I WON’T MISS these mornings.
I won’t miss the sand, the sea, the salt air. The splintered wood of the old, worn boardwalk, burrowing beneath my skin. I won’t miss the sun, bright and blinding, a spotlight on me as I watch and wait. I won’t miss the silence.
No, I won’t miss these mornings at all.
Day after day, I slip down to the boardwalk when it’s still dark. I’ve worked hard to make it look like I’m simply a girl who loves sunrises, a girl who’d never shove back. One of those is true, at least. The Wolves who guard this beach hardly blink at me anymore, a rare show of indifference bought by my consistency, my patience. Two years of consistency and patience, every single morning since they plucked us from lives we loved and shoved us into gulags. I sit where the guards can see me—where I can see them—where I can see everything. I watch the water, I watch the waves. I watch more than water, more than waves. I look for cracks.
There’ve been no cracks. The guards’ routine has forever been solid, impenetrable, the only reason I haven’t yet made a break for it. I will, though. I am a bird, determined to fly despite clipped wings and splintered feet. This cage of an island won’t hold me forever.
One day, when the war ends, I will eat ice cream again. I will run barefoot on the beach without fear of stepping on a mine. I will go into a bookstore, or a coffee shop, or any of the hundreds of places currently occupied by Wolves, and I will sit there for hours just because I can. I will do all of these things, and more. If I survive.
I am always ready for a way out, always looking to leave. I carry my past wherever it fits: tucked in at my back, hanging from my neck, buried deep in my pocket. A tattered yellow book. A heavy ring on its heavy chain. A vial of blood and teeth. My empty hands are my advantage—with nothing but my own skin to dig my nails into, with no one left to cling to, I’m free to take back this war-stained world. If everything goes as planned, that is.
It may not be obvious to anyone else, but things are changing. I see subtle signs of it everywhere, for better and worse all at once. Where there used to be only two guards at this beachfront station, now there are four. Where the guards once stepped casually around certain patches of sand—they’ve been loud and clear in warning us of the land mines buried there— they now step carefully, single file, if they even leave their station at all. Until last week, their post was equipped with a blood-red speedboat. Now they’ve traded sleek for simple, a no-frills green sailboat in its place meant to disadvantage anyone who tries to use it to escape. As if any of us could make it that far without being blown to pieces.
This quiet shifting of routine assures me the rumors are true.
Someone escaped last week, people say. Someone else plans to try. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month, I’ve heard it all. The rumors aren’t about me—I’d never be allowed to sit here now, watching as always, if they were. This worked out exactly the way I hoped, that my being close to the beach triggers the assumption that I am up to nothing, nothing at all out of the ordinary. To change my routine would be suspicious.
Now I wait only for the guards to turn their backs on me, as they sometimes do, when they go for coffee refills inside their bare-bones old beach tower. They are far too comfortable with me looking comfortable. Too confident I’ll stay put. They keep their eyes trained on the seawall, on those who’ve taken a sudden interest in the sunrise.
The boardwalk has been lonely for the better part of two years, but not now. Not yesterday, either, or the day before. Whether the others are plotting an escape or just hoping to glimpse one, who knows? This is undoubtedly the best spot for either, I figured that out my first week. From every other side of this island, the water leads straight back to mainland Texas. Better open ocean than that.
These fresh faces that peek out over the seawall and divert attention away from me—it’s good, and it’s not. Anyone could make a run for it at any time. The Wolves will redouble their security measures when that happens, no doubt, rain bullets and bombs over the entire camp. I can’t be around when that happens. I need to make a run for the boat today, this morning, now, or I might never get the chance.
I have to be first.
Dawn breaks, a hundred thousand shades of it, so brilliant the sky can hardly contain it.
Two guards go inside their post, and the third turns—this is it this is it this is it—but then the air shifts. It starts with a seagull, warning on its wings as it flies straight for the ocean, like it wants to get far, far away. The two remaining guards meet eyes. I hear the rumble of footsteps, not from the beach but from beyond the seawall at my back, toward barracks and breakfast and the silk lab I’ve left behind.
A distant explosion shakes the entire island. Two more follow on its heels, five more after that. Gunfire, like a storm—so many blasted bullets I lose count—screaming, chaos. It’s louder with every second. Louder and closer.
I freeze, every muscle in my body stiff. I’m too late, a split second too late—someone must have attempted escape from the wrong side of the island.
Looks like I’m not the only one who wanted to be first.
All four officers are out of the post now, running their tight zigzag pattern through the sand, toward the noise, careful not to blow themselves to pieces. They don’t look my way as they pass.
I should have gone for it in the dead of night, shouldn’t have waited for perfect timing—there is no perfect. These bullets and bombs are the consequences, I’m sure of it, security measures on steroids. I’ve missed my chance.
Or maybe not.
The green sailboat bobs idly at the end of their dock. No one has stayed behind to guard it.
I shift, about to make a break for it—but then that miserable seagull settles itself on the sand in the wrong place and sets off a mine. The earsplitting explosion is close enough to scare me still. Smoke and feathers obscure the guards’ sandy footsteps, obliterating my only clue as to where the safe path is. Before last week, when they planted hundreds of fresh mines, I could have run it in my sleep. Not now.
People come spilling over the seawall, five and ten and fifteen, more with every second. If they’re desperate enough to run this way, straight toward the sand and the mines, I don’t want to know what they’re running from. I scramble to the edge of the boardwalk. There’s an opening below it, where wind has blown the sand away from the posts and planks. I will wait this out and try again, or I will die. It’s a tight squeeze, just enough room for me but hardly enough room to breathe. My breaths are shallow anyway, shallow and quick. Sand sticks to the slick sweat on my neck and cheek, coating the entire right side of me. The grit is everywhere: inside my nose, between my teeth, behind my eyelids. But I breathe, never having felt so alive as I do in this moment, so close to death.
The noise is inescapable now, the sound of the desperate as they run from death to destruction. Footsteps pound the boardwalk, shaking it. If it gives out, I will be splintered and crushed beneath it.
Sand scatters under the first pair of brave feet, not terribly far away from me. Two more pairs follow, and ten more after that. Then twenty.
The mines spray sand and skin high into the air. All over the beach, explosions burst like fireworks. Yet the feet keep coming, winding through pillars of smoke until—pop!—they are forced to stop.
It isn’t pretty. It is a sickening, revolting mess.
Something heavy slams into the boardwalk, directly above me. The boards creak, sagging so low they press into my shoulder blades. Quickly, the pressure recedes—but then there are fingers, long and tan and delicate, curling over the plank’s edge two inches from my face. A noise almost slips out of me; I bite it back.
Shots ring out, cracking wood, deafening and close. I don’t feel anything—but would a bullet burn like fire, or would it be a blast of numb shock? The fingers grip tighter, knuckles white even in these shadows, and then they are gone. I shift, as much as I can in this tight space, and see three perfect circles of sunlight streaming through the wood just past my head.
Another shot rings out, and then, just like that, darkness overtakes the light—there is a thud above me, even heavier than the first, and a limp arm hanging over the boardwalk’s edge. A limp arm clothed in crisp, tan fabric that would blend into the sand if not for the blood.
An officer. An officer is down, and they will find him, and if I stay where I am I will be covered in his blood as it drips through the cracks.
I could run now. I could follow the footsteps of the dead, step only in places where the sand has been tested. I could make it to the sailboat, if I am smart. If I am smart and quick. I could finally, finally sail to Sanctuary.
I inch out of my hiding place, careful to stay low. An enemy of an officer is a friend of mine, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe—I still need to be as careful as possible, and quiet. A blast of saltwater breeze hits me, cool against damp sweat.
I freeze, though I’ve obviously already been seen.
“The guards are making rounds,” the voice says. Soft, urgent. “They’re not close, but they’ll see me if you run.”
I turn my head, just slightly, enough to look at her. She’s petite, Asian—I don’t recognize her. Her long, tan fingers ravage the fallen officer’s pockets. Could this girl really have killed him, David against Goliath?
“Here,” she says, tossing me a lanyard heavy with keys. Clever, an attempt to share the blame if someone sees, because why else would she hand over this freedom? Not that I’m complaining—I don’t plan to be around long enough for blame. She stuffs his ID tags into her pockets and tucks his pistol into the back of her shorts. “I’m coming with you.”
The pistol makes me nervous, but at least it isn’t aimed at me. “You don’t even know where I’m going.”
She tilts her head to the beach, to the sickening display of blood and bone before us. “I know you’re not staying here,” she says. “That’s all I need to know.”
“Is it clear yet?” Still crouched on the low side of the boardwalk, all I can see is the girl, and the officer at her feet. Even this much blood turns my stomach, but I keep it together. I have to.
“Clear enough that we’ll have a head start. People are avoiding this beach now. . . .” Her eyes drift to the mess of death in the sand. The tide doesn’t reach far enough to lick any of the blood away, and neither of us can look for more than a few seconds. “It’s only a matter of time until they’re all killed. The guards won’t be distracted for long.”
“Okay,” I say. “Okay. We can do this.”
“We have to do this. What else is there?”
She’s right. And it isn’t like I have anyone to go back for, not anymore. I take a deep breath. “Follow—”
“Crap, they’re on the seawall—they see us. They see us! Go!”
I spring to standing and take off. The smoke has cleared, not completely, but enough. I don’t look behind me to see if she’s there. I don’t look at what remains of all the people I might have eaten breakfast with later this morning. I only look ahead, at the ravaged sand, darting left and right like the officers did when they first noticed the air shifting.
Bullets burrow into the sand, into bodies already dead, into a wake of people who trail behind us. So many bullets from only—I risk a glance—two guards. I dodge their shots, keep running until the sand is smooth ahead of me, untested. I stop short, not sure exactly how to proceed, and the girl from the boardwalk barrels into me. It’s everything I can do to keep from losing my balance, from taking one wrong step that could end everything.
But of those who’ve fallen in with us, only two stop. The others push past us, sights set on the sailboat. Between their footsteps and the spray of bullets that follows them, the sand is broken—and they are dead—in a matter of seconds.
I suck in a breath, choke on sand and smoke, but force myself to keep going. The boardwalk girl follows, along with the two girls who stopped with us. I recognize both their faces from the seawall, peeking over, today and yesterday and the day before.
I lead the way, fast as I can. The guards’ boat isn’t far now. If we press on we might actually make it. More shots ring out, but this time they’re fired by the boardwalk girl, directed at the officer who usually guards the boat—bullet and blood, he collapses before he can make it back to the dock—then at the other guards who chase us, their pistols dead. This girl is an impressive shot, unsettlingly so. She keeps pulling the trigger long after she runs out of bullets.
No one shoots at us anymore.
No one follows us at all.
But I keep running. I can’t stop. We’re past the minefield now, into guards’ quarters—where the guards would be if they weren’t dead or hunting—and down the endless dock where their boat is tied up.
I climb up and over the boat’s side, collapse just long enough to catch my breath. I’m vaguely aware of the three other girls as they join me, one of them a blonde who works to untie the knotted rope, our only anchor to the dock. The sky starts to sway as the tide pulls us out to sea. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to think. Everything hurts.
It is worth it.