We set off again with the sunrise. Aaron couldn’t have gotten more than three hours of sleep, but he insisted that he felt very well rested, and while I didn’t truly believe him, I was urgent to leave. I’d told Tari that I’d teach her how to throw knives eventually, but that I was too tired now. It was true. I was tired, bone-aching tired, tired to the point where nothing felt real at all. I’d spent decades practically sleeping, but I hadn’t truly rested in years. I had tried and failed to sleep more, but had spent the majority of the time thinking and overthinking until my head hurt. Nothing made sense.
Aaron didn’t comment on how I’d never taken the wheel. I think he might have seen it coming. But I stowed my crutches and stood at the front of the bus, balancing on my good foot, silently watching over his shoulder as he drove. After two hours of me watching him drive, Aaron pulled off the freeway.
“We need gas.”
“Ok. Cade gave us money, right?” My fingers knotted on the back of his seat. He didn’t answer, but pulled a wad of cash out of the safe box beneath the wheel. My eyes practically bulged out of their sockets. That was a lot of money. Something was wrong here. The bus, the supplies, that house, this money… where had it all come from? It reminded me, painfully, of Elliot. From the day we left the orphanage, we always seemed to have enough money. Elliot never had a real job for more than a week at a time, but was constantly tinkering around in his crazy little lab, which, of course, we shouldn’t have had the funds to own.
Aaron wasn’t particularly impressed. “Just enough for five gas fill-ups in a car, but I’m not sure about a bus, not including food.”
That couldn’t be right. “All that cash could only gas up a car five times?” Maybe I was being stupid. I obviously didn’t know much about cars, let alone buses.
It looked like Aaron thought so too. “If it was cheap to drive a car, more people would drive them.”
I remembered the odd lack of cars in the city. I was used to swarms of cars, never enough parking spots, a boom in the car industry… It looked like twenty-two years had changed a lot.
“Well, where’s the nearest gas station?” I asked.
“You find out, you have the phone.”
“Right.” I stared down at the screen, unable to fathom how I would find that small piece of information in the great wealth of the internet. Hesitantly, I clicked on the icon for the search engine and typed into the search bar.
SEARCH: GAS STATIONS
A wide array of results populated the screen, and I scrolled through them. I felt oddly embarrassed, unsure of what I was doing. Were these gas stations close? Were they far? How did I navigate to them?
“Here, let me.” Julian leaned over my shoulder and held out a hand for the phone. I didn’t give it to him.
“I know what I’m doing.”
He gave me a wry look. “Is that why you’ve been scrolling aimlessly through every single result for ‘gas stations’ on the Justix web?”
“Yeah.” I glared. “How do you suggest I find the closest gas station, Mr. Tech?” That shut him up.
“Fine. I won’t help you then.” He strolled back down the aisle, hands in his pockets.
I called after him. “Fine!” With a huff, I slid into the seat besides Ellie. She was the only person on this blazing bus who wasn’t annoying, condescending, or both. I passed her the phone. “Will you help?”
She smiled and took it. “If you say please.”
We arrived at the gas station within fifteen minutes. Aaron parked and got out to pay and fill the tank. We had brought plenty of long-lasting supplies suitable for a car trip, and I grabbed a pack of beef jerky to eat.
I wobbled off the bus with my jerky and bottled water to get some fresh air and eat on solid ground. Around the back of the gas station was a bench, and I sat there, leaning my crutches against the wall. I’d brought one of my knives, out of habit, and I used the blade to open the plastic.
I closed my eyes and chewed, twirling the knife in my fingers. This had been a horrible idea. I should have just learned how to drive a bus and left on my own. What was the purpose of all these people? If it weren’t for Cade, I wouldn’t even have briefly entertained the idea. I ran down the list of people and their purpose on the trip in my mind. Tari, of course, was Cade’s daughter, Aaron could drive a bus, Julian could do the technology. That left Ellie. I wasn’t sure what strategic value she added to our group, but I liked her. She was quiet.
When I boarded the bus, Tari blocked my path. Behind her, the other three were fanned out, their faces portraying a mixed array of concern, confusion, and contempt. I wasn’t sure which was preferable. Tari looked ready for a fight, but I focused on Aaron instead.
He hesitated a brief second, but with a glance between me and Tari, hurried to the wheel. He didn’t seem to want any part in the coming confrontation.
I turned my focus back to the snarling beast before me, striving for a calm, neutral appearance.
She looked conflicted and a little worried. “What are you?”
I gaped at her. Was she really making a fuss about my immigrant status right now? “Are you serious? I’m Justician. I’ve lived in Justix my whole life. I’m monolingual. My father was from Faren, but I was practically raised by this scum-of-a-city public orphanage. What are you?”
