"You ain't gotta be eatin' other folks' garbage, foo'!"
Lev froze, certain it was a security guard ready to haul him away, but it was only this tall umber kid with a funny grin, wearing attitude like it was a cologne. "Let me show you how it's done." Then he went to a pretty girl who was working at the Wicked Wok Chinese food concession, flirted with her for a few-minutes, then left with nothing. No food, no drink, nothing.
"I think I'll stick to leftovers,'' Lev had told him.
"Patience, my man. See, it's gettin' on toward closing time. All these places, by law gotta get rid of all the food they made today. They can't keep it and reuse it tomorrow. So where do you think that food goes? I'll tell you where it goes. It goes home with the last shift. But the people who work these places ain't gonna eat that stuff on accounta they are sick to death of it. See that girl I was talkin' to? She likes me. I told her I worked at Shirt Bonanza, downstairs, and could get her some overstock maybe."
"Do you work there?"
"No! Are you even listenin' to me? So any-who, right before closing I'm gonna get myself over to the Wicked Wok again. I'll give her a smile, and I'll be all, like, 'Hey, whatcha gonna do with all that leftover food?' And she'll be all, like, 'Whatcha got in mind?' And five minutes later I'm walking away in orange chicken heaven, with enough to feed an army."
And sure enough, it happened exactly like he said it would. Lev was amazed.
"Stick with me," CyFi had said, putting his fist in the air, "and as God is my witness, you will never go hungry again." Then he added, "That's from Gone with the Wind."
"I know," said Lev. Which, in fact, he didn't.
Lev had agreed to go with him because he knew the two tilled a need in each other. CyFi was like a preacher with no flock. He couldn't exist without an audience, and Lev needed someone who could fill his head with ideas, to replace the lifetime of ideas that had been taken from him.
A day later, Lev's shoes are worn and his muscles are sore. The memory of Risa and Connor is still a fresh wound, and it doesn't want to heal. Chances are, they were caught. Chances are, they've been unwound. All because of him. Does that make him an accomplice to murder?
How could it, when Unwinds aren't really dead?
He doesn't know whose voice is in his head anymore. His father's? Pastor Dan's? It just makes him angry. He'd rather hear CyFi's voice outside of his head than whatever voices were inside.
The terrain around them hasn't changed much since they left town. Eye-high shrubs and a smattering of trees. Some of the growth is evergreen, some of it yellow, turning brown. Weeds grow up between the train tracks, but not too tall.
"Any weed dumb enough to grow tall ain't got no chance. It gets decapitated by the next train that comes through. Decapitated—that means 'head cut off."'
"I know what 'decapitated' means—and you can stop talking that way; all double negatives and stuff."
CyFi stops right there in the middle of the railroad tracks and stares at Lev like he's trying to melt him with his eyes.
"You got a problem with the way I talk? You got a problem with an Old World Umber patois?"
"I do when it's fake."
"Whachoo talkin' about, foo'!"
"It's obvious. I'll bet people never even said things like 'foo,' except on dumb prewar TV shows and stuff. You're speaking wrong on purpose."
"Wrong? What makes it wrong? It's classic, just like those TV shows—and I ain't appreciating you disrespecting my patois. Patois means—"
"I know what it means," Lev says even though he isn't entirely sure. "I ain't stupid!"
CyFi puts up an accusing finger like a lawyer. "A-HA! You said 'ain't.' Now who's talking wrong?"
"That doesn't count! I said it because it's all I hear from you! After a while I can't help but sound like you!"
At that, CyFi grins. "Yeah," he says. "Ain't that the truth. Old World Umber is contagious. It's dominant. And talkin' the talk don't make a person dumb. I'll have you know, I got the highest readin' and writin' score in my school, Fry. But I gotta respect my ancestors an' all they went through so I could be here. Sure, I can talk like you, but I choose not to. It's like art, you know? Picasso had to prove to the world he can paint the right way, before he goes putting both eyes on one side of a face, and noses stickin' outta kneecaps and stuff. See, if you paint wrong because that's the best you can do, you just a chump. But you do it because you want to? Then you're an artist." He smiles at Lev. "That's a bit of CyFi wisdom right there, Fry. You can take that to the grave, and dig it up when you need it!"
CyFi turns and spits out a piece of gum that hits a train rail and sticks there, then he shoves another piece in his mouth. "Anyway, my dads got no problem with it—and they're lily-sienna like you."
"They?" Cy had said "dads" before, but Lev had figured it was just some more Old Umber slang.
"Yeah," says CyFi, with a shrug. "I got two. Ain't no thang."
Lev tries his best to process this. Of course, he's heard of male parenting—or "yin families," as they're currently called—but in the sheltered structure of his life, such things always belonged to an alternate universe.
CyFi, however, doesn't even catch Lev's surprise. He's still on his brag jag.
