Children of refuge, p.16
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       Children of Refuge, p.16

           Margaret Peterson Haddix
 
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  Finally one of the Enforcers grunted and muttered, “We’ll check out the boy’s story. You, boy, get into the cab of the truck and tell us where to go. The rest of you—get into the back of the truck. Now!”

  He nudged Rosi’s ribs with the end of his gun. One of the other Enforcers did the same to Kiandra. A third Enforcer scooped up Cana and Bobo as carelessly as if he were gathering up sticks or garbage—items he wouldn’t care about harming.

  “Okay, okay, we’ll do as you say—just don’t hurt the little ones!” Rosi gasped. “They’re innocent! I forced them to come with me, I—”

  One of the Enforcers put his hand over her mouth and dragged her around to the back of the truck.

  I watched helplessly as the Enforcer grabbed Kiandra as well.

  “Give Rosi a hug!” I called after her. “Comfort each other!” Because maybe then Rosi could tell Kiandra how to stop the Enforcers, just like she’d told me. Maybe only one Enforcer would climb into the back of the truck, and Rosi, Kiandra, Bobo, and Cana could overpower him.

  But then I heard the Enforcer standing by me call out, “Standard troop positions, men. Two in the back of the truck, two in the cab.”

  Rosi, Kiandra, Bobo, and Cana wouldn’t dare try to overpower two Enforcers. They shouldn’t dare to try that.

  The Enforcer beside me jerked on my arm, shoving me into the cab of the truck. He slid in beside me and grabbed the steering wheel. Another Enforcer went around to the other side and climbed in. I was trapped between them.

  There was no way I could overpower both of the Enforcers surrounding me, either. There was no reason I should try.

  I heard the door slam shut at the back of the truck, and something—a fist maybe?—thudded against one of the truck walls. It must have been a signal that the Enforcers in the back had everyone in place and were ready to go.

  My heart sank. I hadn’t been a coward. But the only thing I’d accomplished, with all my bravery, was that I’d helped the Enforcers capture Rosi, Bobo, Cana—and even Kiandra—and provided a truck for the Enforcers to trap them in.

  What was I supposed to do now?

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

  “You and your friend came from the other side of the border,” the Enforcer behind the steering wheel growled at me as he reached down and started the truck’s engine. “I saw you coming from that direction. How did you get across?”

  Lie again? I thought. Tell him his vision was bad?

  How was I supposed to convince him he couldn’t trust his own eyes?

  “Border? What border?” I asked, hoping I sounded just as I always did to my Fred-parents when I whined, Cookie? What cookie? Why are you accusing me of eating the last cookie? Or to my Fred-teachers, Homework? What homework? I think you forgot to make the assignment. It’s not fair to blame me!

  No, scratch that. My Fred-parents and my Fred-teachers never really believed me. I had to make the Enforcers think I was just stupid and ignorant enough to not even know I’d crossed the border.

  “Do you mean . . . oh, there was this kind of weird flash of red light,” I said. “But I thought it was an optical illusion, because there was a flock of birds flying above me, kind of making weird patterns in the sunlight. . . .”

  “I thought we killed all the birds,” the second Enforcer grumbled.

  I shrugged.

  “I’m just telling you what I saw,” I said, as if I didn’t understand why it would matter.

  “So tell us where you saw the patroller,” the first Enforcer said as he put the truck into gear.

  “It’s hard to explain,” I said. “I think I’d do better showing you. Turn around and go that way.” I pointed behind us, back toward the border.

  The Enforcer grunted. The truck shivered and the engine sputtered, as if he’d shifted gears too quickly.

  “Curses on the humans’ primitive technology,” he muttered.

  “We do the best we can,” I said, adding belatedly, “sir.”

  Would it help to make him think I was totally in awe of his superiority and power?

  I was totally in awe of his superiority and power. And of the gun the second Enforcer held, pinning me against the seat. It made my brain numb.

