The Upright – Chapter 13

Chapter Thirteen - The Upright

Chapter 13

I’ve been staring at my ceiling for two hours now, not wanting to get out of bed because I have nothing to do today. There’s a pile of work sitting on my desk from missing school yesterday, but I don’t care enough to do it. The alarm clock by my bed screams at me to get up, but I keep hitting snooze. It’s ten thirty, and I never sleep past eight. I sigh and get out of bed. After a quick shower I throw on some shorts and one of the less fancy shirts in the closet.

“Where are you off to?” Dana asks when I come down the stairs.

“Library to study,” I lie. I’m carrying my backpack so it’s a passable excuse. Really I’m going to the town hall. I haven’t set foot in one since the day I was taken, and reading the book that I found on the coffee table yesterday is making me itch to do something. I’ve been too complacent this week. Now is the time for action.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for Reese?” Dana asks as I walk out the door.

“Oh, no she’ll meet me there,” I say and shut the door. Crap, I wasn’t expecting Reese to go at the library today. I’ll have to intercept her later and make sure she follows my story.

I jog to the town hall because it’s only a few blocks over, and because I haven’t run in a while. I’m a little sweaty by the time I get there, but when I step inside the building I cool off almost immediately, the sticky strands of my hair glue to my neck like small icicles.

The rubber soles of my shoes squeak softly against the smoothly polished stone floor as I walk through the large foyer to a woman sitting behind a wooden desk.

“Excuse me,” I say to the secretary. She looks up at me through large, thick glasses. Her red lips purse like she just sucked a lemon, and her pencil thin eyebrows rise high behind her glasses. “I’d like to do some research here, for a school project,” I say when she doesn’t ask me what I want.

The secretary’s eyes trail me up and down, sizing me up. Her hair perched in a bun on top of her head pulls the skin at her temples, making her seem unnecessarily angry. She seems to be the epitome of a mean librarian.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t do that here. Try the library.”

I can see I’m dismissed, but we Obliged are pretty persistent. “I don’t think you understand,” I say, placing my hand down on her table. I can tell she sees a hint of green beneath my fingers. “It’s for a very important project.”

“If you think I’ll be bribed by someone off the street, you are incredibly mistaken,” she says and sits up straight. I try not to roll my eyes as I pocket the money. It isn’t much anyway.

“At least let me use the bathroom before I leave,” I say, resigned. Her eyes squint as she stares at me for a moment before jerking her head behind her.

I thank her and walk behind her desk, feeling her eyes on my back as I walk to the bathroom.

Since I’m here I actually use the bathroom, putting together a Plan B now that Plan A has failed. I’m used to sneaking my way into places, so I’ve become pretty accustomed to carrying a few items with me at all times: a small knife, a safety pin, and a matchbook. Nearly every tough spot I’ve gotten into back home I’ve gotten out of with one or all of these things. Right now, it looks like matches are up.

Most Obliged smoke detectors are very hard to set off, simply because we don’t have nearby fire stations to assist us. If there’s a fire, it better be an emergency. But with the Upright, I’ve already heard six fire alarms go off since I’ve been here. That leads me to assume that theirs are very sensitive, and lucky me, there’s one right outside the bathroom.

I turn the bathroom knob slowly, hoping the secretary isn’t listening for my return. I let the door swing open steadily on its well-oiled hinges. I’m not outrageously tall, and there’s nothing around me to stand on to reach the alarm. I’m afraid I don’t have enough time before the secretary gets suspicious, so I decide to speed up the process. In the bathroom I take several sheets of paper towels and twist them into a torch. I wet the end I’m holding with some water so the fire doesn’t reach my hands too fast.

I light my homemade torch and reach up as close as I can to the fire alarm. “Come on,” I whisper as my fire starts to burn down my torch, ignoring the part I dampened. The hot flame was just licking my fingers when I hear the long, shrill beep of the alarm. Suddenly the air is ablaze with its ringing. A mechanical voice comes over the PA system announcing that there “is a Threat Level Three in progress,” and to “please evacuate immediately in an organized fashion.”

Streams of people begin to pour from the doors next to me, pushing past each other as each tries to be the first one out the door. I laugh at the absurdity of all the drama. Quickly scooping up what’s left of my torch and flushing it down the toilet, I begin my search of the building. I probably have five minutes or less before the fire department gets here and realizes it’s a hoax, and I’d be willing to bet a lot more than my bribe money that they don’t have hoaxes here very often.

I have to push several panicking women aside before I find what I’m looking for: Harmony Criminal Office. The door is slightly ajar and I slip inside. One man is trying to pack his bag with pictures from his desk.

“What are you doing? This is a Threat Level Three!” I yell at him, hoping he won’t remember my face when they have me lined up next to other potential perpetrators at the jail.

The man drops a framed picture of his family and runs past me, flailing his arms. Are these people serious?

I shake my head and go into the first office on my right. Wrong, it’s a break room. I run over to the next one, aware my time is running out. This looks more promising with file cabinets lining the walls. I don’t have time to be picky, so I open up a few random filing cabinets to shuffle through their contents just as the sprinklers go off. Perfect, now everything is getting wet.

I shove random files into my bag and turn to leave the room when my eye catches a partially opened safe. I run over to it and yank the door open. I grab the few files I see and throw them into my bag, not bothering to read them.

Getting out of the hall was much easier than getting in, as I join the line of crazed staff still stumbling their way to the exit, occasionally slipping on the slick floor and knocking down their coworkers like dominos. In fact, I’m already a block away from the hall when the fire truck blares by me. I run the rest of the way home and straight into the house, not thinking of an excuse to tell Jeremy or Dana, who are both standing on the staircase, watching me rush in like a madwoman.

“Where have you been?” Dana asks.

“Why are you wet?” Jeremy asks at the same time.

“Skipped the library and went to the pond instead,” I lie on the spot. Being out of breath was giving me time to think, though the lack of oxygen to my brain isn’t really helping me either. “Jumped in the pond.”

“Why did you do that?” Dana asks, looking disgusted. I think she’s more worried about whatever designer clothes I’m wearing being ruined.

I just shrug and brush past them up the stairs. In my room I toss my bag under my bed and dry off. I go back downstairs because it’s noon and I didn’t eat breakfast. I’d rather not sit under the judgmental glare of Dana, who I can tell dislikes me more each day, but food is food and I don’t want to give it up again.

I make myself a turkey sandwich and sit down at the table. Dana and Jeremy are both already there with sandwiches of their own.

“So what are your plans for the day?” Dana asks me. “More studying or…pond jumping?” Her lip curls in a frown like she’s just had a whiff of my pond scum clothes.

