“Do not eat your siblings. No hoarding.”
The cyborg rolled along, holding its laser rifle in its mechanical, two-fingered hands. It turned its box-shaped head from side to side as it slowly moved through the alley. “No hoarding. Violators will be Raised. Report any and all violations to the kingdom’s Police. Do not eat your siblings. No hoarding.” The message played on an endless loop, emanating from speakers hidden somewhere inside the ‘borg. It echoed throughout the small alley.
Pitcher looked over at his sister. She slept, snoring softly, undisturbed by the public service announcement. He wiped the sleep from his eyes and turned over, laying on his back and staring up into the foreboding blackness. A chilly breeze disturbed the blanket they used for a door. It fluttered.
Sighing, he got up. He went to the entryway. Crouched, he pushed the wool privacy flap aside and peered out into the night. The ‘borg turned the corner and moved along. The broken building across the alley reflected some of the moon’s light. Pitcher stepped out into the pocked alley, stretching.
NO HOARDING had been stenciled in hasty red paint on the side of the building, just above a rusted dumpster.
He jumped. A piercing, ear-shattering siren sliced through the still air. Pitcher tried to calm his nerves and still his heartbeat. Turning, he went back to his home, bending forward and calling for Sundew, his sister. “Wake up! They’re serving food,” he said.
What moments earlier had been a quiet, largely uninhabited swath of alley now crawled with kids, all of them rushing forward toward the mess tent. Rations were first-come, first-served, and the sparse offerings never lasted long.
Someone clapped him on the shoulder. Pitcher swiveled, balling up one fist. Then he laughed. He embraced the familiar figure. It was Ruger.
“Ready to get to work?” he asked.
“Oh, you know it, brother. Where’s everyone else?” Pitcher asked.
“We’ll figure it out. Let’s go,” Ruger said, already headed off, leading the way.
Pitcher cast a quick glance back toward his home, made of two old wooden fragments from billboards. He saw his sister emerging. He smiled at her, then took off to follow his friend.
Roughnecks didn’t have to worry about starving. Pitcher proudly served as a member of the crew.
Except during the Festival of Sales, everyone that wasn’t a Roughneck existed in a constant state of fear and weariness, hunger their only constant companion in the unceasing struggle. The children of Austin lived and died based on that siren. The Five Families provided the bare minimum of rations, and they punished anyone who dared try to hoard them severely.
The kids pushing and shoving, jostling for a better position closer to the front of the line all had that grim reality at the front of their minds. They might not eat again for a week if they didn’t secure one of the limited spots at the tables.
Pitcher didn’t like taking food from the other kids, but that’s how he protected his sister. Ruger had perfected the art and made it fun, so who was Pitcher to argue if he managed to stay alive and healthy in a world slowly rotting before his eyes?
He was upset.
Pitcher sat on the wet wooden bench, watching his friend as he paced back and forth in tight lines, pivoting abruptly at one point then racing back to the point where he’d begun. Ruger wore a scowl on his lean, chiseled face. His balled-up fists punched the air as he emphasized some point in his head.
White puffy clouds lazily sauntered through the azure skies above. The sun shone down on them. The light raced down from the heavens, glinting off the broken buildings and stinky water behind them. Pitcher raised a hand to shield his eyes from the harsh rays. A breeze crept past. It carried with it the rancid odors of the trash heaps scattered throughout the desolate cityscape.
“This… this Festival,” Ruger said. The emphasis on the last word came out laced with nuance and tightly controlled rage.
Pitcher remained quiet. He thought that festivals were supposed to be fun. And the two-week Festival of Sales offered a rare opportunity for everyone in Austin to have a good time. Or, maybe it might be better to say that if provided a chance for everyone in the cityscape to have less of a bad time. Pitcher cast a sideways, secretive glance at his friend, trying to gauge his body language. Ruger’s face had turned a peculiar shade of purple and his eyes had that hollow shine that told the story of the anger he always to seem to carry like a dagger just beneath his hard shell.
