stops pacing and comes close to my face, and I wonder how I ever found him handsome, because all the handsome is gone now. “Did you not understand, Celestine, that this is not about you? It is about our country’s future, ensuring reliable, perfect, ethically sound, morally competent leaders who can make pure decisions and lead us to prosperous times. Did you not understand that?”
He is in my face, demanding answers and explanations, and I can barely think.
“I will not have them make a poster girl of you. I wanted you to be on our side.”
“I am on your side, Bos— Judge Crevan,” I quickly correct myself. “And I don’t think you have anything to worry about, with my effect on people. I am not a motivator. I couldn’t lead anyone even if I tried. I just want to be normal. I want to fit in. I want to be with my friends I want to go home. I don’t want anybody to build me up as anything that I’m not,” I say, tears in my eyes. “You know I love Art so much. I love being a part of your family. I would never do anything to deliberately hurt you both. I am sorry that I have embarrassed you, and I am sorry that I have put you in this position, but I just couldn’t do it to the old man. I just couldn’t let him be punished for something I did.”
“Who?” he says, confused.
“Clayton Byrne. The Flawed man.”
“But didn’t anyone tell you? He died, Celestine. He died in the hospital last night. I told you that he wouldn’t live to see punishment.”
“Oh.” I exhale shakily. Was it all in vain?
“His family shouldn’t have been in court.” He continues pacing. “I wouldn’t have allowed it. It must have been Sanchez. She’s playing a game, and Jackson is falling for it. She’s been against me for some time, but I see she’s upped it now. This is a whole new level.”
Sweat breaks out on his brow. I have never seen that before, not even on the hottest day as he stood over his barbecue. His hair, which has come undone from its blow-dry, is starting to stick to the beads of sweat on his forehead. He stops pacing and looks at me, desperate, close to my face.
“Would you recant, Celestine?”
“We can still swing this. It will be difficult, but Pia can do it. A reality show. She can follow you round, show the country how perfect you are. And the world. You know there are other countries contemplating adopting our system? They have been watching us for a while. I could be president of The Global Guild. I’m going to speak about it in Brussels this month. Celestine, this couldn’t be worse timing.” He looks at me again, wild, desperate, intense. Terrifying. Art is gone from any of this man. I no longer see the face I love in him. “Would you recant?”
“I … I … I can’t.” I can’t go back in there and take back what I said. It would be completely illogical. Who would trust me?
I once took my lead from Bosco. I thought that he knew everything, that he was perfect, but I’m surprised by what I see right now, this panicking, conniving man, desperate to maintain his sliding power. He is clutching at straws that are so delicate they will disintegrate upon his touch, and he is using me in the centre of all this. Granddad was right.
“I can’t. I’m sorry,” I say gently. “Could you please let me explain this to Art myself?”
His face hardens, and I brace myself for another shout, but instead he is so quiet I have to strain my ear to hear, which, of course, is worse. It’s almost a hiss.
“If you think I will let my son go anywhere near you ever again, you are delusional. Whether this court had proved you Flawed or not, I had no intention of letting you ever set foot near him again, and particularly not now, now that you are Flawed, Celestine North, Flawed to the very bone.”
And on that he turns and leaves, his red robe flicking up and swishing with him. He slams the door closed.
A few minutes later Tina opens the door, with a new female guard. “They’re ready for you now.” Perhaps thinking of her daughter then, she softens her tone. “This is June.”
June speaks up. “Bark is heating up your weld, Flawed, gonna make it nice and hot for your pretty little skin.”
I look at Tina in horror and notice Tina in turn is looking at June in anger. I stop walking, terrified to go any further, but they pull me along.
“Come on, keep walking,” Tina whispers.
I feel my legs weaken, I crumple, and Tina pulls me up.
“You’re not being branded yet, Celestine. They have to name your flaw first.”
I allow them to pull me through the maze of corridors. I move limply with them, like a rag doll. We stop at a new door. Perhaps they took me out through it before. I can’t remember, I was so stunned.
Tina looks at me. “Ready?”
The door opens and the place explodes.
The first person I see is Carrick, who’s standing in the same place at the back of the room. He stands up straighter when he sees me, turns his body in my direction, and almost follows me with it as I make my way to my seat. I sense his new-found respect for me; there will be no back to my cell wall tonight.
The room is hot and stuffy. I can smell sweat and excitement, my life the entertainment of others. I see one woman offer a bag of candy to the man beside her. They ram them into their mouths as they watch me pass, eyeing me up and down as if I can’t see them.
I take my seat beside Mr Berry.
“What’s happening?” I ask him, and he shrugs, looking just as confused as I am.
“Ms Celestine North, please stand,” Crevan says.
I stand, my legs shaky beneath me. My mum clings to my dad. My granddad’s cap is in his hand as he clutches it tightly, his knuckles white.
I stand alone in the courtroom and realise this is how it will be for the rest of my life, standing alone, branded Flawed for ever because of one act.
I hear doors burst open, and the three judges look up.
“Don’t do this,” a voice shouts from the door.
It’s Art. I turn around. The disguise is gone.
“Art,” I say to him, afraid, and hear the quiver in my voice.
“Order in the court,” Judge Crevan says, banging his gavel.
“Don’t do this to her!” he yells again.
“Restrain him,” Crevan says, looking down, moving his paperwork around, nervously.
Two members of security grab his arms, and he yells and struggles as they pull him from the room. I look away, turn to the front, eyes back to the ground.
“Shall I continue?” Judge Sanchez asks Crevan in her smooth voice, all honey and calm.
“No!” he snaps. “Celestine North,” he says, looking up at me, eyes wild and bloodshot. He means business now. “Your so-called bravery in court suggests you wish to be a poster girl, and we don’t take poster girls lightly. Not when the message you portray is dangerous to society. We see you as a poison that is prepared to inflict itself on our good and proper society. So take this to the people, poster girl.
“It is rare for any accused to receive more than one branding, but if you are to be looked at and adored by some in society, then let them see your flaws wherever they look. We must also take into account the seriousness of your actions, that they were carried out publicly, with an audience. This was not a private event that hurt a few. It was public and has become even more so. You have attracted the world’s attention,Ms North, and for that we must send a message. I will now name your brands.”
He pauses and the room is so silent I’m sure everyone can hear my heartbeat.
“For stealing from society, you will be branded on your right hand. Whenever you go to shake the hands of any decent people in society, they will know of your theft.”
People start to talk, thinking he’s finished, but as he continues, they silence themselves.
“For your bad judgement, your right temple.”
Two brands. And he continues to gasps.
“For your collusion with the Flawed, for walking alongside them and for stepping away from society, the sole of your right foot. Every time you connect with the earth, even it will know that you are Flawed to the very root of you.”
As he continues with a fourth Flaw, the audience protests again. Three brandings so far and continuing, it is unheard of. Only one person has ever received three brandings in the history of the Guild.
