This compound was my home. These people, my family. I woke up this morning remembering my mother’s favorite shade of lipstick.
I remember watching her paint her lips some evenings. I remember the day I snuck into her room and stole the glossy metal tube; I remember when she found me, my hands and mouth smeared in red, my face a grotesque reimagining of herself.
The more I remember my parents, the more I begin to finally make sense of myself—my many fears and insecurities, the myriad ways in which I’ve often felt lost, searching for something I could not name.
In this new, turbulent reality, the one person I recognize anymore is him. My memories of him—memories of us—have done something to me. I’ve changed somewhere deep inside. I feel different. Heavier, like my feet have been more firmly planted, liberated by certainty, free to grow roots here in my own self, free to trust unequivocally in the strength and steadiness of my own heart. It’s an empowering discovery, to find that I can trust myself—even when I’m not myself—to make the right choices. To know for certain now that there was at least one mistake I never made.
Aaron Warner Anderson is the only emotional through line in my life that ever made sense. He’s the only constant. The only steady, reliable heartbeat I’ve ever had.
Aaron, Aaron, Aaron, Aaron
I had no idea how much we’d lost, no idea how much of him I’d longed for. I had no idea how desperately we’d been fighting. How many years we’d fought for moments—minutes—to be together.
It fills me with a painful kind of joy.
But when I remember how I left things between us, I want to scream.
I have no idea if I’ll ever see him again.
Still, I’m holding on to the hope that he’s alive, out there, somewhere. Evie said she couldn’t kill him. She said that she alone didn’t have the authority to have him executed. And if Aaron is still alive, I will find a way to get to him. But I have to be careful. Breaking out of this new prison won’t be easy— As it is, Evie almost never lets me out of my room. Worse, she sedates me during the day, allowing me only a couple of lucid hours. There’s never enough time to think, much less to plan an escape, to assess my surroundings, or to wander the halls outside my door.
Only once did she let me go outside.
She let me onto a balcony overlooking the backyard. It wasn’t much, but even that small step helped me understand a bit about where we were and what the layout of the building might look like.
The assessment was chilling.
We appeared to be in the center of a settlement—a small city—in the middle of nowhere. I leaned over the edge of the balcony, craning my neck to take in the breadth of it, but the view was so vast I couldn’t see all the way around. From where I stood I saw at least twenty different buildings, all connected by roads and navigated by people in miniature, electric cars. There were loading and unloading docks, massive trucks filing in and out, and there was a landing strip in the distance, a row of jets parked neatly in a concrete lot. I understood then that I was living in the middle of a massive operation—something so much more terrifying than Sector 45.
This is an international base.
This has to be one of the capitals. Whatever this is—whatever they do here—it makes Sector 45 look like a joke.
Here, where the hills are somehow still green and beautiful, where the air is fresh and cool and everything seems alive. My accounting is probably off, but I think we’re nearing the end of April—and the sights outside my window are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Sector 45: vast, snowcapped mountain ranges; rolling hills thick with vegetation; trees heavy with bright, changing leaves; and a massive, glittering lake that looks close enough to run to. This land looks healthy. Vibrant.
I thought we’d lost a world like this a long time ago.
Evie’s begun to sedate me less these days, but some days my vision seems to fray at the edges, like a satellite image glitching, waiting for data to load.
I wonder, sometimes, if she’s poisoning me.
I’m wondering this now, remembering the bowl of soup she sent to my room for breakfast. I can still feel the gluey residue as it coated my tongue, the roof of my mouth.
Unease churns my stomach.
I haul myself up off the bathroom floor, my limbs slow and heavy. It takes me a moment to stabilize. The effects of this experiment have left me hollow.
As if out of nowhere, my mind conjures an image of Evie’s face. I remember her eyes. Deep, dark brown. Bottomless. The same color as her hair. She has a short, sharp bob, a heavy curtain constantly whipping against her chin. She’s a beautiful woman, more beautiful at fifty than she was at twenty.
The word occurs to me suddenly, and a bolt of panic shoots up my spine. Not a second later there’s a sharp knock at my bathroom door.
“Ella, you’ve been in the bathroom for almost half an hour, and you know how I feel about wasting ti—”
“Evie.” I force myself to laugh. “I’m almost done,” I say. “I’ll be right out.”
The silence stretches the seconds into a lifetime. My heart jumps up, into my throat. Beats in my mouth.
“All right,” she says slowly. “Five more minutes.”
I close my eyes as I exhale, pressing the towel to the racing pulse at my neck. I dry off quickly before wringing the remaining water from my hair and slipping back into my robe.
Finally, I open the bathroom door and welcome the cool morning temperature against my feverish skin. But I hardly have a chance to take a breath before she’s in my face again.
“Wear this,” she says, forcing a dress into my arms. She’s smiling but it doesn’t suit her. She looks deranged. “You love wearing yellow.”
I blink as I take the dress from her, feeling a sudden, disorienting wave of déjà vu. “Of course,” I say. “I love wearing yellow.”
Her smile grows thinner, threatens to turn her face inside out.
“Could I just—?” I make an abstract gesture toward my body.
“Oh,” she says, startled. “Right.” She shoots me another smile and says, “I’ll be outside.”
My own smile is brittle.
She watches me. She always watches me. Studies my reactions, the timing of my responses. She’s scanning me, constantly, for information. She wants confirmation that I’ve been properly hollowed out. Remade.
I smile wider.
Finally, she takes a step back. “Good girl,” she says softly.
I stand in the middle of my room and watch her leave, the yellow dress still pressed against my chest.
There was another time when I’d felt trapped, just like this. I was held against my will and given beautiful clothes and three square meals and demanded to be something I wasn’t and I fought it—fought it with everything I had.
It didn’t do me any good.
I swore that if I could do it again I’d do it differently. I said if I could do it over I’d wear the clothes and eat the food and play along until I could figure out where I was and how to break free.
So here’s my chance.
This time, I’ve decided to play along.