She sneered. “Yeah, act all appalled, make me the racist bad guy. You knew what I meant.”
“What?” It was my turn for confusion, but I masked it with indignation. I let my crutches clatter to the bus floor and crossed my arms over my chest. “Are you going to explain yourself? Because you look just like a racist bad guy to me.”
Tari jabbed an accusatory finger at my chest, coming just short of poking me. “I said, what are you, demon?” She was practically shouting now, and I shot a nervous glance out the window. People would think we were crazy. She was crazy.
I met Ellie’s eyes. “Do you guys know what this nutcase is wailing about?”
She only averted her gaze, and Tari laughed hysterically. Definitely off her rockers.
“I’m a nutcase? Right. Right.” She pulled out two pictures from her bag and shoved them in my face, before turning to the others. “Look at this evidence and see if you can still say I’m crazy.”
By the way their eyes skimmed over the photos, I could tell she’d already shown them. I hadn’t seen, but the sinking feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach told me I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see.
I snatched the pictures from her grasp and saw… myself. I blinked in surprise. The same photo of me I’d seen on Theo’s creepy board, the school mugshot. At the bottom of the image, in small black text, was the caption: “Sitara Lynn-Parks, aged 16.”
But the second image took my breath away. I’d forgotten about that picture. I had just turned sixteen, and Cade had been a close friend for nearly a year. Cade, Elliot, and I had been hanging out at Aspen’s house, and we’d started playing around with a portable digital camera Cade had borrowed from a friend at school. Right before he took the picture, Cade had pulled off my hair tie and ruffled my hair.
My hair looked horrible. But the laughter in my eyes and the mess of near-black strands falling to frame my face made me look like a completely different person than the one I saw in the mirror. And Elliot… he looked so vibrant, so alive, that I almost cried.
I looked up at Tari, tears quivering behind my lids, and waved the second photo, the one with Elliot and Cade, in her face.
“Where did you get this?” She seemed startled by my reaction, and my emotions got the best of me. I shoved her, hard, and she stumbled to the ground. Julian and Ellie moved quickly out of the way. I stood over her, knife in one hand, trembling picture in the other, and told myself I wouldn’t cry.
“I stole it from my father’s office!’ Tari whimpered. “He had it in a frame there.” For the first time I noticed the crimping on the edges of the photo where it had fit in a frame a bit too small. I stepped back, cradling the photo, and she sat up.
“What are you, Sitara?” She repeated as I hopped away, a ghost of her voice remaining. I flinched at the use of my full name. My father had been the only person to call me that.
I whirled on her. “What does that even mean?”
“How did you survive? How do you know my father? Why haven’t you aged? Are you even human? What are you?”
She wasn’t expecting the truth, and neither was I. “I don’t know. Not anymore.”
“Are you really the Justix Angel?” It was Julian, and for once, there was nothing humorous or ironic in his voice, just awe.
“I-” Ignoring him, I sat back in my seat, staring at the picture. At Elliot. At that strange creature who I used to be and never was. Everyone in that snapshot was dead now, I realized.
Cade was changed forever, Elliot was gone, and I was something new entirely, though I doubted I’d ever figure out what.
The roads grew emptier and emptier as we progressed on to Checkpoint 9, as the directions dubbed it, and inevitably, the “FINAL DIRECTIONS.”
I was painfully aware of the tension on the bus as our destination approached. I tried to ignore the stares I could feel prickling the back of my neck, but I told myself it would soon be over, and fought instead to focus on the exciting prospect of what lay before us.
These strange, step-by-step directions that wouldn’t give us the final stop until we arrived, the cryptic messages, the weird fog… soon it would all make sense. I had to keep telling myself that, or I feared I’d run away and never look back.
“What is this? Do we need to stop again?” Julian’s voice was comically light as we pulled onto a small, winding road that barely fit the bus, and I commended him silently for trying to alleviate the heavy air of tension.
“No, this is actually where the directions are leading.” Aaron said.
Julian, leaned forward for the phone, and I handed it to him wordlessly. It was probably best if I kept my mouth shut for now. At the thought, I heard Cade’s voice in my head, reprimanding and agonizingly sincere.
Better, or easier? I’d never admit it to him, but there was a difference. A crucial difference I would elect to ignore for the time being, if I could.
The bus slowed, and I looked up to see we’d arrived at a dead end in the road, spreading out into a glorious field of yellow flowers that stretched some ways into the distance.
Aaron half-turned in his seat, keeping a careful eye on the road as we slid to a stop. “Well? Did we take a wrong turn? What do the directions say?”
Julian frowned, eyes glued to the phone. I leaned over to read the simple black text.
YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION
[rewrite so they are driving while Tari confronts her and when they reach their destination that disrupts the conversation]