Rek’s face swam in and out of her focus as she squinted in the dim-but-painful light. Water lapped around her ankles, cooling her down, but otherwise she was on a hard, dry surface. “Hey, Jem, I think she’s awake!” he shouted.
“Don’ shou’,” Shark slurred. What was wrong with her? She tried to sit up, but Rek pushed her back down. “Where am I? Why…why are you he…here?”
Jem came into her line of sight now. “You were hurt badly by the explosion. Try not to move.”
“Why na’? I… I feel fine…I jus’ can’ talk…”
Her eyelids were so heavy…she just couldn’t keep them open…
“Get her some water,” Jem ordered, and someone’s footsteps accelerated into the distance…
She was young again, in the little plastic kiddy pool in her parents’ backyard. She wasn’t supposed to remember back this far, she knew, but she could. She was happy in the little pool, as long as it wasn’t too hot out, and her parents were happy to let her swim in ignorance.
But one day, they came, the men in the long white coats, with their clipboards, peering at her and making notes, invading her privacy and upsetting her simple understanding of the world merely by their presence. Money was exchanged, and she set off with these exciting strangers.
She didn’t stay happy for long.
They poked her and prodded her, making her swim in one direction and another, around and around in a little pool not much larger than the kiddy pool had been. Once or twice a week, they set her in a bigger pool to see how far she could swim. She could never reach the opposite side, due to the strong currents they blew against her to knock her back whenever she stopped to rest. If she fell all the way back to the start, they shocked her. If she made it to the wall, or, at least, came close enough, she was rewarded with a piece of raw meat, her favorite kind. But even this became less enjoyable when the scientists-white men, she used to call them-were watching the whole time, eagerly taking notes.
Eventually, she had picked up some of their language, hovering at the top of the water, going underwater only to breathe. She couldn’t speak it, as she had never had air in her lungs, but she could begin to understand it. And she didn’t like what she was hearing.
They were going to take her out of the water.
It didn’t happen that day, or the next, but a whole week later, which was long enough that she had dismissed it as a faulty, inexpert translation. She was thus completely surprised when the rough hands grabbed her around the middle and started to lift her from the pool. She thrashed around and bit anything she could sink her teeth into, but even her sandpapery, shark-like skin was not enough to save her. Cursing and bleeding, the man pulled her from the water.
That was the worst moment of her life. Gasping soundlessly for oxygen while the man held her just above the water, she started to cough for the first time in her life. Water poured from her mouth and gills, and she took her first breath of air and let out the scream that had been inside her since she’d been born. Her lungs hurt. More than that– they were on fire. All the scientists were smiling, but Shark didn’t know why. She certainly didn’t feel like smiling.
That night, they’d locked her in a doggie crate above the water. They had been unable to get her to walk that day, since her legs had learned other motions and were weak above water, but she could stand. They didn’t think that she might die if she didn’t get to the water.
She’d spent the whole night chewing through the bars, breaking several teeth (they’d grow back) but getting through just about at dawn. She had then thrown herself off the ledge the crate was on and into the pool of water. It was so glorious…The air bubbles left her lungs softly, without any of the pain of the air, and she was in her element again. They wouldn’t pull her out again…
The little Shark opened her eyes and wondered who the people were. They didn’t look like the white men…
Shark saw Jem and Rek leaning over her, but little else. “Water…” she croaked.
“We’re almost there, okay, Shark? Just hang on…”
This time she managed to stay awake long enough to feel her head go under, and sighed a long, long sigh.
“Is she okay? Do you think she’s supposed to do that?” Rek asked.
“Yes, sharks have to move to breathe, Rek, and she seems to take after her namesake quite a bit,” I said. “They just swim in place when they sleep. I’m more worried about whether the dressing will hold.”
The fancy pink jacket had been sacrificed to make a makeshift dressing for Shark. She had a nasty wound to the side and a large scab on her head from the explosion of her hideout, but both were healing remarkably quickly. Still, it had been three days since we’d rescued her, and she’d been delirious most of the time. She’d had nothing to eat, and had had only drips of water up until now. Figuring that submersion would be best for her, we’d found a secluded part of the Found River to hide her in, and the plan was to just let her soak.
