The Upright – Chapter 13

Chapter Thirteen - The Upright

Chapter 13

I’ve been staring at my ceiling for two hours now, not wanting to get out of bed because I have nothing to do today. There’s a pile of work sitting on my desk from missing school yesterday, but I don’t care enough to do it. The alarm clock by my bed screams at me to get up, but I keep hitting snooze. It’s ten thirty, and I never sleep past eight. I sigh and get out of bed. After a quick shower I throw on some shorts and one of the less fancy shirts in the closet.

“Where are you off to?” Dana asks when I come down the stairs.

“Library to study,” I lie. I’m carrying my backpack so it’s a passable excuse. Really I’m going to the town hall. I haven’t set foot in one since the day I was taken, and reading the book that I found on the coffee table yesterday is making me itch to do something. I’ve been too complacent this week. Now is the time for action.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for Reese?” Dana asks as I walk out the door.

“Oh, no she’ll meet me there,” I say and shut the door. Crap, I wasn’t expecting Reese to go at the library today. I’ll have to intercept her later and make sure she follows my story.

I jog to the town hall because it’s only a few blocks over, and because I haven’t run in a while. I’m a little sweaty by the time I get there, but when I step inside the building I cool off almost immediately, the sticky strands of my hair glue to my neck like small icicles.

The rubber soles of my shoes squeak softly against the smoothly polished stone floor as I walk through the large foyer to a woman sitting behind a wooden desk.

“Excuse me,” I say to the secretary. She looks up at me through large, thick glasses. Her red lips purse like she just sucked a lemon, and her pencil thin eyebrows rise high behind her glasses. “I’d like to do some research here, for a school project,” I say when she doesn’t ask me what I want.

The secretary’s eyes trail me up and down, sizing me up. Her hair perched in a bun on top of her head pulls the skin at her temples, making her seem unnecessarily angry. She seems to be the epitome of a mean librarian.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t do that here. Try the library.”

I can see I’m dismissed, but we Obliged are pretty persistent. “I don’t think you understand,” I say, placing my hand down on her table. I can tell she sees a hint of green beneath my fingers. “It’s for a very important project.”

“If you think I’ll be bribed by someone off the street, you are incredibly mistaken,” she says and sits up straight. I try not to roll my eyes as I pocket the money. It isn’t much anyway.

“At least let me use the bathroom before I leave,” I say, resigned. Her eyes squint as she stares at me for a moment before jerking her head behind her.

I thank her and walk behind her desk, feeling her eyes on my back as I walk to the bathroom.

Since I’m here I actually use the bathroom, putting together a Plan B now that Plan A has failed. I’m used to sneaking my way into places, so I’ve become pretty accustomed to carrying a few items with me at all times: a small knife, a safety pin, and a matchbook. Nearly every tough spot I’ve gotten into back home I’ve gotten out of with one or all of these things. Right now, it looks like matches are up.

Most Obliged smoke detectors are very hard to set off, simply because we don’t have nearby fire stations to assist us. If there’s a fire, it better be an emergency. But with the Upright, I’ve already heard six fire alarms go off since I’ve been here. That leads me to assume that theirs are very sensitive, and lucky me, there’s one right outside the bathroom.

I turn the bathroom knob slowly, hoping the secretary isn’t listening for my return. I let the door swing open steadily on its well-oiled hinges. I’m not outrageously tall, and there’s nothing around me to stand on to reach the alarm. I’m afraid I don’t have enough time before the secretary gets suspicious, so I decide to speed up the process. In the bathroom I take several sheets of paper towels and twist them into a torch. I wet the end I’m holding with some water so the fire doesn’t reach my hands too fast.

I light my homemade torch and reach up as close as I can to the fire alarm. “Come on,” I whisper as my fire starts to burn down my torch, ignoring the part I dampened. The hot flame was just licking my fingers when I hear the long, shrill beep of the alarm. Suddenly the air is ablaze with its ringing. A mechanical voice comes over the PA system announcing that there “is a Threat Level Three in progress,” and to “please evacuate immediately in an organized fashion.”

Streams of people begin to pour from the doors next to me, pushing past each other as each tries to be the first one out the door. I laugh at the absurdity of all the drama. Quickly scooping up what’s left of my torch and flushing it down the toilet, I begin my search of the building. I probably have five minutes or less before the fire department gets here and realizes it’s a hoax, and I’d be willing to bet a lot more than my bribe money that they don’t have hoaxes here very often.

I have to push several panicking women aside before I find what I’m looking for: Harmony Criminal Office. The door is slightly ajar and I slip inside. One man is trying to pack his bag with pictures from his desk.

“What are you doing? This is a Threat Level Three!” I yell at him, hoping he won’t remember my face when they have me lined up next to other potential perpetrators at the jail.

The man drops a framed picture of his family and runs past me, flailing his arms. Are these people serious?

I shake my head and go into the first office on my right. Wrong, it’s a break room. I run over to the next one, aware my time is running out. This looks more promising with file cabinets lining the walls. I don’t have time to be picky, so I open up a few random filing cabinets to shuffle through their contents just as the sprinklers go off. Perfect, now everything is getting wet.

I shove random files into my bag and turn to leave the room when my eye catches a partially opened safe. I run over to it and yank the door open. I grab the few files I see and throw them into my bag, not bothering to read them.

Getting out of the hall was much easier than getting in, as I join the line of crazed staff still stumbling their way to the exit, occasionally slipping on the slick floor and knocking down their coworkers like dominos. In fact, I’m already a block away from the hall when the fire truck blares by me. I run the rest of the way home and straight into the house, not thinking of an excuse to tell Jeremy or Dana, who are both standing on the staircase, watching me rush in like a madwoman.

“Where have you been?” Dana asks.

“Why are you wet?” Jeremy asks at the same time.

“Skipped the library and went to the pond instead,” I lie on the spot. Being out of breath was giving me time to think, though the lack of oxygen to my brain isn’t really helping me either. “Jumped in the pond.”

“Why did you do that?” Dana asks, looking disgusted. I think she’s more worried about whatever designer clothes I’m wearing being ruined.

I just shrug and brush past them up the stairs. In my room I toss my bag under my bed and dry off. I go back downstairs because it’s noon and I didn’t eat breakfast. I’d rather not sit under the judgmental glare of Dana, who I can tell dislikes me more each day, but food is food and I don’t want to give it up again.

I make myself a turkey sandwich and sit down at the table. Dana and Jeremy are both already there with sandwiches of their own.

“So what are your plans for the day?” Dana asks me. “More studying or…pond jumping?” Her lip curls in a frown like she’s just had a whiff of my pond scum clothes.

I sense a trap looming so I just shrug. “I’m not really in a studying mood I guess.”

“Perfect,” Jeremy says suddenly and loudly. I jump and cough as a piece of sandwich gets stuck in my throat. Dana thumps me on the back, a little too roughly. I push her hand away to stop when I catch my breath again. “You can come to work with me. I have a meeting,” he finishes, oblivious to the drama taking place.

“Um…okay,” I say. Jeremy hasn’t given me a reason to dislike him yet. In fact, I’m not sure if we’ve exchanged more than five words since I’ve been here.

“Good. Finish your sandwich and put on something a little less…I-just-jumped-in-a-lake.”

Jeremy stands up and leaves the table. I grin at him and shove the rest of my sandwich in my mouth, my choking incident far from my mind. Jeremy is an inventor for both the Upright and the Obliged, and I’m curious to see how he does it.

I run back upstairs and throw on different clothes and put my hair in a ponytail. My bag of files is under my bed, and I wouldn’t put it past Dana to search my room while I’m gone. I grab the soggy backpack and poke my head out the door. I can hear her downstairs in the kitchen, washing the dishes. Quickly, I tiptoe over to Reese’s room and quietly turn her knob. I slip inside and tuck my bag under her bed, near the headboard behind a few other boxes. She shouldn’t stumble across this by accident. I leave Reese’s room and head downstairs to meet Jeremy.

“Ready,” I say to him when I meet him in the foyer.

“Bye honey,” he says to Dana over his shoulder as he opens the door for me.

“Keep an eye on—” but Jeremy shuts the door. I don’t think he did it on purpose, but I can pretend.

We get in the sleek black car and Jeremy starts the ignition. You can barely hear the hum of the engine as he backs out of the driveway.

“So where is your job?” I ask him when we’ve driven a few blocks, past the quintessential Upright houses with their perfectly trimmed yards. I squint my eyebrows in disgust at the state of the gardens. Not a single flower is out of place, and yet I don’t recall ever seeing anyone work in the yard.

“It’s in Concord, a couple towns over. It’s a big city with skyscrapers and tons of cars and people walking everywhere. It takes a while to get to because of traffic. I usually take the train, but I don’t feel like it today.”

“Why not?” I ask.

Jeremy just shrugs.

We don’t talk much on the way to Concord, but I observe him out of the corner of my eye while he drives. He looks more like Bennett in build, and has a calm about him neither of his sons possess. He seems to enjoy silence. I can tell though that his mind is occupied, not blank, as he drives. It almost seems a sin to interrupt his musings, so I sit quietly and think too.

I can see the skyscrapers before we are even close. They loom higher than anything I have ever seen and seem to pierce the sky with their pointed towers.

“Wow,” is all I can say.

“Wow is right,” Jeremy agrees.

There are too many buildings to count, and they all sort of blend together. Some have words written on them and some are blank. A few are completely solid but most are made of glass with steel reinforcements.

“I work in that one,” Jeremy says, pointing to a tall building that is a mixture of solid wall and glass windows. “Certain floors must be contained,” he says simply, as though that’s an explanation for having no windows on five consecutive floors of a building. “You’ll see.”

Driving through Concord I think we are going to die. After nearly running two red lights, and almost hitting an uncountable number of pedestrians, I am relieved to finally stand on solid ground on the upper floor of the executive parking garage at Oakland Enterprises.

I follow Jeremy through some doors at the end of the garage and into an elevator to the seventy-fifth floor. The elevator feels smaller than the car. Being inside something so confined threatens to send me into a panic, but I manage to keep myself under control. I almost lose it around floor seventy-three, but then I catch Jeremy making faces at himself in the mirrored ceiling and I forget my anxiety in a fit of laughter. Finally, the doors open with a ding and I leave the elevator so quickly Jeremy blinks in surprise.

He smiles. “Remind me not to take you to the aqua bubble chamber. For some reason I feel as though you may not like it.”

I shiver and nod as we walk down the hallway to a door at the far end. The walls of the hallway are made of thick glass so you can see into the rooms behind the closed doors. We walk slowly to take in what is happening in each room.

“This, Rae, is what I do,” Jeremy says as we stop in front of the room on our right. Behind the glass the room looks to be filled with thick, green bubbles.

“This doesn’t really explain much,” I point out. A person in a white suit pokes several of the bubbles and writes something down on a clipboard.

“Maybe this will,” Jeremy says, leading me to the next window. There’s not much to see, as the room is completely dark.

I put my hands against the glass. “I can’t see anything. And why is this glass so thick—” But my words were cut off by a giant explosion of flame which rocks me back on my heels. “What was that?” I ask, eyes wide.

“An explosion,” Jeremy says unhelpfully. “I think they are testing some new demolition tactics.”

“So you invent new things to destroy old things?”

“No, no, no. My job is to invent things to make life easier, for the Upright and the Obliged.”

“Like what?”

“Well, for the Obliged I created a meal-replacement drink, it’s called Drood. Like drink and food combined.” I stare at him blankly. “Yea, you’re right, it’s an awful name.”

“I think I’ve heard of that,” I say as we start walking again. The next room is filled with plants being sprayed different colored liquids. “But no one can afford it. What’s the point of inventing something if no one can buy it?”

“I think you’ll find it’s a lot more affordable over here,” Jeremy says softly. “It’s called an Invisible Tax. The Obliged don’t know it’s there, but nearly everything they have to buy costs about twice as much as it does here.”

I stop walking and stare at Jeremy. “You’re telling me, the General places a tax on stuff the Obliged want to buy to make it unaffordable, for absolutely no reason?”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.” Jeremy shrugs.

