By Gabrielle Charbonnet
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MY HEART WAS BEATING SO hard I was sure the United soldiers could hear it. It radiated out from my sore, bruised chest, ricocheting off the unyielding trees, the ice daggers hanging from every branch. The woods vibrated with my heartbeat, echoing life… or death. Life… or death. Over and over.
My hands were numb and I clutched my rifle by instinct rather than feel. With every breath I pulled in, more lung cells froze, iced over, became hard and brittle. I would never recover. Recovering wasn’t even the point anymore.
It was me against United soldiers, and my heartbeat betrayed my position every second.
For the last hour, I’d been holding steady, but in the Resistance, simply staying alive is the lamest possible default. As much as I wanted to sink into the snow, the ice, and into oblivion, I knew I had to act. And the only action that made sense, the only plan that could possibly work, had a price so high that my brain shied away from it like a nervous horse from a rattlesnake back on our farm.
Once more I sluggishly evaluated already-discarded options. Every one of them ended with me dead, the Uniteds winning, and the rest of the camp fatally compromised. I didn’t mind dying—I’d lost that fear ages ago in the Crazy House. Death was bearable, even preferable at this point. Failure wasn’t. The days, weeks, months of incessant, soul-crushing, body-breaking training had ensured that the merest thought of failure was enough to make every neuron in my brain implode.
As I picked up the faintest sounds of heavy military boots crunching toward me through the thin top layer of ice, my mind focused painfully on the one choice that remained. It was unbearable—the worst choice possible—and the only one that might not lead to failure.
Shit shit shit. I had to do it. It was the only way. Gulping convulsively, I tapped the comm on my coat collar. “Beck, come in,” I breathed.
My twin sister’s voice, tired and cranky, came back. “Becca here. ’Sup?”
SEVENTEEN YEARS IN AN AG cell hadn’t prepared me for anything riskier than corn fungus or more difficult than confronting a slacker on my science-a-thon team. The last twelve months had been a one-eighty from my previous life, but the constant that remained had been Becca. Reckless, ridiculous Rebecca. My identical twin. And by identical I mean that we share virtually no similarities except our looks… and a fierce, unbreakable, unshakeable love for each other, no matter what. In everything else—taste in food, clothes, boys, music, weapons—she’s totally nuts.
“I’m on the ridge,” I told Becca quietly, my lips stiff and thick with cold. “I need… I need you to flank east and take out as many of the Uniteds as possible. To give me cover.”
On the other end, Becca was silent. For twenty-seven heartbeats. I knew she was calculating the odds, figuring out the plan, realizing that she was going to be sacrificed for the good of the camp and me. Realizing that I was sending her to die.
Death was nothing, but I was terrified of losing my sister, the only family I had left. Like I said, the worst choice possible. War had put me in this position. War puts everyone in this position.
Becca’s voice came back with only the slightest waver. “Roger that, Cass. Leaving now.”
Becca’s comm clicked off just as I opened my mouth to say, No, don’t! I changed my mind!
My quick breaths were like punches against my breastbone. I tapped my comm again. “This is Cassie,” I told the relay. “I’m heading toward the mountain. United’s hot on my tail. Expect company.”
“Copy that,” said a voice through the crackly comm system.
Much closer now, a branch snapped, sounding like a boulder shattering in these hard, icy woods. The United soldiers were sweeping the area. They were almost on me. Becca should be in place now. Suddenly my cold-slowed reactions burst into animal-survival mode, my muscles twitching, my whole being consumed by a primitive refusal to be prey. It was now or never.
WITH EVERY COLD, CRAMPED MUSCLE screaming, I broke out of my hiding place and quickly took my bearings. I couldn’t see the United soldiers yet but heard them coming up the ridge I was on.
Feeling much, much older than eighteen, I snuck toward the edge of the woods. I’d been motionless for so long that my hands and feet felt dead, making me clumsy, loosening my hold on my rifle. I stumbled against a rough-barked pine, whacking my shoulder, and bit down a grunt of pain.
Then I heard shouts. The first sound of gunfire made me stiffen, whipping my head toward the sound. Oh, God, that was Becca. That was Becca giving me cover. I crouched as I heard a spray of bullets and a choked scream.
Becca! I took an unconscious step in her direction. No, don’t turn back, I ordered myself.
After a few more steps through snow halfway to my knees, I caved and looked back. Through the woods I saw that Becca was still standing, blooms of red like poppies spreading over her white winter gear. She was yelling and flipping the bird with one hand, because of being Becca.
