My father finds these practices amusing.
“I’m afraid I’m not hungry. The medicine,” I lie, “destroys my appetite.”
“Ah,” he says. I hear him put his utensils down. “Of course. How inconvenient.”
I say nothing.
Two words and his men disperse in a matter of seconds. The door slides shut behind them.
“Look at me,” he says.
I look up, my eyes carefully devoid of emotion. I hate his face. I can’t stand to look at him for too long; I don’t like experiencing the full impact of how very inhuman he is. He is not tortured by what he does or how he lives. In fact, he enjoys it. He loves the rush of power; he thinks of himself as an invincible entity.
And in some ways, he’s not wrong.
I’ve come to believe that the most dangerous man in the world is the one who feels no remorse. The one who never apologizes and therefore seeks no forgiveness. Because in the end it is our emotions that make us weak, not our actions.
I turn away.
“What did you find?” he asks, with no preamble.
My mind immediately goes to the journal I’ve stowed away in my pocket, but I make no movement. I do not dare flinch. People seldom realize that they tell lies with their lips and truths with their eyes all the time. Put a man in a room with something he’s hidden and then ask him where he’s hidden it; he’ll tell you he doesn’t know; he’ll tell you you’ve got the wrong man; but he’ll almost always glance at its exact location. And right now I know my father is watching me, waiting to see where I might look, what I might say next.
I keep my shoulders relaxed and take a slow, imperceptible breath to steady my heart. I do not respond. I pretend to be lost in thought.
I look up. Feign surprise. “Yes?”
“What did you find? When you searched her room today?”
I exhale. Shake my head as I lean back in my chair. “Broken glass. A disheveled bed. Her armoire, hanging open. She took only a few toiletries and some extra pairs of clothes and undergarments. Nothing else was out of place.” None of this is a lie.
I hear him sigh. He pushes away his plate.
I feel the outline of her notebook burning against my upper leg.
“And you say you do not know where she might’ve gone?”
“I only know that she, Kent, and Kishimoto must be together,” I tell him. “Delalieu says they stole a car, but the trace disappeared abruptly at the edge of a barren field. We’ve had troops on patrol for days now, searching the area, but they’ve found nothing.”
“And where,” he says, “do you plan on searching next? Do you think they might’ve crossed over into another sector?” His voice is off. Entertained.
I glance up at his smiling face.
He’s only asking me these questions to test me. He has his own answers, his own solution already prepared. He wants to watch me fail by answering incorrectly. He’s trying to prove that without him, I’d make all the wrong decisions.
He’s mocking me.
“No,” I tell him, my voice solid, steady. “I don’t think they’d do something as idiotic as cross into another sector. They don’t have the access, the means, or the capacity. Both men were severely wounded, rapidly losing blood, and too far from any source of emergency aid. They’re probably dead by now. The girl is likely the only survivor, and she can’t have gone far because she has no idea how to navigate these areas. She’s been blind to them for too long; everything in this environment is foreign to her. Furthermore, she does not know how to drive, and if she’d somehow managed to commandeer a vehicle, we would’ve received word of stolen property. Considering her overall health, her propensity toward physical inexertion, and her general lack of access to food, water, and medical attention, she’s probably collapsed within a five-mile radius of this supposed barren field. We have to find her before she freezes to death.”
My father clears his throat.
“Yes,” he says, “those are interesting theories. And perhaps under ordinary circumstances, they might actually hold true. But you are failing to recall the most important detail.”
I meet his gaze.
“She is not normal,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “And she is not the only one of her kind.”
My heartbeat quickens. I blink too fast.
“Oh come now, surely you’d suspected? You’d hypothesized?” He laughs. “It seems statistically impossible that she’d be the only mistake manufactured by our world. You knew this, but you didn’t want to believe it. And I came here to tell you that it’s true.” He cocks his head at me. Smiles a big, vibrant smile. “There are more of them. And they’ve recruited her.”
“No,” I breathe.
“They infiltrated your troops. Lived among you in secret. And now they’ve stolen your toy and run away with it. God only knows how they hope to manipulate her for their own benefit.”
