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Portrait of a Starter: An Unhidden Story

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Portrait of a Starter: An Unhidden Story

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2012 by Lissa Price

  Cover art copyright © 2012 by Michael Wagner

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.



  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-97851-6

  A Delacorte Press eBook Edition




  Title Page


  First Page

  About the Author

  I sit on the floor and reach for my charcoal pencil, trying not to wake Callie. She lies on top of my sleeping bag, eyes closed, slight smile on her lips. Must be dreaming of life before the war. Not much smiling since it ended.

  Her little brother, Tyler, is sleeping across the room, behind the upturned desks. I can hear his fitful snoring, a sure sign he’s congested again. Maybe that’s why Callie’s on my sleeping bag—to get in a quiet afternoon catnap.

  I balance my sketch pad on my crossed legs. My precious pad. Each page frayed and stained around the edges but still serving as a functional canvas.

  Callie’s head tilts slightly, facing me. I hesitate, holding the pencil frozen in the air. I flash back to when she was thirteen, when I first saw her in our old neighborhood. In three years she has gone from gawky to … very not gawky. I push aside my memory of the kid she was to do justice to the girl in front of me. I look past the dirt on her cheek and the stringy hair that badly needs a shampoo—whose doesn’t?—to get to the essence of her. Words aren’t enough to describe it. I’ll just do my best to capture her with line and shadow.

  I let the pencil connect with the paper. I draw the oval that will be her head. An egg shape, the beginning. I trace the shape over and over, my pencil like a car on a racetrack, making soft gray circles, trying to capture the curves of her face. Curves—what a joke. She’s as skinny as I am, as skinny as any Starter. You can’t go a year on the streets with no money and no relatives and end up plump.

  I hate being a Starter. Hate being sixteen. Hate being hungry. I wish we were allowed to work.

  My focus returns to the drawing. Her nose is delicate, but it’s also more than that. It strikes me as determined. I move on to consider her lips, trying to find a way to interpret them without making them too thick or too thin. A few millimeters make the difference between pouty and stern, and neither word fits Callie.

  At this point her face is still just an outline. I start to fill it in. First, her eyebrows. A light touch is best here. Then I draw two simple ovals as placeholders for her eyes. Next, her long hair, which falls back on the sleeping bag.… I make a sweep with the pencil. No, it’s wrong. I erase it.

  Why didn’t that work?

  I stop drawing and roll the pencil between my thumb and forefinger. It comes to me: I don’t want to show her lying on the floor, with her eyes closed. It’s too much like … I shake my head to get rid of scary thoughts.

  I blow into my right hand to warm it, and glance around this drafty office we call home. With concrete floors and bare walls, there’s no warmth here. I close my eyes for a second and wish a fireplace and a mug of hot chocolate would magically appear.

  They don’t. I return to the sketch.

  I draw her eyes open, from memory. It’s taking shape now. I imagine her shoulders bare and sketch them. Bare shoulder are more classical for a portrait, I tell myself. More timeless than her sad, torn sweatshirt. I’m about to go back to her hair when she stirs. I shove my pad behind my back. She opens her eyes halfway.

  “Michael,” she says, stretching. “What’re you doing?”

  “Just watching you sleep.” I make an effort to sound casual.

  “Why?” She sits up and gives me a charming, puzzled look.

  I stare at her eyes and applaud myself because I got the shape just right. The drawing remains behind my back, on the floor, and I hope she doesn’t notice it.

  “Because you’re so peaceful when you sleep,” I say. “Reminds me of better times.”

  “Sorry I took over your space.” She moves to get to her feet. “Tyler was so loud.”

  “Any time.” I rise and pick up my sketch pad before she can see her portrait. I flip the cover over with one hand behind my back.

  She cranes her neck. “You drawing?”

  “Just messing around.”

  “How’s Tyler doing?”

  I look over at their nook across the room even though I can’t see him. “He sounds a little congested.”

  She hurries over to check on him. I open a drawer on one of the overturned desks in my fort and slip my pad inside; then I face the collection of my drawings taped to the wall. Starters with layers of torn clothes clinging to their thin frames, water bottles strapped across their bodies, handlites on their wrists. Institutions, including the worst one, number 37, with its thick walls and barred gates. Enders with their white hair, most with surgically perfected faces, some with wrinkles, many with grotesque faces, yelling and threatening us with their canes. Starters fighting over an apple. Ender marshals ZipTasing a helpless Starter. Our sick world.

  Callie returns and pulls me away from my mental nightmare.

  “He’s quiet now.” She absentmindedly tugs on a lock of her hair. “Listen, could you watch him tomorrow?”

  “Where’re you going?” I ask.

  “I just have something to do. Something personal.”

  I nod. It’s especially tough for Callie because of Tyler. Things are bad enough without having a seven-year-old brother who’s constantly sick.

  “Girl thing?” I ask.

  She shrugs.

  Enough teasing. She’s obviously not going to tell me where she’s going. “Sure. I’ll watch him.”

