Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 21

  Every few minutes, Bowen pauses and listens to the quiet of nothing, as if he’s expecting … something.

  We walk for what feels like hours, and I keep expecting the sky to brighten, the sun to rise. A slow, persistent ache grows in my lower back, and blisters form on both my heels. When I think time must have paused, trapping us in this forever night, the darkness takes on a different hue, like the fuzzy gray of predawn.

  Light flickers and glimmers between buildings, turning slowly from gray to red, and I realize my mistake. Not sunrise. Firelight.

  Bowen pulls me to a stop and drags me into the closest building—an old apartment building with a walkway between numbered doors and a few tattered doormats littering the ground. He eases a door open, number 1C, and we step inside.

  A hint of firelight shines in through a shattered window, between a broken pair of blinds, illuminating an overturned table and the frame of a sofa. He presses me against a wall, his damp hands tight on my shoulders. Firelight glows against the side of his face, leaving the other side black and featureless.

  “There’s someone out there,” he whispers. “We’ve got to get away unseen. ” A wail, eerily human—yet not—echoes into the apartment building, and Bowen grapples with his gun, aiming it toward the window. “If they catch you,” he whispers, eyes glued to the window, “you’re a boy! But don’t get caught! If I give you this signal,” he pumps his fist three times, “that means run. Go to the north gate and turn yourself in. Don’t get caught!” He lowers the gun and looks at me again. “You stay behind me. Do not make any noise! And stay in the shadows!”

  His hand goes to his belt, and he removes something, a Taser, and presses it into my hand. He shows me how to use it and sets it to kill. And then, our feet silent, my heart thundering like a bass drum in a symphony, we step back into the night.

  We haven’t gone ten steps when the bass straining against my ribs is joined by more drums. Pounding. Throbbing. An entire bass-drum section being played at once. A sound that makes my throat constrict, makes me want to whimper.

  Many footsteps, marching in synch.

  Bowen whips around and grips my shirt, yanking me down behind the nearest hiding place—a blue postbox cemented to the sidewalk in front of the apartment building. The two of us barely fit behind it, sandwiched shoulder to shoulder in a crouch, backpacks against the cold metal, waiting, hiding. Icy sweat drips down my back.

  Shadows dance on the buildings around us, framed by the flickering, growing light of a moving fire. I peer to my left and see the light’s source. Men, dressed in a mishmash of jeans, shorts, T-shirts, tank tops, or no shirts, all filthy and holding burning torches, are coming down the street. They look like the kind of grisly men I remember from road-warrior movies, who wore metal spikes around their necks, had tattoos and piercings, and rode motorcycles. Only, these guys don’t have the spikes and tattoos and piercings. They don’t need them to give off an air of ferocity. Instead, each man has four thick scars on his left forearm—a marking as deliberate as the tattoo on my hand. But there’s a problem. The drumming feet? They don’t match the uncoordinated steps these men take.

  I look to the right, past Bowen, and understand. They look like militia, these men walking down the opposite side of the street in perfect unison, toward the scarred gang of warriors. Well, they almost look like militia. Only, instead of the stripes shaved onto the sides of their heads, the sides of their heads are bald, below slightly longer hair, like peach fuzz, on the tops of their heads. But the dark uniforms, guns, Tasers, rigid backs, set mouths, and lockstep walk make them look like militia.

  “Bowen,” a man’s quiet voice calls from the street, from the clean-cut marching men. My mouth falls open and I look at Bowen, wondering how a man who has just arrived knows we are here. Bowen gasps and presses harder against the postbox, eyes scrunched shut, like a kid playing hide-and-seek who thinks you can’t see him if his eyes are covered.

  “Company, halt!” a smooth, deep voice calls, and somehow it is familiar, like a song you never forget once you hear the tune, even after a long time has passed. “At attention. Tasers before guns,” the voice orders in monotone.

  Bowen opens his eyes, and his eyebrows pull together. Sweat gleams on his creased forehead. Slowly, millimeter by millimeter, he peers to the right, around the side of the postbox, and then eases back around, facing me.

  “My brother’s out there,” he breathes. “That’s the Inner Guard. ”

  Feet shuffle to a messy halt on the left—the gang of men with torches—but even though they’ve stopped, something still shuffles in their midst. And growls. I try not to breathe, try not to blink, as I slowly peer around the side of the postbox. And then I try not to bolt. Or scream. Or pee my pants.

  I gulp down the scream threatening to be my undoing, and an icy hand finds mine, squeezing an ounce of courage into me.

  “What did you see?” Bowen whispers, eyes white-rimmed with fear.

  “They have a beast!” I mouth, too terrified to whisper. “Bound with chains,” I add, and close my eyes, seeing it all over again. A sleek, glossy, masculine body, the kind that used to grace the cover of fitness magazines—ripped with fine muscle and zero body fat. Only the smooth, taut skin is speckled and slashed with dark flaws. I see the rusted chains, barely glinting in the torchlight, wrapped around the beast’s tethered arms, each ankle, and neck—the kind of chains you put on a dog. I see the four massive, muscle-heavy men giving the beast a wide berth while holding the chains. And burned into my memory are the eyes, looking straight into mine.

  Chains rattle and a growl echoes off the building in front of me, and I force myself to take another look. The beast is yanking on its chains. Its muscles, marked with deep gashes that ooze blood, bulge in an effort to get at the postbox where Bowen and I huddle. I whip back around, too scared to take another look.

  “It knows we’re here,” I whisper between gritted teeth. Bowen’s hand leaves mine and rests on something on his belt.

  “We will not commence this business until you get your pet under control,” a calm, educated voice calls, a voice totally wrong for this dark, ruffian- and beast-filled alley. “Bowen, instruct your men to take aim at the beast. Guns, not Tasers. ”

  “Company, aim to kill the beast,” the familiar voice from earlier says. And all the pieces fall together, like suddenly hitting a perfect chord on the piano. Duncan Bowen, Dreyden Bowen’s brother, is the man out there commanding the Inner Guard. It is his voice that I recognize, so like his younger brother’s.

  I stare straight ahead at the blank apartment-building front. It is like watching a movie, only, the actors are shadows. And none of it is make-believe. A shadow raises a torch and swings it downward into another shadow. Chains rattle. The second shadow falls to its knees and starts panting. The beast is down. Business can begin.

  “That’s better,” the man says—the man who commands Duncan Bowen and the Inner Guard. A pair of clopping shoes, like dress shoes, echoes in the street, and a shadow moves forward, walks to the edge of the torch-bearing men, and stops.

  Bowen—my Bowen—eases to the right, head barely around the post box, for a better look.

  “Did you bring us the trade?” a man on my left, with a voice like cracked concrete, asks. I stare at the building in front of me, at the interplay of shadows. The shadow with the smooth voice is short and lean. The shadow with the gravel voice is beefy and towers over the other man.

  The smaller shadow holds something up, but when the big shadow reaches for it, the first shadow yanks it away. Guns rattle and feet scuff.

  “At ease, men,” Duncan Bowen orders.

  “I will not,” the smooth voice purrs—the voice belonging to the smaller man, “part with this until you show me my payment. ”

  The big shadow holds out his arm. Someone steps behind him and places an unidentifiable shadow-object into the man’s hand.

  The smaller sh
adow exhales a deep, satisfied breath of air and lunges toward the burly shadow, grabbing at whatever is in his hand. The objects are traded, and the smooth-voiced shadow cradles his object to his chest.

  “Careful! It’s glass,” the big shadow warns. “You break it, I can’t bleed my beast for you again. He’s new. And he’s a Ten. We all took a lot of blood from him, and it has made him weak. And I still wanna know why you can’t get yours from the lab anymore. ”

  “That is none of your business,” the smooth voice snaps.

  The bigger shadow shrugs. “Suit yourself. Why don’t you tell your boys to lower their guns before we turn our backs on you. ”

  A throat is cleared. “There is one other thing,” the smooth voice says. A paper rustles. Beside me, Bowen’s body grows more taut and his breath hisses between his teeth. “This girl,” the man says, and Bowen looks at me.

  A rectangle of shadow is passed from the small man to the big man, and the paper rustles again. A grating, stone-crushing laugh vibrates from the bigger shadow. “I haven’t seen one like this in years. Look at this girl, boys!” He holds the rectangle overhead.

  It starts with whistling, then growling and howling. Soon, the street is filled with the sounds of wild animals snarling, teeth snapping, and panting. And I wonder, who are the real beasts in this land of desolation? Is there a difference between these scarmarked, grown men and the tattoo-marked beasts? The men can choose how they act—they still have a semblance of humanity to them. But the beasts have nothing human left in them. Do they have a choice in how they act?

  “Her name,” the smooth voice calls out over the din, and the noise dies down. “Her name is Fiona Tarsis! And I want you to catch her!”

  My heart jolts in my chest, and fear condenses in a damp sheen over every inch of my body.

  “Fiona is young, fresh, and not hardened by the streets like the other women you catch! She bears the mark, but that won’t make her a hard target for men like you. And …” He stops talking, but no one makes a sound. “She’s on your side of the wall!”
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