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Stucco Hearts

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Annabeth Chase wakes up a whole minute before her alarm goes off and stares at the cracked ceiling of her bedroom as she lies buried in the scratchy sheets of her single bed. The closed window to her right dispels the noise of the street below: cars and buses rumbling up and down tired streets, voices shouting back and forth, angry and worn out. Like the world they live in.

She counts down the seconds for her alarm to go off, three sharp beeps and then the hum of the radio; a bleaty pop song she doesn’t know the name of. Annabeth’s sigh falls silently into the room and she sits up, dragging the covers away and flinching at the cold air. Manhattan in November reveals the city at its bleakest nature and the cold seems to seep into Annabeth’s very bones.

The bed groans as she stands up and stretches her hands to the ceiling, fingers intertwined as her spine cracks. In the same movement, she bends over, keeping her legs straight as she presses her palms to the wooden floorboards. Her body is stiff from the cold and she feels much older than her twenty two years. Sometimes she cannot believe she is already twenty two years old. Her childhood is a distant memory; she barely remembers the innocence she once looked at the world with. Annabeth has spent most of her twenty two years of life angry at the world, at her parents and her government and her damn bad luck. At this point, she doesn’t know how to feel any other way.

The floorboards creak as she walks the short distance from her bed to the tiny bathroom and strips off her layers of clothes, stepping into the small shower. The water barely reaches lukewarm and Annabeth makes her shower quick, scrubbing her long blonde curls with cheap shampoo and shaving her underarms with a disposable razor which nicks at her skin. If the air was cold before, it positively stings her wet skin as she furiously rubs her body dry with a thin towel, the material of which is just as cheap and scratchy as her bedsheets.

Life hasn’t always been this way for her. Her parent’s house - that is, her father’s and her stepmother's - is big and beautiful and out of the city, far away from the cluttered sprawl of Manhattan. Her sheets had been freshly washed by a maid once a week and the shower pressure had been - well, more than the trickle she puts up with now. But she will never go back there. As soon as she graduated high school, Annabeth had scrounged up six years of part time work wages and moved into the city. Her father is required by law to pay for her school tuition if he is able to - and he certainly is - but she still has to pay for her apartment, heating, water, food, travel and so on. She gets by now on the wages she receives working four days a week at a law firm; the same one that her best friend Piper is doing an internship with as part of her training to become an attorney. It’s dull work, but she prefers it to waiting on tables and forcing polite smiles to jackass customers.

Working four full days a week means that Annabeth has to complete her college course over five years instead of the standard three. Today is a college day, meaning a morning of lectures followed by a measly lunch from the cafeteria before she heads North into the city to take part in one of the protests she’s been helping organise for the past month. Annabeth has been protesting since she could first understand the concept of injustice - which was of the age of seven. And there is plenty of injustice for her to complain about now.

A hundred and fifty years ago, mankind discovered the countdown. An internal clock inside every living human which counted down the years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds until a person will meet their soulmate - the one person with whom they would spend the rest of their lives. And the brilliant scientists and technicians figured out a way to make this clock a displayable one, so that everybody could know exactly when they would meet their soulmate. At birth, every baby was implanted with the timer on the inside of their left wrist, and from that moment on, their digits would be ticking down.

As she drags a sweater over her head, Annabeth glances at her own wrist. 3:19:5:42:45. She has three and a half months left and then those numbers will be replaced with a name; the name of her supposed soul mate.

Annabeth tells herself that the timers themselves are not evil. After all, she doesn’t want to spend her whole life alone. She would hardly call herself a romantic, but she does believe in love- she has witnessed it enough times. And if it wasn’t for the laws, perhaps she would eagerly watch the numbers on the inside of her wrist countdown.

But, upon this great discovery, the government had seized their chance to restore order to their beloved country of delinquents. This had been their chance to enforce family values and improve the deteriorating society. For National Law now states that, just two weeks after two people’s timers run out, they must get married. They are then monitored by weekly meetings with a councillor, and when that councillor decides the newlyweds are ready to begin a family, the couple are given a court order to become pregnant or adopt a child within two months.

