ONE WEEK EARLIER …
I roll onto my stomach and clutch the side of the bed, gulping hungrily at the air. The beautiful, fresh, unpolluted oxygen fills my lungs. My blood. My brain. My thoughts come into focus. The gnarled knot in my stomach starts to unravel.
I pound my palm hard against my chest, searching for my heart. Waiting eagerly for its next beat. It feels like hours of stubborn silence pass. My rib cage, an empty chamber.
Until finally …
With a sigh, my head drops forward and I put forth a silent offering of gratitude.
When I look up, my vision has cleared and I can see my surroundings.
The austere wooden furnishings of our small bedroom. Cloaked in slowly vanishing darkness. And Zen. Breathing softly beside me. Lying on his stomach. A lock of dark thick hair flung over his left eye. One arm is tucked underneath him and the other is draped across the bed. Saving my place. Completely unaware that I’m no longer there. That I’ve been replaced by a damp silhouette of sweat.
Still sucking in frenzied breaths, I run my hand across my forehead. It comes back moist.
The light is just starting to break outside, giving the room a faint, ghostly glow.
I eye the empty space next to Zen. The thought of lying back down and closing my eyes again sends my heart into a tempest of banging and sputtering.
I gently rise and walk over to the armoire, easing open the heavy oak door. I slide my arms into Zen’s linen doublet and button it over my nightdress. Zen’s sweet, musky scent on the jacket immediately starts to calm me as I guide my feet into my leather mules and tiptoe toward the door. The floorboards grumble under my feet and I hear Zen stirring behind me. When I turn around, his endless brown eyes are already open, concern flashing in them. He’s watching me, his forehead creased. “Is everything okay?”
“Of course,” I whisper, certain the tremble in my voice will give me away. “I…” But my throat is dry and thick. I attempt to swallow. “I had a bad dream. That’s all.”
I repeat it in my mind. Hoping it will sound more believable the second time around. Knowing the one I really have to convince is me.
Zen sits up. The sheets fall to his waist, revealing his bare chest. Beautifully toned from the countless hours of hard labor he’s been doing since we arrived here six months ago. “Same one?”
My lip starts to quiver. I bite it hard and nod.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I shake my head. But then I see the frustration on his face. His constant need to fix me. And I don’t have the heart to tell him that he can’t.
“It’s no big deal,” I say, breathing the words in an attempt to lighten them. “It was just…”
Ghastly. Horrifying. Real.
I swallow again. “Unsettling.”
I force a smile onto my face. Praying that Zen can’t see my cheeks twitching from across the room. “I’m just going to go outside and get some fresh air.”
Zen hastily kicks the covers from his legs. “I’ll go with you.”
“No!” I say. Too loudly. Too quickly. Too stupidly.
I attempt to cover with another pathetic excuse for a smile. “It’s okay. Really. I’m fine.”
He studies me for a moment. His probing eyes asking, Are you sure?
I’m not sure about anything right now.
But I still find the strength to say, “Don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”
I don’t wait to see if he does. It’s not the battle I want to fight right now—not when there are much larger ones waging in my mind. I simply turn and leave.
Once outside the house, I walk to the highest point on the property. A grassy knoll that overlooks the pasture in one direction and the wheat field in the other. I sink to the ground and sit with my legs folded awkwardly to the side. The sun is beginning its slow ascent into the sky, reminding me that my time alone out here is limited. The earthly clock is ticking. Soon the world will be awake and I will be who I’m supposed to be.
Not the trembling shell of a person I am right now.
I force myself to focus on the sky. On the sun’s determined climb. It happens every day. Without fail. The same arc across the same sky. No matter the country. No matter the century.
The thought brings me a small amount of comfort.
I’ll take what I can get.
The sunrise isn’t as pretty here. It was one of the first things I noticed after we arrived. The pinks are less vibrant. Grayed out. The oranges are more muted. Almost faded. As though the artist was running low on paint.