“For your disloyalty to the Guild and all of society, your chest, so that if anyone should wish to trust or love you in the future, they will see the mark of your unyielding disloyalty over your heart.
“And, finally, for the very fact that you lied to this court about your actions, your tongue, so that anyone you speak to or kiss will know that your words fall from a branded tongue and cannot be trusted for the rest of your life.”
Explosion in the courtroom. People are cheering, celebrating the justice that has been done, the scum that has once again been recognised in society. Others are shouting with anger at the judges for a great injustice. Even more than before, now that they have heard the ruling. I have gained supporters, but not many, and what use is that to me now? It is too late. Naming Day has come, and I have faced my worst fear: brandings, and not just one but five. It is unheard of.
My legs are shaking so much they buckle beneath me, and Mr Berry makes a weak attempt to catch one arm, but his heart isn’t in it. Tina rushes to my side immediately and catches me. June takes my other arm, and I’m taken out through the hysterical public in the courtroom, out the main door, and across the courtyard, where I am shouted and spat at. Objects are pelted at me, extra security hold the crowds back as they pulsate at me, more journalists than any other day hold cameras in my face, and I can barely see past the flashbulbs. I briefly see a large screen on the wall of Highland Castle and realise that my case has been aired for the public to see outside, and a huge crowd gathers beyond the barricade, many sitting on deck chairs.
I arrive back at the holding cell, covered in whatever filth people have spat and thrown at me, my ears ringing from the name-calling, my eyes still seeing the camera flashes. I try to adjust to the new light but find it hard. I trip and stumble, but Tina keeps me up. I’m aware of Tina’s and June’s worried glances at each other. They sit with me; they’re as jittery as I am.
I notice they’re covered in the same stuff I am.
“Sorry,” I say to both of them.
June looks surprised by my apology.
“We’re used to it,” Tina says, brushing off some egg yolk. “Just not this much. Look, this is new to all of us. How about tea for everyone?”
June nods and goes to the guards’ kitchen.
“I’ll get you some fresh clothes.” Tina leaves me. “I have to advise you to read the folder over there.”
The Flawed file, which prepares me for my new future.
As soon as she leaves, Carrick arrives back, accompanied by Funar, racing in at top speed, as though he can’t get back fast enough. He looks at me with concern. Big black eyes, worried, lost. He enters his cell and goes straight to the wall that divides us. I remember the first day, when he turned his back on me. This time he places his left hand up to the glass.
I don’t know what he’s doing, but when he doesn’t remove it, it suddenly makes sense. I join him at the window and raise my right hand up to the cool glass, pressing it flat against his. My hand looks like a doll’s hand next to his, and I realise that the glass that I felt separated us is the only thing that connects us. I rest my forehead on the glass, and his hand goes to my face, then away again as it hits the glass.
I’m not sure how long we stay like that, but I start to cry. We never speak.
The “fresh clothes” that Tina returns with turn out to be nothing more than a blood-red smock, like a hospital robe, tied at the back and a V-neck in the front to make room for my chest brand. It is what I’m to wear in the Branding Chamber. I recognise it from the Flawed man Carrick and I were forced to listen to as he screamed while his skin was seared.
Carrick’s jaw works overtime as he watches me take the gown, his black eyes deep pools of oil. He doesn’t ignore me any more. There are no more smart faces and sarcastic looks. I have his full attention now, his full respect. I can barely escape his looks. When I return from the changing area, I see that his cell has been utterly trashed and that he is being held down on the ground by Bark. He has not reacted well to my ruling. Perhaps this makes him more unsettled about his own. We don’t get to say goodbye. I can’t even see his face. It is beneath Bark’s knee, cheek pushed to the ground, his face facing away from me. Our contact is to remain for ever without words, not that we ever needed them anyway. I have no doubt that he will find himself wearing a similar smock and taking the same steps as I am doing now.
Before entering the Branding Chamber, I sit in a small holding room with Tina and June. They go through pamphlets of information with me about what is going to happen, what I will see, what I will feel, which is apparently nothing, since they numb my skin, and how to treat my wounds afterwards. They hand me so many leaflets for aftercare services, therapy sessions, emergency hotlines, all branded with the Flawed branding. I sign some paperwork – quick, short agreements accepting all responsibility for what is about to occur – agreeing the Guild will not be held accountable if any of the brandings go wrong or if ill effects result down the line. It is discussed clinically, calmly, as though I’m going for a nose job.
As I step out of the holding room and into the long, narrow corridor that leads to the Branding Chamber, I see Carrick sitting outside on the bench where we sat together, guarded by Funar. Funar has a sneer on his face, and I can tell he is happy about both my situation and the fact that Carrick will be forced to listen. Carrick will hear me scream. My family will hear me scream. I will scream.
No. I will not let that happen. I will not allow them to do that to me. I will not scream.
Feeling defiant, I believe this is the first time I have ever truly felt it. The first time on the bus was compassion, on the stand in court my admission was out of guilt and not bravery, but now I feel anger and I am defiant.
Our eyes meet. His are strong, and I feel the effect of his stare.
“I’ll find you,” he says suddenly, his voice deep and strong, and I’m surprised to hear him speak.
I nod my thanks because I don’t trust myself to say anything. He fills me with the strength I need to enter the room without freaking out, mostly because I don’t want to lose it in front of him. My parents and Granddad are already seated behind the glass, as though they’re at the cinema waiting for the reel to begin, but their faces display the terror I feel. They do not want to view what they are about to see, but they are here so I don’t go through it alone. On seeing them, I think I would rather be alone, an unfamiliar feeling for me, who only ever wants to be surrounded by family. The excommunication from society is taking effect already within me, feeling detached from my family already, a stranger who can only go it alone.
Mr Berry is here, too, which makes me uncomfortable, though I’m sure he must be here for legal reasons, and past the open door, around the corner, I know is Carrick. That gives me strength.
Tina places me in the chair. It is like a dentist’s chair, nothing unusual apart from the fact that my body is bound to it – at my ankles, wrists, head and waist – so I can’t kick and flail as I’m seared. They want to get a clear symbol on my flesh for all time, the irony of a perfect Flawed symbol not lost on me. Tina is tender as she buckles the straps. I even sense a halt in sarcasm from June. Now is not the time for that. I’m getting what I deserve, the punishment speaking for them all.
Bark is busy with the equipment, doing whatever he needs to do.
The motorised chair reclines. I wince against the brightness of the ceiling lights. My skin feels hot as they shine on me, in the spotlight and centre stage for all to see. This is it.
“It’s better not to look,” Tina whispers into my ear as she fastens the strap across my forehead. I cannot look now anyway; I can’t move.
They inject my right hand first with the anaesthetic. It immediately numbs. Bark picks up the hot poker, and I see it, with its cast-iron F surrounded by a circle at the tip. My hand is flattened out and my fingers are strapped down, too, my hand forced open so that my palm is ready. It is done simply and quickly. No modern equipment, just a cast-iron poker and a count to three by Bark.
