We moved as far as we could following the edge of trees before it started to round, and staying in the plain would put us in the line of sight of the Council guards. We descended into the silent trees, sitting against the rough bark. I positioned myself so I was hidden by the trunks from a distance, I hoped, but could see the faint black blurs that were the Council cars, and would be able to see when they left.
If they left.
Minutes passed, and though I couldn’t really see the people, only the cars, I feared the worse. I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them. I told myself we’d rescue them. But I’d taken the coward’s path. I’d left my new friends in exchange for my own skin.
“Going with them could have saved not only Tari, Julian, and Ellie, but also you. Why did you run?” Aaron didn’t sound bitter, or accusatory. Only tired.
“We’re going to save them,” I said forcefully. “By leaving, we took the power away from the Council. It’s not like they’ll kill them now, or even hurt them bad. They don’t know we heard them, so all killing our friends would give them is a loss of leverage.”
“Yeah, they won’t kill all of them,” he snorted.
I looked away. He was right, of course. It had been a gamble.
I could only hope I’d win.
At the sign of movement from the cars, we started moving. By the time we got back to the camp, the two black cars were nearly out of sight on the road.
I pushed Aaron towards the bus. “Quick, let’s follow!”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “You want us to follow them in a big, loud, school bus? That’s seriously your plan? They already know that’s what we’re driving, so it’s hardly a disguise.”
I shrugged. “What other choice do we have?”
“We could rent a car.”
“That’s not an option and you know it. We don’t have time to argue, or we’ll lose them. We just have to hope they either don’t see us or don’t want to take us forcibly.”
The words had barely left my lips when Aaron darted to the edge of the road, thumb up and arm extended. I followed his gaze, spotting the truck rapidly approaching.
“What are you doing?”
He grinned at me. “Hitchhiking.”
“You’re trying to get a supply truck to let us hitch a ride?”
He shrugged, and the truck whizzed by, not stopping for a second. “Maybe the next car will.”
“We don’t have time for this.”
“Don’t we? There’s pretty much only one road this far from the city, so as long as they stay on the road, we’ll be able to stay behind them.”
“Fine. We’ll wait for a couple more minutes, but when no cars stop for us, we’re going to take the bus, ok?”
How could he be an anxious wreck one moment and so confident the next? It didn’t make sense.
“No one’s going to-”
The words died on my lips as a blue minivan slowed to a stop in front of us, sliding doors opening.
“Where’re you going, friends?”
Aaron lowered his thumb. “Back towards the city.”
The man behind the wheel squinted behind thick spectacles at the bright yellow bus behind us. “You kids lost?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, hop on in.” He leaned over his seat to wave his hands at the gaggle in the back few seats. “Darcey, scoot on over, and Tommy, put the book away.” He sighed melodramatically, turning to us again. “We might just have room if one of you is comfortable holding a three-year-old on your lap.”
For a while, immersed in the hubbub, crammed like sardines in the middle of a family trip, I could almost forget where we were going and why. Julian, Ellie, Tari. All held captive by the Council and in a perilous situation. Because of me.
As we drove, the tingling numbness returned in force. I clenched my teeth, eyes watering, fingers digging into my arms to try to keep myself grounded. I focused on the scenery outside my window while Aaron scanned the other side. The black cars didn’t have much of a lead on us, and if they’d parked anywhere on the side of the road, we’d spot them.
My stomach churned and my eyesight turned fuzzy. The anxiety and apprehension seemed to amplify the pull of the other place.
What if we didn’t find them? What if they were already dead?
I didn’t realize I’d drifted off until Aaron was shaking me awake, none too gently.
I yawned. “What?”
I frowned, rubbing my eyes, trying to rid the blurriness from my mind. “Justix?”
“No, I think we found them.”
I raised my head, and Aaron and I hopped out of the minivan.
“Thank you so much for the ride.”
The driver smiled. “Our pleasure, friends. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Aaron smiled back and waved as the car drove off. “He was nice.”
I snorted in disdain. “Yeah. Just you wait, he’ll have made a call to the Council reporting us before the day is through.” Which would be soon. I craned my neck to look at the sun, already hanging low in the sky. We’d been driving nearly all day, which meant we should be pretty close to Justix again. Sure enough, I could see the cityline on the horizon, the towering Council buildings silhouette against the setting sun.
I yawned. I must have gotten a good few hours of sleep, which was surprising since I’d practically just woken up when we left. But I felt exhausted, like I could lay down right here and sleep for a couple more hours. I felt like I should be hungry, I could feel the emptiness in my stomach. And yet, I only felt the numb fatigue. I shuddered in the cool November air. I already felt half-gone.
I looked away from the sky to see Aaron staring at me, concern beneath the golden light reflecting off his eyes. Dimly, I wondered what my own eyes would look like now. Cade always used to say I had eyes like a sunset…
“Ara?” I blinked. How many times had he said my name?
“You- I-” He looked absolutely flabbergasted. Ha. Flabbergasted. What a funny word. It sounded like something Vera would say. She was always so eccentric, that one.
I snapped back to the present again, cursing the tingles racing up and down my body. Aaron was talking.
“You really are… fading away, aren’t you?”
