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Authors: A E Rought

Tainted (9 page)

BOOK: Tainted
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Hours ago, I was wired to these monitors, IV in my arm, electrodes pouring energy into my body. Will the generators survive another drain on the system? I cast a look at the gauges on the computer panel before placing her gently on the lab table. The energy levels are steady. “Ready, Paul,” I speak out loud.

“I’m here,” his voice comes through the intercom system.

Jason hovers nearby, his face an unreadable mask as he watches me grab a set of sterile surgical implements, and a vial from the cabinet beside the computer screen blinking “Prodigal Protocol”.

The plastic over the surgical tools rips open with a sharp noise. Cold metal slides between my fingers when I grab a pair of shears. Emma looks like a tattered doll after I cut slits in her sleeves and neckline. Acting on a level of autopilot I didn’t know I had, I attach the monitor leads and electrodes to her skin. Next, the IV in the vein at her wrist.

“This won’t hurt,” I tell her, even though it’s a lie she can’t hear.

A press of a button, and the Prodigal readings should jump with her vitals. They always do with mine. I push the computer key and pray. Maybe I can stop this. Maybe I’m wrong.

Flatline. The IV does nothing.

Desperate, I load the last vial of my red life-keeping formula into a syringe.

Jason steps back, bumps into a counter and stays put. I give all control to the instinct guiding me since I walked in. A gasped breath from Jason accompanies me inserting the needle into her external jugular vein where the formula will be forced into Emma’s heart. He says nothing, doesn’t even breathe as I force the formula in. Just a bead of bright blood follows the needle back out.

I swipe the syringe with an alcohol wipe, and tip her to the side. Jason turns away, choking on a guttural noise. There’s no room for care, only for saving Em. I insert the needle again, into her spinal cord at the base of her skull.

The syringe falls to the floor as I stride to the control panel. This will work. It has to.

Before I can press “execute,” Paul shouts, “Stop! If you run it now, you’ll fry her. Give her compressions while I recalibrate the charge by her approximate weight.”

Obeying, I resume the chest compressions I’d stopped at the river bank. Right palm over her heart, left pressed on top, I mechanically pump blood and formula through her. “You’re going to be fine,” I promise. “You’ll be OK.”

“Got it,” Paul says.

Don’t,
that inner voice commands. She didn’t ask for this
.

She didn’t ask to die, either.

“Jason,” I warn, “you shouldn’t watch.” He nods once, and arms crossed, he turns away.

I run a finger over Emma’s tangled hair when I lean close. She’s the reason my heart beats. I can’t stop now.

“I love you,” I whisper in her ear. “Please come back.”

And then I press “execute”.

“Live,” I beg Emma. “Live!”

The lights hum, electricity buzzes over my skin as the lab’s modified systems pour energy through the electrodes and into her. The power modulates, lights burning bright above us as the hum turns to a whine. Then Emma’s body goes rigid. Her jaw snaps shut with a clack of teeth. Fluid foams from the corners of her mouth. Convulsions rack her body, shaking the table as the monitors screech and beep.

Jason’s head swivels as he throws a shocked glance at the monitors, then Emma. “Jesus,” he says. The name becomes his mantra, repeating over and over into the cacophony.

The system goes through another power alteration, scaling slowly back. Emma’s monitors respond, the rhythm approaching normal readings. Emma’s convulsions slow, then stop. As we watch, the color returns to her skin, the pink comes back to her lips. Her eyes suddenly snap open, her hands grasp at empty air.

“Daniel!” she screams. “Daniel, don’t leave me!”

And then Emma collapses. The readouts all promise normal vital signs.

The pain is sudden, brilliantly sharp under my ribs. I drop to my knees, clutching my chest, clawing for the scalpel that must be there. I find nothing but damp clothes and skin. After everything I’ve done to revive her, every sin I committed, every promise I broke to myself, when Emma comes back to life, it’s not me she wants. When her eyes opened, and her hands reached out, it wasn’t for me, it was for Daniel. Someone I can never be.

In this moment I know that Daniel’s heart is truly mine. It’s shattered and killing me.

CHAPTER NINE

What have I done?

Guilt, heavy and acidic in my gut and throat, drags me to my ass on the floor. What have I done to Em in the name of my need, my inability to let her go? My gaze plummets from the printouts to my palms, red with blood.

