Authors: Eva Gray
Tags: #Itzy, #Kickass.to
efore we step up the stairs of the bus, Maddie and I turn toward my — our — parents. The four of us fall into an emotional group hug. When we straighten, tears are running down my mom’s face. “The War will end, and when it does, you girls will come home,” she says, but I can’t tell if she’s trying to reassure us or convince herself that it’s true. The War has been going on for years. It doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end.
But I smile at my mom and nod. “I love you,” I tell her and Dad.
“We’ll take care of each other,” Maddie says.
Then she and I take a deep breath and climb onto the bus.
Behind the Gates
kay, this is weird. I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know it was coming. But now that the moment has finally arrived … I’m not sure I like it. Of course, I’m excited. But I’m also really scared to be leaving home for such a long time. We don’t even know how long it’ll be.
Out here in the sprawling, underground parking lots of what was once the Randhurst Mall, a mass of girls and boys mill around near our parents. We’re all under fifteen, of course — after freshman year you go to work, usually for the war effort.
We’re waiting for further instructions to be announced over the speakers mounted on the walls. It’s been almost
twenty minutes since the last announcement telling us to wait to be directed to the correct bus.
Shifting anxiously from foot to foot, I knit my shoulder-length blond hair into a single braid to keep the heat off my neck. It’s the third week in August and it’s hot, hot, hot. I never understand why school starts when it’s still summer and the heat makes it impossible to even think.
“Where’s Madeleine?” Dad asks.
Glancing around the lot, I find Maddie, my best friend in the world, sitting with her long, slender legs crossed on the concrete floor. I can tell how she’s feeling just by looking at her. Right now she’s definitely freaking out. Maddie’s back is against a cement support column and her brown hair is pulled back into a headband and bundled up into the high, messy knot she was known for last year, when we were in seventh grade. Lots of girls started wearing it the same way and calling it the Maddie Frye Frizzle Bun. It makes her look prim and wild, all at the same time.
Maddie’s eyes are cutting in every direction, hyperalert.
“She’s right there,” I tell my dad.
My mom lets out a deep sigh as she coils her own blond hair around her index finger. “When I was a girl this was such a beautiful mall,” she remembers sadly. “It used to be crowded all the time. People had money to shop. These parking lots were all open-air, not underground garages. Of course, that was back before … you know … before the War.”
Before the War.
Adults must use that phrase a zillion times a day.
Before the War
… you could breathe the air and drink the water.
Before the War
… you could buy a pair of jeans for less than $500.
Placing her right hand on the back of my shoulder, Mom comes close to me. She’s got something in her hand, but I can’t see what it is because she has her fingers wrapped around it.
“What is it, Mom?” I ask.
She opens her hand and reveals a gold locket on a chain. Delicate filigree designs are etched into its surface. When she clicks the locket open with her nail, two tiny photos are revealed, one of my dad and the other of her.
“Below these pictures of me and Dad are photos of Grandma and Grandpa,” Mom says. “Grandma gave me this locket when I was around your age. Now I’m giving it to you.”
Taking it from her palm, I turn it in my hand, admiring its beauty and delicate workmanship. “I love it,” I say honestly, but then I hesitate. “Maybe you should keep it until I come home,” I suggest. “It’s too nice. I feel like I might lose it or break it.”
Mom takes the locket from me and unclasps it. “Don’t worry about that,” she says as she drapes it across my collarbone and it hooks in behind my neck. “I want you to have it now because you’re going away. If you ever feel lonely, take it out and remember you’re not really alone. Dad and I will always be thinking of you. Grandma and Grandpa, too. You can look at our pictures and know that we love you.”
I throw my arms around Mom and, for the first time, my happy excitement gives way to a nearly overwhelming feeling of not wanting to leave. I’m going to miss Mom and Dad so much! Up until now my going away hasn’t
seemed entirely real. But now it hits me hard. In a very short while I will be departing, leaving my parents for the first time ever!
Mom holds me tight. Her heart is beating fast. She takes a short, sharp breath before she speaks. “I’m going to miss you so much, sweetie,” she says in an emotional voice. “But I know you’ll have a great time.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” I say. I’m afraid to talk anymore because I don’t want to cry and I’m suddenly worried that I will.
All at once every speaker crackles to life, making me jump. I step away from Mom as I strain to hear the static-buzzed words filling the underground garage.
