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
SAM HOPPED A CHAIN-LINK FENCE IN
the backyard of an empty house that was for sale.
We needed a place to clean up, to regroup. I could only imagine the conversation we were about to have. Nick scowled and fidgeted next to me, and I could tell he was dying to say I told you so. So I figured I might as well get it over with.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“You think Trev set us up.”
He leaned against the fence as Sam slunk to the rear door and worked on the lock. “You’re damn right I think he set us up. He gave us that location. We broke those guys out of that lab. We walked
right into their plan. They gave us ticking time bombs, and we practically stuffed them in our back pocket.”
I looked over at Dani, who was trying to pretend like she wasn’t listening. “We found my sister, though,” I said. “That’s what we went there for.”
“Yeah, they used her as bait. And you bit into it.”
He was right, of course. I had. Maybe they’d set the whole thing up, right down to kidnapping Dani in that alley behind the grocery store. Riley had been second-in-command on the Altered program. He knew us well.
But I didn’t think Trev had known about the plan.
He’d been there that night, yes, but he’d saved me.
If their goal was to take us out, Trev could have let that agent drug me in the river and I’d already be locked up in some Branch cell.
I would have told Nick if Trev hadn’t asked me to keep it quiet.
And why had he?
The back door to the empty house swung open, and Sam waved us inside.
The place was freezing. We entered into a long, narrow kitchen. There was a room beyond that and another in front. All of the bedrooms were apparently upstairs.
Cas found a leftover towel in the upstairs hall closet. Thankfully, the water was still running. Unfortunately, it wasn’t hot water. We cleaned up as best we could with what we had.
“So,” Cas said as we hung around the kitchen, “we got a plan?”
I helped Dani wipe the blood from her face. She winced when I hit a sore spot, and I muttered a quick apology.
“I have an idea,” Nick said. “We go to Branch headquarters and blow that goddamn place apart.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. Nick was usually the voice of reason. No unnecessary risk—self-preservation, always.
Clearly he was pissed. And I couldn’t blame him. How long could we run from the Branch? They obviously weren’t keen on letting us fade into the distance. We knew too much. We were too valuable.
We couldn’t ever be free as long as the Branch was out there. They would keep making supersoldiers, altering them until they were faster, stronger, smarter than us. We’d just walked into one of their traps. What would they do next?
“We can’t go after them without a plan,” Sam said. He scrubbed at his face with the palms of his hands. “It would help if we knew more about what happened with Greg and the others.
“If they went through the same Altered program that we did, then their commander could have ordered them to kill us.”
“But they had no contact with anyone,” I pointed out. “And they have to follow a direct order immediately after receiving it. There isn’t a delayed response on that.”
Sam nodded. “What are the other explanations?”
“Brainwashed,” Nick said.
“I was thinking the same thing.”
Sam paced for a minute. “But what set them off?”
Nick leaned into the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “Something, or someone, in the area could have set them off with a laser or maybe a flash of light. It could be anything. It could have been something one of us said unknowingly.”
Sam stopped pacing. “Greg said they’d been in that lab for six months.” His gaze grew distant as he thought. “Cas and I were at Branch headquarters a little over two months ago. Which means, if they’d already perfected this new kind of programming with Greg and his team…”
We all knew what he was insinuating. If the technology was complete and they had the means and the opportunity, why not brainwash Sam and Cas, too, as insurance?
“But…” I started, trying to come up with a viable excuse to talk him down. “Like you said, Greg and his team were in the lab six months. The Branch had you and Cas for only twenty-four hours.”
“That’s plenty of time to implant something. Some new programming. Some new alteration. Whatever it is they’ve created.”
Dani nodded. “It’s true, Anna. It takes only a few hours for a drug to take hold.”
I rounded on her. “How would you know?”
She shrank away, and immediately I regretted snapping at her.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… we don’t have any of the facts.”
“That’s true,” Sam said. “And until we do, none of us are safe.”
“We’ll be careful—” I said, but he cut me off.
“We should separate.”
“Anna,” Sam said.
“No.” My heart fluttered in my chest. “You were at the Branch two months ago. If they programmed you, why wouldn’t they have activated you by now?”
“Maybe they’re just waiting for an opening.”
“And maybe they want us to separate. Did you consider that? Divide the pack. We’re weaker apart.”
