These Broken Stars Page 66

I try again, something smaller, like worrying at a loose tooth or picking at a scab.

Lilac won’t talk to me again.

There’s a tremor.

Lilac won’t kiss me again. I won’t hear her laugh.

My lungs constrict.

Why am I doing this to myself?

I don’t know how to grieve. I’ve seen death before. I’ve seen it at close quarters, felt the heat of it on my skin. I’ve seen it from a safe, clinical distance, in the statistics on my intelligence reports. I’ve seen whole platoons die, too many to meaningfully understand.

I’ve seen my friends die, witnessed their final moments and accepted last messages to loved ones they never truly believed they’d leave.

When it was Alec, my mother needed me, and so I refused to succumb—but that didn’t mean I stopped trying to grapple with what had happened. Soul of a poet, she always said. But I worked through it quietly, holding the grief inside myself, somewhere secure. Emotion had no place at my briefings. In the field, it was simply dangerous. You shut it away, mourned later, silently.

This is different. This is deafening, consuming. There is no next task. There are no other soldiers to see to. No parents who need me.

Just my Lilac, blood still seeping out across her shirt, even with her heartbeat stopped. Her skin, still warm, eyes open, face slack.

This is beyond comprehension. This is too much. I can still hear her voice.

If something did go wrong, if something happened to you, I’d last a grand total of ten seconds out here by myself. But if something happened to me, you’d be just fine.

I answered her. I remember that, too. I would be anything but fine.

In fact, I’m nothing. I don’t exist. I’m lost.

I drop to one knee to gather her up in my arms, and she lolls horribly against me, head tipping back, arm slipping to hang down limply. Her skin feels different already.

I gather her in closer, so her head tips in against my shoulder. Her blood stains my skin. I carry her down the path to the cave.

I can’t bury her today. I’m not strong enough to dig the hole. Some horrible, practical part of me knows that I’ll dig until I’m exhausted, and it won’t be deep enough. It will have to be tomorrow.

And I’m not ready to let her out of my sight yet.

I lay her down on our bed, carefully straightening her neck and folding her hands. I settle the pillow under her head.

I lie down beside her on the stone floor of the cave, rolling over on my back to stare up at the daylight coming in through the chink in the stone that serves as our chimney. I curl my hand around her cold one.

Sometime later, I realize there’s no more light coming in through the crack in the ceiling.

I’ll bury her in the morning. Not yet.

I feel like I’m observing these events taking place, without revealing myself or participating. I’m watching a boy lie on the floor of a cave beside a girl. In the darkness, they look like they’re asleep.

The idea of the building drifts into my head eventually. I can picture the wall, forced in by the explosion. My memory of it is obscured by smoke and dust, so I can’t see inside. I know, in a dull, uncaring way, that I should go and explore it tomorrow. Except that I can’t imagine bringing myself to walk through the broken doorway.

A few minutes later, or a few hours, I notice the Gleidel digging into my back. I angle an arm to retrieve it, fingers wrapping around the familiar grip, sliding into place. I lift it and position the barrel underneath my chin. I nudge the barrel to the left so it sits in just the right spot.

The compulsion creeps up through me, starting somewhere in my belly. It travels up my spine, tingling down the length of my arm, until my finger tightens a fraction. It would be so easy to let it tighten just a fraction further. Nobody’s coming. Nobody would find us. They think we’re dead already.

Nobody would ever know what I chose.

It’s dark when I wake, and cold. My bones ache, and I’m on stone, not blanket. Where the hell is Lilac? Has she pushed me away and stolen the blankets?

I smile faintly to myself. Unlikely. She’s so insistent at night, snuggling in against me and teasing me that she’ll steal all my warmth, leach it out of me. She presses her back in against my front, and I wrap my arms around her and bury my face in her hair, then—

The memory hits me like a body blow. My throat closes, muscles tensing, mind reeling. I can’t remember how to move—my limbs are numb. Then, slowly, unwillingly, I reinhabit my body.

I push up onto one elbow, my back screaming a protest after lying on the cold ground for so long.

My eyelids are heavy and reluctant, but I blink to clear my vision.

Lilac’s sitting in front of me, cross-legged, smiling.

My breath jams in my throat, and I roll onto one side, coughing, gasping for breath.

Lilac lies beside me, dead.

It only takes a moment to realize that the body beside me is barely visible, a silhouette to my night vision. The girl sitting cross-legged before me is sunlit, vivid, impossible. Shaking, choking on the metallic taste the vision brings to the back of my mouth, I drag myself upright. As I watch her, an image blossoms across the wall of the cave. My parents’ house springs to life: white walls, green leaves, and the purple flowers that share Lilac’s name.

I see the wooden front door, the windows and window boxes, filled to overflowing with herbs and yellow flowers. As I watch, a pathway appears, grass swaying on either side of it. It threads its way down to where she sits, curling past her so now she’s relaxing in my mother’s garden.

I can’t do this.

I only realize I still have the Gleidel in my hand when I lift it, aiming it at the ceiling. The laser shrieks when I pull the trigger, and the room’s lit for an instant by the bolt of energy, like a lightning strike. The image flickers, then solidifies once more. How dare they show her to me? How do they dare touch her memory?

“Get out!” My voice is hoarse, ragged, throat feeling like it tears with the shout. “Get out, get away from her. Get away.”

I lift the gun a second time, and the blast of sound echoes again as the shot dislodges a shower of sand and pebbles. “Don’t touch her. Where was your goddamn warning this time? What was the point in getting her out of that cave? What was the point in dragging her halfway across your forsaken planet, to do this? To let her bleed out? We should have died in our pod, like everybody else. You should’ve just let us die together.”

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