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Kai’s Heart - Chapter 1

Prologue

 

The sun is bright on this clear day. I pull my eye shades from the pocket of my denim cargo pants and place them on my face, letting them block the strongest rays. The low rumble of a distant generator is barely discernible. A lone coywolf in the distance yowls, a plaintive sound that makes me wonder why the animal is not resting in the shade.

 

I stand on an unnamed ridge southeast of Grover, staring down at ND3—National Detention #3—which is believed to be the most brutal of the five detention centers used by the Anointed to imprison us Resisters. I don’t know if what I hear is true, if the place is as dangerous as is speculated. That is all it is, speculation, as no one has made it out alive to describe it—not since the Anointed have taken over. The few stories I have heard don’t disturb me as much as the ones I have not.

 

There is a man living at my family’s homestead who says he escaped from an Employment Center. The ECs are really just slave labor facilities, but at least the people live in an internment camp, not a prison like the detention centers. I keep my distance from this man, not liking the way he looks at me.

 

The eye shades help, but I still blink against the bright sun. I pull off my wide-brimmed hat to adjust the bun that my hair is pulled tightly into.

 

I scan the vastness before me. If I don’t look to the north where the land is scorched, the view is breathtaking. The sunlight blinks off a patch of solar panels, used for ND3, and I reflect for a moment on the stories I’ve heard about New America before the power was restored. No time for negative thoughts, though.

 

The sky is the bluest blue but a wind can move in with no warning and fill it with clouds darkened by dust and debris. With the heavy rains likely months away, there is no real hope for relief from the dry, crackling heat.

 

Even with its unrelenting weather, New America is a magnificent country, despite its being governed by the Anointed tyrants.

 

Living in a hidden homestead in an unfriendly landscape and hiding from the enemy soldiers is all that I know. My entire twenty-two years of life on this post-World War III earth have been spent training for—and anticipating—the Revolution.

 

The note in my denim’s pocket indicates that the time is growing near. Today my mission is to deliver the note to the Resistance Army’s second in command, the aging General Eli Grayson.

 

I must get moving.

 

 

Part One—Inmate 8895

 

Chapter One

 

I stumble into the wall of the processing room when the guard shoves me forward. My bare hip scrapes the dirty surface of the cement block wall. A heavy metal door crashes shut. Once alone, I run my hands over the stubble on my newly shorn head. I don’t have to touch my neck where the guard grabbed me earlier to know the area will be tender where his fingers have most likely left their mark.

 

I am vulnerable and exposed without my clothing, but I try to steady my breathing. My throat is raw from dry-swallowing the note I had to hide from my captors. At least it didn’t end up in the wrong hands, I tell myself as consolation.

 

I’ve not handled things well so far. I was so unafraid of being caught, so complacent after a lifetime living on the outside, that when the soldiers approached me near the city of Grover, I was unprepared. They had asked over and over where I’d come from and where I was going. I’d known immediately that things wouldn’t end well for me. Without any real options, I put on my best confused look. “Can you give me directions to Grover?”

 

The door opens and a shirt and pair of denims land at my feet.

 

“Get dressed.”

 

I scramble to gather the clothing off the sticky floor.

 

“Hurry up. Or do you want another cavity search?”

 

Bile rises in my throat and I dress as quickly as I can. A murderous rage is building in me and I know I must tamp it down. I focus. Rule number one—always know your mission. Today my mission is to stay alive—hopefully with humanity and dignity, but those are not deal breakers.

 

The guard grabs me by the arm and yanks me toward him.

 

“Pagan mutant,” he says, spittle hitting me.

 

I want to punch him in his pale face so badly it sickens me. If I had my prized knife, the one they all but drooled over when they confiscated it from me, I would bury it in his chest, all the way to the hilt.

 

The guards had eyed me suspiciously as I was processed in, but not nearly as critically as the other prisoners are doing now as I make my way down the long corridor. My fellow Resisters will want to know how I managed to survive on the outside without proper documentation. People just didn’t come in new to the system anymore. Only Resistance prisoners who’d been kicked out of one of the Employment Camps came in to any detention center now, or an Anointed, one who’d broken the law, especially if that law was against the Bible or helping a Resister.

