When I was ten, the compound was stricken with a bout of the flu. Everyone was released from work and school. I was already sick, but Mom had forced me to go to school anyway. Lexi, runny nose and watery eyes, wanted to go swimming before we went home, insisting that she felt fine.
I never understood why she wanted to swim, but like always, I just went with it.
"You're sure this is okay?" I had asked, standing on the sidewalk as she jogged towards the water. "Mom will get mad when I don't come right home."
"She doesn't know school let out," Lexi told me, stripping her clothes off.
I watched her. Of course Mom knew school was released. Why wouldn't she have gotten the notification? Yet, I still undressed, leaving the school uniform on the sidewalk, folded into a neat pile. Lexi waved at me from the water's edge, dancing back and forth in her tank-top and underwear.
We waded out into the water, until it was up to our necks.
Lexi kept going, red tendrils of hair spreading around her like octopus tentacles. I stopped, though, feeling the undertow pulling at my knees. Even though we were already inseparable best friends, there were things Lexi didn't know about me.
One of those things was that I couldn't swim.
"Lexi, wait on me," I whined, taking another step. She bounced on, head dipping under the water as she swam farther out. I took a deep breath, digging my toes into the soft sand. I held my boxers with one hand, kept the other hovering on the top of the water. My knees shook, already weak from holding myself back.
"Lexi, I'm serious," I said, voice breaking as I slipped, "Wait on me."
"Oh, stop being a baby, Q!"
"I'm not being a baby."
"Then, get out here, chicken."
"Stop calling me names," I whispered, taking another shaky step, "I'm-"
I sucked in a mouthful of water as my right foot sank deep into the sand, the other leg following as the water won its battle, jerking me forward. I slammed my eyes closed, flailing for something to hold onto as my head slammed into the ground.
It pulled me along, my lungs searing in pain. Eventually, I opened my eyes, watching the bright sunlight dancing along the top of the water, glitter and glass. I was absolutely helpless, arms at my side, falling down, crushed by everything around me. As my sight faded into blackness, the form of a girl appeared over me, a halo of light over her head as she descended.
Lexi pulled me to shore, beating my back until I threw up all of the salt water I had inhaled. Still coughing, I crawled away from her, away from the sound of myself sobbing. No, that wasn't me. That was Lexi.
"Why didn't you tell me you couldn't swim?" she asked, grabbing me by the shoulder and jerking me back to the ground. I took several deep breaths, pulling my knees up to my chest and wrapping two shaking arms around them. Lexi sat beside me, head on my shoulder, still crying.
"I don't know," I mumbled, watching the shells that the waves brought to my toes.
"You can't keep secrets from me, Q," she whispered, wiping some sand off my leg, "I have to know everything about you, or I can't be your best friend."
I nodded, swallowing hard.
"Can you teach me to swim?" I asked, glancing at her. She laughed and nodded, wiping her nose.
From that day on, I never kept a secret from Alexis Collins. Yet, I also never forgot how completely gone I felt under that water.
Staring at President Kovach, surrounded by the secret she has just revealed to me, I feel like I am a thousand miles underwater. My breath has disappeared from my lungs, leaving my chest a hollow, burning hole. I stare blankly at her, unable to see the light anywhere around me.
There's no positive side to this.
The worst part?
Lexi isn't here to save me, and I'm suddenly back to keeping secrets.
"Are you okay, Quinn?" Kovach asks, placing a hand on my arm. I brush her off, taking a deep breath again. The fire in my lungs is quenched.
"I, um, I need to go back to the bunks," I stutter, walking backwards towards the door. Her mouth is twisted downward in a deep frown as she watches me. "Ma'am," I add, shaking my head.
"Is that really a good idea? I know this is a lot. Maybe you should come back to my house for the night."
I shake my head viciously, forcing my body straighter.
"I'm okay, really," I say, clearing my throat, "I just need to sleep it off."
To my surprise, Kovach nods, walking to the door. She opens it and pushes me out with little force.
"Can I walk you back?"
My answer comes too quick, causing Kovach to shoot me a suspicious look.
"Okay, Quinn. I'll leave you alone, but remember what I said about keeping this a secret."
I nod, hurrying off towards the elevator.
I stop, glancing over my shoulder as I push the elevator button.
"Don't go after Alexis in the morning," she says, "Let her go, son. You are better than her. We can accept only perfection from our citizens. Nothing less is appropriate. You understand that, right?"
I take a shaky breath, one hand on the frame of the elevator. My head spins.
"Yes, ma'am," I say, unable to look at her, "I understand."
When the doors open, I scramble inside, staring at my shoes as I wait for them to shut back. When they do, I lean my head against the door, the cold of the metal seeping into my skull.
What am I going to do?
Images of Naomi being devoured by the infected assault my mind, clips of old videos we watched in school terrorizing my memory. I hold back the nausea, clenching my eyes shut. Her screams make my fists clench at my side, until my arm muscles hurt.
Naomi isn't the first person I've known to be fed to the infected. Twenty of my classmates were marched to their death a few weeks ago. They might not have been the smartest people, but does that mean they deserved to die?
My conversation with Dr. Price comes back to the front of my mind.
"What if she was killing the people you love so that you could survive? Would your life be worth living knowing that it cost you everything?"
How did he know? Did he know, or was he just throwing rocks and happening to land nearby? There's no way to know. Except...
I jab at the stop button on the elevator, gripping the wall with my other hand as the impact sends me backwards. I push the basement button, and the elevator lurches again, downward.
Only one thing is clear to me as I step out into the cold air of the basement: I have to save Lexi.
Discussion: Short chapter! Sorry. I thought a little bit of cutesy was appropriate considering the seriousness of everything. Quinn's a man on a mission. How do you think he's going to save Lexi?
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Selected (Book 2 of the Immune Series)Science Fiction
"As far back as I can remember, I've been surrounded by water. The salt in the air even now makes it hard to breath, forcing me to squint. Sand clings to every inch of me, caking my pants and shoes. The wind from the ocean picks my hair up, sending...