“How am I supposed to take the batheads’ things when they all have plenty?” Ruger fumed. He continued to walk in a line, pacing back and forth, turning violently and going back one way, only to do it again. “The dumb fart bubbles think this is their time. Their immunity. It is NOT,” he said. He laughed. A dangerous, sinister, ominous laugh that echoed through the small wooded park. A few birds screeched in protest and fled the refuge of their trees, racing through the crisp morning air to hide from that laugh.
Ruger made an angry gesture at the fowl as they flew away. Then he went back to pacing. “What do you think?” he asked.
Pitcher looked down. He felt his heart beat a little faster. His mouth went dry. He hated times like this. He didn’t want to say anything. He felt afraid. Any response he might give could set Ruger off. He tried to stall, acting as if he were thinking. But after a few long seconds, it became apparent that he’d have to conjure up something to say. “I think… I think you can still have fun,” Pitcher said. He didn’t look up.
He could feel Ruger’s intense, malevolent brown eyes fixed on him. Pitcher turned his head up and faced the bully that also was his friend. Or, at least as close as one might come to having a friend in Austin. He didn’t want to look at Ruger. But in times like these, if he didn’t, he’d probably be seen as weak or something. And the last thing you ever wanted to do when near this crude, angry young boy was display weakness. He’d kick you like he kicked the stray cats that roamed the cityscape.
“Fun? Fun?!” Ruger said. He kicked the dirt under his feet and spat. “Tell me, sweaty Mcbuttface, how am I supposed to have fun? In this period?” he asked.
Pitcher frowned. Wrinkles appeared in his forehead. He wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but he knew he needed to think quickly. “Find the stuff people enjoy the most. There’s plenty of food, but not everything is around in abundance.” Pitcher said. The words made him feel guilty when they escaped his lips. He hated seeing some of things his friend did. The pain he seemed to thoroughly enjoy inflicting. But, at the same time, he rationalized it away… because if Ruger were hurting other people, it meant he wasn’t hurting him. Or his sister.
Thinking of Sundew, his sister, Pitcher felt his heart again flutter in his chest. He briefly wondered what she was doing. Probably having a lot more fun than trying to console a monster distraught by the fact that starving children no longer had a lack of food with which to exploit.
Ruger sat down on the bench next to Pitcher. He placed a hand of Pitcher’s shoulder.
Pitcher tried not to jump. He barely succeeded. There was something gross and offensive about the boy, something that became almost possible to ignore when he touched you. Pitcher sometimes almost felt legitimately afraid that he might become infected with the boy’s toxicity just by absorbing his touch.
“You know, you’re not so bad, for someone that could have been hatched from botfly larvae.” Ruger said. He stood. Hands on his hips, he moved his tall, lean torso from side to side. “I came from a slave. I know my Origin Story. I feel sorry for you, Pitcher. I really do. But, if you don’t get sold, I’ll try to come back and help you out,” Ruger said.
Pitcher sighed. He hated it. He hated his friend for bringing it up. He felt embarrassed and angry at the hard reality. He knew he probably wouldn’t get sold. Which meant he’d just go back to the rough life of existing until the next Festival of Sales. “When do they start the Tests?” Pitcher asked.
“I think tomorrow. The Master of Ceremonies isn’t here yet. None of it can really start until then.” Ruger said.
“How do you know?” Pitcher asked. He almost raised a hand to his mouth to catch the words. He didn’t normally like to speak in the presence of this foul kid. But there was something about the whole ordeal, the Tests. They were steeped in mystery. Everyone talked about them. Everyone knew their importance. But no one really seemed to know much about them, other than that you needed to score really well if you wanted to get purchased.
And everyone wanted to get sold.
“Who cares, pencil neck? Come on. I bet we can find some cakes to steal. The ones with the raisins. Everyone likes those.” Ruger said. He began walking away.
Pitcher shivered. He almost didn’t get up to follow. As he walked, reaching out with one hand to push through a set of low-hanging branches, he looked over across the fetid water toward the pyramid. Many of the windows in the large building had been broken, but it still stood tall and proud, reaching toward the heavens and reflecting the brilliant sunlight. The tall tower across from it seemed in stark contrast, for it leaned to one side, parts of it caved in. They were the two largest buildings in Austin, with much of the rest crumbled and decayed.
