The familiar roar of machinery greeted me as I scanned my ID and unlocked the door to a massive warehouse. Inside, people hustled about, wearing the same dingy gray uniform I had on.
"Ms. Clarice, what are you doing here? Your shift doesn't start for hours," came a gruff voice from behind me. I turned to face my employer, a short, stocky man whose youthful face belied years of hard work.
"I know, Mr. Collins, that's actually what I wanted to talk to you about," I said, shuffling my feet on the dusty floor.
He frowned, his cloudy gray eyes concerned. "Please don't tell me you're quitting. You're one of the only good operators we have."
"No, it's not that," I said quickly, having to shout to be heard over the growling machines.
Noting the tautness in my face, Mr. Collins beckoned me to a quieter part of the warehouse. He watched as I fidgeted before finally spitting out my request.
"Sir, I'd like more hours," I said simply.
He blinked in surprise. "More hours? You already work sixty hours a week. Why on earth would you want more?"
"It's my family," I began, hating how pitiful my voice sounded. "We're falling behind on payments, even with Vector and I both working. My mother thinks our only option is to put my little sister to work. I can't let that happen. Please, I'll take whatever you can give me. Every little bit helps."
He sighed, his blue eyes sympathetic. "Look, Clarice, I understand where you're coming from. But everyone needs money right now, and this is no life for a nineteen year old. I may tease you about being our best operator, but I know that this isn't the life for you. If this world wasn't so broken, you'd be in college now. You'd be finding a spouse, thinking of the future. Even as the world is, this isn't a life for someone like you."
"I don't have a choice. It's for my family," I whispered, struggling to hold the tears back. "They're more important than I am. And maybe if we pull together, my siblings will be able to go to college like Vector and I never did. Maybe they can actually have lives. They need me, and I can't let them down."
He pressed his calloused fingers to his temples, wincing as if my words had hurt him. "I'll tell you the same thing I told you five years ago when you came here. You've grown up so much since then, but my advice isn't going to change. I know your family needs you, but don't throw away your life."
"Please, I can't let my family fall apart now. Not after everything we've been through," I pleaded, biting my lip to fight the tears.
Mr. Collins sighed again, and I could see he was close to giving in. He had children of his own, he had a family. He knew what it meant to hold others more important than yourself. "Clarice, I understand this is what you need to do for now," he said, reaching for his schedule. He flipped through it for a moment before turning his gaze back to me. "Lucky for you, Tom quit this morning, so I can extend your shifts by three hours each day. That'll put you over eighty hours a week. But if I think it's too much, I'm cutting you back again. Understand?"
"Yes, thank you," I said, a smile spreading across my face. "Can I get started now?"
"Fine," he said, his eyes concerned. "Just remember everyone has their limits. Don't push yourself too hard."
"I won't," I assured him and trotted away. It felt as if a weight had literally been lifted off my shoulders. I felt awake, happy, hopeful.
Whistling to myself, I went to my trusty mech. "Hey, buddy," I said to the tower of steel, patting its massive foot. Easily, I scaled its leg and clambered into the cockpit.. I nestled into the worn leather chair, sliding my arms into the control gloves as my feet instinctively sought out the pedals. With a swipe of my ID, the mech roared to life. Its steel legs unfolded, bringing it to its full height of over twenty feet. I shook my shoulders and the mech did the same, loosening its powerful arms.
"Let's go," I said, and alternated pumping the left and right pedal. The mech fluidly went into motion, walking steadily out through the open warehouse doors.
The sun glared through the glass cockpit and made me wince, but I kept my mech at a steady jog as I followed the road to our work zone. I'm pretty sure it won't matter how tired I get, because I could do this in my sleep, I thought to myself as I stifled a yawn.
I carefully guided the mech through pile after pile of rubble and debris. There were areas like this all over town. Broken houses, crashed mechs, scraps of metal. Even though it had been months since the bombing, there was still so much to be done. Everything would have to be cleared away before our city could even think of rebuilding. The small stuff could be picked up by the workers, but for the rest, we needed mechs.
I reached toward a large section of a wall that had probably once been someone's house. The mech followed my movements and gripped it with surprisingly precise fingers, lifting carefully. I turned in my seat and the mech rotated at the torso, then dropped the rubble into the awaiting dumptruck. I still wasn't sure where all the rubble was taken, but I knew that it was out of our city, and that was enough for me.
For hours, I worked. It was routine, mechanical, even mindless. Find, lift, drop. Over and over. I picked up armload after armload of rubble, each one reminding me of a different city. One that hadn't been devastated by war. A city where I wouldn't worry about what or who I would uncover beneath year old debris. Yet it was a job, and it provided for my family. And I had to admit that I loved the power and height that only a mech could give.
