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Portrait of a donor a st.., p.3
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       Portrait of a Donor: A Starters Story, p.3

           Lissa Price
 
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  “I’d love to, but I’m off.”

  “Where to?” Michael asked.

  “Our old neighborhood. To feed the Starters.”

  “Want help?” Michael asked.

  “Why? You think I can’t do this alone?” I said.

  As soon as I snapped, I wished I could suck the words back in. Michael looked so hurt. Tyler’s mouth fell open in an “uh-oh” moment.

  “I’m sorry,” I said to Michael. “Thanks for offering. Really. But I think I can handle it. You guys should go to the mall.”

  “You could meet us for lunch,” Tyler said. “After we get my shoes.”

  He took Michael’s hand and gave me his best “please please” face. We were the closest thing he had to parents, and he was doing everything he could to pull us together. What I really wanted was to make our parents magically reappear; to have our family back again. But I would have to settle for just fulfilling my brother’s small request.

  I balanced the duffel bag on my shoulder as I pushed open the side door of the abandoned office building that had been home for Michael and Tyler—and Florina—when I was being rented out. I stepped into the lobby and saw the reception desk, vacant as usual. I would never have admitted it to Michael, but my heart was beating harder. Faster. I held my breath to listen for any signs of danger. I was familiar with the place, but things change. Who knew which Starters lived here now?

  I walked over to the reception desk to make sure no one was hiding, ready to attack. It was clear. I set my duffel bag on the counter, unzipped it, and pulled out a towel. As I was wiping the counter, I heard footsteps behind me. Before I realized what was happening, someone darted by and grabbed the whole bag.

  “Hey!” I shouted.

  A chubby little Starter ran to the exit, clutching my bag. Several sandwiches spilled out and dropped to the floor.

  “That’s supposed to be for everyone, you little jerk!” I yelled.

  He burst through the door. I’d never catch up.

  I ran around from behind the desk and bent down to pick up the food that had fallen. I had my hand on a wrapped sandwich when someone stepped on me.

  “Back off.” It was a Starter girl, maybe a year older than I was.

  She held a plank of wood like a bat, ready to strike. The rusty nails at the end of the plank convinced me not to fight. I nodded. She eased her foot off my hand and I pulled it away.

  “Take it,” I said, nodding to the smashed sandwich.

  She grabbed it and the other two on the floor. She bit right through the wrapper and started eating, making feral sounds. Thin, with short, dirty hair, she had probably once been just a middle-class girl. Like me.

  I’d been that hungry before, but no one had ever come to my building to feed me. And now I knew why.

  She swallowed. “You.” She stepped closer and touched my hair. “So clean.” Then she examined my face. “Perfect. You’re a Metal, aren’t you?”

  “A what?”

  “You know, Metal. One of those body bank people. You’ve got that chip in your head.” She took another bite of the sandwich, peeling back the wrapper this time. “How does it feel?” She circled me to stare at the back of my head.

  I wore the plainest clothes I had been able to find in Helena’s granddaughter’s closet. But I couldn’t disguise my now-flawless skin, shiny hair, and perfect features. It was too obvious to the world that I had become a kind of chip slave.

  “Like someone owns me.”

  The glittery mall was completely different from the harsh, lawless squatter life. Ender guards stood watch outside the shops, examining each passing Starter with steely stares. One guard spied some scruffy boys advertising their unclaimed status with dirty faces and stained jeans. He signaled mall security, and they roughly escorted the boys to the exit.

  This had been a high-end mall even before the Spore Wars widened the gap between the rich and poor. Though not all Enders were rich and not all Starters were poor, it often seemed that way. But here, I passed plenty of hot Starters, shimmering in their illusion tops and jeans, which changed color and texture as they moved. They were like exotic birds, even the guys, wearing airscreen glasses, layers of scarves, hats with slim solar panels to charge batteries. Those who had temperature-control chips in their glistening metallic jackets kept them on. Others used insta-fold to compress their outerwear so it could be tucked into a wallet. People said they dressed this way to distinguish themselves from the street Starters. I had a closetful of clothes just like theirs, inherited from Helena’s granddaughter. But that wasn’t my style.

  These were the claimed Starters living in mansions like mine. I couldn’t always tell them apart from people like me who had received makeovers from the body bank. “Metals,” that girl had said. These mall Starters were beautiful because they could afford to be. They had the best Ender dermatologists, dentists, and hairstylists and all the creams and beauty supplies their grandparents could buy. The Spore Wars had barely put a dent in their spending habits.

  I stopped myself. There I was, judging them, but they’d lost their parents too. Maybe their grandparents weren’t nice to them, but cold and resentful, having to see faces every day that reminded them of their lost sons and daughters.

  The Spore Wars had changed us all.

  I scratched the back of my head and looked around, hoping to see a shoe store. I was supposed to meet Michael and Tyler at the food court, but since my mission to feed the homeless had been a failure, I was early. I swallowed hard, thinking about it. Michael was right—I shouldn’t have gone alone. I should have remembered my street smarts: Never take your hand off your bag. Never stand with your back to an entrance. Always be ready to fight. All that work and I’d only fed two Starters, who had run off without even thanking me.

  I directed my attention to the airscreen display directory in the middle of the mall.

  “Shoes,” I said to the invisible microphone.

