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       Starters, p.16

           Lissa Price
 
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  “I got an advance.” It was sort of true. “When Michael comes back, he can join you guys.”

  That put a smile on her face. “I’ll leave a message for him.”

  It sounded like they were more than just friends. I’d been gone in total for almost three weeks. A lot could happen in that time—look at Blake and me. I felt a pang. I was a little jealous but knew I had no right to be.

  We went back inside and packed up what was most important. Tyler was feeling energized by the food and my presence, so he was helping. He picked the things he most wanted to bring and packed them in a duffel bag.

  “Where are we going?” Tyler asked.

  “To a nice place where you’ll have a big fluffy bed and an airscreen and lots of hot chocolate.”

  “No kidding?” His eyes opened wide. “Really? How long can we stay?”

  “I’m not sure. Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “On how good you are.” I went over and tickled him until he bent over laughing, begging me to stop.

  “Should we bring the water bottles?” Florina asked.

  I shook my head. She raised her brows. “Sure?”

  “Okay, just in case.”

  We all packed quietly, looking at our few possessions. Florina stood with her hands on her hips, no doubt wondering if her memories were worth the weight. Then she picked up something that caught my eye. It was a drawing of her, taped to cardboard.

  I knew who had drawn it.

  I turned away before she could notice. There was a moment, a frozen moment, but then I pulled myself back from falling into the abyss called pity. It was a place I refused to go.

  The three of us went downstairs with our bags. Two younger Starters were leaning on the car. I waved them away, looked around to make sure no one else was hovering, and then opened the trunk.

  “A car?” Tyler shouted.

  I put my finger to my lips. I wanted to get out of there without having to dodge unfriendlies. I’d brought Emma’s car, the least flashy one.

  “Where did you get this?” Florina asked.

  “Can you really drive it?” Tyler asked.

  I closed the trunk and rushed everyone inside.

  “Work loaned it to me,” I said, after I locked the doors.

  “Wow, that place is pretty cool,” Tyler said.

  As the seat belts whirred over their shoulders, both of them oohed and aahed at the interior. Even though this was Helena’s least ostentatious car, it was still state-of-the-art. From the backseat, Tyler pressed every button he could reach.

  “What’s this do?” he asked, pressing a button on the door.

  “It would open the door, but I have the childproof lock on,” I said, looking at him through the rearview mirror. “Because we clearly have a child in the vehicle.” I stuck out my tongue at him, and he responded in kind.

  “Copycat,” I said.

  “Monkey-Face,” he said.

  I started the engine and pulled out.

  “Look. Monkey’s driving!” Tyler said.

  At the hotel, Tyler and Florina stared at the luxurious lobby and its gigantic floral display. Helena hadn’t let us down: she had led us to a top-notch hotel. The desk clerk looked at us strangely: all minors, one apparently rich, accompanied by two urchins with ratty baggage. But I asked for the manager, a woman Helena knew, and everything was easy. I showed her my ID with the name “Callie Winterhill,” explaining I was Helena’s grandniece. She was happy to take my cash and gave us a room on the fifteenth floor.

  When I opened the door, Tyler’s jaw dropped. It had been a long time since he’d been in a room this plush. It was huge, with two queen beds and a couch that opened to a third bed.

  “Michael can have the couch,” Tyler said. “ ’Cause he’s not here to claim a bed.”

  Florina and I traded a look. “If he shows up,” she said under her breath.

  Tyler went for a jar of nuts on a table. “Nuts.”

  “There’s more than that. Look.” I opened the minibar.

  “Wow!” he said, grabbing a Supertruffle.

  Florina came over and I handed her a bag of chips and a soda. She guzzled the soda and tore into the chips.

  “I call the bed by the window,” Tyler said, chewing the candy.

  I held him back. “Just a minute, buddy. Bath first.”

  “With bubbles!” he said.

  After he had his bath, Florina took a long shower. Tyler looked so thin in his underwear, it frightened me. I pulled back the clean white duvet and tucked him in.

  “It’s so soft, I’m going to float away,” he said.

  “You stay right here,” I said, pinching his nose.

  Seeing his little head against those fluffy pillows brought back memories of us being kids again, in our own rooms, in our own beds, with cowboy lamps and stuffed animals and parents who came in and kissed us goodnight.

  It was a world that I’d long since left, but maybe Tyler still had a chance to return there. I felt a hole in my heart. I couldn’t hold back the tears that followed.

  “Hey, Callie. This is a good thing.”

  He took my hand. His was so bony.

  “Really good,” I said.

  Leaving was harder than I had expected. I hoped to see Tyler again soon. And then no more leaving. If Helena kept her promise to pay me and give me a house, then my brother and I would be a family together again. I’d find him a good doctor and he’d get better every day. I always pictured Michael joining us, but maybe he wouldn’t, now that he and Florina were close. It didn’t seem fair. I’d taken off to earn money. Michael and I hadn’t had a chance to see where our relationship could go yet.

  Since Blake was probably lost to me forever, the thought of losing Michael as well was impossible to accept.

  I gave Florina enough money for three nights at the hotel, and extra to cover room service. I snuck some money into Tyler’s bag as well. He wanted me to stay longer, but I was aware of the clock ticking away and Helena needing my help. I was able to leave without a scene when Tyler conked out from an overload of food from the minibar raid.

  As I waited out front for the hotel valet, Helena came back into my head and planned our next move.

  I need you to go talk to a girl who may have some information about Emma.

  “Where is she?”

  Someplace you’re not going to want to go.

  My mind went through an inventory of bad places. A rough neighborhood? They were all rough now. She certainly wouldn’t send me to the body bank; she’d begged me not to go there before.

  “I give up. Where?”

  Institution 37.

  I felt a hitch in my breathing. I leaned back against the wall.

  “Could I pick hell instead?”

  I know. The institutions are horrible—prisons, really. I visited many, looking for Emma. I found out about this girl, Sara, who knows something. But the day I went, she was out on work detail.

  “I can’t. I can’t go there. I could meet her outside, anywhere. Just not there.”

  No. If we did that, she’d have to have an escort. She wouldn’t be free to talk.

  My palms were wet. I wiped them on my pants.

  You’ll be all right. We’ll go home first and get some clothes to donate. You’re going to drive up in a nice car, well dressed and groomed. They’ll treat you like any wealthy claimed minor.

  This wasn’t just someplace I didn’t want to go. It was my worst nightmare. I sighed.

  It will be all right, Callie. Just remember who you are—Callie Winterhill.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  I stood across the street, staring at the gates to Institution 37. I wanted to be anywhere else on the planet. Anywhere. It killed me to think I could be back in that fancy hotel with my brother and Florina.

  Callie, why are you just standing there?

  “You sure this is going to be safe?”

  Face it, you’re not safe anywhere at this point. But you’re probably safest
in there, because no one can get to you.

  “That’s so reassuring.”

  I had left the necklace at Helena’s. She didn’t want to use it too much for fear the body bank might notice my chip wasn’t tracking. I crossed the street, balancing two shopping bags of designer clothes, many with the tags still on them. They came from Helena’s closet, new pieces bought for Emma, never worn. Helena couldn’t bear to give away the clothes her granddaughter had worn, even though she was never coming back.

  A high gray wall surrounded the compound. I stood at the gate and spoke to the guard through a dirty metal screen.

  “I’m Callie Winterhill,” I said. “I called about donating.”

  The Ender guard scanned a list until he found my name. He pushed a button and the gate made a loud click before it opened. I froze. My feet wouldn’t move.

  Go!

  I needed that nudge. I took a breath and entered. The gate closed behind me with a slam, metal hitting metal so hard it hurt my teeth. The road led directly to the administration building in front of me, with its dark gray walls. Back before the war, when there were public schools with admin buildings, they were never this frightening.

  “Lovely,” I said under my breath.

  I walked down the path alongside the road. I slowed my steps, taking my time.

  Don’t go all the way. Turn right there.

  Relieved, I followed Helena’s instructions, heading toward the dormitory buildings, which had bars on every window.

  “But won’t they be expecting me? Back in the main office?” I asked Helena quietly.

  Yes. But we have to find Sara first. I was told she’s in this first dormitory building. Hurry, before someone stops you.

  I climbed a few steps and pushed open the heavy doors. Inside, there were two hallways joined by a short corridor. A sour smell overwhelmed me. The paint was peeling, flecks of it littering the bare concrete floor.

  “Now what?” I whispered.

  Go down the first hallway.

  I turned to the right and looked in the first door. Sixteen metal bunk beds were crammed into a gray room. An open wooden box was by each bed, holding a few meager belongings: a frayed hairbrush, a worn book. It reminded me of pictures of army barracks, with sad olive blankets drooping over the foot of each bed. Only this was worse, because these kids had no family to return to someday.

  Everything they had was in those little boxes.

  “No one’s here.”

  Keep going.

  I passed several rooms, all empty. I had come to the end of the hall and was ready to give up when I saw feet sticking out from under a bed.

  I leaned down. A girl was lying on the floor, trying to hide. “Hello,” I said.

  She scooted backward, away from me.

  “It’s all right.” I went closer. “I’ve brought some nice clothes.”

  I straightened up and waited.

  “Clothes?” Her voice came from under the bed.

  “Beautiful clothes. Pants and skirts and sweaters.” I put down the bag and pulled out a sweater. “Here’s a pink cashmere one.”

  “Cashmere?”

  She crawled out and stood up. She looked about twelve, with a pretty face and a little gap between her teeth. Her uniform, a frayed white shirt and black pants, hung loosely on her bony figure. Her gauntness was typical for an unclaimed minor, but she wasn’t living on the street anymore. It was clear they weren’t overfeeding the kids.

  Ask her what her name is.

  I handed her the sweater. She stroked it like a kitten.

  “Soft.” She held it to her cheek.

  “It’s yours.”

  “Really? You mean it, really?”

  I nodded.

  “Oh, thank you so much.” She slipped it on.

  “What do you think?” I asked.

  She answered by putting her right fist over her heart and cupping it with her other hand. She slapped her hands together, mimicking a beating heart.

  “That means I love it,” she said. “See, it sounds like a heart. You do it.”

  She picked up my hands and made me imitate her. I felt silly.

  “More like a heartbeat, like this,” she said. “It’s better if you push your fist into your other hand.” She forced my hands to mark the thump-thump rhythm.

  “It’s okay, I got it.” I stopped and waved her hands away. “What’s your name?”

  “Sara.”

  My pulse quickened. Helena let out a gasp only I could hear.

  “How long have you lived here?” I asked.

  “Almost a year.”

  “Where are the others?”

  “They’re out doing brush clearance today.” She sat on the edge of the bed.

  “But not you?”

  She pointed to her heart. “Bad valve.”

  I didn’t know what to say, other than to dig up some standard apology.

  “ ’S’okay. Doesn’t hurt, and it gets me out of the worst work.” She hugged herself in the sweater. “Was this yours?”

  I shook my head. “A friend’s. It looks good on you. I’m sure she’d be happy you got it.”

  She beamed and caressed the sleeves. “It feels so good.” She patted the bed. The bed sagged as I sat next to her. The blanket felt rough and smelled moldy.

  “When I came in, you were hiding. Why?” I asked.

  She shrugged. “You never know around here.” She looked down.

  I reached into my purse and pulled out a Supertruffle. I offered it to her. She raised her brows.

  “Go ahead.” I moved it closer to her.

  She took it with both hands and bit into it. I wondered when her last meal had been.

  “Sara, I heard you might have met a girl named Emma? She looked like this.” I showed her the picture on my phone. “Do you remember her?”

