We talk about the fight like it’s our life.

And in some ways, it is. It’s all we know. The fight against evil, the fight against monsters, the fight against ourselves. It can become everything because it can mean everything, mean life or death, for better or worse. The war consumes us until it becomes who we are.

But sometimes, no matter how long or hard we fight, no matter how much we need or deserve to win, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lose. We have to live with that. And sometimes that’s a fight all on its own.

Everyone talks about the fight. The victory.

Nobody talks about the loss.

The after.

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Playlist

Writing this last book was a very emotional experience that required me to do a lot of soul reflecting and spilling out my guts. While I value the raw honesty of writing and of the last chapter in Arie’s story, it can be hard for me to get to the place I need to in order for the meaning to come through the words. Music not only inspired the story but inspired me to find the truth of what I was saying and be brave enough to write it down.

  1. I Will Return by Skylar Grey
  2. Skinny Love by Birdy
  3. Imaginary by Evanescence
  4. No Angel by Birdy
  5. Heavy In Your Arms by Florence + the Machine
  6. Misguided Ghosts by Paramore
  7. Alive by Sia
  8. Look What You Made Me Do by Taylor Swift
    1. Author’s note: aka Vanessa’s theme song
  9. Say Something (feat. Christina Aguilera) by A Great Big World
  10. Haunted by Maty Noyes
  11. Sometimes by Skillet
  12. Battle Cry by Imagine Dragons
  13. Warriors by Imagine Dragons
  14. Not Gonna Die by Skillet
  15. This Is War by 30 Seconds to Mars
  16. Never Surrender by Skillet
  17. Paradise by Coldplay
  18. People Help The People by Birdy
  19. Hallelujah by Kate Voegele
  20. If I Die Young by The Band Perry
  21. What I’ve Done (Acoustic Version) by Marie Digby
  22. Even My Dad Does Sometimes by Ed Sheeran
  23. I See Fire by Ed Sheeran
    1. Author’s note: I listened to these two Ed Sheeran songs on repeat while writing the memorial scene, and it was one of the few times I’ve actually cried real tears as I wrote. I like to think ‘I See Fire’ was like the song they sang when encircled around the fire
  24. Here With Me by Susie Suh & Robot Koch
  25. Million Years Ago by Adele
  26. All Too Well by Taylor Swift
  27. the words by Christina Perri
  28. Come Home by OneRepublic and Sara Bareilles
    1. Author’s note: this is the song I was listening to when I came up with the ending of the series. I was still writing the first book and it was about four years before I wrote the finale

Chapter 1 Sneak Peek

I didn’t know how long I’d been staring at the wall. At least a few hours, probably, without stopping. I’d gotten really really good at it.

A slight shiver went through my body, making me tighten the blanket around me and huddle closer to the generator. The air was hot and sticky. It was hard to breathe. It made my lungs a little sore. Or maybe I was just imagining it.

Does it really matter? Probably not.

I still had a few hours, I guessed, until it was dark and the Compound went to sleep. The late night hours were the only times I left the second floor of the maintenance building—even then, it was only by necessity. The newly sanctioned night guards were ordered to not play nice if they caught anyone wandering around past curfew, but I didn’t want to leave anyway.

The seconds ticked by and I counted each one. Two. Three. Twenty. Four hundred and ninety-seven. Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to think. Just me and my blanket and the wall. And the generator. Couldn’t forget the generator. I had to think of a name for that thing. It was big and powerful. Maybe Caesar? No, that just made me think of pizza. Alexander? Ivan? Was I looking for a good connotation or a bad one? Probably a good one. True, the generator had burned me on multiple occasions, but that had been my fault. It kept me warm. I could always count on it being there. Maybe Steve. Roger? They sounded like nice guys.

Then I realized I was trying to name a generator.

Should I be concerned about that? Probably not. There was nobody here to judge me besides Steve and he seemed like the forgiving type. It was good to have a friend like Steve.