Red. Death. Heartache. Is that all my life has become?

Motion on my peripheral vision chips at my misery, reminds me I am not alone, at least not physically. Jason takes a hesitant step forward, closer to Emma, closer to me. I’m so far gone, I stay slumped by her side, projecting my need for him to understand, for him to excuse what I’ve done. He lets out a long, deep breath, like he’s held it since I plugged her in. My lips twitch, I feel the corners sinking. A slight shake of his head is his only answer. Then he grabs a blanket from the cart nearby and covers Em from her chin down.

“She’s gotta be cold,” he says, more to himself than me.

“Yeah.” My voice is harsh, throat sore from screaming.

“So…” Jason places another blanket over Em. He tucks it under her chin before carefully sinking to the floor close to me, and doesn’t make eye contact. “None of
that
was normal.”

A strangled bark of laughter escapes me. “You have no idea.”

“Oh,” he says, voice oddly soft and contemplative, “I think I’m getting one. Where’d you learn to do that?”

“Here. From what my father did to me.”

I shift a glance to him. Jason’s drawn and pale, and looks like he could use a shower, or maybe vomit up his last meal. He rubs one hand over the other, massaging the knuckles. He meets my eyes, then drops his gaze to his hands, and stops the motion I’ll bet is an unconscious comfort thing.

“That was no random accident back there.” His voice is quiet, careful.

“I know.”

“Any idea?”

“Who would do that to Emma?” The list is so short, I don’t have enough options to debate. “The only person I could think of would be Hailey. I watched her leave the party, Jason, she headed to town. There’s no way she could’ve been there.”

“Someone else killed her.” Statement of fact. By the look on his face, he wants me to understand this isn’t my fault.

I nod. I won’t argue with him, even though I know better.

“I’m going to die early,” he says. The words both make no sense and stamp on the shattered piece of my heart. How could Jason,
Jason
,
be dying? “It’s true,” he says when I shake my head. “I’ve been back and forth with doctors in Grand Rapids. It’s confirmed. Juvenile Huntington’s disease.”

Why is he telling me this now? I’m already down, circling the drain of my life, and my best friend tells me he’s dying? I can’t process it; I’ve dealt with enough death already. I shake my head again, unable to formulate an intelligent response other than absolute denial.

“My dad was diagnosed with the adult version last year,” he continues. Jason’s expression, his sad conviction says this is real. “Pain and stiffness, clumsiness, decline in cognitive function in the early stages, the doctor said. I’m going to lose control of everything, Alex. Walking, talking, eventually eating and breathing.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I never knew how much living meant…” he pauses, swipes at sand still caked on his jeans, “…until that doctor walked in and said my life expectancy was now seriously decreased.”

My brain is scrambling, tangled up in what happened to Emma. How can Jason be dying? It’s not possible, not fair. I spare a glance at Emma, sleeping now, her vitals strong, her color back. How can I take back my girlfriend from the jaws of death, only to learn I’m going to lose my best friend? I must be an open book, because he reads the disbelief in my expression.

“This is real,” he insists. Very deliberately, he points up at Em, and then motions to me, “
I get it
.
I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around it – believe me. Honestly? I’m flipping the fuck out right now. But I know why you couldn’t let her go.”

Jason holds my gaze; his is unwavering, telling me somehow he knows what I am, what I’ve made Emma become. Maybe staring down the Grim Reaper gives you a new appreciation for life. A different hurt blossoms behind my ribs – my mother would’ve called it a bittersweet pain. After what I’ve put him through, Jason deserves to walk away, to turn me in to the authorities and expose me for what I’ve done.

“Thanks,” I manage through my tight throat. “But this is just the tip of my father’s iceberg. All those killings last year? Daniel?”

“I don’t want to hear this.” He scrambles stiffly to his feet. “God knows, right now I
really
don’t want to talk about it. I said I get it, Alex. Whatever you were gonna say, it’s not you. You didn’t ask for any of it. Neither did she.”

“Jason…”

“Stop. Please.” He holds a hand out, fingers an insufficient barricade to the horrors ricocheting around this room. Jason paces the length of the lab as he fights his phone from his pocket. “I’ll figure out a story to tell Bree. I’ll text you later.”

“At least let me give you a ride.”

My sneakers slip in the water still dripping from Em, when I try to stand.

“No,” Jason refuses my offer. “Neither of you two are in the shape to go anywhere right now. Stay here. Take care of her.”

