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Author's note: In eighth grade social studies, we learned about the U.S. government, checks and balances and the constitution. I began to think, what if we lived under a dictatorship instead of a republic?
I creep down the stairs, my stockinged feet remember the creaks in the stairs as I weave to avoid them. Years of running through the woods have taught my feet to be silent. Down the last dark wooden stair, I leap over the gate that keeps my dog from the upstairs bedrooms. Landing softly on the balls of my feet, I try to adjust my eyes to the lightless rooms. But, I know this place by heart, so I tip-toe forward before my eyes have adapted. Hooking my fingers into the doorframe, I plant one foot and swing over the loudest creaking board in the house. The only thing that makes a noise is my stomach. I didn't eat today.
Now, nerves wearing thin, I hear a sharp sound and jump out of my skin. That's when I realize there's someone else in the room who sneezed. My head spins sharply around, whipping my eyes with long black-brown hair. Something rustles, and I draw my knife defensively. Ready to slash, slowly, I circle. Then it sneezes again, and I finally see what I didn't before; our dog. Sleeping, but with allergies so bad she sneezes it in her dreams. I almost breathe a sigh of relief, but then I remember I'm trying to be silent, and I head for the back door. I still can't see a ton, but I reach out for the counter top I know is close by to get my bearings. My hand is only a few inches off, and then I touch the marble.
Taking extra care not to run into a stray chair, I reach the door handle and turn slowly. Opening the door just wide enough to squeeze my lean body through, I slide through and know that I overestimated my size. I have lost weight.
My boots beckon with warmth and protection, and I put them on gladly. Lacing tightly, I step onto the plush green lawn. I can see my breath fog ahead of me, so I cover my mouth with a gloved hand to make it less noticeable. In front of me is the city. Long, narrow alleys and streets all making up a community linked by fear and selfishness. We feed each other’s here. Giving nothing, taking what few offer without thanks or second thoughts. No streetlamps illuminate the streets; it's supposed to keep people out of the streets, but now is high time for illegal things. So, naturally, half the small city is out in the streets. Some, looking to trade drugs for food, then food for women, these women use the food to feed themselves, and, if they're having a particularly selfless moment, for their children.
Others come to arrest these traders. Black suits blend with the blacker shadows, the glint of a metal gun is hidden in the dingy air. The cry of a victim drowned out by other sounds of the night. Or passed off by people too busy to be bothered as simply an animal screeching in the night.
Cobble stone streets are easy to twist an ankle on without trained feet such as the towners. A young woman in heels maneuvers in a run across the uneven road, as a foreign dark-suited figure tries to chase her down, but falls at my feet.
The woman pleads with her eyes at me as she looks back. Dutifully before moving on, I look down at the man. A vicious face harshly outlined in black has no way of seeing mine. Too dark. So, I lift my thick-soled boot in the air, and bring my heel down on his temple. Only to knock him out. We towners are not completely bloodthirsty, but I do what I can to defy the awful authorities who do the same things to women as drug dealers who pay. I drag this man carefully across the street, laying him against a filthy brick building that will surely leave dirt marks on his face, and leave him to wake up covered in the rats that plague us, spreading disease and lessening the food supply.
Then I set out again. I am not as despicable as the girls who sell their bodies. Instead, I sell my wisdom. Eventually I will get pay. When guards are not around, I speak of old times. Before the Evolution. And I tell people to keep going, keep fighting, because if we give up, they win. How many years it will take, I do not know.
But I run through the dirty town, watching the cobble stones and the creeps who lurk in the darkest corners, waiting for their next prey. Someone catches my left arm. My right flies to my hip where I have hidden my knife. I slash it out and slice a shallow cut on this man's hand. He gets the message. I am armed. I am dangerous. I have a spine, and a brain. He lets my wrist to my side, and for good measure, I stick one of his fingers with the tip of my blade. I move on.
Broken liquor bottles crunch under my feet. I hear the drunken men who have thrown them, and look down at what they are so intent on. A girl, my age from her size, has gashes in her face. I can only guess that these men have thrown their bottles at her in their stupor. She whimpers softly, and like the woman I saved before her, she pleads with her eyes.
I draw my knife again, grateful once more that my face will remain hidden in darkness. I wedge myself between the girl and the men. The one on my left grabs another empty bottle and slings it at my face. Hard. Hard enough that I am thrown backward onto the ground, head spinning and eyes seeing dots. Blood trickles down the side of my face from my eyebrow and cheek, but I stand up just as quickly as I can.
They made a big mistake, throwing that at me. The one on the left laughs as I lunge for them. But when I tackle him to the ground and draw designs on his throat with my knife (not deep, but now he will be tattooed forever) his eyes widen in fear. His friend runs, and so does the girl. Both without a word. I get off the disgusting man and start running again. My skirt is flying around me, but now with my recent heroism, I am running late. If my mother wakes up and I am not there, I won’t be allowed out again.
Flitting past dark shops, I see one with broken windows. Something happened here to Alice's store. Days ago. Too late for me to do anything. The last shacks are looming, crooked, ahead of me. I slow to a trot, and sneak behind the last wooden building. Rats line this alleyway. I can smell urine of street urchins. Taking care not to splash in one of the many puddles, since it has not rained in weeks, I jog. The end of the road is lined with leaves and pine needles. I glide over them, and into the woods.
The familiar scent of pine reaches my nose. So does the scent of blood. I look around quickly for the wounded animal before I realize that it's me. I hadn't noticed the stinging. But now, as I run my hand over the left side of my face, it comes away bloody. I wince as I feel a shard of glass embedded on my cheek bone. But I am here. And it is not a fatal or even very weakening wound. So I run to my tree.
The pine is young. Barely big enough to support my seventy pounds, and definitely too small for the black-clad authorities or drunken men looking for a good time. I scramble up the thin branches, seeking protection. I have to help my mother. So most of my little brother's days are spent with me here in the woods, out of my mother's hair. She has enough to deal with.
So do I.
But my brother comes first. I leap from my tree and walk quickly with my knife drawn to the apple orchards. My patched skirt is camouflaged here amongst the trees. My black stockings are riddled with holes and runs. A v-necked purple shirt over a long-sleeved black shirt warms me in the cool autumn air. At the orchards, I pick a dozen apples and stuff them in my messenger bag. A hungry raccoon comes right up to me. Rabies. It should have run, so I kill it before it bites me, and sling the poor thing over my shoulder.
The run back through the street is more quiet than the way here. No one grabs me, no one needs help, and it's almost dawn. My house is directly in front of me now.
It was pretty once. Five years ago, it was white and modern and beautiful. Now, it is dirty. Ivy snakes up and around my house like tentacles. The yellowish brown it is now makes it look unkempt. It is, I suppose, but not because we have a choice. The front door squeaks, so I go around to the back.
The sun is on the horizon, and it flashes everything in orange light. A rare beauty in an ugly society. I make my way inside. The kitchen has a stainless steel refrigerator, an oven, a stove, a microwave, and a dishwasher. Out of all these luxurious things, none of them work. We have no electricity. In the living room sits a dusty television, a stereo, and my mother’s old laptop. We do not rid ourselves of these things for reasons unknown. Maybe hope that they will one day work again. But the little candle of a wish is smothered more and more every day we go without light, cold drinks, or warm brownies.
We have long since stopped getting shipments of soda, candy, and propane. So now, not even our gas grill will cook our meat. I put the raccoon in the room-temperature refrigerator for storage. The bag of apples goes in too. I set to work lighting a fire, and then skinning our raccoon. My mother comes down to get my brother's breakfast ready a few hours later, sleep evident in her puffy eyes. I am cutting strips of meat and skewering them on a stick to roast over the fire.
"Oh my God!" my mother exclaims. Our dog, Sammy, barks quietly form her kennel and sneezes.
"What? It's a raccoon."
"No! Holy mother Mary what happened to your face?" she says. She reaches over and touches my left eyebrow. I wince.
"Nothing my grandmother's behind. There's glass in your cheek." she goes to get the bucket of water from the fridge and orders me to splash my face. I follow directions, wincing again as the water cleans my cuts. Once I'm clean and dry, she sets to work with tweezers. I don't say a word or make a noise as she plucks out little shards of glass and makes me wash my face again.
"Now you get to tell me what happened."
"No, mom. Nothing happened!"
"The shards look like Alice's beer bottles."
"Alice isn't there anymore. Her windows are broken and the place is empty." my mother gasps as she hears the news.
"But how did you cut your face?" she recovers quickly. Her big blue eyes stare me down, and I can tell that I'm about to tell her. I hate those eyes sometimes. So I tell her the story minus the part where I cut the guy. She would have thought that wrong.
"This town, I swear. Smashing beer bottles against little girls' faces has become a form of entertainment. What's wrong with the world?" and I get so close to telling her what is wrong with the world, but I don't. Because she knows too.
"What did he look like?"
"I don't know... It was pretty dark..." and there is one easy way to identify the man. The marks that now decorate his throat. There are probably about six men in the community with similar scars. They know that it is one suspect, but since it is always dark, they do not have any idea who.
"What did you do to him?" my mother says reprovingly.
"Nothing! Much, anyway."
"Don't tell me..." she knows my trade mark. And she knows the men who I have bedizened. She will look for the one with new embellishment. I turn away from her and run up the stairs to get my brother. I pick the five-year-old out of his bed, and swoop back down the stairs. His eyes open slowly, the irises are a striking blue. More so than my mother's.
In my family, I am an oddball. My mother and my brother are alike in many ways. My mother is tall, blue-eyed, red-haired, just like my little brother (well, not the tall part yet).
And then me. My almost black pin-straight hair, my tiny body, and, most different, but not first noticed: my eyes. They are enormous, making me look lemur-like, and they are almost violet. Gray, green, and blue all mixed together in a lilac shade. My skin is the only thing like my family's. Pale. But, unlike my mother’s, translucent, almost. So much so, that the capillaries on my eyelids are visible, along with matching veins running from the right corners of my mouth to a spot midway between the curve of my jaw, and the point of my chin. In the summertime, it is not so noticeable because I get a little color on my skin, but in the winter, it is evident.
I go for the back door, avoiding my mothers eyes, and grabbing my knife. I stick it in my belt and leave with my brother in my arms. I take my time, since it is light out now. My stomach rumbles uncomfortably, but I ignore it. The man that I knocked out last night is all wet and still up against the building. Someone has urinated on him. I suppress a laugh and walk over to him. Now that I can see his gun, I take it and stick it under my shirt. I nudge the man with the toe of my boot, and his eyes flutter open.
He moans and rolls over. I see the bruise on his temple, and try my best to look concerned.
"Are you okay, mister?" I ask innocently, taking advantage of my big eyes and widen them farther.
"I-- I think so. My gun." His eyes snap to me suspiciously as he sits up. I shake my head sympathetically.
"Sorry, mister. The crooks in this town will do anything these days." I set down my brother and hold his hand.
"What about you, girl? Your face?" I subconsciously run my hand over the cuts.
"Drunk men with beer bottles." I look down, pretending to be frightened.
"Who? Who did it?" Ha! I've done it! He likes me.
"I'm not too sure, sir. It was-- It was really dark."
"Is that a knife?" His eyes flash to my belt.
"Yes, sir. For apples, sir."
“I understand. Hello there,” he says pleasantly to my brother, who is probing him with his blue eyes. He then buries his head in my leg. “Shy one, isn’t he? Lucky he’s got a brave sister.” He questions himself for a minute. “Sister, right?”
“Yes, sir. I’m only fifteen.” How dare he! Me? Have a five-year-old at age fifteen? Totally preposterous. Not to mention impossible.
“Forgive me, then.” he waits for me to answer. I just nod my head and turn away. Brother toddles along beside me, clutching to my hand. As we head to the forest again, we pass a girl. A girl my age. With a bloodied and bruised face that resembles mine but much worse. The girl I saved last night.
Her eyes follow me, looking at my gash. She recognizes that I am the girl who saved her. I wink, and turn away. Brother and I walk to the alleyway. I tell him not to step in puddles, pet strays, or touch the garbage.
We reach the forest, and then we run. He makes a beeline for the orchard, and I follow. I’m hungry too. I pretend to be exerting myself, and he beats me to the first apple tree. I bend down, hands on my knees, and act winded. When I ‘recover’ I cut an apple off the tree for him. He takes a huge, juicy bite.
Apple juice drips down his chin. He wipes it off with a snot-stained red sleeve. I pick myself an apple too, and sit in the tree to begin eating. Brother follows me, and sits himself on the branch with me.
“Why does nobody pick the apples besides us?” Leave it to my five-year-old brother to ask such a thought-provoking question.
“Nobody cares about them anymore.” I answer simply.
“But why? In the book you read me, Johnny Appleseed picks apples. Everyone picks apples in that story.” Books also stopped being shipped. So we re-read like fiends and sinfully steal from the library that no longer has any employees.
“That was before. A long time ago, people got paid to pick these apples. But now that money doesn’t make a difference, they stopped wasting their time and forgot about it.” He is silent while he digests this. A minute later, he’s back and he has something to say.
“We could trade apples.”
“Not for much.”
“Because apples have no protein like meat. They don’t fill you up for long.”
“I miss the candy you used to give me.” Brother says wistfully.
“So do I.” When Brother turned three, I gave him a piece of candy once a week from my four-year-old stash of Halloween candy. Then we stopped getting candy, and my precious cauldron-full was gone by the time he turned four.
Sugar is scarce. So candy is impossible to make. Honey is a little more abundant, but I have to get it myself from the hives. Molasses is impossible to come by. Maple syrup is easy because of all the trees, so when he deserves a special treat, I put some on his bread.
I can tell he’s dying for a sour caramel apple sucker. So I tell myself that when all of the apples drop to the ground, I will make gallons and gallons of applesauce just for him.
We play hide-and-seek, which always scares me a little because the forest is so vast, and he really could get lost. I hide in easy places, but I know I can hide myself properly if I need to. Then we play tag. And finally, we go to the river where I bathe him. It’s about four o’clock now, judging by the sun. So I take him home.
We skirt the edges of the village, and are home in half an hour. Brother goes inside and pats Sammy hard on the head. She sneezes. I head back out to take a bath in the river myself, and it is still bright out. More people line the streets though. Waiting for the liquor that comes at dusk. Waiting for the women. Women waiting for paying men. Authorities waiting for an excuse to shoot someone. I make it back to the stream in less than half the time it took me and Brother because I am running.
The water is cool, and privately surrounded by trees
I brought the water bucket to refill. But I will do that last. Now, I strip my shirts and my skirt. My stockings and my undergarments, and I wade into the river. The cold water feels refreshing on my skin, but seeing my naked body scares me a little bit. From my breastbone to my waist, every single rib is clearly showing. My arms are the worst. The wrists are twigs. My shoulders are knobbed with bones. And my legs are as thin and bird-like as they’ve ever been.
I make a point not to look at myself, and instead focus on rinsing every part of me clean. We are able to use soap because it is so easy to make. After scrubbing myself spotless, and getting used to my new amazing smell, I just float on my back in the stream. I hear something close.
Her head snaps up, but she stays in the water. The water around her comes up to her collar bone. I catch sight of a bar of soap on the river bank, and I realize she’s been bathing.
She shows no hint of embarrassment, which surprises me. Her head is held high, and though she is naked, her cheeks don’t flush. Her chin is almost pointed toward the sky, defiant little one, she is. I can’t see her, luckily, for the water isn’t clear at all.
“What are you doing here? Spying on young girls like the other creeps in this town?” she snaps loudly. I look at her for a while, not registering what she‘s said. “Are you mute? Don’t you speak?” and I realize that I’ve just been staring for a few minutes.
“Yes, I speak. I’m not spying on you. I came to fish.” I tell her.
“Well can you come back later? I’m not clothed.” she says matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, I guess. See ya.” and then I think that maybe I shouldn’t have used ‘see ya’ when I’ve really just ‘seen her’. I look back at her, she’s still hiding in the water proudly. I turn, and walk away with my fishing pole, a vision of this girl dances in front of me.
What a creep. I think to myself as I watch him walk away. But I had been practically mesmerized by his eyes. A deep, light brown. I put on my clothes and chase after him,
“Hey!” I call after him. I catch him about three minutes later, walking slowly back to the town. He stops and turns toward me.
“Hey.” he says.
Her hair runs in dark, wet swirls down her back. Now I notice her eyes. Breathtakingly beautiful and probably totally unique, they are violet. Her skin is creamy and pale, interrupted by veins that show through. Two run from the corners of her mouth to her jaw line, making her look puppet-like. Her chin looks like it could move away from her jaw, but of course it doesn‘t.
I like her veins. They make her eyes look more purple. I see more capillaries in her eyelids, turning them blue, as if by make-up.
“What?” She looks me up and down, and I realize that I’ve been staring again.
“Sorry. Your skin…”
“I know. It’s see-through.” she snaps at me, as if I’ve mocked her.
“Well, yeah. But pretty.”
I’m astounded. I’ve never heard that before. My hand goes subconsciously to the slashes from the glass on my cheek. His face shows shock as he notices them.
“But jeez! Your face!” he exclaims.
“Thanks. That’s what girls like to hear.” I say bitterly.
“No, I just meant… What happened?” He looks embarrassed.
“None of your beeswax.”
“But it looks like my sister’s cuts…. She got smashed by beer bottles the other night.” I look down. I’m not telling him what happened. “You’re the girl who saved her, aren’t you? She says that some girl came in, got hit once, and tackled the guy.” he laughs, looking me up and down like I just did. Probably thinking that I’m too frail for the story to be true.
“It might have been me.” I tell him mysteriously.
“It was you. I know it. You’re the only girl who fights back in this town. I’ve seen your handy-work.” How does he know what I do? “My sister told me to look for the guy with a new tattoo. I’ve seen others like him.”
“You don’t know anything.” I snood, nose up.
“I know that you’ve got guts. And artistic talent. And a sense of morality.”
“I just remember how it was before. That’s all. And if those creeps who did that to your sister obviously don’t. Or don’t want to, anyway.”
“All right, boy. What do you want? Trouble? Because if you speak of this again you’ll get some.”
“I wasn’t going to tell anyone. I think it’s brilliant. I want to say thanks, because my sister is pretty shaken by what happened, and I’m glad you intervened before anything worse happened.” I nod, and walk back to the stream.
“So is it safe to fish now?” He calls loudly. I don’t respond. I just fill the bucket and walk back to the town. It’s getting dark and cold, and my wet hair isn’t helping much at all. My boots are a little wet, so I leave them on the porch, and go inside with the bucket.
“Hey, girl.” My mother says from the fireplace. She’s cooking fish that I caught a few days ago. It smells amazing, and it’ll be good to have some protein today. “You’re flushed. What happened?”
“Nothing.” I say dismissively.
“Fine, don’t tell me.” and she turns back to her fish.
“Fine. I won’t.” I say, even though there’s nothing to tell. I storm upstairs to my room and slam the door. Too bad it’s really old, because the handle comes off in my hand. Whatever. I put a chair in front of it to block intruders. I wish for food. I would give anything right now for an ice cold Diet Coke, and a big, hot, juicy Big Mac. 1,200 calories of pure goodness. I want a big, steaming bowl of clam chowder from Ivars. Oh, God. I’m drooling.
I wait until about one in the morning to sneak out tonight (… this morning…?) and go through the streets again. No one in danger this time, just some drunks laughing too loudly. I run faster than last night, more anxious for some reason, to get to my haven.
When my feet finally hit the soft leaf-covered ground, I breathe a sigh of relief and slow down. I get to my sapling, and scramble up to the highest branches. I fall asleep. My tired, malnourished body revels in the rest that I haven’t had in a long, long time. I wake up just in time for LearnCo, but I have to run.
I make it inside the nicest building in the town as teacher whistles. The floors are the only clean ones for miles. I run to the classroom and sit down as she pulls shut the door. We sit through hours of lectures on absolutely nothing, in a large room with tile floors and white walls. Then, the best class, PhysCo starts. Today, we play chair ball. Basically soccer, but instead of going for the other team’s goalie, you go for your own, who is sitting in a chair. Your goalie has to catch the ball while staying on the chair. One catch. Every player on your team has to touch the ball once.
So guess who is on my team? Two girls who still manage to be gossipy and giggly, despite the circumstances. They drive me insane. Guess who else? That kid who spied on me yesterday while I bathed. We put on red jerseys and start to play. The girl on the other team is sort of annoying, but she chooses me to partner up with. I’m the only girl in the school who is decent to her, but it’s no wonder no one else likes her. She talks constantly, repeating every story that ever got a reaction from anyone. Even if it was the same person.
Her teams starts with the ball, so I follow her with my fast and silent feet. She slaps my hands away as she tries to get open. I have my arms out in defensive position for basketball, blocking three quarters of her. She slaps and slaps, and it makes me really angry. I work as hard as I can to stay with her, but she isn’t slow. She is getting away from me, so I pick up the pace. Someone steps in front of me quickly. My hair is in my way so I don’t see it. I just feel the legs I’m tripping over, and the ground I hit.
My hips hit the ground first, and then my head bounces. My eyes water, but I stand up like it was nothing. Except nothing doesn’t start bleeding all over someone’s face. The legs I tripped over have a body. Guess who. He’s laughing, but trying to hide it.
“Are you okay?” He asks. But I don’t get a chance to answer because teacher comes over, laughing her head off.
“Are you alright? You bounced!” she says.
“No, you’re bleeding.” the spy boy says.
“So?” I say.
“So you’re screwing up the floor.” he says, looking down to where I’m dripping.
“Thanks for the compassion” I spit. He shrugs.
“What’s your name, anyway?” I ask.
“Well, now I’ve caught you spying on my bathing, tripping me, laughing while I’m bleeding, and now scolding me for screwing up the floor. I think I should be entitled to call you something.”
“Oh, and who saved your sister’s butt the other night?”
“Do you regret it now?” he accuses.
“No! I feel sorry for her because she has to deal with you every day!”
“Whatever. Just go home.”
I turn on my heel, ask teacher if I can go home, and leave. I’m about to walk out of the gym, and I hear: “What’s yours?“ I think about yelling my name to him, but I don’t. Let him wonder, I think.
I walk back to the house, and let my mom clean my face again. My head is throbbing, but I don’t let anyone know that. Brother sits by the fireplace, looking upset.
“What’s wrong, Brother?” I ask, crouching next to him.
“You left me today.” He pouts.
“I had LearnCO today.” I say softly.
“Yeah, but you didn’t tell me.”
“You know what days I have LearnCo. I know you do.”
“Yeah-huh. Say them right now.”
“Monday and Friday?”
“Yes. And today was Monday. Tell you what, I’ll take you to the pumpkin patch later today, and we can bake the seeds, and if you’re good, maybe a pie.” I know he loves pumpkin to death, and this just about makes him wet his pants (well, he’s only five after all). Sammy comes over, sensing his excitement. Her tail wags as her practically thumps her on her head with his pudgy hands
So I go get the little red wagon and put him in it. I wheel him through town, skipping past the dangerous parts that I sometimes like to scope out. We have to go a different way to get to the pumpkin patch as unkempt as the butcher’s hair.
After a half an hour, Brother is talking up a storm, but we make it to the green and orange fields.
“Go choose your pumpkin and bring it back to me.” I watch him scope for the best pumpkin he can find. I swear he looks at every single one, circling it and then lifting it if he can. Finally, he spots a perfectly round one that weighs probably fifteen pounds. He gets his hands under it with a huge grin on his face, and barely lifts it.
He tries to run over to me and the wagon, but a noise interrupts it. I recognize it at once. Brother looks up, stunned, and his pumpkin drops from his arms and splits as he sees his first ever air plane.
“Look!” I say, pointing. “That’s an air plane.” My calm front hides the confusion inside me. What is an airplane doing here? How did anyone get the fuel? More follow this one. They are all yellow. I think they used to spray the crops with a bug-repellant and fertilizer. But I don’t know for sure. Plus they’re way too high to reach the crops.
I tell my brother that anyway. He’s fascinated by the six planes that come over our heads in the next 20 minutes.
“Why?” He asks.
“Why are they here?” Of course. My five-year-old brother asks the one thing I’ve been thinking about the most this day.
“I’m not quite sure. Probably to check on our town.” I make this answer up on the spot.
“Oh. But… it broke my pumpkin…” He looks so sad that I almost laugh.
“No, Brother. You did. You dropped it, remember?”
“Oh.” And now that the planes have passed, he goes to look for a new one. He picks a smaller, more ovular one. We go home with news to tell my mother. When we get through the door, Brother runs to get a knife and a spoon for the pumpkin.
“We saw planes today.”
“Planes?” She says, like ohthatsnicenowgoaway.
“Yes. Six yellow ones flew over the pumpkin patch.”
“What? Planes?” Now she sounds interested.
“Yeah. Six. I think they were the ones that used to spray the corn.”
“Yeah.” I take the knife from Brother, and cut the top circle off the pumpkin. I make him go outside with two bowls. One for the pumpkin pie parts, and one for the seeds. Mom and I talk while he’s out there.
“Why do you think they were there?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I don’t think for anything good.” She looks kind of shaken by the whole thing, which shakes me. I take the innards of the pumpkin and some graham crackers and honey down to the pizzeria with Brother later that night. They have one of those old brick ovens, where you just have to light the fire in the back. So I do, and we wait an hour while it heats.
“Crush the graham crackers.” I tell Brother. He slams them against the counter with all of his toddler might.
“We didn’t even have to break and enter here.” He says. I stop in the middle of mixing the pumpkin innards and the other ingredients (we had to improvise for the sugar, but we had cinnamon and nutmeg and everything else.) and look at him. Oh, God. I have let him think that it is okay to break and enter.
“You’re right. We didn’t. It’s not good to break into buildings though.”
“Oh. I like it when we do things together.” he looks up and smiles at me.
“I don’t.” I say, watching his expression, and then I do the old joke my first grade teacher used to do. “I love it.” He giggles and goes back to smashing his graham crackers. I keep stirring.
“Hey,” I hear from behind me.
“What are you doing here?” she snaps.
“Waiting for your oven.” I hold up bread dough as evidence.
“What did you say your name was again?” she asks.
“Oh yeah,” .
“Can I have your name now?” I ask. She doesn’t look like she’s going to give it to me.
“Her name is No!” her little brother shouts.
“Thank you.” I tell him. “No?” I look back to her. She sighs.
“So whatcha makin’, Noelle?” I ask.
“Pumpkin pie. Right, Brother?” she looks down at him. He nods and grins.
“A rarity.” I say.
“Yeah, but that’s only because everyone ran out of sugar and forgot the pumpkins. And the apples and the squash and the corn.” she looks at me like I’m the dumbest thing she’s ever seen. Like I’ve forgotten all of these crops.
“Hey, I go and get apples from the orchard every day.”
“You do? Why don’t I ever see you?” she asks, incredulous.
“Because I go to the far side I guess.”
That makes sense, I suppose. Me and Brother generally stay in the east corner of the orchard. Sometimes I venture out, but not often. I nod with my lips in a frown.
“Did you hear the planes earlier today?” I ask casually.
“Yeah. I was in the woods, fishing. What do you think they were about?”
“I’m not sure. Otne in ontfre of my utherbay.” I say. I watch Ash’s face, first confused, but then he understands the Pig Latin that I used.
“Hey, Brother. Do you have the pan ready for me?” I ask. He races over with the pie pan. I take his graham crackers and spread them on the bottom, coating them in honey so they form a crust. I put the pan in the oven and glance outside. It’s dark.
“Brother! I have to take you home! It’s way past your bedtime.” His face falls about fifty feet from where it was. “I promise I’ll finish the pie and wake you when I get back. Pie is no good when it’s cold.” He looks a bit more accepting of the new plan. We walk out the door, Brother and I hand in hand. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. Can you watch the oven for me?” Ash nods and I leave.
I watch the pie crust for her. I take it out when it looks done, and fill it with the pumpkin guts. Her violet eyes are all I can think about for a few seconds, then I shake my head to clear the image.
True to her word, she is back in ten minutes, though she does not announce her presence. I notice her by her luminous eyes that catch the firelight from the oven.
“Thanks for doing the pie.” she says.
“We saw six.”
“Me too. I could only hear them, though, because of the canopy.”
“They were crop dusters. The yellow ones.” She explains.
“So why do you think they were here?”
“I’m not sure. You don’t think they were trying to help us, do you?”
“No. Not at all.”
“I figured.” I check on the pie. Not done yet.
“What’s your brother’s name?” he asks.
“You haven’t heard of the Naming?” I ask.
“Well, yeah, but I though he was too old for it.”
“Nope. He wasn’t born yet. Three months later though. So the law got passed, and we weren’t allowed to name him. We call him Brother.”
“You’re kidding.” he says, astonished.
“No. He doesn’t notice, though.”
“That’s good, I guess.”
“Do you know what he said to me today?”
“He said ‘We didn’t even have to break and enter here.’ Like it was normal to just break into places. That’s wrong. Don’t you think?”
“Yes. But it’s the only way to survive, Noelle.” He puts a hand on my shoulder. I think back on earlier today. Our relationship has changed so much since this morning. Friends, I would call us now. But this morning: mortal enemies.
“The pie is done.” He says, looking away from my eyes. I get out from under his heavy hand and get the pie from the oven.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” He asks.
“Sure.” I carry the pie in three towels that I nabbed from the pizzeria. I feel sort of exposed, being unable to grab my knife because of the pie. But I have Ashby with me, and I can give him the pie if I need to protect us.
“Look who got themselves a girlfriend!” a drunk in a corner yells at us. I growl at him. He cowers; I laugh. Ashby smirks and glances back at the guy.
One guys sidles up to me.
“Hey, honeeee.” he breathes, his breath heavy with the smell of liquor. I was about to drop the pie and grab my knife when Ashby shoves him to the ground. Maybe he’s useful after all.
Friday at LearnCo is the next time I see Ashby. In HistoriCo, our first class, they give us new textbooks. The Official History of the Dead Sectors. (Are we the Dead Sectors now?) I catch Ashby’s eye, and raise my eyebrows. He shakes his head like Ican’tbelievethisishappenningdontbelieveasingleword.
“Today, we get our first text books.” the teacher says. I roll my eyes. They have kept the old textbooks away from everyone. We’ve been learning geography of Europe instead of history of the United States (or should I say… the Dead Sectors?). It was very boring.
But now, we have textbooks. Government regulated. Which means it’s full of crap. I open the book. The first chapter: The Failure of the Constitution.
“Open your books please, class. Page five.” I flip to the next page. The introduction.
“In this class,” teacher reads, “we will be learning the failure of the constitution. We will discover that our current government runs better than the pre-evolution country.” I can feel my face turning red. My hands clench into fists.
“The original Constitution was a weak government idea. It left out instructions, proper rights, and the good of the people.” What?! Proper rights? We had perfectly fine rights before the ’evolution of our country’! We had freedom of speech, welfare, a monetary system! We were allowed to leave the country! Hell, we were allowed to leave the state! We had trade with other countries! We had food to eat because of it. We had jobs, lives, we had body fat!
Class ends. I take out my anger in PhysCo. We play tackle football. As you can imagine, I am very good. Without realizing it, I tackle Ashby for the ball. The grass beneath us is soft, but my anger is hard. I yank the ball from his hands and run with it toward the end zone. I know that this is illegal, but we don’t play by the rules anymore. He’s right on my tail. He leaps, and lands on me. Despite myself, I laugh as the ball tumbles from my hands. Ash is on top of me, laughing in my ear as he tickles my stomach.
“Stop it!” I gasp. “You’re killing me!” He laughs and rolls off of me. As I lay recovering on the ground, he grabs the ball and runs for it. “Hey!” I call after him. “Cheater!” I get up and sprint to him. Teacher blows the whistle and we put the ball back.
“Can I walk you home?” Ash asks.
“I guess.” I shrug. “Can you believe the textbooks?”
“No. It’s ridiculous. The constitution didn’t fail. It gave us everything. Freedom. It was genius.”
“I know. We have to do something.” I say.
“What do you plan on doing?”
“It’s a work in progress.”
“Whatever. Race ya!” He shoots forward. Bewildered, I stay behind for a second, and then bolt. Feet pounding on the cobblestones, I run my heart out. I’m gaining on him, but I trip.
