The schoolboy bursts through the door, the first one out of the building when the bell rings. He is expected to be at home fifteen minutes after school lets out. He’s not going home.
As he races through the streets, signs of the Heartland War are all around him. Burned-out cars. Rubble from blasted clinics. Crosses in the ground marking spots where soldiers and civilians on either side died fighting for their cause. This is nothing new. It’s the world he knows, the world in which he grew up. He and his friends played in the burned-out cars when they were little. They played Lifers and Choicers with plastic guns and toy grenades, never caring which side of the game they were on, as long as they were on the same side as their best friends.
But those childhood days are gone. Things are much more serious for him now.
He turns down a side street that’s infested with pigeons by day and rats by night, crossing an invisible line that everyone knows even without being able to see it. It’s the line that marks the border beyond which law and reason cease to exist. It’s called the wild zone, and every city and town has one. No one who values their property or their lives will venture there. Police have more important things to deal with, and not even the warring militias will go there anymore. The Choice Army blames all the wild zones on the Life Brigade, and vice versa. Easier to point fingers than actually do something about them.
But for the schoolboy this place and the people holed up there have a certain allure that he cannot explain. Certainly not to his parents. Whenever he’s late from school, he always has an excuse they’ll believe. If they knew where he really goes on those days, he can’t even imagine what they’d do to him.
The buildings around him are mostly condemned. Angry spray-painted politics shout out from the bullet-marred bricks, and the windows are boarded over or just left broken.
In a narrow alley he pushes open a side door that has only one hinge to keep it upright and steps inside. Immediately he’s grabbed by two teens waiting there. They push him hard against the wall—hard enough to bruise, but that’s okay. He knows the drill. He knows why they have to do this. They can’t be seen as weak. Even by him. Because there are other feral gangs that would use that weakness against them.
“Why you always comin’ here, Schoolie?” one of his assailants asks. “Don’t you got better things to do?”
“I’m here because I wanna be.”
“Yeah,” says the other one. “And that’s all you are. A wannabe.” Then, gripping his arms, they lead him deeper into the building. It used to be a theater, but the rusted seats are all stacked in the corner. The old carpet is ripped up and gathered into piles that the theater’s new residents use as beds. The place is scattered with knickknacks and bits of scavenged civilization, the way a bird might feather its nest with scraps of paper woven into the twigs. The theater is the living space for about forty feral teens. They lounge on scavenged furniture; they laugh; they fight. They live. It’s a very different kind of living than the “schoolie,” as they call him, is used to. His life has no excitement. No passion. No adrenaline. His life is dull and in ordered control.
They bring him to Alph. The others don’t know the kid’s real name. He’s just Alph, as in Alpha. He’s the leader of this band of ferals. The schoolie, however, knows his real name, back from the days when they would play in the war-torn streets. The kid is a year older, but he always protected the younger ones. Now that he’s feral, he does the same, on a different scale. Alph is a key member of what the media likes to call the Terror Generation. He’s got a scar on his face from a feral flash riot that gives him character and makes his smile impressively twisted. He’s everything the schoolboy is not.
Right now, however, Alph isn’t being much of a terror. He’s being fawned over by a pretty, if somewhat filthy, feral girl. He doesn’t seem happy to be interrupted.
“Schoolie, how many times do I gotta tell you not to come here? One of these days the Juvies’ll follow you, we’ll all be screwed, and it’ll be your fault.”
“Nah, the Juvies don’t care—they’re too busy chasing down ferals outside of the wild zone to care about the ones in it. And anyway, I’m stealth. I’m too smart to be followed.”
“So what are you wasting my time with today?” Alph asks, getting right to the point.
The schoolie takes off his backpack and pulls out a brown paper lunch bag, but there’s no lunch in it. In fact, it jangles. He hands it to Alph, who looks at him dubiously, then dumps out the contents on a dusty table beside him. Other kids ooh and aah at the glittering pile of jewelry, but Alph stays silent.
“It’s my mom’s,” the schoolie tells him. “She doesn’t think I know the combination to the safe, but I do. I took just enough so that she won’t notice it’s gone for a while. You can fence it long before then.”
One of the others laughs—a buff kid named Raf, who could have been military if he hadn’t gone feral. “He’s got guts, that’s for sure.”
But Alph isn’t impressed. “It doesn’t take guts to steal from your own mother.” Then he looks the schoolie in the eye. “Actually, it’s pretty pathetic.”
The schoolie feels heat coming to his face. He doesn’t know why he should care what some feral kid says to him, but he does.
“You’re not gonna take it?” he asks.
Alph shrugs. “Of course I’m gonna take it. But it doesn’t make you any less pathetic, Schoolie.”
“I have a name.”
“Yeah, I know,” Alph says. “It’s a sad little name. Wish I could forget it.”
“I was named after my grandfather. He was a war hero.” Although for the life of him, he can’t remember which war.
Alph smiles. “Somehow I find it hard to imagine a war hero named Jasper.”
At the mention of his name, other kids snicker.
“My friends call me Jazz. But you don’t remember that, do you?”
Alph shifts his shoulders uncomfortably. Clearly he does remember, whether or not he wants to admit it. “What is it you want from me, Nelson? A pat on the back? A kiss on the forehead? What?”
They all look at him now. Isn’t it obvious to them what he wants? Why does he have to say it? Just because he’s not feral doesn’t mean that he’s not part of the Terror Generation, too. Of course, no one calls Jasper a terror but his grandmother, and she always says it with a smile.
“I want to be in your gang,” he tells them.
The mention of the word brings a wave of irritation that Jasper can feel like static electricity.
Raf steps forward, speaking for Alph, who just glowers. “We are not a gang,” Raf says. “We are an association.”
“A limited partnership,” says someone else. And that makes a few others snicker.
“Very limited,” Alph finally says. “And we don’t have room for schoolies. Got that?”
Jasper knows this is all a show. He knows that Alph likes him. But Jasper has to prove himself, that’s all. He’s got to show his value. So he goes out on a limb. He knows it might get him beaten up or worse, but it will definitely get Alph’s attention.
He turns to the cavernous space of the old theater and says as loudly as he can, “How many of you can read?”
That brings absolute silence. He knew it would. Mentioning one of the three Rs can be a call to battle. There are some things you don’t say to ferals.
Nobody answers him. Even if some of them can read, he knew they wouldn’t answer. Answering gives him power, and none of them want to do that. Not without permission from Alph. Jasper turns to Alph. “You need me. I can tell you what’s going on out there—the stuff you don’t see on TV.”
“Why the hell should ‘out there’ matter to me?” Alph says, his voice more threatening than Jasper has ever heard it.
“Because there’s this new thing I read about. It’s called unwiring, or something. They say it’s going to end the Heartland War, and it’s also going to solve the problem of ferals.”
Alph crosses his arms in defiance. “This war ain’t never gonna end. And we are not a problem. Ferals are the future. Got that?”
Jasper holds his gaze. Alph’s hard exterior shows no signs of cracking. No indication that he’s going to give Jasper the slightest break. Jasper sighs. “Yeah, I got it, Kevin.”
The fury that comes to Alph’s face makes it clear that Jasper has made a critical error.
“Don’t you ever call me that.”
Jasper looks down. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to.…”
Then Alph picks up something that’s on the table next to the tangle of jewelry. A snow globe—one of the many weird knickknacks salvaged from the world that existed before the Heartland War. This one shows a little gingerbread cottage magnified and distorted, submerged in water, and surrounded by swirls of fake snow.
“Tell you what, Nelson,” Alph says. “I’ll give you until the count of ten. You make it to the door by ten, I won’t smash your skull with this thing.”
“Just hear me out!”
Raf gets between them. “Better start running, dude.”
And so with no choice, Jasper turns to run.
The others laugh. One kid tries to trip him, but Jasper jumps over his extended foot.
He’s almost to the door. The door guards don’t try to stop him. They part to let him go, but then Alph does something unexpected.
With the countdown sped up, Jasper doesn’t stand a chance. Just before he reaches the door he feels the snow globe connect with his back, striking a middle vertebra. He goes down. The snow globe smashes on the concrete floor.
“Man, what an arm!” one of the guards says. “Alph oughta play baseball or something.”
Still in pain, Jasper gets to his feet. He’s going to have a major bruise on his back—but he’ll tell no one. “He could have killed me,” Jasper realizes out loud. “He could have hit me in the head and killed me.”
One of the door guards scoffs. “If Alph wanted to hit you in the head, he would have.” Then he pushes Jasper out the door.
“You’re late again,” his mother says, the casualness in her tone forced, the suspicion in her voice poorly veiled. She used to manage a restaurant until either the Lifers or the Choicers inadvertently blew it up. Now all she does is micromanage Jasper.
He drops his book bag on the couch and answers just as casually. His tone isn’t forced, however. He’s a much better actor than his mother. “There was a meeting about school clubs. I wanted to check some out.”
“What club are you interested in?”
“Fencing,” he answers without the slightest hesitation.
He passes her on the way to the fridge. “You don’t really stab people, Mom.”
“Before you commit to anything, you should run it past your father, Jasper.”
He stiffens, feeling the chill from the open refrigerator on his arm hairs. “I told you to call me Jazz.”
“That’s not a name,” his mother says. “Take what you want and close the door. You’ll let all the cold out.”
He spends the rest of the afternoon doing his homework at the dining room table. It must be done, or at least deeply carved into, by the time his father gets home from work, unless he wants the next iteration of the Lecture. The lecture is always the same: all about how lucky he is to be in a corporate school at all, and how if his grades don’t improve, they’ll pink-slip him. “And then what?” his father would rant. “Without a corporate school, you’ll have no future. You won’t be any better than a feral!”
All the disgust in the world is packed into the word “feral” whenever his father says it—as if the feral kids are the source of all the world’s problems. Jasper can’t remember a time before there were ferals. The public schools failed even before the war started, leaving millions of kids with nothing to do but cause trouble for the system that put them out on the street. Nowadays only rich kids and corporation babies get an official education. Jasper is the latter: His father works for a huge shipping conglomerate, which guarantees Jasper’s place in the company’s educational program.
Unless, of course, Jasper gets pink-slipped.
He’s both terrified and enticed by the idea of expulsion. Maybe then Alph would see him as more than just a schoolie.
As he slaves over his homework, he begins to wonder what it was like in the old days, when education was a right, not just a privilege. He wonders if school sucked as much then as it does now.
He’s still working feverishly on algebra when his father gets home. He thinks that his diligence will spare him his father’s disapproval, but it doesn’t. “Why do you work in the dark like this? You’ll ruin your eyes, and then what?”
Jasper wants to point out that it isn’t dark in the dining room; it’s just that outside it’s still light, and his father’s eyes haven’t adjusted to being indoors, but Mr. Nelson is not a man who suffers contradiction easily—especially when he’s tired, and he looks exceptionally tired today. So Jasper just turns on more lights, wondering if he’ll get a lecture later that night about wasting electricity. You’ll bankrupt us with utility bills, and then what?
His father loves to lecture, and the angrier he is, the longer the lecture goes. Only once did he become physically violent with Jasper. Jasper had gotten suspended for cursing at a math teacher who deserved it, and that night his father blew like a volcano, throwing Jasper hard enough to crack the drywall. Then his father cried and begged forgiveness. Jasper knew this type of thing is rarely a one-time occurrence. In most cases it becomes a pattern—as it is for several of his friends, whose high-stress parents see their kids as the only available pressure valve. But it won’t become a pattern if Jasper never gives his father a reason to hit him again. Or at least not until he’s escaped to a place of safety. Where kids protect each other.
At dinner his father will often complain about the state of the world or the morons in his office. He still goes off on diatribes about the teen “terror march” on Washington, long after it ended. Maybe because Jasper once commented that he would have liked to have seen it. But tonight his father doesn’t voice any opinions at dinner. He doesn’t complain about work or about traffic or about anything. Jasper noticed he seemed tired, but it’s more than that. He’s quiet, distracted, and noticeably pale.
His mother doesn’t say anything. Instead she leaves his father’s medication on the counter, just in case he might forget to take it. Jasper can’t stand a dinner table where the only sounds are the scraping of silverware on china. Even a lecture would be better than that. If no one will say anything, he has to.
“Is it your heart, Dad?” he asks. There are times he wishes his father would just keel over and die, but when that actually seems like a possibility, Jasper hates himself for thinking that and gets terrified that it might actually happen.
“I’m fine,” his father says, as Jasper knew he would—but now the door’s been opened for discussion, and his mom takes over.
“Maybe you should get in to see the doctor.”
“It’s indigestion,” his father says, a bit louder. “I’m not an idiot; I can tell the difference.”
Jasper scrapes himself a forkful of peas and speaks without looking up at him. “Indigestion doesn’t make your lips turn blue.”
His father puts down his silverware with a clatter. “What is this, the Inquisition?”
No one says anything for a few moments. Jasper counts peas on his plate. He ponders how to dissect his steak to get the most meat off the bone. He waits to see which direction his father’s mind will go. His father does get cyanotic from time to time. Low blood oxygen. He’s already had two heart attacks. He’s slimmed down and exercises more but refuses to change his eating habits. The doctors say he’ll need a new heart eventually. Which, to his father, is like saying he’ll eventually have to clean the garage.
“Fine,” he finally says. “I’ll go in tomorrow and get checked out if that will make you both happy.”
Jasper silently sighs with relief. He knows before the end of the week he’ll be hoping his father drops dead again—but not until he comes home with a clean bill of health.
They change the dosage of his father’s meds, tell him he has to stop eating red meat, and put him on some nebulous transplant waiting list. His lips aren’t cyanotic anymore, and for the Nelson family, out of sight is out of mind, so Jasper’s attention returns to Alph and his band of ferals.
The trick to impressing Alph is magnitude and audacity. He didn’t lay claim to an old theater for nothing; Alph likes drama and spectacle. Jasper can give him that. All he has to do is keep his eyes open for an opportunity to present itself, which it does a week later. It is the confluence of three random events that sets Jasper’s stage. One: His parents have a Friday night dinner party—the kind that will keep them out at least until midnight. Two: Jasper’s being paid to feed the cats at the neighbors’ house while they’re on vacation. Three: That particular neighbor has a new sports car parked on the driveway. Candy-apple red. It’s what his father calls a midlife-crisis coupe, all muscle and curves. The kind of car that sleazy salesmen call “sexy” and charge more for than it’s actually worth. But for a car like that, its parts are more valuable than the car is whole.
And so while his parents are off at their party, Jasper feeds the cats and hot-wires the car. He doesn’t have his license yet, but he has a learner’s permit and can drive as well as any other kid his age. The trick will be crossing into the wild zone and getting to Alph’s hangout without getting jacked by other ferals on the way. He keeps a crowbar on the passenger seat in case he’s forced to defend himself.
There’s plenty of activity tonight. Bonfires and jam sessions and drunken brawls. Life bleeds like a wound everywhere in the wild zone. Ever since the teen march on Washington, ferals have been celebrating like it was a victory—and perhaps it was. Sure, they were subdued with tear gas and tranqs and batons, but they still proved what a formidable force they can be.
Jasper drives down the darker streets, where there’s less activity and fewer chances of getting surrounded by covetous ferals. The ones he passes eye him, though. They stare at the red beast he drives. One kid steps in front of him, trying to make him stop—even smiling to put Jasper’s worries at ease, but Jasper doesn’t fall for it. He keeps on driving, and the kid has to leap out of the way to avoid being roadkill. If he hadn’t jumped, would Jasper have hit him? He’s not sure. Probably. Because if he didn’t, he might be dead himself. That’s the way of things in the wild zone.
When he finally arrives at the old theater, a few of Alph’s street lookouts spot him and are flabbergasted.
“Is that the schoolie?”
“Nah, it can’t be the schoolie.”
“Yeah, it is the schoolie!”
Jasper hops out, strutting proudly. “Go get Alph,” Jasper tells them, feeling like he’s earned the right to give them an order.
One of them disappears inside and comes back a minute later with Alph.
“It was my neighbor’s, but now it’s all yours,” Jasper tells him, grinning wider than the crescent moon. “A gift from me to you. I don’t need anything in return.” Which isn’t entirely true. What he needs in return can’t be quantified in dollar signs. What Jasper wants is the key to Alph’s kingdom. Or if not the key, then at least an open door. A luxury car for the right to join. Jasper thinks that’s more than fair. And once he disappears into the wild zone, he can say good-bye to his corporate high school and his parents’ expectations and his dull, lackluster life forever. Like Alph said, ferals are the future, and Jasper’s ready to be a part of that future, wherever it takes him.
“You steal this?”
“Easiest thing I ever did,” Jasper says proudly.
Alph keeps a poker face. He inspects the car. Jasper impatiently waits for his pat on the back, but it never comes.
“A car like this, every part’s got a molecular signature. If I try to chop it, it’ll point to me from every freaking direction.” Then, to Jasper’s horror, he tells another kid to take it and drive it into the river. The kid seems excited by the prospect and peels out in the stolen car.
“Alph, I’m sorry,” Jasper says, trying to salvage something out of this. “I just thought you’d want… I mean, I just wanted to show you… I mean, I can do better. I swear I can! Just tell me how. Tell me what you need me to do!”
Alph appraises him, then says calmly, “Come inside.”
Once they’re in, Alph, with a couple of the others, leads Jasper to an area separate from the rest of the theater. A broken display case. Rusted popcorn maker. It was once the theater’s concession stand.
“You want to be one of us?” Alph asks.
“You think it’s fun to scrounge for food and fight just to stay alive?” Then Alph lifts his shirt, showing half a dozen healed scars even worse than the one on his face. “Do you know how many knife fights I’ve been in? How many flash riots? Do you think I was in them for fun? Do you, for one minute, think I wouldn’t change places with your lousy stinking schoolie ass?”
“You’re free, Alph!” Jasper shouts. “You get to do what you want when you want.”
Then Alph pushes him so hard, he hits the wall behind him. “Can’t you see? I don’t get to do ANYTHING I want! Because I’m too busy just trying to stay alive. And you come here with your fancy school uniform and your mother’s jewelry and your neighbor’s freaking car, and you think you can buy your way in? What kind of idiot buys his way into the bottom?”
Now Jasper finds himself stammering. “But—but it’s not like that. I wanna—I wanna help. I wanna help all of you. I can be important to you!”
“What you need, Nelson, is to see what you have for what it is. You won life’s lottery, and you want to throw it away? Why would I ever want to associate with anyone that stupid?”
The others back away, sensing what’s about to happen. Jasper has no idea what to do now, what to say, other than “Kevin, I’m sorry!”
“And I told you to NEVER call me that!”
Then Alph takes a deep breath, calming himself down. Jasper thinks it’s over, until Alph rolls up his sleeves.
“Clearly your skull is so dense, there’s only one way to get through to you.”
And then he begins pounding on Jasper. Not fighting him, but hitting him, kicking him, beating him to a bloody pulp. And what makes it all the worse is that Alph does it with such emotional detachment. He’s not angry. He hasn’t lost control. He’s simply doing his job.
When it’s over, and Jasper lies on the ground sobbing, Alph has Raf haul him to his feet. Then Alph gets in his face, speaking gently, but with a threat beneath his words as deadly as an undertow.
“You’ll tell your parents you were beaten up on the other side of town. You’ll say it wasn’t ferals. You’ll make them believe it. And then you’ll go back to your lucky little life that the rest of us wish we could have, and you will make something of yourself. Outta respect for the rest of us who can’t. And if you ever think about spitting out that silver spoon again, remember what happened here today. Because the next time you show up here, I’ll kill you.”
And then they hurl Jasper out into the street.
Jasper’s parents come back early from their dinner party. Their car is in the driveway when he gets home. He knows he’ll be in trouble, but his battered face will buy him clemency if he plays it right. He stumbles in the front door, wishing he could just slip into bed and pretend he’d been there all night, but he knows it’s not possible.
His mother gasps then bursts into tears when she sees him. His father’s anger at him being AWOL for the evening quickly fades when Jasper tells them the horrible, terrible thing that happened to him. That while he was feeding the neighbor’s pets, two men broke in and kidnapped him. They stole the neighbor’s car, beat Jasper real good, and were going to hold him for ransom, but Jasper slipped out of his bonds and jumped out of the moving car, and the kidnappers were so freaked, they took off. He ran all the way home.
He’s taken to the hospital and treated for his wounds. He makes an official statement for the police. He looks at mug shots but can’t identify either of his kidnappers. His parents idly talk about moving to an electrified-gated community—but all those communities are run by either Lifers or Choicers, and since his parents are notoriously nonpolitical, they don’t want to associate with either side of the war. The incident fades. Jasper goes back to school. Life goes on. It’s forgotten.
But not by Jasper.
“Unwinding,” not “unwiring.” It should be all over the news, but it isn’t. People whisper about it, though. Jasper hears kids talk about it in school. He hears adults mumbling about it in the street.
And then there’s the war. There are rumors that the war isn’t coming to an end, but that it’s already over. Yet an official statement is never made by either side. Usually the end of a war is a big deal. Parades, and strangers kissing in the street. But this war was different. This time both sides just slipped shamefully into the shadows when no one was looking. It’s as if part of the armistice was to not talk about it. The armies just stopped fighting. The rhetoric stopped flying. Out of nowhere sanity now appears to prevail.
And bad kids are disappearing.
On a warm afternoon, less than a month after the Unwind Accord is signed, Jasper T. Nelson, looking sharp in his school uniform, shows up at a house just a few blocks away from his own. He knows who lives there. Kids always remember the homes of their childhood friends.
The woman who opens the door looks slightly hunched, as if the weight of her life is simply too much for her. She couldn’t be any older than Jasper’s mother, and yet she seems much worse for the wear.
“Can I help you?” she asks. “If you’re selling something, I’m not buying. Sorry.”
“No, I’m not selling anything,” Jasper says. “It’s about your son. It’s about Kevin. Can I come in?”
At the mention of her son’s name, the very skin on her face seems to sag. She takes a moment. Jasper can see her weighing in her mind whether to invite him in or slam the door in his face. The latter is not a possibility, however, because Jasper has surreptitiously slipped his foot over the corner of the threshold, so she couldn’t slam the door on him if she tried. And if she does try, he’ll scream so that all the neighbors will hear how the nasty neighbor woman just slammed a poor schoolboy’s foot in her door.
But instead she chooses wisely and lets him in.
He sits in the living room. She sits across from him.
“Is he dead?” the woman asks. “Is that why you’re here? To tell me he’s dead?”
“No,” Jasper tells her. “He’s not dead.”
She seems both relieved and disappointed—and miserable about both of those feelings. “He went feral almost two years ago,” the woman tells him. “He’s only been back once. Didn’t even say why. He had something to eat, left without saying good-bye, and never came back again.” Then she looks Jasper over. “You don’t look like the kind of boy Kevin would hang out with.”
Jasper smiles. “I’m not, but even so, I do want to help him.”
She looks at him, guarded. “How?”
Then he spreads out a document in front of her, all written in legalese. In triplicate. White, yellow, and pink. “There’s this new program to help ferals,” Jasper explains. “It allows them to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I joined a club at my school, and we’re going around talking to the parents of feral kids because we can’t help those kids without permission.”
“Permission,” she repeats. She takes the document and starts to look it over. “What is this thing ‘unwinding’? I hear people talking about it, but I don’t know what it is.”
Now Jasper gets to the point. “I understand the courts found you and your husband liable for the things that Kevin stole.”
She leans back in her chair, suddenly seeing Jasper through a much darker lens. “How do you know that?”
“It’s all public record—I looked it up on my phone. I could show you the app.” He holds up his phone to her, but she doesn’t take it. “Isn’t there also a family that’s suing you for another kid’s medical expenses, because Alph—uh, I mean Kevin—broke the kid’s jaw? You’ll probably be paying damages for years.”
Now she doesn’t say anything. Good. Stunned into silence. Now to go in for the kill. Jasper smiles. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to upset you or anything. In fact, I’m here with good news. You can make all that go away! Paragraph Nine-B of the unwind order states that the liability for any offenses made by your son from seven days postconception until now falls upon the state. You won’t owe anyone anything!”
She looks at the order again. Jasper can see her eyes darting over it, but he knows she’s not reading. She’s thinking. Weighing. Pitting her conscience against what’s practical. So Jasper adds another weight on the scale.
“The court will even remove the lien they’ve placed on your house.”
Now she stares at him as if she hasn’t heard him right. “What lien?”
“You mean your husband didn’t tell you? That kid with the broken jaw’s got sharks for lawyers. They’re trying to take away your house.”
She holds eye contact with him for a moment longer. Of all the things he’s said, this is the only one that isn’t true, but a white lie can be justified if it leads to the proper end. The woman looks over the unwind order again, this time actually reading it. Then she looks up at Jasper with those eyes so old before their time.
“You got a pen?”
The raid happens two days later. Jasper’s in a Juvey-cop car, on a ride-along. It’s a perk of being part of his school’s SDS club: Students for a Divisional Solution. So far Jasper is the only member, but he expects his club’s popularity will grow.
Juvies descend on the old theater like a SWAT team. Kids scatter like rats. Some get away, but more are captured. Once Jasper hears the squad captain give the all clear over the police radio, he gets out of the cruiser and slips inside. He was told to wait in the car, and said that he would, but of course he was lying.
Inside, the Juvies have about a dozen kids cuffed and seated. About a dozen others are being laid out in a neat row as if they’re dead, but Jasper knows they’re just tranq’d.
The captain spots Jasper and frowns. “What the hell are you doing in here? Didn’t I tell you to wait in the car?”
“It was my lead that made this happen, Officer,” Jasper says respectfully. “The least you could do is let me see how it went down.”
“It’s still not safe, kid.”
“Looks safe to me. Where’s the leader?”
The cop glares at him a bit more, then gives up, shaking his head. “Over there.”
Jasper turns to see Alph sitting alone, separated from the others, with his hands cuffed behind his head. Jasper approaches, waiting for the moment Alph looks up and sees him. The astonished look on Alph’s face is perfect. At that moment Jasper decides there is no feeling in life better than revenge.
“Hi, Kevin,” Jasper says with a condescending wave.
Alph’s astonishment resolves into his cool poker face. “You did this?”
Jasper shrugs. “I helped,” he says. “School project. Extracurricular actually, but it’ll look good on college applications.”
Behind Jasper, the Juvey-cops take care of business.
“Are they all going to the North Detention Center?” he hears one of the officers ask the squad captain.
“No, North Detention is full up. They’re going to East.”
Hearing this, Alph looks up at Jasper and smiles. “Oh well,” he says, mocking. “Guess I have detention.”
“Not you,” says the squad captain. “You’re going to a different facility.”
The smile leaves Alph’s face even more quickly than it had arrived. “What kind of facility?”
“For unwinding!” Jasper says brightly. “Haven’t you read about it? Oh, right, you can’t read!”
Alph squirms like a fish with a hook firmly lodged deep down its throat.
“I decided to take your advice, Kevin,” Jasper says. “I’m learning to appreciate all the things I have and working hard to become a productive member of society. Out of respect for those of you who can’t. Oh, and here’s the best part! In return for exposing a nest of ferals, and for getting your mom to sign the unwind order, they’ve moved my dad to the top of the list for a heart transplant. Isn’t that great?” Then he leans in a little closer. “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if he got yours?”
“Nelson!” grunts the squad captain. “Leave the kid alone and get back out to the car. This is a ride-along, not a squawk-along.”
That’s when Alph makes his move. He rises in a single smooth motion and bolts toward the nearest exit. Jasper acts quickly. He grabs the tranq pistol from the captain’s holster even before the officer can, aims at Alph’s back, and fires. He meant to hit Alph in the same spot that Alph had hit Jasper with the snow globe, but instead the tranq hits him high on the shoulder. Good enough—it does the job. Alph goes down and is out cold in seconds.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” The captain rips the gun away, understandably furious, but Jasper is unfazed.
“Sorry—he was trying to escape—grabbing the gun was, like, I don’t know, instinct or something.”
The captain turns to one of the other officers. “Get him out of here!”
The officer grabs Jasper firmly by the upper arm and briskly escorts him out. They pass Kevin O’Donnell, aka Alph, aka nobody anymore, unconscious on the ground, his forehead bruised from where he hit the concrete. That’s what you get for beating the hell out of me, Jasper thinks. That’s what you get for humiliating me. You think being feral was tough? Let’s see how this works out for you.
Outside, the officer puts Jasper in the back of the squad car, but before closing the door, he looks at Jasper, shaking his head. “You shouldn’t have done that, kid.”
“What’s the big deal? It was only a tranq gun—it wasn’t like it was gonna kill him.”
“Kid, you never take the weapon of a police officer.”
“Sorry,” Jasper says again, still not feeling any sorrier about it. “I’ll try to remember that.”
The officer locks him into the squad car, but that’s all right. His work here is done, and he can now be content with his thoughts. Today, Jasper T. Nelson can’t help but feel the call of destiny. And after holding that weapon in his hands, he knows, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that tranq guns will play heavily in his future.