Rod didn't watch his family step away. He turned his back and scowled at the people streaming by, boxes in hand; at the empty houses staring blankly through bare windows behind them.
"Good riddance," said his aunt with a sigh. Her thin hand closed like a vise on his shoulder. "Come on, Rodney."
Aunt Nell's grip was fierce, and she dragged him in her wake back to the car. His duffel bag holding everything he valued waited on the back seat. Nell unlocked the car with her remote and pulled open the door, thrusting him bodily inside. The door slammed, and for an instant he was alone.
The driver's door flew open and Nell slid behind the wheel. The car started with a roar. Rod watched his old neighborhood fly past as they accelerated out onto the main road. Then he looked away.
Aunt Nell said nothing. There was nothing left to say.
The kids at school all knew. They called him Left-behind, Dead Weight, Garbage. He held his head high in spite of the threat of tears, and spoke to no one. His friends avoided him. His teachers shook their heads with pity and spoke to him in childish tones. "I'm fine," he told them, and slouched away.
His room at Nell's was small. She had never married, had lived alone all her life, and every room was crammed with leftovers: heirlooms his parents hadn't wanted to sell, his grandparents' things, furniture and art and junk left behind by one family member or another. Now he was just one more thing crammed in a corner, sleeping on an ancient twin bed, everything he loved stuffed in his bag beneath it. Just in case. Aunt Nell wasn't a phobic; she could decide to step away herself, any time. He had to be ready.
Rod was thirteen years old, and he was on his own.
Tomorrow he would be fourteen.
Rod sat atop the jungle gym at the elementary school. The kids, the few still going to school here, had all gone home. Traffic was light on the highway nearby. A single car turned the corner into the neighborhood. The sun sank toward the horizon, but most of the houses stayed dark. He watched the stars come out one by one.
Rod wondered if Aunt Nell even knew it was his birthday.
A lifetime ago, his dad would have baked a cake. There would have been bad singing, and presents. This year, eighth grade, he might have been allowed to have a party. Now, though, there was no one left to invite.
Nell kept him fed. She bought him clothes when he outgrew the old ones, asked after his health and his homework, even gave him a small allowance. Enough for candy bars and comic books. Otherwise she left him alone. She didn't mind his coming and going at all hours, as long as he didn't wake her up at night, as long as she didn't have to call the police for any reason. So he lived his life beneath her radar, doing as he liked.
The last sunlight faded. The city glowed on the horizon. The moon was new. Even Rod could remember a time when light pollution made all but the brightest stars invisible. That time was gone. Every night was darker. Still, the city glowed. He allowed himself to think of his sisters, like prodding a sore tooth. They hated camping. He hoped they were miserable.
He did not allow himself to think of his parents.
The night grew cold. A breeze tugged at Rod's jacket. He climbed down from the top of the jungle gym, dropping the last few feet into the dry bark mulch. A cloud of rotten-smelling dust rose up around him. He kicked his way through the mulch to the dry dead grass of the playing field. It crunched underfoot. He passed beneath the soccer goal, ducking his head to clear the bar - pee wee soccer, pee wee goal. He scuffed the fading sidelines with his feet.
At the street he paused. It felt warmer, now that he was moving, and his cramped room at Nell's held no attraction for him. A few coins jingled in his pocket. Enough for the bus to the all-night arcade.
The arcade was made for kids like him. So many families had been shattered by stepping, even kids who weren't phobic found themselves with no place to go. The community kept this place open twenty-four-seven, with a staff of college kids and a list of rules on the door. The rules were easy to follow, if all you wanted to do was lose yourself in a game.
Rod lost himself. He blew away trolls and fairies, and even settlers. He razed forests and burned budding cities. As long as the quarters lasted, he was free to vent his rage.
Then he stepped into a mountain. The last quarter clunked. Game over.
The arcade was nearly empty. Two dark-haired boys, younger than him, raced Mario-Karts. A blonde girl bent over a pinball machine. Older kids slouched in a corner. Rod crossed to the soda fountain - it was free, an effort to discourage kids from bringing beer - and got himself a coke. Leaning against the cold tile counter he slurped his drink and let his gaze wander the room.
"Fucking Robotron." A short black girl approached the soda fountain. She was rail thin, with enormous hair that made her look like a Q-tip. "Ate my last quarter," she said. "You got any left?"
Grumbling, the girl served herself an extra-large root beer. "Whatever. Game's rigged anyway."
Rod slurped his soda.
"I'm Wendi," she said. "No Peter Pan jokes."
"Rod. No penis jokes."
Wendi laughed. It was a rough, rusty sound, as if rarely used. Rod found himself smiling.
Wendi took a long drink and leaned against the counter with a sigh. "So what's your story, Rod? Phobic? Lazy? Secret cripple?"
Rod sucked on his straw. The last drops of soda bubbled noisily. He let out an epic belch.
"Yeah, me too," said Wendi. She slurped her drink. Rod aimed his cup at the trash can and let it fly.
"Nothing but net," said Wendi as the cup swooshed into the can.
"Three points," said Rod. He picked up a fresh cup and tossed it. It bounded off the rim and bounced to the floor.
"Hey," said the Asian girl behind the counter. She was small, but looked dangerous. "Don't waste stuff."
"Sorry," Rod mumbled. The college girl retreated. Wendi slurped noisily.
"Wanna blow this place?"
Rod shrugged. "You live around here?"
"Here and there. You?"
"I live in Shady Glen, but I spent my bus fare."
Wendi tossed her cup toward the trash. It swooshed in silently. "Let's walk," she said.
"What do you think they're doing right now?"
Rod glanced at his new friend. She was nearly invisible in the dark, except for the yellow Wonder Woman logo on her sweatshirt. "Who?" he asked.
"Your family." She clicked her tongue. "My dad went to West Three on a labor crew. Stopped sending money back a year ago. I think he's dead."
Rod kicked a stray pebble.
"Mom got a new boyfriend. He lives in East Nineteen. She went to stay with him, left me with my Nan. I'm phobic."
"Yeah," said Rod. There was nothing else to say.
"Nan got sick, so I'm on my own. It's okay, though. I can do what I want."
"What about food and stuff?"
She shrugged. "So many people are gone, no one cares if you take their stuff."
"You steal it."
"They left it. It's not stealing if they don't even want it."
Rod didn't argue. They cut through a parking lot, kicking at loose gravel.
"Like this," said Wendi. She stopped beside an old Ford with a layer of dust smeared across the windows. "Why is this car here?"
"It's a parking lot."
"But everything's closed." She gestured at the row of shops shut up for the night. Then she dropped into a crouch. With practiced strokes she ran her hands along the wheel well and the underside of the bumper. "It's been here a while. Nobody wants it anymore. Ha." She stood up, a key glinting in her hand. "So why not use it?"
"Well -" Rod stuttered. "It's not ours."
"It's not anyone's." Wendi unlocked the driver's door and climbed inside. "You coming?"
"You can drive?"
"No, I just like sitting up here." She turned the key, and the car sputtered to life. "Come on."
They sped along the empty highway, heading nowhere. Wendi's head barely cleared the steering wheel; she drove with her chin lifted, straining to see the road. The lights of the city dwindled behind them.
"You do this a lot?" asked Rod.
Wendi shrugged. "When I get bored."
"What if you run out of gas?"
"You worry too much."
Rod looked out the window. He'd heard that phrase a lot in the weeks before his family left. Sitting on the stairs, listening to his parents debate the details of their trip. Mom was dead set; Dad had doubts. He'd thought, then, that his dad would stand up for him. That his dad would insist. He was wrong. And that was the worst part.
"Why don't they care about us?" he said, unintentionally out loud.
Wendi snorted. "Nobody cares about anything but their self. It's human nature. You should try it, it's a lot easier than the other way."
"It's my birthday," said Rod miserably.
"Why didn't you say so?" Wendi grinned. "Let's have a party."
They turned off the highway onto a poorly-lit country road that wound up into the hills under the trees. As the car bumped and jostled over rough ground, Rod became aware of his bladder. And his belly; it had been a long time since dinner.
"Where are we going?"
"You'll see." Wendi steered them up a steep driveway and stopped the car. In the clearing ahead stood a tall, dark, and utterly silent house, outlined by stars.
"What is this place?"
"Would you stop talking and come on?"
He followed Wendi around the back, across a flagstone patio, between a stack of deck chairs and a shrouded table. The back door was set with six panes of frosted glass, one broken. Wendi reached through the hole and unlocked the door.
"Welcome to my humble abode," she said.
The back door opened into a linoleum-floored mud room. The shelves and coat hooks were bare, but laundry machines loomed out of the dark like silent sentries. Wendi turned on the lights, and Rod followed her, blinking, into a pink tiled kitchen with glossy wood cabinets and stone countertops. The refrigerator hummed, and the digital clock on the stove read 11:17.
