Read Erased Online

Authors: Jennifer Rush

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Love & Romance, #Science & Technology, #Juvenile Fiction / Action & Adventure - General, #Juvenile Fiction / Love & Romance, #Juvenile Fiction / Science & Technology

Erased (2 page)

BOOK: Erased
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3

NICK BACKED INTO A PARKING SPOT
in the grocery store lot, facing the SUV toward the exit so we could escape quickly if we needed to. Out of habit, I scanned the lot and the street beyond, pausing on anyone who looked suspicious.

There was a woman hurrying a child down the sidewalk, both of them hunched against the wind.

A gray-haired man got out of his sedan in front of the paper goods store and raced inside. A small black truck with tinted windows crawled past the grocery store. It might have been suspicious, but the streets were slick with snow and salt, making traveling over thirty miles an hour almost impossible. Regardless, Nick and I watched as it rounded the next corner.

“Are we good?” I asked.

Nick checked his rearview mirror one more time before pulling the keys out of the ignition. “We’re good.”

I hurried toward the store, arms clasped tightly in front of me, trying to ward off the wind. Inside, I grabbed a cart as Nick sauntered up behind me.

Without saying a word, we started down the first aisle, where all the discounted items were, and started picking things off our list. While Sam still had cash on reserve, we were trying to be smart with the money we had left, and food generally came in second behind weapons. Food could be stolen if it came down to it, but guns were harder to come by. You couldn’t pluck a gun off a gas station shelf while someone distracted the store clerk.

At the end of the sale aisle, I paused to look at a display of winter gear. I’d been running every day but was finding it more difficult in the colder air. My throat tightened up too quickly, and my lungs burned. I couldn’t make it a full 5k without having to walk.

I grabbed something called a neck gaiter and held it out in front of me. It was really nothing more than a tube of fleece meant to cover half your face. That’d help keep my throat and lungs warm.

Nick nodded at the gear when I tossed it in the cart. “What are you getting that for?”

“To help me run better.”

He snatched it from the cart and hung it back up. “Don’t train yourself into a crutch. You think the Branch is going to wait for you to”—he read the tag—“put your neck gaiter on before chasing you down?”

I gave the fleece a wistful look. Nick was right, of course, and that only annoyed me more.

Halfway through the store, Nick disappeared, but I didn’t bother looking for him. I was happier shopping alone anyway. I filled the cart with the necessities, making good time. Sam liked us to be in and out of the store in less than thirty minutes. As I headed into the condiments aisle, I checked my list, tossing ketchup and mustard into the cart before crossing them off. I started for the peanut butter and grumbled when I found my favorite brand gone.

“Is there something I can help you find?”

I whirled around. A boy wearing one of the store’s green uniforms stood behind me. His name tag read
BRAD
in crinkled sticker letters.

“Umm…” I pointed at the shelf over my shoulder. “Do you guys hold stock in the back? I’m looking for Mountain Valley peanut butter, and the shelf’s empty.”

The boy smiled, showing a crooked front tooth. “I can check. Hold on just a sec.” He pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt, pressed a button, and said, “Lori, can you look up a UPC for me?”

The handheld crackled with static, and then a woman said, “Read me the numbers.”

“You don’t have to go to this much trouble,” I said, and started backing up.

We were running out of time, and I still had to find Nick and check out. Who knew what Sam would do if we were gone longer than an hour.

“It’ll just take a second,” Brad said, and started rattling off a series of numbers into the walkie.

I checked both ends of the aisle. Sam had been teaching me surveillance techniques, and one of his biggest points was
Know your surroundings.

The woman’s voice sounded a second later. “Out of that product until the truck comes in.”

“All right. Thanks.” Brad turned to me. “I suppose you heard that.”

I smiled. “I did. I appreciate you checking.”

I pushed the cart forward, but Brad followed. “Are you new around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Do you go to Bramwell High?”

“No. I mean, yes, I’m new here, but I’m homeschooled. Or was. I’m done.” That was a lie. I still had a few months left.

