“They’re running,” I yell at the men, throwing my arm out in their direction. The girls are trying for the shelter of the Tonto National Forest.
The men chase after them on foot, shooting me these looks like it’s my fault. I don’t know, maybe it is. Maybe I should be running after the freaks, too, see if I can swipe one of them for myself. There’s nothing in the handbook that says you can’t, or that you get docked points. It seems like it could be dangerous business to find yourself suddenly being hunted by the same people you just stole from.
But they could have other stuff I need.
I’m not proud of it, okay? But I go and look anyway, peering through the sun’s glare on the driver-side window to see if they left anything valuable lying out. There’s a small wad of money in one of the drink holders, but I don’t see any of their tech. Figures.
The door is unlocked, which pretty much makes the decision for me. I slide the money into my back pocket, giving a salute in their direction. They won’t miss it, I tell myself. They’re going to have thirty grand coming their way if they nab those girls. Those things.
The handbook tells you not to think of them like they’re actual humans. That’s easier after watching the psychic ninja jump-start that car and send it flying, but I still don’t know that I can follow the advice. One of the skip tracers they quoted said that he likes to think of them as dogs—puppies, really. Living creatures that aren’t like us but still have needs. I’ll start there. Puppies—no, puppies are too cute. I’ll stick with freaks.
And it’s the strangest thing, because as I walk by the flipped SUV, I swear I can hear a dog whimpering nearby. I tell myself to keep walking, to get the hell out of here before the beards make it back and notice what’s missing, but my eyes slide toward the dark figure in the SUV’s driver’s seat. With the glass blown out of the windshield, I can see the unnatural angle of the kid’s neck. His long dreads fall around the place where his head is jammed against the car’s roof, but they don’t cover the jagged shards of glass embedded in his throat. Blood is still spilling down over his chin, gliding over his dark skin, into his open, unblinking eyes.
Not even cold yet.
The body. The kid…the thing.
I remember being ten, bumming around behind Dad’s restaurant after school with two of my friends. One afternoon we pushed all the garbage cans onto their sides because one of us had the genius idea of jumping over them with our bikes like the guys we’d seen on MTV—one of those stupid shows. Only, when we turned the first one over, there was a dead cat behind it. I will never in my life forget that damn cat. The way its gray fur was matted, coated with blood, the back half of its body broken by what I’d guess was a car. The three of us, we just sat there staring at it, taking turns trying to get close to it without puking. For hours.
And that cat was the first thing I thought of later that night when I found Dad’s body.
What is it about horrible, violent things that capture us? I’d never seen a dead thing before that moment, but years later, it would be one funeral after another and everyone would want to know every detail about each one. The twenty-four-hour news stream would stop pretending like there were other stories to report. And all of us, we were hooked to the coverage of the hundreds, thousands, millions of deaths like junkies, waiting to see how bad it would get, drowning in it. And when the D.C. bombings happened, forget it. I stayed home from work for two weeks, overdosing on CNN.
There’s a second of silence before the pounding starts and a small, pale hand begins slamming against the back passenger window. I feel my legs moving, running, bringing me around to the other side of the SUV, where the doors are hanging open.
There’s a girl, maybe eleven years old at most, in the seat directly behind the driver, peering at me through the wreckage, her face streaked with blood. She’s hanging upside down, struggling with her seat belt. The driver’s seat looks almost broken in half, bowing back so that the small kid is pinned in place. For a second, I doubt my first impression and I think I’m looking at a boy. Her black hair is spiked out around her head like a pixie’s, and it takes me a moment longer than it probably should to realize she—it—is wearing a bright pink dress.
The seat belt’s jammed, I think. I’m dimly aware of my hand’s reaching toward her—it, dammit—and all of a sudden I’m gripping the strap myself, trying to rip out the buckle by force. I climb inside to go at it from a better angle, and her look of relief turns to one of irritation—like, Hey, ass**le, if that was ever going to work, would I still be sitting here?
Her face is pink with the blood rushing to it, but she managed to get her right leg free. She strains, stretching it out as far as it’ll go, using her toe to point at the dead kid in the front seat. At the knife strapped to his hip. Damn, I think. Why don’t I have a knife? And because she clearly thinks I’m an idiot, she makes a sawing motion with her hands against the part of the seat belt over her hips.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I mutter. I’m trying to ignore that voice in the back of my head, the one that sounds suspiciously like my dad. He’s asking, What are you doing? He’s pointing out, Stealing money is one thing, but if you think those are the kind of guys to let you get away with this…
Isn’t three enough for them, though? They have to be greedy and take four freaks in? I just need one. Just one to get this operation going. Aren’t they stupid for not checking to see if this freak was alive before they ran after the other ones? It seems like I was supposed to find her—it—like this one was meant for me. Somewhere deep inside, I know I’m right. I know I’m never going to have it this easy again. It’s a gift, and it’s meant for me, and I’m going to take it.
Those guys wouldn’t hesitate to take her from me. Of course, I can’t know either way, but who’s to say they wouldn’t just shoot me in the back and step over my corpse to get to her? Yeah.
I need this freak. I need food and gas and money to pay Phyllis so she can start hounding some other poor schmuck for his rent.
I’m going at the seat belt with everything I’ve got, and I still haven’t cut through it. The strap did a number on the girl; I can see the red welt forming where it locked across her neck as she was thrown forward.
“Stay still!” I snap, because she’s twisting and squirming like a fish in hand trying to get back to the water. Finally, the fabric frays and snaps altogether. The girl is slight enough to slide down from under the strap across her chest, falling onto the SUV’s crushed roof. She has to crawl through the broken section of the driver’s seat. I see her eyes start to drift toward the body there, and I don’t know, I don’t know why, but I don’t want her to see it.