I had no clue how we’d avoided Nick’s–Action Safety, except that they’d seemed as stunned as we were that they’d actually hurt someone. In any case, they never saw Rek and I dart away with Shark, or at least hadn’t given chase. Rek had set me down for a second to pick up Shark, but I was afraid it might have been too long, and that Nick would have recognized me.
It made me wonder how the ISA had taken over. I’d thought that we were happy with our government, but who knew?
“They framed our old government, saying that the government arranged the bombings to look like they were terrorist strikes so they could get more support for the war,” said Rek.
“What?” I asked. I must have voiced my thoughts out loud, since I highly doubted that Rek had suddenly gained telepathic powers.
“Yeah. It was in the newspaper,” Rek told me.
“I thought Sir and Auntie didn’t get the newspaper.”
“I borrowed it from some guy on the street for about twenty seconds on that day Sir gave me espresso,” he said. “It was an interesting story. They even had documents to prove it. There was no counter-argument, though, since all the patriotic men had had mysterious accidents, and the president himself had been sadly assassinated by a crazy extremist.”
“But how can they just keep blowing stuff up? Innocent civilians are being hurt, after all. How can they still have a good reputation?”
“Read the story in today’s paper about us,” said Rek, “page A-4. Very enlightening. I didn’t know we had that many explosives.”
I looked at him blankly for a second or two before it sank in. “They’re blaming it on us? But we never did anything! That makes us look like the villains!”
“Good policy on their part, then,” said Rek. “After all, we aren’t exactly going to step forward to disprove them, are we?”
We both fell silent and gazed at Shark for a minute or two. Finally, unable to bear the silence any longer, I told Rek to watch Shark and headed into the city for food and to look for a way out, if possible. It seemed that they had found our new hiding place.
It was strange how good they were at that…but if they worked for the government, it wasn’t really a surprise. Especially if this government had as good a network of spies as the last one.
Lost in my thoughts, I almost ran into a tallish boy with grease-stained hands. “Watch where you’re going,” he growled, and walked three more steps before he stopped as suddenly as if he’d run into a wall. Turning slowly, he said, “Jem…?”
“Razo?” I asked stupidly. Of course it was him. The slashed jacket sleeves would have proved that to me even if I hadn’t recognized his face.
“That day…I lost sight of you, and when I turned back around, you were gone. I thought you were taken,” he said.
“Well, Rek and I thought the same of you,” I told him. “How’d you get away?”
He shrugged. “Easy enough. I just ran and ran and hid in a dark alley. I thought I was going to get caught when a brick slipped from beneath my hand and I fell through the wall. All the locals know about the rotten alleys since they’ve all been chased at one time or another for something trivial, and since I got a job they’ve been helping me out whenever I need to get out.”
“How’d you get a job so quickly?” I asked.
“I’ve been hanging around Mr. Hardpan’s shop for a while now, and when I told him I was out on my own now he offered me a job as an auto mechanic. I accepted.”
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’m real good at it, too. You were somehow involved in that explosion a couple of days ago, weren’t you?”
“Yep. That stupid group that stole Jessi, you know, Action Safety, figured out where we were and sent to either kill us or flush us out. Luckily, we weren’t home, but someone we met out here, named Shark, was. Rek’s watching her in case she wakes up and starts screaming again. I’m just out here to buy food,” I told him.
“Do you have any money?” he asked.
“Well, I, um…” I hadn’t thought about that. Of course I’d need money. What had I been thinking?
“Me neither,” he said, “but I can get you some.”
“How?” I asked.
Razo almost smiled, and then, rather suddenly, became the brooding teenager everyone tried to stay away from by hunching his shoulders, shaking his dark hair into his eyes, and swinging his arms listlessly. He walked into the flow of people heading the opposite way and was almost instantly run into by a preoccupied businessman.
“Watch where you’re going,” Razo muttered, and the man jumped away. He glanced over his shoulder as Razo slouched back to me, now with a bulging back pocket.
“Rek would be really good at it, if you could convince him that it wasn’t the end of the earth to take someone else’s stuff,” Razo commented, pulling out a plump leather wallet. “I’m just barely fast enough.”
He showed me how to make myself look dangerous, how to hold my head and my shoulders and where to look. I had that much pretty easily, since I always seemed to challenge people with my eyes whether I meant to or not, and since all I really needed to do to look dangerous was pull my hair back and tilt my head slightly to one side to show off the scar. I was nowhere near fast enough to take anything yet, but speed was all you really needed. Razo was right: Rek would be really good.