“Wha-?” This time, luckily, I catch myself with my hands before my face hits the ground. “Ash! Ashby!” I scream. I’m covered in dark red. A sickly stain that marks death and fear. “Ashby! ASHBY!” I don’t want to look at what I tripped over. But I know it’s dead, whatever it is. I hear Ashby’s footsteps as he races back to me.
“Oh my God! What happened? Are you hurt?” his panicked tones calm me. Sort of.
“It’s not me! It’s…” I finally stand up and look at the bloody mass. A single gunshot through the head like a keyhole to the Gates. I have no idea how long he’s been dead, but I finger the gun I stole from him last week. It’s the officer I knocked out. Ashby looks at me.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. Make it look like a suicide?” I pull the gun from my belt and show it to him.
“We could try…” He looks really uncertain. His eyes flick between the gun, me, and the dead guy. I dip the hem of my skirt in some ‘rain’ puddles on the ground and wipe my fingerprints from the gun. Holding it in my skirt, I put the gun in the fallen man’s hand. No one in our village or ‘Dead Sector’ can be blamed. I don’t look at the man’s face. Ashby crouches down and closes the man’s eyes with his fingers.
Hopefully the police won’t look too closely at the gunshot. I feel certain the bullets wont match, or the angle of the hole in his head, or the urine that I used to wipe off my fingerprints. They have no way of knowing who did it though, do they? But we have to protect the people here, since the government won’t.
“What are we gonna do?” Ash asks. He shifts from foot to foot.
“Forget about it. Don’t say anything to anyone. Your fingerprints are nowhere. Mine are.”
“But you wiped it off.”
“But that doesn’t mean I got every speck. If anyone inspects this body, they’ll know it wasn’t a suicide.”
“They wont inspect it though. They never do.” He looks at me, deep into my eyes. It’s sort of comforting, but weirdly so.
“They just don’t inspect the locals. The officers are more important.” I look down for a minute. “But let’s keep going. I’ll beat you!” my best attempt to be cheery again fails. We run, but halfheartedly. I end up beating him, and Brother races out of the house towards us. Sammy is right behind him. She bounds into my knees and sneezes as she shakes her head.
“No!” he shouts. Ashby stops, thinking he meant to stop. I laugh. “No!” he shouts again as he runs to me. Ashby then understands that Brother can’t say my name right, but he’s trying.
“Hi, Brother.” Ashby says. I pick Brother up, and hold him on my hip.
“Hi!” he yells.
“His name is Ashby, remember?” I whisper in Brother’s ear.
“Hi Ashee!” Ashby laughs, and steps closer to us.
“Did you enjoy your pie?” he asks.
“Yes! Yes! Pie!” Ashby laughs again as Brother squirms in my grasp, nearly making me dump him on the ground. To stop him (and to make him giggle) I grab his feet and dangle him upside down. He giggles and giggles just like I thought. I can see the blood rushing to his head, and his shirt flaps by his neck, exposing his belly.
“Down!” he giggles, so I let him down gently on his back. He bounds up and holds my hand.
Her head whips up just after Brother grabs her hand. I look to where her gaze is. “Planes,” she whispers, breathless. I know she’s hoping it’s not bombs or something like that. She’s so much more alert than me, she heard the planes a long time before I would have. Her dog is barking madly and nipping at her other hand. Then the dog sneezes.
“One,” she counts. “Mom! Planes!” she yells to the beautiful white house that’s hers. A tall, slender woman that is tougher-built than her daughter rushes out. “Two,” she whispers. Her mother gasps as the second plane bursts through the clouds like a beacon through the fog.
“Three,” I say. I look to Ashby. He’s staring, transfixed, at the small yellow planes that keep coming from the clouds like canaries from a mine shaft. “Four,” another pops out. My mother is in her apron, hands clutching a beat-up dishtowel like her life rests on it. Her lips part and pale as a fifth comes out, this one with a message streaming from the back.
“For the crops,” I read aloud. “Six,” I say softly. The fifth one is ahead, its red banner flowing behind it like a river of blood. The last, the sixth, follows the fifth, like ducklings to a mother.
“Six again.” I say. Ashby shakes his head and comes back to himself, looking from Brother, to me, to my mother.
“Brother,” Mother says, “Go play in the back.” she tells him.
“No! I wanna listen to grown-up talk!” he protests.
“We aren’t talking. We’re doing chores, silly.” I tell him, touching the tip of my finger to his nose.
“Oh! Bye!” he says and runs for the back. Ashby laughs at the simplicity of getting rid of him. The three of us look after the little boy that sets my heart aglow for a while.
“Six again.” My mother quotes me.
“Yeah. Do you think they really are ‘for the crops’?” Ashby asks us.
“No. I don’t.” my mother says. Then she realizes she’s talking to a stranger and does a double-take. “And who are you again?”
“Oh. Sorry, ma’am. I’m Ashby Werther, ma’am. “ He says, extending a hand to my mother. She puts the dishtowel in a pocket of her apron, and shakes his hand.
“Annie Epger.” She says. “And I assume you know my daughter then.”
“Yes, Mrs. Epger. We go to LearnCo together.” he nods. I roll my eyes.
“Can we get back on track now? The planes?” I say, irritated.
“Noelle Ann Epger!” she says. Except it sounds like Noellenapper. I hate my name. “Don’t talk to me like that.”
“Sorry. But seriously.”
“I don’t think there’s anything else that needs to be discussed.” My mother says. I roll my eyes again. “What are you covered in, Noelle?”
“Nothing.” I say, looking down at my blood-drenched shirt and skirt. “Me and Ashby are going to the woods.” I say, grabbing Ashby’s forearm and turning. My mother goes back into the house.
“The woods?” Ashby asks.
“Yes, the woods.” Noelle says, flashing a mischievous grin. We run through town, laughing and tripping over each other. She drags me through the woods, till we get to this one little tree.
“This is my sapling,” she says, reaching up to a branch and pulling herself up. “I come here a lot.”
“Why?” I ask. It’s such a little tree. Wouldn’t it be uncomfortable?
“Because it makes me feel more safe. Up high where no one can reach me.” she scrambles higher into the tree, looking down at me occasionally.
“Isn’t it a weak tree though?”
“Exactly. Hardly anyone else can get this high without breaking all of the branches.” And then it makes sense. She’s so little that she can make it to the highest branches without breaking a limb.
“Let me try.”
I laugh as he reaches up for a branch and promptly breaks it.
“It’s all about how you hold yourself. Keep your center of gravity close to the trunk of the tree. And like you’re walking on ice, and you don’t want it to break. Even weight throughout.” I tell him.
“Okay-” He grunts as he hoists himself up, snapping off yet another of my precious branches.
“Careful!” I laugh. “Close to the trunk, remember.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m on it.” He tries again, and this time gets his foot into the crook of a branch.
“Good! Good, now get your other foot up, and twist up onto the branch.” I call.
“I’m-- Trying--!” He gets his other foot up, and hurls his body too hard to the side to try to get up. The branch breaks and he hits the ground really hard.
“Ashby!” I leap down from my branch and land lightly beside him. He’s got the branch on top of him and he’s groaning. “Are you okay?” He groans again.
“How about we leave the tree climbing to you.” He gasps because the wind got knocked out of him. I laugh because he can joke and he’s okay.
“Sounds like a plan.” I laugh again as I stretch out a hand to help him. He grabs and stands up, dropping the branch from his lap.
She grabs my hand to help me up. I stand, the tree branch falling from me. I look at her for a little while, a hint of a smile playing at her mouth like she’s trying not to laugh at me. She shuts her eyes for a second and looks away, down to her left, and drops my hand.
“Maybe we should go.” she says, looking up at another yellow plane that she had to have heard way before me.
“Why are they here again? They already went past earlier.”
“I don’t know, but it’s probably not good.” she says, craning her neck to try to see through the canopy.
“Let’s stay here for a while.” I say. I look back down at her.
I look to the side, considering. I scrunch my lips, turning my head toward the house even though I can’t see it.
“Okay,” I say. I sit down against the trunk of a bigger tree. Ashby walks over stiffly and sits next to me.
“So,” he says, like he’s going to start a conversation but then he doesn’t.
“So?” I repeat, a little bit impatient. He looks over at me and smirks.
“Nothing. You’re just kind of funny.”
“I didn’t even say anything though.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He looks over at me, still smirking that annoying smirk.
“Then what did you mean?” I persist, turning to him.
“I dunno. Just your expressions, and the way you hate it when people even look at you funny.”
“That’s not true.” I protest, crossing my arms.
“Isn’t it, though? I smiled a little and you had to know why.”
“Because I thought you were laughing at me. And you were.”
“So? You laugh at me all the time.” I consider that for a moment, remembering how I’d laughed as he tried to climb the tree.
“I guess.” I shrug, sitting back again. Ashby looks up at the sky.
“I think it’s going to rain.” he says.
“Nah. I can’t smell it yet. We’ve got at least forty-five minutes.”
“You can smell rain?” I ask, incredulous.
“Yeah. Can’t you?” she asks, like no big deal.
“No. I don’t think most people can.” I say.
“Weird.” I reply, shrugging. “Maybe we should go back anyway.”
“Okay.” We stand, and start walking back to my house. I give his shoulder a halfhearted shove, and he laughs, stumbling a little. He shoves me back really lightly. We race again to the house, not tripping on anything this time, thank God.
I win, naturally. I’m fast and tiny and hungry as heck. My stomach starts to rumble painfully when we get into the kitchen.
“Hey, mom.” I say.
“Hey. Why don’t you two go get some meat for dinner?” I roll my eyes because I’ve just sat a second before she says that. I stand again.
“Fine.” I sigh. “Let’s go, Ashby.” I spin around and hook my arm through his elbow, jerking him back toward the door. The hilt of my knife brushes my forearm reassuringly as me and Ashby run once more into the woods.
“Where to?” he asks, catching his breath. His feet crunch a little more loudly than mine over the leaves and sticks, but still pretty quiet compared to most. Occasionally he crunches a stick or a dead leaf, but that could be passed as some animal.
“Usually a little farther this way,” I whisper, knife out, running to the East. I spot a buck about a hundred yards away and coming closer. “You hide, since you cant climb.” I breathe. He smiles and shakes his head, and then goes to hide behind a thick tree. I leap up a tree directly in line of the deer’s path. I climb only to the first branch and crouch on it, waiting. Waiting.
I hear the crunch before I see it. The buck is directly under me, this is my only chance of surprise. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, and I fall from the tree on top of the buck’s back. He rears up, almost knocking me off, but I have my arms around his neck. “I’m sorry.” I whisper again. I grab for an antler and steady his head. “It’s okay. I’m sorry.” I want to say that I won’t hurt him, but I can’t. His eye that I can see is wide and scared and boring into me.
I take a deep breath and plunge my knife through that eye. He starts, making a noise that I’m used to but not at all happy about, and he falls. “I’m sorry.” At least it was quick for him. I hope it was anyway.
“Jeez, Noelle.” I hear as I get off the fallen buck.
“You’re… kinda scary.”
“Not like evil scary, like sweet exterior I’ll slit your throat in your sleep interior.” I laugh.
“I get that a lot.” I joke.
“I bet. Any guy who messes with you I feel sorry for.” I laugh again. I look down at the poor deer, my knife still in its eye that is now oozing blood onto its tawny fur. “Actually,” He starts, “I think I might sleep with one eye open from now on.” He’s distracted me again. He’s so good at that, and I’m grateful because I was thinking about what if the deer had family? A wife (mate…?) and kids (fawns?)? What would I have been responsible for? Murdering a father, son, husband, brother?
“Thanks.” I say, for the distraction. I think he understands what I meant, because he nods. “Can you help me carry him back to the house?”
“Why do you call it a him?” He asks curiously.
“Because he had a life. Probably a family, and now they have to go on without him.”
“Oh,” he says thoughtfully. He grabs a thick branch from the ground, and some rope from his belt. He ties the buck’s front hooves together, and then the back, and he slides the stick through the triangles that the negative space between the slender legs make. Good thinking. I’m impressed.
“Good job.” I say. I go to the head. I take my knife from the eye and stick it in the dirt. It cleans the blood from the blade. I put it in my belt, and grab the stick by the head. “Ready?”
“Ready.” We heave the deer up and start to shuffle toward the house again. The branch rests on our shoulders, we steady it with our hands.
“Wait!” I grunt. We slowly lower the body to the ground.
“What? It he too heavy?”
“No. I’m too short. I keep dragging his head and it feels wrong.” His head was lolling on the ground, his antlers catching leaves like a rake and trailing blood from his eye behind him.
“I’ll grab the front.” Ashby says.
“Thanks.” We trade places and it’s a lot easier. It takes us twice as long to get back to the house with the added two hundred pounds. It’s hard work, especially on an empty stomach. But it’s a lot easier with someone else to share the work with.
“His antlers will make a nice trade.” Ashby comments when we’re almost out of the woods.
“Yeah. His hide too.” We’re sort of grunting our conversation because it’s such an awkward heavy shuffle we’re doing, that it’s making us short of breath.
“The rain’s getting closer.” Ashby says.
“Not yet. I told you, I can’t smell it yet. It’ll probably be here in fifteen minutes.”
“Wow.” We’re coming up the steps now, and since he’s about a foot and a half taller than me, the deer head still doesn’t touch the ground. My mom hears us apparently, and comes out to the front porch.
“A deer? Good job.”
“Thanks.” Me and Ashby take him inside and set him on the counter for my mom to skin him. Then we go back out to the porch. I sit in one of the two rocking chairs, Ashby sits beside me. Sammy lays at my feet. (Then guess what she does? Sneezes)
“So are you waiting for it to rain to go home, or what?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I think I’ll watch it start with you, and go home when it ends.”
“M’kay.” I say, sitting down in a white rocking chair. He sits beside me in the other one.
“Do you always watch your little brother?” he asks me.
“I love him. Sometimes more than my mother does, I think.” I say. I’ve never shared this with anyone. Why am I telling him now?
“Same with me and my sister. Although, she is a bit hard to love sometimes.”
“Really?” I ask. “How?”
“Attitude. And lots of it. She changed after the Evolution.”
“Lots of people did.” I tell him.
“I guess you’re right. And I think I do want to beat the rain home after all.” he says.
He gets up, and the wind blows.
A wind chime clangs in the wind, hauntingly.
And I smell.
“Hey, I think it’s starting to rain.” He says. He leans on the porch railing and looks up at the sky.
“Ashby.” I say quietly. He doesn’t look round. “Ashby.” I say again, louder. “This isn’t rain.”
“What are you taking about?” he says, as drops hit the sandy ground.
“It‘s not rain.” He smiles, and steps off the porch. I stand up.
“Ashby! No! This isn’t rain!” I yell as a drop catches his forearm. He calls out and falls back into the dirt. His arm has a spot of angry red. As I rush forward, more drops land on him and burn through his skin. He’s too shocked and in too much pain to move. His first droplet spot starts to bleed as the acid eats deeper into his flesh. Sammy is barking and sneezing her head off.
“Ashby!” I dart forward into the rain and grab him under the arms. I drag him backward as quickly as I can, up one step, two, the last. I have three droplets that I can feel eating through on my back, my left arm, and my shoulder. I don’t stop. I finally get him up the onto the porch and lay him down. Ignoring my own pain, I run into the house now that Ashby is out of the rain. I skid down the hallway into the kitchen.
“Mom!” I yell. “Where’s Brother?!” I slip and fall on the rug in there, but stand up and take my mother by the elbows.
“Where is he?” I demand. I shake her. Her head tumbles forward and backward on her little chicken neck.
“In the back!” She says breathlessly. Oh no. I let go of her arms and run into the back yard.
“Brother!” I yell. He’s crying and running around the yard. He has many more acid burns than me or Ashby. “Come here!” I say urgently. He rushes into my arms, his blood leaking into my clothes and my own burns. I run down the hallway to the kitchen again, soak a dishtowel completely in water, and run with Brother in my arms to the porch. I start to drip water into Brother’s wounds. He screams and cries. Sammy licks one of his wounds, trying to help. Then she whimpers as the acid cuts into her flesh. I hold out some water to her. She dips her long pink tongue into it and washes away the acid. Brother screams and cries again as I drip in more water. “Shhh.” I say. “Shhh. It’s alright, Brother.” Mother comes running to the open doorway with another towel and starts to treat me. “No!” I snap at her. “Get Brother first!” she gets his back. We take off all of his clothes, and as I wash I count.
Thirteen. On my five-year-old brother. We wash and wash and wash, getting all the acid out of his wounds and bloodstream. The ones that we get to last (by this time, Ashby is helping us) burned a half an inch deep into Brother’s baby-soft skin. When we finish washing Brother, my mother goes to get painkillers for him. I whisper to her to get tranquilizers too.
And then me and Ashby wash each other’s wounds. He does mine first. “No, really,” He insists as I protest. “Let me be helpful.” and I know he feels badly for freezing up. I don’t blame him for his reaction.
I gasp as the first acid eaten wound is wetted. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. He drips more water into my back, and I feel the acid creeping out from my skin. “Your shirt is soaked in acid, Noelle.” I nod, and I take the cloth upstairs to my room. I take off my shirt. There are holes in it, and my blood and Ashby’s blood and Brother’s blood and even though it seems like a month ago, the officer‘s blood. It’s been burning the rest of the skin on my torso raw. I try to get my shoulder. There are more from when I got Brother. One, my hair blocked from hitting my back, so I’m missing about a six-inch section from a bunch of hairs. Another got me squarely on the knee, and the next on my collar bone.
I hiss through my teeth as the water leaks into my skin. I get the last wounds on my knee and collar bone. I wipe down the rest of my body. It’s still raining outside, and the grass is gone. Gone.
I can tell I got all the acid off of me, but it still burns. I pull an old volleyball T-shirt gingerly over my skin, and run down the stairs. I lay down beside my little brother, he’s stopped screaming, but still whimpers occasionally. And I can only imagine how awful he feels laying beside me, almost silent. My mother comes with the painkillers and tranqs and gives them to him.
She turns back to the house, head down and shoulders tense. I feel bad for taking her elbows and shaking her, but she understands that I needed to get to Brother. “Let me do your back now.” I say, getting another acid-free cloth and dipping it in water. He doesn’t make a sound as I drip water into his skin, he just clenches his teeth and closes his eyes, his body tight.
“You’re all good.” I say. “Your shirt is soaked, too.” He takes it off and I finish his back. He does the rest. My brother conked out just after he swallowed the pills. My mother and I dress his wounds with sterile gauze and medical tape.
Then she moves on to me and Ashby. When me and him are finally alone again, I tell him what I know.
“It’s the planes.” I start out with. “The planes, the crop dusters were planting water and acid in the clouds to make it rain. I smelled the sulfuric acid when you stood.”
“How do you smell these things?” Ashby asks incredulously from where he sits in my room.
“I don’t know. But all of the crops are ruined. The stream is filled with acid from the runoff. The animals that are still living wont be for much longer. The deer are going to drink from the river, and they’ll die.”
“So we’re screwed?”
“Basically, yes.” I look over at him. “But we have like, six buckets of water, which will last my family three weeks. If they don’t do the acid rain thingy again, we should have water again in two. We may get immigrating animals that come our way, but for crops, we’re not getting any for a long time.”
“And you’re sure that this is because of the planes?”
“Yes. They used to put water into the clouds before the Evolution when we had a drought. Remember?”
“Not really. I never really paid attention because I didn’t think I’d need to.” he says, looking down at his hands clasped in his lap. It’s still raining outside, but the acid doesn’t seem to be affecting the house so far.
“The only reason I know is because my dad told me.” I say. “You might have to spend the night.”
“Yeah. If it doesn’t stop raining, I will I think.”
“Unless of course you want to get more acid burns to match the other ones.”
I can’t help it. I laugh. Of course I’m not going to walk home in the rain. We’re both lucky it didn’t get our eyes. I can see her sitting stiffly on her bed to avoid hitting one of her burns, and I feel instantaneously responsible for it. Because I froze up. I didn’t do anything, and she came and saved me. Most of her burns are my fault, but some are her own. Like the ones she got when she saved Brother. All mine are larger than hers, but that’s only because they stayed on my skin for a longer time.
It feels like I was just bitten by like seven hundred venomous snakes.
But Brother is worse, and I can tell the pain on Noelle’s face is mostly because of him. He lays limply beside me and Noelle, practically mummified by sterile gauze.
Noelle brought him up here. I don’t think she could bear being without him. Sammy follows close to Noelle’s side. She licks Noelle’s calf and lays down at her feet.
I couldn’t bear being without him, even though he’s not conscious. I think I’m going to use the tranquilizers until he’s mostly healed. It’s a risk, and it’s going to use most, if not all of them. But I’m willing to take it, if it saves him from the pain. He looks so helpless, covered in gauze like a war victim.
Well. He is a war victim now. Because it’s the war I’m fighting to keep him safe. And I will not lose. I swear it, Brother, I will not lose.
I’ve almost forgotten Ashby was in the room, but he shifts to get more comfortable. My old quilt is tattered and dirty. My tights have holes in them, the largest from where I just got hit by acid rain on my knee. My shirt used to be white. It is not. My skirt is fraying and bloodied.
And my brother is bloodied and holed, too.
And that, I will not stand for. We have been living in poverty for five years, our clothes deteriorating with our hope. Our food dwindling with our courage. Our electricity gone like my dad.
They will not take or ruin anything else. And we will patch our clothes, our spirit, our hope, and our courage. I know just how to do it.
“Come on.” I say to Ashby, grabbing his hand so as not to hurt him. He stands and looks back at Brother, laying on the bed pressed up against the wall. I scoop him up into my arms and take him downstairs with me and Ashby. I set Brother down on the couch, and me and Ashby go to the basement.
It’s unfinished. Cement floors, brick walls, exposed pipes. The whole nine yards (is that a football term?). But it’s quiet, and all but soundproof. I’m pretty sure the only way anyone could hear me from outside this room is if I was screaming bloody murder.
“Nice place.” Ashby says.
“Are you being serous?” I ask, not entirely sure if he’s for real.
“Yeah. We don’t have a basement.”
“Do you have a crawlspace?” I ask.
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Not anymore. Used to be, cuz of the tornadoes and the government actually wanted to keep us alive. But not anymore. Our house was built after the Evolution when my other one burnt down.”
“This is so messed up.” He says, shaking his head with his hands in his pockets.
“I know. But we’re gonna do something about it.” I say.
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“I have a plan.” I wink.
She winks, and gives me a mischievous grin. And she tells me what we’re gonna do. And I smile. And I see her. I see her for the first time, it feels like. I saw a little of it in the river. A little more when she taught me how to climb, more when she killed that deer and felt awful for it. But the most before now, was when she was racing to save her brother.
And now, I see the most of her I’ve ever seen. It’s bitter determination that whole armies should fear. It’s also lighthearted girl joking. It’s her.
And I like it.
I like it a lot.
“Okay. Part one. Faking innocence goes into effect…” I wait for the teacher to whistle at LearnCo on Friday.
“…Now!” she says as the teacher whistles to start class. I nod and walk into the classroom. We open our books to page 6. I look around at our classmates. A few have gauze or a bandage, but no one seems shaken at all. Have they not noticed that we stopped creating pollutants here? That even the acid rain we used to get wasn’t toxic like this?
“The failure of the constitution has been progressing since before the Evolution. It has been going downhill since it was first written, and we see the effect of it today as we look back through history.”
“The Great Depression,” What? I laugh out loud. What do they call what’s happening now if that was bad? “World War 1 and 2, The Vietnam war,” Lies. All lies. But I bite my tongue, because I need to be on the teacher’s good side today. To work my persuasive magic. I sit through the rest of class, barely able to tolerate all of the lies they throw at us. My a few students are a little beat-up from the acid rain, but no one seems alarmed.
“PhysCo time.” the teacher finally says. I breathe a sigh of relief. I get up from my chair as the class files out.
“Hello, Ms. Steele.” I say politely to the teacher.
“Hi, Noelle.” She looks me up and down, wondering what I want.
“How are you?”
“Fine, Noelle. And you?”
“Well…” I look down, biting my lip, making my eyes water. Her face turns to worry, and she rests her hand on my shoulder consolingly. I wince, because it’s my bandaged shoulder, and she looks even more worried as she hurriedly takes her hand away. She is untouched by the burns.
“What is it, Noelle?” she asks.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.” I say, allowing my eyes to spill over.
“Noelle. I know your mother. I owe her many things. What is it that you need?”
“It’s just… It’s getting colder. And the acid rain nearly killed my brother… and I got hit a few times. And with LearnCo, and getting food for Brother and Mother, and trying to keep them out of trouble, I don’t hardly have time for firewood. And the trees are what protect us anyway. From the animals. And I just don’t have any other way of keeping my family warm.” My voice cracks on ‘family’.
“Well, let me see…” Ms. Steele says, turning behind her desk and rummaging through some boxes. “I think I have some old books that I was
supposed to get rid of anyway…” She digs through the last box.
“Ah. Here.” she says. It’s a stack of old history books that we aren’t supposed to use anymore. “This should last you a few nights, I think.”
“Thank you, Ms. Steele. Thank you. Now Brother may get rid of his cold, his infection, and maybe tomorrow morning, he won’t wake up with ice on his lashes and eyebrows.” I look down again. She adds a few more to the pile. I race to the meeting spot. Off the main streets where the officers lie, I run into the woods towards my sapling.
“Ashby!” I yell. “Ashby! I did it!” His face lights up when I reach him, and he holds his arms out for the books.
I hold my arms out for her. She puts the books in them instead, extremely excited. She did it! How on Earth she made the plan work, I have no idea. The teacher could have given her a big pile of logs, but she gave her textbooks. She could have given Noelle nothing, but Noelle got books. Noelle is amazing. Our chances were so slim, we were so skeptical, but it worked!
My head snaps up, whipping Ashby with my hair. He flinches, but then sees me alerted.
“Yes again.” I say. One plane pops from behind a cloud a few seconds later. I shift from foot to foot, waiting for them all to pass. I count six again. The acid-eaten land crunches under my feet. To my left, the creek runs high and mighty, filled with acid. We have more planes now. How could they?
“Okay. They’re gone.” I say.
“Alright. Let’s get to it.” So we spend the rest of the afternoon studying the old U.S. Constitution that did so much for us. Storm clouds gather menacingly as we pour over the books. Maybe it wont rain for a while though. We study and study for about an hour. There are three different text books, and multiple copies of each. So we have an idea. I know we’re both thinking it, but neither of us wants to say it, since neither of us want anyone else to help.
We walk back to my house with the books, keeping to the edges of the town in case we’re caught.
“Come on,” I say, waving him into the house. “Down here.” I pull him down the stairs to my basement. The floors are bare cement, the walls just painted brick, but it protects us from tornadoes and intruders because we know exactly where to hide.
So I know exactly where to hide the books. We have an old Christmas tree, one of the fake ones, in a clear plastic box in the storage room beneath the stairs. It’s completely hidden, the box, and anything under the tree is invisible because of the needles that fall off.
“Right here. Under the tree.” I tell him.
“I can’t. I’m too big.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. Look at how small that space is. I can’t even fit between the rafters.” and I see that he’s right. The rafters supporting the stairs are only about six inches apart.
“Fine. I’ll go.” I slip between the rafters.
She glissades through the beams of wood gracefully. And then I can’t see her. At all. It’s like she vanished behind the darkness. And then I glimpse the telltale glint of her eyes from behind the space between the rafters in front of me.
“Hand me the books,” Her voice travels out to me. I put three of the eight
books in her hands. I hear a scuffle as she hides it, and then her hands are reaching out for the next ones. I hand her two more. She pulls them back into the darkness with her, like and octopus takes things into water. Her hands appear from the darkness again, and I give her the last three books. Her strong but thin arms don’t drop a centimeter as the books fall into her hands. She takes them back into her lair again, and then I see her fingers curl around the beams. Then her foot on the floor, and finally the rest of her body.
“Okay.” she says, brushing dust from her skirt and looking at me with those breathtaking purple eyes.
“Okay,” I repeat. “Now what?”
“Commence phase two: spreading word.”
Me and Ashby are out in the city, hiding in an alley.
“When?” Ashby asks impatiently.
“As soon as the officer walks past again.” I whisper back. I’m crouched down, one eye peeking out from behind one of the brick walls. After the officer passes, we’ll have eleven minutes to complete our mission. This data we have collected over the course of three days, waiting in this alley and watching for passing people.
The average time it takes for an officer to patrol is fifteen minutes. The lowest is twelve. We give ourselves eleven so that we definitely won’t get caught. I hear muffled footsteps coming, and duck down as far as I can into Ashby, and wait for them to pass. Crunch, crunch, crunch, I hear as the boots step on beer bottles and gravel.
For a second, I think I hear a gun being cocked, but then the footsteps pass, and I know we’re safe. “Go!” I whisper urgently, and me and Ashby grab our tools and head to the largest wall in town.
We uncap, and set to work. It takes six minutes of nothing but the shh of our tools. We work together in synchronization, watching each other, and knowing where to go next with our colors.
When we’re done, we take a few minutes to look at our masterpiece painted on brick. We put the caps back on our spray paint cans, and just breathe in the glory of our anonymous work. On the wall, in red and purple and yellow, it says:
We The People
Quickly, we run back to our ally and put the paint cans back in my messenger bag. We sit, huddled together against the weather, waiting for the officer to stroll back again. “We did it.” I whisper into Ashby’s chest, where my face is hiding from the wind.
“I know.” He breathes into my hair. He raises his head slowly.
“What?” I ask. “What’s wrong?” I look around to see if I missed the officer or something, but I didn’t.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He says. And even in the dark I can tell he’s looking into my eyes. And I’m looking back. Crunch, crunch, crunch, we hear. And we both look over to the street.
And we hear the gasp. And we hear him shouting and running. And we hear it together.
Together. The word rings in my head all night and the next day. We spend it together. We watch Brother and give him sleeping pills together. We hide from the rain and plan our next graffiti together.
Together. Me and Noelle. Noelle and me.
And everything feels the way it should.
We’re rebelling. We study and study and study every day. We plan and plan too. And I just hope we’re making a difference in the town. And I hope we’re not caught.
Every night we do it at different times, unpredictable. And we hide in different places, too. She climbs up buildings, and then helps me up. We hide in the ally. We are always looking for different places to hide.
The second night, we hide on the roof. It’s more windy up here, but it’s a better vantage point. I know it makes Ashby uncomfortable to be up so high and unable to climb, so I hold him tightly as we huddle for warmth.
I see the guard walk past.
“Let’s go.” I say. I leap down, and then I help him. We have blue, orange, and pink tonight. And we write:
In Order To Form a More Perfect Union
And then we climb back up to wait for the gasp. Shivering and shaking, we wait for the gratifying sound that means we’ve won again.
There it is. The footsteps, the gasp, and the running. We hop down and run back to my house.
“Doesn’t your mom ever wonder where you are?” Ashby asks as we come up the from porch steps, laughing at our recent victory. Sammy greets us.
“No. She’s always asleep.” I say, sitting down in a rocker and sighing. Sammy sits at my feet. “What about your mom? Doesn’t she notice you’re gone?”
“Yeah. She just doesn’t care.” And he says it without feeling, without emotion, and I know he wishes that his mom cared. He wants her to care because if she does, then he doesn’t have to.
If his mom cares, then she’ll protect him. But apparently she doesn’t.
“Well, guess where my dad is?” I say.
“Working with the government.”
And she says it without any emotion in her voice. A dead voice that I just used, so I know she speaks the truth. She’s looking out at the bare lawn, unseeing.
“No way.” I say.
“Way,” she says. Her hands are folded in her lap, and from where I’m sitting, in the rocker next to hers, I can see the glint of a ring that I’ve never noticed before. Without thinking, I reach over and grab her hand to closer inspect the ring.
Surprisingly, she lets me. It’s a silver ring, it glimmers in the moonlight. Reflected on the wall behind us is a rose. It dances as her hand moves slightly. Without the reflection, it looks like just a band of silver around her left ring finger. But there must be bunch of tiny indents that reflect fragments of the whole rose.
I let her hand go, but she holds mine tighter. And I see her again as I re-wrap my fingers around hers.
His hand is surprisingly warm. But more surprisingly, I’m holding it.
How did that happen?
“What about your dad?” I ask, still looking wonderingly at our clasped hands.
“Works hard to provide for us. Loves my mother sometimes, hates my sister, doesn’t notice me much. Still, he tries for us.”
“Yeah,” I say. “At least you have that.” Ashby squeezes my hand tighter and looks at me. I’m spacing out at the driveway that hasn’t seen a moving car in years.
I look up into his eyes.
He’s looking so deep into mine it’s like he’s trying to see the retina. I look back into his light brown eyes, and I’m kind of being awkward (I mean, it’s impossible to look in both eyes at the same time, isn’t it?) so my eyes flick between his as I try to decide which one to focus on.
But it looks like he’s looking into both of mine, so how does he do it? Magic a little voice in the back of my head says. I haven’t slept in a really long time, and now I’m facing the side effects.
“What time is it?” I ask, looking back to the driveway. He sighs, and checks his watch.
“You’re kidding.” I say, I look to the door. “Three-thirty?”
“My brother should be waking up soon.” I stand and drop his hand.
“Noelle, let him. He’s been out of it for days.”
“But he’ll be in pain,” I say.
And I can see the pain in her face at the thought of his pain.
“We aren’t in very much pain anymore though.” I try reason with her. She looks up.
“But we don’t have as many burns as he does.”
“And ours are almost healed. Aren’t they?”
“Almost.” she admits.
“So let him wake. Let him see you.” I watch her as she sighs and turns to the door. And she disappears through it. I get out of my rocking chair and follow her, being as silent as I can.
I want to at least be there when he wakes, if we’re going to make him. So I go as fast as physically possible without making a noise up to my room where Brother lies on my bed. I should take him downstairs and start a fire. I open the door and see my mother sitting on the edge of my bed.
She’s leaning on her arm, which is on the other side of Brother. She looks up when I open the door and relief washes her features clear and five years younger.
“Where on earth have you been?” she snaps. Ashby leans through the doorway behind me. I guess he’s followed me. My mother apparently did not want a boy to be part of the equation. Her facial expression turns hard and old again, and for an irrational tired second, I’m sure she’s going to kill us both.
“We were just sitting in the woods, Mrs. Epger.” Ashby pipes from behind me. Thank God for him, because I wouldn’t have said anything and she would have been more suspicious. Sammy barks. I guess she’s followed us up here.
“Sitting?” she asks.
“Yeah. I was teaching him to climb trees.”
“I don’t think that qualifies as sitting.” my mother says.
“Mom! We sat lots of the time too. Is it a crime to hang out with friends now?”
“At three-thirty in the morning, yes!”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Epger. I lost track of time. It was my fault.” Ashby says.
“Shut up, Ashby. It wasn’t your fault and you know it.” I say, irritated that he’s taking the blame. “Mom. For the last freaking half hour we were just sitting on the porch. Before that, I was teaching him to climb trees in the woods.”
“It’s true.” Ashby says.
“Shut up, Ashby.” I snap, even though he’s helping.
“No?” we hear a little voice ask. “No? Ow, No.” Brother is stirring. My mom looks down at him, the hurt on her face evident at the fact that he asked for me first. But I like the hurt I see. And I feel bad for it, but instead of acknowledging that, I race over to my brother. I sit on the edge of the bed, and scoot my mother off.
“Hi, Brother.” I croon softly as I lean over him.
“Hi,” he hardly even whispers it. And it breaks my heart to hear.
“Wakey, wakey,” I say, because he closes is eyes again
“Ow,” he breathes.
“I know, I’m sorry.” I say.
“Ow,” he says again.
“I hear you. I got some, too. Do you wanna see?” he nods weakly. (what is it with boys and wanting to see scars?) I show him the one on my forearm. He smiles faintly. I put my fingers through the hole in my tights over my knee, and I show him that one, too. He smiles harder and reaches out a hand to touch. He thinks better of it, and pulls back his arm.
“Go ahead.” I reassure. Anything to keep him happy. His shaking fingers make contact with the skin, and I do everything in my power to keep smiling.
I see her smile tighten as Brother touches her wound. I step forward, because I don’t like that look of pain on her, but I stop myself. She wants him to, otherwise she wouldn’t have let him. His smile widens when he drops his hand. Did I like scars when I was five? I wonder to myself.
She looks at Brother the way I want my mother to look at me. There’s such care on her face, such a look of tenderness down at her brother, that my feet carry me over to her without my permission. I sit on the bed next to her.
“Hi, Brother.” I say.
“Yup.” beside me I can practically feel Noelle’s irritation with me fly out the window. Anyone who’s a friend of her brother’s is a friend of hers. “What’s up, little guy?”
“Yeah, I bet. But look how brave you’re being.” he smiles again.
Ashby is sitting next to me on the bed, talking to Brother with me. My anger at him melts like butter on the stove.
My mother is standing in the doorway, glaring at us, but now it’s only halfhearted, because even though I claims he doesn’t care, he’s her boy and he’s in pain and we’re making him laugh.
“You’re off the hook,” she says grudgingly as her skirt disappears into the doorway. Brother taps me on the arm, and I re-focus my attention on him and Ashby.
The next day is Monday. Me and Ashby walk to LearnCo together with plans to go home and study afterward.
Today we’re covering the Collapse of the Amendments in HistoriCo. I don’t even let it into my head. My brother has stayed awake for six official hours now, against my better judgment.
I try to make the teacher sound like the Peanut’s grown-ups with the wah wah wah and all that, but it doesn’t work quite that way. I try to focus my attention on the back of Ashby’s head, but then he turns around and catches me staring at him (even in this day and age, it’s awkward) so I quickly look at the teacher in panic.
So I catch a lot of the lecture, try as I might not to. PhysCo seems to start several days later. But we’re playing flag football today, instead of tackle since last time Sammy broke his wrist when he got tackled.
I put on my belt. It slides off. I’m too freaking thin for the school’s flag belts. I clip the buckle together again, and tighten it as far as it will go. No luck.
And then suddenly Ashby appears in front of me and is tying it around my waist. “That’s cheating,” I whisper. The point of the buckles is that they are easy to undo, and when somebody pulls your sewn-on flag, the whole belt falls off.
“So?” I laugh and race over to my team. Alex hikes me the ball or whatever and I run with it. I twist and spin to avoid grabbing hands at my belt. Some yank on it, but it doesn’t fall. I make it to the end zone with the ball still in hand. Ashby was on my team this time, which is probably why he helped me. But still, we’re gonna win.
Alex hikes me the ball again and I run with it again. Another touch down. And we get another, and another. On the fifth run, I notice the big lug of a boy, Rob, chasing after me. He’s the most muscular boy in our school. And he’s really kind of scary.
I run as fast as I can, but I’m tired and I haven’t eaten in a while and I honestly don’t care that much. And he’s gaining on me.
“Noelle!” I hear. And then I don’t hear anything for a while, just the crunch of dirt beneath my head. And I feel weight on top of me. The next thing I’m aware of is:
“Get off her! You get off her right now!” and the weight is gone.
“Noelle? Noelle, are you okay?” my eyelids flutter open to see Ashby crouching in front of me. I groan.
“I’m okay.” I say. “I’m okay, Ashby.” I say clearer. He heaves a huge sigh and helps me sit up. “Wow,” I say. “That guy was heavy.”
Ashby laughs and gets me to my feet. My head is spinning and my eyes are seeing dots. But I’m okay, at least. I feel fairly certain that Rob could have killed me if he’d wanted to (that seems really extreme. But it‘s true).
I untie my belt and sit out for the rest of the class. Ashby walks me home as per normal, although this time he holds my elbow so that I don’t teeter sideways.
“Are you sure you’re up for studying tonight?” asks Ashby.
“Yeah,” I say, ears ringing. My mother sees us coming up the drive from where she’s sitting on the porch with a still-conscious Brother and stands up.
“What happened?” she asks. She’s got that dishtowel again. It’s like a constant companion for her now.
“Got tackled. We’re gonna go study.” I say, brushing past her with Ashby at my elbow. We go down to the basement and I get under the stairs to retrieve the books. Sammy follows us. I get the two copies of the ones we’re currently studying and hand them to Ashby.
He backs out and sits against the brick wall. I lower myself down next to him, and open my text book. My eyes grow heavy as he reads aloud to me, and I lay down with my head in his lap. Sammy curls up against my body.
She careens to the side, and for a second I think she’s lost her balance (while sitting? Whatever) but then she purposely places her head in my lap and her eyes close. I keep reading, wondering if I stop what will happen. She’s completely asleep in less than thirty seconds. Sammy is licking her hand and she doesn’t stir.
She doesn’t snore, and somehow I find that very… gentle.
Her lips are parted but she breathes through her nose. I can tell she is exhausted by the way she doesn’t appear to be dreaming. Usually (I know this from watching my twin sister sleep) girls’ eyelids move as their eyes flit in their alternate reality.
But hers don’t and I know she’s either a very good fake sleeper or really tired. I’m gonna go with really tired, after her performance today. I stare at her for the longest time. Being a little bit of a creeper, I admit. But I can’t help it.
The sweet exterior that I was talking about earlier is all that I see right now. None of the deer-killing, only the remorse she felt for it. I can’t see the girl who vandalizes, I only see the one who does it because she feels it’s the right thing.
I don’t know how much later it is when she wakes up, I just know that I’m tracing the veins on her face with one hand. I’m on the ones at the corners of her mouth, running my finger from where the top lip and bottom lip meet, down to where it snakes her collar bone.
With my other hand, I stroke her hair. It’s down today, all the way to her hip bones.
I’m not sure if I’ve woken her by tracing, or stroking, but she wakes anyway. I whip my hand away from her face and hair so fast it’s like she burned me. (the only thing actually on fire is my face)
But, to my intense surprise, she smiles, and drifts back off.
So I resume stroking and tracing until her mother calls down that it’s time for dinner. She wakes with a start, looking utterly ridiculous because she sits up but my hand is still caught in her hair and she gets yanked back down. A startled Sammy wakes and bolts up the stairs.
“Sorry,” I say sheepishly, hastily untangling my fingers from her soft strands of hair.
“It’s fine.” she says, and stays in my lap even though she’s free.
Her skirt is splayed out like a Chinese fan from when she first laid down.
“You slept for a long time.” I tell her. Because it must be at least six o’clock, and we get out of LearnCo at one, and she was asleep by two.
“You should have woken me.” she says, rubbing her eyes with a fist.
“But you haven’t slept in a really long time. We’ve been out every day this week.”
“Which means you haven’t slept either.” she counters.
“True,” I grant. And even as I think it, my eyes sting with their fatigue.
“Then sleep tonight. We’ll go again tomorrow or something.” she says, but I can see that she really wants to go.
“No,” I tell her. “I’ll go.”
“No, you’ll sleep. Seriously, it couldn’t hurt me to get some more sleep anyway.”
“Now don’t I have to go upstairs for dinner?”
“Your mom did call you.”
“Okay,” she laughs, standing up.
Ashby leaves before my mom can offer him dinner, I think it’s because he didn’t want to take away our food supply when his family had their own. We have some venison stew, and then I go to bed.
Sleeping this afternoon made me more willing to get some sleep, because I felt to refreshed afterward. So I sleep for about six more hours with Sammy on my bed with me before being rudely awakened by my mother. She snaps open the door and barges in.
“What is he doing here?” she hisses at me. Sammy barks (and sneezes).
“What?” I mumble groggily, sitting up.
“What is that boy doing here?” she repeats.
“He’s here?” and I turn instantly red for the excitement in my voice.
“Yes.” she drags someone through the door by their sleeve and I blush harder because it’s Ashby and he’s just heard my excitement to see him.
“Hi,” he says kind of diffidently.
“Hey,” I reply.
“So?” my mom interjects, eyebrows raised, finger pointed at Ashby.
“So why is he here?” she asks impatiently.
“I don’t know! I didn’t invite him.”
“Uh-huh.” she says skeptically.
“Seriously! I didn’t!” I say.
“It’s true, Mrs. Epger. I came over here without her consent.”
“Whatever.” she says, giving up and storming out angrily.
“So why are you here?” I ask. We didn’t have plans tonight. I thought that was clear?
“Because my mom decided she was going to choose tonight to confront me about disappearing every night.”
“What did she say?”
“Well I walked into the kitchen, and she was like ‘Oh, so you finally decided to join us, have you?’ and I was like ‘Yup. Has dad yet?’ and then I got in trouble for ‘talking smack about my dad’ and I left after my mom said ‘You’re ending up just like him.’ and I said ‘so then why am I in trouble for talking ‘smack’ about him and you’re not?’ and I came here.” he says it all in a rush with air quotes and everything.
“Wow,” I say. “And I thought my mom was mad when she saw you.”
“Sorry about that by the way.” he says. I pat the bed next to me, and he sits. It jostles me a little, having at least 130 pounds suddenly on my bed with me at the other end. But it’s kind of nice to have him there, spilling his guts to me.
“It’s alright. She’s been mad at me all the time recently.”
“I think she’s probably worried about you.” he says.
“Isn’t your mom, then? If she’s always mad?” I say, confused about the turn of perspective.
“No. Your mom is frantic worried. Is she okay, worried. My mom is angry. Just angry and upset and mad all the time.”
“Oh. I don’t think I’ve ever met her.”
“No, I don’t think you have, and I don’t think you should.” he stops and thinks for a minute, so I don’t say anything.
“But I’d like to you to meet my sister, I think.” he says.
“Okay.” I look over at him; I’ve been staring at the ground for the last few minutes. “Why doesn’t she go to LearnCo?” I ask, because it’s been bugging me for a while.
“Because I don’t let her.”
“You don’t let her?!” I almost yell, standing up. “What are you, her boss? Can’t she make her own decisions?”
“Yes! She’s perfectly capable, but I don’t want all that crap going into her head!”
“Then you leave her alone in the house with your parents all day?” I say. And I know my tone is really condescending but I don’t care.
“Yeah.” he says quieter. I’ve struck a nerve, a sensitive one at that.
“Oh,” I say softly, and I’m sorry I just said all that to him, that I exploded. It’s just that women need to learn to make their own decisions and in this town it’s already hard without an older brother constantly telling you what to do. I sit back down next to him. “Sorry.” because I can see that it hurts him to leave her with his parents all day. And I can see that he’s protective over her so that she doesn’t get hurt or scared.
“Did she sneak out, then?” I ask. “That time with the bottles?”
“Yeah.” he whispers. He’s looking at his hands folded in his lap. And then he looks up and strokes my face where the bloody bruised bit of my face is healing from the beer bottle. It’s almost gone now.
“And then I had a perfect reason for her not to go out anymore. My sister never questioned me again.”
“I bet. It was pretty painful.” his face softens even more when he hears me talk about my pain and I wonder what that’s all about.
I can feel my face crumble as she says the pain was bad. She’s so tough. I wish I could say the same for my sister, who was balling for days after that incident. But what gets me is that she was in pain and she didn’t say anything about it. She didn’t ever complain, Noelle, and she didn’t say a word about it.
She’s so tough and strong and skinny and clever. And she’s modest too. She doesn’t think she’s pretty. I can tell by the way she acts, because there are definitely girls at LearnCo who think they’re pretty. I can see it in the way they walk and talk and flip their hair.
But nothing she does is cocky. It makes it that much more attractive in the way she shakes out her hair, the way she smiles, the way she blinks when she’s surprised. And that much more frustrating that she doesn’t even know she does it.
Ashby stays around until breakfast, when he goes back to his house. I have an apple and slice one up for my brother. He sleeps only when he’s tired now, but he’s too weak and in too much pain to do anything else besides lay down and occasionally stand up. It breaks my heart to watch, but I do anyway, because it’s harder not to.
Ashby comes up the front porch where I sit with Brother on my lap at ten o’clock. Trailing behind him is his sister. She wears an old ratty dress that looks like most of my clothing. She looks lost, and scared, and really glad that her brother is there. Sammy gets up from where she was laying at my feet and licks the girl’s hand. She smiles and pets my dog.
“This is my best friend, Noelle.” he gestures to me with his arm. “And this is my sister, Parker.”
“Hi, Parker.” I stand and set down Brother. Parker looks to be the same age as me and Ashby. I guess I never really connected the dots last time that they were twins.
“Hi,” she says softly. Her face still has cuts and fading yellow bruises like mine, though hers are much worse. I sit on the railing around the porch, and hold my arm out to the chairs for them to sit. Brother goes inside stiffly, trying not to bump any of his burns. The screen door slams behind him.
Ashby brings the girl, Parker, up the stairs and to the chair by her hand. I sit facing them as they make themselves comfortable.
“Brother is looking better,” Ashby comments after a few uncomfortable moments.
“Yeah, he does. We keep putting antiseptic on his burns so they don’t get infected.” I say gracelessly.
“Are any of yours infected?” he asks me.
“One. This one on my back,” I jerk my thumb over my shoulder, “is infected. Not bad, but whatever. Any of yours?”
“Nope.” I notice that Parker doesn’t have any burns. If she did, I think Ashby might be an emotional wreck.
“So… how is everything?” I ask awkwardly. That’s how this whole conversation seems to be: awkward.
“It’s okay.” says Ashby.
“No, it’s not.” Parker says louder than I’ve ever heard her speak.
“What’s going on, then?” I ask. A little more concerned than I should be, maybe.
“No one is getting along. No one has stopped yelling in the last five days, and Dad hasn’t been home in two. Mom’s been getting on us for everything, no matter what it is. I think there might be something else going on besides just marital issues.” Parker pipes.
“Like what?” Ashby says, surprised. This apparently hasn’t occurred to him.
“Like, I don’t know. Like something else that they don’t want to tell us. And I think they like you more than you think.” Parker says, taking his hand again and holding it. Abruptly I feel like I shouldn’t be here, like I’m interrupting something extremely private between a family.
“Whatever.” he says. He doesn’t believe her. “I don’t think they’re hiding anything. I think they’re just being mean because this whole thing with the acid rain is getting to them.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, unable to stop myself. As long as people stay out of the rain, they’ll be fine. So why are his parents upset by it?
“Well, we didn’t have very much water before the stuff started pouring. And we only had a little bread and some pasta.” Oh, my God. His family has been starving and thirsty for a week, and I haven’t even thought about them because I am a selfish, selfish girl who had a whole deer and six buckets of uncontaminated water. Oh, my God. My best friend has been hungry this whole time. While I had enough to eat and lots of water.
“Oh, my God.” I say aloud. “I’m so sorry. We have apples if you want them. And pumpkin seeds. Take one of our buckets of water and a venison flank. Take some squash and some left over pumpkin guts, we’ve got a little bit of smoked raccoon if you want it.” I ramble, trying to think of every extra thing that we have.
“No, Noelle.” Ashby says. “We can manage.”
“No, Ashby, let me help.” I insist.
“You have your own family to feed.” Parker says, surprising me. I blink, because she hasn’t been super nice to me yet. She hasn’t been mean, but I wouldn’t call us friends.
“Go home, Parker.” Ashby sighs.
“No! I just got here!” She protests.
“And you aren’t helping at all. Go home.” Ashby repeats.
“Ashby,” she complains.
“Go. Home.” Ashby says, leaning closer until he’s right in her face, breathing angrily at her. Sammy barks uneasily.
“Fine!” Parker snaps, standing so fast that her shoulder catches Ashby’s chin and he bites his tongue.
“Look what you’ve done!” he calls, spitting out blood as she runs down the stairs and back to their house.
“You okay?” I ask as he spits more blood. I hop down from the banister and sit in the rocking chair beside him.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” he says. “She likes you.”
“She does? Cuz… I definitely wasn’t getting that vibe.” I say.
“Well, you should see the way she treats the people she doesn’t like.” He says, exasperated. I can’t imagine having a twin. How hard would it be to have someone that close in age to you around you at all times? Pretty annoying, I’d guess.
“Do you want to go tonight?” I ask. He knows what I’m talking about.
“Yeah.” We go down to the forest again. It seems to be the most carefree place that we can find and hang out in. We like it there. I like teaching him to climb (and watching him fall, but I don’t tell him that) and I think he likes to learn.
I sit high in a large oak tree while Ashby struggles to get up onto the first branch. At least this one won’t break. It’s really thick.
“You can do it!” I call as I scramble higher. “Come on!” I encourage.
“I’m getting it.” he says gruffly. I can’t really see him because of all the branches (no leaves, thanks to the acid rain and autumn) so I climb down closer to him. He’s got his hand wrapped around the branch and he’s walking up the trunk with his feet.
“You’ve got it!” I call out excitedly as he gets one leg over the branch. Then the other, and he’s hanging like a sloth of South America. He grabs another branch and hoists himself into a sitting position on the branch.
“You did it!” I yell.
“I know!” he chuckles. I clamber down to his branch and squat next to him. We hear the familiar roar as the planes swoop over lazily, killing us all slowly, drip of rain by drop. It’s cold today. And windy. So I snuggle into him and let him wrap his arms around me. Then he gets unsteady and has to grab a nearby branch to keep from falling, so I just cling to him tighter and feel him laugh. I wonder briefly what that’s about but he’s so warm I forget in an instant.
“Hey,” he says.
“What?” I sit back, releasing him, fearing I may have squished him. He reaches one arm out (the one that isn’t clasping a branch for dear life) and draws me back.
“Do you want to go to the mall?”
I laugh. The mall? That’s such a normal thing for a teenage boy to ask a girl that it’s comical.
“The mall?” I say.
“Yeah. The mall.”
So we walk to the mall. It’s away from our settlement. Everything that is in our colony besides some of the houses that were already there was built after the Evolution because we couldn’t bear to look at what we’d lost.
In the other section of our old city, we have restaurants, salons, grocery stores, banks, and everything in a normal town. Every building needed electricity. So we left, because there was no point in living in big where houses and kitchens of restaurants. Now cars, old and rusted with flat tires and broken windows and animals living in them take up the streets and make it really sad to look at.
The mall is huge. Gigantic department stores dominate from the outside. Little aisle-side stores overpower the inside. Kiosks still crowd the hallways. We walk across the old blacktop, still lined with painted on yellow parking spots. Ashby grabs my hand and says, “Black is lava. Your feet are burning.” and he jumps to a yellow line.
I jump with him, laughing. The paint is worn away at some points, so we have to jump again instead of just tracing through on a line. It takes longer than it should to get to the doors because we’ve ‘died’ several times each and have to go back to the beginning. Old abandoned cars get in the way too, rusting their hearts out while the world goes on. When we do make it to the big glass doors, we push through without any problems.
The mall is a complete and total mess. Shoe boxes are laying around, their tissue paper hanging out. Hangers from stolen clothes are strewn everywhere, along with shopping bags and a broken popcorn machine. The dog treat kiosk is empty. The counter that lifts to let employees in is hanging down on the ground, its hinge broken.
The Pink store’s drawers are pulled out. A single thong hangs from the corner of a cabinet door. This is the first time I’ve seen the mall since I was in the fifth grade. My favorite stores are empty. Lucky I haven’t grown much, because I wouldn’t have been able to get new clothes unless my mother made them.
I don’t care. This is a fun place to be, shopping or not. So me and Ashby walk. Don’t step on the green or blue tiles. Stay on the gray or you die.
I can tell that seeing the mall in its disrepair shocked Noelle. She gawks at all of the filth and clutter as we pass, playing our little game. I feel about five years old again, playing lava like I used to with Parker.
“Hey!” I hear Noelle call. She’s over by the entrance of one of the big department stores about ten yards away. I hear a clamor and turn to look. There’s an officer running for the door, Noelle following closely.
He’s running and he trips and falls and turns over, belly up to her. I run as fast as I can to get to her.
“Don’t shoot us!” I say. “We’re just hanging out here!” I reach her and bump into her. She sways but I catch her arm and draw her near. The officer chuckles and sits up. He’s only about twenty, blond and blue-eyed.
“I wont shoot you. Yer just a couple a kids.” he says. His voice is deep and rumbly and I hope that Noelle doesn’t find it a contributing factor to his already good-looks. He winks at Noelle, and I clench my fists. One at my side, one at her waist. Noelle looks up at me, feeling my tension. Her eyes send me questions that I don’t really want to answer.
“Hey. I ain’t gonna make a move, kid.” the guy says.
“You’re a hick.” Noelle says. That’s my girl. I laugh and the guy stands.
“Yeah. I’m a hick. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
“I was only observing.” Noelle says. I laugh again.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s okay. I get that a lot, actually.”
“Imagine that.” Noelle mutters. I laugh again. Her eyes probe this guy, and I see him double-take when he sees them for the first time. The huge purple irises are shocking, I know. But he’s got no right to stare at her. His hand moves to his holster.
“Hey!” I call.
“I told you kids, I ain’t gonna shoot! I’m on yer side.”
“Our side?” Noelle says. Confusion colors her voice.
“Oh crap. You guys aren’t… you’re not…?”
“What are you talking about?” Noelle says.
“Well… word’s gettin’ round that two kids are spray paintin’ the constitution on the wall.” He says. “And the gerl is s’posed to have purple eyes.”
“People know that?” Noelle says, panicked.
“Not evry one.”
“Not everyone? Well then who knows?!”
“Just the people in the affiliation.”
“Oh, my God. What affiliation?” Noelle says.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Who’s in it?” Noelle demands. Wow. She’s kinda scary.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Well what is it?” she presses in a deep voice.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Well what can you tell us?”
“Thanks. Now that we’ve figured that out, I’ll just take my leave.” she says sarcastically. I laugh and take her hand. We head to the food court and leave the creep in the dust.
We go to the food court, not stepping on any lava. I’m fuming. That guy was so infuriating. He didn’t tell us anything except that people knew that me and Ashby spray painted the wall.
Now what? Are we going to keep at it?
What was the officer doing here, anyway? And why wasn’t he prosecuting me for spray painting the wall?
The food court still has all the light-up signs. Some are hanging by a thread, or on the ground, but for whatever reason (even though they aren’t lit up) they strike a nerve.
I remember coming here with my friends in the cold winter months when there was nothing else to do. I remember my father picking all my friends up and taking them to our house for a sleepover afterward.
Each of the metal chairs are mostly tipped over or askew in some way. The tables aren’t lined up with one another, and some are on their sides.
“Why do you think he was here?” Ashby asks, breaking the long silence that was pooling.
“No idea. I hope he doesn’t tell anyone.”
“Do you think he will?”
“No idea.” I say again.
“Do you still want to do it?” he’s talking about the spray painting of course.
“Definitely. We cant just stop because of him.”
“Good.” We go behind one of the counters of a pizza place. I feel naughty. But it’s fun and I always wanted to know what was back there; never having had the opportunity to work anywhere that pays.
“He was weird. I’ve never seen him before.” I say.
“Yeah, I know. I haven’t seen him either.” Ashby says, checking out an oven.
“Why do you think they sent a southerner?” I ask. That guy was about as southern as you could get.
“Dunno. I wouldn’t worry about him. If he was part of the affiliation or whatever and he wasn’t pursuing us, I don’t think he’ll tell anyone.” Ashby lifts himself onto the counter by the old cash register. I sit across from him on a table covered in flour. Probably where the employees made the dough.
“Is the affiliation bad, do you think?”
“I honestly have no idea. But, again, if he was a part of it and he wasn’t going to hurt us, then I think they might be okay.” I’m silent for a moment, playing with my hands. Twisting my ring around and around and around my finger.
“Seriously. Don’t sweat it.” Ashby says.
“Why aren’t you upset at all?” I demand.
“Because no one cares about two kids. No one cares.”
“Maybe before the Evolution. But not now. Now kids are as fair a game as adults.” I counter.
“Noelle. I won’t let anything happen to you.” Ashby says seriously, his head tipped forward toward me. He stands and comes right in front of me, his hips leaning on the table between my legs. He puts his hands flat on the countertop behind my thighs and leans his head really close to my face.
My eyes widen, my hands clench on themselves. He’s getting closer. And closer. And his lips are almost to mine and I’m freaking out. I lean back, away from Ashby, my hands supporting me by where the table meets the wall.
I don’t know how to kiss anybody! My head is screaming. What if I’m bad at it? What if I don’t want to kiss him? He’s getting closer. Oh my God I have seconds to sort all this out and I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know! Frazzled brains trying to come up with something, searching for a way out of this. Help me help me help! I don’t know what to do. He’s so close, oh my God. I do want to kiss him. I do.
But I cant! I don’t know how and maybe I don’t want to more than I do want to and I’m confusing myself and my brain needs to move! I need to think and I don’t have time and his beautiful lips are so close (does my breath smell? I hope not. Oh my God what if it does?) I could pucker my lips and touch them.
My doe eyes are frantic. I can tell because I feel my eyelids stretching. I can feel the heat of Ashby’s hips on the counter not quite touching me but close. The insides of his wrists are brushing the tops of my thighs as he leans closer. I can hear him breathing. I look into his smoldering light brown eyes.
The word pops into my head. That’s the color of his eyes.
One of his hands goes to the small of my back and ow! my acid burn is right under his hand and I can feel the cotton of my shirt getting stuck in it. I gasp and look down. My nose brushes his and he takes a step back.
“Did I hurt you?” he asks.
“That was my acid burn.” I gingerly pull the shirt away from the wound. I’m so relieved I can’t even breathe. I don’t have to kiss him.
And now I’m extremely disappointed.
I don’t get to kiss him.
