Read an Excerpt
Wednesday, April 29
“No. Jon. No.”
Jon Evans sat upright in his bed. It was Gabe, he told himself. Gabe must have had a bad dream. He listened for Carrie, Gabe’s nanny, to calm the little boy. He waited to hear Lisa run down the hallway to soothe her son.
But Carrie was quiet. Lisa was quiet. The house was quiet.
It wasn’t Gabe he’d heard. It was Julie.
How long had he known her? A month, six weeks. But he’d been haunted by her for two and a half years.
Jon knew better than to believe in ghosts. Billions of people had died in the past few years. There’d be no room for the living if all the dead were ghosts. And if there were ghosts, there were others Jon would prefer to be haunted by. His father, who died of exhaustion and hunger on the way to Sexton, Tennessee. Jon would welcome his ghost.
But it was Julie’s voice he heard in his sleep. Julie who cried out to him in panic, in anger, her accusations too real, her death too unforgivable.
If the moon’s orbit hadn’t been pushed closer to the earth, Jon would never have met Julie. He’d be a senior in high school, living with Mom back in Pennsylvania. His parents had been divorced long before, but Dad and Lisa and Gabe would be in Springfield, close enough for the occasional visit.
But the moon’s orbit had changed, and the world as everyone had known it had changed in horrific ways. Billions had died from tsunamis, famine, and epidemics.
Dad was one of those billions. His death came a hundred miles before Jon and his family had reached Sexton. They were all half-starved by then, and had neither the strength nor the tools to bury him.
Julie hadn’t died like that. Julie died because of what Jon had done. Of the billions of dead, only Julie was his own. Only she would haunt him.
Jon got out of bed and walked to the window. It had rained all day, and the wind was from the south. The volcanic ash, which ordinarily covered the sky, had thinned as it sometimes did when rain and wind cooperated. Jon could see the pale outline of the moon, ominous and engorged, dominating the night.
Tomorrow, Jon hoped, the air would be clear enough to see the sun. And one day, the sun might appear on its own, not dependent on rain and the direction of the wind. He would wake up, the world would wake up, and the sun would be warm and glowing. Nothing would be so bad anymore.
But the billions would still be dead. Dad would still be dead. And Julie would still haunt his dreams.
Thursday, April 30
Jon didn’t know what time it was when he woke up, but it didn’t matter. It was still nighttime, hours to go before he ordinarily awoke.
Sometimes when he woke up in the middle of the night, he’d go downstairs, knock on Val’s door, and tell her to get up and make him something to eat. He might not even be hungry. It was more the comforting sensation of knowing there was food; there was always enough food. Even after two years of living in Sexton, Jon still needed the reassurance. And Val, a grub just like Carrie, would know better than to complain. Without her job as a domestic, there’d be no food for her.
But this time, Jon went downstairs to the kitchen by himself. Maybe a glass of goat’s milk would be enough, he thought. He still hadn’t developed a taste for it, but it was better than nothing.
To his surprise, he saw Lisa sitting at the kitchen table. She looked up and smiled. “Couldn’t sleep either?” she whispered.
Jon nodded. “I thought I’d get a glass of milk,” he said. “Is there enough?”
“Quiet,” Lisa said. “Val’s sleeping.” She got up, found him a glass, and poured him some milk. “There’s enough for our breakfast,” she said. “Val can pick some up at the market tomorrow.”
Jon sat down and drank the milk. “You okay?” he asked.
Lisa nodded. “I’m glad we have this chance to talk,” she said so softly Jon almost couldn’t hear her. “It’s the evaluation.”
“Do you have a date yet?” Jon asked. Everyone in Sexton got evaluated regularly. Those who weren’t pulling their own weight were made to leave the enclave. The rest were allowed to stay for another three years.
“Not yet,” she replied. “Jon, I’m not supposed to know this, so keep this to yourself, but Gregory Hughes is in charge of my evaluation.”
“Tyler’s father?” Jon asked, and Lisa nodded. “But that’s good, right?” he said. “Tyler’s my friend. That’s got to help.”
“I think so, too,” Lisa said. “It’s like what your father used to say. It never hurts to be friends with the boss. Not that Tyler’s your boss. Of course he isn’t. It’s just, well, don’t pick any fights with him. Just go along with whatever he says, at least until the evaluation is over. Promise me, Jon.”
“No problem,” he said. “I don’t fight with him anyway. I promise.”
“Thank you.” Lisa sighed. “I know I must sound crazy, but I don’t know what I’ll do if I fail the evaluation.”
“You won’t fail,” Jon said. “Go to bed, Lisa. You need your sleep.”
“So do you,” she said. “Leave it for Val to clean up. She’s the only one who gets enough sleep around here.”
Friday, May 1
Sexton University, where Jon’s high school was located, had been built to withstand tornadoes. No one had worried about earthquakes, but it turned out the buildings could withstand them also. A good thing too, since in the two years Jon had been in Sexton, there were no tornadoes but a dozen or more quakes.
At the first rumble they all knew what to do. The students and teachers in the various grades left their classrooms and sat on the hallway floor. They were supposed to cover their heads with their arms, but no one bothered. Even the teachers looked relaxed.
But the new girl, Sarah, was clearly upset. This was her first day at school, and from the looks of it, this was her first earthquake. At least her first one in Sexton. Jon didn’t know what the earthquake situation was where she used to live.
He inched over to her. “It’s okay,” he said. “We get them all the time. It’ll be over in a minute.”
“All the time?” she asked.
“Well, not all the time,” he said. “My little brother, Gabe, doesn’t like them either.”
“How old is he?” Sarah asked.
“Three,” Jon said.
“Great,” she said. “I have the maturity of a three-year-old.”
Jon laughed. “He’s a very mature three-year-old,” he said.
“Rise and shine,” Mr. Chandler, their chemistry teacher, said. “Earthquake over.”
“Class period is over, too,” Tyler pointed out.
“All right,” Mr. Chandler said. “Go to lunch. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
Ordinarily Jon ate lunch with Tyler, Zachary, Ryan, and Luke. He’d had lunch with them ever since he’d made the soccer team, two years ago. But Sarah looked like she could use the company, so Jon walked to the cafeteria with her.
“Hey, Jon,” Luke called, but Jon shook him off and sat across from Sarah.
“I know your brother’s name,” she said. “But not yours.”
“Jon Evans,” he replied. “And you’re . . .”
“Sarah Goldman,” she said. “That was my first earthquake. And my last, I hope.”
“Don’t count on it,” Jon said. “We’re near the New Madrid fault line. The geologists think the tremors are a good thing, letting pressure off. You’ll get used to them.”
“I don’t want to,” Sarah said. She took a bite of her lunch, then put her fork down. “I don’t want to get used to this lunch either. The vegetables are fresh. Why are they cooked so badly?”
“The woman in charge of the cafeteria was a tax lawyer,” Jon said. “Her brother’s on the town board. That’s how she got the job.”
“They should make her brother eat this crap,” Sarah said. “Make the punishment fit the crime.”
“We hang people here,” Jon said. “We don’t poison them.”
Sarah laughed. “I must sound horrible,” she said. “I’m sorry. This is all so new to me. Let me start over. Hi, Jon. Are you from Sexton?”
“From Pennsylvania originally,” he said. “Where are you from?”
“Connecticut originally,” she said. “Then we were relocated to North Carolina. Is your family in agriculture? Is that why you were settled here?”
“No,” Jon said. “We’re slips.” She was going to find out anyway, he figured. She might as well hear it from him.
“What’s a slip?” she asked.
“We slipped in,” Jon said. “We had passes for an enclave, so they had to let us in. We ended up here because it was the only enclave we knew about.”
“I don’t think we had any slips in our enclave,” Sarah said. “The whole town was a medical complex, much smaller than Sexton. My father’s a cardiologist. He was transferred to the White Birch clinic. That’s why we moved here.”
“My mother lives in White Birch,” Jon said. “With Miranda and Alex. My sister and her husband. Mom teaches high school there. I have an older brother too, but he doesn’t live around here.” It startled him to share so much about his family. In a matter of minutes, Sarah had learned more about him than any of his friends had in over two years.
“Do you live with your father?” Sarah asked.
Jon shook his head. “Dad’s dead,” he replied. “Lisa, my stepmother, and Gabe and I used the passes.”
“My mother’s dead,” Sarah said. “She died a couple of months ago. Then Daddy got transferred. It’s been hard on him. The clinic is terribly understaffed. There was a nurse there, but now it’s just Daddy and me. I do my afterschools there.”
