Or maybe, despite growing up in Elsewhere, she knew my face. Maybe she, like so many others, thought they knew Lila Hart because they’d spent their lives reading stories of her exploits and hearing her name attached to rumors they took as fact. Even here, in hell, I couldn’t escape Lila. Hannah knew I’d been Masked, and because of that, the truth was bound to come out eventually. But until it did, if being Lila still gave me an edge—if it made Scotia want to protect me, Mercer want to shield me from the worst this place had to offer, and if it made Noelle trust me with her secrets—then I was an idiot not to play along.
“You can trust me,” I said, my voice rough.
Noelle beamed and took my shaking hand. “Then come on,” she said. “We don’t have much time.”
Noelle led me through a maze of streets and alleys, around gray buildings that blended together and seemed to turn into one as dusk began to fall. Her grip on my wrist was bruising, but I didn’t protest, and she didn’t bother letting go.
We neared a spot in the wire fence between two guard towers, and my heart began to race. On the other side was another set of gray buildings identical to ours, with only the fence to mark the boundary between them. Before we reached it, however, she pulled me against a wall, hidden in the shadows of the setting sun. We crouched down, and she took my freezing hands between hers, rubbing them to warm them up.
“I was raised on that side of the fence,” she said, nodding beyond the border. “I thought I was going to live there forever. That’s what usually happens—once you’re assigned a section, it never changes. That’s Section J,” she added. “Most Sections are separated by what you’re there for. There are a few of them—M and P are the worst—that are for violent criminals. Section J is designed for Extras. There’s a nursery for babies, and there’s even a school we get to go to for a few years before we start work.”
She smiled as she spoke, her expression lighting up as if she were talking about some kind of fairy tale. But the happiest moments of her life had been spent inside that chain-link fence, among gray buildings and people who never knew what the real world was like. Maybe for Extras raised here, it was a fairy tale. Maybe their ignorance of the possibilities that lay beyond Elsewhere gave them a chance to be happy.
“What’s Section X for?” I said thickly, forcing my heavy tongue to form the words.
“The special cases handpicked by the Mercers,” said Noelle. “The ones they want to keep a close eye on. It could be for any reason—some of us become guards, and some of us...” She hesitated. “The turnover’s really fast. Most people aren’t here for more than a few years.”
“What happens to—” I began, but before I could finish, Noelle held up her hand, and I fell silent.
Near the edge of the fence, a silhouette of a man appeared. I ducked down, making myself as small as possible in the darkness. Something long and thin rested over his shoulder, and when he passed over a light, I could make out the barrel of a rifle.
Instead of shrinking into the shadows with me, Noelle stood, a gleeful smile on her face. She headed toward the fence, all but skipping, and when I tried to make a last-ditch effort to grab her ankle, all I caught was air.
“Noelle!” I whispered. “He’s a guard!”
She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. She paused a few feet from the fence, glancing around to make sure no one was watching, and then stepped up to greet him.
I expected the guard to warn her off—or worse, point his rifle at her and take a shot—but instead, his own stiff posture relaxed, and even from several yards away, I could see a goofy grin spread across his face.
Their fingers snaked through the wire, intertwining with one another, and despite the fence that stood between them, he ducked his head to kiss her between the wires. I held my breath. Only an hour before, Noelle had told me how a relationship between a prisoner and a guard was against the rules—and breaking the rules in a place like Elsewhere meant death. Yet here she was, kissing him in front of me, in plain sight of anyone who happened to be looking their way.
At last they broke apart, and Noelle waved me over. I stood cautiously and looked around, joining them only when I was sure no one was watching.
“Are you crazy?” I whispered. “Anyone can see you out here.”
“The guards change shifts right now,” said Noelle, still beaming. “No one’s in the towers.”
“And they won’t be for another ten minutes,” said the man. He was only a few inches taller than me, and up close, it was obvious he was only a couple years older, too. He still had a baby face, and his wavy brown hair flopped in his eyes despite the hat he wore, but he eyed me warily. “Noelle, are you sure...?”
“I’m not going to snitch on you,” I said before he could finish that sentence. Seeing them standing there, as close as they could with the fence between them—it tugged at something inside me, and my eyes threatened to well up all over again. That was exactly what life with Benjy had been like for the past three months, ever since I’d been Masked as Lila. Close enough to touch. Close enough to kiss. But never truly together. “I’m Lila Hart.”
“I know you are,” he said, a hint of protectiveness in his voice. His fingers tightened around Noelle’s. “I’m Elliott.”
“He’s my boyfriend,” said Noelle, apparently oblivious to the fact that he didn’t trust me nearly as much as she did. “We’ve been together for our whole lives.”