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As soon as I hear the door creak open, I reach for my bag. I make sure it's always packed, so I can leave at the first sign of trouble. That's how it works in the outskirts of birthplace. Keep moving, or somebody stronger and more desperate will catch you.
In a matter of minutes, I'm out on the streets. I start running. I have no idea where to go, so I don't go anywhere. I just know one thing: I need to get away from the old house.
The sun is rising, and streaks of pale, golden light illuminate the streets. I'm alone out here. It's just me, the sound of my feet hitting the concrete, and the shadows of the buildings dancing on the ground. Occasionally, I stumble on a chunk of cement, or a stray brick, or an object somebody had to leave behind.
By now, the sun is high in the sky, which means that the bigger kids are going to be waking up soon, looking for an easy target. That could be me, if I don't get out of here fast enough.
Today, though, I'm lucky. There's an old office building that doesn't have any lights on, which means I'll be able to find an office that hasn't been used in a while, hopefully one with a lock on the door. I'll be safe all day, and who knows? I might even be able to get to the cafeteria before lunch and get a sandwich before Rush, or more pencil leads, or a library book.
The buildings here are free for all. Sometimes an alliance will try to claim one for themselves, but for most of us, it's too much effort, and it makes you a target. If you think a place is worth holding on to, so will others, and it won't be yours for long.
The towering beast of steel and glass that I've set my sights on, a vestige of a time when this place meant something, is only about ten blocks away, so I start counting down.
...six, five, four, three... okay, it's time.
I can feel my pulse, which had slightly accelerated during the jog, begin to slow down as I go through the comfort of my daily routine.
Step one. Listen carefully. Slowly, I walk along the road with my eyes closed. Doing this helps me focus better on the sounds around me. A few squirrels fighting over a pizza crust seems to be the only other disturbance in the perfectly eerie silence.
Step two. Check for traps. I check the chewed-up power lines, the cracks between the chunks of pavement, the rooftops, the door of the building itself, and finally, the ground, running the tip of my Swiss army knife along each surface. Three times, it snags, and I have to pull out a thin, nearly invisible piece of fishing line.
Step three. Get your butt off the ground floor ASAP. I lock myself in the nearest elevator and punch the button for the seventh floor, seven being the best number. I close my eyes during the ride up, trying not to feel sick. It stops at the sixth, though, not the seventh. That's bad. You can't trust numbers that are divisible by other numbers. But since the door is already open, and I've wasted enough time already, I sigh and step out. All of the rooms have lost their doors except for one, which makes me even more nervous. I don't like having no other option.
Slowly, trying not to make any noise, I twist the knob. It's locked. I prepare myself to head back, but suddenly, I hear shouting, which is bad enough, but that voice. High, wobbly, and demanding. The kinds of voice that begs to be taken care of. Children that age belong in the nursery, not here!
"But why can't Trash Baby come with us? He'll get eaten alive by wolves or starve without me!"
"Pip, your raccoon is staying here, and that's final! We need to save all our food for us if we're going to survive!"
A pause. Then, a third voice chimes in. How many of them are there?
"Guys, we have to go now! We don't have time to-"
"Wait a second Wes, I think we've got company."
I feel my blood turn to ice. There's nowhere to run or hide. The door swings open. Voice 2, who is standing in the doorway, seems to relax.
"It's just a loner, probably about twelve."
My voice, rough from lack of use, seems a bit shrill. I realise I'm mad at these strangers. Who gave them the right to botch my perfect streak?
"First of all, I'm not just a loner, I took mixed combat classes before being dumped, I could probably take you in a fight. Second, I'm not twelve, I'm thirteen. Third, what is an eight year old doing here?"
The boy, hunched over in a corner with a raccoon in his arms, jumps. His blond hair sticks to his sweaty face, he has claw marks all over his forest green shirt, and, as I note with grudging approval, he's wearing black cargo pants.
"I'm ten, not eight, and I came from a family where we didn't have a choice. I chose to come here, which is probably better than you can say."
I feel my face flush with anger.
Voice 2 steps in front of me. Her face is perfectly calm. Her hair is shoulder length, and she's wearing a sweater, sweatpants, and rain boots. She nods towards raccoon boy and explains: "That's Pip. Don't worry, we're taking him away soon, so he'll be out of your hair in a bit."
"Taking him away? What do you mean?"
This time, it's the other one, a dark-skinned boy with a military-style buzz cut and a pale pink hoodie with bleached jeans and sneakers, I think his name was Wes, who explains.
"His pod crashed through our window a year ago with a map in it. It had two circled places. We headed to the first one, and it's an old house that's filled with canoes. The second place is down the river from here. We're planning to go there with him. We're leaving tomorrow."
Voice 2 adds: "and we were looking for a fourth member for our crew. Since you know, you may as well join us."
I hesitate, reluctant to admit that I recognised the second place. But the truth is, I want to go back. And besides, I've just realised how good it feels to talk to someone. To my horror, the words escape before I can catch them: "I'm in."
She grins at me. "I'm Adea. Adea Clarke."
"Noram. Noram Hunter."
"Welcome aboard, Noram."
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There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. —Rachel Carson