Authors: Sara Wolf
Tags: #school, #young adult, #sci-fi, #aliens, #romance, #science fiction, #high school, #adventure, #action
I gape like a dying fish, bury my fury, and flop on the bench beside Dakota. She shoots me a look.
“Y-You didn’t have to do that. I’m used to it. They don’t affect me anymore.”
“It’s okay. I just can’t stand hearing crap like that.” I tighten my ponytail and glower at Targe’s back. She looks at the floor sheepishly.
Mr. Targe makes me haul crates of traffic cones and baseball bats into a closet for hours. I slide a crate of basketballs across the polished floor. Targe walks to the gym door.
“I’m going to get a few more things. I don’t want to catch you slacking, you hear? The faster you finish, the faster you can leave.”
I make a sarcastic salute. “Sir!”
He rolls his eyes and pushes out of the gym. I’m alone. The basketball hoop hangs like a misused spider web.
“How’s the weather up there?” I shout at it. It flutters a little. I stand at the free throw line and toss a ball. Miss.
“Assigned detention already, human? You’re pathetic.” Taj walks onto the court. I heave a sigh.
“Just leave me in peace, Buttercup. I wanna finish and get out.”
“Buttercup?” He bristles at the nickname.
“Your hair kills my eyes. Were you intentionally going for the ‘over-bleached surfer’ look? Maybe it makes you stand out - that’s important when your peers all look like clones of you. Gives you some pride.”
He stares at me, gold eyes easier to look at than the smoldering crimson of Shadus or the piercing sky blue of Raine. A faint smile plays on his mouth - a real smile. Not a smirk or triumphant snicker.
“Congratulations, human. You’re the only one who seems to get it.” He finally says. “The Gutters don’t understand. My family, especially, doesn’t understand.”
“Talk to more humans. We all understand that sort of thing. Why do you think we get tattoos and pierce our ears?”
“I assumed general stupidity.” He shoves his hands in his jean pockets. “Is Targe around? I was supposed to meet with him.”
“He’ll be back as soon as he’s done pulling his head out of his ass.”
Taj’s gold eyes take in the crate of basketballs. He walks over and picks up the ball I threw.
“I don’t normally offer my valuable time and assistance, but there’s nothing better to do at the moment. I’ll help you in your punishment. Consider yourself lucky.”
Strong arms throw the ball. I catch it and toss it in the crate.
“Beefy jock like you must’ve gotten lots of exercise on your spaceship as a kid, huh?” I try. Taj throws me another basketball.
“Curious about our ship, are you? Most humans are. It’s more beautiful than anything you humans could dream of constructing.”
“I saw it when I was a kid on TV.” I dribble the ball a bit. “Kinda looks like a poop-rock.”
Taj’s face turns the color of a boiled beet. “It’s not a – I refuse to allow you to call it a poop-rock!”
“What’re you gonna do, give me detention?” I smirk and motion around at the fact I’m already in detention. He silently fumes until I sigh.
“Okay, sorry. It’s not a poop-rock.”
“It’s a masterpiece of intergalactic technology,” He says slowly, and I repeat it with him.
“ – masterpiece of intergalactic technology.”
Seemingly satisfied but still a little peeved, he passes me another basketball a little harder than necessary. I catch it and wince.
“You guys must’ve wrecked it bad to be taking this long in repairs.”
“We hit the Earth at over a thousand miles an hour. Even with our polarized field cushioning the bottom of the ship, gravity ripped right through the hull. It’s a miracle we all lived. Well. We didn’t all live. The Executioner
“Shadus’ mom,” I clarify. Taj looks surprised.
“Yes. How did you –”
“Shadus told me.”
“Shadus doesn’t tell anyone anything.”
“He told me.”
Taj takes me in, like he’s seeing me in a whole new light. I’m quiet. I watch him dribble a ball with practiced expertise. His gold eyes reflect the polished floor.
“I still remember it like it was yesterday. Yulan and his team had just finished transferring me to my new body. My human legs wouldn’t work right - I couldn’t understand how to make them move. The sirens of the ship were wailing. We were crashing. Things were falling. I couldn’t even put my arms up to shield my face.”
He seems to jolt out of his memories, and frowns at me.