“Cool,” Brad said as he clipped his walkie-talkie onto his belt. He shoved his hands in his pants pockets, causing him to hunch forward. He was quite a few inches taller than me, maybe six feet even. The same height as Sam.

“Do you live close to town?”

That question caught me off guard, and immediately all my senses went on alert. Was he asking because he was being friendly or because he was part of the Branch?

Fortunately, Nick appeared and answered for me. “She doesn’t live anywhere close by. Come on, Frannie. We have to go.”

Frannie?
I frowned.
That was the best alias he could come up with?

“Right. I’m coming,
Gabriel
,” I said.

Nick narrowed his eyes. Gabriel was an alias he’d used before the farmhouse lab. We’d found mention of it in one of his old files. He detested that name.
“Sounds like the kind of guy I’d hate
,

he’d said.

Brad looked between Nick and me.

Cas once described Nick as a shark masquerading as a panther, which pretty much summed it up. Even strangers could pick up on Nick’s terrible personality, or lack thereof, if he wasn’t trying to hide it.

And right now, he wasn’t.

Brad straightened his shoulders. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he was going into defense mode.

I could tell that Brad thought Nick was my boyfriend, which made me want to deny it quickly and vehemently. But then Nick put his arm around me and pulled me closer. The denial got stuck in my throat.

“Umm… thanks for your help,” I said as Nick steered us away.

“No problem,” Brad said quietly, still rooted in place.

When we were out of the aisle and on to the next, I shrank away from Nick. “Was that really necessary?”

He plucked a box of cereal off the shelf and tossed it in the cart. “Was
what
necessary?”

I sighed. “Sometimes I hate you.”

“Yeah, well, the feeling is mutual.” He grabbed a canister of rolled oats. “What were you doing, anyway? Chatting up the stock boy? You know better,
Frannie
.”

“I’m not a child,
Gabriel
.” I blew out an exasperated breath. “All I wanted was some peanut butter.” I crossed cereal and oats off the list. “And I was handling it just fine before you showed up. I’m smarter than you seem to think.”

“Maybe so, but you’re not as prepared for any of this as the rest of us.”

True. But I was learning. And I was willing to do whatever it took to
be
prepared.

We finished filling the cart and chose the only checkout lane that was open. It was run by a girl a few years older than me, with black hair and one stripe of cherry red in her bangs. A hoop pierced her lower lip and another hung from her left eyebrow.

When she saw Nick, she smiled, showing off a steel ball in the center of her tongue. “How are you today?” she asked him, totally ignoring me.

Nick might be surly around me, but he knew when and how to turn on the charm, and apparently now was one of those times.

He leaned a hip into the counter and crossed his arms over his chest, making his biceps bigger. He grinned. “I’m good. You?”

The girl shrugged. “It’s been slow today. This place is so boring.”

Nick laughed, the sound hoarse and deep. “This
town
is boring.”

“Totally.” The girl rolled her eyes, commiserating with him. “My friends and I go to the city almost every weekend just to escape.”

Nick leaned in closer. “Where do you go?”

“Usually a club called DuVo. It’s pretty rad.”

Rad? Who uses that word?

I watched the register screen for the total and handed over enough cash to cover it.

“Maybe I’ll check it out,” Nick said.

“You totally should.” The girl gave me the change and the receipt. “We’ll be there tomorrow night for sure.”

“What’s your name?” Nick asked, using the excuse to check out the girl’s chest, like he meant to find a name tag.

“Teresa,” she said.

Nick smiled. “I’ll see you later, Teresa.”

She smiled back as I scooped up the shopping bags, twice as annoyed as I had been five minutes ago. If that was even possible.

In the parking lot, I threw the bags in the back of the SUV and slid into the passenger seat. “How do you do that, anyway?”

Nick stuck the key in the ignition, and the engine cranked to life. “Do what?”

“Act normal and fake.”

“It’s a learned skill.”

