The stars are so bright against the darkness. I try to close my eyes and let sleep crawl back over me but can't pull them away from the beauty of the night. The bed under me becomes uncomfortably warm and I swing my legs over the side to escape its tight embrace.
Mom shifts the second I'm braced on the ground. She slides toward the warmth I left behind. Cold wraps around me and goosebumps crawl up my arms. I pull my sweatshirt from the chair against the wall before escaping into the soft air outside.
The moon is full. I sit on our front steps and admire the peaceful silence blanketed around the Outer Ring. It's hard to identify the city in the dark. Its flaws are hidden in the shadows, citizens not yet around to leave a trail of misery behind them. The town around me isn't one I recognize. It's almost pretty, the moon's dull light seeming to make it glow. I dread when the sun will come out and with it another day.
A shadow dips in and out of the moonlight in front of me. My heart stops and I straighten. Cold fingers encase around my mouth before I can turn to look behind me. My eyes widen and I suck in a heavy breath. A deep voice chuckles behind me. I slowly let out my breath, annoyed. "Did I wake you up?" My voice is muffled against his fingers. The hand absorbs the warmth that escapes my mouth.
Griffin pulls away and walks around me. He sits on the railing. "Already up." His yellow-brown eyes shine like gold in the night. The hollowness of his face is pronounced by the shadows of his cheekbones. The sight of him would be terrifying if I didn't know the potential for kindness in his eyes or the slightly crooked smile that hides behind his lips. They currently frown down at me. "You should be in bed, Gwen."
I shrug and look back out to the surrounding houses. "Couldn't sleep."
I tense at the word, not wanting to let them control me from the real world. "What else?" I lean my head against his dangling legs, exhaustion weighing down on me as it usually does. "Why are you up?"
"Piper got too territorial." His words make both of us smile. "I was barely settled on the floor when you came outside."
"Griffin, get some sleep," I urge, unsure whether to be upset or grateful that he came out to check on me.
"I would wish the same for you," he fires back, his voice low in the night air.
I laugh stupidly, my lungs as tired as the rest of me. "We both know that isn't happening."
Griffin nods knowingly and looks out to the city with me. "Guess I could enjoy this for a while." He nudges my head off his leg with the other and jumps down to sit next to me.
My head falls immediately on his shoulder. "Wake me up if I fall asleep."
Griffin laughs sarcastically. "Yeah, not happening."
My eyes feel heavy but I force them open after every blink. Still, sleep threatens to trap me.
Screams fill the silence and I stand suddenly. My heart quickens at the sound of gunfire. Griffin is already gone from beside me. More boys run down the street toward the Train where I assume he fled. I turn and run back into the house. Dad and Mom lay in bed and I envy their peace. Urgently, I grab them with shaking hands. Neither wakes. I pull away from Mom to grab Dad with both hands and turn him to face me. His lifeless body is heavy but his face is eventually looking up at mine. A line of blood runs onto his cheek from the bullet hole between his eyes. I scream.
"Gwen," Griffin whispers into my ear.
My eyes snap open. I back away from my friend, heart racing. "You let me."
Griffin slowly stands. "I'm sorry." He offers his hand. "You needed it."
I carefully take his hand, unable to stay mad at my friend forever. The sun blinds me from the horizon where it rises for another day. Griffin leads me into the house.
Our kitchen is empty, Mom and Piper still asleep. Griffin sits me down and moves to the pantry of food. He pulls out the bread and jam Mom bought days ago. We've been eating it slowly over the days, the sweet spread too much a luxury to go through quickly. It's nearly gone now and Griffin takes out half of the remaining with a spoon for our two bread slices. He seals the rest for the other two when they wake up.
I reach for my piece before he gets to the table and Griffin rushes to hand it to me before sitting down himself. We both finish the food quickly. I want more after it's gone but muster up the discipline not to eat Piper's and Mom's portions. Griffin mumbles about getting more today. He takes a few coins from where we keep them under the sink so he can stay true to that commitment.
Griffin and I retreat to our rooms to get dressed for the day. I change out of my pj's and slip on my gray sweatshirt, appreciating its comfort after taking it off seconds before. The leather bracelet around my wrist doesn't shift, loyal as always.
Griffin is joined by Piper in the kitchen by the time I get there. She eats her jam on toast happily. I tuck a strand of her strawberry red hair behind her ear to prevent it from getting in her food. She smiles up at me, the girl always filled with joy that drained slowly out of me in the past years. I dread the day it'll happen to her, certain it will. It happens to all kids at some point.
