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I took slow, steady steps, feeling my father’s gaze trained on my back. Nervously, I swallowed, trying to keep my eyes off of the world around me, and locked onto the cold cement ground.
“I asked you a question, Emily,” I hear him repeat, and I flinch slightly. I don’t want him to make me answer.
“I don’t know. I really don’t.” Beside me, I start to hear the quiet whimper of one of the little girls, a pale blonde named Kara. I shoot her a quick pleading look. Stay quiet, my eyes beg.
Behind me, my dad chuckles. It’s a sound I used to love, before the Society assigned him to Department 5, the area of the government agency in charge of maintain the children of rebels- and getting any sort of information out of them that they can. I love my father, I tell myself sternly. I despise what he’s doing.
“You’re almost a child, just like them. How do you suppose the best way to get them to talk would be?”
“I…” My voice sounds light and uncaring, but inside, I’m choking over the words. Misspeaking could spell pain or death for any of these children. I glance back at my Dad playfully, with a half-smile. “Whatever you’re doing must be working.”
He laughs, along with the guards behind him, and I chuckle lightly as well. That was the right thing to say. My eyes graze up and down the rows of beds in cold, white room that serves as a sleeping chamber for most of the kids. Outside, there is an open play yard dotted with the stubble of what used to be some kind of field, and behind me, down the hall, is a glass room with blue walls. The room they use for extraction. I close my eyes to keep from hearing the screams. Most kids don’t leave the blue room whole. Few leave breathing.
There’s a boy sitting on one of the beds, with a shock of jet black hair, that’s toying with a block of wood in his hands. He was ancient for a prisoner- sixteen or seventeen. He was one of the few that I knew the story of. Before regulations on security tightened, my dad would let me play with some of them occasionally, treating them like pets he was giving me. Prisoner ZR3261. I stare down until he casually looks over at me. Zander had been one of my best friends, and now he was my ally.
“All right, that should do it. Everything looks fine,” I hear my father say, checking a few things off on the electronic tablet in his hand. He exchanges a few words with the guards, distracted momentarily.
Zander glanced sideways, to the far wall, and then tapped the bed twice with the tips of his fingers. The code was simple enough. The kids needed food.
“Ten thirty,” I mouthed, keeping my eyes carefully pointed away.
He nods infinitesimally.
I come back that night, after a dinner at my father’s mansion up the road from the facility. My hair is back in a simple braid, similar to what some of the other girls in the camp would wear, and I’m in simple white sleeping clothes. Half a dozen kids, their grey prison shirts hanging limply over their thin frames, are clustered around the edge of the fence. A chestnut tree leans precariously close to the edge of the fence, and I slip behind its trunk and into the shadow it casts from the faint prison lights.
“Am I clear?” I call softly.
Zander nods, “Climb.”
I hope upwards, pause, and then scramble over the fence and leap off of the farthest limb. The pouch I have tied around my waist tumbles free as I fall, spilling the four or five white rolls and few apples that I snatched from the kitchen. Zander, Slodge, Kate and a few others descend on the food instantly, concealing it in folds in their clothes and every other random hiding spot they can think of. I know this older group, and I’m confident that the food is going to find its way to the mouths of the hungriest little tykes.
“Thanks. Again.” Slodge whispers.
“Is there anything I should know? Something I can say to him?” I search their faces, and Zander shrugs.
“Don’t pretend like he’s going to listen.” Seeing how distressed I am, he adds, “Don’t worry. Everything’s quiet right now.”
“And you parents?”
He glances over at his friends, “Mine are somewhere out north. I don’t think anyone’s seen Slodge’s or Kate’s in forever.”
“Let’s face it. We’re all hoping their going to turn up dead.” Kate says harshly.
“Get out of here,” Zander says, gesturing for the wall. “I don’t want you caught.”
I’m just about to turn and leave when there’s a light from a solar beam smacks into the center of our group. For an instant, I’m completely blinded.
“What do you think you’re doing?” a voice shouts. Kate makes a sound like a whimpering scream.
It’s Zander who finally calls back, “We’re just out walking.”
“Get back inside,” the guard, who is now close enough to see, says roughly. He shoves Kate on the back, and she stumbles, her hair flying around her face. I open my mouth to say something, but then shut it again as fear grips me. He thinks I’m one of the kids. In the dark, my clothes look like the same shape and texture. We’re all marched back inside of the sleeping chamber, and as the doors shut around me, I suddenly feel a rush of loneliness. The kids all leap up out of their beds, and swarm the food. It’s Kara, with her sweet blue eyes and tiny frame, who notices me first.
“Emily,” she whispers. “What are you doing here?”
“The guards thought I was one of you,” I murmur back, and scoop her of the ground and rest her on my hip. I’m suddenly aware of how bony and frail she is, like a blade of grass ripped from the ground too soon and cast into the wind.
“You don’t look like me,” she says with a little smile, patting my braid.
“The Overseer is going to get here in the morning and you’ll be in trouble,” Zander whispers. It’s funny to hear him call my father that.
“There isn’t anything I can do, though,” I hiss.
“He’s not going to hurt you,” Zander says, his voice low and concerned.
I shook my head. “No. But he won’t ever let me come back here.”
“There are guards coming!” a little boy yelps suddenly, and there’s a flurry as they all dive for their beds.
“Put these on!” Zander shouts, tossing me some prison clothes that smell of powdered milk and dust. I wriggle into them instantly, thankful for the dark and the chaos, and then dive onto an empty bed at the edge of the room.
The doors burst open, and four of the guards walk in.
“Kate Winters,” one of them reads off of a tablet, looking around. “You were with your father the week before he was arrested.”
I go white, and slowly look over to her bed. She’s huddled against the rail, trembling. Her eyes meet mine, and she mouths, “I don’t know anything.”
For a split second, I feel the power of a choice rippling over me.
I think of Kara, huddled in her bed as my father passes, cuts lacerating her back from sessions spent trying to find out about her parents.
I think of Zander, standing up and taking the hits that should have gone to someone weaker, trying to protect them. Always.
And finally... I think of my father. My house, which seemed now a world apart.
I stand up, slowly, feeling the eyes of every child on me, “That’s me. I’m Kate.”
The guards come and grab either arm. In the dark, we look enough the same, and I’m in prison clothes. There’s no telling us apart.
They drag me out of the sleeping chamber, towards the stark blue room with the cold white table. I look back once, and catch sight of Zander’s eyes. He nods once.
And I never see them again.