Ashby God. I’m so stupid. I shouldn’t have done that but I couldn’t help it. It was like gravity brought me over there and made me lean closer and closer. And then my hand got magnetically charged and drawn to her back and I hurt her and I’m stupid. I watch in horror as she pulls her shirt out of the puss filled hole that must be her infected acid burn. “I’m sorry.” I say softly. I’m standing awkwardly in front of her, one step away. Her face is more pained than when her brother touched the burn on her knee. Because this one was infected and I touched it. I’m so stupid. “Let’s go home.” Noelle says. We don’t play lava. We just walk back to the forest. Her footsteps are silent, her stride graceful. Her head snaps up and I know she’s heard something or smelt something. “Planes.” she says. Oh, that’s all. “Oh.” I say. We keep going. “It’s okay, Ashby.” She says. I’m staring at her shirt, where it’s soiled with blood and yellowish puss from where I pressed it into her wound. “Ashby,” She gets my attention again, “It’s fine.” We’re in the woods now, she’s walking backwards, her eyes looking from my left eye to my right. I’m just staring at her stomach, like I can see through her to the spot on the back. “Ashby!” Noelle says, a bit irritated. I look up. She comes close and stands on her tiptoes and hugs me. “It’s okay.” she whispers. Her arms are around my neck. I carefully wrap my arms around her waist, avoiding the burns. “Okay.” I breathe really, really quietly. The wind blows, branches knock together, Noelle’s hair gets caught in the breeze and whips me in the face. She lets go and then holds my elbows, making sure I’m okay. I want to kiss her so bad. But I don’t. Because I’m insecurely thinking that she didn’t actually want to and I’m not going to force her to. Noelle I’m holding him by the elbows like I did my mother forever ago, demanding where my brother was from her. But this is a softer hold, not interrogating. I’m making sure he’s not going to weird out on me again after I gasped. He kept looking at the burn on my back like whatdidIdo ohmygodIhurther and it was annoying me because I’m fine thank you very much. “Okay.” He breathes again. I laugh and let him go. We keep walking toward my house to get the paint cans because it’s almost dark. We planned to go right when it turns completely black. Unpredictable as possible. Ashby is shaking. I can feel it. What’s wrong with him? “You’re shaking.” I comment. “Am I?” he says absently. “Yeah.” “I’m okay.” he says quietly. “You sure? You don’t look sure.” “Yes I’m sure.” I drop it. He was starting to get a little agitated. I glue myself to his side so that if he faints or something I can catch him. “Are you okay?” I voice after about ten minutes of silence. “Yes.” He says. I take a step away, just to see what happens. The shaking goes down a little. And then more. “Seriously Ashby. What’s going on?” “I’m okay, Noelle! I promise. I guess I’m just tired. And I haven’t eaten much today either.” “That‘s all?” That is such an innocent question from this innocent girl that I can’t be mad. But I don’t answer because that’s so embarrassing and I’m only trembling because I almost kissed her not fifteen minutes ago and I was so close I could hear her heart beat and see her pulse rush through the vein at the corner of her mouth. I don’t want to try that again for a while. I’ll just pretend it didn’t happen. We walk back to her house in silence. I don’t break it and neither does she. Noelle walks just in front of me, and I can see the ripped lace at the bottom of her skirt swing and it’s kind of cute. I take in the way her hair sways down her back as she takes each step. It glistens as it rolls down her back like a waterfall. Her hands are down at her sides, clenched into fists with her pinky finger curved out just a little from her others. That’s cute too. I’ve got to stop looking at her. I keep finding things that I like and then looking for more. I turn my head to the ground, my eyes there as well. I just stare at the ground under my feet for a while, not looking at her. I’ve calmed down quite a bit but then I remember how nervous I was as I leaned nearer to her and the trembling starts up again. I don’t have any experience with girls. But I just want to be friends again because this silence is painful. I hear a scuffle and see Noelle climbing a tree right in front of me. “Come on.” she says. She scrambles higher and then stops so I have enough branches to get up. Noelle I watch him struggle to climb again. He doesn’t fall, but it’s still hard on him. I just keep calling out encouragement. He finally gets up to where I am and sits on the branch across from me. We talk easily again. Just like that, everything is okay again. We allow ourselves ten minutes, because we still need to go painting. We sit and laugh and talk. And then the sun starts to set and I hop down. Ashby climbs safely to the lowest limb and lowers himself. I go up to the porch where brother is sitting on the top step, Ashby is waiting at the bottom of the drive. “Hey, Brother.” I say. He doesn’t reply. He just pouts with his arms crossed. “What’s wrong?” I ask, sitting next to him. “I miss you. You don’t stay with me anymore. You go to Ashee instead.” He says. And it breaks my heart. Sammy comes over and gives me huge wet lick on the face. “I miss you, too, Brother. But there are things that Ashby and I need to do. I’ll try to stay with you more often, but right now I have to go. Okay?” He just pouts. I sigh and get up. I go to the basement to get my messenger bag. Climbing through the beams, I hear the basement door open and footsteps come down. I stay hidden behind the box with the Christmas tree. Someone comes into the storage room. It’s Ashby. I heave a sigh of relief and come out with my bag. “You scared the crap out of me.” I say. Ashby laughs and we go upstairs together. We could get the mural finished if we go tomorrow. It’s almost dark. As soon as we can be covered by night, we’ll move in to town. In the meantime, we sit on the porch steps. “Do you think Parker will be mad at you?” I ask. He did kind of yell at her to go home. “Yes.” He says lightly. I laugh at the carefree tone. “Brother is mad at me, too.” “Why?” “Because I don’t spend any time with him anymore.” I say. “You should.” “I will. Tomorrow I promised him the day.” “Good.” he says. He looks a little disappointed, so I say, “But you can hang out with us if you want.” “Maybe. I have to see what my sister wants to do.” “Makes sense.” The sun tips down behind the bare trees. It’s really, really cold. I can see my breath puff out and swirl in front of me. I pull gloves out of my bag and put them on because my hands are stinging and it hurts to move them. My toes are numb (is it possible to be numb and hurting at the same time…?). “Oh my God.” I breathe. I can see my words in the air in front of me. “What?” Ashby asks. “It’s freezing!” I hiss. Ashby laughs. I stand up and hold my hand out to help him. “Let’s go. It’s dusk.” So we set out to the town. His hand is warm around mine. He hasn’t let go since I helped him up. We creep quietly through the back roads, trying not to be seen. Tonight we hide behind and old broken down car that somehow made it to this spot a few yards away from our wall. It must have run out of gas years ago as the driver was driving (duh) down this little road. We hide behind it, pressed between a wall and the passenger side door. I know my clothes are going to be stained with rust, but what do I care? They are already really dirty, stained and ripped. We watch silently, close together for warmth, as the guard passes. When his footsteps fade into the other sounds of the night, I pull Ashby out from behind the car and we start painting. Various colors stain the brick now. The whole preamble of the U.S. Constitution is there, minus one line that we’ll paint tomorrow night. We don’t have time right now. The hissing sound of the pressured paint cans cracks loud against the night. The darkness seems to make every move we make louder, like it sucks it up and then spits it out at three times the volume. I kick a rock across the cobble stones and just about shoot myself, it’s so loud. It echoes over the empty buildings like you wouldn’t believe, and I wait, motionless for someone to hear and come at us. But no one does, so I get back to work. When we finish we shove the cans back into my bag. They clank together loudly and I wince. I thrust the bag over my shoulder, grimacing again as the cans get settled against each other. We rush back behind the car and wait for the officer to pass again. It takes about ten minutes this time, and I wonder what on earth he’s doing, since he never takes this long. Then I hear the footsteps and I hold back my sigh of relief. The officer sees the wet mural and huffs angrily. He growls and scowls and then runs for reinforcement. Me and Ashby seize our chance and run like someone lit a flame under out butts. I wonder if I’ve ever seen Ashby’s house, all of a sudden. Like, just passing through the town, if I’ve ever come across it. I wonder where he lives and what his house looks like. But then I decide it doesn’t really matter as his hand clasps over mine. I smile to myself and listen to the wind rattle the trees around us and I smell the rain that’s coming. We’ve got probably thirty minutes before it starts. Ashby and I make our way back to the house through the dark, cold night. I almost don’t want to go by the fire inside because I know that warming up will be painful. But being cold is painful too. So me and Ashby walk up the steps to my house, and go into the living room the fire. I let go of his hand and put another log on and stoke it and sit on the hearth. Ashby sits next to me, his hands stretched to the fire. I do the same and wrinkle my nose in pain as the tips of my fingers start to tingle with painful pins and needles. I ignore them for a few minutes until they fade. And then my eyes start to sting with fatigue, and my eyelids droop. I don’t even remember falling asleep, but I guess at some point, me and Ashby moved to the floor, his back leaning on the raised hearth. I’m leaning against him, my head resting on his chest (the lower half of my body is on the floor) and his arms are around me when I wake up. Noelle I look around and see quite the sight outside the window. Winter hit us cold and fast like an icy breath last night. Every inch of ground is covered in acid snow. I look over at Ashby. He looks really sweet when he’s sleeping and I want to let him sleep more, but I realize it’s Monday and I have to break my promise with Brother. We have LearnCo, and we might be late. I shake Ashby’s shoulder to wake him. “Sorry,” I whisper as his eyes snap open. “We have LearnCo today.” Ashby sighs. I sit up straight as he unwraps his arms from me. I stand and help him up. My shoulder are tight from sleeping weirdly last nigh. I hope my mother didn’t come down during the night and see us. Ashby gasps when he looks outside. “Wow.” he says. “I know.” I say. It reminds me of Christmastime even though it’s still just late October. Oh, jeez. I think it’s Halloween. It snowed really early this year. Really early. “I think it’s Halloween.” I voice. “Oh my God. You’re right.” I go to the kitchen, where the only jacket that I’m not wearing (okay, I’m only wearing two, but still) sits. I pull it on and look at Ashby. I think he’s okay. He’s got an old leather jacket that has to be really warm on. I pull on my gloves and flex my fingers to make the glove get more comfortable on my hand. “Ready?” Ashby says. “Yup.” We go out the back door. Crap. I promised today with Brother. I’ll hang out with him when I get home. “What were you your first Halloween?” Ashby asks after a minute. I think back to some old pictures we have of me when I was a baby. “I think my parents dressed me up as a pumpkin. You?” I recall the orange suit with the green collar that made me look really round (I was a pumpkin, duh). “A ghost.” he says, laughing. “Really? Like with the sheet and everything?” “I think it was more like a dishrag.” Ashby laughs. “What about your second?” he asks. “Angel. Little gold halo glued to a head band and all. You?” “Benjamin Franklin.” “You’re kidding!” I try to picture him with an extra-small white wig and knee high socks with knickers. I laugh. “I’m not. What about your third?” “Ballerina. I was really into them and I dressed as one till I was six.” Ashby laughs at me. “You?” “I was a devil, I think. My fourth year I was a ghoul. Then a pirate, and then a knight.” I laugh again as I picture all of them. “What was your next?” “A ladybug.” I say, smiling as I remember my red polka-dotted wings. There was even black netting under them like a second pair of wings, and they looped onto my fingers. “You?” “Vampire.” “Ooo. I was a vampire when I was eight.” “I was a vampire for two years.” “When I was seven, I was a gypsy.” I say. “I was a lawyer when I was nine.” “I didn’t trick-or-treat when I was nine.” I say. We both know why I didn’t. He is a year older than me, which means the Evolution started when he was ten. I was nine. It happened on June twenty-first. Kind of funny, when you think about it, because from mine and Ashby’s many hours of studying, we learned that the Constitution was put into effect on June twenty-first, 1787. Anyway. On that June twenty-first, I was in California. I was visiting my cousin, who was my age. We got on really well. We told each other everything, our views on politics, who we liked, our religious opinions. The two of us were watching a news channel in her living room. A new president had been elected earlier that year, neither of us would have voted for him, had we been of age. His name was Ryan Havel. He seemed okay, but he didn’t support the ideas that I had. He had some good ones, but I didn‘t like the way he was going about them. He was going to use some of his personal money, he said, which I thought was really unreliable (I know. What political ideas can a nine-year-old have? Well trust me, I was a pretty outspoken none-year-old.) Ryan Havel had gained the country’s trust while he was a senator for the state of Georgia. Everyone in a senate seat was practically drooling over him. He told them he was going to make everything better. He was going to fix our economic struggle. He was going to pay in full for health care that people couldn’t afford. He was going to save sixty million trees (or something like that) from being chopped down. Ryan said he would make sure everyone in the country went to school, and if they couldn’t afford it, he would find a way to pay for it. He wanted an educated nation. Don’t get me wrong. I would have been thrilled if he was able to fix our economic struggle, pay for health care, save trees, and educate people. Me and Beth (my cousin) just didn’t believe him. He promised lots more things. Lots more. And then, he promised that he would have complete control. He did just that. He won the election by a huge landslide. Five sixths of the country voted for him, perplexed by his winning speeches. They were going to have a free education! But he then got the Supreme Court Justices on his side. Somehow he persuaded them to not question any unconstitutional laws being passed. Congress was in love with him. They never would have voted against him. He had everyone under his spell, and for a while, I thought maybe I was wrong about him. But no one told us why they had really agreed. He’d threatened to kill their families and friends. Gas prices went down, as one of the things he promised. Trees stopped being cut. Education started being paid for. But it wasn’t a true education, since they taught everyone lies. On that day, me and Beth were sitting on the couch. I could see the ocean less than a mile away. But I wasn’t looking at the ocean. I was staring at the screen. Somehow, on that June twenty-first, President Havel gained complete control of the country. He made a law with the legislative branch that gave him the country. I’m not sure if they even realized what it would do. How could they? It was either let this nutcase rule our country or have our family killed… The judicial branch apparently didn’t ‘see’ anything unconstitutional about the bill. Even though it broke the checks and balances system for forever. No longer could the judicial branch deem any bill unacceptable. No longer could the legislative branch outvote the president by two-thirds. The president then announced on live television, that the U.S. Constitution that had saved us from tyrants that surely would have run our nation by then, would no longer be part of the law-making system in the United States. My cousin and I looked at each other. The live audience of camera men and reporters screamed in protest. There was gunfire and they were shot to the ground. The President then announced, as if his men had not just shot fifteen people, that everyone out of their home state would be returning home within seven days, or they would face the consequences. Beth and I just stared at each other for a long time. First of all, this was the first time we’d ever seen anyone killed. Secondly, the United States of America, our free country, had just crashed right before our eyes. Before me or Beth could say anything, police officers (soon to be just officers. No one wanted them ruling us all. Our ‘pol‘ root for city I believe) bust down the door and ordered me to pack my things. That some informant had told the government that I was here and that this was standard procedure. I was to be sent home. I ran upstairs with my cousin. We cried and cried as we rushed to find my things. I came to a standstill during one of our many hugs. I wasn’t going to go home. I wasn’t. I loved my cousin and my aunt and uncle and I wasn’t leaving because it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that they shot those people and it wasn’t fair that my rights had been taken away in less than a day. So I went downstairs, straight-backed, and demanded that they leave this place and leave me in it. The last things that I remember of California are my cousin telling me ‘No!’ in a frantic breathless voice, and the butt of the police officer’s gun coming down on my face. I woke on the plane. My cousin had packed the rest of my bag and put a necklace around my neck and a ring on my finger. Inside the locket of the necklace was a letter, as I was to figure out when I got home. It read: Noelle, I love you and I’m sorry and I’ll see you again someday. You’re so brave. I’m trying to be strong right now but things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. You keep being brave as long as it doesn’t get you into trouble. Be careful, Beth I still have it. I keep it in the same box with the Christmas tree. I still wear the ring on my finger. If it catches the light just right, it reflects a rose. When I got off the plane, there was an officer standing in the airport with a sign that said ‘Epger’. I didn’t trust him. But who else would bring me home? So he drove me to the edge of the town, a two-hour drive, and just kicked me out of his cruiser. With my rolling suitcase, I trudged my way home. It was an hour long walk. My face throbbed, my arm burned from my suitcase, and my heart ached with my loss. With the loss of our country. My mother was waiting on the front porch for me. She had been crying. She squeezed the life out of me when she hugged me, her pregnant belly pressing into my chest. My father ran out of the house and picked me up like I was little again. Sammy barked and barked and sneezed and licked my face and tackled me to the ground with her unconditional love and need to be near me. But a few days later, the insult was added to the injury. My father announced that he was going to go join the government. He didn’t say anything else as he stood outside the police cruiser with all of his bags packed. He just turned a wet eye to me as I cried and begged him not to go. He patted my mother’s stomach, and stepped into the car. Obviously, his chances of good treatment were better with the government than with his family. He would get good food and money, and wouldn’t have to watch everyone else suffer. Coward. I cried for days. My mother cried for weeks. The only time she stopped the rivers flowing down her face was when she went into labor with my baby brother. It was weird, because her constant stream of tears suddenly stopped as she felt the first contraction. The physical pain seemed to stop the emotional, and then she was busy taking care of my brother that she seemed to forget about my father. Six hours before my brother was born, the Naming law was passed. It said that no citizen was allowed to name their children anymore. They were to be given numbers. I suppose it made his citizens less human… more easy to manipulate and kill. Brother was number seventeen. He was the seventeenth child born to the new United States, and the nurse said, “What a shame. If he’d only known the world a few years earlier.” and then she patted my mother and me. But that was before all medical staff were evacuated to the presidential territory (Washington D.C.). Dentists, doctors, orthodontists, nurses, nurses aids, pharmacists, anyone even remotely involved in the medical field were taken. We never learned why. Why on earth would the president need a million doctors? That lessened our numbers considerably. Three weeks later, the shipments of food stopped coming. People raided the grocery stores of all of its food. All of it. The mall was ransacked for anything that could have been of further use. Hospital kitchens were invaded, medical supplies stolen, and money taken from every cash register and bank in town. Lots of people starved to death, not trained in situations like this and unable to feed themselves. The death toll rose further when the power was cut off. It didn’t start affecting people (except for the elderly without air conditioning) until the winter months when people froze to death. The whole town was devastated. That spring, we moved to the east side of town, to escape all of the memories. Memories of lost loved ones, lost futures, and our lost country. Eventually money stopped meaning anything. Who gave a flying s**t about a green piece of paper when you could trade what you didn’t need for what you did? Cars were strewn everywhere. Many were bent around light posts, usually the stories said that a cruiser (we still had them and they still had gas) stopped right in front of the cars, causing them to swerve into highway fences, signs, and light posts. Some had simply run out of gas and had to be left on the highway. We thought nothing could get worse, but it did. Sickness and disease wiped through the community. Now as I think back I’m almost certain that it was planted in our water source or in mosquitoes. Our numbers had gone from ten-thousand to three-thousand in less than a year. The citizens of our once happy town were suspicious of everyone and so greedy there was almost a constant green fog. Women needed food. They traded themselves for it. Men were lonely, their wives having died. Officers either shot and killed or took into custody those who even whispered that anything was wrong with this country. We lost our courage. We had to fight for ourselves and our loved ones, but that was it. No one rebelled. No one fought back. People stopped turning each other in, though. LearnCo was soon established. A group of officers swarmed our town and went door to door, telling us that every child between the ages of seven and eighteen was to attend this new school. We would all be in the same classroom with the same Teacher. So here we are. Most of us are alone. I am very lucky to have most of my loved ones alive. A few of my close friends from school, who I went shopping with and had sleepovers with before everything happened had passed away. But none of my family, thank God.
Noelle and I don’t say anything else on the way to LearnCo. We hold hands, and I know her mind is elsewhere. I want to finish the mural tonight, but I don’t say anything. We get into the LearnCo building at the last minute, the warmth of many fires in the hallways warms our red faces.
Noelle smiles at me as she takes her seat behind me in class. Teacher drabbles on and on about how our old government failed, and how awesome our new one is blah blah blah. I ignore her and think about my weekend. It was pretty awesome. The only parts I regret are snapping at my sister and almost kissing Noelle. I know she was uncomfortable now. I won’t do it again.
PhysCo starts and me and Noelle are on the same team for soccer in the gym. Noelle is mighty good with her feet. She dribbles the ball like a pro, weaving in and out of defense and then scoring two goals right off the bat. I pass to her every chance I get, because she’s basically winning the game for us and I can’t really help but do it once I catch sight of her.
She’s so determined at one point, that she’s looking down at the ball with her eyebrows wrinkled, and she plows right into me. As we hit the ground, Noelle closes her eyes for a second with a really upset expression on her face. I break her fall as much as I can with my body. She just lays there for about four seconds and then she stands up and races away with the ball again.
We leave together when class ends, and she says she has to go see her brother. I tell her I’ll meet up with her later, that I’m going to go home and see my sister. I she squeezes my hand as she steps away, and I turn and go to my house.
My sister is sitting on the countertop, glaring at me when I go inside.
“What?” I say. She’s burning holes in me with her gaze.
“You didn’t even come home once last night!” she snaps.
“So?” I challenge.
“So! So you left me here and you stayed with that Noelle girl.”
“Hey, now. It’s not like we did anything besides hang out.”
“I know that! I just didn’t see you and I didn’t know where you were. And Mom left yesterday and I haven’t seen her since, and Dad’s still not home.” she rushes.
“She’ll be home. She wouldn’t just leave us. And Dad might not come back, but who cares anyway? All he ever did was get drunk and get mad at us.”
“I care! He’s my dad!” she says.
“Noelle’s dad left her for the freaking government and she doesn’t complain.” I snap.
“Yes way. He did. And he hasn’t come home and for all we know he’s the one setting the acid rain on us.”
I go up the front porch and open the screen door. Brother is standing right behind the big door with his arms crossed and looking angry.
“Hi!” I say excitedly.
“You promised!” he accuses.
“I know. But I had LearnCo. I promise I’ll spend the rest of the day with you, though. What do you want to do?”
“Play in the snow.” he says.
“Sorry, buddy. You cant.”
“Why not?” he demands.
“Because it’s not safe. Do you remember that rain?” I ask. He nods and says, “Ow,” quietly.
“Yes. Exactly, ow. This is the same thing.”
“Oh. Then… I want to make biscuits.” he declares.
“Lemme see if we have enough of everything first.” I say, shedding a layer and looking through the cupboards.
“Alright Brother. We’ve got everything.” I say. He climbs up and kneels on a stool, slapping the counter in his anticipation. I get out the wheat flour that we make ourselves, the salt, and a little tiny bit of water to make the biscuits. I even get a teeny tiny bit of Bisquick batter that we have stored.
We spend the day making two batches of really dense biscuits that we take down to the pizzeria where we baked the pumpkin pie. I carry the pans into the broken down store and light the fire oven.
Once again, we wait an hour for the oven to heat up fully. Then I put in the first batch. Brother’s burns are looking a lot better. None of them are infected like mine is. His lovely face was miraculously missed by the rain, so his smooth skin is creamy and perfect there.
Twenty minutes later I put in the second batch while Brother rattles on with all the built up stories that I’ve missed over the past few weeks. I missed him. I didn’t realize just how much until now when I hear his mispronounced five-year old words.
Occasionally I interject with a loud and excited “Oooh!” or “That sounds like fun!” or “Brother, it’s accident. Not ‘ascident’.”
I take out the rest of the biscuits when they’re ready, and me and Brother wait together while they cool. I wonder what Ashby is up to while Brother tells me how Mom sent him to his room a few days ago.
“I like you better.” Brother says. He pouts and hugs me.
“Oh, don’t say that. You love Mom.”
“Yes. But I love you more.”
“Brother, I’m really glad about that. But you can’t talk about things like that when other people are around, okay?”
“Okay.” There. Life lesson for a five-year-old, accepted in the blink of an eye. I laugh and poke him in a wound-free section of his stomach.
“Hey there.” I hear. I look up. It’s that hick from the mall.
“What do you want?” I snap.
“Just saw the oven on and thought I’d better make sure this place don’t burn down.”
“It won’t, officer. I have it under control.” I say with more venom than I was aware I even had.
“I can see that now, miss. Where’s yer little friend?” he asks.
“None of your business.”
“I was just askin’.” he says.
“Fine by me.” he drawls.
“Bye.” I say gruffly.
“Oh, I’m not leavin’ just yet. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I do, actually.”
“Well, sorry miss, but I have some business to attend to.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“I just wanted to tell you to stop.”
“Stop what?” I say.
“Yer paintin’.” he says.
“What painting?” I say fake-innocently even though I know he knows.
“You know the paintin’, miss. I just wanted to give you a heads-up that bad things are a’happenin’.”
“Well thank you.” I say sarcastically. Like I didn’t know bad things were happening.
“And bad things are gonna happen to you.”
“How do you know?” I snap.
“I just do. If you ain’t noticed, I’m on the inside.”
“Yeah, I noticed. Well, thanks for the warning. Bye.” I feel kind of bad as I say these rude things. But he’s got no business here. I said that really sharp and now I regret it.
“Have a nice day.” He strolls out of the store and into the street.
“Who was he?” Brother asks from my side.
“I don’t know his name, Brother.”
“Oh.” I hear the crunch of a footstep in snow and see Ashby appear in the doorway.
“Hey.” he says.
“Need some help?” He asks, eyeing the pans.
“Yes, please.” I say. “Come on, Brother.” I take a cooled pan, and hand one to Ashby. I walk with the pan in one hand, Brother’s frigid hand in the other. Everything goes as it should until we hear the gunshot. I pick up Brother and hold him on my hip. Me and Ashby pick up the pace, because even though we are far away from where it sounded, in this town we are never safe from open fire.
We are practically running by the time we reach the drive. Brother is heavy in my arm, and it burns. I set him down when we reach the porch. We go inside and set the pans on the counter. I pack them away in some really old Tupperware and seal them tight. I leave out three. One for me, one for Brother, and one for Ashby.
“Thanks.” Ashby says.
“Thank you.” Brother chirps as he takes a huge bite.
“Hey, Brother, do you want to go bring one to Mom?” I ask, getting one more out and putting it in his hand. He races off to find my mother.
“People are dying.” Ashby says. “We can’t last much longer without water. There hasn’t been any in a week. And we have no food sources anymore either, besides bread and stuff.” As he speaks I pour him a small glass of water. I know it’s not a lot, but we don’t exactly have enough in the first place. He accepts it, and downs in a few gulps.
“We have to find a way to get water.” I say.
“That hick came into the pizzeria a few minute before you did and told me to stop painting. That bad things are going to happen.”
“Are you going to stop?” Ashby asks.
“Hell no.” I say. He laughs.
“What time tonight?” he asks.
“Sounds good.” I hear the pitter patter of little feet on the stairs and wait for my crumb-covered little brother to appear. He rounds the corner, and, as I suspected, has biscuit crumbs all down his front. I pick my biscuit up and take a bite out of it. It’s nothing like the kind we used to make. When we had Bisquick batter to spare. But it’s still really good compared to a lot of things I’ve eaten in the last few years.
“Hi!” Brother says loudly, apparently feeling ignored from where he sits in his stool.
“Hi, Brother. Is it good?” I ask as the last piece of biscuit gets stuffed into his mouth.
“Yef.” he says, talking through his bite of biscuit and spewing crumbs. I laugh and wipe the crumbs off the counter.
“Good.” It’s getting dark outside. Brother has to go to bed soon. I’m glad he got to fill his stomach before bed, because it’s no fun lying awake, listening to your stomach growl.
“Hey.” Mom says as she comes into the kitchen.
“Hey.” I reply happily.
“So I noticed our sleeping arrangements last night.” She says like she was talking to a girlfriend, ‘so I noticed a new grey hair last night’ or something like that. I groan and roll my eyes.
“We fell asleep. By the fire because it was warm and we were cold.” I say curtly.
“Whatever. I don’t like it.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Epger. It wont happen again.” Ashby pipes up.
“It had better not.” she goes back upstairs. I roll my eyes and scoff. I really don’t like her sometimes.
Noelle rolls her eyes and thumps her back onto the counter. She winces and pulls her shirt out of her wound again.
“You should have that looked at.” I say.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” She says. She always says that. Her big glassy eyes are watching her brother. Probably for signs of fatigue. As if on cue, Brother yawns.
“Okay, Brother. Time for bed.” Noelle says, standing up. Her brother shakes his head, but faintly. Noelle goes over to his stool and picks him up under his armpits. She swings out a hip and rests him on it.
“I’ll be back down in a minute.” she says. I nod. She disappears behind the doorway. She comes back down a few minutes later.
“Want to go to the basement?” she asks. I nod and follow her down, closing the door behind me. We descend the steps, and are instantly greeted by a wall of cold air. Noelle crosses her arms and shivers. She goes back into the storage room and evanesces in the darkness. We need flashlights, I think. We won’t be able to read.
“It’s too dark.” I say. “We can’t read down here.”
“I guess you’re right.” she sighs, and reappears between the rafters. Her beautiful eyes are how I can tell. They gleam with a little reflected light from the high window directly opposite her.
“Do you want to just go?” she asks.
“Sure.” I agree. I step back up the stairs and check to make sure she’s following. We pass through the kitchen and the entry way and get to the front porch. She has her bag over her shoulder and it bounces off her thigh every time she takes a step. We get about a hundred yards away from our wall, and stop.
There are about five men guarding the wall. Oh, jeez. How the heck are we going to keep going now? Ashby looks at me with his index finger over his lips, shhh. Duh. We back away and turn around. We go to the woods.
It’s very cold. We climb a tree and huddle together on the lowest branch. The wind blows and rocks us around. I can’t feel my fingers. Are they still attached? (Yep. I just accidentally whacked one on the branch. It hurt, so it’s still there) After only ten minutes of freezing our butts off, we deem this weather unacceptable and head for home. We agree to check the wall tomorrow night, too.
Ashby squeezes my hand and heads to his house. After walking home alone, I step inside and go straight to the fire. Warmth slowly seeps back into my body. I can move my fingers again after about three minutes. After I’m completely thawed out, I take Sammy upstairs with me and we fall asleep under a multitude of covers. I’m shivering when I wake up, and I go downstairs to stoke the fire. My mother is already up, looking tired and cold.
“Hey.” I say. Sammy’s toenails click on the floor.
“Hey,” Mom says.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Just standing here.” she says. She leans back against the counter.
“Oh. Want a biscuit?” I say, getting the Tupperware out.
“Nah. You and Brother should have them.”
“Yeah. I had one last night.”
“But so did I.” I argue. She is looking thin. I think she should eat.
“But you’re a kid. You and Brother need more food to grow than I do.”
“Fine.” I say, taking a bite of a biscuit. I give half to Sammy because I can see her ribs. She sneezes and parts of it spray everywhere. I wrinkle my nose and get a rag. I wipe the counter and the floor and myself free of crumbs and dog slobber.
Today is what, Tuesday? Yeah, I think so. I wonder if the guards will be at the wall tonight. I hope not, because we have to finish it. Brother totters down the stairs with groggy eyes. He rubs them and stumbles into the kitchen.
“Hey, buddy.” I say warmly.
“Hi.” He yawns humongously and glares into the distance. This is one of his bad mornings. I pour some honey onto his biscuit and hand it to him. His face lights up when he takes a bite of the sweet bread.
There goes his bad mood. There’s a knock at the door. I go to get it, and it’s Ashby.
“Hey!” I say excitedly.
“Hey.” He says back, equally happy to see me. I let him in.
“Do you want to check it out tonight?”
“Yeah, definitely.” He says, smiling. We go into the kitchen, where Brother is happily munching on his biscuit. Me and Brother and Ashby hang out the rest of the day. I love how good Ashby is with him. He’s so nice and gentle and older-brotherly.
When it gets dark, and Brother goes to bed, we head out. I grab my bag of spray paint cans, just in case the guards are gone. We run down the snow-covered cobblestone back roads, careful not to make any noise.
When we get to our mural, there are less guards than yesterday, but still enough to make us stay away. We watch them for a long time, huddled together in a spot next to a wall. We cleared the snow away, and I open my jacket for her. I close it around her body to make us as warm as possible in the below-freezing weather.
Finally we decide we don’t want to wait any longer, and we walk back to her house. I think it’s around twelve when we get back, and we thaw out at the fireplace. I swear my fingers melt off when as they warm.
“Do you think they’ll always have a guard?” Noelle asks. Her cheeks have regained their paleness. They turned pink in the cold.
“I hope not.” I say. I can’t say anything more than that, because I honestly don’t know. “I should go.” I say. I need to check on my sister. More people than ever are dying of starvation and thirst. Our numbers are down at least fifty.
“Okay. See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I’ll be over in the morning.”
After Ashby leaves, me and Sammy lay down by the fire and fall asleep. Apparently, I sleep through my mother waking up and coming downstairs, my brother eating breakfast, and Ashby coming and sitting by me.
I wake up and he’s sitting against the hearth, his head a few feet ahead of mine. He startles me really bad, and my whole body jerks.
“Oh my God!” I say breathlessly. “Jeez, Ashby.”
“Sorry,” he says, turning towards me.
“It’s okay,” I’m still recovering, but I sit up. “What time is it?”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaim. It’s really dark outside. I guess it’s cloudy. I stand up shakily, Ashby rises beside me. I walk to the glass door, and the sight that meets my eyes is… wow. The clouds outside are dark grey, their edges a lighter green.
“Let’s go to the porch,” I say absently. I walk to the front door and step outside. It’s cold. Really cold. Ashby sits in a chair. I lower myself into one too. We watch the sky for a long time, until I get cold.
Ashby watches me stand, and scoots the far side of the chair. It leaves room for me. I sit down beside him, and let him wrap his arms around me. We sit for hours, warming each other with body heat and watching the clouds move and swirl and change colors as they do.
I wonder what’s happened to Brother and why he is leaving us alone. But I don’t think about that for long, because as it gets darker, we start hearing things. First, just shouting from the town which happens at least one night a week. But then, the first gunshot is fired. Ashby and I look at each other.
The shouting continues. We can’t pick out words, but boy, are they loud. We stare at the clouds again, listening. Another gunshot. The shouting is louder than ever and I’m starting to get nervous. It never lasts this long. And it keeps going, with regular intervals of gunshot like a tympani drum keeping the beat of a really long song. The thing is, as horrible as this situation is, we are completely transfixed by the sunset. The clouds have dispersed a little bit. Just enough for the edges to catch the sunlight. The expression ‘silver lined clouds’ comes to mind. But what is on the edges of the clouds looks more like gold. Like lightning has surrounded each exposed edge. Everything is cast into a golden shadow. It reflects in Ashby’s eyes, on his skin, and in his expression.
When the shouting is over, the beauty fades. The sunlight is gone. There were five shots fired, the last still echoes into the distance. We sit absolutely still for another hour. We don’t speak, either. It isn’t a strained silence, it’s a peaceful one. But then, I break it.
“Ready?” Ashby nods. I untuck my legs and set my feet on the ground. Ashby lets go of me, and we leave after I get my bag.
That was the most beautiful day I’ve ever had. Me and Noelle sat on that chair for the whole afternoon and into the dark. We hardly spoke, but that was okay. Mostly we watched the clouds and the sunset and listened to each other’s breathing.
Until, of course, the shouting started.
But now we run through the streets, playing our old racing game. She’s behind me, but just a little. I can barely hear her footsteps as she flits across the road. But then she gains speed and beats me. I can’t see her now, but I know where to go.
I hear Noelle gasp in pain and surprise. My heart stops for a second.
“Ashby!” She calls in a frantic tear-filled whisper. I race as fast as I can to get to her. I see her sprawled over something. Oh, God. How does she always manage to find a dead person to trip over?
“Oh, my God.” I’m whispering, over and over again. Because I know who this is. Ashby picks me up and wipes away my tears. “Oh, my God.” I say again.
