Mason awoke in the middle of the night with a burning pain searing through his cheek. He expected to open his eyes and find Mr Porter standing above him with a scalding hot spatula pressed to his cheek. However the pain was just the result of Mason rolling onto his left cheek and reawakening the pain that was just hiding beneath the surface.
Mason hadn’t been in a good shape after the attack. He had struggled to get to sleep because of the aching pain in his back and the burning in his cheek. His nose was causing him slight discomfort but, as it turned out, was the least of his injuries. Mr Porter had only just caught his nose with his fist and so his cheek absorbed most of the impact.
He tiptoed out of bed, making sure not to wake up Sam, and downstairs to the first floor bathroom. When he looked at himself in the mirror he could see his cheek was a very dark purple, almost bordering on black. He hesitantly raised his hand to his cheek and touched it. The skin was warm to touch and reminded Mason of checking people for fevers on the farm. The skin was taught and stretched more it regularly was and it gave the purple hue a slight shine to it. He put this down to the swelling because Mr Porter had definitely struck him hard enough to cause swelling. Mason thought himself lucky for his upbringing. He had seen bruises before, where the animals had kicked or headbutted someone while they tried to herd them, and knew that you couldn’t do anything other than wait for it to go down. He had to alleviate the heat somehow though, just because it was becoming too unbearable to get back to sleep.
After splashing cold water onto his face, hoping not to wake anyone else in the house for fear of being caught using that bathroom, he noticed the swelling or the temperature still hadn’t decreased. He decided, at this point, that he would need some ice for it. Figuring everyone else was asleep, Mason could spend an hour or so with an ice pack on his cheek and then creep back up to bed and no one would know any different. Apparently the Porter’s didn’t care if an Underclassman was in pain because it was their fault anyway. Sam had told him this, reminding him of the burns and scars up the inside of his arm.
“They won’t let you put anything on it. If you spend time tending to it then it’s time you’re not tending to them.” It had been how Sam had explained it when Mason asked if the family had any cream he could use to reduce the ache. But Mason figured what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. He did reconsider this momentarily as he stood half way down the stairs, after realising the last time he took this idea became the cause of the pain itself. He knew that if Mr Porter caught him rubbing some of their medication on his injuries then he would just inflict worse injuries and Mason would have to deal with them.
But, Mason thought to himself, this was his life now. Every time he messed up he was going to have a punishment. Sam had told him how they weren’t all that bad and that Mr Porter had probably just been in a bad mood. But Mason knew different, Mason knew that Mr Porter was angry because he hadn’t messed up at all that first day. He could imagine the blood boiling inside Mr Porter whenever Sam helped Mason out of trouble, every time Mason was seconds away from putting his foot in it and Sam would step in the way. This would be his life now, at least while Sam was kept around. Mr Porter would expect him to mess up and then, when he didn’t, he would get angry because of it. This would result in any punishment for Mason being more severe than was usual. Even Sam had commented that Mr Porter did not normally lash out so viciously, or at least he hadn’t towards him. But then again Sam had obeyed all the rules as best as he could while Mason, on the first day of his employment, was caught socialising with normal people and eating food that normal people would eat. Sam would never have done that.
As Mason reached the bottom of the stairs, still enjoying the warm laminated wooden floor underneath his feet, he saw a light on in the kitchen. A light on, as Mason had learned, did not necessarily suggest someone was in the room. As with most house in Liberty, the Porter’s were not worried about electricity and so frequently forgot or just refused to turn lights off when they left rooms. This made it difficult for Mason to do anything he wasn’t supposed to do because he could never tell if someone was in the next room or had just left the light on and walked out.
He stood by the kitchen door for a few seconds, listening out for any sounds that may suggest someone is inside. He could rule out Sam, although he wouldn’t have had to worry if it were Sam because he had no power over him. He couldn’t rule out anyone else though. The rest of the family had their bedroom doors shut and so Mason was unaware as to whether they were actually inside them or not. Weighing up the options, the pain in his cheek against the possibility of someone being in there, Mason pushed the door open slowly.
He hoped if someone was in there then he could see them before they saw him and quickly close the door and hurry back upstairs. As he pushed the door ajar he couldn’t see anyone. No one was moving around at least. As the door gently opened further Mason took a step inside, already deciding in his mind that it was a safe place to go.
No one would have expected, on that night, for the bright white kitchen to be stained with red. Unless of course it was Mason’s blood. But it couldn’t have been Mason’s blood because he was the person who found the kitchen in such a state.
The pristine white floors that usually reflected the lights were patterned with trails of blood and gentle drips from the kitchen table. Small rivers of crimson traced their way to the edges of the room and then ran along the joint where the cupboards met the floor. The stainless steel pole that held the table up was laced with blood that travelled around the circular object in a helter-skelter like decoration. And slumped on the kitchen table, causing such sinister décor, was Mr Porter.
His usually paunchy body looked even more bloated and grotesque as it was doubled over and resting on, what was once, such a clean looking surface. His salt and pepper hair was now dyed red with his own blood and the left side of his face was also covered where it lay in a pool on the table. The newspapers Mr Porter loved so much had begun to clump into huge ruby globs underneath his chest. The cause for all of this was clear: a large knife dug directly into Mr Porter’s swollen back.
Mason’s face dropped any colour and was washed over white. He had woken up to chickens being slaughtered before but this was a persons life. With animals it was different, they did it to survive. The only person fearing death at the hands of Mr Porter would have been Mason and he knew he didn’t bury the knife into the man’s back. He had wanted to. The thought crossed his mind momentarily and he felt, for a brief second, like karma had played a part in this. A couple of hours ago Mr Porter had beaten Mason so hard wanting to see him bleed, and now he was face down in a pool of his own blood. But Mason didn’t hold onto those thoughts for too long fearing they would twist his mind into actually enjoying the scene in front of him.
He couldn’t enjoy the scene, no matter who it was. It flashed him back to a few days before when Mr Bundy had been beaten by The Colls. They had enjoyed it, seeing his blood run from his head, but it had turned Mason’s stomach and he had to get away from it for his brother’s sake. That’s who brought him to realise that, no matter what kind of person Mr Porter was, he did not deserve to be run through with a knife on his own kitchen table. And Mason had no right to wish it upon a person either.
“What the hell happened here!?” It would have been incriminating had anyone been caught there but Mason was stood next to the corpse. Luckily, as Mason turned to see who had entered, he only saw Sam. Had it been Mrs Porter, or even Tallulah, then he wouldn’t have bothered trying to explain what had happened.
“I don’t know…” Mason moved around to where Mr Porter’s head was and knelt down to see if there was any life in his eyes. He had seen it a few times with animals that they may still have life in their eyes. But Mr Porter’s eyes were washed of any sort of life and the colour seemed to be draining too. “I came down for some ice…”
“Did you…?” Sam approached the body of his owner and placed his fingers on Mr Porter’s neck to check for a pulse.
“He’s dead. And cold.” Sam quickly brought his hands away, knowing what the police would be looking for when they found the body. Any fingerprints, other than those checking for a pulse, would be put down as suspects. Sam couldn’t have himself as a suspect. “What did you do?”
“Nothing!” They both kept their voices to whispers, knowing that the rest of the family was still asleep in the bedrooms just a single floor above them. “I came down for some ice and he was here, like this.” The pain in Mason’s cheek had disappeared, or at least been replaced by the racing in his heart. His body could only cope with one thing going on and had decided the dead person in front of them should take priority and so had put the entire body to work providing Mason with adrenaline and making his heard beat a thousand times faster than normal. “What do we do?”
“We?” Sam backed away like he was going to pretend he was never there. He thought about it for a second, it could work, but then he saw Mason standing on the other side of the table scared for his life. “We can’t do anything.” Sam was not an expert on this, in fact he had never dealt with a murder in his fifty years of service to the family. The only dead bodies he had to deal with were those who had died naturally of old age. Naturally the first thing Sam would have done, had Mr Porter died under normal circumstances, would be to call the police or an ambulance to get it seen by professionals.
“Should we do that then? Call the police?” Mason reached for the phone and Sam immediately snatched it back before he could even think about pushing any of the numbers.
“We can’t call the police!”
“Why? Someone’s been murdered, isn’t that their job?” Sam put the phone back on the counter and took Mason across to the other side of the room. He wanted to be as far away from the body as possible without just leaving it and washing his hands of it. He couldn’t wash his hands of it, neither could Mason. As soon as they had walked through the kitchen door they had put themselves right into the middle of it.
“You can’t call the police because you’ll be arrested.”
“But I didn’t do it!”
“You think they care about that?” Mason, still being fairly knew to Liberty and the Underclassman rules, hadn’t worked the scene out yet. “You’re the new one here. You broke the rules last night. You got a rough punishment last night. The police are going to look to someone who would want revenge, someone who would want to see Mr Porter dead.”
“But I didn’t want him dead. Well…I did for a second but I wouldn’t actually kill him. I couldn’t.” Sam shook his head and glanced back over at the body. Mason was sweating now and his temperature had dropped. If he were still on the farm this would have been considered a fever and he would have had suggested bed rest until it cleared up. But this wasn’t the farm, this was just panic, nerves, and fear. “What should I do?”
“There’s nothing you can do.” Sam paused for a second, the only possibility crossing his mind seemed like an absurd one. He couldn’t suggest for Mason to do it, he was just a kid and new to the town. “Except run.” After searching his brain, going back over every minutely related experience he could conjure up in his mind, the only suggestion he could make would be to run.
“I can’t run! Won’t that make me more guilty?”
“There’s no such thing as innocence for an Underclassman. If you stay here then they will arrest you and you’ll be sentenced to death by the end of the week. The only chance you’ve got is to get as far away as possible. If an Underclassman is present then they are guilty.” Sam crossed over to the door and opened it, physically reinforcing what he had just told Mason.
“What about you? Won’t you get arrested?”
“No. Everyone knows you were an Underclassman here. Even if you’re not here when the police arrive, they will still think you did it.” Mason looked between Sam and the doorway. It was like choosing two different worlds.
On one hand he had the world of freedom, of openness and being able to get as far away as possible before anyone showed up. That, to most people, would be the best idea. But the other world was Sam. If he walked out the doorway then he would leave Sam at the house to clear up the mess and he would have to explain it to everyone. But staying with Sam meant he would be dead by the end of the week
“Where can I go?” Mason knew that this would have been what Sam would have faced once he had taught Mason everything about being an Underclassman. It had never crossed Mason’s mind that he was going to have to leave so shortly after arriving.
“Just stick to alleyways. I can’t help you more than that.” Sam glanced over at the clock and, although the family wouldn’t be up for another few hours, he began to get worried. Any neighbours that happened to be awake would wonder why the door was left open and would raise the question to Mrs Porter. “You’ve got to go now, I’ve got to tell Mrs Porter what has happened.” Panic spread across Mason’s face.
“Why? I thought we were friends!” Mason was still stood in the doorway, glancing now between the open door, Sam, and the dead body of Mr Porter. His mind was still telling him he could talk his way out of it. If the police showed up he was still convinced that he could explain the situation to them and the whole thing would be understood and the person who actually did it would be caught.
“Whatever you thought of Mr Porter, neither of us wants Tallulah coming down here and finding this.” Sam made sense. Although Tallulah rarely ever wandered around on her own, Mason had tested it too much last night. He had the same thoughts when eating the food and then that had blown up in his face leaving him bruised and aching. But Sam did have a point.
His thoughts turned to Thomas, who was probably about Tallulah’s age, and how he cleared up the chickens so that he didn’t have to see that. They were just chickens as well. Thomas understood chickens died to feed them but Mason still covered it up to make sure he wasn’t subjected to it. There was a difference though, between seeing a family member die of natural causes – like their father had done – and seeing them brutally murdered on your kitchen table. He did understand where Sam was coming from.
“I can give you some time. If you go now then I can wait and tell her in an hour or so.” Mason didn’t want to. He didn’t want to go and, when he felt the tears sting the back of his eyes, he didn’t want to run. But this wasn’t about what he wanted to do, nothing was ever about what Mason wanted to do. Everything was about what Mason had to do. He couldn’t hang around and sweet talk his way out of it because it wouldn’t go down the way he hoped.
“Thank you.” Mason bit back the tears that threatened to fall and gave Sam a hug. It took Sam by surprise but it wasn’t unwelcome. He didn’t hug back but that was because he knew what he had to do. When Mason was gone, Sam would have to go upstairs and explain to Mrs Porter that her husband had been murdered and Mason had run away. Every bone in his body felt like he would basically be telling Mrs Porter that Mason murdered her husband, when there was no proof to suggest that.
Mason heard the door clang shut behind him as he disappeared into the back garden.
He had never been in the garden and could only work by the glow of the light from the kitchen window. A couple of times he stumbled over ornaments or balls that were just left strewn around the garden. Mason managed to reach the back fence and realised it was too high for him to climb. He spied a large tree in the corner of the garden where the branches grew higher than the fence. He made a dash for the tree and pulled himself up onto the first fork where the tree split into two. From there he climbed a few more branches and thanked his father for owning a farm where he had built up strength in his arms carrying hay bales. He could still feel the burn in his shoulders every time he pulled himself up, but he couldn’t let this deter him.
It would have been easier if Mason could have gone out of the front door but there were too many eyes watching. You never knew if the people over the road were actually asleep or were booking their next topiary design because someone else just had one installed. So Mason dangled the other side of the gate and let go, feeling his feet connect harshly with the concrete floor beneath. It sent a sharp pain up his back and Mason cursed himself for not grabbing a handful of painkillers before he left. But he was still in a better position than Mr Porter. At least painkillers would have helped Mason, poor Mr Porter was beyond help now.
Mason ran until his legs began to burn. He took Sam’s advice and stuck only to alleyways where possible. Occasionally he would have to cross a main road but would make sure to check no one was around before running straight across it and ducking into another alleyway. The alleys in Liberty were not glamorous. As Mason ducked behind a large bin, he realised then why he had to stick to the alleyways. The people of Liberty were not going to go walking down paths where the rubbish was kept. In Mason’s mind he was essentially free if he could keep to alleyways. No one would find him and he could slowly make it closer to the border every night until he found a way to get out of Liberty and then get back to the farm. A flash of light passed at one end of the alleyway and Mason knew, judging by the three or four that followed, that it was a busy road ahead. If he kept his plan in mind then Mason could stay down for the night and just wait for the road to become clear enough to cross. Finding a large rubbish bin, Mason slid himself down onto the floor next to it.
He had risen so far, moving from Ashdale to Liberty and travelling on trains and in cars, but had fallen so much further. He had been an owner of a farm a few days ago and now he was huddled against a rubbish bin trying not to be seen. He was thankful that the temperature in Liberty was controlled and never reached the bitterly cold chills of Ashdale. If the temperature had dropped any lower then Mason would have had to look for shelter, but as it was he knew he had worked it worse conditions. He pulled a cardboard box in front of him, more for protection from passing eyes than from the weather. No one really passed by, but every time Mason wanted to move he would be stopped by a sudden noise of a dog barking or a car in the distance. Sometimes he would huddle down further when he heard people in their gardens nearby. No one was going to look over the fence and beside a rubbish bin but it made him feel safer to do it.
Mason nearly drifted off to sleep once or twice but had to wake himself whenever he did. He thought this was easy because he was used to staying alert and waking up on time to tend to the farm, but it proved harder than he anticipated.
He woke to the sounds of voices as the sun was beginning to rise. Immediately he panicked and pulled his cardboard up to cover his face. He pulled himself tightly into a ball and made sure his feet couldn’t be seen sticking out underneath the cardboard. The tight shape hurt his back and he wanted to moan in pain, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He bit his lip and grit his teeth, trying not to then focus on the pain that brought to his still purple cheek. The pain in his cheek had gone down significantly as he had run but that was still due to his body knowing there were more important things going on. When the voices stopped Mason pulled the cardboard down from his face, just to make sure he was still alone.
The street in front of him was bathed with a dark orange glow as the sun was beginning to wake up. Mason decided he should get comfortable because he’s not going to be able to go anywhere for the day. It would be a whole day of ducking behind cardboard and holding his breath so people didn’t hear him.
“Not very effective cover.” Mason’s eyes grew wide and his head snapped around in every direction trying to find where the voice came from. Eventually he saw it: above him.
Sat on the edge of the rubbish bin was Xavier. His blonde hair was covered by a red bandana and he looked as casual as the last times they had met.
Mason scrambled to his feet and was about to run when Xavier smiled, shook his head and jumped down from the lid of the bin.
“Calm down, why are you so shook up?”
“How did you find me?” Mason suddenly knew the choices a body has to make between fight or flight. On one hand he could stand his ground and give his case, but on the other hand he could run as fast as he wanted in the other direction and probably outrun Xavier.
“Tell me what happened.” Mason wasn’t sure, because he had only seen the look a couple of times, but he thought Xavier looked genuinely concerned for him.
“At home. Mr Porter was murdered. Stabbed in the back.” Mason wondered what Xavier’s reaction would be. Most people would immediately assume that Mason did it and they would go to the police. All that happened was Xavier put an arm around Mason and asked if he was okay. “I had to run. They’re going to think it was me.” He could feel Xavier next to him nodding. No one could dispute the idea because an Underclassman was an easy blame. No one would feel any sort of remorse for getting an Underclassman arrested or killed so they would always be found guilty.
“Okay. You’re going to need somewhere to stay. I know a safe house not far from here, it’s in the business sector which shouldn’t take long to get to.” Xavier reached into his jeans and pulled out a small piece of paper. He placed it firmly into Mason’s hand and looked him directly in the eyes.
Mason could see those jade orbs looking directly into his and felt, only for a second, like nothing could go wrong.
“You’re going to be okay as long as you can get to this address.”
“You’ve got to trust me. If the police find you out here then you’re going to be arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death. I’m not going to let that happen.” Mason wanted to ask why. Anyone in the same situation would have stopped and asked for an explanation as to why Xavier was helping him. But Mason didn’t have the time. He saw the sun light the pavements and the dark orange was turning into a healthy daytime glow. This would usually be the time the children woke up on the farms, despite their parents or siblings having already been awake for hours.
Mason took the note and ran. But he didn’t get far: Xavier hadn’t let go of his arm.
“You can’t go anywhere yet.” Xavier took Mason’s left hand and raised it up. They both saw it immediately. It was a tiny little pinprick in the back of Mason’s left hand. They both knew what it was for. The tracker.
“They’re going to find me.” Beads of sweat began to roll down Mason’s forehead when he realised his hiding for the entire night had been futile. Did that mean Mrs Porter didn’t know yet? Surely if she had found out then she would have called the government to have his tracker located. Either she hadn’t found out yet or she hadn’t thought about it. Mason didn’t want to consider either opportunity for too long.
“I can sort it out, but you’ve got to trust me.” Mason nodded and Xavier led him over to the bin. He placed Mason’s hand face down on lid of the bin and reached down to his leg. He rolled up the left leg of his jeans and pulled out a small knife. It wasn’t a knife more suited to gutting food that hunters caught more than anything else. Mason knew his hand was about to become an animal that had fallen into a trap.
“Just do it.” Mason spoke the words through gritted teeth and had to bite down on his sleeve when Xavier first dug the knife inside.
Mason could feel the knife clipping up against the side of his bone every now and again. There wasn’t anyone around who would have been experienced enough to have done it painlessly. This was a surgery that never had to be performed. Underclassman either had their trackers or they were dead. No owner would ever consent to the removal of a tracker because it would give up the power they had.
