‘It’s the mystery of iniquity, said it’s the misery of iniquity, said it’s the history of iniquity, when it all, it all falls down, I tell you it all, all falls down…’
Mystery of Iniquity – Lauryn Hill
The sun rose like a jewel against the skyline of Bristol State. It was Zion’s favourite time of day, when no-one was awake to bring to life the oppression that loomed at the heart of it. There wasn’t much birdsong, but the sounds of wind rushing through the trees and of cars leaving homes and trains in the distance were oddly comforting. She was perched upon the roof of her house, wrapped in her dressing gown and overlooking the streets. Not a person was in sight.
It was times like this she forgot that the city of Bristol was now Bristol State, forgot all the dramas and the faults. There were no warden patrols, no gangs clad in black and armed with guns, no terrified people on the streets. Everyone was fast asleep, dead to the world around them – apart from her of course. It struck her how when asleep everyone was all the same, all vulnerable, unconscious to the world around them. There was no difference between the Governor and the smallest child at night – all were lost to dreams.
Zion could’ve sat there forever, but she realised the clock was fast approaching seven and the day had already begun. She breathed a heavy sigh as she slid up the roof again, clinging onto the ledge of her window before heaving herself back inside. Already she could hear Inéz in the kitchen, the sound of pots and pans being moved around and the smell of frying bacon wafting up the stairs. She smiled affectionately. Most of her friends never understood why she was so fond of her step-mother – it was almost alien to even like real parents, let alone new ones, but to Zion she was special. She never tried to take the place of her real mother, yet there was something so motherly about her it was difficult not to let her in.
Showered and changed she lumbered down the stairs to greet Inéz and her father. Her father sat in the large chair at the head of the table, coffee in hand with his plate wiped clean. He glanced at her with smiling eyes as she sat in front of a massive plate of bacon and eggs with baked beans on top. Zion’s mouth watered as she dug in with great enthusiasm. “Hungry, are we?” said her dad with eyebrows raised at his daughter. She grinned at him sheepishly, her mouth dripping with bean juice.
“I can’t help, it’s just so good!” she mumbled through a mouth of breakfast, “Thanks Inéz.” Her step-mother winked at her as she dumped various pots and pans into the sink to be washed.
“No problem mija, but you must finish, yes? It is nearly 8 o’clock and you said you would take your brother to school.” Zion glanced up at the clock and noticed she was pushing it. It took her a good half an hour to drop her brother off and make it to school. If she left now she could probably make it with most of her lesson to spare. She left the table, plate half full, ready to dash upstairs. “Don’t forget the ID passes! You don’t need to get into any more trouble with the college!” Inéz called after her, voice slightly strained.
The last time she forgot her ID pass she couldn’t get into school or into work. They claimed she was breaching security. Utter bull. Just because the government couldn’t track her every move they wouldn’t let her do anything. If Zion could have her way she would stick those damn passes up their official arses.
She opened the door of her brother’s room. “Rise and shine kid!” Crossing the room with two long strides, she reached out and dragged the spaceship curtains in, letting daylight flood the box room. In the little bed beside, her brother barely stirred. A little halo of dark ringlets circled his face. Zion had to admit, he looked positively angelic with one thumb in his mouth and his other arm wrapped around his bear, Boris.
“Joss, wake up!” she hissed in his ear, shaking him. Slowly Josiah’s’ big brown eyes blinked open and he smiled sleepily at his older sister. Smiling back at him she pulled him out of bed, time was short and she had no time to really be pleasant. “No time to shower Joss, just put on some clean pants and clothes and we’re out of here!” She chucked various items of clothing at him before turning around and seeing him stare at the clothes, clueless of what to do first.
“We don’t have time for this! I need to get you to school, now!” Zion was at the point of yelling but she stopped. It wasn’t his fault she was running late. Business-like in manner she yanked his arms above his head so she could strip him. Josiah stared at her wide eyed as she chucked underwear and a uniform at him. When Zion saw him standing there she almost screamed in frustration. The Thomas the Tank Engine clock on the wall read 8:10, she should’ve been out the door ten minutes ago. But she knew she couldn’t blame him for not sorting him out in time.
“Come on Joss, I know that you can dress yourself,” she coaxed gently, polo shirt in hand, “We do it step by step remember.” The spark of recognition glinted in Josiah’s eyes as he took the polo out of her hands with his small sausage fingers.
“Pants and polo first! Then we put our trousers on,” he sang. It was a game he had played with Zion as soon as he started school. Inéz and her father were usually so busy that they needed help to take care of Josiah. She did the mornings on most days and Glória always picked him up. It was their morning ritual to sing the dressing song before school, even though now Josiah could dress himself. “Then the socks and then my shoes, now I’m dressed in time for school!” his smile lit up the whole room as he slipped his feet into his black shoes.
Fully dressed with ID passes in hand and bags on backs Zion and Joss finally left the house with a quick shout goodbye. They quick marched down the road to where the bus could pick them up. All around Zion could see wardens in their large black uniforms mingling with the commuters, an ever-present sign of the Regime. The government had tried to pass it off as a necessary security procedure, a way to reduce the threat of terrorism. In reality everyone knew this was the governments glorified crowd control system.
When the bus came and opened its doors with the familiar hiss Zion pulled out the ID’s. She flashed them to the driver and pulled her brother onto a seat next to her at the back. Josiah pressed his nose onto the glass, steaming the window with his breath. “Zion?” his small voice still had a bit of a lisp when he spoke. “Why do they not like you at your big school?”
