I want her to know that I understand now. That I didn’t understand before. She and I really are the same; in so many more ways than I could’ve known.
But now she’s out of reach. She’s gone somewhere with strangers who do not know her and would not care for her as I would. She’s been dropped into another foreign environment with no time to transition, and I’m worried about her. A person in her situation—with her past—does not recover overnight. And now, one of two things is bound to happen: She’s either going to completely shut down, or she’s going to explode.
I sit up too fast, breaking free of the water, gasping for air.
I push my wet hair out of my face. I lean back against the tiled wall, allowing the cool air to calm me, to clear my thoughts.
I have to find her before she breaks.
I’ve never wanted to cooperate with my father before, never wanted to agree with his motives or his methods. But in this instance, I’m willing to do just about anything to get her back.
And I’m eager for any opportunity to snap Kent’s neck.
That traitorous bastard. The idiot who thinks he’s won himself a pretty girl. He has no idea who she is. No idea what she’s about to become.
And if he thinks he’s even remotely suited to match her, he’s even more of an idiot than I gave him credit for.
“Where’s the coffee?” I ask, my eyes scanning the table.
Delalieu drops his fork. The silverware clangs against the china plates. He looks up, eyes wide. “Sir?”
“I’d like to try it,” I tell him, attempting to spread butter on my toast with my left hand. I toss a look in his direction. “You’re always going on about your coffee, aren’t you? I thought I—”
Delalieu jumps up from the table without a word. Bolts out the door.
I laugh silently into my plate.
Delalieu carts the tea and coffee tray in himself and stations it by my chair. His hands shake as he pours the dark liquid into a teacup, places it on a saucer, sets it on the table, and pushes it in my direction.
I wait until he’s finally sitting down again before I take a sip. It’s a strange, obscenely bitter sort of drink; not at all what I expected. I glance up at him, surprised to discover that a man like Delalieu would begin his day by bracing himself with such a potent, foul-tasting liquid. I find I respect him for it.
“This isn’t terrible,” I tell him.
His face splits into a smile so wide, so beatific, I wonder if he’s misheard me. He’s practically beaming when he says, “I take mine with cream and sugar. The taste is far better that w—”
“Sugar.” I put my cup down. Press my lips together, fight back a smile. “You add sugar to it. Of course you do. That makes so much more sense.”
“Would you like some, sir?”
I hold up my hand. Shake my head. “Call back the troops, Lieutenant. We’re going to halt daytime missions and instead launch in the evening, after curfew. You will remain on base,” I tell him, “where the supreme will dictate orders through his men; carry out any demands as they are required. I shall lead the group myself.” I stop. Hold his eyes. “There will be no more talk of what has transpired. Nothing for the civilians to see or speak of. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” he says, his coffee forgotten. “I’ll issue the orders at once.”
He stands up.
I’m beginning to feel real hope for the first time since she left. We’re going to find her. Now, with this new information—with an entire army against a group of clueless rebels—it seems impossible we won’t.
I take a deep breath. Take another sip of this coffee.
I’m surprised to discover how much I enjoy the bitter taste of it.
He’s waiting for me when I return to my room.
“The orders have been issued,” I tell him without looking in his direction. “We will mobilize tonight.” I hesitate. “So if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to contend with.”
“What’s it like,” he asks, “to be so crippled?” He’s smiling. “How can you stand to look at yourself, knowing that you’ve been disabled by your own subordinates?”
I pause outside the adjoining door to my office. “What do you want?”
“What,” he says, “is your fascination with that girl?”
My spine goes rigid.
“She is more to you than just an experiment, isn’t she?” he says.
I turn around slowly. He’s standing in the middle of my room, hands in his pockets, smiling at me like he might be disgusted.
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at yourself,” he says. “I haven’t even said her name and you fall apart.” He shakes his head, still studying me. “Your face is pale, your only working hand is clenched. You’re breathing too fast, and your entire body is tense.” A pause. “You have betrayed yourself, son. You think you’re very clever,” he says, “but you’re forgetting who taught you your tricks.”
I go hot and cold all at once. I try to unclench my fist and I can’t. I want to tell him he’s wrong, but I’m suddenly feeling unsteady, wishing I’d eaten more at breakfast, and then wishing I’d eaten nothing at all.
“I have work to do,” I manage to say.
“Tell me,” he says, “that you would not care if she died along with the others.”
“What?” The nervous, shaky word escapes my lips too soon.
My father drops his eyes. Clasps and unclasps his hands. “You have disappointed me in so many ways,” he says, his voice deceptively soft. “Please don’t let this be another.”
