We didn’t stop to sleep for another thirty minutes, until Tari was convinced there wasn’t someone tailing us.
After what had happened at the Sunshine, I still couldn’t be sure we weren’t being followed. Maybe they’d put trackers on the bus somehow.
I didn’t want to think about the Council. I didn’t want to think about anything at all. But I was trapped, just me and my mind. And… The prickles of almost pain tingling over my body. Blazes. I looked down, mind fuzzy, but I wasn’t there. I wasn’t here, I wasn’t-
“Wait, where is she?”
Like before, in the bunker, the voices sounded at first like they came from underwater. But now, they stayed muffled. I whipped my head up, and I moved too slowly, like moving through molasses. My head hurt.
Everything hurt, and at the same time, everything was numb. I sighed, letting the world go, even as the dark countryside slowed to a stop around me and frantic voices filled the air. There was no victory against this. I’m back where it all began, trapped in infinity and stuck in a single moment.
Nothing changed, but at once everything was different. Someone screamed.
I blinked, hating the blinding clarity. Everything was so sharp, compared to the blurry state I’d known for so long… Or had it only been a few minutes?
“Where did you come from?” Tari’s shrill shriek filled the breath of silence after Ellie had screamed.
I closed my eyes, suddenly exhausted.
“What is it?” Aaron pushed his way to the back of the bus to find me sitting calmly in my seat with the three others gaping at me.
“She- she just appeared there. One second she’s nowhere to be found, and then- she’s just-” For once Tari was at a loss for words.
“She appeared out of thin air,” Ellie whispered reverently.
“I didn’t. You guys are imagining things. I’ve been here the whole time, ok?”
“Right.” Julian looked suspicious. I threw my hands up in the air, finding myself checking that I could still see them first. I could.
“Look, believe what you want, but I’m going to sleep.” I shivered in the cold air wafting from the open door. We’d parked off the main road aways, tucked behind some trees.
I pulled my blanket from my pack, sending the crutches, which I’d rested on top, flying. I didn’t care.
I couldn’t sleep, scared every slight shudder from the cold night air was the pins-and-needles come to send me back to the in-between place. When I managed to close my eyes, images of fire and blood and demons with halos flew across my lids.
Ignoring my fatigue, I grabbed my crutches and wrapped my blanket around me. The temperature outside chilled me to my bones, though it wasn’t as cold yet as it would be when winter came.
Tari and Julian had made makeshift beds like mine on seats, and Ellie had claimed a generous portion of floor near the back of the bus. Aaron had fallen asleep in the driver’s seat, shivering in his sleep without a blanket. Had he really forgotten one? It was so cold.
Blazes, he looked pathetic.
With a sigh, I threw my blanket over him and hopped gingerly down the steps before I could regret it.
And I started walking. I remembered Aaron, walking away from the Sunshine Inn. Getting abducted. Had that really been tonight? It felt like it had been years, but it couldn’t have been more than five hours. My sense of time was really off.
I planted my crutches in the hard-packed earth, darting forward as fast as I could before pulling my crutches to me, sending dirt flying in my wake. I moved as fast as I could, focusing on my balance and wishing I could just run. Maybe if I was fast enough, the tingling couldn’t catch me. Maybe I’d never have to get back.
Instead, I ended up on my face, panting, in the dirt. There, with my problems seeming no larger than the speck of yellow in the distance, I fell asleep.
My dreams were strange and twisted phantoms of my friends face’s. Not the morons I was traveling with, but my real friends. Even Vera was there. Distorted laughter made a terrifying chorus as I danced with Elliot on my own grave.
When I finally jolted awake, the sun had risen substantially into the sky and a pack of vultures was screeching far above. I pulled myself to my feet, finding my crutches strewn in the dirt, if only to prove to those birdbrains I was still alive. They seemed satisfied, but I wasn’t. Who could know if I was really alive? Not me, certainly.
I made the trek back to our makeshift camp with far less fervor than I had last night. When I arrived, tired and sweating with an aching ankle and sore muscles from my awkward sleeping position, I found the others sitting in a circle around a large, flat rock.
“About time you showed up,” Julian said around a mouthful of beef jerky.
“You’re covered in dirt,” Aaron noted helpfully. I looked down. I was, indeed, covered in dirt. I should probably change the wrappings on my stitches and ankle too.
With a sigh, I sank down to the open place around the ‘table.’ “What are we doing?”
“Divvying up some of the packaged food we brought.” Tari snatched a second piece of jerky from Julian. “There isn’t much left, so we should probably start to ration-”
“Or we could just eat a real breakfast. We have plenty of money left, and I saw a Snappy’s on the way here. Walking distance, probably,” Julian countered.
“You want to get fast food for breakfast?”
“Snappy’s is delicious. They have the best double-fried chicken bacon wraps in Justix.”
“That sounds disgusting, but whatever.” As if to prove her apathy in the matter, Tari shrugged and leaned back.
“I’ve never been to a Snappy’s, actually.” Ellie spoke so quietly it was difficult to hear here over the distant passing of trucks on the road. There wasn’t much traffic in and out of Justix City, and what traffic there was was composed of delivery trucks and the occasional traveler.
Julian faked indignation. “You simply must come with me!”
I had no idea what a blazing ‘Snappy’s’ was, and I didn’t intend to find out. Ellie and Julian walked off with Cade’s money, chatting amicably. Walking side-by-side, their height difference was even more striking. Julian wasn’t short, per se, but compared to Ellie, he looked like a child.
In the silence they left behind, the words came unbidden. I wasn’t sure why I spoke, but I needed to talk to someone.
“Join the club,” Aaron muttered under his breath.
Tari met my eyes. “We’re all scared, moron. We’re on the run from the Council.”