“That’s what I’m made for.” I finally get my footing, and reach a hand out to him. “And don’t give up hope, OK? There has to be medicine, clinical trials, something.”

Jason’s expression shifts, some part of him retreating from the moment.

“Hope is for dreamers.” He zips his coat, and then clasps my hand in one hard shake. “I’m trying to look at it as the brighter the star, the faster it burns out.”

Of course it would come down to a theater reference with him. Jason and Bree are a perfect match.

“I’ll lift the gates,” Paul says solemnly through the intercom.

Jason starts, shooting a glance at the speaker overhead. We both forgot he was possibly listening in.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “Paul is an excellent secret keeper.”

“Deleting all footage and audio files,” Paul says. It’s probably the best confirmation he can offer now.

Jason nods, directs a look at Emma and then says, “See you both tomorrow. And for the record, Alex?”

“Yeah?”

Jason points at the table where we reanimated Emma. “Don’t ever do that to me. Deal?”

“Deal.”

I stroke Emma’s hand while Jason walks out. He’s right, she is cold. A quick scan of her vitals says her heart rate and respirations are normal, other finer readings are leveling out, but her temperature is a little low. It could be a side-effect of the reanimation. It could be from her drowning in the winter river. Holding her hand, I turn to face the girl lying on the table.

This is Emma. I have to believe this, have to trust that I didn’t ruin her. She’s still the same girl, her brain, her vessels, her heart. When she opens her eyes, she’ll remember me.

Finally alone, it comes flooding in on me: Hailey harassing me. Emma’s accident and her dying in front of me. Me dragging her out and forcing Jason to help me revive her. And, God, her crying for Daniel when she woke. Jason admitting he’s going to die. How much more can I take?

Her eyelashes flutter when I brush gritty hair from her forehead. Even if she doesn’t really want me, I can’t help but love her. Where does that leave us?

“I’m so sorry, Emma.” I squeeze her hand. “This is all my fault.”

She draws in a deep breath, rough and then she coughs.

“Daniel?” Emma’s voice is a hoarse whisper. “Where is he?”

“He’s gone, Em.”

“No! He was here!” She lurches to a sitting position and the table rocks. Mud falls from her shredded clothes when Em yanks the monitor leads and electrodes off. I catch her before she rips out the IV.

“Daniel’s gone,” I insist. Even though I know it’s a lie. An essence of him remains here, in me. I carefully remove the IV and cover the area with a cotton ball.

“He. Was.
Here
!”

I hold her gaze, surprised by the vehemence in it. Who is this girl? I’ve seen her angry, but never such uncontrolled fire. As fast as the outburst came, it disappears.

“I’m so cold.” Shudders rack her body. Her gaze leaves my face, flitting around the lab, taking in her surroundings. “Where are we?” She pushes back from my embrace and her eyes fall on the red smears of my blood. “You’re bleeding. What happened?”

“Think, Emergizer. Try to remember.” I don’t want to tell her she died.

“I can’t!” Em wails, and bats at the blood spotting her clothes. She swings a wide-eyed terrified glance at me. “I’m dirty. I can’t go home dirty. Can’t go home like this... Mom will have a fit.”

“Stop.” She tugs against my hold when I take her hands. “Listen to me. Your parents are on vacation. I know you’re dirty. Let me take care of you.”

Her struggles cease, and she nods. She fidgets, unable to settle, unable to be still.

Standing, I scoop Emma into my arms. The energy coursing through her skitters over my skin, fresh and alive. Em feels delicate in my arms, and it kills me that this girl has been hurt in the worst possible ways because of me. All I wanted was to bring her back the way she was, for her to open her eyes and say she loves me.

Maybe this is my punishment.

Being at the forefront of Michigan’s medical research field, Ascension Labs is equipped with a comprehensive decontamination station, from eye wash, to air vacuum/chemical bath tent, to full glassed-in shower. My father often worked through the night, like Paul does now, and used the shower to warm himself and wake up. Maybe it will help bring Emma around.

She stands when I place her feet on the floor. The analytical side of my brain examines her stance, looking for signs of balance problems possibly indicating brain or inner ear trauma. Her posture is fine, no listing, no stumbling. Em is curled in on herself, symptomatic of what she went through, even if she can’t recall.

BOOK: Tainted
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