Wonder – Christina C. Jones

“I ONE need you to handle Ruby for me today.” I nearly choked on my coffee. Half of my daily four-ounce ration spilled down my throat in a sudden, wasteful gulp. Usually, I spent my ten-minute break savoring it in careful sips, suppressing the desire to lick the tiny ceramic mug at the end, so as not to waste a single drop. I glared at Harriet, who groaned and then moved over to the coffee machine, plugging in her employee code to dispense her serving of brew. With a huff, she poured half into my mug, replenishing it. “There. Now, seriously Aly, please?” Harriet wasn’t one to ask for favors – that whole “I owe you one” thing could be dangerous nowadays, even for something as innocuous as this. You never knew what you’d be asked to do, or what trouble you might get into for doing someone a solid. I knew Harriet well enough to understand that if she was asking, it had to be serious. But still… “Ruby? As in, your absolute hardest to please client? I don’t think so.” “Nessa is sick.” Harriet glanced around, making sure we were alone in the break room before she stepped closer, lowering her voice. “I have a hookup. Someone who can get antibiotics for me.

But I have to go now. I can’t miss this opportunity.” She was telling the truth. Even if it wasn’t clear in her big gray eyes, I knew how it worked around here. The doctor was expensive, if you could get an appointment, and it meant missing work, missing school, for who knew how long. Then, you’d be prescribed medicine you may or may not afford – and even if you could afford it, meds were in high demand. If you were lucky enough to purchase what you needed, there was still the unlucky chance of getting knocked upside the head and robbed leaving the pharmacy. Sickness was dangerous, in more ways than one. But Nessa was still so small. Only seven years old, born just before pregnancy became a luxury only the rich could afford, and the Division Three Sterilization Program posters went up all over the city.

Well, not this part of the city. The other parts. Harriet would do anything for her little girl, even risk a shady deal for black market antibiotics. Honestly, I wanted to help her, but… “If I mess it up—” “You won’t,” Harriet insisted. “Aly, you’re the only person I trust to ask this. But you know what will happen if I don’t get somebody to cover for me.” I did. And getting fired would be the blow that banished Harriet’s family from the relative comfort and safety of where we lived to another area. “You can have my coffee for two weeks,” Harriet offered. Tempting.

“And I’ll clean your station for you, for the same two weeks. No complaints. I swear.” A smirk danced at the corners of my mouth until I gave in for a full-blown smile. “Fine, Harriet. I’ll do it. You don’t have to clean my station, but I will take your coffee. And if I get fired…” “You won’t.” She propped a hand on one hip. “You will absolutely kill it and get a big enough tip to buy a dress and dance in the Apex – like other girls your age.

” She said that like “my age” wasn’t twenty-five, like I didn’t have more pressing matters than dresses and dancing, even though I didn’t have a family like her. I knew she meant well though. “Or, I can put more money on Gran’s account,” I reminded her. “It won’t be much, but every little bit helps.” Every little bit meant a little less debt, meant a little closer to the impossibility of not owing anyone anything. A dream, but one that had my singular focus. Harriet put a hand to her mouth. “Oh Aly, I’m sorry. I didn’t consider that,” she admitted, pulling me into a hug. Her vanilla-scented sheets of thick brown hair tickled my skin as she squeezed, then stepped back.

“But it makes my point even more. You’re doing this for your Gran. I’m doing this for Nessa. And neither of us will fail.” The distinct click of boots against the cold tile floor made us step further apart, and I snatched up my mug, swallowing my tepid coffee in one swallow. My break was over. Lori’s beaky nose appeared around the corner to the break room before she did, wearing her usual half-scowl. Her thin blonde hair was, as always, slicked back into a perfect knot, exaggerating her already birdlike features – that nose, those beady, crafty eyes. “Alyson will take Ruby for me this afternoon,” Harriet spoke, before Lori complained, which she’d undoubtedly come to do. “I have a personal matter to attend to.

” Lori’s nose rose in the air. “We should handle Personal matters on personal time.” “Yes. And typically, I would, but—” “I do not care.” Lori raised a hand for silence, cutting her off. “Alyson, you understand how important Ruby Hartford’s patronage is to us, correct?” I nodded. “I do.” Those beady eyes gave me a slow once-over, but she didn’t comment on my appearance, which was an approval. “Good. Don’t fuck it up.

” Lori turned on her high-heeled boots and stalked away as Harriet and I exchanged a look. “On that note, I have to get out of here before I miss this meetup,” she said. “Ruby will be here in twenty minutes. Don’t make her wait.” “Duh,” I countered, disposing of my mug in the stack with the others. “Now go, don’t be late. I have work to do.” Once Harriet left, I went the opposite direction, toward the floor. I needed time to set up the private booth where I’d service Ruby, but I took a moment to check my appearance in the mirror first, to make sure it was just so. Black shoes, black pants, black logo top, hot pink lip, no jewelry.