“I play soccer for my afterschools,” Jon said.
“That’s your afterschool?” she asked. “Playing soccer?”
For a moment Jon was irritated. All the students did afterschools—four hours of work each afternoon—and he knew soccer seemed more like play than work to the kids who held what they thought of as real jobs. It didn’t help that the Sexton team played all its games on the road, so no one at home ever saw them.
But work was work, and Jon didn’t need to hear from some new kid who thought she knew it all that what he did wasn’t necessary. All the clavers knew someday the White Birch grubs would try something, and when they did, the clavers would be outnumbered. That’s why the enclave was so heavily guarded. That’s why on Saturday afternoons all the students spent their afterschools in judo and rifle practice.
The idea was to hold off that someday for as long as possible. Civilization depended on it. The grubs outnumbered the clavers throughout America, but they had no idea how to grow crops in a cold and sunless world. They had no idea how to treat illnesses with limited amounts of medicine. They had no idea how to run a government, a school system, a city, an army.
Jon knew how lucky he was to be a slip, and how lucky it was that Lisa had found a job in administration right away. Alex had sacrificed his three passes so that Lisa and Gabe and Jon could live in a safer environment, one with food and shelter and electricity. The kind of life Alex had taken for granted when he was seventeen.
Jon had had two years of intensive study of botany, chemistry, and physics. There was no point studying history when history no longer mattered. Instead he was taught civics, government, leadership. He played soccer, not for the love of the game but because he was an athlete and he represented the strength and the power of the enclave system.
“We train five days a week,” Jon said. “On Sundays we travel all around the state, for hours sometimes, to play. Coach says if we lose, it reflects badly on Sexton, on all the enclaves. It would make us seem weak, inferior. Winning shows the grubs who’s boss.”
“Grubs?” Sarah said.
“Yeah, grubs,” Jon said. “You must have had grubs in North Carolina.”
“You mean laborers,” she said.
“Is that what you called them?” he asked. “They’re grubs here. White Birch, all the towns around here are grubtowns.”
Sarah frowned. “That sounds so ugly.”
“It’s just a word,” Jon replied. “You don’t mind being called a claver. Why should they mind being called grubs?”
“I guess you’re right,” she said. “I mean, I do understand about the difference between us and them. Why we get to live in enclaves, in nicer houses, get better food, better everything.”
“It’s always been like that,” Jon said. “The rich always live better. Here, at least, people are rich because they have special skills. The botanists are rich, not some millionaire’s kid. And the grubs know how lucky they are to have jobs. Our domestics are grateful to be working in Sexton. I bet yours feel exactly the same.”
“I haven’t asked them,” Sarah said. “Maybe I will.”
“No,” Jon said. “Don’t. It’s better not to bring that stuff up.”
“If you don’t ask, then how can you know how they feel?” Sarah said. “Maybe you think they feel lucky because you don’t want to admit just how unlucky they are.”
“I’m not saying I know all the answers,” Jon replied, “but I trust the people in charge do. Have you seen the greenhouses? There are miles of them now and more going up every month. They weren’t here three years ago, and now they’re growing food for people all over the state. Including the kids at White Birch High.”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “But theirs is probably better cooked.”
“Couldn’t be worse,” Jon said. “They’re not saddled with a tax-lawyer chef.”
Sarah laughed. Jon liked the sound of it, just as he liked how she looked: sandy hair, green eyes. “Lunch tomorrow?” he asked.
“I can’t,” she said. “I won’t be in school tomorrow. I’m going into White Birch with Daddy, to help him set up the clinic. We’re opening on Sunday.”
“Monday, then?” Jon persisted.
“Will the food be this bad?” she asked.
Jon nodded. “Maybe worse.”
“How can I resist?” she said. “Lunch on Monday, with you.”
Sunday, May 3
Jon got home to find Lisa putting Gabe to bed. He didn’t disturb her. Sunday was the only day Lisa had with Gabe. Like everyone else in the area, she worked Mondays through Saturdays. Everyone but him. Jon worked on Sundays, also.
Usually after a match Jon was in a good mood. Winning always felt good, and the bus ride back to Sexton was spent in celebration.
But not today. Of course Sexton had won. It was never a contest. The grubtown team was filled with guys who worked six days a week in factories or greenhouses. They had no time for practice. On Sundays maybe, in preparation for the match against Sexton, they played a little and drank a lot.
