Alex (Page 2)

You think you want to know, but you don’t.

No one expected me to live, so it was like a game to the guards to see how much I could take. One guy, Roman, was the worst. He was ugly—fat lips, eyes glassed over like a fish on ice in the grocery store—and mean as hell.

He liked to put his cigarettes out on my tongue. He cut the insides of my eyelids with razors. Every time I blinked, I felt like my eyes were exploding. I used to lie awake at night and imagine wrapping my hands around his throat, killing him slowly.

See? I told you. You don’t want to know.

But the worst was where they put me. The old cell where I’d once stood with Lena, staring at the words etched into the stone. A single word, actually. Just love, over and over.

They’d patched up the hole in the wall, reinforced it and barred it with steel. But I could still taste the outside, still smell the rain and hear the distant roar of the river beneath me. I could watch the snow bending whole trees into submission, could lick the icicles that formed on the other side of the bars. That was torture—being able to see, and smell, and hear, and being trapped in a cage. Like standing on the wrong side of the fence, only a few feet from freedom, and knowing you’ll never cross it.

Yeah. Like that.

I got better—somehow, miraculously, without wanting it or willing it or trying. My skin grew together, sealed in the bullet, still lodged somewhere between two ribs. My fever went down, and I stopped seeing things whenever I closed my eyes: people with holes in their faces instead of mouths, buildings catching fire, skies filled with blood and smoke.

My heart kept going, and some small, distant part of me was glad.

Slowly, slowly, I grew back into my body. One day, I managed to stand up. A week later, to walk the cell, staggering between the walls like a drunk.

I got a beating for that one—for healing too fast.

After that I moved only at night, in the dark, when the guards were too lazy to do random checks, when they slept or drank or played cards instead of making the rounds.

I wasn’t thinking of escape. I wasn’t thinking of her.

That came later. I wasn’t thinking anything at all. It was just will, forcing my blood through my veins and my heart to keep opening and shutting and my legs to try and move.

When I remembered, I remembered being a little kid. I thought about the homestead on the Rhode Island coast, long before I moved homesteads with a few others and came to Maine: the gallery and the smell of low tide, and all the brick covered in layers of bird shit, crusty as salt spray. I remembered the boats this guy Flick made out of timber and scrap, and the time he took me fishing and I hooked my first trout: the blush pink of its belly and how good it tasted, like nothing I’d ever eaten before. I remembered Brent, who was my age and like a brother, and how his finger looked after he got cut on an old bit of razor wire, puffy and dark as a storm cloud, and how he screamed when they cut it off to stop the infection from spreading. Dirk and Mel and Toadie: all of them dead, I heard later, killed on some secret mission to Zombieland.

And Carr, in Maine, who taught me all about the resistance, who helped me memorize facts about the new me when it was time for me to cross over.

And I remembered my first night in Portland, how I couldn’t get comfortable on the bed, and how I moved onto the floor, finally, and fell asleep with my cheek against the rug. How weird everything was: the supermarkets stocked with food I’d never seen before, and trash bins heaped with stuff that was still usable, and rules, rules for everything: eating, sitting, talking, even pissing and wiping yourself.

In my mind, I was reliving my whole life again—slowly, taking my time. Delaying.

Because I knew, sooner or later, I’d get to her.

And then… Well, I’d already died once. I couldn’t live through it again.

The guards lost interest in me after a while.

In the quiet, and the dark, I got stronger. Eventually she came. She appeared suddenly, exactly like she’d done that day—she stepped into the sunshine, she jumped, she laughed and threw her head back, so her long ponytail nearly grazed the waistband of her jeans.

After that, I couldn’t think about anything else. The mole on the inside of her right elbow, like a dark blot of ink. The way she ripped her nails to shreds when she was nervous. Her eyes, deep as a promise. Her stomach, pale and soft and gorgeous, and the tiny dark cavity of her belly button.

I nearly went crazy. I knew she must think I was dead.

What had happened to her after crossing the fence? Has she made it? She had nothing, no tools, no food, no idea where to go. I imagined her weak, and lost. I imagined her dead.

She might as well be.

I told myself that if she was alive she would move on, she would forget me, she would be happy again. I tried to tell myself that was what I wanted for her.

I knew I would never see her again.

But hope got in, no matter how hard and fast I tried to stomp it out. Like these tiny fire ants we used to get in Portland. No matter how fast you killed them, there were always more, a steady stream of them, resistant, ever-multiplying.

Maybe, the hope said. Maybe.

Funny how time heals. Like that bullet in my ribs. It’s there, I know it’s there, but I can barely feel it at all anymore.

Only when it rains. And sometimes, too, when I remember. The impossible happened in January, on a night like all other winter nights, frigid black, and long.

The first explosion woke me from a dream. Two other explosions followed, buried somewhere beneath layers of stone, like the rumblings of a faraway train. The alarms started screaming but just as quickly went silent.

The lights shut off all at once.

People were shouting. Footsteps echoed in the halls.

The prisoners began banging on walls and doors, and the darkness was full of shouting.

I knew right away it must be freedom fighters. I could feel it, the way I could always feel it in my fingertips when I was supposed to do a job, like a drop, and something was wrong—an undercover cop hanging around, or a problem with a contact. Then I’d keep my head down, keep it moving, regroup.

Later I found out that in the lower wards, two hundred cell doors swung open simultaneously. Electrical problem.

Two hundred prisoners made a break for it, and a dozen had made it out before the police and regulators showed up and started shooting.

Our doors were closed with deadbolts, and stayed shut.

I beat on the door so hard my knuckles split. I screamed until my voice dried up in my throat. We all did.

All of us in Ward Six, all of us forgotten, left to rot. The minutes that had passed since the lights went off felt like hours.