The next morning I wake up and my eyes are red and swollen. I take a shower to try and freshen up, but they are still a little red when I get out.
I throw on my old clothes from the night before and head downstairs. Sooner or later I’m going to have to wear something else, but not right now.
Downstairs, Dana is making waffles. Or at least that’s what she calls them. I’ve never seen them before. She pours this brown, sweet smelling stuff on top and I sit down at the table and eat. Bennett and Reese are already there eating. The waffles are delicious, but I try not to look like I’m enjoying them too much.
“Raegan, you’re going to have to change for school,” Dana says. She glances at me from over her shoulder, looking me up and down in obvious disapproval.
“What’s wrong with this?” I ask, fidgeting. My shirt and shorts are wrinkled from being thrown on the floor last night when I changed, and there is a stain on the shirt from I don’t remember what.
“There’s a dress code at your new school. I’ll lay out some clothes for you to change into,” she replies, voice emotionless, and leaves the kitchen.
I’m annoyed but I don’t feel like picking a fight. I’m tired from spending most of last night awake. My bed may have been more comfortable than anything I’ve ever laid on, but I may as well have been on a pile of bricks.
“Where’s Ace,” I ask them.
“Haven’t seen him since last night. He’d probably be here if the table were less crowded,” Bennett says, his face serious and appraising.
I look at the three empty seats at the table. There is plenty of room. Although part of me screams to stay silent, I can’t help but take the bait. “He’d probably be here but for the stick up his—”
“Raegan!” Reese says indignantly.
Bennett snorts milk over his waffles. Reese has to hit him on the back until he can breath again. I look at them in disbelief. Reese’s reaction I expected. Bennett’s however, I did not.
“You know Rae, you’re all right,” Bennett says when he gets his breath back.
They may laugh at what I said, but I meant it seriously. Annoyed, I get up and throw the rest of my waffle away, wash my dish and leave. When I’m back upstairs in my room I see Dana has laid out a new outfit for me, and how it satisfies dress code I don’t know. It’s a pair of black shorts and a cropped blue tank top. I put it on and look in the mirror. My caramel colored skin is striking against the clothing. I run my hand across my bare stomach, unsure of seeing so much of myself. I laugh in astonishment as I realize how strange it must be to see this half-black half-white Obliged girl in a family of Uprights who all share the same color skin. It had been part of my life for so long that I hadn’t thought twice about it until now.
I pull off the shirt, having no desire to show off so much skin to complete strangers, and put my old one back on. The shorts will have to be another battle with my new monster. I mean Mom.
Speaking of the witch, I hear her yell from downstairs that it’s time to leave, so I grab the backpack that’s sitting on my desk. It’s brand new and all black and filled with school supplies and books. At home, the amount of supplies in my new bag would have been distributed among my entire class, and they would have had to make it last for a month at least.
Feeling guilty I walk downstairs and see Bennett, Reese, and Dana waiting for me.
“We’re late,” Dana says. She looks me up and down and her forehead creases. But she lets it slide. I smile behind her back at my small victory as we get in her shiny black car. She backs out the driveway, me sitting in the front passenger seat and Bennett and Reese in the back.
“Why are you driving us?” I ask after we’ve driven a couple streets. “Isn’t the driving age sixteen?”
“It was,” Dana explains, “but two years ago some teenagers got into a car crash. Three of them were killed and the fourth was severely handicapped. The driving age was raised to twenty-one.”
“That’s stupid,” I say. “Why should they change the law just because a bunch of kids made a mistake?”
“We did it to protect our children.” Dana darts a look at me like she can’t believe I’m arguing with her.
Sorry lady, I think humorlessly. You Picked the wrong Obliged. “Sounds more like keeping them in a bubble to me,” I mumble aloud.
“Don’t argue about things you don’t understand,” Dana says coldly and I shut up. She seems a lot different from the night before. “We’re here.”
I smile at the thought of putting Dana in distress as we pull up in front of a large, red-brick building. The walls are lined with windows, and students are milling about, talking and laughing. Everyone looks extremely fashionable and fake.
Bennett and Reese get out of the car and I make to follow, but Dana grabs my arm. “You’re an Oakland now, you better start acting like one.”
