I take a deep breath and enjoy the rush of crisp, icy air as it burns through my lungs. Wind wraps around me, pulling and pushing and dancing, whipping my hair into a frenzy, and I lean into it, get lost in it, open my mouth to inhale it. I’m about to smile when Kenji shoots me a dark look and I cringe, apologizing with my eyes.
My halfhearted apology does little to placate him.
I forced Kenji to take another detour down to the ocean, which is often my favorite part of our walk. Kenji, on the other hand, really hates it—and so do his boots, one of which got stuck in the muck that now clings to what used to be clean sand.
“I still can’t believe you like staring at that nasty, piss-infested—”
“It’s not infested, exactly,” I point out. “Castle says it’s definitely more water than pee.”
Kenji only glares at me.
He’s still muttering under his breath, complaining about his shoes being soaked in “piss water,” as he likes to call it, as we make our way up the main road. I’m happy to ignore him, determined to enjoy the last of this peaceful hour, as it’s one of the only hours I have for myself these days. I linger and look back at the cracked sidewalks and caving roofs of our old world, trying—and occasionally succeeding—to remember a time when things weren’t so bleak.
“Do you ever miss it?” I ask Kenji. “The way things used to be?”
Kenji is standing on one foot, shaking some kind of sludge from one leather boot, when he looks up and frowns. “I don’t know what you think you remember, J, but the way things used to be wasn’t much better than the way they are now.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, leaning against the pole of an old street sign.
“What do you mean?” he counters. “How can you miss anything about your old life? I thought you hated your life with your parents. I thought you said they were horrible and abusive.”
“They were,” I say, turning away. “And we didn’t have much. But there were some things I like to remember—some nice moments—back before The Reestablishment was in power. I guess I just miss the small things that used to make me happy.” I look back at him and smile. “You know?”
He raises an eyebrow.
“Like—the sound of the ice cream truck in the afternoons,” I say to him. “Or the mailman making his rounds. I used to sit by the window and watch people come home from work in the evenings.” I look away, remembering. “It was nice.”
“You don’t think so?”
Kenji’s lips quirk up into an unhappy smile as he inspects his boot, now free of sludge. “I don’t know, kid. Those ice cream trucks never came into my neighborhood. The world I remember was tired and racist and volatile as hell, ripe for a hostile takeover by a shit regime. We were already divided. The conquering was easy.” He takes a deep breath. Blows it out as he says, “Anyway, I ran away from an orphanage when I was eight, so I don’t remember much of that cutesy shit, regardless.”
I freeze, stunned. It takes me a second to find my voice. “You lived in an orphanage?”
Kenji nods before offering me a short, humorless laugh. “Yep. I’d been living on the streets for a year, hitchhiking my way across the state—you know, before we had sectors—until Castle found me.”
“What?” My body goes rigid. “Why have you never told me this story? All this time—and you never said—”
“Did you ever know your parents?”
He nods but doesn’t look at me.
I feel my blood run cold. “What happened to them?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters,” I say, and touch his elbow. “Kenji—”
“It’s not important,” he says, breaking away. “We’ve all got problems. We’ve all got baggage. No need to dwell on it.”
“This isn’t about dwelling on the past,” I say. “I just want to know. Your life—your past—it matters to me.” And for a moment I’m reminded again of Castle—his eyes, his urgency—and his insistence that there’s more I need to know about Warner’s past, too.
There’s so much left to learn about the people I care about.
Kenji finally smiles, but it makes him look tired. Eventually, he sighs. He jogs up a few cracked steps leading to the entrance of an old library and sits down on the cold concrete. Our armed guards are waiting for us, just out of sight.
Kenji pats the place next to him.
I scramble up the steps to join him.
We’re staring out at an ancient intersection, old stoplights and electric lines smashed and tangled on the pavement, when he says,
“So, you know I’m Japanese, right?”
“Well. Where I grew up, people weren’t used to seeing faces like mine. My parents weren’t born here; they spoke Japanese and broken English. Some people didn’t like that. Anyway, we lived in a rough area,” he explains, “with a lot of ignorant people. And just before The Reestablishment started campaigning, promising to solve all our people problems by obliterating cultures and languages and religions and whatever, race relations were at their worst. There was a lot of violence, all across the continent. Communities clashing. Killing each other. If you were the wrong color at the wrong time”—he makes a finger gun, shoots it into the air—“people would make you disappear. We avoided it, mostly. The Asian communities never had it as bad as the black communities, for example. The black communities had it the worst—Castle can tell you all about that,” he says. “Castle’s got the craziest stories. But the worst that ever happened to my family, usually, was people would talk shit when we were out together. I remember my mom never wanted to leave the house.”
I feel my body tense.
“Anyhow.” He shrugs. “My dad just—you know—he couldn’t just stand there and let people say stupid, foul shit about his family, right? So he’d get mad. It wasn’t like this was always happening or whatever—but when it did happen, sometimes the altercation would end in an argument, and sometimes nothing. It didn’t seem like the end of the world. But my mom was always begging my dad to let it go, and he couldn’t.” His face darkens. “And I don’t blame him.
“One day,” Kenji says, “it ended really badly. Everyone had guns in those days, remember? Civilians had guns. Crazy to imagine now, under The Reestablishment, but back then, everyone was armed, out for themselves.” A short pause. “My dad bought a gun, too. He said we needed it, just in case. For our own protection.” Kenji isn’t looking at me when he says, “And the next time some stupid shit went down, my dad got a little too brave. They used his own gun against him. Dad got shot. Mom got shot trying to make it stop. I was seven.”
“You were there?” I gasp.
He nods. “Saw the whole thing go down.”
I cover my mouth with both hands. My eyes sting with unshed tears.
“I’ve never told anyone that story,” he says, his forehead creasing. “Not even Castle.”
“What?” I drop my hands. My eyes widen. “Why not?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says quietly, and stares off into the distance. “When I met Castle everything was still so fresh, you know? Still too real. When he wanted to know my story, I told him I didn’t want to talk about it. Ever.” Kenji glances over at me. “Eventually, he just stopped asking.”
I can only stare at him, stunned. Speechless.
Kenji looks away. He’s almost talking to himself when he says, “It feels so weird to have said all of that out loud.” He takes a sudden, sharp breath, jumps to his feet, and turns his head so I can’t see his face. I hear him sniff hard, twice. And then he stuffs his hands in his pockets and says, “You know, I think I might be the only one of us who doesn’t have daddy issues. I loved the shit out of my dad.”
I’m still thinking about Kenji’s story—and how much more there is to know about him, about Warner, about everyone I’ve come to call a friend—when Winston’s voice startles me back to the present.