Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 3

  I hold my hands forward like I’m sleepwalking, but the child obviously knows where to go. In spite of the blackness, we walk at a steady pace. The child counts under its breath, and when it gets to a certain number, it pauses and we turn … left or right, always different. Every once in a while starlight, slatted by the bars of a storm drain, filters down to where we creep. And every time we pass beneath a storm drain, the child clasps a grimy hand against my chapped lips.

  We walk a long time, silent, until the child asks, “Why are you so clean?” The whisper, out of place in the dark tunnels, startles me.

  “What?” I say.

  “You’re clean. Your clothes, your skin. And you smell like …” It sniffs. “Plants and iodine. Are you from the right side of the wall?”

  “What wall?” I whisper.

  “Shut up!” The hand is over my mouth again. We turn a corner, and blue starlight glows down from a storm drain. I walk on my toes, and the squelching becomes a muted wet squish. We pass the glow and walk for a few minutes in silence before the child speaks again.

  “Are you from inside the wall?”

  “What wall?” I ask a second time, my voice a whisper. Even if I wanted to speak louder, I don’t know if I could. “I’m thirsty,” I say, panting.

  We stop walking and the child releases my arm.

  “Look here, girl,” the child growls. “I just saved your life. You’re the one who should be giving me water. You owe me. And you’re gonna pay me back, or I’m gonna leave you here. In the dark. Right now. To shrivel up and die like everything else. ” The child’s voice is high. Feminine.

  “Pay you back?” My hand goes to my throat, tracing the dip of my collarbone, searching for a necklace. But there’s nothing there. I lower my empty hand. “How can I pay you back?” I ask. “I don’t have any money or jewelry. ”

  “Money? Jewelry? I can’t eat those, or trade them. Do you have any food or honey?”

  Honey. I remember honey. Gold. Sweet. Melted with butter on wheat toast at breakfast. Drizzled in tea. Made by bees. Bees are on the endangered species list. And now I can hear my sister’s voice like she’s standing beside me.

  “Since the bees are endangered, we have to plant these special flowers to help feed them. ” Lis dug a shallow hole in the dirt and dropped a seed inside for Jonah and me to see. “Bees love lavender—the color, the smell,” she explained. “And so do I. Here, you guys plant some. ”

  She put three small pale-purple seeds into my hand and three into Jonah’s.

  Using my fingers, I dug a shallow hole in the damp soil.

  “What will happen if the bees go extinct?” Jonah asked, burying his first seed.

  “First of all, there would be no more honey. It would become the world’s most rare, most precious food—even more precious than gold,” Lis said. “But that’s just the beginning. Bees pollinate a huge percentage of the world’s crops. If bees die out, things like apples and peaches and vegetbles will die. Lots of plants will die without the bees’ pollinating them. And if the plants start dying, then the things that eat plants will start to die, like cows and chickens, which means no more meat for us to eat. If we have no fruits or vegetables to eat, and no meat, our world will experience a major famine. People will start starving to death worldwide. ”

  I looked at the tiny seeds in my hand and wondered how something so small could make a difference if the bees were already going extinct.

  “Don’t look so scared,” Lis said, patting the top of my head. “My biology teacher says that the government has their top scientists and biologists working on a solution. ”

  “Hello! Can you pay me back now or what?”

  I shake the memory from my head. “No. I don’t have anything to give to you. ”

  “Whatever. You can pay me back with a favor. And when you complete it, then I’ll give you all the water you can drink,” it says.

  “No. I need water now. ”

  The child sighs and mutters under its breath. The sound of water swishes, and my dry throat clamps tight with desire. A narrow container is pushed against my hands. I grab it, open the lid, and chug it down, but before my thirst is slaked the water is gone, leaving sand in my teeth and the taste of copper on my tongue.

  The empty bottle is yanked from my hand. “I just saved your life twice now, idiot. You owe me double. ” Fingers find my elbow and, clutching it a little too hard, guide me forward again.

  My feet squelch against the floor, and my mouth is deliciously damp. I sigh, content. “I’ll repay you double,” I say, willing to do anything for more water. Not a smart thing to do when you haven’t been told the price.

  When we finally stop walking, fatigue drags at my body. A scritch disturbs the silence, and a match sparks to life. I squint against the tiny flame and look around. I stand at the end of a tunnel surrounded on three sides by concrete. Above, pipes slowly drip water into waiting, dented pots. And above them, darkness.

  The child lights a candle and grabs my right hand, big, hungry eyes examining the back of it. “So much for paying me back double,” it grumbles, shoving my hand away.

  The child, slight and bony, wears baggy clothes a grimy shade of gray, the same color as its sickly skin. Its dark hair is short everywhere but in the front, where long greasy bangs cover most of its face, except for a pointy nose sticking out. I lean toward the child, trying to peer beneath the thick hank of hair. It sounds like a girl, is small like a girl, but there’s something masculine in the way she—he?—stands.

  “Are you a boy or a girl?” I ask.

  The child whips the bangs out of its face and grins at me with stained teeth. “Does it matter?”

  I stare at the child’s dark, shifty eyes. “I guess not. ”

  The child gnaws on its thumbnail and studies me for a moment, eyes calculating. “I’m a girl. But when things get ugly, looking like a boy is more protection than a hidden knife. ” The way she says it, she sounds way more grown-up than she looks. “Rest. You’ll need it. You’re paying me back tomorrow. Double. ”

  A pile of blankets are heaped in a corner where the cement walls meet. I walk toward them, but the girl steps in front of me and puts her hand against my shoulder. “Sorry, Flower. That’s where I sleep. ”

  “My name’s not Flower. It’s … Fo. ”

  “Arrin. Nice to meet you. ” Arrin takes a blanket from the pile and chucks it at my feet. “And just so you know, Fo, if you try and ditch me while I sleep, the others will kiiiiiill you,” she says.

  I peer over my shoulder, toward the dark tunnel. “Others?”

  “Yeah. The others. You know, the people who’ve banded together and hide down here in order to survive. They kill wanderers before they ask questions. So don’t wander off if you ever want to see the sun again. ” Arrin collapses onto the pile of blankets and blows out the candle. My eyes open wide and I swing my hand in front of them. I see nothing.

  Reaching down, I spread the blanket on the cement floor and ease onto it. And gag. The blanket smells like vomit, moldy cheese, and urine. My stomach turns, and I scramble to my feet. Wadding up the blanket, I toss it away. Cold, hard cement over the smell of that? Any day.

  I lie on my side with my arm under my head, but I don’t sleep. Not yet. Not with my body screaming for the water dripping into a pot not three feet away. When Arrin’s breathing grows deep and methodical, I roll onto my hands and knees and stick my face into the pan. Water drips onto the back of my head as I drink, but that doesn’t slow me down. I drink until my belly wants to pop. And then, finally satisfied, I lie on my back.

  Arrin mumbles in her sleep, something about bacon, her voice a deep grumble. I try to block her out by focusing on the rhythm of dripping water—a liquid metronome. My fingers move to the beat, tapping out the notes to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh against my thigh, and as I play the silent music, I cry myself to sleep.

  Chapter 4
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  “First thing we have to do is cut your hair. ”

  I still hear the rhythm of water dripping onto water. Beethoven’s Seventh still haunts my groggy brain, keeping time with the dripping.

  “And then we’ll make you dirty. Really filthy. You stand out, and not in a good way. Sad fact about cleanliness—it makes you a minority if you’re on the wrong side of the wall. Who are you, anyway?”

  I open my tear-crusted eyes, and the music in my head jolts to a stop. A glowing candle flashes against Arrin’s close face. She sits cross-legged beside my head, holding a rusty dagger in one hand, tugging my hair out of the neck of my shirt with the other. I push against the cement floor and sit. “What are you doing?” I croak, staring at the knife.

  “Waking you up, idiot. The early bird always gets the worm. And I have a mighty big worm that needs getting. ”

  “What time is it?” I wonder aloud, looking at my empty left wrist. I always wear a watch. Correction—wore.

  “There is no time down here,” Arrin says, rubbing a strand of my hair between her thumb and finger. “So, what are you doing on the wrong side of the wall?”

  I think about the meaning behind her words. At least I try to. But I don’t know what she’s talking about. “You mean, what was I doing out in the street? Last night?”

  “Duh. ” She rolls her eyes.

  My brother’s face wavers in my mind. A younger face, smiling, gentle. Not how he was yesterday—if that was yesterday. But there’s no way I’m going to tell Arrin that I was running from my own brother. “I was running from … something. ”

  “Yeah, I got that. You caught the attention of the raiders. What’d you do to make them come after you?”

  “Them?” I think of the shadows running down the street toward me just after sunset and shrug. “Nothing. ”

  “Whatever. I totally saved your butt. They never let anyone get away, especially girls. And now you’ve got to repay me. Double. As soon as possible, because I can’t have you depending on me for anything. Including water. ” She glares at the pot I drank from the night before. “And if you want to succeed in that payment, you gotta look like a boy, and you gotta be dirty. ” She lifts the dagger, and candlelight flickers against the rusty blade. I lean away and press a hand to my neck.
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