The little boy was different.
I wanted to help him. I felt such a surge of sudden anger toward his mother for neglecting his cries. Her lack of compassion as a parent devastated me and it reminded me too much of my own mother. I just wanted to help him. I wanted him to know that someone else was listening—that someone else cared. I didn’t understand why it felt so strange and exhilarating to touch him. I didn’t know that I was draining his life and I couldn’t comprehend why he’d grown limp and quiet in my arms. I thought maybe the rush of power and positive feeling meant that I’d been cured of my horrible disease. I thought so many stupid things and I ruined everything.
I thought I was helping.
I spent the next 3 years of my life in hospitals, law offices, juvenile detention centers, and suffered through pills and electroshock therapy. Nothing worked. Nothing helped. Outside of killing me, locking me up in an institution was the only solution. The only way to protect the public from the terror of Juliette.
Until he stepped into my cell, I hadn’t seen Adam Kent in 3 years.
And he does look different. Tougher, taller, harder, sharper, tattooed. He’s muscle, mature, quiet and quick. It’s almost like he can’t afford to be soft or slow or relaxed. He can’t afford to be anything but muscle, anything but strength and efficiency. The lines of his face are smooth, precise, carved into shape by years of hard living and training and trying to survive.
He’s not a little boy anymore. He’s not afraid. He’s in the army.
But he’s not so different, either. He still has the most unusually blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Dark and deep and drenched in passion. I always wondered what it’d be like to see the world through such a beautiful lens. I wondered if your eye color meant you saw the world differently. If the world saw you differently as a result.
I should have known it was him when he showed up in my cell.
A part of me did. But I’d tried so hard to repress the memories of my past that I refused to believe it could be possible. Because a part of me didn’t want to remember. A part of me was too scared to hope. A part of me didn’t know if it would make any difference to know that it was him, after all.
I often wonder what I must look like.
I wonder if I’m just a punctured shadow of the person I was before. I haven’t looked in the mirror in 3 years. I’m so scared of what I’ll see.
Someone knocks on the door.
I’m catapulted across the room by my own fear. Adam locks eyes with me before opening the door and I decide to retreat into a far corner of the room.
I sharpen my ears only to hear muted voices, hushed tones, and someone clearing his throat. I’m not sure what to do.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Adam says a little loudly. I realize he’s trying to end the conversation.
“C’mon, man, I just wanna see her—”
“She’s not a goddamn spectacle, Kenji. Get the hell out of here.”
“Wait—just tell me: Does she light shit on fire with her eyes?” Kenji laughs and I cringe, slumping to the floor behind the bed. I curl into myself and try not to hear the rest of the conversation.
Adam sighs. I can picture him rubbing his forehead. “Just get out.”
Kenji struggles to muffle his laughter. “Damn you’re sensitive all of a sudden, huh? Hangin’ out with a girl is changin’ you, man—”
Adam says something I can’t hear.
The door slams shut.
I peek up from my hiding place. Adam looks embarrassed.
My cheeks go pink. I study the intricate threads of the finely woven carpet under my feet. I touch the cloth wallpaper and wait for him to speak. I stand up to stare out the small square of a window only to be met by the bleak backdrop of a broken city. I lean my forehead against the glass.
Metal cubes are clustered together off in the distance: compounds housing civilians wrapped in multiple layers, trying to find refuge from the cold. A mother holding the hand of a small child. Soldiers standing over them, still like statues, rifles poised and ready to fire. Heaps and heaps and heaps of trash, dangerous scraps of iron and steel glinting on the ground. Lonely trees waving at the wind.
Adam’s hands slip around my waist.
His lips are at my ear and he says nothing at all, but I melt until I’m a handful of hot butter dripping down his body. I want to eat every minute of this moment.
I allow my eyes to shut against the truth outside my window. Just for a little while.
Adam takes a deep breath and pulls me even closer. I’m molded to the shape of his silhouette; his hands are circling my waist and his cheek is pressed against my head. “You feel incredible.”
I try to laugh but seem to have forgotten how. “Those are words I never thought I’d hear.”
Adam spins me around so I’m facing him and suddenly I’m looking and not looking at his face, I’m licked by a million flames and swallowing a million more. He’s staring at me like he’s never seen me before. I want to wash my soul in the bottomless blue of his eyes.
He leans in until his forehead rests against mine and our lips still aren’t close enough. He whispers, “How are you?” and I want to kiss every beautiful beat of his heart.
How are you? 3 words no one ever asks me.
“I want to get out of here,” is all I can think of.
He squeezes me against his chest and I marvel at the power, the glory, the wonder in such a simple movement. He feels like 1 block of strength, 6 feet tall.
