That’s when I saw the cars. At least seven black, shiny vehicles, with large, sturdy wheels that had left ominous tracks in the tall grass. I swallowed, my stomach churning. Something was really, really wrong about this whole situation.
A voice rose up over the pounding of my heart. I couldn’t see the speaker, but his voice emanated over the field as if magnified through a megaphone.
“Sitara Lynn-Parks, exit the vehicle with your hands above your head and no one needs to get hurt.”
I noted the prickle of eyes on the back of my neck as Tari’s suspicions were confirmed.
“Right, well, I’m going to go ahead and guess they don’t know you’re on crutches.” Julian quipped, and I almost smiled. Almost.
I rose to a shaking foot and reached for my crutches, but a hand snatched them away. Tari.
“No way you’re going with those people.”
“Wasn’t planning on it. I just wanted to find out what they want.”
Tari snorted. “Sounds like a great way to get yourself kidnapped, killed, or worse.”
“Fine. What do you suggest?”
She looked at Aaron, sitting with white knuckles on the wheel. He wasn’t looking too good.
When he spoke, his voice trembled slightly. “Guys. They have guns.”
Guns? I peered out the window and saw several men peeking through roof hatches in the bulky cars, aiming rifles at the bus. Blazes. I dropped to the ground, not before seeing the emblem copied on each vehicle.
The Justix Council.
“I say we get out of here and back to Justix pronto. We’ve obviously stumbled into something beyond our control.” I wanted to scream at her to shut up. My brain was already working too slowly for the speed of the moment.
“I repeat, exit the vehicle with your hands above your head and no one needs to get hurt. We will not hesitate to open fire on your vehicle, however, we will not attack if you relinquish Sitara Lynn-Parks.”
What could they want? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. Not with the Council involved.
“You have ten seconds to comply. Ten.”
Julian shook Aaron. “Get us the heckle-nuggets out of here,” he hissed.
Heckle nuggets? That was new.
Aaron was unresponsive. I couldn’t blame him. But I could blame myself if I let the Council shoot anyone else.
I shoved Aaron out of the driver’s seat and pushed him towards Julian, and he followed my movements like a marionette. Creepy.
I’d watched Aaron drive for hours now. It wasn’t that different from a car, and I knew enough to get us out of here. At least, I hoped I did. The bus was still running, so I jammed a foot down on the gas pedal, sending us rocketing forward on to the uneven grass off the dead-end road.
The bus careened into a turn as the Council lackeys unleashed a deafening barrage of bullets on us. My sweaty palms threatened to slip from their death grip on the steering wheel as we tilted dangerously to the right.
“We’re going to crash and die!” Julian screamed, very unhelpfully, in my ear.
“No, we aren’t.” There was a steel in Aaron’s voice as he wrenched the wheel back from my hands. I vacated the seat and we lurched back on to the dead end road, now facing the correct direction to, as Julian so eloquently put it, get us the heckle-nuggets out of here.
I stumbled to the back of the bus to look out the rear window. “They’re following!” We were in trouble. The kind of trouble that ends with a bus of dead teenagers. The black cars screeched on the road behind us, guns still poking from the ceilings. They were faster than us, by a lot, and it was only a matter of time before they shot out a tire.
But Tari beat them to it. I wasted precious seconds gaping as a barrage of machine gun fire blazed out of our open rear window. So many questions bubbled to my mind, but I flicked them away. I had more important problems.
Aaron had slowed the bus slightly at the explosions and screech of skidding cars, and I hopped, nearly falling several times, back to the front.
“Keep driving. As fast as you can. Don’t turn around, don’t slow down.” My breath was ragged in my lungs, and I collapsed into a seat behind him as the bus churned around me.
Julian sat down across from me, and I briefly met his eyes before fixing mine back out the windshield.
“Tari hit the wheels of two, I think, and that seemed to crash several others.”
I let out a tense laugh. “What- So how many are still chasing us?”
He didn’t answer at first, and I glanced towards him in time to see him dart a look at Aaron. “None that we can tell, but there are definitely at least two that are completely unharmed and most of them probably have suffered only minor [injuries].”
I let loose a reluctant smile. “Well, that’s good news then, isn’t it?”
Julian still looked on-edge. “I guess, but it doesn’t mean we can let down our guard. I say we drive as far as we can away from here, then we can stop and hide somewhere and pray they don’t find us.”
Aaron, still driving as fast as the bus would carry us and rattling the floor in the process, twisted his head slightly to address us just as Tari and Ellie moved up from the back to occupy the second row of seats. Ellie. How did she fade in the background like that? How did I keep forgetting she was there?