 

I am afraid I will see recognition on the faces of the other prisoners, but then I decide the gaunt, slack faces around me belong to women who’ve been incarcerated since before I was even born. The thought offers relief, then floods me with despair.

 

I hear the mutterings from the other prisoners.

 

“She must be a spy. She’s an Anointed pretending to be a Resister.”

 

“No,” someone else chimes in. “She’s from the North territory, spying for them.”

 

“No one comes or goes from the North!”

 

The mention of the North territories gets my attention. It is on the other side of the scorched, black wasteland protected by unstable canyons and craters. Rumor has it that this strip of northern land is a bastion of peace, but I don’t know anyone who has ever been there and come back to tell about it.

 

Before long, even the guards are whispering about me.

 

“She’s here to check up on us.”

 

“No, she’s here to bring word from the family members at the ECs or other NDs.”

 

“Or maybe she’s just a dimwitted pagan who’s been stumbling around on the outside all this time, getting away with it out of pure, dumb luck.” A guard laughs. “Not that we could tell that by looking at her. All those pagans look like they have damaged DNA.”

 

I ignore the laughter that ensues. I hold my head high because the Anointed may have conquered my people over two decades ago, but soon the Resistance Revolution Army will turn the tide and I will be free again. I just have to survive until then.

 

“Go on, move it.” The guard nudges me forward.

 

Some of the prisoners are lingering in the open doorways to the cells with the large, barred doors, while others mill about the corridor. I will learn soon enough how much time outside the cells we get.

 

I walk until I am shoved into the entrance to a cell and glance around what will presumably be my home away from home. There is one window, boarded up from the outside except for the top two or three inches. There are two sets of bunk beds, of which three beds look obviously claimed. The last, a bottom bunk, has no sheets or pillow, just a soiled, inch-thick mattress. I sit on the edge of that bunk.

 

“Did I tell you to sit, inmate?”

 

I jump up, instinctively, but when I see the woman is dressed as I am in denims and work shirt, with her head shorn close to the scalp, I know she is just another prisoner. I sit back down.

 

“Seriously?” the woman asks. “Did you seriously just show me disrespect?”

 

I don’t answer, instead I mentally prepare myself to fight if the other woman doesn’t back down. I glance at the door to the cell. Two other women—one black and one Hispanic—stand in the doorway, arms crossed over their chests. The lighter of the two laughs until the other elbows her roughly.

 

I pivot around on the mattress and stretch out my legs. I mean to show that I am relaxed, but every fiber of me is ready to defend myself.

 

“All right then,” the woman says. She pushes my legs to the side, but before I can strike at her, she sits on the edge of the mattress. “We have some rules.”

 

The others come in to stand by the bunk.

 

I raise an eyebrow, but do not speak.

 

“First, we mind our own business, but have each other’s back. That means don’t bring any drama or dirty skanks into our little slice of real estate.” The woman smiles. “Clean women are welcome, but not dirty skanks. You get my drift?”

 

“Yeah,” I lie. “Whatever.” I nudge her with my leg, and the woman gets up. I sit up.

 

“What’s your name?” the first woman asks.

 

I look at her. She is a similar amalgam of features as I am, making her ancestry almost impossible to guess. “I am Inmate 8895.”

 

The woman who had sat next to me shakes her head. “I’m Bea. This is Maria and Terry.”

 

I nod with a slight bow to each.

 

“Where are you from?” Bea asks.

 

“Nowhere, and everywhere.”

 

“Where you been if you aren’t coming from a work farm?”

 

“How do you know I’m not coming from one?”

 

“Everyone knows you came from the outside, out of thin air, like a spy.”

 

A shrill alarm sounds in the corridor.

 

“Evening head count,” the woman named Terry explains. “We line up in the hall. After that we will be confined to our cells for the rest of the night.”

