We held on so long the rising tide didn’t lift us;
only in drowning did we let go
~THE WRITINGS OF VISHA
FROM THE MUTANTS’ ALMANAC
Zander can feel himself being rolled over; he reaches out and bumps his arm against the pile wall. When he opens his eyes, Kensy is staring down at him.
“The Station trucks are here!” She huffs, her breath warming his cheeks.
He blinks until his little sister comes into focus. The one person he relies on to be steady looks at him, eyes wet and unsettled.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” He rubs his elbow.
“Just come on already!” Kensy pushes herself up and turns away. The morning light flashes into the room as she slips out of the curtain door.
He pulls his shirt on and stumbles after her into the courtyard of their circle. She’s through the entrance already so Zander takes a shortcut, leaping over the smoky fire pit and squeezing through the gap in the wall.
Their circle is the first one in a row of walled-off camps lined up against the hills. He spots Kensy sprinting across the flats toward the Station trucks; when she glances back, he can tell she’s annoyed with him.
He takes off after her. The yellowy brown dirt of the Wastelands kicks up around him as his feet dig into the cracked earth. It feels good to run. His senses tingle when he hears the wind howl in his ears.
Zander wants to catch her before they get to the line but it’s not as easy as he thought. Closing his mouth to hide his long teeth and keep his tongue from hanging out, he tries to avoid the attention of the Station guard who has been watching him most of the way. As a mutant you get used to the humans reacting to you strangely. Finally, the Station guard looks away, his lip turned up in disgust.
The procession of mutants is getting longer as he arrives and slips in just behind his sister.
“Why do you sleep so deep?” Kensy pulls him next to her. “It scares me.”
“It does?” Zander is caught off guard by how pale she is.
“I thought it was a cleansing.” Her voice is shaky as she tries to catch her breath.
“Sorry.” He shrugs. “I can’t help it sometimes.”
Kensy leans out onto her toes to see how long the line is. “We might make it,” she sighs.
“You should have left me back there.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Next time it happens. Promise me.” Zander can see her rib cage through her shirt: she’s starving and he can’t bear to watch it. “I can find you in line when I get up.”
“When mutants cut, guards kill. You know that.”
Kensy’s right but he also knows she needs to get something in her stomach soon. The last thing they ate was a tile so mutated she couldn’t even keep it down. They say the Wastelands were filled with lots of animals before the cleanse and only the reptiles survived. They changed to calling them tiles once the mutation happened. This one had skin that was tough to chew, yet the meat inside was gooey. They should have left it alone when they saw its front legs were missing.
“I just worry about you, that’s all.” Zander shakes his head, remembering the weird taste it left in his mouth.
Kensy shivers. The desert floor of the flats is still radiating the cold of last night. The sun creeps up slowly to warm it. He stares at her face and her humanlike features, not the wide eye sockets and long teeth most mutants have. If only she were bigger.
“Roller tryouts are almost here. You’ve got to go this year.” Kensy glances at him like she knows what he’s thinking.
“Yes, just you, Zander!” Kensy grabs his shoulder to make him face her. “You have to get out of here.”
Even though she’s so small, he would be lost if she weren’t with him. With another cleanse coming, he might never see her again either way.
“I wonder how many Wastelanders will get into the league this year.”
“Not enough,” Kensy replies as the line moves.
They try to stay close together as the other mutants bump them from behind. When Zander looks back, the line is still growing. Latecomers joining the queue, even though they must know they won’t make it. Behind them the sun blurs through the hazy air as it lifts above the horizon. The faint outline is barely visible through the thickness of the gray sky. A plume of dust floats up as a pack of mutants push past the end of the line. When they get closer, he can see who it is.
“The Five Stars.” Zander’s skin crawls.
Blaze leads the way and the other four follow him like an angry shadow. The mutants in line give them room as they push by.
“What are they up to now?” he asks.
“I don’t want to know.”
They call themselves the Five Stars because they think they will all make the league this year. They’re probably right. They’ve all got the size and strength. It’s hard to picture his fourteen year old sister going up against them but what choice do they have?
Zander can feel them staring his way and pretends not to notice. They bump each other as they drift closer to the food line, bouncing off the other Wastelanders. Blaze gets shoved right into him, his massive shoulder almost knocking Zander over.
As the line spreads, Blaze slips in front of Kensy and then glances around for the Station guards. His charcoal-colored eyes, blood-scratched and hollow. They’re about the same height, but Blaze is almost twice his size otherwise.
“Don’t say a word.” Blaze pushes his dark hair back off his knotted forehead. His ragged mouth hangs open, revealing teeth that look like they’re in a battle to climb out.
“Okay.” Zander turns away. He can see two other Five Stars, Fins and Bug-Eye, slip into the line as well. He wants to tell them how stupid that is, but there’s no point; any more commotion could get them all killed.
You can tell the mutants who were raised without any parents around. When the community chooses a name, it’s always focused on your worst feature. He studies the ridge down the center of Fins’s head: it’s barely noticeable under the tangle of straw-like brown hair.
At the front of the line Blaze is handed a bowl of Station mush. As he licks his lips, his tongue looks like it’s getting scratched by his long teeth. Kensy stands behind him and leans in as they hand her the next bowl.
Zander feels a surge of relief knowing they’ll finally get something to eat. As he moves to the front of the line, the Station guard stands in his way, not moving: the same one from earlier. Zander looks to see if there is still something in the pot.
“Forget it, freak!” He closes the lid before Zander can get close enough to peek inside.
It’s hard to figure out why this guard has singled him out but he keeps moving. Kensy grabs his hand and pulls him away, trying to get him to follow her. They enter the sectioned-off eating area together.
“What are you doing?” Zander asks when he realizes where they’re going.
“Quiet, just come.” She’s strong when she wants to be and she drags him to a corner, dropping to the ground and pulling him down with her. “A guardian is allowed.”
“Yeah, but you know how the Station is! This is really risky.” Zander’s neck feels tense as he looks around.
“At this point, what do we have to lose?” She takes a bite and hands him the bowl. They take turns with the spoon.
As they’re eating, Zander can feel Blaze watching him. Wanting to recruit him into the Five Stars. The answer is no, of course, but he’s a little worried Blaze is not going to let it go.
They finish the last bit and head out of the secured area. Blaze looks like he’s rushing to finish up as well.
“Let’s get out of here,” Zander says.
Kensy nods and they take off running toward the circle. Zander slows a little so they can stay side by side. Up ahead a tile sees them coming and scurries back into its hole. This one has dusty skin. They’re ugly animals, but the meat doesn’t taste bad. Most of the time anyway. Zander wants to stop to catch it, but he’d rather get home.
Kensy jumps past him as they squeeze through the entrance of their circle and just about trips over Dolmo. He squats with his arms around his hairy legs, looking up with a nod and then back to staring at the fire. It’s his turn to guard the entrance, which means he probably missed the food line.
They move past him and into their dwelling. A cramped room with pile walls on four sides. They’ve been building it up out of scrap pieces of junk metal and rocks. Anything you can’t burn.
“Did you see that tile?” Kensy asks.
“Yeah, now I know where his hole is.”
“You going back?”
Zander shakes his head. “No, I’ve got something else to do.”
“It feels good to finally eat something.” Kensy kneels down to sit on her mat.
“If we could grow food like they used to, I’d eat every day.”
“Me too.” Zander scratches his head as he looks around for the tile trap.
Kensy watches him as he rifles through the blankets in the corner of the room.
“I think another cleansing is coming soon,” she says. “This is the longest the Station has starved us in a while.”
“That’s why we should get out of here!” He stops to glance over. “It’s been five years since Mom died. Maybe it’s time.”
Kensy locks her eyes on him. Zander stares back but it’s like she doesn’t even see him. She shakes her head slightly while she processes something. He looks away and starts searching for the trap again.
“Okay, Zander, tell me how it works.”
“What? The league?”
He raises an eyebrow. She knows how it works already but maybe this means she’s finally considering it?
“The Skid Mark League has tryouts once a year. Wastelanders strap a wheel to each leg and go to the city where humans live, Westport. Only the top two or three hundred qualify.”
“Out of how many?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Anyway, after we qualify, we’ll need to form into a team of five. If our team wins the league, they set us free!”
“I bet you would qualify easily.”
“We would qualify, you mean.” His eyes open up, exposing the white parts.
Kensy’s glance shifts away from his. “We both know how low my chances are.”
“Not if I help you! We can help each other!”
“What’s the point though? If I somehow qualify, I’ll hold you back. You need a team of real rollers.”
“I’m not going without you.”
Kensy doesn’t reply. She just sits there staring at the ground again.
* * *
It seems quiet when Zander leaves the circle. It’s not safe to linger in the flats alone, so he moves quickly. He takes the long way, avoiding the travelers’ camps on the south side of the community.
Being a wheelman is the best business you can have. And every community has at least one. He’s hoping to catch the trader in a good mood, but when he reaches the wheelman’s shop there’s a thick-armed mutant guarding the doorway.
Zander tries to get around him but he’s not moving.
“Zander?” the wheelman asks, eyeing him from behind the counter.
“Yeah, can I come in?”
The wheelman is old by mutant standards. He must be in his late twenties by now. His nose looks more crooked than usual; it distracts from his watchful eyes. The other guard steps away from the wall and grabs Zander’s bag to look inside. He rummages through it and hands it back.
“Is anyone in the flats behind you?” the wheelman grunts.
“No.” Zander shrugs.
“Alright, enter then.”
Zander steps up to the counter and empties his bag out.
The wheelman nods. “A tile trap?”
“Yep. I need wheels for my sister,” Zander says.
“I need wheels for Kensy.”
“No.” The wheelman pushes the trap away. “It’s a waste of time. She’ll never get in.”
“How do you know?” Zander asks, surprised, wondering why it would matter to him anyway.
“No girl is strong enough, especially one like Kensy.”
“What do you care? Are you going to trade me for some wheels or not?” Zander can hear the edge in his own voice.
“No.” The wheelman steps back from the counter and tips his head to the guards.
“If not her then what about me? I need a better set. Can you at least sell me something?” Zander feels the fingers wrapping around his arms as he gets pulled away.
“Of course, that’s different.” The old mutant snorts, somehow pleased with himself. He holds up his hand and the guards slink back toward the wall.
It takes the wheelman a few minutes to sift through his shelves. When he returns, he’s carrying a worn set of wheels. “I have just the thing,” he says, setting them down.
Zander looks at the wheels and picks one up. It’s only about ten inches in diameter with a metal stirrup that goes under the foot and two straps that cinch around the ankle. It doesn’t seem to match the other one in the set. He gives it a spin with his finger. It rotates only a couple of times before coming to a abrupt stop.
“I can’t use these! You’re kidding me, right?” Zander asks.
“That’s all I’ve got. Take it or leave it.” The wheelman shrugs.
“Forget it then. I can do better dealing in the flats.”
Zander knows it’s not worth fighting with the wheelman. He snatches his trap off the counter.
“It’s up to you, but the flats aren’t safe.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Zander pushes past the guard and out of the shop.
If he’s going to go near the Five Stars camp, he needs to approach it quietly. Fins has extra wheels and as long as Blaze isn’t there, he might make a deal.
He steps over the ruts left on the desert floor by the Station trucks; the scent of exhaust still lingers on the breeze. There’s a small rise to cross and then it drops into the lowlands of the flats. The Five Stars camp is big but with only five members left, it’s not really considered a circle anymore. It sits between two smaller camps. He moves by the first one, staying in the shadows so he can pass unnoticed. As he gets closer, the Five Star camp looks empty. Maybe he’ll get lucky.
He calls out as he enters the opening in the stone wall. “Fins, you in here?”
When no one answers, he moves toward the tilting rectangular shelter where Blaze sleeps and sneaks through the doorway before he can change his mind. Inside the room there’s a strange scent of sweat and tires; junk is piled everywhere. He stops as the mutants in the next camp get loud. When the yelling fades again, he goes back to searching, his armpits getting damp. There doesn’t seem to be anything of value, but something tucked into the corner catches his eye. The glint of brushed metal behind a rolled-up mat. He pulls it away to find a pair of original thirteen-inch Bishops, the 600 series. The best wheels you can get in the Wastelands. He snaps them up and shoves them into his bag. His heart is beating fast as he hurries back into the flats.
“Now we’re even, Blaze.” Zander glances over his shoulder as he laughs to himself, maybe a little too loud.
“What did you just say?” Fins’s voice appears out of nowhere.
Zander freezes. Fins, Lump, Ratzy, and Bug-Eye from the Five Stars are coming up fast.
“Hey, Fins, I was trying to find you.” Zander’s shirt is suddenly soaking wet. “Do you still have those extra wheels you want to get rid of?”
“Why, what do you got?” Fins asks, holding the others back.
“A tile trap.” Zander lifts it out of his bag. The jaws of the trap dig into his hand.
Fins shakes his head. “We’re leaving in two days. We don’t need that.”
“You can catch food all the way to Westport.”
As Fins thinks it over, Zander studies his face, trying to figure out what he’s become. Fins’s teeth have grown so long he can’t even fully close his mouth anymore. He used to live in their circle once and they were friends then, but it’s been a long time. His eyes lock onto Zander’s for a moment and there’s a glimmer of recognition.
“That’s not a bad idea. Wait here.” Fins nods.
The four mutants head into the camp together. Zander looks around for Blaze, his heart still beating fast.
A short time later, Fins returns by himself, holding some very used but decent looking twelve-inch generics. “Are you crazy?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Just get out of here!” Fins tosses the wheels at Zander’s feet and waves him away.
“Thanks, I owe you.” Zander reaches for the trap from his bag. The metal base hooks the stirrup of one of the Bishops; the wheel flashes into the open for a moment. He shakes it loose and back into his bag. If Fins noticed, he doesn’t say anything. The gangly mutant snatches the trap from Zander’s hand and hurries away.
Zander looks around again to make sure he’s alone. Then he lets out a breath and picks the wheels up off the ground.
* * *
Zander has some good memories from when Fins was in their circle. He really liked him back then. A circle is like a mutant’s family, even if no one is related. A collective of cleanse survivors banding together to make something of a home. Zander knows it’s a miracle he still has his sister with him. If they both don’t make it into the league, the chances of them staying together are over.
He holds the bag out and uses it to push the curtain aside and enter their room. Inside he finds Kensy reading a book.
“Animal Farm again?” He notices the dog-eared and crumbling cover.
“Well, we only have two books left, so there’s not a lot of choices.” Kensy sets it down and glances at his bag.
“Look what I got.” Zander dumps the two sets of wheels on the ground and steps back.
Kensy’s eyes widen.
“Wow, how did you get those?”
“I guess I’m a natural negotiator. So now you have to come, right?”
She looks up at him with concern. He tries to keep smiling anyway, and after a moment she gives him a half smile back.
“Okay, Zander, I’ll come if that’s what you really want.” She picks up one of the Bishops and rolls it against her leg.
“That’s the spirit! I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
“Oh, I’ll let you down alright!” Kensy holds the wheel up. “As soon as we’re on the track. You just don’t want to believe it.”
“I sure don’t!” Zander reaches out and snatches the wheel back from her. “So, you’re coming, right?”
“Yes, I guess so …” Her voice trails off.
“Listen, the journey to Westport takes about three days if we walk, and it will tear up our wheels if we roll there. I would like to stop and see Rance on the way if we can,” he says.
“Do you even know where he lives?”
“I think so. I looked at a map of the Drylands, and it’s not that far out of the way from where we’re going.”
Zander squats down to search through his pile of papers. “Do you remember him?”
“A little bit. I was pretty young when he left. Why do you want to see him?”
“I think he could be part of our team. I remember he was tough, and we need people we can trust.”
Kensy looks surprised by this. “You trust him?”
“Yeah, as much as anyone.”
“Why would he join us?” Kensy asks.
“He was part of our circle once.”
“But he left,” she says.
“A mutant’s fate is unspoken, we all fade in time, but the circle remains unbroken.”