Here’s Ansel’s second chapter for y’all to enjoy. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel on Amazon here.
She should never have agreed to take the first watch. It was her idea, after all, so she really had no choice—but still. Her parents were probably worrying about her, wondering where she was. No, they probably knew she was enjoying the grass and trees—where else would she be?—but still they always worried, even if they knew she could take care of herself.
Pidgeon had left right away, because he had to go see his parents or something. She wasn’t listening. He didn’t think the cat would come back until lunch, anyway. Without him there to tease, the time went by almost as slowly as it did when she was sitting in class, listening to stupid Mrs. Liar go on and on about this family usurping that and then another merging into those and yadda yadda yadda.
She caught herself staring off into the foliage and shook her head to get rid of the boring daydream. She reminded herself that this wasn’t a school lesson or a game, this was real life, a hunt. She set her gaze on where she thought she remembered seeing the cat disappear at lunch and pictured it climbing through the leaves to her, willing it into existence.
Him. Willing him into existence. She wondered if Pidgeon really believed that this could be the Curious Cat, or if he was pulling a prank on her to get her to sit up in a tree for hours. She almost climbed down at the thought of it, but before she did, she remembered that she had definitely seen a cat at lunch, and whether it was the Curious Cat or not, she would be trying to catch it. The joke was on him. She was doing exactly what she would be doing whether he told her it was the Curious Cat or not.
She moved up the tree a little and sat in a knot between two branches, resting her back on the trunk of the tree. There. A perfect cat blind. And now she was comfortable, too. Another strike against Pidgeon’s stupid ploy.
But then, what if it wasn’t a ploy? What if he really did believe that it was the Curious Cat? What if it really was the Curious Cat? What would she do when she got to Prosperity? She laughed at the thought of it.
Sure there were stories of people who had seen the cat—and the stories all said it knew the way to Prosperity—but none of them ever really explained what Prosperity was. Most of them ended with something bad happening to the people who were chasing the cat before they could ever find it. But her mom had told her one once where the little girl actually caught the cat, and it did show her the way to Prosperity, but when the little girl got there and saw what Prosperity really was, she turned around, went back home, and never chased that cat again.
Ansel laughed a little too loud for someone who was supposed to be on a hunt, but that was the most ridiculous Curious Cat story of them all. To turn down Prosperity for this? That girl in the story didn’t even live in the Green Belt, she lived in the Streets. Someone who had never experienced what the Streets were like must have written that one. No one else would make up a story so stupid that someone turns down a chance to get out of them.
She heard a rustling in the tree below her and jumped up to see Pidgeon’s big head climbing toward her. “Bombs away,” she said, dropping a nut from a branch near her down onto him.
“Ow! Jerk,” he said, climbing up to her and sitting on a slightly lower branch, rubbing his head. Just another sign of his weakness.
“Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “You can’t tell me that you haven’t lived on the Belt for long. You wouldn’t last a day in the Streets.”
“I never said I didn’t live on the Belt for long. And thanks.”
“Hey,” Ansel said, shrugging. “I just call it like I see it. And you did say you haven’t lived here long.”
“Yeah, here. But the Belt’s pretty long, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah yeah,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “I get it.” She was kind of proud of him for finally sticking up for himself. It was about time.
They sat in silence for too long to count, staring at the leaves, waiting for the cat to come back, before Ansel said, “You ever been out in the Streets Pidgeon?”
“It’s Richard,” Pidgeon said. “And yeah, you know, I’ve been a few—a few blocks in there. I haven’t spent all my life on the Belt.”
“A few blocks?” Ansel scoffed. “Pft! That’s still one day’s travel to the Belt. That isn’t the Streets, Pidgeon. That’s the Garden of Eden.”
“Yeah,” Pidgeon said, getting heated. “So what? I guess you’re some big sho—” He turned his head and raised his eyebrows. “Did you hear that?”
“What? The cat?” Ansel stood up and looked down the tree for it.
“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “It sounded like gunshots. Pow. Pow pow. Pow.”
