I wasn’t expecting the school bus.
“No.” I was shaking my head before the words even left my lips. “No way.”
“What?” Cade grinned innocently and I glowered back.
“It’s bright, it’s yellow-”
“And it’s the perfect disguise,” Aaron added, nodding sagely.
“No one asked you,” I snapped.
But our crew of five loaded into the bus, bags packed in preparation for what could be a multi-day trip. I counted them off as they entered. Tari, Julian, Aaron, and some other girl all passed me by before I turned to say my goodbyes to Cade privately.
“Where did you get a school bus?”
“Really?” I found it odd, but I didn’t push it. Instead, I wrapped my arms gingerly around him. Hugging wasn’t really my thing. Cade knew that about me, and he just smiled and hugged me back.
“It feels wrong, to let you go again after not seeing you for so long.” His voice was laced with melancholy.
“It’s better that way, I think.”
“Is it? Is that why you left Aspen so abruptly?” I looked up at him sharply. “She called me.” I stifled the anger at always being the younger one, the little kid who had to get tattled on.
“It is better. It has to be.”
“Or is it just easier?”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“So the easiest path is always the best?”
“Please, I don’t feel like debating today, ok? Goodbye, Cade.”
I started the steps into the bus, but Cade grasped for my arm. “Wait. I have something for you. A gift.”
I stopped. “A gift?”
“Yeah.” He ruffled through his pockets and pulled out a plain box. “I got it for you, for your birthday, but I kept it after, well, everything.
My birthday. My seventeenth birthday I’d never celebrated. Was I sixteen, still? Or thirty-eight? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“Thank you.” I accepted the box, and stared in awe at the simple elegance of the white package.
“Are you going to open it or just stare? If I’d known you’d like the packaging so much I might’ve skipped the knives and just gotten you a white box instead.”
I made a joking face at him, but pulled short when his words settled in. “Knives?” I was sorely missing my butter knives, but this…
I ripped open the box to find two gorgeous throwing knives nestled in knock-off velvet. I lifted the first gingerly from its resting place and turned it over in my hands. It was heavy, but in a delicate way. Weighted. Simple, elegant, and very deadly. I almost giggled. Actually giggled.
“You like them?”
“I love them. But they must have cost you a fortune-”
“It’s fine. I’ve had two decades to recover financially, and I’m richer than ever.” That really wasn’t saying much considering how little money Cade had to his name when I’d known him. “Now get out of here. You’ve got a bomb-phone to take directions from, and the world is your oyster.”
Calling the atmosphere in the bus strange or uncomfortable would be the understatement of the year. The sheer awkwardness felt like a tangible force, something transparent that hovered unspoken in the air.
Tari cleared her throat. “So, introductions?”
“Let’s just drive.” Julian yawned. Tari narrowed her eyes at him, and I leaned back in my seat, ready to watch the oncoming fight.
“We need introductions to figure out who can drive.”
“Who can drive?” Julian snapped, looking around. Aaron raised his hand tentatively, and I started to follow before I realized he was the only one. Was learning to drive not mandatory for sixteen year olds now?
“See?” Julian looked smug. “No need for introductions yet. The guy with the glasses will drive, and once we’re out of the city we can jabber on about our favorite fairies to your heart’s content.”
I was a little worried Tari would rip his head from his shoulders. The bus fell into an uncomfortable silence as we [drove] out of the city, as inconspicuous as a throwing knife in the cutlery drawer. But Cade seemed to have a point about hiding in plain sight- no one looked twice as the bright yellow monstrosity lumbered out of the city. I snatched the phone from Julian to check on the directions, but was then forced to get his help to get to them regardless, making me feel just a little stupid.
Julian snorted. “I swear I’m not techy, you guys are just morons.” I shoved him, and he halfheartedly clicked a few buttons before shoving it back in my direction. I noticed he didn’t let me see how to do it. Protest as he did, it seemed he liked people relying on him. Happy with my diagnosis, I didn’t press him about teaching me. I’d need to learn eventually, but it didn’t seem worth it now.
When the final direction - TURN LEFT ON OTAN ROAD - faded to gray, the screen darkened again and familiar text filled the box.
FACIAL RECOGNITION REQUIRED TO UNLOCK DIRECTIONS FOR CHECKPOINT TWO.
I waved the phone in front of my face and it vibrated, revealing a map detailing our current location at the Justix City border and the surrounding suburbs.
Aaron started to pull off the road, but I shoved the new directions in his face instead. He nodded mutely and kept moving forward. I sat back in my seat, too tense for the situation.
“Well?” Tari had her knees up on the seat in front of her- my seat- and the slight indentation of them through the backing dug into my back. I gritted my teeth. Don’t snap. Don’t lash out. Let it go. She’s not that annoying.
She was that annoying. I sprung to my knees and leaned over the seat to glare at her. “Well, what?”
She faked a look of innocence. “Are you angry?”
“Well that’s good. Good to know you don’t have any… impulsive anger issues.”
“Tari…” Julian’s voice was cautious. He seemed used to diffusing her. “Stop being antagonistic.”
And just like that, they were fighting about things that didn’t matter and Tari was distracted. I breathed a silent thank-you to Julian and rose to my feet. Using the seats for balance, I moved to the back of the bus.
I cursed, maybe a little too loud. Trying to walk on a moving bus with a sprained ankle wasn’t very fun. But I managed to get to a seat closer to the back of the bus, and farther from Tari, before I collapsed
I very rarely cursed. I preferred to save swear words for when they would pack the maximum punch. The less you used them, the more important they seemed when you did. That was my strategy for most things in life. But seeing as how frustrating my life could be, I had a tendency to use “blazes” just a little too much as a filler. It wasn’t a swear word. Not really.
“Good day, citizens. This is your captain speaking.” Julian’s voice blared over the loudspeakers. Of course the bus had loudspeakers.
“Shut up, Julian!”
Julian continued, ignoring Tari. “We are expecting mild turbulence from hurricane Tari and request that all passengers move to the front of the bus.” He was standing at the head of the bus, and in his hand he held a small, oblong microphone that was connected to the ceiling by a spiraling black cord. Aaron was sitting next to him, eyes focused on the road, which was beginning to be obscured behind a steadily- thickening curtain of rain.
“Shut up!” Tari stomped to the front and snatched the microphone from his grasp. How she managed to walk in those boots at all, let alone on a moving bus, was beyond me. “We need to do introductions.”
“Is there really a hurricane?” It was the other girl, the one I didn’t know. I’d completely forgotten about her. In the chaos that was Tari and Julian, she faded to the background. Now that I looked at her, that seemed impossible. She carried herself like a young, meek child, but she was big. Not overweight, but tall, and strong looking, she dwarfed me, and probably Julian and Aaron too.
“No.” I said, preparing myself mentally and physically for the trek to the front of the bus. “That was a joke. A really horrible one...”
“...but an attempt at a joke nonetheless.” I sighed. This bus was loud, and annoying, and I was already tired of it.
When we were all seated in the front few seats by Aaron, Tari cleared her throat obnoxiously. Which, of course, was a redundant description because everything she did seemed to be either obnoxious, annoying, or some combinations of the two. She was standing, in all her cropped-top glory, where Julian had been standing moments before. He had relinquished his spot, after a brief bickering exchange, to sit next to me. I sat sideways on the seat, back against the window, knees pressed to my chest, and Julian perched on the aisle side, both of us facing Tari. We were sitting directly behind Aaron, so I couldn’t see his expression, but I suspected it was the same as it had been for the last thirty minutes. Bored and stressed.
“Introduction time!” Tari clapped her hands.
“You’d make a great kindergarten teacher.” Julian muttered under his breath. Tari scowled. I groaned. This was getting repetitive.
“Everybody say their name, their favorite color, and something cool or unique or whatever about them.”
“What does favorite color have to do with anything? It tells you absolutely nothing about a person.” Julian said.
“It tells you their favorite color.” Tari bit back. I jumped in before things could get any worse.
“I’m Ara, and my favorite color is black.”
“Black isn’t a color.” Tari was glaring daggers at me, and I caught them and threw them right back.
“Fine. Very, very dark pink. So dark that it looks like black but technically isn’t. You happy?”
Julian snorted, but Tari wasn’t impressed. “Ugh. Stop acting all witty or whatever. You aren’t cool.” She rolled her eyes, and I held back a laugh. She was a blazing pain in the rear end, but she was trying too hard. Why did she have it out for me in the first place? “So? What’s your special thing?”
What should I say? That I was a weird orphan girl who threw sharpened butter knives in dark alleys? That I should’ve died twenty-two years ago? That my best friend was dead?” “There’s nothing unique about me.”
“Okay. Great. Next person.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Julian cut her off, “there has to be something unique about you. Come on, Ara.” He elongated the syllables oddly in my name, as if trying it out.
“Well, there just isn’t, ok?” I said. “I’m boring.” Elliot was probably rolling with laughter in his grave to hear me describe myself as anything but crazy and revenge-driven. Could anyone else ever know me as well as he used to? Could I let them? Suddenly, I felt very empty.
I zoned out after the new girl introduced herself as Ellie and said something about doing community service. Of course she had to make me blazing feel bad.
The steady patter of rain on the metal roof of the bus and the rolling [movement] on the asphalt road melted into a relaxing rhythm, and I started to drift off.
With a jolt, I snapped awake and jostled unapologetically back to my seat mid-way back on the bus. No one tried to stop me. They waited patiently for me to leave, and continued with their dumb icebreakers. I told myself not to feel rejected or left out; they’d tried to include me, and I hadn’t been interested. They didn’t even know me, why would they chase after me, begging for my attention? But the voice in my head wasn’t that rational.
You did it again, like you always do. You chase people away. People try to help you, and you scorn them, only to crave their help later. It doesn’t make you strong, it makes you pathetic. Your knives are nothing but a security blanket, and-
I struggled to break from the well-worn rut of thoughts. Thinking had been the only thing I could do for twenty-two years, and the well-intentioned, determined mindset had soon dissipated beneath a wave of self-loathing. They’d killed my father, but had my path for revenge ever led me to anything but hatred?
I pulled the white box from where I’d tucked it in the cheap polyester duffle bag Cade had packed me. I ran an appreciative hand over the beautiful simplicity, before pulling a single blade from its nest. With the box safely away, I leaned back in my seat and propped my feet up on the seat across the aisle, giving extra care with my sprained ankle. I rested the duffle bag beneath my head as a pillow, all pokey and/or easily damageable items removed and lying besides me.
Finally comfortable, I draped my right arm just so in order to hide the knife in the little space beneath the seat to my right and leave my arm ready to grab the knife in an instant. The habits still felt fresh. Though I’d only needed to defend myself upon waking twice, I’ve always slept better with a knife, ever since I was nine years old and the Council stole my father.
Two weeks before my seventeenth birthday, I was planning to infiltrate a government building with a group of nefarious rebels.
Well, it wasn’t actually quite so dramatic, but a girl can only dream.
I was the youngest member of our group and the only one who wasn’t technically a legally recognized adult. But we all knew that was a lie. I’d been an adult since the day I was born, and anyone who looked close enough was bound to see it. But at seventeen, I’d be an adult in the eyes of the Justix Council, with all the privileges that contained. Namely, I wasn’t allowed at the orphanage anymore. That, however, was a non-issue considering I’d been living with Elliot since he’d been kicked out, when I was barely thirteen. He had been twenty-one when we were planning for the mission.
It was supposed to be simple- get in, find incriminating evidence on the Council, or at the very least reveal their identities so the public could formulate their own opinions. The whole “anonymous leaders” thing was supposed to be great, but it just made it all the more impossible to get legislation passed and people fed. If you weren’t in the council, you couldn’t make decisions. If you weren’t in the favor of retiring councillors, you couldn’t get on the council. And if you were poor or from a poor family, it was impossible to get any attention from the council whatsoever. This whole awful system led to a stark division between the rich and the poor. The rich people were constantly vying for spots in the elusive Council that somehow controlled the whole city-state. (They were doing a pretty horrible job). That left the rest of us to just try to survive. The middle class, if it had ever really been a part of Justix, was practically nonexistent. The closest thing we had were people like Aspen, who had actual houses and were insanely rich by normal standards and very poorly off by Council-favorite standards.
My father, as an immigrant, was obviously not in the Council’s immediate favor. But it was nearly impossible to get a pass into the “Miracle City,” and my father and his family had been considerably rich back in Faren. For some unfathomable reason, he and my mother had been saving both money and favors to immigrate here. Justix was insanely isolationist, a nearly perfect subsistent economy completely independent of world trade and the world wide web. The rest of the world viewed it as a perfect, beautiful bubble hidden from the outside world. They were wrong.
After my mother died, my father moved very abruptly to Justix, pulling every string he could to speed up the process as much as possible. Something about a newborn baby and a wife dying in labor might have factored into his frenzy, but I could never get him to open up about it. Of course, back then I was too young to pry.
We had a good life. My father, who came from oodles of money, had to get an actual, difficult job to pay for our flat. But we were happy, up until the day the Council killed him.