When I wake up the next morning, Dana acts as though nothing is wrong. She hands me a plate of eggs and toast and tells me to eat up as I sit down at the table with Bennett.
“Where’s Ace?” I ask. I haven’t seen him since my first day here and I’m starting to wonder whether he still exists.
“He has to leave early for UMA. Up at the crack of dawn and all,” Bennett says, stealing a bite of my eggs.
“Hey,” I say, scooting my plate away, “eat your own.”
Dana spoons another helping of eggs on Bennett’s plate but not on mine. He shrugs when Dana turns around. Okay, I guess she’s still a little mad.
Reese comes barreling into the kitchen, grabs a plate from Dana’s outstretched hand and starts eating before she sits down.
“What are you in a rush for?” Bennett asks. He makes to steal a bite of Reese’s food but she deflects his fork with her own.
“My alarm didn’t go off. I still have to do my hair and figure out what I’m wearing,” Reese says between bites of egg.
“You’re already wearing your school clothes,” I say, pointing at her with my fork.
She looks down. “Oh,” she says, dropping her half eaten breakfast on the table and running out of the kitchen.
“What was that all about?” Bennett asks, shoveling Reese’s eggs into his mouth before Dana can take the plate away.
I shrug and slide my food over to Bennett. “What am I, a feeding trough?” He asks as I leave the room.
I throw on some jeans with holes in them, which I find incredibly stupid. Why would you buy damaged clothing? I pick out a black v-neck shirt and slip it on. It feels smooth against my body and I have to fight myself to keep from taking it off.
I can’t get rid of this feeling of guilt. Everything I have here with the Upright only makes the Obliged feel farther away.
I feel myself weakening and attempt to shake the thoughts away. There’s no point in dwelling on home – my real home. I don’t know how to get back, if I can ever get back. As much as it pains me to do, deep down I know I have to start letting them go.
When I walk back downstairs everyone, even Reese, is waiting for me.
“It took you that long to pick that out?” Bennett teases me. I make a face at him and Reese smiles. Dana ignores me completely.
I roll my eyes behind her back. She either wants me to be in the family or she doesn’t. If she keeps giving me the cold shoulder I’m going to have to make her pay attention to me.
“What are you all dressed up for?” I ask Reese. I assume she always looks good going to school, seeing as Dana is a fashion consultant and all, or at least that’s what I guess based on all the clothes this family owns. Her cheeks turn red and she bites her lip. “Is it a boy?” I whisper.
She shakes her head no, but I can tell she’s lying. I leave her alone though because the last time I teased Vivi about a boy she ended up punching me so hard it left a small bruise. I smile at the memory, but then I remember that that’s all it is.
I stare at the houses passing by in a blur as Dana tries to get us to school on time, picking out random details – a blue door here, red curtains there – as I reign in my emotions. My palms are sweaty from my effort and I wipe them discreetly against my jeans, scowling when my fingers get stuck on an inconveniently placed hole.
We pull up outside the school and I start to get out of the car.
“Just a second Raegan,” Dana says to me. She turns around in her seat to face me once Reese and Bennett step out of the car. “I expect to pick you up from school today Raegan, not just drop you off.”
I look straight into Dana’s eyes. Hers were an icy blue compared to my stony black. “As long as everyone keeps their hands off me that shouldn’t be a problem,” I reply.
“I don’t care if the principal himself back hands you, you’ll take it in silence,” Dana says.
“You’re kidding?” I sit forward in my chair. There’s no way she means that, as awful as she is.
“There are worse things,” Dana says and turns around. I stare at the back of her head for a few seconds before I get out of the car. I never expected Dana to say anything like that. Yell, yes. Tell me I’m ungrateful, sure. But expect me to be completely submissive to just anyone, absolutely not.
I wonder if Dana was referring to the Cage when she said there are worse things than being humiliated, and I resolve to ask Reese as soon as I find her. Problem is, she’s nowhere to be seen.
I finally spot her talking to someone standing behind a tree. She looks very engaged in the conversation so I stay back and watch, peeking from the side of the school building. Finally, after a few minutes she stands on her toes and reaches up and kisses whoever is hidden there.
After a few stares from passersby I realize my mouth is hanging open. Reese is a cute girl, petite and doll-like, but I never thought about her having a boyfriend. She just seems too young, but then I realize with a jolt she’s only a few years younger than me. I lean against the wall and wait for Reese to walk by.
“Who was that?” I ask nonchalantly, pushing myself off the wall and startling the poor girl, who had been gazing at the ground with a small smile on her face.
She jumps, clutching at her heart in such a sweet, innocent gesture I immediately feel guilty. “Who was what?” Reese asks and blushes.
“Oh come on Reese, you suck at lying. Who was that?” I prod gently. Or maybe not so gently. It’s hard to say.
“Just a boy,” she mumbles, looking away.
“Reese Something Oakland,” I say. I didn’t realize I didn’t know her middle name when I started talking. “You will tell me who he is right now.” I step in front of her so she can’t go anywhere.
“Well, if you must know, his name is Joseph Kelly. He goes to UMA and this is his day off. He always visits me on his day off.”
“How did you meet him?” I ask, stepping to the side and letting her pass. “And why is it a secret?”
“He went to school here last year, and who says it’s a secret.”
“You did when you met him behind a tree.”
“I almost regret befriending you now.” She laughs when I look shocked. “Oh don’t be ridiculous, you know I’m joking.”
I shrug like I don’t care, but honestly I’m surprised I do. I’m really starting to like Reese, and I find that fact kind of annoying.
“So then why is it a secret?” I ask again.
“Because mom doesn’t like him,” Reese says simply.
I stop walking. Reese keeps going so I have to jog to catch up. “You’re dating someone without mommy’s approval?” I ask in shock.
“I know I know, big surprise right?” Reese says without humor. “Look, just don’t tell anyone okay? Bennett doesn’t even know.”
I mimic locking my lips and throwing away the key, but then I remember the other question I want to ask so I unlock them again. “Do you know what the Cage is?”
“The Cage?” Reese repeats. “No, I don’t.”
“I heard Dana and Jeremy talking about it,” I say.
“I really don’t know what it is Rae, sorry,” Reese says. “This is my class.” She turns and walks into a room and leaves me alone in the hallway. I hurry to class so I’m not late, and by the time I get there, I’m in too much trouble to spend time thinking about Reese’s answer.
“Ms. Oakland, is there a reason why you’re late?” Ms. Farland asks me when I walk through the door. I can usually think up pretty good reasons, but my mind is too scattered to think straight.
“Unfortunately, ‘umm’ is not good enough,” Ms. Farland says before I can get more than one syllable out. “I believe you know where the principal’s office is?”
I stare at her in disbelief. “Are you serious?” I ask. Everyone in the class is watching intently to see what the ex-Obliged will do.
“I never joke, Ms. Oakland,” Ms. Farland says and turns back to her class and begins to lecture again.
I walk out the door and down the hall toward the principal. I’m about halfway to his office when I realize there’s no way he knows I’m on my way to see him. If I were to just hide out in the bathroom for the rest of the period, no one would be any wiser.
I smile and sneak into the closest girl’s bathroom I can find. I go into a stall and sit on the back of the toilet, my feet on the rim. The walls are completely clean and look like they’ve been freshly painted. I rummage through my bag until I can find a permanent marker. I write “Haylie was here” on the bathroom stall and grin. It’s a childish prank, but I don’t care.
I spend the rest of the hour doodling and leave to go to chemistry when the bell rings. This time, as promised, Dr. Melon lets me work in a group. The group however, doesn’t exactly want to work with me. We sit at a round table, looking over the instructions, but somehow the four chairs of my group mates end up a lot closer to each other, and a lot farther from me.
“Ahem,” I cough. They look up at me. “So what are we doing?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” one of the girls near me says. She’s thin and bony, with long brown hair. “We got it.”
“Well, I’d like to help,” I say and scoot my chair closer.
The girl leans back as though I’d jumped at her, but recovers quickly. “No really, it’s okay.”
“To be honest, I don’t care what you think is okay. I’d like to help, so let me.”
“Oh,” she says nervously. “Umm—” she looks at the rest of the group who stare back at her blankly. It looks like they’ve elected her leader.
“Here,” she says, pushing two beakers full of green liquid at me. “Mix these and heat them up to 100 degrees Celsius.”
I do as she says while the group watches me. I stop what I’m doing and stare at them until they look back to their own jobs. I mix the chemicals in a third beaker and turn on the burner. As I wait for it to heat up to the proper temperature I look around the room. All of the other groups are working together to complete the assignment. I see some laughing and others smiling, all are talking. My group is the only one that’s silent.
Once the burner is hot enough I set the new chemical mixture over the flame. It starts to bubble. The bubbles grow higher and a wavy haze steams out of the top of the beaker.
“Is this right?” I ask the girl next to me, but when I look over she’s holding her nose and backing away.
“What are you doing?” Dr. Melon cries from across the room, but the damage has been done. A second later the beaker explodes, sending pieces of glass across the room. I managed to cover my face just before the explosion so most of the shards fly into my arms.
“Did you not read the instructions?” Dr. Melon yelled, running over to me and pulling my arms down from my face.
“I—I—no,” I say. I had been set up. I look over at my group and see a smirk on the bony girl’s face. I glare at her until the smile fades.
“Go to the nurse Raegan, and after that you can go see the principal.”
I start to defend myself but stop. I pick up my bag and stare at the bony girl until she looks away. Let her think I’m plotting my revenge.
I walk towards the principal’s office and hope I find the nurse on the way, because I don’t know where she is, and apparently no one here cares to give me any directions. The glass cut deep into my arms and I leave little drops of blood down the hallway. The cuts itch but I hold myself back from scratching them. I don’t know what the two chemicals I mixed were, but my arms start to burn.
My eyes water by the time I find the nurse’s office and I walk in holding my arms out.
“Oh, honey,” the nurse says when she me. “Come sit down.”
I collapse into the chair she points at and watch her pick out bandages and a pair of tweezers. She’s wearing blue scrubs and her black hair is pulled back in a bun. Her face is round and soft and she smiles at me. I smile back, but it turns into a grimace when the burning sensation escalates.
“How did this happen?” she asks as she pulls over another chair and gently turns my arm so she can see the glass better.
“Chemistry accident,” I explain as I watch her pull out the pieces of glass.
“Some of these pieces went deep,” she says, pulling out a shard that looks like an icicle, “but it doesn’t look like you’ll need stitches.”
“Good,” I say. “Um, do you have something for the burning?”
The nurse pulls out some odorless cream and rubs it on a few cuts. She looks at me and hands me a tissue.
I take the tissue and dab at my eyes. The tears haven’t spilled over yet, but at least they are from pain and not my stupid emotions.
The nurse raises her eyebrows when I sniff once and hold my breath. “How’s that tactic working for you?”
“What?” I ask confused as I let my breath out.
“I used to do that too,” she says and takes a deep breath. She holds it and stares at me until I understand. She lets out her breath. “Until everything caught up to me.”
“It’s been working so far.”
“Has it?” she asks, bandaging my cuts.
I don’t respond and look away. I almost hold my breath again but I knew the nurse was listening. “What’s your name?” I finally ask her when the silence that stretches between us grows uncomfortable.
“Gwen,” she says, “Nurse Gwen.” She pats my arm gently and I wince. “Now off you go.”
I pick up my bag and swing it onto my back as I leave and take care not to bother the bandages. Nurse Gwen is a rare one here. She doesn’t seem on my side necessarily, but she isn’t against me either. A neutral party is better than an opposing one in my case any day.
I walk down a couple more doors and face the door to the principal’s office. Day two in school and I’ve already been to this principal more times than I ever did back home. There’s no getting out of this one, especially since I’ve already avoided him once today. I take a deep breath and open the door, not bothering to knock.
“Ah, Raegan Oakland. Why am I not surprised?” Dr. Collins says and motions for me to sit down. “And what sort of trouble have you gotten into today?” He eyes my bandages and I look down at my arms.
“Chemistry accident,” I explain again.
“So today you have been sent to me for incompetence, instead of for your rather…aggressive nature.”
“That was an act of self-defense,” I say, standing up.
“Sit down Raegan. Don’t make this worse for yourself.”
“No, this is ridiculous. I shouldn’t be punished because I made a mistake, do you have nothing better to do than to sit here patronizing me?”
“Raegan, if you do not sit down in the next five seconds you will be suspended from this school. I say again, do not make this worse.”
I cross my arms.
Is that how old he thinks I am?
It’s how old I’m acting right now.
I really should sit down, but my knees refuse to bend.
“Dr. Collins!” Bennett says, bursting through the door. He looks at the two of us and seems confused by our predicament. “Umm, there’s an emergency.”
“What is it Bennett? I’m in the middle of something,” Dr. Collins says. He gestures towards me and I stare fixedly at him.
“Uh, I heard something in one of the bathrooms. It didn’t sound good, and you were the closest teacher I could find.” Bennett looks down the hall like whatever is going on in the bathrooms has escaped.
Dr. Collins sighs and stands up. “Raegan, don’t think you’ll get off this easy next time. You may go.”
I uncross my arms in shock. Just like that I am given freedom. I don’t want to ask if he’s serious in case he takes it back, so I just grab my bag and walk out the door ahead of him.
“Which way Bennett?”
“The bathroom down that way and to the left,” Bennett says, gesturing down the hall. “I’d take you but I have to get to class.”