The Sexton team spent two hours daily on workouts and two more on soccer drills. They went to high school or college, and if they got drunk, they did it after the match was over.
The first half of the match had gone as always. Sexton led 3–1, keeping things close enough that the other squad and the grubs who came to see the match felt like they had a real chance. The clavers wouldn’t last. They were sissies and wimps. Grubs did real work. They just needed time and a little luck and the victory would be theirs.
During halftime the Sexton team went back to their bus, drank juice, and sucked oxygen while listening to Coach yell at them. Everything was fine. Everything was exactly as it should be, exactly as it always was.
But this time instead of winning 10–1, they won 8–2. And that was enough to put Coach in a rage.
He started the bus ride by screaming at Mike Daley, the college student who was the team’s top goalie. He should never have allowed that second goal.
It didn’t matter to Coach that the score was 7–1, with only ten minutes to play. Coach would have liked shutouts every game, except he’d been instructed to let the other team score at least once. Let them have their moment.
So Coach let the other team score, but one point was enough. Two was a show of weakness, and Daley had no business letting it happen.
Then it was Jon’s turn.
“You could have scored two more points!” Coach shouted. “Don’t give away chances like that, Evans!”
Actually, Jon had had three chances but had chosen to pass rather than go for the score. He’d never done that before. He was the team’s striker, and it had always seemed right to him that Sexton beat their opponents by as big a margin as possible.
But not today. Today it seemed like rubbing their noses in it, and he couldn’t see the point.
“You’re a friggin’ slip!” Coach screamed. “A pansy-ass grub lover. Were they your brothers, Evans? Or were they your boyfriends?”
A few of Jon’s teammates snickered. Jon would have snickered too if he weren’t the one being reamed.
“Sorry, Coach,” he muttered.
“Sorry isn’t good enough,” Coach said. “You’re off the team, Evans, if you keep playing like this. Out of Sexton, if I have my way.”
“I’m sorry, Coach,” he said again, this time in a stronger voice. “It won’t happen again. I’ll show those grubs who’s boss.”
Coach grinned. “That’s the spirit, Evans,” he said. “Sure, you’re a slip, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t a claver. And a damn good one at that.”
But sitting in the living room hours later, Jon still had a bad taste in his mouth. And it wasn’t from the bottle of potka they’d shared on the bus ride home.
Jon looked up as Lisa walked into the room. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “There’s some leftover chicken in the fridge.”
“Maybe later,” Jon said. “We ate on the bus.”
“All right,” Lisa said. “If you don’t want it, Val and Carrie can have it for lunch tomorrow. How many goals did you score?”
“Four,” Jon replied. “We won eight to two.”
“That close?” Lisa said. “I bet Coach was angry.”
“Laura called,” Lisa said.
“Didn’t she know I was out?” Jon asked. It was hard for Mom to make a phone call. None of the apartments had phone service, and no one was allowed to use the phones where they worked. There were a handful of pay phones in White Birch, and it took hours on Sunday to get to the front of the line.
“She tried last night,” Laura said, “but there were five people ahead of her when the curfew siren went off. She said Matt’s going to be there next Sunday.”
Matt lived in Coolidge, a couple of hundred miles away, working as a bike courier. He traveled all around the area, transporting letters and small packages for clavers. Sexton wasn’t on his route, but when he could, he swapped with another courier. Jon had seen him last in November, but he knew Matt had spent a weeknight with Mom, Miranda, and Alex in February.
There had been a time when Jon felt closer to Matt than to anyone else in the world. When the bad times had come, he and Matt had spent endless hours chopping down trees so there’d be firewood. The work they’d done had kept the family alive, and it had provided Jon with the opportunity to get to know his big brother. They worked and they talked, and Jon had felt grownup and respected.
But then Matt married Syl, and everything changed. And now Matt lived hundreds of miles away, and Jon was lucky to see him twice a year.
“You must be due a Sunday off,” Lisa said. “I can’t remember the last time you had one.”
Jon counted back. Ten Sundays, he thought. There were twelve men on the squad, and only eight went to each game, so no one was supposed to travel to more than eight games in a row. But Jon was the team’s best scorer, and Coach tended to forget the eight-game rule. Besides, slips were supposed to do a little more than anyone else.
“I really want to see Matt,” Jon said.