“We’re going back the way we came now, but I’m going to hit larger roads soon. So which direction, back to Justix or away?”
Tari and Julian both spoke at once, and I kept my mouth shut
Tari glared. “You can’t be serious. The city is the Council’s domain, and they just tried to kill us!”
“Everywhere on this peninsula is Council’s domain, so unless you’ve got the paperwork for foreign travel, we’re pretty much trapped. Plus, they didn’t try to kill us until you started shooting, they just wanted a nice quiet kidnapping. There’s a difference.”
“You’re kidding. We’d be sitting ducks in the city. Out here, we can run off and make plans, and preferably not bring Council forces down on the Devout.”
“No, in the city we can blend in. Have you taken in the conspicuous coloring and size of our vehicle recently? We’re pretty recognizable in the lack of cars in general. Plus, we can’t handle this on our own. We need to meet with Cade and let him take care of it.”
“I’ll call him right now.” Tari pulled out a beautiful, sleek phone that still managed to look old compared to the one I’d seen Aaron carry. She cursed loudly. “No cell service.”
Tari and Julian looked ready to take up arms again, so I interjected with a pointed look at Ellie.
“What do you think?”
She met my eyes with a ferocity I didn’t recognize, but her voice was just more than a whisper carried in the heavy noon air. “I agree with Tari. We can’t go back, not yet.”
I turned to Aaron, desperate for someone else to make the choice. “What about you?”
He didn’t look up from the road, and his voice was flat and even, in contrast to the erratic squeak it had been earlier. “I think it’s immature and dumb to stay on the run like this, but I don’t really see much choice. This isn’t my fight. If you guys decide to leave, I’ll stay with you, but my vote’s with Julian.”
All eyes fell on me. Blazes, we had an uneven number of people. I was the tiebreaker. I stared at the intersection fast approaching and dug my fingernails into the seat. It really wasn’t much of a choice, was it? But still, the decision was heavy on my shoulders. The Council was after me, not them. Aaron had been right that this wasn’t his fight, but it wasn’t any of the rest of theirs either. This was my burden, my revenge, my decades old battle.
A battle I couldn’t fight without help.
Aaron idled at the fork to turn either away from the city or towards. I sighed melodramatically.
He nodded, defeated, and the bus lurched forward, leaving both the crossroads and the city behind.
The adrenaline had faded from the chase, but I supposed we were still technically on the run. Even getting chased by government lackeys with guns gets boring when you’ve been driving for hours.
It didn’t help that the air on the bus was so tense you could cut it with a knife. I kept getting awkward looks from my fellow passengers, and for once I didn’t think it was from the knives I was obsessively polishing and sharpening.
Every so often, someone would try to make conversation, but it always fizzled out after a spell. This time, it was Ellie who broke the silence.
“It’s funny, this is kind of like a fairy tale quest, you know?”
Tari turned “A what?”
Ellie’s massive shoulders were hunched in that diminutive stance she always seemed to be holding, hands clenched in her lap. “Like in the stories for kids. With brave heroes, and princesses, and dragons.” She gestured around. “We’ve got the cast.”
I followed her gaze, confused, as it landed on each of us in turn. “I don’t get it.”
She bowed her head slightly at my words, and Tari interjected.
“So, tell us. What is everyone?”
“I’m a helpful friend, and you’re probably the fearless leader.” Ellie squinted at Aaron, deep in thought. “Aaron is, well, I don’t know him that well, but he talks a lot like comic relief to me-”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Julian leaned his head around the seat to pout at Ellie. “How come he gets to be comic relief? That’s my job.”
She giggled, a sound that didn’t really fit with her formidable exterior. “But you’re the tech guy!”
“I don’t even know technology! I literally learned how to do some basic stuff off the internet-”
Tari yawned. “Yeah, the internet. That’s techy.”
“You stay out of this,” He snapped back. “Plus, what about Ara? What’s she?”
Ellie thought for a second, staring at me pensievely. I tried to ignore her. “She’s probably the bodyguard/spearmaiden type.”
I couldn’t say I agreed, but I decided that this conversation was beneath me and focused on my knives.
The conversation was starting to fade again, but the mood was markedly lighter as the patches of forest faded into rivers and rolling plains. Even if I disagreed with her jesting summation, I could thank Ellie for that.
“I don’t think they’re still chasing us.”
That brought the tenseness crashing back. Thanks, Aaron. No one wanted to talk about what had happened, let alone what had almost happened.
I cleared my throat and pried off my sticky jacket. Was it supposed to be this hot in November?
