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THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
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THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
The hope was stale. It tasted like it'd been stored in a hot trunk for weeks.
“That twisted asshole Scarlet's been giving us old stuff again,” Denim said, gulping.
“Old hope's better than no hope,” Cobalt pointed out, snatching the actuator out of the younger boy's hand before it was offered to him.
Denim regarded his friend with narrowed eyes but said nothing. He knew better than to challenge anything Cobalt said or did.
The older boy blew all the air out of his lungs, put the actuator in his mouth, pressed the button at the top, and sucked in. His eyes fluttered closed as he waited. The seconds stretched out for minutes, the minutes for hours. His lungs burned. The tinny ringing in his ears grew into a roar. Then, finally, he gulped, exhaled, and the hope settled into his chest.
Quiet, cooling, calm flooded him. But still...Cobalt opened his eyes. Denim smiled his crooked smile and said:
“See what I mean? Stale.”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
This was probably the weakest hope Scarlet had ever given them. But even weak hope was something. Cobalt knew he could never live in Nowhere without hope.
A pair of thunderous footsteps ran into the abandoned parking garage where the two boys sat huddled over the contraband. They looked at each other and laughed. Navy never could enter anyplace quietly.
The boy burst around the corner first, followed a few seconds later by a girl.
“HA!” The boy said. “Caught you twisted sonsabitches! We knew you'd scored some hope.”
Navy was skinny—way skinner than the other two boys—with hollowed-out cheeks and a shaved head that somehow accentuated the smallness of him. He wore an oversized pullover sweatshirt that fell to the patched-up knees of his corduroys and Vans that he outgrew months ago. Navy took care of that by cutting slits in the front of the shoes, to make room for his toes. The result was ridiculous: his shoes looked like open mouths, laughing at everyone they saw.
The girl slid up next to Denim with a shy smile. “Hi,” she said.
“Hey Azure,” the boy mumbled without looking at her.
Azure was fourteen, a year older than her loud-mouth friend. Nevertheless, she was maybe half Navy's size, a fact she hated. If you saw Azure from a distance, or caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of your eye, you'd no doubt mistake her for a little girl. Sitting next to Denim—the largest of the group by far—she looked like someone's kid sister. Still, she was pretty: big brown eyes, rosy cheeks only partially obscured by the layer of grime she earned living on the run, and shiny black hair she wore pulled back into a sloppy ponytail.
Navy held out his hand to Cobalt, who tossed him the actuator.
“Get what you can,” the gang's leader said. “It's stale.”
Navy exhaled, inhaled deeply, passed the actuator to Azure, and said, “So what're we doing today?”
Cobalt flipped back his too-long bangs, momentarily revealing the chicken pox scar above his right eyebrow and shrugged. “Dunno,” he said.
Navy looked at Denim, but he wasn't paying attention. He'd doodled numerous grotesque caricatures of Mayor Blue on the garage's concrete wall and was now slashing through them all with his Sharpie. The unfortunate Mayor bled black ink.
Navy passed the actuator to Azure. “There's just enough left for you, little sis.”
“I'm older than you, and I'm not your sister, moron,” she said.
Navy laughed. His cheeks were flushed with the hope that now rushed through his veins. “Let's do something bad-ass!” He said.
“Like what?” Denim asked, sounding bored.
“I don't know,” Navy said. He thought for a moment. “Yeah, that's it! We'll send a message to Scarlet!”
“What do you mean?” Cobalt said.
Navy's eyes were wide with excitement. “We'll send him a message. You know, to tell him we won't be pushed around. He can't keep giving us stale hope 'cause we won't take it.”
“You wanna write an angry letter?” Denim frowned. “'Cause that's not bad-ass at all. That's more like PTA mom.”
“I don't think Navy meant a literal message,” Cobalt said in a disappointed teacher tone and then turned to the younger boy, “did you?”
“No, of course not. I meant we should do something to show him he can't mess with us.”
