Holly’s fingers drummed incessantly on the desktop.
Chiara slowly looked up at her, holding her page in her Goethe. Her best friend sat stick straight in the ancient wooden chair, her chin in one hand and the other maintaining a consistent rhythm that punched into Chiara’s consciousness as her eyes bored into Chiara’s forehead.
Otherwise, it was completely silent.
She chewed her lip, debating whether or not to ask. It probably had to do with the fact that she had not come home from school complaining about it. This would be the first day that was the case, which was especially strange considering that this was the biggest opportunity for the students to exact their punishment on her for the Collective. Brody had been with her all day, protecting her with his dead stares and obnoxiously good looks and solid reputation. She could not help but wonder, though, if he was overestimating his power at school. Jay Newhall’s mom was in charge and she was behind this persecution of those who were not her ideal fit for the Globe. If Brody defied her by protecting Chiara, he might end up suffering worse than she was. He could be cast out of the Collective, then no one would be able to tame the monster that was Jay Newhall.
“There it is again,” Holly sighed. Chiara’s eyebrows shot up and she looked at her friend again.
Holly gestured incredulously to her face. “You get this really pensive look every now and then, but it’s not like your usual trying-to-solve-a-problem look. It’s a worried look,” She inclined her head meaningfully, her glossy brown hair tumbling over her eyes. She blew it upwards and back again. “And I can’t help but wonder who you’re worried about.”
Chiara frowned, rolling to sit up and closing her book. She had not been paying much attention anyway.
“What do you mean? Have you looked at my life lately? I could be worrying about a number of things.”
“But you don’t.” Holly shook her head decisively, turning back to the sketchbook she had brought with her and adding gentle shading to her penciled portrait. “You take life in stride. You don’t freak out; you just look for another solution. You even got over your needing to go to the Globe really fast and I was more panicked than you were. I think even Alan is worried.”
Chiara scoffed, pulling a knee against her chest and leaning back against the wall.
“No, he’s not! He just wants to make sure I don’t blab, and he’s the one who taught me to keep quiet! He’s got nothing to worry about.”
“I don’t know,” Holly sighed, whipping her pencil around to create a wind-blown effect. “He watches the Globe gate every day at three. If that’s not worrying, I don’t know what it is.”
Chiara frowned down at her bare feet, burrowed in the worn covers of her bed. The blankets were still pale pink, though a good shade faded from when she had picked them out at four years old, when her family could afford things like those. She had long since ceased to label pink as her favorite color, but the thinning blanket still smelled like home. This whole place, with its smoke stained walls and ragged rugs, still felt like home. Here, she could dress in her grey joggers and a plain blue t-shirt and not feel like she had to put on a show for anyone.
The second she stepped out of the apartment, that all changed.
“He watches the gate? Since when?”
“Since word got around that you were invited. And everyone knows that Alan always hears first. Maybe you’re right, though. Maybe he’s just a proud mentor. But he seems a little too tense for that to be all.” Holly cocked her head, looking up from her sketch pad again. “You usually notice things like that. You didn’t?”
Slowly, Chiara shook her head. She needed to step up her game, increase her wariness. All that good food at the Globe was wearing her down. Since her dad lost his steady garage job, Alan had taken her under his wing. She had been an eight year old, desperate and ready for the molding the street had to offer. He had been a sixteen year old urchin with big ideas and the street smarts to obtain them. The young man had taken full advantage of it, tutoring her in every unknown subtlety of the Burroughs until she could be sent out as an autonomous power. She learned everything and, soon, the world owed her everything. She could pull favors from every corner of the Burroughs, and nearly as many knew her name as Alan’s. She never directly told her parents. They lived happily in the dark as their daughter operated in it.
The Black Market director could not have been more proud.
Then she had her accident and, as good things always did, everything went downhill.
She gently massaged her left knee from its place against her chest.
Holly watched her and bit her lip, lowering her eyes.
“I know it would hurt when it got cold. How’s it feeling?”
Chiara shrugged, looking down at the offending leg. The knee was still such a weird shape. Of course, that would never change.
“It’s okay, I guess. Considering that I’m running to school and the paper runs instead of biking, it’s holding up great.” She smiled wryly. “Guess I’m going to stay in great shape forever!”
Holly shook her head slowly. Chiara sighed. Her friend’s eyes were glassy with unshed tears. Holly had always been the sensitive one, even to Chiara’s pain.
“Cheech, you can’t keep doing this to yourself! Especially with how much you’re eating. I know you’re trying to eat less dinner so the leftovers last longer. Grant eats everything you bring from the Globe. On top of that, you gave the breakfast I made you a couple nights ago to your mom.”
Chiara winced. “She left at, like, four! She didn’t have time to eat anything else.”
“Neither do you anymore.”
She sighed, scrubbing her fingers through her wild tangles of golden hair. A knot snagged at her fingernail and she muttered under her breath as she fought it.
“Well, we all have to be doing our part to survive here.”
“But no one said you had to be taking your entire family on your own shoulders.”
“Holly, I’m not! I’m just doing what I can do. We all are.” She nodded to Holly. “You took that extra job, too. Where are you at now? The dry cleaners, groomers, and library?”
“Yeah,” Holly mumbled, pulling her knees up to her chin on the desk chair and resting her cheek on them. “But the library isn’t looking too promising. I overheard the director on the phone; it sounds like they’re going to be shutting down soon.”
“Wow.” Chiara shook her head incredulously, looking out the window by her bed. The sun was setting over the New York skyline, only partly obscured by the rickety fire escape just outside. “What is happening to our world?”
“I don’t know anymore. I don’t mind that, though. What bugs me is that the Ups all pretend to know.”
Chiara’s eyes flicked back to her. Holly glared at nothing, her lips pouting like a child’s.
“You know what I’m talking about; you’re around them now more than I ever was! They have this...delusion that the world belongs to them and the rest of us down in the Burroughs are their servants. They think they have every right to do what they want and it’s our job to make sure it can happen.”
Chiara looked down again. It was almost exactly what Brody had told her. The purpose of the Globe was to make leaders. The Burroughs were full of followers. There was no in-between anymore. Everything worked out for the Ups and the Downs had to pay for it.
New York City had turned into a regular dystopia.
She drew in a long breath. “Like I said, Holly, we just do what we can do.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Holly replied shortly, turning back to her sketch pad. “We can work our butts off and nothing’ll change.”
Chiara frowned. “You’ve never been a bigger pessimist than me. What happened? Are your parents okay?”
Holly nodded sullenly. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I guess I just miss you, so I rant my frustrations to you every chance I get. And you won’t tell me what you’re worried about.”
“Oh my goodness, Holly, fine!” Chiara chuckled incredulously, rolling her eyes. She spread her hands helplessly as Holly leaned forward, her sulking expression replaced with genuine curiosity. “There’s just a...a guy at school I’m kind of concerned for.”
Instantly, Holly straightened with wide eyes. Chiara giggled.
“A guy? Cheech, do tell!”
“There’s not much to tell! He’s...just been sort of looking out for me and I appreciate it. But if he keeps it up, he may be hurt for it. He doesn’t think so, but I’m trying to be careful with him.”
Holly blinked. “A guy...at Globe...has caught the eye of my best friend.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait, I didn’t say he caught my eye! I said he’s been watching out for me!”
“Which means he’s interested in you, so how could you not pay him any attention?” She wriggled in her seat, her eyes bright with eagerness. “Cheech, this is your mom’s dream come true!”
Chiara hurriedly glanced at the door. It was shut. She smiled nervously.
“And I’d prefer it if she didn’t hear about said dream, as I will never hear the end of it. Care to oblige me?”
Holly rolled her eyes. “You never intend to get married, do you?”
Chiara’s eyes widened. “I’m seventeen! What’s everyone’s hurry to get me out of the house? And, statistically, what are the odds of me marrying my high school sweetheart? Engaging me to any one of those kids is absolutely ridiculous, so please stop bringing it up.”
Holly rose her hands defensively, leaning back against the desk. “Okay, fine. I’ll cut you some slack. What’s the guy’s name?”
Slowly, Chiara shook her head. “I’m not gonna tell you. You’re just going to stalk him on the net and make me look like a creep.” She chuckled despite herself, rolling her eyes. Her situation kept getting more and more ridiculous. “I’m already enough of a freak there; I definitely don’t need your help in that area.”
Shorter than the others and kind of heavier...sorry! But I feel that this transition is important and will make sense in the story. Let me know what you think!