Priyanka’s eyes shifted back over to the device, locking onto it. The soldier holding on to her used her free hand to touch the Taser at her side, giving me a meaningful look. The Knocker snapped a photo of the little girl’s face.
“Ah…a Green. Excellent.” Knocker smiled. “We’re running short on them this month.”
The other soldier returned for the young girl.
“This one’s going to the hold,” Knocker instructed. The soldier nodded, gripping the girl’s arm.
“No! I want my sister! I want my sister!” She sank to the floor, screaming, curling into a protective ball. The bare walls echoed with her pain. She was still fighting when the soldier bent down and lifted the girl’s slight form over her shoulder.
Priyanka’s dark lashes fanned against her cheeks. Behind her eyelids, her eyes darted back and forth, her mind already linked and working.
Shit! If they had already scanned Roman before she’d amended our listings to include the lie that we’d undergone the cure procedure—if the adrenaline overcame Priyanka—
I didn’t see Knocker move until the tablet was pointed at my face, the flash burning into my retinas. The silver thread reached out, touching the device’s batteries, primed to fry them.
It would be too suspicious, especially after the Taser failed. It would give me away.
“Anna Barlow,” Knocker read, then looked at me again. She took a step closer, her brows lowered in thought. Her lips parted. She recognized me. If not from camp, then from the news. Something sparked in her eyes.
I didn’t think. I just spoke, in my best impression of Liam’s accent. “Do I have something on my face, darlin’?”
She blinked in surprise, but recovered quickly. Her top lip pulled back as she said, “Nothing but a smart-ass look I don’t like.”
Knocker turned her attention to Priyanka, nodding first to the soldier gripping her arm, then to me. The soldier nodded in response, a thin strand of red hair falling out of her neat chignon. Without any other warning, she released Priyanka and seized the collar of my shirt, drawing me forward down the hall.
I spun back, trying to catch Priyanka’s gaze again, but we were moving too fast. It took all of my concentration just to keep my feet from tripping over each other. For one horrible second, I was positive the soldier—GILBERT, her tag read—would take me through the same double doors marked SURGERY she’d dragged the others into.
Instead, she marched me further down the hall, into the room labeled DECONTAMINATION.
I’m fine, I told myself. I am fine.
My nose burned with the smell of rubbing alcohol and fake lemon. I had to squeeze my eyes shut against the intensity of the room’s exposed fluorescent lights and white walls. Half the room was covered in sterile ivory tiles that stretched from ceiling to floor. Their simple pattern was only broken up by the showerheads mounted on the wall. The other half of the room was lined with metal shelves. Racks of them, all at full capacity with stacks of clear storage tubs. As Gilbert led me by them, a trickle of dread turned into a roar.
Piles of clothing. Shoes. Personal effects that would be destroyed before they could ever be returned.
I remembered this.
“Stand right there. Don’t move,” Gilbert said, pointing to the nearest showerhead. I stepped over the slight lip of the tile.
I wanted to drag my broken nails along the walls of the room. I wanted to rip the faucets off the wall, tear at her Kevlar vest, burn out every light overhead until they exploded into a hailstorm of burning shards.
I had never hated myself more than when I stood there, my face turned down, my shoulders slumped, my hands still tied behind my back. A posture of submission. Surrender.
All the poise I’d worked so hard for over the years was gone. The clever words and carefully sweetened disposition abandoned me. We stood in a silence that suffocated me more with each passing second.
I’m supposed to be fine.
Caledonia was years ago. It was a lifetime ago. I knew that, but I remembered all of this. My body did, too. It shook, even as I fought it, clenching my hands behind my back to try to restore feeling to them. The door opened behind me, but the sliver of relief I felt at seeing Priyanka standing there disappeared with Gilbert’s next words. “Strip down. Put your belongings in the bin—”
She pulled an empty one off the shelf behind her. It slammed onto the floor in front of us, loud enough to make me jump.
Priyanka took a step forward, taking advantage of the extra inches she had on the soldier. Her eyes had that feverish look of too much adrenaline, and it looked like she was trembling with the effort to keep still. “You expecting us to put on a show, or are you going to turn away?”
Gilbert bypassed her Taser and baton and went straight for the pistol. She unholstered it, aiming at our feet. “I expect you to shut the fuck up and do as you’re told.”
The soldier escorting Priyanka moved behind me, cutting the zip tie binding my wrists.
Don’t fight, one of the girls at Caledonia had whispered to me as we waited our turn to enter. It’ll be worse. It’ll be so much worse.
There are moments in your life where your consciousness just…fades. You disappear into some dark place inside yourself that protects you, even as your body goes through the motions. It’s pure survival, that quiet place. It had kept me from breaking at Caledonia, and it was the only thing keeping me from it now as I slowly unlaced my boots, as I stripped off my jeans, my shirt, every layer until I was nothing but shivering, bare skin.
I remembered this.
I crossed my arms over my chest as I moved beneath the faucet. Up close, I saw that Priyanka’s pulse was jumping at the base of her throat, the muscles of her neck bulging with the effort to remain still. To not react.
I couldn’t watch as the soldier cut Priyanka’s zip tie and she repeated the process, never breaking her hard gaze at Gilbert, never losing that look of furious defiance.
How could I get back to that? I tried to drop my arms, to mirror her stance, but it felt impossible. All I could think of was the processing at the camp, how they had shoved ten of us girls under the same showerhead and laughed as we screamed at the icy temperature. Our feet had slapped against the cement, trying to dance away from it.
My body locked into place, and my heart was pounding so hard I thought it might actually burst. As I stood there, trapped in the silence of fear, that last fraying thread of denial I’d knotted around my heart snapped.
All that was left was a single truth:
I’m not fine.
The cold water hissed on overhead, soaking us in seconds. Priyanka grunted at the first icy blast, but I couldn’t get a sound out. My body tightened, bracing itself against the stinging onslaught. The cold water felt like knives carving up my skin, but as the seconds passed, even that pain began to ease.
The pink chalk washed out of my hair slowly, painting bright streaks over my shoulders and arms. Instead of rinsing clean away, it flowed into the tile grout like blood through veins, staining them. It held on. It didn’t fade. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it.
I am not fine. The words floated through me, crackling with power as they surged into something more. Something new. I don’t have to be fine.
There was a vase at my parents’ house, one that had been in my family for years. I could picture it sitting on the shelf in the living room, glowing in the warm afternoon sunlight. It didn’t look like any of the other art pieces in the house. Years before, my grandmother’s grandmother had knocked it to the ground, smashing it into pieces. Rather than sweeping them up and throwing them out, the vase had been sent away. It had come back months later, whole, the pieces rejoined by kintsugi, a method that uses liquid precious metal or lacquer with gold powder to seal cracks.
The scars of what had happened were still there, not glued together to try to minimize the appearance of them, but glowing with thin
rivulets of gold—more beautiful for having once been broken.
I remembered thinking, when I was so little, that if our scars could be mended the same way, we would never try to hide them, or erase them. Back then, I hadn’t understood that we didn’t always wear our scars on our skin; some ran deep beneath it, unseen by the rest of the world, aching even as we wore happy masks, even as we assured others we were fine.
My family abandoned me.
I escaped the rehabilitation camp that tried to kill me.
Skip tracers, PSFs, soldiers, car crashes, raids, death—I had outrun them all.
I had survived, when so many other kids hadn’t. And if I couldn’t at least acknowledge what I had gone through, I was never going to truly be able to prevent another nightmare like it from crashing into the lives of more kids.
I was still on my feet. There was still breath in my lungs. I wasn’t fine, but I was strong. And I was going to use every ounce of my power to get us the hell out of here.