“Don’t worry, you’ll be dead soon enough.” She grabbed my arms, hoisting me to my feet with impossible strength. I stumbled, but she didn’t let go until I was steady. “You always so good at making friends?”
“I don’t think they like my face,” I said, eyeing her. She was nearly half a foot taller than me, and the sleeves of her red jumpsuit were tied around her waist, showing off a black tank top underneath. Tattoos decorated her bare arms, which were sinewy and more muscular than most Shields’, and the look in her eyes alone could’ve reduced a grown man to tears. No wonder those girls had taken off.
“You’ll find most people around here have a problem with the Harts,” she said, eyeing me right back. “Don’t accept any supposed ‘special privileges.’ Don’t eat anything anyone gives you. If someone tells you to do something that doesn’t sound right, check with me first. Everyone here’s interested in one thing and one thing only, and that’s protecting their own necks, which almost always means throwing someone else into the line of fire. I’m the only real friend you’ll ever have in this place, so do yourself a favor and don’t piss me off. Got it?”
I nodded numbly, and the edges of my vision started to darken. “I need to sit down.”
“Your bunk’s here.” She pointed to the bottom bunk closest to the door. At least I wouldn’t have to climb through the foot of the bed like everyone else. “I’m in this room right here. Anyone gives you shit, you come find me, got it?”
I eased down onto the thin mattress. It squeaked underneath me, and when I tugged the blanket aside, I spotted a strange brown stain that looked like someone had only half bothered to scrub it. Perfect. “I’m not a snitch.”
“You’re a Hart. That’s infinitely worse.” She crossed her arms. “Get some rest. If anything feels broken, I’ll take you to the infirmary later.”
She spoke drily, without a hint of any real concern for me. Not that I expected her to care. The only person who ever had was dead. “I’m fine. Are you Isabel Scotia?”
“Just Scotia,” she said. “Call me Isabel, and I’ll give you another black eye. Dinner’s in a couple hours, and I don’t care how sick you feel. The last thing you want to do here is voluntarily miss a meal.”
With that, she turned on her heel and disappeared into the tiny bedroom across from my bunk, pulling the curtain shut behind her. I took a deep breath, wincing as my ribs protested, and I let it out slowly. So this was it, then. This was the rest of my life. Sleeping on a stained mattress across from a woman who looked like she’d enjoy ripping me to shreds, while every person I met wanted to see my head on a stake. I swallowed the lump in my throat and closed my eyes. It wouldn’t be any better when I woke up, but maybe I’d get lucky and Maya would return, and I wouldn’t have to wake up at all.
As I rested, my head filled with dreams of Benjy. I could see his smile, feel his fingers laced through mine, and the scent of his soap drifted toward me, bringing me back to the happiest moments of my life. Ones I would never see again. With his name on my lips, I opened my eyes, and a pair of brown ones stared back at me.
“She’s awake,” whispered a girl with dark hair and freckles, and behind her, several others whispered excitedly. I blinked and sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
More than a dozen girls surrounded my bunk, each one staring directly at me. Some looked like they were my age; others looked several years older, but none was more than twenty-five. Most had a hardened look to them, the same one Maya and her friends wore—all of whom were conspicuously absent. But the girls surrounding the bed stared at me curiously instead of maliciously, as if I were some zoo animal on display rather than a member of the family that was likely responsible for where they were now.
It was better than trying to rip my throat out. Probably. But it was still unnerving.
The moment I sat up, several of them scattered, but a few brave ones stuck around, each vying for a better position. The girl closest to me, the one with wide brown eyes, leaned in until I could see the green that ringed her irises.
“You’re Lila Hart,” she said. “I’m Noelle. Did you just get here?”
I nodded, eyeing the others suspiciously. No matter how friendly anyone seemed, I couldn’t forget that this was all a game of survival, and I was in last place. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Kill you?” said Noelle. “Why would we want to kill you? You can help us.”
I frowned. “Help you?”
All at once, the remaining girls started to speak, their words and voices jumbling together in my muddled mind until I couldn’t tell one from the other.
“—of course I was framed, how would I possibly—”
“—want to go home—”
“Enough,” snapped a sharp voice that rose above the rest. Scotia stood behind them in her doorway, her arms crossed and her expression stony. “You see her suit? What color is it?”
“Red?” said one of the girls.
“Very good, Chelsea. And what does that tell you?”
Noelle piped up, her brown eyes still locked on mine. “She’s one of us now. She can’t get any of us pardoned, else she’d get herself pardoned, and she wouldn’t be here at all.”
“Look at that,” said Scotia. “One of you still has a brain.”