10 years later
“Nora! You’re going to be late for school!”
Nora hops around on one foot, trying to get her light brown boot on. Her alarm didn’t go off this morning, so she’s running a little late. “I’m coming!” she calls, finally getting her shoe on. She frantically looks around her room, trying to remember where she put her backpack. She spots it shoved in a corner near her nightstand.
She quickly grabs it and thunders down the stairs, her braid swinging back and forth like a clock ticking down the seconds until the bus leaves. On her way out the door, she grabs an apple and calls out, “See you after school!” She slams the door behind her and runs toward the bus stop. Her feet pound on the ground, and she takes quick breaths. Her backpack bangs back and forth, teetering on her right shoulder.
She rounds the corner and is relieved to see that the bus has not yet left. Her best friend, Brylee, is standing outside the door, looking around with a worried expression. Her hazel eyes land on Nora. Her face breaks into a smile of relief. She pushes a strand of her frizzy blonde hair out of the way. “Nora! I was worried you were sick or something.”
She shakes her head, trying to catch her breath. “My alarm didn’t go off.” They both clamber onto the bus, and are forced to sit in the back.
Nora breathes a sigh of relief and pushes a stray strand of her red hair out of her face. She adjusts her knitted sweater so that it is no longer crooked. Sweaters like that are hard to find, since most clothes are made of self-mending microfibers.
“So I’ve been thinking,” Brylee says. Her eyes tilt upward and she bites her lip ever so slightly, like she always does when she thinks. “What if I dyed the ends of my hair blue? Like, I think it might look good, but I don’t want to have to cut it off if I don’t like it. You know?”
Nora smiles and tries to envision Brylee with the tips of her hair dyed blue. “I think it would look good, honestly. It would totally add to your artsy look.”
Brylee always wears the same jacket every day. It is a green army jacket with paint splatters scattered across it like stars. When she gets bored during class, she always doodles in her notebooks, often resulting on the teacher calling her out for it. She’s also in art class, and most of her work has been displayed around the room. One piece is even hanging in the cafeteria, it’s that good.
“Yeah, it would. Maybe we could do that when we go to the mall this weekend. You could get your hair dyed too, if you want.”
Nora laughs, her face breaking out into a smile. “I would, but I don’t think there are any colors that look good with red.”
Brylee picks up her braid and examines it closely. “Hmm. You see, your hair is like a ginger red, so it would be hard to do a color. Maybe you could just do a darker red?”
She shrugs. “Nah, I’ll just keep it the way it is. But I think you should dye the tips of your hair blue.”
The bus hits a bump, jolting them out of their seats. Nora glances out the window to see a familiar row of trees passing by. “We’re almost there!” she announces.
Sure enough, about a minute later the bus comes to a stop outside of their school. All the students stand up at the same time and try to shove their way toward the front. The two girls wait until most people have gotten off before they try to get off the bus.
The cool morning air hits them as soon as they leave the bus. There’s a cold breeze blowing, rustling the leaves of the nearby evergreen trees. Students mill about the courtyard, talking animatedly. Shrieks of laughter can be heard periodically, along with shouts coming from the kids playing basketball.
Then suddenly everyone grows quiet. A plane flies overhead, its black underbelly shining in the early morning light. Everyone watches it quietly, their previous conversations forgotten. The plane disappears as quickly as it came. Slowly, people start to talk again, trying to shake off the anxiety of the plane.
Nora blinks a few times before turning to Brylee. “You don’t think that means anything, do you?”
Her lips form a thin line. “Let’s hope not.”
The shrill sound of the bell rings throughout the courtyard. As if someone flipped a switch, everyone starts moving at once, filing toward their respective classes.
“I gotta go to math. See ya!” Brylee waves and walks off to her class. Nora walks in the opposite direction, heading towards her first period of the day, history.
