Chapter 1: Birthday

           When I was a kid, my mom told me every September 14 that my birthday is the best day of the year: not because I was born, but because apparently that’s when peace on Earth began. I never questioned her. Not until my seventeenth birthday.

       I woke up that morning in an exceptionally sour mood. Sometimes I just do. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m always fed and clothed and comfortable. I hardly ever get colds. Sometimes, on days that I shower, people tell me I’m pretty or smart. And I get along with just about everyone, except my mother.

       “Happy Birthday, sweetheart,” she said in what I think is a really phony tone she maintains throughout every conversation she has. I had woken up early enough to have breakfast before school and sat at the kitchen table. Mom insisted she make breakfast for me. “You know what day it is, right?”

       I didn’t answer.

       “It’s the seventeenth anniversary of the Great Compromise.”

       The Great Compromise was the day that the Primatetrons promised to leave the Earth and humans alone forever. That’s what they teach in school.

       “Isn’t it great to know that no one’s ever going to take your rights away?” she continued insistently. “You can wear what you like and go where you want and eat healthy foods that keep you strong.”

       She ended her speech by pushing a plate of freedom right in my face: greasy bacon, buttered white toast, and slightly burnt scrambled eggs. The medley of scents wafted lazily into my nose. Heavy scents. They, along with my mother’s sickening patriotism, dulled my appetite.

       “I’m not hungry.”

       Mom pursed her lips, brushed a piece of hair out of her eyes, and sat down at the table.

       “Lib, your father didn’t die in battle for you to reject the fruits of his labor.”

       “I feel like Dad would want me to exercise my right to reject the fruits of his labor.”

       I’d never met my dad. He died in the last battle before the compromise, a few days before I was born. It was weird how he died – radiation poisoning from a bomb that the humans let off themselves in the last weeks of the war. Sucks. At any rate, I imagine he’d only want me to eat when I feel like it, on my birthday at least. And I like to think he wouldn’t talk about the war like it was some glorious victory. He’d probably tell me that it was gross and sad, and that maybe, sometimes it’s better to pick your fights.

I know for sure he wouldn’t have named me Liberty.

       Feeling as if I’d said enough, I got up, swiftly swung my backpack over my shoulder, and walked pointedly out the front door. My bike was chained to the light post outside my house – right where I left it yesterday. I freed it from its cuff, climbed gracelessly onto the seat, felt around for the pedals, and took off. First, down Ellis St., my street, then onto Main, and into the city of Evanston. The air was hot, thick with moisture. Sweat dripped down my brow within five minutes of beginning my ride. The humidity was oppressive. Dense, blackish clouds filled the horizon as I pedaled toward it. I hoped desperately that more wouldn't roll in and that the sirens wouldn’t go off.

       I hate when the sirens go off while I’m riding. As soon as the first, ugly scream of those alarms pierces my eardrums, I know the black rain is on its way, and I’d better get my poncho and gloves out quick. If I don’t get them out in time, I’m itching and scratching for the rest of the day. Mom always knows when I don’t get them on before the first few drops fall, and she gives me hell for it.

       If those sirens went off this morning, I’d have a hell of a time trying to pay attention in class with a bunch of little red sores on my skin.

       By the time I’d hit the city limits, traffic was pretty ugly. Cars were lined up along Main Street like sardines in a can, just about to scrape each other’s mirrors off. I did my best to weave in between without nicking people’s nice rides with my handlebars. I probably hit one or two, but I just kept pedaling down the middle of the road.

       There was one poor semi-truck on the road. I knew the driver in that truck was likely pretty angry that he decided to get off the crowded freeway and try his luck on the even slower side-streets.

       I saw that his truck had slits in the side. Wondering what was inside, I pedaled toward it. With a screech of my brakes, I came to a halt next to the cargo.

       Before I could even peer inside, I felt something wet spray my face.

       “Hey!” I shouted, wiping the slimy residue from my cheeks. When I looked inside the slit closest to my face, I noticed one big, shiny, wet, black nose pushed up against the open space. It breathed heavily into my face, brushing away my bangs.

       “Who’s that?” I murmured.

       Suddenly, there wasn’t a nose looking through the slit, but one big, brown eye. It blinked innocently at me.

       I couldn’t help but laugh.

       “What are you lookin’ at? Huh?” I said playfully as I pulled one hand away from my bike’s handlebar to reach inside and pet the furry face that stared at me.

       The cow’s fur was short, velvety. I could’ve stroked it for hours, and I’m sure she would’ve just loved it. But only a few seconds later, the truck jerked into gear, lunged forward, and pulled her out of my reach, down Main St., to the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of downtown Chicago that awaited her.

       I knew what was going on. I wasn’t stupid. That’s why I felt my chest tighten as her truck disappeared around a corner. No one would ever touch her with a loving hand again. I wondered for a moment, how many times I would feel the loving touch of my mother, my friends, maybe even a boy someday, before I’m worm food. Probably a whole lot more than that cow did. And I’ve done a lot meaner things than she’s ever done.

       “Go, kid!” a young man in a tight-fitting grey suit shouted out his window. Had he really been laying on his horn that entire time? I looked before me: the traffic light was green and every car that had been in front of me was long gone.

       “Oh, shut up!” I barked back. My feet found the pedals once more, and I was flying down the street.

       When I got to school, I chained my bike to the racks, thanked God that the sirens didn’t go off, and sprinted inside. I was already late for first period.

       “Nice of you to show up, Liberty! Did parade preparations hold you up?” said my history teacher, Ms. Kerbaney as I walked into the cramped high school classroom, purposefully slammed the door behind me, dumped my backpack on the floor next to my desk and plopped into my seat.

       “Sorry. By the way, I prefer “Lib’’” I said snidely. The bite of her remark was even more stinging after realizing that yes, it was parade preparations that had traffic so backed up. Another year, another Great Compromise celebration. Mom would surely try to dress me up in the ritualistic Earthcolors and force me to sit another year on the gas station sidewalk and watch floats go by, with men and women dressed up in corny alien costumes being hung up by other men and women in Union uniforms. Barf.

       Kerbaney trod gracefully to her desk, her black heels clicking the floor as she stepped, and daintily picked up a pen with just two thin, pale fingers to write something quickly on a pad of paper, probably “Liberty late again, 9/14/2089”.

       “Now, why on Earth would I botch such a beautiful name?” she said. “You’ll have to allow me to call you Liberty for at least today, considering it is the seventeenth anniversary of the Great Compromise. Speaking of, that’s what we were reviewing just before you arrived, my dear.”

       I rolled my eyes and reached down to pull my history textbook from my backpack. Every year, on my birthday – well, on the anniversary of the Great Compromise – us poor students have to listen to a lesson solely about that day. I’m pretty sure it’s the law. As if we don’t hear enough during the rest of the school year.

       “I’ll start by asking a question,” said Ms. Kerbaney in that I-know-everything tone she always wears. She looked down for a second and stroked her chin. “Okay! Who can tell me… what was the name of the Union general who struck down the last Primatetron ship on Sept. 12, 2072?”

       Eric Corallini raised his arm so high I thought it might dislocate from his shoulder.

       “Eric?”

       With a dramatic sigh of relief, Corallini set his arm down.

       “General D’rani Malakai,” he said.

       Kerbaney’s lips formed the corniest grin I’d ever seen.

       “Yes! Brilliant. Now, next question: What do we call the humans who defected to the Primatetron army?”

       “Traitors!” Corallini burst out.

       “Nope, I’m looking for the politically correct term, Eric,” Kerbaney said with a smirk.

       A girl with olive skin and black, wiry hair whose name I didn’t know raised her hand from a back corner of the room.

       “Go ahead, Mara.”

       “Alien apostates,” the girl said through gritted teeth. Her voice sounded forced, as if someone were pouring salt all over an open cut.

       Kerbaney coughed weakly and nodded.

       “Yes, that’s exactly it,” she sort of mumbled. Then, her voice became alarmingly authoritative.

