Emmeline hitched the tote bag up her shoulder and raced across the morgue’s tile floor, past row upon row of contestants. Two to four children worked at each station preparing their entries. Forgetting the supplies in the transport had cost Em and her sister valuable time.
“Took you long enough.” Brigitte snatched the bag from Em and dumped the contents on a wheeled metal table.
Em pushed her sweat dampened curls from her forehead and cinched the ill-fitting pants of her scrubs tighter. “I ran as fast as I could.”
“Get started on her nails, then.” Brigitte plugged the air supply unit into an outlet set flush into the floor.
“Everyone else’s entries are so young,” Em said in a harsh whisper.
“Exactly. We’ll get extra points for difficulty.”
Em cast a glance over her shoulder at the contestants beside them. The three siblings seemed focused on their own corpse, a handsome young man in his early twenties. She hoped Brigitte’s idea to use an airbrush to decorate their entry would be enough to push them over the top. It had cost them each a full week’s worth of food in trade.
Em rolled her stool closer to the metal table where their elderly woman laid, hands crossed over her midsection. She looked so peaceful, like she could be asleep. Em had always wished for a grandmother, a kind older woman to comfort and protect her, and said, “I’m going to call her Oma.”
Brigitte shrugged and mixed brown colorant with water in a small glass jar and attached it to the airbrush.
Em wrinkled her nose. “That color is ugly.”
“It’s used to create shadows, like contouring. She’ll look more alive this way.” Brigitte raised an eye brow. “Nails?”
Em grabbed a bottle of glitter lacquer and pulled one of the old woman’s hands closer, cringing at the resistance of her stiff joints and the feel of her cold, papery skin. Em should be used to it by now, given her caste, but death still upset her.
“You’ve got this, Emmy.” Brigitte gave Em’s shoulder a squeeze. “You’re stronger than you think.”
Em straightened and gave a firm nod. She had to be tough now, like Brigitte. This was their only chance to get out of Lowtown. If they won, they would live in one of the glass towers and have beds to lie on instead of dirt floors. They’d be able to sleep the whole night through, never having to take turns or keep watch. Em wouldn’t even need her little homemade knife, the one she’d used to stab the boys who’d tried to hurt Brigitte.
Em unscrewed the bottle of lacquer and leaned close to apply a layer to each nail.
A loud alarm sounded, silencing the children’s chatter, followed by a voice. “Sixty minutes remaining until judging.”
Em gripped Brigitte’s hand, too hard, but her big sister didn’t let go.
“I hope they appreciate our creativity,” Em said. “Maybe we should have done something more traditional.”
“She’s a tribute to the Matriarch. They’ll love it,” Brigitte said.
Still clothed in their scrubs, the sisters joined the rest of the contestants in the fiftieth-floor ballroom, where they filed onto a set of bleachers against the far wall. The room itself was spectacular, boasting a huge crystal chandelier, jeweled sconces on the walls, and three hundred and sixty degree windows offering a view of Uptown Em had never seen before.
Lowtown was a jumble of wood and corrugated metal shacks crowded along dirt roads isolated beyond the wall. Here, she was surrounded by shimmering glass and metal structures, skyscrapers Brigitte called them, rising up in every direction. Lights twinkled in the buildings and scattered across the ground far, far below like a blanket of stars. Em gazed out at the city scape, trying to commit it to memory. Just in case.
After all the children were seated, the double doors of the ballroom opened to let in men in brightly colored tuxedos, orange for the Clergy, green for the Financiers, blue for the Soothers, and so on, and women in gowns adorned with all manner of sequins, feathers, and beads, again in the colors that matched their station. Many carried glasses of Froth, a pinkish bubbly liquid Em had heard stories of but had never seen or tasted.
The crowd applauded as figures began to descend from the blackened cavity of the ceiling. There must have been cables suspending each entry, but they were so thin the bodies looked to be floating. They stopped their descent just a few feet from the floor, and were left to hover, like angels without wings.
A small group of men and women emerged from the larger crowd, each with a white orchid pinned to their collar. The judges.
“Where is she? Do you see her?” Brigitte asked.
Em craned her neck, trying to locate Oma. The other bodies were dressed in the finest clothes and made up to look as if they still lived and breathed, but there, at the center, Oma stood out among the rest, sparkling and reminiscent of royalty.
“How long do you think they’ll take?” Em asked, conversely wanting to get the judging over with and to drag out this night as long as possible.
“It’ll be okay, Emmy.” Bridgette put her arm around Em’s shoulders. “No matter what happens, we still have each other.”
Em blew out a breath, focused on the spectators. She’d never seen a single person who was so beautiful, much less an entire crowd.
A murmur ran through the bleachers as the hanging bodies began to move. One by one they were lifted up and away, disappearing into the ceiling, dwindling the selection from several dozen to just six.
Spot lights illuminated the remaining entries.
Em leapt to her feet. Oma still hovered near the center of the ballroom floor.
All around them, children began to cry. Their entries hadn’t made it. Em’s stomach twisted at the hopelessness in their cries, knew this was all they’d ever see of the city of light.