I pull my arm out of her grip and slam the door behind me. Oakland, my new last name. But I’m not an Oakland. I don’t really want to be Raegan D184092 either, though. I don’t know who I am, or who I want to be. I’ll just settle for Raegan, for now.
Reese is waiting for me a few steps away from the car. She looks anxious, like she knows what Dana said to me and she doesn’t know how I’m reacting to it.
“Can I show you around?” She asks hesitantly.
“Sure,” I say, cutting Reese some slack. Still, I don’t like being around her for too long. It’s not because she’s extremely perky and sometimes annoying, but honestly, sometimes she reminds me of Vivi. Thinking of her makes my throat hurt. I feel my eyes start to burn so I blink a lot and hold my breath until the feeling passes.
“This way,” Reese says, leading me up the steps and through the front doors. The people we pass look at me like I’m an animal at the zoo. I meet their gazes and most look away, though a few stare back openly. I may hate them for staring, but at least they have the courage to do it.
Reese is rambling on about where my classes are, but I zone out. The hallway we are walking through is as large as one of our classrooms back home. Shiny blue lockers line the walls, and boys lean against them while they talk to girls. One girl sees me walking down the hall from farther away. I see her whisper something to her friends and they laugh. The girl slams her locker shut and steps in front of Reese and me.
“So, you’re the Obliged charity case,” the girl says. She is absolutely gorgeous with long blonde hair that hangs past her shoulders in ringlets. She’s wearing an outfit like the one Dana laid out for me. If I cared about looks at all I’d be intimidated, but as it is, I don’t.
“And you’re the Upright snot,” I reply, shifting my backpack to one shoulder to free an arm in case she wants to fight.
“Rae,” Reese whispers beside me. “Let it go.”
“Yea Rae, listen to the little girl,” the girl says, towering over Reese. I’m surprised when Reese doesn’t flinch away, regardless of how uncomfortable she looks.
“Don’t talk to her like that,” I say and clench my fists.
“You obviously don’t know who I am,” the girl says, flicking her hair back over her shoulder.
“Wrong answer,” she says. She pushes past me, her clone posse following closely after.
“Technically, you weren’t asking a question,” I yell at her back, but she ignores me, sending up a shrill laugh that seemed to bounce down the halls.
“Who was that?” I ask Reese when the girl disappears into a crowd of admirers.
“Haylie Barden,” Reese says, looking down the hallway after her. “Richest girl in school and daughter of Colonel Isaiah Barden. He’s the second highest ranking officer next to General Francis Black.”
“The General’s name is Francis?” I ask with a snort, “I never knew that.”
“Don’t let him hear you laugh,” Reese warns, “he’s done some pretty questionable things to people who laugh at his name.”
“You can’t be serious,” I say as we resume walking. People are staring even more now after my interlude with Haylie. It seems that I’m making enemies quickly.
“Well, it’s just a rumor,” Reese says, stopping at a door. “Here’s your history class, you better get inside before the bell rings.” I turn to open the door. “And thanks for sticking up for me,” I hear Reese whisper, but when I turn around, she’s already scurrying away in the opposite direction.
I fight a smile and head inside the classroom. Every eye in the room is staring at me. A few try to hide it behind a book or by pretending to look past me. I glare back as I walk to the only open seat in the back of the room.
“Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to Raegan Oakland,” the teacher says, standing up from behind her desk. “Our newest student here at the Upright School for Young Scholars. My name is Ms. Farland. Would you like to stand up and say a little something about yourself?”
I stand up since I don’t have any other choice. Teachers always say their commands like a question, making it seem like the student can resist, when everyone knows they can’t. “My name is Raegan,” I say, shifting uncomfortable from foot to foot. I’m not exactly a fan of public speaking, especially not when every face looking at me seems mutinous. “I’m from Darkwood—”
“Was” Ms. Farland corrects me.
“Sorry?” I say confused.
“You were from Darkwood, now you’re from Harmony.”
I blink once to make sure I didn’t imagine it. I don’t really know how to respond, so I keep talking like I wasn’t interrupted.
“My mom’s name is Ellie—”
“Dana,” she corrects me again.
