I know it takes more than a few minutes to fill the truck’s tank, but whatever Zu’s managed to pump is going to have to be enough. I wait until the old man staggers onto his feet, straightens his ugly polyester blue uniform, and disappears into the back before I jump up and go running for the truck.
The timing is just right. She sees me coming around and jams the nozzle back onto its resting place. I give her a boost up into the cab, glancing at the pump’s screen. She’s somehow just stolen over three hundred dollars’ worth of gas.
The tires squeal as we go tearing out of there. I’m whipping around corners, looking for the on-ramp back to the I-17, laughing, laughing, laughing because I can’t seem to get rid of the adrenaline any other way. Zu reaches over and buckles me in, then does the same for herself. Her round face is flushed, but I think she looks pretty smug. I would be, too.
“Your brother teach you how to hijack a pump like that?” I ask when I can breathe normally again.
She shakes her head. No—it’s a new trick. I want to think about all the thousand ways that could have gone wrong, how there’s a good chance if the store has cameras, my face and the car is likely on them. I don’t know how this works, though—if that old man is going to shuffle back over to his register and see that someone’s been pumping gas without paying. And who’s going to smack the law down on me? Would the police really have time to follow up on this when they already have enough trouble to deal with in Phoenix?
Who cares? If they come after us, they come after us. They can try.
I’m not thinking straight—I know I’m not because the next words that come out of my mouth are so batshit crazy I almost don’t recognize my own voice. “If you help me find another kid, I won’t have to turn you in.”
But really, is it that crazy? She’s already proven herself to be a hell of a lot more resourceful than I am. She’s handy and basically means an unlimited supply of gasoline whenever and wherever I need it. And who knows? Maybe they have some kind of psychic link to one another. They can move cars and start fires and move a grown man across the length of a field. How is that any crazier? It doesn’t have to be her.
The smile slides down her cheeks bit by bit, and the disappointment I see in her eyes tells me the answer is no, long before the shake of her head.
It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m giving her a way out—I’m saving her life, and she doesn’t even pretend to act grateful? Maybe I was right before and she really does want to be taken in. She’s tired of running, tired of being hunted, and she just wants to walk back into the arms of the nearest black uniform and be done with it. That would at least explain why she didn’t run all of the times she could have. She wasn’t staying with me because she liked the company, obviously.
Look, I’m not a proud guy. I’m nobody’s favorite. I’m just getting by and have been for pretty much all my life. I’m not interested in college because I want to go on and be a doctor or a lawyer or one of those ass**les who sit around with their heads in their hands on the stock market floor. On the scale of winners to losers, I know I fall somewhere in the middle.
I’m just trying to get myself to the point where I at least have options. I don’t understand why little Zu doesn’t feel that need, too, why she’d throw her freedom away like this. I don’t know anything about these camps, but I know if nobody is allowed to whisper a word about them, they can’t be good. If she can’t see that, she’s too trusting—she’s that man in the gas station offering to give me water while we’re robbing him blind. People like them, they can’t see the world for the wreck it is.
I mean, okay, I will admit it stings a little bit to know she’d rather be locked up than with me. Maybe—It could be she just doesn’t understand what she’s throwing away here. Maybe I need to explain it to her?
We’ve been sitting in the parking lot in front of the PSF station for almost ten minutes now. Unlike the one in Prescott, there’s a steady flow of people milling in and out. This includes the clusters of PSFs and the National Guardsmen they brought in to help smother the food riots that started the last time they tried to pass out rations to the growing population of homeless. Because, hey, guess what? When your average summer temperatures are over 105 degrees, people are going to do whatever they possibly can to get bottles of water, including trying to knife one another.
The generic-looking building is in the shadow of a number of empty skyscrapers, including the silky blue glass column of Chase Bank’s former hub. The baseball field named after the company was closed even before all the professional sports drizzled from a few games a season to none. I’ve heard rumors that a number of homeless have overrun the field; it’s constantly being fought over by gangs looking to expand their territory. At least, those are the rumors. Heaven forbid any of these government clowns ever give us real information about what’s going on, outside instructions to “avoid central Phoenix whenever possible.”
Three beige stories of tiny windows—it looks so harmless. You’d never know it was a military base from a distance, and I know it probably wasn’t built to be, but it just adds to the feeling that I’m about to go in and make a business transaction.
“Ten thousand dollars,” I tell her. “That’s all these people think you’re worth.”
She doesn’t say anything. The afternoon sun is low and gives her ivory skin a warm glow. The bandages I applied yesterday are starting to peel. Every now and then she has to reach over and smooth the edges back down. I can tell that Zu is thinking hard about something. Her throat is bobbing, like she has to swallow the words one by one.
“You did this to yourself,” I say, my voice going hoarse. Jesus—I can feel my stomach turning as I look back out across the cracked asphalt. A car pulls into the space to the right of us, one of those white, windowless vans that serial killers seem always to use.
Out comes this woman with this head of bleach-blond hair that’s been so fried by chemicals there are these horrible kinks in it. She’s wearing acid-wash jeans and a leer as she catches sight of Zu in the passenger seat. When she spots me, her smile falters a little, but she recovers and bends down to Zu’s eye level. The little condescending wave she gives the kid makes my stomach twist and turn over.