“Contestants 2, 7, 15, 22, 23, and 31, please take your places beside your entries.”
Em followed Brigitte down the bleacher stairs on legs so shaky it was a miracle she could even walk, but she managed it. They were so close now.
She huddled at her sister’s side as they reached Oma. Brigitte had been the one to suggest they choose the elderly woman to showcase their potential as Preservers, but it had been Em who came up with the designs, reminiscent of the ornate jewelry worn by the Matriarch. Em had pored over the pages of every newspaper she could find, each one sure to have at least one picture of their sublime ruler.
The lights played off the silver scrollwork they’d stenciled around Oma’s eyes, down her neck, across the backs of her hands. The jeweled barrettes they’d used to fasten back Oma’s snow-white hair sparkled under the lights, only outmatched by the silver snakeskin fabric of Oma’s wrap dress.
A man clad in the purple suit of a Decanter stopped to admire their work. “How old was the specimen?” He looked down at them with eyes the exact shade of his suit.
“Oma was eighty-three,” Em said, beaming.
“Remarkable.” He sipped his Froth and moved on to the next corpse.
The sisters watched and waited as the judges inspected each entry, until they seemed to reach an agreement and called all the remaining contestants to the front. Em wiped her palms on her pants and tried to look as calm as Brigitte. They stood with the other children, twenty of them in all, waiting for the judge’s final decision.
The man in the purple suit touched a button on his collar, activating a hidden microphone. “We had some outstanding entries, but one stood out among the rest as a demonstration of the true beauty that can be achieved in death.” He paused and looked out over the crowd. “Entry 7.”
Em threw herself into her sister’s arms. They’d done it. Everything would be different now.
The remaining contestants were led, sobbing, from the room. Belonging to the Death caste, this had been a once in a lifetime chance to rise up, to become an Uptowner. A Preserver spot was only offered once per decade. Now, the children would return to Lowtown, to the violence and rot, where they’d become Diggers or Cutters. Em felt a flash of pity, then it was gone. She and Brigitte had earned this new life.
“Well done, children. Well done.” The man ushered them forward as the crowd clapped and cheered.
“Thank you, sir.” Em gripped her sister’s arm to stay standing.
The man raised his hand and the applause died. “There is one last challenge you must undertake so we may decide which of you will stay.” His eyes shone with excitement.
“What?” Em asked. “Our entry won, we earned this. Both of us.”
A tittering wave of laughter rolled through the crowd. Em glared out at the beautiful people, whose faces had cracked and twisted into cruel smiles.
The man held out a vial filled with a vibrant blue liquid. “We must also test that you can preserve the young. One of you will die, and the other will preserve them.”
Em looked at Brigitte. She’d fix this. She’d know what to do.
Her big sister had gone completely still, completely white, as if she were one of the corpses.
“We’ll go back then. Just send us back,” Em said. They’d return to Lowtown, but at least they’d still be together, still have each other.
“I’m afraid that isn’t an option. If you refuse to choose, then both of you will be executed.”
Em began to tremble, all the muscles in her body protesting. She eyed the vial sitting in the evil man’s palm and willed herself to reach out and grab it. Her body was frozen, unable and unwilling to follow her commands, and before she could force herself to move Brigitte snatched the vial, pulled out the stopper, and tipped the blue liquid down her throat.
“No!” Em screamed, lunging for her sister, but one of the beautiful women wrapped an arm around Em’s chest and held her tight.
Brigitte frowned, licking her lips. “It’s sweet.”
“The choice has been made.” The man in purple swung on his heel to stare at Em.
Em felt a sting in her shoulder and cried out. She looked back at the woman, who now held a syringe in her hand.
“What was that?” Em whispered.
“Just a little paralytic mixed with pain killers. Won’t hurt a bit, dear.”
Brigitte grabbed the man’s arm. “But I volunteered.”
The man in purple laughed, a booming sound that hurt Em’s ears. “We don’t want cowards.”
Em slumped to the floor. I’m going to die, she thought. Tears burned her eyes, scorched a path down her face.
“I’m so sorry, Emmy. I didn’t know.” Brigitte fell to her knees and clasped Em’s hand.
Em hugged her sister. She was the smart one, the pretty one, the brave one. Brigitte deserved to live. And now Em had to be strong. “Promise you’ll make me look pretty?
“I promise.” Brigitte choked out the words before someone grabbed her, pulled her away.
She was one of the beautiful people now.
The muscles in Em’s body began to stiffen and she struggled to breathe. Fear spiked in her veins, then swam away on a stream of whatever drugs they’d given her. She felt weightless, carefree.
In the back, hovering above the crowd, Oma watched.
And Emmeline joined the angels without wings.
Angela Sylvaine still believes in monsters and always checks under the bed. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Supernatural Horror Short Stories (Gothic Fantasy Series), Disturbed Digest, and My American Nightmare: Women in Horror Anthology. You can follow her on twitter @sylvaine_angela and find her online at angelasylvaine.com.