Page 29

But that’s impossible. These houses have been empty for years.

Behind us the raider is struggling in the dark. He bumps up against something and curses. A second later something crashes to the ground; glass shatters; more cursing. From the sound of his voice I can tell that he’s falling behind.

“Up,” Alex whispers, so quiet and so close it’s like I’ve only imagined it, and just like that he is lifting me and I realize I’m going out a window, feel the rough wood of the windowsill grate against my back, land on my good foot on the soft, damp grass outside.

A second later Alex follows soundlessly, materializing beside me in the dark. Though the air is hot, a breeze has picked up, and as it sweeps across my skin I could cry from gratitude and relief.

But we’re not safe yet—far from it. The darkness is mobile, twisting, alive with paths of light: Flashlights cut through the woods to our right and left, and in their glare I see fleeing figures, lit up like ghosts, frozen for a moment in the beams. The screams continue, some only a few feet away, some so distant and forlorn you could mistake them for something else—for owls, maybe, hooting peacefully in their trees. Then Alex has taken my hand and we’re running again. Every step on my right foot is a fire, a blade. I bite the inside of my cheeks to keep from crying out, and taste blood.

Chaos. Scenes from hell: floodlights from the road, shadows falling, bone cracking, voices shattering apart, dissolving into silence.

“In here.”

I do what he says without hesitating. A tiny wooden shed has appeared miraculously in the dark. It’s falling apart, and so overgrown with moss and climbing vines that even from a distance of only a few feet it appeared to be a tangle of bushes and trees. I have to stoop to get inside, and when I do the smell of animal urine and wet dog is so strong I almost gag. Alex comes in behind me and shuts the door. I hear a rustling and see him kneeling, stuffing a blanket in the gap between the door and the ground. The blanket must be the source of the smell. It absolutely reeks.

“God,” I whisper, the first thing I’ve said to him, cupping my hand over my mouth and nose.

“This way the dogs won’t pick up our scent,” he whispers back matter-of- factly.

I’ve never met someone so calm in my life. I think fleetingly that maybe the stories I heard when I was little were true—maybe Invalids really are monsters, freaks.

Then I feel ashamed. He just saved my life.

He saved my life—from the raiders. From the people who are supposed to protect us and keep us safe. From the people who are supposed to keep us safe from the people like Alex.

Nothing makes sense anymore. My head is spinning, and I feel dizzy. I stumble, bumping against the wall behind me, and Alex reaches up to steady me.

“Sit down,” he says, in that same commanding voice he has been using all along. It’s comforting to listen to his low, forceful directives, to let myself go. I lower myself to the ground. The floor is damp and rough underneath me. The moon must have broken through the clouds; gaps in the walls and roof let in little spots of silvery light. I can just make out some shelves beyond Alex’s head, a set of cans—paint, maybe?—piled in one corner.

Now that Alex and I are both sitting there’s hardly any room left to maneuver—the whole structure is only a few feet wide.

“I’m going to take a look at your leg now, okay?” He’s still whispering. I nod okay. Even when I’m sitting down, the dizziness doesn’t subside.

He sits up on his knees and draws my leg into his lap.

It’s not until he begins rolling up my pant leg that I feel how wet the fabric is against my skin. I must be bleeding. I bite my lip and press my back up hard against the wall, expecting it to hurt, but the feeling of his hands against my skin—cool and strong—somehow dampens everything, sliding across the pain like an eclipse blotting the moon dark.

Once he has my pants rolled up to the knee he tilts me gently, so he can see the back of my calf. I lean one elbow on the floor, feeling the room sway. I must be bleeding a lot.

He exhales sharply, a quick sound between his teeth.

“Is it bad?” I say, too afraid to look.

“Hold still,” he says. And I know that it is bad, but he won’t tell me so, and in that moment I’m so flooded with gratitude for him and hatred for the people outside— hunters, primitives, with their sharp teeth and heavy sticks—the air goes out of me and I have to struggle to breathe.

Alex reaches into a corner of the shed without removing my leg from his lap. He fiddles with a box of some kind and metal latches creak open. A second later he’s hovering over my leg with a bottle.

“This is going to burn for a second,” he says. Liquid splatters my skin, and the astringent smell of alcohol makes my nostrils flare. Flames lick up my leg and I nearly scream. Alex reaches out a hand, and without thinking I take it and squeeze.

“What is that?” I force out through gritted teeth.

“Rubbing alcohol,” he says. “Prevents infection.” “How did you know it was here?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.

He draws his hand away from mine and I realize I’ve been grabbing on to him, hard. But I don’t have the energy to be embarrassed or afraid: The room seems to be pulsing, the half darkness growing fuzzier.

“Shit,” Alex mutters. “You’re really bleeding.”

“It doesn’t hurt that much,” I whisper, which is a lie. But he’s so calm, so together, it makes me want to act brave too.