Ansel laughed. “C’mon Pidgeon,” she said. “That was a hammer. If that was a gun, it couldn’t scratch a baby it was so small. You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Where I come from it’s completely streets. That’s where the name the Streets comes from. Don’t they teach you that in the Kinder Garden? We can’t walk a couple of blocks to get to green grass, blue skies, and cat-infested trees, you know. Shit. We can’t walk thirty blocks, three hundred blocks, I don’t know how many blocks. I had never seen this much grass since yesterday, and you’re sitting here crying about a few gunshots off in the distance. That’s a lullaby to me, Pidgeon. I’m about to lean back here in this beautiful green tree and take a nap to the sound of it. Watch me.” She leaned back and put her hands behind her head to prove her point.
“Well,” Pidgeon said. “I’m sorry I didn’t live on the Streets like you did, but what can I do abou—” He turned his head again. “That was another one.”
Ansel shook her head, chuckling. “Alright,” she said. “Alright, Pidgeon. I’ll stay out here a little longer to protect you. My parents’ll just have to wait to hear how sucky my first day of school was. They’re probably still at work, anyway.”
“Yeah, well.” Pidgeon grabbed a leaf from the tree and tore it to bits. “I don’t need your protection. No one will find me up here anyway.”
“Yeah,” Ansel said, giving him a thumbs up. “Right. Because they’re prolly looking for you. Aren’t they?” She tried to hold a straight face but couldn’t help chuckling.
“You’re a jerk,” Pidgeon said, ripping another leaf off the tree and tearing it to pieces.
“So you spent all your life on the Belt, huh, Pidgeon.” Ansel smiled, crossing her legs. “That’s gotta be nice.”
“You’d think. But it’s not as great as they make it out to be.”
“Oh, no? Cat trees—trees period—grass and sky. I don’t see where the problems are.”
“Give it some time. You’ll see.”
“Pfffft.” Ansel chuckled. “So far all I see is blue skies and green leaves.”
“Yeah? Well look down there. Look at the street right now. What do you see?”
“I don’t know,” Ansel said, cocking her head to look but unable to see through the leaves. “Looks pretty empty to me.”
“That’s because it is. Everyone’s gone into hiding. Do you know why?”
“That’s ridiculous.” Ansel chuckled. “What would they have to hide from?”
“Look closer,” Pidgeon said. “There’s a few of them down there, I’m sure. And there’ll be more soon. It’s probably best for you to stay in the tree with me for a while anyway. You don’t want to run into one of them. They’d take you down and lock you up for crossing in front of them.”
Ansel tried harder to see through the leaves. She climbed out onto the thickest branch she could find and went almost to the end of it before she thought it would break underneath her weight. The wind whipped across her face and it felt like she was flying. She had never been this high out in the open before. Being out on a limb like this felt so much more freeing than being on the roof of a skyscraper. She looked up at the sky and thought it was strange that the clouds ended in such a straight line like that. It was almost as if they were being blown behind a huge, straight-edged invisibility screen in the sky.
“Do you see them?” Pidgeon asked from behind her.
She looked down again. There weren’t too many people, but she could see more coming from up the street. They were all dressed in white, wearing helmets, carrying guns, and marching in pairs behind their leaders. A couple of them pulled someone out of a building and dragged them along the Green Belt. They seemed like giants compared to the person they were lugging behind them, even from so high in the air.
“Who are they?” Ansel asked, sitting back in the tree when they had dragged the person out of sight.
“Protectors.” Pidgeon chuckled. “That’s what they call themselves. Can you believe that? Protectors.” He shook his head.
“Something the Street kid has never heard of before?” Pidgeon said with a smug grin. “They don’t get too far from the Belt, I guess. Who needs protecting now?”
Ansel blushed. “Pshh. I can handle myself,” she said. “I was just looking for information.” She made like she was going to climb down the tree.
“No,” Pidgeon said. “No, wait.” He grabbed her arm to stop her.
She protested a little, but relented and sat back in her nook. “So, who are these protectors?”
“Assholes,” Pidgeon said, managing to spit it out without looking disgusted. He must have really had something against them. “That’s who. Pigs. They’re not here to protect any of us. That’s why they never go out into the Streets. No, they’re here to protect other people from us. They just come and round up all the printers every now and then, and they usually kill a few people in the process.”
“No,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “I would have heard of them before.”
