The sound of the desert wind fi l s the silence between us.
“I think we should team up,” she says. “I think we can real y help each other.”
“I work best alone.”
She pauses. “Did you read a lot about the Hunt ten years ago?”
“Yeah, just like everyone else,” I lie. I avoided every book, every article, every sentence, every word.
“Wel , I've been studying up on this Hunt thing. A lot more than anyone else. Like, religiously. It's been an obsession of mine for years. I've read books, subscribed to journals, scoured the library for tidbits of information on the topic.
Even listened to radio interviews with former winners, though they tended to be plenty brawny but pretty dumb.
Anyway, just to say, what ever you might learn over the next fi ve days, I already know. Knew it years ago.”
“That's nice to know,” I say, not sure where this is going. But she's not lying. She a member of all kinds of heper societies and clubs at school.
“Listen. This is the open secret. Most people here already know it, but you seem clueless, so let me fi l you in. It's al about all iances. The winner always comes out of the strongest all iance. Always. It's true for the last Hunt, and it's true for every Hunt before that. If you team up wel , you'l do well . Simple as that.”
“Why don't you partner up with one of the other hunters?
Everyone knows that raw strength and physical prowess always wins the Hunt. And the other hunters are better contenders than me in that department. Take the two col ege students, for example: they're athletical y and physical y imposing. Even the cagey old guy is a stronger hunter than me; where he might be lacking in the strength department, he more than makes up for it with his guile and street smarts. And what about the woman— she looks like she knows how to handle herself. She's got it both: she's mental y wily and physical y dexterous. You'd do wel with her.”
“It's a trust issue. You're the only one here I can trust.”
“Wel , trust me on this one. With me, you'l lose.”
“Why, you're not going to even try?”
“Of course I am! I want those hepers just as much as anyone else. But I'm a realist.”
“Look,” she says, putting a hand on my chest and stopping me.
“You can go at it alone and have no chance, or you can team up with me, and together we might have a chance.
But you go into this without any kind of plan, and you're going to end up empty- handed.”
She's right, but not in the way she thinks. Because I, more than anyone else, know that if I go into this without a plan, I lose. And not just the Hunt. But my life. Without a strategy, the Hunt will expose me for what I am.
I do have a plan, and it's quite simple: Survive. That's it.
Over the next few nights, lie low, don't attract attention.
Then, the night before the Hunt, feign an injury. A broken leg. Actual y, I'l have to do more than feign— I'l have to actually break my leg. I'l make a big fuss about the bad luck of getting taken out of the Hunt.
Punch and kick and claw at the administration as the hunters head off into the distance while I lie in bed, cast wrapped around my leg. And then go on with life. So yes, she's right: I do need a plan.
And I already have one. But it doesn't involve teaming up with her.
“Look, I understand. But I . . . work better alone.”
I think I see something fl ash in her eyes, some kind of breakage.
“Why do you keep doing this to me?”
“Pushing me away. all these years.”
“What are you talking about? We don't even really know each other.”
“And why is that?” she says, and paces forward to catch up with the group, her hair bil owing behind her in the breeze.
Against my better judgment, I quicken my steps until I catch up with her. “Wait, listen.”
She turns to look at me but keeps walking.
“We should talk. You're right.”
“Okay,” she replies after a moment. “But not here. Too many prying eyes, curious ears. Let's stop by the library.”
Our escorts are none too happy with this. “Any deviance Our escorts are none too happy with this. “Any deviance from protocol is not permitted,” they recite, almost in unison. We ignore them; as the group passes the library, we break from it, walking through the front doors. Our escorts, miffed, fol ow us in. They know there is little they can do to stop us.
We walk through the foyer, stopping in front of the circulation desk. The escorts stand with us. We stare at one another.
“Wel ,” I say to Ashley June after a prolonged period, “this is a little awkward.”
She tilts her head toward me with eyes that seem to sparkle a little more. “Give me a tour,” she says, then glares back at the escorts. “Alone.” She walks away, past the tables and chairs, farther into the main section, observing the décor and furniture. “So this is the Shangri- la resort we've al been hearing about,” she says, standing on a worn- down fl oral rug in the center of the large room.
