Authors: Susan Kim,Laurence Klavan
For nieces and a nephew (in order of appearance)
You still have time.
STHER RAN ACROSS THE BROKEN ASPHALT
Her destination loomed in front of her: an odd concrete structure, standing alone in the trash-filled lot. At a glance, it seemed unoccupied. As she neared it, Esther gave a final look in all directions; then she grabbed the low brick wall and vaulted over. Despite the searing heat of the early November morning, it was cool and dim inside. Esther blinked to get her bearings, then took off again.
The sound of her breathing, harsh and ragged, was the only noise; it seemed to echo in the vast space. She sensed this and cursed herself. Clamping her lips together, she tried to hold back the sound, to breathe so as to not to draw attention to herself. But it was impossible to do this without slowing down. She gave up and put on extra speed instead. She had been running a long time and as she gulped air, her lungs burned and a sharp pain gripped her side. But she was almost at the safe place and then she would have time to rest.
Esther was on the second floor and there were four more to go. She ran low, crouching down and sticking close to the center of the structure. It was a strange building, one that offered neither protection nor privacy. There were no walls; the sides were too exposed, open to the world outside, with the rooftops of Prin visible in the distance beneath a dirty yellow sky.
Esther was aware that she was wearing a red hoodie and jeans. With sharp eyes, somebody could spot her from half a mile off, even though she was a skinny fifteen-year-old with a real talent for not attracting attention, a girl who’d spent a lifetime learning how to slip in and out of shadows without being seen.
Right now, not being seen was all she cared about. After all, those were the rules of the game, the game they called Shelter.
Shelter was simple. You and your opponent started in one place. Then you both raced to the safe place and whoever got there first won.
But the safe place was always three or four miles away from the starting point. You had to run as quickly as you could in the searing heat (for it was always hot in Prin, even in November). If you were detected and called out by your opponent, you lost. And lastly, in order to win, you had to navigate your way through the ruins of old buildings, cracked pavement, and a jagged landscape of twisted metal and shattered glass. A single misstep could break a bone or slice your skin. If you were especially unlucky, one false move could send you crashing down through a rotting surface into some forgotten basement, where chances were your cries for help would go undetected for hours, maybe even days. If anyone heard you at all.
But to Esther, that was part of the fun. Right now, she had been running for nearly two hours, but nothing mattered: not the pain, the exhaustion, or the suffocating heat.
She was about to win.
Esther rounded a corner of the place she knew well. She ignored the cars, each in its own space, separated neatly by faded yellow lines painted on the cracked cement. They were like ghosts, silent hulks so covered with gritty white dust you could hardly tell what color they had once been. They had long since been drained of their precious fuel and were now still and lifeless, just part of the landscape, like boulders or buildings or stunted trees.
Esther’s sneakers skidded as she sprinted up the second and then the third concrete ramp. The ground underfoot was broken and uneven, but she didn’t notice. She was too busy searching the landscape for any flicker of movement, her eyes darting from car to pillar to car. There was trash everywhere, which she skirted effortlessly: shards of glass, crushed beer cans, a sodden cardboard box, a shoe.
As she made it to the roof, the heat and glare of the sun hit her hard. Sweat was stinging her eyes and running down her neck. When she yanked down her hood and ran her hand across her head, her dark hair was wet, with some parts sticking up in spikes. Here, there was no breeze, nothing but yellow sky. Surrounded by concrete and dead grass that shimmered with heat, she could see for miles past Prin to the empty roads leading off to wherever they went.
Esther didn’t turn to look. Exhilarated, all she knew was that she’d made it. She was the first.
For standing in the far corner of the roof was the safe place. It was a brown box, taller than Esther and wide enough to hold at least four of her. Although it had only been there a few days, it was already fading and starting to soften from the sun and rain; soon, it would be worthless. There was a simple picture and black arrows on the side, as well as meaningless words written in large, block letters.
