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Stung


Stung: Page 30


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Heart pounding, I follow her into another hotel room.


She goes past the bed and straight to the broken window, pointing. I follow her and look. From up here I can see the whole city. It looks perfect, as if nothing has changed. Until I notice the complete lack of human life, complete lack of movement and sound.


A cool breeze flits through the broken window, carrying with it the scent of soil and grass. I fill my lungs with the mineral-rich fragrance and sigh the air back out. Surely I must be dreaming. But then I gag on the smell of Arrin and wonder if I imagined the good smell.


The breeze stirs the air, and I smell green things once more.


"What is that smell?" I whisper, leaning toward the window. Arrin points again. We are close to the wall, maybe two blocks away. And from fifteen floors up, I can see what is on the other side of the wall. My eyes grow wide, and a yearning fills my chest, like my heart is trying to claw its way free.


Patchwork fields of green and gold fill the land inside the wall, where City Park Golf Course and the zoo used to be. Houses and buildings frame the green-and-gold fields. Men and women are walking toward the fields, hoes and shovels over their shoulders, baskets on their arms.


Something flickers inside my brain. A familiarity I can't explain, the feeling that I've been in there, seen the skyline framed by stars. A fleeting image of blue eyes and hushed words fills my mind.


"Now, look down there," Arrin whispers, shattering my thoughts. She puts a dirt-caked finger to her lips, warning me to be silent. I peer over the side of the window frame and stare down at the shadowed streets and rooftops below. For several minutes I stay there, waiting for something to happen. When nothing does, I look at Arrin with raised eyebrows.


"Look harder," she says softly, her eyes never leaving the street. I look again, following her gaze. And then I see it. Or them. And I forget to breathe.


They are hiding, squeezed into doorways, lurking in broken windows, crouched on rooftops. And they are men, not beasts, with four thick scars in their forearms-the men Bowen and I saw two nights ago. Some of them hold guns. Knives and baseball bats are in the hands of others. They are absolutely still, every single one of them looking in the same direction. I follow their gaze and stand tall.


Huddled in a shallow doorway is Bowen.


Chapter 26


Bowen has his back pressed against another man's-Tommy's. Bowen holds a grenade in one hand; the other hand pinches the pin. Tommy aims his rifle toward the street.


Arrin claws at my arm and forces me back down. "They'll see you," she warns, her eyes flashing.


"Then let them see me!" I say, my voice too loud. "Bowen is-" I am thrown backward, a hot, grimy hand clasped against my mouth, bony legs straddling my hips. Metal presses against my neck-Arrin's knife.


"Shut up or I will kill you. I didn't bring you here so you could get me caught!"


Anger warms my blood, makes my muscles taut. I yank Arrin's hand from my mouth and knock her other hand away from my throat, not caring if her knife cuts me. "Then leave," I say, glaring into her blue eyes. "I have to help Bowen or they'll kill him. And I don't care if I die trying." Because without Bowen, life will hold nothing for me.


"They won't kill you, Fo." Arrin's knife hand moves lightning fast, aiming for my neck again, but I grab it and hold it suspended in the air. Arrin raises one thick eyebrow. "They won't kill you," she says again, trembling with the effort to get her hand free from mine. "You'll only wish they did."


Something in her eyes speaks louder than words, making me more scared about my future than I have ever been before. A future as a slave, without Bowen.


"They never kill women. The women end up killing themselves, if they are lucky enough to find a weapon," Arrin says, a smug smile tugging at one side of her mouth, as if she knows she's won.


"All right. I'll be quiet," I whisper. "Just get off me."


She's off in a flash, shaking out her wrists as if I've hurt her. I swallow and hug the rifle to me, then stand. Without making a sound, I peer over the side of the window. I rest the rifle on my shoulder and take aim at the man closest to Bowen, tightening my finger on the trigger.