I sense a trap looming so I just shrug. “I’m not really in a studying mood I guess.”

“Perfect,” Jeremy says suddenly and loudly. I jump and cough as a piece of sandwich gets stuck in my throat. Dana thumps me on the back, a little too roughly. I push her hand away to stop when I catch my breath again. “You can come to work with me. I have a meeting,” he finishes, oblivious to the drama taking place.

“Um…okay,” I say. Jeremy hasn’t given me a reason to dislike him yet. In fact, I’m not sure if we’ve exchanged more than five words since I’ve been here.

“Good. Finish your sandwich and put on something a little less…I-just-jumped-in-a-lake.”

Jeremy stands up and leaves the table. I grin at him and shove the rest of my sandwich in my mouth, my choking incident far from my mind. Jeremy is an inventor for both the Upright and the Obliged, and I’m curious to see how he does it.

I run back upstairs and throw on different clothes and put my hair in a ponytail. My bag of files is under my bed, and I wouldn’t put it past Dana to search my room while I’m gone. I grab the soggy backpack and poke my head out the door. I can hear her downstairs in the kitchen, washing the dishes. Quickly, I tiptoe over to Reese’s room and quietly turn her knob. I slip inside and tuck my bag under her bed, near the headboard behind a few other boxes. She shouldn’t stumble across this by accident. I leave Reese’s room and head downstairs to meet Jeremy.

“Ready,” I say to him when I meet him in the foyer.

“Bye honey,” he says to Dana over his shoulder as he opens the door for me.

“Keep an eye on—” but Jeremy shuts the door. I don’t think he did it on purpose, but I can pretend.

We get in the sleek black car and Jeremy starts the ignition. You can barely hear the hum of the engine as he backs out of the driveway.

“So where is your job?” I ask him when we’ve driven a few blocks, past the quintessential Upright houses with their perfectly trimmed yards. I squint my eyebrows in disgust at the state of the gardens. Not a single flower is out of place, and yet I don’t recall ever seeing anyone work in the yard.

“It’s in Concord, a couple towns over. It’s a big city with skyscrapers and tons of cars and people walking everywhere. It takes a while to get to because of traffic. I usually take the train, but I don’t feel like it today.”

“Why not?” I ask.

Jeremy just shrugs.

We don’t talk much on the way to Concord, but I observe him out of the corner of my eye while he drives. He looks more like Bennett in build, and has a calm about him neither of his sons possess. He seems to enjoy silence. I can tell though that his mind is occupied, not blank, as he drives. It almost seems a sin to interrupt his musings, so I sit quietly and think too.

I can see the skyscrapers before we are even close. They loom higher than anything I have ever seen and seem to pierce the sky with their pointed towers.

“Wow,” is all I can say.

“Wow is right,” Jeremy agrees.

There are too many buildings to count, and they all sort of blend together. Some have words written on them and some are blank. A few are completely solid but most are made of glass with steel reinforcements.

“I work in that one,” Jeremy says, pointing to a tall building that is a mixture of solid wall and glass windows. “Certain floors must be contained,” he says simply, as though that’s an explanation for having no windows on five consecutive floors of a building. “You’ll see.”

Driving through Concord I think we are going to die. After nearly running two red lights, and almost hitting an uncountable number of pedestrians, I am relieved to finally stand on solid ground on the upper floor of the executive parking garage at Oakland Enterprises.

I follow Jeremy through some doors at the end of the garage and into an elevator to the seventy-fifth floor. The elevator feels smaller than the car. Being inside something so confined threatens to send me into a panic, but I manage to keep myself under control. I almost lose it around floor seventy-three, but then I catch Jeremy making faces at himself in the mirrored ceiling and I forget my anxiety in a fit of laughter. Finally, the doors open with a ding and I leave the elevator so quickly Jeremy blinks in surprise.

He smiles. “Remind me not to take you to the aqua bubble chamber. For some reason I feel as though you may not like it.”

I shiver and nod as we walk down the hallway to a door at the far end. The walls of the hallway are made of thick glass so you can see into the rooms behind the closed doors. We walk slowly to take in what is happening in each room.

“This, Rae, is what I do,” Jeremy says as we stop in front of the room on our right. Behind the glass the room looks to be filled with thick, green bubbles.

“This doesn’t really explain much,” I point out. A person in a white suit pokes several of the bubbles and writes something down on a clipboard.

“Maybe this will,” Jeremy says, leading me to the next window. There’s not much to see, as the room is completely dark.

I put my hands against the glass. “I can’t see anything. And why is this glass so thick—” But my words were cut off by a giant explosion of flame which rocks me back on my heels. “What was that?” I ask, eyes wide.

“An explosion,” Jeremy says unhelpfully. “I think they are testing some new demolition tactics.”

“So you invent new things to destroy old things?”

“No, no, no. My job is to invent things to make life easier, for the Upright and the Obliged.”

“Like what?”

“Well, for the Obliged I created a meal-replacement drink, it’s called Drood. Like drink and food combined.” I stare at him blankly. “Yea, you’re right, it’s an awful name.”

“I think I’ve heard of that,” I say as we start walking again. The next room is filled with plants being sprayed different colored liquids. “But no one can afford it. What’s the point of inventing something if no one can buy it?”

“I think you’ll find it’s a lot more affordable over here,” Jeremy says softly. “It’s called an Invisible Tax. The Obliged don’t know it’s there, but nearly everything they have to buy costs about twice as much as it does here.”

I stop walking and stare at Jeremy. “You’re telling me, the General places a tax on stuff the Obliged want to buy to make it unaffordable, for absolutely no reason?”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.” Jeremy shrugs.

“Why are you telling me this?”

He sighs. “I just think you need to know.”

“You sound like an Obliged,” I say and scratch my head. We are standing in front of another fire experiment, this one gone wrong as one worker in a white space suit sprays another with a fire extinguisher.

“You’re only going to hear what you want to hear, Raegan.”

I’m not really sure how to take that statement, so I stay quiet as we walk in front of our final room. It’s filled to the brim with water and a man in a wetsuit is attempting to out swim a very fast shark.

I look at Jeremy for an explanation and he just shakes his head. “I don’t even know,” he says.

I turn away from the shark tank and wait behind Jeremy at the final door. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. I don’t know what to expect on the other side.

The door swings open and I’m momentarily blinded by the brightness of the room. The sun shines through the glass walls and rebounds off the white floor and conference table, blinding me.

