Page 3

 Neal Shusterman

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“Did you find everything all right?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
He glances once at Connor. It seems he holds Connor’s gaze a moment too long, but maybe he’s been instructed to make eye contact with customers, as well as ask his standard rote questions.
“You need help out with that?”
“I think I can handle it.”
“No worries, man. Keep cool. It’s a scorcher out there.”
Connor leaves without further incident. He’s back out in the heat and halfway across the parking lot, when he hears—
“Hey, wait up!”
Connor tenses, his right arm contracting into a habitual fist. But when he turns, he sees that it’s the checker coming after him, waving a wallet.
“Hey, man—you left this on the counter.”
“Sorry,” Connor tells him. “It’s not mine.”
The checker flips it open to look at the license. “Are you sure? Because—”
The attack comes so suddenly that Connor is caught off guard. He has no chance to protect himself from the blow—and it’s a low one. A kick to the groin that registers a surge of shock, followed by a building swell of excruciating pain. Connor swings at his attacker, and Roland’s arm doesn’t fail him. He connects a powerful blow to the checker’s jaw, then swings with his natural arm, but by now the pain is so overwhelming, the punch has nothing behind it. Suddenly his attacker is behind him and puts Connor in a choke hold. Still Connor struggles. He’s bigger than this guy, stronger, but the checker knows what he’s doing, and Connor’s reaction time is slowed. The choke hold cuts off Connor’s windpipe and compresses his carotid artery. His vision goes black, and he knows he’s about to lose consciousness. The only saving grace is that being unconscious means he doesn’t have to feel the agony in his groin.
* * *
“I used to make jokes about clappers until three of them senselessly targeted my school and detonated themselves in a crowded hallway. Who would have thought that the simple act of bringing your hands together could create so much misery? I lost a lot of friends that day.
“If you think there’s nothing you can do to stop clappers, you’re wrong. You can report suspicious teens in your neighborhood, since it’s been documented that most clappers are under twenty. Be aware of people who wear clothing too heavy for the weather, as clappers often try to pad themselves so that they don’t detonate accidentally. Also be aware of people who appear to walk with exaggerated caution, as if every footfall might be their last. And don’t forget to lobby for a ban on applause at public events in your community.
“Together we can put an end to clappers once and for all. It’s our hands against theirs.”
—Sponsored by Hands Apart for Peace®
* * *
Connor snaps awake, fully conscious, fully aware. No bleary-eyed moments of uncertainty; he knows he was attacked, and he knows he’s in trouble. The question is how bad will this trouble be?
The wound on his chest aches, his head pounds, but he pushes thoughts of the pain away and quickly begins to take in his surroundings. Cinder-block walls. Dirt floor. This is good: It means he’s not in a jail cell or a holding pen. The only light is a single dangling bulb above his head. There are food supplies and cases of bottled water piled against the wall to his right, and to his left, concrete stairs lead to a hatch up above. He’s in some sort of basement or bunker. Maybe a storm cellar. That would account for the emergency supplies.
He tries to move but can’t. His hands are tied to a pole behind his back.
“Took you long enough!”
Connor turns to see the greasy-haired supermarket checker sitting in the shadows by the food supplies. Now that he’s been spotted, he scoots forward into the light. “That choke hold I gave you knocks people out for ten, maybe twenty minutes usually—but you were out for nearly an hour.”
Connor doesn’t say anything. Any question, any utterance, is a show of weakness. He doesn’t want to give this loser any more power than he already has.
“If I held you ten seconds more, it woulda killed you. Or at least given you brain damage. You don’t got brain damage, do you?”
Connor still gives him nothing beyond a cold stare.
“I knew who you were the second I laid eyes on you,” he says. “People said the Akron AWOL was dead, but I knew it was all lies. ‘Habeas corpus,’ I say. ‘Bring me his body.’ But they couldn’t do it, because you’re not dead!”
Connor can’t hold his tongue any longer. “That’s not what habeas corpus means, you moron.”
The checker giggles, then pulls out his phone and takes a picture. The flash makes Connor’s head pound. “Do you have any idea how cool this is, Connor? I can call you Connor, right?”
Connor looks down and sees that the wound on his chest has been redressed with actual gauze and surgical tape. The fact that he can see the bandage brings to his attention the fact that he’s shirtless.
“What did you do with my shirt?”
“Had to take it off. When I saw the blood, I had to check it out. Who cut you? Was it a Juvey-cop? Did you give as good as you got?”
“Yeah,” says Connor. “He’s dead.” Hopefully his continued glare implies, And you’re next.
“Wish I coulda seen that!” said the checker. “You’re my hero. You know that, right?” Then he goes off into a twisted reverie. “The Akron AWOL blows the hell out of Happy Jack Harvest Camp, escaping from his own unwinding. The Akron AWOL tranqs a Juvey-cop with his own gun. The Akron AWOL turns a tithe into a clapper!”