“Why are you telling me this?”

He sighs. “I just think you need to know.”

“You sound like an Obliged,” I say and scratch my head. We are standing in front of another fire experiment, this one gone wrong as one worker in a white space suit sprays another with a fire extinguisher.

“You’re only going to hear what you want to hear, Raegan.”

I’m not really sure how to take that statement, so I stay quiet as we walk in front of our final room. It’s filled to the brim with water and a man in a wetsuit is attempting to out swim a very fast shark.

I look at Jeremy for an explanation and he just shakes his head. “I don’t even know,” he says.

I turn away from the shark tank and wait behind Jeremy at the final door. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. I don’t know what to expect on the other side.

The door swings open and I’m momentarily blinded by the brightness of the room. The sun shines through the glass walls and rebounds off the white floor and conference table, blinding me.

I squint until my eyes adjust and follow Jeremy to an empty seat. He motions to someone standing in the corner and another cushioned chair is brought for me. I sit down, too nervous to say anything, and wait quietly for Jeremy to talk. But he doesn’t. Everyone in the room stares silently at me, and I make no effort to not stare back. Every single one looks pristine; like they’ve just stepped out of one of the magazines I’ve seen Reese thumbing through. Their suits and dresses pressed to perfection, not a hair out of place on their groomed heads. The smell of their perfume and cologne infiltrated my nose, making me choke and cough. Every set of eyes squints in disapproval.

Most of the executives seem much older than Jeremy, in age and mentality. They are old enough to remember what life was like before the Valiant became the Obliged. I wonder how they feel about me, I think.

“Who is this?” A man three seats over on Jeremy’s right finally asks. As if he doesn’t know. Not to sound conceited, but most people here know who I am without having to ask. If they aren’t told, it’s written plainly in my appearance.

“This is my daughter, Raegan,” Jeremy says, squeezing my shoulder. I try to give him a small smile, but the combination of nerves and slight resentment at being called his daughter turns my smile to a grimace.

More silence. Even Jeremy looks slightly uncomfortable now. I swear I can hear people talking on the streets below us when finally, “Nice to meet you Raegan,” says the man to my left. He offers me his hand and I shake it. “The name’s Bill.”

“You too, Bill,” I say.

I need to remember to thank Bill later, because once he broke the ice, the room becomes measurably warmer. The executives start smiling, and some even toss a few jokes to me, which I willingly return.

With the pressure off, I lean back in my seat and take a deep breath again. I don’t enjoy this attention much, but as long as I’m not being forced to read a manifesto, I’ll take it.

“So, you wanted to toss around some ideas for new products?” Jeremy says, reigning the chatter back in.

“We’d like to try a little stream of consciousness exercise, if you don’t mind. Just to warm us old folks up,” says Bill.

“Take it away my friend,” Jeremy nods to him.

“Pencil,” Bill says.

“Paper,” says the man to his left.

“Novel,” says his neighbor.

The pattern continues until it’s Jeremy’s turn. “Cockatoo,” he says.

“What?” I ask, everyone looking at me.

“Cockatoo,” he repeats.

“I don’t know what that is,” I say. My cheeks turn red. I don’t like to feel ignorant, especially in front of a group of prejudiced people.

“A pointless bird,” Jeremy explains, and everyone laughs.

“Designer clothing,” I say. That seems to shut everyone up.

“Why?” A man asks from across the table. I get the feeling that I’m being tested.

“Frivolous,” I say back.

“Expression,” another man says.

“Conceit,” I reply.

“Ignorance,” says the first man who spoke, who asked me who I was. I look him in the eyes but he doesn’t back down. Most people do when I look at them that way.

“Denial.”

No one else says a word. I seem to be playing a very dangerous game, and I’m not sure how harsh the rules are.

“Explain,” he says, leaning back in his chair.

I decide to stop talking in one-word answers and take a moment to collect my thoughts. “It’s no secret here that I’m Obliged,” I begin. A few men flinch but most remain stoic. “And your job is to help make life easier, for all people, even for people like me.” I look at the man across the table and he doesn’t blink. He was really getting on my nerves. “I lived on the other side for seventeen years, and I’d still be there today if Jeremy and Dana hadn’t Picked me. And that isn’t just seventeen years as an Obliged. That’s seventeen years of never using a product from this company. Because as an Obliged, you can either choose to live, or you can take the easy way. There’s not much point in making life easier if you can’t afford to live,” I conclude. I don’t know how much sense I made, but the room is quiet while they think over what I said.

“If what you say is true, why are our sales so high?” the man across the table asks, challenging me. This is new information, because as I’d said to Jeremy, even just with the meal-replacement drinks, I’ve never seen anyone actually buy an Oakland Enterprise product.

“I don’t know,” I say. I’m afraid I’m losing my audience. “As I see it, I’m the only one in this room who’s lived on both sides since the war. You look at numbers and figures, I look at people.”

That seems to shut him up, at least for the time being. I’m afraid I’ve crossed the line, but when I glance at Jeremy he gives me a small smile and a nod.

“So, ladies, gentlemen,” he says after a moments silence, “what are we going to do about this?”

“We could start with some surveys, find out what makes life more livable, rather than easier,” Bill suggests.

“Great. Dylan,” Jeremy says to the boy behind him who brought me the chair, “take notes, I have to go.”

“But you just got here,” Bill says as Jeremy and I stand up.

“I think you’ve got it under control.” We walk to the door, and even though there’s a smattering of conversation behind us, I can tell the entire room is aware of us leaving.

Once we walk through the door, and back through the hallway of strange experiments I start to breathe freely again.

“You did great,” Jeremy says to me as we walk by the plant room.

“I almost started a riot,” I say back. Some of the plants are changing colors, and one seems to have grown feelers and is strangling the scientist. “Uh—”

“He’s fine,” Jeremy dismisses him. “And you did exactly what I hoped you would do.”

“Which is what?”

“Make them think.”

We take the elevator down to the first floor. When the doors open I’m struck speechless by the beauty of the main lobby. The walls are a rich golden color and a giant chandelier descends from the center of the ceiling. But the floor is what catches my attention. The floor is completely glass, and beneath the glass are inlaid diamonds, and when the light catches them, they shine brilliant colors on whatever happens to be nearby. As we step from the elevator my bare arms and legs light up in an array of color.

“This is beautiful,” I exclaim. “Are these real diamonds?”

“Of course not!” Jeremy says, placing his hand on his chest in a look of mock shock. “You think I’d waste money like that on something for people to step on? Most of what you see is imitation.”

“They’re still beautiful, even if they aren’t real.”

“Beautiful to look at, yes. But strike one of those against a rock and it will shatter. But take a diamond, like this one right here,” he says, pointing to a shard of brilliant glass in the floor. It looks no different from the imitation crystals. “Strike this diamond against a rock, and you just may shatter the rock itself.”

“Is this the only diamond in your floor?” I asked, trying to find a difference between it and the imitation next to it.

“Now if I told you that, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

I roll my eyes and trail after Jeremy, his long legs taking him halfway across the lobby before I can even take a step.

“Where are we going?” I ask when we are out on the street. I feel like I’m in a forest of buildings. They’re so tall and have a suffocating feeling.

“I want some ice cream,” Jeremy says, looking to his right and left. He finally decides on the right and walks off purposefully. He walks at a very quick pace, and even I struggle to keep up.

Everyone we pass is wearing what I can only assume to be fashionable clothing. Their hair held perfectly in place and a look of spite on each face when they catch a glimpse of my messy ponytail and clothes.

“These people don’t seem very friendly,” I comment as we round the street corner and head into an ice cream shop. It’s painted an orange color and has old pink lettering reading “Concord Ice Cream” across the door, and just beneath it their slogan: “A Creamy Dream.” I snort at their cheesiness as Jeremy holds the door open for me.

“For once it’s not just you, they don’t like me much either.”

“Well, why aren’t they looking at you like you’re gum on the bottom of their shoe?”

“Because I own a multi-billion dollar corporation. Cashew, please,” Jeremy says to the girl in an orange and pink striped uniform behind the counter.

I wrinkle my nose at his ice cream taste. “Vanilla,” I tell the girl when she hands Jeremy his ice cream. “And if you’re so wealthy, why do you live in such a small house.”

He shrugs, “My money is tied up in other things.”

“Like the floor?” I joke and take my ice cream. I’m tempted to try to cashew, but not tempted enough.

“Hah hah,” he fake laughs and licks his ice cream. “I used to come here as a kid, before the war.”

This gets my attention. I haven’t talked to Jeremy much before today. He seemed to always be at work, or I always seemed to be in my room.

“What was it like?”

“The same, that’s why I like it. It’s the one thing that hasn’t changed, even though the people and the principles have.”

“Don’t even talk to me about principals,” I say and laugh, knowing that’s not what he meant.

“I went to school with Dr. Collins you know, he’s not as old as he looks.”

“Well he’s as awful as he looks,” I reply and finish my ice cream. Jeremy isn’t even halfway through his. I don’t want to tell him I’ve never had ice cream before. I just chose a flavor at random because I didn’t know what to expect. I like it.

“Can’t argue with you there,” he says. “Ready?”

I nod and we leave Concord Ice Cream and head back to Oakland Enterprises. “Remember that, Raegan, when it seems like everything is too much to handle. Not everything has to change.”

I nod. Jeremy is a strange character. He’s difficult to read, not just because he doesn’t talk much, but when he does it’s hard to know whether he is being silly or strangely cryptic. He’s definitely given me a lot to think about today, and judging by his silence, I’d say I’ve done the same for him.

Writing is Not a Race

I’m currently reading a book by Lysa TerKeurst called Uninvited, which is essentially about dealing with rejection from a Christian perspective. In one of her chapters she discusses the abundance mentality (originally [I think] from the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). This mentality really just focuses on the fact that there is not a limited amount of success in the world.

For example, I am a writer. I enjoy writing MG and YA novels. There will always be readers for these age groups. Someone else getting published before me does not take away a reader from my future book. To convince ourselves that our level of success is defined by the failures of others ensures our own failure. Why would that make us fail? Because it would let thoughts into our minds that disconnect us from each other.

I’m not saying this is easy. There’s not a simple switch you flick to make you instantly happy when someone else achieves their dream before you. It’s hard, let’s be real. There might be a flicker of jealousy there. It’s what you do with that tiny spark of negative nature that defines who you are.

If you’re feeling the heat from this post, know that you’re not alone. I recently had to remind myself of these truths when I heard about a friend getting published. Now here’s the kicker, I’ve already been published (or at least, I have the promise of publication from a lit magazine, and I’m still kind of waiting for it to happen). And yet, I see someone I know achieving success, and for one ugly moment I think, but what about me? What about me, though? Really.

In her book, Lysa (and she may have gotten this from someone else, I don’t know) stresses that instead of focuses on the why’s we should focus on the what’s, such as What have I learned from this experience?

Why’s lead you down that dark rabbit hole called self pity, whereas what’s bring you up to the light of self discovery. (Yea, feel free to quote me on that one.) It seems so elementary, and honestly, it is. But it’s something that not many of us are inherently good at. Actually, I’d like to meet someone who is good at this off the cuff. It’s a reminder we all need that doesn’t hurt to have. Okay, maybe it hurts just a little. My pride does feel a smidge bruised.

So before you start typing at the speed of light to get your story out before that other person sitting next to you at Starbucks, remember, it’s not a race. There’s enough room in the world for all of our stories.

Running

Peace out cub scouts.
~Taylor

~Interlude: Where I’ve Been~

Just in case you’re wondering why I suddenly went MIA on you, I’ve been losing my mind as an adjunct professor. These past two classes have been my first on-my-own teach or die trying classes in a face-to-face setting. Man, let me tell you, there’s nothing that gives you more confidence that hiding behind a computer screen, and there’s nothing more daunting than taking that screen away. Teaching. Is. Terrifying.