For a moment I feel as though I exist outside of my body, as if I’m looking at myself from his perspective. I see my face, my injured arm, these legs that suddenly seem unable to carry my weight. Cracks begin to form along my face, all the way down my arms, my torso, my legs.
I imagine this is what it’s like to fall apart.
I don’t realize he’s said my name until he repeats it twice more.
“What do you want from me?” I ask, surprised to hear how calm I sound. “You’ve walked into my room without permission; you stand here and accuse me of things I don’t have time to understand. I am following your rules, your orders. We will leave tonight; we will find their hideout. You can destroy them as you see fit.”
“And your girl,” he says, cocking his head at me. “Your Juliette?”
I flinch at the sound of her name. My pulse is racing so fast it feels like a whisper.
“If I were to shoot three holes in her head, how would that make you feel?” He stares at me. Watches me. “Disappointed, because you’d have lost your pet project? Or devastated, because you’d have lost the girl you love?”
Time seems to slow down, melting all around me.
“It would be a waste,” I say, ignoring the tremble I feel deep inside me, threatening to tip me over, “to lose something I’ve invested so much time in.”
He smiles. “It’s good to know you see it that way,” he says. “But projects are, after all, easily replaced. And I’m certain we’ll be able to find a better, more practical use of your time.”
I blink at him so slowly. Part of my chest feels as if it’s collapsed.
“Of course,” I hear myself say.
“I knew you’d understand.” He claps me on my injured shoulder as he leaves. My knees nearly buckle. “It was a good effort, son. But she’s cost us too much time and expense, and she’s proven completely useless. This way we’ll be disposing of many inconveniences all at once. We’ll just consider her collateral damage.” He shoots me one last smile before walking past me and out the door.
I fall back against the wall.
And crumble to the floor.
Swallow the tears back often enough and they’ll start feeling like acid dripping down your throat.
It’s that terrible moment when you’re sitting still so still so still because you don’t want them to see you cry you don’t want to cry but your lips won’t stop trembling and your eyes are filled to the brim with please and I beg you and please and I’m sorry and please and have mercy and maybe this time it’ll be different but it’s always the same. There’s no one to run to for comfort. No one on your side.
Light a candle for me, I used to whisper to no one.
If you’re out there
Please tell me you can feel this fire.
It’s day five of our patrols, and still, nothing.
I lead the group every night, marching into the silence of these cold, winter landscapes. We search for hidden passageways, camouflaged manholes—any indication that there might be another world under our feet.
And every night we return to base with nothing.
The futility of these past few days has washed over me, dulling my senses, settling me into a kind of daze I haven’t been able to claw my way out of. Every day I wake up searching for a solution to the problems I’ve forced upon myself, but I have no idea how to fix this.
If she’s out there, he will find her. And he will kill her.
Just to teach me a lesson.
My only hope is to find her first. Maybe I could hide her. Or tell her to run. Or pretend she’s already dead. Or maybe I’ll convince him that she’s different, better than the others; that she’s worth keeping alive.
I sound like a pathetic, desperate idiot.
I am a child all over again, hiding in dark corners and praying he won’t find me. Hoping he’ll be in a good mood today. That maybe everything will be all right. That maybe my mother won’t be screaming this time.
How quickly I revert back to another version of myself in his presence.
I’ve gone numb.
I’ve been performing my tasks with a sort of mechanical dedication; it requires minimal effort. Moving is simple enough. Eating is something I’ve grown accustomed to.
I can’t stop reading her notebook.
My heart actually hurts, somehow, but I can’t stop turning the pages. I feel as if I’m pounding against an invisible wall, as if my face has been bandaged in plastic and I can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t hear any sound but my own heart beating in my ears.
I’ve wanted few things in this life.
I’ve asked for nothing from no one.
And now, all I’m asking for is another chance. An opportunity to see her again. But unless I can find a way to stop him, these words will be all I’ll ever have of her.
These paragraphs and sentences. These letters.
I’ve become obsessed. I carry her notebook with me everywhere I go, spending all my free moments trying to decipher the words she’s scribbled in the margins, developing stories to go along with the numbers she’s written down.
I’ve also noticed that the last page is missing. Ripped out.
I can’t help but wonder why. I’ve searched through the book a hundred times, looking for other sections where pages might be gone, but I’ve found none. And somehow I feel cheated, knowing there’s a piece I might’ve missed. It’s not even my journal; it’s none of my business at all, but I’ve read her words so many times now that they feel like my own. I can practically recite them from memory.