With Gabrielle Charbonnet
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A B&N’S BEST BOOK OF 2017
There were no charges. There was no trial. There will be no escape.
Becca Greenfield was snatched from her small hometown. She was thrown into a maximum-security prison and put on Death Row with other kids her age. Until her execution, Becca’s told to fit in and shut her mouth… but Becca’s never been very good at either. Her sister Cassie was always the good twin.
THANK GOD FOR PROGRAMMABLE COFFEEMAKERS, that's all I want to say. Actually, that's about all I can say until I've had that first cup. Right on time, 5:45 a.m., life's precious fluid starts seeping down to the carafe.
And thank God for coffee. Last year when we'd heard that a lot of coffee crops had failed, I thought the bottom of my life had dropped out. But this year coffee is back on the shelves at United All-Ways, and I for one am grateful.
Leaning back against the kitchen counter with my first hot cup, I looked out the torn window screen to see the barest hint of pink coming up over the tops of the trees by the Boundary. I guess people who live in cells by the ocean get to see the sun coming up over the water.
Actually, I don't know. I don't know if any people live near any ocean.
I felt the coffee igniting nerves throughout my body as I sipped and watched the sun come up. It was partly blocked by the carport where I kept my—
I bolted upright and peered through the ragged screen.
"No, she didn't!" I shrieked, wanting to hurl my coffee cup right out the window. It would have hit my truck if my truck had been there. Which it wasn't!
"Damnation, Rebecca!" I shouted, then wheeled and headed upstairs just to double-check. Just in case. Just in case my twin, Ridiculous Rebecca, was in fact still snoring in bed instead of joyriding in my truck.
I slammed open her bedroom door, adrenaline making jumpy friends with all the caffeine in my system.
Becca's bed was empty.
Seething, I hurried to my room at the end of the hall, passing the door to our parents' room, which we kept shut all the time nowadays. In my room I threw on yesterday's jeans and a plaid shirt that I'd been too hasty in assigning to the dirty clothes pile. Jamming my feet into my perfectly worn cowboy boots, I started rehearsing what I would say to my sister when I caught up with her.
And I would catch up with her. There was zero doubt about that. Our cell was barely four miles across, a nice big crop circle. Becca had no place to run, no place to hide.
I PUSHED OPEN OUR SCREEN door so hard that one of the hinges busted, making it tilt crazily. Watch it, idiot. Anything I broke, I had to fix. It wasn't like there was anyone else to do it.
Halfway around the side of the house, I remembered to look at my watch. 5:55. Silently I mouthed Crap! I turned around, stomped up the steps, across the porch, through the broken screen door, and into our living room. Curfew wasn't over till 6:00 a.m., and I'd seen what happened to people who didn't think the Provost meant what he said about curfew. He really, really meant it. He meant inside your house from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Not in your yard. Not under your carport. Not leaning against your fence, enjoying the breeze. And he always, always knew.
My jaw was so tight it was starting to hurt. Since I had four—no, three—minutes left to kill, I went back into the kitchen and cut myself a couple slices of bread. I had a PB & J in my hand by 6:01, and I hurried out to the carport where Ma's dinky purple moped was leaning against a pole.
Just looking at it bummed me out. For one thing it reminded me of Ma, which, obviously: bad. For another thing it reminded me of Becca, because she's the one who used the moped now, and I was ready to skin her alive. Third, it had a top speed of twelve miles an hour. Twelve. Miles. An. Hour. And that was on a full charge, which it had only if Becca remembered to plug it in the night before. Fourth, the pickup had been Pa's, and he'd left me in charge of it. There were only a few pickup trucks left in the entire cell. We'd only been allowed to keep it because it was so ancient that I practically had to push-start it. But I still loved it, I was still the one who used it, and now Becca had taken it, had left before curfew, and was probably already getting high with her loser doper friends.
And who would have to come up with some lame excuse about her tardiness or absence at school? Me. Who had to hope that somehow she hadn't already been seen out before curfew? Me. As mad as I was, I didn't want to see her go through that. I never wanted to see her go through that.
Ma's moped started easily enough and I wheeled it around, then got on and steered through our gate with my non-sandwich-holding hand. The more I heard the gentle hum of its little engine pushing us down the road, the madder I got.
My sandwich was gone by the time I reached Murphy's crossroads—not that there are any Murphys anymore. I guess "Forty-seven's crossroads" didn't have the same ring. At the big Healthier United sign I turned left to take the road to town, all the time searching the crop fields for the curved red roof of the pickup poking out above the wheat. Becca had several usual hangouts, and I circled down to the gully where kids went to smoke and generally be bad citizens. No one was there, and the tire tracks in the rutted mud looked a couple days old, at least.
