Chapter 1: Astrid
One Year Later
My muscles are stronger than they ever have been. My body aches with each step I take through the deserted hallways. Ever since that first day of chaos, things have been better. I turn the corner and remember what happened after Iris and I found a safe spot to stay.
Rena got on the intercom and told everyone to report to the Gym. I told Iris to stay in the bathroom with the door locked until I came back. I walk through the doors into the Gym and take a seat on the bleachers. Rena and Peter sit on the stage talking quietly. Rena looks up when the door shuts and finds me. She motions me over. I get up and walk to her as she jumps off the stage. I notice that Peter’s changed from his bloody white shirt into his football jersey.
“Hey.” I say, looking around to see who showed up.
“Hey. A lot has happened in the last couple of hours, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah. I tried to get a hold of my parents or the police and no one answered. It’s like our phones are being watched.”
“Yeah. I tried, too. Just some stupid mans voice. Anyways, Peter came up with an idea. I think it might work.”
“You’ll hear about it in a minute. How’s your sister? She can be such a baby sometimes.”
“She’s fine.” I say.
“Hmm. Well you might want to take a seat. Looks like we are getting started.” She watches Peter with a look of fascination as he walks towards the podium. I take a seat on the stage and watch as everyone listens to what Peter is saying.
“I’ve got a plan. For those of you that came, you did what’s right. My idea is to set up a team of guards per se to make rotations through the halls to report back if anything changes and to keep the number of killings down.”
“You’re the one who started the killings in the first place.” Some kid calls out. If I was him, I’d shut my mouth. We all saw what happened to the other kid who tried to fight Peter.
“As I was saying. I want kids who are willing to fight for what’s right, in the Guard Squad. If anything happens come to me. I also want the guards to take all the dead bodies and put them in one of the closets that no one will open. If you’re interested come to me to join.” He says that like it’s a club we should join so that it looks good on our application for college. No one stands at first. Rena looks at me and gives me a look. Before I can decipher it, she turns to Peter and whispers something in his ear. He turns back and looks at me.
“First volunteer, Astrid. Thanks for joining and welcome to the squad.” I want to resist. Tell him that I didn’t volunteer, but the look that Rena gives me is enough to silence me. After that’ two dudes from the football team and one from the nerds join. With our team of four, we meet with Peter.
“I want you to gather all the cleaning supplies and bring them to the back closet here.” he says. “After that, I need you to raid the kitchens and find whatever food is left. Split into two groups. And then pile the bodies in a room. I just wanted to thank you for volunteering. Come back after you’ve finished. We’ll start training.”
And that was the beginning of order throughout the school. One year later and we are still in the same school with the same people. Mostly. Every now and then kids will fall over dead from starvation or some other cause. After we gathered the food and supplies from the closet and any fabric from the teachers curtains, we began to train. The nerd who joined couldn’t keep up with the rest of us and he left quickly after. ‘The Guard Squad’ has grown in size. Enough kids joined because it was their best bet to live. When they found out that we were getting fed what we could find in the kitchen, they started coming to training. Iris begged me to join, but I wouldn’t let her. Especially since I hadn’t even wanted in, in the first place.
Although, we have learned some interesting things. Something escaped from a nearby facility that was testing different things. When it escaped, it ran straight for the school. And spread a disease that killed all adults in the building and some kids who turned 18. My birthday is in a month. So far no kids who’ve turned 18 have lived. I know Iris is scared for me, but I’m willing to overlook it for now.
When my watch is over, I report back to ‘Sire’ Peter and tell him that I saw no changes. He told us to report back to him if we saw anything change. Any openings or ways to escape, but so far none have been seen. Each day I guard, I hope for a way out. At least that way I can go home, but then I remind myself that if I do go home, I could kill my mother and father and then where would I be. At least in here, I can keep them safe. It makes me wonder what the government told them. I know my parents would have come looking for Iris and I.
I leave through the side door and make my way to the classroom that I’ve set up for my sister and I. It’s not much, but it’s a lot more than what other kids have. I knock on the door and wait for my sister to come to the door. Every morning, we come up with a secret word to tell the other so that no other person can come in and take our things.
“Stan.” I whisper, making sure no one is around. That’s our fathers name. Even if they did hear the word, we don’t use the same word over. She unlocks the door and lets me in. I walk over to my small sleeping area. Since Iris works with the Know-It-Alls, she made us two beds with a stuffed curtain filled with textbook pages. I lay down on my pallet and try to erase the images that haunt me. Instead, I think about how well the different groups are improving. Within each group, we wear colors to keep us apart.
The Know-It-Alls make the things we use and need, from the desks to the floor tiles. They wear yellow. They say it induces happiness through their group along with keeping their minds focused. They pair up with the Dorks who tend to think they know more than the know-it-alls do. The Dorks wear green for harmony. The Freaks of Nature wash all the clothes that are brought to them. They wear red for courage, but Peter thinks it’s a small act of war. The Varsity take care of all the people who deceive the rules. Usually when the Varsity step in, no one ever sees those kids again. The Varsity wear their football jerseys or blue which is one of our school colors. The Darlings rule the school. Those are the cheerleaders and the hand-picked football players good enough to rule with them. The Darlings wear white to show their superiority. Even with the way things have been dirtied up the last year and a half their clothes still shine. The Skanks keep everyone wearing clothes no matter how little they tend to wear. The Skanks wear grey or nothing at all. The Punks mostly consist of the Guard Squad. If they aren’t, they’re usually tending to the food. Trying to salvage it. Make it last. The Punks wear brown although they sneak clothes of black more often than not. The Guard Squad wears black. I usually switch my clothes that I wore with the clothes that I learned how to make from the black curtains in our room. There wasn’t much, especially since I messed up so bad I couldn’t wear it, but I made do. And The Nobody’s. Well, we aren’t really sure how they’ve lived this long without helping Peter in some way. All we know is that they live in the basement where we pile the trash. And the Nobody’s make do with any color clothes. They’re fortunate to get clothes at all. Usually they come from the trash, which happens to be scraps. All these groups keep order throughout the school. If not for these groups I’m betting that there would be more dead kids.
“How were things today?” Iris asks, sitting on her own makeshift bed.
“Same as always.” I tell her. Ever since the first couple of weeks, we’ve put everything aside and we became like the sisters we should have been.
“I made something for you today.” she says.
“Really? What is it?” I ask. She hands me what looks like a knife. I hold it up in the little light that the room has and examine it. The hilt looks like it was made from a chair leg and the blade looks like it was made from the tiled flooring. I look up at her and smile. “Thanks. Although I’m not sure what I would use this for.”
“You never know.” she says.
“That’s true.” You never know when you could need something sharp.
“When’s the next shipment coming?”
“Tomorrow.” I say, thinking about how early I’m going to have to get up.
“Well, we should get some rest.” she says settling down. I turn my back on her and close my eyes. I drift into a deep sleep with my new knife pressed into my chest.
I wake up early the next morning. I grab my backpack and take it to the bathroom down the hall. I strip out of my black jeggings and t-shirt. I take water from the sink and splash it on my body and face to cool me down. I take out a bar of soap and quickly wash my body. When I’ve almost dried. I pull on the black shorts that I made out of the curtain and throw on the black shirt that almost looks like a crop top with the loose ends. I pull my hair into a ponytail with the only hair band I thought to bring that first day. I stand in front of the mirror, looking at myself. I look different. Skinnier. My hair has grown since the last time I looked in a mirror. I smile at myself, but the smile doesn’t reach my eyes. I tuck the knife into my waistband and walk down the hall. When I make it back to the room with Iris’s help, I lace up my worn combat boots and make my way to the gym as Iris makes her way to the library. I walk around the corner and see Peter and a Skank making out. I shake my head as I walk past them. This sparks a memory from after the first couple of weeks in here.
