Unfallen, p.2

Unfallen, page 2

 

Unfallen
 


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  “It’s all coming apart.” He braced himself on the branch. “Come with me.”

  What? “Where?”

  “Out. Away. There’s safe places. It’s going to happen soon.”

  “What’s going to happen?”

  A shrug. The smile was fading a little. “It, Julie. You really need me to spell it out for you?”

  “I guess not.” But I kind of thought he should. “I can’t go yet. The funeral’s in a couple days, and my mom…” And all of a sudden I thought that maybe I should thank him or something. After all, my father was dead. But that was stupid, right? He couldn’t have had anything to do with that.

  “Don’t worry about your mom.” He leaned back a little, the branch creaked. “She’ll be okay. She’s an adult.”

  She’s drugged out of her mind and Uncle Irv is sniffing around. “Rob…” I was kind of glad it was dark, because if he started looking disappointed, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t go get some shoes.

  “Hey, it’s okay. Look.” He cocked his head a little, like he heard music. “All right. Funeral’s in two days, right? Meet me three days from now, that’s Sunday. Afternoon, anytime after two, in Coughlin Park. You know where that is? You can get there on the bus.”

  I knew where it was—you could see the whole city from there, and on sunny days there were picnics. “But what about the—”

  “Don’t worry about the Myrmidons. They’re not a problem.”

  “Are you insane?” I forgot to whisper. “They are a problem, Rob, you just can’t—”

  “I can.” He leaned forward, almost inside my window. “You remember what I told you? I’ve got proof, Julie. It’s my time now. They’re not going to do a damn thing to me, or to you.”

  “That’s really nice, but why?”

  “I like you.” Awkward for the first time. “I liked you from the second I saw you in Confession Session at Sacred Abiding, remember? You told that counselor Sheridan to go to hell. You’re smart and you don’t believe their bullshit. The world’s rotten, their God’s rotten, and we’re gonna make them pay.” He squeezed my hand so hard the bones creaked. “I just…I thought you liked me too. At least, a little bit.”

  Well, maybe I did. “You’re crazy.” I was back to whispering. “If they catch you they’ll derez you. Or Rechristen you, even.”

  “I’m not worried. Do you…” He was staring at me like he wanted to get inside my skull and read my brain. “Do you like me? Even a little bit?”

  What else could I say? “Yeah.” I squeezed back, hoping he wouldn’t be grossed out by my sweating fingers. “I like you, Rob.” Sure I do. And if you’re what you say you are and you got rid of Father, I like you even more. “What are you gonna do until Sunday?”

  “Bum around. Eat.”

  After Holy Camp, it’s the one thing most kids want to do. Eat something, anything, to fill up the hole. “All right. Sunday, Coughlin Park. Where—”

  “I’ll find you.”

  The tree creaked, sharply. I flinched. “You’ve got to go, they might catch you.”

  “They’re not gonna, Julie. Relax.” But he was grinning again. And he did something strange. He lifted my hand up and pressed his lips against my knuckles. My whole body froze, then went hot. “I really like you,” he whispered. “See you Sunday.”

  Then he let go of my hand, and I watched him climb down the tree with lanky, economical grace. I kept watching, but he vanished into the darkness along the fence. After about ten minutes I closed the window and retreated to my bed. The white walls glowed, and my familiar bedroom was a trap with the communicator’s red eye blinking, blinking.

  That made two times in one day someone had called me smart. A nice compliment, but my brain was chewing on itself in the worst way. Something had occurred to me.

  What if this was a test? What if Rob was a cherub? It happened. You couldn’t trust anybody. They got to you, one way or the other.

  What was I gonna do?

  * * *

  I got Mom dressed in black for the funeral, and the entire time she clutched my arm. I wore my Camp uniform, just because. Near the end, when the telescreen in the New Horizon Church was playing clips from some of Father’s sermons, she started swaying next to me. Everyone else would mistake it for grief, but I knew it was because seeing his long nose and cruel thin lips and yellow-brown eyes larger than life on the screen was a pinch right on every bruise he’d ever given either of us.

