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I was surrounded in black smoke. I was suffocating, choking on the ash that fell from the black clouds like acid rain. My clothes were covered in soot as I continued down the blackened street, coughing up the polluted oxygen that stuck in the air like thick fog. If a doctor checked me out and looked into my mouth, he’d probably see swollen and red tissue that makes up my throat. Mentally cursing myself for forgetting my oxygen mask at home, I hurried down the charcoal sidewalk, squeezing my way through a crowd of rowdy teenagers as they screamed and hollered at each other over some petty incident. Making my way through the crowd, I briskly walked the few steps to the bus stop, glancing around me at the many skyscrapers that were drenched in black snow. Downtown Indova was the worst part of the city. The pollution was the worst here, always choking someone on the street until they could breathe no more, and they would fall dead onto the black concrete. No one would pay any mind to the victim; he’d either get stepped over or ran over by a car before the Emergency Officials actually came and picked him up. There was no grass on the ground either, or at least, no grass visible to the human eye. The entire ground was hidden in darkness, covered in ash, soot, chemicals, and any other pollutants that are quickly killing Indova’s population. The Indova Hospital was overflowing with sick patients, citizens on the verge of death from breathing in toxins and poisoned oxygen.
I grabbed hold of the metal bus stop pole, watching with indifference as the big gray vehicle made its way down the street to me. My mother was in that hospital. Every Monday, before school, I went to visit her, since Mondays were the only days visitors were allowed. Before, we could come and go as we pleased, but with all of the new patients, our time to see our loved ones was limited. I had kissed my mother goodbye and walked out of the hospital, trying to shield my face from the polluted fog that clung to the atmosphere of Indova. I had overslept today and hurried to the hospital, forgetting my oxygen mask on the top of my dresser. Lucky for me, I had felt no dizziness or nausea as I went downtown. Lucky for me, I was still alive and breathing well when the bus came to pick me up so I could go to Central Indova. I boarded the bus and slid my metal key into the slot, hearing the click and watching as the keypad flashed green, signaling me to go find a spot on the bus. I walked down the aisle, nodding and smiling to the passengers before I found an empty spot near the back. I slid into it silently, throwing a glance to the occupant in the seat next to me. He had a black overcoat covering his slumped over body, and the only visible thing on him was his flat, black hair. On the shoulder of his overcoat was a white shield with a golden cross on the inside. Written in black letters inside the thick, horizontal line of the cross was HAIL THE HALLS. I snorted and looked out of the dirty window, watching as the bus drove through the falling ash flakes and sped pass the tall, white skyscrapers and office buildings.
This was the city of Indova, the dirtiest and most toxic place in the Cybrium States. In my history classes, we were taught about the United States of America, a country of three centuries ago that slowly died away due to pollution and violence. About one hundred years ago, though, remaining US citizens were able to team up and build the Cybrium States, with Indova as the capital. Each Cybrium city had its own president, and the president of Indova had been Winston Halls, a fair and just leader of the capital. He had made Indova a green city, full of happiness, life, and health. After his death, his son, Matthew Halls had taken over his place, and he was not as fair as his father. Slowly but surely, Indova had turned into a poisoned city, full of factories, offices, and pollution. He had recreated the struggles of the United States, the troubles that eventually led to the country’s downfall. Because of Matthew Halls, my mother was in the hospital with lung cancer, and she was slowly decaying away. Matthew Halls had driven my father to insanity, and he had abandoned my family and me, fleeing to Europe and never making his face known again. Matthew Halls had taken away my brother’s two year old daughter for missing his payment on his electricity bill by twelve hours.
Matthew Halls was a dictator, a tyrant. He was unfair, cruel, unforgiving, and remorseless. He cared for no one but himself. He had rebuilt our city as a profit city; all of the factories and offices increased our economy, but most of the money went to Matthew and his family. Almost everyone in the city hated Matthew Halls, but we could say nothing about it. He had spies all over the place; one bad word on Matthew, and your life was gone in an instant. He was a bully and had an unhealthy greed for power. He was the most powerful man in Indova, and some of the citizens believed he was the most powerful man of the Cybrium States. Now, if that ever happened, the entire country would be doomed. There was no way to stop him, though. He was an intelligent leader, a manipulator. He knew how to get what he wanted without ever lifting a finger or batting an eyelash.
