Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 12

  “A Ten, man. You turn your back for one sec and you’re dead! Remember what happened to Charlie last year? I don’t want to lose my best friend that way!”

  Bowen shoves Tommy’s rifle away and lets his gaze travel slowly over me. “I’ve been watching him, and he doesn’t have a single symptom. If I see the slightest change, anything at all, I’ll call you over. ”

  “But, Bowen—”

  “If the kid was going to kill me, I’d already be dead,” he growls, glaring into Tommy’s eyes.

  Tommy is bigger, older, and looks twice as mean as Bowen, with muscles that bulge and gleam beneath his skin. He glares and says, “Yes, sir. But if you die, I’ll never forgive you. Come on, guys. ”

  The guards walk stiffly away.

  Bowen guides me to a tent—the only tent near mine, secluded from the rest of the camp. “Go in,” he orders, remote pointing at me. I duck into the tent and he follows. “Sit in the corner. ” I do, right beside a guitar.

  Without thinking, I swish my fingers over the strings. It’s been recently tuned. And polished to a high shine. I look at Bowen, then at the callused tips of his fingers, and understanding sinks in.

  He’s digging through a black backpack when I say, “You’re the one who was playing on the night I came to camp. ”

  His hands pause, and he looks up at me and nods.

  “You were playing my favorite song. Beethoven’s Seventh. ”

  “You played it at least a thousand times before everything changed. The tune is sort of ingrained into my head. ”

  “When did you learn to play classical guitar?”

  He shrugs. “I taught myself after everything changed. My whole life I’d always been surrounded by music—by your music, you practiced so often. I guess I … missed it. ”

  A small smile flutters against my sore lips.

  Bowen pulls a bundle from the bag and holds out a pair of faded jeans with ballpoint-pen ivy decorating the pockets. I look from the jeans to him. “They don’t stink, and I don’t think I can stand another minute in your presence unless you take off your pants,” he says, scrunching up his nose at my—Arrin’s—pants.

  I take the jeans, press them to my nose, and inhale. They don’t stink at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. They smell like Bowen.

  “So, hurry up and put them on,” he says, watching me. “I’m on pollen duty today. ”

  My heart starts to pound and my cheeks burn. Again. As if I’m thirteen. “Put them on right now? Aren’t you going to wait outside?”

  “And leave you completely unrestrained and unobserved? Sorry, Fotard. ” Mischief gleams in his eyes, and I have the feeling he’s trying hard not to smile.

  I roll my eyes, and his mouth flickers into a quick smile. Electricity hums and my cuffs unmeld, freeing my arms.

  I tug Arrin’s pants from my legs and, while Bowen stares, pull the jeans on over a pair of plain white granny underwear that goes up to my belly button. I don’t remember ever owning granny underwear. As my fingers loop the button through the buttonhole, Bowen hands me a brown leather belt. I take it and stare at it.

  “You got a problem with the belt?” he asks.

  “When I was in the tunnels, I asked Arrin for something to eat. She gave me a leather belt,” I say with a shudder.

  “Fecs don’t have much food. Lots of them starve to death before they have a chance to turn. ”

  “Turn? Turn how?” I ask as I loop the belt through my new pants and cinch it into place. The moment it’s latched, electricity hums and my forearms meld back together.

  “I’ll tell you while we pollinate,” he says. He slings one strap of the black backpack over his shoulder. Next, he gets a rifle and slings it over the other shoulder, making an X across his chest with the straps. He eases out of the tent, and I follow.

  We walk past the camp—everyone stares at me—and then go to the base of the wall. And I see the first living plant I have seen since I saw Jacqui’s mom painting corn. Many plants, actually, in an assortment of mismatched pots—terracotta, plastic, clay, a few even grow in dirt piled in the interior of old car tires, or in paint cans.

  I step up to a plant and trail my fingers over the pulpy green leaves. Tears sting my eyes and my throat constricts. “It’s beautiful,” I whisper. “What kind of plant is it?”

  “A tomato,” Bowen says, looking at me like I’m nuts. “Are you crying?”

  I sniffle and shrug. “It reminds me of … the world I used to know. ” The world I belong to, where I am thirteen and Jonah is normal and plants grow. And I have never seen a pair of electromagnetic cuffs, not to mention been forced to wear them.

  “Here. ” Bowen holds out a fine-bristled paintbrush, and I take it. “We need to pollinate them or they won’t produce any fruit. ”

  Like Jacqui’s mom painting the corn.

