Of course, I’m not free. Outside is simply an enclosed courtyard, with a high, cement wall surrounding it. I can see cameras and motion-detectors mounted in the corners, and razor-wire is strung along the top of the wall. Above it, the clear sky shines in vanilla hues, meaning the sun will be going down in the next hour or so. I’ve been here all day.
“One hour exercise!” the guard barks, and closes the door behind us. The line breaks up into smaller units as kids move off into cliques of their own. I turn to thank the boy behind me, but he turns my elbow before I can see him and pushes me further away.
“Not yet,” he says. His voice is familiar, but I can’t place it. He steers me over to the corner of the yard, and I immediately see why he’s chosen this spot. There is a narrow wedge where the cameras don’t quite reach. Only then does he let go of my elbow.
I turn and finally get a good look at him. He is handsome, with blue eyes and a mop of unruly blond hair over his head. His chin is scraggly with the beginnings of a beard. He’s not large, but solidly built nonetheless. I think I’ve seen him before.
“Thanks,” I finally get to say.
“Katherine.” He’s frowning at me, as if I’ve done something wrong.
“You know me.” I study his face, trying to place it without success.
“Not surprised you don’t remember me,” he says with a half-smile. “It’s been a couple of years. We—ah—squatted in the same apartment building about two years ago. I used to watch for you, watch the street, that is, when you’d go foraging. Once I helped keep an eye on your sister.”
“Right!” I think I remember him now. “Your name was Danny…”
“Daniel. Still is, of course. So, what’s a nice girl like doing in a place like this? Sorry,” he apologizes when I laugh, “that was cheesy.”
“Yeah.” I give him a grin anyway. “It was.”
“How’d you get out? You haven’t done the mandatory seven days solitary, and they didn’t come collect you, so that means you escaped your cell.”
“Seven days solitary? Why?”
“Supposed to break you. So you learn that they’re in control.”
“Well, that didn’t work out so hot for them.”
“So how’d you do it?”
I shove my hands into the pockets of the jumpsuit and sway a bit. I feel like I’m revealing a secret. I don’t know how he’ll take it, but it might just tell me how much I can trust him. “I smeared potatoes on the camera. When the guard came to wipe them off, I locked him inside.”
He nods appreciatively. “Good for you. Did you know you’re bleeding?”
I’m about to say something when he bends down and checks my leg, lifting the jumpsuit up over my calf. “Looks like you blew a stitch. Hang on.” He unzips the front of his jumpsuit and pulls out the rim of his undershirt. Tearing off a large strip from the bottom, he uses it to wrap my leg. “That’ll have to do for now.”
“My hero,” I joke.
He glances up and gives me a broad smile. I feel my pulse quicken, and decide to change the subject. “So, Daniel. How do we get out of here?”
He snorts. “Wish I knew.”
“There’s got to be a way. No place is fool-proof.”
He straightens. “Out here you’ve got twenty-foot high concrete walls surrounded by razor wire and guarded by cameras and motion detectors. Inside the hut, everyone’s locked in their cells through the night, and monitored during the day.”
“That’s what they call it. The hut. I think it means ‘Held for Urban Trespass,’ or something like that. “
“Or ‘Hell for Urban Trespass,’” I offer.
He grins. “Even better. Inside, there’s at least thirty guards and support staff on duty at any one time.”
“Thirty guards? That’s an awful lot for just us.”
“Not just us. They’ve got four separate huts. Men, women, us, and the special cases.”
“Yeah, you know, people who ain’t right in the head or broken in body an’ such? Those that can’t take care of themselves. They keep them all locked up tight in a special room.”
He shrugs. “Beats me. All I know is they don’t stay there long. Usually not more than a few days.”
A few days. That’s how long I have to get my sister away from this place. But first, I gotta get out. “What about the rest of us? How long are we in for?”
Again with the shrug. “Depends. They try to place us with families in the Upper Quarter. Good law-abiding folk who’ll raise us exactly as REGA says they should. Of course, the older you are, the harder it is to get placed. Once you’re over fourteen, you’re destined for the work crews. They drag us out twice a month to work scrap in different municipalities. Two teams rotate. One week on, one week off.”
I shift my weight onto one foot. “How long have you been here?”
“‘Bout two months, I think. Got picked up loitering in East Middle. Except time scrapping, I’ve been here ever since.”
“So you’re saying we’re pretty much screwed.”
“That’s the long and short of it, yeah.”
“And how long until the next rotation?”
“That’d be tomorrow morning. Before dawn.”
“Tomorrow morning?” I gape. I feel my heart pounding. How am I supposed to figure a way out of here in a single night? If they catch me and throw me back into solitary, I won’t get out before they take Becca away, and my next opportunity won’t come for another three weeks.
At that moment, I hear the sound of feet behind me. I turn and move beside Daniel as a group of girls and boys come up behind us. The largest of them folds his hands across his chest. The others start to fan out around us.
“Rufus,” Daniel says.
“Danny, Danny, Danny,” Rufus shakes his head. “How many times have I told you not to talk to the newbies?”
Daniel doesn’t answer.
“You know you’re going to have to pay extra for that.”
I see the grim set of Daniel’s jaw, and I can only imagine what sort of payment Rufus has in mind. But this isn’t my first time around the block. In the Lower, thugs like Rufus are on every corner.
“So you must be the tribe leader,” I say, folding my arms across my chest. Daniel shoots me a warning look, but I toss him a confident smile.
Rufus looks at me, and then looks me over. I know instantly where I rank in his estimation. He sees me as little more than a tasty piece of meat. Perhaps slightly above a juicy steak, but meant to satisfy his lower appetite. I’ll have to remedy that opinion.
“That’s right. Rufus. And who are you?”
I sidle up to him, letting my eyes measure his weaknesses and giving him a smile as I do so. He’s got natural strength, but he’s soft in the middle, and right now, his guard is down. I whisper to him, “I’m the girl you’re never gonna forget.”
He reaches down to adjust his belt, and that’s when I strike. My open hand strike to his throat catches him by surprise. It’s a quick shot in, cutting off his air supply. He throws his hands up to his neck, as I knew he would, and I drop, hammering him with my fists three times in the gut. As he doubles over, I finish him with an uppercut to his chin. Lights out.
The whole altercation takes less than five seconds.
I glare at the rest of the tribe. “Who’s next?”
They stare at me with expressions ranging from surprise to awe. Even Daniel takes a few steps back. I’m embarrassed, but I don’t want to show it. One of them says, “You’re that new girl. The one they brought in today. I heard about you.”
“Ain’t she supposed to be in solitary?” one of the girls says. My eyes flash in her direction, and she puts her hands up. “Just sayin.’”
“They say you took out a whole team of Sweepers.”
“Well, obviously not, or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Yeah, but that was only because you surrendered. That’s ‘cause you had that other girl with you. The dumb one.”
“My sister?” I snarl ‘sister’ at him, and he instantly ducks down.
“Rebecca’s here?” Daniel asks, but I’ve no time to answer him.
The kid in front of me apologizes. “Sorry. That’s just what they were calling her. I didn’t know. I mean—”
“Who?” I demand.
“The guards. They’re all talking about it. Like you’re some kind of super spy or something.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Rufus moans on the ground, and I glance down at him, considering my options. Finally, I say, “Someone want to get piece of meat out of here?” It’s a line I heard a tribal leader use one time after pulling his knife out of another man’s gut and leaving him bleeding to death on the ground.
Four of them come forward and pick Rufus up by the arms, dragging him to the other side of the courtyard. The boy who spoke first and a girl named Candy stay behind. The boy’s name, I learn, is Tommy. He’s all of fourteen years old, and looks like he’s twelve. The girl, Candy, looks like she’s sixteen, with a dark, almost ebony complexion and full lips.
“That was your sister that came in with you? The special case?” Candy says. I nod. The expression on her face fills me with dread.
“What?” I demand. “What do you know?”
“I hate to be the one to break this to you, but your sister’s a goner. The special cases are marked for death.”
Daniel comes to my elbow and says, “Candy’s just blowing smoke. Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“What are you talking about?” Candy says. “It’s true.”
“You don’t know that,” he shoots back.
“The hell I don’t! If they can’t place you in a family, they put you to work. And if they can’t put you to work—then you’re nothing more than a burden to them. That’s the way it is.”
“My sister’s never been a burden to nobody.” My voice is hoarse. I can hardly breathe, let alone speak.
Candy shrugs. “That ain’t how they see it.”
“She’s never taken a thing from them.”
“They don’t care. They look at her, all they see is what’s wrong with her. They don’t see what’s right or good. ‘Bout that way with all of us, I expect. The only reason they ain’t just dug a ditch and filled it with our corpses is ‘cause they think they can get something out of us. Everything’s about ‘maximizing the war effort’ and such like that. You and me, we don’t matter at all to them.”
“This can’t go on,” I mutter.
“Your mouth to God’s ear, sister. But until somebody takes down REGA, what can we do about it? We all stuck in here.”
I turn to Daniel. “I gotta get out of this place.”
He takes my arm and steers me from the others. “You can’t talk that way. You’re better just to forget—”
I whirl away from him. “Forget? This is my sister we’re talking about!”
“I meant forget about trying to escape. It’s impossible.”
“I know how to do it,” chirps Tommy. Together, we both look his way.
Tommy’s idea of escape is either sheer genius or sheer stupidity, but it might just work. It involves taking advantage of a two minute window during the shift change.
A train comes to the hut, and arrives outside at five in the morning. The guards have the replacement team line up outside, where they wait until the arriving team exits the train and goes inside the hut. Then the guards sweep the train, after which, the replacement team boards the train.
During the two minutes when the guards start to sweep the train and as the last of the arriving team exit the cars is when the window opens. All we have to do is slip into the arriving team’s line and go back the way we came. As long as the guards don’t recognize us, we can slip away from the group before they reenter the hut.
He bends down in the dust as he explains it, outlining a rough map of the area between the hut and the train depot.
“I spied it last time we went through,” he says, marking the dirt with an X. “There is a space between the entrance to the hut where the guards stand during winter. It’s wide open, but the shadows at that time of the morning are so deep that we could practically disappear there. Once the guards go inside and shut the gate, we’re on the outside. All we gotta do then is slip across the tracks into the woods on the other side and we’re home free.”
I feel like I should point out that there’s a little more to being “home free” than just getting into the woods, but it’s the least of my worries. “You mean we just have to stand there while the rest of the guards just walk right by us?”
“And it’s not monitored by cameras or motion detectors?” asks Daniel.
Tommy grins, “I haven’t seen any yet. Everything they got points inward, toward the door. They’re watching to see if anybody comes through it. But here’s the funny part. The cameras are mounted on a pole that sits right beside the shack.”
“It’s out of their field of view.”
Candy shakes her head. “You know what happens you get caught, right? They ain’t even gonna mess around with punishment. They’ll just shoot you right then and there.”
“That’s the risk we have to take,” I reply.
But Candy shakes her head. “That’s the risk you have to take. Ain’t no way I’m doing this.” She turns on her heel and walks off.
“She isn’t gonna say anything, is she?”
“People will do all kinds of nasty things in this place,” Tommy answers, “but ratting out another inmate? That’d get you killed. Besides, the guard shack isn’t that big. Getting even three of us in there at once is gonna be tough. Four won’t fit in the shadows at all.”
“Yeah, about that,” I say. “Have either of you boys ever had to hide something, like camouflage it?”
Both shake their head. I give them a cryptic grin. “I’ve got an idea.”
By far, the most difficult part of the operation comes when the guards bellow, “Recess is over. Everyone back inside!”
Tommy says, “They’re calling it early. We’re supposed to have another twenty minutes.”
I glance over their heads and spy the guard that I locked in my cell, and an invisible fist squeezes my gut. After a few more shouted commands from the guards, everyone starts to shuffle back inside. Only then do I realize that I’ve got nowhere to go, and I have to hide before the guard sees me or before they come for us in the morning. I study the platform where the guards congregate, and I can see my room guard discussing something with Emily Chapin, who’s come outside. More like he seems to be arguing with her. Evidently, she wins the argument, because he throws his hat down and stalks back inside the building. Emily says a few more words to the guard in charge of the yard, and then returns as well. On the way in, I swear she looks right at me, but turns her head so quickly she might not have seen me at all.
I get close enough to Tommy’s ear to explain to him my situation. “I’ve got to have a place to lie low.”
Tommy, much to my relief, whispers, “Just follow my lead.”
In the corridor he walks behind me. I don’t see any further sign of either Cell-Guard nor Emily. As we near a side hallway, he suddenly grabs my arm and pulls me out of the line. We go halfway down the hall when he stops before an unmarked door. He pulls it open, and I’m surprised that it’s unlocked. “I found this two weeks ago,” he explains. “Sorry. It’s the best I can do on short notice.” I glance inside.
It’s a utility closet, complete with a mop, bucket, and a push broom. “Thanks,” I mutter.
He holds the door for me, and I step inside. “Just don’t come out till morning. When you hear the train, it’ll be safe.” With that, he shoves me inside and shuts the door.
Just then, I hear an angry shout from down the hall. “Hey! You there!” I hear Tommy’s steps as he shuffles back a step and turns. “Hands on the wall! Now!” Heavy, booted feet hurry toward us.
From the other side, I hear Tommy whisper, “Lock the door!”
“What are you doing?” The voice demands. The door vibrates from a sudden impact, and I think the guard has turned Tommy around and shoved him against it.
“I asked you a question!” I hear a sudden smack, and when Tommy speaks, his voice is full of pain.
“I thought I saw a door open and… and I—I was just curious!”
The words “open door” claw at my mind. I glance down and spy a silver latch just below the knob. I twist it one way, but hear nothing. The other way, and I hear a tiny snick! as the bolt springs into the doorjamb.
And not a moment too soon.
The knob jiggles hard, as if someone were trying to force their way in.
“Huh,” says the guard. “Thought wrong, didn’t you? Maybe you thought you’d find a new hole to crawl into for the night. Spend a little free time out of your cell, huh? Know what this room is?”
“No,” Tommy lies.
“It’s nothing. It’s a broom closet. This where you thought you wanted to hide from us?”
“Yes it is. You wanted to spend the night in a broom closet. Say it. Say it!” Another slap.
“I wanted to spend the night in a broom closet!”
“Well I got good news for you. See? I can arrange that.”
I hear a sudden rattle of keys, and then the ominous sound of a key being inserted into a lock. Frantic, I grab the latch and press my thumb against it. After a moment, the pressure releases. “Lock’s busted,” he mutters. “Come on then,” he says. “Looks like you just earned yourself a week’s solitary.”
I hear the footsteps disappearing down the corridor. I unlock the door and ease it open, peering through the crack in time to see Tommy disappearing around the corner in the clutches of a massive guard. Fear and guilt collide in my mind. A part of me wants desperately to chase them down and pry Tommy loose from the guard. Another part knows how futile that would be. The man is easily twice my size, and despite what everybody thinks about how I single-handedly wiped out a Sweeper team, I know the reputation is undeserved. I can handle myself in a fight when I can get the drop on someone, but most of my survival skills involve running and hiding, not rescue.
There isn’t anything I can do for Tommy. Not now, and not before my window to escape this hell-hole closes. No, the best thing I can do for Tommy is the same thing I can do for Rebecca—or for any or all of them, for that matter. And that is to get out, get free, and then get back with a plan to peel open this prison like a can of beans.
But for now, I have to spend the night in a closet.
Frustrated, I drop down against the wall and lean my head against the utility sink. In moments I’m asleep.