“One, two …” Sear.
I jump, but I can’t feel the pain. A sensation at most. And the smell of burning flesh, which makes me nauseated. I don’t scream. I won’t scream.
“There’s a bucket here if you need it,” Tina says, by my side instantly like a midwife.
I shake my head. I can hear the internal whimpering inside, see the burn on my open hand. The raw wound in my smooth skin. Four more times. It is the tongue I fear the most. I know they will leave this until last, they have told me that already, because it must be the worst.
The skin on my right sole is injected with anaesthetic, and I lose all feeling instantly.
Bark moves towards my foot. He looks at my ankle and frowns, seeing my anklet.
“Where did you get this?” he asks.
“Bark,” Tina snaps. “I let her keep it on. Keep moving.”
“No … I … I just … it’s just that I made it. For a young man. For his girlfriend. He said she was perfect …” He looks at me, realising.
I recall Art’s telling me when he gave me the anklet that a man at Highland Castle made it for him. Bark is the man who branded me perfect, and the same man who brands me Flawed. We share a long look.
“Bark,” June says sternly.
Bark is momentarily human as his sad eyes pass over mine, and then he snaps out of it.
“Brace yourself,” Tina says gently, hand supportively on my shoulder.
“One, two …” Sear.
I can see my mum crying into a pile of tissues, her composure completely and utterly cracked, smashed and shattered. My dad is on his feet, pacing. A red-headed guard is near him, keeping a concerned eye on him, ready to step in if Dad crosses the mark. I can’t hear them, but they can hear me. It’s all part of the fear they place on the public. Let them hear my screams. Make a mistake, and you’ll end up like her.
So far I haven’t made a sound, and I won’t.
Bark’s hand comes into sight and injects my chest with the anaesthetic. Again, I’m numb. The red-hot poker comes towards me again. I can feel its heat. I feel the familiar squeeze of Tina and realise it has nothing to do with support and is merely procedure. She’s readying me, but by now I’m ready to pass out. The smell is unbearable. It is the smell of my own burning skin.
I feel a blast of air. June has opened a window or something, must be to get rid of the smell of burning flesh. They’re not used to this. I can tell from the anxious looks on their faces. The average Flawed person receives one brand, rarely two. One man in the entire history received three, but never, ever five. I am the only person in the world to receive five. I feel dizzy, but I know I’m not moving. I close my eyes and squeeze tight.
“One, two …” Sear.
I feel like I can’t breathe. I haven’t felt the sting on my chest, but it’s as though psychologically I do. Pressure on my chest so immense I want to escape the constraints. I battle against them, still not making a sound. I refuse. The floor is moving. It’s rising upward. It’s going to hit me in the face.
“Celestine? Celestine, are you okay?” I hear Tina, but I can’t focus on her, her face keeps moving. She’s saying something about the bucket, but I can’t concentrate. I keep thinking of the tongue. I see Clayton Byrne’s tongue as he coughs in my face. I don’t want my tongue to be seared.
Tina tells me to take deep breaths.
“This is too much for her,” Tina says worriedly to Bark, who surprisingly is viewing me with uncertainty, too. “We need to alert someone. Maybe take a break. Do the rest tomorrow.”
“Guys, I know this is hard, but we have to do it,” June says in a low voice. “The longer we chat, the harder it is for her. Let’s not drag it out on her any more. The family is watching,” she adds with a whisper. “Let’s finish this for everybody’s sake.”
An injection in my temple. Quicker this time.
A squeeze on my shoulder. I know that for all time, if anyone squeezes me on the shoulder, it will be the trigger that brings me back to this.
“One, two …” Sear.
I gag. I retch. Smelling burning flesh. My own flesh.
Bark is mumbling something.
“Sweet Jesus,” June says, suddenly changing her mind. “We should be tending to her wounds now. This is taking too long.”
“You’re doing great, Celestine,” Tina says close to my ear. “A real little hero, almost there now, okay? Hang in there.”
I half-laugh and half-cry.
I look up and see both of my parents and Granddad standing now, in a row at the window, lining up. Distraught, angry faces. Mr Berry is not pleased. He is pacing. He is on the phone. Probably hearing the guards’ concerns, he is trying to do something about it. Granddad is arguing with the security guard. I can feel the tension in that room from here. I take deep breaths; I will not scream.
“Here.” Bark appears in my line of sight with a bottle of water and a straw. It’s a trick; it must be a trick. Tina guides it into my mouth, and as I suck I think about my tongue being seared. It’s next. I retch again. I can’t hold down the water.
It is pandemonium in the viewing gallery. I can feel their energy, their erratic, angry movements. My eyes move from side to side. I try to focus, but I can’t. I know why I’m here, and then I don’t know why I’m here. I understand, and then I don’t. I think it’s fair, and then I don’t. I wish I’d never done what I’ve done, and then I’m glad I did. I want to scream, but I don’t.
Suddenly my family members scatter like a flock of birds, as though something was thrown at them, and then I see Judge Crevan in my face, a smug sneer twisting his mouth. Mr Berry must have gone to get him, tried to stop the inhumanity. Too late, but now he’s here in the Branding Chamber. He blocks my view of my family.
“Had enough, have we, Celestine?”
I groan. I will not cry. Not to him.
They say I’m numbed, but I’m feeling sensations on my wounded body. Tingling. If the anaesthetic wears off, it will turn to stinging, then burning. I don’t want it to wear off. Suddenly, this is my main fear. I wish I’d paid more attention to the information in my cell – how long does it take before the anaesthetic wears off?
“I warned you. I told you this would happen, but you didn’t listen.”
Crevan’s red robe is the same colour as the scar on my hand, and I’m guessing as my foot, chest and temple. My blood is on his robe. He did this to me. Him. I feel nothing but disgust for him. I used to think that I couldn’t be afraid of someone so human, now I realise it is his humanity that scares me most, because despite having all those traits, having shared the moments we’ve shared, he could still do this to me. Now I find him terrifying. I see the evil in him.
“Oh, Celestine, it hurts me for you to look at me like that. I’m not the winner, either, you know. Art says he’ll never speak to me again. Heartbreaking for me, as you can imagine. First, I lost Annie, and now Art. And you caused that.”
Don’t speak, I tell myself. One more branding and it will all be over. It will all be over.
“I’m here to give you mercy, Celestine. Say you’re sorry, admit you were wrong, that you are Flawed, and I will cancel the tongue. It’s the worst one, that one. Everybody says so.”
I try to shake my head. But I can’t. I won’t speak. Instead, I stick my tongue out, showing him that I’m ready for the branding.
I see the look of surprise on everyone’s face. Granddad punches the air in defiance, not happy, but bursting with anger. He won’t want me to give in. I’ve come this far, it would be illogical to stop now, I will have gained nothing. I feel tears dripping down the side of my face, but I’m not crying.
