Life Before Legend Page 2

Someone tackles me from behind. I squirm right out of his grasp, then try to make a leap for the wall and get a grip on the second-floor ledge. But my bad knee—already weak from my hurried escape—finally gives way, and I collapse to the ground in the shadows of the alley. All the breath in my lungs gets knocked out in one whoosh, but I still twist around and bare my teeth, ready to sink them into whoever’s grabbing me.

“Hey, chill out!” It’s the girl who had first spotted me. She has a nonthreatening face, but she pins me firmly to the ground. “It’s just me. I told my dad’s crew that I’d track you down. They’re all still back at the pier.”

I keep struggling.

“Look, we could do this all day.” The girl tilts her head at me and gives me a frown. I keep expecting her to slide a knife against my throat. But she doesn’t. After a few long seconds, I calm down. She nods at me when I do. “What were you trying to steal from my father’s shipment?” she asks.

“Just some food,” I reply. I’m still having trouble catching my breath, and the pain in my knee isn’t helping any. “I haven’t eaten in two days.”

“You from the Lake sector, cousin?”

I give her a smile. I hope she can’t see how nervous I am. “As much as you,” I say, noting her slang. “You’re probably even from the same neighborhood as me.”

She studies me for a moment. Now that I finally get a good look at her, I can see that she’s kind of pretty, with brown skin and frizzy black hair pulled back into two haphazard braids. She has a light smattering of freckles on her nose, and her eyes are golden brown. Her eyebrows look permanently set at an amused angle. She’s probably somewhere in her mid or late teens, although she looks small. A grin spreads on her face as she notices the way I’m checking her out. She carefully lets me sit up, but she doesn’t release my arm.

“You gonna let me go anytime soon?” I ask. “Or are you gonna drag me back to your dad and his pals?”

“That depends.” She clicks her tongue against the inside of her cheek in an unconscious gesture. “You were out to steal food from our shipment. If you’d succeeded, my father would have to explain to Republic port authorities why he didn’t meet quota. You think we like paying extra fines? Or getting arrested?”

“Well, I’m sorry. You think I like going hungry?”

The girl laughs at me. “Listen to you, tough boy. You’re so adorable, I could pinch your cheek right off.” I blush at her taunt, but I don’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing she got to me. So I glare at her without blinking. She stops laughing, chews thoughtfully on her toothpick, and then says, “So what if you’re hungry? What if I just drag you back to my dad right now? I could tell them to toss you into the lake. Or I could tell them to take you to the police station. My dad’s crew loves me. They’ll probably agree to whatever I tell them.”

I swallow hard at the thought, then put on a brave face. “Oh, come on, cousin.” I hold my palms up to her and give her as innocent of a look as I can. “You’re really gonna do that to a starving street boy? Just pretend I escaped. I won’t come back, I promise. You can even take my pocketknife, if you want something in return. It’s all I got.”

“How old are you?”

“Almost thirteen.”

“Aw, you’re just a baby.” She grins at me, and then hesitates for a good minute. “Look. I know how you feel,” she finally says, “and believe me, there’s nothing worse than the pain of an empty stomach.”

“You still thinking about turning me in, then?” I let my hopes rise. “Anything I can do for you to keep myself out of a Republic jail?” I ask.

“What are you willing to do?” she replies.

I give her a practiced smile. “Whatever you want me to do, sweetheart.”

The girl’s eyebrows lift in surprise—then she throws her head back and laughs. I can’t decide if I’m flattered or insulted. I thought I sounded pretty cool.

Another moment passes before the girl finally calms down, stands up, and hauls me to my feet. Now that we’re both up, I can tell that she’s only a few inches taller and just as lean. She nods in the direction of the pier. “Tell you what. You’re going to work for my dad for three days, and in exchange, I’ll give you three cans of food. You can pick any three cans—no fruits, though.” She shakes her head when she sees my disappointment. “Sorry. Three days of work won’t earn anyone a can of fruit.”