Everything has taken on a strange, distant quality—the sounds of running and shouting outside get warped and weird like they’re being filtered through water, and Alex looks miles away. I start to think I might be dreaming, or about to pass out.

And then I decide I’m definitely dreaming, because as I’m watching, Alex starts peeling his shirt off over his head.

What are you doing? I almost scream. Alex finishes shaking loose the shirt and begins tearing the fabric into long strips, shooting a nervous glance at the door and pausing to listen every time the cloth goes rippp.

I’ve never in my whole life seen a guy without a shirt on, except for really little kids or from a distance on the beach, when I’ve been too afraid to look for fear of getting in trouble.

Now I can’t stop staring. The moonlight just touches his shoulder blades so they glow slightly, like wing tips, like pictures of angels I’ve seen in textbooks. He’s thin but muscular, too: When he moves I can make out the lines of his arms and chest, so strangely, incredibly, beautifully different from a girl’s, a body that makes me think of running and being outside, of warmth and sweating. Heat starts beating through me, a thrumming feeling like a thousand tiny birds have been released in my chest. I’m not sure if it’s from the bleeding, but the room feels like it’s spinning so fast we’re in danger of flying out of it, both of us, getting thrown out into the night. Before, Alex seemed far away. Now the room is full of him: He is so close I can’t breathe, can’t move or speak or think.

Every time he brushes me with his fingers, time seems to teeter for a second, like it is in danger of dissolving.

The whole world is dissolving, I decide, except for us. Us.

“Hey.” He reaches out and touches my shoulder, just for a second, but in that second my body shrinks down to that single point of pressure under his hand, and glows with warmth. I’ve never felt like this, so calm and peaceful. Maybe I’m dying. The idea doesn’t really upset me, for some reason. In fact, it seems kind of funny.

“You okay?”

“Fine.” I start to giggle softly. “You’re naked.”

“What?” Even in the dark I can tell he’s squinting at me.

“I’ve never seen a boy like—like that. With no shirt on.

Not up close.”

He begins wrapping the shredded T-shirt around my leg carefully, tying it tight. “The dog got you good,” he says.

“But this should stop the bleeding.”

The phrase stop the bleeding sounds so clinical and scary it snaps me awake and helps me to focus. Alex finishes tying off the makeshift bandage. Now the searing pain in my leg has been replaced by a dull, throbbing pressure.

Alex lifts my leg carefully out of his lap and rests it on the ground. “Okay?” he says, and I nod. Then he scoots around next to me, leaning back against the wall like I am so we’re sitting side by side, arms just touching at the elbows. I can feel the heat coming off his bare skin, and it makes me feel hot. I close my eyes and try not to think about how close we are, or what it would feel like to run my hands over his shoulders and chest.

Outside, the sounds of the raid grow more and more distant, the screams fewer, the voices fainter. The raiders must be passing on. I say a silent prayer that Hana managed to escape; the possibility that she didn’t is too terrible to contemplate.

Still, Alex and I don’t move. I’m so tired I feel like I could sleep forever. Home seems impossibly, incomprehensibly far away, and I don’t see how I’ll ever make it back.

Alex starts speaking all at once, his voice a low, urgent rush: “Listen, Lena. What happened at the beach—I’m really sorry. I should have told you sooner, but I didn’t want to frighten you away.”

“You don’t have to explain,” I say.

“But I want to explain. I want you to know that I didn’t mean to—”

“Listen,” I cut him off. “I’m not going to tell anyone, okay? I’m not going to get you in trouble or anything.”

He pauses. I feel him turn to look at me, but I keep my eyes fixed on the darkness in front of us.

“I don’t care about that,” he says, lower. Another pause, and then: “I just don’t want you to hate me.”

Again the room seems to be shrinking, closing in around us. I can feel his eyes on me like the hot pressure of touch, but I’m too afraid to look at him. I’m afraid that if I do I’ll lose myself in his eyes, forget all the things I’m supposed to say. Outside, the woods have fallen silent.

The raiders must have left. After a second the crickets begin singing all at once, warbling throatily, a great swelling of sound.

“Why do you care?” I say, barely a whisper.

“I told you,” he whispers back. I can feel his breath just tickling the space behind my ear, making the hair prick up on my neck. “I like you.”

“You don’t know me,” I say quickly.

“I want to, though.”

The room is spinning more and more quickly. I press up more firmly against the wall, trying to steady myself against the feeling of dizzying movement. It’s impossible: He has an answer for everything. It’s too quick. It must be a trick. I press my palms against the damp floor, taking comfort in the solidity of the rough wood.

“Why me?” I don’t mean to ask it, but the words slide out. “I’m nobody. . . .” I want to say, I’m nobody special, but the words dry up in my mouth. This is what I imagine it feels like to climb to the top of a mountain, where the air is so thin you can inhale and inhale and inhale and still feel like you can’t take a breath.

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