"Lucas isn't back yet," Stick finally mumbled as we came to my room, one of the many empty spaces along the hall.
In the years I had been here, I'd fixed it up the best I could.
Plastic bags covered the shattered windows, keeping out the rain and damp. An old mattress lay in one corner with my blanket and pillow. I'd even managed to find a folding table, a couple chairs and a plastic shelf for various clutter, little things I wanted to keep. I'd built a nice little lair for myself, and the best part was my door still locked from the inside, so I could get some privacy if I wanted.
"What about Rat?" I asked, pushing on my door.
As the door squeaked open, a wiry boy with lank brown hair jerked around, beady eyes widening. He was older than me and Stick, with sharp features and a front tooth that stuck out like a fang, giving him a permanent sneer.
Rat swore when he saw me, and my blood boiled. This was my space, my territory. He had no right to be here. "Rat," I snarled, bursting through the doorway. "Why are you snooping around my room? Looking for things to steal?" Rat held up his arm, and my stomach went cold. In one grubby hand, he held an old, faded book, the cover falling off, the pages crumpled. I recognized it instantly. It was a made-up story, a fantasy, the tale of four kids who went through a magic wardrobe and found themselves in a strange new world.
I'd read it more times than I could remember, and although I sneered at the thought of a magical land with friendly, talking animals, there were times when I wished, in my most secret moments, that I could find a hidden door that would take us all out of this place.
"What the hell is this?" Rat said, holding up the book.
Having been caught red-handed, he quickly switched to the offensive. "Books? Why are you collecting garbage like that?
As if you even know how to read." He snorted and tossed the book to the f loor. "Do you know what the vamps would do, if they found out? Does Lucas know about your little trash collection?"
"That's none of your business," I snapped, stepping farther into the room. "This is my room, and I'll keep what I want.
Now get lost, before I tell Lucas to throw you out on your skinny white ass."
Rat snickered. He hadn't been with the group long, a few months at most. He claimed he'd come from another sector and that his old gang had kicked him out, but he'd never said why. I suspected it was because he was a lying, thieving bastard. Lucas wouldn't even have considered letting him stay if we hadn't lost two members the previous winter. Patrick and Geoffrey, two Unregistered brothers who were daring to the point of stupidity, who bragged the vampires would never catch them. They were too quick, they claimed. They knew all the best escape tunnels. And then one night they went out looking for food as usual...and never came back.
Kicking the book aside, Rat took a threatening step forward and straightened so that he loomed over me. "You got a big mouth, Allie," he snarled, his breath hot and foul. "Better watch out. Lucas can't be around to protect you all the time. Think about that." He leaned in, crowding me. "Now get out of my face, before I bitch slap you across the room.
I'd hate for you to start crying in front of your boyfriend." He tried pushing me back. I dodged, stepped close and slammed my fist into his nose as hard as I could.
Rat shrieked, staggering backward, hands f lying to his face.
Stick yelped from behind me. Blinking through tears, Rat screamed a curse and swung at my head, clumsy and awkward. I ducked and shoved him into the wall, hearing the thump of his head against the plaster.
"Get out of my room," I growled as Rat slid down the wall, dazed. Stick had f led to a corner and was hiding behind the table. "Get out and stay out, Rat. If I see you in here again, I swear you'll be eating through a straw the rest of your life." Rat pushed himself upright, leaving a smear of red on the plaster. Wiping his nose, he spat a curse at me and stumbled out, kicking over a chair as he left. I slammed and locked the door behind him.
"Bastard. Thieving, lying bastard. Ow." I looked down at my fist and frowned. My knuckle had been cut on Rat's tooth and was starting to well with blood. "Ew. Oh, great, I hope I don't catch something nasty."
"He's going to be mad," Stick said, venturing out from behind the table, pale and frightened. I snorted.
"So what? Let him try something. I'll break his nose the other way." Grabbing a rag from the shelf, I pressed it to my knuckle. "I'm tired of listening to his crap, thinking he can do anything he wants just because he's bigger. He's had it coming for a while."
"He might take it out on me, " Stick said, and I bristled at the accusing tone, as if I should know better. As if I didn't think of how it might affect him.
"So kick him in the shin and tell him to back off," I said, tossing the rag on the shelf and carefully picking up the abused book. Its cover had been ripped off, and the front page was torn, but it seemed otherwise intact. "Rat picks on you 'cause you take it. If you fight back, he'll leave you alone." Stick didn't say anything, lapsing into sullen silence, and I bit down my irritation. He wouldn't fight back. He would do what he always did-run to me and expect me to help him. I sighed and knelt beside a plastic box by the back wall.
Normally, it was hidden by an old sheet, but Rat had ripped that off and tossed it in the corner, probably looking for food or other things to steal. Sliding back the top, I studied the contents.