He idly wondered if it were people like Ruger who’d been responsible for the Great War.
His thoughts and daydreaming were quickly cast aside, however. Ruger stumbled upon a group of four boys with long, dirty, disheveled hair. They were eating ice cream cones and laughing as they strolled along the cracked paved pathway. One of them, a sallow, gaunt redhead with huge saucers for eyes licked at the dripping bottom of his brown waffle cone, a smile across his face. They all wore filthy, tattered brown rags- like most of the kids in Austin.
The breeze reared its ugly head again, rushing past with an insistent buzz, strafing them. Pitcher felt a momentary sense of worry for the kids, not because of the imminent threat posed by Ruger, who became mad during the Festival because it was harder to inflict pain when everyone was happy, but because the weather was so cold.
Pitcher had read a book once that said that Austin had once been hot. Before the Great War. He didn’t read many books because Ruger thought books were dumb. So the ones he did sneak in under cover of darkness tended to stick with him.
Pitcher watched as Ruger relaxed. Pitcher tensed. He knew what was about to follow. He took no particular sense of enjoyment from bullying others. In fact, he actually hated it. But, he always found a way to justify it whenever he felt the first pangs of guilt. He saw following Ruger as a way of protecting Sundew, his sister, as well as himself. He knew he wasn’t as strong or as smart as the other boys. So he figured it was better to be part of the group doing the picking-on, rather than the larger group serving as prey.
Ruger crouched low, moving slowly, stealthily, concealed partly by the tall grasses beside the path. He turned slightly, an evil grin spread across his glowing face, and held up one slender finger to his thin lips. Shhhh. He waited a beat, then jumped out onto the path, intercepting the boys.
One of them ran. He dropped his ice cream cone- splat- onto the ground, forgetting it in his haste to retreat from the wrath of Ruger. Perhaps he recognized Ruger’s infamous face. Terror gripped many who knew of him. Those that had encountered him or his hectoring minions in the past…
Pitcher shrugged. A moment of regret flashed through his brain. Then it was gone, and he found himself running after the escapee. That’s what he was there for. That’s why Ruger didn’t bully him nearly as hard and allowed him to share in some of the ill-gotten spoils of his extortion efforts. Because he was loyal and unquestioning in his obedience. He did what Ruger wanted before he even knew he wanted it.
The kid ran fast.
Pitcher heard his heavy footfalls. He tried to control his breathing. His legs hurt, a burning sensation rippling through his aching muscles. He’d started running with little warning.
The kid seemed to know that he was being followed. He turned on the ignition, accelerating even as he turned. He moved in between trees and fallen signs. Debris from the Great War was everywhere, and it created a virtual obstacle course.
Pitcher was breathing hard. He pumped his legs, trying to keep up the pursuit.
The only thing that even kept him going was fear. He knew he’d have to give it his all. And even then, it might not be good enough. Ruger probably wouldn’t be too happy if Pitcher came back empty-handed.
He fought the blackness that closed in at the edges of his vision. He forced himself to run harder. His pulse pounded in his temples. His chest felt tight.
The boy he was chasing stumbled.
A downed cable or something hiding in plain sight had tripped him. He fell, crying out. His wounded whimpering, laced with the nagging knowledge of his imminent dread filled the still morning air.
Pitcher stopped. He stared at the boy. He looked back. The other boys were sitting on the ground, their hands covering their faces, the harangue of Ruger afflicting them. He reflected on that for a moment. That Ruger could inflict such terror and violence with mere words…
He turned back to his prey. The boy lying there on the ground, holding his leg. The kid hadn’t done anything wrong. Pitcher wanted to go back, tell Ruger some fairy tale about how the eloper had used some scheme or strategy to outwit him. Something, anything to avoid creating another victim for Ruger to add to his war chest.
Instead, Pitcher slowly walked up to the boy. He bent down and roughly grabbed him by the elbow, lifting him up. The poor, trembling kid didn’t protest, he just limply allowed himself to be led back into the belly of the beast.
