“Did you hear what she did—?”
“What a loser.”
“—got kicked out of her old school—”
“She’s got some kind of disease—”
No one talked to me. Everyone stared. I was young enough that I still cried. I ate lunch alone by a chain-link fence and never looked in the mirror. I never wanted to see the face everyone hated so much. Girls used to kick me and run away. Boys used to throw rocks at me. I still have scars somewhere.
I watched the world pass by through those chain-link fences. I stared out at the cars and the parents dropping off their kids and the moments I’d never be a part of. This was before the diseases became so common that death was a natural part of conversation. This was before we realized the clouds were the wrong color, before we realized all the animals were dying or infected, before we realized everyone was going to starve to death, and fast. This was back when we still thought our problems had solutions. Back then, Adam was the boy who used to walk to school. Adam was the boy who sat 3 rows in front of me. His clothes were worse than mine, his lunch nonexistent. I never saw him eat.
One morning he came to school in a car.
I know because I saw him being pushed out of it. His father was drunk and driving, yelling and flailing his fists for some reason. Adam stood very still and stared at the ground like he was waiting for something, steeling himself for the inevitable. I watched a father slap his 8-year-old son in the face. I watched Adam fall to the floor and I stood there, motionless as he was kicked repeatedly in the ribs.
“It’s all your fault! It’s your fault, you worthless piece of shit,” his father screamed over and over and over again until I threw up right there, all over a patch of dandelions.
Adam didn’t cry. He stayed curled up on the ground until his father gave up, until he drove away. Only once he was sure everyone was gone did his body break into heaving sobs, his small face smeared into the dirt, his arms clutching at his bruised abdomen. I couldn’t look away.
I could never get that sound out of my head, that scene out of my head.
That’s when I started paying attention to Adam Kent.
I suck in my breath and wish my hands weren’t trembling. I wish I had no eyes.
“Juliette,” he says again, this time even softer and my body is in a blender and I’m made of mush. My bones are aching aching aching for his warmth.
I won’t turn around.
“You always knew who I was,” I whisper.
He says nothing and I’m suddenly desperate to see his eyes. I suddenly need to see his eyes. I turn to face him despite everything only to see he’s staring at his hands. “I’m sorry,” is all he says.
I lean back against the wall and press my lids shut. Everything was a performance. Stealing my bed. Asking for my name. Asking me about my family. He was performing for Warner. For the guards. For whoever was watching. I don’t even know what to believe anymore.
I need to say it. I need to get it out. I need to rip my wounds open and bleed fresh for him. “It’s true,” I tell him. “About the little boy.” My voice is shaking so much more than I thought it would. “I did that.”
He’s quiet for so long. “I never understood before. When I first heard about it. I didn’t realize until just now what must’ve happened.”
“What?” I never knew I could blink so much.
“It never made sense to me,” he says, and each word kicks me in the gut. He looks up and looks more agonized than I ever want him to be. “When I heard about it. We all heard about it. The whole school—”
“It was an accident,” I choke out, failing not to fall apart. “He—h-he fell—and I was trying to help him—and I just—I didn’t—I thought—”
“What?” I gasp so loud I’ve swallowed the entire room in one breath.
“I believe you,” he says to me.
“What . . . why?” My eyes are blinking back tears, my hands unsteady, my heart filled with nervous hope.
He bites his bottom lip. Looks away. Walks to the wall. Opens and closes his mouth several times before the words rush out. “Because I knew you, Juliette—I—God—I just—” He covers his mouth with his hand, drops his fingers to his neck. Rubs his forehead, closes his eyes, presses his lips together. Pries them open. “That was the day I was going to talk to you.” A strange sort of smile. A strange sort of laugh. He runs a hand through his hair. Looks up at the ceiling. Turns his back to me. “I was finally going to talk to you. I was finally going to talk to you and I—” He shakes his head, hard, and attempts another painful laugh. “God, you don’t remember me.”
Hundreds of thousands of seconds pass and I can’t stop dying.
I want to laugh and cry and scream and run and I can’t choose which to do first.
“Of course I remember you.” My voice is a strangled whisper. I squeeze my eyes shut. I remember you every day forever in every single broken moment of my life. “You were the only one who ever looked at me like a human being.”
He never talked to me. He never spoke a single word to me, but he was the only one who dared to sit close to my fence. He was the only one who stood up for me, the only person who fought for me, the only one who’d punch someone in the face for throwing a rock at my head. I didn’t even know how to say thank you.
He was the closest thing to a friend I ever had.
