Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 6

  Arrin tugs me away from the door and presses a finger to her lips. Her nails are ragged and caked with dirt and blood. The creases on her finger are dark-red stripes. I frown and look at her clothes—my old clothes. Blood is spattered on them, like crimson fireworks. She raises one eyebrow and points at me, and I look down. Blood coats my hands, clings to the pale hairs of my arms, and covers my clothing. I gag and my stomach heaves, but nothing comes up. I am too empty. Arrin clasps her hand over my mouth, and the smell of blood makes me dry heave again.

  Outside the building, the militia march past, their footsteps a fading cadence. When the evening grows quiet, Arrin removes her hand from my mouth. Silent, she stands and darts out the door. I follow on her heels.

  We cling to the shadows, hugging the bases of factories until the sun sets and the entire world is in darkness. And then something changes. My stomach growls, saliva fills my mouth, and I turn my face to the twilight sky and sniff. Images of roast turkey and grilled steak pop into my brain. Clutching my concave stomach, I whimper. I will do anything for food.

  Too focused on food to realize she’s stopped, I crash into Arrin. She gasps and hunches over.

  “Arrin? What’s wrong?” I put my hands on her shoulders and try to help her stand. She whimpers and pulls away, and my hand comes away wet. Even in the dusky light I can see my palm is coated with something dark. I squeeze my hand shut. When I open it, my fingers are sticky. “Blood,” I whisper, not so hungry anymore.

  “I’ll be fine. I’ve had worse,” Arrin says.

  “You have?”

  “Yeah,” she says, peering up at me with a gleam in her blue eyes. She chuckles and stands tall. “Lots worse. Those guys in the tunnels, they come down and prey on the Fecs all the time. I’ve dreamed about killing them for years. You have no idea how good it felt when I stabbed that one!”

  My stomach turns. “You stabbed him?”

  “Yep. One swift slice to the carotid artery. ” She grins, and her face looks like it did when she was eating my crackers—filled with greedy satisfaction.

  “The what artery?” I ask, slightly sick to my stomach, slightly terrified of this … child.

  “Carotid? It’s in the neck. My dad’s a doctor, and he taught me how to kill. Where’d you think all the blood came from?” She looks pointedly at my blood-covered arms and hands, and I cringe. “Come on. We’re almost there. ”

  Arrin cradles her arm as we continue down the dark street. The smell of food grows stronger, along with other smells that tickle my senses. Wood smoke. Laundry detergent. Sweat and soap. And then the smells are accompanied by sound. Laughing. Singing. Talking. A dog barking.

  Suddenly something different floats on the air, and my heart skips a beat. I press my hands to my ears, wondering if my imagination is going wild, wondering if the sound I hear is trapped in my head. But with pressure on my ears, the melody dies. When I uncover my ears, the music returns—Beethoven’s Seventh—the same song I heard in the dripping water as I fell asleep the night before. Only this time, instead of remembering the tune as I played it on the piano, guitar strings sing the melody.

  We round the corner of a building and halt, and my eyes grow wide. A wall, taller than all of the factories we just passed, juts up from the sidewalk on the other side of the street, so long it disappears into the night. At the base of the wall sits a village, or rather a camp, swarming with men in brown uniforms. Fires glow orange, making shadows dance on the wall, revealing triangular tents, releasing the scent of cooking meat, illuminating a lone man playing the guitar—playing the song I played a thousand times on the piano before … before everything changed. A spit of meat roasts above the guitar player’s fire, and the music combined with the food … he’s like the pied piper. And I’m a rat. Without thinking, I take a step forward.

  “Idiot! You don’t even know the plan yet!” Arrin grabs my hand and stops me. She pulls me toward her and puts her mouth to my ear, explaining how I’m going to pay her back. With each whispered word, my pulse beats a little faster and my palms begin to sweat. When she stops speaking, I stare at her like she’s insane. And judging by the look in her eye, maybe she is.

  “Are you serious?” I whisper, glancing at the camp again.

  She nods. I look past the men in brown, past the tents and campfires, to two people slouching at the wall’s base, their backs pressed against it. One is small, a pile of bones in a heap of grimy clothes, the other is slightly bigger, a little more filled out but still scrawny. Firelight glints off metal shackles encasing the lower halves of their arms. I look at the men in brown again and realize almost every single one of them holds a gun.

  “What if they shoot me?” I ask.

  “Then you won’t owe me anymore. We’ll be even,” she says.

  I try to take a step away, but she grabs my wrist in an iron-strong hand. “No. I’m not doing that,” I say. “I’ll find another way to pay you—” The tip of Arrin’s knife finds the soft flesh under my chin and all I can think is carotid artery. I don’t dare breathe.

  “You can die right now, Fo, or you can help me and have a chance to live,” she warns, her voice a low growl.

  Slowly, I put my hand on her wrist, soft and gentle, like I’m trying to pet a dog that wants to bite me. She pushes the knife a little harder so the tip digs into my skin, and I know if I’m not careful, she’ll kill me right here, right now. Releasing her wrist, my hands slowly go up in surrender. She moves the knife so it no longer touches my skin, but barely.

  “So will you help me or not?” she asks.

  “I’ll do it,” I whisper, my voice trembling. She nods and tucks the knife into a fold of her clothes. I turn and stare at the camp, take a deep breath, possibly my last, and take a step forward.

  “Fo,” Arrin says. I jolt to a startled stop and look at her. “If they catch you, say you’re a boy. Since you don’t have the mark, they’ll probably let you go. Might even let you inside the wall if you qualify. ”

  I glance at the back of my right hand. The mark is still covered, but by blood and grime as much as makeup. I run my ice-cold hands through my butchered hair and sigh.

  “Which one’s your brother?” I ask, looking at the two handcuffed people with their backs against the wall.

  “The little one. He’s eleven. ”

  “Wait. Eleven? I thought you said he was nine. ”

  She gnaws the skin on the side of her thumb and then swallows. “You obviously need to clean the wax out of your ears,” she retorts. “What are you waiting for?”

  I clench my teeth and take a deep breath, brace myself to run and—

  “Fo?”

  I jump again and glare at Arrin. “What?”

  “Thanks. ”

  I nod, like I had a choice in the matter. Facing the camp, I dig my toes into the pavement. And I sprint.

  Chapter 7

  The funny thing is, what I am doing right now is exactly what I wanted to do the minute I saw the camp. In spite of the fact that I’m starving, my legs are strong and swift, stronger than they’ve been since the moment I awoke in my bed.

  Reaching the closest fire, I tear a spit of meat out of a stunned militia man’s hands and keep running. At the second fire, I do the same … take the meat and run. Without slowing my pace, I press the hot meat to my mouth, burning my tongue and gums as my teeth tear into it, and swallow without chewing. And then I am passing the third fire. And people are yelling, swarming, aiming guns at me. A siren blares.

  Before I reach the fourth fire, something catches my ankle and I crash to the ground in a heap of hot meat and dust. I don’t care. I’ve created the distraction Arrin wanted, and now I can eat. With my eyes staring at the star-freckled sky, I gnaw half-cooked meat, letting the grease and blood coat my fingers, throat, cheeks. Until someone tears it from my hands.

  I scramble to my feet and try to run, but a shock of pain freezes my muscles and shatters my world.
My legs forget how to work, and I crumple to the ground as spasms rack my body. Someone yanks my hands behind my back and slings cool metal around my forearms. I blink through a haze of pain and find myself staring at the wall and a frenzy of men in brown. They’re running around like headless chickens, yelling, swinging their guns. And then I see Arrin and her little brother, tiny even compared to her, leaping over the fire at the farthest edge of the camp. The smaller shadow stumbles and Arrin grabs his shoulders to steady him. They keep running, are almost to the street. Nearly touching freedom.

  “Stop them!” a man bellows. “He’s a Level Three on the verge of turning!”

  Silence smothers the camp, like being dunked under water … one minute there’s noise; the next, nothing. Every single militia man has his gun to his shoulder and is taking aim. The night explodes in gunfire. Arrin’s brother just explodes.

  My jaw drops and I’m too stunned to breathe—almost forget that my muscles are twitching with the aftermath of pain. The guns are lowered and sound returns to the camp. The militia pat each other on the backs, chuckling, sighing with relief. I press the balls of my hands against my eyes and try to forget the last image I have of Arrin’s brother, silently cursing the meat in my stomach that is about to come up.

  Hands grip my biceps and I’m yanked to my feet.

  “What’ve we got?” a deep, gravelly voice asks. A gray-haired man steps in front of me and frowns.

  “By the smell of it, we’ve got us another Fec, sir. ”

  “What level?” the man with gray hair asks.

  Someone behind me turns over my right hand. My legs tremble, and it has nothing to do with being Tasered a moment before.

  “Huh. No level. He’s clean. ” I can hear the wonder in his voice. My shoulders sag and my legs stabilize.

  Gray Hair’s eyebrows shoot up. “You sure? I thought all Fecs were marked. Why else would they hide down there?”

  The man behind me fiddles with my hand again, rubbing the spot where the tattoo is.
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