“No, Ellie,” I say back, voice stony. I don’t care that the angry faces of the students have turned incredulous – that they’re following the conversation between Ms. Farland and me like a tennis match, their heads twisting back and forth as we make our passes at each other. My hands are starting to shake and I ball them into fists to convince myself I’m still in control.
“That will be all,” says Ms. Farland. “You may be seated.”
I sit down and see the other students covering their smirks behind their hands. They don’t try very hard though. My face burns and I look down at my desk. Ms. Farland is saying something about history, but I can’t focus enough to listen. All I can think about is how it’s a Saturday and I’m sitting in school and that my mom’s name is Ellie, not Dana.
Finally a bell rings and everyone gets up. I follow them to the door, but Ms. Farland calls me back.
“Raegan,” she begins. Oh boy, here comes the lecture. “You need to be more careful about the things you say.”
“Why? It’s the truth,” I tell her. I meet her gaze and hold it. Willing her to look away and concede.
She sighs and rubs her temples with the palms of her hand, though when she breaks eye contact I don’t feel victorious. Instead I feel queasy. The image reminds me of my mother talking to me in the kitchen, and I have to look away from Ms. Farland before I either puke or start crying again.
“Look,” she says, her voice soft and concerned. “I know it’s hard, but you must try.”
There are a lot of things I want to say in response, but instead I remain silent. I turn around and walk out of the classroom, not trusting myself to speak.
I roam around the school looking for my next class. I really should have paid attention to Reese this morning when she showed me around, and now I’m late because of it. I finally find the right classroom and walk inside. Everyone is sitting at round tables covered with chemistry equipment. A few groups are reading instructions while others are already mixing chemicals together.
“You’re late,” says a squat man in goggles. He waddles over to me and hands me a packet of papers. “You can work by yourself over there.” He points to an empty table.
I walk over to it and sit down, looking at the papers filled with words and equations I’ve never seen before. Back home we don’t even study chemistry because the Obliged don’t have any jobs that require knowing how to mix chemicals. It’s considered too dangerous and difficult for us to handle. Determined to prove them wrong, I struggle to follow the directions. By the end of the class period I break a glass bottle that they call a beaker and burn my finger when I’m lighting the burner. My teacher, who told me his name was Dr. Melon, pronounced ‘may-lone,’ promised me he’d never make me work alone again. For once I’m actually grateful for the help and I leave class for lunch.
I find Reese sitting by herself, so I pull up a seat next to her.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” She asks me.
“I’m not very hungry,” I say. Truth is, I’m starving, but I’m afraid if I eat anything I’ll throw up.
I look around the cafeteria that doesn’t differ too much from my old one, aside from the fact that this one looked more like a restaurant than a school cafeteria. I see Bennett sitting with a group of guys our age a few tables away. They’re all looking at me aside from Bennett, who’s determinedly staring down at his lunch, face red. I stare back at them until all but one looks away. This one has dark hair sticking straight up down the middle of his head like a spiky wall. When he stands up I see he’s at least a head taller than me and extremely attractive. Probably the most attractive guy I’ve seen in the school yet. He’s wearing a dark blue button up shirt and black jeans. Even Christine and Kelly wouldn’t look twice at Donovan after seeing this guy. He walks to my table, eyes locked on mine.
“I couldn’t help but notice you were sitting alone,” he says smoothly, taking my hand and lifting it up so I’d have to stand. “And pretty girls like you should never be alone.”
“I’m not sitting alone,” I say to him, refusing to budge from my seat. My arm is raised at an awkward angle as Mr. Wall Hair fails to draw me to my feet. Reese is staring at us in horror, so I conclude this situation isn’t good.
His eyes flicker over to Reese and back to me. “I didn’t notice. But I did notice you. What’s your name?”
“Raegan,” I say, plucking my hand from his.
Undaunted, he presses on. “Bennett tells me you’re from across the border,” he states. It’s not a question. “You know, I’ve heard things about the Obliged.”
“What things?” I ask him, completely confused.
“Just things,” he toys with me. This is stupid. Make your point.
“What things?” I ask him again, annoyance creeping into my voice.