“It’s okay, Noelle. Shh.” Ashby is whispering to me. But it’s not. It’s not okay. Because this is that hick who warned me about ‘bad things happening’. Doesn’t he see it? Does Ashby recognize him?
The guy’s eyes are open, staring blankly up. He is on his stomach, his head turned to the side. I crouch down and close his eyes gently. Bad things are definitely happening. I stand back up and just stare down.
After such a nice day, something bad was bound to happen. But I never expected this. He was an officer! And he got shot. Did he rebel? Or something like that? Say something offensive to another official?
I hope they didn’t hit him first, but from the looks of the welt above his eye, he probably did. I want him not to hurt. And I feel bad for being rude to him. The last thing I said to him was ‘Thanks for the warning, bud. Bye.’
It’s not like I knew him well. But I’m sure he had a family from the south or where ever he comes from. And now they’ll never know what’s happened to their son, husband, brother, or friend. I feel horrible. But I didn’t kill him, and I closed his eyes for him, and I am now rolling his body over. Ashby bends down to help me.
We get him onto his back, and then I cross his limp arms over his chest. Without thinking, I pull a purple paint can from my bag. On the ground next to his body, I write, Sorry, as beautifully as I can.
Ashby is silent beside me. I sit on the cold ground next to this man’s body. And Ashby just lets me for about ten minutes. Fat tears roll down my cheeks. I don’t know. I just haven’t cried like this in a really long time, and it is all coming out right now.
“Ready?” Ashby finally asks.
“Yeah.” I say shakily. My knees wobble and I feel rickety as I stand.
“Are you sure you still want to do this tonight?” Ashby asks.
“Yeah.” I repeat.
“I think I should take you home.” Ashby persists.
“No.” I say, maybe a little too harshly. But he backs off. When we get to the wall, only one guard is there. He’s singing softly to himself, ‘Acid rain, when Abel looked up at Cain. We began the weeping and the wailing. A hurried high from pestilence, pills and pride. It’s a shame, we could have gone sailing. But heaven knows, heaven knows everything. Tranquillize.’ I recognize the song. My dad used to play it. I think it’s by The Killers, who are now outdated. Lots of the older generations still listen to it.
This guy has apparently forgotten the other verses, or doesn’t like the other ones, because he only sings this one. He cant be more than eighteen years old, and it bugs me that this kid is an officer. I’m pretty sure I remember him from LearnCo a year ago. He ‘graduated’ by turning eighteen.
I don’t remember his name, but me and Ashby back away after, like, fifteen minutes of listening to this song over and over again.
Ashby turns at the street to his house, and I walk home alone. I’m not quite steady on my feet yet, but I make it home in one piece. My mother is waiting for me in the kitchen.
“What’s wrong?” she asks right away.
“Your eyes are all puffy, Noelle.”
“Gee, thanks, Mom.” I say sarcastically.
“Noelle. You know what I meant. Have you been crying?”
“Come here.” She says, opening her arms to me. I let her wrap them around me and I let her. I just don’t want to have this be the last thing we did (argue) if something bad is going to happen. If that guy was right.
Tomorrow, there had better not be any guards. I’m painting no matter what. No matter where I have to, I’m painting. I breathe in my mother’s scent. It smells like lotion and powder and a little bit of lavender. I haven’t hugged her in a long time and it feels good. I feel six years old again, like I’ve just scraped my knee and my mother is comforting me.
But this is different. This feels like a good-bye to me.
I walk into our kitchen to see Parker sitting on the counter again.
“Hey.” She says.
“Hey. Mom and Dad back yet?”
“God. I hate them sometimes.”
“Really? ‘Cause I hate them all the time.” Parker says. The green counter beneath her legs reflects a green shadow on her face.
“We need water.” I change the subject. It’s true though. We do need water because otherwise we are going to die of thirst. Parker is silent. She plucks at the hem of her shirt uncomfortably.
“Are--” she starts hesitantly. “Are you going there tomorrow, too?”
“I have to.” I lie. It’s not for Noelle or for Brother. It’s because I like to be with them.
“Because you need her more than me? Because your twin sister who sits home alone all day, isn’t as important as some girl you just met a month ago?”
“Parker, come on. I don’t need this.” I sigh and rub my tired eyes.
“Do you love her?” Parker asks quietly.
“Jeez, Parker. What are you trying to do to me?”
“You do. You do love her, don’t you?” I sigh again heavily.
“I do.” I can’t believe I just told my pain-in-the-butt sister that.
“Okay then. Whatever. Go hang out with her.”
“That’s all I needed to know. I’m not going to split you guys up.”
I don’t sleep at all tonight. I just sit by the fire and ruminate. I don’t feel like sleeping. Mother went to bed hours ago, so I just sing to myself and think. I don’t hardly know any songs anymore. I haven’t heard any since before the power went out, so I just sing my own versions of songs I used to like. Quietly, though, so as not to wake anyone.
By dawn, it is snowing again. Evil, acid snow, though.
Brother comes down the stairs at about seven, in a better mood than yesterday.
“Hi!” he says.
“Hey,” I pat the hearth next to me and he sits down. He’s really cold, shivering, chattering teeth, the whole nine yards. I rub his arms to create friction and hug him close.
“You should sleep by the fire tonight.” I tell him. “Do you want a warm honey biscuit?” I ask. He nods and I go get a biscuit and some honey. I put the biscuit close to the coals for a few minutes. Then I pull it out carefully, and apply the honey.
He eats it in silence. My stomach growls at the aroma coming off the warm bread. I inhale and my mouth starts watering. But I’m saving the biscuits for him, and I will not have another.
Ashby comes over later than usual. It’s almost three by the time he rolls around. Me and Brother are on the old couch playing hand games. Ashby doesn’t even knock, he just lets himself in and sits next to Brother.
“Ever heard of concentration?” Ashby asks, referring to a hand game that I had forgotten about. Brother shakes his head. Ashby takes Brother’s hands and directs them into a game. Then he recites the words, ‘Concentration. Sixty-four. No repeats. Or hesitation. I’ll start. With animals. Giraffe.’ Brother explodes into giggles at the word giraffe and cannot say his part. It takes a few tries, but eventually he gets the hang of it and can play for minutes at a time.
Mother comes down the stairs and takes Brother away for a nap. It’s like four o’clock now, darkness only an hour and a half away. Brother is whining in his room. He doesn’t want to take a nap. I listen to him until he falls silent, sleep overcoming.
Forty-five minutes left.
Me and Ashby start to play concentration, and are in stitches by the end of our third game. We keep missing a word or repeating or hesitating and for some reason it is extremely funny.
Before we know it, it’s completely dark. I stand up when I notice, and grab my bag.
“Come on!” I call. Ashby clasps my hand as we run to our mural. One guard tonight, too. We sit and wait, huddled together again, hoping for a chance to paint. My face is so cold I press it into Ashby’s chest. I listen to the guard, the same as last night, sing the same song, the same verse, over and over again.
My gloved hands are freezing even with Ashby holding them. My stockings offer very little protection from the cold (but it’s not like I’m going to ask Ashby to rub them. That would be a little weird.) and I’m shivering violently. I don’t know how long it’s been since we first sat down, but I’ve heard that song like a million times now. So then, after I don’t want to hear it anymore, I listen to Ashby’s heart.
His chin rests on my head. And I would have thought it would be uncomfortable, but it isn’t. It’s comforting.
My chin rests on top of her silky hair. It shines even in the darkness. I can’t see her eyes, since her face is pressed into my chest against the cold, but I bet they’d be shining too.
We wait. And wait. And wait some more.
The singing stops, and I raise my head. Noelle lifts hers, too. Together, we hear,
“Hey, man. What’s up?” Crap. Reinforcements.
“I have an idea.” Noelle whispers. She gives me the details, and we go.
The yellow spray paint can is poised in my hand a few blocks from our mural. Ashby is clearing away snow so that I can write. When all we see is red brick, I start the painting. The soft hiss of the pressurized can is like music to my ears. I write in a loopy, graceful scrawl. Ashby is behind me with a black.
When we are done, stretching from that block all the way to the school, reads: Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
We’re done! We’ve finished and we did a really good job.
“Hey!” We hear. Ashby curses under his breath. I toss my paint can into the corner by the wall and we run. First to the woods in case anyone is following us, then to my house. We are crazed with excitement.
“Can you believe it? We finished!” I exclaim when we reach my house.
“I know! We did the whole thing and didn’t get caught.”
“And tomorrow we get to walk to LearnCo and hear people gossip about it!” Ashby laughs. I can’t wait until tomorrow. But for now, I get warmed up by the fire. Ashby sits beside me. A strand of hair is in my eyes. Ashby reaches over hesitantly and puts it behind my ear. I smile shyly and look down. I know I must be blushing. I can feel the heat on my cheeks. Slowly, Ashby leans over to me again.
One of his arms reaches over my legs and rests on the brick hearth beside me. The other is closer to him. He turns his body and looks at me.
My brain is scrambling. Not this again! But this time, I want it to happen, I’m just so nervous and I don’t know what to do. He’s getting closer. I close my eyes, deciding that it’s best not to look. Blindly, I put my hand on the arm that reaches over my legs, and wait for him to lean in the last few inches.
“What are you doing?!” My mother exclaims when she comes downstairs. Ashby snaps into a standing position three feet away from me.
“Sorry ma’am. I think I’m gonna go home now. Have a good night, Noelle.” He turns back to me and winks. I smile and then glare at my mother.
Before LearnCo the next day, I walk to Noelle’s house. We walk together, taking the route of our latest vandalism. We laugh as we walk over it. Passing people are staring and pointing and smiling. We feel great.
Our hands are clasped, and I think about last night. About how incredibly close I came this time, even though I swore I wouldn’t. But then her mother walked in and kind of ruined it.
We get to LearnCo, and sure enough, the gossipy girls have their hands cupped to each other’s ears and are whispering things loudly like, “Who do you think it was?” and “Do you think they’ll get caught?” or “How do they do it without getting caught?”
Me and Noelle fight to suppress our grins. We head to the classroom when Teacher whistles, and separate into our assigned seats. She sits down and plays with a lock of hair.
I sit down and wait for the teacher to start class. I start braiding a small strand of hair nervously. Teacher starts class. I wait, and wait, and wait, for it to end. Before it can, someone bursts through the door. I whip around, my hair flying behind me.
Not someone. It’s four officers. Their black suits are so menacing against the stark white door that I almost pee my pants. They march in. Teacher goes over to them, and they talk in manly whispers to her. I can’t quite make it out. The whole class is turned around in their seats, watching.
When they are done, Ms. Steele specifically makes eye contact with me. Her eyes are sympathetic. And that scares me more than the men. They walk this way. Closer. Closer.
“Noelle Epger?” One of the men says in and unpleasantly vibrating voice.
“Yes.” I squeak. As soon as it’s out I know that I should have lied. The men surround my desk. I stand quickly, in defensive position. Oh, my God, I realize that there are four big men surrounding me. Before I can do a single thing, two of them grab my elbows.
“Hey!” They pick me up and I kick and kick but I can’t get loose. They have too tight of a grip on me. They start carrying me out of the room. “Hey!” I scream. Ashby is standing and running after me.
“Let her go!” He screams. Kids are filing out into the hallway. Oh my God! They have me in the hallway. I’m too weak to get out of their grip. It is so tight my hands are tingling. I struggle and kick and squirm but I can’t get free. Ashby is screaming but one of the men is holding him back. But I can see him fighting.
“Ashby!” I scream. Kids are watching me get hauled away backwards through the school. I don’t even know what their expressions are, because I’m watching Ashby. “Ashby!” I’m screaming again.
Then I start a new tactic. “I didn’t do anything! Stop! Stop! What did I do?” I keep yelling things like this over and over again trying to get them to stop before they get me out the doors.
“Stop!” I scream as loud as I can one last time. Ashby breaks free of the officer and gets to me. He grabs one of my feet and tries to pull me back. It hurts. I have three big men and a boy playing tug of war with my body.
“I’m not letting go!” Ashby promises. His eyes bore into mine, the light brown worried and frantic. It’s no use. His boots are slipping, and he’s getting dragged with me across the floor. “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” he promises like he did in that mall before he almost kissed me.
“It’s no use!” I tell him. “Ashby just let go. Just let go.”
“Never.“ He shakes his head, but I’m crying silently. His eyes are saying no. “Ashby. Let go.” I choke out. His hand unclasps and the warmth on my ankle is gone.
My foot drops. My calf swings down at the knee limply, and I get dragged the rest of the way out the door.
“I’ll come for you!“ Ashby yells. Another officer has him. I still struggle, harder than ever, just to make a point. Apparently I struggle too much because the last thing I remember is taking a rifle to the face, just like my last day in California. I hear Ashby scream in protest, and then nothing.
I wake up in a car. A car? Whoa.
One of the men is sitting in the back with me. From the way my arms and legs are splayed around, I guess that I’ve been thrown into the back of a van. A van without backseats and a divider between the back and the driver’s seats.
I’m sure I have a bruise under my left eye. The harsh black beside me distracts me from myself. I feel so vulnerable, laying in the back of a van, a wall distancing me and this guy from the driver.
I look into the man’s face, and see sadness…
“What reason do you have to be upset?” I voice. The man looks down at me.
“You love that boy. Don’t you?” the man assumes. I sit up. Ow. My head.
“Why would I tell you?” I snap.
“Good point.” He laughs. Crap. He seems nice. He has pretty blue eyes and a round face, and light brown hair. He wipes away his tears and shakes his head. He looks about eighteen to twenty years old.
“Where are we going?” I ask gruffly.
“Sorry. Can’t tell you.” he says. He does look sorry.
“How much longer?”
“About an hour.” I sit and wait, because I don’t know if I should believe him. After a while, I can’t stand the silence, so I break it.
“You got a family?” I ask.
“Yeah. Parents and a brother and a girlfriend.” He sits back, lost in thought. “How about you?” He asks after a minute.
“Mom and a brother and a dog. And Ashby. You saw him.”
“Aw, man. God dang it.” He swears quietly.
“What?” Is he swearing at me?
“Jesus. We took you from your goddam family. I can’t stand this job. Can’t stand it.” I’m surprised. I wasn’t expecting some man that I’ve known for fifteen minutes who captured me and threw me in the back of a van to open up like that.
“Well it’s not my fault.” I say.
“What do we have you here for, anyway?”
“I plead the fifth.” I say. I’m not telling him, since I’ve just denied having done anything wrong.
“Not anymore, you don’t.” He says.
“I‘m still not telling you anything... And technically there‘s no way you could make me.” I play up the I’m better than you thing again.
“I don’t care about what you did, if you even did anything. It’s those other guys you gotta worry about.”
“Well what are they gonna do about it?”
“What do you think?” he looks at me like I’m daft. I stay silent because I know what he means. But why on earth would they beat me just for information that they already have?
“They already know what I did. Why would they beat me just to get information that they already have?” I say aloud.
“For the fun.”
“The fun?!” I say incredulously. Hurting someone doesn’t sound like much fun.
“Times change, little one.”
“Oh, please. Don‘t act like you‘re eons more mature.” I say.
“Well then, excuse me.” he says patronizingly.
“Shut up. How old are you, boy?” I spit.
“Exactly. So that gives you a ton of room to talk.” I say, bitingly sarcastic.
“I know, I know.”
“And what does your family think of your new job?” I know I’m being cruel, but he deserves it for having this job and not standing up.
“They hate it, but it pays the bills.” He sighs. Wait a second.
“Pays the bills?” I quote.
“You use money?” I don’t believe this. I don’t believe any of this.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “Like you don’t.”
“We don’t.” That stops him short.
“Wait. You don’t?”
“I think we’ve established that, thank you.” I roll my eyes.
“Why don’t you use money?”
“Eventually survival takes over the need for a false concept like money. Trade comes about. Where do you live anyway?”
“Is that where Havel lives?” I assume. Washington D.C. Duh.
“Then I’d assume that your state is the only one still called a state, the only one with gas, food, electricity, and without acid rain.”
“Wait. Wait, wait wait. You don’t have gas, food, or electricity?”
“No. We haven’t for five years.”
“Someone’s been planting it in the clouds.”
“Jesus. What are you called if you aren’t a state?”
“A Dead Sector.”
“You’re kidding.” Now that the onslaught of questions is done, his disbelief sets in.
“I’m not.” He stops and thinks for a minute.
“Jesus.” he sighs. We hit a bump and get jostled a little bit. “I thought we had it bad.”
“Well what’s wrong with Virginia?”
“Well, nothing compared to you. But we have food shortages, and no heating systems.”
“Yeah. And now I feel like a spoiled brat.”
“Well you didn’t know. You can‘t know to feel lucky if you don‘t know what everyone else has.” I don’t know why I’m comforting him. I should hate him. But he seems nice and regretful and upset. He doesn’t look at me, I don’t look at him. I’m scared.
What’s coming? Where am I going? What are they going to do to me? Should I confess? Would that be better? Or should I keep denying having done anything wrong? These questions keep whirling around my head, nonstop, like a broken record.
I’m not crying. I stopped (duh) when I got knocked out, and I haven’t started since. I’m rationally panicked, if that makes any sense whatsoever. What am I going to do?
“So what’s the acid rain like?” the guy asks.
“Awful.” I sigh. “The first time, me and Ashby were outside. So was my brother. He’s five years old and he had thirteen acid burns before I could save him.”
“Jeez. How long has it been happening?”
“A few weeks.” I shrug. Then I turn around and show him the infected burn on my lower back. It’s oozing yellowish puss and staining my shirt. It’s so gross.
“Oh my God.” he says. I turn back around.
“Like, a hundred people have died of thirst. Our stream is too polluted. And all of our crops and animals have died.” He leans his head back. We are both silent for a few minutes.
“I didn’t catch your name.” he says.
“Noelle. I didn’t get yours either.”
“Adam.” I nod. Okay. I close my eyes and think.
I go over everyone close to me. Brother, my adorable little guy. His blue eyes and red hair. I can almost hear the pitter patter of his little feet. I can smell him, too. The milky baby powder smell of little kids dances before my nose.
I think of Mom. Her red hair and blue eyes so much like Brother’s. I can still hear her yelling at me. I’m glad I hugged her last night. That may have been the last time I’ll ever see her.
And mostly, I think of Ashby. His light, soft, gorgeous brown eyes. The fringe of long dark black eyelashes framing them beautifully. I think of his hair. The unkempt shagginess of the brown strands. I think of how he almost kissed me last night. He was so close. I can almost see him leaning in again.
But then I inhale and smell car. And I remember where I am.
And I remember Ashby’s promises.
I make myself think of something else because it isn’t his fault. I told him to let go. I keep my eyes closed and try to make my mind blank of everything.
“Stop thinking about him.” Adam says.
“How do you know what I was thinking about?” I open my eyes.
“I’m a very perceptive person. I know facial expressions.” I consider this for a moment, and attempt to make my face blank.
“Nice try.” he laughs. I don’t say anything. I just try harder.
“Whoa!” we are off road now. I can tell because it is really bumpy. I hit my head on the wall of the van and wince. Bump, bump, bumpity bump. I close my eyes again and just pretend that I’m not here.
I’m in the woods with Ashby. I am sitting on a branch. It is moving because he is struggling to get up. The engine sound is a plane passing overhead. If I look down, I’ll see Ashby fall to the ground as his branch snaps. He gets up loudly and I hear his feet crunch on the ground. I leap down, and in my daydream, Ashby puts a strand of my hair behind my ear. He leans in, his hand on my uninfected lower back. His lips meet mine and my heart flutters even though I’m not really there.
The car slows down. Doors open and close, and then ours do. The light makes me squint and I can’t see anything because they have been closed, seeing my fake-world for so long. When my eyes adjust, the men are not in a ready position. I wonder if they think I’m still knocked out. But I seize my chance.
I stand as quickly as I can and just bolt from the van. My feet hit the ground and my hair flies behind me. I sprint straight ahead, ten feet away before the officers can even react. I take a second to get my bearings.
But I know where I am.
I recognize the mountain line. The dry grass and the canyon are dead giveaways too. Far in the distance I see a city.
I’m in California.
How on earth did I get to California in a few hours? Unless I was out for longer than I thought. But that’s like, three days from my sector to California.
I stopped for too long and my opportunity is gone.
The men rush into my line of vision and one of them strikes me in the face so hard my head snaps to the side and my hair whips around. I fall to the ground, eyes watering.
They pick me up. One on each side, holding my elbows and behind my knees. I see what I didn’t before as the turn me back to the van. A hard, cold-looking cement building with a razor wire fence stands fifty yards from the van.
“Let me down!” I protest. They do but keep a firm grip on my elbows, guiding me roughly to the prison standing behind the van. Oh my God they are taking me to a prison! I surely didn’t do anything that bad! Though I guess Adam did kind of warn me that something bad was in store unless I confessed.
But they already know what I did. So wait. Why am I going to prison? For vandalism? Since when was spray painting an old brick wall a huge enough crime to take a fifteen-year-old girl to California for prison?
Since the fall of the Constitution. That’s when.
But I’m going to freaking prison! I can’t quite get my head around it, even as the drag me across the field toward it. Warm, calloused hands are at my elbows, once more cutting off circulation like a tourniquet. The dry grass crunches beneath my unwilling feet, the warm, dry air brushes across my face. It’ll be all right. It whispers.
I hope it’s telling the truth. The familiar mountain line looks like a camel. I know exactly how to get to Beth’s house from this canyon. Her condo is on a hill by the ocean, and from the balconies in the office and the family room, you can see it.
Maybe ten minutes away from her house was a frozen yogurt stand. Up the hill from her was the community pool, which is where we spent most of our days, either tanning or playing water polo or racing.
There was a church at the very bottom of the hill. A giant stucco cross stood at a higher point on the hill, it was hollowed out, so once a day, where the two lines that make up a cross intersect, it looks like the sun is coming from it. The rest of the day, you can see the reflection of the water through it, the constantly clear skies above it.
On the other side of the hill is a park. Once, for her tenth birthday (the last one I was there for) we went there for a picnic. When we finished our sandwiches, we ran down the sloping hill to the highway. About a hundred yards from the busy black road teeming with expensive cars, was a huge boulder.
We stood on it for almost a half an hour, making the ‘honk’ motion with our hands. We were laughing and shoving each other.
I don’t know why, but all of a sudden all these memories are rushing back as I look over the mountains. A serene feeling takes over, and I give up. I give up trying to squirm out of their grasp, because there is no point. We are at the fence, and I try to go with as much dignity as I can muster. Head held high, walking straight, proudly. These men are too far below me to even enter my realm of consciousness. I let my hair swing freely behind me in the wind.
My legs move as smoothly as I can make them. My eyes stare at the whitish grass beneath my feet, and I fight back tears just as hard as I can. I blink them back and manage not to lose it completely. The security doors need a pass code. (they have freaking electricity???) One of the officers punches in a number. I manage to sneak a glance over his shoulder to try to catch the numbers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see all of the keypad.
The air-tight doors open with a soft hiss and I’m led into a room just as I had expected. Cement floors, cement walls, a little desk with a rolling chair. Hallways branch off to the left and the right of the desk. It’s a perfect temperature in here. They have heating and air conditioning, I’d bet. It smells of urine and tomato soup, with a hint of guy sweat.
They take me through the hallway on the left. There are cells lining the walls, with primitive metal bars as doors. The first three that we pass are completely empty. No one is in them.
But in the fourth, a man leans against the concrete wall in a corner by the bars. One of his arms dangles out into the hallway. I know this man.
“Governor Golden?” I ask softly. The man’s eyes open. He looks confused at first, then recognition flickers over his saggy features. It looks as though he’s lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time.
This man is the governor of California. Or he was, before the Evolution. I saw him once, Beth and I had walked down to the yogurt place while her mom was at work. Governor Golden was sitting on a bench outside it, eating a vanilla with cookie dough frozen yogurt. Beth and I didn’t recognize him at first. When we came out with our yogurts, we sat in the bench across from him.
“Vanilla with cookie dough?” he’d asked. He was talking to me. It was my absolute favorite thing to get.
“Yeah.” I said. I smiled and looked at Beth.
“Me too.” He said. We didn’t know who he was still.
“Cool.” We’d started talking more, Beth joining in. Eventually we figured out that he was the Governor. We talked for over an hour, and then he announced that he was late for a meeting. He left, and me and Beth disposed of our empty cups and walked back up the hill, happy to have met such an important person. He was rather large then, because he liked a lot of cookie dough in his daily frozen yogurt.
But the man I see now is hollow-looking. His cheekbones are sticking out, his grayish skin hanging off them. His cracked lips break into a smile, he nods his head. The flaps of skin on his neck wobble. His gray hair is thinning, patches of it completely gone, which makes me think that maybe it’s not just balding. That he’s sick or that someone is pulling it out.
“Don’t look so happy. She ain’t your visitor.” The guard on my right elbow says. The one on my left raises his foot and brings it down on Golden’s dangling arm with a sickening crunch. I flinch at the sound. Golden cries out and brings his arm back through the bars, cradling it to his depressed stomach.
I look into his eyes, and try to tell him how sorry I am.
“Noelle,” he whispers. I blink. Wow, he even remembers my name. I nod. The guards roughly shove me forward. They take me to the very end of the hallway, we pass seven other imprisoned people, but the only one who stays in my mind is Golden.
They broke his arm.
At the end of the dark hallway is… showers? There is steam coming from a thin, tiled hallway that branches from this one.
“Here.” A guard says nastily, unceremoniously handing me a pink towel.
“Shower up.” The other one grunts. They shove me into the steam-filled hallway and turn around to stand guard. I walk timidly into the room. All of it is tiled white and dark blue. Lockers are in rows, in between the rows of lockers are wooden benches. All that I can think about as I walk self-consciously into one of the cubicle showers is the second world war. They told people to undress and then gassed them to death. Cautiously, I turn the spigot to the far right, to the hot sign. Cold water sprays out and splashes off the floor. I leap back, out of range. I watch the water for about a minute, and slowly, I see the wispy tendrils of steam curl from the water.
I go to a bench. I sit down on the wooden beam and take my boots off. I pull off my skirt. Hesitantly, I slide my tights from my legs. I take my clothes and boots with me to the shower, and lay them over the wall of the shower so they can’t be stolen. I don’t want new clothes.
My towel is on the hook outside the cubicle, and not too reluctantly, I step into the hot, running water. It’s glorious, and definitely not toxic gas. I let the hot water wash over my head, wetting my hair for the first time in a long time.
I look up to a little basket that hangs on the faucet. They have shampoo! Pantene shampoo at that. Eagerly, I pour a ton into my palm and rub it into my hair. After I wash it out, I see conditioner. Oh, lord. It’s been forever since I’ve used conditioner. I pour a huge glob of the creamy white re-hydrating stuff into my ready hand. I comb it through my hair with my fingers. It feels so good.
I earnestly grab a bar of soap and my heart practically skips a beat when I see the grapefruit body wash. Quickly I rinse off the soap and then scrub my body with the citrus-smelling cleanser. I wash my face and every nook and cranny of my body.
By the time I’m done, I smell amazing. I step out of the shower and grab my towel. I turn off the water and grab my things.
And then I feel awful because I have running water and body scrub and shampoo while my family and Ashby can’t even get something clean to wash the counters with. They don’t have water or food and I shouldn’t be enjoying myself.
But I’m in jail. So I remove these thoughts from my mind and pull my clothes back on. I towel-dry my hair and wait for a guard to come and get me. But am I one to just sit around and wait? No.
So I get up and explore the tiny locker room. I count the lockers. Forty-eight in all. Three rows of sixteen grey lockers. Benches are between them. About eight of the lockers have locks, so I assume that the employees use those ones. I look in the non-locked lockers and find lots of things. In one, there is a stick of deodorant. I also find a gold chain, a ring, and a hair scrunchie. I didn’t see any women in the cells though, so maybe they stay in the corridor that was on the right.
I open another locker and a gigantic cockroach scuttles out, scaring me half to death. I watch it go, its little legs moving like paddles. It disappears into another locker.
Someone clears their throat while I’m trying to find the cockroach again. It makes me jump and hit my head on the shelf of the locker I was looking in. I rub my head and see Adam standing at the end of the row of lockers.
“I’ve got to take you to your cell.” He says regretfully.
“Okay.” I grumble, still rubbing my head. He doesn’t grab my elbow like the other guys, he just lets me follow him. I wonder if he’s hoping I’ll find some way to escape. But there isn’t an opportunity because I can’t see a door from where we are walking. He takes me back through the hallway with Golden and his broken arm. I whisper ‘sorry’ as I approach him. He has a crudely made splint on the arm, but despite the pain I’m sure he’s in, he nods is pale head.
Adam takes me down the corridor where I think the women stay. But the first person in a cell I see is a man. My assumption was wrong. He leads me to the back, where a cell with glass walls is. I look behind me to see if I can see an exit, because I can’t see a way out of this one. It’s glass. With air tight doors that are opening while I crane my neck for an escape. I turn around and see someone emerging from the cell who I did not expect to see here in a million years.
I watch her go. I watch in horror as they knock her out with the butt of a gun, and call out in anger. Wordless rage escapes my lips, until I’m not sure what hurts worse, my throat or the fact that she’s gone (actually, I know which one is worse). I will find her and save her. I must. I run with the men, trying to get away from the one holding me back. Noelle’s head hangs limply from her neck as they drag her to a van. I hear it start and see them literally throw her into the back of it. I scream with rage as they do, but no one listens to me.
The back doors slam as a young man gets in with her. The van starts to drive away and I follow. I follow in a run, then a sprint. I try to keep pace but by the third block I lose them because they are going too fast. I sit back against the wall and try not to cry. They took her! I get up and walk in a numb way.
No expression on my face, no idea where my feet are taking me. I see the cobblestones beneath my feet and hear my shallow breathing, but from a distance. I’m not really here. This isn’t really happening.
“Ashee!” I look up. This is where I was going. To her house.
“Hey, Brother.” I greet him. He runs up and hugs my leg. I pat his head and keep going up to the house. I need to tell her mother. She’s in the kitchen. She jumps when I accidentally slam the screen door, a dirty dishtowel in her hands.
Her face falls dreadfully when she sees my expression.
I tell her what happened in a numb, unfeeling voice that scares me. Her mother is silent. Only gasps make a noise as she cries, clutching that towel to her chest. I don’t let her say anything after I’m done. I just walk out the door to my house.
My sister is sitting on the kitchen counter again. I try not to laugh, because this is the only place I ever seem to see here anymore.
“What happened?” She asks as soon as I’m through the door. I shake my head, but I end up telling her anyway. I fall asleep, sitting against a kitchen cabinet on the floor.
When I wake, I’m sure I can just go to her house and she’ll be there. But she isn’t. So I help Mrs. Epger with things. I try to find food in the forest for our families to split. I’m nowhere near as good at it as Noelle is, but I manage to get a beaver today. I try not to think as I kill it.
I don’t know what to do. I wander through the days, going to LearnCo. Playing with Brother. Hunting and gathering for the Epgers and us. Sleeping. Starting over again. I’m sitting in a branch on our old tree one day.
My ripped jeans have blood on them from where I cut my leg today. The acid rain is not relenting yet. But it happens about every other day at four in the afternoon. It will happen tomorrow, I think to myself.
I need to find a way to get to her. But I don’t even know where they took her. Our spray painting job was superb. I see officers trying to scrub it off every day, but it all stayed.
I see people gathering sometimes, to read it. They ooh and ah and it gives me pleasure, but also sends a surge of pain through my body. She was so good at painting that. Is so good (please don’t be dead).
I could try to follow the tire tracks, but the acid has probably already washed them away. I have to get to her. I have to save her.
I look up into the tree and am almost surprised not to see her up there in the thinner branches, laughing at me. Her hair would have been hanging down, shining in the sunlight. Her eyes would have been bright, their shocking purple loud against her soft skin.
I miss her.
But I get through. I don’t give up looking for ways to get to her. My sister tries to coax me out of my isolated self. But she can’t. And I feel badly for leaving her like this, all alone, our parents gone, and me out of it.
But I don’t know how to help her. I can’t help her until I help Noelle.
I’m walking down the street one day, and I see a new officer. He is young. Close to my age. I don’t know if he will know, but I have to check.
“Do you know where they took a girl, her name was Noelle Epger? She has dark brown hair and purple eyes?” I ask him.