 

At the other end of the hall a prisoner is being berated for having the audacity to look a guard in the eye. Note to self, no eye contact with the guards.

 

The two guards who walk slowly past are thumping pieces of metal piping against their legs as they do so. They wear dark green cargo pants and gray polo shirts. I work hard to train my focus over the right shoulder of each guard as they pause in front of me.

 

The women to both sides of me are holding out a cloth. I see the last guard squirt what appears to be tooth gel onto the cloth of the woman beside me. At the last second I extend my hand slightly and with only a moment of hesitation, the guard squirts some gel directly onto my fingers.

 

I wait until I am back at my bunk to scrub the gel onto my teeth. I need to figure out how to get one of those cloths. Maybe it will come with my bed sheets?

 

 

On my second day at ND3, I sit on my bunk; the only other person in the cell with me is Maria. I am bringing my mind to a quiet place, settling down the anger over being incarcerated, before I venture out again into the corridor that will lead me to a dayroom and cafeteria, as well as other places I’ve yet to imagine. A bell rings in a curious pattern.

 

“What’s that?” I ask Maria.

 

“That’s the shower call. Leave your boots here,” Maria instructs. “If you leave them by the shower they’ll be taken by some greedy guard.”

 

I strip off my boots and follow my bunkmates down the corridor where we line up against a wall, moving slowly. The women ahead of me start to strip so I do as well. All of our clothing goes into a big bin.

 

The mold in the shower hangs in the air and clings to the walls, ceiling, and floor. We all shuffle in. My foot hits a slick spot and I think I’m going to fall, but the woman behind me grabs my arm.

 

“Easy,” she whispers. I make eye contact for just a moment, memorizing her features to ensure I will know the face of this kind stranger later.

 

Rings hang in a row from the ceiling. The women hurry to grab the closest one to them. I grow panicked that it’s some kind of lottery system; fewer rings than women and the women who don’t get one get… what? Stoned? Trampled?

 

I grab a ring with one hand and leave the other arm draped self-consciously across my bare body. I glance around and all I can see are ribs and the sharp angles of hips on the emaciated women. I am thin, and always have been, but some of these women are only a ration or two away from starvation.

 

As soon as the water rushes from the hose at the other end of the shower, I grab the ring with my other hand. The water hits the women before me with such force that I fear it might knock me down when it comes to me.

 

In the back by the door, a guard stands with his legs parted and arms crossed over his chest as he watches the man with the offending hose. I’ve seen the man with the deep scar across his forehead a few times. He holds my gaze before making a show of squeezing his eyes shut and puffing out his cheeks as if holding his breath. I understand what he means just seconds before the water blasts at my face. I close my eyes and hold my breath with only a fraction of a second to spare. I will remember the scarred man’s face—I will have mercy on him if I get my revenge on the others.

 

The cold water leaves me breathless for several seconds. Its force feels like being struck.

 

The blast of water is assaulting the woman to my right when I see a wrinkled, dark woman lose her hold on her overhead ring. She falls to the ground where the guard sprays her cruelly in her face. The guard with the hose turns off the water and marches over to the woman.

 

“What’s your problem, inmate?”

 

I take a chance and glance around again at the other women. They are all so thin, I wonder if food is used as a reward in this place, and if it is, will I be able to comply.

 

The woman gets up onto her hands and knees just as the guard turns the hose back on and uses the water to knock her back down.

 

“Get up, inmate!” He kicks her several times before walking away from her. “You are being disruptive! Maybe you need some time in Isolation?”

 

I consider letting go of my ring to help the woman up when the water blasts back at me, hitting me knee-level and almost knocking my legs out from under me. I’m forced to hold onto the ring with all of my strength.

 

“Round two,” the scarred guard in the back yells out.

 

Now the water hitting us has a stringent, disinfectant smell to it. I hold my breath for what feels like several long minutes as the sudsy water assaults me. Another woman falls and I keep my eyes closed until the scarred guard says, “Rinse.”

 

“Cooper, you’re taking the sport out of it for me.”

 

“Come on, Powers, just finish so we can get on with our day.”

 

I make a mental note: Cooper good, Powers bad. I am keeping score.

 

On the way out of the shower, a guard abruptly thrusts a bundle of clean clothing at each of us. No one looks at him directly as they take the offering and walk, naked, back to the bunks. I follow the woman in front of me until I peel off to my cell.

 

“Survived your first shower, I see,” Bea says.

 

I don’t respond because I am so angry that my bunkmates didn’t see fit to clue me in about the process of the showers, and I don’t wish to risk saying the wrong thing. I silently examine the shirt I’ve been given, then notice the small square of cloth I can use to scrub my teeth.

 

“It’s always a crap shoot whether your clothes will fit or not. And it’s easier to come back here and dry a little before you put them on.” Maria holds up her pants. “I’ll be wearing pants that are much too short unless I can find someone with longer ones who will trade with me.”

 

“I’ll trade you mine if you throw in some cigarettes,” Bea says.

 

“I don’t have any cigs.” Maria opens the top of the pants as if ready to step in.

 

I examine my pants. They appear to be a few inches longer than hers, so I hold them out to Maria.

 

“Thank you,” Maria says as she hands me hers.

 

“No problem.” Why not, I muse, at least Maria had warned me not to wear my boots to the shower.

 

 

Two more days pass and I am contemplating my odds of survival as I linger in a corridor. I want to keep my head up, so as not to appear broken, but I also want to keep it down so as not to draw attention to myself, therefore putting a target on my back. I would love to find, and stay, at that middle ground.

 

“Welcome to ND3,” a woman says as she leans against the wall next to me. “What’s your name?”

 

I am not happy with myself for becoming distracted and not realizing this woman was approaching until she was within shot of me. I’ve been taught well not to trust anyone. “The powers that be have given me the identity Inmate 8895.”

 

“We like names around here,” she says. “My name is Dena. How do we address you?”

 

“You may call me Artemis,” I answer, with a calculated smile.

 

“I like you, Artemis. When you desire company, I am in the C-wing.”

 

“I will keep that in mind.”

 

“You do that.” Dena laughs. “And it wouldn’t hurt your case if you’d be a little more social.”

 

“My case? I wasn’t aware I had a case.” I lift my foot to rest on the wall behind me, a move for both defense and comfort.

 

“Just like the guards, the other prisoners can make your stay here heaven or hell. It will ultimately be your choice. Play nice, or pay the consequences.” She smiles big, showing a dark gap where she is missing a tooth on her right side.

 

“That, too, I will keep in mind,” I say as I use my foot against the wall to propel myself away from the wall and Dena.

 

Despite the advice to be more social, I spend a lot of time looking at walls. Well, I am looking toward the wall but actually seeing everything that happens in my peripheral vision. That’s how I came to know that Dena in the C-wing had a habit of putting herself in the middle of a lot of the drama behind the scenes at ND3. It seems Dena thinks of herself as quite the lover. By quietly watching, I also learn that there are some couplings in my wing—Alice and Barbara, Bea and Carli, for starters.

 

I am prone on my thin mattress when my bunkmate Bea comes in with her lover, Carli. I don’t realize for several long moments that they do not know I am there. Once they start touching intimately it becomes awkward for me and I decide to stay very still and not draw attention to my presence. The sounds and scents of intimacy fill the cell and I don’t know what to think about the flutter low in my belly.

 

The women in the bunk opposite grow quiet, then sit up and begin to adjust their clothing. On their way out, Carli pauses and looks right at me.

 

“Did you enjoy the show?” she asks.

 

“Yes, thank you,” I say in my most confident voice.

 

“Maybe next time you’d like to join?” she asks.

 

“No, but thank you.” And with that I take a chance and roll over to face the wall, leaving my back to the women, vulnerable to any attack they may have decided on. They leave without incident. I remain in my bunk the rest of the day, contemplating how the sounds I heard from Bea and Carli made me feel warm in my belly…and lower.

