The Lieutenant and an officer step into the doorway of our dark house. I can only see their outlines now.
“You can’t have her,” I hear my dad say. He is less than ten feet from me but he sounds far away.
“Orders,” says the Lieutenant and brushes past my dad. He sees me standing in the kitchen doorway and walks toward me. I feel frozen. Unable to fight. Unable to move. He grabs hold of my arm but I pull it from his grip, the spell holding me in place broken.
“Let go,” I say coldly. I hear china break behind me as Mom finally snaps back to reality.
“Why do you want her?” she asks. Her voice sounds hollow.
“She has the honor of being Picked,” the Lieutenant says sharply. I can tell he’s done this several times, and whimpering mothers mean nothing to him.
Everything in the house is silent, until it erupts into chaos.
The Lieutenant grabs me again and I try to fight him off. The other officer comes in and pulls my hands behind my back. I try to kick out and the Lieutenant grabs my feet. I struggle wildly in the air, thrashing and whipping my head back and forth as though I can use it as a weapon. But these Upright are trained, and my weak attempts to free myself are laughable. In fact, I can hear the officer chuckling under his breath, which only makes me fight harder. I wrench my head to the side, finding his soft flesh with my teeth and bite down – hard. He yelps and lets go with that hand, and I feel Mom run to my aid. But half of her blows land on me in the dark. She keeps screaming “No!” and that drives my insanity further. I pull in every direction and feel the Lieutenant release my feet.
I think he’s giving up but he just turns around to face my father, who’s holding a wooden bat. He swings it at the Lieutenant who knocks it out of the way with his hand. I hear a crack and assume the Lieutenant’s hand is broken. But then there’s a click that sounds awfully like a gun, and a cry, followed by a thump, that sounds awfully like death.
Everything goes still again. I hear a door open upstairs and I pray it’s Matty and not Vivian who’s coming to see what’s going on.
It’s both. The tops of their heads peer over the staircase just as the Lieutenant shoots my father again.
Vivi and I both start screaming and I throw my weight against the officer, freeing my trapped arm. Mom tries to hit the officer but he just knocks her back into the kitchen. She falls and hits her head against the counter. She doesn’t get up.
I keep fighting until the Lieutenant aims his gun at my thigh and shoots. I look down in shock, expecting to see blood welling from my leg to spill onto the floor. Instead, I see a dart. A tranquilizer gun.
At least Dad’s not dead. Then the world goes black.
When I wake up it’s bright outside and I’m sitting in the back of a car. I’ve never ridden in a car before and I instantly hate the feeling. There’s a weird strap over me that I can’t get out of. The more I move the tighter it becomes. Whatever type of restraint this is, it’s doing its job too well.
There’s a man driving, but when I ask him where I’m going he doesn’t answer me.
I rub my leg where I was tranquilized and feel a large bump. It hurts so I stop touching it. I look out the window and see suburbs, different from any I’ve ever seen. I must be in Upright territory.
The houses are huge and wildly extravagant. Each has a perfectly pristine yard and garden, some growing roses, some tomatoes. Regardless it’s spotless. Not a single brown leaf to be found littering the ground.
We make a couple turns and I wonder where I’m going. To a new family no doubt, but I have no idea how I got here or how far away from home I am.
When the driver pulls into a large, two-story house, complete with wrap-around porch and large picture windows, I don’t get out of the car. The house is pristine. More than, if that’s even possible. The lawn is manicured so that each blade of grass looks the same length. There’s not a single dead flower in the perfectly trimmed garden surrounding the porch. The curtains hanging in the windows are evenly spaced, open just enough to let in the light, but not enough to encourage anyone walking by to look inside. The house is beautiful, but it isn’t inviting.
The driver turns his head and looks at me expectantly, wanting me to get out of his car. I don’t move. I’m stuck in this damn contraption that I can’t get out of.
He sighs and gets out of the car. He opens the back door and clicks a button I hadn’t seen before. I half-fall, half-stumble out of the car before I straighten up and stand still.
The driver shakes his head and gently guides me to the door. He pushes the doorbell for me and leaves. I hear the car drive away before someone opens the door.
It’s a little blonde girl about a foot shorter than me. I can barely look at her, the shock finally wearing off and the panic beginning to set in, the cold trickle of fear starting just behind my navel and working its way up to my throat. But I force myself to push down the fear and focus. Crying will get me nowhere in this foreign place.
The girl before me is older than I thought, fifteen at the most, I guess. She has delicate features, like a china doll. Her nose is tiny, slightly upturned, and her eyes are big and green. Her hair is long and held up in a ponytail by a fancy purple ribbon. I think of Vivian’s yarn hair tie and I have to hold my breath to keep from crying.
The blonde thing hugs me and bounces on the balls of her feet. It takes everything in me not to smack her away. “Raegan, I can’t believe you’re here! Oh, this is so exciting. MOM!” She calls to the house behind her.
A woman walks into the room and sees me standing in the doorway. She’s petite and blonde and a big smile takes over her mouth. “Oh, Raegan!” She says and hugs me, too. “I’m so happy to finally meet you.”
I can’t help but wonder how she can talk when she smiles like that. Her mouth seems too big for her face, like a frog. “Everyone, everyone get in here! Raegan’s here!”
It’s like they all talk in exclamation points, I think, already feeling exhausted by these people. I’m an introvert, a closed book. People wear me out. And now I’m walking into a new life where everyone is my exact opposite.
I barely have time to register the word everyone, when in walk two boys, one about my age, another a few years older, and an older man. My new family.
“This is Bennett,” the woman says, gesturing towards the one my age, who just nods. He has dirty blonde hair, darker than his mother and sister, that looks like he always runs his hands through it. He’s tall and slender, unlike the boy standing next to him. “And Ace,” she points to the other boy. He doesn’t move, but his eyes look me up and down like he’s seen better. He’s a couple inches shorter than Bennett, but he’s much thicker and muscled, like a weight lifter, where his brother is a runner. His hair is buzzed so I assume he’s in the military. “And this is my husband, Jeremy.” The most I can do is stare, my voice having left me some time ago. He’s tall like Bennett, and his hair is turning gray around the sides.
“You’ve already met Reese,” the woman says, pointing to the hyperactive thing in the corner. “Oh, and my name is Dana, but you can call me Mom,” Dana says and tears up. She actually tears up. I’d like to tell her a load of things I’ll call her before I’ll ever call her Mom.
“Mom, can I take her around the house?” Reese asks, full of excitement. I want to hang her upside down and see if I can empty out some of her peppiness.
“Sure, honey,” Dana says. “I’ll be in the kitchen working on dinner, it’s nearly six!”
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to look surprised at how late it is, but I don’t say anything. My face is blank as I follow Reese around the house while she points out all the different rooms. They had a room just for reading, and another with a huge boiling pot in it that looked like it could make enough soup to last a year.
“That’s a hot tub,” Reese says, looking at me like I’m crazy when I ask what it is. “You sit in it.”
“It’s a pot of boiling water. Why would you want to cook yourself?”
Reese giggles like I’ve just made a joke and takes me upstairs.
“Never go in there,” Reese says, waving at a door at the end of the upstairs hallway.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because,” she answers, as though that is a good enough reason by itself. I don’t care enough to press for more information, and Reese continues on our tour. She finally drops me off at my room, one of two doors on the right side of the second floor hallway. To my left is Dana and Jeremy’s room, and across the hall live Reese, Bennett, and Ace.
When I open the door I’m ashamed to admit that I like it. The walls are a dark, forest green and the bed is covered in a thick blanket of deep blues and purples.
I don’t have anything with me so I sit on the bed, taking in the newness. There’s a picture on the nightstand of my new family. I face it down so I can’t see their smiling faces. It’s bad enough I can hear them walking down the hall, the last thing I want is for them to stare at me while I sleep.
I get up and wander around my room. I open the drawers of my desk to find pencils and paper and some rectangular black box that opens on a hinge. It’s thin and made a weird twinkly noise when I open it so I shut it and put it away.
I turn to my closet and find it packed with new clothes that look like they’ll fit me perfectly. At home I don’t even have a closet, all of my clothes could be stacked on a table in a corner of the room.
I grab a random pair of jeans and a red shirt and walk into my private bathroom. The mirror is the entire length of the wall and so is the counter. I set my clothes down and turn on the shower. It heats up instantly, but I’m afraid to get in. I’ve never taken a warm shower before.
I take off my clothes and hide them under the sink. It’s just a white t-shirt and jean shorts, but I don’t want someone to find them and throw them away. When I get in the shower, I see four different types of shampoos and conditioners, and several types of liquid soap. Back home we were given one bar of soap per month and if you used it all you’d have to wait until the next month or find someone to sell you theirs.
I close my eyes and stand in the shower for longer than the allotted three minutes, and am shocked when the water never turns off. Even though my body relishes the warm water running over me, I can feel my insides seize. But no, I will not cry. I will not let a shower that is longer than three stupid minutes be my downfall.
When I’m done, I find a towel in a small closet and dry myself off. I put on the new clothes, which fit me too well. They hug my curves and give my body more shape than I want it to have. I take them off and put on my old outfit. I let my hair air dry as I walk back into my room.
I lay in bed until a few minutes past six before I go downstairs. Everyone is already sitting at the kitchen table, which is made of shiny dark wood.
Everyone stares. I sit in the only empty seat between Bennett and Reese. Reese starts putting together a plate full of food for me. Dana puts her hand on Reese’s arm, making her pause.
“Raegan, I know this is all new for you, but dinner is served at six o’clock. The next time you’re late, you’ll have to wait until breakfast to eat.”
My hands shake as I accept the plate of food from Reese. I’m so angry but if I say anything Dana probably won’t let me eat, and I haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours. It’s some kind of thick, brown meat, which I poke with my fork, and asparagus.
“It’s steak,” Bennett whispers in my ear when conversation at the table resumes. “You cut it, like this,” he proceeds to show me how to saw the steak with my knife.
“I know how to eat,” I whisper back, annoyed. Just because I’ve never eaten steak doesn’t mean I can’t.
Bennett shrugs and goes back to eating. Reese looks at me and asks how I like it. I mimic Bennett and shrug. Truthfully, I like it a lot. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten, but each bite makes me want to throw up. I feel so guilty eating this when I think about whatever Upright meal my family is eating tonight, if they’re even eating at all.
I stop chewing and hold my breath. Reese gives me an alarmed look because she thinks she said the wrong thing. I let her squirm for a bit before I let out my breath and go back to chewing. I’ve never eaten asparagus either, probably because it’s too expensive to provide for all the Obliged.
“So Raegan, are you excited for school tomorrow?” Dana asks me.
“On a Saturday?” I ask.
“The Upright have Wednesday and Thursday off, Saturday and Sunday are school days,” Bennett explains to me slowly, like I couldn’t understand him or something.
“Why?” I ask.
“That’s just the way it’s always been,” he says.
“But why, what’s the point?”
Dana shakes her head slightly and I let the subject drop. The Upright system is so pointless they don’t even know why they do things anymore. I stab a piece of my steak vehemently and shove it in my mouth.
“So are you excited?” Dana asks again.
I shrug, “I don’t see why I should be.”
Ace slams his fork and knife down on the table. I jump and look over at him and instantly regret it. I feel like a hundred guns are pointing straight at me.
“You Obliged are all the same. We give selflessly and you throw it right back in our faces. Of course you’re not excited, you’re not even trying to be.”
I don’t know what to say to this, but I’m spared answering because Ace leaves the table. I hear his every footstep as he stomps up the stairs.
No one bothers to apologize for Ace’s behavior. Probably because they all want to do the same thing.
I can’t bear the awkward silence anymore. “I’m not hungry,” I finally say. I don’t wait for Dana to tell me to wash my dish, I just leave the table quickly and run up the stairs once I’m out of eyesight. I burst into my room and lock the door behind me.
I can’t hold it in any longer. I slump down on my bed and cry for the first time in years.