“As Mark and Leo stepped into one of the homes, the world felt like it was tipping over. The warmth and light and enclosure felt claustrophobic, but Mark didn’t care.”
¨Mark, how’s the water supply?¨
Mark shifted the bag to his side, and peered down at the bag.
¨Low. Okay, but not enough to last. We need to stop soon.¨ Leo nodded.
It had been a week now since they had fled the city, and Mark had become used to the way things could look outside Manhattan–the weird forests, the swamps, clean and intimidating houses, and roads cutting through barren desert–where he, Asha, and Leo were walking down now.
The code engraved into the metal block still seemed heavier in his pocket each day. Last night, he had studied it in the moonlight, thinking too hard. He sorted the shapes in his head, traced them on his skin, reversed them and compared them to the few words he knew until his head was throbbing and he could have thrown the *** thing out the train window. But he still had no idea what the symbols and numbers meant. He couldn’t fathom how they could be such a threat to the labor camps that the Officials would run him at gunpoint out of the entire city. Maybe if he had learned how to read when he was younger, he could figure it out…
Mark shook his head. There was no point in worrying about that now.
For once, there was a pleasant breeze in the air. Closing his eyes and feeling the air dance across his face, Mark could almost forget the exhausting journey ahead of them.
¨Hey, you ever thought about what you would do if you were clinker?¨ Asha asked, her voice light — which was strange for her.
Mark smirked a bit. ¨Sometimes.¨
¨I just now started thinking about it.¨
¨I don’t know. I mean, I’d probably use all that money to change things. Get kids out of the work camps.¨
“Me too. But also, you know…¨
¨So much food.¨
Asha chuckled. ¨Exactly. I don’t even care what it is. I’d stockpile.¨
¨Ï would drink that stuff Pete had every morning. Y’know, the hot, uh…¨
¨Coffee,” Mark agreed. His memory was so fuzzy and slow these days. ¨But other than that, I can’t imagine it, you know? I can’t comprehend how you can have that much. How you can be that safe. I’d wake up and have no idea what to do. ¨
Asha nodded as she ambled along, wiping the sweat from her brow. ¨Disgusting that some people have too much to know what to do with.¨
Mark scowled as he exhaled slowly. It was getting too hot. ¨They don’t even need to work.¨
“That money could go to kids like Nat or Char. The little ones who work thirteen hours every day so they can eat food that poisons them.” Mark spat. He felt his throat rising up in his chest, the clenched feeling he got when the thought about everyone back at the camp.
“I hate them. ¨
Nat and Char, whom he’d told stories to around a kerosene lamp, watched over when they got into bed, protected the way he used to protect his brother, Matteo. Leo, Asha and he had given them rides on their backs when they were too sore to stand, even when the pain from the extra weight was nearly too much after a day of back-breaking work on the broken buildings.
Now everyone in that drowned city was hundreds of miles away. They could all be dead, and he’d never know.
Hours crawled by. Conversations slowed to a stop, the noises of the wind and desert creatures drowning out any ideas. They bit cautiously at the provisions, taking only the bare minimum to keep walking. The heat was deafening, but Mark was used to it. Just one week ago, he remembered, he was prying metal from unforgiving cement in this weather.
Midday turned to evening, which turned to dusk. Leo held the compass, tracking their steps carefully, making sure the road was still headed due west.
“What time is it?” mumbled Asha.
Mark tipped his head up the sky and studied it. “Like…eleven. Or midnight.”
Leo groaned, running his hand exhaustedly through his hair. “Do you know how much longer?”
“No. We don’t,” said Mark. “But Aan said we’ll be close when we pass a green sign.”
All three of them searched in the dark, but found no signs of color.
Asha cleared her throat. “We should decide what to do once we get to this place. With the Code.”
Leo sighed heavily. “Do I have to say again that we can’t trust anyone?”
“No,” said Asha, “Because Aan made it very clear that we have to trust these people.” She lifted her chin, staring fixedly ahead. “‘If you share this secret with them, it could save your lives. You could have the best protection in this land.’”
“‘Could,’ Asha. He kind of gave the hint that this could also break us. What if this is all a trap? They could report us, or kill us right there.”
Asha quickened her pace, her eyes narrowed. “The ‘breaking’ has been done. We’re god*** outlaws. The government — or whoever they are, is following us. I don’t think this can get much worse.”
“I think … yeah. We need to take the leap if we want to go anywhere. But let’s get to know them first.” Mark decided. Asha gave him a grateful look. Leo shook his head, silent.
The dust and sand and open space reminded Mark a little of home. As his mind wandered aimlessly, he started thinking of Matteo. What if he just showed up out of the dark, walking in the opposite direction?
