Authors: Skye Malone
Book Three of the Awakened Fate series
Copyright 2014 by Skye Malone
Published by Wildflower Isle | P.O. Box 17804, Urbana, IL 61803
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text and any portions thereof in any manner whatsoever.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and incidents appearing in this work are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014906858
Cover design by Karri Klawiter
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Branches snapped beneath my bare feet and only the fact my skin had changed enough to handle it kept the twigs from hurting. A frigid wind rushed through the forest around us and rain drizzled past the trees, the drops feeling so much colder than the water we’d left behind.
“There should be a road soon,” I assured Zeke, silently praying it was true. I had no idea where we were, short of being somewherewaynorth of Santa Lucina, but I couldn’t believe we’d gone so far as to leave any trace of civilization behind.
Zeke didn’t respond. But for the few moments in the water when he’d sent a message to his sister, he’d hardly spoken a word, and when I glanced back, his gaze was locked on the forest floor in a way that made me doubt he was seeing it.
I hesitated and then kept walking. I didn’t know what to say. His brother, Niall, was a Sylphaen. He’d murdered Zeke’s dad, and nearly killed their oldest brother as well. And barely half an hour ago, he’d kidnapped me to bring me to his master, the ‘Wisdom’ Kirzan, for some kind of sacrifice. If not for Zeke coming after us and stopping him – and having to kill Niall’s accomplice in the process – I’d probably be in the custody of the Sylphaen right now.
On the one hand, I couldn’t thank him enough for saving me.
I just didn’t know what to do about the rest of it.
Or how to feel about the fact that, the moment we did find civilization, it’d be time to say goodbye.
Letting out a breath, I tried not to give into how much the thought hurt. Living in Kansas, I’d stayed away from the ocean for most of my life. I’d never even come near the sea till I’d snuck out of the house for a short vacation with my best friend a few weeks ago. It’d only been then that I learned I was actually dehaian, a fish-person mermaid thing like in storybooks. But that came with problems, one of the biggest of which was the fact that most of my kind could no sooner live on land for an extended period of time than they could fly to the moon. And they couldn’t travel far from the ocean either. If they tried, it’d draw them back with a compulsion so strong, it felt like they were going insane.
I knew. It’d happened to me the first time my parents – my adoptive parents, anyway – had tried to bring me back home.
But now that I’d survived changing into dehaian form, now that I’d been underwater and not died from the shock, my half-landwalker heritage meant that I might be able to return to Kansas, and perhaps stay there indefinitely too. Which, considering it’d get me away from Niall and the Sylphaen, was great.
It just meant leaving Zeke.
And the more I thought about it, the less comfortable with that reality I became. I knew there wasn’t really a choice, though maybe someday the Sylphaen would be dealt with and I could come back.
But in the meantime… it hurt.
Leaves brushed my side when I skirted past another bush, the feeling strange against the faux-swimsuit covering me – as if the plants were touching my skin, though to all appearances they were running up against an iridescent and vaguely scale-like fabric instead. Shifting my shoulders against the sensation, I continued down the narrow deer trail.
Time crept by as the path twisted through the undergrowth, and only my awareness of the ocean behind us kept me certain we were moving in the right direction. The rain picked up, becoming a steady downpour. My hair plastered to my face and I swiped water from my eyes with every few steps. Mud covered my feet while leaves and pine needles stuck to my legs. The gray sky overhead grew darker as the afternoon turned to evening, and cautiously, I let my eyes take on a hint of the dehaian glow just so I could see through the twilight.
And still the forest remained unchanged.
I swallowed hard as darkness settled around us. I didn’t know what we’d do if we had to spend the night out here. It was true that, as dehaians, we rarely needed to sleep, but I also hadn’t managed more than a few nightmare-interrupted catnaps in almost five days. Even for us, that seemed like it was pushing it, and the exhaustion dragging at my muscles felt like it agreed.
But I really didn’t want to sleep on the muddy forest ground. For that matter, I didn’t want to sleep at all.
A light flickered in the distance.
My heartbeat picked up speed as my gaze locked on the golden glow flashing behind the windblown leaves ahead. Breathlessly, I turned my head, not taking my eyes from the light.
“I see it,” he answered, his voice far more reserved than mine had been.
I glanced back to him questioningly.
His mouth a thin line, he hesitated and then twitched his chin in silent agreement for us to go onward.
We continued past the bushes, leaving the deer path finally when it curved away from the light. Branches swiped at me as we picked our way through the undergrowth, and soaked leaves slid like cold, clammy fabric across my skin and scales alike. Wind tossed the treetops as we neared the source of the light, and in the last shadows of the forest’s shelter, we paused.
It was a porch light. Affixed beside the green front door of a two-story house, it shone over the yard, revealing a dilapidated shed on the far end and a stack of firewood beneath a blue tarp closer by. In the driveway, an old, cream-colored pickup sat with a camper shell attached to its back. The house itself had once been white, though age had chewed away at the paint on the siding and the shadows swallowed its second story. Light glowed behind the curtains of a single window on the lower level, and as I watched, a shadow passed across it like someone moving within the house.
I glanced to Zeke.
His expression hadn’t changed.
“We need a phone,” I whispered. “I have to be able to call Baylie or someone to come get me.”
He didn’t respond for a heartbeat, and then gave a nod. “When they ask, our boat sank. We couldn’t save anything.”
“And pretend to be cold.”
“I am cold.”
He looked to me. “Colder.”
I hesitated, realizing what he meant. We’d been walking for hours in the rain, the wind and now the dark, all in swimsuits.
If I wasn’t dehaian, I’d probably have been freezing.
He nodded again. Drawing a breath, he made the faint glow fade from his eyes, returning them to normal human appearance. He pushed past the last of the branches and headed into the yard.
Swallowing nervously, I let my eyes do the same and followed.
The steps creaked as we climbed to the porch, and beneath the aged gold light of the lamp, I felt painfully exposed in the black night. As Zeke knocked on the chipped surface of the green door, I hugged my arms to my sides, not having to fake my shivering.
A moment passed. Heavy footsteps sounded within the house, coming closer.
The door opened a fraction, affording us a view of a hardwood floor and a burly man, while the smell of dinner cooking spread into the night air. Standing nearly seven feet tall, the man eyed us with alarm that turned to wary suspicion when he ran his gaze over the two of us in our swimsuits.
“Can you help us?” Zeke asked, a hard note of challenge in his voice despite the question.
The man’s brow furrowed. He looked past us to the yard, as though checking for anyone else there. “What are you doing out here?”
“Our boat sank,” Zeke told him flatly. “We barely got away, but we lost everything. We’ve been trying to find someone to help us since we made it to shore.”
The man paused. “Your boat?” he repeated as if testing the words for their sound.
For a moment, the man didn’t respond. “Huh. You, uh, you injured?”
Zeke shook his head. “Just cold and tired. We need to call our friends to come get us. Could we use your phone?”
Again, the man hesitated. His gaze returned to the yard, scanning it briefly, and then he nodded.
“I don’t have a phone,” he allowed. He pulled the door aside. “But, uh, yeah, come on in.”
Still hugging my arms close, I followed Zeke in. A sparsely decorated living room waited beyond the door, with a couch covered by brown blankets facing the cold fireplace. A scuffed coffee table sat between them, a dirty plate and an empty glass on top of its wood surface, while a weathered easy chair waited to one side with a reading lamp nearby. To our right, a stairway stretched up into the shadows of the second floor while a darkened kitchen lay past a narrow door on the other end of the living room.
And that was it. No pictures hung on the walls. Nothing warm or familiar dotted the room. Functional defined the space, as much as it defined the man still watching us. Dressed in a green flannel shirt with faded black cargo pants below it, his only concession to being at home seemed to be the fact wool socks covered his feet instead of the muddy work boots resting to one side of the door. With his graying hair pulled back in a rough ponytail at the nape of his neck and his salt-and-pepper beard reaching from his chin to the top of his chest, he looked like the kind of person who had little need for society, and could probably live quite happily without coming near it for years on end.
“Let me find you some blankets,” the man said, keeping an eye to us while he headed for the closet below the stairs. The door squeaked when he tugged it open and, a moment later, he came back with a pair of rough gray blankets in his arms. Handing one to each of us, he waited till we’d wrapped them around our shoulders and then motioned to the couch. “Take a seat. I’ll get you some…” He seemed to run a quick inventory in his head. “You drink coffee? I think I have decaf.”
“Sure,” I said when Zeke paused. “Thank you.”
We sat down while he left the room.
“Now what?” I asked softly.
Zeke didn’t respond, his gaze on the kitchen. The sound of running water came from farther inside, along with the clink of mugs. A moment later, the steam-puff noise of a coffee maker followed.
The man came back in. “Should just be a few minutes.” He crossed the room to his easy chair and sat down on the edge of it. Bracing his elbows on his knees, he folded his hands and regarded us both.
“You all from around here?” he asked finally.
Zeke shook his head. “Just on vacation.”
The man nodded. “Well, like I said, I don’t have a phone. No good getting cell signal out here, and the landline went down in a storm a few weeks back. Nearest place to make a call is down at the gas station about ten miles away.” He glanced to the window as if he could see past the curtains to the rain. “Not smart to be out driving in this weather, though.”
I kept my gaze from going to Zeke worriedly.
“I guess you all could crash here for the night, if that’s what you’d like?” the man offered cautiously. “I got a room upstairs you could use.”
Zeke paused and then looked to me, considering. “That’d work. Thanks.”
The coffee maker quieted in the next room. Still studying us, the man made no move to go retrieve the drinks.
I shifted uncomfortably at the scrutiny, my scale swimsuit feeling little better than bare skin beneath the scratchy blanket. “Would you happen to have, like, sweatpants or something I could borrow?” I prompted, pulling the fabric around me tighter.
He gave a slow shrug. “I don’t know as anything’ll fit you, but I can see what I got.”
His gaze stayed on me a heartbeat longer than Zeke, and then he drew a breath, pushing to his feet. He headed into the kitchen.
Zeke watched him go.
“We’re staying here?” I asked in a low voice. “We could walk to the gas station.”
Not taking his eyes from the doorway, Zeke’s mouth tightened. “You haven’t slept in a week,” he whispered. “Whether or not you reach Kansas, you’re still going to need every bit of strength you’ve got to travel far enough from the water that those bastards can’t find you.”
I hesitated as dishes clinked in the kitchen. I knew he was right. I hadn’t wanted to sleep, though. Not when every time I closed my eyes, memories returned of a blindfold closing over my head and people punching me in the darkness. Even thinking about it now made me shiver. But at the same time, I knew that, stranger’s house or not, if I closed my eyes I’d probably pass out where I sat. And it could be hours more till we found someone else to help us.
I paused as the man came back into the room, a pair of mugs in his huge hands. Murmuring our thanks, we both took them.
The bitter decaf spread through me, warm and relaxing despite the lack of sugar or cream. Wrapping my fingers around the ceramic sides of the plain mug, I watched the man while he headed upstairs.
“You sleep,” Zeke said. “I’ll keep an eye out, alright?”
I glanced to him. “Okay.”
He nodded, not quite looking at me. He took a sip from the mug and then grimaced at the taste and returned the cup to the table.
Silence fell while I finished my coffee. Everything felt awkward around him, and not just because of the strange surroundings or the fact his brother was a Sylphaen.
I still wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, with him so close. With what had happened between us in the cave still hanging in the air.
Footsteps clomped on the steps as the man came back down to the living room.
“Got you some stuff that might fit,” he said, his arms full of a mismatched bundle of clothes. “Though you, uh…”
He paused. “What’re your names?”
I swallowed. “Chloe.”
The man nodded thoughtfully. “Earl,” he offered. “So yeah, stuff might be kind of big on Chloe. It belonged to my girl. She, uh, she was a bit larger than you.”
His face tightened for a moment, something almost like anger flashing over his face, but before I could catch more than a glimpse of the expression, he covered it by turning away to set the clothes on the easy chair. Leaving the pile on the seat, he turned and headed to the kitchen without another word.
I hesitated and then stood, leaving the rough blanket on the couch. From the pile, I drew out a pair of jeans. Checking the tag inside, I saw they were a size or so above my own, but when I pulled them on, they weren’t so large as to be unwearable. A forest green tank top followed and I shifted around uncomfortably at the feeling of both it and the jeans on my scales.
Once I had a chance to do so without raising suspicion, I’d really have to change my skin further.
Earl came back in. He paused at the sight of me, his face tightening again, and I dropped my gaze away. I didn’t know what’d happened to his daughter, but it didn’t take a genius to see it wasn’t something good.
“Thank you for the clothes,” I said as Zeke rose and retrieved a shirt from the pile.
Earl nodded and continued into the room. He took my mug from the table and then hesitated briefly when he noticed Zeke’s cup was still full. Not saying a word, he picked up both and returned to the kitchen.
I sighed, exhaustion stealing over me as he left. The mere feeling of clothes brought back how long it’d been since I’d stayed on land for any length of time, and everything that’d happened between then and now.
Not the least of which was truly how little I’d slept.
I walked to the couch and sat down.
Zeke glanced back at me. “You okay?”
I nodded. “Just… yeah, tired.”
He watched me for a moment. “Hey, Earl?”
The man leaned his head out of the kitchen.
“That room you were talking about,” Zeke prompted. “You think you could show that to us?”
Earl nodded, and then jerked his head toward the stairs. Following his own direction, he walked over to the steps.
I pushed away from the couch, though my limbs didn’t seem to want to support the motion. Seeing me wobble, Zeke came over and took my arm. I started to protest the help even though his touch felt as warm and amazing as ever, but nothing seemed to respond, including my words.
I’d never been this tired in my life.
Together we crossed the room and climbed the steps, Earl going ahead of us. At the landing, he turned and walked through an open doorway just beyond the staircase.
Zeke led me inside. A queen-size bed waited to the left, covered in blankets not much different than the rough one I’d left downstairs. Twin windows flanked it, each of them partially shielded by ratty curtains and sunken into the wall with window seats on their bottom edges. A dresser stood at the far end of the room, its top as bare as the rest of the space.
I clung to Zeke while he continued toward the bed, my legs feeling heavier with every step. I lay down, not even bothering to pull back the rough blanket, and my eyes closed immediately when my head touched the pillow.
“You want something else to drink?” I heard Earl ask. “Not coffee?”
Zeke hesitated. “Sure. Thanks.”
My brow furrowed. Something felt wrong about that. About all of this. I couldn’t believe I was so tired.
And then sleep claimed me.
“…do it in Jeri’s old room.”
Earl’s words filtered through the cotton stuffing in my head, barely making sense.
“Yeah, well, seemed fitting.” He paused. “Listen, Richard, I called you as a courtesy, on account of how you said one got away from you yesterday. But it took me an hour after the girl collapsed to get the boy to finally conk out, and with that damn scum-sucker metabolism of theirs, you know I can’t promise either of ‘em will be down for long. You and your boys want any part of this, you better hurry up and get here.”
Alarm struggled through me, weighed down by an exhaustion that wanted to smother my mind back into sleep. Scum-sucker? He…
“Hang on,” Earl said as though interrupting someone. “One of them ain’t breathing the same as they were.”
My heart began to pound harder while I fought to open my eyes. Breathing? He sounded so far away. How could he hear anyonebreathing?
Footsteps clunked on the hardwood floor. Light pierced the blackness around me as I managed to lift my eyelids. I was on the bed, facing the doorway. In the window seat, Zeke was slumped, his head resting on the wall. The room was dark around us, though the hall light was on.
Earl came to the door. In one hand, he held a phone to his ear, and at the sight of me, he made an angry noise.
“What’d I tell you? The girl’s awake.”
He dropped the phone onto the window seat as he strode toward me, and all my dull commands to my muscles couldn’t make my body move. Striding past me, he retrieved something from the dresser and then returned with a sports bottle in his hand.
I tried to pull away, but he just reached down and grabbed my head from behind, lifting it toward him. With his teeth, he popped open the top of the bottle and then shoved it into my mouth.
Bitter-tasting liquid flooded my throat. I choked, the drink spewing from my lips, but he just dropped the bottle and clamped an enormous hand over the lower half of my face.
“Swallow,” he ordered.
I stared up at him. His grip tightened on my hair, tugging at my scalp.
Someone shouted angrily from the tiny speaker of the cordless phone, their words indecipherable. Earl’s face darkened and he glanced to the window seat.
Spikes crept from my forearms, finally answering the frantic signals from my brain. As he turned back toward me, I flopped my arm out like the dead weight it was, succeeding in catching his side.
With a pained cry, he lurched away, his hand leaving my mouth.
I spit the liquid out and struggled backward, half-crawling and half-tumbling from the opposite side of the bed.
“Zeke,” I croaked.
He didn’t move.
Earl made a furious noise while he straightened, clutching at his side. Blood darkened his flannel shirt.
But he didn’t look startled. He didn’t look surprised in the least by the tips of the iridescent knives protruding from my skin.
“What…” I tried. “Why are you…”
He glanced from me to Zeke, and then to the phone still laying on the window seat. Annoyance twisted his face. He reached over, retrieving the bottle from the floor, and then he returned his gaze to me.
Clutching the edge of the bed, I trembled. “Please. I’m not your enemy.”
“Tell that to my daughter.”
My brow furrowed.
He started around the bed. I scuttled backward, my legs still refusing to hold me, though the spikes listened and grew longer. Half-sprawled on the floor with my back to the wall, I lifted one of my arms in front of me like a shield.
“I don’t…” I managed, breathing hard with the effort of keeping my arm up. “I don’t know your daughter. Please.”
A snarl curled across his mouth. “Please,” he repeated scornfully.
He kicked my legs, toppling me sideways. His hand came down on my wrist, avoiding the spikes, and he twisted it. I shrieked as pain shot through my arm. Dropping the bottle from his other hand, he took my throat.
“Stab me again and I break your neck right now,” he growled.
Not waiting for a response, he shifted his grip from my throat to my other wrist and then yanked me with him. Like a flour sack, he dragged me from behind the bed and started across the room.
“‘Please’,” he muttered as he went. “That’s what you all come down to. You and your magic. Begging. You know she begged me too? My own girl. Begged me to kill her after what that scaly bastard did. After I finished him off. Said she couldn’t live without him.” He scoffed. “Him. First scum-sucker she’d found, and one she’d already started gutting like the fish he was. But then he got his hands on her and…”
Earl looked down at me. “You try any of that make-me-love-you shit on me, I’ll be sure I remember just enough to kill your boyfriend nice and slow right in front of you, got it?”
I stared up at him, screaming in my head for my limbs to move. For anything to start working. My arms were going numb from the angle at which he was holding them, and nothing in my body seemed to want to work right.
My gaze went to the window seat. “Zeke!” I cried. “Zeke, wake up!”
His brow furrowed, but he didn’t open his eyes.
And then Earl pulled me into the hallway.
