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
He nodded and went around to the other side of the bed. I heard him set his gun on the table, felt the mattress shift as he double-checked the extra gun beneath it. He did that every night. Somehow it made me feel safer.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of his shirt being tossed aside, then felt him slide in next to me beneath the quilt. He wrapped an arm around my waist and drew me closer, planting a breath of a kiss on my bare shoulder.
“ ’Night,” I whispered.
When I fell asleep again, it was thankfully, blissfully, flashback-free.
TWO DAYS. IT’D BEEN TWO DAYS SINCE
Nick left. He hadn’t even bothered to call. And the longer he was gone, the more anxious I became.
Even though we’d learned to tolerate each other, Nick and I were not friends. But I wanted him home just the same. And more important, I wanted to know he was safe.
The Branch had twisted and manipulated us with the Altered drug, making us feel a connection to one another that no one else could ever understand. They’d wanted to create a perfect, cohesive unit that listened to their programmed commander without question.
I’d been the programmed commander, and the boys had listened to me without fail, even when they didn’t want to, which was especially true for Nick.
We’d been testing ourselves for weeks now, trying to document the exact moment the programming wore off. Nick had been the most eager. He just wanted to be done with it.
Every Wednesday morning, we went out in the backyard and we tested two things: the boys’ ability to ignore my orders and their ability to stay put even when they thought I was in danger.
Those were two of the main components of the Altered drug. The boys had felt an undeniable, inexplicable need to protect me—the drug’s built-in backup. The Branch wanted to be sure that the boys wouldn’t turn on me even if they found out what was going on.
We knew from Sam’s more frequent flashbacks that he was most likely the least affected by the drug, so we tested him first. And when I’d given him an order, he’d just stared at me.
Then I pointed a gun at my head.
Cas reacted first. He swept my feet out from underneath me and grabbed my wrist, shoving the gun away. Nick was there a second later, catching me before I hit the ground.
Sam hadn’t moved.
Cas and Nick, those first few weeks, listened to every single order I gave them. Hop on one foot. Bawk like a chicken. Nick loved that one.
By the third week, Cas no longer had to obey me.
By the fourth week,
had pointed a gun at my head, and Nick had slammed him to the ground.
The fifth week, Nick refused to do any more testing.
So that was my excuse, I decided. The whole reason I wanted to know Nick was safe. Because we were somehow still connected through the Altered drug. There was no proof that our link to each other had worn off like with Cas and Sam.
And if that wasn’t the reason, I had no idea what was.
When Sam wasn’t training me for one thing or another, I usually did an hour or two’s worth of research on the flash drive Trev had given us when we’d escaped the Branch. He’d stolen the files as a way to say he was sorry, but it could never make up for betraying us, for picking the Branch over me when I’d needed him.
At the head of the kitchen table, laptop open in front of me, I clicked through the main file labeled
. There were at least a half-dozen subfolders, some of which I’d yet to fully explore. Today I was on a mission, so I opened the
folder and started skimming.
I was determined to convince Sam that learning more about my family could be important for both of us. After all, our pasts were connected to Dani, and I thought it was worthwhile to know her story in order to move forward with our future.
And, more than anything, I wanted to know my older sister, even if I learned about her indirectly. I’d take whatever I could get.
Dani had been part of the Branch long before me. She, Nick, and Cas were to join Sam as the first candidates in the Branch’s genetic
alteration program. Once the Branch was successful with the alterations, they’d turned the boys into assassins. They even had résumés with lists of successful kills, from a U.S. senator to a scientist to a foreign diplomat.
Although I knew what Sam and the others were capable of, I still had a hard time connecting the Sam I knew now to the Sam who’d spent his days planning missions and following through with kill orders.
It was even harder to imagine my older sister doing the same thing, though we’d been unable to find anything that said she’d ever been an assassin. But if she hadn’t, what role had she played in the Branch?
I’d read her files over and over again and come away with nothing important. But that didn’t mean there weren’t clues present, something between the lines.
I decided to start over.
Dani O’Brien: Entered Branch March 12. Moved to Cam Marie for initial treatments. Will be integrated into unit #1 May 22.
April 28: Dani has responded well to treatments. OB has requested a shift in the time line. Dani will be introduced to unit #1 this afternoon.
April 29: Dani’s introduction to unit #1 a success. All accepted her.
May 2: Dani shows successful signs of heightened senses, greater strength, and a slower rate of aging.
I skimmed the rest of the page, then opened the picture attached to the file. It was of Dani standing in front of a white brick wall, hair hanging loose around her shoulders. It looked like an ID picture, one you’d put on a company badge.
While she wasn’t exactly smiling, she didn’t look sad. She looked hopeful. There was a glow to her cheeks, a brightness in her eyes.
It was a far departure from the few minor flashbacks I’d had of her. In every memory, she was unkempt, disheveled, worn-out. In the picture, it was as if she was about to embark on a new adventure and couldn’t wait to get started.
I opened a new file, this one labeled
. Will was my biological father’s older brother. From what I could tell, he’d been close to our family. The picture of him looked like it’d been taken covertly. In it, he was crossing the street in some nondescript town, dark sunglasses hiding his eyes.
His hair was the color of cinnamon, like Dani’s, kept short and neatly trimmed. Freckles covered his face.
Based on what little information I’d been able to find, he was still alive. But he had vanished off the face of the earth over six years ago. I couldn’t dig up anything on him, not even a parking ticket, which made me wonder if he knew about the Branch and how it had ruined our family, and if he’d been in hiding ever since. I wasn’t giving up hope that he was out there somewhere. I’d find him eventually. He might have answers to my past that no one else did.
A coffee mug was thrust in front of me. I looked over my shoulder
at Sam. He was freshly shaven, dark hair still glistening from the shower.
“Hey,” I said, taking the mug in my hands. The coffee inside was such a light brown, one might argue it was more milk than coffee, but that’s the way I liked it. And I liked it even more that Sam knew that.
“Hey,” he answered. “Have you eaten yet?”
“She’s lying,” Cas called from the laundry room. I hadn’t even known he was there.
“How would you know?”
Cas came into the kitchen as he shrugged into a navy-blue flannel shirt. “Because if you had cooked something, I would have smelled it, obviously.”
I checked the clock on the laptop. It was close to noon. “Fine. I’ll make something now. I have everything for spaghetti and—”
The front door burst open.
Cas and Sam armed themselves and pressed into the wall that backed up against the living room.
I hid beside an old rickety buffet and mentally calculated the feet between me and the closest gun in the house. There was one in the laundry room, hidden in an old box of powdered laundry detergent.
Ten feet, give or take.
I could reach it.
“It’s just me, dumbasses,” someone called.
I came out of my hiding spot and headed for the front of the house.
Cas was just tossing aside a flashlight when I walked in.
“What did you plan on using that for?” Nick said. “Were you going to blind me to death?”
Cas picked the flashlight up again. “Would you like a demonstration?” He cocked it over his shoulder. “Bet I can brain you faster than you can punch me.”
Nick’s shoulders rocked back. He tightened his jaw as if he were trying to decide which was more important—besting Cas or looking like the mature one who wouldn’t take the bait.
“Bet you can’t,” he finally said, and Cas grinned.
“Stop it,” Sam said. He wrenched the flashlight out of Cas’s hand.
“Come on!” Cas whirled around. “I had it in the bag!”
“Like we need to be dealing with a concussion right now.” Sam set the flashlight upright on the fireplace mantel. He nodded at Nick. “You get the space you needed?”
“I guess.” Nick dropped onto the corner of the couch. “I came home earlier than I wanted.”
Sam, face blank, voice even, said, “No one forced you.”
“No.” Nick scrubbed at his face, then said, “Sit down. We need to talk.”
Sam pulled himself straighter, suddenly on alert. “About what?”
Cas sauntered over to the second chair and sat down. I sat on the other end of the couch.
“I went out last night with the girl who works at the grocery store in Millerton,” Nick said, looking at me. “Remember, the dark-haired girl?”
“How could I forget?”
He ignored me. “We were talking this morning, and she ended up telling me that someone came into the store asking for Anna.”
I sat forward. “What do you mean, asking for me?”
“Asking if anyone had seen you. They knew your name. Had an outdated picture of you.”
Sam paced in front of the fireplace, arms crossed over his chest. “Did the girl have a description of whoever was doing the asking?”
Nick nodded. His expression was pinched, stressed at the eyes, as if he already had a theory as to who it was. “Girl our age. Reddish-brown hair. Skinny. Five-seven or so.”
“Branch agent?” I said.
The boys were silent.
Sam was the first one to speak. “A Branch agent wouldn’t be dumb enough to ask about us in a grocery store. They would know it’d tip us off if word got around, and asking about a missing girl in a place like this—small town, safe—it’d turn into a local story by week’s end.”
“It was a message,” Nick said.
I frowned. “Who would it be, though? If not a Branch agent?”
Cas cleared his throat, which was his way of warning me that what he was about to say wouldn’t be good. “We know only one girl
our age with reddish-brown hair who would be asking for you, Banana.”
Nick and Sam shared a look. Sam gave the barest of nods.
“Dani,” Sam said.
My first instinct was to laugh, but it clearly wasn’t meant as a joke. All three of them were staring at me, tense, waiting for my response.
“No,” I said quickly, matter-of-factly. “Dani is dead.”
“Says the Branch,” Sam said.
trustworthy,” Nick added sarcastically.
“It could be anyone.
. Someone who used to work for the Branch. Someone who knows Trev.” I felt like I was sputtering, making up excuses. It couldn’t be Dani.
There wasn’t even a tiny part of me that believed it.
“That store in Millerton, it have a security system? Cameras?” Sam asked.
“Yeah,” Nick and I said in unison.
Sam gestured to Nick. Nick stood up.
“Wait,” I said. “What are you going to do?”
“Look at the tapes.” Sam pulled on his coat. “See who it was.”
“I’m coming with.”
He checked the magazine in his gun, making sure it was full. “No, you’re not. If someone was there asking for you, then you’re at a greater risk than any of us.”
“How are you going to access the security footage?”
Sam gave me a look from under the heavy furrow of his brow, like that was the silliest question I’d ever asked and no way was he going to answer it.
“It’d be far easier to ask to see it, don’t you think?” I said. “Instead of sneaking in?”
“Because I’m sure they let any customer who walks in the door access their security system?”
“Let me come,” I said. “I have an idea, but you’ll need me there to do it.”
“Anna.” Sam sighed.
Cas walked up behind me. “Oh, let her come, Sammy. She might be useful.”
I wasn’t sure if I should thank Cas or scowl at him.
“Fine,” Sam said. “But if there is any sign of trouble, you leave. Right away. No questions asked.”
I nodded. “Fair enough.”
He started for the door. “And make sure you have a gun on you.”
Worried that he’d leave without me if he had the chance, I grabbed the closest gun—the one from the laundry room—and hurried after him.