Then a new volley of bullets knocked her off her feet, flung her backward to land heavily on the hard-packed snow. My mouth opened to scream but no sound came out. I clamped numb fingers against my lips as my knees gave way and I sank into the snow. The noise of firing guns bounced around inside my head, making me dizzy. The bullets kept hitting, making Becca’s limp body twitch grotesquely.
My sister. The only family I had left. I had ordered her to die so that I could live.
Gulping down nausea, choking on pointless sobs, I clutched my rifle and raced away from Becca’s blood-soaked body. I’d been trained for exactly this. I would deal with my emotions later. Right now our camp was depending on me. This fight wasn’t over. I ran through the trees, knowing my boots left obvious footprints in the snow.
After everything we’d been through, Becca was dead and I was alone.
BECCA HAD BOUGHT ME TIME and a decent head start, but the Uniteds kept coming, following me easily. Every so often I ducked behind a rock, lay down some ribbons of cover fire. I heard screams and had no reaction to them. Sometimes their bullets struck trees so close to me that hot, splintery shards of bark hit my frozen cheeks, stinging like needles.
The objective should be right ahead of me, right around this—suddenly I windmilled to a stop, going up on my toes, trying to keep my weight back. This should be a United entrenchment, a fortified location for their high-powered weapons. But it was a cliff, a sheer drop-off—all the maps I had were wrong! They’d led me to this cliff, and a long way down was a roaring, frigidly cold river. Goddamnit! How had this happened? Rifle shots shredded trees behind me. Someone had given me inaccurate maps. Why?
Realization seeped into the frozen paths of my brain, and a bitter smile crossed my face. I knew why.
Again, my only choice was the worst one possible: I had to jump. The river below might be shallow, making this jump a suicide. There might be sharp rocks on the bottom waiting to break my neck, my spine, my skull. This might be where it ends. This might be where I failed.
Had Becca died for nothing? Would I get picked off now, so easily?
In war there was no place for emotion. Zero.
“One, two, three!” I hissed, and jumped before I could think myself out of it. I fell for a surprisingly long time and then I hit freezing water as hard as concrete.
SOMETIMES THE HOT WATER RUNS out and you’re stuck taking a cold shower and it feels like a huge hardship. Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re a pathetic, weak loser who should never mention the words cold shower again. Being slammed into this river—there were no words for this kind of cold. I was shocked almost to unconsciousness, stunned, instantly wracked with consuming pain from a cold so cold that it felt like fire. It knocked every coherent thought out of my head and I was dumbfounded when I bobbed up to the surface and my lungs told me to breathe.
Seconds later, bullets hissed with steam as they sliced the water around me. I looked up to see gray-garbed United soldiers at the top of the cliff, pointing their weapons at me. I was still holding my rifle, my fingers frozen around it. With my last effort, I raised my gun and fired. I hit a United soldier, who screamed and fell headfirst into the fast-moving water about twenty yards away.
Well, what was one more? I’d already killed Becca.
The harsh current swept me roughly downstream and I was barely able to keep my chin above water. Hypothermia was setting in—my brain was foggy and I couldn’t feel my body, could hardly remember what I was doing or why I was here. Still, something kept me trying to head to the other side of the river. But the current was too strong. I was freezing to death. Literally.
I had nearly made peace with my slow death when my sister’s face popped into my brain. Don’t you let me sacrifice myself for nothing, she scolded. My ass is dead and you better swim like a goddamn eel to the other side, you hear me?
Becca mad is not a good situation. I moved one arm, then the other.
Swim, you bitch! she snapped.
So I did. Inch by painful inch, the other shore got closer.
Somehow my boots hit the bottom. I crawled upward on the icy sand, dragging myself away from the punishing river. I couldn’t feel anything, except the violent shivering of my body. I was so tired. So, so tired. Tears leaked from my eyes, burning my frozen cheeks.
Dimly, a sound reached my ears. A steady rhythm. It was—a slow clap.
With great effort I pried open my stinging eyes, blearily focusing on the figure walking toward me.
“Not bad, Cassie,” said Helen Strepp.
I LAY ON THE COLD sand feeling like a dying seal while Ms. Strepp made some notes about my death-defying feats. My days of caring about what she thought were over.