“Brand her tongue,” he says coldly, then steps back.
I see my family take a step back from the glass, Crevan’s closeness too much for them.
My family does not sit still. Nor does Mr Berry, who starts thumping on the window, trying to get Crevan’s attention. My dad shoves the guard, trying to make him do something to stop this, and they end up having a physical fight in the viewing room. I have never seen my dad like this before. Crevan turns around and watches the pandemonium.
“Get the family out of there!” he shouts. Funar appears at the door, and he manages to pull Mum and Granddad from the room. Mr Berry follows them out, ranting and raving at Funar. Dad is holding his own against the security guard, delivering a blow to his jaw, but suddenly Funar appears again, having taken my family somewhere, probably into the holding room or the nearby cells, and takes Dad by surprise. The two guards gain control and drag Dad out. The viewing room is now empty.
“Oh my God,” June whispers over my shoulder.
“Do it,” Crevan says.
I whimper slightly as they open my mouth and place the clamp in.
“It will be quick, dear,” Tina says, urgency and panic in her voice.
“Step away from her,” he demands angrily.
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d like to do my job and remain by her side,” Tina says, a tremble in her voice.
An injection in my tongue. It instantly feels swollen and enormous in my mouth. I gag.
“One, two …” Sear.
I don’t scream. I can’t. I haven’t the use of my tongue. I want to kick my legs, stamp my feet and wave my arms, but I’m restrained and can do nothing. I can just feel my body push against the restraints and hear a sound that I don’t realise until a moment later is coming from me. It is worse than a scream; it is an animal, guttural sound, a groan, a grunt, something so deep inside me, a pain that I have never experienced nor heard before. One I never want to hear again, but I will, over and over in my nightmares.
“Repent, Celestine!” Crevan shouts at me.
I’m unable to get the word out as my tongue is numb and feels swollen and oversized, but I can see that he is distressed now. He is not getting his way. I’m not following his plan. It was for me to say sorry and the branding would stop. I will never say sorry to him.
“Judge Crevan, we must get her to the ward. Her wounds need medical attention,” Tina says, urgency in her voice. “We have never gone on for so long. We must see to her quickly.”
I feel the strap around my head release, and I am able to lift my head from the headrest and look at him directly now.
“Repent!” he shouts at me, louder again.
I shake my head violently. I’ve come this far. It’s finished. I’ll never tell him I’m sorry even if right now it is the thing I am feeling most.
They free my hands and my ankles. They are moving quickly now, wanting to remove me, and probably themselves, from this situation. They start to help me up, Tina on one side, June on the other. Bark begins to clean and tidy away the equipment. They can’t wait to get me out of here. I can’t walk – my foot is completely numb and my legs are shaking so badly. A wheelchair has been placed beside me.
“Brand her spine,” Judge Crevan says suddenly, chillingly.
Bark turns to face him slowly. “Pardon, sir?”
Tina and June freeze, look at each other wide-eyed.
“You heard me.”
“Sir, she’s just a child,” Tina whispers, and I can hear the shake in her voice and sense the tears about to come.
“Sir, we have never seared a spine before,” Bark says nervously.
“Because we have never seen anyone so Flawed to their very backbone like this lady. Brand. Her. Spine.”
“I can’t do it, sir. I’m afraid I’ll have to check first with the—”
“I am the head of the Guild, and you will do what I say or you will find yourself in my courtroom first thing in the morning. Are you aiding a Flawed?”
“No. No, sir.”
“Then get to it. Brand her spine.”
“But we don’t have any more anaesthetic.”
“Do it without.”
“Sir, the law states—”
“I am the law. Do it!” he yells. “By order of the Guild!”
“No!” I protest, but it doesn’t come out like that. My tongue has swollen in my mouth, from injury and numbness. I can taste blood, feel it rolling down my throat. I start coughing. All I can do is whine, but I don’t like the sound I make, so I stop. I see the evil in his eyes, the enjoyment he is getting from this. I won’t let him get any further satisfaction.
It is going to happen, and I must be prepared. I must ignore the madness and the pandemonium that have just occurred in the viewing room, the injustice that is happening in the chamber right now. I must block out the fears I have for what is happening to my family now and find stillness within myself.
Tina and Bark open the ties at the back of my robe.
“Oh dear girl, I am so sorry,” June says, taking hold of my shoulder. “Oh dear God.”
“Stop talking,” Judge Crevan snaps.
Tina takes my unseared left hand in hers tenderly, then holds on for dear life, with her back to Judge Crevan so that he can’t see the tears streaming down her face.
Bark comes towards me with the red-hot poker, looking uncertain.
“Do it,” Judge Crevan says again, then watches me. “Any time you want them to stop, all you have to do is say you’re sorry.”
“She can’t speak, Judge,” Tina says through her tears. “How can she stop it?”
“She can stop it if she wants to,” he says slowly, quietly.
He wants me to call out, to repent. I don’t.
Suddenly, Carrick appears in the viewing room. I can see tears in his black eyes, so I know that he has heard it all. He is panting hard, as though he has run a marathon. Sweat and blood are on his brow, and he has a cut lip. Blood drips down on to his T-shirt. Funar, with a busted nose, struggles in the doorframe behind him, doubled over. Mr Berry rushes in behind Carrick into the room, his phone in his hand. The security guard who had been battling with my dad runs into the room and runs at Carrick, but Carrick knocks him out with one fierce blow. The security guard falls to the ground out cold.
Completely outnumbered, Funar doesn’t bother to fight any more and slithers from the room, hand over his pumping nose. Mr Berry pushes the door closed, and I see his face, and he suddenly looks his age. He is holding his phone up in the air, recording. Crevan hasn’t noticed the activity behind him. Neither Bark, June or Tina have alerted him to this.
“Do it,” he says, urgency in his voice, sweat above his lip. “Brand her spine.”
Carrick stands right at the window and looks at me intently, forcing me to hold his gaze. He holds one hand up to the glass, presses it flat. Instantly, I zone out of the madness in this chamber and in my head and focus on the stillness in Carrick’s body. I focus on his hand. The hand of friendship he offered me earlier.
I’ll find you.
At least I have one friend. I am exhausted. I am still. I am ready.
“One, two …” Tina counts me in. But nothing happens. I don’t feel a thing.
“Judge, I can’t do it,” Bark says. “I just can’t; this isn’t right.”
“Fine,” Crevan snaps. “If you won’t do it, I will.” He grabs the iron from Bark’s grasp and he and Bark swap places, Bark standing where Crevan was, so that he blocks Crevan’s view of Carrick. I can’t take my eyes off Carrick; I won’t take my eyes off Carrick. I take a deep breath.
And as the hot iron touches my spine, the noise I make is the loudest, most excruciating, agonising, animal sound I have ever heard in my life, and it echoes through the corridors of Highland Castle for all to hear, so anyone and everyone knows Crevan’s poster girl has been branded.