The knife dug in deeper than Mason had been expecting. He tried not to move any of his fingers, trying to make the process easier for Xavier who didn’t seem to be panicking at all. The knife flicked back and forth slowly as Xavier tried to hook the point of the blade underneath the tracker. Mason felt Xavier angle the knife which, had it not been caught on something, would have just flicked out the top of his hand and ripped all the skin with it. So far the only damage done was the pain he was feeling and a slice in the back of his hand. Eventually Mason felt the knife loosen itself from whatever it was caught on. Either Xavier had just unhooked the tracker from his hand or he had just dislodged a piece of bone in Mason’s left hand. Xavier pulled the knife out and there was no tracker in it.
“Is it done?”
“Not yet.” Xavier didn’t bother to explain what he was doing and simply slid the blade across the back of Mason’s hand and made the original cut longer. This mark was a shallower than the original one but this time Xavier didn’t have to dig the knife in at all.
Xavier told Mason to remain perfectly still and placed both hands either side of where he had made the incision. He pulled the cut open and Mason could feel the air getting inside and it felt like it was poisoning him. He hadn’t considered how sensitive the inside of his hand was going to be. The stretching felt like it was going to tear a huge line all the way down his hand and carry up his arm. The pressure increased when Xavier reached a finger and thumb inside the cut and quickly pulled at something.
It felt like hours but was, in reality, only a couple of minutes. Xavier stood in front of Mason with a tiny little tracker that looked exactly like a computer chip. The tracker and Mason’s hand were both dripping blood over the floor and Xavier, with his less bloodied hand, took a bandage out of his pocket.
“Try to avoid using it as much as possible for now. I’ll get someone to sort you out when we get to location.” He wrapped the bandage around Mason’s hand a couple of times. The first few wraps were just stained crimson and it reminded Mason of the blood on the clean white kitchen floor. The bleeding was soon contained and the outer layer of the bandage stayed clean. “No one can track you now. They’ll be following me and it will give you enough time to get to the address.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ll meet you there.” Mason wanted to do something to show Xavier he appreciated it. He had just bought him considerably more time on the run than he had before. But he couldn’t think of anything in time and soon Xavier was already back on top of the now bloodied rubbish bin. “When you get there, tell them I sent you.” They were his parting words before he vaulted over a neighbouring fence and disappeared from view, still holding the bloodied tracker chip in his hand.
Mason unfolded the piece of paper in his hand and read the address on it.
85 Lammas Street.
“I’ll drop you off and then come back when she phones.” Even as they rode to the shopping centre, Mason had to ride in a different car. Mrs Porter took her limousine with a temporary driver, as usual, and Mason was driven to the centre by Sam in the SUV. They had just pulled up at the front and Mrs Porter was already exiting her limousine. Eventually Mason would not have to take the SUV because he would be driving the limousine. But, until he learned to do it, he would have to be driven by Sam. Mason didn’t mind this because it still meant Sam could stay employed. As soon as Mason learned how to do everything Sam was doing then Sam would be thrown out onto the streets like the heaps of food they scraped into the bins that morning. It had only been a day but he couldn’t bare the idea of Sam being thrown out because of him. No matter how much he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t his fault, he was essentially brought in to replace Sam, so if Sam got thrown out then in a way it would be result of Mason turning up.
Mason got out of the car and made his way to Mrs Porter. She didn’t say anything to him and they just walked into the huge towering shopping centre in front of them.
This had been one of the huge glass buildings Mason saw on his drive through town. From the outside it didn’t look much different to a lot of the other buildings, with blacked out windows that were significantly larger than they had to be. But inside they weren’t office buildings. Inside was a large open courtyard with hundreds of shops branching off in different directions.
In Ashdale there were no shops, only the market that was held whenever people had wares they wanted to sell. Mason had bought everything he owned from the market, including all his clothes that were now possession of the Liberty government. It hadn’t been a lot but it had been his and he had worked hard for every penny he made so that he could buy that stuff. Now he didn’t need to work for money. Everything he needed would be bought for him. This was because he didn’t need anything. All he needed was basic food, a roof and a place to sleep. Aside from that he didn’t have any money to spend and no one was going to buy him any sort of luxuries. This was fine with Mason as he had learned to live without luxuries on the farm. But there was a twinge of envy when he saw people coming out of stores with arms full of bags and sparkling gold watches and rings and necklaces.
Even Mrs Porter, in her tight black pencil skirt, purple blouse – open at the top to display her shiny necklace – and high heeled shoes, was overdressed for a simple shopping trip. But this, to her, wasn’t overdressed. To Mrs Porter, this was shopping attire. Shopping was just another chance to show off how much you could spend, or had earned.
“I need a new outfit for tonight.” She, like Tallulah had been all morning, wasn’t really talking to Mason, more just giving him a direction in which she would be walking so he could follow. They walked into a ladies clothes shop and Mason was overwhelmed by the amount of clothes he saw. Not only were there so many, there were needless clothes too. There were scarves and gloves and hats of all styles and shapes and colours. If someone were wearing a scarf or a hat in Ashdale then they had obviously had a good month on the farm. But Ashdale was the place where gloves and scarves were needed. The temperature was so controlled in Liberty that they didn’t need winter clothes. But still, as with all the people in Liberty, there were people wearing scarves tied loosely around their necks. Mason wondered, if the people did really need them, how tying them that loosely was actually going to keep their neck warm. The only conclusion he could draw was that the people wearing the scarves didn’t need them. If he was allowed to maintain contact with anyone in Ashdale then he would have tucked a few scarves under his perfectly ironed black jacket and walked out the store with them. But that, given the position he was in, would be fruitless.
He followed Mrs Porter to one of the changing rooms and waited outside holding all the clothes she wished to try on. When she wanted a new one she would just reach out and take one, handing the previous one back to him with a “yes” or a “no” answer. Depending on the answer, Mason would have to fold up and put the garment on the chair, or hang it back up on the hanger and be prepared to take it back to whichever hanger she pulled it from. This went on for what felt like hundreds of dresses. Some were too tight, some were too loose. Some weren’t showy enough, some were too gaudy. Some showed too much skin, some showed not enough skin. Mrs Porter eventually settled on five dresses, each one costing more than Mason had ever seen in his entire life. Mrs Porter paid for them and Mason questioned, internally of course, how she was going to wear all five that night. She had, of course, only gone in for clothes for the party. The bag of dresses was handed to Mason without so much as a word.
Next they moved onto the accessories. “The right outfit needs the right accessories.” Mrs Porter mumbled to herself as she rummaged through handfuls of rings and pendants and brooches. Mason had only ever seen his mother wear one ring, a plain band that his father had given her when they were married. It had taken everything he had to trade it with a shady man from Ashdale market and, as it turned out, left a green band on his mother’s finger whenever she wore it. She never complained though, the green became as much a symbol of their marriage as the ring was. But she had been reluctant to take it, knowing how much Mason’s father had spent on it. She was a woman who needed very little and would have been appalled to see Mrs Porter sifting through the gold accessories as if they were grains of wheat on the farm.
Eventually Mrs Porter settled on a few. To her, anyway, it was just a few. To Mason it was enough jewellery to decorate the entire town of Ashdale twice over. If he had been at the market carrying that much jewellery he would have made a quip about a bag not having a secure enough bottom for the weight of the jewellery and perhaps a bucket was better suited. However, he wasn’t at the market and any such remark there would earn him a clip around the ear or significantly worse should Mr Porter find out. Mrs Porter walked away from the counter without even picking up the bag. She wasn’t leaving it though, this was Mason’s job after all. He grabbed the handle of the bag and felt the weight of it cut into the palm of his hand.
“Shoes.” Mrs Porter dashed off in another direction and Mason was still expected to follow, despite being weighed down like a pack mule. They got to the shoe store and Mrs Porter was ushered inside, given a comfortable chair and treated to a glass of Champagne. Mason was not even addressed and was made to stand behind a large display people walking past couldn’t see him inside. Apparently shoppers were put off by shopping in the same place an Underclassman was. Mason found this curious as he wasn’t actually shopping there, but he was forbidden from touching any of the stock so he figured it must have had something to do with falling prices should he be seen touching them. No one wanted shoes an Underclassman had touched.
The rule seemed fickle, almost as fickle as the people shopping there, for earlier that day he had been handling Mrs Porter’s dresses without her complaining about it. That’s when it occurred to Mason that rules weren’t written down on paper, or in stone somewhere, they were all just subjective. When it suited the owner then Underclassmen were allowed to handle their stuff, otherwise Mrs Porter would have to handle her own dresses and carry her own accessories. But, when they saw an opportunity to make life difficult then they could, like making sure the Underclassman couldn’t touch anything without protective gloves on.
When they left the shoe shop, with yet another bag full of three pairs of shoes – after all Mrs Porter couldn’t be expected to decide which shoes went with which dress while they were in the store – then Mrs Porter seemed confused. She stopped for a moment, directly in the middle of the courtyard. People bustled their way past, making sure to avoid Mrs Porter but not caring if they barged or shoved Mason. A couple of times Mason nearly spilled the entire contents of the bags onto the floor but managed to right himself in time. He could not even imagine the scene Mrs Porter would cause should her garments be strewn across the floor and then be picked up by an Underclassman. That would be, in her eyes, the epitome of humiliation.
“Delilah, how are you?” Another woman, around the same age and with skeletal features, had approached Mrs Porter. The two of them had beaming broad smiles and were hugging and kissing each other’s cheeks. Back in Ashdale, regardless of who you were, a greeting would be a handshake or a quick embrace. Nobody had time to waste on kisses on both cheeks or that high pitched squeal whenever Mrs Porter noticed someone she knew. “I do hope you shall be attending my party tonight?”
Delilah, the woman that Mrs Porter seemed to know, had a severe brown fringe like Mr Porter but her hair was much longer and looked disproportionate to her body. She appeared to have more hair than muscle and the bones all the way up her could be seen stretching her skin.
“Of course Marie, I shan’t miss it for the world.” It was at that point that Mrs Porter remembered what she had previously forgotten.
“We need food.” She directly the comment at Mason. Her eyes bored into Mason as if she were expecting him to know where to go and what to get. Mason didn’t know what to do. Sam hadn’t prepared him for this. Was this supposed to be like at breakfast? Was he supposed to know what food to get and which foods not to get because no one would eat them? What if he got the wrong food? “What are you waiting for?” Mason couldn’t answer because he didn’t have an answer. There was nothing he could say that wouldn’t make him seem like a complete idiot. On the other hand he couldn’t just walk off and gather lots of food because he had no money and didn’t know what to be getting. “Here.” Mrs Porter reached into the top of her blouse and pulled out a list. She shoved it into Mason’s palm, which were still being cut up by the handles of the bags, and sent him on his way.
“But Ma’am, how can I pay for it?” He had managed to get the question out without feeling too inferior. Of course, in the uniform he was wearing with the matching black cap, it was difficult not to feel inferior to these women.
“If you are trying to extort money from me then you are mistaken, Mason.” She added his name as emphasis that he was her property. She owned him and she owned his name as well, or at least she acted like it. “You shall take the goods to the counter and fill out a slip of paper telling the proprietor that you are owned by The Porter’s. You shall sign it with your name also so that we know which Underclassman is responsible. We shall pay the company later. The supermarkets are on the second floor.”
“You just cannot get good Underclassman these days.” Delilah, the bony woman, had been looking directly at Mason when she said it.
Mason, not wanting to be judged any more than he had been already, bowed his head to the women quickly and then dashed off up the stairs onto the second floor. That, since arriving in Liberty, had been the most embarrassing experience. For a second he wished that Sam had been around to help him out. If Sam had been there then he would have been able to tell him all of that in a more friendly manner, rather than him being chewed out by two women in the middle of a shopping centre.
Mason had not expected such a variety of food when he found the supermarket. He stood in the doorway, unaware that such a place had existed until that moment. There were freezers keeping cold food cold and tin cans to keep things preserved longer. Some of the food came in tightly sealed little plastic bags to keep it fresh and Mason found the idea of tight plastic being a preservative simply mind blowing.
He fished the list out of the pocket of his uniform and unfolded it, trying not to drop the bags of clothes in the other hand. Had Mrs Porter been there the whole situation would have been considerably easier. He grabbed a wire basket from the front of the store and hooked it over his free arm so he could easily pick up the foods and drop them into the basket, still being able to look at the list.
A moment briefly flashed through his mind where he realised his situation. Here he was in the middle of a supermarket, a place that sold such a variety of food that his mind could not comprehend it, and he was alone. There was no Mrs Porter to tell him he was not allowed to do something or to cringe every time his hand came within a thirty centimetre radius of hers. He could, if he wanted to, open all the food and touch them all before replacing them. No one would know the difference. But he couldn’t do it. He wanted to open various tins and pop-caps, dip his hand in and grab a few, and then seal them back up again. Mason didn’t have much, but he did have pride in what he did. So, as he was instructed, he simply placed the food into the basket and any food without a basket he only handled with plastic gloves on.
The list was full of things that Mason had never even heard as words let alone food products: daikon, fennel, basil. The list went on. Back in Ashdale, Mason was lucky to be allowed to eat an apple that had been grown by a neighbour. Mostly he and his family lived off of the meat they got from the animals – the cows, pigs and sheep – with some plain bread. The list that he held was split into different sections such as “for seasoning” and “for jus” which would then just list another load of ingredients underneath it. Mason queried for a second who wrote the list. Had Mrs Porter written the list? If she had then it would not have been as helpful as it was being. Mason was managing to find a lot of things under the categories they were listed. He found preserves in the corresponding aisle and he found all the seasoning ingredients under the seasoning aisle. The meat was all kept in the chilled section which was a novelty for Mason as most of his meat was just kept in salt to keep it fresh. This often resulted in it affecting the taste of the food and he wondered if keeping food chilled was a more effective way of making it last longer. But that would require electricity, which still amazed him because he didn’t understand it and wanted to, and Ashdale didn’t have enough electricity to power supermarket size freezers.
The idea of just taking everything you needed up to a counter struck Mason as peculiar as well. He had grown accustomed to the idea of buying food from families and you would have to know which family grew which product to know which stall you could go to. He knew the Miller’s were good with their eggs so they could be relied upon for dairy, but Miss Johnson grew the best fruit. The suggestion that all these foods could be kept in one place, just under different sections, took him by surprise. But his surprise, and curiosity, was short lived because he began to realise it was pointless to wonder about anything. He would never get to suggest the idea of this to the people back in Ashdale.
“Excuse me, Sir?” Mason was stood at the front of the store by the counter. It was relatively empty which Mason was thankful for. A man in a green uniform stood on the other side of the counter although was a few feet away dealing with someone else at the time.
“How can I help-” The man cut his sentence short and Mason wondered if it was because he recognised the uniform. How many times had Sam been in here, in the exact same uniform, and had to say he was an Underclassman in order to buy the food. Or how many times had Mrs Porter accompanied him into the store and paraded him around like he was some sort of shopping machine she had recently purchased. “Yes?” His relatively friendly greeting had become a single terse word.
“I’ve been told I have to buy these.” He placed the basket up onto the counter and the man, without saying anything else, just slid a piece of paper across to him. Mason picked the pen up and filled out the paper, including who his owner was, his name and the time the goods were purchased. The man then snatched the crumpled shopping list out of Mason’s hand and stapled it to the top of the form. He slid the form back across to him and Mason knew he had to sign it. He tried to mimic the same scribble he had done that morning although it wasn’t as close as he would have liked. The man then took the form back, placed it under the desk and walked away. Mason didn’t think he would ever get used to not being greeted or the miss the niceties of someone saying goodbye, but he would have to because it wasn’t going to happen again. Had Mason just taken his life on the farm for granted?
Once he had purchased the groceries needed for the party that night Mason made his way back the stairs, carrying Mrs Porter’s dresses, accessories and shoes in one hand while his other arm bared the weight of the food. When he arrived at the bottom he could see Mrs Porter, still in the same place, had now been joined by a whole gaggle of people. What caught Mason’s eye, more than the enormous number of people, was that they were all female with one exception.
As Mason walked closer he expected Mrs Porter to turn around to welcome him back, introduce him to some of the people and then to make her excuses and call for the drivers. She did no such thing and Mason remembered who he was. He was an Underclassman, technically he didn’t exist to these people unless they wanted him to do something. So there he stood, beside Mrs Porter, while she chatted on about the party that evening and how it was going to be “marvellous” and “splendid”, all of which Mason was going to have to make come true.
The only man, aside from Mason of course, looked equally as bored by the frivolous chatter and instead of participating came round to where Mason was standing. The moment was awkward as Mason didn’t really know what to say. Was he allowed to talk to this person because he didn’t own him? Did he have to wait for permission to talk to anyone and, if so, would Mrs Porter stop talking long enough to realise it?
“I’m Xavier.” He offered his hand out for Mason to shake. So many things crossed Mason’s mind at that moment. Was he allowed to shake his hand? Xavier had offered so he was giving permission for it to happen, what would Mrs Porter say though? Why was he talking to him? Surely he would have been more at home socialising with the ladies, the people who had lived in Liberty their entire life. Why was he paying more attention to Mason?
But the thing that struck Mason most, above all those questions dashing through his head, were Xavier’s eyes. They were a dark black with a piercing jade circle encompassing it. For once, since arriving in Liberty, Mason felt like he was being looked at, not through. On top of that, Xavier didn’t look like he belonged in Liberty. He had long blond hair that was tied back in a ponytail and Mason couldn’t remember ever seeing a man in Liberty with long hair. Also, everyone he had seen so far had been dressed up to the nines; so much so that they wouldn’t even come down the stairs in the morning without looking perfect. Mrs Porter, that morning, had plastered her face with make-up and even made sure Tallulah was made-up before they even considered leaving their rooms. Xavier stood in front of Mason in a pair of black denim jeans and a basic red t-shirt. Mason hadn’t seen anyone wear a t-shirt in the whole day he had been in Liberty. It was shirts or nothing. Xavier didn’t apply by this rule though. Just peaking out of the bottom of Xavier’s jeans, Mason could see boots. He remembered his old working boots from the farm, how comfortable they had been, and could the big clumpy boots that Xavier had on.
“Mason.” He reached out, ready to shake Xavier’s hand, when it was harshly slapped away. Mason recoiled, dropping a few of the shopping bags in the process, before he could even understand what had happened. Mrs Porter stood beside him, her eyes boring into his and her severe haircut framing her face into what appeared to be a very angry picture.
“What do you think you are doing?!” Mason couldn’t apologise quick enough. He was down on his knees, stuffing food back into grocery bags and accessories back into their rightful bags. He also knew he wasn’t supposed to answer the question. No answer would be good enough. Even an apology would just be damage limitation.
“Xavier!” Delilah wheeled round and glared at the other man. But, and Mason felt a small admiration for this, Xavier didn’t care. He looked back at Delilah, who Mason had now deduced must have been his mother, with shock that she would treat him like that.
“I was introducing myself.” There was a bitterness to his voice, like he was genuinely upset that their handshake had been prevented. “I’m eighteen, you can’t tell me who I can and can’t shake hands with.” Mason sensed this probably wasn’t the first time they had this conversation.
“You don’t shake hands with it!”
“It is not the same as you or I, it is an Underclassman!” Even Mrs Porter had joined in berating Xavier.
When Mason had finally picked up all of the goods they had bought, he dusted himself down and wanted to leap to Xavier’s defence. But he couldn’t. Anything he had to say would either fall on deaf ears or make the situation a whole lot worse. On top of that, Mason would be throwing himself into serious trouble just be talking to Mrs Porter without her first addressing him. It was okay for Sam to do it, like he had that morning, because he had worked for them for fifty years and knew his time with them was short. There wasn’t anything they could do to him that hadn’t already been done or that he couldn’t live with until they threw him out. For Mason though they could make the next fifty years of his life a nightmare. Instead of saying anything Mason just lowered his head and tried to block out the sound of shouting by admiring how shiny his shoes were. He had never had shiny shoes before.
