I spend the night staring at the wall of my cell-room. Sleep refuses to come, and the darkness provokes memories of dead bodies and the gleaming barrels of pistols. I avert my thoughts from those images, focussing instead on the safe bed and the feeling of the cool sheets against my skin. The soothing sound of other’s breathing and gentle snores float down the corridor. Their presence calms me, finally sending me down a river of slumber.
The peace doesn’t last. As the night drags on, the snores sound like screams and crinkling of sheets like the rumble of explosions. The walls of my room are too tight, the bed too small, the sheets too coarse. The air is suddenly thick and clammy, unable to enter my lungs. It’s hot against my skin and moist on my lips.
I feel something in my mind. ALPHA – It’s searching me, sifting through my thoughts, travelling into the deepest places of my consciousness.
This is just a dream. I’m fine. The rational thought tries to break through the nightmare, but it’s smothered by the memory of that thing.
Blood is pouring from my marking. Suddenly I’m standing in the doorway to Dad’s room, hand still on the doorknob, staring at the floor, at the blood, at the body.
Red spills off my wrists. The shadows are creeping closer, the walls are shrinking, and I hear ALPHA, that horrible voice, through it all.
I know that you’re there.
A pair of hands shake me awake. I sit up in bed, gasping for breath, reaching blindly for a knife, a gun - something to protect myself.
“Hey, calm down!” a voice says, its words trimmed with vague familiarity. When my vision clears, I see that Gray is standing in front of me, his hands raised innocently.
“Gray,” I breathe, putting a hand on my chest. The visions of the nightmare are branded behind my eyes, and I try to blink them away. I can still hear the voice in my head, an inaudible whisper that is silent to the rest of the world.
“Carper said to get you,” Gray says. “We leave within the hour.” He tilts his head. “…Something wrong?”
I shake my head and wave him off. It’s not true, of course – I’m far from fine – but I don’t think Gray is the one to spill my heart to. In fact, the thought that he was in my cell while I was sleeping makes me uneasy.
I wash my face, letting the coolness of the water rinse away the leftover anxiety from my dream. Gray waits patiently at the door. He’s dressed differently than yesterday – tidier, wearing a buttoned-down shirt and black pants.
“Disguise?” I ask, turning away from the sink.
“Yup. You don’t need to change your clothes, though.”
He leads me through the building until we walk out into a small clearing at the back. The ground is littered with chunks of concrete and blades of grass that reach like tiny fingers through the cracks. The remains of a fence still protrude from the ground. I almost slam my knee into a rusting metal table, and it hits me what this place is.
“Was this the courtyard for the prisoners?” I ask Gray.
He nods. “We use it for outdoor training, like target practice. Most of us are trained with guns - a lot of the Truth is.”
I furrow my brow. “If there are so many groups, all with weapons, then why hasn’t the Truth made more of a difference?”
Gray pauses at the fence, which is no more than a few skeletal-like beams. “We’re scattered, all following our own commanders. No one has brought the groups together yet.” He sighs to himself. “If we banded together, we’d stand a chance. But the Redeemers keep us busy, and there’s been no chance so far.”
“There will be once we leak the footage.” If we get the proof of the Cleansings, the Remainder will be up in arms. It will be the perfect opportunity to gather our forces against the Redeemers.
“Let’s hope so.” He continues his path, leading me past the fence, where a modern car – probably stolen - is parked. Elle stands to the side, eating an apple and watching Janet rummage through the back.
“Hey, Nat,” Elle greets me as I go up to her. She offers me an apple. “Want some breakfast?”
I take it. “Thanks. Ready to get your family?”
She nods excitedly, biting into her apple.
Janet slams the back of the car shut. Like Gray, she’s wearing nicer clothes than usual, to ward off suspicion. “The minichip is the most important thing here. Let’s hope it works.”
“It will,” Gray says, then taps her on the shoulder. “Good morning, by the way.”
“Took you long enough to say so.” She smirks, giving him a quick peck.
Oh. To my horror, I feel a twinge of jealously. I shake it away, coughing into my fist and turning away from the two. Elle elbows me in the side, and I feel a teasing comment coming. Before she can sneak one in, I ask Gray what the plan is.
Janet answers for him. “For the next three hours, you two are students heading to Cativy for a special lecture on the Bloodletting. Gray and I are your chaperones.”
“Do you really think they’ll believe our story?” Elle asks.
“Why wouldn’t they? Kids always Sector hop for school.” Janet shrugs. “Happens every day.”
“Won’t they recognize you from the border attack?” Elle points out.
Gray shakes his head. “Our faces were covered, remember? Besides,” He clears his throat. “There were no survivors.”
“Your clothes can pass for students’,” Janet tells me and Elle, changing the subject before Gray’s comment can really sink in. “Gray and I are all suited up, so we’re ready to go.”
Elle and I climb into the car, taking our place in the back seat. Thankfully, it’s just like the cars we had at home – sleek, modern, and open. So different from the bulky, tight design of the old van we came here in.
Gray and Janet take their places in front of us, and within seconds we’re rolling across the forest floor. The drive takes us onto country roads that carry a few cars, their passengers hidden behind the black glass.
I glance over at Elle and see that she’s staring at my wrist. When she catches my gaze, she points to it. “Why the bandage?” she asks, quietly, so the two at the front don’t overhear. “Has anyone given you a hard time because of your marking?”
She thinks I’m just trying to cover it up. I hesitantly decide to go along. I hate lying to her, but I feel that she would worry if she knew what I did to myself.
“I just wanted to keep it hidden,” I say carefully. That, at least, is partially true.
We eventually pull up to the border. It looks like it’s still recovering from the attack the day before. A few guards stand in front of the building, holding deadly-looking weapons. The Redeemer who stops us at the gate is young, maybe even younger than me. He carries himself nervously, like he’s not sure what he should be doing. A trainee?
“What’s your reason for crossing the border?” he asks after Gray gives him a fake name.
Gray recites our story, and the Redeemer nods. I notice that he doesn’t ask for an ID like he’s supposed to – definitely a trainee. A more experienced initiate would never make a mistake like that. He must just be starting in his second phase of training.
We’re waved on through and drive across the border without issue.
The next few hours are a blur of passing images, all seen from the expansive windows of the car. As the country roads evolve into highways, a string of nervousness coils in my chest. We’re heading to my hometown; a familiar place I’ve lived my entire life in. Returning to it has always been something I’ve looked forward to.
But this time, I only feel dread.