Zen says it’s because the air is clean. Vehicles won’t be invented for nearly three centuries. Smog makes for better sunrises.
Regardless, it doesn’t stop me from watching.
I wasn’t lying when I told Zen it was the same dream. It’s always the same dream.
They come in the night. Capture me and transport me, kicking and screaming, back to their lab. They strap me to a chair with thick steel clamps that are impossible to bend. A large intricate contraption protrudes from the ceiling. Its clawlike arm, complete with razor-sharp teeth, pries open my mouth, reaches down my throat, and pulls out my heart. Then another machine takes over, working quickly to disassemble the still-pumping organ on a cold, sterile table. Half of it is carved off, placed in a jar, ushered away, while the other half is returned to the claw and replaced in my chest cavity by way of my throat again.
The partial heart settles back into its home behind my rib cage. I can still feel it beating, compelling blood in and out of my veins, keeping me alive. But the process no longer holds meaning. A perfunctory action done out of routine, nothing more. I am now forever incomplete. Half a person. A hollow casket that will be forced to seek the other half for the rest of eternity.
The problem is, dreams are supposed to get fuzzier the longer you’re awake. But this one only becomes clearer with each passing second. Crisper. As though I’m moving toward it. Getting closer.
As though they’re getting closer.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath.
“They don’t know where we are.”
“They can’t find us here.”
“We are safe.”
“I am safe.”
I recite the words over and over again, hoping that today will be the day when they no longer feel strange on my tongue. When I might start to believe them.
“They don’t know where we are.”
“They can’t find us here.”
“We are safe.”
“I am safe.”
But then, like clockwork, the bleak reply comes from the back of my mind. The shadowy version of the truth that’s much easier to believe.
I’m not safe.
I’ve never been safe.
They will never stop looking for me.
I reach down the collar of my still-damp nightdress and feel for my locket, rubbing my fingertips gently over the black surface of the heart-shaped medallion and the swirling loops of the silver design emblazoned on the front.
The eternal knot.
It’s an ancient Sanskrit symbol that, according to Zen, represents the flowing of time and movement within all that is eternal.
To me it represents Zen.
I insisted on wearing it here even though Zen suggested I take it off. Apparently people in seventeenth-century England don’t look kindly upon unfamiliar symbols that can’t be found in something called the Bible—a book everyone here seems to live by. So I agreed to keep it hidden under my clothing at all times.
But right now I need it.
I need it to soothe me. To erase the grisly images from my mind.
I hear careful footsteps behind me and I jump, scrambling to stuff the locket back under my nightdress. My head whips around to find Zen standing there, fully dressed—minus the doublet that I stole—and I let out a puff of air. He tosses his hands up in an apologetic gesture. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
He sits down beside me. Even though the show in the sky is over, I turn my gaze back in the direction of the sunrise. For some reason, I can’t look at him right now. I am ashamed of my weakness. Every nightmare—every fear I let overtake me—is like a drop of poison in this new life that Zen and I have worked so hard to create. This paradise that we promised each other.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks.
I laugh. It sounds about as fake as it feels. “I told you. I’m fine. It was only a bad dream.”
Zen cocks his head and raises his eyebrows. It’s the look he gives me when he knows I’m lying. I cast my eyes downward and lazily pick at a patch of grass.
“They don’t know where we are,” he offers. “They have no idea.”
I nod, still refusing to meet his gaze. “I know.”
“And if they did, they would be here by now.”
I nod again. His logic is sound. If they had somehow figured out that we escaped to the year 1609, they would have appeared instantly. They wouldn’t delay. Which means the longer we live here without seeing one of them, the more likely it is they have no clue where we are.
The only other person who knew we were planning to come to the year 1609 was Rio. And he’s …
I watch his helpless body writhe violently, arms flinging, eyes rolled back in his head, before he collapses to the ground with a horrific cracking sound. And then …
I shake the horrid memory away, trying to fight off the familiar guilt that comes every time I think about him.