“Just that you guys know what you’re doing over there,” he says, his hand creeping back into mine. It dawns on me then what he’s talking about.
I fight the urge to make a face and instead fake a giggle that would make Christine envious. Reese’s mouth drops open in astonishment. I lean closer to him and ask him his name.
“Nathan,” he says, his lips close to my ear.
“Well Nathan, there’s a lot I could teach you,” I say, stepping closer so our bodies are touching. Out of the corner of my eye I see all the boys at Bennett’s table staring. Bennett looks pale.
“Glad you see things my way,” Nathan whispers again and I feel his hand creep under my shirt.
Like I said before, I’m comfortable with my body. But my body is my own, and no one touches it without permission. I knee him in the groin and whisper in his ear: “Pull a stunt like that again and I’ll do worse than a bruise.”
Nathan keels over and grabs the table for support. I hit his elbow so his arm buckles beneath him, sending him to the floor. “Whoops,” I say. I lean over and say loudly enough for his friends to hear, “We Obliged like it rough.”
I turn to Reese whose hand is covering her mouth. Her eyes are flickering back and forth from me to Nathan, who is still on the ground.
“Raegan Oakland,” says a high-pitched, authoritative voice behind me. It’s the kind of voice that instantly makes me cringe. “Come with me.”
I turn around to a tall, stiff-necked teacher. Her face is pinched, like she smells something foul. She leads me to the Principal’s Office, where I’m greeted by a tall, older man with slicked back gray hair and a dark mustache that was so thick, I couldn’t understand how he could breathe through his nose.
“Sit,” he says sternly and leaves the office with the teacher, who’s undoubtedly ratting me out.
I sit in a cushioned chair and look at the office. The furniture is all dark mahogany and in perfect condition. I vacate the chair when I notice the towering bookshelf behind me, eager to see what the Upright consider standard reading material. A book called Obliged vs. Upright: A Look Into the Unfortunate Past of Our Inferiors actually makes me laugh out loud. Bad timing though because just then the principal walks back in.
“I see you cannot follow even the simplest of requests,” he says, and I remember I’m supposed to be sitting.
I take my time to walk back to the chair and sit down, relishing the darkening face of Mustache Man. “Now, Mrs. Collins tells me she saw you physically abuse another student—”
“Only after he sexually abused me. It was self defense!”
“Did I give you permission to talk?” The principal asks me, his voice rising. I feel the hair on my arms stand on edge. I look down at his desk and see his nameplate reads Dr. Collins. He must be that woman’s husband. A perfect match.
“Good,” he says after I’ve been silent for a minute. “We have a zero tolerance policy for physical abuse.”
“But—“ I start to say, but Dr. Collins raises his hand for silence.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. Nathan has been an exemplary student at this school for years. You however have been here for mere hours. Now who am I to believe?”
“If you ask the people around—“
“And you think I haven’t done that?” When? When have you had time to do that? I roll my eyes in exasperation.
“I just don’t think this is very fair.”
“Fair? You haven’t given anyone here a fair shot since you walked through those doors, and you want to complain about fair? How about this as fair: you’re dismissed for the rest of the day.”
“Goodbye Raegan, I expect a better attitude tomorrow.”
I pick up my bag and leave the room quickly before I explode, letting the door slam on my way out. When I walk out of the school, I realize I have no idea how to get home. I don’t have a car, nor do I know how to drive one, and I haven’t seen a train since I got here.
I do remember the last couple roads we took to get to the school this morning, so I start retracing our path.
I don’t get very far before I’m totally lost, so instead I just wander where I please. After a couple lefts at various intersections I see a playground. Smiling because I’ve finally found something familiar, I head straight for it.
When I get there I go to a swing. I love the feeling of your feet leaving the ground, like there’s nothing around you but space. It makes me feel so free.
There’s a young couple with their son here, too. I watch them play together for a while before the boy runs away from his parents toward the swings. I slow down so I don’t accidentally hit him and he stops and stares at me. He reaches out a hand towards the swing next to me and gabbles something.
“You want on the swing?” I ask him.
He points at the swing again and makes some more noises. I laugh and step off my swing so I can help the little guy out when his mother runs up. She sweeps the boy off his feet and looks at me. I see something like a mixture of fear and repulsion in her eyes. Her husband comes up and looks at me with pity.
