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       Starters, p.6

           Lissa Price
 
“You’re the man of the family.”

  He beamed sleepily.

  “Be brave,” I said. I held his hand, then pulled him into a hug.

  “Hurry back,” he whispered. I felt his breath hot on my shoulder.

  When I let go, his eyes were filled with tears.

  “Be strong,” I said.

  “Be quick,” he answered.

  Michael walked me down the hallway. Rodney led the way.

  As we got to the top of the stairway, a tall girl was climbing up. Rodney aimed his high-powered light on her and she raised her hand to shield her eyes.

  “Do you mind?” she said.

  “It’s okay,” Michael said to Rodney. “She’s a friendlie.”

  Rodney lowered his light so it would be out of her eyes but illuminate her body. She wore a handlite and had short dark hair. She was skinny, like all of us, but still had curves going on.

  “Hey, Michael. I was just going to give you something.” She reached into a cloth bag and pulled out two oranges. “Got them from an Ender gardener.”

  “Thanks.” Michael took the oranges, which were probably stolen.

  She gave a half smile and a half curtsy. “Gotta go. See you later.”

  “Who’s she?” I asked.

  Michael looked at me as the girl vanished into the darkness. “Just a friend.”

  “What’s her name?”

  “Florina.”

  “Pretty.”

  I was glad to have one more friendlie in the building. Rodney, no doubt sensing we needed a moment, walked down a half flight and waited with his back to us.

  Michael folded me into a hug. A long, tight one. Our bodies felt the same, more bone than flesh. But the contact felt good.

  “I’ll miss you,” he whispered into my hair.

  “Me too.” I could have stayed there forever, but I had to pull away. “See you in a month.”

  He handed me a folded piece of paper.

  “What’s this?” I asked.

  “Look at it later.”

  I wanted to know more, but there was no time. I slipped it inside my bra, my best hiding place. Then I gave him a smile I hoped he’d remember. “Be good.”

  “Be careful,” he said.

  On the ride back, Rodney left me alone with my thoughts. The car rocked me like a baby as the city night flew by my window. Between the boarded-up buildings, life went on, making the landscape look more like a third world country, with makeshift food carts and smoke from barrel-cookers. I thought about how hard the last couple of years had been for Tyler and me.

  A light from the street flashed in my eyes for a moment, just like the marshal’s lights had when they’d come to capture us.

  “Run to your backpack,” I’d whispered to Tyler.

  We’d scurried to the kitchen in the dark while the marshals banged on the front door. Tyler grabbed his backpack and water bottle; I took mine. Mine had the gun in it.

  We ran into the night before the marshals made it to the backyard.

  I helped Tyler crawl under fences and run through vacant yards. I was grateful our dad had mapped out the escape plan for us, before he was taken away to the quarantine facility. Tyler and I stayed in our house as long as we could, like the other kids without relatives. We were doing okay, but we knew that eventually the government would come and condemn our house, the way they had the rest of the block. It had been a nice middle-class area, but it was becoming a ghost town. Whatever healthy adults were left served as neighborhood den mothers—until the disease took them too.

  Just the other week, the kids across the street had been taken—screaming—by the marshals. We were luckier. We knew when it was time for us to leave because my dad sent us a Zing. I knew that meant the worst.

  Before he had left for the quarantine facility, Dad had made me promise that if this day ever came, I was not to think about him, not to grieve. Just be strong and protect my brother, because I would be all he’d have left.

  It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.

  Dad. Gone. Images flashed by me. Steadying hands, guidance, support. Hugs.

  I bit my tongue to keep from crying. Don’t think about him. Take care of Tyler.

  Be strong.

  We’d made it to the old library building, next to the park. It was pitch-black, but our handlites lit our way. We climbed in through a broken basement window in the back.

  The scent of musty books filled my nostrils. And the odor of some dirty bodies. A group of kids huddled in the dark behind the stacks, asleep. One of them recognized me.

  “She’s okay.”

