Read Warcross Online

Authors: Marie Lu

Tags: #YA, #Carly

Warcross (2 page)

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We emerge onto the street. People let out startled shouts as the man shoves them aside—he knocks a camera-clicking tourist flat on her back. In one movement, I swing my electric board to the ground, jump on, and slam my heel down as hard as I can. It makes a high-pitched
whoosh
—I lunge forward, speeding down the sidewalk. The man glances over his shoulder to see me gaining fast on him. He darts left down the street at a full, panicked run.

I veer in his direction at such a sharp angle that the edge of my board protests against the pavement, leaving a long, black line. I aim my stun gun at the man’s back and shoot.

He shrieks and falls. Instantly, he tries to stand again, but I catch up to him. He grabs my ankle. I stumble, kicking at him. His eyes are wild, his teeth clenched and jaw tight. Out flashes a blade. I see its glint in the light just in time. I kick him off me and roll away right before he can stab at my leg. My hands get a grip on his jacket. I fire the stun gun once more, this time at close range. It hits true. His body goes rigid, and he collapses on the pavement, trembling.

I jump on him. My knee presses hard into his back as the man
sobs on the ground. The sound of police sirens rounds the bend. A circle of people have gathered around us now, their glasses recording away.

“I didn’t do anything,” the man whimpers over and over again. His voice comes out garbled by how hard I’m pushing him into the ground. “The lady inside—I can give you her name—”

“Shut it,” I cut him off as I slide handcuffs onto his wrists.

To my surprise, he does. They don’t always listen like that. I don’t relent until a police car pulls up, until I see red and blue lights flashing against the wall. Only then do I get up and back away from him, making sure to hold out my hands so that the cops can see them clearly. My skin tingles from the rush of a successful hunt as I watch the two policemen yank the man onto his feet.

Five thousand dollars!
When was the last time I had even half that much money at once? Never. I’ll get to be less desperate for a while—I’ll pay off the rent that I owe, which should calm my landlord down for now. Then I’ll have $1,550 left. It’s a
fortune
. My mind flips through my other bills. Maybe I can eat something other than instant noodles tonight.

I want to do a victory jump in the air. I’ll be okay. Until the next hunt.

It takes me a moment to realize that the police are walking away with their new captive without even looking in my direction. My smile falters.

“Hey, Officer!” I shout, hurrying after the closer one. “Are you giving me a ride to the station for my payment, or what? Should I just meet you there?”

The officer gives me a look that doesn’t seem to jibe with the fact that I just caught them a criminal. She looks exasperated, and dark circles under her eyes tell me she hasn’t gotten much rest. “You weren’t first,” she says.

I startle, blinking. “What?” I say.

“Another hunter phoned in the alert before you.”

For a moment, all I can do is stare at her.

Then I spit out a swear. “What a load of
bull
. You saw the whole thing go down. You all confirmed my alert!” I hold up my phone so the officer can see the text message I received. Sure enough, that’s when my phone’s battery finally dies.

Not that the proof would’ve made a difference. The officer doesn’t even glance at the phone. “It was just an auto-reply. According to
my
messages, I received the first call-in from another hunter on location. Bounty goes to the first, no exceptions.” She offers me a sympathetic shrug.

This is the dumbest technicality I’ve ever heard. “The hell it does!” I argue. “Who’s the other hunter? Sam? Jamie? They’re the only other ones canvassing this turf.” I throw my hands up. “You know what—you’re lying, there
is
no other hunter. You just don’t want to pay out.” I follow her as she turns away. “I saved you from a dirty job—that’s the deal, that’s why
any
bounty hunter goes after the people you’re too lazy to catch. You owe me this one and you—”

The cop’s partner grabs my arm and shoves me so hard that I nearly fall. “Get
back,
” he says with a snarl. “Emika Chen, isn’t it?” His other hand is wrapped tightly around the grip of his sheathed gun. “Yeah, I remember you.”

I’m not about to argue with a loaded weapon. “Fine,
fine
.” I force myself to take a step back and raise my hands in the air. “I’m going, okay? Leaving now.”

“I know you already got some jail time, kid.” He glares at me, his eyes hard and glittering, before joining his partner. “Don’t make me give you another strike.”