She takes her seat next to Aaron, a quiet girl who always gets her work done on time. Today she is wearing a blue flannel with jeans and a mustard yellow infinity scarf. Her blonde hair falls in waves around her face as she hunches over the book she is reading.
Mrs. Franklin sits in the front of the room, typing on her computer. Her brown hair is pulled up into a bun, and her glasses are inching their way toward the bottom of her nose.
The final bell rings, and she looks up. “Alright class, get in your seats. You do not need any supplies today, because I am just going to be talking. Tomorrow, you will be filling out a worksheet answering questions about what we learned today. Now, who here remembers what year World War four started?”
A boy near the front, Maverick, raises his hand. She nods in his direction, and he speaks up. “April 19, 2113.”
“Precisely. And does anyone remember why the war started?”
Tyler raises his hand again. No one else does, and instead they look down at their desks.
“Miss Tenebris! Do you know why World War four was started?”
Nora tenses up. She doesn’t like being called on by the teacher. But then again, who does?
Nora sits a little straighter and tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Um, well, the world got tired of us always controlling them, and bossing them around. So, they uh, joined up against us? They combined all their power and decided to fight us.”
Mrs. Franklin smiles at her. “That is correct. After the third World War, most countries were in ruins. America was unscathed, because we firmly remained neutral. And with the world in ruins, we decided to use our resources to build them back up. We put trillions of dollars into rebuilding the world.
“But then things started to get iffy. We were guiding the other countries, telling them how best to run their government so that a fourth world war would not occur. The other countries didn’t like this, and said we were bossing them around. They wanted to be their own independent countries, and not have us ruling over them.
“The conflict is said to have originated in Greece. The people there were unhappy with everything going on. They were also a neutral country during the third World War, and had suffered no damage, but America was bossing them around nonetheless. So, an uprising occurred. They began to spread the word. Various people were creating posters and writing blogs, trying to convince the other countries that we were a menace that must be stopped.
“Not twenty years after World War three, Greece declared war on the United States. Next followed Switzerland. It was the first time they had ever joined a World War. From there, more and more countries joined in. After two months, every single country in the world was against us. Greece must have been doing something right, because they were able to convince everyone that we were evil. In reality, we were trying to rebuild civilization! We were trying to help them! But they were all too egotistical to see that.
“And so World War four started. The countries tries to nuke us, but little did they know, we had technology far more advanced than theirs. Not a single missile even got close to hitting us. After about eight years, the war was over. We had just bombed the main cities of each country a few days earlier. On July 16, 2121, the countries of the world surrendered to us. We took control of all the countries and put the civilians into enslavement. That is what happens when you try to fight the US. But don’t worry, now those civilizations have turned into flourishing cities across the globe, and everyone is free. It is thirty years later, after all.”
The classroom falls into silence. They’ve all heard of World War four, but up until this moment, they never knew the exact details. And they knew about all the other world wars, but this one is definitely the most disturbing, with World War two being close second.
Aaron raises her hand. “Mrs. Franklin? But, isn’t enslavement bad? And, we dropped bombs on all those countries. What about all the people who died?”
For a brief moment, Mrs. Franklin narrows her eyes. Then she wipes her face clean of emotion and replaces it with a smile. “It was the only thing we could do to keep them safe. They were unstable, and didn’t know what they were doing. But like I said, they are no longer enslaved, they are a free people. Under President Ponce’s rule, of course. We’re not going to let them create their own, most likely corrupt governments.”
“How do we know our government is not corrupt?”
The class falls silent. You can practically hear everyone thinking about what Aaron just said.
Then, slowly, Mra. Franklin walks toward her. Her footsteps echo in the silence that has encompassed the classroom like a cloak. She leans down right in front of her face. Since Nora is sitting right next to her, she can hear every hushed word she says. “Aaron, I’m going to say this one time. Do not ever, ever, question the authority. Ever. Do I make myself clear?”
