Shadows flicker over her face like black flames. Her mouth puckers and locks shut.
“We’re safe now,” I tell her. Her spine stiffens. I don’t believe me, either. Still, I say, “The Copter flew the opposite way. We should go.”
A small emergency candle casts a reddish glow upon the cave’s stone walls. Soot cakes her face and streaks her neck. Her eyes are sunken, almost black.
“Please,” I say.
She stoops and pinches the wick, dousing us in darkness.THE GARDEN
When I had first looked out the window, all I’d seen was light.
The Copter diced the air as it shakily piloted us to the coordinates on Marco’s screen. Bile swished in my stomach. I was grateful that the high sun outside my window blinded me from seeing the desert landscape beyond. It would be a rough landing, Marco had said, and I shouldn’t watch. I was thankful for my captain’s orders.
My seatbelt dug into my skin as we collided with the rocky ground. I bit my tongue twice. The weight of the weapon strapped against my chest hurt even worse. That, and the way my gut clenched to keep my insides, well, inside me.
“Remember the mark, boy,” Marco shouted over the drone of the Copter’s rotors.
My knee bounced as I recited his earlier briefing. “The extraction of Chloe Gray, seventeen years old, for an invasive habitat violation.”
He nodded once at our practiced lie. “You’re clear.”
My chest swelled like an inflating balloon. I opened the door.
The sun had shifted since our flight, but it was still playing its tricks. Before me, a mirage of a lush garden extended all the way to the canyon. It was replete with tall grasses and beds of vibrant flowers. At its edge stood a girl. She was petite and delicately featured. Wisps of blond hair teased her face.
The din of the Copter almost drowned out her screams.
A short and dark infinity has passed and Chloe is still silent. A shaft of light from the setting sun skims the top of her head.
Once that light is gone, we will really need to start running.
Marco will circle back, I want to tell her. He doesn’t give up easily.
Neither should you.
I can feel the small, round object in my pocket. Maybe it is time to show her. I slip my hand into my jeans. “Chloe—”
“Whatever you have to say, don’t.” Her voice cuts into me like saw through bone.
Twelve drops of stalactite dew splash onto my arm before she speaks again.
“You don’t get it. After your fellow troops posted the first ‘Desert Region Evacuation’ notices,” she scoffs, “the neighbors… they were whispering about soldiers taking kids away. Dad and I wanted to stay with the garden, but my little brother needed my dad to take him somewhere safe. I thought the solution was simple. Guess my dad didn’t.” Three drops of dew later she adds, “But I knew what I had to do.”
I inhale. The air tastes of metal. Though I shouldn’t give away what I already know from Marco’s briefing, I finish her story so she won’t have to. “So he left,” I say carefully, “and you stayed.”
“Yes.” Curiously, her voice lightens. “Like my mom told me to a long time ago.”
That I didn’t know. I take my hand from my pocket, leaving my small, round, last resort hidden inside.
Chloe was out in the open, as thin as the grassy stalks whipping in the wind around her, and no threat to a soldier like me.
“You all can burn!” she cried. “Burn in hell!”
She eyed the weapon strapped to my chest. I cringed inwardly. “Miss, please calm down.”
She half-laughed, half-sobbed. “Never.”
“I just need to see your permits.” The whole “permits for foreign plant species” charade was a laughable ruse, a reason to get her to leave so our troops could finally take over the region. I didn’t say that.
Marco’s eyes bored into the back of my neck. I said, “I’ll perform a visual inspection.”
I took a few steps into the garden on pretense. I ran my hand through silky leaves and petals. The place was littered with prohibited flora— maidengrass, passion flowers, and tiny blooms of Japanese honeysuckle. Beautiful and highly illegal.
I plucked a single pea pod from its stem. She flinched. “The state classifies a number of these plants as contraband. They’ll— they’ll need to be eradicated.”
I rolled the pod between my thumb and forefinger. Delicate and fragile, it was probably one of the last of its kind in a planet suffocated by its own people.
I held onto it.
Hurry up, Marco’s voice said into my earpiece. I nodded toward him.
“Eradicate this?” She spread her arms wide. “I won’t do it.”
“No, miss,” I said, gesturing to the flamethrower I carried, “but we will.”
My fingers are tapping senseless patterns on my leg when Chloe speaks again. “That backpack of yours seems awfully small.” Her shoe scrapes against the rough floor. “Probably only enough in there to last two people a couple of days. Longer for one person.”
“You want to fight for it or something?”
“You leave, you get the bag.”
“Everything I know is gone or dead.”
Heat rises from my chest to my face. “You planning on joining those ranks?”
I rub the stubble on my jaw. Exhaustion is grinding me down. “You know you still matter.”
She sighs. “You’re not that much older than me, right? Got a family?”
I keep quiet.
“Then you know why nothing matters anymore.”
I did my best imitation of a soldier’s march on my way back to the Copter. Marco’s eyes glinted.
“She refuses to cooperate,” I said.
“Then you are authorized to act on orders, son.”
“Sir, this could be simpler. Relocate Ms. Gray and exterminate the field afterward. Less fuss.”
“I’ll get her out of there,” he said, pounding his chest.
“I don’t mind.”
“Wait here. Get ready to restrain her.”
I climbed into the Copter and did as my captain told.
The taste of copper coated my tongue. I had not imagined being asphyxiated inside a hot tin box when I had enlisted.
Chloe’s shrieks pierced the metal walls. I lurched to the window.
Her reedy limbs flailed akimbo against Marco’s corded muscles. A strong gust of wind teased her hair, shrouding his face. She jabbed his chest with her elbow then kicked his groin. As he cried out, she slipped under his arms and ran into the garden.
A second later he was readying his flamethrower.
I ran to them. “Wait!” I shouted.
They paused to face me. Chloe, heaving, looked like she might crumble to the ground at any moment. Marco had his flamethrower aimed at the garden, at her.
“If you get crisped,” I said to her, “the garden goes with you.” I wiped sweat from my brow. “And if you kill her,” I said to Marco, “we could get prosecuted.”
“So?” they said.
“So Ms. Gray comes with us. We figure out the rest of this mess later.”
“No,” they said.
I swore and kicked the sand on the perimeter of the field. “It’s the only way.”
“Actually,” Marco said, “this is.”
Fire blazed from his weapon and choked the green foliage in simmering bursts of orange.
I fumble in the black shadows. My fingers close around our matchbox. I fail three times before I light the emergency candle.
Slick rivulets of tears have worn through the ash on Chloe’s skin. She looks at the tiny flame with disgust.
I pull a soft fold of cloth from the backpack. “You’ve got some, um—” My hand shakes as I touch the fabric to her skin. She flinches but doesn’t pull away. I wipe her face clean.
I can see her eyes now— they are the color of a tranquil sea, though she is a girl of a dying earth.
The roar of flame extinguished the noise of the hacking rotors and the girl’s cries. Marco snuffed the weapon.
He stalked toward me as shiny heat closed in on his dark frame.
“She’ll fry!” I shouted.
“Not my problem,” he called back. “She has to… go… either way. Now come on, we gotta split.”
Chloe spun around wildly. Fire was eating her plants and soon it would eat her, too.
I charged past Marco. He called out, “You go any further and you won’t be my problem, either.”
His words stopped me. When I had joined his squadron, I had imagined myself to be a protector of this chaotic world.
The girl screamed again.
But the world itself, I realized, wasn’t what really needed protecting. I shot forward.
“Suit yourself!” Marco shouted with a hoarse laugh.
To my left, a once-pink cherry tree lost a branch of blossoms. To my right, a bush burned like in the goddamn Bible.
And in front of me, her.
I dodged a red swell of flame and lunged for her arm. “Come on!”
Her body went rigid. Her heels dug into the dirt.
“It’s time to go!” I said.
The sound of a Copter zips overhead. “It’s time to go,” I say.
“No, no! Leave me here!”
She was crying without restraint. Her chest heaved until the smoke choked her. I took advantage of this weak point and tugged her harshly.
We zigzagged through the garden, tripping over roots and our feet as we stumbled through thick smoke. A wall of flame between us and the Copter blocked our path. I yanked her to the right. We ran until I found an opening— a huge ornamental grass cluster that was stubbornly refusing to char. I shoved her through the reeds.
Fire licked my arms and back as I shouldered through the grass. I emerged blinded and burning.
My eyes opened to the sun. Marco saluted me from the Copter and tossed down a small red backpack. A tornado of dust whirled underneath the Copter’s landing skids as it lifted off the ground. He disappeared into swirling sand and smoke.
Still lying down, I clutched for the backpack with seared and throbbing fingers. Inside were two bottles of water, a handful of protein bars, a small medical kit including cloth bandages and antiseptic, and a note.
She’s gonna be the least of your problems.
So he was toying with me. I coughed and hoisted myself up.
Her golden hair reflected the hot hues of the fire. We watched as her garden— her home— burned to cinders. Even when nothing remained, the fire raged on.
I knew Marco would be back to claim the territory for his troops. “Chloe.”
She didn’t respond.
“Chloe,” I said again.
She stared at the nothingness in front of her and beyond. I didn’t so much as blink when the light left her eyes.
I led her to a cave.
And I asked her to say something.
The garden has since burned out and so has her hope. “We’ll wait until we stop hearing the Copters,” I say. “Then we’ll set out.”
I search her haunted eyes before I ask, “What did your mom tell you to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“You told me she wanted you to stay with the garden. What exactly did she say?”
She bends her head low over the candle as if in prayer. “She said that she wanted to be with her garden. After the disease took her. After she was cremated.”
“I chose where to scatter her ashes. Before he left, my dad got mad at me because he had to go with my brother and leave her behind.”
When I swallow my throat is bone dry. “So when your garden burned…”
“My mom burned, too,” she says. “For the second time.” She shakes her head as a lone tear skids down her cheek. “Look, your captain might take you back if you go now. But I can never leave this place. You have to understand.”
Soot cracks and falls from my face and my mouth curls into a smile. “What if we took her with us?”
“If you’re going to spew something about how she’s always in my heart…” she says, her voice full of warning.
“No, not that.” I pull out the small pea pod from my pocket, the one I had plucked when I first entered the garden.
She stares at it for a long moment.
And then for a moment longer.
“You…” she says.
“Marco won’t take me back,” I say softly. “Not when he finds out what we’re going to do with this little pea pod. Know any other good spots for a garden?”
She chokes out a sob. She cries quietly into her hand for a while. Then she sniffles and swallows and is done.
“Blow out the candle,” she tells me.
“What?” I ask.
“Night must almost be here,” she says. “If the sun is down, the moon will light our way out.”
I breathe in and do as I am told.
I am a student at the University of Minnesota and an aspiring young adult novelist. Starting with my purple poetry folder in Ms. Brown’s second grade class, I have been interested in writing works that an ever-changing student of the world can relate to. Because of this, I have a passion for young adult literature. My favorite authors include Gayle Forman, Stephenie Perkins, and Michelle Hodkin. My life dream would be realized if I joined their ranks.