But it’s also fulfilling. And teaching a research writing (and now a composition) course has taught me a few things about writing that I’d like to share with you. This is for those of you who maybe want to be a writer but aren’t confident to submit your work to lit agents or magazines, OR it’s for those of you who hate writing in general and aren’t really sure how you ended up on this blog post or why you’re still reading it.

1. Writing doesn’t have to be grueling.
Sure, it might be hard work. You have to put in the man hours to study how to write before you can even write. But it doesn’t have to be painful. Writing shouldn’t be the equivalent of a triple bypass surgery where you’re knocked out for days and then can’t move easily for even more.

Think of writing like tending a field. You have to plant the seeds (come up with an idea), water it (learn how to write), and make sure those ugly weeds don’t choke your cute little tomato plant to death (the actual act of writing). Even when your plant has produced its little fruit or vegetable, you can’t just let it wither and die (proofreading, editing, rewriting). It’s hard work. But it’s not awful. And you get a tomato at the end, which is a reward in itself.

2. Writing doesn’t have to be boring.
The biggest complaint I receive as a professor is that writing papers is hard because it’s so boring and I can’t do it and wah wah wah. This. Is. Bologna. You can do it, you just don’t want to because a) you’ve been taught that writing is boring, b) you’re just being a lazy brat, or c) all of the above.

Don’t just write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you’re interested in. Of course don’t just run head first into a topic you know nothing about and act like an expert. Research. Interview. Learn. I’ve never read a more passionate paper than one talking about insurance scams. It was intriguing to me because I saw that the student who wrote it found it interesting to write about.

Trust me, we can tell when you’re bored with a paper topic.

3. Writing isn’t just for the naturally gifted.
I am 100% in favor of anyone wanting to be a writer. I am not 100% in favor of anyone thinking that all writing is is throwing down some words on a paper and having someone publish it. No no no. It doesn’t work like that. Blogs may work like that, but publication does not. So if you are writing strictly to be published and you refuse to learn the art of writing, I will not go out of my way to help you. Sorry. It’s offensive to those of us who try so hard to learn how to write well and how to make our piece nearly perfect before sending it in. It’s not the ignorance I mind, it’s the complete dismissal.

I say all that to say if you have ever thought about writing anything at all, please do it! Try it! See how it makes you feel. Learn more about it (this I will be happy to help with!). And be willing to accept changes. But seriously, don’t think that just because you aren’t JK Rowling or Edgar Allen Poe that means you can’t write. That is a lie and I will not have it.

Writing

So while I’m over here not writing because I’m teaching and drowning in grading papers and lack of sleep, I hope you’re writing. Or reading, if that’s your cup of tea.

For now, I’ll take the 15 minutes of writing I can catch here and there until this class is over and I have my life back. But who needs that?

The Upright – Chapter 12

The Upright - Chapter 12 - taylortampa.com

Chapter 12

I wake curled up in the bathtub. My body is stiff and protests when I stretch. I vaguely remember making it to the bathroom to throw up my banana in the toilet and crawling into the shower after, but it seems I never made it to turning the shower on.

My hands shake as I take off my clothes and turn on the shower. I don’t remember drinking any water the day before and now I’m dehydrated. The room spins as my legs threaten to give out.

“You look terrible,” Bennett says as I enter the kitchen, hair dripping water onto Dana’s perfectly cleaned floor.

A pile of food mysteriously appears in front of me, along with a glass of cold, refreshing water. I take the water and chug it. Feeling bloated and sick I can’t eat anything but a few bites of egg. I know I’d feel better if I ate something, but how can I when the thought of food makes me sick? It’s a lose-lose situation and at the moment I have no idea how to make it better.

“I feel terrible,” I finally answer Bennett, but he’s not sitting there anymore. When did he leave?

“Are you okay?” Dana asks and comes over to feel my forehead. “You’re burning up.”

“That’s the first motherly thing you’ve said to me,” I hear myself say.

I faintly see Dana struggle with that comment as my vision blurs.

“Go upstairs, you’re not going to school today,” she finally says.

I stand up and make it halfway up the stairs before I fall to my knees. I crawl the rest of the way to my door, but find I can’t reach the handle from the ground. I think it’s Bennett who finds me sitting in the hallway staring at the wall, because whoever it is has hair darker than the usual Oakland blonde. He picks me up and puts me into bed. I think he calls me an idiot for making myself sick, which sounds like something Bennett would say, but I may be making the whole thing up. Maybe I put myself to bed.

I wake up a couple hours later. I don’t remember falling asleep but I definitely feel better. My stomach burns from being empty, but the thought of any food still nauseates me.

I poke my head into the hallway but I don’t hear or see anything. I shakily make my way downstairs and hope no one is in the kitchen. It’s empty so I root through the fridge, looking for something that would be easy on my stomach. I end up settling for a piece of toast because I’m too tired to make soup.

Starving myself was a dumb idea. I’ve made myself sick between not eating and feeling guilty about everything. I can’t keep this up. Plus, Mom would be so mad that I did this to myself.

I eat my toast and my stomach lets me keep it there. I pass the rest of the day in my room flipping through my schoolbooks and attempting to do the homework I never finished the night before.

But that begins to bore me after about three minutes, so instead I settle for wandering the house, rooting through drawers and in closets, not quite sure what I’m looking for. On the bookshelf are a number of typical Upright titles like The Secrets of Raising Upright Children and Healthy Body, Healthy Mind. The Upright are pretty obsessed with being healthy, between diet and exercise I’m not sure which one they like more. My lifestyle back home, what with regulated meals and my propensity for running, has left me with a lean figure, but thanks to my self-destruction the past couple days, it’s only a matter of time before Dana takes over.

Sitting on the coffee table I find a couple books on Upright politics. I pick one at random about Upright military. We live in a military dictatorship, although the Upright call it a limited democracy because we “vote” for the general in power. I laugh at that. If you’re Obliged, you can’t vote because of your political ignorance. We don’t care much because everyone knows the voting is rigged, though even with torture you would never get the Upright to admit it. The same general has been in power for the past two decades. Not because we love him, but because every opponent is hand picked by one of the colonels and mysteriously disposed of just after the voting is announced, whether he won or not. Our General Francis Black doesn’t like to play fair.

And sadly, I didn’t even know his name until Reese told me. For most of my life, I knew we were run by the military, but information in our world is so hard to come by. To the Obliged, he was just called “The General.” I think they do that to give the semblance that it hasn’t been the same man for the past twenty years. Maybe they think that if we believe the general is a new man at every election, we won’t feel as oppressed.

I shut the book and throw it on the table. I lean my head back on the couch and close my eyes. When I open them again Bennett and Reese are home, arguing upstairs.

“—And what did you tell him?” Reese is asks angrily.

“The truth, that she’s sick,” Bennett says back to her, calmer than his sister.

“You need to keep him away from her.”

“Who are you talking about?” I ask, slowly trudging up the stairs. When did making it to the second floor start to feel like climbing a mountain?

“Oh, no one,” Reese says awkwardly. She doesn’t make eye contact with Bennett or me and goes to her room. I hear her lock the door.

“What was that all about?” I ask Bennett, trying to appear unconcerned.

“Nathan wanted to know where you were today,” Bennett says, rubbing his eyes.

“Oh,” I say. “So why was Reese all in a huff about it?”

“I don’t know, girls are weird,” Bennett answers before he goes into his room.

I go into my room, since that seems to be the popular thing to do, and finally finish my homework. My stomach feels able enough to handle a solid meal, so I decide to join the Oakland’s for dinner a few hours later – or most of them anyway, because Reese isn’t there. Tonight we feast on salmon and broccoli. Like nearly everything else, it smells rich and delicious. But it doesn’t taste as good as the salmon we would sometimes get hold of from our dealer back home. I think the fact that it was illegal made it taste better.

“You should go to bed early tonight,” Dana tells me when I finish eating.

“But I slept all day,” I say.

“You have to rest. Go to bed.”

I roll my eyes and leave the kitchen. I see Bennett smirking at me from behind Dana and I make a face at him when she turns around. He grabs his chest and feigns a shot to the heart. Dana asks him what he’s doing and I take off quickly. That’s something else I don’t want – Dana to think that I’m getting along well with her children.

Upstairs I can hear music on in Reese’s room. I knock on the door and she says to come in.

“What are you listening to?” I ask. She’s laying on her bed staring at the ceiling, listening to beautiful orchestra music.

“Harmonic Woods Orchestra.” She doesn’t look at me. I take a moment to glance around her room. It’s not as girly as I thought it would be. The walls are a soft green and there’s an easel in the corner next to a shelf of paint. The rest of the room is covered in discarded clothing and hair products.

“What are you looking at?” I ask, looking up too.

“Nothing you can see,” she says and rolls over.

This is weird. Reese loves to talk, and she’s never cold, not even to me.

“Reese, what’s wrong?”

She doesn’t answer, so I walk over to the other side of the bed and drop to a crouch in front of her. She tries to roll the other way but I grab her arms before she can.

“Reese,” I say and wait for her eyes to lock on mine. Their dead look scares me, and I hate that it does. I brush a piece of her hair back from her face. “What is it?”

“Do you want to know why I fear Nathan so much?” she whispers, the death in her eyes coming out in her voice. Hollow, like a dying echo in a cave. A scared Reese I can handle. An empty one I cannot.

“Why?” I whisper back. Images of Vivian try to push their way into my head. Vivian on the ground holding a skinned knee, tears in her eyes but not letting them out because she wants too much to be like her big sister. But that’s not Reese. There are no tears in her eyes now as she looks at me. Looks through me.

I let Reese roll away from me and onto her back. “Two years ago, Nathan flirted with me like he did with you. Standing close, holding my waist, making me feel like I was the only girl he cared about. I was stupid and thought the attention was flattering, so we dated. He would come up to me in the hallway and tell me how much he liked me, and how he never wanted any other girl.”

“But he didn’t mean it,” I say after she had been quiet for a few moments.

“Of course not, I caught him cheating on me with Haylie,” Reese says, a tear finally emerges, trailing partway down her cheek before she quickly wipes it away with her hand. She looks at her hand and wipes it off on her jeans, her eyebrows scrunched with disgust.

“And you broke up with him?” I asked, seeing she didn’t want to tell me any more.

“No,” she chokes out. “I— I— just wanted him to love me like I thought I loved him.”

I sit next to Reese on the bed and stroke her face. “You don’t have to say anymore Reese, whatever you did, it’s over. It doesn’t have to hurt you anymore,” I whisper.

“You don’t understand, it’s not anything that I did,” she says and shakes her head, sniffing. “I met him after school one day to show him I still wanted him, and he apparently still wanted me, just a little more than I was willing to give.”

My hand grows still as I realize what Reese is telling me. “He raped you?” I asked, my voice deadly still. Silent tears flowed from Reese’s eyes in a silent answer. She looks me in the eyes and I can see the burden of two years of pain, never having told anyone. And the sad part is, I never would have guessed Reese to have anything but a pain-free life. With the way she carries herself, acts around people, you’d think she was raised in a world of rainbows and butterflies, but it seems there’s a few more rainclouds in her world than she cares to let on.

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask Reese.

“Because I’m scared for you. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, even someone who is trying very hard not to like me,” she says, half smiling.

I start to deny it, but I smile too, because there’s not much you can hide from Reese. She can read people like a book.

“No one is going to lay a hand on me. And if he so much as looks at you ever again, well, let’s just say not many girls will be wanting his company once I’m through with him.”

Reese’s eyes widen, but the she nervously laughs when I tell her I’m kidding. I’m not, of course, but she doesn’t have to know that.

“Look, I have to get to bed before Dana yells at me again. Not that I’m going to bed because I’m listening to her, I just don’t feel like getting yelled at,” I amend myself. We may have just had a moment, but my independence is still worth asserting.

“Sure, sure,” Reese says, waving me off like she doesn’t believe me.

“But seriously though,” I say, standing up and walking to her door, “you don’t have to carry this with you anymore. And the best way to hurt your enemies is to keep them from knowing they’re hurting you.”

