I didn’t argue when they decided to go after him, and I didn’t stay behind, either.
I’m not sure why.
My words to Julian echoed in my mind, my own voice taunting me.
“You aren’t my blazing friends! You don’t know me!”
We grabbed our bags on the way out of the Sunshine Inn, just in case.
I didn’t tell the rest of them, but I had a sinking feeling we wouldn’t be coming back.
The last rays of sunlight had left the horizon by the time our bus rattled past the welcome sign, which from this direction read “We hope you enjoyed your stay at Lynnfield. Visit again soon!”
I was glad to leave.
My hands were sweaty on the wheel, and I tapped Aaron’s pattern with my index finger, as if that would help. Friend or not, I wasn’t ready to lose yet another person to the Council.
Tari hadn’t argued when I’d taken the drivers seat, but Ellie had met my gaze, a question in her eyes. I wasn’t sure what the answer was, but I’d twisted the key in the ignition regardless. Julian sat in sullen silence, and though I wasn’t too eager to talk to him either, without his light banter the bus fell into [stilted silence].
We all felt Aaron’s absence along with the rekindled fear of the Council on our tail. They knew where we were, and we were playing a dangerous game.
The black car had disappeared from sight towards Justix about ten minutes ago, and the flatness of the area was in our favor in tailing it. I jammed my foot on the gas pedal, sending the bus rocketing unsteadily down the straight road. If there were turns, we’d certainly crash. As it was, I maintained a death grip on the wheel and watched the grass fly by with terrifying intensity.
What were we doing? The car was faster than our bus. If they were heading to Justix, we’d never catch up in time. But if they stopped somewhere on this single road, which was yet to branch off whatsoever, we could see them.
I didn’t want to think about what we’d do then. Take them by force?
We’d cross that bridge when we came to it.
My head hurt. Well, no. It didn’t hurt exactly, just felt empty. Numb. The tingles were back, creeping over my arms and legs, leaving dull pain in their wake. I was detached, I was floating, I was somewhere else-
I jolted, haven forgotten there were other people on the bus with me.
“Hm?” I slowed the bus, shaking slightly. I hadn’t crashed us. Yet.
“There.” Ellie pointed out the window, and I stretched in my seat to see what she was indicating.
A small house, quaint as they come, sat at the end of a dirt driveway branching from the main road, lights on. The brick walls and thatched roof juxtaposed against the hulking black car parked outside. I grinned. We’d found him.
I wrenched the wheel around and steered us delicately down the drive, barely more than a footpath. The bus wobbled precariously, and Tari, who had magically appeared behind me, slapped my hand.
“Ow!” I yelped in indignation, turning to face her.
“Are you stupid?” She hissed.
“Yes. The answer is yes.” She cursed. “We can’t just drive up there, horns blaring, screaming ‘Here we are! Come kill us!’”
I paused, thinking, then flipped the bus into reverse, pulling out of the driveway. With careful jerks on the uncomplying wheel, I maneuvered us onto the road and out of view of the boarded-up windows, parking behind a copse of trees.
“Better?” My voice dripped with [not sarcasm], but Tari, nodded, satisfied.
“That’ll do.” She hoisted her machine gun. “Keep the bus running. We’ll be back soon, and if we aren’t, don’t you dare leave without us. Unless you hear gunshots-”
“There’s no way I’m staying behind. I’m coming with you.”
“Well, you aren’t the best getaway driver, but with my number one choice currently incapacitated, you’re the only one who can drive.” She added, under her breath, “even if you’re horrible at it.”
I took the high road and neglected to retort. Elliot would’ve been proud, the hypocrite.
“It’s a straight road. A monkey could be our getaway driver.”
“Well, even so, Julian probably couldn’t.”
“I could totally do it.”
“Wonderful. It’s all settled then.” I hopped out of the seat and pushed Julian unceremoniously into it.
“Wait, why me? Why not Ellie?”
I looked at him, then at Ellie. “Am I correct in assuming neither of you have any tactical value to this operation whatsoever?”
“I’ve been in fights before.”
“Julian, that embarrassment of a slap show with Mille Fitz in grade three doesn’t count.”
“Oh. Then no.” For once, Julian didn’t offer a retort to her jibe. I wondered if he’d taken my comments on the roof seriously.
I sighed, turning to Tari. “Ellie is more menacing.”
“I agree. Julian is about as terrifying as a-”
“Please don’t finish that sentence.” He only sounded tired, not antagonistic. It was [terrifying].
I showed Julian the basics he’d need if we had to make a hasty exit, which Tari believed to be the most likely outcome. It looked like she would be right.
I brought my knives with me, tucked in my waistband. As I wrapped the tips of each in a shirt from my bag before hiding them away, I wished I had sheaths. These things were sharp.
