The gravel had become an even greater enemy than Jay Newhall.
Chiara slowly wheeled her bike across the flawless cobblestones of the Glove courtyard, rigidly bracing every step so her knees did not buckle beneath her. Swarms of students wove an ever-changing web around her, throwing glances, exchanging whispers, watching her trip over her own feet and accomplishing their assigned job for them. The glossy stones swam before her fixed stare.
With her homework and paper run combined, she had missed an entire night of sleep and her body was taking its revenge.
She closed her eyes.
Her heel caught on the curb of a planter and she lunged forward, her bike rolling somewhere out of reach.
A strong body caught her and she gasped, snapping her eyes open again.
A broad chest clad in a shiny grey suit and grey green long coat.
The most handsome face she had ever seen, smirking his usual, mocking grin as he held her to him.
“Well, well, well, this should be awkward!”
Chiara clenched her jaw, feeling her stomach twist in irritation. Jay Newhall was enemy number one. She angled her arms sharply in between them and shoved him backwards. He backpedaled violently, his smirk transforming into a blank mask of horror. Chiara straightened, throwing her arms open wildly.
“What on earth was that?”
He released a sharp scoff, rolling his eyes hard. “That was me being a hero, even in the face of your situation! You being carded and all, I could very well have let you fall.”
Chiara’s eyes narrowed and she stepped forward, crossing her arms over her chest and meeting his eyes evenly. He raised one eyebrow, the corner of his lips turning up slightly in a mild smile.
“Why didn’t you let me fall? That would just be so like you, wouldn’t it?”
He chuckled softly, glancing from side to side. Chiara followed suit. Students were looking their way. Jaws were dropping. Jay leaned closer, his mouth resting just beside Chiara’s ear. She winced.
“Careful, Downs,” he breathed. “Or the girls here might murder you in your sleep.”
Chiara huffed, shoving her shoulder into his chest so he backed away again. “Yeah, right. All the girls here would be too scared.”
Jay’s chuckle intensified. “Not if I’m there to protect them...and help.” He winked and rolled past her, his shoulder jostling hers violently. Chiara rolled with it, spinning to watch him leave with a slack jaw.
He continued to get more and more infuriating with every time they met. This time, he had directly threatened her. Of course, he could not legally follow through on any threat off campus, but he obviously had the nerve. Jay’s gutsy provocations were made even worse by the fact that he always got so close to her.
She could always feel his breath, the rough malevolence seeping from his intense blue eyes, the warmth emanating from his strapping body.
She shuddered and bent to pick up her bike.
A foot pinned it down and she looked up. A heavy set boy in a crinkled collar and tie towered above her, a ridiculous smile plastered across his face.
“Where do you think you’re going, Downs?” he demanded. A small group was forming behind him. The steadily rising sun behind them cast eerie shadows, creating monstrous characters across the ground. Slowly, Chiara straightened, deliberately tensing the muscles in her arms. She had been in a fight before, but against one at a time.
Of course, these were soft pussies used to having life fed to them on silver platters. It might be just like fighting one on one.
“I think I have World History in a couple minutes. Please get off my bike.”
The student’s smirk widened. “Huh. That Collective card in your locker insists otherwise.” His leg thrust down.
Chiara felt something inside her snap as a wheel gear cracked loud and hard. Possibilities and necessities dissipated: a nightly paper run that her family desperately needed, cherished time alone on her way to school every day, familiar memories riding along the Downs streets and alleys with Holly.
It was just a bike, but it was like family, in the weirdest way possible.
She swallowed a hard ball of tears lodged in her throat, blinking once. No tears. Not here.
“Wow.” Chiara shifted her weight to one side, crossing her arms over her chest and raising an eyebrow. “That’s all you can do? It’s just a bike.” She rolled her eyes. “Next time, try hitting me! That might do some damage.”
Desperately fighting the trembling in her knees, she spun on her heel and made a smooth beeline for the MD building. She almost hoped they would follow her.
She really wanted to hit something.
As usual, she was the first one in the lecture hall. It seemed that the entire school put off learning and studying for as long as possible. Slowly, she made her way to the back corner seat and settled her backpack on the desk. She ran her fingers across the soft, beat up leather. The seams were fraying apart and the old brocade on the straps was ripping off. Her fingers played with the charm dangling from a zipper. The purple bear smiled up at her, friendly as always. It had watched her grow up, seen her first everything, and continued to smile.
Her first word, her first step, her first perfect score on the ice rink board.
Chiara carefully stroked its delicate ear and smiled a little.
A tear slipped its way into the corner of her mouth.
She caught a sharp breath, letting her eyes flick down the center aisle. A familiar figure jogged up the steps, his red leather jacket reflecting the dim lecture hall lights. Brody mounted the final tier, sliding his hands into his slacks pockets and stopping at the edge of the long desk. He gestured to her.