“That’s funny advice coming from you.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, hand wrapped around the doorknob.

“You don’t really try very hard to hide your wounds, Rae,” Reese says. “Anyone you get in trouble with can see your weaknesses.”

I don’t know what to say, because I don’t want to admit Reese is right. But she isn’t right, not at all. I lash out because these people are ignorant, not because they know how to get to me.

“Look,” Reese continues, “all I’m saying is, maybe you should pick your battles more carefully.”

I don’t blink, because I don’t want Reese to know I’m taking her seriously. “Maybe,” I say and open the door, “either way, you should get some sleep.”

“Night,” I hear Reese whisper when I shut the door.

I lean against the closed door for a minute and shut my eyes. Reese doesn’t know what she’s talking about. There’s so much about me she doesn’t know, so much I haven’t told her, heck I haven’t even told her anything. Whatever she knows is from Dana or whoever gave them information about me. She has no right to say that everyone can see right through me.

I push myself away from the door and head into my room until the house is quiet. The Upright don’t use alarms because everyone’s too honorable to steal or whatever, so sneaking out is child’s play. I leave the front door open just because I can, and hope a raccoon finds its way inside while I’m gone.

I don’t have anywhere in particular go and after wandering down a few streets I find myself at the artificial pond I had run into after my first day of school. I sit down and run my hands over the perfectly trimmed grass. It’s too dark to see much, the lampposts by the road don’t give off much light because it’s past curfew and illegal to be out this late at night. The Upright had a curfew of midnight, two hours later than us, but a curfew nonetheless.

I sigh and lay back in the grass, which isn’t itchy like my grass back home. I hated that grass then, but I miss it now. I even miss Donovan, though he was driving me crazy before I was Picked. Looking back I think he really did love me. I don’t feel bad though about how it ended. Maybe a little for him, but not for me. I cared about him, but I didn’t love him. Or at least I don’t think I did or do. And what’s the point in loving someone you won’t ever see again, or you have no chance with. It’s just painful and a waste of emotion. Besides, I’m sure Donovan has moved on by now.

I miss my train. According to Reese, they only have the bullet train here, and there’s no way to jump that and live to tell about it. The train connects the major towns and is mostly for commuters or students on field trips. Not many people get up and leave town just for the fun of it, they’re too content where they are. If that is what my life becomes, I think I’ll go crazy. Heck I probably have already gone crazy. I’ve been lying by this pond for an hour talking to myself and staring at the stars.

That’s the only thing that’s the same. The stars. The stars and the night sky. The moon I see now is the same moon I saw at home. Vivian and Matty might be looking at the moon right now at the same time as me.

“I miss you,” I whisper to them.

And now I really have gone crazy. I stand up, brush myself off, and sneak back to the Oakland’s. The door is still wide open, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like any nighttime critters have found their way inside.

I sneak back upstairs and am surprised to see a dark shadow leaning against my door. The shadow pushes itself away and I step backwards and ball my hand into a fist, flashes of my conversation of Reese sending my heart into a frenzy.

“Relax, it’s just me,” Bennett says from the shadows. He steps into a thin stream of moonlight and I see it’s really him. I relax my hand and walk toward my bedroom door and open it.

“What do you want?” I ask, kind of cranky. I’m not in the mood for surprises.

“Well aren’t you sassy,” he avoids my question and follows me into my room.

“I’m tired, get to the point or get gone.”

“You’re tired? I sat against this wall for an hour waiting for you to return from your midnight jaunt.”

“And again I ask, what do you want?”

“How was your day?” He asks, dawdling by my doorframe. I grab some pajamas from my closet and head into the bathroom to change.

“Got that out of your system?” I ask when I return in matching flannel pants and shirt.

“Whatever do you mean?” He asks back, twirling a pencil from my desk in his hand.

“Get out, Bennett,” I say, walking toward him to usher him away.

“What did Reese tell you?” He asks in a rush when I almost get him out the door.

“What?” I stop. Does Bennett know something?

“You heard what I said,” he says quietly. It isn’t in his usual mocking tone, just quiet, and he almost sounds scared to know the answer.

“She just told me the truth about Nathan.”

“Which is what?”

“Ask her,” I say and attempt to shut the door.

“Ow!” Bennett says. He had stuck his fingers in the door to keep it from closing.

“Seriously Bennett, I’m not telling you anything. Go away.”

“I think I already know.”

“What?” I ask, cracking my door open. I look up at Bennett’s face and see immense sorrow in his eyes. “What do you know?” I open the door wider and Bennett leans his head against the doorframe.

“Nathan has hinted at things to me, that he’s done stuff to my sister. I never took him seriously because he acts like that about every girl, but I don’t know, maybe this is different.”

“And if it is?”

“If it is, then Nathan and I have some serious problems.” Bennett stops staring into space and looks me dead in the eyes. “I failed one sister, I won’t fail another.”

“Bennett—” I say, but he’s already gone. Bennett and Reese need to quit acting like I’m part of the family, because the second I have a chance to leave, I’m gone. Besides, I don’t want to like them, and I don’t want to get tied up in their lives.

I shut my door and crawl into bed, planning to sleep completely through the next two days.

The Upright – Chapter 11

The Upright - Chapter 11 - taylortampa.com

Chapter 11

I wake up in a cocoon of blankets and kick them off wildly, breathing hard. It’s not until they’re all on the ground that I remember why I forced myself to sleep like that.

I get up and put on whatever clothes I grab out of the closet first. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, which makes me go back and change into something less skanky, before I head downstairs for breakfast. This morning Dana offers me French toast, but I shake my head. I make up some story about being allergic to yeast, which is obviously a lie, and eat a banana instead. Nobody mentions my strange disappearance from dinner last night. I figure they’re probably used to me doing weird things that this didn’t phase them anyway.

We go through our usual routine and Dana drops us off at school. It’s Monday, the day school should be on. I walk to my first class before I realize I haven’t said a word to Reese or Bennett all morning. I look beside me and see Reese is standing there, looking like she wants to ask me what’s wrong. It would be cowardly to only deny myself food and space. Without saying anything to Reese, I walk into my classroom, my gut tied in knots.

I sit quietly through my first two classes and listen to my teachers. I even make it all the way to lunch before something happens, and this something is named Nathan.

“Anyone sitting here?” he asks. Today he’s wearing dark blue jeans and a plain black shirt. His black hair is stuck up in that weird but attractive way again. His shirt shrugs up by his shoulder and I see he has a tattoo of an Upright arrow. Yup, this one’s Upright through and through.

“Yes,” I say, but he sits down anyway. I take my hands off the table and put them in my lap in case he tries to hold them.

He notices this and smirks. “Listen, I think we got off to the wrong start the other day. I’m really not a bad guy.”

“Funny, but I’ve heard otherwise.”

“Everyone makes mistakes Raegan, let’s start over.” He stretches his hand forward to take mine before he seems to remember I moved them. Now his hand sits between us awkwardly.

“You don’t seem too regretful about it,” I say and lean back in my chair, all ease and indifference, while inside my stomach burned in disgust.

“Look, what do you want from me?” He says exasperated. He pulls his hand back and stretches his fingers out on the table. If he’s trying to remind me that his fingers are long enough to wrap around my throat I refuse to be intimidated.

“I don’t know what I want yet, but I’ll let you know when I do,” I say and smile. Nathan tries to smirk back but I think he’s too frustrated because it looks more like he’s constipated.

“You do that,” he says. As he stands up he puts all of his weight on his hands resting on the table. The table flips over towards him and he falls backwards. I stand up quickly and look over the table. “What did you do that for?” He yells at me.

“Do what?” I say back, completely confused.

A teacher hurries over and I see it’s Mrs. Collins. Perfect.

“What is going on over here?” Mrs. Collins asks in her shrill voice. I fight the urge to cover my ears as Nathan beats me to an answer.

“I’m wondering the same thing,” Nathan says, offended. “All I did was ask if we could be friends and she flipped the table on me. She’s crazy!”

“I am not!” I yell.

Mrs. Collins looks at me appraisingly. “I think another visit to Dr. Collins will straighten this out.”

“I’m sick of that man,” I mumble under my breath before I remember that I’m talking to his wife.

Mrs. Collins raises her eyebrows. “Are you? Doesn’t seem that way.” She starts walking away and resigned, I follow after her. I look behind me to see Nathan standing, brushing off his jeans. He smiles and winks. I lift my hand, ready to make a gesture to show him what I really think, but I catch Reese standing behind another table watching me. The slight shake of her head warns me not to and I drop my hand. I turn back around and follow the tall witch to her husband.

Dr. Collins isn’t in his office when we get there so I have the pleasure of waiting with his lovely wife for five minutes until he shows up. When he walks around the corner I’m almost grateful, until I see the glare on his face and I assume that he knows about the ruse Bennett pulled on him the other day. Getting in trouble today is probably the dumbest thing I could have done, even if it wasn’t my fault.

“Raegan, what a surprise,” he says, unsurprised. “Please, come in and make yourself at home. I ought to set up a permanent residence for you here.”

I walk inside and sit in my usual chair. I look over and see Mrs. Collins nod and say something to her husband before she leaves. Dr. Collins walks inside and traces his mouth with his thumb and forefinger. “Well Raegan, what to do with you?” I don’t answer and sit quietly in my chair, my back straight and my jaw clenched. “I think a good old-fashioned documentary should do the trick.”

I fight the urge to roll my eyes and I relax in my chair. Propaganda I could handle. He rummages in a filing cabinet for the disk and puts it into his television that’s hanging on the wall. “I think for the next week you can come visit me during lunch to watch this film.”

A whole week of the same documentary? He must think I’m an amateur. My growling stomach betrays me though, and Dr. Collins smiles.

He turns the television on and an image appears of some people, but it’s too far away to distinguish who they are.

“Many years ago the Obliged were in need of leaders,” says a monotone male voice. I change my mind, this might be worse than isolation. “And they were granted their desire with the help of the Upright, their friendly neighbors to the north.” I fake a cough to cover my laugh. Dr. Collins raises his eyebrows. I fight to keep a straight face as I watch the rest of the film make light of the invasion. We were deemed “too dangerous and ignorant” to go on any longer, hence the peaceful assumption of the Upright into government and the regulation of the Obliged.

It isn’t until near the end that I become genuinely interested. “—To protect the Obliged, we developed a Detention Facility for the Morally Subversive—” the announcer says.

“I’ve never heard of that jail,” I say to Dr. Collins, interrupting the movie. I’ve processed enough paperwork in the Criminal Office to know what Detention Facilities were popular for the Obliged, like the Detention Facility for the Criminally Insane, or for the Emotionally Unstable, but the Detention Facility for the Morally Subversive was not one of them.

“Shh, this is my favorite part,” he says, flapping a hand at my face.

With narrowed eyes I look back to the screen and see the camera crew touring the jail. There are a series of interviews where the inmates remark on how well kept the facilities are, and how the corrective behavior methods of their jailers have changed their perspective. I fight to laugh again, wondering what exactly the corrective behavior methods entail when the documentary cuts to the Upright flag, a simple white flag with their arrow insignia in the middle in black, with the Upright national anthem playing over the image.

Dr. Collins turns off the television, “So what do you think?” he asks me in his deep, formal voice.

“I think it was very…informative,” I say, struggling for a word that isn’t necessarily good or bad.

“I think you’ll find it more so tomorrow, during lunch,” he says. I take that as a dismissal and stand up. I’m already late to my two hour math class so I don’t hurry. By the time I get there I only have to endure thirty minutes of wanting to bang my head against the wall, but at least this time I have something to think about. The Detention Facility for the Morally Subversive, also known as your typical jail for political criminals, add in a little torture, and some good old-fashioned brainwashing. I wonder if Donovan’s father is there and whether I would be able to find him, but thinking about Donovan hurts. My stomach gives a painful growl and the nerdy guy in the next seat looks at me with pity.

I put my head down in my arms until the teacher tells me to stop napping in class. Maybe resolving not to eat isn’t the best way to make a statement, but even the thought of food makes me feel sick. I’ll force myself to eat a banana when I get home or something.

