Page 5

 Neal Shusterman

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“Wil followed our traditions because he loved his grandfather. Now he must decide for himself whether to follow the traditions or not. And so must you.”
Lev first thinks she’s joking. “Me?”
“When your residence petition is approved, you will be an adopted son of the tribe. In addition to protecting you from your unwind order, the adoption will make this your official home. Like everyone else here, you’ll eventually choose on which side of the rez wall your spirit belongs.”
Lev tries his best to wrap his mind around this. He hasn’t thought that far ahead: finding a safe place he can truly call home.
“Wil’s grandfather gave you a gift, Lev,” Una tells him.
Lev can’t begin to imagine what it might be. Anticipation stirs in him.
“He gave the same gift to Wil, but Wil doesn’t know it yet. You see, on his deathbed Tocho asked Wil to take you on a vision quest.”
Suddenly the wind changes, and their eyes tear from the smoke.
There is a communal quest in ten days’ time, and Lev is added to the group of boys and girls, to honor Tocho’s dying wish. Wil joins them as well, also to honor his grandfather’s final request.
The vision quest starts with a sweat lodge. It’s total chaos trying to keep almost a dozen ten- and eleven-year-olds occupied while sitting around hot rocks being steamed nearly to death. They drink gallons of salted cactus tea and leave the sweltering heat of the lodge only to pee, which isn’t often, since they sweat out almost everything they drink.
Lev, who always felt the youngest of any group he was in, is now the oldest. As if he didn’t already feel out of place.
After the sweat lodge, they hike into the mountains. No food on a quest either: just thick, noxious drinks that taste like weeds.
“The sweating and fasting prepare the body for the vision quest,” Wil tells him. Pivane is in charge of the quest, with Wil as a reluctant sidekick. “Of course, my uncle and I get real food,” he adds, almost taunting. Lev knows Wil is here only because he promised his grandfather.
On the first night, one kid has a vision that he tells the others at breakfast the next day. A pig spirit led him to a courthouse and told him he’d be a judge.
“He’s lying,” announces Kele, the skinny, hyper kid who often seems to speak for the others. “How much you wanna bet his parents told him to say that?”
Wil begins to call the boy out on it, but Pivane raises his hand and lets it go.
“If the boy has a true vision,” Lev overhears Pivane tell Wil, “he will choose it over the lie.”
On the next day, there is an archery competition. Luckily for Lev, he took a liking to archery a few years back and placed silver in a citywide competition. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help him here. He takes last place.
On the third day, Lev falls and tweaks his wrist again. He has forgotten what clean feels like, and he’s covered with mosquito bites. He’s miserable and uncomfortable, and his head is pounding.
So why then does he find this to be the happiest week of his life?
Every night they build a fire, and Wil plays his guitar. It is the highlight of the day. So are the stories that Pivane tells: traditional folktales. Some are funny and some are strange. Lev likes to watch the kids around him lean close to the storyteller, their eyes wide with wonder.
On the fourth day, everyone is antsy. Lev isn’t sure if it’s the effects of not eating or a storm brewing in the mountains to the north. The kids are simmering at breakfast in the muggy stillness. When Ahote spills his weed drink on Lansa, the two boys fight with such fury it takes the combined might of Lev, Wil, and Pivane to separate them.
It doesn’t help that Lev feels like he’s being watched. He stares into the forest every time a bird erupts from a tree or a twig cracks. He knows it’s probably nothing, but all the uneasiness from his time as an AWOL still has him paranoid. His twitchiness spreads to the younger kids, till Pivane finally sends him off for a break.
At first it’s a relief to be alone in the small pup tent, but soon the deerskin walls press down on him and the smell of dirty socks drives him outside. He can hear the others washing the breakfast mugs in the clearing. Chin low, he sits cross-legged, ChanceFolk style, in the small thicket of tents, wishing the storm would finally break and get it over with.
Looking up, he sees Kele fidgeting in front of him. Kele sits down, but he won’t look directly at Lev at first. When he finally does, Kele says, “I had my vision last night.”
Lev doesn’t know what to say. He wonders why Kele came to him rather than Pivane or Wil.
“So you saw your spirit-guide?” Kele seems stuck on what to say next, so Lev prompts him. “It wasn’t a pig, was it?”
“No . . .” Kele draws the word out. “It was a sparrow, like my name.”
Lev is struck by this. Seems right that the spirit-guide would mean something special to a kid, unless of course it’s to be a source of organ replacements.
“So what happened?”
“Something bad.” The boy whispers so quietly that Lev has to lean forward to hear him.
“What was bad?” All the fears that have been haunting him this morning return.
“I don’t know.” Kele looks at him, nervously crushing leaves to powder. “But I saw you leaving. You won’t, will you?”
Lev feels as if an arrow has hit him in the chest, and he can’t breathe. He tries to remember what Wil told him. The hunger and the sweating can cause hallucinations and strange dreams. Or maybe someone suggested to Kele that mahpees always leave, and so he dreamed it.
“I’m not leaving,” he says, and he’s reassuring himself just as much as Kele.
“In the vision you were running,” Kele tells him. “People wanted to hurt you . . . and you wanted to hurt them back.”
6 - Wil
Earlier that morning, Wil told Pivane he was going off to gather firewood, but in reality he just needed to get away. Find a place to think. Now he sits on a cliff-side boulder that gives him a fine view of the forest and a clearer perspective on his life. He can see the camp from here, or at least part of it, and although he does intend to come back with firewood, he doesn’t intend to do it for a while.
Wil can no longer deny the resentment building inside of him; it’s been building since long before his grandfather’s funeral. Wil, play us a song for healing. Wil, play us a song for calming. Wil, play us a song for celebration, for soothing, for patience, for wisdom. The tribe has used him like a music machine. No more. He doesn’t have an on/off switch. Maybe it’s time he played music for a different reason, one of his choosing.
And so when this vision quest is over, and he has fulfilled his promise to his grandfather, even if Lev stays, Wil will not. He resolves that it is time for him to leave the rez and blaze a fresh future for himself, and for Una, too . . . if she decides she loves him more than she loves the rez.
7 - Lev
Lev tries not to shudder at the prospect of Kele’s vision. Lev has dreamed of himself running too. And he’s dreamed of revenge. Not against anyone in particular, but everyone at once. The world at large. It’s a feeling as dark as the storm clouds on the horizon, and it won’t be easy to dispel.
“We’re in the rez, surrounded by walls and laws that protect us,” he tells Kele with more confidence than he feels. “There’s no one to run from here,” he adds, more to himself than to Kele.
Then, barely a moment after the words are out of his mouth, something cracks in the woods again—and this time he hears screaming. High-pitched shrieks of surprise. Maybe even terror.
Lev launches himself toward the clearing, with Kele on his heels. The kids are standing, staring at Pivane, who lies facedown in the dirt.
A tranq bullet whistles by Lev’s ear and embeds in a log inches away from Kele’s foot.
“Get down!” he yells, and pushes Kele to the ground, his arm shielding him. The other kids follow his lead, diving to the ground just as a storm of tranqs flies through the camp. Frantically Lev looks around for Wil, but doesn’t see him anywhere.
It’s all up to Lev.
He’s only a couple of years older, but the rez kids are looking to him for help. He shifts to protect mode, as he once did for CyFi.
While scanning the surrounding trees, frantic thoughts jostle for attention: They’ve found me. They’re taking me to harvest camp. I’ll be tithed after all. And although he’s scared, his anger overwhelms the fear. This is supposed to be a sanctuary. ChanceFolk are supposed to be protected. But are mahpees? Maybe someone on the rez turned him in before his petition to the Council could be signed.
Kele shifts impatiently under his arm. “Why don’t we shoot back?”
But Lev has no idea where Pivane’s tranq rifle is—and even if he had it, he has no idea where to shoot.
“Stay here,” he orders Kele and the others. “Don’t move till I tell you.” Then, like a soldier, Lev uses his toes and elbows to crawl low across the clearing. One of the kids has a tranq flag in his leg and is unconscious. Another got hit in the back. The rest are okay. Where the hell is Wil?
His ear pressed to the ground, Lev feels the tramp of feet, and into the clearing stride three men in dirty battle fatigues, mismatched as if they found their clothes in a thrift store. The three are barely men. They seem no older than nineteen or twenty. They are not ChanceFolk—they’re outsiders.
One of the kids—the youngest girl in the group—gets up to run.
“Pakwa, no!” Lev yells.
Too late. The lead pirate, with a quick flick of his wrist, fires his pistol, tranqing her in the back of the neck, and she goes down, unconscious.
“Well, well, well,” the leader says. He’s tough, missing an ear, and he handles his gun like he was born with it. Van Gogh, thinks Lev. Cut his ear off for the woman he loved. But Lev imagines that this guy’s ear was cut off by someone else. Probably in a fight. The second guy is squinty-eyed, like either he’s got bad eyesight or he’s so used to glaring at people that his eyes stayed that way. The third guy has big teeth and a straggly beard, that taken together, make him look like a goat. “What a lovely nest of SlotMongers we’ve found,” says Van Gogh.
Lev, his mouth dry, gets up to face the attackers, putting himself between them and the kids on the ground.
“This kid’s sienna!” says the goat, stating the obvious.
Van Gogh is amused. “One wonders what a nice sienna boy is doing running with SlotMongers.” The guy sounds like he was raised in high-class boarding schools, but he looks as ragged and hungry as the others.
“Exchange program,” Lev says. “I hope you know that violence against People of Chance on their own rez is punishable by death.” Lev doesn’t know if this is true, but if it’s not, it should be. “Leave now and we’ll forget this ever happened.”
“Shut it!” says Squints, taking aim at Lev with his tranq pistol.
“These ’Mongers are all underage,” says the goat.
“Which means their parts are worth even more on the black market.” Van Gogh reaches down and tousles Kele’s hair. “Isn’t that right, lambchop?”