  I held her shoulders and pretended I was crying.

  I also kept Irv away from her most of the time. He had papers he was trying to make her sign, but I spilled coffee on them the first time he brought them over, and at the funeral I kept steering her away when I saw him starting to open up that prissy leather folio he carried.

  The Myrmidons were there too, clean-cut and crewcut enough to give anyone the chills.

  I palmed Harker a note during the receiving line, while Mom murmured things as people shook her hand. It was a crumpled square of notebook paper, the letters jagged as if I’d written in a hurry.

  I’ve seen him. We’re meeting in Coughlin Park on Sunday, 2 PM.

  The way he took it and covered told me it was true, he had been at Temple. Or at another Holy Camp. You don’t learn those things anywhere else.

  And yes, I was a rat, okay? I was a Judas. I knew it.

  I managed to cover for Mom during the entire five hours, from service to reception in the huge taupe New Horizon second ballroom with a couple cherubs floating near the roof and buffet tables groaning under Velvecheese-glued goo. By the time we got home I was grainy-eyed and aching all over. Mattie had dinner waiting, and maybe she knew something was wrong by the way I didn’t eat. It was like being at Camp, only instead of indigestible crap on the plate there was plenty of good stuff; I just couldn’t make my stomach feel like taking it. The thought of putting anything in my mouth made me feel like throwing my guts up, again.

  I led Mom upstairs after dinner, got her washed, and put her to bed. The amber bottles on her nightstand glowed in a shaft of evening sunlight. I started unscrewing their caps and shaking out the dosages. Little blue ones, bigger white ones, the pink-coated ones and the diamond-shaped violet ones. Each one a brick in the wall holding her down.

  Mom lay against the pillows, chalky-pale, watching me with heavily lidded blue eyes. Her chin quivered a little. My hair was like hers, a pretty good chestnut, and we had the same mouth and cheekbones. I was always grateful that I looked more like her than Father.

  “Do you really think he’s lying?” I whispered.

  Mom moved slightly. She muttered something in response, a slurred jumble like a sleeptalker. My hand clenched around the pills. We stared at each other, and I could swear I saw something far back in her dilated pupils. Some kind of flash.

  That was when they rang the doorbell and came to take her. Irv wasn’t going to brotherwife her after all.

  He’d decided to send her to Rechristening.

  * * *

  “You’re not officially a Myrmidon trainee,” Harker said, his jaw set. “We can’t do anything.”

  Brown was in the kitchen with Irv. The front door was wide open. They’d taken her away in a big black electro SUV, and Mattie was back in the utility room, probably hoping nobody would remember her.

  “You promised!” Hoarse and shaking. I was bruised all over. They’d been efficient, at least—two of the Rechristening team holding me down while I fought and screamed, another two getting Mom up and out of the bed, one with Irv in the hall as Irv smirked.

  He looked just like Father.

  Harker folded his arms. “Tomorrow, your uncle will make sure you catch the bus to Coughlin. If Maguire shows, we’ll net him and you can enter the training program. If not, you’ll be on the next transport to Reeducation Center—and it won’t be as cushy as Temple, Miss Kingstree. Do we understand each other?”

  Oh, I understood. I understood perfectly. I stood there and stared, numb.

  He kept talking, rele
ntlessly. “We’ll continue watching you. If he shows tomorrow, great. We’ll hardcore-orthodox him and you’ll be a Murican hero.”

  If I opened my mouth I was going to start screaming again. So I just glared. When all else fails, you can shut up and refuse. It’s about the only thing you can do sometimes.

  The Myrmidon’s high gloss faltered for a moment. He actually pinked a little around the cheekbones. “You’re a smart girl.” Softer, like he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “Look, she would have been Rechristened anyway, no matter what. Now you don’t have her dragging you down. She was a useless mouth, and your father should’ve—”

  I was across the room in a heartbeat. I managed a shot to his face before he kicked my legs out from under me, but he left me curled up on the parlor rug, sobbing, my hand throbbing and a ball of fire where he’d kicked me, one shiny wingtip sinking into my vulnerable belly.