  “What you do is stick the paintbrush into the little yellow flowers, like this. ” Instead of watching his little demonstration, I stare at his profile, wondering if he misses the old world as much as I do, wondering if he misses his family. “And then move to another flower. Until we’ve done it to all of the flowers. Got it?” He looks up and I nod.

  I stick the fine bristles of my paintbrush into the flower. Tiny, pale grains of dust cling to it—pollen. I move to the next flower and do the same, brushing the dust from the first flower into the second, while taking dust from the second to place in the third.

  “You asked me what it means to turn,” Bowen says, his voice warm and deep and grown-up. I pause and watch him move his paintbrush from flower to flower, his strong, callused hands gentle and precise. “Your tattoo. Do you remember getting it?”

  I look at my hand and can remember the needle darting in and out of my skin faster than I could see. I remember the sound, a grinding buzz—like getting a tooth drilled. I remember crying. “A little,” I say.

  “Well, that tattoo was given to the kids who were lucky enough to get the bee flu vaccine,” he says, looking at me. “Only problem was, they didn’t know about the vaccine’s long-term effect. So everyone who got it, even one dose, is infected. If they haven’t turned into a beast, like the Fec you came here with, they will before long. But the Fec was a Level Three. You are a Ten. ”

  I stare at the tattoo. “So what does Level Ten mean?”

  “It means you were one of the special kids, one of the very first to get the vaccine. Our nation’s hope for the future. ” He says this last part with bitter sarcasm. “Probably because of your father’s military connections and your musical talent, you qualified for the earliest possible dose. And because of that, you got ten months of the vaccine. The highest dose given. ” Bowen points to my tattoo. “Each of those marks,” he says, motioning to the legs coming out of the circle, “represents a dose of vaccine. Ten months was the longest anyone took it. Because after ten months, every kid who’d been lucky enough to qualify for the shots started showing signs of insanity. ”

  My brother’s animal-crazed face flashes into my mind. “What do you mean, insanity?” I whisper.

  He takes a small step away from me, hand on the remote, eyes wary. “You know the thing that attacked you last night?”

  I nod. My body still hurts.

  “That was a Level Eight. Totally insane. ”

  Anger flares in my chest. My brother can’t be insane. “He didn’t look insane to me. He looked like a wild animal,” I snap.

  “Yeah. Insane wild animals that massacred their own families and neighbors and friends. And then ate them if they couldn’t find anything else to eat!” Bowen glares at me, and his jaw muscles pulse.

  I think of my brother trying to catch me as I slid through the bathroom window. Did he catch the rest of my family? My stomach starts to hurt, and I can hardly hold the paintbrush in my trembling fingers. “Dreyden—”

  “Don’t call me that,” he growls, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one’s aro
und.

  I look at my feet. “Sorry. Bowen. What happened to my family?” Did my brother eat them or kill them? That is what I’m really asking. I stare at the scuffed toes of his brown army boots. When he doesn’t answer, I look at him.

  He studies me for a long minute, searching my face with his wary, uncertain eyes—eyes that know more than a seventeen-year-old’s should. “Lissa lives inside the wall. I saw her a couple of years ago. She looked good. Your mom …”

  I hold my breath, my entire body tingling with hope. “Is she alive?”

  He frowns and looks away. “I saw her once inside the wall. At least I think it was her. She was old, right? She had you and your brother when she was, what, forty?”

  She couldn’t get pregnant after she had Lis. After trying to have a baby for seven years, Jonah and I were her in vitro miracles. “She was thirty-nine. ”

  “She’d be over the government-enforced age limit. Most likely she’s—” His mouth snaps shut, and he begins furiously painting flowers.

  “Can you take me to her? On Sunday?” My voice is desperate. I know that if I find her, she’ll be able to fix everything. I ache for my mother.

  He shakes his head, glaring at the paintbrush in his fingers. “No. She’s gone by now. The Sunday after she turned fifty-five, they—can we not talk about this?” he snaps, scowling at me.

  I shake my head. “I need to know. What happened to my mom?” I whisper, sick with dread. Already I can tell what he knows isn’t good.

  “Are you sure you want to know?” he asks.

  I nod.

  “Life inside the wall has rules. ” His mouth puckers, as if the word rules leaves a bad taste on his tongue. “No one with physical disabilities is allowed inside the wall. No one’s allowed inside who suffers from any type of mental illness—even depression. If you are an unmarried male age fifteen or older, you are assigned to work in the militia unless you have an invaluable skill, like farming, engineering, or medical expertise. The inner-wall age limit is fifty-five. After that people are too old to be much worth, so they …” He sweeps his hand through his hair, moving it from his forehead. “After that they’re either kicked out or …” Bowen mumbles something so fast I can’t understand him.
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