Aaron nods, her eyes wide. Mrs. Franklin straightens just as the bell rings. Suddenly everyone is moving, talking to their friends and leaving the classroom. Nora tries to shake off what she overheard and heads to her next class.
Someone grabs her arm and yanks her backward. She turns to see Aaron, looking at her with wide eyes. Her breath comes in shallow puffs,and she leans in closely. “Don’t trust the government. Mrs. Franklin said the people are no longer enslaved, but she is lying. People toil away on farms, getting paid nothing but small amounts of food. The other people of the world are living in enslavement while we sit here watching.”
Nora wrenches her arm away. “Don’t touch me,” she growls. She then runs, her feet slapping against the tile. She runs and runs, headed toward the office. She doesn’t care if she is late to her next class, because the office will give her a pass.
She stops right before the door. After composing herself, she opens it. She walks up to the woman at the front desk. “Um, can I speak to the officer on sight? I have a concern.”
“Of course. Second door on your right.”
Nora walks down the hall and enters the room. The officer is sitting at his desk, looking over his papers. His black hair is messy, and he looks tired. He looks up when Nora walks in. A smile crosses his face, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Hello. How can I help you?”
“Um, I have a concern about one of my peers,” she says, trying to sound as formal as possible.
He motions toward the seat in front of him. “Please, sit down.” Nora sets her backpack down and sits in the seat. The bell rings, signifying that she is late for class. The officer must see the look on her face, because he asks, “Where were you headed next? And what is your name?”
“Mr. Smith’s class. And I’m Nora, Nora Tenebris.”
He nods and types something on his computer. He presses one last button, then closes it and turns his full attention towards her. “Now, tell me, what is going on?”
“Well, you see, my social studies teacher, Mrs. Franklin, was starting to teach us about World War four. And one of my classmates, Aaron Pulitzer, asked ‘how do we know our government is not corrupt’? This unsettled me. And then when I was leaving, she grabbed my sleeve and said that I can’t trust the government. That the people around the world are still enslaved. And I got scared, because she just looked so… wild. And I worry about her sanity.”
The officer nods slowly. “How well do you know Aaron?”
Nora shrugs. “I know a little bit about her. I know that she reads a lot, and that she is smart with computers. She lives with her dad, because her mom abandoned her when she was two years old. And her dad is an engineer.”
He nods again. “Thank you Nora. You may head back to class. Just step into the TeleTube and I’ll have you on your way.”
Nora gets up, grabs her backpack, and walks into the clear, cylindrical device next to his desk. The officer presses a button, and a blue light fills the tube. Then she is gone. A second later, she appears inside the TeleTube within her classroom.
TeleTubes are a device invented in 2079 that allow someone to transport from one place to another. They can be used to transport people to and from work, or to other areas of the country. They are expensive, but can be found in almost every household, just like a stove or a television would be. There are some public ones that allow you to go from one area to the next at the press of a button. But those too are expensive to use, so most people just use their electricity-powered car. The TeleTubes at school, though, are used for sending students to and from the office.
Every single head in the classroom turns to Nora. She quickly finds her seat, her face growing red. She doesn’t like it when people stare at her, but it’s something she’s had to get used to. It’s not every day you see someone with red hair and green eyes. Both have become extremely rare these past few years, and a combination of the two is even more unique. It makes it hard to go unnoticed.
As soon as Nora sits down, Brylee leans over and asks, “Where were you?”
“I’ll tell you at lunch,” she replies.
Mr. Smith goes on with his lecture on biology, a subject that Nora never really found all that interesting. Life is life, why do we need to know the whys and whens and what lays underneath the microscope?
Nora has math next, and says goodbye to Brylee in the hallway. Aaron is in this class, too. At least, she’s supposed to be. When Nora walks in, her seat is empty. All period, she never arrives. A feeling of unease grows and festers in Nora’s chest, tightening her heart and cutting off her air supply to where each breath seems labored.
The bell finally rings for lunch. She rushes outside, ready to be out of the classroom.
Someone is screaming. Someone is yelling at the top of her lungs near the office.
Nora runs in that direction, along with other curious students. She shoves her way to the front, trying to see who it is that is screaming.
Aaron hangs suspended in the air, translucent binds holding her down. Four men in white suits stand around her, their hands raises to keep her up. They’re wearing Levi Gloves, devices that the police use to hold criminals in the air.
“Tell Bria!” she exclaims, her voice shrill and worn. “Tell Bria! It was her! It was all her! She told them! Tell Bria she told them! She is just like her parents! She is just like them!”
One of the men clamps a hand over her mouth, stifling her screams. The school officer comes out and stands in front of the crowd of students. “Alright everyone, go eat your lunch! Nothing to see here! She just took too many pills, that’s all! Go eat your lunch!”
Nora finds her feet moving. She didn’t tell them to move, but soon she is swept up in the crowd of students.
Was Aaron talking about her? Could she have known? But what does she mean, just like her parents? Nora’s parents are dead, burned in a tragic fire long ago. Maybe she means her foster parents? And who the heck is Bria? No one at school is named that. At least, no one that she knows.
“Nora! Hey, are you alright?” Brylee has caught up to her, a look of worry on her face.
Nora can’t tell her what happened in the office. She just can’t. She forces a smile and replies, “Yeah, I’m alright. Just not feeling so good, that’s all. But the nurse gave me some pills, so I should be fine.” It feels odd, how easy Nora can lie. But it leaves a sour taste in her mouth, one that lingers.
“Oh, so that’s where you were! I was worried about you. At least you didn’t-” She cuts herself off there, her face turning solemn. At least you didn’t overdose and end up like Aaron.
Clearly, that is not what happened to Aaron. And Nora knows it. She must have gotten in trouble for what she said. And she must have said something else in the office, because the worst thing that Nora expected was suspension. But getting carried away by the MIWS? She must have done something really bad for them to come.
“Nora. Snap out of it!”
Nora shakes her head, clearing her mind of those unwanted thoughts. “Sorry, I’m just… shaken, you know?”
Brylee nods and wraps an arm around her. “Don’t worry Nora. They’ll take her to the hospital, and then she’ll be back, good as new!”
They both know that they will probably never see Aaron ever again. No one gets taken by the Men In White Suits and walks back into the real world unscathed.
A sort of eeriness seems to fall over the school like a thick fog. Everyone still talks animatedly, and people still go around doing their usual things. But all the noise seems distorted and distant, like it would in a fog. Nora stares off into the distance, thinking. Brylee stays quiet, too, both of them listening to the world around them.
Finally, Brylee speaks up. “So, do you know if you’re going on that field trip to Greece?”
Every year, sophomores are given the option to go on a field trip to Greece to help them learn more about World War four. It lasts three days, and everyone says that it is really fun.
“Yep! I turned in the forms yesterday. What about you?”
“I’m going! I hope that we get the same hotel room.”
“I’m sure we will. I think they’ll try to put people with their friends.”
Brylee’s eyebrows furrow, and she looks down at the table. “Who else do you think they’d put us with?”
“Huh. I didn’t think about that. I hope we don’t get put with Cate and Jennifer. They can be so annoying.”
“Ugh, I hate them. Yeah, let’s hope we don’t get put with them. Maybe… Elizabeth and Willow? They’re pretty chill. Or maybe Sofia and Cara. No! I got it! Annabella and Piper! You don’t know Annabella, but she is a really sweet girl. I know you’d like her. And you’ve met Piper.”
Before Nora can reply, the shrill sound of the bell rings through the air. They part ways, and Nora goes to Photography.
By the end of the day, she has pushed all thoughts of Aaron out of her mind. At least, she tries to. Once she gets home, both of her foster parents are standing in the kitchen, talking quietly. Their shoulders are tensed, and they stand close together. This can only mean one thing: Parent Talk.
“Hey Jenna, hey Herald,” Nora says to aware them of her presence.
They both turn to her and stop talking. Jenna forces a tight, thin lipped smile. “Hey Nora. How was school today?”
Nora shrugs, trying to brush it off. “Same old, same old.”
Herald raises his eyebrows. “The principal contacted us today. The school sent out a IAS, saying that one of the students was taken by the MIWS and that the students might be a bit shaken. But then the principal messaged us personally, saying that you were the one who turned her in.”
Nora sets down her backpack and heads into the pantry. “Okay, so I turned her in. What’s the big deal?” She grabs a box of Banana Puff cereal and pours herself a boul.
“We were just wondering if you wanted to talk about it,” Jenna says carefully, pushing aside a strand of her short brown hair.
Nora is silent for a moment as she takes a bite of her dry cereal. Then, in a soft, broken voice, she says, “You didn’t hear her scream.”
Jenna comes around the counter and wraps her arms around Nora. “Oh sweetie. I’m sorry that happened. But it’s better that they took her away than to have her hurting anyone at your school.”
“But… she didn’t seem like the kind of person who would hurt anyone. She was a talker, not a fighter.”
“It was for the best,” Herald reassures her.
“Was it though?” Nora counters. She pulls away from Jenna and stands to look at them. “Are you sure it was for the better? She seemed fine to me. Sure, she defied authority a few times, but who cares? Why was she taken by the MIWS? She must have done something seriously wrong. But what was it? Did the principal tell you?”
“Nora, you’ve had a rough day,” Jenna says, her voice soft and sweet. “Maybe you should just get some rest.”
Nora backs away toward the stairs. She grabs her backpack as she goes. “Yeah, you’re right. Ma-maybe I should.” She then bolts up the stairs, her feet pounding against the carpet. She slams her door shut and sinks down.
“Deep breaths, deep breaths,” she murmurs to herself. “It’ll all be fine. Everything will be fine. Deep breaths.”
Fire burned the inside of her eyelids. She opened her eyes, choking back a scream. Her room is dark, with only a little bit of light filtering in through the window.
It was cold. The wind howled, fueling the flames. Nora was hiding, her knees pulled tight to her chest and her head bowed. The screams of her parents had long since disappeared, but a new cry replaced it.
“Nora! Nora, I know you are out there! Come out!”
It was the girl. The one who set the fire. The one with the red in her brown hair and the red in her brown eyes.
Nora blinks back tears. Why now? Of all times she could be having a flashback, why does it have to be now?
The heat from the flames could be felt from where she hid.
No. No more memories.
When the fire had finally died down, she didn’t move. Then she heard someone moving through the woods. A figure walked right past her hiding place, not seeing her. It was a tall male, with his hood pulled up. He looked back once, and she saw bright blue eyes that shone in the moonlight.
“Stop,” Nora moaned.
She waited for hours, shivering in the cold. Then, when the sun was beginning to rise, she crawled out. Smoke still hung in the air, and this area of the forest was charred and ashen. The lake looked eerie in the early morning light, the water taunting her. ‘I was here the whole time’ it seemed to say. ‘And your house still burned down’.
She walked toward the charred remains of the house. Sticks poked her bare feet as she walked to where the front door was.
A glimmer of white among the black. Then red, smeared all over the floor. A piece of pink cloth, the edges burned away.
Nora screamed and squeezed her eyes shut.
Nora closed her eyes and tried not to scream. She didn’t want to remember that horrible night.
She drifted into a half sleep, where she was aware of the world around her, but her vision was clogged by dreams and visions from some other world.
The dream turned into a nightmare. She saw her parents’ faces, saw them smiling down at her. Then her mom opened her mouth, and screams erupted. But it wasn’t the screams from the night of the fire; it was Aaron’s screams.
Nora woke up and found that it was neither her mother’s screams or Aaron’s that echoed in her ears; they were her own.