“Of course,” Lisa said. “And it’s wonderful for Laura to have all her children with her. I’m sure you can get next Sunday off.”
Jon wasn’t nearly as sure, not the way Coach had been screaming at him. But he’d have to try. It could be another six months before Matt was in White Birch on a Sunday, and it was never safe to predict six months ahead.
Monday, May 4
Most of the grubs who commuted to work in Sexton were taken by bus to the factories or the greenhouses and then picked up at the end of the workday for the ride back to White Birch. The only grubs permitted to walk in Sexton were the domestics, who did the shopping while the clavers were at work.
Clavers never walked. Even though most of the volcanic activity, caused by the change in the moon’s gravitational pull, had stopped nearly two years ago, the air quality was still bad, and it wasn’t a good idea to spend too much time outdoors. Buses ran regularly for clavers, with stops every few blocks.
Jon would have preferred to bike to school. It would take less time, and he’d enjoy the exercise and the privacy. But even though it wasn’t forbidden to bike, it wasn’t encouraged either. All the buildings in Sexton—the homes, the schools, the offices—had air purification systems, but there was no way to purify the outdoor air. So, like everyone else, Jon rode the bus.
Sarah got on the bus right as he did. Ryan and Luke were already on, but he sat next to her instead.
“How was the soccer match?” she asked him. “Did you save civilization?”
“I did my part,” Jon said. “You can sleep safely tonight.”
Sarah tilted her head toward the window. “With all the guards here, I don’t have to worry. Unless they get ideas of their own.”
“You must have had guards in your other enclave,” Jon said.
“Yes,” Sarah said. “But not as many. At least not as many on the streets. I don’t know. Everything seems darker here.”
“Everything is darker here,” Jon said. “The farther west you go, the darker the sky.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” she said.
Jon glanced back at Ryan and Luke. He caught Luke’s eye. Luke pointed to the empty seat by his side. Jon shook his head.
“Is it really that different?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. “I didn’t want to leave. I guess I’m just homesick.”
By the time his family had left Pennsylvania, all Jon had wanted was to get away. But he supposed if you had food and water and electricity, you’d want to stay put.
He looked up and saw Ryan standing by him. “Come on, Evans,” he said. “We miss you.”
“It’s okay,” Sarah said. “Go. I’ll see you at lunch?”
Jon nodded and followed Ryan back to the empty seat. “What’s this about?” he asked.
“Tyler will tell you,” Ryan said.
Jon looked at Luke, but he didn’t say anything. They sat in silence until the bus stopped at school. Tyler and Zachary were already there.
“He was sitting with her on the bus,” Ryan said to them. “They were going to have lunch again.”
“What of it?” Jon asked. “Sarah’s new here. She hasn’t made any friends yet.”
“She isn’t going to make any friends,” Tyler declared. “Keep away from her, Evans.”
“Why?” Jon asked.
Zachary looked like he was about to punch Jon. Tyler put his arm on Zachary’s shoulder.
“Look, Evans, you’re a slip,” Tyler said. “An outsider. But Luke and I are cousins. Zach and Ryan have been my friends since kindergarten. The four of us were in Cub Scouts together, Pop Warner, all of it. You’re a good soccer player, and you’re okay. We like you. But you’re not one of us. You don’t belong.”
“Fine,” Jon said. “I don’t belong.”
“It’s my grandfather!” Zachary yelled. “You stupid slip.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jon said.
“Zach’s grandfather was a doctor,” Luke said.
“A great man,” Zachary said. “A great doctor. He was a doctor in Sexton for over fifty years.”
“It was crazy when the government turned Sexton into an enclave,” Luke said. “People trying to keep their homes, their families. We’re the lucky ones. Our parents all were selected, so we got to stay.”
“They said Granddad would have to leave,” Zachary said. “Fifty years didn’t count for anything.”
“But my father stepped in,” Tyler said. “Dad owned half of Sexton. He had powerful friends. So they had to listen. They worked out a compromise. Zach’s granddad got appointed as the White Birch Clinic doctor, and they let him stay in Sexton.”
“That’s the job Sarah’s father has,” Jon said.
Luke nodded. “There were some problems at the clinic,” he said.
Zachary took a swipe at Luke, but Tyler got between them.
“There weren’t any problems!” Zachary screamed. “It was lies. All lies.”
