Chapter 3 - Part 4
Evenings in the Mathers household were dull. Though curfew was set an hour before sundown, they had to be home much earlier to give Mathias time to prepare dinner and set up for his nightly routine. Astral would often confine herself to her room, leaving William to fend for himself.
"I promise I'll be back before curfew!" He was getting desperate. He hadn't expected his familial duties to have taken up his whole day and had already made arrangements to meet with friends. He hoped that he could still make it in time, but his odds were fading by the minute.
"My answer is no, and that's final," Mathias stated firmly while sniffing the contents of a mystery box, checking for freshness. The corners of his father's mouth retreated to his ears in a grimace, his nose would have joined them but settled for trying to make itself smaller. His eyes watered. "We won't be having that," he croaked, attempting not to breath in the putrid fumes.
William plugged his nose. "What if I brought Astral?" She was usually his trump card for everything else.
"Definitely not," Mathias glared at him. He clearly struck a nerve. Sure she was terrible with people and he got the impression that people in general didn't really like her, often keeping a pretty safe distance just in case they were to catch whatever social disease she had. He didn't get it. She didn't seem that bad, and nothing terrible has happened to him by just being around her.
"She needs friends dad!" William tried again. "I could introduce her to mine. You don't want her holed up in there the whole summer do you?"
Mathias sighed opting to use up the remains of last week's veggies and a small portion of the meat they were allowed for the week. "Your grades came in," he told his son dutifully. William stepped out of arms reach of his father but knew better than to run. Running would admit to his slacking, and by association guilt in intentionally not performing at his best while resolving to not do anything about it. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you how disappointed I am," he told his son, chopping away at his veggies. William felt that the chopping didn't need to done so firmly. "You clearly need to develop your work ethic. I've requested the summers remedial studies of your failed classes. You've also been enrolled in a work program to pay for the extra cost for re-examination, assuming, of course, that you don't want to repeat the classes entirely."
Education was not the reason he was so adamant about attending the Council's Academy. All he needed to do was find a wealthy benefactor to sponsor him, and he would be saved from the service in the war. Going to that school meant connections to wealthy people, people of influence. "You don't get it at all dad! It's not how it used to be when you were my age!" William rolled his eyes. A work program would cut into his schmoozing time.
"I studied at the monastery, William," his father told him. "My experience is bound to be vastly different no matter my age. For grades like yours, I would be made to do servant's work until my grades improved. It was believed that if I didn't desire to better myself, than all I would be good for is menial tasks. It was believed that I lacked the intellectual capacity and self-discipline for harder work. I didn't make it as a Red Order Master Hunter by hanging out with friends and skipping classes."
William narrowed his eyes at the Master Hunter, his fists balling up in his pockets. "YOU DON'T GET IT AT ALL!!!!" He raged and stormed off, thudding loudly up each stair. Slamming the door to his room didn't do much to ease the knot in his chest. The oppressive demands of his father behind him, he felt that this wasn't going to be the last time he was going to hear this series of arguments.
His room was much smaller than Astral's, but it was a lot less sterile. Dirty clothes littered the floor. Medium sized projection pods had been fastened to the all, waking from sleep mode with the vibration of William's rage. Their displays showed a limited vid capture of twelve masked men and women in white and black uniforms holding a trophy. The projection's subjects moved, some pumping their fists in the air, others taking on victory stances. The central figure remained still, his posture confident, but there was something that always made William feel a little sad for him. It was almost like he could see the weight of the world on that player's shoulders.
Other holographic posters showcased the players without their helmets, their names and functions listed to the left. The subjects didn't move, but the image itself slid slowly diagonally, upwards, downwards at random.
William strode over to the tall window, bouncing across his bed to limit the number of steps needed to reach it. The window reached ceiling and had a with a three foot height dresser in front of it. He climbed on top and opened the window to gauge the distance to the ground. There were no pipes or decorative linings to use as purchase to assist him on his way down. Sure he could jump, but there was a good chance he'd break his legs when he hit the ground. He sighed and sat on his dresser. He'd have to cancel. He'd have to tell his friends about how unreasonable his father was with his lockdown rules. He pulled his tablet from his nightstand and punched the power button to call the screen into action. The screen shaped itself into an eight inch by eleven inch surface. 'Welcome William' appeared on the screen while calling up his application options. He had two options: re-examination and remedial studies. All of his apps granting him access to the outside world were gone.
Panic took hold. Breath held; he looked through the settings menu and flipped back and forth from the search screen to the app screen. He screamed, throwing the tablet across the room. The screen blinked out. A new worry lodged itself into William's mind. If he broke his tablet, his father wasn't going to replace it. He begged for months just to get this older model. He picked up the tablet's core and gingerly pressed the power button. It sprang to life and greeted 'Welcome William'. He pressed and held the power button again, signaling it to shut down. It wasn't like it was of any use to him in this state.
Something odd caught his eye. A chair was anchored under the door handle to his closet to prevent it from opening. A small green teddy bear sat on top of it staring back at the teen. He got the impression that it was watching him with a polite little smile. It's plaid bow didn't help his feelings toward it.
He snapped up the bear; his knuckles turned white forcing the teddy bear to hold its breath. It was bad enough she was there all summer, but to have her snoop in his room to top it all off...
He wasn't going to have it. She needed to be put in her place.
He stormed up the stairs to the attic. Astral's door was left open, likely listening for when dinner was ready. His guest sat at her desk working away at what he assumed were summer assignments. He threw the bear at her, clocking her in the back of the head. "YOU WERE IN MY ROOM!" He raged.
The air in the room cooled. Astral barely glanced over her shoulder. It took a second for her to decide to turn around to face him. She picked up the green teddy, brushing it off and adding a light squeeze to perk it up. It seemed happier somehow.
"I was wondering where he went off to," she told him. Her voice was empty of warmth and lacked the ring of innocence. He swore she had a split personality. The girl addressing him now was not the girl who played with teddies and loved ice cream. He felt afraid. "Is that all?" she asked. It was clear to William that she had dismissed him. He wasn't going to have it.
"This is MY house! You hear me! You have to listen to me! You stay out of my room." He was losing fire fast. He hated it when she looked at him. Her crystalline gaze felt like it was burrowing into him, digging up his secrets. He felt like if she could dig deep enough, she'd find a way to break him. It always made him feel exposed, almost like she could see him for what he really was. Whatever it was she saw in him, she had no sympathy for its condition.
"Hey is that my school!" He tried to shift the topic, hoping she would take the bait. Astral glanced at the elevated holographic projection sitting on her desk. It displayed the whole campus map, revealing all the floors elevations and all the rooms. It was hard to make heads or tails of anything specific, but zoom features were flashing in the corner of her desktop surface. Various boxes containing information were hovering over the school, but no reference points linked to the structure on her desk. One box had taken a multi-faceted display with multiple surfaces relating to a single topic.
He approached her desk, squinting at the writing that was scrolling up some of the boxes. His vision blurred a little, blocking out her cold stare. "Is that the student registry?" The projection faded, the boxes of information vanishing into the digital space to be accessed later.
"What did you do!" Astral gasped.
"What did I do? What the hell were you doing?" William worried. If she were hacking into a government database then their home would be on lockdown until some official came to collect them. Great, he was never going to get connection privileges reinstated at this rate.
"Dinner!" Mathias called up to them.
"I'm telling on you!" William sang and dashed down the stairs. His desire to rat her out died when he realized she wasn't chasing after him. Instead, Astral had taken to crawling under her desk to check out something, likely trying to fix the problem. Stupid kid couldn't connect the dots.
"Astral was hacking into the Council's Academy's database," William told Mathias as he set the table.
"That's nice," his father responded, pulling his handheld tablet from his pocket to glance at the time. He frowned. "You'll have to eat on your own. Save me a plate. Do the dishes, and I'll give you access to the vid system for the evening."
"Deal!" William couldn't believe his good fortune. Mathias rushed upstairs to his office to collect his gear. It wasn't long before the Master Hunter was working on tying up his boots when William tried to collect on some much-needed justice. "So you're not going to deal with Astral?"
"I'll deal with her in the morning; I don't have time for this nonsense right now," his father snapped. The Master Hunter stopped to spare a glance up the stairs, sighting Astral at the top working her way down. William perked up. He could deal with it right now.
"You know the Council's Academy's records are public domain, right? It's all part of a governance transparency act." Astral smirked. He wished he could punch that smirk right of her smug face. "Pleasant hunting," Astral chirped to Mathias.
"Don't break into the government's databases," Mathias shrugged as he left the teens to fend for themselves. William threw his hands up in the air and stormed into the kitchen to retrieve his meal.
William growled, "You think you're so smart." He savagely piled portions of food onto his plate.
Astral ignored him, looking into the pots to see what had been prepared. She considered William's portion before looking back at what remained. She sighed and prepared a plate for Mathias with what was left, putting it in the oven for retrieval later.
"What not good enough for you?" William sneered. "Sorry, it's not gourmet."
Astral pulled a food cube from the kitchen drawer. It's silver wrapping glinting in the fading remains of the evening sun. Food cubes were a food ration setup by the old Military Regime. Food had become scarce, prices on fresh produce and meats skyrocketed, elevating their station from survival necessity to luxury item. These cubes were an inch wide and long, and half an inch thick. Three cubes held all the necessary dietary sustenance the human body required for the day. It was the solution to mass starvation. Even today, some twenty-five years after the Regime had been ousted, food remained a luxury item, and most of the population lived off of bite-sized morsels.
"It's okay," she replied, popping the food cube into her mouth. "I don't want to steal from the poor today." Her words cut him deep. He wasn't poor. His dad wasn't poor. They weren't rich, but they weren't poor. They got by without worry and here she was criticizing everything like it wasn't ever going to be good enough.
A knock at the door cut his opportunity for a rebuttal short. Astral took a moment to peer through the window at the front door before opening it. William strained his hearing to figure out who was at the entrance with no luck. "Sorry, but Master Mathers isn't available," Astral dutifully informed the passerby.
William leaned against the entryway to kitchen, plate in hand as he dug into his meal. Kendra was at the door with a sealed container in her hands. She looked embarrassed to be there.
Astral glanced at the clock on the wall, counting down the minutes to curfew. "Your mom sent you?" she inquired gently. Kendra nodded, keeping her eyes focused on her feet. "You're never going to make it back before curfew," Astral concluded and moved out of the way to allow Kendra through if she wished it.
"You can't just let strangers in!" William choked on some peas.
Kendra remained at the entryway shaking with embarrassment. Astral said nothing, clearly indicating that she was allowed in without issuing an invite. Their new guest stepped over the threshold. "Is it okay?" she asked meekly.
Once again, Astral glanced at the clock. "I could escort you home, but we'd have to run. Mathias won't be home until dawn so your mothers intentions will only result in town gossip. It's your choice. You can spend the night with us watching vids or you can go home."
Kendra's eyes watered yet her whole being lit up with joy. "I can watch vids with you if I wanted?"
Astral smiled broadly. "If that's what you want, we'd be happy to have you join us."
Tears fell down her cinnamon cheeks. "I would like that very much."
- Can you remember a time when someone you cared about in a non-romantic relationship where someone betrayed you?
- As a teen what was the thing you liked to collect?
- Can you remember a time when you had to sacrifice a meal for another person?
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