Razo handed me most of the cash and headed off somewhere to return the rest of the wallet in, somewhere that they didn’t keep security cameras. I didn’t wait for him but walked to a fast food place and bought enough food for Rek, Shark (if she woke up) and I with half of one of the five twenties he had given me.
I think we would have died without that greasy stuff.
I hadn’t forgotten the second half of my mission, and found a grey minivan and a red sports car that looked suitably unattended. I had no clue how to hotwire a car, but figured that I could find and ask Razo if Rek didn’t know.
When I got back to the bridge, Shark was awake, but otherwise not much had changed. She was still in the water and wasn’t swimming freely yet, but when I came down to the river’s edge she got up, coughing gently because of her side wound, and held out her hand for food.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” I asked as Rek reached into the paper bag. She nodded as Rek stuck his head out of the bag, tossing the fish part of a fish-fillet sandwich at her. She snatched it out of midair with her mouth and gulped it down.
“Don’t give yourself indigestion,” I warned.
“Can’t,” she said, sitting back down, resting her head against the trunk of a tree and closing her eyes. “I have a stomach of steel.”
I ate my meal slowly while Rek moved at double-time. He probably didn’t even realize he was doing it, and if he didn’t, his stomach wouldn’t. He hated people interrupting his meals because they would normally cause him to realize he was eating too quickly and thus get indigestion.
“We’ve got to get out of this city,” I said. “They know we’re here.”
“How?” asked Rek.
“We could steal a car –”
“No!” said Rek.
“Except I don’t know how to start one without the keys,” I admitted.
“I do,” said Shark, her eyes still closed. “That was one of the first things I learned out here.”
“But that’s not right!” complained Rek. “The person who owns the car might be a nice old woman who’s giving all her money to charity, or a single mom –”
“Or some jerk with a road rage problem who works for the same people who’re hunting us down,” I reasoned.
“It’s still not –”
Shark heaved herself up. “While Rek puzzles out the moral parts of the reason we have to steal the car, why don’t you show me the object of consideration? I’ll probably get there by the time he comes to the correct conclusion.”
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
“No –” She took a step, gritted her teeth, took a second one, and almost fell down. “Yes.”
“Wait!” said Rek as we hobbled away. “You paid for the food, didn’t you…?”
“The money I found will be barely enough for gas and food, as is. I don’t have anywhere near enough to buy, or rent, a car,” I said truthfully.
“But what about bus tickets?” he asked.
“They’ll leave a record,” Shark parried. “Come on, I want to see this car of Jem’s before it gets dark.”
“It’s a red sports car. A convertible. Nothing you don’t see a thousand times out on the road,” I told her.
“Listen!” said Rek. “Stealing…it isn’t right!”
“I like to call it…salvaging,” I reminded him.
“I—listen, that was different, they were dead…”
“This guy’s probably dead to the world, living for television or drugs or whatever his problem is. You listen; it’s generally the road-rage jerks that drive red sports cars. We’ll be doing the world a service,” I said.
Rek moaned the whole way there, but did help me half-carry Shark to the parking lot I’d found before. The car was still there, untouched and now hidden from view by a large green van. Shark laughed. “That was a bad choice on their part, parking where no one can see them. Us stealing their car is like taking dropped money. Whoever owns that car is practically yelling at us to steal it.”
“So, you can start it?” I asked.
“Easy. Can you drive?”
“Let me at the steering wheel,” she demanded.
As Shark slid into the front seat and messed with some wires in the steering column, I hopped into the open convertible and took a last look around me. We were running away from somewhere, without a real purpose or direction. I wanted to find Jessi, but didn’t have the slightest clue where she had been taken. I had the feeling that if I’d have asked Rek, he’d probably have said the same thing as me, and Shark was just along for the ride, whether she wanted to be or not.
The motor purred into life as I switched chairs with Shark and then swiveled around in my chair to look at Rek in the backseat. “Which way?” I asked. “Where do you think they took her?”
He looked me right in the eyes, and there was a wild look in his eyes that made me want to look away. “West. That’s where all the fun is.”
“What?” I asked.
“What?” said Shark, slipping over the glove compartment between our seats into the back seat next to Rek.
“Never mind,” sad Rek. “I’m not sure what I meant.”
“What?” repeated Shark.
I smiled. “We’re going west.”