There was some hope, however. A small smile flew over my face as I thought about the Cybrium Press. Every Sunday, when the paper was delivered, there was an article about one of the Cybrium presidents thinking of declaring war against Indova or having Matthew thrown out. It did make Matthew Halls nervous; he was starting to issue out deportation letters to all of Indova men over the age of 19 to enlist in the Indova Militia. It was mandatory. I cringe at the thought of seeing my brother off to the military, knowing that there was no way he would come back. The Indova Militia was a bloodbath. If you were blind, you had to fight. If you had no arms and legs, you had to fight. If you were on the verge of death, you had to fight until your heart stopped beating and blood stopped flowing through your veins. If you were lucky enough to live out any battle or training that the Indova Militia had, you would come back home as a beaten, bloody, and unrecognizable mess to your families. Every Indova solider that came back from training, war, or a battle, they told their stories, and they killed themselves.
I let out a soft sigh, thinking of my brother’s smiling face, when I felt two strong hands squeeze my shoulders, causing all of the blood in my body to run cold. My brother had always told me to watch out for the creepers on the bus. The creepers always hung out on the bus, waiting for young girls like me to show themselves. I held in my scream and struggled out of the man’s strong grip. I gripped his wrists, trying to pry his meaty hands off of me, but they wouldn’t budge. His cheek suddenly pressed to mine, and his hot breath crept into my ear.
“Amiera, my darling, did you do the English paper?”
His soft chuckling forced heat to my cheeks, and I roughly pulled myself away from one of the most annoying adolescents that happened to be included in my generation. I wiped his germs off my jacket and glared hatefully at the boy as he continued to laugh and casually seated himself next to me, a wide smirk on his Cupid lips. I clenched my hands into fists and flattened myself against the window.
“Did you forget to do your homework again, Declan?”
He rose his dark eyebrows, taking out a small brush and brushing the dark waves of his hair. “It might have slipped my mind, darling.”
“Stop calling me that, you’ll make me sick.”
A hearty laugh escaped his lips, and I ignored the goosebumps that formed on my skin. No matter how much Declan annoyed me, I couldn’t ignore how attractive he was. He was the pretty boy of the school, the most attractive boy in our senior class. He had beautiful, dark skin that shined like the night. His eyes were wide, dark almonds that beckoned you to come closer to him. He was tall and lean, a star football player at school. Declan, though, had been the most disturbing thing in my childhood. He had been telling dirty jokes and crude things aloud ever since we were fourteen. He had one night stands and bragged about them, giving the girl a level of popularity for being with the Declan Johnson. I, on the other hand, would never fall into one of Declan’s trap. First off, I hated Declan. Secondly, Declan hated me, no matter how many provocative things he said to me. He did that just to bug me. When we were thirteen, a game of spin the bottle had hastily ended once the bottle chose me and Declan to lock lips. The entire room was empty in a matter of seconds.
I snapped out of my memory, which only made me hate him more, to watch him scoot closer to me. “But, my love, I need your English paper.”
I punched him in the shoulder, causing him to yelp, and stared at him. “Declan, I don’t understand why you always want to copy my homework. You hate me.”
“That’s completely true, but you’re the smartest student in our class. You’re graduating as number three in the class. I feel that it is your obligation to help those with brains smaller than yours. So, can I copy your English paper?”
I rolled my eyes and threw my hands into the air, an exasperated sigh leaving my lips. The bus stopped, and on the announcing screen were the green letters spelling CENTRAL. I pushed Declan off the seat and hurried out of the bus, ignoring the prat as he continuously called my name in his masculine voice. Walking faster, I stalked down the sidewalk, tuning out the laughter and bubbly chatter that floated around me as I made my way into the high school named after Matthew Halls. The first thing in the entrance hall was a long poster with Matthew’s face on it, HAIL THE HALLS in red letters underneath his creepy smile. I made my way through the students, stalking down the left hallway to my locker. I smiled as many people greeted me, and once I made my way to my locker, the bug called Declan was long gone.
