The Boys: An Excerpt
The bed squeaks when I move to my knees. Any noise is dangerous because we never know what will bring Noodle in here. And because of the traitor. There’s more than one traitor, but the worst is Markus. He survives this place by making them think he is on their side; the meaner he is to us, the more Noodle and the other guards think they can trust him.
Which is dumb. Trust isn’t real. I don’t even trust myself. Sometimes my brain says one thing, but my body does another. When the guards come in, the goal is to be invisible. It’s the game we play. The only problem is – sometimes I can’t trust my body or my voice to do what it’s supposed to.
Alizabet’s story’s supposed to help us. It’s only when you’re quiet in Taramul Viselor that you can hear the fairies’ wings, after all. I’m not sure what fairies are, or how Alizabet knows about them. Fairies are born from dying stars. If a dying star lands in Dragonfly Cascades, which is at the top of the tallest mountain in Taramul Viselor, the waters swirl and use the heat of the star to mold a fairy. Dragonfly Cascades, every time I think of the name of the waterfall, it gets stuck in my head. I don’t know why a dragonfly would want to make a fairy. Dragonfly Cascades is only the hugest waterfall anywhere. All the water from all the oceans flow to the Dragonfly Cascades. When you see a dragonfly, it means rain is on the way. They are good luck to farmers… and they are water guides. They guide the waters from every ocean everywhere to the Cascades. If the dragonflies bring about good luck, why do they need to create fairies? Everybody needs fairies! Especially dragonflies because fairies have special powers: they have a glow around them. The glow, you see, is leftover light from the star that they once were. Dragonflies love the fairies because the fairies help keep Taramul Viselor lit up—the dragonflies can see the lights and they don’t lose their way home while they are guiding the Earth’s waters towards the Cascades. Alizabet says the fairies are not invisible, anyone can see them. But they are shy; humans can only see them if they are very, very still and quiet.
And so, when the guards come in, we play a game in which we pretend we are in Taramul Viselor, at the top of the mountain, and we try to be the quietest one. Alina loves this game and says we are practicing so that, one day, when we all get to Taramul Viselor, we ‘ll know how to catch sight of a fairy. I try to be quiet, but I don’t trust myself to do that. One minute, I think I’m so quiet I’ll see a hundred fairies… and then, from nowhere, I start screeching or my arms flail. I don’t try to screech or flail; it just happens. If I can’t trust my body to be still when I want it to be, or my voice to be quiet when I tell it to be quiet, I don’t trust anyone.
Well, except Alina. She is my twin; I trust her.
The beds squeaks when I move to my knees. The room is never silent. There are the sounds of life all around us—a sneeze, the squeaking of a bed as someone rolls to a different position, the illegal whisperings between kids who are tired of sleeping, the repetitive noises most of us make like the clack, cluck your tongue makes when it bounces off the roof of your mouth or the flailing of arms against the rails of the crib or the scratching noises of the rats scurrying around corners. The only difference between the daylight and the dark is that only a couple of us are sitting up.
I can’t see his face in the dark, but the traitor looks asleep. His bed is three away from ours. Ekko’s right; we can’t beat Markus when he’s awake. He’s too quick, too big and too mean. He steals the food I get. I got the apples. I snuck out of the crib, out of the room. If I’d got caught, Noodle would have beat me. I might have been starved. Markus didn’t take that risk; he didn’t do that. So he shouldn’t have got the apples and that’s why we stole his stash of food.
Since then, every day, we are leery; we watch him. He picks on Alina mostly. She is an easy target because Alina’s blind. Only shades of light enter her eyes. She can smell anything, no matter how far it is away. She can hear things before the rest of us can. It is not easy to sneak up on Alina since we are confined to the beds, but Markus has really goodaim. He hoards the seeds from any piece of fruit he steals. He doesn’t want to eat the seeds; they fly through the air like darts, striking Alina in the face, the shoulder or her hair. When she jerks and swats at her face, Markus laughs.
”It was that Silver Claw, it was!”
