They swarmed around me like gnats on a hot day. They growled and reached out, trying to snatch me, to kill me. I pulled out my gun as fear trickled through my body. Bam! Bam! I shoot down two immediately. As one swipes at my face, I send a bullet through its skull and into another's. They drop down with a thud. I hold my arm close to stop the bleeding and pull the trigger as seven more start coming closer. Click. My eyes widen as I realize I have no more ammo.
Chapter 1: Tori
It starts like this: A cough, a sneeze, a hug, a kiss. Soon enough the mysterious illness is tearing people apart from the inside out. People drop dead on the streets. Scientists can't work fast enough to stop it before a third of our nation is lying in the morgue. It could be your best friend, your sister, your lover. Walking through the streets with a mask over my face makes me feel privileged, just because of my family's connections.
Cancelling school is an option that hasn't been made yet. It probably won't be made until another couple million people die. The naïve government I live in, can't they see the world is suffering? Possibly ending? That's something they pretend not to see, like a city man witnessing a gang fight. My younger sisters and I wear our masks to school, long sleeved shirts and pants even though temperatures have racked up to ninety-eight degrees. They walk hand-in-hand into the school today, not noticing the weak old woman collapsing onto the pavement as she waves goodbye to her grandson.
The hallway is the worst area to walk in. Most would believe it's because of all the contact and possibility of spreading the contagious disease you don't know you have yet. Not until the fever, then dizziness, then hallucinations, then agonizing pain, and then, finally, death. But it's unbearable because of the missing faces that don't stand in their usual spots that they used to just two months ago.
My first class is English, and kids give me stares as they watch me inside my mask. They don't have the privilege of staying healthy, their bare skin exposed to the germs. The girl sitting across from me, Tiffany, even has her hair up. Our substitute teacher begins us where our usual teacher, Mr. LeFrank, left off.
"Prefixes and suffixes, who can give me an example of each?" His voice is high-pitched, awkward for a man his age.
I raise my gloved hand halfway and he immediately points to me, anything to get the spotlight off him. "Like the word reoccurrence, re means happening again, that's a prefix. And a suffix would be in the word encouragement, ment meaning the process of." My voice is muffled behind the mask and it takes the teacher a second to understand what I said. He nods and writes the two words on the whiteboard, underlining the prefix and suffix. I get an obvious glare from a girl across the room with long blonde hair that curls after about two feet in length.
The sub opens his mouth to start speaking but the boy sitting behind Tiffany sneezes onto the back of her neck, blood spattering in droplets.
"God!" Tiffany yells, turning to him. "Seriously? Cover up you sick-" she stops when she notices the blood on the desk, and how he lays his head down with unfocused eyes.
"Everybody back! Don't touch him!" the sub yells, making us all run to the back of the classroom. A girl begins to cry, watching her best friend lay on the desk, not moving. He makes a sound and tries to move his fingers. The substitute presses a button for the office and they send a man in a full body suit to come and bring the boy out on a stretcher. I look at the people behind me, all of them completely tense, waiting for something to happen. "Class dismissed, everyone go home." The substitute grabs his bag as we run out the door. I go to my sisters' classes and knock on the door.
A class of second graders all turn in their desk to see the new visitor. "Hi," I say to the teacher, Miss Pordan. "I'm here to collect my sisters; there was…an accident in my classroom." I say through the mask, trying not to scare the kids.
Her eyes widen. "Of course," she wipes off her dry erase board. "Class dismissed! Go home, take a bath, and take care of yourselves."
I grab my sisters' hands and pull them with me towards home. "What happened?" My sister Alexis asks.
I look down at her mask, her brown eyes looking back at me. "A kid is sick, he sneezed blood on a girl. She's going to be sick now too." Alexis and Gabby gasp.
"Was she your friend?" Gabby asks.
"No." I reply quickly as we turn down the street to our house. My mom's car is in our driveway. I sigh with relief. Gabby and Alexis bolt for the house, racing each other like eight-year-olds do. When I walk in our house, I spray myself with our antibacterial spray before I take off my mask and let my long black hair fall into its natural wave. I check myself in the mirror, blinking my green eyes clear.
"Mommy?" I hear Gabby call from the kitchen. "Mommy!" she screams. I run into the kitchen, dropping my mask. I grab her by the armpits and pull her back before she can touch my mom. She sits on our kitchen chair, her eyes edged with blood as she looks at us.
"Darling," she says, her voice hoarse and sounding as if it takes a thousand lives just to say the one word. Alexis stands behind me, holding my pants tightly in her small fists. "I'm sick, stay back." She whispers, and I pull my sisters back more.
"Alexis, get our masks." I order, watching her run down through the living room until she disappears. "Mom, don't speak until we get our masks." She blinks. Alexis comes back in with the masks, handing them to me and Gabby. I strap mine around my head and look at her. "What are you experiencing right now?"
She takes a few deep breaths before she speaks. "Headache. It's so- painful." She closes her eyes and a drop of blood falls onto her cheek and drips into her lap.
"Gabby, Alexis, call dad and tell him to come home." I let go of Gabby and they blast off down the hallway to our phone. I grab a paper towel and pat my mother's eyes dry. "When did it start?"
She closes her eyes and then looks me in the eyes. "Two hours ago- washing dishes."
I nod and get some pain medication from the medicine cabinet, giving her four pills and a cup of water. Hopefully, it will dull the pain to come. My mom is dying, and there's no way to stop it.
"Tori," she calls, reaching her hand out. I want to grab hold of it, kiss it, squeeze it, but I close my eyes and let her hand drop. "I love you so much." She whispers, bloody tears dripping from her eyes. I pat them dry again.
"I know mom, I love you too." I say, keeping my voice strong. I pull up a chair and sit four feet away from her, feeling the short distance turn into miles. My dad comes through the door after a few minutes in his bodysuit. I get up and let them have their last moments together before she drifts off into an unknown world.
