I like the job. The girl gives me two cans a day instead of just one, which means every day I get to eat a can as well as save one for future meals. I also get a chance to stash trinkets that might be useful later on—sharp splinters of wood I could use as weapons, a couple of abandoned burlap sacks, a round tin good for carrying water.
Charlie catches me as I walk along the pier, snatching up stray nails and stuffing them in my pockets.
“What are you doing, preparing for battle?” she asks with a grin.
I shrug. “I haven’t survived this long without some self-defense.”
Charlie laughs, but she lets me carry on.
In the evenings she sits with me while her father’s crew gathers farther down the pier. I watch, with a little jealousy, the way she flirts with the workers whenever her dad’s not around. She was right about one thing—she’s their darling, and if she ever told them to throw me overboard, they’d probably do it without hesitating. Slowly I grow used to the sound of the lake lapping against cement pillars and the unusual comfort of sleeping out in the open, knowing that in the morning I’d have a can of food waiting for me. What a luxury. Sometimes I’ll glance over at Charlie when she’s not looking, and I’ll try to replay our kiss in my head. I wonder if it meant anything to her. And whether or not she was serious about giving me another.
On our last night together, Charlie leans back and regards me over the glow of our dim lamp. We’re sitting together at the far end of the pier, watching the skyscrapers of downtown light up one by one. Pretty nice evening. Even the humidity doesn’t seem as bad as usual, and now and then I can feel a cool breeze.
“So, you paid off your debt. What are you going to do tomorrow?” she asks me.
I shrug. “Don’t know yet. I usually take things one day at a time.”
We eat in silence for a few more minutes before she speaks up again. “You haven’t told me much about yourself,” she says. “I don’t even know your name.”
I put down my half-eaten can of sausage and beans, then lean back on my elbows. “Ed,” I reply, blurting out the first name I can think of. “What else do you want to know?”
She studies me. In the flickering lamplight, her eyes take on a honey-colored tint. “How long have you lived in Lake?” She takes another bite of food and then tosses her can aside. “What happened to your family? And how’d your knee get that way? You always lived on the streets, or what?”
I’m quiet throughout her questions. It’s only fair that she’s asking, of course, since she’s told me so much about herself. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living on the streets, it’s to keep details about myself secret. Where would I even start? My name’s Day. My family lives about thirty blocks northeast of here. I have a mother, an older brother, and a younger brother. All of them think I’m dead. Republic doctors sliced open my knee while experimenting on my body. I was shipped to them after failing my Trial, and they’d left me for dead in a hospital basement. I stumbled around, bleeding, for weeks afterward. I always travel alone, because if the Republic ever finds me, they’ll snuff me out like a candle. I keep my head turned away as the memories fill me up and threaten to burst out of my chest. So many stories to tell.
But I fold them away one by one.
Charlie sobers at my silence. “Well,” she starts, looking a little awkward for the first time since she’s known me. She fiddles with one of her braids. “All in good time, whenever you’re ready.”
I smile at her over the lamplight.
“If you want, you know, you can stay for a few more days,” she says. “My dad says you’re a good worker and proved your worth . . . he’d be happy to keep you around a little longer. He might even give you some wages under the table. And, well, you’re a nice kid. The streets are a harsh place to live—I dunno how long you’ll make it out there on your own.”
Her offer’s tempting. My heart warms, and there are unspoken words of gratitude on the tip of my tongue. I soak in her freckled face and rumpled braids, and in this moment I’m completely ready to say yes. I can see myself working here beside her and making some sort of life for myself. I ache to belong to a family again, to become friends with this girl. Wouldn’t that be something, yeah? I close my eyes and lose myself to the fantasy.
“I’ll think about it,” I finally reply. It’s a good enough answer for now.
Charlie shrugs, and we both go back to finishing our dinners. We sleep side by side out on her boat’s deck that night, close enough that our shoulders touch and I can feel the warmth coming from her body. I spend most of the night looking up at the sky. It’s clear enough for me to make out about a dozen stars. I count them over and over again until they lull me into a light sleep.
A shriek jolts me awake.
I instinctively hop to my feet, then wince as my bad knee twists and forces me to sit back down. My pouch of random trinkets pokes me uncomfortably in my side. What’s going on? What happened? Is it morning? All I notice in my confusion is the dim light of dawn that paints everything bluish gray.
“No! You can’t!”
Another shriek. This time I hear it come from farther down the pier, where the crew’s crowded around something. Curious passersby have started accumulating along the street. Don’t get close. Stay away. My instincts flare up, and instead of joining them, I hurry over to a nearby stack of crates and crouch in the shadows.
At first I can’t tell what’s going on. Then, as I squint closer at the scene, I realize what’s happening. A few Republic soldiers dressed in the attire of a city patrol—not street police, an actual city patrol—are shouting questions at a large man. Charlie’s dad. The shrieks come from Charlie, whom several of the crew members are holding back.