Authors: Lee Strauss,Elle Strauss
I almost stated my case, but Jabez suddenly sprung to his feet.
“I need some air.” He grabbed his jacket and headed for the
Mary sighed. “Only a matter of time before there’s trouble.”
Jabez wasn’t the only one who needed air. Noah nodded off, so I
took the opportunity to escape to the courtyard. My mind and heart were full of
so many conflicting emotions; I thought I was going to implode.
Wrapped in my winter outerwear, I slid down against the outside
wall until my rear end settled onto the newly fallen snow. Deep, cool breaths
calmed my racing heart. I leaned my head back and stuck out my tongue, allowing
the tiny white flakes to float slowly onto its surface before melting.
I let my mind go.
What was going on in the world? Was my grandfather going to go
down in history as the person responsible for the third world war?
And then there was my stupid ex-boyfriend. Just who did he
think he was? Jackson was a murderer not a humanitarian.
My pulse quickened at that thought and I pushed his arrogant
face out of my mind.
I gathered the snow into a ball but lacked the energy to fling
it. I stared at it, mesmerized by the crystal flakes, zillions of them clinging
together to make this one thing.
Like all the people in the world, desperately clinging to
planet earth. I tossed it and it broke apart.
I stared at the blue-grey sky and blinked as flakes piled onto
my lashes. A few months ago, I’d never seen snow in real life. Snow would
always be associated with the Ranger commune.
I wondered what became of those folks. I bet they wished they’d
never set eyes on me and Noah. Even though they were crazy, they didn’t deserve
what had happened to them.
I made another snowball and thought about Taylor Blake.
He had turned out to be a surprise. Not only was he a tech whiz,
he saved my life, and Noah’s, too.
I recalled our kiss and my pulse rushed. In fact, my face
flushed. I mashed the snowball into it. I was such a wreck.
When the chill overtook my body, I pulled myself out of the
muck I’d made and went back to the only warm space in the factory, the living
Mary was perched on the edge of the couch, very close to Noah.
Something she said made him smile, and a spark of jealousy ignited.
I turned away and peeled off my wet things.
On seeing me, Mary moved away from Noah and into the bedroom.
Noah called me over.
“You guys are getting cozy,” I said, sounding spiteful.
“I needed to ask her something, and my voice doesn’t carry
That was what happened when you got kicked in the neck. “What
do you want?”
“I’ve asked Mary to train you.”
I frowned. “You want me to fight?”
“No. I want you to be able to protect yourself.”
The thought of spending time with Mary made me cringe. And I
already felt like I owed her too much.” I shook my head. “I have a gun.”
“You might not always have a gun.”
I knew what he wasn’t saying. Remember the time you almost got
raped in the back alley?
That had been a stupid move on my part. I wouldn’t put myself
in danger like that again.
“I don’t need self-defense, Noah. I’m always here. I’m always
hiding. Who’s going to hurt me?”
He reached for my hand. “Just think about it. Please.”
Jabez dragged Noah back into the ring the next day. He was
probably happy to get away from Mary and me, and our subtle competition for his
attention. I wanted to push her out the door.
Noah is with me!
Even if we weren’t an official couple anymore, we were on the
run together. As soon as we had enough money, we’d be out of here, and I
couldn’t get away from Mary fast enough.
This whole situation infuriated me. I felt trapped,
claustrophobic. I didn’t know what Mary did with her days but she never asked
me to join her. I cleaned up the little kitchen, tidied the living area. The
news on the TV depressed me, so I turned it off. It seemed there was nothing
new, just more rioting over food shortages, foreign policies and of course,
Grandpa’s infamous cyborg tech push.
My skin itched, like it wanted to crawl off my body. I shucked
on my coat while stepping into my room. I reached under my pillow, retrieving
my gun and slipped it into an inside pocket.
I hesitated a little before unzipping Noah’s pack. I needed
money and tucked a few bills in my pocket.