When the bell finally rings I’m extremely close to falling asleep. I walk outside to where Dana usually picks us up, but the parking spot is empty. Reese is sitting on the curb waiting for me.

“I told mom you and I would walk home today,” Reese says, standing up.

“Why would you do that?” I ask her. Today I’d actually appreciate a ride.

“Because I want to show you something.”

“Lead on then,” I say, too weak from hunger to put up much of a fight. “Where’s Bennett?”

“Left with mom,” Reese explains as I follow her down the road.

We are about a block away from the house when Reese changes direction. “Where are we going?” I ask her.

“Do you ever enjoy surprises?” She asks.

“On my birthday,” I say and stay quiet. I don’t want to be friends with Reese, but she makes it so easy.

We walk for another ten minutes until the road we’re on becomes empty of houses. Mountains rise from the ground before us in the distance, like a giant wall keeping me prisoner. And just before the road splits, there’s a large warehouse on the right.

“Is that where we’re going?” I ask her, forgetting to be silent.

Reese just nods. She’s quiet until we get there, which is out of character. Whatever she wants me to see must be pretty important.

The warehouse is huge and rusty, like it’s been abandoned for a while. I’m surprised anything like this still exists so close to an Upright town. You’d think they’d destroy the old building for marring their landscape or some other dumb reason.

“It’s Dad’s,” Reese says, answering my unspoken question. “He used it for his business when he first started out, but then he moved everything to a better building in the city. Since then, I’ve decided it belongs to me.” She smiles as she says this and grips the old, rusted handle with both hands. She shoves it down and the door swings open on squeaking hinges.

It’s dark inside until my eyes adjust to the light, and when they do, my mouth drops open. Covering every wall are murals, made with spray paint, regular paint, chalk – you name it.

“You did this?” I ask, walking to a wall that catches my eye. It’s a painting of a girl facing away from the painter, standing on top of a hill covered in yellow flowers. Her blonde hair blows behind her and she’s holding one of the flowers in her hand.

“Yea,” she said, standing in the middle of the room, watching me appraise her work. “Even us Upright break the rules every now and then.”

“But not you,” I say unbelieving, touching the wall to see if it’s real. I can feel the grainy texture of the paint beneath my fingers.

“Especially me,” she says and joins me, “I just pick my battles. When I was young, Mom and Dad used to take us there,” she nods toward the picture. “We’d have picnics and swim in the lake just on the other side of that hill.”

“That sounds nice.” It sounds like the sort of thing I would do with my family back home.

“We haven’t done that in a while,” Reese says so quietly I barely hear her. “Anyway, I thought you’d like to see this.”

“I do, thank you,” I say. “And Reese, I’m sorry for—”

“You may think I don’t understand Rae,” she says, “but I do, or a little bit anyway. You don’t want to be with me, you want Vivian. It’s okay. I get it.”

At the mention of Vivi’s name I tear up. I didn’t realize Reese knew so much about me, and it makes me wonder what else the Oakland’s know. Do they know about Donovan? About my solitary confinement?

I just nod because I don’t want to talk and cry. Reese opens her bag and pulls out some cans of spray paint. She throws them to me and I catch them nimbly. “Go crazy,” she says with a smile. I smile back and search for a bare piece of wall. In the end I climb a ladder and stand on a tall, unstable riser to find somewhere to tag. I shake the can of paint and poise myself to write the word Uptight, but I find I don’t want to. Instead I spray large flowers onto the wall in different colors, and hidden between each one is a letter to Vivian’s name. One day I’ll show it to her.

“It’s perfect,” Reese says from below me. “I don’t mean to cut your work short, Picasso, but we can’t be late for dinner.”

“Yes, that would be a tragedy wouldn’t it,” I joke as I climb down the ladder.

“Quite.” Reese takes my spray paint and stomps on the wooden floor. The other end of the floorboard pops up and Reese catches it. She deposits our empty cans into her private nook and explains: “Spray paint is illegal here too, if you’re caught with it in your trash you can be taken in for questioning.”

“I didn’t know that,” I say. Maybe the Upright are just as oppressed as the Obliged, just in different ways. But then I laugh at the thought, the taste of ash noodles on my tongue.

“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Reese says simply. I know she’s right but it’s still frustrating to hear.

“So where did you learn to paint like that?” I ask Reese after we’ve walked silently for a while. We’re not far from the house now.

“My mom used to paint, but then she quit. We would paint together when I got home from school.”

“Why’d she quit,” I ask.

Reese shrugs. “I guess she got interested in other things.”

When we get to the house we can smell dinner cooking. It smells like nothing I’ve ever eaten and Reese excitedly says it’s chicken pot pie, whatever that is. It smells delicious and my stomach gives a pathetic gurgle. My vision blurs a bit before I make myself snap out of it. It may smell delicious, but I’m not going to eat it.

I walk into the kitchen and grab a banana. I tell Dana that something I ate that day made me feel queasy and that I’m going to sit dinner out. She waves me away and I can tell I still haven’t been forgiven. I peel my banana as I walk upstairs.

“Watch out,” Ace says, knocking me into the wall as he rushes down the stairs. I had been so focused on peeling my banana I didn’t even see him.

“Maybe if you weren’t such a lumbering brute…” I mutter to myself.

In my room I force myself to eat the banana, and since it’s the second banana and nearly the only thing I’ve eaten all day, I eat it quickly. However, my stomach disagrees with me and I find myself in much the same predicament as the night before.

The Upright – Chapter 10

The Upright - Chapter 10 - taylortampa.com

Chapter 10

When I wake up the next morning, Dana acts as though nothing is wrong. She hands me a plate of eggs and toast and tells me to eat up as I sit down at the table with Bennett.

“Where’s Ace?” I ask. I haven’t seen him since my first day here and I’m starting to wonder whether he still exists.

“He has to leave early for UMA. Up at the crack of dawn and all,” Bennett says, stealing a bite of my eggs.

“Hey,” I say, scooting my plate away, “eat your own.”

Dana spoons another helping of eggs on Bennett’s plate but not on mine. He shrugs when Dana turns around. Okay, I guess she’s still a little mad.

Reese comes barreling into the kitchen, grabs a plate from Dana’s outstretched hand and starts eating before she sits down.

“What are you in a rush for?” Bennett asks. He makes to steal a bite of Reese’s food but she deflects his fork with her own.

“My alarm didn’t go off. I still have to do my hair and figure out what I’m wearing,” Reese says between bites of egg.

“You’re already wearing your school clothes,” I say, pointing at her with my fork.

She looks down. “Oh,” she says, dropping her half eaten breakfast on the table and running out of the kitchen.

“What was that all about?” Bennett asks, shoveling Reese’s eggs into his mouth before Dana can take the plate away.

I shrug and slide my food over to Bennett. “What am I, a feeding trough?” He asks as I leave the room.

I throw on some jeans with holes in them, which I find incredibly stupid. Why would you buy damaged clothing? I pick out a black v-neck shirt and slip it on. It feels smooth against my body and I have to fight myself to keep from taking it off.

I can’t get rid of this feeling of guilt. Everything I have here with the Upright only makes the Obliged feel farther away.

I feel myself weakening and attempt to shake the thoughts away. There’s no point in dwelling on home – my real home. I don’t know how to get back, if I can ever get back. As much as it pains me to do, deep down I know I have to start letting them go.

When I walk back downstairs everyone, even Reese, is waiting for me.

“It took you that long to pick that out?” Bennett teases me. I make a face at him and Reese smiles. Dana ignores me completely.

I roll my eyes behind her back. She either wants me to be in the family or she doesn’t. If she keeps giving me the cold shoulder I’m going to have to make her pay attention to me.

“What are you all dressed up for?” I ask Reese. I assume she always looks good going to school, seeing as Dana is a fashion consultant and all, or at least that’s what I guess based on all the clothes this family owns. Her cheeks turn red and she bites her lip. “Is it a boy?” I whisper.

She shakes her head no, but I can tell she’s lying. I leave her alone though because the last time I teased Vivi about a boy she ended up punching me so hard it left a small bruise. I smile at the memory, but then I remember that that’s all it is.

I stare at the houses passing by in a blur as Dana tries to get us to school on time, picking out random details – a blue door here, red curtains there – as I reign in my emotions. My palms are sweaty from my effort and I wipe them discreetly against my jeans, scowling when my fingers get stuck on an inconveniently placed hole.

We pull up outside the school and I start to get out of the car.

“Just a second Raegan,” Dana says to me. She turns around in her seat to face me once Reese and Bennett step out of the car. “I expect to pick you up from school today Raegan, not just drop you off.”

I look straight into Dana’s eyes. Hers were an icy blue compared to my stony black. “As long as everyone keeps their hands off me that shouldn’t be a problem,” I reply.

“I don’t care if the principal himself back hands you, you’ll take it in silence,” Dana says.

“You’re kidding?” I sit forward in my chair. There’s no way she means that, as awful as she is.

“There are worse things,” Dana says and turns around. I stare at the back of her head for a few seconds before I get out of the car. I never expected Dana to say anything like that. Yell, yes. Tell me I’m ungrateful, sure. But expect me to be completely submissive to just anyone, absolutely not.

I wonder if Dana was referring to the Cage when she said there are worse things than being humiliated, and I resolve to ask Reese as soon as I find her. Problem is, she’s nowhere to be seen.

I finally spot her talking to someone standing behind a tree. She looks very engaged in the conversation so I stay back and watch, peeking from the side of the school building. Finally, after a few minutes she stands on her toes and reaches up and kisses whoever is hidden there.

After a few stares from passersby I realize my mouth is hanging open. Reese is a cute girl, petite and doll-like, but I never thought about her having a boyfriend. She just seems too young, but then I realize with a jolt she’s only a few years younger than me. I lean against the wall and wait for Reese to walk by.

“Who was that?” I ask nonchalantly, pushing myself off the wall and startling the poor girl, who had been gazing at the ground with a small smile on her face.

She jumps, clutching at her heart in such a sweet, innocent gesture I immediately feel guilty. “Who was what?” Reese asks and blushes.

“Oh come on Reese, you suck at lying. Who was that?” I prod gently. Or maybe not so gently. It’s hard to say.

“Just a boy,” she mumbles, looking away.

“Reese Something Oakland,” I say. I didn’t realize I didn’t know her middle name when I started talking. “You will tell me who he is right now.” I step in front of her so she can’t go anywhere.

“Well, if you must know, his name is Joseph Kelly. He goes to UMA and this is his day off. He always visits me on his day off.”

“How did you meet him?” I ask, stepping to the side and letting her pass. “And why is it a secret?”

“He went to school here last year, and who says it’s a secret.”

“You did when you met him behind a tree.”

“I almost regret befriending you now.” She laughs when I look shocked. “Oh don’t be ridiculous, you know I’m joking.”

I shrug like I don’t care, but honestly I’m surprised I do. I’m really starting to like Reese, and I find that fact kind of annoying.

“So then why is it a secret?” I ask again.

“Because mom doesn’t like him,” Reese says simply.

I stop walking. Reese keeps going so I have to jog to catch up. “You’re dating someone without mommy’s approval?” I ask in shock.

“I know I know, big surprise right?” Reese says without humor. “Look, just don’t tell anyone okay? Bennett doesn’t even know.”

I mimic locking my lips and throwing away the key, but then I remember the other question I want to ask so I unlock them again. “Do you know what the Cage is?”

“The Cage?” Reese repeats. “No, I don’t.”

“I heard Dana and Jeremy talking about it,” I say.

“I really don’t know what it is Rae, sorry,” Reese says. “This is my class.” She turns and walks into a room and leaves me alone in the hallway. I hurry to class so I’m not late, and by the time I get there, I’m in too much trouble to spend time thinking about Reese’s answer.

“Ms. Oakland, is there a reason why you’re late?” Ms. Farland asks me when I walk through the door. I can usually think up pretty good reasons, but my mind is too scattered to think straight.