The drive home had been fairly painless since Mrs Porter was in a separate car. Sam asked what had happened because there had been obvious tension in the air when he had arrived to pick them up. That was the power of an apology though, it defused any remaining tension. But, since Mason wasn’t allowed to apologise unless Mrs Porter asked for one, the tension just lingered around like an unwanted guest.
“Some people have different attitudes towards Underclassmen. To the majority of people we’re not actual people. We’re just things that are around to do their bidding. But to some we exist. There aren’t many though. I’ve only encountered three or four in my lifetime that would be willing to shake my hand in public. But most of them understand the rules, most of them know shaking hands with an Underclassman in public would bring embarrassment on their family, so even if they want to they still don’t do it.” Mason liked having Sam around. They didn’t always get along, what with Sam sticking by the rules rigidly and Mason liking to know why things had to be done, but Sam had lived and knew more about the world than he did. “What that man did would have been embarrassing for his mother. Everyone who saw it would think she didn’t bring him up properly.” As much as Mason disagreed with it, it was still present. Xavier shaking his hand would have been a mistake and Mason knew, or should have known it, and should not have offered his hand back. It was Mason’s fault. He had encouraged Xavier to shake his hand.
When they got home Mason and Sam had been allowed no time to rest as they were whisked into the kitchen and told to get started on the food. Mr Porter must have been upstairs and Mason prayed he would not find out about what had happened at the shopping centre.
“Ma’am, Mason has never had to handle any of these ingredients before.” Mrs Porter was stood in the doorway wondering why Mason was just looking at the food with a blank expression. Sam’s answer was half right but also Mason couldn’t believe the amount of food in front of him.
“So there is nothing he is good at then?” Her eyes darted over at Mason who knew better than meet her gaze. He put his head down, picked up a carrot and started peeling it. He didn’t know why, or even if it were necessary, but at least this way he could look at the carrot and not at the judging eyes of Mrs Porter.
“If you will allow me to, Ma’am, I can teach him.” Mason could hear her huff and sigh from the other side of the kitchen but tried to ignore it. This conversation didn’t involve him. Sure, it was about him, but he was not involved in it.
“Fine.” She was halfway out of the door when she froze, turning back to them with a smirk spreading across her face. “The more you teach him now, the less time we have to keep you around.” Mason wondered if there was a line. Would he be able to keep Sam on by messing things up? Surely if he was not learning then Sam would have to stay on longer to teach him? But that would involve a lot of punishments, a lot of burning and a lot of awkward encounters like that morning. “Just do what you must to make sure tonight goes perfectly.” With that she swept out of the room, leaving just the two Underclassmen in the kitchen preparing food.
“So what’s going to happen is you are going to greet people when they arrive. You get to make up for your previous transgression that way and hopefully people will see how good you are. When everyone has arrived you can come and help me in the kitchen and then I’ll help you through the plating and serving.” It wasn’t a question, but Mason knew it had his best interests at heart. This was the difference between Sam telling him what to do and the Porter’s telling him what to do.
“Ma’am, may I take your coat?” Mason was enjoying being the greeter. He was allowed to speak to people, although it was only to offer to take their coats or offer them a drink. But he still got to talk to people. Not many responded, in fact most of them just dumped their coats and bags onto him before he had finished his question. As for the drink, some of them thought it rather foolish that he would even have to ask.
He still couldn’t do anything right though. For Mrs Black the drink was not brought quick enough and for Mr Black he was brought the wrong kind of drink, despite being very specific in the kind of drink he had requested. For the McAllister sisters, both eighty years old very little could go right. Mason would be too in their face one moment and then too absent the next. They even found it too ungentlemanly when he had to help them between chairs. This was another exception to the rule. If an eighty year old McAllister sister wished to switch chairs because she was in too much direct sunlight, despite the sun being set, then Mason would have to be the one to take an arm and help them across to another. He did, however, make sure to see that all coats were on separate hooks to the bags and that all the bags hung evenly with the strap being of equal length on both sides. He still did not understand why, and wanted to ask any of the guests if they even noticed, but was forbidden.
As it turns out, Mrs Porter did need to go shopping that morning because everyone seemed to appreciate the fact that her dress was brand new and they had never seen it before. Mason was less impressed with the various jingles and jangles that she had on her clothes because he had been the one carrying them around all day. Had Mrs Porter come down the stairs in some overalls and work boots then Mason would have been much more impressed. However, this kind of thinking just made it easier for him to concentrate on his job and not be distracted by the various guests and their gold jewellery or diamond spotted dresses and tiara’s – Mason had thought it rather presumptuous of Hannah McAllister to turn up to a party in a tiara, but none of the guests thought that.
“I do not need you to take my coat.” Mason hadn’t recognised the man at first but then, when he smiled upon seeing Mrs Porter, he saw the way the smile stretched at the sides of his face. It was Mayor Lambert. “Camille, how now to see you.” He leaned in and kissed Mrs Porter on both cheeks. “You look stunning by the way. Is that a new dress?”
“Bought it today.” For the first time Mason saw Mrs Porter blush. Mayor Lambert, from what Sam had told him, had a way with words. “Do come in and take a seat, the other guests should be here soon.” The room was already fairly busy, with dozens of people milling around and socialising, but it didn’t seem to make the room seem any smaller.
“I wish I could, my dear, but I am late for a prior engagement. You know how I adore your parties. I only came by to apologise for my absence. You know I always believe it is better to do these sort of things in person. I shall definitely pop by to see you and Reginald in a few days though. We must catch up.” He kissed her again on the cheeks and bid the rest of the room goodbye as he swept out of the door. He was there for only a moment but he had been the focus point of the room and had managed it with confidence. Mason understood now how the tests worked, Mayor Lambert was clearly the right person for the job because the whole room fawned over him and he loved it.
Mason was busy fulfilling requests for drinks when Delilah came in. He had learned by now that she did have a surname, Atherton, but he was just to address her as he would everyone else: Ma’am.
“Does your Underclassman not take coats?” She was stood by the door in a large fur lined monstrosity with buckles hanging off in needless places. Mason dashed out of the kitchen, placing a glass of champagne onto the table on his way through, and took her coat off of her.
“I apologise, Ma’am.” For this evening he was allowed to apologise at will, but he could not have excuses. If he apologised then he must not follow it up with a reason because, as Mrs Porter had put it, no reason is ever good enough. Mason realised, at this point, that Sam had it easier. He was able to stay in the kitchen and avoid any sort of judgement and ridicule should he mess up. But Mason didn’t envy him for this for he had probably worked numerous parties on his own, working as both the chef and the butler.
“Thought I’d see you again.” Mason’s head whipped around when he heard the voice. The voice that he had spent all afternoon trying to block out. Xavier.
“I’m sorry, Sir?” Mason was not sure what to do. He wasn’t used to people not giving him orders. It had only been just over a day but the only person who spoke to him normally was Sam, and even then that was rare. To everyone else he was only present when they wanted something.
Mason, upon seeing Xavier, wondered if he had received the dress code for the party. He had turned up in a plaid shirt, over the top of a plain white t-shirt, with either the same or a matching pair of black denim jeans. His hair was still unusually long, although Mason wasn’t sure if he wanted it cut or not, and was still tied back in a ponytail. To top off the whole look, he was still wearing the boots. Mason wanted his boots back.
“I’m not ‘Sir’. Call me Xavier.” Mason didn’t have time to think this through because the attention of the entire room was soon swept towards the stairs and directed at Tallulah plodding down in some sort of pink gown. Tallulah, judging by the smile on her face, loved the attention. She milked every step she took and even waved her had gently half way down like she was royalty. In all fairness to her, the whole room was watching her. Most were watching her because they actually thought she looked beautiful, with her rosy red plump cheeks and her little pink evening gown. Mason was watching her because he didn’t know how to respond to Xavier.
“We shall have to eat soon, Tallulah cannot possibly stay up too late, she has choir practice tomorrow morning.” Mrs Porter glanced across to Delilah when she said it, like she was trying to rub it in that Tallulah had choir.
“Excuse me.” Mason disappeared into the kitchen and then realised what had happened: he hadn’t called Xavier ‘Sir’. It had been an accident, but the more Mason thought about it the more he wondered if it had been. Xavier had told him not to address him as ‘Sir’.
“Are you okay serving? I’m having trouble getting this duck to cook and might take some vigilance so it doesn’t burn.” Sam was knelt down by the oven door, watching the bird inside like a hawk.
“Sure.” Mason had grown slightly more confident, although he didn’t know why. He was still going to be serving food that he helped prepare to a group of people who knew he couldn’t do anything right. And Xavier.
Mason picked up a selection of plates and made his way back through to the living room. He followed it through and everyone was sat at the dining room table. This room had been introduced to Mason earlier and had previously been tucked away behind two large folding screens.
“The whole world doesn’t need to know you eat.” Was the way that Sam had put it. It was a long way away from the kitchen in Ashdale that served as living room, dining room and kitchen to Mason and his family.
Mason places the plates down on the table. As Sam had instructed, he simply lifted the covers off of the plates and then stood back. If he was busy then he would return to the kitchen but if all the food was out then he should just stand by the table and wait for people to tell him what they want.
“I do hope you enjoy the meal, I put a lot of effort into this menu.” Mrs Porter was sat next to her husband, who sat at the head of the table, and Mason stood behind him. He felt it rather insulting that Mrs Porter was taking responsibility for the food despite only constructing the menu. “It is a shame to not have some music playing while we eat.” Mason began to pick up on the subtle hints and dashed across to the stereo. He had been told by Sam to just press play, since he had never had to work one before. He pressed the button labelled play and it filled the air with the sounds of violins and piano. It was soft and gentle and actually eased the tension Mason was feeling at having to work the entire party by himself.
Mason never had music to work to on the farm, just the songs he would overhear as people worked on their own farms. There would never be music though, the songs he knew were just words carried through the air over a fence. He realised now why the people sang on their farms, it made the work more tolerable. As Mason found out, the night went quicker when he could ignore people’s barrage of thinly veiled insults and just listen to the gentle sounds coming from the stereo.
“They been playing that crap for ages.” The music seeped through the kitchen doors and it hadn’t been turned off since Mason turned it on when he first served food. “I don’t get it, it’s just sounds, shouldn’t music have words?” He started chopping things faster and harder than before, like the music had taken over and was causing him to do irrational things.
“It’s emotive.” Mason had grown so comfortable with Sam that he didn’t mind voicing his opinion to him. It actually made the whole situation more bearable if he had someone to talk to like normal. He never had anyone on the farm after his father had passed away. He used to talk to his father while they worked and the jobs seemed to get harder once he left. It hadn’t been that the work itself had increased in difficulty though, the conversation that was absent had made the work seem easier. That’s why Mason was glad to have conversation with Sam, it made the whole thing easier.
“No more, apparently.” As Mason returned to the kitchen with dozens of empty plates and bowls a cloud of dark grey smoke followed him.
“So it’s cigars now.” Mason pushed the door open slightly and noticed that most of the men had adjourned to the living room and were smoking cigars while the women were still sat at the table gossiping. There were a few exceptions as one of the McAllister sisters was asleep in an armchair and Xavier was absent from the whole picture.
Mason cursed the fact that he hadn’t taken the opportunity to talk with Xavier more while he was allowed. He was a guy that allowed him to omit the ‘Sir’ from his vocabulary and spoke to him like a normal person.
“Is this where the drinks are?” As if on cue, Xavier opened the kitchen door and presented an empty glass to the two Underclassman.
“I will get you another one and bring it out to you. I’m sorry you felt it necessary to come out here.” Mason opened up the fridge and grabbed a bottle of champagne. He popped the top off of it and began pouring Xavier a glass.
“Yeah you can drop that now, everyone else is too far gone to even realise if you’re keeping up with formalities or not.”
“I’m sorry?” Xavier pushed the kitchen door open and Mason could see then the real picture. Sure the men were smoking cigars, but most of them were just sat quietly staring out of the window or admiring pieces of furniture. The women, still sat at the table, were just chatting nonsense and cackling at random intervals without any sort of logic to it.
“This is your first party, isn’t it?” Mason nodded and handed Xavier the drink. For a brief seconds their hands touched and it shocked Mason so much he nearly dropped the glass. He hadn’t been expecting it and, earlier that day, contact like that would have had Mason yelled at. “You’ll learn. They just drink until they can’t remember the night. You’ll probably find them still down here in the morning, passed out over a table or something. That’s why I’m here anyway, someone’s got to take mother home when she’s had too much.” He rolled his eyes as if it were not the first time he’s experienced it. Mason could imagine all the parties he had been dragged along to just so that his mother could drink herself stupid and then still wake up in her own bed the next morning.
“I’ll put Tallulah to bed.” Sam exited the kitchen and took Tallulah upstairs. She obviously hadn’t been drinking but knew when her parents weren’t going to be able to put her to bed. That meant Sam would have to do it and, in the future, Mason would take over that role too. Knowing Tallulah she wasn’t going to be pleased about it and Sam could be there for hours trying to explain to her that she had to go to bed. Still, he would have even more trouble the next morning if Tallulah was too tired for choir practise.
“So, you’re new here? Mason, right?” Mason wasn’t sure what to do with himself now that the evening had finished. He wasn’t used to having time spare. He assumed that his day wouldn’t finish until he went to bed and he would be working right up until the moment he dropped off to sleep.
“Yeah. Started yesterday.” He took a seat on one of the kitchen stools and Xavier pulled one up next to him.
“You from Ashdale?” It felt wrong, the words coming from his mouth. No one in Liberty ever mentioned Ashdale. “I’ve known people from there.” Obviously, he would have had Underclassmen from there. Mason wondered if it would be anyone he knew.
“Yeah. I owned a farm out there. Well…my father did.”
“And you took over when he died?” Mason never really spoke of his father. There wasn’t much to say other than he worked the farm and married his mother. They spoke during their work time but that was pass the time talk, it wasn’t anything informative or in depth. He had known that his father wanted to leave the farm to him, so it would stay in the family, and Mason would learn all the skills needed so that when he sat the exams the lowest he could be was a farmer. A farmer for Mason would have been fine, but as it turned out he got Underclassman. “So, how did you end up here?”
“How does anyone end up here, you fail the exams. I’m assuming you passed them?”
“Lawyer.” Of course. No one in Liberty ever failed. Think of the humiliation it would bring a family if your son or daughter then had to go off to work for another family. “Any family?”
“Mother. And a brother, Thomas. Had to teach him everything I knew about the farm and saving money before I came here.”
“How does someone save money on a farm?” Xavier sipped his drink and Mason worried whether he should tell him or not.
If anyone had walked in they would have mistaken the roles. Mason was dressed in a pressed shirt and black jacket with shiny black shoes and matching trousers while Xavier was wearing clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place on the farm.
Mason looked at the food on the table in front of them. He really wanted something; just a strawberry or a section of an apple. It wouldn’t be anything anyone could trace, it would just be something people wouldn’t even remember being there. Who was to say that there had been that apple section there? A person can easily think they see something and it turn out not to be there.
“Help yourself, I won’t tell anyone.” Xavier picked up a piece of apple, the same piece Mason had been staring at, and popped it into his mouth with a smirk. “Go on.” His smile was too intoxicating, it could make Mason do all sorts of things he shouldn’t. But, he figured, everyone else was too far gone in the other room so the risks were fairly reduced. He picked up another apple slice and took a bite.
His mouth was immediately flooded with flavour. More flavour than he could comprehend. It was sweet, the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. It might have been that all he had eaten that day was porridge, but the apple was like touching heaven. It took him back to the first time his father had given him an apple section and he took that very first bite. All those memories, being a child and being on the farm again. He felt comfortable and it felt right: and it was all because of Xavier.
“You skim.” He had nothing to lose. How much further could someone get? He couldn’t see his family and he was serving people whose idea of fun was to get drunk and pass out on tables. Xavier cocked an eyebrow and Mason smirked, the first time he had felt more knowledgeable than someone since he boarded the train to Liberty. “You hide food in places so when The Colls” Xavier’s eyebrow, which had returned to its usual place, cocked once again at the word ‘Colls’. Mason laughed and realised he hadn’t for a while. It felt strange and unnatural but somewhat welcome. “The Collectors. When The Collectors come round they can search as much of your house as they like, they won’t find anything.” Mason felt like a traitor, giving out his secrets for a simple apple core.
“Really? Who taught you to do that?” Mason and Xavier were picking at various pieces of food as they talked. No longer was Mason feeling guilty about the apple. The state of the party in the other room meant that the next morning the party-goers wouldn’t know what food they had and hadn’t eaten.
“No one.” Mason was between mouthfuls of apple and strawberry, mixing with it some of the chicken from earlier. He had learned, from serving, that sweet and savoury courses should not be mixed, but there was too much food and not enough time to worry about that. He was helping himself to chicken, dipping it in gravy and wrapping some bacon around it before following it up with some cheese or some plums. The whole platter of food was his for choosing and he was going to have as much as he could before it got thrown away. “I taught myself.”
“I’m impressed. Not often you meet an Underclassman with such ingenuity.” Mason smiled and covered his mouth, trying not to let the chicken-gravy-bacon combination fall out or become visible. He may have been raised on a farm but he knew manners.
“Have to do whatever you can to save money.”
“Not around here.” Xavier gestured to the amount of food that, had they not been eating it, would just be thrown away.
“She’s not going down.” Sam took Mason by surprise as he entered the kitchen. Halfway through a mouthful Mason was afraid to chew any more, just in case he noticed. “Go ahead, they don’t come in here at this time anyway.” Sam started making up some warm milk and Mason thought of Thomas, how he had never had problems sleeping. Mason couldn’t remember a time, apart from when Thomas was very young and caught a fever, that he had to tend to Thomas because he refused to sleep. Tallulah wasn’t sleeping because she didn’t have to. She knew she was in charge, even over Sam, and could still get whatever she wanted even when her parents were passed out on the dining room table.
“Try this.” Xavier reached across the table and grabbed some salmon off of a plate. He handed it to Mason who looked at it with slight disgust.
“It smells awful.”
“Getting picky now, are we?” Xavier joked and Mason smiled, took a deep breath and pretended he was on the farm where he didn’t have a choice about food. He threw the salmon into his mouth and chewed, savouring the new fishy flavour he was experiencing. It wasn’t too strong, he thought to himself as he chewed, but it wasn’t a taste he took to immediately. His face contorted during the moments of real flavour because he hadn’t been exposed to anything that fishy in his life. He didn’t have time to consider anything else because Xavier handed him another piece of food that he couldn’t identify. Mason, feeling the same as before, took a deep breath and threw it into his mouth.
Feeling like he was being the guinea-pig and wanting Xavier to blind taste something for once, picked up a handful of foods from various plates and tried to form them together with strips of bacon and lettuce leaves. At the end he had something that equalled a hamburger made up of chicken, beef, salmon and lamb wrapped in bacon and then wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
“No way.” Xavier shook his head adamantly but couldn’t hold back the smile that stayed on his face. “The stuff I gave you was at least food.”
“I’ll show you how we do it on the farm. Close your eyes.” Xavier reluctantly closed one but kept one squinted open, not that Mason noticed. “Open your mouth.” Xavier opened his mouth slightly but Mason didn’t have time to even attempt to make him eat the food.
“Daddy!” Xavier’s eyes snapped open and he and Mason both looked at the door.
In the doorway stood Tallulah, in her little pink bunny pyjama’s, staring directly at the two of them. It wasn’t long before Mr Porter was behind her, wondering what had made his little princess scream. Then he saw it too.
“What the hell is going on here?!” Mason quickly dropped the hamburger and got to his feet, rushing out every variation of an apology he could think of. None of them washed with Mr Porter though. “Explain yourself, boy!” He was no longer Mason, now he was back to being ‘boy’.