“How did that happen?” I ask. “A few hours ago, everyone was cal ing this place a hell ish solitary confi nement, and now it's a resort? No, real y, I'd so much rather be in the main building,” I lie, walking over to her. The escorts, thankful y, don't fol ow.
“Trust me, you'd rather not. The constant bickering, the complaining, the pettiness, the watchfulness, the stalking— and that's only among the staffers. It's pretty oppressive.
Wouldn't mind it myself, getting away from it all . And from all the questions.”
“About you. People are wondering why you've been set apart here, why you're getting the special A-list treatment.
And since they know we go to the same school, they assume I know you wel ; they've all been peppering— more like bombarding— me with questions about you. What you're like, your past, whether you're smart, ad nauseam.”
“What do you tel them?”
Her eyes meet mine, at fi rst seriously, then with a softness that surprises. She walks to the fl oor- to- ceiling windows, the point farthest from the escorts, and gives me a beckoning look. I fol ow, coming to stand with her at the windows. And now, far removed from the escorts, it's just the two of us, bathed in the silver glaze of moonlight pouring in. Our chests less constricted, the air lighter.
“I tel them what I know,” she says, looking out the window and then back at me. Her eyes, awash in the moonlight, radiate out, her irises delineated and clear. “Which isn't a lot. I tel them that you're a bit of an enigma, a loner, that you keep to yourself. That you're crazy smart even though you try to hide it. That even though all the girls whisper about you, you've never so much as dated a single one.
They ask if we've ever been together, and I tel them no.”
My eyes fl ick to hers. She holds my stare with a kind of quiet desperation, as if afraid I might break away too quickly. The air between us changes drastical y. I can't explain it, other than it feels like both a hot quickening and a calming softness.
“I wish I had more to tel them,” she whispers. “I wish I knew you better.” She sags her body against the window as if suddenly fatigued by an invisible weight.
It is this leaning— it looks like a surrender — that cracks something in me, like ice splintering on the fi rst day of spring. Pale in the moonlight, her skin is a glowing alabaster; I have a sudden strong urge to run my hands down her arms, to feel its cool clay smooth-ness.
For a few minutes, we gaze outside. Nothing moves. A rind of moonlight fal s on the distant Dome, bejeweling it in a glint of sparkles.
“Why is it that this is the fi rst time we've really talked?” She reaches up, tucks some loose hair strands behind her ear.
“I've always wanted something like this with you, you must have known that. I think a hundred of these moments have passed us by.”
I stare outside, unable to meet her eyes. But my heart is beating faster and hotter than it has in a long time.
“I waited for you that rainy night,” she says, her voice barely audible. “For almost an hour at the front gate. I got completely drenched. What, did you sneak out the back entrance after school?
It was a few years ago, I know, but . . . have you forgotten?”
I fi x my eyes on the eastern mountains, not daring to meet her eyes. What I want to tel her is that I have never forgotten; that not a week goes by that I don't imagine I made a different decision.
That I'd walked out of the classroom as the bel rang and met her at the front gates and walked her home, rain slicking down the sides of my pants, our shoes sloshing through puddles, hands together holding the umbrel a above our heads, useless against the down-pour, but the wetness not minded in the least.
But instead of speaking to her, I hear my father's voice.
Never forget who you are. And for the fi rst time, I realize what he meant by that. It was just another way of saying, Never forget who they are.
I don't say anything, only stare out at the night stars, their lights blinking down with abject loneliness. So close together, these clustered stars, their lights brushing, overlapping; but their proximity is only il usory, because in reality they are impassably far apart, separated by a thousand mil ion light- years of emptiness between them.
“I don't think I . . . know what you're talking about. Sorry.”
She doesn't respond at fi rst. Then she suddenly jerks her head to the side, her auburn hair veiling her face. “Light's too bright tonight,” she says, her voice brittle as she slides on a pair of large oval moonglasses. “Hate it when there's a ful moon.”
“Let's step away from the windows,” I say, and we move back to the rug, back within earshot of the watching escorts.
We stand awkwardly in front of each other. My escort steps forward.