“Umm—”

“Unfortunately, ‘umm’ is not good enough,” Ms. Farland says before I can get more than one syllable out. “I believe you know where the principal’s office is?”

I stare at her in disbelief. “Are you serious?” I ask. Everyone in the class is watching intently to see what the ex-Obliged will do.

“I never joke, Ms. Oakland,” Ms. Farland says and turns back to her class and begins to lecture again.

I walk out the door and down the hall toward the principal. I’m about halfway to his office when I realize there’s no way he knows I’m on my way to see him. If I were to just hide out in the bathroom for the rest of the period, no one would be any wiser.

I smile and sneak into the closest girl’s bathroom I can find. I go into a stall and sit on the back of the toilet, my feet on the rim. The walls are completely clean and look like they’ve been freshly painted. I rummage through my bag until I can find a permanent marker. I write “Haylie was here” on the bathroom stall and grin. It’s a childish prank, but I don’t care.

I spend the rest of the hour doodling and leave to go to chemistry when the bell rings. This time, as promised, Dr. Melon lets me work in a group. The group however, doesn’t exactly want to work with me. We sit at a round table, looking over the instructions, but somehow the four chairs of my group mates end up a lot closer to each other, and a lot farther from me.

“Ahem,” I cough. They look up at me. “So what are we doing?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” one of the girls near me says. She’s thin and bony, with long brown hair. “We got it.”

“Well, I’d like to help,” I say and scoot my chair closer.

The girl leans back as though I’d jumped at her, but recovers quickly. “No really, it’s okay.”

“To be honest, I don’t care what you think is okay. I’d like to help, so let me.”

“Oh,” she says nervously. “Umm—” she looks at the rest of the group who stare back at her blankly. It looks like they’ve elected her leader.

“Here,” she says, pushing two beakers full of green liquid at me. “Mix these and heat them up to 100 degrees Celsius.”

I do as she says while the group watches me. I stop what I’m doing and stare at them until they look back to their own jobs. I mix the chemicals in a third beaker and turn on the burner. As I wait for it to heat up to the proper temperature I look around the room. All of the other groups are working together to complete the assignment. I see some laughing and others smiling, all are talking. My group is the only one that’s silent.

Once the burner is hot enough I set the new chemical mixture over the flame. It starts to bubble. The bubbles grow higher and a wavy haze steams out of the top of the beaker.

“Is this right?” I ask the girl next to me, but when I look over she’s holding her nose and backing away.

“What are you doing?” Dr. Melon cries from across the room, but the damage has been done. A second later the beaker explodes, sending pieces of glass across the room. I managed to cover my face just before the explosion so most of the shards fly into my arms.

“Did you not read the instructions?” Dr. Melon yelled, running over to me and pulling my arms down from my face.

“I—I—no,” I say. I had been set up. I look over at my group and see a smirk on the bony girl’s face. I glare at her until the smile fades.

“Go to the nurse Raegan, and after that you can go see the principal.”

I start to defend myself but stop. I pick up my bag and stare at the bony girl until she looks away. Let her think I’m plotting my revenge.

I walk towards the principal’s office and hope I find the nurse on the way, because I don’t know where she is, and apparently no one here cares to give me any directions. The glass cut deep into my arms and I leave little drops of blood down the hallway. The cuts itch but I hold myself back from scratching them. I don’t know what the two chemicals I mixed were, but my arms start to burn.

My eyes water by the time I find the nurse’s office and I walk in holding my arms out.

“Oh, honey,” the nurse says when she me. “Come sit down.”

I collapse into the chair she points at and watch her pick out bandages and a pair of tweezers. She’s wearing blue scrubs and her black hair is pulled back in a bun. Her face is round and soft and she smiles at me. I smile back, but it turns into a grimace when the burning sensation escalates.

“How did this happen?” she asks as she pulls over another chair and gently turns my arm so she can see the glass better.

“Chemistry accident,” I explain as I watch her pull out the pieces of glass.

“Some of these pieces went deep,” she says, pulling out a shard that looks like an icicle, “but it doesn’t look like you’ll need stitches.”

“Good,” I say. “Um, do you have something for the burning?”

The nurse pulls out some odorless cream and rubs it on a few cuts. She looks at me and hands me a tissue.

I take the tissue and dab at my eyes. The tears haven’t spilled over yet, but at least they are from pain and not my stupid emotions.

The nurse raises her eyebrows when I sniff once and hold my breath. “How’s that tactic working for you?”

“What?” I ask confused as I let my breath out.

“I used to do that too,” she says and takes a deep breath. She holds it and stares at me until I understand. She lets out her breath. “Until everything caught up to me.”

“It’s been working so far.”

“Has it?” she asks, bandaging my cuts.

I don’t respond and look away. I almost hold my breath again but I knew the nurse was listening. “What’s your name?” I finally ask her when the silence that stretches between us grows uncomfortable.

“Gwen,” she says, “Nurse Gwen.” She pats my arm gently and I wince. “Now off you go.”

I pick up my bag and swing it onto my back as I leave and take care not to bother the bandages. Nurse Gwen is a rare one here. She doesn’t seem on my side necessarily, but she isn’t against me either. A neutral party is better than an opposing one in my case any day.

I walk down a couple more doors and face the door to the principal’s office. Day two in school and I’ve already been to this principal more times than I ever did back home. There’s no getting out of this one, especially since I’ve already avoided him once today. I take a deep breath and open the door, not bothering to knock.

“Ah, Raegan Oakland. Why am I not surprised?” Dr. Collins says and motions for me to sit down. “And what sort of trouble have you gotten into today?” He eyes my bandages and I look down at my arms.

“Chemistry accident,” I explain again.

“So today you have been sent to me for incompetence, instead of for your rather…aggressive nature.”

“That was an act of self-defense,” I say, standing up.

“Sit down Raegan. Don’t make this worse for yourself.”

“No, this is ridiculous. I shouldn’t be punished because I made a mistake, do you have nothing better to do than to sit here patronizing me?”

“Raegan, if you do not sit down in the next five seconds you will be suspended from this school. I say again, do not make this worse.”

I cross my arms.

“Five.”

Is that how old he thinks I am?

“Four.”

It’s how old I’m acting right now.

“Three.”

I really should sit down, but my knees refuse to bend.

“Two.”

“Dr. Collins!” Bennett says, bursting through the door. He looks at the two of us and seems confused by our predicament. “Umm, there’s an emergency.”

“What is it Bennett? I’m in the middle of something,” Dr. Collins says. He gestures towards me and I stare fixedly at him.

“Uh, I heard something in one of the bathrooms. It didn’t sound good, and you were the closest teacher I could find.” Bennett looks down the hall like whatever is going on in the bathrooms has escaped.

Dr. Collins sighs and stands up. “Raegan, don’t think you’ll get off this easy next time. You may go.”

I uncross my arms in shock. Just like that I am given freedom. I don’t want to ask if he’s serious in case he takes it back, so I just grab my bag and walk out the door ahead of him.

“Which way Bennett?”

“The bathroom down that way and to the left,” Bennett says, gesturing down the hall. “I’d take you but I have to get to class.”

“Very well,” Dr. Collins says and starts down the hall away from us.

I look at Bennett who looks more relieved the farther Dr. Collins walks away.

“That was close,” he says, taking my backpack from my hands.

I go to take it back but Bennett is too quick. He puts it on his back. “I take it there’s no bathroom situation? And I can carry that you know.”

“No I made it up. I couldn’t think of anything better. And have you seen your arms? You’re not much good for anything right now.”

“Wow, thanks,” I say, looking at my mummified arms. “But really, thanks. If I’d have gotten in trouble again so soon Dana would have killed me.”

“Yea, I know,” Bennett says and walks me to class, “but this is what brothers are for, right?”

“Yea, I guess,” I say quietly. I don’t want to admit that I’m more grateful than I’m letting on. “This is my class,” I say when we round the corner.

Bennett wordlessly passes me my backpack. I take it and smile at him, I’m starting to figure out where I stand with him, and I like it. He smiles back at me and squeezes my shoulder. “See ya later, sis.”

“Bye,” I say once he’s far enough away. The bell had rung while I was with Nurse Gwen, so now I’m in my last class of the day, minus lunch yet again. I walk in and find a seat at the back. For the next two hours I’m stuck listening to my teacher, whose name I can’t even remember babble on about the quadratic formula. At one point he tells me that my work is excellent and I ask him if he thinks the Obliged live under a rock. I’m rewarded with extra homework for my “loose tongue,” but I take it in silence. If there’s one thing I hate more than my whole life here, it’s math.

When Dana picks us up at the end of the day Reese takes the front seat. Dana wonders out loud whether she should even ask about my bandages, but she decides, again out loud, that whatever the cause she’s sure I’ve learned my lesson. I roll my eyes and tell her the school did medical experiments on me to see if Obliged blood was the same as Upright blood, apparently the results were inconclusive because I didn’t fall into either category. Dana responded by pulling over on the side of the road and making me walk.

I’m glad though because I discovered quickly that I hate riding in cars. They’re too closed and stuffy, and they make me feel like I’m sitting in a death trap. I take my time and get home about thirty minutes after the others. They are making dinner and doing homework when I walk in the door. I tiptoe up the stairs so I can go to my room in peace. I still don’t feel like being around people, and I also want to shower. Walking is nice, but it’s also in the upper eighties outside.

After I shower I decide to grace the Oakland family with my presence, less because I want to and more because I’m hungry.

Everyone chit chats about meaningless things while we eat. Tonight we dine on chicken and green beans, both of which I’ve had, but never cooked like this. I think about what my family is eating back home and I want to throw up. I can’t make myself eat anymore and excuse myself from the table. I barely make it upstairs before my food comes up. Luckily I manage to make it to the bathroom, though not to the toilet. I throw up everything I just ate in the shower.

By the time I’m done I feel disgusting. I turn the shower on and wait until everything disappears from the floor of the tub. Once it’s clean I crawl into the shower, fully clothed, and lay down. The pain of the memory and the nausea from the food is more than I can bear. I curl into a ball while my body shuts down against my will. I can feel my brain working overtime to calm my body down, but it doesn’t listen. My limbs go numb and even though the water is hot, my arms and legs go cold. I’m powerless to stop it, so I just lay in the shower and rock until the panic attack goes away.

I don’t know how long I lay there before I turn the shower off. I find a dry towel and wrap myself in it. My clothes are stuck to me but I don’t bother to take them off. All I can think about is my family of four sitting at a table for five, eating ash noodles and avoiding looking at the empty seat. I don’t know why I thought I could do this, pretend to be normal and make friends with Bennett and Reese. I’d leave them in a heartbeat if it meant I could go home. I even miss Donovan, despite our awkward night together. Who knew I’d one day eat my words?

I force myself to pull off my wet clothes. I throw them in a heap on the floor and find something warm to wear to bed. My stomach growls but I ignore it. Tonight I’ll sleep on an empty stomach, knowing Vivian is probably doing the same. Thinking of her makes my body seize up again, but this time I fight it off with other thoughts. I think of what I’m going to do with my arms now since my bandages all washed off in the shower and some of the wounds are bleeding again.

I hear a knock at my bedroom door but I ignore it. I rummage through the bathroom cabinets until I find some bandages and put them on. Once I’m done I turn off the bathroom light, wanting to avoid the mirror. I’ve had weak moments, but this makes me sick. I can’t lose it again like this.

I crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head until I feel claustrophobic, but I fight my desire to shove the blankets off. If Vivian can’t have her sister back, then I can’t have the feeling of freedom back.

The Upright – Chapter 9

The Upright - Chapter Nine - taylortampa.com

Chapter 9

The next morning I wake up and my eyes are red and swollen. I take a shower to try and freshen up, but they are still a little red when I get out.

I throw on my old clothes from the night before and head downstairs. Sooner or later I’m going to have to wear something else, but not right now.

Downstairs, Dana is making waffles. Or at least that’s what she calls them. I’ve never seen them before. She pours this brown, sweet smelling stuff on top and I sit down at the table and eat. Bennett and Reese are already there eating. The waffles are delicious, but I try not to look like I’m enjoying them too much.

