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The Young World
By Chris Weitz
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of The New Order
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IT'S ANOTHER GORGEOUS SPRING DAY after the fall of civilization. I'm doing my rounds, following the path that winds through Washington Square Park like a warped infinity sign. I pass the tables where old men used to play chess, now Brainbox's open-air workshop. Then the fountain, witness to innumerable first dates, proffers of marijuana, and shrieking aquatic sallies of children. Now it's the tribe's reservoir, covered with tarps to keep out pigeon feces and algae-encouraging sunshine.
The statue of Garibaldi, or Gary Baldy, as we call him, is festooned with plastic leis, Mardi Gras beads, retro rappers' bling. The trophies of scavenging expeditions into the badlands outside the walls. The doomed quarters: Broadway, Houston, the shooting galleries of the West Village. Taped to the pedestal, mementos of the dead. Snaps of moms, dads, little brothers and sisters, lost pets. What Mom used to call "real pictures," to distinguish them from digital files. Hard copies are where it's at now that millions and millions of memories are lost in the cloud. An ocean of ones and zeros signifying nothing.
Through the stone arch with Washington (Founder of Our Country Washington, not my big brother Washington) on horseback, you can see all the way up Fifth to the Empire State Building. Smoke still issues from the highest floors. Kids say that's where he lives, the Old Man, the one adult who survived What Happened. Kids say a lot of shit.
Where there used to be grass and flowers, swing sets and dog runs, there are rows and rows of vegetables. Frank is bitching out a work party. And they take it. Yesterday's country mouse is today's savior. Frank grew up on a farm, and he's the only one among us who knows how to grow stuff. Without him, we'd all have rickets or scurvy or something else we'd never have worried about Before.
A foraging party comes in by the Thompson Street gate. Some canned food, some siphoned gas for the generators. A little red Honda 2000i 2k Jenny putters away, charging up walkie batteries and other essentials. Plus the occasional indulgence, an iPod or a Game Boy, if you can persuade BB to let you plug in.
Leaves hiss in the wind and jump to their deaths from high branches. A gust blows in from the north, presenting a bouquet of burning plastic and rotting flesh.
My walkie coughs.
"We've got company coming south on Fifth. Over."
It's Donna, on the other side of the park. I set off at a jog.
"How far away?" I ask. And, when there's no response, I wonder if I didn't press down the Talk button properly. But then her voice pops up again.
"You didn't say over," says Donna. "Over."
"Jesus, Donna, over? Okay? Over, over. How many and how far away? Over."
"They're halfway between Ninth and Eighth. About ten of them. Heavily armed. Over."
"They're not ours?"
"They're not ours."
Donna can see practically straight down from her perch outside the walls, high up in a building on Eighth. I can make out the end of her rifle barrel projecting from a window.
"You didn't say over," I say.
"Oopsies. Over. You want me to shoot? They're right under me now, but I'll have a clear shot once they get past. Over."
"Do. Not. Shoot. Over."
"Fine, it's your funeral. Let me know if you want me to kill 'em. Over."
It's time to raise the alarm.
Near each entrance to the park, bolted onto a tree, is an old-fashioned winding Klaxon. God knows where Brainbox found them. I turn the handle, the inertia slowing me and worrying my tendons. The whine starts slow and low and, as the gears catch, turns into a scream out of hell.
As I turn the handle, I think about calories: how much heat I'm expending, how much I've taken in today. When you don't put in more than you burn, you start to die. I think, uselessly, about burgers and fries and cinnamon buns. Historical delicacies, unthinkable luxuries.
Sixty seconds later, our firing positions are bristling.
Six guns, a good part of our arsenal, point down Fifth Avenue from the slits in the armored school bus blocking the street. Plus Donna's sniper rifle behind them. The doors of the buildings approaching the barricade were boarded up months ago, and the street cleared as a free-fire zone.
Wash has joined the party. I'm looking for him to take the lead. But Generalissimo Washington just shrugs. Your turn, little brother.
"They're heavily armed," I say. As in, this is no time for practice.
"Then you better have a plan," says Wash.
Fine. I shoulder my AR-15 and scuttle into the school bus.
Its stuffed leatherette cushions are slashed to pieces. The walls are tagged with gallows humor:
PARTY AT MY HOUSE TONIGHT! PARENTS DEAD.
"Fuck the world."—me "No, fuck you!"—the world
Remember! Today is the first day of the rest of the end of everything.
