I know shoes belong on feet – I know that – but I cradle my new treasures the whole walk home. Part of me is afraid they won’t fit and I want to prolong my excitement as long as possible. The walk feels even longer now that I’m alone and even more sinister now that I have something real to lose. My feet hurt like they haven’t been used in a decade, which they mostly haven’t.
The streets are quieter now, aside from the occasional rooster. A tired hush settles over shadows that seemed alive mere hours before. Under a street lamp, I catch eyes with something. At first it looks like a feral cat, the eyes are so low to the ground, so intense. Then I see the hand. He’s a thin man with no legs, just a torso propped on the ground, one large hand reaching out and pointing at me accusingly. I jerk back a little and clutch the shoes tighter, then feel ashamed. He won’t be taking my shoes.
I can guess what happened to his legs. Reno was hit with drillers about six months before the war ended. Drillers are small plastic bombs the size of pens but shaped like crude screws. When released by the thousands from drones, most of them drilled a few feet into soft earth and sat there, undisturbed, until a weight – like a tractor or even a human body – caused them to compress and explode. Because they’re plastic, they were hard to detect and because of their shape, they were even harder to remove without detonation. They’d mostly been used by Mexico and its allies to decimate America’s agriculture supplies during the war, but in the last year, our enemies had gotten careless or cruel. Vegas and Reno had been targeted. Our Pops said that was because the cities had become tactical military strongholds – far enough from the coastline to be safe from the outright bombings that had leveled big cities like New York and Los Angeles. The drillers weren’t powerful enough to destroy skyscrapers. They ripped through people and houses instead.
The drillers were spread for miles past city limits, effectively trapping people in town to starve. We didn’t all starve, but just barely. Years later and we are still trapped here, the only reliable way in or out of town by train, which the military controls. As if we had someplace better to go.
The legless man waves his gigantic hand at me and I realize it isn’t a hand at all – it’s a large foam “we’re No. 1” finger. He wags it in a “move along” type gesture, so I do.
The government opened the foam finger factories a few years into the war to bolster American spirits and give all the wounded vets sent home something to do. Pops had been offered a job at one when he was discharged but he never went, never even left the house. By the time the war ended, most of the factories had been burned down by their workers. The foam fingers were good for something, though – street sleepers used them to keep their hands and feet warm when temperatures dipped at night.
I’m a few blocks from home when the sun starts sliding up the Sierras. I consider sneaking back in through my bedroom window but worry about leaving footprints in the yard. If Vivian is any kind of mother she’ll notice the prints when she’s out watering her potato; if she’s any kind of mother she’ll recognize them as mine. So I head back in through the kitchen, still cradling my shoes. Pops is snoring on the couch. Los is not here. Peasant’s bedroom is also empty. I wonder what happened to Peasant the way you worry on a question you really don’t want the answer to.
I set the shoes on my floor. I loosen the laces and slide one dirty foot inside. It feels odd, alien, like the first time you breathe through a gas mask. It fits, mostly. I try to flex my toes but can’t – they’re packed tighter than bodies in a ration line. I put the other on and do a little jump. Then I spend the next little while trying to re-teach myself how to tie laces until a noise reminds me that I’m never alone in this house. I hide the shoes under my bed, which is a piss-poor hiding place but I’m not clever enough to think of anything better.
I fall asleep just as the morning heat beats dawn to our door. You can watch it approach, the wall of warm wind and red dusk riding in from the east, sweeping across the flat plains of the Great Basin to whip at the tattered towels curtaining my bedroom window. They hit our adobe wall with a rhythmic slap slap slap. Call it nature’s lullaby.
My first outside run I don’t even make it to the end of the alley before I’m bent over, sucking air in the dark. I try again. And again. And again. Sometimes I hear quiet laughter that makes my skin itch but I ignore my audience. I repeat these sprints, less than half a block long, until my legs are shaking, on fire. A week later I can make it the whole block in one shot. Two weeks later I can feel my calves sprouting. Three weeks later, when my feet leave the ground it feels like I’m flying.
I’m ready when I next see the girls: Shoes double knotted, I launch myself out of my bedroom window as the leader of the pack stops under the streetlight. I walk, slowly towards the streetlamp, knowing I have darkness on my side. Still, the main girl, she must sense that I’m different from the normal human detritus that litters the streets. She quiets the other girls and turns towards me.
“What do you want?”
I step into the circle of light. “My name is Rio––”
“What do you want?”
My pretty speech ruined, I get to the point. “I want to run with you.”
I hear the quiet snorts of pity laughter.
“No,” she says. Several ponytails flip in unison and suddenly, my stupid hair feels stupid.
I step further under the streetlamp. “I’ve got shoes––”
“Got anything else?”
“Like what?” I ask, confused.
“Go home, little girl,” one of the girls say.
“I’m bigger than you.”
“Bet you’re not faster,” she snaps back.
“Bet I am.”