The rifle is jerked aside, and Arrin shoves her face in front of mine. "Are you bloody crazy? If you shoot one of them, they'll all come for us! I brought you up here so you'd know I'm not lying!"









"Lying about what?" I whisper.


"If you want to survive, you have to leave with me right now. I know a way inside the wall through the tunnels. I'll take you to the lab and collect the reward."


I cannot leave. Not when Bowen's down there facing almostcertain death.


"It's what Bowen would want, because there's no way they're going to let him walk away alive," she says, as if she can read my mind.


My hands start to tremble, so I hug the rifle to my chest. Can I leave him there and save myself? It is what he would want, and I know it. Just thinking it makes me feel as if I've been torn in two. "No. I have to help Bowen."


"You can't. He and Tommy have been sitting there all night, hoping the raiders would forget about them. We've got to run before it's too late. I'll show you where-"


"They've been there all night?" I gasp.


Arrin nods. "Why do you think it took me so long to get to you? I had to sneak like I've never snuck before."


Completely unconcerned for my own safety, I stand tall, shove Arrin aside, and put the rifle back on my shoulder, balancing my elbow on the windowsill for a steadier shot. Like a beacon of hope, the sun crests the horizon and shines on me, gleaming against the gun. Bowen's head comes up, his face turned toward mine, toward the flash of sunlight on metal. He waves at me to get down, but I've already decided what needs to be done.


I point the rifle at a rooftop half a block away, at the man closest to me. He's holding a gun, pointing it toward Bowen's hiding place. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, knowing this is the most important shot I will ever take in my life. And probably the last. My father's voice speaks in my head, teaching me how to aim a gun all over again. It's just like learning to play the piano-all in the fingers. As the air leaves my lungs, I open my eyes, brace for the recoil, and slowly squeeze the trigger. The sound of gunfire echoes off sunlit buildings.


I don't wait to see if I've hit him to find my next target. I aim and shoot again. And a third time.


"He pulled the pin!" Arrin whispers, her words barely making it past my ringing ears. I look at Bowen and Tommy. Bowen stands and chucks the grenade down the road, then he and Tommy run in the other direction. Gunfire fills the quiet morning. Bowen lurches and falls to the ground, and my heart misses a beat. Did he get shot? Is he dead? Tommy crouches down and pulls Bowen back to his feet. And then the grenade explodes, shaking the hotel, deafening my ringing ears, and creating a cloud of dust that hides Bowen and Tommy from view.


"We have to get out of here!" Arrin says, standing. Her voice sounds muted, like I'm hearing it through water. She darts toward the door. I take one final look below and swallow a surge of dread. While Bowen's hidden by dust, I've been seen. The men too far from the explosion to be hurt are pointing at me. Guns go off and bullets whiz by my head or send sprays of glass flying from the building. And men are running toward the hotel.


"Oh, crap." I sprint after Arrin.


Chapter 27


I sprint down the hall to the stairs, but before I make it to the thirteenth floor I hear the sound of feet thumping in the stairwell below, of someone coming up. Arrin stops and waits for me.


"They're about to catch us. No mercy," she says, her eyes hard. "Kill before asking questions." A knife appears in her hand, and she pivots on the balls of her feet, braced for a fight. I balance the gun on my shoulder and wait. The thumping of feet grows louder. And louder. When the sound of heavy breathing accompanies the feet, I know we are about to die.


Men come into view, and all I focus on is the place on a broad chest where I have to put the bullet. In spite of the gun pointed at them, they don't slow. I grit my teeth and find the trigger.


"No!"


I squeeze, and the gun discharges a split second before it is knocked out of my hands.


One of the men reels backward and topples head over feet down the stairs. Triumph swells inside of me. I've hit my target.


"What did you do that for!" someone booms.


"Fo," Bowen groans.


I lower the gun and stare in mute shock.
Bowen lies in a crumpled heap of blood and clothes on the landing below. I run down the steps and grab his shoulders. He goes rigid at my touch. "Not so rough," he gasps.

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