I suck at flirting. At seventeen, I’ve never had a boyfriend, though it’s not for lack of trying. My best friend, Summer, complains, “Such a waste, Livvy. You’re gorgeous, but when you open your mouth—total disaster!” I don’t know about gorgeous. I’m definitely a Moore—my father’s dark, wavy hair and deep brown eyes, my mother’s wintry skin. I’ve never thought about my looks other than taming my wild mane into a pony tail. The disaster part, however, is true.
Here’s the thing—I have no filter. I can’t hide what I’m thinking, and that doesn’t bode well on the dating front. Take Will Connelly. He’s heart-breakingly cute and ridiculously smart. When he asked me out for coffee, I said yes without hesitation. Conversation went well until I asked him what his sanctioned artistic release activity was. His answer? Dressing up his Pomeranian in a tankini and photographing it on a lounge chair by his pool. Before I had time to censor myself, I nearly did a spit take and blurted, “You’re kidding, right?” He wasn’t. I apologized, but the damage was done. There were no more dates with Will, or pretty much anyone, after that. Now everyone fears I’m doomed for spinsterhood.
“If you don’t get married within three years of graduation, you’ll end up single for life.” This is hyperbole, but Summer has a point. It’s tradition, sort of. We go from school straight to the Administration (our territory’s central government), and that’s where we are, for life. The social pool multiplies as graduates from the ten Academies enter, but that’s it, since we don’t marry outside of the Administration. As long as I’ve lived, the same people have lived in this sector of the American Northwest Territory (or ANT, as Summer and I call it). After the Administration, there’s no one new to meet.
That’s why today is strange. A new student is entering our Academy. Of 115 people in my graduating class, I’ve gone to school with the same 114 for twelve years. No one new ever comes into the mix. And because this new person is male, he is the only topic of conversation for Summer on our way to school.
“Livvy, a new guy! We’ve been with the same tired group of boys since we were five…”
“Umm, Summer? You have a boyfriend!” It’s hard to keep track. Who can blame her? She is gorgeous. Hair—blond, straight. Skin—flawless honey. Her parents ran the risk of making her a cliché, but she owns it—the look, the name, all of it.
“Livvy, please. Jackson’s a biologist; I’m a physicist. It was doomed from the start. FOCUS on what’s really important here!”
I cannot focus because the he she is speaking of stands right there, across the street—the first unfamiliar face I’ve seen since childhood. And then I throw up.
“Livvy, what the flux?”
Oh how I never tire of Summer’s work-arounds for the no profanities ordinance.
“Ummm... What just happened?” I ask, with marked confusion.
“Ummm…you just hurled into the bushes.”
“No one else saw, did they?”
“I don’t think so. Here, take a mint. I’m sure you need it.”
“Thanks,” I say, but out of the corner of my eye I see him, looking right at me.
How Summer did not notice him across the street is beyond me, but she cannot miss him walking into our independent sciences class. How can anyone? He’s the first new person we’ve seen in twelve years. His entrance brings immediate silence, all eyes on him. It isn’t just his newness. The calm he emanates hides something, and he looks like no other guy I know. His hair is the darkest black I’ve ever seen, cropped close to his head. The subtle stubble on his jaw indicates he has not shaven in a couple of days (completely against code), and his hazel eyes are fixed in my direction as our instructor, Mr. Pierce, introduces him. That’s when I realize I’m staring.
“Students, I know this is unorthodox, but we have a new addition to the Academy. This is Wes. He’ll be with us through graduation.”
Wes gives us all a slight, closed mouth grin and tucks his hands into his front pockets. His forearm peeks out from his cuff, and I see what looks like writing on the underside. He must notice too because he instinctively pulls his sleeve back to his wrist.
“Wes, why don’t you have a seat? Since this is an independent study class, you can work on whatever it is you want to work on. The rest of you can do the same. Tomorrow you introduce your topics of study with an abbreviated speech. Final project in four weeks.”
All eyes in the class follow as Mr. Pierce leads Wes to the empty table in the back of the room. I look over in Summer’s direction and see her mouth one word—tattoo.
I don’t see Summer again until lunch. I barely utter, “Hey…” before she jumps into the seat across from me. “Livvy, that boy has a tattoo!”
“Nobody has tattoos anymore,” I say. “They aren’t allowed within the territory.”
“Livvy, I know the rules, but he’s obviously not from here. And he looks like no guy I’ve ever seen before. I mean, every boy I’ve ever met looks like every boy I’ve ever met.”
This is true. It’s not just the uniform. There’s also a certain uniformity to all the guys in our class. It couldn’t have always been like this, but as we get closer to starting our lives in the Administration, the males are beginning to look more the part.
“Yeah, I guess he does look different, but I…”
“And he’s kind of skinny, too,” she interrupts. “O.k. Not so much skinny but less bulky, you know? Not in a bad way, though. I like a change from the thick manufactured muscle of the male student body.”
“Just a reminder that some of that manufactured muscle is your current boyfriend and every other guy who has auditioned for the role of husband. And it’s not like they have a choice. All male students are required to take a military fitness class as part of the curriculum.”
“Whatever,” she replies. “We both know I’m not going to marry anyone from here.”
“Oh, but you’re going to marry the illegally tattooed stranger?” The same illegally tattooed stranger I’m still thinking about as I try to eat. Why? No time for self-analysis because Summer slaps my sandwich out of my hand before I can take a bite. “Seriously?” I ask.
“Shhh! He just sat down at the table behind you!”
I try to be subtle, just to catch a glimpse, but my glimpse turns into a full-on face-to-face stare. Again, that same closed mouth grin. I smile awkwardly and turn back around.
“Ok, what the flux was that?” Summer demands.
“I have no clue. One thing’s for sure, though. His eyes are definitely hazel, and I am not…
“Subtle?” she fills in. “No kidding. And what was with that smile?”
“I don’t know,” I defend, but what I should say is, “Well, you develop an instant chemistry with someone when they watch you puke. We’re bonded for life now.” But I don’t . I don’t have to because I am saved by the bell. I won’t see Summer again until after school. I hope that by then she’ll forget the familiarity in that smile.
She does. I don’t.