Reveal Me – Tahereh Mafi

I’ve lost my appetite. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my appetite. But I’m staring at a perfectly good piece of cake right now, and for some reason, I can’t eat it. I feel queasy. I keep tapping the cake with the tines of my fork, each time a little harder, and now it’s halfcollapsed and the frosting is scarred. Mutilated. I never meant to disfigure an innocent piece of cake —it’s downright criminal to waste food, especially cake—but there’s something soothing about the repetitive motion and the soft, gentle resistance of the vanilla sponge. Slowly, I drag my free hand down my face. I’ve had worse days. Greater losses. Shittier nights. But somehow this feels like a new kind of hell. Tension gathers in my shoulders, knotting together to generate dull, throbbing pain that branches across my back. I try to breathe it out, try to stretch the stress out of my muscles, but nothing helps. I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting here, hunched over an unfinished slice of cake.

Hours, maybe. I take a glance around the half-empty dining hall. Room? Tent? Definitely a tent. I squint up at the long, whitewashed wooden beams supporting the ceiling. Maybe tent-adjacent. There’s a cream-colored canvas shrouding everything on the outside, but it’s obvious from the interior that this is a solid, freestanding building. I don’t know why they bother with the tents. I hope they serve some kind of practical purpose, because otherwise it seems dumb. Everything else is pretty spare. The tables are pieced together with unfinished slabs of wood made smooth by time.

The chairs are simple. More wood. Very basic. Nice, though; everything is nice. This place feels newer, cleaner, and brighter than anything we had at Omega Point. It’s like a fancy campsite. The Sanctuary. I stab at the cake again. It’s late—long past midnight—and my reasons for being here are growing more tenuous by the minute. Nearly everyone is bailing, chairs scraping, feet shuffling, doors opening and closing.

Warner and Juliette (Ella? Still feels weird) are here somewhere, but that’s probably because she’s trying to force-feed him his own birthday cake. Or maybe he’s eating it voluntarily. Whatever. When I’m feeling really sorry for myself, I hate him more than usual. I squeeze my eyes shut. I’m so goddamn tired. I know I should leave, get some sleep, but I can’t make myself abandon the warm glow of this room for the cold loneliness of my tent. It’s so bright in here. It’s obvious that Nouria—Castle’s daughter and the head of this resistance—is really into light. It’s her specialty.

Her superpower. But it’s also everywhere. String lights strung across the ceiling. Lanterns lining the walls and doorways. There’s a massive stone fireplace against one wall, but it’s full of warm light, not fire. It feels cozy. Plus, it smells like cake in here. For years all I ever did was complain about having to share my privacy with people, but now that I’ve got my own place—a little stand-alone home entirely for myself—I don’t want it. I miss the common areas at Omega Point and Sector 45. I liked seeing friends when I opened my door.

I liked hearing their stupid, inconsiderate voices when I was trying to fall asleep. So. I’m still here. Not yet ready to be alone. Instead, I’ve been sitting here all night watching people pair off and disappear. Lily and Ian. Brendan and Winston. Sonya and Sara. Nouria and her wife, Sam. Castle trailing behind.

Everyone smiling. They seem hopeful. Relieved. Celebrating survival and the rare moments of beauty in the bloodshed. Me, on the other hand, I want to scream. I drop my fork, digging the heels of my hands into my eyes. My frustration has been building for hours now, and it’s finally beginning to peak. I feel it, feel it closing its hands around my neck. Anger. Why am I the only one who’s scared right now? Why am I the only one with this pit of nervousness in my gut? Why am I the only one asking the same question over and over and over again: Where the fuck are Adam and James? When we finally got to the Sanctuary, we were greeted by fanfare and joy and enthusiasm.

Everyone was acting like this was a big family reunion, like there was hope for the future, like we were all going to be okay— No one seemed to care that Adam and James were missing. I was the only one doing a head count. I was the only one looking around the room, searching the eyes of unfamiliar faces, peering around corners and asking questions. I was the only one, apparently, who didn’t think it was okay to be missing two of my teammates. “He didn’t want to come, man. You already know that.” This. This was the bullshit explanation Ian tried to feed me earlier. “Kent said he wasn’t leaving anymore,” Ian said. “He literally told us to make our plans without him, and you were sitting right there when he said it.

” Ian narrowed his eyes at me. “Don’t lie to yourself about this. Adam wanted to stay behind with James and try for immunity. You heard him. Leave it alone.” But I couldn’t. I kept insisting that the situation felt wrong. The way it all went down—it felt wrong. Something isn’t right, I kept saying, and Castle kept telling me, gently—like he was talking to a crazy person— that Adam is James’s guardian, that it’s not my business, that it doesn’t matter how much I love James, I don’t get to choose what happens to him. The thing no one seems to remember is that Adam pitched that dumbass idea about staying behind and asking for immunity before we knew Anderson was still alive.

Before we heard Delalieu say that Anderson had made secret plans for Adam and James. This was before Anderson showed up and murdered Delalieu and we all got thrown in an asylum. Something is wrong. I don’t believe for a second that Adam would’ve wanted to stay in Sector 45—and risk James’s life—if he’d known Anderson was going to be there. Adam can be a dickhead sometimes, but he’s spent his whole life trying to protect that ten-year-old from their father. He’d sooner die than put James within close proximity of Anderson—especially after hearing about Anderson’s nebulous plans for them. Adam wouldn’t do it; he wouldn’t risk it. I know this. I know it in my soul. But no one wanted to hear it.

“C’mon, man,” Winston said softly. “James isn’t your responsibility. Whatever happens to him, this isn’t your fault. We have to move on.” It was like I was speaking a foreign language. Screaming at a wall. Everyone thought I was overreacting. Being too emotional. No one wanted to hear my fears. Eventually, Castle stopped answering my questions.

Instead, he started sighing a lot, like he did when I was twelve years old and he caught me trying to hide stray dogs in my bedroom. He shot me a look just before he left tonight—a look that clearly said he felt sorry for me—and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do with that. Even Brendan—kind, compassionate Brendan—shook his head and said, “Adam made his decision. It’s been hard for all of us to lose them, Kenji, but you have to let it go.” Fuck that. I didn’t let it go. I won’t let it go. I look up, homing in on the remains of Warner’s massive birthday cake. It’s unguarded, sitting on a table in the center of the room, and I’m struck by a sudden urge to put my fist through it. My fingers flex around the fork again, an unconscious impulse I don’t bother to examine.

I’m not mad that we’re celebrating Warner’s birthday. Honestly, I’m not. It’s nice, I get it, dude’s never had a birthday before. But right now I’m just not in the mood to celebrate. Right now I’d like to punch that piece-of-shit sheet cake and throw it at the wall. I’d like to pick it up and throw it at the wall and then I’d— Electric heat shoots up my spine and I stiffen, even as I watch, as if from miles away, as a hand curls around my fist. I feel her tugging, trying to pry the fork from my hand. And then I hear her laugh. I feel suddenly queasier. “You okay?” she says.

“You were holding this thing like a weapon.” She sounds like she might be smiling, but I wouldn’t know. I’m still staring into space, my vision narrowing into nothing. Nazeera managed to get the fork free of my hand and now I’m just sitting here, my fingers frozen open, still reaching for something. I feel her sit next to me. Even from here, I can feel her heat, her presence. I close my eyes. We haven’t really talked, she and I. Not about us, anyway. Not about how hard my heart beats when she’s around, and definitely not about how she’s inspired all the inappropriate daydreams infesting my mind.

In fact, since that brief scene in my bedroom, we haven’t discussed anything that wasn’t strictly professional, and I’m not sure why we would. There’s no point. Kissing her was stupid. I’m an idiot, Nazeera is probably crazy, and whatever happened between us was a huge mistake. She keeps messing with my head, confusing my emotions, and I keep trying to remind myself, keep trying to convince myself to understand logic—but for some reason my body doesn’t get it. The way my biology reacts to her mere presence, you’d think I was having a stroke. Or an aneurysm. “Hey.” Her voice is serious now, the smile gone. “What’s wrong?” I shake my head.

“Don’t shake your head at me.” She laughs. “You murdered your cake, Kenji. Something is obviously wrong.” At that, I turn an inch. Stare at her out of the corner of my eye. In response, she rolls her own eyes. “Oh please,” she says, stabbing my fork—my fork—into the collapsed cake. “Everyone knows you love food. You’re always eating.

