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Table of Contents
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I NEVER TOOK TO FIGHTING LIKE THE others. I could do it well enough. Maybe I was even good at it. But I didn't like it. Or maybe it was that I liked it too much.
Sam fought only when it meant something. Like escaping. Surviving. Protecting. Cas treated fighting like a dance—he always wanted to show off the best moves. Mostly because he's a jackass.
When I fought, I had a hard time pulling back.
I slammed a shot of whiskey, the cheap shit, and felt the muscles in my stomach tense. Pull from the core, that's what Sam always said. Or maybe it was something he used to say, back before we lost our memories to the Branch—the shadowy organization that had turned us into supersoldiers, and then tried to kill us when we didn't obey like dogs.
I have a hard time telling the difference between an old memory and a recent one.
"Did you hear me?" the man next to me said.
"I did." I felt the gloom of the bar settle over me. There'd always been something about dark, smoky bars. Something familiar.
"Well, what do you have to say, then?" the man said.
He was taller than me by a handful of inches. Bigger, too. Fatter, though, which meant he was slower. Speed always wins over brawn, if you ask me. Not that anyone ever does.
I turned to the man and wavered to give him the idea I was drunk, which I wasn't. Or at least, not entirely. I peered at him from beneath heavy lids, and then looked over his shoulder at his girlfriend or wife or sister or maybe it was his mom. "Your mom is pretty. I'm sorry I hit on her."
The woman frowned. The man scowled.
"That ain't what I'm talking about. My friend says he saw you steal my wallet back near the john. Did you?"
"Well, he said you did."
If I'd really been trying, there wouldn't have been witnesses to the lift. So I guess I'd been sloppy on purpose.
Maybe I did like fighting after all. There, I admitted it.
Anna's voice came back to me, from this morning. Be honest with yourself. And if you can't, at least be honest with me.
"Give it to me." The man took a step closer. My fingers itched to curl into fists.
Stop exploding so often, Anna said. You'll be happier.
The problem with Anna was that she saw things in me that weren't there. I was a lost cause.
"Hand it over and we'll forget this ever happened," the man went on. His girlfriend laid a hand on his shoulder and gave him a tug.
"Raymond, he's just a kid. I don't even know how he got in here." She scowled at the bartender, as if this was somehow his fault.
I was actually somewhere north of twenty, so I was most likely legal. I just looked younger. Genetic alterations will do that to you. And since none of us—me, Sam, Anna, and Cas—had any real, legal papers, we'd secured fake IDs through some guy Sam had used in the past.
Two of the man's friends stepped closer. The bartender set his towel down. "Come on, guys. You're not doing this in here. Take it outside."
Raymond set a hand on the bar and leaned in. His breath smelled like cigars and vodka. His eyes were bloodshot. He'd been here when I came in, so he'd probably been drinking longer than I had.
"Give me my goddamn wallet, son. Or you'll regret it."
I doubted that. Regret wasn't something I was familiar with.
"For God's sake, Raymond," his girlfriend said.
The friend on his left opened the fold of his down-filled vest to show off the handgun he had holstered to his belt. Like that was supposed to scare me. "Hand it over," he said. "We all saw you take it."
I blinked lazily. "I don't have whatever you're looking for."
Raymond took in a deep breath, and his chest puffed out. The veins in his neck fattened like a blow snake. He was ready to swing. He was the kind of man who had a tell so obvious, it was practically written across his forehead. That's no way to win a fight.
You keep your face straight. Your body loose. Your steps light. And if you do it right, they'll never know it's coming.
Raymond's face turned from ruddy to crimson right before he reached over and grabbed my wrist. He pulled my arm toward him, as if he meant to twist it behind my back.
I had already slid off the stool three seconds earlier, ready for this five seconds before that.
I kicked with my right foot, catching his knee. He howled and let go of my wrist, so I threw a backhanded fist, catching him across the temple. His friend, the one carrying the pistol, came at me.
I grabbed my empty shot glass and chucked it at him. It collided with his forehead with a resounding crack. His flesh split open, spewing blood down the bridge of his nose.
The third friend caught me off guard with a jab to my side, then a quick punch to the face. There wasn't much power behind it, though, and ignoring the pain was easy. I hit him across the jaw. He staggered back and rocked the table behind him, spilling drinks all over the place.
Someone shouted to call the cops.