  “Perhaps humans and Enforcers can work their way toward getting along a little bit better,” I said, sounding as prim and foolishly optimistic as a Fred. “Perhaps one day we’ll even share our technology, back and forth, each helping the other. Perhaps we just got off on the wrong foot, and the longer we’re around each other, the more we’ll—”

  The Enforcer on my right jabbed the end of his gun into my ribs.

  “We have no desire to get along with humans,” he said. “Or to share anything. We’re not Freds. We know your limitations. We don’t like you. You are not even worthy opponents to hunt.”

  To hunt? No, no, no, no . . . , my brain screamed.

  I had to think about something else. Surely there was a way out of this. Surely I’d find it soon. Surely there was enough time. . . .

  The truck was going fast enough now that the Enforcer driving it wouldn’t have to worry about shifting gears anymore. We were almost to the border. Without moving my head, I glanced around for Enu and Zeba. Would they still be there waiting to throw rocks at the border, letting Kiandra and me back through?

  They were nowhere in sight. I told myself that was good—it was better for them if they’d hidden somewhere. But I also felt lonely. Abandoned.

  “So, this border you were talking about,” I said, turning toward the Enforcer on my left. “Is it something you worry about crossing too?”

  “Enforcers never worry about anything,” he growled. “We’ve got nothing to worry about.”

  We were close enough to the border now that I could see it shimmer. Was this some kind of test? Was he waiting for me to point it out?

  What would happen to a human trying to speed through the border in a truck without birds overhead? What if going through the border like this was something that could hurt or kill a human, but have no effect whatsoever on an Enforcer?

  I didn’t actually know for sure. I didn’t know much of anything. Why hadn’t I asked Kiandra more questions when I had the chance?

  I was almost out of time. The front bumper of the truck was about to hit the shimmering border. But just then the Enforcer on my right pulled out the same kind of small electronic device the other man had used as a lie detector. He hit some button on the device, and we sped right through the border as if it weren’t even there.

  As soon as we were on the other side, he hit the button again.

  I have to get my hands on one of those devices, I thought.

  The Enforcer slipped it back into his pocket and went back to sticking his gun in my side.

  “Where to?” the other Enforcer growled at me.

  “Th-there,” I said, pointing toward the rock formation where we’d left Udans.

  If I couldn’t think of anything better, maybe I could tell them I’d thought Udans was the missing patroller. Maybe the Enforcers wouldn’t punish him—or me—too severely for that.

  But that still didn’t save Rosi, Bobo, or Cana from the Enforcers.

  Or Kiandra, I reminded myself. Or me. You’ve just added to the number of people in danger. . . .

  Directing the Enforcers toward Udans would at least buy some time. Right now, that was the best I could do.

  The Enforcer sped up, covering the distance back to the rock formation in no time at all. We rounded the corner, and the signpost where we’d left Udans came into sight.

  The sign still pointed toward Refuge City. And a rope still dangled from the post, right where Enu had tied it. But the other end of the rope trailed off into the dust.

  Udans was nowhere to be seen.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

  Okay, then, you don’t have to worry about putting Udans in danger, I told myself. At least he’ll be fine.

  But with the Enforcer’s gun digging into my side, I couldn’t bring myself to c
are that much about Udans’s safety.

  Enu! I wanted to scream. Were you too busy playing video games to ever learn how to tie knots well? Did you ever think that it might really, really matter?

  What could I tell the Enforcers now? What lie could I come up with when I didn’t even have Udans to point to?

  “Now what?” the driver growled at me.

  “Slow down so I can see where we are,” I mumbled.

  I was stalling. I had sweat trickling down my face, and I was sure the Enforcers were about to realize that that was what humans did when they lied. Some of the sweat got into my eyes, blurring my vision.

  Or maybe I was crying.

  That time when Udans kidnapped me, I’d been so flippant about everything. I’d made it a joke, that his hands smelled like puke.

  Maybe, straight from Fredtown, I hadn’t really understood what true danger was.

  Or maybe, because he was actually protecting me, just doing my father’s bidding, I’d been able to tell deep down that he really didn’t want to hurt me.