That was our “uniform” here, and deviation would earn you a demerit at best, and at worst, fired on the spot. We could do whatever we wanted with our hair – it was encouraged, the more intricate/interesting the better. I always had braids. Now, I pulled them all over one shoulder, taking comfort in their familiar swing against my hip as I moved to my station. It was fortifying – a concrete feeling to connect to in a moment that was feeling more and more surreal. My hands were going in Ruby Hartford’s hair today. I was great at my job – you had to be, in a place like this. Working at a salon in The Apex meant a wage where you could do more than keeping yourself alive – another high commodity. As much as the world had changed, the obsession with beauty had not. But that was no complaint.

Though I’d hated growing up in a salon, spending long days at my mother’s feet on the weekends, inhaling the odors of chemical straighteners and acetone, I was grateful now. I was grateful then too, but as an adult I had a better understanding of why she taught me formulations with painstaking precision, made sure I had an eagle eye for split ends, perfect braiding techniques – everything I could need to know, to wear the title of stylist. She knew it could keep me alive after she was gone. I’d watched Harriet’s prep work for Ruby enough times to know what I needed to gather, but I still smiled when I saw the note she’d left. “Sure of yourself, are you?” I muttered to myself as I grabbed a basket from my station to head to the repository. There, I handed the masked attendant a list of what I needed, and was careful to double-check before I signed the slip to leave with the basket. Back at my station, I took my time to arrange everything the way I liked it, and then with one minute to spare before my appointment, I was done. Ruby Hartford walked in thirty seconds later. Security guards flanked her, which wasn’t uncommon for the ultra-wealthy residents of The Apex. Violent crime was virtually nonexistent here, but being able to afford your own security was a status symbol.

Not that Ruby needed men in black uniforms and heavy boots for us to understand how wealthy she was. She oozed it. Like me, Ruby was dressed in all black. Unlike me, her blacks were all lush, luxury fabrics – skintight black leggings, and a cropped tank, topped with a cashmere kimono she shrugged off, tossing toward one of the security guards in a fluid motion that had to be rehearsed, with how seamlessly he collected it before it hit the floor. Ruby walked – well, more like glided – up, stopping to give me a once-over similar to the one Lori had given earlier. There was no disapproval in her gaze though, just a mild interest that made my cheeks go hot before her eyes, emerald orbs framed by long, delicate lashes came back to my face. Up close, her caramel skin was just as flawless as it seemed from a distance, sprinkled over with dark brown freckles. “You’re beautiful,” she said, in a way that didn’t exactly feel like a compliment. “Why are you here, instead of working as a Diamond?” I swallowed, hard, then couldn’t do anything other than shrug. “I… this is what my mother taught me to do,” I answered.

Somehow, that amused her. “Right. The passing of knowledge. It wouldn’t do for a hairdresser to have taught you to be a whore, would it?” My eyes went wide. “I suppose not.” “Of course you do. You’re the one serving as Harriet’s replacement today.” She wasn’t asking a question – she was telling me, and took the empty seat in my salon chair to deepen the point. “Don’t fuck it up.” Yeah.

I’d already heard that one. “Fucking up” wasn’t typically a part of my day, and I had every intention of keeping up that streak. Ruby Hartford had nearly three feet of natural coils, that she expected colored, blow-dried, and styled to perfection, and I did that. Carefully. I was the picture of professionalism, bringing her dark roots to match the cinnamon tone of the rest of her hair, then drying and styling it into her signature beachy waves. While I worked, she conducted a few business calls I paid no attention to – I wasn’t curious about anything except hair when I had a client in front of me. The only thing that registered interest was a heart-shaped birthmark behind her ear, and I quickly pushed even that from my mind as I curled and combed and laid every strand in the perfect place. When I finished, Ruby surveyed her appearance in the mirror, accepting the comb I handed her to part through various sections to check the color. When she finished, she sat back, sounding slightly disappointed when she complimented me on a job well done. My face must have registered confusion because her lips quirked into a smile.

“I haven’t ruined anyone’s life yet today,” she explained. “I was hoping you’d give me a reason, but this is flawless. I may come back to you next time, instead of Harriet.” “No,” I stammered. “You’re Harriet’s client, I couldn’t—” “Be telling m e no?” Ruby spoke over me, still wearing that smirk that made an insidious feeling creep up my back. “You’re right. You couldn’t be doing that.” She made a gesture for me to remove the styling cape so I did, keeping my lips pressed closed. I wanted to say something ugly, wanted to chew her out, but I couldn’t risk my job – my livelihood – on having the last word with a client. So I swallowed it.

