SAMPLE CHAPTERS OF VEVIN SONG
Neither the rain lashing against the trees nor the wind howling through the forest could drown out the baby's cries. If the crying was coming from behind him, Jason would have assumed the baby was with a family on the way to their destination like everyone else. But the crying came from the side, beyond thickets of bushes, towards the bottom of a cliff—which drew him to a halt.
Rowan stopped next to him, holding onto his sides as he struggled for a moment's breath. Grace stopped behind, pale skin gleaming with sweat, and placed a hand on Rowan's back as he panted. Her other hand was clutching onto the hand of their boy, Conrad—his long hair was matted to his face from the rain.
'We...need to...keep going,' Rowan uttered between shallow breaths, gesturing at people jogging past them, their hands full of as many bags and suitcases as they could carry. The drumming of the rain against the trees deadened his voice. He clasped Grace's hand as he stood up. 'It's okay. We're not fair away.' He looked back up at Jason. 'What are you do—?'
Jason held up his hand for silence, looking past Rowan's red face. 'Can't you hear that?'
'Lightbirds?' Rowan gasped, energy recharged in an instant. He spun around in a panic, scanning the tops of the trees surrounding them.
Jason shook his head. 'It's still raining, pillock.'
'Dad's a pillock!' Conrad chuckled.
'Conrad!' Grace tugged on the boy's arm.
Grace's pinched expression stood out, her eyes narrowing at her son, but the corners of Jason's lips fought a smirk. He exchanged glances with Conrad, and the boy's mouth spread into a wide gap-toothed smile—that infectious smile he would produce when he did something troublesome. It had been a while since Jason saw that smile, what with the world falling apart.
Jason coughed, stifling a laugh. He pointed behind Rowan towards the direction of where he thought he could hear the crying coming from, resuming a straight face. Taking a few steps forward, he noticed that the noise was coming from the mouth of a cave, which was tunnelled underneath the face of the cliff that towered over them.
He turned to the others. 'A baby. In there.'
'It's probably hiding with its family,' Rowan said quickly. 'They'll be alright. Come on, let's go—'
'They'll miss the vessels and the Lightbirds will get them. They might be in trouble. I'll see what's going on.'
'You'll miss the vessels yourself,' Grace said, keeping a hold of Conrad. She brushed the curly locks of her dark hair away from her eyes, but the onslaught of the rain quickly tossed the hair back on her face. 'They won't come back for you. Then what are you going to do?'
'She's right.' Rowan stepped forward. 'We need to go.'
'I'm not asking you to come with me. Go to the beach. I'll catch up.' Jason backed away from Rowan.
Jason could see the plea in Rowan's eyes. He could hear the desperation in his voice. But Rowan knew too well that when Jason had an idea, there would be no talking him out of it. Jason shook his head to emphasise his decision.
Rowan took a breath as he turned to Grace, but she held up a finger and cut him off before he could speak. 'No. Your idiotic brother can do as he pleases, but you're not as daft as him.'
'She's got a point, as sweet as that is,' Jason said. He winked at Grace, who scowled at him in return.
Rowan kept his eyes on Grace. 'You and Conrad go ahead. Get to the beach. We'll be there shortly.' The nervousness in his voice betrayed his stern expression.
Grace glanced at the cave, and then at the horizon in the distance where the beach and the vessels were. She put her free arm around Rowan and pressed her hand on the back of his soaking head, bringing their foreheads together. They were both speaking quietly to each other, saying whatever couples would say in a situation like this. Rowan probably told her he loved her. Grace probably told him he was idiotic.
Conrad screwed up his face at his parents' embrace, awkwardly trying to pry his hand out of Grace's.
Jason chuckled. 'You going to look after your mum, Conman?'
'As long as you promise to look after Dad.'
Rowan released himself from the embrace and crouched down to his son. 'You protect her, you hear?' He pulled Conrad into a hug, which the boy quickly escaped from.
Blue streaks in the sky were threatening to clear the dark clouds and the pouring rain. Jason headed towards the cave. 'The clouds won't hold for much longer.'
'Wait!' Conrad called out. Jason spun around to see the boy dropping his backpack on the muddy ground and rummaging through it. 'You and Dad will need help to save the baby.'
