Shame has covered every inch of my body.
Jenkins offers me his hand.
My bones begin to buckle, snapping in synchronicity with the beats of my heart. I crumble to the floor, folding into myself like a flimsy crepe. My arms are so painfully bare in this ragged T-shirt.
“Don’t—” I hold up a tentative hand, pleading with my eyes, staring into the face of this innocent man. “Please don’t—” My voice breaks. “You don’t want to touch me—”
“I never said I did.” Jenkins’s voice is deep and steady, full of regret. Jenkins who has no gloves, no protection, no preparation, no possible defense.
“That was a direct order, soldier,” Warner barks, trains a gun at his back.
Jenkins grabs my arms.
NO NO NO
My blood is surging through my veins, rushing through my body like a raging river, waves of heat lapping against my bones. I can hear his anguish, I can feel the power pouring out of his body, I can hear his heart beating in my ear and my head is spinning with the rush of adrenaline fortifying my being.
I feel alive.
I wish it hurt me. I wish it maimed me. I wish it repulsed me. I wish I hated the potent force wrapping itself around my skeleton.
But I don’t. My skin is pulsing with someone else’s life and I don’t hate it.
I hate myself for enjoying it.
I enjoy the way it feels to be brimming with more life and hope and human power than I knew I was capable of. His pain gives me a pleasure I never asked for.
And he’s not letting go.
But he’s not letting go because he can’t. Because I have to be the one to break the connection. Because the agony incapacitates him. Because he’s caught in my snares.
Because I am a Venus flytrap.
And I am lethal.
I fall on my back and kick at his chest, willing him away from me, willing his weight off of my small frame, his limp body collapsed against my own. I’m suddenly screaming and struggling to see past the sheet of tears obscuring my vision; I’m hiccupping, hysterical, horrified by the frozen look on this man’s face, his paralyzed lips wheezing gasps through his lungs.
I break free and stumble backward. The sea of soldiers parts behind me. Every face is etched in astonishment and pure, unadulterated fear. Jenkins is lying on the floor and no one dares approach him.
“Somebody help him!” I scream. “Somebody help him! He needs a doctor—he needs to be taken—he needs—he—oh God—what have I done—”
“DON’T TOUCH ME—DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH ME—”
Warner’s gloves are back in place and he’s trying to hold me together, he’s trying to smooth back my hair, he’s trying to wipe away my tears and I want to murder him.
“Juliette, you need to calm down—”
“HELP HIM!” I cry, falling to my knees, my eyes glued to the figure lying on the floor. The other soldiers are finally creeping closer, cautious as though he might be contagious. “Please—you have to help him! Please—”
“Kent, Curtis, Soledad—TAKE CARE OF THIS!” Warner shouts to his men before scooping me up into his arms.
I’m still kicking when the world goes black.
The ceiling is fading in and out of focus.
My head is heavy, my vision is blurry, my heart is strained. There is a distinct flavor of panic lodged somewhere underneath my tongue and I’m fighting to remember where it came from. I try to sit up and can’t understand why I was lying down.
Someone’s hands are on my shoulders.
“How are you feeling?” Warner is peering down at me.
Suddenly my memories are burning in my eyes and Jenkins’ face is swimming in my consciousness and I’m swinging my fists and screaming for Warner to get away from me and struggling to wriggle out of his grip but he just smiles. Laughs a little. Gentles my hands down beside my torso.
“Well, at least you’re awake,” he sighs. “You had me worried for a moment.”
I try to control my trembling limbs. “Get your hands away from me.”
He waves sheathed fingers in front of my face. “I’m all covered up. Don’t worry.”
“I hate you.”
“So much passion.” He laughs again. He looks so calm, so genuinely amused. He stares at me with eyes softer than I ever expected them to be.
I turn away.
He stands up. Takes a short breath. “Here,” he says, reaching for a tray on a small table. “I brought you food.”
I take advantage of the moment to sit up and look around. I’m lying on a bed draped in damask golds and burgundies the darkest shade of blood. The floor is covered in thick, rich carpet the color of a setting summer sun. It’s warm in this room. It’s the same size as the one I occupy, its furniture standard enough: bed, armoire, side tables, chandelier glittering from the ceiling. The only difference is there’s an extra door in this room and there’s a candle burning quietly on a small table in the corner. I haven’t seen fire in so many years I’ve lost count. I have to stifle an impulse to reach out and touch the flame.
I prop myself up against the pillows and try to pretend I’m not comfortable. “Where am I?”