“Leaders have to make hard choices,” she said. “Leaders sacrifice the comfort of their souls in order to save others from having to make hard choices. You finally made the right choice, and just in time. If you’d failed again, you’d be on your way back to Cell B-whatever it was.”
“Killing my sister was the right choice?” I mumbled against the sand.
“Yes,” she said crisply. “Obviously.”
A voice came toward me, floating out of the line of trees circling our compound. “Yeah. And I plan to hold it against you for the rest of your life,” Becca said.
I blinked and turned my head slightly to see her. Her white snowsuit was splotched with bright-red blood. More of our fellow soldiers of the Resistance came behind her, a bunch of underfed, overtrained kids in white camo, their arms and faces marred by scars old and new. Many held heavy weapons with ease, showing it was second nature.
I let out a breath, flattening more onto the hard sand. If I’d failed this time, I would’ve never seen them again. Slowly my brain thawed out and started generating coherent thoughts. I was a soldier, just like them. A year ago I’d been a senior in high school in a tidy farming cell that produced feed corn, beef, and smaller amounts of vegetables for the Co-op.
Then Becca had disappeared and I’d set off to find her. We’d ended up at the Crazy House. Months there had broken down everything we had known or believed about our cell, our lives, ourselves. All truths had been dismantled and remade. Among the lessons in survival, killing, surveillance, and endurance, I’d been conditioned not to cry—never to cry.
When we’d gotten out, we were soldiers.
Inhaling deeply, I brushed sand off my face and sat up, feeling about a hundred years old. Now that feeling was coming back, every muscle burned, and I felt sick. Becca knelt by me, her bloody snowsuit inches from my face. Our eyes met and it was both like looking into a mirror and looking past a mirror, through it to another me, another universe.
I started crying silently.
WIPING MY NOSE ON MY wet sleeve, I stood up, ignoring Becca’s helping hand. She gave a wry smile of understanding and passed me a flask of something warm and laced with alcohol: moonshine. It acted like antifreeze, making veins open and blood flow again.
“Finally,” said Sasha, a soldier maybe a year older than me. I handed her the flask and she drank and then said, “Jeez, I was getting so sick of watching you screw up.”
I shivered, my sodden hair dripping down my back, starting to freeze into a hard lump.
“I know it was superhard.” That was Mouse. She was so small and young that she shouldn’t be training as a soldier, but we needed every able body, even skinny twelve-year-olds. Anyone able to hold a weapon was being conscripted into the Resistance Army.
A guy came over and took a drink from the flask. “I was sure you were going to bail on killing Becca,” he said.
I almost had. “Me? No. No way,” I said, trying to inject some strength into my voice. “I knew I had to kill Becca.”
“If you had forsaken your duty, it would have been the wrong choice,” Ms. Strepp said coldly. “And it would have cost you—cost us—everything. These training scenarios are to prepare you for the realities of war.”
Someone moved toward me through the circle of soldiers—Nate. Nate Allen, my… boyfriend is such a stupid word. I don’t know what to call him. Anyway, he got to me and hugged me long enough that the heat from his dry body penetrated through my cold, wet clothes. I almost sighed with relief. When I finally looked up I saw Ms. Strepp’s eyes on me.
“Everyone head back to camp,” she ordered. “The show is over. You have time to run sprints before eating.”
We all groaned and headed back through the woods, automatically taking different paths so as to leave a more confusing trail for outsiders.
“I can’t believe it took you this many tries. There was a time back home on the farm you would’ve gladly killed me for borrowing your truck,” Becca said, walking beside me.
I knocked her shoulder with mine. “Smothering you in your sleep and ordering your bloody death by sniper are two very different things.”
Just then a couple of kids ran out of the compound, screaming, their hands clamped over their mouths and noses.
It hit all of us at the same time, stopping us in our tracks and making us scowl at the couple of rough outhouses that served the camp. Instinctively I quit breathing and pinched my nose shut.
Our pal Diego from the Crazy House came out of one, saw us, and waved, adjusting his pants.
“What’d I miss?” he asked. “Did you kill Becca this time?”
HERE’S WHAT YOU HAVE A lot of in training camp: Pain. Injury. Grit. Adrenaline. Anger.
Here’s what you don’t have a lot of: Softness. Gentleness. Patience. Lightheartedness. Cute clothes.
So when Ms. Strepp announced that we would have a celebration that evening, it took me a few moments to process that concept.
“Our last leadership member has finally passed a crucial test,” Ms. Strepp announced without looking at me. “You’ve all been working hard. Tonight you’ll be rewarded.”
Warm, recognizable food? Check. Sweet, fruity, punchlike substance? Check. Dressing up in fun, sparkly party wear? No. But I did shower.
Recent rains had left the middle of our camp full of frozen, churned-up mud, but we threw down a layer of dried pine needles and danced there anyway. Someone rigged a portable sound system and it hung from a tree, blasting music we hadn’t heard in forever. A cold, full winter’s moon hung low in the sky, casting long, silvery shadows, disguising bruises and dirt, highlighting scars with fine white lines.
The whole camp was dancing in one writhing, disorganized clump, but Nate and I and Becca and Tim tried to stay together as much as possible. The music was too loud, its bass reverberating in my chest and making my ears ring. Someone had spiked the punch—more moonshine—and all of my aches and pains and injuries melted away into the night air. I felt exhilarated and intensely alive. And despite the differences that Ridiculous Rebecca and I had, have had, and will have—in this new, post-cell life of battle and secrecy, violence and fear, there was no one I loved or trusted more. I guess she wasn’t really “Ridiculous Rebecca” anymore—not after the Crazy House. “Reckless Rebecca” on the other hand…
Nate grabbed my arm and spun me around, pressing close so our bellies touched. He smelled like harsh camp soap and I saw he’d worn his least-destroyed camo pants. After Becca, Nate was the person I was closest to. He and Becca’s boyfriend, Tim, had both easily passed leadership training, making hard, life-or-death choices with no hesitation. I was thankful they were with the Resistance rather than the United. Nate looked down at me, his eyes shining despite a darkening bruise on his left cheek, and I smiled up at him and looped my arms around his neck.
“Attention!” Ms. Strepp had to raise her voice three times before someone shut off the music. She climbed on top of a wooden crate and looked at us, these hundreds of kids she’d mercilessly trained and beaten into some sort of a military force.
“Some of you have been here a year or more,” she began. “Some of you have been here only weeks.” A kid got a flashlight and aimed it up at her, giving her a weird, statuelike appearance. “Some of you have a grasp on the broader picture of what we’re facing, and some of you have simply learned to shoot.” Her eyes, always frosty, raked over us. “But enjoy yourselves tonight. Feel young, feel free, feel hopeful. It’s perhaps the last time you’ll feel any of those things.”
I frowned—this wasn’t the cheerful, “Go get ’em!” speech I was expecting.
“Tomorrow, and every tomorrow after that, will be uncertain,” she said. “Starting tomorrow, we will officially be at war with the United. We will be on the path to overthrow them, to seize their power, to topple their leaders. It will be the only path we know, and we’ll stay on it until we succeed—or die.”
My buzz was wearing off and my dance-fever warmth had ebbed, leaving me chilly.
“My troops, my comrades-in-arms, my soldiers—we will be free!” She punched her fist in the air and shouted it again. “We will be free!”
The rest of us took up the chant, punching the air and yelling, “We will be free! We will be free! We! Will! Be! Free!”
NODDING AT US IN SATISFACTION, Ms. Strepp jumped down from her box. Within minutes we were dancing wildly again, throwing off our coats, putting our hands in the air, and letting every instinct of life move us to the rhythm of the pounding songs. While we’d been in training, every moment had been controlled, focused, dedicated. This was the one night to let loose.
Thank God Careful Cassie had finally passed the last leadership test. I mean, good lord, what was so hard about it? After the last three months of training, she should have been like, Kill Becca? Sure! No prob. The last three months had made our stint at the Crazy House look like a goddamn spa.
“Here.” Tim handed me a cup and I took a sip, then smiled.
“Spiked!” I said, draining it. We headed back to the dance area and leaned together, arms wrapped tightly around each other, and swayed slowly to some sappy song about how love was like a walk in the rain.
“You feel good,” he murmured against my hair. I rested my head on his shoulder, glad I’d taken the time earlier to get most of the tangles out of my hair. A lot of girls here had gone the crew cut route: easier to care for, keep clean, and gave enemies nothing to grab. So far Cassie and I had both resisted, but I was weakening.
“You know what?” I said into his muscled chest. “I hope when we’re out fighting, we’ll find one of those non-cell towns Strepp told us about. The ones with the big houses and fancy cars.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Take it over, raid their food. Medical supplies.”
“Do you believe all that stuff she told us?” I asked. “All those pictures and videos of people with so much… stuff. And everyone in the cells with barely enough to scrape by? It just seems crazy. Not real life.”
“I guess I believe it,” he said slowly. “I want to think we’re fighting for something.”
For seventeen years, Cassie and I had lived in a regular ag cell, going to school, helping on our parents’ farm. It had been boring as hell. Now, with the whole United ahead of us, our army rushing out to meet whatever, I was too excited to feel fear.
Tomorrow, everything—my life—would really begin. This party, this celebration, felt like the last night on earth as we knew it. Slowly I edged us over to the food table, where I refilled our cups. He threw his back and I finished mine in three gulps. Grinning at each other, we rejoined and clung together, barely moving our feet.
“Tomorrow we’re getting our assignments,” he said. “Strepp has been dropping hints for weeks.”
I nodded. “Fingers crossed that the four of us end up on one team. She has to keep us together.” Cassie, Tim, and Nate had my back, without question. We would fight more effectively as a unit. A unit of trust.
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” he said, stroking my back. “All the shit we’ve gone through, the pain, the injuries—it’s all been leading up to tomorrow.”
“I know,” I said. “Strepp better make it worthwhile, that’s all I’m gonna say.” Reaching up, I wound my arms around his neck.
“Let’s sneak away,” I whispered, going on tiptoe to reach his ear.
He looked down at me, his fair eyebrows—one split in half—raising. “Out into the snow?”
I grinned. “You can keep me warm.”
He smiled back, doing a decent wolf impression, and we slipped past the trees and out into the darkness. The world—our world—might end tomorrow. But tonight I was going to live.
ANOTHER SLOW SONG CAME ON and we all groaned at its corny lyrics. Nate pressed me closer, and I loved the way he felt.
If only it could be like this forever, I thought dreamily. Not just me and Nate, but Becca and Tim, too. Sticking together. Living next door to each other. The four of us just seemed… right. Like we were linked. Supposed to be together. It was trust, I decided. We all had the ultimate trust in each other.
“Let’s go out where it’s dark,” he whispered in my ear.
“Why?” I asked, not wanting to move. “It’ll be cold out there.” I snuggled closer to him and let my eyes drift shut.
“I’ll keep you warm,” he promised, and took my arms from around his neck.
After the warm crush of bodies on the dance ground, the woods were super dark, oddly quiet, and, as I predicted, freezing. The cold caught my breath.
“I need my coat,” I said.
“Come here,” he said, and wrapped his coat around both of us. His chest was lean and hard, and his arms around me felt like steel bands. Had it been just this morning that I’d almost frozen to death, almost drowned?
Lowering his head, he kissed me. I tilted my head and opened my mouth, deepening our kiss, wanting this to never stop. A flame of happiness sparked into life in my heart and grew steadily. When was the last time I’d felt happy?
Maybe… maybe the last time had been before my dad had shot himself? That was more than a year ago. That was a long time to go between feelings of joy.
We ended up on the snowy ground, with Nate bearing the discomfort of the cold earth and me on top of him. I held his face in my hands and kissed him over and over, feeling his thick hair in my fingers, a ridged line of scar tissue on his skull from some fight.
Finally he pulled away, holding my face, looking at me. A thin shaft of moonlight wove through the dense trees and lit the side of his face, showing his beauty, the movie-star looks I’d always sneered at in high school.
“Tomorrow we’re going to get our assignments,” he said quietly, an intense expression on his face. “We don’t know where we’re going or what we’re gonna face. We don’t know if we’re coming back.”
I sat back, straddling his hips, keeping my hands on his chest, aware of his breathing. “We’ve been on this road for a year,” I said. “We’ve always known we might die. I mean, if there’s one thing the Crazy House taught us, it was that we were gonna die, and probably die young. But we’re prepared, and we’re alive and together now.”
He stroked his hands along my cheekbones, as if memorizing the feel of my face.
“Yeah,” he said, and then, “Cassie—I want to marry you. If we die tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, I want to know that we were married, that we belonged together. Forever.”
Praise for the Crazy House series:
New York Times bestsellers!
An IndieBound bestseller!
"Action-packed fight scenes, flickers of romance, and Patterson's
signature speedy chapters should satisfy teens who like their suspense
served with a side of political revolt."—Booklist
"The compelling plight of the sisters...in the prison setting is gripping stuff."—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"A welcome reveal sets the story in a promising
direction for future volumes. This title will be in high demand."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Feb 9, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- JIMMY Patterson Books