“Come on, come on!” I hold both hands out to her and she practically slides right into them. She weighs next to nothing; she’s all fine, delicate bones and sweat and blood-slicked skin. I haul her out of the SUV, trying to crane my neck away from where she has her arms locked around it, almost like she’s going in for a big hug.
“Jesus, kid, stop—I’m not rescuing you!” I say. “Are you that stupid? Stop it!”
I try to force the image of her face out of my mind, to kill the corner of my heart where sympathy comes home to roost. Think of them like stray dogs, the handbook said. They have to be brought in, or put down if they exhibit too much fight.
The first kick to my crotch makes me see stars. The little feet in those stupid-ass pink tennis shoes are all of a sudden flying, beating against my chest and legs. I stumble forward, throwing both of us down onto the warm asphalt. She’s up and on her feet while I’m rolling around on the ground, holding my crotch, trying not to cry.
Shit—I need to get up, I need to get up, I need to—
I push myself onto my knees and try to lunge for her, but the freak is so damn pint-sized all she has to do is duck and my arms are cutting through air. I go lurching after her, thinking she’s going to try to lose me down the road, disappearing into the low, dry brush that dots the green valley.
Instead, she crashes into the skip tracers’ beige sedan, throwing both hands out against the hood. The whole car makes this low, whining sound, the way my middle school violin used to sound when it wasn’t tuned and I tried to drag the bow across it. I snag her around the waist, swinging her away. This time, I don’t make the same mistake. I throw her over my shoulder and she knows better than to fight back.
“Hey!” A shout slices through the silence, echoing down the open road. I spin around, searching for the source. One of the beards is running for us. There’s a flash of silver, like the light is giving me a wink. That’s where my brain goes. Not that it’s a gun, not that I should drop that kid and book it for my car, but Oh, look! A sparkle!
“Drop it!” he hollers.
The bullet slams into the warped frame of the SUV, making me jump. I’ve seen them—guns, I mean—before on TV, and in movies, and in games. But real guns, they’re loud. Angrier.
I can’t move. Physically cannot put one foot in front of the other. I can feel my brain racing in circles around the realization of what’s going to happen if I don’t get my ass in gear. Why don’t I have a gun? Why didn’t I save enough to buy one before I left?
It makes me feel stupid, like I’m some elementary school kid who shows up for varsity tryouts.
A sharp pain shoots through my lower back. The little girl jams her bony elbow against my kidney again. It hurts like a bitch, but I stumble forward, and once I’m moving, I don’t stop, not for anything. I can’t. The beard is right there. As I reach the truck, I see him stop and brace himself, and I know what that means even before he raises his arms and aims. I practically throw the girl into the truck’s cab and dive in after her. One-two-three bangs—Jesus, this guy is trying to kill me.
I’m trying to keep myself from shaking. I’m trying to keep from thinking about the freak thing buckling herself into the seat next to me. I’m trying to remember which pedal is gas and which is the brake, and all of a sudden we’re flying backward instead of forward. Bullets ping against the tailgate. In the rearview mirror, the beard has to dive to avoid being crushed under my wheels. Reality comes back like a blow to the head, and suddenly, I’m whipping the car around, shifting the gears. The truck squeals and moans at the pressure I’m putting on the gas, but it gets the job done. I watch the other beard run out of the charred trees, waving his arms through the air. The first one snags the rifle off his shoulder and brings it up to eye level, but we’re too far away. I finally let my eyes drop from the mirror and realize I’m driving down the middle of the road again.
We’re out of there.
I don’t know why the relief comes out as a laugh. This is zero percent funny. Zero percent. The gas light is glowing like a red demon and those guys have a car that’s about twenty years younger than mine, but as the minutes tick on, I realize they’re not following. They would have caught me by now.
Then I remember.
I glance to my right, at the kid—the freak sitting next to me staring out the window. There’s something almost…I don’t want to say that she looks broken, because I know she is. They all are; otherwise we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. It’s more that her face has gone completely blank, and she’s staring at the passing forest but not seeing it. The reflection I see in her window, with the blood caked beneath her nose and across her forehead, makes me feel like she’s kicking me all over again.
It is kicking me all over again. I can’t even get that part right. It is not human. It is a living creature with needs, but it is not one of us.
“Did you do something to their car?” I ask, surprised at how rough my voice sounds. I worry for a second I was somehow screaming without hearing or feeling it.
“That makes you what?” I almost don’t want to know, because I know the answer is not going to be Green. My luck is never, ever that good. I can barely keep the stupid color system straight. They tried to model it after the old terrorist warning scale. That whole threat level is orange, so you should feel above-average levels of fear that someone is going to blow up your plane. That system. I think Red is when the kid can explode things or start fires, Blue means they can move shit around, Yellow is…
Shit. Yellow is messing with electricity. Like frying cars. Holy shit.
“You’re Yellow?” I ask.
It’s only when she nods that I realize I haven’t heard a single word out of her.
“What? You too good to talk to me?”
She looks at me like, Give me a break, her dark eyebrows drawing sharply down.
“You can’t?” I press. “Won’t?”
She doesn’t answer and I have to tell myself to stop. This whole not-talking thing works for me. It’s easier to think of her as a freak if she can’t or won’t whine about being hungry or start screaming until her lungs burst. And anyway, I don’t care. I definitely do not care. Ten grand, sitting next to me.
“Any chance those guys can come after us?” I ask, because, in the end, that’s really all that matters.