I squint until my eyes adjust and follow Jeremy to an empty seat. He motions to someone standing in the corner and another cushioned chair is brought for me. I sit down, too nervous to say anything, and wait quietly for Jeremy to talk. But he doesn’t. Everyone in the room stares silently at me, and I make no effort to not stare back. Every single one looks pristine; like they’ve just stepped out of one of the magazines I’ve seen Reese thumbing through. Their suits and dresses pressed to perfection, not a hair out of place on their groomed heads. The smell of their perfume and cologne infiltrated my nose, making me choke and cough. Every set of eyes squints in disapproval.

Most of the executives seem much older than Jeremy, in age and mentality. They are old enough to remember what life was like before the Valiant became the Obliged. I wonder how they feel about me, I think.

“Who is this?” A man three seats over on Jeremy’s right finally asks. As if he doesn’t know. Not to sound conceited, but most people here know who I am without having to ask. If they aren’t told, it’s written plainly in my appearance.

“This is my daughter, Raegan,” Jeremy says, squeezing my shoulder. I try to give him a small smile, but the combination of nerves and slight resentment at being called his daughter turns my smile to a grimace.

More silence. Even Jeremy looks slightly uncomfortable now. I swear I can hear people talking on the streets below us when finally, “Nice to meet you Raegan,” says the man to my left. He offers me his hand and I shake it. “The name’s Bill.”

“You too, Bill,” I say.

I need to remember to thank Bill later, because once he broke the ice, the room becomes measurably warmer. The executives start smiling, and some even toss a few jokes to me, which I willingly return.

With the pressure off, I lean back in my seat and take a deep breath again. I don’t enjoy this attention much, but as long as I’m not being forced to read a manifesto, I’ll take it.

“So, you wanted to toss around some ideas for new products?” Jeremy says, reigning the chatter back in.

“We’d like to try a little stream of consciousness exercise, if you don’t mind. Just to warm us old folks up,” says Bill.

“Take it away my friend,” Jeremy nods to him.

“Pencil,” Bill says.

“Paper,” says the man to his left.

“Novel,” says his neighbor.

The pattern continues until it’s Jeremy’s turn. “Cockatoo,” he says.

“What?” I ask, everyone looking at me.

“Cockatoo,” he repeats.

“I don’t know what that is,” I say. My cheeks turn red. I don’t like to feel ignorant, especially in front of a group of prejudiced people.

“A pointless bird,” Jeremy explains, and everyone laughs.

“Designer clothing,” I say. That seems to shut everyone up.

“Why?” A man asks from across the table. I get the feeling that I’m being tested.

“Frivolous,” I say back.

“Expression,” another man says.

“Conceit,” I reply.

“Ignorance,” says the first man who spoke, who asked me who I was. I look him in the eyes but he doesn’t back down. Most people do when I look at them that way.

“Denial.”

No one else says a word. I seem to be playing a very dangerous game, and I’m not sure how harsh the rules are.

“Explain,” he says, leaning back in his chair.

I decide to stop talking in one-word answers and take a moment to collect my thoughts. “It’s no secret here that I’m Obliged,” I begin. A few men flinch but most remain stoic. “And your job is to help make life easier, for all people, even for people like me.” I look at the man across the table and he doesn’t blink. He was really getting on my nerves. “I lived on the other side for seventeen years, and I’d still be there today if Jeremy and Dana hadn’t Picked me. And that isn’t just seventeen years as an Obliged. That’s seventeen years of never using a product from this company. Because as an Obliged, you can either choose to live, or you can take the easy way. There’s not much point in making life easier if you can’t afford to live,” I conclude. I don’t know how much sense I made, but the room is quiet while they think over what I said.

“If what you say is true, why are our sales so high?” the man across the table asks, challenging me. This is new information, because as I’d said to Jeremy, even just with the meal-replacement drinks, I’ve never seen anyone actually buy an Oakland Enterprise product.

“I don’t know,” I say. I’m afraid I’m losing my audience. “As I see it, I’m the only one in this room who’s lived on both sides since the war. You look at numbers and figures, I look at people.”

That seems to shut him up, at least for the time being. I’m afraid I’ve crossed the line, but when I glance at Jeremy he gives me a small smile and a nod.

“So, ladies, gentlemen,” he says after a moments silence, “what are we going to do about this?”

“We could start with some surveys, find out what makes life more livable, rather than easier,” Bill suggests.

“Great. Dylan,” Jeremy says to the boy behind him who brought me the chair, “take notes, I have to go.”

“But you just got here,” Bill says as Jeremy and I stand up.

“I think you’ve got it under control.” We walk to the door, and even though there’s a smattering of conversation behind us, I can tell the entire room is aware of us leaving.

Once we walk through the door, and back through the hallway of strange experiments I start to breathe freely again.

“You did great,” Jeremy says to me as we walk by the plant room.

“I almost started a riot,” I say back. Some of the plants are changing colors, and one seems to have grown feelers and is strangling the scientist. “Uh—”

“He’s fine,” Jeremy dismisses him. “And you did exactly what I hoped you would do.”

“Which is what?”

“Make them think.”

We take the elevator down to the first floor. When the doors open I’m struck speechless by the beauty of the main lobby. The walls are a rich golden color and a giant chandelier descends from the center of the ceiling. But the floor is what catches my attention. The floor is completely glass, and beneath the glass are inlaid diamonds, and when the light catches them, they shine brilliant colors on whatever happens to be nearby. As we step from the elevator my bare arms and legs light up in an array of color.

“This is beautiful,” I exclaim. “Are these real diamonds?”

“Of course not!” Jeremy says, placing his hand on his chest in a look of mock shock. “You think I’d waste money like that on something for people to step on? Most of what you see is imitation.”

“They’re still beautiful, even if they aren’t real.”

“Beautiful to look at, yes. But strike one of those against a rock and it will shatter. But take a diamond, like this one right here,” he says, pointing to a shard of brilliant glass in the floor. It looks no different from the imitation crystals. “Strike this diamond against a rock, and you just may shatter the rock itself.”

“Is this the only diamond in your floor?” I asked, trying to find a difference between it and the imitation next to it.

“Now if I told you that, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

I roll my eyes and trail after Jeremy, his long legs taking him halfway across the lobby before I can even take a step.

“Where are we going?” I ask when we are out on the street. I feel like I’m in a forest of buildings. They’re so tall and have a suffocating feeling.

“I want some ice cream,” Jeremy says, looking to his right and left. He finally decides on the right and walks off purposefully. He walks at a very quick pace, and even I struggle to keep up.

Everyone we pass is wearing what I can only assume to be fashionable clothing. Their hair held perfectly in place and a look of spite on each face when they catch a glimpse of my messy ponytail and clothes.