Once she was back on her feet, towering over me in her heels, she gave me her attention again. “I’d like you to think about what I said earlier,” she told me, as she held out her arms for one of the guards to put that kimono back on her. “Girl like you could make good money – much more than the scraps here. Isn’t that right Alonso?” she asked one guard. He remained stone-faced, his presence only made more imposing by the tattoo on his face – a trio of spades, at the corner of his eye. When he didn’t answer, Ruby laughed, then snapped her fingers. It happened so fast I couldn’t tell where it came from, but suddenly there was a thick fold of money between her fingers. She peeled off much more than her service cost and handed it to me, walking off before I could realize the error. I tried to catch her, but the guard who’d taken the position closest to her gave me a look so petrifying that I shut my mouth, stuffing the money in my pocket and considering it a blessing. They were few and far between around here.

I TWO t started with heat waves. At least, that was what my father’s grandparents said. My mother’s said the ice was first, biting and slick under the wheels of cars belonging to people for whom “freezing rain” was a foreign concept. It didn’t matter though, because none of them were here now, and no matter where it started, it had evolved. Devolved. The heat got so bad it was dangerous to be outside, and when it was the right time of the year, the weight of the ice brought down power lines and cracked windows. The beaches were empty, because of the smell – if the sea life didn’t wash up already cooked from the water, it died on scorching sand. Frost killed the palm trees. And in between that, there was rain. Torrential downpours dumping unholy amounts of water, flooding the streets and washing away the soil and soaking so deep into the earth it disrupted concrete building foundations.

The lightning was indiscriminate, destroying homes and blowing past precautionary insulation to cause power surges and blackouts that fried everything from air traffic control systems to home microwaves. And the thunder? So loud you’d feel it for days. So loud that the government sent out mobile units to provide ear protection – the same insulated ear muffs you’d get at a gun range. So loud that fault lines moved. The ones that hadn’t moved in years and years, the ones our books said were “dormant”. The earth was tired of us destroying her and had struck first. A “patriot” wasn’t supposed to think this way, let alone say it out loud, but she’d won. All our science and technology and politics had meant nothing once she decided she wanted us off, that we’d done too much and gone too far. Three-quarters of the world’s population, gone. It wasn’t what ended up in the sleek books they gave us at school now, a hundred years later.

As the earth remapped itself, so had history, both guided by the hand of those who’d been cunning and self-serving and evil enough to negotiate power from an extinction level event. Not that I was into all that. I didn’t care who was in power because they were all the same. They didn’t bother with the sham elections anymore – why, when there were barely “states” anymore? There were “divisions” now – ten, separated by guarded walls I’d never been to and didn’t care to see. I wanted to keep my head down and stay alive. That was exactly what I did as I approached the gates that separated the Apex from the Mids – what we called the section of our city that lay between the spotless, lush environment of the Apex, where the wealthy lived, and the lawless Burrows. Even in the Mids, the further you got from the Apex, the more likely you were to get robbed, assaulted, killed, or worse. Especially a woman traveling alone as the sun disappeared from the sky. The APF – America’s Police Force – were prowling around, sure. Allegedly to help keep us safe, but I knew better.

Knew the uniform meant nothing if the person wearing it was a criminal too. Honestly, it was hard to know who to trust these days. That was why I was careful to tuck my thumb over the house number and street name when I showed the guard my ID to get through the gate that would lead me home. A few years ago, one of them had flirted with me – had gotten angry when I declined his advances. A day or so later, he was waiting across the street from my home. Luckily, my father had preached diligence enough that I spotted him before he saw me. I snuck around through the back, and watched him through a crack in the blinds as he waited, and waited, and then left. They found his body the next day. The streets were dangerous for everybody at night. Once I got through the gate, I breathed out a sigh.

Even with its flaws, the Mids were home – the only one I’d ever known. In some ways, it was relieving to be back on this side of the gate where I belonged, away from the glossy facade of the Apex. Mostly though, my slow, deep sigh was resigned. The world had ended, rebooted itself, and this was what we got. It was ungrateful of me to view the palm trees and balmy weather with such disdain, but I chalked it up to cabin fever. Anybody would be sick of the same thing every day, would want something more than what they’ve always known, right? Division Two got lots of rain and ice, sometimes snow – a phenomenon I’d only ever seen in pictures. Here? Sometimes it rained. Often, that rain smelled like death, and the Apex would all but shut down, because their delicate noses couldn’t handle the stench. I loved those days. I got to sip my coffee ration slower, watching the toxic rain streak down the windows.

Other times though, the rain came with storms. I didn’t love those.


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