BETH and Ryan were holding hands. It was enough to risk a formal citation for indecency, and they knew better, but I didn’t say anything. Curfew rounds wouldn’t begin for another two hours, and freedom was stolen in moments like these.
“Slow down, Ember,” Ryan called.
Instead I walked faster, pulling away from our pack.
“Leave her alone,” I heard Beth whisper. My face heated as I realized how I must look: not like a conscientious friend who was minding her own business, but like a bitter third wheel who couldn’t stand seeing other couples happy. Which wasn’t true—mostly.
Sheepishly, I fell into step beside Beth.
My best friend was tall for a girl, with an explosion of dark freckles centered at her nose and a cap of squiggly red hair that was untamable on chilly days like this one. She traded Ryan’s arm for mine—which, if I was honest, did make me feel a little safer—and without a word, we danced on our tiptoes around the massive cracks in the sidewalk, just like we’d done since the fourth grade.
When the concrete path succumbed to gravel, I raised the front of my too-long khaki skirt so the hem didn’t drag in the dust. I hated this skirt. The matching button-up top was so boxy and stiff that it made even busty Beth look flat as an ironing board. School uniforms were part of President Scarboro’s new Moral Statute—one of many that had taken effect after the War—mandating that appearances comply with gender roles. I didn’t know what gender they’d been aiming for with this outfit. Clearly it wasn’t female.
We stopped at the gas station on the corner out of habit. Though it was the only one in the county still open, the lot was empty. Not many people could afford cars anymore.
We never went inside. There would be snacks and candy bars on the racks, all priced ten times higher than they’d been last year, and we didn’t have any money. We stayed where we were welcome—on the outside. Three feet removed from the hundreds of tiny faces imprisoned behind the tinted glass. The board read:
MISSING! IF SIGHTED, CONTACT THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF REFORMATION IMMEDIATELY!
Silently, we scanned the photographs of the foster-care runaways and escaped criminals for anyone we might know, checking for one picture in particular. Katelyn Meadows. A girl with auburn hair and a perky smile, who’d been in my junior history class last year. Mrs. Matthews had just told her she’d gotten the highest grade in the class on her midterm when the soldiers had arrived to take her to trial. “Article 1 violation,” they’d said. Noncompliance with the national religion. It wasn’t as if she’d been caught worshipping the devil; she’d missed school for Passover, and it had gone on to the school board as an unauthorized absence.
That was the last time anyone had seen her.
The next week Mrs. Matthews had been forced to take the Bill of Rights out of the curriculum. There was no discussion permitted on the topic. The soldiers posted at the door and at the recruiting table in the cafeteria made sure of that.
Two months after Katelyn’s trial, her family had moved away. Her phone number had been disconnected. It was as if she’d never existed.
Katelyn and I hadn’t been friends. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her; I thought she was all right, actually. We always said hi, if not much more. But since her sudden disappearance, something dark had kindled inside of me. I’d been more on guard. As compliant with the Statutes as possible. I didn’t like to sit in the front row of class anymore, and I never walked home from school alone.
I couldn’t be taken. I had to look out for my mother.
I finished my review. No Katelyn Meadows. Not this week.
“Did you hear about Mary What’s-her-name?” Beth asked as we resumed our walk to my house. “She’s a sophomore I think.”
“Let’s see, Mary What’s-her-name,” said Ryan pensively, pushing the glasses up his sharp nose. His uniform jacket made him look studious, whereas the other guys at school always looked like their mothers had dressed them up for Easter Sunday.
“No. What happened to her?” A chill tickled my skin.
“Same thing as Katelyn. Moral Militia came to take her to trial, and no one’s seen her in a week.” Beth’s voice lowered, as it did when she suspected someone might be listening.
My stomach sank. They weren’t actually called the Moral Militia, but they might as well have been. The uniformed soldiers actually belonged to the Federal Bureau of Reformation—the branch of the military the president had created at the end of the War three years ago. Their purpose was to enforce compliance with the Moral Statutes, to halt the chaos that had reigned during the five years that America had been mercilessly attacked. The hammer had come down hard: Any violation against the Statutes led to a citation, and in the worst cases, resulted in a trial before the FBR Board. People who went to trial—like Katelyn—didn’t usually come back.
