Dec 20 2012 6:00pm
After faking their deaths to escape from prison, Ember Miller and Chase Jennings have only one goal: to lay low until the Federal Bureau of Reformation forgets they ever existed.
Near-celebrities now for the increasingly sensationalized tales of their struggles with the government, Ember and Chase are recognized and taken in by the Resistance—an underground organization working to systematically take down the government. At headquarters, all eyes are on the sniper, an anonymous assassin taking out FBR soldiers one by one. Rumors are flying about the sniper's true identity, and Ember and Chase welcome the diversion….
Until the government posts its most-wanted list, and their number one suspect is Ember herself.
Orders are shoot to kill, and soldiers are cleared to fire on suspicion alone. Suddenly Ember can’t even step onto the street without fear of being recognized, and “laying low” is a joke. Even members of the Resistance are starting to look at her sideways.
The Wayland Inn was behind the slums, on the west end of Knoxville. It was a place that had festered since the War, buzzing with flies that bred in the clogged sewers, stinking of dirty river water brought in on the afternoon breeze. A place that attracted those who thrived in the shadows. People you had to seek to find.
The motel’s brick exterior, veined with dead ivy and pockmarked by black mold, blended with every other boarded-up office building on the street. The water was ice-cold when it ran at all, the baseboards were cracked with mouse holes, and there was only one bathroom on each floor. Sometimes it even worked.
It was the perfect location for the resistance: hidden in plain sight, on a block so rotten even the soldiers stayed in their patrol cars.
We met outside the supply room before dawn, when the standardized power resumed, for Wallace’s orders. The night patrols were still out guarding our perimeter and those with stationary posts—the stairway door, the roof, and radio surveillance—were awaiting relief from the day shift. Curfew would be up soon, and they were hungry.
I stayed back against the wall, letting those who had been here longer settle to the front row. The rest of the hallway filled in quickly; if you were late, Wallace assigned you extra duties, the kind no one wanted. The supply room door was open, and though I couldn’t see our hard-nosed leader from my angle, the candlelight threw a thin, distorted shadow against the inside wall.
He was talking to someone on the radio; a soft crackling filled the space while he waited for a response. I thought it might be the team he’d put on special assignment two days ago: Cara, the only other girl at the Wayland Inn, and three big guys that had been kicked out of the Federal Bureau of Reformation—or, as we’d called the soldiers who’d taken over after the War, the Moral Militia. Curiosity had me leaning toward the sound, but I didn’t get too close. The more you knew, the more the MM could take from you.
“Be safe.” I recognized Wallace’s voice, but not the concern in it. Never had I heard him soften in the presence of others.
Sean Banks, my old guard from the Girls’ Reformatory and Rehabilitation Center, staggered out of his room, pulling his shirt down over his ribs. Too thin, I thought, but at least he’d slept a little—his deep blue eyes were calmer than before, not so strained. He found a place on the wall beside me, rubbing at the pillow marks still on his face.
“Always am, handsome,” came Cara’s muffled response, and then the radio went dead.
“Handsome?” parroted an AWOL named Houston. His red hair was growing out and flipped in the back like the tail feathers of a chicken. “Handsome?” he said again. The volume in the hall had increased; several of the guys were snickering.
“You called?” Lincoln, whose freckles always looked like someone had splashed black paint across his hollow cheeks, appeared beside Houston. They’d joined together last year, and in my time here I’d yet to see one without the other.
The chatter faded as Wallace came around the corner. He needed a shower; his shoulder-length peppered hair was greasy in clumps, and the skin of his face was tight with fatigue, but even in the muted yellow glow of the flashlights it was obvious his ears had gone pink. One pointed glare, and Houston melted back toward Lincoln.
My brows rose. Wallace seemed too old for Cara; she was twenty-two while he might have been twice that age. Besides, he was married to the cause. Everything else, everyone else, would always come second.
Not my business, I reminded myself.
The narrow corridor had crowded with eleven guys awaiting instruction. Not all of them had served; some were just noncompliant with the Statutes, like me. We all had our reasons for being here.
My heart tripped in my chest when Houston moved aside to reveal Chase Jennings, leaning against the opposite wall ten feet down. His hands were wrist-deep in the pockets of his jeans, and a white undershirt peeked through the holes of a gray, threadbare sweater. Only remnants of his incarceration in the MM base remained, a dark half-moon painted beneath one eye and a thin band of scar tissue across the bridge of his nose. He’d just gotten off the night shift securing the building’s perimeter; I hadn’t seen him come in.
As he watched me, the corner of his mouth lifted ever so slightly.
I looked down when I realized my lips had done the same.
“All right, quiet down,” began Wallace, voice gruff once again. He hesitated, tapping the handheld radio, now silent, against his leg. I caught a glimpse of the black tattoo on his forearm that twisted beneath his frayed sleeve.
“What happened?” said Riggins, suspicious only when not outright paranoid. His fingers wove over the top of his buzzed, can-shaped head as though he expected the ceiling might suddenly cave in on us.
“Last night half the Square went without rations.” Wallace’s frown deepened. “Seems our blue friends are withholding.”
Pity was a hard sell. Most of us went straight to anger. We all knew the MM had the food; our scouts had counted two extra Horizons trucks—the only government-sanctioned food distributers—entering the base just yesterday.
Houston balked. “If they’re hoping to clear town, they’re outta luck. Tent City’ll starve to death first. People got nowhere else to go.”
He was right. When the major cities had been destroyed or evacuated in the War, people had migrated inland, to places like Knoxville, or my home, Louisville, in search of food and shelter. They’d found only the bare minimum—soup kitchens and communities of vagrants, like the city of tents that had taken over the lot on the northern side of the city square.
“Thank you, Houston,” said Wallace. “I think that’s the point.”
I shivered. Chase and I hadn’t left the Wayland Inn since we’d pledged to the resistance, almost a month ago. If possible, the city seemed even bleaker than when we had last seen it.
“Now,” continued Wallace. “Billy caught a radio thread yesterday on an upcoming draft in the Square. We don’t know when, but my guess is it’ll be soon, and they’ll be offering signing bonuses.”
“I didn’t get a bonus,” someone whispered.
“Rations, jackass,” muttered Sean.
A collective groan filled the hallway. Soldiers using the promise of food to recruit more soldiers. They’d have a whole new army in a week.
“And forgiveness of Statute violations, of course.” Wallace smiled cynically. More groans followed.
Work was slim these days. The only businesses still running required background checks, which meant applicants had better be compliant with the Moral Statutes—a list of regulations that took away women’s rights, mandated a “whole” family, and prohibited things like divorce, speaking out against the government, and, of course, being born out of wedlock, like me. This had always been one of the MM’s prime recruiting strategies. Men who couldn’t get a job because of their record could still serve their country. And even if it meant selling their souls, soldiers got paid.
“What’re we going to do about it?” Lincoln asked.
“Nothing,” said Riggins. “We hit something like that, they’ll smoke out this whole town till they find us.”
I straightened, envisioning the MM coming here, raiding the Wayland Inn. As far as they knew, Chase and I were dead, “completed” in the holding cells at the base. I’d made certain of it before our escape. We didn’t want to give them reason to believe otherwise.
Without looking over, Sean elbowed me in the ribs. I deflated, a shallow breath expelling from between my teeth.
“Quiet,” said Wallace when several people objected. He shook his head. “Riggins is right. They plugged up the soup kitchen for seventy-two hours after last month’s riot. Soon they’ll be compensating anyone willing to sell us out. We’ve got to be smart. Think.” He tapped his temple. “In the meantime, Banks has a report to make.”
I glanced over, surprised, as Sean shoved off the wall beside me. He and I had been up late together scanning the mainframe for facilities in Chicago, searching for Rebecca—my roommate and his girlfriend—who had been beaten and arrested the night I’d tried to escape reform school. He hadn’t mentioned that anything out of the ordinary had happened during his earlier shift in the Square.
“Yesterday on my way back from Tent City, I ran into a guy looking for trouble over by the Red Cross Station,” said Sean.
“What kind of trouble?” Chase’s dark gaze flicked to mine.
Sean scratched his jaw. “The kind that makes me think he was looking to join us. He was trying to convince a group of guys to take out the guards posted at the soup kitchen. Talking loud—too loud. Said he’d been in the base lately, that he knew things about it. I very politely told him to keep it down, and he called me a—”
“What did he know?” I interrupted.
“A lot,” said Sean. “He was just discharged last week. Dishonorably. He didn’t seem too pleased about it either.”
I could feel Chase’s tension from across the hall. A recently discharged soldier could have important information about the Knoxville base, he might even know how to break back in, but what if he recognized us? We’d only been there four weeks ago. He could have been one of those who had beaten Chase or even killed another prisoner.
“It’s a con,” said Riggins. “Banks is getting played. The FBR’s sending in a mole.”
Wallace, who’d been silent while Sean had spoken, cleared his throat. “That’s why we’re going to tail him. If he gets within ten feet of a uniform, cut him loose. I don’t want to take any chances with this one.”
“Then don’t,” I said before I could stop myself. “Maybe Riggins is right.” Riggins snorted as if to say he didn’t want my help.
“You think he didn’t say the same about you when you came here?” Wallace asked.
I felt myself shrink under our leader’s stare. Sean had brought Chase and me to the Wayland Inn with no more than his word that we weren’t going to spill its secrets.
“Besides,” he continued, patting the radio against his leg again. “If this guy can get us access into the base, imagine the damage we could do.”
The following silence was filled with consideration. The MM was stockpiling food—we’d seen the delivery trucks go in—and there were weapons, not to mention the innocent people being executed in the holding cells.
I shivered, remembering how I’d nearly been one of them.
Lincoln and Houston shoved each other excitedly, but several of the others didn’t seem so convinced. Clusters of arguments broke out, which Wallace silenced by assigning a detail to keep tabs on the new recruit. He tasked Sean with bringing him in.
Sean fell back beside me, grumbling something indecipherable. The more time he spent away, the less we had to focus on breaking Rebecca out of rehab in Chicago. Still, Sean was smart enough to know that in order to use the resistance’s resources, the resistance had to use him as a resource, so he did what he was told.
Over the next several minutes Wallace began assigning people to daily duties: patrol, motel security, and finally, distribution of rations. I paused when he gave this duty to the two brothers who bunked across the hall from the bathroom. For the last few weeks it had belonged to me. I’d just gotten used to the routine, and now Wallace was changing things up.
“We’ve got supplies coming in from a raid last night,” Wallace said, and I realized this must have been what Cara and the others were doing. “The truck’s parked at the checkpoint and needs to be unloaded. And there’s a package in Tent City waiting for delivery.”
I still hadn’t gotten used to people being packages. Fugitives were moved for their safety to a checkpoint, a secret location where they could hide until a driver for the resistance, called a carrier, could transport them across the evacuated Red Zone lines to a safe house on the coast. Once we helped Sean rescue Rebecca, Chase and I would be going there, too.
My breath quickened. The checkpoint was across town, past the Square.
Two eager hands rose.
On impulse, I raised my hand. Inventory kept me here, and kept everything on the outside, lurking just beyond the rain-stained windows.
“Miller,” said Wallace slowly. “Right. Miller on supplies.”
Chase’s brows lifted.
I dropped my hand and picked at the peeling yellow wallpaper behind my lower back. Houston whispered something to Riggins, who shot a mocking glance at me over his shoulder.
“What about next door?” Fourteen-year-old Billy spoke up from behind Chase. “You said you’d post me there today.” He shoved a mop of mousy brown hair out of his eyes.
Wallace’s thin mouth drew into a smirk—an expression reserved for the youngest here.
“Billy, so nice of you to join us.”
“I been here!” His claim was cheerfully denied by those closest.
“You been here?” Wallace mocked. “You been sleeping late, I think. You’re on the latrines, kid, and Jennings and Banks will clear the abandoned buildings next door.”
Jennings? Chase was leaving the building? He hadn’t even slept yet. I tried to glance back over to him, but now other people were blocking the way.
Billy’s chin shot out indignantly. “But—”
“How about tomorrow, too?”
Billy threw his head back and groaned.
A buzz, one that made my spine tingle, and the overhead globes flickered with light. Curfew was over. The day had begun.
The hall began to clear. I looked for Chase, but found my path blocked.
“Inventory, huh?” Riggins smirked. He had a sorry excuse for a moustache, which landed directly in my line of sight.
I planted my feet, not about to let him get to me. The guys here were rough, they had to be, and living with them meant having a thick skin sometimes.
“That’s what Wallace said,” I responded.
“Let’s get some food.” Sean tried to move between us but Riggins stopped him with one solid hand.
“Watch out in the supply room. There’s rats, you know.” He grinned, the plucky hairs on his upper lip thinning.
I wasn’t sure if he was serious or just trying to make me squirm. “I’ve seen rats,” I told him.
“Not rats this big,” he said, stepping close enough to force me back again. “These rats hide in the uniform crates. You can hear ’em sometimes. They squeal, real loud.”
Two hands closed around my waist from behind and pinched my ribs. A short scream burst from my throat. When I spun around Houston was cackling. He took off after Lincoln, toward the radio room.
