The wind scratches my cheeks with icy fingers. I round the corner of the building and look up, checking the rooftop for an autoeye. It still feels strange to be in a place where I’m not watched every second of every day. I keep thinking there has to be a guard somewhere or that a random person passing a window might notice me wandering alone in the side yard and call for an investigation. I don’t think I’ll ever lose those habits of apprehension from my life before prison and Secondary School.
I turn away from the quiet building and search the tree line ahead of me. Did I really see Thomas? I take a few more steps and stop at the dead, gray fruit tree outside my bedroom window. The glass is slightly mirrored, but not enough that I can’t see inside. If he was here, he saw me.
I peer again across the clearing to the trees and rocks ahead. Where did he go?
My first instinct is to run, hoping to be faster than anyone who might be watching, but my failed history of running away keeps my steps slow and regular. Besides, the blanket of snow on the ground, untouched by anything larger than a rodent or bird, makes my footprints stand out like a big red arrow.
My head thumps with sudden pain as an image of a huge red arrow fills my vision, overtaking my tracks in the snow. Neon is the word my mind supplies. Before I can shake my head to clear it, the sign disappears and the pain eases off as well.
I take a deep breath. Hamen, who still feels like Professor789 to me, did a great job messing with my head. This is the third time since awaking in the Institute that I’ve had a strange flash of a memory that isn’t mine. Each is accompanied by a word unfamiliar to me: arpeggio and sunflower and now neon.
Snow shifts on a nearby tree branch and cascades with soft plops onto the ground below. I tell myself to keep up the lie I started with the main door attendant.
I need some fresh air. I’m going for a walk to clear my head.
I felt certain they wouldn’t let me just walk out of the Institute, but they did. The woman had been friendly and all smiles—another thing I wasn’t used to. She gave me a thermal parka and some boots and warned me not to go too far from the Institute, that there were sometimes beasts lurking in the trees. A pang of guilt tugged at my gut as I thanked her.
I was not simply going for a walk. I was running for my life, and possibly for Thomas’s life. For our life together.
I wrap my arms around myself in the puffy coat and rub my shoulders while I walk slowly across the clearing. My bare hands soon grow too cold for that, and I stuff them deep in the parka’s pockets. The trees stand tall and brown against the white snow like an overgrown fence or a row of frozen soldiers. As I draw close to their rough brown bark and suck in the cold, clean air, I search for any sign of Thomas. Still nothing. I scan the ground at the edge of the trees where I thought I saw him from my room. Nothing, not even a footprint. My heart sinks.
If Thomas is dead, do I have any reason not to take Hamen’s offer to stay and help him fight the Leaders subversively? At least I could help other people like me who are stuck in the system. But I still don’t trust Hamen. He slipped too easily between the Leaders and the resistance and has lied to me about almost everything.
I take a few more steps into the dark shadows of the forest. The sunlight lingers behind me in the clearing. It is now or never. Walk forward or turn back. Run or stay.
I shove my hands into my pockets and step deeper into the woods, my feet scarring the fresh snow. I need to keep looking for something better than what I am leaving behind.
My first steps are slow. There is no sign that I’m being watched from the forest or the bright white building behind me. I make a silent promise to myself as my eyes well up with tears.
I will not cry. I will not panic. I will walk away, go into the woods, disappear. There are people in the mountains, and I will find them. I will make a life for myself. I will do this, or I will die trying.
I quicken my pace. My throat tightens further. Breathing through these thoughts and emotions is hard, and the crisp winter air makes it painful. My heart pounds twice as fast as my feet crunching through the snow. The trees fall in behind me, blocking the building from sight. Hope dangles on the edge of my thoughts, close to falling into a chasm of cynicism. There may not be any sign of Thomas, I may be lost to delusions, but I am walking. Choosing my own path and my own future, even for a moment.
Then I see it. Next to a large rock in the center of a beam of light cutting through the shadows of the forest—a fresh footprint.
I can’t help myself—I sprint forward. I don’t dare call out his name. It could be a trail from a guard or a Leader or forestry worker. Still, I look desperately from tree to tree and back to the trail of footsteps in front of me.
The steps come from deep in the woods and double back on themselves. I push through naked bushes and crisp evergreens dusted white with snow. My thick coat catches on the branches, making synthetic scratching sounds that set my nerves even more on edge. I want to take it off but my freezing face tells me that wouldn’t be wise. The temperature is well below freezing.