There were all sorts of theories. Prison. Deportation. A few months ago I’d heard a crazy homeless man spouting off about mass executions, before he’d been carted away. Regardless of the rumors, reality was bleak. With each new Statute issued, the MM became more powerful, more self-righteous. Hence the nickname.
“They took a freshman from gym, too,” said Ryan soberly. “I heard they didn’t even let him change back into his uniform.”
First Katelyn Meadows, now Mary Something and another boy. And Mary and the boy within the last two weeks. I remembered when school had been safe—the only place we didn’t have to think about the War. Now kids never ditched. There weren’t any fights. People even turned in their homework on time. Everyone was scared their teacher would report them to the MM.
As we turned up my empty driveway, I glanced next door. The boxy house’s white paneling was stained by dust and rain. The bushes had overgrown so much that they connected over the concrete steps. Long, fragile cobwebs sagged from the overhang. It looked haunted. In a way, it was.
That had been his house. The house of the boy I loved.
Deliberately, I looked away and climbed our front porch stairs to let my friends inside.
My mother was sitting on the couch. She had at least four too many clips in her hair and was wearing a shirt that she’d stolen from my closet. I didn’t mind. The truth was I wasn’t much into clothes. Sorting through a collection of worn hand-me-downs at a donation center hadn’t exactly cultivated my desire to shop.
What I did mind was that she was reading a paperback with a half-naked pirate on the cover. That stuff was illegal now. She’d probably gotten it from someone she volunteered with at the soup kitchen. The place was chock-full of unemployed women spreading their passive-aggressive contraband beneath the Moral Militia’s nose.
“Hi, baby. Hi, kids,” my mother said, hardly moving. She didn’t look up until she finished reading her page, then she jammed a bookmark in place and stood. I kept my mouth shut about the book, even though I probably should have told her not to bring that stuff home. It obviously made her happy, and it was better than her reading it on the porch, like she sometimes did when feeling particularly mutinous.
She kissed me noisily on the cheek, then hugged my friends at the same time before releasing us to our homework.
We pulled out our big heavy books and began deciphering the mechanical world of precalculus. It was horrid work—I detested math—but Beth and I had made a pact not to drop. Rumor was, next year, girls weren’t even going to be able to take math anymore, so we suffered through in silent rebellion.
Smiling sympathetically at my expression, my mother patted my head and offered to make us all hot chocolate. After a few minutes of frustration, I followed her into the kitchen. She’d forgotten to water her ficus plant again, and it drooped pitifully. I filled a glass from the sink and poured it into the pot.
“Bad day?” she ventured. She spooned the chocolate powder into four mugs from a blue canister with a picture of a sunrise on the front. Horizons brand food was government owned, and all we could get with our meal rations.
I leaned against the counter and scuffed my heel against the floor, still thinking about the two new abductees, the contraband. The empty house next door.
“I’m fine,” I lied. I didn’t want to scare her by telling her about Mary Something, and I still didn’t want to rag her about the book. She hated when I got on her back about the rules. She could be sort of reactive sometimes.
“How was work?” I changed the subject. She didn’t get paid at the soup kitchen, but we still called it work. It made her feel better.
She didn’t miss my obvious avoidance, but she let it drop and launched into a full story about Misty Something dating Kelly Something’s boyfriend from high school, and … I didn’t bother keeping up. I just nodded and soon was smiling. Her enthusiasm was infectious. By the time the teakettle whistled, I felt much better.
She was reaching for the mugs when someone knocked on the door. I went to answer it, thinking that it was probably Mrs. Crowley from across the street, stopping by to visit my mother like she did every day.
“Ember, wait—” The fear in Beth’s voice made me stop and turn back toward the living room. She was kneeling on the couch, her hand on the curtain. The color had drained from her already-fair complexion.
But it was too late. My mom unlatched the dead bolt and opened the door.
Two Moral Militia soldiers stood on our front steps.
They were in full uniform: navy blue flak jackets with large wooden buttons, and matching pants that bloused into shiny boots. The most recognized insignia in the country, the American flag flying over a cross, was painted on their breast pockets, just above the initials FBR. Each of them had a standard-issue black baton, a radio, and a gun on his belt.