“Purple eyes, huh? Very funny, kid. But, I would guess they took her to the holding chambers in California.” He walks away, thinking I was a prankster, when he actually just gave me the information I needed.
But California? That is so far away. How will I get all the way to California? How do I even know that he was telling the truth? I don’t. But then, one night, I’m lurking in an alleyway, trying to get snippets of conversations from the officers, and I get a confirmation on my suspicions.
“--Yeah. Yeah I heard.” one of the deep-voiced men says.
“She’s the first to rebel.” the other one says, impressed.
“Well, they say she wasn’t working alone.”
“Yeah. I’ll bet he’s trying to lie low so as not to get caught.” The other one laughs.
“Yeah, and not get sent to the Malibu canyon holding center.” I almost gasp. I clap a hand over my mouth and shrink farther into the shadows. They gave me an almost exact location!
“Dad!” I yell. His face lights up. I run at him. He opens his arms and I fly into them--
--and start pummeling him. He deserves it! He left us! I hit him again and again with my fists and I kick him and he lets me and it makes me really angry. I keep punching and kicking and punching and kicking until I’m out of breath and my hands hurt. My dad, the traitor, hugs me tightly, pinning my arms to my sides so I can’t hurt him anymore.
I can’t help it. I take in his smell. It’s the same, tainted just a little by the smells of prison. But I remember the smell of him. It brings back memories of being little again. He lets me go and I take a quick step back. His almost black, but still brown hair (like mine) has more grey in it than I remember.
He has crinkles around his eyes, and his mouth. He’s gotten older in five years, I realize. I was stupid to think he’d look the same. But his dark, dark blue eyes are the same, though they are filled with tears.
Adam gently pushes me and my dad into the glass cell. We’re staying together? I don’t want to stay with this man who left us!
“Noelle!” My dad says when the doors hiss closed.
“Dad.” I say coldly.
“Are you okay?”
“Peachy.” I say.
“Dying.” I say without thinking. He gasps and blinks. A single tear drifts down his cheek.
“And Brian?” He says, in a choking voice.
“Who?” I ask.
“Your brother.“ Oh. So that’s what we were going to name him.
“Dead.“ I say, again, without thinking. I feel bad because my dad breaks down and hits the floor. He starts sobbing.
“Why the hell do you care?” I snap.
“Noelle! Of course I care!” He says, shocked.
“No! You don’t! You left us!” I shriek.
“Do you have any idea? Of course I left you! Of course I did, but you have no idea why!”
“Yes, I do! You wanted to join the government because your chances of survival were better there than with a wife and two kids!”
“Well I had to act that, didn’t I?”
“It wasn’t acting!”
“It was! Noelle, it was! I tried to protect you three! Tried to make the world better for you by being on the inside, giving tips to the head of office.”
“Liar.” I spit.
“No. Did you notice that I’m in jail?”
“Yes, Dad. Thank you so very much for pointing that out! Of course I noticed!”
“Well I’m in here because they caught me making adjustments to a law!”
“Liar.” I say again. But it’s not very convincing.
“Come on, Noelle. I tried to make it better.”
“Well you didn’t. You made it worse! Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
“I’ve been here for two years.”
“Then no, you don’t! God, Dad! First, they teach us lies about the government. Our power is gone. Our plumbing is gone. Then, they started putting sulfuric acid in the clouds. It rained on us. It killed our game, our water source, and a ton of people.”
“God, no. Acid rain? And Brian? Is he really…?”
“No. I lied.”
“What about Annie?”
“She’s fine, as far as I know.” I say with a shrug. He sighs with relief and wipes tears from his eyes. He looks me up and down.
“My, you’ve grown.” He says.
“Well, yeah. That tends to happen when you don’t see a ten-year-old for five years.” I say sarcastically. He laughs.
“And what’s Brian look like?”
“Well, first of all, we call him Brother because of the naming law. Secondly, he’s scarred up pretty bad from the acid rain. But he looks just like Mom. The hair, the eyes, the skin. He’s so cute.” My dad swells with pride at the sound of it.
“And Annie? Has she changed?” I slide down and sit with my back against the glass door.
“Not really. Well, not that I can tell. I guess a little older. But I mean, her eyes didn’t change color.” My dad laughs again.
“What’s the town like?”
“We moved to the other end. We couldn’t stand being by all those close down places and pretty houses.” Dad nods, considering.
“Is Sammy okay?” I laugh.
“Yeah. She’s fine.”
“What happened? You seem different.” He says.
“Well what did you expect? I had to do everything after you left. Mom was a wreck until she had Brother--I mean Brian-- and then I had to get the food and go to LearnCo and everything.”
“I’m so proud of you.” I roll my eyes. “But why are you here? You shouldn’t be. This is for adults.”
“I’m quite the rebel. I painted the Preamble of the Constitution on a wall with my friend Ashby.” Dad groans.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Well, I know that now, thank you.” I say sarcastically. Dad laughs.
“But I’m glad you did.”
“Really?” I ask. It seems like he’d be angry.
“Of course I’m mad that you’re here, and it’s completely ridiculous that you are, but I’m glad you didn’t give in.” And even though I’m still a little angry with him, I’m glad I’ve pleased him.
I race back to the house after the officers pass. I grab my dad’s old hiking backpack, one of those big ones with the shoulder, chest, and hip straps. I put everything I might need in there. I put a kitchen knife at my belt and in my pack. I put a stale loaf of bread in, some leftover beaver, and a sleeping bag. One of those ones that is supposed to be good down to like, -20 degrees. I put in a water bottle as well. Empty, but maybe it will come in handy.
I put a booklet of matches and a lighter in there too. I hope it wont be long before I get to her. My sister is stretched out on the worn down couch, asleep. I shake her shoulder just a little bit.
“Parker,” I whisper. Her eyes flutter open.
“You leaving?” She says groggily.
“Thought you might.”
“Duh. You love her. And you should fight for someone you love.”
“I love you Parker.”
“I love you too, Ashby.”
“Will you be okay?” I ask.
“Yeah. I’ll figure something out.”
“Then can I ask you a favor?”
“Definitely.” She nods.
“Take care of her family. They’ll help you in return.”
“Okay. Now go. There are still semi trucks that go over the highway about ten miles away.”
“How do you know?”
“What do you think I do all day? Sit on the counter?” I laugh.
“Which direction?” I ask.
“Thanks.” I go out the back and head east. I packed a compass, too. I have an atlas in my pack to navigate the highways. It’s dark. Probably about ten o’clock at night. I walk quickly to the highway, but I’m weighed down by my backpack and I’m thirsty. Dirt and a little snow crunches beneath my feet, try as I might to make them silent. I cut through the forest, still heading east to the highway that should be at the other end of this patch of trees.
I know this section well from hanging out here with Noelle. So I walk quicker, since I know my way now. It still takes three hours to get the ten miles, and it’s one in the morning when I get there.
And it’s not like it’s a busy road. I’ve never actually seen a semi on this highway, but I trust my sister. So I settle down in the ditch beside the road, using part of my pack as a pillow.
The next thing I know, something is wetting my face. Run! Rain! is my first instinct. Then I open my eyes and see a black button surrounded by gold. Oh. It’s Sammy.
“Hey, girl.” I reach up a hand to pet her. I wonder how long I’ve been asleep, but it’s almost light out so at least a few hours. Wait. What is Sammy doing here?
“Shoo, girl!” I hiss. She has to go home. But Sammy just keeps licking my face. “Stop it.” I hit her nose lightly. She sneezes right in my eye and then lays down. “Shoo! Go home!” I say louder. She shakes her head the way dogs do, her ears flapping. I laugh because it looks like she’s saying ‘no’.
I try to push her, but she wont budge she just (big surprise) sneezes. So I just let her lay there, waiting for the semi. When I hitch a ride, I’ll leave her here. She’ll go home.
I wait and wait. But I don’t hear a peep from the road. So I wait some more, as the sun peaks over the trees, sending little rays shining through the mist. I wait some more.
And then it’s almost ten o’clock and I still haven’t seen a semi. The hard dirt underneath me is making my muscles cramp, so I stand up and pace. Sammy follows, barking at my heels playfully. My tongue is swollen, stuck to the roof of my mouth. I’m so thirsty.
And then, just when I’m about to give up hope, I hear the distant sound of a car moving on the highway. It sounds far-off, but it’s here in less than five minutes. Sammy starts to bark, the strange huge moving thing is coming closer.
I wave my arms frantically. The driver has to pick me up. They just have to. I keep waving my arms, my heart beat accelerating as the truck gets closer. I can barely feel my arms, but I know they are moving. I think, for a second, that the truck is going to just pass right on by.
But it doesn’t. Quickly, I have to pray that this is a good person who wont turn me in. And then they’re on the shoulder of the road, opening their door and stepping out. Well, jumping. But whatever.
“What do ya need, kid?” A man with a scruffy brown beard and a plaid shirt asks. He stands with his feet apart slightly, like a cowboy or something.
“California. I need to go to California.” I say.
I’m so thirsty.
Dad and I keep talking, just about everything that has happened since he left. Hours later, a slat in the wall opens. And my mouth is weeping. Saliva pools in the corners of my mouth as the scent of bread reaches my nose. Two slices of bread, and two big glasses of water are on a tray that just got dropped on the ground.
Eagerly, I snatch the glass of water and gulp it down. All of it. (Well, except for the stuff that drips down my chin.) My father laughs.
“Shut up.” I snap. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
“You’re right. I guess I don’t. Here, have my bread.” He hands me the slice of white bread. I almost take it, but then I stiffen and hold my head high. I remember what I stand for, and how needy it would be to take his bread. I’m proud, and it make him laugh.
“That’s my girl.” he says, and then takes a sip of his water followed by a spiteful bite of his bread. I scowl a little bit, but I can’t for long because I whip my head around at the sound of the door opening.
It’s Adam. His eyes say what he can’t: Sorry. I shake my head. It’s fine. I knew it was coming. I stand up, stagger a little as the water makes its way through my system, and let Adam lead me gently to a corridor that branches off of this one. I did not notice it before.
Our footsteps echo, and it makes me uncomfortable because they can hear us. There are no soft surfaces here, so every sound carries farther and louder. A hopeless question floats around my head, How will I ever get out of here? And I don’t know the answer. I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know who will be there, I don’t know what they are going to do to me, I don’t know if I’ll ever see Ashby or Brother or my mom or Beth ever again. And not knowing any of these things makes me feel depressed and scared and very, very lonely.
A mirror is at the end of the hallway, and at first our reflections scare me; I think it‘s someone else. The mirror acts like a light in its own, reflecting the lights from the ceiling to make them twice as bright. Adam confuses me with his next move. He raps his fist on the smooth face and I realize that it’s a door.
A one-way mirror so these people can see who is coming and leave their guests wondering. It slides open and Adam leads me in. I first see grey (surprising, right? Everything here is grey). And then I see black suits, and pale faces, and vicious stares. My eyes widen and I turn back toward the door (is it still possible to get out?) and feel something bump against my side. The door is closed but that little bump gives me more courage.
I still have a knife in my belt. Wow. How stupid can you get, not to check someone for weapons? My hand flies to my hip without my consent, and I catch Adam’s eye. He winks subtly and I’m sure that he was the one who was supposed to check me. But this soft-hearted boy let me have my knife because he is on my side. A grin escapes as I try to suppress it. And then I see the questioning, evil glances from the men sitting down in cold metal chairs, and my grin spreads wider.
They raise an eyebrow each, like what is wrong with this girl? Why is she smiling? and I’m pleased to have made them think. I flip my hair over my shoulder and hold my head high.
“Take a seat.” One of them says roughly. He is missing a tooth, and he has an earring in his right ear. He kicks out a metal chair across from him and his buddy. I stay standing.
The other one leans forward, folding his hands together with his elbows on the table and his chin on his fingers. He has hair on his knuckles, I realize. I raise my head higher, neck straining.
Adam slides the door closed, telling me with his eyes again.
“Okay. Yeah. I’m going to Arizona, kid. I’ll drop you off when I get there.”
“Thanks, mister.” I say, a smile of relief breaking over my face. Sammy, beside me, sneezes.
“You stay hidden in the back. You don’t tell no one where you got the ride. You don’t tell no one you saw me.” He says severely. I don’t even think about contradicting him. “I don’t get your name, you don’t get mine, and we don’t have anything to tell the cops.” I nod. He goes around the metal box that sits on sixteen wheels (eighteen?) and opens the back. The door rolls up with a loud metal rattle.
“Get in. Close it after you, and don’t take the goddam dog.” He says. He steps back, walks away, and I hear the driver side door open.
“Sorry Sammy. You gotta go back.” Sammy’s golden eyes search me, and I melt. How can you not melt when you’re looking into that? I hop into the back of the semi, and Sammy follows, her claws clicking on the metal floor. I hope the driver doesn’t hear, or if he does, he’ll think It’s something else. Like, I don’t know. Gravel or something. Reaching up, and then jumping because I’m not tall enough, I pull down the tab to bring the sliding metal door down. I sit down on a cardboard box. I don’t know what’s in it, but it’s pretty squishy once the cardboard collapses. Sammy comes up and licks my knee, and then sits on my lap. And as much skin and bones as that dog is, she is no feather. I grunt as she drops down on me.
Sammy closes her eyes and settles in against me, sighing and then, of course, sneezing. I lean back into the metal wall, getting ready for a long trip.
“You vandalized.” The one with hairy knuckles accuses. I don’t say anything. I haven’t sat down yet, though they have ordered me twice.
“Answer me.” He says in a dark voice.
“You didn’t ask a question.” I point out. He glares.
“No, thanks.” I say politely. The hairy guy stands up and comes over to me menacingly, squaring his shoulders and waddling muscularly. He’s right in front of me, and I raise my eyes to his (ew… they are a watered-down brown that looks like muddy water… not at all like Ashby’s gorgeous deep color.).
“No, I’m good.” I watch his hairy meaty hand raise from a distance, but I feel it on my cheek from right there. It throws my head to the side, and automatically brings water to my right eye. I can almost feel my cheek and eye swelling as he breathes heavily and sits back down.
“Sit!” the man all but yells. I blink back the tears in my right eye, and shake my head slightly. I don’t want to sit down. I don’t want to succumb to their orders.
“SIT!” he says, and sprays the shiny metal table with spittle.
“I’d really rather not, if you hadn’t already gathered that.”
“I said, sit!”
“I heard you. Ooh, look at those muscles ripple. You know, they say steroids are a major cause of muscled men getting brain damage.” That was probably not smart, but I had to. He stands up again and I know what is coming.
“What did you say to me?” He says in a quiet, angry voice.
“I think you heard me.” I barely manage to keep my voice form wobbling because he’s about to hit me. He brings back his hand like he’s going to scratch the back of his ugly head, and then snaps it forward on my right cheek again. My eye wells with tears and my brain rattles in my head.
“Now sit.” He kicks the chair that is meant to be mine, and goes to his own. The other guy is looking at me, astounded.
“I think you’d better sit down, girl.” the one with the missing tooth says. I don’t know why I’m making this so hard on myself, but I shake my head, sending a tear from my right eye skittering sideways over my cheek, and flying to the floor.
“Jesus, would ya look at this one.” The one who didn’t get up to smack me says softly to the other guy.
“We’ll need to break her.” the hairy one says. Oh, jeez. Break me? That doesn’t sound too good.
The driver pulls over to the side of the road a lot (I lost track of how many) of hours later. My legs are asleep from Sammy’s weight. I shove her off, and she hits the floor with a sneeze. How am I going to hide her? I spot a tarp in the corner of the truck.
“Sorry, Samster.” I whisper, and then I push her to the ground and slide her to the corner. I throw the tarp over her, and she sneezes just as the sliding metal door opens.
“Hey kid. I thought you might need to take a leak.” The driver guy says.
“Yeah, I do. Thanks.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna watch you do it. Close the door when you get back in.” He walks back around to the door and I hear it close. I uncover Sammy and let her out. We both go a behind a couple of trees, and then I hustle her back into the truck. I close the door and feel the engine start up and rattle the whole truck. I sit back down on the box, Sammy lays beside me.
I think of Noelle. What are they doing to her? Is she alright? Is she even alive? Are they feeding her and giving her water? Does she still have her knife? Does her hair still shine? Are her eyes still the way they were, does she think of me? I hate these questions. But I can’t stop thinking them.
So I come up with a few more. Does she need my help? I need to find her but does she know that I will? She’d better, because I promised. And I’m going to keep that promise.
Adam’s eyes are horrified as he grabs my elbow to take me back to my cell. He takes my arm gingerly, as lightly as possible, so as not to hurt me. I don’t want to take another step. I hurt. Everywhere. My eyes are almost completely swollen shut, my right one is completely closed. My left one is heading that way. My lips are humongous and bleeding, and I’m completely alone besides Adam, and I can’t help but feel pathetic and lonely.
Ashby? Where are you? You said you’d come, and you said you wouldn’t let anything happen to me. You lied.
My last conscious thought, as Adam lays me down in my cell, is this: Are you coming?
I wake with a jolt. My dream woke me, my legs and arms are shaking, I’m drenched in sweat, and I know something bad is happening to Noelle. I need to get there sooner. We need to go faster! I’m coming, Noelle. I’m coming.
Sammy licks my face, and I wait in the darkness of the semi for us to reach our destination.
I stare at the gray ceiling as I assess my situation. I’m hurt, but how badly? My right eye is still swollen mostly shut, but my left is open a bit more. I lick my lips. Ow. I move each of my fingers one at a time, then my wrists. My left one is sore, because I threw it out behind me to catch my fall. I stretch my entire arm. My right one at the elbow, is bruised from where I blocked my face from those guys. My legs are a little sore, but nothing serious. My back is bruised badly from when I slammed into a cement wall. My neck is okay. The back of my head is really painful, I don’t remember what happened there.
“Noelle?” My father asks softly. He is sitting right next to me, his face is tight with worry.
“Hi, Dad.” I breathe. His face goes slack with relief.
“Thank God.” He whispers. “You okay, kiddo?”
“I think so.” I don’t sit up, because I don’t think I can.
“You look pretty beat up.”
“I feel pretty beat up.” I groan. “But that tends to happen when you refuse a direct order, and then further provoke two three hundred pound monsters.”
“My God, Noelle. What did you do?”
“I didn’t want to sit down. And I discretely called one of them stupid.”
“I cannot believe you. You can’t do that! They’ll beat you up!”
“Believe it or not, I’d already found that out.” Dad laughs and shakes his head.
“You haven’t changed much in some ways, Noelle.”
“You don’t know, Dad. If you asked anyone else, they’ll say that I have.” He nods solemnly.
“Who’s Abby?” He asks after a moment. I freeze. How did he find out about Ashby? “You were talking in your sleep.” He explains.
“Oh. It’s Ashby. He’s a friend.”
“One who promised you something?” Oh jeez. Did I say ’you promised’ or something?
“Okay… What did he promise?” I sigh.
“He said he’d come for me.”
“Oh. Oh. You got an interested boy, Noelle.”
“I hope so.” I whisper inaudibly.
Sammy wet herself. I’m about to. I cover the wet spot with the tarp and ignore the fact that it’s getting warmer as we travel farther west. I want to be there, now! But even after we get to Arizona, I have to get to California somehow. I’ll walk. Or run. Maybe I’ll hitch a ride with someone, if semis even go to California, because heaven knows they don’t come to our town.
I don’t know how long it’s been since the last bathroom break. But at least eight hours, because I have to go and I haven’t even had anything to drink. I hope we are almost there, but I really have no way of knowing, since there are no windows in here. I don’t like this feeling of not knowing.
Sammy sneezes, and then licks my ankle. I rest my head against the metal wall, and pat her back. She barks quietly.
“Shh!” I hiss. She shushes up, puts her head dejectedly on my foot. I wish I hadn’t brought her. Will the Epgers worry? But would Noelle like to see her? Of course. So it’s a good thing I brought her. Sort of. Except that I have to deal with her now.
As I get more energy, and am in less pain, I sit up slowly. My head spins and my ears buzz, my lips throb and my eyes tear, but other than that, it’s completely pleasant. I grunt and lean back against the wall.
The slat in the wall opens and gives us the water and bread. I gulp down the water, and ignore the fact that when I take the glass away, there is blood in the shape of my lips on it.
I scarf down the bread, because it’s been what, twelve hours since my last slice? But my father doesn’t take a bite or sip of his.
“I can’t believe you.” He says.
“What?” I say, suddenly self-conscious. Was it bad to eat? Or drink?
“You’re so tough.” My forehead creases because I don’t know what he is talking about. “Look at you. You just got beaten by two over-grown men for being the defiant little stubborn thing you are, and here you sit, eating. Pretending it doesn’t hurt.”
“Well… It’s not so bad.”
“Oh really? Smile then.” Uh-oh. I pull my cheeks up, but I guess it ends up as more of a grimace, plus it hurts. My dad laughs, and then shakes his head. I let my face fall back to my norm, and resume boredom. I listen to my father chew, swallow, and sip. It’s kind of gross, but weirdly entertaining.
I rap out a beat on the floor with my knuckles, and try to remember the words to the song I’m giving the beat for. I can’t and it’s bugging me. I hear a guard singing, but barely because this is a mostly sound proof cell. I think the only reason I can hear it is because of the little slot in the wall that gives us our food.
I still can’t place the tune. I think back on my music players, all the songs I’ve ever heard. I still can’t remember it.
After a long while, I feel the truck slow down. I hope we are there. What will the guy say about Sammy? How can I hide her?
We stop, gravel crunches under our wheels. I hear the guy open his door, and then it slams shut. He comes around the back, his boots crunch crunch crunching across the gravel. The metal door slides open, making a huge racket and rattling the walls. I quickly shove a box in front of Sammy, hiding her from view.
“Okay, kid. I never saw you, you never saw me. We are in Arizona. Good luck with whatever you’re doing, and don’t say a word about me.”
“Yes, sir.” I say, surprised by how deep my voice seems to have gotten in the last few days. “Thank you.” I really am thankful. Without this dude, I might never have made it this far. I watch the guy turn on his heel and then hear him go back to his door. I pull Sammy by the collar out of the truck and take her to the side of the road with me. With my backpack securely strapped to me, we walk.
The guy turns his head just in time to see me and Sammy making our escape. His eyes widen at the sight of the dog and I see his lips form a curse word. I mouth ‘sorry’ and keep running with Sammy. I follow the sun west. It’s dry as heck here, and about three minutes later I think I might pass out from heat stroke or dehydration.
I wish I had some water. But I don’t. So I keep going along the road, dust blowing across it like vapor of dry ice. It cuts my ankles because of the fierce wind. I smell something odd. It reminds me of gas stations for some reason, but I don’t know what it is. It’s an uncomfortable smell, like grease. It coats my throat and makes me feel like I just drank a gallon of animal fat. I heard once that a woman escaped the black plague because she drank a whole tub of lard in her thirst. (Wow, I must be dehydrated to have gone off on such a tangent.)
Sammy sneezes and makes a funny face, so I know she smells it too. We keep running down the blacktop road, getting sand in our nooks and crannies, but trudging forward regardless. Noelle, Noelle, Noelle, I chant in my head to keep me going. My foot barely makes it in front of the other. My blood feels thick, sluggish, as it courses through my veins. It’s not tremendously hot here, seeing as it’s November and all. But boy, is it dry. My tongue feels swollen and dry in my mouth, like I ate a hot dog bun dry.
I want to think that I’m going close to thirty miles an hour. But who am I kidding? It’s not even physically possible to go that fast on foot. I’m probably going around four miles an hour. At this rate, Noelle will be ninety-three by the time I reach her. If she’s still alive.
I wince and push forward and try not to think those darker thoughts that are threatening to eat me whole. They suck at my rational side, getting louder and louder until my rational side is gone. I don’t know how long I’ve been chasing the sun for, but it feels like a long time. My feet are dragging, my backpack feels like it weighs three hundred pounds.
Sammy is the only thing keeping me from just stopping. Her determined expression, and die-hard strides are giving me courage.
Why are you even trying? A little voice snickers at me from my head.
“I have to.” I say aloud.
She’s dead, kid. Get over it. The sickly voice says.
“Shut up! You just shut up. She’s alive and I promised her.” My words come out garbled by my sausage-sized tongue.
Oh, yessss. It hisses. I know she’s dead. You wouldn’t even be able to find her if she were alive.
“I can find her. You just shut up!” I hit my head with my fist.
Ashby. Another voice says softly. I look up, startled, because I know this voice like the back of my hand. Ashby, get a grip. She says. Noelle! Just come and get me already! It’s weird here. I laugh aloud. I take another step and she’s in my arms. My head is spinning, whether from happiness at having found her, or dehydration, I’m not sure.
I stroke her hair as my consciousness fades, blacking at the edges, and then filling up.
I sit in the corner of my cell, head falling with fatigue and then popping back up as I realize I’m falling asleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see Ashby, and it’s always horrible. He’s covered in blood, one time. Clutching at his neck, blood keeps seeping into his shirt.
Another time, he’s alone in the desert, sprawled in the middle of a one-lane road. It scares me. So I try not to sleep because I can’t stand it. My glass of water and bread comes. I drink the water, but leave the bread. I’ve lost my appetite.
I wake with Noelle in my arms. Her silky hair is brushing against my face. I pop my eyelids open, and I see gold hair. Not black. Oh, no. It isn’t Noelle. It’s Sammy.
“Finally awake?” A voice calls from my left. Whoever it is, seems to have dragged me into some shade. Underneath me is hard rock. I’m a little cold. I manage to pull my head up. It spins like crazy. I look to my left and my first thought is Noelle! But no. She has the same dark hair, but hers is a lot shorter. Shoulder length. She looks about the same age as Noelle, but I can’t tell for certain. Her eyes are totally different. They are blue, and pretty I guess, but not the striking purple. And not completely fringed by long, dark lashes.
“Hey, there.” she says, in a sweet little-girl voice.
“Hi.” I say groggily. This girl bears quite a resemblance to Noelle.
“You got a name?” She asks boldly.
“Uh, yeah. Ashby.” I raise myself into a sitting position, Sammy leans herself into my lap.
“So what are you doing out here?” she asks.
“Looking for someone. You?”
“Sort of the same. Also escaping California.” My gut clenches and my face freezes. Escaping California.
“What’s wrong with California?” I ask, dreading the answer.
“Well, really, it’s the whole dry desert-y area. Like here, for instance. Did you notice the smell? They plant oil in the rain, and someone drops a match somewhere. The whole place catches fire before anyone can do anything about it.” At first, when I hear this, I think like olive oil. How can that be so terrible? But then I understand.
“But not Malibu Canyon, right?” I ask, sick to my stomach.
“That’s actually where I live. Lived. But no, not yet. I don’t want to get caught in it, so I left.” I nod, relieved beyond belief. “So who are you looking for? Girlfriend?”
“Sort of. Not really. Well, I mean, I’m really looking for her, but she’s not exactly my girlfriend.” Beth nods slowly.
“What’s her name?”
“Noelle.” I say. She stills, startled apparently.
“Yeah, how did you know?” I ask, surprised and a little freaked out.
“She’s my cousin!” Tears are in Beth’s eyes. “What’s she doing out west?”
“Um… actually, she got captured.” I say.
“For what?” She says breathlessly.
“Painting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution on a city wall.” To my intense dismay, she laughs. Laughs hard.
“That is so like her.” She stops and thinks for a minute. “Is she into you?” I cannot believe we were discussing Noelle’s capture, and now her love interest. Of course, though. They’re cousins. Girl cousins.
“I think so. I hope so.” I say.
“I’ll bet she is. You seem to be her type.” Beth stops and thinks again. “So you trying to be a hero or something? Win her over?”
“No!” I say, appalled. “I promised her I’d never let anything happen to her. And then I promised I’d come for her. So I’ll just be on my way, thank you.” I say briskly, stand up, and start walking out of the cave-thingy. Sammy follows anxiously, her nose snuffling into the back of my knee in a question.
“Wait!” I hear, and I turn. “I have to go with you.”
“Why?” Beth is getting to her feet, following me now.
“Because hel-lo I lived there. And you’re heading northwest instead of southwest. And she’s my cousin.”
“Okay.” I agree quickly. So I follow her for a few hours, my tongue getting dryer and dryer, my thoughts foggier and foggier. “Do you have any water?” I ask.
“Yup. Here.” She hands me a half-full (optimistic, aren’t I? I didn’t say half-empty) bottle of water. I drink a quarter of it, saving it for later. “Thanks.”
“They being cruel to you guys too?” she asks.
“Huh?” I don’t understand.
“The government or whatever.”
“Oh. Yeah. Acid rain, not oil.” Beth laughs.
“Like we didn’t have acid rain before this all started.”
“No.” I say seriously. “This is like burn-through-your-skin acid.” I show her a burn on my forearm to prove it. Her eyes widen, practically bugging-out. Sammy presses her snotty nose into my other palm reassuringly. I pat her head.
“Oh, my God.” She says.
“Yeah. One of Noelle’s is infected. On her back.”
“Did she get it bad?”
“The rain? Yeah. Worse than me. But her little brother got it the worst.”
“You mean Brian is still alive? Holy crap!”
“Brian. Noelle’s little brother.”
“Oh. His name isn’t Brian. He got born like, less than a day after they passed the naming law. We call him Brother.”
“Oh no. What about Aunt Annie? Uncle Brad?”
“Annie is fine. I have no idea about Mr. Epger though, since he left to join the government.”
“He joined the government?!”
“Oh, jeez.” We walk in silence for the next few moments, only the scuffling of our feet making noise, and Sammy’s almost-constant sneezing.
Dad is sleeping. I don’t know what to do. I’m so bored I would probably sit through a whole baseball game just to escape this. Dad stirs in his sleep, making little sounds as his head falls slightly to the side.
“Annie!” he shouts all of a sudden. Then, “Brian!” I didn’t know my dad had nightmares. I feel horrible for him. I hate nightmares.
Trying not to be selfish, I dismiss the fact that he hasn’t called out my name in panic. Just Mom’s and Brother’s. My dad settles down after a few minutes, barely mumbling now, something about “my strong little one”. I don’t know what he’s talking about.
I wait in silence, digging the heels of my boots into the cement over and over again, one knee up, one down. Then vice-versa. Finally, Dad wakes.
“Hi, Daddy.” I try not to scowl.
“Noelle.” He says softly. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” I blink, surprised. My face is bloody and bruised. Beautiful? I doubt it.
“Did you hit your head?” I ask. He laughs.
“No. I just don’t think I’ve told you that yet.” I shrug, inwardly flattered. “Are you missing somebody?” He asks. I flush, having been caught in the act of thinking about Ashby.
“Yeah.” I sigh.
“Yeah.” I sigh again. Dad nods knowingly. My eyelids are getting heavier and heavier. They feel like lead. Maybe tiny weights have been added to my eyelashes, I muse. It’s hard to keep them open. I think maybe my eyelid muscles will be sore tomorrow with the effort. But I don’t want to close them. I’ll see Ashby again, alone in the desert, or bloody. Or worse.
So I stay awake, my thoughts getting fuzzy and random.
I don’t know how far we’ve walked today.
“Do you know where we are?” I ask hesitantly. Sammy is dragging her almost-always wagging tail.
“Of course. We are almost in California. Right on the border, I think.” As Beth speaks, a green road sign comes into view. I can’t make it out, but I’m sure it’s one of those “Welcome to California” ones.
One hundred yards ahead, it says just that. I smile to myself. Then remember the dire situation we are in. Noelle? I’m communicating telepathically to you. Can you hear me? I’m coming. I’m almost there.
Stupid. I know. But maybe it’ll work.
So we tread down the road, as it becomes a four-lane (still empty). Intersections start to show up, faded yellow and white lines directing nonexistent cars. We cross them, watching as short, broken-down buildings come into view. Not just broken-down, I see. But burnt.
The scraggly bush surrounding the area is black, too.
Soon, we leave the small town, neither of us saying anything. We just stick to the highway. I wonder what we look like from another person’s point of view. Would they guess why we are so young and alone? They would just see two teenagers and a dog, thin and sunken with hunger and thirst. Walking alone on a highway in a burnt California.
“So why are you alone?” I ask after a long time. Beth is silent for a few moments, and I think maybe she didn’t hear me. Then, she answers, right as I was about to ask again.
“I don’t know.” She says. She doesn’t say anything for another few moments. Then, “We got separated in a fire. Not Malibu. I don’t remember much of it, but I’ve been alone for a few months.”
