One week later…
Seventeen year old Chiara sighed heavily as she settled her bike in the apartment building bike rack. It was still so cold and her breath hung before her lips in icy clouds. She had never been able to afford the proper clothes to ward out the unusually cold autumn weather, and had long since learned to brave to cold in her tattered, hand-me-down skinny jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes, and flannels.
She paused, slowly looking down at her clothes. Her navy blue and white plaid flannel was still stained with a faint bit of blood that was not her own. Even her white tennis shoes had been a bit splattered. She had forgotten already. It had taken a bit of explaining to help her parents understand that little doozy.
At least she had gotten the package delivered; it was simply not in the most conventional way. A wry smile tweaked her lips as she straightened and ducked into the relative warmth of the apartment complex. Thank God the victim had been her customer. After getting over the fact that he was weird enough to order his dry-cleaning taken to him at school, she had to admit that his extra dress shirt had been perfectly suited to cleaning the blood from his face. Served him and all his stupid private school buddies right. It was like they had never seen blood before.
She had grown up seeing too much of it.
Chiara trotted up the stairs, rubbing her hands together and blowing on them. The heater must have broken again. She would have to see what she could do about fixing that. The complex maintenance man loved her, considering that her mechanical skills allowed him to catch the naps he never could at his previous jobs.
The second floor was smaller than the first, with only ten apartments. Chiara’s family’s apartment was at the very end, B5. Good old B5, ugly and drab and rank with the thick smoke of the previous owner that could not be exhumed from the walls. Chiara had learned to live with it. She had grown up in it. She reached the smoke stained door and, carefully so the hinges would not unlatch, she pushed it open. Then immediately froze.
Her dad, heavyset and unshaven Gregory with thin grey hair, her mom, unhealthily thin with artificially tanned skin and corkscrew blonde curls that had not hurriedly put in, and a man in a perfect silver grey suit sat on the ancient, dark blue fabric couch, formally staring at each other like all the business people of the world. Twelve year old Grant sat on the floor, his eyes wide as they wandered all over the stranger’s impeccable suit. Her mom threw a glance at the door and shot to her feet. Chiara’s eyebrows shot up. She was wearing high heels. She never wore high heels. There was a plastic smile frozen on her face.
“Chiara, baby, guess what?”
She slowly looked at the man in the suit. His distinguished brown eyes settled evenly on her and his face was set in perfectly chiseled lines. He looked rich. Chiara slowly shook her head.
“I haven’t the slightest clue.”
Her dad jumped to his feet with his arms spread wide open, then doubled over in a coughing fit. Mom rolled her eyes and smiled again.
“Baby, this man here is the potential scout for...wait for it…” Her eyes rolled up in her head and she bit her rich red lip. “The Globe Academy!”
Slowly, Chiara nodded, drumming her fingertips against the splintered door jam. “Cool. Why is he here?”
“Miss Dalton,” The man stood up, straightening his jacket and adjusting his golden cufflinks. “It has come to the attentions of the Globe that you have established some very prominent characteristics that the academy is looking for.”
Again, Chiaras’s eyebrows shot up and she stepped all the way inside, closing the door behind her. “Characteristics? Not, like, academic achievement or something? I’m confused.”
The man smiled, stretching out his hand. “I’m Philip Ross, potential scout of the Globe Academy, and we’re looking for people like you, who would save a life even as her own is on the line. People like those go far in this world, you know that?”
Chiara looked at his hand, then slowly reached out to shake it. “I guess so, but I’m still confused. Are you recruiting me? Cause you should know here and now that we can’t pay for it.”
The scout chuckled, slipping his hands into his pockets. “You are definitely being recruited, but the payment is being settled. You have no need to worry yourself about that. Simply take the President up on her offer and come to school for your first day on Monday.”
Chiara looked quickly back at her parents. They grinned with thumbs-up signs and little squirming dances. Grant’s eyes finally flicked to Chiara and his face split in a smile, jumping to his feet and going on to perform a majestic little dance. The teenager’s jaw dropped.