“If you’ve got a 3D printer, that’s a ticket to the Belt. They know where to find them, and that’s all they care about. If you’ve never had printer access, you’ve never had a reason to learn about them.”
“That’s shit. That’s how I got here, you know. My parents got some printers and then we moved here. And what? These protectors are here to flash their guns and take them all away?”
“That’s pretty much how it works,” Pidgeon said, shrugging.
“No.” Ansel shook her head. “Someone would stop them.”
“Ha!” Pidgeon laughed. “Stop them? How? You’ve only seen them from far away. They’re giants. And they wear armor. No weapon you can get from a printer can get through that armor. Then there’s the guns they have. The weapons that wait behind those. You don’t want to know what they’re capable of, Ansel.”
“H—How do you even know this?”
Pidgeon shook his head. “It’s just something you learn living on the Belt, something you experience. You wouldn’t know, Street kid.”
“But—I…I do. I—”
“No. Ansel, look. It doesn’t matter. They’re gone now. You can go back home to your parents. I’ll finish with this shift and see you in the morning, okay.”
Ansel shook her head. “Fine,” she said, waving her hands. “Whatever. But you better stay here for your entire shift.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just watch out for the protectors on your way home.”
Ansel nodded and made her way down the tree.
She wondered what had happened to Pidgeon to make him hate the protectors so much. She wondered what they could have done. They didn’t look as scary as he was making them out to be, but then why was he so frightened by the gunshots? As far as Ansel knew that was the sound of someone getting what they deserved. At least that’s how it was in the Streets.
She heard the sound of shuffling feet down the alley she was passing and jumped. She sighed a breath of relief when she saw it was just a grubby kid, younger than her, digging through the trash. He was probably an orphan looking for something to eat.
“Hey, you!” Ansel called.
The kid turned and stared at her with wide eyes like an animal. He froze in place, but Ansel could see the tension in his muscles. They were ready to spring into action at any moment.
“Get out of here, kid!” she yelled at him. “This is the Belt, you belong in the Streets!” She stomped a few steps toward him like she was going to chase him, and he scampered away. Ansel laughed to herself and turned toward home.
What a poor sap, dirty and starving and digging through dumpsters. He probably didn’t even know how to hunt or trap. That’s the only reason to dumpster dive. If this was the Streets, there wouldn’t even be anything worth eating to dig for. At least she knew she would never be as helpless as that.
The hall and the stairway up to her apartment seemed emptier than they should be. Maybe they were always that way at this time of day, but she hadn’t lived there long enough to know. Still, she felt like something was strange about the echoing of her footsteps up the stairs. She shrugged off the feeling and shoved the door to the apartment open, calling, “I’m hoooome! Hellooo?”
She walked into the kitchen, then her parents room, then out to the balcony. They must have still been at work. She shrugged and went back to her room to change out of that stupid dress and into something more comfortable. She looked at the dress—noting the tree bark tears and dirt on the back—before she crumpled it up and threw it in the corner. At least they couldn’t make her wear it because it was new anymore.
After she had put on her jeans and t-shirt—and shoved her slingshot in her back pocket—she went back into the kitchen and looked in the fridge to find it empty as usual. There was a little bit of jelly and an onion, but that was it. There was some bread, too. She could make a disgusting jelly sandwich. Or she could wait until her parents got home, and they would probably bring something worth eating from their lunch at work. Especially with their first day at their new jobs. They had to get something good. That or she could go outside and get some food for herself, just like she told the Street kid to do. She went out to the balcony to look over the Belt and see if there was anything worth climbing down to catch.
The sun was almost down over the horizon, eaten between the skyline on opposite sides of the Belt. The sky was turning from blue, to red, to purple, then finally black. Ansel wondered if Pidgeon was still sitting up in the tree, if he would sit out the shift or give up. He was probably there now—he didn’t look like he was going anywhere anytime soon when she had left him—but he might not stay the whole time. She would never know, though, unless she went out to spy on him, because neither of them could cover the whole night.
Where were her parents anyway? They usually didn’t take this long. But this was a new job. There was no telling how long they would be out. They might even stay out for the entire night. They had done it before. More food, better house, perfect location, they more than likely had to do more work to get all that. But then she would be left with a jelly sandwich for dinner. Or they could be stuck working for a few days and not come home the entire time. Then she would have to ration her food, she would have to save the bread and jelly for when she couldn’t go out to get something fresh. If that was the case, going out to hunt would be the best option. She was about to set out and catch dinner when she heard the front door open.