I shrugged off the nagging voice that told me Noah wouldn’t
approve. I wore a hat and covered half my face with a scarf. No one would
Besides, my blond roots were showing and I needed to get
another box of hair dye. I’d stay on the main roads that Noah had taken me down
before. I wouldn’t get lost, this time. I’d be fine.
It had stopped snowing, but that didn’t mean the road crews
were caught up with the recent heavy snowfall. Walking the sidewalks proved
precarious, and more than once I caught my balance before slipping on a patch
of ice hidden under the snow.
I spotted a small drugstore and went in. I took my time
browsing the shelves, though they were surprisingly under-stocked. The hair
product selection was slim but I did find a box of brunette hair dye.
My bright-eyed, blond image stared at me from an old-style
paper poster tacked to the wall. A million dollar reward was offered for
information that led to my safe return. My heart chugged.
A million dollars?
That was a fortune to the types of people who lived here. I
swallowed, and thought that maybe Noah was right. Going out in the middle of
the day was a dumb thing to do.
The clerk stared at me, and I felt frozen to the spot. Would he
recognize me? I averted my eyes as I paid for the dye and rushed out of the
store and around the corner.
Which led me to a neighborhood I didn’t know.
I darted down a side-road, just in case the clerk had decided
to chase after me, and searched for a crowd to get lost in. Instead I found
myself in a secluded lane, where I almost bumped into a cluster of men—three
dirty specimens, encircling a girl about my age. I took several large steps
The men turned, spotted me and snickered.
The girl stood in a fighting stance. She turned to see what
brought on the distraction and I recognized her immediately.
“Get lost, Chloe,” Mary said. “I can manage.”
,” one of the guys said. “Get lost. Unless
you’d like to join our little party?”
Mary struck the guy in the throat with a flattened fist. He
fell forward and she elbowed him in the kidney.
The next guy reached for her, and she side-kicked him in the
knees, sending him to the ground.
It all happened so fast. The third guy panicked, and ran my
I reached for my gun, and aimed it on his head.
He came to a stop and raised his hands. “Easy there,” he said.
“We’re just looking for a bit of fun.”
“How’s this for fun.” I cocked the gun.
Mary called out, “Let him go.”
The guy side-stepped by me and I kept my gun pointed at him
until he disappeared around the corner.
I ran to Mary. She was barely breathing heavy. The two guys on
the ground moaned.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
“What happened there?” I asked once we were safely back on the
main street and in with the crowd. What I meant was,
how come you were alone
in that lane, and how could you risk putting yourself in danger like that?
“I thought I was making a deal.”
“Yeah, buying and selling. Heard of it?”
She meant the black market. I didn’t want to know.
But she’d impressed me with her defense skills. Even though I
was the one with the gun, I thought I was more afraid in that situation than
Maybe Noah was right. It didn’t hurt to have more than one line
of defense. And the world I now lived in was anything but safe.
“Jude mentioned that maybe you’d be willing to teach me some self-defense
She sent me a sideways glare. Had Noah failed to ask her first?
“You want me to teach you?”
“If you want to.” I already regretted asking. “If not, that’s
“It’s fine. We’ll start tomorrow.”
We arrived at the factory and she opened the door.
“I won’t tell Jude if you don’t tell Jabez,” she said before
walking in. She meant about the fight. And probably the fact that I’d left the
factory on my own. I ran my fingers across my lips as if I were zipping them
We barely got out of our winter clothes when Jabez and Noah
joined us looking freshly showered.
“How was it?” I asked Noah.
He groaned. “I’m a little stiff and sore.”
“Oh, quit whining,” Jabez said, slapping him on the back. Then
he turned to Mary. “What do we got for food?”
Mary’s eyes flicked to me and then to Jabez. “Deal didn’t
happen. There’s still canned soup. ”
? And crackers? Are there
smacked the wall.
I thought he
He ran his hands over his head, taking a deep breath. “I need
to fight again.”