I walk past the kids in the firing line. And I notice that even when the world has gone to hell, people still have a sense of fashion. The looting opportunities in our particular neck of the woods have made for some pretty eclectic looks. Prada overcoats with military insignia, peasant dresses cinched with ammo belts. This guy Jack even went full-on transvestite. It's not like his folks are gonna kick him out. And nobody else is going to quarrel with him. The guy is six feet tall and built like the proverbial brick shithouse.
Note to self: It would be nice to have a brick shithouse.
I remember reading somewhere that the guys in Napoleon's army who did all the dangerous recon missions got kind of flashy and dressed up in all sorts of swag. They called them the advance guard, or the avant-garde.
That puts me in mind of these books by Patrick O'Brian, with the lines of men ready by their cannons on the gun decks, and that movie they made with the Australian guy, and I think of saying something like, Steady, lads. Await the order, but that sounds lame, so instead I just pat them on the back or give them a slap on the butt, like we're getting ready for the big game.
"Hey!" one of the gunners responds when I pat her on the behind. It's that girl Carolyn, the blond who used to be kind of a fashionista before What Happened. Whoops. Even after the apocalypse, girls don't like to get slapped on the butt.
"Sorry," I say. "Totally nonsexual." I try to say it in a cool, devil-may-care kind of way.
She gives me a look like, You're damn right it's nonsexual, but I don't have time to explain. I shimmy into the observation post that Brainbox built in the front passenger seat.
There are ten of them, like Donna said; she has a good eye. All of them male, I think. Getting on in years, maybe sixteen or seventeen. They're in green camouflage, which is totally useless in the city. Their suits are festooned with all these military ribbons and medals and crap. Each one has some sort of school crest over his heart. And little skull patches lined up on their shoulders, like the miniature flags on old fighter planes.
There's a guy hefting one of those chunky machine guns, the kind with the feeder belt of bullets. A BAR? Wash knows what that's called. And I'm worried about the flamethrower another guy has, which, as I'm watching, he ignites with an old Zippo lighter.
Bandoliers of grenades, grappling hooks, the works. AR-15s like mine. They must have hit an armory.
"Whaddya want?" I shout. Aggressive, but not too showy. The way Wash would do it.
"I want to talk to the boss," says one of the strangers, a blond kid, seventeen maybe, blue eyes, cheekbones. Quarterback type. Type I wouldn't like back before It Happened. Type I don't like even more now.
Everybody in the bus waits for Wash to say something. But Wash has left me high and dry here. Thanks, brother.
I return my mouth to the speaking tube. Ow. Gotta get Brainbox to cushion the mouth hole.
"I'm the boss."
"You're kinda young for the boss," says Cheekbones. Our eyes meet through the ballistic glass.
"I'm the boss, okay? What do you want?"
But Cheekbones doesn't want to just get to the point. He bows, then starts intoning a speech like he's wandered in from Game of Thrones.
"Greetings to the Washington Square Clan from the Uptown Confederacy. We seek to parley."
One of the kids on our firing line titters, and I think they hear it, because they look at one another like they were expecting some sort of ceremonial response.
"Parley means—" says Cheekbones.
"I know what parley means," I say. "You could just say you want to talk."
"Fine. We want to talk, okay? We want to talk business."
They pull something forward on a leash.
It's a pig. Not a curly-tailed, kid's-book-cute pig, but a big, stinky porker.
Who knows how they got it here from Uptown, through miles of hostile territory. They are looking kind of knocked around, and one of them seems to have a bullet wound; at any rate, his arm is in a sling and the blood is still bright red. A recent scrap, maybe up by Union Square. I heard gunfire this morning. But then I hear gunfire every morning.
"Okay. I'm assuming the pig is not your boyfriend, so that's what we're 'parleying' about?"
Cheekbones doesn't like me, but he's here to get things done, so he says, "Yeah, smart-ass, that's what we're here to trade."
"Okay. I'm a reasonable man. What do you want for it?"
Now he starts talking it up. "This is a prize pig from the Hansen farm upstate. One hundred percent USDA Grade-A Fancy, certified organic."
"You are aware," I say, "that there is no USDA anymore and that eating organic is the least of our concerns."
"Whatever. Its brother tasted good."
I look over at Frank. He shrugs. "Looks tasty. Nice and plump."
"Okay," I shout to Cheekbones. "Looks a little scrawny, but we might be able to trade. What do you want for it?"
And here's where things get really weird, because the guy says:
There's a pause, or what my textese friends would describe as a WTF moment.
Cheekbones goes back into Tolkien mode and enunciates. "We will trade the pig for two females."
Your SAT word of the day is nonplussed.
"You mean human females?" I ask, and the guy shrugs like it's the most natural thing in the world: Yeah, two girls for a pig. What's the big deal?
Donna comes over the walkie-talkie. "Jefferson? What's he want? I can't hear. Over."
Thinking it best not to tell our trigger-happy feminist sniper that these sociopaths want to trade pigs for girls (at a pretty unflattering rate of exchange, for that matter), I don't answer.
"Helllooooo? What's going on there? Over."
"I'm handling it, Donna, thank you very much. Over."
But how am I handling it? I can't say exactly. The girls on the firing line are looking at me.
I clear my throat. "Um, jeez, fellas, what the hell are you talking about? I mean, I'm sorry if you're feeling kind of lonely, but—"
"We've got plenty of girls. We just want more," says a big guy among the Uptowners, who has a lacrosse stick with a grenade in it. Why, why, has the whole world gone all Mad Max on me? Cheekbones stares him down, like he doesn't want anybody else talking.
"My colleague is right," he says. "We've got plenty of girls, we've got plenty of food, we've got plenty of everything uptown—electricity, running water, whatever they want. I don't know, makeup and shit. Look."
Cheekbones eyeballs the one girl in their group, a pretty, angry-looking blond. She steps, or is pushed, forward.
"Tell them about Uptown," he says to her. "Tell the girls they have nothing to worry about."
But she doesn't say anything. I look closer, and maybe it's the word makeup that did it, but I can't help noticing that she's got a bit of flesh-tone makeup on the left side of her face, which is where you'd hit somebody if you're right-handed.
I don't like it. Not even if there were girls in our group who wanted to leave. I wouldn't send them with these fascists, and I sure as hell wouldn't trade a person for a pig, no matter how much I miss bacon.
"Can I please just shoot that bitch?" says Carolyn, and I realize she's talking about the Uptowner girl, and I think, Why does Carolyn want to take it out on her? I'm not sure I'm ever going to understand the way girls think.
Anyway, she pulls back the slide on her rifle, and they hear it out there, and there's a whole lot of weapon-cocking and magazine-jamming and safety-take-offing from the Uptowners, who get down on their knees and bellies and point their guns right at our firing holes, and I think, Their assault rifles are going to go right through the side of this bus, through the reinforced plates, and we are all going to die.
"This is Donna. Ov—" I turn off the walkie.
Where is Wash? He is nowhere to be seen. He's left this one entirely to Number Two Son.
Then Frank shouts, "You think we playin' Call of Duty here? You think we in multiplayer mode? Over Wi-Fi or some shit? You all gonna get shot up and just respawn someplace? Ain't no Xbox up in here. Ain't no respawn. So chill the fuck out."
He's right. There's no respawn for anybody except the rats. There's no end to them. Kill one and up pops another.
"Bridge to nowhere," I say, the phrase coming to me from sometime in my childhood. In the silence of people getting ready to shoot one another, it has a certain ring.
"What?" says Cheekbones.
"Thanks, but no thanks," I shout. "Be on your way now, O Confederacy of Uptown."
"We'll go to the Fishermen," shouts Cheekbones. Bargaining.
The Fishermen live down on South Street and, as memory serves, bunk in an old tall ship, USS Peking. I think they'd rather be called "the Pirates," but hey.
"Tell them hi. Enjoy the sashimi."
But they just lie there. They actually look glad of the rest. That's when I realize they're not taking their business elsewhere. They don't have a plan B. This pig must go. This is too bad, because if they're out of options, so are we.
"We can take what we need," says Cheekbones.
Don't show any weakness. Wash says that a predator has to think about whether he'll get hurt taking down his prey, even if he knows he'll win.
"No, you can't. Good day to you and Porky."
I see them muttering among themselves—
And I see lacrosse guy reach for the ring on his grenade—
People like to say stuff like, "A shot rang out," but there's nothing melodic about it. It's percussive. POCK! It erases all your senses for a moment, not the least because your instinct is to squeeze your eyes shut and try to find the nearest hole in the ground.
I shout into the walkie. "Donna, I said don't shoot!"
"I didn't do it, Jefferson. Over."