“It was my fault.” By now a crowd had formed by the kitchen door and Xavier was also on his feet.
“What do you think you were doing?!” Mr Porter grabbed Mason by the arm and dragged him into the living room where the stench of cigar smoke still stained the air. It was heavy and Mason coughed a few times when thrown into the cloud. “I asked you a question!”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” They were the only words Mason could think of. He had been told excuses weren’t good enough and so there was no point in explaining everything. How do you explain a need for food to people who throw away tonnes of it every day?
“Sorry?! You’re sorry?!” The crowd had moved back to the living room now and Xavier was trying to get between Mr Porter and Mason. He was trying to take the blame for the whole situation but Mr Porter had his eyes directly locked onto Mason. His grip on Mason’s arm tightened and Mason felt the blood almost being cut off. He didn’t have time to wonder about the pain though as Mr Porter slung him across the living room leading him to crash onto the coffee table. Mason felt his back arch too much as he landed on the table and it sent a sharp pain through him, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to get up again. Once again this wasn’t an issue as Mr Porter picked him up and slung him over onto one of the sofas. Mason’s back cracked against the wooden arm and he considered briefly that it might be broken. He couldn’t feel anything any more and just prayed for it to be over. All his energy was spent on trying not to cry in front of that many people.
“Stop it!” Xavier grabbed hold of Mr Porter’s arm but the larger man easily shoved him away.
Mason clambered to his feet, feeling a bruising already forming on his back, but barely got his balance before Mr Porter slapped him across the face. It stung like when the wind whipped him on a cold winter morning. Within seconds a red hand-print formed on the side of his face and Mason felt it begin to burn.
“I knew you were up to something! You wretched little thing.” Mr Porter reached back and this time, with a closed fist, caught Mason across the cheek and the side of his nose. Mason didn’t move after that, he just lay on the floor trying to breath normally again. He knew if he stood up then he would just get punched down again and he knew when it was best to just stay down. A large part of him wanted to get up and start throwing punches back, but that would lead to more trouble. At least this way he only had to deal with Mr Porter’s fury and not the fury of the government and the police force for hitting his owner.
When Mason was sure Mr Porter had gone to bed he reached a hand up to his nose and gently pushed it from side to side. He was relieved when it didn’t cause him unbearable agony. At least he hadn’t broken his nose.
Mr and Mrs Porter escorted Mason out of the Underclassman giveaway and down a large staircase to the front of the building. Parked in front of the building were two cars. One was a shining stretch black limousine and the other a slightly less glamorous, but still expensive looking, black SUV. A driver stepped out of the limousine and opened the back door for Mrs Porter who slipped inside. The driver held the door open for Mr Porter but it was clear Mr Porter was not getting into the limousine right away. Still holding Mason by his collar, he dragged him over to the SUV, opened the rear driver’s side door, and shoved Mason inside. The door slammed shut with a thud and Mason watched as Mr Porter walked over and slipped into the limousine next to his wife.
In the driver’s seat was an elderly man with a black cap. Mason wasn’t sure if he was allowed to talk to the man or not. There had not been a briefing about what to do with strangers. The general rule for Underclassman, as Mason knew, was that you only did what your owner told you to do. Everything you were allowed to do and forbidden from doing was set down by the owners. Mason wondered if he would be breaking any rules talking to the driver of his vehicle. There weren’t any rules forbidding it…yet.
“I’m Sam.” The man in the black capped looked into the rear view mirror at Mason. Mason could see now that the man, Sam, had deep set eyes and very thin lips, like they had been drawn on. His outfit, a completely black uniform with shiny gold buttons, made his skin look a washed out grey colour. Mason didn’t reply. He still wasn’t sure if he was allowed. “It’s okay. You’re allowed to talk to me.” Was this a test? Mason did not want to fail so he kept his mouth shut as the car lurched away from the curb.
The SUV ran considerably smoother than the train. Mason had never ridden in a car before and was still trying to adjust to the smooth leather seats and the speed at which everything flashed past his window. He had managed to, after a few minutes of studying it, work out how the seatbelt worked although he still wasn’t sure of its purpose. He tugged on his seatbelt a few times, noticing that sometimes it would stretch and sometimes it would lock depending on how hard he pulled at it. This certainly was a new experience.
The view outside of his window was something to behold. For most people living in Liberty, the town was just a mixture of greys and greens. Pavements and stone buildings flashed past with speckling of man-made grasslands and random bushes or trees. To Mason this was wildly different from the red dust-land he grew up with. There were no farms, no cows wandering out of their pastures and in front of people, no smoky and dusty clouds when a cart rolled by too quickly and kicked up the dirt. Here there were just people. No wildlife at all. People in suits. “This is the business sector.” Sam glanced again at Mason who was shrinking back into his comfortable leather seat. “Over left you got all your business offices for your lawyer and accountant types.” Mason looked where he was instructed to and was greeted with numerous buildings, each one made of more glass and brick than the previous one. The blacked out windows on every building, reflecting the bright sun beaming down, were almost twice the size as Mason. “If you look right then you’ll see the government buildings.” Mason turned his attention to the other side of the car and noticed a huge building surrounded by a lot of smaller buildings. The tall building had a banner draped down the side with a picture of the Mayor on it. The Mayor smiled over his town with a grin so big that it stretched at the sides of his face. “That’s Mayor Lambert.”
The scenery slowly began to change. The grey buildings because less and less frequent and the foliage became more and more predominant. The buildings turned into houses, no longer were they the office types with huge glass windows. They were still monumental, compared to Mason’s home back in Ashdale, but they were considerably smaller than the office buildings he had just seen. They all seemed to be pained, something Mason noticed was missing from the office blocks. The windows were smaller and tended to be decorated with nets or plush curtains. “Residential district. This is where all the people live. The rich people that is. Bet it’s nothing like where you come from.”
“Not really.” Mason hadn’t realised he had said anything until the words had left his mouth. Sam looked up at him in the mirror and saw Masons wide eyes staring back at him, wondering what sort of punishment to expect from that. Sam just shook his head and smiled, his lips stretching even thinner.
“You think you’re the only Underclassman this family ever owned?” Mason noticed then something that he hadn’t noticed in anyone he had encountered at Liberty so far; Sam was talking to him. Everyone else spoke at Underclassman, but Sam was speaking to Mason as if they were equals. “I was taken fifty years ago. Worked for The Porter family and their children ever since.” Sam’s eyes grew distant. Mason worried about his safety given the wavering concentration on Sam’s face. It was as if he were re-living his life before he came to Liberty. For Mason that was easy, it was only a couple of hours ago, but for Sam it was a whole lifetime ago. Mason couldn’t imagine not seeing his brother or mother for fifty years. “That’s why they got you.” Mason’s eyebrows furrowed as he tried to figure out what it was that Sam was telling him. “I’ve run out of use. Can’t carry as much as I used to. Can’t move as quickly as I used to. All I can do now is drive. When I can’t drive no more then I’ll be gone.”
“Where?” Sam chuckled and Mason wondered what was funny. He hadn’t intended to make a joke and couldn’t, looking back on the conversation, find anything that was directly laugh-worthy.
“Underclassman don’t go no where but down.” There wasn’t anywhere left for an Underclassman to go. Mason couldn’t physically fall any further down the social ladder. He had thought he was at the bottom back in Ashdale but now he was truly at the bottom. It took a few seconds before he realised what Sam was saying.
“You mean they…”
“Not directly. Can’t have murder on their hands. But they turn you out into the streets. No one gonna take on an elderly Underclassman though, so you don’t have no choice but to survive for yourself.” Mason wondered if he could do it. He thought, given a few months at Liberty, he would be able to find his way around. He knew Ashdale and the surrounding area like the back of his hand and even knew the measurements of all the farms. If, in a couple of months time, Mason was thrown out onto the streets then he would undoubtedly be able to survive. He had survived on less before. But Sam wasn’t eighteen. Sam was sixty eight years old. Mason had known elderly people, people Sam’s age, back in Ashdale. They could still tend a farm but they weren’t as quick or as hardy as they had been in their youth. Any cold chill could send them inside for weeks with a fever and some of them would never come back out again.
“They can’t just throw you out.” Sam had stopped listening and was now just looking at the road in front of him.
“We’re nearly there.” They had turned into a road full of ornate houses with elaborate brick and stonework on the sides. The front gardens were full of bushes and topiaries carved into impressive shapes. None of the shapes looked easy, but this was the point. Where one family might have a five pointed star shape carved into their hedges, another family would outdo that with a selection of spirals and loops that intercut each other. Then the original family would reply with more stars, linked together like a pyramid. The garden, and the outside of the house, was not a practical place. Everything there, from the perfectly manicured grass and flowers full of colour right up to the thick oak door, it was all for display. Mason knew right away why these people needed Underclassmen. They didn’t need people to do their day to day chores, although he knew that would be part of the package, they needed someone who was going to maintain their display of wealth and frivolity.
They pulled up into the driveway of one of the most elaborately decorated houses on the street. All the windows had fancy spirals moulded into their framework and the grass was a solid block of neatly trimmed lush green. Every stand of grass was the same size and colour as the rest and it matched the colour of the hedges and topiaries perfectly. The flowers that lined the house were not subtle and were bursting with different vibrant colours. There were pinks and purples and blues and yellows. There was no coordination to them, everything was just colour over style. They could see the limousine pulled up in front of the house as they turned to slide the car into the garage. Mr and Mrs Porter were probably already inside waiting for Mason to arrive.
Sam took the car around to the side of the house into a small alcove that was hidden away underneath more foliage. Apparently having a place to put your car was considered ugly because Mason would never have spotted this from the street. Sam turned the car engine off and Mason reached for the handle.
“They are important people.” Sam didn’t move, not even to look at Mason, so his voice seemed to be coming from no where. Mason froze with his hand on the car door handle. “Mr and Mrs Porter. They are important people. They run in the highest of circles and frequently socialist with Liberty’s elite.” There was something more to Sam’s voice, like he wasn’t just informing Mason of this as a fact but was warning him to be on his best behaviour. “They have powerful friends. Should you upset them, you may end up disappearing rather easily.” Sam didn’t say any more, he simply exited the car and walked Mason over to the door that connected the garage to the rest of the house.
When Sam pushed the door open it was, once again, like a whole new world for Mason. The inside of the house was more lavish than Mason could have ever conceived in his mind. There was a dark coloured wood on the floor, but not like the wooden floorboards at Mason’s house, this wood was smooth and polished with not a single hole visible. The walls were a dark gold with white finishings around the fireplace and the window frames. The sofa’s and chairs – of which there were many – were white with brown trims on the arms and legs, the same brown that matched the wooden floor perfectly. To top it off, the focus point of the room, the centre held a large white rug with a brown coffee table that seemed to fit effortlessly into the grandeur of the room. That single room, Mason thought, was bigger and more decorated than his entire house.
He thought back to his single armchair that Thomas would often be found curled up in. It was tattered and torn and his father had brought it back after finding it discarded in the middle of no where. And the single chair in their kitchen, the one they had been given by Miss Johnson. There was more furniture in this single room than in most of Ashdale combined. But these people did not seem to notice at all.
Mr Porter had draped his jacket over the back of one of the sofa’s nearest the door and Mrs Porter had left her handbag and coat on the floor and hung on the back of an armchair. If Mason owned that room then he wouldn’t let anyone treat it as a place to hang clothes. He soon found out how Mr and Mrs Porter were able to be so lackadaisical about their cleaning habits.
“Hang up our coats.” Mrs Porter disappeared into the kitchen, with Mr Porter following closely behind. He stopped when he got to the kitchen door though.
“And do be quick, we do not want to wait around for you.” With that he disappeared into the kitchen. Sam, before Mason knew the Porter’s were gone, was already hanging up Mr Porter’s coat and had Mrs Porter’s in his other arm. If he was slow then Mason could only imagine what he would have been like fifty years ago. He hung it over the coat hook by the large wooden front door and then Mason turned, ready to enter the kitchen. Sam cleared his throat and Mason immediately turned around to see what he wanted.
“The bag needs to be hung up too.” Sam gestured towards the handbag, using this more as a teaching aid than actually doing the work for him.
“But they said coats.” Sam picked up the handbag and handed it to Mason, pointing to where it needed to be hung up. Mason threw it over the same hook where Mrs Porter’s coat was hung and then Sam corrected it, moving it to the hook next to it. “When they say coats, they mean anything out of place in the room. You tidy the room.” He straightened the straps on the bag so that they hung evenly and the handbag rested perfectly in place on the hook. “And nothing must be out of place. The bag must not go on the same hook as the coat and the bag must be hung perfectly.” Sam gestured towards the kitchen door where Mason could hear Mr and Mrs Porter talking. “You should hurry.” Mason slipped into the kitchen and Sam followed a few seconds later.
The kitchen was all slick surfaces and shiny metals. The counter tops were white marble, resting on top of sleek black cupboards, and the walls were black to match. The floor shone brightly, almost a luminous white, reflecting the dazzlingly bright bulbs overhead. Mason was taken back by the lights alone. He had never seen actual lights and actual light-bulbs so to see so many of them scattered about one room, illuminating the entire place, almost left him short of breath. The table in the middle of the room had a large white marble top, to match the counter tops, held up by shiny metal supports underneath. On top of the table lay more food than Mason could have grown in a month. There were apples, banana’s, pears, plums, grapes and various types of berries, some of which Mason had never seen before. He had to fight every muscle in his body just to resist reaching out and grabbing an apple, sinking his teeth into it and feeling the fleshy core of it split open and the juice come running out. The table in front of him contained more apples than Mason could ever remember eating, and he wanted to eat them all.
“You need to be quicker next time.” The comment was aimed directly at Mason, as they probably knew Sam could do it quicker if he wasn’t there.
Mr Porter was stood the other side of the table, with Mrs Porter, with a few pieces of paper in front of them both. He had a pen in his hand and clicked it repeatedly until he was happy he had clicked it enough.
“We are fair owners and give you the opportunity not to serve us.” Mason couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had the opportunity to not be an Underclassman and to not serve these people. He glanced over to Sam who, when he realised he was out of sight of Mr and Mrs Porter, shook his head gently from side to side. Mason knew this was a bad sign. “If you decide not to follow our rules then we shall hand you back over to General Campbell and he shall decide what to do with you.” Mason could imagine what would happen if he was handed back over with Mr Porter telling him that he ‘didn’t agree with our rules’. It wasn’t really his place to disagree with the rules and so that would be taken as a sign of disobedience towards the government and Mason would be punished accordingly. What that punishment was, no one knew. No Underclassman ever refused the rules. “So, if you would please sign here to show that you understand and agree to our rules.” Mason wondered how necessary this all was, considering they did actually own him. No one would support him if he wanted to complain about their rules so why did he need to sign anything. He assumed it was just added incentive, to make it appear to the outside world that Mason wanted to be there and it was his choice to choose this perfect family. “Hurry up, boy!” Mason quickly picked up the pen and scribbled something down onto the paper. He didn’t have a signature, he had never needed to have one. He had to come up with one on the spot and it turned out more just like a random squiggle than anything coherent. “What is your name, boy?”
“…I’m sorry?” Mason wondered if he had made a mistake, was he allowed to ask for clarification?
“It is not a difficult question, boy. If you are to live here, under our roof, then I am not going to be calling you ‘boy’ the entire time. Now do you have a name or not?”
“M…Mason.” The words sputtered out of his mouth the same way a wagon would sputter along the old dirt road, bumping up and down unsteadily.
“Mason.” Mrs Porter wrote the name down on the piece of paper, as if the paper actually meant anything to anyone.
“I’m hungry!” The voice rang out through the kitchen as the door slammed shut. It sounded like the noise the solid metal chair scraping along the stone floor had made at graduation. Mason turned around and was met with the steely, unfamiliar eyes of a small girl.
The girl couldn’t have been more than Thomas’ age, maybe thirteen at a push, but she was nothing like Thomas. She had large, puffy red cheeks that could easily have been mistaken for apples. She had her mother’s hair, although less severely, it was a tangled mess on her head. She was dressed like a princess and Mason wondered just what royal qualities she had. Her stubby little legs circled Mason like he was an unfamiliar animal entering into a herd.
“Who is he?” The question was not aimed at Mason, for that would make the two of them on the same level. Instead, the precocious little child addressed it to her mother, using her stubby finger to indicate just which ‘he’ she was talking about.
“Darling, this is Mason. We acquired him today.” The little girl looked displeased with Mason’s presence. Never had Mason felt so out of place amongst a group of people.
“Make me a sandwich!” Mason could see the sun setting outside and knew, at least where he came from, this would not be the time for a sandwich. But he could not argue with the owners daughter. He crossed over the kitchen to where he spied a breadbox. He opened it up just enough for Mr Porter to slam it down, almost onto his fingers.
“Not now, sweetheart. Mason’s duties begin tomorrow. Tomorrow he will make you as many sandwiches as you want.” Once more the focus was about Mason but no one was actually looking at, or talking to, him. “Samuel, show Mason to his room.” Sam nodded his head and escorted Mason out of the room.
Sam showed Mason upstairs to the very top floor, further up than any of the family bedrooms. Mason wasn’t used to being up this high but knew he would have to get used to it quickly. It was not decorated as nicely as the rest of the house, although it was still more glamorous than where Mason had grown up. There were no decorations on the walls and there were no carpets or rugs to cover the floors. On the plus side, Mason thought, there were no holes in the walls and the floorboards were still as shiny and polished as the ones in the living room. This, for most people from Ashdale, was a veritable heaven. Mason knew that it was not as nice as the rest of the house but he could not complain, he had everything he needed in that room. A small bedside table and a small wooden framed bed. Even the bed didn’t creak as much as his one from Ashdale had.
On the opposite side of the room was another bed. Sam’s bed. It was a large open plan bedroom that they both had to share. Mason couldn’t find any complaints with this, while Sam was in the bed opposite then he wasn’t living on the streets and that was enough for Mason. Even if they weren’t living the life of luxury, they were living and neither of them could complain about that.
“That was Tallulah, their daughter.” Sam slipped into his bed and watched Mason take in the surroundings. “She doesn’t understand that Underclassmen are people. To people like her, they are just objects for ordering around.” Mason knew all to well this was true from the tone of voice Tallulah had used when asking for food. If Thomas had asked for food, from a stranger, in that tone then Mason would have been within his rights to clip his ear and send him to bed without any food. He never had to though because, unlike Tallulah, Thomas treated people like people. Mason had made sure to instil good values in Thomas when he had to look after him, to make sure that he was always courteous to people who helped him or gave him stuff for free. That was the reason they shared the food with Mrs Miller. If someone had the decency to help you out then you had the decency to respect them. That world was gone though. Mason wasn’t in his world any more. He was in Tallulah’s world.
The next morning Mason was woken just as the sun was peering over the horizon. He could see it clearly out of his top floor window and wondered how he had been able to sleep in for so long. Sam, the reason for his waking, was standing next to him gently shaking his shoulder. Sam was already dressed in his full black uniform with the shiny gold buttons. The black hat he wore would have been better suited to a child and only served to make Sam appear significantly older than he was.
Beside Mason’s bed was a matching suit with a matching hat. This wasn’t the usual attire for Underclassmen, there was no usual attire for that occupation. The uniform was whatever the family wished and some would have to spend eternity living in the baggy grey clothes they were acquired in. For Mason he had stumbled upon a rather fortunate family whose pride in their appearance outweighed their desire to ridicule and humiliate. For Mason this was lucky because, whilst he would spend the rest of his life serving others, at least he got presentable clothes to do so.
Around the house Sam and Mason were allowed to wear just their shirts and trousers unless it was a special occasion. The rule was that shoes must always be kept by the front or back door in case chores required them to work outside. The Porter’s did not want their Underclassmen wasting time rushing up flights of stairs just to get shoes. Jackets, while at home, could be hung up neatly on a hook in the kitchen but should anyone come to call then they must be worn immediately. Any Underclassman not in full uniform while visitors were around was opening themselves up to a punishment.