Raymond recovered and barreled toward me, catching me in the wide span of his arms. He slammed me into the wall with his weight, and all the air left my lungs.
He punched with meaty knuckles, cracking my nose. Blood ran down the back of my throat with a hot, coppery tang.
I slid down the wall fast, hitting the floor in a second. Raymond brought his booted foot up when I grabbed the leg of the nearest chair, hauling it over me, using the seat as a shield.
The chair smashed into pieces, leaving me with nothing but a leg still in my hands.
I rocked forward onto a knee and whacked Raymond in the shin with the leg, and cracked him in the knee on the comeback. I rose to my feet, hitting him once, then twice in the head.
Raymond hit the floor with a satisfying thud.
The pistol-carrying friend made a grab for his gun when I rounded on him, the chair leg hanging loosely by my side.
"Don't," I said.
The entire bar was silent save for Raymond groaning at my feet and the click-scratch of the old jukebox switching records behind me.
I could hear the pounding of my heart in my head, and finally I felt alive.
I pulled Raymond's wallet from the inside pocket of my coat and tossed it toward him. It landed with a slap on his chest. His girlfriend just stared at me.
Everyone was staring at me. A toxic rush of power ran through my veins.
Sirens blared in the distance, so I hurried toward the back door, the chair leg still in my hand.
"This is the third time in a month you've come home looking like this."
I ignored Anna and made my way up the stairs. She followed.
"Nick. Talk to me, damn it."
I went into the bathroom and tried to shut the door, but she shot a foot into the doorway and pushed her way in. I groaned.
The upstairs bathroom wasn't much bigger than the downstairs bathroom, and two people in it was one too many.
I leaned back into the vanity, propping the heels of my hands on the sink. "I ran into a doorknob," I said. She smacked me in the side, and fresh pain chased the hit. I hunched over. "Fuck, Anna."
"The doorknob hit you in the ribs, too?"
I turned around, giving her my back, and leaned over the sink. I suddenly felt like I might puke.
"What happened?" She shut the door, making room for herself at the side of the vanity. "Was it someone from the Branch?"
The panic in her voice made the truth race out. "No."
She exhaled. "Thank God. I thought…" She trailed off and sighed.
Out of all of us, Anna was particularly edgy when it came to matters of the Branch. Her uncle, Will O'Brien, had created the organization to research and produce bio-weaponry, and he'd roped his family into participating in his programs in exchange for the things they needed most. For Anna's older sister, Dani, it was help for their pill-popping father.
And later, when Anna was near death after getting shot by that very same deadbeat dad, Dani made a deal with Will to save Anna's life. In exchange, Dani had given us all up. Sam, Cas, and me. I still wasn't sure how I felt about the whole thing. Dani's deception was the reason I'd been locked in a cell in a basement for five years, getting poked and prodded like an animal. It was also how Anna found herself mixed up with the Branch. But her life had been saved, and I thought that made my being a prisoner worth it, no matter how much it had sucked.
Five years later, when Anna's memories started to return and she realized the truth, she killed Will in a showdown, thereby destroying the head of the Branch. His second-in-command—Riley—was still out there, though. None of us would really be free until Riley was dead. We'd picked up on some leads, hoping to hunt him down and take him out, but all of them were dead ends. Wherever Riley was, he was keeping a low profile, and that worried us. He'd had plenty of time to reach out to old contacts and pull the Branch back together, provided he found the right funding.
Anna gave me a shove. "Sit so I can take a look at your injuries." All trace of her earlier panic was gone, leaving only exasperation and a driving need to take care of something that was broken. Unfortunately, that something was me.
"You don't have to—"
"I know I don't have to." Her jaw tensed. "Sit down."
I closed the toilet seat and sat, feeling the ache of the fight settling into my joints. I needed painkillers. Maybe something stronger than OTC.
"Where's Sam?" I asked.
"In town, filling the gas cans."
She bent down to fish out the first-aid kit from beneath the sink. "He went running about a half hour ago." She unzipped the kit on the vanity top and started tearing into gauze packs. I caught her hand mid-tear, and she glared over at me.
"Stop," I said. "Don't waste the supplies. A rag will do."
She frowned, but didn't argue, and switched to a rag she dug out of the closet. She wetted it down and came over to me, hunching so we were face-to-face.
Her blond hair was braided, and it hung over her shoulder, tied off with a black rubber band. Dark shadows painted the skin beneath her eyes. She hadn't been sleeping well lately. Flashbacks and old demons haunted her out of bed. I could relate. None of us really slept well, except for Cas. Cas could sleep through an air raid.
