When I walk in the door I’m greeted by serious faces sitting around the kitchen table that vaguely resemble my happy parents.
“Something wrong?” I ask with a smile, trying to lighten the mood.
“What’s this I hear about you getting in trouble at school today?” Dad asks bluntly. Guess that’s who I got that lovely trait from.
“It’s nothing,” I say and make to go upstairs.
“I’m not so sure,” my mother says. “Come here.”
I turn around and head to the kitchen. I pull out a chair and sit down with a sigh. “Look, it’s not my fault. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was that girl Christine who threw me under the bus.”
“Why would she do that? Did you say something to her?”
“Are you kidding? Now it’s my fault that I was ratted out?”
“That’s not what we said,” my mom says in my dad’s defense.
“But it’s what you meant,” I say angrily. “I’m sorry I took her bait. Can I go now?”
“That’s not how this works,” Mom’s voice rises as she throws her hands in the air. I can only think of two times I’ve ever heard mom shout. One was when I broke my arm falling out of a tree and she yelled for help, and the other is now. “Rae, you know I’ve given you so much freedom, and I’ve encouraged you to fight against the system.” She sighs, resting her face in her hands. “But who am I kidding, this is really my fault.”
I look at Mom and wait for her to continue. She rubs her temples with her palms and sighs. “Look, I don’t want you to change, I just want you to have a little more…control.”
“Sure,” I promise, waving off her concern.
“Listen to your mother,” Dad commands. “You get carried away with your emotions and that’s going to get you in trouble.”
“Did get you in trouble,” Mom corrects him. “Look, I’m not telling you to let Christine walk all over you. Stand up for yourself. Just make sure no one’s looking over your shoulder when you do.”
I sense my lecture is over so I stand up. When I’m not told to sit back down again I quickly head upstairs to finish my homework and leave my parents to discuss whether their intervention made any affect on their stubborn child.
I’m done with my work by the time mom finishes dinner and I join the family at the kitchen table. Tonight is salad, no dressing, so really just a heap of lettuce, and a sliver of fish. The package say the fish is salmon, but the few times I’ve had wild salmon that I bought off a dealer in Ashford it tasted nothing like this.
I eat slowly so I don’t swallow any bones. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I really just want to avoid Donovan. I’m not sure how to deal with his sudden fear of being Picked. He’s gotten a little too serious lately and it’s freaking me out.
I contemplate not going to see him, but I hate when people break promises. When I finish dinner I get up and tell my parents I’m going to see Donovan to study for a math test we have next week. Technically, we do have a math test, but I have no intention of studying for it with him. He’s awful at math, and not because he tries to be.
Mom raises her eyebrows at me like she knows I’m lying. I duck down and grab my bag, avoiding eye contact.
At the train I hop in my car and settle in the corner. There’s a homeless man, older than my parents, riding the car with me tonight.
“Got any spare change?” He asks, holding up an empty, chipped mug.
“No, do you?” I ask back and laugh.
He laughs too at our private joke. He may be homeless, but I almost think he’s better off than I am. His life is his own.
We ride in silence for a few minutes before he asks me my name.
“Raegan,” I tell him and I ask him his.
“Thomas. Thomas Dresen. Or at least it used to be. I guess technically my name is Thomas T453210.”
“How have they not found you yet?” I ask.
“I faked my death years ago. Had a twin brother. Died of influenza just before the takeover. After the war I dug up his body and passed it off as my own. He was pretty decayed at that point and they didn’t care too much to verify that it was mine. They had my sister ID the body.”
“That’s awful,” I say, thinking of his desperation. It was morbid, but I can’t really blame him.
“She knew it was Ben, but she knew I’d rather live the life of a vagrant than have someone else dictate it.”
“That was brave of her,” I say. If her treason were discovered, she’d surely have died for her crimes.
“It was. I haven’t seen her since the night I said good-bye.”
“What was her name?”
“Jenny Dresen. I think she’s married now, with kids too probably. I don’t know her new last name.”
The train slows down as we near Gerrond and I’m tempted to skip the stop altogether and stay with Thomas. My parent’s words about having emotional control echo in my head. I think this might constitute as a rash action they wouldn’t approve.
I get up to jump off the train. “This is my stop,” I say. “Do you take the train often?”