“Raegan, you’re going to have to change for school,” Dana says. She glances at me from over her shoulder, looking me up and down in obvious disapproval.

“What’s wrong with this?” I ask, fidgeting. My shirt and shorts are wrinkled from being thrown on the floor last night when I changed, and there is a stain on the shirt from I don’t remember what.

“There’s a dress code at your new school. I’ll lay out some clothes for you to change into,” she replies, voice emotionless, and leaves the kitchen.

I’m annoyed but I don’t feel like picking a fight. I’m tired from spending most of last night awake. My bed may have been more comfortable than anything I’ve ever laid on, but I may as well have been on a pile of bricks.

“Where’s Ace,” I ask them.

“Haven’t seen him since last night. He’d probably be here if the table were less crowded,” Bennett says, his face serious and appraising.

I look at the three empty seats at the table. There is plenty of room. Although part of me screams to stay silent, I can’t help but take the bait. “He’d probably be here but for the stick up his—”

“Raegan!” Reese says indignantly.

Bennett snorts milk over his waffles. Reese has to hit him on the back until he can breath again. I look at them in disbelief. Reese’s reaction I expected. Bennett’s however, I did not.

“You know Rae, you’re all right,” Bennett says when he gets his breath back.

They may laugh at what I said, but I meant it seriously. Annoyed, I get up and throw the rest of my waffle away, wash my dish and leave. When I’m back upstairs in my room I see Dana has laid out a new outfit for me, and how it satisfies dress code I don’t know. It’s a pair of black shorts and a cropped blue tank top. I put it on and look in the mirror. My caramel colored skin is striking against the clothing. I run my hand across my bare stomach, unsure of seeing so much of myself. I laugh in astonishment as I realize how strange it must be to see this half-black half-white Obliged girl in a family of Uprights who all share the same color skin. It had been part of my life for so long that I hadn’t thought twice about it until now.

I pull off the shirt, having no desire to show off so much skin to complete strangers, and put my old one back on. The shorts will have to be another battle with my new monster. I mean Mom.

Speaking of the witch, I hear her yell from downstairs that it’s time to leave, so I grab the backpack that’s sitting on my desk. It’s brand new and all black and filled with school supplies and books. At home, the amount of supplies in my new bag would have been distributed among my entire class, and they would have had to make it last for a month at least.

Feeling guilty I walk downstairs and see Bennett, Reese, and Dana waiting for me.

“We’re late,” Dana says. She looks me up and down and her forehead creases. But she lets it slide. I smile behind her back at my small victory as we get in her shiny black car. She backs out the driveway, me sitting in the front passenger seat and Bennett and Reese in the back.

“Why are you driving us?” I ask after we’ve driven a couple streets. “Isn’t the driving age sixteen?”

“It was,” Dana explains, “but two years ago some teenagers got into a car crash. Three of them were killed and the fourth was severely handicapped. The driving age was raised to twenty-one.”

“That’s stupid,” I say. “Why should they change the law just because a bunch of kids made a mistake?”

“We did it to protect our children.” Dana darts a look at me like she can’t believe I’m arguing with her.

Sorry lady, I think humorlessly. You Picked the wrong Obliged. “Sounds more like keeping them in a bubble to me,” I mumble aloud.

“Don’t argue about things you don’t understand,” Dana says coldly and I shut up. She seems a lot different from the night before. “We’re here.”

I smile at the thought of putting Dana in distress as we pull up in front of a large, red-brick building. The walls are lined with windows, and students are milling about, talking and laughing. Everyone looks extremely fashionable and fake.

Bennett and Reese get out of the car and I make to follow, but Dana grabs my arm. “You’re an Oakland now, you better start acting like one.”

I pull my arm out of her grip and slam the door behind me. Oakland, my new last name. But I’m not an Oakland. I don’t really want to be Raegan D184092 either, though. I don’t know who I am, or who I want to be. I’ll just settle for Raegan, for now.

Reese is waiting for me a few steps away from the car. She looks anxious, like she knows what Dana said to me and she doesn’t know how I’m reacting to it.

“Can I show you around?” She asks hesitantly.

“Sure,” I say, cutting Reese some slack. Still, I don’t like being around her for too long. It’s not because she’s extremely perky and sometimes annoying, but honestly, sometimes she reminds me of Vivi. Thinking of her makes my throat hurt. I feel my eyes start to burn so I blink a lot and hold my breath until the feeling passes.

“This way,” Reese says, leading me up the steps and through the front doors. The people we pass look at me like I’m an animal at the zoo. I meet their gazes and most look away, though a few stare back openly. I may hate them for staring, but at least they have the courage to do it.

Reese is rambling on about where my classes are, but I zone out. The hallway we are walking through is as large as one of our classrooms back home. Shiny blue lockers line the walls, and boys lean against them while they talk to girls. One girl sees me walking down the hall from farther away. I see her whisper something to her friends and they laugh. The girl slams her locker shut and steps in front of Reese and me.

“So, you’re the Obliged charity case,” the girl says. She is absolutely gorgeous with long blonde hair that hangs past her shoulders in ringlets. She’s wearing an outfit like the one Dana laid out for me. If I cared about looks at all I’d be intimidated, but as it is, I don’t.

“And you’re the Upright snot,” I reply, shifting my backpack to one shoulder to free an arm in case she wants to fight.

“Rae,” Reese whispers beside me. “Let it go.”

“Yea Rae, listen to the little girl,” the girl says, towering over Reese. I’m surprised when Reese doesn’t flinch away, regardless of how uncomfortable she looks.

“Don’t talk to her like that,” I say and clench my fists.

“You obviously don’t know who I am,” the girl says, flicking her hair back over her shoulder.

“Should I?”

“Wrong answer,” she says. She pushes past me, her clone posse following closely after.

“Technically, you weren’t asking a question,” I yell at her back, but she ignores me, sending up a shrill laugh that seemed to bounce down the halls.

“Who was that?” I ask Reese when the girl disappears into a crowd of admirers.

“Haylie Barden,” Reese says, looking down the hallway after her. “Richest girl in school and daughter of Colonel Isaiah Barden. He’s the second highest ranking officer next to General Francis Black.”

“The General’s name is Francis?” I ask with a snort, “I never knew that.”

“Don’t let him hear you laugh,” Reese warns, “he’s done some pretty questionable things to people who laugh at his name.”

“You can’t be serious,” I say as we resume walking. People are staring even more now after my interlude with Haylie. It seems that I’m making enemies quickly.

“Well, it’s just a rumor,” Reese says, stopping at a door. “Here’s your history class, you better get inside before the bell rings.” I turn to open the door. “And thanks for sticking up for me,” I hear Reese whisper, but when I turn around, she’s already scurrying away in the opposite direction.

I fight a smile and head inside the classroom. Every eye in the room is staring at me. A few try to hide it behind a book or by pretending to look past me. I glare back as I walk to the only open seat in the back of the room.

“Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to Raegan Oakland,” the teacher says, standing up from behind her desk. “Our newest student here at the Upright School for Young Scholars. My name is Ms. Farland. Would you like to stand up and say a little something about yourself?”

I stand up since I don’t have any other choice. Teachers always say their commands like a question, making it seem like the student can resist, when everyone knows they can’t. “My name is Raegan,” I say, shifting uncomfortable from foot to foot. I’m not exactly a fan of public speaking, especially not when every face looking at me seems mutinous. “I’m from Darkwood—”

“Was” Ms. Farland corrects me.

“Sorry?” I say confused.

“You were from Darkwood, now you’re from Harmony.”

I blink once to make sure I didn’t imagine it. I don’t really know how to respond, so I keep talking like I wasn’t interrupted.

“My mom’s name is Ellie—”

“Dana,” she corrects me again.

“No, Ellie,” I say back, voice stony. I don’t care that the angry faces of the students have turned incredulous – that they’re following the conversation between Ms. Farland and me like a tennis match, their heads twisting back and forth as we make our passes at each other. My hands are starting to shake and I ball them into fists to convince myself I’m still in control.

“That will be all,” says Ms. Farland. “You may be seated.”

I sit down and see the other students covering their smirks behind their hands. They don’t try very hard though. My face burns and I look down at my desk. Ms. Farland is saying something about history, but I can’t focus enough to listen. All I can think about is how it’s a Saturday and I’m sitting in school and that my mom’s name is Ellie, not Dana.

Finally a bell rings and everyone gets up. I follow them to the door, but Ms. Farland calls me back.

“Raegan,” she begins. Oh boy, here comes the lecture. “You need to be more careful about the things you say.”

“Why? It’s the truth,” I tell her. I meet her gaze and hold it. Willing her to look away and concede.

She sighs and rubs her temples with the palms of her hand, though when she breaks eye contact I don’t feel victorious. Instead I feel queasy. The image reminds me of my mother talking to me in the kitchen, and I have to look away from Ms. Farland before I either puke or start crying again.

“Look,” she says, her voice soft and concerned. “I know it’s hard, but you must try.”

There are a lot of things I want to say in response, but instead I remain silent. I turn around and walk out of the classroom, not trusting myself to speak.

I roam around the school looking for my next class. I really should have paid attention to Reese this morning when she showed me around, and now I’m late because of it. I finally find the right classroom and walk inside. Everyone is sitting at round tables covered with chemistry equipment. A few groups are reading instructions while others are already mixing chemicals together.

“You’re late,” says a squat man in goggles. He waddles over to me and hands me a packet of papers. “You can work by yourself over there.” He points to an empty table.

I walk over to it and sit down, looking at the papers filled with words and equations I’ve never seen before. Back home we don’t even study chemistry because the Obliged don’t have any jobs that require knowing how to mix chemicals. It’s considered too dangerous and difficult for us to handle. Determined to prove them wrong, I struggle to follow the directions. By the end of the class period I break a glass bottle that they call a beaker and burn my finger when I’m lighting the burner. My teacher, who told me his name was Dr. Melon, pronounced ‘may-lone,’ promised me he’d never make me work alone again. For once I’m actually grateful for the help and I leave class for lunch.

I find Reese sitting by herself, so I pull up a seat next to her.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” She asks me.

“I’m not very hungry,” I say. Truth is, I’m starving, but I’m afraid if I eat anything I’ll throw up.

I look around the cafeteria that doesn’t differ too much from my old one, aside from the fact that this one looked more like a restaurant than a school cafeteria. I see Bennett sitting with a group of guys our age a few tables away. They’re all looking at me aside from Bennett, who’s determinedly staring down at his lunch, face red. I stare back at them until all but one looks away. This one has dark hair sticking straight up down the middle of his head like a spiky wall. When he stands up I see he’s at least a head taller than me and extremely attractive. Probably the most attractive guy I’ve seen in the school yet. He’s wearing a dark blue button up shirt and black jeans. Even Christine and Kelly wouldn’t look twice at Donovan after seeing this guy. He walks to my table, eyes locked on mine.

“I couldn’t help but notice you were sitting alone,” he says smoothly, taking my hand and lifting it up so I’d have to stand. “And pretty girls like you should never be alone.”

“I’m not sitting alone,” I say to him, refusing to budge from my seat. My arm is raised at an awkward angle as Mr. Wall Hair fails to draw me to my feet. Reese is staring at us in horror, so I conclude this situation isn’t good.

His eyes flicker over to Reese and back to me. “I didn’t notice. But I did notice you. What’s your name?”

“Raegan,” I say, plucking my hand from his.

Undaunted, he presses on. “Bennett tells me you’re from across the border,” he states. It’s not a question. “You know, I’ve heard things about the Obliged.”

“What things?” I ask him, completely confused.

“Just things,” he toys with me. This is stupid. Make your point.

“What things?” I ask him again, annoyance creeping into my voice.

“Just that you guys know what you’re doing over there,” he says, his hand creeping back into mine. It dawns on me then what he’s talking about.

I fight the urge to make a face and instead fake a giggle that would make Christine envious. Reese’s mouth drops open in astonishment. I lean closer to him and ask him his name.