Anna cleaned the blood from my face and the open wound on the side of my eye, working with the methodic confidence of a professional, even though she wasn't.
"Why do you keep doing this?" she mumbled.
I scowled. "Why do you keep asking?"
Another frown. It was her default expression with me.
"What's going on, Nick? Is it more flashbacks?"
I looked past her at the towel hanging from the towel rack. It used to be brown. Now it was a faded mud color.
I saw a flash of a girl. I kept seeing her. The same girl. And every time I did, she was shaking. No, not shaking. Trembling.
And there was always blood on her face, tears running through it. Blood pulsed out of a bullet wound in her chest, and she held her left side like it hurt.
I didn't know who she was. I didn't know how she'd been injured, or if it'd been me who did it. Sometimes I doubted the reliability of my head. Maybe she was an image left over from my life before the Branch. A girl I saw in a movie. A character I read about in a book.
If she was real, I couldn't stand to live with the idea that I'd hurt her. The only way I'd have gone that far was if she was trying to kill me first. If the girl was connected to the Branch, then she wasn't innocent. No one involved with them was ever innocent. Me included.
"In my files," I started, "did it say anything about a girl from any of my missions? She might have been about our age. Or maybe a bit younger."
Anna thought for a second. "I don't think so, but I could check again." She nudged my chin, forcing me to look at her, but I quickly shifted away.
Anna had always been the type of person who didn't hesitate when it came to touching. For her, touching was caring. For me though, touching always meant pain. That's what happens when your dad spends his free time beating the shit out of you. My life was crap even before I joined the Branch.
"Is that what all this is about?" Anna asked. "A girl?" There was a note of worry in her voice. Like she was afraid I'd fall down the rabbit hole of love and get myself shot. Fuck that.
I didn't answer the question. Instead I did what I do best. I scowled at her. "Just look, please?"
She frowned, but nodded.
"Thanks." I edged past her to the door to escape. This time she didn't follow.
I SCANNED THE SHELVES ABOVE MY DESK and ran a finger down the row of cobalt glass bottles labeled with peeling stickers that said things like THAT DAY THE POWER WENT OUT, SPRING, and CARNIVALS.
My memories were carefully chronicled in fragrant oils, mixed in cobalt bottles, labeled and shelved.
I stopped when I found the bottle—the label—that I'd been searching for.
I dreamed of him last night.
Upon waking this morning, I was reminded immediately of just how long it'd been since he'd disappeared from my life, as quickly and suddenly as he'd arrived.
It was hard to forget someone when he'd saved your life, regardless of how much—or how little—you valued it.
Gabriel's bottle was the oldest. The first. Tied to one defining moment in my life—the night that I was saved, the night that I escaped the people who had kidnapped my mother and me and held us captive for six long months.
I plucked the bottle from the shelf. Though the cork was still firmly lodged in the neck, I immediately recalled the way he smelled.
Musk. Pine. A drop of cinnamon. Bergamot. And finally, cedarwood.
The scar running from my left side all the way down to my hip bone flared, a phantom burning where a knife dragged across my flesh, slicing through tissue and muscle, nicking bone.
The second scar, the old bullet wound in my chest, pulsed.
I missed him. I missed him in a foreign way that I couldn't explain. I didn't really know him. I hadn't even spent much time with him. But every time I thought of him, there was this crushing ache in my head, like Gabriel's absence was a hole inside me, so deep and wide that nothing else would fill it. By saving my life, he'd taken a part of it with him.
Without opening the bottle, I put it back on the shelf and tucked it behind the one labeled WILDFLOWERS.
I couldn't revisit Gabriel today. Maybe not tomorrow, either.
His bottle—its contents—was the one I loved and hated and feared and tried desperately to forget.
But it was the one I couldn't forget even if I tried.
Pots and pans crashed together in the kitchen as I made my way downstairs. I found my foster mother, Aggie, digging in one of the bottom cupboards, her hair tied back with a bandanna. Various ingredients were spread out on the countertop.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
Startled, she whacked her head on the edge of the cabinet door. She scooted back, rubbing the sore spot. "You scared me."
"Sorry." I went straight for the coffeepot. Aggie had my favorite mug waiting for me nearby, and I filled it to the top.
"I'm looking for my Bundt cake pan."