I find Gabby and Alexis quivering in the living room. I give them each an extra set of gloves and cover all their skin, knowing that once they go in to see our mother, they won't be able to resist their little arms from wrapping around her. I decide to call the hospital, tell them to reserve a morgue open for my mom. They apologize insincerely for my soon-to-be loss, and hang up. I step into the threshold of my living room, watching my mother sob with my little sisters hanging onto her, my dad staring out the kitchen window, pretending not to hear the pitiful crying of Alexis and Gabby. I cross over to him and take his hand. He looks down at me, the same green eyes as I have, and then closes them. We all knew this was coming; whether it be my mom, my dad, my sisters, or me, we've prepared.
A half an hour goes by and my mother moans in agony, her lip trembling from the pain. It's unbearable to listen to her cry out and weep, and then lash out with screams of hallucinations. So I step outside onto my porch and bury my face in my hands. I accept for myself to begin crying, but it never comes. My knees feel weak and I can hear her scream every now and then. The body cart comes too soon to pick up my mom's body, and I have to sit and stare at it, a wooden cart pulled by a large draft horse, the toes of somebody- dead- peeking out the back. Finally, my father steps outside with me, waving in the man with the cart. He grabs a stretcher and passes me into my house. I bite my lip and let him pass by with my mom's body lying on top. I don't stop him before he tosses her corpse into the pile. I run to the cart before he can take off and stare at her beautiful face, smeared with red blood from her eyes and her nose. I begin to cry then; holding out my arms to her as my dad holds me back, screaming her name, already missing her. I sink to my knees with my dad, and we hug each other, wishing and praying for things to change, for things to get better.
Chapter 2: Danny
The Captain yells at us to prepare for battle, and we pretend we are. I whip out my gun faster than the others, reload it faster than the others, aim and shoot it faster than the others. I've been practicing for this all my life. As I send three bullets straight through the paper target's center, the Captain begins to clap.
"Look here men, look at Mr. Redmond." He gestures to me in a grand arm swoop. "This man is only twenty-seven, and he can still do better than all of you! I expect the best from my soldiers, whether you be twenty, fifty, or thirty-eight." He whips around and shoots a scowl to the other men. They stand up straight in soldier position, arms behind their back, chins held high, taking the insults like true men. "Redmond, shoot that target straight in the middle fifteen times!"
I hold up the pistol and shoot fifteen times, the entire center of the target turning into a big hole. Only silence follows. And then, clapping, slow and deliberate. I turn to see Ava leaning in the doorway with a desert eagle at her waist. She walks in and all the men turn to look once the Captain passes by. She wears her usual gray tank-top with shorts, her brown hair in a sloppy bun on top of her head.
"What do you have for me today kiddo?" the Captain asks, stepping forward to the lunch sack from her hands.
"I don't know," she says, tossing him the sack. "Fiona made it, so there's probably some sort of food in there you don't want to eat." The Captain laughs and pats her back.
"Go train," he says, shooing her out. When he turns, all the men go back to their usual stance, but not before the Captain can see them. "I know my daughter is good-looking." He says with a chuckle before stepping close to their faces with a scream in his throat. "But there aint' no way she'd go for one of you!" he begins cackling. "And there's no way I'd let her! You call yourselves soldiers? I call you pathetic." He looks back at me. "Besides maybe Redmond, he's got some potential."
I try not to look too smug.
"Now, let's train!"
Chapter 3: Tori
The next day, I pack my clothes and a few belongings: a cross, my notebook, and a picture of my mom and I from when I was fourteen and we went to the zoo to see the new mixed breed animal exhibits they had. Mix breeds of monkeys and tigers, bears and lions, snakes and ostriches. We were laughing when the picture was taken because of the way one of the monkey/tigers- or Tigeys like they named them- were acting. I wish that I could have that moment back, to live in it forever and ever, be happy for eternity.
I sniff and jog down the stairs, quickly passing my mom's bathroom before the pain could hit. Gabby and Alexis stand down by the front door, sniveling behind the masks, and I set their bags down. I kneel in front of them, taking each of their hands.
"I grabbed your blanket Gabby, and your stuffed bear, Alexis. I also made sure to take the pillowcases that mom made for you guys." They begin to cry again. "Listen guys," I say, squeezing their hands. "We're going someplace safer than here, and we can see Danny and Uncle Leo. Say goodbye to home, because we're going someplace much better than here. And hey," I lift Gabby's chin to look at me. "You guys will be happy again. You'll have fun there, I promise."
They nod and walk out with my dad to our car. I look back at the house, my old memories of running through the halls with our old dog, Sweetie. The smell of my mom's pumpkin pie that she made every Thanksgiving, the dotted Christmas lights that we strung across our fireplace. I sighed and quickly shut the door behind me as I ran to the car.
The ride there was miserable, since I was left with my thoughts.
I gnawed at the inside of my cheek, counting how many red cars I see on the expressway. Finally, my dad turns on the radio and I recognize an old song from about ten years ago, something about a party and shuffling. My dad quickly changes the station to a current station, playing ten songs over and over again. Alexis and Gabby lay sleeping in the back seat, leaning on each other. My dad and I don't speak, just pretend to tap our fingers to the fast-paced music. After the third time of hearing the party song, my dad turns down a road that leads to a huge, metal building. On a sign outside the gates it says: DR. FRANK'S TRAINING FACILITY. I lean forward as the gates open, the sun blasting off the shiny metal and blinding me for a few seconds. I wake up Gabby and Alexis and they don't seem all that interested. They're taking my mom's death harder than I am, which is expected since they're only eight, they need a mom for growing up, for boyfriends, for 'becoming a woman' as my mom put it.
