Until that day, fear had been an abstract concept. It had nothing to do with me and no place in my life. That is, until it was thrown in my face and wound around my heart and now fear is something I’ll carry with me until I die.
The day started innocently enough.
School had ended, so I was walking down Main Street in New York. School had ended, but, as usual, I stop at the elementary school. I slip my headphones on, ready to wait the sixty minutes until Yuki is dismissed.
An hour and a half later, Yuni and I are at the edge of our block, when I suddenly grab her hand.
I trip over my words. “Uh...I just remembered that Mami and Papi wanted to, um, meet at the mall.”
Yuki turned her big blue eyes in my direction for a second, and then spun around. “Oki, Esti!”
I frowned, my heart beating faster. “Stay here for a second. I need to get something.”
Yuki smiles. I quickly dart away.
My real name isn’t Esti. Yuki’s only six years old, and she’s not all that great with pronouncing words. My actual name is West.
The truth is, I am concerned about the motorcycles surrounding my house. Black and gold, the colors of the Civil Police Force.
What are the police doing at my house?
I’m about to dash towards it, but it occurs to me that they may be after me--or my parents. So instead, I crawl behind a police officer and listen quietly as he peaks into his microphone.
“Mrs. Azriel is deceased? And Mr. Azriel?”
“Sorry, just…train sabotage….”
Another, shorter, pause.
“Yes sir. No sir, Mr. Azriel and Miss Azriel have not been located yet. We’ll take them into federal custody as soon as we locate them.”
I can’t believe that. No.
But it’s true.
So what? I should still go home.
And be taken into Foster?
No. Nope. Not going to do that to my little sister.
I back away quietly, and as soon as I’m out of earshot, sprint to my sister.
She must have seen some of the chaos I was feeling inside because she whimpers, “Esti, you--”
I cut her off. “Yuki. Let’s go.”
Do I regret that decision, not to take help when it was offered? I don’t know. If you ask me, six days later, when my sister can barely hang onto my hand from her big finger because she’s deep in fever, maybe my answer would be different than before I ran away.
I didn’t intend to hide for long. It was just that I was always surrounded by trouble, trying to find my aunt’s house. Gangsters, cops, and then Yuki came down with a heavy fever.
Six days later, I’m slipping into an apartment complex. Fairly sure this is where she lives, but not positive. If it isn’t, I have to call the government. I can’t let Yuki suffer like this. She can barely hold onto my hand, and she’s falling in and out of a daze.
My feet are heavy, although I guess I must be light. I realized this morning I was having hunger cramps. I haven’t really eaten since I left my house. I gave Yuki all the food that I found or bought. And I’m glad I did, or else...Yuki probably would not be standing right now.
I manage to drag us all the way up the escalators to the sixth floor, room 605, before I stop. This should be my aunt’s apartment. I stand on the doorstep because I know that she’ll have a notification on her phone any second from now telling her that someone is waiting on the threshold.
One minute passes. Then two.
What if she’s not inside? After all, it’s two on a Thursday afternoon.
A woman opens the door. She looks nothing like my mother or father. Slim, neat, and graceful. The woman adjusts her black glasses and takes a step back.
“Saints,” she curses, snatches Yuki out of my hands, and slams the door in my face.
Just as I finish debating whether or not to knock down the door, the woman appears again. I barge in. “Where’s Yuki?” I ask, my voice startlingly quiet, calmer than how I feel.
“Study. I gave her some honey.” The woman answers readily. “What are you doing here?”
I look down, and then sigh. “I’m hungry.” I blurt out.
We walk to the kitchen island. The woman smiles and puts her hand on her chin. Then she's all seriousness. “You were saying….”
Dizzy, a headache coming on, my heart racing, I tell her the story I’ve been trying to deny to myself.
“Mara...and Del...were in a train sabotage. I guess that means a crash, huh? And there were police everywhere, who wanted to kidnap us - um, Yuki and I - and take us to Foster.” Here, I shudder as the woman gave me a sympathetic look.
What’s so terrifyingly disgusting and undesirable about Foster?
Foster, traditionally called the Civil Foster Care Network, is where all the orphan children live. It’s not the fact that most of them are psycho that scares me, or the thought of the social isolation they have to bear. When I think about the things that go on in the Foster Neighborhoods after curfew, I feel chilled to my bones.
I don’t want my sister kidnapped, for her to become an object of misery. No, that’s stuff of my nightmares. And even if we do escape Foster, we’ll never be treated the same by others or paid fairly.
