Excerpt: The Farm

The noise in the hall was so soft I barely heard it over my own breathing, but I stilled instantly, trying to remember what exactly the sound was.

Something I knew well, even though I hadn’t heard it in months. A sort of mechanical swoosh, as unfamiliar to me now as the turning of a key in a car ignition or the chime over the door at the yogurt shop where I had worked after school.

I sucked in a breath. Elevator doors. I’d heard elevator doors opening. Someone had come up to the seventh floor where I lived with my sister, Mel. Someone not afraid of getting stuck in an elevator if a blackout rolled across The Farm. Or someone too lazy to walk up the stairs, which described pretty much all of the Collab guards.

I thought instantly of the guy in the grey sweatshirt who had run into me out on the quad. The guy who could turn me in to the Collabs. If that happened, Mel and I would both be fed to the Ticks.

Shit.

Had the guy in the grey sweatshirt really turned me into the Collabs already?

I rocked forward onto the balls of my feet and stood, hardly daring to breathe. The door leading out into the hall was open. I crept one step and then another until I was tucked behind the open door. I couldn’t see much through the crack between the door and jamb, so I squeezed my eyes shut, listening, as I considered my options.

Even if there was just one Collab out there, we were screwed. Before Mel had reorganized the closet, I’d known exactly my only weapon was hidden. But now?

My breath caught in my chest as the realization hit me. I had the shiv I had just traded for at Stoner Joe’s. Not for the first time since I’d come to the Farm, I wondered: would I kill someone if I really had to? In the Before, I didn’t even like to kill bugs. And I’d puked the one time our old Siamese cat, Trickster, had left a dead bunny on our porch. Could I kill a person? Could I do it to protect Mel? I drew in a shuddering breath, my heart thudding so loudly, I was sure he’d hear it.

Why not? Why not at least try to take out the Collab? If there was only one, then I had a shot. It was sure as hell better than waiting for him to go get reinforcements.

I could hear footsteps in the hall. Coming closer. Was it one guy or two?

Shit. Shit, shit, shit!

I stood there for a torturous minute, listening to the sound of his steady footsteps. Each pause of his stride, punctuated by the sound of a knob turning, a door sliding open, and shutting with an ominous click. Only one guy, I was almost certain. But these weren’t the sounds of a casual exploring. This was a methodical search. He was looking for us.

And he would find me. Soon.

I’d carelessly left the door to this classroom open. It was a miracle he hadn’t noticed it already.

Wedged between the door and the wall, heart pounding, eyes squeezed shut, I reached down and slid the shiv free of my belt loop, my palm damp against the metal handle. Through the gap between the door and the doorjamb, I saw a flash of grey pass. Not the blue of a Collab’s uniform but the heathered grey of a sweatshirt. I pushed aside the doubt that flickered through me. Then he was there, striding past me into the classroom. He paused for only a moment before heading around the rows of lab desks toward the storage closet.

I launched myself at him before he could get too far into the room. Leaping onto his back, I slung one arm around his neck. He gave an oomph of surprise and stumbled back. I brought the shiv up to his neck, but hesitated. That moment of doubt cost me.

His hands reached up to claw at my arms. The shiv slipped and clattered to the ground at his feet. Panicked, I used my free hand to leverage the other arm, squeezing tight against his windpipe. For a second, I seemed to have the advantage. I didn’t have to kill him. I only needed him to pass out. Just long enough to get Mel out of the storage closet.

Then he reeled with a grunt and slammed my back against the wall. The air rushed out of my lungs and I swear I actually felt my bones shudder. Damn, he was big. Not just taller than me, but stronger.

He stumbled forward, reaching his arms over his head to wrench at my hair and tug at my shirt. Blunt fingernails raked against my neck, burning a trail of scratches across my skin. He ran forward a few steps and then back again, slamming me into the wall once more. This time, I felt something hard dig into my spine. Maybe a light switch or the fire alarm.

I yelped as agony seared through my back. My grip loosened, but only for a second. He may have been a Green, but he wasn’t weak or anemic. Maybe his blood wasn’t “clean” enough and they hadn’t been taking as much from him. Nor was he fat and lazy the way so many of the Collabs were. I couldn’t afford to let him go. He was knocking the shit out of me now. I’d never be able to defend myself face to face.

I tried to remember anything from self-defense class Mom had dragged me to when I was thirteen. Bits of it flashed through my mind along with things I’d figured out through trial and error here at the Farm. The eyes. I knew I could hurt him if I could just reach his eyes. But my grip on his throat was slipping already. Not daring to let go, I tightened my legs around his hips, clinging to him with every ounce of strength I still had. My only hope was to weaken him before he crushed my spine completely.

He staggered forward again and I could hear him gasping for breath, my arm strangling the sounds in his throat before they could escape. He was trying to talk. But I still didn’t let go. He staggered back a step, but he was weakening and this felt more like a pat on the back than the assault his previous body slams had been.

A second later, he teetered forward and fell to his knees, his forehead missing the corner of one of the lab desks by mere inches as he did a face plant on linoleum.

Slowly, I pulled my arms out from under his heavy weight and pushed myself up. My legs still gripped his waist. I sat there a moment, sucking air into my lungs, straddling his back, too worn out to move, trying to think. His hood was still up. All I could see of him were his hands, which were large and strong. And, probably had bits of my skin under the nails.

I shuddered at the thought. Clearly, back in the Before, I’d watched too many of those forensic shows on TV, if that was the thought that went through my mind.

Shit. Had I killed him?

I pushed myself off of his back, then struggled to flip him over. It was easier than I would have thought, given how much bigger he was. I leaned down and pressed my ear to his chest. I felt it rise and fall beneath my face even before I heard the strong, steady rhythm of his heart.

Relief poured through me. Not just because I was still alive, but because he was too. I felt my throat close and tears burn my still tender eyes. I didn’t want to be a murderer.

Before my tears could fall, I scrambled back. I didn’t want to die either. I didn’t know why he’d come looking for us, instead of going straight to the Collabs, but I wasn’t going to stay around to find out. I had to get Mel out of here. Fast.

And yet, for some reason, I hesitated as I saw his face for the first time. There was something familiar about him. It was like I should know him, but just … didn’t. Most of his face was obscured by the beginnings of a beard, too long to be mere stubble, like he hadn’t shaved in weeks. Most of the guys on the Farm didn’t bother to shave. Still, not many guys our age could grow anything like a beard. Some of the Collabs were older, but he obviously wasn’t one of them or he would have been wearing the blue uniform. I studied his features, looking for some hint to why he seemed so familiar. His nose had a funny little bump in it, like it had been broken.

I pushed back his hoodie to reveal dirty blonde hair. A single lock of hair flopped back into place to drape across forehead. Recognition snapped into place, rocking me back on my heels.

He must have moved the second I took my eyes off of him. He sprang up, knocking me flat onto my back, covering my body with his own. My head banged against the floor, and I squeezed my eyes shut against the pain. The impact knocked the breath out of me.

There was nothing groggy or slow about his movements. Obviously, he’d only pretended to pass out. I’d fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I felt the cool edge of my shiv press into the skin at my throat.

Damn it!

Could I make any more mistakes today? How had I been so careless as to let him get my weapon? My shiv!

I swallowed hard against my frustration, bumping my chin up a notch to relieve the pressure against the blade.

Slowly, I opened my eyes to stare up into familiar blue eyes.

I forced a smile. “Hey, Carter. Long time no see.

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