I sigh as we walk in with our bags. My dad speaks into an intercom outside the doors and they finally open. We have to walk through a tunnel that removes all germs from our skin before actually entering the building.
"Tom!" a familiar husky voice calls my dad. We all turn to see our Uncle Leo approaching my dad with his hand out to do the manly slap/hug thing. Uncle Leo's not actually our Uncle, but he's my dad's best friend. They were in high school together, and Leo actually introduced my mom and dad.
Leo quickly squeezes us with his bulky biceps and takes my dad's shoulders. "I'm sorry about Tara." He says quietly. My dad lowers his head.
"Let's talk later." He mumbles. Leo nods and pretends nothing happened- something he's good at.
"Alright kids, want a tour of your new home?" he asks. This is why I like Uncle Leo. He's not over-exaggerated, just friendly, and he doesn't push it. "Let's first get these bags to your new dorms."
"What's a dorm?" Alexis asks, biting her nails. Uncle Leo looks back at her.
"It's basically a small house that you three girls share. Your dorm is right next to mine and your fathers'." He gives me a smile. "Don't worry darling, this is only temporary, once you get new friends you can choose to move in with them, and the girls will do the same."
"Thanks Uncle Leo." I say, looking at the rooms to my left and right. WEIGHT ROOM, ARTINERARY ROOM, ARCHERY ROOM, EXPLOSIVES ROOM, COMPUTER LAB. The computer lab part makes me laugh with how odd it sounds compared to the other rooms. Suddenly, a mob of kids about my age come out of the archery room, one girl holds her arrow outward and it jabs me in the back sharply. "Ow!" I say, turning around to look at her.
"You should watch where you walk, that way you won't get hurt." She informs me. I grind my teeth together in fury; I want to punch her smug smile off her tan little face.
"Cool it Lauren, it was your fault." A boy behind her says, smiling at me with his blue/gray eyes. She narrows her eyes at him but doesn't say anything. I give him a grateful smile before turning back around to follow Uncle Leo.
"In here, Tori." He says, pointing to a dorm.
"Wait," The girl says, putting her hand on my shoulder. "You're staying in an A dorm?" she furrows her eyebrows and then smiles. "You must be pretty high class." She holds out her hand. "I'm Lauren, I'm afraid we had a bad start. Sorry?" Honestly, I want to spit on her hand. The boy that was walking behind her passes us, but watches for my reaction, which is to slam the door in her face.
Uncle Leo rolls his eyes at me. "That's not a way to make friends."
"You know what? She was a bitch anyway." I toss my bag down.
"Tori, you just said the 'B' word." Gabby informs me.
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that." I say, giving her a hug. Uncle Leo begins to laugh loudly. "What's so funny?" I ask, putting my hands on my hips.
"Nothing, nothing. It's just that you're seventeen and you still have your little sisters watching your language."
I sigh. "Yeah, I know. So what do we do now?"
Uncle Leo slaps his thighs and stands up. "You begin training."
"Uh, right now?" I begin unpacking my clothes.
"Yes, right now. You can go catch up with that Lauren girl and go to their next class with them." He presses a button on his wristwatch and a hologram appears with numbers and numbers in a graph. "They're going to practice archery outside, go, now!" I toss my stuff on my bed and run out the door with Uncle Leo and the girls behind me. "Mr. Carmichael!" Leo calls, making the entire class turn and look at us.
"Oh God," I say, shielding my face from their view.
A short man with a red face makes his way through the crowd. "This is Tom's daughter, Tori, I'd like for her to join your class immediately." Uncle Leo nudges me toward the other kids, who all stand in their uniforms.
"Sir," I say, making the Mr. Carmichael turn around. "I don't have a uniform."
"Ah," Uncle Leo says, running into the room for a few seconds before coming out with a purple tank top and black shorts, same as all the other girls. "Here you are, go change in the dorm and then come on out for some training!" Uncle Leo pushes me into the dorm as my face turns tomato red. I hastily change into the uniform, which is fitted for like AA boobs and doesn't allow me to breathe. I stiffly walk out with the other kids, and follow them, staying in the back.
"Hi," A girl with curly brown hair says. "I'm Ariel." She smiles and shakes my hand. "Don't worry, you're not missing anything besides the lectures they've been giving us the past two days. This is the first time we're all going to actually shoot something!" her smile gets broader. "Oh and we're getting our permanent partners today, it's going to be so fun! I hope we can be partners!"
"Partners are a boy and girl, everyone knows that." A snobby redhead boy informs Ariel.
"Actually, I didn't know that, but thank you." I say, being polite like my mother taught me.
"Oh yeah…" Ariel bites her lip. "They do a boy and a girl because boys have more strength than us, but girls are more flexible and lighter than boys, so if we go into combat then- "
"Combat?" I ask, almost tripping on my own feet.
"Yeah, that's why we're all here. We get sent here if we can't live at home anymore and we are strong enough to be in the army, because the U.S. has been getting threats from Russia that they're going to steal our people to repopulate their country, since this sickness has been infecting the entire world." She bites her lips again.
"Have you lost anyone to it?" I ask quietly.
"We all have. That's why we're here. I lost both my parents, and my house was infected, so I came here with my little brother in my dad's old car and we were immediately tossed into training. It's nice here though, they give us proper food and we get the right exercise and there's no risk of us getting infected since this place is on lockdown twenty-four-seven. I feel safe."
I laugh. "Yeah but we're getting tossed into combat, how safe is that?"
She shrugs just as Mr. Carmichael turns to us all. "Now, this room was made to resemble what the Russian forests look like. There are going to be targets that pop up at you as you walk through. Whoever gets the most into the targets gets to choose their partner out of three that have been deemed suitable to their height, weight, and agility. New girl, Tori, we've taken your records from your school and plugged them in already." He nods and opens the door to a completely green room. "Now, go kill some targets." He chuckles at his own joke and hands me a bow and arrow.