  Later that night, when I slip out to fill the water bottles, I make a detour to the third floor. I find Florina, a friendlie, and ask her if she’ll sit with Tyler tomorrow.

  “Where’re you going?” She cocks her head and her dark bangs fall into her eyes.


  “With Callie?”

  “She has something else to do,” I say.

  Florina’s lips turn up in the slightest of smiles. “Okay, Michael. But you owe me.”

  I slap her raised hand. “Thanks, Florina. You’re the best.”

  “Now, how would you know that?” she asks in a flirty tone that makes me nervous.

  The next morning, Callie leaves our building. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and go to the second-story window down the hall from our space. I look down and see her pausing to scan the street for renegades. Good girl. She’s always careful.

  Then she rushes across.

  I run to the stairs and take them two at a time. I hurry through the empty lobby and go out the front door.

  I feel guilty. I did promise Callie I’d watch Tyler. But when we go out together, she’s willing to leave him with a friendlie. She just hasn’t met Florina yet.

  Callie’s a block away. I scan the streets in all directions and see no one. Not a lot of foot traffic in an abandoned industrial park. Of course, that doesn’t mean no one’s hiding. I shift my backpack to my other shoulder. It’s heavy with seve
ral makeshift weapons. I know Callie can fend for herself. She’s strong and smart. But two are always better than one.

  I keep my eye on her, staying light on my feet, ready to duck into an entranceway if she should turn around. She doesn’t.

  I follow her for an hour as she works her way north. We go through neighborhoods full of boarded-up houses. Whenever Callie reaches a red-tented house emitting its telltale chemical odor, she puts her sleeve over her mouth and crosses the street.

  Along the way we pass Enders with their signature silvery-white hair, their badge of honor for longevity. The pharmaceutical companies couldn’t manage to make enough vaccine to save the Middles like my parents, but they can make sure Enders live to at least two hundred.

  I focus on Callie, her hair reaching halfway down her back, water bottle bobbing on its strap slung over her shoulder.

  Some friendlies approaching from the other direction stop to talk to her. I hide behind the porch of a vacant house. When I peer out, I see them leave her and walk back the way they came. Strange. Callie doesn’t continue walking; she just stands there on the sidewalk, alone, as if she’s waiting.

  Then I see a guy coming toward her. He looks about my age, but he’s dressed older.

  Who is this guy? Does she know him? Expensive clothes—a sports jacket, nice pants. Leather shoes that would be useless if he had to run. Most of all, he’s clean. Rich kids exist, I know, but I’m not used to seeing them outside, alone, with no grandparents around. Once in a while they’ll race by in their fancy cars, speeding through our neighborhood. This is a pretty nice area, farther north, so maybe that explains the presence of this rich Starter.

  Callie and the guy stand on the sidewalk in front of a small house with rosebushes. An Ender watches them from his wicker chair on the porch. Callie nods and listens to the rich kid as if his words were gold.

  His face seems familiar. Maybe I drew him once? It happens a lot; I draw a stranger and later feel like I know him somehow. That’s it—I did draw this guy. He used to live in our building. On the first floor. That was several months ago.

  He looks a lot better now. Where’d he get those clothes? Either he made some hot score or some long-lost relative claimed him. That could be why he left our building. Sure wish that would happen to me. Some distant great-aunt I’ve never heard of, with a big warm house and a kitchen stocked with chips and candy and jars of peanut butter and jelly. A freezer stuffed with endless pizza.

  The guy looks around. I pull back behind the porch. I don’t care about him seeing me, only Callie. I don’t think she did.

  I peek out and see they’re walking away. Together.

  I cross the street and get a better look at his face. I blank on his name, but I remember he had a long scar under one eye. I can’t see it now. I’m not very close, but from this distance I should be able to see it. Maybe the rich great-aunt paid for his laser surgery. Maybe she thought she could erase his street past.

  I watch him and Callie from the back. He puts his arm around her shoulder and I feel my face get hot.

  She doesn’t shrug it off. She just keeps walking, like it’s nothing. Or she knows this guy?

  Don’t they realize how weird this looks, a well-dressed rich kid and a street Starter together?

  Marshals go by in a patrol car and stare at me, then at Callie and the guy, before cruising by.

  Where is she headed? Is this some kind of date? Is that why she wouldn’t tell me where she was going?

  She’s allowed to go out. It’s not like we’re dating. How do you take someone out when you have no money, no car, no home? Maybe if I had those things I’d take Callie out. I guess that was what it was like before the war. I was just thirteen then, what did I know?

  Callie and the guy stop in front of a coffee place. He goes in.

  She almost sees me. What would I say if that happened? That she forgot something, so I brought it to her? Except I don’t have anything of hers on me. Maybe I could tell her she needs to get back to Tyler, that’s he’s upset she’s gone. Except he’s not, and she’d find that out once she got back. Guess I just need to be sure she doesn’t see me.

  The guy comes out holding two cups of iced coffee topped with mountains of whipped cream. My mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. They pull out heavy patio chairs, scraping the concrete. I quickly duck into a doorway.