“Sorry...I don’t mean to….” I mumble, my train of thought lost completely.
Then my aunt, who I’ve never met and don’t even know her name, gives me one of those fancy half-hugs. I quickly step back, because I don’t touch people, but also because I wonder, “How can you stand sitting next to me?”
“Mmm...go take a shower now. By the way, my name’s Serafine.”
I bite my lip. “I’m West. But you already knew that.”
When I finish showering, I’m sort of at a loss of what to wear. Serafine knocks on my door, softly saying, “I have some fresh clothes outside.”
I sigh. “Thank you, Serafine.”
The truth is, I just want to sit here on the bathtub edge.
Or maybe fall into the tub itself.
I certainly don’t want to face Serafine again. I’m sick of all the atypical madness that now surrounds my life.
Nevertheless, I stride into the kitchen. I nearly trip over myself when I see Serafine’s husband.
It’s someone I know.
Not literally, I’ve never met him. But I remember seeing this man on a broadcast. He’s Xaran Tiarro, five time national chess champion. I think there was talk of having him excluded, but I don’t really watch that stuff.
“Are you okay? Have you eaten? Here, let me fix you something.” Serafine exclaims, watching me, and hurries away.
Yes, I’m okay. No, I haven’t eaten. For a while. I’m not that hungry. I’d rather you stay than leave me here with this man.
“West Azriel, right?” Serafine’s husband says, his voice surprisingly soft but definitely indifferent.
“Xaran Tiarro.” I answer levelly, sliding onto a padded oak coffee chair. “I guess you know why I’m here.”
Xaran tilts his head. “You want us to adopt you.”
I stay silent for a second. Then I say, “I’d like you to adopt me, but I want you to take Yuki.”
The microwave buzzes.
Serafine tentatively interrupts our conversation, murmuring to me, “This is my leftover from this afternoon. I don’t like potatoes very much. Eat slowly.” She hands me a plate that I accept but don’t touch.
“Back when Civil was just America, their Foster care units weren’t so bad. Their new parents cared about their children, and the children were safe. Foster children were treated like everyone else. In fact, no one knew you were from a Foster family unless you told them.
“But when Japan and Canada joined the US and we started to lean toward a socialist way of life, the government started keeping tabs on everyone. Foster children were ostracized from the socialist Civil. Technology had advanced so that anyone could have children if they wanted, causing adoption centers to close down nationwide. And so Foster children were given to the lowest of the working class - those who are trained only to do mundane domestic work.”
What I said sounds like it’s paraphrased from a textbook. But it’s so true.
Xaran smiles, but I’m not offended because I know there is no humor in it. “Keep going,” he says.
“That’s fine.” Serafine says, wrapping Xaran’s fingers over her hand.
“And therein lies the issue.” Xaran continues. “Because there are rules with how many square feet and how many bedrooms we have to own to have children live with us. And if I adopt you now, they’re going to send Inspection in a week. And if Inspection comes in and sees that our living quarters don’t meet the regulations for two children, let alone one, they’re going to declare us unfit and take you and Yuki. We’re ready to move, but we don’t have enough time to move. And it would be very suspicious.”
“But…” I breathe.
“But, since Yuki is underage - six, right? So she’s excluded from the domestic space rules until she turns ten. They only start counting bedrooms when they’re old enough to always sleep in their own beds. You’re...thirteen? No chance. Unless you have some medically-verified phobia. ” Xaran says.
I quietly chuckle. Serafine looks at me with confusion. “What?”
I close my eyes. “Nothing, just happy that at least Yuki will make it out fine.”
I meet silence. I must have sounded sardonic, even insane.
“Just kidding,” I say brightly. “I might be fine too.”
“How?” Xaran questions dully.
Serafine raises her eyebrows.
“He’s just deadpanning,” she says.
“I’m going to go to Civil Wars.” I say.
“Definitely a deadpan.” Serafine interjects with strange laughter.
“That was edgy.” I say.
“Says you.” she retorts, which seems unlike her.
More silence. Xaran clears his throat. “You’re only thirteen, the minimum age you can enter the competition. You don’t have any experience in VR and you don’t know how to hold a knife.”
“With my finger..on the spine.” I snap.
Xaran’s eyes narrow. Then he smirks. “What makes you think you’re any better than the Foster kids? You’re just like them.”