I gestured at the cabinet on the far left. "Check that one."
She frowned, but looked inside and pulled out the pan in question. "Well, how about that."
Out of all the foster parents I'd had, Aggie was by far my favorite. I'd been through five homes before settling down here.
Aggie was well into her sixties when she took me in. She was a single woman who had lost her only daughter to breast cancer many years back. Aggie understood loss like none of my other foster families had.
Our suffering wasn't the same, exactly, but it was suffering nonetheless. She'd been patient with me from the beginning. Kind. Soft-spoken. I wasn't sure where I'd be without her.
After I'd been rescued, I'd felt like a buoy lost out at sea. My mother had always been my rock—she was strong and determined and smart. In some ways, living without her was worse than being held captive.
A lot of my earlier anxiety attacks could be traced back to my mom's absence. Some tiny thing would remind me of her—a scented candle, her favorite brand of chocolate, an old sweater—and the pain would come crashing back.
I couldn't stop seeing her face, the panic in her eyes, when my captors threatened us both to secure my full cooperation. They didn't come right out and say it, but it was certainly implied that if I didn't do everything they asked, they'd kill my mother without hesitation.
"Do you work today?" Aggie asked as she handed me a banana. "Eat that up while I cook you some eggs."
Aggie was forever pushing food on me, fussing over how thin I was. Compared to her, I was small—she was a large woman, with wide shoulders and a substantial chest—but compared to Chloe, or any of the girls Chloe hung out with, I was average sized.
"I have today off," I answered, peeling back the banana's skin. "Are you busy? We could have a movie day."
"I have to be at the senior citizens' center this afternoon, otherwise I would love to spend the day with you. You'll be all right on your own?"
"Of course," I lied. Honestly, I didn't want to spend the day in the house by myself. When I was alone, I tended to disappear inside my own head, and my head was a landscape of horrors from the past.
Aggie gave me a sidelong glance before turning and busying herself at the stove. "Actually, you know what, I'm sure they can find another volunteer. I'll give them a call and let them know I can't make it."
"You don't have to do that."
"Nonsense. I want to." She waved the spatula in the air. "We were supposed to paint flowerpots today, and really, do I need more flowerpots?"
Her back deck was littered with them. Big pots on the floor, small pots lined up on the railings. More pots were placed around the house, and not all of them held plants. At least a half dozen of them held odds and ends. She was right, she didn't need more, but that wasn't the point. I hated asking her to change her plans for me.
But I couldn't bring myself to object, either. The past was creeping up on me today, suffocating me like a shroud.
"If you're sure," I said, and she nodded. "Thanks, Aggie."
She smiled. "Of course."
I closed my eyes once she turned away, and pressed my fingers to the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache growing beneath my skull. I saw my mother in the darkness, screaming my name as my captors dragged her from me.
I'd escaped from where I was being held, but my mother hadn't been so fortunate.
If I'd fought a little harder the last time I'd seen her, I would have hugged her, hugged her tightly and told her how much I loved her.
I WOKE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, choking back a memory of dear old Dad that had found its way into my dreams. I lay in bed for a while, trying to force myself back to sleep. When that didn't happen, I tossed off the sheet, threw on some clothes, and headed downstairs.
Everyone was asleep, so the house was quiet and dark. I dodged a creaky floorboard between the stairs and the living room, and made my way to the fridge. Inside were all the necessities—leftovers and beer. After dinner, Anna had sliced up what was left of the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Easy enough to eat with my fingers.
I left just enough food for it to be a tease, not enough for a meal. Cas would whine like he always did when things came down to food. I smiled to myself as I plucked a beer from the fridge.
With a quick pop of the front door lock, I was outside, grateful for the cool air. The moon was nearly full, so I didn't need a flashlight to find my way to the edge of the woods, to the hollowed-out log that sat beneath a massive maple tree. I rooted around inside and pulled out the pack of cigarettes I'd hidden there along with a lighter.
Vice in hand, I went back to the porch, eased into one of the old lawn chairs, and propped my feet on the railing.
The night was noisy. Always with the goddamn crickets. Sometimes a coyote or two howled at each other.
Leaning back in the chair, the front legs rocking off the porch floor, I lit a cigarette and drew on it. Smoking was an old habit, one I'd obviously quit somewhere along the line, but I couldn't remember if I'd quit on purpose, or if I'd just forgotten I'd smoked once my memories were wiped.