Oh crap, I think to myself. I am so screwed. All the kids walk in to the green and split up down five different paths. I follow Ariel and get a glimpse of who's in my stretch. Me, Ariel, the Lauren girl, the redhead, a blonde girl, and the blue/gray eyed boy, who leads us all with his bow and arrow notched and ready to shoot.
Wham! A target shoots up so quickly that I jump, and by the time I get my arrow out, the boy has sent one right into the middle of its chest. I blink and let my nerves slow down. "This is intense," I tell Ariel, who quivers with fear.
"I know," her voice is shaky and her arrow trembles.
Wham! Another target flies up and the boy sends it through its chest again. Geesh, this kids good. I load my arrow quickly and bite my lip. Get this one, get this one. I beg to myself. Wham! The target flies up again and before I know it, I send the arrow into its torso. Not directly in the middle, God no, I'm not capable of that, but close. The boy, who was notching his arrow, turns around and grins at me. The Lauren girl turns around and tries to give me a little smile.
"Nice job," she whispers, and gets an immediate "Shh!" from the rest of the group. I smile.
Another target blasts up and the boy goes back to the usual way: him shooting, us staring. I notch another arrow and get it ready to shoot. Ariel does the same. Wham! The target flies up and three arrows fly at it, mine, Ariel's, and the boy's. The boy's arrow goes right in the middle again, and mine is close once again. Ariel's is in its shoulder.
I lean to her. "I think it's dead by now." She laughs and everyone turns to glare at us. "Geez guys, it's fake." I whisper to the redhead boy who practically walks backwards just to give us the evil eye.
Wham! Another target flies up and I shoot again, this time not so close to the center, which is occupied by the boy's arrow, but I still give myself a nod of approval. The path ends to a large metal door that we crank open. It slams shut behind us and we end up in some sort of waiting room with Mr. Carmichael.
"How did you do?" he asks us as we sit down. We all shrug and Ariel adds, "Chris was kicking butt." The blue/gray eyed boy smile sheepishly and looks down at his feet.
"Well, the new girl was pretty good too." He says quickly.
"No I wasn't!" I say, having nobody to pass it off to like Ariel and Chris had.
"Yeah, ya were." Lauren says in her Valley Girl voice. "You like, were bamf."
Mr. Carmichael stops Lauren from going on. "It's a bunch of swears mixed together into one word cause you kids are too lazy to actually say it." He raises an eyebrow at Lauren and she rolls her eyes. Another group of kids come through, one boy struts in with his bow and arrow held at his side as he puffs up his chest.
"Mr. C, I'm pretty good." He says with a grin.
"Oh are you?" Mr. Carmichael asks, obviously looking annoyed. The boy nods and sits down across from us and Lauren immediately switches sides to sit next to him. She bumps his shoulder playfully, batting her eyelashes as she flirts. I roll my eyes and look at my arrows. They have white numbers on the side of the black shaft.
"What are these numbers Mr. Carmichael?" I ask, holding up my arrow.
"Call me Mr. C," he smiles. "And those numbers are so you can track down which arrows are yours, all of the ones you shot have those same numbers on them."
"Oh," I say, nodding. The other three groups come in at the same time, laughing and congratulating each other. Ariel leans over to me and mumbles something that I don't quite catch. "Huh?"
She bites her lip and leans over again. "I can't stand Lauren, she's such a slut."
To say I'm surprised is an understatement. This nice, quiet girl who welcomed me graciously has some spice to her chili. "Yeah, I can see it. Why do you say that?"
She blushes. "I kind of like Mark." She notices the glossy look in my eyes and realizes I have no clue who Mark is. "He's the confident one that she's flirting with." Confident? I'd say cocky.
"Oh, him. What makes you like him?"
She shrugs. "I love his confidence in himself. It's so attractive to see that in a guy." I simply nod and pretend to see what she sees.
"Alright guys, let's go find the best scores!" Mr. C says, making us all jump up and go find our arrows.
Chris pulls out his arrows left and right, keeping to himself and not being cocky about it. But the other kid, Mark, I can hear him hollering his score for all of China to hear. I roll my eyes and gather my two arrows as Ariel plucks hers out of its shoulder.
"Poor target." She remarks. I chuckle and we all gather in a group in front of a large screen. It projects the scores: First place- Chris Watson; Second Place- Mark Cooper; Third Place- 13824
There's no name submitted for the third place slot, just numbers- the same numbers that were on my bow. Ariel pats me on the back and Mr. C smiles. "Our new classmate must be skilled in archery?" he says in a question.
I shake my head and grin. "No, but I actually have the will to defend myself." Ariel snorts and Lauren still tries to smile at me. All the other girls are disgusted.
Mr. C chuckles a hearty laugh and then slaps his thigh. "So Chris, who's your partner going to be out of the three girls that placed in third, sixth, or seventh?"
He blushes. "I think it's obvious, Mr. C." Silence. Chris sucks in a deep breath between his teeth. "I choose, uh…" he squints for a moment and then says, "13824."
Chapter Four: Danny
Word that Tom has come spreads like wildfire in this giant metal dish that we live in. Once the Captain releases me, I jog down to the main office.
"Where's Tom?" I ask, smiling. Leo's friend, Annette, walks up to me.
"Tara died." Is all she says. My mouth sags open and my eyebrows knit together in confusion.
"Wha- no." I shake my head. "You're kidding." Annette gives me a look that clearly asks: "Does it look like I'm joking around?" I cover my mouth with my hand and mumble, "Oh."
"Yeah," she purses her lips. "He's bunking with you and Leo, he just went there about four minutes ago, probably unpacking." She shrugs and I make my way back to the dorm. I knock on the door and Tom opens it, looking glum.
