Authors: Rachael Craw
“YOU THINK GOD HAS A LOOPHOLE FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE A CHOICE?”
JAMIE SHRUGS. “HOPE SO, OTHERWISE WE’RE SCREWED.”
Evie doesn’t have a choice. One day she’s an ordinary seventeen year old, grieving for her mother. The next, she’s a Shield, the result of a decades-old experiment gone wrong, bound by DNA to defend her best friend from an unknown killer.
The threat could come at home, at school, anywhere. All Evie knows is that it will be a fight to the death.
And then there’s Jamie.
The dream is always the same. I’m running through a forest at night, air like warm water, lapping my skin, warming my lungs. Above me a canopy of branches filters the moonlight in black and white – a strobe effect exaggerating the feel of speed, the pumping of my arms and legs. I am strong. Powerful. Fearless.
I move instinctively through the unpredictable space, sure-footed and skimming the undergrowth, the darkness an envelope around me. To the right, the crash of the river echoes off carved banks of rock. Though I can’t see the gorge through the trees, I know the tight bends and sheer faces that churn the water before it opens out wide and deep from the last jagged mouth at the foot of the mountain.
Then the urgency that drives me becomes panic and I remember why I’m running. Someone is out here in the dark and they’re in terrible danger. The realisation coincides with a faint whimper on the wind, the cry of a woman or child, the sound of fear. A painful surge of adrenaline cramps my muscles, electrons explode in my spine, crushed glass through my bones. I have to reach her before – before something else, someone else.
I jolt up from the floor, panting, half-strangled by my two-sizes-too-short pyjamas and a sweat-soaked sheet.
How did I get on the floor?
Where is the carpet?
It takes me a couple of desperate seconds to untangle and figure out I’m not in my bedroom back home, but in Aunt Miriam’s spare room in New Hampshire. Grief, forgotten in sleep, returns heavy in my chest. I sink onto the side of the bed, leaning elbows on knees, willing away the nightmare-panic, trying to hear past the
of my pulse. I should be immune to it by now, waking terrified in the dark; it’s been going on for months, even before it all went down with Mom. I knit my trembling fingers together, try to ignore the uncomfortable zip-zap of pins and needles in my spine. The zip-zap and the bad dreams go together – started at the same time – but unlike the bad dreams, the zip-zap lasts all day. Sometimes it’s a tepid fizz, other times, like angry bees.
But pins and needles belong in the feet, or a leg that’s been sat on, an arm that’s been slept on – not the spine. If it were only the growth spurt and loss of appetite, I wouldn’t worry, but all of it together …
I sit there, staring at the boxes stacked in the corner of the room, concentrating on slowing my breaths. It usually helps calm the palpitations. I should have unpacked the boxes by now – it’s not healthy. Miriam’s gone to a lot of trouble to make me welcome: new paint on the walls, new quilt on the bed, the antique wrought-iron headboard polished to gleaming. The thoughtfulness in the details makes me ache, from the fringed lamp and the stack of books she’s placed by the bed, to the box of tissues on top. No doubt she has visions of me sobbing myself to sleep every night. The desk and chair under the window, the ornate mirror above the dresser – all new. I’m grateful, but my boxes still sit untouched, and Miriam pretends not to notice.
She won’t push me.
But I’ve been here for weeks, haven’t I? Maybe even a month? A lot can happen in a month: a bad cough, medical tests, a diagnosis. Back when it mattered, I knew the number of days until Mom’s lab results; the hours between doctor’s rounds; the minutes that passed before her meds kicked in; how long I could hold my breath, waiting for the crease of pain to lift from her clammy brow. Then I kept time like a stingy accountant. Now I let it pour through my fingers, let it escape from my life like heat from a house with the door left carelessly open. Maybe that’s what makes the urgency in my dream so alarming. It’s nothing like my real life.
But I should care and I should make an effort. It’s not like I’ve been forced to live with a stranger in an uncaring home in a town I don’t know. Didn’t I long for my holidays here every year? Moan every time we had to go back to Pennsylvania? It’s selfish to act like I own the patent on grieving. What about Miriam? She’s lost her twin and been landed with me. That’s a crap deal.
Slowly, the pounding in my chest begins to settle and I realise the sound of rushing water isn’t just in my head or a hangover from my dream. The faucet is running in the bathroom.
The clock reads 3 am.
I pad to the door, off kilter and shaky in the knees. Light streams from the bathroom onto the landing between my aunt’s room and mine. The door hangs partway open and the copper faucets roar over the claw-foot tub. Miriam leans on the vanity, her black pants pooled on the hardwood floor. She holds something in her hand and bends over a gash on her thigh. The shock is enough to bypass the inward twinge I usually feel looking at Mom’s spitting image. I nudge the door, squinting against the light. “Miriam?”
She jerks up and drops the thing she’s been holding, a syringe. It clatters at her feet. She presses her hand to her chest and closes her eyes. “Good grief, Evie.”
Panting, she picks up the syringe, tosses it in the bin and sits heavily on the side of the tub, her long dark hair obscuring her face. “You gave me a fright.”
“What did you do?”
She tucks her hair behind her ears, an unconscious yet bruising Mom gesture, and reaches for my hand. I grimace at her torn nails, the skin she’s taken off her knuckles, and sit beside her. She feels icy. Sweat beads her lip and brow, she looks paler than normal and the freckles on her nose stand out.
“Clumsy is all. Sorry I woke you.” She turns through the billowing steam and cranks the faucet until the raucous flow ceases. Not meeting my gaze, she picks up the damp gauze from the sink and dabs at the cut. “I fell out of the car trying to carry too much equipment. Caught myself on the door before I hit the gravel. Typical. First time with my new Canon. If I’ve broken any lenses–”
“Shouldn’t I take you to the hospital?”
She shakes her head. “It’ll be okay.”
“Then what’s with the needle?”
“Adrenaline suppressant.” She downsizes it with a shrug. “I have an adrenal disorder. Occasionally, when I get hurt, my heart races and I can’t get it to calm down.”
. “Since when?”
“Since ages, I guess. Look, it’s not that big a deal. I can usually manage it.”
I think of my catalogue of symptoms: my palpitations, my crazy dreams, the weight I’ve lost and the strange growth spurt that means everything I wear is too loose and not long enough. I almost blurt,
maybe that’s what I have
, but bite my lip instead. She worries about me as it is. When Mom got sick, Miriam watched me like I teetered on a precipice, and at times I didn’t like the unsettling length of her stare.
I want normal. I crave normal.
She gestures at the open medicine cabinet. “Pass the tape, kiddo.”
I reach for it, the moth-like flap of my thoughts careening around my skull.
Miriam frowns over her wound and rips three neat strips of tape. “Just so you know, it’s not always about intravenous drugs.” She dries the skin either side of the wound. “Diet and exercise usually take care of it. Running helps.”
I keep my eyes on Miriam’s oozing leg. The cut looks deep and angry to me. “You’re sure it won’t need stitching?”
She shakes her head. “I’ll bandage it after I’ve had a bath. Need to warm up first.” She gives me an inscrutable look, her brown eyes skating over me. “How are the pins and needles?”
“Fine.” I wish I never told her. “I’m fine.”
“Liar.” She strokes my cheek. “I’m sorry I left you by yourself. I should have turned them down.”
“Don’t be silly, I didn’t mind.” I am a liar. I hated her being away. But she’d passed up so much work to look after me while Mom was in that fancy-schmancy clinic we’d put all our hope in. I couldn’t be the reason she missed out on a whole editorial for a glamour magazine in New York. What started as a one day job evolved into a full week. “It was an awesome gig. You couldn’t say no. Did they take you out for dinner?”
“I left early.”
“So you could drive five hours in the dark?”
“It was too soon to leave you alone for so long.”
“Alone? With Mrs Gallagher on the phone and at the door every five minutes?”
,” Miriam corrects me. I’m not allowed to call her Mrs Gallagher; she says it makes her feel old. “Barb’s gold.”
I grin. “Yeah, she is.”
She is. Once she gave up trying to convince me to stay at their estate, she brought meals, did laundry, baked and called me twice a day for the whole week. Barb, the heiress! Truthfully, it was almost too much. Barb had loved Mom like a sister and was big on talking about feelings, unafraid to laugh and cry over remember-when-April this and remember-when-April that. She probably thought I was a damn robot, nodding, silent, half-suffocated by the lump in my throat.
“She’s excited about Kitty.” The one thing I am happy to talk about.
Kitty would fly in from Heathrow in the morning.
feel excited, an emotion I haven’t felt in months. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I actually looked forward to anything. When I moved up here, the prospect of being Nigel no-friends in New Hampshire didn’t worry me. Besides, grief is a social handicap. But when I heard Kitty was coming home early, for the last weeks of summer, I couldn’t deny the sense of relief. Someone who knows me and knows my stuff. No awkward questions to field. No work required.
Miriam grins knowingly. “What about Jamie?”
I give her a disdainful look. “He’s in Berlin.”
“That’s a shame.”
I stand up. “You need a hand getting in the bath?”
With a chuckle, she rises next to me then does a double take. “How much have you grown?”
I shrug, but she counts it out on her fingers. “End of April, May, June, July.” The length of time from diagnosis to funeral. “Must be at least three inches in three months.”
“I’m not in charge of the DNA.” I fold my arms around my hollow waist.
Nodding at the cotton flapping above my ankle she says, “We need to take you shopping, kid.”
I produce a noncommittal grunt.
She looks at me for a moment and I look at the wall. I swallow, about to turn and go, when she touches my arm. “I’m glad you’re here,” she says. I bite the inside of my cheek and nod. She pulls me against her and locks her arms around my back. I let her hold me, squeezing my eyes tight shut. “I’m so sorry this has happened to you, Evie,” she murmurs.