Rowan shook his head frantically. 'No time.'
'Hold on.' With a sense of calm about him, Conrad took out a packet of playing cards, then a rolled-up poster, then a box of firecrackers—at which Grace gave Rowan a horrified look—before producing a plastic torch and handing it to his father, closing his eyes momentarily and blowing out a heavy breath. 'I've just put some of my soul in this. So when you turn it on, I will be the light to show you where to go. You won't get lost that way.'
Rowan gave a tight smile at that as Conrad put the wet things back in his backpack—at which Grace gave Rowan another horrified look—zipped it shut and put it on his back. 'Come on, Mum. We'll freeze our arses off out here.'
Rowan chuckled weakly as he stood back up, patting the torch. 'This will be my lifesaver.'
Grace furrowed her brow. 'Be quick. If you hear the rain easing off, get out of there, even if you haven't found the baby.' She turned to Jason. Look after your brother. It's one thing that you're good at.'
Jason nodded. Grace took off through the forest with Conrad, their backpacks rattling against their bodies as they ran. The backpacks were as full as they could be, weighing the two of them down.
'Let's get this over with,' Rowan muttered.
Jason clapped Rowan on the back. He glimpsed the torch that Conrad gave to Rowan, and saw that the boy had written his name in capital letters with a permanent marker on its white plastic shell, in case it went missing. 'I didn't think your boy was the sentimental type.'
Rowan didn't have time to respond as Jason jogged towards the cave.
'Wrong way, lads!' a voice called out as several people passed behind them. They laughed as they ran past the brothers and headed towards the beach.
'Bloody idiots,' Jason muttered.
'Them or us?' Rowan stared after them. 'They're right. This is the wrong way.'
'You know you're their hero.' Jason felt his boots sink in the slushy mud that had built up around the entrance of the cave. 'Grace and Conrad. Especially Con.'
Rowan grunted, although Jason couldn't tell if this was an acknowledgement of what he said or because he was also struggling with the mud. Both of them tried to keep themselves light, lifting their boots as soon as they hit the mud to get to the cave quickly.
'So you could at least try to act like a hero,' Jason continued. 'This is the day when we all need to be strong.'
'Strong like you?'
Jason shook his head in frustration. There was never a right time to talk to Rowan about his attitude. Even though Rowan had ten years' experience of being a father, he still behaved like a child, not able to take responsibility for things. Despite Jason being three years younger than him, he always felt as if he was the older brother. It was never a wonder why Rowan was married to someone like Grace. Someone strong and wise, able to show him the right way to live.
Why she was married to him, though, was a mystery to Jason.
Not for the first time, Jason thought Conrad saw him as more of a father than Rowan was. Conrad was certainly more like him than Rowan. More confident. More proactive. More of a fighter.
Jason waded through the mud. 'You could at least stop shrivelling up like a chilly cock when things get tough and actually do something.'
'Look at the world!' Rowan raised his hands desperately, drenched in the rain. 'What's left of it, anyway. I'm trying to look after my family through this...this...madness we're going through, and you want to pay hero for someone you don't...' Rowan trailed off at the sight of his brother pressing his finger against his lips.
'Hear anything?' Jason muttered.
Rowan's eyes darted around. 'Besides the rain? I don't think so.'
'Exactly.' Jason took a deep breath, taking in the heavy smell of wet bark and moss hanging in the air, and stared into the endless black of the cave's mouth. 'Something might have happened to the baby.' He instinctively ran his thumb over the knuckles of his gloved hand, which made Rowan look down at his own glove.
Jason stepped towards the mouth. 'If you want to stand guard here with your thoughts, go for it.' He didn't look back as he spoke. 'Just remember, too much thinking is never a good thing.'
As Jason trudged into the cave, he heard the squelches of his brother's footsteps approaching behind him and exhaled a hollow sigh of relief.
They were only a few steps inside of the cave and it already felt like a different world. The muddy splashes of the brothers' footsteps and the wind whistling through the rocky cavern masked the sounds of rain and people from outside.
Despite being sheltered, it felt colder in here than out in the pouring rain. Jason shivered and then made a signal to Rowan to turn on Conrad's torch. All that could be seen were rocks—some of them jutting out of the ceiling like giant fangs—wet mud and the odd worm rummaging amongst the cracks.