Everybody is frozen—our people, their people. Then suddenly, everybody is shouting at one another, like they used to do on TV and in movies, with all kinds of threats and cursing, but none of our people are hit, and for that matter, none of them look hit, either.
Its eyes roll upward with what I have to say is perfect comic timing. As if to inspect the new hole in its head. It falls like a hinge and THUMPS onto its side, legs twitching.
"Hold your fire!" I shout as my guys (and girls) grip their rifle stocks and take aim.
A couple of the Uptowners grab hold of the pig's legs and try to shift it, but the thing was heavy when it was alive, and dead weight is even heavier. It just doesn't want to cooperate. The dead demonstrate a startling indifference.
With all the trouble it took them to get it downtown, there is practically no way they're going to get that pig back to where it came from, its blood calling out to wild dogs every step of the way.
That must be what Wash had in mind.
My big brother. He stands on top of the wall, tall and handsome, in plain sight of the Uptowners, who now have every one of their guns trained on him.
"Go ahead," says Wash. "Tomorrow's my eighteenth birthday."
I've been trying not to think about it. But he's right. Soon enough… no respawn. So he's daring them to shoot him.
And he didn't even say good-bye. It's selfish, but that's what I think. He didn't even say good-bye.
Wash stands there on top of the wall like a statue, backlit, greeting the future.
Cheekbones, who looks like he really, really wants to shoot Wash dead, lowers his gun and smiles.
"Nah," he says. "I'm not going to do you any favors. Enjoy the Sickness."
The Uptowners are arguing among themselves. Some of them want to storm the gates, and the rest just want to get the hell out of here. Cheekbones finally gets them to shut up, and they withdraw, crabwalking and flashing the muzzles of their guns around in a move they seem to have stolen from a video game.
"This isn't over," shouts Cheekbones.
"Good," says Wash. "Come on back with some baked beans."
After an hour or so, when we've made sure the Uptowners are genuinely gone and not using the pig as bait to snipe at us, we drag it in, chasing away the rats.
A LOT OF BOOKS YOU READ, the author thinks it's cool to have an "unreliable narrator." To keep you guessing and to acknowledge that there are no absolutes, and everything is relative, or whatever. Which I think is kind of lame. So—just so you know—I am going to be a reliable narrator. Like, totally. You can trust me.
First thing about me, I'm not beautiful. If you're wondering how to picture me in your head, don't picture, like, some movie star or something.
Maybe the girl next door. Except that it's a little different in New York, because we don't live in houses; we live all stacked up in apartment buildings. I remember every time I saw a TV show about the suburbs, where people, like, played on their lawns and bicycled around, I thought it was so exotic.
So—the girl next floor? Whatever. Point is, don't go nuts. A character actress. The pixieish, wacky best friend, not the one with the legs and the boobs and the perfect teeth.
I mean, I don't think I'm a troll, either. It's just, even with the new end-of-civilization meal plan, I'm not totally happy with my body. Maybe it's the lack of protein. I probably should not be worrying about this. Life is too short.
Ha-ha. Life is too short.
My dad used to say that. I used to call him Dad to annoy him because he wanted me to call him Hal, which isn't that weird, because it was his real name, but come on, it's not the sixties, and my calling him Hal wasn't going to make him any younger. Nope, those girls he wanted to have sex with were still—how to put it?—young enough to be his daughters. Uch.
Well, you're dead, Harold, and so is Mom and every other fucking adult. Talk about the ultimate flake-out. And the little kids. All the little kids. Charlie.
So there's a few things that I'm bummed at my parents about. The fact that they named me after Madonna—not, like, the mother of Jesus but the one who sang "Vogue." Dude.
But am I gonna change it? Nah. Everybody's changing their name, because they figure, why not? It's like, "Hi, my name is Katniss."—"I'm Threeyoncé."—"Call me Ishmael." Forget it. I want to keep some things from Before, even if they're lame.
Yeah, so, (Ma)Donna's problem, nutritionally speaking, is that protein is hard to find. Carbs? Sure. You'd be pretty shocked how long that shitty nonorganic bread, that wonder-of-wonders bread, keeps before blue fuzz starts growing on it. Sometimes the rats get to it first. So what do we eat? The rats. Which, kind of, means we're eating the bread anyway, right? I mean, the rats ate the bread; we ate them.
And what else do the rats eat? Before we eat them? Well, let's not get into that.
