The safe house was an airy, spacious cabin in the woods that made Marin think of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books her mother had read to her as a child. There were crates full of food in the cellar, though most of it was either canned or reconstitutable, and a decent supply of bottled water, with purification tablets for making more. Lina had done a quick inventory of the supplies and reported that there was enough to last months, longer if they rationed it. Marin was too tired from the long journey and weeks of captivity to listen. Running through the woods and catching out on the train had sapped whatever meager reserves of energy she had left. Half-asleep on her feet, she claimed the smaller of the two bedrooms and slept for almost twelve hours.
For the next few days after they arrived, Lina went to work setting up a perimeter, gathering firewood, unpacking supplies from the cellar, and scouting the nearby area with the intense dedication of someone desperately trying to stay out of her head. Marin felt useless; she didn't have the strength or the training to help. But she did manage to dig up a pack of cards, older and more worn that the security guard's, but still usable. She sat at the table in the main room and spent hours just flipping and memorizing and wandering through her mental art gallery, with her lucky ace of spades in a place of honor by the front door, until Lina took the cards away and said something about post-traumatic obsession.
Much as Marin resented her for confiscating the cards, Lina was right. Marin might put on a brave face, but inside, she had never truly recovered. She stayed in the cabin because going outside put a metallic taste in her mouth and made her heart flutter against the inside of her chest. The smallest noise made her startle. She had nightmares about drowning and bullets and bodies crucified to trees. Mostly drowning. She would wake up coughing and choking and spitting out imaginary water, and then curl up under her blankets and cry for a good long time. Sometimes she debated going to wake Lina up, but she didn't feel as close to the former Syndicate agent as she once had. Books had always been the point of convergence between them, and whoever had built the safe house hadn't thought to include any books or even an e-reader, which seemed like one final twist of the knife.
There was, of course, another thing she and Lina had in common, their betrayal by the people they had once called their friends. Marin still heard the voice of her handler Bryan in her head sometimes, telling her all those lies. The first lie had been the one that recruited her, the one that offered her a family, a place to live, and a chance to be part of something bigger. And she was only nineteen; how could she say no to such an offer from a handsome man promising great things? Then there had been the lies about the work they did, always telling her that the mutilated soldiers and bombings of civilian targets were other organizations, terrorists, not the Crescent Moon.
"We're dedicated to peace, freedom, and the rebuilding of our great nation," he'd told her. And then he'd given her six pages of coded data to memorize, her first assignment. Memorize, take a train to Amherst, and recite it to a man named Shadowfax on the other end. She'd done so, feeling, for the first time, that she'd accomplished something for a cause greater than herself.
She'd had suspicions at first, of course, about why the data was encoded, or why she was never allowed to participate or even know the details of missions. But whenever she'd voiced them, Bryan had given her that look, that pitying, patronizing you're-too-young-to-possibly-comprehend-this look, and God how she'd hated it. He'd told her, gently of course, that maybe she wasn't cut out for this work after all, and if she wanted out, he'd give her a bus ticket and a credit card number so she could start over in a new city, strike out on her own. After all, the Crescent Moon wasn't for everyone, and maybe she'd even be better off doing something else, like working in a library. And then she'd begged him not to make her go, promised to be a good courier and never to question things too complicated for a girl like her to understand. Now she was disgusted at herself for falling victim to such transparent manipulation tactics.
And then there was Tasha. Beautiful, graceful Tasha De Marco, a fellow mnemonist and good friend who introduced her to memorizing cards. And then Tasha had died, killed by the Syndicate, Bryan had said. She'd wanted to participate in an operation to distribute flyers protesting government oppression, and, against his better judgment, he'd let her.
And they'd been ambushed by Syndicate agents. And Tasha had been killed. The sick aching in her chest that Marin had nursed for weeks afterwards had kept her from seeing it, but there were numerous inconsistencies in Bryan's story. She'd seen Tasha's body; the bullet hole was right in the middle of her forehead, execution-style, not the type of wound you'd see from a firefight. And why would the Syndicate use lethal force on unarmed people only distributing flyers? They were cruel and ruthless, but it wasn't their MO to shoot on sight without trying to take prisoners. No, Tasha had been in danger of being captured, and Bryan had shot her in the head to keep her from talking.
