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.”
“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.
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.