I glanced out the window at the magical scene. Snowflakes were falling from the sky, and, seemingly oblivious to the cold, children ran around screaming and laughing, building snowmen and hurling snowballs at each other. But for some reason, I wasn't really in the mood for "White Winter".
I clapped my hands twice and muttered, "Tropical Beach". In an instant, the festive whiteness was replaced by a beautiful sandy shore, tall palm trees and girls hula-dancing in bikinis.
I gazed at this vision of paradise and ... I actually yawned. What was wrong with me? Was I ill?
Like most of my friends, I spent nearly all my time in CyberWonderland. Here, we could be anything we wanted to be: a pirate, a queen, or a warrior in outer space. We could do anything and have anything. We could even hang out with each other. As the Government said, it was the place "Where all our dreams come true!"
Needing to clear my head, I decided to do something I had never thought of doing before - explore my own house. The place was ridiculously huge. Often, I had taken a wrong turn and ended up lost. Although the house had supposedly been ransacked during the Revolution, who knew what I might find if I really looked?
Two hours later, I made a discovery. What I had thought was a broom cupboard turned out to be the entrance to a dimly lit, dusty passageway. Evidently, no one had been here for ages.
As I opened the door at the end of the passageway, I felt a strange thrill of excitement. However, when I saw what was inside, I was disappointed. It was nothing but an old storeroom full of disorganised stacks of discarded items.
Then I saw it, lying on top of a pile of mundane objects. Although I had heard rumours of their continued existence, I never believed them. But, incredibly, here it was - I had found a book.
After the Revolution in 2050, the Government had deemed books "undesirable", and every known volume had been seized and burned. Since then, possession of books had been made illegal. In their place, the Government provided its own eBooks, eNews and eDictionaries that people could download from the internet.
The book was much heavier than I expected and the only inscription on its plain black cover was a "17" in gold-plated letters. Inside, I found the pages had a wonderful rough texture, and I loved their brown-tinted borders and neatly printed words. I even loved their slightly mouldy scent.
Sitting down, I began to read the simple story of a 17-year-old girl in the year 2011 ...
The droning tones of our biology teacher, Mr Wang, have a magical ability to induce sleep. It took a tug on my ponytail to drag me from my daydreams.
"What?" I snapped.
Jesse looked bored. "Someone told me to pass you this," he said, handing me a note.
I snatched it from him, with my heart pounding loudly against my ribcage. Please, please, please let it be from him.
I opened the note slowly, holding my breath. "Frozen yogurt after school? - Luke"
As I looked across the classroom, I caught him stealing a glance at me, anxiously waiting for a reply.
Our eyes met, and I felt my cheeks burning. "Yes," I mouthed. He gave me a wide grin and I felt my heart would explode with happiness.
Lauren glanced down at the plate on her cafeteria tray and winced. "What is this?"
"Meat loaf," we chorused.
"Yuck," Lauren shuddered.
"This is what you get for not bringing your own lunch," Frank teased.
"Ok, you have it," said Lauren, flinging a piece of meat across the table ... but instead of landing on Frank's plate, it hit Jared in the face.
Jared wiped the ketchup off. "Revenge!" he cried, smearing salad sauce onto Lauren's jacket.
Before I knew it, everyone else at the table had joined in, laughing and throwing handfuls of food at each other. When we were given detention, no one was surprised.
"I had a great time tonight," Luke smiled.
"Me too," I told him honestly.
He looked at me, and we both knew that was it. He leaned forward, and our lips met ...
"Mia? What's with that sappy grin on your face?" Mum asked.
"I'm in love," I blurted.
Mum whistled. "Who's the unlucky guy?" she grinned.
"Mum!" I nudged her. "It's Luke," I mumbled, my face turning beet-red.
"Hey, I know him! That guy who played the guitar at the fund-raiser? He's hot."
"Mum!" I protested.
"What?" she shrugged innocently. Then her tone turned serious. "But there's something bothering you, isn't there?"
"My mum, the mind-reader!"
She smiled then waited patiently for me to continue.
"It's nothing, really. It's just that ... I've never felt so happy before, and at the back of my mind there's this voice reminding me some day all of this will slip away."
"Oh silly," Mum ruffled my hair. "Of course it will."
"Yeah. Nothing lasts forever. But who cares? I'd rather be very happy and very sad than be just okay for my whole life. Besides, the happy memories are here to stay forever, and nothing, nothing can take them away from you."
"Mum, can I ask you a question?"
"What's your happiest memory?"
"Oh, that." Mum smiled. "It was when my baby girl was born. I had to go through hours and hours of excruciating pain - you were a piece of work even back then! But when I held you in my arms for the first time - I had never seen anything so beautiful. When I saw you, I knew all the pain was worth it. Daddy held me, I held you, and all three of us couldn't stop crying. That was when I knew my life was complete."
As I read this, I was overwhelmed by emotions. Drying my eyes, I knew I had to tell someone.
Clutching the book close to my heart, I ran to the living room and turned on the Telescreen. "Valarie!" I yelled. A few seconds later, Valarie's familiar face appeared on the screen.
"Clare! Sorry, gotta go soon, I'm meeting Mark in CyberWonderland. Haven't seen you there in a while ..." Then, for the first time, she noticed my red, swollen eyes and trembling lips. "What's wrong?" she asked, alarmed. "Look what I found," I said, holding up the book. Valarie gasped. "Is that what I think it is?" I nodded. "Val? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hug Mark for real, to actually feel the warmth of his body?" Valarie looked taken aback. "But I do! I do it all the time in CyberWonderland..."
"No," I interrupted. "Not there, here. To be able to see him, hug him, kiss him in the real world."
"But what's the point? It's the same anyway..."
"No!" I said in frustration. "It's NOT the same! Val, the girl in this book was 17, just like us, but she led a completely different life. Before the Revolution, kids weren't educated at home by emotionless robots; they went to school and were taught by human beings."
"School?" Valarie repeated in confusion.
"And that's not all. People could touch each other. They lived with their families, and had babies with people they loved," I said bitterly.
Valarie fell silent. Then she said thoughtfully: "But we can do all of these things - in CyberWonderland."
"I ... urgh! Don't you understand? I don't want to pretend anymore! Haven't you noticed how similar everyone's worlds are in CyberWonderland? Without books, without ideas, there's nothing to inspire us, we can't think outside the box."
"But what else do you want, Clare?" Valerie protested.
"We're already living in the perfect world. We have perfect health, we never age, we never fall sick, and we can have anything we want. Okay, we can't leave our homes and we have to live alone, but everyone knows the Government only issued the Confinement Law because we might get sick if we had contact with other humans or the dirty air outside. And, yes, we aren't allowed to have babies, but we know the disastrous effects of population growth.
"But I want to come home and have my mother waiting for me. I want to be able to touch the person I love. I want to go to school. If this is 'perfection', then maybe I don't want 'perfection'. Maybe what I want is to get out of this house." I grabbed a chair and threw it at the window. The glass cracked and the alarm went off immediately.
"This is crazy, Clare! The police will find you. They always do. It isn't too late now, you can still make it look like an accident," Valarie said in desperation.
I turned and smiled at her. "Bye, Val." I jumped out of the window. I took a huge breath of the fresh air. I didn't know where I would go, but I didn't care. I ran and ran and ran ... I was free.
This is the third finalist in our Winter Writing competition. We will run a fascinating story each week over the next holiday. The winners will receive gift vouchers from Dymocks.