By Kylie Goetz
The thing that really bothered her was the alarms.
They went off every few hours; to call the next group into class or the mess or the march. She didn’t actually mind the marches. It was the only time each day they got to wear what she considered real clothes. Even though they were baggy and faded. It was still a welcome respite from the beige jumpsuit of the other 22 or so hours. And it was a chance to be outside, to see the sky. To see other people. The people who lined the streets to cheer or boo as she and her fellow classmates went by in their “spontaneous outpouring of affection and support for the Leader.”
During the meticulously planned spontaneous outpouring only last Tuesday, she thought she’d seen him in the crowd and her heart leapt. What was his name again? She couldn’t remember. But she remembered his face. Her fingers traced it on her threadbare pillow every night before she drifted into the uneasy sleep of one who knows the alarm is about to ring.
When she saw that face, his face, his real face amongst all those strangers, she wanted to shout, to scream and throw up her arms, “Here I am! Here! Come get me,” but she did not. She had seen what happened to those out of formation. They were pulled out of line and loaded into an ambulance. And when they got back to camp they were stripped in front of their whole class before being sent to the Principal. Nobody knew what happened after that, but those people never came back.
So she did not shout to the familiar face. Once she would not have needed to shout, he would have easily seen her. He could always find her, even in the largest crowd. One sunny summer day, during the protests, he’d somehow found her in a crowd of thousands, her blazing red hair had been waving like a flag. She wished she could remember his name…
Now her red hair waved no more. She was blonde. All the women were. The camp required it. It did not suit her freckled pale face. She looked washed out. A watercolor of her former self. He had not seen her, a blonde in the sea of blondes, marching for the glory of Our Leader. Or perhaps he had, and looked away, horrified by what she had become. A Betty. She was Betty 7 now.
Betty 7 stopped tracing the pillow and buried her face in it to dry the tears leaking sideways and awkwardly waterfalling off the slope of her nose. Then she looked up and across to the next cot. Betty 23 was sleeping there. Or pretending to. Had she really been sleeping she would have been muttering. Betty 23 muttered in her sleep. One night she had whispered to Betty 7 that it was her sleep-talking that had landed her here. They weren’t allowed to talk about their lives before the camp, but Betty 7 had guessed that Betty 23 must have been turned in by someone she trusted for something she uttered. Her look was perpetually of one who’d been betrayed. Betty 7 wasn’t sure how she, herself, looked when she first arrived. Hunted, maybe? Defiant, she hoped.
She couldn’t remember.
Bettys 23 and 7 weren’t on the same shower block or Betty 7 would have asked her. Showers were the only time you could risk a question. The block wardens were always busy and the sound of the water ration hitting the tiles filled the air and likely confused the microphones. At least, so they all thought.
Betty 7 knew she’d had a different name. But that was before. When she’d had him. What was it he used to whisper? Phoenix?
Was that her name or just a nickname? His phoenix, he’d said. Always burning with the fire of the right and righteous, she burned so bright her hair was flames, he’d say…They’d lie in bed after an action and they’d talk about how it was, how they could be better. They talked about the forbidden books. One of their friends, the one with the limp…oh, what was her name? She’d told them about an abandoned building she’d wandered into during the Freeze. Glenwood Library it was called. There were so many unapproved books, she’d said. Betty 7/Phoenix had only ever read four unapproved books. She was so jealous. He got her a book. That’s how they’d met. Back in the before. That’s right. They fell in love over a book.
If she had listened to him, she would not be here. He’d told her to keep quiet and be subversive. Covert not overt, covert not overt. He’d repeat it over and over again. But she couldn’t or wouldn’t. And when he told her to run, to leave him, she couldn’t…She wouldn’t.
Lacking the wisdom to learn from him, she now was being re-educated by those of stricter instruction.
The alarms went off, but it wasn’t the Bettys’ alarm. She thought it might be the Veronicas’ alarm. When the Veronica’s alarm went off, that usually meant that she had enough time for a nap. It was a long wah-wah-wah followed by three beeps. The Bettys’ alarm was more staccato. A beep-beep-beep-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-beeeeeeeeeep.
She closed her eyes,, her fingertips dancing a mimetic ballet on a pillowcase stage, as Phoenix tried to remember and Betty 7 wished she’d forget.
When Kylie was five, she wanted to be either a nun or a lounge singer. Luckily (for the church and lounge patrons everywhere) she discovered a love for storytelling around the same age. This eventually translated into a B.A in theatre from Florida State University and a MA in creative writing from Macquarie University. You can buy her book here and follow her Word of the Day Poetry Project