Carly squeezes my hand and I realize I have to break Sam’s number one rule. I have to trust her.
“Now!” She shouts and then with surprising strength, she yanks me into the dark.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had to run for my life, but it’s the first time I’ve feared for it.
Metal, scraping over cement over metal, screams in my ears. There is only movement and that horrible sound as we race through the black. The pressure of Carly’s hand is firm and the only reason I know she’s still with me, guiding me over unfamiliar ground. I close my eyes and follow her lead. Her pace shows no sign of uncertainty, and we run as though the air itself snaps at our heels with jagged, steal jaws.
“Know your exits,” Sam had said. “Never get boxed in.”
That’s exactly what I’d done when I walked into Carly’s room. I hadn’t even thought to spot a back way out but it must’ve been tucked behind stacks of boxes. Now, I’m lost in the bowels of this building with my only chance at staying safe and getting back out again a girl I met moments before. Nothing about this situation bodes well and Sam’s voice is a berating shout in my head.
After what must have been minutes, Carly tugs me out of my sprint and into a slow jog. I open my eyes and find that we’re in a long corridor washed in a stale, gray light. The floor is dusted in ash and snow that’s fallen through the places where high windows used to be. Just ahead of us is a staircase leading to the ground level and somewhere far behind us, the sound of Regulators tearing through the building is sharp and unending.
“But we were inside,” I say. My voice sounds rough and small. I’ve never been so close to one of them before and my throat aches when I speak.
“That doesn’t matter anymore,” Carly says, her voice is fractured and falls on me like shards of glass. She’s trying not to look at me, but I can see her eyes shine even in this dim light. “Don’t you pay attention?"
I don’t answer because the truth is, I haven’t. Not since Sam died. My focus has been on getting enough to burn, enough to eat, and staying as low as possible because that’s how you survive. That’s how you stay safe.
Carly rakes one arm over her eyes and turns to me. “They’re cleansing this block. Maybe every block for all I know, but definitely this one.”
All we’ve ever had, and the only thing that’s ever been more real than a night with nothing to burn, are the rules. Theirs and ours. Theirs were simple; the scavenging times were scrawled across buildings in bright yellow paint as if we should be as grateful for them as we are for the sun.
Ours were really Sam’s tactics and strategies, but we’d tested them until they became undeniable and true. “Four things, Jonah,” he’d said more often than I could count. “We can’t trust anyone but each other, sympathy gets you dead, don’t get trapped, and stay put as often as you can. That’s how you stay safe.”
“What did we do?” I ask.
“What does that matter? Probably nothing. They’re out to finish us off and it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that we get out of here and fast.” She stops, crouches down with her back against the wall to tighten the laces of her boots. Her eyes never stop moving. “Are you coming?”
I don’t owe her anything, but the question makes me uneasy. The little apartment Sam and I shared is the only home I’ve ever known. Bethlehem is the only home I’ve ever known. I might have dreamed of finding a place with more to burn and something to eat besides rats and what little we could grow in our rooftop pots, but always in my plan there was time to prepare.
Sam would tell me no. Sam would tell me to go home and keep my head down until it all blew over.
“Jonah,” she says. It’s my name, but it sounds different coming from her. Sharper, maybe, or awake.
Echoing down the corridor are sounds of the Regulators’ search. They’re getting closer again, but another sound has joined their harsh melody and it drops from the high windows in rigid beats. Another team of Regulators is in the street. Not too near, by the sound of it, but I’ve never heard so many at one time.
Carly’s whole body is tensed and ready to move. Her eyes watch me, wide and dark and full of something I can’t name, but that I remember from before that last winter when the world went dark. It’s a look that matters.
“Where will we go?” I ask. “And how will we know it’s safe?”
She tucks her bottom lip between her teeth, drags it through pulling all the color from her lip into her mouth. Already, it’s a familiar gesture. “Anywhere but here. And,” she says with a shrug of her small shoulders, “we won’t.”
Another crash travels down the corridor. They’re coming now, it won’t take them long to find us if we stay. Nowhere is safe, I realize. Not when the threat of them is so near and so constant and not when they can make and break the rules without consequence. Believing in safety is what got Sam killed.
I nod and before I can think to stop myself, I’ve pulled her hand into mine. “West,” I say.
The cold star of Bethlehem is the first thing I see when we slip out of the building. It’s only a thin outline of gray wire against gray clouds, but I spot it as easily as if it were lit. With Carly’s hand in mine, we edge along buildings and down narrow alleyways, stopping whenever the slide-scrap of heavy boots grows too near. But she was right, they’re purging the block and though the buildings are loud with Regulators, the streets are empty.
It doesn’t take long before we’ve passed out of our block, out of Bethlehem and the only streets I’ve ever known.
My body is a constant vibration of cold and fear. This time, we aren’t just looking to survive the night. We aren’t just looking to scrape together enough to get us through the next hard freeze or the next long storm. This time, it’s about change.
For the first time, I feel that all of me is alive and that it matters.
Valerie's up next! Check back on Monday for a new story!
Photo used with permission by J Moffat of Diamond Art on Flickr
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.