AM walked into school as usual, swinging her backpack and eating the remnants of her granola bar. She was looking forward to the day. It was a special one, after all. The sun was shining brightly outside, and a pleasant wind blew, rustling the dry leaves in the school compound. AM dodged groups of older girls chattering at the high volume that seemed to be a standard characteristic of everyone in that age group, her braid whipping around and nearly smacking a scowling boy in the face. “Oops!” she called out, already moving past, searching for JP. She knew she would be just as excited as she was, and their enthusiasm would soon pass on to their less thrilled classmates. “Your hyperactive behaviour is contagious”, her mother had said when AM and JP had organized a toddler rebellion in their preschool and continued to be the two most explosively interesting people in the room ever since.
She spotted his dark brown curls beside the canteen. “JP! This is it. Finally!” JP beamed at her. Before he could say anything, an announcement boomed “All students aged 13 report to the hall immediately!” AM and JP hurried there, knocking people over in the process, and too excited to care.
Today was the day they got their DL Indicators. In case you hadn't noticed yet, this town loved abbreviations. The tradition started aeons ago and by now initials had replaced names. You must be wondering how they managed to avoid the overlap. Well, it was a small town, the kind where you’d bunk a class and your mom would know before you’d made it to the nearest McDonald’s. And they’d just add roman numerals to the initials like emperors of old in case one family got too attached to their names. But more importantly- the DL Indicator Accordance was a rite of passage of sorts for everyone in the town. And yes, the ceremony was as flavourless as the name. It really was a very dull process, but as you must’ve gathered by now, this was a thoroughly bored town. You had to make the most of what you got. So it’d almost turned into a fair of sorts, with snacks and terrible music and steady gossip.
The process hadn't always been this...bland. It started out as a royal ceremony conducted by the queens and kings of yore, but had petered down due to the abject laziness every townsperson seemed to suffer from. The basics remained, though. Each child was called upon in alphabetical order, had their five minutes of fame as they ate the crushed powder, and ran back to their friends as soon as the DL indicators began to glow above their heads. The DL (Darkness-Light) indicators were another obsolete part of their culture. They looked like unimpressive battery level indicators on a phone, except hued black and yellow and showing a fixed percentage that hovered above your head for the rest of your life. This replaced the need for street lights since a group of people walking at night could illuminate the path for themselves like hybrid, holographic honeybees. They looked like something straight out of a Disney show. The boring part lay in the fact that the percentage indicators remained obnoxiously the same. Unmoving. Every single person has the same percentage breakup: 85% Light and 15% Dark. And it didn't stray by 0.01%. This signified that they were a group of good people- but alas, what does goodness matter when the alternative is excitement? Unfortunately, they hadn't had cause for excitement for decades at this point. No one expected this year to be any different.
AM and JP stood waiting for their turn. No one could call them patient. AM had fidgeted so much with her rubber band, it gave way as soon as her name was called. She had no time to fix her braid, so it hung loosely, giving her the appearance of someone who’d tumbled out of bed. Looking like a bedraggled, unkempt elf, she beamed as she ate the crushed powder. Soon enough, the DL indicator began to glow above her head. 85% L, 15% D. She smiled, her face glowing with the joy of someone who felt grownup and wise beyond their years. She made a move to get off the stool. The administrator’s hand suddenly shot out. “Wait”, she said in disbelief, “Your...your DLI is...changing.” AM stared at her as if she’d lost it. DLI didn't change. Ever. But she glanced up, and sure enough, the black and yellow were fluctuating, sliding across the bar and looking like a honeycomb experiencing World War 2. The crowd stopped stuffing their faces, stopped bickering over whose child was the most studious, stopped haggling. Here was the excitement they'd craved for years. At this point, even AM, who thrived under any sort of attention, wanted nothing more than to slide slowly off the stage and melt into the crowd.
Finally, the DLI stopped. A collective gasp rose through the crowd. AM looked up. 85% D, 15% L. “Are you sure - are you sure the powder wasn’t messed up? Flipped the ratio or something?” she murmured, turning to the administrator, never one to hold her tongue. The administrator seemed too shocked to respond. AM was escorted down the stage to her mother’s side (what did you think would happen? She’d be locked up to perform science experiments upon? This isn’t the Hunger Games or Divergent or Maze Runner. Some small towns remain just that- small towns).
She was locked up.
AM took this surprisingly well. She considered this the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. And god, was she tired of routine. So she was 85% D? So what? As if that made a difference. Everyone had the same numbers, but everyone was nowhere near the same level of nice. She thought of ZT, who cheated off JP in every test since the 1st grade and stole his spot as first place. His ratio was the same, but that didn't make him nice. DLI were obsolete- and AM had been smarter than most townspeople, who still thought the DLI held some sway. It just didn't make sense, she thought. If the DLI was a little more accurate, at least there’d be one or two point percentage changes. AM heard voices in the hall. “First her- and now that boy. What is happening?” Dr. DD murmured. “99% L, 1% D. How did he even manage to become that pious? Is he an angel? A saint? “ an agitated woman’s voice said. “Seems unlikely an angel would bear the appearance of a straggly 13 year old boy who looks like a lost yet somehow overexcited puppy” remarked Dr. DD dryly. AM’s eyes widened. It was JP’s DLI they were talking about, she was sure of it. Well, she always had told him he was the perfect shield because his innocent face saved both of them when they were caught. Suddenly, AM heard a rustling noise behind her. She turned around, and like every cliche sci-fi movie, she saw an injection right before she passed out.
AM woke up and moved her arm slowly. A man in white was sitting in front of her, and he started violently. And then screamed. And then he sobbed. AM stared at him, slightly concerned. She could only think about what her mother would think of him- honestly, she called her dramatic. Vague recognition flashed across her face. This was Dr. DD - and unless he’d been overcome with a sudden strange desire to streak his hair white in the course of a night, the salt and pepper look was strange. Before she could say anything, he rushed out of the room, and a few moments later, there were so many people in the room, laughing and crying and congratulating each other and smiling at her as if she should recognize them. AM was beginning to worry for their sanity at this point. “I mean, I am entertaining and wonderful and pretty indispensable to every conversation, but even for seeing me, this reaction seems a bit much,” she said. The chaotic buzzing ceased immediately. “Well,” said Dr. DD. “There's a little bit we have to fill you in on.” AM internally groaned. She hated when other people blabbed incessantly. What a bore. But as she opened her mouth with a skeptical look on her face, one man seemed like he'd let the waterworks flow again. And dear god, AM did not want to deal with their crying. So she just nodded.
Fifteen minutes later, AM gaped at herself in the mirror. She had grown about a foot. Her hair could've rivalled Rapunzel’s. And she definitely did not look 13. It seemed easier to believe Dr. DD now. When they injected her with the serum, it was to sedate her so they could find out what was wrong with her and why she seemed to have a predisposition for evil. But something had reacted adversely in her body and sent her into an induced sleep for the next 4 years. AM shook her head, amused. “They could write a book on me. Or a news article, at the very least. “Teenage trials take a twisted path, is this a real-life reincarnation of Bucky Barnes? Turn to page 3 to find out more!” She could imagine the local paper’s headline. As she remembered what Dr. DD had said about JP, her smile dipped. Apparently, overzealous puppy JP had turned into a vengeful, bitter, bloodthirsty young man who believed the doctors had done this to her on purpose. But AM knew better. These doctors were too lazy and incompetent to conduct any sort of long-drawn clinical trials on her, and that was the sad truth. “It would've been cool to be a part of something that big,” she thought. Anyway, she had some world saving to do. “All in a day's work” she had reassured the flabbergasted Dr. DD, who had tried to explain that JP had defied his DLI absolutely and decided to act as though the ratio was flipped, organizing rebellion and pushing their town into a state of anarchy and chaos. AM had simply scoffed, told Dr. DD that he was making the mistake of underestimating her, and casually strolled to JP’s ‘headquarters’.
She spotted the signature mop of dark curls and smiled.
“I understand typical teenage angst, but this is taking it a bit far, don’t you think?” AM drawled, casually leaning on a banister.
As the last words were out of her mouth, JP’s knife was pressed against her throat.
“Easyyy” AM said, rolling her eyes. “Gosh, you’re still as uptight as ever.”
JP’s eyes flashed with fury. Then shock. Recognition soon followed. Longing replaced it. And then a quiet shield covered them.
“I hope you’ll accompany me” was all he said, stepping back and polishing the blade with his shirt.
AM smiled. “I didn't know you had a penchant for trashy romance novels. If I knew, I would have made sure to declare my undying love for you as my opening statement” she grinned.
JP looked less than amused.
AM grew bored. “We are not killing them.” she said.
JP shrugged. “Have it your way. Meet me for lunch at the corner store in 15?”
AM narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at” she glared. “But this is not a goddamn movie. Or a perfect, bestselling YA novel. You are not the sweet childhood best friend perilously in love with me who wanted to avenge me all these years. Quit it with the ‘painful past scarred me’ bullshit and see reason.” she said.
JP opened his mouth, and then shut it like a goldfish as AM raised her finger and continued. “You think the way to solve the stupid superstitions of our town is to throw us into anarchy? Instead, we show them you. And me. How we both defied our stupid Darkness-Light Indicators and turned out the complete opposite. We show them that these don't matter, that darkness and light intertwine exhaustingly like a marvellous Ariadne’s web, and that they do not control us, we control them. A battery percentage rip-off can't dictate who we are as people. If it was even slightly honest, it would fluctuate at any given point of the year, depending upon our actions, our thoughts, and it would still be inaccurate, because it doesn't factor in emotions. Those pesky feelings. Conscience. Guilt. We tried to quantify it, and all we’ve done is miserably fail. I don't want to give a tradition that power!” she fumed. “Also, I cannot be a walking talking traffic light. Or streetlight. Gosh, the fashion faux pas. No way.” she added.
JP continued to stare. “You're actually - actually- right.”
“I’m sure that was hard to admit, considering you’re a goddamn know-it-all” AM smirked.
“And you’re an attention seeking ho-”
AM pushed him down the stairs.
Fifteen minutes later, they sat on the steps, JP massaging his sore arm.
“We had it all wrong as kids, you know.” AM muttered.
JP just looked annoyed.
“Are you still mad I pushed you? God, you deserved it” snorted AM.
AM stared coolly.
JP threw up his hands.
“I tear apart our GODDAMN TOWN to avenge you and you scold me and tell me I'm a pretentious brat?” he yelled.
“Well, you needed a reality check,'' grumbled AM. “Thank god this isn’t a novel. Because if it was, now that we’ve decided to be heroes and save the world -”
“Tomorrow “ said JP, scowling.
“-Tomorrow” agreed AM, “If it was a YA novel, you'd hold my hand or something now, and-”
JP inched his hand towards hers.
“Don't you DARE” warned AM.
“IF YOU HOLD MY HAND-”
He held her hand.
Author: Ananya Chaure
Editor: Sanya Chadha