“Wake up, Poppy, it’s five o’clock!” Rain yells as she yanks the blanket off my bed. I groan in annoyance and sit up, stretching my arms. “Everyone else has already left.”
“We’ll be fine,” I mutter as I throw myself back onto the bed. My head ends up hitting the wall and I let out a cry of pain. “Ow!”
Rain sighs, giving me a pitying look. “I’ll make up an excuse to tell your Dad.”
“No thanks, he’ll just see right through it,” I mutter as I get up, tripping over my shoes in the process.
Rain shrugs as she leaves the room. I quickly put on my sweatpants and a t-shirt, trying to see in the darkness. Muttering curses under my breath, I can already hear voices outside. Struggling to hurry, I finish tying on my sneakers as I hop outside my tent, only to be blinded by the sun. A dry breeze blows over my face as the sun slowly begins to rise over the dusty sky, casting a warm glow over the entire camp. The weather is already in the mid nineties, which is hilarious because this is supposed to be the cool part of the day. I can’t even remember the last time I didn’t sweat which I know, gross, but it’s painfully true.
Making a beeline for Dad, I jog slowly towards Rain and the others, my sneakers kicking up dust from behind me. Everyone is standing in a perfect line as he gives out orders, and as soon as I join them they all turn to stare at me, including Dad.
“I’m glad you decided to show up, Steinberg,” Dad says evenly. “One would’ve thought that you weren’t even part of this force by the number of times you’ve been late.”
“I apologize, sir,” I say as I quickly head to the end of the line. He nods and turns back towards the rest of the group.
“With the recent battle in the Europia Capitol, I expect many of you to be ready today for rescue missions,” he continues. “We’ll have wounded soldiers coming in by the hour, so I need all of you to stay sharp and never think for a second that you aren’t needed somewhere for duty.”
“Yes, sir,” we all said in unison.
“We’ll begin by running ten miles around the perimeter of the camp,” Dad says. “Except for Steinberg. She will be running eleven miles since she got more sleep.”
I shoot a glare at Dad, and he shows me the smallest of smirks as he waits for my reply.
“Yes, sir,” I grit through my teeth as I clench my fists. All this for only an extra five minutes of sleep, and I didn’t even get to enjoy it.
“You’re all dismissed,” Dad says and we head over to the edge of the camp. Once everyone lines up, we all begin running.
The wall, or perimeter of the camp, is completely fenced with electric wire top to bottom. We’re always careful not to touch it, since it contains enough volts to kill you with just a single touch - and that’s just the outer layer. If you make it through wires, there’s another wall behind it that’s everything-proof. Bullet proof, bomb proof, sound proof… you know what I mean. It’s indestructible and impossible to climb, even if you were the world’s greatest superhuman.
In other words I’m in a prison. And this prison is my home.
I wasn’t born here, but I was raised in this very camp. It’s ironic, how I’m fighting for a country that I haven’t even seen much of my entire life. It’s my citizenship in the U.A that shows my loyalty to the country, which I suppose counts for something. The soldiers stationed here always tell me stories of the motherland and how amazing it is to live in New Capitol, the heart of the U.A. How luxurious people live in their chic apartments, some even without the knowledge that there’s a war going on.
I wonder what it’s like to be that protected, but I guess I’ll never know.
The outside world is a complete blur. I’ve seen burned forests and deserted towns and horrifying things that no one should ever wish to see, while peace and beauty is hidden in the shadows. I want to know what it’s like to feel grass and see the green parks that the soldiers always talk about and have the feeling of not having to worry about death looming over you every minute of your day. I want that part of the world, too, but I guess I’m never going to have it as long as I’m here in Sudan.
Not like I would have anywhere to go if I left. I have no other family besides Dad, and he’s only focused on winning this war. I would never make it to the U.A without him, and that’s the part that scares me the most. I’m so dependent that I’m scared I’m living his life rather than my own.
“What the hell are you doing?” Dad yells, breaking me out of my thoughts. “Run, Steinberg!”
I run faster, trying to keep up with the other soldiers. Eventually, everyone finishes except for me, with two more miles to go. When I do finish, I quickly duck inside the tent to see Dad packing up some of his things for a rescue mission.
“Dad, I need to talk to you,” I said.
“Not now, Poppy,” he replies. “I’m leaving soon.”
“This is important,” I said. “Just hear me out.”
His face grows more serious. “All right.”
“I have been here for nearly eighteen years,” I start. “I’ve lived here my entire life, and I think it’s time for a change.”
“What kind of change do you want?” Dad asks.
“I want to go to college and get an education. I want to live in New Capitol and know what it’s like to not be in a war zone,” I said. “I can’t stay here forever.”
“How would you get there?” he asks. “Who is going to come with you? You have to think these things through before deciding to ship yourself all the way across the continent, Poppy.”
