Roman was the one to switch the radio off. I didn’t have it in me to move. Didn’t have a thought in my head, not at first. There was just this feeling like a balloon at the center of my chest, and I thought if I did anything at all in that moment I might actually burst.
But, somehow, the others’ twin looks of concern were worse.
“I’m going to use the bathroom,” I mumbled, popping the door open. The air was drenched with the smell of grass and the days-old garbage spilling out of the trash bins. I started for the women’s restrooms, only to double back. My body seemed to know what my mind wanted before it did. I opened the trunk and took out the small first-aid kit, bringing it inside with me.
The sensor lights switched on, filling the filthy restroom with harsh light. I stood in front of the cracked mirror, and the girl I saw through the fractures, through the scrawl of graffiti—I didn’t recognize her.
The kit that Ruby or Liam had packed contained various over-the-counter medication, bandages, and a pair of small sharp scissors. I took out the scissors and set them on the edge of the sink, staring at them like they could tell me my own thoughts.
“Am I about to witness a makeover montage?” Priyanka asked from the doorway.
I looked over. “I should…disguise myself, right? My face is all over the news….”
And I’m not her. I wasn’t Suzume Kimura, spokesperson for the interim president. I wasn’t Suzume Kimura, daughter of a state assemblyman. I wasn’t Suzume Kimura, leader of the Psion Ring.
I was just Zu.
“Unless you’re planning on mutilating your face with those blades, a haircut isn’t really a disguise….” Priyanka cocked her head to the side. “I would say bleach it, maybe, but that would fry your gorgeous hair and make your scalp feel like you’ve dunked it in a fiery hell pit. Not that I speak from personal experience, of course.”
There wasn’t a more elegant way of putting it. “I think…I just want to look different.”
I felt hollowed out, like all the ornamentation and training had been shaken off me. I wasn’t that little girl I’d seen in the photo from Haven, captured in a single carefree moment. But I wasn’t the polished, pretty girl on the news, either. As hard as I’d tried to be.
“Is that ridiculous?” I asked her.
Priyanka came toward me, her expression contemplative. “No, it’s not. The only way to live is by following whatever message your heart is beating out for you.”
“Did you read that on a greeting card?” I asked.
“No, on some kind of blood pressure medication ad,” she admitted, “but it doesn’t make it any less true.”
I turned back toward the mirror and picked up the scissors again. That first soft snip cut through the restless buzz that had been moving through me, momentarily stilling it.
“Dang, you aren’t playing,” Priyanka said, delighted. “How short are you going?”
I showed her, gathering a few inches in my hand and cutting just below my chin. The long strands fell into the sink, curling around the drain. I stared at them until I wasn’t seeing my hair, but a chunk of someone else’s scalp. My vision shook along with the rest of me.
“Why don’t you let me finish?” Priyanka suggested quietly, taking the scissors from me. She turned on the water and wet her hands, running them through my hair again and again until the tangles were gone, along with any last trace of dirt and smoke-scent.
I noticed the tattooed outline of a dark blue star on her wrist again, but before I could ask her about it, Priyanka demonstrated where she was planning to cut. “You want it that length, right?”
It was about an inch beneath my chin. I nodded, murmuring, “Thank you.”
Weaving my fingers through each other, I clasped my hands together in front of me, squeezing until I couldn’t feel them shaking anymore.
“No problem, I live for this,” she said, snipping away. “When I see people upset, I just start grooming them until they feel pretty again. Roman won’t let me near him with scissors. I used to cut Lana’s hair all the time but…now I only ever get to do my own.”
“Roman doesn’t let you cut his hair?”
She met my gaze in the mirror. “Do you think I’d let him wear it so scruffy if I had a choice? But, no, it’s a thing with him. Always has been. I don’t know. Friendship is weird. I think it only works when you finally figure out what buttons you have to push to help them and what buttons are triggers that’ll only hurt them.”
“Are you my friend?” I hadn’t meant to say the words, and I could hear that unbearable loneliness rooted in them.
Priyanka’s hands stilled. “Of course, Sparky. I liked you from the jump, pretty much against my will. You’re a great lesson in not judging a book by its government-groomed cover.”
She leaned down until her face was next to mine in the mirror, giving me a devious little grin. I returned it with a tremulous one of my own.
The quiet snip, snip, snip of the scissors was soothing, almost hypnotic. As each long strand fell away, I no longer felt that anxious tug that was trying to pull me apart from all directions.
When she finished, Priyanka put a comforting hand on my head, running her fingers down through my wet hair again.
“Are you all right?” she asked, serious this time.
All right had become relative.
“I don’t know why it still gets me so upset,” I said, my throat aching. “It shouldn’t. I hate them—I’ve hated my parents for years. It wasn’t even just what they did to me, it was what they didn’t do. Even after the camps fell, I kept thinking…maybe? Maybe now? They’ll have seen that I was a good girl, and that I wasn’t a danger to them. But they never came. They never called. Not until they needed me.”
“What happened?” Priyanka asked. “What did he mean when he said Cruz intervened on your behalf?”
It had been the one rule Cruz had been willing to bend for me, and I’d felt guilty about it for years now—I’d felt like I owed it to her to do whatever she asked in return.
“You know how there was a policy put in place for reclaiming kids after the camps fell?” I asked. “Many of us were teenagers, a good number older than sixteen, and most felt like they shouldn’t necessarily have to go back to parents who had turned them over to the government in the first place. Who had made them feel unwanted.”
“I can understand that.”
I nodded. “The UN and Cruz’s people felt strongly that parents still had legal claims on those of us under eighteen. The compromise was that, if the parents didn’t come to claim their kids, and their kids didn’t want to go back, they wouldn’t force the issue. Parents would be allowed to file claims of guardianship at any point, but in the interim, the government would re-home them.”
Something flickered in Priyanka’s expression when I said that.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” She shook her head.
I watched her for a moment, waiting to see that same hesitation again. It never came. “Well…for a number of years, I lived with a friend—Cate—and the other kids she’d been looking out for. Then one day, I got the call. My parents wanted me. They wanted me. They applied to restore their guardianship and sent a letter to me along with the paperwork, saying how sorry they were, how frightened and confused they had been. My cousin, Hina, and her parents had been pushing me for years to try to talk to them. But I didn’t want to go. Not really. The last time I’d seen them, they’d been so angry with me—I’d caused a horrible car accident in the middle of a busy highway, and it almost killed my mother.”
“Shit,” she breathed out.
I nodded again. “But…I had to set a good example. I had to show other kids that this could be a fresh start for all of us, and old wounds could be healed—insert whatever clichéd phrase you like there. I went. I got in a car, and I was driven to Falls Church with all of my things. We were about two miles from the neighborhood when I saw the first sign.”
“A Stop, Don’t Come
Any Closer, These People Are Bullshit sign?”
“Kimura for Delegate. A Better Tomorrow with Kimura.”
Priyanka caught on quickly, and I loved her for her look of complete outrage. At the time, I’d felt like maybe I was making too big a deal out of it, that it was just a coincidence. It had been Agent Cooper driving me that day. He’d realized what was happening and had offered me the choice that no one else had. He’d risked disciplinary action over it.
“We parked a ways back from the house because we had to. There were so many news vans parked up and down the street. A nice little crowd, too. Everyone was waiting. He even had a banner hanging over the house’s garage door: Reuniting our families, reclaiming our future!”