I don’t know how they know I’m Obliged, but I don’t care to find out. Since I’m already standing I grab my bag and walk away. I hate being pitied, more than I hate being hated for no reason.
It’s been an hour since Dr. Collins dismissed me from school, and I had about another hour before Dana would pick up Reese and Bennett and realize I’m not with them. I start guessing my way back home, but it’s no use. I eventually come across a small pond surrounded by trees. The Upright probably consider it natural, but there’s nothing natural about it. The pond is perfectly round, and each tree is planted the exact same distance from the next one. Everything was too ordered, too symmetrical. I walk to the pond anyway and sit down against a tree. At least here I’m alone.
I pick up some pebbles that are lying on the ground and toss them into the pond. I take the flat ones and try to skip them, but I only make them skip twice at the most. It makes me think of Matty so I give up and put my head on my knees, wrapping my arms around my head so everything is dark.
“Rae,” says a tiny voice behind me. Somehow Reese has found me.
I lift my head once I’m sure my eyes are dry. “What?” I ask her.
Reese sits down next to me, “You’re not very easy to find,” she says.
“So how did you find me?” I ask.
“When I heard you were dismissed I explained to Dr. Collins you wouldn’t know how to get home. He let me go early to come find you. You overshot by about a block.”
“That doesn’t explain how you found me,” I say.
“Just got lucky, I guess,” Reese says and stretches her legs out in front of her. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I think what you did to Nathan was great. I mean, you shouldn’t have done it, but it was still great.”
“Yea,” I say and laugh at myself, “and look where greatness got me.”
“Nathan is awful. He thinks he’s God’s gift to women and treats us all like we should bow down to his beauty.”
“You sound like you’ve experienced this before,” I say and look at her. Reese doesn’t look back and changes the subject.
“You just need to give everyone time to get used to you. You’re different than us you know.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I say seriously, and Reese laughs. I wish they’d stop laughing when I’m not trying to be funny.
“The last time someone adopted an Obliged was years ago. They got over it then, they’ll get over it now.”
“Someone around here was Picked?” I say, instantly intrigued. “Who is it?”
“I think his name was Noah. He goes to the Upright Military Academy – UMA – in the next town. The same one Ace goes to.”
“Do you think they know each other?” I ask.
“I don’t know, maybe. A lot of people go there after school.”
We sit in silence for a few moments and I think of ways to find Noah. If he lives in Harmony, I’m bound to run into him sooner or later.
“It’s getting late and Mom is probably freaking out,” Reese says, standing up.
I join her and we walk back to the house. But when we step inside I want more than anything to be somewhere else.
“Where the hell were you?” Dana yells at me the second I’m through the door.
“I got lost,” I say, my hackles up.
“Why were you kicked out of school?” Jeremy intercedes, his voice much calmer.
I match his tone. “I had a run in with a boy named Nathan.”
“It’s true Mom—”
“Shut up, Reese.” Reese immediately quiets and walks out of the room. I stare in shock at Dana. I expect her to be cruel to me, but not to her own daughter.
“You didn’t have to yell at her,” I say. “You’re mad at me, remember?”
“Don’t talk back to me,” Dana says, her pointed finger dangerously close to my face. “You will learn what it means to be an Oakland, so help me—”
“Dana,” Jeremy warns. “She’s just confused and needs some time, let it go.”
“I’m not confused!” I yell. “I don’t want to be here!” I leave the room and run upstairs, having a flashback from the night before. I know I’m pitching a royal tantrum, but I’m too mad to care. I feel bad about lashing out at Jeremy, since he seems to be the only level-headed adult around here, but I’m too hopped up on my own anger to let it be more than just a thought. I can’t believe Dana would yell at me when I was only defending myself against a sexist pig.
I sit down on my bed and hear Dana calling me for dinner. Since I skipped lunch I’m twice as hungry, but I don’t want to face the rest of the family. Instead I go into the bathroom and sit in the shower, my favorite place in this God-forsaken house.
I get out of the shower when the water starts to feel cold. Funny enough not even the Upright have unlimited hot water.
