Chapter One I’ve been locked up for 264 days. I have nothing but a small notebook and a broken pen and the numbers in my head to keep me company. 1 window. 4 walls. 144 square feet of space. 26 letters in an alphabet I haven’t spoken in 264 days of isolation. 6,336 hours since I’ve touched another human being. “You’re getting a cellmate roommate,” they said to me. “We hope you rot to death in this place For good behavior,” they said to me. “Another psycho just like you No more isolation,” they said to me. They are the minions of The Reestablishment. The initiative that was supposed to help our dying society. The same people who pulled me out of my parents’ home and locked me in an asylum for something outside of my control. No one cares that I didn’t know what I was capable of. That I didn’t know what I was doing. I have no idea where I am. I only know that I was transported by someone in a white van who drove 6 hours and 37 minutes to get me here. I know I was handcuffed to my seat. I know I was strapped to my chair. I know my parents never bothered to say good-bye. I know I didn’t cry as I was taken away. I know the sky falls down every day. The sun drops into the ocean and splashes browns and reds and yellows and oranges into the world outside my window. A million leaves from a hundred different branches dip in the wind, fluttering with the false promise of flight. The gust catches their withered wings only to force them downward, forgotten, left to be trampled by the soldiers stationed just below. There aren’t as many trees as there were before, is what the scientists say. They say our world used to be green. Our clouds used to be white. Our sun was always the right kind of light. But I have very faint memories of that world. I don’t remember much from before. The only existence I know now is the one I was given. An echo of what used to be. I press my palm to the small pane of glass and feel the cold clasp my hand in a familiar embrace. We are both alone, both existing as the absence of something else. I grab my nearly useless pen with the very little ink I’ve learned to ration each day and stare at it. Change my mind. Abandon the effort it takes to write things down. Having a cellmate might be okay. Talking to a real human being might make things easier. I practice using my voice, shaping my lips around the familiar words unfamiliar to my mouth. I practice all day. I’m surprised I remember how to speak. I roll my little notebook into a ball I shove into the wall. I sit up on the cloth-covered springs I’m forced to sleep on. I wait. I rock back and forth and wait. I wait too long and fall asleep. My eyes open to 2 eyes 2 lips 2 ears 2 eyebrows. I stifle my scream my urgency to run the crippling horror gripping my limbs. “You’re a b-b-b-b—” “And you’re a girl.” He cocks an eyebrow. He leans away from my face. He grins but he’s not smiling and I want to cry, my eyes desperate, terrified, darting toward the door I’d tried to open so many times I’d lost count. They locked me up with a boy. A boy. Dear God. They’re trying to kill me. They’ve done it on purpose. To torture me, to torment me, to keep me from sleeping through the night ever again. His arms are tatted up, half sleeves to his elbows. His eyebrow is missing a ring they must’ve confiscated. Dark blue eyes dark brown hair sharp jawline strong lean frame. Gorgeous Dangerous. Terrifying. Horrible. He laughs and I fall off my bed and scuttle into the corner. He sizes up the meager pillow on the spare bed they shoved into the empty space this morning, the skimpy mattress and threadbare blanket hardly big enough to support his upper half. He glances at my bed. Glances at his bed. Shoves them both together with one hand. Uses his foot to push the two metal frames to his side of the room. Stretches out across the two mattresses, grabbing my pillow to fluff up under his neck. I’ve begun to shake. I bite my lip and try to bury myself in the dark corner. He’s stolen my bed my blanket my pillow. I have nothing but the floor. I will have nothing but the floor. I will never fight back because I’m too petrified too paralyzed too paranoid. “So you’re—what? Insane? Is that why you’re here?” I’m not insane. He props himself up enough to see my face. He laughs again. “I’m not going to hurt you.” I want to believe him I don’t believe him. “What’s your name?” he asks. None of your business. What’s your name? I hear his irritated exhalation of breath. I hear him turn over on the bed that used to be half mine. I stay awake all night. My knees curled up to my chin, my arms wrapped tight around my small frame, my long brown hair the only curtain between us. I will not sleep. I cannot sleep. I cannot hear those screams again. Chapter Two It smells like rain in the morning. The room is heavy with the scent of wet stone, upturned soil; the air is dank and earthy. I take a deep breath and tiptoe to the window only to press my nose against the cool surface. Feel my breath fog up the glass. Close my eyes to the sound of a soft pitter-patter rushing through the wind. Raindrops are my only reminder that clouds have a heartbeat. That I have one, too. I always wonder about raindrops. I wonder about how they’re always falling down, tripping over their own feet, breaking their legs and forgetting their parachutes as they tumble right out of the sky toward an uncertain end. It’s like someone is emptying their pockets over the earth and doesn’t seem to care where the contents fall, doesn’t