THE BOY WHO WALKS IN THE LIGHT
MY MOTHER THINKS I’M DEAD.
Obviously I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.
At least twice a month, I see my Wanted poster flashed on the JumboTrons scattered throughout downtown Los Angeles. It looks out of place up there. Most of the pictures on the screens are of happy things: smiling children standing under a bright blue sky, tourists posing before the Golden Gate Ruins, Republic commercials in neon colors. There’s also anti-Colonies propaganda. “The Colonies want our land,” the ads declare. “They want what they don’t have. Don’t let them conquer your homes! Support the cause!”
Then there’s my criminal report. It lights up the JumboTrons in all its multicolored glory:
WANTED BY THE REPUBLIC
FILE NO: 462178-3233 “DAY”
WANTED FOR ASSAULT, ARSON, THEFT,
DESTRUCTION OF MILITARY PROPERTY,
AND HINDERING THE WAR EFFORT
200,000 REPUBLIC NOTES FOR
INFORMATION LEADING TO ARREST
They always have a different photo running alongside the report. One time it was a boy with glasses and a head full of thick copper curls. Another time it was a boy with black eyes and no hair at all. Sometimes I’m black, sometimes white, sometimes olive or brown or yellow or red or whatever else they can think of.
In other words, the Republic has no idea what I look like. They don’t seem to know much of anything about me, except that I’m young and that when they run my fingerprints they don’t find a match in their databases. That’s why they hate me, why I’m not the most dangerous criminal in the country, but the most wanted. I make them look bad.
It’s early evening, but it’s already pitch-black outside, and the JumboTrons’ reflections are visible in the street’s puddles. I sit on a crumbling window ledge three stories up, hidden from view behind rusted steel beams. This used to be an apartment complex, but it’s fallen into disrepair. Broken lanterns and glass shards litter the floor of this room, and paint is peeling from every wall. In one corner, an old portrait of the Elector Primo lies faceup on the ground. I wonder who used to live here—no one’s cracked enough to let their portrait of the Elector sit discarded on the floor like that.
My hair, as usual, is tucked inside an old newsboy cap. My eyes are fixed on the small one-story house across the road. My hands fiddle with the pendant tied around my neck.
Tess leans against the room’s other window, watching me closely. I’m restless tonight and, as always, she can sense it.
The plague has hit the Lake sector hard. In the glow of the JumboTrons, Tess and I can see the soldiers at the end of the street as they inspect each home, their black capes shiny and worn loose in the heat. Each of them wears a gas mask. Sometimes when they emerge, they mark a house by painting a big red X on the front door. No one enters or leaves the home after that—at least, not when anyone’s looking.
“Still don’t see them?” Tess whispers. Shadows conceal her expression.
In an attempt to distract myself, I’m piecing together a makeshift slingshot out of old PVC pipes. “They haven’t eaten dinner. They haven’t sat down by the table in hours.” I shift and stretch out my bad knee.
“Maybe they’re not home?”
I shoot Tess an irritated glance. She’s trying to console me, but I’m not in the mood. “A lamp’s lit. Look at those candles. Mom would never waste candles if no one was home.”
Tess moves closer. “We should leave the city for a couple weeks, yeah?” She tries to keep her voice calm, but the fear is there. “Soon the plague will have blown through, and you can come back to visit. We have more than enough money for two train tickets.”
I shake my head. “One night a week, remember? Just let me check up on them one night a week.”
“Yeah. You’ve been coming here every night this week.”
“I just want to make sure they’re okay.”
“What if you get sick?”
“I’ll take my chances. And you didn’t have to come with me. You could’ve waited for me back in Alta.”
Tess shrugs. “Somebody has to keep an eye on you.” Two years younger than me—although sometimes she sounds old enough to be my caretaker.
We look on in silence as the soldiers draw closer to my family’s house. Every time they stop at a home, one soldier pounds on the door while a second stands next to him with his gun drawn. If no one opens the door within ten seconds, the first soldier kicks it in. I can’t see them once they rush inside, but I know the drill: a soldier will draw a blood sample from each family member, then plug it into a handheld reader and check for the plague. The whole process takes ten minutes.
I count the houses between where the soldiers are now and where my family lives. I’ll have to wait another hour before I know their fate.
A shriek echoes from the other end of the street. My eyes dart toward the sound and my hand whips to the knife sheathed at my belt. Tess sucks in her breath.
It’s a plague victim. She must’ve been deteriorating for months, because her skin is cracked and bleeding everywhere, and I find myself wondering how the soldiers could have missed this one during previous inspections. She stumbles around for a while, disoriented, then charges forward, only to trip and fall to her knees. I glance back toward the soldiers. They see her now. The soldier with the drawn weapon approaches, while the eleven others stay where they are and look on. One plague victim isn’t much of a threat. The soldier lifts his gun and aims. A volley of sparks engulfs the infected woman.