I stare at the stage with Rena in her white mini dress and her hair curled. “When I say your name, we are welcoming you with open arms into our group. Presley. Curt. Trista. Carmen. Lauren. Peter. Jordan. And last but not least Candy.” She says that last one as she looks at me. We haven’t been friends since the day that she volunteered me. She watches me from the outskirts. Always smirking. Knowing she is better than me in every possible way. I stare back at her with determination. The new ‘initiates’ climb onto the stage and stand proudly behind her. Rena skips over to Peter and gives him a long kiss that makes the crowd uneasy. When she turns back, she smiles sheepishly at the crowd. I shake my head and walk away. It wasn’t as though I was going to get picked to be with The Darlings. I never knew what I did wrong, but she must really hate me to not let me into her group.
I skip to the gym, knowing when I get there I’m going to have some news. I open the doors with a bang and see Rena sitting on the stage wearing white jeans and a white crop top. Her dark skin glows along with her pin straight hair. Only the Darlings have curling irons and straighteners. Not that I would need them. I don’t give a crap about my appearance. There’s no one here I need to impress. I skip towards Rena and say, “Guess who I just saw making out? You’re not going to believe it. Or you might.”
“What do you want?” she asks.
“Well someone’s not in a good mood. Anyways, I saw Peter with some Skank. They were getting down.” I say.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well. Your problem not mine. Maybe look at his lips.” I say and happily skip away.
Peter comes in a second later. I watch him interact with Rena, before she slaps him. I watch him apologize and then she kisses him. When Peter turns around again, he notices that most of the guards are watching. He raises his eyebrow and walks over to stand in front of us.
“Today the fourth shipment comes. Since the last couple of times, they’ve brought it in through the front door, let’s set up guards in a block and if anyone’s tries to get through you know what to do. Let’s go.” Yeah. We know what to do. We knock them out or kill them. We’ve been taught how to beat someone over until they can’t get up anymore. We follow him out and set up around the front entrance. Some onlookers watch us from the shadows as we get into position. I watch them weary praying they don’t intervene. A bang sounds from outside the doors. Some guards turn their heads, but others like me know not to. And that’s when things get crazy.
Kids from all around move in, but not before a crash comes from above us. I look up just in time to see planks of wood falling through the glass roof. I fall to the ground and cover my head. Other kids aren’t lucky. They either get cut with glass or they don’t get out of the way fast enough and the planks of wood kill them. Someone steps on my hand as kids try to get to the wounded. And then it happens. It rains food. Packs of dried and canned food fall through the opening in the glass. I jump to my feet and run over to grab packs. Laundry kits, water, food, fabric and first aid kits fall like rain. I grab as many as I can carry and remember that I am still wearing my backpack from earlier this morning for the portions that I was going to receive later today. I take it off and begin stuffing anything I can get my hands on into my backpack. I don’t realize until too late that kids are killing each other to get supplies. When my backpack is so full it almost doesn’t shut, I zip it up, grab a couple more packets and a plank of blood covered wood and make my way back to the classroom. I hear a scream from behind me as I drag the plank of wood behind me. Someone grabs at my backpack and I swing the wood at them. The grab onto it and rip it out of my hands. I leave the wood behind and run as splinters sting my palms. When I get to the classroom, I throw my backpack in and lock the door behind me. I look around me and see kids bolting with their arms stuffed with packets. I shake my head and run back to the chaos. When I get there, Peter stands with a Nobody pressed against his chest and a knife pressed against his neck. The room stands in quiet waiting to see what will happen.
“Do what I say and the kid lives. Put all your packets on the floor and return to your headquarters. From there, we will separate the packets and deliver them to you.” Peter says in a calm voice.
“You see. We’ve gone with what you had to say the last couple of shipments and we’re starving. If you can’t tell, we’re a little mad. We want the packets that we get ourselves. Survival of the fittest if you will.” One of the Freaks of Nature yells out. “Isn’t that right. Aren’t you tired of starving while the Darlings and the Varsity get fed. We work for our food. What do you do?”
“He’s right!” A Skank yells. She looks like she could fall over any second from starvation. “I think we should be able to fight for our food.”
“Yeah, but hasn’t this worked for a year, almost two. I think we should stick with what we are doing.” Rena says.