Hardwood slid beneath my back and my legs bumped into the oak railings lining the stairwell. The light overhead glared in my eyes as we passed below it, and then Earl turned, hauling me into the shadows of another room.
My vision sharpened out of desperation when he shut the door. Painted shelves hung on the walls, with figurines of ballerinas and horses on them. Faded posters were taped nearby, featuring Hollywood stars and pop bands that had been famous nearly two decades ago. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, as though it hadn’t been touched in years.
Something like stiff fabric bunched up at my shoulders with a crinkling sound. Shifting his grip, Earl heaved me upward and then dropped me to the floor again.
I rolled my head to the side awkwardly. Plastic. I was lying on sheet plastic.
Heart pounding, I tried to push away from the ground, but my arms just tingled with numbness and wouldn’t hold my weight. I struggled to roll over, my gaze searching for Earl.
He was standing at a white-painted vanity, with a four-post bed covered in teddy bears and a white quilt nearby. Pink ribbons hung from the edges of the mirror, while an old strip of pictures like those taken at an amusement park photo booth was tucked into the space between the glass and its frame. Swiftly, my eyes picked out the details. Earl, though his beard was shorter and he was smiling, and at his side, a round-faced girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen with curly brown hair and an embarrassed expression that didn’t fully hide her grin.
Drawing a breath, he lifted a hand to the photos. In the reflection of the mirror, I could see his eyes close, pain and rage on his face in equal measure.
I shoved at the floor, succeeding in moving a few inches backward on the cold plastic. But my legs were still dead. Reaching down with one hand and not taking my attention from Earl, I rubbed at them frantically, trying to wake my muscles.
“Jeri was so good with a knife,” Earl murmured without opening his eyes. “I taught her since she was practically a baby and she was always so good.”
He exhaled sharply, as though pushing the memories aside, and he glanced back at me. “I found her in here, you know? Right about where you’re lying. After she’d…”
A shudder ran through him. He returned his gaze to the vanity and then he lifted a large hunting knife from its top.
In my head, I shouted for my legs to move, while spikes stood out from below my elbows to my wrists.
“She was right, though. She always kept my spirits up with her belief you scale-skins were still out there somewhere. And she was right.”
He turned, the enormous knife gripped in his fist.
Adrenaline made its way to my legs. Shoving awkwardly from the plastic, I scrambled toward the closed door, not taking my eyes from him. My hand fumbled for the handle.
The door was locked.
“You know the wonderful thing about your kind?” he commented, watching me. “You don’t exist. So no cops’ll come looking when you disappear.”
He strode toward me, the plastic crinkling beneath his feet. I felt desperately around the knob, trying to find the lock.
My fingers landed on it. Frantically, I turned it and then grasped at the knob again.
He lunged at me.
I dropped to the ground as the knife slammed into the white wood above my head. Swinging out frantically, I slashed at his leg, and he jumped back, narrowly avoiding the spikes. I twisted, reaching for the handle.
His hands grabbed me under my arms. With a snarl, he heaved me away from the door and flung me onto the plastic sheet.
I landed hard, the air rushing from my chest while stars burst across my vision. Gasping with pain, I blinked, trying to make my sight clear as I looked toward the door.
With a furious jerk, Earl yanked the blade from the wood and then turned to me.
His eyes flared red. Fissures radiated across his face, glowing like fire burned inside and spreading farther down his skin.
I stared, a whole new version of terror rushing through me as he started across the room. My hands pushed at the floor, my sweaty palms slipping on the plastic sheeting and my body protesting the motion. I retreated till the four-post bed brought me up short.
Earl smirked. His fingers adjusted on the hilt of the hunting knife.
Grabbing at the dusty quilt, I pulled myself upright, not taking my eyes from him. The faint moonlight beyond the windows caught on the blade of his knife, and beneath his feet, the crinkling of the plastic sounded as loud as the rapid pounding of my heart.
The door swung open. Earl paused, looking back.
Zeke stood in the hall, one arm bracing him on the doorframe. His face was haggard, and he breathed hard with the effort of keeping his feet, but rage colored his skin as he glared at Earl.
“Get… the hell… away from her,” Zeke growled.
Earl scoffed. With a quick motion, he hurled the knife through the doorway.
Zeke dropped to the floor as the knife flew past him to impale itself in the wall on the far side of the stairwell.
My gaze darted from Zeke to him. I lunged forward and drove my spikes into the enormous man.
Or tried to.
It felt like hitting a wall of rock. Pain reverberated through my arm, while the blades barely penetrated his side.
Earl looked back at me, disgust curling his lip.
His hand grabbed my throat.
I choked as the pressure of blood unable to escape filled my head. My fingers clawed at his grip and blackness flooded the edges of my vision. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, and my hands tearing at his might as well have been trying to bend stone.
By the doorway, I saw Zeke push back to his feet and charge at Earl.
The huge man seemed to hear him coming. Still gripping my neck, he twisted, his other hand catching Zeke.
With an inhuman roar, he threw Zeke backward, propelling him into the oak railing lining the stairwell. My heart froze as Zeke clutched at the wood, barely stopping himself from going over the side.
And then Earl turned back to me. His hand tightened on my neck and heat like a furnace poured from the cracks still spreading down his arm toward me.
“For my daughter,” he snarled.
I looked up at him. The pounding in my head was excruciating. Shadows were devouring the world. Nothing I could do would break his hold.
My hand clutched his and with everything I had, I willed him to give a damn about me. To love me. Care. Anything.
A shiver like electricity raced through my body, overriding the pressure in my head and the pain.
Earl stumbled and gasped, releasing me.
I crumpled to the ground while he staggered backward. Coughing, I pressed my palms to the slats of the hardwood floor, just trying to stop the world from spinning.
“What…” he stammered. “What’d you…”
My throat burned with every breath and my stomach roiled. I looked over at him, finding him staring down at me with confusion and fury waging an all-out war on his face.
“You… youbitch!” A shudder ran through him and he made a choked sound, as though his body rebelled at the word. “I…”
With a shaking hand, I grabbed at the side of the bed and dragged myself up. The world bucked and my legs wobbled as though neither of them wanted to hold me. Through the open doorway, I could see Zeke pulling himself back upright as well.
“Get away,” I rasped at Earl, and another shiver tingled through me, as if the aveluria magic affected my words as well.
The man shuddered again, his feet moving backward though the hatred on his face just increased. Gritting his teeth, he came to a stop and then shook his head, as if struggling to drive something from his mind.
His foot lurched forward.
“No,” I tried, every sound hurting. “S-stay back…”
He retreated a step. A cry escaped him, the noise somewhere between rage and anguish. Desperation twisted his face while his gaze skittered across the room, coming to rest on his daughter’s picture against the mirror.
A growl rumbled in his chest, growing louder. His body went rigid and his fists clenched. Fissures spread through his skin as though driven by an earthquake.
I shoved away from the bed. In a stumbling run, I bolted around him toward the door.
His hand swung through the air, grabbing at me and narrowly missing. With a snarl, he staggered after me.
Zeke caught me and pulled me with him from the doorway. Shoving me ahead of him, we ran for the stairs.
Earl was right behind us.
We reached the landing. My hand clutched the railing as we whipped around the turn.
Earl snagged Zeke’s shirt. With a roar, he yanked him backward and then drove Zeke through the open doorway of the room he’d shown us hours before.
Red eyes glowing, he turned to me.
“No,” I gasped. “No, stay–”
My back bumped into the wall. My hands plastered to it while I inched to the side, attempting to get away from the gaping opening of the stairwell.
A grimace of effort contorting his face, Earl reached for me.
Zeke slammed into him. I ducked as Earl staggered against the wall above me and then twisted to grab Zeke again.
I lunged and shoved him hard.
Earl stumbled sideways. His foot hit the top stair and slipped. Lurching backward, he fought for balance and his hands grabbed at the banister.
The ground shook as he crashed down the stairs.
And then the house was still.
My eyes locked on the stairwell. I barely breathed. Trembling, I tugged my gaze to Zeke. He looked like the hand bracing him on the railing was the only thing keeping him standing. Swallowing hard, I crept to the top of the staircase.
Earl lay on his side at the base of the steps, his arm pinned under him and his legs still sprawled on the stairs. On his skin, the cracks had mostly faded. His eyes were closed. But for the slow movement of his chest beneath his green flannel shirt, he showed no sign of life.
“Come on,” Zeke said, moving past me and cautiously descending the stairs.
I followed, not taking my eyes from Earl. We reached the first floor and, heart pounding, I stepped past the man, waiting for him to wake and grab at me again.
He didn’t move. The rain pouring down like water from a hose was the only sound.
I drew a breath, trying to keep myself from shaking while I looked around the living room. We needed to get out of here. He’d been talking to someone else on the phone. Someone like him, who wanted to hurt us.
Someone who, from the sound of it, could be on their way here right now.
The shaking got worse. With a trembling hand, I ran my fingers through the rat’s nest tangle of my hair.
My gaze landed on his car keys on the table beside the door. I froze, shivers running through me for a whole other reason.
I looked over at Zeke to find him regarding the keys too.
He met my eyes, and from his expression, he seemed to have the same thought as me. “You drive?”
He went for the keys.
My heart still racing, I looked back at Earl. At the wallet in his pocket.
We’d need money. We’d need gas and maybe food.
I couldn’t believe myself. My life. Any of this.
Barely daring to breathe, I approached him. He didn’t move when I crouched down, as far from him as I could be while still keeping him in reach. Gingerly, I drew the wallet from his back pocket.
My heart scrambled up my throat. Straightening as fast as my muscles could move, I backpedaled from him and retreated to Zeke’s side. His eyes fastened on the man, Zeke pulled open the door.
We headed outside.
The night beyond the porch was pitch black and rain gushed down in a torrent. With legs that felt like rubber, I jogged across the sodden yard toward the truck, with Zeke coming behind. The doors weren’t locked, and when we pulled them open, the smell of dust and old motor oil filtered into the rainy night air.
We climbed in, the musty bench seat squeaking loudly beneath us. The engine growled when it kicked over, and the gearshift by the steering wheel locked into reverse at my frantic tug.
The front door opened again and light from the house spilled into the yard. One arm hanging awkwardly at his side and the other bracing him on the wall, Earl gave a furious shout at the sight of us in his truck.
He started down the stairs.
I flattened the pedal to the floor and sent the truck flying backward. Crushing my bare foot to the brake, I took only long enough to throw the gearshift into drive and crank the wheel in a turn, and then we were off again.
The truck raced down the dark road, carrying us away from Earl.
I didn’t know where we were going and I was fairly certain Chloe didn’t either.
Though I doubted either of us cared.
My ribs ached from hitting the rails beside the stairs and my body felt like it’d been run over by the rig of a deep sea trawler. For her own part, Chloe looked like she’d gone a dozen rounds with a giant squid and barely survived. From the darkening skin around her neck to the marks I’d spotted on her shoulders and arms, there didn’t seem to be an inch of her that wasn’t banged up somehow.
I hated the sight of it and my stomach roiled at the thought of what that bastard had been about to do to her. In all of dehaian history, I’d never heard of anything like the monsters we’d encountered in the past day. But between that Noah guy and now Earl, I was starting to wonder how many people over the years who I’d thought were human had actually been those greliaran things in disguise.
Another wave of dizziness rolled through me and I rested my head against the cold glass of the window, waiting for it to pass. That psycho had given us something, and that something was taking a damnably long time to wear off.
“You okay?” Chloe asked over the roar of the rain.
I looked over. In brief twitches, she pulled her gaze from the road to glance at me worriedly. With effort, I buried a grimace. “Yeah,” I replied, straightening again. “You?”
She nodded. Her hands adjusted their death grip on the steering wheel while she returned her focus to the track ahead. The twin lights of the truck illuminated the narrow gravel path, though the night swallowed the forest on every other side. With an emerald sheen, her green eyes glowed, obviously compensating for the darkness.
I watched her, not believing the silent answer for a moment.
But from the way she shuddered every few seconds, I also got the feeling that pushing her was a really bad idea right now.
The track widened and the truck bounced over holes in the gravel surface. The line of trees pulled farther back, giving the rain more opportunity to pound down and turn the grassy ditches on either side of the road to deep water and mud. In misleading curves that felt more maliciously random than anything, the road twisted, heading first away from the ocean and then gradually toward it again.
But no signs appeared. Nothing showed where we were, not even the invisible stars overhead.
Lights glared as a maroon SUV raced around the turn ahead. Chloe hissed with pain, wincing while she quickly adjusted her eyes back to normal human sight. The SUV flew by, passing only inches from the truck’s side.
Red light flashed behind us. I twisted in the seat in time to see the vehicle come to a sharp stop.
Chloe muttered a desperate curse.
“What?” I asked.
“When I woke up, I heard Earl calling someone. They sounded like they might be the same as him.”
Trying not to swear as well, I looked back at the SUV. It was turning around. Inside, I could see the shadowy forms of five people so big, it was hard to believe they’d fit in the vehicle.
And then the SUV’s rear tires hit the side of the road. Hit the mud and the water, and the vehicle lurched down. For a heartbeat, the SUV stopped, and then the other tires spun on the slick gravel and the vehicle rocked, as though trying to drag itself from the mud.
“They’re stuck,” I told her. “Go!”
The truck accelerated as Chloe pushed the pedal farther toward the floor. A curve in the road swallowed my view of the SUV.
Chloe kept going. Small sounds escaped her while the tires slid, barely keeping to the wet road. A triangular sign bearing the word ‘yield’ flashed past as the road curved again and joined a broader strip of concrete. With a quick glance over her shoulder, Chloe raced the truck through the turn, sending it skidding onto the highway ahead of a semi.
Angry honking followed us as we sped away.
“Anything?” Chloe asked.
I looked back. “No.”
A breath left her. On the wheel, her hands shook and she adjusted her grip distractedly.
“Chloe,” I tried.
She didn’t respond. Breathing hard, she tossed short glances to the mirror, checking the road, and then steered the truck around another semi in our path.
I returned my gaze to the highway. I wanted to reach out and take her hand. I wanted to do something, anything to calm her. But I wasn’t sure it’d be welcome. In fact, I was pretty certain it wouldn’t, given how tense things had been between us for the past day. At best, I’d just upset her more. At worst, I’d startle her enough to accidentally send the truck careening from the road.
And so I did nothing and hated myself for it.
Life had never been as complicated as it had become in the past few weeks. Hell, the past few days alone were more complicated than anything else combined. We’d managed to survive that behemoth, and an attack by mercenaries before that.
And my brother.
I closed my eyes, drawing a breath to steady myself. I still didn’t know what to think about that. How to feel. Niall had joined the Sylphaen. He’d killed our dad, or at least agreed to let it happen, and nearly killed our older brother Ren as well. He’d lied to me, to Ina, to all of us for years, and never once gave any sign he’d thrown his loyalty in with those psychopaths.
And a few hours ago, he’d kidnapped Chloe with the intent of killing her to somehow gain abilities he claimed she possessed.
I didn’t know what to believe anymore. I was just so angry I felt like taking on a shark.
Opening my eyes, I locked my attention on the terrain while I tried to calm down. I’d deal with Niall. Fix this somehow. I’d make it so that Chloe really could be safe in Nyciena, and my sister and Ren too, and get the Sylphaen away from us once and for all. The woman Niall had worked with, Liana, was already gone. I’d killed her – an act I knew I should feel… something… about, even if I couldn’t figure out what. And the rest of them would be stopped. I’d get back home and I’d make Ren understand that had to happen.
But later. It would have to come later. At the moment, the ocean was still full of those bastards. I needed to get Chloe away from here.
Even if I had no clue where ‘here’ was.
I scanned the landscape beyond the road. The rain had slowed over the past few minutes, becoming nothing more than a light drizzle. Moonlight pushed past the thinning cloud cover, silvering the trees and the wide fields that interrupted them. In the shadows, enormous houses nestled on the far sides of the open spaces, darkened for the night with only the occasional security light to draw attention to their presence.
It all felt surreal, and not just because I’d never ridden in a truck, or even a car, before. The sensation of flying over the ground without moving a muscle was incredible, to be sure. But I’d never traveled so far from the ocean that the air didn’t carry its salty smell and gaps in the terrain didn’t show glimpses of the water. It was so strange.
And it was starting to become uncomfortable.
I swallowed as a prickling sensation ran over my skin. We were crossing more than a mile a minute, if the markers by the roadside were any indication. It wouldn’t be long till the discomfort became so strong, I couldn’t go any farther.
Fighting back a grimace, I shifted on the seat. That was the point. When I reached the limit of how far I could go, any Sylphaen would have too. And that’d mean Chloe was safe.
Though there were still the behemoths we’d left in the SUV to consider.
And maybe they couldn’t travel far from the ocean either. Or maybe they wouldn’t be able to track her, now that we’d left them stuck on that little country road. The point was, the more distance she had from this place, the more she’d stand a chance of escaping the people who’d tried to hurt her.
Of course, she’d also be alone.
The prickling on my skin increased. I couldn’t help that. I could only get her as far from here as possible and then head back to deal with Niall. He’d sworn he wouldn’t touch Ina, and I’d warned her about him besides, but he’d also been lying for damn near half a decade.
I couldn’t risk him hurting my sister.
And I didn’t want to leave Chloe by herself, miles from her home.
My brow furrowed as I pushed the last thought away. What I wanted didn’t matter. The ocean and the fact I was dehaian wasn’t going to give me a choice.
Light glowed against the night sky while we descended toward a city and then gradually followed the curving highway around its edge. The miles sped past, and time did too, and soon the night swallowed the city again.
I felt like someone was running razors over my skin.
Shivering, I adjusted my position on the seat. Just a bit farther, and I’d tell her we needed to stop. That she had to go on alone.
A mile flew by. The razors dug deeper, bit into my muscles and bones, and tugged like a thousand fishhooks trying to drag me back toward the sea. A short gasp escaped me at the pain and involuntarily, my hand twitched for the door handle.
“Zeke?” Chloe called worriedly.
I couldn’t move to look at her and my voice felt lodged in my throat. I pulled a ragged breath through gritted teeth, trying to find a way to speak.
“Oh God, Zeke!” she cried. “I’m so sorry! I wasn’t even–”
She steered the car to the side of the highway and came to a quick stop. Twisting on the bench seat, she grabbed my hands.
A feeling like the ocean itself spread from my fingers and up through my arms, driving the pain away. Blinking, I looked over at her.
“What?” she asked, confused by my expression.
“What did you do?”
Her head shook. “Nothing.”
I stared at her while the feeling of razors and fishhooks melted away as though it’d never been. “You made it stop. The pull of the water.”
Chloe’s brow furrowed in desperate bafflement. “I-I didn’t… I was just worried.”
Her gaze dropped to our hands. Swallowing hard, she inched her fingers from mine.
The pain didn’t return.