Unfortunately, I was not saved from the other insects.
“Amiera, Amiera, you’re looking positively disgusting today. How do you get your mask to stay like that?”
Unlocking my locker, I gripped my books and threw them into my bag, not even looking up into the olive green eyes of Romeo Rivera. “Ha-ha, Romeo. How funny. Is that how you get all the girls to your bed?”
He snorted and said, “As if I’d ever bring you into my room, let alone onto my street.”
I held in a frustrated scream and turned my head to glare at Romeo. He was Declan’s best friend, and he was the talent of our school. Every first place talent show trophy belonged to Romeo, and his singing distracted the crowds as Declan went through and pocketed their wallets.
“Romeo, can you please go to your locker and stay away from mine?”
He shook the light brown hair out of his eyes and threw me the middle finger as he stood right next to me and opened his own locker. Not only did I have to see him every day at my locker, but I had to endure his horrible company on test days, since our last names were alphabetically right next to each other.
“Amiera, have you ever had a boyfriend?” he asked me casually, as if we were common friends, as if he had the right to ask me personal questions.
I checked my face in the mirror of my locker, cringing at the tiredness in my almond brown eyes. I applied some eyeliner to my eyes to make them pop and take attention away from the redness in my irises. “What does my romantic life have to do with you, Romeo?” I asked indifferently, glancing out of the corner of my eye to see a wide smile spread onto his tan skin.
He shrugged and shut his locker quietly, a smirk of amusement curling onto his bow-shaped lips. “Well, I was just wondering If you had ever found someone to put up with your 24/7 bitchiness.”
I rose my eyebrows and slammed my locker shut, not giving Romeo a response as I marched off down the hallway. I bit my lip to refrain from letting out an irritated scream as his loud laugh echoed around me and followed me to my class. Declan and Romeo were the most horrible male creatures on this earth, right underneath Matthew Halls himself, but it wasn’t those two that got under my skin like an itching disease. It was Charlie Anderson, probably the most irritating, annoying and rudest person to walk the planet. He was the leader of the trio, the one who could ruin your self-esteem with just a few menacing words. While people seemed to ignore Declan’s horrible personality because of his looks, no one could ever let Charlie’s looks overpower his cruel persona. If Matthew Halls didn’t exist, or wasn’t as terrible as he is, Charlie would be number one on my hate list.
Speak of the devil.
I turned sharply on my heel to come face to face with my worst enemy. Charlie was sauntering down the hallway towards me, his gray eyes shining like diamonds in the bright lights. People unconsciously stepped aside as he walked with his hands in his pocket and his head held high, his nose turned up to the world. His skin glistened in the light, as if the sun had come down and kissed every inch of his body. He had a head full of chocolate hair, some of the strands falling to his dark eyebrows. As he came closer, I couldn’t help but stare into his eyes as his dark lashes fluttered over them when he blinked. I cleared my throat and threw a wall up to cover my emotions, but I wasn’t stupid. That big grin on Charlie’s stupid angelic lips told me he knew how attractive I found him.
“What?” I blurted out rudely, tapping my foot on the tiled floor so I could hurry to class. I needed to know all of the material before we left for Spring Break in three weeks, so I could be ahead of the game.
Charlie sniffed and let out a breathy sigh. “Want to walk to class together?”
My eyes snapped open, and I frantically looked around to the other students to make sure no one heard him say those words to me. My pupils flew to Charlie as I desperately searched his eyes to find any revealing emotion that would make him ask me such a ludicrous request. As usual though, his stone, gray eyes were like the Great Wall of China, a big brick wall of protection.
I squinted at him and looked behind him for his two cronies. “Why?”
