Jena had been afraid for as long as she could remember. Afraid of her father being let go from his position, afraid her mother would start drinking again and remember how much she enjoyed beating her children, Jena included. Afraid of the 2nd Levelers who lived on the other side of the street.

She’d been seven when her great-grandmother passed away and didn’t have many memories of her. One of the few that remained was of the time before Status was implemented as a societal differentiator. Gloria, her great-grandmother, had talked about something called “area codes” that were essential to calling people on the phones people used back then. It was crazy, Gloria had said, how one side of the street could be in one area code and the other in another, like that was something that could make people different from one another.

Status worked the same way for everyone but the 1st Levelers. One Level butted up right next to the others, usually with nothing but a street or in rare cases a stream to divide them. Out west it was different in the rural areas, where your nearest neighbor could be five miles away, but in the city those at different Levels often lived within a few dozen feet of each other.

For Jena that had meant a childhood of bullying by the 2nd Level girls and boys who lived on the next block over. Her family’s modest house was nice enough by 4th Level standards, but was shoddy and rundown compared to the homes across the street. It was permitted for them to cross over into her area for a brief time but not for her to do likewise. And societal norms dictated she couldn’t run away from anything but overt physical violence or she could be reported to the Status Police for failure to show deference to her betters.

Today she sat outside in the cold March air on the front steps of her home. Her mother was riled up about something completely inconsequential and her father was trying to placate and calm her. Jena was sure that had they been 2nd Level her mother would have been able to seek treatment for whatever it was that afflicted her, but here she was on her own. The doctor she went to when she was stable did what he could to stabilize her moods with medications, but the quality and quantity available to 4th Levelers could only do so much for so long. While it was by no means the full escape Jena longed for, the front porch at least took the volume of the screaming inside down to a manageable level.

She saw the two girls and one boy walking across the street but was unable to run. Even if she could, they would just follow her. She sighed and looked at the ground, wishing she could disappear.

“Fucking 4th, how’s it going?” The girl, Rhony, was the meanest of the bunch.

“Hello.”

“Excuse me?”

A moment as she steadied her nerves. “Hello, Ms. Rhony. How’s your day?”

“Better, loser. Your crazy mom and pathetic dad going at it again? I can hear them across the street, you know? I should call the cops and file a noise complaint. You’re two Levels below us, they’d probably just kick you out and make you move somewhere else.” The whole gang laughed at that. “Would you like that?”

“Whatever you feel is best, Ms. Rhony.”

“That’s right, bitch.”

Jena could feel the anger rising and took a deep breath to calm herself. There was nothing good that would come from her losing her temper. A thought occurred to her.

“You might be doing me a favor if you did call the police, Ms. Rhony.”

“What did you say to me?”

“I’m just thinking if you did call the police and report my parents, they’d probably be taken away before they just shipped us somewhere else. That would actually be better for my brother and I.”

Rhony’s eyes narrowed as she began to consider what it was Jena was getting at. This was the most Jena had ever said that wasn’t a variation on “Please stop harassing me.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Rhony, I shouldn’t have said anything.

The group of 2nd Levelers looked at each other. They’d been over in 4th Level territory for a few minutes now and were starting to worry someone would notice the loitering. There were consequences for going below your Status as well as intruding above it.

“I’ll call the cops on who I want, loser. At least I don’t have to live with them.”

Jena just nodded sadly. She watched Rhony and the others walk back across the street, looking over their shoulders at her as they did so. It might take a while, but she might have just taken the first step to solving a couple of her problems. Suddenly she felt slightly less afraid of the future and wanted more of this. She looked down the street and began thinking of what her next step should be before going back into the house to face whatever mood her parents were in at the moment.