“These people don’t seem very friendly,” I comment as we round the street corner and head into an ice cream shop. It’s painted an orange color and has old pink lettering reading “Concord Ice Cream” across the door, and just beneath it their slogan: “A Creamy Dream.” I snort at their cheesiness as Jeremy holds the door open for me.

“For once it’s not just you, they don’t like me much either.”

“Well, why aren’t they looking at you like you’re gum on the bottom of their shoe?”

“Because I own a multi-billion dollar corporation. Cashew, please,” Jeremy says to the girl in an orange and pink striped uniform behind the counter.

I wrinkle my nose at his ice cream taste. “Vanilla,” I tell the girl when she hands Jeremy his ice cream. “And if you’re so wealthy, why do you live in such a small house.”

He shrugs, “My money is tied up in other things.”

“Like the floor?” I joke and take my ice cream. I’m tempted to try to cashew, but not tempted enough.

“Hah hah,” he fake laughs and licks his ice cream. “I used to come here as a kid, before the war.”

This gets my attention. I haven’t talked to Jeremy much before today. He seemed to always be at work, or I always seemed to be in my room.

“What was it like?”

“The same, that’s why I like it. It’s the one thing that hasn’t changed, even though the people and the principles have.”

“Don’t even talk to me about principals,” I say and laugh, knowing that’s not what he meant.

“I went to school with Dr. Collins you know, he’s not as old as he looks.”

“Well he’s as awful as he looks,” I reply and finish my ice cream. Jeremy isn’t even halfway through his. I don’t want to tell him I’ve never had ice cream before. I just chose a flavor at random because I didn’t know what to expect. I like it.

“Can’t argue with you there,” he says. “Ready?”

I nod and we leave Concord Ice Cream and head back to Oakland Enterprises. “Remember that, Raegan, when it seems like everything is too much to handle. Not everything has to change.”

I nod. Jeremy is a strange character. He’s difficult to read, not just because he doesn’t talk much, but when he does it’s hard to know whether he is being silly or strangely cryptic. He’s definitely given me a lot to think about today, and judging by his silence, I’d say I’ve done the same for him.

The Upright – Chapter 12

The Upright - Chapter 12 - taylortampa.com

Chapter 12

I wake curled up in the bathtub. My body is stiff and protests when I stretch. I vaguely remember making it to the bathroom to throw up my banana in the toilet and crawling into the shower after, but it seems I never made it to turning the shower on.

My hands shake as I take off my clothes and turn on the shower. I don’t remember drinking any water the day before and now I’m dehydrated. The room spins as my legs threaten to give out.

“You look terrible,” Bennett says as I enter the kitchen, hair dripping water onto Dana’s perfectly cleaned floor.

A pile of food mysteriously appears in front of me, along with a glass of cold, refreshing water. I take the water and chug it. Feeling bloated and sick I can’t eat anything but a few bites of egg. I know I’d feel better if I ate something, but how can I when the thought of food makes me sick? It’s a lose-lose situation and at the moment I have no idea how to make it better.

“I feel terrible,” I finally answer Bennett, but he’s not sitting there anymore. When did he leave?

“Are you okay?” Dana asks and comes over to feel my forehead. “You’re burning up.”

“That’s the first motherly thing you’ve said to me,” I hear myself say.

I faintly see Dana struggle with that comment as my vision blurs.

“Go upstairs, you’re not going to school today,” she finally says.

I stand up and make it halfway up the stairs before I fall to my knees. I crawl the rest of the way to my door, but find I can’t reach the handle from the ground. I think it’s Bennett who finds me sitting in the hallway staring at the wall, because whoever it is has hair darker than the usual Oakland blonde. He picks me up and puts me into bed. I think he calls me an idiot for making myself sick, which sounds like something Bennett would say, but I may be making the whole thing up. Maybe I put myself to bed.

I wake up a couple hours later. I don’t remember falling asleep but I definitely feel better. My stomach burns from being empty, but the thought of any food still nauseates me.

I poke my head into the hallway but I don’t hear or see anything. I shakily make my way downstairs and hope no one is in the kitchen. It’s empty so I root through the fridge, looking for something that would be easy on my stomach. I end up settling for a piece of toast because I’m too tired to make soup.

Starving myself was a dumb idea. I’ve made myself sick between not eating and feeling guilty about everything. I can’t keep this up. Plus, Mom would be so mad that I did this to myself.

I eat my toast and my stomach lets me keep it there. I pass the rest of the day in my room flipping through my schoolbooks and attempting to do the homework I never finished the night before.

But that begins to bore me after about three minutes, so instead I settle for wandering the house, rooting through drawers and in closets, not quite sure what I’m looking for. On the bookshelf are a number of typical Upright titles like The Secrets of Raising Upright Children and Healthy Body, Healthy Mind. The Upright are pretty obsessed with being healthy, between diet and exercise I’m not sure which one they like more. My lifestyle back home, what with regulated meals and my propensity for running, has left me with a lean figure, but thanks to my self-destruction the past couple days, it’s only a matter of time before Dana takes over.

Sitting on the coffee table I find a couple books on Upright politics. I pick one at random about Upright military. We live in a military dictatorship, although the Upright call it a limited democracy because we “vote” for the general in power. I laugh at that. If you’re Obliged, you can’t vote because of your political ignorance. We don’t care much because everyone knows the voting is rigged, though even with torture you would never get the Upright to admit it. The same general has been in power for the past two decades. Not because we love him, but because every opponent is hand picked by one of the colonels and mysteriously disposed of just after the voting is announced, whether he won or not. Our General Francis Black doesn’t like to play fair.

And sadly, I didn’t even know his name until Reese told me. For most of my life, I knew we were run by the military, but information in our world is so hard to come by. To the Obliged, he was just called “The General.” I think they do that to give the semblance that it hasn’t been the same man for the past twenty years. Maybe they think that if we believe the general is a new man at every election, we won’t feel as oppressed.

I shut the book and throw it on the table. I lean my head back on the couch and close my eyes. When I open them again Bennett and Reese are home, arguing upstairs.

“—And what did you tell him?” Reese is asks angrily.

“The truth, that she’s sick,” Bennett says back to her, calmer than his sister.

“You need to keep him away from her.”

“Who are you talking about?” I ask, slowly trudging up the stairs. When did making it to the second floor start to feel like climbing a mountain?

“Oh, no one,” Reese says awkwardly. She doesn’t make eye contact with Bennett or me and goes to her room. I hear her lock the door.

“What was that all about?” I ask Bennett, trying to appear unconcerned.

“Nathan wanted to know where you were today,” Bennett says, rubbing his eyes.

“Oh,” I say. “So why was Reese all in a huff about it?”