  My doorway leads to a small dry cleaner’s sandwiched between two boarded-up shops. Even here, in Beverly Hills, it’s tough for business. But somebody has to clean the clothes of all the working Enders.

  One of those Enders, a woman wearing a red suit, walks up to me, holding an armful of clothes to be dropped off. She spots me and freezes. She’s scared. Of me. I smile and flatten myself against the wall, put my arm out, showing it’s all right to pass.

  She trembles slightly as she squeezes past me and goes inside. Her heavy perfume hangs in the air like funeral flowers.

  I take a peek at Callie. She’s smiling, hanging on every single word that comes out of this guy’s mouth. She takes a sip of the coffee and he reaches out and wipes some whipped cream off her lip.

  My stomach tightens. I take a deep breath and pull out my water bottle. I’m thirsty, but my water’s so warm, it doesn’t even feel like I’m drinking anything. Not something sweet and icy like their fancy beverages.

  Something hard pokes me in the arm. I turn toward the door and almost jump at what I see. It’s the owner, one of those stubborn Enders who won’t fix his face, so he looks like a creepy wrinkled Halloween mask. He’s gripping a broom.

  “Move along,” the dry cleaner says. “Bad for business.”

  The red-suited Ender customer cowers behind him, clutching her newly cleaned clothes so tightly they’re getting crumpled.

  “I’m not doing anything wrong,” I say.

  “Get outta here.” He prods me with the broom like I’m a rabid animal. “Or I call the marshals.”

  I peer around the corner and see that Callie’s gone. I run out into the street, trying to spot her.

  “That’s right, go!” the Ender shouts at me. “And don’t come back!”

  A car honks and almost hits me before I lurch out of its way. I cross the street. Callie and the guy are at the end of the next block, walking away.

  I rush but don’t dare run. Enders will call the marshals if they see any Starter running. Especially here in Beverly Hills, where the Enders are super-wealthy. Beverly Hills wasn’t immune to the Spore Wars that wiped out a generation, but it’s still the place to go for the latest electronics and designer wear.

  I keep my eye on Callie and the guy. They turn up one of the smaller streets that lead into the heart of Beverly Hills. I remember this street. My mom took me here I was twelve, when my aunt came to visit. It seemed like every store window was filled with diamonds and gold.

  But Callie and the guy aren’t stopping to look in the windows. They’re walking faster now.

  Where is she going?

  I stay a half block away from them and watch as they stop in front of a building with mirrored windows. Judging by the way he gestures to Callie, the guy seems to be explaining something about the place. A girl comes out of the building.

  A hot girl.

  She has long straight black hair, looks about my age. Callie and the guy barely give her a glance as she passes them and crosses the street. She heads in my direction. When she gets closer, I recognize her. She used to live on our block, in a nearby office building, until a couple of months ago. I drew her too.

  “Chynna?” I call out.

  “Yes?” she says before seeing me.

  I approach. She slips down her sunglasses an inch.

  “Hey, Chynna,” I say with a wave. “It’s Michael.”

  “Uh, no. Sorry.” She pushes her glasses back on.

  “I’m from the building on your block. You probably don’t recognize me without my nose in my sketch pad.”

  “I’m sorry.” She stares back with no expression
. “But you’ve mistaken me for somebody else.”

  It’s her face, her voice. But she’s dressed differently, wearing a fancy suit with a short skirt and heels and carrying a big purse covered in logos. And her skin, which used to be broken out, now looks perfect. She turns and walks briskly down a side alley. I follow.

  “Chynna, wait.”

  She keeps going.

  “I want to ask you about that place.” I reach out and touch her arm.

  She yanks her arm away. “Take your filthy hands off me.”

  An Ender shopkeeper taking out the trash butts in. “He bothering you?”

  “Yes,” she says. “Keep this Starter away from me.”

  She spits out “Starter” like it’s poison. So weird for her to call me that—she’s one too.

  “Chynna, what’s the matter with you?” I ask.

  The shopkeeper comes over and grabs me. I reach for Chynna, just trying to get my balance. She swings her huge purse at my face, grazing my jaw.

  The shopkeeper yanks me hard and I fall to the ground on my back. He comes down with me and struggles like it’s some wrestling match.

  “Let me go!” I shout.

  My backpack tumbles to the ground and my sketch pad falls out. It slides into a puddle

  “No …” Not my pad.

  I look up and see Chynna—or whoever she is—running to the end of the alley. She climbs into the back of a fancy white car. She stares at me through a smoky window like I’m dirt. Like she wasn’t where I am a couple of months ago. Her driver takes off.

  The shopkeeper finally lets go of me, now that she’s gone.

  I rescue my pad and wipe the sludgy water off it with my hoodie’s sleeve. I get up, feeling some pain, and walk out of the alley. I turn to the building where Callie was.

  She’s gone. And so is that guy.

  Where did they go? Inside that building?

  I start to head for the door to find them, but a siren wails a few blocks over. The shopkeeper gives me a half smirk.

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