“Are you crying?”
Hurriedly, she swiped the back of her hand across her eyes, sniffing sharply. “No.”
Brody rolled his eyes. “Well, not anymore. But you’re upset, aren’t you? About the courtyard.”
Chiara winced, looking down at the purple bear again. “You saw that.”
He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure the whole school did. One of the janitors was taking your bike away when I was coming in.”
Chiara managed a quiet scoff. “I wonder how many people get accused for littering with bikes.”
Brody sighed. “Stop with the tough face, please! It’s really weird how well you’ve mastered it.”
“Yeah, well, how about you?” Chiara responded sharply, spinning to face him again. “You’re not on board with this new level of hazing, but you have a face for the school, don’t you? And then why do you act like you care about how I feel and whether or not I’m crying after you see something like that and don’t help?”
He stared at her evenly, his face slack and void of emotion. He cleared his throat.
Chiara’s eyebrows shot up and she blinked the returning tears away.
“I’m not brave enough to stop it, no matter how much I hate it. I never have been and I don’t think I ever will be.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry you have to go through this, but I can’t say anything.”
Chiara slowly cocked her head, trying to read his face. His visage showed no remorse, and his hazel eyes were blank. His shoulders, though, drooped beneath the hand brocaded leather strap of his satchel. Chiara’s face tightened into a frown.
“You can’t say anything,” she slowly repeated. “Or you won’t?”
His eyes narrowed and he completely closed the distance between them so that he met her gaze directly.
“I won’t,” he breathed through his teeth. “Because I can’t. The Globe is more involved than you think; you don’t even know what’s going on here.”
“Than tell me,” she whispered softly. “Why can’t you speak your mind against the card, even though you hate it? Why do kids get forced to leave? Why make them jump off of roofs and then invite the one who saved him to attend the school? Why is this place a living hell? Why can’t you say anything?” She spread her hands helplessly. “Why doesn’t anyone say anything?”
His eyes flicked up somewhere over her head. There was only a wall behind her, so she did not look to see. He sighed heavily.
“Because, in order for society to work the way it does now, this school needs to stay the way it is. This school needs to turn out the most promising, most successful people to take charge of this city. This world, even. We can’t afford to let anyone less than excellent stay here.”
Chiara shook her head emphatically, raising a stalling hand. “Wait, wait, you keep saying ‘we’, but you said yourself that you hate this, that you’re not on board with it all. You can’t be part of the ‘we’.”
Brody smiled ruefully. “The Collective doesn’t have a choice anymore. Not with who runs it all.”
Her eyes narrowed again. Her head hurt. It was too early in the morning to be thinking so much, especially with the utter lack of sleep she had been experiencing for the past days.
“The president,” she breathed. “Jay’s mom. Newhall. She owns most of the city.” She raised her eyes to Brody again. “Is she...forcing you all to be a part of this?”
Brody crossed his arms over his chest, lowering his eyes to his shined shoes. He drew in a slow breath, and Chiara felt her face soften. She could read something.
Brody Hilton was scared.
“Chiara...there is a lot that you can’t understand about the way the Ups work. Force is a difficult word to use in this part of the city.”
Slowly, she nodded. “Different word...same concept.”
He inclined his head meaningfully. “Maybe you’re quicker to catch on than I thought.”
Brody reached a hand forward and lightly brushed a thumb across her cheek. She gasped sharply, taking a fumbling step back. Her heel caught on the leg of a chair and she lurched backwards. His arm snapped out and grabbed her wrist as she fell backwards, yanking her back to her feet. Chiara caught her breath, pulling her hand from his and leaning back against the wall. Her face was tight, and her heart pounded.
“What...why did you touch my face?”
He smirked a little. Old Brody was back. “You look tired. There are dark circles under your eyes.”
She frowned. “So, wait, are you worried about me or teasing me now?”
He raised a gentle eyebrow, backing up towards the stairs. “Interpret it how you will. It doesn’t really matter. You tend to be predisposed to hate the Collective anyway.”
“I don’t see you giving me any reason not to.”
He chuckled. “I’m getting the feeling that you practice these kind of come-backs. Keep up the good work.” He trotted down the stairs.
Chiara dropped to her chair, curling her fingers around the soft leather of her backpack. She had lost her bike because of this stupid ideology that the Ups were superior, that they had to be in charge of the modern society. The teenager swallowed. Her body, eyes, everything hurt. She could not think about this now. Students were starting to filter into the room. Too many venomous stares were sent her way. She winced.
The bike would not be enough. They would really be after her head now, having expected a better reaction to their first cruelty. She would have to watch her back better than before.
She needed to start getting more sleep.