"Who lives here?" Rod whispered.
"No one," said Wendi. "They stepped ages ago. They left some great stuff, though." She opened the freezer and pulled out a bag of microwave burritos. "Hungry?"
"Yeah." He looked around. "Suppose they have a bathroom?"
"Duh. That way." She waved one hand, shoving burritos in the microwave with the other.
Beneath a veneer of dust the bathroom gleamed. White tile and chrome, padded white rug underfoot, spotless fixtures. Rod did what he had to do, washed his hands, dried them on a thick soft towel. The kitchen was empty when he returned, but he followed his nose into the hallway and down a flight of richly carpeted stairs.
The room at the bottom was every teenager's dream. Shelves lined one wall, piled high with Blu-Rays and video game cartridges. There was a foosball table, a pool table, and the biggest television Rod had ever seen. A plate of burritos steamed on the table in front of the television, as Wendi popped a disc into the player.
"Like horror movies?"
He shrugged. "I have to go to school tomorrow."
Wendi glared at him, hands on her hips. "So? You want to leave now?"
Rod looked at the plate of burritos, the huge TV, the deep plush sofa. "No," he said. "Forget it. Let's watch a movie."
Three burritos and half a zombie movie later, Rod fell asleep.
He woke up alone in the dark. Light blazed from the stairwell, and tiny numbers blinked on the Blu-Ray display. He rubbed his eyes and squinted.
With a sigh he climbed the stairs into daylight, used the bathroom, washed his face with a fluffy towel. From the living room he peered cautiously out the front window. The dusty Ford was there in the driveway, but there was no sign of Wendi. He sat down on the luxurious leather sofa and stared into the cold fireplace.
In Homeroom right now, Mrs. Wall would be giving him her sad cow eyes, taking attendance, marking off students who would not be returning. Jason Lumley would be launching spitballs into his hair. Marlee and Kim would be gossiping about him in the corner.
Assuming they were all still there.
Then there would be math class. Mrs. Baxter would wring her hands at the empty chairs. She was phobic too, and would proudly tell anyone unlucky enough to come within earshot. To her it was a badge of honor. But her husband had died long before the first step box had been discovered, and her children already lived a thousand miles away. What's a thousand miles and a step?
A toilet flushed somewhere in the back of the house. Wendi emerged, yawning and stretching. "Sleep okay down there?"
"There's cereal for breakfast." She crossed to the kitchen. "Milk's powdered, but it's okay."
He got up and followed as she banged open cabinets and set out boxes and bowls. "Why is there so much stuff here?" he asked.
"Lots of people step thinking they'll come back."
"So they just leave everything?"
"Uh huh." She added water to her cereal and stirred. "They never come back, though."
Rod poured Raisin Bran and powdered milk into a bowl and added water. It smelled strange. They sat down at the kitchen table, and Wendi shoveled cereal into her mouth. Rod marveled that one so small could eat so much.
"Do you come here a lot?" he asked her.
"Sometimes," she shrugged. "It's a nice place."
"Yeah." Rod thought about all the unwatched movies waiting downstairs, all the unplayed games. "My aunt's TV is really small."
Wendi slurped milk from her bowl. "That's who you live with? Your aunt?"
He nodded. "Mother's sister." He winced at the thought of his mother. "Doesn't like kids."
"Why'd she take you?"
"Had to, I guess. There's no one else."
"Is she phobic?"
"No. She thinks stepping's for losers."
Wendi laughed. "I think I like your aunt."
"You could meet her." Rod crushed the last few bran flakes with his spoon. "If you wanted."
"Maybe later. Wanna play Final Fantasy?"
She didn't have to ask him twice.
In the end they played four games, watched two movies, ate ten microwave burritos and drank a liter of orange soda. "I should be getting home," Rod belched as the digital clock blinked 6:15. "Aunt Nell's going to be pretty pissed."
"It was worth it, though, right?" Wendi grinned.
"Oh, yeah." He smiled back, genuinely content for the first time in as long as he could remember. "Best birthday ever."
They drove back to town singing along with the radio. Two other cars passed them on the way. "Practically rush hour," Wendi snickered.
Rod gave her directions to Aunt Nell's house. They crossed under the freeway, drove down Main Street, and turned at the sign for Shady Glen. Wendi slowed to make the last turn, then suddenly stepped on the gas.