“No,” I say sharply. “Thinking is all I’ve been doing these past few months being locked up here without anything to do, and I’m done. I want out.”
“So you’re just going to quit?” he snaps. “Because last time I checked, I didn’t have a quitter for a daughter.”
“I am not a quitter,” I shoot back. “I just want change. Do you really expect me to spend my entire life here? Do you think Mom would want that?”
His face saddens as he thinks of Mom. “Don’t use her on me,” he snarls.
“Let me go, Dad. I’m not a little girl.”
“You never were.”
A silence falls between us then as Dad sighs and sits down on a stool, his face buried in his hands. I’m standing in front of him, waiting for an answer.
“You never were a little girl, Poppy. You’re a soldier,” he says. “And in more ways than one.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Does that mean you’ll let me go?”
He nods slowly. “I’ll think about it.”
I relax a little. “Thank you.”
“Your mother would’ve murdered me for raising you up like this in the first place,” he said. “You’ve done your duty serving your country, Poppy. You deserve to see the world.”
I grab him and pull him into a hug. “You’re the best, Dad.”
He hugs me back tightly. “Anything for you, baby girl.”
Just then Jonathan, another soldier, pops his head into the tent. “We’re leaving in five minutes, sir.”
Dad instantly lets go of me and his expression turns serious again. “All right.”
Dad then hurries out of his tent, but not before giving me one last hug. I rush outside to see Dad mounting onto the helicopter, already impatient for him to get back. As the helicopter takes off I pull my shirt up to cover my face, not wanting the sand to get into my mouth. I stare and stare at the helicopter until it completely disappears from my sight, leaving nothing but the roar in my ears.
Turning around, I see Allen cleaning the weapons in a nearby tent. He’s been stationed here for two years, first as a cleaning boy and now as a soldier.
“Got an agenda for today?” Allen asks as I sit on a stool across from him.
“Nope,” I sat as I lean my head on my elbow. “I haven’t gone on a mission in months.”
“You did nearly kill us in April when you went the wrong way.”
“That was one time!” I exclaim. “How was I supposed to know that there was an enemy camp right there?”
“Not my point.”
I sigh loudly. “I’m bored, Allen.”
Allen goes over and hands me a gun. “Clean.”
I shrug as I take the weapon and begin to polish it. As I’m polishing, I notice Allen staring at me.“What?”
He shrugs. “I was thinking of asking you something, but I’m not sure how you’ll respond.”
“It’s just… I’ve been hanging out with Rain for the past few weeks, and I’m really starting to like her.”
“So you want me to see if she likes you back?”
He nods. “That would be ideal.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s too boring here, anyway.”
“Thank you, Poppy,” he says. “I appreciate it.”
“Your wing woman is here.”
He laughs. “That’s not what a wing woman is.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s a person who you bring to bars and help you get laid.”
“I wish I knew what that sentence meant.”
“Eh, don’t worry about that stuff,” he says. “Look at us. We’re in a war camp. We’re polishing military weapons like it’s no big deal. This is our life, Poppy. You don’t need to worry about bars and shit like that when we’ve got a war to win.”
This makes me stop polishing for a minute. Looking at the gun in my hands, I realize that he’s right.
“You okay?” Allen says, looking at me with a look I can’t quite comprehend.
“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “Just inspecting the polishing.”
Allen shrugs and gets back to work. After an hour and a half of cleaning and polishing, I decide that I need to get up and stretch. I walk to the edge of the camp, and after being completely scanned by the guards I head into the outside world.
And by outside, I mean just twenty feet away from the camp.
There’s a few trees here and there to provide shade, and that’s really it. There were more, once. In my textbooks, it shows hundreds of trees all clustered in an area called the woods or a forest. They provided oxygen and shade and nutrients for life everywhere, but now they’re gone. Now, all that’s left are a bunch of dead trees and dust everywhere, all because of us.
I sigh as I sit down on a tree stump and drink some lukewarm water from my bottle. Looking up at the sky, I notice how perfectly blue it is today. I think of the U.A., and how there’s probably kids flying kites right now or couples riding their bikes, and I can’t help but feel jealous. They’re probably naive, ignorant people who have no idea how hard it is out here in the war world. And so while they’re out enjoying their ice cream and watching t.v in their air conditioned apartment, I’m out here in this heat wave with little water and nowhere to escape.
Suddenly, a small snore breaks me out of my thought. At first I think that I’m going crazy, but then I hear it again. Creeping towards the noise, I hold in my gasp as I notice a soldier sleeping in the bushes, his hand clutched around his gun. There’s blood everywhere and I notice that his ear has been torn off. Peering closer, I notice the yellow and red symbol sewed onto his uniform.
He’s an enemy.