“Okay, wait, what? How on earth is this working? What’s going on?”
“Just go with it, Chiara!” Dad hissed. “You’re not going to get a chance like this again! Come on!”
“Than it’s settled.” Mr. Ross clapped his hands together and shook Mr. Dalton’s hand. “We’ll see your daughter at seven am at the Globe in two days. You will receive her uniform in the mail tomorrow morning. Please call the personal number I left you should you find any problems with the arrangements.”
Mr. Dalton seemed to be hyperventilating. “Of course, Mr. Ross. It’s...been a pleasure working with you.”
Chiara threw her arms open. “What...what is going on? Don’t I have a say in anything? I don’t want to g-”
“Please, let me escort you outside, Mr. Ross,” Mrs. Dalton breathed, tip-toeing hurriedly in her high heels to the door. The scout followed her, chuckling at her whispered thank yous and let’s stay in touches. She shut the door with a click.
Chiara spun in an incredulous circle. “Mom, Dad, what? You literally didn’t even let me talk! What if I don’t want to go to the Globe?”
“That’s crazy; everyone wants to go to the Globe!” Mrs. Dalton giggled, scuttling back into the apartment and violently kicking off her high heels. “Chiara, there is no way in this world you would ever have gotten a chance at the Globe if you didn’t save that boy’s life -”
“From the bullies who were going to kill him because he got a Collective card!” Chiara threw her arms open incredulously. “Do you have any idea what that insinuates? There are some real, honest-to-goodness bullies who are willing to make a guy jump off the flipping roof!” She shook her head emphatically. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to put myself in that kind of situation!”
She let her eyes flick from Mom to Dad to Grant. The little boy slowly sank to his knees, releasing a quivering moan.
“The Collective?” he breathed. “You mean...the richest of the rich...the four heirs to all the companies that mean anything in the world?” He spun to face their parents. “Mom, they go to the Globe! They’re the richest kids on the face of the planet!”
“Cheech,” Gregory mumbled, his eyes glassy with ambition. He leaned forward on the couch, splaying his hands helplessly. “You could study with them...the Collective!”
“And, I don’t know, maybe get married to one of them,” Angela muttered, shuffling past them to the kitchen. Chiara slowly closed her eyes, feeling every muscle in her body tense to a snapping point as her fists slowly closed.
“And-there-it-is.” She spun on her heel, throwing up her hands helplessly. “I need some air.”
“Baby, come back!”
“Chiara, come on, what could there possibly be to think about?”
She closed the door.
The roof had always served as a refuge for her. No one ever came up on the roof, and for good reasons. The years of junk had piled up and become a mountain of slightly rancid refuse. That made it quite a reliable lonely place. Chiara picked her way through the piles of old air conditioning units and clothes dryer filters, hopping up onto the electrical closet. She pulled her ankles in to sit cross-legged and released a long breath.
She liked it up high, where the wind was cold and bit her cheeks.
She always felt beautiful overlooking the majestic city of New York, the breeze ruffling her impossibly wavy, straw blonde hair to an even more tangled state than it usually was. Up on the roof, no one could see her. That was always when she felt the most comfortable. That was always when she could think.
The Globe Academy. It was the closest thing to a nightmare she could imagine. A place where people went because they were rich and got life handed to them on silver platters and looked down on everyone from the lower parts of town. She knew that she could handle the prejudice of anyone herself, but just the attitude of those upper class persons drove her to the limits of her well worn patience. Chiara growled through clenched teeth, kicking her tennis shoes against the metal electrical closet. The hollow booms echoed over the city.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
And that was enough. She closed her eyes, releasing a slow breath. Once upon a time, she had had a temper, a wild, unrestrainable one. That had gotten her into trouble.
Now, all it took was a long, smooth breath. Then came the logical thinking part.