The door to my bedroom creeks open and Mom walks out, dressed and ready for the day. I must have waken her up while I was in there. Griffin smears the last bit of jam on a piece of bread and hands it to her. "Good morning, Mrs. Valentine," he half chirps half mumbles in his desperate attempt to sound chipper for the new day.
Mom laughs at the gesture and takes the food. "Thank you, dear." She sits beside Piper. Her energy is similar every morning. It'll be gone by tonight. Days here tend to do that to a person.
Griffin leaves my side and comes back with my bag and Piper's. "You guys should probably be headed out soon."
I take both and turn to Piper. "We will the second this little pistol gets dressed."
She laughs and runs from the table into her and her brother's room. Mom stands from the table. "We probably have to get going too." She looks at Griffin. I get lost in thought, trying to remember when Griffin would come to school with us. Barely anything resinates. It was so long ago. All I can cling onto is a feeling of happiness though that is soon to slip away as well.
Griffin walks to the door to grab his things. "Gwen, can you go be sure Piper's getting ready?"
As if on cue, Piper walks out, dressed and happy as always. She runs to the door and Griffin bends down to be her height. "Bye, pumpkin."
Piper smiles and hugs her brother. "Love you."
He squeezes her back, hard enough to cause the girl to grunt. "Love you more."
Piper lets go when Mom reminds her she has to leave. I hand her her bag and hug Griffin. "See you tonight."
Griffin doesn't respond and Mom kisses us both goodbye as we walk out the door. The air is so refreshing as we crash out of the crowded entry.
The Train station is only a block away. Piper practically skips the whole way there. It's crowded with kids by the time we get there, all of us reliant on the machine. It makes two rounds every morning and two more at night, the first to get to and from school and the next for work. Nobody misses the Train. Griffin and Mom will be getting one the second it comes back in about a half hour.
The rusty machine comes speeding down the tracks moments after Piper and I arrive. All the other assigned cars are filled, the other stops already covered. Our's is the last. Piper and I get on with the others. Nobody speaks to each other, the morning still catching up with all of us. Piper holds onto my hand and I grab a handle next to a window. The doors slam closed and the Train speeds forward, causing all of us to jerk back.
Next to our neighborhood is the landfills. Almost none of it is our trash, the Outer ring barely having anything to throw away. Mom sometimes even brings us things from the day's shipment. Her and the other sorters are allowed to take whatever they want. Some pity her job though I'm often grateful for the small treasures she brings home every week.
Guards move around the work sites, there to be sure everybody does their part. They leave for the Governor's mansion every night and come back every morning. Rarely do they have to punish anybody. Everybody here needs to put food on the table. We'd work hard without their presence. Even so, the Capital deems them necessary, so every morning they come, and every night they leave. No questions. No change. Every day like the last because if the Outer stopped moving, everything would stop with us.
The Train continues on its long circle. Our whole city is a ring, hence it's name, built around the Inner Ring which was formed around the Capital. During the War, a city managed to preserve itself despite the nuclear blasts that wiped out the rest of the planet. The population expanded and created the Inner Ring which exiled "poor" citizens to the Outer Ring so they could dump all their problems on us. Trash? They'll take care of it. Food? Let them grow it all. Even the Capital dumped the responsibility of torture to our Governor to get rid of rebels and terrorists who threaten the well being of our country.
The landfills eventually stop and we cross the field that separates them and the agriculture. Animal farms are soon to follow. I imagine Griffin out there, his job one of the more pleasant in our community. It used to be his father's. The head butcher took pity on the boy when his parents died, offering Griffin the job at only 12 years old. Five years of the lifestyle should be enough for me to grow used to it but I still hope that he could one day join me in the classroom again.
The Train shrieks against the tracks to a stop and all of us hurry off before the doors close and it starts its second round. Piper releases my hand and stars toward her side of the building. I wave goodbye before the crowd can pull me toward mine.
The classroom is very big, only twenty teachers for each age group. My class is slightly over a hundred people and it's small compared to the younger ones, grades like Piper's untouched by Raiders for now.
I take a seat near the back, always welcome to be distracted by my own thoughts throughout the lesson. David Small turns toward me from his desk diagonal of mine. His deep blue eyes are hard not to look into. "You do the homework?"
I reach into my bag and pull out the two papers. My eyes scan the two different sets to handwriting to find his. "Yeah." I hand him the one with the sloppier work. He'll be doing mine tonight.