More laughter. I can’t see her face or anyone else’s. As I’d advanced further under the glare of the streetlamp, they’d retreated to the edges of its glow in a large semicircle.
I’m sick of being laughed at. At this very moment I don’t even care if they let me run with them. I just want to win.
“I bet I can outrun you,” I repeat. “Right now.”
There’s a beat of silence, as if the whole block is listening, breath held. I sense movement. Something has been decided without me even knowing. The shadows shift and one girl – the tiny one with the big mouth – joins me in the light, the brim of a ragged ballcap pulled low over her eyes. Her shoes are grubby, taped together.
“Ok Rio,” the main girl says my name like it’s a joke or a curse, “it’s a race. First one to that next street lamp wins.”
A pinprick of light shines two, maybe three blocks down the road, away from downtown. I don’t have time to worry about street craters or twisted ankles or how bad it’ll feel to lose.
“Are you ready?”
The girl next to me crouches low so I do too.
Within a few short steps I’m ahead. My stride has never been longer, chest lifted, arms pumping low at my sides, eyes trained forward on that distant beam of light. I’m grinning in the dark. For the first time since I can remember, I’m proud of myself. Then, a block in my breathing starts to falter. I’ve never sprinted this far. My stride shortens. I see my competitor out of the corner of my eye. I pump my arms harder, willing myself onward, faster. My lungs are on fire, my sides feel as if I’m being stabbed. The light is still so far away. She pulls ahead. Then another girl passes me, and another. I’m enveloped by their graceful pack and just as quickly left behind.
It takes everything I’ve got not to drop. Tears leak out of the corners of my eyes. I’m mad at myself, my arrogance, the betrayal of my body.
Finally, I reach the light and collapse to my knees under its glow, wheezing. Only then do I realize that I’m not dead last. The leader girl slows to a walk behind me. Her breathing is hardly hitched.
“You’re very average,” she says. “Don’t feel bad. That’s better than I expected.”
None of the girls laugh this time. I register both the insult and the compliment but neither really matters. I failed.
Her feet walk closer. Her shoes are also taped together. Her heels have holes.
“Who are you guys?” I ask.
“We’re not guys, we’re runners,” she says.
I push myself to my feet and take another deep, ragged breath. Her face is in shadow.
“How do I get faster?”
She shrugs. “Run from stuff like your life depends on it.”
A shout echoes down the street, then another. I turn toward the sound like a fool but without hesitation the road runners. Flashlight beams bounce our way, all accusatory. Peacekeepers.
“Wait!” I yell. I don’t know what to do. Maybe I said that second part aloud or maybe the panic in that one word was enough to make her stop. She grabs my hand and pulls me from the spotlight.
And then we’re running again, my legs tripping, skipping to keep up. She runs with purpose, at the edge of the street this time, jumping over holes and outstretched arms and trash, further away from downtown. I’m slowing her down. The soldiers are gaining. Fortunately for us, their flashlight beams are useless while they run.
Suddenly, she jerks me onto the sidewalk and behind a junked out car. Dusty blankets are thrown over my head. Someone hisses at us and then sees the beams and shuts up. We all freeze. I clutch the blankets. Even the quiet holds its breath. The sounds of boots on pavement echo louder than shots. They stop.
“Which way did they go?”
“Damned if I know. Every way, it seemed like.”
I see now why she’s picked this spot. A lone street lamp stands in the middle of a roundabout about 10 feet past us, surrounded by a moat of cars. The boots heads towards the moat, their eyes and beams drawn to the shifts and shadows there. They stick their beams in the cars of people’s homes, these men with guns.
“You seen a pack of girls run past here?” One of the men shouts into the dark. Then, louder, addressing the entire block: “I got a steak coupon in exchange for some road runners.”
I smirk and the darkness smirks with me. Offering coupons to this crowd is like offering a yacht to a horse. When you’ve got no money, half off of something is still too much.
“No one? Not anyone out there with eyes and a working brain left in their heads? You slick pieces of street shit remember what steak is, right?”
A rooster cackles. The streetlamp buzzes. The Peacekeepers fiddle with their flashlights and guns, their PO badges winking in the light. Their badges get them into any casino in town. They get them steak for free.
“A gallon of water,” the other suddenly says. My breath catches. He’s not shouting, just talking normal, but the word ‘water’ carries the weight of a shout. This is a man who knows his audience.
Someone moves in the shadows behind them. I doubt I can outrun the soldiers from this distance. My legs are shaking. If I run again, they might shoot me. Then I realize the person – it’s a girl – is walking from the wrong direction to rat us out. There’s no way she could’ve seen us hide. They greet her like an old friend or a pet dog, or some combination of the two. Their voices turn jovial, like they’ve forgotten about us.
She nods as they talk and her hair catches my eye. It gleams like fool’s gold under the steet light. It shines like the hair of a gold-leafed Madonna. Like my sister’s hair. I try but can’t see her face. The burlier of the two soldiers – Sir Steaks a Lot – hands the girl something. She returns to the shadows and they follow, back the way they came.