“Holy hell,” Rihka said, laughing as she rubbed her side. Her sparring partner Vindia beckoned her to come at her again and Rihka obliged, somersaulting into a low kick and cutting Vindia off at the knees. The other girl rolled onto her back, propelling herself up with her arms and legs so she was facing Rihka again.
“How’d you fail again?” Majin, who was chomping on potato chips in a far corner asked. They were in the island’s lone community centre. A run down old building that housed everything from the religious fanatics to drug deals. Rihka chose to come on Sunday mornings before daybreak, a time that was assured to be free. She’d met Vindia through Majin and though the girl was two years younger and went to a different school, they’d immediately hit it off. Vindia turned her dark-eyed gaze on Majin,
“Why don’t you stop eating, come over here and learn how to hit a girl,” she said and Majin sobered. Rihka laughed and shook her head,
“She’s right you know Majin, how do you expect to pass the second Test if you still can’t hit one of us? You know they’re going to make you go up against one just because, they know all our weaknesses.” Majin shook his head,
“What makes you think we’ll pass anyway? The damn thing’s rigged, you know that. How many of us have you seen ever get out of Ember Island? You get all excited, work your asses off for the second Test, then if you don’t get placed, it’s off to the Border with you,” he said bitterly. The Border was the bridge between the Republic and the rest of the new world. It was imperative that one was placed in the system after the second Test, failure to do so was seen as unacceptable in the government’s eyes and perpetrators were sent off to find their own way in the world.
“Alright, enough with the conspiracy theories Majin,” Rihka said attempting to lighten the mood. Her friend always got upset whenever the Tests were mentioned and she didn’t feel like wasting what little time they had left in the centre arguing with him. As if reading her thoughts, she felt the wind off Vindia’s leg as she came at her hard and Rihka only just sidestepped out of the way. She undercut her, delivering a low punch to the stomach, then another to her thigh. Vindia grunted and fell to a knee, raising her hands in surrender.
“Okay, you win this time, thought I had you with that rib bender though,” she said mischievously. Rihka pulled off her tee-shirt, inspecting the bruising of her ribs.
“Did a pretty good job of it, but no, got to do way better to take me down,” she said laughing. Majin came to stand with them as they changed, staring indiscriminately at their half-naked bodies.
“You people do realise I’m a guy right?” Rihka scoffed,
“You’re Majin, you’re not a guy, you’re just kind of, I dunno, asexual.” Vindia laughed at her comments and Rihka rubbed Majin’s shoulders. “Don’t worry Maj, asexual men have the best wing women, you point out any girl you like and we can make it happen,” she said with a twinkle in her eye and was rewarded with Majin’s tell-tale signs of discomfort. He folded and unfolded his arms, scratched his head, looked away and licked his lips a few times before answering her.
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said, recovering and Rihka laughed again, knowing full well that even if she did set up some kind of date for him, he wouldn’t have the guts to go through with it. Majin could be as loud as they came but when it came to the fairer sex, his game left lots to be desired.
“Okay I’m off, wanted to leave early in case the airbus is late again.” They parted ways and Rihka hurried off. She dealt with enough discomfort in her old home without having to deal with her mother’s disapproving gaze if she rolled in late as well. Luckily the bus was on time and her journey to Ignis City went without a hitch. She changed buses at the terminal and keyed in her destination before she sat down. The transport was moderately full and Rihka absently watched one of the twelve screens that lined the walls. Some girl was crying after losing a contest, there was an ad about the Lucky Lady, three men with guns were the latest craze in crime shows and before she knew it, the airbus was stopping at Crescent Hill terminal.
Each time she came there, Rihka marvelled at how little the place had changed. It was still the sleepy little town she’d grown up in, with the same well-kept gardens and voice-activated only sliding gates. There couldn’t be more than a thousand residents total in Crescent Hill, yet Rihka couldn’t say she knew even a handful. She made her way swiftly along, being careful to stay on the walkways. Stepping onto roads where vehicles passed set off alarms that would raise the dead. It was an innovation meant to protect the children who used to play in the streets, but was little more than a nuisance to everyone else.
It wasn’t long before she turned into her parent’s long driveway and she walked up to the high gate, pressing her lips close to the intercom system.