“How can you be certain?” I ask. “How do you know they’ve succeeded in taking her with them? Kent was half-dead when I left him—”
“Pay attention, son. I’m telling you that they are not normal. They do not follow your rules; there is no logic that binds them. You have no idea what oddities they might be capable of.” A pause. “Furthermore, I have known for some time now that a group of them exists undercover in this area. But in all these years they’ve always kept to themselves. They did not interfere with my methods, and I thought it best to allow them to die off on their own without infecting in our civilians unnecessary panic. You understand, of course,” he says. “After all, you could hardly contain even one of them. They’re freakish things to behold.”
“You knew?” I’m on my feet now. Trying to stay calm. “You knew of their existence, all this time, and yet you did nothing? You said nothing?”
“It seemed unnecessary.”
“And now?” I demand.
“Now it seems pertinent.”
“Unbelievable!” I throw my hands in the air. “That you would withhold such information from me! When you knew of my plans for her—when you knew what pains I’d taken to bring her here—”
“Calm yourself,” he says. He stretches out his legs; rests the ankle of one on the knee of the other. “We are going to find them. This barren field Delalieu speaks of—the area where the car was no longer traceable? That is our target location. They must be located underground. We must find the entrance and destroy them quietly, from within. Then we will have punished the guilty among them, and kept the rest from rising up and inspiring rebellion in our people.”
He leans forward.
“The civilians hear everything. And right now they are vibrating with a new kind of energy. They’re feeling inspired that anyone was able to run away, and that you’ve been wounded in the process. It makes our defenses seem weak and easily penetrable. We must destroy this perception by righting the imbalance. Fear will return everything to its proper place.”
“But they’ve been searching,” I tell him. “My men. Every day they’ve scoured the area and found nothing. How can we be sure we’ll find anything at all?”
“Because,” he says, “you will lead them. Every night. After curfew, while the civilians are asleep. You will cease your daylight searches; you will not give the citizens anything else to talk about. Act quietly, son. Do not show your moves. I will remain on base and oversee your responsibilities through my men; I will dictate to Delalieu as necessary. And in the interim, you shall find them, so that I may destroy them as swiftly as possible. This nonsense has gone on long enough,” he says, “and I’m no longer feeling gracious.”
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry. I’m sorry I’m so sorry please forgive me.
It was an accident.
Please forgive me
There is little I allow anyone to discover about me. There’s even less I’m willing to share about myself. And of the many things I’ve never discussed, this is one of them.
I like to take long baths.
I’ve had an obsession with cleanliness for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been so mired in death and destruction that I think I’ve overcompensated by keeping myself pristine as much as possible. I take frequent showers. I brush and floss three times a day. I trim my own hair every week. I scrub my hands and nails before I go to bed and just after I wake up. I have an unhealthy preoccupation with wearing only freshly laundered clothes. And whenever I’m experiencing any extreme level of emotion, the only thing that settles my nerves is a long bath.
So that’s what I’m doing right now.
The medics taught me how to bind my injured arm in the same plastic they used before, so I’m able to sink beneath the surface without a problem. I submerge my head for a long while, holding my breath as I exhale through my nose. I feel the small bubbles rise to the surface.
The warm water makes me feel weightless. It carries my burdens for me, understanding that I need a moment to relieve my shoulders of this weight. To close my eyes and relax.
My face breaks the surface.
I don’t open my eyes; only my nose and lips meet the oxygen on the other side. I take small, even breaths to help steady my mind. It’s so late that I don’t know what time it is; all I know is that the temperature has dropped significantly, and the cold air is tickling my nose. It’s a strange sensation, to have 98 percent of my body floating at a warm, welcome temperature, while my nose and lips twitch from the cold.
I sink my face below the water again.
I could live here, I think. Live where gravity does not know my name. Here I am unbound, untethered by the chains of this life. I am a different body, a different shell, and my weight is carried by the hands of friends. So many nights I’ve wished I could fall asleep under this sheet.
I sink deeper.
In one week my entire life has changed.
My priorities, shifted. My concentration, destroyed. Everything I care about right now revolves around one person, and for the first time in my life, it’s not myself. Her words have been burned into my mind. I can’t stop picturing her as she must’ve been, can’t stop imagining what she must’ve experienced. Finding her journal has crippled me. My feelings for her have spiraled out of control. I’ve never been so desperate to see her, to talk to her.