The lukewarm iced tea is bitter against my taste buds. I flip the small paper cup upside down so Margaret can see that I kept my end of the bargain.
"Now, let them go." I say. I don't turn to face my frozen group. I don't want to see the look on any of their faces. This was my choice. It was the only thing I could do to guarantee their safety. We weren't going to get away. Her guards have guns. The few who changed their minds, the ones who decided that this world wasn't worth dying over; they could run away because no one was watching them anymore. We could have snuck out the front door when Hanger 07 killed itself, but we couldn't leave without Luke.
Margaret sits stunned. Her face loses twenty-five years as she stares at me.
"Thank you," she whispers, finally standing. She downs her own cup and walks over to me. She wraps her thin arms around my shoulders and sags against me. "Thank you, Emily."
"You're welcome, mom." I tell her, suppressing the shudder at the words. If I were a better person maybe I wouldn't be playing along to her delusion. She's sick. In a better world, I would be considered a monster. However, in the world we currently find ourselves in, what I'm doing is a kindness.
I feel her shudder in my arms and watch as her guards drink, as well. This is the end of Hanger 07. I try not to think about the thousands already dead. I know my mind hasn't had enough time to comprehend everything that's happened. It all happened so fast. I didn't want to be right. When Margaret said, "and then we move on", the single phrase that alerted me that anything was amiss, I wanted her to mean they would move on from me and from the cure. I didn't want to be right. I didn't want everyone to move on, to die just to escape what has become of the world.
Margaret's weight falls against me and I lower her trembling body to the ground. I can hear her breathing. It's hollow. Like her body is trying to perform an action it's done since she was born, even though nothing is coming of it now. Everything inside her is continuing because of habit alone, but the effort is futile. The cyanide is shutting down her body. Just like it did with everyone else.
And just like that, she breathes one final, useless breath and then she's nothing but dead weight in my arms. I leave her lying on the ground and stand.
I turn around and lunge into Shawn's arms. Leaning back, I pull his face toward me and we kiss. I'm so glad to be cured. Having to keep my distance from him was the hardest thing I ever had to do.
"Don't scare me like that again," he says when we pull away.
"What are you talking about," John asks. "How are you still alive?"
I lift the hoodie Amanda gave me when I was in the infirmary. Tucked between my hip and the loose jeans I'm wearing is the plastic cup with the poisoned iced tea in it.
"What did you drink then?" John asks and points to my empty cup. "What was in that one?"
"This was left over from the date Shawn and I had. I found it when I was on the roof looking for you guys. It was old and didn't taste very good but it wasn't poisoned."
"You scared the shit out of me," John says.
"I'm sorry," I tell him. I wanted them to know. Luckily, while I was turned toward Shawn I was able to switch the cups. Shawn was the only person to see it happen. I'm just glad he wasn't in the dark about my plan.
"Can we leave," Luke asks. His arms are wrapped around Jim's waist but his eyes are on the field of bodies.
"Yes," I tell him. "Let's go."
We pick our way slowly through the crowd. None of us wants to step on someone. Jim carries Luke over the bodies. He's hidden his face in Jim's chest and I'm not sure if he'll ever come out again. I don't blame him. I want to look away, too. I want to look away from everything and pretend none of it has happened.
It happened so quickly.
I haven't had a chance to catch my breath.
How did we not know this was the plan? How did we not know this is what everyone here wanted? How can you be part of a large group of people and never even know them. We weren't really part of their group, though, were we?
We stayed above it all on the roof of the main building. We kept leaving, and that was our job, we had to protect everyone. Or did we? If this was their end game all along, if this was always going to be the final result of our stay in Hanger 07, then why did we put our lives in danger for them?
They wanted to go out their own way. They didn't want to be torn apart by monsters. They wanted to die when they chose, in the way they predesigned. There is some kind of strange logic I can see in that. I don't want to die out there, but I'm not about to die in here either. Death is unavoidable. I'm not going to do anything to make it happen sooner.
As we're passing the infirmary, the doors slam open. Dr. Collins is standing there, out of breathe. I'm so relieved to see her. I thought she might have killed herself, too.
"Thank God," she says when she sees Shawn, Jim, Luke, John, Nadine, Joseph, and me – all still alive. "I thought you were dead."
"Did you know this was going to happen?" I ask, walking up to her.
"I knew," she said. "And a long time ago I would have gone through with it, but not anymore."
"What do you mean?" Nadine asks.
"I tried to convince Margaret that this wasn't the right time," Dr. Collins says. "We are going to find the cure, but she wouldn't listen. No one wanted to listen. It was no use. There was nothing I could do to convince anyone else to live."
"A few people ran when it started." I say. "Did anyone else survive?"
"Actually," she says and stands out of the way, motioning for us to step inside. We follow her in.
There are only four people inside: Dr. Melchionda, Amanda, Natalie, and Victoria. I rush forward and hug Natalie and Victoria at the same time. Then I gently hug Amanda, her giant pregnant belly causing me to bend over to reach her.