“Are you still okay?” she asked.
She echoed the motion, seeming shaken. Drawing an unsteady breath, she put her hands back on the steering wheel and glanced to the highway.
A semi flew past, its lights silhouetting her briefly before it was gone.
“Bit farther then?” she asked without turning back to me.
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
She nodded again. The truck pulled onto the road.
I watched her as a minute crept by. Her hands flexed on the steering wheel every few moments and her face looked like she was keeping herself calm by willpower alone.
“Howareyou going to get back?” she asked quietly.
“Figured I’d walk. Maybe hitchhike.”
She paused. “That’s pretty dangerous.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Another moment passed.
“We probably should stop soon then,” she said, her eyes still on the road and her voice small.
I didn’t respond. I needed to get back to protect Ina. I didn’t want to leave Chloe alone.
Her gaze twitched to me questioningly. “But, if you’re going to make it back safely–”
She hesitated and then gave a tiny nod.
The truck continued down the highway to the glow of lights from passing cars and the growl of the tires over the concrete.
One of her hands left the steering wheel and reached over to me. Her fingers wrapped around mine, gripping them tightly, and I could feel her trembling.
Fields swept by, with distant houses picked out by security lights like land-bound stars.
“Areyouokay?” I asked carefully.
Her eyes didn’t leave the road. “Fine.”
I put my other hand on top of hers. I felt her tense.
“We probably should still stop at some point. Just to rest for a bit.”
She shook her head. “I’m alright.”
I paused. “Yeah,” I agreed, though I suspected that wasn’t remotely true. “But you still need to sleep eventually.”
Her hand quivered in mine.
An exit sign flew past, and its corresponding road too. I saw her gaze flick toward it and then back to the road.
I let out a breath, uncertain what to do. She couldn’t keep going like this. Not all the way back to Kansas, however far away that was.
“There’s nowhere to stop,” she argued, a touch desperately. “Hotels will probably want ID and we don’t–”
“Just pull over somewhere. Away from the highway.”
She stopped herself from glancing to me and kept driving.
A mile passed, and then several more. Another exit sign came into view and in the distance, I could see reflectors marking where its road began. The night swallowed everything else, and the country highway the exit led to showed no signs of civilization along it for miles.
My hand tightened on hers.
She guided the truck onto the exit road.
I didn’t say anything while we continued on, leaving the interstate in the darkness behind us. At the tiny intersection of a gravel road, she turned again, and when the highway had vanished from view, she pulled the truck from the path and came to a stop.
She lowered her hand from the steering wheel.
“Why don’t you want to sleep?” I asked her quietly.
A heartbeat passed.
“Brings it back,” she whispered.
My brow furrowed. “Brings what back?”
“What they did. Locking me up. The blindfold. The…”
She shifted her shoulders as though trying to get away from something.
Memory filled in the blanks. Even before Earl had attempted to kill us, there’d been the Sylphaen. That bitch, Liana, and her people who’d beaten Chloe when they dragged her from the pit Ren had put her in.
I took a careful breath, fighting to keep my anger at them from my tone. “I understand.”
Her gaze flicked toward me, not meeting my eyes.
“But,” I continued, “this is hurting you too.”
Her brow twitched down.
“You’re safe, Chloe. They’re not going to find us. The Sylphaen can’t even come inland this far.”
She looked up at me, her green eyes glowing faintly in the darkness.
“You’re safe,” I said again. “You…”
I hesitated and then reached over, unbuckling the seat belt holding her. I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know if she’d let me.
“You can sleep,” I told her. “I’ll stay awake. I’ll… I’ll keep the memories away.”
Beneath my hand, I felt her tremble. For a moment, she hesitated, and then she inched across the seat toward me.
Gently, I pulled her closer, a breath leaving me at finally having her in my arms again. I could feel her shaking when she laid her head on my shoulder, and carefully, I lifted my hand, brushing the auburn waves of her hair from her cheek.
“Just sleep,” I whispered as she closed her eyes. “It’s going to be okay.”
I opened my eyes to sunshine pouring through the windows and the warmth of Zeke beside me. We were leaning against the door, his arms held me close, and my hand was on his chest.
A blush raced up my neck. Pushing away from the seat, I looked over at him. “I, um… ”
“Good morning,” he said into my awkward pause, a smile tugging at his lips.
I hesitated. He didn’t appear upset. And why would he? Zeke seemed like he’d wanted what had happened between us so far. I’d been the one to bring it to a stop.
Even if I’d wanted it as well.
I dropped my gaze from his. I’d been too tired last night to argue. Too tired to do more than welcome the chance to avoid the nightmares I’d known were waiting. And he’d felt wonderful, holding me in his arms.
He always felt wonderful.
My face grew hotter. “Morning,” I replied, my voice hoarse from the bruises I could feel on my neck. I shifted on the seat to pull away.
“Hey,” he said.
I shook my head, the motion jerky and totally a lie. “Nothing.”
He paused. “Chloe.” His brow furrowed when I looked up at him. “Listen, I’m sorry about yesterday. Us. That’s not how I wanted…” The furrows deepened. “Well, any of that to be.”
“You didn’t?” I replied, confused.
He blinked. “No, I-I mean, I wanted that. I just didn’t mean to make things so…” he seemed to search for a word, “uncomfortable.”
I hesitated, not sure what to say. There was so much more to it than just those few minutes in the cave – amazing, awkward, mistaken, and incredible as they’d been.
“About that…” I began, shifting around to a more upright position on the bench seat.
His eyebrow rose.
“Back in Nyciena.” I drew a breath. “Everyone kind of had this idea about, um, us. About how we…”
His curiosity changed to discomfort as he understood. “Ah.”
I waited, not quite looking at him.
“Let me guess,” he supplied. “Ina said something.”
“Not really. It was mostly those Deiliora girls and Count Velior.”
“Velior?” he repeated, his voice hardening.
I gave a small shrug.
Zeke looked away, shaking his head to drive the anger from his face. “Sorry. That guy’s just such a…”
He trailed off.
“What is it you’re after, Zeke?” I asked quietly. “Really? Because they made it sound like you–”
“It’s not that,” he cut in, his tone harsh.
I was silent.
Zeke took a breath, still not turning back toward me. “I know the reputation I have. I know what some people say. And mostly…” He shook his head. “I’m not going to say they’reright, but I know what it might look like. But you’ve got to understand, where I come from this is all a game. Both sides, they know that. They prefer it that way. No one ever wants anything serious, or hardly ever, because they’re only after fun and what favors they can get.”
He paused. “And then there’s you. And you’re not like that. You don’t care about titles, or what advantage you can gain. With me, you’ve always just been… you. Even after you knew what and who I was, you didn’t change. You were still just you. Beautiful, real,you.” He gave a soft, incredulous chuckle. “You didn’t evencarethat I was a prince.”
I tried not to grimace. It wasn’t fair to say I hadn’t cared. I’d been shocked beyond words. I hadn’t known what to–
He seemed to pick up on my discomfort. “Not like the people where I’m from care,” he explained gently. “I’ve never known anyone like that. Not in my entire life. And even though you’re fascinating, and incredible, and I’ve wanted to be with you for, well,” the chuckle came again, “alotlonger than I let myself know… I think I was afraid that if I got caught up in that or changed how things were between us, I’d just screw everything up.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to risk losing what I had with you.”
I swallowed, struggling to find words. He could be lying. Could be, except that if he was, his voice and face would put every con artist in history to shame. And then there was the simple question of who to believe. Zeke, who’d repeatedly risked his life to save me. Or a bunch of people I barely knew and couldn’t stand anyway.
“I don’t either,” I whispered.
For a moment, he was silent. His fingers found my own and his head cocked to the side questioningly, his gaze on our hands.
“This isn’t going to be the part where you tell me you just want to be friends, is it?” he asked carefully.
His eyes rose to meet mine.
A shiver ran through me. “Do you want it to be?” I replied just as carefully, my heart pounding.
He shook his head. “No.”
I hesitated, and then came back toward him.
His hand lifted, taking my cheek, drawing me to him. His lips pressed to mine, warm, soft and as wonderful as I remembered. Gently, his fingers ran through my hair and down to my neck.
My lips parted, inviting the kiss to deepen.
He didn’t hesitate. His tongue slipped between my lips, exploring me even as I explored him. His hands moved down my body, brushing against my breasts and continuing on. My heart raced as his fingers slid beneath my tank top to caress my sides and the small of my back. Tingles quivered through my skin everywhere he touched, like tiny bursts of electricity that felt so amazing it was hard to breathe.
And finally I realized what he’d been doing.
It only took a thought. The shiver of magic left me.
Zeke tensed, his breath catching. His fingers tightened on me and he gave a soft groan.
The magic coming from him intensified.
Time skipped. Stopped. Didn’t matter. I wanted more of him. I wanted everything. My mind flashed to the camper-covered back of the truck. To what we could do there, with more room. With the rough, old blankets on the metal floor and how incredible he would feel. His hands on my skin. His hands everywhere. And not just that.
But it scared me too. I’d never been like this with anyone – I’d scarcely evenkisseda guy before this summer – and as much as I wanted to be with him now, wanted it so much I could scream, I… I didn’t know. This was going so fast and I wasn’t sure…
His magic faded. His lips broke from mine.
I pulled back and looked at him, unable to keep the uncertainty from my expression. Beneath my hands, I felt his heart pounding, but when his gaze searched my face, I could see understanding come into his eyes.
He reached up, brushing back a strand of my hair.
“It’s not just that,” he whispered, the words so much softer than they’d been only moments ago.
I trembled. “I-I’m sorry. I–”
His expression became insistent. “Chloe, no. Don’t be sorry. Please. I don’t want to mess this up, remember? I’m…” A breath left him, the sound almost like a chuckle. “Well, don’t get me wrong. I’m more than willing, and whenever you want to…” He smiled and a quiver ran through me at the look in his eyes. “But if you’re not comfortable with that right now, it’s not worth the risk of ruining this to me. I just want you, Chloe. However you choose to be with me, whatever we do, I just want you.”
Hesitantly, I gave a small nod.
He drew me close, kissing me again.
“So,” he asked when we parted, “how far is it to Kansas?”
I shrugged. “Maybe a thousand miles or so.”
His eyebrow rose and he nodded thoughtfully. “We’re not going to just drive straight there from here on out, are we?”
A smile pulled at his lips again as he looked to me askance.
Incredulity bubbled up. “Y-you’re going to…”
“Well, I’ve never seen Kansas,” he replied with a casual shrug.
“But what about Ina and–”
I cut off, not wanting to ruin everything by bringing up Niall.
His flippant expression faded. “I need to make sure you’re safe too,” he said quietly. “From the Sylphaen and those greliaran things and anything else as well. I know you can take care of yourself – I’m not saying you can’t – but I’d still like to try.
“And besides,” he continued, and I could hear the hurt in his voice. “Niall’s after you. You and Yvaria. Ina’s not a threat to that, and Ren…” He took a breath, shaking his head. “I warned her. And Ren will believe Ina long before he’d ever listen to me.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “But–”
“Chloe,” he interrupted.
I looked back at him.
“This is my choice,” he said. “Iwillgo back. I’ll make Ren understand that the Sylphaen are real even if I have to drag him up to their caves myself. I’m going to fix this so that you can return to the ocean and this…” He twitched his head toward the land around us. “This doesn’t have to be forever for you. I’m not going to lose you, Chloe. I won’t. But before I leave, I need to know you’re someplace safe.” He paused. “Please.”
I hesitated, wanting to protest even if I couldn’t figure out what to say. “Okay…”
Zeke smiled. “Thank you.”
His smile grew. He leaned closer, kissing me.
“A few more miles, eh?” he suggested when he drew back again.
An answering grin tugged at my lip, though I still wasn’t sure I was comfortable with taking him farther from his family.
Even if it was his decision.
Drawing a breath, I nodded and then scooted back to the driver’s seat.
The engine grumbled as I turned the key in the ignition. With a growl of tires on the gravel, I pulled the truck out onto the road and headed for the interstate again.
We made it another fifty miles before the gas tank wanted refilling and presented us with the issue of bruises and shoes.
“I never got that,” Zeke said. “What’s humans’ deal with shoes in public places?”
Studying the front door of the gas station, I shrugged. “Disease, maybe? Not getting sued for injuries?”
He made a considering noise.
My mouth tightened as the sliding door rolled back and a rotund man in a cowboy hat walked out. Behind the register, the cashier watched him go, just as he had every other customer in the past ten minutes. He didn’t look like the nicest person, with the way he scrutinized everyone as though daring them to steal things or break some rule. Meanwhile, the sticker on the pump next to us demanded that we prepay for any gas, leaving us with little choice but to deal with the clerk.
Even if, after so many days of every other person I’d met wanting to kill me, I would’ve done almost anything to avoid someone so obviously confrontational.
I sighed. This was the only gas station I’d seen at this exit. I didn’t know where the next stop would be. And there did appear to be a display of flip-flops just inside the entrance.
It’d have to do.
I glanced to Zeke and then pushed open the truck door. The hinges protested with a rusty squeak, the noise painfully loud in the relative quiet of the morning. Warm summery air swept around us from the empty field across from the gas station, while the trees near the parking lot rustled with the wind.
Leaving the truck by the gas pump, we walked toward the station door.
“Uh, excuse me,” the clerk said the moment the door opened. “You can’t come in here like that.”
I glued a grin to my face and headed for the rotating stand of flip-flops, my heart pounding.
His narrow face tightened behind his large glasses. “Isaid, you can’t come in here like–”
“Hang on,” I told him.
Grabbing a pair of flip-flops and leaving Zeke to find another, I strode up to the register.
“It was this or track all kinds of mud into your store,” I lied. “You wouldn’tbelievehow messed up we got, trying to push our truck out of a ditch. I hope you don’t mind.”
I gave him the best smile I could, hoping he didn’t comment on the lack of mud on my jeans or the truck outside. Zeke came over, setting his sandals down as well.
The clerk regarded us for a moment. “What happened to you?” he asked, jerking his chin toward the bruises on my neck.
I swallowed, holding onto the smile. “I told you,” I said as though it was obvious. “Car trouble.”
His mouth curled with annoyance. Snagging the flip-flops from the counter, he contented himself with a glare and then rang them up quickly.
“And eighty bucks of gas for pump six, please,” I added, handing him the lone credit card from Earl’s stolen wallet.
He glared again. I held my breath, waiting for him to protest the name on the card. But he was too busy eyeing us, and barely glanced to the thing while his fingers smacked the buttons of the register.
“Thanks,” I told him, scrawling something on the receipt resembling a signature and then taking the card back swiftly.
We slipped into the flip-flops and then retreated from the store as fast as possible.
“Good grief,” Zeke commented.
I made a noise of agreement.
We filled up the gas tank, feeling the eyes of the clerk on us all the while. Not looking back at the store, I climbed into the truck, half-expecting to hear a shout about the stolen card behind me. With a growl of the ancient engine, I started the truck and then pulled away from the station.
A breath left me for what felt like the first time in minutes.
“You okay?” Zeke asked.
I nodded. “Just nervous.”
He reached over, taking my hand. “We’re doing good.”
Making myself continue breathing, I nodded again. I hated that we’d had to use the credit card, despite the fact I knew there wasn’t nearly enough cash in Earl’s wallet to get us home. I could only hope that, if we saved the cash for later, we’d stand a chance of keeping him from tracking us all the way back to Reidsburg.
Flicking the turn signal, I waited for a car to pass and then pulled onto the onramp. Traffic on the interstate was picking up as the clock on the dash ticked toward midmorning, but as far from big cities as we were, there was still plenty of space for us to merge back onto the highway.
My breath caught and I tensed, sitting up straighter as a semi in front of us moved to the left lane, affording me a view of the cars ahead.
Including the maroon SUV with five huge guys inside.
Zeke glanced from me to the road. “No way,” he said, shaking his head incredulously.
Heart pounding, I swept my gaze over the vehicle. The Washington license plate was familiar. I couldn’t remember the exact numbers – it’d been dark and I’d changed my eyes back to mostly human when the vehicle came around the turn – but they still looked like they might be the same. And those gorilla-sized guys, I remembered that.
How the hell could they be here?
I slowed down and changed lanes swiftly to get behind the semi again. With a quick glance to the rearview mirror, I pressed the brake and let the truck’s speed drop till cars started swerving around us. Ignoring the angry glares, I scanned the side of the road, praying for an exit.
“How’d they know to follow us here?” Zeke asked.
Wracking my brain, I didn’t answer. Minutes crept by until another exit sign finally appeared and, with a quick glance to confirm the maroon SUV hadn’t taken the off-ramp as well, I veered across the lanes and sent the truck racing from the highway. At the stop sign at the end of the ramp, I paused, watching the SUV continue down the interstate.
Swallowing hard and trying to stay calm, I took a right. A small town surrounded us, and every passerby who glanced our way made me tense all over again. After an eternity, we reached a gravel road several miles beyond the city limit. I turned the truck down the path, continued for a few moments, and then finally pulled it off onto the grassy shoulder.
Immediately, my gaze went to the rearview mirror.
No one was following us.
My hands shook when I lowered them from the steering wheel. How had they known? We could have driven anywhere. For that matter, we were dehaian. If they knew what we were – and everything Earl had said made it seem like they did – they’d never think we’d be able to drive this far inland.
It might be unrelated. They might just be on vacation or something.
Nothing in me could be made to believe that.
I twisted in the seat, not satisfied with the view the mirrors were giving me. They had to have learned our plans somehow. In the hours since we left Earl’s, they must have–
“Earl,” I said.
I looked to Zeke, horror moving through me. “We told him. We–”
Letting out a breath, I attempted to slow down. “The greliarans. They can hear like crazy. When I woke up at his house, Earl could tell my breathing had changed from down the hall. And when we were in the living room, before he drugged us–”
Zeke swore. “I said Kansas. When he was in the kitchen, I said Kansas.”
He exhaled, grimacing like he was doing a lot more swearing inside his head. And then he paused. “Those middle states are fairly big, though, right? So they won’t have any idea beyond that of where we’re heading.”
“Yeah, but if they’re going there, they must have some kind of a plan.”
“Maybe. But do a lot of interstates run there?”
I thought for a moment. “No. Not from the east, anyway. There’s really just the one, and then a bunch of smaller roads.”
“So maybe they’re thinking to catch up with us now, or else wait for us where the highway enters Kansas. They probably figure we don’t know they’re after us, so we’d take the most direct route.”
“Yeah.” Another thought occurred to me. “But…”
“The credit card. Earl could track it. If he’s watching his account, he’ll know where we’ve been. And with this gas guzzler…” I shook my head. “There’s a decent amount of cash in that wallet, but definitely not enough to get back on it alone.”
Zeke hesitated. “Okay,” he allowed. “Then what about this? We leave the main road, but we loop back to it once. Just to use the card, get gas, and make them think we’re still on the highway. That’ll give us a bit more distance toward your home. Then we leave the interstate for good and use the cash for as long as we can.”
I stared at him.
“Dad made us study strategy and tactics growing up,” he explained, a touch chagrined.
He shrugged. “So is there someone in your town who would come get us? If we run out of money, I mean.”
I tried not to grimace. Baylie might not be back yet. I still didn’t know how to explain this whole dehaian thing to her.
And I’d have to face them sooner or later.
“My parents,” I said, attempting to keep the reluctance from my voice.
He seemed to hear it anyway. “Would that be alright?”
“It’s awkward,” I explained. “They’re landwalkers. They adopted me. Never told me. Lied to me my whole life.”
I cut off, anger boiling up like a wound I’d forgotten about suddenly starting to bleed again.
“Last time I saw them… it didn’t go well,” I finished.
“You want to do this, then? Go back there?”
I shrugged. “Not much choice, right?”
Zeke paused. “We could come up with another plan.”
I looked over at him. It was tempting.
But I couldn’t run forever. And he needed to get home too.
“It’ll be okay,” I said.
A heartbeat passed before he nodded.
Drawing a breath, I put the truck in gear again. “So… not the main route.” I glanced to the nameless country road behind us. “We’re going to need a map.”
In the end, the gas and the money got us within two hundred miles of home before the truck started to sputter.
“So what does that thing say about the nearest town?” I asked Zeke.
Stabilizing himself while the truck bounced over another pothole in the road, he scrutinized the atlas we’d picked up at a gas station several states ago.
“Corwin, Nebraska. About ten more miles.”
I bit my lip. There was little chance we’d make it that far.
Though, considering we hadn’t seen a town in what felt like forever, that was still better than nothing.
We continued down the rough highway without a single car in either direction. Fields and flatlands surrounded us, with the occasional farmstead to break the tedium. The mid-morning sky was a brilliant shade of blue with barely a cloud to be seen, while a breeze drifted through the open windows of the truck, breaking the summer heat. We’d driven through the past day and night, stopping every few hours for breaks – wonderful, amazing breaks – while we tracked across state highways and alternate interstates from the one that led straight home.
A choking noise came from the engine. My pressure to the pedal resulted in a short burst of acceleration.
And then nothing.
I pulled the truck over and let it roll to a stop.
A sigh escaped me. I looked to Zeke.
“And now we walk,” he said, setting the atlas aside.
I nodded. With a glance to the empty road, I shoved the door open and then climbed from the truck.
Gravel crunched beneath our feet as we headed along the side of the highway.
“So this is the middle of your country,” Zeke commented.
I glanced to him. A considering expression on his face, he regarded the fields.
He grinned. “No. I’m just… I never thought I’d come here, is all.” He shrugged. “It’s interesting.”
I gave him a wry look.
“I mean it,” he protested. “It’s… well, it’s kind of like home.”
My expression became incredulous. “How?”
“Open. Sort of featureless, but still beautiful. And thereisthe big blue expanse overhead.”
I scanned the terrain around us. “You’re just being nice.”
He chuckled. “And?”
I shoved at him jokingly. He caught me and pulled me closer.
His arm around my waist, we kept walking.
“Thank you for coming with me,” I said.
“Glad I could.”
Past the grassland ahead, a forest came into view, with a town scattered inside it. A water tower rose above the greenery, though if there was a name painted on its side, it wasn’t facing us. Two-story houses like faded advertisements from a 1950’s magazine lined the street, with cars parked in front of them and a smattering of American flags dotting their yards. At the outer reaches of the town, a gas station sat, a rusting shelter over the pumps and strings of triangular banner flags in red, white and blue looping along its sides.
My brow furrowed, and then I realized that in all the chaos, I’d forgotten that the summer was probably creeping toward the Fourth of July.
With a quick glance in either direction, we crossed the road to the gas station and then walked across the empty lot. A cool blast of air-conditioning hit us when Zeke tugged open the door to the tiny building, most of the windows of which were covered by advertisements for pop and beer.
Behind the register, the twenty-something-year-old clerk glanced up from his gaming magazine. His gaze flicked from us to the empty station lot, and then his brow drew down at the sight of the bruises on us.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Um, yeah. Do you have a phone we could use?”
He gave a slow nod. “Sure.” He jerked his head toward the other side of the store. “Payphone in the back.”
“Thanks. Could you give me some change, then?”
From my pocket, I took out the last of the cash.
He opened the register and handed me quarters for the bills.
I smiled. Turning quickly, I threaded through the aisles with Zeke.
In an awkward little nook at the corner of the store, the payphone clung to the wall. A weathered phonebook had been shoved onto the shelf below it, while barely legible graffiti decorated the walls of its tiny booth. Exhaust from the glass-door refrigerators next to us heated the small space, though their fans provided just enough noise that I could hope that the clerk wouldn’t overhear me.
I pulled a few coins from my pocket and sent them clunking into the slot.
My hand trembled as I went to dial.
“Hey,” Zeke said quietly. He twined his fingers through mine. “It’ll be okay.”
I gave a tight nod. My gaze went to the clerk, who was still watching us with a confused expression. Drawing a breath, I returned my focus to the phone and punched in my parents’ number.
An electronic message informed me of the charge for the call. I shifted the phone to my shoulder while I dug more of the change from my pocket, not wanting to let go of Zeke’s hand, and then sent the coins into the slot.
Moments passed. A digital-sounding ring came from the receiver. Heart pounding, I waited for the call to connect.
I tensed. “Mom?”
There was a pause. “Chloe?” She made a choked noise. “Chloe! Are you– where are you? Are you okay?”
The genuinely concerned tone in her voice made it hard to breathe, considering how uncommon it was. “Y-yeah, I’m fine. Look, I don’t have long. I’m in Corwin, Nebraska. My, um…” I broke off, not wanting to explain about the truck. “I’m kind of stuck here. Could you or Dad come get me?”
“Nebraska?” she repeated.
“Please, I’m running out of change for the phone. We’re–” I caught myself. I didn’t want to mention Zeke either. That’d be its own trouble. “I’m at a gas station on the west side of town. Could you pick me up?”
She was silent for a moment. “Yes, we’ll be right there.”
A pause followed the words. “Chloe, I…” She cleared her throat, dropping whatever she’d been about to say. “Just… just please stay there.”
I waited a heartbeat, but nothing else came. She didn’t hang up. Didn’t say another word. Uncertain what to do, I hesitated and then returned the receiver to its holder.
“Everything alright?” Zeke asked.
Swallowing hard, I nodded.
I nodded again.
He reached over, putting his other hand to mine where it still rested on the phone. I blinked and looked up at him.
“What is it?” he asked.
My mouth worked, trying to find the words. “She just sounded so… worried. Like, really worried. Not just the stupid fake worry she always has about everything.”
His brow furrowed a bit, but he didn’t press the topic. “Come on,” he said with a glance to the clerk, “let’s wait outside.”
I followed him from the building. The warm air felt jarring after the ice cold temperature of the station, while the fields and town seemed nearly silent. A trio of parking spots lined the front of the building, with a yellow-painted concrete curb ahead of them. Walking a short distance from the door, we checked that the clerk couldn’t see us too well and then sat down.
Birds called to each other. I watched them flitting over the crops across the road.
I couldn’t figure out what might have worried her. It couldn’t be the Sylphaen. Or greliarans. Or anything else that’d threatened my life in the past week. And surely Noah had mentioned I’d survived changing. I mean, they didn’t sound like they’d thought I was dead, and however much of a jerk he’d turned out to be, he still would’ve had to saysomethingwhen he came back without me.
“So how long will it take them to get here?” Zeke asked.
I flinched, his voice snapping me from my thoughts. “A few hours, maybe.”
A single car sped by on the road. I tensed, struggling not to feel like they might be watching us.
“We have enough change left to get something to eat?”
I glanced to Zeke.
He shrugged. “Couple hours to kill.”
I looked back at the cluster of trees called Corwin. Thanks to my weird dehaian metabolism, it’d been a day or so since I’d eaten anything.
And I didn’t want to just sit here out in the open the whole while.
There had to be a restaurant in there somewhere.
“Sure,” I agreed.
We stood and headed for town.
“So I was thinking we could get pizza at Deltorio’s for dinner. That sound good to you guys? Evening out on the town and all that?”
I looked away from the television as my mom popped her head around the accordion door to the sunken den. With her wavy, blonde hair swinging in her loose ponytail, she waited for our answer.
“Yeah, Sandra,” Baylie replied, shifting position in her place at the other end of the long couch. “That’d be great, thanks.”
Mom smiled and then she disappeared back down the hall.
Baylie propped her head on her hand and returned her attention to the television. She and I had gotten into town late last night, and we’d been here most of the morning, channel surfing for lack of anything better to do.
“I swear,” she sighed as the mid-morning news started, the screen flashing from fuzzy shots of the state capital to reports of some unexpected storm out near Hawai’i. She flipped to a different station. “Cable is so overrated.”
My lip twitched as I glanced to her. “Movie marathon?”
I pushed away from the couch. Stepping around Baylie’s yellow Lab, Daisy, who was asleep in a patch of morning sunlight nearby, I headed for the cabinet below the television. Tugging open the doors, I regarded the rows of movies.
“Comedy… action… what’re you thinking?” I offered.
“Whatever you want.”
I skimmed the titles in the cabinet. It was a tradition with Baylie and me, watching movies when I came to visit. There wasn’t much else to do in Reidsburg, and as activities went, it was a whole lot better than going to the gas station or the other random places people in this small town hung out.
It didn’t hurt that we had pretty much the same taste in films, either.
I tugged out a box set of The Godfather movies, and another of the Lord of the Rings. Either would eat most of the day, which wasn’t a bad thing. I wanted distractions, and we both needed anything resembling normalcy.
“Thoughts?” I prompted, turning to hold them both up for her.
She blinked, pulling her gaze from the glass patio door. I caught the flash of worry in her eyes, though she buried it fast. “Um, Dad and I watched the Lord of the Rings not too long ago,” she replied, her casual tone sounding a bit forced. “So…”
I nodded and turned back to the cabinet, struggling to keep from grimacing. We were right next door to Chloe’s old house and the awareness of that fact had sat between us like the elephant in the room ever since we’d gotten into town. We hadn’t mentioned it. For my part, I’d barely even looked at the house. I felt guilty for being grateful that we’d avoided the topic, but I really didn’t want to think about Chloe. I knew Baylie was worried; no one had explained why Chloe wasn’t home, why she’d really had to leave in Santa Lucina, or why, short of one phone call asking for a ride a few days ago, no one but me had heard from her in a week. We’d only said that Chloe had gone away with some family friends for a while, and that she was safe.
But I couldn’t figure out how to tell Baylie the truth. Her best friend wasn’t human.
And she wouldn’t be coming back.
I swallowed, forcing my attention to the movies. We’d done fairly well keeping up the pretense of things being normal. I wasn’t about to let that go. Not yet.
“Alright, well, you want to grab the popcorn?” I asked without turning around.
“Yeah, no problem. You want–”
She cut off as a knock came on the front door.
“Hey, Baylie, could you grab that?” Mom called.
Baylie sighed. Rising from the couch, she set the remote down and then walked out of the room.
I put the movies aside. Retrieving the remote from the coffee table, I scanned the buttons for the one that would switch the input feed away from cable.
Baylie opened the door. I heard her gasp.
And then the sound cut off.
My brow drew down. “Baylie?” I called, dropping the remote to the couch. “Everything alright?”
She didn’t respond.
“Where is she?” a familiar voice whispered.
My blood went cold. I ran for the hall.
Uncle Richard stood in the front room. He had Baylie pressed to the wall beside the door, one arm holding her there while his other hand was clamped over her mouth. Wyatt and Brock were just inside, and past them, I could see Owen and Clay watching the neighborhood from the yard.
Their mouths curled into smiles at the sight of me.
“Well, look who’s here,” Wyatt commented. “Not hiding or anything.” He chuckled. “Sloppy, cuz.”
My heart raced. Of course I hadn’t been hiding – why would I? We were just watching television.
And my psychotic relatives were supposed to be on the coast over sixteen hundred miles away.
I started toward them. Wyatt moved to block me.
“Uh-uh,” he cautioned.
“We just want to know where the girl is,” Richard said. “No one needs to get hurt here.”
Disappointment flashed over Wyatt’s face at the words, as though he’d really prefer someone did.
“What girl?” I asked.
His grip tightened on Baylie. Behind his hand, I could hear her give a stifled shriek, her terrified gaze locked on me.
“You know which,” Richard said. “Chloe. Where does she live?”
I stared at him. “Chloe? You know she can’t be here. She’s not–”
“Tell me where she lives, Noah,” Richard snapped, the threat in his voice more than clear. “Now.”
I shivered, looking from him to Baylie. I couldn’t stop all of them. Not before they did something terrible to her.
And I couldn’t tell them that Chloe had lived right next door. Even if there was no way she could come back here, not now that she’d become one of the dehaian, there was still her family to worry about.
I didn’t want to know how her parents fit into the next step of my relatives’ plan.
Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “Just let Baylie go,” I said, holding up my hands. Cautiously, I moved down the hallway, watching them all. “You don’t need to do this. She–”
“Who was it?” Mom called, coming up the basement stairs.
Richard stepped back, releasing Baylie. She scrambled away from him and around Wyatt, racing to me.
I caught her. Pushing her behind me, I retreated into the front room, not taking my eyes from them.
“Baylie?” Mom continued. “Did you hear what I– Richard?”
I heard her set something down sharply and then come toward us. Taking one hand from Baylie, I reached out quickly, stopping her.
Mom looked furious. “What thehellare you doing here?”
“We just had a question for Baylie and your son, Sandra,” Richard replied carefully.
“Ed!” Mom shouted to Baylie’s dad upstairs. “I’m calling the police,” she continued to Richard, moving away from me toward the phone on the wall. “And you’re going to be hearing from our lawyers after what your boys did to Baylie in California, so you–”
“Wyatt!” Richard snapped as the guy started toward her.
I moved fast, getting between them.
Wyatt stopped. The snarl on his face turned to a disgusted sneer when he glanced at me.
Ed’s footsteps pounded on the stairs. “What?”
“Peter’s brother,” Mom snapped. “Came here to ‘talk’ to Noah and Baylie.”
Ed’s face went dark. “Get out. You get the hell out of my house right now, you bastard.”
He started down the stairs.
“Brock!” Richard barked as his son blocked Ed’s path. He looked between Mom and Ed. “Nothing’s happened here. Nobody needs to call any cops. We just had a question, and now we’re leaving.”
His sons looked back at him, incredulity damn near blatant on their faces.
“Go,” Richard ordered them, still watching Mom and Ed.
Wyatt and Brock didn’t move.
“I said go!”
Brock shuddered and then retreated toward the door.
Wyatt growled. Ed’s eyes went wide at the sound.
“Now!” Richard snapped.
Wyatt paused. “This isn’t over, cuz,” he promised, his voice so low, only Baylie or I stood a chance of hearing. “We’re gonna get that bitch. Just you wait.”
His gaze slid to Baylie. He winked, a smirk on his face, and then sauntered after his family out the door.
Ed hurried down the steps and slammed the door behind them, throwing the lock the moment it closed. Baylie came back over to me and I put my arms around her, holding her while she trembled.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“You all okay?” Ed asked.
Baylie let out a breath and nodded. Behind me, I heard Mom talking to the local police on the phone.
I didn’t take my eyes from the window. Richard and my cousins were climbing into their maroon SUV. Starting the engine fast, Richard cast a look around the neighborhood and then took off down the road.
“What waswrongwith that boy?” Ed continued. “Did you hear him?”
I glanced to Mom warily as she hung up the phone, wondering how she wanted to handle that.
“Richard’s boys have always had problems,” she answered neutrally.
Ed’s eyebrows rose and fell. “I’ll say.”
“That was Chief Reynolds,” Mom continued. “He’s sending an officer over.”
Ed nodded. “You sure you’re okay, honey?” he asked Baylie.
“Yeah,” she said, trying for a smile. “Yeah, I’m alright.”
“You kids just head back to what you were doing,” he continued. “We’ll keep an eye out here and let you know if the cops need to talk to you, okay?”
Baylie glanced to me and I could read the hesitation in her eyes. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Okay.”
Letting me go, she started back to the den, her gaze still twitching toward the front window.
I looked to Mom, questioning.
She gave a tiny nod.
Taking a breath, I followed Baylie.
She was waiting for me.
I paused at the door, suddenly wishing I could have stayed out in the living room to help Mom.
Though she probably would’ve just had questions too.
Cautiously, I took the two steps down into the den and then pulled the door shut behind me.
“What the hell?” Baylie whispered, her quiet voice breaking. “What thehell, Noah? They’re here? They followed us backhere? ForChloe? What in the–”
She cut off when I looked away. A breath left her.
“What is going on?” she demanded.
A scoff escaped her, the sound harsh. “No kidding.”
I grimaced as she waited. I couldn’t figure it out either. They were insane. Certifiably, utterly, and completely insane. And coming toKansaslooking for adehaian? That was a whole new level of madness. No one in their right mind would–
My breathing stopped. No one would. Not unless they knew something I didn’t. Not unless they’d seen her, or heard something about her…
She’d lived like a landwalker before she became dehaian. She’d survived when everyone else had sworn her heritage would kill her.
Maybe shecouldcome back.
And maybe… maybe I could explain…
I turned to Baylie. “Look, my family is nuts, okay? They… they’re fixated on Chloe. But if what they’re saying is true,” I released a shaky breath, “she might be on her way back here.”
Baylie stared at me.
I glanced toward Chloe’s house, focusing briefly on suppressing the burning, furious energy inside me that let other greliarans tell where I was. “You stay here,” I continued. “Watch for her. I’m going to keep an eye on my cousins, just in case… you know.”
Without another word, I headed for the hall.
“Butwhyare they fixated on her, Noah?” Baylie cried, struggling to keep her voice down as she followed me. “You said she wasn’t like you, but what’s this about then? Why do they want to hurt her so much?”
I paused by the den doorway. I didn’t have time for this. I needed to get out there. Make sure they didn’t find her first. “They just do.”
Baylie made an angry noise.
“Please,” I insisted. “It’s important. Just keep an eye out for her. I’ll explain, or, you know, maybe she will once she’s safe. But Baylie, these guys…” I exhaled. “They’re dangerous. You know that. And the cops… they’ll just tell my relatives to stay away or something else useless. There’s nothing to arrest them for yet. Not where Chloe’s concerned. So please just watch the neighborhood, watch her house, and if there’s anywhere else you can think of that she’d go, watch that too. We have to help her.”
Baylie stared at me for a heartbeat. “O-okay. I will, but… Sandra and Dad aren’t going to let you just stay out there. And what about the cops? What do I tell them?”