“Are you really going to that club?” The question came out holding more weight than I meant it to. As much as Nick and I disliked each other, I still cared where he went and how long he was gone. Our
relationship might have been dysfunctional, but it was safer to stick together. No one else could possibly understand what we’d gone through or what we still had to deal with every day.

I set an elbow on the door’s arm rest and looked out the window, trying not to care what Nick’s answer was.

“Maybe,” he said as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Yes, it is. Because we have rules, and the rules are we don’t separate.”

He frowned at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. “That’s bullshit and you know it. I can manage just fine on my own.”

“At the risk of dying.”

He grunted. “Dying would be preferable to this conversation.”

I sighed. Of course, we all had the right to leave the group whenever we wanted.

I hadn’t thought any of us would actually do it, though.

4

I PULLED A QUILT OVER MY LAP AND
propped myself up against the headboard of my bed, setting my journal on my knees. I flipped through the pages, my fingers coming away covered in graphite dust.

I stopped at a sketch of a boy with amber eyes, and my stomach clenched.

Trev.

He’d been the fourth boy in the farmhouse lab, and had been working undercover for the Branch all along. I had thought he was my best friend, but he’d turned on me when I’d needed him the most and put a gun to my head.

I closed my eyes as the memory came back. Some nights I dreamed that he’d pulled the trigger.

I missed him. Or at least the old him. More than I could admit to Sam or the others without feeling like a traitor.

Trev had been the one I went to when I needed advice. Especially when it came to Sam. Trev never made me feel weak, or silly, or any of the other things you’d think you’d feel growing up around four genetically altered boys.

To Trev, I’d been an equal, always.

I tried reminding myself that the Branch had wiped his memories, planting false ones in the void, just like they had with me. He’d believed he was working for the Branch to protect someone he loved.

If anyone understood what that felt like, it was me. But forgetting that he’d manipulated all of us and almost cost us our lives was another story.

With a pencil in my hand, I turned to a blank page and started roughing in a sketch, trying to banish all thoughts of Trev from my mind.

The idea for the sketch had come out of nowhere a few days before. I didn’t know what it meant, but I couldn’t shake the image, and I thought getting it out on paper might help to decode it.

I started with the foreground, because that was the clearest in my mind. There were two people on a porch overlooking a yard. It was just after dusk. They sat on the steps, hunched close, as if they were sharing secrets.

In the background was a line of tall, skinny trees, not unlike the birch trees that made up Sam’s tattoo.

I’d seen the place that matched Sam’s tattoo; it’d been not far from my childhood home, and this—the porch, the birch trees, it all seemed awfully familiar.

Was the sketch an old memory?

When I finished, I held up the journal.

The two people, though they were faced away, were a boy and girl. The boy was taller, older. His hair was a silhouette of loose curls against the landscape beyond the porch. The girl’s hair was pulled back in a bouncy ponytail.

The girl was me.

I was almost sure of it. A phantom scent came to me, and I closed my eyes. The smell of wet earth. Of summer air. Of a boy.

Immediately I knew he was someone important to me. Or had been at one time. He was a feeling more than he was a specific person or face.

Sadly, I didn’t know enough details about my biological family to know if he was a part of it. As far as I knew, I had only one sibling: Dani. But I supposed it could have been a neighbor or a cousin. These were the answers I wanted, the reasons I needed to look into my past.

Maybe someone else knew how Dani had died. Or maybe they knew more about our family.

After shutting the journal, I eased beneath the quilt and closed my eyes again, hoping something might come to me.

I pictured my old house, the bedrooms, the kitchen, the back porch.

In my head, I re-created the scene, trying to fill in the details that I hadn’t been able to with my pencil, when a footstep sounded from the doorway.

I opened my eyes.

Sam stood inside the bedroom, a cup in each hand. “Hey,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to be on watch?” It was late, and I’d heard Nick and Cas go to bed not too long ago. Whatever had brought Sam here was more important than him guarding the house, apparently. A thrill went up my spine until I saw the disquieted look on his face. All thoughts of the old memory faded.

Nudging the door shut, Sam came farther into the room. “I brought you something to drink.”

