Once I finish filing, Mom lets me leave work early. I have to pick up Matty and Vivi from the train station, so I head that way in the unbearable heat, wondering if I’ll melt before I even make it there. Unfortunately we have to take a cramped, non-air-conditioned train to school each day. Our entire county goes to the same school in Gerrond, so when I say cramped, I mean like sardines. There should be at least two more schools for our county alone, but with our limited resources and the lack of interest the Upright have in our comfort, we have to make do.
When I get to the train it’s just pulling up, and I can see my brother and sister with their faces pressed against the glass. I smile and wave.
As soon as the train pulls to a stop they are one of the first off.
“Hey, Vivi,” I say to my little sister who barrels into me on the platform. She’s seven and tall for her age, her long brown hair frizzing falling out of her braided pigtails.
She hugs me around my waist. “I missed you.”
“You’ve only been gone for six hours,” I say to her.
She grins up at me and squeezes me tighter. I mime throwing up and she giggles.
I pet her head absentmindedly while I watch my brother Matthew cross his arms in an attempt to look intimidating, never mind that he has one of those faces old ladies love to pinch and he’s got that awkward pre-teen boy thing going on. He’s only ten, but God forbid you hug him in public. I see some girls to our right staring at him. He glares at one and she giggles, whispering something to her friend behind a math book that looks like it might break her stick arms. She waves nervously at him, trying to hide her over-eager smile.
“Who’s that?” I ask him, even though I know he won’t tell me. He just shrugs and starts walking toward the stairs to exit the platform. “Wait up,” I call out as I pry Vivian off of me so I can walk. She climbs up on my back and I run to catch up with Matthew.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him. Even for him, he’s being unusually stoic.
It takes me a few pokes and prods, but he eventually smiles when I hit the spot just under his ribs. He can’t resist. “I got in trouble today,” he says as his smile fades.
“What’d you do?” I ask.
“He said a bad word,” Vivi whispers in my ear.
“Shut up, Vivian!” Matthew says, kicking at me.
“Hey now, neutral third party here,” I say, dodging his foot and holding up my hands.
“Some kid kept saying how he wanted to be Picked and I told him that the Upright were bastards,” Matthew says quietly.
I stare at him in shock. Matty may act the bad boy, but that’s all it is – an act. “Matty, you know you—”
“Yea, I know,” he says, and he actually looks ashamed. “It just came out.”
“So what happened?”
“I got sent to the principal’s office. I have to write a paper about how grateful the Obliged should be for our lives and stuff.”
“That’s a load of crap,” I say, adjusting Vivian on my back. She is getting heavier.
“Apparently it’s ‘just punishment’ for my crime,” Matthew says bitterly.
“Well, just don’t do it again all right. I don’t want to have to process a file on you at work, got me?” I ask sternly and he nods. I laugh and put my arm around his shoulders, which is easy to do since he’s so tall. “Just forget about it, I’ll talk to mom and dad.”
“Thanks,” he says and smiles at me.
I remove my arm because I know it’s cramping his style, but I’m surprised when he has me slide Vivian from my back to his. He doesn’t like to show affection for her when other people are around.
We take the long route home and stop at our favorite pond by the woods, which borders Darkwood’s one and only playground. Or what’s left of it anyway, seeing as the wooden structures have mostly rotted away and the forest seems to be reclaiming its territory.
Vivian takes off her shoes and climbs a tree whose limbs twist over the water. She dangles her feet above the pond while Matty and I skip rocks. He’s much better at this than I am, apparently because I have stiff wrists, or so he tells me. I don’t really know what that means.
I decide it’s time to go home when Vivi skins her knee after she falls out of the tree. She doesn’t cry though. She told me once it’s because I don’t cry. Mom always taught me it’s better to laugh than to cry, which creates a problem when I have to attend funerals, and now that I’m older I don’t think it’s the best advice. But even if I wanted to, I don’t think my tear ducts would know what to do. I wipe off Vivi’s knee the best I can before she climbs on Matthew’s back, dry-eyed and smiling, while we walk the rest of the way home.
Our house, a skinny, two-story building that looks extremely outdated. The Upright have been running campaigns to fix up the living situations of the Obliged. They say it’s because we have allowed ourselves to deteriorate, but really it’s because the homes we’ve moved into are what’s left of the Valiant era. I think the Upright are secretly afraid we might find something in our basements or under an old floorboard from before the war that might inspire rebellion. Town by town they’ve been knocking down homes and rebuilding them to be more “energy efficient.” They’re also pretty big on Obliged uniformity as well, so in fall of 2121 we will be moving into our cookie-cutter, single story house.
Mom and Dad aren’t back from work by the time we get home so I make Vivian and Matty do their homework in the kitchen while I cook. Tonight is government prescribed pasta. They’ve managed to create a carb-free noodle, which supposedly is more nutritious and filling than regular noodles. Too bad it turns to powder in your mouth and you nearly choke if you eat it without sauce. I have a theory it’s the ashes of dead Uprights turned to noodle-form. Morbid maybe, but if it’s true you heard it from me first.
I help Vivian and Matthew with their homework while the noodles boil. We have a rule in our house, “just below good is just good enough,” grammar intentional. I make sure Vivi and Matty mess up enough on their work to fly under the radar. Smart children equal Upright bait; though of course there’s no way to actually prove this. If a child is Picked, the families are generally too scared to speak out. Everyone just ignores the child’s absence like they never existed in the first place, making any sort of research on the subject impossible. If there’s a method to the madness, no one’s figured it out yet.
We have our theories though. I think it’s something the Upright like to do to exercise their power. The Upright families find what they call “compassion” for kids raised by the Obliged. I don’t know if there’s some sort of test the Upright families have to pass, but either way, they can legally adopt any one of us. And by adopt I mean drag them from their home in the middle of the night.
You may think that’s cruel and more morbid than my noodle theory, but to the Upright, it’s their right. They believe they are saving us from a life of hardship and giving us more “opportunities.” Opportunities my butt, more like a chance to walk around like a governmental drone.
I shake my head to get rid of those thoughts. I told myself a long time ago I wouldn’t think about the Pickings. You never know when they are going to happen, so there’s no point in worrying about them. I know too many people who have lost hair and chewed their nails down to the skin from worrying about things that may or may not happen. I refuse to be one of them.
I’m setting the dishes out on the table when my parents walk in. They exclaim about how good it smells and I know they only do it to make me feel better about this bland food I have to make. I smile at them and pass them plates.
My mom barely puts any pasta on hers. Mondays are her least favorite day food-wise and she generally starves. Dad grabs the other plate and fills it with the pasta mom doesn’t eat. He works for another government office where he processes paperwork for housing and bills. We don’t have much choice in employment, and if you can’t find work, it’s found for you.
I quickly inhale my ash noodles while the rest of the family talks. I nod along here and there, but I’m too excited for much conversation. Soon as I’m done I grab my bag off the table.
“Where are you going?” Dad asks me as I head out of the kitchen without explanation.
“To see Donovan, I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Be safe,” they call out together as I shut the front door behind me.
I jog down to the train and hop into an empty car just as it leaves the platform. Transportation is free for going to school and work. It’s also free if you just don’t pay.
I prefer to ride in the storage cars at the rear of the train, and since no one ever has anything to store, the cars are empty and the doors are left wide open. I sit in the shadows and nod off until I hear the whistle blow. It’s only a thirty-minute ride to Gerrond, but I fall asleep nearly every time.
I hop off the train onto the platform and see Donovan standing in the shadows, grinning. I couldn’t see much of him but his teeth and his blonde hair that act as flashlights in the dark. I’ve barely stepped onto the platform when he grabs me and twirls me around so I’m caught up in his arms facing away from him. He leans down and whispers in my ear “Got the stuff?”