 

It is also while trying to blend into the background and watching everything in my peripheral vision that I learn to beware the male guards. If they think for even a second you are interested in them, they will get you into a closet and make you do things to them.

 

I am going to my bunk after my meal—a mushy concoction of different grains with a sliver of cheese on the side—when my attention is drawn to an incident occurring outside of the toilet room. I look up into the eyes of the most amazingly beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I know I am supposed to avert my eyes away from the guard immediately, but I can’t. I stare at the woman, helpless to look away, or breathe, or keep my world from spinning out of control.

 

When the guard stands in front of me, I finally look away.

 

“Is there a problem here, inmate?”

 

The woman might as well have grabbed me by the neck and choked me like the men in processing had, because I can’t speak, can barely breathe, and feel my legs about to give out on me.

 

“I asked you a question, inmate.”

 

I keep my eyes averted and attempt to swallow.

 

“No,” I croak. I can feel my face growing hotter and hotter.

 

“No?”

 

I glance up briefly—into light gold-brown eyes—and grow even more confused.

 

“No, ma’am?”

 

The guard shakes her head. “What is your name, inmate?”

 

“I am Inmate 8895, ma’am.” I wait for the tirade at not answering the question with my name.

 

“Go to your bunk, Inmate 8895.”

 

I follow directions, but wonder if there isn’t slight amusement in the guard’s words.

 

It takes a while, but I begin to feel more normal once I am away from the beautiful guard. Can a person both love and hate how someone makes them feel?

 

Staring at the dirty wall makes my heartbeat slow down, but then I feel penned in. I hope to be put to work in the garden or the bird coop. It would be worth the risk of getting mauled by an emu to collect eggs for my keep instead of being stuck indoors. I glance up at the narrow strip of uncovered window. All the windows are mostly boarded up in ND3, and I am sure that withholding sunlight is but one way they slowly break us.

 

 

It is the next morning and I perch on the edge of my bed, waiting for the barred door to be opened by a guard. Bea goes to the toilet in the corner. I have not known anyone to use it except for Terry one night when she was ill.

 

Bea glares at me when I don’t move. “You want to watch this, too?”

 

My face grows warm at her mention of my unfortunate audience while she and her lover were intimate. I glance around and see that everyone else is facing the wall. I lie back down and roll toward the dirty cinderblock. I stay like that until Terry and Maria have both taken their turns, then I sit back up and look again toward the door to the cell.

 

“You are waiting for the toilet room down the hall?” It is Maria who rolls over to look at me.

 

“Yes, I will wait.”

 

“It’ll be a long day for you, then.” Bea laughs.

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Today is the Day of Atonement,” Maria says.

 

“I still don’t understand.”

 

“It is the one day of the week that we are not allowed out of our cells. While the Anointed guards atone for their sins, we are locked away. They will send someone with one meal for us later.” Maria shrugs. “So please, just use the toilet in the corner.”

 

“Yes,” Bea says without turning from the wall. “Just do so now so we can begin to let the stench of us all start to dissipate.”

 

“Let’s be done with it,” Terry chimes in.

 

Maria rolls to face away from me.

 

I relieve myself and as I sit back on my bunk they all roll away from the wall. It feels awkward, but I jump right into conversation to take the attention away.

 

“Tell me about this Day of Atonement.”

 

“It’s their way of washing away the guilt of treating us like animals. Once a week they spend the day in ritual and prayer,” Maria says.

 

“Like one day is enough!” Terry adds. “What they need is a month of atonement.”

 

“We just wait here all day?” The thought of being caged with three others for a whole day is disconcerting.

 

“Yes, we do. So, we have all this time to get to know one another. Now is a good time for you to tell us your name,” Bea says.

 

“Or where you came from,” Terry adds.

 

“Or maybe we just enjoy some quiet, meditative time,” I venture.

 

Maria finally breaks the tension. “We could explain to you some of the details of this hell hole. I don’t know where you came from, who you are, or why you are here, but the bottom line is you are no better than anyone else in here and life can be pretty difficult if you aren’t prepared.”

 

“Thank you,” I say, my voice low and a little choked. I know there is an insult buried in her words, but I also see an olive branch.

 

“Where should we start? For God so loved the world…” Terry scowled as she spoke.

 

Bea laughed, “My personal favorite is You dare not hide your vile affections?” She pretended like she was going to grab Terry between the legs and Terry let out a playful squeal.

 

The teasing doesn’t last long and our harsh reality is soon addressed. On my first Day of Atonement at National Detention #3, I learn that it is illegal for an Anointed to reproduce with someone who is not Anointed. I learn that they rape us in ways that guarantee we won’t get pregnant, and that it is helpful if the guards see you as too dirty to touch.

 

I learn that they call us all Pagans whether we are followers of the Earth Spirit or not. Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, progressive Christians, and others are all considered Pagan here.

 

I learn that Isolation can break you, and that Retirement isn’t really retiring to a different life, but being taken somewhere to be killed when you no longer serve a purpose. The trick is to stay healthy even if you don’t think you’ll be chosen for a work assignment, because as long as there is a possibility that you’ll be useful, you will be allowed to live.

 

We grow quiet and I think about the beautiful guard with her pale skin.

 

“Where do the guards live?” I ask whoever cares to answer.

 

“Most of them live in the dorms on the farthest side of the facility,” Terry says. “I’ve heard they have some pretty nice rooms. The higher-ranked ones have the choice to stay here or go home to Grover on their days off. Or so I hear.”

 

“You sure do hear a lot,” Bea teases.

 

“I used to fu—I used to be friendly with a woman who cleaned for them,” Terry says.

 

“How does one get a work detail around here?” I ask.

 

One behaves and gives a name when asked,” Bea answers. “This isn’t an employment camp, you know. Most of us are here because we aren’t to be trusted.”

 

“But some work,” I say.

 

“Yes, some do. But I don’t think anyone in this cell is work material,” Bea says with a laugh.

 

 

I know I’m being watched on my ninth day as I spread the sheet I’ve finally been given over my mattress.

 

“What?” I ask, growing tired of the audience.

 

“I don’t care if you watch, but you better not ever say you’d like to join in,” Bea says.

 

“Ah.” I know I need to choose my words carefully. “I don’t care what you do with whom. I don’t even care if you get off on an audience, but I’m not interested in either of you.”

 

“Are you saying Carli isn’t attractive?”

 

“I’m saying I’m just not interested in being with anyone in here.”

 

“Because you’re better than us?” Bea asks.

 

“Of course not. Because it’s not my thing.” I don’t know if that is even true or not. I suspect that it isn’t, given my reaction to both hearing them carrying on, and a single kiss from my dear friend turned potential girlfriend, Emily, but I sure don’t want to get into all of that with Bea.

 

Later, on the way to eat, Bea and Carli step in front of me, halting me. Bea grabs Carli between the legs and Carli gyrates her hips.

 

“Oh,” Bea says, “I’m not offending you, am I?”

 

“Not at all,” I say, simply, as I step around them. Behind me I hear laughter. Would I be better off just coupling with someone and playing the part of lover to keep the others off my back? Although it sounds good in theory, I know I would never use someone like that.

 

I eat my boiled egg and toast in silence, and as I’m on my way out of the dining area, a spontaneous head count is called. I line up along the corridor with the others.

 

I know better, but I watch as the beautiful guard’s gaze scans the prisoners. The woman wears her long blonde hair twisted into a knot at the back of her head. I run my hand over the stubble on my own head and wonder what the guard’s hair smells like.

 

We are lined up to be inspected by the guards, and as always we are to look straight ahead, not address them, and not make eye contact. Even without looking, I always know when it is the beautiful guard standing off to the right of me. I think to read the name badge hanging around the guard’s neck, but know if she looks up and somehow meets my eyes, I will fall to my knees or hyperventilate.

 

I feel her presence. I listen closely, and hear the other guards call her “Heart.” How appropriate, I think, since the mere sight of her causes my heart to beat recklessly in my chest.

