It’s nearing midnight and you’re alone in your room. You alternate between lying in bed and pacing the room barefooted. Attempts to read a book under a pillow with a torch have failed. No way you can concentrate on reading. From time to time, you go to the window and stare out at the moon, clouds covering and uncovering it.
There is nothing of interest outside. Hard concrete grounds, with neat squares of grass, surrounded by other buildings belonging to the Educational Centre. The grounds are lit by street lamps but all the windows on all the buildings are dark. Except the watchtower, obviously. The guards on duty patrol the area at regular intervals.
Deathly silence rules over the Centre.
Your movements are stealthy, your body long ago accustomed to the laws of this regime. The nine o’clock curfew, the six o’clock waking up on weekdays, you’re used to it. You wear the approved clothing like a second skin, you speak the language of the Ruling Class like a mother tongue. You wouldn’t have made it to the position of the Prefect otherwise. One day you may be able to join your aunt and uncle in the Resistance. But not now. Not yet.
She’s still not back.
The worrying only increases and decreases, it never goes away. You don’t remember what it was like not worrying about your sister. It’s part of your life like breathing. She is the reason for all of this; why you comply, why you became a top student and a Prefect. You promised your parents you would look after her. In some ways, it’s been worth it—better rooms on higher floors, greater choice of meals, bigger allowance and even an occasional trip to town. And you get to share a room with your sister. You know what you have to do for that. Having to be on alert twenty-four-seven. Being the poster girl for the Regime. Reporting schoolmates who break the rules.
You do what you have to do.
But tonight, you allowed your sister to go out on a date with a boy.
She knows about all the secret exits and passages of the Centre. If she didn’t know about them from you, she would find out from other girls. Of course, girls sneak out like this all the time, mostly on Friday nights. No regime, however tight, is, after a while, immune from some bad behaviour.
You vetted the boy, of course. He’s from the boys’ half of the same Educational Centre, you wouldn’t allow her to go out with an outsider. He’s older than your sister and younger than you, also a top student, though not a Prefect. As long as she doesn’t get caught, it will be okay. She’s not had any fun in months. And a clandestine meeting with a boy is just what she needs to bond with her classmates…
As long as she’s back before midnight and doesn’t get caught on the way, it will be okay.
The handle on the door finally turns and she slides into the room on stockinged feet, shoes in her hand. Oh thank god, thank god…
“Phew, just in time,” she whispers.
And while closing the door, the handle slips out of her hand and instead of a barely-there click, the door shuts with a bang.
You both freeze.
Maybe it wasn’t even that loud. Certainly in the rush of the daylight, it wouldn’t be, but now…
You can already hear the guard on duty entering your floor.
You recover your senses. “Get to bed now,” you order your sister towards that very place, shoes and all, “cover yourself and pretend to sleep.”
She does so, loosening her long dark hair at the same time. The next second she is covered with a blanket up to her nose, eyes closed.
The guard’s steps echo in the empty corridor.
You muss your hair so that it looks like you just got out of bed. You grip the handle of the door tightly until your palm hurts. This is all your fault. You shouldn’t have let her go out.
But you don’t have time for any guilt now.
You open the door and put your head out. The guard is now almost at your door. The light of his torch is blinding you, making you squint. This only helps your act.
“Guard,” you say, faking tiredness in your voice, “what’s with the bloody noise at this time of night?”