“I don’t know, girls are weird,” Bennett answers before he goes into his room.

I go into my room, since that seems to be the popular thing to do, and finally finish my homework. My stomach feels able enough to handle a solid meal, so I decide to join the Oakland’s for dinner a few hours later – or most of them anyway, because Reese isn’t there. Tonight we feast on salmon and broccoli. Like nearly everything else, it smells rich and delicious. But it doesn’t taste as good as the salmon we would sometimes get hold of from our dealer back home. I think the fact that it was illegal made it taste better.

“You should go to bed early tonight,” Dana tells me when I finish eating.

“But I slept all day,” I say.

“You have to rest. Go to bed.”

I roll my eyes and leave the kitchen. I see Bennett smirking at me from behind Dana and I make a face at him when she turns around. He grabs his chest and feigns a shot to the heart. Dana asks him what he’s doing and I take off quickly. That’s something else I don’t want – Dana to think that I’m getting along well with her children.

Upstairs I can hear music on in Reese’s room. I knock on the door and she says to come in.

“What are you listening to?” I ask. She’s laying on her bed staring at the ceiling, listening to beautiful orchestra music.

“Harmonic Woods Orchestra.” She doesn’t look at me. I take a moment to glance around her room. It’s not as girly as I thought it would be. The walls are a soft green and there’s an easel in the corner next to a shelf of paint. The rest of the room is covered in discarded clothing and hair products.

“What are you looking at?” I ask, looking up too.

“Nothing you can see,” she says and rolls over.

This is weird. Reese loves to talk, and she’s never cold, not even to me.

“Reese, what’s wrong?”

She doesn’t answer, so I walk over to the other side of the bed and drop to a crouch in front of her. She tries to roll the other way but I grab her arms before she can.

“Reese,” I say and wait for her eyes to lock on mine. Their dead look scares me, and I hate that it does. I brush a piece of her hair back from her face. “What is it?”

“Do you want to know why I fear Nathan so much?” she whispers, the death in her eyes coming out in her voice. Hollow, like a dying echo in a cave. A scared Reese I can handle. An empty one I cannot.

“Why?” I whisper back. Images of Vivian try to push their way into my head. Vivian on the ground holding a skinned knee, tears in her eyes but not letting them out because she wants too much to be like her big sister. But that’s not Reese. There are no tears in her eyes now as she looks at me. Looks through me.

I let Reese roll away from me and onto her back. “Two years ago, Nathan flirted with me like he did with you. Standing close, holding my waist, making me feel like I was the only girl he cared about. I was stupid and thought the attention was flattering, so we dated. He would come up to me in the hallway and tell me how much he liked me, and how he never wanted any other girl.”

“But he didn’t mean it,” I say after she had been quiet for a few moments.

“Of course not, I caught him cheating on me with Haylie,” Reese says, a tear finally emerges, trailing partway down her cheek before she quickly wipes it away with her hand. She looks at her hand and wipes it off on her jeans, her eyebrows scrunched with disgust.

“And you broke up with him?” I asked, seeing she didn’t want to tell me any more.

“No,” she chokes out. “I— I— just wanted him to love me like I thought I loved him.”

I sit next to Reese on the bed and stroke her face. “You don’t have to say anymore Reese, whatever you did, it’s over. It doesn’t have to hurt you anymore,” I whisper.

“You don’t understand, it’s not anything that I did,” she says and shakes her head, sniffing. “I met him after school one day to show him I still wanted him, and he apparently still wanted me, just a little more than I was willing to give.”

My hand grows still as I realize what Reese is telling me. “He raped you?” I asked, my voice deadly still. Silent tears flowed from Reese’s eyes in a silent answer. She looks me in the eyes and I can see the burden of two years of pain, never having told anyone. And the sad part is, I never would have guessed Reese to have anything but a pain-free life. With the way she carries herself, acts around people, you’d think she was raised in a world of rainbows and butterflies, but it seems there’s a few more rainclouds in her world than she cares to let on.

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask Reese.

“Because I’m scared for you. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, even someone who is trying very hard not to like me,” she says, half smiling.

I start to deny it, but I smile too, because there’s not much you can hide from Reese. She can read people like a book.

“No one is going to lay a hand on me. And if he so much as looks at you ever again, well, let’s just say not many girls will be wanting his company once I’m through with him.”

Reese’s eyes widen, but the she nervously laughs when I tell her I’m kidding. I’m not, of course, but she doesn’t have to know that.

“Look, I have to get to bed before Dana yells at me again. Not that I’m going to bed because I’m listening to her, I just don’t feel like getting yelled at,” I amend myself. We may have just had a moment, but my independence is still worth asserting.

“Sure, sure,” Reese says, waving me off like she doesn’t believe me.

“But seriously though,” I say, standing up and walking to her door, “you don’t have to carry this with you anymore. And the best way to hurt your enemies is to keep them from knowing they’re hurting you.”

“That’s funny advice coming from you.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, hand wrapped around the doorknob.

“You don’t really try very hard to hide your wounds, Rae,” Reese says. “Anyone you get in trouble with can see your weaknesses.”

I don’t know what to say, because I don’t want to admit Reese is right. But she isn’t right, not at all. I lash out because these people are ignorant, not because they know how to get to me.

“Look,” Reese continues, “all I’m saying is, maybe you should pick your battles more carefully.”

I don’t blink, because I don’t want Reese to know I’m taking her seriously. “Maybe,” I say and open the door, “either way, you should get some sleep.”

“Night,” I hear Reese whisper when I shut the door.

I lean against the closed door for a minute and shut my eyes. Reese doesn’t know what she’s talking about. There’s so much about me she doesn’t know, so much I haven’t told her, heck I haven’t even told her anything. Whatever she knows is from Dana or whoever gave them information about me. She has no right to say that everyone can see right through me.

I push myself away from the door and head into my room until the house is quiet. The Upright don’t use alarms because everyone’s too honorable to steal or whatever, so sneaking out is child’s play. I leave the front door open just because I can, and hope a raccoon finds its way inside while I’m gone.

I don’t have anywhere in particular go and after wandering down a few streets I find myself at the artificial pond I had run into after my first day of school. I sit down and run my hands over the perfectly trimmed grass. It’s too dark to see much, the lampposts by the road don’t give off much light because it’s past curfew and illegal to be out this late at night. The Upright had a curfew of midnight, two hours later than us, but a curfew nonetheless.

I sigh and lay back in the grass, which isn’t itchy like my grass back home. I hated that grass then, but I miss it now. I even miss Donovan, though he was driving me crazy before I was Picked. Looking back I think he really did love me. I don’t feel bad though about how it ended. Maybe a little for him, but not for me. I cared about him, but I didn’t love him. Or at least I don’t think I did or do. And what’s the point in loving someone you won’t ever see again, or you have no chance with. It’s just painful and a waste of emotion. Besides, I’m sure Donovan has moved on by now.