My mind recoils, and I counter, “Maybe I am.” And then I continue, “Everything I know is either dead or safe, and I’m going to live my life in misery if I don’t take this chance. So who cares?”
Serafine considers for a minute before asking, “Are you sure?"
“He’s suicidal.” Xaran murmurs, earning a sharp look from his wife.
“Very.” I agree stoically.
Civil Wars is a virtual reality massively multiplayer roleplay and battle royal game. Basically, everyone puts on helmets and is transported to a three-dimensional world where they have to kill players and other creatures to win and avoid death. Because death in the game is death in real life. After the fifth round, that is.
To ‘enforce that all contestants take the game seriously’ and ‘bring players to the maximum potential’.
That’s why Xaran thinks I’m insane. For starters, the mere experience of death is probably traumatic and extremely undesirable, but to have my life actually terminated? I have to agree that it’s suicidal.
But so is Foster.
Xaran exchanges a glance with Serafine. “If you insist.” Xaran concedes. “Aside from that, Serafine’s scheduled a doctor’s appointment for your sister, and we’ve turned in her adoption form. If you’re going to go to CW, we’ll do your adoption form tonight.”
“Do that, then.” I say firmly.
Serafine nods. I’m struck by how similar to my mother she looks when she pushes up her glasses. They have the same big, dark eyes, straight hair, and quirky smile.“Thanks.” I whisper, because suddenly I feel a heady rush. Darkness plays at the edge of my vision, coaxing me to give in and let go of my thoughts.
I’m very tired. I haven’t let Yuki out of my sight since we left home.
Where is she now, then?
I don’t know. I give in.
“Esti. I not hungry.”
I wake up. “What?"
Yuki looks into my eyes. “I not hungry.”
I smile. “That’s music to my ears.” I try to get up, but my legs are too shaky. I barely manage to drag myself to the couch. And then I realize I’m very, very hungry. And thirsty. I look out the window. It must be five o’clock by now.
“Saints, what am I going to do now?” I wonder.
No one answers. Yuki closes her eyes.
“West?” I hear Serafine’s voice.
“You can come in…” I say.
Serafine opens the door and practically skips to me, gently touching my bangs. “Come on, today’s the day. Unless-”
“For the last time, no.” I tell her, crossly, despite my fatigue.
She frowns, and continues, “West….when was the last time you actually ate something?”
I shrug. “A week? I mean, I ate a little bit sometime.” But even the small movement of shrugging gives me a splintering headache.
Serafine closes her eyes. “Well, West, before we go you need to eat.”
“Why is that such a big deal?” I shoot back.
“First of all, you probably can’t stand. But more importantly...it’s better we just get it over with.” The woman walked away, and brought back a large pot and some toast and cereal.
“What’s the pot for?” I ask.
That morning was the most humiliating day of my life.
I was too dizzy to hold the spoon and put it into my mouth, so Serafine did, slowly.
Then she told me to take a break.
Ten minutes later, I was vomiting it all back up into the pot.
I repeated this process several times before I was able to keep something down. Serafine advised me not to eat too much, and to gradually return back to three meals a day. I told her that at CW we got some kind of protein water down our throats so we didn’t need to eat for an entire week, since we stay in the VR game for five days at a time. She gave me one of her looks.
“Thanks,” I mutter to her as we walk out of the room, myself, completely mortified. She just smiles, leading me to the outside of her apartment building.
In the parking lot are lines and lines of blue and cream cycles. Back when there were hundreds of countries, the vehicles were known as motorcycles. But now they’re solar powered, so we don’t use that term.
The civilian cycles are navy and cream colored, while the police cycles are gold and black. Ambulance cars are red and white, and government officials’ cycles are camouflage green.
Serafine hands me a navy helmet and fixes a pale yellow one on her head. “Come on,” she tells me.
The ride to the Civil Wars Offices is largely uneventful. When we arrive, Serafine takes my hand. I almost feel like a little boy again.
“Couple things.” she tells me, serious. “First, try not to make any friends, especially inside the game. I don’t want you to be murdered in your sleep.
“Second, don’t feel pressured to do what everyone else does. You are West Azriel, not anyone else. You have a unique style that no one else does. Third, know what you’re aiming for. If you know you can’t win, don’t stay any longer than five rounds. It should take about a month to switch houses. I want to see you again.”
“Last, let me just say that we’re going to be waiting for you."
And with those comforting words, she walked away.
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