Risking my life to steal an orange was a stupid thing to do, but today of all days, I didn’t care about the consequences. If I were lucky, the Shields would throw me to the ground and put a bullet in my brain.
Dead at seventeen. It would be a relief.
As I hurried through the crowded market, I touched the back of my neck and tried not to wince. That morning, my skin had been pale and smooth, with only a freckle below my hairline. Now that noon had come and the test was over, my skin was marred with black ink that would never wash off and ridges that would never disappear.
III. At least it wasn’t a II, though that wasn’t much of a consolation.
“Kitty,” called Benjy, my boyfriend. He tucked his long red hair behind his ears as he sauntered toward me, taller and more muscular than most of the others in the marketplace. Several women glanced at him as he passed, and I frowned.
I couldn’t tell whether Benjy was oblivious or simply immune to my bad mood, but either way, he gave me a quick kiss and a mischievous look. “I have a birthday present for you.”
“You do?” I said. Guilt washed over me. He didn’t see the orange in my hand or understand I was committing a crime. He should have been safe at school instead of here with me, but he’d insisted, and I had to do this. I’d had one chance to prove I could be worthwhile to society, and I’d failed. Now I was condemned to spend the rest of my life as something less than everyone in that market, all because of the tattoo on the back of my neck. Stealing a piece of fruit meant only for IVs and above wouldn’t make my life any easier, but I needed one last moment of control, even if the Shields arrested me. Even if they really did kill me after all.
Benjy opened his hand and revealed a tiny purple blossom, no bigger than my thumbnail, nestled in his palm.
“It’s a violet,” he said. “They’re a perennial flower.”
“I don’t know what that means.” I glanced around, searching for where he might have found it. Three tables down, next to a booth selling pictures of the Hart family, was one boasting colorful bottles of perfume. Tiny purple flowers covered the table. They were only dec- orations, not goods. Not anything that could get him killed or arrested and sent Elsewhere, like my orange.
The seller must have let him take one.
“Perennial means that once they’re planted, they keep growing year after year.” He placed the flower in my palm and brushed his lips against mine. “They never give up, like someone I know.”
I kissed him back, forcing myself to relax. “Thank you.
It’s beautiful.” I sniffed the violet, but if it had a scent, it was lost in the smells surrounding us.
Despite the cool autumn day, it was sweltering inside the market. People were packed together, creating a stench that mingled with the sizzling meats, fresh fruit, and hundreds of other things the vendors tried to sell. I usually didn’t mind, but today it made my stomach turn.
“We need to go,” I said, cupping my fingers around the flower to keep it safe. The orange in my other hand seemed to grow heavier with every passing second, and it wouldn’t be long before someone noticed us. Benjy stood out in a crowd.
He glanced at the orange, but he said nothing as he followed me toward the exit, setting his hand on my back to guide me. I tensed at his touch, waiting for him to brush my hair away and spot my tattoo. He hadn’t asked yet, but that courtesy wouldn’t last forever.
I’d seen the posters and heard the speeches. Everyone had. We all had our rightful place in society, and it was up to us to decide what that was. Study hard, earn good grades, learn everything we could, and prove we were special. And when we turned seventeen and took the test, we would be rewarded with a good job, a nice place to live, and the satisfaction that we contributed to our society—everything we would ever need to lead a meaningful life.
That was all I’d ever wanted: to prove myself, to prove that I was better than the Extra I really was. To prove I deserved to exist even though I was a second child. To prove the government hadn’t made a mistake not sending me Elsewhere.
Now my chance was over, and I hadn’t even earned an average IV. Instead of living the meaningful life I’d been promised since before I could remember, I’d managed a III. There was nothing special about me—I was just another Extra who should never have been born in the first place.
I was a waste.
Worst of all, as much as I wanted to hate them for my III, it wasn’t the government’s fault. Everyone had an equal shot, and I’d blown mine. Now I had to live with the shame of having a permanent record of my failure tattooed onto the back of my neck for everyone to see, and I wasn’t so sure I could do it.
Benjy and I had nearly reached the exit when a weedy man dressed in a gray Shield uniform stepped in front of me, his arm outstretched as he silently demanded my loot. The pistol holstered to his side left me no choice.
“I found it on the ground,” I lied as I forked over the orange. “I was about to give it back to the merchant.”
“Of course you were,” said the Shield. He rotated his finger, a clear sign he wanted me to turn around. Benjy dropped his hand, and panic spread through me, whitehot and urging me to run.
But if I took off, he might blame Benjy, and all I could hope for now was that my stupid decision didn’t affect him, too. Benjy had a month to go before he turned seventeen, and until then, he wouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. Until that morning, I hadn’t been, either.
At last I turned and pulled my dirty blond hair away from the nape of my neck. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t hide the mark or the angry red blotch surrounding it, still painful from the needle that had etched my rank into my skin.
Benjy stiffened at the sight of my III. I stared straight ahead, my face burning with shame. I’d let him down.
I’d let both of us down. And now everything was going to change.
The man brushed his fingertips against the mark, feeling the three ridges underneath that proved it wasn’t altered. Satisfied, he dropped his hand. “Is she telling the truth?” he said, and Benjy nodded, not missing a beat.
“Yes, sir. We were on our way to the stall now.” Benjy twisted around to give him a glimpse of his bare neck.
“We’re only here to look around.”
The Shield grunted, and he tossed the orange in the air and caught it. I scowled. Was he going to let me go or force me to my knees and shoot me? Less than five feet away, browned blood from another thief still stained the ground. I looked away. Maybe he’d send me Elsewhere instead, but I doubted it. The bastard looked triggerhappy.
“I see.” He leaned in, and I wrinkled my nose at his sour breath. “Did you know your eyes are the same shade as Lila Hart’s?”