“I didn’t do that.”
“Yeah, well, you did the rest, and that’s enough.”
Connor thinks about Lev waiting for him back at the field of junk and begins to feel sick.
“I followed your career, man, until they said you died—but I never believed it, not for a minute. A guy like you don’t get taken down so easy.”
“It wasn’t a career,” Connor says, disgusted by this guy’s particular brand of hero worship, but it’s as if he doesn’t hear Connor.
“You tore up the world. I could do that too, y’know? Just need the opportunity. And maybe a partner in crime who knows what he’s doing. Knows how to mess with the powers that be. You know where I’m going with this, right? Sure you do—you’re too smart not to know. I always knew if we’d met, we’d be friends. We’d click—kindred spirits and all that.” Then he laughs. “The Akron AWOL in my storm cellar. Can’t be an accident. It was fated, man! Fated!”
“You kicked me in the nuts. That wasn’t fate; it was your foot.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. But, see, I had to do something or you’d just leave. It hurts, I know, but there’s no real damage. I hope you won’t take it the wrong way.”
Connor laughs bitterly at that. He can’t help himself. He wonders if anyone saw the attack happen. If someone did, they didn’t care, or at least they didn’t care enough to stop it.
“Friends don’t tie friends up in a cellar,” Connor points out.
“Yeah, sorry about that, too.” But he makes no move to untie him. “Here’s the quandary. You know what a quandary is, right? Sure you do. See, if I untie you, you’ll probably bolt. So I have to convince you I’m the real deal. A decent guy in spite of knocking you out and tying you up. I gotta make you see that a friend like me is hard to find in this screwed-up world and that this is the place where you want to be. You don’t gotta run anymore. See, nobody looks for nobody in Heartsdale.”
His captor stands and paces, gesturing with his hands. His eyes get wide as he talks as if he’s telling a campfire story. He’s not even looking at Connor anymore as he weaves his little fantasy. Connor just lets him talk, figuring in his verbal diarrhea, he might expel some piece of information that Connor can use.
“I got it all figured out,” he continues. “We’ll dye your hair as dark as mine. I know a guy who’ll do pigment injections in your eyes on the cheap so they’ll look the same hazel as mine—although I can see one of your eyes is slightly different from the other, but we can get them to match, right? Then we’ll tell folks you’re my cousin from Wichita, on account of everyone knows I got family in Wichita. With my help, you’ll disappear so good, no one’ll know you’re not dead.”
The thought of being made to look like this guy in any way is almost as unpleasant as a kick to the groin. And disappearing in Heartsdale? That’s the stuff of nightmares. Yet in spite of everything, Connor dredges up the warmest smile he can muster.
“You say you want to be friends, but I don’t even know your name.”
He looks offended. “It was on my name tag at the market. Don’t you remember?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Not too observant, are you? A guy in your situation should learn to be more observant.” And then he adds, “Not your situation here. I mean your situation out there.”
Connor waits until his captor finally says, “Argent. Like Sergeant without the S. It means money in French. Argent Skinner at your service.”
“Of the Wichita Skinners.”
Argent looks a bit shocked and increasingly suspicious. “You heard of us?”
Connor considers toying with him, but decides that Argent won’t look kindly upon it once he figures it out. “No—you said so before.”
“Oh, right.”
Now Argent just stares at him, grinning until the trapdoor swings open and someone else clambers down the steps. The woman looks somewhat like Argent, but a couple of years older, taller, and a little doughier—not fat, but a bit heavyset and unshapely. Dowdy—if a woman so young could be called dowdy. Her expression is a bit vaguer than Argent’s, if indeed that’s possible.
“Is that him? Can I see him? Is it really him?”
Suddenly Argent’s whole demeanor changes. “You shut your stupid hole!” he shouts. “You want the whole world to know who we got visitin’?”
“Sorry, Argie.” Her broad shoulders seem to fold at the reprimand.
Connor quickly sizes her up to be Argent’s older sister. Twenty-two or twenty-three, although she carries herself much younger. The slack expression on her face speaks of a dullness that isn’t her fault, although Argent clearly blames her for it.
“You want to keep us company, then go sit in the corner and be quiet.” Argent turns back to Connor. “Grace has got a problem using her indoor voice.”
“We’re not indoors,” Grace insists. “The shelter’s in the yard, and that’s outside the house.”
Argent sighs and shakes his head, giving Connor an exaggerated long-suffering look. “You see how it is?”
“Yeah, I see,” says Connor. He logs one more bit of information. This cellar is not in the house, but in the yard. Which means if Connor manages to escape the cellar, he’s maybe a dozen yards closer to freedom. “Won’t it be hard to keep it a secret that I’m down here,” Connor asks, “once everyone else gets home?”