  This was different. The Enforcers didn’t care if they hurt me. Or if they hurt Rosi, Bobo, Cana, or Kiandra. They didn’t care if they hurt every human on the planet.

  This was true danger. I was in danger—and all my friends and family were too.

  The entire planet was in danger.

  “You don’t know anything about our patroller, do you, kid?” the Enforcer who was driving growled at me. “You’ve been lying to us from the start, haven’t you?”

  I wiped the sweat (or tears) out of my eyes and turned my head to face him. The rock formation towered just outside his window. About halfway up on the formation, I saw a dark spot—maybe a cave, maybe just an indentation.

  “Stop!” I cried to Enforcer. “I know where we are now! The patroller’s hiding in that cave! I’ll lead you to him!”

  It was another desperate lie, but the Enforcer grunted and hit the brake. All three of us got out of the cab, the second Enforcer keeping the gun against my ribs the whole time. My feet skidded on pebbles mixed in with the sandy soil under my feet.

  If I could distract one of the Enforcers, even for an instant, would that be enough time for me to bend down, pick up a pebble, and throw it at the other Enforcer’s face fast enough to knock his mask off? I wondered. And then would I have time to attack the other Enforcer too?

  It would require absolutely perfect throws. It would require hitting the exact right point on the Enforcers’ faces on my first try. That is, if I could find the exact right point at all. When I’d jarred my Fred-father’s face and seen a flash of blue fur that made me curious, it had been nothing but an accident. I hadn’t been aiming.

  And, anyhow, what if the Freds and the Enforcers were just different enough that what I remembered as the right point on my Fred-father’s face wasn’t a mask-release spot for an Enforcer?

  The Enforcers stayed side by side. They kept their guns pointed precisely at my back.

  Then one muttered something into his electronic device. The back door of the truck opened, and the other two Enforcers stepped out. I tried to see in, to get a glimpse of Rosi, Bobo, Cana or Kiandra, to see how they were doing, but the Enforcers shut the door too quickly.

  They locked it too, so no one could escape.

  Now I had four Enforcers behind me, four guns trained on my back.

  “Y-you just have to climb up this way,” I stammered, heading toward the rock formation.

  The pebbles and rocks slid around under my feet, and it was a struggle to stay upright. If I let myself fall, could I gather up a handful of rocks and throw them really, really fast at all four Enforcers?

  I hadn’t even thought I’d be able to knock out two Enforcers before one of them shot me. There was absolutely no way I could hit twice that many. Even Enu with his video-game reflexes and skill couldn’t have done that.

  Oh, Enu, I thought, and it was silly, but I kind of wished I’d told him he’d been a fun big brother. Even if he’d only ever invited me to play basketball because he’d run out of other choices, I was glad he’d let me play.

  I really should have been thinking of a good plan while I climbed higher and higher through the rocks, but my mind balked at that just as much as I’d ever balked at what the Freds wanted me to do, back in Fredtown. Instead my mind kept listing all the good-byes and thank-yous I’d probably never be able to say.

  Oh, Kiandra, I thought. I wish there’d been time for you to teach me everything you know about computers. Oh, Zeba, I hope you get safely back to Refuge City. Oh, Rosi. Rosi, Rosi, Rosi. I hope you’ll remember me as the kid who tried to rescue you. Not as the kid who dyed your hair with Kool-Aid back in Fredtown. Or threw shaving-cream pies at you. Or . . .

  Well. No need to list every prank I’d ever played on Rosi. Not when the Enforcers were probably going to shoot me when we got up to that cave and no one was there.

  You forgive me, don’t you, Rosi? I thought.

  I didn’t actually have to ask her this question directly. It was like I already had my answer, from the hug she’d given me.

  “Is that the cave you are leading us toward?” one of the Enforcers behind me asked.

  I turned around to see where he was pointing. Even in my terror I was tempted to say, Well, duh! Do you see more than one cave?

  It was nice to know that I was still capable of at least thinking sarcastic thoughts.