Steve was good for a lot of things, but keeping track of time wasn’t one of them. How many days had I been in here? He didn’t know. Neither did I, though I guessed about two or three weeks. All I knew was that Cyrus had let me live on the condition that I wasn’t seen by anyone else. I accepted the terms at the time. Now I often wondered what would happen if I wandered out into the open during the day and let the world see me. How fast would he kill me? Did speed really matter as long as the result was the same?

I never did though. Part of me knew Cyrus was bluffing. I’d survived his little key extraction process despite his prediction I wouldn’t. He was still baffled by that. So was I. I was the farthest he’d ever gotten with a key, but he didn’t know what that meant or where it left me. He’d taken the key essence—whatever that meant—out of me. Was I still infected? Was I still the key somehow? What if he needed me at some point in the future? I didn’t know what for and I didn’t think he did either. Regardless, I was his insurance policy. He was too careful to let me go too soon, just in case.

Cyrus was the only one I’d seen since I woke up. I didn’t know where anyone else was or what they were doing or what they thought of me. All I knew of Vanessa is what Cyrus told me: she was a success. She was stable in her new body. She was up and at ‘em and training and taking over all of my responsibilities. Everyone had met her. Everyone knew who she was. She fit the niche we were designed for much better than I did. She was an even match for Micah, executed all assignments on time, patrolled like a perfect policeman. I wasn’t needed anymore. I’d been relieved of my duties and told to make my own quiet existence away so I wouldn’t bother anyone.

“And I would stay away from your family, Arie,” Cyrus had told me before our lovely conversation was over. “She’s informed them what’s happened. They know who she is. You don’t want to face that, do you?”

No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to look into the faces of those I loved—those who had put so much work and energy and faith in me to beat the very key that had stood in front of them—and hang my head in shame. I couldn’t do it. It was over. I lost.

Cyrus was using the guilt against me, a way to keep me silent. I knew that. I continually proved him right, choosing to stay away from everyone and everything. It was just too hard. I didn’t have the motivation or guts to face anything. I barely had the will to eat and sleep and keep myself alive. I’d probably be better use to the world if I were dead: then I could keep a watchful eye on the good guys and haunt the bad.

Useless was an understatement to describe my current state to all parties involved. I was sure Cyrus—not to mention Roland—were both giddy beyond belief to have their key, their captain and commander. I’d heard the stories of what I was supposed to be, the war general, the stoic soldier that follows orders just as well as it gives them. Like Micah but with no rage. No emotions. No personality. I wondered how Micah was faring with a new teacher’s pet that didn’t even understand when he teased her. He was probably just happy to have a partner that would actually do the job and do it well.

Congrats, Micah. Hope you love your new best friend.

I hated to admit it, but it was weird without her. My head wasn’t empty, exactly, but it was weird to have a thought she would normally tell me, only to realize I was alone.

Now that she was out of me, though, I wanted to meet her. I didn’t know much about the transfer process or how it had affected her. Maybe she didn’t even remember me or who I was or anything before she awoke in her own body. Maybe she did. I didn’t know. Part of me wanted to see how she walked, how she spoke, how she moved. I wanted to see how she compared to the monster in my head with ripped out hair, exposed flesh, a half smile and a solid blue eye. I wanted to punch the guts out of her. I wanted to beat her to her knees just like she had done to me. I hated her.

But the other part of me was terrified of her. I tried to never admit that when she was in my head, though that didn’t really help. She knew I was scared of her. And who wouldn’t be? Anyone would be horrified to wake up one day and discover a blue monster was talking back. At least, that’s what I told myself: anyone would be terrified. Nobody would have the courage to confront her. After all, she pretty much ruined me when she was safely locked in my head—I couldn’t imagine trying to face her when she had her own arms and legs she could move freely.

I was a coward. I knew it. I lived it, inside a giant cavern of generators I was too afraid and apathetic to leave. It was my jail, and I was both prisoner and guard, letting myself drown in self-pity. Even I was repulsed with how pathetic I was.