Working in one spot for three days. The thought makes me a little anxious—I don’t like staying anywhere for that long. There are Republic eyes all over the place. But I don’t really have a choice, and it’s about as good of an offer as I’ll get.

I give the girl a hesitant nod. “All right. Fine. You got yourself a deal.” I reach my free hand out to shake hers.

She doesn’t take it. Instead, she tilts her head a little, spits out her toothpick, and grins at me. “I’m not finished,” she says.

My hand wavers. “What else do you want?”

“You’re a bold one in front of ladies, aren’t you? Ever kiss a girl before?”

Kiss a girl? What does that have to do with anything? For all my flirting, I’ve never gotten that close. Well, I’ve kissed a couple of girls on the cheek, and vice versa—but right on the lips? I was trying to work my way up to that. My eyes wander to her mouth, now dark and smiling, and I feel my face growing even hotter than it already was.

“I’ll take that as a no.” She laughs. “Well, give it a shot, kid. Let’s see if you can back up your smooth talk.”

When I still don’t make a move, the girl leans toward me, closes her eyes, and presses her lips against mine. I stiffen. They’re much softer than I expected—I don’t know what I expected, actually. Of course they would be soft. A tingly feeling shoots down my spine. What should I do? Should I move? Eyes open or closed? For a while, I just stay completely still and keep my lips frozen. Maybe I’m supposed to follow her lead. So I try that instead. Gradually, I start kissing her back. It doesn’t seem so hard after a while . . . I even relax into it, letting my mind wrap around the fact that I’m lip-locked with an older girl. My hands are numb. I can’t feel my legs.

She pulls away. Although she doesn’t take her hand off my arm, her grip is less ironclad. I’m still trying to catch my breath. “Not too bad for your first try,” she says cheerfully. Her nose brushes against mine. “Are you trembling?”

I cringe. I’d hoped she wouldn’t notice.

To my relief, she laughs before I can say anything embarrassing. “Boy, you are just cute as a goddy button.” She taps my nose and leans away from me. “All right, we got a deal. Back to the pier. If you behave yourself the whole time, I might even give you another kiss.”

For the next three days, I work alongside her on her father’s Republic-assigned boat. Her name is Charlie, I learn, and she just turned sixteen. She tells me about her life working the piers as we load and unload shipments from dawn until dusk. Her mother had died a few years ago in a factory accident. She has a sister who actually got a Trial score high enough to get her assigned to a college. She loves the lake area, even if it means she smells like the ocean all the time. She’s happy that the Republic at least assigned her to work the piers with her father, instead of sending her off to the warfront to clean up after the troops. I don’t bother telling her that that’s what my father does—did, I mean—before he stopped coming home. My hands get splinters from dragging crates back and forth, and by the second day, my back feels like it’s going to break into pieces. Charlie’s dad—an enormous, bearded, pale-skinned man—ignores me completely, although sometimes he’ll nod in approval if I’m working really hard.

I like the job. The girl gives me two cans a day instead of just one, which means every day I get to eat a can as well as save one for future meals. I also get a chance to stash trinkets that might be useful later on—sharp splinters of wood I could use as weapons, a couple of abandoned burlap sacks, a round tin good for carrying water.

Charlie catches me as I walk along the pier, snatching up stray nails and stuffing them in my pockets.

“What are you doing, preparing for battle?” she asks with a grin.

I shrug. “I haven’t survived this long without some self-defense.”

Charlie laughs, but she lets me carry on.

In the evenings she sits with me while her father’s crew gathers farther down the pier. I watch, with a little jealousy, the way she flirts with the workers whenever her dad’s not around. She was right about one thing—she’s their darling, and if she ever told them to throw me overboard, they’d probably do it without hesitating. Slowly I grow used to the sound of the lake lapping against cement pillars and the unusual comfort of sleeping out in the open, knowing that in the morning I’d have a can of food waiting for me. What a luxury. Sometimes I’ll glance over at Charlie when she’s not looking, and I’ll try to replay our kiss in my head. I wonder if it meant anything to her. And whether or not she was serious about giving me another.

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