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DROUGHT
by Pam Bachorz

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

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“Please. Wait. I’ve been hoping you’d come to the cisterns after . . . but . . . you haven’t.” He takes another step forward and turns a bit; now I can see his face. He is staring at his hands, which are squeezing the brimmed cap that often shades his eyes.

“I have to go back there soon. But only to pray . . . nothing more.”

“Why haven’t you come?”

“We can’t be anything to each other, Ford.”

“No. That sucks.” He slaps his hat on his thigh and his other hand forms a fist.

“I’m a Congregant. A prisoner. And you . . .”

“I keep you that way. Yeah.” He lets out a long sigh, then looks back at Ellie’s grave. “I couldn’t even help her.”

“Me either,” I say softly.

“What were you doing with that tree?” he asks.

A sour taste fills my mouth. What did he see? “Planting it for Ellie,” I say.

“No—after. You cut yourself.” He reaches for my arm.

Everything slows and the world goes silent. Run, I tell myself. Run, before he learns your secret. Or at least one of them.

But I stand there, frozen—or perhaps just unwilling to go—and I let him take my hand. He lifts it carefully, turning my arm gently sliding up the sleeve so he can see where I cut myself. He runs one finger softly above the cut, not touching it. The path of his skin against mine feels warm.

“I guess it’s like fertilizer, adding blood to new plantings,” he says, running his finger over my skin again.

I can only nod.

“Does it work?” he asks, glancing at the tree.

Relief, sweet and cold, unties my mouth. He’s not discovered my blood’s secret, not really.

“It works,” I answer.

“I hate seeing you hurt.” He bends, slightly, and drops the faintest kiss on the scratch.

“I’ll heal,” I tell him. Gently, I slide my arm away. I rub the spot where he kissed it—it’s still tingling.

“Look. I have an idea,” Ford says. I can smell him: the metallic tang of sweat, but that clean smell too, the one that makes me want to bury my face in his shirt.

“This can’t happen,” I tell him.

“Just give me five minutes. Two minutes, even,” he begs.

“Just . . . just one,” I say. He’s so hard for me to resist.

“Run away with me. Please. I can get you far away from here,” Ford says.

He slides his hand down my arm, gentle, and then laces his fingers in mine.

As if it belonged to someone else, my free hand reaches up and lands on his chest, on that soft clean-smelling shirt. I spread my fingers wide. It feels as if warm rock lies beneath the fabric.

“I’d keep you safe,” he whispers.

Maybe he would. But questions race through me. Who would I become, if a man took me from here? Would he own me, only in another way?

Like the other night, our faces draw closer together. But this time I don’t pull back, even though I know I should. A bigger part of me wants this.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

Then he closes the last tiny space and touches his lips to mine. His lips feel dry, and plump. A thousand tiny thrills run down my body and leave behind prickling points of sensation. My body feels like an entire starry sky.

I edge a little closer. He slides a hand behind my head. We kiss again, and this time there is no hesitation or space between our lips. Finally I have to pull back to draw in a breath.

Maybe I don’t need answers. Maybe I should run first, and find them later.

But Ford has his own questions. “That Jonah kid . . .” he says.

“Why do we have to talk about him?” I sigh.

“You with me for me . . . or because I’m not him?” he asks.

How do I answer him? I know I don’t want Jonah. But do I want Ford because he’s other? Or because he’s Ford? I’m not sure.

For an answer, I put both my hands on his face, and give him the tenderest of kisses. But then he shifts, and I hear the jingle of the chain in his pocket.

It is a faint sound, one that maybe a normal person wouldn’t even hear. But a Congregant must jump for the chain, away from the chain. My lips freeze against Ford’s.

He pulls away and looks around. “What is it?”

I can’t. I can’t be with him as long as he’s an Overseer and I’m a Congregant. I can’t trust an Overseer to help me.

“I thought I heard something,” I lie. “It was probably only a fox.”

I have to remember: I am the leader, now. I’ve sworn to free us. That’s what I have to do right now. There’s no room for romance, like Mother says.

I have to trick him.

I look up at him and smile, willing my lips not to tremble. “How would we leave?”

“At first, I thought my truck.” Ford pulls back a bit but keeps his eyes on me. “But then I remembered . . .Overseers have to search each other’s trucks, when we leave.”

“For Congregants?”

“For Water, I think. You can’t take any liquid away from here.” He looks away as if embarrassed. “But we could still take my truck. I’ll just park it off the property and we can walk to it.”

“The woods are guarded at the edge,” I say. “And there’s fences.”

“True. But . . .” Ford looks around and lowers his voice, so soft I can barely hear him. “I know a place where we could slip through.”

He slides his hand up and down my back, the barest of touches leaving behind a burning trail. My heart is pounding, but I know I have to do right by the Congregation.

I have to find this place.

“Where is it?” I breathe.

“It’s not far from here. If you go about a mile that way—” he jerks his chin. “There’s a tree right by the fence.”

I haven’t climbed trees since I was tiny—since the Overseers thought I was risk enough to watch closely. But I was good at that, I remember.

“Can you climb?” he asks. “In your skirts and all. I mean . . . not that I’m asking you to . . .”

“I can do it,” I say.

“Then . . . you’ll . . .” His face is alive with hope.

“I don’t know if I can leave,” I say quickly.

“Just think about it. Promise?” He dips his lips close to mine, and I crave him in that second more than food, more than soft pillows, more than a morning spent resting instead of crawling over leaves.

I crave him more than keeping my promises, even.