Pitcher tensed his jaw. He forced himself into remaining stoic and silent. He led the boy by the arm, ignoring his whimpering and pain-laced grunts as he staggered back to his friends. Pitcher wanted to ease him down onto the ground, but he pushed him roughly forward when they got within distance of Ruger.
Pitcher knew he couldn’t show weakness. Not with Ruger. He felt ashamed. He hated Ruger and himself for betraying his own sense of values. He couldn’t say what he’d do if someone did this to Sundew. He’d go crazy.
But, no one would bully Sundew, because most people knew her brother, Pitcher, was part of Ruger’s Roughnecks. Their little gang prowled the edges of their starving cityscape, prey victimizing the lesser prey in the horrible circle of life after the Great War.
“Heh. Good job, Pitch. Hey, there, buddy…” Ruger said, squatting down to get eye-level with the newest addition to his carnival show of verbal abuse. “Little turd- sucking fart head wasn’t quick enough.” Ruger reached out and ran a hand across the boy’s face. Then he slapped the boy. THA-WACK.
Pitcher winced. He couldn’t help it.
The boy began to cry.
“What’s your name, my delicate little fart flower?” Ruger asked. Somehow, he kept his voice friendly, amicable. He sounded as if he were just having a nice, informal discussion with a friend.
Pitcher hated that he found this dichotomy- this difference- interesting. He thought there might be a lesson there. People tended to be taken off guard, put just a little bit off balance when you used that sort of tone in these contexts. Ruger really was a master manipulator.
“Wh…wh…why?” the boy asked, his words coming out between sobbing gasps.
“Well, my friend, I need to know who to report for hoarding.”
Pitcher’s heart again jumped. He inched forward. He felt his fist clenching. That was taking things too far. Hoarding?!
The Five Families Raised people for hoarding. It was the cardinal sin. Kids were often forced to watch as hoarders were fed alive to crows or burned to death. Outside of the Festival of Sales, hoarding was practically the only offense that would get you Raised. Sure, you could be flogged, beaten, all sorts of things… for almost nothing. But hoarding? The police would throw you from a bridge for keeping even a single crust of bread.
“Huh…huh…hoarding? Please! I… I… I’m not… huh... huh…hoarding. It’s… it’s… it’s the Festival of Sales,” the kid said.
Pitcher couldn’t take it. He could tolerate a lot. But threatening to have these kids Raised for crimes they did not commit…
“Ruger’s not a snitch. He’s joking,” Pitcher said. He trembled. His legs shook. He almost didn’t believe he’d uttered the words. His mouth felt dry.
He locked eyes with the bully. He stood his ground, crossing his arms across his chest. If it were to come to this, if he were to be expelled from the Roughnecks, at least he could go knowing he’d been sent away for doing what was right. Ruger knew his Origin Story. He was going to get sold, anyway. Pretty soon, he’d be gone, and there would be a new bully, anyway.
“Heh. What’s your name kid? I’m not a snitch. Ol’ Pitcher there has it right. I’m not going to turn you in for hoarding.” Ruger said. He stood up quickly and kicked the kid in the ribs. “Tell me your flippin’ name, kid. What is your flippin’ name?”
Pitcher knew then that he should not have spoken. He watched as Ruger mercilessly beat the anonymous boy. He understood that Ruger was acting out the aggression he wanted to direct toward him, for daring to challenge him. His authority was all he had, and Ruger defended his authority to beat up whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted with reckless abandon.
Pitcher wondered what Ruger would do when he was purchased. Pretty soon, he’d find out there were other people in the world. People who could beat him up without consequences. Pitcher smiled as he thought of this.
Pitcher turned, then. He turned and began walking away. He knew he couldn’t save those kids. But he didn’t want to stand idly by and watch their abuse and degradation, either. Passivity in the face of evil is complicity. Standing there and doing there to stop Ruger was just as bad as he himself doing the bullying. He felt sick to his stomach. He walked. He ignored the fierce yells of Ruger at his back.
In the back of his mind, he knew he’d suffer for walking away. But, taking a few punches felt like it would be infinitely better than the sinking guilt he felt gnawing at his insides.