Either way, I still craved cigarettes like I craved good whiskey, and sometimes drawing on nicotine helped to break up all the shit crowding my head.
I felt better already.
I took another pull off the beer and then set it on the porch floor. I dug in my pants pocket and withdrew a flattened paper crane. Cigarette still clutched between two fingers, I brought the crane up to my line of sight and stared at its pointed head.
My mother was the one who taught me how to fold paper cranes. I was only five, maybe six. At first, my cranes came out crooked, with more fold lines in the paper than were needed. But origami was one of the few things we did together, and I didn't care so much about the cranes as I did the attention.
The memories of my old life were still foggy and disjointed, but more and more of it was coming back—things I didn't want to remember, things I was angry at having forgotten. The paper cranes were one of the first things I remembered about my mom. Everything else about her came after.
My mom was a shitty parent.
When my memories started to resurface, I'd remembered my dad first, and that my mom had left us when I was young. I'd wanted to think she left for a good reason, maybe because she couldn't stand the shit and chaos my dad put her through.
Now I knew better.
Mom left because she was a junkie, and being a junkie had always been more important to her than being a mom.
She had good days, where she was just high enough to be happy, not too blitzed to be useless. Those were the days when we folded. It was the only creative thing she knew how to do, maybe because it didn't require a lot of clearheaded thinking once you knew the steps, and she knew them by heart.
On the rarest days, I had both parents. Dad used to take me fishing on Little Hood Creek, and Mom would curl up on the bank, a book in her hand, big, round sunglasses hiding her eyes. When she was baked from the sun, she'd toss the book, dip her feet in the water, and point out the minnows darting between her legs.
It was all so goddamn good.
And so goddamn breakable.
The good days burned into bad nights, and the bad nights bled into bad weeks. Eventually Mom left, and Dad started drinking more, and every day was a bad day until I forgot what it was like to have a good one.
The first time Dad hit me, I was eight. He was drunk on cheap tequila and harassed by old demons. I'd broken a window hitting a ball around the yard. It was the only time he ever apologized for hitting me. And it was the only time I believed he wouldn't do it again.
After a while, when I got bigger, I started fighting back. Sometimes I was as drunk as him. Two dark-haired guys, haunted and sneering, stumbling around with fists flailing. We must have looked like a joke.
The last night I saw him, he beat me so bad I couldn't walk. I hid in my room for three days, only coming out when he was in town at the bar or bumbling his way through his job at a factory.
On the fourth night, after he passed out, I stole his car keys off the kitchen counter and a six-pack of beer out of the fridge, and crept outside in the dark.
I never looked back.
But now, for some fucked-up reason, I was looking back. I couldn't stop thinking about him. And about me. And about whether or not I was just like him.
And sometimes, when I killed someone with my own hands, I worried I was worse than him. Far as I knew, he'd never murdered anyone. But me, I'd killed so many times I couldn't count the bodies.
Maybe that's what was driving me to dig up the past now, to find out the details of the mission I'd been on when I'd met that girl.
I took another hit off the cigarette and ground it out beneath my boot.
If I found out I'd killed that girl—well, then maybe I'd finally accept my fate. Embrace the cursed blood in my veins.
But if she was still alive…
Maybe there was redemption for me after all.
I SOMEHOW MANAGED TO SLEEP A FEW more hours, and when I got up, Cas was staring at me from across the room.
I scrubbed at my eyes, trying to scrub away the dregs of last night. I had a headache so fucking huge, it felt like my eyeballs were trying to pop out of their sockets. "What the hell are you looking at?"
"You were growling in your sleep," he answered.
"I thought you were turning into a werewolf. 'Course, at least as a dog, you'd be easier to house-train."
I grabbed an empty beer bottle from the dresser and lobbed it at him. He deftly plucked it from the air and grinned. He was always so disgustingly pleased with himself.
"I'm so badass."
I ignored him as I made my way for the door.
"Put some clothes on!" he yelled. "Anna doesn't want to be assaulted by your junk."
I looked down at my boxers and turned back around, throwing on some pants before I headed downstairs. Anna and Sam were already up, dressed in their running clothes.
"You guys heading out, or just coming back?" I asked.
"Heading out," Sam said. "You want to come?"
One thing that helped clear my head was running.
"Give me five minutes?" I asked, and Sam nodded.
- On Sale
- Jan 12, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers