Page 48


“I never asked, but I don’t think she liked home much. Anyway, when she ran, she only got about a mile into the Zone—”


“Zone?” The guard had said that, too.


“Yeah, like ‘buffer zone,’ the cushion between Rule and everybody else. The dogs caught her. That’s another reason she hates them so much.”


“A mile’s still pretty far. That means she had to slip an escort, too.”


“Well, she got pretty friendly with the guards. I think she bribed one by, you know …”


“No, I—” And then she got it. “Oh, that’s just gross.”


“Some of these guys are gross,” Sarah said matter-of-factly. “They only look like grandpas. Anyway, that’s why Jess always has to be around when the older guys come in. If a guy our age visits, though, she leaves so we can, you know, talk and stuff. They want us to get to know those guys.”


“What happened to the guard that Lena … you know …”


“They Banned him, like they did with that guy you recognized.”


“And people just nicely decide not to sneak back in?”


“I guess when they know they’ll be shot, they decide not to.”


“No way.”


“Way. Reverend Yeager’s really strict about it. Like, once he’s decided you’re Banned, that’s it. There are a lot of guards in the woods.”


“Like, walking around?” She wasn’t sure she’d want to be out there after dark, even with a rifle.


Sarah shook her head. “Tree stands. You have to know where to look. Even then, they move around, so you can’t predict where


they’ll be.”


“You know a lot about this.”


“Oh. Well … Peter and I are … we talk.” The way Sarah said that, Alex thought they maybe did a lot more than just talk—in which case, Tori was in for a major disappointment.


“So what do you have to do to get permission to leave?” asked Alex.


“Why would anyone want to?”


“Well,” Alex said, momentarily flustered, “what if you want to try and find family or something? I mean, if I wanted to.”


“Oh, we’ll never get permission. They got us, they’re going to keep us.”


Rule, Alex thought, was like a commercial for an insecticide: roaches check in, but they don’t check out. “And you’re okay with that?”


“Well, sure,” said Sarah. “I mean, it’s not like we’ve got a ton of choices.”


That made her think of something Lena had mentioned that made no sense. “Is that what they mean by Chosen? Like, is it the same as Spared?”


“No. Chosen means that someone picks you.”


“Picks you?”


“Yeah.” A pause. “A guy.”


“A guy?”


“Yeah. A guy, you know, decides … that he wants … you know …”


“What?” Alex said, much louder than she intended. “They give us to a guy? To go live with him?”


“Yeah, but not with any of the old ones,” Sarah said reasonably. “They give us to guys our age. One of them picks one of us, and if the Council says it’s okay, then we go live with him. We get our own house, which is way better than here. Anyway, the idea is we live together and get to know each other.” She paused. “It’s like that old Amish thing. You know, bundling? Only we get to live together, not just get in the same bed.”


Neither sounded good. “Are you serious? You’re serious. Are we … if a guy picks us, do they expect us to, you know, sleep with him?”


“If we want to, I guess. It would be normal. Not right away, of course …” Sarah faltered. “No one’s supposed to force us. But … sure. I mean, that’s what people living together do.”


No, that’s what people in love do. Even if they lock you in some guy’s house, they can’t make you feel that way. “And they’ve done this to some girls already? It’s only been a couple of months.”


She felt Sarah nod. “I think they were doing it before for a real long time. All I know is no one’s asked to go back. The Council says you can if you want to, but no one has. I mean, think about it. You get your own house. You make up your own rules … well, pretty much. It’s not like you get to go wherever you want, but it’s not safe outside Rule anyway, so who cares?”


My God, no matter what Kincaid said, it was like a cult. “So no one has ever refused.”


“Well, I think Lena was worried that this one guy was going to ask.” Sarah sighed. “It was Peter, okay?”


“I thought Tori liked Peter.”


“Tori.” A snort. “Peter is so not interested. Greg’s got this complete crush on her, though. It’s kind of embarrassing, you know? Like a seventh grader asking out a senior.”


“So what happened with Lena and Peter?”


“He started hanging around a lot and asking to walk her places … you know.”


“Like a date?”


“About as close as you get to one in Rule, yeah. I think that’s how she figured out which guard was working where. After they brought her back, Peter was so mad, he wanted her Banned, but you’d have to pretty much murder someone for that to happen to one of us, and even then I’m not sure the Reverend would do it. We’re really valuable.”


“What if we say no?”