I took the offered coffee. He didn’t have to say anything for me to know he was worried about me. Probably because of my mistake earlier, during our perimeter sweep. This time I’d almost walked into a bear trap—next time it might be a Branch agent.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I know you came up here to check on me.”

He let out a breath and sat on the edge of the bed. “None of us are fine, Anna.” He leaned over and set his coffee on the bedside table. “I know what I went through when I started having flashbacks. I know what it felt like to withdraw from the treatments they were giving us in the farmhouse. And who knows how it’ll affect you. Your treatments were different from ours, and they weren’t documented very well. We have nothing to go on.” He paused, then said, “I just want to be sure you’re feeling okay. Because if you’re not—”

“I would be a liability.”

He didn’t say anything.

“I’m fine,” I repeated. “I swear it.”

He glanced at me over his shoulder. “I think you’re lying.”

“I think you’re overreacting.” I took a drink of coffee before putting the mug next to his on the table.

And that’s when he lunged.

He grabbed me by the wrist and twisted, his back to my chest, flipping me over. A second later, he was on top of me, my arms pinned, his legs tight against my hips.

The springs in the bed squeaked and settled before I could catch my breath and comprehend what he was doing.

He was testing me.

And I’d failed.

I hadn’t defended myself. I hadn’t fought back. I hadn’t
reacted
at all.

He leaned forward, eyes tight. “You. Are. Not. Fine.”

“Of course I’m not going to fight you. I know you won’t hurt me.”

“Your brain shouldn’t have had time to distinguish between enemy or friend. We’ve been training you. You had years of combat classes. Defending yourself, even against someone you care about, shouldn’t be a secondary reaction. It should be your first.”

I licked my dry lips. Sam’s attention shifted downward, and heat touched my cheeks. I unclenched my hands, moving beneath him.

His hold lessened, and I felt his legs loosen. I seized the opening,
arching my back. He lost his balance and pitched to the side, so I followed the movement, rolling us over so I pinned him.

Finally, he relaxed and grinned. It was a treat I didn’t get often, and I found it ridiculously hot.

“Better?” I asked with an arch of my eyebrows.

“Better. But we still need to talk about what’s going—”

I cut him off with the press of my lips. He tensed at first, but didn’t stop me, and finally his hands moved downward to the curve of my butt, pulling me closer. I dropped forward as Sam’s mouth sank lower, down my jaw, down my neck to my collarbone.

A board creaked on the first floor.

Sam and I both froze. My heart beat at every pulse point from the leftover thrill of Sam’s body pressed against mine and the sudden adrenaline bursting through my veins.

Sam retrieved one of his guns from beneath the mattress and quietly pulled the slide, loading a bullet in the chamber. I rolled over, edged off the bed, and dropped to my knees, retrieving the gun I’d hidden beneath the bed frame.

Sam crept toward the door, hands wrapped around his gun. He put his back against the wall, taking the lead position. I grabbed the doorknob and pulled. The door opened silently. Sam had oiled every hinge and lock on the upstairs floor for this very reason, so we could move through the house undetected.

I counted to three in my head, and I knew Sam was doing the same. On three, he swung around the edge of the doorway, gun first.
The muscle in his forearms tensed. I followed him out, skipping over the floorboard stained from old water damage. That was the one that popped when walked across, and I’d made a mental note to avoid it ever since our first night here.

In the stairwell, we paused as a shadow crossed the moonlight spilling through a living room window. The front door creaked, followed by the soft click of the latch.

Sam took two steps down.

I echoed his movements, sticking close to the wall.

When the stairwell opened up, Sam crouched and waved for me to hold as he scanned the living room through the banisters.

He flicked two fingers a second later. All clear.

The descent down the remaining steps seemed to take forever, but when we finally hit the ground level, we broke up, Sam taking the left, toward the dining room, me the right, to the living room.

Since I already knew it was empty, I went straight for the windows and pushed aside the thick blackout curtains.

There were no vehicles out front other than ours. No Branch agents.

