Authors: Lee Strauss,Elle Strauss
That had happened to someone else.
Noah noticed. Every time he reached for me, I stiffened or
subtly pulled away. By day two on the run, he’d stopped reaching.
I knew I’d hurt him. It wasn’t that I wasn’t attracted to Noah—I
was—but it was clear to both of us now that I wasn’t the person he’d fallen in
love with anymore.
Just who was I then?
My mind felt like lead and my body a bag of sand. I crawled
into the bed, my legs and arms stretching out, responding to lying vertical for
the first time in days.
I slipped into sleep.
I’m in a cramped, confined space. My breaths, short and
sharp, boom in my ears. I force my eyes open, but I can’t see. Blind darkness.
Noises on the other side of the door. Who’s out there?
Am I hiding?
Sounds of shuffling grow closer. Drawers opening, cupboard
My heart beats wildly. He will find me. If he opens one more
Strong arms wrap around from behind. I gasp, struggle, but a
voice whispers, “Shh, it’s okay. I’ll protect you.”
I smell him, soapy, woodsy. The warmth of his skin comforts
me. I fall limp.
A gun blasts. The door swings open. I scream.
I shot upright. “Noah!”
My heart thudded, frantic. I gripped the gun under my pillow. I
heard something and I aimed it toward the noise.
Then I slumped. It was just the TV.
I gasped as I stared at Grandpa V’s smug and self-important
face looking back at me. A political campaign ad.
—I understand loss and suffering…my grandchildren are gone, but
I work for all the children of America…we are on the crux of national economic
crises…there is hope—
I took a fake shot at his head then lowered my trembling arm. I
fell back onto the bed and broke out in manic laughter. My crazy, evil
grandfather was running for office. He could be the next president of the
second most powerful country in the world. Hilarious!
The sound of my voice pinged off the walls. Someone banged on
the other side and I jumped. A muffled “Shut up!” reached my ears. My neighbors
didn’t get my sense of humor.
The door handle wiggled and I snatched the gun again.
Noah stopped short when he spotted it pointed at his chest. His
eyes widened with alarm. “Zoe, it’s me.”
I burst into tears. I was turning into a mental case. I grabbed
the sheet to wipe my nose and a long sob escaped my lips.
Noah rushed to the bed and sat on the edge beside me. “It’s
okay. I’m here. Did something happen?”
A small hiccup escaped my lips. “Grandpa V’s running for
president. There was a commercial on TV.”
Noah sighed. “He said he was going to.”
I gripped the sheet in my fists and pulled it up to cover the
fact that I was in my underwear. “We have to stop him, Noah.”
“But how? What can we do without getting caught in the
“I don’t know. I just feel so powerless. If he wins…we have to
The TV chatter filled the room and we stopped to consider the
possibility. We no longer had a way to communicate with the outside world. Noah
had ditched both of our Communication Rings and neither of us had laptops or
tablets. We were completely without technology.
I began to tremble, and Noah reached for me. This time I didn’t
pull away. I tucked my face into the warmth of his neck and he rested his head
against mine. He gently stroked the flesh of my back in soothing circles, round
and round, stopping suddenly when his fingers reached my bra strap.
I felt so hollow and lonely. Noah was the only person I had
left on the earth. A deep-seeded longing bubbled up from the center of my core.
I remembered how I wanted Noah back in Los Angeles and suddenly I wanted him
him. I wanted him to need me.
I found his lips and kissed him hard, desperation erupting from
my soul. I peeled off his jacket and pushed him onto his back on the bed.
“Zoe?” he said.
“It’s okay.” I kissed him across his chin and down the curve of
his neck. “I want this.” I breathed deeply of the scent of his skin and my pulse
He responded like I knew he would, kissing me in return, my
forehead, my cheeks my lips, deep and urgent. I pulled up on his T-shirt
exposing his bare skin, and ran my fingertips across his abs. He tensed and my
fingers moved slowly, over each ab muscle, one, two, three… A soft moan escaped
his lips. I reached farther down. He clasped my hand with his, stopping me.
“What?” I said, staring at his chiseled face. His brow was
pulled down in a frown, and his eyes were closed tight like he was in pain.
“We can’t do this.”
“Why?” I leaned up on my elbow. “I don’t understand. Don’t you
“It’s not that I don’t want to. I
Frustration twisted in my chest and my face reddened with
embarrassment. “Then what’s the problem!”
He looked at me, his eyes kind and pleading. “Zoe, you’re
wearing a pink wig.”
I reached for my head, fingered the nylon strands and slowly
pulled it off. I released the hair tie and my blond tresses fell across my bare
back. “Is that better?”
Noah tugged on his T-shirt and swung his legs over the side of
the bed, sitting up.
“I don’t want it to be this way.”
He turned and steadied his eyes on mine. “I want you to love
I wanted to say I did love him, but the truth was I wasn’t
sure. I couldn’t remember. Once upon a time I might’ve loved Noah Brody. A time
before all of…this.
The steam of my passionate explosion fizzled as he waited for
me to say it.
“That’s what I thought,” he said softly. He walked the two
steps to the bathroom and closed the door. I heard him turn the lock.
I fell back onto the bed, my head suddenly pounding with pain.
Noah exited the bathroom and sat in one of the two chairs
without even glancing at me. He turned the TV volume up.
The awkward factor in the small room was at ten, the pressure
threatening to pop the rivets in the walls. I lay still as a mannequin in my
underwear, feeling more naked than if I’d stripped down to nothing. I focused
on the bathroom door and forced myself to move toward it, grabbing my clothes
along the way. I slipped them on and only noticed that I was crying when my
bare arm rubbed against my damp cheek.
I washed my face vigorously, hoping to find some dignity under
the skin. I shook the Tylenol bottle and swore. Empty.
I thrust my shoulders back and left the bathroom. I waved the
bottle in front of Noah and flashed him a calloused look.
“My head is killing me.” My chronic headaches were a parting
gift from my ex-boyfriend, who apparently didn’t have any ethical objections to
feeding me drugs that erased my memories and poisoned me with nanobots to track
my position. I was off those now, but the headaches remained.
Noah opened a canvas bag, obviously a recent purchase, and removed
a new bottle tossing it to me. I popped two and washed them back with water.
“I bought some food, if you’re hungry,” Noah said, placing chicken
salad sandwiches and juice boxes on the platter-sized table.
We ate in uncomfortable silence. Mostly I watched as he ate. I
hadn’t been truly hungry in days, my stomach constantly coiled up like an
When Noah finished eating, he retrieved more objects from the
bag. “I also bought these.” He had a pair of scissors in one hand and a box of
hair dye in the other.
I moved my chair to the center of the room, sat, and let my
hair fall over the back. “Go for it.” I closed my eyes and waited.
Eventually, I heard Noah sigh and push his chair back. He ran
his hands through my hair and I couldn’t stop the shudder that shot through my
“How short?” His voice was low and husky. I could hear the pain
laced through it, and my heart stuttered.
“You choose,” I said.
The snipping of the scissors drowned out the TV noise. Clumps
of blond fell to the floor, like pieces of me, and I bit my lip to keep from
My world was a spinning top and I hung to the knob with dear
life, helplessly slipping, fearing I would fly off into a zero-gravity black
hole. I crossed my arms and dug my nails into my flesh, needing the pain to
ground me to this earth.
The snipping stopped and I felt Noah’s breath in my ear.
“I’m finished,” he whispered.
Somehow I managed to dye my hair without looking too closely in
the mirror. I showered and dressed again then blow-dried my hair. I presented
myself to Noah.
His eyes bugged when he saw me. “Chloe Morgan,” he said.
My alias. Another lifetime ago I’d disguised myself as a shoulder-length
brunette and pretended to be someone I wasn’t.
I chuckled humorlessly. Back at square one, but more lost than
I crawled into bed with my clothes on. Noah turned off the TV
and the light and slipped in beside me. He pulled me toward him until my back
rested against his chest.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my lips tight and quivering.
