With the sudden revelation that I wasn’t their golden ticket out of there, the girls grumbled and dispersed, leaving me alone. Except Noelle.
Now that she didn’t have any competition, she perched on the edge of my mattress, her gaze never wavering from mine. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Noelle?” said Scotia, who was still framed in the doorway. Noelle shrugged.
“Probably, but I’m happy here.”
Scotia looked at me, a question in her stare, and I shrugged, too. Noelle seemed harmless, even if the way she looked at me made me feel like I was being tested. I’d had more than my fair share of tests throughout my life, thank you very much. I didn’t need another one at the end of it.
“Fine,” said Scotia. “Make sure she gets dinner. And no wandering off.”
She disappeared into her separate room, and Noelle inched closer to me. “So why are you here?” she repeated in a hushed voice as if she were afraid someone would overhear. Everyone around us seemed to be doing their own thing, but with how close the bunks were, there was no privacy in this place. And the girls close enough to listen had their heads tilted toward us as they remained strangely silent.
“I pissed off the wrong people,” I said shortly. “I take it you did, too.”
“Me?” Noelle’s eyes widened. “Oh—no, I was an Extra. My parents already had one baby, and they couldn’t pay the fines for me, so here I am. That’s what happens to most of us, you know.”
“I know what happens to Extras,” I said, but in truth, I’d never let myself think too much about what my life would’ve been like if my parents hadn’t been able to pay the fines to keep me out of Elsewhere. Before, when I’d thought this place was some kind of paradise where those in overcrowded cities were sent, there was nothing malicious about it, just mysterious. But now that I knew what Elsewhere was—did the Harts really care so little for their own people?
Before she’d died, Augusta had lectured me on why things were the way they were. Overpopulation, a lack of resources to feed and shelter everyone—but now that I was here, now that I knew what Elsewhere was, it didn’t seem like justification. It seemed like an excuse.
“So—what, you’ve never been outside Elsewhere?” I said, wincing as I shifted. My ribs were definitely bruised, but nothing felt broken. Noelle helped me up, and I mumbled my thanks.
“Never,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to, you know—I’ve heard about things like cities and beaches from the other girls, and it all seems so magical. I don’t know why anyone would misbehave and risk winding up here in the first place.”
I opened my mouth to tell her how the government starved the IIs, barely giving them enough to eat—how the Shields patrolled the streets, looking for even the most innocent violations. How they were paid per violation they reported, and sometimes, if it were a particularly bad day, they’d shoot us or arrest us just because they didn’t like the way we looked at them. But the wistful gaze on Noelle’s face made the words die on my tongue. Let her have her fantasy. I wouldn’t gain anything by ruining it.
Besides, compared to this place, maybe the real world was a magical fantasy land full of hopes and dreams and possibilities. At least to people like Noelle, who had never known anything more than the gray walls of Elsewhere.
“They’re stupid,” I said in agreement, gently brushing my fingertips against my left eye. It was puffy and tender to the touch, and I didn’t want to know what it looked like. It was a minor miracle I was even recognizable as human right now, let alone as Lila Hart.
“Oh, your eye—stay here,” said Noelle, and she jumped up and darted into the dingy bathroom. While the sounds of running water filtered into the bunk, I glanced at the other girls uneasily. Most of them stared at me, not even pretending to do anything else anymore.
“If anyone wants to finish the job, be my guest,” I said. Nearly all of the two dozen girls looked away, and several of them formed smaller groups and hurried out into the cold, not daring to look at me as they passed my bunk. I frowned. What had I said?
It didn’t matter. In a place like Elsewhere, there were a million ways to die. I would find one eventually.
By the time Noelle returned a minute later, the room had all but cleared out. She giggled and gently pressed an ice-cold rag against my swollen eye. “It’s not you, you know. Well, it might be, but you seem really nice. I don’t think they’re scared of you.”
“Then who are they scared of?” I said, wincing and taking the rag from her. The cold felt good, even if the pressure made my temple ache.
Noelle glanced toward Scotia’s room and licked her lips nervously. “You have to be careful what you say around here and who you upset. Some people don’t really care anymore, but others—” She hesitated and lowered her voice, even though we were practically alone. “If you can get on the Mercers’ good side, it’s a really nice gig. But usually it takes ratting other people out and showing the guards you’re more loyal to them than the other citizens.”
“You mean snitching,” I said, eyeing Scotia’s doorway. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. Why else did Scotia have her own room and Mercer’s admiration?
Noelle nodded, her eyes widening. “Anytime we do something wrong, the Mercers find out right away. So you have to be careful. There are lots of people who want to be a guard one day—”