“I can’t do this.”
I rubbed my little brother’s spine, ignoring the way his sweat coated my skin through his button-up shirt. In the darkness backstage, I was grateful no one else was here to see how clammy he was.
My mom should never have forced him to sign up for debate.
I mean, really. This kid? Up in front of the entire school? He was much more comfortable holed up in the library.
In the back, curled against stacks of musty old philosophy books. I was pretty sure he’d read every single one of the ancient philosophers and was now making his way through Malcom X.
“It’s going to be fine.” As much as I wanted to tell him to quit, to run for the hills, my mom could be a real dictator when it came to extracurriculars. We are not quitters was practically tattooed on us at birth.
My brother shook his head from where it hung between his knees. He’d already been to the bathroom twice, otherwise I was pretty sure the nice velvet curtain in front of us would be splattered with vomit.
“Hey.” Taking my life in my hands, I knelt in front of him and gripped his face, putting on my most mom-like expression. “You’ve got this. You know more than anyone out there. How many books did you read to prepare for this debate?”
“Seventeen,” he rasped.
“Seventeen,” I repeated. “You can school anyone.”
When he just continued to shake, I upped my game. “Listen to me. Words are power. And you have all the words.”
He looked up at me, bleary. “Really?”
“You are the most powerful person out there,” I lied.
Never mind the cheerleaders, the football players, the valedictorians. I was pretty sure he was going to faint as soon as he stepped on stage anyway.
Surely mom would let him off the hook if he came home with a concussion.
TEN YEARS LATER
“How do I look?”
I opened my eyes without taking my head off the back of the plush suede couch. My brother was straightening his cufflinks, a gesture so habitual now it was just as much him as the Windsor-knotted red tie and the shine off his polished shoes.
“Classy,” I said.
He smirked. “You say that every time.”
“Tom Ford knows what he’s doing.”
He turned back to the mirror, frowning at a stray hair that dared creep out of place. I closed my eyes again and tried to fall asleep.
Six cities in five days, and yet my brother’s energy never seemed to flag. I, on the other hand, was trembling somewhere between exhaustion and frenzy. Being his manager wasn’t a cake walk. Booking gigs, managing logistics, handling the money that continued to flow in… I hadn’t actually watched one of his speeches in so long.
There was a polite knock on the door, and I straightened immediately, smoothing down my own hair. My brother shot me an exasperated look as the venue manager poked his head in.
“Five minutes, Mr. Rothberg.”
My brother didn’t even look at him. “Thank you, Stefan.”
I gave Stefan a slightly warmer smile than was strictly necessary and was pleased when a small flush spread over his cheeks. He grinned back at me before disappearing.
“He’s handsome.” My brother’s tone invited comment.
Moments before, I’d been content to sleep on the green room couch during the two-hour speech, but my energy was suddenly back up. Ignoring my brother’s implied question, I went to stand behind him, my head just peeking over his shoulder. I brushed imaginary lint off the flawless sleeves of his suit.
“What do we say?” I asked.
For a moment, his face softened into that boyhood vulnerability. “I have the words. I am the most powerful person out there.”
I rested my chin on his shoulder. “That’s right.”
My brother had just managed to bring the crowd to order after the raucous opening applause when Stefan appeared at my side. I felt him shifting from foot to foot in the darkness of the theater wings.
I’d forgotten what it was like to be around someone a bit unsure of himself. It was nice.
“Welcome to the rest of your lives!”
My brother’s opening line had the audience bursting into cheers again. Stefan leaned close to make himself heard over the din.
“Your brother certainly knows how to work a crowd.”
I suppressed a shiver at his nearness. “He certainly does.”
We stood like that for the first ten minutes, my focus entirely on Stefan breathing beside me, the white noise of attraction drowning out even the applause and gasps.
“Those with power rule the world. I will show you how to tap into and take advantage of your own.”
That pulled my attention. “This speech is a little different than I remember.”
Stefan looked surprised. “You don’t listen to all his speeches?”
“Usually I’m in the back taking care of logistics.” I wrinkled my nose. “Or sleeping.”
Stefan chuckled quietly. “I think my job is exhausting, then I look at yours. You have to manage dozens of venues. I just have to manage this one.”