I could feel the seconds ticking away. “Tell them… tell them I needed some air.” I scowled. That’d only work for a bit. “Or that I’m exploring the area. I’ll try to stop back in when I can, just to keep them from getting too weird on you, but otherwise, I’m exploring, eh?”
Despite her worry, she looked skeptical. “Exploring.” She drew a breath. “Fine. But the minute Chloe’s safe, you’re telling me what’s going on, understand? I’m done with this secrecy crap.”
“And Noah?” she called when I started down the hall.
I glanced back.
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
I headed for the front door. Reidsburg wasn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination, and their SUV wouldn’t be too hard to find.
And with any luck, Chloe wouldn’t be either. For me, at least.
I drew a breath, trying to calm the hope that choked me at the thought of actually seeing her again.
Several hours later found us walking back toward the gas station. We’d finally located a fast food place across town and the handful of change in Chloe’s pocket had been enough for us to split a small meal. We hadn’t spoken much – just watched the town through the windows – and the same was proving true for our trip back to the station. Biting her lip and jumping every time a car drove by, Chloe appeared utterly distracted.
And nervous as hell.
I slipped a hand around her side, grateful for the freedom to finally hold her and hoping to help her calm down at the same time. She flinched at the slight contact, and then a blush colored her cheeks as her startled expression faded to chagrin.
I made a dismissive noise.
Her head leaned on my shoulder briefly as she put an arm around me.
“What is it?” I asked.
She shook her head.
I watched her from the corner of my eye, uncertain if I should press her.
“They’re crazy,” she said, almost as if answering something inside herself. “They’ve always been crazy.”
I hesitated. “Okay.”
“I mean, my whole life, it was ‘ocean water is diseased’, ‘rapists live on the beach’, all kinds of stuff like that. Even if theyweretrying to keep me from going in the water, that’s still an insane way to do it.”
She paused, her brow furrowing. Looking up at me, she continued in a smaller voice. “You don’t think they thought I was dead or something, right?”
I weighed responses and settled for the most neutral. And honest. “I don’t know.”
“But Noah… he couldn’t have just…” She shook her head, anger filtering across her face, and she sped up, moving away from me. “Theyhadto know I was fine. That I’d changed and left with you and all that. Hehadto have told themthat,at least, so she must’ve just…”
Chloe trailed off.
“Maybe they were worried you wouldn’t come back,” I offered quietly.
She stopped, looking back at me, and I couldn't hope to read her expression. “I…”
Her brow furrowed. She turned away again.
Tires rumbled behind us. A breath left her, the sound almost panicked. I glanced over my shoulder.
A green sedan with darkened windows raced around the turn.
“That them?” I asked.
I looked back. Her face was answer enough. Not taking her eyes from the car, she came up beside me.
The sedan veered to the side of the highway and then skidded to a stop in a cloud of gravel dust. A woman climbed out before the man at the wheel had even succeeded in shutting off the engine. Leaving the door open, she hurried across the gravel toward us, her red-rimmed eyes locked on Chloe with a look somewhere close to stifled terror. Behind her, the man got out too, moving awkwardly as if to keep from jostling the white sling holding one of his arms. As brown-haired and brown-eyed as his wife, he seemed only scarcely less worried, and he never took his gaze from his daughter while he closed the door.
I tried to keep my face expressionless, but it was difficult. I’d said perhaps they were afraid Chloe wouldn’t come home.
It looked more like they were afraid their daughter would fall dead where she stood.
“Chloe,” the man called as he headed for us. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” she answered, her voice choked. “Thanks for coming.”
“H-how did you make it this far?” her mom asked, clenching her hands together as though to stop them from shaking. “And who did that to your neck? Are you–”
The woman swallowed hard, her gaze darting from Chloe to me as she seemed to reconsider whatever she’d been about to say.
Chloe hesitated. “I’m fine.”
I glanced to her when she left the response at that.
Her mother’s brow twitched down, the desire to press for more written all over her.
“Who’s your friend?” her dad asked.
Chloe drew a breath. “This is Zeke.”
I tensed at the sudden alarm in their eyes.
“The boy who…” Her dad looked between us. “But he…”
“Is dehaian, yeah,” Chloe filled in. “Like me.”
Their faces were a picture, though of confusion, shock or horror, it was hard to decide. In the time it took her to speak the words, they raced through the expressions, coming at last to a rabid sort of denial that varied only in its intensity.
“Chloe, you arenot–” her mother began.
“Linda,” the man interrupted.
With a choked noise, she turned to him.
“Perhaps we should continue this elsewhere,” he suggested, his eyes on me.
Linda nodded. She stepped forward even as her husband did the same, like they were closing ranks around their daughter with the full intent of forcing us apart.
Chloe stiffened. “Zeke’s coming too.”
They stopped. I saw the arguments forming.
Chloe moved closer to my side, almost putting me between herself and them. Without looking away from them, I reached down, taking her hand.
I could feel her shaking.
Her dad blinked and his gaze ran over me afresh, with a heavy dose of protectiveness and threat in there this time.
Linda just twitched as though restraining herself from snagging Chloe’s arm and yanking her away from me. Breathing hard, she seemed to flounder for a moment, and then she made an aborted motion to the sedan.
Sticking to my side, Chloe headed for the car. At the rear passenger door, she climbed in and then scooted to the other seat, leaving me to follow.
I got in and shut the door, feeling her parents’ eyes on us the whole time.
“You okay?” I asked her.
She gave a tight nod, watching them walk toward the car.
They sank into their seats and didn’t say a word while they closed the doors and then put on their seat belts. Her dad turned on the engine and gave the road a brief glance before pulling back onto the empty highway. In short order, he’d spun the car around, sending us eastward once more.
And no one spoke. The tension in the air was so thick, even breathing felt like it would trigger some kind of explosion. On the edge of the passenger seat, Chloe’s mom perched and cast strange, truncated looks back to me for no reason I could determine. Behind the wheel, her dad seemed focused on the road, though I occasionally caught him glancing to his daughter in the rearview mirror.
And Chloe never quite looked at them. She never quite looked at anything. Her gaze darted across the middle distance like a fighter expecting an attack and trying to watch every direction at once.
Corwin fell behind us. Fields swept by and so did time. A sign flashed past, notifying us we were entering Kansas, though otherwise, nothing in the landscape changed.
I wondered if anyone planned on making a sound for the entire trip back to their home.
The sun crept toward the horizon and gradually painted the sky with brilliant colors of pink, purple and gold. Shadows stretched from the tall crops lining the highway, growing darker while the twilight deepened.
In the distance, a town came into view, like another island of trees in the midst of a flatland sea. Bigger than Corwin, but still small by far compared to Santa Lucina, it seemed mostly made up of houses, with scarcely a building taller than two stories to be seen.
I glanced to Chloe, curious if we were finally there.
Her expression answered me. It was definitely Reidsburg. She was watching the town roll toward us with a look somewhere between desperation and that of a convict staring at their prison cell.
Minutes crawled by. As the sun sank over the horizon completely, drowning us in shadows, the sedan passed the first buildings at the edge of the town. More roads followed, each of them seeming identical to me. Houses upon houses, with the odd smattering of businesses and bars, restaurants and rundown motels between them. A monolithic high school interrupted the endless neighborhoods at one point, its old brick construction towering over the homes facing it from the other side of the street, and every few blocks seemed to reveal another church.
At a road like any other, Chloe’s dad turned the sedan. He continued on for a few moments, and then he thumbed a button on a small box clipped to a visor above his head.
On a two-story, pale brown house with white shutters and a covered porch, the garage door began to roll upward. A yellowed light bulb came on when the door finished opening, illuminating the random assortment of tools, cleaning supplies and metal shelves inside. Flicking the turn signal briefly, he guided the sedan from the road into the driveway and then pulled into the garage. He tapped the tiny box again, leaving the door to roll down behind us, and then turned off the engine. Wordlessly, Linda pushed open her door and left the car.
I looked to Chloe while her father got out as well.
She didn’t move.
“Hey,” I said quietly.
She swallowed hard and gave a quick nod. Not looking at me, she shoved open the door and then climbed from the car.
I eyed her curiously, uncertain what that had been about.
Still waiting for the tension to break and something to finally explode, I trailed Chloe and her family into their house.
The steps from the garage clunked under my feet. I followed Dad through the door and past the laundry room into the kitchen.
And I wondered if I had made a mistake.
They weren’t speaking to me, but I knew that would change. The moment we were alone, everything would pick up where it left off – though, really, silence was almost as bad as yelling in its own special, drawn-out-torment sort of way.
I should have kept running with Zeke. Maybe gone to Canada or something. Surely it was nice this time of year.
The smell of the house surrounded me, all cinnamon and clove and alien after my weeks away. With his good arm – the one that wasn’t in that horrible white sling – Dad reached over to flip on the light switch. As the fixture overhead flickered to life, he continued through the kitchen toward the living room.
I paused. On the breakfast table below the back window, I could see abandoned dishes. Beside the refrigerator, a gallon of milk still sat on the green laminate counter. A striped dish towel lay in a rumpled heap on the tile floor as well, the whole mess so unlike my parents that it was startling.
They’d left in a rush. They’d been worried.
My throat tightened. I hurried through the room, leaving Zeke to follow me.
By the fireplace, Mom was murmuring something heated to Dad.
She cut off the moment I appeared at the doorway.
Dad put a hand to hers as though trying to calm her. “Would you ask your friend to wait in the kitchen, Chloe?”
I could hear the careful choice of words. Cautiously, I glanced to Zeke.
He nodded. Taking my hand and giving it a brief squeeze, he eyed my parents for a heartbeat and then headed for the breakfast table.
My feet sank into the brown shag carpet as I walked into the living room. Mom and Dad took a seat on the overstuffed couch beneath their pictures of the Gobi Desert and Death Valley, leaving the armchair across from them to me.
It felt familiar. So many of our arguments had started this way.
Though they usually ended with slammed doors and more silence.
I glanced over, grateful that I could see Zeke through the archway connecting us to the kitchen.
“What happened, Chloe?” Dad asked.
Blinking, I looked back at him.
His gaze twitched to my neck.
I shook my head. “Nothing. A guy… we handled it. It’s fine.”
They stared at me.
“Someone tried tokillyou,” Mom demanded. “And you ‘handledit’?”
I paused. I did not want to get into this. Desperately.
She exhaled, looking away as though she couldn’t believe anything about me or what I’d just said.
“And will this guy be looking for you?” Dad asked.
I swallowed. “I don’t think so. Not… not here.”
He paused. “By the ocean then.”
I gave a tiny shrug.
“How did you make it to Nebraska?”
I tried not to fidget on the chair, feeling like I was in an interrogation. My gaze flicked to Zeke. “We stole the guy’s truck.”
Mom made an incredulous noise, the sound so familiar I could feel my blood start boiling. My nails dug into my palms with the effort of not letting anger get the better of me.
“It ran out of gas, so we called you,” I finished.
Dad’s mouth thinned. “So this wasn’t a dehaian?”
He glanced to Mom, who was staring at the brown chenille of the couch and shaking her head.
I looked between them. “What?”
“Are you in pain? From the… the ocean?” Dad asked.
Mom turned back sharply. “Then you’ll stay,” she said, a weird mix of insistence and hope in her tone.
I hesitated. “For now.”
She exhaled again. It almost seemed like she was fighting back tears. My brow flickered down.
“We would like it very much if you would,” Dad said to me carefully.
I didn’t know how to respond. But for a few moments here and there, they weren’t actingremotelylike themselves. Like the erratic, no-explanation, dictatorial crazies I’d grown up with. It was like they were scared of something. A real something, not just the made-up stuff they’d always pretended to fear.
And as impossible as it seemed, it kind of felt like it was me.
“O-okay,” I managed.
“Thank you,” he said.
My brow furrowed incredulously.
“But,” he continued, “while youarehere… we’d like to ask you not to discuss your trip with anyone. Just to be on the safe side.”
My confusion deepened. “What? Why?”
“There are a couple other landwalkers in town. We’d prefer if you avoided speaking with them about your trip.”
I stared at him. “A couple other… who?”
He looked to Mom again. “Chief Reynolds and his nephew, Aaron Erlich.”
I blinked at the names of two of the local police officers.
“Everyone is already aware you ran away to California. There’s no fixing that. After the events in that ambulance, the Delaneys told the police you had been kidnapped before we could ask them to create another story.”
I blinked again. Peter and Diane had reported mekidnapped?
“But we’d appreciate it if you didn’t volunteer any information about that. We’ll need to come up with an explanation for your return, and your bruises as well, but barring that story to the police, please remain silent on the entire subject.”
I heard the words, filing them away somewhere in my head while I tried to sort out the rest. Police. We were going to have to talk to the police. Because they thought I’d been kidnapped.
My stomach rolled.
I guess I couldn’t blame the Delaneys for their story. Marty and Colin had stolen me and Baylie away from the cabin, something that had been witnessed by the other EMTs at the scene, and then I’d vanished into the ocean. There probably hadn’t been much the Delaneyscouldsay.
But still…kidnapped. And from an ambulance where two men died.
Where I’d killed one of them.
The nausea grew worse. True, that’d been self-defense and halfway an accident as well, but I couldn’t explain that to anyone. Colin had been trying to inject me with a drug that could have killed me if Noah hadn’t gotten me to the ocean in time. I’d just been trying to stop him. But the spikes from my arms had left a straight, savagely deep row of stab wounds in Colin’s chest.
I doubted anyone had come up with an explanation for those.
And now I’d have to create one for the police.
I let out a breath. It was hard to know what to think. Chief Reynolds was like a cartoon, all gregarious and rotund and white-haired like Santa Claus in a brown police uniform. I was fairly certain he knew each person in Reidsburg by name, and could probably quote their life history as well. His nephew was his scrawny opposite, though: a shy guy with big glasses who looked like he belonged buried in a chemistry lab someplace. Only two years ahead of me in school, Aaron had been raised by his uncle and he’d taken up with the police force at his first opportunity, something that I supposed should have garnered respect. But with a build like a scarecrow and an awkwardness that meant he could barely answer a direct question, no one in Reidsburg had ever seen him as anything but a product of nepotism or a joke.
Except my parents, anyway. They’d just gone out of their way to avoid him and his uncle alike.
And suddenly, that didn’t seem like simply another symptom of their insanity. Not entirely.
“Are they dangerous?” I asked.
Dad glanced to Mom. “They think you’re our daughter,” he allowed awkwardly. “Biological daughter, I mean.”
I swallowed. There was that. And I didn’t want to get into that.
“How do you know they’re… like you?” I asked instead.
“We checked with the elders.”
My brow knitted again. “The who?”
Dad paused. “The elders. They’re… well, they’re rather like leaders among the landwalkers. We don’t have any way of justknowingwho is one of us and who’s simply human. The line is blurry anyway. There aren’t many of what you’d call ‘purebloods’ left. None, actually. We’ve been among humans for so long, we’ve all got them in our ancestry. In fact, there comes a point where some folks… well, they’re so much more human than landwalker, there’s nothing reallylandwalkerin them. Just odd traits like a tendency toward bad seasickness, or a fear of the ocean and the creatures in it. And otherwise, they’re human.
“But if wedowant to know about others like us, there are the elders. They’re not old, necessarily; some are younger than your mother and me. But they’re men and women who,” he glanced to Mom, “perhaps are more in touch with what we used to be, I guess you could say. And a long time back, maybe a few centuries or more, they started keeping track of our people. Making genealogies, as well as maintaining stories from our history so that as a culture, we wouldn’t just be completely absorbed into the humans. They’re the ones who let us know about other landwalkers in our area.”
Warily, I watched them. “And it’d be dangerous if they knew about me? About…”
I trailed off, not sure if I should bring up the fact I was adopted. My mom – my biological mom, or real mom, or something – was Dad’s sister, Susan. My actual, real, or whatever dad was a dehaian named Kreyus, whom no one had ever heard from again. And until a Sylphaen had nearly killed me in Santa Lucina a few weeks before, Bill and Linda Kowalski had never told me about either of them.
Instead, they’d lied to me. They’d let me believe I was their daughter by birth. They’d never mentioned a word about the dehaians, the landwalkers, or how turning into the former could kill me because I was half of the latter.
And short of screaming at them –again– I still wasn’t sure how to talk about that.
Dad hesitated. “Half-dehaian, half-landwalker kids… like we told you. They don’t usually survive. The ones who do grow up a bit…” He glanced to Mom again. “We’ve heard stories. Some landwalker folks who are enamored of the idea that they could change our situation. Become dehaian again and all that. So they take these kids who manage to survive infancy, and they push them. See if they can learn anything about integrating dehaian traits back into us. But that just speeds up the destabilizing of the two sides of those kids’ heritage. The dehaian side is stronger. It overwhelms them, and then they die.”
“We don’t know for certain if it’s true,” Dad continued carefully, “but honey, that’s part of why we kept everything a secret. Let Chief Reynolds and his nephew just think you were our…” A pained expression flickered across his face. “Our girl.”
I couldn’t breathe.
“We didn’t want to risk that someone might hear about you, and might try to steal you away from us to do that to you. And now that you’re… well…”
“Alive?” I offered, my voice choked.
“Please just don’t tell anyone about this,” he finished.
I looked over to find Zeke watching me. His brow twitched up, every line of his face and body making clear how he’d come into the living room in a heartbeat if I just gave him a sign.
My gaze dropped to the carpet.
“It would also be better,” Mom added, her voice cautious like she was afraid something might break. “If your friend went back to his home.”
The response came out fast, and harsh too, and my gaze snapped up from the ground to glare at her.
Her face tightened, as though arguing with me and trying to tell me what to do had suddenly become difficult for her. “Chloe, I… Whatever you think you’re feeling toward him, you can’t… it’s not…”
I stared at her in confusion as she struggled for words.
“He’s dangerous,” she concluded. “He’s dehaian, and if anyone finds out he’s–”
“No, you’re our Chloe,” she countered fervently. “You arenot–”
She cut off and turned away as Dad put a hand to her knee.
“Not what?” I demanded. “A fish? Scale-skin? Scum-sucker? What were you going to call us?”
Breathing hard, I stared at them.
“Like them,” Mom whispered.
Still shaking with fury, I took a moment to respond. “And what does that mean?”
Dad gave a small glance to the kitchen. “I’d rather we not discuss this with–”
He paused, watching me. “Soulless.”
My brow flickered down incredulously.
“The dehaians,” he said, “when our people split from theirs, we each got a bit of what made us who we used to be. For them, it was the ability to live underwater. To change like they do. For us, we have the ability to live on land without pain, and apparently, well…”
He sighed. “I guess you’d call it humanity. The capacity to care about others. Dehaians… they’re not like people, Chloe. Every story we’ve heard of them makes it clear they don’t have feelings like us, and that they use the feelings of others for their entertainment. They enjoy manipulating people and their emotions, and they don’t care about the consequences or the suffering. They even use magic to force people to become obsessed with them, just so they can watch–”
“They kill people with ‘that’, honey. For fun.”