"Hey Tom," I say, shaking his hand and patting him on the back. "I heard about Tara, I'm so sorry." I step in and close the door behind me. Leo sits in the recliner, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "What do you say we go get a drink down at the bar?" I suggest.
Tom pauses with his clothes folding. "They have one of those here?"
"Believe it or not, they do. Well, they just don't know it yet." I try to smile and Tom gives a sort of laugh.
"Sure." He says, a complicated grin on his face. "That sounds terrific."
Chapter Five: Tori
We all walk back to the changing rooms once Mr. C assigns partners to the rest. Ariel was partnered up with the mean redhead kid- go figure- and she complains about him to the point where she's almost in tears. I walk quietly with her, watching the way my shoelaces flick with every step I take. I turn when somebody pokes my shoulder.
It's Chris, and he smiles. "I hope I didn't anger you by my choice." He says, raising his eyebrows.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I feel bad for not asking you ahead of time." He purses his lips.
"Oh, don't worry about it, it's not like I knew any of the other kids anyway." I wave it off, turning into my dorm with Ariel. She wanted to see what an A dorm looks like.
"Whoa." She says under her breath, looking at the giant flat screen TV on the wall across from my bed. The other two beds are in a different part of the room, separated by a wall that leaves about a three foot entryway that is positioned somehow with the other walls to block the sound from the TV, since they're younger and always end up going to sleep about two hours earlier than me. Their beds are stacked on top of each other, a divided closet leaning against the opposite wall where their clothes is going to be put, once I decide to unpack our bags. They were given a clear, empty glass bowl, and were told they could have two fish. I figured this would give them something to do and might teach them a little responsibility.
I cross my arms. "Personally, I like my old house better." I say, shifting my weight to right leg.
Ariel spins around, eyes wide. "What? Are you kidding? Your room is amazing! Look at that TV! The one in our room is only an eighth of that size! You should be so grateful! This room is awesome!" she looks at the wallpaper, which is a deep blue and has light parts in it and a wavy tan bottom, resembling the ocean. She stares openmouthed at my room, which she treats like a castle.
I narrow my eyes. "Ariel, how long have you been here?"
She turns to me, a sad look in her eyes. She sighs and sits on the back of our couch. "I've been here since I was eight, when the threats of the ozone layer ripping open were fresh and scary. My mom and dad were sent a letter of approval that we could come here, and they didn't know that coming here meant immediate training. This was followed by being sent out to a different part of the country, a place for upper class soldiers with experience in the desert, which is the type of room that they always trained in. When they left, my dad gave me his pocket knife, and my mom gave me her favorite necklace, a locket with a picture of the three of us in it.
"I was an eight-year-old, being left alone to live with other kids my age, my future already set for me once I got to be seventeen. I haven't seen any place outside of this building since I was eight. And I've lived in the same dorm for nine years."
Ariel shrugs and finally looks me in the eye, her fingers resting on a small silver locket that rests on her collarbone. I cross the distance and look at the picture inside, a redheaded woman with wild curly hair and a pale complexion, and a man with short brown hair, thick black glasses covering most of his face. "I haven't gotten a letter from them in a year, and won't be able to get another one for two months. I can't wait, every year they send me the most recent picture of them, and I send one back. They tell me that they keep the pictures pinned to the inside of their jackets, and I have every picture of them taped to the bottom of my roommate's bunk bed. I wake up their faces, and fall asleep to their faces. Everybody made fun of me when I was younger, because their parents are high classmen here, and they could see their parents every day." She bites her lip and her eyebrows knit together. "I remember, the fourth letter I got from my parents, Lauren took the envelope and ripped it in half, telling me that my parents don't love me enough to come home. We were only twelve then, stupid, rotten twelve year olds who didn't know what we were doing, but Lauren's words affected me so much that I didn't send a letter back for three months." She shrugs and steps away from the couch. "So why are you here?" she asks.
Oh, I didn't expect her to ask me that. I sigh, feeling obligated to tell her my story since she just told me hers. Let's just say, I'm not the kind of person who has diarrhea of the mouth. I control the words that I speak, barely ever revealing much about myself; but with what Ariel just told me, I feel like I should tell her the reason I'm here. I sigh. "Um, well, my dad has connections in here, he's best friends with uh, Commander Leo, and when my mom got infected, our house just wasn't safe anymore." I shrug and look at my feet.
Ariel's worried expression is wholesome and honest. "So did you guys just leave her?"
I clear my throat. "No, um, she died. But… yeah, uh," I stumble over my words, still untrusting of this whole story telling thing. "She died in my kitchen, so, our house was contaminated, and unsuitable for our health." I measure my words right, biting my lip. Ariel leans forward and gives me the thing I've needed for a long time: A hug. I don't hug her back for a few seconds, unsure of this whole contact-to-contact thing with people other than my family and close friends, but I guess, now that Ariel knows my story and I know hers, it makes her the closest friend I've ever had.
Chapter Six: Danny
We all sit against the makeshift bar, made of different types of metals welded together. Tom ordered a beer right off the bat, and sits in silence as he slowly drinks it down. Leo and I have the homemade drink, described only by the guy behind the bar as "Mind Rotting". So, therefore, it's called the Rotten Mind. It's a mix of beer, whiskey, cherry juice, and an unknown factor that makes the aftertaste fill your mouth with a piece of heaven. It's sour and yeasty, hurts like hell going down and makes your blood want to burst, but when it hits your stomach, the aftertaste explodes over your taste buds, a sweet alcoholic cherry flavor. It's the most popular beverage here. Two other soldiers sit in the back of the dimly lit bar, drinking their Rotten Mind through a straw. There's a small stereo in the far corner of the room that plays three different songs repeating over and over again every single day: Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, and About a Girl by Nirvana. The owner of the bar says that they're his three favorite bands, and that their music is rarely listened to, constantly replaced by a faster-paced techno rhythm.