“You-you’re a little translucent.” He laughed without humor. “I can literally see the ground behind you. You’re acting super tired, but I know full well you just slept for at least six hours, probably more, plus a good ten hours last night.” He looked concerned. Did I already say that? He had nice eyes. Maybe I didn’t. They were murky green. Kind of like Elliots. I giggled, and Aaron looked at me funny. When I was little, I used to say Elliot had swamp eyes.
“Are you sure you can go in there?” His voice trembled. “I- I can go in alone.”
“Nope, nope nope nope.” I swayed back and forth on my crutches, muttering under my breath. I felt drunk. I wasn’t drunk, was I? I’d never been drunk before, but it sounded like what Elliot always said drunk felt like. Elliot. I missed Elliot.
“I doubt you can walk like this, let alone move around on crutches.”
I waved him off, finally noticing where we were. “Haven’t we been here before?”
Aaron turned, obviously caught off guard by the sudden change in topic. Silly Aaron. He should really work on his mind-reading powers. It wasn’t sudden at all.
“Uh, no. It looks similar, but it’s actually a lot closer to the city than the bunker you guys broke me out of.” I nodded, my mind clearing slightly as I took in the long gravel driveway, filled with no less than eight black cars, leading to a single, small, one-room cabin.
“I feel better now, Aaron.” I swallowed, suddenly thirsty. I felt awake, and acutely aware of the gnawing in my stomach. “I could really use some food, though. I haven’t eaten since-” I frowned. When was the last time I’d eaten? That granola bar after we left the Sunshine Inn? That was odd. I didn’t feel that hungry, just skipped-breakfast hungry.
Aaron passed me a bag of crackers from his jacket pocket, and I devoured them as we crept closer to the bunker. I could feel his eyes on me, apprehensive, afraid I’d disappear again. I was scared too. Scared that if I faded out again, I wouldn’t come back.
The front door was locked this time, but the layout of the “quaint” house was eerily similar to the other one we’d found as Aaron and I slipped through the back window. The elevator was in the same place, and we stood before the wide array of buttons, considering our options.
“They might be in the interrogation rooms, like you were.”
He shook his head. “I doubt it. They’re real prisoners, but I think my father just wanted to use me, then have you guys ‘rescue’ me.”
I frowned. I’d suspected our easy break-out had been a set-up, but that was the least worrying thing about what he’d said. “Your father?”
He looked down at his fingers, tapping his tap-tap-tap against his palms. “He faked his death and left my pregnant mother and me to join the Council. I’d suspected as much since I was twelve years old, but I didn’t know for sure until he kidnapped me. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier-”
“It’s fine.” I was practically giddy. “In fact, it’s better than fine. You have a connection to the Council! We can use that to get Tari and the others.”
Aaron didn’t look convinced. “I don’t know. My father’s not really the warm-and-fuzzy type.” He looked up at me for a split second, then back down at his hands. “But you- you might have the real leverage here.”
“When my father talked to me, he said you’re the only one they want. If we bring you to him, I’m sure he’ll let the other’s go. They just want to run a few experiments on you, then they’ll let you go. And hey, they might be able to fix you!”
I flinched. He was right, of course. I was broken.
“Let’s just split up. You go to the Council meeting room,” I gestured to floor -8, “confront your father, and I’ll go to the holding rooms on the fifth floor down. You distract, and I’ll grab our friends. Ok? Great.” My tone was terse, and he didn’t complain.
With distinct solemnity, he pushed the buttons marked -5 and -8.
The elevator lurched downwards, moving steadily lower until the doors slid open on floor five. As soon as Aaron’s face disappeared behind the plating of the closing doors behind me, I collapsed to the ground, shaking.
I couldn’t disappear. Not now. Not ever again-
Like a silent veil slipping over my mind, the numbness was back with the trademark tingles. I was almost gone when the last fragments of the world coalesced to form a scream.
I stumbled to my feet, reaching for my crutches, and followed the sound without a second of hesitation. Why hadn’t I learned my lesson from the last time I followed a scream down a hallway? Heroics are useless, because you can’t really save anyone.
The scream had come from the door at the end of the poorly-lit hall, I was sure of it. This hallway was in such sharp contrast to the blinding interrogation rooms above, with dark walls and cool light.
The instant I ripped open the door and tumbled inside, the heavy door slammed shut behind me with a reverberating click. My heart sunk in my chest, even as I frantically jiggled the knob.
It was locked.
I fell against the door, squinting my eyes against my pounding headache. I just wanted to go to sleep, right there.
But I forced myself to look for the source of the scream. I was sure it had come from here. It took me a second to adjust to the light from the darkness of the corridor outside, but even once I did there wasn’t much to see. Just two simple, metal chairs alone in the center of a large, empty room. My head slumped again as I gave into the fatigue.
Then the scream came again, closer and louder than before. In a daze, I flinched, blinking rapidly to clear my vision and my head. There was someone in the room now, standing by the chairs. How did he get there so fast?
He wore a black suit that made him look important, blond hair, streaked with gray and neatly cropped back. He was holding a small device, his head bowed to fiddle with it. As his fingers moved, the exact same scream, like a horror movie recording, came yet again, more muted.
He raised his head, meeting my gaze with eyes I knew were murky green, even if I couldn’t see them from here.
“I’ve missed you, Ara,” Elliot said.