I hear the police radio calling them away to another crime scene. The noise around me muffles, and the image in my mind of the five thousand dollars starts to waver until it finally blurs into something I no longer recognize. In the span of thirty seconds, my victory has been tossed into someone else’s hands.

2

I ride out
of Manhattan in silence. It’s getting colder, and the flurries have turned into steady snow, but the sting of the wind against my face suits my mood just fine. Here and there, parties have started to break out in the streets, and people decked out in red-and-blue jerseys count down the time at the top of their lungs. I watch as their celebrations swirl by. In the distance, every side of the Empire State Building is lit up and displaying enormous Warcross images.

Back when I was still living at the foster group home, I could see the Empire State Building if I climbed up onto the roof. I’d sit there and stare for hours as Warcross images rotated on its side, my skinny legs swinging, until dawn came and the sunlight would bathe me in gold. If I stared long enough, I could picture myself displayed up there. Even now, I feel that old twinge of excitement at the sight of the building.

My electric skateboard beeps once, snapping me out of my
reverie. I look down. The battery’s been drained to its final bar. I sigh, slow to a stop, and swing my board over my shoulder. Then I dig for some change in my pocket and head into the first subway station I can find.

Twilight has faded to a blue-gray evening by the time I arrive in front of the crumbling Hunts Point¸ Bronx, apartment complex I call home. This is the other side of the glittering city. Graffiti covers one side of the building. Rusted iron bars cage the first floor windows. Trash is heaped near the main entrance steps—plastic cups, fast-food wrappers, broken beer bottles—all partially hidden underneath a thin dusting of snow. There are no lit-up screens here, no fancy auto-cars driving through the cracked streets. My shoulders droop, and my feet feel like lead. I haven’t even eaten dinner yet, but at this point, I can’t decide if I want food or sleep more.

Farther down the street, a group of homeless people are settling in, spreading their blankets and pitching their tents in the entryway of a shuttered store. Plastic bags line the insides of their threadbare clothes. I look away, heartsick. Once upon a time they too were kids, maybe had families who loved them. What had brought them to this point? What would I look like, in their place?

Finally, I will myself up the steps through the main entrance and down the hall to my front door. The hall reeks, as always, of cat pee and moldy carpets, and through the thin walls, I can hear neighbors shouting at each other, a TV’s volume cranked high, a wailing baby. I relax a little. If I’m lucky enough, I won’t bump into my landlord, with his tank and sweats and red face. Maybe I can at least get an uneventful night’s sleep before I have to deal with him in the morning.

A new eviction notice has gone up on my door, right where I’d torn the old one off. I stare at it for a second, exhausted, rereading.

NEW YORK EVICTION NOTICE
TENANT NAME: EMIKA CHEN
72 HOURS TO PAY, OR VACATE

Was it really necessary for him to come back and put up a new sign, as if he wants to make sure everyone else in the building knows? To humiliate me further? I tear the notice off the door, crumple it in my fist, and stand still for a moment, staring at the blank space where the paper once hung. There is a familiar desperation in me, a rising panic that beats loudly in my chest, pounding out each thing I owe. The numbers in my head start over again. Rent, food, bills, debt.

Where am I going to get the money in three days?

“Hey!”

I jump at the voice. Mr. Alsole, my landlord, has emerged from his apartment and is stalking toward me, his frown resembling a fish’s, his thin orange hair sticking out in every direction. One look at his bloodshot eyes tells me that he’s high on something. Great. Another argument.
I can’t deal with another fight today.
I fumble around for my keys, but it’s too late—so instead, I straighten my shoulders and lift my chin.

“Hey, Mr. Alsole.” I have a way of pronouncing the name like it’s
Mr. Asshole
.

He scowls at me. “You been avoidin’ me all week.”

“Not on purpose,” I insist. “I got a gig as a waitress in the mornings now, down at the diner, and—”

“Nobody needs waitresses anymore.” He squints at me suspiciously.

“Well, this place does. And it’s the only job around. There’s nothing else.”

“You said you’d pay
today
.”

“I know what I said.” I take a deep breath. “I can come by later to talk—”

“Did I say later? I want it
now
. And you’re gonna need to add another hundred bucks to what you owe.”


What?

“Rent’s going up this month. On the whole block. You think this ain’t hot property?”

“That’s not fair,” I say, my temper rising. “You can’t do that—you
just
raised it!”

“You know what’s not fair, little girl?” Mr. Alsole narrows his eyes at me and folds his arms. The gesture stretches out the freckles on his skin. “The fact that you’re living for free in my building.”

I hold both hands up. The blood is rushing to my cheeks. I can feel its fire. “I know—I just—”

“What about notes? You got more than five thousand of those?”

“If I did, I’d be giving them to you.”

“Then offer something else,” he spits. He shoves a sausage-like finger at my skateboard. “I see that again, I’ll smash it with a hammer. You sell that thing and give me the money.”

“It’s only worth fifty bucks!” I take a step forward. “Look, I’ll do whatever it takes, I swear, I promise.” The words stream out of me in a jumbled mess. “Just give me a few more days.”

“Listen, kid.” He holds up three fingers, reminding me exactly how many months I owe him. “I’m done with pity checks.” Then he looks me up and down. “You’re what, eighteen now?”

I stiffen. “Yeah.”

He nods down the hall. “Go get a job at the Rockstar Club.
Their girls earn four hundred a night just for dancing on some tables.
You
could probably pull five hundred. And they won’t even care about the red on your record.”

I narrow my eyes. “You think I haven’t checked? I have to be twenty-one.”

“I don’t care what you do.
Thursday.
Got it?” Mr. Alsole’s talking forcefully enough now for his spit to fly onto my face. “And I want this apartment cleared out. Spotless.”

“It wasn’t spotless in the
first
place!” I shout back. But he’s already turned his back and is stalking down the hall.

I let out a slow breath as he slams his door shut. My heart pounds against my ribs. My hands shake.

My thoughts return to the homeless, with their hollow eyes and sloped shoulders, and then to the working girls I’ve occasionally seen leaving the Rockstar Club, reeking of smoke and sweat and heavy perfume, their makeup smeared. Mr. Alsole’s threat is a reminder of where I might end up if I don’t get lucky soon. If I don’t start making some hard choices.

I’ll find a way to work some pity into him. Soften him up.
Just give me one more week, I swear, and I’ll get half the money to you. I promise.
I play these words in my head as I shove the key in the lock and open the door.

It’s dark inside, even with the neon-blue glow from outside the window. I flip on the lights, toss my keys on the kitchen counter, and throw the crumpled eviction notice in the trash. Then I pause to look around the apartment.

It’s a tiny studio, crammed full of belongings. Cracks in the painted plaster run along the walls. One of the bulbs in the room’s only ceiling light has burned out, while the second bulb is fading, waiting for someone to replace it before it dies, too. My Warcross glasses are lying on the fold-out dining table. I’d rented them for
cheap because they’re an older model. Two cardboard boxes of stuff are stacked by the kitchen, two mattresses lie on the ground by the window, and an ancient TV and old, mustard-yellow couch take up the rest of the space.

“Emi?”

A muffled voice comes from underneath a blanket on the couch. My roommate sits up, rubs her face, and runs a hand through her nest of blond hair.
Keira.
She’d fallen asleep with her Warcross glasses on, and a faint crease trails across her cheeks and forehead. She wrinkles her nose at me. “You got some guy with you again?”

I shake my head. “No, just me tonight,” I reply. “Did you give Mr. Alsole your half of the money today, like you said you would?”

“Oh.” She avoids my stare, swings her legs over the side of the couch, and reaches for a half-eaten bag of chips. “I’ll get it to him by this weekend.”

“You realize he’s throwing us out on Thursday, right?”

“No one told
me
.”

My hand tightens against the back of the dining room chair. She hasn’t left the apartment all day, so she never even saw the eviction notice on the door. I take a deep breath, reminding myself that Keira hasn’t been able to find any work, either. After almost a year of trying, she’s just given up and curled inward, spending her days idling away in Warcross instead.

It’s a feeling I know well, but I’m too exhausted tonight to spare much patience for her. I wonder whether the realization of living on the streets will hit her when we finally end up standing on the sidewalk with all of our belongings.

I strip off my scarf and hoodie down to my favorite tank top, go into the kitchen, and start a pot of water to boil. Then I head over to the two mattresses lying against the wall.

