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This was what I needed to do. I was meant for this. Pulling on my cap and covering my hair, I remembered that picture of the girl on the television, with matted hair and dark brown eyes. I recalled my dad saying she was a vicious attacker, a thief, a fugitive. She needed to pay the price of being a criminal. I was the only one in this facility able to find and capture that girl called Nicole. I was stealthy, flexible, adjustable; years of training prepared me for a hunt like this.
My room was still perfectly neat; the leather couch gleamed in the corner, my queen sized bed was freshly made, and my Monitor glowed bright above my bookcase. My room shone with luxury, and I was proud.
My nose crinkled up into a snarl when I realized I’d have to travel to the filthy half of the country, the Poor Division, to scavenge Nicole. My parents owed me big time.
Gazing up at my flawless mirror I mantled on the ceiling, my eyes looked like a darker shade of green than before my father assigned me the job as a spy. My freckles were hidden under tons of packed makeup, making me look like I hadn’t taken a shower in weeks. A strand of black hair peeked out from my hat, and my clothes seemed tattered. I looked like a Poor Division citizen already.
My Monitor’s voice blared through the speakers in my room. “Visitor approaching,” it said in a monotone voice.
I heard my door glide open. “Victoria, are you ready?” My dad stepped into the room. He glanced at me up and down, satisfied at how close I looked to a real Poor Division citizen. He was dressed in his regular government-issued uniform. My mother was a facility secretary, while my father was commander of the Tork’s army: both were very high-ranking jobs.
“No,” I sighed. Going to the Poor Division would be like traveling to a whole other world.
“Victoria, you’d only be gone for a couple days. Then, we’d come and get you. Remember your reward?”
“Yeah… but is it worth wearing this?” I jested, glancing at my attire. My father didn’t even crack a smile. He stood straight and tall, without even a hint of laughter in his eyes.
“You’re the only one who can find her,” he said, still holding his hands behind his back and pacing the floor. “You’re fit and able to gain trust towards the enemy. You’ve been trained as Tork’s undercover spy since you were seven. It’s time to grow up, and think like an adult.”
“What if I don’t want to grow up?” I whispered, staring at the ground. I already knew what he would say.
“Whether you like it or not, you will,” he said sternly. “You are old enough to know that.” He paused, and added, “Remember, she already injured fifty of our troops in a single day. She murdered Commander Lawson. She stole from our most stocked banks, despite the fact that we equipped twenty of our most advanced Security Monitors along the walls. We can’t lend her any mercy whatsoever. You will kill Nicole if you have to.” That was a command.
I bowed my head respectively but thought of many counter retorts in my mind. Of course I wanted to agree to whatever my people counted on me for but-
“You will do as I say.” My father directed. “We have ordered many soldiers to the border to prevent from any other Poor Division runaways from getting too courageous. Keep your identity a secret. If anyone finds out who you are, on either half of Tork, you will either be killed or questioned. I have not informed any of my soldiers about this plan; this is a mission I was instructed to keep on the ‘down low.’”
He paused again, and an uneven silence filled the room. Finally, he said, “By success in this, you will be ranked Chief Spy, and you will redeem yourself to your family. I will be watching your progress. Be careful.” He patted my head awkwardly and left the room, leaving only trails of echoes behind.
I sighed with relief after he left.
I didn’t bother saying goodbye to my mother, who would’ve been too busy for me anyway. I imagined her typing on her Monitor, not even caring to glance in my direction.
Taking a deep breath, I picked up my backpack full of supplies, stepped into the elevator, and strode with reluctance out into the busy streets.
Passing towering skyscrapers and crossing many intersections in the Wealthy Division, I finally reached a sign reading, “Welcome to the Poor Division: where freedom is real.” Except, someone crossed out the word “freedom” and wrote “death” in red spray paint. I shivered.
The border, a huge, endless white-washed wall covered with barbed wires stood out from everything. I’ve seen the border from my window, but never this close. Crowds of soldiers assembled in the border’s towers; I saw shadows dance across the drawn curtains. But what really shocked me were the rows and rows of guards standing straight and tall all around the perimeter of the border. They all held guns.
How did anyone ever manage to cross this? How in the world did Nicole manage to cross it?