  The display pulled the shoe store out of the map and projected a holo into the air. It was the only athletic shoe store in the mall. Knowing Tyler, he was trying on every pair there. I needed to go rescue Michael.

  I headed toward the store, passing an Ender grandmother leaning on the arm of a pretty Starter, probably her granddaughter.

  She’s easy on the eyes.

  I stopped.

  It was that artificial, electronic voice in my head, and it set my teeth on edge.

  The Old Man.

  Hello, Callie. Did you miss me?

  “No. Not a bit.” I struggled to make my voice sound even.

  “Out of sight, out of mind.”

  Clever.

  I then remembered he could see through my eyes. I put my hands behind my back so he couldn’t see that they were shaking.

  I don’t buy that at all. I’m sure you thought about me every day. Every hour. Every minute.

  “It’s all about you, is it?” I really wanted to scream at him, but the guards would think I was crazy.

  I eyed the guards. Were they staring at me because I was talking to myself? No, I could be talking into an earpiece. Maybe they had picked up on my nervousness. Not that they could do anything to help me.

  “What do you want?”

  I want your full attention. And you will want to give it to me.

  A chill ran through my body.

  Look to your left and tell me what you see.

  “Shops.”

  Keep looking.

  I turned to my left. “Just … a chocolate shop, a jeweler, a shop that’s closed.”

  You’re not looking hard enough. What else?

  I took a few steps. “Shoppers. Enders, some with grandchildren, some Starters …”

  Yes. Starters. Keep looking.

  My eyes scanned the area. He wants me to find some Starter?

  “Is this a game of hot and cold?”

  More like hot and hot. Only you’ll soon see it is no game.

  I stood in the middle of the mall as Starters and Enders
had to move around me. He wanted me to see a Starter. There were plenty of them … but which one? Then I saw a girl with long red hair. I knew her.

  Reece.

  She was the donor my guardian, Lauren, had rented to search for her grandson. I remembered Reece as a friend, but of course that was actually Lauren. The real Reece wouldn’t know me. But there was so much I could tell her.

  “Reece,” I called out.

  She looked as pretty as ever, in a short print dress and silver pumps with little heels. I dodged the shoppers to get closer to her. She was about ten feet ahead of me when she stopped and turned.

  “I’m Callie,” I said as shoppers weaved between us. “You don’t know me. But I know you.”

  She gave me the strangest look, an expression I’d never seen on her. The corner of her mouth turned up in a half smile, but it wasn’t a fluid move. It was more—mechanical.

  Something was wrong.

  She quickly turned and walked off.

  “Wait,” I called out.

  But she kept going. An Ender walked behind her. I wouldn’t have noticed him, but he had a large silvery tattoo on the side of his neck. The head of some animal. I could barely make it out. A leopard, maybe.

  “It was Reece, wasn’t it? You wanted me to see her?”

  I can always count on you, Callie.

  Did Reece know the leopard-tattooed Ender was following her? I wasn’t sure. She darted into a shop. He moved to the next one and pretended to be interested in the pearl chokers in the window.

  I took a step toward the shop.

  No. Leave her alone.

  She came out moments later and the leopard-tattooed man resumed following her. I kept walking, staying behind, watching them both.

  “She’s in danger,” I said to the Old Man.

  You’ll see.

  A horrible sense of dread washed over me. “Is somebody inside her?”

  The body bank had been destroyed. But the Old Man was accessing me. He could have someone inside Reece’s body as well. The idea was putting my stomach in knots. His electronic voice. The leopard tattoo. Reece’s body being used.

  I saw the shoe store ahead, past Reece. Tyler and Michael were just entering it.

  “Michael!” I shouted across the mall, hoping he could hear me over the shoppers and the music. He was maybe six or seven shops away. He stopped and looked around but didn’t see me. He went inside.

  Reece must have heard, though, because she turned and stared at me. I didn’t mean for that to happen. That gave the tattooed man a chance to catch up to her. He said something in her ear, and she shook her head with an unnatural movement. He touched her arm and she—or whoever was inside her—pulled it away.

  “What’s going on?” I was frozen there, struggling to solve this dark puzzle. “Tell me.”

  Just because you destroyed Prime doesn’t mean you destroyed me. It wasn’t my only facility. I can still access any chip.

  Reece backed away from the man and ran toward the shoe store.

  And I can turn it into a weapon.

  “No,” I said to him, to myself, to anyone around.

  Time stopped as I held my breath. It all happened so fast. The crowd around me became a frozen blur as I started to run toward the shop. It felt like running through water—I couldn’t move fast enough.

  I was two doors away when, like a bullet, a dark-haired Starter wearing a puffy metallic airjacket came at me. I just got a flash of his face—strong jaw, piercing eyes. He threw himself against me, wrapped his arms around my body, and dragged me backward as fast as he could.

  Before I could react, there was a horrible, heart-splitting explosion. It came from where Reece had been standing. As we went sailing through the air, I could only see a blinding white flash.

  LISSA PRICE is an award-winning, internationally best-selling author whose debut, Starters, has been published in over thirty countries. She lives with her husband in Southern California. Follow @Lissa_Price on Twitter or visit her online at LissaPrice.com.

 


 

  Lissa Price, Portrait of a Donor: A Starters Story

 


 

 
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