He cuts himself off. Pulls himself together.
“She wasn’t like this,” he says, and he’s staring at the ground now. “Not until she started spending all that time with Warner. After she met him she just— I don’t know what happened. She lost herself, little by little. Eventually she became someone else.” He looks up. “But she wasn’t made to be this way, not like you. Not like Warner. There’s no way she’s the daughter of a supreme commander—she’s not a born murderer. Besides,” he says, taking a sharp breath, “if she were from Oceania she would have an accent.”
Nazeera tilts her head at Adam.
“The girl you knew had undergone severe physical and emotional trauma,” she says. “She’d had her native memories forcibly removed. She was shipped across the globe as a specimen and convinced to live with abusive adoptive parents who beat the life out of her.” Nazeera shakes her head slowly. “The Reestablishment—and Anderson, in particular—made sure that Ella could never remember why she was suffering, but just because she couldn’t remember what happened to her didn’t change the fact that it happened. Her body was repeatedly used and abused by a rotating cast of monsters. And that shit leaves its mark.”
Nazeera looks Adam straight in the eye.
“Maybe you don’t understand,” she says. “I read all the reports. I hacked into all my father’s files. I found everything. What they did to Ella over the course of twelve years is unspeakable. So yes, I’m sure you remember a very different person. But I don’t think she became someone she wasn’t. My guess is she finally gathered the strength to remember who she’d always been. And if you don’t get that, I’m glad things didn’t work out between the two of you.”
In an instant, the tension in the room is nearly suffocating.
Adam looks like he might be on fire. Like fire might literally come out of his eyeballs. Like it might be his new superpower.
I clear my throat. I force myself to say something—anything—to break the silence. “So you guys, uh, you all knew about Adam and Juliette, too, huh? I didn’t realize you knew about that. Huh. Interesting.”
Nazeera takes her time turning in her seat to look me in the eye. “Are you kidding?” she says, staring at me like I’m worse than an idiot.
I figure it’s best not to press the issue.
“Where did you get these photos?” Alia asks, changing the subject more deftly than I did. “How can we trust that they’re real?”
At first, Nazeera only looks at her. And she seems resigned when she says, “I don’t know how to convince you that the photos are real. I can only tell you that they are.”
The room goes silent.
“Why do you even care?” Lily says. “Why are we supposed to believe you care about this? About Juliette—about Ella? What do you have to gain from helping us? Why would you betray your parents?”
Nazeera sits back in her seat. “I know you all think the children of the supreme commanders are a bunch of carefree, amoral psychopaths, happy to be the military robots our parents wanted us to be, but nothing is ever that straightforward. Our parents are homicidal maniacs intent on ruling the world; that part is true. But the thing no one seems to understand is that our parents chose to be homicidal maniacs. We, on the other hand, were forced to be. And just because we’ve been trained to be mercenaries doesn’t mean we like it. None of us got to choose this life. None of us enjoyed being taught to torture before we could even drive. And it’s not insane to imagine that sometimes even horrible people are searching for a way out of their own darkness.”
Nazeera’s eyes flash with feeling as she speaks, and her words puncture the life vest around my heart. Emotion drowns me again.
“Is it really so crazy to think I might care about the girls I once loved as my own sisters?” she’s saying. “Or about the lies my parents forced me to swallow, or the innocent people I watched them murder? Or maybe even something simpler than that—that I might’ve opened my eyes one day and realized that I was part and parcel of a system that was not only ravaging the world but also slaughtering everyone in it?”
I can feel it, can feel my heart filling out, filling up. My chest feels tight, like it’s swollen, like my lungs don’t fit anymore. I don’t want to care about Nazeera. Don’t want to feel her pain or feel connected to her or feel anything. I just want to keep a level head. Be cool.
I force myself to think about a joke James told me the other day, a stupid pun—something to do with muffins—a joke that was so lame I nearly cried. I focus on the memory, the way James laughed at his own lameness, snorting so hard a little food fell out of his mouth. I smile and glance at James, who looks like he might be falling asleep in his seat.
Soon, the tightness in my chest begins to abate.
