• “Freedom meant one thing to him—home.
    But they wouldn't let him go home.”
  • “Sit, Khải, you look bad.” She directed him to a stone bench that overlooked the water. He sat, and she brushed the hair from his clammy forehead with cool, soft fingers. “You need water.”
    When she tried to pull away, he wrapped his arms around her waist and held her close. “Don’t go.”
    “Okay,” she said, and she urged him to rest his cheek against her chest. Her fingers smoothed through his hair and along his scruffy jaw.
    He breathed her in. She smelled slightly different than she used to, like she’d changed laundry detergents, but he found the comforting feminine scent underneath it all. Her scent. The scent of woman and clean skin and Esme.
    The ash of incense slowly faded from his senses, and he let everything slip away but her. The sick feeling receded. He could breathe again. People began to walk by, a few at first, but gradually more. Still, he didn’t let her go. He needed her touch, her smell, the steady beating of her heart, her.
    “Mỹ,” his mom said, making Esme stiffen against him. “Come help me with—oh, never mind. I’ll have Quân help me.” His mom’s footsteps quickly retreated.
    Esme ran her fingers through his hair before asking, “We have eggrolls here. Want some?”
    “Not hungry.” It would take something catastrophic to lure him away from her right now. He was like a wounded beast who’d found a respite from the pain of his injuries. “Unless you want them?”
    She laughed a little. “No, I ate too many already.” She brushed her fingers across his scratchy cheek.
    He hadn’t thought he’d ever have this again, and he let his eyelids fall shut as he soaked up her touch. She was better than sunlight and fresh air.
    Time passed, he didn’t know how much, and his mom came back and said, “You two should go. Khải, take Mỹ home for me, ha?”
    “Cô, I can help clean up.” Esme pulled away from him, and he bit back a protest. He wanted to grab her arms and wrap her back around him like a scarf. “There are a lot of containers and—”
    “No, no, no, it’s all taken care of. People are leaving now. Go home,” his mom said, waving dismissively at them. “You’ll drive her, ha, Khải?”
    Esme’s mouth opened like she wanted to speak, and he quickly said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
    “Good, good.” His mom hurried away.
    He got up from the bench and took a deep breath. His head pulsed, but he hadn’t felt this good in days. “Let’s go, then.”
    “Are you better? We can wait,” she said.
    “Yeah, I’m better.” A bit achy and bruised inside, but improved. Pretty much the way he felt when he’d been sick for days and his fever finally broke. Except he’d never spiked a fever.
    As they walked to his car, he was intensely conscious of the respectful distance between them. She kept her fingers laced together, and the set of her shoulders was tense as she focused on the path ahead. Just two weeks ago, they would have held hands. Just two weeks ago, she’d been in love with him.
    Was two weeks enough time to fall out of love with someone?
    It made him a greedy bastard, but he wanted her love. He wanted to be her “one,” the recipient of her smiles, the reason for her smiles, her drug. She was his.
  • “Shukhov stared at the ceiling and said nothing. He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not...it had gradually dawned on him that people like himself were not allowed to go home but were packed off into exile. And there was no knowing where the living was easier – here or there. The one thing he might want to ask God for was to let him go home. But they wouldn't let him go home.”
  • “Freedom meant one thing to him—home.
    But they wouldn't let him go home.”