I walk toward the bunk at the back, lift my small backpack off it, and sling it over my shoulder. “I’m heading out.”
“Did you hear what I said about the PSFs, kid?” she asked, her gaze drifting back down to the TV. Her voice getting real, real small.
“Did you hear what I told you the last ten thousand times you brought it up?” I said, hating that anger is winning again. “They won’t take me. The National Guard, either.”
I think she’s hoping they’ll get desperate enough eventually to want me. But the past five times I’ve met with the recruiter, they’ve told me the knee I blew out playing soccer, and the screws that the doctors put in to reconstruct it, disqualify me. I’ve tried everything—forging paperwork, trying to apply in another county. It doesn’t work. They know that people want in—it’s the only guaranteed paycheck left in this country. You serve your four years in hell and you get a check each and every month.
“All your friends, though,” she says, “can’t they help you get in?”
I haven’t heard from them in four years, since they went into service. Apparently you put on the uniform and you get sucked into some kind of black hole. The only reason any of us know they’re alive is that the government keeps cutting these checks and sending them home to their families, keeps sending a few extra cans in each of their ration boxes.
“I’m leaving,” I say, tightening my grip on my backpack. My keys jangle in my pocket as I move, loud enough for her to look up again.
“What did you do?” she demands, like she has any right to. “You took that college money? You bought that truck?”
I laugh. Really, truly laugh. Eight hundred bucks isn’t enough even to think about college, never mind apply. It was expensive before; now it’s just stupidly expensive. Not to mention there’re only a few universities left. Northern Arizona shut down, the University of Arizona shut down, most of the New Mexico and Utah schools, too. There are some state schools still open in California, I think, and one of the University of Texas campuses. I’d be okay in Texas. I’m not delusional enough to think I could afford one of the few fancy private schools back east, like Harvard.
Two freaks are really all I need. If it turns out I’m good at this, then great. I’ll save what I get from freaks three, four, and five. The real problem is Mom and the rest of the people in this town don’t think big. They’re the kind of folks who are too satisfied with the small hand life’s dealt to think that a bigger pot might be out there.
They can’t see I’m investing in my future. They’ve already invested too much in this town.
“You’re a damn fool,” she whispers as I kick the door open. “You’ll be back. You have no idea how to take care of yourself, kid. When this blows up in your face, don’t come dragging your ass back here!” And when that doesn’t work, she gets mean. “You’re a goddamn fool, and you’ll end up just like your daddy.”
She trails me the entire way back to my truck, shouting whatever nasty word her mind can drum up fast enough. She knows the truth as well as I do: that I’ve been taking care of her all this time, and without me, she’s not going to last.
And I don’t care. I really don’t. I haven’t had a parent since Dad blew out the back of his skull.
All that spewing draws eyes and interest from the sea of dirty silver trailers around us. Good. I want them to see I’m leaving. I want them to know I did what no one else could. They can tell the story to their neighbors, spread it around town in whispers of awe. The last sight of me they’ll have is the back of my head as I’m driving away. When they talk about me years from now, only one thing they say will really matter.
I got out.
AFTER two weeks of hustling up and down the I-17, busting my ass to get my first score, I’m forced to admit that at least one thing Hutch said was true: the other skip tracers have overhunted these freaks to the point of extinction.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect to walk up to a tree, shake it, and have a few freaks come tumbling out. I got the sense years ago that the ones who dodged the rehab camp pickups were few and far between. It’s just simple statistics. When you lose 98 percent of a population and then that remaining 2 percent is divided 75 percent in camps to 25 percent on the run, you’re…working with a smaller number.
A real small number.
I slam the door to my room behind me, ignoring the dirty look I get from the old lady who runs the place. She’s outside monitoring the water meters, making sure none of us are going over our allotted amount, which isn’t that much given that we’re only paying fifty bucks a week to stay in this place. Her two middle-aged sons help her manage the riffraff that’s always blowing into and out of her joint; they collect the rent and make sure nobody’s trying to turn tricks or sell something they shouldn’t be selling at a proper business establishment. The sign outside says this place is a motel, but they’ve been running it like short-stay apartments ever since the economy crashed.
The motel was built in the 1960s and clearly hasn’t been renovated since then. It’s a two-story dirt-brown complex stripped down to the bare necessities, with a few pots of dying flowers scattered around to freshen the place up. But it’s so damn hot and dry this summer, even up in Cottonwood, these violets never stood a chance.
“You coming back to pay for your two weeks?” the old lady calls as I unlock the truck. Her name is Beverly, but she wears her dead husband’s old bowling shirt day in and day out, and his name, according to the embroidery, was Phil. So naturally my brain calls her Phyllis.
“I’ll be back tonight,” I tell her. I’ll have to be. Cottonwood is on the safer side and pretty rural, but Phyllis is so damn cutthroat about her profit that I wouldn’t put it past her to throw me out and bring another person in if she doesn’t have the cash in hand by sundown. Every once in a while I see her eyeing me, and I worry that she has some kind of freak ability of her own to tell that my wallet is getting down to nothing.
I give her a friendly wave as I pull away, then drop all but one finger as she turns back to her work.
Nice. Sticking it to the old lady.
I’m not stupid. I saved enough money to survive until I got through the first score, provided that first score came within a month or two. The thing I didn’t exactly think through was how I was going to start looking. Hutch gave me his worn FUGITIVE PSI RECOVERY AGENT manual to use, but he sold all the tech that came with it for beer money when he got back to Flagstaff. That’s the shittiest part of trying to get started: you have to find a kid and turn it in before you’re officially registered in the skip tracer system. Then they give you that tablet that’s hooked into their profile network. Then you can start earning points and moving up in the rankings. I read in the book that the more points you earn by adding sightings and good tips to the skip tracer network, the more access the government gives you to things like the Internet.