“I’m sorry.” I say truthfully.
“And what about you? Your parents actually let you come out here all alone?” She asks skeptically.
“No. They don’t know.”
“Ah. I see. A runaway.”
“Not exactly… They don’t know because they haven’t come home in a few weeks.” I say. It’s hard to say it.
“Yeah. My twin sister, Parker, is home alone right now. I hope she doesn’t get into too much trouble.” I feel instantly guilty. I haven’t thought about Parker for almost the whole time I’ve been gone. Is she okay?
“She’ll be okay. I think I remember you saying something about how you and Noelle spent lots of time together. I doubt Parker was a part of it. She’s used to being alone.”
“Well thank you!” I snap. “That makes me feel a ton better about the fact that I left her.” I say sarcastically.
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Beth protests. “I meant that she can take care of herself. I don’t think she needs you to be there all the time.”
“Sorry.” Adam pleads with his lips. I shrug, indifferent. He leads me gently down the hallway to the mirrored door. My eyes are almost healed, though my lips are still swollen (hey, at least they finally look full). I walk purposefully into the room, and take my seat in the metal chair.
The poorly lit room makes the over-grown men look like ghosts. I watch them look at me with surprise. She sat down! Is probably what they’re thinking. I flash them a bright smile, probably kind of creepy-looking because of the blood that is surely in my teeth.
“Stand up.” Hairy knuckles says.
“Nah. My legs are sort of sore from last time.” I decline gently as Adam closes the door.
“Stand up.” He says again.
“But last time you so wanted me to sit.” I wonder, pretending to be mildly puzzled.
“Yeah, well. This time we want you to stand.” The other one says.
“Alrighty then, gentlemen.” I say, and slowly rise from my chair.
“So who was you accomplice?”
“My what?” I ask.
“Partner in crime.” The hairy one explains.
“What crime?” I ask innocently.
“Painting city walls and streets.”
“Oh yeah, I saw that. I always wondered if they caught the person who did it.”
“You did it.”
“Me? Ha!” I snort quietly. “I’m a terrible artist. You want to see me paint something? It’ll scar your eyes for life.”
“So you say.”
“Yes, so I say.”
“Only problem is, we don’t believe you.”
“Oh.” I say dejectedly. “Well, that sounds like a personal issue. Take it up with someone who cares.”
“But we found your fingerprints on an old can of spray paint.”
“How odd.” I contemplate.
“How odd indeed.”
“So do you guys, like, lift weights? Like seriously?”
“Like, yeah.” The earring-ed one mocks.
“Cool. You know, I always found huge muscles on guys quite unattractive. I’m sure I’m not alone.”
“Thanks for the enlightening information.”
“Anytime, boys.” I say brightly.
“Admit it. You painted the walls.”
“I wont lie, guys. I didn’t paint the walls.”
“Yes, you did!” The hairy one lets his calm front slip for just a minute.
“No,” I say slowly, as if speaking to a very small child who is not understanding.
“No. Sorry. So… since I’m innocent, when can I go?”
“Ha! Innocent. Even if you are-- which you’re not-- we wouldn’t let you go. You could tell lies about us, start a ruckus among our citizens.”
“Oh, believe me. I’m not the one causing a ruckus.” I try not to let the new information of my certain death shock me. They both sigh in unison. One of them mutters something that I don’t quite catch. It sounds something like ‘don’t we know’ and then garbled.
“Sit.” hairy tells me.
“But you just told me to stand.”
“And now I’m telling you to sit, little girl.”
“Little girl?” I say, still standing. “I don’t think I’m so little. Neither do you, unless you usually beat up little girls and threaten them with death.” The guys stop for a second, and I think for a second that they might be remotely human. Then they shrug and continue interrogating me. I refuse and refuse to admit it. I don’t mention Ashby at all.
“You leave us no choice, then.” Hairy says. And he gets up with his fist drawn back.
“We need to hurry.” I say for the hundredth time. I felt a jolt inside me just now. I hope it wasn’t some weird sixth sense thing where I can feel when Noelle is in trouble. Sammy alerts, sensing my tension. Her hackles stand up, a low growl erupts from her throat, warning whatever is bothering me away.
I love this dog. I reach down and smooth her raised hairs gently, calming her with my relaxed touch. She sneezes contently and licks my wrist.
“We need to catch a ride.” Beth says.
“Why? Are we that far away?” I watch her pale face as she bites her lip.
“Well… I think so. If we want to get there before next week, then I think we should find something faster-moving.” She says.
“Great. Let’s just flag down a taxi or a semi real quick.” I say sarcastically. We haven’t seen a moving car at all. Not once.
“Tough luck. I don’t have to help you, you know.” she says.
“Uh, yes you do.” I remind her. “Noelle is your cousin, isn’t she?”
“Like that means anything to anyone else.” She says, and she’s right.
“But it means something to you.”
“It does.” she nods. “But I am doing this partly for you. You should at least be nice to me.” she says in her little-girl voice, full of hurt.
“Sorry.” I step over a railroad track. Sammy barks. The track beneath me rumbles. “Train.” I whisper.
“Train!” Beth exclaims. We look to the right, because that seems to be the way it’s coming from. It turns a corner, and we see the lights in the front.
“Jump on when it gets close. It’s going the right way.” She says, pushing me lightly off the tracks.
“What about Sammy?” I ask as the train nears.
“Carry her. Throw her on. Whatever works.” she shrugs, her shoulders brushing her hair. The first train car passes, and I can hardly hear myself think. It is so loud and rumbly. It is old. Rusting at the edges, squeaking with each passing car. Over the noise, I barely hear Beth shout, “This one!”
I reach down quickly, panicking, and grab Sammy. She squirms and tries to get down, but the door in this car is open. It may be the only one that is. So I throw her on and try not to think about if she flies out the other side of the car as I run to catch up. Beth leaps, her torn pant-leg catching on a hook and ripping. I run, grab a bar, and run some more. What if I cant get on? My brain tells me. I swing my legs out in front of me, using my stomach muscle to hoist myself into the car. My rump lands hard on the metal floor, bruising for sure. But I made it. We are one step closer to Noelle. One step closer to her.
I’m coming, Noelle.
Noelle I don’t even remember anything after the sixth punch. It goes black. And my next conscious thought is, ouch. My whole body hurts. I don’t know why they kept hitting me after I was knocked out. It’s not like that was going to get me to talk. I can’t move. I know for a fact this time that my wrist is broken from throwing it out again to catch myself. It is snapped in a weird angle. I can see because it lies on my chest, bent into itself. My eyes hardly open, my lips can’t form word. I don’t think my nose is broken though, so I’m thankful for that at least. A wave of pain hits me hard, and I puke. But I can’t turn to my stomach, so I get it on myself. The smell is disgusting, but at least people will know that I’m awake now. I feel something rustle beneath me, and instinctively I cringe away. But that hurts tremendously, and I lose what little vision I have. A few minutes (or hours) later, I come to because of a wet something dragging itself over my chin and neck. I open my eyes a crack, as far as they will go. I see my dad. I guess I’m laying on him, because I see him upside down, and his shirt is soaked in the water (I assume) from his glass, and wiping away my vomit. I gurgle something, a word, maybe. But I’m in too much pain to care what it was. I go out of it again. I dream. But not happy dreams. Sinister ones. Ashby, in the desert. Sammy is there with him, licking the blood off his face and chasing away vultures. Maggots crawl through his skin, eating him away. The image swirls away, drips into another. The hairy-knuckled man and the one with the earring loom over me in this dream. I am in a pool of my own blood, but perfectly fine. In the dream, I pretend to be dead, or they will kill me. I’m not breathing, blinking, anything. I listen to the men argue over whether or not I’m dead. One of my eyelids flutters in the dream. Hairy-knuckles comes down, straddling my chest, his beefy hands on my shoulders. “Liar. Worthless. He’s not coming. We know you’re alive.” he whispers, his voice dark and inky, smooth but evil. And then, his hands tighten their grip on my shoulders, and he lifts me. Then he smashes my head down on the concrete floor. The last thing I hear in the dream is, “He’s not coming. You’re worthless.” And I wake, yelling. “You’re okay. You’re okay.” My dad soothes, smoothing my hair. A tear escapes my swollen eye, dripping down my bloody face. I open my lips, wincing as the blood caking them shut pulls apart. New blood pools in the cuts in my mouth, making me cough. “Dad,” I gurgle. “Yeah, pumpkin?” he hasn’t called me that in a long while. “He’s not coming.” I say, muffled and wet-sounding. Another tear slides down my cheek, making a clean track through the grime and blood. “Yes he is, Noelle. You had better believe that he is coming for you.” “Unggg?” I mumble, my version of ‘huh?’ “Don’t you give up on him. He’s coming. Don’t give up on yourself, either. You’re in a bad way, Noelle.” He says softly, and I drift off again, unable to grasp consciousness again. Ashby “Don’t give up.” I find myself whispering while Beth sleeps in the train car. I cannot believe our good fortune. I mean, what are the chances that we would have been crossing train tracks in California, while a train that probably only moves once every few months comes along? Zilch. If anything besides Noelle were to keep me moving, it would be my increasingly good luck. But Noelle is still primary. The first thing I see when I close my eyes, the last thing I see before I fall asleep, the first thing I see when I wake. (Sappy, I know. Get over it) Beth blinks slowly into consciousness, her nose wrinkling as she stretches the muscles in her face. She sits up, leaning her back against the rattling car. Her hand wipes her brow, then down her cheek. She clacks her mouth as she takes her first swallow in a few hours. I find that I’m comparing her to Noelle. And I find that there is absolutely no competition. “What are you thinking about?” she asks, noticing me watching her. “Noelle.” “Ah.” I nod. “Can you believe our good luck?” I ask, trying to get rid of the slight awkwardness of that conversation. “Good luck?” She snorts. “Please! That’s all me, babe.” I laugh halfheartedly, then shake my head. I look out the open door, and gasp. Ocean! The little voice in my head screams. Blue and beautiful, there sits the ocean, her waves lapping at the sand. A sea breeze, salty and sweet, meets my tongue and brushes blackened branches. “Pretty, isn’t it?” Beth says softly. She sighs quietly. “At least, it used to be.” “I’ve never seen it.” I sit in silence and watch it for a long while. I listen to the waves, slowly eating up the shore in their thirst. “It used to be bluer.” Beth says quietly. “Before the rain.” She’s watching the ocean sadly, a friend who’s gone astray or left her somehow. “We have to get off.” She brings herself back, blinking quickly to get rid of her glassy eyes. Sammy sneezes. It is definitely a good thing that she is such a skinny dog, because this time I can’t throw her or she’d die. I put an arm between her front legs, squishing them to her chest and making her smaller. I take a wobbly step closer to the edge of the car. I hesitate. Waiting for the right patch of land, I watch. Beth finds a place good enough for her, and hits the ground rolling. I bend my knees, tensing. A big mound of sand looks softish, and I launch myself and Sammy out the doorway. Just as the balls of my feet hit the mound, I take the weight off of them and roll to my knees and then my back. Sammy whimpers and yelps as my chest crushes her. But then I’m off her and she’s standing and she’s okay. Beth is a hundred feet behind us, running to catch up. I watch the train as it rickets down the track, saying silent good-byes and thank-yous. Sammy is running around, excited. Beth knocks into me, a water bottle thrust into my hands. “Here, Samster.” I say as I crouch down to Sammy’s level. I don’t want this dog dying on me. I offer up the water, trying not to slosh any of it or waste it. I let Sammy drink for maybe a quarter of a bottle, then I take a long swig, and hand it to Beth, who’s looking at me skeptically. “You want me to drink from that?” she asks, face full of disgust. “Yes. When did you get all superficial? Well, besides the whole ‘does she like you’ part at the beginning?” I ask. “It’s called a joke, numbnuts.” She thumps my head and takes the bottle, finishing it. “This way.” She runs, throwing the bottle away. I follow. After fifteen minutes I’m absolutely gasping. “Conserve-- energy--” I gasp. She laughs and slows to a walk. “When did you get all wimpy?” she mimics me from earlier. “Well, besides the whole-- wait a second. Besides all the time.” “Funny.” I say dryly. “I’m dehydrated.” “You think I’m not?” “Whatever. How much longer?” “A day. Less, maybe.” Noelle When I finally come back to, people besides my dad are in the cell. My first thought: Ashby! My second: Oh, sh**. I’m still lying between my father’s legs, my head lolling off on his right knee. His warm hand stroking my hair soothingly still. I don’t hear much of what’s going on, but I know it isn’t good. My father stands up, making my head spin. He puts his hands under my head, cradling it and setting it gently on the ground. He stands all the way up again. Then comes back down and kisses my forehead. “Goodbye. I love you.” I think I hear, but I’m in such a daze I can only gurgle “No,” softly as the guards lead him out the door. “Daddy!” I whimper just before the door is closed. I catch sight of my father’s pained face as he hears my pitiful whine. He’s not coming back. I know from this look that he is gone for good. Not by his choice, of course. But gone none the less. I’m cold without him underneath me, lonely, too. But I’m not suffering long before I’m out again. When I come to the next time, someone else is in my room. “Shh.” they say. I open my eyes and see Adam standing over me. “I’m supposed to come in here and harass you. But I don’t think you need that right now.” He smiles sadly, studying my beaten self. “So ignore my hostile expression while I offer some comfort, okay?” He says, hardening his expression and sitting beside me. “Where’s my dad?” I ask right away, noticing the emptiness and the hurt around me. Adam doesn’t reply at first. I almost drift off again when he finally does. “I’m not actually sure.” He pauses, rehardening his facial features. “But I don’t think it’s good.” I sigh as best I can, trying to stay with it even as my vision spots black. “You know, you don’t have to let them to that to you.” he says. “I do.” I mumble almost unintelligibly. “Why?” “Pride, defiance. I don’t know. It’s not like I even did anything anyway.” I lie because even though I want to trust Adam, I know he might tell the guards if they ask. “There are studies behind torturing. They say that sometimes, just to escape the pain, people tell lies and get punished for crimes they didn’t commit.” I say. Adam nods sharply, trying to look angry again. “I’ll try not to let them do that to you again.” He says, taking in my face again. “But I don’t know if my word will count for anything around here.” My body throbs, big, painful throbs. With every beat of my heart, there is pain somewhere in my body. Like the blood that I need to keep my brain oxygenated is actually trying to kill me. I don’t know how many times I black out during our conversation, but every time it is because I shift a little, or my heart rate accelerates. “Don’t you hurt?” Adam finally asks. “Yes.” I grumble. “You have no idea.” I mutter under my breath. Another wave of nausea hits a few minutes later, but I manage to keep down the nothing in my stomach. I close my eyes, ignoring the pain. I think it’s getting better. But I don’t actually know. I fade out again and Adam is gone when I wake up. The emptiness around me fills me up with sorrow. My dad is gone. Adam is gone. Ashby is gone. I don’t know if my dad is coming back. Adam almost definitely is, and Ashby probably wont. Being alone with my lonely thoughts makes me more lonely. Ashby? Didn’t you promise? You said that you’d come. Are you coming? Please, Ashby. I can’t take it much longer. Can’t you just come and save me already? Ashby? Where are you? Asbhy Sammy licks my hand and sneezes as we climb our way through burnt mountainside and probably once-plush brush. I lose the ocean a couple of times as we trek, but most of the time I just watch it. With each step comes a new sight behind the ocean. Noelle running, Noelle throwing her head back and laughing. Noelle’s skirt flying out around her as she spins, her hair whipping her own eyes. Noelle’s lips, almost at mine. Her eyes, her veins. Stop it. The mean part of me says. If she’s already dead, you’re just setting yourself up for a whole lot more pain. Stop it. The voice is right. So I try to stop. It’s getting dark outside, the sun reflecting off the water and each wave as it tumbles. Rays of light scatter along the shore, looking like god-rays and making me feel very insignificant. Beth looks at the sun, a few inches from the horizon (from our point of view), and then back at me. “We need to pack it in for the night.” she says. “Traveling in the dark just gets people off-course and confused.” “Okay.” I agree reluctantly. I want to see Noelle tonight. But Beth is right. And I have to agree with her or she wont agree with me. So we find nice ditch in the side of the road, one with an almost-straight wall on one side. We make a lean-to with a random piece of plywood lying on the road. Thank God for that plywood. Sammy lays down right in the middle of the shelter. Of course. But I guess that’s good because we have space between us. Noelle The next time I wake (hours? days?) I’m in a lot less pain. Although, it’s not like I’m super happy about anything, or pain free in any way. But I can sit up at least without getting nauseated or fainting. So I sit up (throb, throb) and look around. A glass of water is sitting beside me (it has black dots in it from my spotted vision) and I reach greedily and drink the whole thing. It soothes my ragged throat, but not the throbbing pain. It’s better though. My room is dark and lonely, the grey corners staring at me, taunting me. All alone… they whine. Look at her… all alone… not coming… “Shut up.” I mutter. My insecurities are making a fool out of me. I shift a little, reaching out with my hand to grab the bread. I call out, my wrist absolutely shooting pain through my whole arm. Then I remember that it is broken, still flopping ridiculously down at a bad angle. My poor wrist. The door opens and it’s Adam. He looks at my wrist, cradled in my lap, and cringes. He sees me awake though, and sitting up, and sits next to me. My eyelids flutter a little (ow. Swollen eyes) and I look at him. “Hey,” He says gently. “Hi.” I mumble. “You look awful.” “Thanks.” I attempt humor. “Are you okay?” “I think so.” I say, testing it on my tongue to make sure it’s true. I watch as his face relaxes. “I was worried about ya, kid.” He sits down beside me, his almost-man body still a little clumsy from puberty. “I don’t need anyone to worry.” I say. “You’re very odd, you know that?” “Me?” I ask, numbly stung. “In a sort of good way. I don’t know what to expect from you. Humor, cynics, kindness.” “Oh.” I process that for a minute. “What’s your girlfriend like?” I finally ask. I think he mentioned having one while we were in the van. Adam sighs, tears glassing his eyes. “She’s…. her.” is all he says. And I think I understand. I don’t know how to describe Ashby, either. I wonder how long I’ve been here. How long it’s been since I’ve seen Ashby. The door opens with a familiar hiss, and I look up. “Howdy, ladies.” Hairy knuckles says. I cringe back ward, closer to the wall. Just the sight of my terrorizer scares the crap out of me. “Hello, sir.” Adam says, standing up, giving a fake-angry look at me. Toothless enters my cell, I cringe back further, moving my wrist and gasping at the pain. “We’re supposed to bandage up the b****.” Toothless says, drawing out a first-aid kit. “I’ll do it. Spare you guys the frustration.” Adam says. I thank him silently. “I don’t know… we have orders.” Hairy says. “I won’t tell. I’ll say you guys did it.” “Why so eager?” Toothless asks tauntingly. Then he looks at me. “Although,” He says, eyeing me up and down. “She is a nice little piece.” I shudder, sending pain through my whole body, blacking out again. Seconds later, I open my eyes again. pigs. my brain says. “You can have her.” Toothless says, and throws the first-aid box purposely at me. I wince and black out again as it jostles my arm. In the time that I’m out, Hairy and Toothless are both gone. “Phew.” Adam sighs. I feel the same way. No doubt they’d cause me as much pain as possible, purposely infecting cuts while they’re supposed to be ‘bandaging’ me. Adam kneels down at my side, and opens the plastic red and white box. I watch him, still from fear of pain. He takes out a little packet of something, opens it. I close my eyes. I hear the rustle of the packet and then feel wetness on my face. Stinging. I take in a quick breath through my teeth at the shock. I hear a sort of sizzle as the antiseptic cloth makes contact with blood. It must be hydrogen peroxide. Or something like it. Probably with some alcohol in it. Why am I doing this? To keep my mind off the pain? It’s not so bad (my arm objects to that statement). “Sorry.” Adam whispers. I shake my head, slightly. Still hurts. He wipes my face and my hairline down with the antiseptic gently, then opens another and gets my elbow (I guess I scraped the other one when I fell). Out of the box comes a splint. My eyes are open now, as wide as they will go without intense pain. “Sorry.” Adam whispers again. I nod this time, telling him to go on and do it already. He gingerly takes my wrist from my lap and I lose consciousness only for a second. The Velcro makes a rip as he opens it with one hand. He sets it on the ground. With one of his hands holding mine, his other gripping right below my elbow. Quickly, so I don’t feel it as much, he straightens it from its twisted position. I call out loudly, sharply. And then black out. I wake again, and he’s strapping the splint around my arm. It actually feels better (after he straps it, that is) now that my wrist is straight again. I let out my breath, long and slow. “Thanks.” I say softly. He shakes his head. “No problem.” “Hey,” I say, my thoughts clearer than they’ve been since the beating. “Yeah?” Adam asks, standing up. “Why doesn’t Governor Golden get a nice splint like this?” “Because. He’s guiltier than you.” “How?” “He completely turned against the government. To ‘save his citizens’ he says.” I can see it behind Adam’s eyes, that he clearly agrees with Governor Golden. “I have to get out of here.” I say, not sure that I can stand one more minute of this anxious waiting. “I’ll try to make that happen.”
Ashby When me and Beth wake up, at roughly the same time, a bird is calling. I a seagull, I think. I get up and out of our lean-to to find it. I look around, craning my neck this way and that. It sounds so close. I look down, and there it is. Five feet from me is a black, oil-covered seagull, calling out in a cracking voice. “Hey, buddy.” I say. I walk over to it, kneeling down and picking it up with my bare hands. “Ashby!” Beth calls sharply. “Birds have all kinds of diseases on them.” I roll my eyes, returning them to the poor bird who is too tired to even struggle in my arms. “Beth, we need soap. Got any Dawn?” I ask jokingly. But serious about the soap part. “Sorry. Fresh out. Now put it down.” “What are you, Anti-Pita?” I ask, a little angry. This poor bird deserves none of this. Beth sighs, searching through her tiny pack. “Where you gonna get the water, O Mighty Savior?” she asks, handing me a lump of bar soap. “Uh, well, this bird lives in salt water right? And soap separates oil from water? So ocean water.” “Whatever.” Beth says, putting up her hands in resignation. I don’t know why saving this bird is so important to me. But it just really is. This poor thing is weak and dirty and sick, and it doesn’t deserve any of this. Animals did nothing to the stupid government. Sammy barks, and sneezes, as if in agreement with my thoughts. I go down to the shore, a rocky one with lots of tide pools. I walk over the uneven surface, my ankles used to it because of the cobble stone streets back home. The bird is calling out softly, feebly. I finally pick a tide pool the right size, and tuck the bird under one arm. With the other, I scrape the bar of soap along the bottom of the pool and swish around the water, scraping, swishing, until I get bubbles. When the black oil is separated into little black bubbles, I put the bird in the water. It objects weakly, only for a second, and then it surrenders. I rub the bar of soap back and forth between my hands, and then massaging it into the bird’s feathers. The grayish black bird soon turns to white in my hands. The black bubbles get bigger, and soon almost completely cover the surface of the water. I take the bird out, it squawks joyfully. I release it from my hands, hoping it will fly away. But it doesn’t. It thunks back into my hands. I curse under my breath and look back up to Beth, who is perched on a rock a hundred yards back towards our lean-to, looking down at us. I walk back up towards her. “The damn bird wont fly.” I say angrily when I reach her. “Probably dehydrated and hungry.” she says calmly. “Yeah, well. It’s coming with us.” Beth groans, puts her hands into her hair and drags them through. “Ashby, what is this thing about saving stuff?” she complains. “This bird may be the last of its species!” I exclaim. “And I swear. It’s talking to me with its eyes.” The beady black eyes are saying ‘thanks.’ I swear. They are. “You’re insane! Leave that bird here, and let’s go!” “No. I’m taking it.” Beth groans again, but gathers her pack and gives me mine. We head out again. The bird is squalling like a banshee, now that it’s clean and happy. It doesn’t bite me though. Me and Beth walk for an hour or so, and then she see something. “Oh, s***.” she says in a low voice. “What?” “Fire.” She motions with her hand to the east, and I see it. Raging orange whips around on the yellow fields above us. The bird sees and takes off. “Oh, nice. Hitching a free ride, were we?” I spit, glaring after the gull. “Shut up about your g-dam bird! We have to run!” and she says it so seriously that I follow her as she breaks into a sprint. I keep thinking that the fire is right behind us, licking at our heels, but every time I turn back it isn’t. It’s just getting closer. So we run our butts off, Sammy panting like a dog (funny) at my side. Noelle As the day goes on, my wounds feel a lot better. My lips don’t hurt at all anymore, and my eyes aren’t swollen. Adam left an ice pack for me, and I’ve been icing my whole entire face. It’s working really well. Although I’m sure that my bruises are still horrible. And my wrist is far from healed. It still hurts like hell, just not the fiery pits of it like it used to. What would Ashby think of me now? Scarred and bloody and broken? Ashby? What would you think? Are you coming? Please. I need you. Come! You promised… Ashby? Please The pathetic voice in my head get smaller and quieter, more pathetic with each word. But I can’t help it. I am pathetic when I’m thinking about Ashby. Adam comes in with a new ice pack. “Consider yourself lucky. This came from my very own lunch, and I will now be eating warm egg salad sandwich.” I laugh. “Yeah, poor you.” I say as I put the new one against my face. “Your warm egg salad sandwich, versus my piece of stale bread. Who’s the one worse off now?” I joke. “Well you are obviously feeling better. All because of my expert patching up, no doubt.” “Yeah, definitely. Watch: my wrist will now be crooked for the rest of my life.” Adam laughs. “All the better. Then you’ll have a story to tell your grandkids.” I wince. “Sorry, I... I’m sorry.” He backtracks. Because I most likely won’t have grandchildren. I’ll probably die here. “It’s okay. It was a joke; I get it.” I smile - which doesn’t hurt near as bad as it did three hours ago - and laugh it off. “Good.” Adam smiles in relief. He leaves, probably to go eat his warm egg salad sandwich. It’s a good thing I never liked those, because otherwise I would be really jealous. My lean my hideous discolored head against the wall, for a second. And then I stand up for the first time since I got beaten. My head swirls just a little, but I steady myself up against the wall and am fine. I pace, not moving my wrist for obvious reasons. I’m fine. I really am. And I think even with these gross bruises I probably look half decent. And it doesn’t hurt. I don’t know what I’ll do though, the next time I’m questioned. I hope that I won’t spill, that I’ll be smart enough to just keep my mouth shut and follow orders. But I don’t know. I don’t know me anymore. Ashby “Come on!” Beth urges me. “I’m -- coming!” I huff because it is so hot and dry that I can barely rake air into my lungs. “Hurry!” “Shut the hell up, Beth!” I snap, fed up. The fire is directly behinds us, maybe ten yards and gaining. Sammy is barking at it, turning around every few minutes and barking as if to scare it away. I run and run. If I don’t live through this, how will Noelle? If I can’t rescue her, will she survive? Is she even alive now? Noelle Noelle Noelle I chant. It keeps me going. I say her name mentally with each noisy, tired footfall. Part of me wants to just give up, but a larger, braver part of me needs to keep going. Because I need to get to Malibu. I need Noelle so much that my life literally depends on her. Without her as my driving force, I would have given up long ago. Sweating and thirsty, I run on. We are closer to civilization now, lines of stores and fancy beach-front houses crowd the street, making me feel claustrophobic as the advancing line of fire closes us in even more. Beth cuts east (toward the fire I know) and up a hill. I follow her nervously as the fire edges nearer. Sammy barks a rasping bark, and I feel the same way with all the smoke around. In fact, it feels like I just swallowed a bunch of sand paper, followed by some scalding ash. “This way--” Beth gasps, coughs. “-- we can get over there-- without-- climbing a cliff--” And then I understand that farther down, there must be sheer cliff faces that wont let us up, so she has to get us east as soon as possible. I follow her silently (besides my ragged breath and coughing), waiting for her to change direction again. “How-- far?” I gasp, thinking that I might die of asphyxiation before burning. “About-- a mile--” I grow excited at the thought. About a mile and I’ll see Noelle hopefully. Noelle It’s growing uncomfortably hot in my cell. Adam checks in with me after lunch, where I’m pacing around like crazy. “Whoa there, speedster. You looked like you were about to run me down.” He says, hands up in surrender. I almost ran into him as I paced. “Sorry. I just feel a lot better.” “Glad to hear it.” He says. “Here,” he pulls out another antiseptic pad. “In case you need it or something.” “Thanks,” I say, wiping my brow. “Why is it so hot?” I ask. “Dunno. Maybe the air conditioning is out.” “Can I get a shower? I haven’t had one since the day I got here.” I ask, because I don’t smell so nice anymore. “I’ll see what I can do.” Adam winks and steps out. About three minutes later her comes back in. “Come on, rubba-dub-dub time.” He says. I follow him joyfully. On the way to the showers, we pass Governor Golden. I kneel quickly beside the sallow man, my splinted wrist clutched to my chest. “Noelle.” he breathes. “Hey, Governor.” I whisper. “You okay, kid? You look like death warmed over.” “I’m okay, sir. Just a little bruised. Are you okay? How’s the arm?” Sheepishly, I show him mine. “Damn. They got you good, sweetheart. Mine’s okay.” he shows me the crude splint. The skin on his arm is purplish blue. I look up to Adam. “That looks infected, Governor.” I say. “Yeah, well. What are you gonna do.” He says dejectedly. “Don’t give up, sir. Trust me. Don’t.” I get up, waving goodbye with my uninjured hand, and walk with Adam to the showers. “Suds it up, kid.” Adam says, and turns to leave. “Why do you always call me kid? You’re only a year and a half older than me.” “Because. You seem more innocent than any teenager I’ve ever met.” and he walks out the door. I sit on a bench, puzzled and sweating in the heat. I get up then, and turn the shower to cold water. I get undressed less hesitantly than last time, still bringing my stuff into the cubicle with me because I don’t want them stolen. I wash my hair, getting all the blood and grime out of it, and then the rest of my body. My cuts object, my bruises welcome. My wrist is halfway in between, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. I condition my hair, let it soak, and then get out and get dressed. It took me a total of probably six minutes, and then Adam is back. “That was quick.” He says, looking at my wet hair that is quickly drying in the heat. “Yeah. I smell great though.” “That’s true.” He says, punching in the code and pushing me gently into my cell. My hair dries the rest of the way in a matter of minutes. Ashby The mile it was supposed to take turned in to three, and I’m exhausted and barely breathing. I’ve puked three times because of the smoke, Sammy pukes more often than that. Beth, only twice. She keeps urging me on in a raspy voice that isn’t hers. I run and run and run. And finally we come to a valley, the heat making the image wave and become uneven. In the center of the vast field of dry, yellow grass is a building. Grey concrete, surrounded by a barbed wire chain-link fence. Oh jeez. It’s going to take us ten minutes to get down there, so I start running, the fire almost literally licking my heels now. Sammy’s tail is about to singe. Noelle It’s getting hotter and hotter in here. I vaguely hear a commotion going on elsewhere in the jail, but pay no attention. Stampedes of guards all of a sudden run for the doors, as the room grows steadily hotter. Now I wonder what’s going on. Smoke enters the building. Fire, I think, panicking just a little. Adam comes running down the hall, I see him coming. But another, bigger man is going for the door and rams directly into Adam. I call out but he can’t hear me anymore. He’s unconscious. But at least he’s on the ground, breathing cleaner air. I panic more, because that’s Adam lying there as good as dead. I beat frantically on the door with my good arm and both my legs. I call and shout and silently thank God this is an airtight room because I can see smoke filling up the hallways. “Adam!” I scream, but he’s not waking. I hit the door over and over again, and one escaped prisoner happens to notice me. A look of understanding crosses his face and he comes over to my door with a fire extinguisher. He motions for me to stand back, I do. He throws the extinguisher at the door with all his might, and it shatters. I gasp and say thank you, and I’m out of there before the glass is done tinkling on the ground. “Adam!” I scream, crouching over him and shaking his shoulders. I try to drag his limp body to the door and outside, but the best protection I can find is an open barred cell. I would bring him into mine, if I hadn’t been dragging him. I didn’t want to cut him on the glass. So I yank him into the gray cell, put him in the corner on the ground, by the freshest air, and pray that someone strong will come along and save us because I won’t leave Adam. Ashby, you promised. You lied. I’m dying, dammit, and you didn’t come. Ashby It won’t be long now. Maybe a minute. Hopefully less. We’ve seen men running out the doors which makes me think they aren’t locked. I run faster, my legs screaming in pain, my mind screaming Noelle! I can barely think straight because of the smoke, but I try anyway. On foot in front of the other. Noelle. Step. Run. Sammy! StepnoellerunsammyNoelleNOELLENOELLE. Says my foggy brain. I’m almost there, Sammy at my side, Beth a few feet behind me, the fire a few feet behind her. At the fence. I yank open the door, it screeches and then allows it. I run to the entrance of the concrete building, this door hanging ajar. My heart rate accelerates as I realize she’s either in here or nowhere. I sprint down the gray hallway, passing strangers in cells and screaming for Noelle. My feet are loud on the floor. Noelle I recognize those footsteps instantly. I’d know them anywhere. The hope that fills me gives me a sudden energy. I can do anything. As he rounds the corner, I don’t even check to make sure it’s him. I just launch myself at him, clasping my arms around his neck and pulling his face to my lips. His arms go around me, hugging me closer to him, pressing our hipbones together. Our lips are in sync, our heartbeats the same. He picks me up and pushes me backward, my back pressing against the wall, my front against him. My heart rate goes to twice its normal. My fingers knot in his soft hair, I ignore the pain that comes with moving my injured wrist. One of his hands is pressing into the small of my back, the other on the back of my head, securing my hips to his, his lips to mine. I don’t even notice the fire that’s made its way into the jail. I don’t notice Sammy barking her little head off. I don’t notice the fact that the wall is getting hotter behind my back, to the point of burning. If Ashby notices, he doesn’t show it. He just presses closer to me, pushing me harder into the wall. Finally, I can’t breathe, so I pull my lips unwillingly from his to gasp in smoky air. He gasps too. I put my arms around his neck, clasping the opposite elbows and pulling my chest closer to his and kissing his shoulder. “Noelle.” he breathes into my hair. “You came.” It’s barely more than a whisper, but it’s louder to me and more important than anything in the world right now. Someone slides into the doorway. Someone familiar.