When Mason had dressed he met Sam downstairs in the kitchen. Already Sam had various pots and pans on the hob with a multitude of different dishes cooking. Some dishes Mason recognised, such as bacon, eggs and toast, but others were more exquisite and not something he would have been able to make using only farm supplies.
“What am I supposed to do?” If Sam had a spare moment then he would have laughed, but at the time he was dashing back and forth between frying and boiling and chopping and peeling.
“Get the doughnuts out of the fridge.” Mason opened the fridge and realised he didn’t know what he was looking for. He grabbed a few boxes and opened the lids. Anything that smelled vaguely savoury went straight back into the fridge. Mason assumed, judging by the copious amounts of sugar and butter being thrown into pans, this was not a family that would enjoy a savoury breakfast. Eventually he stumbled across a large cardboard box at the bottom of the fridge. He opened it up and took it across to Sam who told him to take them out and put them onto plates. Mason reached into the box but received a spatula to the back of the hand before he could touch a single crumb. “Not with your hands. Use the tongs on the side.” He pointed towards a set of tongs resting in a large pot with a lot of other utensils Mason had never had to use before. “Don’t touch any food with your hands. All food has to be prepared using gloves,” He threw a pair of clean plastic gloves onto the centre table where Mason was stood. “Or you use tongs. Do not indent the food with the tongs though. The doughnuts have to be a perfect circle.” Mason carefully lifted each doughnut onto the plate, only putting the occasional dent in one or two.
“What’s next?” Sam quickly strolled over to where Mason was stood and looked at the doughnuts. He picked up the dented ones and threw them into the bin. “What was that for?”
“You’re not allowed to dent them.”
“Yeah, be we could have had them later.” Sam snorted as he made his way back over to where the pots and pans were boiling and frying.
“If you’re caught with any food they didn’t allow then there will be severe punishments.”
“I’m wondering just how they can punish us, we’re already at the bottom of the rung.” There was a loud clattering sound as Sam dropped the spatula and it ricocheted off the side of the oven and then onto the floor.
“You want to know?” He rolled back is sleeve to reveal several large scars up the inside of his arm. They weren’t deep scars though, they couldn’t afford to be if a family prided themselves on how they looked. “Every time you mess up a meal, you get one of these.” Mason counted and there were dozens of little welts and marks all the way up his arm.
“They get something metal. Anything they can get hold of quickly. Sometimes it’s just a spoon, other times it’s a knife or a spatula. Then they hold it over a flame and then press it to your skin.” Sam rolled his sleeve back down and told Mason to get back to work, telling him to just chop up some of the fruit. Mason was sorry he had asked the question. He knew every time he felt pain he would relive the memory of how it happened, so he had just asked Sam to relive every single time he had messed up a meal and been burned by the family.
“S’ok. They do it places people can’t see. You’re not a good Underclassman if you’ve got too many marks. The less marks the better you are. If people can’t see your marks then you gotta be the best, right?” It was rhetorical, even Mason knew that. But, even to Mason, the logic made sense. He would have never put anyone through the same thing, not even if they had messed up a great deal on the farm, but then again Mason never had to worry about being judged on how he looked. “They be down in a minute. You better get yourself fixed up.”
“I’m ready.” Sam looked across at Mason and shook his head. It was one thing to look a mess while no one was around but, as the clock struck eight, Sam knew the family would be down soon and he couldn’t have Mason looking a state.
He rounded the table to where Mason stood and looked him up and down. Immediately he grabbed the hem of Mason’s shirt and began to tuck it into his trousers. He then grabbed the waistband of his trousers and pulled it up slightly, much to Mason’s discomfort. The whole attire was probably half a size too big for Mason so Sam was doing his best to make sure it looked as presentable as possible. Sam reached behind him and picked up a tea-towel. He ran one corner of it under cold water and began to scrub at Mason’s cheeks like a mother prepping her child for church. Then he turned his attention to Mason’s hair. At the moment it was just an auburn mess, sticking up in random places. This would have done on the farm, because no one would have seen him, but here was different. Sam dampened the tea-towel once again and quickly ran it through Mason’s hair and then, using his fingers as a makeshift comb, combed all of Mason’s hair to the left and parted it down the right side. Mason looked as presentable as one could do using only things found around a kitchen and a uniform that was too big. They finished just as footsteps began to be heard on the wooden stairs.
“Now, when they come in, don’t say a word. They will tell you what they want and you serve it to them.” Mason stood off to one side, where Sam manoeuvred him, and nodded his head. He understood everything Sam was telling him, he just never understood why. The worst part about the situation was that he wasn’t allowed to ask questions. He wasn’t allowed to ask what Mr or Mrs Porter did. He wasn’t allowed to ask how old Tallulah was, he just had to assume based on how she compared to Thomas. He wasn’t even allowed to ask for food.
Both Mr and Mrs Porter came in without saying a word. They sat down at the table and then Tallulah came stomping in. Mr Porter picked up a newspaper, Sam had obviously placed it there when Mason was distracted, and began reading it.
“I’ll just have some fruit, Samuel.” Sam picked up a bowl and placed a variety of fruit into it. He carefully selected apples and some pears but avoided things like blueberries and blackberries. It had not occurred to Mason until that point that the hardest part of the job was catering to their likes and dislikes. There hadn’t been a book to study of what each member would or would not eat and so, Mason thought to himself, were they expecting him to mess up? Had that been how Sam had got all those burns on his arm? Just because he didn’t know they didn’t like something?
“Gimme a sandwich!” Tallulah yelled at no one in particular. Mason, wanting to make a good first impression, moved across to the bread bin but was stopped by Sam. He looked up and Sam just shook his head and pointed for him to return to his position. “Give me a sandwich!” Tallulah still wasn’t addressing anyone. The blame, if they were to be blamed, could at least be spread between Sam and Mason. “I want a sandwich!” Still there was no response and neither Underclassman moved. After a fourth time of demanding Mrs Porter looked up from her bowl of fruit, which she was picking at timidly, and over at her daughter.
“Not now, darling. Have some toast instead.” Sam nodded for Mason to move and Mason quickly grabbed a slice of toast, put it onto a plate and held the plate out for Tallulah to take.
She took the toast, eagerly, and stuffed the entire slice into her chubby little face within seconds. By the time she had finished she had more crumbs over her than there were on the actual slices of toast. How she achieved such a state of disregard for her appearance, while her parents did their utmost to make sure everything was perfect, was definitely a question Mason wanted to ask.
Breakfast passed by without too many hitches. Everything that nearly went wrong, like when Mason almost picked up a piece of fruit without gloves on or when he almost asked if Tallulah was finished with her plate, was corrected by Sam’s interference. Sam had snatched the piece of fruit out of Mason’s reach before Mason could grab it, likewise he had provided Tallulah with another piece of toast before Mason could ask the question. Tallulah, never being one to say no to food, gladly accepted the toast and ignored whatever Mason may have tried to ask.
“Did you invite the Pearson’s tonight?” Mr Porter hadn’t put his paper down the entire meal but still managed to engage in conversation with his family. Neither of them seemed to mind that he didn’t look at them because they were too engaged in their own mealtime habits. Tallulah was trying to cram as much food into her as possible and Mrs Porter was trying to appear as if she were eating without actually doing so. She seemed to push food around her bowl a lot and occasionally pick up a fork and stab at it, but there was still almost as much there at the end as there was when Sam handed her the bowl.
“Heavens no. Those people are ghastly. Have you seen that they cannot afford to buy another Underclassman when their current one runs out?” Mr Porter laughed at his wife’s comment from behind his paper shield. Mason hadn’t actually been bought, you couldn’t buy an Underclassman because they weren’t worth anything, but you did need to be able to keep them alive. Most people tried to anyway. There was no point in having an Underclassman if you were not going to keep him alive and so many, rather than admit they did not have the capital to own another Underclassman, would simply choose not to own one and fake the idea that they were “trying to become self sufficient.” Self sufficient meant different things to different people. To Mason it was living on his farm, tilling the land, growing the crops and then harvesting them and preparing food from that. He wasn’t reliant on anyone else. To most in Liberty, self sufficiency was the idea of picking your own coat up off of the floor, or washing your own plate after breakfast. Some, like The Porter’s, would rather die than try and be self sufficient.
“Which Underclassman are you taking with you today?” It was the first time he had put his paper down since he had entered the kitchen. Mrs Porter turned around and looked at both Sam and Mason, both of whom were busy washing up after breakfast.
“I’ll take the new one.” The Porter’s all left the table and disappeared into the living room leaving Sam and Mason on their own in the kitchen. The table was still stocked full of food and Mason felt his heart drop when he saw Sam dumping large quantities of it into the bin.
“No.” Sam slides a bowl of porridge across the table to Mason. “We’ve got ten minutes.” It didn’t take either of them that long to eat the porridge and it was going to take Mason a lot longer to actually enjoy porridge. It wasn’t the worst thing he had eaten, some mornings on the farm he would go without breakfast, but he hadn’t had to dump out tonnes of perfectly good food and then eat flavourless gruel. “You should go and report to Mrs Porter.” Mason was about to head out of the kitchen when Sam stopped him. “Every woman is Ma’am and every man is Sir. There are no exceptions. Even Tallulah is a Ma’am to us.” Us. It wasn’t just Mason who had to humiliate himself by catering to the whim of a twelve year old, Sam had to as well. Sam had been doing it his entire life. No doubt he had catered to Mr Porter when he was a child as well. It killed Mason to imagine a young, healthy Sam obeying orders from a child every day of his life. But that was who Mason was now too.
Mason appeared at the bottom of the stairs just as Mrs Porter was pulling her coat on. She handed Tallulah her coat as well and told Mason to go and fetch his jacket. Mason quickly dashed out to the kitchen and grabbed his jacket from it’s hook. “Tallulah’s coming too.” Mason sighed as he exited the kitchen and met back up with the women at the bottom of the stairs. As Mason opened the front door, Sam came out of the kitchen.
“Ma’am.” Mrs Porter turned around, a lot less furious than she would have been had Mason been the one to address her. “Ma’am I’m sorry for disturbing you but young Miss Porter has her dance class this afternoon.” Mrs Porter looked at her gold wristwatch and then up at Mason. She huffed, like it was Mason’s fault, and then looked down at her daughter.
“This could take a while, Mason is new. I’ll take you out next time. We can’t have you missing your dance class.” So this was what a twelve year old had to worry about in Liberty? Dance classes and not going shopping with their parents. For Thomas, back in Ashdale, he would be worrying about whether his mother was still alive while trying to cultivate the farm to produce enough food for himself and for her. Tallulah pouted and folded her arms making her face bloat even more than it already was. Another chin was added to her already growing list.
“Mason, you left something in the kitchen.” Mr Porter’s voice wasn’t angry like Mason had expected. He had expected, the first time he was addressed, for it to be a scathing insult or being told he was worthless and no good. Instead he just walked out to the kitchen where Mr Porter was.
“Sir? What did I forget?” Mr Porter grabbed Mason’s arm in a tight grip, pinching his skin as his hand folded almost the entire way around Mason’s arm.
“You forgot that Samuel will not be around forever.” He growled at Mason, like a bigger animal would to warn smaller animals away from something. Tallulah clearly took more after her father because he had the same bulbous cheeks and enormous stomach. His grip tightened as he pulled Mason closer to him. “So I will just count the minutes until you screw up, then I’ll embarrass you like your kind should be.” He let go of Mason’s arm, almost throwing him out of the door.
“Are we ready, or do you want to waste more of my time?” Mason wished the conversation had been overheard but, even it had been, who was going to do anything about it. Mason was property of Mr Porter and he could do anything he wanted with him. Sam wouldn’t have been able to stop him, even if he had overheard, and Mrs Porter wouldn’t have interfered because she and her husband were in the ownership together. Even if Mason ran away and told the police he was being mistreated, he would be lying because an Underclassman cannot be mistreated, there are no rules for how to treat an Underclassman, it is purely however the owner sees fit. “Hurry up, you have to get the preparations for the party tonight.” Mrs Porter hissed and Mason realised this was going to have to be a party that he would work at. He had never attended a party before, not one that Mr and Mrs Porter would throw anyway, and now he was expected to cater the party too? He took a deep breath and followed Mrs Porter out to the garage.
Mason didn’t notice the cold chill in the air the next morning when he woke. In fact, he didn’t feel anything. He wondered if this was how his mother felt every day, just sitting watching the day pass her by. But Mason didn’t have that opportunity. He was numb and not sure if he could face the day ahead of him, but he didn’t have a choice. He didn’t have anyone who was going to care for him if he got sick. He didn’t have anyone to give him his medicine or sit beside him while he slept. He would have that if he hadn’t failed the exams. Even if the exams had decided he were suited to working as a farm hand or a factory worker for the rest of his life, that would still be better than an Underclassman.
After the ceremony Mason had made his way home and tried to avoid any contact with people. The sun was already setting so he had managed to avoid any awkward encounters with The Bundy’s or The Miller’s, but he couldn’t avoid Thomas who was sat by their mother’s bedside eagerly awaiting the news.
He can still see the eagerness in his brother’s eyes. Those wide blue eyes of a twelve-year-old that convey more emotion than can be said in a single word. Thomas didn’t move when he came through the door, he didn’t want to leave their mother, but instead just turned his head and raised his eyebrows, asking the question with a look instead. Mason shook his head and held back the tears, he was not going to let Thomas see him cry. He had tried too hard to make sure Thomas only saw the strong and capable brother, he was not going to ruin it at the last moment.
“I’m sorry.” He had managed to fight off the tears and instead just gritted his teeth, curled his lip up at one side and shrugged. Thomas, being only twelve, wasn’t sure what to do but did the only thing he could think of. He climbed off of his armchair, checking his mother was still okay staring out of the window, and walked across to his brother before hugging him. The two of them said nothing for a few moments and Mason did not realise until that point that it was the last time he was going to see his brother.
“So,” Thomas didn’t want to speak but he needed to. He could sense Mason didn’t know what to say and knew he had to break the tension some how. “What happens now?” It is the question that had played on Mason’s mind the entire way home. He had not thought of anything else since the announcement. He was going to leave and his brother, his twelve year old brother, was going to have to look after the failing farm and their sick mother. There were times before that he wondered if his brother was strong enough to do either of them, now he had no choice but to do both of them.
Mason knelt down on one knee and looked his brother in the eyes. He could see the tears forming in the corners of his eyes and he wiped them away gently with his thumb. All of a sudden the harsh winter didn’t seem to be a problem. The cold winds whipping at the door and seeping in through the gaps in the wall didn’t bother either of them. “Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and show you how to look after the house and…” His words trailed off as he saw his mother sat in bed, completely unaware that her son was going to be sent away the next day. Thomas caught his line of sight and knew where the sentence was going. “And then,” Mason bit his lip and smiled, trying every trick he knew to cover the anguish that was killing him inside. “Then I’m going to get on a train and go to live in Liberty.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Thomas didn’t fully understand what being an Underclassman meant. If he had then he wouldn’t have asked the question. “You’ve always wanted to live there.” Mason had to smile at the boys innocence. If there was anything he envied his brother for then it was his innocence. The boy had seen his father die and his mother incapacitated by illness, a failing farm and now his brother was being sent off to live and work for other people. But still he remained innocent. That’s what would kill Mason about having to leave, knowing that when he boarded that train it would kill any innocence left in his little brother.
But Mason didn’t have time to worry about all of this. His time left in Ashdale was limited and he didn’t want to waste a second of it. That’s why, the next morning, he pushed aside any burning anger he had inside of him and pulled on his shirt, trousers and boots ready for another day.
“Thomas.” He placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder and rocked him gently, trying to rouse him out of his sleep. His left eye flicked open and he saw Mason looking down at him with a smile. “Come on, I’ve got to show you some thing.” Upon seeing Mason, Thomas was out of his armchair and dressed quicker than Mason could ever have imagined. Before he knew it they were traipsing across the farm to where the animals were kept.
“Do I have to tend to the farm now?”
“Yeah. I’m going to show you where everything is.” He took him over to the chicken coop and took the side off. It was still barely held on but he showed Thomas where the tools were kept to fix it up, and even marked off where he needed to put a nail in to make sure it stood up firmly without wasting any nails. Thomas listened eagerly, more eagerly than Mason could ever imagined. Whenever he tested him on where something was, Thomas was able to locate it. He knew the tools, as basic as they were, were going to be his best chance at keeping the farm running. He told him about the rickety fence and to check on it and make sure it is always kept closed, locked and fixed. “You know about farming, right?” Thomas nodded enthusiastically as he pointed to where the seeds were kept and began to explain how he would till the land. Farming had been the basic skill he had been taught as a child and so made sure, even if he couldn’t do anything else, that Thomas would be able to at least keep the crops going when the whether got better.
“What about The Colls?” Mason’s head snapped round before Thomas had even asked the question. Any mention of The Colls had Mason on edge.
“What about them?” Mason had just finished showing Thomas how to lift the hay bales the easy way, without exerting too much force. He figured, at twelve years old, he should at least be able to do one hay bale a day. In her prime his mother was doing regular farm work on her own, so if Thomas was going to learn to cope with running a farm then this was going to be it.
“How do you…you know?” There wasn’t a word for what Mason could do with The Colls. There were plenty of words for what he wanted to do to them though. But those were not words he could say around his brother. This had not crossed his mind though. One of the main reasons his family had survived for this long was because The Colls were only getting a quarter of their produce and not half like they thought they were getting.
“It’s called Skimming.” He showed Thomas around to the back of their house and perched himself on the fence between their house and The Miller’s. “You’re gonna have to learn this one if you want to be the man of the house.” He knew, deep down, that Thomas didn’t want to be the man of the house. Mason didn’t want to be the man of the house but it was thrust upon him by circumstances he couldn’t control. Now it was Thomas’ turn.
“So how do I skim?”
“Whenever you finish for the day, split the produce into four.” He grabbed four sacks from the back of the house and lay them down on the ground in front of them. Despite the cold weather, Thomas actually looked like he was paying attention. “So pretend that in all four of these bags is everything you’ve taken from the farm for the month.” Thomas nodded and focused directly on the bags. Mason made his way to the far-left sack and picked it up. “You take this bag and you put it in the house.” He moved along to the next sack. “This one goes by the front door.” He stood between the final two bags. “Now you put these two by the back door.”
“Okay…” Mason had to smile at Thomas’ little face trying to work everything out. He almost suggested writing it down but he couldn’t be caught with any sort of evidence that suggested they were skimming Liberty out of food.
It was times like this that Mason could see a lot of himself in his brother. Sure they both had the same dishevelled brown mess of hair, and they both had the same smattering of freckles across their nose, but it was the intrigue and the determination that really made them brothers. There were times when looking at Thomas would flash Mason right back in time to when his father taught him about the farm. Although his father never taught him about skimming, that was Mason’s idea once his father died. He had to find a way to conserve food and skimming was the most efficient way.
“So, before The Colls arrive, you take the two by the back door and stash them over at Mrs Miller’s house.” Thomas was nodding but there was a look in his eye that wanted to know why. Mason wouldn’t have been able to tell this look if it hadn’t been the same one he got every time he wanted to ask why. “Mrs Miller will give you a key. When The Colls come you keep them talking, let them examine whatever they want because they won’t find nothing. Half of the produce will be over at The Miller’s. You give them the bag by the door and tell them that’s all. Try and sweet talk them. Never be scared and never be confrontational because that’s what they want.” Mason tossed those two sacks to the side, as if they didn’t exist any more. “This sack here, the one you brought inside. This one’s for you.” He threw the sack to Thomas to emphasise that it was his sack and not The Colls. “Now this next bit you gotta be quick and quiet. When The Colls go over to The Miller’s, you gotta sneak over there and let yourself in the back way. You take the two sacks away otherwise Mrs Miller’s gonna be caught with more food than she’s letting on. You hide them back at our house until The Colls have searched hers.”
