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Long, loping strides, my feet slapping the soft earth in a steady pattern I don’t have to think about. One foot in front of the other, over and over. My breath whistles in my throat. My fists pump with every step.
In front of me, the world expands and narrows at the same time. Every leaf and twig on each tree stands out, all in lovely shades of green, but I’m too focused on where I’m going to enjoy the woods. There’s no path here, and if I don’t pay attention I’ll probably wipe out. I leap a fallen tree and come down hard on the other side, pebbles rolling under the worn tread of my sneakers. A few weeks ago I’d have landed on my face, but now I catch my balance and keep running without so much as a skip, although the stones dug deep into my soles.
I hate running, but there’s no other choice. It’s ration delivery day, and I need to get to town. I used to go in with Dillon, but he had to leave for the early shift in the Waste Disposal Department, and driving with him or even riding a bike means passing through the checkpoints, which is always risky. There’s always the chance they’ll pull you aside for mandatory, random Contamination testing…and I can’t risk that. So instead, I run.
I sweat with the effort. It’ll leave my hair stringy and my clothes damp, and I hate this because instead of a hot shower with tons of soap, I’ll have to settle later for what my dad used to call a “pits and privates” with lukewarm water and a sliver of soap so small I’m sure it will slip through my fingers and get lost down the drain, My backpack rubs at my shoulders, but they’ll be even more sore on the way home when it’s filled with cans and boxes…assuming I come home with anything from the ration station. Assuming I come home at all.
I find a rhythm, finally, just before I reach the highway. I come out of the trees on top of a hill so I can look both ways, checking for cars or Army trucks, but everything’s clear. Lebanon’s never exactly been a shopping hot spot, and this is the road we used to take when we wanted to go the “back” way to the mall in Lancaster. There’s a checkpoint a couple miles down at the intersection of highways, just out of sight, which explains the lack of traffic. My mom used to call this stretch of road the dead zone, because her cell would always lose service here Now it hardly matters — the only people with cell service are in the government or rich enough to pay someone in the government to allow access. Everything else has been cut off. No cell phone, no internet, unless you’re some kind of hacker. TV and radio are back, but the programming’s terrible. Only a few channels for a few hours a day. Even Opal doesn’t complain any more about it, and my kid sister had never lived in a world that didn’t have kids’ programming on 24/7.
We read a lot of books now, instead. Fiction, of course. The Hollywood Disease didn’t seem to affect as many writers as it had movie stars. Mrs. Holly from down the street says pulp fiction was really popular when she was a young woman.. Not that movie with John Travolta, but real books. She says all the new books now are pulp fiction, printed on paper so cheap they fall apart after a few readings — but the stories are all still good. Some are serials, the way Charles Dickens used to write, and we like those a lot. But we also read everything else we can get our hands on. The libraries are all operating on strictly reduced hours, along with the post offices and banks. And assistance centers are more concerned with handing out clothes, food and water than literature. Still, we manage. I’ve been reading about container gardening, how to build a greenhouse, how to make a composting toilet, how to hook up solar panels and store food by drying and canning. Everything we might need to know about how to survive this apocalypse the people in charge are refusing to admit we’re in.
My sneakers skid on the brush, sending pebbles down to scatter in front of me. By the time I get to the pavement, I’m ready to run again. I cross the highway, leap the guardrail, and head into the trees on the other side. No path here, either, except the one I’ve worn for myself over the past few months. The woods are quiet except for the shuffle of squirrels in the piles of leaves and the soft chirp of birds overhead. The sun’s high, casting shadows through the branches, and I turn my face up toward the brightness to try to soak it in.
That’s why, even though I know better, I’m not paying attention to where I’m running. That’s why my foot catches on a fallen log and I pitch forward, hands out to catch myself. At the last minute I remember I can’t afford to break my wrist, and I tuck and roll, hitting the ground with my shoulder first. I’m on my hands and knees a few seconds after that, breathing hard, my fingers digging in the dirt and my hair hanging in my face.
That’s why I don’t see the cheerleader until she’s got me by the ponytail.
She yanks me up so hard stars swim in my eyes, and I bite my tongue making it squirt bitter, metal-tasting blood. I try grabbing at her as she pulls me to my feet, but she’s behind me and I can’t quite reach her until I duck and twist around. Pain flares along my scalp, and I grunt as I grab her wrists, trying to unlock her fingers from my hair.
I know she’s a cheerleader by her blue and gray pleated skirt, which is all I can see. That and her long bare legs, torn by brambles, bruised by who-knows-what. She wears socks with pompoms on the back and pricey sneakers, and everything’s covered in thick black mud. She stinks so bad I choke and gag from it, doubling over. She comes with me, over my shoulder, flipping onto her back. She hits the ground so hard her head bounces. I hear the sharp rattle of her teeth.
I let go of her wrists and step away, but not fast enough. She’s fast and strong and really pissed off. She digs her fingernails into my ankle, clinging and gouging even as I back-peddle. I have no choice but to kick her in the side. My foot connects with a solid thunk that twists my guts — it doesn’t matter that I know she won’t stop unless I knock her out. It doesn’t matter that probably only a few months ago this girl was more worried about matching her nail polish to her lipstick, and now she’s scrabbling in the ground, grunting like a hog and trying her best to beat the crap out of me.
Oh, God. Her eyes. They’re furious and blank at the same time, nothing behind them but rage, no sign of the girl who once lent me a tampon in gym class. We’d had a few classes together and travelled in different social circles, but unlike in all the teen movies I’d ever seen, that hadn’t made us enemies. She hates me now…and why?
Because I’m here.
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