“Mom? Dad?” she called. “I’m out here!”
She almost jumped off the balcony when a white-haired woman came outside instead of her parents.
“Wh—who are you?” Ansel said, cowering in the corner of the balcony railing.
“Settle down, dear,” the old woman said. “Imma friend. Ya name’s Ansel, right?”
“Who’s askin?” The woman frowned. “Me, dear. Who else? I live downstairs.”
Ansel shook her head. The old woman looked familiar but not familiar enough.
“It doesn’t matter, child. Ya gotta git outta here tonight. Ya’re in danger.”
“Get out of my house! Who are you? My parents’ll be home soon!”
“Oh, child.” The woman shook her head. “Afraid they won’t. S’why I’m here ya see. Well…ya parents—they—they won’t be coming home.”
“What did you do to them?” Ansel demanded.
“No no no,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Not me, child. Not me at all. I’m here to protect ya. It’s them protectors that did this. Not me.”
“Did what?” Ansel said, stomping her foot.
“Child.” The woman shook her head. Her eyes grew teary. “They’re—They’ve gone. D—Dead. Maybe worse. But they ain’t comin back. Now, I’m sorry.”
“No!” Ansel rushed at her and tried to hit the woman with her little sad fists, but she wrapped Ansel up in a tight warm hug and whispered, “I know, child. I know. But we don’t have no time. The protectors prolly won’t come lookin for the likes of ya—bein so young—but still, there’re the landlords to worry about. This apartment was for ya parents.”
Ansel pushed herself away from the woman’s embrace. She wiped her eyes and sniffled. “What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?”
“I don’t know, dear. Can’t answer that. I’ll tell ya this, though—and it’s the last time, cause if they find me here I’m in the same boilin pot as ya’re—but ya’ll be better off leavin now. Ya can come with me to get a start, but ya’ll leave tonight. I ain’t takin no boarders.”
If the woman was offering a longer stay, Ansel would have trusted her less, but the fact that she was so anxious to leave the apartment and wanted to get rid of Ansel as soon as possible made her more believable. “Fine,” Ansel said. “One second.” She ran to her room to grab the drawing of her and Katie, and even that stupid dress her parents had gotten her, and pack them both in her rucksack. She went back into the kitchen to pack the jelly, onion, and bread in, too, then said, “Okay. I’m ready.”
“Good.” The woman took her free hand. “Ya just might make it, yet, child. Now c’mon.”
They left the apartment and climbed down a couple of flights of stairs, but not all the way to the ground floor. They went down the hall and into an apartment on the Street side of the building. It had a kitchen and a bathroom but no balcony, and the bed was in the kitchen. It looked like her house in the Streets, only without Ansel’s bedroom. The woman dragged her in, locked the door, and set to rummaging through the drawers and cabinets without another word. Ansel walked to the remotest corner of the room and dropped her bag.
“No need to unpack,” the woman said as she worked. “Ya’ll be outta here soon anyway. Ya’re already burden enough as it is.”
“I didn’t ask for no help!” Ansel protested.
“And I bet ya won’t deny none either.”
“I’ll leave right now if you want.” Ansel made to grab her bag.
“No ya won’t. Ya’ll be happy to have some food in ya stomach. This might be the last meal ya get for a while now.”
Ansel knew she was right. She set her bag back down and paced the small room.
“Ya know how to cook?” the woman asked.
“Not in the kitchen, but I can follow directions.”
“Chop that onion,” the woman told her. “Ya say ya can’t in the kitchen, but otherwise?”
“I can cook what I catch if I have a lighter and a garbage can,” Ansel said, trying not to cry—from the fumes she convinced herself, she still didn’t believe the old woman was right about her parents. “Depending on the trash I might not need the lighter.”
“Ya can hunt, too, then.”
“I caught dinner most nights in the Streets. I’d say I know what I’m doing.”
“That sorta knowledge’ll do ya good, dear. Now toss the onion in. Ya’ll appreciate that in a few days.”
