We sat still, our silence speaking louder than we ever thought possible. The table that stood between us stretched narrowly towards both ends of the room, as if wanting to restrict us from nearing one another. Although we were alone, it felt as if the shadows of those who had just left the other seats, were mocking us for staying behind, for believing our loneliness would make our proceeding fate easier to face.
My eyes shifted to him. He anxiously fidgeted with his hands. I glanced back at my feet, tapping a hurried and frustrated melody of angst with them against the ground. I wanted to say something, but all the words that I tried to formulate, stuck to the back of my throat. Each time I tried to force them from my mouth, they churned in the pit of my stomach, creating a mess within me. I felt nauseous and tired.
"It doesn't have to be like this." His voice rang awkward as it broke the quietness that surrounded us. It was too forced and mediocrely loud, but it was a voice I had been so desperate to hear, that my heart jumped at it.
"I know," I managed to croak, the noise that gurgled out of me surprised me, yet, I was grateful I was able to speak at all.
"Then why are we stuck like this? If we both want this to continue, why can't we let it?" His tone was full of an annoyed anger, as if he was trying to compose himself, but also not caring.
"You know why. I'm here, and you're there. Tomorrow morning we'll be on separate trains to separate compounds. We were given choices, and this is what we chose. We chose this."
His stare was incredulous and frustrated, as if my words made no sense to him. Such a stare, like frightful fire, could burn you from the inside out until it showed rosy and bright on your cheeks. He spoke, "We can still choose, Iliana. It's not over until-"
"But that's the thing, isn't it," I cut him off, "This will be over eventually, it can't last forever. Not here and not like this. That doesn't happen. Don't you get it? Our minds have been made up."
I stood up then and without glancing at him, I willed myself to walk out of the conference room and into the bustling hallway. My body felt foreign as my feet dragged the rest of me through the current of bodies and to the door leading outside. When I stumbled through it, I thought I'd be able to breathe, but the opposite happened. My skin crawled as I realized what I had just done, as I realized I would never go back. That this was it. My heart ached terribly, as if someone had wrapped it in their cold fingers and squeezed mercilessly.
My mother had warned me of this, warned me that attempting to live a life before the compounds is foolish and painful, that to do so would not only endanger yourself but those beside you. I didn't understand until now.
"Do you have everything?" My mother inquired, her eyes searched mine for reassurance. Worry lines creased her forehead and crinkled the outer corners of her eyes. It was in these moments, where a motherly anxiety seemed to consume her, a storm brewed within her eyes, making the grey darker and heavier.
"Yes, please stop worrying," I ended with a giggle, hoping to lighten her mood.
"Not possible, I'm a mother, worrying about my children comes with the job." Her sarcasm hung heavily on each word, coating them in a serious playfulness.
After "fixing" my hair for the dozenth time in a row, and complaining about how heavy the bag I wore must be, she stopped. Her eyes finally resting and watching mine. The calm before the storm.
"Mom-" a small smile gently pulled at my cheeks. I gave her an embrace, and it was in that moment I realized I wouldn't be seeing her again, and I hated this more than ever.
"Be careful," she murmured after letting me go.
"I will," I promised because what else could I say, she and I both knew going to the compounds was a death sentence, but there was nothing else I could do.
So I boarded the train, took my seat, and watched as the scenery outside picked up speed and began to whisk by."We chose this" I recall, and as we rolled down the tracks and fear crawled down my spine, it was the first time in months that I doubted those words and countered them with a terrifying question: Did we?
I tried to sleep but every few minutes the train jolted against the tracks shaking away any ounce of fatigue that I had. With a sigh, I reached for my bag and pulled out a granola bar and began to nibble it. But the aftertaste of bile that filled my mouth left me feeling nauseous.
"Psst!" I didn't mind the sound at first until only seconds later, I heard it again. "PSST!"
I looked up and saw a pair of pleading evergreen eyes staring back.
"Are you going to eat the rest of that?" The boy whispered, turning his gaze to the bar I held in my hand.
My head shook slowly in response, an uneasiness gripped me at this strange person who gave the impression he hadn't eaten in days.
I was surprised he didn't take my hand too when he grabbed the the granola bar and shoved into his mouth. In a record time of only three seconds he devoured it until all that was left were several crumbs that clung to his small beard.
"Thanks," he smiled. "Mind if I join you?"
I only shrugged, shifting slightly in my seat.
When he sat beside me, he gave me a quizzical glare and the nervousness in the pit of my stomach grew.
"What?" I snapped, not caring enough to mask my frustration.
"She speaks!" He exclaimed it as though he'd discovered something profound and life-altering… it was embarrassing. I glanced around the train car and noticed others looking back at us.
"Yes, and you shout. Can you keep it down?"
He gave a crooked smile and nodded with a shrug, intelligently deciding not to speak.
For some reason, he reminded me of an elf, everything about his features was pointed and child-like. His ears were like two long triangles on the sides of his face, itching to hear something that would satisfy them, his face was narrow and his figure short and frighteningly lean.
"What's your name?" He inquired after five glorious minutes of quiet.
An exasperated sigh escaped through my clenched teeth and it took all my strength not to yell.
"Iliana..." he repeated, as if testing out the name, seeing if it was any good. "My name's Julian Bartholomew III, you can call me Julian though. It's nice to meet you, oh, and thanks for the snack. I haven't been able to eat much, but I shouldn't be talking about that… don't want to be a bother," he finished with a laugh; well, I thought he was finished speaking, but then he continued. "Hey Iliana, do you know where we're heading; which compound I mean?"
"Um, yeah, we're heading to-"
"I just hope it isn't a horrible compound, or one that isn't secure. I've heard stories of the compounds that have gotten invaded, and those stories weren't like bedtime stories, let me tell you that!"
"Julian!" I screeched, annoyance and frustration piled up quickly, ridding me of any patience I had left. "Just shut up, because if you say-"
He thrust his finger in the air and quietly said, "You might want to hold that thought."
He pointed to something behind me, prodding me to turn my glare elsewhere. Yet when I did, the sight before me chilled my bones and drained every ounce of anger until it sat tangled in a heap of knots in my chest.
I prayed this wasn't the place, but as the trained rolled to a stop the horrifying realization propelled my heart to race quicker. It beat so hard, it was as though it would burst out of my chest and sprint away, leaving me raw and vulnerable.
And as the conductor shouted, "Compound 315!" three words played on an endless loop in my mind,
"We chose this"