Today I was sitting next to Steve with my blanket around me, my usual stance, as I stared at the wall and played with the edges of my long sleeves. I still kept my arms covered despite the fact I was always alone. They weren’t blue anymore, much to my astonishment and relief— Cyrus couldn’t give me an explanation besides that my potential had been used up at the right time.

I didn’t care why, really. You could still see where it used to be though, faint greyish pink raises in the skin where the symbol and its vines had scalded themselves onto my body. The scars ran from head to toe but you could only really see them on my arms, like monuments made to the beginning of what would be my failure. I hated them. I kept them hidden from my eyes.

There wasn’t much else to look at. I felt like I had the wall opposite from me completely memorized, every line, chink and crevice. I decided to mix it up a bit, turning to look at Steve the generator head on to get a different view.

A bubble of voices echoed below me. I tensed but didn’t panic. The maintenance building was still used by cleaning crews and such to store supplies, which meant that I was often visited by a blab of indiscernible conversation as they retrieved what they needed. Nobody ever knew I was up here. I often wondered if anyone I knew was down there, if my mom ever came by to grab her cleaner brush and thought about our conversation that day outside—if she ever thought about me.

Suddenly, something crashed through the window that I used as a door. I jumped as a can clanked on the ground before sliding to a stop several yards in front of me.

What the heck?

I leaned forward cautiously, as if to inspect in from afar, when it started spluttering out sparks. Fire. Everywhere.

I couldn’t understand how it happened—the building was made of metal, at least on the inside, and there was nothing for the fire to catch onto and burn. But flames were everywhere, suspended throughout the whole space, as if the air itself was on fire. The temperature instantly ballooned hundreds of degrees and clouds of smoke obstructed my vision.

Pulling the collar of my hoodie over my nose, I made sure to grab my blanket before fighting through the smoke and airborne flames, flinching when I felt a piece of skin on my forehead singe. I forced the broken window up and started climbing down the fire escape, getting halfway to the ground before realizing that’s as far as it went. Someone had taken out half of the ladder.

I looked back up at the window, seeing the gobs of smoke coming out and floating up toward the sky. It wasn’t too high but I didn’t really have much of a choice anyway. I jumped. The shock of the landing vibrated up my legs, and I leaned over, breathing in gusts of clean air.

And there it goes. Take note, everyone. I’m destroying the pathetic monument to her name…

Wait a minute. With a start, I realized I was hearing thoughts that weren’t mine. No, they weren’t thoughts. I was hearing my voice—my voice out loud.

Slowly, I walked down the side of the building, my voice getting louder, and peeked around the corner. A gathered group of eighty or so employees were standing a few feet from the maintenance building, watching the billowing smoke with melancholy or otherwise blank expressions in a rigid stance. And standing in front of them with a smirk on her face was me.

I gasped and dropped my blanket on the ground, which was when she saw me. It was like looking into a mirror. Her eyebrows shot up and she gasped, the same short sound.

A grumble went through the incredulous crowd but everyone’s feet stayed glued to where they were. I only had eyes for me. At least, she looked just like me, but at the same time she didn’t. She held herself with poise and power, wearing a bright pink dress that had a much lower neck and much higher skirt than anything I would’ve ever dreamed of wearing, exposing perfect skin. Perfect arms. Perfect legs. No freak symbols or blue vines or nasty scars. Though I knew she had to be wearing gobs of makeup, her face was beautiful, her hair full and luscious, nothing out of place. Her blue eyes were deep but narrowed, pointed, as if looking for a fault to expose or a weakness to exploit. She was me but she wasn’t me.

“They told me you were dead,” she whispered, disbelief written all over her flawless face. “They told me you didn’t survive the transfer.”

It took me a moment to realize I didn’t say the words even though they were in my whisper. A transfer, she called it. They had transferred her. A transfer to another me.

“Vanessa?”