It’s barbaric, and she hates it. She despises a system where her fundamental human rights have been squashed beneath the great foot of a government claiming that this is all for the greater good. Well what’s the point of a greater good when people no longer hold the right to their own bodies? Annabeth has considered fleeing the country, but there is little better to escape to and the increasing immigration laws make it nearly impossible to leave or enter the country without smuggling yourself in the back of a truck. There are, of course, the untimed. Those who have cut out their timers and run before they are found. But Annabeth cannot run, she does not want to run. She wants to live; she wants to finish her studies and become a professional architect and make her mark on the Manhattan skyline.

As she steps out onto the street, dragging the door to her building closed after her, Annabeth tucks her thick scarf down the front of her coat and miserably watches her breath fog out in front of her. She only has to walk a few blocks to college and picks up an overpriced coffee at the shop on campus before arriving outside her lecture theatre fifteen minutes before it’s due to begin. She leans against the wall and pulls out her cellphone, texting Thalia.

All set for this afternoon?

It takes her a few minutes to reply, but when she does it makes Annabeth laugh. You woke me up. Ass. Annabeth tucks her phone back in her pocket and joins the slow slog of people walking into the lecture theatre. Thalia works night shifts at a bar and often sleeps until around midday to compensate for the lack of sleep she gets at night.

Annabeth had met Thalia while she was still in middle school. And though Thalia is three years her senior, they have always gotten on well, falling into fast agreement on their disagreements with the law. Thalia is not restrained by the obligations that holds Annabeth in line and acts far more liberally because of that. Annabeth watches her sometimes, scratching at the skin around her timer, and wonders if she might just cut the thing out and disappear from her life. It terrifies her that she might lose Thalia so easily; she has always been such a constant in her life.

Annabeth sits down at the end of a row near the back and pulls out her notebook, checking her phone again before the lecturer calls the attention of the class. Thalia has replied again, Yeah, we’re all set. Quit nagging me and go to class, you nerd. Annabeth smirks and puts her phone away again, drawing her attention to the lecturer.

She loves college, it reminds her of what she really wants to be. That her education and her career choice is still hers alone, and no one can take that from her. The fact that she has to work so hard to get it only makes her appreciate it all the more. There are kids in her class a couple of years younger than she is, who will fast track their way through the course and get their dream jobs before she even has her degree. But Annabeth reminds herself what she would have to tolerate if she accepted more assistance from her father, and ignores the flicker of resentment.

 

Three classes fly past and soon enough Annabeth is catching the subway uptown to meet Thalia and the rest of their group of protesters outside Dionysus Corporation. The sight of hand painted placards outside the towering building is a welcome one and Annabeth hitches her messenger bag higher on her shoulder as she pushes through the crowd, searching for a head of spiky black hair. She finds it at the very front of the crowd, holding the largest placard and shouting the loudest out of everyone.

‘Hey!’ Annabeth calls over her friend’s hoarse yells.

Thalia turns and grins at her. ‘Hey, nerd! Thought you were gonna miss the party.’

‘Class ran long,’ she says as way of an apology and takes a white placard from Thalia which reads IT’S TIME TO END TIMER LAWS in bright red letters.

‘No sign of Piper,’ Thalia notes.

Annabeth shakes her head as she lifts the sign above her head. ‘She texted me this morning. Leela’s sick so she had to stay home with her.’

Thalia nods and makes no further comment. It’s somewhat of a difficult topic between them; Piper’s marriage and her daughter. She had met Jason when they were both fifteen and they had married on his eighteenth birthday - as soon as they were legally adults. Piper was pregnant within the month. Although Piper argues against the laws as much as Annabeth does, she does not deny that she loves her family. She loves Jason and their daughter and would sooner throw herself in front of a bus than give them up. It’s a contradiction of sorts. But Annabeth knows Piper would have liked her family to be hers and Jason’s choice, not a result of law.