By 7:30 I had puttered to all of Becca's lairs. Though I'd found several of her red-eyed friends, none of them admitted seeing Ridiculous, and no one had seen my truck. She'd done an excellent job of disappearing. Damnation!
IT ALMOST KILLED ME TO chug up to school on Ma's moped, but of course I did it because I'm not the twin who breaks rules. I'm not the twin who makes things harder for everyone. I'm the twin who shows up for school every day on time, rain or shine, and I'm the twin who then goes to my after-school job at United All-Ways because our family needs money. Ma was gone, Da was… gone-ish, and who kept Ridiculous from starving her skinny butt off?
That would be me.
School was school. We studied farming, mostly: planting patterns, current approved crops, harvesting tips 'n' tricks. Our cell was an ag cell, but of course there were other vocations, too. I'd hoped to be assigned to higher schooling, but at sixteen they had labeled Becca an electrician and me a mechanic. The irony there was that Becca had clearly learned to hot-wire my truck, but she wouldn't know how to put the alternator belt back on once it slipped off its pulley, which it tended to do every couple hundred miles.
Becca wasn't at school. My truck was not in the parking lot. My anger flamed—not only would Becca risk getting herself into serious trouble, but she was dragging my truck down with her!
"Cassie Greenfield, please come to the principal's office."
I was so busy fuming that I didn't hear the first announcement.
"Cassandra Greenfield, please report to the principal's office."
Heads turned to look at me, and our teacher quit lecturing, her hand frozen on the slide that showed less-wasteful irrigation methods.
Slowly I got up, grabbed my backpack, and left the class.
Standing awkwardly in the outer office, I told the secretary that I'd been called. I'd never been in here before—one of the few kids who had never, ever done anything to warrant getting called to the principal's office.
The inner door opened and our principal, Ms. Ashworth, stood there frowning, her arms crossed over her chest. She was tall and sticklike, and no one I knew had ever seen her smile—not even my pa, who had gone to school with her.
I stood up and she motioned me into her office. My heart was beating fast, like a mechanical tree-shaker trying to loosen every last pecan. I couldn't even swallow.
"Sit down, Cassie," said Ms. Ashworth.
"Thank you, ma'am," I said, and took one of the seats that faced her big desk. I gave a quick glance around but it pretty much looked like what a school office should look like. In the corner hung the United flag on an eight-foot pole topped by a brass eagle. Our unit's flag with our mascot, a honeybee, on it. (A bee for Unit B, get it?) Our cell's flag, Cell B-97-4275. A framed photo of Ms. Ashworth with Provost Allen, shaking hands and smiling at the camera. A framed photo of President Unser, the one that was distributed when he'd celebrated thirty years in office.
"Where is Rebecca?" Ms. Ashworth got right to it.
I wished I could say "I don't know" and let Becca take whatever happened. But the stakes were too high, the outcome too awful. Even as mad as I was, I would never do that to my sister.
"She's home sick," I said.
Ms. Ashworth frowned. "Cassie, we don't get sick. Our cell enjoys perfect health, as you know."
Since I drove past the big Healthier United sign every day on my way to school, I did know that.
"No, not like sick with a virus or anything," I clarified, thinking fast. "I mean, sick from… overeating."
"Overeating what?" Ms. Ashworth knew that anyone having enough food to eat too much of it was as rare as someone coming down with a cold.
"Pears." It was like God had taken pity on me and dropped an idea into my brain. "We have a pear tree, and of course we pack up most of them for the Co-op. But when the pears get bruised, or have worms or something, we keep them and make pies or whatever. Can them for winter. The ones that aren't good enough for the Co-op." I spoke quickly now. "I told her not to, but Rebecca insisted on tasting all the ones I was cutting up. Some of them weren't even ripe. By lights-out she felt pretty bad, and this morning she was curled up moaning and wanting to throw up."
This was the best Becca excuse I'd ever come up with, and I congratulated myself silently. It was a shame that I'd only get to use it once.
Ms. Ashworth's pale-green eyes looked at me across her desk. "I don't believe you," she said.
MY HEART FELT LIKE IT was trying to climb out of my throat.
"I… beg your pardon, ma'am?" I stammered.
The crease between her straight pale eyebrows deepened. "It's just you and Becca at the farm now, right?"
Heat made my cheeks flush. Everyone in the cell knew about Ma, knew about Pa.
"Yes, ma'am," I mumbled.
"Your only sister is sick," said Ms. Ashworth. "I don't believe that you would just come to school and leave her."
All I could do was stare at her, my brain's activity crashing into a single, static line.
"I have a perfect attendance record," I managed to say, hoarsely.
"Oh. And you're trying to get a President's Star?" the principal asked.
I nodded. Any kid who never misses a day's school from kindergarten through graduation receives a gold star from President Unser himself. I was so close.
Her face softened the tiniest bit, as if she were a marble statue that had weathered for a hundred years. "I understand. I tell you what. You've already been marked present for today. I'm giving you special permission to leave school, go home, and keep an eye on Rebecca. But I expect you both back here tomorrow at eight a.m. on the dot!" Her face had toughened up again, but I nodded eagerly.
"Yes, ma'am! Thank you, ma'am! I'll stop at United Drugs, get some bicarb, and get right home."
"See that you do," she warned. "If I hear tell of you going anywhere else, doing anything else, you'll pay for it. Understand?"
"Yes, ma'am, I understand."
Thirty seconds later I was putt-putting out of the school yard. Of course I really went to United Drugs and actually bought bicarb; Ms. Ashworth would know if I hadn't. But then I headed home, hoping against hope that Becca had come to her senses. And that she had brought my truck back.
She hadn't. Now I had to wait until 3:30 to leave the house again, thankful that today was one of my days off from United All-Ways.
By 5:00 I started to actually be concerned. I'd made the rounds again, asking Becca's friends to give her up, but they seemed sincere when they said they hadn't seen her today. One of them was even mad because Becca had promised to help him rewire his burned-out soldering iron, and she hadn't shown.
Dinnertime came and went. At 7:00 I was pacing the floors, looking through our windows to the darkness outside, praying I would see headlights bumping over the worn track to our house.
When the numbers on the oven clock changed to 8:00, I was sitting at the kitchen table, more afraid than I'd ever been. Becca wasn't playing hooky. Becca hadn't taken my truck to piss me off. Becca was missing. And Becca was the ninth kid to go missing this year. None of them had ever come back.
WAS IT MORNING? AFTERNOON? NIGHT? No clue. They'd gotten me at 3:00 this morning. How much time had passed? I didn't know.
"Goddamnit!" I muttered, and tried to yank my hands apart for the hundredth time. They didn't budge, and the zip tie dug more sharply into my skin. I felt the slight, warm stickiness of blood seeping down my hand. "Goddamnit to hell!"
"You!" said a woman's voice, and my head swiveled blindly toward the sound—I couldn't see anything through the black hood. I hadn't seen anything since 3:12 a.m. "You! Swearing is forbidden!"
"Bite a scythe, asshole!" I snapped, and something big and solid slammed against my head. Sparks exploded inside my eyes as I gasped and fell sideways onto a cold concrete floor. "Oof!" I swallowed, tasting blood, trying to stave off a sudden urge to puke my guts up.
Someone leaned over me. "Swearing. Is. Forbidden," said the woman's icy voice. "Repeat that after me: Swearing is…"
"The only appropriate response to this shitty sitch!" I wanted to spit blood out but it would have just hit the hood.
A hard, pointed shoe kicked me then, right in my gut, and I almost screamed. Acid rose in my throat as a heavy, burning pain filled my insides. I quickly coiled up as best as I could with my hands tied behind me and my ankles lashed together. What in holy hell was going on? For about a minute this morning, I'd thought it was a prank, at best, and at worst, a warning from Big Ted, who I owed a measly thirty-two bucks. But after the first punch that had knocked my lights out, it became clear that this was some other shit altogether.
Rough hands scrabbled at my neck and I promised myself to bite the hell out of the next asshole who got too close. They untied the hood and yanked it off, making my head snap against the concrete again.
My eyes blinked painfully against the sudden, too-bright light. I wanted to throw up, then get my hands on the strongest painkillers I could find. A shadow blotted out the light, and I glanced up warily. A woman frowned down at me, but all I could do was gape at her. I'd never seen anything like her. Her brown hair was coiled on top of her head, like braided Easter bread. Her eyes had thin dark lines drawn around them, reminding me of those Egypt people who had failed because their system was bad. Her mouth was painted with barn-red paint, and I wondered how she could stand it. Wouldn't the paint dry and crack? Didn't it taste terrible?
Shifting a bit more onto my shoulders, I simply looked her up and down, not even caring if this got me kicked again. She was wearing a navy-blue suit, like a man's suit, but with a skirt. Her shoes were… thin, totally useless for walking in fields. Her shirt was white and almost shiny—not cotton, not linen, not wool. I wanted to touch it.
"My name," she said in a voice like an icicle, "is Helen Strepp. You may call me Ms. Strepp."
My mouth has gotten me in trouble my whole life, and it didn't stop now. "As long as I don't call you late for dinner!" I said, remembering when my pa had laughed at that.
Ms. Strepp nodded at someone behind me; there was a slight sound, and then a rocklike boot kicked me in the back.
I couldn't help sucking in breath with almost a whimper. My eyes squeezed shut against the pain and I realized that every part of me felt bruised and broken. If I'd been home by myself with no one to see, I would have cried. But I hadn't cried in front of Careful Cassie in years, and I sure wasn't going to give these assholes a show.
"Now," said the woman, "what is my name?"
"Ms. Strepp," I mumbled, not opening my eyes.
"Good," she said, and I hated the satisfaction in her voice. Well, I hated everything about this, no doubt about that.
"Now you know my name, the fact that swearing is forbidden here, and you've gotten just a slight taste of what happens when you disobey the rules," Ms. Strepp said. "The last thing you need to know right now is that you're in prison. A maximum security prison for enemies of our system."
That made my eyes pop open again, and I stared at her in disbelief.
"Are you shittin' me?" I blurted, and was rewarded by a kick so hard I passed out.
A POEM by Rebecca Greenfield
Yellow is the color of the sun
Yellow is the color of ripening wheat
Yellow is the color of the hawkweed flowers in summer
Yellow is the color of corn (certain varieties—not Silver Queen)
Yellow is the color of this goddamn freaking goddamn son of a bitch goddamn freaking jumpsuit that they make me wear in goddamn freaking prison
They took my pa's watch, which almost killed me. They took my clothes. They were my third-best jeans, the one T-shirt I had with no holes in it, and the soft plaid shirt with the shiny pearl snaps that I'd stolen from Careful Cassie last night. Looked like she wasn't ever going to find out. Silver lining.
My loose yellow jumpsuit closed with a plastic zipper. There were no shoes of any kind. The one good thing was the Band-Aids they'd put on my wrists where the zip ties had gouged channels into my skin.
And, son of a bitch, this really was a freaking prison. Which meant we weren't in our cell anymore. I knew every building, every house, every shed, every barn in our entire cell. Everyone did. None of those buildings had high concrete walls topped with cattle wire. None of them had windows with bars.
I was out of my cell for the first time in seventeen years. It was not an improvement. Which meant that the Provost was right again.
"Move!" A man in a gray uniform pointed his wooden billy club at me and motioned me through a barred gate. I walked through, shuffling because I still had ankle irons connected by a chain. The gate slammed shut behind us.
In addition to the huge, swelling bruises all over from being punched and kicked, my head hurt so much that I felt sick. When they'd moved me from the first room I was in to this big building, it had been dark outside. I hadn't eaten all day and was hollow with hunger, dizzy with fatigue, and nauseated. So far, being out of my cell sucked.
"You will obey all the rules," Ms. Strepp was saying, spitting out her words like gunfire. "You will try to fit in. You will do what is asked of you. You will speak only when spoken to. Is this clear?"
Pretty much a yes or no question, but my reply flew right out of my head as we moved down the hallway. There were small rooms on either side, like the ones we'd seen in history books about pre-system times. Jail rooms with people in them.
And all the people lining up to look at me, holding on to their bars, were kids.
KIDS. TEENAGERS, LIKE ME. WERE they all enemies of the system? I still didn't understand what I had done to get myself thrown in prison. I mean, what thing in particular.
"Is this clear?" Ms. Strepp repeated more loudly, smacking me on the arm.
But I had stopped dead, because not only were the prisoners all kids, but they were… different from people in our cell. Some of them.
When I saw a slender girl with dark-brown skin and soft-looking, puffy brown hair I couldn't help staring.
My skin is colored like vanilla ice cream. Ms. Strepp's skin was chalky white, like cow bones left in the sun. The guard had a red face and neck, like a lot of men in our cell. Every single person that I'd ever seen was some shade of those basic three colors. My skin got tanner in the summer—most people's did. But nobody in our cell had that smooth dark skin. Nobody had puffy brown hair like lamb's wool.
The guard thunked me in the back with his club, and I kept shuffling forward.
"You will obey the rules," Ms. Strepp said again. "You will try to fit in. You will do what is asked of you. You will—"
"Oh, my God!" I exclaimed, stopping again. A boy was holding on to his bars, watching me go by. He was different, too! His eyes were shaped like pumpkin seeds. His skin was golden, like corn silk at harvest. His hair was short and black.
This time the billy club hit me hard against my hip bone. It really hurt and knocked me sideways so that I crashed against the bars. The kids inside took quick steps back, their eyes big.
When I regained my balance I shouted, "Goddamnit! Quit hitting me! What the hell is wrong with you?"
This pushed Ms. Strepp over the edge, and she whirled, punching me in the stomach as hard as she could. I doubled over, and then the worst happened: I puked all over her fancy, impractical shoes.
THIS WENT OVER LIKE A hay bale off a truck. The entire jail block froze in silence. I was thinking Ms. Strepp had lucked out, because I'd skipped breakfast this morning and hadn't eaten anything since then. It wasn't like after the pie-eating contest, which had been a rainbow of bad.
Ms. Strepp grabbed my braid and yanked up on it hard enough to pull me off the ground. I pressed my lips together, trying not to say anything more. A crisp white handkerchief floated down to the floor.
"Clean. That. Up." Ms. Strepp's voice was shaking with fury.
I did, thinking that now I was the lucky one.
When her shoes were shiny again, she pulled up on my braid until I was standing. Muted whispers had begun among the prisoners. My head swam and I blinked several times, gritting my teeth. The guard pushed me forward with his club, and this time I kept my mouth shut until we stopped in front of a jail room. I gave a quick glance sideways and saw four colorful kids already in there. The guard unlocked the bars and shoved me inside, then slammed the gate closed and locked it.
"Bring your feet over here," he commanded, and I shuffled forward. Reaching through the bars, he unlocked one ankle iron, then the other, and swiftly pulled the cuffs through the bars.
Ms. Strepp stepped closer and almost hissed at me. "You will follow the rules, you will fit in, you will do what is asked of you, and you will speak only when spoken to. Is this clear?"
I gave an unenthusiastic nod. With a sharp, satisfied grimace that I realized was her version of a smile, she and the guard marched back down the long hallway, her shoes clicking loudly against the floor.
I was in prison. I was an enemy of the system.
And I had no idea why.
BY THE TIME I'D SUSPECTED that Becca had been taken, it was 8:00. I'd immediately gone out again on the moped, and this time I went all around the cell on the ring road that follows the cell boundary, all twelve miles of it. No one I knew had ever gone across the Boundary—all we could see were thick, dark, dense woods. One road led into our cell, and the same road led out, but I'd never seen anyone come or go on it, either on foot or in a vehicle.
We'd been taught about the dangers beyond the boundary woods—there were many, many ways to die out there. Inside was better. Still, we'd heard stories of people who had tried to cross the Boundary—no one we knew, just people in the past. There were sensors, so the police and the Provost would know. And it would be bad.
At twelve miles an hour, it had taken me an hour to circle our cell. It was already a little past 9:00, and I still had to get home. But when I reached the boundary road leading out of our cell, I paused for a minute, peering into the darkness. I turned off the moped and looked on the ground, wondering if I would see my truck's tire treads. They were distinctive because the front left tire had been patched, and the patch made a smooth spot in the middle of its treads.
I didn't see them. But vehicles had obviously been here, and recently. I was still pondering this when I heard the 9:30 siren.
"Crap!" I jumped back on the moped and gunned it, which made me go slightly faster than a cow walking. The road leading in and out of the cell was in the northeast; I lived in the southwest. With any luck, I would get home with ten minutes to spare.
The moped's weak headlight picked out the dusty roads I knew so well. I could probably close my eyes and still find my way home.
As it was, I had a problem. Stupidly, I hadn't charged the moped during the day while I had to stay inside. With all the driving I'd done this morning, and then again tonight, its battery was pretty much drained. I was still a mile and a half from home when it went dead completely, the headlight flickering out and the small, quiet motor sputtering to a stop.
"Crap!" I said again. "Dammit!" I was usually more careful than this. Now I had a choice: abandon Ma's moped here on the road and race for home, definitely getting there before curfew, or trying to push it all the way as fast as I could and risk missing curfew.
I hesitated for several moments on the dark, empty road, pulled by both choices. Then I grabbed the handlebars, kicked up the stand, and began wheeling it toward home.
I'm a strong girl. I had to be to keep on top of all the work since Pa—
I'm strong. But after only half a mile I was exhausted. My legs ached, it was hard to catch my breath, and I had to keep switching sides because of how the weight of the moped pulled my muscles.
- "Action-packed fight scenes, flickers of romance, and Patterson's signature speedy chapters should satisfy..."—Booklist
"Patterson's books might as well come with movie tickets as a bonus feature."
—New York Times
- On Sale
- Feb 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- JIMMY Patterson Books