Among the Betrayed
by Margaret Peterson Haddix
ou were supposed to wake up from nightmares. That's what Nina kept telling herself as she cowered on the floor of her concrete cell. All her life she'd had horrible dreams about being captured by the Population Police. Sometimes they carried shovels and scooped her up like trash on the street. Sometimes they carried guns and prodded her in the back or pointed at her head.
But she always woke up before anyone pulled a trigger.
Once she'd even dreamed that the Population Policeman who came for her was wearing Aunty Zenka's ruffled lace nightie, complete with a nightcap. For months after that dream Nina refused to give Aunty Zenka a good' night kiss, and nobody understood why. Nina wouldn't say, because then everyone would laugh, and it wasn't funny.
Nina knew she was right to be terrified of the Population Police. They were the bogeyman and the Big Bad Wolf and the Wicked Witch and the creep^show monster and every other villain she'd ever heard of, all rolled into one.
But like the bogeyman and the Big Bad Wolf and the Wicked Witch and the creep-show monster, the Population Police belonged in stories and nightmares, not real life.
Now Nina banged her head against the cement wall beside her.
'Wake up!' she ordered herself desperately. 'Wake up!'
The banging made her head ache, and that didn't hap-pen in dreams, did it? In dreams nothing hurt. They could flog you until your back bled, and you didn't feel a thing. They could tie your feet together so you couldn't run, and the ropes didn't burn at all.
Nina's wrists and ankles were rubbed raw from the handcuffs and ankle cuffs that chained her to the wall. The skin had been whipped from her back; even the slightest touch of her shirt against her spine sent pain shrieking through her body. One of her eyes seemed to be swollen shut from the beating.
But it had felt like a nightmare, being arrested, Nina told herself stubbornly.
She savored the dreamy quality of her memories, as if her arrest had been something good — not the worst moment of her life. She couldn't even remember the Population Policemen coming into the dining hall or calling her name. See? See? Didn't that prove it hadn't really happened? She had just been sitting there eating breakfast, rejoicing over the fact that she'd gotten three whole raisins in her oatmeal. And then suddenly the entire room was deathly quiet, and everyone was looking at Nina. She could feel all those eyes on her; she dropped her spoon. Oatmeal splashed on the girl beside Nina, but Lisle didn't complain, just kept staring like everyone else. And it was those stares, not the sound of her name, that had made Nina rise, and go forward, holding out her wrists to be handcuffed.
No, she wouldn't even think it. Sometimes in dreams the Population Police could read your mind.
Nina went back to remembering, remembering how the other girls sat like dolls on a shelf while Nina walked down the endless aisle between the tables. The familiar dining hall had somehow turned into a canyon of eyes. Nina did not turn to the right or to the left, but she could feel all those eyes following her, in silence. Those eyes were like dolls' eyes, as blank as marbles.
She knew. Even if it was just a nightmare — it was, wasn't it? — she knew that everyone would have been too terrified to make a peep. Nina knew she would have been too terrified to speak, too, if it had been someone else dazedly gliding toward the man with the medals on his chest. Someone else being arrested. (Why was it her? How had they found out? Why was she the only one they knew about?
She remembered how hard it had been to keep her feet moving — up, down, right, left, closer, closer…. She couldn't protest or defend herself, either. Opening her mouth, even just enough to let out a whimper, would have released hysterics.
Now, in her jail cell, Nina clenched her teeth, afraid that she might still let those words spill out. And she couldn't. Someone might be listening. Someone might hear his name. Whatever she did, she had to protect Jason. Jason and Gran and the aunties. And her parents, of course. But she could hold her tongue about all the others. It was Jason's name she wanted to wail, Jason she wanted to call out to.
She was being so silly. This was just a dream. In a few minutes the morning bells would chime, and she'd open her eyes in her swaying top bunk at Harlow School for Girls. Then she'd brush her teeth and wash her face and change her clothes and maybe, just maybe, get four raisins in her oatmeal at breakfast….
She remembered her arrest again. She remembered reaching the front of the dining hall, facing the policeman. At the last moment, right before the policeman snapped the metal cuffs on Nina's wrists, she had noticed another man standing behind him, watching Nina just as intently as all her classmates were. But all her classmates had gone glassy-eyed with fear, their gazes as vacant as dolls'. This man's dark eyes said everything.
He was furious. He hated her. He wanted her to die.
Nina gasped. She couldn't pretend anymore. She remembered too much. She couldn't have dreamed or imagined or made up that look. It was real. Everything that had happened to Nina was real. She had real handcuffs on her wrists, real scars on her back, real fear flooding her mind.
'They're going to kill me,' Nina whispered, and it was almost a relief to finally, finally give up hope.
Why?' The word exploded in Nina's ears, and she jerked awake. Then she jerked back because a man's face was just inches from hers, yelling at her.
'Why did you betray your country?' the man demanded.
Nina blinked. She was doomed anyway — why not argue? 'Betray my country?' she could sneer. 'What kind of a country thinks it's a betrayal just to be born? Was I supposed to kill myself out of loyalty? Out of patriotism? How is it my fault that my parents had two babies before me?'
But anything she said would betray her mother and Gran and the aunties — everyone who'd kept her hidden, everyone who'd kept her alive.
She didn't speak.