“Haven!” Mom’s muffled voice calls from inside the apartment.
I toss another small pebble down from the fire escape and pretend that she’s talking to another ten-year-old. Anna sits next to me on the grated platform, accessed by the window of the bedroom we share in the tiny residence. We like to imagine that it is high up in the air and all the specks of rocks on the ground below are the people.
“Mommy wants you,” Anna snips.
“Shut up before she hears us.”
Anna sticks her tongue out at me and I smack her on the leg. Not too hard though, since she’s only five.
“Don’t yell,” I hiss. “Here, I’ll let you play with this doll.” I don’t like dolls anyways, and these are just pieces of sticks and straw tied together with string to slightly resemble the figure of a person.
Glancing down at the street below, I see a few people making their way past. I don’t recognize them, but there are millions of people in Faragus, so that isn’t surprising. Anna and I have to stay near the apartment most of the time. Mom and Dad say it isn’t safe to go far, even though Dad goes to work every day at the factories and he always comes back. It must not be as dangerous as they keep telling Anna and me.
“Where are all those people going?” Anna asks, peering further down the street and I follow her gaze. Throngs of people are coming towards us. They all appear older—closer to my parent’s ages. Something about it seems familiar.
We watch them for a short while, before the sound of the window opening behind us, gets our attention.
“There you girls are,” Mom says. “Haven, you need to leave for your lessons.”
“Mommy, look!” Anna points towards the people. “What are they doing?”
When she doesn’t answer the question right away, I glance back to see her face frowning.
“It’s just something that happens every few years,” she says finally, reaching out to grasp Anna’s hand and gently pull her back through the window. “Come on girls.”
I follow them inside and when we get to the kitchen, Mom hands me a small paper bag.
“Your snack for later,” she states, giving me a kiss on the forehead. “Go the back way to Bella’s so you don’t get caught in the crowd.”
I nod and exit the apartment door into the small hallway. A light bulb flickers overhead and when I reach the stairs, I see that someone has put a small bucket underneath a leaky area. It took them long enough. That had been dripping for weeks; every time it rained.
At the bottom of the staircase, I put my weight on the rail and jump over the last couple of steps. Out on the street, the crowds have thickened, but I navigate along the edges, sticking close to the building. When I reach the next alley, I scan it and notice there are only a few people in this area, so I turn and head down it.
It’s only a couple of blocks to Bella’s apartment. She offers tutoring classes along with her husband, Silas. The number of students varies, but currently there are nine of us that attend on a regular basis.
I wander down another alley and quickly jump to the other side in order to avoid a giant puddle running down the center from the rains the night before. I’m focusing on the water and don’t see the boy who steps out in front of me.
We collide and my paper bag tumbles to the ground.
“Hey!” the boy says. “Watch it!”
I retrieve my bag before standing upright and putting my hands on my hips. “Um, you’re the one who walked in front of me!”
“Did not.” He puffs up his chest and stands to full height, which is at least a few inches taller than me.
“Did too!” I reply, glaring at him. He returns the narrowed look and then I glance down at the bag, before brushing the dirt and mud off of it.
“What’s that you got there?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I huff, thinking of kids who like to take people’s food. He is not getting my snack. Without waiting for him to say anything else, I turn and continue walking down the alley.
A few seconds later, he falls into step beside me. “Where are you going?”
He wrinkles his nose. “There’s no education here, so why would you go to school?”
“My mom says that learning is good. We make better decisions if we know more things,” I reply, half-heartedly. “You don’t have to go to lessons?”
“I do,” he says. “You’re the first person I’ve met that also does.”
“Where are your classes at?”
“Home. My mom teaches me.”
“She’s a tutor?” I frown.
He shakes his head. “Not really.” When we reach Bella’s, he sticks his hand out to me. “I’m Reed. Can we hang out after your lessons are over?”
I bite back a chuckle at him wanting to shake my hand. Adults did stuff like that, not kids. As I accept his hand, I realize that it would be nice to have another friend. Anna is annoying. Hopefully Reed won’t be.
Upstairs, in Silas and Bella’s apartment, which is larger than the one I live in, I greet the other kids already there and find a chair at the table. I take a piece of paper and pencil from the stack in the center of the table and begin the usual assignment of writing down all the words we learned the previous day.
