“Just because your parents didn’t want you, it doesn’t mean that the rest of ours don’t. Maybe you’re not in a hurry to get back, but I am!”
He might as well have shot me straight through the chest; I felt all of the blood leave my heart as one of his hands came up to clutch his dark hair. “I’ve been working so hard, I’ve been trying, and God, you didn’t even ask him, did you?”
“Ask him—?” But I knew. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew exactly what promise I had neglected to keep. The anger in me deflated. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been so wrapped up in lessons that I forgot.”
“Well, I didn’t,” he said, and left me standing alone in the sunlight.
An hour later, I was under a stream of warm water, hands pressed to my face.
The camp’s wash rooms—one for boys, one for girls—were about as glamorous as an outhouse. The floors were beveled concrete, the shower stalls wood planks and plastic curtains crawling with black mold. We used the rooms every night to brush our teeth and wash our faces, and, once or twice a week, to shower. But today, without floral shampoo and conditioner perfuming the air, I realized the cavernous room smelled like sawdust.
I stayed in there until I heard the bells signal the end of lunch. I still hadn’t formulated a plan for the rest of the day when I walked outside—and into the one person I hadn’t realized I was desperate to see.
Liam stumbled back a few steps at impact, his wet hair clinging to his cheeks, longer than I remembered.
“Oh my God,” I said with a laugh, pressing a hand to my chest. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“Sorry about that.” He smiled, extending a hand toward me. “Hey—I don’t think we’ve had the chance to meet. I’m Liam.”
I DON’T KNOW HOW LONG I stood there staring at his hand, bile rising in my throat as fast and steady as a scream.
Oh my God, no, I thought, taking a step back. No, no, no nonono…
“See, you look exactly like a friend of mine, Ruby, but I haven’t seen her in ages, so I’m…” His voice trailed off. “Okay, was that joke really that bad?”
I turned around, pressing my face against my towel so he wouldn’t see my tears.
“Ruby?” He looped his own towel around my waist and drew me to his side. “That was the Liam Stewart way of saying, Hi, darlin’, missed you something fierce. Oh, wow, bad enough to make you cry?”
He smoothed his hands down over my hair. “Okay, that’s it—” He bent down, and before I could stop him, lifted me over one shoulder.
Liam didn’t let me wiggle free until we were back at Cabin 18. He dropped me on the folded futon that Zu and I had been sharing, making a quick stop at his bed for a blanket.
“I’m not cold,” I said, when he wrapped it around my shoulders.
“Then why are you shaking?” Liam sat down next to me. I turned so my face was resting in the crook of his neck and I was breathing in his clean, woodsy smell.
“I’m just pissed at myself,” I said when I found my voice. “I told Chubs I’d ask Clancy if he could use his laptop, but I got distracted and forgot.”
“Hmm…” Liam’s fingers were busy untangling my wet hair. “I don’t think he’s upset at you. I think he’s upset that I’m keeping us here. It’s just reinforcing his fears about not getting home.”
“How do I make it up to him?”
“Well, for one thing, you could ask about the computer,” he said, his other hand taking mine. “Though I still don’t really understand how you’re in the position to ask to borrow it. I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“You haven’t,” I said. “You’re always on watch.”
He laughed. “It’s lonely sitting up in a tree without you.”
“I want to hear about what you do all night,” I said. “Have you tried talking to anyone about freeing the camps yet?”
“I brought it up with some of the guys on my watch, and Olivia. She’s trying to get us in to see Clancy about it. I think…I think it’s going be great, I really do. It could work.”
“Clance said that the western gate is the one that used to give them the most trouble,” I said, twisting to look up at him. “You’re being careful, right?”
Liam went very still beside me, so still that he seemed to forget to breathe.
“Clance, huh?” he said in an unnaturally light voice. “I guess you are in the position to be asking favors.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Liam sighed. “Nothing, sorry. I didn’t mean for that to come out like that. It’s great that you guys are friends.” I tried to look up at him, but he was looking at the other end of the cabin, where a set of drawers with our things rested against the wall. “So he’s been giving you lessons?”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering how much, if anything, I should hold back. “He’s been teaching me how to keep others from prying into my head.”
“What about tricks to keep you from slipping into others’ heads?” Liam asked. “Is he helping you with that, too?”
“He’s trying to,” I said. “He said that if I strengthened my control over my abilities, that would come naturally.”
“Well, you can always practice that with me,” he said, resting his forehead against mine. I felt the trickle start at the back of my mind, the warning before the flood. Clancy had told me that when I felt it coming on, I needed to break all physical contact and imagine a white curtain sweeping between me and whomever I was with.
But I didn’t want to do either.
I felt his lips travel from my forehead, whispering something against my eyelids, my cheeks, my nose. His thumbs stroked the length of my jaw, but even they stilled as I pulled back and turned away from him.
“What are you so scared of?” he whispered, his voice laced with hurt.
Had this boy really once just been a stranger?
Had I really once thought that I’d be able to live a life without him in it?
“I don’t want to lose you.”
He made a noise of frustration, his eyes clear and bright as he spoke. “Then why are you the one that keeps letting go?”