The point is, they can’t find us.
We are safe.
The last thought makes me feel like a fraud.
“You need to let it go,” Zen urges gently. “Forget about everything that happened before. I’ll never let them take you back there.”
Before. Them. There.
They’ve become our code words for the things we don’t dare talk about.
That other life that Zen wants so desperately to forget.
That other place where I was held prisoner in a lab.
That other time when science has the ability to create perfect human beings out of air.
Before we came here.
I think we’re both terrified that if we actually utter the word Diotech aloud, they might hear us. Our voices will somehow reverberate through the very fabric of time, travel five hundred years into the future, and echo off the high, security-patrolled walls of the compound, giving away our location.
“Dwelling on it won’t do you any good,” he continues. “It’s in the past.”
I smile weakly. “Well, technically, it’s in the future.”
He bumps playfully against my shoulder. “You know what I mean.”
I do. It’s a past I’m supposed to have forgotten. A past that’s supposed to be erased from my memory. I have no actual recollection of Diotech, the biotechnology company that created me. My final request before we escaped was that every detail of my life there be completely wiped from my mind. All I have now are Zen’s accounts of the top-secret compound in the middle of the desert and a few abridged memories that he stole so that he could show me the truth about who I was.
But apparently that’s enough to populate nightmares.
“Do you miss it in the slightest?” I say, surprised by my own bluntness.
I can feel Zen’s body stiffen next to me and he stares straight ahead. “No.”
I should know by now not to ask questions like this. They always put Zen in an unpleasant mood. I made this mistake several times after we first arrived, when I tried to talk to him about anything related to Diotech—Dr. Rio, Dr. Alixter, Dr. Maxxer—and he simply shut down. Refused to speak. But now the question is already out. I can’t take it back. Plus, I want to know. I feel like I have to.
“But you left behind everything,” I argue. “Your family, your friends, your home. How can you say that you don’t miss it?”
“I had nothing there,” Zen replies, and the sudden sharpness in his voice stings. “Except a mother who cared more about her latest research project than her own family. And a father who left because of it. My friends were friends of convenience. Who else was I going to hang out with when I was never allowed to leave the compound? You weren’t the only one who felt like a prisoner there. So no, I don’t miss that at all.”
I can tell immediately that I’ve gone too far. I’ve upset him. And that’s the last thing I wanted to do. But this is also the most information I’ve ever gotten about Zen’s parents. He never speaks of them. Ever. Which only makes me want to press further, but the rigidness of his face warns me that it would be unwise.
“Sorry,” I offer softly.
Out of the corner of my vision I see his jawline relax and he finally turns to look at me. “No, I’m sorry.”
It’s a genuine apology. I can tell by the way it reaches his eyes.
He rises to his feet, struggling slightly, as though the action requires more effort than it should. Then he brushes the damp dirt from the back of his breeches and holds out a hand for me to take. “C’mon, Cinnamon. Everyone will be up soon. You should get dressed.”
His use of the nickname Cinnamon makes me chuckle, effectively lightening the mood. It’s a popular term of endearment in this time period that we picked up from the husband and wife who own the farmhouse where we’ve been living.
I take his hand and he pulls me to my feet. But he doesn’t let go once I’m standing. He keeps pulling me toward him until our faces are a mere fraction of an inch apart. “It’ll get easier,” he whispers, bringing the conversation back to the reason I came out here in the first place. “Try to forget.” He places his hands on the sides of my face and softly touches his lips to mine.
The taste of him erases everything else. The way it always does. And just for that moment, there is no there, there is no them, there is no before. There is only us. There is only now.
But I know eventually the moment will end. Because that’s what moments do. And sooner or later, I will be doubled over the side of that bed again, fighting for air. Because even though I have no real memory of the former life that haunts me, I still can’t do what he wants me to do.
I can’t forget.
Text copyright © 2014 by Jessica Brody