He shrugged. “Well, we are going to the same class, and I saw you in the hall. So I figured maybe we could just walk together.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question.” I looked up at the ceiling, squinting to see if it would suddenly open up and push spoiled milk or honey onto my head. Charlie did that once in the eighth grade. I’m certain that he would do it again.
His smirk instantly disappeared, and he inhaled deeply through his nose. “I’m trying to be nice.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “For what?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes tight. I backed up one step, because I had never seen the laid back and always composed Charlie Anderson have an episode.
He opened his eyes and roughly grabbed my arm, dragging me down the hall towards our College Algebra class. My mouth flew open as he dragged me, and I started to pound onto his tight hand as my forearm started to grow numb.
“Charlie, let go of me!” I screamed, trying to pry his hand off of me. I looked around with wide eyes as the other students whistled and purposely looked anywhere but at me and my captor. Of course no one would help me. No one would get in the way of Charlie.
As he stalked down the hall with determination in his eyes, he muttered, “Mr. Jones asked me to be nice to you.”
I stopped my struggling and followed Charlie as we entered our math class. Many of the students stopped their conversations to stare at us, since his hand was still clamped on my arm like he owned it.
I ignored them and responded to Charlie’s shocking statement. “Why would he ask you that?”
Charlie stopped walking as we passed the teacher’s desk and stood by the window that was covered in bulletproof curtains. He let go of my arm and pushed me away from him as if I was some annoying child pestering him, even though he was the one who had been clutching my arm. “It doesn’t matter why I have to be nice to you,” he told me as he wiped his hand on his black jeans. “All that matters is you tutor me in Physics and tell Mr. Jones that I’m a gentleman.”
I crossed my arms over my chest with a powerful smirk flying over my face. “This is because you failed the last two tests, isn’t it?”
Charlie’s eyes snapped to me, and his nostrils flared. “How did you know that?”
I shrugged and glided to the front row of desks, gracefully sitting down in the front seat of the middle row. “I help some of the teachers grade the tests. Sometimes they ask me to have a word with a student or two, offering my tutoring services to them.”
Unsurprisingly, Charlie plopped his bottom on top of my desk and crossed his ankles. “And Mr. Jones never mentioned me?”
I smiled innocently at the boy, fluttering my eyelashes as I said, “Oh he did, but I politely told him that I thought you were a piece of trash that deserved to fail since you don’t try in class. All you do is sleep. That isn’t graduating material to me.”
The cruel smirk that slithered onto his face was not the reaction I was hoping for. Charlie leaned closer to me, his lips inches from my ear, and I held in my surprised gasp as his cologne surrounded me. He smelled like strength and power.
“All I do is sleep, but I’m still number two in the class. What do you say to that, Miss Number Three?”
Every single day since I was five years old, I’ve had to endure the torture of Charlie Anderson and his two cronies. I’ve managed to keep my anger inside of me throughout the years, and I have been able to take their insults and physical abuse like a grain of salt. This is the first time that I let the anger fizzle inside of me and explode out of my soul. I growled like a rabid animal and roughly pushed Charlie off of my desk. He ungracefully toppled over and fell flat on his bottom, but I never gave him a chance to stand and fix himself. I jumped on top of him and straddled him, my fists thumping on every part of his face, arms, chest, and torso. He screamed in pain, while the other students stood around and screamed in excitement and surprise. I was landing blows wildly onto the boy when he caught hold of my wrists and squeezed them until my fingers went numb from lack of blood flow. I growled in pain and began squirming on his lap to get away when he quickly brought me up and slammed me hard against the wall. My back throbbed in agony, and the back of my head hissed in pain as it made rough contact with the wall. My eyes widened as Charlie let go of my wrists and slammed his fists onto opposite sides of the wall next to my head, caging me in his personal space. His gray eyes were blacker than his soul, and a disgusted sneer plastered itself on his face. He had a large, purple bruise forming on his left cheek, and his nose was trickling blood. His lips were swollen, too, which seemed to bring a satisfied smile to my face. Unfortunately, the smile made Charlie angrier, and the fingers of his left hand grabbed hold of my throat and pushed me further into the wall. I whimpered, not from the pain because he wasn’t squeezing my neck hard enough to choke me, but from his intimidating antics.