Mark wondered what he’d look like. How tall, and how dark he would have gotten. What happened to Matteo? What did the world inflict on him? Was he hard and mean like Mark, or broken, or safe, or dead?
And the real question, thought Mark bitterly, what kind of coward of a man can’t protect his little brother or mom?
Asha was stumbling as she walked. Mark had never seen her in less control–not even when the dirigible was crashing, all those weeks ago.
He held her arm to steady her. She didn’t say anything. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
“We should stop.”
Asha jerked away. “What? We can’t.”
“You’re not well. It’ll be even worse if you pass out or something. We need to stay–”
“NO!” Asha exclaimed, her eyes widened. “I’m good! We need to make it there before sunup. We’ve stopped four times already,”
Mark narrowed his eyes. Asha was usually wise about her limits.
He decided to let it go. “Fine,” he grunted. “Don’t faint.”
Just five minutes later, relief came.
Lights pierced through the dark in the distance when Mark glanced up again. He drew a sharp breath, feeling something surge forward within him.
Asha let out a strangled sound of relief.
“Yes. It has to be,” mumbled Leo.
Exhaustion running heavy and black through their veins, the three ran the final stretch, stumbling over the gravel, lights in their eyes warm like candles, waiting for them to come home.
Mark peered inside the rusty gate. “Do we just…”
Leo shook the gate. “Are we waiting out here ‘till sunup?”
Asha sighed softly, pressing her face to the gate as if praying. Her skin blended in with the night.
“WHO’S THERE?” came a sudden scream, nearly knocking Mark over. “WE’RE ARMED!”
Leo raised his hands over his head. “We’re just looking for somewhere — somewhere to stay. He — Aan the Most Wise, I mean — told us we could be safe in this village” he shouted back. “We’re from New York, the labor camps—“
“Prove to me you’re telling the truth,” the voice maintained, hard and sharp—the person kept in the shadows.
Mark felt his heartbeat slow as he clenched his fists. The time had come, apparently.
“My name is Marcos Gunner. My mother was Anita Gunner.”
A gasp came from the person on the other side—a girl, it sounded like.
“Is she with —“
“She’s dead,” Mark said.
There was a silence on the other side of the fence. After five beats, a light blinded Mark, Asha, and Leo.
“You’re kids. So am I. Come in.”
The gate creaked open, and Mark saw the village for the first time.
Winding paths leading on for what looked like miles to him, with houses—clay, or brick, or wood, he couldn’t tell—on either side. There was a well every few houses, and lanterns inside. He saw crops growing in the distance, somehow, in the middle of this desert. There were eyes peering at them from the windows nearby. A child. Mark nearly called out hello.
“This is…” Forbidden. Beautiful. Safe. Like home. He exchanged a look with Asha and Leo, who grinned back at him. Relief coursed through Mark’s veins. Safe.
Before he could even turn around, the stranger darted off, returning a moment later with a small mob of people. Mark absent-mindedly shifted the coded block deeper into his bag as they approached.
A blur of faces in the dark overwhelmed Mark, a pair of hands guiding his steps, alongside Leo’s, out of the clearing and down a path. Someone was leading Asha away — Mark tried to break free and tried to catch up to her
“She’s sick,” the man said, holding him back. “We’re getting her to the Marp.”
Mark shook his head. “Is that the infirmary? Is she alright there?”
“Yes. We’ll check it out. Take care of her tonight.”
As Mark and Leo stepped into one of the homes, the world felt like it was tipping over. The warmth and light and enclosure felt claustrophobic, but Mark didn’t care. He sat on the dusty ground, lowered his head between his knees, breathing deeply as his senses came back into focus.
“Take this,” the man insisted, pressing half a loaf of bread and a cup of tea into Mark’s hands. He gaped at the food, then the man. ¨Thank you,¨ he breathed. ¨Thank you so much.¨ The man slipped out the door.
It was as if he was holding two worlds. Mark stumbled across the room, to find a bed — a real, comfortable looking round bed, with sheets and blankets and a floaty, plump white pillow.
He almost teared up.
Leo collapsed into the bed. “This is…amazing.” Mark laughed for the first time in days.
His body screamed of exhaustion, begging to sink into this weird masterpiece and bury itself there, never to get up again. But he forced himself to only sit, and eat six bites of the loaf of bread first, which was so delicious it was almost wrong, and to drink his cup of tea.
Feeling warm and disoriented, he fell into the cloud-like bed and let his eyes close — but not before the glint of the metal in his sack caught his eye.
Symbol after symbol after symbol. The more he looked at them, the more he wished to just leave it behind.
Tomorrow, he thought vaguely. Tomorrow, I’ll tell them…
Mark slipped into a dreamless, heavy sleep.