“The tinfoil—you can’t—you can’t put metal in the microwave—”
“What’s a microwave?”
I blink so many times the room spins. “What . . . ?”
He pulls the lid off the tinfoil container to reveal a small square. It looks like a bouillon cube. He points to the cube and then nods at the microwave. “It’s okay. I always put this in the Automat. Nothing happens.”
“It takes the molecular composition of the food and multiplies it.” Adam is standing beside me. “It doesn’t add any extra nutritional value, but it makes you feel fuller, longer.”
“And it’s cheap!” James says, grinning as he sticks it back in the contraption.
It astounds me how much has changed. People have become so desperate they’re faking food.
I have so many questions I’m liable to burst. Adam squeezes my shoulder, gently. He whispers, “We’ll talk later, I promise.” But I’m an encyclopedia with too many blank pages.
James falls asleep with his head in Adam’s lap.
He talked nonstop once he finished his food, telling me all about his sort-of school, and his sort-of friends, and Benny, the elderly lady who takes care of him because “I think she likes Adam better than me but she sneaks me sugar sometimes so it’s okay.” Everyone has a curfew. No one but soldiers are allowed outside after sunset, each soldier armed and instructed to fire at their own discretion. “Some people get more food and stuff than other people,” James said, but that’s because the people are sorted based on what they can provide to The Reestablishment, and not because they’re human beings with the right not to starve to death.
My heart cracked a little more with every word he shared with me.
“You don’t mind that I talk a lot, huh?” He bit down on his bottom lip and studied me.
“I don’t mind at all.”
“Everyone says I talk a lot.” He shrugged. “But what am I supposed to do when I have so much to say?”
“Hey—about that—” Adam interrupted. “You can’t tell anyone we’re here, okay?”
James’ mouth stopped midmovement. He blinked a few times. He stared hard at his brother. “Not even Benny?”
“No one,” Adam said.
For one infinitesimal moment I saw something that looked like raw understanding flash in his eyes. A 10-year-old who can be trusted absolutely. He nodded again and again. “Okay. You were never here.”
Adam brushes back wayward strands of hair from James’ forehead. He’s looking at his brother’s sleeping face as if trying to memorize each brushstroke of an oil painting. I’m staring at him staring at James.
I wonder if he knows he’s holding my heart in his hand. I take a shaky breath.
Adam looks up and I look down and we’re both embarrassed for different reasons.
He whispers, “I should probably put him in bed,” but doesn’t make an effort to move. James is sound sound sound asleep.
“When was the last time you saw him?” I ask, careful to keep my voice down.
“About six months ago.” A pause. “But I talked to him on the phone a lot.” Smiles a little. “Told him a lot about you.”
I flush. Count my fingers to make sure they’re all there. “Didn’t Warner monitor your calls?”
“Yeah. But Benny has an untraceable line, and I was always careful to keep it to official reporting, only. In any case, James has known about you for a long time.”
“Really . . . ?” I hate that I have to know, but I can hardly help myself. I’m a tangle of butterflies.
He looks up, looks away. Locks eyes with me. Sighs. “Juliette, I’ve been searching for you since the day you left.”
My eyelashes trip into my eyebrows; my jaw drops into my lap.
“I was worried about you,” he says quietly. “I didn’t know what they were going to do to you.”
“Why,” I gasp, I swallow, I stumble on words. “Why would you possibly care?”
He leans back against the couch. Runs a free hand over his face. Seasons change. Stars explode. Someone is walking on the moon. “You know I still remember the first day you showed up at school?” He laughs a soft, sad laugh. “Maybe I was too young, and maybe I didn’t know much about the world, but there was something about you I was immediately drawn to. It’s like I just wanted to be near you, like you had this—this goodness I never found in my life. This sweetness that I never found at home. I just wanted to hear you talk. I wanted you to see me, to smile at me. Every single day I promised myself I would talk to you. I wanted to know you. But every day I was a coward. And one day you just disappeared.
“I’d heard the rumors, but I knew better. I knew you’d never hurt anyone.” He looks down. The earth cracks open and I’m falling into the fissure. “It sounds crazy,” he says finally, so quietly. “To think that I cared so much without ever talking to you.” He hesitates. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I couldn’t stop wondering where you went. What would happen to you. I was afraid you’d never fight back.”
He’s silent for so long I want to bite through my tongue.
“I had to find you,” he whispers. “I asked around everywhere and no one had answers. The world kept falling apart. Things were getting worse and I didn’t know what to do. I had to take care of James and I had to find a way to live and I didn’t know if joining the army would help but I never forgot about you. I always hoped,” he falters, “that one day I would see you again.”
