Jackie wanted those green-and-black shoes so bad. He had wanted them for months, long before his news feed had been flooded with images of hurricanes and unbelievable wildfires, before the earthquake had struck and leveled half of Southern California, including the city where he lived. Driven from his mind by the catastrophes and the struggle to survive, the urgent and devastating longing for those shoes struck him full force again as soon as he laid eyes on them.
Crouched between an overturned dumpster and the filthy, soot-streaked wall of a crumbling building, he hid from the others, the ones who controlled this part of the city now. They were all men, all muscular, all merciless, but that was where their similarities ended. They were black and Asian and white and Latino. Jackie wasn’t surprised it had taken an apocalypse to break down the racial barriers in this city. They wore jeans and boots and t-shirts that revealed tattooed arms, sweating in the summer heat as they screamed along the debris-ridden street on their motorcycles, circling the block looking for the ignorant punk who’d snatched a tote bag full of food from one of their caches.
Jackie knew such a theft meant death. The hollow emptiness inside of him didn’t care. He stayed perfectly still, his thin body hunched around the bag of stolen food, centering his mind on the rations that would keep him living for a few more days—if he wasn’t caught.
Just like no one had come for the survivors after the quake, there would be no rescue if these bikers spotted him. He hunkered down smaller, wedging himself closer to the dumpster. The towering remnants of office buildings blocked out the late afternoon sun, casting the entire street into twilight.
The bikes came around again, and this time shouts filled the air. They had spotted someone. Circling a car whose windows had already been smashed, the brutes forced the person hiding inside to come out by banging on the roof and sides of the car with their iron pipes and crowbars. Jackie imagined the explosion of sound the person inside must have endured.
The bikers dragged a skinny boy onto the asphalt. He was younger than Jackie. They screamed at him, voices primal and impotent, demanding the return of their food. His thin voice was a screech beside their threatening rumbles. He didn’t have it, he’d just been sleeping in the car, he didn’t even know what was going on. He started to cry as he tried to make them listen, to make them see that he didn’t have the food.
They saw. They beat him anyway. Jackie watched through a crack in the metal of the dumpster. The other boy fell, screaming unintelligible words. They kept striking him with their pitiless rods of iron and steel until he stopped making noise, until his green-and-black sneakers stopped kicking.
When he noticed the shoes, Jackie felt like the air had been knocked out of him. The weight of his obsessive need returned full force, memory an overwhelming flood. At the same time, fear chemicals pumped through his body, urging him to run! Seizing control of that wild desire, he stayed put. He couldn’t blow his cover. He knew what these men would see when they looked at him and what they would do to him. He would be lucky to be beaten to death.
And he wanted those shoes.
They were the exact same green-and-black shoes he’d seen on a neighbor boy almost a year ago and begged for, the shoes he wasn’t allowed to wear because, according to his mom and the world, he was a girl.
Jackie rocked back and forth, eyes fixed on the other boy, lying still across the road while the men stood in a loose circle around his body, arguing. They left him lying there on the cracked asphalt, motionless. Jackie heard them angrily deciding to forget about the bag. Someone had been made to pay, and they had more food stashed at their headquarters.
It was getting dark, and these bikers weren’t the only ones looking for kids to hurt. Even they wouldn’t be safe on the streets once the watery sun went down. Shivering, Jackie thought about what he’d seen a few nights before, hidden much as he was now: another group, even more ruthless, who’d claimed the darkness. Flowing hair and skirts, boots and guns and chainsaws—the women of the city had become even more brutal than the men, after the world had ended.
He watched and waited for long minutes after the pack of men roared away. The shoes were all he could see.
He’d screamed. He’d cried. He’d threatened to run away. He’d thought about jumping off an overpass, but he never told his mom about that. He needed those shoes in a way he didn’t come to understand until after the quake, after his mom was dead. He’d hacked off his long black hair and taken out the golden studs that had pierced his ears since he was a baby, and he’d finally understood.
Pushing himself up and away from the wall, he walked toward the other boy. His feet and legs tingled from hiding in that cramped space. It felt good to move. His body felt solid and real. At first, Jackie made a wide arc around the boy, heading for the car. He peered in through the shattered window. A black backpack and camouflage jacket sat in the backseat. He reached in and took them.
He took off the dirty pink and yellow sweater he’d been wearing for weeks and slipped on the camouflage jacket. Peeking inside the backpack, he saw treasures: folded up jeans, a few rolled up pairs of boxers, and a bunch of button-down shirts crammed in on top. Boys’ clothes. He shoved his bag of food in on top, zipped the bag up, and slung it onto his back.
Taking a deep breath, Jackie told himself to man up. He moved toward the other boy.
The kid was dead, no question. Jackie avoided looking at his face, which was hardly a face anymore, as he laid his old sweater over the boy’s head and torso, hiding his broken features from the darkening sky. He sidled toward the boy’s feet.
Jackie looked down at his own baby blue slip-ons, full of holes and wrapped with duct tape. They were terrible for running. Kicking them off, he knelt.
He untied the green-and-black shoes from the dead boy’s feet. No blood had gotten on them. They were immaculate. The shoes looked sturdy, willful, confident. Yanking both of them off at once, Jackie scuttled backward as if the kid was going to sit up and yell at him.
Nothing moved. The street was deserted, for the time being. That could change any second. Jackie glanced around, then back at the shoes. He pulled them on with shaking hands.
They fit perfectly. He tied them with double knots. Standing up, he felt taller and more masculine than he’d ever been. Ready to live.
Adrien Kade Sdao is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Womanpause, and Drunk Monkeys. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.