And then I close my eyes.
Lena slaps me across the face so hard I feel it ring in my ears. Kenji screams, but only briefly, and I take a steadying breath. I look up at her without lifting my head. “Are you done?”
Her eyes go wide, enraged and offended, and I realize I’ve already pushed her too far. She swings without thinking, and even so, it’s a punch perfectly executed. On impact she’d break, at the very least, my nose, but I can no longer entertain her daydreams of causing me physical harm. My reflexes are faster than hers—they always have been—and I catch her wrist just moments before impact. Her arm vibrates from the intensity of the unspent energy and she jerks back, shrieking as she breaks free.
“You son of a bitch,” she says, breathing hard.
“I can’t let you punch me in the face, Lena.”
“I would do worse to you.”
“And yet you wonder why things didn’t work out between us.”
“Always so cold,” she says, and something in her voice breaks as she says it. “Always so cruel.”
I rub the back of my head and smile, unhappily, at the wall. “Why have you come up to my room? Why engage me privately? You know I have little left to say to you.”
“You never said anything to me,” she suddenly screams. “Two years,” she says, her chest heaving, “two years and you left a message with my mother telling her to let me know our relationship was over—”
“You weren’t home,” I say, squeezing my eyes shut. “I thought it more efficient—”
“You are a monster—”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I am. I wish you’d forget about me.”
Her eyes go glassy in an instant, heavy with unspent tears. I feel guilty for feeling nothing. I can only stare back at her, too tired to fight. Too busy nursing my own wounds.
Her voice is both angry and sad when she says, “Where’s your new girlfriend? I’m dying to meet her.”
At this, I look away again, my own heart breaking in my chest. “You should go get settled,” I say. “Nazeera and Haider are here, too, somewhere. I’m sure you’ll all have plenty to talk about.”
“Please, Lena,” I say, feeling truly exhausted now. “You’re upset, I understand. But it’s not my fault you feel this way. I don’t love you. I never have. And I never led you to believe I did.”
She’s quiet for so long I finally face her, realizing too late that somehow, again, I’ve managed to make things worse. She looks paralyzed, her eyes round, her lips parted, her hands trembling slightly at her sides.
“I have to go,” I say quietly. “Kenji will show you to your quarters.” I glance at Kenji and he nods, just once. His face is unexpectedly grim.
Still, Lena says nothing.
I take a step back, ready to close the door between us, when she lunges at me with a sudden cry, her hands closing around my throat so unexpectedly she almost knocks me over. She’s screaming in my face, pushing me backward as she does, and it’s all I can do to keep myself calm. My instincts are too sharp sometimes—it’s hard for me to keep from reacting to physical threats—and I force myself to move in an almost liquid slow motion as I remove her hands from around my neck. She’s still thrashing against me, landing several kicks at my shins when I finally manage to gentle her arms and pull her close.
Suddenly, she stills.
My lips are at her ear when I say her name once, very gently.
She swallows hard as she meets my eyes, all fire and rage. Even so, I sense her hope. Her desperation. I can feel her wonder whether I’ve changed my mind.
“Lena,” I say again, even more softly. “Really, you must know that your actions do nothing to endear you to me.”
“Please go away,” I say, and quickly close the door between us.
I fall backward onto my bed, cringing as she kicks violently at my door, and cradle my head in my hands. I have to stifle a sudden, inexplicable impulse to break something. My brain feels like it might split free of my skull.
How did I get here?
Unmoored. Disheveled and distracted.
When did this happen to me?
I have no focus, no control. I am every disappointment, every failure, every useless thing my father ever said I was. I am weak. I am a coward. I let my emotions win too often and now, now I’ve lost everything. Everything is falling apart. Juliette is in danger. Now, more than ever, she and I need to stand together. I need to talk to her. I need to warn her. I need to protect her—but she’s gone. She despises me again.
And I’m here once more.
In the abyss.
Dissolving slowly in the acid of emotion.
Loneliness is a strange sort of thing.
It creeps up on you, quiet and still, sits by your side in the dark, strokes your hair as you sleep. It wraps itself around your bones, squeezing so tight you almost can’t breathe, almost can’t hear the pulse racing in your blood as it rushes up your skin and touches its lips to the soft hairs at the back of your neck. It leaves lies in your heart, lies next to you at night, leaches the light out from every corner. It’s a constant companion, clasping your hand only to yank you down when you’re struggling to stand up, catching your tears only to force them down your throat. It scares you simply by standing by your side.
You wake up in the morning and wonder who you are. You fail to fall asleep at night and tremble in your skin. You doubt you doubt you doubt
why won’t I
And even when you’re ready to let go. When you’re ready to break free. When you’re ready to be brand-new. Loneliness is an old friend standing beside you in the mirror, looking you in the eye, challenging you to live your life without it. You can’t find the words to fight yourself, to fight the words screaming that you’re not enough never enough never ever enough.
Loneliness is a bitter, wretched companion.
Sometimes it just won’t let go.
—AN EXCERPT FROM JULIETTE’S JOURNALS IN THE ASYLUM
The first thing I do upon my return back to base is order Delalieu to move all my things into Anderson’s old rooms. I haven’t really thought about how I’ll deal with seeing Warner all the time. I haven’t considered yet how to act around his ex-girlfriend. I have no idea what any of that will be like and right now I almost can’t be bothered to care.
I’m too angry.
If Nazeera is to be believed, then everything we tried to do here—all of our efforts to play nice, to be diplomatic, to host an international conference of leaders—was for nothing. Everything we’d been working toward is garbage. She says they’re planning on wiping out all of Sector 45. Every person. Not just the ones living at our headquarters. Not just the soldiers who stood alongside us. But all the civilians, too. Women, children—everyone.
They’re going to make Sector 45 disappear.
And I’m feeling suddenly out of control.
Anderson’s old quarters are enormous—they make Warner’s rooms seem ridiculous in comparison—and after Delalieu has left me alone I’m free to drown in the many privileges that my fake role as supreme commander of The Reestablishment has to offer. Two offices. Two meeting rooms. A full kitchen. A large master suite. Three bathrooms. Two guest rooms. Four closets, fully stocked—like father, like son, I realize—and countless other details. I’ve never spent much time in any of these rooms before; the dimensions are too vast. I need only one office and, generally, that’s where I spend my time.
But today I take the time to look around, and the one space that piques my interest most is one I’d never noticed before. It’s the one positioned closest to the bedroom: an entire room devoted to Anderson’s enormous collection of alcohol.
I don’t know very much about alcohol.
I’ve never had a traditional teenage experience of any kind; I’ve never had parties to attend; I’ve never been subjected to the kind of peer pressure I’ve read about in novels. No one has ever offered me drugs or a strong drink, and probably for good reason. Still, I’m mesmerized by the myriad bottles arranged perfectly on the glass shelves lining the dark, paneled walls of this room. There’s no furniture but two big, brown leather chairs and the heavily lacquered coffee table stationed between them. Atop the coffee table sits a clear—jug?—filled with some kind of amber liquid; there’s a lone drinking glass set beside it. Everything in here is dark, vaguely depressing, and reeks of wood and something ancient, musty—old.
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