They leave DEMA in the dead of night, passing a wrinkled photograph of a woman between them to squint at her fair features by torchlight. Josh takes the picture to memorize her face; Tyler takes it to remember her, torch shaking in his head while his thumb traces the straight line of her blonde hair.
“Jenna,” he tells Josh. “That was her name.”
“Jenna,” says Josh. It is a pretty name, light, like the flutter of butterfly wings. “I’ve never seen her in person. Never even seen a picture. She’s beautiful.”
Tyler nods, jaw tight. He’s crying, not bothering to wipe his face because there are always more tears to come. Always more. “The hair is what you need to be able to recognize. The hair and the bones are usually the last things left.”
“She won’t be there,” Josh says with all the confidence of someone who has never lost anyone. Tyler’s lost too many to count on both of his hands. He needs someone else’s hands—needed Jenna’s. But now she is gone too. “Tyler. If she’s as smart as you say she is, they didn’t find out about her. Even if they did, she probably made it away to another Region. She’s hiding out. Not—”
Dead, is the word Josh won’t say.
They come to the door at the end of the tunnel, pulling their bandanas up over their mouths and noses. The yellow X across Josh’s chest glimmers in the torchlight when Tyler stops and turns to him. It’s just a little crooked, but Tyler thinks it will work to keep the vultures away anyway.
Tyler holds up the picture of Jenna. It’s the only one he’s got. “Just look at her. Look at her hair. Remember her.”
“I will,” Josh says, solemnly. His bandana moves where Tyler knows his mouth to be, his eyes flickering down to track the rustling of the fabric. “I promise you. I will. It means so much that you chose me. I won’t let you down.”
With a heave, Tyler pushes the door open. It is dark out here without a moon or stars. The wind brings sand and the faint stench of the dead, carried even so far away. Josh isn’t used to it. This will be the first time he has ever visited the Tower, the place for the dead. He turns and his torch falls into the sand, half of their light disappearing. The sound of gagging nearly makes Tyler gag too, but he holds it in, swallowing his spit, swallowing and swallowing.
They relight the torch and move on. The sand between the outermost wall and the Tower is packed down like dirt, trampled from decades on decades of use. The desert is quiet, and strangely, not any more desolate feeling than the empty streets of Tyler’s Region after curfew. The only thing missing are the tidy streets with the even rows of houses.
They walk well into the night, until their torches grow dim. By the fading light, they set up camp, rolling out their sleeping bags and making a tiny fire between them to keep the insects away, and to talk around.
“I never thought I would meet you in person,” says Josh. He’s propped up on his elbow by the fire, and the flames exaggerate the planes of his face and the darkness of his eyes. “Are the stories true?”
Tyler shrugs. He wraps his arms around his knees, lets the tips of his boots kiss the rim of the firepit. The photograph crinkles in one hand. He doesn’t need the fire to see her. She’s in his head all the time, every day.
“Tell me about her?” Josh asks, his face open and kind, like a child asking for a bedtime story. So Tyler tells him: the first time he and Jenna met in their Region; the secret meetings they held in the basement of their secondary school, gathering students who would become the body of the revolt, the ones who would help them overthrow Keons; how they had been ‘married’ in the rubble of the streets with his blood on their hands. Tyler talked of the happy times too: the way Jenna could make meals out of the eclectic ingredients they scavenged; how he would fold origami for her out of pages torn from censored textbooks; of the time she managed to fool seven Bishops into believing she was Sacarver herself.
The more he talks, the less it sounds like a tribute and more like a eulogy.
“I won’t know how to live without her,” he weeps. Windblown stand sticks to the tear tracks on his cheeks. Josh has sat up now, unconsciously mirroring him from across the fire.
“How have you lived without all the others?” Josh says. “Maybe you won’t want to live, but you can.”
Tyler drags his sleeping bag around to Josh’s side of the fire, then kicks sand on the flames until they are swathed in the darkness, resting close enough to hear each other’s stuttered breaths. He reaches out, takes one of Josh’s hands, and presses a kiss to his palm.
“Tyler,” Josh says, sad.
“Please,” he cries.
They kiss, all hot tongue and tears, until Tyler is crying so hard he can’t kiss anymore, until he shifts to be tucked underneath Josh’s chin, weeping into the yellow X on his chest. The picture of Jenna is lost somewhere, maybe pressed between them, maybe in the sand beside their bag. Tyler doesn’t find it, even when he searches frantically in the dark.
Sometime later, he sleeps, and when Josh wakes in the morning, Tyler is burying the ashes of their fire and smoothing the sand, his pack already rerolled and on his back.