I shook my head. “It’s not that. I-” My breath caught in my throat, and I suddenly wasn’t sure how to phrase my fears. I focused on the smooth rock beneath me and the dull throbbing in my ankle, avoiding their eyes. They’d think I was crazy. But, of course, they already knew or assumed who I was.
“I think I’m dying.”
Silence met my proclamation, and I immediately regretted saying it. “No, no, I’m sorry. That’s not the right word. I’m not dying, not yet. I’m… fading away.”
Aaron sucked in an audible breath. “F-fading? That’s nonsense. You should go to sleep, you’re just sleep deprived, and stressed, and you should really eat something-”
Tari cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Fading away?” She seemed to be seriously considering my outburst, instead of immediately dismissing it like Aaron. I was grateful for that.
“Yeah. It’s, well, it’s hard to explain. I think wherever I was for the past twenty-two years is- is taking me back somehow. Like I don’t really belong in this world anymore.” I shuddered. When I said it like that, in the sunlight, it sounded ridiculous, but there was that terrifying truth to it I couldn’t deny.
“The episodes. The seemingly appearing out of nowhere.” Tari shrugged. “It fits.”
Aaron looked between the two of us, his face pale. “You can’t seriously believe this,” he spluttered. “This is insane.”
Tari faced him. “Take a hint, buster. Something isn’t right, so forgive me if I give a little thought to the only explanation offered.” She turned back towards me, eyes alight. “So, tell me, where were you all this time? You said another place, but where?”
“I’m not really sure. It felt numb, and strange, like I was here, but detached. I was at the Justix Angel Memorial, I think, but I wasn’t really there, you know? It’s like I-” I hesitated, embarrassed. “Like I was in some other dimension.”
Abruptly, Aaron rose to his feet. “I’m taking a walk,” he called over his shoulder, leaving Tari and I alone.
We shared a look. “He knows something,” I hissed to Tari once he was out of earshot, hidden by the trees.
“Yeah.” She nodded. “Whatever happened in that interrogation room, he definitely knows what’s going on. And it scares him.”
Julian and Ellie appeared around the bend, chatting quietly and holding a bag of something that smelled delicious.
I met Tari’s eyes again, nodding my head towards where Aaron had disappeared. She nodded, whispering, “Is it alright if I tell them?”
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
As I limped off on my crutches, Julian and Ellie reached the “table” and were subject to Tari’s questioning.
“What did you say that was?”
“Snappy’s double-fried chicken bacon wrap, extra cheese, hold the toma...” Julian’s voice faded away as I entered beneath the thick canopy of oak.
I found Aaron after only five minutes of traipsing through the thin band of forest. If it weren’t for the occasional noise of a passing truck on the highway, we could’ve been in the wilderness somewhere.
I sank to a sitting position with my back against a tree, mirroring Aaron. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, but after a few minutes of quiet he spoke.
“They can fix you. That’s what they told me. You’re right, you’re fading away, but they can fix you. They can keep you here.”
I shook my head. “We can’t trust them.”
“But what’s the alternative? You die?”
“I wouldn’t die,” I muttered. “Not really.”
“You hated it, didn’t you? You’re not just afraid of disappearing, you hate the idea.”
“Hate and fear create and amplify each other, the presence of one usually indicates the other.” Elliot had always said that, like he was some great philosopher.. I’m sure he stole it from one famous person or another.
Aaron frowned. “Where did you hear that?”
“A friend of mine used to say it all the time.”
“Did they tell you why they wanted me?”
He hesitated. “For an… experiment, I think. Something like that.”
“An experiment?” I shuddered. They were trying to steal Elliot’s invention, I was sure of it. A serum that could do whatever happened to me, to preserve a person for an indefinite amount of time, like a slab of salted meat. If it could be perfected, surely that would be invaluable.
Tari’s voice split the air from a distance in a deafening scream.
Aaron and I bolted to our feet, and I immediately swung my way towards the open field I’d crossed last night. If Tari and the others were in trouble, moving that way on the open ground would be faster, and if we stuck near the trees, we could dart into their shelter at a moment’s notice.
Aaron stayed behind me as we approached the makeshift camp. When we got close enough to just barely see through the trees without being spotted, I gestured to Aaron to crouch down. I did the same.
Six burly Council thugs, five men and one woman, all armed with guns. They had Tari, Julian, and Ellie outnumbered two to one, and had them on their knees in a row, a gun pressed to each of their heads.
This was bad. Very blazing bad.
One of the men without a gun to my friend’s heads pulled out a megaphone and began to speak.
“Sitara Lynn-Parks, please approach us with your hands above your head. I repeat, approach with your hands above your head and no one needs to get hurt.” A burst of feedback followed as he fiddled with the settings on the device. “Sitara Lynn-Parks,” his voice boomed, even louder, “you have ten seconds to come here, hands above your head, before we harm your young travel buddies. I repeat: you have ten seconds…”
He repeated the message again and again, until his voice felt imprinted on my ears. I didn’t move. Finally, he switched the megaphone off and turned to the man next to him. I strained to hear what they said.
“You think she heard?”
“I think all of Justix heard you.”
“I’m not joking, Sam. We have very specific instructions to get the girl.”
“Yeah, yeah. You want us to comb the woods, try to find her?”
“You heard the orders. She’s supposed to come willingly, try and save her friends from the big bad Council.”
“I say we wait. Give her that count of ten, and if she doesn’t show, we rough her friends up a bit and get out of here. Tell the boss she ran, and maybe we’ll get the rest of the day off.”
The first man, the one not named Sam, grunted in response, switching back on the megaphone.
I rose to my feet, pulling Aaron with me, careful not to get the attention of the men with guns.
“What are we doing?”
I gritted my teeth. “We’re running.”