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The Walled City
By Ryan Graudin
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730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped. 18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.
Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels–or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Wolf by Wolf
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There are three rules of survival in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.
Right now, my life depends completely on the first.
Run, run, run.
My lungs burn, bite for air. Water stings my eyes. Crumpled wrappers, half-finished cigarettes. A dead animal—too far gone to tell what it used to be. Carpets of glass, bottles smashed by drunk men. All of these fly by in fragments.
These streets are a maze. They twist into themselves—narrow, filled with glowing signs and graffitied walls. Men leer from doorways; their cigarettes glow like monsters' eyes in the dark.
Kuen and his followers chase me like a pack: frantic, fast, together. If they'd broken apart and tried to close me in, maybe they'd have a chance. But I'm faster than all of them because I'm smaller. I can slip into cracks most of them don't even see. It's because I'm a girl. But they don't know this. No one here does. To be a girl in this city—without a roof or family—is a sentence. An automatic ticket to one of the many brothels that line the streets.
The boys behind me don't yell. We all know better than that. Yelling attracts attention. Attention means the Brotherhood. The only sounds of our chase are gritted footsteps and hard breaths.
I know every corner I dash past. This is my territory, the west section of the Walled City. I know exactly which alleyway I need to disappear into. It's coming soon, just a few strides away. I tear by Mrs. Pak's restaurant, with its warm, homey scents of chicken, garlic, and noodles. Then there's Mr. Wong's chair, where people go to get their teeth pulled. Next is Mr. Lam's secondhand trader's shop, its entrance guarded with thick metal bars. Mr. Lam himself squats on the steps. Feet flat. His throat grumbles as I run past. He adds another loogie to his tin can collection.
A sharp-eyed boy slouches on the opposite stoop, picking at a Styrofoam bowl of seafood noodles. My stomach growls, and I think about how easy it would be to snatch it. Keep running.
I can't afford to stop. Not even for food.
I'm so distracted by the noodles that I nearly miss the alleyway. The turn is so sharp my ankles almost snap. But I'm still running, body turned sideways in the narrow gap between these two monstrous buildings. Cinder block walls press against my chest and scrape my back. If I breathe too fast, I won't be able to wedge through.
I push farther in, ignoring how the rough, damp wall claws skin off my elbows. Roaches and rats scurry in and out of the empty spaces by my body—long past the fear of getting crushed by my feet. Dark, heavy footsteps echo off the walls, throb through my ears. Kuen and his pack of street boys have passed me by. For now.
I look down at the boots in my hand. Sturdy leather, tough soles. They were a good find. Worth the panicked minutes I just spent running for them. Not even Mr. Chow—the cobbler on the city's west edge, always bent over his bench of nails and leather—makes such sturdy footwear. I wonder where Kuen got them. These boots have to be from City Beyond. Most nice things are.
Angry shouts edge into my hiding place, piling together in a mess of curses. I flinch and the trash beneath my feet shudders. Maybe Kuen's boys have found me after all.
A girl trips and falls, spills into the foot of my alleyway. She's breathing hard. Blood streaks down her arms, her legs, summoned by the glass and gravel in her skin. All her ribs stick out from the slippery silk of her dress. It's blue and shiny and thin. Not the kind of thing you wear in this city.
All breath leaves my body.
Is it her?
She looks up and I see a face covered in makeup. Only her eyes are raw, real. They're full of fire, as if she's ready to fight.
Whoever this girl is, she isn't Mei Yee. She isn't the sister I've been searching for all this time.
I shrink farther into the gloom. But it's too late. The doll-girl sees me. Her lips pull back, as if she wants to talk. Or bite me. I can't tell which.
I never find out.
The men are on her. They swoop down like vultures, clawing at her dress as they try to pull her up. The flames behind the girl's eyes grow wild. She twists around, fingers hooked so her nails catch her nearest attacker's face.
The man flinches back. Four bright streaks rake down his cheek. He howls unspeakable things. Grabs at the nest of falling braids in her hair.
