THIS IS A SEQUEL. DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF BOOK 1. NOW THAT THAT’S OUT OF THE WAY, I HOPE YOU ENJOY!
It was early November, and I stepped onto the roof of my apartment building and into the snow, leaving a trail of fresh boot prints winding behind me. Nearly three months had passed since the day I escaped the United States.
The billowy powder barely covered the toes of my boots. Large, swirling flakes fell from the sky, salting my navy-blue jacket and maroon winter hat. I pulled the zipper up higher, tightening its warmth against my neck. I tilted my head to receive the snowflakes as they fell, and a few perched on my eyelids. I let them stay there, their cool sting reminding me I could experience sensations other than emptiness.
I missed him. Especially when I stood outside, I missed Rexx. I felt his absence with everything I did. The hollowness accompanying me like a shadow. A shadow that would loom especially large today. We were supposed to do this together.
Rexx would have loved the snow. I imagined him opening his mouth, letting the flakes land on his tongue. Then, he’d turn and playfully pull me towards him and kiss me. I closed my eyes and imagined him doing just that. Standing next to me, just as he was last year. Vibrant and full of life, his jet-black curls falling in front of his face. His boundless energy contagious, reminding me of our days on assignment. Skipping through the forest and hopping over downed branches. My chest ached.
Then, my imagination turned without my permission. Showing me the emaciated version of Rexx I’d reunited with at the forest’s edge after Officer Webb helped us escape from the prison camp near the northern border. The version I’d watched sacrifice himself for me so I could escape. I fought against it. I didn’t want to remember him like that. He shifted again. He was perfect. His cheeks were full, and his tawny skin, which I now knew he received from his Mexican ancestors, was bright. His wide smile that always brightened my day was effortlessly pointed in my direction. I smiled, standing there in the snow. A swift, fleeting moment of bliss. Then the emptiness set in. Heavier. He wasn’t there. I stood on the roof alone.
We never had snow in Arizona. Even though it wasn’t officially winter yet, it had snowed multiple times since I arrived in my new home in a Canadian province known as Quebec, where I’d been moved directly after leaving the hospital near the border. I looked off the roof to see two vehicles stationed right outside the front door of the apartment building. They had assigned me a security detail, but told me to keep my true identity under wraps for now, while a plan was figured out. Today was the day that was supposed to happen.
Today I could possibly become someone other than the awkward young woman who lacked the most basic knowledge and social etiquette in this new environment. The woman with security officers always within sight. Whose neighbors stare and whisper. I was still adjusting to the rules out here, and felt like I was on a different planet half of the time. I may as well have been.
My escorts would be here in a few minutes to take me to the meeting. The meeting they have been telling me ’will happen soon’ since I arrived. The therapist I’d been assigned asked me what I liked to do in my spare time in America. I told her I liked to garden. I described the little raised bed I’d built myself outside of the Tier three apartment complex. How I was able to grow just enough to add a hint of flavor to the bland food. She advised that when spring arrived I should start another garden. Maybe on the roof of the apartment complex. The suggestion that spring could come and go without a change in my situation left me uneasy.
I knew that if I dug my hands in the earth, the entire time I would be thinking of Oliver and how he loved to do the same, but instead was stuck in a prison cell, or worse. I knew with each vegetable harvested, I would be wishing that I could share it with Rexx. I didn’t tell her these things. Instead, I’d smiled and said I would think about it. This meeting today had to lead to something. Anything.
I walked toward the edge. I put my hands behind my head and stretched my elbows out wide, running my fingers through my hair that had only grown to a length of two inches since I’d arrived. I was thankful for the absence of the rough stubble that triggered the memories of the cold, unwelcome blades on my scalp and the smooth scissors that cut off my clothes. With the growth of my hair, I was starting to regain a sense of control.
I took in the grace of the city covered in a coat of white. The skyline view from my apartment building was spectacular, and I found myself on the roof most nights, fascinated by what this city had achieved. Several of the large buildings were covered in a living facade - an array of hardy plants that vertically cascaded the sides of buildings. A soft yellow glow cloaked the buildings, providing these plants that cleansed the air with warmth in the frigid weather.
In the distance, to the east, the ocean. The large desalination ships, which converted salted water into fresh drinking water for the city, moved just off the coast line. They were fascinating to me and were one of the ’areas of interest’ I considered listing if I was to end up with a job here.
I looked at my gloveless hands and noticed the pale line that had encircled my finger after my grandmother’s ring was destroyed at the camp had vanished. The persistent ache in my chest deepened. I was safe, we achieved that goal, yet the loss never left.
Rexx. My father. Amara. Oliver. I’d lost them, and it was overwhelming. Then, the guilt came. The guilt of feeling this way when I knew I was supposed to be grateful for their sacrifice.
I rubbed my thumb along the spot the ring used to be. Though there was nothing there to spin anymore, the repetitive motion still soothed me. I wondered what my grandmother would think of me now. Would she be proud? Or ashamed?
My thoughts shifted to my father, of his wide eyes locking on mine in his final moments. How bravely he accepted his fate, and how he put his faith in me in his final moments. That same, easy faith that Rexx, and Oliver, and even Officer Webb had put in me. Faith I’d do something.
What had I done? I was out. Rexx and my father were dead. Oliver was likely dead as well; that, or imprisoned for life. Was Oliver waiting for me? Did he sit in his windowless cell, murmuring under his breath in that trademark way of his? Twitching at the slightest noise, wondering if my actions had finally won out. Reading into every little inconsequential action as a possible sign that help is on the way? How many times had I let him down already?
I tried to wrap my head around everything that had happened as I stood there on the roof. I repeated the reasons I’d risked everything to be there.
We needed their help. It was time for the rest of the world to acknowledge America still existed, and to use whatever tools were at their disposal to help us. To help those thousands upon thousands of people working in the ’redemption camps,’ to help those who are tortured and pacified for a free thought, for curiosity. It was time. And I didn’t plan on letting it go.
My watch vibrated with an alarm. I took one last deep breath and a glance at the view, then headed back inside, down the stairs, just in time to see them waiting at my front door.