“Very well,” Dr. Collins says and starts down the hall away from us.
I look at Bennett who looks more relieved the farther Dr. Collins walks away.
“That was close,” he says, taking my backpack from my hands.
I go to take it back but Bennett is too quick. He puts it on his back. “I take it there’s no bathroom situation? And I can carry that you know.”
“No I made it up. I couldn’t think of anything better. And have you seen your arms? You’re not much good for anything right now.”
“Wow, thanks,” I say, looking at my mummified arms. “But really, thanks. If I’d have gotten in trouble again so soon Dana would have killed me.”
“Yea, I know,” Bennett says and walks me to class, “but this is what brothers are for, right?”
“Yea, I guess,” I say quietly. I don’t want to admit that I’m more grateful than I’m letting on. “This is my class,” I say when we round the corner.
Bennett wordlessly passes me my backpack. I take it and smile at him, I’m starting to figure out where I stand with him, and I like it. He smiles back at me and squeezes my shoulder. “See ya later, sis.”
“Bye,” I say once he’s far enough away. The bell had rung while I was with Nurse Gwen, so now I’m in my last class of the day, minus lunch yet again. I walk in and find a seat at the back. For the next two hours I’m stuck listening to my teacher, whose name I can’t even remember babble on about the quadratic formula. At one point he tells me that my work is excellent and I ask him if he thinks the Obliged live under a rock. I’m rewarded with extra homework for my “loose tongue,” but I take it in silence. If there’s one thing I hate more than my whole life here, it’s math.
When Dana picks us up at the end of the day Reese takes the front seat. Dana wonders out loud whether she should even ask about my bandages, but she decides, again out loud, that whatever the cause she’s sure I’ve learned my lesson. I roll my eyes and tell her the school did medical experiments on me to see if Obliged blood was the same as Upright blood, apparently the results were inconclusive because I didn’t fall into either category. Dana responded by pulling over on the side of the road and making me walk.
I’m glad though because I discovered quickly that I hate riding in cars. They’re too closed and stuffy, and they make me feel like I’m sitting in a death trap. I take my time and get home about thirty minutes after the others. They are making dinner and doing homework when I walk in the door. I tiptoe up the stairs so I can go to my room in peace. I still don’t feel like being around people, and I also want to shower. Walking is nice, but it’s also in the upper eighties outside.
After I shower I decide to grace the Oakland family with my presence, less because I want to and more because I’m hungry.
Everyone chit chats about meaningless things while we eat. Tonight we dine on chicken and green beans, both of which I’ve had, but never cooked like this. I think about what my family is eating back home and I want to throw up. I can’t make myself eat anymore and excuse myself from the table. I barely make it upstairs before my food comes up. Luckily I manage to make it to the bathroom, though not to the toilet. I throw up everything I just ate in the shower.
By the time I’m done I feel disgusting. I turn the shower on and wait until everything disappears from the floor of the tub. Once it’s clean I crawl into the shower, fully clothed, and lay down. The pain of the memory and the nausea from the food is more than I can bear. I curl into a ball while my body shuts down against my will. I can feel my brain working overtime to calm my body down, but it doesn’t listen. My limbs go numb and even though the water is hot, my arms and legs go cold. I’m powerless to stop it, so I just lay in the shower and rock until the panic attack goes away.
I don’t know how long I lay there before I turn the shower off. I find a dry towel and wrap myself in it. My clothes are stuck to me but I don’t bother to take them off. All I can think about is my family of four sitting at a table for five, eating ash noodles and avoiding looking at the empty seat. I don’t know why I thought I could do this, pretend to be normal and make friends with Bennett and Reese. I’d leave them in a heartbeat if it meant I could go home. I even miss Donovan, despite our awkward night together. Who knew I’d one day eat my words?
I force myself to pull off my wet clothes. I throw them in a heap on the floor and find something warm to wear to bed. My stomach growls but I ignore it. Tonight I’ll sleep on an empty stomach, knowing Vivian is probably doing the same. Thinking of her makes my body seize up again, but this time I fight it off with other thoughts. I think of what I’m going to do with my arms now since my bandages all washed off in the shower and some of the wounds are bleeding again.
I hear a knock at my bedroom door but I ignore it. I rummage through the bathroom cabinets until I find some bandages and put them on. Once I’m done I turn off the bathroom light, wanting to avoid the mirror. I’ve had weak moments, but this makes me sick. I can’t lose it again like this.
I crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head until I feel claustrophobic, but I fight my desire to shove the blankets off. If Vivian can’t have her sister back, then I can’t have the feeling of freedom back.