Chapter Three

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Mr. Sykes' shout reverberates around the room a dozen times and the silent, watchful students are sent into a frenzy. Calls of, "They're getting away!" and "What's happening?" are catapulted back and forth until my mind spins in dizzying circles. I force my legs to continue carrying us towards the escape door as I tighten my grip around Mark's taut forearm.

"Come on! Do something!" I scream over my shoulder as countless hands smack and grab for me, hindering my speed.

"Look at what you've done!" Mark shouts. In a single, terrifying moment, I feel him yank his arm from my grasp.

"No!" My cry is extinguished amid shouts of triumph from the pressing crowd of soon-to-be Members. I hurriedly glance over my shoulder again to see a crowd of people gathering around Mark, gripping him, holding him captive. For a split second our eyes meet, and all I can see is the absolute terror brewing behind his gaze. I falter for half a second. What did I do? Like an angry rhinoceros bursting forth from a stampede, Mr. Sykes appears in the crowd and begins to push students aside in every direction.

"Get her, you idiots! She's the unorthodox!" He shouts furiously, pointing at me. But everyone else is too focused on Mark to notice him. Sykes growls angrily then starts towards me without reinforcements. The usual placid smile on his face is replaced by a grim, hungry expression. I can no longer think: all I can do is act. I force myself to turn away and plunge through the emergency doors. A screeching alarm sounds throughout the lobby and travels into the street that swarms with people. Herds of RScreened Members turn towards the noise robotically, as if controlled by the same mind. Without a moment of hesitation, I sprint down the sidewalk, pushing people aside. I shove Member after Member, ignoring muffled complaints, until I make it to a less-crowded part of the sidewalk where I can slip into an alley. Members never stray here; like a herd of sheep following a shepherd's instruction, Members only go where They say they should be. Once I'm sure I am no longer being followed, my legs give out and I sink down against the brick wall, hidden by spotty patches of shadow.

She's the unorthodox...

My breathing has slowed, but I can't stop the shaking.

Look at what you've done!

What have I done? The image of Mark's fear-stricken eyes resurfaces. What will they do to him? What will they do to me? I wish I could cry, but I can't, so I just hug myself until the shaking ends. I know that I won't be caught here, where there are no cameras or witnesses, but I also know that I can't hide in one place forever... Where can I go? My grandmother's apartment, where I will be forced to endure a dull existence? Back to school, where I will surely be punished and plugged in?

Suddenly I remember the letter in my pocket, and I pull it out and stare at it. Right now, it is a symbol of comfort: a tangible, concrete sign that my escape efforts weren't quite meaningless. If I'm right, my mother actually touched this paper. The words on it are written in her handwriting. Now the tears come, and I bite my lip so I don't cry. I haven't cried since I was a little girl, and now is the first time that I've had the urge to since then. But I can't. To show emotion, we're told, is to show weakness. I'm not weak. I'm not. I taste blood, dully realizing that I had bit into my lip. With trembling fingers I reopen the letter and glance to the bottom:

I STILL LOVE YOU,
MOM

I begin to scan up the page until I reach the part that reads:

17TH AND 31ST
BRICK BUILDING WITH GREEN
DOOR

A spark of brilliance warms my ears, as though a light bulb had just turned on above my head. How did I not realize that my mother left behind more than a warning: she had left me an address! I sit up straighter and wipe my eyes. Now I know where to go, but there is still some lingering guilt that persuades me to stay here. Would going to see my mother, wherever she is, equate to abandoning my grandmother and brother? Of course not, I scold myself, though my heart isn't really in it. Using the coarse brick, I manage to stand and brush myself off. After living in the city for a while, I know the streets like I know the back of my hand. I clutch the letter in my fist, realizing it wouldn't be safe to carry around. If I'm found, my captor will have directions that lead them directly to my mother. Gritting my teeth, I tear the letter into tiny pieces so the words are indecipherable then stick them into the sewage drain beneath my feet. I can almost imagine them gently floating down to land in a dirty, underground river.

Edging along the brick wall towards the street, I hear the familiar sound of a helicopter engine. Just act like everyone else, I tell myself. It's easy. I walk emotionlessly towards the road then diffuse into the crowd of Members. 17th and 31st, 17th and 31st, 17th and 31st... I repeat the phrase in my mind so many times that it becomes a tribal, rhythmic mantra rather than a string of words. The suit-wearing man in front of me turns and enters an insurance building. In his absence, I can see the street sign at the nearest corner, which reads 17th and 30th. It's close! I resist the temptation to smile; instead, I stare straight at the ground. The sidewalk grows cleaner and straighter the farther I walk, indicating the transformation from the poor sector to government-run territory. So I don't lose my nerve, I listen to the woman in front of me speak to someone through her RScreen.

"-Well of course! Aren't you? Everyone will be... Yeah, the restaurant's going well... Yeah, my job's going okay... Well, I get the same pay as the cashiers now. Yes- Well, I know I'm the manager, but I suppose it's only fair that we get payed the same. Equality is the most important virtue, you know..."

I stop listening when my stomach begins to churn. The same pay for everyone? That doesn't necessarily seem fair, considering the fact that some people are forced to work harder than others. With a jolt, I realize that I'm glad I escaped my Graduation Ceremony. Yes, I'm in greater danger than before and yes, I may have left a few people behind, but for the first time in my life I stood up for something. For the first time ever, I'm working to discover the truth and improve life for everyone. For the first time, I'm being... rebellious. Maybe now I can break out of the social alienation I called life and start making brave, bold choices. It's hard to hide the new spring in my step.

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