“Bus card numbers one to seventy-five heading to Buffalo Grove, report to section A.”
Maddie is instantly at my side. “Louisa,” she hisses. “I can’t find my bus card.”
“You stuck it in your back pocket. Remember?” I tell her. Maddie can be a little scattered, especially when she’s nervous.
With a relieved expression she pulls out the card we
were sent in the mail only two weeks ago. “Number two hundred and ninety-eight,” she reads.
“And I’m two ninety-seven,” I remind her.
“I know,” Maddie says. “If we weren’t together, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Maddie is much more nervous than I am about this. I’m actually kind of looking forward to it. Going to Country Manor sounds like time traveling — back to the world the way Mom and Dad have told me it used to be.
When my parents were young, people had cars that used oil, which was so inexpensive you could drive anywhere. Even just to the store. Sometimes even farther, to a whole other state. My mom still has pictures her parents took on a road trip to California when she was my age. The ocean looks so blue.
Not that there are even a lot of places to go anymore. The Gulf Coast and a lot of the South is basically gone since the hurricanes of 2018. Everyone up north wants to go south, where it’s warmer, and people down south want to go north, where the storms aren’t as bad. Seems like
they all got stuck here in the middle of the country. You can barely afford to live in Chicago anymore.
But I love my hometown. And I have it easy, compared to most — my parents are both doctors, and I’ve never really wanted for anything. Except maybe my freedom. I’m thirteen. I’m sick of having to check in with my parents every half hour, even if I’m just going around the block. And it’s just getting worse — the storms, the War. Curfew for under-fifteens went up to seven thirty p.m. last month.
Maddie has seen more of the world than I have. Her parents haven’t had the money to keep her as sheltered as I’ve been. Maddie’s dad has been gone most of our lives — he’s a soldier. Right now, no one knows where he is, exactly. She hasn’t heard from him in a year and a half.
Her mom’s in the military, too, and she got sent away six months ago. Maddie moved in with us when she had to leave.
Maddie stares down at her card, reading and rereading the words.
COUNTRY MANOR SCHOOL. STUDENT 298. MADELEINE BALLINGER.
“My name looks so weird,” she whispers, bending toward my ear.
“I know,” I whisper back. “But you have to try to get used to it. And don’t forget.”
“I won’t.” Maddie wrinkles the ends of her card back and forth. “I guess we’re toward the end. It doesn’t seem like there are more than about three hundred kids here. I wonder where we’ll be sent.” There are other schools in different places around the country. All of us who are standing here waiting won’t be going to the same location. I wonder how they decided who goes where.
I keep my eyes on the girls heading to the buses in A section. CMS keeps the girls’ and boys’ schools separate.
“No boys,” Maddie says with a sigh.
“I heard there’s a boys’ school next to ours,” I assure her. “I’m sure they’ll have dances and stuff.”
“It won’t be the same,” Maddie insists wistfully.
It’s not that Maddie and I are boy crazy or anything. We’ve both had our crushes, of course. Plus we have guy
friends we like to pal around with. Neither of us has ever attended an all-girls school before.
Still, it sounds like CMS is really posh, with all the latest equipment and facilities. I’ve heard they even have a huge indoor swimming pool.
At my old school I was on the swim team, before they disbanded all the teams two years ago. I love swimming, but I haven’t been in a pool for a while. Using fresh water for something like a pool is obviously not an option anymore.
I turn back and look at my parents, and it hits me all over again how much I’m going to miss them. As much as I want this new freedom, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for it.
“I wish we were going to Buffalo Grove,” Maddie whispers, watching the girls climb onto their bus. “At least that’s close to Chicago. We could get home on weekends and stuff.”
“It doesn’t mean the bus is actually going to Buffalo Grove,” I point out. “That’s only what they’re calling it. Nobody knows where the bus will really go.”
Not even Mom and Dad get to know exactly where the school really is. It’s for their own safety.
Like everything these days. Keeping us safe.
Maddie nods and chews her lower lip, and I squeeze her hand.
Mom faces me and smooths the little hairs at the top of my forehead. “Remember everything we’ve gone over,” she counsels, her voice barely a whisper. “Madeleine is your twin. When were you both born?”
“May first,” I answer.
“And why don’t you look alike?” she prompts.