seem to care that the raindrops burst when they hit the ground, that they shatter when they fall to the floor, that people curse the days the drops dare to tap on their doors. I am a raindrop. My parents emptied their pockets of me and left me to evaporate on a concrete slab. The window tells me we’re not far from the mountains and definitely near the water, but everything is near the water these days. I just don’t know which side we’re on. Which direction we’re facing. I squint up at the early morning light. Someone picked up the sun and pinned it to the sky again, but every day it hangs a little lower than the day before. It’s like a negligent parent who only knows one half of who you are. It never sees how its absence changes people. How different we are in the dark. A sudden rustle means my cellmate is awake. I spin around like I’ve been caught stealing food again. That only happened once and my parents didn’t believe me when I said it wasn’t for me. I said I was just trying to save the stray cats living around the corner but they didn’t think I was human enough to care about a cat. Not me. Not something someone like me. But then, they never believed anything I said. That’s exactly why I’m here. Cellmate is studying me. He fell asleep fully clothed. He’s wearing a navy blue T-shirt and khaki cargo pants tucked into shin-high black boots. I’m wearing dead cotton on my limbs and a blush of roses on my face. His eyes scan the silhouette of my structure and the slow motion makes my heart race. I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage. Stop looking at me, is what I want to say. Stop touching me with your eyes and keep your hands to your sides and please and please and please— “What’s your name?” The tilt of his head cracks gravity in half. I’m suspended in the moment. I blink and bottle my breaths. He shifts and my eyes shatter into thousands of pieces that ricochet around the room, capturing a million snapshots, a million moments in time. Flickering images faded with age, frozen thoughts hovering precariously in dead space, a whirlwind of memories that slice through my soul. He reminds me of someone I used to know. One sharp breath and I’m shocked back to reality. No more daydreams. “Why are you here?” I ask the cracks in the concrete wall. 14 cracks in 4 walls a thousand shades of gray. The floor, the ceiling: all the same slab of stone. The pathetically constructed bed frames: built from old water pipes. The small square of a window: too thick to shatter. My hope is exhausted. My eyes are unfocused and aching. My finger is tracing a lazy path across the cold floor. I’m sitting on the ground where it smells like ice and metal and dirt. Cellmate sits across from me, his legs folded underneath him, his boots just a little too shiny for this place. “You’re afraid of me.” His voice has no shape. My fingers find their way to a fist. “I’m afraid you’re wrong.” I might be lying, but that’s none of his business. He snorts and the sound echoes in the dead air between us. I don’t lift my head. I don’t meet the eyes he’s drilling in my direction. I taste the stale, wasted oxygen and sigh. My throat is tight with something familiar to me, something I’ve learned to swallow. 2 knocks at the door startle my emotions back into place. He’s upright in an instant. “No one is there,” I tell him. “It’s just our breakfast.” 264 breakfasts and I still don’t know what it’s made of. It smells like too many chemicals; an amorphous lump always delivered in extremes. Sometimes too sweet, sometimes too salty, always disgusting. Most of the time I’m too starved to notice the difference. I hear him hesitate for only an instant before edging toward the door. He slides open a small slot and peers through to a world that no longer exists. “Shit!” He practically flings the tray through the opening, pausing only to slap his palm against his shirt. “Shit, shit.” He curls his fingers into a tight fist and clenches his jaw. He’s burned his hand. I would’ve warned him if he would’ve listened. “You should wait at least three minutes before touching the tray,” I tell the wall. I don’t look at the faint scars gracing my small hands, at the burn marks no one could’ve taught me to avoid. “I think they do it on purpose,” I add quietly. “Oh, so you’re talking to me today?” He’s angry. His eyes flash before he looks away and I realize he’s more embarrassed than anything else. He’s a tough guy. Too tough to make stupid mistakes in front of a girl. Too tough to show pain. I press my lips together and stare out the small square of glass they call a window. There aren’t many animals left, but I’ve heard stories of birds that fly. Maybe one day I’ll get to see one. The stories are so wildly woven these days there’s very little to believe, but I’ve heard more than one person say they’ve actually seen a flying bird within the past few years. So I watch the window. There will be a bird today. It will be white with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head. It will fly. There will be a bird today. It will be white with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head. It will fly. There will be a— His hand. On me. 2 tips of 2 fingers graze my cloth-covered shoulder for less than a second and every muscle every tendon in my body is fraught with tension and tied into knots that clench my spine. I stay very still. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. Maybe if I don’t move, this feeling will last forever.