It was half full of books, some like the paperback I held in my hand, some larger, with sturdier covers. Some were moldy, some half charred. I knew them all, front to back, cover to cover. This was my most prized, most secret, possession. If the vamps knew I had a stash like this, they'd shoot us all and raze this place to the ground. But to me, the risk was worth it. The vamps had outlawed books in the Fringe and had systematically gutted every school and library building once they'd taken over, and I knew why. Because within the pages of every book, there was information of another world-a world before this one, where humans didn't live in fear of vampires and walls and monsters in the night. A world where we were free.
Carefully, I replaced the small paperback, and my gaze shifted to another well-worn book, its colors faded, a mold stain starting to eat one corner. It was larger than the others, a children's picture book, with brightly colored animals dancing across the front. I ran my fingers over the cover and sighed.
Stick had ventured close again, peering over my shoulder at the tote. "Did Rat take anything?" he asked softly.
"No," I muttered, shutting the lid, hiding my treasures from view. "But you might want to check your room, as well. And return anything you borrowed recently, just in case."
"I haven't borrowed anything for months," Stick said, sounding frightened and defensive at the thought, and I bit down a sharp reply. Not long ago, before Rat came to the group, I would often find Stick in his room, huddled against the wall with one of my books, completely absorbed in the story. I'd taught him to read myself; long, painstaking hours of us sitting on my mattress, going over words and letters and sounds. It had taken a while for Stick to learn, but once he did, it became his favorite way to escape, to forget everything right outside his door.
Then Patrick had told him what vampires did to Fringers who could read books, and now he wouldn't touch them. All that work, all that time, all for nothing. It pissed me off that Stick was too scared of the vamps to learn anything new. I'd offered to teach Lucas, but he was f lat-out not interested, and I wasn't going to bother with Rat.
Stupid me, thinking I could pass on anything useful to this bunch.
But there was more to my anger than Stick's fear or Lucas's ignorance. I wanted them to learn, to better themselves, because that was just one more thing the vampires had taken from us. They taught their pets and thralls to read, but the rest of the population they wanted to keep blind, stupid and in the dark. They wanted us to be mindless, passive animals.
If enough people knew what life was like...before...how long would it be until they rose up against the bloodsuckers and took everything back?
It was a dream I didn't voice to anyone, not even myself.
I couldn't force people to want to learn. But that didn't stop me from trying.
Stick backed up as I stood, tossing the sheet over the box again. "You think he found the other spot?" he asked tentatively. "Maybe you should check that one, too." I gave him a resigned look. "Are you hungry? Is that what you're saying?"
Stick shrugged, looking hopeful. "Aren't you?" I rolled my eyes and walked to the mattress in the corner, dropping to my knees again. Pushing the mattress up revealed the loose boards underneath, and I pried them free, peering into the dark hole.
"Damn," I muttered, feeling around the tiny space. Not much left-a stale lump of bread, two peanuts and one potato that was beginning to sprout eyes. This was what Rat had probably been looking for: my private cache. We all had them somewhere, hidden away from the rest of the world. Unregistereds didn't steal from each other; at least, we weren't supposed to. That was the unspoken rule. But, at our hearts, we were all thieves, and starvation drove people to do desperate things. I hadn't survived this long by being naive. The only one who knew about this hole was Stick, and I trusted him.
He wouldn't risk everything he had by stealing from me.
I gazed over the pathetic items and sighed. "Not good," I muttered, shaking my head. "And they're really cracking down out there, lately. No one is trading ration tickets anymore, for anything."
My stomach felt hollow, nothing new to me, as I replaced the f loorboards and split the bread with Stick. I was almost always hungry in some form or another, but this had progressed to the serious stage. I hadn't eaten anything since last night. My scavenging that morning hadn't gone well. After several hours of searching my normal stakeouts, all I had to show for it was a cut palm and an empty stomach. Raiding old Thompson's rat traps hadn't worked; the rats were either getting smarter or he was finally making a dent in the rodent population. I'd scaled the fire escape to widow Tanner's rooftop garden, carefully easing under the razor-wire fence only to find the shrewd old woman had done her harvest early, leaving nothing but empty boxes of dirt behind. I'd searched the back-alley Dumpsters behind Hurley's trading shop; sometimes, though rarely, there would be a loaf of bread so moldy not even a rat would touch it, or a sack of soybeans that had gone bad, or a rancid potato. I wasn't picky; my stomach had been trained to keep down most anything, no matter how disgusting. Bugs, rats, maggoty bread, I didn't care as long as it faintly resembled food. I could eat what most people couldn't stomach, but today, it seemed Lady Luck hated me worse than usual.
And continuing to hunt after the execution was impossible. The pet's continued presence in the Fringe made people nervous. I didn't want to risk thievery with so many of the pet's guards wandering about. Besides, stealing food so soon after three people had been hanged for it was just asking for trouble.
Scavenging in familiar territory was getting me nowhere.
I'd used up all resources here, and the Registereds were getting wise to my methods. Even if I crossed into other sectors, most of the Fringe had been picked clean long, long ago. In a city full of scavengers and opportunists, there just wasn't anything left. If we wanted to eat, I was going to have to venture farther.