“Okay. Um now that this lovely reunion is done, would you two please stop making out and run? There’s a fire.” “Beth!” I practically squeal. “Noelle.” She smiles, bouncing up and down. I’m still pressed into Ashby. I take his hand from my lower back, hold it, and step a little bit away. He wraps his other arm around my waist. “We have to get out of here.” I say. “You have to help me carry Adam.” I glance to the corner where the sleeping boy lies. Ashby I am still shook up and jittery from the kiss. But I settle with just her hand and the fact that she’s alive and that I got here just in time and help her carry her friend. Her male friend. Adam. I try not to let jealousy show on my face or even be in my emotions right now. All I want to feel is elated. So I pick up the unconscious boy’s arms and Noelle gets his feet. Our hands separate with a squeeze and we heave the boy through the smoke out into the corridor. I watch Noelle most of the time. Her face is bruised, and it happened recently because they haven’t turned yellow at all yet. Her wrist is in a splint, and I watch her face crumple in pain as she lifts her friend with her broken arm. Her eyes. My god. They are the same, maybe a tad more intelligent than the last time I saw her, but the same. Her skin, though I can’t really see much through the haze, looks as pale as ever, minus the shadows of bruises everywhere. I feel a flush of anger as I think about the splint on her wrist. Who did this? To Noelle, sweet, (mostly) innocent Noelle? Seeing her face crumple in pain makes me want to just take her friend all by myself to relieve her pain. She switches her eyes from me to this kid we’re carrying, and I wonder what she’s thinking. It’s getting hotter and harder to breathe, and I’m practically coughing up my lungs. We make our way as fast as we can out of the building, the doors still open from the last guys who ran out. We set this dude down in the grass that is sure to catch fire any moment now. As soon as he’s down, Noelle’s moving and turning back to the building. Noelle I whip around back to the building as soon as Adam is down. I sprint back toward the prison. I must save Governor Golden. I just get past Ashby when he grabs me around the waist. I call out as my acid burn rubs against him, tears streaming from my eyes and coughs erupting from my chest. “Let go!” I shout as loud as my raspy voice will allow. His eyes search mine as I fight to get free, kicking my legs and flailing. Hurt flashes across his face when he hears me scream at him. “Ashby, stop it! Let me go!” The fire around us is raging. Tongues of it lick my feet and calves but I ignore it. I flail more, my fist making contact with his face; about three seconds have passed since I tried to get back in. Ashby’s arms tighten around my waist as I hear a horrible cracking sound coming from the prison. “No!” I scream, my rage overpowering every feeling but loss. The building caves in, screams come from inside. “No!” I scream again, my voice drowned out by the screams and cracks rupture from my home for the last however many days. A final grinding noise comes from the building, and the roof completely collapses onto the floor. “No,” I wail, sagging into Ashby. I turn to him instead of away, as my rage turns to sorrow. I bury my face in his neck and he puts his arms around my back, letting me cry. I sob and sob, finally plopping down to the hot ground. Ashby kneels me down, keeping me from injuring myself and pulling me close. “We have to go.” Beth says, dragging Adam away from the fire. It is spreading rapidly, I don’t know why it hasn’t reached us yet. I hope it keeps slowing, or we’re all screwed. Fried to a crackly crisp. Sobs intermittently come from my chest, but they are subsiding. I don’t think about all of the people that I lost in there. I knew a maximum of two, but I pray to God that my father was evacuated to some other prison as soon as they took him away. And then something amazing happens. Ashby leans closer to me and I have this wild thought that he licks me. But it is a droplet of rain that lands on my cheek. A droplet of clean rain. Somehow, this makes me break down even more. I lean completely against Ashby, letting him support me as I sob in wordless outrage. The unfairness of the situation is all I can think about. None of those people in there deserved to die, besides maybe a few prison guards. But they ran away, so it doesn’t matter. They’re gone. The fire stops spreading, starts stopping. Sammy comes and curls up beside me, licking my hand comfortingly. Beth sits on the ground now with Adam, trying to wake him up. I cry, silently now. No more atrocious screaming or grief-filled sobs. I look up into the sky. Dark grey and suddenly thunderous, it is my small miracle. Out of this horrible awful situation, came good, clean rain. No matter. Most of everything is burnt now anyway. But one small victory in the beginnings of a war is something to celebrate. Ashby probably can’t even tell the difference between my tears or the raindrops on my soaked face. I keep hearing the screams of my fellow inmates as the building collapsed. I shudder and try to just focus on Ashby beside me. Ashby With Noelle leaning against me, it’s almost like old times. Like we’re huddling together to keep warm and waiting for a guard to pass so we can go graffiti the walls. But unlike old times, she’s actually sobbing. I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen Noelle cry, but I don’t think so. It makes her eyes look larger, doe-like. It takes my breath away and makes me want to cry too. My heart aches for her, but not as much as it would being away from her. I watch her bruised face as tears track down it, gliding over the bruises and cuts. I pull her even closer, her hair underneath my chin, her face buried in my neck. Her legs are bent at the knees, her heavy boots dragging her feet down. I doubt she’s very strong right now, but the sinews of her calf muscles are defined and graceful, each fiber showing where it starts and ends. I wonder how she came to get these cuts and bruises, but I don’t dare ask. Especially because she is breathing heavily and still sobbing. I feel her warmth pressing against me willingly. I feel her sobs as they wrack through her body. The wetness of the clean (I hope it’s clean. By the way Noelle doesn’t seem to mind, I think it is) soaks through my clothes and Noelle’s hair. They blend with her tears, but they can’t cover the sound of her heart wrenching sobs. I press my cheek into her hair, and feel her arms tighten around me. Her splint puts pressure into my back, cutting into the skin. But I don’t care. I think I’d do anything for this girl. I hardly notice the fact that the fire has stopped spreading, and is actually disappearing. A small miracle. But it pales in significance to Noelle, who is in my arms. I found her. I (well, it looked like she was doing pretty well on her own but…) rescued her. It’s better than I’d thought it would be in some ways. I mean, I got my first kiss. But I was almost burned to death, and I got clocked in the face by Noelle. I also saved her from going into a collapsing building. But she then dissolved into tears. So I don’t know exactly how I feel about the current situation, all I know is that I found her and she’s alive and we’re together. She sighs and sniffles, looking up at me again so I can see her eyes. She gives me the tiniest of tiny smiles, just at the corners of her mouth. I give her one back, a crooked one that makes her smile go just a teensy bit wider, her eyes less full of tears. I lean down, boldly, and kiss her forehead. She closes her eyes, then opens them and smiles wider, tears streaming silently now. I wipe her face with my sleeve, getting rid of the dirt and water and tears. Noelle opens her eyes again as my lips leave the smooth skin above her eyebrows, a small closed-lipped smile on her full lips. I squeeze her closer into me, almost to the point of smushing. She lets her head against my shoulder, looking sadly again at her fallen prison. I wonder how many people in there she knew. Hopefully few enough for her to get over it someday. Noelle It smells like wet smoke. But I don’t care. Because I’m just getting over the indignation of the torching of my friends and imprisoners. Well, I mean, no one deserves to burn to death. Not even my tormentors. I just breathe through my mouth now, so that I don’t have to smell the cooking. “I need to leave. We have to go somewhere else, out of smelling distance.” I say, my voice quivering as I wonder who all is in there. Innocents, no doubt. Ashby nods, but doesn’t get up. I stand shakily, wiggling out of Ashby’s grasp. He gets up reluctantly, and takes my hand. I kneel down beside Adam, lying unconscious on the ground. “Hey.” I say sharply to him. “Hey!” I say louder. He still doesn’t stir. “Adam, get your eyes open. Look at me.” I shake his shoulders, wondering why the rain didn’t wake him. His head lolls on his neck as I shake it. Finally, I resort to something instinctual. I slap him, gently at first. It just pushes his head to the side. So I hit him harder. He still doesn’t move. “Adam!” I yell. I draw my hand back behind my head, and slap him sharply with a loud smack. His eye start open. A smile cracks across his mouth. “Hey, Noelle.” “You a-hole.” I glare. “Whoa.” He says, taken aback. “What’d I do?” “You didn’t wake up!” my voice cracks and Ashby kneels down beside me. Tears stream constantly down my face. I can’t believe how worried I was about this kid. “Calm down, kid. I’m okay.” Adam reassures me. “Shut up. Seriously I hate you so much right now. Governor Golden is dead. Everyone in there is dead. Was my father in there?” I ask. “Wait. What? What happened?” “Sit the hell up and look for yourself.” I tell him. He gets up on one elbow dizzily and looks over at the prison. His mouth forms a silent O as he registers the collapsed building, steaming in the rain. “Yes. Was my father in there?” “What?” “Was my father in there?” I repeat, feeling Ashby look at me. I have so much to tell him. “I… I don’t know.” Adam says softly. A crestfallen look appears on his face, making him look younger than me. I stand up, and kick a little bit of wet sand on Adam, still not quite recovered from trying to wake up. “Honey, do you know how much this boy likes you?” Beth asks. Beth! I fly to her, Ashby’s hand still around mine so he gets dragged along. I wrap my arms around my cousin, closing my eyes and squeezing her tight. “Okay--can’t--breathe--” Beth gasps. I let go, pulling Ashby up closer to me by the hand. I settle myself into his hip. He puts an arm around my shoulders. “I missed you, Noelle.” Beth says. “I missed you, too.” I look down at Adam, still disoriented and shocked on the ground. “Get up.” I say. “We’re leaving.” Beth sees my expression and the tone of voice I use when I talk to him, and kicks more wet sand onto him. “What did he do to you?” she asks. “He scared the crap out of me. I thought he was dead.” “That is such a stupid reason to be mad at somebody.” she informs me. “Well sorry, but it scared me. He basically saved my life like, a bunch of times in there.” “Was he a prisoner, too?” Ashby asks. “No. A guard.” I look back up at Ashby. Ashby I don’t like hearing about this boy, Adam, or whatever. I don’t know, but I’m getting jealous even though I know nothing went on. I pull Noelle closer, pressing her against my side. She giggles a little through the lessening tears, and leans her head briefly onto my shoulder. “Can we go now?” she asks, impatient to get out of here. “Yeah, let’s do it.” I say. Adam gets up drunkenly and I wonder what happened to him, why he was unconscious. Beth takes her place beside Adam, keeping him steady. I take my arm from around Noelle, settling on her hand, any physical contact. We walk quickly west. I don’t know why. It just seems natural. Noelle’s breathing becomes more regular, though at one point she flinches at nothing and presses into the crook between my arm and my side. I hope she’ll be alright. The light is fading, the rain still pouring. It’s getting colder, maybe fifty degrees now. Noelle is shaking, whether from cold, fear, or sadness, it doesn’t matter. I rub her shoulder and arm, trying to make it better. We end up at the shore of the ocean, the grayish skies reflecting off the water. Adam and Beth are about three minutes behind us. It’s getting darker. I wonder where we’re going to sleep tonight. But right now I don’t care. Noelle I listen to the waves crash against the shore, feel the spray tickle my skin. The breeze tastes of salt. The wind entangles my hair, making it fly out behind me, almost smacking Adam in the face. I lean farther in to Ashby, letting him take my weight as my leg muscles will take no more. He holds me up easily, and I wonder where the heck these biceps and pectorals came from. But they’re (I know, cliché) hot. I’ve never felt this way about a boy. And before I can finish the thought, I am disgusted with myself. How can I think about such things when I’ve just lost a friend and possibly a family member? I hate it. I hate that I can think about other mundane things. Abruptly I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open. Ashby keeps holding me up, more of my weight on him now. Sammy licks my pinky finger, I pat her head calmly. My eyelids become heavier, and they spend more time closed than open now. I keep trying to force them up, shaking my head to get my adrenaline going. But it doesn’t work. My eyes snap open again when I hear Ashby speaking. “We need to find a place to camp out. Noelle is dead on her feet.” I lean my head against his shoulder, letting myself fall half asleep. I’m dimly aware that we’re moving, Sammy barking and sneezing at my heels. I don’t really remember much else, just Beth arranging a sort of lean-to for herself and Adam, and one for me and Ashby and Sammy. Ashby lays me down, and curls into me from behind. My mother would have cringed at this. But I don’t mind in the least, since I haven’t seen him or touched him in more than five days at least. As soon as I drift off, I see Hairy’s fist coming for my face. I scream and jolt awake, tears (I seem to be crying a lot) running down my face. I startle when I feel Ashby shift a little behind me, calling out again. But it’s Ashby so I snuggle backwards closer to him, letting him shush me and tell me it’s going to be okay. But I don’t want to go back to sleep, so I lay awake, feeling Ashby’s chest rise and fall with each breath. I settle my head on his arm, letting my eyelashes brush his skin. He shivers, and drapes his other arm over my waist, grabbing my hand and moving even closer if that’s possible. It’s completely dark, so I begin to wonder if I was asleep for a while before I had the dream, though it felt like it was as soon as my eyes closed. I sigh and take a steadying breath, and squeeze my eyes closed, getting rid of the tears. I don’t know what’s going to happen now, where we’re going to go. Home? Hopefully. It’ll take a while, though.
Ashby With Noelle’s back pressed into my chest, our knees bending at the same spot, our legs touching the whole way, I feel really good. I can feel her eyelashes brushing my arm, her stray hairs blowing in my face. I wonder what the nightmare was about. But I didn’t like the way that she called out like that, flinching in her sleep. She stopped crying though, because I can’t feel the tears dripping onto my arm anymore. Her breathing regulates, the frightened gasps go away. I’ve never seen her like this. And I wonder who did this to her. If it was that Adam kid… although Noelle seems pretty comfortable with him. But someone broke her. I don’t know how to make it better. So I do the only thing that comes natural; I keep her close and stay silent. I can tell that she isn’t asleep. I kiss the back of her neck gently (don’t worry, I don’t make one of those gross suction-cup sounds). She turns her head and looks at me, her eyes glowing in the light of the moon. “You should go back to sleep.” I whisper. “I don’t want to… I don’t want to see that again.” her breathing hitches midway through the sentence. “Do you want to talk about it?” I ask gently. She shakes her head, sending newly-formed tears sliding to each side. “Then what do you want to do?” I ask her. “I don’t know… we need to talk. But I don’t want to do that now.” she looks at me with her wide, violet, tear-rimmed eyes, and nuzzles into my neck. She turns her body so that we’re facing each other. I straighten out my legs to make it easier and wrap my arms around the small of her back. We’re close enough that I can lock my hands on the opposite elbows. She leans her neck back so as to look at me. “I don’t know why I’m crying so much. I’m sorry.” she says softly, her voice cracking. “It’s okay, Noelle. I know why.” She looks at me, puzzled. “You lost people that were important to you today,” I begin to explain. “You have obviously been through a lot in the last… week? Maybe more.” She nods. “My dad might have been in there.” she admits, more droplets forming. “As a guard?” I guess. She shakes her head. “Inmate. My same cell.” this stops me for a moment. “Really?” “He got taken away a few days ago. I don’t know if he ever left the building, though. I’m hoping so.” “I thought he was an ass? Turning away from you and your mom and her unborn child.” “Well, I thought so too. I mean, he still is an ass. Just not as bad of one.” “What?” “It turns out--” she takes a deep, hitching breath, “-- that he didn’t leave us the way we thought he did. He went to stop the bad laws from being passed, or at least to make them better. He got caught making changes to a law, and he’s been in jail for two years I think he said.” “Wow.” Noelle So even though I just told him I didn’t want to talk about that right now, I did anyway. I don’t know why or when I decided to, but I did. Ashby seems just about as shocked as I was when I found out. “So what did you do?” he asks. “Well first, I started punching and kicking him.” Ashby laughs. “Then I called him a liar and told him that my mom and Brian were dead.” I didn’t even think before I said the name Brian, but it seems natural. Ashby doesn’t seem phased, so I wonder if Beth told him. “And then I explained what was going on back home, how Mom and Brian were alive and the acid rain and all that.” Ashby is silent, taking all this in. I can see what he’s thinking through his light brown eyes. His lips move to form a question, but no sound comes out. So I continue on. “And after that I got taken down the hall and…” I flinch, remembering. “And they did this to you?” Ashby gestures to my arm. “Not the first time. Or the second time.” “Jesus, how many times did they call you down there?” “Three, I think. The third is what most of this crap is from. Sorry if there’s still blood in my teeth, it’s probably a little gross.” I cringe again, drawing my broken wrist into my chest. “I don’t care about blood in your teeth. I’m just so glad I found you and you‘re okay.” he gently takes one arm from behind my back and draws a line from my temple to my lips. I press my forehead into his, closing my eyes. Sammy, beside me, is out cold. My eyelids start to flutter closed again, feeling safe now in the warmth of Ashby. This time, I know for sure that as soon as I drift off I dream. The same thing as last time, Hairy’s knuckles coming closer and closer to my face. I shriek and blanch just before it makes contact, back in Ashby’s arms. He squeezes my waist, making my chin go over his shoulder. I wrap my arms around him and we just hug. “I think they call this post-traumatic stress.” he whispers. “I don’t want to shut my eyes.” a tear-streaked whisper that I almost don’t recognize says. When did I get so needy? Ashby holds me tighter, making all the scared thoughts leave my head. With a sudden need, I pull back to look at his face. I look into his eyes and wait for his lips to meet mine. When they do, soft and smooth, my adrenaline spikes. I kiss him back, putting my arms around his neck. He rolls me over, so that he’s on top of me, our lips still connected and moving together. I can feel the weight of him, but it isn’t a bad thing. I like it. Ashby’s hipbones and mine, bony and angular, are pressed one to the other. His elbows are on the ground on either side of my head. We roll over again, back the other way and I end up on top of him. I know this is a little too much, but there’s no time to waste. I mean, our clothes all stay on, so no worries about that. But it is a little… passionate for our second kiss. Ashby I can hardly feel her weight (no more than eighty-five pounds) on me. I don’t really want to break her, which is why I rolled so she’s on top of me. Her soft hands rumple my hair, pulling ever so slightly in a really nice way. My arms encircle the small of her back again, pushing her hips into mine. She pulls back, a smile on her lips, but she doesn’t get off me. I don’t want her to. I smile back at her, looking into her eyes. She gets up to her elbows (they are now digging into my chest) and sighs. I laugh a little at her deliriously happy face. Then I peck her on the cheek and shove her off playfully. I get up, her hand in mine, and drag her to the shoreline. The moon reflects of the surface of the water, washing everything into black and white. If you just saw a photo, you might even think it was a black and white of the sun. I pull Noelle along with me, leading us to the water. With our thick-soled mid-western winter boots on, we walk in the wet sand. Hand in hand with Noelle is like walking on air. Her mussed-up hair is still shiny and beautiful in its little-kidlike imperfection. “So how did you and Beth meet up?” she asks. “Sort of a weird story, actually.” I say, thinking for a minute. “I was really dehydrated, but I kept walking through Arizona, because I promised you I’d come.” I pause and look at her. “I passed out, and then when I woke up, Beth was there. At first, I thought she was you. But then I looked and saw her blue eyes and short hair, and she didn’t even come close to comparing to you. I told her about you and she offered to help right away because you’re her favorite cousin and I think she really missed you. So, yeah.” “Did you guys, like… how long did it take you to get here?” “Two days.” Noelle nods. “What about Adam? How did you guys meet?” I ask. “He was actually in the back of the van with me when I woke up. He was practically crying, if you can believe it.” She smirks at me. “Why?” “He told me you loved me and that he was sorry he took me away from you and the rest of my family. He was the only nice one. He cleaned me up and brought me ice after my… um, interrogation sessions.” “Oh. Do you like him?” I ask, unable to help myself. Noelle laughs and pushes my shoulder a little bit. “I cannot believe you just asked me that!” she laughs. I’m glad to hear it. I was afraid she wouldn’t for a while. “But yes, he is one of my friends. But I don’t like him this way.” she says, and stretches up to her way-high tiptoes with her lips ready for a kiss. I pick her up and bring her the rest of the way to my lips (she’s so short and tiny she can’t reach very well). Just a quick one, and I let her back down. Noelle “So what about you and Beth? Do you like her?” I ask after our short kiss. “As your cousin yes, as a friend, possibly, the same way as I like you, never.” he answers without hesitation. I smile, just a little bit relieved. Ashby sits down against a wet log, and I sit between his legs, leaning against his torso (in a totally different way than I did with my dad the other day. That was purely father-daughter. This is boyfriend-girlfriend). My head falls into the space between his neck and shoulder. He leans his cheek on the side of my head. I close my eyes and a really, really peaceful sleep meets me. I don’t dream, I don’t have nightmares. I just sleep through the night. I think Ashby got a similar night’s sleep, because not once did I feel him move during the night. The thing I wake to is Beth. “What are you two thinking?!” Beth shrieks and my eyes pop open. “I get the whole love-bird sappy s***, but seriously do you guys think you could warn us next time? I thought you’d left without us!” “Sorry, Beth,” I say groggily as I shimmy my shoulders to wake Ashby. His head snaps up from mine, his body jolting a little before he realizes it’s me pressed up against him. I laugh and snuggle closer, honestly not the least bit concerned about what Beth or Adam have to say about us ’love birds’. “What’s the plan?” I ask. “Um, back to Illinois? I don’t know.” Beth says very helpfully. “Well thank you, Beth. That was enlightening.” I snap sarcastically. She grins at me. “Busy night then, I take it?” she waggles her eyebrows suggestively. I mutter at her to shut up, that we didn’t do anything. “So… just back to Illinois?” Ashby asks, clearly disappointed. “Wait!” Adam says, popping up beside Beth. “You guys can’t just go home.” “Why not?” I ask curiously. “Because look at what you’ve already done! You saved me, you, Noelle, totally rocked my socks when you were standing up to the interrogator people. You hardly flinched when I mentioned them.” I flinch now, thinking about it, and Ashby kisses my cheek and squeezes one of my hands. “You guys need to help us.” Adam finishes. “Help you do what?” I ask. “I don’t know. Like defeat our Fearless Leader.” “You’re joking.” I say, incredulous. “I’m not. I’m serious, you could do some serious damage. I heard those guards talking about what you said to them, about the steroids causing damage to grown-men’s brains. And how you were totally cool and calm and collected. You were royalty and they were your slaves who were being annoying.” I flinch again when he mentions the guards. I feel Ashby tense up behind me. “Look, Adam.” He says, a little angry. “I don’t think you should bring any of that up right now. I don’t think she wants to go all the way to wherever Havel is. She has a little brother and a mom who are missing her and who need her.” I say a ’thanks’ under my breath. I don’t know if I’m in a stable enough mental state to go to Virginia to fight or defeat or whatever Havel. I don’t want to go through this crap again. I want to go home and hold my little brother, and tell him and my mom how Dad wasn’t as bad as we all thought he was. How he was saving us all. I want to hug my mother, tell her I’m sorry for being a cynical, sarcastic brat. “But, Noelle. You are the only person who I can think of that can do anything to help us.” “What are you talking about, Adam?” I say. “I’m not even sixteen yet.” “Actually,” Ashby cuts in. “I think you turned sixteen yesterday or the day before.” “No way. I missed it?” I ask, taken by total surprise. “See? You are sixteen, so now you can help us.” He smirks. “No, Adam. I don’t want to. There’s nothing I can do. You can probably do it better than I can.” “I think you should back off, Adam.” Ashby says, just a little menacing. I can feel the rumbling of his chest on my back. Ashby I don’t like the way Adam is trying to get Noelle to agree to this. “I’m not going.” Noelle says. “Bottom line, final answer.” I’m glad. She doesn’t need to stress herself out any more than she already is. Noelle stands up, pulling me up by the hand. “Let’s get going.” she says. “Where?” Beth and I ask at the same time, exchanging a smirk as we wait for an answer. “Home, I guess.” Noelle shrugs. “What about me?” Adam asks. “Where am I supposed to go?” “Damn. Your family is in Virginia still, aren’t they?” Noelle says. Adam nods, looking down. “Well you can come home with us, if you want.” Noelle says. “Noelle, you know I can’t do that.” he says softly. I watch Noelle’s face. “I’ll go alone, I guess.” Adam says. “I can just hitch a ride or something. And walk maybe.” “You can’t go alone.” I say. This guy doesn’t seem so bad now that I know Noelle doesn’t like him that way. “We’ll figure it out when we get to wherever you guys live.” Adam says. Beth nods in agreement. I shrug, and we start walking back east, to our home. Though our home is miles and miles and miles away. We have to start now, or we won’t get there until summer. Luckily, Noelle doesn’t let go of my hand, because I don’t want to lose contact with her. It’s still raining, and we try to fill our water bottles as best as possible I take a long, long drink of mine before passing it to Noelle, who takes almost as long, and then to Sammy who takes the rest of the water. We walk and walk, not exactly sure where we’re going. But we do it naturally, heading back the way Beth and I came. I keep stealing glances at Noelle for any signs that she wants to drop my slightly sweaty hand. All I see is her luminously pale skin, wide, gorgeous eyes, and a slight smile when she looks down at our hands and then up at me. Noelle I keep waiting to wake up from my first good dream in a really long time. Like maybe if somebody pinches me, I’ll wake up on the cold, hard cement floors, and Adam will whisk me away to be beaten some more. But even though my arm hurts worse than any pinch I could ever get, I don’t wake up. So I wonder if this is all real as we wander around California, the place of my childhood fantasies. I think it is, all of it, real. Ashby’s slightly sweaty hand around mine; his nicely formed muscles just inches away; Adam, okay and alive, walking with Beth; Beth, here after all this time, coming to find me like her letter said she would; and Ashby, who actually kept his promise too. I wish I had more alone time with him. To tell him everything, and maybe… say a little with just my lips and no sound. Once in a while, I find that I don’t even care that Adam and Beth would be watching. But I keep myself from kissing him because I don’t know how he would feel about that in front of our friends. Weird. Friends. I hadn’t had much in the way of those until Ashby came along. And now I’ve got three of them (one a little more than friendly) and it feels really nice to have that kind of support. We stop, about an hour later, to rest. I examine the fringe of my skirt whilst sitting pressed up against Ashby’s side. I didn’t realize how close the fire had come, but the back of my skirt is singed. The lace that barely peeks out from underneath the thicker fabric (yeah. It’s a skirt from Forever 21 from like, five years ago) is blackened and gone in some places. I reach a hesitant hand back to my hair, scared that I might have lost some. I love my hair, it is the only appearance thing that I’ve worried about or kept pretty since the Evolution. “What’s wrong?” Ashby asks, sensing my hesitant fear. “My hair,” I say. I love my hair. I feel Ashby laugh, but then he takes his hands and puts them on mine, frozen an inch above my hair. He takes his off mine, and runs them through my hair, feeling for any missing bits or scorched pieces. He runs his fingers through a few more times and then stops, one arm around me. “Nothing happened to your hair. It’s still soft and shiny and there.” I breathe a sigh of relief with these words. I let my head flop onto his shoulder. I put my arms around his middle, he puts his around mine. I don’t really care. It feels good, and I find myself wanting to lift my head, put my lips inches from his… But I resist the urge. I focus on his breathing, in, out. Ashby pulls my hair just a little bit, making my head tilt back. I smile and wait for what I hope is coming. It comes. Easy and natural, but still getting my heart going, his lips meet mine. My third kiss is tamer than my first two. Just a little press of the lips, and then we part. Ashby I wonder if she’ll ever be the same. I don’t know if I’ll miss the old her or not. The tough, strong, resilient her. But for now, she seems to be incredibly frightened. I would be too, I’m sure. She’s covered in bruises, her eyes a little swollen, her lips bleeding when she smiles. I should be revolted by that. But I’m not. Somehow, I find that it makes her her again. I think about what she must have done to get those bruises, and I know that it was her defiant attitude. The old her is there. And she’ll be back in her own time. She’s distant. Faraway all the time. I like to be the one closest when she needs someone. When she wakes from a nightmare, when she wants a kiss. I try to be there for her, to be what she needs. But I don’t know what she needs. Noelle seems so damaged… what does she need? Noelle I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It seems that Ashby is the only one keeping me sane. I can’t help but think about the smell from the jail as it caught flame. I think of the screams. It won’t leave my head. I think about my daddy and the Governor. What happens if they both died? Then I’m alone again, if Dad is dead. But if I get home, then I can have Mom and Brian and Ashby and Beth… I don’t know. It’s getting dark, and we haven’t moved much. Maybe ten miles. Probably thanks to me, since I’m so exhausted. “Let’s settle down for the night.” Beth says. Thank goodness. I’m dead on my feet. I’m sore and tired and aching. I feel like death warmed over. Beth spots a rock that looks like a mushroom, so it has a hangover to protect us. “Noelle.” Ashby whispers. I look at him. He climbs on top of the rock, pulling me up with him. “You need to talk. You’re not you.” “Ashby. I don’t know who I am. Who I was.” I whisper. The moon is rising. “But I do. If this is you now, then fine. But tell me how it happened. Tell me why you cry. Tell me about your nightmares.” “I got beaten senseless, Ash. I cry because I think I lost my dad. When I sleep, I either see a punch coming at my face, or you covered in blood.” “You see me? Why?” He asks. “I don’t know,” I whisper. “Because I care about you, I guess.” “You listen to me. Okay? I told you once that I wouldn’t let anything happen to you. But this time I will keep up that promise. I won’t let anything happen to you. Ever. I practically drove myself crazy thinking about you.” “But I hate it. I hate that people feel the need to protect me. I can fend for myself. Or I thought I could. But them look what happened.” I trail off. “Ash. I don’t know what I want or what I need. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know what to do with myself or with you, and I need someone to tell me what to do. But I hate feeling so defenseless.” I say. Ashby “Everyone needs to be protected sometimes.” I whisper in her ear. I put my hand on her cheek and lean in for a kiss. Her lips meet mine easily. She pushes me down onto the rock, pressing against my chest. She’s never been this forceful before. “Hey!” Beth calls. “We can hear you! Go find a ditch to suck face in.” So we do. We tiptoe to another boulder, holding hands and giggling. Noelle pushes me up against the rock, kissing me fiercely. I try to control myself and be a gentleman, just sticking to kissing. Somehow, my shirt ends up on the ground, and Noelle smiles at me with her hands on my chest. Her fingertips are cold against my bare flesh, making me shiver and pull her closer. The kiss starts to slow, turns tender and soft. I put my lips to hers once, twice, three times. She keeps her eyes closed and presses her cheek against my neck.