Meandering through the cratered streets and litter-strewn alleys, navigating his way through and around large jagged piles of debris, Pitcher took in the world passing him by. He observed his surroundings.
The familiar stench of the cityscape still packed a punch. It was an invisible Ruger that stalked the air, bullying the senses. Rotting garbage, human waste, sweat, misery… it all resided in the perverse, pervasive stink that clogged the air of the cityscape. No one wanted to risk living in any of the remaining structures because rats and animals lived in there, scouring the damp darkness with their little razor teeth and beady eyes.
Even so, kids wore smiles and chattered in various huddles. They shared bits of food and laughed.
Pitcher saw a number of kids puking. They bent over, bulging faces tinted green, sweat coursing down their plumped-up foreheads, and vomited. Think, chunky brown geysers that splattered with heavy, wet thuds on the broken pavement. Almost invariably, as soon as they were done with their emesis, they’d wipe their face and return to whatever small group they’d been a part of, only to resume eating.
He understood the impulse.
After and before the Festival of Sale, hoarding was strictly prohibited. Children received their rations whenever the police or cyborgs brought them. Everyone would hear the siren, then move toward the pyramid by the river that wound its way through the Austin cityscape. The lines could be a humming, buzzing mass of angry competition, for often, the rations would run out halfway through.
Pitcher himself had rarely experienced the same level of hunger as these other children, because he was a Roughneck. Ruger never had to wait in line. He just waited for the others to emerge from it, and then stole whatever he felt he might want at the moment. He didn’t hoard his ill-gotten gains because he ate it, distributed it to his minions, or threw it away.
Truth was, Ruger just liked inflicting pain. That was what he enjoyed the most. Though he was physically stronger than most of the other boys simply because he had more food to eat.
Finally, after almost an hour’s worth of almost aimless walking, he found his way back to his little home. Home might be a grandiose term, however, for the place he shared with his sister was nothing more than two fragments of decayed billboards propped up against each other. They’d positioned themselves fairly close to the hub of the cityscape, so that Sundew could always get a good spot in the line.
They lived, slept, laughed, and cried all at the mercy of the siren. For 50 weeks out of the year, the whims of the siren dictated life. The siren’s loud clarion call meant resources. They’d been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs into running whenever they heard the sound.
Bending down, Pitcher frowned. His sister was not there. “She’s with Juneau.” he said. Juneau was her friend.
Pitcher looked around. No one was in this patch of alley. Glancing up at the sky, he saw that it remained clear. No sign of a storm. He smiled.
Walking back toward the larger street, he stared up at some of the buildings. The ones that remained mostly had large, gaping holes in them. Most had tended to slant toward the left as they crumbled, weakening with age. One of Pitcher’s favorite buildings to explore was the old domed one not too far away from the pyramid. There were still a good number of old, damp, musty books in there, all bound with thick leather covers that helped preserve the pages. The stuff inside was boring and confusing, but Juneau’s mom had been teaching him to read over the last few years.
Not too many people knew how. Pitcher didn’t tell too many people about the books, because they’d just use the paper for fuel. It got cold in the cityscape. Very cold. Frigid.
Pitcher usually told everyone that he’d seen ghosts in the domed building. That kept them away.
“Hey.” Pitcher said. He raised a hand and gave the secret signal to his fellow Roughneck: his index and middle fingers extended to the side, he pushed them together in a sort of cutting symbol.
“Pitch!” his friend said. He returned the symbol then rushed forward, embracing Pitcher with a hearty hug. “Hey, man. You better hurry. The cyborgs are dishing up warm apple pie and cider over in a tent by the tower.”
“Oh? Wow. That sounds good.” Pitcher said. He rubbed his chin with a finger and a thumb, pondering this new development. “Chainsaw, man, I think I’m going to have to pass. There will be plenty of grub. Festival lasts thirteen more days, my friend.”
