A flash of light against her closed eyelids brings Zoey up out of the limbo between sleep and waking.
If she could stay there, in between dreams and reality, she would, but there is no use trying. She stands, stretching her arms above her head, feeling the coldness of the concrete floor begin to leach the heat
she’s gathered while sleeping. A hint of sickness roils in the base of her stomach. Her slippers are under the bed, and she puts them on before moving to the window.
It rained again in the night. A few streaks made it past the stark overhang that juts above the unbreakable glass, staining its exterior in slashes of transparent scars. The concrete beyond the window is dark gray, moist but already drying into pooled splotches dotting the promenade that circles the building. Beyond the walkway’s gap is the curving wall that stretches up and nearly out of sight from her third-floor view. Atop the wall, a sniper shifts in his nest, readjusting himself to a more comfortable position, his rile scope a bright wink of light as he
turns. A lash like that is what woke her. She wonders if sometimes they look in the women’s windows, trying to catch sight of them changing, perhaps. It is forbidden, but the thought of the possibility lingers like
a bad dream. Zoey swallows, placing her hands against the glass that’s as cold as the concrete floor. Her breath fogs the area in front of her face, and she draws a circle there. Inside the circle she makes seven dots with the tip
of her finger, one for each of the remaining women, then swipes the last dot away. Tomorrow, only six.
She turns from the glass, surveying the room. The softness of her bed is incongruent with the rest of the space. There are no gentle lines anywhere else. Everything is ninety-degree angles and harsh edges. The corners of the small desk bolted to the wall. The solid steel door leading into the tiny bathroom—no lock on it, of course. The windows to the outside shaped in a T, breaking the drabness of the room by letting in the gray light of day. Everything sharp and unforgiving.
The shower is hot, the water the only thing that’s ever warm except for Lee’s hands. Zoey recalls the times he’s touched her back, so discreetly, always at a perfect angle to avoid the cameras. She thinks of his face, the freckles sprinkled across his nose and cheeks like the constellations in the sky at night. The thought of his smile creates a warmth that blooms inside her and grows with the fantasy of his hands on her skin, teasing, caressing. She stiffens with the memory of what is to come today, and the flame inside her cools.
She tugs at the rubber bracelet around her wrist, washing beneath it with soap because at times it can begin to smell of sweat. It gives only enough for her to get a single finger beneath it. She’s pulled on it
before, hard, and knows there are wires hidden within the rubber casing that assist whatever mechanism unlocks the door to her room when entering, but there is no scanner on the inside that allows her to leave.
Zoey steps from the tiny shower and dries herself on one of the towels that she’s folded countless times. She brushes her teeth, scrubbing away the sour taste and replacing it with the bitter tang of something that’s supposed to be mint but isn’t. She knows what mint tastes like, from the chewing gum she’s not supposed to have.
She wipes the steam from the small mirror over the sink and sighs.
Her hair. What to do with it? “Unmanageable” is a kind term for the long, dark curls that seem to have a mind of their own. She tries sweeping it to one side and securing it with a thin clasp, but it pulls free and dangles over her face almost immediately. She frowns, changing tactics, and draws it straight back, tightening it into a ponytail before winding an elastic tie around it. She gives herself a last look and leaves the bathroom.
Zoey dresses in rough cotton pants the color of the early morning light, then pulls on a shapeless top, which hangs down to her narrow hips. She’s given up looking in the mirror in the bathroom in regards to her clothing. There are only two styles to choose from. She has one on and knows she’ll wear the other later that day.
A tremble runs through her that ends in her center and curls there, making the slight nausea she woke with worsen. She tries not to look at the digital calendar above her desk but does anyway. It’s the bright-
est and most prominent object in the room, with its glowing numbers that shine too bright even when the contrast has been turned down. The date is important, almost as important as the rules. It’s the first thing that is taught: the months and days, numbers to form dates, those are what are supposed to be remembered. She can still hear Miss Gwen’s voice through the years that have passed since their very first lesson. She remembers standing before her, no more than four years old and afraid, the instructor’s pert dress like a bell above her flat-soled,
black shoes. he older woman seems not to have changed at all in the last sixteen years. Miss Gwen is like the calendar, a constant fixture, always reminding, chiding, telling them that they are special, that they
are hope. Telling them that their lives are not their own but belong to the greater good.
How much is a life worth?
This question is the first that enters Zoey’s mind each morning, and it is the last she thinks before falling off to sleep every night. Can a price be put on such a thing? And if it could be, would one ever be
able to pay it?
She reaches out, wishing she could smash the protrusion of the calendar off the wall but knows they’ll just put another up, and an act like that would earn her time in one of the boxes. She’s never had to go inside but knows she doesn’t want to. There are some things in life that don’t have to be experienced to form an opinion of.
A quiet scratching comes from the window and she spins, her breath catching in her chest. Zoey hurries across the room, grabbing the chair from her desk to set it beside the glass. She peers out at the closest sniper,
but the angle is enough to hide her from his sight. She places her fingers in the joint of the right side of the smallest pane that creates the top of the T. It is only eight inches tall by two feet long, but it is heavy, bonded
in place by some material that has hardened over the years since the Advance Research Compound was built. But with the time, like most things, it has cracked around its border. Enough so that a fingernail can be inserted, causing the gap to widen over weeks and weeks of worrying.
Zoey listens for sounds of footsteps in the hall outside her door, over the thud of her excited heartbeat, but there is only silence. It’s still early, and Simon won’t be waiting for her for another half hour. She has time.
She presses against the right side of the pane, and there’s a soft squeak as the entire piece of composite glass shifts. She turns it until she can grasp its closest end before drawing it out of its frame. Cool spring air courses into the room, bathing her face with dampness left over from the night. She shivers, partially from the cold but mostly from happiness. Could he finally be back? She tosses the glass onto her bed, where it bounces once without a sound, and leans forward to gaze into the small alcove set outside her room on the face of the compound.
The space isn’t large, barely ten inches across and five inches deep, but it is recessed in such a way that it stays dry from the rain and can’t be seen unless someone were to remove the window just as she has. And since the bedrooms are the only places in the compound that don’t have cameras, no one knows that the window can be extracted.
Zoey stretches up farther on the chair, tilting her head so that she can see the entirety of the alcove.
A lone, dry leaf scratches against the concrete, nudged by the wind.
Disappointment courses through her. There is no downy, brown owl waiting for her, and there hasn’t been for several months.
Excerpted from THE LAST GIRL © Copyright 2016 by Joe Hart. Reprinted with permission by Thomas & Mercer. All rights reserved.