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Authors: Megan Whitmer

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Between (9 page)

BOOK: Between
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Alexander’s expression changes, as though he’s grown tired of holding his mask in place. His eyes turn downward; the corners of his mouth droop. “Many of them were completely empty when we found them.”

Pale, lifeless bodies scattered throughout Ellauria’s brightly colored landscape flash in my mind—dead eyes, bodies lying in impossible positions, pale skin glowing against lush green grass and sparkling flowers. I close my eyes, but the visions only become larger, squeezing out all thoughts until I see my own face on one of those bodies, dead and staring. Then Mom, then Sam. All of us in danger, simply for being born. My whole body clenches. I open my eyes again, but everything is blurry. A tear slides down my face.

“I think that’s enough for now,” Seth says, his fingers curling into my back again, rubbing up and down. He sounds too far away to be sitting next to me.

“No,” I tell him, and blink rapidly to clear my eyes. I look at Alexander. “I want to know everything.”

Seth sits up straighter and turns away, placing both feet on the floor. He rests his forearms on his knees and leans forward, balancing his forehead on his fingers.

Silence stretches across the room for several seconds before Alexander rubs his chin and continues. “In the mortal realm, the amount of money a person has often determines his station in life. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—a child doesn’t choose the family he’s born into. In our world, powers are our currency. For a creature with little or no magical ability, the lure of muralet blood is very enticing.”

Seth places his hand over mine on my knee, and a tingle spreads from his fingers all the way up my thigh. “That’s why we have to be sure nobody finds out what you are. Alexander, Adele, and I are the only ones who know. Sam will know, of course, but it is absolutely crucial that nobody else finds out. If anyone asks, you’re a siren.”

I take my eyes off his hand on my knee. I’ve read about sirens—beautiful women who lured sailors to their deaths by singing to them.

I don’t sing.

Wait. Did he just call me beautiful? “You think I can pass as a siren?”

Seth’s eyebrows wrinkle and the corners of his mouth turn up, as if he finds my question completely absurd. “Of course you can. And it’s perfect because a siren’s power is wrapped up in singing, and no one will ask you to demonstrate it since the siren’s song is so deadly.”

Seth thinks I’m beautiful.

It’s not that he’s never complimented me before. He’s always been quick to admire my artwork, praise my intelligence, and even laugh at some of my jokes, but he’s never said a word about my appearance. Of all the mind-blowing information being dropped on me right now, the idea that Seth finds me attractive shouldn’t even register on the scale, but it does.

His hand is still on mine, covering it completely. I want to scoot closer to him. His fingers curl around my hand, squeezing, and I look up to find his eyes on my face. I bite my lip, wondering how long he’s been watching me.

Alexander clears his throat, crashing right down on my moment. Seth pulls his hand from mine and shifts away. What was that about? I look from Seth to Alexander, but they give nothing away.

As soon as Seth’s hand is gone, I want it back again. Something in his hunched shoulders tells me not to reach for him. I get up from the couch and take the photo from the nightstand, studying Mom’s face and searching for signs of the enormous secret she’d been keeping for years. No wonder she’s always so overprotective. If anyone found out our secret, we’d all be dead and drained.

My fingers itch for my charcoals. Drawing is my favorite mode of transportation, my quickest escape route. I can work through what’s happening in my head while I break my feelings into visible pieces. Right now, I’d draw what I need to see—something to replace the images in my head. Sam’s twinkling green eyes instead of his terrified stare. Mom’s soft, gentle hands instead of her white-knuckled grip on that knife.

“I need to return to Central Hall to keep an eye on things,” Alexander says, interrupting my thoughts. I turn to face him. He nods to me and then looks at Seth. “If there’s any sign of Sam and Adele, I’ll let you know.”

Seth rises from the couch as Alexander disappears in a ripple of air.

I clutch the framed photograph, remembering the way Mom stared down the Mothman earlier. He could’ve killed her so easily, but she jumped right out there in front of him. For us.

My eyes burn with tears. I need her here. I need her soothing voice to explain all this to me in a way that makes sense. I need her to tell me this will work out, that our blood isn’t a death sentence, and then I need to hear Sam make some stupid joke about it.

Mostly I just need to see them to know they’re safe.