She let out a small sigh at her brother’s question; he was always overhearing things he wasn’t supposed to be aware of. “Because we’re not from the right side of town, love.” She lowered her voice, hoping no-one was listening in. “They would like us better if we lived in Upper State than where we do now.” Bitterness tinged her voice, but her brother didn’t pick up on that. He turned to face her, confusion in his big brown eyes. His mouth opened to ask her why but she shushed him with a finger to the lips.
Zion took a quick look around the bus. In the front of the bus she could see some of the kids from her college in their uniforms. Mothers with young children on the school run and elderly people heading to Upper State for prescriptions filled the rest of the seats. Almost all of them anyway. In a window seat near the middle was a young man dressed in black from head to toe. Warden, she thought. Her palms grew slightly clammy as she gripped Josiah’s hand that little bit tighter.
The bus stuttered to a stop at the edge of Upper State and all the students spilled out the bus. It was a quick walk to Josiah’s school and she dropped him off with a kiss and a hug before breaking into a run to get to her own classes. The streets were empty, and Zion was clearly late.
She bounded up the front steps of Bristol Upper State College, her long legs pounding the concrete. Flashing her ID at the security guard at the front gate she pushed herself through the barriers into the stately halls. The college was made up of several Georgian town houses in what used to be known as Clifton, but was now the edge of Upper State. Zion headed up the dark wood staircase before she reached her form room, panting and covered with a sheen of sweat. On the other side of the glass door she could see rows of her classmates, all well dressed with a bit of a glossy finish. Her uniform in comparison was crumpled and ill-fitted, a far cry from the average student. She knocked on the door, pulling at her shirt and making an attempt at looking vaguely presentable.
Her form tutor approached the door, his heavy brows drawn and mouth upturned. Zion smiled weakly at him as he opened to door. “What’s your excuse today Miss St James?” He used his broad body to block the doorway. She cast her eyes to the floor, shifting uncomfortably under his gaze.
“I had to run some errands and there were issues with the bus…” she stuttered and trailed off. Mr Harlow was clearly not impressed. He glared at her as he moved aside so she could take a seat in the front row.
“Don’t take your place at this establishment lightly Miss St James, I’m sure there are hundreds of people from Lower State that would love to be in your position.” Zion’s cheeks burned with shame, her copper skin flushing visibly. It always came back to this – who did and who didn’t come from Upper State. In a classroom of people who came from new money she was the single person who had to cross the imaginary divide that split Bristol State in two. She sat down trying to avoid eye contact with everybody, knowing that the classes eyes were all on her.
Seemingly done with humiliating her, Mr Harlow continued with his monologue to the form tutor. “As I was saying – the head has specified that it is unacceptable for any student to take part in the upcoming protests against the Regime.” Zion felt the weight of his gaze on her desk. “Of course we wouldn’t have this problem in Upper State.”
Zion’s breath hitched in her throat at the dig, but she said nothing. It wasn’t ever worth trying to stand up to the people from Upper State, especially not when you were outnumbered. She pulled out her pen and notebook and began to doodle, trying to drown out her shame.
Eventually the bell rang for the start of classes and she made a swift exit from the oppression of her form room. She elbowed her way through the sea of students chattering and milling around in the narrow corridor. Up ahead she could see the open door to her politics lesson. Hastening her steps she didn’t see the gang of girls that blocked her pathway. Zion careered into the bony chest of Kelsey Adams before she realised they were in her way.
“Are you lost sweetheart? I think Lower State’s back that way.” A snarky smile twisted up her red painted mouth as she pointed in the opposite direction to the classroom. Kelsey Adams was a piece of work. She had clawed her way to the top of the college’s social ladder and had no intention of stepping down. It was public knowledge that she used to be from Lower State before some big-shot MP adopted her in a shady kind of publicity stunt. All Zion knew was that since the adoption she had dropped all her ties to her former life and embraced Upper State living.
Unfortunately this meant giving her hell every time their paths crossed.
“Piss off Kelsey. Not in the mood.” Zion mumbled. The halls were quickly emptying of students as the second bell was rung. They flowed around the group like the sea flows around a boulder, ignoring the showdown in front of them. Behind Kelsey and her cronies Zion could see people filing into the open door. Her opportunity to a safe haven was disappearing before eyes. She made an attempt to push through the group but Kelsey held out her bony hand, stopping her from passing.
“Is that any way to speak to your betters? You’ve really hurt my feelings” her high voice was dripping with honey tinged with malice. Before Zion could respond a hand pulled her bag off her back. Kelsey unzipped it before emptying the contents onto the mahogany floor. Pens clattered and rolled away as Zion dully looked down.
With a small smirk playing on her lips she stood on tiptoes, leaning towards Zion’s ear as if she had a juicy secret to share. “Don’t cross me Zi. I may have traded up from the likes of where you came from, but I’m still badass and could take you down whenever I want.” She leaned back and walked away, indicating for her cronies to follow.
Amidst the destruction that Kelsey left in her wake Zion stood motionless. Her eyes were trained to her shoes. She made no motion to pick up what was left, but instead shrugged off her blazer and untied her tie. Up ahead she could see that the doors were all closed, shutting her out from that glossy world. Their world. Not hers. Leaving her books and her uniform on the ground Zion headed down the stairs.