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       Starters, p.21

           Lissa Price
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  “Back to the car!” my mother yelled.

  We turned and ran. The car seemed miles away, at the back of the parking lot. We should have gone for the store, but it was too late to change our minds.

  Someone behind us screamed. I turned to see an Ender running toward us. She put her hands over her nose and mouth so as not to breathe in any spores. I couldn’t tell if any had touched her or if she’d already inhaled any. Or if she was just panicked.

  I was vaccinated, but still, there were rumors about some Starters not surviving a massive attack.

  “Keep going!” my mother screamed. She was right behind me.

  She aimed her alarm button like a rapier and I heard the sweet sound of our car doors unlocking.

  Our car, our sanctuary, waiting. I opened the closest door and slid across the backseat. I held out my hand for my mother.


  A smile of relief beamed across her face as she grasped my hand. Her cheeks glowed, her eyes shone.

  We’d made it.

  “It’s all right, baby, we’re okay now.”

  She placed one foot in the car, but before she could get inside, a single white spore floated down between us.

  It landed on her forearm. She stared at it. We both did.

  She died a week later.

  The hospitals had closed to spore patients, and every hospice was overflowing.

  Days after she died, the marshals took my dad away even though he showed no symptoms, no breathing problems. They knew the odds. But he would Zing us daily from the facility to let us know he was all right.

  Then one day I got a message: When hawks cry, time to fly.

  It was a code he had set up before he left that meant Tyler and I had to run. The marshals would be coming for us. I wanted to know more. Dad, I Zinged back. Are you sick? Do they know it?

  He just repeated the code.

  I thought I was going to see him again. I thought he was going to come home. I stared at the stained wall of my cell. A muffled voice floated in from the hallway. A few minutes later, footsteps came to my door. It slid open with a mechanical buzz. Beatty entered my cell, leaving the door open. I could see the shoes of a guard standing just outside.

  “Feeling better?” Hatred oozed like oil from Beatty’s pores.

  I looked at her mole-encrusted face. It was worse than I remembered. She looked a million years old.

  “Are you moving me?”

  That got a laugh out of her. “You would have gotten a dorm room, but you tried to kill a senator, if you recall.”

  “Am I getting a trial?” I’d seen them in the holos.

  She smiled. “Surely you know unclaimed minors have no rights?”

  “We have some rights. We are humans, you know.”

  “No, you’re lawbreakers, squatting in property that doesn’t belong to you. The state generously takes the unclaimed and boards you. But you’re a criminal now, so you’ll be here in lockup, the very center of the belly of the beast. And you’ll stay until you come of age.”

  “Nineteen?” That was an eternity in here.

  She nodded, and her eyes twinkled. “You’ll be assigned a state lawyer then. Of course, they’re overworked, and they don’t have time to make much of a case for criminals like you. You’ll almost certainly end up in an adult prison.”

  “Prison, forever?” She was lying. I struggled to breathe, but all I got was foul air.

  “Assuming you survive the next three years here in lockup.” She folded her arms and smiled. “Few do.”

  I covered my emotion as best I could. I didn’t want to give her the pleasure of knowing what this information was doing to my insides. I wasn’t going to ask about my brother, although I was desperate to know whether he’d been institutionalized.

  Then, as if she could read my mind, Beatty said, “Where is your brother?”

  “I don’t know.” How did she even know I had one?

  “Perhaps I’ll look into that. If he’s not already institutionalized, then he should be rounded up.”

  I did my best to keep a poker face.

  “I’ll figure out what that plate is on your head too. We don’t keep secrets here.”

  She left and the door slid shut. Was I all alone here? What about those other cells—did they hold girls like me? Or were they empty? I couldn’t hear anyone. Maybe they knew enough to keep quiet.

  I clenched my fists. How could this be legal? I didn’t have a bed; I didn’t have a blanket. I spun around the cell, looking at the four walls. I spotted a single metal button on one wall. I pressed it, and a short pipe came out. Water. At least I had water. I took a deep breath. I turned my head, put my mouth under the pipe, and drank. The water was metallic and tasted of chemicals, but it was wet.

  After three seconds, it shut off. I pressed it again, but nothing happened.

  My home for three years. If I survived. I slapped the wall with my palms, over and over.

  The next morning, I ached from sleeping on the concrete floor. My head hurt from the car injury, and no one was talking about giving me any painkillers. They did let me out into what they called the yard: an enclosed patch of dirt in the back of the compound. At three o’clock p.m., I was to get twenty minutes of exercise. The regular girls were allowed out for an hour, unless their work furlough duties were off-site.

  The yard was filling up with maybe a hundred girls milling around. Some of them played with a ball or sticks. But most walked in groups of twos and threes, speaking in hushed voices. I was searching the crowd for a familiar face when someone tapped me on the back.

  I thought it might be Mrs. Beatty, but it was Sara, the girl I had tried to give the sweater to.

  “Callie. What are you doing here?” Her face was pained.

  “I was arrested.”

  “Oh, no, what did you do?”

  “Nothing.” I was now a common criminal, denying my crime. It was easier than explaining everything to a twelve-year-old.

  “So it’s a mistake?”

  “A big mistake.”

  She cast an eye at one of the armed guards stationed around the perimeter. She linked her arm in mine. “It’s better if we keep moving. Is it horrible in lockup? Can the food possibly be any worse than what we get?”

  “Is yours black and liquid?” I asked. My stomach growled.

  She shook her head.

  “Listen, Sara, I’m looking for my brother. His name is Tyler. He’s seven. Do you ever see the boys?”

  “Sometimes they gather us for some presentation. Or to yell at us. Is he here, in 37?”

  “I don’t know. He could be.”

  “I’ll ask around. But no promises.”

  A couple of girls bumped us, pretending it was an accident. I stopped and looked at them. The girl closest to me was the bully who had jumped me near my building and stolen my Supertruffle. Her right hand bore the scars from when she had smashed it into the pavement instead of my face. That was the night I came back from my visit to Prime. So much had changed since then, but not this bully’s aggression.

  She did a double take at my new and improved face, then recognized me.

  “It’s you,” she said. “You better watch that pretty face.”

  “Never mind, Callie.” Sara pulled me away.

  “Bye, Callie.” The bully said my name in a singsong voice, now that she knew it.

  We glared at each other as friends pulled us in opposite directions. Sara took me over to the wall, where we rested our backs.

  “Forget about her. Let’s talk about something happy,” Sara said.

  There was a moment of silence.

  “Do you have a boyfriend?” Sara asked.

  My face warmed from my chin to my forehead. “I did. Sorta.”

  “So do you or don’t ya?”

  I sighed. “I wish I knew.”

  “What’s his name?” Her eyes were twinkling now.


  “Blake. He sounds cute.” She grinned. “Bet he mi
sses you.” She pinched my arm. “Bet he sleeps with your picture under his pillow.”

  I glanced around. The last thing I needed was to give the bullies another excuse to tease me. “I don’t think he has my picture,” I said quietly.

  “Not even on his phone?”

  I looked up. She was right. He’d taken one on his cell phone, that first day at the ranch.

  “Yeah, he does.” I smiled.

  “See.” She reached up and pinched my nose. “Told ya so.” Then a look came over her face like she remembered something. “How do I look?”


  “Oh, no reason.”

  I shook my head. “Sara, does this have anything to do with what you told me before? About a man coming here?”


  “Did you hear the name Prime Destinations?”

  “I’m not saying.” But she smiled.

  “Sara …” I buried my face in my hands.

  “I really hope I get picked,” she whispered.

  My throat tightened. “When is he coming?”

  “Soon. Is it true no one has seen his face, like, ever?”

  I nodded.

  “So what will he do, wear a bag over his head?”

  “Maybe a mask.”

  “Like Halloween?”

  I took her by the shoulders. “Where’s the best place to hide here?”

  “In the institution? Easy. The laundry room. It’s buried in a funny corner of the basement, past the emergency exit. I hid there once to get out of garbage detail.”

  “What would you say if I told you I knew about Prime, that I’d been there before, and it’s a bad place? You could lose your body forever.”

  She squinted, as if I was giving her a headache. “What are you talking about?”

  “Just trust me. You have to hide when they come to pick out the girls.”

  “Hide? Why? It’s my best hope of getting out of here.”

  I was about to tell her about how they had operated on my brain when a bell rang. Mrs. Beatty stood by the yard entrance staring a hole in me.

  “Please. Think about what I said. I have to go.”


  “I only get twenty minutes. I’m the bad girl, remember?”

  “Wait.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out a tissue. Inside was something dark.

  “What is it?”

  “What’s left of the Supertruffle you gave me.” She smiled and offered it to me.

  That had been days ago. The truffle had become dry and hard. I remembered it falling. She must have picked it up and saved it for herself to enjoy, little by little. And now she was giving it to me.

  She placed it in my palm. I stared at it a moment.

  “Go on, don’t be shy,” she said.

  “Don’t you want …?” I gestured to it.

  “No, no, you have it all.”

  I gingerly bit into the dried Supertruffle, hoping not to break a tooth. “Crunchy.”

  She beamed. Then she threw her arms around my neck and gave me a big hug.

  “Is it selfish to say I’m glad you’re here?” she said. “Because I am. I thought I’d never see you again and now here you are. My friend.”

  I smiled as best I could with my mouth full of brittle crumbs.

  Sara was the one bright light in my day; the rest of it was agonizing. I lay on the cold floor thinking about Tyler, wondering where he could be and whether he was getting worse. I could handle this, no blanket and all, but he couldn’t. Was he locked up in an institution like this one? Or was he with the Old Man?

  I also thought about Blake and the time we had shared, and whether he’d ever find it in himself to forgive me. But the princess had lost her beautiful clothes, and her chariot, and had found herself imprisoned in the dungeon for life. The fairy tale was over. No prince was ever coming to rescue a princess who had tried to kill his grandfather.

  The next day, I counted the hours until exercise period. When a guard came to escort me to the yard, I noted how his ZipTaser gun sat in the holster on his hip and imagined how I might steal it. But even if I did, I would have a swarm of guards on me, with many more ZipTasers. And a long way to the exit, where the gate was controlled by another guard. My odds of escaping were so small, there probably wasn’t a fraction to express them.

  And I wouldn’t want to leave 37 anyway, not until I was positive that Tyler wasn’t here.

  Once I was in the yard, I scanned the faces, looking for Sara. Girls bumped me, and someone even slapped me hard on the back. I moved away. I stood in the corner where I’d seen Sara the previous day, and soon she appeared.

  “Did you find out anything about my brother?” I asked.

  She shook her head. “Sorry. But maybe he’s here. Maybe they changed his name.”

  That thought just burned me up. Changing his name. Could they take anything else away from him? Where was he? Who was he with?

  “Cheer up, Callie. I’ll show you something.”

  She took my hand and led me to a barred opening in the wall. After she glanced around, making sure no one was watching, she squatted and pulled me down with her.

  “Look,” she whispered.

  We peered out the opening and stared at a black bug of a heli-transport on the grass in the main quad. Beyond the heli, a tall metal ladder leaned against the external wall that separated the grounds from the outside. For a second, a delicious second, I imagined it as a means to escape. Except that there was an Ender standing on the thick wall, repairing the barbed wire that topped it.

  Sara looked in the direction of a guard across the yard who was staring at us and pulled me up.

  “That’s the Old Man’s heli,” she said.

  The Old Man. Here. My heart beat faster. Did he have my brother?

  “Are you sure?”

  “I heard the guards talking,” she said. “They said no one could see his face. He wore a hat that covered it like this.” She fanned her thin fingers and made a brim around her head.

  She was smiling. The thought made me sick. “You’re going to go with him, aren’t you? I can’t talk you out of it?”

  “You’re joking. I’d do anything to get out of here. And you come too. You’re definitely pretty enough.” She touched my cheek.

  “Sara, would it be dangerous if anyone hit you, like on your chin? Or your nose? I mean, because of your heart condition.”

  She squinted. “No.” Her eyes searched my face. “Why?”

  I took a deep breath. “I really like you. Please remember that. Understand that whatever I do, it’s because I’m trying to protect you.”

  She cocked her head at me, curious. Her innocence made it all the harder to do what I knew I had to. I pulled back my arm, curled my fingers into a tight fist, and punched her straight in the face.

  “Ow!” she shouted. She fell backward on the ground. “Why?”

  She got up and put her hand to her nose. Blood trickled from beneath it.

  “I’m really sorry,” I whispered.

  And I hit her again to be sure.

  This time, she didn’t fall. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She looked so hurt, so betrayed, it cut me to the core. Girls around us stopped and stared. They asked what happened.

  “I hit her,” I said as loudly as I could without screaming.

  Some called for a fight. The bully girl with the scarred hand came pushing through the crowd. I turned to face her and braced myself for what was to come.

  Go ahead, do it fast, I thought.

  I made no attempt to stop her. She reached into her pocket, then pulled out her fist. Something on her hand glinted in the sun. She punched me hard in my right cheek.

  It stung. I reeled back but steadied myself. I took a quick look to make sure no one was coming at me from behind—I didn’t want anyone hitting the back of my head—and went back for more. Suspicion darkened her face, but she hit me again, this time in the jaw, and one of my teeth was ripped out of my mouth.

pain reached all the way back to my eye sockets.

  I saw then that she had some metal rings wrapped around her fingers. Good, that had to have done serious damage. Some of the girls yelled warnings that the guards were coming. The bully slipped the metal device back into her pocket.

  Sara stood a few feet away, crying, blood running down her face. I was happy to see that her eyes were already swelling up. My own face stung like I’d been hit by a cast-iron skillet. The bully came at me again, pulling my hair and dragging me to the ground. The guards ran over, swinging batons at anyone in their way. They hit the bully in the back and yanked her off me. Another guard hit me in the stomach.

  I couldn’t breathe. I fell to my knees from the blow.

  A metallic taste filled my mouth.

  Mrs. Beatty pushed through the crowd. I had thought her face couldn’t get any uglier, but when she saw the blood, her expression was all wrinkles and frown lines.

  “Girls. Not now,” she said. “Just when we have a visitor.”


  A guard accompanied Sara and me to the infirmary. If I did want to escape, this would be a good time, with one guard and two girls, but Sara probably wasn’t in the mood to help me with anything at this point.

  She held a cold cloth to her face. She was crying. “I thought you liked me. What did I do to you?”

  I couldn’t say anything in front of the guard. When the doctor saw me again, he showed no emotion, just a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

  The doctor pointed to a stainless steel exam table, and the guard put Sara on it. I sat on the adjacent one. The guard explained the situation and said he would stay to make sure there wasn’t any more trouble.

  “That won’t be necessary,” the doctor said.

  The guard insisted that Mrs. Beatty wanted him to stay and the doctor shrugged it off, as if it didn’t matter. But I had the impression that it did.

  “So let me take a look at you,” the doctor said to Sara.

  “She hit me. Hard.”

  “I can see that. And she’s bigger than you.” He touched her nose gingerly with his thumb and forefinger.

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