Warner turns around holding a plate with bread and cheese on it. His other hand is gripping a glass of water. He looks around the room as if seeing it for the first time. “This is my bedroom.”
If my head weren’t splitting into pieces I’d be tempted to run. “Take me to my own room. I don’t want to be here.”
“And yet, here you are.” He sits at the foot of the bed, a few feet away. Pushes the plate in front of me. “Are you thirsty?”
I don’t know if it’s because I can’t think straight or if it’s because I’m genuinely confused, but I’m struggling to reconcile Warner’s polarizing personalities. Here he is, offering me a glass of water after he forced me to torture someone. I lift my hands and study my fingers as if I’ve never seen them before. “I don’t understand.”
He cocks his head, inspecting me as though I might’ve seriously injured myself. “I only asked if you were thirsty. That shouldn’t be difficult to understand.” A pause. “Drink this.”
I take the glass. Stare at it. Stare at him. Stare at the walls.
I must be insane.
Warner sighs. “I’m not sure, but I think you fainted. And I think you should probably eat something, though I’m not entirely sure about that, either.” He pauses. “You’ve probably had too much exertion your first day here. My mistake.”
“Why are you being nice to me?”
The surprise on his face surprises me even more. “Because I care about you,” he says simply.
“You care about me?” The numbness in my body is beginning to dissipate. My blood pressure is rising and anger is making its way to the forefront of my consciousness. “I almost killed Jenkins because of you!”
“You didn’t kill—”
“Your soldiers beat me! You keep me here like a prisoner! You threaten me! You threaten to kill me! You give me no freedom and you say you care about me?” I nearly throw the glass of water at his face. “You are a monster!”
Warner turns away so I’m staring at his profile. He clasps his hands. Changes his mind. Touches his lips. “I am only trying to help you.”
He seems to consider that. Nods, just once. “Yes. Most of the time, yes.”
“I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be your experiment. Let me go.”
“No.” He stands up. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Because I can’t. I just—” He tugs at his fingers. Clears his throat. His eyes touch the ceiling for a brief moment. “Because I need you.”
“You need me to kill people!”
He doesn’t answer right away. He walks to the candle. Pulls off a glove. Tickles the flame with his bare fingers. “You know, I am very capable of killing people on my own, Juliette. I’m actually very good at it.”
He shrugs. “How else do you think someone my age is able to control so many soldiers? Why else would my father allow me to take charge of an entire sector?”
“Your father?” I sit up, suddenly curious in spite of myself.
He ignores my question. “The mechanics of fear are simple enough. People are intimidated by me, so they listen when I speak.” He waves a hand. “Empty threats are worth very little these days.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. “So you kill people for power.”
“As do you.”
“How dare you—”
He laughs, loud. “You’re free to lie to yourself, if it makes you feel better.”
“I am not lying—”
“Why did it take you so long to break your connection with Jenkins?”
My mouth freezes in place.
“Why didn’t you fight back right away? Why did you allow him to touch you for as long as he did?”
My hands have begun to shake and I grip them, hard. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“And yet you claim to know me so well.”
I clench my jaw, not trusting myself to speak.
“At least I’m honest,” he adds.
“You just agreed you’re a liar!”
He raises his eyebrows. “At least I’m honest about being a liar.”
I slam the glass of water on the side table. Drop my head in my hands. Try to stay calm. Take a steadying breath. “Well,” I rasp, “why do you need me, then? If you’re such an excellent murderer?”
A smile flickers and fades across his face. “One day I’ll introduce you to the answer to that question.”
I try to protest but he stops me with one hand. Picks up a piece of bread from the plate. Holds it under my nose. “You hardly ate anything at dinner. That can’t possibly be healthy.”
I don’t move.
He drops the bread on the plate and drops the plate beside the water. Turns to me. Studies my eyes with such intensity I’m momentarily disarmed. There are so many things I want to say and scream but somehow I’ve forgotten all about the words waiting patiently in my mouth. I can’t make myself look away.
“Eat something.” His eyes abandon me. “Then go to sleep. I’ll be back for you in the morning.”
“Why can’t I sleep in my own room?”
He gets to his feet. Dusts off his pants for no real reason. “Because I want you to stay here.”
He barks out a laugh. “So many questions.”
“Well if you’d give me a straight answer—”
“Good night, Juliette.”
“Are you going to let me go?” I ask, this time quietly, this time timidly.
“No.” He takes 6 steps into the corner with the candle. “And I won’t promise to make things easier for you, either.” There is no regret, no remorse, no sympathy in his voice. He could be talking about the weather.