Chainsaw nodded. He was one of the few boys that had facial hair, though it grew in in weird, stubbly black patches. “Yeah, man. Legit. That’s legit. I gotta go back, though, dude. The line there is lit, bro. And Adore is there, you know? That chick is savage. I need to try to get with her while I still can.” Chainsaw said. He pronounced the girl’s name ah-dor-eh. Chainsaw had had a crush on the girl for some time, but had never had much of a chance to pursue it. Only during the Festival of Sales could the kids of Austin pursue romantic interests.
“Okay.” Pitcher said. He smiled. He waited for Chainsaw to turn and leave. But Chainsaw lingered. He looked around, rocking back and forth. He wrung his hands on the bottom of his long brown shirt. The shirt didn’t have the holes many of the other kids’ garments did, but it was frayed and stained with crusted red stuff around the stretched-out neckline.
“What’s up?” Pitcher said. He wanted to head over to see if he could find Sundew. He didn’t want to remain standing here, listening to some sad rant about unrequited love. The last on thing on Pitcher’s mind was Adore or his Roughneck buddy’s passion for the girl. Truth be told, Pitcher didn’t feel so kind or friendly toward the Roughnecks at the moment. Most of them were bullies. But it wasn’t just that they were bullies- it was the fact that most of them seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Ruger, the Roughneck leader, was about to get sold and taken away by train, and then they’d all be left to start over, anyway.
“Hey, man. You seen Ruger?” Chainsaw asked.
“Why?” Pitcher asked. He tried not to sigh. Pitcher cast a few nervous glances around, trying to make sure some of the others weren’t nearby, hiding in the shadows and waiting to pounce. He thought it might be a bit paranoid to think that Ruger had already made it back this far, but Pitcher still felt himself growing afraid nonetheless.
“Well, man, do you think he’s going to get sold? The Tests… man, he knows his Origin Story,” Chainsaw said.
Pitcher relaxed. He forced himself to smile. He reached out and patted the other boy’s shoulder. Chainsaw was almost like a little brother to him. At 11, he was a year younger than Pitcher, and he often followed Pitcher’s lead. He wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the others in the crew. “I think you’ll be alright, either way. Why don’t you focus on chasing Adore. Try to think about how well you’re gonna do on those Tests. You’re going to nail that crap, bro,” Pitcher said.
“You really think so?” Chainsaw asked, his face undergoing a rapid, revolutionary transformation in the narrow span of a second. His face seemed to glow and his smile stretched from ear to ear.
Pitcher almost felt bad for telling him what surely was a lie.
The only people that seemed to do well in this rat trap were the Rugers of the world. They took and took and took, and then they got up and got out while the people they took from remained right where they were, stuck under the boot of the evils exploiting them. It was sad to think about, but it seemed too true to deny.
He nodded. Pitcher didn’t have the heart to break the ugly truth to the kid. Not now. Not when Adore and apple pie were waiting. “Yeah, man. You’ll probably get sold, dude. For sure,” he said.
Chainsaw laughed, nodded his head enthusiastically, and walked off without another word, his shoulders looser and his body showing the vibrant exuberance of youth.
Pitcher watched him go. He stood there for several seconds, looking at the receding frame of the boy. He wondered. He wondered why it all worked the way it did. How it worked. It seemed like there were far more of them, the kids of Austin, than the Five Families and all their henchmen had.
Then he shrugged. He didn’t want to be in this spot when Ruger did return. He turned and began walking toward Juneau’s home. She lived farther out, close to the domed building. Juneau’s brother had learned over time how to use a slingshot, and they ate a lot of birds that he caught. He’d always been seen as a little slow in the head, and most of the people whispered that it was because he’d drank the water from the river. Either way, they could afford to live farther away from all the other kids, who clustered and crammed themselves in near the siren. Pitcher liked to go over there sometimes for that reason- Juneau lived in a park, where it was quiet except for the animals that scurried about there.
Something else was there, though. There was another reason he liked going over to Juneau’s home. And it wasn’t the trees or the fact her mom had taught him to read.
