Three months. Eleven weeks. Seventy-five days.
That’s how long it’s been since Althea disappeared from the park in Danbury right in front of my eyes. Three months since I’ve seen her. Since I’ve seen anyone or anything besides the chattering birds and the occasional animal sniffing through my pocket of this world.
I’ve marked them all on the walls of the cave I’ve been using for shelter. It’s been too hot for me and the weather, along with the constant, heady drift of jasmine beneath my nose makes me think of her. Not bundled up and shivering, the way she passed the autumn, but aglow. The way she looked in Cadi’s magic vision of summer.
At first, the memory of Althea’s hesitant smile, the way I could feel her pulse throb in her wrist when I took her hand, and the incredible softness of her mouth, kept me company in the lengthening days.
Lately, the recollection of those moments brings an unbearable loneliness.
Hours have passed with nothing but thoughts to fill them. In the beginning I tried traveling on my own. Nothing happened, unless I count freezing my eyelids to my face. It’s like there isn’t enough energy to make it happen, not on my own, and apparently Cadi and Ko aren’t inclined to help me get out of here.
I considered walking, even trekked west for two days before turning back.
There’s nowhere to go, and if Althea is looking for me, too, she’ll try the familiar cities first. But she’s not here, has never been to summer. No matter how far I walk, I’ll never go fast or far enough to make it autumn again. Or spring, or winter.
So I wait. For the seasons to change, for the tight fear for Althea’s safety to ease in my chest. It never does. I suspect I’ll never shake loose the anxiety of being without her again, now that I’ve known the comfort of being near someone like me.
Someone I care about.
Since the day the Prime’s son—Zakej—found and tortured Althea in the hive, the anxious fear has gotten worse. Part of me, a piece of me that needs to protect her, to be there when she’s in pain, died from my failure that day. Apa says a boy helped her escape, probably someone else like us, but it should have been me.
If he cares about Althea like I do, he never would have let Zakej hurt her. My anger at the nameless boy, at Ko and Cadi, at Zakej, doesn’t come close to the rage at my own helplessness. It all churns in my center, growing so strong that some nights my stomach feels like a block of ice.
If only it could freeze my heart, too. The buoyant hope, the possibilities that last autumn brought me has become a dead weight, now sunk into the depths of the lake at the bottom of this canyon. We should have touched it, grabbed on while it was in front of us—that hope, that possibility. If something happens to Althea before I can find her again, I know I’ll never feel that way again.
Lucas, my son.
My father’s voice eases into the recesses of my mind and yanks me out of today’s spiral into desperate anger and fear and worry. For a while, after he told me he’d known what was happening to Althea and I realized he hadn’t told me right away, I’d put distance between us. But he’s the only person I can talk to, and I’m too lonely to ignore him.
What frightens me is that I’m starting to listen to him.
I close my eyes and glide inward, away from the sounds and smells of the world around me, into the space in my mind that Apa can find.
He’s sitting on the dirt floor, which is atypical. Apa enjoys his comforts, and more often than not imagines furniture to accompany these discussions. Instead of asking why, I slump against the wall next to him, massaging the bridge of my nose. A headache sprouts at the base of my neck, clawing upward into my brain.
“How are you,” He asks in the low, pleasing voice that never sounds quite normal to my ears.
It’s not feminine, like Fire’s or eve Cadi’s but it’s just as pleasing.
“Fine. The same.”
“It won’t be this way forever.” He nudges me with his shoulder, offering a smile.
I shrug. “I know. Summer’s almost over.”
“No. I mean we won’t always be here on Earth.” Apa makes me look at him. “I’m still hoping that the Prime will see reason where you’re concerned and allow you to join us when we move on.”
The suggestion wafts, toyed on a non-existent breeze. It hangs in the space between his lips and my ears, not for the first time, but now it drifts closer and closer within my reach. I would never, ever leave without Althea. But if we could somehow convince the Others to take us with them, that they need us and we’re not a threat, then we could survive. We could be together.
“Why would he do that?” The hopeless note in my voice surprises even me, and my father’s eyes jerk to mine, probing.
I try to show him a strength I don’t feel, but I’m not sure he’s convinced.
“We need to find a way to convince them it would be foolish to destroy or leave behind anomalies they do not understand.”
It bothers me, vaguely, when he talks about me—and Althea, and the other two—like we’re a commodity. I understand that’s how the Prime sees us, and I know Apa cares, but it grates a little.
Apa’s mouth pulls down into a frown. “Her mother doesn’t…feel the same way that I do. And I worry the Prime will not forgive Althea for these past several months. She and Vant’s boy have injured many of the Wardens in their attempt to remain free.”
“Vant’s boy…what’s his name?”
Pax. The name rattles around my brain, a name attached to a boy like me, one I should think of as a friend. It’s hard to feel any warmth or expectation for a kid who has done such a subpar job watching Althea’s back.
Or maybe I’m upset because he gets to be with Althea.
Fatigue drips through me. Slow, like a garden hose someone didn’t turn off all the way, leaving it to leak water all afternoon until finally a puddle spreads across the yard. It’s a mystery, how being alone and doing not much of anything can wear me out. It’s the thinking, that’s all I can figure.
As much as the idea—the innate desire—to opt for survival resonates deep inside me, I won’t go without Althea. We either find a way to make it onto that space ship together or we stay here on Earth.
If we were to find a way to make the Prime take us in, would she go?
I’m not even sure I would go.
“Tell me again how you met my mom.”
It’s easy enough to sit and listen to him, soothing even, if I don’t think too hard about how he’s an alien and she’s dead. I close my eyes, resting my head against the warm dirt of the hive wall as the story wraps around me, a familiar comfort by now.
“She had the most beautiful blond hair—shining and long, with this perfect curl that she passed on to you—and she waited on me in a Paris café.” A sidelong glance reveals the same haunted smile Apa always wears when he talks about Sophie Belgarde. The woman who changed his life. The woman who gave life to me, whose life ended because of me.
“It took me weeks to get her to agree to have a drink. I’d go to the bar where she sang at night and sit there for hours, just listening to her, watching her. She had a beautiful voice. Used to sing you to sleep when you were a baby, and even when you were squalling and red-faced, angry about whatever human babies get upset over, she’d sing and you’d close your eyes and settle down.” He moves a hand as though he’s going to touch me, but doesn’t. We’ve made progress, these weeks, but it’s not simple. “Sophie would be crushed that you grew up without music.”
There’s no room for more sadness inside me right now, and I shoot to my feet in an attempt to leave this last bit on the floor of the hive—in the back of my mind, but perhaps far from my heart. “I’m hungry. I’m going to go catch some dinner.”
He nods, blinking several times before he seems to see me clearly. “See you soon, son.”
I close my eyes, clenching my shaking hands into fists while the scent of the summer forest, the feel of the late afternoon breeze, solidify the Atlanta canyon around me. A couple of deep breaths steady my heartbeat, and I realize I actually am hungry.
Hunting twisted my stomach at first, and I still haven’t been able to kill a deer since the fond memory of the one Althea and I met in Danbury lingers. I’ve perfected snares and traps, though, through hours and hours of practice. Rabbits and squirrels aren’t bad to eat, but the fish I’ve managed to pull out of the lake are my favorite. It was strange at first, remembering Fils, but in a way it makes me feel like he’s still with me. There’s something calming about sitting on the edge of the lake with a stick and the wire I filched from the Kendricks’ the last time I snuck back into town for provisions. With the fish to focus on, my thoughts stay quiet.
Impatience thrums through my veins today, though, and I need a more active pastime to eradicate the overwhelming helplessness of my situation. I set a snare in a grove of trees and settle down to wait.
A few squirrels race near, but don’t step in my trap. Not long after that, a curious rabbit hops into the clearing, sniffing the ground, pausing at least once a minute to make sure he’s alone. I don’t typically watch my prey, preferring to kill it quickly after it’s already trapped. They’re too alive before, it’s too unexpected—the way their life is filled with possibilities one moment, and the next they’re struggling to survive.
Maybe it’s too close to home. There isn’t a day I don’t regret taking more time to tell Althea how happy finding her made me, how it changed my life. How she gave me a reason to fight to live another moment.
If I get caught in the Others’ snare today, in the next minute—or if she does—she’ll never know that she saved me.
I freeze, my muscles jerking into knots, at the sound of crunching leaves and mumbled voices. It’s not Apa. He never comes to me outside the hive, and as far as I know, he’s the only person who knows where I am.
For one horrible moment, I’m sure Apa betrayed me. I don’t think he wants to cause me harm, but over our last several meetings his agitation and impatience has grown. His devolving attitude sets me on edge, makes me feel as though we’re running out of time. He might tell the Prime where I am simply to set a plan for the future into motion.
My shoulders tense when two boys emerge from the side of the clearing in the middle of an argument. One is tall and blond, broad chest and strange purple eyes that look somehow familiar. His gait is inhuman, the way he appears to glide over the blades of grass without crushing them under his feet, and the sight of his strangeness keeps me hidden even when they frighten away my dinner.
The second boy is about my height, with olive colored skin, bright blue eyes, and shaggy black hair that badly needs a cut. It reminds me of my own mop of curls, which needed a trim weeks ago. He has an easy way about him, a patient smile that buoys his frantic hand gestures.
It’s his eyes that stop me from fleeing. They’re Althea’s eyes. And mine.
“We have to find him, Griffin. What makes you think he’d be out here?” The boy with the blue eyes stops, putting his hands on his hips as though he’s refusing to go any further until he gets an answer.
“I just do, okay? You ask too many questions. Do you want to save your girlfriend or not?” The blond one keeps walking, halfway across the clearing and getting closer.
“Althea is not my girlfriend. But I do want to save her.”
My heart stops at the sound of her name in his mouth, in the air, finally somewhere besides my own mind after all of this time. I can’t breathe, and they’re almost gone before I manage to gather enough sense to step out of the bushes.
“Hey,” I gasp, still stunned at their appearance after all this time.
The blond one—Griffin, I suppose—is already facing me, as though he knew I was hiding here the whole time. The other one stumbles a bit before recovering and narrowing his eyes. “Yes?”
“You said Althea.” His girlfriend. Don’t think about it now. Find her. “Do you…are you…?”
I don’t quite know what the question is, all I know is if they know where she is, I can’t let them go.
“It’s him, Pax. Lucas.” Griffin meets my gaze, nodding. “It’s you, right?”
I give my head a physical shake, trying to overcome the oddity of the entire scenario. “I’m Lucas.” My gaze slides involuntarily to the boy like me. The one I’ve been trying to forgive for weeks. My heart hardens in my chest, trying hard to beat inside a stony cast. “You’re Pax.”
His eyes darken a little at the accusation in my voice, but he nods. “Yes.”
“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be with Althea.” As much as I don’t want him to be with Althea, never want to hear her name next to anyone’s but mine, he shouldn’t have left her alone.
“Althea’s in trouble. I can’t save her alone. She needs us both.”
Griffin puts both hands in front of him then pulls one up, one down. He does the same thing a moment later, side to side, and leaves a shimmering hole in the Georgia afternoon. Through it I see melting snow, green pine trees, and a strangely intact log house.
The words Althea’s in trouble ring in my ears and I don’t ask a single question, or hesitate for a second, before crossing the clearing and stepping through some kind of magic portal to another place.
I’d walk through a million more for the chance to be with her again.