I towel dry my hair and let it hang loose in its usual tangled brown waves. I lean on the bathroom counter and stare into my own eyes. People have told me before that when I’m really mad, my eyes look black. Right now they are just brown. I don’t have enough energy to feel angry.
Since I don’t have anything else to do, and I want to avoid everyone downstairs, I turn off the lights and slide into bed. I’m not tired but maybe a dark room will keep people from wanting to visit.
My plan works and I wake up a couple hours later. The alarm clock by my bed reads twelve thirty in bright red dots. I get up and open my door to see that the house is quiet and the lights are all off. I step out of my room and walk down the stairs. They don’t squeak like my ones back home. Sneaking around is much easier here.
There’s a light on in the kitchen so I peak around the corner first. It’s Bennett, sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal. He’s harmless enough, so I walk in.
“I was wondering if you were going to make a midnight visit,” he says.
“Why so?” I ask as I start opening cabinets, looking for bowls.
“To your left,” he says. I open up the cabinet on my left and pull down a bowl. He pushes the milk and cereal on the table towards me as I sit down. “Well, you didn’t exactly eat much yesterday.”
“Yea, my lunch got interrupted,” I mention coldly.
“I’m sorry about Nathan,” Bennett says, truly apologetic. “But you should know, he doesn’t take to being dismissed lightly.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask and shovel a spoonful of cereal into my mouth. It tastes good so I eat another before swallowing the first. I’m really hungry.
“It just means that he has a temper,” Bennett explains, leaning back in his chair. “He probably won’t let yesterday go very easily.”
I stay silent because I’m annoyed. I didn’t want to make enemies here my first day, but these people weren’t giving me a chance.
“Can I ask you something personal?”
I shrug and eat more cereal.
“Do you miss your family?”
Well, whatever I’m expecting, it’s not that. I find that I can’t speak, though inside my head shrieks Yes yes! I don’t want to be here! Take me home! Bennett sits there, awkwardly watching me.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
I shake my head. “No, it’s fine. Yea, I miss them a lot. They’re nothing like you guys, and home is completely different from here. To be honest I don’t know if this place will ever make sense.” It feels good to finally speak the truth, even if he isn’t my first choice to talk to.
“It’ll take some time I guess, though I know that’s not what you want to hear.” Bennett picks up his bowl of cereal and puts it in the sink. He makes to walk out the kitchen, but stops behind me. “You know, I’m really glad to have a new sister,” he says behind me. When I turn around, he’s gone, and I’m glad.
I get up and wash my empty bowl in the sink, and Bennett’s too. When everything is put away I walk back upstairs. At the end of the hall I see the light is on in Dana and Jeremy’s room. Wondering what they are doing up so late I tiptoe and stand outside the door.
Their voices are too muffled when I press my ear to the door, so I lower myself to the floor and listen through the crack there – a trick I learned from one of my files back home.
“—being oversensitive, she needs more time,” Jeremy says. I can only assume the she is me.
“One week, and that’s it.” Dana sounds annoyed, and something else I can’t place. Afraid, maybe?
“I just don’t like the Cage, you know that.”
“Just because your father abused it doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked before,” Dana says. What’s the Cage?
“Look, it’s going to be tough, I’ll admit that—”
“Look what she did today!” Dana exclaims, “She made a fool of us in front of her entire school!” If there was fear in Dana’s voice before, it’s quickly replaced by anger.
“That Nathan boy is the worst sort,” Jeremy defends me. If I had to choose, he’s definitely my favorite. “He has nothing to do with this decision in my opinion. But,” he sighs, “yes, she is very defiant.”
“Defiant isn’t the word. She has no rules, Jeremy. No self control.”
I feel a pang in my gut as I remember my mother saying almost the same thing. Self control. That stupid quality is just not something that comes naturally to me.
“Then maybe she just needs more direction,” Jeremy suggests.
“Fine, but she has a week to follow this new ‘direction.’ If she doesn’t, we’re trying it my way.”
I don’t care to hear anymore so I stand up. I go back to my room and crawl into bed. I have no idea what the Cage is, and part of me doesn’t want to find out. But another part of me does. And that part is a little bigger.