“You—you—” I sputter.
“You should be thanking me. I saved you from that sick hole of an asylum—I brought you into a position of power. I’ve given you everything you could possibly need to be comfortable.” He levels his gaze at me. “Now I need you to focus. I need you to relinquish your hopes of living like everyone else. You are not normal. You never have been, and you never will be. Embrace who you are.”
“I”—I swallow—“I am not—I’m not—I’m—”
“An instrument of torture?”
“You’re lying to yourself.”
I’m ready to destroy him.
He cocks his head and presses back a smile. “You’ve been on the edge of insanity your entire life, haven’t you? So many people called you crazy you actually started to believe it. You wondered if they were right. You wondered if you could fix it. You thought if you could just try a little harder, be a little better, smarter, nicer—you thought the world would change its mind about you. You blamed yourself for everything.”
My bottom lip trembles without my permission. I can hardly control the tension in my jaw.
I don’t want to tell him he’s right.
“You’ve suppressed all your rage and resentment because you wanted to be loved,” he says, no longer smiling. “Maybe I understand you, Juliette. Maybe you should trust me. Maybe you should accept the fact that you’ve tried to be someone you’re not for so long and that no matter what you did, those bastards were never happy. They were never satisfied. They never gave a damn, did they?” He looks at me and for a moment he seems almost human. For a moment I want to believe him. For a moment I want to sit on the floor and cry out the ocean lodged in my throat.
“It’s time you stopped pretending,” he says, so softly. “Juliette—” He takes my face in his gloved hands, so unexpectedly gentle. “You don’t have to be nice anymore. You can destroy all of them. You can take them down and own this whole world and—”
A steam engine hits me in the face.
“I don’t want to destroy anyone,” I tell him. “I don’t want to hurt people—”
“But they deserve it!” He pushes away from me, frustrated. “How could you not want to retaliate? How could you not want to fight back—”
I stand up slowly, shaking with anger, hoping my legs won’t collapse beneath me. “You think that because I am unwanted, because I am neglected and—and discarded—” My voice inches higher with every word, the unrestrained emotions suddenly screaming through my lungs. “You think I don’t have a heart? You think I don’t feel? You think that because I can inflict pain, that I should? You’re just like everyone else. You think I’m a monster just like everyone else. You don’t understand me at all—”
I don’t want this. I don’t want his life.
I don’t want to be anything for anyone but myself. I want to make my own choices and I’ve never wanted to be a monster. My words are slow and steady when I speak. “I value human life a lot more than you do, Warner.”
He opens his mouth to speak before he stops. Laughs out loud and shakes his head.
Smiles at me.
“What?” I ask before I can stop myself.
“You just said my name.” He grins even wider. “You’ve never addressed me directly before. That must mean I’m making progress with you.”
“I just told you I don’t—”
He cuts me off. “I’m not worried about your moral dilemmas. You’re just stalling for time because you’re in denial. Don’t worry,” he says. “You’ll get over it. I can wait a little longer.”
“I’m not in denial—”
“Of course you are. You don’t know it yet, Juliette, but you are a very bad girl,” he says, clutching his heart. “Just my type.”
This conversation is impossible.
“There is a soldier living in my room.” I’m breathing hard. “If you want me to be here, you need to get rid of the cameras.”
Warner’s eyes darken for just an instant. “Where is your soldier, anyway?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I hope to God I’m not blushing. “You assigned him to me.”
“Yes.” He looks thoughtful. “I like watching you squirm. He makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t he?”
I think about Adam’s hands on my body and his lips so close to mine and the scent of his skin drenched in a steaming downpour soaking the two of us together and suddenly my heart is two fists pounding on my ribs demanding escape. “Yes.” God. “Yes. He makes me very . . . uncomfortable.”
“Do you know why I chose him?” Warner asks, and I’m run over by a tractor trailer.
Adam was chosen.
Of course he was. He wasn’t just any soldier sent to my cell. Warner does nothing without reason. He must know Adam and I have a history. He is more cruel and calculative than I gave him credit for.
“No.” Inhale. “I don’t know why.” Exhale. I can’t forget to breathe.
“He volunteered,” Warner says simply, and I’m momentarily dumbstruck. “He said he’d gone to school with you so many years ago. He said you probably wouldn’t remember him, that he looks a lot different now than he did back then. He put together a very convincing case.” A beat of breath. “He said he was thrilled to hear you’d been locked up.” Warner finally looks at me.
My bones are like cubes of ice clinking together, chilling me to my core.
“I’m curious,” he continues, tilting his head as he speaks. “Do you remember him?”
“No,” I lie, and I’m not sure I’m alive. I’m trying to untangle the truth from the false from assumptions from the postulations but run-on sentences are twisting around my throat.
Adam knew me when he walked into that cell.
He knew exactly who I was.
He already knew my name.
This was all a trap.
“Does this information make you . . . angry?” he asks, and I want to sew his smiling lips into a permanent scowl.
I say nothing and somehow it’s worse.
Warner is beaming. “I never told him, of course, why it was that you’d been locked up—I thought the experiment in the asylum should remain untainted by extra information—but he said you were always a threat to the students. That everyone was always warned to stay away from you, though the authorities never explained why. He said he wanted to get a closer look at the freak you’ve become.”
My heart cracks. My eyes flash. I’m so hurt so angry so horrified so humiliated and burning with indignation so raw that it’s like a fire raging within me, a wildfire of decimated hopes. I want to crush Warner’s spine in my hand. I want him to know what it’s like to wound, to inflict such unbearable agony on others. I want him to know my pain and Jenkins’ pain and Fletcher’s pain and I want him to hurt. Because maybe Warner is right.
Maybe some people do deserve it.
“Take off your shirt.”
For all his posturing, Warner looks genuinely surprised, but he wastes no time unbuttoning his jacket, slipping off his gloves, and peeling away the thin cotton shirt clinging closest to his skin.
His eyes are bright, sickeningly eager; he doesn’t mask his curiosity.
Warner drops his clothes to the floor and looks at me almost intimately. I have to swallow back the revulsion bubbling in my mouth. His perfect face. His perfect body. His eyes as hard and beautiful as frozen gemstones. He repulses me. I want his exterior to match his broken black interior. I want to cripple his cockiness with the palm of my hand.
He walks up to me until there’s less than a foot of space between us. His height and build make me feel like a fallen twig. “Are you ready?” he asks, arrogant and foolish.
I contemplate breaking his neck.
“If I do this you’ll get rid of all the cameras in my room. All the bugs. Everything.”
He steps closer. Dips his head. He’s staring at my lips, studying me in an entirely new way. “My promises aren’t worth much, love,” he whispers. “Or have you forgotten?” 3 inches forward. His hand on my waist. His breath sweet and warm on my neck. “I’m an exceptional liar.”
Realization slams into me like 200 pounds of common sense. I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be making deals with him. I shouldn’t be contemplating torture dear God I have lost my mind. My fists are balled at my sides and I’m shaking everywhere. I can hardly find the strength to speak. “You can go to hell.”
I trip backward against the wall and slump into a heap of uselessness; desperation. I think of Adam and my heart deflates.
I can’t be here anymore.
I fly to the double doors facing the room and yank them open before Warner can stop me. But Adam stops me instead. He’s standing just outside. Waiting. Guarding me wherever I go.
I wonder if he heard everything and my eyes fall to the floor, the color flushed from my face, my heart in pieces in my hand. Of course he heard everything. Of course he now knows I’m a murderer. A monster. A worthless soul stuffed into a poisonous body.
Warner did this on purpose.
And I’m standing between them. Warner with no shirt on. Adam looking at his gun.
“Soldier.” Warner speaks. “Take her back up to her room and disable all the cameras. She can have lunch alone if she wants, but I’ll expect her for dinner.”
Adam blinks for a moment too long. “Yes, sir.”
I freeze. My back is to Warner and I don’t turn around.
“I do expect you to hold up your end of the bargain.”
It takes 5 years to walk to the elevator. 15 more to ride it up. I’m a million years old by the time I walk into my room. Adam is still, silent, perfectly put together and mechanical in his movements. There’s nothing in his eyes, in his limbs, in the motions of his body that indicate he even knows my name.
I watch him move quickly, swiftly, carefully around the room, finding the little devices meant to monitor my behavior and disabling them one by one. If anyone asks why my cameras aren’t working, Adam won’t get in trouble. This order came from Warner. This makes it official.
This makes it possible for me to have some privacy.
I thought I would need privacy.
I’m such a fool.
Adam is not the boy I remember.
I was in third grade.
I’d just moved into town after being thrown out of asked to leave my old school. My parents were always moving, always running away from the messes I made, from the playdates I’d ruined, from the friendships I never had. No one ever wanted to talk about my “problem,” but the mystery surrounding my existence somehow made things worse. The human imagination is often disastrous when left to its own devices. I only heard bits and pieces of their whispers.