Children of Eden Page 30

But all this came only in passing. It was entertainment, conversation just as an excuse to hear each other’s voices. If only she’d told me more, in greater detail. If only I’d paid more attention to her words than to the curve of her mouth as she spoke . . .

Now I have to focus on survival. It’s easy to say I’ll just sit here forever, but already I feel something stir inside of me, some urge to act, to save myself. My mother’s face keeps looming before me, her loving, worried eyes, but I push it back. I’ll cry again later—soon, I’m sure. But now I have to find a place to hide while I figure out how to survive the next hour.

Or minute. Someone is crossing the dilapidated street, heading right for me.

A man—or at last I think it is a man, based on his size—is shuffling in a zigzagging way, tacking unsteadily from left to right as he moves. He’s a walking bundle of rags, a motley of faded, dirty cloth. His thick walking stick thumps at his side with each step.

Should I get up? Should I run? I remember reading a passage about predators in an Eco-history book. It said that predators couldn’t resist chasing anything that ran. If you held your ground, a tiger might decide not to attack. If you turned and fled, it would pounce and snap your neck.

So I sit in my sheltered nook as he makes his ungraceful way to me. As he gets closer, I can see that his face is caked in grime. On the left side there is a curving smear of what might be dried blood, or else reddish clay. He wears cracked black-framed glasses with smudged lenses. I can’t tell if he’s young or old. Up close he smells terrible, like urine and moldy bread. Part of me recoils, but another part yearns to help him. But I have no money, no food, nothing but my too-flashy clothes and, I assume, a price on my head.

I’m so fascinated—in an appalled way—by his repulsive appearance and smell that I realize too late I’m staring at him with wide-open eyes.

Bikk! I’m done. I don’t know what the Center would pay for information leading to my capture, but it has to be more than this poor bum has ever seen before. He’ll tell the first authority figure he sees (though I haven’t seen any sign of a Greenshirt or other official), and the hunt will be on again.

I know exactly what I should do. I should spring on him like I’m the predator, force him to the ground, beat him unconscious, or worse, to give myself a chance to escape. I’m sure that’s what life is like out here on the edge.

I could do it, too. For all that I’m tired, I feel strong. The fear and sorrow combine to make my muscles bunch, my fists clench. I’ll dive for his legs, take him down, do whatever I have to. I feel a sick ache in my gut . . .

But before I can act, the man backs away one shuffling step. “Blend in and wait,” he mutters, at the same time using his stocky walking stick to scratch a number into the dust of the crumbling building that carpets the ground: 6572. He waits just a second and stomps it to oblivion, dust rising around his booted foot. He peels off his mended, dirty glasses and lets them fall casually by my feet. As he turns I see—or think I see—his eyes flash in multi-hued hazel, bright green, and gold.

Another second child! Well, not a child any longer. An old man, I think, though I can’t tell how old beneath the filth. But he’s survived this long. If he can do it, I certainly can.

I watch him shuffle unsteadily away. I want to run after him, to ask him questions, to beg him for answers.

And then I think: Is that my fate, my future? A scrabbling, unwashed existence on the fringe of society?

He’s gone before I can decide what to do. So I put on the glasses to hide my eyes, and start to think. He’s right: in this poverty-stricken circle I stick out like a sore thumb. There are a few people on the streets now, passing in their furtive way without seeing me. In stark contrast to the people in my home circle, they are dressed in dark, sober colors, faded black and muddy hues. Even though I’m dusty, sweaty, and disheveled, my clothes are obviously bright and expensive. I feel a twinge of shame. I never realized my life was easy until now.

I need to do something about my appearance right away. I might not have any money, but I envision myself being robbed for my clothes alone, stripped and abandoned on the street.

Or not abandoned, which would be far worse.

Can I get a change of clothes somehow? I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’ll just have to dirty up these clothes and hope the costly sheen doesn’t show. If only I was in the pre-fail days, it would be easy—back then, there was real dirt. Here, though the street is filthy enough, it’s all building dust, food waste, and mysterious oozy puddles. I scratch up dust from my doorway and rub it into my orange-gold sleeves. Then I add some to my sweat- and tear-soaked face. I pull my hair out of its braid and tug the strands over my face.

I know it isn’t enough. Now instead of looking like an inner circle girl who’s lost, I just look like an inner circle girl who’s crazy. But it will have to do. The big question at the moment is: can I trust the bum? He gave me glasses to hide my eyes, but what about that number he scratched into the dust? It must be a building number. Or maybe a code? But to what? In any case, I can’t stay here all day. I’m tucked away and unobtrusive, but with the sun coming up people will definitely notice me, and attention is the last thing I need.

To find shelter, I’ll have to venture out into the open.

Look like you’re not afraid. That’s what Lark told me when I was nervous about walking among the poor, the street people, the gangs in her home circle (which seems so civilized now). Walk like you belong here. Don’t make eye contact, but don’t look down either. Own the space you move in.

So I gather my confidence and step out. In the growing light of day, the place looks like a war zone. How can anyone live like this? The idea that has been nagging me for days suddenly solidifies. How can this poverty exist in Eden? The principle of this survival city has always been sustainability. They’re willing to kill me, and any second child, to keep the population in check so there will be enough food and water and other resources for everyone.

Why on Earth then do some people have so much, some so little? It makes no sense. The inner circle people don’t need exotic nightclubs, decadent food, and luxury clothes. If they had a little less, the people out here would have a little more. Around me I see broken windows, skinny children with empty bowls outstretched, begging for a scrap. There’s a crater in the road that looks like a bomb fell. There are no cleanbots, no securitybots . . .

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