You rarely stop eating long enough to speak.” I blink at her. She scrapes a bit of frosting off the plate and holds up the fork, like a lollipop, before popping it in her mouth. And only after she’s licked the thing clean do I say: “That fork was in my mouth.” She hesitates. Stares at the cake. “I thought you weren’t eating this.” “I’m not eating it anymore,” I say. “But I took a couple of bites.” And there’s something about the way she straightens—something about the mortified way she says, “Of course you did,” as she puts down the fork—that unclenches the fist around my spine.

Her reaction is so juvenile—as if we haven’t already kissed, as if we don’t already know what it’s like to taste the same things at the same time—that I can’t help it. I start laughing. A moment later, she’s laughing, too. And suddenly I feel almost human again. I sigh, losing some of the tension in my shoulders. I rest my elbows on the wooden table and drop my head in my hands. “Hey,” she says quietly. “You can tell me, you know.” Her voice is close. Warm.

I take a deep breath. “Tell you what?” “Tell me what’s wrong.” I laugh again, but this time the sound is bitter. Nazeera is the last person I want to talk to. It must be some kind of cruel joke that, of all the people I know, she’s the one pretending to care. I sigh as I sit up, frowning into the distance. I spot Juliette across the room—long brown hair and electric smile—in less than a second. Right now my best friend has eyes only for her boyfriend, and I’m both annoyed and resigned to the fact. I can’t blame her for claiming a bit of joy tonight; I know she’s been through hell. But right now I need her, too.

It’s been a rough night, and I wanted to talk to her earlier, to ask her what she thinks about the situation with Adam and James, but I’d only made it halfway across the room when Castle pulled me back. He made me promise to leave her alone tonight. He said it was important for J to have alone time with Warner. He wanted them to have a few moments of peace—an uninterrupted night to recover from everything they’ve been through. I rolled my eyes so hard they nearly fell out of my head. No one ever gives me an uninterrupted night to recover from all the shit I’ve been through. No one really cares about my emotional state; no one but J, if I’m being honest. I keep staring at her, my eyes burning holes in her back. I want her to look at me. I know if she could just see me, she’d know something was wrong and she’d come over here.

I know she would. But the truth is, it’s not just Castle keeping me from ruining her night; after everything they’ve been through, she and Warner really do deserve a proper reunion. I also think that if I tried to pry her away from Warner right now he’d try to murder me for real. But sometimes I wonder— What about me? Why don’t my feelings matter? Other people get to experience a full range of emotions without judgment, but I can’t be anything but happy without making most people uncomfortable. Everyone is used to seeing me smiling, being goofy. I’m the fun guy, the easygoing guy. I’m the one everyone can count on for a good laugh. When I’m sad or pissed off no one knows what to do with me. I’ve tried talking to Castle or Winston—even Ian—but no one has ever clicked with me the way J does. Castle always tries his best, but he doesn’t approve of wallowing.

He gives me thirty seconds to complain before he’s offering me a motivational speech, telling me to be strong. Ian, on the other hand, gets itchy when I tell him too much. He tries to be sympathetic, but then he bolts the first chance he gets. Winston listens. He’s a good listener, at least. But then, instead of responding to what I just said, he takes a turn talking about all the things he’s been dealing with, and even though I understand that he needs to vent, too, by the end of it I feel ten times worse. But with Juliette— Ella? With her, it’s different. I never even realized just how much I was missing until we really got to know each other. She lets me talk. She doesn’t rush me.

She doesn’t tell me to calm down or feed me bullshit lines or tell me everything will be fine. When I’m trying to get things off my chest she doesn’t make the conversation about her or her own problems. She understands. I can tell. She doesn’t have to say a word. I can look into her eyes and know she gets it. She gives a shit about me in a way no one else ever has. It’s the same thing that makes her a great leader: she genuinely cares about people. She cares about their lives. “Kenji?” Nazeera’s touching my hand again, but this time I pull away, jerking awkwardly in my seat.

And when I finally look up, into her eyes—I’m surprised. She seems genuinely worried. “Kenji,” she says again. “You’re scaring me.”

.

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