My throat goes dry. They have to be safe.

I lower myself onto the foot of my bed and set the photo beside me.

“How did he find us?” I shake my head. “If no one is supposed to know muralets still exist, how did the Mothman show up at our house tonight?”

Seth paces between the coffee table and the stained glass window. “You remember that thing with your hands earlier?”

“The tingling?” I look down at my hands, remembering the itch of pins and needles crawling across my skin, spreading outward from my palms. What’s that have to do with anything?

“When did it start? What were you doing?”

I tell him about the cloud, and Seth nods. “Muralets have power over everything Mother Nature created. You can manipulate natural elements—earth, air, fire, and water. When you were born, Alexander repressed your powers. Tonight, it appears, his spell slipped.”

Slipped? That’s a thing that happens? What good is a spell if it’s not reliable enough to keep scary birdmen off my lawn? “How did it slip?”

“We’re not entirely sure.” He pauses by the window and rubs his hand over his chin. “It’s never really happened before. We already have someone looking into it. But with what you’ve described, it’s the only thing that makes sense.” His earlier words replay in my head. Power over everything Mother Nature created.

My
powers.

Powers. In me. Mine. Like a motherfluffing superhero. I flop back on my bed and stare at the ceiling. I am Mother Nature’s granddaughter, and I have power over her creations. My mind is flooded with possibilities—things I’ve only seen in comic books and movies. Parting water. Raising wind. Trembling ground. I’m capable of this? I control these things?

“You’re saying I was controlling the cloud?”

“It’s more like the wind was trying to obey your wishes, but yes.”

I bring my hands over my eyes, pointing my elbows upward. Tonight, I wanted to draw the sunset. I wanted to make something pretty on the day when I thought the Collis rejection was the worst thing that would happen to me.

That seems like ages ago, not hours.

I had to draw that sunset. If I hadn’t done that—if I hadn’t started talking to clouds—would I be here right now?

I hear Seth’s footsteps move across the room again.

“How many of us are left?” I ask. “Muralets? Just the three of us?”

My question is met with silence. I let my arms fall to the bed and push myself up again. Seth is frozen by the sofa, staring at me like it’s physically painful for him to do so. “No,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper. “It’s only you.”

Only me? But how is that possible? If I’m descended from Mother Nature, the bloodline has to run through my mom and brother, too. That’s three of us. Three muralets. Not only me. That makes no sense.

“Adele is the Aegis assigned to your unit,” he says, slowly stepping toward me. “She’s responsible for taking care of you.”

“Well, of course,” I say, “because she’s my mom.” Who better to serve as your ultimate protector than your mother?

Seth stands over me, his gaze falling somewhere between my mattress and the floor. I can’t figure out his problem. He’s wrong. Clearly, there are three muralets. This is a mistake. I can’t be the only one. I’m not alone.

He meets my eyes again, and the pieces fall into place. I realize what he’s not saying. The question swells in my throat, aching, but I can’t find a way to release it.

It can’t be.

“She’s Sam’s mom,” Seth says. He exhales, and everything about him deflates a little. His shoulders slump, his eyes darken, and his voice seems smaller. “Adele and Sam are jourlings, basically the human form of bloodhounds. Very strong, keen senses, excellent trackers and hunters,” he pauses before adding, “and they have no relation to muralets.”

No.

“I’m not—” I lean forward, trying to find air. “We’re not related?”

Seth crouches in front of me and says something, but I can’t hear him over the roar of blood between my ears. I wrap my arms around myself, curling inward, closing him out. The weird twitching thing that always happens when I cry starts, where my lips and cheeks seem to have minds of their own. I stare at the floor, focusing very hard on not losing it completely. It’s all I can do to hold back the sob filling my chest. My fingers dig into my arms so deeply it hurts, but I can’t stop hugging myself.

Seth peers up at me. He’s so close I feel his breath on my legs. “Charlie.”

How is this even possible? She’s not my mom? He’s not my brother? My
twin
?

“Don’t.” I don’t want to hear explanations. It doesn’t matter. I’m alone. One muralet surrounded by creatures who she thought she knew, but doesn’t. How did this happen? How did I not know? I stare down at the photo.