Ansel tossed the chopped up bits in. The smell and sound of them sizzling reminded her of her parents, her parents who this woman said were dead. They weren’t, though. This senile, old lady had no idea what she was talking about. The tears welled up again even though Ansel was done chopping. “What’s your name?” Ansel asked to distract herself as the woman portioned out two bowls of beans and rice, handing one to her.
“Don’t matter. What matters is that ya eat this up and get ready for the road aheada ya, girl.”
“I’m not a girl,” Ansel said through a full mouth. “This is good, though,” she added, trying not to sound too ungrateful.
“Thank ya, dear. But ya don’t have to lie. It’s just beans and rice and onion. It don’t taste like much, but it fills the stomach. That’s what matters for ya right now, anyway.”
Ansel went on eating in answer. They didn’t talk while they ate, which was typical of every meal Ansel had ever eaten. As soon as she finished her bowl and licked it clean, she set it in the sink.
“Ya’ll be kind to wash that, ma’am,” the woman said.
“Oh, I—” Ansel went to wash the bowl and spoon with an old soggy sponge that was resting on the edge of the sink. She almost gagged touching it.
“Very good,” the woman said. “Now, I have some advice for ya. First, get outta the Concierge’s territory as soon as ya can, child. It goes further west than east but ya’d be best goin south where they care the least. Ya know which way south is, don’t ya?”
Ansel nodded. She had come from the south. That was her home. Of course she knew which way was south.
“Good,” the woman said. “If ya think ya can hunt for food down there, then that’s yar best bet. And I suggest ya go quick, too. The Concierges’ll be lookin for ya, and the protectors’ll be out again soon.”
Ansel nodded. She was surprised to see that this woman was as afraid of the protectors as Pidgeon was. She didn’t understand it, but she knew that now wasn’t the time for questions.
“Good. Very good, dear,” the woman said. “Then I’m afraid that’s all I can do for ya. The Concierges’ll search every apartment. Ya’re property now, so ya best get going before they think I stole ya.”
Ansel nodded again. “Thank you.” She grabbed her rucksack and made to leave, but the woman grasped her in a hug before she could.
“Good luck, child,” she said, sniffling. “I did what I could. Ya gotta do the rest now.”
Ansel squeezed her tight one last time then slipped out the door and down the stairs as quietly as she could.
It was dark outside. There was no sun, and the moon was hidden by the skyscrapers. The only light to guide her was that little which came from the windows and doors of the buildings around her. She knew the woman had told her to go south, but she also knew better than that. The Concierges might look further west than south, but that’s because the better territory was in the west. She had to stay close to the Belt. Now that she had experienced it, there was no way she was getting any further away from that source of food. She didn’t want to be like that Street kid without a hope in the world.
She stopped in her tracks when she realized that she was exactly like that Street kid. She couldn’t believe it. She wanted to run back to her house and find her parents there to realize it was all a joke, or a bad dream, or something. Then she heard the sound of movement and saw a flash of white out of the corner of her eye. She scurried out into the Belt to hide behind a tree.
Catching her breath, she peeked around the edge of the trunk. Two of the tallest, whitest, biggest people she had ever seen carried huge guns down the street, wearing plated vests and helmets with facemasks that were shaped to look like laughing—or screaming, she couldn’t tell in the light—faces with dark tinted eyes. No wonder everyone was so afraid of them.
When they had disappeared from view and Ansel’s muscles relaxed, she heard a whisper from above her. She looked up to find Pidgeon in the tree, beckoning her to climb up. She didn’t even realize this was that tree. She climbed up, and he climbed higher, too, until they were both at the cat blind. He had kept his post after all.
“What are you doing here?” Pidgeon whispered. “I thought you couldn’t come out this late. You shouldn’t have. Those protectors are dangerous.”
“Uh. Yeah.” Ansel shook her head. “Plans changed.”
“Well, I haven’t seen Mr. Kitty all night.”
“Yeah.” Ansel shrugged. “It probably won’t be back until lunch tomorrow, huh?”
Pidgeon stared at her, and she turned to look away down the tree. “Is there something wrong with you?” he said. “You don’t sound as interested in finding him as you did when you set up this system.”