"Thanks." He carefully sets it on his desk and turns back toward the front. I look around the room, surrounded by boys as usual. They outnumber the girls in most of the higher grades six to one. Most of the girls stay in one corner together, the outcasts such as me sent into the sea of boys to fight their way through a social life. One of the girls turns to look at me and I turn away long after she realizes I was staring. My attention turns back to David, the boy one of the only people who tolerates my company. I tap him on the shoulder. He turns to face me. If he was annoyed I wouldn't know. "What's up?"
I didn't actually think of something to say. "I was just—" to my relief Jack Olson falls out of his chair beside us. Nobody treats the incident as out of the ordinary. David and I slide out of our seats to be by his side. "Get the medicine," I instruct.
David's already looking through Jack's bag. He pulls out the small bag full of the pills and hands it to me. The rest of the class watches as we tend to the kid, all of us used to the routine.
I open the bag of pills and hold the boy down, slightly curious as to what he's hallucinating this time. The pills don't really help his illness, they just put him to sleep. We don't have the money in the Outer to pay for luxuries like medicine. Even the cheap pills are hard to come by. Jack yells in horror at whatever he sees behind me. I don't try to sooth him, aware it won't work.
The boy tries to shove me off and three pills fly out of the bag as a result. I quickly pick up one off the floor and shove it into his mouth. Blindly, I reach for the other two. They're eventually in my hand and I shove them into my sweatshirt pocket before Jack's flailing body can crush them against the tile floor.
David helps me hold the kid down so both of my hands are free. One covers his screaming mouth, the other pinching his nose with the fingers that aren't secured around the pill bag. Jack eventually swallows and I relax my hands. I throw the pills back into his bag. David is still on the struggling kid when our teacher comes in. She barely seems to notice the incident and David spends the first minute of the lesson on top of Jack until the pill kicks in. He eventually weakens and sleep overcomes him.
David makes it back to his seat by the time the teacher comes around to collect our homework. She passes out our assignment for tonight and I slide mine into his bag.
The day is long. I nearly jump out of my seat with excitement when our teacher dismisses us. The sky is cloudy with signs of rain when I get outside. My feet subconsciously carry me to Piper's meeting spot and I wait against the brick wall of our school. The girl comes out of the massive building minutes later. She's chipper as always, red hair bouncing as she walks.
I take her hand and walk with her to the Train as she brags about her day. I smile and nod, not in the mood to contribute to the conversation. I already forgot what she said by the time we reach the Train station. The Train comes within seconds and we quickly get on. Piper finds us a seat and I sit on it. She falls into my lap.
The Outer speeds past the window. I look past our fields to the Ruins just beyond the boarder. The destroyed buildings and charred earth is almost beautiful, green where plants weave through them and bring life to the place that eerily resembles death. Its amazing how easily the two can coexist just outside a country where everything beautiful and ugly is divided by an uncrossed line.
The Train jerks us all to a stop and the first car empties into their neighborhood. The doors close inches behind the last kid to leave and we start moving immediately after. Piper swings her legs and fiddles with her fingers, the unnecessary movement making her heavier than before. I want to put her down but can't disappoint the sweet brown eyes that smile up at me.
We stop at the forth neighborhood. Ours is next. Everybody rushes off the car and the doors slam. A boy knocks against them as they do, unable to make it off before departure. He sits back down and we move again. Getting trapped happens often. He'll just have to wait for the second round to get off. People often miss that one too. They just have to wait until morning to get off. Kind souls will bring food in the morning for those who get trapped. I've never been that generous.
Piper and I run off the Train once it stops. Kids filter into their homes, some headed for the market to be at their stands by the time the second round brings everybody home. Griffin will be going there tonight for jam along with his normal run for dinner.
Piper and I go home. I know she'll want to go back to the station soon to pick up Griffin and Mom. We will have to leave Griffin again so he can leave for the market though the few seconds we get are reassuring. I always feel secure around him, time without his company seemingly wasted.
I look down to my leather bracelet. It's warn but not weak, the strong rope braided into a knot so old not even Piper's small fingers could work their way through it. Griffin wears an identical one. I run my finger over its rough edges.
Piper pulls me away from the accessory. "Ronnie told me about the Inner Ring today," she says.
I pull out a chair from the table and welcome its warn cushion under me. "Oh yeah?" My eyes find hers. "What'd he say?"
"They have huge houses," she starts. Her eyes wander as she day dreams. "And all the food anybody could ask for."
I lean in, interested in what the girl's friend made up in his mind. "What else?"
"Everything is free there."
I shake my head. "Nothing is free."
"Well here it's not," she argues. "But that doesn't mean it isn't that way over there."
I can't correct her, my knowledge of the Inner as good as Ronnie's. I let the girl fantasize. Griffin and I shared the same thoughts when we were her age. Kids all see the Inner as a place they can get to if they just work hard enough. A few more years of the Outer will convince them otherwise. There's no escape, just unreachable riches on one side of us and Raider filled Ruins on the other. I want to keep that reality away from Piper as long as possible. "That would be something, wouldn't it?" My voice is soft so sarcasm doesn't leak into my words.
Piper looks to the clock on the wall behind me. "Griffin's coming soon."
I push out the chair from under me. "Want to go get him?" It's support leaves me as I stand and I long for the comfort.
Piper smiles excitedly and I lead her to the door. We walk slowly, the Train not expected for another five minutes. Piper holds my hand, her fingers not long enough to wrap around my palm. We get to the station and wait.
The Train whistles toward us. The last car pulls into the doors and they all open within the same second of the machine's halt. Griffin is one of many to crash through. Mom is behind him. They smile at us and come to our side once the crowd disperses.
Piper hugs her brother. He laughs and looks over her shoulder up at me. "Was school alright?"
I shrug. "Work?"
He shrugs. Mom rolls her eyes at us and starts walking toward the house. We follow. Piper squeezes between Griffin and I and latches onto our hands. "One," she starts counting for us, no more explanation.
"Two," Griffin joins.
"Three!" I pull my hand up and Piper kicks up her feet. She laughs as we launch her into the air. My arm jerks back and I pull her back toward us. Griffin smiles down at the girl, basking in her joy.
She counts again. Griffin and I lift on three, each time just as exciting as the first. My arm is soar by the seventh launch. Griffin kindly asks Piper for a rest which she willingly gives. He drops her hand. "I'll see you at home." He gestures to the market.
Piper frowns. "Can't you do that later?"
Griffin smiles down at her. "Do you want dinner?" His fingers fiddle with the coins in his pocket.
"Just a few more minutes," Piper begs.
I hate to admit that I want him to stay as much as Piper does. "Dinner can wait a few minutes," I add, trying to make my argument for Piper's sake.
Griffin rolls his eyes at me. He nods toward the market. "Come on," he says reluctantly, though he can't hide behind the smile plastered on his face.
Piper jumps with joy and runs into the market. I laugh and run after her, Griffin close behind us. He slams into me when I stop abruptly to not hit Piper. His hand grabs a fistful of my sweatshirt before I can fall. I steady myself with his shoulder. We both laugh.
Piper's eyes are fixated on a stand of trinkets. Griffin and I both sigh when we see it. I push her forward. "We don't have money for that, Piper."
The girl lets me push her forward though her eyes remain on the toys. Griffin looks back with her, obviously uncomfortable disappointing his sister. I grab his hand and pull him forward. "She doesn't need it," I reassure him, sad to see him so conflicted.
He nods and looks away. Piper does the same and we continue forward. More stands attract the girl and Griffin gets better at telling her no. I'm glad, tired of being the buzzkill. Griffin stops at one stand to buy another jar of jam. Piper waits impatiently, jumping up and down to get Griffin's attention. I wait for him, the desperate matter not one she looked to me for in the first place.
He turns to face her, every inch of him visibly exhausted though he tries to hide it for the girl's sake. "What?"
Piper points to a stand next to us. "Can we get one?"
Griffin looks and quickly turns away. "No," he says sternly.
I look as well to see a basket of kittens at the base. They all stumble over each other, eyes so narrow they can barely see. One of them flops over the side and Piper runs to its aid. She carefully sets it back. My eyes try to ignore the four letters written on the side though Piper points them out. "They're free."
Griffin shakes his head. "Nothing's free."
Piper begs with her eyes, no words needed to explain how much she truly wants the creature. I don't have the heart to say no, unable to divide her from a taste of the Inner. I read free written on the side again. Reluctantly, I pull the girl away. "Come on, Piper."
She fights me. "Why?" Tears well in her eyes.
"We don't need a cat," Griffin says plainly. I can sense his regret of taking the girl to the market in the first place. "And I said so."
"Why can't we ever have something we emwant for once?"
Her words stop Griffin in his tracks. He turns to face her. "We can't take care of a cat," he states. "I can barely take care of you."
"Then I'll take care of it," Piper offers.
"It can hunt."
My head looks back and forth between the two. I'm not brave enough to enter the argument, glad Griffin's here to handle the girl's demands. She'd be marching home with a cat if I were put to the task of talking her out of it.
"We have mice," Piper suddenly points out. I can't say I'm disappointed with her debate skills.
Griffin stands his ground. "It can't live off mice."
"It just can't!" His eyes fall back on the box of kittens. "Besides, Mrs. Valentine doesn't need a cat in her house."
I don't dare say she wouldn't mind one. Griffin gives me a warning glance to ensure I don't. Piper looks back to the box. "Dad would have let me have a cat."
"Dad's dead." His voice is painless, the boy more invested in winning this argument than his feelings.
"Mom would want a cat," Piper offers, disappointed at how fast her father was dismissed.
""Mom did have a cat," he says, smiling at his leverage now. "It starved before you were born."
Piper cries. "Please."
Griffin looks past the girl and smiles. "Mrs. Valentine," he starts. I look back to see my mom weaving toward the crowd. "Please tell Piper we can't have a cat."
Mom makes it to us and looks to the box of kittens. She smiles and tilts her head to watch them. "So this is what you guys were doing." She looks up at us. "Why don't we let Griffin grab dinner, girls?"
"Mrs. Valentine," Piper whines behind tears. She points desperately to the box of kittens. "Please."
Mom shrugs. "Piper, sweetie," she starts, easily seeing Griffin's side of the argument. "We can't take care of a cat."
"It'll get rid of all the mice," Piper states. "And I'll love it enough so none of you have to."
She's nearly as ruthless as some of the stand owners.
Mom looks back to the box. "I'll think about it." She turns apologetically to Griffin. "Go get dinner, Griffin. We'll see you at home."
None of us say anything as we part ways. Griffin heads for the back of the market where the food is sold. He sometimes lets us come with him though it's often a solo job. None of us argue, Griffin the best bargainer out of us all. Rarely will we ever pay full price for a scrap of meat.
Piper holds my hand as I lead her out of the market. The crowd is thick now, everybody back from work and hungry as the rest of us. Mom is faster than us as we weave our way out, not weighed down by a 10 year old hanging onto her limb.
We eventually make it out of the crowd. Piper skips up next to me, not releasing my hand as we walk home. "What should I name it?"
I roll my eyes. "Piper, you aren't getting a cat."
She sticks her tongue out at me and continues talking as if my words carry no value. "If its a boy I'll name it Olli."
I play along with her fantasy. "And if it's a girl?"
She pauses to consider. "Sara."
My breath pauses and I stop walking. Piper pulls on my hand as she continues toward the house but stops with me. "Do you not like it?"
I smile and shake my head. "Sara's perfect." We start again toward the house.
Mom is a good few strides ahead of us now. Kids run between the gap we created. I smile at their play but quickly frown when I notice the horror in their eyes. Their feet dig into the ground with urgency to get away from something. Somebody screams in the distance, their cry joined by others. My heart stops. I shake my head, unwilling to resort to the worst explanation but unable not to.
To my horror, the alarm sounds. "Piper, get to the Train," I instruct, directing the girl after the many other children who run for it.
The girl refuses and follows my gaze to my mom. The woman yells at us to run, her feet carrying het to our front door. She frantically pulls on the handle though her urgency stops suddenly. She stills. A man steps up to her and stabs something into her neck. She slowly drains of her will to stand before being dropped to the ground. I shriek, my whole body incapable of doing anything else.
The man steps over her body to leave the house. A syringe bounces off the ground from his hand, the glass tube completely empty. He pulls another from his pocket, the reloaded weapon filled with a bright green liquid. The sophisticated device looks out of place in his hand. The traditional gun or knife isn't in sight. My gut twists and I can't help but think this attack is far more horrible than the last.
Piper cries beside me and the noise is enough to drag me back to my body. I shove her in the direction the crowd runs. "Piper, the Train."
"Where's Griffin," she begs, her feet seemingly cemented in the ground.
"I'll find Griffin," I reassure her. "Just go."
Piper picks up her foot to move and I shove her away, desperate for one of us to make it to the machine. It'll stop at each neighborhood once before it speeds the kids lucky enough to board around the Outer. Its the one "luxury" the capital provided to protect us against Raider attacks.
My attention turns from Piper to the man that leaves my house. His beast-like arms reach out and consume one of the passing kids. The child struggles though has no chance against his captor. I watch in disbelief as a needle is stabbed into the boy's neck. The green liquid seeps into his body. Life drains from his wide eyes and the Raider drops him mercilessly to the ground. The empty syringe clinks on the ground in front of his head.
My feet start backward. Any usual attack would result in that kid being dragged away. The Raider steps away from his victim. My breaths grow impossibly heavier. The noise of the alarm makes it hard to think. This attack wasn't organized by Raiders. The question is who else would attack us?
A firm arm squeezes my torso and I try to kick away though their grip is strong. A cry escapes my lips, this reality far more terrifying than any nightmare.