Hannah has been a prisoner of the Institute for her entire adult life. Though the Institute claims residents are there to be rehabilitated so they can rejoin society, everyone knows they are prisoners for life. Especially the Howlers, dangerous residents restricted to solitary confinement. But her friend, Mya, is dead set on escape, and Hannah is helpless to do anything but agree—even if escape means being forced to overcome her fear of the Howlers, fear of herself, and fear of what happens if they fail—or succeed.
Red-gray haze swarms me. Surrounds me. It stings my eyes, clogs up my nose and throat, smolders in my belly until it burns like fire. Like something writhing and ready to attack.
I flail blindly, lash out at the fog, fighting the fire inside me. It drags me down by the neck. Drags me under. Squeezes 'til I can't breathe.
I claw at the presence coiled around my neck. Let me go. Let me go! LETMEGO!
"Hanna." An urgent whisper.
I jolt awake to a hand covering my mouth, a figure lingering over me in the darkness. A scream gathers behind my lips.
"Don't scream." Another whisper. A white spotlight rolls across the windowpanes, lighting up the dormitory for half a second. The figure lies in the bed across from me. Choppy blond locks. Caramel-warm eyes. A familiar frown. Mya.
The scream dies in my throat, a sigh heaved in its place.
Mya takes her hand away from my mouth, takes my wrist carefully. "Eight minutes 'til the next sweep. We need to move. Everyone's in position."
My stomach twists like a ball of snakes. Everyone's in position. All the inmates in our dorm are ready for our breakout. But before that can happen, Mya and I have to open the door. Which means sneaking through the airshaft into the hall. We're the two smallest. Even though Mya's a full head taller than me, she's built thin. Just her and me. No one else. I grit my teeth and slide out of bed, silent as a shadow.
We creep between the dorm's slim cots, out of sight of the two guards at the door. We pass our fellow inmates, some feigning sleep, some watching wide-eyed. Only Mya and I can get them out. My stomach squirms.
At the back of the room, Mya ducks beneath a cot, retrieves a makeshift screwdriver from the springs, and curls against the low vent. She works smoothly, silently. The metal barely groans as she unscrews the vent and removes the cover from the air shaft. She half-crawls, half-shimmies, contorting her shoulder and arms to pull herself into the vent.
With a steadying breath, I follow. I'd follow Mya anywhere.
A decade's worth of dust clogs my nose and stings my eyes. Cold metal presses in on my left and right. Closing in. Like the isolation pods where they send inmates who need to calm down. I shut my eyes and shake my head. You have to move. Mya needs a lookout. You're the only one who fits. Now move!
Exhaling, I plant my hands and feet on the shaft walls and roll forward. I navigate by sound, by smell, by touch. The vent pops ahead of me: Mya shifting her weight. Bleach and mildew thick in the air: our dorm's bathroom cubicle. A blunted edge under my left palm: the back corner, angling toward the dorm entrance. My slick palms skid on the metal. My head swims. Two more turns, then the vent into the hall. Three minutes max.
"Almost there," Mya says from the darkness ahead of me.
Almost. Great. Get it together, Hanna.
Just before the last turn, a shriek tears through the silence, a ragged sound reverberating through the air shaft. My hand flinches away from the vibrating walls, but the noise has already skittered up my skin, clamped around the base of my neck like jaws. The silence resumes, tense and twitchy.
Please don't start. Please don't start.
Too late. A howl, then another, then more. Hundreds. Thousands. The din builds louder and louder, ratcheting higher, surrounding me. I wince, plug my ears, curl around myself, but the Howlers won't be stopped.
Every night. Why do they scream every night? Why won't the Institute just bash their brains in and be done with it?
Move, my mind snaps. You're running out of time. But my every muscle seizes. Rigid. Stiff. Useless.
My ears ring. My vision swims. I hear a taunting laugh blaring around me. The darkness writhes. My brain lights up, all anxiety and rage. I want to rip-tear-break. Smash up the vent. Tear down the walls. Anything to feel control again.
I shake my head, burying my face in my hands. My pulse throbs in my throat. I reach out for the big empty quiet inside myself, the place where all these foul feelings are snuffed out, but I'm already quaking in my boots. Make it stop. Make it stop.
"I've got you, Hanna," Mya whispers, shoving me down the vent back the way we came. "Hold on."
Make it stop. Make it stop.
The Howlers shriek around me, haunting me. They linger in the darkness, waiting to drag me down with them. How can I fight against them when I can't even hear them without cowering?
Quicker than expected, the darkness opens. The floor beneath me turns rough. Warm arms wrap around me. Pin me. Cradle me. I hear quiet voices under the howling:
"Why're they back so soon?"
"We're not getting out tonight?"
I clamp my hands over my ears. Go find your quiet. Go find your calm. It's inside you. You can do it. But I feel my fellow inmates peering through me, glaring at the frightened little girl who kept them from freedom. Again.
Mya curls around me, batting away the few inmates who approach. "Keep it down. Someone get the vent screwed on. Hanna, we gotta get back to bed."
By some miracle, the Howlers take a breather. Mya half-drags, half-carries me back to my bunk and pulls the blankets over me just before the spotlight rolls over the windows. I breathe into my pillow, scratchy and familiar. Mya lays a hand on my shoulder; I flinch away, curling into a tight ball. My chest tightens. It's over. For now.
Right on cue, the Howlers start screaming again, louder and longer, like an army of the dead at the castle's gates, sharpening their swords and chanting battle hymns.