“Nina, look.” Sandy jabbed me in the ribs.
I glanced up at the AV screen expecting to see the latest vert of back-to-school fashion for sixteens.
“No, there.” Sandy jerked my arm, bringing my attention to the doorway.
Four guys approached us, lurching and swaying through the moving express. They sat across the aisle, immediately crowding together in a knot. A low buzz of unintelligible words, accompanied by the occasional rowdy snort, rose from their cluster.
“They’re eighteen,” she whispered. “I bet it’s that one in the middle’s birthday. He’s cute!” She wriggled in her seat.
By the way he kept admiring the tattoo on his wrist and fingering the Band-Aid behind his ear, where his GPS had been, I knew she was right. I involuntarily touched my own tracker. The tiny grain-sized pellet embedded beneath the skin barely registered on my fingertips. What would it be like to be able to go someplace where you were untraceable?
Before my thoughts went any further down that path, Sandy said, “They’re going into the city to celebrate. I wish—”
“No, you don’t.” My stomach turned at the thought of eighteenth celebrations. We’d heard all about them, particularly the Angel affair. I quickly blocked the images from my mind.
Sandy “humphed” back into the seat, crossing her arms over her chest. “Those stories can’t be true. Guys wouldn’t do stuff like that. I mean, look at them . . .” She leaned toward me conspiratorially, but I saw her peeking at the boys from under her bangs. “Someone that cute could never do those kinds of things. Listen . . .” She fished around in her bag and handed me a rapido. “You’re the one who took all those art lessons. Draw the tattoo. Okay?” She stuck her wrist in front of me.
“Sandy!” I pushed her hand away. “We could get arrested!”
One of the guys, not the birthday boy, must’ve heard us and looked over. He ogled Sandy the way I’d seen her stepdad do when he thought no one was watching. I grabbed her wrist and thrust it toward him, showing the absence of the obligatory XVI tattoo. He shrugged and turned back to his friends.
“Hey!” She pulled her arm away from me. “He was going to talk to me.”
“It’s not talk he wants, Sandy. Those stories aren’t all made up. Ginnie said that ever since they started the tattooing twenty years ago, girls aren’t safe. She thinks that—”
“She’s your mom. What do you expect?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged, letting it drop. Sandy was so caught up in all things sixteen that there was no reasoning with her. Her mother and mine were galaxies apart in just about every way possible. Mrs. Eskew not only allowed, but encouraged Sandy’s sex-teen ways. She was even prepping her for FeLS. My mother, Ginnie, on the other hand, was doing everything she could to keep me from applying for the program, even though it was about the only way out of our tier-two status. When I tried talking about it with her, she’d say not to worry. I wouldn’t be a low-tier forever. But she never told me how I’d move up. It wasn’t like I wanted to join FeLS, but outside of marrying some upper-tier guy, I didn’t have many options.
Sandy snatched a retractable zine chip from the rack on the back of the seat in front of her. She let go and it snapped back in place. She grabbed another, doing the same thing. I sighed. If she’d reached for a third, I would’ve stopped her. Sometimes I felt more like Sandy’s mother than her best friend.
Her mood suddenly changed, thank goodness. “Scoot over,” she said. “We’re almost to that big farm and I want to see the cows. Can you believe people used to eat meat? Makes me want to puke just thinking about it.”
Sandy’s almost as crazy about cows as she is about boys. Truthfully, we’re both animal lovers. That’s one of the reasons we got to be such good friends. When Ginnie moved me and Dee out of the city and into Cementville, I didn’t think I’d ever find a friend. But the first day of school, I met Sandy. We were both wearing the same shirt, with a horse on the front; and after school she got off the transit at the same stop as me. It turned out that we lived right next door to each other. We’ve been best friends ever since. Even if she does get on my last nerve sometimes.
The dull monotony of suburbia and Cementville finally gave way to an oasis of rolling hills and clumps of trees. As the express approached Mill Run Farm, Sandy and I both pressed our noses to the window like little kids. A herd of black-and-white cows was grazing in the distance. Two horses appeared, racing along the white board fence.
