We’re darting in a million directions. Turning abruptly, going forward a few feet only to head back in an opposite path. My best guess is that Adam is trying to confuse and/or distract our followers as much as possible. I can do nothing but attempt to keep up.
And I fail.
Adam is a trained soldier. He’s built for exactly these kinds of situations. He understands how to flee, how to stay inconspicuous, how to move soundlessly in any space. I, on the other hand, am a broken girl who’s known no exercise for too long. My lungs are burning with the effort to inhale oxygen, wheezing with the effort to exhale carbon dioxide.
I’m suddenly gasping so desperately Adam is forced to pull me into a side street. He’s breathing a little harder than usual, but I’ve acquired a full-time job choking on the weakness of my limp body.
Adam takes my face in his hands and tries to focus my eyes. “I want you to breathe like I am, okay?”
I wheeze a bit more.
“Focus, Juliette.” His eyes are so determined. Infinitely patient. He looks fearless and I envy him his composure. “Calm your heart,” he says. “Breathe exactly as I do.”
He takes 3 small breaths in, holds it for a few seconds, and releases it in one long exhalation. I try to copy him. I’m not very good at it.
“Okay. I want you to keep breathing like—” He stops. His eyes dart up and around the abandoned street for a split second. I know we have to move.
Gunshots shatter the atmosphere. I’d never realized just how loud they are or just how much that sound fractures every functioning bone in my body. An icy chill seeps through my blood and I know immediately that they’re not trying to kill me. They’re trying to kill Adam.
I’m suddenly asphyxiated by a new kind of anxiety. I can’t let them hurt him.
Not for me.
But Adam doesn’t have time for me to catch my breath and find my head. He flips me up and into his arms and takes off in a diagonal dash across another alleyway.
And we’re running.
And I’m breathing.
And he shouts, “Wrap your arms around my neck!” and I release the choke hold I have on his T-shirt and I’m stupid enough to feel shy as I slip my arms around him. He readjusts me against him so I’m higher, closer to his chest. He carries me like I weigh less than nothing.
I close my eyes and press my cheek against his neck.
The gunshots are somewhere behind us, but even I can tell from the sound that they’re too far away and too far in the wrong direction. We seem to have momentarily outmaneuvered them. Their cars can’t even find us, because Adam has avoided all main streets. He seems to have his own map of this city. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing—like he’s been planning this for a very long time.
After inhaling exactly 594 times Adam drops me to my feet in front of a stretch of chain-link fence. I realize he’s struggling to swallow oxygen, but he doesn’t pant like I do. He knows how to regulate his breathing. He knows how to steady his pulse, calm his heart, maintain control over his organs. He knows how to survive. I hope he’ll teach me, too.
“Juliette,” he says after a breathless moment. “Can you jump this fence?”
I’m so eager to be more than a useless lump that I nearly sprint up and over the metal barrier. But I’m reckless. And too hasty. I practically rip my dress off and scratch my legs in the process. I wince against the stinging pain, and in the moment it takes me to reopen my eyes, Adam is already standing next to me.
He looks down at my legs and sighs. He almost laughs. I wonder what I must look like, tattered and wild in this shredded dress. The slit Warner created now stops at my hip bone. I must look like a crazed animal.
Adam doesn’t seem to mind.
He’s slowed down, too. We’re moving at a brisk walk now, no longer barreling through the streets. I realize we must be closer to some semblance of safety, but I’m not sure if I should ask questions now, or save them for later. Adam answers my silent thoughts.
“They won’t be able to track me out here,” he says, and it dawns on me that all soldiers must have some kind of tracking device on their person. I wonder why I never got one.
It shouldn’t be this easy to escape.
“Our trackers aren’t tangible,” he explains. We make a left into another alleyway. The sun is just dipping below the horizon. I wonder where we are. How far away from Reestablished settlements we must be that there are no people here. “It’s a special serum injected into our bloodstream,” he continues, “and it’s designed to work with our bodies’ natural processes. It would know, for example, if I died. It’s an excellent way to keep track of soldiers lost in combat.” He glances at me out of the corner of his eye. He smiles a crooked smile I want to kiss.
“So how did you confuse the tracker?”
His grin grows bigger. He waves one hand around us. “This space we’re standing in? It was used for a nuclear power plant. One day the whole thing exploded.”
My eyes are as big as my face. “When did that happen?”
“About five years ago. They cleaned it up pretty quickly. Hid it from the media, from the people. No one really knows what happened here. But the radiation alone is enough to kill.” He pauses. “It already has.”
He stops walking. “I’ve been through this area a million times already, and I haven’t been affected by it. Warner used to send me up here to collect samples of the soil. He wanted to study the effects.” He runs a hand through his hair. “I think he was hoping to manipulate the toxicity into a poison of some kind.
