I need to get close to a Peacekeeper but I don’t know how to make a Peacekeeper need me. Hell, I don’t know how to make my own family need me. My brother and sister definitely don’t need me, and Pops only needs me when he thinks I’m my dead sister.
I’ve never even talked to a soldier, except the ones who came to our door bearing urns and flags. Now I watch them sweep through the streets and remember what it felt like to be hunted. How do you make someone you fear need you?
I can’t figure out an answer, so instead of dreaming up ways to woo a badge off a Peacekeeper – as impossible seeming a task as a four-minute mile – I casually stalk Peasant for a week. I thought it would be hard but really, it’s not. It began one night while I was practicing sprints in the alley at sunset while the roosters crow and cackle. When dusk retired for the night and the power cut out, I heard the back door open and watched my barefoot sister walk out, barefoot among the junk like Persephone among her flowers.
Every night now, she travels alone to the neon jungle. I follow in my sneakers and a cap.
Some nights, she slips behind casinos and emerges from the shadows with wrapped packages. Other nights she stands out front of Circus Circus for hours with the beggars. Only once do I see Los but they don’t speak as he enters the casino. No one stops him.
One rowdy night in front of Circus Circus, an off-duty soldier with hard lips grabs her hand and tries to pull her inside. She doesn’t look his way, simply flicks her wrist, breaking his grasp. He frowns and moves to try again but just like that, she’s absorbed into a crowd of niños sin camas as my abuela once called them – the children without bedtimes. (She actually called them “children without beds” but as a jealous kid I reasoned no beds meant no bedtimes.) They’re barely larger than stray dogs but their numbers can be overwhelming. Together, they surround the jilted soldier, pulling at his crisp clothing with small hands, waving junk for sale.
That’s the thing about Peasant: I can follow her until my eyelids are heavy and my arches are caving in but at some point every night I lose her. It seems I’m not the only one.
Then the day comes when I discover something that Peasant needs: me. Or rather, my shoes. It’s early afternoon on Ration Day. Somehow, Vivian came home with twice our usual water rations and then pissed away half of it by watering her favorite dirt patch in the front yard while I watched and seethed. Peasant comes into my room with a bag of chips, this time bbq flavored, and a government-issued flask, the kind the soldiers carry. I try to ignore her – she wasn’t invited and I’m re-reading Dante’s Inferno – but I know what’s in that flask.
“Want some water?” she asks.
I don’t know where the women in my family get their extra water. It’s as if their fingertips are divining rods. I take the flask, unscrew the cap and inhale. Isn’t it strange to crave something you can’t describe – something without a smell or taste or color? Maybe that’s what being in love is like.
I drink the whole flask. I meant to stop halfway but I couldn’t. Peasant offers me the chips but I refuse. I don’t want anything to disrupt the sensation of my thirstless mouth. Maybe I am in love.
She pops a chip into her mouth and flips through the pages of my book, losing my place.
“I taught you to read from it, remember?” I say. “We sat on the living room floor and read Canto III to each other over and over.”
“You didn’t teach me to read.”
“Uh, yes I did.”
“No, you didn’t. Los did.”
“We both did.”
“No, you just pinched me when I got words wrong.”
I’d forgotten that.
“Yeah, well, worse things happen once you leave purgatory. Now get out of my room.”
But she doesn’t. She just sits there and strokes its pages.
Finally: “You have shoes,” she says. “I need to borrow them.”
I laugh. “Get out of my room. Now.”
“Just for a night –”
“Please. I really need this.”
“That’s too bad for you. Me and potatoes live to disappoint. Get out.”
I push her butt off the bed with my foot. She grabs my ankle.
“Please. Don’t make me beg. I need to be able to run and not get caught,” she says.
Well, this is interesting.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Then I can’t help you.”
“Why don’t you go ask Los for shoes?” I ask.
“He can’t know I need them,” she says.
Bingo. “Tell me why you need them or I tell Los.”
She sighs. “Fine. I need a PO badge.”
Huh. I need a PO badge. I don’t even know what a Peacekeeper’s PO badge does or how to get one, but it seems like Peasant might.
“I can run,” I say. “I’ll get it for you if you tell me how.”
For the first time in years, Peasant looks at me like I’m her hero. It only makes me feel a little guilty.
“Sure. That’s what sisters are for.”
The plan is probably a stupid one but it’s the only one we’ve got. I follow Peasant downtown like I have so many other nights, step in step this time, headed towards the lights like grim moths to a flame.
“One more thing,” she says, “if you get detained, don’t give them your real name, ask to speak to Sergeant Willy Wagner. If he’s not on duty, just shut your mouth and wait for him. Tell him you’re Pops’ daughter. They served together.”
“Wait – have you ever been arrested?”
She looks at me like I’m stupid. “Of course. You need to be quick. You don’t want to be in their system.”
“It happened a few times in the beginning,” she says, not elaborating on what the hell “the beginning” was – or when. “Some of the soldiers get handsy and they don’t like it when you resist. They’ll take you in for resisting. I’m serious. People don’t come back.”
“But you’re still a juvenile.”
“No, I’m not – and that doesn’t matter. They take kids, too.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. My birthday was in August. I’m 13.”