"Cops," she muttered.
Rod glanced behind. Red and blue lights flashed down Nell's street. He felt suddenly sick.
"She called them," he said. "Aunt Nell called the cops."
"Screw this," said Wendi. She swung the car in a U and sped back toward the development entrance.
It was too late. Sirens wailed behind them.
"Shit." Wendi glared at him. "I changed my mind. I don't like your aunt."
"This is my fault," said Rod. "Pull over, I'll explain it to them."
"Oh yeah? How are you going to explain me driving without a license? In a car that's not mine?" She swerved onto the freeway ramp. "We're screwed. We're going to jail."
Rod clung to his seat belt as the car accelerated. Behind them airhorns blared. Wendi darted back and forth across the freeway's three lanes as a trio of police cars hovered just behind. At the last second she dodged down an exit ramp. Not one pursuer was fooled.
The road ahead was wide and straight. Wendi stood on the gas. The old Ford roared. Sirens wailed. A family waiting to cross the street stopped and stared. Their faces blurred into one as the car whipped by. Rod closed his eyes, wondering if it would help to pray.
"Shit!" Wendi yelped and slammed on the brakes. The seat belt snapped across Rod's hips and chest; his spine cracked and his head swung crazily on the end of his neck before falling back against the headrest. The car screeched to a stop, just short of hitting the cop car that had pulled out in front of them. Wendi clutched the wheel with both hands as tears streamed down her face.
"I'm sorry," said Rod.
She glared at him. Then her eyes softened, and she cracked a lopsided smile.
"Pretty fun, though, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Rod grinned. "Wouldn't have missed it for anything."
Rod and Wendi sat side by side on a hard, narrow bench. Nell's voice pierced the thick windows; she was giving someone a good shout. Rod was glad that for the moment at least it wasn't him.
"We didn't even get handcuffed," Wendi sniffed. "How are you supposed to brag about being arrested if you don't even get handcuffed?"
"Can you brag about getting arrested in jail? Didn't everyone in jail get arrested?"
"We're not going to jail," she said scornfully. "We're minors, and left-behinds. Everyone feels sorry for us."
"What do you think's going to happen then?"
She scuffed the floor with the toe of her sneaker. "You'll go home with your aunt. She'll yell at you, then she'll probably buy you ice cream. She looks like the type to buy make-up ice cream."
"I don't know about that," said Rod.
"Okay, then, what about you?"
She kicked at the floor. "I don't know."
"I thought you knew everything."
His humor fell flat. Wendi frowned at her shoe. "There's no one at home to yell at me," she said. "I don't know if they'll let me go if there's no one there."
Rod stared at his own shoes. He inched his hand along the edge the bench, slowly, slowly, until it just touched Wendi's. A spark of warmth moved between them.
There was nothing else to say.
Weeks passed. The end of the school year edged into sight, and the long empty summer beyond. The cafeteria rang with lunchtime voices. Rod sat alone at one end of the long table, picking at his food.
Another tray clattered down across from his. "Is this seat taken?"
Rod looked up in surprise. It was Wendi, complete with enormous hair and Wonder Woman sweatshirt. She sat down with a smirk and began shoveling in lunch.
"What - when - I didn't know you went to school here."
"I haven't been to school in a long time." She opened her carton of chocolate milk and took a long swallow.
"My mom came back."
Rod gaped. Wendi smirked.
"Someone told her about Nan," she said. "Then someone told her about me."
"Did she yell at you?"
Wendi grinned broadly. "Yeah. And she promised to stay, as long as I go to school."
Rod couldn't hide his own smile. "So you're going here? I'll - I mean, we'll see each other here?"
"Uh huh. I live in Jackson Grove."
"You can walk to my house from there."
"And why would I want to do that?"
Rod rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Remember when you said my aunt would buy me ice cream?"
"Yeah. Did she?"
Wendi's face fell. "Really?"
"She bought me an Xbox."
It was Wendi's turn to gape.
"Well, it was my birthday." He shrugged. "As long as I'm home every night by ten I can play all I want. And I can have friends over to play."
Wendi recovered her jaw. "I thought she didn't like kids."
"She'll make an exception for you."
The bell rang. The cafeteria filled with the scraping of chairs and clattering of trays.
"See you after school, then?" said Rod.
Wendi grinned, her eyes shining. "Wouldn't miss it for anything."