How could she turn down such an offer? The Globe Academy did not deal those out willy-nilly, and it certainly did add to the possibility of her landing a well paying job. Good jobs were nearly impossible to find, even if one was willing to work hard for it. New York City was very different from its old days. The hierarchy of nobility and commoner had taken root and it was impossible to break from it. The commoners served the nobility where they were allowed with what pay they were offered. The Globe allowed her to forgo all of the potential heartache of being denied like so many others.
But the boy on the roof...There was no pretending that had not happened, and it was because of the school’s justice system. Her customer had given her the low-down. He had gotten a D on the homework one of the Collective passed on to him. That was enough to merit the other students throwing him off of the roof. She was not willing to subject herself to that agonizing need to walk on eggshells around everyone, waiting for the famous Collective to decide she sent them a wrong glance.
Was all of that mental stress worth the perfect life situation later on?
And then there were her parents’ wishes. Marriages between commoners and the elite were rare, but advantageous. Most of the noble families arranged their own marriages between other families, never once giving consideration to the larger population.
Those in Globe, though, were those exceptions, as they were for everything.
Chiara sighed, shivering lightly against a frigid brush of wind and casting her eyes around the famous New York skyline. The old boasts the ancient New Yorkers used to flaunt about their city were all true. It was one of the greatest cities in the world. It was just one of the first to fall to the antiquated caste system of nobility, along with Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and all the bigger cities in the United States. However, none observed the same riches as New York City. As the Collective Families.
The four Collective Families. Chiara could not avoid the names anywhere in the lower parts of New York City, anywhere she picked up one of those odd part time jobs that were so enviable in this time. The biggest conglomerate was the Newhall family, owners and CEOs of countless operations around the world, reaping benefits from every possible joint production or private speculation. Dropping their name could get any business in the burroughs closed for good. Then there was the Hilton family, establishers and owners of hundreds of hotel chains internationally. On top of all the branched chains they started wherever they found a beneficial need for them, they were making a king’s salary. The Vaughan family was slightly more obscure in that their income came from the patriarch’s slightly less legal, but considerably lucrative dealings in the lower parts of the cities. They had their foot in the doors of every black market through the world and no one could touch them for it if they wanted to stay in business. Finally, there were the Truitts, famous purely by name and not so much by their fortune. Once upon a time, a Truitt had laid his entire livelihood, a rather pitiful one, into one of the most risky gambling ventures American history had seen and come out on top. Now, the Truitts made their fortune by their own means, but their name was enough to see them in all the upscale events.
Why would she ever want to go to a school with those snobs?
How could she not want to go to a school with those snobs?
Chiara growled deep in her throat.
Her parents squealed giddy laughs. Chiara rose a stalling finger, her face deadpan.
“On one condition!”
“Just name it, kid, you’ve got it!” Gregory burst, dancing on the smoke stained carpet. Chiara rose an eyebrow.
“You guys won’t go telling all your friends that I’m going to this stupid school. If I’m going to be studying there, I don’t want word about it circulating through the street. I want to be able to come home to my normal life.”
“But, honey, why would you ever want your normal life when you can have the rich life?” Angela prompted, taking her hands and pulling her down to sit on the couch. Grant dropped to his knees at her feet, shaking her knee until she looked at him.
“You gotta bring me back whatever they serve you guys for meals,” he demanded, his young face dead serious. “I’m not kidding. I’ve got to know.”
Chiara scoffed until it tweaked into a smile. She ruffled his shaggy dark hair. “Kid after my own heart, aren’t you? I’ll see what I can do.”
“Oh goodness, there’s so much to do!” Angela wheezed, running her nails through her blonde curls. “Baby, we’ve got to do something about your skin! All the kids at school are going to have that spa treated glow, and your nails! And heaven knows I’m not letting you go to that school without makeup! Come on, we have to go get you some makeup!”
“Mom, you know we can’t afford it, and I wouldn’t even know how to put it on!”
“Ah, how hard can it be? Come on, Trini down at the drugstore will be able to help us out there.”
“But then she’ll suspect something.”
“Let her suspect. What does she know?”
Chiara sighed. Her worst fears were coming true.