“Grubs lie,” Ryan said. “The women lie worst of all. They’ll say anything to hurt a claver.”
“Only good thing was they shut those bitches up,” Zachary said. “Sent them to the mines. Hope they’re dead.”
“I bet they are,” Ryan said. “No one lasts long in the mines.”
“I don’t get it,” Jon said. “What does any of this have to do with Sarah?”
“Sarah’s father is a doctor,” Tyler said. “He must have done something real bad, because he got kicked out of his enclave. Only he has powerful friends, even more powerful than Dad. So they fired Zach’s grandfather and gave his job to Sarah’s father.”
“Not just the job,” Zachary said. “They gave Granddad’s home, the furniture, the grubs—all of it—to Sarah’s father. Everything. They wouldn’t even let Granddad stay here with us. They won’t let him live in my aunt’s enclave either. He had to move to the grubtown near her. My grandfather, living with those pigs.”
“Sarah and her father shouldn’t be allowed in Sexton,” Ryan said. “They were thrown out of one enclave; they shouldn’t be allowed in another.”
“But it’s not like they knew your granddad,” Jon said to Zachary. “They’re not responsible for what happened.”
“That’s what I mean about you not understanding,” Tyler said. “It’s the slip in you, Evans. Zach’s grandfather is a great man. People around here know that. No one believes what those grub bitches said. He could have kept his job, his house, except they needed a place to put Sarah’s father.”
“But it’s still not Sarah’s fault,” Jon said.
“Jon, drop it,” Luke said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Sarah’s fault. She doesn’t belong here. No one wants her here.”
“You’re either with her or you’re with us,” Tyler said. “Take your pick, Evans.”
Jon looked around the schoolyard. Sarah had already gone inside.
He owed her nothing, he told himself. He owed Lisa everything. He’d made her a promise, and he had no choice but to keep it.
“I pick you,” he said. “Sorry, Zach. I didn’t understand.”
“No one expected you to,” Tyler said, slapping Jon on the back. “You’re a slip, Evans, but you have possibilities.”
Tuesday, May 5
Cowboy Gabe had time to shoot only one more bandit while riding his gallant steed, Jon, before going to bed, when the doorbell rang.
Lisa looked up from her paperwork. “Who could that be?” she asked.
“Come on, cowboy,” Jon said. “Let’s find out.”
Gabe slid up so that he was resting on Jon’s shoulders as Jon rose and walked to the door. Sarah was standing there.
Gabe stuck his finger out and pointed it at Sarah. “Bang, bang!” he yelled. “I shot you.”
Sarah promptly collapsed on the front step. Gabe looked down at her. “I didn’t really shoot you,” he said, a worried expression on his face.
Sarah got up laughing. “I’m glad to hear it,” she replied.
“Jon, aren’t you going to introduce us?” Lisa asked, walking over to the front hallway.
“Oh yeah,” Jon said. “Lisa, this is Sarah. She’s new at school. Sarah, this is Lisa. Lisa Evans. My stepmother.”
Lisa smiled and extended her hand for Sarah to shake. “It’s nice to meet you, Sarah,” she said. “Jon’s friends don’t come over nearly enough.”
“She didn’t come to see me,” Jon said. “She wanted to meet Cowboy Gabe.”
“It’s time for Cowboy Gabe to go to bed,” Lisa said. “Jon, let him down.”
“No!” Gabe screamed, but Lisa and Jon ignored him. Jon set him on his feet, and Lisa took hold of his hand. Gabe struggled, but Lisa held on and managed to get him upstairs.
“Gabe’s nanny has a headache,” Jon said. “Lisa always says good night to him, but she doesn’t usually have to get him into bed.”
“I don’t care about Gabe’s nanny,” Sarah said. “I want to talk to you, Jon.”
“Not here,” Jon said. “We have a garage. Let’s go there.”
“The garage?” Sarah asked.
“It’s private,” Jon replied. “I don’t want Lisa to hear us.”
“You don’t even know what I’m going to say!” Sarah cried.
“I can guess,” Jon said. “All right?” He walked out the front door, and Sarah followed him to the garage.
“This is awful,” Sarah said. “Has anyone been in here in five years? Can you at least turn a light on?”
“I don’t think there is one,” Jon said. “Just say what you want, Sarah. I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?” Sarah asked. “Ready to embarrass me some more? I thought you liked me. I didn’t invite you to sit with me. Not at lunch, not on the bus. One minute I see you; the next minute you’re gone. And the minute after that, you act like I’m invisible. You walk right past me like I’m not even there.”