Terror fills Alina’s eyes.
”No, it wasn’t, Alina. It was a seed. I have it right here,” Ekko reaches over to the girls’ crib, holding the seed in his hand. “Touch it.”
”Don’t listen to him, girl. It’s little, alright. It’s a scale that fell off Silver Claw. You his girl, aren’t you?” Markus’s voice sounds like sandpaper. It grates on my nerves.
”It’s a seed, Alina. Silver Claw is not real. He’s a stupid story.” Ekko’s eyes promise revenge.
”I wish Silver Claw was real,” I say. “Cause then he’d eat Markus and get rid of him for us.”
”What is the racket in here,” Noodle’s voice rang out loud, coming into the room. “Since you can’t be quiet, go to bed!” She flips the lights out and closes the door again. Ekko’s eyes, wide and the color of the wood bark, follow her. He asks the same thing, ever time the door closes, “Is the door locked?”
”Dumbass,” Markus’s scratchy voice is loud. “Of course it’s locked. Silver Claw keeps the key. Why don’t you go get it from him?”
Ekko’s eyes, filled with fear moments ago, now darken with anger. “I’d like to be the one to feed you to that monster.”
”Stop!” Alizabet is never loud. Except when people fight. She hates fighting. “Just stop. Alina, Markus threw seeds; that’s all, just seeds.”
Alina hasn’t said a word; she’s the quiet one. That don’t mean she’s not smarter than Markus or Ekko or any one of us; she’s probably the smartest of anyone here. She just don’t say much. She needs me, I protect her.
The sound of a rumbling breaks the silence. It is loud. It is loud because most of our bellies haven’t rumbled in a long time; if your belly rumbles, you’re not really hungry. Not yet.
”Have you ever had Honey Petals?” Alizabet asks.
”Aw, shut up, no one wants to hear about your make believe food,” Markus complains. Ekko throws his seeds back at him. Alizabet ignores both Ekko and Markus because she knows everybody loves hearing Alizabet’s stories.
”They only grow in Taramul Viselor. In the valley, under Dragonfly Cascades, there’s a shady spot with massive trees. The trees are old, very old, and they are tall—“
”Taller than Silver Claw ?” Alina speaks for the first time.
”I don’t think they’re so tall that you can’t climb them. The leaves on these trees are lined with gold–“
”Like the Gold-speckled Frog?” I ask.
”Not as much as the Gold-speckled Frog. The frog is covered in gold spots; he sparkles with it, especially since he stays wet from the rivers. The leaves of these trees just have a thin line of gold — it’s so thin that it doesn’t always shine — it just looks like… like… a yellow apple. Anyway, these trees are special because bees love them. Bees make their hives in these trees. Beneath the trees grow Honey Petals. Honey Petals are paper thin. They grow on vines and look like tiny bells. Honey Petals have a secret. They hold a drop or two of the honey from the bees’. If you are gentle with the petals, you can open their stems and suck the honey from them. They taste like lavender and sugar.”
”What’s lav–lave–lavender t-t-taste like?” Ekko asks.
”Like a flower. It almost has a hint of lemon but it’s not sour; it’s sweet like a flower; the honey is thick, sticky on your tongue and the magical thing is that it makes you want more. Each season the taste is a little different because it depends on what kind of flowers the bees visit. Sometimes instead of lavender, it can taste like rosemary or mint. But no matter what season it is, Honey Petals are sweet. It is said that whoever drinks the honey from the Honey Petals is sure to have the sweetest of dreams. Once, a woman ate a few of them and then her dreams revealed where she could find her missing family.”
Even Markus is quiet now.
When I look at Alina, she stares toward Alizabet. My hands slap the mattress, and I bounce with excitement at thestory. If I close my eyes, I can see Taramul Viselor and the Honey Petals. I can see Dragonfly Cascades and the Gold-speckled Frog and I can hear the bees in the trees with the gold-lined leaves.
”It’s not real,” Markus is loud.
”How — how do–do you know? Ha–have you – you been o-o-outside?”
”Do–do-do…how does she know it’s real? Has she been outside? Retard,” Markus shoots back.
Alina surprises me by saying, “It is real.” She sounds so sure I don’t question it. She’s been here a long time, and we never saw Taramul Viselor — at least, not that I remember. I’m pretty sure I’d remember such a place.
When we hear the growling again, everyone pretends we don’t.
***** ***** *****
”Ekko?” I whisper. I don’t want anyone else, not even the girls, to know I am awake. I tap Ekko’s arm. It is bony, like mine. Ekko’s hair isn’t as curly as mine, but it is wavy, and very, very dark, almost black. His walnut colored eyes aren’t as dark; he and I don’t look anything alike. His skin is lightly browned, the color of my hands when they are caked in dirt; I am pale white. Ekko does not look like my brother, but he is now.
Markus wins the war right now. He screamed at the girls. Alina doesn’t react, but Alizabet cries when he does that. He threw the seeds at Alina and told it was from Silver Claw. Sometimes, at night, he sneaks over to the girls’ crib and bites their hands, their feet, until the noise in the room threatens to bring in the guards. He climbed into the crib with me and Ekko while we slept and held my face down into the mattress until I couldn’t breathe. Ekko tried to shove him off, but Markus is a lot bigger than us and we couldn’t get him off me. The world started to turn black; my lungs felt like they were burning. My legs kicked behind me and I couldn’t breathe. Alizabet and Alina climbed into the crib and it took all three of them to get him off me. He tried to kill me. And then: the fight.
“I’m gonna light you on fire, boy!” Markus screamed. “Gonna dance when you burn!” Markus knows Ekko fears fire. The black house. Ekko talks about the black house a lot. The room, the door being locked. Walking over glass to escape. The sound of the flames as they raced up the walls of the room. Standing in the woods, watching his house collapse from the flames, knowing he was supposed to be in the fire, too. Markus knows this; the room is shared. When Ekko wakes from the nightmares screaming, Markus hears likes we do. Still, he said it. Ekko didn’t stop to think: he leaped out of the crib like a panther and, suddenly, the two of them were throwing punches at each other. The cries from the other kids started as a rumble that exploded; they were screeching and flailing arms. They bounced and the ones that speak yelled. I couldn’t let Ekko fight alone; the excitement flew through me. We’d beat him up. We’d beat him up. I hobbled out of the crib, raced across the room to Markus’s bed. I threw a couple of good punches before, out of nowhere, I felt myself jerked off the ground, flying through the air. I slammed down, my back ramming into the metal heater against the wall. We haven’t had heat in a long time; it wasn’t hot. Still, the pain of hitting the wall so hard knocked the breath out of me and it took me a minute to see that Ekko and Markus were being beaten with extension cords by Chimp and another guard I’d never seen. Ekko’s arm was still twisted; his bone pokes out weird. A few hours later, Baston came in to tell us that, since we had so much extra energy to spare, no one would eat for “awhile.”
Ekko squinted at me. He looked across the room. In the dark, Markus looked asleep, but we can’t be sure. Ekko and me, we had a plan; a plan to stop Markus from talking. It would take both of us to make sure it worked without us getting in trouble. Ekko is the watch-out; he’s good at listening for sounds, and he’s taller than me. I am the best at stealing. Ekko nods, moving to sit up. It’s time.
Carefully, I climb over the railing and out of the crib.
What I want is something important to the guard. I need something small that someone will miss, but also easy to carry and plant. I saw just the thing earlier when Chimp came in. And I won’t even have to leave the room. To get it, I’ll have to make it over to Markus’s area without being seen. Air seeps through the window; I can see frost settling along the edges of the window. The trees outside are barren and I see my breath when I breathe out. The guards give us blankets during the coldest of nights. We have one blanket per crib; that means meand Ekko share the blanket. It doesn’t cover our feet and one of us usually doesn’t have but a tiny corner of it to cling to. Markus doesn’t share; his crib mate, number 392, doesn’t get any part of the blanket. The sounds of the room are the routine noises: the shuffling of bodies moving, the random cough.