Before any coherent words filled my mind Chase was there, his fist twisted in Riggins’s collar as he shoved him into the wall. Because Chase was several inches taller, Riggins was forced to lift his dimpled chin to return a hard glare.
“Temper, temper,” Riggins rasped.
“What’s going on?” Wallace’s voice broke through my surprise. He had rules about fighting. We were family here, that’s what he always said. All Chase and I needed was to get kicked out, to be out there again running from the MM.
I squeezed Chase’s bicep, feeling the muscles flex beneath my fingers. His grip eased, and finally released.
Riggins smiled before sending Wallace a no-problem-here wave.
“Come on,” said Sean. He grabbed my elbow, towing me down the hall toward where the brothers were distributing dry cereal for breakfast.
Riggins leaned close as I passed. “You actually gonna do something useful today? Or just disappear again?” When I turned around he was sauntering toward the west exit, chuckling to himself.
My whole body burned.
It was no secret that Chase and I hadn’t left the motel since we’d escaped the base, but I didn’t know anyone had noticed that sometimes, when the fourth floor grew too confined, I’d escape to the roof to clear my head. It wasn’t like I was hurting anyone, and we pulled our weight where we could. We passed out rations, and Chase took shifts securing the building, but it wasn’t the same as pounding the pavement, holding up supply trucks or helping those in danger. Riggins and I both knew it.
It wasn’t like I didn’t want to do more. I did. I wanted to make a difference, to help someone, the way no one had been able to help my mother. The MM may have thought we were dead, but I remembered too well what it felt like to be wanted. First as a Statute violator when my mother had been charged with an Article 5, then as a reform school runaway. Chase had been charged with everything from his AWOL as a soldier to assault. Sometimes I could still feel the MM breathing down our necks.
But those things didn’t matter to people like Riggins. He hadn’t trusted me since Sean had brought us here for shelter. And hiding while he and the others risked their lives did nothing to prove my dedication to the cause.
Fury stoked through me, sudden and sharp. I’d survived the MM’s unforgiving rules, escaped execution, and come here, to the resistance, where we were all supposed to be on the same side. I didn’t need Riggins making me feel weak, or anyone else doubting me.
I shook out of Sean’s grasp and spun around—right into Chase, half a foot taller and broader even with his shoulders hunched forward. Quite a pair they were, like my own personal bodyguards. I should have been grateful for their help, but instead felt small, too in need of their protection.
“I’ll talk to Riggins,” said Chase. “He doesn’t know when to quit.”
“It’s fine. He’s just messing around.” My voice was too thin to be believable, though, and I could feel the terror and the emptiness pushing back from behind my thin veil of control. It had been this way since I’d learned of my mother’s murder. Sometimes the wall felt thicker, sometimes I felt stronger, but it was all an illusion. It could break through at a moment’s notice, just as it was threatening to now.
Chase took a step forward. “Look,” he said, leaning down so that our eyes were level. “We don’t have to stay here. We can catch the next transport to the safe house. Put all this behind us.” His voice was filled with hope.
“Not yet. You know that.” We had to find Rebecca first; if I hadn’t blackmailed her and Sean into helping me run away, they would still be together, and she wouldn’t have been hurt. I could still hear the baton coming down on her back as the soldiers dragged her away.
“You guys go on. I’ll catch up later.” I cleared my throat. My walls were cracking. Chase sighed, and after Sean’s prompting followed him down to breakfast.
Before the despair could take over, I fled down the corridor toward the supply room. It didn’t matter if I skipped rations; the hollowness inside had nothing to do with hunger. It wasn’t until the hallway was quiet that I remembered that Wallace had assigned Chase to clear the empty office building next door, that he was leaving the Wayland Inn without me. Even if he would be off the main streets, the thought of him out there alone made me sick.
By midmorning I’d rearranged the boxes of used clothing and boots to clear space for the new shipment. I’d stacked the toilet paper into columns and consolidated ammunition into four large cardboard boxes. The small silver cartridges I’d learned belonged to our stolen 9MM’s were running low, and I made note to remind Wallace of that later.
The uniform boxes stayed against the back wall, untouched.
“You put the cans in alphabetical order.”
I jumped back when Billy appeared in the doorway, brows arching beneath his shaggy hair, a Horizons bottle of bleach and a shredded sponge in each hand. I pointed him toward the metal rack where I’d moved the cleaning supplies. He’d recently switched hand-me-down jeans to a pair that was too big, and I spun away as the waistband dropped below his hips.
