He knows that, too, I think. Tildon knows that she’s a challenge and he won’t be satisfied until he’s broken her. Pulled out all of her teeth and claws.
Finally, Sam asks the question she’s been hovering around, unsure if she can approach it. “You’re...not like the others, are you?”
As if on cue, a voice in my ear buzzes, “Still on auxiliary power. All PSF units, report in.” I listen as twenty voices chirp in alphabetical order. “Cabin one secure.” “Cabin two secure.” Mess Hall, Infirmary, all of it, locked down. I sag against the crate. I have more time. It might not seem like much, but, to me, it’s everything.
I glance at her concerned face, remembering her question. “I’m different. I didn’t break.”
She starts to slide her fingers through the bars again, but catches herself before she can reach me. I bow my head toward her, heaving in a deep, tired sigh. I don’t know what to say. My mind is bending itself into knots of knots, trying to figure a way out of this, how I can help her, how the two of us can leave and find Mia together. It doesn’t stop, the ache in my skull doesn’t disappear, not until Sam tries again—reaching out to brush the dark, wet hair off my face. Her fingers are like ice, but I’m overheating, I’m burning.
“Don’t go near the others, Sam,” I whisper. “Don’t look at them. Don’t try to talk to them. There’s nothing...human left inside. They’ll hurt you. It’s what they were trained to do.”
“But not you?”
“I’m not...I’m not totally right inside,” I try to clarify. “I’ve felt what they want me to feel.” The sweet nothing that comes from pushing through the pain, leaving your mind empty. “But I have...ways of dealing.”
I see her digesting this, the moment her eyes light with understanding. There’s a faint smile on her face. “Turtle.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and nod. Mom’s nickname scorches my heart.
“It helps me cope. If I’m lost in my head, I can’t hear them. I don’t feel them. They can’t break me, but they can’t know they haven’t. So I have to...I have to do the things they ask. Bend. Follow orders.”
“Sometimes we have to bend,” she says, “to survive.”
“Is that what you call this morning?” I ask. “Bending? Looked more like snapping to me.”
Sam lets her hand fall away, turning her gaze away from mine. Her jaw sets stubbornly, jutting out slightly. It’s so Sammy, I have the irrational urge to laugh, but I’m not sure I really remember how. This is the girl who never wanted to play princess.
“Was that the first time he did that?” I say. “How long has he...”
“How long have I been tempting him?” She spits the word out. I see the lion coming back into her. Her nails curl against the floor like claws. “Since the rotation started a few days ago. He was just assigned to our cabin block. Some of the girls in another cabin...Look, it’ll be okay. I’ll figure out a way for him to lose interest.”
God. It’s exactly what I thought, isn’t it? He’s fixated on her. He’s fixated on other girls in the past. And instead of dealing with the actual issue, the camp controllers keep moving him around. Not even moving him to a block of boy cabins.
Unless they already tried that, too, and it didn’t matter to the piece of shit. I feel like I’m going to be sick. There’s smoke in my lungs, filling my chest.
“It’s him, not you.” I say the words fiercely. “You’ve done nothing wrong. If he tries it again, I’ll—”
“Do nothing,” she says. “You can’t. No, listen to me. You have to find Mia and figure out...You have to get out of here. Promise me.”
“I won’t promise,” I say. “If he touches you again, he’s ashes.”
“You can’t do anything, Lucas. You can’t. That’s the point of this place.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it? They’ve taken everything away from us, including the right we have to protect ourselves. This is what it means to be powerless—we are dependent on them for everything, even common decency. We have to trust that they’ll behave like actual humans.
“Run. As soon as you get a chance. Get out of here and find your parents and—” Sam leans forward again, cutting herself off. Her brows draw together. I can’t hide my expression from her, and I know how it must look. I don’t want to have to hide the pain anymore. I can’t hide anything from her, anyway.
“Oh...oh, Lucas, no,” she whispers. The missing years stretch out between us, and I hate that I have to fill them, that I have to tell her this. I hate all of the what-ifs. What if we’d just stayed where we were and tried to fight through it? What if I’d come to Thurmond with Sam and Mia and I’d known, at least, where I could find them? “What happened?”
I try to shrug off the ache that pierces my chest. “We—we went up to Pennsylvania, to live with Grammy and Pops. You remember?”
“We couldn’t stay with them after they started making those announcements about Collections. I’d already changed. It was too dangerous and people knew where we were. So we left and went a few towns over.” We lived out of our car in an abandoned parking garage, but I couldn’t tell her that, not when her face was already so shattered. It wasn’t even that bad, you know? We put up sheets in the window during the day, when Dad went out to look for work, and Mom and Mia would try to outdo each other with their stories. Sometimes I think about being small enough to lay across the backseat, my cheek against the fabric, just listening to Mom as she voiced each of her characters. Dad would come back with food and a smile, lean across the way and kiss her. I miss the days that were boring, hot, and long, because those were the days when I felt safe.