Pitcher saw more kids vomiting. They all seemed to be overcome by a greedy sense of gluttony now that the cyborgs were out on every other corner passing out food. He tried to ignore them. But backed up against the faded murals and the shredded billboards, these people cramming calories into their faces with reckless abandon somehow seemed… pitiful. Soon, the Tests would start. Pitcher had already been through two sets of Tests, failing them both times. Both times, they’d been different, though the three sections were always the same: social, physical, academic.
Regardless of what the content of the Tests might be, people were going to need to be at their best if they wanted to be sold. That was the whole point of the Festival. It was a two-week celebration for the people lucky enough to be chosen for slavery. Everyone wanted to be purchased, because that meant a way out of Austin. It meant no more intermittent food disbursements. It meant you could sleep without having to wake up at obscene hours, existing at the cruel mercies of the siren. It meant no more drones or bullies, no more police who stalked the night with their drunken catcalls and dark misdeeds.
Stopping at the edge of the park, Pitcher paused to pick a flower. He found a pretty purple one. He knew purple was Juneau’s favorite color. She occasionally wore a ribbon in her long blonde hair that was purple. Pitcher wiped away the fuzz and put it in his pocket, careful to make sure it wasn’t in there too snugly. Then he ventured into the grasses and trees.
It felt almost like another world, here in the relative refuge of the park. The ambiance of the cityscape seemed somehow diminished, as if the trees absorbed it. The sanctity of the silence provided a sort of sanctuary from the constant, unceasing agony of Austin. Even in their own little home, they could almost always hear another group of children nearby, whispering or crying, conspiring or complaining. In the park, all of that seemed to fade away.
He found his sister there, sitting on a moist downed log with Juneau.
The two sat with their heads close together as if they were holding some sort of hushed vigil for a past they could only tangentially grasp through books and old photographs. Pitcher tried to sneak up on them, but snapped a branch underfoot as he approached. Sundew looked up, at first scowling at the intrusion, but then smiling when she realized it was only her brother.
Pitcher put on an embarrassed smile. To be fair, he wasn’t completely faking it. His heart jumped up and started hopping around in his chest as if had just gotten a brand-new pogo stick for the Festival. He always got a little excited, even giddy, around Juneau. He pulled the flower out of his pocket, looking down to make sure it hadn’t been destroyed in the short trek through the dense undergrowth and vegetation. He sighed, relieved. He held it out without saying a word. He didn’t trust his voice. It had started doing weird things lately, and he didn’t want it to crack right now.
“For me? You shouldn’t have, brother.” Sundew said, a mischievous smirk playing on her lips. She had light brown freckles that dotted the bridge of her nose and long brown hair that she kept in a single tight braid that hung sort of limply behind her. She possessed rather large, pale ears with a sort of pixie quality that made all of the Roughnecks want to make fun of her. Just because they didn’t when Pitcher was around didn’t mean anything.
Sundew got up, rushing toward him. Tall and skinny, with a rather bony frame, she seemed boyish in a way. She could be fast and rather athletic, too. She got to him before he could dodge her careening form, and he simply flexed his legs and absorbed her impulsive assault. Wrapping her long, thin arms around him, she hugged him. She smelled like lavender honey. Every year at Festival, she would get as much of the honey as she could.
“I got it for Juneau,” Pitcher said, pushing his sister away. Though she was older than him by two years, he still had trouble not seeing her as his little sister. She seemed so carefree and flirty that it always appeared she was a mere step away from some sort of catastrophic trouble. The rules outside of Festival weren’t myriad, but what guidelines there were were strictly enforced. The Five Families would Raise anyone in Austin for anything. The local outpost of police had sole authority to basically do as they pleased, and that extended to Raising.
She cast a weird, knowing look at him as she plucked the flower from his hand and took it over to the still quiet, somber form of Juneau. She handed it down to her, returning to her spot next to the girl.
“J here has… her mom is sick,” Sundew said. Her voice carried the inflection of somehow trying to hide the layers of pain they felt.
Juneau made no visible gestures to show she’d even heard them talking about her. However, she caressed the flower in her long, nimble fingers. She was almost completely different than Sundew in every way. Quiet and reserved, she always seemed to be thinking and observing the world around her. The beginning stages of puberty had struck, revealing gentle bulges underneath her drab beige shirts. Juneau wore her jet black hair down, parted in the middle. Short and a little chubby, she still had something… both exotic and pure about her.