I slowly take my gun out of my pocket and aim it towards his head, ready to shoot. My heart is racing at the thought that there could be more of them around here, and for a moment I wonder if I shouldn’t shoot him. My gun is really old and really loud, and if there are more around here shooting him might not be the best idea. But that decision is completely thrown out the window as soon as he opens an eye and I pull the trigger, ending his life. The shot rings around, and I listen for a moment to see if anyone else is out there.
Suddenly, I feel a bullet go through my left arm. I whip around and instantly kill whoever had just shot me with my right hand, and a soldier collapses from the trees. Looking up, I realize that there are more of them. Dozens more. Knowing that I can’t fight them all I flee from the woods, warning the base the entire way.
“Grab your weapons!” I hear Commander Gerald, the Head Guard and vice commander, call out to the other soldiers. I dash through the wall and into the camp just as the first bomb explodes, knocking me to the ground. Allen instantly runs over and lifts me up like I weigh nothing. He runs to the hospital tent and sets me down on a stretcher as a doctor runs over and examines my arm. In an instant, the bullet is removed and my arm is bandaged. Allen stays until he hears Commander Gerald calling for him, leaving me alone in the dark tent.
“Do you feel all right?” Dr. Brown asks me.
I nod, having been shot at a least a dozen times now. “I can handle it.”
I can hear the commotion going on outside, and I almost feel bad for being in here when I could be helping out with the attack. I feel like I’m missing out, which is kind of ironic since the only thing that I’m missing out on is a chance to die.
After a few more minutes, everything stops. The sounds of bombs going off, the sounds of orders being shouted, it just stops. And although the thought makes me a bit sick, I have to admit that I enjoyed all of that commotion. That was the most entertaining thing I’ve seen (or heard) in months, and I can still feel the adrenaline of the attack pumping through my body. Getting shot in the arm, running from a bomb… it’s almost as if I was in a Hollywood action movie.
I’ve only seen three action movies in my life thanks to the other soldiers, and I love every single one of them. It makes me think about the life I would have if I wasn’t in the army. I would go to school and make friends, then eventually go to college and become a director. I would create movies and people’s jaws would drop at the sight of seeing the greatest movie ever created...
I blink rapidly, snapping myself out of my daydreams. Getting up, I head outside the camp. There are soldiers hurrying around, carrying dead bodies on stretchers to burn. I see Rain and Allen hugging each other tightly, making my heart warm at the sight of them. I don’t know what Allen is so worried about. Even from here, I can tell that they have a special connection with each other.
“Thank goodness you warned us,” Gerald says gratefully as I walk over to him. “It seems that the group knew how to turn off the electricity that powers the wall, and was planning on bombing us tonight while we slept.”
Suddenly the bullet in my arm doesn’t hurt as much as the thought of everyone around me dying in their sleep.
“What’s our goal now?” I ask.
“To strengthen the wall and the surveillance to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he says. “This was too close.”
“At least everyone is all right.”
He nods. “Forgive me for saying this, but I’m glad they jumped at you and not at any other soldier. You’re tough, Poppy. You knew exactly what to do, and you saved everyone’s life because of it. ”
“I’m glad I did what I could.”
He sighs. “It was pure luck that you went out when you did and made it back. I just hope that we have that kind of luck in the future.”
Up in the sky, I see the rescue helicopter approaches the camp. Gerald and I both run towards it, expecting to see Dad and the other soldiers with some of the rescued men.
Instead, what we get are soldiers bleeding to death as they collapse onto the floor, exhausted.
“Get the doctor!” Gerald commands and Dr. Brown instantly rushes out to them. Gerald then turns towards the pilot, whose head is bleeding. “What happened?”
“Right after they went and rescued the soldiers, a battle broke out and some of the soldiers got captured by the Europia camp in Turkey, sir,” he responds frantically. “All of the rescued men made it back, but only some of the rescuers did too.”
I run towards the helicopter and launch myself inside, hoping that my Dad is in here.
“Dad?” I cry out, but no one responds. “Dad!”
He can’t do this to me. He can’t come back every day after a mission for eighteen years and then be gone today. Dad’s my only family, and I need him more than I could ever admit.
I feel a hand rest on my shoulder, and turning around I see Bryce, a soldier, standing behind me, tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Poppy,” he said solemnly. “But your Dad didn’t make it back.”
Although I don’t want to, I’m starting to cry. I hiccup a little as I make an effort to wipe my tears away with my hands, making my eyes sting. Bryce just stands there, not knowing what to do. Not wanting him to see me cry, I push back him and run off the helicopter. Running through the camp, I make a beeline for the bunks.
And when I get there, I’m exhausted. I see Rain, folding some clothes while humming a soft song. As soon as she looks up at my tear stained face, she knows something’s wrong. Instantly she pulls me into a hug and I start sobbing all over again on her shoulders. Never have I cried so much in my entire life as I had in these last five minutes, but never have I lost something so great either.
“What happened?” Rain asks me as I calm down. We both sit on her bed as I sniffle a little.