I had to dissuade Tari from carrying her machine gun in.
“We can’t beat the Council through brute force, Tari.”
“Says who? I only see one car here.”
“Still, there could be more inside.”
“More people. You knew what I meant.”
“Still, that place is tiny. I’m sure we can easily beat whoever is inside.”
“Fine.” I shrugged. “Just don’t come crying to me when you have to leave that heavy thing behind to make a quick getaway.”
She left the machine gun in the bus, opting for a pistol instead. I’d only heard of machine guns from Aspen, but I’d seen pistols before. They were the guns the Council Police carried. They were the guns that killed my father.
I averted my eyes from the glint of the barrel as she holstered it. Of course she had a holster and I had to wrap my knives in clothes to keep from getting sliced to shreds as I moved.
Elle, Tari, and I approached the house on apprehensive feet. It was so still, so... wrong.
“This is a trap, isn’t it?” I hissed to Tari.
She glanced around, finger already to her lips to shush me, and shrugged. “Probably.”
“And we’re going to go in anyways? For some guy we barely know?”
“Where’s your sense of team loyalty? We’ll pull out if things get sticky, but we might as well try to help him.”
Again, I didn’t argue.
We looped the small building, one story and probably barely more than a single room, searching for alternate entrances.
The back window had been left wide open, the flat, windless air leaving the curtains to block our view inside.
Tari and I shared a glance. Now or never.
Without another second to think about what a terrible idea this was, I rested my crutches against the wall and hopped inside the wide window. Graceful as I was, I lost my balance on my good leg and came crashing to the floor. I lay on the carpet, eyes closed, praying there wasn’t a guard standing over me with a gun pointed at my skull. Carefully, I opened my eyes and pushed myself into a sitting position. The room looked exactly as one would have suspected from the outside, all country charm and hanging pottery. I teetered to my good foot and poked my head back out through the curtains.
“Coast is clear.” But there was no one out there. Panic rose unbidden in my throat. “Ellie? Tari?”
“Right here.” Ellie’s soft voice behind me made me jump a whole inch off the ground.
“Blazes, Ellie! You scared me.”
Tari closed the door, which slid shut on silent hinges. I frowned. You would think that in a house like this, the door would squeak.
“It’s a front,” Tari said.
“What makes you say that?” I followed her gaze.
“It’s a one room house, and there isn’t a bed.”
“So? Maybe they sleep on the couch.” I wasn’t sure why I was fighting her on this. Of course she was right.
“Maybe they keep the blankets in that closet over there.” I gestured to the only other door in the house.
“Sure. Or maybe…” Tari crossed to the closet and flung it open with a triumphant laugh. I flinched at the volume, but if they hadn’t heard me fall, they probably couldn’t hear much of anything. “I knew it!”
Behind the rough hewn closet door was a gleaming metal elevator [door.]
Before I could object, Tari jammed her finger on the button to call the elevator. It didn’t beep or make any such incriminating sounds, but a quiet thunk and the low humming of gears followed as the elevator rose to meet us.
Tari whirled around, hugging a surprised Ellie and then proceeding to jump around like a psychotic bunny. “A secret bunker! This is a secret bunker. How exciting is that? How often do you find a secret bunker, Ms. Mysterious? Huh?”
I could only assume the Ms. Mysterious comment was directed at me, but she was moving around so much it was hard to tell for sure.
“I-” The elevator doors slid open. I stepped inside.
I gaped at the wide array of buttons on the wall. At least ten different floors, all of them beneath the ground. An involuntary shudder crept up my spine.
Without hesitation, Tari pressed the button marked -1 : INTERROGATION.
The elevator began to sink.
Seconds later, the doors slid open to reveal a hallway made of blank walls so unnaturally white they hurt my eyes. I blinked, and while I was staring, Tari strode confidently into the room, Ellie trailing behind her. I stayed in the elevator, uncertain, until the doors began to close.
No way was I getting left alone in that creepy elevator. I swung a crutch between the doors, and they stopped, motors whirring, before sliding open again.
At first glance, it seemed like an empty hallway. But four metal handles were sunk into the walls, seemingly placed at random, until Tari pulled on one and the whole section of wall swung open with it. Tari nonchalantly poked her head inside, like she’d already realized these were doors, then closed it again.
“Empty,” she chirped, moving to the next one.
Shaking my head, I followed her example with the door closest to me. Inside, the only thing to disturb the odd whiteness was a single figure, sitting with his back against the far wall.
He didn’t look at me, but simply rose to his feet, as if he was ready for this. Behind me, Tari and Ellie scurried over.