Keira and I keep our beds separated with a makeshift divider duct-taped together out of old cardboard boxes. I’d made my side as cozy and neat as I could, decorating the space with trails of golden fairy lights. A map of Manhattan, covered in my scribbles, is pinned on my wall, along with magazine covers featuring Hideo Tanaka, a written list of the current Warcross amateur leaderboards, and a Christmas ornament from when I was a kid. My final possession is one of my dad’s old paintings, the only one I have left, propped carefully beside the mattress. The canvas is exploding with color, the paint thick and textured as if still wet. I used to have more of his work, but I had to sell them off every time things got too desperate, chipping away at his memory in order to survive his absence.

I flop on my mattress and it lets out a loud squeak. The ceiling and walls are awash in neon blue from the liquor mart across the street. I lie still, listening to the constant, distant wail of sirens coming from somewhere outside, my eyes fixed on an old water stain on the ceiling.

If Dad were here, he would be fussing about in his fashion professor mode, mixing paints and washing brushes in jars. Perhaps mulling over his spring class syllabus, or his plans for New York Fashion Week.

I turn my head toward the rest of the apartment and pretend that he’s here, the healthy, un-sickly version of him, his tall, slender silhouette outlined in light near the doorway, his forest of dyed blue hair shining silver in the darkness, facial scruff neatly trimmed, black-rimmed glasses framing his eyes, dreamer’s face on. He would be wearing a black shirt that exposed the colorful tattoos winding up and down his right arm, and his appearance would be impeccable—his shoes polished and trousers perfectly ironed—except for flecks of paint staining his hands and hair.

I smile to myself at the memory of sitting in a chair, swinging my legs and staring at the bandages on my knees while my father put temporary streaks of color into my hair. Tears still stained my cheeks from when I’d run home from school, sobbing, because someone had pushed me down at recess and I’d scraped holes in my favorite jeans. Dad hummed while he worked. When he finished, he held a mirror up to me, and I gasped in delight.
Very Givenchy,
very on trend,
he said, tapping my nose lightly. I giggled.
Especially when we tie it up like this. See?
He gathered my hair up into a high tail.
Don’t get too used to it—it’ll wash out in a few days. Now, let’s go get some pizza.

Dad used to say that my old school’s uniform was a pimple on the face of New York. He used to say that I should dress like the world’s a better place than it actually is. He would buy flowers every time it rained and fill our home with them. He would forget to wipe his hands during his painting sessions and end up leaving colorful fingerprints all over the place. He poured his meager salary into presents for me and art supplies and charities and clothes and wine. He laughed too often and fell in love too quickly and drank too freely.

Then one afternoon, when I was eleven, he came home, sat down on the couch, and stared blankly into space. He’d just returned from a doctor’s appointment. Six months later, he was gone.

Death has a terrible habit of cutting straight through every careful line you’ve drawn between your present and your future. The line that leads to your dad filling your dorm room with flowers on your graduation day. To him designing your wedding dress. To him coming over for dinner at your future house every Sunday, where his off-key singing would make you laugh so hard you’d cry. I had a hundred thousand of these lines, and in one day they
were severed, leaving me with nothing but a stack of his medical bills and gambling debt. Death didn’t even give me somewhere to direct my anger. All I could do was search the sky.

After he died, I started copying his look—wild, unnaturally colorful hair (boxes of hair dye being the only thing I’m willing to waste money on) and a sleeve of tattoos (done for free out of pity from Dad’s former tattoo artist).

I turn my head slightly and glance at the tattoos winding along my left arm, then run a hand across the images. They start at my wrist and go up my shoulder, bright hues of blue and turquoise, gold and pink—peony flowers (my father’s favorite), Escher-style buildings rising out of ocean waves, music notes, and planets against a backdrop of outer space, a reminder of nights when Dad would drive us out to the countryside to see the stars. Finally, they end with a slender line of words that run along my left collarbone, a mantra Dad used to repeat to me, a mantra I recite to myself whenever things get too grim.

Every locked door has a key.

Every problem has a solution.

Every problem, that is, except the one that took him. Except the one I’m in now. And the thought is almost enough to make me curl up and close my eyes, to let myself sink back into a familiar dark place.

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