My balcony overlooks the satellite. Steam rises from the black ground below. White light shines down on the twisting streets and the tilting complexes and the human beings. The faint wails of sirens bounce across the stretch of uneven towers. The edge of the great barrier wall looms like a mountain in the distance.
My mother stands behind me. I won’t look at her, but I can hear her breathing. She does it slowly. In and out. A perfect demonstration of calm. I’ve never been able to control myself as well as she can.
“Why are you being so difficult?” she asks. “Most girls would be grateful. At the very least excited.”
If she’s waiting for an answer, I won’t give her the satisfaction. The skin covering my knuckles strains as I grip my balcony’s railing. The heat on the satellite follows no matter where I go. It makes my fingers slick with sweat. My mother realizes that I refuse to speak. She sighs as though I’m a child.
“What are you trying to prove?”
I’m not trying to prove anything. That’s not what I’m trying to do.
“This is tradition, Sigourney,” she says.
When I don’t respond, my mother walks to the door. “Get ready to leave, then. I’ll be downstairs.” She pauses. “Don’t keep me waiting.” The door clicks shut behind her.
I count the seconds until I’m sure that a good amount of time has passed – that I’ve kept my mother waiting long enough. I stride into my bedroom and snap the balcony doors shut.
My mother thinks it’s important to follow tradition. She believes that following tradition is safe. You don’t stand out if you do what everyone else is doing. No one can hear you if you say what everyone else is saying. Blending in is camouflage. It’s protection. Being noticed can be dangerous.
She might be right, but I that doesn’t mean I like it. I doubt I ever will.
I walk down the stairs. My mother doesn’t say anything about the time it took me to join her, though she watches me to show that she isn’t pleased. Together, we leave for the slavehouse.
The boys on display are behind glass walls. They line the edges of the hall. The hall is filled with polite laughter. My mother’s heels snap on the marbled floor. She wants me to hurry and make a decision, even though we’ve only just arrived. “Do you know which one you want?” she asks.
I press my lips into my mouth to stop myself from answering. I try not to look at the boys as we walk. The shadow of my reflection follows me in the glass walls.
“And this one?” my mother says. She stops in front of one of the cages, and I force myself to stop beside her. “What do you think of him?”
I don’t look at him. “I don’t know. What should I think of him?”
“You’re wasting time, Sigourney.”
I clench my hands at my sides and look up at the cage. The boy inside wears the same thin gray shirt and pants that all slaves wear. He’s pale blue under his cage’s white light. It’s easy to see the fear he’s biting back. The fists hanging at his sides tremble. I suppose that it must be scary, to be sold as a slave – but I would never let that fear show. I look at the information card pinned to the glass wall. He’s fifteen years old. He doesn’t have a new name. Not yet.
My mother would want me to have such a slave because he’s the most traditional choice. Broken and scared. Pathetic. He’d too easily do everything that I say. I’ve already made up my mind, however, that if I’m to choose a slave at all, it’ll be one my mother won’t want me to have. “I don’t want this one,” I say.
A hollow thud echoes through the hall. I pause beside my mother. There’s another thud against a cage wall, this time accompanied by the sound of skin squealing as it presses and drags against the glass.
A few women crane their heads curiously, while others frown and whisper to one another. My mother stares at the cage in front of us. The boy inside has begun to slam his hands against the glass. Though he can’t see anyone standing in the hall, the corners of his lips twitch as though he’s fully aware he has everyone’s attention.
I stare up at him. I’ve never seen such resentment on a slave’s face before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such resentment on anyone’s face before. Though I know he can’t see me, his eyes flicker over mine with so much anger that I catch myself wanting to take a step back. I hesitate, then force myself to take a step forward instead. If I’d ever shown that kind of emotion, my mother would suggest that I get myself under control. How strange, that I should find myself envying a slave.
“I’d like this one, I think.” My voice is louder than I meant for it to be, and several women surrounding us look away from the boy to look at me instead. Heads twist and lean in to one another to whisper.
My mother stops. With her back turned to me, I feel a clench of uncertainty, but I straighten and raise my chin by the time she turns around to face me again. She squints like she can’t believe she’s heard me correctly. I meet her gaze to let her know that she has.
This time, she doesn’t smile as though I’m trying to be funny. “Unacceptable.”
She begins to walk away once more, but I say, “You asked me to choose. This is the one I want.”
She spins back to me, her calm demeanor about to break. “This is the one you can’t have.” She looks at the surrounding women and smiles.
“That’s my decision to make. Not yours.”
My mother’s black eyes won’t look away from mine, even with her frozen smile.
I force myself not to blink. I feel heat creep up my neck, and the palms of my hands become cold with sweat. It’s harder than I expect, to speak while looking her in the eye. “If you’re going to force me to take a slave, then it’ll be the one I choose. And this is the boy I want to have.”
The echoing thud continues to rattle the hall. She doesn’t speak. Her eyebrows twitch and her smile wavers. I know my mother would never want to punish me in the hall of a slavehouse, in front of a crowd of watching strangers. To her, this is something that should be done in privacy of a person’s home. If she breaks down and begins to scream at me here, she’ll only be admitting that she’s lost control. She continues to watch me as though daring me to disobey her – as though daring me to buy this slave without her permission.
The thuds stop. The boy stands there, hands straining against his box, as though he believes he can push the glass wall aside. My mother blinks and allows her gaze to switch back to the slave.
I tell my mother that I’ll be waiting for outside, and I turn away to place my bid.