When I walk into my office, Mom is sitting at my desk.
“I think you’re in the wrong office,” I say. I put my bag down and sit when she vacates my chair.
“It’s possible,” she says. “How was school?”
“They made us watch the film again. If I see it one more time I might explode.”
“Well don’t do that, you’d make a mess,” Mom jokes, a forced lightness to her voice. “You know I was seven when everything happened. Forty years isn’t that long ago.”
“What was it like?” I ask.
Mom ruffles her hair and her short curls stick straight out from her head. With curls like that, Vivian and I didn’t stand much of a chance. “I was so young at the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. My parents made me help with the war effort behind the scenes in the hospitals helping with the wounded.” A dark look crosses her face as she relives the nightmare of caring for the dying. “Most of our military were overseas, so we didn’t put up much of a fight. Anyone over the age of fifteen was conscripted to make up for the missing troops. No one liked it, but no one argued. The Upright practically walked in and took over.” Mom sits down opposite my desk and stares past me.
“I remember it was dark out when Mom ran into my room. She woke me up and made me go in this bomb shelter we had in the backyard. She went back inside for Dad, but she never came back.”
“What do you think happened to them?” Rae had heard this story before, but not in so much detail. She shuddered at the thought of her mom at Vivian’s age, sitting underground and waiting for parents that would never return.
“I don’t know. The next morning some Upright soldiers found me and assigned me to another Obliged family – family D184092. The family you get your lovely last name from. I stayed with them until I was eighteen, then I was assigned to move here and met your father.”
“So you never looked for your parents?” I ask, confused.
“No, I did. I just never found them. I don’t know if they were killed or captured or what. Your grandfather was a Colonel in the Valiant army, he’d have been a prime target for the Upright,” she says. “Funny that he would have been safer staying at the Command Center that night than coming home to his family. I’ll be right back.”
Mom leaves my office and I sit back in my chair, overwhelmed by this unexpected information. She comes back a few minutes later with a couple files.
“Here’s more paperwork for you,” she says, oddly formal.
“But what about—”
She silences me with a look and I take the papers from her hand. She looks at me expectantly and then leaves.
That was weird. I open the first file and see the name Nathaniel Raegan written across the top. A red “deceased” stamped next to his name.
I read his file. I’ve never seen one so old. It dates back forty years ago and claims his crime was treason. He was a Valiant war criminal part of the ring of instigators who ordered the experimentation of the Ascendants, which caused the war. Or at least that’s what his file said.
Why did mom give this to me? I look at his name again, weird that his last name is my first. Nathaniel…Nathaniel. Didn’t mom tell me once her father’s name was Nathan? Nathaniel Raegan must be my grandfather.
Realizing the priceless information I am holding, I slip it quickly into my bag. No one ever checks the criminal offices, so they won’t notice it missing. And if this man really is my grandfather, then my real name is Raegan Raegan. That’s unfortunate.
Mom comes back into my office with a bottle of water. She hands it to me. “Find anything interesting?” She asks.
“How’d you get it?” I ask her, opening my water and taking a sip. I cringe. The Upright must be making us drink their vitamin infused water again. That can only mean our meals will get smaller if we can get the same nutrients out of a bottle.
“Once a year I have to make a trip to the Head Upright Criminal Office just over the border. I may have stumbled into a room with the files of war criminals.”
I smile. My mom may seem like a goof most of the time, but let her interest catch on something and she was all business.
“Really?” I ask, just to see what she says.
“Of course not,” she replies and winks at me before she leaves my office.
I finish filing the rest of the documents, which were all connected to the war forty years ago. Judging by the red stamp by their names and their rank in the military, I assume they worked with my grandfather.
With nothing else to do and an hour left of work, I pull out my homework. The Lieutenant had shouted at us before lunch to write a list of things the Upright could do to protect the Obliged from their self-destructive nature.
I find this a lot easier to do than I thought. I start making up ridiculous ideas taken from the files I sort at work, like ‘Use sensory pads to lock and unlock doors, so the Obliged never feel that exerting force is the only answer.’ I keep doing this until the first letter of each line spells out ‘uptight.’ I try to be subtle, but subtlety is not really in my nature.
It only takes me about thirty minutes, but rather than wait I leave work anyway. It’s not like we clock in or anything. We are expected to be honest and report to work for our prescribed duration. It’s practice for ‘Real Life Morality Situations,’ or so I’m told. I have yet to be put in such a ‘Morality Situation.’