We did a whole lot of corpse burning back in the day. Cleansing by fire, Wash called it. Said some dudes called the Zoroastrians used to do it. Yes, I spelled that right. I may not be all SAT-wordy like Wash and Jeff, but no way are they gonna lord it over me, knowing bonus words and shit.
Cleansing by fire! Those were some good times. Douse a bandanna in Chanel No. 5, put on some sassy pink North Face gloves, and heave-ho! Make a big pile of bodies and try not to use too much gasoline and try not to lose the lunch you didn't have enough of.
Not enough hands or time to get rid of all the bodies, though. And they're still out there, millions of them, slowly turning into mulch, pulsing with maggots. It has been a banner year for carrion eaters.
Hope I didn't spoil your appetite. 'Cause when Porky Pig goes down, and those fools from wherever take off, I'm all, barbecue! And as soon as I get relieved from lookout duty (I may act totally slack, but the fact is I'm such a good girl. If only my teachers had known!), I'm down in the Square, nipping at Frank's heels. He orders a bunch of our peeps to tie up the carcass by the back legs and hoist it on a tree branch, and I'm all, pulled-pork sandwich, please! Pork chop, trotters, snout, whatever, and I am doing a little happy dance, but then—
Then I see Jefferson, and he sees me, and he does not look happy, and I remember Wash—he was standing up there in front of all those guns like a jackass, and I realize, one-two-three, oh, I get it, that's why… that's why Jefferson is looking so bummed. Then I feel like an asshole.
See, when you're hungry, it's your stomach thinking. Like, your stomach actually thinking. I heard somewhere that your stomach has as many serotonin receptors as your brain. So we're like those dinosaurs with two brains. We're like dinosaurs in other ways, too. For instance, we're going extinct.
Charlie's favorite dinosaur was stegosaurus. He had a stuffed one he called Spike.
So I realize that Wash was trying to commit suicide by cop—that's what they used to call it, when some dumbshit would decide life just wasn't worth living (this was when life was worth living, mind you) and would come at the cops with his gun blazing and force them to take him out.…
Or he just really wanted a McRib sandwich and thought, What the hell, it's worth a shot.
I'm kind of curious about that, so I go to Wash, who's standing by the tree where they're hauling up the pig. He's securing the rope with a trucker hitch to a bent piece of rebar sunk in the ground.
Wash always leads by example. The officer corps of the Pocky. (That's my cute name for the apocalypse. It's also the name for those yummy Japanese candy sticks.) I inquire after his reasoning, diplomatically.
"So what the fuck was that, dude?"
He keeps tying his fancy knot.
Wash: "What was what?"
Me: "Uh… I don't know… lemme see… the part where you stand in front of a bunch of douche bags with guns and dare them to blow your brains out?"
Wash cinches off the knot and shrugs. Stands up and looks me in the eye finally.
Me: "People need a leader." It doesn't sound quite right, coming out of my mouth. Not the sort of thing I say. But it's true.
Wash: "They're going to have to find a new one soon, anyway."
And then he walks off. Which, by the way, you should never do to someone who, you know, you almost did, you know, with. It's just rude.
So I'm pretty pissed. But then he turns around and smiles and says, "Oh, you're invited to my birthday barbecue. Tonight. The theme is…" He thinks.
Wash: "Pre-apocalyptic. We'll pretend to tweet each other. We'll talk about the new iPhone they're not coming out with. Snapchat."
Me: "We'll ask if we look fat in this. Download ringtones."
Wash: "Yeah. It'll be awesome."
And he walks off again. But not so fast! Little brother Jeff is right there in his face, follows him and pushes him. They square off. Wash and Jeff. Now, there were some parents to have. Name their kids Washington and Jefferson. I bet they were all, "Son, it's time you learned about the Golden Rule," and sailing weekends and scaling fish or whatever, not asking you where you get your herb 'cause their dealer just got arrested.
I can't hear what they're arguing about, but it's a doozy. Wash is trying to hug Jeff, like, "It's okay," and Jeff is clearly not okay, and I wouldn't be, either, I guess. Finally Wash sort of wrestle-hugs Jeff, and I look away, because boys hate it when people see them expressing emotion.
Compartmentalizing. That's what Wash called it. You put your feelings here in this compartment, and you put your mind in another compartment. And I said to him, looking up from where my head was resting on his chest, "How big a box is your heart in?" and he looked at me and didn't say anything, and that's when I kind of figured this was not going to be love among the ruins for Donna and Wash.
- On Sale
- Jul 29, 2014
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers