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I stared at the night sky, pitch black, no stars or moon. I flipped my cell phone open to be able to see what was going on and where I was going. The dim, electronic light shone on a large group of kids. Kids with guns. Best combination? I don’t think so. I shuddered at the reality of the situation. I hated guns, and seeing them in the hands of my close friends, knowing they were going to kill someone with them… It made me sick.
“God, Annika, you’re so slow,” teased my friend, Rachel. “You feel like walking with us or are you just gonna stay behind on your own?” Her white-blonde hair spilled over her shoulders, and she smirked, her angular face looking even pointier in the dull glow of my phone. “And shut your phone. It’s too bright. People will notice we’re out here.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, shuffling into the group and snapping my phone shut. Yeah, because a dim light will totally attract attention. Just as I stuffed it into my pocket, all of us came to an abrupt stop. Now I could barely make out Logan, who had stretched his long arms out, the signal for us to stop and be quiet.
“This is where the gang Black Bullets hides out,” he whispered to us. Of course, none of us had any idea what we were actually doing until Logan decided to tell us. He was so disorganized, never telling any of us what the plan was or what any necessary information until last minute. I squinted at the lights glowing from a tin shack in the distance. Other kids snorted at the hut. That was a gang hideout? Logan cleared his throat and a hush fell over us like a candle being blown out. “Tonight, we’ll get their leader. The rest of them won’t have a damn clue what to do once he’s dead. You guys ready?” Whispers of agreement sounded through our little group, and slowly, we advanced forward.
“Come on, Annika, it’ll be you and me this time,” Rachel mumbled, her skeletal hand grabbing my bony wrist. All of us were extremely skinny- eating was never a priority for us. “Logan, Annika and I will take this one,” she said so the rest of them could hear.
We pushed through the group of kids and approached the shack alone, and Rachel banged on the flimsy door. “Open up, Bullets! It’s time to quit hiding. We want to see your leader. Don’t make me kick down the door!” I cried, surprised at my convincing bravado.
A guy in his late twenties opened the door, light streaming through. It took all my strength to not squint or cover my eyes. “Isn’t it a little past your bedtime?” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Obviously, no one thought that two fifteen-year-old girls, even if one of them was holding a gun, had any chance of overpowering their gang, though it was one of the more notoriously pathetic operations in town.
“I want to see your leader,” I demanded, my hands on my hips. “We have something we want to say to him.”
“You’re lookin’ at him,” the guy said, stepping out of the shack and shutting the door. “What is it you want?”
I took a deep breath and punched him in the jaw, feeling more confident now that there weren’t any goons around to back him up. He let out a hideous cry. “We want to get rid of you. Your gang is useless.” I casually walked behind him, and kicked the back of his knee, making him topple over. “We’ve heard your plans. The prime minister doesn’t deserve to die, and you definitely don’t deserve her power. I’m sorry, but you have to go.” I stepped on his back and held his hands behind him, the heel of my hiking boot digging into his jacket. “Rachel, would you do the honours?”
“Gladly,” she said, twirling her pistol in her right hand. The man gasped, and started to say something, but it was too late. She pressed the gun to the man’s temple and pulled the trigger. Bang, bang, bang. Third time’s the charm, right? He was never coming back now. “Sweet dreams,” Rachel sang to the dead leader, her white teeth shining in the darkness.
Our friends suddenly swarmed us. “You guys were great! We’re lucky to have you in our gang,” said Logan, putting his arms around us.
Rachel made a face and shrugged his lanky limb off. “Yeah, that’s cute, but could we get some hand wipes or something? This dude’s blood is all over me. It’s kind of gross.”
We laughed awkwardly at the joke and started heading back to the town. This was another normal night for me. Another normal night for all of us.
So, what is a group of kids doing out so late at night killing gang leaders? Allow me to explain. I’m Annika Padilla, one of the kids who doesn’t have the luxury of using the title “average teen girl”. When I was a little girl, about five or so, there was practically an explosion of gang wars and gunfire called the Gang Uprising. There was no reason for it, really. People said it was because of the government’s ridiculous rules, but personally, I believe we all just became selfish. See, the leaders were all these super-rich, super-crazy aristocrats. Some of them wanted money, others power. The age range was huge, from sixty-year old men to sixteen-year-old girls.
And then there’s us, The Freedom Fighters. All we wanted was to stop the madness. You want to call us the good guys? Fine, go ahead. But let me tell you, no one is “good” in this turf war. No one.
Here I am in the nation’s capital, Dynasty, where the gangs are tougher than tough and the gunfire louder than loud. In Dynasty, nothing is good, nothing is safe, and do we know it? Of course. That’s why no one’s ever out at night.
Well, some of us don’t want to play by the rules, obviously.
I’ve been in the business since the sixth grade. I was dragged into it by Logan, one of my closest friends, and I have to say, he’s done a pretty great job of hiding all of this from our parents. They never seemed to notice how quickly my pasty skin darkened several shades and how my body shape transformed from pudgy to twiggy almost overnight. I used to be quieter than a mouse, and now I’m one of the most confident people most have ever met. I can’t complain- I guess I’ve changed for the better. Except, you know, that tiny part where my friends and I kill people.
We had dropped almost everyone off at their houses, except for Logan, me, and a few others. We had to stay together at this time of night. We didn’t know what could happen when we were on our own. We reached my house and I said goodnight, ran into my backyard, climbed up a tree and slithered through my bedroom window, hoping my parents were still asleep.
My feet tapped lightly on the hardwood floor of my light pink bedroom, filled with stuffed animals and frilly curtains and all that cutesy stuff from when I was younger. I’m still a softie, and while every other part of me seemed to be shoved into maturity, I was still just a kid. With all that went on, I needed some parts of my childhood with me. I needed security. I glanced around my room before kicking off my hiking boots, tank top, and shorts and dashing into the shower. I scrubbed the blood and dirt off my body vigorously, but I still didn’t feel clean. I don’t think I ever could.
I showered fast and slipped into bed, curling up into a ball under the sheets. My auburn hair was still wet and clingy, little drops of water sliding down my face, along with a few tears. I felt numb. I didn’t want to believe that I had watched that man die. I didn’t know his name or what else he did besides run a little gang. Maybe he had a wife or a kid. I didn’t know for sure. And now he was dead.
I didn’t kill him, I didn’t kill him, I told myself over and over. I did this every night. I didn’t pull the trigger, fire those last shots, and end his life. But did I stop Rachel from killing him? Obviously not. God, please believe me. I didn’t kill him, I really didn’t. I swear. I cried even harder.
Because honestly, would God forgive a stupid teenage hitman like me?
I woke up to the annoying vibration of my phone. Sighing, I grabbed it and flipped it open, and frowned when I saw who was calling. Logan… what did he want on a Wednesday morning? “What is it?” I said, sounding whiny and sluggish.
“Can you come over? I need to discuss something with everyone.” He sounded alert and cheerful, as usual. It made me want to punch a kitten.
I untangled myself from my pink and white gingham sheets to get a good view of my Hello Kitty clock. “This early, though? It’s only… ten. Oh. Fine, whatever. See you in a few.” I closed my phone and hopped out of bed, groaning. I really didn’t feel like going to his house. I didn’t want to see anyone. I just wanted to crawl back under my sheets and die. This is kind of how my mornings were.
I quickly got dressed and left the house, saying hi to my mom and dad and snagging a banana for breakfast. I know I didn’t eat too much, but let’s face it- I was starving. I stepped out into the street and smiled. Spring mornings in Dynasty were always enough to put me out of my morning funk. The sun shone softly on my tan skin, and the temperature was perfect. I was actually glad I’d dropped out of school to fight for the cause I cared about- things were a lot easier for the most part. No homework, no drama queens spreading rumours about you, no nagging teachers or bedtimes. And luckily, my parents didn’t care for the most part- they hadn’t been too fond of “the system” either. How we supported ourselves was a mystery to me. With my dad being a freelance artist and my mother doing odd jobs when she could find them, I assumed I was just fortunate.
I had just arrived at Logan’s house, a few doors down from mine. There were a few cars parked in the driveway, a sign that everyone except me had arrived. I stepped into the house, not bothering to knock, and saw Logan’s light brown eyes drilling into my skull as soon as I looked up from the doorknob. “Always the late one,” he sneered.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say. What’s going on, anyway?” I hated when people got on me for being late. Being early wasn’t another one of my top priorities.
“I’ll tell you when you sit down,” he said through gritted teeth as he pointed to an ottoman with his bare foot. It was the only space left to sit besides the floor, which was full with the other twenty-six kids who met in Logan’s small living room every week. “Okay, now that everyone’s here,” Logan gave me a look, “I have a very important message to share with everyone. You might know about the random kids running around town at night, just like us. They look pretty normal, almost too normal, with no quirks or anything out of the ordinary going on with them. You know what I’m talking about? You know, your average Joe kind of guy. Uh, anyway, me ‘n’ Lance have traced down to where we think they’re coming from. Some place called Left Behind City, out west. We’re not sure exactly where it is, just… west.” Everyone groaned at Logan’s vague directions, something we should have been used to by now. “We want Annika and Rachel to go and search for it.”
Rachel shot up from amidst the kids sitting on the floor, her chest puffed out and hands on her hips. “Fair enough. We’ll set out at noon. Is that all you have to say?” I frowned. Who was she to make the choices so quickly?
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Dismissed.”
Everyone filed out of Logan’s house without another word, and after I had packed a few things- I told my folks I was sleeping over at Rachel’s- we hopped in her SUV and started driving to wherever “west” was.
I rolled my eyes and propped my feet up on the dashboard. “Why should we even care about these people? They’re just a bunch of people doing what we do: riding solo. Isn’t that good?”
Rachel sighed. “I don’t think Logan likes people stealing his spotlight. He’s kind of an egomaniac, if you hadn’t noticed. I think it’s a good thing too, to be honest, but for Logan, it’s either his way or the highway. It’s not like we’re going to exterminate them or anything. We’re just doing a little research.” Rachel shot me an unrecognisable expression and I nodded in agreement.
At about one ‘o clock, we had finally gotten out of the city and were in the forest that surrounded Dynasty.
“You think that it could be around here?” Rachel asked me, putting the car in park.
“I guess. It’s called Left Behind City, isn’t it? It couldn’t be too far out from Dynasty, considering there are kids coming and going nearly every night. And my guess it’d be somewhere secluded, but that’s just me.”
“Fair enough. You wanna get out and look around?” She opened the door and hopped out, not even bothering to wait for an answer as usual. I rolled my eyes and jumped out of the passenger’s side, meeting her at the back of the SUV.
We walked off the dirt path that had been put for the cars and bikes that passed through daily and into the wilderness, full of trees and poison ivy and logs I would probably end up tripping over, thanks to the slippery ground.
“This is dumb. ‘We’re not sure exactly where it is, just… west.’” Rachel imitated Logan, a hateful edge in her voice. “Yeah, like that’s supposed to help. I have more than half a mind to turn around and go home!”
“Hey, calm down. We’ll find it… Hey, what’s that?” I pointed to a huge, mossy rock with curly-looking carvings in it.
“No clue.” Rachel absentmindedly walked to it, her scrawny legs getting scratched by the twigs and spiked vines growing in the forest. I followed her, squinting at the rock. “Is it different languages? One looks kind of like Hebrew… or is it Thai? Huh. And this one looks a little like Greek. Where’s Spanish? Or Swedish? Something I can actually read?”
“Maybe it’s around here. Maybe Left Behind City is a mile from here or something!” I cried excitedly, hoping to get this over with as soon as possible.
“I hope you’re right,” she growled.
We began to walk around the rock, checking under piles of leaves and behind trees for another sign. A few minutes later, Rachel called me over to a large hole in the ground, camouflaged poorly with a few twigs and vines.
“Look, this hole is pretty big. I think one of us could fit through it,” she examined.
I wrinkled my nose at her. “That’s true, but what good would that do for us? I don’t think it’s a good- Oh, s***!” I had slipped on some mud and now my body was more than halfway into the hole. I was barely holding on to the sides, my grip slowly loosening, my hands shaking like we were in the middle of an earthquake. My hands always shook, the reason I never used guns or knives like everyone else I knew, but this was insane. “Rachel, pull me up. Pull me up, pull me up, pull me up. There’s no footing. I can’t get back up by myself.”
I watched with horror as Rachel’s lips slowly curled into a malicious grin. “Honestly, I think this is a good opportunity for discovery! It’d be a waste for me not to let you out of this one.”
“What?! You feel like coming with instead of letting me fall into this pit by myself? I thought we were friends,” I spat, panting nervously.
“We are, don’t worry. But really, Annika, how slow can you be? All of the Freedom Fighters have been planning this whole scheme you’ve never really been part of, hon. I’m shocked you didn’t catch on. I know it’s sudden, but we need to get rid of you for a while if we need this plan to work.” She sat down on the ground and stared straight into my eyes, like she was telling a story to a small child. “We’re running out of money, you see. Without dough, we can’t buy bullets or new guns or gas for our cars… You know how expensive it gets, and we know you’re too good to let us actually steal any green, so we need to get rid of you.”
“Great story,” I replied sarcastically. “But isn’t there an easier way? One that doesn’t involve me potentially falling to my death? Don’t you think it’d be much simpler to just kick me out of the gang?”
“Eh, we could have just disbanded you, but where’s the fun in that, right? You’d probably end up forming another gang against us or something, and you against us is worse than you not existing at all. Adieu, Annika!” That was the last thing I heard before she shoved the pointy heel of her boot to my face. I think I screamed, and I know I tasted blood. And then I tumbled down, down, down, my world turning from green and blue to brown to black.
How long had it been? Everything had happened too fast for me to absorb. Could the hole really have been that deep as to send me plummeting down for meters on end? I noticed the ground was unusually hard, cold, and wet, and my body was numb with pain. I shivered and inhaled the damp air sharply. My body ached and I cried out; the sound was pathetic. Slowly, I opened my eyes and the world was black. “S***,” I whispered. I was dead for sure. I didn’t survive that fall. I was in hell and this was my punishment, doomed to sit in the dark forever and think about what I’d done. “Oh, God.” I sat up and cried out, louder this time. I’d never been in this much pain before. Never. I’m dead. I’m dead. I’m dead. I’m dead. “I’m dead!”
Dead, dead, dead. My voice echoed. I was alive. I was alive! I was in a cave… or something. I gingerly touched the ground, the damp rock sticking to my fingers. “Rachel,” I whispered, looking up at nothing. I couldn’t see the hole I had fallen through. I snorted in disgust and cradled my left arm in my other. I didn’t know what to think. I was hurt, angry, and a little panicky.
Actually, a lot panicky.
I was kind of hyperventilating at this point.
I’m in a cave. I’m underground. I’ve fallen, like, three stories and landed on rock and lived… somehow. Half of my body is pretty much useless and there is no sign of life besides myself. Well, s***. I’m gonna die, aren’t I?
I whipped my head this way and that, looking for something, anything, to get me out of the situation I had been thrust into. I blinked rapidly, frustrated that I couldn’t stand up, walk properly, run. My breath was heavy and I rocked back and forth, my skull pounding. I needed help, like, right now.
I tried to stand, and crashed back to the floor, screaming. My brittle bones had to be broken. I was a wreck. Standing up again, I took a small, weak step. There had to be something down here.
I took another double take to skim my surroundings. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a light.
Slowly, I turned to my right. I was hallucinating. The fall had done it. I was seeing things now.
But what if I wasn’t?
I dragged my left boot across the ground and limped forward, my eyes set on the blurry, distorted prize. I worked as fast as I could, pulling with my right foot, dragging with my left. I was in severe pain and I kept wobbling forward, almost tripping with every step I took. For once, I was glad it was dark. If Rachel or Logan saw me now, they’d be laughing until they keeled over.
It took a while, but as I hobbled closer, the light became more vivid, more real. The buzz coming from the orangey-yellow glow was almost comforting, a sign of life. This had to be Left Behind City. I could find help here.
I finally stumbled to the city limits after an hour or so. I couldn’t go anymore. I leaned on the grey, crumbling buildings and limped through the brightly lit city, desperate for help. After winding through the alleys for a while, I approached a nicely kept- but dingy- town square with rainbows of plants and flowers (probably fake) sprawled everywhere. There seemed to be some sort of training session going on. Kids were practising jumps and kicks, shouting all sorts of things, and twirling staffs and guns amply between their fingers. These had to be the “average Joes” Logan was talking about. They all were pretty plain: standard mouse brown hair, pale skin, average height, all practising their attacks in their solid colour t-shirts and jeans. They didn’t seem to notice me, bleeding and bruised, leaning on the side of a skyscraper about to pass out or die or something.
All except for one.
This boy had these enormous red headphones blasting music I’d never heard. He leaned against the brick building in an almost too-casual manner just a few steps away from me, and when he caught my eye, his eyebrows shot up. He towered over me, almost two heads taller than my petite frame. I looked up at him and said, “Why aren’t you practising?”
He paused his music, yanked off his headphones and laughed nervously, obviously concerned with my current state. “What?”
I rolled my eyes. “Why aren’t you over there? With the other kids?”
He half chuckled, half coughed. “Why do you care? You’re bleeding and look like you’re about to fall over and you’re asking me why I’m not over there? Where are your priorities, dude?”
I said almost too quickly, “Whatever. Just curious.” I sighed and looked down at my feet, a little embarrassed. “Uh, could you get me some help?”