“D-Dad,” I hiccup. “He got captured.”
“Don’t worry, ” she says softly as she hugs me. “I’m sure that everyone here is working to get your Dad back. He won’t stay there for long.”
“But what if he doesn’t come back?” I whimper. “It’s happened to other soldiers before.”
“Don’t let that get to you, Poppy,” Rain says, rubbing my shoulders. “If you think that way, it could come true. And it it does, no one will be able to pull you out from the hole you’ve fallen into.”
“You know, I thought that I knew what war was,” I said. “But as it turns out, I don’t know a single thing.”
“No one knows what war is,” Rain replies, her eyes steady. For a girl my age, she’s much wiser than I am. “All we know is that it’s supposed to be a solution to our problems when compromise doesn’t work out.”
I hear a knock at the door, and we both turn around to see Allen standing there.
“We need both of you to report at the Central Tent,” he says, staring at Rain with loving eyes.
“Come on, let’s go,” Rain says gently. We both stand up, and Rain leaves the room. I’m about to follow her when Allen grabs my arm.
“Poppy, are you okay?” he says. “I heard about what happened.”
“I could lie and say that things are okay, but that wouldn’t change anything,” I say. “So no, I’m not okay.”
“We’ll be all right,” Allen says. “You’re a tough girl, you can handle this. Besides, we’ve been through worse.”
When we get to the Central Tent, a lot of the other soldiers are already there. Heads turn my way as I sit down next to Rain, and my cheeks feel hot with embarrassment at my earlier breakdown.
“I wish everyone would stop staring at me,” I mutter as I shoot a glare at one of the soldiers, who quickly turns back around and begins talking to another soldier.
“Just ignore them, Poppy. You’ve got bigger things to worry about,” Rain says.
“Attention!” Gerald calls out. Everyone quiets as they listen to what he has to say. “With our commander gone, I will take over until further notice is addressed. Tomorrow, we will send ten soldiers to report to us the status of the camp in Turkey, which in answer to other soldiers, is not in any relation to Phoenix 7. They will be staying there until we send another rescue group once we have enough information.”
I take a deep breath, relieved. Having gotten in trouble with Phoenix 7 only once, I’m terrified of them. I remember when they blew up our camp in Sulogan a few years ago after we were so hungry and dehydrated that we decided to steal some food from them. It was hot, so nothing was growing and all the wells were dried up so we didn’t have water. To make matters worse, the UN didn’t want to send supplies because they thought that their drones would get hacked if they did. We were stranded, basically. Cut off to die.
But that was a bad idea because not only did they blow up our camp, they took our general in charge. They didn’t take anyone else, just him. And when he wouldn’t give them any information, he was executed. That’s how Dad ended up being the commander in the first place.
“Poppy Steinberg, Allen Beck, Rain Graham...” Commander Gerald said.
My eyes widen as I hear my name get called. Next to me, Rain is holding her breath as her name gets called as well. We both haven’t been on something this important in months, and I thought for sure that Commander Gerald wouldn’t have picked me to go on this one because my father was involved. It’s an unspoken rule that if a family member or someone you’re close to is in a dangerous situation, you can’t come for safety reasons. And I get it. I would throw away everything that I learned and trained for if it means saving my Dad’s life, but I guess I shouldn’t tell Commander Gerald that.
As Commander Gerald finishes reading the list of names, he dismisses us and we depart from the tent.
“Hey, you okay?” Rain says, nudging me in the shoulder. “You look kind of spaced out.”
“I’m just surprised,” I said. “I never would’ve thought that he would pick me to go.”
“I guess he saw what you did out there today and thought that you redeemed yourself.”
“Seriously though, stop putting yourself down,” Rain says. “He’s sending you on a rescue mission because he knows you can handle it.”
“Or because he’s an idiot.”
That night, as we’re laying in our bunks, I reach my arm across my bed and tap Rain lightly on the shoulder. She turns around, and I can tell that she can’t sleep either.
“What do you want, Poppy?” she hisses.
I hesitate, not knowing how to word my question correctly. “Do you like Allen?”
Even in the dark, I can tell that she’s surprised. There’s a silent pause between us for a moment until she decides to answer me.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “More than I’ve loved anyone else in my entire life.”
I smile. “Ok, thanks.”
“Wait a minute,” Rain whispers. “Why do you want to know?”
I shrug. “I just want to make the correct assumption.”
“Allen set you up to this, didn’t he?”
She laughs. “You want to know the first thing I’m going to do tomorrow?”
“I’m going to walk straight up to him and mock him for not having the guts to ask me if I liked him himself and then kiss him straight on the mouth,” she says with a small sigh.
“No PDA, please,” I joke.
But she had already flipped back over, satisfied with her plan. I flip to the other side as well, and shutting my eyes I just prayed that everything would turn out all right in the end.