She kicked herself for ever believing Bryan and his lies. And judging by the twists of anger that often crossed Lina's face, she was doing the same with regards to Kowalski and her other superiors.
Marin woke up that night, same as every other night, from a dream about Tasha sitting up in her coffin. She wanted her cards. If she couldn't have her books, she at least wanted to feel the stiff, slick pieces of paper underneath her fingers, hang them on the walls of her gallery. Quietly, she rose, folding her blanket neatly at the foot of her bed. Strange animals called from outside the window, and Marin hugged herself as she tiptoed, barefoot, into the main room. Lina had probably hidden the cards in the cellar. It was the one place in the cabin Marin never went. The dark, confined space reminded her too much of the cell.
Taking a deep breath, she eased the door open and descended the staircase, penlight in hand. The boxes and crates of supplies were stacked up taller than she was, and arranged in a sort of grid, like buildings in a scaled-down city. Her light threw dramatic shadows across the dirt walls. She shuddered, thinking of the cell. Thinking of Kowalski, and the water, and the escape …
Shaking her head vigorously, she stepped off the last step, feeling the cold of the floor through the pads of her feet. The cards had to be somewhere here; Lina wouldn't have gone to much trouble to hide them. Marin began checking on top of crates, between cardboard boxes, anywhere you could wedge a deck of cards and forget about them. She wandered deeper and deeper into the cellar, wishing for her ace of spades so much she forgot to be afraid.
A ratty cardboard box in the corner of the room caught her eye. It was in a section of the cellar Lina hadn't gotten around to sorting yet; the seals on most of the storage crates were still intact. The box was bent and warped and falling apart, and through a ripped seam Marin could see something that made hope blossom in her chest like a morning glory after the rain.
Spines. Book spines.
Eagerly, she tore open the box, penlight clenched between her teeth to free both hands. The cardboard flaps came away to reveal the dusty, battered covers of dozens of books. Marin picked one up. The Song of Pentecost. She'd loved it as a child, and the ending had made her cry. Shutter Island, a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator that had had her half-paranoid for the rest of the week. The Far Side of the Mountain—Lina would be ecstatic. All Quiet on the Western Front, followed by No Hero for the Kaiser. Someone enjoyed World War One-era books. Wuthering Heights, The Hunger Games, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Solaris, Red Dragon, Silent Spring, Dune … hardcovers, paperbacks, old, new, children's, young adult, romance, science fiction, ones she'd read, ones she'd been meaning to read, ones she'd never heard of … Marin suppressed a cry of delight as she riffled through the pages of Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, feeling the dry paper brush against her skin, sniffing as the dust tickled the inside of her sinuses.
Marin let out a yelp and turned around, heart threatening to break out of her chest. But it was only Lina, dressed in a tank top and sweat pants, leaning on a stack of crates and holding a compact military-style flashlight. She raised an eyebrow in question.
"B-books," Marin stammered, by way of explanation. "Lots of books." She pulled out another handful. "Um, The Sun Also Rises, Jane Eyre, The Fault in Our Stars, Leaves of Grass, The Diary of Anne Frank …" Putting those aside, she turned back to the box and pulled out another book, a warped but solid linen-bound hardcover. As she read the title, a slow smile spread over her face, the first in weeks. "Well, what do you know."
"What is it?" asked Lina, leaning forward and trying to glimpse the cover.
Marin held up the book so she could see. In swirling gilt letters, the title read, 1001 Arabian Nights.
Author's note: Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed (all two of you). This is probably the first long writing project I've ever finished, and thank you for sticking with me, those few of you who did.
That said, what with the lack of traffic and reviews on here, I'm thinking of retiring my profile and moving to Wattpad and possibly SparkaTale. My username on Wattpad is mousethatroars, and you can also find me on Tumblr under that URL. I'll probably repost this story there as well. So if you enjoyed this, you can go find me there.
All my love,