“So, fearless leader, what do you suggest we do?” My jibe was aimed at Tari, but I felt a flash of guilt when Ellie blushed and ducked her head instead. Blazes, I was stupid. Tari embodied the name with bossy pride, but Ellie had been the one to coin it.
Tari slouched in her seat, her left hand playing absentmindedly with the hem of her jeans.
Finally, she nodded her head at Aaron. “He needs to stop driving, and I think we all need some rest after that debacle. It is-” Tari reached for her cellphone- “About fifteen hundred hours now, so-”
“Wait a minute.” Julian popped his head around the back of his seat again to join the conversation. “Did you just use universal time?”
Tari glared. “Of course I did. What kind of rebel uses Justix Standard? It’s just another brainwashing technique the Council uses to keep us compliant and... brainwashed.”
“Look, I don’t like the Council any more than you do, but just to play devil’s advocate-”
“You don’t want to play devil’s advocate, you want a dumb excuse to start an argument.”
Julian kept talking over her, and I grinned. How were their arguments so annoying and entertaining at the same time? “To play devil’s advocate, Justix Standard makes more sense if you’re using an analog clock. Twenty-four hours, divided into two twelve hour segments.”
“And who uses analog clocks anymore?”
Julian only lifted his wrist in response, revealing the clock face on his watch.
Tari snorted. “Like you’re such a great model of the modern human. All I’m saying is BN and AN are annoying and confusing, and I’d rather use twenty-four hours all at once.”
“Confusing? It’s literally Before Noon and After Noon. Are you saying that Justix Standard is only for smart people?”
“Tari.” She ignored me.
“I’m smart,” Tari huffed, “so obviously not.”
“So, genius then? Are you calling me a genius, Tari?”
“Tari!” I repeated, but they just seemed to argue louder to drown me out.
“That’s not what I said, moron.”
“You’re a moron.”
“No, you’re a moron.”
Finally, I lurched to my good foot and pushed them apart.
“You’re both blazing morons,” I said. “Julian, you would make an excellent lawyer. Tari, not so much, but how about you prove yourself as a leader and tell me what you were going to say?”
She leaned back, still breathing heavily in anger. “I-”
“Something about the time?” I prodded.
“I- right. The time. I was saying that since it’s nearly sixteen hundred hours-” This with a pointed glare at Julian, and I raised a hand to stop him from retaliating. What had I told Cade about babysitting? “We need to find a place to settle down, get food, figure out what’s going on, and, eventually, sleep tonight. I don’t feel like another night in this bus, and we’ve still got plenty of money from my father, so we might be able to score a hotel. Apparently rooms are cheaper out here than in the city.”
I wasn’t sure where she would have heard that, but I nodded. “Solid plan. Where do you suggest?”
“I don’t know, the closest hotel?”
I nodded, and with a jolt of pride at knowing what to do, I pulled out the memorial phone. I followed the steps Ellie had shown me to navigate to the closest gas station, this time with hotels.
It took us nearly two hours to arrive at the closest, and cheapest, hotel to get Tari’s approval. A cheery, dilapidated sign that seemed fresh out of a horror film welcomed us to the town of Lynnfield, boasting a population of only one thousand people. The bus felt more conspicuous than ever as we rattled down the small town roads to the hotel.
It felt like Justix should have been but a distant memory for how long we’d been driving, but Aaron explained that as the crow flies, we were only a five or six hour drive from Justix. The reason we’d been driving so long was the small, twisty nature of the roads outside of the city, avoiding various toll booths, and the strange directions we’d been given
The Sunnyside Inn was as horrible as it sounded. Peeling yellow paint and ominously stained wall-to-wall white carpeting occupied every single room in the four floor brick building. We walked in a pack from the lot behind the inn, where Aaron had parked the bus, hidden from the main road by the hotel. If the Council came for us, at least the bus wouldn’t immediately give us away. Plus, it almost matched the horrible yellow theme awaiting us inside.
With muffled footsteps we made our way to the front desk. The only other patrons in sight were an old couple shuffling down the hall past us.
A teenage boy sat behind the counter, probably fifteen or sixteen, barely awake. He yawned loudly as we approached, and I averted my eyes from his neon yellow sun-shaped name tag.
The prices were about the only thing this place had going for it, but now I could see why they were so low. We paid from the money Cade had sent us with, and after securing two rooms for a night, we still had plenty of money left for gas and food. Of course, that all depended on how soon we’d be returning to the city. Suddenly the rooms felt frivolous when we could sleep fine on the bus. I wasn’t too keen on being stranded days out from Justix with no gas, no money, no food, no water, etcetera, etcetera.
