It started with a phone call.
My mom wasn't home from work until four, so it was usually just my sister and me until then. We used to walk home from school together; I'd pick her up from the lower school and we'd walk the three blocks back to our apartment that towered over the city park. I'd ask her how her day was, not that the fifth grade was really interesting, and she'd reply pensively, like it was some deep question. Sometimes it was bad because her teacher set her in timeout and wouldn't let her color with the other kids, which sounded horribly childish for fifth graders. Other days, Paige would bound up to me with a smile and explain in elaborate detail the excellence of her day before I could even ask. I tried to remember back to the fifth grade, and I could never remember a day of school making me so happy.
That day wasn't any different. I guess my backpack was a little heavier, because my psychology teacher had given me a nine hundred page book to download for homework, but other than that I was still my tired, depressed self. Paige skipped down the path leading from the lower school, grinning at me smugly like she expected something. I glared at her for a minute, and then snorted.
"Okay, I guess you're waiting for this: how was your day?"
"Now that you finally ask," she sighed, brushing a stray piece of blonde hair behind her ear, "it was great. Teacher let us do all of our homework in class, so I'm free tonight! And Arabella hadn't stolen my pencil case after all, I had just left the stupid pouch in my locker."
"Hmm," I answered, without any clue what she was referring to. Probably something she had droned on about yesterday.
But then she did something that surprised me. She skipped ahead of me and turned on her heel so that she was facing me, and she beamed.
"You never tell me how your day was," she said, cocking her head to the side. "So how was it?"
I sighed. In all honesty, it hadn't been exactly spectacular. I preferred to keep Paige in the dark when it came to the horrors and hassles of upper school life. Well, at least my experience with it.
"Um," I said unenthusiastically, "okay."
"What do you mean okay, Jase? What made it okay?"
"What's with the sudden interest in my life?" I shot back bitterly. When she pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows, I sighed and muttered a weak apology.
What had I done today? First block had been a nightmare. Teacher had thrown us a pop quiz on reading material that had sailed over my head. Something meaningless about a base at the southern tip of Africa. It had had something to do with the war, but I couldn't learn anything from it. So I bombed the quiz, and then second block had started, which had gone smoothly. But after second block…
"Uh, I met with some people who don't really like me," I said quietly.
Consciously, I felt my hand in my pocket. I could still feel the swollen knuckles and the dry, caked blood that had smeared onto my fingers. Yes, you could say that I didn't really like those people very much.
Still, Paige took interest. Too much TV had corrupted her pathetic little existence.
"Did you fight?" She asked eagerly, bobbing up and down on the soles of her shoes. I was walking too fast, so she gave up her lead and fell back into pace beside me.
"Something like that," I said bitterly, clenching my fist. I guess that she must have seen, because she grabbed my arm and tried to yank my hand out of my pocket.
"Stop it!" I shouted, pulling away. She shoved me hard in the side, but didn't pry. I kept my eyes downcast, biting the inside of my lip. There was such a thing called a right to privacy.
"I'm sorry," she said softly after a few seconds of the hard silence that she found unbearable. "So what good things happened?"
"It's okay," I accepted. But good things? I guess that I had gotten a good mark in languages class, which qualified me for some prestigious military award. How a fifteen-year-old could get a military away baffled me. "I got good marks on a paper I wrote. In language class."
That set Paige off. Her eyes grew wide, and I shut my ears. I didn't want to hear it. Paige knew about the connection between the language department and the military. Her mouth wouldn't stop moving until we got home.
I caught a few jabbered lines of her exuberant speech. Something like, "oh my gosh, Jason, do you know that this means?" Yes, I did. "You could get into the military like Sir! Granted, you'd be gone a lot, but think about it! My little Jase, an officer…on Earth…"
I didn't start listening again until we had reached the apartment complex. Thirty floors of boxy rooms towered above us. We lived so high up that I told people that when I looked out of my bedroom window, I could see Teacher preparing her next lesson. Like always, I pressed my thumb into the pad at the front of the building and the glass doors slid open. Paige trotted in after me, suddenly silent. Talking in the lobby was not tolerated, especially since there were always too many important people entering and exiting the building. It was a shabby complex, but through a thick network of social diversities, we still managed to have an important guest in the building at least every other day.
I trudged over to the elevator and punched the up key. Instantly, the doors opened to reveal the tiny metal box. I stepped into the container and pressed the keys for our floor. Paige slipped in beside me. Quietly, the doors closed, and I felt the pull in my chest as we began to ascend.
Paige started at a dark blue mirror that was placed in the corner of the elevator. It was a camera that monitored the elevator, and somehow she thought it was not suspicious at all to stare at it for the duration of the ride. Stupid, but it was useless to convince her otherwise.
"It's not going to-"
"Shhh!" She snapped, nudging me in the shoulder but keeping her gaze fixed perfectly on the monitor. "It can hear you too."
"Good God," I muttered, running my good hand through my hair. It wasn't hot outside, but I was sweating. They kept the elevators so warm that the temperature smothered you if you weren't used to it.
Finally, we reached our floor. Paige skipped ahead of me, keeping her gaze on that stupid monitor until her feet were firmly planted on the carpet of the hallway.
"What snack do you want?" She asked, while I fished the key card out from the chain that hung around my neck. That way, I always had the key with me. I always had somewhere I could go to.
"MmmHmmm," I muttered, which in kid language, meant something like "I dunno".
"Can you make up some of those square cheese crackers?"
"Okay," I said, stopping in front of the door to our apartment. There was a window in the wall next to the door, where the entire city was thrown up before us. You would have thought that in order to get such a great view, you'd have to live in a palace. At least, not a shabby twenty-seventh floor apartment.
I slid the key card into the slot by the door, and the green light flashed. The door swung open and Paige skipped through, throwing her backpack onto the white carpet.
"Mom won't be happy about you ruining her carpet," I scolded, picking up the pack after her. The door closed behind me with a soft click, and the lights popped on. The blinds retracted back into the walls, revealing a span of crooked windows that overlooked the city. Light paved into the dingy little room, and Paige smiled.
"Mom isn't home yet," she sneered.
Great. Now not only did I have a truck load of homework, but I had a snooty little sister who would be bored out of her mind until four o'clock when the bus dropped Mom off. Sighing, I picked up her backpack and dumped it on the couch with mine, and then trudged into the kitchen. She had said something about cheese squares. I rummaged around in the cupboard until I found a penny-sized pouch that was colored orange and yellow.
"Hmm," I grumbled, throwing it into the microwave. I turned around to check mail, which had slid onto the counter like always, and I heard the pop and a click as the microwave door flung open. And bam, just like that, I had her stupid little cheese squares not too hot and not too cold, ready to eat.
"Paige! Food!" I cried, setting the dish down on the table and shuffling through the mail.
Bill. Bill. Angry letter from the tax collectors, which I bit my lip over and threw into the trash. I knew it was wrong, but Mom had told me to throw any tax collector notes into the garbage, so I reluctantly complied. The next letter was from Paige's teacher, letting Mom know that she was getting excellent marks. There was a similar letter from my teacher, with not-so-excellent reports, but I didn't care.
The last letter was the most interesting. I frowned as Paige came into the kitchen to collect her snack. The letter, printed on crisp white paper, was addressed to Jason Timothy Ryder. My name, so why the hell shouldn't I open it? The return address was what most concerned me. Coricco Military Facilities, CMF, in Coricco, North Mexica. That was the leading military base in the world.
"Whatcha got there?" Paige asked.
"Go away," I said, shoving her away. With a sigh, she left. I heard the TV flip on, and I pictured her hypnotized stare as her eyes glazed over.
I ripped open the letter and read the first few lines:
Mr. Jason Timothy Ryder,
It has come to our attention that you have obtained an excellent reputation in your language studies class. As you are well aware, this qualifies you for the prestigious CMF military award, in which you would be recruited into one of the finest institutions for military training upon the arrival of your sixteenth birthday-
I jumped, dropping the letter. The phone buzzed. Gritting my teeth in annoyance, I picked the letter up and walked over to the phone muttered a halfhearted, "I got it." Not like Paige would ever pick up the phone.
"'Lo?" I said into the receiver. There was a click on the other side, and a female voice responded.
"Hello, my name is Sandy Carthane. May I please speak to Mr. Jason Ryder?"
Carefully, I unfolded the letter I was still holding and looked at the signature at the bottom of the page. Sure enough, I was able to recognize the beautifully scrawled letters that together seamlessly spelled the name Sandy Carthane. Could it really be the same person on the phone?
"Hello?" She asked again, when I didn't respond.
"Er, yeah, this is he," I said quickly, fumbling to keep a grip on the phone.
"Hello, Jason. As I have already said, I am Ms. Carthane from CMF. I called to talk to you today about your future."
"Um, yeah, I just got a letter from you. I'm holding it right now."
"Isn't it funny how that works out?" She said, but she didn't sound amused in the least. "Anyway, Jason, you are in a suitable condition to be selected as one of the ten recruits to participate in the CMF international relations program. Are you aware of this?"
"Good. That cuts our time in half," she chuckled, even though I didn't find it very funny. In the living room, Paige was too focused on her TV program to realize that I was on the phone.
"We've reviewed your abilities over and over again, Jason, and we believe that you would be a wonderful asset to our program. Within a year from now, you could be shipping out to places like Japan, Australia, and Mexico. With a mere year of training, you could be an officer with your own group of five or six men. If you're interested in learning more about the program, I'd like to cordially invite you to an interest meeting this Thursday night at eight-thirty. Would you be able to obtain transportation to your school gymnasium?"
"I'm within walking distance," I said breathlessly.
"Excellent! Then I can anticipate seeing you there?"
"Wait! Why the gym in my high school?"
I had to ask. I heard her laughing on the other end, and a click. Had she hung up?
"We have ways of being in more than one place at once, Jason. I will be appearing in twenty schools across the country. But it's a good question."
I still didn't see how it was possible, but she was in the military. And to be honest, I was too enthralled with the thought of becoming an officer to respond. She took my silence as a good time to close.
"Jason, so much awaits you with CMF. At just sixteen years old, you could push your way into the invigorating world of the military. Am I convincing you?"
"Honestly, yes," I said. Looking around, I threw in, "there's not a lot to do out here."
"Kansas," I muttered, my cheeks reddening. She couldn't even see me, but the embarrassment spread into my cheeks.
"Well, Jason, I hope to see you on Thursday. If you can, bring a parent. There will be application forms at the meeting. Do you have any other questions?"
"No, thanks," I said. "I'll be there."
"Jason, you've made a good decision. Just keep doing well in your language studies class. I'll see you on Thursday."
"Bye," I said into the receiver.
And I hung up the phone.
It all started with that phone call. Had I been smart, I would have let the phone ring. I would have never heard about the meeting, and I would have never made one of the most horrible mistakes of my life. Entering the CMF was never all fun and games. I should have been able to discern that from the sickeningly corruptive tone in Sandy Carthane's voice, but I was too naive. Instead I went to that meeting, along with five other eligible kids from the Kansas Upper School for Privileged Children, not that any of us were privileged, and I got accepted into that horrible program.
A month after Sandy Carthane had called my house on an okay sort of day, I was shipped off to Coricco. I hugged my sister and she cried, and I hugged my mother, who also cried.
I keep thinking back to that moment, and I can't keep thinking that they were the lucky ones.
I was at least sure that I wasn't.