  Her small fingers took the phone from me and examined it. “She came in here once as a volunteer, like six months ago. She did my hair. It was a beauty clinic.”

  She gave me back the phone.

  “I saw her again, a couple of weeks later. My wrist got broken—don’t ask—and I had to go get a scan. I saw Emma on the street, but it was weird.”

  “Why?”

  “She didn’t recognize me. I called her name, ‘Emma!’ She looked right at me but didn’t remember me. She did look a little different, prettier, but I knew it was her. She had on the same jewelry. I guess she was embarrassed. Didn’t want to be seen with me.” She picked at the sweater. “And after we’d spent that nice day together.”

  I wanted so much to tell Sara she was wrong. That it wasn’t the real Emma, but some Ender renter.

  “Where were you, when you saw her?” I asked.

  She shook her head. “I don’t know. Somewhere not far, here in Beverly Hills.”

  I put my phone away. “I’m sorry.” I said that for Helena’s benefit. I wished I could have come up with more information.

  “It’s okay,” Sara said. She moved closer to me on the bed. “Can I ask you something?”

  “Sure.”

  “Do you think I’m pretty?”

  “Of course. You’ve got a beautiful face. Why?”

  “We found out last week there’s going to be a special program. They’re going to take some of us and make us over and give us important jobs. We’ll be able to earn money. They’ve gotta pick me. I really, really want to get out. I’ve been here forever.”

  “When? When is this happening?”

  “Don’t know. They said we were getting showers tomorrow. We usually only get them on Sunday.”

  A look of fear shaded her face. Her eyes focused on something behind me as she stood. I turned around and saw a mean-looking Ender at the door. She might have been elegant once, but now she wore a stern gray suit and a ZipTaser on her hip.

  “What are you doing here?” She came into the room.

  I stood and pointed to the bags. “I brought donations.”

  Her badge read “Mrs. Beatty, Head of Secur
ity.”

  “All donations go through the headmistress. You can’t just waltz around, tossing out gifts like beads at Mardi Gras.” She picked up both bags. “It would only cause jealousy and fights, and we certainly don’t need any more of that.”

  I was foolishly hoping she wouldn’t notice. But the sweater that Sara had on wasn’t regulation gray or black; it was noticeably pink. Naturally, it caught Beatty’s eye.

  Sara crossed her arms over it in a futile attempt to hide it.

  “Take it off,” Beatty said. “Now.”

  “It’s mine, she gave it to me.”

  “That’s true.” I stepped in front of her. “I did.”

  Don’t get involved, Callie, Helena urged me.

  “You’ll hand it over right now.” Beatty dropped the shopping bags and moved around me.

  She pulled it over Sara’s head and yanked it off.

  “You can’t take it, it’s mine.” Tears flowed from her red eyes. “It’s the first thing anyone’s given me since forever.”

  Don’t stay, Callie, just get out of there.

  “The headmistress does any and all distribution.” Beatty nodded at me. “Let’s you and I go see her.”

  No! Whatever you do, don’t go there.

  Helena’s voice made my body tense. Beatty gestured with her head for me to go first. She cast a stern look at Sara, as if she would deal with her later, when I was no longer a witness. I walked to the door and stopped. I turned in the doorway and got one last glimpse of Sara’s fragile little body. Bits of pink fuzz stuck to her white blouse, a sad reminder of what might have been.

  There was nothing I could do for her.

  Beatty and I walked down the hall. Beatty wore heels, not spiky ones, but chunky ones that made a certain clopping sound. I had a strange notion to run back and punch Sara in the face. If she had a black eye or a broken nose, then maybe the body bank people wouldn’t pick her.

  It was sick that it had come to that. As we left the building and climbed down the steps, I couldn’t get Sara’s face out of my mind. She was just a younger version of me, the me I had been for the last year. A desperate, starving orphan, eager for scraps, at the mercy of a system that cared less for unclaimed minors than for stray dogs.

  When we came to the entrance to the main building, Helena spoke to me.

 
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