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The slope ended at another bend, and as my head popped up over it, a new element introduced itself back into the world: light. Bloody, reddish sunset light, trickling in through the slits in a grate that was almost close enough for me to touch. I sped up, pulling myself forward until I could brace my hands against the grate and shove. This was the moment of truth. If it was bolted on from the outside, then I had traveled all this way for nothing.

To my relief, the grate shifted as soon as I pushed against it. I pushed again, and it gave way, dropping out of my field of view and hitting the roof with a loud clang. The noise should have worried me, but it didn’t. I had other things to focus on, like the sunset that was painting the sky in a thousand shades of rose. I climbed rapidly toward the opening, hungry for the light.

“That didn’t take you as long as I thought it would.” The voice was Ronnie’s, calm and almost disinterested. I barely resisted the urge to jackknife back into the vent. Instead, I gripped the edge and turned to see him standing some five feet away, his hands folded behind his back, one of them holding a gun, and his attention focused calmly on the sky. “You’re a fast climber. I guess desperation is a pretty good motivation.”

“How did you know?” My voice came out in a whisper. I didn’t move.

“You vanished from the monitors. There aren’t many places in the store that aren’t on the monitors, so I checked them all. You didn’t put the grate back in the changing room. Sloppy, Sal. Very sloppy.” Ronnie didn’t look at me. “You can come down from there. Hanging out in the air-conditioning isn’t going to change what happens next.”

“What is going to happen next?” I couldn’t figure out how to turn and put my feet out first, so I just pushed forward and toppled to the roof in an ungainly heap. My cheek landed on the fallen grate, and I felt it slice through my skin, adding the smell of blood to the eucalyptus and pigeon feather odors otherwise pervading the roof.

It should have smelled terrible. It smelled like freedom. Something tightened in my chest, and as I climbed to my feet, I decided that no matter what happened next, it wasn’t going to end with me going back into that mall. Either Ronnie would shoot me, or I’d get the gun away from him somehow… or I’d go over the edge of the roof. Whatever it took to keep myself out of Sherman’s hands.

I felt bad about the idea of dying before I got to see Nathan again. If he ever found out what had happened to me—what Sherman was planning to use me to do—he would understand why I couldn’t just go along with things. He would forgive me.

“Something,” said Ronnie, still sounding disinterested. “I don’t get you, Sal. Here you’ve got a guy like Sherman falling over himself to make you a queen, and all you can do is fight and try to escape. Lots of girls would die to be in your shoes.”

“And when he kills me by mistake during one of his little experiments? What happens then?” I glared at him, starting to pick bits of gravel out of my palms. “I didn’t volunteer to be a lab animal. Sherman of all people should know how much I hate having other people make my decisions for me, but he still thinks he has the right, just because he’s older than I am. Fuck him. I have my own life.”

“A life you stole.”

Ronnie’s words were mild, but they still stung. I snapped back, “Like he didn’t? We’re all thieves here. The only difference is that I decided to stop stealing once I had what I needed. He’s going to keep going until he has everything he wants, and that’s really different. That’s not okay.”

Ronnie finally turned enough to let me see the small smile on his face. “You’re a wimp,” he said, not unkindly. He made it sound like a statement of essential fact: we were on a roof, he was probably about to kill me or something, and I was a wimp. “You don’t act soon enough, and you don’t take risks when you really should. If I were you, I would have been out that vent weeks ago, and screw anyone who tried to stop me from escaping. You pretty much asked to be swept off the street and locked in a cage by somebody. Hell, if you want proof of that, look at where you are—trying to escape from a cage that you were put in by the man who took you out of the last one.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a wimp,” I said, picking the last of the gravel out of my left hand. The cut on my cheek was still bleeding sluggishly, but it didn’t feel like it was serious enough to worry about. I’d probably need a few stitches, assuming I lived long enough to get them. “The world can’t be made up entirely of leaders. Someone has to be willing to follow.”

“That sounds like something a wimp would say.”

I shrugged. The edge of the roof was about ten feet away. I couldn’t see the street from where I was standing, but the angle on the trees across from me made me think that we were standing on the third floor. That would mean a thirty-foot drop to the street, and I wasn’t going to survive that.

“Hey.” Ronnie snapped his fingers. I turned to face him. He looked at me flatly and asked, “What happens if you get away from here? Where are you going to go?”

“Back to my people,” I said.

“You gonna tell them where to find us? You gonna lead them straight back here?” He asked the questions like they were of no consequence, like he was asking whether I’d like cheese sandwiches with lunch tomorrow, and not asking about the potential fates of everyone he knew.