These Broken Stars Page 30

She bows her head and takes a deep breath. “I expect you to check it thoroughly for me, Major. Knowing my luck, there’ll be space crocodiles hiding in it.”

Pay dirt, it’s a joke. I’m grinning like an idiot, more than her attempt at humor deserves. She doesn’t seem to notice. “Space crocodiles are no problem,” I say. “You just tickle them under the chin and they roll over. I was posted to New Florence last year, and I met a guy who kept one as a pet, shipped it home from his posting in his luggage. He punched airholes in his bag, and the croc made it just fine.”

She treats me to a faint smile. Now we’re getting somewhere. If I can find a way to sustain it a little longer, we can leave the voices behind. She can get some rest, some sleep, and we’ll keep walking. That’s what matters. Getting home.

There’s a sudden stab of longing at the thought of home—it’s why I need to try not to think about my family. I’ve always known something might happen to me in the field, but I never saw it happening like this, with time to remember my mother’s face when they came to tell us about Alec.

“Smuggling crocodiles. What adventures you’ve had, Major,” she murmurs, sounding oddly wistful. The smile’s fading out.

“Well, I’ve seen plenty of places in the last couple of years, but not many as beautiful as the plain out there.” I sort through my piles of plants. “Look at these.” I hold up a handful of small, delicate flowers with purple petals that stand out unevenly against a brilliant yellow center. Their underside is the same gray-green as the grass of the plains, so that when they close as the sun goes down, they can hide. “Just like us, a little rumpled, but still doing all right, yes?”

She breathes out slowly as she reaches for them. “It’s hard to believe these things are just growing here.” She picks one flower out of my hand, her fingertips brushing mine as she does. The one she’s chosen is warped, two of the petals growing together, asymmetrical. I realize she’s probably never seen the imperfect beauty of the natural world.

“I’ve been to cultivated gardens before,” she continues, “but to see such precious things here, with nobody to care for them, simply growing. It’s hard to fathom.”

“My mother lets nature just come right up to our cottage. She plants flowers, but they grow among whatever else shows up.” I have no idea why I’m telling her this, but she’s listening, intent on my words in a way she never has been before. “There’s a huge field of poppies by the house, a sea of red. Flowers grow all over the house on vines. It inspires her.”

“It would inspire anyone,” Lilac agrees with a soft sigh, finally distracted. Her face has softened, and for the first time in days—the first time since we met—she’s unguarded. I want to bring her smile back. When she smiles, she looks like somebody I could know. We both need this.

I reach for my grab bag, sifting through the cable, the ration bars, past the first-aid kit and the solar-powered flashlight, and the toughened leather of my notebook full of half-scribbled poems. I’m looking for the small, metal case I know will be at the bottom. It’s cold when my fingers close around it, about half the size of my palm, almost as thin as the plastic sheet inside it.

“Does your mother spend much time in her garden?” she asks, and I know she wants to continue the distraction—this cease-fire between us—as much as I do.

“Every day.” I pull out the case. “My mother’s a poet, my father’s a history teacher. I grew up surrounded by sonnets, and spent most of my time climbing trees and falling into rivers. Turned out to be pretty good practice for joining the military.”

“Sounds lovely,” she murmurs. “Is your mother published? I’m not sure I remember reading anything by a Merendsen, but I might have done.”

“That’s my father’s name,” I say, opening the metal case and pulling out the picture. Now I have to speak a little more slowly, spacing out my words to keep my tone even, because my throat wants to close looking down at it. A wave of homesickness rises up inside me like a physical force. “Her name’s Emily Davis.”

I look down at the picture in my hand. It’s home, the image slightly dog-eared after two years in various grab bags and holdalls. There’s the house, white walls covered in the blue flowers she loves, red poppies stretching away in the background. There’s my mother, small and fair, hair falling out of its bun as usual, glasses—one of her many eccentricities—perched on her nose. There’s my father beside her in a waistcoat as always. There’s Alec, gangly, and me on his shoulders, holding on to his hair. If you don’t know better, it probably looks like he’s smiling, not grimacing. I ache, looking down at them.

“You’re not serious.” Her smile is in her voice, and when I look up, her gaze is waiting for me. When she sees my expression, her amusement falters. “Emily Davis?” she’s saying, as though perhaps I got it wrong.

“If I’d known you cared, I’d have said so right away.” Except I wouldn’t have. I reach for the next plant to break open a broad leaf and check it against my arm. I know my mother’s name impresses, but I refuse to use her as a password. It was one of the reasons I agreed to that stupid public relations trip—they said they’d keep her name out of it. I don’t want to be acceptable because of who my parents are, or have her garden invaded by paparazzi. I guard the secret of our connection as fiercely as I guard my own writing. Nobody who looks at me sees poetry there. But somehow this moment with Lilac is different.

I look down at my arm. The third plant is stinging a little, and I carefully pour water from the canteen over the spot, watching as the skin reddens—not too much, though, not too bad.

Lilac’s still staring down at the picture of my family. “I love your mother’s poetry,” she whispers, almost reverent. “I had a book of her poems when I was a little girl, a real book. There was one about a lilac bush, and you know how you love things with your name in them when you’re a child. But I got older, and the words…they’re so beautiful and sad. She weeps, perfumed and pale, at summer’s end.” She looks up at me, eyes shining. “Is there really a lilac bush?”

“Hell yes, there is.” I ignore the stinging on my arm. It’s already fading. “I nearly killed it when I fell off the roof and landed in the middle of it, but it was tougher than it looked. Kind of like another Lilac I know.”

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