Page 2

 Neal Shusterman

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“Through the fence? Are you crazy?” whispers Lev.
“If we run along the fence, we’ll get caught. We have to disappear. This is the only way to do it.”
With Lev beside him, Conner pushes through the broken fence, and like so many other times in his life, he finds himself running blind into the dark.
* * *
“Last year, I lost my husband of thirty-five years to a burglar. He just came in through the window. My husband tried to fight him off and was shot. I know I can never bring my husband back, but now there’s a proposition on the ballot that can finally make criminals truly pay for their crimes, flesh for flesh.
“By legalizing the unwinding of criminals, not only do we reduce prison overcrowding, but we can provide lifesaving tissues for transplant. Further, the Corporal Justice law will allow for a percentage of all proceeds from organ sales to go directly to victims of violent crime and their families.
“Vote yes on Proposition 73. United we stand; divided criminals fall.”
—Sponsored by the National Alliance of Victims for Corporeal Justice
* * *
They can’t stay at the ostrich ranch. Lights are on in the farmhouse; more than likely the owner has been notified of the problem on the interstate, and the place will be crawling with farmhands and police to wrangle the birds.
Down a dirt road, a half mile from the farm, they come across an abandoned trailer. There’s a bed with a mattress, but it’s so mildewed, they both decide their best bet is to sleep on the floor.
In spite of everything, Connor falls asleep in minutes. He has vague dreams of Risa, whom he hasn’t seen in many months, and may never see again, as well as dreams of the battle at the airplane graveyard. The takedown operation that routed the place. In his dreams, Connor tries dozens of different tactics to save the hundreds of kids in his care from the Juvenile Authority. Nothing ever works. The outcome is always the same—the kids are all either killed or put in transport trucks bound for harvest camps. Even Connor’s dreams are futile.
When he wakes, it’s morning. Lev isn’t there, and Connor’s chest aches with every breath. He loosens the tourniquet. The bleeding has stopped, but the gash is red and still very raw. He puts it back on until he can find something other than his bloodstained Windbreaker to cover it.
He finds Lev outside, surveying their surroundings. There’s a lot to survey. What at night appeared to be just a lone trailer is actually the central mansion of an entire rust-bucket estate. All around the trailer is a collection of large, useless objects. Rusted cars, kitchen appliances, even a school bus so old it retains none of its original color, not a single window intact.
“You have to wonder about the person who lived here,” Lev says.
As Connor looks around the veritable junkyard, it strikes him as disturbingly familiar. “I lived in the airplane junkyard for more than a year,” he reminds Lev. “Everyone’s got issues.”
“Graveyard, not junkyard,” Lev corrects.
“There’s a difference?”
“One is about a noble end. The other is about, well . . . garbage.”
Connor looks down and kicks a rusted can. “There was nothing noble about our end at the Graveyard.”
“Give it up,” says Lev. “Your self-pity is getting old.”
But it’s not self-pity—Lev should know that. It’s about the kids who were lost. Of the more than seven hundred kids in Connor’s care, over thirty died, and about four hundred were shipped off to harvest camps to be unwound. Maybe no one could have stopped it—but it happened on Connor’s watch. He has to bear the weight of it.
Connor takes a long look at Lev, who, for the moment, seems content to examine a wheelless, hoodless, roofless Cadillac so overgrown by weeds inside and out, it looks like a planter.
“It has a kind of beauty, you know?” says Lev. “Like how sunken ships eventually become part of a coral reef.”
“How can you be so stinking cheery?” Connor asks.
Lev’s response is a toss of his overgrown blond hair and a grin that is intentionally cheerful. “Maybe because we’re alive and we’re free,” Lev says. “Maybe because I singlehandedly saved your butt from a parts pirate.”
Now Connor can’t help but grin as well. “Stop it; your self-congratulation is getting old.”
Connor can’t blame Lev for being upbeat. His mission succeeded with flying colors. He walked right into the middle of a no-way-out battle and not only found a way out, but saved Connor from Nelson, a disgraced Juvey-cop with a grudge who was hell-bent on selling Connor on the black market.
“After what you did,” Connor tells Lev, “Nelson will want your head on a stake.”
“And other parts, I’m sure. But he’s got to find me first.”
Only now does Lev’s optimism begin to rub off on Connor. Yes, their situation is dire, but for a dire situation, things could be worse. Being alive and free counts for something, and the fact that they have a destination—one that may just give them some crucial answers—adds a fair amount of hope into the mix.
Connor shifts his shoulder and the motion aggravates his wound—a reminder that it will have to be taken care of sooner rather than later. It’s a complication they don’t need. Not a single clinic or emergency room will do the work without asking questions. If he can just keep it clean and dressed until they get to Ohio, he knows Sonia will get him the care he needs.
