The Talent Trials

The Talent Trials

A Chapter by A.E. Surdam

(POV: Clara)

"What do you mean," I asked without hesitation.

Judy ran her hand through her hair and huffed, "I don't understand what the big deal is. If they only used their brains and put everything together they'd see that the poor man lost his family. His wife died from the coughing sickness two months ago. And since he lost RJ three years ago, I think it was just too much for him."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"I couldn't. I promised daddy that I wouldn't tell anyone. You have to believe me. That reporter said he killed himself because of them. It's not true."

"Won't your dad find out that you told me all of this?"

"If you keep quiet about it, he won't know. So don't open your mouth and tell anyone. I wanted to tell you because you had to go through all of that earlier. Usually, I always do what daddy tells me to, but this time I just couldn't."

I waited for her to continue, and instead, she pulled out a folded up sheet of paper from the back of her pants. Once she unfolded it, I recognized the content immediately.

"A Talent Trial entry form... Are you entering this year?" I asked.

Judy folded the paper and slipped it back into her pants. "I am, and it'll be my first time. Are you entering?"

"It's up to my parents."

"I forgot that you have a large family. You know that if you pass you're only allowed to choose three of them to become Lovelies with you."

"I can't do that to them. There are ten of us, and my mom's pregnant with her seventh child."

Judy tapped her finger against her chin and suggested, "The only way all of you could successfully go together... no, that's impossible." She laughed so hard she wiped tears from her eyes. "Sorry. This would take a miracle, but a prince or princess would have to select someone in your family for marriage. Plus, I'd be extremely jealous if that did happen!"

"That will never happen," I responded. "I can't believe you got my hopes up for nothing. I know that multiple people from one family can enter at the same time, but if any of us fails, I don't know what we'll do."

"They'll stay as Desirables. It isn't the end of the world.

"Yes, it is. I know. My dad took it only once, and now he's stuck. He can't take it again, because if he did he would have -"

"Dropped down to a gray," she interrupted.

"You don't have to keep reminding me, Judy. I am well aware of the rules," I said before I crossed the street and walked toward a nearby restaurant.

She followed me and asked, "Where are you going?"

I ignored her and stopped at the menu displayed on the front door.

Judy cleared her throat to drag my attention from the appetizers. "So who's able to enter this year, if your family agrees to it?"

"Come look at this menu, Judy. Their food looks good. I'll have to stop by one day when the city smell isn't so rancid. I can't eat anywhere without getting sick, but the food here is so cheap! You should have lunch with me. We can have a girls' day," I rambled. I hated talking about my private life. Everyone always judged my parents for having so many kids. No other family in our district had more than four. Sometimes I felt like a burden to them.

"Clara! Will you pay attention? I'm being serious here," she snapped and stomped her foot on the sidewalk.

I turned away from the menu and held up my hands in front of me. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry. There are four of us that can enter this year. Adaline is eighteen, and Michael is twenty-one. I'm twenty-five, while William is twenty-six."

Judy brushed her hair away from her face and frowned. "I hope you all aren't entering into the same category. Only two winners are selected from each one."

I shifted my bag to the other arm after I lost feeling in my right shoulder. I was tired, hungry and had a massive headache. I wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep the day away, but this heavy bag reminded me of the deadline tomorrow. I didn't want to spend all day arguing with her, so I quickly listed my family's traits with a long drawn out sigh, "Ada sings. Michael is entering Intelligence." I paused and then glanced at Judy who watched me with interest. I took a deep breath and relaxed. She hasn't seen me in years, so of course, she's probably concerned over my welfare. I continued in a softer voice, "William wants to enter the Strength category, even though my family told him to enter Beauty. He trains in secret everyday before school, but he isn't aware that I know."

"What are you entering in? If I remember right, you won four awards for your singing while we were in school."

"Three. I'm amazed that you remembered something like that."

"Three, four, same thing. We're friends. Obviously, I'm gonna remember stuff about them," Judy answered with a smile.

