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 5

The Upright - Chapter Five

Chapter 5

I guess I spoke too soon about the whole “Real Life Morality Situations.” When I get to school the next day, most of the officers are gone, but the Lieutenant running my class from the day before is still here.

He’s speaking to the older half of kids in the cafeteria when he announces that he will be pairing us off into groups. Miraculously I’m with Donovan. Not so miraculously we are with Christine and Kelly.

I don’t dislike many people, but Christine and Kelly are numbers one and two on my please-leave-me-alone list.

“You are camping outside of town when one of you is bitten by a poisonous snake,” the Lieutenant explains. “Deal with the situation accordingly. And remember to follow the Upright Guide to a Moral Life when making your decisions.”

Why I would ever go camping with Kelly and Christine in real life is beyond me. I mimic vomiting behind Kelly’s back at the mention of the Upright Guide and Donovan smiles. The girls take that as him flirting and they immediately flock to his side. My smile vanishes and I walk to join the group.

“So who wants to be bitten by the snake?” Donovan asks.

“Oh, I do! I do!” Kelly says excitedly. I hold back a snort at the thought of Kelly being excited to potentially die in our scenario, and I can’t figure out why she’s so eager to volunteer until she adds, “But only if you suck the poison out Donovan.”

I cough behind her and Kelly looks at me guiltily. “No please, continue,” I say, feeling my anger rise. “I’d like to know what you plan to do while Donovan sucks the snake venom out. Oh, and where do you plan on getting bit? Your pretty little—“

“Rae,” Donovan says warningly. He shakes his head, telling me to let it go. But I can’t. I seriously can’t stand these two idiots.

“Is there a problem here?” says a deep voice behind me. I know it’s the Lieutenant, because I can smell the alcohol on his breath, and Lieutenants are known for their love of fermented beverages.

“Of course not,” I say, not too convincingly.

“Rae isn’t helping us,” Christine whispers. I turn and look at her. We may hate each other, but we never rat on another Obliged to the Upright.

“Is that so?” He asks, raising one of his thick eyebrows at me.

I shrug.

“Well then, come with me.”

I follow him silently and hear Kelly ask Donovan if he’ll wipe the sweat from her brow as she lay dying.

The Lieutenant leads me to the Principal’s office, which is currently serving as officer headquarters. Our old principal was sent to an Upright convention on security yesterday afternoon. I feel kind of bad about that, too. There’s no telling what sort of brainwashing methods they’re subjecting him to at the convention or if he’ll even come back.

“Sit down,” the Lieutenant says. He leaves the room and I’m left alone.

The office is devoid of all extravagance. No pictures, no maps, no books. Nothing but a completely bare desk and two chairs. I’m even more convinced the principal isn’t coming back.

Suddenly I hear some feedback from a microphone. The voice of the Lieutenant comes over the loudspeaker in the Principal’s office. I’m not sure if this is broadcast to the whole school or just to me.

“For your actions against your fellow man.” I scoff. “You will listen to a reading of the Dual Manifestos until the end of the day. You will not eat lunch, and you will not communicate with anyone. Should you move from your chair, officers will enter the room and hold you in your seat until the day ends. Tomorrow, you will be required to bring an analysis of the importance of the Dual Manifestos to hand in to me, and a written apology to each member of your group for your selfishness in the Real Life Morality Situation.”

The Lieutenant is replaced by the Dual Manifestos being read by a monotonous voice. I want to bang my head against the wall until I pass out, but the wall is too far away. The only thing worse than solitary confinement is to be held down by officers while in solitary confinement. I’m extremely claustrophobic and the thought of the officers makes me shudder.

I curl up in a ball on the chair and listen to the repetition of the manifestos for the next five hours.

 

The time passes slowly, and after two hours I have to use the bathroom. There’s no one to ask though so I hold it.

 

Another hour passes. My legs are cramped. This chair is so uncomfortable. There’s no way to sit. My ears are ringing.

