I wake up the next morning in much the same position I fell asleep in. My face is stuck to my pillow and my body feels stiff from running.
I get ready quickly and throw on some old jeans and my favorite white t-shirt. I look at myself quickly in the mirror to make sure I’m presentable. My curly brown hair sticks out at odd angles. I attempt to mash it down in some semblance of order, but it disobeys as usual. I shrug. No point trying to fix it now.
As soon as Vivian and Matthew are done eating breakfast I whisk them out the door to the train station. I’m eager to see what the school is doing about our spray paint incident last night.
The train is crowded as usual and I find a seat between some people I barely know from the next town over. Matthew goes off to find his friends and Vivi sits on my lap. We spend twenty minutes counting the cranes we see in the dried up field before she passes out in my arms.
I stroke her hair that she’s tied up in a ponytail with a piece of colored yarn. I tuck the stray bits behind her ears and let her sleep the last ten minutes of our trip.
When the train finally slows to a stop I gently nudge her awake. She brushes my hand aside until I stick my finger in my mouth and then in her ear. She pops right up, rubbing her ear with one hand and hitting me with the other.
“You know I hate it when you do that,” she says, still hitting me.
I laugh and grab her by the waist and hang her upside down. She screams in laughter and hits me more. “Leggo leggo leggo!” She yells at me. I give her a quick peck on the cheek and set her upright.
“Get gone!” I say to her and smack her on the butt.
She yelps and giggles and takes off. I smile and follow her off the train.
Immediately, I can tell something is wrong. Lower forces of the military are crawling all over the town. You can tell their rank by the color of the Upright insignia right above their heart. These are wearing white, so they’re just officers. The Upright insignia is simple – it looks like a squat upward arrow, probably having something to do with their whole ‘we’re better than you’ mantra. Funny thing is, it looks quite a lot like the Ascendants symbol. But I guess when you decimate a whole country that means you’re entitled to their artwork.
I walk down the main road through clusters of officers standing and chatting. They don’t look too concerned so I try to do the same.
I can see Vivi ahead with a group of her friends, and I watch her walk while I stay behind. If the officers take me into custody I don’t want her to see. But it doesn’t look like they’re much interested in me, which hopefully means they don’t know who tagged the school.
When I get to the gate I can see the wall has already been scrubbed clean. Some poor Obliged soul probably had to do it. My gut churned in guilt, but I fought it. A full-scale rebellion was bound to cause casualties. I had to get used to the idea now if I ever wanted to take part in something big. Something life-changing.
Donovan is waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. He doesn’t smile when he grabs my hand and walks me to class through the prison-like hallway – gray, no windows.
“Think they suspect?” I whisper in his ear when we stop outside my classroom door.
“No or else they’d have grabbed us by now, and stop acting so suspicious.”
“I’m not.” I look over to my right and see an officer watching us.
Donovan turns my face with his hand and says, “Yes, you are.” He kisses me and leaves, strolling nonchalantly down the hall. I’ve never been a great liar, so acting that carefree was out of the question. I arrange a look of confusion on my face when I walk into class.
I’m greeted by the blank faces of my Obliged classmates being stared down by an accusing Lieutenant. His insignia was yellow.
Lieutenants are the worst. Well, maybe not the worst, but they’re definitely worse than officers. They think that just because they’re one step up from the bottom of the pile everyone should bow down to them. Really they’re just glorified officers that hate their lives because the only action they get around here is when someone tags the school, which has happened once since I’ve been alive. And that once was last night.
But that also makes them dangerous. People with nothing to do tend to explode when things get even the tiniest bit exciting.
I sit down in my seat near the back of the class and face forward, trying to look blank like everyone else.
“Now that we’re all here,” the Lieutenant says slowly, looking each of us straight in the eyes. “You may be wondering about the extra security.”
I try to keep eye contact, but my mom told me once that when I try to look innocent I just look angry. I hope I don’t look that way right now.
“Last night a gang of Obliged students broke into school grounds and defiled the building.”
No, just two. And I’m not sure if hopping a fence counts as ‘breaking in’ when we could have gone through the open gate. Hopping the fence just seemed more fun at the time. And ‘defiled’ is definitely in the eye of the beholder. I for one think we made the building look much better.
“Seeing as this is a direct action against the Upright, I am here to show you a program which should right any misinformation you have received about your gracious benefactors.”
I try not to snort but it comes out anyway. I disguise it with a cough and get a dirty look from the Lieutenant, but nothing more. I settle back in my seat to watch the propaganda I’ve seen dozens of times.
The first time I saw it I was Vivian’s age. I went home crying to mom thinking we were bad people. That was when I had my first real history lesson on the Upright and the Valiant.
The film starts out with exploding cannons and gunfire. Granted, this was made at least twenty years ago, if not more, so the technology is quite dated. You’d think with all the Upright concern about uprisings and revolutions, they’d spend some time and money on making a more appealing film.
