My head snaps up.
His eyes are wary, worried, analyzing me.
I look away.
He clears his throat. “So, uh, they only feed us once a day?”
His question sends both our eyes toward the small slot in the door.
I curl my knees to my chest and balance my bones on the mattress. If I hold myself very, very still, I can almost ignore the metal digging into my skin. “There’s no system to the food,” I tell him. My finger traces a new pattern down the rough material of the blanket. “There’s usually something in the morning, but there are no guarantees for anything else. Sometimes . . . we get lucky.” My eyes flick up to the pane of glass punched into the wall. Pinks and reds filter into the room and I know it’s the start of a new beginning. The start of the same end. Another day.
Maybe I will die today.
Maybe a bird will fly today.
“So that’s it? They open the door once a day for people to do their business and maybe if we’re lucky they feed us? That’s it?”
The bird will be white with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head. It will fly. “That’s it.”
“There’s no . . . group therapy?” He almost laughs.
“Until you arrived, I hadn’t spoken a single word in two hundred sixty-four days.”
His silence says so much. I can almost reach out and touch the guilt growing on his shoulders. “How long are you in for?” he finally asks.
Forever. “I don’t know.” A mechanical sound creaks/groans/cranks in the distance. My life is 4 walls of missed opportunities poured into concrete molds.
“What about your family?” There’s a serious sorrow in his voice, almost like he already knows the answer to that question.
Here is what I know about my parents: I have no idea where they are. “Why are you here?” I talk to my fingers to avoid his gaze. I’ve studied my hands so thoroughly I know exactly where each bump cut and bruise has ravaged my skin. Small hands. Slim fingers. I curl them into a fist and release them to lose the tension. He still hasn’t responded.
I look up.
“I’m not insane,” is all he says.
“That’s what we all say.” I cock my head only to shake it a fraction of an inch. I bite my lip. My eyes can’t help but steal glances out the window.
“Why do you keep looking outside?”
I don’t mind his questions, I really don’t. It’s just strange to have someone to talk to. It’s strange to have to exert energy to move my lips to form words necessary to explain my actions. No one has cared for so long. No one’s watched me closely enough to wonder why I stare out a window. No one has ever treated me like an equal. Then again, he doesn’t know I’m a monster my secret. I wonder how long this will last before he’s running for his life.
I’ve forgotten to answer and he’s still studying me.
I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear only to change my mind. “Why do you stare so much?”
His eyes are careful, curious. “I figured the only reason they would lock me up with a girl was because you were crazy. I thought they were trying to torture me by putting me in the same space as a psychopath. I thought you were my punishment.”
“That’s why you stole my bed.” To exert power. To stake a claim. To fight first.
He drops his eyes. Clasps and unclasps his hands before rubbing the back of his neck. “Why’d you help me? How’d you know I wouldn’t hurt you?”
I count my fingers to make sure they’re still there. “I didn’t.”
“You didn’t help me or you didn’t know if I’d hurt you?”
“Adam.” My lips curve around the shape of his name. I’m surprised to discover how much I love the easy, familiar way the sound rolls off my tongue.
He’s sitting almost as still as I am. His eyes are pulled together with a new kind of emotion I can’t place. “Yeah?”
“What’s it like?” I ask, each word quieter than the one before. “Outside?” In the real world. “Is it worse?”
An ache mars the features of his finely chiseled face. It takes him a few heartbeats to answer. He glances out the window. “Honestly? I’m not sure if it’s better to be in here or out there.”
I follow his eyes to the pane of glass separating us from reality and I wait for his lips to part; I wait to listen to him speak. And then I try to pay attention as his words bounce around in the haze of my head, fogging my senses, misting my eyes, clouding my concentration.
Did you know it was an international movement? Adam asks me.
No I did not, I tell him. I do not tell him I was dragged from my home 3 years ago. I do not tell him that I was dragged away exactly 7 years after The Reestablishment began to preach and 4 months after they took control of everything. I do not tell him how little I know of our new world.
Adam says The Reestablishment had its hands in every country, ready for the moment to bring its leaders into a position of control. He says the inhabitable land left in the world has been divided into 3,333 sectors and each space is now controlled by a different Person of Power.
Did you know they lied to us? Adam asks me.
Did you know that The Reestablishment said someone had to take control, that someone had to save society, that someone had to restore the peace? Did you know that they said killing all the voices of opposition was the only way to find peace?
Did you know this? is what Adam asks me.
And this is where I nod. This is where I say yes.
This is the part I remember: The anger. The riots. The rage.
My eyes close in a subconscious effort to block out the bad memories, but the effort backfires. Protests. Rallies. Screams for survival. I see women and children starving to death, homes destroyed and buried in rubble, the countryside a burnt landscape, its only fruit the rotting flesh of casualties. I see dead dead dead red and burgundy and maroon and the richest shade of your mother’s favorite lipstick all smeared into the earth.
So much everything all the things dead.
The Reestablishment is struggling to maintain its hold over the people, Adam says. He says The Reestablishment is struggling to fight a war against the rebels who will not acquiesce to this new regime. The Reestablishment is struggling to root itself as a new form of government across all international societies.
And then I wonder what has happened to the people I used to see every day. What’s become of their homes, their parents, their children. I wonder how many of them have been buried in the ground.
How many of them were murdered.
“They’re destroying everything,” Adam says, and his voice is suddenly a solemn sound in the silence. “All the books, every artifact, every remnant of human history. They’re saying it’s the only way to fix things. They say we need to start fresh. They say we can’t make the same mistakes of previous generations.”
at the door and we’re both on our feet, abruptly startled back into this bleak world.
Adam raises an eyebrow at me. “Breakfast?”
“Wait three minutes,” I remind him. We’re so good at masking our hunger until the knocks at the door cripple our dignity.
They starve us on purpose.
“Yeah.” His lips are set in a soft smile. “I wouldn’t want to burn myself.” The air shifts as he steps forward.
I am a statue.
“I still don’t understand,” he says, so quietly. “Why are you here?”
“Why do you ask so many questions?”
He leaves less than a foot of space between us and I’m 10 inches away from spontaneous combustion. “Your eyes are so deep.” He tilts his head. “So calm. I want to know what you’re thinking.”
“You shouldn’t.” My voice falters. “You don’t even know me.”
He laughs and the action gives life to the light in his eyes. “I don’t know you.”
He shakes his head. Sits on his bed. “Right. Of course not.”
“You’re right.” His breath catches. “Maybe I am insane.”
I take 2 steps backward. “Maybe you are.”
He’s smiling again and I’d like to take a picture. I’d like to stare at the curve of his lips for the rest of my life. “I’m not, you know.”
“But you won’t tell me why you’re here,” I challenge.
“And neither will you.”
I fall to my knees and tug the tray through the slot. Something unidentifiable is steaming in 2 tin cups. Adam folds himself onto the floor across from me.
“Breakfast,” I say as I push his portion forward.
1 word, 2 lips, 3 4 5 fingers form 1 fist.
1 corner, 2 parents, 3 4 5 reasons to hide.
1 child, 2 eyes, 3 4 17 years of fear.
A broken broomstick, a pair of wild faces, angry whispers, locks on my door.
Look at me, is what I wanted to say to you. Talk to me every once in a while. Find me a cure for these tears, I’d really like to exhale for the first time in my life.
It’s been 2 weeks.
2 weeks of the same routine, 2 weeks of nothing but routine. 2 weeks with the cellmate who has come too close to touching me who does not touch me. Adam is adapting to the system. He never complains, he never volunteers too much information, he continues to ask too many questions.
He’s nice to me.
I sit by the window and watch the rain and the leaves and the snow collide. They take turns dancing in the wind, performing choreographed routines for unsuspecting masses. The soldiers stomp stomp stomp through the rain, crushing leaves and fallen snow under their feet. Their hands are wrapped in gloves wrapped around guns that could put a bullet through a million possibilities. They don’t bother to be bothered by the beauty that falls from the sky. They don’t understand the freedom in feeling the universe on their skin. They don’t care.
I wish I could stuff my mouth full of raindrops and fill my pockets full of snow. I wish I could trace the veins in a fallen leaf and feel the wind pinch my nose.
Instead, I ignore the desperation sticking my fingers together and watch for the bird I’ve only seen in my dreams. Birds used to fly, is what the stories say. Before the ozone layer deteriorated, before the pollutants mutated the creatures into something horrible different. They say the weather wasn’t always so unpredictable. They say there were birds who used to soar through the skies like planes.
It seems strange that a small animal could achieve anything as complex as human engineering, but the possibility is too enticing to ignore. I’ve dreamt about the same bird flying through the same sky for exactly 10 years. White with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head.
It’s the only dream I have that gives me peace.
“What are you writing?”
I squint up at his strong stature, the easy grin on his face. I don’t know how he manages to smile in spite of everything. I wonder if he can hold on to that shape, that special curve of the mouth that changes lives. I wonder how he’ll feel in 1 month and I shudder at the thought.
I don’t want him to end up like me.