“Is that it?” Mason looked around at the floor and saw the sacks strewn everywhere. One was hanging from Thomas’ hand, two were hanging from the fence and one was in the doorway to their house.
“Is that it? You’ve got two sacks left and a family who helped you cheat Liberty. That’s not it.” He picked the two sacks off of the fence and held them up so Thomas could see them clearly. “This one is for you.” He threw it, like he did before, to Thomas. “But this one is for The Miller’s.” He dropped it over the fence to emphasise once again.
“But don’t we only get half then?” Mason smiled and nodded, he had to hand it to his brother, he was very impressed that he had managed to keep up. “So we’re not gaining from this skimming? Instead of giving half to The Colls we just give a quarter to them and a quarter to The Miller’s?”
“We’re not done yet. Mrs Miller’s a nice lady, she won’t let you just give her food. What she’ll do it she’ll swap. Because The Miller’s produce nicer vegetables than we do, and occasionally more milk, she’ll swap our wheat for her vegetables. So we get half of our own food and a quarter of The Miller’s. The same works out for them.”
“Is it worth it?” It was a question Mason had never considered before. Since he came up with the plan and The Miller’s had been up for it all along, no one had ever asked him if it was worth the effort he put into it. But Mason knew the answer. Had he been asked a few months ago, when he first devised the plan, he wouldn’t have been so sure.
“It’s kept you alive this long, hasn’t it?” He ruffled Thomas’ hair again and threw the sacks into a pile in the back garden. “Now you remember all that? You got it all stored up here?” He tapped Thomas’ head which made him bat away at Mason’s hand. For a moment there they forgot what was happening and why he was teaching him. The illusion was shattered by The Colls coming down the street.
Mason knew he couldn’t skim his way out of this one. They weren’t leaving without him.
The knocking was thunderous against the door of their small wooden hut. If anything were to wake their mother from her coma-like state then it would be the slamming of fat fists on the family door. But still she just stared at them from the window. Thomas opened the door as Mason was in his bedroom packing his bag.
“Mason Lindholme?” It was a stupid question, no one could mistake a twelve-year-old for an eighteen year old, but it was their way of asking where he was. Mason appeared around the corner with a sack slung over his shoulder. He dropped it down onto the floor and knelt down in front of his brother.
“Look, you can look after the farm. You’re the man now and you know what to do. I’ve taught you everything I know about keeping this place running. You’ll do a good job.” Thomas couldn’t fight back the tears as they stained his cheeks. Mason didn’t want a goodbye, he wasn’t going to say the word because then it would be true. He pulled Thomas closer to him and took a deep breath, swallowing hard any words he couldn’t bring himself to say. There shouldn’t have been anything he couldn’t say, but he didn’t want Thomas thinking he was gone forever, no matter how true it might have been. “Remember what I taught you.” One of The Colls took Mason by the arm and dragged him out of the house. It was the only way he was going to leave because this wasn’t voluntary.
“Mason!” Thomas was screeching from the doorway as Mason was led down the road by the two burly men in grey uniforms.
Mason was marched down the street, past all his neighbours, and through the town square to where there was a large train waiting. There were dozens of Colls, all with people from the local villages or towns. One of them Mason recognised as Maxwell Smith, the first person this year to be condemned to a life of an Underclassman. All these people, various shapes and sizes, were all this years Underclassman. Not a single one of the people wanted to be there but all of them were required to be there or face punishment.
A large metal train waited in front of them, the likes of which Mason only saw when it passed through or once a year when it picked up the Underclassman. This wasn’t a train that ran the rails regularly, this was a train purpose built for carrying people to Liberty but never out of it again. It had become known, around town, as The Underclass Train because of its so-called passengers.
Mason was escorted on, flanked by his two uniformed Colls that had dragged him from his house. The inside of the train seemed bigger, somehow. The entire train was bigger than most of the village and stretched for miles. It had to in order to house all of the Underclassmen that were being transported to Liberty. In the distance Mason could still see the shimmering lights of Liberty. A city named for the feeling you get when you see it, or the feeling you get when you’re shuddering towards it at a hundred miles an hour. This wasn’t what Mason felt though. Mason just felt sick.
He wasn’t the only one, as it turned out. Many of the Underclassmen had never ridden on a train before and so the moment it lurched away from the make-shift station people began reaching for a container. Mason managed to hold his back a few times, even feeling it rise in his throat and then swallowing it back down. The whole idea was humiliating enough, he was not going to add throwing up in a Coll’s lap on top of that. Others didn’t have the same discretion and there was retching and heaving coming from all the cabins and chairs. Once the train got moving, and was chugging along fast enough that any attempt to jump out would result in death, the Colls all retired to the cabins at the back. Now, as Mason looked around, everyone he could see was sentenced to the same life he was.
These were the people who had failed. These were the people who, along with himself, had been deemed unworthy to work any sort of job other than manual labour under constant supervision from someone else. That was, of course, if you got picked.
As the train shuttled its way through the bleak and barren wasteland, Mason couldn’t help but think what Liberty might be like. There may be a silver lining to it after all.
“There’s lights there. All the time.” Maxwell, the first one deemed as unfit, was saw in a chair across the aisle from Mason. “Some don’t turn them off. Ever.” Mason knew this to be true, he had seen the occasional twinkling light when he began his morning work. Everyone knew this, it was one of the few mysteries of Liberty that they were unable to keep confined to the city. Of course there were walls, but people had houses and buildings that rivalled even the walls. “Everything is big.” It was true. Whilst the walls might have been a hundred-foot-tall, people would build houses that were one hundred and one foot tall. Liberty was a powerful place and nothing said power like being able to display it.
“You ever been?” Maxwell snorted at the question, almost losing the contents of his stomach into a brown paper bag.
“Nah, not me. Knew a guy once though. Said he didn’t like it there too much. Too much going on. Wanted a relaxed life without all the people. Don’t know what happened to him come to think of it. Passed by the town one day and never saw him again.” Maxwell’s story may have been true, Mason didn’t have the evidence to dispute it, but no one in the town had ever spoken of someone from Liberty passing through. News like that would have spread like wildfire through Ashdale, everyone would have known of the man and he would have become the talk of the town.
“Shame.” Mason nodded and looked out of the window. He could see Liberty approaching quickly.
As the train passed through hole in Liberty’s wall the Underclassmen were opened to a whole new world that would have been beyond even their wildest imagination. Buildings, hundreds of stories high. Paved streets and smooth roads. Actual motor vehicles. Mason had actually seen a car before, it had dropped a selection of Colls off at Ashdale’s border when he was a child. One moment it was there, the Colls got out, then the car sped off again into the distance taking all its mechanical mysteries with it. Mason had wanted to ask about it, to find out how it worked and what made it run. It differed greatly from the carts that were usually dragged up and down Ashdale’s roads. The sky was bright and cloudless above Liberty. Whether this was some sort of technology or whether it was a coincidence was unknown, but it elicited numerous gasps and awe from around the inside of the train. All of the Underclassmen, including Mason, were now sat with their noses pressed firmly up against the window of the train, taking in as much of the surroundings as they could.
There were trees. They weren’t apple trees or pear trees or any fruit baring trees. These were trees purely for decoration, stuck along the sides of the roads and the cars whizzing past them. There were grassy sections between the roads and bushes and hedges lining the edges of them. And the houses. The grand houses with two or three stories and dozens of windows with plush curtains hanging inside. Some of the houses even had small boxes of plants attached to their upstairs windows. Never before had Mason seen a house with a second story but now, now he was seeing a house with a make-shift garden hanging from it’s second story window.
The train pulled into the platform and as soon as the doors slid open the warm air rushed inside, bathing the entire train in comfortable aura. In Ashdale this temperature would be spring temperatures, when the upcoming summer would start to burn off the winter chill. It felt strange for Mason, like he had stepped through time. When he got on the train it was winter but now, here he stood in a warm atmosphere that seemed completely out of place.
The Colls lead the Underclassmen over to a small adjoining room where they were met by a burly, gruff looking man. The Colls then disappeared, leaving no trace that they were ever there. Mason recognised the clothes the man was wearing, the black combat khaki’s and the tight black top. He was the man from the stage, the one that handed the clipboard to Miss Knight. He was less formal but his face looked aged and worn, like he was in a continuous war with time and he was losing. Although, judging by the bulk of the man, you would have to be a fool to go to war with him. He had no need to Colls, his muscled bulked out underneath his t-shirt so much so that he could easily wrestle any Underclassman to the ground within seconds. He was a pure-bred Underclassman wrangler.
“I am General Campbell.” His voice was as gruff as his appearance and it was filtered through his thick grey beard and moustache. “You are my Underclassmen.” There were dozens of them in the room but he managed to speak to everyone and no one at the same time. It was a skill that Mason assumed could never be taught. This was a man who was born to handle Underclassmen. “Over to the side you will find your display clothes.” On one side of the room were dozens of bags and Mason realised now that he hadn’t collected his from the train. As if reading his mind, General Campbell pointed to the bags and clicked his fingers. “You won’t need your personal belongings, you are no longer the person you were. Get your bags.” The bags were labelled, but not with names. Mason found bag number one hundred and forty-seven and opened it up. Inside were plain grey, baggy clothes. “Get dressed.” Everyone, without hesitation, began to get changed into the clothes provided. It was awkward and humiliating but this wasn’t an easy life, this was Underclassman life. They had stopped being people the moment they boarded the train, here they were just property.
The clothes were all the same, although they did have some sort of fit to them. Mason could only assume that they were one size larger than their regular size. There were boys who were twice Mason’s size who, were their clothes the same size as his, would be bursting out at the seems. The boys had plain grey trousers and the girls had plain grey skirts that stuck down like they contained too much starch. The clothes were reminiscent of Mason’s blanket at home, itchy and uncomfortable.
“These are your uniforms, until you are claimed. Once you are claimed you are no longer my problem. Once you are claimed you will go with your claimant and do as they tell you.” This wasn’t a situation to negotiate. If Mason had just walked into the room he would still be able to tell, by the uniformity of the Underclassmen and the barking bravado of General Campbell, that this was not a situation anyone could talk their way out of. “Follow me to your podiums.”
General Campbell lead the Underclassmen through a small connection of corridors and hallways, finally leading them out into a huge open topped area. It would have been like the graduation ceremony apart from this one had decoration and some sort of personality.
Above them was a huge white banner draped between buildings with the words “UNDERCLASSMAN SALE” painted in big black letters. Scattered around were little circular podiums with only a two-foot diameter. Each one had a small plaque on the front of it with their Underclassman number. Mason once again found one hundred and forty-seven and stepped up onto the podium. When everyone was on their podium, stood upright and facing forward, the general public of Liberty were allowed to enter.
In flooded dozens of people all with nowhere better to be. The place was abuzz with noise from the chattering of the public about who should they claim and what are the merits and benefits of each one. This was probably the only good thing about being an Underclassman, it was General Campbell’s job – along with some other recruits – to essentially sell the Underclassmen. They all had files and when approached by a prospective family or owner, a recruit would pick up their file and start discussing why they would be a good sell. The downside was that there was no need to get rid of the Underclassmen, so General Campbell and his men would not hesitate to highlight the flaws and weaknesses of some of the Underclassmen as well.
“As you can see, she has excellent bone structure and so would make a wonderful display model. She has no major health concerns but, as with all in this gender, she is more frail and dainty than some of the more robust males.” Mason wanted to argue that his mother, a person of the dainty and frail gender would be able to throw General Campbell over his shoulder and run down the street with him. Or at least she could have a few months ago. Either way, Mason did not agree with the meat market that they were being subjected to. But this, like everything in Mason’s life now, wasn’t up for discussion.
“What about this one?” A family had approached Mason and were surveying him head to toe. It was an elderly couple. The woman had large horn rimmed glasses and the man had a bright white suit with golden lining to it. They took their time, looking him up and down and even surveying if he had any damage done to him.
“This one,” One of the recruits stepped up and took the file from beside Mason. He flipped through it and read it as quick as anything. “He is good for manual labour. Comes from a manual labour family and has farm hand experience – although he’s not very good at it according to the file.” The man continued reading and then paused, his finger obviously finding something very interesting. “It says here that he does have a bit of an attitude problem. Has given The Collectors a bit of cheek on their regular visits outside.” The horn-rimmed woman turned her nose up and her eyes grew wide as if it were offensive to banter with The Colls.
“We cannot have one we must train. Do you have a quieter one? Perhaps one that will not answer back?” The recruit put Mason’s file back down beside him and took the elderly couple off to show them a ‘different model’.
Mason stood on his podium as he watched people disappear from around him. Occasionally a recruit would approach him and straighten down his clothing, which completely swamped his slender frame. They would brush his hair, remove any dirt or blemishes from under his fingernails or skin. He wondered why they didn’t just throw him into a shower and tell him to wash himself. Then he remembered, this wasn’t about actually being clean, this was about appearance. As long as Mason appeared to be the upstanding and perfect Underclassman then he was going to get picked. Once he was taken away he was no longer Liberty’s problem.
“What’s wrong with this one?” It was a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair. He had his wife, a slimmer woman with a severe black bob. “Why hasn’t he been claimed?” The man wasn’t gentle about analysing Mason. He tugged on his arms, rolled up his sleeves to check for marks and shoved him about to see how sturdy he was. Mason bit back every word that tried to escape his mouth, and there were many that would get him into deep trouble. He inhaled sharply as the man patted him, rather roughly, on the stomach.
“He supposedly has been rather obnoxious with some of The Collectors.” Mason questioned the use of the word obnoxious. He had not been obnoxious. He had been irritating maybe, or tried to push their buttons a few times, but he had never been obnoxious.
“Any major flaws?” The recruit flipped through the file again and couldn’t find anything worth noting. He shook his head and the man put his hand on Mason’s shoulder, gripping it more tightly than Mason appreciated. “Then we shall take this one.”
The recruit allowed Mason to step down off of his podium and took him into an adjoining room. It was a very plain room, with white walls and just a desk over to one side.
“Have you ever owned, or do you currently own, an Underclassman?” The man took out a clipboard from behind the desk and read the questions from it.
“But it was a few years ago, has anything changed in that time? Anything we’re not allowed to do, or any rules we must follow for their…well being?” The woman seemed appalled that Underclassmen might have rules regarding their health and safety. Although Mason was more appalled that the recruit said there weren’t any rules.
“Are you aware that you are taking on this Underclassman of your own free will and that the government of Liberty cannot be held responsible for any damage sustained to your Underclassman while in your care?” Mason wanted to tell them that he had a name, and that he was stood right next to them. But he couldn’t. He was even advised to not look at them and to keep his eyes directed at the floor, as all Underclassmen should.
“Yes, we are aware. Can we take him now? We do have things we must do.” This was extremely difficult for Mason to believe. If they had things to do, shouldn’t they have been doing them? In Ashdale, if something needed to be done then it was not put off for more frivolous activities such as buying other people, it was done there and then because it had to be.
“Just one more thing before you can take it away.” The recruit took Mason’s hand and laid it face down on the table in front of him. He pulled out a small cylindrical object and clicked it a few times. There were numbers on the side and Mason knew what number he was looking for. It got to one hundred and forty-seven and the recruit checked it against the file. “Yes, that’s right.” He didn’t warn Mason or give him any words of comfort, he just stabbed him in the back of the hand with the object. Mason wondered whether there was a knife inside the object because his hand stung and burned at the same time.
“Son of a–“ Mason didn’t get to finish his sentence before the man, the person who now owned him, clipped him round the ear. It took Mason’s attention away from his burning hand but not for long.
“None of that!” The man turned back to his wife. “He’s going to need some training.” The woman nodded and pursed her lips, Mason had just shown himself up in front of his new owners.
“He is chipped and can be tracked now, should he somehow find himself lost.” There was an insinuation behind the words, a suggestion that Mason was going to bolt at the first opportunity. “Mr and Mrs Porter, I want to wish you all the best with your new acquisition.” Mason first felt like property when Mr Porter grabbed him by his baggy collar and lead him off of the lot.
Cassandra had rushed back to her room with the intention of collecting up some items and then hurrying down to the harbour to meet with Spencer. However, shortly after she had arrived at her room she was followed in by some of her maids. The maids did not acknowledge Cassandra, instead they just funnelled into the room and began taking dresses from drawers and placing them into trunks. While they worked at packing the entire room into separate trunks, Cassandra decided to change out of her wedding dress. She looked over at where her dresses would have been kept but found them all packed away in trunks already. That was when she caught sight of the brown trousers and boots she had worn that morning for hunting. Without thinking very much about it she slipped on the tattered brown clothes and laced up the boots. As she got to her feet she saw Peter appear at the door with a few servants behind him.
“Has Spencer managed to secure a boat?”
“We shall sail as soon as you are ready.” Cassandra looked around the room as the maids folded and placed a few last items into the large wooden trunks. Cassandra nodded and, as soon as the lid of the trunk slammed shut, the servants outside took over from the maids and began carrying the trunks out in a line.
As Cassandra followed the line of servants out into the courtyard she was greeted by a huge array of people who had gathered round in various areas of the castle to see what was occurring. She could overhear whispers of “what is she wearing?” and “do you think the King knows?”. The questions were answered when King Marcus came out of the church as Cassandra crossed the halfway point of the courtyard. Immediately their eyes met, like destiny had forced their path to cross at that moment. Cassandra stopped walking but instructed Peter to take the maids and servants down to the boat and load the things.
“Will you return?”
“For what purpose?”
“Our marriage, of course.” Cassandra bit her lip and refrained from saying what was on her mind. She could not possibly explain to him that she was only marrying him because it was what her father wanted. She was not sure she could do that to any man, but this man was stood in front of his people and Cassandra did not want to humiliate him like that.
“When destiny forces us together, I shall return.” It did not please her to be ambiguous but she had been taught, as a Princess, that she was to be ambiguous if asked awkward questions.
“Destiny may will it but if you leave then I may not.” He turned away momentarily and then looked back at her. Cassandra could see herself reflected in his shiny buttons. She knew the reason for the King turning his nose up. Her outfit was less than regal and she looked much like the common people who had gathered around to see her exit. “Maybe your father’s death was for the best.” He spoke the words with a sneer and Cassandra felt anger build up in her stomach. The anger flickered momentarily but then disappeared, after all she couldn’t be angry at him for the comment when she had been thinking a very similar notion shortly before.
“Maybe so.” She nodded her head and turned away from the King. As she exited from the courtyard she could still hear the gossip and the disbelief flowing around the crowds. “How can she leave?”, “What about the King?”, “Will she be back?”. Whilst Cassandra could answer all of their questions, there was no time.
She reached the dock and the servants were loading the trunks on under the supervision of the Duke of Bantham. Spencer was over to one side, no doubt negotiating a fee for the boat and trying to convince a Captain to agree to the journey. The latter proved more difficult as how could he explain why the Princess was leaving the Captain’s King on their wedding day? Eventually, after some discussion that Cassandra could not hear, she saw Spencer drop a bag of money into his hands and the Captain boarded the ship.
“I shall compensate you for this when we arrive home.” Spencer was about to reply when Peter approached.
“The Captain is ready to sail if you are.” Cassandra nodded and boarded the boat with the Duke, Spencer, the maids and the servants all following behind.