Mom and Sam are tall. I’m not. Their skin tone is the same—the kind that turns golden in the sun, whereas my fair skin only explodes with pink splotches when I try to tan. There’s little sign of me in the woman I call Mom.

Even so, it’s not like Sam looks a lot like her either. Her dark brown eyes match her hair; Sam’s blessed with clear green eyes, and his light brown curls have that naturally lightened look people pay a good amount of money to achieve.

Seth grabs a Kleenex for me from the table by my bed. I feel his eyes on my face, but I keep mine on the picture.

Boy-girl twins can only be fraternal, never identical. I never expected to look exactly like Sam. The idea that our differences mean anything at all never crossed my mind.

I feel so cold. My mother is my mother and my brother is my brother. How could they not be?

“What about the rest?” I ask, fighting to keep my voice steady. “Aunt Becky? Granny? Our cousins?” I cradle the picture against my chest and look at Seth directly. “Was any of it real?”

Seth’s face is a struggle—drawn eyebrows, clenched jaw, tortured eyes. When he shakes his head, I can’t hold in the sobs any longer. The mattress sinks a bit when he takes a seat and slides his arms around me. I curl into him, letting my tears fall onto his shirt.

My family is so much of who I am. The things I believe, the things I care about, even the foods I like best—they all started with them. I’ve been shaped by a life that should never have been mine, by people who were doing their jobs. How much of what Mom did tonight was about saving me, her so-called daughter, and how much of it was about saving the last muralet? Is that why she sent me with Seth? Did she choose to guard Sam over me?

I stiffen.

Is Seth here right now, rubbing my back and holding me tight, because he cares about me? Or because it’s his job? The laughter earlier? The comforting touch? What’s real?

“Please leave,” I tell him, pushing him away.

“I’m so sorry,” he says, brushing my hair from my face with his fingers. “I always hoped you’d never have to find out.”

Even with all the emotion in his voice, everything he says feels empty. Where does the Aegis stop and Seth begin? Is there any difference between the two? Has there ever been? I scoot farther up onto my bed, resting my head on my pillow with my back to him. “Please. I don’t want you here.”

The words are out before I can take them back, and I don’t even know if I mean them. I don’t want to be alone, but I don’t want him to be here out of obligation either.

I feel him rise from the bed, and I squeeze my eyes shut.

“All right,” he says. “Alexander or I will come for you in the morning. Wait here.”

Tears roll across my cheeks and nose, creating sideways paths to my pillow. I wipe my nose with the wadded Kleenex in my hand and hold my fist to my lips to capture my sobs. When I finally turn to look, he’s gone.

S
IX

I
wake up the next morning in the same clothes I wore yesterday. There’s an intense throbbing behind my eyes that only comes after hours of crying, and for one peaceful, not-quite-awake moment, I can’t remember why.

It all comes rushing back. The Mothman. Sam. Mom. The photograph is still cradled against my chest, and its corners leave stinging imprints on my arm when I pull it away to look at it again.

Mom and Sam.

They’re my family in nearly every sense of the word, except they aren’t.

Nothing has changed, and everything has changed.

I set the picture on my nightstand and force myself out of bed and to the bathroom, where I shower yesterday away. Afterward, I lean over the sink, searching the mirror for answers.

I’m a stranger in my own life now. I can’t return to what I used to know—I don’t belong there. I study my face in the mirror, swiping condensation away until my blue eyes stare back at me.

So many of the choices I’ve made in my life have been under the Fellowship’s influence, and I didn’t even know it. I am Mom’s mission. Her job. An assignment. I could have easily been assigned to a different Aegis. I would’ve grown up without Sam. Maybe in a huge city. Who knows how my life would’ve been different?

Who am I, really? Who would I have been without the Fellowship?

I slip into a gray-striped T-shirt and blue-jean shorts, then finger-comb my wet hair before winding it into a braid that lies across my shoulder. I find my eyes in the mirror again, searching them for the things I surely know to be true.

My name is Charlie—of that, I’m reasonably certain.

I don’t like spiders or heights.

Peanut M&Ms make me happy.

Memories are precious to me. My wish to preserve the things I care for spawned my love of drawing and painting. I memorialize people, places, and moments that have meant something in my life.

BOOK: Between
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