Oh shit, I’d forgotten her birthday. We all had. It’s easy to forget dates when time has no meaning. I feel bad for a second but she doesn’t seem to dwell on it. She grabs my arm.
“Rio, you have to be careful down here,” she says. “Prison is a death sentence – a very slow one. Once you’re in their system, you’re never anonymous. Even if you get out, you’re never safe.”
I nod but mentally I’m brushing off the warning – whatever her birthday is, she’s still a child and I’m a runner, I remind myself. A road runner. My legs and lungs are getting stronger every day. This will be fun.
When Peasant gets to the giant, jeering clown mouth that leads inside Circus Circus, I’m right on her heels. Together, we wait, not touching or talking, surrounded by hawkers and the children without bedtimes. I had grabbed a few foam We’re No. 1! fingers from the gutter on our way downtown and now I wave them in soldiers’ faces as they enter the casino, shouting, “You’re no. 1 for only one ‘scrip! Only one ‘scrip and you, too, can be no. 1!”
‘Scrips are vouchers to see a doctor, like immediately – outside the compulsory 15-minute wellness checkups and mass vaccinations that happen each fall in the ration tents. Peacekeepers are supposed to issue ‘scrips to people who seem like they need urgent medical attention – it’s part of their whole “serve and protect” schtick – but in reality, they make you barter for them. Or beg.
No one’s going to give me a ‘scrip for some trash I found on the street but it’s a nice cover and gives me something to do while we wait.
Thunder clouds are gathering. Around us, people put out bowls, old pots, even hats to collect any stray drops of rain, not that our thunderstorms usually gift us with much. Framed against the black sky, Peasant’s blond hair reflects the neon lights. Every now and then, one of the children without bedtimes raises a dirty hand and lets it hover just over her back, stroking the air that surrounds her. No one is immune to Peasant’s magic.
Then I see her shoulders hunch. The grinning doors of Circus Circus slide open and out walks a group of Peacekeepers, one of whom I recognize. Children swarm the group, including a soldier about my age in uniform, his PO badge swinging from his breast pocket. He’s got a hard little mouth and eyes that bore into my sister like twin pissholes in the sand. He towers over us. Adrenaline kicks in. I’m ready with one foam finger when he reaches for her.
“Hey kitten, you’re in luck –” he begins.
“–You’re no. 1! You’re no. 1! Only one ‘scrip and You’re no. 1!” I shout, waving a finger in his face. He smells familiar, like my Pops – like sad clowns and bathtub rum. It makes me bold.
He lurches back but the children are pawing at his crisp uniform, begging for food and water and attention, giving me the perfect cover.
I snake my non-foam-finger hand out and snip the wire on his PO badge with a pair of mother’s rusty gardening shears. It falls to the ground, Peasant kicks it back, I reach down and pocket it and the shears, and go back to shouting about ‘scrips, all within a few seconds.
Holy shit, I’m a Queen Genius, I think, then remember the plan was Peasant’s, not mine.
We are Queen Geniuses, I mentally amend, gripping the hard edges of the badge in my pocket. I wonder how long it’ll take her to forgive me.
I take a step, ready to flee, but my back hits something solid, and I turn to find another PO badge dangling in my face. The soldier grabs my wrist, flinging the foam hand off, as a raw fear that’s been absent for years sweeps my body, leaving me speechless and cold and gulping convulsively as if trying to swallow all of my lies and betrayals before they can escape.
But the soldier’s eyes aren’t on me – he’s watching Peasant and her brutish suitor.
He looks like an idiot – jutting jaw, a nose like a doorknob, lips that probably smack together when he talks – like one of those idiots whose mother loved him too much to tell him what an idiot he was, and now if I work this right, his generous stores of unearned confidence will be his downfall. Because I see it: a chance to make everything right, to get what I want and be the hero Peasant expects.
My free hand fumbles for the shears but as I get a good grip on the handle, the idiot remembers me.
“Do you know her?” he asks, studying my plain face. His breath stinks of hot Clown Juice.
“She’s my sister,” I say. That’s the problem with having inattentive parents – there’s little motivation to learn how to lie on command. He twists my wrist for leverage and leads me back to Peasant and her soldier.
“You two? Yeah, sure. Hey Phillips, we got a couple of ‘sisters’,” he says, mockingly. “What’s your name, pinto bean?”
I blank again. Pinto bean?
“Persephone,” I say. Peasant glares.
“And what’s her name?” he asks, jerking his big chin at Peasant.
“Rio,” Peasant says, her voice so sour she could spit acid.
“Well, Phillips, what do you want to do with a couple of sisters?”
“We’re not going anywhere with you,” Peasant says.
“He didn’t ask you,” Phillips replies. “It’s a nice night. Let’s take them somewhere with a view.” “Farm 17?” The men exchange smiles at some private joke.
“We’d love to see the farm,” I say, having never been to a farm or knowing what he meant and not really caring. Maybe I was naturally too brave to be scared or maybe I was too wrapped up in my own cleverness to see the obvious: that two girls and a pair of garden shears are no match for two drunk soldiers with guns. Or maybe, despite living through a war that wiped out half my city and most of my family, I was too naive to think anything bad could happen to us. Because I really didn’t think anything bad could happen to us.