 

Almost to hour four. I can make it. I won’t stand up. I won’t.

 

Thirty minutes left. I’ve heard each manifesto at least ten times per hour. I could recite them.

 

“You can stand up now Raegan,” the Lieutenant says. “Raegan. Stand up.”

I stand up slowly, easing the stiffness from my joints. I didn’t even hear him come in. I was completely zoned out staring at a wall.

“School is over, you can go home. And remember your assignment.”

I can’t bring myself to nod as I walk out the office, which looks more like a prison cell now that I think about it.

The sun is harshly bright when I step outside and I sneeze.

“Bless you,” Donovan says, pushing himself off the step railing.

“Thanks,” I say as we walk towards the train station. To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s cute that he stayed, or if I find it annoying.

“So, are you okay?” he asks when I don’t say anything else.

I just shrug. I still haven’t used the bathroom yet and I’m not in the mood for chit-chat.

“Well, Kelly ended up dying in our scenario if that makes you feel any better. She and Christine spent too long arguing over whether Christine or I should run for help. The poison got all the way to her heart.”

I can’t stop myself from chuckling a bit at that. “So did you have to kiss her awake after she died?” I ask.

“Well, she did ask, but I told her corpses freak me out.”

I shake my head. “Sounds more eventful than my day.”

“What’d they make you do?”

“Listen to the Dual Manifestos and not move a muscle.”

“Ouch,” he says. “That explains your crabbiness.”

“I am not crabby.”

“Sure,” he says and smirks. I hate it when people tell me I feel a certain way. I know I’m being a bit ridiculous, but I’m too frustrated to care. These stupid Dual Manifestos keep repeating themselves in my head giving me a headache, and I can’t find the power button to switch them off.

“Did you hear me?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “What?”

“I asked if I’ll see you tonight?” He sounds nervous and I don’t know why. I’ve visited him plenty of times at night. Why is he nervous about the idea of me in the dark now?

“I don’t know, maybe. Why are you being weird?” Tact has never been high on my list of priorities.

Donovan is silent for a moment before he takes a big breath. Uh oh, this can’t be good. “There’s going to be a Picking tomorrow night.”

I stop walking and look at him. “How do you know this?”

“Friend of a friend,” he says, dismissing my question. “But the information is good.”

I start walking again. “Well, there’s an entire country of Obliged and only one is going to be Picked. What are the chances we’ll even know them?”

“Rae, the Picking is happening in our county. That’s how I even know.”

I keep walking and hold my breath. My heart rate has picked up too much speed. The first thing I need to do is keep calm. We’re maybe twenty yards from the train station. Just a little bit longer and I’ll be by myself.

“Still, it’s incredibly unlikely we’ll even know the person. Our county is huge.”

“Can you just promise me I’ll see you tonight. Just in case,” he asks. I hate it when he pleads with me, so I tell him okay.

Looking pacified, Donovan walks me the last few feet to the train station and I get on a vacant car.

“See you tonight,” he says.

I just nod as the train pulls away from the platform.

The Upright – Chapter 4

The Upright - Chapter Four - taylortampa.com

Chapter 4

When I walk into my office, Mom is sitting at my desk.

“I think you’re in the wrong office,” I say. I put my bag down and sit when she vacates my chair.

“It’s possible,” she says. “How was school?”

“They made us watch the film again. If I see it one more time I might explode.”

“Well don’t do that, you’d make a mess,” Mom jokes, a forced lightness to her voice. “You know I was seven when everything happened. Forty years isn’t that long ago.”

“What was it like?” I ask.

Mom ruffles her hair and her short curls stick straight out from her head. With curls like that, Vivian and I didn’t stand much of a chance. “I was so young at the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. My parents made me help with the war effort behind the scenes in the hospitals helping with the wounded.” A dark look crosses her face as she relives the nightmare of caring for the dying. “Most of our military were overseas, so we didn’t put up much of a fight. Anyone over the age of fifteen was conscripted to make up for the missing troops. No one liked it, but no one argued. The Upright practically walked in and took over.” Mom sits down opposite my desk and stares past me.

“I remember it was dark out when Mom ran into my room. She woke me up and made me go in this bomb shelter we had in the backyard. She went back inside for Dad, but she never came back.”

“What do you think happened to them?” Rae had heard this story before, but not in so much detail. She shuddered at the thought of her mom at Vivian’s age, sitting underground and waiting for parents that would never return.

“I don’t know. The next morning some Upright soldiers found me and assigned me to another Obliged family – family D184092. The family you get your lovely last name from. I stayed with them until I was eighteen, then I was assigned to move here and met your father.”

“So you never looked for your parents?” I ask, confused.

“No, I did. I just never found them. I don’t know if they were killed or captured or what. Your grandfather was a Colonel in the Valiant army, he’d have been a prime target for the Upright,” she says. “Funny that he would have been safer staying at the Command Center that night than coming home to his family. I’ll be right back.”

Mom leaves my office and I sit back in my chair, overwhelmed by this unexpected information. She comes back a few minutes later with a couple files.

“Here’s more paperwork for you,” she says, oddly formal.

“But what about—”

She silences me with a look and I take the papers from her hand. She looks at me expectantly and then leaves.

That was weird. I open the first file and see the name Nathaniel Raegan written across the top. A red “deceased” stamped next to his name.

I read his file. I’ve never seen one so old. It dates back forty years ago and claims his crime was treason. He was a Valiant war criminal part of the ring of instigators who ordered the experimentation of the Ascendants, which caused the war. Or at least that’s what his file said.

Why did mom give this to me? I look at his name again, weird that his last name is my first. Nathaniel…Nathaniel. Didn’t mom tell me once her father’s name was Nathan? Nathaniel Raegan must be my grandfather.

Realizing the priceless information I am holding, I slip it quickly into my bag. No one ever checks the criminal offices, so they won’t notice it missing. And if this man really is my grandfather, then my real name is Raegan Raegan. That’s unfortunate.

Mom comes back into my office with a bottle of water. She hands it to me. “Find anything interesting?” She asks.

“How’d you get it?” I ask her, opening my water and taking a sip. I cringe. The Upright must be making us drink their vitamin infused water again. That can only mean our meals will get smaller if we can get the same nutrients out of a bottle.

“Once a year I have to make a trip to the Head Upright Criminal Office just over the border. I may have stumbled into a room with the files of war criminals.”

I smile. My mom may seem like a goof most of the time, but let her interest catch on something and she was all business.

“Really?” I ask, just to see what she says.

“Of course not,” she replies and winks at me before she leaves my office.

I finish filing the rest of the documents, which were all connected to the war forty years ago. Judging by the red stamp by their names and their rank in the military, I assume they worked with my grandfather.

With nothing else to do and an hour left of work, I pull out my homework. The Lieutenant had shouted at us before lunch to write a list of things the Upright could do to protect the Obliged from their self-destructive nature.

I find this a lot easier to do than I thought. I start making up ridiculous ideas taken from the files I sort at work, like ‘Use sensory pads to lock and unlock doors, so the Obliged never feel that exerting force is the only answer.’ I keep doing this until the first letter of each line spells out ‘uptight.’ I try to be subtle, but subtlety is not really in my nature.

It only takes me about thirty minutes, but rather than wait I leave work anyway. It’s not like we clock in or anything. We are expected to be honest and report to work for our prescribed duration. It’s practice for ‘Real Life Morality Situations,’ or so I’m told. I have yet to be put in such a ‘Morality Situation.’

It doesn’t take me long to get home, but Vivi and Matty are already sitting at the table by the time I walk in the door.

“Hey guys,” I say, dropping my bag by the table and walk over to the kitchen counter. “What do you want for dinner?”

Matty laughs and tells me leftover ash noodles. I tell him we’re fresh out and I pull down the weekly menu, even though I already know what it says. It never changes from week to week, but I check anyway just in case. Tonight is tofu cubes with potato slivers. This is supposed to be a treat since potatoes aren’t that healthy. It really just makes you feel hungrier after you eat it.

The potatoes are already washed and precut, so all I have to do is heat them up on the stove. Vivi and Matty work behind me and I can hear them helping each other understand the material, but purposefully answering some questions wrong.

“Don’t be too predictable,” I say to them when I hear them develop a wrong-answer pattern. It’s not like the teachers will care though. They’re Obliged just like us, and having a student disappear from a classroom isn’t exactly the flattering impression the Upright believe it is. For a teacher, it means that you’ve failed to teach your students the importance of hiding your abilities. For a parent, it means that you care more about your child excelling in school than being in your life. And for a sibling, it means that you were too selfish to care about anything.

We all have to look out for each other here. If we don’t, we get Picked. And if someone you love gets Picked, it means you’ve failed them. But like I said, it’s not worth worrying about when you never know if or when it’s going to happen.

“What are you doing?” I ask them when they’ve been silent for a while.

“Working on our manifestos,” they reply.

That gives me an idea. “You know, I may write one myself,” I say and sit with them.

The only noise in the kitchen is the sizzle of the potatoes in the frying pan as we quietly work.

“Done,” Matty says, holding out his manifesto. I take it and read it. It’s good work for a kid trying to stay with his family.

“Me too,” Vivi says, flapping her paper at me. I take it and make a face at her. I notice she doesn’t have her swan anymore.

“What happened to your swan?” I ask her.

She looks down at the paper. “An officer saw it and made me throw it away. He said it was extravagant and would distract me from my studies.”

“I’ll get Donovan to make you another one,” I say as I read her manifesto. “Mess up a couple words,” I advise her. “You’re only seven, you shouldn’t spell this well.”

“Can I read yours?” Matty asks me, reaching for my paper.

“Not done yet,” I say, sliding it from his hands. Truthfully it is done. But even in my own rebellion, I need to protect my family. They don’t need to get any subversive ideas so young, especially Matty since he’s already acting out.

“Looks like it to me,” Mom says behind me. I jump. I didn’t even hear her come in.

She snatches the paper from me and reads. As she reads her eyebrows furrow together in a straight line. When she finishes she stares at the paper for a second before she hands it back to me and turns to the stove.

“Burn it,” she says, so quietly I almost didn’t hear her.

“What?” I ask anyway.

“Burn it,” she says again, turning around.

“Why?” I ask. “It’s not like I’m going to do anything with it.”

“That’s not the point Rae. Do you know how much trouble we’d be in if someone found that?”

“But what about your criminal files? You stole those and you’re worried about some silly manifesto?”

“That’s different—”

“How? How is that different?” I say, my voice rising. My mother has never talked to me like this. She always encouraged my desire for change, and now she’s telling me to throw it in a fire.

“I’m the head of the Criminal Office Rae, I’m supposed to have files. And if I have files I shouldn’t, it’s because I’m doing research on how to prevent future delinquents. How are you going to explain something like this? This screams Valiant, Rae,” she says, pointing a shaking hand at the paper clutched in my fist. There’s actual terror in her voice now and it scares me.

I hold my breath until I can get my temper under control. Once my heart rate slows down I breathe out. “I don’t know,” I finally say.

“Then burn it.”

I go to the living room and start a smile fire in the fireplace. I don’t really need to wait for the flames to grow, but I wait. I’m not ready to throw away my work. I look it over one last time, reading the last lines out loud: “Fight for the cause that gives you hope, that gives you life, that give you dreams. And should this fight ask for your life, gladly give it. For the fight is not the end, but only the beginning of change.”

Then I throw my manifesto into the fire and walk away. I don’t want to watch my hope burn up. But for every piece of ash made by my manifesto, its words burn in my heart.

This is something I can’t let go. I’m not Obliged. I’m Valiant.

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.

The Upright – Chapter 2

Chapter Two.jpg

Chapter 2

Once I finish filing, Mom lets me leave work early. I have to pick up Matty and Vivi from the train station, so I head that way in the unbearable heat, wondering if I’ll melt before I even make it there. Unfortunately we have to take a cramped, non-air-conditioned train to school each day. Our entire county goes to the same school in Gerrond, so when I say cramped, I mean like sardines. There should be at least two more schools for our county alone, but with our limited resources and the lack of interest the Upright have in our comfort, we have to make do.

When I get to the train it’s just pulling up, and I can see my brother and sister with their faces pressed against the glass. I smile and wave.

As soon as the train pulls to a stop they are one of the first off.

“Hey, Vivi,” I say to my little sister who barrels into me on the platform. She’s seven and tall for her age, her long brown hair frizzing falling out of her braided pigtails.

She hugs me around my waist. “I missed you.”

“You’ve only been gone for six hours,” I say to her.

She grins up at me and squeezes me tighter. I mime throwing up and she giggles.

I pet her head absentmindedly while I watch my brother Matthew cross his arms in an attempt to look intimidating, never mind that he has one of those faces old ladies love to pinch and he’s got that awkward pre-teen boy thing going on. He’s only ten, but God forbid you hug him in public. I see some girls to our right staring at him. He glares at one and she giggles, whispering something to her friend behind a math book that looks like it might break her stick arms. She waves nervously at him, trying to hide her over-eager smile.

“Who’s that?” I ask him, even though I know he won’t tell me. He just shrugs and starts walking toward the stairs to exit the platform. “Wait up,” I call out as I pry Vivian off of me so I can walk. She climbs up on my back and I run to catch up with Matthew.

“What’s wrong?” I ask him. Even for him, he’s being unusually stoic.

It takes me a few pokes and prods, but he eventually smiles when I hit the spot just under his ribs. He can’t resist. “I got in trouble today,” he says as his smile fades.

“What’d you do?” I ask.

“He said a bad word,” Vivi whispers in my ear.

“Shut up, Vivian!” Matthew says, kicking at me.

“Hey now, neutral third party here,” I say, dodging his foot and holding up my hands.

“Some kid kept saying how he wanted to be Picked and I told him that the Upright were bastards,” Matthew says quietly.

I stare at him in shock. Matty may act the bad boy, but that’s all it is – an act. “Matty, you know you—”

“Yea, I know,” he says, and he actually looks ashamed. “It just came out.”

“So what happened?”

“I got sent to the principal’s office. I have to write a paper about how grateful the Obliged should be for our lives and stuff.”

“That’s a load of crap,” I say, adjusting Vivian on my back. She is getting heavier.

“Apparently it’s ‘just punishment’ for my crime,” Matthew says bitterly.

“Well, just don’t do it again all right. I don’t want to have to process a file on you at work, got me?” I ask sternly and he nods. I laugh and put my arm around his shoulders, which is easy to do since he’s so tall. “Just forget about it, I’ll talk to mom and dad.”

“Thanks,” he says and smiles at me.

I remove my arm because I know it’s cramping his style, but I’m surprised when he has me slide Vivian from my back to his. He doesn’t like to show affection for her when other people are around.

We take the long route home and stop at our favorite pond by the woods, which borders Darkwood’s one and only playground. Or what’s left of it anyway, seeing as the wooden structures have mostly rotted away and the forest seems to be reclaiming its territory.

Vivian takes off her shoes and climbs a tree whose limbs twist over the water. She dangles her feet above the pond while Matty and I skip rocks. He’s much better at this than I am, apparently because I have stiff wrists, or so he tells me. I don’t really know what that means.

I decide it’s time to go home when Vivi skins her knee after she falls out of the tree. She doesn’t cry though. She told me once it’s because I don’t cry. Mom always taught me it’s better to laugh than to cry, which creates a problem when I have to attend funerals, and now that I’m older I don’t think it’s the best advice. But even if I wanted to, I don’t think my tear ducts would know what to do. I wipe off Vivi’s knee the best I can before she climbs on Matthew’s back, dry-eyed and smiling, while we walk the rest of the way home.

Our house, a skinny, two-story building that looks extremely outdated. The Upright have been running campaigns to fix up the living situations of the Obliged. They say it’s because we have allowed ourselves to deteriorate, but really it’s because the homes we’ve moved into are what’s left of the Valiant era. I think the Upright are secretly afraid we might find something in our basements or under an old floorboard from before the war that might inspire rebellion. Town by town they’ve been knocking down homes and rebuilding them to be more “energy efficient.” They’re also pretty big on Obliged uniformity as well, so in fall of 2121 we will be moving into our cookie-cutter, single story house.

Mom and Dad aren’t back from work by the time we get home so I make Vivian and Matty do their homework in the kitchen while I cook. Tonight is government prescribed pasta. They’ve managed to create a carb-free noodle, which supposedly is more nutritious and filling than regular noodles. Too bad it turns to powder in your mouth and you nearly choke if you eat it without sauce. I have a theory it’s the ashes of dead Uprights turned to noodle-form. Morbid maybe, but if it’s true you heard it from me first.

I help Vivian and Matthew with their homework while the noodles boil. We have a rule in our house, “just below good is just good enough,” grammar intentional. I make sure Vivi and Matty mess up enough on their work to fly under the radar. Smart children equal Upright bait; though of course there’s no way to actually prove this. If a child is Picked, the families are generally too scared to speak out. Everyone just ignores the child’s absence like they never existed in the first place, making any sort of research on the subject impossible. If there’s a method to the madness, no one’s figured it out yet.

We have our theories though. I think it’s something the Upright like to do to exercise their power. The Upright families find what they call “compassion” for kids raised by the Obliged. I don’t know if there’s some sort of test the Upright families have to pass, but either way, they can legally adopt any one of us. And by adopt I mean drag them from their home in the middle of the night.

You may think that’s cruel and more morbid than my noodle theory, but to the Upright, it’s their right. They believe they are saving us from a life of hardship and giving us more “opportunities.” Opportunities my butt, more like a chance to walk around like a governmental drone.

I shake my head to get rid of those thoughts. I told myself a long time ago I wouldn’t think about the Pickings. You never know when they are going to happen, so there’s no point in worrying about them. I know too many people who have lost hair and chewed their nails down to the skin from worrying about things that may or may not happen. I refuse to be one of them.

I’m setting the dishes out on the table when my parents walk in. They exclaim about how good it smells and I know they only do it to make me feel better about this bland food I have to make. I smile at them and pass them plates.

My mom barely puts any pasta on hers. Mondays are her least favorite day food-wise and she generally starves. Dad grabs the other plate and fills it with the pasta mom doesn’t eat. He works for another government office where he processes paperwork for housing and bills. We don’t have much choice in employment, and if you can’t find work, it’s found for you.

I quickly inhale my ash noodles while the rest of the family talks. I nod along here and there, but I’m too excited for much conversation. Soon as I’m done I grab my bag off the table.

“Where are you going?” Dad asks me as I head out of the kitchen without explanation.

“To see Donovan, I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Be safe,” they call out together as I shut the front door behind me.

I jog down to the train and hop into an empty car just as it leaves the platform. Transportation is free for going to school and work. It’s also free if you just don’t pay.

I prefer to ride in the storage cars at the rear of the train, and since no one ever has anything to store, the cars are empty and the doors are left wide open. I sit in the shadows and nod off until I hear the whistle blow. It’s only a thirty-minute ride to Gerrond, but I fall asleep nearly every time.

I hop off the train onto the platform and see Donovan standing in the shadows, grinning. I couldn’t see much of him but his teeth and his blonde hair that act as flashlights in the dark. I’ve barely stepped onto the platform when he grabs me and twirls me around so I’m caught up in his arms facing away from him. He leans down and whispers in my ear “Got the stuff?”