"I'm so glad you're still alive," she whispers in my ear and I feel tears prickle in the corners of my eyes. We're not very many but the group's still here. Well, almost everyone. Suzy and Jackson still died. Thinking about their deaths is like taking a sledgehammer to the chest. How could we know so little about them? They never even let on that they wanted to die. In fact, they seemed almost hopeful. I see why now. Still, losing them is like losing our grandparents, it still hurts.
"I don't mean to sound rude," Nadine says. "But why are you guys still alive?"
"We were all planning on going through with it." Dr. Collins says. "You changed our minds."
"How?" I ask.
"Things were looking pretty hopeless." She says. "There was no way we were going to find the cure; we didn't know where to look. Then, you came here and you brought with you the answers to everything. This place was a safe haven for the mass suicide. That's what it was always intended to be. People who came here knew what they wanted, at least most did, but how could we go through with that when everything's changed."
"But what if the cure doesn't work," I ask. "Would you still want to die like that?"
"Not anymore," Natalie says. "We couldn't do it, either. I think we got swept up in the finality. The world ended, and Margaret talked a good game, but now, with everything we know and what we've seen, the end doesn't seem like such an unlivable place."
"I thought it was what I wanted, too." Amanda says. "But I'm having a baby. I can't just think about myself anymore. I'm scared, as you must be, too, to have a baby in this world, but I don't want to make that decision for her. I want her to have a chance at life. What kind of selfish mother would I be if I did that?"
"The cure is right in front of us," Dr. Melchionda says. "There is still time for us to find it. I wish we could have convinced everyone else not to go through with what happened out there but we can't and we never could have. People have to make their own decisions, and that decision was the one that felt right for them. However, it's our responsibility to survive and create the cure that will save everyone else. Will you help us?"
"Absolutely," I say. This is a responsibility that was placed on my shoulders the second my parents got involved in making this; even more so when I was infected. And now that I'm cured, I will not stop until I've helped create the cure that will save everyone else. Hanger 07 is gone. Most of the people who lived there are gone, too. But we're still here. In a world where the only solution was mass suicide, we're still alive. That's incredible in its own way. The depth of our will to survive will never cease to surprise and amaze me.
"I have to ask," Nadine says. "Ellie, what happened out there with Margaret?"
"Yeah," John says. "I'm still not entirely sure what your plan was. What did you figure out?"
"Emily," I tell them. Dr. Collins and Dr. Melchionda glance at each other, knowingly. Everyone else just looks confused.
"Emily was her daughter, right?" I ask.
Dr. Collins nods. "Emily killed herself twelve years ago. She overdosed in high school. Margaret didn't talk about it much but she told me some of the details one night."
"You did what you had to to help her, didn't you?" Shawn says.
"Yes," I tell him, tears coloring the words. "And it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
"You made a tough call," Nadine says. "You helped her."
"I helped her kill herself." I say bitterly. I don't think I realized in the moment how much that would hurt afterward. I manipulated someone into committing suicide. What kind of horrible human being does that? "She only took the poison because she thought I did, too. She thought I was her daughter in the end and I called her, 'mom'."
"You saved Luke," Jim says. "She couldn't do it alone and she was going to make Luke drink it instead. Whether or not you actually drank the cyanide you took his place. If you didn't, she still would have died but he would have died, too. You did what you had to do to save my son. I can never repay you for that."
He is right. In the moment, that was all I was thinking about. I don't think I'll ever understand the mentality of the people here at Hanger 07, and I'll never understand Margaret in particular, but I knew that what happened was going to happen regardless of my interference. In the moment, the only thing I was thinking about was stopping Margaret from forcing Luke to drink first. I overheard her conversation with Dr. Collins when I was unconscious. I felt how cold the room felt when Dr. Collins mentioned Margaret having a daughter. Subconsciously, I must have figured out what happened. My adrenaline fueled brain came up with a plan and saved Luke. I know he's right. But that doesn't make it feel any better. I still contributed in her death. It doesn't matter that it would have happened regardless of me.
"How did you even know about her daughter, though?" Joseph asks.
"When I was unconscious, I overheard Dr. Collins and Margaret talking. It sounded like Margaret was trying to convince Dr. Collins to let me die but she wouldn't even consider it. At one point, Dr. Collins asked her if I was her daughter wouldn't she do everything she could to try to save me. I don't know. After that, Margaret changed. If you want to know the truth, I didn't know for sure. Honestly, I guessed."
"Pretty good guess," Victoria says.
"You overheard all of that?" Dr. Collins asks.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that," she says. "If I had known you were aware I would have moved us away from you. That wasn't something you should have had to listen to."
"It's okay," I tell her. "It doesn't matter now."
"Still, I'm sorry."
"Don't be," I tell her. "You stood up for me. You wouldn't give up. Thank you."
"You're welcome." She says.
"I don't want to be the one to break up this little party we have going on here but can we get out of here?" Nadine says.
"Just let us pack up a few last minute things and then we can go," Dr. Melchionda says.
"Not so fast, friends," Amanda says, staring at the ground. "We're not going anywhere yet. My water just broke."