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       Starters, p.2

           Lissa Price
 
“Can you afford to do that?” He stepped in front of me.

  “Probably not. But I have to think about it.” I moved around him and walked to the door.

  “Call if you have questions,” he said a little too loudly.

  I rushed past the receptionist, who seemed upset to see me leaving so soon. She followed me with her eyes as she punched what I imagined was a panic button. I kept going. The doorman stared at me through the glass door before opening it.

  “Leaving already?” His hollow expression was ghoulish.

  I bolted past him.

  Once I was outside, the brisk fall air hit my face. I breathed it in as I wove through the crowd of Enders packing the sidewalk. I must have been the only one who had ever turned Tinnenbaum down, who didn’t fall for his pitch. But I’d learned not to trust Enders.

  I walked through Beverly Hills, shaking my head at the pockets of wealth that remained, over a year after the war had ended. Here, only every third storefront was vacant. Designer wear, visual electronics, and bot-shops, all for the wealthy Enders’ shopping fix. Scrounging was good here. If anything broke, they’d have to throw it away because there was no one to fix it and no way to get parts.

  I kept my head down. Even though I wasn’t doing anything illegal at the moment, if a marshal stopped me, I couldn’t produce the necessary docs that claimed minors had to carry.

  As I waited for a traffic light, a truck stopped with a bunch of glum Starters, dirty and battered, sitting cross-legged in the back, picks and shovels piled in the center. One girl with a bandage around her head stared at me with dead eyes.

  I saw the flicker of jealousy in them, as if my life were any better. As the truck pulled away, the girl folded her arms, sort of hugging herself. As bad as my life was, hers was worse. There had to be some way out of this insanity. Some way that didn’t involve that creepy body bank or legalized slave labor.

  I stuck to the side streets, avoiding Wilshire Boulevard, which was a marshal magnet. Two Enders, businessmen in black raincoats, walked toward me. I looked away and slipped my hands inside my pockets. In my left pocket was the contract. In my right, the paper-wrapped chocolates.

  Bitter and sweet.

  The neighborhoods became rougher the farther I got from Beverly Hills. I sidestepped piles of garbage waiting for pickups that were long overdue. I looked up and realized I was passing a building that was red-tented. Contaminated. The last spore missiles had been over a year ago, but the hazmat teams hadn’t gotten around to purging this house. Or didn’t want to. I held my sleeve to cover my nose and mouth, as my dad had taught me, and hurried by.

  Daylight faded away, and I moved more freely. I pulled out my handlite and strapped it to the back of my left hand but didn’t turn it on. We’d broken the streetlights here. We needed the protection of the shadows so the authorities couldn’t pick us up with one of their lame excuses. They’d be only too happy to lock us in an institution. I’d never seen the inside of one, but I’d heard about them. One of the worst, Institution 37, was just a few miles away. I’d heard other Starters whisper about it.

  By the time I was a couple of blocks from our home, it was as dark as it got. I flicked on my handlite. A minute later, I caught the streaking of two handlites darting at an angle, coming from the other side of the road. Because whoever it was kept their handlites on, I hoped they were friendlies. But then, at the same second, the lights both went dark.

  Renegades.

  My stomach tightened and my heart leapt up to my throat. I ran. I had no time to think. My instinct took me toward my building. One of them, a tall, long-legged girl with a tattoo on the side of her face, caught up to me. She was right behind, reaching out to grab my sweatshirt.

  I pumped my legs harder. The side door to my building was just halfway down the block, waiting for me. She tried again and this time got my hood.

  I fell as she yanked me, and I landed hard on the sidewalk. My back hurt and my head stung. She straddled me and went for my pockets. Her friend, a smaller boy, turned his handlite back on and aimed it into my eyes.

  “I don’t have any money.” I squinted and tried to slap her hands away.

  She hit the sides of my face with her open palms, smacking my ears hard. A dirty street trick that made your head ring with pain.

  “No money for me?” she said. Her muffled words reverberated in my head. “Then you’re in it deep.”

  A rush of adrenaline powered my arm and I punched her across the jaw. She started to fall over but righted herself before I could get out from under her.

  “You’re dead now, baby.”

  I squirmed and thrashed, but she locked me down with her steel thighs. She pulled back her fist and put her whole body into it. I rolled my head to the side at the last second and her fist connected with pavement. She screamed.

  Her scream propelled me to scramble out from under her while she cradled her hand in pain. My heart was pounding like it wanted to leap out of my chest. The other kid moved in with a rock. My breath came in gulps as I got to my feet.

  Something fell from my pocket. Everyone stopped to look.

  One of the precious Supertruffles.

  “Food!” her friend shouted as he aimed his light on it.

  The girl crawled toward it, protecting her crushed hand against her chest. Her friend dove to the ground and snatched it up. She grabbed for his hand, broke off a piece of the truffle, and gobbled it down. He devoured the rest. I ran to the side entrance of my building. I pushed open the door, my door, and ducked inside.

  I prayed they wouldn’t enter my building. I had to depend on them being too scared of my friendlies and any traps I might have set. I aimed my handlite to check out the stairs. Clear. I climbed to the third floor and peered through a dirty window. Below, the renegade thieves scurried away like vermin. I took a quick inventory. The back of my head hurt from hitting the pavement, but I had made it without any bad gashes or broken bones. I put my hand on my chest and tried to calm my breathing.

  I turned my attention to the inside of the building and did my usual scans. I listened as best I could, but my ears were still ringing from the fight. I shook my head to try to clear them.

  No new sounds. No new occupants. No danger. The office on the end drew me like a beacon, promising sleep. Our encampment of desks barricaded the corner, sealing off a section of the cavernous, bare room and providing the illusion of comfort. Tyler was probably already asleep. I fingered the remaining Supertruffles in my pockets. Maybe I should just surprise him in the morning.

  But I couldn’t wait.

  “Hey, wake up. Got something for you.” When I came around the desks, nothing was there. No blankets, no brother. Nothing. What few belongings we had left were gone.

  “Tyler?” I called out.

  My throat tightened as I held my breath. I dashed for the door, but just as I got there, a face popped in through the doorway.

  “Michael!”

  Michael shook back his shaggy blond hair. “Callie.” He put his handlite under his chin and aped a scary face. He couldn’t hold it and broke into laughter.

  If he was laughing, Tyler had to be all right. I gave him a little shove.

  “Where’s Tyler?” I asked.

  “I had to move you guys to my room. Roof started leaking in here.” He aimed his lite at a dark blot on the ceiling. “Hope that’s okay?”

  “Don’t know. Depends on your decorating skills.”

  I followed him to a room across the hall. Inside, in two different corners, the desks formed cozy, protective nooks. As I got closer, I saw he’d re-created the exact arrangement of our belongings. I went inside the nook in the far corner and saw Tyler sitting against the wall, blanket over his legs. He looked too small for his seven years. Maybe it was the momentary thought of losing him, or the fact that I’d been away all day, but it was like I was seeing him anew. He had lost weight since we had been on the streets. His hair needed cutting. Shadows darkened the skin under his eyes.

 
“Where ya been, Monkey-Face?” Tyler’s voice was hoarse.

  I made an effort to push away my look of concern. “Out.”

  “You’ve been gone a long time.”

  “But you had Michael here.” I knelt beside him. “And it took me a long time to find a special treat for you.”

  A slight smile formed on his lips. “What’d you get me?”

  I pulled out one of the paper cups and unwrapped the vitamin-infused chocolate. It was the size of a cookie. His eyes widened.

  “Supertruffle?” He looked at Michael standing near me. “Wow.”

  “I’ve got two.” I showed him the other. “Both for you.”

  He shook his head. “You have one.”

  “You need the vitamins,” I said.

  “Did you eat today?” he asked.

  I stared at him. Could I get away with a lie? No, he knew me too well.

  “You guys share it,” Tyler said.

  Michael shrugged and his hair fell over one eye in that beautiful, effortless way that defined him. “Can’t argue with that.”

  Tyler smiled and held my hand. “Thanks, Callie.”

  We ate the Supertruffles, sitting around a desk placed in the middle of the room. It served as our dining table, with Michael’s handlite in the center, set on candle mode. We cut the chocolates into small pieces and joked about the first bite being the appetizer, the second the entrée, and the third the dessert. They were heaven, the sweet, thick chocolates, a cross between brownies and fudge, rich and smoky on our tongues. They were gone too soon.

  Tyler perked up after eating. He sang some song to himself while Michael leaned his chin on one hand and stared at me from across the desk. I knew he was dying to ask me about the body bank. And maybe more. I saw his eyes scan my new scrapes and cuts.

  “The truffles made me thirsty,” I said.

  “Me too,” Tyler said.

  Michael rose. “I guess I’d better fill up the water bottles.” He grabbed our bottles, which hung on straps by the door, along with our washing pail. Then he left.

  Tyler put his head on the desk. The excitement of the chocolates was taking its toll. I rubbed his baby-soft hair, his neck. His hoodie had slipped off one shoulder, exposing his vaccination scar. I ran my finger over it, grateful for the little mark. If not for that, we’d all be dead like our parents. Like everyone between twenty and sixty. We, like the elderly Enders, were the most vulnerable, so we had gotten vaccinated first against the genocide spores. Now we were the only ones left. How ironic was that?

  After a few minutes, Michael returned with the filled water bottles. I went to the bathroom where he’d left the pail. The first week we had lived there, we had still had running water in the building. I sighed. It used to be so much easier than stealing our water from outside pipes when no one was looking.

  The cold water felt refreshing, even though it was November and there was no heat in the building. I splashed water onto the cuts on my arms and face.

  When I returned to the room, Tyler was settled back in our corner. Michael was lying in his mirror-image fort in the opposite corner. I felt safer with us all in the same room. If anyone were to break in, one of us would have the intruder from behind. Michael had a metal pipe. I had a mini-ZipTaser that had belonged to my father. It wasn’t as strong as a marshal’s, but I relied on it. Sad how it had become my new comfort item.

  I sat on my sleeping bag and pulled off my shoes. I took off my sweatshirt and slipped into my sleeping bag as if I were going to sleep. I added pajamas to my internal list of things that I missed. Flannel, warm from the dryer. I was tired of always being dressed, ready to run or fight. I ached for fluffy jammies and a deep, forget-the-world sleep.

  “Michael moved our stuff over.” Tyler shined his lite at our books and treasures on the desks surrounding us.

  “I know. That was nice of him.”

  He aimed his lite at a toy dog. “Just like before.”

  At first I thought he meant like at our home, but then I realized he meant how we had had it the previous day. Michael had made a point of arranging our possessions exactly as we had had them—he knew how precious they were to us.

  Tyler pulled down our holo-frame. He did this every few nights, when he felt particularly sad. He held it in his palm and cycled through the holos—our family at the beach, us playing in the sand, our dad at target practice, our parents at their wedding. My brother paused at the same place he always did—an image of our parents on a cruise, taken three years ago, just before the fighting started in the Pacific Ocean. The sound of their voices was always hard for me. “We miss you, Tyler. We love you, Callie. Take good care of your brother.” The first month, I cried whenever I heard their voices. Then I stopped. They sounded hollow now, like nameless actors.

  Tyler never cried. He continued to absorb their words over and over. This was Mom and Dad to him now.

  “Okay, enough. Time to sleep.” I reached for the frame.

  “No. I want to remember.” His eyes pleaded with me.

  “You afraid you’ll forget?”

  “Maybe.”

  I tapped the handlite on his wrist. “Remember who invented this?”

  Tyler nodded solemnly, his lower lip extended. “Dad.”

  “That’s right. With some other scientists. So whenever you see the light from it, think of it as Daddy watching over you.”

  “That what you do?”

  “Every day.” I stroked his head. “Don’t worry. I promise. We’ll never, ever forget them.”

  I traded the frame for his favorite toy, his only toy now, a small dogbot. He tucked it under his arm and it went into soft mode, lying just like a real dog. Except for the glowing green eyes.

  I put the frame back on the desk above us. Tyler coughed. I pulled his sleeping bag up around his neck. Every time he coughed, I struggled not to hear the clinic doctor’s words echo in my mind: “Rare lung disorder … Might heal, or not.” I watched Tyler’s chest rise and fall, and heard the labored breathing of sleep take over. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and peered around the desks.

  Michael’s handlite glowed against the wall. I threw my sweatshirt over my shoulders and padded over.

  “Michael?” I whispered.

  “Come on in.” He kept his voice hushed.

  I entered his little fortress. I liked being there, surrounded by his pencil and charcoal drawings, his art supplies filling every nook. He drew city scenes, interpreting our landscape of empty buildings, friendlies and renegades, complete with handlites and layered, ragged clothes, water bottles slung across thin torsos.

  He put down his book and sat up with his back to the wall, motioning for me to sit next to him on his army blanket. “So, what happened to your face?”

  I reached up to my cheek. It was burning. “Does it look bad?”

  “Tyler didn’t notice.”

  “Only because it’s so dark in here.” I sat cross-legged facing him.

  “Renegades?”

  I nodded. “Yeah. But I’m okay.”

  “How was that place?”

  “Weird.”

  He went silent. His head hung down.

  “What?” I asked.

  Michael raised his head. “I was worried you weren’t coming back.”

  “I promised, didn’t I?”

  He nodded. “Yeah. But I was thinking … what if you couldn’t come back?”

  I had no response to that. We sat a moment until he finally broke the silence. “So, what’d you think of it?”

  “Did you know they insert a neurochip in here?” I pointed to the back of my head.

  “Where? Let me see.” He touched my hair.

  “I told you, I just went to check it out.”

  I saw the concern in his face, his eyes soft with kindness. Funny, I hadn’t really noticed him much when he lived down the street from us. Strange that it had taken the Spore Wars to bring us together.

  I stuffed my hands into my pockets and felt something. A paper.
I pulled it out.

  “What’s that?” he asked.

  “The man at the body bank gave it to me. It’s a contract.”

  Michael leaned closer. “That’s what they’re going to pay?” He snatched the form from my fingers.

  “Give it back.”

  He read the contract. “ ‘… for three connections.’ ”

  “I’m not doing it.”

  “Good.” He paused. “But why? I know you. You’re not scared.”

  “They’ll never pay that much money. It’s unreal. That’s what tipped me off.”

  “How do they get around the law, anyway? Hiring Starters?”

  I shrugged. “They must have some loophole.”

  “It’s pretty much off the radar. You never see any ads for it.”

  He was right. “The only way I knew about it was from that guy who used to live on the first floor.”

  “He probably makes money for every Starter he brings in.”

  “He won’t be getting any from me.” I rested on my side, leaning my head on my hand. “I don’t trust that place.”

  “You must be tired,” he said. “That was a long walk.”

  “I’m beyond tired.”

  “Tomorrow, let’s go to the loading dock and see if we can get some fruit.”

  His words faded, and my eyes felt heavy. Next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and he was smiling at me.

  “Cal,” he said gently. “Go to bed.”

  I nodded. I stuffed the contract back into my pocket and returned to Tyler. My body melted into the sleeping bag.

  I set my lite to sleep mode. It glowed softly.

  Winter in Southern California wasn’t brutal, but it was going to get too cold for Tyler. I needed to get him into someplace warm, a real home. But how? This was my nightly ritual worry. I’d hoped the body bank would be the answer, but it wasn’t. As I drifted off to sleep, my lite turned itself off.

  My sleep was shattered by the screech of the smoke detectors. A bitter stench filled my nostrils. I felt Tyler, near me, sitting up and coughing.

  “Michael?” I called out.

  “Fire!” he shouted from across the room.

  The time on my handband read 5:00 a.m. I felt for my water bottle and opened it. I reached into the drawer above me and pulled out a T-shirt. I splashed water on it.

 
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