Ducking under a punch aimed at my nose, I scramble away from my assailant, catching my balance on the hard-packed dirt with the tips of my fingers. My free hand clutches a stolen bag of chips to my body, its protesting crinkles and crunches buried beneath the shouting of the kids hot on my heels. My legs burn with a fire I've never known before, taking flight with a new speed I've never had the urgency to unlock. Jumping away from a desperate, finger-spreading grasp at my jacket, I slide through a narrow passage of leaning steal, hoping to lose them.
This stupid clown crew of urchins has been on my trail for as long as I can remember. Apparently, slipping cans of peaches into my pockets and cutting off girls' hair in their sleep didn't earn me many friends. When I make it back out into the open, one of the younger boys spots me. Panicked, I crush the chips closer to my body and run in the opposite direction, ducking past clusters of confused adults.
"There she is!" he cries.
"'Scuse me!" I cry, pushing a woman aside and turning sharply to the left into a darker, quieter street. I'm stopped quite abruptly.
Choking, I squirm, digging my elbow back into the kid's ribcage. He laughs, dragging me further into the alleyway by the back of my collar. I kick at him and flail my arms, but it doesn't do me any good. Grunting, he throws me forward before a pair of dumpsters. I gasp for air, reaching up to touch my throbbing throat. The chips fall to the ground. Desperate, I reach to snatch them, but they're kicked away. A girl about my age crouches, grinning smugly.
"Hey, sweetums. What's up?" She rams the tip of her boot into my ribs and knocks me onto my back, pressing her shoe into my chest to slowly suffocate me. Panting, I scowl up at the sky, trying to devise a plan.
"Finally," another girl drawls, crossing her arms and shaking her head. Her obnoxiously pale hair catches the light and reveals the missing chunks I took my knife too. I can't help but laugh.
"What's so funny?" the girl above me demands, pushing down harder. I cough, trying to push her shoe off my chest.
"No can do." She glances at the boy and nods, pulling a dagger from her pocket. "You gotta pay."
"What're you doing?" I demand. My heart pounds even harder and I struggle again, scared.
"You stole," the boy shrugs, taking the knife from her hand and kneeling beside me. "Don't have time to do this right, so I think one finger will work, yeah?"
"What?" I wheeze, letting my head loll back and smack the dirt. No, no, no.
"Sounds good to me," the girl shrugs. "Besides, if we took the whole hand here, people'd see. Can't have that." She leans down and spits in my face, stomping on my hand when I lift it to hit her. I grit my teeth, screwing my eyes shut. Gods, that hurt.
"Keep quiet or we'll have to kill ya!" the younger girl cries.
I take a deep breath. Take it like a champ. It can't be that bad. The instant the dagger breaks my skin, I know that won't work.
"Hey!" the girl frees my chest to stand on my throat. "Shut up!" Choking, I try to wrestle free, tears streaking down my cheeks as the blade slices through my palm.
Suddenly, the girl's foot is off my throat and the knife's searing blade is removed from my skin. Gasping for air, I roll onto my elbow to see what's going on. A flurry of red streaks past and the boy doubles over, spitting scarlet saliva from his mouth. Who the hell…? The knife catches the light just before it's buried deep into the girl's throat. Startled, I stumble to my feet, watching with horror as her blood sprays onto the dirt, turning it to murky red mud.
Something jerks my elbow and I pull away, turning to see a scrawny skeleton of a boy staring back at me with bright eyes. After seeing what he just did, I should grab my chips and make a run for it.
Instead, I let him pull me on top of the dumpster and up the wall of the building, forgetting my food in my daze. When he runs, I follow, daring to look back. The younger girl already has a whole group of friends with her and they're coming fast. I turn back onto to stumble to a stop at the edge of the building.
"Jump!" he calls, sprinting past me and leaping the gap onto the next roof.
The people down below frown, looking up at the sky to see who just fly past. Left with little choice, I back up a few steps and take the leap of faith.
My arms just barely catch the cement edge and my stomach slams into the wall, knocking the air from my lungs. Quickly, the boy drags me up after him and we take off again. My body feels weightless as the adrenaline pumps through my veins. Exhilarating, almost. My jacket flaps around my arms as they pump harder and harder, forcing me to keep up with this mystery boy. This kid knows his stuff.
"Up," he commands, jerking his head toward the rusted ladder before us. I shake my head, shoving him.
"You first." I expected him to argue, to hit me, or even to leave me behind. Instead, he grins.
The sound of the hooting slum rats catches my ears and I huff.
As quickly as I can, I pull myself up the ladder and step onto the crumbling building. When the boy reaches me, he turns back and stomps on the ladder a few times. I frown, watching a particularly large boy sprinting toward it.
"What are you doing?!" I demand, tugging at his arm. "C'mon!"
He ignores me, giving a final three kicks before the old metal groans and snaps, sending the ladder to the ground with the chunk of rotting wood it was screwed to. He turns back to scan the skyline with a grin. His eyes are sharp, quick, perceptive. They illuminate like a light bulb and he hurries to the other side of the roof, unfazed when the concrete shifts beneath his feet. Who is this guy?
I pick my route carefully, stumbling over loose stones and crumbling cement. Hope no one lives here. He stoops down, jerking a thick black cable free and tying it around his narrow waist.
"What—" I start. He tugs it. Testing it. I shake my head, stepping back. The ground shifts beneath my feet and I shudder. "No, that won't hold!"
"Would you rather let them catch you?" he snaps, glancing over his shoulder at me irritably. "It'll get us away. Ain't gonna kill you."
I lunge forward, clinging to his shoulders and squeezing my eyes shut. When we start to swing, my stomach churns and I think I might be sick. Before I have time to realize where we're headed, we plummet toward the ground. This is it.
I land with a soft bounce, opening my eyes to realize I've landed on a smelly stack of old, discarded mattresses. The boy shoves me off his back and I land on my ass, watching him stand and dust his clothes off.
"How did you—"
"I saw 'em." He grabs my wrist and drags me to my feet. "C'mon; I don't live too far from here."
We run through the empty streets, watching the slum lights flicker on as the sun sinks below the wall that seals us inside this stupid steel can. The boy slows to a stop past the outskirts of the sector, glancing around before shoving a shrieking plate of iron to the side and slipping into a square hole in the side of an abandoned schoolhouse. I follow, pulling the "door" shut behind me. Carefully, I crawl into the dark underbelly of the building before pulling myself up onto the floor through a jagged hole in the wooden boards.
The boy kneels beside a messy pile of blankets, switching a lantern on. Curious, I walk around the room, taking it in. The musty scent is trapped by the chairs and desks that block every window and door and a pile of garbage has begun to erupt from another hole in the floor he tried to turn into a trashcan. On the opposite wall, there's a box of food, though its only contents are a bag of white rice, a pickle jar, and a packet of peanut butter crackers. A faint smile traces my lips. Evan used to live off those things. My blood runs cold when I hear a faint but familiar click.
"Who are you?" the boy demands. Slowly, I turn to face him, raising my hands by my head in surrender. I should've known…
"What are you doing?"
"Who are you?" he asks again, cocking his head to the side with a smug smile. I try to remain calm, but I can hardly breathe, and my bloody fingers are beginning to tremble.
"Look, I don't know where we are, but I can leave. Thank you for saving me, but I really—"
"Only gonna ask one more time." He motions toward the entrance with the gun before it training it back on my head. "Who's to say you won't come back and rob me blind?" Laughing to himself, he shakes his head. "Nah, don't work like that. Who are you?"
"My name's Kat." I swallow the lump in my throat and nod. "Kat."
"Kat who?" He starts to lower the gun and I breathe a sigh of relief.
"Who are you?" I demand, letting my hands drop and forcing myself to put up a brave face. No more. Please. His face cracks in a smile.
"Just got the one," he shrugs, cocky as ever. "So, is it 'Cat' with a 'c' or 'Kat' with a 'k?'" Tucking his gun into his waistband, he heads toward the food box, not afraid to keep his back to me. I've proven to be harmless enough.
"With a 'k.'" I frown at his back. The guy looks older than me by a few years; he's taller, and skinny, even for a slum kid.
"Alright Kat," he says, hitting the first letter of my name particularly hard. "Got any food on you?"
"Don't lie." He turns sharply, gun right back where it was moments ago. I freeze, my mind fumbling for the right words. Before I can speak, he laughs, throwing his head back and tossing the weapon onto his pile of blankets. "Kidding. It's empty."
"Not funny?" he teases, kneeling by the box. I scowl.
"No, not really."
"You're no fun." I flinch when something flies at my head. My hand reacts quickly, and I look down to see the peanut butter crackers. "Heard if you feed a dog enough, he'll be your friend. Maybe it works the same with rats."
"Gee, thanks," I huff.
I don't wait very long to eat them, though, starved. He unscrews the pickle jar and takes a bite that's hard enough to spray juice in my face from several feet away. Grinning as he chews with his mouth wide open, he tips the pickle in my direction.
"Welcome home, Kat."
Crinkling my nose, I go back to nibbling on the crackers, refusing to take my eyes off him for even a moment. Little did I know, this fiasco would serve as the catalyst for a friendship that would last for years to come.