Authors: Jessica Brody
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction / Science Fiction
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To Alyson Noël, because she might just be superhuman
If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?
The fire is hot and relentless, rising up from a thicket of smoldering ash. Lashing at my feet. Filling my eyes with smoky tears of defeat.
The flames hungrily stare me down. Like a wolf licking its lips at the sight of an injured animal. Savoring the promise of a feast. Taking its time before moving in for the kill.
The wood crackles beneath me. One by one, branches are crushed, incinerated to black dust in the path of the merciless blaze. I am its only target. The sole destination. Everything else is a mere stepping-stone along the way. A dispensable victim to demolish and cast aside as it fights its way to me.
I search my surroundings desperately for help. But there is none to be found. Silence answers my distress. Punctuated only by the mocking
of the flames.
They can’t let me die here. Their prized possession left to burn. To shrivel up. To turn to bitter ash. They won’t. I’m sure of it.
They will be here soon. They will stop it.
And for the first time in my shallow, abridged memory, I will welcome the sight of them.
The smoke billows up, cloaking everything in a sickly haze. My vision—normally flawless and acute—is gone. My throat swells and burns. I wrench my head to the side, coughing. Choking. Gagging.
One ambitious flame forges ahead of the others. Winning the race to the top. It claws at my bare feet with long, gnarled fingers. I curl my toes under and press hard against the wood at my back. I can already feel my skin start to blister. Bubble. Scream.
And then I fight. Oh, how I fight. Thrashing against my constraints. But it’s no use.
And that’s when I realize … no one is coming.
The fire will consume me. Melt the flesh right off my bones. Turn my entire manufactured existence into nothing but grimy dust to be carried off across the countryside with the slightest breeze.
The wind shifts and the smoke clears for long enough that I can just make out a tall, hooded figure standing alone on the other side of the river. Watching silently.
The fire finally catches my skin. The pain is excruciating. Like a thousand swords slicing through me at once. The scream boils up from somewhere deep within. A place I never knew about. My mouth stretches open on its own. My stomach contracts. And I release the piercing sound upon a city of deaf ears.
ONE WEEK EARLIER …
I roll onto my stomach and clutch the side of the bed, gulping hungrily at the air. The beautiful, fresh, unpolluted oxygen fills my lungs. My blood. My brain. My thoughts come into focus. The gnarled knot in my stomach starts to unravel.
I pound my palm hard against my chest, searching for my heart. Waiting eagerly for its next beat. It feels like hours of stubborn silence pass. My rib cage, an empty chamber.
Until finally …
With a sigh, my head drops forward and I put forth a silent offering of gratitude.
When I look up, my vision has cleared and I can see my surroundings.
The austere wooden furnishings of our small bedroom. Cloaked in slowly vanishing darkness. And Zen. Breathing softly beside me. Lying on his stomach. A lock of dark thick hair flung over his left eye. One arm is tucked underneath him and the other is draped across the bed. Saving my place. Completely unaware that I’m no longer there. That I’ve been replaced by a damp silhouette of sweat.
Still sucking in frenzied breaths, I run my hand across my forehead. It comes back moist.
The light is just starting to break outside, giving the room a faint, ghostly glow.
I eye the empty space next to Zen. The thought of lying back down and closing my eyes again sends my heart into a tempest of banging and sputtering.
I gently rise and walk over to the armoire, easing open the heavy oak door. I slide my arms into Zen’s linen doublet and button it over my nightdress. Zen’s sweet, musky scent on the jacket immediately starts to calm me as I guide my feet into my leather mules and tiptoe toward the door. The floorboards grumble under my feet and I hear Zen stirring behind me. When I turn around, his endless brown eyes are already open, concern flashing in them. He’s watching me, his forehead creased. “Is everything okay?”
“Of course,” I whisper, certain the tremble in my voice will give me away. “I…” But my throat is dry and thick. I attempt to swallow. “I had a bad dream. That’s all.”
I repeat it in my mind. Hoping it will sound more believable the second time around. Knowing the one I really have to convince is me.
Zen sits up. The sheets fall to his waist, revealing his bare chest. Beautifully toned from the countless hours of hard labor he’s been doing since we arrived here six months ago. “Same one?”
My lip starts to quiver. I bite it hard and nod.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I shake my head. But then I see the frustration on his face. His constant need to fix me. And I don’t have the heart to tell him that he can’t.
“It’s no big deal,” I say, breathing the words in an attempt to lighten them. “It was just…”
Ghastly. Horrifying. Real.
I swallow again. “Unsettling.”
I force a smile onto my face. Praying that Zen can’t see my cheeks twitching from across the room. “I’m just going to go outside and get some fresh air.”
Zen hastily kicks the covers from his legs. “I’ll go with you.”
“No!” I say. Too loudly. Too quickly. Too stupidly.
I attempt to cover with another pathetic excuse for a smile. “It’s okay. Really. I’m fine.”
He studies me for a moment. His probing eyes asking,
Are you sure?
I’m not sure about anything right now.
But I still find the strength to say, “Don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”
I don’t wait to see if he does. It’s not the battle I want to fight right now—not when there are much larger ones waging in my mind. I simply turn and leave.
Once outside the house, I walk to the highest point on the property. A grassy knoll that overlooks the pasture in one direction and the wheat field in the other. I sink to the ground and sit with my legs folded awkwardly to the side. The sun is beginning its slow ascent into the sky, reminding me that my time alone out here is limited. The earthly clock is ticking. Soon the world will be awake and I will be who I’m supposed to be.
Not the trembling shell of a person I am right now.
I force myself to focus on the sky. On the sun’s determined climb. It happens every day. Without fail. The same arc across the same sky. No matter the country. No matter the century.
The thought brings me a small amount of comfort.
I’ll take what I can get.
The sunrise isn’t as pretty here. It was one of the first things I noticed after we arrived. The pinks are less vibrant. Grayed out. The oranges are more muted. Almost faded. As though the artist was running low on paint.
Zen says it’s because the air is clean. Vehicles won’t be invented for nearly three centuries. Smog makes for better sunrises.
Regardless, it doesn’t stop me from watching.
I wasn’t lying when I told Zen it was the same dream. It’s always the same dream.
They come in the night. Capture me and transport me, kicking and screaming, back to their lab. They strap me to a chair with thick steel clamps that are impossible to bend. A large intricate contraption protrudes from the ceiling. Its clawlike arm, complete with razor-sharp teeth, pries open my mouth, reaches down my throat, and pulls out my heart. Then another machine takes over, working quickly to disassemble the still-pumping organ on a cold, sterile table. Half of it is carved off, placed in a jar, ushered away, while the other half is returned to the claw and replaced in my chest cavity by way of my throat again.
The partial heart settles back into its home behind my rib cage. I can still feel it beating, compelling blood in and out of my veins, keeping me alive. But the process no longer holds meaning. A perfunctory action done out of routine, nothing more. I am now forever incomplete. Half a person. A hollow casket that will be forced to seek the other half for the rest of eternity.
The problem is, dreams are supposed to get fuzzier the longer you’re awake. But this one only becomes clearer with each passing second. Crisper. As though I’m moving
it. Getting closer.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath.
“They don’t know where we are.”
“They can’t find us here.”
“We are safe.”
“I am safe.”
I recite the words over and over again, hoping that today will be the day when they no longer feel strange on my tongue. When I might start to believe them.
“They don’t know where we are.”
“They can’t find us here.”