After a while, Bella tells us we’re going to do something different today. “Let’s talk about the Vernandia selection period,” she begins. “Does anyone know what that is?”
Aiden speaks up first. He’s a little older than me. “It’s when you can go to the better city.”
Bella nods. “Yes, you’re right. Every five years, officials come over from Vernandia and choose a certain number of people in Faragus to move there. They get nice homes and lots of food.”
Vernandia is a city adjacent to ours. Everyone says it’s better over there, but no one actually knows because both cities are heavily guarded and the only way to leave Faragus is with the special pass to Vernandia.
“Each period is one week,” Bella continues. “Any Faragus citizen over forty-five years old can apply to be selected.”
“I can’t wait until I’m older,” Freya says, resting her chin against her forearms on the table.
“Is that why there’s so many people on the streets today?” I ask, thinking of the fire escape.
Bella nods. “Yes, the process began this morning.” She continues talking, but my mind wanders as I think about the people and the games Anna and I were playing. I wonder if she remembered to take the doll back into our room.
The next few hours pass quickly as we do assignments for math, spelling, and some history and geography. We aren’t told much about what lays on the other side of our city walls, but after the nuclear attacks, some resources were preserved in order for us to learn about how the people lived before the wars. I find the stories interesting, although many of them feel more like myths than actual events that took place, because the destruction occurred over two-hundred years ago.
When it is time to leave, Bella tells us to be care as we go home. Silas escorts the younger children, and I remember him doing that for me when I first started my lessons. He always told the best stories, about cities and how people used to be able to travel all over the world.
I don’t see Reed when I leave the building, so I begin walking my normal route home. I’m nearly to the corner of the second block when he catches up to me.
“What did you learn today?” he asks.
“About going to the better city and then math and stuff.”
“Oh, you mean the Selection?”
I nod, and Reed looks like he wants to say something, but doesn’t.
“So, what do you want to do?” he asks a moment later. The options are limited for what we could do and not get in trouble for, but I have an idea.
He follows me down a few side streets and we come to an area where trees and shrubs have grown up in a space between some buildings. I squeeze in between the dense bushes and Reed follows close behind. I use my hand to detect a gap in a fence that is buried within the brush. When I find it, I sink to my knees and crawl through, emerging on the other side, where I had built a small fort.
“What is this place?” Reed asks, when he comes through the fence. There is enough space for both of us, and I can stand up, but he will have to bend over because of his height.
“I like to pretend it’s a castle,” I say, picking up a few of the twigs laying on the ground. Bella had told us stories about huge houses called castles and sometimes there are dragons and girls called princesses who wear beautiful dresses. I don’t care about how they dress, but dragons sound cool. They breathe fire and can fly. I like that.
Reed laughs at me. “This is nothing like a castle.”
“Oh, because you’ve been to one?” I know I sound defensive, but I can’t help it if he has no imagination.
“No, but—” he stops. “Just stuff I’ve heard.”
“It’s called pretend,” I admonish, knowing full well that my little fort doesn’t resemble anything like an actual castle. “If you don’t want to do that, then you can leave.”
“Fine,” he mutters, with a slight frown. “I want to be a soldier. Who are you going to be?”
“I’ll be the princess, but I don’t wear dresses,” I say, wrinkling my nose. “I want to be able to run and fight dragons.”
“But that’s what I wanted to do—fight dragons, I mean. The soldier has to save the princess.”
I stare at Reed for a moment, thinking that this is not how the game goes. “The princess can save herself from the dragons,” I bite out, and watch his frown deepen. “I do it all the time.”
Reed appears torn as to the appropriate way to respond. There’s only one though, so I wait to see what he says.
“This is your game,” he replies finally. Then straightens up, only to hit his head on the branches above. I hide a smile as he quickly recovers, and then swoops forward in a bow. “Fair princess, would you do me the honors of helping me save the tormented villagers from the beastly dragons?”
I smirk, thinking he looks completely ridiculous, but it is the game, and he has chosen to play it. “We fight the dragons together,” I state.
He agrees and we begin creating an elaborate scene of castles, sword fights, and fire-breathing dragons.
When the beasts have been defeated, we rest on our backs inside the fort, and stare up at the ceiling, where there is a small gap between the branches. It offers a small view of the passing clouds and lets in light that might otherwise be shielded by the surrounding buildings.
Reed tells me that he is twelve years old and wants to be in the military when he grows up. He wants to carry a gun and protect people. I tell him that I don’t know what I want to do, but will probably work in a factory like my dad.
“You’re too pretty to work in a factory,” he says emphatically.
“What do looks have to do with it?” I argue. “Besides, it’s an important job, at least that’s what my dad says.”
Reed considers that for a moment before saying, “My father works for the government.”
I have never heard of anyone working for the government. I only knew of the factories or the greenhouses, where food is grown. “What does he do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. He just says he helps makes things better.”
When the fort begins to grow dark, we make our way back to the streets. I say good-bye to Reed and we agree to hang out against the next day.
“Haven!” my mom gasps, when I walk into the apartment. “Where have you been?”
“I was hanging out with my new friend,” I say, unsure of why she is so upset. She has never worried before when I didn’t come home from lessons right away.
“Your father went out searching for you over an hour ago,” she continues, grabbing me in a hug. “We were so scared that something happened to you.”
I pull back and look up at her. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know how late it was. But I’m fine, nothing happened.”
She doesn’t say anything for a long moment. “Haven, please come home on time this week. I don’t want you out late with—” she hesitates. “Just come straight home tomorrow after lessons.”
“It’s just the Selection Period,” I mutter. “We talked about it today.”
“Honey, we get worried with you out alone with all those people wandering the streets. We just want you to be safe.”
I roll my eyes. “I wasn’t by myself. I told you, my friend was there too.”
“Haven, promise me you’ll be home on time tomorrow. And you know how I feel about the eye rolling.” Her face is stern. A motherly look I see all too often.
“Fine, I promise.”
Later, Anna and I are sitting on the floor in the kitchen. I’m teaching her about letters and showing her some of the words I learned to spell today. She says she wants to learn how to read, but tonight she keeps messing up on the same word.
“It’s too hard!” she yells, throwing the pencil onto the ground.
“No, you’re just not—”
The door to the apartment opens and my sentence is interrupted when our dad stalks through the frame and slams the barrier behind him. His eyes glance over us briefly before he turns back to secure the bolt.
“She’s here, Carl,” Mom says, looking up from the sink where she’s doing the dishes.
Dad hasn’t said anything yet, but I can see the anger rolling off of him. “Sorry,” I mumble.
He runs a hand through his hair, and shakes his head. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“You’re not old,” I reply, with a smile, thinking he must not be too upset if he’s making jokes.
But his face is hard when he looks down at me. “What were you thinking?” he demands, and I shrink from the intensity in his eyes.
“I was just playing—”
“Oh, you were just playing!” He throws his hands up in the air. “And the people—the kids, who are murdered at night when they go out wandering the streets—they were just playing too?”
“Carl . . .” my mom says softly, but she stops when Dad turns his narrowed eyes towards her.
“First, she skipped her lessons to go to the wall, then she took Anna with her! As if those weren’t dangerous ventures in themselves. Now she’s staying out late, playing whatever the hell kids play these days. It is bloody night outside!” he roars.
Mom glances quickly at Anna and I. “Girls, go to your room while your father and I talk.”
I can’t get out of there fast enough. I grab Anna’s arm and ignore her protests when I grip too tightly. I drag her down the short hallway to our room, where I slam the door shut.
Anna rubs her arm and pouts at me. “That hurt.”
I don’t respond. I walk past her, slide the window open, and hop onto the fire escape. I sit down on one of the steps and lean my head against the iron railing. It’s completely dark now, but there is scattered light on the street from windows in the surrounding buildings.
A cool breeze sends goose bumps up my arms. A car horn sounds from somewhere in the distance, but other than that everything is silent.
Dad says that only the bad people come out at night. They steal things and kill people. When I asked him if they get in trouble for it, he replied that only if the military catches them. The guards usually stay on the wall, keeping people from trying to climb over and escape, but sometimes they walk around the streets to keep the vandalism from getting out of control.
I don’t know if they would get me in trouble if I didn’t return home right after lessons, but the thought crosses my mind and I feel another shiver run down my spine.
This time it’s not from the breeze.