Authors: E.R. Arroyo
scans his chip on the door, then his fingerprint, then a four-digit security
code. The door opens and we slip inside Cornelius’s apartment.
sits at his desk in a robe and reading glasses. When he sees me, he closes a
folder and sets a book on top of it. His face lights up with a warm smile.
Sometimes I think he and Vance are the only pleasant people in the whole
walk to him and lean in for him to kiss my cheek, as he always does. He’s the
only person whose touch I allow. That’s mostly because I need his protection
from Nathan, so I tolerate his affection.
I pull away from him I realize Titus sits across from Cornelius. I usually
only see him coming or going, so I never quite know how to act around him. But
if he’s here, Cornelius trusts him. Titus is the only person besides Vance who
Cornelius doesn’t hide his affection for me from.
is always here because he’s Cornelius’s personal guard. I’m here because Cornelius
cares about me--the daughter he never had or something like that. But why is
plop down in the empty chair beside Titus, and he quickly rises to offer his
seat to Vance. He stands near the desk with his hands behind his back.
Usually he leaves when I arrive.
let’s hear about it.” Cornelius smiles.
can’t help but grin. “Oh, nothing big. Testing out some new idea. You know,
could have broken her leg or something,” Vance chimes in, tapping the armrest
with this fingertips. “I’d really love if you could put some of that energy
into endurance training, or more importantly for you, strength training.” He
finally looks at me instead of Cornelius.
worked out in my cell.” I cross my arms, embarrassed to be scolded in front of
Titus. A couple years ago, he was a familiar face in the Underage cafeteria,
but I don’t really know him.
happened to your face?” Vance asks.
got hit.” I think back to Nathan hitting me, and try to push the memory away.
Cornelius would be angry to hear it, and I don’t think I should tell him. I
don’t think he’s feeling well today.
didn’t you defend yourself?” Vance sits forward in his chair, meeting eyes
briefly with Titus.
scowl at him, and he seems to get my meaning immediately.
know, not fighting back makes you look weak,” Titus interjects, obviously not
knowing that my attacker was Nathan. I can’t fight back against him. Sure,
it’s Cornelius who’s really in charge here, but I sense that even Cornelius
shouldn’t be encouraging me to fight anyway. I wonder if Titus knows that
Vance trains me, since it’s technically illegal.
you want to look weak, Cori?” Vance reaches across the space between us and
pokes me in the ribcage. I grab his hand and twist it back, throwing my body
into him as we both rise from our chairs.
wraps his free arm around my waist and lifts me off the ground, carrying me
into the open space in the center of the room. When he sets me on my feet, I
duck and swipe at the hand that reaches for me. He taunts me with his fists,
coming at me from multiple directions. I deflect every attempt. But he’s not
trying very hard.
finally gets a hand past my guard and slaps me somewhat gently on the chin.
“Pay attention.” I remember Nathan’s cold fingers on my jaw, and heat rushes
to my cheeks. Anger, too.
glance over my shoulder and see Cornelius propped forward with his elbows on
the desk, smiling. Titus watches intently, but without expression.
grit my teeth and throw a punch at Vance’s shoulder, and miss. In return, he
plants his fist into my deltoid. With pain searing through my arm, I take a
step back from the fight.
have to learn to take a punch, Cori.” He steps toward me. “You’re
distracted. Focus on me. Don’t think about him.” He means Nathan. He knows
that’s who hit me. He says it softly enough that Cornelius probably didn’t
hear, and I appreciate it.
I don’t stop thinking about Nathan, instead he’s all I think about. The
threat. The strike to my face. The slimy look in his eyes. The fear I felt
in that cell. And I attack Vance, punches flying, arms flailing. I’m not even
guarding myself anymore. I take a shallow punch to the ribcage, but deliver
one as hard as I can muster directly to Vance’s face. And I keep hitting.
grabs me by the wrists to stop me. “Enough.” I resist, tugging my arms, but
he holds tightly.
Cornelius says. I stop in my tracks, embarrassed by the red mark on Vance’s
Vance lets go, Cornelius rises to meet me. “Are those boys bullying you
again?” His eyebrows are drawn inward with concern, further accentuating his
deeply wrinkled skin. Bullies were the original reason Cornelius made Vance
start training me. That was ages ago.
sir. It’s nothing.”
take you to get some rest.” Vance grabs my elbow.
sorry, V.” I look up at him as I pull my elbow away.
the way to the door, Vance simply nods. He doesn’t look angry, but he has a
right to be. I’ve never hit him that hard, not in the face. “If you do it
again, I’ll give you a hug.”
, I think.
follows us, and before I reach the door, I turn back to him. He wraps a
fragile arm around me and kisses my temple--something my father used to do.
When I turn to the door, it’s already open and Nathan stands there, glaring at
me. His jaw is tight, and he thrusts his hands into his pockets.
Nathan had come a few moments sooner, he would have caught us fighting. Nathan
can’t know that Vance trains me. For my safety and Vance’s.
begins to follow us out, but Cornelius stops him. “Remember what I told you,
nods. “I will, sir.”
I pass through the doorway with Vance and Titus on my heels, Nathan backs away,
not so big and bad with his father in the room. Vance shuts the door a little
harder than necessary before leading me back to the elevator.
room is how I left it, and my bed looks inviting if for no other reason than
it’s warm and dry. I check the hall before closing the door then check under
the bed as well. With the coast clear, I slide my dresser--the only other
piece of furniture besides the bed--to the opposite wall and climb atop it. I
move the metal grate away from the large vent and reach my hand inside. I’m
pleased when I wrap my fingers around the small canvas pouch and rip it from
the velcro holding it there.
I return the vent cover, I sprawl on my bed and open the case. Inside is a
hand-held device that Dylan found for me. The tiny screen is broken, but the
projector still works. When I turn it on, a light shines and I point it at the
ceiling, where words appear. The device has tons of memory, storing hundreds
of books--history, fiction, poetry. Today, a man named William Shakespeare
attempts to teach me of love, as he often does, but I fear I’m not a worthy
student of affection. His beautiful words exhaust me and I allow myself to
close my eyes.
do not understand Shakespeare, and I don’t understand love. But the lady poet,
Millay, who speaks of freedom, I can relate to. I think of her as I drift to
will be the gladdest thing
will touch a hundred flowers
not pick one.
will look at cliffs and clouds
the wind bow down the grass,
the grass rise.
when lights begin to show
from the town,
will mark which must be mine,
then start down!”
dreaming of walking free with flowers and endless green hills, I drag myself
into consciousness. It takes a moment for me to realize I haven’t woken myself
up, something else has. It’s alarming--no, it’s actually an alarm. There are
many types but this one is less severe than others. They are calling us to
I reach the yard, most of the colony is already there, and Nathan is standing
atop some wooden crates with a microphone and some type of amplifier. From the
look of pleasure in his eyes, I can’t help but think this must be bad news.
of Antius, please, come close.” He waves people closer, though I can’t see how
we can pack in any tighter. I already feel the heat of those around me, and
I’m thankful I’m standing near the back so I’m not completely closed in.
we suffer a great loss together. Our fearless leader, my father, has passed
away.” With absolutely no reaction from the crowd, he rephrases. “Cornelius
he says next rushes past in a blur. I’m stuck in the moment with the words
“Cornelius is dead” reverberating in my skull. Every hair on my arms stands on
end as I realize all at once the gravity of what he’s said. Cornelius is
dead. Cornelius, my saving grace--who I saw just hours ago--is dead. The man
who laughed at my sarcasm when Nathan was enraged by it. The ruler who
disapproved of my tricks and schemes but forced Nathan to punish me
mercifully. The only person keeping Nathan from really hurting me, is dead.
scan the crowd and manage to locate Dylan, whose eyes are already locked on me
and filled with concern. I look away to find another pair of eyes, Nathan’s.
My body goes cold, and I think I see him smirk for a fraction of a second.
This is bad.
lunch, the room is somber, but normal and orderly. Kids file by the buffet and
sit quietly with their trays. I sit with Alyssa, wishing it were Dylan
instead. She’s dear to me, but our friendship is shallow. She doesn’t know me
like he does, and I don’t trust her as much. I catch Dylan’s gaze several
times and wish he would relax. Our friendship has always managed to offset the
best and worst of each other’s moments--though I have more bad moments than
anyone here--but right now I need him strong because I’m on the brink of
can’t imagine what the death of Cornelius means other than Nathan is now the
number one. He has total control, complete authority. His rule will be
commotion draws my attention away from my bowl of muck, and I see him standing
in the doorway, Nathan. I’ve rarely seen him set foot in this building.
Usually government and military dine in their own underground facilities. Only
civilians live topside.
messing with me
I think, scared but a little pissed off,
he strides over and sits beside me, all I can think is that I should have sat
with a random today and not Alyssa. I hear her spoon shaking against her bowl
and I shoot her a quick look. She rights herself and pulls the spoon from the
takes a long, deep breath and exhales so slowly it irritates me. I just watch
him, transfixed, not sure what to do.
afternoon, 1206. Nice to see you again,” he says.
is all I can manage.
bowl for me, please,” he shouts across the room, which has been dead silent
since he entered. A moment later, Dottie comes through the kitchen door with a
fresh, steaming bowl of slush. She sets it softly before him then hands him a
spoon, careful not to make eye contact. Smart lady.
stirs the slush gently and scoops out a little. As he blows on the spoon to
cool the food, I glance over my shoulder and notice two guards by the door.
takes a small bite, considers the food, moving it around in his mouth. It
seems to take forever before he finally swallows and says, “It’s horrible but
it contains the necessary nutrients. It keeps us alive. Sometimes the things
we need come in packages we don’t enjoy.” He seems to be talking to no one in
particular, but I know it’s directed at me.
can feel Dylan staring, but I don’t chance looking back and Nathan following my
eyes to him. I’ve already put Alyssa at risk by sitting with her. Can’t put
Dylan in danger, too.
of a sudden, Nathan perks up and drops his spoon in the bowl. He stands and
addresses the whole room. “The funeral for my father will be held at 1800.
Your caretakers will make sure you have something proper to wear. All minors
must be present for an announcement immediately following the service.”
citizens have died, but none have earned a funeral, so this is new.
I meet Nathan’s eyes, he whispers, “You should ice your cheek.” Then he
winks. Winks! And I can’t shake the feeling that something awful is coming.
For a moment, a brief moment, I wish he would go ahead and put me out of my
misery. If he wants me dead, I’d be easy to kill, what with all the soldiers
and weapons at his disposal.