Jason had his gloved fist raised as they slogged through the cave. The baby still hadn't made a sound. The thought of turning around and getting the hell out of there passed through his mind, but he knew he wouldn't be able to stop wondering if the baby was still here. Alone. In trouble.
But if a Lightbird was here as well, the baby would definitely be dead.
The light coming from Rowan's torch shuddered, as if he was sensing what Jason was thinking. Jason turned and could make out Rowan's frightened face, his body shaking. He put a hand on Rowan's shoulder and, with a downward motion of his other hand, signalled for him to slow down his breathing.
'Talk to me,' Rowan whispered.
Jason sighed. It wasn't the first time Rowan had said something like this to him. He always counted on Jason to pick him up and make things better.
Jason glanced at the darkness behind him before turning to his brother. 'You remember Nia?'
'Nia...Mason?' Rowan muttered. 'From school?'
'The same. Well, I've decided that, assuming she ends up in the same cocoon as us, I'm going to ask her to marry me.'
Rowan snorted. 'Obviously she'll end up in the same cocoon as us. How big do you think this island is? There are multiple vessels to take us down, but only one cocoon. Anyway, when was the last time you saw her?'
'Twenty years ago.'
Jason could make out the closest to a grin he had seen on Rowan's face for months.
'You went on...what...a couple of dates with her?'
'And you haven't seen her for twenty years and just expect that she'll take your hand in marriage?'
'Well, not just like that.' Jason beckoned with his head to continue walking through the cave. Rowan obliged, and Jason carried on talking quietly, his fist still raised in front of him. 'Perhaps there'll be some pleasant bars down there. Decent places to eat. Places where I can charm her.'
'I can't imagine it'll be that glamorous in the cocoon,' Rowan muttered floomily. 'And then what? You would actually propose?'
It was difficult for Rowan to comprehend. Before the Lightbird invasion happened, Jason was an events organiser, which involved him travelling to different countries regularly and not having much time for relationships. Not that he was keen on having a relationship; he had a reputation for charming women on a night out and disappearing before dawn broke the following day.
But whether it was because of the invasion or because he was spending more time with Rowan and his family as preparations were being made to evacuate the island over the past few months, Jason thought more and more about settling down. Rowan, somehow, was with an intelligent and beautiful woman like Grace. She was even the first one to make the move on Rowan, when they were both working at the same hospital—her as a physiotherapist and him as an administration. If that could happen, surely Jason—someone more self-assured and obviously more handsome than his older brother—could have a family of his own?
Of course, in the middle of a global emergency was probably not the best time to be doing so.
'Mum loved her.' Jason pored over memories. 'It took Dad a while to warm up to her—she had a fiery personality—but he ended up liking her too.'
'I remember, but if they were around to see what you're like now, they'd probably tell you to set your standards lower, considering your reputation with women.' He caught sight of Jason's frown. 'No offence, but put it this way: the last I heard, she was the headteacher at Parkhill Secondary. One of the best schools on the island, right She wouldn't go out with you. No doubt she's going to be super busy in the cocoon, and far too important to be associated—'
The shrill cry of the baby interrupted Rowan. He nearly dropped the torch in surprise.
'Still alive,' Jason said quietly, feeling some relief not only from the cries starting back up but also because they were now walking on solid rock instead of slipping about on mud. But as each step they took now echoed through the cave, even he now felt a sense of dread. The baby's cries, whilst ear-achingly loud, were not strong enough to muffle the sounds of their footsteps.
Jason took a breath and then called out into the darkness. 'Hello?'
'What are you doing?' Rowan hissed.
'Making ourselves known.' He called out again. 'Everything alright. You'll miss all the vessels if you stay here.'
There was no response apart from the continued cries of the baby.
As Jason approached a sharp bend in the cave, the torch shuddered again. Without even asking, he knew Rowan would not want to go round that corner, so he signalled for him to hand him the torch, which Rowan complied with straight away.
Jason edged round the bend slowly, torch in one hand and his gloved hand still balled. He slowed down his breathing.
The baby's cries eased off.
'Can you see it?' Rowan whispered from behind.
Something large and heavy charged into Jason's body. It sent him flying back into the bend; he slammed into the wall behind him and dropped the torch. It rolled further ahead towards where he had presumed the baby was.