One of the soldiers had short brown hair that grayed around his temples, and wrinkles around the corners of his mouth that made him appear too old for his age. His narrow companion brushed at his tawny mustache impatiently.
I sagged in disappointment. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had hoped that one of them was him. It was a fleeting moment of weakness whenever I saw a uniform, and I kicked myself for it.
“Ms. Lori Whittman?” The first soldier asked, without looking her in the face.
“Yes,” my mother replied slowly.
“I need to see some ID.” He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but his name tag read BATEMAN. The other was CONNER.
“Is there a problem?” There was a snarky tinge to her tone, one I hoped they didn’t pick up on. Beth came up close behind me, and I could feel Ryan beside her.
“Just get your ID, ma’am,” Bateman said irritably.
My mother pulled away from the door without inviting them in. I blocked the threshold, trying not to look as small as I felt. I could not let them search the house; we had too much contraband out to avoid a citation. I tilted my head subtly to Beth, and she meandered back to the couch, stuffing the romance novel my mother had been reading beneath the cushions. My mind raced through the other things she had: more inappropriate paperbacks, old magazines from before the War, a home manicure kit. I’d even heard that my favorite book, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, had made the list, and I knew that was right on top of my nightstand. We weren’t scheduled for an inspection tonight; we’d just had one last month. Everything had been left out.
A burning ignited in my chest, like the flicker of a lighter. And then I could hear my heart, thudding against my ribs. It startled me. A long time had passed since I’d been aware of that feeling.
Bateman tried to look past me, but I blocked his view. His brow lifted in judgment, and my blood boiled. Over the past year the MM’s presence in Louisville—and all the remaining U.S. cities—had increased tenfold. It seemed there wasn’t enough for them to do; harassing citizens appeared to be a high priority. I stuffed down the resentment and tried to stay composed. It was unwise to be impolite to the MM.
There were two cars parked on the street, a blue van and a smaller car that looked like an old police cruiser. On the side of each was the FBR emblem. I didn’t need to read the motto below to know what it said: One Whole Country, One Whole Family. It always gave me a little jolt of inadequacy, like my little two-person family wasn’t whole enough.
There was someone in the driver’s seat of the van, and another soldier outside on the sidewalk in front of our house. As I watched, the back of the van opened and two more soldiers hopped out onto the street.
Something was wrong. There were too many soldiers here just to fine us for violating a Statute.
My mom returned to the door, digging through her purse. Her face was flushed. I stepped shoulder to shoulder with her and forced my breath to steady.
She found her wallet and pulled out her ID. Bateman checked it quickly before stuffing it into the front pocket of his shirt. Conner lifted a paper I hadn’t seen him holding, ripped off the sticky backing, and slapped it against our front door.
The Moral Statutes.
“Hey,” I heard myself say. “What are you—”
“Lori Whittman, you are under arrest for violation of the Moral Statutes, Section 2, Article 5, Part A revised, pertaining to children conceived out of wedlock.”
“Arrest?” My mom’s voice hitched. “What do you mean?”
My mind flashed through the rumors I’d heard about sending people to prison for Statute violations, and I realized with a sick sense of dread that these weren’t rumors at all. It was Katelyn Meadows all over again.
“Article 5!” Ryan blurted from behind us. “How could that apply to them?”
“The current version was revised on February twenty-fourth. It includes all dependent children under the age of eighteen.”
“February twenty-fourth? That was only Monday!” Beth said sharply.
Conner reached across the threshold of our home and grabbed my mother’s shoulder, pulling her forward. Instinctively, I wrapped both hands around his forearm.
“Let go, miss,” he said curtly. He looked at me for the first time, but his eyes were strange, as if they didn’t register that I was present. I loosened my hold but did not release his arm.
“What do you mean ‘arrest’?” My mother was still trying to process.
“It’s quite clear, Ms. Whittman.” Bateman’s tone was condescending. “You are out of compliance with the Moral Statutes and will be tried by a senior officer of the Federal Bureau of Reformation.”
I struggled against Conner’s firm hold on her shoulder. He was pulling us outside. I asked him to stop, but he ignored me.