“Shh. You’ve been through a lot. Let’s just give it some time,
It stormed overnight. Rain lashed against the window and
lightning flashed intermittently in our dark room through the six-inch gap
between the curtains.
Somehow Noah slept through it. I pressed in as close to him as
I could without waking him, and pushed back at my growing irrational fear of
storms. My head felt thick with fatigue, and I punched my pillow trying to get
comfortable. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days and now, when I
actually had a bed, I still wasn’t sleeping.
I threw back my covers in frustration and headed to the
bathroom. My eyes revolted against the bright light when I switched it on. I
reached for the Tylenol, took two and quickly switched the light out.
I stood in front of the window and gripped a curtain panel in
each hand. The sky lit up like a neon sheet covering the earth. I whipped the
curtains closed and made sure I didn’t leave a gap.
Noah’s steady breathing comforted me and I focused on matching
my breaths with his until I slipped away. And for once I didn’t dream.
Noah was showered and dressed by the time I woke up.
When he saw that I was awake he opened the curtains. The rain
continued to fall in sheets.
His eyes, dark with sadness and confusion, met mine. The
adhesive that had held us so tightly together once upon a time now stretched
thin, like gum pulling from the street to a shoe. I desperately wanted to stop
the force of inertia tearing us apart, searching for some way to wind us back
I knew it was my move: I just didn’t know what to do.
Noah turned back to the scene playing outside and grimaced. He
grabbed his jacket off the back of one of the chairs and put it on.
“I’ll get breakfast,” he said without looking at me.
We didn’t have rain gear or an umbrella. “You’ll get soaked.”
“Uh-huh. But I’m starving, and I’m sure you are, too. A little
water won’t kill me.”
He left, and I flopped down on my back, and stared at the
spotted ceiling. We were supposed to leave today, but I couldn’t see how Noah
could get the battery recharged in this weather. Walking a few blocks to the
convenience store was one thing. Hiking back to where we’d hidden the car would
be much more difficult.
At one point Noah and I had talked about heading north to
Canada, but then we realized we didn’t have any ID and even if we did we
couldn’t use our real names, so we turned east instead. I had no idea where we
were going to go from here, but Grandpa’s search for me and Noah was going
strong. Our faces had sprung up everywhere since the night I’d shot Jackson, on
billboards along city streets and highways, on electronic ad placements in
stores, on the television and the internet.
I showered and dressed and had my hair dried by the time Noah
returned with bagels in a plastic bag and two cups of coffee.
He shook himself off like a wet dog and I couldn’t help but
smile a little.
“Here’s your sweetened latte.” Noah sat the cups on the table
and took off his coat. He pulled dry clothes from his backpack and disappeared
into the bathroom.
I peeked inside the bag and removed a bagel. One whiff and my
stomach responded. I wolfed half of it down before Noah joined me.
I stared at him from over the top of my coffee cup, averting my
eyes when he looked back. The heat of my humiliation from the previous night’s
rejection grew up my neck. I blew on the cooled coffee as a guise.
“I thought about what you said yesterday,” Noah said after
finishing his bagel. “About your grandpa. I could get a cheap laptop. Go back
to my blog, maybe stir up some dissention.”
“Wouldn’t he be able to track us through it?” Not that Grandpa
would do the tracking himself. He had people employed to do his dirty work for
“I could secure the system. At least for a little while. Long
enough to get something going.”
“But it’s a risk?”
He paused, then said, “Yes. It’s a risk.”
I sipped my coffee and thought about the obnoxious commercial
I’d seen on TV the day before. “I think we should do it.”
Noah crumpled up the breakfast wrapping and tossed it into the
trash. He pulled back on the curtain and gazed outside.
“The rain’s let up. I’ll go now, see what I can find.”
“I’ll go, too.”
“No, I think you need to stay out of sight.”
“But…” I pulled on my shortened hair. “I look different.”
“I don’t want to take any chances. I won’t be long.”
I was starting to get cabin fever, but I consented. Noah put on
his damp jacket and left for the second time that morning.