Mary stepped closer to him, lowering her voice. “No, we agreed.
Let Jude fight. We’ll find others. We can make it off the cut if we have
enough. We only need three or four fighters.”
I glanced over to Noah. I could tell by the shadow that crossed
his face that he’d heard.
Jabez left the room in a huff, and Mary ran after him.
I bit my lip, wondering how I should tell Noah about the poster
I saw, about the reward.
I didn’t have to. The TV did it for me. Suddenly our heads
filled the screen. My long blond locks, Noah’s dark hair clipped closed to his
scalp, his face cleanly shaven. We looked different now, but not completely. We
still looked like us.
Though the volume was down the ticker tape was loud and clear.
A million dollars for my safe return. A half million for Noah. Dead or Alive.
“They could eat a lot more than soup and crackers with a
million dollars,” Noah said nodding toward the door Mary and Jabez had just
Or a million and a half.
“They don’t know who we are,” I said. “Besides, they wouldn’t
“Wouldn’t they?” he challenged. “Who are we to them? It’s only
a matter of time before they figure it out.”
He was right, of course. My chest tightened with increased
anxiety. “What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to fight again,” Noah said. “Jabez already booked
it. Two days before Christmas. And this time I’m going to win.”
His narrow gaze dared me to challenge him. I wanted to, but I
didn’t. We had no other recourse and I felt thoroughly defeated.
Noah lay on the couch, arms crossed over his chest, and fell
asleep. I locked myself in the bathroom with my box of hair dye and a pair of
I chopped at my hair wanting shorter, wanting different,
. Each clicking snip was a declaration of my anger. Angry
that Noah had to fight for our safety, enraged that our relationship had turned
from romance to business, furious that I had to subject myself to Mary’s
I hated that I owed her anything, but I didn’t want Noah to
worry about me anymore. I needed to carry my own weight.
By the time I’d worked out my fury on my hair, there wasn’t
much left. I mixed the dye and drenched my hair with it. After ten minutes I
rinsed it out, watching the brown water swirl away.
A picture of my life—crapped on and going down the drain.
I pondered my new image. Spiky and short, like a pixie. I
wasn’t sure if I’d done the right thing. I felt naked without a sheath of hair
to hide behind. It wasn’t exactly a salon cut. I tilted my head. It was shorter
on one side than the other, but for some reason I didn’t care.
Noah roused out of his nap. He sat up a little when he saw me. “What’d
“You don’t like it?”
He paused and I worried that he hated it. That I looked ugly.
Then the corners of his mouth curled up. “It’s kind of sexy.”
I relaxed and smiled back.
His brow furrowed. “Where’d you get the dye?”
I hated lying, but Noah would freak out if he knew I’d left the
building. Plus, Mary and I had agreed not to say anything, so I knew he
wouldn’t find out.
I met Mary in the gym the next day, in bare feet and wearing
the work-out tank and shorts she’d loaned me as instructed.
She waited on one of the floor mats. When she saw me she picked
up a fat, blue-vinyl shield, at least six inches thick, and held it up in front
of her body. “Hit this,” she said, wasting no time on small talk.
I felt stupid but jabbed it with my fist.
She relaxed the shield, disgusted. “What was that? Are you
“I don’t know how to hit.”
“Clearly.” She dropped the foam shield and moved to a hanging
punching bag. “You understand what a fighting stance is, right? Stand with feet
two to three feet apart, right leg slightly back, and bend your knees a
little.” She waited for me to mimic her.
“Hold your fists in front of your face, keeping your elbows in.”
I lifted my fists.
“Now, when you strike, your fist moves in a circular fashion.
See, your fingers are facing you when they’re pulled in. When you strike, your
fist rotates so the fingers face the ground and your knuckles, the top of your
hand, faces up. You’ll always keep one fist close, protecting your face and
neck.” She demonstrated in slow motion. “See? Right fist strikes, left fist
stays near your throat.”