“Nathan,” he says, his lips close to my ear.

“Well Nathan, there’s a lot I could teach you,” I say, stepping closer so our bodies are touching. Out of the corner of my eye I see all the boys at Bennett’s table staring. Bennett looks pale.

“Glad you see things my way,” Nathan whispers again and I feel his hand creep under my shirt.

Like I said before, I’m comfortable with my body. But my body is my own, and no one touches it without permission. I knee him in the groin and whisper in his ear: “Pull a stunt like that again and I’ll do worse than a bruise.”

Nathan keels over and grabs the table for support. I hit his elbow so his arm buckles beneath him, sending him to the floor. “Whoops,” I say. I lean over and say loudly enough for his friends to hear, “We Obliged like it rough.”

I turn to Reese whose hand is covering her mouth. Her eyes are flickering back and forth from me to Nathan, who is still on the ground.

“Raegan Oakland,” says a high-pitched, authoritative voice behind me. It’s the kind of voice that instantly makes me cringe. “Come with me.”

I turn around to a tall, stiff-necked teacher. Her face is pinched, like she smells something foul. She leads me to the Principal’s Office, where I’m greeted by a tall, older man with slicked back gray hair and a dark mustache that was so thick, I couldn’t understand how he could breathe through his nose.

“Sit,” he says sternly and leaves the office with the teacher, who’s undoubtedly ratting me out.

I sit in a cushioned chair and look at the office. The furniture is all dark mahogany and in perfect condition. I vacate the chair when I notice the towering bookshelf behind me, eager to see what the Upright consider standard reading material. A book called Obliged vs. Upright: A Look Into the Unfortunate Past of Our Inferiors actually makes me laugh out loud. Bad timing though because just then the principal walks back in.

“I see you cannot follow even the simplest of requests,” he says, and I remember I’m supposed to be sitting.

I take my time to walk back to the chair and sit down, relishing the darkening face of Mustache Man. “Now, Mrs. Collins tells me she saw you physically abuse another student—”

“Only after he sexually abused me. It was self defense!”

“Did I give you permission to talk?” The principal asks me, his voice rising. I feel the hair on my arms stand on edge. I look down at his desk and see his nameplate reads Dr. Collins. He must be that woman’s husband. A perfect match.

“Good,” he says after I’ve been silent for a minute. “We have a zero tolerance policy for physical abuse.”

“But—“ I start to say, but Dr. Collins raises his hand for silence.

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. Nathan has been an exemplary student at this school for years. You however have been here for mere hours. Now who am I to believe?”

“If you ask the people around—“

“And you think I haven’t done that?” When? When have you had time to do that? I roll my eyes in exasperation.

“I just don’t think this is very fair.”

“Fair? You haven’t given anyone here a fair shot since you walked through those doors, and you want to complain about fair? How about this as fair: you’re dismissed for the rest of the day.”

“But—”

“Goodbye Raegan, I expect a better attitude tomorrow.”

I pick up my bag and leave the room quickly before I explode, letting the door slam on my way out. When I walk out of the school, I realize I have no idea how to get home. I don’t have a car, nor do I know how to drive one, and I haven’t seen a train since I got here.

I do remember the last couple roads we took to get to the school this morning, so I start retracing our path.

I don’t get very far before I’m totally lost, so instead I just wander where I please. After a couple lefts at various intersections I see a playground. Smiling because I’ve finally found something familiar, I head straight for it.

When I get there I go to a swing. I love the feeling of your feet leaving the ground, like there’s nothing around you but space. It makes me feel so free.

There’s a young couple with their son here, too. I watch them play together for a while before the boy runs away from his parents toward the swings. I slow down so I don’t accidentally hit him and he stops and stares at me. He reaches out a hand towards the swing next to me and gabbles something.

“You want on the swing?” I ask him.

He points at the swing again and makes some more noises. I laugh and step off my swing so I can help the little guy out when his mother runs up. She sweeps the boy off his feet and looks at me. I see something like a mixture of fear and repulsion in her eyes. Her husband comes up and looks at me with pity.

I don’t know how they know I’m Obliged, but I don’t care to find out. Since I’m already standing I grab my bag and walk away. I hate being pitied, more than I hate being hated for no reason.

It’s been an hour since Dr. Collins dismissed me from school, and I had about another hour before Dana would pick up Reese and Bennett and realize I’m not with them. I start guessing my way back home, but it’s no use. I eventually come across a small pond surrounded by trees. The Upright probably consider it natural, but there’s nothing natural about it. The pond is perfectly round, and each tree is planted the exact same distance from the next one. Everything was too ordered, too symmetrical. I walk to the pond anyway and sit down against a tree. At least here I’m alone.

I pick up some pebbles that are lying on the ground and toss them into the pond. I take the flat ones and try to skip them, but I only make them skip twice at the most. It makes me think of Matty so I give up and put my head on my knees, wrapping my arms around my head so everything is dark.

“Rae,” says a tiny voice behind me. Somehow Reese has found me.

I lift my head once I’m sure my eyes are dry. “What?” I ask her.

Reese sits down next to me, “You’re not very easy to find,” she says.

“So how did you find me?” I ask.

“When I heard you were dismissed I explained to Dr. Collins you wouldn’t know how to get home. He let me go early to come find you. You overshot by about a block.”

“That doesn’t explain how you found me,” I say.

“Just got lucky, I guess,” Reese says and stretches her legs out in front of her. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I think what you did to Nathan was great. I mean, you shouldn’t have done it, but it was still great.”

“Yea,” I say and laugh at myself, “and look where greatness got me.”

“Nathan is awful. He thinks he’s God’s gift to women and treats us all like we should bow down to his beauty.”

“You sound like you’ve experienced this before,” I say and look at her. Reese doesn’t look back and changes the subject.

“You just need to give everyone time to get used to you. You’re different than us you know.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” I say seriously, and Reese laughs. I wish they’d stop laughing when I’m not trying to be funny.

“The last time someone adopted an Obliged was years ago. They got over it then, they’ll get over it now.”

“Someone around here was Picked?” I say, instantly intrigued. “Who is it?”

“I think his name was Noah. He goes to the Upright Military Academy – UMA – in the next town. The same one Ace goes to.”

“Do you think they know each other?” I ask.

“I don’t know, maybe. A lot of people go there after school.”

We sit in silence for a few moments and I think of ways to find Noah. If he lives in Harmony, I’m bound to run into him sooner or later.

“It’s getting late and Mom is probably freaking out,” Reese says, standing up.

I join her and we walk back to the house. But when we step inside I want more than anything to be somewhere else.

“Where the hell were you?” Dana yells at me the second I’m through the door.

“I got lost,” I say, my hackles up.

“Why were you kicked out of school?” Jeremy intercedes, his voice much calmer.

I match his tone. “I had a run in with a boy named Nathan.”

“It’s true Mom—”

“Shut up, Reese.” Reese immediately quiets and walks out of the room. I stare in shock at Dana. I expect her to be cruel to me, but not to her own daughter.

“You didn’t have to yell at her,” I say. “You’re mad at me, remember?”

“Don’t talk back to me,” Dana says, her pointed finger dangerously close to my face. “You will learn what it means to be an Oakland, so help me—”

“Dana,” Jeremy warns. “She’s just confused and needs some time, let it go.”

“I’m not confused!” I yell. “I don’t want to be here!” I leave the room and run upstairs, having a flashback from the night before. I know I’m pitching a royal tantrum, but I’m too mad to care. I feel bad about lashing out at Jeremy, since he seems to be the only level-headed adult around here, but I’m too hopped up on my own anger to let it be more than just a thought. I can’t believe Dana would yell at me when I was only defending myself against a sexist pig.

I sit down on my bed and hear Dana calling me for dinner. Since I skipped lunch I’m twice as hungry, but I don’t want to face the rest of the family. Instead I go into the bathroom and sit in the shower, my favorite place in this God-forsaken house.

I get out of the shower when the water starts to feel cold. Funny enough not even the Upright have unlimited hot water.

I towel dry my hair and let it hang loose in its usual tangled brown waves. I lean on the bathroom counter and stare into my own eyes. People have told me before that when I’m really mad, my eyes look black. Right now they are just brown. I don’t have enough energy to feel angry.

Since I don’t have anything else to do, and I want to avoid everyone downstairs, I turn off the lights and slide into bed. I’m not tired but maybe a dark room will keep people from wanting to visit.

My plan works and I wake up a couple hours later. The alarm clock by my bed reads twelve thirty in bright red dots. I get up and open my door to see that the house is quiet and the lights are all off. I step out of my room and walk down the stairs. They don’t squeak like my ones back home. Sneaking around is much easier here.

There’s a light on in the kitchen so I peak around the corner first. It’s Bennett, sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal. He’s harmless enough, so I walk in.

“I was wondering if you were going to make a midnight visit,” he says.

“Why so?” I ask as I start opening cabinets, looking for bowls.

“To your left,” he says. I open up the cabinet on my left and pull down a bowl. He pushes the milk and cereal on the table towards me as I sit down. “Well, you didn’t exactly eat much yesterday.”

“Yea, my lunch got interrupted,” I mention coldly.

“I’m sorry about Nathan,” Bennett says, truly apologetic. “But you should know, he doesn’t take to being dismissed lightly.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask and shovel a spoonful of cereal into my mouth. It tastes good so I eat another before swallowing the first. I’m really hungry.

“It just means that he has a temper,” Bennett explains, leaning back in his chair. “He probably won’t let yesterday go very easily.”

I stay silent because I’m annoyed. I didn’t want to make enemies here my first day, but these people weren’t giving me a chance.

“Can I ask you something personal?”

I shrug and eat more cereal.

“Do you miss your family?”

Well, whatever I’m expecting, it’s not that. I find that I can’t speak, though inside my head shrieks Yes yes! I don’t want to be here! Take me home! Bennett sits there, awkwardly watching me.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

I shake my head. “No, it’s fine. Yea, I miss them a lot. They’re nothing like you guys, and home is completely different from here. To be honest I don’t know if this place will ever make sense.” It feels good to finally speak the truth, even if he isn’t my first choice to talk to.

“It’ll take some time I guess, though I know that’s not what you want to hear.” Bennett picks up his bowl of cereal and puts it in the sink. He makes to walk out the kitchen, but stops behind me. “You know, I’m really glad to have a new sister,” he says behind me. When I turn around, he’s gone, and I’m glad.

I get up and wash my empty bowl in the sink, and Bennett’s too. When everything is put away I walk back upstairs. At the end of the hall I see the light is on in Dana and Jeremy’s room. Wondering what they are doing up so late I tiptoe and stand outside the door.

Their voices are too muffled when I press my ear to the door, so I lower myself to the floor and listen through the crack there – a trick I learned from one of my files back home.

“—being oversensitive, she needs more time,” Jeremy says. I can only assume the she is me.

“One week, and that’s it.” Dana sounds annoyed, and something else I can’t place. Afraid, maybe?

“I just don’t like the Cage, you know that.”

“Just because your father abused it doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked before,” Dana says. What’s the Cage?

“Look, it’s going to be tough, I’ll admit that—”

“Look what she did today!” Dana exclaims, “She made a fool of us in front of her entire school!” If there was fear in Dana’s voice before, it’s quickly replaced by anger.

“That Nathan boy is the worst sort,” Jeremy defends me. If I had to choose, he’s definitely my favorite. “He has nothing to do with this decision in my opinion. But,” he sighs, “yes, she is very defiant.”

“Defiant isn’t the word. She has no rules, Jeremy. No self control.”

I feel a pang in my gut as I remember my mother saying almost the same thing. Self control. That stupid quality is just not something that comes naturally to me.

“Then maybe she just needs more direction,” Jeremy suggests.

“Fine, but she has a week to follow this new ‘direction.’ If she doesn’t, we’re trying it my way.”

I don’t care to hear anymore so I stand up. I go back to my room and crawl into bed. I have no idea what the Cage is, and part of me doesn’t want to find out. But another part of me does. And that part is a little bigger.