Shock courses through me. “Of course I am.”
In an instant I’m bombarded by memories of the battlefield, the terror of being shot to death. I have not forgotten my friends or my renewed conviction, my determination to do things differently. To make a difference. To really fight this time, with no hesitation. No matter what happens—and no matter what I discover—there’s no turning back for me anymore. There are no other alternatives.
I have not forgotten. “I forge forward or die.”
Warner laughs out loud. He looks like he might cry.
“I am going to kill your father,” I say to him, “and I’m going to destroy The Reestablishment.”
He’s still smiling.
“I know,” he says.
“Then why are you laughing at me?”
“I’m not,” he says softly. “I’m only wondering,” he says, “if you would like my help.”
“What?” I blink fast, disbelieving.
“I’ve always told you,” Warner says to me, “that we would make an excellent team. I’ve always said that I’ve been waiting for you to be ready—for you to recognize your anger, your own strength. I’ve been waiting since the day I met you.”
“But you wanted to use me for The Reestablishment—you wanted me to torture innocent people—”
“What? What are you talking about? You told me yourself—”
“I lied.” He shrugs.
My mouth has fallen open.
“There are three things you should know about me, love.” He steps forward. “The first,” he says, “is that I hate my father more than you might ever be capable of understanding.” He clears his throat. “Second, is that I am an unapologetically selfish person, who, in almost every situation, makes decisions based entirely on self-interest. And third.” A pause as he looks down. Laughs a little. “I never had any intention of using you as a weapon.”
Words have failed me.
I sit down.
“That was an elaborate scheme I designed entirely for my father’s benefit,” Warner says. “I had to convince him it would be a good idea to invest in someone like you, that we might utilize you for military gain. And to be quite, quite honest, I’m still not sure how I managed it. The idea is ludicrous. To spend all that time, money, and energy on reforming a supposedly psychotic girl just for the sake of torture?” He shakes his head. “I knew from the beginning it would be a fruitless endeavor; a complete waste of time. There are far more effective methods of extracting information from the unwilling.”
“Then why—why did you want me?”
His eyes are jarring in their sincerity. “I wanted to study you.”
“What?” I gasp.
He turns his back to me. “Did you know,” he says, so quietly I have to strain to hear him, “that my mother lives in that house?” He looks to the closed door. “The one my father brought you to? The one where he shot you? She was in her room. Just down the hall from where he was keeping you.”
When I don’t respond, Warner turns to face me.
“Yes,” I whisper. “Your father mentioned something about her.”
“Oh?” Alarm flits in and out of his features. He quickly masks the emotion. “And what,” he says, making an effort to sound calm, “did he say about her?”
“That she’s sick,” I tell him, hating myself for the tremor that goes through his body. “That he stores her there because she doesn’t do well in the compounds.”
Warner leans back against the wall, looking as if he requires the support. He takes a hard breath. “Yes,” he finally says. “It’s true. She’s sick. She became ill very suddenly.” His eyes are focused on a distant point in another world. “When I was a child, she seemed perfectly fine,” he says, turning and turning the jade ring around his finger. “But then one day she just . . . fell apart. For years I fought my father to seek treatment, to find a cure, but he never cared. I was on my own to find help for her, and no matter who I contacted, no doctor was able to treat her. No one,” he says, hardly breathing now, “knew what was wrong with her. She exists in a constant state of agony,” he says, “and I’ve always been too selfish to let her die.”
He looks up.
“And then I heard about you. I’d heard stories about you, rumors,” he says. “And it gave me hope for the very first time. I wanted access to you; I wanted to study you. I wanted to know and understand you firsthand. Because in all my research, you were the only person I’d ever heard of who might be able to offer me answers about my mother’s condition. I was desperate,” he says. “I was willing to try anything.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “How could someone like me be able to help you with your mother?”
His eyes find mine again, bright with anguish. “Because, love. You cannot touch anyone. And she,” he says, “she cannot be touched.”
I’ve lost the ability to speak.
“I finally understand her pain,” Warner says. “I finally understand what it must be like for her. Because of you. Because I saw what it did to you—what it does to you—to carry that kind of burden, to exist with that much power and to live among those who do not understand.”
He tilts his head back against the wall, presses the heels of his hands to his eyes.
“She, much like you,” he says, “must feel as though there is a monster inside of her. But unlike you, her only victim is herself. She cannot live in her own skin. She cannot be touched by anyone; not even by her own hands. Not to brush a hair from her forehead or to clench her fists. She’s afraid to speak, to move her legs, to stretch her arms, even to shift to a more comfortable position, simply because the sensation of her skin brushing against itself causes her an excruciating amount of pain.”
He drops his hands.
“It seems,” he says, fighting to keep his voice steady, “that something in the heat of human contact triggers this terrible, destructive power within her, and because she is both the originator and the recipient of the pain, she’s somehow incapable of killing herself. Instead, she exists as a prisoner in her own bones, unable to escape this self-inflicted torture.”