“You’re a monster.” My voice is too even, my body filled with a sudden rage. “Why don’t you just kill me?”
“That, my dear, would be a waste.” He steps forward and I realize his hands are carefully sheathed in white leather gloves. He tips my chin up with one finger. “Besides, it’d be a shame to lose such a pretty face.”
I try to snap my neck away from him but the same steel-toed boot slams into my spine and Warner catches my face in his grip. I suppress a scream. “Don’t struggle, love. You’ll only make things more difficult for yourself.”
“I hope you rot in hell.”
Warner flexes his jaw. He holds up a hand to stop someone from shooting me, kicking me in the spleen, cracking my skull open, I have no idea. “You’re a fighter for the wrong team.” He stands up straight. “But we can change that. Adam,” he calls. “Don’t let her out of your sight. She’s your charge now.”
Adam puts on the gloves but he doesn’t touch me. “Let her up, Roland. I’ll take it from here.”
The boot disappears. I struggle to my feet and stare at nothing. I won’t think about the horror that awaits me. Someone kicks in the backs of my knees and I nearly stumble to the ground. “Get going,” a voice growls from behind. I look up and realize Adam is already walking away. I’m supposed to be following him.
Only once we’re back in the familiar blindness of the asylum hallways does he stop walking.
“Juliette.” One soft word and my joints are made of air.
I don’t answer him.
“Take my hand,” he says.
“I will never,” I manage between broken bites of oxygen. “Not ever.”
A heavy sigh. I feel him shift in the darkness and soon his body is too close so disarmingly close to mine. His hand is on my lower back and he’s guiding me through the corridors toward an unknown destination. Every inch of my skin is blushing. I have to hold myself upright to keep from falling backward into his arms.
The distance we’re walking is much longer than I expected. When Adam finally speaks I suspect we’re close to the end. “We’re going to go outside,” he says near my ear. I have to ball my fists to control the thrills tripping my heart. I’m almost too distracted by the feel of his voice to understand the significance of what he’s saying. “I just thought you should know.”
An audible intake of breath is my only response. I haven’t been outside in almost a year. I’m painfully excited but I haven’t felt natural light on my skin in so long I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it. I have no choice.
The air hits me first.
Our atmosphere has little to boast of, but after so many months in a concrete corner even the wasted oxygen of our dying Earth tastes like heaven. I can’t inhale fast enough. I fill my lungs with the feeling; I step into the slight breeze and clutch a fistful of wind as it weaves its way through my fingers.
Bliss unlike anything I’ve ever known.
The air is crisp and cool. A refreshing bath of tangible nothing that stings my eyes and snaps at my skin. The sun is high today, blinding as it reflects the small patches of snow keeping the earth frozen. My eyes are pressed down by the weight of the bright light and I can’t see through more than two slits, but the warm rays wash over my body like a jacket fitted to my form, like the hug of something greater than a human. I could stand still in this moment forever. For one infinite second I feel free.
Adam’s touch shocks me back to reality. I nearly jump out of my skin and he catches my waist. I have to beg my bones to stop shaking. “Are you okay?” His eyes surprise me. They’re the same ones I remember, blue and bottomless like the deepest part of the ocean. His hands are gentle so gentle around me.
“I don’t want you to touch me,” I lie.
“You don’t have a choice.” He won’t look at me.
“I always have a choice.”
He runs a hand through his hair and swallows the nothing in his throat. “Follow me.”
We’re in a blank space, an empty acre filled with dead leaves and dying trees taking small sips from melted snow in the soil. The landscape has been ravaged by war and neglect and it’s still the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in so long. The stomping soldiers stop to watch as Adam opens a car door for me.
It’s not a car. It’s a tank.
I stare at the massive metal body and attempt to climb my way up the side when Adam is suddenly behind me. He hoists me up by the waist and I gasp as he settles me into the seat.
Soon we’re driving in silence and I have no idea where we’re headed.
I’m staring out the window at everything.
I’m eating and drinking and absorbing every infinitesimal detail in the debris, in the skyline, in the abandoned homes and broken pieces of metal and glass sprinkled in the scenery. The world looks naked, stripped of vegetation and warmth. There are no street signs, no stop signs; there is no need for either. There is no public transportation. Everyone knows that cars are now manufactured by only one company and sold at a ridiculous rate.
Very few people are allowed a means of escape.
My parents The general population has been distributed across what’s left of the country. Industrial buildings form the spine of the landscape: tall, rectangular metal boxes stuffed full of machinery. Machinery intended to strengthen the army, to strengthen The Reestablishment, to destroy mass quantities of human civilization.
Smoky colors smudged into the skyline, dripping into the slush that used to be snow. Trash is heaped in haphazard piles everywhere, patches of yellowed grass peeking out from under the devastation.
Traditional homes of our old world have been abandoned, windows shattered, roofs collapsing, red and green and blue paint scrubbed into muted shades to better match our bright future. Now I see the compounds carelessly constructed on the ravaged land and I begin to remember. I remember how these were supposed to be temporary. I remember the few months before I was locked up when they’d begun building them. These small, cold quarters would suffice just until they figured out all the details of this new plan, is what The Reestablishment had said. Just until everyone was subdued. Just until people stopped protesting and realized that this change was good for them, good for their children, good for their future.
I remember there were rules.
No more dangerous imaginations, no more prescription medications. A new generation comprised of only healthy individuals would sustain us. The sick must be locked away. The old must be discarded. The troubled must be given up to the asylums. Only the strong should survive.
No more stupid languages and stupid stories and stupid paintings placed above stupid mantels. No more Christmas, no more Hanukkah, no more Ramadan and Diwali. No talk of religion, of belief, of personal convictions. Personal convictions were what nearly killed us all, is what they said.
Convictions priorities preferences prejudices and ideologies divided us. Deluded us. Destroyed us.
Selfish needs, wants, and desires needed to be obliterated. Greed, overindulgence, and gluttony had to be expunged from human behavior. The solution was in self-control, in minimalism, in sparse living conditions; one simple language and a brand-new dictionary filled with words everyone would understand.
These things would save us, save our children, save the human race, is what they said.
Reestablish Equality. Reestablish Humanity. Reestablish Hope, Healing, and Happiness.
The posters are still plastered on the walls.
The wind whips their tattered remains, but the signs are determinedly fixed, flapping against the steel and concrete structures they’re stuck to. Some are still pasted to poles sprung right out of the ground, loudspeakers now affixed at the very top. Loudspeakers that alert the people, no doubt, to the imminent dangers that surround them.
But the world is eerily quiet.
Pedestrians pass by, ambling along in the cold, frigid weather to do factory work and find food for their families. Hope in this world bleeds out of the barrel of a gun.
No one really cares for the concept anymore.
People used to want hope. They wanted to think things could get better. They wanted to believe they could go back to worrying about gossip and holiday vacations and going to parties on Saturday nights, so The Reestablishment promised a future too perfect to be possible and society was too desperate to disbelieve. They never realized they were signing away their souls to a group planning on taking advantage of their ignorance. Their fear.
Most civilians are too petrified to protest but there are others who are stronger. There are others who are waiting for the right moment. There are others who have already begun to fight back.
I hope it’s not too late to fight back.
I study every quivering branch, every imposing soldier, every window I can count. My eyes are 2 professional pickpockets, stealing everything to store away in my mind.
I lose track of the minutes we trample over.
We pull up to a structure 10 times larger than the asylum and suspiciously central to civilization. From the outside it looks like a bland building, inconspicuous in every way but its size, gray steel slabs comprising 4 flat walls, windows cracked and slammed into the 15 stories. It’s bleak and bears no marking, no insignia, no proof of its true identity.
Political headquarters camouflaged among the masses.
The inside of the tank is a convoluted mess of buttons and levers I’m at a loss to operate, and Adam is opening my door before I have a chance to identify the pieces. His hands are in place around my waist and my feet are now firmly on the ground but my heart is pounding so fast I’m certain he can hear it. He hasn’t let go of me.
I look up.
His eyes are tight, his forehead pinched, his lips his lips his lips are 2 pieces of frustration forged together.
I step backward and 10,000 tiny particles shatter between us. He drops his eyes. He turns away. He inhales and 5 fingers on one hand form a fickle fist. “This way.” He nods toward the building.
I follow him inside.
I’m so prepared for unimaginable horror that the reality is almost worse.
Dirty money is dripping from the walls, a year’s supply of food wasted on marble floors, hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical aid poured into fancy furniture and Persian rugs. I feel the artificial heat pouring in through air vents and think of children screaming for clean water. I squint through crystal chandeliers and hear mothers begging for mercy. I see a superficial world existing in the midst of a terrorizing reality and I can’t move.
I can’t breathe.
So many people must’ve died to sustain this luxury. So many people had to lose their homes and their children and their last 5 dollars in the bank for promises promises promises so many promises to save them from themselves. They promised us—The Reestablishment promised us hope for a better future. They said they would fix things, they said they would help us get back to the world we knew—the world with movie dates and spring weddings and baby showers. They said they would give us back our homes, our health, our sustainable future.
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