When I turned back, he was attempting to tape them in place.
“Stop,” I said, unable to hold back a laugh. “There’s a belt. Over there. By the uniforms.”
“You put the clothes in alphabetical order, too?”
I grinned. “Give me time.” I sobered as he made his way over to the crates, one hand holding his pants in place.
“Um, Billy?” I stayed back a few steps. “I heard there might be rats in there.” I was pretty sure Riggins was just being a jerk, but it couldn’t hurt to see if he’d been lying.
“There are,” said Billy. “Why? Did one bite you?”
I cringed. “No, I just . . . thought I saw one, that’s all,” I lied.
“Oh, hang on.” He backed out the door, smiling broadly. The hall was quiet—the night shift was sleeping, and most of the day shift was out on assignment. Billy’s feet slapped obnoxiously all the way down to his room.
He returned a few minutes later holding Gypsy, the mangy stray cat he’d pulled out of the stairwell last week. She was mostly black with missing clumps of hair on her hindquarters, but less emaciated than before.
“She’s letting you hold her.” She’d done nothing but hiss and scratch for days, and on cue she began to meow furiously until Billy dropped her on the floor.
“Rats, Gypsy,” he said. “Yummy rats.”
Gypsy didn’t look so different from a rat herself, and when she curled around my calf I stifled the urge to jerk away.
“She likes you,” he said.
I offered a weak smile.
Other footsteps came from the hallway, these slower and heavier, and I rushed toward the door hoping Chase and Sean had returned from clearing the building next door. Instead, I came face-to-face with Wallace, the handheld radio now tucked in his front pocket. He must have seen my face fall because he cocked his head to the side and said, “Don’t look so happy to see me.”
“No word from next door?” I asked as Billy joined us. The new belt worked wonders.
Wallace shook his head. “Did you want to go check?”
Yes. The word was simple, the building was only next door, but the word stuck on my tongue. As Billy offered to escort, I shifted from foot to foot. The thought of Chase in danger, or even Sean, forced my decision, but before I could answer, Wallace had moved on.
“Billy, if you’re done scrubbing the toilet I need you on the mainframe.” Though his mouth was set, Wallace’s eyes betrayed his pride. Billy had assembled a makeshift scanner from pieces the guys had picked up outside the base’s incinerators. A small television screen had been rigged to show the MM bulletins and lists of Statute violators in cryptic black-and-white type—it was the most use I’d seen out of a TV since the end of the War.
“Right. I’m searching for news on the sniper,” Billy told me importantly.
Outside on the street, a dog barked. I chewed the inside of my cheek.
Someone had murdered two FBR soldiers last month, in March, and then disappeared without a shred of evidence. Two weeks ago the sniper had struck again in Nashville: a soldier outside a Horizons distribution warehouse. Wallace was trying to find out his identity so that we might protect him, but I didn’t like the idea of bringing such a high-profile criminal back to the Wayland Inn. Not when the MM was on a manhunt.
“Anything new come up?” I asked.
“Nothing.” Wallace looked past me, out the dirty window behind the uniform crates. “Local news says the FBR is close to solving the case, but they’ve been saying that for weeks.” The radio reports we monitored made it clear they were chasing their tails.
“There’s nothing new on your friend either. I looked this morning,” Billy added, cheeks flaming. He’d been helping Sean and me search the mainframe for any rehab centers in Chicago where the MM might have sent Rebecca, but our searches kept coming up blank. Even Chase, who had trained there during his time as a soldier, could not recall such a place. I was seriously beginning to doubt that the tip I’d gotten in the Knoxville holding cells had been reliable.
“Go,” prompted Wallace. “And it’s about time you got a belt.”
Billy turned to leave, grumbling, but before he did he spun back and playfully swatted Wallace across the face. A second later he was sprinting down the hall, cackling.
My mouth fell open.
“Little bastard,” said Wallace affectionately, rubbing his stubbly jaw. I doubt he would have responded the same to Houston or Lincoln, or anyone else for that matter.
Gypsy hopped onto the crate of uniforms below the window and curled into a ball, assessing us with her yellow eyes. In the silence, I became acutely aware that Wallace and I had not spoken alone in weeks.
“I . . . I think we’re low on bullets,” I said. “I put what we had in these boxes. . . .”
“Come talk with me, Miller.”
Wallace turned without another word and left me trailing him toward the stairway door. The moment came when I thought he was testing me, leading me outside to see if I’d really go, but he didn’t; he shoved through the exit and went up, boots clanging on the metal steps.
Worry gnawed at me. I tried to anticipate the reason for this meeting; I didn’t know any more about the sniper, and I hadn’t been the only one to voice my doubt about Sean’s new recruit—Riggins had spoken up, too. Surely I wasn’t in trouble for that.
My thoughts turned to the MM base. There was no way I knew to break back in; we simply didn’t have the manpower to take the entrances, and soldiers—even those in disguise— couldn’t pass through the exit by the crematorium where Chase and I had escaped. Wallace knew this. He and I had beaten the topic into the ground, until the conversation had stalled and left us both disappointed.
Was that what he wanted to talk to me about now, my lack of contribution? My failure to save the others in the detention center? Because I knew I’d let them down. Wallace, the resistance, those prisoners I’d left behind. They haunted me, and maybe I deserved it. I’d saved Chase and myself, knowing others in the neighboring cells would die.
I tried to swallow, but my throat had tied in knots.
Wallace shoved through the heavy metal door on the tenth floor, flooding the shadowed interior with light. It wasn’t a bright day, but on the fourth floor we kept the curtains drawn, and my eyes took several moments to adjust. When they did I scanned the familiar cement patio, empty but for the cave-like entrance to the stairs and the park bench behind it, and the resistance guard overlooking the streets to the west.
The air wasn’t fresh, but it wasn’t stagnant like inside. Breathing it raised my awareness, made me feel exposed. Being here with Wallace didn’t feel as safe as when I came up here alone.
He strode toward the edge at the front of the building, to the elevated lip of red brick that stood like a battlement from an old-time castle. I followed him into the shadows, glancing up at the towering empty office building adjacent to the Wayland Inn. Though the structures didn’t touch, they were close, and I wondered if Chase could see me now from one of those high, dark windows.
“Look, out there on the freeway,” Wallace said, pointing around the neighboring building past the slums that had once been a college to the raised highway by the river. A few scattered cars traveled there, but the haze made it impossible to tell if they were cruisers.
“There are people in those cars who can go anywhere they’d like. People who aren’t starving and freezing like the folks in the Square. Men that still have jobs. Girls that still go to school.” He leaned down to rest his elbows on the ledge and glanced my way.
I felt a sudden trembling in my chest, cracked with a blow of all those things I’d been trying to shut out. Home. Beth with her wild red hair. I’d be a senior this year, graduating in June.
“Sometimes I come up here and watch them. I don’t know, I guess I come up here to feel sorry for myself.” He sighed. “I never knew how good I had it, back before all this. How easy it was to walk down the street without worrying someone might turn you in.”
“Yeah.” I kept my eyes on the cars.
“You know what I always realize?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“I feel sorrier for them.”
A siren cut through the air, drawing my attention to the alabaster fortress, crouching within its high stone walls twenty miles to the east. The FBR base.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My house may not look like much, but it keeps my family safe. I’ve got food in my gut and a roof over my head.” He lifted his arms out before him, like he was holding something precious. “But more importantly, I’m free, Miller. All those poor folks who follow the rules are trapped in a prison of fear.”
“You’re not free,” I said, frustrated. “You’re trapped, just like they are. I don’t like it, but it’s the truth. The only way you’re really safe is if you’re compliant.”
But the words suddenly sounded hollow. How many hours had my mother and I spent applying for meal passes, doing paperwork to apply for the mortgage freeze? Bending over backward because every job in the city discriminated against my mother’s tarnished record? And what good did it do? They took her, they killed her, anyway.
“Safe,” Wallace repeated. “That’s the same thing Scarboro said when he became president.” When he sensed my concern he smiled. “Don’t worry, more than half the country believed him. It’s what people do when they’ve been through war.”
A memory filtered through from another time. My mother, balking at the television while the man on the screen promised safety through unity. Freedom through conformity. That traditional family values and a streamlined faith would restore our country to greatness.
I rubbed the heels of my hands into my forehead, feeling like I had so many times over the past month: too full of something, too empty to name it. Whatever small part of me believed that I still belonged in the same world I’d grown up in, the world with Beth and school and home, had been cut loose. I could never go back.
“What do I do now?” I asked feebly, twisting the gold ring—the fake wedding ring Chase had stolen for me—around my ring finger. I didn’t need to wear it if I never left, but I did anyway.
Wallace sighed. “You figure out what matters. And you do something about it.”
Breaking Point © Kristen Simmons 2012