Page 9

 Neal Shusterman

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“Sorry,” says Grace as she sets up a second game.
“Never apologize for winning.”
“Sorry,” says Grace again. “Not for winning, but for being sorry for winning.”
Throughout the next game, Grace gives a blow-by-blow analysis, pointing out all the moves Connor should have made and why.
“Don’t worry about it,” Grace says, capturing Connor’s queen with a bishop hiding in plain sight. “Morphy made that slip against Anderssen, but still won the freaking match.”
Connor isn’t so lucky. Grace wipes the floor with him again. Actually, Connor would have been disappointed if she didn’t.
“Who taught you to play?”
Grace shrugs. “Played against my phone and stuff.” Then she adds, “I can’t play games with Argent. He gets mad when I win, and even madder when he wins, because he knows I let him.”
“Figures,” Connor says. “Don’t let me win.”
Grace smiles. “I won’t.”
Grace leaves and returns with an old-fashioned backgammon board—it’s a game Grace has to teach Connor how to play. She’s not very good at explaining, but Connor gets the gist of it.
Argent comes back during the second game, and with a single finger, flips the board. Brown and white pieces scatter everywhere.
“Stop wasting the man’s time,” Argent tells Grace. “He doesn’t want to do that.”
“Maybe I do,” Connor tells him, making sure to force a smile when he says it.
“No, you don’t. Grace just wants to make you look stupider than her. And anyway, she’s useless. She couldn’t once get her game on in Las Vegas.”
“I don’t count cards,” mumbles Grace morosely. “I just play games.”
“Anyway, I got something much better than board games right here.” And Argent shows Connor an antique glass pipe.
“Argie!” says Grace, a little breathless. “You shouldn’t be using great-grandpa’s bong!”
“Why not? It’s mine now, isn’t it?”
“It’s an heirloom!”
“Yeah, well, form follows function,” says Argent, once more completely missing the actual meaning of the expression. This time Connor doesn’t bother to point it out.
“Wanna smoke some tranq?” Argent asks.
“I’ve been tranq’d enough,” Connor tells him. “I don’t need to smoke the stuff.”
“No—see it’s different when you smoke it. It doesn’t knock you out. It just throws you for a loop.” He pulls out a red and yellow capsule—the mildest kind used in tranq darts—and puts it in the bowl with some common yard cannabis. “C’mon, you’ll like it,” he says as he lights it.
Connor had done his share of this sort of thing before his unwind order was signed. Being hunted kind of killed his taste for it.
“I’ll pass.”
Argent sighs. “Okay, I’ll admit something to you. It’s always been one of my fantasies to do tranq with the Akron AWOL and talk some deep spiritual crap. Now you’re actually here, so we have to do it.”
“I don’t think he wants to smoke tranq, Argie.”
“Not your business,” he snaps without even looking at Grace. Argent takes a hit from the pipe, then puts it over Connor’s mouth, holding Connor’s nose so he has no choice but to suck it in.
The physiological response is quick. In less than a minute, Connor’s ears feel like they’re shrinking. His head spins, and gravity seems to reverse directions a few times.
“You feeling it?”
Connor doesn’t want to dignify him with a response. Instead he looks to Grace, who just sits helplessly on a sack of potatoes. Argent takes a second hit and forces Connor to do one as well.
As Connor’s mind liquefies, memories of his life before unwinding come rushing back to him. He can almost hear his parents yelling at him and him yelling back. He can remember all the things—both legal and otherwise—that he did to numb the feeling of being troubled and troubling in a dull Ohio suburb.
He sees a little bit of his old self in Argent. Was Connor ever this much of a creep? No—he couldn’t have been. And besides, he got past it, but Argent never did. Argent is maybe twenty, but he’s still wallowing in the loser mud hole, letting it turn into a tar pit beneath his feet. The anger that Connor feels toward Argent dissolves into the liquid of his thoughts, spreading into a thin, wide layer of pity.
Argent takes another hit and reels. “Oh man, this is good stuff.” He looks bleary-eyed at Connor. The combination of tranq and weed have made Connor emotional. He knows it’s about his own past, but Argent takes it as a connection between them.
“We’re the same, Connor,” he says. “That’s what you’re thinking, right? I coulda been you. I can still be you.” He starts giggling. “We can be you together.”
The giggle is contagious. Connor finds himself giggling uncontrollably as Argent makes him take another hit.
“Gotta show you this,” Argent says. “You’ll get mad, but I gotta show you anyway.” Then Argent pulls out his phone and shows him one of the pictures he took with Connor yesterday.
“Good one, right? I put it up on my Facelink profile.”
“You . . . did what?”
“No big deal. Just for my friends and stuff.” Argent giggles again. Connor giggles. Argent laughs, and Connor finds himself laughing hysterically.
“Do you know how bad that is, Argent?”
“I know, right?”
“No, you don’t. The authorities. The Juvenile Authority. They’ve got facial tracing bots on the net.”
“Bots, right.”
“They’ll take down this house. I’ll get taken in. You’ll both get five to ten for”—Connor can’t control his laughter—“for aiding and abetting.”
“Ooh, this is bad, Argie,” says Grace from the corner.
“Who asked you?” Argent says. Being wasted doesn’t temper his treatment of his sister.
“We gotta get out of here, Argent,” Connor says. “We’ve gotta go now. We’re both fugitives now.”
“Yeah?” Argent still doesn’t quite grasp it.
“We’ll be on the run—you and me.”
“Right. Screwing with the world.”
“It was fated, just like you said.”
“Argent and the Akron AWOL.”
“Triple A!”
“But you have to untie me before they come to take us out!”
“Untie you . . .”
“There’s no time. Please, Argent.”
“I can really trust you?”
“Did we or did we not just do tranq together?”
That’s enough to clinch the deal. Argent puts the pipe down, then goes behind Connor to undo his hands. Connor flexes his fingers and rolls his aching shoulders. He doesn’t know whether the numbness in his arms is from being tied up or from the tranq.
“So where do we go?” Argent asks.
Connor’s response is a glass pipe to the head. The pipe catches Argent just above his jaw and shatters, cutting the left side of Argent’s face in at least three places. Argent’s legs slip out from under him, and he hits the ground, groaning—still half-conscious, but unable to get up. His face gushes blood.
Grace stands staring at Connor, dumbfounded. “You broke great-grandpa’s bong.”
“Yeah, I know.”
She doesn’t go to help Argent. Instead she just looks at Connor, unsure whether she’s just been betrayed or liberated.
“Is it true what you said about the police coming after us?” she asks.
Connor finds he doesn’t need to answer. Because he can hear cars screeching to a halt outside and the steady beat of a helicopter overhead.
7 • Grace
Grace Eleanor Skinner fears death as much as anyone else. She fears pain even more. Once, a long time ago, Argie had made her go up to the high-dive platform while they were on vacation. She had squandered her willpower, mustering the guts for waterslides and such, but once she had made the climb to the ten-meter platform, she found herself weak. The pool below looked small and very far away. Hitting the water would hurt. As she stood on the edge, toes curled on the concrete lip, Argie had heckled her from down below.
“Don’t be a stupid wimp, Gracie,” he yelled for all to hear. “Don’t think about it—just jump.”
Behind her, others were getting impatient.
“Gracie, jump already! You’re making everyone mad!” In the end, Grace had backed away and gone down the ladder in shame.
That’s what this feels like today. Only now the threat is far more real. Argie’s words from that day come back to her. Don’t think about it—just jump. She follows the advice this time.
She pushes open the cellar door and bursts forth into the light of day. This is a game, she tells herself. I win games.
There are sharpshooters in the yard, but they don’t see her at first. Their rifles are trained on the house, and the cellar is at the far back of the yard. They haven’t gone in yet. The force is still positioning.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” she yells, running out into the weedy yard, pulling the sharpshooters’ attention. Immediately all the rifles turn to her. She doesn’t think they’re loaded with tranqs.
“Don’t shoot,” she says again. “It’s this way. He’s over here. Don’t shoot!”
“On the ground!” one of the sharpshooters orders. “On the ground now!”
But no. Rule one—never allow capture unless it gives you an advantage.
“This way! Follow me!” She turns around, hands still flailing in the air as she runs back to the cellar. She half expects to be shot, but the other half wins; they don’t fire. She races down the stairs into the cellar and waits. In a moment, the sharpshooters are there, covering one another, aiming at her and into the dim light of the cellar like soldiers in hostile territory. Although her heart feels like its exploding and she wants to scream, she says calmly, “You don’t need guns. He’s unarmed.”
The marksmen still hold their ground, covering for an officer in a suit who follows them down the stairs.
“I knew it was a bad idea,” Grace tells him. “I told Argie, but he wouldn’t listen.”
The officer sizes Grace up quickly, dismissively, just as everyone does. He guesses she’s low-cortical and pats her shoulder. “You’ve done a good thing, miss.”
More officers come into the cellar, making it crowded.
The figure tied to the pole is limp and semiconscious. The lead officer grabs his hair to lift his head and looks into his face.
“Who the hell is this?”
“My brother, Argent,” Grace says. “I told him not to steal all this stuff from the supermarket. I told him he’d be in big trouble. I knocked him out and tied him up. I had to hurt him, see, so he wouldn’t get shot. He’s not resisting, right? So you’ll go easy on him, won’t you? Won’t you? Tell me you’ll go easy on him!”