The tracks keep going and I keep following while unwanted thoughts dance through my mind. What if I saw someone but only thought it was Thomas? What if I didn’t see anything, and these footprints are an illusion and I’m going mad? After Hamen described the procedure I underwent to store centuries’ worth of data in my mind, I have no doubt that I could be delusional now, the part of brain that knows reality from daydreams permanently damaged.
An index of mental illnesses flash before my eyes, like the pages of a text book flipping in front of me while I read at top speed.
Bipolar II disorder
Body dysmorphic disorder
Borderline intellectual functioning
Borderline personality disorder
Brief psychotic disorder
I groan and shake my head, closing my eyes against a headache that pierces where the previous pain hit with the image of the red neon arrow. The pain dissipates again, as quickly as before, and I stand straight, not remembering hunching over. I must think about Thomas.
I take a step forward and a heavy weight hits my shoulders and back with such force I fall forward, hands only coming up in time to prevent my face from taking the brunt of the fall. I try to scream, but my face is shoved into the snow. The cold burns my cheeks as my nose is bent and scraped against a rock. Movement on my back precedes snarling hot breath in my ear.
I’m crushed deeper into the snow by the weight of a clawing mass. A flash of gratitude for the thick parka fills me as I hear it rip in several places, synthetic skin saving my own. I flail and fight to get out from under whatever has me pinned, but it’s so heavy, I’m losing the battle. Finally, I swing back hard with an elbow and make my first solid contact. Whatever it is wobbles, off balance. I grab the chance to flip onto my back and start punching.
What I thought was a forest creature is a person, a man. But something is wrong with his eyes. They’re too dark, too intense. Even in the dim forest light I can tell they are more animal than human. I shove and kick as hard as I can, trying to get him off of me. He slaps my cheek and pulls my hair. I punch and kick, screaming for help. The man grabs both of my arms, forcing them against the ground above my head, and shoves his face next to mine. I push my jaw against his, screaming in his ear, trying to keep his mouth away from my neck.
He snarls and roots at my shoulder. His breath is foul, like rotten flesh and sour milk. My arms are wedged up against his shoulders leaving only my head to defend myself from his mouth. I shove the top of my head against his cheek, trying to force it away. It is no use. Disgusting grunts and pants leave moist vapor on my skin until he rears back and crashes his forehead into mine. The blow knocks me senseless but in that same moment his weight is knocked off me.
When the stars and black dots leave my vision, I can see my attacker on the ground. Another man has him in a choke hold from behind, squeezing the air out of him until, all too quickly, he falls limp. I scoot backward until I bump against a large rock, then struggle to get to my feet so I can run, but I’m too slow.
The second man drops the first man and is on top of me, his hand over my mouth. My eyes sting with tears and I can’t breathe from the shock. His face, covered in a mask like the one my father wore to work in the forest on the coldest winter days, hovers near mine as he secures me with strong arms, wedging me in a sitting position against the boulder and the snowy ground. Then one knee is on my legs while he straightens up to peer back down the trail over the rock that conceals us. His thick green coat is the confirmation I need to know he isn’t a guard from Hamen’s. They would be wearing a white coat like me. I don’t know whether to be relieved or terrified.
Adrenaline still pumping through me, I strain to free my arms. It isn’t too late to run. I can survive and find the mountain people.
But instead of attacking, he bends down and looks into my eyes before letting his hand slip off my mouth and his grip on my shoulder loosens.
Soft hazel eyes meet my panicked gaze, and I freeze. Even with the rest of his face covered, I know those eyes.
“Thomas!” The name comes out in a burst of white fog from my mouth.
He eases off of me and I pull up his mask to reveal his scruffy face, the same one I saw watching me through bars all those days and nights in prison. I want to hold him close like my mother used to hold me—he’s so close anyway. But I hesitate. Thomas isn’t like my mother. What would it feel like to hold him? It feels strange to consider it.
“Hush, lassie,” he says. “They’re bound to be right behind us.”
At the sound of his voice, I can’t hold back anymore. I throw my arms around him. All the moments of being without him and wishing I’d jumped with him melt between us as he returns my embrace and his breath warms my neck.
“What are you doing here?” I check my voice and whisper, “How did you find me? How are you alive? I can’t…” I’m not sure what else to say, where to start.
“I’m a tough nut, you know?” He smiles and rubs my raw cheek with his wool glove. Mixed with my tears, the sweet gesture stings my skin, but I don’t care.