That is, if she’s still at the antique shop.
That is, if she’s even alive.
“The last road sign before we flipped the bird said there was a town just ahead,” Connor tells Lev. “I’ll go jack a car and come back for you.”
“No,” says Lev. “I traveled across the country to find you—I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
“You’re worse than a Juvey-cop.”
“Two sets of eyes are better than one,” says Lev.
“But if one of us gets caught, the other can make it to Ohio. If we’re together, then we risk both of us getting caught.”
Lev opens his mouth to say something, but closes it again. Connor’s logic is irrefutable.
“I don’t like this at all,” Lev says.
“Neither do I, but it’s our best option.”
“And what am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
Connor offers him a crooked grin. “Make yourself part of the reef.”
• • •
It’s a long walk—especially for someone in pain. Before leaving, Connor had found some “clean” linens in the trailer, as well as a stash of cheap whiskey, perfect for cleaning a wound. Painful, too, but as all the world’s sports coaches say, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Connor always hated coaches. Once the stinging had stopped, he created a more secure dressing, which he now wears under a faded flannel shirt that belonged to the trailer’s final resident. It’s too warm a shirt for such hot weather, but it was the best he could do.
Now, sweating from the heat and aching from the wound, Connor counts his steps along the dirt road until it becomes paved. He has yet to see a passing car, but that’s fine. The fewer eyes that see him, the better. Safety in solitude.
Connor also doesn’t know what to expect ahead of him in this small town. When it comes to cities and suburbs, Connor has found that most are fairly identical—only the geography changes. Rural areas, however, vary greatly. Some small towns are places you’d want to come from and eventually go back to: warm, inviting communities that breathe out Americana the way rain forests breathe out oxygen. And then there are towns like Heartsdale, Kansas.
This is the place where fun came to die.
It’s clear to Connor that Heartsdale is economically depressed, which is not that uncommon. All it takes these days for a town to give up the ghost is for a major factory to shut down or pick up its skirt and do an international waltz for cheaper labor. Heartsdale, however, isn’t just depressed; it’s ugly in a fundamental way and on more than one level.
The main drag is full of low, flat-faced architecture, all in shades of beige. Although there are farms in abundance that Connor had passed, thriving and green in the July sun, the town center has no trees, no green growth except for weeds between pavement cracks. There’s an uninviting church built out of institutional mustard-colored bricks. The sermon message on the billboard reads WHO W LL ATONE FOR YOUR S NS? B NGO ON FR DAYS.
The town’s most attractive building is a new three-story parking garage, but it isn’t open for business. The reason, Connor realizes, is the empty lot next to it. There’s a billboard for a modern office building to be erected there, which may one day need three levels of parking, but the forlorn state of the lot betrays the fact that the office complex has been in the planning stages for perhaps a decade and will probably never be built.
The place isn’t exactly a ghost town—Connor sees plenty of people going about their morning business, but he has an urge to ask them, “Why bother? What’s the point?” The problem with a town like this is that anyone with even a rudimentary survival instinct managed to get out long ago—perhaps finding themselves one of those other small towns in which to live. The kind with the heart that Heartsdale lacks. Left behind are the souls that kind of got stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Connor comes to a supermarket. A Publix. Its blacktop parking lot shimmers with waves of heat. If he’s going to jack a car, there are plenty here to choose from, but they’re all out in the open, so he can’t do it without the risk of being exposed. Besides, his hope is to find a long-term parking lot where a stolen car might not be missed for a day or more. Even if he manages to get away with a car from this lot, it will be reported stolen within the hour. But who is he kidding? A long-term parking lot implies the owners of the vehicles parked there had somewhere to go. The folks in Heartsdale don’t seem to be going anywhere.
It’s hunger, however, that pulls him toward the market, and he realizes he hasn’t eaten in half a day. With twenty-some-odd dollars in his pocket, he reasons that there’s nothing wrong with buying something to eat. It’s easy to remain anonymous in a market for a whole of five minutes.
As the automatic door slides open, he’s hit with a blast of cold air that is at first refreshing, then makes his sweaty clothes cold against his body. The market is brightly lit and filled with shoppers moving slowly through the aisles, probably here to get out of the heat as much as they are to shop.
Connor grabs premade sandwiches and cans of soda for himself and for Lev, then goes to the self-checkout, only to find that it’s closed. No way to avoid human contact today. He chooses a checker who looks disinterested and unobservant. He seems a year or two older than Connor. Skinny, with straggly black hair and a baby-fuzz mustache that just isn’t working. He grabs Connor’s items and runs them across the scanner.
“Will that be it for you?” the checker asks absently.