Ansel shook her head. “Yeah. I’m fine,” she said absently.
“Ansel. He’s not coming tonight. Why don’t you go home and get some rest. The protectors are gone now.”
“No—I mean, Pidg—Richard. What did the protectors do to you?”
“What?” Pidgeon looked away from her now.
“The protectors. Why do you hate them so much?”
“Everyone hates them. It’s not just me.”
“So is that why you hate them, then?” Ansel scoffed. “Because everyone else does?”
“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “I have my reasons.”
“Well what are they?”
“I don’t—That’s personal. I barely even know you, okay. I don’t have to talk about this. Just leave it.”
“Alright. Sorry. God. It was just a question. You don’t have to be a baby about it.”
“Yeah? A baby? Funny you use that word. You have no idea what those people are capable of, Ansel. No clue. And you’re gonna sit here and call me a baby. My brother was a baby, you know. He was crying for his mom—his mom who they took from him—and you know what they did to him? No. You have no clue. Just like I thought, Street kid.” He spit down the tree and grabbed another handful of leaves to tear to pieces.
Ansel felt her eyes moisten. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in a shaky voice.
“What was that?” Pidgeon snapped.
“I said I’m sorry! Alright. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I just—”
“You just had to keep pushing, even though I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“You thought you knew better than me. You thought that, because you were from the Streets, you knew how the world worked better than a fluffy flower from the Belt. Well, I’ve seen things, too, Ansel. I’ve lived through things. I watched them kill my brother, then I was forced into the Concierge orphanage system. So don’t talk to me about what you’ve been through. Okay!”
“Pidgeon!” Ansel said. “I think they killed my parents.”
He looked at her then climbed out on a limb to see if anyone had heard their argument. He sat back in the tree and tried to scoot a little closer to her. “I’m—uh—I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, well, let’s call it even.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“And I don’t know either. Okay. They could still be alive. That woman could have been lying to me. I never—I never saw their bodies or anything.”
“What woman? What did she look like?”
“I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. “She looked like an old lady. What does it matter?”
“Well she was right.”
“You don’t know that,” Ansel said, hitting him on his arm. “My parents wouldn’t go down that easily.”
“Ow!” Pidgeon rubbed where she had hit him. “I didn’t mean that. I meant that if they were dead, you would be better off not staying in the apartment. The Concierges will want it for someone else. And if they find you there, they’ll want to use you for something else, too. Trust me, Ansel. You don’t want that.”
“Is that what happened to you?” Ansel said. “When they…”
Pidgeon nodded. “When they killed my mom and brother and brought me to their orphanage. I know you don’t want that, Ansel. The things they make me—The things they would make you do. I can’t even—I…” He shook his head, staring down the tree at nothing.
“Don’t worry, Richard,” Ansel said, putting her hand on his back. “I won’t let them get me.”
He smiled. “You better not.”
“I won’t,” she said, smiling and perking up. “And I won’t accept the fact that they—that my parents are gone, either. I’m gonna stake the apartment out for the night before I leave. And you’re coming with me when I do.”
“Ansel, no.” Pidgeon shook his head. “I can’t. If they found me, it would be worse than it already is. I can’t risk that.”
“Risk?” Ansel scoffed. “Your life is so bad that you can’t even tell me about it, Pidgeon. You think leaving that is a risk? Sure, there’s no risk in staying here. You know your life is going to be terrible. But with leaving the only risk you take is living a better life.”
“Yeah? Well, what would I do if I left, huh? How would I eat? Where would I sleep? At least there are meals and a bed here, and school as an escape. If I left, I would have nothing.”
“That’s not true.” Ansel shook her head. “Just look around you. We’re in a tree in the Belt, Pidgeon. This is the best place in the world to find food, to scavenge, to hunt. We can sleep in the trees and move up and down the Belt. Maybe we’ll even make it all the way to the end of the thing. Or maybe we’ll come all the way around the other side and end up right back where we started. What do you think?”
“Ha!” Pidgeon shook his head. “Don’t make me laugh.” He scoffed. “You can hunt. You can scavenge. I don’t know how to do any of that, and I would only hold you back. I bet you’d leave me behind the first time it looked profitable to you.”
“That’s not true. I wouldn’t have asked you to come if I was going to leave you behind. I’m not like that. It’s just—Nevermind. It’s stupid anyway.” She looked away, shaking her head.
Pidgeon shrugged. “Yeah. Right,” he said. He waited a while for her to respond, but when she didn’t, he swallowed his pride and said, “It’s just what?”
“No,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. You can stay at your stupid orphanage, and I’ll find my parents alone.”
“That woman, Ansel. The one who told you your parents were…dead. Did she live a few floors below you? Did she have dreaded up white hair and serve you red beans?”
Ansel shook her head but didn’t answer.
“Ansel, if she did, if that was her, then your parents are gone. She was trying to protect you. I know her. I found her place after they brought me here, after it happened to me. She told me the same things she told you, that I should get out of here as soon as I can, that I was in danger, but I didn’t trust her just like you don’t, and that’s why I’m still stuck at that stupid orphanage, because I didn’t listen. I stayed around here where I knew how to get food and a place to sleep, and they caught me and brought me to the orphanage where they haven’t taken their eyes off me since. They will find you, Ansel.”
“That’s not true! You said it yourself. You don’t know how to hunt, but I do. I know what I’m doing. I can do it without getting caught, and they won’t be looking for me, anyway, because my parents aren’t dead!”
“Ansel,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head and avoiding her eyes. “They are. The sooner you accept that fact, the better off you’ll be.”
“Fine.” Ansel sighed. “Whatever. Even if they are—which they aren’t—I’m still leaving this place. I’m going to the end of the Belt with or without you, Pidgeon. In fact, I might as well get going now. No use putting it off any longer. Have fun in school and good luck finding your stupid cat.” She made to climb down, but he stopped her again.
“Wait!” he said. “Wait. Just wait.”
She sat down as he collected himself.
“Wait,” he repeated. “Okay. I just—I—You said something earlier. Or, you were going to say it. The reason why you wouldn’t leave me behind if I went with you. What was it?”
“Nothing.” Ansel shook her head. “But I wouldn’t leave you behind. I swear. I’d teach you how to hunt so you wouldn’t even have to worry about it.”
“They killed her in front of me,” Pidgeon said, staring at something which Ansel couldn’t see out beyond the leaves of the tree. “My mom. I’m not sure if that’s worse, or not knowing like you, but they killed her right in front of me. My—my brother, too. He was crying because of the sound of the gun. I was, too, but I was a little older so I held it in better. He—he was just a baby. So he was crying. And the protectors—the pigs—they yelled at him to shut up, but he wouldn’t. Of course he wouldn’t, you know. He was just a baby. One of them took my brother out of his crib, set him on the ground, then lifted his boot up and hovered it over my baby brother, daring me to cry out against it. But I choked back my need to cry out, and the protector let his foot drop anyway. I did cry out then. And they laughed. Then they said they weren’t letting me off that easily. One of them pointed a gun at me while another said that if I didn’t take his gun and…shoot my brother.” He turned away, obviously crying, then sniffled and gathered himself. “If I didn’t do…it, they said they would kill him then kill me after I watched them do it. So I—I didn’t have a choice, you see.” He shook his head, tears falling freely from his eyes now. “And I’ve been living in that Hell ever since.” His shaky voice finally broke, and he sobbed uncontrollably.
Ansel scooted as close to him as she could. She patted his back as it rose up and down with his sobs. “When my mom—” She choked back tears of her own. “When my mom brought me to class this morning—or—uh—yesterday—I don’t know anymore, it doesn’t matter. But when she brought me to class, she said to me—she gave me a lot of advice, but one thing that she said that really stuck with me was—she said, we do nothing alone, Ansel. And she’s right, Pidgeon. And you can’t get away from your orphanage alone. Just like I can’t get to the end of the Belt alone.” She couldn’t help but chuckle even though she was still crying. Pidgeon let out a short laugh of his own.
“That’s why I want you to come with me, Pidgeon,” she said, sniffling and wiping her nose. “That’s why I won’t leave you. Because we do nothing alone. And we’re not alone anymore. What do you say?”
Pidgeon sniffled and wiped his nose, too. He said, “Do you really think we can—” but he couldn’t finish the question because the black cat jumped onto his lap.
# # #
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