The inn didn’t offer any three-bed rooms, so we bought two adjoining rooms with two twin beds each. The boys were fine with only two of them, but we had to bring a cot into our room. I offered to take the cot, and we began to settle in. We had only been on the road for just over a day, but already the semi-permanence of a room was nice.
But it still put me on edge as the reality of our situation came crashing down. We were on the run. From government forces. Could we ever go home?
I perched on my cot, feeling oddly detached, as the other four bickered about dinner options. I hated this feeling. It felt like that place I’d been so long. Here, but not really here. Present, past, and future all sickeningly combined. A shudder racked my spine and little pin pricks of pain raced down my arms. Suddenly, I felt bile rise in my throat and doubled over like I was going to throw up. I pushed to my feet, and almost fell on my face from the combination of dizziness and pain from my ankle. My ankle. Somehow I’d forgotten about my various injuries, like everything was numb, but now I could feel it all.
The silence rushed to my attention as I realized they were all staring at me. Great. I shook my head, trying to clear it, but that just made everything feel worse.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled, pushing past them as I lurched into the hallway, leaning heavily on my crutches.
Our rooms were on the top floor of the inn, per Ellie’s request, so it didn’t take me very long to find the hatch leading to the roof. It was tucked in a janitorial closet marked with a sign telling me that only cleared personnel were allowed onto the roof.
I ignored the sign and climbed the ladder with one leg, pulling with my arms and bruising the skin of my forearms as I dug in to keep myself steady.
I wanted to cry. I hated this. I hated all of it. I hated that a blazing sprained ankle could make me so incapable of doing anything and everything. Climbing a basic ladder felt like an intense action scene. I hated this.
I reached the top of the ladder with tears quivering under my lids. I sat there, on the roof, staring at nothing, daring myself to cry. But I couldn’t. The tears still wouldn’t come. I wanted to cry. For Elliot. For Micah. For Aspen’s dreams. For my life as I’d known it before. In the light of this new world, it all looked so wonderful and care-free. Living how I wanted, throwing butter knives behind apartment buildings, scheming with my friends to take down the Council, all of it.
I squinted my eyes shut, then opened them wide and rose to my feet, leaving the hatch open just in case it locked. I left my crutches below. I hopped to the edge of the roof and settled down with my feet dangling over the edge.
This inn was blazing ugly, and this whole town was trying too hard to look quaint, but that sunset was magnificent.
I stared, captivated, as the sun burned the horizon to ashes. It felt so wrong, that my whole world had caught fire and I could still take so much pleasure in the beauty before me.
As the raging show paraded across the sky, a lone figure stepped out from the shadow of the inn and strode down the road, away from the bulk of the town and towards the empty hills we’d come from. Aaron. He moved purposefully on the side of the road, and I watched him leave. He wasn’t abandoning us, or if he was, he was going about it all the wrong way.
The ladder rattled behind me. I didn’t turn around, keeping my eyes latched on the sun as it faded from sight, ushering the night in to cloak us.
Julian sat down besides me on the edge, and we didn’t say anything as the last glimmers of the sunlight dripped from the sky. Finally, he spoke.
“You all right?”
I didn’t answer at first, steadying my breaths to be sure I wouldn’t burst out crying the second I opened my mouth.
“Did you draw the shortest straw?” I still wasn’t looking at him, following Aaron’s path with my eyes, but his voice sounded offended.
“No, I volunteered. We were all worried, of course, you running off like that-”
I whirled on him, suddenly angry for some reason. “You aren’t my blazing friends!” I screamed at him, not caring if the whole town heard. My best friend was still dead, and that wouldn’t change. “You don’t know me!”
He stared at me calmly, almost sadly. “What if we want to know you? What if we want to be your friends?”
I turned back to the horizon, and Aaron, walking steadily into the distance like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I’m fine, ok?” I sighed. “You can leave now.”
“Why do you do that?”
“What?” I snapped.
“Turn your statements into questions, like you need approval.” I still wouldn’t look at him.
“Why do you provoke arguments all the time?” I snarled. “With Tari, with me, with Aaron, with whoever tries to talk to you. You turn every conversation into a fight.”
“No. It isn’t. She’s combative, but you start the fight. Every time.”
“Well, why are you always so quick to assign blame?”
I met his blue gaze, still frustratingly even while I was an angry, hurt mess. “Stop making this an argument!”
“Blame me all you want, but this is an argument because you’re arguing.”
I didn’t answer, because I had a bigger problem. My eyes raked the long, nearly empty road we’d come in on, the hills devoid of life.
“Julian.” I grabbed his arm, eyes still looking over everything. They caught a single black car, slamming the trunk and driving away.
“What? What is it?”
“It’s Aaron. He’s gone.”