Charlie tilted my face up to stare into his charcoal eyes of hate, and he hissed into my face, “You do not want to cross me, Amiera Rivers. I have been as cordial to you as you have been to me in the last thirteen years. I have treated you as you have treated me, but if you ever hit me again, I will beat you ten times harder, and I will put you in a hospital bed right next to your dying mother.”
Instantly, the fire burned deeper in my eyes, and I unloaded a large wad of spit onto his face. “Don’t you ever think that just because you are one spot ahead of me that you are better than me,” I seethed into his face, which was covered in my saliva and his shock. “You are below the dirt that I step on every day. And don’t ever mention my mother again or I will kill you and dump your body into the toxic river so no one will find you or have a chance to miss you.”
His fingers tightened their hold on my neck, and I was sure that I would have bruises later on in the day. I shrieked as his spit connected with my lips, and he hissed into my ear, “You’ll be dead before you had the chance to lay a pretty finger on me, Amiera Rivers.”
I blinked up at Charlie, watching the blackness deepen in his eyes, and the sneer transformed into a malicious smirk. My hands quivered at my sides as his fingers steadily tightened, demonstrating how easily it would be for him to kill me. That didn’t scare me, though. I wasn’t scared of death. Whether I was killed by my nemesis or Indova’s environment, I would die soon. We all would.
I blinked as cheers and screams surrounded me and Charlie. He immediately jumped away from me, wiping the spit and blood from his face. I wiped off his saliva with my sleeve and promised to burn this shirt when I got home. Finally out of our altercation, I was thrown back into the real world. Students all around me were staring at me and Charlie as if we were scientific subjects in a lab. There were four police officials staring at us indifferently, checking their nails or popping their gum. The teacher was staring at me with disappointment swirling in his blue eyes, and I put my head down in shame. I had never acted out of character like that before, never would’ve imagined saying nasty things like I did just now, but Charlie had never mentioned my class ranking before today. I was always relieved that he didn’t; he was always one number ahead of me, but no one ever knew what he was ranked as. He never mentioned it, and he never gave anyone that knew a chance to spill it out. Academics were not a game to me; the smarter and more knowledgeable I became, the easier it would be for me to slip into a political position and help take down Matthew Halls and bullies like Charlie and his cronies. Because of my dedication to school, everyone thought I was smarter than him, and that belief was further emphasized because he never talked about his own grades. Even with his two failed tests in Physics, though, his grade in that class was still better than mine. I could never deny that Charlie was naturally intelligent, but so was I, and I made it a personal mission to graduate better than him. Still, his better rank was a sensitive topic for me, so it was never brought up.
Until today. That’s why I had become someone entirely different from Amiera Rivers.
One of the guards cleared his throat and spit him gum straight onto the floor. “Are you two done now?’’ he asked in amusement. “Please, let me know now before I take you to the principal’s office. Wouldn’t want you fighting down there, would we? That’d just be worse. You’ll probably land in jail for that.”
“We’ll probably land in jail for this,” I heard Charlie mumble as we took our walk of shame behind the officers. Many people sent sympathetic whispers to me, and I gave them a watery smile. It was nice to know that this wasn’t my fault. Charlie had started it. Charlie always starts it.
“Pathetic,” he muttered, glancing at me with a sneer on his lips.
“It’s not nice to talk about yourself in a low manner,” I countered back in a low voice, glancing sharply at the guards to make sure they weren’t listen. If they caught me and Charlie arguing after that horrendous fight, we’d surely be expelled. When two students fight, they are not to have any contact until sat down in front of the principal.
“No, you’re pathetic,” he whispered, inching closer to me so I could hear him.
I furrowed my brow. “How so?”
“You’re like some saint to these dimwitted students. They look at you with pity and sympathy because Saint Amiera got into a fight, all because she felt like she was being bullied. It’s pathetic how many people look at you like some sweet, innocent angel, when you clearly are not.”