 

I must stop thinking of Heart like that. I distract myself by reflecting on how I am growing weary of not having anything productive to do. Why have they not given me a work assignment yet? Isn’t that the whole idea of imprisoning the “others” in this dichotomy of a world we live in? I decide when the count is complete that I will look around more of my wing of the prison. It wouldn’t hurt to get an overall layout of the place in my head.

 

As I walk down the corridor that I believe leads to the laundry, a woman I’ve never seen before steps in front of me.

 

“We knowin’ your name isn’t Artemis,” the woman says.

 

I shrug, and continue down the corridor. My mind is trying to place the cadence of her language but I can’t come up with the region she is from.

 

“Don’t you dare walk away from me when I’m talkin’ to you.”

 

I hesitate just briefly, but then decide not to engage the woman. I veer left and take a detour back to my bunk where I sit on the edge of my mattress. Again, I think about making up a name. If I give my own, I will likely die in the dump they call ND3 before the Resistance can break us all free. But still, I worry about hurting someone else by making up the wrong name.

 

The bell signifying dinner rings. I am on my way to the dining hall when a group of women, seemingly led by the one who most recently accosted me in the corridor, approaches.

 

“So, ladies, this new punk is needin’ to be taught a lesson about respect.”

 

I square my shoulders as I look over the four other women, hoping to see a face with even a little compassion. I do not find any such expression.

 

“Yeah, Leona, teach her a lesson,” a near-toothless woman says.

 

“So, Artemis, I’m givin’ you one last chance. What’s your real name?” Leona asks.

 

“It is fine that you continue to call me Artemis,” I answer.

 

Someone laughs.

 

“Don’t be laughin’. It’s not funny,” Leona says.

 

I study this woman, Leona, memorizing the slightly asymmetrical features of her face, then look quickly at each of the others, knowing it best to be familiar with the faces of those who are not your friends.

 

“Excuse me,” I say, as I try to maneuver the space between them and the wall.

 

“I’m not excusin’ you,” Leona says. She shoves me against the wall.

 

Before I can even raise my hands in a defensive position, the others are upon me. There are so many fists and feet coming at me all at once that I can only twist and try to break free, at least enough to get my arms over my face.

 

I am on the ground then, and through the forest of legs I can see Dena in the background, not joining in, but not helping me either. Carli puts her hand over her mouth, and then runs down the corridor, presumably for Bea. She only half-heartedly tries to help me when she arrives.

 

“Okay, that’s enough,” she mutters, without taking any action on my behalf.

 

The air is forced out of me with a powerful kick to my stomach. I try to breathe, try to protect my head with my arms while curling my legs into a fetal position to protect myself from further kicks to my gut. There is so much going on around me, causing me to grow dizzy. I can feel one eye swelling shut, and I try to look out of the other but blood stings that one when I open it.

 

I smell cigarette smoke right before I feel a searing pain against my arm. Although substantially more intense, it reminds me of my first bee sting at the huge hive in Karst—. This is much more like a betrayal than the sting I’d received when I didn’t pay attention and got too close to the swarm.

 

My pants are now around my knees and I feel something being pressed between my legs. An excruciating pain sends my body convulsing and my mind mercifully goes blank. I am suddenly back in Karst, my favorite place in the world, with Suzanna, one of my favorite people. Every time I relax into my fantasy the pain comes harder and I am returned mentally to the disgusting floor in the filthy prison with these horrible women.

 

My arms are pulled away from my head. I lash out at my attacker as I open my good eye just in time to see my fist make contact with a guard’s arm. I have struck Heart.

 

A male guard is on me in no time. He presses my head into the floor with one hand, and catches my fist in the other. He kneels on my back. His bulk on me is overwhelming, causing breathing to grow difficult. I panic.

 

He wrenches my arm backward while pressing harder into my back with his knee. I hear it, seemingly before feeling it, as my shoulder is ripped from its socket.

 

“Shit,” the man grunts.

 

“Get off of her,” Heart says.

 

Pain overtakes me and all goes black.

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