  * * *

  I retreated while the Myrmidons were still in the kitchen with Irv. As soon as I scrambled up the stairs I grabbed the wooden penitence chair from Father’s office, jumping guiltily at every little sound. How many times had I sat crying in that chair, trying to hold the sobs back while Father worked on his sermons?

  Now, in the middle of the night, it was braced up against my bedroom door. Which was a good thing, because the door started to rattle in its frame.

  I was on my bed, curled up, still in my Camp uniform. The duffel sagged on the floor near the nightstand. My face was hot and dirty from crying, and my belly kept twitching with little pains.

  Irv rattled the door a bit harder. I hugged my pillow, breathing out through my mouth because my nose was so stuffed, a hot claustrophobia under the blankets.

  After twenty minutes Uncle Irving gave up. But he came back twice more.

  I didn’t sleep.

  * * *

  Getting down out of the tree was the hard part—I dropped the duffel first, wincing when it hit. But everyone was asleep, dawn just creeping in. Irv was probably tuckered out after messing with my door all night.

  Everything was gray, a chill spring fog hiding between the interchangeable houses. The manicured trees dripped little jewels of water. Dead silence filled every hole, pressed against every window.

  There was getting through the fence, but I knew the lock was broken so that made it all right. I also knew to lift up to take some of the pressure off the hinges so it didn’t squeal. I peered around the corner of the garage and there was the big black electro SUV at the end of the street. I checked the sky—no cherubs I could see, and the fog would help. Things sometimes happened when the cherubs were covered up. Pastor Peter said there were heathens who had only pretended to be Goodchristians, and that’s why there was no crime. Heathens didn’t count.

  The laurel hedge on this side wasn’t clipped back as hard, and when I squeezed between it and the neighbor’s fence I could almost imagine Rob coming this way. How had he just vanished? And gotten away from the cherubs, too.

  I took the same route as the last time I’d run away, the time that got me sent to Temple. It kept me off the street where the Myrmidon electro SUVs crouched, at least. I cut through backyards, climbed a few fences, and was shivering at the Redeem Avenue and 143rd bus stop an hour later. It was far enough away that they might not be watching.

  Or at least, I hoped.

  * * *

  I had a roll of cash from Father’s office; at least I’d beaten Irv to that. So I got a protein drink from a vending machine and spent the day in the Coughlin Park bushes like a heathen pervert, trying to figure out if I should move around so it was harder to track me or stay where I was.

  I’ll find you, Rob had said. I was hoping he would. Anytime after two, he’d said. Well, if he got here early I could warn him. Maybe he’d still let me go with him, even if I told him I was a filthy Judas who’d clued the Myrmidons in.

  I wasn’t really hoping he would. But if I screwed up their plans good enough, they’d send me to a Center, and there’s things you can do there. You can even Rechristen yourself if you want to. It just takes shaking off the nerves long enough to throw yourself at the wall. Or slicing your arm with some of the craft supplies. Or drinking some of the floor cleaner.

  By now Mom was Rechristened. If I’d fed her the pills, she wouldn’t have felt a thing when they did…what they did. It might’ve even ruined the organs they’d harvest.

  Coughlin had a couple playgrounds, eerily empty because of Sunday. When the sun came out it was still deserted, since it was too early for worship to let out. I shivered and watched the trees drip, wished I could go get on the swings or—

  “Julie.” A whisper-yell, behind me. “Hey.”

  I leaped and almost shrieked, clapped my hand over my mouth just in time. Whirled to find Rob standing at the edge of the cluster of rhododendrons I was crouching in like an idiot.

  Just standing there, right on the concrete path, grinning.

  “You’re early,” he said, and it was like a shout in the quiet.

  I got my wits together. “They know. Rob, they were—they know I was supposed to meet you here.” My heart pounded, thinly.

  “That’s okay.” He actually shrugged. “I expected as much; they had you under some pretty tight watch. Come on.”

  “I ratted on you. I told the Myrmidons.” Did he not understand?

  “It’s okay, Julie. They’re like that. They used your mom, didn’t they.”

  It wasn’t hard to figure out, because I’d told him a bit about my mom. It would make sense that she was the only thing anyone could use on me, really.

  But I still felt creeped out. “Rob—”

  “Come on. I’m not gonna ask again.”

  I scrambled out of the bushes, hauling my duffel with me. He grinned when he saw it, dark eyes lighting up. “You came prepared. That’s awesome. This way. We’re going up to the Lookout.”

  “They might already be here.” I couldn’t make my voice work right. What came out was a breathy little gasp.

  “Not yet.” He sounded very sure. “But they’re on their way.”

  * * *

  Up at the top of Coughlin was the Lookout, a parking lot for electrocars and a split-rail fence along the wide paved path to keep people from falling off the cliff while they took in the view of the city’s simmering wasteland of little white houses and the steel glitter of the skyscrapers in the distance, each with their cross on top. The drop probably wouldn’t kill you, but you’d definitely end up broken bad enough to get Rechristened and harvested. The fog was lifting, golden sunshine breaking through, and I jumped at every noise. There were no cars—everyone was at worship for at least another half hour.

  Everyone except the Myrmidons.

  Rob seemed to know right where he was going. I followed, hauling my duffel, but halfway to the lookout he dropped back to walk beside me and reached over, grabbing the straps. I let go and he carried it, as simple as that.

  “I’m sorry.” I had to hurry to keep up; he was going at a good clip with those long legs of his. “Really, I am. I—”

  “It had to happen, Julie. You wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t happened.”

  “You’re trying to say you knew?”

  “Kind of. In a way. It’s hard to explain.”

  “If you knew, why didn’t you stop them?”

  “It wasn’t time. Now it is.”

  “You’re crazy.”

  “Well, I grew up going to worship four times a week. If I’m crazy that’s probably why.”

  I laughed before I could stop myself. He glanced at me sidelong and looked pleased.

  He hopped up on the curb and headed along the path. I followed, looking nervously down at the city. The fog was peeling back, and those patches of blue in the sky weren’t hopeful. Sooner or later a cherub would spot us. “Where are we going?”

  “I’m gonna show you something. We’re almost there.” We came to the highest promontory, and he stopped, looking over the valley and the city. “Okay. You rem
ember what I told you? At Temple?”

  That’s not the sort of thing someone forgets. “Yeah.”

  “Did you tell the Myrmidons about that?”

  What, you don’t know about that? “I told them you were gonna go south, head over the border and live with the indentureds. That you wanted me to go with you. We’d Adam and Eve it in a vine-covered shack down there.”

  Was he blushing? A little, maybe. “So you didn’t tell them I’m…what I am?”

  “Of course not.” They wouldn’t have believed me.

  “Good. Come on.” He walked right up to the rail and stepped over, carefully, the shimmering city spread out below him. I actually gasped.

  “You could fall!” Then I felt like a moron. We were looking at Myrmidons showing up any second, and there would be a hard silver glitter in the sky before long, and—

  “I won’t let you fall. Come on, Julie. It’s either me or the Myrmidons.”

  Well, when he put it that way, it seemed kind of stupid-obvious.

  It was a struggle to get over without my skirt riding up and showing everything, but I managed. He transferred the duffel to his right hand, offered me his left. “Here. Don’t let go.”

  Our fingers threaded together, and he pulled me along. I shut my eyes, stumbling over grassy hillocks, tripping on stone. If we were going to fall and break our stupid legs and get Rechristened, I didn’t want to see.

  My fingers were sweating again. I kept my eyelids squeezed shut so hard traceries of color exploded behind them. The ground evened out, became level. It gave, weirdly resilient underfoot.

  “Okay.” Rob let out a long breath. “Julie. Open your eyes.”

  I don’t want to. But I did. And I screamed, sound and breath leaving me in a walloping rush.

  Because we stood on empty air, twenty feet out from Coughlin’s cliff-edge, the city in the distance sending up spirals of smoke now visible through the fog. There was nothing under our feet. The eerie silence broke, and sirens threaded through the sunlight. Little silver streaks poured down from the sky.

 
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