“You’re sure about this?” Mother asked for what felt like the hundredth time, I pulled her into a tight hug.
“Yes mother, it’s a good school. The best in the ‘verse.”
“So far from home though.” Mother sniffed, pulling away and wiping her nose with a hanky, as she pushed a loose curl of brown hair behind my ear. “My little girl.”
“Mother.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m not so little anymore.”
“You’ll always be little to me.” She smiled though her eyes shone with tears.
“You’ll always been a brat to me,” Simon added as he set my trunks down on the platform, wiping sweat from his brow.
“Bee-jway.” I punched him in the arm. He grasped his arm, faking pain. “You’re off being a big doctor in Capitol City anyway, couldn’t be bothered at home anymore.”
“So that is as good a any a reason to leave?” He grinned, hugging me tightly. “Be safe, mei mei.” I nodded into his chest, knowing I would miss his support.
“Show up all the other wanna be doctors for me?” I asked with a grin, holding back tears. As long as I could remember Simon had been there. What would my life be like without him?
“Only if you’re head of the class at this gifted school of yours,” he promised with a nod.
“Like our little girl could be anything less,” my father, wrapped his arm around my mother, smiling down at me. “Not everyone gets into a government funded school, only the best, and our River is the best of the best. Aren’t you, dear?”
“Perhaps.” I nodded. Inside I wondered if that were true. I was smart, head of my class, but the other kids at this school had probably been head of their class too. It was easy to shine in a pit of gravel, but what about in a gemstone mine?
“You will be,” Father said, as if he could read my mind. He stepped up to hug me as the first faint whistle of the train could be heard. Mother stepped up next, holding me just as tightly as before. Then Simon, my older brother, my rock, he held me at arms length, taking me in as I took in him. It could be years before we would meet again at this station, the school was across the ‘verse. When I could stand it no longer I pulled him to me, hugging tightly.
“Write me?” he asked with an odd tightness in his voice.
“Every day.” I nodded and stepped back, wiping away tears as I hugged mother again, then father. The whistles were growing louder, cracking the fragile stillness of the day, the sun shining down, as people hurried past us to catch their own trains and have their own tearful goodbyes. Mother and Father backed away as I stepped closer to the edge. Simon turned to face me, hands in his pockets, foot dragging a line in the dust of the platform.
“Excited?” he asked over the loud whistle. The train drew nearer to the station.
“Scared,” I admitted.
“You should be.” He nodded, squinting and looking up at the sun. “I’ll be lost without you, mei mei. I have to go.”
“Simon, wait!” He was backing up. “Wait for the train.”
He shook his head. “Can’t, I have to meet the train.”
“What?” I frowned, confused. “What train?” I yelled, the sound of the train becoming deafening.
“Your train. Love you, mei mei.” He stepped backward off the platform. The train didn’t slow down, just rushed over him, the noise unbearable.
“Simon!” I screamed, falling to my knees. Tears streamed down my face. People pushed past me, climbing onto the train, laughing, waving goodbye to friends. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breath, just kept screaming.
I woke up screaming, always wake up screaming. Ever since I got here, nightmares every night. I always wake up screaming.
“River?” Nevva was on my bed, pulling me up to sit, hugging me tightly. “It’s another dream, River. Shhh, just a dream.” I clung to her, letting her rocking motion bring be back from the sound of the train. Back to reality, or what passed for reality here.
“Nevva.” I cried her name, my hands twisting into her nightshirt.
“Shh, was it Simon again?” she whispered. I nodded.
“He never writes back. I write him and he never writes back. I write, he knows, but he never writes back.” I knew I made little sense to Nevva. The dreams twisted my head up. I tried to bring sense back into my sentence structure and laughed a little. It probably didn’t make her feel better about my sanity. Sense in my sentences? I would have to have sense in my thoughts first. Not fractured thoughts of broken dreams, and this strange school. Why did Nevva still make so much sense?
“You okay?” she asked, pulling back a bit. Her long braids fell over the side of her face in the darkness.
“Yes.” I nodded, wiping away the last tears. For the moment I was okay. “Sorry, Nevva.”
“It’s okay.” She smiled and tucked hair behind my ear. It reminded me so deeply of my mother that fresh tears pricked my eyes. “We all have bad dreams.” We did all of us, thirty-two girls in this dorm. Five in this room. All of us had nightmares. None of us got letters from home anymore.
“Lights on, Thursday, seven-thirty am.” The lights came on with the robotic woman’s announcement. Around us the other girls started to get out of bed as the announcement repeated in Chinese, none of them looked at us. From what I had gathered they had all arrived six months earlier than us. They no longer screamed when they woke.
“Come on, you’ll feel better with breakfast in you.” Nevva pulled me off the bed, and led me to the dresser. She pulled out clothes for me like I was a child.
“I can dress myself,” I snapped. It came out sharp, but Nevva only nodded and turned to dress herself. She understood the need to maintain some amount of control over my life.
We filed down the hallway in a line, Nevva in front of me, both of us following the other three girls from our room. Breakfast was always quiet. Thirty-two girls and forty boys filed into the cafeteria we shared. We lined up to choose from cereal, fruit, and eggs. Sometimes we had bacon, sometimes rice or bread. I ate quietly and quickly, then sat watching as everyone else finished. We sat with the other girls from our room. We were assigned to the same table, Beth, Gia, and Lee. They rarely spoke to us. I think they already knew what was becoming clear to us. Sometimes students left and never came back. I didn’t think they went to a good place. So we focused on the work, not that we cared anymore.
First class was physics. Advanced physics. All the classes were advanced. When I’d first arrived I thought it was fun. Back then things hadn’t gotten out of hand yet. We had sessions, but they were almost nothing. Even the kids who arrived before us still smiled and laughed and raised their hand in class. Each day was the same as the months passed. Our last class was history and I sat beside Nevva, mechanically entering notes into a compad until something different happened, something I wasn’t expecting.
“This is all crap!” Khia Thompson stood, toppling her desk. “You act like any of what you’re teaching us matters, like our grades are even being recorded. They’re not.” I watched, caught up in her words with a mix of fear and awe in my chest. She turned to us. “All of you, all of you, this is hell. You are in hell. They are playing God with our brains. The tests, the dreams.” She paused, shaking her head. “It’s all part of their own manufactured hell.” Nevva and I exchanged looks. So it wasn’t just our dorm that had the dreams. Khia turned and slammed her hands down on Beth’s desk. “Talk. God damn you all, I know it’s hard, but talk to each other.”
The door slammed open and security streamed in towards Khia; she deftly twisted around and past the two big men, talking all the while. “Together you can get out, I swear just talk. Tell each other what they’re doing to you. It’s not right.” She tried to dodge one of the guards, but the other caught her. “Stay together!” she yelled as they dragged her thrashing towards the door. She clung to the door frame focusing all her energy on clinging to it. Quickly one of the guards pulled out a gun and jammed it against her neck. He pulled the trigger. There was a soft hum and her body spasmed before hanging lifeless. They pulled her out; the teacher shut the door, and began to lecture again.
“Is she dead?” I cried.
“River.” Nevva put a hand on my arm. I stood and looked around the room. Everyone else sat focused on their work.
“They just shot her, and none of you are going to react?” I yelled. I shouldn’t have yelled.
“River.” Nevva stood, pulling my arm hard so I looked at her. “This wont do anything. You need to calm down and shush up unless you want to end up like Khia.” She whispered it quickly, and I realized that was true, but for a moment I didn’t care. Then I glanced to the back of the room, and caught the look of Lee, she held my eye contact and gave a short nod. I sat back down, and began taking notes as the teacher restarted the lecture.