“What are you doing across the border, little girl?” A uniformed guard asked. I turned to see a muscular man who wore a black suit covered in medals. He crossed his arms and glared at me. Other soldiers stared down at me like I was trash they threw in the streets. I forgot I was dressed in Poor Division clothes. Whoops.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said politely, bowing my head to hide my face. “It’s my mistake. I’ve been losing my way lately; I might need some medical attention.” My heart beat quickened. I remembered my dad ordering me to keep a low profile. If I failed this plan, what would he do to me? If anyone found out who I was, it would immediately become a giant news story. The media loved its drama.
“You know no one from the Poor Division is allowed to cross this border. How did you get over here, anyway?” He shook his head in disbelief. I glanced past him, noticing an open shaft in the wall. “Never mind that. You will be penalized for your ‘mistake.’” He reached down to grab me by the arms but I was too quick. I bolted through the shaft and down the Poor Division streets, kicking gravel as my boots thrust against dirt. I heard him call for other troops and heard leather shoes tread after me, but I kept running. Finally, when I heard the guard’s footsteps grow faint, I hid behind a brick wall in an alley, catching my breath. That was too close. I should’ve been more careful. Anyone could’ve noticed who I was in the Wealthy Division. Hopefully, no one will know who I am in the Poor.
Was this how Poor citizens felt? Always on the run? Breathing heavily, I took in my surroundings. Everything was dark and dusty; I could barely see three yards in front of me. How did people live like this? To my right, buildings looked like shacks piled on top of each other. The wood peeled, the paint was worn down, the windows broken.
Recalling my training lesson, I remembered my instructor informing me Nicole hid in a ten story building that used to be a factory. I cautiously stepped out of the shadows into the vacant streets. It seemed like no one lived here. An oak tree towered over me, making the setting even more ominous. The moon shone through its branches. I rubbed my arms for warmth. It was getting chilly.
People could not survive here. This place felt too unoccupied. Dwelling on that thought, I let my guard down.
Without warning, a girl popped from a branch in front of me. Her face was an inch from mine. I jumped.
“Who are you?” She asked, still upside down, hanging from the branch. She had long, dark brown hair and large brown eyes, looking about fourteen years old. She wore a brown tattered dress that matched her eyes; a typical Poor citizen. I swore I felt my heart leap from my chest.
“Uh,” I struggled for an alternative name. “Tori.” It was the first thing that came to mind. Stupid. Why would I choose a name so close to my actual one: Victoria?
“Never saw you around before and I lived here all my life,” she said, cocking her head curiously. She stared, analyzing me. Her dialect was strange and foreign. She still hung upside down like a monkey, inches from my face, but I maintained a straight composure.
“I, uh,” I stuttered, trying to come up with a story. “I hid at the edge of the border. I thought it was an easy way into the Wealthy Division, and I was brought up there.” It was really thoughtless, but it was the best I could come up with under such a sudden circumstance. “I need help with a plan to steal and get into the Wealthy.”
She grunted, flipped over the branch, and plopped gracefully in front of me. Wow, she was flexible. Actually, getting a better look at her, she looked pretty familiar…
“In that case, I’m Nicole,” she said, reaching out her hand. I hesitated. “Go on, don’t be shy.” She gestured toward her outstretched arm.
I shook it, containing my rage and excitement. So this was the wanted criminal I was after. This girl beat soldiers, stole diamonds, money, jewels. She actually killed a Commander. I chewed the inside of my cheek to hold in my anger.
“Need a place to stay? Follow me.”
She led me toward a building hidden behind the giant oak. It was ten stories and enormous; probably double the size of my own mansion. I gaped up at the building and smirked in the darkness; she was leading herself right into my trap.
I was surprised at how quickly she trusted me, without a hint of doubt in her mind. It was amazing what a simple costume could do.
Leading me up four flights of stairs (which she glided up gracefully using the railing as leverage), we finally reached the top floor.
I wondered where the troops following me went.
“So, you’ve never been on this side of the Poor Division before?” Nicole asked me while sitting down on a blue blanket in the middle of the grey, concrete room. I shook my head, distracted by the emptiness of the area. The room was huge, but it only contained sheets, pillows, and more blankets. A huge hole carved through the back wall acted as a makeshift window. I saw everything up there. The skyscrapers of the Wealthy Division, the eroded buildings of the Poor, the distinct border line between the two.
However, something caught my eye in the corner of the room… a safe. Jackpot. This must be where she hid her stolen items. In fact, it was big enough to hold a body. Would she keep a body in there, like a Commander? Could anyone be that sick?
First, I’d need to find out as much as I could about this girl, and then rush to the facility and turn her in.