“When I’m here, I don’t feel like I have to manage anything,” I said lightly. “You do a spectacular job.”
His feet shifted again. “Considering how many venues you see, I’ll take that as a high compliment.”
My eyes found his in the darkness. “It was.”
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER
“This system will allow for greater transparency, for our entire community to identify those that need to be lifted up.”
My brother smiled into the camera, a reassuring, paternal smile. I imagined millions across America hanging on his every word.
I wondered if any of them were as uneasy as I was.
“For this to work, we must have universal participation. From now on, wear your badge every time you step out of your home. Let us come together to create equality and unity across this great country.”
He put on his most presidential look, the one he’d been honing since his campaign first started. “May God bless America, and may God protect our troops.”
My brother held the smile until the cameraman indicated end of broadcast. Standing, he shrugged off his suit jacket and stepped out from behind the desk.
I took the jacket as he loosened his tie. “How was that?” he asked.
“Powerful,” I told him truthfully. Glancing around, I verified everyone was out of earshot. “Are you still sure this is the right course? Making everyone wear badges based on wealth and social standing seems…extreme.”
A small crease appeared between his brows. We’d had this argument before. “We need to identify those in need in order to help them. There’s too much hidden bias and inequality in this country. Transparency will ensure we’re putting our resources toward those that need it most.”
“And if people take it as a chance to push down those less fortunate even further?”
My brother lifted a shoulder, his mind already moving on to the next problem, the next policy. “You can only be pushed down if you choose to let yourself.”
He sighed at the concern still obviously showing on my face. “Don’t worry.” He tapped the badge on my chest. It was a deep, regal purple, the color kings wore. “You’re at the top. Turn your worrying toward helping those less fortunate.”
He caught sight of someone over my shoulder. “Speaking of…”
I twisted to see who he was looking at, my heart twinging with equal parts relief and guilt. “Excuse me,” I said, and walked away before the President could say anything back.
My face melted into its first genuine smile all day as Stefan reached for my hand. He wrapped his fingers around mine, our rings knocking together with a comforting clink.
“Hey.” His smile was just as warm as mine. “I thought I could take you to lunch.”
Even as he said it, a dozen staffers hovered respectfully in my periphery. I gave Stefan a rueful smile. “I wish I could, babe. We’ve got a million interviews today after that State of the Union.”
He glanced back at the Office. “I guess I should be grateful I’m still allowed through the front doors.”
I averted my eyes from the orange badge on his chest. “It’s just temporary. He wants to make sure it doesn’t look like he’s playing favorites, giving perks to those he’s close to. Everyone has to be held to the same standards.”
And my husband, even though he was married to the Chief of Staff, apparently didn’t measure anything higher than an Orange.
Which was fine. Orange was an okay level. It meant he had a steady job, a steady income, but wasn’t rich, wasn’t overly connected. I reminded myself that we’d made that decision together. Stefan hadn’t wanted to trade on his connection to the President, I had agreed not to pull strings.
“I’ll be home for dinner.” I kissed him lightly, feeling the eyes of a thousand people, a thousand responsibilities on my back. “Promise.”
FIVE YEARS LATER
I decided to walk. It was only a mile from my penthouse apartment to the White House. Despite the condition of the streets between here and there, no one would bother me. Not with the purple badge emblazoned on every shirt I wore.
For the first time in what felt like a lifetime I put on comfortable shoes, slipping my heels carefully into my bag. I stopped at the front door. The candle on the small table there was burning low, so I struck a match and lit another. I’d rather the entire building burn down than let that candle go out.
I pressed my fingertip to the picture, the orange badge, and locked the door behind me.
The street was scoured clean and pristine, the sweepers already come and gone. Purple districts didn’t tolerate trash, so it was taken care of every day, down to the last cigarette butt.
The air felt too still, too silent, too empty. I walked quickly down my street, the hour too early for any of my neighbors to be up and about. I glanced briefly at the sign that marked the entrance to the Blue District adjacent to mine, not slowing down to watch as the buildings slowly lost their splendor and shine as I hurried through Blue, through Green, and into Orange.