'We have to go!' Rowan spun around but caught his foot on a rock and tumbled to the ground.
Jason pushed himself up, leaning against the wall. From the glint of the torch's light that was at the other end of the cave, he saw what had charged at him.
A Lightbird, no less than seven feet tall, stood several paces in front of him. Its solid white eyes glared at him.
Jason squeezed his gloved fist. A water marble launched out of the opening in between the glove's knuckles of the ring and middle fingers and soared towards the creature. The Lightbird swerved sideways, its long dark hair flowing behind, and the marble was consumed by the shadows beyond it.
The Lightbird took a step forward, its scaly, dark green skin illuminated by the torch on the ground. Its wings sprouted from inside the back of its body—they were thick and large enough that the tips of them brushed against the walls of the cave as the Lightbird approached. It seemed to notice its wings were too big for the cave, turning its head towards one of them.
Taking the chance, Jason squeezed his fist again. The water marble flung towards the Lightbird's chest, but the creature looked back in Jason's direction and, in a fluid motion, pulled one of its hands down, a bright green blade being produced in the hand's trail. The weapon absorbed the marble.
The flat-edged blade, about a yard long, was connected to the Lightbird's fist, swirls of energy pulsing through the weapon as if it was a living thing. It emitted a ringing sound as the Lightbird waved it around in the surrounding space. The Lightbird's way of intimidating Jason.
He pushed himself away from the wall and stumbled towards Rowan, not taking his eyes off the Lightbird as it stepped towards them. It was the first time Jason had seen one up close. The blood vessels around the perimeters of its eyes flowed the same shade of green as its blade. It had sunken holes for ears. It took a steady breath through the slitted nostrils of its aquiline nose, which was positioned where its mouth should have been, taking up the bottom half of its face.
Rowan groaned as he scrambled across the ground, his legs failing to push him upright. 'We need to get out of here. Now.'
With its long legs, the Lightbird would have been able to chase them easily. Jason knew that he and Rowan wouldn't make it to the exit of the cave before being cut down. Especially Rowan, who was slower and clumsier.
Jason made a decision.
Ignoring Rowan's protests, he charged forward and launched another marble at the Lightbird—this time at its head. It raised its blade and the marble dissolved. The Lightbird saw Jason was already aiming his glove at its chest and lowered its blade in anticipation, but Jason twisted his glove up to release a marble at its head. He thought he would catch the Lightbird out, but it felt as if it was reading his mind, and it raised its blade in front of its head to catch the marble.
Then it plunged its blade into Jason's stomach.
He never expected the blade to feel so cold, nor the dull edge of it to cut through him so easily.
The Lightbird stepped back, pulling its blade out of Jason, its chest puffed out in triumph.
But it didn't expect Rowan to release a marble at the back of its head.
Despite just a splash of water hitting the Lightbird, it was enough for it to stagger forwards, clasping onto the back of its head with the four claws of its hand. The key message that was conveyed to the population when the Lightbirds invaded was that water was fatal to them, and several companies manufactured gloves that would store water marbles in their sleeves to act as effective weapons against them. It was rare for a person to be seen without a glove nowadays.
The Lightbird stumbled back and collapsed to its knees, waving its blade frantically, cutting rocks as it thrashed into them. Free from being pinned by the blade, Jason collapsed too, crying out in anguish. He clasped his hand over his stomach, which did nothing to stop the dark blood from gushing out of him. Pain bloomed through his body, his stomach muscles pulling uncomfortably tight as if they were going to fold in on themselves. He gazed up and was face to face with the Lightbird, a chunk of its head missing. Its breaths were shallow, struggling for air. He heard crying and screaming, but couldn't tell if it was coming from his brother or the baby. Or both of them.
Whatever he did, he knew he was dead. Any contact with a Lightbird's blade is fatal, through impact or infection, the accompanying leaflet with the glove had read.
With effort, he wrenched his gloved hand upwards and squeezed his fist three times.
The Lightbird's blade dissolved and the creature pitched backwards, clutching to its melting chest where the three marbles had hit.
Tears stung Jason's eyes as his impending death loomed in front of him. Moments ago, he still had his life. A life in a cocoon, but a life all the same. Now, the wound in his stomach was the painful mark of that life gone.