“Of course you would. You get all the food anyways while we work for ours.” the Know-it-all yells.
“How about we make a promise. You trust us and we give you more food.” Peter says.
“Why would we trust you? You’ve killed kids who didn’t deserve to die.” the Know-it-all yells. And that sets off Peter. He cuts the kids neck and moves in on the Know-it-all. We watch as Peter makes his way to the kid and smiles at him. He looks over at us and laughs before stabbing the kid. He gasps and stares at his stomach where the knife sticks out of it.
“Don’t defy me. This process has worked for a year. Hand over your packets and we’ll ration them equally.” He yanks the knife out of the poor kid and wipes the blood on the boy’s shirt. The boy falls down on his knees as he looks up at Peter. We watch as the life drains out of the kids face before he falls to the floor. Packets are handed over to Peter and then the room full of kids disperses. We head back to the gym and count each packet into equal parts.
“General Bardot, deliver these to each group and tell them that we counted each packet that was returned and split them evenly.” Peter says. I take the bags from his bloody hand and nod. I walk out of the gym and make my first stop at the library that is just down the hall from the gym. I knock once and wait for the Know-it-alls to make an appearance. When the door opens, I hand them their bag filled with packets.
“Peter told me to tell you that we counted all the packets and split them evenly into each group. I would personally like to say that I watched him count them and place them into your bag.” I say. I don’t know why I’m being nice. Maybe I feel bad for the kid that died. The Know-it-all nods and takes the bag. He looks at me one more time and then closes the door. I take the stairs down to the main office. I knock on the door and wait for The Skanks to open the door. When they do I tell them the same thing I told the others. They nod with a respectful look in their eyes. I do the same with The Freaks of Nature in the cafeteria, The Dorks in the auditorium, The Punks in the back row of classrooms, The Nobody’s in the basement, the Varsity in the locker rooms and return to the gym to see the Darlings pigging out on their serving. After I report back, they let me go without really looking at me. I turn to leave when I notice Peter’s watchful eyes on me as I leave. I shake him off and continue to my classroom. I go to unlock the door with my key, but find it already unlocked. I turn the nob cautiously. When I step in I see my sister sitting on her bed pointing at me. I get what she means exactly as a hand clamps on my mouth and another one on my waist.
“Stay quiet and your sister lives.” a boy’s ruff voice whispers in my ear. I don’t say a word. “Good. Give me your food and I will leave without a word.” I glance down at my bookbag on the floor next to the bed and then the portions on my bed. He releases me and I walk over to the bed. I grab the portions and hold them out to him.
“I swear this is all I got.” I whisper. He steps in and grabs them.
“You sure?” he asks. I nod and notice that this is a Nobody. He’s almost two times bigger than I am. “I think you’re lying.”
“I swear. I’m not.” I say.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Open it.” I bend and kick him in the knee. His knee crunches and he falls onto the floor. He starts screaming and two other Nobody’s come in. I grab my knife out of my waistband and stab the first in the gut. He falls to the floor after I yank it out of him. The next one is smarter and grabs my ponytail. I wince and gasp as everything goes black. I kick out at the guy who blocks and wraps his arm around my neck. The breath in my lungs wizzes out and I try to breathe in again. The third man comes up and punches me in the head. Iris screams. I give her a look and go slack. I slip a few inches and stab the knife into the man’s thigh. He releases his grip on me and bends down to grab his leg. I knee him in the nose and he falls back. I twirl when I feel a punch thrown at my head. I duck and bring my arm up into the third mans stomach. He stumbles but comes back and kicks me in the head. He misses and I grab his leg and yank it out from underneath him. I stab him in the shoulder when he rolls over. He yells out a couple of choice words. I stab the guy in the throat and watch as the life drains out of him. I look up trying to steady my heavy breathing and tell the second kid to never come back or I’ll finish him off like I did with his buddies. He nods with fear and hatred in his eyes as I watch him leave. I turn back to Iris and feel the world tilt as I hit the ground and everything goes black.