I looked him over, him still avoiding my eyes. He didn’t look like they’d hurt him at all. This was wrong. Something was very, very wrong. No guards, and we’d already found what we were looking for. Either the Council was feeling very accommodating today, or we’d fallen right into their trap.
As much as I wished otherwise, I knew it was the latter. Why had I agreed to this? What would happen to us, now that the Council had us in their grasp?
Aaron walked past me, heading towards the elevator. “Let’s go.” He called the elevator, and stepped inside.
The tingles came again, stronger this time, wrenching a gasp from me as I tumbled to the ground. I wished they’d leave me alone. Alone… But I was alone. I was alone in this place, this other place, far away. The others were gone, and it was only me, in empty whiteness. I was empty. I was alone, and they weren’t coming back.
“Where’d she go? Ara?”
I was curled in the fetal position on the blank, cold floor of one of the white rooms. I rose shakily to my feet, feeling like one hundred years had passed since I fell. Or twenty-two. I shivered, but this time it wasn’t the tingles. Had another twenty-two years passed? Were my new friends all dead and gone?
Panting, I burst into the elevator, sinking in relief when I saw Tari, Ellie, and Aaron inside.
“Yes, we are.” Tari raised an eyebrow at me, and I pressed my eyes shut. What was that? I thought I was free. Why did the tingles keep coming back?
I slipped my knives from my waistband, holding one in each hand protectively. It made for an awkward elevator ride, but they made me feel better.
We stepped out of the elevator without a problem. The fake house was as empty and placid as we’d left it. When the old wooden door slid silently shut behind us, the driveway was empty. Not a black car in sight.
No one spoke as we boarded the bus steps. Aaron slid into the driver’s seat without so much as a joke from Julian.
We left the bunker behind us, and still we were silent.
Finally, Ellie spoke.
“What just happened?”
“Good question,” I muttered.
Tari was beaming. I looked at her.
“Why are you so blazing happy?”
“Why? Why? Guys, we just broke into a secret Council bunker, stole their prisoner right
out of their interrogation room, and walked out unharmed, all in one night. This is what I’d like to call a success.”
I scowled at her. “Nothing that the Council does can be counted as ‘a success.’ They let us break in there. They didn’t even bother to lock the blazing door.” I slammed my crutches down on the floor near my seat, where they bounced haphazardly with the movement of the bus. “Something’s wrong. Very wrong. One day they try to shoot us down, the next they welcome us into their home. We’re missing a piece of the puzzle.”
“Geez, be a little more pessimistic, could you?” Tari’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “This is an occasion to celebrate.”
“Right.” I scoffed, turning to Julian. “What did you see while we were in there? When did the car leave?”
He looked very uncomfortable. “Pretty soon after you guys went in, this guy and two guards walked out, got in the car, and drove off. I figured they probably killed you.”
“Thanks for the concern.” Tari quipped.
Julian made a face at her. I sighed, sliding my knives into their case. At least things were feeling a little more normal. Aaron still hadn’t spoken, but that didn’t seem to be too out of the ordinary for him. And yet, I remembered when I first met him. Well, the second time I met him. The time I was actually lucid.
He’d been so confident. A little nervous, yes, but very in his element. He’d talked, he’d followed me around the city like a lost puppy. But since we boarded the bus, since things got serious, it had been like he’d disappeared inside his shell. As if reading my mind, [he spoke]
“Describe the man.”
“Uh, he was pretty tall, I guess. Looked very important, kind of blondish-grey hair. Maybe his hair was white. Maybe he had a beard. It was a little hard to tell without turning the headlights on, but-”
“Forget what he looked like, did he see you?” Tari asked.
She sounded like me. I should have been the one to ask that question.
“I mean, he didn’t act like he saw, but he or his guards must have seen once they drove away. We weren’t very hidden from the road.”
“Which direction did they go?” My hands needed something to do, and I found myself copying Aaron’s silent fingers as they tapped on the wheel.
“Towards the city, I think. The opposite direction we’re going.”
We lapsed back into silence until Ellie broke it again, her voice almost lost in the noise of the bus. “Aaron? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. They didn’t hurt me or anything, just wanted to talk.”
The tempo of his fingers sped up and became random and disjointed. I studied his face in the reflection of the windshield.
“Talk? About what?”
“That man Julian saw is the one who talked to me. Never met him in my life. I haven’t. Met him, I mean. He just asked about who I was. You know. Like strangers. Who have never met.”
I shared a glance with Tari. Either he’d finally gone nuts or he was lying. Really badly. I couldn’t lie to save my life, but I was pretty sure even I could lie better than that.
“Fine. You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to.”
Aaron sighed, shrinking in his seat. “I do want to tell you. I just- I need some time to process things, you know?”
“Yeah. I understand.” And I did. Completely.