Authors: Mary E. Pearson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian
For my precious Ava—
The future is yours.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
I stare at my gravestone. Locke Jenkins. They paid too much for it. More than they could afford. I wonder what slick salesman talked them into it. I reach out and run my fingers over the recessed letters. The
is nearly as weathered away as the life I once had.
Closure. That’s what I came for, but now that I’m standing here, I think that letting go of the past doesn’t come in a single moment. Maybe the past has to fade away slowly like letters in granite. Worn away over time by wind, rain, and tears. Maybe that’s why they did it, ordered a ridiculously expensive gravestone for a small urn of ashes. Maybe that was their way of letting me fade away slowly.
I look at their graves to the right of mine. I wish I had brought flowers for them. What kind did my mother like? I can’t remember. Did I ever know?
I know it’s normal to forget. That’s part of letting go, but my memories are all I have, my only connection to the original me. On a daily basis, I search the details of my life, the conversations, the routines, the fears, the small in-between moments that connected one day to the next, all the voices that have come and gone in my life, still whispering to me. Everything that might help me to understand who I am now. A man, a boy, a something. I promised Jenna I would find out.
I glance up at a shadowy figure fifty yards away. He’s been following me ever since the train station. He stoops like he’s visiting a grave. He thinks that fools me? Watching my back has become second nature. But I play his game. Maybe he plans to mug me. That wouldn’t be a good idea. If he’s smart he’ll reconsider.
The phone tab in my pack vibrates, but I ignore it. I’ve had to wait for this world for so long, now the world will have to wait for me. My parents deserve that much. I keep waiting for a feeling that doesn’t come. A realization. Maybe even a message from the universe. I only hear a graveyard full of silence. Not even the sounds of grief. I know they cried plenty for me. I never got the chance to cry for them, and now it seems too late. The world has passed me by.
I fill the void with my own message instead, a whisper to my parents. “I’m okay.”
After 260 years it’s a pretty pathetic offering, but I know that’s what they’d want to hear. Or that I had just been elected president. I smile at the thought, remembering all the things they hoped I would be. They never would have guessed that I’d end up like this. My dad, at least, might be impressed, in a horrified sort of way.
Yeah. I’m okay. For them, I have to be.
I look up. The stranger who was following me is gone. Maybe he really was visiting someone here, his good-byes too late, just like mine. I head for the main gate of the cemetery, weaving my way through tombstones and memorials. The cemetery looks like it’s been abandoned for decades, the grounds in disrepair, weeds and rubble filling spaces where grass used to grow, but I suppose the dead don’t really care.
My phone vibrates again. Miesha’s called three times today, Jenna once, and Kayla once. Who’s next? Allys? When I—
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I spin but my feet are already flying up, my pack sailing from my shoulder, a kick at the back of my legs sending me sprawling to the ground. I roll, but he’s already on me, his knee on my chest, rage in his eyes. His weight is nothing. I could toss him, smashing his skull into the stone cherub just feet away.
“Back off, man. I’ll give you three seconds. And then I’m going to seriously hurt you.” And I will. I’ve learned that giving people second chances can lead to disaster. Gatsbro taught me that.
He grins and that’s when I recognize him. A scar slashes his face from his temple to the corner of his mouth. In an instant a blade is at my throat, no time to react or push him away. He presses it against my skin with precise pressure. “
Never give the enemy a warning.” He pushes away from me and stands, shaking his head. “Get your miserable ass off the ground and let’s go.”
I stand, brushing the dirt from my coat. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I’m on my way to Manchester next. I’ve got business there.”
“You were told to go directly to Boston. Not here or anywhere else. You promised a Favor.”
“I don’t always do like I’m told. You better get that straight right now.” I walk over and retrieve my pack from the base of a tombstone. “I have things to take care of,” I tell him. “I’ll make good on my promise in a few days. Maybe less. It won’t take me long to find what I need to know in Manchester.”
Disgust fills his face. “I knew you were the wrong person for this.” He turns and walks away.
“Wait a minute!” I call and follow behind him. “Wait!” I yell again. He doesn’t stop. I double my stride so I’m walking next to him. “It’s only a Favor. What difference does a few days make?”
He stops abruptly and faces me. “Don’t bother showing up in a few days. By then he might be dead.”
I stare at his face, trying to read it. He’s exaggerating. He thinks I’m just a stupid seventeen-year-old kid. He doesn’t like me. I’m not sure he likes anyone. Except maybe this person he wants to help. When I agreed to return the Favor the Network had done for me, they didn’t tell me who the Favor was for or what it was they wanted me to do, but I assumed it was something small. For God’s sake, they don’t even know me.
The Network thinks you have some special abilities that could do the job.
Just how much did Jenna tell them about me? Do they know? Is that the look on Mr. F’s face now? Revulsion? Am I making his skin crawl because of what I am?
“What’s your real name?” I ask. “I need to know that much.”
“For now, it stays Mr. F. You’ll know more when you need to know more.”
And he’s scared. This is more than just a Favor. Way more. What have I agreed to? I could back out right now. He’d let me. Probably even be glad if I did. To him, maybe I’m even less than a Non-pact. There’s always a pecking order, no matter how lowly you are.
