Chapter 34 - Words on Repeat

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The smell of something like cinnamon woke me. I was on a dirt floor. Noises infiltrated the haze in my brain, voices. It sounded like a crowd, but farther away.

My heavy eyes cracked open. Sunlight. Fresh air. A burst of energy shot through me, and I sat straight up. There were bars on all sides of me.

I was in a cage.

As the haze evaporated from my mind and vision, I looked around, getting my bearings. I wasn't alone. Cages lined up next to mine on either side.

"Talia!"

I knew that voice. With stiff, aching muscles, I turned my head. The voice came from two cages down. My mother.

I pushed my fingers into the warm earth, so I could stand and take two fast steps to the side. "Mama!"

"Oh thank goodness, you're ok. I saw them bring you in and just lay you on the dirt. You hardly moved." She looked better than she had in the cage in Nord. At least, it looked like Shasta let her bathe, and she'd eaten. The hollows of her cheeks filled in a bit.

There was a girl in between our cages. She sat on the dirt floor, doing nothing. Did she even hear us?

I ignored the girl. She likely didn't hear us, or she didn't care.

"Where are we?" I asked, lowering my voice. Mama wasn't that far away with only a cage in between us.

"The market. Most of us are up for sale."

Was I being sold? Then the memory crashed into me. Mindy was dead, and Tobin's name was in the hands of that man, whoever he was.

My knees buckled, and I let myself slide down to the ground. My grasp on the bars slowed my fall. I sucked in on a wracking sob.

"What's wrong? What's the matter?" my mother asked me. She slid down to the ground too to better see me, a motherly concern etched on her face.

Through my gasps, I tried to tell her. "Mindy. Dead. Killed."

"What?" Her eyes were round, and her mouth gaped open. I could see her fingers tighten around the bars, knuckles white.

I nodded, wiping at my tears. "They questioned us. And she... she... gave them the answer, and then they sh... shot her. Infertile. Didn't need her."

My mother plopped back on to her backside, her face set in shock. Mindy's mother had been one of her friends even though Mindy and I had always been at each other's throats.

The brutal reality was like slate crashing and shattering against my head over and over again. "It was my fault. I could have answered, but I didn't. They were going to kill Eluena, but I hesitated. So Mindy answered." I wiped at my tears. If only I could bring her back. If only she hadn't given his name.

My mother pursed her lips, rising to her knees. "It is not your fault. You get that idea out of your head right now. The only person at fault is the monster who pulled the trigger. So unless you did that, then you are not to blame."

Her words sank in, so similar to what Eluena had said in the Hole. At that time, it had been about Mindy making her own decision to come to Redwater, ignoring the Offering's rules. Now a similar sentiment dealt with how Shasta killed her. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was the common thread in both of those.

The pain sliced through me. Never would I have thought Mindy would ever mean that much to me, but we had made our peace. And whether or not I had realized it, she had grown on me. She could still be a bitch, but I understood that better in her now. She was more scared than anyone had ever realized. And even though all she had wanted was a normal life, she had volunteered to come here with me. She had put it all on the line, and she died for it.

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