“You’re so romantic,” I say as I elbow him in the gut to let me go, partially to be playful, and partially because I’m claustrophobic.

He rubs his stomach and reaches for my bag.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” he says when I jerk my bag away. Okay so I had the ‘stuff,’ but that doesn’t mean I want everyone to know about it.

We walk in the shadows toward our school, cutting through yards when it’s convenient and sticking to the sides of buildings when it’s not. It’s already pretty dark and since it’s a school town, Gerrond has an earlier curfew than Darkwood, so it’s likely no one’s awake to see us.

We hop the fence at school because it’s more exciting than walking through the unlocked gate, and hide in the bushes by the giant double door entrance. I open my bag and pull out several cans of spray paint. Donovan smiles as I hand him one.

“What are we writing again?” He asks as he shakes his can of red paint.

“Uptight,” I say, shaking my own.

We get to work tagging the side of the cement block building. We’d do the front but there are no bushes there to conceal us. Plus I was too nervous. If we are caught we’d have jail time for sure, doesn’t matter that we’re minors.

“Where’d you get this?” Donovan asks after ten minutes of nothing but the hiss of aerosol.

“A dealer in Ashford,” I say. “Cost me a fortune.”

Spray paint is illegal for the Obliged, probably because we do things like this.

“Where’d you get the money?”

“Didn’t pay him with money.”

Donovan didn’t say anything to my answer, so I know what he is thinking and I let him think it. He’s been getting a little too serious lately, so if he thinks I don’t put too much stock in our relationship I’m fine with it. Truthfully, I swapped some bars of chocolate I had managed to get my hands on for the spray paint.

We’re done in half an hour and are putting the cans away when sirens start to blare. They’re a loud, piercing shrill that never stop until the perps are apprehended.

We finish shoving the cans into my bag and run for the fence. Donovan hurtles right over it but I have to climb. He waits for me anxiously, looking for the person who spotted us.

I get over the fence and we take off running again for the train. I don’t know who saw us but they certainly weren’t chasing us.

At the train we stop to catch our breath and I start laughing.

“That was amazing,” I say between breaths.

“You’re amazing,” Donovan says and he grabs me by the waist and kisses me. Even if I don’t think we’ll last, I do like kisses, so I kiss him back, one hand wrapped in his hair, the other on my bag of spray paint.

I pull away and smile. The train is about to leave so I jump onto the platform. I hurtle onto the train without waving goodbye. When I stick my head out the door I see Donovan still standing there smiling, his hands in his pockets, sirens wailing in the background.

“Go home,” I yell at him. He waves once, turns around and jogs back into town.

I sit down and swing my legs out the door so I can watch the stars fly by as I ride back to Darkwood. I randomly throw the spray paint cans out the door as I pass through the empty fields between our towns.

I rid myself of the last can when the train pulls up to Darkwood’s platform. I get up and exit out the door behind me, away from the platform, and run the rest of the way home, still high on adrenaline.

It takes me five minutes to get home and I open the door quietly, not sure if anyone is still awake. It’s past ten so the house is dark. All’s quiet. I drop my bag by the door and slowly creep up the stairs.

“Raegan,” I hear my mother’s voice from the kitchen. She barely ever calls me Raegan. This can’t be good.

I walk slowly into the kitchen as my eyes adjust to the dark, expecting a major reprimand.

“I just received a page about someone tagging the school in Gerrond. You didn’t see anything there did you?”

I don’t nod because I don’t want to lie, but I don’t deny anything either.

“Well, just remember Rae, these kinds of acts get people in our filing cabinets. And if they don’t want to be there, they should be a lot more careful doing it.”

“Doing what?” I ask.

“Wrecking havoc,” she says and winks at me in the dark before heading upstairs to her room.

I grin and follow her, heading into my bedroom where I blindly stumble into bed and fall asleep.