[Better Summary: After the death of their father, Clarice and her brother Vector are forced to provide for their mother and five young siblings. After circumstances worsen, Vector enlists in a controversial military program. In exchange for superhuman abilities, his mind becomes a time bomb, threatening to explode at any minute. Not wanting her brother to be gone forever, Clarice follows in his footsteps and becomes a Sacrifice. Her role is to simply be the one Vector kills when he finally snaps. However, as Clarice and Vector sink deeper and deeper into the program, they realize getting out may not be very simple. How much are they willing to sacrifice for their family?]
"Not again," I muttered as I rolled onto my back, the worn springs squeaking beneath me. It had seemed like I had just fallen asleep, and now here I was, awake again. My gaze scanned the ceiling absently as aggravated voices filtered up through the floor. This was the third time this week that they'd woke me up.
I passed a hand over my dry eyes, sighing deeply. Just give it some more time, another week or so. Everything will go back to normal again eventually, I told myself. I'd been telling myself the same thing for weeks. I rolled back to my side, knowing that getting back to sleep wasn't an option, especially as the voices from downstairs grew more heated. I covered one ear with my arm, wishing that they'd just stop.
"Clarice, are you awake?" came a small voice from beside me.
I glanced over to meet my sister's red-rimmed eyes. She'd been crying again, I realized with a sigh.
"You okay?" I asked, biting my lip. It was hard to see Rica looking so sad.
"I'll be fine. I just hate hearing them argue." She smiled weakly, the expression never quite reaching her eyes. It was far too easy for me to see right through her facade, but at least she was trying to stay tough for everyone else's sake.
"Me too," I said with a nod. "I should stop them before they wake the kids." I swung my feet off the bed, being careful not to kick Rica. "Get some sleep," I told her, ruffling her sandy brown curls. She smiled and closed her eyes again as I tiptoed through the room, being careful not to wake Lyla. She was sleeping as only a child could, a peaceful smile on her face even as the voices downstairs grew volatile.
"The kids are trying to sleep," I said as I lumbered down the stairs, running my fingers through my dark tangles and rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The voices went abruptly silent, and two pairs of eyes darted toward me.
"Sorry," whispered my mom, her hazel eyes dim. She dropped her folded arms to her side, but I could tell that whatever argument she'd been having was far from over.
"What's going on?" I asked as I took in the expression on Mom's face. She looked more tired than she had in weeks. It shouldn't have been surprising, considering everything that had happened, but my stomach still dropped.
"It doesn't matter, Clarice," responded Mom with a sigh that belonged to a woman far older than her. "It's still early; why don't you go back to bed so you can catch some sleep before work?"
I didn't like this. It had to be something important if Mom was trying to hide it from me. I turned my gaze toward my brother, pursing my lips. He stood motionless and silent, leaning against the wall like he was part of it. "Care to enlighten me?" I asked, trying in vain to keep my tone carefree.
He glanced back and forth between Mom and me, trying to decide which of us to betray.
My mom shot him a stern look. "Vector, it's none of Clarice's business for now. Don't drag her into this," she scolded, yet her voice held none of the usual severity that always kept the kids in line.
"Mom, if it's about this family, it's my business," I said quietly, hating to go against her when she was this broken.
She shook her head, running a hand over her taut lips. Seeing that she wasn't going to change her mind, I turned back to my brother.
"Vex, will you please tell me what this is about?"
At the sound of his nickname, his hazel eyes softened. "Just take it easy, okay?" he said, raising his hands in defense as if he were about to tell me my puppy had been ran over. "Don't get mad. I'm going to figure something else out. I won't let this happen."
His words did nothing to reassure me, but instead made my heart pound faster. "Yeah, it sounds like you guys were doing a great job of not getting angry. That must be what woke Rica and me up."
At Rica's name, Mom and Vector both flinched. My stomach dropped as I once again glanced back and forth between them.
Mom started to speak, her voice weary and hesitant. "Look, Clarice, we all know that things have been bad lately. But I haven't told you and your brother just how bad things have gotten. I haven't been able to pay the heat or water bills, and if I don't pay them soon, the companies will have to turn them off."
I frowned, but my heart slowed down again. This wasn't as dire as I had been expecting. "Look, Mom," I began, keeping my voice steady. "It's not a big deal. I can put in some more hours at work, and I'm sure Vex can too. We'll pull through this."
"You and Vector are already doing enough for this family," said Mom, raising her voice briefly before trailing off again. Her eyes shone with tears as she continued. "You two are working so hard, and I know you're both willing to work even harder, but it's not that simple," whispered Mom. She paused, hesitating, as if saying the words made the circumstances real. "I can't make the rent payments, and soon, we'll be evicted. I can't even pay for groceries to feed my children! If this continues, Child Services might find out. I can't stand to think of losing any of you." Tears started to run down her cheeks, and she cast her eyes to the ground, ashamed.
"Mom, it's not your fault. None of this is your fault. Vector and I will work more, and everything will be fine," I said, placing a hand on my mom's shoulder. I glanced up to Vector, looking for reassurance in his eyes. He looked at me briefly, but I saw only worry in his eyes, despite how much he tried to put up a brave face. My heart leapt in my chest.
"No matter how much you and your brother work, it won't be enough to provide for a family as large as ours," sobbed Mom, trying to keep her voice down. "It's not possible."
"Then we ask for help," I said, refusing to give in. "Surely there's someone out there who could help. One of Dad's relatives, maybe."
Mom laughed, but it sounded like a sob. "Clarice, haven't you been paying attention to the world? No one is in any shape to help us. They're just trying to keep their own families together."
I looked away from her stricken face and toward the window, but what lay outside the dingy glass only reinforced her point. Rubble and ruin lay everywhere. Everyone needed help now, not just our family.
"Then what do we do?" I asked softly. "What can we do?"
At my words, Vector's eyes narrowed, and I realized I had come to the source of the argument. He stepped closer to me, as if preparing to hold me back from attacking our mom.
"There's only one thing we can do," whispered Mom. "I can't work, not with the twins still needing me. I can't leave them here alone."
"Of course not," I said, unsure of where this point was going. "Mom, you working was never an option."
"But..." she trailed off again, looking at the dirty floor beneath her feet. "Rica is old enough. She could probably find a job somewhere."
My blood ran cold. "No," I growled. "That's not an option."
"Clarice, what else can we do?" Mom answered.
"She's just a kid!" I snarled, struggling to keep my voice low. "She's twelve years old! She should be enjoying school, not working like a grown man and picking up rubble in the streets." I took a step forward, only to be blocked by Vector's broad shoulder. I glared up at him, but saw the same anger reflected in his eyes. He hated this as much as I did.
"Even with you and Vector working more, we'll never come close to having enough money," murmured my mom, her tears falling freely now. "I don't want to make Rica work any more than you do, but I don't see any other options."
"How can you even say that?" I whispered, tears pooling up in my eyes as well. "She's a kid, Mom. Her dad just died. She needs to be with her friends, with people her age. She needs to heal, not get put to work."
"Clarice," sighed my mom, but I was in no mood to hear anything else.
"I'm going to work. I'll see if I can get more hours," I growled, rubbing my eyes until the tears vanished. I turned to head back upstairs, but quickly realized I still was wearing my work uniform from the night before.
Mom stepped closer to me, putting a hand on my shoulder. "It's only seven in the morning, and you worked until three last night. Be reasonable."
"Yeah, maybe I should put my twelve year old sister to work. That seems reasonable," I snarled. Mom dropped her hand, flinching back from me. I knew I would regret my words later, but at the moment, I was far too angry to care.
I threw my dark hair up into a messy ponytail as I strode to the door, resisting the urge to slam it behind me. My eyes quickly went to our beat up car, but then I hesitated. I didn't need to be wasting gas. I could walk to work.
"Clarice, wait," came a voice before I had gotten too far.
"Not in the mood, Vex," I whispered to myself. I turned my eyes toward the dusty ground in front of me as I walked along what used to be the sidewalk. I picked my way through the rubble, hoping my brother would be smart enough to stop following me.
I heard his footsteps jog up behind me, and I hissed in anger, my breath causing a puff of fog to appear in front of me. I hadn't even realized how cold it was.
"Clary," he said, placing his hand gently on my shoulder.
I froze at his touch, my legs halting at the sadness in his voice.
"Look, Vector, I'm adamant about getting more hours, don't even try to sway me. I also know I should go back and apologize. I didn't mean to hurt Mom like that, but I just can't believe she's really considering putting Rica to work. She's still a child."
Vector turned me to face him, and I saw the weariness in his eyes. The same weariness I felt. "I'm not here to tell you to apologize. I wanted to let you know that I'll figure something out. You don't need to worry about it."
I smiled slightly. "A few more hours won't kill me. And Vex, you know that worrying about our family is what I do best," I said, meeting his concerned gaze.
"I know," he replied, his lips twisting up in a shadow of a smile. "But this isn't just your burden. I'll figure out something too. I won't let Rica's childhood get taken away from her, like..." he trailed off, his eyes growing distant.
"Like ours did," I murmured, completing his sentence.
He said nothing, but shrugged off his jacket and handed it to me. "If you're going to walk, you might as well dress for the weather."
"Thanks," I whispered, tucking the warm fabric around me. I started walking again, and his steps quickly fell into the familiar rhythm, although he took only one stride for every two of mine.
"Shouldn't you be going the other way?" I asked after a moment. "You don't work until tonight?"
He nodded. "I know. But I'm going to do the same as you. Our family needs more money, and if that means working as much as possible, than so be it."
"Do you think this is going to work out, Vex?" I asked, glancing up at him.
He hesitated for a moment, raking a hand through his light brown hair as he tried to mask his doubts. "Of course it will, Clary," he said after a moment. His voice was reassuring as only an older brother's could be, although I knew he was as worried about this as I was. It was his body language that gave him away, the way he dug his hands into his pockets as if trying to find something to hold onto. "We'll figure out something. I won't let our family fall apart. It's the last thing Dad would've wanted."
I nodded, blinking back tears from my eyes. "We'll get through this somehow. Even if it means we have to make some sacrifices. But I'm not going to let the kids be the ones who have to give their lives up."
We continued through the ruined city in silence, both of us clinging to our brave words. I would never let my family be torn apart by something like this. Never.
[A/N: Something new, again. I think I'll actually stick with this one, though. I'm really excited to write this! I hope you like it. Thanks for reading, and please please please leave a review. I will return reviews, just let me know what you want me to read. I'll update as soon as possible. ~DarkHawk]