“I can’t believe you’re alive.” I pull him to me again and bury my face in his shoulder, my head pounding from the fight with the wild man.
His strong arms wrap around me, and I hear his voice echo in his chest. “Honestly, sweets, I can’t believe you’re not a walking veggie head. I want to hear all about your adventures as soon as we’re out of these bloody woods. Come on.”
Feeling his legs shift, I sit back and he helps me to my feet while scanning the trail behind us again.
“We’re leaving a proper mess for them to follow so we’ve got to scurry.” He takes my hand and starts back over his footprints leading farther into the woods. “How did you get out here, anyway? I didn’t expect you to waltz into my arms like a cranking birthday gift.”
“I told them I was going for a walk. I know the leader—he was trying to recruit me. He said I could do whatever I wanted, but I overheard him saying that if I didn’t comply they’d roast me. Complete Mind Wipe.” I am rambling now. Must focus. “How did you find me? And who was that man? What was wrong with him?”
As if on cue, there’s motion behind us. Down the trail, the beast man moans and sits up. Thomas pushes me behind him, ready to knock the man out again if he approaches, but a twang cuts through the air, and the man falls back to the snow, convulsing. Shock rifle fire.
“Come on, no time to chatter.” Thomas pulls my arm, and we run through the brush and trees, ignoring the footprints Thomas made on his way to get me.
I can’t help looking back. One man in a white suit is kneeling to examine my attacker. Two others have spotted us and are charging forward, long black shock rifles wagging back and forth in front of their chests.
I know what those guns feel like. I know what happens when they catch you. Shudders trip down my spine and I push myself to keep up with Thomas, determined not to lose him this time as we slalom tree trunks and trip through the snow.
Another twang rings through the air, and a branch a few feet to my left shatters.
“They are catching up,” I say between breaths, feeling fear rise in my throat.
“No matter, we’re here.” He looks back at me and slows slightly. “You gonna trust me this time?”
We emerge from the trees, and Thomas catches my arm so I don’t fall down a steep, snowy embankment to a river two hundred yards below. The drop isn’t as far as at the prison, but the water below is agitated and swift, frothing and white. I can see where Thomas has carefully picked his way up the hill farther upstream where large rocks jut out of the snowy hillside. Directly before us lies a slippery, snow-covered slide of unknown hazards. Behind, the soldiers’ shouts sound on the other side of the tree line.
I look at Thomas and without hesitation, I jump.
The snow is packed harder than I would have guessed. We slide much faster than we can control. I cling to Thomas’s gloved hand with my own bare one and try not to scream. My forehead throbs centered around the knot swelling where the monster man headbutted me. The wind whips past my face, carrying pellets of ice kicked up from our feet trying to dig in and slow the descent. The river bank is coming up quickly. Too quickly.
“Thomas,” I squeak out. I want to shut my eyes and brace for impact, but instead I watch in horror as jagged rocks lining the frozen river’s edge grow larger, closer.
“Hang on, I gotcha.” Thomas grips my hand tightly and bends his knees, digging his feet deeper into the icy snow bank.
The guards must have reached the edge. But the sounds of their rifles are accompanied by the scraping of ice and metal, and Thomas begins to slow. Momentum carries me ahead of him, the motion centered on the connection of our hands. My arm fully extends and starts to strain, gravity fighting to pull my fingers from their grasp on his glove.
“I need both your hands,” he yells.
I roll on my side and reach up, catching him around his free wrist with my flailing hand. I immediately feel the tug increase as he successfully slows my descent as well.
“Hold on, we’re gonna speed this up again.” Thomas redoubles his grip on my right hand, then my left, before lifting his feet, and we shoot down the slope again.
This time I look down at the rocks and realize they are boulders and we are only a few moments away from smashing into them.
I look up the hill. The guards are standing at the top of the ridge, taking aim.
Pain in my temples is followed by snippets of shock rifle statistics flowing across my vision: diagrams, measurements, development. I shut my eyes and shake the information away, groaning. But now I know these rifles have limited range and accuracy. They aren’t like the guns of the past, firing hundreds of feet with startling precision. We may be out of their reach on the river.
“Hang on!” Thomas yells as we slow more quickly this time, yanking on my outstretched arms. Then my feet slam into the boulders below, my legs buckling.
I open my eyes and scramble to my hands and knees. The guards aren’t following us, but that doesn’t mean they will let us go. One puts his rifle down and speaks into a small black box. The other keeps us in his sights.
The rock next to me explodes, little pebbles showering the ground around us.
Okay, so maybe I misjudged their range.
“Time to go, love.” Thomas is on his feet and pulling me up too.
We slip around the huge rocks, coated in ice, to face the river in its roaring glory. I hope Thomas won’t ask me to dive into the icy waters. I know we have to get out quickly, but I’ve never been in water deeper than a shower puddle. How will I survive the freezing current roaring in front of me?
As we round the corner between rocks and the last twang dies away behind us, I see a small boat tied to a scrawny tree, halfway lodged on a thin, sandy bank. Thomas takes off his gloves and hands them to me.
“Put these on,” he says, and I do so quickly, savoring the warmth his hands left for mine. He stomps ahead and starts untying the line. Once it’s free, he looks up at me.
I meet his gaze, understanding urgency that doesn’t need to be spoken. I take in the river and the tiny wooden vessel. This is better than swimming, but I’ve never ridden in a boat either. We didn’t live anywhere near water that used boats for any purpose, and recreational boating is not of use.
“Get in. No doubt they are calling up for ropes and the like so they can scale down and nab us.”
“I’ve never been in a boat before. I-I don’t know what to do,” I stammer.
“Just get in and hold on. Don’t dance around and we’ll be fine.” He smiles at me as he tugs at the ropes. The same smile that got me through all those days in prison, only now there are no bars separating us, no regulations, no guards—except the ones behind us on the hill.
I step gingerly into the shallow water and take hold of the brown wooden sides. As I lift my other leg up, the boat tips under my weight and I almost lose my balance. With one foot on the uneven bottom, I hurry to swing my other leg into the boat, shaking as I cling to the side. Shallow water pools around my boots as I wobble toward a small bench built in the back. I sit down and grasp both sides of the boat. They feel smooth even through Thomas’s warm wool gloves, worn down by the hands of previous passengers holding on for their lives, I’m sure.
Thomas throws the ropes in after me and starts to push the boat into the current. As we slide away from the shore, the top of the hill rises into view beyond the large boulders sheltering us. The guards aren’t visible, but I don’t relax yet. My arms are tense and I flex my calves. Thomas was right. They are probably waiting for ropes or bigger guns or something worse before they come after us. Their whole existence, everything they cherish, is crammed in my brain, and they don’t want that slipping out of their control.
Thomas gives one last push, then jumps expertly into the front of the boat. The slight rocking caused by his jump convinces me the boat is about to capsize and I squeeze the sides tighter, closing my eyes. My whole body tightens and I hold my breath as the boat lowers farther into the dark waters with Thomas’s weight and then catches the current and speeds ahead. When I’m brave enough to open my eyes, Thomas is standing in front of me with a pole, pushing us away from an oncoming rock and catapulting us farther into the flow. I hold my breath as we shoot forward.
Not wanting to look at the raging river around us, I look down into the boat and notice Thomas’s boots. Now that we aren’t in the snow, I can see large metal spikes protruding from the soles. That must have been how he climbed up the hill and how he slowed our descent. An image of the spikes going through the brown wood in the bottom of the boat and water rising up around me makes me shiver, and I close my eyes again. He got down here without puncturing the boat, so we should be able to get out too.
I release the side of the boat to gently prod the spot where the wild man knocked his head against mine, and a dull throbbing meets my fingers. The backs of my eyelids light up accompanied by stabbing pain between my temples. I grab the sides of the boat again and brace myself for what comes next.
RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK, to New York City, US. The sinking of Titanic caused the deaths of more than 1,500 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in modern history.
“Stop, stop, stop!”
“Can’t love. We’re well on our way now. Look, they’re giving up. Woo-hoo!”
Thomas doesn’t realize I’m not talking to him.
This pain, these information flashes, are the byproducts of Hamen messing with my head. After Thomas escaped the prison and I was taken to the Mind Wipe, Hamen filled me with all the lost information of our ancestors—everything our current Leaders had decided wasn’t of use, including most history, art, and music. What he hadn’t told me was that random bits would pop up without warning in flashes and bursts of pain. I can’t decide if I’m glad to have it or if I wish it was back in Hamen’s machine.