“That’s more like it.” He snorted. “My roommate knows some medical stuff. Come on, man.” He shrugged and started walking through the alley I had just come from, not even bothering to look back and see if I would follow him. “This way.”
I sighed and started to follow him, my pace about five times slower than his. He slid his headphones over his ears and played his music, some upbeat rock song, and I groaned. This was honestly all I got? I was pushed down a hole and landed in some godforsaken city just to be “rescued” by some guy who didn’t even bother to ask me my name? What happened to common courtesy? My heart raced with anger and my mind buzzed with questions: This was Left Behind City, right? What are those kids doing? Why was he not working with them? How old was this guy, anyway? “Hey!” I shouted. No response. “Hello?” His head bobbed along to the music. I sped up my pace, limping as fast as I could, and grabbed his yellow shirt.
He swerved around and glared down at me, almost knocking me over. “What do you want?!”
“That’s it, huh? No name, no information telling me where I am- just ‘my roommate knows some medical stuff’?! You didn’t even bother to see if I was following you down this stupid alley.” I tugged at my auburn hair in frustration.
“Wow, looks like someone’s having a bad day,” he said calmly, as if I had just made a trivial complaint.
“No s***! Are you blind?! Have you honestly not noticed my condition?! You’re an idiot.” I sighed, but continued softly, “What’s your name?”
“Well, my name’s Matt Park. I’m sixteen, and you happen to be in Left Behind City, a place that is literally an underground organisation.” I groaned at his pun.
“You’re sixteen and have a roommate? As in you don’t live with your parents?”
He looked back at me, confused. “Don’t you live on your own?”
I shook my head slowly. “No, I live with my parents like most people. Is that kind of a thing down here?”
“We get out of school when we’re fourteen, then we just kind of get kicked out. I’m your average bum and my roommate is studying in the medical field. More importantly, where are you from? Name? Age? Something?”
“I’m Annika, and I don’t really feel like talking to you anymore. Can we do this later?”
He shrugged. “My place is just around the corner. Come on.”
We walked a few more paces until we approached a small townhouse with an almost friendly glow to it, unlike Matt’s attitude toward me so far. “This is it! My roommate’s probably right inside.”
He helped me up the few steps and inside the cozy but shabby building. Clothes, cooking supplies, books, and records were strewn all over the place, the smell old and mildewy. “Nice place you got here,” I said, my voice oozing with sarcasm.
“I know, right?!” He showed me to the couch and shouted for his roommate. “Chen? Can you come here for a second? It’s kind of an emergency.”
Almost immediately, a well-dressed boy with raven-black hair and eyes thundered down the stairs. “What’s up?” he asked, his voice timid and soft. He saw me and his eyebrows rose up into his bangs. “Woah, you brought a girl home? This is new. Who’s she?”
Matt rolled his almond-shaped eyes. “Yes, I did. She’s not from here, and I think she fell through the hole that the Lefties use to go to Dynasty.” He turned to look at me. “Are you from Dynasty?” I moaned in response. “Yeah, so she’s beat up pretty bad, probably broke a few bones. Anything you can do?”
A grin spread across his pale face. “Anything I can do? Well, I can most certainly try!”
“He’s gonna have a field day with you,” Matt mumbled. “Hurry up before she bleeds all over the couch.”
“Right,” he said. He sprinted back up the stairs and returned not even a minute later, carrying a black bag. He went straight to work and Matt placed himself beside me, flinging himself onto the sofa. “So…”
Matt snapped his fingers. “Right. So, Annika. What brings you here to the magical land that is Left Behind City?”
“My friend- well, she’s not really my friend anymore, obviously- pushed me down this hole after we were sent here by one of our other friends to investigate.”
“Charming. How’d you guys find out about the Lefties?”
“The people you saw practising…”
I sighed, not wanting to give the long explanation at the moment. “Right. Well, I’m part of a gang, but we aren’t one of those power-hungry organizations. We try to break up gangs, stop bank robberies, you know, good stuff. At least, that’s what I thought. I went to a meeting and they told me that they’d found out about you guys and that they wanted us to pinpoint the location of Left Behind City. My friend Rachel found this big hole in the forest a few hours later, but it was just a trap, obviously. I don’t think they knew it led here, but anyway, before she pushed me down here, she told me they were just after what everyone else wants: money and power. They wanted to get rid of me because they knew I wouldn’t cooperate and try to go against them. And of course, she was right. I really just want the Gang Uprising to end, you know? I didn’t get a normal childhood because my friends and I have been dealing with all this s*** our whole lives. I thought that maybe they’d just want everything to be how it used to before all this, but I guess I was wrong. I feel like we’ve been running in circles this entire time instead of actually accomplishing anything. So, I’m pretty pissed that I’m not even back at square one, but stuck in some hole with no way to get out. My parents are probably gonna be worried sick about me, there’s chaos going on up there, and I can’t do anything…” I let out a shuddery sigh. I wasn’t going to cry in front of these people I just met. “All the efforts I put in, the people I killed, it’s all gone to waste! I was only helping the cause I was trying to stop! I’m so stupid.” I sniffed and wiped my eyes with my good hand.