Every butterfly in the world has migrated to my stomach.
I lean back to see his face.
“Are you serious about leaving?” he asks me. His fingers brush the side of my cheek. He tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “Do you understand the risks?”
I take a deep breath. I know that the only real risk is death. “Yes.”
He nods. Drops his eyes, his voice. “The troops are mobilizing for some kind of attack. There have been a lot of protests from groups who were silent before, and our job is to obliterate the resistance. I think they want this attack to be their last one,” he adds quietly. “There’s something huge going on, and I’m not sure what, not yet. But whatever it is, we have to be ready to go when they are.”
I freeze. “What do you mean?”
“When the troops are ready to deploy, you and I should be ready to run. It’s the only way out that will give us time to disappear. Everyone will be too focused on the attack—it’ll buy us some time before they notice we’re missing or can get enough people together to search for us.”
“But—you mean—you’ll come with me . . . ? You’d be willing to do that for me?”
He smiles a small smile. His lips twitch like he’s trying not to laugh. His eyes soften as they study my own. “There’s very little I wouldn’t do for you.”
I take a deep breath and close my eyes, touching my fingers to his chest, imagining the bird soaring across his skin, and I ask him the one question that scares me the most. “Why?”
“What do you mean?” He steps back.
“Why, Adam? Why do you care? Why do you want to help me? I don’t understand—I don’t know why you’d be willing to risk your life—”
But then his arms are around my waist and he’s pulling me so close and his lips are at my ear and he says my name, once, twice and I had no idea I could catch on fire so quickly. His mouth is smiling against my skin. “You don’t?”
I don’t know anything, is what I would tell him if I had any idea how to speak.
He laughs a little and pulls back. Takes my hand and studies it. “Do you remember in fourth grade,” he says, “when Molly Carter signed up for the school field trip too late? All the spots were filled, and she stood outside the bus, crying because she wanted to go?”
He doesn’t wait for me to answer.
“I remember you got off the bus. You offered her your seat and she didn’t even say thank you. I watched you standing on the sidewalk as we pulled away.”
I’m no longer breathing.
“Do you remember in fifth grade? That week Dana’s parents nearly got divorced? She came to school every day without her lunch. And you offered to give her yours.” He pauses. “As soon as that week was over she went back to pretending you didn’t exist.”
I’m still not breathing.
“In seventh grade Shelly Morrison got caught cheating off your math test. She kept screaming that if she failed, her father would kill her. You told the teacher that you were the one cheating off of her test. You got a zero on the exam, and detention for a week.” He lifts his head but doesn’t look at me. “You had bruises on your arms for at least a month after that. I always wondered where they came from.”
My heart is beating too fast. Dangerously fast. I clench my fingers to keep them from shaking. I lock my jaw in place and wipe my face clean of emotion but I can’t slow the thrumming in my chest no matter how hard I try.
“A million times,” he says, his voice so quiet now. “I saw you do things like that a million times. But you never said a word unless it was forced out of you.” He laughs again, this time a hard, heavy sort of laugh. He’s staring at a point directly past my shoulder. “You never asked for anything from anyone.” He finally meets my eyes. “But no one ever gave you a chance.”
I swallow hard, try to look away but he catches my face.
He whispers, “You have no idea how much I’ve thought about you. How many times I’ve dreamt”—he takes a tight breath—“how many times I’ve dreamt about being this close to you.” He moves to run a hand through his hair before he changes his mind. Looks down. Looks up. “God, Juliette, I’d follow you anywhere. You’re the only good thing left in this world.”
I’m begging myself not to burst into tears and I don’t know if it’s working. I’m everything broken and glued back together and blushing everywhere and I can hardly find the strength to meet his gaze.
His fingers find my chin. Tip me up.
“We have three weeks at the most,” he says. “I don’t think they can control the mobs for much longer.”
I nod. I blink. I rest my face against his chest and pretend I’m not crying.
2 weeks pass.
2 weeks of dresses and showers and food I want to throw across the room. 2 weeks of Warner smiling and touching my waist, laughing and guiding the small of my back, making sure I look my best as I walk beside him. He thinks I’m his trophy. His secret weapon.
I have to stifle the urge to crack his knuckles into concrete.
But I offer him 2 weeks of cooperation because in 1 week we’ll be gone.
But then, more than anything else, I’ve found I don’t hate Warner as much as I thought I did.
I feel sorry for him.
He finds a strange sort of solace in my company; he thinks I can relate to him and his twisted notions, his cruel upbringing, his absent and simultaneously demanding father.