I’ve run out of words. My pockets are full of letters I can’t string together and I’m so desperate to say something that I say nothing and my heart is about to burst through my chest.
“Juliette . . . ?”
“You found me.” 3 syllables. 1 whisper of astonishment.
“Are you . . . upset?”
I look up and for the first time I realize he’s nervous. Worried. Uncertain how I’ll react to this revelation. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or kiss every inch of his body. I want to fall asleep to the sound of his heart beating in the atmosphere. I want to know he’s alive and well, breathing in and out, strong and sane and healthy forever. “You’re the only one who ever cared.” My eyes are filling with tears and I’m blinking them back and feeling the burn in my throat and everything everything everything hurts. The weight of the entire day crashes into me, threatens to break my bones. I want to cry out in happiness, in agony, in joy and the absence of justice. I want to touch the heart of the only person who ever gave a damn.
“I love you,” I whisper. “So much more than you will ever know.”
His eyes are a midnight moment filled with memories, the only windows into my world. His jaw is tight. His mouth is tight. He looks up and tries to clear his throat and I know he needs a moment to pull himself together. I tell him he should probably put James in bed. He nods. Cradles his brother to his chest. Gets to his feet and carries James to the storage closet that’s become his bedroom.
I watch him walk away with the only family he has left and I know why Adam joined the army.
I know why he suffered through being Warner’s whipping boy. I know why he dealt with the horrifying reality of war, why he was so desperate to run away, so ready to run away as soon as possible. Why he’s so determined to fight back.
He’s fighting for so much more than himself.
“Why don’t I take a look at those cuts?”
Adam is standing in front of James’ door, his hands tucked into his pockets. He’s wearing a dark red T-shirt that hugs his torso. His arms are expertly chiseled, professionally painted with tattoos I now know how to recognize. He catches me staring.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” he says, now examining the consecutive black bands of ink etched into his forearms. “We had to survive. It was the only job I could get.”
I meet him across the room, touch the designs on his skin. Nod. “I understand.”
He almost laughs, nearly smiles. Shakes his head just a millimeter.
“What?” I jerk my hand away.
“Nothing.” He grins. Slips his arms around my waist. “It just keeps hitting me. You’re really here. In my house.”
Heat rushes up my neck and I fall off a ladder holding a paintbrush dipped in red. Compliments are not things I know how to process. I bite my lip. “Where’d you get your tattoo from?”
“These?” He looks at his arms again.
“No.” I reach for his shirt, tugging it up so unsuccessfully he nearly loses his balance. He stumbles back against the wall. I push the material up toward his collar. Fight back a blush. Touch his chest. Touch the bird. “Where’d you get this from?”
“Oh.” He’s looking at me but I’m suddenly distracted by the beauty of his body and the cargo pants set a little too low on his hips. I realize he must’ve taken his belt off. I force my eyes upward. Allow my fingers to fumble down his abs. He takes a tight breath. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just—I kept dreaming about this white bird. Birds used to fly, you know.”
“You used to dream about it?”
“Yeah. All the time.” He smiles a little, exhales a little, remembering. “It was nice. It felt good—hopeful. I wanted to hold on to that memory because I wasn’t sure it would last. So I made it permanent.”
I cover the tattoo with the palm of my hand. “I used to dream about this bird all the time.”
“This bird?” His eyebrows could touch the sky.
I nod. “This exact one.” Something like realization slides into place. “Until the day you showed up in my cell. I haven’t dreamt of it ever since.” I peek up at him.
“You’re kidding.” But he knows I’m not.
I drop his shirt and lean my forehead on his chest. Breathe in the scent of him. He wastes no time pulling me closer. Rests his chin on my head, his hands on my back.
And we stand like that until I’m too old to remember a world without his warmth.
Adam cleans my cuts in a bathroom set a little off to the side of the space. It’s a miniature room with a toilet, a sink, a small mirror, and a tiny shower. I love all of it. By the time I get out of the bathroom, finally changed and washed up for bed, Adam is waiting for me in the dark. There are blankets and pillows laid out on the floor and it looks like heaven. I’m so exhausted I could sleep through a few centuries.
I slip in beside him and he scoops me into his arms. The temperature is significantly lower in this place, and Adam is the perfect furnace. I bury my face in his chest and he pulls me tight. I trail my fingers down his naked back, feel the muscles tense under my touch. I rest my hand on the waist of his pants. Hook my finger into a belt loop. Test the taste of the words on my tongue. “I meant it, you know.”
His breath is a beat too late. His heart just a beat too fast. “Meant what . . . ?” Though he knows exactly what I mean.