After a while, a solitary figure approached me, confidently climbing over the ruins of what had once been a neighborhood. A smile spread across my face as I slowly reached a giant steel hand toward the figure. The mech's fingers closed around him, just tight enough for a steady grip. I carefully lifted him and placed him on the mech's broad shoulder before popping the cockpit.
"You know I hate it when you do that, Clary," scolded Vector, his voice muffled by his helmet. He jumped easily into the cockpit and leaned his tall frame against my chair. "One of these days, you're going to squeeze a little too tight and..." He mimed an explosion, shaking his head in exasperation.
"Now you know how I feel whenever you hug me," I muttered, glaring at his biceps that seemed to be making their best effort to tear free from his shirt. "Don't you have faith in my operating abilities?"
"No," he muttered.
"Oh, come on, let me enjoy it," I teased, tapping a fist against his helmet. "This is the only time I get to be taller than you."
Vector pulled off his helmet and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. A spot of blood marred his forehead and trickled toward his eye.
"Are you okay?" I asked, concerned.
"Yeah, I was just a little upset and tired, and got careless. It's nothing." He managed a smile, although there were dark circles under his eyes.
"Well, be careful," I said, feeling my mouth slide into my usual 'disapproving sister' face. "The last thing we need right now is you getting hurt."
"I know, Clary," he said, obviously trying to sound irritated, but it came out tired. "I got more hours, though. This rubble should be afraid, because from now on I'll be here twelve hours a day."
"Me too," I said. "With both of us working extra, do you think we'll have enough money?"
He thought for a moment, doing the math in that overly smart mind of his. Suddenly, his face lit up in the smile I was used to.
"We'll make it," he whispered, as if saying it any louder would make it untrue. "We'll be cutting it close, but as long as we keep these hours, it should work out."
"Thank God," I murmured. Tears stabbed at my eyes again, but this was the first time in years they'd been tears of happiness.
"Are you okay?" asked Vector, his hazel eyes concerned. He wasn't used to seeing me cry so much. He and I were always the ones who had to be strong for everyone else.
"Yeah, I'm good," I answered, managing a smile for my brother. "Now, shouldn't you be getting back to work? I don't want you getting fired."
"I'm on break, but I'll stop distracting you. Be careful," he said as he tugged his helmet back on. I reached out one of the mech's arms and he walked down it with surprising grace considering his mammoth frame.
With a contented sigh, I went back to picking up pieces of my broken city. For once, things looked hopeful. I didn't know why I had been so uncertain before. Our family could get through anything.
When did this walk get so long? I asked myself as I trudged up to the front door of my house. I leaned against the doorframe for a moment, resisting the urge to close my eyes. Just a few more steps, and I'd be back upstairs, falling into bed. A few more steps. I could do this.
I fumbled with the lock for a moment before staggering inside, plastering a smile on my face. If Mom saw how tired I was, she'd feel guilty again. I didn't want that.
"Clarice," came a chorus of squealing voices. I looked over just in time to see a herd of children galloping toward me.
"Hey, guys," I said as the fake smile on my face turned real. "What are you all doing down here?" Immediately after I finished the question, I heard the sobs from upstairs and wished I could take back my words.
"It's one in the afternoon, Clarice. It's lunchtime," said Chase with a laugh, trying to cover for my blunder before the other kids noticed.
"Sure enough," I muttered, grinning at my brother. At nine years old, he was the second oldest of the kids. Not counting Vector and me, of course.
"Can I have a piggy back ride?" asked Lyla immediately. She clung to my pantleg, staring up at me with innocent, wide eyes. Her sandy ringlets were tangled, and I ran a hand through them absently.
"Sure, sweetie," I said, smiling weakly at her.
"Lyla, your sister is probably really tired," broke in Vector. I glanced over to where he sat at the kitchen table. He looked almost as tired as I felt, but he still placed a bowl of stale pretzels on the table. The twins, who had just raced to my side, dashed back to the table and dug in immediately.
"I'm fine, Vex," I assured him, even though I could feel weariness and hunger dragging at my bones.
"Piggy back ride, piggy back ride," chanted Lyla, grabbing my hand in both of hers.
"Coming right up," I said, stooping so the youngest member of our family could clamber up onto my back. She clung to my shoulders as I struggled to rise to my feet, feeling like a rusty mech. Every muscle in my body ached and burned. Yet despite the way my limbs felt like lead, Lyla's delighted squeals were music to my ears as I carried her around the house. It had been too long since I spent time with the kids like this.