I clenched my jaw. Lila Hart, the niece of the prime minister, was so wildly popular that hardly a week went by when someone didn’t mention that the bizarre blue shade of my eyes matched hers.
“No,” I said through gritted teeth. “Never heard that before in my life.”
The Shield straightened. “What’s your name?”
“Doe?” He eyed us both. “You’re Extras?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep the snarl out of my voice.
No one with an ounce of self-preservation talked to a Shield like that, but after what had happened that morning, I didn’t have it in me to kiss anyone’s ass.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Benjy frown, and I could almost hear his silent question. What do you think you’re doing?
Stupidly risking my life, that’s what.
The Shield stroked his pistol. “Stay put. Move, and I’ll kill you, got it?”
I nodded mutely. But as soon as he turned away, Benjy touched my elbow, and our eyes met.
Without hesitating, we bolted.
Benjy and I pushed past the crowds, through the gates, and into the damp street. We sprinted between the aging buildings and ducked down alleyways, and as we passed a faded mural of Prime Minister Hart smiling down on us benevolently, I resisted the urge to spit on it.
We ran through a maze of side streets until we reached the border of the Heights, the easternmost suburb of the District of Columbia. And the poorest. I searched for any signs of the IIs that populated the area, anyone who might be willing to snitch on us for a fresh loaf of bread, but during the day, while everyone was working at the docks or in the factories, the street was deserted.
After the workday ended, adults and children spilled into the overcrowded streets, begging for food. I usually had to elbow my way down the sidewalks and weave between men and women who couldn’t be more than twenty years older than me, but already their hair had grayed and their skin turned to leather—the results of decades of hard labor and struggling to make ends meet.
My life wouldn’t be much better. As a IV, I could have counted on reaching sixty. Now, as a III, I would be lucky to hit forty. If I wasn’t careful, I would also be out on the streets begging for more than the government had decided I was worth.
As we dashed around a corner, I spotted a sewer entrance a few feet away and sighed with relief. We were safe.
I shimmied through the opening on the edge of the sidewalk, and a minute later, Benjy climbed down from a manhole nearby. The sewer was dark and smelled like rust and rot, but it was the only place our conversation would be private. Even the empty streets didn’t offer that guarantee. Shields were everywhere, waiting for their chance to pounce the moment they heard a word against the Harts or the Ministers of the Union. According to Nina, the matron of our group home, they got bonuses for each arrest they made, and they had families to feed, too. Didn’t mean I hated them any less, though.
That morning, before I’d left, she’d said we all had our roles to play. It just so happened that some were better than others. We couldn’t all be VIs and VIIs, and all any of us could hope for was food in our bellies and a place to call our own. I would have a roof over my head; the government made sure of that. But now, with my III, I would be outrageously lucky if it didn’t leak.
In the speeches we watched from first grade on, Prime Minister Daxton Hart promised us that as privileged American citizens, we would be taken care of all our lives, so long as we gave back to the society that needed us. If we worked hard and gave it our all, we would get what we deserved. We were masters of our own fate.
Up until today, I’d believed him.
“What were you doing back there?” said Benjy. “You could’ve been killed.”
“That was kind of the point,” I muttered. “Better than being a III for the rest of my life.”
Benjy sighed and reached for me, but I sidestepped him. I couldn’t take his disappointment, too.
He slouched. “I don’t understand—sixty-eight percent of all people tested are IVs.”
“Yeah, well, guess I’m dumber than sixty-eight percent of the population.” I kicked a puddle of rancid rainwater, splashing a few rats that squeaked in protest.
“Eighty-four percent, actually, including the Vs and above,” said Benjy, and he added quickly, “but you’re not. I mean, you’re smart. You know you are. You outwitted that Shield back there.”
“That wasn’t smart. That was reckless. I told him my real name.”
“You had no choice. If he’d found out you were lying, he would have killed you for sure,” said Benjy.
He stopped and faced me, cupping my chin in his hand.
“I don’t care what the test said. You’re one of the smartest people I know, all right?”
“Not the kind of smart that matters.” Not like Benjy was. He read everything he could get his hands on, and he forced me to watch the news with him every night. By the time we were nine, he’d read the entire group home library twice. I could recite whole articles seconds after he read them to me, but I couldn’t read them to myself.
“Nina was wrong,” I added. “You don’t get extra time if they read the questions to you. The parts I reached were easy, but the reader was slow, and I didn’t finish.
And they docked points because I can’t read.”
Benjy opened and shut his mouth. “You should have told me before we left the testing center,” he said, and I shook my head.
“There’s nothing you could have done.” A lump formed in my throat, and I swallowed hard. All of the studying, the preparation, the hope—it was all for nothing. “I’m a III. I’m a stupid, worthless—”
“You are not worthless.” Benjy stepped closer, so close I could feel the heat radiating from his body. He wrapped his arms around me, and I buried my face in his chest, refusing to cry. “You’re strong. You’re brilliant. You’re perfect exactly the way you are, and no matter what, you’ll always have me, okay?”
“You’d be better off without me and you know it,” I muttered into his sweater.
He pulled away enough to look at me, his blue eyes searching mine. After a long moment, he leaned down and kissed me again, this time lingering. “I’m never better off without you,” he said. “We’re in this together. I love you, and that’s never going to change, all right? I’m yours no matter what your rank is. You could be a I, and I would go Elsewhere just to find you.”
I tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a choking sob. The rank of I was only given to the people who couldn’t work or contribute to society, and once they were sent Elsewhere, no one ever saw them again. “If I were a I, we probably never would’ve met in the first place.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he murmured, running his fingers through my hair. “I would know something was missing. I would know my life was pointless, even if I never understood why. Even if we’d never met, even if you never existed, I would still love you beyond all reason for the rest of my life.”