* * *
The napkin Benjy had drawn for me was still in my pocket.
That discovery nearly pushed me over the edge all over again, and it was only through a supreme act of willpower that I managed to change my clothes with dry eyes. I tucked the napkin in my pocket, careful to fold it along the same lines, and the slight padding was enough to make me feel I wasn’t completely alone.
As promised, Hannah came to fetch me five minutes later, and she led me out the door and into the area beyond it. My cell wasn’t located in the maze of concrete I’d expected. Instead, the short hallway outside my door opened up into a much wider and brighter corridor. I trudged after Hannah, my head down as I memorized the path she was taking.
“This building is the holding area,” she said as we turned a sharp corner. “All citizens of Elsewhere are processed here, and if you decide you don’t want to play by the rules, this is where you’ll end up for however long I deem fit.”
“What are the rules?” I said as we passed through the short hallway filled with nondescript doors. There were no frills or flourishes in this place—it was exactly what it needed to be, nothing more. Even my bare-bones group home in the Heights had had more soul.
“Do whatever I tell you,” said Hannah shortly. “Don’t piss the guards off. And whatever you do, don’t try to escape. No one ever has, and no one ever will. Be respectful, be obedient, and you might just live longer than you think you will.”
“And if I’m not interested in a long life expectancy?” I said before I could stop myself. Hannah eyed me, and her hand crept toward the weapon holstered to her hip.
“Then I’m sure you’ll find a way to get what you want soon enough. Through here.”
She passed her wrist over a sensor on the wall, and a heavy metal door slid open, revealing a flood of sunshine. I squinted, but I didn’t dare shield my eyes. We stood in a snow-covered yard with two guards on either side of the metal door, holding rifles and standing at attention. As soon as my eyes adjusted, I looked around, taking in Section X of Elsewhere.
It also wasn’t the destitute collection of cramped jails and cells I’d thought it would be. Instead it looked almost like a small town, with a main road that ran farther than I could see. The gray buildings were shoved together, but unlike the cluttered feeling of the Heights, every inch of this place seemed to have a purpose. In the distance, an impossibly high chain-link fence rose above the slanted roofs, and I spotted more uniformed guards on a raised walkway surrounding the perimeter, guns in hand.
Every half block or so, a smaller street crossed the main road, and I spotted several men in orange jumpsuits walking down the road carrying metal crates. Beyond them, a collection of women in red jumpsuits like mine lined up at the door of a building, each wearing a bulky khaki jacket that didn’t look like anything that would have ever graced Lila Hart’s wardrobe. None of them were shivering, though.
Guards stood stationed at the entrance to many of the gray buildings, but none so much as glanced at us as Hannah led me down the street. Despite the foot of snow on the ground, someone had cleared the road, and chunks of salt crunched underneath my boots. The men in orange headed toward us, but instead of passing by, they crossed to the other side of the road, giving Hannah and me more space than we needed.
“Are those people prisoners?” I said.
“We prefer the term citizen,” said Hannah, her hand still lingering on her gun. “But, yes, they were either born in Elsewhere or arrested and sent to us. Everyone has a role to play here, and should you choose to cooperate, you can live a decent life. It isn’t as hopeless as you think.”
My only experience with Elsewhere had been a forest where Daxton had hunted down people for sport—not a village where people lived and worked like they did in society. “So, if you get in trouble here, that’s when the VIs and VIIs get to hunt you?”
Hannah arched an eyebrow so high that it disappeared beneath her hat. “Some prove to be unfit for any society, even one as regimented as ours. However, we make every effort to give each of our citizens a chance at rehabilitation. No matter what you think of us, Lila, we’re not barbarians.”
I bit back a sharp retort. As far as I saw it, anyone who allowed another human being to be hunted like a wild animal lost any opportunity they had to be considered civilized.
She led me through the snow and salt at a brisk pace, and I had to nearly trot to keep up. The streets formed a grid—easy to remember and impossible to tell apart with the same gray buildings again and again. Only two stood out: a looming three-story building toward the center of the section, only a few places down from the holding area we’d left, and a pristine white manor in the distance, near one of the corners.
“Mercer Manor,” said Hannah, nodding to the property. “Should you change your mind about living among the general population, my husband insists you’re welcome to stay with us instead.”
“But you’d rather I not.”
“I don’t care what you do, as long as you behave.”
I itched to ask why she hadn’t immediately told her husband I’d been Masked, but the words turned to sawdust on my tongue. I didn’t know the value of my secret here, and the thought of trusting her with it made my insides churn. I had no choice, though, and in the meantime, I wouldn’t give her a reason to use it against me.
She led me down another street, and at last she stopped in front of a two-story building with a 23 stenciled and spray-painted near the door. There were no windows, only endless gray stone, and Hannah opened the door delicately, as if she were afraid it was infected with some flesh-eating bacteria.