She doesn't scream. Her body keeps twisting, hitting, thrashing—desperate movements. There are four men with their hands on her, but the fight isn't an easy one. They're so busy trying to hold her down that none of them notice me, deep in the alley's dark. Watching.
Each of them grabs a limb, holds her tight. She bucks, her back arching as she spits at their faces. One of the men strikes her over the head and she falls into an eerie, not-right stillness.
When she's not moving, it's easier to look at her captors. The Brotherhood's mark is on all four of them. Black shirts. Guns. Dragon jewelry and tattoos. One even has the red beast inked on the side of his face. It crawls all the way up his jaw, into his hairline.
"Stupid whore!" the man with the nail marks growls at her battered, unconscious form.
"Let's get her back," the one with the face tattoo says. "Longwai's waiting."
It's only after they take her away, black hair sweeping the ground under her limp body, that I realize I'd been holding my breath. My hands tremble, still wrapped around the boots.
That girl. The fire in her eyes. She could've been me. My sister. Any one of us.
I'm not a good person.
If people need proof, I'll show them my scar, tell them my body count.
Even when I was a young boy, trouble latched onto me like a magnet. I pounded through life at volume eleven, leaving a trail of broken things: vases, noses, cars, hearts, brain cells. Side effects of reckless living.
My mother always tried to reason goodness into me. Her favorite phrases were "Oh, Dai Shing, why can't you be more like your brother?" and "You'll never get a good wife if you keep acting this way!" She always said these on repeat, trying not to let her cheeks turn purple, while my brother stood behind her, his body language the exact dictionary entry for I told you so: arms crossed, nose scrunched, thick eyebrows piled together like puppies. I always told him his face would get stuck that way if he kept tattling: an adulthood damned by unibrow. It never really seemed to stop him.
My father's chosen tactic was fear. He always set his briefcase down, yanked his tie loose, and told me about this place: the Hak Nam Walled City. A recipe of humanity's darkest ingredients—thieves, whores, murderers, addicts—all mashed into six and a half acres. Hell on earth, he called it. A place so ruthless even the sunlight won't enter. If I kept messing up, my father said, he'd drive me down there himself. Dump me off in the dens of drug lords and thieves so I could learn my lesson.
My father tried his best to scare me, but even all his stories couldn't cram the goodness into me. I ended up here anyway. The irony of the whole thing would make me laugh. But laughter is something that belongs to my life before this. In the shiny skyscrapers and shopping malls and taxi-tangle of Seng Ngoi.
Seven hundred and thirty. That's how many days I've been trapped in this cesspool of humanity.
Eighteen. That's how many days I have left to find a way out.
I've got a plan—an elaborate, risky-as-hell plan—but in order for it to work, I need a runner. A fast one.
I'm not even halfway done with my bowl of wonton mein when the kid zips past my stoop. He's there and gone, running faster than some of the star track athletes at my old school.
"Kid's at it again." Mr. Lam grunts the last of his mucus out of his throat. His turtle gaze ambles back down the street. "Wonder who he snitched from this time. Half the shops round here lost stuff to that one. Never tried these bars, though. Only buys."
I'm just putting my chopsticks down when the others barrel past. Kuen's at the front of the pack, cross-eyed with focus and rage. I struck him off the list of prospective runners a while ago. He's cruel, ruthless, and a bit dumb. I've got no use for someone like that.
But this other kid might just fit the profile. If I can catch him.
I leave the rest of the noodles on the step, yank up my sweatshirt hood, and follow.
Kuen's gang jogs for a few minutes before coming to a stop. Heads swivel around, their eyes wide and lungs panting. Whoever they are looking for, it's clear they lost him.
I slow and duck to the side of the street. None of the breathless boys see me. They're too busy cowering away from a royally pissed-off Kuen.
"Where'd he go? Where the hell did he go?" the vagrant screams, and kicks an empty beer can. It lands against a wall with a tinny crash; an entire family of cockroaches explodes up the cinder block. My skin crawls at the sight. Funny. After all I've been through, all I've seen here, bugs still bother me.
Kuen doesn't notice the insects. He's fuming, lashing out at trash and walls and boys. His followers flinch back, all of them trying their hardest not to be the inevitable scapegoat.
He turns on them. "Who was on watch?"
No one answers. Not that I blame them. The vagrant's knuckles are curled and his arms are shaking. "Who was on the damn watch?"
"Lee," the boy closest to Kuen's fists pipes up. "It was Lee."
The kid in question throws up his hands in instant surrender. "I'm sorry, boss! It won't happen again. I swear."
Their leader steps forward, closing in on a trembling Lee. His fists are tight, thirsty for a fight.
My hands dig deep into the pockets of my hoodie. I feel kind of bad for Lee, but not bad enough to do anything about it. I can't afford to get involved in other people's problems. Not when I'm running out of time to solve my own.
Kuen looks like he's about to punch the poor kid's face in. None of the others try to stop him. They cower, stare, and wait as the oldest vagrant's fist rises level with Lee's nose. Hovers still.
"Who was it? Huh?" Kuen asks. "I'm guessing you got a look at him."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Lee nods furiously. It's pitiful how eager he is, how much Kuen's cowed all these boys. If they lived in a civilized world—played football, sang karaoke with their friends—they'd probably have a different leader. One with more brains than brawn.
But this is the Hak Nam Walled City. Muscles and fear rule here. Survival of the fittest at its finest.
"It was Jin. He's stolen a bunch of stuff from us before. A tarp. A shirt," Lee goes on. "You know. The one who showed up from Beyond a few years back? The one with the cat…"
Kuen snarls. "I don't care about his damn cat. I care about my boots!"
His boots? I look down and realize the hulking boy is barefoot. There's blood on his feet from his race through the filthy streets. Nicks from glass shards and gravel. Maybe even discarded needles.
No wonder he's so pissed off.
Lee's back is ramrod straight against a wall. His face is all scrunched, like he's about to cry. "I'll get those boots back. I promise!"
"I can take care of that myself."
The older boy's fist falls. The thud of knuckle on jaw is loud and awful. Kuen keeps punching—again and again—until Lee's face is almost as dark as his greasy hair. It's a hard thing to watch. Way more unsettling than a few bugs.
I could stop it. I could reach for my weapon, watch Kuen's gang scatter like roaches. My fingers twitch and burn with every new punch, but I keep them shoved deep in my pockets.
Kids die every day on these streets—lives sliced short by hunger, disease, and knives. I can't save them all. And if I don't keep my head down, do what needs to be done in eighteen days, I won't even be able to save myself.
This is what I tell myself, over and over, as I watch the kid's face break apart, all blood and bruises.
I'm not a good person.
"Take off your boots," Kuen snarls when his fists finally stop landing.
Lee is on the ground now, whimpering. "Please…"
"Take them off before I beat the shit out of you again!"
Lee's fingers shake as he unlaces his shoes, but he manages to get them off. Kuen snatches them up, puts them on his own bloody feet. The vagrant starts talking to the rest of the boys while he ties his new boots.
"Any of you guys know where this Jin kid camps?"
All he gets in response are shaking heads and blank stares.
"Ka Ming, Ho Wai, I want you two to find out where he sleeps. I'm gonna get my boots back." Kuen's last sentence is more growl than not.
The street bursts alive with yells. At first I think it's Lee, but the battered, barefoot boy is just as surprised as the rest of them. They look down the street all at once, necks whipping around like those meerkat animals that used to pop up on my brother's favorite nature show.
The yells are from elsewhere, back where my noodles are getting cold on the door stoop. So many grown men screaming all at once can only mean the Brotherhood.
Time to get out of here.
Kuen's pack must be thinking the same thing, because they start an instant, scrambling retreat. Away from the screams. Away from Lee. Away from me.
"Please! Don't leave me!" Lee reaches out, his whimper beyond pathetic.
"Don't bother coming back to camp." Kuen spits down at the boy, now outcast, before he disappears for good. I can't help but wonder what will happen to the battered boy. If he's anything like Kuen's other boys, his familial status reads orphaned or parents too broke to fill his rice bowl. Kids with roofs and hot food have better things to do than play survival of the thuggiest. No parents, shoeless, broken face, winter in full swing… Granted, it's a mild one (it always is), but chilly temperatures still bite when you don't even have socks.
Lee's odds aren't looking too good.
I start walking with my hood up and my hands shoved in my pockets, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. I blend into the dark of a side alley just as the Brotherhood men pass. The girl they're dragging is more blood than skin. Her hair is loose, weeping all over the ground. Her dress is sheen and silk: one of the brothel girls. She must've been trying to run. What I'm seeing is an escape gone wrong.
The wonton mein kicks up hell in my gut. I push away, farther into the dark bowels of the city, leaving the girl to face her fate.
I can't save them all.
Jin. The one with the cat. It's not much to go on in a hive of thirty-three thousand people, but Mr. Lam seemed to recognize him. My first lead. I'll have to move fast, find him before Kuen sniffs out where the kid keeps his tarp. He must be a loner, which means, considering what just happened to Lee, that he's smart. Smart and fast. Plus he's lasted a few years on the streets—which is hard to do in Seng Ngoi, let alone this hellhole.
Just the kind of kid I'm looking for. One more step to my ticket out of this place.
Here's hoping he's willing to play the part.
There is no escape.
Those were the first words the brothel master spoke to me the night the Reapers pulled me out of their van—after endless hours of rutted roads, windowless darkness. I was still wearing the nightgown I'd pulled over my head days and days before—a thin, cotton thing with more than a few holes. A few of the girls beside me were crying. I… I felt nothing. I was someone else. I was not the girl who'd just been snatched from her bed. I was not the one who stood at the front of the line, waiting as the man with the long purple scar on his jaw inspected us. I was not Mei Yee.
That night, when the master got to me, he stared, inspecting me at every angle. I felt the crawl of his eyes on my skin, like insects creeping into hidden places. Places they shouldn't go.
"Her," he told the Reapers' leader.
We watched as the coins changed hands, more money than I'd ever seen in my short life as a rice farmer's daughter. More than ten times what the Reapers' leader paid my father for me.
"There is no escape. Forget your home. Forget your family." The master's voice was flat, passionless. As dead as his heavy, opium eyes. "You're mine now."
These are the words I'm trying my hardest not to remember when Mama-san calls, "Girls?"
I'm sitting on my bed. Dread snakes through my every vein, and I look at the others. Nuo is by the foot of the bed, a cross-stitch dangling from her fingers. Wen Kei sits on the rug, and Yin Yu kneels behind her, weaving braids into the younger girl's dark silken hair. Yin Yu is the only one who doesn't freeze at Mama-san's voice. Her fingers keep moving, tucking strands of Wen Kei's hair in and out and into themselves again.
Wen Kei's mouth is still open, cut off midsentence from one of her endless, amazing descriptions of the sea. I'm trying to imagine what waves look like when Mama-san appears in the doorway.
Mama-san—the keeper of us girls. The one who feeds and dresses us. The one who calls the doctor when we're sick. The one who runs the brothel and matches clients to our beds. Some of the girls think she was brought here like us: in the back of one of the Reapers' vans. It must've been a very long time ago, when her skin was smooth and her back wasn't bent.
She certainly doesn't look young now. Her face is pinched in all the wrong places, eyes distant.
"Girls. The master wants to see you. Now. He's closed off the lounge." Mama-san darts out of the doorway as suddenly as she came, off to gather the girls from the other three halls.
"She got caught." Wen Kei, the youngest and smallest of us, sounds like a baby bird, her voice all fluttery and weak.
Yin Yu pulls her hair so tight that Wen Kei squeaks. "None of you breathe a word. If Master and Mama-san find out that we knew Sing's plan… it won't end well." She looks to me as she says this, searching for words of support.
"We say nothing." I try to sound as old as my seventeen years should make me, but the truth is, I feel just like the rest of them: shaking and whiter than rice noodles.
I don't know why I'm so rattled. I knew this would happen. All of us did. That's why we tried to get Sing to stay.
There is no escape. There is no escape. We whispered the master's words to her like a chorus, along with dozens of reasons. Here, she had clothing, food, water, friends. And out there? What? Hunger. Disease. Unforgiving streets with teeth like wolves.
But in the end, there was no stopping her. I'd seen it months ago, the wildness that started in her eyes when she talked about life before this. It spread into everything, lit her up inside. Every time she entered my room, she would pull aside my scarlet curtain and stare, stare, stare out the window—the only one in the entire brothel. She was never good at keeping everything balled up inside like the rest of us. Yin Yu thinks this is because Sing's family never sold her. They loved her, fed her, taught her how to read, and then they died. The Reapers came for her at the orphanage.
We find Sing spread out on the floor of the smoking lounge, hair wild and torn, arms bent back at a terrible angle. I don't know for sure if she's awake or even alive until one of the master's men props her up. Blood, bright, shines down her arms and legs. There's blood on her face, too, washing warm over her cheeks and onto the edge of her lips. Her dress—a beautiful piece of sky-blue silk and embroidered cherry blossoms—is ruined.
The rest of us stand in a line as the master paces a slow, endless circle around Sing's fetal frame. When he finally stops, the tips of his lounge slippers are turned toward us.
He doesn't yell, which makes his words even more terrifying. "Do any of you know what it's like out there for a vagrant? For the other working girls?"
Not one of us replies, though we all know the answer. It's one Mama-san drills into us every single time she sees our faces wither with emptiness. The one we tried so hard to make Sing remember.
"Pain. Disease. Death." The words leave him like punches. When he's finished, he brings the pipe to his lips. Smoke pours out of his nostrils—reminding me of the scarlet dragon embroidered on his lounging jacket. "How do you think you'd do out there, on your own? Without my protection?"
He doesn't really want an answer. His question is more of a quiet shout, the same kind my father used to ask before his first cup of rice wine. Before he exploded.
"I give every single one of you everything you could need. I give you the best. All I ask for in return is that you make our guests feel welcome. It's such a small thing. Such a tiny request."
Just the fact that the master is addressing us should make my blood run cold. Mama-san is always the one who punishes us, with hissing lips and the sharp backside of her callused hand. The few times the master does talk to us, he always makes a point to remind us of how we're treated better than other working girls. We have rooms of our own, silken dresses, trays of tea, and incense. Our choice of meals. Pots of paint to decorate our faces. We have everything because we're the chosen. The best of the best.
"Now, Sing here"—he says her name in a way that crawls under my skin—"has just spit in the face of my generosity. I gave her safety and luxury, and she threw it away like it was nothing. She's insulted my honor. My name."
Sing sits behind him, still bleeding, still shaking. The men in black are breathing hard. I wonder how far she got before they caught her.
The master snaps his fingers. All four of his henchmen pull Sing to her feet. She flops like a doll in their hands. "If you dishonor my hospitality, break the rules, you will be punished. If you insist on being treated like the common prostitutes, then that's what I'll do."
He rolls up his sleeves. Fung, the man with the scarlet tattoo on his face, gives the master something I can't fully see.
But Sing sees it, and when she does, she lets out a shriek that would wake the gods. She comes to life again, with kicks and jerks so awful that the men holding her down can't stand still.
Her screams manage to meld into words. "No! Please! I'm sorry! I won't run!"
Then the master holds up his hand, and I see the reason for Sing's terror. There, wrapped under all those tight, plump fingers, is a needle. The syringe is full of dirty brown liquid.
The other girls see it, too. Even Mama-san grows stiff beside me. There's no way of knowing what lies inside that plastic tube. Pain. Disease. Death.
Sing fights and flails, her screams rising far beyond words. In the end, the men are too strong for her.
I can't watch when the sharp metal plows into her veins. When her screams stop—when I finally look up again—the needle is gone and Sing is on the floor, crumpled and shuddering. The shadows of the lounge crowd around her curled form, make her look broken.
The master's hands brush together. He turns to us. "The first dose of heroin is always the best. The second time, the rush isn't as strong. But you still need it. You need more and more and more until it's everything you want. Everything you are."
Heroin. He means to make an addict of our smart and beautiful Sing. This thought twists inside me: hollow and hopeless.
"You are mine." The master looks down our line of silken rainbow dresses. He's smiling. "All of you. If you try to run, this is your fate."
I close my eyes, try not to look at the broken-doll girl on the floor. Try not to remember the words the master spoke into the night so long ago. They reach out of time, bind me like ropes: There is no escape.
It's been two years. Two years since the Reapers took my sister from me. Two years since I followed them to the Walled City to look for her. Over these years, I've learned how to move like a ghost, make the most of my senses. That's the only way to survive here: become something more than you are, or be invisible altogether.
I was invisible a lot when I was younger. There were only three years between me and my older sister, but Mei Yee was the one people noticed. Her face was round and soft. Like a moon. Her hair hung straight, sleek as midnight.
But being beautiful did no good on a rice farm. It didn't help you wade for hours in muddy water, back bent under the hot shine of the sun, cutting rows of whipping grass. I was always stronger than Mei Yee. I knew I wasn't beautiful: My feet were tough with calluses, my skin dark, my nose too large. Whenever our mother wound my hair back into a bun and sent me to the pond for wash water, I saw a boy's face staring back at me.
Sometimes I wished it were true. Being a boy would be easier. I'd be stronger, able to overpower my father whenever the alcohol made him rabid. But most of the time I just wished for a brother. A brother to bend over the never-ending rice plants. A brother to stand up to my father's drunken rages.
And, in my deepest heart, I wanted to be pretty. Just like Mei Yee. So I always tugged the bun out. Let my hair fall free.
My hair was the second thing I lost after my father sold Mei Yee to the Reapers. I knew from the stories that I wouldn't survive in this city as a girl. The knife I used was dull. It was a bad haircut, full of awkward angles, one side slightly longer than the other. I looked just the way I wanted to: like a half-starved, dirt-streaked street boy.
And that's what I've been ever since.
My elbows are raw, stinging by the time I reach my camp. I took the long way back, circling the same moldy, pipe-hemmed passages to make sure no one followed me. Long enough for the blood to scab over and split again. If I don't put a bandage on it soon, the wounds will get red and puffy. Take weeks to heal.
I slide through the opening of my ratty tarp shelter, look through my belongings. It's not much. A matchbook with a single flame left. A waterlogged, half-filled character workbook scavenged from a careless student's satchel. Two oranges and a mangosteen snagged from an ancestral shrine. A blanket heavy with mildew and rat urine. One mangy gray cat that purrs and yowls. Does his best to make me feel less alone.
"Readers, rapt, will duck for cover until the very last page."—Kirkus Reviews
"This dark and gritty thriller doesn't pull any punches, taking readers into a world of fear, danger, and deprivation."—School Library Journal
"[A] gripping and gritty thriller...Graudin deftly juggles the multiple perspectives to create a riveting, suspenseful tale of violence, danger, and survival."—The Horn Book
"In spite of the fact that the descriptions are often of horrific things, they are lyrically crafted, painting vivid snapshot images of what might lead people to make unimaginable choices...a sharp, compelling novel."—The Bulletin
"[Graudin] artfully balances tense action scenes with lyrical language, distinct voices for each narrator, and ruminations that probe the book's deeper themes of family, regret, and second chances."—Booklist
"Graudin is gifted at employing simile and other literary devices to describe the gritty surroundings and Hak Nam's criminal inhabitants...The result is three stories deftly entwined into a fast-paced, striking tale."—Publishers Weekly
"The Walled City grabbed me by the throat from page one. From the very first chapter to the last, my heart loved and feared for these characters. Brilliantly and beautifully written--a true triumph."—Beth Revis, New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe series
"The Walled City is dark and grim and intensely compelling. It is a book you cannot easily forget, a book you will want to read again and again."—Ellen Oh, author of Prophecy
- On Sale
- Sep 8, 2015
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers