The alarms began to blare.
“Now, now,” said Mr. Truffton, wiping his sweaty forehead. “Probably just a drill.”
“LOCKDOWN,” said the loudspeaker. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Truffton. Some of the students rose from their desks, while others cringed away from the windows. Outside a tree’s green foliage blew gently in the morning sunshine.
Mr. Truffton waddled over to the paint-chipped door, fumbling with his set of keys. Cayla fidgeted in her seat, glancing around at the confused, white faces around her. “LOCKDOWN, LOCKDOWN,” blared the loudspeaker. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Cayla rose from her seat and flipped off the lights. Mr. Truffton jumped when he saw her, then nodded and went back to fidgeting with the keys. He found the right one and slipped it into the lock with trembling fingers.
A few of the others students took Cayla’s cue, and began to pull down the shades of the windows, stained with age and grime. Soon the classroom was shrouded in darkness.
“Do you think they’re here?” whispered a girl, and others hushed her.
The lock finally clicked behind Mr. Truffton’s fingers. He breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a crash in the hallway, and a few girls (and boy) screamed.
“Hush, hush!” said Mr. Truffton, though he was eyeing the window as if wondering whether it would be most prudent to launch his hefty self out of it. He waved his arms at the students, whispering in a strained voice for them to get down.
Cayla crouched below her desk, her heart thumping. Her dark hair clung to her neck, where beads of sweat began to form. On her wrist, her charm bracelet jingled, and she covered it with a shaking hand.
She remembered her aunt’s face, twisted with worry, as she debated with her husband about whether to send Cayla there.
“The girl has to go to school,” said Uncle Al. “It’ll be fine, Marta. All the kids go.”
“It’s dangerous. The Lu—”
“We pay them,” said Uncle Al, patting Cayla’s shoulder. “On time, all the time. They won’t make any trouble with us, I guarantee it. We’re smarter than that.”
Cayla’s heart thumped. They’re not coming for you, she tried to remind herself. Our family pays on time. We don’t make trouble.
There was another crash, followed by a wave of screams down the hall. They were searching the classrooms, door by door. And they were getting closer.
She heard a sneer to her left, and looked to see a girl named Karen seated upright, alone out of the whole classroom. A wicked smile was on her face.
“Scared?” Karen asked with mock sympathy, when she saw Cayla watching her. “If I had double-crossed the Lucretia, I would be, too.” She tossed back her light, glossy brown hair and preened as if waiting for a Prince Charming to arrive.
“None of us double-crossed them, Karen,” said another voice, low, tense. Cayla turned to see her defender, and with surprise noted it was Ian. He was a friend of Karen’s, and hadn’t spoken so much as two words to Cayla before. He shrugged an apology at Cayla, and watched her even when she turned away, her eyes locked on the door.
There would always be fools like Karen, Cayla thought to herself. Ones who thought that, since their family was rich and on good terms with the Lucretias, they themselves were invulnerable. But that was hardly true. Only invisibility could make one invulnerable, and that was impossible.
Another crash. It was the classroom just two doors down. Mr. Truffton’s hands began to shake as he wiped his sweating brow. “It’ll be alright, alright,” he whispered behind him to the students. One of them rose suddenly, and in a mad dash threw himself into the closet, locking it behind him.
“Coward,” Karen said, her pretty lips pursing in amusement.
Cayla glanced at the closet with wistfulness. Why hadn’t she thought of that? How nice it must be to be huddled in that darkness, locked inside and secure from the world. And yet, would she have the courage to do it, if it meant her own safety at the expense of everyone else’s? Too late, she told herself. At least the decision had been made for her.
“Now,” whispered Mr. Truffton, whose walrus mustache was now sticking to his pale skin in sweaty clumps. “Just stay calm. No sudden movements. If, and only if, they come inside—”
The door to the classroom burst open.
A few of the students screamed and ran towards the windows. The smarter ones stayed crouching where they were, Cayla among them. She fastened her eyes on the carpet below, her pulse thudding. Someone was talking. Shadows moved across the room, following the armed men they belonged to. Keep your eyes down, Cayla chanted to herself. But finally she could bear it no longer, and looked up.
No less than six men had entered the room, and Cayla could see more marching through the hallway. They wore no masks—they had no need of them—but dark sunglasses covered all of their eyes. All were in black, guns strapped across their backs and tucked into their belts, as well as clutched in their gloved hands. Cayla caught sight of a gleam of metal, and saw that some even had long knives on them. She shuddered.
They were silent, methodical. Two of them strode to the windows, where a few students were clawing at the locks, and threw them to the floor. Another two pulled back desks from the crouching students, exposing them. Yet another guarded the door, and the last stood outside the closet, holding his gun across his chest.
“Tommy,” said one of the men who had been pushing back the desks. He looked to be one of the older of the lot, with silver threads running through his dark hair. A nasty scar ran from one ear down his thick neck. “We’re looking for Tommy Helben.”
Cayla’s eyes widened. She forced herself not to move, but already a few necks had swiveled to the closet door.
“Ah,” said the older man. He motioned at the fellow stationed there, who took a step back.
“He went into the closet,” said Karen, who alone among the students was standing up.
“Karen—” Ian started, and Cayla was tempted to strike her, if she hadn’t been so afraid to move at all.
The older man looked at her with distaste. “Who’re you?” he said. Beside him, one of the younger members of the crew loaded his gun. Cayla watched him with morbid fascination. It was her first raid, at the school. And with only two months left until she graduated, she had been foolish enough to think she might never experience one.
The younger man looked up, and his eyes locked with Cayla’s, behind his dark sunglasses. She looked away hurriedly. He’s almost as young as I am, Cayla thought to herself, with some shock. Her cheeks were warm. She chided herself for taking her eyes off the ground.
“Karen,” said Karen, to Cayla’s left. The proud girl lifted up her chin. “Karen Everton.”
“I thought Evertons knew how to keep their mouths shut,” said the old man. “Talk again and I’ll kill you.”
Cayla couldn’t help herself again. She snuck a glance to her left, to see Karen battling anger, pride, and hurt. Finally the girl prudently sat down with the rest, and looked darkly at the ground.
Cayla turned. The young man was still staring at her.
She looked quickly again to the ground, and felt her heart climb up into her throat. Calm down, calm down, she told herself, as her nerves began to fire and scream for her to run. He might not even be looking at you. You can barely make out his eyes behind his sunglasses.
But she had to know. If she was a target too (But why would I be? Cayla thought to herself), she had to have some warning. She looked up again, to see the young man tap on the older’s shoulder. Then he said something, low, in the older man’s ear, and pointed directly at Cayla.
Cayla’s mind began to spin. Had her aunt and uncle, after all, defaulted on their payments? Witnessed a Lucretian crime, and—but it seemed inconceivable—talked about it?
The older man glanced at her. Then he clapped the younger on the shoulder, and nodded, holding up one finger of his other hand as a sign of waiting. Then he signaled to the man standing outside the closet.
That man took out his gun, and shot the lock.
Tommy tumbled out, his arms swinging. There was a look of wild desperation in his eyes as he pummeled his small fists against his assailant. The man looked at his companions, amused, and then downed Tommy with one brutal backhand.
Tommy fell to the floor and remained there, looking up with dazed eyes. The other men drew nearer.
“Please,” said one of the girls in the class, but one look from the men silenced her. Mr. Truffton looked on, his hand clawing at the collar of his shirt. He glanced at the door, as if help would magically arrive.
“Tommy Helben,” said the older man, standing over the boy. It wasn’t a question.
Tommy just whimpered. Two of the men hauled him up, so that he dangled supported by their arms. Drool of blood and saliva dripped from a fat lip.
“Your parents should have thought of you before they tried to incite a rebellion,” said the older man, slowly. “And you should have thought of them before you agreed to help.”
Tommy’s eyes widened, and life seemed to once more animate him. “My parents,” he said, struggling in the arms of the captors. “What did you do to them?”
A grim smile overtook the older man’s face. He motioned to the two men holding Tommy up, who hauled him, struggling, outside the classroom and into the hallway. Mr. Truffton rose and then sat down, as a gun swiveled upon him. Ian struggled to do the same, but Karen’s fingers were clawing into his arm. “Stay,” she hissed. “It’s not worth it.”
Cayla shut her eyes. You can’t help it, she told herself. You can’t help it, it’s the way it is. It’s about survival.
Cayla rose and ran towards the door. All around her the students were screaming, echoing the cry of Tommy. But just before she reached the threshold, there was a loud crack. It drowned out the screams in one sharp burst, like condensed thunder. Cayla’s legs began to wobble, and she rested one hand on the teacher’s cracked desk for support.
“Ah,” said the old man, pocketing his gun as he reentered the classroom. He motioned to the young man who Cayla had locked eyes with before. “This the one, Jon?”
Jon nodded. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with dark hair that curled just around his ears. His expression was unreadable.
“What do you think of my son, here?” the older man asked. “Eh? Stand up and speak, girl.”
Cayla pushed herself off the desk, slowly. Behind her she felt Ian start to rise, and shook her head once, almost imperceptibly.
“That your boyfriend?” said the older man. “You, stand up.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Cayla said quickly, as Ian rose. She glanced back at him, and was afraid of the defiant, protective expression traced there.
“Sit down,” said the older man, and the younger one—Jon—walked forward and shoved him down by the shoulder. Ian stumbled and fell. “Ever had a boyfriend?”
“Is this necess—?” started Mr. Truffton, clearing his throat. His voice came out as a nasally whine, and he rose on shaking legs. He was so afraid, thought Cayla, and for a moment felt a pity for him that eclipsed her own fear. He was so afraid, and yet he was trying to help.
“Shut up, teacher,” said one of the armed men, and shoved the hefty Mr. Truffton back with one hand. When Mr. Truffton regained his balance, and opened his mouth once more, the same man struck him across the side of the head.
Cayla gasped and took a step forward. Behind her, Ian darted around the men to Mr. Truffton’s side, wiping away the blood that trickled down his temple. “He’s breathing,” Ian said. Cayla noticed Jon signal to his companion, who scowled and took a step back.
“Well?” said the old man, and Cayla could see that any joking tone had left him. He was impatient to be gone, his work done. “Answer the question, girl.”
“I don’t know,” Cayla said, and felt tears prick the corners of her eyes. She tried to force them back. “I don’t know him.”
“Well, today’s your lucky day,” said the old man. “Because you get the chance.”
Cayla looked, panicked, into the eyes of the son, Jon. He had pulled up his sunglasses and rested them on top of his dark hair. She was surprised to see that his eyes were blue—a shocking blue. He smiled at her, a bit uncertainly.
Then Cayla felt two pairs of hands close around her, one over each of her arms. She tried to scream, but her throat had closed up, and in another second a dark bag was placed over her head.
The last that she heard was Ian’s shouts, and students’ screams. And then, distinctly, she heard the voice of the old man.
“Good to choose your brides young.”
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