After a few minutes of war, you see crying families. Or at least what’s left of them.
Mothers hugging dead children, fathers missing limbs – you name it, it’s in there. There’s even a three-legged dog searching for food if human life doesn’t appeal to you.
It then goes on a little blast through the past. How the Upright and the Obliged (of course the film never reveals we were once the Valiant, that name is way too revolutionary) were friendly neighbors. Then one day, a foul wind blew north and warned the Upright that we were not the peace-loving individuals we appeared to be.
They sent over spies and – oh, no! Their fears were confirmed. We were holding Ascendants captive and subjecting them to terror unfit to show on film. The only action left was to invade, and invade they did.
And thus, we became the Obliged we are today, “ever thankful and always willing,” because when we are left to our own devices, we torture our neighbors overseas for experimentation. Calling it a stretch is an understatement. It’s completely nonsensical, but good luck telling the Upright that.
The screen turns to black and the Lieutenant turns the lights back on.
“Now, can anyone tell me why the Dual Manifestos were written?”
No one raises a hand at first, because no one wants to be ‘that guy.’ But if no one raises their hand at all, there’ll be serious repercussions.
Finally, Christine, sitting in the front row and probably the most annoying girl I’ve ever had the displeasure to share a class with, raises her hand.
“To remind us why we are the Obliged, and why you are the Upright?” She says it like a question. Either say it or ask it, stop trying to do both. It’s so annoying.
“Yes, Christine, very good. The Dual Manifestos were written together, because our two nations must function as one. The Upright are here to protect and to guide, but to do so, the Obliged must be obedient to our requests.
I cough again to hide my laugh. Requests? Who in their right mind would see regulated meal plans, jobs, and forced propaganda as requests?
“Is there something the matter, miss?”
“Raegan,” I answer immediately, caught off guard.
“Raegan, do you have something to add?”
Think quick. Think quick. “Yes, I do actually,” my mouth says while my brain screams Wait! I haven’t thought of anything yet. “To add to Christine’s point,” I say slowly, “the Upright do what they do for us, not for themselves. After all, have you ever seen them try to take over our land or populate our towns?”
I meant it as a brown-nosing answer, but after saying it I can see the double meaning that the Upright don’t want anything to do with us. I pray the Lieutenant lets it go and thinks I’m just an idiot girl with asthma.
He stays silent for a moment before smiling. “Excellent point, Raegan,” he says and continues his lecture.
I breathe out and slump in my chair. I decide not to listen to the rest of his speech in case something else idiotic makes me laugh. Instead, I think about what they are doing in Vivi’s class, and whether they seriously think a seven-year-old could even write the word ‘Uptight’ legibly, much less at that height.
Finally, we’re dismissed for lunch. The cafeteria is a large room in the center of school, so there are no windows. I look for Donovan and see him sitting with some friends. He notices me staring and gets up and walks toward me.
“Did you get the film?” He asks me, grinning.
“Yea, it’s only like the twelfth time I’ve seen it,” I say and head to the lunch line.
“You’ve only seen it twelve times?” He asks me. “I’ve seen it fifteen.”
“Well, aren’t you the heroic martyr,” I joke as the lady behind the counter passes me an orange soup. I don’t bother asking what it is.
“Come sit with me,” he says and nods toward his friends.
“I’d rather sit with Vivian,” I say, scanning the room for my sister.
“She’s over there,” Donovan points toward the far corner of the cafeteria and he follows me to her.
I skirt through the crowded cafeteria and pull up a seat next to Vivian.
“Hey kid, how was your morning?”
“Boring,” she says, eating a spoonful of soup. She makes a face as she swallows.
“Hold your nose while you eat it,” I suggest.
“Will that work?” She asks.
“I dunno,” I say as I take a spoonful myself, holding my nose. I cough and spit the soup out. “Never mind, don’t do that.”
Vivian giggles. “They made us watch that movie.”
“Awful isn’t it?” Donovan asks, taking Vivi’s napkin and folding it into an origami swan.
“Oh pretty!” She takes it and cradles it in her hands.
“Just forget about it Vivi, school is almost over anyway. Only one more hour before you can go home.”
“Yea, I guess,” she says, delicately setting the swan next to her soup. “Wait, are you not coming home with me?”
“No, I have to leave after lunch. Mom asked me to come in to work and the principal approved it. Ride the train with Matty. You’ll be fine.” I kiss the top of her head and stand up to leave. She looks so sad I nearly sit down again.
“Go,” Donovan says. “I’ll sit with her.”
I kiss Donovan on the cheek and leave. I get a couple weird looks from the officers, but they stand aside when I show them my pass.
I jump on the last train car since there’s no one else around and ride home in the silence.