It doesn’t take me long to get home, but Vivi and Matty are already sitting at the table by the time I walk in the door.
“Hey guys,” I say, dropping my bag by the table and walk over to the kitchen counter. “What do you want for dinner?”
Matty laughs and tells me leftover ash noodles. I tell him we’re fresh out and I pull down the weekly menu, even though I already know what it says. It never changes from week to week, but I check anyway just in case. Tonight is tofu cubes with potato slivers. This is supposed to be a treat since potatoes aren’t that healthy. It really just makes you feel hungrier after you eat it.
The potatoes are already washed and precut, so all I have to do is heat them up on the stove. Vivi and Matty work behind me and I can hear them helping each other understand the material, but purposefully answering some questions wrong.
“Don’t be too predictable,” I say to them when I hear them develop a wrong-answer pattern. It’s not like the teachers will care though. They’re Obliged just like us, and having a student disappear from a classroom isn’t exactly the flattering impression the Upright believe it is. For a teacher, it means that you’ve failed to teach your students the importance of hiding your abilities. For a parent, it means that you care more about your child excelling in school than being in your life. And for a sibling, it means that you were too selfish to care about anything.
We all have to look out for each other here. If we don’t, we get Picked. And if someone you love gets Picked, it means you’ve failed them. But like I said, it’s not worth worrying about when you never know if or when it’s going to happen.
“What are you doing?” I ask them when they’ve been silent for a while.
“Working on our manifestos,” they reply.
That gives me an idea. “You know, I may write one myself,” I say and sit with them.
The only noise in the kitchen is the sizzle of the potatoes in the frying pan as we quietly work.
“Done,” Matty says, holding out his manifesto. I take it and read it. It’s good work for a kid trying to stay with his family.
“Me too,” Vivi says, flapping her paper at me. I take it and make a face at her. I notice she doesn’t have her swan anymore.
“What happened to your swan?” I ask her.
She looks down at the paper. “An officer saw it and made me throw it away. He said it was extravagant and would distract me from my studies.”
“I’ll get Donovan to make you another one,” I say as I read her manifesto. “Mess up a couple words,” I advise her. “You’re only seven, you shouldn’t spell this well.”
“Can I read yours?” Matty asks me, reaching for my paper.
“Not done yet,” I say, sliding it from his hands. Truthfully it is done. But even in my own rebellion, I need to protect my family. They don’t need to get any subversive ideas so young, especially Matty since he’s already acting out.
“Looks like it to me,” Mom says behind me. I jump. I didn’t even hear her come in.
She snatches the paper from me and reads. As she reads her eyebrows furrow together in a straight line. When she finishes she stares at the paper for a second before she hands it back to me and turns to the stove.
“Burn it,” she says, so quietly I almost didn’t hear her.
“What?” I ask anyway.
“Burn it,” she says again, turning around.
“Why?” I ask. “It’s not like I’m going to do anything with it.”
“That’s not the point Rae. Do you know how much trouble we’d be in if someone found that?”
“But what about your criminal files? You stole those and you’re worried about some silly manifesto?”
“How? How is that different?” I say, my voice rising. My mother has never talked to me like this. She always encouraged my desire for change, and now she’s telling me to throw it in a fire.
“I’m the head of the Criminal Office Rae, I’m supposed to have files. And if I have files I shouldn’t, it’s because I’m doing research on how to prevent future delinquents. How are you going to explain something like this? This screams Valiant, Rae,” she says, pointing a shaking hand at the paper clutched in my fist. There’s actual terror in her voice now and it scares me.
I hold my breath until I can get my temper under control. Once my heart rate slows down I breathe out. “I don’t know,” I finally say.
“Then burn it.”
I go to the living room and start a smile fire in the fireplace. I don’t really need to wait for the flames to grow, but I wait. I’m not ready to throw away my work. I look it over one last time, reading the last lines out loud: “Fight for the cause that gives you hope, that gives you life, that give you dreams. And should this fight ask for your life, gladly give it. For the fight is not the end, but only the beginning of change.”
Then I throw my manifesto into the fire and walk away. I don’t want to watch my hope burn up. But for every piece of ash made by my manifesto, its words burn in my heart.
This is something I can’t let go. I’m not Obliged. I’m Valiant.