  I found a space for us against the wall and put our packs beside us.

  “Are we safe yet?” Tyler asked between hitched breaths.

  “Shhh. It’ll be okay,” I whispered.

  In the morning, some idiot had started a cooking fire, and the smoke brought the marshals. We grabbed our bags and ran. It wasn’t until we got to the next stopping point on Dad’s map that I reached into my pack and realized my gun had been stolen. Nothing else was missing. All that training and no gun. My insides turned hollow.

  No gun. My father would have been so upset. But he didn’t have to know. He was dead.

  Now, as Rodney sped along the silent streets, I leaned my head against the car window and thought about all the places we had run from in the last year. I let my eyes zone out on the city lights until they became fuzzy pom-poms of color.

  The body bank would be the end of running.

  Back at Prime Destinations, there was a lot of excitement. It turned out my renter wanted to go tonight. I stood in Doris’s office while she ran her fingers through her hair.

  “It’s all right,” she said. “I always pad in extra time. But now we’re really pushing it. Go put those on.” She pointed to a set of black clothes on a hanger behind me. “You can use my restroom.”

  I did as she instructed and came out wearing a black turtleneck and pants.

  “Excellent. Let’s send you off.”

  “No meal this time?” I asked. “I’m kinda hungry.”

  Doris put her hand on my back. “This renter prefers you that way.” She shrugged. “Maybe she’s got reservations at a four-star restaurant.”

  We hurried to the exchange room, the same one as for the two previous trips. Trax and Terry were waiting for me.

  “You look good in black.” Terry patted my shoulder as I sat in the chair. “Almost as good as moi.”

  After a few computer checks, Trax looked over at me.

  “So everything’s the same as before. Just relax,” he said. “See you in a month, Callie, right back here.”

  The cone came toward my face. I waved goodbye to my little team.

  My dreams this time were very strange. Tyler had the head of a baby bird. I didn’t think anything of that; it just was what it was. I was searching for birdseed—I was going to feed it to Tyler—but I couldn’t find any. I called for Michael, but he wasn’t around. We were living on some abandoned farm. I ran out to the barn to look for him, climbed a ladder to the hayloft. When I got to the top, I found Michael with a girl. It was Florina. The two of them were lying in the hay, surrounded by hundreds of oranges.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  Boom, boom, boom. Percussion coursed through my body and my head pounded in sync. A sickly sweet smell assaulted my nose.

  Where am I?

  I opened my eyes. The world slanted at an angle in a dimly lit place. I was on my side, on the floor. I pressed my palm against it to push myself up and felt a disgusting stickiness. I smelled my hand—pineapple.

  Flashes of lasers cut the dark space. In the moments of light, I saw glimpses of people trying to escape, their hands waving in the air. But they kept being pulled back. Then I realized they were just dancing to music.

  A pair of shiny patent-leather stiletto heels approached. My ear felt the vibration through the floor of every step.

  The owner of the heels knelt beside me. “You okay?” she shouted.

/>   “I don’t know.” I hadn’t had time to take inventory beyond my throbbing head.

  “What?”

  “I’m not sure!” I shouted back. The yelling made my head hurt.

  She crooked her arm in mine. “Upsy-daisy.”

  She was my age, with a geometric blond bob that covered one eye. Her glittery dress was so short it should have been a blouse. Maybe it was. She guided me over to the side of the room, to a spot where the music wasn’t as loud.

  “Where am I?” I asked her, touching my temple. I was so confused.

  “Club Rune.” She gave me a puzzled look. “Don’t you remember?”

  I shook my head. “How did I get here?”

  She giggled. “Oh, you are drunk. I’d better get you some caffeine.”

  “No, don’t leave.” Was I drunk, or was it something else? Panic rose in my throat and I gripped her arm like a life preserver. “Please, I’m—”

  “Let’s get you to a chair.”