“The first time I came up here, Warner thought I’d died. The tracker is linked to all of our main processing systems—an alert goes off whenever a soldier is lost. He knew there was a risk in sending me, so I don’t think he was too surprised to hear I’d died. He was more surprised to see me return.” He shrugs, as though his death would’ve been an insignificant detail. “There’s something about the chemicals here that counteracts the molecular composition of the tracking device. So basically—right now everyone thinks I’m dead.”
“Won’t Warner suspect you might be here?”
“Maybe.” He squints up at the fading sunlight. Our shadows are long and unmoving. “Or I could’ve been shot. In any case, it buys us some time.”
He takes my hand and grins at me before something slams into my consciousness.
“What about me?” I ask. “Can’t this radiation kill me?” I hope I don’t sound as nervous as I feel. I’ve never wanted to be alive so much in my life. I don’t want to lose everything so soon.
“Oh—no.” He shakes his head. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you—one of the reasons why Warner wanted me collecting these samples? Is because you’re immune to it, too. He was studying you. He said he found the information in your hospital records. That you’d been tested—”
“But no one ever—”
“—probably without your knowledge, and despite testing positive for the radiation, you were entirely whole, biologically. There was nothing inherently wrong with you.”
Nothing inherently wrong with you.
The observation is so blatantly false I actually start laughing. I try to stifle my incredulity. “There’s nothing wrong with me? You’re kidding, right?”
Adam stares at me so long I begin to blush. He tips my chin up so I meet his eyes. Blue blue blue boring into me. His voice is deep, steady. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh.”
He’s so excruciatingly correct I don’t know how to respond except with the truth. My smile is tucked into a straight line. “Laughter comes from living.” I shrug, try to sound indifferent. “I’ve never really been alive before.”
His eyes haven’t wavered in their focus. He’s holding me in place with the strength of one powerful pull coming from deep within him. I can almost feel his heart beating against my skin. I can almost feel his lips breathing against my lungs. I can almost taste him on my tongue.
He takes a shaky breath and pulls me close. Kisses the top of my head.
“Let’s go home,” he whispers.
What does he mean?
I part my lips to ask the question and his sneaky smile is the only answer I receive. I’m embarrassed and excited and anxious and eager. My stomach is filled with beating drums pounded into synchronicity by my heart. I’m practically humming with electric nerves.
Every step is a step away from the asylum, away from Warner, away from the futility of the existence I’ve always known. Every step is one I take because I want to. For the first time in my life, I walk forward because I want to, because I feel hope and love and the exhilaration of beauty, because I want to know what it’s like to live. I could jump up to catch a breeze and live in its windblown ways forever.
I feel like I’ve been fitted for wings.
Adam leads me into an abandoned shed on the outskirts of this wild field, overgrown by rogue vegetation and crazed bushlike tentacles, scratchy and hideous, likely poisonous to ingest. I wonder if this is where Adam meant for us to stay. I step into the dark space and squint. An outline comes into focus.
There’s a car inside.
Not just a car. A tank.
Adam almost can’t control his own eagerness. He looks at my face for a reaction and seems pleased with my astonishment. His words tumble out. “I convinced Warner I’d managed to break one of the tanks I brought up here. These things are designed to run on electricity—so I told him the main unit fried on contact with the chemical traces. That it was corrupted by something in the atmosphere. He arranged for a car to deliver and collect me after that, and said we should leave the tank where it is.” He almost smiles. “Warner was sending me up here against his father’s wishes, and didn’t want anyone to find out he’d broken a 500-thousand-dollar tank. The official report says it was hijacked by rebels.”
“Couldn’t someone else have come up and seen the tank sitting here?”
Adam opens the passenger door. “The civilians stay far, far away from this place, and no other soldier has been up here. No one else wanted to risk the radiation.” He cocks his head. “It’s one of the reasons why Warner trusted me with you. He liked that I was willing to die for my duty.”
“He never thought you’d step out of line,” I murmur, comprehending.
Adam shakes his head. “Nope. And after what happened with the tracking serum, he had no reason to doubt that crazy things were possible up here. I deactivated the tank’s electrical unit myself, just in case he wanted to check.” He nods back to the monstrous vehicle. “I had a feeling it would come in handy one day. It’s always good to be prepared.”
Prepared. He was always prepared. To run. To escape.
I wonder why.
“Come here,” he says, his voice noticeably gentler. He reaches for me in the dim light and I pretend it’s a happy coincidence that his hands brush my bare thighs. I pretend it doesn’t feel incredible to have him struggle with the rips in my dress as he helps me into the tank. I pretend I can’t see the way he’s looking at me as the last of the sun falls below the horizon.