“They’re so beautiful,” I whispered.
Sandy gave my hand a squeeze. “Nina, I know you don’t want me to do anything stupid,” she said softly. The farm faded into the distance, and we settled back in our seats. “Hey, did you get all your homework done?”
“Yep,” I said. “Regional Government and Twentieth-Century Literature. Love the Lit. Hate the Gov.”
We both laughed.
“I’m dying in Lit,” Sandy said. “You have to help me out. Promise?”
“Of course.” She always depended on me to explain books to her, and I didn’t mind. It wasn’t like she couldn’t or didn’t read, she just didn’t get the deeper meanings. I don’t always either, but Ginnie talks with me a lot about what I read and helps me work through it. .
“So. Are you going to take the FeLS prep?”
“Sandy, you promised.” I half glared at her.
“Sorry, I forgot Ginnie won’t let you.” She tickled me. “Come on, don’t be mad.”
I couldn’t help laughing, and I didn’t want to stay angry with her—so I didn’t.
“Are we going to your gran’s first, before we meet up with Mike?” she asked.
“You know your grandfather freaks me out.” She dug into her pocket, retrieving a small bag. “Want one?”
I stuck the frosted lemon drop into my mouth, rolling it around on my tongue until the rough sugar smoothed into puckery sourness. I sucked on the candy. “Yeah, Pops is a little strange. But I’d think you’d be used to him by now.”
Sandy put several drops in her mouth and the bag back in her pocket. “No way,” she mumbled, arranging the pieces with her tongue so she could talk. “I don’t get a lot of what he says, and it creeps me out when he takes his leg off.”
“I’ll try to keep him under control,” I promised, chuckling to myself. As if anyone could control Pops. “Maybe we should go to the zoo. It’s probably the only way we’ll get Mike away from all the new verts downtown.”
“We are going to Gran’s before we meet up with him, right?”
I laughed. We both knew that if Mike came with us, he’d talk Pops into taking his leg off. Mike was fascinated by the prosthesis. “Sandy, it’s just an old GI leg.”
“For the billionth time, microbrain . . .” I tapped her head. “Government issue. Remember back in the 2000s the soldiers were called GIs because everything they had was issued to them by the government? That’s where Pops got his leg after the accident, from the government. He says that’s why it doesn’t work right. It’s cheap. Like something from Megaworld or Sale-o-rama.”
“Hey, come on! These jeans are from Sale.”
“I meant that when rich people get body parts, they get the good stuff, bionic, acts like the real thing.” We both shopped the discount stores, like everyone else who was lower tier. “And,” I added, “I love those jeans.”
Sandy smiled and ran her hands around her waist. “Thanks,” she said. “They fit good, don’t they?”
Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, “She’s built like an MK lunar pod.” Which I’m sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.
The men I knew were either crazy, like Pops; half creepy and weird, like Sandy’s stepdad; or mean cheaters, like Ed. He’s Ginnie’s married boyfriend, who also happens to be my little sister Dee’s dad. I had no idea what it was like to have a father, real or otherwise, since mine died the day I was born. All I had was an old photo chip and the stories Gran used to tell me about him. Sandy pulled a mirror out of her purse and fluffed her hair, pouting at her reflection.
“Do I need more lipstick? Mascara?”
“Come on, Sandy, we’re just meeting Mike and Derek—you know, friends.” That’s how I preferred guys, as friends. Any other way freaked me out. Sometimes I wondered if I was some kind of freak myself. Most every girl my age was getting primed for turning sex-teen. I had my reasons for never wanting to have sex. I just didn’t have anyone to talk about them with. Especially not Ginnie.
Sandy sighed and put her mirror back. “You never know who might be looking at you.” She gazed longingly across the aisle.
The guy who’d noticed her earlier glanced at me, quickly taking in all the important details. He cocked one eyebrow and licked his lips. I held my breath, scared he was going to speak, but the other guys drew his attention back into their huddle. I exhaled. At least for a few more months I was fifteen—and safe.