THIS END UP. KENMORE. 24 CU. FT. REFRIGERATOR
Esther hadn’t taken the time to decipher the words. If her older sister, Sarah, knew this, she would pinch her lips with disapproval, the way she did at practically everything Esther said or did. Sarah was one of the few who could read, one of the last in Prin, and she was forever nagging others to learn how to do it too. When she was little, Esther had memorized the alphabet and could sound out simple words, but that was as far as she got.
All she had to do was touch it.
Jubilant, Esther approached the box, extending her hand. But at the last second, someone emerged from behind it.
The creature was small, with dark, hairless arms and legs, and a bald skull. It appeared to be neither male nor female and wore a brief tunic that was little more than a sack, with a cloth pouch slung across. Its face and body were covered with a dense network of intricate designs, swirling patterns, dots and slashes, strange curls that snaked like vines across the skin in various shades of black, brown, and pink. On close examination, you could see the designs were not painted on but were a complex network of crude tattoos and hundreds, maybe thousands, of scars. Some of the marks were so tiny, they seemed like mere threads against the skin; others were vivid, pink gouges of raised flesh. It had bulging lavender eyes and a flattened nose, which crinkled as its mouth, with its tiny, sharp teeth, twisted upward.
Esther recoiled, with a gasp.
“No!” she screamed.
“Got here first,” the variant said. “I win!”
Half laughing, half groaning, Esther tried to catch her breath. She bent over to relieve the pain in her side.
“Skar!” she exclaimed. “How did you got here before me?”
Skar shrugged, smiling. She was so pleased with herself, she couldn’t resist dancing a little, bouncing up and down on thickly calloused feet.
Skar was the same age as Esther. Yet unlike her friend, she had been female for only five years, having selected her gender on her tenth birthday, the way all variants did. At the time, Esther was delighted when her friend chose to be a female because it was one more thing they had in common. Skar had a circle, the mark of being female, tattooed on her upper arm.
No one understood where the variants came from, why they were hermaphroditic, hairless, disfigured. Most in town seemed to believe that the variants were once animals, living off contaminated goods and drinking groundwater. The accumulated poisons had permanently affected them and their unfortunate offspring, creating a new race of freaks. Certainly Esther’s older sister, Sarah, had mentioned this theory more than once, much to Esther’s annoyance.
The variants had always lived far from town, shunning the ways of Prin and its people. They dressed oddly, not bothering to shield themselves from the dangerous rays of the sun. Rather than work, they eked out a meager living from hunting with feral dogs. Occasionally, they foraged for food and bottled water amid the wreckage of the outlying buildings and homes of Prin. The variants’ way of existence was a harsh and dangerous one, where one’s next meal or drink of water could result in sudden sickness, pain, and death. Their life expectancy was even shorter than that of the people in town.
In the best of times, the townspeople looked down on the variants as shiftless and dirty and called them the ugly word “mutant.” Lately, after the rash of strange, isolated variant attacks, the feeling had grown from one of contempt to that of terror and even hatred. No one knew this better than Esther and Skar, who chose to spend their time together far away from the judgmental and fearful minds of Prin. Esther believed the variants weren’t a separate species like damaged snakes or wild boars; she believed they were human somehow, yet spurned for their differences. But she had never dared mention this to anyone.
The life of the average townsperson was one of mindless labor rewarded by the occasional treat of something new: a piece of clothing that wasn’t filthy, a wristwatch with a shattered face, a pair of sunglasses. Rather than stoop to such a level, the variants had created their own society high in the mountains, with its own rules, customs, and rituals. There they lived freely, without the need for labor or commerce. They existed without apologies, and with pride. And for that, Esther secretly loved them.
“That’s three times in a row,” Skar now said. “Do you want to try again?”
“Sure,” said Esther. “Only let me catch my breath first. And this time, give me a head start or something.”
Skar’s smile broadened. “What fun is that?”