The houses were shabby here. Paint cracked on front doors, dandelions split sidewalks, children’s toys—half-chewed by stray dogs—littered front lawns.
We had to be able to identify those who needed help. And what screamed for help more than a decapitated doll, stripped of its play dress?
Here, people were already up and working in the meager vegetable gardens that produced much of their fresh food. A woman eyed me as I passed, her attention focused on the outsider as her daughter built castles in the dirt at her feet.
Every step brought me closer to his house. When I reached the gravel walkway, I stopped entirely.
Orange shutters, one hanging off its hinges. I’d help paint those, even though I hadn’t liked the color he chose. What was left of the door was orange, too, except where blood smeared the shattered glass panes. The gnome I’d given him for his birthday still sat on the front step, his vacant eyes staring at the road.
Staring at me.
I kept walking.
Any homes still standing in the Yellow District had been picked clean and fought over, a roof over your head the most precious resource. Shanties had been erected in the spaces between buildings, leaning against one another for support.
I braced myself as I turned into Red, averting my eyes from the guards watching atop towers ringed in barbed wire. It had been a couple years now since the Reds were moved into camps. If they weren’t willing to put in the effort to lift themselves up, we would force them to live the way they deserved.
A man watched me from the tent closest to the fence, his brown eyes emotionless, his face gaunt. I could feel those eyes on me as I picked up my pace, as I coughed in dust that whisked through the iron bars.
The wall around the White House looked too similar to that around the Red encampment, except it was cleaner, newer, topped with fleur-de-lis. The guard in the gatehouse gave me a smile twisted with unconcealed pity as I approached.
“Morning, Ms. Rothberg.”
I kept my face expressionless as I took out my credentials. “It’s Mrs. Henderson, George.”
George looked apologetic as he took my security card, my ID, as he scanned the badge on my chest. “Right. Sorry. I heard about—”
“Is my brother awake yet?” I already knew the answer.
“Not sure he ever sleeps, ma’am,” George replied. “Ryan will escort you up.”
The Secret Service officer waited patiently as I changed into my stilettos, as I endured the full-body scan installed just beyond the White House steps. My heels clicked loudly as we walked past portraits of presidents and paintings of wars that looked so chaotic and real compared to the bloodless warzone I’d just traveled through.
Ryan waited for the call to enter before he opened the doors to the Oval Office. “Your sister, Mr. President.”
My brother motioned me in with the hand that wasn’t holding a sheaf of papers. Ryan bobbed his head respectfully and closed the door behind him.
“I need you to look over this speech,” my brother said, barely looking at me. “I’m thinking an address during primetime tonight.
I walked carefully forward, my stilettos digging deep into the carpet. “What’s it about?”
He shrugged. “Yellows and Oranges in Philadelphia had an assembly last night. I’d like to quash this sort of rebellion before it gets out of hand.”
“Some of it has already gotten out of hand,” I said before I could stop myself.
That had him looking up, his face twisting into something resembling sorrow. “Did you come for an update on the investigation? We’re still tracking down leads, but we’ll catch these killers, I promise you.”
I toyed with a paperweight on his desk. “I just can’t help thinking this wouldn’t have happened if he was living with me.”
If my husband, the Orange, had been allowed to live with me in the Purple District.
But my brother was already shaking his head. “The minute we make exceptions is the minute we lose the high ground.”
“They killed him because of who I am,” I said, my voice threatening to shake.
My brother’s face hardened. “They killed him because they’re dissatisfied with their lot and don’t want to take responsibility for fixing it. If they bought into the system, seized their own power, they wouldn’t have been so discontented.”
Coming here, I knew it was unlikely I’d change his mind. I knew it was unlikely he’d have anything but a passing remorse for his brother-in-law, the Orange who had never managed to live up to his expectations. Who had never lived up to his Purple sister.
“You’re right,” I said softly. “They need to step up and seize their own power.”
Satisfied, he turned back to his speech. I reached down to loosen the heel on my shoe.
“So, I’m thinking for this part—”
It took all my strength to bury the stiletto in his jugular.
My brother’s eyes went wide as he choked on blood, choked on the words that had always been his weapon. I caught him as he collapsed.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “But it was time for me to be the more powerful person.”