“You’re so romantic,” I say as I elbow him in the gut to let me go, partially to be playful, and partially because I’m claustrophobic.
He rubs his stomach and reaches for my bag.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he says when I jerk my bag away. Okay so I had the ‘stuff,’ but that doesn’t mean I want everyone to know about it.
We walk in the shadows toward our school, cutting through yards when it’s convenient and sticking to the sides of buildings when it’s not. It’s already pretty dark and since it’s a school town, Gerrond has an earlier curfew than Darkwood, so it’s likely no one’s awake to see us.
We hop the fence at school because it’s more exciting than walking through the unlocked gate, and hide in the bushes by the giant double door entrance. I open my bag and pull out several cans of spray paint. Donovan smiles as I hand him one.
“What are we writing again?” He asks as he shakes his can of red paint.
“Uptight,” I say, shaking my own.
We get to work tagging the side of the cement block building. We’d do the front but there are no bushes there to conceal us. Plus I was too nervous. If we are caught we’d have jail time for sure, doesn’t matter that we’re minors.
“Where’d you get this?” Donovan asks after ten minutes of nothing but the hiss of aerosol.
“A dealer in Ashford,” I say. “Cost me a fortune.”
Spray paint is illegal for the Obliged, probably because we do things like this.
“Where’d you get the money?”
“Didn’t pay him with money.”
Donovan didn’t say anything to my answer, so I know what he is thinking and I let him think it. He’s been getting a little too serious lately, so if he thinks I don’t put too much stock in our relationship I’m fine with it. Truthfully, I swapped some bars of chocolate I had managed to get my hands on for the spray paint.
We’re done in half an hour and are putting the cans away when sirens start to blare. They’re a loud, piercing shrill that never stop until the perps are apprehended.
We finish shoving the cans into my bag and run for the fence. Donovan hurtles right over it but I have to climb. He waits for me anxiously, looking for the person who spotted us.
I get over the fence and we take off running again for the train. I don’t know who saw us but they certainly weren’t chasing us.
At the train we stop to catch our breath and I start laughing.
“That was amazing,” I say between breaths.
“You’re amazing,” Donovan says and he grabs me by the waist and kisses me. Even if I don’t think we’ll last, I do like kisses, so I kiss him back, one hand wrapped in his hair, the other on my bag of spray paint.
I pull away and smile. The train is about to leave so I jump onto the platform. I hurtle onto the train without waving goodbye. When I stick my head out the door I see Donovan still standing there smiling, his hands in his pockets, sirens wailing in the background.
“Go home,” I yell at him. He waves once, turns around and jogs back into town.
I sit down and swing my legs out the door so I can watch the stars fly by as I ride back to Darkwood. I randomly throw the spray paint cans out the door as I pass through the empty fields between our towns.
I rid myself of the last can when the train pulls up to Darkwood’s platform. I get up and exit out the door behind me, away from the platform, and run the rest of the way home, still high on adrenaline.
It takes me five minutes to get home and I open the door quietly, not sure if anyone is still awake. It’s past ten so the house is dark. All’s quiet. I drop my bag by the door and slowly creep up the stairs.
“Raegan,” I hear my mother’s voice from the kitchen. She barely ever calls me Raegan. This can’t be good.
I walk slowly into the kitchen as my eyes adjust to the dark, expecting a major reprimand.
“I just received a page about someone tagging the school in Gerrond. You didn’t see anything there did you?”
I don’t nod because I don’t want to lie, but I don’t deny anything either.
“Well, just remember Rae, these kinds of acts get people in our filing cabinets. And if they don’t want to be there, they should be a lot more careful doing it.”
“Doing what?” I ask.
“Wrecking havoc,” she says and winks at me in the dark before heading upstairs to her room.
I grin and follow her, heading into my bedroom where I blindly stumble into bed and fall asleep.