Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 13

  “Kicked out or what?”

  The color drains from his tan cheeks and he whispers, “Offered medically assisted suicide. Put to sleep. Terminated. They say it’s painless. ”

  Heavy numbness settles over me. My mother is dead. That’s why he didn’t want to tell me. “And my father? Would they let him inside the wall even though he was disabled?”

  Bowen tilts his head to the side and frowns. “Your father? I thought that …” He clears his throat. “No wheelchairs inside. ”

  I turn to the plants and quietly pollinate, letting the reality settle in, letting silent tears wash over my face. My mom and dad are dead.

  A long time passes, maybe hours. Bowen and I have pollinated nearly all the plants, and my tears have finally stopped falling. “What is the lab?” I ask, sticking my paintbrush into a flower.

  “The lab is the place where they test different strains of antivenin in search of the cure. On, you know, the beasts. Sort of like animal testing. ”

  My eyes grow round, and I look up from the tomato plant. “Wait a sec, I’m going to a lab to be their human guinea pig?”

  “They test insane, beastly humans, Fo. Not regular people. ”

  “But I am a regular person. I’m not a beast!” I say, panicked.

  He studies the paintbrush in his hands as if it’s the first time he’s seen it. “You’re a Ten. You could turn any second. Break my arms from my body. Shatter my skull with your bare hands. ”

  “Tear your beating heart from your chest and eat it?” I say.

  “Yeah. That, too. Charlie, my old friend, was torn in two by a beast. ”

  I take a step toward him. He darts backward and holds the remote toward me, his eyes scared.

  “I’m not like that, Bowen. ” My voice trembles.

  “Well, you’ve got to cut me a little slack, here,” he mutters, slowly lowering the remote. “Guardians don’t live all that long. ”

  “Guardians?”

  “A guardian is the person in charge of taking the beasts to the lab. That’s me. I’m the guardian at the south gate of the wall. ” He points to the lines shaved into the side of his head—four of them. “Four lines mean I rank higher than anyone in that camp except Micklemoore. And it’s because I’m a guardian. ”

  “Are you my guardian? Or the militia’s?”

  “The militia’s. I’m guarding them from you,” he says as if I’m stupid for asking. As if it’s obvious. But the way I see it, I need protection from them.

  “How long have you been the south gate guardian?”

  His mouth thins. “I’ve been guardian since Sunday. ”

  “Only three days?”

  “Two and a half days. It’s Tuesday. ”

  “So, why did you become a guardian on Sunday?”

  He tilts his head to the side and frowns. “They shut the gate at eight p. m. like usual. And then, first time in the two and a half years since I’ve been posted at the wall, they rang the bell and opened the gate after eight p. m. Had a piece of paper signed by the chief medical officer dated that day, stating Dreyden Bowen was to become the new south gate guardian. I wasn’t aware the CMO even knew my name. But get this. They appointed a new north gate guardian at the same time. Richard Kimball. Remember him? He was in a grade above us and lived a block away. ”

  A boy’s face flickers in my memory: blond hair, pale-blue eyes, and freckled skin. He tried to kiss me when I was in first grade and he was in second. “I remember him. So, what happened to the old guardians?”

  Bowen shrugs. “I can’t say for the guy at the north gate, but ours was thrilled. Not only is he relieved of the worst job in the world, but he gets to live inside the wall. He was a guardian for only four days. ”

  “And the guardian before him?”

  “Got his beating heart torn out of his chest. He lasted eighteen days. ”

  “Seriously?” I say.

  He glowers at me. “Do you think I’d joke about something like this?”

  I shake my head. “Then why don’t you resign? Or do a different job?”

  “Because I am stuck in this job until I die. Or qualify to live within the wall. ”

  I start dusting pollen again. Bowen does the same, careful to always stay two steps behind me, always have me within view, and always have the remote in his free hand.

  After we’ve dusted four more plants, I turn to him. “Why don’t you just run away?”

  He looks over his shoulder, at the dead expanse of the world and abandoned buildings. “I have a better chance of surviving as a guardian than out there. And besides, I want to live inside the wall one day, even if they do terminate their population at fifty-five. From where I’m standing right now, living to fifty-five sounds ancient. ”

  Pollen forgotten, I ask, “Then what are you waiting for? Go live inside the wall!”

  He laughs, a dry, humorless laugh. “First of all, the gate is locked. You can’t open it from the outside—a safety precaution. And then there’s the fact that I’m not allowed to live there. Not until I either make enough money to buy my way in; get an education that makes me potentially useful; or meet some nice girl, get married, and start helping the effort to repopulate the—”

  A siren wails. Before I can blink, Bowen jumps in front of me, rifle on his shoulder and aimed toward camp.

  Chapter 14

  “Stay behind me,” he orders. We run toward camp, a good half mile away, but when it comes into view, I stop, my feet frozen to the ground. If Bowen wants me to follow him a single step farther, he’ll have to hit me upside the head again and carry me.

  Bowen doesn’t notice I’ve frozen in place, or he doesn’t care. He throws himself into the middle of a swarm of brown-clad militia interrupted by patches of bare skin.

  I crouch as low to the ground as I can get, an unassuming human rock, and stare.

  Young, exceptionally healthy-looking men are tearing at the militia, flinging them, biting them, snapping their bones, splattering blood. They’re like Jonah, these freakishly strong young men—beasts. A gun goes off, and one beast staggers, looks down at its muscular chest, at the gaping bullet wound in it, and then jumps toward the man who shot him. The man shoots again, and the beast jerks to a stop, falling lifeless to the ground.

  There are four other beasts. Three are men, dressed in tattered rags, but the fourth is female, wearing torn pants and a thin tank top that hangs to her thighs and barely covers her small breasts and bulging muscles.

  The female beast turns her face to the sky, and her eyes slip shut. Her nose wrinkles and her chest expands as she takes a deep breath. And then her eyes pop open and slowly travel to mine. Her lips pull away from her teeth, and above the din of the fighting I can hear the deep, guttural rumble that comes from her throat.

  The three male beasts freeze, look at the female, and follow the line of her glare. And then all four are staring at me. As one, they face me, crouch, and balance on the balls of their feet. The militia surrounding them pause, their faces baffled.

  The beasts lunge forward and sprint, flinging bodies out of the way to reach their target. I am their target. A target with fettered arms and nowhere to flee. But it doesn’t matter. They move like the wind and whirl around me before I have time to stand. Finally, as if it is a sound I have been waiting my entire life to hear, guns go off, a sudden, deafening explosion of a hundred discharged bullets that topples three bodies to the ground beside me.

  The fourth beast, the female, is already on top of me, crouched on my chest, flattening me to the ground, fingers forcing my chin up. She opens her mouth and lunges for my exposed neck. Electricity hums in my electromagnetic cuffs. My forearms grow hot and my body convulses, my jaw rattling with the force of it. The thing on top of me absorbs half of the current boiling through my flesh, leeching the heat away so it’s almost bearable. Her back arches and the grip on my throat loosens. She is yanked from me and the electricity st
ops. I stare at the blue sky, my body numb.

  The cuffs on my wrists separate and release, and my burning arms fall limp to my sides. Bowen is beside me, face freckled with crimson, straddling the female beast, my cuffs in his hands. The female writhes beneath him, and he slams a cuff into her face, making blood splatter from her nose. She growls and lunges at him, her bloody teeth barely missing his chin.

  “I could use a little backup here!” he roars, smashing a cuff into her face again. Three more men throw themselves onto the beast, and Bowen secures the cuffs on her arms. They lock into place, and he jumps off the writhing creature. Crouching by my legs, he removes my ankle cuffs, but before he has a chance to put them onto the beast, she throws the three men from her and is back on her feet.

  She launches herself at me, mouth open, cuffed and fused hands reaching toward me. I lift my gloriously free arms and, using her momentum, push the female over the top of me.

  A lone gun goes off and the beast hits the ground, skidding to a stop in the dirt. She does not move, does not blink her eyes. A pool of red forms beneath her and soaks into the dusty earth.

  I look up in time to see Bowen lower his rifle.

  “That,” he says, his voice trembling, “was a Level Ten. ”

  Chapter 15

  I am shut away in a tent, one of the few that wasn’t ruined in the skirmish earlier that day. My forearms are covered with burn blisters, and the hair is singed completely off. But I am not restrained in any way for the first time since I entered the camp. And the armed guards are throwing a fit. Every time I so much as breathe too loudly, they panic.

  But it feels so good to move that I stretch my legs, point my toes, and sigh. Late-afternoon sunlight blinds me as the tent flap is whipped aside and four guns are thrust inside, inches from my face. I don’t blink.

  “Did he touch the flap?” someone asks, and if I had to guess, I’d say his voice is hopeful. They’ve been given strict orders from Bowen: shoot if I so much as touch the tent flap—shoot me.

  “No, the flap didn’t move,” Tommy says. “Bowen?” he shouts, not taking his gun from my face. “You almost ready to put his cuffs back on? Because I can’t guarantee the Fec’ll live much longer if he isn’t restrained! The men are jumpy from the attacks!”
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