"We are friends, aren't we?" I said to myself. I looked up at the dark sky. Even though it was somewhere around eight in the morning, it was dark outside. Thankfully, we had our own light source to mimic the sun. I felt so much better after I had answered Judy's earlier question, "I don't sing anymore. Ada is the singer now." Judy opened her mouth to speak, but I quickly said, "Her dream is to be a professional singer. I don't want to steal her dream just because I can sing a little better than she can."

"Clara, this is life and death. You know what'll happen if you fail three times, right?"

I nodded and replied, "I'll become an Unwanted Dove."

"You'll never get another chance, and you will be banished." Judy went silent, as she stared at me as if she were trying to read my thoughts. She finally spoke with a demanding voice. "What category, Clara?"

I closed my eyes and thought about lying to her, but I knew she'd read my expression. She might already even know the answer. So instead of stalling, I blurted, "Beauty."

I waited for her hysterics and yelling. When she remained silent, I felt suspicious and opened my eyes. Her face was pale, as her mouth opened and closed like a fish. I waited for her body to catch up with her mind. Color finally returned to her cheeks. She sputtered, "Y-you have dark hair! Are you stupid?"

"Will you calm down? I know I have dark hair. It's kind of hard to miss in the mirror," I replied with a dry murmur.

"You know? Obviously, you don't. They won't pick you. You're beautiful, but dark hair and eyes cancels everything out. It's just plain suicidal."

"My mother has dark hair, and she passed," I stated irritated.

"I don't believe it."

"I thought you knew everything."

Judy's questioning annoyed me. I knew that my chances at passing were slim, but I didn't have anything else that I could win at. I couldn't bare to steal my sister's dream and see her resentment. I loved to sing, but my sister was worth more to me than fame and wealth. I could enter with Ada and pray that we both passed. Knowing my luck though, someone more desirable would enter and sing even better. I refused to bet my family's success on my selfishness.

"My dad failed because he chose strength over beauty. The judges even said that he might have passed."

"What does that have to do with your mom? She could have chosen him as one of her Lovely choices," Judy stated, confused.

"They weren't married," I explained. "My mom stayed behind and married my dad. They were in love but neither of them spoke of it. They were neighbors. And you have to be single to enter."

"Oh that's right! Sorry, I completely forgot about that."

I sighed and continued, "After my mom heard he failed, she sought him out in the stadium and confessed. The rest is obvious."

Judy massaged her temples with a groan. "I'm trying to understand you. I really am. It doesn't mean you'll pass though. I'm sorry to say this, Clara, but dark hair is seen as dirty and unlucky by the Lovelies. That's why people dye their hair."

"I am not changing the way I look," I declared with my hands clenched.

"Not even to help your family?"

I walked away from the conversation and the restaurant to stop near a small dress boutique down the street. I gazed into the shop window. Mannequins wore stylish outfits and stood in various poses. Judy's footsteps smacked against the cement as she walked. I saw her reflection move behind mine, and from the way she twisted her lips, she was waiting for me to talk.

The silence pressured me to speak, so I responded, "We can't afford anything like that. My parents are already paying for Michael's and Ada's tuition. Plus, they're supporting Ella and Robert while they are in school. Money is tight. I earn a paycheck from my job, but eighty percent of it goes toward our expenses."

"See! You have twenty percent left, so you can afford the dye. I only hear you making excuses, Clara, and I bet your parents would help you if you asked them too."

"Why does everyone want me to change?" I shouted. I was tired of everyone telling me that I wasn't good enough. If I wanted to win, I had to be someone else. I continued to rant, "I like my hair and how I look. I don't understand why this world is so fixated on appearances. Can't you just accept me for who I am? Yes, I'm different, and so what?"

Judy placed her hand on my shoulder. She gave me a soft smile. "I know this world is s****y, and it isn't fair how we are forced to change to look like the Lovelies. At the end of the day just because they say you aren't perfect, it doesn't mean a thing. Keep believing in yourself, Clara. Smile and live. That's all we can do. No matter what they say or do. You are you, and I am me. They may change us on the outside, yet who we are on the inside will remain the same. Do you understand?"

I whispered, "It shouldn't have to be this way."

Judy's hand dropped from my shoulder. She choked on her breath as if she wanted to cry but couldn't. Her eyes were watery like mine. "That's the kind of world we live in right now, and who knows maybe someone brave and strong will stand up to save us someday."

"...When that day comes, we might finally get to see what the sun and moon look like. I've only seen them in pictures."

"Promise me this, Clara," Judy began in a gentle voice, "if you fail, don't take it again. I can't bare to lose anymore of my friends."

"The same goes for you," I replied.

We smiled at each other and then laughed. I turned back toward the shop window and perused the merchandise. I poked Judy and motioned for her to move closer. A tall, busty mannequin wore an adorable knee-length, striped pink dress with matching bow-tie sandals.

"Look Judy," I said with excitement. "Isn't that dress cute?

"It's beautiful but not that beautiful. That damned thing costs three hundred copals. That's two of my paychecks!"

"I love the hem and lace... I can't afford it either. But I like to window shop. Don't you wish we could wear clothes like this one day?"

"You'll wear them before me. Being a designer at Darla's Dresses, you have access to all the latest fashions. And they're the most expensive line out there."

"Access," I laughed. "More like servant. I was locked in the sewing room last night. Wait, how did you know I worked there?"

She pointed to my swipe card and identification hanging out from my bag. "You better be more careful with that. Lose it, and you'll be paying a huge fine."

"Thank you!" I exclaimed. I moved the lanyard from the outside pocket and into my bulging bag with all of my unfinished work. I was in such a hurry to leave work that I never realized I put it in the wrong place. I glanced up and asked, "Where do you work, Judy?"

"I'm a teacher at Desirable High."

"You are? William teaches eleventh grade history there. Do you see each other? What do you teach?"

"Math. Mainly Algebra," she replied with a chuckle.

I blushed, embarrassed over my excitement. "Sorry, I got a little too excited. I still can't believe you know William. He never said anything. I rarely see him though since he's coaches the Martial Arts Club. Are you in charge of any teams or club?" I asked, as I dug my phone out from a side pocket in my bag.

"You need money to start a club. Equipment and uniforms are expensive. The school doesn't fund anything, and the club fees that the students pay aren't enough to sustain the expenses. So the teachers have to pay for the rest. I don't make very much, so no. That's why I said you'll wear that dress before I will."

"I don't think that's true," I replied. "If we pass the Trials, we'll be able to buy anything we want. Plus, our pay will jump up to runes."

I used my phone to snap a few pictures of the dress. They'll make great reference material for my drawings.

Judy giggled and fanned her face with one of her hands. "And have handsome men begging to marry us."

I slipped my phone into the back pocket of my jeans with a smile. I stared at the dress and then frowned. Judy was right. We could never afford anything like that. As Doves, we earned just enough to pay our expenses. Only the rich had the luxury to buy what they wanted. Our currency system was designed to keep us in the hole. Runes were the highest form of currency in Cathia. Higher education meant better pay. An Unwanted Dove made pells, and it took one hundred of them to create a rune. Grays were paid noles, and twenty created a rune. Depending on the education of a Desirable, we made either dinas or copals. Ten dinas or four copals would also equal a rune. We had to use our money wisely, for there was a loophole within the Talent Trials. If a Dove could save one hundred thousand runes, they could pay for their freedom. Only a few in our history have managed to buy their way through.

"I feel like this is all a bad dream, and one day I'll wake up to something better," I whispered.

I met Judy's eyes through the glass when she said, "We all think like that, Clara."

"I know, but only if this stupid wall didn't exist. We'd" I trailed off when I noticed the shop's windows sparkling. Startled, I gawked at my glimmering reflection, and for a moment, I thought I had imagined it when it stopped. I looked up at the heavy, smog-covered sky and was shocked to see light filtering through the clouds. Blinded, I shielded my eyes.

Judy stared at me as though I had lost my mind. She followed my line of sight and ended up gawking at the sky too. We saw sunlight for the first time in our lives. When the light seemed to be moving away, I shouted, "Come back!"

Entranced by the beautiful, bewitching yellow light, Judy and I chased the moving clouds. I stopped running when the light ceased its movement. Neither Judy nor I noticed our surroundings. We lingered near a dark alley, for we were amazed at what color really looked like. The normally drab, brown brick building appeared a deep, vibrant red while the sidewalks sparkled a dark silver. The streets were a charcoal black.

In Rainsomore, we were nature-less and had dull-appearing colors due to the absence of sunlight. The city was made from steel, cement, and brick. Without any trees, flowers, or grass, we lacked what seemed natural to other countries. One hundred and ten years ago, King Lucien II decided that vultures were hideous and served the world no purpose, so he ordered for them to be hunted to extinction. The Cathians refused the inhumane order; however, anyone who openly resisted the decree was sentenced to death.

We never realized how important a single animal was until after its extinction. We sought to fix the hole in our food chain after King Lucien's death, but no other country would sell or trade with us. After a hundred years, animals became scarce, and the few that lived within the alleys, which were mainly dogs and cats, would either die from starvation or sickness. Their bodies piled up for the rats and bugs, so we were forced to burn the carcasses to prevent disease from spreading. The smoke then combined with the pollution from the factories creating a thick, heavy smog that settled over the city. By trying to protect our present, we harmed our future, for what seemed like a harmless smog a poison lived in our air. The City of Jewels' scientists declared the smog safe, contradicting our hospitals' data. Our king forced us to accept that the Lovelies were never wrong with death threats. Yet, they could not explain the coughing sickness that plagued us. People were dying, and our king did nothing to help us.

As children, we told stories about the City of Jewels and the Lovelies who lived there. You should only have one wish, my mother would always say and that was to be a Lovely and move to the other side of the wall. Many of my friends pursued their dreams for a better life, but the Talent Trials' judges ripped out their aspirations for the future and returned them to a colder reality than before.

I took out my phone and aimed the camera lens toward the sunlight. I took a few photos and then scrolled through each one, amazed at our good fortune. The dress photo held no comparison in color against the sunlight's beauty.

"Clara, something smells really bad," Judy said as she coughed.

My nose suddenly burned, so I pulled my shirt up over my mouth and nose. I looked around and noticed a rotting dog corpse covered with maggots and swarming flies. Why hadn't I noticed this sooner? After I realized where we were, I panicked and grabbed Judy's arm. I clutched my phone in the other to call William to come and get us. He should be leaving the gym now for class.

"That hurts," Judy whimpered. "What's wrong with you? It's already hard enough to breath. I don't need you freaking out on me."

I took a few steady breaths of hot, putrid air before speaking, yet my voice still had a tightness to it. "Judy, be quiet," I croaked. "I need to listen." She covered her mouth to refrain from coughing. I released her arm and pointed to the alley. "We need to leave. Hurry."

Judy looked back at the alley and screamed. I heard its chilling, deep growl before I noticed the Dauth closing in on us. If I had known that the dog was originally the Dauth's kill, I would have ran from that place immediately. Normally, we stayed away from dark places, for that was where the Dauths lived. Yet, the light was so rare that I was bewitched and led Judy into danger. Maybe the Dauth knew we were distracted by the light that is if it was even still capable of thought. Our parents told us stories about them, the frightening, human-like creatures called the Dauths. We believed them only to be scary bed-time stories. Reality was cruel, because Dauths were very real and deadly. These creatures were referred to as them, because many people feared that if their name was said out loud they would be summoned.

Judy screamed when its tail zipped out from the alley and grabbed her by the leg. She reached out to me and cried, "Clara, help me!"

Without thinking, I dropped my phone and tried to grab her outstretched hand, but she was suddenly yanked to the ground before our hands touched and dragged into the alley.

© 2018 A.E. Surdam

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Added on November 11, 2018
Last Updated on November 11, 2018
Tags: fantasy, romance, fiction, mythical creatures, war, resistance, kingdom, monsters, society, prince, races, romance-fantasy, strong female lead, utopia, dystopian, young-adult, horror, first-person


A.E. Surdam
A.E. Surdam

Picayune, MS

My pen name is A.E. Surdam, and I am a writer. I attended Stephens College and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2014. Afterwards, I gained my Master of Arts degree from Southern New Hampshire.. more..

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