“Only when I have nothing else to do,” he jokes. I smile and step off the train as it nears the platform. I don’t say goodbye, because I want to pretend I’ll run into him again. Not that I ever will. In all my years of riding the empty train cars I’ve seen a total of three homeless people, and Thomas is the first to actually talk to me.
I land on the platform and stumble a bit, but Donovan catches me.
“Easy there,” he says, setting me upright.
I smile at him but don’t look in his eyes. Just because I stumble doesn’t mean I need someone to catch me.
“So what do you want to do?” I ask, shifting my bag’s weight on my back.
“The park?” He suggests. We always go to the park. There’s not really anything else to do.
We walk in silence and I cross my arms so Donovan can’t hold my hand. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I feel trapped. And when I feel trapped I usually do rash things. I may have just avoided running away thanks to my mom’s advice, but right now I’m finding it hard to remember exactly what it was she said about controlling myself.
When we get to the park I head for the swings, but Donovan pulls me toward a wooden bridge connecting one playground structure to the other. The bridge has rails on each side and a roof, making a small tunnel, just big enough for two.
He pulls me inside after a small struggle. I give up because I don’t feel like fighting him, though the tight quarters make me sweat. I lay down next to him and he puts his lips close to my face. He kisses my cheek and whispers something in my ear.
“What?” I ask him.
“I love you,” he says, and kisses me.
I want to push him away but there’s no room. I panic. I don’t know what to do besides keep kissing him, though all I want is to run away. I don’t love him and I don’t know how to tell him.
“You don’t have to say it back,” he says when he senses my tension. “I just want you to know in case—”
“In case what?” I interrupt him.
“In case I don’t see you again.”
“And why would that be?” I ask him. Why is he all of a sudden so obsessed with this Picking?
“Rae,” he says. He sounds exasperated but I don’t give him a chance to finish.
I squirm my way out of the tunnel and start walking back to the train.
I hear him grunting to get out of the tunnel. “Rae!” he says again and grabs my arm once he’s caught up to me.
I turn around to face him.
“I’m not trying to upset you,” he says.
“Well you’re doing an awfully good job at it,” I reply.
“You know why I’m so worried about this, Raegan.” This can’t be good. Donovan almost never calls me by my full name unless he’s angry.
“What are you talking about?”
“My father, Rae. You know the Upright took him.”
“I—I forgot.” I’m such a prick. I knew the Upright had taken Donovan’s father to one of their detention facilities for fighting with some of their lieutenants, never mind the fact that he had just caught one of the lieutenants sleeping with his wife.
“You seem to have forgotten a lot lately.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask, hackles rising.
“You’re not yourself anymore.”
“Oh, and who am I?” Who does he think he is, telling me I’m not myself? I think I would know better than him.
“Raegan, stop hearing what you want to hear and really listen to me,” he pleads.
I don’t respond and turn away from him. I know I’m being cruel, but he’s moving too fast, and I would die before I admit it, but his fear about the Picking is making me scared too.
“Please just say whatever it is you’re thinking,” Donovan says. He looks away and his jaw tenses.
I turn back and wait a moment, trying to figure out how best to say it. His jaw tightens more the longer I’m quiet. “I don’t know what I want anymore,” I end up saying when I can think of nothing else.
Donovan doesn’t speak. I don’t know how long we stand there in silence, but when I don’t get a response I turn toward the train station and walk away. When I hoist myself into the waiting car there is no one to wave me goodbye.
I sit on the edge and watch the stars flicker by on my way home. I’m not sure I did the right thing, but I feel like I’ve been drowning since solitary confinement. I don’t know how I feel about anything, and I’d rather figure it out on my own than have Donovan traveling on my coattails the whole way.
I want to fall asleep, but I know I’ll miss my stop if I do. I force myself to stay awake by naming the constellations in the sky. I wonder absently what Donovan is doing and force myself to push the thoughts aside. They are the kind of thoughts that will make me change my mind.
When I get home mom is waiting up for me.
“Did you do it?” She asks me.
She gives me that knowing look and I nod.
“Want to talk about it?” She asks.
“How did you even know?”
“I’m a mom. I know everything.”
“I believe it,” I say, “but maybe tomorrow. Right now I just want to go to bed.”
“Good night,” she says as I head upstairs.