“Let’s go,” I say.
And I walk away with an asshole who I’m not sure I trust and who’s way faster with a blade than any Non-pact should be.
The train ride to Boston is silent. I’m traveling as Nate Smith these days, courtesy of the Network. I presume Mr. F has a fake ID just like I do—otherwise, a Non-pact could never get on a train, but then, fake IDs are his specialty. When I try to bring up the Favor, he shakes his head. “Later. Not here.” I don’t try to talk about anything else. He’s on some kind of power trip, and I decide he can trip out all he wants. I’m not here for him, and he’ll find that out soon enough. I’m only here to return the Favor I owe. How long will it take? A day? Two?
The last time I helped a Non-pact, it took about thirty seconds flat, but it stuck with me for days. All I did was get him a fair price on a loaf of bread from a greedy baker who was ripping him off, but it felt like I was saving the world. It felt good, unexpected, and right. That was a power trip in itself. After 260 years of being powerless, I sucked up the power like it was air.
The train pulls into the station and Mr. F stands without speaking, expecting me to follow him. Kara called him Mr. Friendly. She was always quick at sizing up people. I walk cautiously behind him, noting that his limp, which was quite pronounced when we first met, is now gone. Was it all an act? I try to stay focused on him and watchful of the strangers I pass, but the minute we step outside the train station, I find my gaze wandering, recognizing street corners, landmarks, and buildings. I feel the remnants of my past reaching out to me, and I almost feel like the Locke I used to be.
Sure, it’s changed. A lot. After 260 years, I wouldn’t expect anything else. I already saw some of the changes when I was here with Kara, but we only stayed for a single day and I was too busy running or hiding most of that time to really notice the details. A lot of the shops have been converted to housing. Except for food, apparently no one goes to stores to buy things anymore. Tourism seems to be the only thriving tradition of the past—trinket and tourist shops crowd near busy corners. I note that the newer buildings are colorized with a white reflective surface, which explains why the city looked like a glowing geode in a bird’s nest when I first viewed it from a distance. Paved streets have the same reflective color. Is this their attempt to counteract urban warming? Even though it looks like they’ve tried to keep the architecture historically accurate, details like this scream that I’m not in the Boston I once knew.
But there are still touchstones, vague ghosts of the past that float in and out of view, streets I walked with my parents, a corner café where I hung out with Jenna and Kara. And then, unexpectedly, a more recent ghost—the alley where Gatsbro beat me up. I’ve changed since then. It won’t happen again.
I’m expecting that we’re headed for the abandoned boarded-up buildings to the south of Boston, the outskirts where proper citizens never venture. That’s where the Network hid me and Kara the last time I was here. Instead he seems to be on a steady course toward the Commons. It’s getting dark now, and as we head down the center path of the Commons, I lengthen my distance behind him. Something about this doesn’t seem right. Non-pacts don’t congregate in public places. Where’s he leading me?
We’re only a short way in when he loops around and doubles back the way we came and heads down Tremont Street. He walks with his head lowered, not looking at the occasional passerby. I keep my head up. I’m not afraid and I want to know who I’m passing. A few look at me, quick glances perusing my appearance—or maybe they’re only noticing my coat. I’m still wearing my freebie government issue. Proudly. Let them think what they want. The black fabric billows and snaps in the breeze.
Mr. F turns at King’s Chapel and walks along its dark unlit side, then slips into the recessed doorway of the weathered building opposite from it. I don’t remember this building being here before, but I follow. It’s dark—very dark—which is the one thing that still makes me freeze up, but I don’t let him see my weakness. I strain to see and I do. I feel the rush behind my eyes, and the dim red outline of something begins to take form. I can see more than Mr. F can, I’m sure, and as we walk down steep steps, I know before he does that someone is waiting at the bottom with a bat poised to strike.
“Stop,” I whisper. “There’s someone there.”
“There better be,” he answers. “Or we’ll all end up dead.”
I sit at a table with a woman, the man with the bat, and Mr. F. They stare at me curiously, maybe suspiciously. I’m getting better at reading faces but it’s hard to read theirs, because the lighting in the room is very dim. They lean back in their chairs, capturing the shadows over their faces like they’ve done this before, accustomed to guarding their identities. We’re waiting for another man. The basement is damp and smells of mold. I hear water trickling above, maybe through old leaky pipes.
Mr. F grumbles something under his breath, almost in a dialect, mostly unintelligible. I catch enough to know that he’s annoyed with the waiting, but then, he seems to be pretty much annoyed with everything.
A light flips on, and they squint against the brightness over the table, looking away.
“He’s here! Welcome, Locke!”
A man strides across the room and holds his hand out to me. “I’m Carver.” I stumble to my feet and reach my hand out to him. His handshake is firm and I note that detail in the same way my father would have. He’s well-groomed, not rumpled like so many Non-pacts are. His clothes are cheap but laundered and curiously pressed like he’s meticulous about his appearance. He looks directly into my eyes. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I didn’t know exactly when you’d arrive. I see you’ve already met your team.”