  She supported me as I hobbled across the room in my heels. I looked down and saw that I was also wearing a dress, a short metallic sheath. It felt cool against my skin. An evening bag hung from a strap on my shoulder. And my shoes, also stilettos, were like something I’d only seen on stars in the Pages.

  She stopped at a velvet love seat by the wall and eased me down onto it. Soft. I hadn’t sat on something that comfortable in so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like.

  The music stopped. I’d seen nightclubs in holos, back when my parents were alive, but I had never been in one. I didn’t even know they existed anymore, especially ones just for teens. Was this what the privileged Starters got to do?

  “You’re looking better already.” She smiled at me.

  The blue neon light from the bar spilled over onto the love seat. Even under the unflattering light she was stunning.

  “You’re new at this, aren’t you?” she asked.

  “What?”

  “Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Madison.”

  “Callie.”

  “Cute name. Do you like it?”

  I shrugged. “I guess so.”

  “I like mine too. Pleased to meet you, Callie.” She extended her hand. Weird, but I shook it. “So, as I was saying, this is your first time, isn’t it?”

  I nodded. “My first time here.”

  The last thing I remembered was being put under at the body bank. I should have woken up there. What could have happened? I was on the edge of panic, but I had enough sense to remember I wasn’t supposed to talk about the body bank. I had to act like I belonged here.

  “Darling frock,” Madison said, feeling the fabric of my dress. “It’s such fun to be able to wear little things like this again, isn’t it? And come to places like this? Sure beats sitting in a rocking chair, crocheting in front of reruns on a Saturday night.” She winked and elbowed me. “Maybe with you it’s mahjong? Or bridge?”

  “Yeah.” I put on a smile while I looked around. I had no idea what she was talking about.

  “Callie, dear, you don’t have to pretend with me.”

  I blinked.

  “It takes one to know one, missy. You passed all the tests.” Madison used her fingers to count. “No tattoos, no piercings, no neon hair colors …” She then used me to illustrate the rest of her points. “Expensive clothes, fine jewelry, good manners, and flawlessly beautiful.”

  Me? She was talking about me?

  “Oh, and of course, we know so much.” She patted my arm. “Because we’ve lived it.”

  My brain was fuzzy, but I was beginning to get it.

  “Come on, Callie, you’re a PD client. You’re a renter. Like me.” She leaned in close and I smelled gardenia.

  “You …?”

  “Don’t I fit the list to a tee?” She waved her hand down her own body. “It is flawlessly beautiful, this little body, don’t you think?”

  I didn’t know what to say. She was a renter. She might report me if she knew I was a donor who had somehow malfunctioned. I might be fired and never get the money to help Tyler.

  “It’s great.”

  “Okay, I confess, this is Club Rune, after all.” She gestured to the room. “Lots of us come here, so you were easy to spot.”

  “There are more of … us? Where?”

  Madison scanned the room. “There. That guy over there, the one who looks like a star? Renter. And there, that redhead?”

  “Renter?”

  “Look at her.” She put on an exaggerated accent. “Could she be any more perfect?”

  “But the others are real teens?”

  “For sure.”

  “What about him?” I nodded to a guy across the room who had caught my eye. He was holding a soda and talking to two other guys. There was definitely something special about him. “The one in the blue shirt and black jacket? He’s got to be a renter.”

  “Him?” Madison folded her arms. “Oh, he’s cute, all right. But I talked to him earlier. All teen, inside and out.”

  I wasn’t very good at guessing. To me, he looked every bit as hot as the renters she’d pointed out. Maybe more so. He turned his head and stared right at us. I glanced away.

  “Plenty of regular, filthy rich teens here,” Madison went on. “You can tell because their provincial grandparents won’t let them get any work done.”

  “Work?”

  “Surgery. So they’re not as beautiful as we are. And you can always test them by asking about life before the war. They barely know anything.” She laughed. “Guess they don’t teach history in their private Zype Schools.”

  I felt my heart racing. It was all so upside down. I had to keep reminding myself that the stunning Madison was really a hundred-and-something-year-old woman.

  And the fact that she thought the same about me was really messed up.

  “If you’re feeling better, Callie, I really need to go get a drink. Something with a long, naughty name.”

  “They’ll serve you?”

  “Honey, this club is all private. Totally hush-hush, just like the body bank.” She patted my arm. “Don’t worry, sweet pea, I’ll be just steps away.”

  She slinked off the love seat. I leaned my elbows on my knees and put my forehead in my palms. I wanted the world to stop spinning. But the more I tried to figure it all out, the worse it got. My head throbbed. Why had I woken up in a club instead of the body bank? What had happened?

  Everything had been going so well before. I was going to get paid, going to get Tyler a warm place to sleep, a real home. And now this.

  Then I heard a voice.

  Hello?

  I raised my head. It wasn’t Madison. She was halfway across the room, standing at the bar. I looked behind me. No one was standing near me.

  Had I imagined it?

  Can … hear me?

  No, it was real, the voice was …

  Inside. My. Head.

  Was I hallucinating? My heart raced. Maybe Madison was right and I was drunk. Or maybe I had hit my head when I fell. Something was very wrong. I started to hyperventilate.

  The voice sounded female. I held my breath to try to calm down and also to hear better.

  The club noise muffled my perception. I put my fingers in my ears and tried to listen, but all I heard was the pounding of my own heartbeat. I couldn’t shake off the shock of hearing a voice this way.

  Where was the exit? I wanted out. I needed air.

  The next voice I heard was young, very male, and coming from right there in front of me.

  “Are you okay?” It was him. The guy in the blue shirt, “all teen,” as Madison had put it. He looked concerned.

  What did he just say? He was asking if I was okay. I fought to control myself, not to appear panicked.

  “Yeah. Good.” I tugged on my dress in a lame effort to cover my legs.

  He was even better-looking up close, complete with dimples. But I had no time for this distraction. I needed to see if that voice was going to come back again. He just stared at
me while I listened.

  It was silent in my head. Could it have been my imagination? Because I was so disoriented, suddenly being thrown back into my body this way? Or maybe this guy had just scared the Voice away.

  Dimples wore an expensive-looking black jacket. I thought about Madison’s verdict on him. I stood up and ran through the checklist.

  No tats, piercings, or strange hair color: check. Expensive clothes and jewelry—what brand of watch was on his wrist?—check. Good manners, flawlessly handsome, check. Renter.

  Then he turned his face toward the light from the bar, and I was close enough to spot an inch-long scar near his chin. No way Doris would’ve let that go.

  “I saw you fall.” He held out a hand towel. “I went to get this from the restroom.”

  “Thanks.” I put it to my forehead and saw a smile creep over his face. “What’s so funny?”

  “It’s not for your head.” He gently took it back from me and wiped my arm, dirty from the floor.

  “I slipped,” I said. “Someone spilled a drink. And with these heels …”

  “Great heels.” He glanced at them and smiled, sparking those dimples.

  Being the focus of his attention was too much. I had to look away. A guy like this, rich and good-looking, interested in me, the street kid? Then I caught my reflection in a mirrored column and was jolted back to the new reality. I had forgotten I looked like a megastar.

  As I turned back, I noticed Madison was still at the bar, struggling to get the attention of the Ender bartender, who seemed hard of hearing.

  Dimples twisted to look in the direction I was looking and then dropped the towel on a small table.

  “She your friend?” he asked.

  “Sort of.”

  He held up a finger, like he was trying to remember. “Her name’s Madison, right?”

  I nodded.

  “We talked earlier,” he said. “She’s kind of funny.”

  “How?”

  “Asked me a lot of questions.”

  “What kind of questions?”

  “History, if you can believe it. Things from like twenty or thirty years ago. I mean, would you know what holo won ten Oscars a decade ago?”

  I squinted and tried to remember if my dad had ever mentioned that. He would have known. I shrugged.

 
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