The crossing took days and Cassandra could not shake the overwhelming nostalgia that set in no the way. She tried not to think too much about her father or how long he had been dead for. She wished she had been able to receive news that he was ill so that she would have at least had a chance to make it home to spend the last days with him. She had been there when her mother died and she had felt the comfort of being there with her when she needed her. Cassandra could not help but wonder what her father’s last words were, or how long he was ill before he finally passed. She wondered if she would even ever get answers to these questions, or even if she wanted the answers.
When the ship docked on Arastonian land, Cassandra knew she was home. Her feet somehow fit the ground better than they did in Dolor, and the air seemed much more natural for her. The air in Dolor had been heavy and overbearing, but in Araston it felt comfortable and familiar.
“I have managed to acquire us carriages. Your Page, the maids and servants can all follow us behind with the trunks.”
“Spencer rides with us.” The Duke looked at her, offering her the chance to divulge any more information or a reason, but Cassandra turned her head and walked over to the carriage. Once helped inside she could see the Duke talking to Spencer and presumably explaining how he was to ride up front with them.
It still took them an entire day to cross from the harbour to Araston’s capital, Pentheus. Along the way Cassandra took note of everything she remembered. The bushy trees that populated the forests, so thick that you could not see further than the first row. The people who were happy to see her carriage pass by rather than those in Dolor who always questioned her presence in their land. The carriage rattled along the dirt road and nobody was sure what to say. Cassandra’s mind was too busy thinking about her father. She had never considered her father a man capable of death. She had seen him contract fevers in the past that would have killed a lesser man, but he had merely brushed them aside and continued his job as King.
“What is on your mind, Princess?” Cassandra looked back from the window and saw the Duke’s eyes focused on her. She chewed her bottom lip, something the Duke had always discouraged her from doing.
“Araston.” She gestured out of the window at the wide open lands surrounding them. “And what will become of it now my father has passed.”
“Your father and I often talked of his passing.” The Duke had never sounded so wistful before. “But we had both assumed I would go first.” This brought a smile to his face and, although she would never admit it, Cassandra had assumed that too; it was not an unfair assumption for he was a few years senior to her father. “He wished for you to run Araston in such a circumstance.” Cassandra laughed but noticed he was not joking when his facial expression did not change. She looked across to Spencer who was sleeping against the side of the carriage; she wished she could ask him what he thought of the suggestion but she did not want to wake him.
“My father did have a sense of humour.” She turned her gaze back to the window, dismissing the suggestion entirely.
“He did not joke about his Kingdom or his daughter.”
“Peter, you know that Araston has never had a Queen by inheritance. Why do you believe I should be the first?” The Duke shook his head as if Cassandra had completely misunderstood what he was saying.
“This is not my opinion, Princess. This was your father’s wish and I am merely relaying it to you.” For some reason this was not the answer Cassandra had wanted. Her heart had gone on a journey since leaving Dolor and she had finally felt it settle down until Peter had informed her of this wish. She took a deep breath and lay her head against the side of the carriage. She had not expected to, due to the bumping of the road shaking the framework of the carriage, but she soon found her eyes heavy and closing shut.
Cassandra was awoken by Spencer when the large stone wall of Pentheus came into view. They were emerging out of the neighbouring forest and the city of Pentheus stood tall and proud in front of them. The wall had stood for centuries and served as a constant reminder to Cassandra about where her home was. She could already begin to see the market stalls and houses lining the dusty streets with the citizens selling their wares. In the heart of the city was Pentheus Palace, which had been constructed by her great grandfather and stood as the royal house ever since. Her mind began forming a map of the city, taking in all the small details of every building. She knew every strange mark she would find and every statue that stood, right the way from The People’s Statue in the front square all the way through to the ornate lions that stood proudly outside the palace.
The carriage came to a stop at the moat that circled the town and they waited for the drawbridge to be lowered. It came down slowly but with every turn of the crank Cassandra felt like she was a step closer to being home. Finally the drawbridge clattered against the ground and the carriage proceeded across as the gate in front of them was drawn up and the wooden doors retracted. Usual proceedings would have had the carriage drawn directly up to the palace so Cassandra would not have had to walk amongst the people, but she insisted the carriage stop just inside the city walls. As the gate and doors were closed behind them, Cassandra dismounted from the carriage and smiled when her feet first touched the floor beneath them. But something felt strange, it seemed to corrupt the sense of familiarity she had been expecting.
She had not expected to feel the sense of despair that seemed to cloud the city. But of course she should have, this was a city in mourning. Whilst she did not know just long they had been without a monarch, she knew the impact her father had and that his loss would surely be felt for a long time after. The city was so consumed with their loss that no one came out of their house to welcome home their Princess. It may have been the shock of seeing her, for she was not due back again, but they seemed resigned to watching from their houses through the windows. Cassandra, seizing the opportunity, crossed the square to The People’s statue that her father had erected in his second year of monarch.
The statue was of a man, a woman and a child, all stood upright on a podium. The child clutched a crown in his hands and all figures were smiling towards the entrance of the city so that everyone who entered would feel the warm smile of Pentheus upon them. Underneath the people was an inscription in an ancient language.
Sor Regaltus Cano Mai Lit Ve Tu.
Cassandra, whilst not being well versed in the language, knew the words to mean “The King Is One Of You.” As Cassandra stood in front of the statue she wondered if her father could still see her, would he still be watching over his people? The entire base of the statue had been covered with flowers of brilliant colours of all varieties. The base looked like a rainbow dedication to her father. Some people had left messages of scribbled words on paper tucked in between their flower dedications. Cassandra had meant to pick one up but was interrupted by footsteps not far away. She could see guards approaching but, unlike in Dolor, did not fear for her safety.
“Please move aside.” There were only three of them and Cassandra knew they meant no harm to her and so she agreed. One of them, following shortly behind the others, was carrying a large satchel over his shoulder. Cassandra did not have to ask what it was for as the two in front began picking up handfuls of flowers, tearing them up with their hands, and dumping them into the satchel. Cassandra threw herself immediately back in front of the guards and Spencer and Peter began approaching the statue too.
“What do you think you are doing? This is a tribute to my father and I shall not have some uneducated grunts destroying it.” She had expected an angry reply for most people would not have taken kindly to such words, but instead they continued their job.
“We mean no disrespect, we are just following the orders of the King. He asked us to clear the area so the statue could be removed.”
“My father would never insist on such an act, regardless of how poor his health.” Cassandra glanced around at Peter or Spencer for support but both of them seemed to understand what was happening more than she was.
“Your father is not King.” The guard’s words were blunt and to the point, so much so they hit Cassandra with a thud to her chest. She was lost for words and so was thankful when Spencer escorted her back to the carriage and she felt the wheels start rolling beneath them again. All she could do was watch as the men began destroying the beautiful tribute that the citizens had left.
The carriage rolled through the street and Cassandra noticed something more than just mourning. Houses were not in a good way, some with holes in their roofs and some with large bricks chipped away at their walls. The town had fallen into such a disrepair that mourning was no longer a viable excuse. Such a mourning may have allowed houses to become dirty or stained, but she could not think of a citizen that would have such little pride in their house that they would let it fall around them. This was no longer just mourning.
Everything about the palace seemed normal but to Cassandra something was not right. The lion statues that lined the steps up to the palace were perched in their usual position and looking more cared for than she ever remembered them. One of them had lost a tail when Cassandra was a child and her father had insisted that a lion without its tail did not make it any less of a lion and so he refused to replace it, deciding the money was needed elsewhere. As they walked up the steps Cassandra noticed that the lion’s tail had been replaced and both statues had been repainted a bright gold. At the top of the steps, where Cassandra would usually just walk on inside, they were halted by more guards. Neither guard said anything, they just held their halberd directly across the doors so they would not open.
“My name is Princess Cassandra of Araston and I demand to speak with the man who calls himself King.” Once again neither guard made so much of a movement. It was clear they were under orders not to let anyone in, even when stood face to face with a Princess, a Duke and a Page. “Did you not hear me? My name is Princess Cassandra of Araston and I demand you let me inside.”
“Your name holds no weight in these parts any more.” These parts? This was Cassandra’s home city, where she had been born and raised as the Princess of the people, now she was being treated like some hostile intruder.
“I am your Princess-” She caught herself and remembered, she was not technically the Princess any more. “I am your Queen and I demand you let me speak to the imposter King.” Neither guard retracted their weapon and Cassandra was beginning to give up hope, that was until Peter stepped forward.
“Peter, Duke of Bantham, and until your King formerly dismisses me I can still enter the palace whenever I wish with the escorts of my choosing. These two are my escorts and I would like to enter the palace to speak to your King.” The guards, after a brief surveying of Peter, retracted their weapons and opened the doors for him and his ‘escorts’ to proceed. Cassandra did not agree with Peter calling her an escort but it allowed them entry into the palace so she felt unable to dispute it too much.
They were escorted through the palace by some more guards and Cassandra was noticing more and more tiny ornate ornaments scattered around; a vase here or a music box there. The heavy guard presence was making Cassandra uncomfortable. She had been escorted around before but rarely in Araston did she ever have to have so many guards present. Her father had insisted that a heavy guard presence did not reassure the population and that they should make alliances and friends rather than increase their military.
“Your Majesty, The Duke of Bantham is here to see you with his escorts.”
“Do show them in.” Cassandra almost lost her temper as soon as she heard the voice.
As they entered the drawing room Cassandra’s suspicions were confirmed. Sat at the table was her cousin Thomas of Adley and his wife Alice of Pefferidge, however they now went by the title of King and Queen of Araston
Spencer glanced over and could see Cassandra’s temper flaring from the way she wrung her hands so tightly she could crush marble between them. Thomas and Alice sat on one side of the drawing room table and instructed the guard to seat the guests opposite them.
It had been many years since they last saw each other but it was clear to see the relation between Cassandra and Thomas. They both had the same auburn hair and the same piercing emerald eyes. “Am I right to presume that this meeting was not arranged on behalf of yourself, Peter?” Thomas sipped from a tankard in front of him. “I am sorry, can I get you anything to drink?” All three denied a drink but Thomas sent a servant away to fetch them all some wine anyway. “Did you enjoy your wedding, cousin?” His lips thinned and formed a twisted smile as he spoke the words.
“I did not marry King Marcus. Upon news of my father’s death I set sail immediately.” The servant returned with their drinks and set them down in front of them. They were to drink from goblets, in fact the only person not drinking from one was Thomas who insisted on having his drinks in a tankard.
“You must have received word rather late then, it seems he has been dead for a month now.” Cassandra picked up the goblet and could smell the fruit and spices mixed around. She had never been fond of wine, preferring instead the taste of beer, but it was unladylike to drink beer in the presences of others and so she often found herself forcing wine down at meals. She decided to drink the wine, to show some hospitality to her cousin. It pained her to do it and remembered then that Thomas would be one of the few people who knew of her disdain for the beverage.
“And it seems you wasted no time in claiming the crown.” Cassandra could have sworn she saw a glint in Thomas’ eye as the words entered his ears. “But I am afraid my father wished for me to take over his legacy.”
“Is that so? Do you wish me to just hand over my crown and leave the city immediately?” It was exactly what she had expected but knew it would not go down like that. “While you were away playing wife to King Marcus, I was here tending to a broken city mourning for its King. I gave them a new King and a new face to adore.” A servant entered the room and placed some papers down on the table in front of Thomas. It seemed they had interrupted him during his ‘busy’ time where he appeared to do nothing but drink wine and scribble on random pieces of paper that came his way. He always made sure, when signing, that he would benefit from whatever was proposed. Whenever something came his way that he did not agree with his brow would furrow and he would hand it back to the servant with disgust, never giving a reason why he refused it.
“My father did not have to give you any territory but he knew you were family and gave you the province of Adley. He did not have to do such a thing. How do you repay his kindness? Like a vulture you arrive mere moments after his death and help yourself to everything he owned. You, dear cousin, are a lousy excuse for a man.”
“And you are not even a man at all. As a male it is only right that I inherit this throne. How do you think your people would react to an unmarried woman running their country? They would think it disgraceful for that is exactly what it is. A woman is fit for birthing a child. A woman’s body is not prepared to run a country, a woman’s mind could not possibly cope with the complications that come from such a task. You feel you are capable of birthing a child and ruling a country, you must consider yourself superior to all men, is that what you are suggesting?”
“I feel myself as the rightful heir to the throne and I would have expected you to honour such a tradition. My father was a good and honest man-”
Thomas slammed his tankard down onto the table and the contents sloshed up the sides and threatened to spill over. “Your father was a fool! He pandered to peasants and was the laughing stock of the entire world. A man too afraid to go to war, he had the courage and fortitude of a woman.” Cassandra followed suit, slamming her goblet down onto the table and managing to spill some of the contents.
“How dare you tarnish my father’s name! He was a better man than you will ever be. He gave you the land you governed over, without which you would never have had an army to claim the crown in the first place.”
“Cassandra,” With the cousins both on their feet, glaring at each other over the table, someone had to step in; no one ever thought it would be Alice. “A woman is not suited to running a country without a man beside her. Should you marry and then return for the crown then this discussion may end differently, but for now your plea for the throne will forever fall on deaf ears.”
Cassandra could not believe what she was hearing. She had always known Alice to be of a weaker will than herself, there were not many women who were stronger, but she did not ever consider that she would betray her like that. She should have expected it though, Alice was Thomas’ wife and so she had to be, by law, subservient to him.
“I shall propose an offer for you. If you return to Dolor and marry King Marcus then we shall negotiate this situation with the crown further.” Thomas had calmed down and a servant presented a paper to Cassandra. The entire proposition was drawn up as a legally binding contract explaining that she would have to marry King Marcus before having a viable claim to the throne. “If you do not sign it then you shall be exiled from Pentheus, never to return.”
It was a difficult decision, one she had not expected to be presented with. On one hand she could marry King Marcus and use him as a husband to gain her country back, but she did not want to marry him and wondered if exile was a better option than a lifetime of marriage with him. The only reason she had been prepared to go through with it previously was because her father, a man she trusted and respected, insisted on it for the good of the country. She knew Thomas better than most and knew there was very little chance he would abide by his promise. As King he could make the contract disappear as soon as she left the city, meaning she would then be married and still without claim. Rather than consider it any longer she simply ripped the papers into small pieces and threw them onto the floor.
“A man holds no legal claim over this throne. This throne was promised to a woman, to the King’s daughter, and as Princess Cassandra I am the rightful heir.”
“Escort her from my city.” The guards grabbed Cassandra and dragged her to one side. She only made it to the doorway before the guards stopped upon hearing Peter’s voice.
“What about us, your Majesty?”
“I have heard many good words about you, Duke of Bantham, so you may keep your title and place in this court if you so wish.” Thomas looked over at Spencer who had not spoken a word since arriving. He quietly sipped his wine until he realised he was being watched, at which point he placed the wine on the table and began to worry. “Who are you?” Thomas smiled and rested his feet up on the table.
“Spencer, your Majesty. I am Cassandra’s Page-boy.”
“Well, since you belong to Cassandra, let us have her decide what happens to you.” He got up on his feet and walked across the room to where the guards held Cassandra tightly by the arms. She struggled but still could not manage to free herself from the grasps of the two larger and well protected men. “What shall we do with your Page? He is free to stay here, with me, and serve as one of my many Page-boy’s, or you can take him into exile with you. Which shall it be, Cassandra?”
It was another impossible choice. Leaving him meant she would be exiled alone with just a handful of maids or servants to keep her company, but letting him go with her meant she was sentencing him to a life of exile. She could live with herself in exile, but if she made sure Spencer was exiled too she wondered if she could ever live with that.
“He stays and serves you.” Spencer looked like he wanted to protest the decision but it would do him no good. If he protested it then he would be speaking out of line, questioning the King’s decision to have Cassandra decide, and could be thrown into prison or executed. He did not wish to step out of line before his services even began.
Cassandra could not have felt more guilty. Was a life of exile worse than a life serving Thomas? She could see under the blond curls that Spencer did not agree with the decision, but she had already decided.
“Wonderful. Guards, take him to the other Page’s.” The guards escorted Spencer out of the drawing room, although his escort simply led him to the room rather than the rough treatment Cassandra was experiencing.
As the guards dragged her through the streets she couldn’t help but wonder how the situation had come to this. She had only wanted to see her father again and now she was being exiled from her own city. The city had served as her home for many years and now she was being dragged through the streets and physically thrown out. She lay on the cold hard ground, as she watched the drawbridge retract, and wondered how she had gone from having her life planned out for her to having no future prospects.
The first thing Mason Lindholme noticed upon waking was that his breath hung in the air a little longer than usual. The thin scratchy blanket covering his torso did nothing to stifle the bitter chill that came in through the cracks in the walls and he knew he wouldn’t be able to feign sleep for much longer.
Knowing that if he stayed still any longer the chill may overpower him, Mason pulled himself up to a sitting position and shivered. His body was trying to warn him that it was too cold but his body should have grown accustomed to the cold chill that the winter brought for it wasn’t an unnatural occurrence. Moving quickly, and trying to avoid being undressed for any lengthy period, Mason pulled on his shirt and trousers and raised himself from his bed. It was a familiar creak when he stood, the one that he had never figured out whether it came from the floorboards or the bed, both of which were a fair assumption. Mason picked up his boots from the end of his bed and plodded through to the kitchen.
Mason sat himself down in the old rickety kitchen chair. They only had one for that was all Miss Johnson, a few doors down, was able to spare after she lost her husband. They didn’t need more than one chair though for Mason and his family rarely ate together. This wasn’t for lack of trying, more that when Mason had finished work and studying then both his mother and brother were in bed. He had barely seen them all week because his days were spent tending to the farm in the morning and then he would have to dash off to the exam in the afternoon. It had just been for this week though, today was the last day it would happen because it was the day of the ceremony.
Out of the corner of his eye Mason could see his mother in her bed. She wasn’t asleep but, Mason thought, neither was she fully awake either. She had caught a fever a few months back and, at first, thought nothing of it. As the months passed Mason could see her deteriorating. No longer could she spend the hours on the farm like she used to do. No longer could she haul the huge bales of hay over her shoulder like he remembered from his childhood. No, now all she was able to do was sit in bed and watch the day pass by out of her window.
Thomas was curled up where he always was, in a small little arm chair next to his mother’s bed. Beside him, on the table, was a glass of water and some small tablets. Thomas, upon knowing his mother was sick, took it upon himself to tend to her. He was only young, being only twelve years of age, but knew when he was needed. He couldn’t help Mason out on the farm because, at six years his junior, he wasn’t prepared for the difficulty that came with the job. Mason also wanted to keep Thomas as young as possible, to keep him enjoying his youth, because he knew that in six years time Thomas would be sitting the same exams Mason was struggling through.
Mason didn’t have time to get sentimental, to worry about his brother and his mother and how they coped during the day when he wasn’t there. He always tried to do his bit to help out but always felt ashamed when he was sitting his exam and praying for a better life while all his mother could do was watch the sun travel slowly through the sky and then set again. Every day. But this wasn’t a knew feeling, it was a feeling he had managed to push down because he had to.
He laced up his boots and opened the front door, quickly slipping outside and shutting it behind him to not let the cold air in. It was a fruitless attempt because the wooden walls of their hut were so thin and dotted with holes that, should any cold want to get in, it could easily find a way. Outside of the house was cold, but that was due in part to the sun still being reluctant about poking its head over the horizon. The only light was a small twinkling in the far distance from Liberty. The people in Liberty had electricity and their lights were on throughout the day. There was no reason for the people to turn their lights off. For Mason, and the others in Ashdale, electricity wasn’t necessary and so they had it when the Mayor of Liberty allowed them to have it. This was a rare occurrence and, in Mason’s eighteen years, he had only seen the use of electricity a handful of times.