Just a lone person walking down the driveway.

I whistled, signaling Sam. He hurried to my side.

“Look,” I whispered.

Sam glanced out the window. “It’s Nick,” he said. “What the hell is he doing?”

He tucked his gun in the waistband of his pants, threw open the
front door, and jogged down the porch steps. I was only in a tank top and shorts. I pulled on a jacket and boots and thumped after him.

Thick snowflakes fell from the darkened sky. The night was eerily still, the snow covering everything in a blanket of pure silence so that every step I took seemed to echo through the woods.

“Where are you going?” Sam called to Nick.

“Out,” Nick said, and kept walking.

“Nick. Wait.” I caught up to him and Sam. “Can you come back inside and talk, please?”

“Talk?” He looked over at me, his eyebrows furrowed in irritation. “That’s the problem, Anna. All you want to do is talk.”

“Maybe because you never do.” My teeth chattered against the cold, but it didn’t stop the heat in my voice. “I’ve been living with you for two months, and I still know nothing about you other than you’re a jerk and—”

He stalked over to me, putting his face just inches from mine. “Fine. Let’s talk. Where do you want to start? How about we start with the fact that I can no longer tell what’s real or not real? That I’m having flashbacks so often, I feel like I’m losing my goddamn mind?” He stopped only long enough for a breath. “Or maybe we can talk about how often my flashbacks end with dead people? People I killed? You have no idea what the Branch had us doing. And you don’t
want
to know.”

Sam edged between us. “Come on,” he said quietly. “She’s just trying to help.”

Nick didn’t take his eyes off me as he spoke. “I don’t need her help. I don’t need any of you.”

He twisted back around and walked off. “What I need is some fucking space.”

“How much?” Sam asked carefully. “A mile? A county? A state?”

Nick shoved his hands in his pants pockets. “As much space as I can get.”

I glanced over at Sam.

“Are we just going to let him go?” I asked quietly.

Sam nodded. “If he needs space, let him have it. Nothing we say or do will change his mind.”

Sam retreated inside. I stayed where I was, legs freezing, fingers numb, waiting for the moment when I could no longer see Nick.

He disappeared around a bend in the driveway, the darkness and the falling snow swallowing him up completely.

When I got inside, Sam resumed his position downstairs, keeping watch over the house, while I went upstairs to bed. With the quilt tucked around my shoulders and the house quiet, I hoped I’d fall asleep quickly enough so I didn’t have to think about Nick.

But as soon as I closed my eyes and felt myself relaxing into the pillow, voices filled my head. A flash of white light shone behind my lids.

I knew immediately what it was: a flashback.

There was yelling.

A pink blanket beneath me.

A jewelry box open on the dresser.

A boy next to me on the bed.

“You okay?” he asked.

My hair fell forward, and I wiped at my eyes. I was crying. And I didn’t want him to see me like this, like a baby.

He leaned in closer. “Anna?”

“Why are they yelling at each other?” I asked.

“Sam’s mad about something your sister did, and your sister is a—” He cut himself off, and I felt him watching me. He took a deep breath. “Never mind.” He cleared his throat. “Do you want to see something my mom taught me?”

I sniffed, wiped my face clean. “What is it?”

“You got any paper? I’ll show you.”

The voices faded. I dug for a piece of paper in my desk. A pretty red sheet with hearts on it. I handed it over, and the boy snorted.

“What?” I said.

He ruffled my hair. “Nothing. It’s just, you’re such a girl.”

“Anna?” Fingers dug into my shoulders and shook. “Hey, wake up.”

I opened my eyes. Sam was hunched over me, moonlight painting a lace pattern on his face. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed since I’d gone to bed, but it seemed like hours.

“What?” I croaked.

“You were crying.”

I swiped at my face. My hand came away wet.

“It must have been a bad dream,” I answered. I looked over his shoulder, to the hallway. Cas’s bedroom door stood open. “Cas on watch now?”

“Yeah.”

“Will you lie down with me, then?”

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