“Like what?” Denim said, sounding interested for the first time.
“We could make a, uh,” Navy said and sighed in frustration. “What's that thing where you make a life-size doll of a person?”
“An effigy,” Azure supplied.
“Yes, that! And then we'll hang it from a noose at the drop-off point. That'll show him! Except I don't know what we'd make it out of.”
“I do,” Azure said.
All the boys turned to her wearing identical looks of surprise. She grinned. “I know where we can get a bunch of men's clothes. We can stuff the clothes with leaves and grass and crap—you know, like a scarecrow. Then all we need is the rope to hang it with.”
“Can we get the clothes now?” Cobalt said.
“Uh-huh,” Azure said.
“Cool. I know where to get the rope. Let's do this.”
Cobalt stood and the others followed their leader outside, but not before Denim scrawled one word below his doodles of the mayor: Outlawz.
Azure took her friends to a house at the Southern edge of Nowhere near the place all the kids called Gruesome Point. They walked down the middle of the street beneath a featureless slate gray sky, passing quiet storefronts and empty playgrounds and houses full of kids who were far less adventurous than them. No dogs barked. No birds circled overhead.
Azure pointed out their destination. It was a gray, shabby little one-story dwelling. The shutters hung crooked on the windows. Paint peeled off the front door. The grass grew high enough in the neglected front lawn to brush the bottom branches of the one brave tree that still struggled to survive.
Azure marched up the front steps and entered the house without knocking. Cobalt, Denim, and Navy followed.
If the outside of the house spoke of neglect and abandonment, the inside spoke of perseverance. The children who lived in the house had done their best to fill their home with cheery decorations and personal touches. In defiance of the lack of color outside, the inside of the house was filled with riotous colors. The walls were covered in drawings of hearts and flowers and animals and remembered loved ones. A fingerpainting near the front door showed a smiling mom hugging two smiling kids. In careful childish script above their heads was this hopeful declaration: My mommy is coming back for me!
“This way,” Azure called over her shoulder and pointed to a narrow hallway that curved off to the right.
More sketches lined the walls of the hallway along with two assurances inked in tall colorful letters: We Are All Loved and None of Us is Alone.
Navy snickered when he read the statements. Cobalt eyed the decorations thoughtfully.
Three tiny bedrooms opened off the hall. Azure entered the second one. The rest of the Outlawz were right behind her. Inside, a whisper-thin little girl with white-blonde hair was playing with a rag doll. She looked up when she heard the older kids enter and broke into a smile at the sight of Azure.
“Hi,” Azure said.
“You came back!” She jumped up and threw herself onto the older girl.
“I'm just visiting, Periwinkle,” Azure said.
The smile disappeared off the little girl's face. Azure knelt down so she was eye-to-eye with Periwinkle.
“Actually,” she whispered, “I was hoping you could help me with something.”
Periwinkle's gray eyes opened wide with curiosity. “What?” She whispered back.
“I need to borrow your dad's clothes,” Azure said.
Periwinkle looked worried. “But if he comes back he'll need them,” She whispered.
“I'll be careful,” the older girl said. “I won't hurt them, I promise. And I'll bring them back in a day or two. He won't know a thing.”
Periwinkle looked from Azure to the boys and then back again. “You swear?”
Azure smiled. “I swear.”
“OK,” the little girl said and left the room. She was back a moment later with an armload of men's clothes: shirt, slacks, hat, tie—even shoes.
“Thank you so much,” Azure said. “You're the best!”
Periwinkle handed her the clothes with a proud smile. “You're welcome.” They hugged.
An angry voice called from the doorway: “What's going on here?”
The boys turned around to see who it was, but Azure already knew. She'd known at once. She straightened up and faced her old friend Cerulean.
“Nothing,” she said. “We were just leaving.”
“Look Cerulean: it's Azure! She came back to visit me!”
“I see that,” Cerulean said. “But I wonder why.” She crossed her arms and frowned. Her trademark blue-and-blonde braid hung down over her shoulder. “Are the Outlawz recruiting now?”
“Do you have a problem with us?” Cobalt said, advancing a couple of steps toward the older girl.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Cerulean retorted. She uncrossed her arms and planted her hands on her hips, squaring off against the boy and resembling nothing so much as an indignant mother—although at eighteen she'd be a very young indignant mother.
“Forget it, Cerulean,” Azure said. “Just let us go.”
“Fine,” she said and stepped aside. “But don't let me catch you bothering the kids again.”
“She wasn't bothering me!” Periwinkle said.
The Outlawz filed out.
“Azure's my friend!” Periwinkle said to her caretaker.
“She was your friend,” Cerulean said. “Now that she's an Outlaw I'm not so sure.”
A voice piped up from beneath Periwinkle's bed:
“Are they gone?”
“Yes Indigo,” Periwinkle said with a laugh and dropped to the floor. She peered beneath the bed. “You can come out now. Besides, Azure's not scary. She's my friend.”
Indigo slid out from under the bed. She was so small she made Periwinkle look big. “I don't like those boys,” she said.
“You shouldn't trust any of the Outlawz,” Cerulean said. “Promise me, both of you, that you'll tell me if they come back.”
“We promise,” Indigo and Periwinkle said together.
The Outlawz gathered everything else they needed—leaves and grass to stuff the effigy, rope to hang it with, and poster board to make a sign—on their way to the drop-off point. They scooped up the leaves and grass wherever they saw it. The rope and poster board came from the abandoned Piggly Wiggly where they got most of their food and water. Their spirits flagged because the hope had worn off, but all were determined to show Scarlet that they weren't little kids he could screw over.
Azure laid the clothes out flat on the ground and they all stuffed the leaves and grass inside.
“How did you know them?” Cobalt asked.
“I used to live there,” Azure said.
“You did? When?” Navy said.
“When I first got to Nowhere. Cerulean met me at Gruesome Point just like she meets everyone else. She told me I could stay in the house with her as long as I wanted.”
Cobalt frowned. “I've never met her before.”
“No?” Azure said.
“Me either,” Navy said.
“You?” She asked Denim.
He nodded and flashed Azure the crooked smile that most people found suspicious. It woke up the butterflies in her belly. “I've known her since I was twelve.”
Azure swallowed to quiet the butterflies and turned to the other boys. “Well, maybe you two got here before she did.”
“Maybe,” Cobalt said and scratched at the chicken pox scar on his forehead.
“I was born here,” Navy said.
“You're a dumbass,” Denim said. “No one's born in Nowhere.”
“I was,” Navy said defiantly.
“Can't admit that your mommy and daddy abandoned you here?”
“Shut up!” Navy said.
“Mama's boy,” Denim snickered.
“All right, just leave him alone,” Cobalt said. There was an authoritative finality in his tone.
“Whatever,” Denim said.
They finished stuffing the clothes and molding a crude head, neck, and shoulders.
“Lemme borrow your Sharpie,” Cobalt said to Denim.
Denim handed it over and set to work himself on fashioning a noose around the effigy's cloth neck.
“There,” Cobalt said when they were done, “I'd say that sends a pretty clear message.”
“Agreed,” Azure said.
“Hell yeah!” Navy said.
The effigy hung from a huge, dead oak tree. Pinned to its shirt was a sign that read:
Stale hope kills, Scarlet
A full-page ad ran in the Sunday edition of the Somewhere Times:
On the left side of the page was a picture of a man lying awake in bed with a worried expression on his face. On the right side a little boy lay awake looking terrified. Above them was the message: Trying to get rest with excess emotions left inside you can be tough. For adults it can lead to hours lying awake worrying about bills, work, or loved ones. For kids it may cause nightmares. Below them, in bold typeface, it read: Use your actuator! Sweet dreams! At the very bottom of the right-hand page, in tiny type, was the disclaimer: Paid for by the Friends of Somewhere's Recycling Committee.