“I know,” Jon said. “Sarah, I’m sorry. I do like you. I like you more than any girl since I moved here. But Zachary, my friend—well we’re on the team together—and the thing is you moved into his grandfather’s house. Your dad took his granddad’s job.”
“Do you know what that man did?” Sarah asked. “What he did to his patients?”
“No,” Jon said. “I don’t know, and even if you tell me, I won’t believe you. Grubs lie, Sarah. They lie all the time. Zach says they lied about his grandfather, and I believe him. And my friends believe him. Try to see it from Zach’s point of view. His grandfather was forced out of town, and you stole his home.”
“Daddy didn’t ask for the job,” Sarah said. “And we sure didn’t ask for that house.”
“Tyler says you were thrown out of your enclave,” Jon said. “That someone pulled strings and got your father this job.”
“My father is a great man,” Sarah said.
“That’s exactly what Zach says about his grandfather,” Jon replied. “I’d probably say it about my dad if he were still around. Sarah, I can’t afford to let Zach hate me. Tyler’s on his side, and his father’s on the town board. Lisa’s up for her evaluation. I have to protect her.”
“Do you like them?” Sarah asked. “Zach, Tyler, all of them? Do you even like them?”
“Yeah,” Jon said. “As it happens, I like them a lot. They’re my friends, Sarah. My teammates.”
“What would I have been?” Sarah asked. “If Tyler and Zach didn’t hate me?”
Jon reached over and kissed her. Sarah kissed him back, then pulled away.
“Oh boy,” she said. “Now I see the advantages of this garage.”
Jon laughed. “I want to see you,” he said. “Just not where it will upset the guys. Not until after Lisa’s evaluation.”
“When is it?” Sarah asked.
“In a week or two,” Jon said. “Can we keep things quiet until then?”
Sarah stood there, absolutely still. Jon felt her slipping away. He kissed her again, but this time she didn’t respond.
“We could walk to the bus together,” he said. “Where do you live?”
“Elm Street,” she said.
Jon thought about it. “That’s eight blocks from here,” he said. “I’ll ask Val to wake up twenty minutes earlier and make my breakfast. That should give me enough time to get to your house.”
“Why don’t you wake up twenty minutes earlier and make your own breakfast?” Sarah asked.
“I can’t,” Jon said. “I don’t know how.”
“You’ve never made your own breakfast?” Sarah asked, and Jon could see she was struggling not to laugh. He took that as a good sign.
“Maybe when I was a kid,” he replied. “But that’s what Val’s for, to make our meals and clean the house.”
“That’s not what she’s for,” Sarah said. “It’s what she does.”
“Fine,” Jon said. “It’s what she does. And she’s grateful for the job. We treat her well, and she knows it. There’s nothing wrong with me telling her to get up a few minutes earlier every day to make my breakfast.”
“I wish you understood,” Sarah said. “Working at the clinic, I’m starting to see things differently. Maybe you would too if you knew any laborers.”
“You mean grubs,” Jon said. “And I know some.”
“I don’t mean your domestics,” Sarah said. “I mean friends, family.”
“My sister’s a grub,” he replied angrily. “She works in the greenhouses. Her husband’s a grub. He’s a bus driver, here in Sexton. You don’t have to tell me grubs are people, the same as clavers. Are any of your family grubs? Any of your friends?”
Sarah was silent.
“I’m not the only claver with family in White Birch,” Jon said. “Most everybody has someone there. Maybe their dad was selected but their aunt and their cousins weren’t. So they settled in White Birch, hoping things would get better. And maybe things will get better, and there won’t be clavers anymore or grubs. But like it or not, that’s how things are.”
“How things are stinks,” Sarah said.
“I don’t see you moving into a grubtown,” Jon said. “You had your chance, but you chose an enclave.”
Sarah turned away from him. Jon touched her face, and felt her tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll make my own breakfast. Can we walk to the bus together?”
She faced him, and he kissed the tears off her cheek. “I know I sound awful,” she said. “I didn’t used to. It’s just I feel so alone.”
Jon nodded. “I know how that feels,” he said. “We all do. Clavers, grubs, all of us. We all feel alone. We all feel exactly like you.”