I saw it.
Dizziness and a swelling headache kept me from standing up right away when I was thrown against the wall. Instead, I rolled to my hands and knees, and that’s when I saw it. The cigarette pack. It had to have come from Chimp’s open pack; he always has a pack open in his pocket. Somehow the pack must have fallen when he was beating Ekko and Markus. It was here; it was under one of the cribs. I just can’t be sure which crib.
The tile floor is cold to my hands and hard on my knees. I crawl so that I can better see. Darkness makes it hard to see. I think of Silver Claw — Alina believes in that shape-shifter; she thinks he sees her, that he’s always after her. She says she’s seen him; felt his body that’s hot to the touch. He is most active at night; what if he’s creeping along the floors, too, like I am, and just grabs me? Swallowing, I shake my head, looking for the pack.
”Hide!” Ekko’s voice is loud.
Before he finishes speaking, I’m sliding my body under a crib. It’s the only place I can hide. The door to the room opens;light spills in from the hallway. The room holds its breath. Finally, the door closes and darkness returns. Ekko says if there’s a close call to wait to move; to count to ten before moving. I don’t know how to count, but I hold my breath anyway and wait until I can’t hold it anymore before sliding out from under the crib. My eyes shift. I don’t — there! There it is!
I slide along the floor to the next crib and reach under with my hand. Fingers close around a smooth plastic box. Inside are cigarettes; Ekko doesn’t want to touch it. This is why I am doing this and not Ekko. If it has to do with fire, Ekko won’t have anything to do with it. But they’re not lit. There’s no fire now; just a smooth, plastic pack of small, round sticks, brown crumbly at one end. Before I lose my nerve, I stand.
The cigarette pack must have gotten knocked a long way; Ekko’s crib is at the end of the room. Some kid calls my number; I ignore. I am in a hurry now, trying to get this done before Markus wakes. When I make it to Markus’s crib, I slide the cigarette pack under the bed. Not the side where Markus’s stash is because I don’t want Markus to know the pack is here. Not yet. Instead, I put them under the other end, where nothing is kept, nothing is hidden. And I race back to the bed.
Ekko smiles as I climb back in. I saw the pack, but this was Ekko’s idea. I told him the pack was there, I told him how I knew it was there. Ekko knew what to do. Ekko is the planner; I am just the thief. We just wait now til morning. It is hard to wait; I barely sleep, keeping my eyes on Markus, hoping he doesn’t feel anything under the mattress, hoping he doesn’t look under the wrong side for his food store. He doesn’t. When light streaks in through the glass window panes, and noises start up in the room again, I am quiet. I look at Ekko; he nods.
”Shh,” Alizabet warns as she hears the key unlocking the room’s door. They are coming. Every morning, they look in on us. If we are lucky, we get breakfast: bottled milk, usually. It is Chimp. That makes me nervous; Chimp is hard to read and he doesn’t always act the same. But the cigarette pack was his.
”Markus! Markus!” I squeal. When I am sure Chimp watches me, I mime smoking. “He’s got smokes! He’s got smokes!” Markus is confused; he’s frowning, calling me names. “Markus smokes!” Soon, just as Ekko said they would, other kids start copying me, miming smoking and chanting, “Markus smokes!” Chimp yells for us to shut up or he’ll bring Noodle in and wear us all out. But he goes straight to Markus’s crib. He stares at him, then smacks him. “You got something, boy?”
”No.” Markus answers, but I can see his heart beating from here. His stash, his food stash. That’s enough to get him in trouble. But not like Chimp’s cigarettes. Chimp grabs Markus’s arm and hauls him out of the crib. Markus doesn’t look strong now. Chimp lifts one side of the bed. It’s the wrong side. There’s no stash, there’s no cigarette. Then, he lifts the other side. The smooth pack of cigarettes stare back at him.
Markus did not kill me.