Jason could just about feel his brother's arms around him. Rowan sobbed, calling Jason's name, but he sounded distant, as if he was shouting at Jason from beyond a wall that would never crack open.
Jason looked up, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. He could barely see the outline of his brother.
'The...baby...' Jason uttered. It hurt to talk.
'I'm getting you out of here,' Rowan said, a million miles away.
'No.' Jason used the very little energy he had to squeeze Rowan's shoulder, coating him in blood. 'The baby. You...have to.'
Rowan looked round the corner where the torch had rolled to, where the sounds of the baby's cries were still coming from.
'All for a...fucking baby,' Rowan spat. He stood up, muttering to himself, and then hurried towards the source of the crying, keeping a suitable distance away from the Lightbird's corpse.
Jason was exhausted. He could actually feel the blood draining from his face. He used every morsel of his depleting energy to keep his eyes open, but could hardly see. The allure of sleep wrapped gently around him.
He thought he heard some shuffling in the distance. A flicker of light washed through his eyelids, and he opened them with a struggle. Darkness still stood in front of him, and the baby's crying had stopped again.
He waited forever.
Then a figure ran up to him. Rowan, with the baby cradled in his arm. He crouched down and brought the baby close to Jason. It was naked, tiny and covered in filth.
'You're going to have to push yourself up.' Rowan put his free arm around Jason's back. 'Can you do that? I'll support you.'
'Leave me. Take...baby...to vessel. Before rain stops.'
'Not without you.'
'Ro...' Jason's vision was wavering. He squeezed his eyes and opened them again, trying to focus on Rowan and feeling tears crawl down his cheeks. 'You know this is it.'
A silence hung between them, punctuated by a quiet sob from the baby.
'Not if I can help it,' Rowan replied, a surprising burst of confidence from him. He kept his arm around Jason. 'Now push up.'
Jason's body was unresponsive—he couldn't attempt to do anything at this stage, but Rowan pulled him up, causing the baby to screech again. The weight of the backpack on his back threatened to pull Jason back down and, as soon as he was on his feet, he buckled, feeling as if more blood had poured out of him. Rowan kept a hold of him below his shoulder, supporting his weight.
With the baby in one of Rowan's arms and his younger brother in the other, they stumbled towards the opening of the cave. But as they approached the daylight, Jason struggled to see. Arms of darkness crept into his vision. His mind sifted through memories and moments of the important people in his life.
He thought of his parents, long gone. It had been so long that he had almost forgotten the smaller details of their faces—his dad's pudgy nose, the mole on his mum's neck—yet now, close to the end, he was seeing them clearly. Perhaps they were waiting for him on the other side. At least they weren't alive to witness the end of the world. Neither of them would have been able to cope with it. Especially his dad, who Rowan took after both physically and through his personality.
He thought of Conrad and Grace. They were hopefully boarding a vessel by now. Conrad would keep his mum's spirits up. It would be a challenge for him to do the same for his dad, but Jason believed in him. He knew that even in the cocoon, Conrad had great things ahead of him.
He thought of Nia Mason and their first kiss—his first kiss—at the bus stop next to their school all those years ago. He never forgot the smile she had when their lips parted. Twenty years on, he wished he could see her now. The one girl that truly caught his heart.
He thought of Rowan, his older brother who was using all of his effort to try to save him when they both knew that Jason could not survive this. He worried for Rowan. Wanted him to be strong. Wanted him to muster up of the courage his son clearly had.
And then he thought of the baby, naked and starving in that cave with the Lightbird. The baby that he gave his life for. As they exited the cave, it stopped crying. Jason turned to his side, taking his last breaths, and the last thing he saw before the arms of darkness constricted his mind was the baby enchanted by the trees, the rain and the rush of people, as if it was the first time it had ever seen the world outside.
Marla could feel the thirty pairs of eyes locked onto her, burning through her skull. The occupants of the eyes weren't listening to her reading word for word from the Essential Mathematics for Essential Learning textbook that was lying open in front of her on her desk. They weren't taking any notes for their exams coming up in three months, which would mark the end of their six years of studies.
No, of course not. They're bloody moody sixteen-year-olds thinking about whatever bloody moody sixteen-year-olds think about, aching for the lesson to finish so they can do whatever bloody moody sixteen-year-olds do on weekends.
Not that there was much for young people to do in Cocoon Ninety-Nine. Marla had the same thoughts as them at their age, four long years ago, when she was studying from the same textbook in the same classroom. The steel walls of the room, apart from the one behind Marla's desk—which had a barely used whiteboard and a digital clock attached to it—had motivational posters plastered onto them to inspire the students, apparently. Lists of books to read. Lists of influential historical figures. Posters of the times table and the periodic table. There was even a map of the world, which Marla found laughable considering the students—and her—had never seen the world, and never would.
Everything that the students needed to pass their exams was in the book she was reading to them, but she knew they weren't paying attention. They wouldn't really care until the day of their exams, when they would try to cram in information that morning. That's what she did when she was a student. She somehow got decent results that way, so she wouldn't question their moments. She really didn't care as long as she received meals for her and her dad for the day.
Marla's back had been aching since she woke up. All day it felt like her muscles were twisting and tightening, even when she was completely still. She hated work on a normal day. Today was bordering on hellish.
Someone cleared her throat. Marla ignored her, continuing to read, until a voice called out.
Leave me alone.
Marla knew exactly who was calling her without looking up. She was the only person in her class who would refuse to call Marla by her first name, no matter how many times Marla had insisted on not being addressed by her surname. She reckoned she did it on purpose.
I'm four years older than you. Not four decades.
Marla pressed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and finger, sighed audibly and looked up. An enthusiastic girl in the front row with curly hair and big eyes beaming through her glasses had her hand up.
Ruth lowered her hand and studied the book. 'It says here that x equates to five and y equates to two. I don't understand. Surely y would equate to three?'
Marla didn't like being asked questions, being interrogated. It required her to think, which she did enough of at home. Some people might have loved to have been a teacher, but Marla was not one of them, no matter what the councillors had assigned her to be after she had completed her exams.
'The book says two.' Reading from textbooks was Marla's preferred method of teaching.
'The book is wrong, Miss.'
Murmurs and giggles bubbled from the students.
Marla peered up to see Ruth staring at her, with a finger resting on a section of her textbook.
Give it a rest, Ruth. We know you'll probably be assigned to be a doctor or something. Good luck looking after the sick people here. There's plenty of them.
Unfortunately, with being stationed a mile underwater, the one thing that the cocoon didn't have access to was natural sunlight. Water and processed oxygen were in abundance, but the lack of sunlight was the primary cause of the average life expectance dropping since humans went to cocoons to escape from the invasion twenty years ago.
Mum was one of the unfortunate ones. Because of those fucking Lightbirds, she couldn't even live a full life.
'Uh...' Marla scanned her textbook, eyes fluttering over the page. I really can't be bothered with this. 'The reason that doesn't work...the reason...it's because...the reason...'
She paused, an awkward stillness filling the room. Time felt as if it was dragging to its slowest pace. Her ears burned. Lips quivered. Muscles stiffened.
She tried to say something...anything...but struggled to find the words and her throat dried up. She thought she had grown out of this. A problem left in her past, never to emerge again.
Remember what the doctor said. Take a breath and release the trapped thoughts.
'Don't worry,' a voice piped up, breaking Marla from her thoughts. She looked up to see a boy smirking at her. Darren. 'We're not asking you to explain quantum physics or parabolic calculus to us.'
The room filled with laughter, and Darren grinned triumphantly. Although still feeling flushed, Marla was relieved there was noise to break the tension, and felt her neck muscles loosen a little. She was even more relieved when the electronic buzz signalling the end of the lesson blared through the overhead speakers. The automatic door at the far end of the room swung open to reveal the corridor beyond it, where kids from other classes were already filing out of their lessons excitedly to welcome the weekend.
As Marla's students closed their books and put them in their bags, she was already out of her chair, swinging her bag of books over her shoulder and marching across the room. She never waited for them to leave first—especially not at the end of the week. She glimpsed Darren sneering at her as she walked past, but tried not to pay attention to him or to the sniggering that was scattered about the room.
'The equation?' Ruth called out to her.
'I'm sure you'll work it out,' Marla shot back. She placed her hand on the panel on the wall by the exit, which registered that it was four o'clock and the school day was over. On a normal day at the end of a week, the text on the screen would display MISS M HIGHTOWER: MEALS FOR THE WEEKEND CONFIRMED. Food was the currency of every cocoon. If you didn't work, you didn't eat, and the powers above made sure of that with their logging system for every job in the cocoon.
On this day, however, things were different.
MISS M HIGHTOWER: MEALS FOR THE WEEKEND NOT CONFIRMED. PLEASE SEE COUNCILLOR MASON IMMEDIATELY.
Not this now. Seriously.
After a few seconds, the message disappeared. Marla pressed her hand on the panel again and it showed the same message. She heard some students muttering about her, giggling, as she tried again to no avail.
Patience lost, she slammed her hand against the panel. The impact cracked the screen, a shard of glass cutting into her palm.
'Shit!' she snapped, sharply pulling her hand away. Blood leaked from it as she stormed out of the room.
The giggling from the students erupted into a chorus of laughter.
The councillor's office was as big as Marla's classroom. It seemed as if it had grown in size since the last time Marla was in here, a couple of months ago. There were four large panels in the room—two attached to each side wall—as well as one attached to the desk, all with lines of data running across them. After all, Nia wasn't only in charge of the school, but was also one of the seven councillors of the cocoon, as well as the Chair of the Council. She had been a councillor ever since the cocoon was populated by the island's inhabitants twenty years ago, which meant she was also partly responsible for selecting Marla's career. To this day, Marla never understood why the Council had decided she should be a teacher.
A large bookcase stretched across most of the back wall, crammed full of tattered books. There must have been hundreds of them there, taken from the island when the invasion happened, or when Goldgills made their weekly visits to the island to collect resources for the cocoon. Most of them looked to be in poor condition, with faded text, broken spines and torn covers, but they lined up neatly next to each other—in alphabetical order by author, as much as Marla could tell.
She approached the vacant chair facing the Education Councillor's desk, the sounds of her feet tapping against the steel floor bouncing against the walls. She stood behind the chair, dabbing her cut hand with a tissue and wincing at the stinging.
Councillor Nia Mason looked up from her notes as she finished scribbling something down on a notepad. As always, she looked immaculate and pristine with her smart suit and neat bob haircut, which made her look as if she didn't live in a cocoon like the rest of the inhabitants, considering most of them wore whatever they could get—usually old, shabby clothing—and they cut their hair at home. Marla opted for keeping her hair cropped short, using her dad's electric razor to take off most of it. It required minimal effort. Not that Dad ever uses his razor anymore.
Eyes sunken and face tight, Nia looked as if she hadn't slept in years. She was a fierce worker, often arriving at the office very early and leaving late. She never married, never had children. Focused purely on work. The smoky aroma of coffee was present, and Marla glanced at the nearly empty cafetière on the corner of Nia's desk.
Considering the job she has, she must have more coffee circulating in her body than blood.
'Miss Hightower.' Nia's face was devoid of emotion. Marla cringed at the formal use of her name. 'Do sit.'
Marla hovered for a moment and Nia's tired eyes fixated on her. Not even the shouting and swearing of students as they rushed past the closed office could break the councillor's concentration.
Marla sat down as Nia placed her pen next to her notepad. She straightened the pen before clasping her hands together and leaning forward.
'What time does the school day start?' Nia asked.
Stupid question. Marla paused for a moment before replying. 'Eight.'
'What time should a teacher arrive at school?'
'Quarter to eight.'
'What time did you arrive?'
Marla couldn't meet Nia's eyes. She shuffled in her seat, remembering how tired she felt when she woke up and how she couldn't be bothered to go to work. Like most days.
Nia glanced down at the panel connected to the corner of her desk. She tapped it twice and a video popped up on the screen. Reliving the awkwardness of this morning, Marla could just about see the images of her walking into the classroom and seeing all thirty of her students staring at her in disbelief.
The councillor shook her head in disapproval. 'It was eight thirty-six. Can you explain to me why you arrived at work nearly an hour late?'
Marla looked down in shame. She felt like a student herself, being detained by the teacher at the end of the school day. She didn't have an answer, like every other time she was asked about it.
'I know things are difficult at home. Your father going through what he went through. Your mother—'
'I don't want to talk about it.' Marla kept her head lowered but could feel her cheeks growing hot.
'But I do, because it's affecting your work and the output of your students. This is not how a teacher can operate. Or any worker, for that matter. Look at me.' Marla obliged. 'I know what it's like to lose a mother. Five years ago, I lost mine—a couple of years before yours. I've lost people while we've been in this cocoon. I've lost friends and family before...' She trailed off, and Marla noticed some warmth in the councillor's eyes. Nia looked as if she wanted to say something else, but shook her had and took a moment to compose herself. 'It still hurts, every single day. Which is why you need things to focus on. Work. Because unfortunately, Miss Hightower, if you can't rectify this, then—'
'Then what?' Marla snapped, balling both fists—the one with the cut nearly made her yelp in pain as she did so. 'You'll cut off my meals and make me and Dad starve?'
'You...you don't understand what it's like,' Marla said. She leaned forward, her eyes threatening to water. She squinted to avoid crying, knowing how weak she would look in front of the councillor. 'I'm providing for me and him. You don't know what it's like to have that sort of responsibility—'
'Don't lecture me about responsibility.' Nia's voice rose. 'My job is to be responsible for not just the students here, but for the entire cocoon. One hundred thousand people. Your job is to be responsible for just thirty of them. With everything that has happened, it's not asking for too much. The least you could do is play your part.'
'I never wanted to be a teacher.' Marla sounded more timid than she had intended to be.
'Not all of us can be Goldgills. I know you've expressed your wish at getting a job like that, but we cannot risk having many people go to the island. The cocoon may not live up to your expectations, but the open world is...wild. I've seen up close what a Lightbird can do.' Marla noticed Nia shudder slightly. 'The point is, we have to make the best of what we have. We're lucky to be alive.'
'Lucky.' Marla snorted.
'There's another issue that needs to be addressed,' Nia said, ignoring Marla's remark. 'Your teaching methods. This is not the first time we've discussed this. Reading from the textbook is not teaching.'
I'm not a teacher.
Nia leaned in closer. 'You need to inspire your class. I understand this can be tricky in the circumstances we're all in. But the final tests are vital for us to see where we can place the students in the cocoon. Vital for the health and prosperity of the cocoon. I know you don't feel it, but you have an important role. You're an adult now, Miss Hightower. You have to teach, and you cannot arrive at lessons whenever you feel like it and then leave as soon as the buzzer sounds so you can waltz off to parties. The students look up to you, believe it or not.'
Marla bowed her head again. She could still see the amused expression on Darren's face as she passed him at the end of the lesson. There was not a chance that he looked up to her, nor any of the other students. Not even Ruth.
Why would they?
'How's your hand?' Nia asked.
Marla dabbed at the wound again. 'Could be worse.'
'That was some strike.' Nia pulled up a video of Marla hitting the panel at the end of the lesson, causing Marla to involuntarily squeeze her hand, making her wince slightly. 'That glass isn't think. I don't know how you were able to shatter it with your bare hand.'
Marla looked up suddenly, her gut clenching. 'I'm...I'm sorry. Please don't cancel our meals. I'll do what I can to fix it. I—'
Nia raised her hand to silence her. 'You cannot fix it. Councillor Greenheart's technicians will have to sort it out. You can fix your attitude at work, though.' Marla stiffened at that, but thought better than to speak. 'As for your meals, you appear to forget that your father was a councillor before...things got more difficult. He will always get meals, even if he is not working. You are providing for yourself, not for both of you.'
That's irrelevant. He wouldn't eat if he knew I wasn't getting meals.
Not that he eats much, anyway.
Nia paused. Marla shuffled in the metallic chair, her sweaty armpits making her feel more uncomfortable.
'I won't cancel your meals today, Miss Hightower, but this will be the last conversation we have regarding the matter. Your students' results last year, as you know, were far below our expectations. If things continue the way they are, I won't have a choice.'
'Thank you.' Marla's shoulders loosened, the tension easing off.
'Give my best to your father.' Nia dismissed Marla.
Marla got up quickly, grabbing her bag from the floor and pulling her eyes away from Nia's interrogative stare, and hurried out of the office without looking back at the councillor. She did, after all, have a party to get ready for.