I stared at him. “No, they–”
“That’s not true.”
Zeke’s voice made me stop, and I looked over to see him standing by the archway, his gaze on my parents.
“Only sick freaks do that. And it’s illegal. Using it atallon non-dehaians is illegal, and what you’re describing, we view as murder.”
I turned back to Mom and Dad.
Dad’s mouth compressed briefly. “Chloe, of course he’d say that. They’re manipulators, only interested in getting what they want. But if you understood what they are truly capable–”
“Idounderstand,” I interrupted.
“Then you’d understand that this boy has probably used it on you!” Mom cried. “Everything you’re arguing for him could just be a result of what he’s done!”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“It doesn’t! Not between dehaians. For us, it–” I cut off, discomfort catching up with me, and I fought to keep myself from blushing. “It’s not like that.”
She shook her head. “You can’t be sure, Chloe. Please. You’renotone of them; you’re like us. You wouldn’t know what it is or if he–”
“I’ve used it,” I said.
She froze, her face a picture of shock and horror.
“We both have,” I continued. “The man who attacked us, when he was strangling me, I used it to stop him. And Zeke helped a friend–”
“Your daughter,” he interrupted.
I turned to him in confused surprise. In the cave, he’d told me he’d been trying to keep someone from dying.
He hadn’t mentioned anything about it being me.
Zeke didn’t take his eyes from my parents. “When she was in the hospital and the damage that Sylphaen bastard had done was killing her, I had medicine from back home that could help. But I needed to get past emergency room security, so I used that ability you’re describing. Aveluria. Just a bit, so the woman recovered. And your daughter did too.”
He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice shook with quiet intensity. “We care.”
They stared at him.
“Zeke’s saved my life over the past few weeks, Mom. He’s done it more times than I can count, even when it meant he might die.” I trembled. “Dehaians aren’t monsters, no matter what those stories say.”
She blinked as she dropped her gaze from his. “It’s still not safe,” she persisted. “He shouldn’t even be able tobehere–”
“Everything we know says your kind can’t go much more than a hundred miles from a coast,” Dad said to Zeke, a note of challenge in his voice. “And yet here you are.”
Zeke glanced to me, not answering.
“I did that,” I supplied quietly.
Mom’s brow furrowed.
“I don’t know how,” I continued before they could ask. “I just know that it’s working.”
She glanced to Dad, obviously seeking help. “T-that may be, but he still needs to leave. If he becomes sick at the wrong moment…”
“If he goes, I go.”
She looked back at me in alarm. “Chloe, you–”
“I mean it.”
My heart raced as Mom stared at me, her brow twitching down. I’d never gotten away with demands like this. Ever. But they weren’t acting like themselves, and this was important. I didn’t know, if he left, how far Zeke could travel before the pull of the ocean came back.
And killed him.
With effort, Mom tugged her gaze to Dad. “Bill?” she tried.
Dad drew a slow breath. “Alright. Fine. The boy will stay… for now.”
Without another word, he pushed to his feet and headed for the hall. Mom rose from the couch as well, hesitancy written all over her.
“Well, um… in that case… are you hungry?” she asked. “I could cook something?”
I stared at her, so taken back by her uncharacteristic behavior, I didn’t quite know what to do.
“Uh, sure,” I answered, knowing we’d both eaten only a few hours before and could probably keep going for a day or two if necessary. But I couldn’t tell her that. She almost seemed desperate. “Food would be nice.”
She nodded. Clutching her hands together, she started for the kitchen, only to balk at Zeke still standing in the archway.
He stepped aside. She skirted past him.
His brow rose as he glanced back at me.
I shook my head in bafflement. Getting up from the chair, I walked over to him. He took my hand and I drew a breath, feeling a bit of my tension leak out just at having him there.
“Chloe,” Dad called.
I tensed all over again. I looked down the hall to find him at the base of the stairs.
“You should probably get cleaned up before dinner.”
I hesitated, reading the stern way he was watching us.
Zeke squeezed my hand. I glanced back.
“Be right here,” he whispered.
My lip twitched up in a grateful smile.
“Chloe,” Dad said again, his voice even harder.
“Coming,” I replied.
Squeezing Zeke’s hand as well, I nodded and then headed for the stairs.
The steps creaked under me and when I reached the second floor, everything was still. Not bothering to look back to where I knew Dad watched me at the base of the stairs, I continued down the brown-carpeted hallway, only to pause when I came to the white wood of my bedroom door.
My hand rose and the door swung aside at my touch. Reaching past the doorframe, I flipped on the light.
Sterile white walls with pictures of the Sahara met my gaze. The brown quilt with its crosshatched patterns of wheat covered my twin bed against the far wall. A few snapshots of me and Baylie stood on the oak dresser, trapped in bronze frames. On the window, the heavy, tan curtains were closed, sealing out the darkness.
I barely felt like I recognized it all. Only a few weeks had passed, but in that time I’d lived under the ocean. I’d swum with royalty through a palace the size of a mountain and fled from mercenaries God-knew-how-far beneath the sea.
A shaky breath left me. I stepped into the room, feeling like I was walking into another reality. The backpack I’d taken to California was tucked against the side of my bed, and my cell phone and wallet were on the nightstand nearby.
I glanced to the window and the closed curtains. Baylie could be home. The lights at her house had been off when we drove up, and most of the curtains had been closed, but she still could be. After all, our stay at the Delaneys was supposed to have ended over a week ago.
But then, she’d still been in Santa Lucina when I called the day before Zeke and I left.
I swallowed. Maybe she was here. Or maybe Peter and Diane had shipped it or something.
Mom cleared her throat behind me and I jumped.
“Would you like help?” she asked.
I stared, confused. That weird, worried look was on her face again. “Help?”
“Putting your stuff away,” she elaborated.
My expression didn’t change. “That’s alright.”
She hesitated, seeming as though she still wanted to try. She gave me a jerky nod and didn’t leave.
The silence stretched.
“So I wondered what you might like for dinner?” Mom asked. “I thought maybe we could see if anywhere in town carries sushi.”
I made myself blink.Sushi?She–
“If you’d like,” Mom pressed on hastily. “I just… I want you to feel… what I mean is, I heard that’s similar to what they eat, and if you need to have food like they do, then we can find it.”
I shook my head. “Whatever you make is fine for both of us,” I managed. I paused. “Mom, what is this?”
“Nothing,” she replied, a touch of familiar defensiveness coming into her voice. “You’re my daughter. I’m not going to starve you.”
I looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
My eyebrows rose as I turned back in surprise at the words.
“I’ll make barbecue chicken,” she continued. “Your favorite. Is that good?”
Giving me a tense smile, she moved to leave and then hesitated, looking back. “I want you to know,” she said tightly, “we’re happy you came home. I know things are… are tense sometimes. But we’re really just…”
Mom’s brow furrowed and, as impossible as it seemed, she actually looked like she was trying not to cry.
Swallowing hard, she forced her expression to clear. “We always want what’s best for you, Chloe. That’s all. And so if there’s anything you need in order for you to be okay here, you just let me know. Anything in the world, understand?”
I stared and succeeded in moving my head in something like a nod.
Mom echoed the motion. Without another word, she left the room.
It took me a moment to drag my gaze from the doorway, and a moment more before my thoughts ordered themselves enough to process what had just happened.
My mother… wanted to make thingsokayfor me.
Okay for me.
A breath escaped me, the sound loud in the quiet.
My mother wanted to make things okay for me here.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d thought coming home would be normal. I’d known what ‘normal’ meant – fights, months of being grounded, and my parents possibly even trying to move us out of town simply because I’d run off to California with Baylie – but after the past few weeks, I’d been willing to risk it.
This was a parallel dimension.
This was crazier than what I’d left. This was Mom and Dad acting in a way I’d never seen in my life.
Acting like they’d been scared I wouldn’t come back.
I trembled at the memory of Zeke’s words. I didn’t know what I’d planned. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I’d just been trying to survive.
And now I’d returned to something as strange as anything I’d seen in the past few weeks.
Turning away from the door, I hurried toward my closet to get changed out of the clothes I’d worn for the past few days. I didn’t want to be in here, in this familiar-alien room with the desert décor my parents had mandated all these years. I didn’t knowhowto be here.
And Zeke was downstairs.
He was the only part of this new life of mine that still felt sane.
It’d been several hours since we’d arrived at Chloe’s parents’ home.
The time had been awkward enough for several years.
On the makeshift bed Chloe’s parents had put together on the couch, I lay with my arms behind my head, watching nothing in particular. The house was dark, everyone else having gone to bed a few hours before. Moonlight slipped through a gap between the curtains above me, turning a tiny measure of the night to paler shadows but otherwise leaving the blackness unchanged.
Dinner had been a silent affair but for small comments about passing various dishes. Her parents had hardly taken their eyes from us the whole time, and soon after the meal was finished, they’d herded Chloe back up to her bedroom again, from which I hadn’t seen her since.
They were still scared of me, it was obvious. And still partly convinced I’d put some spell on their daughter, forcing her to be attracted to me. They didn’t want us near each other, and had set up the table to keep us from sitting anywhere close. Truthfully, I was mildly surprised her father hadn’t tried to bundle me out of the house the moment Chloe’s back was turned.
Though, of course, there was always tomorrow.
I stared up at the sliver of moonlight. I hadn’t let my eyes change to break the darkness, if only to keep her parents from freaking out if they came downstairs. They didn’t seem to know much about dehaians, and the sight of my glowing eyes would probably only serve to make them think me more of a monster.
A sigh escaped me. As infuriating as it felt, in all honesty the ignorance was mutual. My whole life, I’d never heard of landwalkers. Or greliarans, for that matter. But then, my education had never touched on anything mythological. Dad hired tutors to teach us about politics and what we’d need to run the nation of Yvaria, not what I suspected he viewed as children’s tales. The few times my grandfather, Jirral, had eventriedtelling us stories outside the ‘real’ world, Dad had stopped him, insisting that we only fill our heads with what was necessary for leadership of our people and survival.
A fact which would seem ironic, if it wasn’t so painful.
I glanced to the kitchen as a small noise from the refrigerator broke the quiet. Tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep. Everything felt too strange. I’d never stayed in a house at night before. I’d scarcely even been inside one. Dehaians didn’t really like to go where we couldn’t smell the sea air, reminding us as it did of the possibility of being trapped away from the ocean.
And now here I was, well over a thousand miles from the water.
I shifted on the flannel sheets, pushing the thought aside. I didn’t know what would trigger the pain of the ocean’s distance returning, or even if anything would at all, but I didn’t want to risk it.
The memory was bad enough.
A creak came from the stairs. I glanced over.
Footsteps crept down the hall.
“Zeke?” Chloe whispered.
I sat up, the darkness vanishing as my eyes changed.
Chloe stood at the entrance to the living room in a t-shirt and cotton shorts much like she’d worn that first night I’d spoken to her on the beach. A relieved expression flashed across her face at the sight of my eyes, and her own took on an emerald glow as she crossed to the couch.
“You okay?” I asked as she sat down.
Chloe nodded. “Just… couldn’t sleep.”
I waited. Something in her voice made it seem like more than just nightmares keeping her awake.
She glanced to me. “You doing alright?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
She nodded again, dropping her gaze to her folded hands.
A heartbeat passed.
“It’s so weird being back,” she said quietly. “I thought after all the craziness of the past few weeks, it’d be normal somehow, but instead it’s like… like the world turned at this funny angle when I wasn’t looking and now I can’t fit inside it anymore.”
I hesitated, not sure what to say.
She caught sight of my expression and shook her head. “I don’t know,” she sighed.
I put my arm around her. A tiny smile pulled at her lip as she leaned her head against my shoulder.
“You mind if I stay down here with you?” she asked.
I chuckled. “Mind?”
Her smile grew.
I shifted around, lying back on the couch again. She curled up beside me, her cheek on my chest and her leg resting on mine.
A breath left her as I wrapped my arms around her. Straying up my skin, her fingers brushed my neck before settling on my chest as well.
“I’m going to miss you when you go,” she whispered.
My arms tightened on her, holding her close. “I don’t want to think about that yet.”
Silence fell back on the room, but for the hum of the refrigerator and the soft noises from bugs outside. My eyes drifted shut as I breathed in deep the smell of her hair, which still carried hints of salt and the sea.
I felt her move away and I opened my eyes.
Surprise hit me. It was morning.
“Shh,” Chloe whispered to me.
And then she fled across the room to the kitchen.
I didn’t have long to be confused.
Bill came around the base of the stairs. Wearing flannel pants and a cotton t-shirt, he looked like he’d just woken. He paused at the sight of me, a wary sort of suspicion in his eyes, and then continued into the living room. His gaze swept the space, finding Chloe.
Keeping her back to him, she was busy with taking a bowl from the cabinet. A box of something sat on the counter next to her, and as I watched, she reached over and then poured the contents into the bowl.
He headed into the kitchen. Snagging my shirt from the arm of the couch, I put it on quickly and then rose to my feet, watching him.
“Go get dressed,” I heard him tell her, his displeasure clear and his voice brooking no argument.
She hesitated and then gave a quick nod. Without a word, she retreated from the kitchen and moved fast for the stairs, her gaze flashing to me as she passed.
I could see the worry in her eyes.
As she disappeared around the landing, I looked back at her father.
Standing by the archway to the kitchen, he regarded me, his dislike for me obvious.
And a good amount of his anger too.
“Was Chloe down here with you last night?” he demanded.
I paused. The truth might get me kicked out. But from his expression, I seriously doubted he’d believe me if I lied.
“She had trouble sleeping,” I answered. “We didn’t do anything.”
The anger strengthened. “I don’t want you touching her, understand?”
His face tightened at my response. I could tell he didn’t believe me.
Which was fair. I understood he didn’t want me around his daughter.
It just meant little to me compared to what Chloe might want.
“You listen close,” he growled, stalking toward me. “You’re here on my sufferance, do you get me? And the moment Chloe calms down after all she’s been through, you’re going home. Now I’ll admit all those stories we’ve heard may not be true. But I’m willing to bet some are. Like the one that ended Chloe’s mom up pregnant with her when she was scarcely more than Chloe’s age, and then dead not long after.”
I tensed. There was a possibility between those lines – one that would explain his hatred for us – and nausea twisted my stomach at the thought of it.
The pull of aveluria magic would have been brutal on a landwalker.
“My girl is still a kid,” Bill continued. “She may not think so, and maybe neither do you, but it’s the truth. She’s got her whole life ahead of her, and she doesn’t need trouble coming down on her because of the likes of you. So you keep your hands off her, do I make myself clear?”
I paused. Defending myself wouldn’t do any good. Especially since, when it came to me and Chloe, the moment she was ready for things between us to go farther, I’d sooner move to the depths of the desert than deny her.
And his daughter wasn’t a landwalker. Whether he accepted that or not, I still couldn’t hurt her the way Chloe’s biological father might have hurt her mom.
“Yes,” I replied.
Footsteps thudded on the steps as Chloe jogged back to the first floor.
Bill cast a quick look to the stairway. “Good,” he said to me.
Without another word, he returned to the kitchen, keeping an eye toward me while he went.
Chloe whipped around the turn of the landing and headed down the hall. A dark brown t-shirt had replaced her pajamas, along with a pair of jean shorts that fit her so well, it took a fair amount of effort for me not to show any expression at the sight of her in them. Around her neck, she’d wrapped a thick and glittering green scarf that set off her eyes and covered her bruises at the same time. As she reached the living room entryway, she paused, and her gaze twitched between me and her father. “Everything okay?” she mouthed to me.
I didn’t respond, returning my attention to him.
It felt rather like having a shark in the room. One I couldn’t attack.
Glancing between me and her dad again, she started across the room toward me.
I shook my head. She stopped, her brow twitching down warily.
Linda came down the stairs. As she spotted me, I saw the same look flash through her eyes as she’d had yesterday. The one that said she suspected me of magically brainwashing her daughter.
It was hard to keep the frustration from my face.
Wringing her hands, Linda walked to the entrance to the living room, her gaze darting between us as though she was afraid Chloe would evaporate or I’d suddenly decide to stab someone through the heart.
“Are you…” Linda started to her. “Are you feeling okay this morning?”
“Fine,” Chloe replied. She inched farther into the living room, leaving her mother by the doorway. “Um, listen. Is Baylie home? I saw my stuff from California upstairs last night and then just now I thought I spotted her through the window.”
Linda looked to her husband.
“Have you spoken to Baylie about any of this?” Bill asked.
Chloe tensed. “No.”
“I need to talk to her, though,” she continued, obviously seeing his reluctance. “She hasn’t seen me since the Sylphaen attacked the cabin. She’s got to be worried.”
His mouth tightened.
“Or are you still going to insist we move away and I never speak to her again because she helped me get to California?” she finished, anger threading through her tone.
Bill’s face darkened. “We are trying to protect you, Chloe. If she doesn’t know about this, there’s no reason for you to talk to her now.”
“But what about that kidnapping you said the Delaneys reported to the cops? She might think I–”
She stared at him.
“If Chloe saw Baylie through the window,” I pointed out, “how do you know Baylie didn’t see her?”
Her father’s gaze snapped to me, his fury at my comment clear.
“Yeah,” Chloe agreed, a touch desperately. “What if she did? She could be calling the police right now. And she’ll definitely see me sooner or later. What are you going to do then?”
“Fine,” Linda said. “Then we will go speak to her on your behalf–”
“You’re not doing that!”
“No!” She looked between her parents. “If Baylie’s there, then I’m going to see her. And Iamgoing to talk to her. End of discussion.”
She moved toward me.
“Okay,” her father agreed.
She stopped, eyeing him warily.
“Okay,” Bill repeated. “You go talk to her. But you will tell her only what we give you to say. You don’t remember your attacker, or anything of what happened. You woke in a barn and ran till you found a gas station payphone and called us. You’ve been here for a week and you haven’t wanted to talk to anyone. That’s it. No other explanation; nothing of dehaians, landwalkers or anything.”
His gaze twitched to me. I tensed. “And that boy stays here.”
“Or he’s out the door right now.”
A breath escaped her.
“Please understand, Chloe,” Linda pled. “We’re not trying to be unreasonable; we just want you to be safe. This is for your own good.”
Chloe glanced at her, incredulity in her eyes.
“What will it be?” Bill asked.
I could see Chloe trembling. “Alright,” she answered, her voice tight. “But Zeke comes with me. I’m not leaving him here so you can kick him out while I’m gone.”
She gave him a dark look. “I’m not that stupid, Dad.”
“And how do you propose to explain him to her?” he asked.
Chloe was silent.
Bill watched her for a heartbeat. “Tell her he’s your cousin. He came when he heard you were missing.”
“Baylie knows I don’t have any cousins.”
“Tell her you lied.”
Chloe stared at him.
“Tell her you lied,” Bill repeated firmly. “Say you don’t like others to know about him.”
Still shaking, she hesitated, and then gave a tight nod. “Fine.”
She took my hand.
And she didn’t let go till we reached the door.
At a fast pace, she descended the porch stairs, and when she reached the yard, she strode toward the green, two-story house next door in a way that made me think she was barely restraining herself from running. We crossed the concrete driveway and hurried past the tall wooden fence that surrounded the next backyard. Still shaking with fury, Chloe marched up the steps to the porch and the white front door.
And then she paused. Uncertainty seemed to filter past the rage on her face and, breathing hard, she glanced to me.
I tried for a reassuring smile.
Her lip twitched gratefully.
Exhaling quickly, Chloe reached up and knocked on the door.
The waiting was the worst.
Standing by the door, I resisted the urge to knock again.
Or run away.
Because, really, I had no idea what I was going to tell Baylie. I wouldn’t lie. I didn’t care what my parents wanted. I wasn’t going to lie to my best friend.
But I didn’t know how to explain either.
My hand quivered. She was here. I couldn’t see her car in the driveway, but she and her parents usually parked in their garage anyway. I’d spotted her through the window, though. Just for a second, blurry and vaguely shadowed by the distance, but I had.
Growing up next to each other for thirteen years, I’d know her silhouette anywhere.
Footsteps thudded on the stairs inside.
I fought the impulse to turn and run.
Baylie tugged open the door and then froze.
I swallowed. “Hey.”
She gaped at me, blinked, and then suddenly leaned past the doorframe and threw a quick look around the neighborhood.
“Uh, hey,” she said, sounding choked. “C-come in.”
She retreated from the doorway, leaving us space to join her in the front room. Her gaze flicked over me and Zeke, and I could see the questions in her eyes.
And the nervousness.
My brow furrowed while we came inside. The house seemed normal. A television was playing upstairs, a trio of library books were stacked on the corner table, and Baylie’s backpack sat by the door. Nothing else had changed. Yet Baylie seemed like she was hurrying us into the fort before the bloodthirsty hordes attacked.
And she had vivid bruises on her arms.
I stared, the rest of the room forgotten. Her palms were bandaged, while purplish-blue marks ringed her forearms, each bruise several inches across.
My heart started to pound. Noah wouldn’t have hurt her. I’d gambled on that. Bet that he’d never touch his stepsister, even when he’d been such a monster to me.
“What happened to your arms?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Swiftly, she scanned the neighborhood again and then shut the door.
And locked it.
“Baylie?” I pressed.
She turned away from the door, crossed the three steps between us, and threw her arms around me.
“Oh God, I’m so glad you’re okay,” she breathed as she squeezed me. “When did you get here?”
I hugged her back, giving Zeke an incredulous look while I did. “Last night. Baylie, what’s going on?”
She exhaled, hanging onto me a moment longer, and then she let go. In the den, the back door slid shut. Baylie cast a quick glance toward the sound. “It’s a long story.” She tugged at one of her bandages. “We, um–”
Footsteps interrupted her. His attention on the phone in his hand, Noah strode into the room from the hall. “Baylie, that was Maddox. He can’t get here till Thursday, so I’m going to head back–”
He glanced up. His feet came to a stop.
“Chloe,” he said.
I felt paralyzed. I stared at him, my mind trying to catch up with the reality of him standing there in the archway to the hall, his green eyes shocked and the phone in his hand forgotten, when all I could see was his face, cracked with light and furious as he hurled insults and threatened to kill me if I didn’t leave the beach.
Air forced its way into my lungs. I retreated a step to Zeke’s side, barely keeping spikes from coming out on my arms. “Noah. W-what are you…”
He seemed to have trouble breathing too. Blinking, he tugged his gaze from me. “I, um–”
His attention caught on Zeke and he cut off, his brow furrowing in sudden confusion.
“I invited Noah to come back with me,” Baylie supplied warily, watching us all.
Zeke put a hand to my back. “Let’s go,” he said darkly.
Noah tensed, his gaze flicking toward where Zeke touched me and then returning to my face.
“Wait, why?” Baylie asked. She looked between us. “Chloe, you can’t. There’s–”
“It wasn’t what you thought,” Noah interjected, watching me.
My brow twitched down.
“I had to do that,” he continued. “I… my cousins were at the house. They’re like me, except… except they want to hurt you. I had to get you out of there. Make sure you didn’t come back so you’d be safe from them.”
He paused. “I’m sorry. Everything I said… I swear I didn’t mean any of it.”
I stared at him. I couldn’t find words. They just weren’t there. And I didn’t know what they’d be anyway.
He’d been horrible. Terrifying. I’d never seen…
Noah took a step toward me. “Chloe, I–”
Moving fast, Zeke pushed me behind him, never taking his eyes from Noah.
Noah stopped, his focus snapping from me to Zeke. Baylie stared at us, obviously baffled.
“Wait,” I managed. I put my hand to Zeke’s arm. His head turned toward me, though he didn’t look away from Noah. “What… what happened?”
“How is he here?” Noah asked instead.
I struggled to come up with a response when all I wanted was for him to explain again. His cousins. He had cousins?
“Chloe?” Noah pressed.
“She doesn’t owe you any–” Zeke started.
“Me.” My voice was tight. “I, um…”
I couldn’t finish. Noah’s brow furrowed.
“Guys?” Baylie tried with a nervous glance to the front of the house. “You think we could move away from the windows?”
More confusion rose in me, but Noah’s face just tightened.
“Yeah,” he said. Still watching me and Zeke, he nodded toward the hall and then headed that way.
Zeke glanced to me.
I hesitated and then followed Noah to the den. Two steps led us down to the familiar, cream-carpeted space where Baylie and I had spent countless evenings watching movies, talking about school, and generally avoiding my parents. A fireplace filled the leftmost wall, while a large television occupied another corner and an aging couch that I knew for a fact was the most comfortable thing on the planet sat below the back window. The room was long, taking up as it did the entire rear side of the house, and two more steps led up to a glass door that opened out onto the fenced backyard.
Noah stopped in the middle of the room and waited till Baylie had pulled the accordion door to the hallway closed before speaking.
“So you…” He grimaced. “You’re here. Are you okay?” he asked me. “It doesn’t hurt?”
I shook my head.
He nodded as though reassured, but his expression was still tight when he glanced to Zeke.
“You think someone could tell me what’s going on?” Baylie asked into the silence. “Finally?”
I hesitated. I didn’t know what to say.
“Or perhaps why we’re afraid of windows?” Zeke added darkly, watching Noah and the views of the backyard equally.
Noah paused. “My cousins are in town. They tracked you here.”
A breath left me. “The ones who want to hurt me?”
“So you say,” Zeke added.
I could see the rage in Noah’s eyes.
“Hey!” Baylie snapped, coming to Noah’s side and glaring at Zeke. “Who do you think you are, huh? Chloe, who is this guy?”
I didn’t answer her. “You never mentioned cousins.”
“I don’t like to advertise,” Noah retorted. “But yeah. Them. And my uncle. They came by yesterday and seemed to believe you’d be able to make it back here.”
Suspicion stole over me. “What were they driving?”
His eyes narrowed. “Red SUV.”
I swallowed. Zeke looked like he was barely restraining a curse.
“And I suppose you’re related to Earl too?” Zeke demanded.
“Earl?” Noah repeated, confused.
“Big guy,” Zeke supplied. “Lives in the forest with his knives and a serious dead-daughter obsession.”
Noah shook his head warily.
I hesitated. He didn’t appear to be lying.
And I wished I could trust that. But he’d also attacked Zeke that day on the beach, and threatened to kill me as well. I couldn’t shake the memory of the disgust in his eyes, no matter how much he claimed not to have meant it.
Carefully, I lifted a hand to my neck and pulled down the edge of the scarf.
“We’ve run into…” I gave a tense glance to Baylie, “into a guy who wanted us dead before.”
Noah stared at the bruises. He looked sick. Genuine, honest-to-God sick.
“Chloe…” Baylie breathed. “What the…”
“I-I don’t know him,” Noah managed. “I swear. The others… I don’t have any connection to them.”
I studied his face, seeing only nausea and concern, both of which were growing stronger by the second. Nothing remained of that hideous revulsion for me he’d shown on the beach. Nothing to say he was anything other than appalled at what Earl had done.
Trying to keep my hand from trembling, I tugged the scarf back into place. “Why couldn’t you justtellme?” I asked Noah, old hurt rising up inside. “On the beach, you could have–”
“I didn’t have time. They… we can feel each other’s presence. Know where others like us are, even if we can’t see each other. And they were coming right behind me. As it was… Chloe, if you’d been asecondslower in leaving…”
He exhaled, seeming to struggle for words. “They’ve spent their whole lives hoping to find someone like you. Just waiting for the chance to kill a… a person like you. I couldn’t let them do that.”
I shivered, remembering Earl’s words about his daughter keeping his spirits up about finally finding us someday.
“Earl said something like that too,” I allowed.
Noah managed a nod.
I glanced to Zeke.
“Why do they want to kill us?” he asked.
Noah hesitated, seeming like he’d rather not answer the question.
“Noah?” I pressed.
He exhaled. “We…” His jaw worked for a moment and his deep green gaze twitched to me. “We were created to kill you.”
My brow drew down. “Created to…?”
“Long time ago. Old war. Bunch of…” Noah’s gaze flicked to Baylie this time. He looked like the words were being dragged from him. “Bunch of old wizards. Dead island. Dead civilization. Story is, they were being overrun and,” he paused, “and they wanted a defense.”
I stared at him. He’d told me greliaran meant ‘protector’ that day he’d driven me to the ocean after the Sylphaen had injected me.
He’d just never said protector against whom.
“Overrun?” I repeated.
I looked to Zeke. His brow shrugged slightly and he appeared as mystified as me.
“Overrun by what?” Baylie asked, her voice small.
I blinked. So tense I could see her shaking, she watched us with fear in her eyes.
Like we might be monsters. Like we might grow three heads or turn into snake-beasts or something.
I felt sick.
“So you… you’re not actually…” she started, her face making clear what she was struggling to say. Not like her.
“No,” I answered softly.
Her brow furrowed.
“Chloe’s not like me, though,” Noah cut in. “What I told you was the truth. And she wasn’t trying to keep anything a secret either. It just happened that way. She only found out about this after she got to Santa Lucina.”
I hesitated, unprepared for his help.
Or for how much I appreciated it.
“But what…” Baylie tried.
“Dehaian,” I said. “That’s, um…”
“Like mermaids,” Noah finished.
Baylie seemed to choke. “You’re…?”
“Yeah,” I said.
She gave a soft gasp. Running a hand through her blonde hair, she retreated from us. She scanned the floor as if searching for answers there, and then she looked back up, finding Noah.
For a moment she studied her stepbrother.
She exhaled. Her gaze went back to me.
“You’re amermaid,” she stated.
I managed a shrug.
Another breath left her.
And degenerated into a chuckle at the end.
“You’re a…” She gave another gasping chuckle. “And he’s not human either, is he?”
She twitched her chin toward Zeke.
I shook my head cautiously, uncertain what to make of her reaction.
“He’s like you?”
She echoed the motion, her gaze dropping back to the floor. “Wow.”
I glanced to Noah. He was watching Baylie.
“So that’s where you were,” Baylie continued. “When you were gone this whole time. You were… I mean…”
I nodded again.
She paced away, running her fingers through her hair once more.
“How many others are there?” she asked, looking back at us. “I mean you’re,” she gestured to Noah, “what you are. Chloe and this guy are like mermaids… merpeople… what’d you call it again?”
“Dehaian,” Zeke said.
Baylie eyed him distrustfully, but she jerked her head in cautious acknowledgement. “Dehaian. So who else? Who else isn’t human around here?”
I hesitated, uncertain if we should go into this.
“Chloe?” she demanded.
“Um… Mom and Dad are landwalkers,” I risked saying.
“And what the hell is that?”
“Like former dehaians. But they can’t go near the water anymore.”
Baylie nodded. “Great. Okay.”
“You alright?” Noah asked.
She turned to him, incredulity in her blue eyes.
“Sorry,” he amended.
She let out a breath. Blinking a few times, she shook her head and then looked at me again. “We need to talk.”
“But not now,” she continued, coming back toward me. “Now…” She glanced to Noah. “Now there are five guys we’vereallygot to get out of town.”
“If they’ve been searching for dehaians their whole lives,” I said, distantly feeling relief at being able to use the word with Baylie even in the midst of everything. “They’re not going to leave easy.”
“What if we–”
Zeke cut off as someone knocked on the front door.
“You expecting anyone?” he asked.
Baylie shook her head. She looked to Noah. “Is it them?”
He regarded the accordion door to the hall as though he could see through it to the outside. “Not unless they’re hiding.”
My brow started to draw down, and then I remembered what he’d said about knowing where others like him were.
The distant sound of the television cut off. Footsteps thudded on the stairs from the second floor, and then I heard the door open. Muffled voices followed, one of which sounded like Baylie’s stepmom, Sandra.
“Just some guy,” Noah supplied quietly, his eyes on the accordion door. “Says he’s moving to the area with his daughter. He’s asking about schools, neighbors.”
He caught sight of me watching him, and a touch of embarrassment crossed his face. “We–”
“Have good hearing. Yeah, we know that part.”
Noah hesitated and then gave a small nod, still seeming uncomfortable.
I pulled my gaze back to the others. “We could try to make those guys think we’ve left. That maybe wewerehere, but now–”
A cry from the front of the house brought me up short. Footsteps pounded on the floor of the hallway.
Noah raced for the accordion door.
It ripped open before he got there.
Earl stopped, one massive hand holding chunks of the brown wood and the other gripping the doorframe. Breathing hard, he stood for a moment, his giant form filling the doorway and his eyes sweeping the room wildly.
His gaze landed on me. A wretched grin spasmed across his lip.
“Found you,” he growled.
He charged at me, taking the two stairs to the den floor in a single step and throwing the remnants of the door to the ground as he came.
“Run!” Noah yelled at us, moving to block his path.
Earl barely paused. Fissures sped through his skin like an earthquake on overdrive, and in a heartbeat, fire lit his eyes. He swung an arm, batting Noah aside.
Zeke lunged at him, spikes on his arms.
With a snarl, Earl grabbed for him and Zeke ducked fast. His spikes slashed at the man’s side, tearing through his flannel shirt, but the blades deflected uselessly from Earl’s skin. Zeke spun, his arm arcing up, his spikes aimed at the man’s face, but Earl twisted and snagged the blow in midair. With an angry shout, he hurled Zeke away as well.
Earl didn’t stop.
I backpedaled, spikes rushing out of my forearms.
“You thought my friends wouldn’t tell me where to look for you?” He scoffed. “You thought after what you did to me, I wouldn’t hunt you down, you little scale-skinnedbitch?”
The steps to the patio door bumped against my heels, and frantically, I fumbled behind me for the handle, my eyes locked on Earl.
Noah plowed into him. The television shattered as they crashed through it.
“Run, dammit!” Noah shouted, his greliaran form making the words a snarl.
Zeke rolled up from the ground and rushed at me. Grabbing my arm with one hand and yanking the door open with the other, he didn’t spare Earl or Noah a glance.
“Baylie!” I yelled, stumbling after Zeke as he pulled me from the house.
A crash came from the den. White-faced, Baylie raced outside.
“Go!” she cried. “He’s getting up!”
We ran for the back gate.
Glass shattered behind us. I couldn’t tell what was happening in there. The gate latch broke at Zeke’s tug at the flimsy padlock, and then we were out in the service way between the yards, barreling toward the street with Baylie fighting to keep up behind us.
I tried to slow. I’d forgotten how fast we were. Or, given what Zeke had just done, how strong.
“We need to get out of sight,” Zeke called as we bolted across the road.
I glanced to Baylie.
“Jefferson,” she suggested breathlessly.
I nodded. Without another word, we both turned, running for the gap between two yards that we knew led to our school. Casting a look over his shoulder for Earl, Zeke followed.
The grassy expanse of the football practice field waited on the other side of the houses, with the block of bricks that was Thomas Jefferson High School beyond it. Football players getting in an early workout looked up and stared at us in confusion when we sped by.
“Where’s the fire?” one yelled.
I ignored him and Baylie did too as we raced for the building’s side. Left unlocked for the summer school students, the metal door surrendered to my yank on the handle and then clanged loudly when it slammed back against the brick wall. Our footsteps echoed as we ran through the hallways.
“Here,” Baylie called.
We ducked into one of the empty classrooms. Tugging the door closed behind us, Zeke glanced around quickly and then strode past the desks to the strip of narrow windows along the opposite wall.
“Are you okay?” I asked him, casting a quick look to the hallway through the tiny square of glass in the door.
“Yeah,” he replied as he yanked the vinyl curtains down.
I hesitated, hoping the words were true, and then I glanced to Baylie. “You have your cell?”
Her head shook. “It’s on the coffee table at home.” She paused, trembling. “What’s left of the coffee table.”
I reached out, squeezing her hand. She tensed, her gaze flicking to my forearm.
Uncomfortably, I let her go.
“So I guess that’s part of the…” she tried in a whisper.
I gave a small nod.
She let out a breath. “C-can I…”
I paused, and then let the spikes emerge.
She tensed all over again, staring at them. Her hand moved toward me.
I pulled my arm away. “They’re sharp.”
Baylie managed a nod, lowering her hand. She swallowed hard as I drew the spikes back in.
“Guess that’s why Noah’s skin goes all…” Her fingers fluttered illustratively. “If he’s supposed to… you know.”
I looked away. I hadn’t really thought about it.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“What happened there?” I asked, twitching my chin toward her arms.
She shrugged a bit. “Noah’s cousins.”
It was hard to know what to say. My brow furrowing, I glanced toward Zeke. Sitting on a desk by the windows, he studied the street around the edge of a curtain.
In the distance, police sirens began to howl.
I shifted my weight nervously. I wanted to be comforted by the noise. By the prospect of people with guns getting between us and Earl.
But I knew bullets didn’t stop greliarans.
I swallowed, trying not to worry about Noah or Sandra.
“You think they’re alright?” Baylie asked quietly.
I glanced to her, seeing the same fear in her eyes as I knew was in mine. “Yeah,” I whispered back, doing my best to sound encouraging. “They–”
Zeke made a tense sound, cutting me off. I looked over at him. Barely breathing, he eased back from the window, his gaze locked on something outside.
I crossed the room to his side and peered past the edge of the curtain.
Earl was standing in front of the school.
Breathing hard, Earl scanned the street and the school building, his head twitching back and forth in quick, savage movements. His skin was human again, and his eyes were as well, but a snarl curled his lip and I could see him shaking while his fingers spasmed into shapes like claws.
The sirens grew louder. At the end of the block, a police car whipped around the turn.
Earl’s gaze snapped toward it. Spinning fast, he took off running down the street.
I let out a breath, leaning closer to the window. They had to catch him. Somehow, they had to–
Another cop car flew around the corner ahead of him. In a screech of tires, it came to a stop and the two officers scrambled out, grabbing for their guns as they moved. The police shouted at him, their words muffled by distance and the thick glass of the windows.
Earl skidded to a halt. I saw him pause, as if evaluating what to do, and my heart climbed my throat.
Carefully, he put his hands behind his head and lowered himself to the ground.
The officers rushed toward him. Kicking Earl’s legs apart, they patted him down quickly for weapons and then set to cuffing his hands.
I shivered as they hauled him to his feet and started for the car.
“Come on,” Zeke said softly, taking my arm.
Earl’s gaze snapped toward us and his face contorted with rage. With a furious shout, he yanked the handcuffs apart and twisted in the officers’ grasps. The cops stumbled away, driven by his thrashing. He raced for the school while they fumbled at their belts.
Tasers caught him in the back.
Howling, he crashed to the ground. The cops surrounded him again, and struggled to drag him to his feet.
Zeke pulled me from the window while the police shoved Earl into the rear seat of the closest squad car.
“Is he gone?” Baylie whispered, still waiting by the classroom door.
“Cops have him,” I answered tightly.
Air left her. She tugged the door open and hurried into the hall.
I jogged after her, trying not to worry about what we’d find at her house.
The squad cars were the first thing I saw.
We ran around the corner to our street to find almost all of the handful of police vehicles that existed in Reidsburg parked in front of Baylie’s home. Two officers stood in the yard, watching the road, while others strode in and out of the front doorway. My parents huddled on their porch, not coming closer to the chaos and eyeing it all like they were afraid someone would think it was related to them. Along the length of the street, neighbors milled about, though a few intrepid ones were interrogating the cops for answers to what was going on.
At the sight of them all, Baylie gave a gasp and sped up, racing for her house.
Zeke and I followed.
“Where is she, then?” I heard Sandra shouting from inside. “You say you have him. Well, where the hell– what?”
Baylie’s stepmom rushed out the front door, shoving aside one of the officers who’d been slow to move out of her way. A white bandage was taped to one side of her forehead and her blonde hair was disheveled, but otherwise, she seemed okay. In a scramble, she descended the porch steps and then caught Baylie when she raced into the yard.
“Oh God, honey, are you okay?” Sandra asked desperately. “Where were you? Did he hurt you?”
I slowed, searching for Noah.
He came to the front door as well, and relief flashed across his face when he spotted us on the opposite side of the street.
I paused, fighting the urge to let my eyes change just to see more clearly if he’d been injured. He didn’t look hurt from what I could tell, which was shocking considering the noise that’d been coming from the house when we ran.
But then, he was greliaran. That obviously counted for something.
“Chloe?” Sandra cried.
I froze as every police officer and half the neighbors on the block suddenly turned toward me and stared.
Mom and Dad hurried for the steps, their intent to hustle me back into the house as fast as possible abundantly clear.
Sandra got to me first.
“Chloe, honey,” she said, grabbing me into a quick hug. Pushing me away again, she scanned me up and down in shock. “Where’ve you been? What happened?”
Mom reached us. Her face tight, she inserted herself between us, almost physically pushing Sandra away as she took my arms and began pulling me with her. “Chloe, come back to the house. We–”
Mom turned, her hands tightening painfully on my arms.
Police Chief Reynolds walked down the steps from Baylie’s porch. As he started across the yard, he scanned his officers and the bystanders and us with a pleasant expression.
Except his eyes, anyway. Those were all cop.
A shiver ran through me. This was madness. We no sooner avoided Earl than another threat appeared, this time in the form of a landwalker policeman who might just try to hurt or kill me if he found out what I was.
And who would insist on knowing everything about the past week of my life.
My heart raced as two more officers followed the chief from the house. Handcuffs and guns hung at their belts. They were nearly the size of Earl.
I wanted to turn and run.
“I see your girl’s home, Linda,” the chief commented mildly as he came up to us. “Can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that.”
Still hanging onto me, Mom didn’t move. An answering smile twitched across her face like a trapped animal. “Yes, well,” she managed. “We were just going to call–”
She cut off as Dad hurried to her side.
“Bill,” the chief said with a nod.
Dad gave a tight jerk of his head in response.
Chief Reynolds’ gaze swept me, Zeke, and the neighborhood in quick succession and I couldn’t read anything from his blue eyes. “If it’s alright with you, Sandra, I’m going to leave a few officers here and head back to the station now. Your problem is already down there being locked up as we speak, so you shouldn’t have any more trouble.”
“Love it if you all would join me,” he continued to my parents.
Dad made a hedging noise. “We need to–”
“Folks around here are going to have a fair number of questions, Bill,” the chief interrupted smoothly. “Might keep them from bothering you and your girl just this minute if they know you’re down talking to us.”
Mom swallowed hard, glancing to Dad. He hesitated a moment, and then gave another tense nod.
“We’ll follow in our car,” he said.
The chief smiled. “Sounds good.”
I stared as the chief walked away. “You guys–”
“Come on,” Dad interrupted.
He headed for the garage. Shifting her grip to clutch my wrist, Mom did the same, bringing me in tow.
Her fingers felt like a vice. Without any option but to follow, I stumbled after her toward the car.
Zeke’s hand held mine as Dad pulled the car into a parking space beside the squat brick building that housed the police station.
I couldn’t stop trembling. It wasn’t like in Nyciena. I knew that. It wasn’t even close. No one had shackles that’d shock me, and the cops couldn’t get away with beating me up like the Sylphaen had done.
But I still felt terrified. They might figure out that I’d stabbed that EMT. Or poke holes in the cover story my parents had made me memorize again on the way over here.
They might do anything.
And the chief was a landwalker. If he found out I was half dehaian…
A squad car stopped in a reserved space near the front of the narrow strip of parking lot beside the station. Sandra’s car, with Baylie and Noah inside, pulled past to take a spot next to us.
“Don’t forget what we said,” Dad repeated, turning around in the driver’s seat. “Blame it on that crazy man. Say he took you. We’ll be right there, and anything you don’t want to answer, just say you don’t remember.”
I didn’t respond, not taking my eyes from the squad car. The chief climbed from the passenger side while behind the wheel, an officer turned off the engine.
I blinked and looked at Dad.
“This’ll be over soon.”
I hesitated. I could see the nervousness on his face. Mom’s too. They looked as on edge as I’d ever seen them, and that wasn’t helping me in the least.
Tightly, I nodded. We got out of the car. Mom and Dad went ahead of me as I followed the chief around the corner of the building.
The chief’s nephew, Aaron, rushed out of the front door and nearly ran into us.
“Chief?” he stammered, a harried look on his face. “I just heard the– oh, hi folks.”
He swallowed, his gaze flicking back and forth across the others but continually coming to land back on me. “H-hey, Chloe. How are you? Or, I mean, um…”
Aaron floundered, and I had no idea how to respond.
“Excuse us, Officer Erlich,” the chief said placidly.
“Do you want me to call someone, sir?”
“Just get the paperwork ready.”
Aaron nodded. “Okay, yeah. I’ll…”
He trailed off as Chief Reynolds moved past him and one of the other officers pulled open the door. With Aaron still staring at us, we followed the chief inside.
A small waiting room lay beyond the glass door. Three metal-frame chairs with fake leather padding crowded the walls of the tight space, while a small chrome table took up one corner. A sad-looking plant sat in the other corner, sagging into the speckled tile floor. To the left of the doorway, an opening in the wall revealed the dispatch officer – a middle-aged and heavily set woman that I vaguely recognized from seeing her around town.
“Gladys,” the chief said to her as we came in. “Could you get these folks anything they need? And have Smith make the appropriate calls. He’ll know what needs doing. We’ll just be back here talking for a few minutes.”
She smiled at us and then rose from her seat, pausing only long enough to push something beneath her desk. A buzzing sound came from the brown door leading to the remainder of the station.
“This way,” the chief said.
I glanced back at the others. I could see the tension on Zeke and Noah’s faces, and the outright worry on Baylie’s.
“We’ll all be here waiting for you,” Sandra assured me with a smile.
I couldn’t respond. With Mom and Dad, I headed after the chief, and tried to ignore the officers who came behind us.
At the end of the narrow hall, Chief Reynolds led us into his office. A cluttered wooden desk took up half the space, reports and folders covering its top while a computer monitor rose like an island from the paper sea. Diplomas, commendations, and family photographs alike hung on the walls, while on the crowded shelving at the far end of the office, everything from books to Little League trophies filled the space.
He motioned us toward the chairs in front of the desk, and then glanced back to follow my gaze to the shelves.
“The Reidsburg Comets Little League team,” he explained. “I coach them during the summer.”
I tried for a smile and mostly failed.
He didn’t seem to notice as he sank into his desk chair, the springs squeaking a bit under his weight.
“So can I ask Gladys to get you folks anything to drink? Coffee, maybe?”
Mom and Dad shook their heads. He smiled again.
“Alright then.” He pulled open his desk drawer and then drew out a small digital audio recorder. “Now, Chloe, I want you to know that I’m going to be taping our conversation, but that’s not because you’re in any trouble. You’re not. It’s just to help minimize the chance you’ll have to go over things again later, okay?”
I shifted a bit in the chair. “Okay.”
He pushed a button on the recorder and then set it down on the desk between us. Leaning forward a bit as though making sure the microphone could hear him, he listed off his name, rank, and the date, and then looked back up to me with a smile.
“Could you give your full name and birthday for the record?” he asked.
He smiled again. “Thanks. So Chloe, it looked like you were with your friend, Baylie Mitchell, this morning. Were you at her house when the break-in occurred?”
“Can you tell me where were you before that?”
I hesitated. I was shaking so hard, and I needed to stop. Focus would get me through this because, really, it wasn’t that bad. As long as I didn’t say anything about, well,anything, this would be fine.
Trying to believe myself, I drew a breath. “At home.”
He paused briefly. “At home,” he repeated as if trying to be clear. “And how long had you been at home?”
I looked to my parents, and then gave a tiny shrug.
“You don’t know?”
“A while,” I allowed.
“About how much of a while?”
I gave another shrug.
He glanced to my parents. They didn’t respond. I wasn’t even sure they were breathing.
His brow flickered down and then he returned his attention to me. “So how did you get home?”
I kept my gaze from going to Mom and Dad. They’d made me memorize this.
“My parents picked me up on a road.”
He paused. “What road?”
I shook my head.
His eyebrow raised and his gaze twitched to the recorder.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“How did you end up on this road?”
“I left the gas station and walked down it.”
I gave a tight nod. “I called Mom and Dad there. I don’t remember where it was. I… I woke up in a barn. I walked to the station and called them. They came and got me on the road.”
He paused again. “This barn. Where was it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. Try describing the surrounding area to me. What did you see when you left?”
I worked to keep breathing while I fumbled after the most general description I could think of. “Fields?”
“What kind of fields?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were there any other buildings nearby? Any vehicles, trees or other things you noticed?”
I shook my head.
His brow furrowed curiously. “No, or you don’t remember?”
“I don’t remember. It’s… it’s all a blur.”
“Any sounds around you? Maybe smells?”
I shook my head again. “I don’t remember.”
He nodded. He glanced back to my parents, both of whom were watching us intently.
“Okay,” he allowed. “We can get into that more later.”
He paused again, longer this time, while he scribbled something on the notepad nearby.
My gaze tracked the pen across the page. I wondered what he’d felt the need to write down.
“Now, Chloe,” he said when he looked up again. “I want you to know you’re safe, alright? Whatever happened, you’re safe here now.”
I shifted in the chair again.
“Had you seen the man who broke into Baylie’s house before?”
I gave a small nod. “Yeah.”
“Was he the one who took you in California?”
I trembled, the words feeling stuck in my throat. Mom and Dad had drilled me on this in the car, while Zeke squeezed my hand and wouldn’t meet my eyes. I was supposed to blame Earl. I was supposed to say that he’d taken me from the ambulance, drugged me, and that I didn’t remember anything till I woke in a barn.
But I felt like it wouldn’t matter. Like the whole story they’d insisted I memorize was such a pathetic bunch of lies, a child could see through them.
And like Chief Reynolds already had, with the way his blue, Santa Claus cop gaze just wouldn’t look away from me. Earl had attacked me, it was true. He’d left the bruises that were throbbing in time to my racing heartbeat right now.
But if I blamed him, the rest of it could come out. The part about his daughter dying. The reason he’d wanted to kill us in the first place. As a greliaran, he might believe he had as much to lose as anyone from letting that information out. But he might not. He might start raving about dehaians.
He might let the chief know what I really was. What Zeke was. And Noah.
“I don’t remember,” I whispered.
Mom shifted in her seat. The chief’s gaze flicked to her before snapping back to me.
“That’s okay,” he assured me. “But I want you to know, I mean it when I say you’re safe. No one can hurt you anymore.”
I managed a jerky nod, even though the words were totally wrong.
“Where had you seen him?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about the ambulance? Was it there?”
“I don’t know.”
He paused. “Alright, we can get back to that. Let’s talk about the ambulance for a minute. Is that okay?”
I didn’t move. That was the last thing on earth I wanted to discuss, short of what I was or where I’d actually been for the past week.
“Okay,” I whispered.
“What do you remember? Anything the ones inside it said? Perhaps something strange about the way they spoke? Accents? Words they used? Names they might have mentioned?”
My heart felt like it would climb up my throat. Why did he want to know that? Did he know they were dehaian? Sylphaen?
I looked to my parents frantically. “W-why–”
“How is that relevant?” Dad interrupted.
The chief glanced between us. “Well, if the man today wasn’t connected to this, then we need any other leads we can get. Speech patterns could help us figure out where they were from. Narrow down the search. Names… well, that’s obvious, isn’t it, Bill?”
Clearly frustrated, Dad glanced to Mom, whose hands were white from clenching them so tightly. She gave him a helpless look.
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“The other EMTs on the scene said one of the men escorted you and Baylie back to the ambulance. What did the man say to you?”
“H-he just asked if he could help us.”
“What did his voice sound like? Midwestern? Southern?”
I shivered. “I don’t remember.”
He studied me for a moment.
“Did his voice remind you of anyone? Like an actor, or maybe someone from the radio?”
“I don’t remember.”
His mouth tightened again.
I trembled harder. I wanted to just say no one took me. I wanted to end this and get out of here. I knew that wouldn’t actually finish anything, but I almost didn’t care.
Helplessly, I looked to my parents.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Dad announced, putting a hand to the desk like he was going to turn off the recorder himself. “She doesn’t remember.”
The chief didn’t seem perturbed. “It’s important that she try, though.” He looked to me. “It’s okay, Chloe. You’re safe now. You–”
“I said she doesn’t remember.”
Chief Reynolds paused. His gaze flicked from my parents to me and back.
He reached out and turned off the recorder. Slowly, he drew a breath.
“Two teenage girls are dead, Bill,” he told Dad quietly. “Someone in California attacked your daughter in broad daylight, and then two more men tried to kidnap her and Baylie only days after that. Now those guys are dead too. I understand you want to protect Chloe. She…” He paused, his gaze returning to me briefly. “She could have been hurt just by going out west like that, even without everything else that came after. But we need her help now. If it wasn’t the man we have in custody, then whoever took her from the ambulance is presumably still out there. And she’s going to have to remember eventually.
“There’s a lot coming down on you folks,” the chief continued. “I know that. And I know it’s just going to increase. In the next few days, there’ll be a number of authorities who’ll need to speak with Chloe, and you both too. She’ll also have to be checked out medically to make sure she’s not injured and that nothing else bad happened to her. We’ll have a psychologist in from Kansas City to help you through all that, and – one neighbor to another – I’ll see what the town can do to help with any long-term needs in that regard as well. But we’re going to have to track down where Chloe was kept and what happened in the time she was gone. That’s important for us, but it’s important for her too, so she can get through this. And keeping Chloe from talking to us isn’t going to–”
Mom let out a desperate sound.
The chief glanced to her and then looked back to Dad. “I can help you all. I know there are… special considerations here. Things that might have made it hard for Chloe to feel quite up to thinking straight in a place like California, or for some time after. But to do that, I need you all to be honest with me. Let Chloe tell me what she really remembers, and where she’s been this past week.” He paused. “I want to do what I can to protect her too, Bill.”
Still trembling, I watched Dad. I needed a way out of here. My arms kept threatening to sting, and only by making myself keep breathing did I seem to be able to hold the spikes at bay.
But I should have gone on running. Stayed away from here and everywhere else.
Though really, that wouldn’t have kept some cop from stopping me on the street and making this all happen anyway.
My stomach wanted to twist into a pretzel at the thought.
“We don’t want any trouble here,” Dad said carefully. “We just want to go back to our lives like they were.”
The chief’s mouth tightened. “I understand. But that’s going to be mighty hard, Bill, just burying this. I know you could try. But the FBI, the sheriffs here and in California… they’re all going to–”
“But Chloe doesn’t remember anything,” Mom protested, still clenching her hands in her lap.
He paused. “That might be true, Linda. And maybe she will.”
His gaze returned to me and I couldn’t look away from his eyes. He knew I was lying. I was sure of it.
“I want to help you, Chloe,” he said. “I–”
The door swung open behind us.
I jumped a mile.
Spikes rushed out of my forearms.
Mom and Dad both moved to block any view of me, trying not to get cut in the process. Frantically, I tucked my arms to my sides and fought to draw the spikes back as fast as I could.
Chief Reynolds surged to his feet angrily as his nephew came in holding a clipboard. “Aaron, what the hell are you–”
The chief caught sight of my arms just before the spikes disappeared again.
“Sorry, Chief, I had the paperwork–”
“Get out, Aaron,” he ordered, not taking his eyes from me.
“I-I didn’t mean–”
The door shut as Aaron retreated. Shaking hard, I didn’t look away from Chief Reynolds.
He sank back into his chair, still watching me. “Now that’s, um… not something I expected.”
I swallowed hard.
The chief glanced from me to my parents. “Anyone want to explain what I just saw here?”
Dad’s mouth tightened. “Chloe…” He seemed to struggle to make himself say the words. “Her mother was my sister, and her biological father… he was…”
He trailed off with a grimace.
The chief read between the lines anyway. “And I’m going to guess that’s involved in what happened last week?” He paused. “Whatactuallyhappened?”
My parents didn’t respond.
Exasperation flickered across his face. “Bill. Linda. Please. I… I realize why you probably hid this. It’s not exactly something you can discuss on tape. And besides that, you’ve heard the same stories I have, yeah? What some folks might do to a child in Chloe’s position. But I can assure you, that’s not a concern here.” He paused again. “Unless that’s why people have been after you?”