“Hey, man, it’s okay,” Matt said, awkwardly patting me on the back. He might as well have stroked me with a broom. “Stuff happens, you know? Don’t worry about it. Just focus on the now. Your broken leg, the fact you’re bleeding everywhere-“Chen gave him a look and he shut up. Thank God.
“Is there anything we can do, Annika?” Chen asked, his voice full of concern.
“What I really want to do is just try to start a new gang. I want all of this to stop. Get a few people together that are for the same cause- not too many people, just a few, good ones- and stop all this madness.”
“That’s a big goal there,” Matt observed. “I’d be happy to oblige.”
“He can’t fight for s***,” Chen stated. I snorted.
“Is that why you were zoning out at practise?” I asked.
“Yeah, pretty much,” mumbled Matt.
“Annika, if there’s one thing you need to know about Matt here, it’s that he is the world’s laziest kid. He doesn’t do anything but eat, listen to music, and sit on this couch.” Chen bandaged my leg and chuckled to himself.
“Uh, excuse me? If I recall correctly, I was out in the town square not even an hour ago.”
“Doing what? Probably leaning against one of the apartment buildings and listening to Green Day.”
“Right you are. There’s nothing like the classics, Mister Chen Pei. Speaking of which…” Matt took his headphones from his neck and placed them gingerly over his ears, stuck his hand in his pants pocket, pulled out an mp3 player, and in a matter of seconds, a slow song with a wailing guitar solo played through his speakers. Chen sighed.
“I’m sorry about Matt. He’s a little spacey and doesn’t really think too much about other people. Is there anything I can get you to eat or drink?”
I scanned the apartment. In its current, sloppy condition, my guess was that everything in their fridge was way past its expiration date. How did they get food down here, anyway? “I think I’ll pass,” I said uncomfortably.
Chen laughed again. “I promise you everything in this house is good to eat.”
“How do you guys even get food?”
“When the Lefties go up, they snag a few things. We have a food crew. This city lives off stolen goods. It’s far from glamorous, but once this whole Gang Uprising is over…” He sighed and smiled sadly. “I can’t wait. I’d die to go up there.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why? Up there’s just more and more bloodshed. From what I’ve seen, down here seems really peaceful. There’s nothing to worry about. I bet you had a great childhood, without having to deal with all those gangs…” I winced as Chen started bandaging my arm.
He shrugged. “My dad decided to leave me and my mom when I was a kid. I had a sister, a twin, named Pao. We were really close, and to have her ripped from me like that… it was hard. I want to go up there and find her.” He cringed. “She might not even be alive… So if you plan on going back anytime soon, would you take me with you? Plus, with people finding out about the Lefties, I feel like this place isn’t going to be a safe haven for very long.”
“Sounds like a deal,” I said. “I’m probably going to head back up as soon as I heal. I’ve got to get a new gang together…”
“I’d offer help, but I’m not much of a fighter, either,” Chen chuckled.
“Hey, any help is welcome! We could use a guy who knows how to fix a few broken ribs.”
His face lit up. “You mean I’d get to work on people in your condition all the time?”
I frowned and said, “Well, I hope not. But if that happens, yeah, sure.”
I heard him whisper a hearty “yes!” to himself before running back upstairs with his box of supplies. I smiled. I liked Chen; he was a good kid. However, the one beside me was a little harder to deal with.
“Hey, Chen! You said Matt isn’t much of a fighter, but can he do anything else?” I shouted to him upstairs.
“Don’t shout too much!” he cried back. “The neighbours will get mad. But he can run really fast!”
I looked over at Matt. Even when he was walking, his strides were unusually quick. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he immediately paused his music. “What?”
“You’re a good runner?”
“Yeah, I mean, people say I’m a pretty fast dude. I don’t know.”