“So, do more people live here?” I asked, digging for information.
“Yep. My mom, dad, brother, and sister live here with me.” Her legs were still crossed like a pretzel in the middle of the room. “They’re all scavenging for food, though, out in the alleys. I wasn’t able to steal anything in the Wealthy Division last night.” A pang of realization hit me. So that’s why my Monitor erupted into alarms at two o’clock in the morning, declaring that intruders were in proximity to the facility.
“So, you steal for your family?” I asked Nicole, still analyzing her hideout.
“I have to. They have nothing without me,” she replied, looking away. “It was too dangerous last night. Those guards are looking for me everywhere.” I could sense pain in her voice. “And plus, I think I’ve done enough damage to my family over the past few weeks.” Her face flickered with heavy memories.
My stomach tensed. She was stealing for a good cause? Was that even possible? How is family worth all of that trouble? I wouldn’t know; my instructors practically raised me. I grew up to think that family was only minor support. This went against everything I’ve ever learned from my parents or teachers. I was confused.
“They have everything in that Wealthy Division,” she added. “Why can’t they spare a few scraps of food or money?” She looked at me with her big, pleading, brown eyes. Then, I felt something I thought I would never feel for this girl: pity. I believed everything anyone ever told me. Was I that ignorant? Did I even have a mind of my own?
Suddenly, I heard laughter coming from the stairwell, and four people emerged from the shadows: a tall, older looking man, a shorter woman, and a boy with a young girl clung to his back. The woman looked exhausted but I could still see laugh lines near her mouth: something my parents never had. However, their eyes glinted with melancholy and sorrow.
“Nicole, are you helping street beggars again?” The boy teased, referring to me. He looked exactly like Nicole, except with short, brown shaggy hair. He peeled the little girl off his back and set her down on the ground. She ran to hug Nicole.
Nicole rolled her eyes and picked up the child. “Excuse Sam,” she said while shooting a playful glare at her brother. “This is Tori, everyone.” The family smiled at me warmly. Guilt crawled up my throat.
“Angela, go set the floor,” Nicole’s father instructed. The girl reluctantly pulled out plates and napkins and set them around in a circle.
Nicole’s mother turned to me. “I hope you’re ready for frog soup,” she said, reaching for a pot under a blanket, “because frogs were the only thing we caught tonight.” Angela scrunched up her nose and pretended to puke.
A few minutes later, everyone sat in a large circle on a blue blanket, digging into their small portions. I just glared at my lumpy soup, noticing a frog leg sticking out of the bowl. I lost my appetite.
“So, Tori,” Nicole’s dad began, “you’re new to this area?” He had no idea.
“Yes, I usually hide out by the border,” I answered, sticking to my story.
“Why haven’t you come out before? You could’ve taken shelter here; everyone is like family.”
I fumbled for ideas when Nicole thankfully saved me. “She didn’t want anyone to notice her; she grew up by the border and steals from the Wealthy, like us.” Her father nodded his head, spooning soup in his mouth.
“Doesn’t everyone, nowadays?” Sam tuned in.
Nicole nodded and turned to me. “Have you managed to scavenge anything valuable yet?” Her brown eyes grew big with eagerness. I just nodded, pretended to spoon soup into my mouth, and gestured toward my backpack. She slightly grinned, showing me she understood that I had Wealthy possessions in my bag. Well, it was true.
I still took notice of the family’s distant, gloomy dazes. Was it poverty that made them this way?
“Story time, story time! Tell us a story, Nikki,” Angela chimed.
Nicole sighed. “I went last time.”
“But you tell the best stories!”
Nicole sighed. “Fine, alright.” She sat up straight and began, “It’s a sad one. One you all know. But I think Tori should know if she’s going to be staying with us for a while.” She winked at me. I leaned forward keenly. “I was at the Wealthy Division’s central bank with… Mary when it happened.” She lingered on the name Mary. Who was she? “We strolled in through the doors in Wealth clothes, looking totally in place. I thought our plan was going just fine until-“
“A soldier in the back recognized you from the news. He was about to shoot you when Mary pushed you aside. You picked up a gun and got your revenge on the Commander. There. End of story,” Sam said quickly. He got up and disappeared down the stairwell. I shuddered. Was Mary Nicole’s sister? That must be why her and her family looked full of grief. They lost their youngest member. I felt tears burn behind my eyelids. Rage against my fellow soldiers built up my chest, replacing the respect I once had for them. My father only told me half of what happened during his soldier’s murder.