I miss my train. According to Reese, they only have the bullet train here, and there’s no way to jump that and live to tell about it. The train connects the major towns and is mostly for commuters or students on field trips. Not many people get up and leave town just for the fun of it, they’re too content where they are. If that is what my life becomes, I think I’ll go crazy. Heck I probably have already gone crazy. I’ve been lying by this pond for an hour talking to myself and staring at the stars.

That’s the only thing that’s the same. The stars. The stars and the night sky. The moon I see now is the same moon I saw at home. Vivian and Matty might be looking at the moon right now at the same time as me.

“I miss you,” I whisper to them.

And now I really have gone crazy. I stand up, brush myself off, and sneak back to the Oakland’s. The door is still wide open, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like any nighttime critters have found their way inside.

I sneak back upstairs and am surprised to see a dark shadow leaning against my door. The shadow pushes itself away and I step backwards and ball my hand into a fist, flashes of my conversation of Reese sending my heart into a frenzy.

“Relax, it’s just me,” Bennett says from the shadows. He steps into a thin stream of moonlight and I see it’s really him. I relax my hand and walk toward my bedroom door and open it.

“What do you want?” I ask, kind of cranky. I’m not in the mood for surprises.

“Well aren’t you sassy,” he avoids my question and follows me into my room.

“I’m tired, get to the point or get gone.”

“You’re tired? I sat against this wall for an hour waiting for you to return from your midnight jaunt.”

“And again I ask, what do you want?”

“How was your day?” He asks, dawdling by my doorframe. I grab some pajamas from my closet and head into the bathroom to change.

“Got that out of your system?” I ask when I return in matching flannel pants and shirt.

“Whatever do you mean?” He asks back, twirling a pencil from my desk in his hand.

“Get out, Bennett,” I say, walking toward him to usher him away.

“What did Reese tell you?” He asks in a rush when I almost get him out the door.

“What?” I stop. Does Bennett know something?

“You heard what I said,” he says quietly. It isn’t in his usual mocking tone, just quiet, and he almost sounds scared to know the answer.

“She just told me the truth about Nathan.”

“Which is what?”

“Ask her,” I say and attempt to shut the door.

“Ow!” Bennett says. He had stuck his fingers in the door to keep it from closing.

“Seriously Bennett, I’m not telling you anything. Go away.”

“I think I already know.”

“What?” I ask, cracking my door open. I look up at Bennett’s face and see immense sorrow in his eyes. “What do you know?” I open the door wider and Bennett leans his head against the doorframe.

“Nathan has hinted at things to me, that he’s done stuff to my sister. I never took him seriously because he acts like that about every girl, but I don’t know, maybe this is different.”

“And if it is?”

“If it is, then Nathan and I have some serious problems.” Bennett stops staring into space and looks me dead in the eyes. “I failed one sister, I won’t fail another.”

“Bennett—” I say, but he’s already gone. Bennett and Reese need to quit acting like I’m part of the family, because the second I have a chance to leave, I’m gone. Besides, I don’t want to like them, and I don’t want to get tied up in their lives.

I shut my door and crawl into bed, planning to sleep completely through the next two days.

The Upright – Chapter 9

The Upright - Chapter Nine - taylortampa.com

Chapter 9

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.

“Should I?”

“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.”

“But—”

“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.

The Upright – Chapter 8

The Upright - Chapter Eight - taylortampa.com

Chapter 8

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.

The Upright – Chapter 7

The Upright - Chapter Seven

Chapter 7

It’s Thursday, so today I go to work instead of school. I’m thankful for the respite because I don’t want to run into Donovan, and I definitely don’t want to see Christine and Kelly make passes at him now that he’s on the market.

I skip breakfast because I hate whole-wheat toast with fat free and sugar free preservatives, and go straight to the Criminal Office. By the time I get there I already have another stack of files sitting on my desk.

“There’s no way this many crimes have happened since yesterday,” I say to Mom when she walks into my office around noon with my daily sandwich – Turkey sandwich Thursday with one slice of tomato.

“We’re backed up,” Mom says. “There was a riot downtown early this morning.”

“Really?” I ask, excited. “What happened?”

“Well, a flower stand toppled over when a kid ran into it with his bike. It was obviously a direct act against the establishment and anyone in the vicinity was written up for causing a public disturbance.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Who here has the money to buy flowers?” I joke, slightly disappointed it wasn’t a real riot.

Mom rolls her eyes at me and flicks her brown hair over her shoulder. “Then wait ’til you hear this, the flower seller was given a jail sentence for an indefinite time period. Hidden under the pansies was a stack of letters. Apparently he’s an illegal mail carrier over the border. I don’t know who his letters were for, but they aren’t getting there now.”

“Conspiracy?” I ask, laughing about the pansies.

“Possibly, not enough information to tell,” she says. Suddenly, mom gets nervous, “Anyway I have some files to sort through myself.”

She makes to leave but I interrupt her, “Mom, what’s wrong. You’re being weird.”

“It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”

“Okay—”

“Tonight,” she says in a rush as though she wants to get it out before she can stop herself. “Your father and I promised we wouldn’t say anything, but I heard yesterday that there’s going to be a Picking tonight.”

“Oh, not you, too,” I say and drop my head to my desk. Is everyone going mental?

“Cut me some slack Rae, I’m a mother with three kids.”

“You’re overreacting. Everything is going to be fine,” I say, opening a new file. Polly X232914, actively egged on the florist as he fought against an officer. Three days in isolation.

“You don’t know that Rae, don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

I look up at my mom as she walks out the door, which she shuts a little harder than usual. I hold my breath until I calm down. If I’m not going to let Donovan freak me out about this Picking, I’m not going to let Mom freak me out either.

I still have more filing to do when I leave work to meet her for dinner in the courtyard. Normally I don’t take work home with me, but today I leave with two files hidden in my backpack. They don’t belong with the ‘riot’ this morning, but somehow were included in the stack.

One belongs to a woman named Delia S1325438 from a town called Murphy. She was caught burning history books in Darkwood and was executed, which seems a little extreme. Another is of a man named Daniel V5940382. His son was Picked ten years ago and Daniel tried to kidnap him back. He was caught trying to cross the border and sent to jail for life imprisonment. The file doesn’t say anything about what happened with the son. The only reason he’s in our Criminal Office records is because he had made it to Darkwood before the Border Patrol caught up with him.

I’m drawn to these files like a moth to flame. Neither one has a happy ending, but it seems better to have a sad ending than no ending at all, which is what will happen to me if I stay here for the rest of my life.

I swipe my hand across my forehead. Darkwood is ninety degrees or hotter in the summer. Why my mother and I have made it a habit to eat outside every Thursday I’ll never understand. For dinner is our prescribed tofu pot pie, minus the pie and add the very flavorful nutrient infused vegetables, and Mom is already chowing down on hers by the time I get there.

“Thanks for waiting,” I joke, taking the pie she hands me. I try to swallow my first bite, trying not to touch the food to my tongue. We don’t say much, probably because we can’t think of anything to say. Mom is worried about the Picking, and just talking about it is going to upset her. Besides, I’d rather not talk about it anyway because it’s a waste of a conversation.

We get home much later than usual, the tofu pie having been extra nauseating and taking longer to ingest. I walk through the door to be attacked by a short monster. I pick Vivi up with a grunt and swing her around onto my back.

“It’s not nice to tackle people the second they walk through the door,” I tell her, taking the stairs two at a time. I pretend to kick open her door and Vivi squeals in laughter. I chuck her onto her bed and wrap her so tightly in her covers there’s no chance for her to escape.

“I feel like I’m in a straight-jacket.”

“Good, then you can’t get out to bother me in the middle of the night,” I tease her. Sometimes when she has nightmares, Vivian will wander into my room and snuggle up with me. I usually don’t mind, but I don’t feel like much company tonight.

“I’m assuming you want a story,” I say. Vivian’s eyes light up as she tries to nod yes, the wad of covers under her chin keeping her from going very far.

I tell her about a girl named Allison who lives in a town with a very high wall. The wall protects the town from the monsters outside, but every night the monsters threaten to break down the wall. To keep her people safe, Allison sneaks out and beats up the monsters so they never want to return.

“But does Allison come back?” Vivi asks me when I finish the story.

“Yes, baby doll,” I say and kiss her on the forehead. “She always comes back.”

I leave Vivian, who instantly falls asleep, and head back downstairs. I feel restless and wish the night were over. Come morning we can get back to our normal routines and quit fretting about pointless things.

My parents are sitting in the kitchen drinking tea. I’m surprised since the Upright don’t give us tea. Apparently they think tea will give us a sense of entitlement.

“Imported,” my mom jokes when I ask her where she got it. She pours me a cup and hands it to me.

“Someone must have gone through a lot of trouble to get it,” I remark, sipping the tea, grateful for its warmth. It’s hot outside, but my gut feels like ice.

“You’ve no idea,” Mom says and smiles.

I sit with them while they talk. Dad tells me stories of how he met Mom and proposed. He took her to the train station and they rode it until Mom asked where they were going. Dad got her off the train at the next stop and asked her to marry him. He had said that no matter where they go, he wanted her beside him.

“That is so cheesy, Dad,” I tease him.

“Yea, it kind of was,” Dad says, “but it worked.”

Mom just smiles and goes to sip her tea, but a knock at the door makes her stop cold.

I look at the clock in the dark and can see the minute hand a step away from ten. Whoever is knocking at our door isn’t making a social call.

 

I stand up. Fifteen seconds have passed. Dad stands up too, but mom stays frozen.

 

Thirty seconds ’til ten. No one has moved. Someone knocks again.

 

Dad walks towards the door. Fifteen seconds. He opens it.

 

“We’re here for Raegan,” says the Lieutenant standing in the doorway.

The lights go out.

The Upright – Chapter 6

The Upright Chapter Six - taylortampa.com

Chapter 6

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.

“Do what?”

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.

“Night.”

The Upright – Chapter 3

chapter-three

Chapter 3

I wake up the next morning in much the same position I fell asleep in. My face is stuck to my pillow and my body feels stiff from running.

I get ready quickly and throw on some old jeans and my favorite white t-shirt. I look at myself quickly in the mirror to make sure I’m presentable. My curly brown hair sticks out at odd angles. I attempt to mash it down in some semblance of order, but it disobeys as usual. I shrug. No point trying to fix it now.

As soon as Vivian and Matthew are done eating breakfast I whisk them out the door to the train station. I’m eager to see what the school is doing about our spray paint incident last night.

The train is crowded as usual and I find a seat between some people I barely know from the next town over. Matthew goes off to find his friends and Vivi sits on my lap. We spend twenty minutes counting the cranes we see in the dried up field before she passes out in my arms.

I stroke her hair that she’s tied up in a ponytail with a piece of colored yarn. I tuck the stray bits behind her ears and let her sleep the last ten minutes of our trip.

When the train finally slows to a stop I gently nudge her awake. She brushes my hand aside until I stick my finger in my mouth and then in her ear. She pops right up, rubbing her ear with one hand and hitting me with the other.

“You know I hate it when you do that,” she says, still hitting me.

I laugh and grab her by the waist and hang her upside down. She screams in laughter and hits me more. “Leggo leggo leggo!” She yells at me. I give her a quick peck on the cheek and set her upright.

“Get gone!” I say to her and smack her on the butt.

She yelps and giggles and takes off. I smile and follow her off the train.

Immediately, I can tell something is wrong. Lower forces of the military are crawling all over the town. You can tell their rank by the color of the Upright insignia right above their heart. These are wearing white, so they’re just officers. The Upright insignia is simple – it looks like a squat upward arrow, probably having something to do with their whole ‘we’re better than you’ mantra. Funny thing is, it looks quite a lot like the Ascendants symbol. But I guess when you decimate a whole country that means you’re entitled to their artwork.

I walk down the main road through clusters of officers standing and chatting. They don’t look too concerned so I try to do the same.

I can see Vivi ahead with a group of her friends, and I watch her walk while I stay behind. If the officers take me into custody I don’t want her to see. But it doesn’t look like they’re much interested in me, which hopefully means they don’t know who tagged the school.

When I get to the gate I can see the wall has already been scrubbed clean. Some poor Obliged soul probably had to do it. My gut churned in guilt, but I fought it. A full-scale rebellion was bound to cause casualties. I had to get used to the idea now if I ever wanted to take part in something big. Something life-changing.

Donovan is waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. He doesn’t smile when he grabs my hand and walks me to class through the prison-like hallway – gray, no windows.

“Think they suspect?” I whisper in his ear when we stop outside my classroom door.

“No or else they’d have grabbed us by now, and stop acting so suspicious.”

“I’m not.” I look over to my right and see an officer watching us.

Donovan turns my face with his hand and says, “Yes, you are.” He kisses me and leaves, strolling nonchalantly down the hall. I’ve never been a great liar, so acting that carefree was out of the question. I arrange a look of confusion on my face when I walk into class.