“Alien apostates – defined by their weakness of character, lack of patriotism, and exceptional gullibility. They are, well – were, those humans who left the Union to join the Primatetrons on their… military campaign across the Earth. About 1.2 billion Earthlings lost their lives to the Primatetrons and the apostates. It’s for this reason that those left behind by their own after the ships retreated from Earth were tortured. From those tortured prisoners, Earthlings were able to acquire essential information regarding the location of energy technologies and livestock that the Primatetrons stole and hid in order to disable the Earth’s everyday operations and make humans vulnerable. Seventeen years later, the Primatetrons are gone for good, per a treaty between their malicious leader, Arnkerr, and our own General Malakai. We’ve rebuilt and recreated the peaceful life humans knew before. We are again able to freely trade coal and oil and continue our own farming practices without threat of death. The memory of innumerable casualties will not fade, however.”

       Kerbaney took a much-needed breath.

       “Any questions?”

       For a moment, the room was silent except for the dull brushing sound of conditioned air coming through the vents.

       Suddenly, the Mara girl raised one twiggy arm for a question.

       “Yea, Mara,” Kerbaney said.

       Mara nodded, eyes closed, finding the words to form her question. Then, she raised one finger to the air and wagged it as if some ingenious idea had just popped into her head.

       “Mmm— so, where exactly do you get your bull?”

       With that final word, one that Mom slaps me over the head for saying around her, all of my blood flew to my cheeks. I felt as if I’d said it myself and was in for about a week of detention.

       “Pardon me?” Kerbaney said breathily.

       Mara shook her head. She cleared her throat, sat up and forward in her seat, her hands pressed down on the top of her desk.

       “Does the Union feed that to you?” she said intimidatingly That’s probably what half a teaching degree calls for these days, huh? Learning how to lie without sweating too much or turning red in the face.”

       “Okay, Mara, stop. You’re entitled to your opinion, but this is a history course. We talk fact here, not lore and fabl--“

       “Really?” shouted Mara, her green eyes growing wide with rage. “I thought I was taking your Fairy Tale Literature class!”

       “Shut up!” Kerbaney screamed at such a pitch that I was sure the class across the hall was itching to peer out the door to see what was going on. By now, Kerbaney’s arms were stuck to her sides, her hands balled into fists. “I’m sorry, just please -- be quiet. And you’ll stay after class today. We need to talk.”

       “All of us?” said Eric pathetically.

       Kerbaney rolled her eyes.

       “Just Mara.”

       

       The rest of class went on normally. Kerbaney actually made a birthday announcement for me and gave me a gift card to my favorite coffee shop. I didn’t even realize she knew it was my birthday. I sure didn’t tell her. Must’ve been Mom.

       If I were Kerbaney, I would’ve ended class early that day. But she didn’t. We left right as the bell rang, and Mara hung back just like Kerbaney told her to. I guess I was the only one curious to see what Kerbaney was going to do to Mara, because I was the only student in the class to hang out right next to Kerbaney’s door to eavesdrop on their conversation.

       I pulled my phone out of my pocket, leaned up against the wall just beside the half-open door, and pretended to text while I waited to hear the scolding.

       “I hope you know exactly what you could have –“

       For a moment, her words got kind of muffled. As stealthily as I could manage, I reached out and pushed the door open just a bit more.

       “No!” shouted Kerbaney. “You compromised a decades-long operation. You’re barely scraping two decades on this Earth yourself, though. I can’t expect you to understand. Students in this class have deep ties to Union spies. You have to be more careful.

"That’s my only quarrel with the alliance, but they saw something in you. What I see, however, is a huge risk to life on Earth. So…”

       I heard a shuffle, as if someone were slowly walking, but hardly picking their feet.

       “… you’d better do your best to hold that dangerously passionate tongue, at least before-- you know. If the wrong ears happen to catch your next speech and authorities find that an apostate population lives among them, it’s going to cost more than a sixteen-year-old’s life. This isn’t a PETA protest. Am I absolutely clear?”

       A loud, pointed smack on a desk. A clearing of the throat.

       “Yes, Ms. Kerbaney.”

       Someone in the room took a long breath.

       “Perfect. Sorry to scold you. Please, go to your next class. I’ll see you on board. Love and peace.”

       “Love and peace to you too.”

       With that, I scrambled to my feet, knowing that if Mara opened the door to see my ear pressed against it, I might be in deep shit. Thankfully, I was halfway down the hall, breathing heavy under the weight of what I’d just heard, before she left the room and began shakily making her way to whatever course she had next period.

           

The End

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