As soon as the episode has passed—in a moment that feel like several minutes—I look up. In the distance, the guards have both dropped their weapons and are watching us. We are moving too fast for them to catch. The river bends to the left, taking us with it. An outcropping of trees on the bank passes between us and they are gone. I wonder what Hamen will say when he finds out I ran away. I picture his face growing dark and morphing into the man I knew best, the man who enjoyed tormenting students in Secondary School. The man who wouldn’t hesitate to erase my personality and memories if given the chance.
How could he have ever been, as he claims, my mother’s friend?
The river is still swift but is deep and smooth now. I grow used to the gentle rocking, and seeing Thomas confident at the helm helps me relax. At each section of rapids, Thomas guides us through expertly. He looks back at me now and then, a broad smile splitting his handsome face. As I think about how much I missed him—his voice, his smile, the mischief in his eyes—I realize that I don’t know this wild mountain boy much better than I know Hamen. Yet I am willing to trust him, to follow him this time. Though he could be taking me to a life much worse than Hamen offered, I doubt it with my whole heart. Any life that includes Thomas is better than one without him.
I wish I’d never doubted him the first time.
After what has to be at least an hour on the boat, my stomach twists and my eyes feel heavy, despite the cold. Or maybe because of it. I wish that I would have gone to eat with Hamen immediately after I woke up. But I shake away those thoughts, reminding myself that I would have missed seeing Thomas outside my window.
Thomas. Now that I’ve had a chance to examine him more closely, I notice his dark hair has been trimmed. His beard, so rough and patchy from neglect in prison, has been shaved and is growing back. Dark stubble dusts his jaw and chin. He sits straight and tall at the front of the boat, guiding it with a long stick. As if feeling my gaze, he turns to smile, revealing bright white teeth, crooked enough to make it obvious he’s not from the city. He looks so happy, but his eyes have dark circles etched under them. I wonder if he has found anything to eat or a warm place to sleep during the days I was in the Institute having my brain rewired.
The jagged dark gray rocks and needle-laden evergreen trees on the shoreline are blanketed with soft white snow. Focusing on them helps to keep my attention as I try not to think about the boat tipping over or the frigid temperature of the water. As I relax, I realize the names of the trees we pass, their life cycles, their uses, are slipping painlessly through my mind. I let the information flow through my mind instead of fighting it. When I try to focus on any particular detail, the flow pauses but a headache threatens to blossom, and I let the information flow through me like the river rushing by on either side. I wonder how many people Hamen pumped full of this lost information. Where are they now?
“Oy, love!” Thomas calls out over the sound of the river. “Check that knapsack there, would ya?”
I look at the floor of the boat where he is pointing to a dirty brown bag gathered at the top by two crude laces. The bottom third of it appears darker than the rest, soaked by a bucket’s worth of water sloshing in the bottom of the boat.
I pull the bag between my feet, not wanting the wet bottom on my pants, and stick my hands in the hole, pulling the laces loose, then open. My mouth begins to water. Inside are bread, apples, and dried meat, all protected from the water by a wax lining.
“Where did you get this?” I say. “Where have you been staying the last few days?”
“I’ve got friends under every rock.” He winks at me. “Help yourself.”
I reach in and pull out the apple first. I can’t remember the last time I ate one. The food rationing was so severe in the weeks before I left Secondary School that many of my friends were starving. I shared my meals—reward for doing well in my classes—and rarely ate more than bread and canned fish most days. Prison food was actually a step above that, offering an occasional bowl of mush or unidentifiable overcooked vegetable.
Now I hold a bright yellow apple covered in tiny brown spots like the freckles on the face of a child. I turn it over in my hands, appreciating it, then take a huge bite. The fruit is cold and stings my teeth, but the juice is sweet and dribbles over my lips and down my chin. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I’m embarrassed to find Thomas watching me, but his expression is pure joy.
“It’s good, yah?” he says just as I say, “It’s so good.” We both laugh and end up talking over each other again.
“Have you ever had—” Thomas starts.
“Thank you so much,” I interrupt him.
“Ladies first,” he says and holds out a hand indicating I should speak. We don’t have to lower our voices for fear of being overheard by guards. The freedom is intoxicating and terrifying.
“I have had one before, but it wasn’t this good,” I say through bites of apple, answering his unfinished question. I chew and swallow, then ask, “Do you want one?”
He shakes his head, his smile so bright, so rewarding. He’s happy because I am happy, and that is enough for both of us.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
Images of tall, thick men with dark red beards and stern faces flash through my mind. They have swords and axes and are obviously warriors. I push them away and try to focus on Thomas’s answer.
“My people. The mountain folk. Only they don’t exactly live on the mountains anymore.”
“Aye. After the batty old lady ratted on us, they moved back into the mountains. Under them, I suppose you could say.”
“How do you live under the mountains?”
“Where do you think they get all those fancy metals for all the fancy gadgets your folk are so fond of?”
“I don’t know.” That is the truth. I haven’t ever thought about where the materials came from to supply us with trucks and pods or even circuitry for doors and autoeyes.
“The mountains, lass, and we’re the trolls that dig it out for you.”
“Then you were in contact with the Leaders before they raided your village? I thought you hid from them.” My daydreams of running off to join the mountain people always involved a community far from the influence of the Leaders and their society, not part of it.
“We hide our way of life. They think we are a part of your system, but we’re not. We never were.”
“Don’t call it my system.” I turn away from him and take another big bite of the apple.
He’s quick to apologize. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”
But something else he said has already distracted me. “Why did the Leaders raid your village in the first place? Was it only because of illegal activity?” I’ve never heard of Leaders letting a community get away with any kind of subversion without severe retribution, but clearly the mountain people have continued their way of life.
“That and we were starting to push back on their demands, asking for more in return for the metal we sent to them. There’s been talk of splitting off from the Leaders for a while now. Everyone is pretty fed up, but there are two different groups of thought among my people.”
I nod at him to continue, soaking up the information about the people I’ve longed to join my whole life.
“Some want to split off and fight the Leaders, try to gain back some of our land and set up our own government. Others want to keep things low and slow. They want to be free of the Leaders, but no war.”
“No one wants to stay with the current government?”
“Would you?” he asks, smiling at me.
“Good point,” I say. “Where do you fall?”
“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” he says, then points ahead. “We’re nearly there. Just around the bend and then we hike up the mountain a bit.”
He looks back to the river and the sound of the water fills the silence between us. I may have a lot of old-world history crammed in my head, but the information Thomas revealed about his people is brand new, and I’m struggling to fit it in with my experience of the Leaders and their world. The job of navigating the river keeps Thomas busy for the moment, but as he works the pole to steer the boat around the bend and toward a sandy shore, my heart starts to race, anxiety kicking in again.
When we land on dry ground, it will just be me and Thomas. Nothing between us. I have never been alone with a boy before. There were always autoeyes watching or a Leader or parent around the corner, bars separating us in prison. Even now, there is a boat on the verge of capsizing and the need to escape. And this is Thomas. His dark hair and strong face are so familiar to me. His hand on the pole, guiding the boat like he guided me through each miserable day when we were locked up. His ready smile even when the situation is bleak. His quick laugh and the way he openly shows affection. He’s free from the laws I grew up with, free from all of my hesitations and fears. I feel my breathing quicken and my palms grow hot in the cold winter air when I think about being free like that, forever, with him.
With a soft grinding of wood on sand, our boat catches on the river’s edge. Thomas cries, “Here we are!” and jumps into the shallow water, circling around to the back of the boat to push it farther onto land.
I throw what’s left of the gnawed apple core into the water and stand, wobbling, with the crude knapsack clutched to my chest with one hand and the side of the boat with the other as I work my way to the front.
The front of a boat is the bow.
The back of a boat is the stern.
When a person is facing the bow, left side is port and the right side is starboard.
The information, unbidden, is accompanied by a stabbing pain behind my right eye.
“Got it,” I whisper through the pain and try to focus on climbing out the bow without re-soaking my already wet shoes and feet.
“What’s that?” Thomas wades around to the side and offers me his hand.
The pain from the memory fades, leaving me slightly dazed. I look at his hand, trying to understand why it’s there. It’s rough, darker than mine, nails chewed to their beds and crisscrossed with lines that seem drawn on with a writing tool instead of creased by nature. Do I want to touch that hand? I clutch the bag closer to my chest.
“What is it?” His voice sounds as if it is coming through a fog. “Imani?”
Startled by my name, I remember I’m with Thomas; this is Thomas’s hand, Thomas who helped me stay sane in prison and escape the revolutionaries. Did my hesitation hurt his feelings? He definitely isn’t wearing his usual happy-go-lucky smile.
I take his hand in mine. Even through the glove I can feel that his fingers are like chunks of ice. I feel selfish and cruel all at once. Of course, he is freezing. He is standing in a frozen river, patiently waiting while I decide if I trust him or not.
