Sparks Rise Page 2

Somehow, I lost it.

I know I must have, because Vanessa, Ashley, all of them gave me these looks when the dark-haired girl first showed up a few years ago.

“Whatever you fought about, it’s not worth it,” Ashley had whispered to me. The older girls were braver about talking in the morning. “I hate to see you guys like this. She doesn’t even talk now.”

This swell of hurt and fear and something that felt too close to panic had tackled me from behind. The air was coming in and out of me in sharp bursts. There was no explanation for it, other than I was...something was wrong with me. My head. I didn’t forget faces. I didn’t forget anything. And yet everyone was acting like she’d been with us from the beginning. They were making me dizzy with these looks of confusion and pity and curiosity. I broke into a cold sweat at Ashley’s words. The pieces of me that were already barely holding together after the punishment I’d taken a few days before began to drift apart.

Is this the second wave? I remember thinking. Do we slowly lose what we can do? Were our minds just going to one day blink out?

But all the other cards were in place. I tested it every morning, every night. Address numbers on my block. Mia Orfeo’s bookshelves. Pages of the Bible. Patterns of Christmas tree ornaments. No Ruby, never any Ruby before that moment. She’d come right over to me, small and pale—face smeared with grime like she’d been working in the Factory all day with us. And she’d gripped me like I was going to be able to drag her out from whatever she was drowning under. Green eyes, shining with pain. The PSF that day had pounded me into the ground with his baton before locking me in the cage for hours. I must have said something to him to make him punish me. A wrong look, something I muttered. But that was hazy, too. They must have brought Ruby in while I was gone.

That was the only word she ever said to me: Ruby. I asked when she’d come in, what her name was, and the only thing she’d managed to choke out was her own name.

The truth is, she lived like a shadow. Silent, always trying to make herself as small and quick as she possibly could. The PSFs, they never picked on her, they never noticed her, and it was hard not to be resentful when I could barely make it one day without—

I shook my head, smoothing my hair back into a ponytail.

How can I remember each day from the moment they brought me through the damn gate until that evening, but she’s just not there? She’s dissolved like smoke.

How can you miss something, feel so awful about it, when you’re not sure you had it in the first place?

From the next bunk over, Vanessa clucks her tongue in warning—a hurry the heck up. I can tell we have a day of rain ahead of us by the way the mildew stench seems particularly strong. If we’re getting rain, it means it’s too warm for snow, and that is always, always, always a blessing.

The winter uniforms are nothing more than forest-green sweats. There are no coats, unless you’re working in the Garden. The Laundry, Factory, and Kitchen are all, in theory, heated. At the end of each Garden shift, you pass the woolen gray monstrosities back in; I can’t tell if it’s because they just aren’t willing to pony up and pay for coats for the whole camp, or if they’re afraid we’d try to stash something inside of them. Hiding sharp-tipped trowels and hand pruners, smuggling strawberries, I don’t know.

I take another deep breath and hold it in my chest until I can’t resist the burn. Falling into my spot in line, the earthy dampness of the cabin finally fades under the familiar smells of plain detergent, shampoo, and sleep-warmed skin. The overhead lights that snapped on at the alarm wash everyone’s skin out to a chalky ash.

The electronic door locks click one, two, and three before the heavy metal swings open and a PSF steps inside, her eyes sweeping over our lopsided lines. With Ruby gone at my right, Vanessa has had to step up into her space, leaving Elizabeth alone at the back to walk with the stare of the PSF burning into her neck.

The steel-gray light from the overcast sky creeps into the cabin like a delicate fog. I blink my eyes against it, fighting the urge to hold up a hand to shield them as the PSF inspects first our uniforms and, next, the general state of the cabin.

Rather than say a word, the woman, blond hair twisted into a tight, low bun beneath her black cap, whistled and waved us forward, the way she would have called a dog to her side. It set my teeth on edge and spun my exhaustion into annoyance. There’s something about her smirk today I don’t like. Her eyes keep darting back and forth between whatever is standing out along the soggy trail and us.

I square my shoulders as Vanessa and I pass by her, a halfhearted attempt to brace myself for the freezing January air; the sting of it turns our skin pink and our breath white. I was wrong about it not being cold enough to snow; in a West Virginia winter, what’s rain one moment turns to icy sleet in the next, and then, just as you settle into that misery, suddenly there are large, fluffy snowflakes drifting down around you like feathers.

I’m so distracted by the effort it takes to not give in to the clench of my shoulders and arms, to concentrate on not showing them how badly my body wants to shiver, I don’t even see them until the lines have filed out behind me. Cabins are opened and emptied by number, a careful sequence that involves stopping, going, stopping again as everyone is led out onto their right trail, wherever it is they’re supposed to be going—wash houses, Mess Hall, or straight to work until lunch. It’s timed down to the second, and half of the time I think it only works because everyone’s too tired and cold to try to resist being dragged into the pattern. What’s the point, anyway?

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