“Rihka Melawe,” she said, smoothing her hair that now fell to her shoulders. Rihka preferred her ponytail as her hair made her hot, but her mother liked it down, so, she wore it like that whenever she came to see them. She hoped the floral patterned sundress she wore would please her parents and thinking of it now, looked down uneasily at her black sandals. She was just about to bend to wipe a bit of scuff off them, when the gate slid open. Rihka hurried in, knowing that the gate would close seconds after opening.
She went up the long redbrick pathway to the house. It was a two-storey limestone building, with pretty hibiscus hedges lining the pathways. Her mother stood at the door, arms opened for an embrace.
“Rihka, sweetie, we’ve missed you,” she said, “Come inside, come on.” Rihka accepted the stiff show of affection. She didn’t know how to react to her family anymore, though no one said it, she knew she was the outcast, the only one that hadn’t been able to make the grade.
“Honey,” her father said in his gruff way and shook her hand. Rihka nodded,
“Mum, dad, it’s good to see you,” she said, forcing a smile. “Where are Benn and Jenna?” she asked, missing her older brother’s playful greeting and younger sister’s sullen one. Her parents exchanged a look,
“Well sweetie, they both have mid-terms and are taking extra lessons on the weekends. Benn is at combat training and Jenna has languages,” she patted Rihka’s arm, “You know how these Valley schools are,” she said almost apologetically, but Rihka could see through the façade. She nodded, helping her father set the table,
“I’ve been training really hard too, making sure I’m ready for the second Test,” she said, trying to pour cheer into her voice. Her parents exchanged another quick look,
“Oh?” her father said, breaking the silence, “You have instructors on . . .” he cleared his throat, “Where you are?” They sat and Rihka’s stomach churned. She plastered a smile onto her face,
“No, but I have combat training with this girl I know and I buy extra books with the money I earn at the café, so I think I’ll do better this time,” she said, spooning a large helping of mashed potatoes onto her plate. Her mother reached across the table and patted her hand,
“It’s good that you’re trying dear, but it’s really not quite the same as having instructors and extra lessons is it?” Rihka felt her false smile slide off her face. “Don’t you worry though sweetie, you just do your best.”
“Listen to your mother,” her father echoed, cracking a half-smile. They started talking about her siblings. Benn had won a new award for excellence in some subject or other and Jenna was showing great aptitude in all physical activity. Rihka listened as they opined on the jobs they expected the two of them would be able to get, as they gushed praises between bites of food. Rihka stared down at her plate, the potatoes smothered in gravy, with vegetables swimming around the dark pool merged as her vision blurred. She felt herself tense and took in a deep breath, struggling to release it. I’m not going to cry, she told herself. She hadn’t cried at this table since she’d first found out she had to live on Ember Island and she wasn’t about to start now.
“Rihka, sweetie? Your father asked you a question.” She looked up collecting her thoughts and found her fake smile again.
“Yes daddy? Sorry, my mind was somewhere else,” she said, looking at him expectantly.
“I was saying that we might have to make another cutback on the money we give you every month.” Rihka swallowed hard. She’d taken the job at The Crater to pay for the reading materials she needed for the academic section of the test, she wouldn’t be able to do that and support herself on the island if her security fund dried up any further. She took a deep breath and told her parents as much. Her father shook his head, expression suddenly stern,
“Well I’m sorry Rihka, but this is what you get. I told you and told you to study hard and what did you do? You wasted your opportunity.” Rihka kept her tone even,
“Dad, I tried, I really did, I just, I just wasn’t good enough then. But now, I’ve really been working hard and if I can just keep buying what I need, I’ll pass for sure, I know it.” Her mother’s hand reached across the table again and Rihka fought the urge to shake it off.
“Rihka sweetie,” she said, her kind eyes wanting Rihka to believe she’d say she believed in her, that she knew she could do it, instead she said, “We have to focus on our children that are succeeding. We’re not cutting you off sweetie, we just can’t give you as much as we once did, please understand.” The sickly sweetness of her tone made Rihka want to throw up and she felt the old anger she’d first felt as they’d let the authorities take her away, rise up within her. She bit her lip, remembering that others, like Majin, didn’t get anything at all from their parents.
“Okay, I understand,” she said simply.
“Good, that’s settled,” her mother said with a broad smile. “Now Rihka, I made bread pudding just for you, I know it’s your favourite and as the others aren’t here I figured why not?” She laughed happily and Rihka gave a small smile. She wondered if she could trade bread pudding for books.
More food and problems in Chapter 4…