“I’m… that’s terrible.” Pitcher said. And, indeed, it was terrible. Martha offered the rare vision of kindness in the vast and often inhospitable landscape that was Austin. The Great War had corrupted everything. For most of the year, everyone competed for the scarce resources. Kids fought with each other over a handful of clean water or a sliver of soap. Everyone watched each other closely while pretending as if they were too distraught to care, for there could be a cake or a reward for snitching on a hoarder.
Martha was the oldest person in Austin. Or, she was the oldest person Pitcher had ever encountered. And he’d encountered many people. Ruger always wanted to keep a firm grasp of who was in the cityscape. An accurate census was crucial to determining who could be stolen from. The Roughneck leader especially liked to be kept abreast of any older or sick residents, because they were the easiest to exploit.
Because she’d grown to earn such a status, Martha possessed a wealth of knowledge. She offered an amazing capacity for instruction, though so few of the Austin kids understood that or took advantage of it. To be fair, she didn’t exactly advertise it. She kept largely to herself, living in this park by the domed building, subsisting on the food it provided. The police and drones often would spray or set fire to the parks precisely because they could offer unregulated food. They had strict policies on collecting rainwater. That was hoarding.
Nonetheless, they’d never done anything to this particular park. It was mostly bats and rats and birds that inhabited the land here. Though there were a number of other birds. Maybe they’d just never figured anyone would eat bats. The ever-present crows spent most of their time in the cityscape, feasting on the rotting ruins and middens. The trash and dung heaps piled around the area provided a ubiquitous source of fun and food for the scavenging beasts.
“Can I… can we see her?” Pitcher finally asked. He remained standing. He couldn’t stop looking at Juneau. He wanted to go to her, to hug her. He felt the need to somehow take the pain away. But he knew he could not do that.
In some ways, he envied her. She knew her Origin Story, even if it weren’t glamorous. She not only knew it, but she’d grown up under the care and custody of her own real mother. Few kids in the cityscape knew their own Origin Story. Pitcher couldn’t think of anyone else besides Juneau who actually had been raised by one of their parents.
“I hope I get sold. Because that’s the only way I’ll be able to help her,” Juneau said, breaking her silence. She looked up at Pitcher. She seemed to look directly into his eyes.
Withering under the intensity of her gaze, Pitcher looked away.
“Thank you for the gift, by the way,” Juneau said. Her voice was as soft as a lullaby. It had a sweet, melodic ring to it.
Pitcher could listen to her talk for hours. He always wished she’d say more.
“Well, uh, you’re welcome, I guess. Sundew made me,” Pitcher stammered. The lie just slipped right out. He didn’t know why he said it. He caught the look and quiet rebuke cast by his sister. “You’d, uh, you’d make a great…” Pitcher stopped himself before he waded into a swamp full of alligators laden with a meat suit. He was just asking for trouble by continue to yap.
“I’d make a great what?” Juneau asked, raising one bushy eyebrow, a delicate smirk turning her pink lips upwards. She possessed such a… unique and cherubic face.
Pitcher turned and looked back toward the path that had brought him here. He wanted to escape. Heat pulsed through his body. He felt a trickle of sweat move down his side. His palms felt damp. He shook. He fumbled for words, trying to think of something clever, but nothing arose in his confused, jumbled mind. “You’d make a great… whatever it is you wanted to be,” he said, finally, speaking from the heart.
Which of course he regretted.
Thankfully, the moment was disturbed by the detection of a foreign noise at the edge of the park. Pitcher and Sundew both tensed, looking toward it. Pitcher held out a hand.
Of course his sister ignored the warning. She got up, closing the distance between them, coming to stand directly beside him. Pitcher could smell her fear. He peered at the small gap in the brush. His eyes traced the slight depression in the weeds that constituted the faintest of pathways.
Finally, after several tense seconds, a figure emerged.
Pitcher gasped. The sound escaped as an involuntary gesture of his shock and fear.
“Ruger,” he said.