the dance

“Still can’t believe you’re leaving tomorrow.” Carson holds her close as they slowly sway across the dancefloor. Her long white dress flows and flutters under the silky mauve spotlights.

Alex lays her head on his shoulder and sighs. “I know. I don’t wanna go.” A glittering banner looms over the dance hall:

Congratulations Grads!

Twinkling stars and neon galaxies beam out from overhead projectors, crawling across the walls in deep purples and vivid pinks.

“It just don’t feel real.” Carson stares up at the projectors on the ceiling, diving through his memories. “Like . . . High school! We made it all the way to high school together! And now you ain’t even gonna be at the Palace no more.”

“Hey.” Alex cups the back of his neck and looks up into his eyes. “I promise we’ll be together again, okay?”

“But how do you know that?” Carson sways along with her from side to side.

“Because I’m not gonna fight for my Dad,” Alex scowls. The ballad playing through the speakers swells with wistful power. “He can force me to move back to his lab. But he can’t force me to train. He can’t force me to fight.”

“How you so damn sure about that?”

Alex gently clasps his hand, leads their sway to the left. “Because I’ll refuse to fight in his stupid war. I wanna be here with you.”

Carson laughs. “World ain’t that simple, Alli.”

The Palace’s other Grade 8 grads sway along with their partners in their own little universes of the dance hall. Others gossip and sip fruit punch along the far wall.

“Besides,” Carson mutters, “my Daddy probably won’t let me stay here much longer either.”

“These fucking men,” Alex pouts, guides his hand to the right. “You’re gonna be a man soon, why do all you guys like fighting so much?”

“I dunno,” Carson shrugs. “Makes us feel strong I guess?”

“That’s what you always say.” Alex raises her brow. “You don’t need to fight to feel strong.”

Carson shrugs again. “Hormones I guess?”


“I guess?” Carson squints. “I sure didn’t feel like fighting this much back when I was a girl.”

“Carr, you’re 12,” Alex smirks. “You’re not even on that many hormones!”

“13 soon, actually.” He guides her hand into a gentle spin. “And already startin’ to feel much different. They’ve been switchin’ a bunch of my growth genes online.”

“Whatever.” She rolls her eyes, rolls her hands back over his shoulders. “Still doesn’t excuse violence.”

A smooth, hypnotic beat rolls out of the speakers. Dreamy harp strings and piano chords float across the dance hall. Neon lights throb and mellow, lavender fog drifts down from overhead as they softly sway and spiral through the dancefloor.

Alex looks back up at Carson, fog swimming between their eyes. “So where do you think your Dad is gonna send you after the Palace?”

“Dunno.” Carson glances up at the foggers hanging from the ceiling, back down at her glowing grey eyes. “Prolly back to Texas for a while? He bought a shit-ton of farmland north of Dallas. Settin’ up a huge compound that’s gonna be all safe and walled-off soon.”

“So kinda like the Palace?”

“Yep. He even hired a whole security team, keep all the bad guys out. Cartels. Militias.”

Alex sighs and dreams as purple fog and blacklight splash all over the floor. “A bunch of farmland, eh? Wouldn’t it be nice to just like . . . have a farm?”

“What you mean?”

“Just away from all of . . . this.” She shifts her eyes around the dance hall. The kids sipping fruit punch along the far wall shift their eyes back at her. “We could plant crops, big garden full of flowers. Hang out. No security teams, no lockdowns. No fighting. Y’know, normal life?”

“That what normal life is? Farms and no security?”

“I just think it’d be cute,” she shrugs. “Don’t you?”

“Guess so,” Carson smiles. “What would ya plant?”

“Hmmm . . .” Alex visions her fantasy farm as she leads him into a twirl. “Wheat so I can make my own pastries. Lots of mint for tea. Maybe some fruits and sunflowers.”

“Sunflowers ain’t food.”

“Ever heard of sunflower seeds?” Alex laughs.

“That’s a snack, that ain’t food.”

“You and all your food,” Alex scoffs.

“If we’re gonna have a farm, we need real food,” Carson chuckles. “Pork. Beef. The real stuff, not lab-grown or plant-based or whatever.”

“But then we’d have to raise animals,” Alex reminds him. “And kill them too.”

“Ya. So?”

“Are you gonna kill a cute little pig?” Alex tilts her head. “Because I’m certainly not.”

“I mean, we gotta eat don’t we?”

“I guess.”

“Can’t just be eatin’ sunflower seeds and pastries all the time,” Carson teases.

“Can so.” Alex laughs as they step and twirl further form the other grads. Pink and blue auras wash over their faces, pulse through their hands, bounce off her bright platinum hair.

“Your hair looks nice under all these lights.” Carson looks away and blushes. “Real pretty.”

Alex giggles. The beat slows as she sets a tender hand on the back of his head, pulls him closer as they lilt and sway. “Your hair’s getting long at the back.” She runs her fingers through his smoky curls. “Soft.”

“Oh, so you a mullet girl?” Carson twangs with a grin.

Alex turns to the side cackling. “It’s so Texas.” She looks back up into eyes as the harp sings and hums. “It’s cute though.”

“I’ve been thinkin’ about cuttin’ it real short.” Carson rests his hands on her shoulders, leads her into a forward step. “Think I’d look good with a buzz cut?”

“Hmm,” Alex looks him up and down and blinks. “Oh ya. I can totally see it. Especially with how big your shoulders are getting.”

“Right? Buzz cut would be real tough guy shit.”

Alex cackles again. “You’re such a dork.” The neon blues and pinks dim. The air shines and glitters with harp strings and soft drums. “Gym class dork.”

She stands on her toes. Holds the back of his neck. He clasps her shoulders and leans into her. Her eyes close. Then his. She presses close against him, nervous lip fluttering, dreaming of some parallel universe where they stay together in the Palace, dancing forever.