Annabeth hopes she will not be forced into the same position. Instinctively, she checks her wrist. The timer still reads three and a half months. She hopes that will give her enough time to make a change. Thalia is more cynical than she, and although she spends the majority of her time campaigning about the timer laws, Annabeth knows she holds very little hope that they will change. But Thalia has years left. Those three and a half months are Annabeth’s ever shortening lifeline.

After an hour, both of Annabeth’s arms are aching and her throat is hoarse from chanting alongside her comrades. Her poor night’s sleep and early morning are waning on her. She lowers her placard and turns to Thalia.

‘Coffee run,’ she shouts over the noise. ‘Orders?’

‘Black for me,’ Thalia replies. ‘Don’t be long, they’ll all be coming out soon.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

Annabeth is about to turn away and thread back through the crowd but Thalia’s expression stops her. Her sharp blue eyes have gone wide and her lips are parted in surprise. Annabeth spins around, searching for what has shocked her friend, but she finds nothing in the crowd of protesters. When she turns back, Thalia’s eyes are still trained on her.

‘What? Thalia-’

‘Your wrist,’ Thalai murmurs, pointing.

Annabeth freezes, for she had brushed her fingers through her knotted hair just moments before, diverting Thalia’s attention to that patch of skin which bore her numbers. Three and a half months… No. When Annabeth finds the digits, her heart sinks. 2m25s.

‘How is that possible?’ Her own voice was shrill in her ears. ‘Is it defected?’

‘It would flash with an error sign if it were defected. Annabeth-’

‘No.’ she started backing away from Thalia, as if she were the cause of this.

‘-this happens sometimes,’ Thalia implores, looking as desperate as Annabeth feels, ‘you know that. Things change, timers change.’

‘But it can’t! I have three and a half mon-’

‘You don’t any more! Run,’ Thalia says. ‘Maybe you can change it again.’

Annabeth barely believes it any more than her friend does, but she turns away from her and begins elbowing through the crowd. She needs to get free of these people, of all people. She needs to hide. Yes, if she can hide then she will change it again. She will get her three months back. The chants pick up around her and for a moment, Annabeth thinks they are directed at her, but then she realises that the office workers must be leaving the building. This spurs her on, sending panic fleeting through her veins as she pushes and shoves her way through the thickening crowd.

Eventually, she bursts out of the group and finds herself in front of a road of busy traffic. Glancing at her wrist, she sees that she has a minute and twelve seconds. One minute, twelve seconds - nine, eight, seven, six - to find a hiding place. Impossible. Nonetheless, she searches for isolation.

She begins to cross to the other side of the crowd, eyes searching for an alley way to duck into, when someone catches hold of her bag.

Fifty one seconds.

‘Hey!’ She spins around.

The guys holding her bag is tall and scowling. ‘Running away? Had a change of heart?’

Annabeth has no idea who he is but he was not her soulmate. Just an angry protester thinking she is betraying the cause. She tugs her bag free and stumbles. Swearing at him over her shoulder as she pushes past more people. The jerk has cost her valuable time.

Twenty two seconds.

No. She has to keep moving away from these people. But the crowd will not dissipate, it seems to grow and writhe around her, leaving her trapped within their midst of people - any of whom could be her damned soulmate.

Twelve seconds. Eleven. Ten. Nine.

No! Annabeth shoves past a woman, receiving an elbow to her cheek for her trouble. She clutches her face, swearing again and feels tears sting her eyes - from pain, desperation? She no longer knows. Just get me out of here! She begs of no one.

Five seconds. Four. Three. Two.

One.

Annabeth is frozen in place. She stares at her wrist, feeling the absence of people around her and the pain of her hammering heart against her sternum. The numbers she has held on to for so long are disappearing. Gone. Letters are flicking into place.

P E R C Y    J A C K S O N

Annabeth rubs her thumb over the letters and then scrubs at them with her palm, but they are stuck there, under her skin, impenetrable. Drawing in a breath, she raises her eyes to see Percy Jackson, her soulmate.

He is wearing a suit, with his sleeve drawn back and a hand clutching his left wrist. He is a little taller than her, slim, with black hair and the same parted lips as Thalia. But what catches Annabeth’s attention are his eyes; an impossible green she has never seen before, and staring right at her.