  But as I turned, I noticed that there was actually a second darker area above me, off to the side, narrower than the cave I’d seen from down below. I raised up on my tiptoes, trying to see which indentation in the rock face was deeper, which cave would buy me more time.

  In the first cave I saw a flash of orange.

  My heart almost stopped.

  I climbed a step higher, giving me a clearer view of the first cave. It really was barely more than a cavelike indentation in the rock face. It was shielded from the Enforcers’ view by a row of boulders right at the cave’s mouth. But I was close enough now to understand the flash of orange I’d seen:

  It was Enu’s basketball T-shirt.

  And Enu, Zeba, and Udans were all cowering behind the boulders.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

  No, no, no, no! screamed in my head. What am I supposed to do now? Why didn’t I realize these three might be hiding here? Why didn’t I lead the Enforcers somewhere else?

  But there was nowhere else anyone might have gone to hide around here except the rock formation.

  Udans pressed his finger over his lips and shook his head frantically at me.

  I turned back to the Enforcers.

  “Oh, you thought it was that cave?” I said loudly, pointing toward the boulders Enu, Zeba, and Udans were cowering behind. “I’m actually headed toward that one.”

  I pointed off to the side. My hand shook so much, there was no way the Enforcers could make sense of where I was pointing.

  And the other cave was too shallow. There was no way the Enforcers would believe anyone was hidden there. They could probably see that, even from where they stood, four steps behind me.

  How much time did I have before they just decided to shoot me? At what point was it last-minute enough that I could dive for the ground and just start throwing rocks—because everything else was hopeless?

  “Nadrik?” the lead Enforcer called toward the shallow cave. I guess that was the lost patroller’s name. But the word only echoed hollowly against the rocks, and the Enforcer looked back at me. “Why does he not answer us?”

  “He . . . he was unconscious when I saw him,” I said. “That’s why I was going to get help. I knew I couldn’t carry him down from here all by myself.”

  “You had that girl with you,” the lead Enforcer growled back at me.

  “Yes, but I didn’t think even two of us could carry him,” I said. “We’re kids, remember?”

  Would they think, Oh, that’s right. We can’t shoot kids?

  No. They wouldn’t. I could tell by their faces. Or—t
heir masks.

  It was so frustrating that I knew the secret to overpowering the Enforcers, but I couldn’t use it because I was alone. I couldn’t get anyone to help me. It was like being back in Fredtown, when I felt like I was the only one trying to find out the truth.

  But eventually, once we were in Cursed Town, Rosi had wanted to know the truth as much as I did. I had never been as alone as I thought I was.

  And I wasn’t actually entirely alone now. It was just that Rosi, Bobo, Cana, and Kiandra were trapped. And Udans, Enu, and Zeba weren’t in any position to help me with my lies.

  What if I tried truth instead?

  I turned back to the Enforcers.

  “Is it true,” I asked in my loudest voice, “that you Enforcers have a weakness? That if someone hits you at the exact right place on your jaw, your faces come off and you can’t breathe?”

  All four of the Enforcers aimed their guns more precisely—at the exact spot on my chest where nothing but ribs and muscle and skin protected my frantically beating heart.

  “Now where would you have heard that?” the lead Enforcer asked in an icy voice.

  “Oh, it’s just a rumor going around,” I said. I held my hands up, a gesture of innocence. “Not that I could do anything by myself, of course. Not when there are four of you and only one of me. Why, I’d need at least three friends to help me out, to even have a chance to do anything. . . .”

  I wanted so badly to look back at the boulders, to see if Udans, Enu, and Zeba understood what I was really saying. To see if they were brave enough. To see if they knew what all of humanity needed us to do.

  There was so much I didn’t know, so much I didn’t understand. But I finally had a plan.

  I threw myself at the ground and screamed, “Now!”

  CHAPTER FORTY

  I heard nothing but gunfire.

  Udans, Enu, and Zeba didn’t hear me, or they didn’t understand, I thought. Or they don’t care. And I’m going to die.

 
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