"Incoming," I said as I dumped my sister onto Vector's lap. He laughed and tickled her stomach, sending her into fits of giggles. For a moment, it felt like Dad had never died, like we were a normal family again, like we all couldn't hear Mom sobbing upstairs. But then Lyla quieted down for a moment, long enough to hear our mother crying.
"I'm gonna go upstairs," whispered Rica, setting down the book she'd been reading. She got to her feet, looking far too tired for her age. She didn't deserve this life. It shouldn't be her job to comfort Mom. Yet most of the time, Rica was the only one Mom would listen to. Sometimes even Vex and I couldn't reach through her curtain of misery.
I sighed quietly, but feeling sorry for ourselves wouldn't help anything. I turned toward Vector, who was making another sandwich. "Need some help?" I asked, sitting down beside him and grabbing some slices of bread. I resisted the urge to simply stuff them into my mouth, and instead, started slapping them together into a messy sandwich.
Vector frowned at me, his eyes carefully scanning my face. "It's fine, Clary, I have sandwich making covered. You should really get some sleep."
I shook my head, trying wake myself up. "I've still got a little life in me. And you know my sandwiches are better than yours."
He laughed quietly, but it quickly turned into a yawn. Today marked a month of eighty hour weeks put in at work. Our family had enough money to cover the necessities, but it was definitely taking a toll on my brother and me.
We finished making sandwiches and called the kids over. The twins reached for theirs, smiling nearly identical grins.
"Did you lose another tooth?" I asked Lex. He smiled proudly, showing off the new gap. "Now it's easier to tell you and Zack apart." I grinned at Lex's twin, who stuck his tongue out at me.
"Here you go, Lyla," I mumbled through a yawn, handing my sister the messy sandwich. She took it, but immediately set it back down on the table.
"I want another piggy back ride," she said, tugging at my sleeve.
I frowned, knowing that I needed to sleep as soon as possible.
"Please please please, Clarice?" she pleaded, her eyes wide again.
"Alright, but then you have to eat lunch," I gave in, struggling to my feet. The world started to spin for a moment, and I placed a hand on the table to steady myself.
Lyla climbed onto my back, and she felt far heavier than she had only minutes earlier. I half walked half staggered toward the stairs, then set Lyla down at the foot of them. "Go eat your lunch now," I encouraged her, and she trotted off, singing happily.
I groaned and leaned against the wall for a moment, feeling weaker than I had in weeks. But no matter how long I stood there, the world refused to stop swimming before my eyes. Working for twelve hours a day was finally catching up with me.
I stepped onto the first stair, clutching the railing like a lifeline. My hands trembled with exhaustion, and every muscle in my body seemed to scream with each step. When I was halfway up the stairs, my ID fell out of my pocket. I let go of the railing instinctively to grab it, and my tired body did the one thing it'd been wanting to do for hours: collapse.
I fell forward at first and leaned back trying to steady myself. But my exhausted body overcompensated and I tumbled backwards, rolling down the stairs in a tangled heap.
"Clary?" came a shout, and I opened my eyes to see Vector running toward me, his eyes alert with fear.
"I'm fine, Vex, I just slipped," I tried to say, but my words came out slurred and garbled. I attempted to sit up, but my muscles seemed to give way, sending me slumping back to the ground.
"Take it easy," soothed Vector, his calloused fingers resting on my arm reassuringly. "Did you break anything?"
"I'm fine," repeated, managing to pull myself into a sitting position this time. I looked toward my brother, trying to force my eyes to focus.
"Dammit, Clary," he muttered, shaking his head. Easily, he picked me up and proceeded to carry me up the stairs. I leaned my head against his chest, wishing I had his strength, his willpower, his dependability.
"I'm sorry," I murmured, struggling to keep my eyes open.
"Just get some rest," he said, depositing me onto my bed. He pulled the blankets over me, sighing to himself. He was blaming himself now, like he always did. "I'll call Mr. Collins and let him know you can't make it to work tomorrow."
I shook my head weakly at his words. "No, Vex, don't. We need that money. I'll be fine, I just need some sleep."
I didn't need to open my eyes to know that Vector was running a hand through his hair the way he always did when he was worried. "You're in no shape to work," he said, but I could tell by his tone that he knew I was right. Every dollar counted. We needed this money.
"You aren't doing much better," I whispered. "I'll be fine."
He sighed again, but his quiet footsteps retreated, and in seconds, I was sound asleep.