I shake my head, stunned as I stare at him. “I should’ve known. After everything you’ve done to me—” I stop, my vision shifts, unfocused for a moment. “Of course you wouldn’t let me be master of my own mind.”
“What, exactly, are you remembering?” he says, hardly able to control the anger in his voice now. “What else do you know?”
At first, I feel nothing.
I’ve trained myself too well. Years of practice have taught me to bury my emotions as a reflex—especially in his presence—and it takes a few seconds for the feelings to emerge. They form slowly, infinite hands reaching up from infinite graves to fan the flames of an ancient rage I’ve never really allowed myself to touch.
“You stole my memories of her,” I say quietly. “Why?”
“Always so focused on the girl.” He glares at me. “She’s not the center of everything, Aaron. I stole your memories of lots of things.”
I’m shaking my head. I get to my feet slowly, at once out of my mind and perfectly calm, and I worry, for a moment, that I might actually expire from the full force of everything I feel for him. Hatred so deep it might boil me alive.
“Why would you do something like this except to torture me? You knew how I felt about her. You did it on purpose. Pushing us together and pulling us apart—” I stop suddenly. Realization dawns, bright and piercing and I look at him, unable to fathom the depth of his cruelty.
“You put Kent under my command on purpose,” I say.
My father meets my eyes with a vacant expression. He says nothing.
“I find it hard to believe you didn’t know the whereabouts of your illegitimate children,” I say to him. “I don’t believe for a second that you weren’t having Kent’s every move monitored. You must’ve known what he was doing with his life. You must’ve been notified the moment he enlisted.
“You could’ve sent him anywhere,” I say. “You had the power to do that. Instead, you let him remain in Sector 45—under my jurisdiction—on purpose. Didn’t you? And when you had Delalieu show me those files—when he came to me, convinced me that Kent would be the perfect cellmate for Juliette because here was proof that he’d known her, that they’d gone to school together—”
Suddenly, my father smiles.
“I’ve always tried to tell you,” he says softly. “I’ve tried to tell you to stop letting your emotions rule your mind. Over and over, I tried to teach you, and you never listened. You never learned.” He shakes his head. “If you suffer now, it’s because you brought it upon yourself. You made yourself an easy target.”
Somehow, even after everything, he manages to shock me. “I don’t understand how you can stand there, defending your actions, after you spent twenty years torturing me.”
“I’ve only ever been trying to teach you a lesson, Aaron. I didn’t want you to end up like your mother. She was weak, just like you.”
I need to kill him.
I picture it: what it would be like to pin him to the ground, to stab him repeatedly through the heart, to watch the light go out of his eyes, to feel his body go cold under my hands.
I wait for fear.
They don’t come.
I have no idea how he survived the last attempt on his life, but I no longer care to know the answer. I want him dead. I want to watch his blood pool in my hands. I want to rip his throat out.
I spy a letter opener on the writing desk nearby, and in the single second I take to swipe it, my father laughs.
Out loud. Doubled over, one hand holding his side. When he looks up, there are actual tears in his eyes.
“Have you lost your mind?” he says. “Aaron, don’t be ridiculous.”
I step forward, the letter opener clutched loosely in my fist, and I watch, carefully, for the moment he understands that I’m going to kill him. I want him to know that it’s going to be me. I want him to know that he finally got what he wanted.
That he finally broke me.
“You made a mistake sparing my life,” I say quietly. “You made a mistake showing your face. You made a mistake thinking you could ask me to come back, after all you’ve done—”
“You misunderstand me.” He’s standing straight again, the laughter gone from his face. “I’m not asking you to come back. You don’t have a choice.”
“Good. That makes this easier.”
“Aaron.” He shakes his head. “I’m not unarmed. I’m entirely willing to kill you if you step out of line. And though I can’t claim that murdering my son is my favorite way to spend a morning, that doesn’t mean I won’t do it. So you need to stop and think, for just a moment, before you step forward and commit suicide.”
I study him. My fingers flex around the weapon in my hand. “Tell me where she is,” I say, “and I’ll consider sparing your life.”
“You fool. Have you not been listening to me? She’s gone.”
I stiffen. Whatever he means by that, he’s not lying. “Gone where?”
“Gone,” he says angrily. “Disappeared. The girl you knew no longer exists.”
He pulls a remote out of his jacket pocket and points it at the wall. An image appears instantly, projected from elsewhere, and the sound that fills the room is so sudden—so jarring and unexpected—it nearly brings me to my knees.
Blood drips down her open, screaming mouth, the agonizing sounds punctured only by the heaving sobs that pull ragged, aching breaths from her body. Her eyes are half open, delirious, and I watch as she’s unstrapped from a chair and dragged onto a stretcher. Her body spasms, her arms and legs jerking uncontrollably. She’s in a white hospital gown, the insubstantial ties coming undone, the thin fabric damp with her own blood.
My hands shake uncontrollably as I watch, her head whipping back and forth, her body straining against her restraints. She screams again and a bolt of pain shoots through me, so excruciating it nearly bends me in half. And then, quickly, as if out of nowhere, someone steps forward and stabs a needle in her neck.
Ella goes still.
Her body is frozen, her face captured in a single moment of agony before the drug kicks in, collapsing her. Her screams dissolve into smaller, steadier whimpers. She cries, even as her eyes close.
I feel violently ill.
My hands are shaking so hard I can no longer form a fist, and I watch, as if from afar, as the letter opener falls to the floor. I hold still, forcing back the urge to vomit, but the action provokes a shudder so disorienting I almost lose my balance. Slowly, I turn to face my father, whose eyes are inscrutable.
It takes two tries before I’m able to form a single, whispered word:
He shakes his head, the picture of false sympathy. “I’m trying to get you to understand. This,” he says, nodding at the screen, “this is what she’s destined for. Forever. Stop imagining your life with her. Stop thinking of her as a person—”
“This can’t be real,” I say, cutting him off. I feel wild. Unhinged. “This— Tell me this isn’t real. What are you doing to me? Is this—”
“Of course it’s real,” he says. “Juliette is gone. Ella is gone. She’s as good as dead. She had her mind wiped weeks ago. But you,” he says, “you still have a life to live. Are you listening to me? You have to pull yourself together.”
But I can’t hear him over the sound of Ella sobbing.
She’s still weeping—the sounds softer, sadder, more desperate. She looks terrified. Small and helpless as foreign hands bandage the open wounds on her arms, the backs of her legs. I watch as glowing metal cuffs are shackled to her wrists and ankles. She whimpers once more.
And I feel insane.
I must be. Listening to her scream—watching her fight for her life, watching her choke on her own blood while I stand here, powerless to help her—
I’ll never be able to forget the sound.
No matter what happens, no matter where I run, these screams—her screams—will haunt me forever.
“You wanted me to watch this?” I’m whispering now; I can hardly speak. “Why would you want me to watch this?”
He says something to me. Shouts something at me. But I feel suddenly deaf.
The sounds of the world seem warped, faraway, like my head has been submerged underwater. The fire in my brain has been snuffed out, replaced by a sudden, absolute calm. A sense of certainty. I know what I need to do now. And I know that there’s nothing—nothing I won’t do to get to her.
I feel it, feel my thin morals dissolving. I feel my flimsy, moth-eaten skin of humanity begin to come apart, and with it, the veil keeping me from complete darkness. There are no lines I won’t cross. No illusions of mercy.
I wanted to be better for her. For her happiness. For her future.
But if she’s gone, what good is goodness?
I take a deep, steadying breath. I feel oddly liberated, no longer shackled by an obligation to decency. And in one simple move, I pick up the letter opener I dropped on the floor.
“Aaron,” he says, a warning in his voice.