I didn’t know how Matt’s speed could actually be a helpful asset to the gang, but since he saved me- sort of- I felt like I owed him something. And I decided that something was going to be to toughen him up. “So, you know, about my gang…” I started feebly.
“I already said I’d be happy to help you,” he stressed.
“I know, I know. For starters, do you know how to get out of Left Behind City? This plan isn’t going to get us anywhere if we can’t even get to the surface.”
Matt let out a sharp laugh that made me jump. “Do I know how to get out? Annika, everyone knows how to get out of Left Behind City. It’s just the fact that most of us are afraid of what’s up there that keeps us down here. Anyway, there are tunnels all around the outskirts of the city that lead you up to the surface. It’s not hard to get up there.”
“Oh,” I whispered.
Chen sped down the stairs and said, “And you did break your arm, but your leg and ribs will be fine shortly. Your arm absorbed most of the shock, so I imagine we’ll be able to get out of here in about five weeks once it starts to heal.” He grinned. He finally had a reason to abandon his studies and find his sister, I imagined.
I smiled at his expression. “Great, Chen. Thanks for doing this for me.” Matt gave me a look and I sighed. “And thank you, Matt, for dragging me here.”
“No problem, Annie. You know me, always helping out a brother when I can. I mean, if it wasn’t for me, you’d probably be dead by now.”
Ignoring Matt’s remark, Chen said, “So, how about a house tour?” He seemed to be good at deflecting every snarky comment that came out of Matt’s mouth.
Matt laughed. “What’s there to see?”
“She’s staying with us for five weeks, Matt. She should at least know where everything is.”
“Fine, okay. Lucky for Annika, here, she doesn’t even have to leave the couch to see the entire house.”
“I guess so.” Chen gestured to our left, where the open kitchen was. An old, green refrigerator with a broken handle sat forsaken in a corner while dirty pots and pans were left idle on the stove and piling up in the sink and on the rectangular dining table. “So that’s our kitchen. Despite the appearance of it all, eating something from our home will not kill you.” I furrowed my brows. Chen was so clean-cut and mature. Why was their apartment so disgusting? I glared at Matt from out of the corner of my eye. It was all him. It had to be. “Next to our refrigerator is our sad little bathroom, but it has all the necessities, so no worries.”
“This big space is the sitting room,” Matt continued. “You can tell because we’re sitting in it. We have boring books about medical things, which are Chen’s, and great rock records, which are mine. Don’t touch the records or I’ll bite your hand off.”
“Why not? I’d probably take better care of them then you do now,” I retorted, staring down a scratched up Radiohead record lying on the floor.
“You guys are getting along great,” Chen noted caustically. “Uh, upstairs we have our bedrooms. And that’s all there is to it! Pretty simple, but it’s nice, huh?”
“I mean, I guess. I have a question, though, but don’t take it the wrong way. Why is everything in here so… old?”
“Here comes the history lesson,” mumbled Matt, sliding his headphones back over his ears.
“Well, you see, Left Behind City was founded by a group of bandits hundreds of years ago. They found this huge underground cave when escaping through the forest and decided to build a city, stringing lights on the top of the cavern and building skyscrapers underground. I bet the whole thing must have been impressive when it was first brought together. I mean, the idea still baffles everyone on exactly how they did it, but they didn’t keep any records at all. Everything we’ve heard, we learned orally. They were obviously illiterate, all brawn and no brain. Heartbreaking, really. If you happened to see some markings on a rock on your way over here, that was pretty much all they were capable of.
“Anyway, soon, slaves, runaways, and outcasts all flocked to the city when they heard about it, thankful that they had a safe place to live. I mean, to this day, no one really knows about it, right? We’re still preserving the way our ancestors wanted it to be, which is nice, but like I said, I don’t think it will be this way much longer, with us trying to fight what’s going on up there and all.” I nodded in agreement. “To answer your question, the buildings started to crumble after they were built. They were cheaply made and no one felt like performing maintenance on them. As for the supplies they had, they lived off stolen goods, especially finding things in dumps and fixing them to the best of their ability. Our fridge, there? It’s from the 1970’s. Practically ancient. Works just like the models from the early 2000’s, though.”
“That’s actually really fascinating,” I said, “how you live like this. I would have never imagined something like this to exist. I have another question. Why did you guys start deciding to go up there and help out? How did you find out?”
Chen smirked. “Funny story, actually. Matt loves this one.” He looked at Matt, hoping to get a reaction out of his roommate, but he was lost in another world. “Matt, we’re talking about Nokki,” he said loudly.