Tom finishes his first beer and orders a second. "You should try this Tom," I offer him my Rotten Mind but he scrunches his nose and sips his beer.
"Ah," he says after he swallows. "This is damn good beer my friend."
"Really?" Leo asks, taken aback. "I think it tastes rather nasty compared to the beers we used to be able to drink."
Tom chuckles and takes a huge gulp. "Yeah, but can you remember the last time beer was legal?"
Chapter Seven: Tori
Ariel insists on turning on the TV for "just a few seconds" so she can see what a big TV is like, and "a few seconds" turns into "give me a minute" and "hold on, I'm almost done". I end up sitting on my bed picking my nail when Ariel finally turns off the TV. I can't blame her for being fascinated, if I grew up with a TV the size of a car's side mirror, I guess I would think it was cool too. A red-finger nailed hand whacks mine out of my mouth sharply, making the skin above my fingernail rip upward. My hand immediately comes up to hit her back, a reaction, and when I see Ariel scowling at me, I suddenly feel guilty.
"No chewing your fingernails! They are technically a weapon if they're grown to an inch long. It's highly recommended for girls, it's easier to open things that way." She nods and puts her hands on her hips. "Want to go to The Club?"
"Uh, what's The Club?" I say, confused.
"I guess I shouldn't have expected you to know since you're a newbie, but it's an abandoned storage room, huge, and all the people our age go there on their breaks. There's always stuff to find in there, I found an old children's toy. When you turn the handle really fast, it pops open and a little man with a painted face pops out at you!" her voice is excited. "But, we're technically not supposed to be in there, and the security does a checkup every two weeks. If you're caught, you serve a month in the workout gym. I heard they make you do push-ups for two hours non-stop, until your biceps are as big in circumference as a soccer ball. But, nobody has ever been caught besides one boy, who's all official now, I actually heard he sits pretty high in the hierarchy thrones here. The workout gym must have really changed him, unless the punishment isn't the push-ups. Tori, I've seriously considered this, and I think he was brainwashed."
I stand up and throw my nearly empty bag over my shoulder. "Ariel, you're such a crazy skeptic. Brainwash?"
She shrugs. "Yeah, I know, but all the evidence is right in front of us! Sneaks into a storage place- I heard with his girlfriend- and gets caught. Punishment? Who knows? All we know is that he was gone for a month. When he came back, he was no fun and games. He had plans on being a commander as soon as he got back."
I turn to her as I open the door. "I seriously doubt-" I'm cut off because somebody rams into the back of the door, flinging me into the door frame. "Geez!" I yell, shoving back the door to see who the idiot is. Well what do you know; it's my new partner Chris. "Oh, great. I get the partner who walks into doors." I joke, helping him up.
"Sorry, it just kind of came flying at me." He brushes off his dark brown shorts.
"Yeah, sorry," I say, making a face. He chuckles and Ariel steps out.
"Nobody's dead, right Tori?" she looks at Chris and sighs with relief. "Oh thank goodness. I thought I was going to have to scrape somebody off the floor."
Chris laughs and looks back at the people waiting for him. "Hey, we were just going to The Club, want to join us?"
Ariel takes my hand and walks with Chris. "Yeah, we were just heading there now." I furrow my eyebrows and remember the items in my bag: my contact chip, a few bucks, and most importantly, my pepper spray.
The map to The Club is a labyrinth of turns, stairs, secret shortcuts, tip-toeing, and whispering. Finally, one of Chris's friends, Hannah, stands up straight and doesn't bother to tip toe. I almost tell her to crouch, but the others stand up straight too, relaxing. We must be here. Chris holds the door open for everyone, and brings up the rear behind me. When I look around, it's a dimly lit room filled with junk. This is it? I think to myself. I look at Chris with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, I know it doesn't look fun right now, but, come on." He waves me to follow him and I do with Ariel at my heels. We duck under a short light pole, climb over three cars stacked on top of each other, and Chris holds out his hand for me at the bottom of a seven foot drop onto unsteady wood. I put my weight to my hand to transfer to his, and I swiftly land on the wood without a sound. Chris smiles and nods, helping Ariel down. There's a canvas covering something, and muffled sounds come from under it. We hop off the roof of a car and back onto the cement ground. Chris lifts the canvas and a sudden wave of loud noises comes to me. I'm surprised that a simple canvas can cover that noise, but when I look under it, there are a few layers of plastic and another material underneath it. This place is soundproof. There's two small fans circulating air around the large room. Strings of weird lights criss-cross at the top, lighting everyone's faces. I smile and nod approvingly.
"Pretty cool huh?" Chris shouts over the loud din. I smile wider and nod again. There's a curtain that separates another dark room.
"What's in there?" I ask, crossing the distance and pulling the curtain back at the same time that Chris says, "Tori, don't do that!" The room is dark and quiet, the only signs of people being the whites of their eyes, a white t-shirt, and the flashing exposure of teeth. Nobody talks, and it takes me a moment too long to realize that this is a separate room for lovers. I back up, my expression appalled, and Chris bites his lip, trying not to laugh. Ariel, however, can't hold it in. "Shut up!" I snap, and she stops her laughing with a sigh. "Are people not allowed to date here?" I ask, noticing the way a couple sits on a dingy sofa, the girl sits across his lap and he plays with her dark curly hair.
"Well, I guess technically they can, but they frown upon it here, and if you're caught in the act, then you can get thrown out for possibly transmitting sexual diseases."
My face scrunches. "Ew."
He nods. "Yeah I know, what's the point?"
Ariel steps in. "Now hold on, haven't you guys ever heard of young love? Every kid here dreams of it, and you all know that. These kids just refuse to give it up. Now is that so bad?"