“We’re fraternal twins, not identical.” Mom, Dad, Maddie, and I have been over this a million times. It’s our cover story.
CMS is crazy expensive. You get to go if your family can pay the tuition. Like my family can. Mom makes lots as a brain surgeon. Dad earns even more. He’s head of surgery at his hospital.
This leads me to another reason I’m excited about living away from home.
Since my parents are so smart, they expect me to be a
genius, too. But I’m pretty sure — basically positive — that I’m no genius, not by a long shot.
All I really want to do is swim. In the old days, I could have trained for the Olympics, but there are no Olympics anymore.
The sensible thing would be for me to study medicine. It would be useful and would delight my parents. I should at least
to learn to be a doctor like them. But what I really want is to be free of those expectations, if only for a little while. Maybe someday biology will make sense to me. In the meantime, well … Country Manor is going to set me free from all that.
I look at Mom and sigh. We might look just alike, but that’s where our resemblance ends. I wish I could be more like her, but I’m just not.
Maddie’s still holding my hand. “I can’t believe how good your parents are being to me,” Maddie says as my mom turns away to talk to my dad.
“They love you,” I say. They really do — which is why they figured out how to get Maddie her new ID as my twin sister. Mom and Dad had to switch Maddie’s papers
and ID bracelet because Country Manor doesn’t let you pay for other people’s kids, even your daughter’s lifelong BFF.
Getting Maddie’s ID bracelet must have been the hardest part. The bracelets are permanently, electronically linked to our wrists from the time we leave the hospital. All bracelets are updated and made larger when you turn five, and then again when you’re twelve. Dad found a guy in a very scary part of the city who used a kind of handheld device to blur out Maddie’s old info and change her last name to Ballinger on the bracelet. I think he charged a lot of money for this.
So now we’re sisters, just like we’ve always felt.
Mom comes back and wraps Maddie in a hug. “Try to relax. Everything will be just fine,” she says softly. “I promise I’ll get word to your mom somehow —”
“Shh,” Dad cuts her off softly. “Better not to talk here.”
Mom nods. She rubs Maddie’s shoulders. We wait as busload after busload pulls out of the exit. Finally we hear: “Numbers two twenty-five to three
hundred, heading to Blumberg Woods, report to the blue bus parked in section Y.”
“Blumberg Woods is nice and close,” Mom remarks brightly.
Maddie and I exchange a look. We know and she knows it’s not where we’re really going. I suppose she’s trying to keep things as cheery and normal as possible.
Our suitcases have been sent ahead, addressed only to
COUNTRY MANOR SCHOOL/CENTRAL HEADQUARTERS.PO STATION
5611. No street. No city. No zip code. Just PO Station 5611.
Without suitcases to carry, all there is to do is walk toward the bus.
Mom’s blue eyes are wet with tears. “I’ll miss you girls so much. Once you get there, call or e-mail me.”
We line up. A woman with short hair comes out of the bus. She is tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in a crisp, white camp-style shirt, khaki shorts, and white sneakers. She has a name tag:
Mrs. Brewster clearly means business. “Have all cell phones and other electronic devices ready to deposit into
the bin before entering the bus,” she barks at us like a drill sergeant.
Maddie and I look at each other with sharp alarm. I grab my cell from my pocket. “They’re not getting my cell!” I declare firmly. “What am I supposed to do on the bus ride?”
“I’m sure it’s just for your own safety,” Dad says calmly.
What a surprise.
“He’s right, honey,” Mom says. “And you girls will be too busy talking and meeting new friends on the bus, anyway.”
Maddie and I share another look and try not to laugh. Like we’re going to be playing get-to-know-you games or something. Like we’re still in third grade!
We inch toward the front of the line. The smile on Maddie’s face fades, and she looks at me with her eyes full of questions. We’re not little kids anymore — but what’s going to happen now?
I just shrug. When we reach the bin, I toss in my phone first, and then Maddie drops hers.
Before we step up the stairs of the bus, we both turn toward Mom and Dad. The four of us fall into an emotional group hug. When we straighten, tears are running down my mom’s face. “The War will end, and when it does, you girls will come home,” she says, but I can’t tell if she’s trying to reassure us or convince herself that it’s true. The War has been going on for years. It doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end.
But I smile at my mom and nod. “I love you,” I tell her and Dad.
“We’ll take care of each other,” Maddie says.