Sam rocked his shoulders back, clearly irritated with me. “Did you not see what happened at that park?” He pointed out the window, even though the park was miles and miles away now. “One minute they were fine, the next minute they were blank-faced and attacking. That could have been me. Me attacking you. I can’t risk that.”
“I’m not letting you leave.”
“You don’t have a choice.” He gestured at Nick. “You stay with Anna. Cas and Dani are coming with me. As far as we know, she’s been brainwashed, too.”
I glanced at Nick. “Nick doesn’t want to be saddled with me. He’s not a babysitter.”
Nick didn’t say anything.
“He’ll be nice,” Cas said. “Right, Nicky?”
“Don’t fucking call me Nicky.”
“See?” I said, pointing at Nick. I was being petty and whiny, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want us to separate. I didn’t want to be left alone with Nick while Dani went with Sam.
Sam started for the front of the house. “It’s for the best, Anna,” he said over a shoulder. “I’ll find an extra vehicle for you two so you have transportation, and then we’re splitting up. I don’t want any more arguments about it.”
The door slammed shut a second later.
Nick took watch at the front of the house. Cas stayed at the back door. I went to the dining room and sat on the white carpet, leaning against the wall. I drew my knees up and stared out the sliding glass door that led to a weather-worn deck.
Dani sat next to me.
Now, alone with her, I didn’t know what to say or do. What had we been like before all this? I wondered if we’d talked for hours on end. If she’d given me advice about boys and homework, and if she’d done my hair and made me breakfast.
I wondered a lot of things about her.
“So,” she said.
“I know it seems like a bad idea, separating, but Sam’s only doing it for your safety. He’s always been protective.” There was a note of sadness in her voice.
I turned to her. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know. Everything.” I rested my chin against my knees. “I wish we would have met again under different circumstances.”
She sighed. “Me, too.”
“When I found out the Branch had taken my memories, that I had a different life before the farmhouse, I knew I had to fill in the missing pieces. But there isn’t much left, is there?” I glanced over at her. “You’re the only part that remains.”
“Not true. We still have Uncle Will.”
I sat up straighter. “Uncle Will? You’ve seen him?”
Dani nodded, and a wispy strand of hair fell from her ponytail. “He’s the one who learned you and Sam had escaped the lab. He’s got great contacts within the Branch. Actually, I think you might know one of them. Sura? She used to be married to your handler at the farmhouse.”
The mention of Sura brought on a new wave of sorrow. My dad had led me to believe Sura was my mother and that she was dead. And when I found out the latter was untrue, I’d been ecstatic. I’d met her, only to learn she’d never had any children, that my dad had lied about her being my mother, too.
And then she’d been shot right in front of me.
In my head, I could still hear the
of the bullet.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Anna, did you hear me?” Dani said.
“What? Sorry. No.”
“I said I could put you in touch with Uncle Will. He’d like that. He might have information, too. He’s always digging into the Branch’s movements. He used to be friends with the person who founded it. Now he does whatever he can to sabotage their missions.”
I raised a brow. “Really?”
She smiled. “Pretty badass, our family, huh?”
“I guess so.”
I recalled something Trev said to me the morning he helped us escape Branch headquarters, that the Branch wouldn’t stop looking for us. I’d wondered at the time who “they” were with Connor dead.
“How big is the Branch?” I asked Dani. “Who’s coming after us this time? Do you know?”
Dani reached over and squeezed my hand. “One question at a time, bird.”
Our eyes met, the old nickname hanging in the air between us. It was an immediate reminder of what we’d lost, and it made something stir. A connection to her, a spark of our past, the wick of my old life catching fire.
“You remember,” she said softly. “I used to call you ‘bird’ all the time. Because you ate—”
“Like one,” I finished. I didn’t know how I knew that, but the answer was there, on the tip of my tongue and spilling out over my lips.
“Yeah.” Her green eyes lit up. “I could only ever get you to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had to cut the crusts off.”
“In all of my flashbacks, you were always the one taking care of me. Why? Where were our parents?”
She stiffened. “Our parents weren’t the best kind of parents.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… they were busy.”
“Did they work a lot?”
She nodded. “Something like that.”
“Did you mind taking care of me?”
“No. Never.” She smiled. “I liked it, even.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, looking down at my feet.
“You keep saying that.” She nudged me with her shoulder.
“It’s just… I wish I could remember more.”
Because I can see how happy it makes you
, I thought. A large part of my life, or at least the one I could remember, had been spent trying to make others—the boys and my dad—happy. And some habits died harder than others. I wanted to make the smile reappear on Dani’s face. But I didn’t know how to force myself to feel something for her or to remember all of the things we’d shared.
“None of this is your fault.” Her voice shook. “I was the one who failed you. I was the one who lost you that night. I was the one who couldn’t get to you all those years you were missing.”
“That night?” I repeated.
I turned sideways. “You said you were the one who lost me that night. The night our parents died? You were there? Did you see what happened?”
“No,” she said with a quick shake of her head. “I meant I lost you that night because I
“Oh.” I deflated, the hope escaping me as quickly as it’d come. I hadn’t realized until that very second how badly I wanted to know the details of how our parents died.
“Uncle Will knows what happened that night,” Dani said. “He might tell you if you asked.”
She nodded. “If I can get a message to him that you want to meet up, would you go?”
“He’ll be in Port Cadia.”
My shoulders sank an inch. Port Cadia was my hometown, but it was also the place where the Branch had captured Sam twice now. Once before the farmhouse, and again two months ago when we went back to retrieve the files Sam had hidden there.
Sam would kill me if he knew I went to Port Cadia. But… if he wasn’t with me…
Nick might agree to go if I gave him a good enough reason.
The front door opened.
“Everything go all right?” I heard Nick ask Sam.
Sam muttered a response.
“Get Uncle Will the message,” I whispered to Dani.
She nodded with a grin.
I’d reach Port Cadia one way or the other. With or without Nick.
I SAID MY GOOD-BYES TO CAS AND
Dani before Sam walked Nick and me over to our new stolen vehicle. It was a nondescript car painted the color of wet charcoal. The windows were lightly tinted. That always made me feel a bit safer when traveling by car.
As Nick loaded a supplies bag in the trunk, Sam led me around the car to the passenger side. “Let me see your gun,” he said.
I handed it over.
The street was deserted this time of day, and I wondered if everyone who lived in this neighborhood was off doing normal stuff like working in offices and having coffee with friends. What I wouldn’t give to have a normal life.
Sam dropped out the clip from my gun and made sure it was fully loaded before sliding it back in place.
“When will you come back?” I asked.
He opened my jacket and returned my gun to my shoulder holster. “I don’t know. I’ll call your dad and see if he knows of any other programs. We’ll go from there. Until then, call only if you have to. I don’t want to risk one of us saying the wrong thing.”
Snow started to fall in small, lazy flakes that clung to Sam’s shoulders. I brushed them clean. “And what am I supposed to do? I have to help.”
He shook his head. “Take a break. Rest.”
We fell into silence. There was one more thing that needed to be discussed, but neither of us was brave enough to bring it up first.
“Stop giving me that look,” Sam said with a tilt of his head.
“Like you’re worried I’m going to hook up with your sister.”
“That’s a very specific look.”
He put an arm around my shoulders and dragged me closer. “You don’t have to worry. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that.”
I picked at the cuff of my jacket. “Do you still have flashbacks from before? About her?”
He didn’t say anything for the longest time, then, “Yes.”
“What are they about?”
He sighed. “Nothing important.”
“You don’t want to know.”
His fingers threaded with mine. His were long, solid, and they made mine look tiny in comparison. The veins in his hand stood, pronounced, running through his knuckles. Out of all the perfect parts of him, his hands were what I loved most.
And I realized with sudden, crashing despair that I hadn’t ever sketched his hands.
The images I had seared into my brain weren’t reliable. What I needed was something more tangible. Pictures. Sketches. Words on the page.
And I’d failed at recording Sam.
, I thought. I wanted to shout it at him, beg him not to leave. But he would never listen.
He leaned into me, his other hand cupping the side of my face. He kissed me softly, slowly, in a way that was more than just lips on lips. A kiss that was not only physical but something more, something deeper. A kiss I felt in my soul.
A kiss that felt like a good-bye.
A kiss I didn’t want to end.
I always wanted more of Sam. Always.
When he pulled away, I kept my eyes closed a second longer, memorizing the feel of him, the smell of him, wanting nothing else to distract me before I burned the memory to a place that I hoped would outlive even the Branch’s tampering.
“Be careful,” I said.
And then he was gone.