I roll my eyes. "Leave it to Ariel to be optimistic." She smiles and shrugs.
"Pourquoi n'y bonjour belle."
I spin around to see a teenage boy with dark stubble across his chin, kneeling to me. My face contorts with confusion and the boy looks up at me, waiting for a response. "Huh?" I ask, raising my eyebrow.
"I said, pourquoi n'y bonjour belle." He smiles and nods.
"And I'm supposed to know what that means?" I ask him, my voice coming out annoyed. Chris and Ariel snort with laughter behind me. I make and angry face at them and turn back to the boy and sigh. "Alright, what are you saying to me?" I cross my arms over my chest.
He takes my hand and kisses the top of it. I quickly draw it back and whack him on the side of the cheek with it, not painfully, but enough to tell him to knock it off. He rubs his cheek. "Geez, I just said hello beautiful!" he says. "You're a feisty one!" he frowns and rubs his cheek.
"Oh suck it up, it's not like it really hurt." I say, narrowing my eyebrows. His words finally click in my mind. "Oh, um, thank you." I stutter, turning back to Ariel. She widens her eyes and turns me back to the boy.
"Have you been assigned a partner yet?" he asks.
I nod and jab a thumb back at Chris. "Yeah, that's my partner."
He raises his eyebrows. "Well, I'm sure you guys will be moved up to a top class in no time. You have yourself a very strong partner." I look back at Chris to see him avoiding eye contact. "He actually taught me some of his moves, eh Fighter Boy?" the kids pretends to punch Chris in the arm and he laughs. Chris pretends to give a bark of laughter, but there's something behind it.
"What was the trade?" I ask immediately, catching on.
"The trade?" The boy asks, adding an accent. "Cours de français!" he smiles to me and clarifies: "I just said French lessons."
"Hmm," I say, stepping toward Chris. "So you know French?"
He nods. "Very fluently, too."
"Why did you want to know how to speak French?"
He shrugs. "I guess I never really liked how this country doesn't let people immigrate from other countries anymore. It's hard to find people who speak other languages nowadays. I also know German and Italian."
"Okay," I say, tapping my lip with my index finger. "Say 'I have eight bananas' in each language."
He sucks in a deep breath to think for a minute then says, "French: J'ai huit bananes! Italian: Ho otto banane! And now German: Ich habe acht Bananen!"
I grin and clap my hands. "What would you want from me to teach me how to speak French?" I ask Chris, biting my lip in hope. The French language sounds interesting and fun.
"I don't know yet, but I'll tell you when I figure it out." He holds out his hand. "Deal?"
I laugh. "Deal."
Chapter Eight: Danny
After seven beers and half a glass of Rotten Mind, Tom is a little on the drunk side. Not yet completely gone, but so his words are all slurred together and he leans forward when he speaks.
"I don't know what I'm doing guys." He says, looking at both of us.
"What do you mean?" I ask, furrowing my eyebrow.
"I don't know what I'm going to do without Tara. She was the most unselfish person I've ever known. The girls, they need a mom. I know Tori doesn't act like it, but she needs a mom, because there's some things a father can't do. And I'm afraid for my girls. You hear about the kids that lose a parent and get all rebellious and they drink and smoke and do drugs. I don't want my girls to be like that, but I don't know how to stop it."
Leo leans forward and hits his fist on the table. "Tom, I don't think you have to worry about that. You have good kids who are smart and know what's right and what's wrong. Tori is a girl with good judgment; and you know who she learned that from?" It goes silent as Tom doesn't even take a guess. "You." Leo pokes his finger in Tom's chest. Leo has had a bit too many, unlike me, who still sits finishing off my first Rotten Mind.
Tom takes a gulp of his beer. "You really think so?"
"No sir, I know so." Leo nods and then Tom and him start cracking up laughing.
I lean forward to the bartender. "Sir, could you please pretend to close so the fellas will leave? I don't want them having any more."
He nods. "Oh yeah, anything for you Danny." He smiles and reaches up to the curtains that cover the bar when it's closed. "Alrightie guys, sorry but I'm closing up shop for tonight."
Leo and Tom groan and get up from their stools, walking back to their dorms with me. Luckily, they can walk a straight line and pretend to be completely okay. Once they're in the dorm, I step outside in the silence to clear my head like I do every night before I go to sleep.
"Hey comrade." A familiar voice says. I look up to see Ava, leaning against the opposite wall. "Rotten Mind?" she asks, crossing the hallway to stand next to me.
"Eh, yeah. I figured Tom could use a drink after all he's been through these past few days." Ava nods with understanding, bumping my shoulder.
"You're not drunk, right?"
"Oh no, I didn't even finish my first." She smiles and leans her head back against the wall, bringing her knees up to her chest and dangling her knotted hands between them.
"Do you remember the days when we could actually sit outside and stare at the stars?" she asks, looking at the high ceiling as if it were the dotted night sky.
"Yeah, a little." I say, looking at the ceiling with her. "Just the darkness of it, and the really clear nights, but I didn't really look at it much when I was younger."
She sighs. "I wish I could remember what it looked like. I've only seen pictures. What's it like to be engulfed with the night sky?" she asks me, sounding like an excited child.
"Well," I furrow my eyebrows. "It just feels open, like it's easier to breathe I guess."
She bites her lip and looks down at her fingers sounding disappointed. "You don't know, do you?"
I purse my lips. "I'm afraid not." She nods and stares back up at the ceiling. "When I was younger, my parents and I used to go out to some forest or jungle every weekend, and my mom would collect plant information and my dad would, well, explore. I remember once, when we were in a forest, I looked at the sunset and it was an array of pinks, oranges, yellows, purples, blues. I sat there and stared at it until it was dark. And that's my only memory of the sky." She looks at me. "Sad, aint it?"