Bateman restrained my mother’s opposite shoulder, dragging her down the steps. Conner released her arm for a moment to jerk me aside, and with a stunted cry, I fell. The grass was cold and damp and soaked through my skirt at the hip, but the blood burned in my face and neck. Beth ran to my side.
“What’s going on here?” I glanced up and saw Mrs. Crowley, our neighbor, wrapped in a shawl and wearing sweatpants. “Lori! Are you all right, Lori? Ember!”
I sprang to my feet. My eyes shot to the soldier who had been waiting outside. He had an athletic build and gelled blond hair, neatly parted on the side. His tongue slid over his teeth beneath pursed lips, reminding me of the way sand shifts when a snake slithers beneath it.
He was walking straight toward me.
No! The breath scraped my throat. I fought the urge to run.
“Don’t touch me!” my mother shrieked at Bateman.
“Ms. Whittman, don’t make this harder than it has to be,” responded Bateman. My stomach pitched at the apathy in his voice.
“Get the hell off my property,” my mother demanded, fury stabbing through her fear. “We’re not animals; we’re people! We have rights! You’re old enough to remember—–”
“Mom!” I interrupted. She was just going to make it worse. “Officer, this isn’t right. This is a mistake.” My voice sounded far away.
“There’s no mistake, Ms. Miller. Your records have already been reviewed for noncompliance,” said Morris, the soldier before me. His green eyes flashed. He was getting too close.
In a split second, his vicelike fists shot out and trapped both my wrists. I bucked against him, retracting my arms in an attempt to shake him loose. He was stronger and jerked me close, so that our bodies slapped together. The breath was squashed from my lungs.
For a second I saw the hint of a smirk cross his face. His hands, cuffing my fists, slipped behind my lower back and drew me in tighter. Every part of me went rigid.
A warning screamed in my head. I tried to get away, but this seemed to drive new excitement into him. He was actually enjoying this. His hard grip was making my hands prickle with numbness.
Somewhere in the street I heard a car door slam.
“Stop,” I managed.
“Let go!” Beth shouted at him.
Conner and Bateman pulled my mother away. Morris’s hands were still on my wrists. I heard nothing over the ringing in my ears.
And then I saw him.
His hair was black and gleaming in the last splinters of sunlight. It was short now, cleanly cut like the other soldiers’, and his eyes, sharp as a wolf’s, were so dark I could barely see the pupils. JENNINGS was spelled out in perfect gold letters over the breast of his pressed uniform. I had never in my life seen him look so grave. He was nearly unrecognizable.
My heart was beating quickly, fearfully, but beating all the same. Just because he was near. My body had sensed him before my mind had.
“Chase?” I asked.
I thought of many things all at the same time. I wanted to run to him despite everything. I wanted him to hold me as he had the night before he’d left. But the pain of his absence returned fast, and reality sliced at my insides.
He’d chosen this over me.
I grasped on to the hope that maybe he could help us.
Chase said nothing. His jaw was bulging, as though he was grinding his teeth, but otherwise his face revealed no emotion, no indication that the home he’d been raised in was twenty feet away. He stood between where Morris held me and the van. It occurred to me that he was the driver.
“Don’t forget why you’re here,” Bateman snapped at him.
“Chase, tell them they’re wrong.” I looked straight at him.
He didn’t look at me. He didn’t even move.
“Enough. Get back in the van, Jennings!” ordered Bateman.
“Chase!” I shouted. I felt my face twist with confusion. Was he really going to ignore me?
“Don’t speak to him,” Bateman snapped at me. “Will someone please do something with this girl?”
My terror grew, closing off the world around me. Chase’s presence didn’t soothe me as it had in the past. The mouth that had once curved into a smile and softened against my lips was a hard, grim line. There was no warmth in him now. This was not the Chase I remembered. This wasn’t my Chase.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of his face. The pain in my chest nearly doubled me over.
Morris jerked me up, and instinct tore through me. I reared back, breaking free from his grasp, and wrapped my arms around my mother’s shoulders. Someone yanked me back. My grip was slipping. They were pulling her away from me.
“NO!” I screamed.
“Let go of her!” I heard a soldier bark. “Or we’ll take you, too, Red.”
Beth’s fists, which had knotted in my school uniform, were torn from my clothing. Through tear-filled eyes I saw that Ryan had restrained her, his face contorted with guilt. Beth was crying, reaching out for me. I didn’t let go of my mother.
“Okay, okay,” I heard my mother say. Her words came out very fast. “Please, officer, please let us go. We can talk right here.”
A sob broke from my throat. I couldn’t stand the obedience in her tone. She was so afraid. They were trying to separate us again, and I knew, more than anything else, that I could not let them do that.
“Be gentle with them, please! Please!” Mrs. Crowley begged.
In one heave, Morris ripped me from my mother. Enraged, I swiped at his face. My nails caught the thin skin of his neck, and he swore loudly.
I saw the world through a crimson veil. I wanted him to attack me just so I could lash out at him again.
His green eyes were beady in anger, and he snarled as he jerked the nightstick from his hip. In a flash it was swinging back above his head.
I braced my arms defensively over my face.
“STOP!” My mother’s pitch was strident. I could hear it above the screaming adrenaline in my ears.
Someone pushed me, and I was flung hard to the ground, my hair covering my face, blocking my vision. There was a stinging in my chest that stole the breath from my lungs. I crawled back to my knees.
“Jennings!” I heard Bateman shout. “Your CO will hear about this!”
Chase was standing in front of me, blocking my view.
“Don’t hurt him!” I panted. Morris’s weapon was still ready to strike, though now it was aimed at Chase.
“You don’t need that.” Chase’s voice was very low. Morris lowered the stick.
“You said you’d be cool,” he hissed, glaring at Chase.
Had Chase told this soldier—Morris—about me? Were they friends? How could he be friends with someone like that?
Chase said nothing. He didn’t move.
“Stand down, Jennings,” Bateman commanded.
I scrambled up and glared at the man in charge. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Watch your mouth,” snapped Bateman. “You’ve already struck a soldier. How much deeper a hole are you looking to dig?”
I could hear my mother arguing through her hiccuping sobs. When they began to move her toward the van again, I lunged forward, my hands tangling in Chase’s uniform. Desperation blanketed me. They were going to take her away.
“Chase, please,” I begged. “Please tell them this is a mistake. Tell them we’re good people. You know us. You know me.”
He shook me off as though some disgusting thing had touched him. That stung more than anything could in this moment. I stared at him in shock.
The defeat was devastating.
My arms were pulled behind me and latched into place by Morris’s strong grip. I didn’t care. I couldn’t even feel them.
Chase stepped away from me. Bateman and Conner ushered my mother to the van. She looked over her shoulder at me with scared eyes.
“It’s okay, baby,” she called, trying to sound confident. “I’ll find out who’s responsible for this, and we’ll have a nice long chat.”
My gut twisted at the prospect.
“She doesn’t even have her shoes on!” I shouted at the soldiers.
There were no more words as they loaded my mother in the back of the van. When she disappeared inside, I felt something tear within me, loosing what felt like acid into my chest. It scalded my insides. It made my breath come faster, made my throat burn and my lungs clench.
“Walk to the car,” Morris ordered.
“What? No!” Beth cried. “You can’t take her!”
“What are you doing?” Ryan demanded.
“Ms. Miller is being taken into custody by the federal government in accordance with Article 5 of the Moral Statutes. She’s going into rehabilitation.”
I was getting very tired all of a sudden. My thoughts weren’t making sense. Blurry lines formed around my vision, but I couldn’t blink them back. I gulped down air, but there wasn’t enough.
“Don’t fight me, Ember,” Chase ordered quietly. My heart broke to hear him say my name.
“Why are you doing this?” The sound of my voice was distant and weak. He didn’t answer me. I didn’t expect an answer anyway.
They led me to the car, parked behind the van. Chase opened the door to the backseat and sat me down roughly. I fell to my side, feeling the leather dampen from my tears.
Then Chase was gone. And though my heart quieted, the pain in my chest remained. It stole my breath and swallowed me whole, and I tumbled into darkness.
Copyright © 2012 by Kristen Simmons