“We’re working as hard and as fast as we can to rebuild. It’s simply difficult to find the proper materials, and your government delays us by studying every facet of our space travel technology. You don’t think we want to leave as soon as possible? This world is annoying, and practically hostile - ”
“Hale! What’s going on here?” Targe’s voice booms as he comes back. Taj trots up to him and they begin talking.
My arms are sore when I finally push out of the gym, and the scar under my ribs throbs with the dull pain of exhaustion. It really does react to how I feel. I can’t decide if that’s scary as hell or sort of interesting. The EVE clinic I’d tested at took some blood and my measurements, and though they talked about how my body would react to the organ, they never really said anything about how the organ would react to
. It’s like a small, amazing creature inside me, mirroring my every feeling.
No protestors clog the gates today. It’s a relief to not see the angry words and hear the chanting. The groundskeepers sift leaves into piles. I watch them work from the dumpster alcove where I smoke. The groundskeepers are adult Gutters - hair tied back and pale eyes hidden behind sunglasses. They look peaceful, and I catch some of them stopping and admiring the trees and hills. I wonder if their home planet had trees. I wonder if they remember their home planet at all.
I look up. Shadus stands where the sun meets the shadow. I choke on my smoke and crush the cigarette under my foot.
“You were smoking.”
“Aw, that’s nice of you. I don’t get called hot all that often.”
His face is blank, like the joke flew right over him. I mentally beg the cold wind to wick away the smell of smoke faster. A car putters over the sound of rakes scraping.
“You’re my cultural partner.” He turns to fit between the dumpsters and get to me. I pull my hood around my head tighter. My EVE organ burns with an acid nervousness.
“Kinda knew that already, Creeps.”
“Give me them,” Shadus demands.
“Give you what? I don’t have anything.”
He puts a hand against the wall over my shoulder and leans in. From under his dark bangs, the red irises stand out like two pools of blood. At this close range, the color makes my stomach churn. I can handle him at a distance - but this is not distance. This is his jacket and my hoodie pressing together, my hand accidentally grazing his jeans. This is the first time I’ve smelled him. The only other Gutter I’ve gotten close enough to smell is Raine, and she’s all perfume. Shadus smells neutral, like ash. There’s only a hint of some kind of boy-shampoo.
“Your cigarettes,” Shadus says. “Give me them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I laugh like the sound will drown the nervous clawing in my stomach and the sudden heartbeat-like tremble below my EVE scar. “I don’t smoke.”
He breathes in. “Menthols. You’ve smoked menthols for almost two years.”
He breathes in deeper this time.
“You’re approximately sixteen years old. You don’t do much physical labor. Your last meal was pizza. You use mint shampoo and pear conditioner. Your period is due in four days.”
I flinch, a blush creeping up my face. “You can tell all that just from your nose?”
“Like I said,” he pulls away. “We have a very good sense of smell. But I know things that don’t relate to smell, also. Your sister has type one brittle asthma. Your father works at a steel mill by night and as a bartender during the day, as well as a house-painting job. A hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for your family.”
“You read my file or something?” I snap. He ignores me.
“Smoking directly affects the human body in adverse ways. The carcinogens could affect the emotions in the EVE organ. You’ll be kicked out if they find you smoking.”
“Is that a threat?” I set my jaw. He crosses his arms over his chest.
“You and your family need the money. I’m trying to help.”
“Don’t pretend to care about my family,” My laugh is bitter. “You just don’t want your food tasting like smoke. I get it.”
He holds his hand out, waiting. I grumble threats and rummage in my pocket, slapping the crumpled pack in his palm. I walk away. He doesn’t follow. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. I was risking all of it by smoking, and the last thing I want to do is mess this deal up. It’s amazing I didn’t get caught before he confronted me.
The piles of leaves on the lawn tempt me. I look around. No one’s watching. Shadus is out of sight. The groundskeepers are gone. I expel a frustrated breath and fall backwards into a pile of leaves. They spiral in all directions. From this golden throne of decomposition the school is a faint white line of stone. It looks harmless, less complicated than it really is.
“What are you doing?”
I look up. Shadus looms over me and blocks the watery sun.
“Go away.” I shut my eyes. “Haven’t you bothered me enough already?”
“Is it customary for humans to sit in decaying matter when they’re stressed?”
“You should try it sometime.”
“It looks disgusting.” He wrinkles his nose. I stand and brush my jeans off.
“What, you Executioner royalty-types not used to getting your hands dirty?” I sneer.
“Malice is a typical passive-aggressive reaction for humans.” He nudges the edge of the pile with his shoe, as if expecting it to come to life. Revenge is forefront in my mind. I shove his back and he stumbles into the pile face-first, scattering most of it on the ground. He comes up spitting leaves and swearing in Gutter.
“You got a little bit of something in your hair there.” I point. He glowers. There’s offense in those red irises, and incredulity. I’d actually dared to push
? But he won’t let me win. He composes himself, and leans back.
“This pile is nothing special. It’s not comfortable at all.”
“Is that why you’re still sitting in it?” I smirk.
He won’t dignify me with a response, but we both know he likes it. There’s quiet, and a rusted golden light reflecting off the dying leaves. I take a deep breath.
“My mom used to take me and my sister leaf diving. Right before Thanksgiving every year. It was our girl’s-day-out sort of thing. Apple cider. Scarves. Didn’t get much better than that.”
I shove my hands in my pockets. He spins a dead leaf in his fingers - the blood red of it matching his eyes. Blood. Blood smearing on the sidewalk, on the grass of the park. People screaming. Nobody knows I was there when it happened. Not even Dad. I ran. I tried to meet Mom and I saw her in the crowd, and she waved, and then someone fired the gun and she went under a sea of people, blood oozing out from the place she stood seconds before.
I was eight.
No one knows and no one should ever know. It would kill Dad. It would hurt Alisa.
I squeeze my eyes shut.
“You’re pale.” Shadus’ low, even voice brings me out of the memory. My head snaps up. He’s standing now, close to me, looking almost worried. But that’s impossible. A Gutter would never care about a human.
The bloodstain in my mind fades. I clutch the EVE scar above my rib and wince as it burns, forcing a smile.
“Hope you like the taste of tragedy, Creeps.”
Alisa doesn’t answer her phone tonight. Dad does.
“Dad? Where’s Alisa?”
“I had to take her to the ER. She’s had another attack.”
I feel my legs give out, the bed catching me. Raine shoots me a questioning look, but I shake my head and go outside, in the hall where she can’t hear me.
“Is she – is she gonna be okay?” I ask.
“The doctors think so, yeah. I’ve got the bill covered, don’t you worry about that.”
“I wasn’t worrying.”
I can hear the smile in his voice. “I know you worry. About me, about her. About money. Don’t try to fool me. We both know that’s why you’re there.”
I’m quiet. Dad sighs.
“Look, kiddo. I’m proud of you. But I’m worried about you. Calling me every other day isn’t enough. I see all these reporters and protestors on the TV, and all I can think about is your Mom.”
“I’m not her, Dad. I’m not in any danger, okay? There’s lots of guards here, and cameras, and fences.”
“I know. It’s not the people outside I’m worried about. It’s the people inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just…just promise me, sweetie. Use the buddy system. Call me more often. Don’t leave your room at night.”
“Dad, you’re freaking me out –”
“I’m hearing things, that’s all. Rumors travel. Just be careful, alright? Promise me.”
“Yeah, I promise.”
He sounds relieved. “Good. I have to go, the doctors want to talk to me.”
“Can you tell Alisa – ”
“I’ll have her call you as soon as she’s able.”
“No, sweetie. Thank you. Stay strong.”
The click on the other line feels like a door closing. The hall is empty, everyone mostly in bed thanks to curfew. I hug my knees and sink down against the wall.
Buddy system. Be more careful.
My EVE organ twinges, anxious. Sitting in an empty hall is not being careful. I slip into the room and try not to think about Dad’s words, or how stressed he must be, or about how sick Alisa is, or how much more often she’s having attacks.
“Everything okay, Vic?” Raine asks, brushing her hair out in slow strokes. The look on her face is one of pure concern, but I can’t be sure if she’s faking it, using it to be cordial and get on my good side like she does with so many other people.
“I’m fine. And it’s Victoria to you.” I hug my blanket closer and face the wall.
“Oh.” Her voice sounds hurt. “Alright.”
It’s a long time before she gets done brushing and turns off her bedside lamp, but even then the tension in our silence can be felt like a steel curtain on my lungs.