I nod. "Yeah, a little."
She takes in a deep breath and stands up. "Well, I'll see you around Danny."
"See ya," I say, giving her a wave as she disappears down the metal hallway. I nod to myself and escape back in my room, the possibility of my head being cleared after that, impossible.
Chapter Nine: Tori
Ariel, Chris, and I walk to our dorms with half an hour still to spare before curfew. Ariel is giddy with excitement, and Chris makes a face at me and I laugh. I think the music got to her head.
"That guy, he like, he soo wanted you!" she says, clutching my bicep.
I shake her off. "Well, it's okay cause I didn't want him. I guess he can just keep lusting." I give her a smile to soften my bluntness. Sometimes, the things I say are so jagged around the edges that I feel like they literally scrape at people and hurt them, even if it's not directed to that person.
"Do you know how often that happens Tori? Most guys are too afraid to like a girl, or some-" she leans across me and looks at Chris as we walk down a dimly litted hallway to Ariel's dorm. "Are just too caught up in being special that they think they don't need a woman. But guess what? All guys need a woman. Women are the cushion for a man's hard day of work, they even out the man's... well, maliness, and they make them an all together better person. Yin and yang. The sun and the moon. They're supposed to go together."
"Technically, if the sun and the moon went together, we'd die." Chris points out, which brings a laugh out of me and a scowl from Ariel.
"Come on Ar, you know I'm not 'the cushion to a man's hard day of work'." I snort. "I'm hardly a cushion for myself. The only cushion I have is the one I'm going to crash on when I get home."
The word escapes my throat before I can stop it. This place is not home to me, and it never will be. I'll never be home again. They say home is where the heart is, and my mom had the biggest heart out there. Now that it has stopped beating, the house is cold. My heart is homeless. The dorm is just a temporary stop to where I'm supposed to be going next. Wherever that may be.
Ariel and Chris stop talking, maybe remembering their homes in the time before the sickness. I notice the limpness of Ariel's hands, which were swinging merrily just moments ago.
"This is my dorm." Ariel mumbles, leaning against the door. "My roomate is probably sleeping already, since they don't know how to have fun." she smiles. "Goodnight, see you tomorrow." She opens the door just a crack and I hear her roomate curse at her.
Chris and I walk to the A dorm hallway, sicne both of us are upperclass. We stop at my dorm with ten minutes left. "So, why are you upperclass?" I whisper, hearing the snore of Alexis.
He rubs his nose and opens his mouth to speak, but then thinks for a moment. "Um, my parents."
"Oh," I say, noticing his hesitation. "Rough topic?"
He shrugs. "Nothing new, just something I don't talk about much."
"Well, I want to know." I say kindly, leaning against the wall.
He sighs. "My dad was second in command on the battlefield and my mom was killed by the sickness. My dad was shipped off to fight just a day after my mom's passing. He was so distracted that he got gunned down immediately. The thing is, they still do that. They have no sympathy and that's what get's people killed."
"I thought it was having sympathy that got people killed."
He shakes his head and looks me in the eyes. "Not in this case." he checks his chip for the time. "Listen, I better go." he knocks my forearm with his knuckle. "See ya tomorrow partner." he grins and walks away.
Alexis and Gabby appear asleep on the bunks. Gabby's hands are folded under her cheek and Alexis snores childishly.
"Guys, go to sleep." I say, plunking on the couch. The snoring gets louder and I laugh. The sound of crumpled fabric fills the silence between a snore, and then soft, little feet padding across the floor. Gabby comes up to me and sits in my lap.
"Tori, we can't sleep. Mommy always tucked us in before we went to sleep. My blankets were all loose and I was cold. Tori, I miss Mommy." she wraps her little arms around my neck and rests her cheek on my shoulder. I kiss her cheek and pat her back, and it isn't long before Alexis climbs up too. Soft little sounds of sniffling come from their noses right under both my ears, and I try to comfort them both.
When the crying is subdued, I carry each of them to their bunks, and set them down gently, like I saw my mother do years ago. Gabby wipes her eyes and I tuck the blankets underneath her. She holds her arms out to me and calls "Kiss." I bend down and plant a kiss on her forehead and she kisses the side of my lips, stretching to kiss Alexis, who rests on my other hip.
The same routine goes for Alexis, and they soon fall into a real sleep. But now, I can't find rest. My body wants to keep moving, to distract myself from this silence so I don't end up thinking. Because thinking turns to emotions, and emotions make you soft. If I'm supposed to be a soldier and a pretend-mom, how am I supposed to manage my softness?
In the morning, I stretch and let myself yawn. I fell asleep on our couch, but it was still really comfortable. My stomach grumbles and I get off the couch, walk to my right and reach out to open the door. Only after the suction noise the door makes when it opens do I realize that my routine has changed. I'm not at home anymore, I'm in a building made of metal. A dorm made of three. Three girls, three bunks, three emotionally scarred hearts.
The suction awakens the girls, and they sit up, Gabby clutching her blanket and Alexis holding to her stuffed animal for dear life. "Hey Tori." Gabby mumbles, rubbing her eye and slipping out from under the covers. Alexis climbs down and reaches up to set her teddy bear on her pillow. Gabby slings her blanket across her shoulders.
"What's for breakfast?" Alexis asks. Both of them stand in front of me, waiting.
"Uh, I don't know. Let's find Dad and Uncle Leo. I think my schedule says I have breakfast and preparation time for the next hour, so let's go find some eats."
As the three of us walk down the hallway, we see a sign on a lot of doors: Do Not Disturb. Alexis reaches out and pokes the sign on my dad's door. "Can we disturb?" she whispers.
I touch the thin paper between my fingers, confused. "Um, not you guys, but I'll be right back." If my dad is crying or weeping or sobbing or anything worse, I definately don't want the girls seeing him like that.