Now I’m really smiling, wondering if it’s weird that I love bad jokes even more than good ones, when I hear Ian say—
“It’s not that you seem heartless. It’s just that these photos seem so convenient. You had them ready to share.” He stares down at the single photo he’s holding. “These kids could be anyone.”
“Look closely,” Nazeera says, standing up to get a better look at the picture in his hands. “Who do you think that is?”
I lean over—Ian isn’t far from me—and peer over his shoulder. There’s really no point denying it anymore; the resemblance is insane.
She’s just a kid, maybe four or five years old, standing in front of the camera, smiling. She’s holding a bouquet of dandelions up to the cameraman, as if to offer him one. And then, just off to the side, there’s another figure. A little blond boy. So blond his hair is white. He’s staring, intensely, at a single dandelion in his hands.
I nearly fall out of my chair. Juliette is one thing, but this—
“Is that Warner?” I say.
Adam looks up sharply. He glances from me to Nazeera, then stalks over to look at the photo. His eyebrows fly up his head.
“No way,” he says.
“No way,” Adam says again. “No way. That’s impossible. There’s no way they knew each other this long. Warner had no idea who Juliette was before she came here.” When Nazeera seems unmoved, Adam says, “I’m serious. I know you think I’m full of shit, but I’m not wrong about this. I was there. Warner literally interviewed me for the job of being her cellmate in the asylum. He didn’t know who she was. He’d never met her. Never seen her face, not up close, anyway. Half the reason he chose me to be her roommate was because she and I had history, because he found that useful. He’d grill me for hours about her.”
Nazeera sighs slowly, like she’s surrounded by idiots.
“When I found these photos,” she says to Adam, “I couldn’t understand how I came across them so easily. I didn’t understand why anyone would keep evidence like this right under my nose or make it so easy to find. But I know now that my parents never expected me to look. They got lazy. They figured that, even if I found these photos, I’d never know what I was looking at. Two months ago I could’ve seen these pictures and assumed that this girl”—she plucks a photo of herself, what appears to be a young Haider, and a thin brown-haired girl with bright blue eyes, out of a pile—“was a neighbor kid, someone I used to know but can’t be bothered to remember.
“But I do remember,” she says. “I remember all of it. I remember the day our parents told us that Ella and Emmaline had drowned. I remember crying myself to sleep every night. I remember the day they took us to a place I thought was a hospital. I remember my mother telling me I’d feel better soon. And then, I remember remembering nothing. Like time, in my brain, just folded in on itself.” She raises her eyebrows. “Do you get what I’m trying to say to you, Kent?”
He glares at her. “I get that you think I’m an idiot.”
“Yes, I get what you’re saying,” he says, obviously irritated. “You’re saying you all had your memories wiped. You’re saying Warner doesn’t even know that they knew each other.”
She holds up a finger. “Didn’t know,” she says. “He didn’t know until just before the symposium. I tried to warn him—and Castle,” she says, glancing at Castle, who’s looking at the wall. “I tried to warn them both that something was wrong, that something big was happening and I didn’t really understand what or why. Warner didn’t believe me, of course. I’m not sure Castle did, either. But I didn’t have time to give them proof.”
“Wait, what?” I say, my eyebrows furrowing. “You told Warner and Castle? Before the symposium? You told them all of this?”
“I tried,” she says.
“Why wouldn’t you just tell Juliette?” Lily asks.
“You mean Ella.”
Lily rolls her eyes. “Sure. Ella. Whatever. Why not warn her directly? Why tell everyone else?”
“I didn’t know how she’d take the news,” Nazeera says. “I’d been trying to take her temperature from the moment I got here, and I could never figure out how she felt about me. I didn’t think she really trusted me. And then after everything that happened”—she hesitates—“it never seemed like the right time. She got shot, she was in recovery, and then she and Warner broke up, and she just . . . I don’t know. Spiraled. She wasn’t in a healthy headspace. She’d already had to stomach a bunch of revelations and she didn’t seem to be handling them well. I wasn’t sure she could take much more, to be honest, and I was worried what she might do.”