As Mason crossed over to the farm opposite his house he could see the market setting up in the distance. This was a small comfort to Mason, knowing that he wasn’t the only person having to wake himself up before the sun to get his day started. But, as he got to the edge of the family farm, he knew he wouldn’t get to visit the market today. The old fence gate, that had been just hanging on one hinge, was now completely torn off and strewn in the middle of what was once a wheat field. Mason didn’t know whether it was animal or human that had done it but whatever had torn the fence off hadn’t stopped there. The tracks in the soil were definitely animal, the claw marks and paw prints trampled over the wheat were definitely foxes tracks. Whilst the wheat hadn’t been eaten by the foxes, it was little comfort as they were still inedible due to the foxes trampling them down. The compressed wheat was speckled with little drops of red. The red on the wheat became stronger and more prominent the closer Mason got to where the animals were kept. It was unmistakable now what the red was. The side of the chicken coop had been torn off and chickens lay dead or dying around the wheat field. It wasn’t a surprise for Mason to find half of a chicken still in the coop while the other half was a mile away in a bed of wheat. Mason cursed himself, he knew he should have fixed the gate the day before. He had promised himself he would do it but time caught up with him and he found himself having to dash across the village for his exam before he could even consider fixing the gate.
It didn’t take Mason long to realise there was nothing he could do to make up for this mistake. He wouldn’t be able to sell the wheat or the eggs at the market and he would have to replant the entire farm again and try to barter in town for replacement chickens. He knew he could maybe get a chicken or two from sweet talking some of the other farmers. He didn’t enjoy doing this because everyone in the village was in the same position, but everyone in the village also understood the importance of working together. Occasionally Mason had to gift a chicken or a calf to another local farmer because their had been taken as part of The Collection or they had lost it to animals like Mason had.
Mason spent most of the morning, before the sun rose, cleaning chicken carcasses off of the wheat-field and trying to fix the fence gate with the basic tools he could find. He ended up throwing most of the wheat away and salvaging handfuls here and there. No one was going to buy contaminated wheat, no matter how desperate they were for food.
“Mason!” The voice was one that Mason could never forget. Thomas. He was glad, at this point, that the blood and chicken bodies had been disposed of first so Thomas wouldn’t have to see the horror that had greeted Mason that morning.
For the first time that morning Mason smiled. Seeing little Thomas run across the field, his bony little legs barely able to keep him up, made something inside Mason smile. Thomas looked helpless much of the time so, to see him running and jumping through the field brought a grin to Mason’s face.
“What’s up?” Thomas reached Mason and stood in front of him, his eyes level with Masons chest. He looked up at his older brother, tears staining the blue eyes that ran through their family. “What’s wrong?” Mason knelt down on one knee, taking himself to just below his brothers height to make Thomas feel like he wasn’t a child and this was a conversation between equals.
“The Colls.” He was out of breath and his hands flailed wildly to the east where some of the other farmers lived. “The Colls.” It was like Thomas didn’t know any other words or, if he did, none of them were as important as the ones he was saying.
“Yes, it’s that time of the month.”
“No…yeah…but…” His words trailed off and so, instead of trying to find them again, he grabbed Mason’s hand and lead him across the field to the edge of their farm.
The was the bit of farm that overlapped, so technically belonged to both Mason’s family and their neighbours. This occurred because they had no way of regulating who owned what land and so, when the farms had first been established many years ago, the length of farms had just been in numbers. It wasn’t until Mason started working the farm that he realised the length of the farms didn’t fit into the total space allowing for them, so some of them overlapped into other farms. Their particular farm overlapped with The Bundy family farm.
“The Colls.” Thomas repeated, pointing at The Bundy’s house.
It was a small house, more of a shack or a hut like Mason’s, but inside he could make out at least half a dozen people. He knew that Mr and Mrs Bundy lived there with their two sons, so the other two people must have been The Colls that Thomas was talking about. They watched as The Colls emerged through the back door and into the farm. Their farm, like Mason’s, had been subject to a fox attack recently and so they had only just managed to get it back up and running a few days previous. It wasn’t nearly enough time for the crops to grow to feed the animals. The wheat was barely as high as Mason’s ankle and so The Colls were not going to get what they were expecting. Standing at the edge of the field now was the entire Bundy family with two large portly men wearing slick grey uniforms. This was Coll uniform. Mason could see Mr Bundy talking to one of the larger men while his wife and sons stood back. The Bundy children were between Mason and Thomas’ ages and so did what they could to help out on the farm. But three pairs of hands were still futile when nature interferes.
“What’s going on?” Thomas tugged on Mason’s sleeve but Mason didn’t really want to answer him. He knew he could explain it to Thomas, he would definitely understand, but he didn’t want to him to have to understand it. A twelve year old, in Mason’s mind, should not have to deal with the problems of not being able to provide for a family.
“Nothing. They’re just talking about the farm and how much they owe them.” Mason tiptoed around the question and made sure he didn’t lie to Thomas. He couldn’t lie to Thomas.
The situation escalated without any warning when one of The Colls pulled out a baton from his side and struck Mr Bundy across the back of the head with it. Mr Bundy fell the floor immediately and blood slowly trickled from his head onto the farm. It reminded Mason of the scene that morning, his farm strewn with chicken blood. Thomas’ eyes were wide and Mason grabbed his hand, leading him back to their house. Mason turned back once only to see one of the Bundy children break free from his Mother’s grasp and run towards his father. The Colls, not understanding the boy wasn’t looking to fight, struck him across the cheek with the solid metal baton. The boy doubled over in pain, clutching his face, falling beside his father who hadn’t moved.
Mason took Thomas inside and told him to stay there. Their mother was still in bed and so he told Thomas to stay with her and make sure nothing happens to either of them. Thomas, whilst reluctant to let go of his brother, did so and sat at his mother’s bedside.
Mason ran around to the back of his house, picked up a few bags, and vaulted the fence leading to the other side’s farm. Their house was surrounded by The Bundy family on one side and The Miller family on the other. He got to The Miller’s back door and bashed on it with an open palm. No one came and so Mason bashed again, his hand stinging but his strikes being frantic and panicked. This was the side he didn’t want Thomas seeing. He always wanted Thomas to think of him as the older brother, the person who could hold himself together no matter what happened. He kept this thought in his head as he bashed away at the back door of The Miller’s house. Eventually Mrs Miller appeared in the doorway.
“The Colls.” He handed over two large bags to Mrs Miller who invited him inside. “I can’t stay long. Do we have the usual arrangement?” Mrs Miller nodded, placing both of the bags by the back door, and handing Mason a key. “I’ll be back when The Colls move on.” He hugged Mrs Miller and disappeared out of the back door, tucking the key into his pocket and vaulting back over to his side of the fence. He swept in the back door just as The Colls came in through the front.
“I tried telling them…” Mason’s blue eyes met his brother’s and it was the look Thomas had come to realise meant for him to let Mason handle it.
“Yes. He said you don’t have anything for us.” Mason could see the baton hanging from The Coll’s hip, still red with Mr Bundy’s blood. It made Mason’s stomach turn just looking at it. Chicken blood wasn’t a problem, human blood was real. Mason laughed which took both Colls by surprise.
“He doesn’t work the farm, sorry.” He took command and, with an air of confidence, took both Colls over to the farm. He handed them a large sack containing what he could rescue from the farm. “This is half of the produce from our farm this month.” The Colls looked down at the bag. It was over half full but they didn’t seem pleased.
“This is all you have made from your farm?” Mason shrugged.
“What can I say?” One of The Colls reached for his baton again and Mason was glad his brother had stayed with their mother. If this was going to get ugly then he didn’t want Thomas seeing it. “See for yourself.” Mason gestured his hand across the farm, as if he was selling it to prospective buyers. “Nothing left here.” He opened the gate and they walked through, kneeling down occasionally and running the dirt through their fingers.
“Freshly harvested, he ‘aint even replanted yet.” Mason kept his smile inside and instead just shook his head like he had made some huge mistake in not replanting the crops. “Any animals? I saw you got a chicken coop, why ‘aint we got no eggs?” Mason lead them over to the chicken coop. During the morning’s run Mason had managed to hang the edge of the coop back on so it looked like it was still in tact.
“Look for yourself, no chickens. They all died a while ago and we haven’t been able to get any replacements. Didn’t you wonder why you didn’t get any eggs last time?”
“I did think it strange.” One of The Colls knelt down beside the coop and looked inside. Mason found this amusing because, if there had been chickens inside, you would have at least heard them without needing to bend down. “So this is it?” The Coll lofted the bag over onto his shoulder and took it back out to his cart. “You better try harder next time.” It was a threat but an empty one. As every farmer knew, you were only as successful as nature allowed you to be. The Colls couldn’t do anything as long as you gave them what looked like half.
“Is that all for now? Are you sure you don’t want a drink or something?” The Colls didn’t take too kindly to being mocked and just ignored the offer, moving on to the next house. As Mason got to the front door of his house he saw Mrs Miller open the door of hers.
Mason swept through his house, not even stopping to talk to Thomas, and out the back again. He vaulted over the fence and fished the key out of his pocket. He slid it into the lock and cringed when he turned it and it made a loud click. He hoped no one had heard it. Mason gently pushed the door open and could see, around the edge of the door, The Colls still talking to Mrs Miller at the front of the house. He crept inside and snatched the two bags off of the floor, the ones he had delivered earlier, and then took them back outside and slipped them through the back door of his house.
The Colls didn’t stay long as The Miller’s house. They were good people who always gave over half of what they earned so there was no need to interrogate them. They had searched the house though and noticed nothing worth noting. Mason watched the whole thing from his back door. When they had gone he picked up one of the sacks from earlier and took it across to The Miller’s. He unlocked the back door and Mrs Miller was still shaken up slightly. It was a nerve racking experience having to deal with The Colls and it came with practice.
“Did they hurt you?” Mason knew Mr Miller was probably down at the market selling whatever The Colls weren’t going to take.
“No, dear.” Mason set the sack down on the kitchen table and handed the key back over to Mrs Miller. She exited momentarily into the bedroom and pulled a sack from underneath the bed. She handed it to Mason who hauled it up onto his shoulder. “I’ll see you again in a month?”
“I’ll be back in a month.” As Mason got to the door he remembered the exams he had been sitting all week. The business with The Colls had his head shaken and the ceremony was this afternoon. He turned back to Mrs Miller, who had already opened the sack and was putting various boxes and cartons into cupboards. “Oh, you don’t happen to have any chickens spare, do you?” Mrs Miller crossed the kitchen and looked out of the back window.
“We have a few that are maturing soon. Will they do?”
“Perfect.” He quickly hugged Mrs Miller before crossing back over to the door. “Tell Mr Miller I said hi.” He swung the door shut, vaulted back over the fence and walked back into his house. It was a difficult job, dealing with The Colls, but it was a rewarding one when it meant they kept half and then exchanged their third quarter with The Miller’s who gave them a quarter of their product.
“Thomas,” Mason entered his mother’s bedroom, the one she shared with Thomas, and found them in the same places as always. “I’ve got to go to The Ceremony now, are you going to be okay? I’ll be back this afternoon and hopefully we can go back to normal then. We can eat dinner like a family.” Thomas smiled as Mason hugged him. He ruffled Thomas’ hair and then kissed his mother on the cheek. She was much less responsive but Mason knew, had she been able to, she would have wished him luck.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to your graduation ceremony.” Mason was in a long line of people his age, all awaiting the same fate. The graduation ceremony was held annually, after a week of exams. The exams ran from Monday through to Thursday and took up the majority of each afternoon. They could run from midday through till midnight if candidates were being unresponsive or unruly. The graduation ceremony was the reprise final hurdle during exam week. For the students though, the eighteen year-olds filing into the town square, this wasn’t anything they could avoid. Graduation was a result, a culmination, of how well each student did during their exams. Here is where they would be assigned their future. This is the future that Mason hoped would change everything. This would be future that would get him off of the farm and change his life around for not just himself but for his family as well. If he got assigned a good job then he could get his mother the medication she needed and his brother would have a good education to lead the family on to a better life in six years time. But this was what everyone strived for during exam week. Every eighteen year old would work their tail off for a chance to work in Liberty and not be stuck as a farmhand, factory worker or miner.
“Name?” Mason was stopped at a large wooden table full of papers and various stickers with numbers written on them. Behind the desk sat two women who looked less than pleased to be there.
“Mason. Mason Lindholme.” One of them women ran down the checklist of names she had in her hand and ticked next to the name. She handed Mason a sticker with the number 147 written on it.
“Please display this sticker at all times. This sticker is how you will be identified during your graduation ceremony. Please make sure your sticker is visible and not obscured by any item of clothing or hair.” This might have been a problem in Liberty, but in Ashdale any sort of frivolous clothing wasn’t worn. If it wasn’t necessary then it wasn’t worn. Mason looked around and could see that, even in the cold winter chill, some people weren’t even wearing coats. He was lucky to have his father’s coat which was a bit too small for him but kept him reasonably warm nonetheless.
Mason followed the line through and it opened up into a large area with a podium at the far side, a projector set up in the middle and hundreds of empty seats scattered around. There were already people on stage, none of which Mason recognised and probably wouldn’t have been expected to either. He followed the line until people started breaking off to find their seats. Each seat was a shiny metal contraption that made an awful screeching noise when dragged across the stone floor. After searching, for what felt like an eternity, Mason finally found seat number one hundred and forty seven. He sat down and noticed immediately behind him the whole place had begun filling up.
No one looked enthusiastic to be there. Though this didn’t come as a surprise to Mason. He never understood, to begin with, why they held these events in the winter. Logic told him it was because winter came at the end of the year and so you had everyone who had turned eighteen that year. But this would have proved a hundred times nicer for those living in Liberty. They wouldn’t be shuffled into an open air town square. Mason couldn’t even imagine the kind of luxury that Liberty students experienced.
The cold metal sent a shiver through Mason and it reminded him of being in bed and waking up that morning. At the beginning of the week he thought exam week was going to kill him, like he was never going to make it through the entire week. He felt a certain sense of accomplishment at just making it to Friday, whatever the outcome of his future was going to be.
“Ladies and gentlemen, can we please take our seats?” A woman stood up front in a clean, slate grey suit. The woman didn’t seem to feel the cold and stood firmly, and without shaking once, at the front of the podium. She tapped the microphone and the sound reverberated through the make-shift sound system they had set up for. Mason realised then that they hadn’t been setting up for market that morning, they had been rigging this whole contraption up. This probably took hours of work, and Mason couldn’t even imagine how long it would take if they actually cared about the comfort of these students. “My name is Miss Knight and I shall be hosting your graduation ceremony today.” Miss Knight had no emotion in her voice and there were cold, dead eyes behind her glasses. Mason wondered for a moment if her eyes were colder than the temperature of the air, is that why she didn’t feel the chill?
A man, dressed in dark black khaki trousers and a tight fitting thermal black top, walked to the front of the stage and handed her a clipboard. Miss Knight adjusted her glasses and stared at the names for a moment, as if she were judging everyone on the list based solely on their names.
“Today is the end of a long fought journey. You have been working your entire lives to get to this point in time. A congratulations should be in order just for making it this far.” She lingered too long on the word ‘should’ for the comment come across as sincere. To her, whatever status they attain through this graduation, it will never be good enough. “You have been tested all week. You have had your intelligence pushed to the limits and then pushed even further.” This speech, had it been given in any other context, would have received a round of applause every time she paused. However, facing a few hundred students waiting eagerly to find out their fate, when she paused she was just met with silence. These students had already lived tough lives and for everyone this was their chance to make a better life for themselves and everyone they know. “These tests have been used for years to help assign people their roles in life and put them into jobs which they are qualified and competent enough to do. Today shall be no different. Today, ladies and gentlemen, you shall find out where your future will take you.” No one could debate her merits as a public speaker, she was calm and collected, but Miss Knight was not charismatic. She was not here to win friends or to get people to take her side, she was here to tell people where they belonged in life.
“Shall we begin?” It was less of a question and more of a command. The way her hair was tight up tightly, so much so that it didn’t wave or flicker like normal hair should, suggested to Mason that this woman never asked questions to people. She was the sort of woman who, if you disagreed with her, you were immediately wrong. Miss Knight was never wrong. “So, who is first?” She looked back down at the clipboard and then at the front row.
“Number One. Miss Rebecca Anderson.” The way Miss Knight hissed the s at the end of words made Mason nervous about going up and collecting his certificate. A little girl with big eyes stood up and walked to the end of the stage and climbed the steps. She walked across to Miss Knight, her knees trembling with nerves. There was a moment of silence as she stood, face to face with Miss Knight. Mason expected Miss Knight to be outraged that someone from Ashdale dares to stand looking at her, but this was her job. “Nurse.” The word came out clear and crisp as Miss Knight handed Rebecca Anderson her certificate. No doubt, inside that rolled up piece of paper, it simply said Rebecca Anderson: Nurse. It was no more than she was told but the paper confirmed your future.
Unsurprisingly Rebecca was quite happy about being a nurse and it gave everyone in the audience the hope they had been looking for. Nurse was, in Ashdale, one of the best ranks to achieve. It meant her family would live comfortably but in Ashdale. Nurse was one of those titles that meant you were good, but you weren’t good enough to get out of Ashdale. As such she faced a much harder work load than anyone who was given Doctor. Doctor meant you lived in Liberty and would treat the sick and wounded there. Medicine was much better in Liberty so it meant Doctor’s had to do less work. Nurses confined to Ashdale would be rushed off their feet trying to treat illnesses that could have only been the source of nightmares in Liberty.
“Number Two. Mr William Logan.” The boy, sat next to Rebecca, stood up and made his way up the stage and across to Miss Knight. “Factory Worker.” This, for William, would have been like a punch to the gut after following a nurse. A factory worker was almost bottom rung of Ashdale. Factory worker was boring, repetitive and required very little intelligence to do the job, as such he had only just borderline passed the exams.
“Number Three. Mr Maxwell Smith.” Maxwell Smith, sat next to William, got up and walked onto the stage. This would be the graduation ceremony. It wasn’t classy and it wasn’t bells and whistles, not for Ashdale anyway. Miss Knight would simply read the names and numbers of all of the people followed by their job title. “Underclassman.” A loud gasp rang out over the students sat. Maxwell, who was stood on stage, froze in place. Miss Knight tried to hand him his certificate but he seemed adamant not to take it.
“There’s got to be a mistake.” Miss Knight glared at Maxwell like he had just insulted her honour.
“Boy.” She made note to speak into the microphone so that everyone would be able to hear her. “We don’t make mistakes. If you failed your exam then you were an underclassman and there were no arguments about that.” Maxwell took the certificate and slumped off stage back to his seat. There was nowhere further down he could go. Underclassman were the lowest grade you could get and meant that you had failed your exam. As an underclassman you wouldn’t be fit to work any sort of unsupervised jobs and so you serve others, you become a servant to those in Liberty. On one hand you move out, on the other hand you fall lower than before.
“One hundred and forty-seven. Mason Lindholme.” After one hundred and forty-six names and numbers, Mason was finally called to the stage. As of yet no one had acquired a job that would allow them to live comfortably in Liberty and take their family with them. He ran his hand through his brown hair, making sure to look presentable as he climbed the steps. He kept his head down and walked forward, only raising it when Miss Knight handed him his certificate. Mason took it with a smile but it seemed Miss Knight had learned from her mistakes. As the paper passed between their hands she leaned into the microphone. “Underclassman.” The word rang like a shot through his skull. His blue eyes widened and he could feel the stares of hundreds of students as he stood on stage holding the certificate.
Mason composed himself, brushed down his clothes and walked off stage with his head held high. He got back to his seat just as number one hundred and forty-eight was walking up on stage. Whispers were being passed around, no doubt about Mason. It wasn’t until Mason sat down again, and felt the cold shiver of the chair, that he thought about Thomas and his mother at home.