I open my eyes and he’s standing right in front of me. My heart is a field of lilies blooming under a pane of glass, pitter-pattering to life like a rush of raindrops. His jaw is as tight as his eyes as tight as his fists as tight as the strain in his arms.
“You’ve always known?” 3 whispered words and he’s broken my dam, unlocked my lips and stolen my heart all over again. I can hardly feel the tears streaming down my face.
“Adam.” I try to laugh and my lips trip on a stifled sob. “I’d recognize your eyes anywhere in the world.”
And that’s it.
This time there’s no self-control.
This time I’m in his arms and against the wall and I’m trembling everywhere and he’s so gentle, so careful, touching me like I’m made of porcelain and I want to shatter.
He’s running his hands down my body running his eyes across my face running laps with his heart and I’m running marathons with my mind.
Everything is on fire. My cheeks my hands the pit of my stomach and I’m drowning in waves of emotion and a storm of fresh rain and all I feel is the strength of his silhouette against mine and I never ever ever ever want to forget this moment. I want to stamp him into my skin and save him forever.
He takes my hands and presses my palms to his face and I know I never knew the beauty of feeling human before this. I know I’m still crying when my eyes flutter closed.
I whisper his name.
And he’s breathing harder than I am and suddenly his lips are on my neck and I’m gasping and dying and clutching at his arms and he’s touching me touching me touching me and I’m thunder and lightning and wondering when the hell I’ll be waking up.
Once, twice, a hundred times his lips taste the nape of my neck and I wonder if it’s possible to die of euphoria. He meets my eyes only to cup my face in his hands and I’m blushing through these walls from pleasure and pain and impossibility.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long.” His voice is husky, uneven, deep in my ear.
I’m frozen in anticipation in expectation and I’m so worried he’ll kiss me, so worried he won’t. I’m staring at his lips and I don’t realize how close we are until we’re pulled apart.
3 distinct electronic screeches reverberate around the room and Adam looks past me like he can’t understand where he is for a moment. He blinks. And runs toward an intercom to press the appropriate buttons. I notice he’s still breathing hard.
I’m shaking in my skin.
“Name and number,” the voice of the intercom demands.
“Kent, Adam. 45B-86659.”
“Soldier, are you aware the cameras in your room have been deactivated?”
“Yes, sir. I was given direct orders to dismantle the devices.”
“Who cleared this order?”
A longer pause.
“We’ll verify and confirm. Unauthorized tampering with security devices may result in your immediate dishonorable discharge, soldier. I hope you’re aware of that.”
The line goes quiet.
Adam slumps against the wall, his chest heaving. I’m not sure but I could’ve sworn his lips twitched into the tiniest smile. He closes his eyes and exhales.
I’m not sure what to do with the relief tumbling into my hands.
“Come here,” he says, his eyes still shut.
I tiptoe forward and he pulls me into his arms. Breathes in the scent of my hair and kisses the side of my head and I’ve never felt anything so incredible in my life. I’m not even human anymore. I’m so much more. The sun and the moon have merged and the earth is upside down. I feel like I can be exactly who I want to be in his arms.
He makes me forget the terror I’m capable of.
“Juliette,” he whispers in my ear. “We need to get the hell out of here.”
I’m 14 years old again and I’m staring at the back of his head in a small classroom. I’m 14 years old and I’ve been in love with Adam Kent for years. I made sure to be extra careful, to be extra quiet, to be extra cooperative because I didn’t want to move away again. I didn’t want to leave the school with the one friendly face I’d ever known. I watched him grow up a little more every day, grow a little taller every day, a little stronger, a little tougher, a little more quiet every day. He eventually got too big to get beat up by his dad, but no one really knows what happened to his mother. The students shunned him, harassed him until he started fighting back, until the pressure of the world finally cracked him.
But his eyes always stayed the same.
Always the same when he looked at me. Kind. Compassionate. Desperate to understand. But he never asked questions. He never pushed me to say a word. He just made sure he was close enough to scare away everyone else.
I thought maybe I wasn’t so bad. Maybe.
I thought maybe he saw something in me. I thought maybe I wasn’t as horrible as everyone said I was. I hadn’t touched anyone in years. I didn’t dare get close to people. I couldn’t risk it.
Until one day I did, and I ruined everything.
I killed a little boy in a grocery store simply by helping him to his feet. By grabbing his little hands. I didn’t understand why he was screaming. It was my first experience ever touching someone for such a long period of time and I didn’t understand what was happening to me. The few times I’d ever accidentally put my hands on someone I’d always pulled away. I’d pull away as soon as I remembered I wasn’t supposed to be touching anyone. As soon as I heard the first scream escape their lips.