Matt yanked off his headphones immediately and his face turned bright red. “Nokki? As in Nordica Kirstin Black?!” Chen roared with laughter.
“I can’t believe you do that even when we say her name!” he screeched. “That’s so great, oh my God…” Matt sunk lower into the couch, obviously embarrassed. Even I couldn’t keep a straight face. After Chen had collected himself for the most part, he continued, “Anyway, Annika, there was this weird girl we went to school with: Nordica Kirstin Black. She insisted we called her Nokki, though. It’s… different for sure, but if your name was Nordica Kirstin, I think I’d want a nickname, too.
“Now, this girl, she radiated weird. Even if you saw her walking around, you’d know this girl was a little off. The way she dressed, oh my God… I mean, she looked like a model with her face and everything, but she was the craziest person in town! She didn’t have many friends, Nokki. She was always singing to herself in class. Our teacher would be teaching and you’d hear this singing, and everyone would just turn and look at Nokki until she stopped. She would always talk about hearing gunfire in her bedroom at night and all this wacko stuff, saying she was going to get out of Left Behind City and stop it. Of course, it’s true that the gang fights were going on up there, but it was probably just a coincidence that she made it all up when it was really happening. I mean, she lived on the bottom floor of her apartment building. She probably just heard the noisy people on the floor above her. On graduation day, she didn’t even show up. She’d been working on digging this hole on the south side of town all the way up to the surface and when school was over, she left.”
“Does anyone know where Nordic- Nokki went?” I asked.
“That’s the thing. A ton of our classmates were really worried about her, even though we thought she was crazy. I mean, she could barely communicate with anyone- her parents are from somewhere in Northern Europe and she seemed like she lived in her own little world. We had no clue how a person this insane was going to do all on her own in a place none of us really knew about. One night, a few of our braver classmates crawled up the hole and told everyone that Nokki was right all along. They had done some exploring and all they saw was bloodshed. Most of them never wanted to go back, but the mayor told us that something had to be done about the war going on up there. She had completely forgotten about Nokki and saw the bigger picture. So, instead of most of our graduating class getting normal careers around the city, they started preparing to do good in the world above. We started finding more and more tunnels around the town, and we use those to get up onto the surface to fight crime and gather supplies to keep the town going. Now, every new class that graduates usually goes to fighting, unless you show that you’re really interested in something, like being a doctor. Then you can go on to study.”
I frowned. “I thought you wanted to go up there. To find your sister.”
Chen looked hurt. “I do! I just… don’t want to go up by myself. I know Matt over there is less than thrilled about setting foot on the surface. We were the guinea pigs in this operation, and without someone who knew Dynasty like the back of their hand and could defend themselves, frankly, we’d be shot the minute we walked into the city limits. I’m still not all that comfortable going up there, obviously.”
“Fair enough. What’s with Matt getting flustered about Nokki? Did he love her?” I sang, nudging Matt playfully and wincing at the pain it cost me just to make a teasing gesture.
Matt scoffed. “Quite the contrary, bro. I bullied the crap out of her.”
“He had an inferiority complex as a wee lad, and took it out on her. Sad, when you think about it. I tell him all the time that it’s not his fault that Nokki ditched town, but he won’t believe me.”
“So, I’m assuming they never found her…?”
“Nope. To this day, whether Nokki’s alive or not is a complete mystery. Most people moved on, but Matt acts like he’s going to have a heart attack even when he hears someone say the colour black. It’s ridiculous.”
“Can you stop teasing me about it?” he mumbled in reply after a few seconds. Chen’s mouth snapped shut and his face was splashed with the pain of realisation. I stared at Matt and Matt stared at his hands. Even though I had only been around him for a short period of time, I was starting to understand that when he showed that he cared or acted flustered, he wasn’t kidding or being sarcastic like he usually was. He meant it and he was vulnerable and it was almost kind of heartbreaking. I didn’t know why, but in those split seconds he seemed like a real person for the first time, and I felt awful that I had laughed at him for caring about another human being who deserved the same respect anyone else did. I knew he wouldn’t show this serious side often at all, and I had just pushed him right back into his shell. I didn’t even think he had one to crawl into, but now I knew. I thought that maybe everyone has a different side trapped in a shell, a place where they are peaceful and soft and they do care. I had shoved him back into nonchalance like my friends had pushed me forward into bravado. I was one of the obstacles. And I understood.
We sat there for a little bit in silence, and at last, Chen cleared his throat.
“Who’s hungry?” he asked.