I mute the television, positive that my ears are playing tricks on me. Two months ago, Roman was certain that my mother hated him; yet here they are, standing in my hallway and joking around like old friends. Have I missed something?
“I appreciate your presence at the extension hearing,” my mother continues. “It’s nice to know that someone understands how the bureau works from the inside.”
“It’s not a big deal, honestly,” Roman says, his voice sincere. “Anyways, I didn’t really come with, since I can’t be seen with any of the elects.”
“It’s the same principle,” my mother dismisses. “The fact that you’re risking your job means the world to me. I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to April, too.”
Is he risking his job? His job is the reason that we’re in this mess! I’ll have to talk to my mom as soon as Roman leaves. In the meantime, I realize that I’m not past the resentment towards Roman for not telling me that the Divinity Bureau sentenced my mother to die, and I’m not willing to talk it out with him yet.
I turn the television off and grab my bowl of cereal from the coffee table. As quietly as I can muster, I tip-toe away from the living room. I don’t want to take the elevator, in fear that it’ll make lots of noise. Instead, I walk up four flights of stairs, silently fuming. I’m only feet away from my bedroom when I hear the elevator ding.
I freeze. It’s probably my sister, I tell myself. It could also be my mother. Just as long as it isn’t Roman – please don’t be Roman. But when I glance towards the elevator, the one person that I don’t want to see is staring back at me. His mouth hangs open, looking just as shocked to see me as I am to see him.
“Hi,” he says breathlessly.
“Hello,” I say, swallowing the lump in my throat. “What are you doing here?”
“What I wanted to do the last time I was here,” Roman says, avoiding my eyes. “Are you mad at me?”
“I don’t know,” I admit, my words betraying my mind. “On one hand, I know that what happened wasn’t your fault; but I just can’t get past the fact that you knew.” My eyebrows furrow. I take a step closer to him and wag an accusing finger at him. “You knew! And you didn’t tell me!”
Roman hangs his head down. “I’m sorry. I just… couldn’t.”
“Because I’d lose my job,” Roman says, and at that moment, it all makes sense. He avoided me because he didn’t trust himself to keep his mouth shut. And for a guy that’s already living paycheck to paycheck, losing his job would mean losing everything.
He sighs. “Do you hate me?”
“I don’t know,” I say, unable to find the words to describe my emotions. “I just… I’m having a hard time differentiating between you and them right now.” By ‘them,’ we both know that I’m talking about the Divinity Bureau. “Logically, I know we need them. We’re already in the middle of an overpopulation crisis – and I can’t imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have anyone around to decide who lived and who dies. I’m glad that I don’t have to live through that, but it’s different when it’s someone that you care about. You can relate to that, right?”
“I can’t,” Roman says, flushing as though embarrassed by the truth. “Growing up, I wasn’t a social person. We couldn’t – not when there was work to be done. I’m still not, even to this day. I haven’t been able to fathom the idea of loss because I didn’t have anyone to lose – at least until I met you.”
I offer a smile, trying to make light of such a big confession. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing that you don’t have to worry about losing me.”
Roman hesitates on his next words. “That’s where you’re wrong.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. The concept is silly to me. I’m young and healthy, even if I haven’t been injected with BIONs yet. But something isn’t right. Roman’s face is scrunched together, as though he’s in pain.
“Roman, is there something you’re not telling me?”
It’s my mother’s election all over again.
I can see that he’s struggling to make a choice between telling me the truth and continuing to keep secrets from me.
“Is it about the bureau?” I press.
“Isn’t it always about the bureau?” Roman asks sadly. “That’s what it always comes down to.”
“But…” I can’t even think. “Why would you worry about losing me?”
“Because I already almost did.”
My knees buckle at that moment. I hold my weight against the wall.
“Did you ever ask why I was in that coffee shop the day before the report was released?” Roman asks. “I work on the other side of town. It’s well out of the way home for me. Why else do you think I’d be in the coffee shop on that day – one day before the election report was scheduled to be released?”
How close had I been to death without even realizing it?
“I was asked to run the election report for my boss, Finn,” Roman explains. He blinks rapidly, the memories coming back to him. “The crazy thing is that I wasn’t even thinking about the names on the list. Instead, I just kept thinking that this was my shot to prove that I could be more than just an IT Technician.”
One out of ten thousand.
It was like finding a drop of iodine in an ocean.
“But then I stumbled on your name,” Roman continues. He looks at his hands, as though they might have the answers. “Right next to it was your date of birth. I thought, ‘That’s weird. How does a nineteen-year-old girl end up on the election report?’ I thought it was a glitch – a broken filter, perhaps. But just in case, I went to your workplace to get a gauge on who you were – and I knew the second that I saw you that you didn’t deserve to be on that list, so I took your name out.”
“I can’t believe it,” I breathe, my mind still in shock. Roman had saved my life, and all these months, I had never known.
“I don’t know much,” he admits. “But from what I’ve heard, your family messed with some very dangerous people.”
I shake my head, unable and unwilling to believe that anyone in my family would do anything to put me in this situation. My relationship with my father was complicated, but he loved me. During the few times that he did visit us, he had spoiled me rotten. There’s no way he’d sell me out.
My thoughts are interrupted by Roman grabbing my hands. “I know you don’t believe me.”
“I don’t. I can’t.”
“It’ll sink in.”
“Will it?” I ask. “Even if it does, will it even matter? How long will it be before the Bureau realizes what you’ve done?”
“I don’t know,” Roman admits. “I’m doing everything I can, though.” He looks away. “Some of it is outright illegal.” I laugh at that. “But no matter what happens, I need you to trust me.”
“I trust you.”
Roman raises an eyebrow. “Do you? Because not too long ago, you were telling me that you couldn’t differentiate between the Bureau and me.”
I look away, realizing that he has a point. Despite my newly gained knowledge, there’s still a part of me that may never trust Roman simply for his association with the Divinity Bureau. “I want to,” I admit. “I just wish I could understand why you didn’t tell me all of this sooner.”
Roman sighs. “I know. I shouldn’t have kept it from you – but our relationship was going so well that I was afraid that it’d scare you off. Saying that I broke a few laws to save your life isn’t exactly an ideal first date topic.”
I laugh. “That is a little scary.”
“Then I would’ve never had the chance to kiss you,” Roman says, his voice cracking. “Or hold you. Or be with you.” He looks away. “The last few months have been the happiest of my life. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
With those words, I’ve forgiven Roman. I get on my toes to kiss him gently – but, starved of my affection, he wraps his arms around me and pulls me close. At that moment, I realize that I can trust him. There’s no safer place for me than right here.
He pulls away, taking a deep breath. His expression turns grim. “There’s one more thing that you should know.”
“You once asked me if I ever counted how many people have died since I started working for the Bureau.”
My breath catches in my throat. I’ve been so cruel to him. “Roman, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay,” he says, which makes me feel even worse. “I never counted how many people have died since I started working for the bureau. But I know how many people were on the list that I met you: ten thousand, four hundred and twenty-one.”
I inhale a breath, the number incomprehensible to me.
“I managed to save one,” he whispers. “I know that doesn’t seem like a lot; but to me, it counts for something.”
I pull him in for another kiss, light and chaste. As I pull away, I whisper, “Thank you.”