All I could mutter was, “I’m so sorry.” That phrase was probably so cliché to them that they couldn’t even hear sympathy in it anymore. The family bent their heads down and spooned their rations quietly. The room was completely silent.
I noticed Nicole’s mother had been soundless all dinner. I shifted uncomfortably under her intense gaze.
Breaking the silence, at last she said, “You look… strangely familiar,” I didn’t answer. “You look like…” she trailed off. I avoided everyone’s scrutiny and made sure my cap was still on tight.
Then, Angela burst into a yell, “She looks exactly like her. She’s the Official’s daughter!” I wrung my hands and silently shook my head.
Everyone gasped, including Nicole. She stood up, sat right in front of me and stared into my eyes. “It’s not true.” It was more of a question than a statement. I tried to avoid her demanding face but it was impossible. I was caught.
Nicole peeled off my cap which hid my hair, revealing my signature long, black curly locks.
“Get out!” Nicole’s mom screamed. Everyone stood up and began talking at once. The once quiet room became the center of chaos.
“How could you let this happen?”
“She basically killed Mary! She’s one of them.”
“She’s a traitor.”
“She’s here to turn you in! I knew I shouldn’t have let you go out!”
“Warn the others!”
“I trusted her!”
“Stop!” I yelled above the noise. Everyone froze. The room was dead. “I’m so sorry for tricking you all,” I began, choking on guilt. “I was sent to capture Nicole. But now I see the world with new eyes. Now I see how the world truly works. And I’m not going to turn you in. While I sat on my throne of fortune, you, your people, have suffered. Because of us. I’m… I’m here to help you.” Did I really feel this way? I looked up to examine their reactions. No one moved a single muscle.
Then, Nicole stepped forward slowly and put her hand on my shoulder. “Leave,” she said firmly. “You don’t belong here. Once a Wealth, always a Wealth.” I recognized the common chant that mocked a Wealthy citizen. She spit it out like venom.
Tears burned my eyes but I understood their decision. Scooping up my backpack, I began my descent downstairs, feeling the family’s stares burn through my back. How could I do this to them? They loved each other. Why did I have to barge in and give them something to fear? Now they’d probably have to move and stay on the run, because of me. I practically killed Nicole’s youngest sibling. She was right. I would never be like them, and my cap was the only thing separating me from two different lives.
I stopped. What if I left something in return for their hospitality, so they would know how sorry I truly was? I unzipped my backpack on the third floor, taking out a bag of money my father left for me. I remembered him saying it was for emergencies only. “Whatever you need, get it,” he had said. Well, right now I need them. The bag had to contain thousands of dollars. I sure didn’t need it; my father most likely owned millions of those bags. Running up one more flight of steps, I placed the bag in the hallway and left.
I didn’t know what I would say to my parents. My father would be furious that I didn’t come back with a traitor at all, and my mother would be disappointed that I spent all of the money. What would I tell them? Say that she was too much for me? Say that she injured me in an alley and I couldn’t catch up to her? How would I give her enough time to run away? Didn’t my dad say he would be watching my progress? I glanced up at the blaring street lights, searching for hidden cameras.
When I reached the border to the Wealthy Division, I felt like I didn’t belong. Even though I’ve only spent a day in the Poor, it felt like I’ve spent years. I was formulating a plan to pass the guards when I felt a rough hand clasp over my mouth. Despite my squirming and kicking, I was dragged back under the shadows of the Poor Division.
The next thing I knew, I felt Nicole gather me in a huge, tight hug. In it, I felt apologies entwined with thanks and gratitude. Her hair smelled like hard work and smoke, and her eyes filled with tears.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
I let go and held out my hand like she had when we first met. “Go on, don’t be shy,” I said with a chuckle. She laughed and shook it. A breath of relief overcame me. I was forgiven.
Releasing hands, I felt that, for once, I did something right.
“You don’t wanna go back there again, do you?” She asked, gesturing towards the Wealthy Division. I thought about my parents, my life that wasn’t a life, a life more like a dream than anything. Did I want to go back? Here I felt secure, humble. They’d find me sooner or later. Nicole was my family. What would my parents do? Could we run away?
Funny how a day ago I was ready to throw her in jail.
I pulled on my cap again and answered, “I’d rather eat frog soup.” She laughed and together, we headed back toward her home;
Toward my home.