I’m home, propped up in my bed by a dozen cushions, organised by Mum, who keeps stepping back to take a look at her work before fluffing and punching again, as if it were a work of art. If she can’t fix me, she can fix the image around me. This is all for the visit of Dr Smith, our family GP. After inspecting my dressings, he sits in the chair by my bed and looks at Mum as he answers her questions.
“A burn of the tongue will look and feel different, depending on the degree of the burn. A first-degree burn injures the outermost layer of the tongue. This leads to pain and swelling. A second-degree burn is more painful because it injures the outermost and under layers of the tongue. Blisters may form, which is what has happened here, and the tongue, as in her case, appears swollen. A third-degree burn affects the deepest tissue of the tongue. The effect is white or blackened, burnt skin. Numbness or severe pain.”
Dr Smith sighs, his friendly grandfather face showing that he is clearly finding this difficult.
“She appears to have received the correct medical attention at the castle. Her tongue is not infected, the blistering will eventually go away. Her taste buds have been destroyed—”
“Not that she’s eating anyway,” Mum interrupts.
“That’s to be expected. Celestine has been through an ordeal. Her appetite will eventually return, as will her taste buds, which regenerate every two weeks. The severe, untreatable pain that she is experiencing now can sometimes lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.”
You don’t say.
Mum purses her lips and lifts her chin. I watch them talk to each other, over me, across my bed, as if I’m not here.
“Most burns heal within two weeks; however, some can last up to six weeks.”
He looks at me sadly, as if remembering I’m here.
“There is one more thing,” he adds. “There is a … sixth brand …” He seems uncomfortable mentioning it.
Mum looks at him in panic. He leaves the sentence hanging.
“We’ve known each other a long time, Summer,” he says gently. “I’ve seen Celestine and this family through measles and chicken pox, vaccines and whatever else. I can assure you of my utmost discretion in this matter.”
She nods again, and I can see the fear in her. She wasn’t in the chamber when the final two sears happened, none of my family was, and I don’t want to talk about it. Ever. I don’t even know if Mr Berry shared it with her. But she’s my mother, and she was there. So she can guess what Crevan did in the state he was in, and she is respecting my silence, though I know Dad wants to know. The question is on the tip of his tongue every time he looks at me, but he holds back, probably holding himself responsible for encouraging me to speak up for myself and landing myself in this agony. I don’t think either of them could imagine, even in their wildest nightmares, that it could have been Crevan who delivered the sixth and final brand.
“I’ll come back in a few days to review the dressings again, but if there’s anything I can do before that, contact me directly.”
I don’t bother to nod.
Everyone speaks on my behalf now anyway. They speak about me like I’m not in the room.
I’m not here.
I close my eyes and allow the pills I’ve just taken to help me drift away again.
Sleep. Nothing but sleep, and pain, and disturbed dreams.
There’s a knock on my door, and I close my eyes. Mum enters. I know it’s her from the perfume scent and the effortless, perfect way she glides in and sits without disturbing a thing. After a while, she speaks.
“I know you’re awake.”
I keep my eyes closed.
“That was Tina at the door. Tina from Highland Castle. She was asking for you. It took a lot for her to come here, especially with, you know, them outside. She knew you wouldn’t want to see her. She just wanted to give you these.”
I open my eyes and see a box of pretty cupcakes. Pink, lilac, blue and yellow, with glittery edible flowers and butterflies on top.
“She said her daughter made them for you. You can eat one this week,” she says, trying to make that sound fabulous.
One luxury a week is all a Flawed is allowed to have. It is part of the basic living we must abide by, so that we can purify ourselves. We must eat staple foods, nothing luxurious or fancy, nothing considered unnecessary for our bodies, for our life. Basics. Our intake is measured at the end of every day by a test I’ve yet to experience.
“And she brought you this, too.” Mum hands me a bag.
It’s a Highland Castle tourist shop paper bag, which I feel is highly inappropriate. If she thinks I want a trinket to remember the worst experience of my life, she is sorely mistaken.
Inside the bag is a box. I barely want to open it, but curiosity gets the better of me. Inside the box is a snow globe, enclosing a miniature Highland Castle. I shake it lightly, and the red glittering particles are churned around inside the glass. Extremely inappropriate. Even Mum views it with distaste. I’m surprised by Tina, but I’m sure she was trying to be kind, maybe even say sorry, or that’s my own wishful thinking. I put the globe back in its box and straight into my bedside locker. I don’t want to ever see it again.
I close my eyes.
I have a visitor. Angelina Tinder sits beside my bed, dressed in head-to-toe black, which is a look I’ve never seen on her before. She looks like a lady from Victorian times grieving her dead husband. She is wearing fingerless leather gloves to hide the branding on her hand. Her long piano fingers are as pale as snow beneath the leather. She’s not allowed to wear these when she’s out in public, but she can hide it in her own home if she wishes. She is not in her own home. She is breaking a rule. Though it’s not me she is hiding it from, it is herself. She sits upright in the chair, looking at me rarely, just enough to see if I’m listening now, and then she speaks.
Her eyes are rimmed with red, as if she hasn’t stopped crying since she was branded. The tip of her nose is red, too. She is paler than I have ever seen her, as though she hasn’t seen the sun in weeks.
“You’ll have a Whistleblower appointed to you,” she says. “They’re giving you mine. She’s senior. A horrible woman with nothing better to do with her time. She’d volunteer for the post even if she wasn’t paid. Mary May is her name. Calls herself a Christian woman. She’s the same kind of woman who was burning other women at the stake. She won’t give you an inch, Celestine, you remember that.” She quickly glances at me, then away again. “She’s looking to catch you out. She thinks you’re disgusting.” She sniffs as if smelling a bad odour herself. “But they are. The Flawed. Absolutely disgusting. We are not them, Celestine, and don’t ever let them think that of you. Though, what on earth were you thinking helping that Flawed man to his seat? Saying all that in the courtroom? It’s everywhere, you know that. The footage of you on the bus has gone viral.” She looks at me, her face twisted in confusion and disgust.
I don’t answer. I can’t answer. I wouldn’t anyway.
“Be home by ten thirty. They say eleven, but she’ll be waiting for you, and anything can happen. Allow for delays, mistakes, anything. They will probably even try to trip you up. They’re always testing. I missed the curfew once. I won’t miss it again, I can assure you.” She thinks for a moment. “She’ll test you every evening to make sure you’re sticking to your basic meals, and a lie detector test to ensure you’re telling the truth about following all rules. They rely on these to work. They can’t keep their eyes on you all the time, but God knows they’ll create something soon enough in those laboratories. A camera sewn into our head or something, seeing everything we see, hearing everything we think. Because that’s what they want to know, you know. It’s like they want to crawl inside us, under our skin.”
She sniffs again and scratches at her arms. I look at her fingers and see that they’re trembling.
She sees me looking at them.
“They won’t stop. I can’t play any more. It’s like they’re not mine any more.”
She leaves a silence, and I try to prepare for the next onslaught, which inevitably comes. “It’s awful. A woman looked at me today as though I had murdered every one of her children. I would rather they had killed me instead of living like this.”
I’m glad my tongue is so damaged that I can’t speak. I wouldn’t know what to say.
“Good luck, Celestine.”
She stands and leaves the room.
Mum comes to my room later with a hopeful look on her face. “Did that help, sweetheart?”
I close my eyes and drift away.
I wake up. And just as I have done every day for the past four days since I’ve come home, I force myself to go back to sleep. I realise it was not all a nightmare. It is true. Sleep is my only friend these days, so I roll on to my side, for my back is in too much pain, move my head on the pillow so that my temple doesn’t brush the fabric, try not to crease the skin on my chest so that it doesn’t sting and leave my right hand flat and open, the dressings preventing me from closing it anyway. This is the only way I can find respite, though for a girl of definitions, I use the term respite lightly.
I have not left my room for four days. I have left my bed only to go to the bathroom. Apart from Dr Smith and Angelina Tinder, Mum, Dad and Juniper have been the only others I’ve seen. They’re shielding Ewan from me, and I agree. Mum has tended to me night and day, cleaning my wounds, changing my dressings, putting whatever potions and lotions on them to take away the pain, to fight off infection. I have woken some nights to find Juniper sitting in the chair beside my bed staring into space; and then when I wake again, she is gone, so I wonder if it was merely a dream. Things were awkward and stilted between us when I returned from the castle. Though I know she did not plan for any of this to happen to me and it’s not her fault, something is bubbling beneath me, an anger over her part in it. She could have come to my aid on the bus, and she could have testified in court that I didn’t help the old man to a seat. Why couldn’t she have said it? I sensed her guilt as soon as I saw her when I came home, and it made me angry, it made me want to blame her. Anything so as not to blame myself.
I am plied with painkillers, and I like it. They give me a woozy out-of-body experience that takes me away from reality, softens the blow. I am aware, at different stages, of a crowd outside our house, but I don’t watch them and we don’t talk about them. I know when Dad leaves and arrives home from work, not because of the sound of his car engine, but from the camera clicks, the jump to life by the pack, the shutter speeds, the shouted questions. Some are kind, some are disgusting, directed at him as he comes and goes. I never hear his responses, if there are any, but I, too, would like to know if he could still love the most Flawed person in the history of the state.
“Do you love your daughter, Mr North?”
“How can you still love your daughter?” another shouts.
Still, I appreciate the latter’s assumption that there is still love for me at all, despite the fact that they find the very notion bewildering. It would never happen to them, not to someone they love. Impossible. I am poison to some of these people, but I am merely entertainment to others. I learned that from the way I hear some laugh when he drives away and they get back to whatever they were doing, having found the entire thing fun. My life is drama at its mightiest.
I recognise some of their voices. They are the gossip reporters, the news anchors, the familiar voices of my past. And now they’re talking about me. Only it doesn’t sound like me, not that person, just this revved-up version that I don’t recognise. They analyse and dissect my own behaviour with more thought than I’ve ever given it myself. I’m too weak to care about it and too embarrassed to listen to it properly. It is wafting in and out of my ears and mind, and quickly out again. I would rather sleep.
There is a television in my room, but I haven’t turned it on, nor my phone. It’s for the part of me I lost, the invisible part of me that I never knew was essential. The part I gave away to become nothing.
So far, technically, being Flawed has not altered my life. I haven’t been anywhere, haven’t done anything. I have stayed in this bed, and yet I don’t feel the same at all. Not because of the physical scars and ache, either, but I feel different to the bone. Just what Crevan intended.
There’s a knock on the door and I know that it’s Mum. I’ve learned how to tell who’s there, how to recognise the different styles. Dad’s is tentative, hesitant as though he’s afraid of disturbing me; Mum’s is all business, like she belongs in the room. She doesn’t even wait for a reply and enters. I turn over on my back to face her, feeling the pain in my spine as I do so.
“Your dad has worked out a way for people to visit. He’s blacked out the windows of his jeep. So he can meet visitors at the station, then drive them directly into our garage without anyone seeing.”
The garage has direct access to the kitchen, so nobody has to set foot outside the door.
“So if there’s anyone you want to see …”
“Art,” I say simply. Probably the first word I’ve uttered in days. It would be romantic if it weren’t for the circumstances.
She looks down at her hands, as if afraid to answer. I thought he would have visited me by now. I’ve been waiting. Listening. Each time I hear the doorbell, I hope it’s him, but it’s not, it never has been.
“Nobody knows where he is,” Mum says, finally. “After your verdict, he went home and packed his bags and took off.”
“I bet Crevan knows,” I say groggily, my tongue still heavy in my mouth. My throat is dry, and the words don’t come out easily. My tongue feels huge in my mouth. It is this that has been the most difficult sore to deal with as it blisters and scabs.
“No. He’s pretty much going out of his mind trying to find him.”
I smile. Good.
Mum hands me a glass of water with a straw.
“Are people ashamed to visit me? Is that why they’re going through the garage?”
“No.” She pauses. “It’s for privacy. So you can come and go in privacy.”
“I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
I look at her in surprise.
“Next week. When you’re healed. You can’t hide in here for ever.”
I strangely hope I’ll never heal, so I never have to leave.
“Besides, they won’t let you stay in any longer. You have to face the world, Celestine.”
I wonder whether she will apply this to herself, too. She looks tired around her eyes. She hasn’t left the house for as long as I have, no visits to her clinic for a pick-me-up, though she will probably want an entirely new face after the scrutiny she has come under. I wonder how all this will affect her work, if she has been dropped from any of her portfolios. It would be naïve to think not. No one can be discriminated against for having a relationship with a Flawed family member. They are not responsible for the actions of their loved ones, but still, people always find a way to get around that. My mum’s life is just another person’s life I’ve ruined.
“Mary May is your Whistleblower. She has stopped by every day; she has been thorough in what we and you are allowed to do. She is … meticulous in her work,” Mum says, and I detect nerves. This woman must be some force of nature. “She has insisted on seeing you every day, but I’ve held her off,” Mum says with a determined look in her eye, and I know it couldn’t have been an easy task. “You’ll meet her in a few days. She’ll run through the rules and then stay with us during dinnertime. She wants to observe that we are abiding by the rules for the first few days. And you will see her every day after that. Each evening she’ll do two tests.”
“Angelina told me,” I interrupt her, not wanting to hear about the invasion again.
“She won’t be in your life apart from that.” She tries to make the daily invasion not sound as bad as it is. “You need to eat something,” she says, looking at my tray filled with food. “You haven’t eaten for days.”
“I can’t taste anything anyway.”
“Dr Smith says your taste buds will come back.”
“I can taste blood, so I must be okay.” Bad joke. And I’m not sure I can taste blood. My tongue is blistered and scabbed, and I just imagine it flowing down my throat whenever I swallow.
“Maybe it’s better if I never taste again anyway, given the food I have to eat every day of the week for the rest of my life.”
“It’s a healthy diet,” Mum says perkily. “Probably one we should all be eating. And we would, but we’re not allowed to join you, sorry.”
“Are you going to defend everything they do?”
“I’m just trying to look on the bright side, Celestine.”
“There is no fucking bright side.”
“Language,” she says, propping me up with pillows again, but she sounds like she couldn’t care less what I say.
“Are Flawed not allowed to swear, either?”
“I think more than anything, Flawed are entitled to swear,” she says.
“There she is,” she whispers, tracing a line around my face with her finger. “My brave baby.”
I look at her properly. “How are you, Mum? You look tired,” I say tenderly.
“I’m fine.” Her resolve weakens. “I’ve booked myself in for an eye-lift,” she says, and we both laugh. It’s the first time she’s ever admitted doing any work to her appearance.
“She’s out at the moment.” She stiffens.
“She’s being funny with me.”
“She’s afraid, darling. She thinks you’re angry with her.”
I think of the sad way she looks at me when she sees me, the gentle tone in her voice when she asks me what she can do for me, and it makes me bark back at her. I’d rather we return to the banter that we used to have. I’m more comfortable with her being irritated by me, but instead now I see her pity. I think of the fact that she didn’t come to my aid on the bus and how she didn’t testify in court. Mum is right; I feel nothing but anger at her. I know I’m wrong, but somehow it is burning inside me.
“Are you angry with Art?” Mum asks. I know the point she is making: How can I be angry with my own sister and not Art? But somewhere deep down, I keep wondering why he didn’t try harder to make it stop. Why couldn’t he convince his dad? But I understand. I once trusted Judge Crevan, and he wouldn’t have expected his own dad to land me in so much trouble.
“Do you think he’ll come to visit?”
She purses her lips and pauses, and I know it’s a no. “I’m sure he just needs to think about a few things. Away from his father,” she says, and I see the anger in her eyes. “But, Celestine –” she thinks about how to say it – “don’t expect him to—”
“I don’t,” I interrupt. “I already know.”
The realistic view would be to believe that Art will never come back to me. I know that. But it doesn’t stop me from hoping. And it doesn’t stop me from dreaming of the way things used to be.
“I know you don’t want to talk about this, but we’re thinking of contacting Mr Berry to discuss the extra brand.”
“No,” I interrupt before she takes it any further.
“Listen, Celestine, it wasn’t part of the original ruling. What happened is unheard of. We want to talk to him to see what your options are—”
“And what might they be?” I say angrily. “Are they going to make it disappear? Is Crevan going to say sorry? No. Just because it’s unheard of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It’s Crevan. He does what he likes, and he can do whatever he likes to me again. Promise me you’ll leave it alone.”
She purses her lips and nods. “I understand, Celestine. Your dad wants to protect you; he wants to defend you. Fight for your name.” She smiles softly, loving this part of him. “But I agree with you. I think we should stay silent. If we talk to Mr Berry about it, then I’m afraid we’ll bring more attention to it. I’m not sure if he’s aware of it or not, but your file still says five brands. They haven’t contacted us to update it, and it hasn’t been in any of the media reports. They’ve only mentioned the five. Nobody in the media knows or is talking about a sixth brand.”
Yet. The silent word hangs in the air. This news does offer me some relief. I am still the most branded Flawed person in the world, just not yet known to be the most ridiculously branded. I never thought getting away with five would be a bonus.
Mr Berry knows about my sixth brand already. He saw it happen. I think about telling her, but I don’t. I don’t want to talk about what happened in the chamber. I want to forget. But I can’t. Carrick knows, too.
I see his hand pushed up against the glass, and I hear his voice from the corridor. “I’ll find you.”
I don’t know if I want him to find me like this.
And on that thought, I close my eyes and drift away.
I have a nightmare. Juniper is sitting in the chair in my room beside my bed, just staring at me. Our eyes meet, and she smiles a wicked, satisfied smile. I wake up in a sweat, my sheets damp beneath me. Feeling dizzy, I look around. Juniper isn’t there. The house is quiet. It’s midnight. I was sure someone was in my room; I felt a presence. I get out of bed, open my door quietly and pad down the landing, limping as I keep the weight off my branded foot. I listen at Juniper’s door. It’s quiet. I slowly, quietly, push it open. I need to see her there, in bed, fast asleep. Her bed is empty. It hasn’t been slept in.
I meet Mary May for the first time. I am expecting a tank of a woman, instead I meet Mary Poppins. I have seen women dressed as she is before but never understood who they were or what they did. She’s wearing what looks like an ancient nanny uniform: a conservative black dress with a white shirt and black tie. The tie has an embroidered red F. She wears black tights and black brogues. Over her dress she wears a heavy black button-up coat with a wraparound collar and red velvet cuffs. She wears a black bowler hat with a red band and another F on the front. Her hair is pinned up neatly and sits in a bun below the back of her hat. Her face is make-up-free and stern. I’m not good at guessing ages, but she’s in her forties or fifties and is a tiny, birdlike woman. She looks like she’s dressed for the middle of winter. She stares at me as I walk in. She looks me up and down, as I have done with her.
“Hi,” I say. I’m not sure whether to shake her hand. The heavy black leather gloves tell me not to attempt it.
“I’m Mary May, your Whistleblower for the foreseeable future. You are aware of the rules, or shall I go through them again?”
I shake my head.
“Verbal communication,” she snaps.
“No, I mean, yes,” I stammer. “I understand the rules.” I’m nervous because I don’t want to make a mistake, I don’t want to be punished again. I don’t know what’s right and wrong, what’s expected of me in this new world. I’ve read the rules, I’ve been told about them, but the reality is quite different. My family is all sitting at the table watching me with her. I can feel the tension in the room. I can’t make a mistake. Not again.
She likes how she has unnerved me. I see the smile in her eyes.
I sit for dinner for the first time since I’ve returned. A regular family dinner. Mary May remains in the corner, hat, coat and gloves still on, her presence as calming as the Grim Reaper’s. Mum has turned on music to fill the uncomfortable silence. Juniper is at the table, eyes down that nervously flit to me when she thinks I’m not looking. The more scared of me she acts, the angrier she makes me feel. Ewan won’t stop staring at me, as though I’m not here to see him.
“What’s she eating?” he asks, looking at my plate of food with disgust.
“They’re grains,” Mum says. “They’re pumpkin seeds. And that’s salmon.”
“It looks like dog food.”
It smells like dog food.
The others are eating chicken and rice. The chicken looks dry and the rice claggy, and I wonder if it is deliberately so. Mum has also cooked cabbage, which she knows that I hate. I can see she is trying to help me, to make this easier for me. I know Mum has tried to keep it basic, but I still want to eat what they’re eating. I don’t want their food because it looks better than mine, or because I’m remotely hungry, because I’m not. I want it because it’s what I should be having. I want it because I’ve been told I can’t. I wonder, again, where this part of me has sprung from. I was the girl who followed the rules; I was on their side. I never questioned anything. Now I find myself on the wrong side of everything, questioning everything. This must be how Juniper felt every day. I look at her. She has her head down and is playing with her food. Once again it irritates me that she isn’t eating it. She can eat it. She has the right and she’s barely touching it. She looks up just then, sees the look on my face, swallows and looks away again.
Ewan is staring at me. At the dressings on my hand, covering my temple. He eyes my chest curiously.
“Mum, Dad,” he whines. “She keeps looking at me.”
“Shut up, Ewan,” Juniper spits.
“She’s allowed to look at you,” Dad snaps. “She’s your sister.”
Ewan continues eating, in a huff.
“You know you’re allowed to speak directly to me, Ewan,” I say softly, finding strength within me to be gentle. He’s my little brother. I don’t want him to be afraid of me.
He looks startled that I’ve addressed him.
“Could you pass me the salt, please?” I ask.
It’s closest to Ewan. He freezes. “I’m not allowed to help you. Mum, Dad,” he whines again, absolutely terrified. He looks to Mary May, who is sitting in the corner of the kitchen, observing with her notepad and pen.
My heart hammers in my chest, and I feel like I’ve been punched, as if the air has gone out of me. I have caused such terror on my own baby brother’s face.
“Oh come on!” Juniper yells at him, picks up the salt and bangs it down in front of me. “You’re allowed to pass her the salt.”
They all continue eating in silence.
I watch them, like robots, heads down, shovelling food into their mouths. All except Juniper. I know none of them wants to eat. None apart from Ewan, anyway, but they are, and I know they’re doing it for me. I wish Juniper would. I have a bizarre feeling of wanting to force-feed her that chicken. And then I can’t take it any more, the anger, the hatred that I’m feeling towards my own sister. It’s not her fault, and yet I’m blaming her.
I stand up. I take my plate and carry it over to the bin, beside where Mary May sits. I press the pedal to open the bin, and I throw the entire plate inside. I hear it smash as it hits the bottom. She doesn’t even flinch. I stick out my finger, ready for her test. I just want to get this over and done with and go back to bed. She pricks my finger, puts a drop of blood on a test strip and places the strip into a meter that is strapped around her wrist like a watch, which displays my blood results. Instantly, the machine says, “Clear”.
She then puts a contraption on my finger, similar to a pulse oximeter, which is attached by a wire to her wrist sensor, and she asks the question.
“Celestine North, have you followed all Flawed rules today?”
“Yes.” My heart is beating wildly. I know that I have, but what if it says that I haven’t? What if they try to trick me? How truthful are these tests? How can I trust them if they’re controlled by the Guild – they can say I’ve lied even if I haven’t, and it’s their word against mine.
The watch once again gives a brisk, “Clear,” and she removes the device from my fingertip.
I don’t even look back at my family; I feel too humiliated. I go upstairs. I want to sleep.
Sleep, however, doesn’t come. My painkillers have lessened. I don’t feel as distant any more, not as groggy, and I long for that feeling to return. I hear Mary May leave, satisfied that I have obeyed the curfew. I sit at the window and look across the road at Art’s house. It’s large and imposing, the largest house on our cul-de-sac. I suppose you could call it a mansion. It is at the head of the street, looking down on everybody. Crevan’s brother developed it, the one who has shares in the football club, and they wanted to keep those working in Crevan media on the same street. To control us. Why didn’t I see it before? Bob, Dad, Judge Crevan all together on Earth Day. I thought it was so cosy and fun. Now I know it was all about control. The many windows in Art’s house are all dark. There must not be anybody home. The only life I’ve seen come and go over the past few days is Hilary, their housekeeper. I understand that he can’t visit, that there are too many journalists and photographers outside for him to be able to do that, especially if he is in hiding from his dad, but no real harm could come from visiting me. It’s not illegal. It would be a show of disrespect to his father, but isn’t he doing that anyway? Or failing that, a phone call, a text, or a letter like the one he sent me when I was in the castle would show that he cares, that he’s thinking of me. Just something. Anything.
I wouldn’t think that a visit to the Flawed could be seen as aiding, though I know that one minute in his arms would save me completely. Even though I’d tell anyone who’d listen that I know there’s no hope for me and Art now, deep down, it still makes sense to me. It could still happen. It would just mean his taking a stand against his father once and for all, and it could be me and him against most of the world.
I scroll to his name in my mobile phone and press call. I know what will happen: the same thing that has happened for the last couple of days. It goes straight to answer phone. But I listen to the sound of his voice, jovial and always close to laughter, a cheeky look on his face, and then I hang up.
Downstairs I hear Ewan get a firm talking-to, a going-over of the rules.
I pretend to sleep and feel both Mum and Dad kiss me good night. I hear them go to bed. Talking in low voices and then nothing.
And exactly what I was anticipating happens next. I hear Juniper sneaking out.
I stand naked in front of the mirror, my dressings removed. I hate what I see. My tears fall as my eyes run over the scars on my skin. They have taken away ownership of myself, and they have made me theirs. I want to rip the brandings from my skin. I look away from the mirror. I will never look at myself again. I will never let anyone else see my naked body. Not friends. Not a man. No one.
School is many different things to different people. It makes Juniper nervous, I know that. School is something she worries about constantly from the minute she goes to bed at night to the moment she returns home. She feels uncomfortable, restricted, maybe out of her depth. She can’t wait for it all to be over so she can get on with what she considers the more important parts of her life. She worries about homework, about getting answers wrong in class, about her exams and about what to wear. Her worrying isn’t because she’s lazy and doesn’t try or because she’s not clever. She’s smart. She is constantly working. She constantly talks about studying, doing study, trying on outfits, laying out clothes, starting again. She has one close friend, both of them glued to each other as they walk around the halls, heads together, sticking to themselves. They don’t want anybody else; they don’t need anybody else. They just want to get through it and be done with it.
For me, school is solid. I like going. I feel comfortable there. I look forward to each day. I don’t have any fears about it. I work hard but not so hard that I get bogged down or overly stressed. My teachers like me, and I like them. I don’t give them any trouble. I have a great group of friends. Six of us, three girls and three guys including me and Art, and one of which is Marlena, who spoke for me at the Guild. We have fun. We are neither nerdy nor jocks. We might be remembered; we might not. We just are.
But for the first time in my life, I am experiencing what Juniper must feel every morning. I debate long and hard over what to wear. Everything in my wardrobe represents being carefree to me, bought and worn by someone who blended in and had nothing to hide. I am not that person any more.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.