"Yeah, I got myself an IQ of 155. Did you know that, Fry? A'course not—how would you know?" Then he hesitates. "It went down a few points, though, on account the accident. I was on my hike and got hit by some damfoo' in a Mercedes." He points to a scar on the side of his head. "What a mess. Splattered—y'know? I was nearly roadkill. It turned my right temporal lobe into Jell-O." He shivers as he thinks about it, then shrugs. "But brain damage ain't a problem like it used to be. They just replace the brain tissue and you're good as new. My dads even paid off the surgeon so I'd get an entire temporal lobe from an Unwind—no offense— rather than getting a buncha brain bits, like people are supposed to get."
Lev knows about that. His sister Cara has epilepsy, so they replaced a small part of her brain with a hundred tiny brain bits. It took care of the problem, and she didn't seem any worse for it. It had never occurred to Lev where those tiny pieces of brain tissue might have come from.
"See, brain bits work okay, but they don't work great," CyFi explains. "It's like puttin' spackle over a hole in a wall. No matter how well you do it, that wall ain't never gonna be as good. So my dads made sure I got an entire temporal lobe from a single donor. But that kid wasn't as smart as me. He wasn't no dummy, but he didn't have the I 55. The last brain scan put me at 130. That's in the top 5 percent of the population, and still considered genius. Just not with a capital G. What's your IQ?" he asks Lev. "Are you a dim bulb or high-wattage?"
Lev sighs. "I don't know. My parents don't believe in intelligence scans. It's kind of a religious thing. Everyone's equal in Cod's eyes and all that."
"Oh—you come from one of those families." CyFi takes a good look at him. "So if they all high and mighty, why they unwinding you?"
Although Lev doesn't want to get into it, he figures CyFi is the only friend he's got. Might as well tell him the truth. "I'm a tithe."
CyFi looks at him with eyes all wide, like Lev just told him he was God himself.
"Damn! So you all holy and stuff?"
CyFi nods and purses his lips, saying nothing for a while. They walk along the tracks. The railroad ties change from wood to stone, and the gravel on the side of the tracks now seems better maintained.
"We just crossed the state line," CyFi says.
Lev would ask him which state they've crossed into, but he doesn't want to sound stupid.
* * *
Any spot where multiple tracks merge or diverge, there's a little two-story shack standing there like a displaced lighthouse. A railroad switch house. There are plenty of them along this stretch of the line, and these are the places Lev and CyFi find shelter each night.
"Aren't you afraid someone from the railroads'll find us here?" Lev asks as they approach one of the sorry-looking structures.
"Nah—they ain't used anymore," CyFi tells him. "The whole system's automated—been that way for years, but it costs too much to tear all those switch houses down. Guess they figure nature will eventually tear them down for free."
The switch house is padlocked, but a padlock is only as strong as the door it's on—and this door had been routed by-termites. A single kick rips the padlock hasp from the wood, and the door flies inward to a shower of dust and dead spiders.
Upstairs is an eight-by-eight room, windows on all four sides. It's freezing. CyFi has an expensive-looking winter coat that keeps him warm at night. Lev only has a puffy fiberfill jacket that he stole from a chair at the mall the other day.
CyFi had turned his nose up when he saw Lev take that jacket, just before they left the mall. "Stealing's for lowlifes," Cy had said. "If you got class, you don't steal what you need, you get other people to give it to you of their own free will— just like I did back at that Chinese place. It's all about being smart, and being smooth. You'll learn."
Lev's stolen jacket is white, and he hates it. All his life he'd worn white—a pristine absence of color that defined him—but now there was no comfort in wearing it.
They eat well that night—thanks to Lev, who finally had his own survivalist brainstorm. It involved small animals killed by passing trains.
"I ain't eatin' no track-kill!" CyFi insisted when Lev had suggested it. "Those things coulda been rottin' out here for weeks, for all we know."
"No," Lev told him. "Here's what we do: We walk a few miles down the tracks, marking each dead critter with a stick. Then, when the next train comes through, we backtrack. Anything we find that's not marked is fresh." Granted, it was a fairly disgusting idea on the surface, but it was really no different from hunting—if your weapon were a diesel engine.
They build a small fire beside the switch house and dine on roast rabbit and armadillo—which doesn't taste as bad as Lev thought it would. In the end, meat is meat, and barbecue does for armadillo exactly what it does for steak.
"Smorgas-bash!!" CyFi decides to call this hunting method as they eat. "That's what I call creative problem solving. Maybe you're a genius after all, Fry."
It feels good to have Cy's approval.
"Hey, is today Thursday?" says Lev, just realizing. "I think it's Thanksgiving!"
"Well, Fry, we're alive. That's plenty to be thankful for."
* * *
That night, up in the small room of the switch house, CyFi asks the big question. "Why'd your parents tithe you, Fry?"
One of the good things about being with CyFi is that he talks about himself a lot. It keeps Lev from having to think about his own life. Except, of course, when Cy asks. Lev answers him with silence, pretending to be asleep—and if there's one thing he knows CyFi can't stand, it's silence, so he fills it himself.
"Were you a storked baby? Is that it? They didn't want you in the first place, and couldn't wait to get rid of you?"