I’m greeted by the blank faces of my Obliged classmates being stared down by an accusing Lieutenant. His insignia was yellow.

Lieutenants are the worst. Well, maybe not the worst, but they’re definitely worse than officers. They think that just because they’re one step up from the bottom of the pile everyone should bow down to them. Really they’re just glorified officers that hate their lives because the only action they get around here is when someone tags the school, which has happened once since I’ve been alive. And that once was last night.

But that also makes them dangerous. People with nothing to do tend to explode when things get even the tiniest bit exciting.

I sit down in my seat near the back of the class and face forward, trying to look blank like everyone else.

“Now that we’re all here,” the Lieutenant says slowly, looking each of us straight in the eyes. “You may be wondering about the extra security.”

I try to keep eye contact, but my mom told me once that when I try to look innocent I just look angry. I hope I don’t look that way right now.

“Last night a gang of Obliged students broke into school grounds and defiled the building.”

No, just two. And I’m not sure if hopping a fence counts as ‘breaking in’ when we could have gone through the open gate. Hopping the fence just seemed more fun at the time. And ‘defiled’ is definitely in the eye of the beholder. I for one think we made the building look much better.

“Seeing as this is a direct action against the Upright, I am here to show you a program which should right any misinformation you have received about your gracious benefactors.”

I try not to snort but it comes out anyway. I disguise it with a cough and get a dirty look from the Lieutenant, but nothing more. I settle back in my seat to watch the propaganda I’ve seen dozens of times.

The first time I saw it I was Vivian’s age. I went home crying to mom thinking we were bad people. That was when I had my first real history lesson on the Upright and the Valiant.

The film starts out with exploding cannons and gunfire. Granted, this was made at least twenty years ago, if not more, so the technology is quite dated. You’d think with all the Upright concern about uprisings and revolutions, they’d spend some time and money on making a more appealing film.

After a few minutes of war, you see crying families. Or at least what’s left of them.

Mothers hugging dead children, fathers missing limbs – you name it, it’s in there. There’s even a three-legged dog searching for food if human life doesn’t appeal to you.

It then goes on a little blast through the past. How the Upright and the Obliged (of course the film never reveals we were once the Valiant, that name is way too revolutionary) were friendly neighbors. Then one day, a foul wind blew north and warned the Upright that we were not the peace-loving individuals we appeared to be.

They sent over spies and – oh, no! Their fears were confirmed. We were holding Ascendants captive and subjecting them to terror unfit to show on film. The only action left was to invade, and invade they did.

And thus, we became the Obliged we are today, “ever thankful and always willing,” because when we are left to our own devices, we torture our neighbors overseas for experimentation. Calling it a stretch is an understatement. It’s completely nonsensical, but good luck telling the Upright that.

The screen turns to black and the Lieutenant turns the lights back on.

“Now, can anyone tell me why the Dual Manifestos were written?”

No one raises a hand at first, because no one wants to be ‘that guy.’ But if no one raises their hand at all, there’ll be serious repercussions.

Finally, Christine, sitting in the front row and probably the most annoying girl I’ve ever had the displeasure to share a class with, raises her hand.

“To remind us why we are the Obliged, and why you are the Upright?” She says it like a question. Either say it or ask it, stop trying to do both. It’s so annoying.

“Yes?”

“Christine.”

“Yes, Christine, very good. The Dual Manifestos were written together, because our two nations must function as one. The Upright are here to protect and to guide, but to do so, the Obliged must be obedient to our requests.

I cough again to hide my laugh. Requests? Who in their right mind would see regulated meal plans, jobs, and forced propaganda as requests?

“Is there something the matter, miss?”

“Raegan,” I answer immediately, caught off guard.

“Raegan, do you have something to add?”

Think quick. Think quick. “Yes, I do actually,” my mouth says while my brain screams Wait! I haven’t thought of anything yet. “To add to Christine’s point,” I say slowly, “the Upright do what they do for us, not for themselves. After all, have you ever seen them try to take over our land or populate our towns?”

I meant it as a brown-nosing answer, but after saying it I can see the double meaning that the Upright don’t want anything to do with us. I pray the Lieutenant lets it go and thinks I’m just an idiot girl with asthma.

He stays silent for a moment before smiling. “Excellent point, Raegan,” he says and continues his lecture.

I breathe out and slump in my chair. I decide not to listen to the rest of his speech in case something else idiotic makes me laugh. Instead, I think about what they are doing in Vivi’s class, and whether they seriously think a seven-year-old could even write the word ‘Uptight’ legibly, much less at that height.

Finally, we’re dismissed for lunch. The cafeteria is a large room in the center of school, so there are no windows. I look for Donovan and see him sitting with some friends. He notices me staring and gets up and walks toward me.

“Did you get the film?” He asks me, grinning.

“Yea, it’s only like the twelfth time I’ve seen it,” I say and head to the lunch line.

“You’ve only seen it twelve times?” He asks me. “I’ve seen it fifteen.”

“Well, aren’t you the heroic martyr,” I joke as the lady behind the counter passes me an orange soup. I don’t bother asking what it is.

“Come sit with me,” he says and nods toward his friends.

“I’d rather sit with Vivian,” I say, scanning the room for my sister.

“She’s over there,” Donovan points toward the far corner of the cafeteria and he follows me to her.

I skirt through the crowded cafeteria and pull up a seat next to Vivian.

“Hey kid, how was your morning?”

“Boring,” she says, eating a spoonful of soup. She makes a face as she swallows.

“Hold your nose while you eat it,” I suggest.

“Will that work?” She asks.

“I dunno,” I say as I take a spoonful myself, holding my nose. I cough and spit the soup out. “Never mind, don’t do that.”

Vivian giggles. “They made us watch that movie.”

“Awful isn’t it?” Donovan asks, taking Vivi’s napkin and folding it into an origami swan.

“Oh pretty!” She takes it and cradles it in her hands.

“Just forget about it Vivi, school is almost over anyway. Only one more hour before you can go home.”

“Yea, I guess,” she says, delicately setting the swan next to her soup. “Wait, are you not coming home with me?”

“No, I have to leave after lunch. Mom asked me to come in to work and the principal approved it. Ride the train with Matty. You’ll be fine.” I kiss the top of her head and stand up to leave. She looks so sad I nearly sit down again.

“Go,” Donovan says. “I’ll sit with her.”

I kiss Donovan on the cheek and leave. I get a couple weird looks from the officers, but they stand aside when I show them my pass.

I jump on the last train car since there’s no one else around and ride home in the silence.