“I don’t deny that physically assaulting you was wrong, but you did start it. You provoked me.”
“You’ve been provoking me my whole life, and I never attacked you.”
He nodded. “Because you attacked me first.” He glanced at the guards as they entered the principal’s lair to present our case, and Charlie grabbed my arm and pulled me to the wall. I exhaled warily, not ready for another quarrel, when his fingers experimentally came up to my golden brown curls and tugged gently on one. I sucked in a breath as he twirled the curl around his finger, and he looked from the light of the hanging lamp to my curl, admiring how it shined in the light.
“What is the key to success, Amiera Rivers?” Charlie breathed out, his cinnamon breath floating around my head and fogging my brain.
I grasped onto my hate for this boy as I tried to speak without stuttering. “Knowledge,” I said firmly, keeping my eyes fixed on his fingers as they gently pat my curls. I held in my breath as his fingers caressed my hair. He did this when we were sophomores; he’d have me against a wall, play with my curls, and shove my head down so my face smashed against the floor. Then, he’d walk off laughing as my friends hurled insults and death threats at him and his two dummies. I was expecting the same treatment, ready to defend myself, but he kept whispering in that dazed voice of his.
“You aren’t entirely wrong. Knowledge can be one key. Another is innocence. Another is power. Three keys that you already possess. You’re smart, that’s something I can’t lie about, no matter how much I hate you. Then, your innocence leads to your power.”
He smirked and removed his hand from my hair, stepping away from me to give me my personal space back. I let out the breath that I was holding, and I felt cold without his heat surrounding me. “You’re so sweet,” he continued more firmly and emotionless. “You’re the angel of the school. People worship you because you can do no wrong in their eyes. Even when you did wrong today, you were still loved because you’re too innocent to start drama. With innocence, you have the power to pull wool over a person’s eyes. You have power to manipulate them, to control them.”
I grunted and crossed my arms over my chest protectively. “I would do no such thing. I would never take advantage of someone. I would never just smile to get what I want.”
He shook his head, and his eyes hardened on me. “I’m not saying you should take advantage of people. I’m saying your innocence is something you can use to-“
We immediately straightened and looked straight ahead as the door to the principals’ office slammed open and the guards waved us in. Charlie glanced at me and walked in first, me going in second. As I stepped over the threshold, I immediately walked into a brick wall and jumped back, rubbing my forehead. I blinked once and realized that I had ran into Charlie’s back, and I was tempted to run my fingertips over his muscles, amazed at how strong his back was, when I pursed my lips and stood next to him. As soon as I got home, I was going to take a long bubble bath to wash off these disgusting feelings of attraction I was having for my enemy. I began brushing my hands over my outfit, trying to dust those unknown feelings away, when I looked up to see two, beady black eyes stare into my soul and cause a gasp to fly from my lips.
“Good morning, Amiera Rivers. Charlie, it so nice to see you again. Tell me, how’s your brother doing?”
Charlie’s arm tensed next to me, and I could see waves of angry heat roll from his body. “He’s fine, sire.”
A menacing laugh slithered down my back, and the hairs on the back of my neck rose in fear and hate.
Matthew Halls clapped his large hands together and turned sharply onto his heel, waving us to follow him through the principal’s foyer. Charlie and I walked past the waiting chairs and receptionist’s desk to the glass door of the principal’s office. Before we walked over the threshold, Charlie grabbed hold of forearm and squeezed it gently before letting it go. Tired of his manhandling for one day, I rolled my eyes and stepped in front of him to follow the dictator when Charlie whispered heatedly in my ear, “Use your innocence to survive, Amiera. Matthew Halls will kill you if you do not.”
I glanced at Charlie behind my shoulder, and he nodded at me curtly. “If he could kill my mother, I’m sure he’ll have no problem killing you.”
I stood still as a pole as Charlie walked past me into the office. I followed after him, my legs shaking with fear as I took a seat next to Charlie and hesitantly stared into the black eyes of Matthew Halls, his piercing gaze like a bullet zooming through me.