I’ve waited a long time for that, he tells me. And I should have done it sooner. This is fate . You and me. Come on—let’s go. Let’s circle around and follow the road leading out of the township. We’ll go wherever it takes us. There is nothing left for us in the village.
I have spent much of my life dreaming, imagining things that aren’t but could be. It is how I create my art. But this possibility facing me now is something I never dared hope for, that I could go off with this boy I’ve long loved, that we could live a dazzling life in which I could use my art to capture beauty instead of despair. It is heady and wonderful, and I want it so badly. I want to leave behind the darkness of our past and move forward to a future filled with beauty and sound and joy. . . .
Li Wei, I can’t , I say.
Fei . . . you can’t tell me you don’t love me.
You’re right, I can’t tell you that , I agree. Because I do love you. But it’s not that simple.
Nothing could be simpler , he insists.
You said there is nothing left for us in the village, but you’re wrong. My sister is there. I can’t leave her. I stop to take a deep breath and steel myself. How is it possible to have gone from such joy to such sorrow in the blink of an eye? For a moment, I felt like I had the world. Now I feel as though I’m losing it. If you don’t want to go back, I understand. You can go off and find that new life. But I have to go back for Zhang Jing, no matter how difficult.
He shakes his head vehemently. No, we can’t be separated again. We must talk—we must figure this out—
A noise from the forest forces me to quickly turn around. I peer into the depths of the trees, back in the direction we came from. I see nothing yet, but there’s no mistaking it: the sounds of the soldiers. They’re getting louder—closer.
They’ve tracked us , I tell Li Wei. A new panic seizes me, and as impossible as it seems, I’m forced to momentarily push aside all these conflicting feelings for him as survival mode takes precedence.
We probably left a trail as we ran , he says, face hard and serious once more. Which way are they? I point toward the sound, and he studies me for several long moments, deliberation all over his features. At last, he seems to come to a difficult decision. Okay, let’s go back to the mountain.
He takes my hand, and we run once again. The forest thins, and the terrain begins to rise as we reach the mountain’s base. We stop, and he points at something off to our right. The light is fading as dusk sets in, but I can still clearly see what he indicates: the supply line.
You want to get back to the village? That line is the only way , Li Wei says.
That’s impossible , I state.
He smiles ruefully. Look what we’ve done so far. We’re pretty good at the impossible.
The line can’t hold us , I protest. Plus, someone’s going to have to turn the crank to move the line. I don’t think the line keeper’s going to help us.
No , Li Wei concurs, his expression troubled as he gazes toward the line’s summit. After a few more seconds, he takes a deep breath. You’ll go , he states. Alone.
How does that change anything? I demand. It still can’t hold me. I weigh more than thirty kilos!
It’ll be close , he says. But I’ve lifted the shipments sent down the line. I’ve lifted you. The difference is nothing. . . . The line would never hold me, but it could hold you. I’ll turn the crank. You want to get back, and I’m going to make sure you get there.
No! I’m not leaving without you , I tell him.
Fei, there’s no other way.
What will happen to you then? I ask.
Once you’re up, I’ll evade the soldiers , he says simply, as though that isn’t exactly what we’ve been trying to do for the last hour! It’ll be easier with just one of us.
We both know that’s not true. You won’t be able to hear them , I argue. You should be the one who goes back. I’ll hide out here.
It seems impossible that he can be so calm when my emotions are all in an upheaval. You need to get back to your sister—to our people , he says. You’re the best one to talk to them. Once you’re safely up there, I’ll lie low and then find a way either to get back up to you or make my fortune somewhere else.
Although he seems confident about his own chances, I can tell he isn’t. If he takes the time to send me up the zip line, he might not be able to elude the soldiers. And even if he does escape, there’s no guarantee they won’t post watches at the mountain’s base in the hopes of catching him climbing back. With a start, I realize following this course of action means I may never see him again. Going now, following that dream of us running off together in a new life, might be the only chance we both have of surviving this. It is tempting—excruciatingly so. His kiss is still warm on my lips, and the thought of not having him in my life makes a hole open up inside me.
But he is not the only one I love. Zhang Jing is back in our village, along with Elder Chen and all the other people I’ve known my entire life. They are innocents in this. I cannot leave them blind—figuratively or literally—to this terrible fate. They need to know what is happening, what the township is doing to them. The wise ones must be alerted so that they can help find a way for our people to endure.
Li Wei . . . His name is all I can manage to get out. Inside me, my heart is breaking. A shout from the woods causes me to turn in that direction, and a new panic surges within me. I still see no one, but that cry was much louder than before. The soldiers are getting closer. I look at Li Wei, who has deduced I heard something. His face is filled with sadness and resignation.