The soldiers standing in my cell have more weapons than usual, along with gas masks and protective vests. No one dares take his eyes off of me. They really think I’ll do something cracked. I stare at the security cams and imagine what the square’s crowd looks like.
“You guys must be loving this,” I say after a while. The soldiers shift on their feet—a few raise their weapons. “Wasting a day of your life watching me sit in a cell. What fun.”
Silence. The soldiers are too afraid to reply.
I imagine the crowd outside. What are they doing? Maybe some of them still pity me, would still be willing to protest for me. Maybe a few of them are protesting, although it can’t be as serious as last time or I’d probably hear some of it from the hall. A lot of them must hate me. They must be cheering right now. And still others might just be out there because of morbid curiosity.
Hours drag by. I find myself looking forward to the execution. At least I’ll get to see something other than gray cell walls, if only for a little while. Anything to stop this mind-numbing wait. Besides—if June doesn’t succeed with whatever she’s planning, I’ll get to stop picturing John and my mother and Tess and Eden and everyone in my head.
Soldiers rotate in and out of my cell. I know five P.M. must be close. The square is probably filled with people by now. Tess. Maybe she’s there, too afraid to see it happen and too afraid to miss it.
Footsteps out in the hall. Then, a voice I recognize. June’s. I lift my head and look toward the door. Is this it? Time for my escape—or my death?
The door swings open. My guards make room as June enters the cell in full uniform, flanked by Commander Jameson and several other soldiers. I suck in my breath at the sight of her. I haven’t seen June in such clothes before. Shining, luxurious epaulettes draping from each of her shoulders. A thick, full-length cape made from some sort of rich velvet. Scarlet waistcoat and elaborate, belted boots. A standard-issue military cap. Simple makeup adorns her face, and her hair is flawless in its high ponytail. This must be standard agent dress code for special events.
June stops some distance away from me and, as I struggle to my feet, she looks down at her watch. “Four forty-five P.M.,” she says. She looks back up at me. I try to read her eyes, to see if I can guess what her plans are. “Any final requests? If you wish a last look at your brother or a last prayer, you’d better let us know now. It’s the only privilege you’ll get before you die.”
Of course. Final requests. I stare at her and keep my expression carefully blank. What does she want me to say? June’s eyes are intense, burning.
“I—” I begin. All eyes are on me.
I see June make the most subtle movement with her lips. John, she mouths. I glance at Commander Jameson.
“I want to see my brother John,” I say. “One last time. Please.”
The commander gives me an impatient nod and snaps her fingers, then mutters something to the soldier that approaches her. He salutes, then leaves. She looks back at me. “Granted.” My heart pounds harder. June exchanges the briefest look with me, but before I can focus on her, she turns away to ask Commander Jameson something.
“Everything is in place, Iparis,” the commander replies. “Now stop nagging me.”
We wait in silence for several minutes until I hear footsteps come down the hall again. This time, there’s a dragging sound mixed in with the crisp march of the soldiers. It must be John. I swallow hard. June doesn’t look at me again.
And then John’s in the cell, flanked by two guards. He looks thinner and paler than he did before. His long, white-blond hair hangs in dirty strings, and he doesn’t even seem to notice that some of it is plastered across his face. Must be what my hair looks like too. He smiles at the sight of me, although there’s little joy in it. I try to smile back.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he replies.
June crosses her arms. “Five minutes. Say what you want and be done with it.” I nod wordlessly.
Commander Jameson glances at June, but makes no motion to leave. “Make sure it’s exactly five minutes, not a second more.” Then she presses a hand to her ear and starts barking out more orders. Her eyes stay fixed on me.
For several seconds, John and I just stare at each other. I try to speak, but something lodges in my throat, and my words don’t come out. Things shouldn’t be like this for John. Maybe for me, but not him. I’m an outcast. A criminal, a fugitive. I’ve broken the law over and over again. But John’s done nothing wrong. He passed his Trial fair and square. He’s caring, responsible. Nothing like me.
“Do you know where Eden is?” John finally breaks the silence. “Is he alive?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know, but I think so.”
“When you stand out there,” John continues in a hoarse voice, “keep your chin up, all right? Don’t let them get to you.”
“Make them work for it. Punch someone if you have to.” John gives me a sad, crooked smile. “You’re a scary kid. So scare them. Okay? All the way until the end.”
For the first time in a long time, I feel like a little brother. I have to swallow hard to keep my eyes dry. “Okay,” I whisper.
Our time ends all too quickly. We exchange good-byes, and John’s two guards grab his arms to lead him out of my cell and back into his own. Commander Jameson seems to relax a little, obviously relieved that my request is finished. She motions at the other soldiers. “Form up,” she says. “Iparis, accompany the guards back to this boy’s cell. I’ll return shortly.” June salutes, then follows John out of the cell while soldiers approach me and tie my hands behind my back. Commander Jameson disappears out the door.