On Friday, a week after she’d taken her college entrance exams, Kali returned to real life in the usual way; Bear informed her that it was time to logoff of astralnet, and Kali groggily pulled the crescent-shaped eyepiece from her face. Then she brushed her brown, shoulder-length hair, put on a clean uniform, and stumbled into the kitchen for tea.
When Kali saw her mother sitting at the kitchen table, her stomach dropped. Ususally, her mother was at work before Kali woke up, but today was the day exam results would be announced. No doubt, Kali’s mother wanted to give her a pep talk.
Kali’s mother looked up from her laptop with a smile.
“You weren’t on astralnet all night, were you?” she chided gently.
“I’ve already taken my exams, so there was no point in studying,” Kali said. She walked past her mother, to the kitchen counter, and poured herself a cup of tea.
“You should still review while the exam is fresh in your mind, in case you need to re-take the exams.”
Kali winced. There was no way she had gotten a top score, and Kali knew her mother would settle for nothing less. She would likely have to take the make-up exams over the summer.
“I know, Mom. I’m just so exhausted.”
“Have you been taking the neuro-enhancers I gave you? You won’t need to sleep if you do, and there are no side effects.”
Kali shrugged, staring into her teacup.
“Kali,” her mother’s voice had a harsher edge, now. “If you don’t take them, you won’t be able to compete with the students who do.”
“I take them, Mom,” Kali said, and then stopped to take a sip of tea. “I don’t feel sleepy- I just feel worn down. I need a break.”
“You don’t have time to take a break,” Kali’s mother said. “You know that everyone is competing for the top college programs, and the best students will all use summer break to get ahead. “
“Mom-“ Kali sat down across from her mother at the table. “Even after I get into college, and take those exams, and then get some high level career- it won’t be over, will it. I can’t see when I’ll ever have time to slow down. I’ll always have to work this hard, won’t I?”
Kali’s mother threw her head back and laughed.
“Mom, I’m serious.”
Kali’s mother caught her breath, and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“You’ll be working even harder, darling. That’s why you need to adjust, while you’re still young.”
Kali sighed, and then dropped her head onto the table. “It all makes me want to give up.”
Kali’s mother put her teacup down with a clatter, and walked around the table. She put her arms around Kali’s shoulders, and Kali’s senses were overwhelmed by the heavy floral perfume her mother always wore.
“Oh Kali- you’re so young. Why can’t you find your passion?”
Kali was greeted at the homeroom entrance by a tall, skinny boy with messy hair. He grabbed her wrist as soon as she was close enough to grab, and pulled her toward the bulletin board in the back of the tiered lecture hall.
“Oh Alex, no- I don’t want to look. I can’t. Just tell me the bad news, now.”
“You’re in the top 10%, like me,” he said. “You scored a full 50 points better than you did on the practice test in math, and 70 points higher in language. Well, aren’t you happy?”
“I’m not in the top 5%?”
Alex stopped pulling on Kali’s wrist, and turned. “Well, you came awfully close, but-”
“So there’s no point in being happy. Mom’s going to make me re-take the test this summer. I guess I should focus more on mathematics, this time.” Kali moved to her desk, plopped into the chair, and took her bookbag from her shoulder, ignoring the crowd of loud, excited students far at the back of the room, who were crowded around the bulletin board.
“But hey- a little more studying, and you’ll be up to the top 5%. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. I don’t care anyone,” Kali said, taking a schedule book from her bag. She tore out the front page and began writing a new schedule on a fresh sheet.
“If you don’t care, what are you doing?”
“What I have to do,” Kali replied. “I guess I’ll have to drop swimming, this summer, and stop going on astralnet, too.”
“But you love-“
Alex’s protest was cut off by a metallic screeching noise, as the antiquated pa system flared to life.
“Maria Lucas, Alex Goldberg and Kali Chaudry – report to the headmaster’s office immediately.”