He came back for me. Even after I abandoned him on the cliffside in the prison yard, watching him fall and then be shot. How could I not go with this boy now? How could I not trust him? All of that aside, I want to go, to find something new.
I use his arm to step carefully out of the boat and onto the beach, avoiding the icy waters. Once we are both on dry land, I drop the bag and tackle him in an embrace. Hopefully it’ll both warm him up and act as an apology for not taking his hand sooner.
“Whoa there, darling.” He laughs and hugs me back.
I bury my face in his chest and close my eyes, letting the warmth of our connection spread through my body. When Thomas speaks, the words rumble through his chest.
“This feels mighty nice and all, and I’d love to warm up together any other day, but we’ve got a ways to go and I’m not sure those fellas are done following us.”
I step back, my face burning red, and look around for guards or a trail or something other than Thomas. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Give me a hand with the boat, will ya?”
He drags the boat past the sand and into the twigs and grass bordering the snowline. I take a few quick steps forward and grab the rope above him. He motions for me to take a hold of one side as he takes the other. The boat is surprisingly light. We easily lift it high enough to clear the snow, and I follow him into the woods.
“Right here’s good.” He motions to a giant fir tree with large branches reaching the ground in all directions, ends buried in snow “Just hold it steady a second.”
He braces the boat on his knee and tugs a branch’s end out of its snowy confines. Once he lifts it up, I can see a dry area under the tree large enough for three boats like the one we are carrying. In fact, there is another boat tucked in the space, like a sleeping bear waiting for spring, along with a large wooden chest.
We stow our boat next to its brother, then Thomas opens the trunk and digs around while I admire our secret hiding place.
We didn’t have trees this large in the community I grew up in. I try to guess its age by the circumference of its trunk, nearly twice that of the trees I am used to. How does such a tree exist when all the flora and fauna were wiped out a few decades earlier? Maybe it is a different hybrid. I run my fingers down rough bark of the trunk.
“How old do you think this tree is?” I ask, wondering if Thomas might know having grown up on the mountain.
“Older than us, that’s for sure. These aren’t the quick producing trees the Leaders put out for their mills. These are the Douglas firs that survived the devastation or sowed themselves and grew up from the ashes of the wars.”
“They seeded themselves?”
“But I thought nothing could grow after the wars. I thought the land was wasted and barren after the Neuroadvanced came out of their bunkers.”
“Do you believe everything those fancy pantsers tell you down there?” He motions back up the river in the direction we came from.
I close my mouth and think about what he’s said. He is right. There are plenty of things the Leaders lied about. I wonder for a moment how much of what is in my head might be a lie as well. How will I be able to tell what is real and true?
“Here it is.” He pulls something out of the chest. “Dry clothes and some better boots for ya, lassie.” He hands me a pair of thick green woolen pants and brown boots, then goes back to digging around in the chest. “There are socks inside the boots as well.”
Dry clothes sound very nice, but I hesitate. “Thank you, Thomas, that’s wonderful, but… where am I supposed to change?”
“No better place than right here.” He turns around holding his own pair of dry pants and boots in his hands, a wicked grin creasing his cheeks.
For a split second I regret the hug I’d thrown so carelessly at him earlier. Maybe I’d given him the wrong idea. Or the right idea at the wrong time? Then again, maybe it is normal for boys and girls to see each other change clothes where he comes from. I grew up under the constant watch of the autoeye, but that’s not the same thing as a live human boy standing in front of me while I strip to my underwear beneath a tree in the middle of nowhere and with no supervision.
My shock must be clear because he laughs.
“I’m fooling, lassie! I’ll be out there clearing up some of our tracks. You get yourself dry and ready and holler at me when it’s safe for me to come back in. Alrighty?”
I breathe a sigh of relief and feel my cheeks burn hot again. Unbidden, the memory of his kiss on the cliff just before he jumped over the edge shoots from my head to my feet, and I long to revisit that kind of closeness. Somehow my cheeks burn even hotter and a heat matching it rises in my abdomen.
I step aside and look down as he walks straight at me on his way to leave our shelter. But he pauses in front of me and puts his cold hand on my hot cheek.
“It’s a good day, Imani.” As if he had read my mine, his eyes twinkle as his lips press into mine, warm and full.
As soon as it happens it’s over, and he is ducking under the branch, humming a tune as he makes his way back to the shore.
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