“Well, I wouldn’t say no to Peter,” Sarah said. “And if you’re smart, you won’t say no to Chris either.”


55


Sarah fell asleep soon after. Alex stared into the shadows on the ceiling, her brain going like a runaway train.


She had been so stupid. How could she not have seen this? This was why people kept saying that she—and every other girl—was so valuable: because a girl could be paired up with a guy. Hell, the way things were going, maybe a girl would end up paired with more than one.


Because they were valuable. Because they could make babies.


It really was the end of the world as she had known it.


Rule wasn’t a sanctuary.


It was a prison.


But Sarah was wrong. Alex had not one, not two, but three choices.


One: She could go along with the rules and hope that some guy who wasn’t totally gross picked her. Maybe Chris, for that matter.


Two: She could make some noise. Her father had trained her well. She was easily as good a shot as any of the guys on patrol and maybe better than some. Riding couldn’t be that tough. So she could get herself assigned to a patrol. She did have something to offer, after all, and her super-sense—if, say, she told Chris or Peter—would come in handy. She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d do if she actually had to shoot someone who wasn’t Changed. On the other hand, if she ran into another Harlan, that might not be such a problem. Anyway, the point was to get out of Rule. So, once she’d been on a couple patrols and they loosened up, she could just ride on out—and not come back.


Three: She could grab her parents’ ashes and run like hell. Which would, as it happened, be pretty much coming full circle, picking up where she’d left off when this whole nightmare started.


The first option completely creeped her out. She didn’t want to be given away to anyone. And making babies? She couldn’t think about that without her skin getting all crawly. And where it would stop? There was no guarantee she’d end up with anyone she even liked. Men made the decisions in Rule. Jess was a strong woman; for all Alex knew, these were some of the things Jess wanted Chris to change. Yet, despite all her bluster, Jess bowed to the will of the men.


Either way, option one was a complete nonstarter.


The second option was a possibility.


If she got herself assigned to a patrol, she could figure the best way to get the hell out of here. They couldn’t keep her glued to one of them forever. Eventually, they would have to trust her. She could picture it: out on horseback, and one of them—Chris—would say, You check over there; I’ll check here. By the time he thought to look for her, she would be gone.


So how to get on patrol? She had to talk to someone. Peter? Yeah, Peter would like that she knew guns. Maybe she could even tell him about her spidey-sense? Yeah, but how would she demonstrate something like that? Kincaid had believed her because he was one of the Awakened, and he knew about Yeager’s super-sense. But if no one else knew … Kincaid had said it was subjective: no way to prove that what she said was the truth, unless she fingered someone.


Chris … she didn’t know about him. She might be able to work on him, but it wasn’t like she was all that experienced. And playing up to Chris made her uneasy, and not just because she didn’t want to encourage this whole Tarzan-Jane thing. With Peter, what you saw was what you got; Chris lived too much in the shadows, and she had this sense that he was always watching her—watching for her—trying to figure her out.


And what would Chris do if he knew about her? Bad enough that Kincaid had guessed about the monster. Not even Yeager had put that together; the Rev seemed to accept her ability as an Act of God kind of thing.


Wow, wait a minute. If Chris or Peter found out about the monster, she bet either—both—would figure they could trade her for someone who might, you know, live. They’d drop-kick her out of town if they knew about the monster…. And wasn’t that what she wanted?


Well, yeah, but not like that. When she left, she wanted it to be on her terms, when she was ready. For that, she would need supplies—enough for a month, she figured, and that meant MREs mostly. Three days’ worth of trail mix and an egg-salad sandwich just wouldn’t cut it. She’d need bleach to purify water, or tablets. A sleeping bag, a tarp, water bottles. Her busy mind ticked over the items: flint, waterproof matches, snare wire, lint for tinder…. She would have to make a list.


She still had the boot knife Tom had given her. In all the fuss, they’d overlooked that. She’d squirreled the knife beneath her mattress first, then thought that was too obvious. So she hid the knife where she thought no one would think to look: in Ghost’s bag of dog food, all the way at the bottom. Just so long as she kept an eye on his kibbles, she was golden. But she would need a gun. Her Glock, if she could find it again, and a rifle would be good. Ammunition, several bricks, if she could find out where they kept all that. Maybe a bow? No, too big. Same thing with a rifle, but a gun for sure. Without question. And a place to hide everything until she got herself on a patrol …

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