My back presses against a row of lime-green lockers.
Two men in uniforms stride by, their tightly laced boots drumming the yellow-and-white checkerboard floor.
Mrs. Thompson squeezes my shoulder. Says soothing words, but I barely hear. What are they doing in our school? Why are all the teachers wearing those big, fake smiles that mean something’s wrong?
Principal Myers hobbles by, frowning at nothing. He’s not pretending like the others. I know that’s bad. Adults always pretend if they can.
Mrs. Thompson gathers the kindergarten class together. I stand next to Thomas and we lock our fingers. Noah edges close on my other side. He’s breathing hard, eyes round as dinner plates. I take his hand, too. I don’t want him to be scared either.
He seems surprised. We haven’t spoken since our class party yesterday, when he couldn’t blow out his half of the candles and I had to finish them. But he doesn’t let go.
“Remember what we talked about, children,” Mrs. Thompson says. “Some unhealthy chemicals were spilled nearby, on the other side of the valley. Things that would make us sick. And we don’t want that, do we?”
We shake our heads like tiny robots.
“That’s right. So some nice people are here from . . . from . . .” Her eyes tighten before she continues, “—from the government, and they’re going to give us very special medicine to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
A hand goes up. Toby. “My daddy said someone spilled pesticides over by Rock Creek,” he whispers, wide-eyed, “and we’re all gonna get cancer, and that it’s the president’s fault.”
Mrs. Thompson makes her patient face. “No one’s getting cancer, Toby, and the president has nothing to do with this.” She shifts to address the entire group. “Something called a pathogen was accidentally released into the environment. Now, does everyone remember talking about germs last week? Why we wash our hands before we eat?”
“Well, a pathogen is a really bad germ. This particular one is experimental, which means it’s still being tested to make sure it’s safe.”
“Safe for what?” Thomas asks, never one to raise his hand.
“To use on the crops we eat, to keep bugs away.” She runs a fluttery hand through her hair. “But it could be harmful to people, so we have to take extra-special care to make sure no one gets sick.”
Toby nods. “Cancer. Like my grandpap.”
Noah squeezes my hand tighter. His palm is sweaty, but I don’t let go.
Mrs. Thompson releases a sigh. “Not cancer, Toby. I really wish you’d stop saying that.”
Two women in white lab coats hurry past us. Both have surgical masks covering their faces. Mrs. Thompson watches them all the way down the hallway.
“Why don’t we get masks?” Thomas asks.
“We obviously don’t need them,” Mrs. Thompson replies cheerily, but sharper than before. Then a voice rings out, making everyone jump.
A man with a notebook is striding down the corridor. White coat. Mask. White paper cap on his head. “Follow me,” he orders. Not nice.
Mrs. Thompson glares at him, but he doesn’t react. She turns back to face us. “Everyone have a buddy? Okay, good. Stay in line and follow me, please.” She sets off down the hall without another glance at the man with the notebook.
Thomas gets caught in the shuffle and ends up stuck next to Jessica. Noah and I are still holding hands. “Be my buddy?” he asks in a shaky voice.
“Okay.” I don’t usually play with Noah, but I can tell he’s afraid. I won’t ditch him now. Thomas sulks at the back of the line. I mouth him a quick “Sorry.”
We troop down the hallway, heading for the double doors to the gymnasium. The man with the notebook asks us to stop and wait. As he slips inside, my eyes drift down the corridor. A door has been wedged open. I can see inside, all the way to the principal’s office.
People are gathered. Principal Myers, of course. And the big mustache-wearing man is Sheriff Watson—I recognize him from the sign on my neighbor’s lawn. Two other men in suits are standing beside the desk. They’re all looking at something rolled open on its surface, faces super-serious.
“You don’t know, do you? About any of this! You don’t know a damn thing!”
I jump in surprise. The movement catches his eye. Seeing me watching, Myers growls like a grizzly bear. “For God’s sake!”
My eyes dart away, but it’s too late. Myers barks something else, and the door slams shut.
My stomach does a flip. I could get in trouble.
Noah is staring at me, his face pale. Did he see, too?
Before I can ask, a gym door swings open. “Enter, please,” Notebook Man instructs. It seems like the rest of the school is already in there. Older kids exit on the left, grumbling and rubbing their shoulders.
“Oh no, it’s a shot!” Toby moans. A spike of fear travels the group.
Noah squeezes my hand. I squeeze back.
Mrs. Thompson doesn’t respond, which all but assures it’s true. We reluctantly follow her to a folding table, where a stern-faced woman with thick glasses sits. Eight white tents have been erected on the basketball court. First graders trickle out slowly from them, massaging their upper arms.
“Needles,” Mike and Chris hiss in unison, our worst nightmare confirmed.
Notebook Man stands at the front of the line. “Arrange yourselves in alphabetical order. When your name is called, come forward and answer Dr. Parker’s questions.”
This takes a few minutes, Mrs. Thompson grumbling the whole time. Knowing we won’t be close in line, I let go of Noah’s hand. He holds on a little longer, then releases me, wiping his slick fingers on his shirt. “Sorry.”
Toby slinks forward, legs shaking. I can’t hear what the woman asks him. I’m a W, practically last in line. One by one, the others are called to the front, answer questions, and then disappear into one of the white tents. Finally, my name is called.
I approach the table.
“Age?” the woman asks in a dull monotone.
“Six,” I answer, eyes darting to Mrs. Thompson. My teacher has a weird expression on her face, but she smiles encouragingly.
“Date of birth?”
The questions go on for several minutes. I do my best, but I don’t know all the answers. The woman frowns each time I come up short. I catch one muttered comment from Mrs. Thompson—how would a six-year-old know her medical history?—before it finally ends. The doctor stamps some papers, closes a file, and then points to the last tent on the right. “Please report to Bay F.”
I trudge across the gym and slip through the white curtain. Inside is a chair like at the dentist’s office, and a small cabinet with medical stuff. I see a box of needles and an orange bin covered in loud printed warnings.
My heart drops into my shoes.
A white-coated man enters through the back. He’s thin and gray-haired, with twinkling blue eyes floating above a white mask. Dropping his clipboard onto the cabinet, he pulls the mask down and smiles. “Hello, there!”
“Hello.” Hugging my arms to my chest.
“Come, come!” The man squats down on his heels so we’re eye to eye. “There’s nothing to be afraid of”—popping up to glance at the clipboard—“Ms. Melinda. I’m Doctor Harris.”
“Min,” I mumble.
His smile grows. “What’s that?”
“Min.” A little louder. This one seems nicer than the others. “My name is Min. I hate being called Melinda.”
“Well then, we won’t make that mistake again.” With exaggerated strokes, he crosses something off on the clipboard and writes. “Name: Min, and definitely not Melinda. There we are! All better now.”
His grin is contagious. I smile back.
“Now, Min,” he begins, “would you mind climbing up into my whirly chair for a tick? I promise we’ll go through this step by step, okay?”
I tense, but do what he asks, clambering up onto the seat.
Dr. Harris plops down onto a tiny, wheeled stool. “I’m sure you’re a little worried about what we’re doing today.”
I nod slowly. He nods back.
“Well, don’t fret.” He taps the clipboard. “This examination is purely precautionary. We just need to make sure you stay safe and well. Are you okay with that?”
“I thank you, Min. Now let’s get these silly tests out of the way.”
Over the next twenty minutes, I am weighed, measured, poked, prodded, and generally inspected. Dr. Harris is very polite, explaining all the procedures beforehand and always asking for permission. He jots down notes after each one.
Finally, Dr. Harris hunches back on his stool. “Only two more things, then we’re done. Unfortunately, you’re not going to love either one.”
“I need to take a teeny-tiny blood sample, and then . . . I must give you . . .” His voice drops to a whisper, his eyes popping to a clownish degree, “—a SHOT.”
The doctor’s face is so funny, I giggle. I can’t help it.
“That’s the spirit!” Dr. Harris offers a high five, and I meet it. I’m not as scared as I was. He swivels, slides open the cabinet, and removes a tiny kit. “Let’s just get it over with. What do you say?”
I swallow. Nod.
He beams at me. “Good girl. I thank you.”
The first needle isn’t so bad. Dr. Harris tells me to look away—so that I don’t have to see my own blood—but I watch it fill up the tube instead. He tells me how brave I am.
The second needle stings. It’s larger and longer, and I feel it bite into my shoulder. I whimper slightly, but Dr. Harris pats my back, speaking soft encouragements as he presses the plunger. In moments it’s over. The doctor quickly applies a bandage, leaving nothing behind but a slight itch.
“Excellent, Min!” Dr. Harris puts my blood into his kit, then scribbles a few more notes onto his clipboard. “Only one moment more, and then you can go back to class.” He carries the kit out the back of the tent.
I notice his clipboard is still sitting on the cabinet.
Hopping down, I walk over for a look. The doctor’s handwriting is small and squiggly, but two words are stamped in red at the bottom of the page. Project Nemesis.
An hour later I’m back in Mrs. Thompson’s room, playing with the magnetic letters. Everyone is rubbing their shoulders. Jessica and a few others have been sniffling since we returned, but most are excited. They think we’ve had an adventure, like the adults keep saying.
The soldiers are gone, which clearly makes Mrs. Thompson happy. I wonder if the men in suits left with them. Is Principal Myers still mad? Did he have to get a shot, too?
A knock on the door.
I look over, then freeze.
Principal Myers has entered the room, but that’s not what surprised me. Standing beside him is Dr. Harris. Spotting me, he smiles and waves. Caught out, I wave back.
“This is not what was discussed,” Mrs. Thompson is saying, looking upset. “The permission slips only cover school-based physicals and inoculations. I can’t let you take students away from here simply because this man—”
Principal Myers cuts her off. “I’m aware of your objections, Agnes. But I don’t need to remind you who runs this school. I’ll be along to supervise.”
Mrs. Thompson’s shoulders droop. “Their parents, surely—”
“Will be informed, of course. Now please call the students forward.”
Mrs. Thompson stares at Myers as if seeing something for the first time, then looks over at me. Our eyes meet, and she flinches. Then puts on her big fake smile. “Min? And Noah? Could you both come to the front, please?”
I stand up slowly. Walk to her desk. I hear Noah following on my heels. If Dr. Harris wasn’t smiling so encouragingly, I’m not sure I’d do it.
Dr. Harris drops to a knee before the two of us. Noah’s legs tremble as we stand side by side. “Min, hello again. Noah, my name is Dr. Harris. I have something very special to tell you. We’re going on a trip!”
His eyes twinkle in the fluorescent light. “Won’t that be fun?”
I woke up sweaty and breathless.
My shoulder was cramping, right beneath the old inoculation scar. I rubbed it fitfully, trying to clear my head.
The doctor’s face was burned into my retinas.
I reached out blindly, hand-locating the clock and spinning it to face me.
Six a.m. I knew more rest wasn’t coming.
I sat up, blinking in the darkness. The kindergarten memory was like a scab picked open. Dr. Harris. I’d forgotten his name was Harris.
I hadn’t thought of that day in years. I remembered being ushered into a van with Noah. The doors had shut and we’d been driven somewhere miles away. But not over the bridge—even at six I’d known to listen for the thump-thump, thump-thump of wheels crossing partitions.
We’d gone the other direction—into the eastern woods.
Where the convoy went last night. Is that what made me think of it?
I could recall little else of that afternoon. Dr. Harris led us inside an unfamiliar building. Noah and I were separated. The lights were bright. Soldiers and people in lab coats filled the halls, some eyeing me curiously. Harris took me to a room equipped like the tent from school. The door closed, and then . . . then . . .
I remembered nothing else. I’d woken up at home.
Mom had listened to my story, holding my hand and stroking my hair. She’d given me a cherry Popsicle, then stormed to the telephone. Mom had begun yelling almost immediately, and I’d heard her say the name Andy, which is what some adults called Principal Myers. Then she’d hung up and sat still a moment, holding her head in her hands. Seconds later she’d put one of my DVDs into the player, told me to stay put, and then hurried from our trailer.
I pushed my sheets away and stood, a statue in the darkness. Details were flooding back faster than I could process them. Why hadn’t I thought harder about this before? Where had I been taken? Why? By whom?
My mother hadn’t come back for two hours, and never explained. She’d even given me a second Popsicle, which never happened. Mom had hugged me close, telling me not to worry about that afternoon. I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. The other kids wouldn’t understand and might tease me. I was to keep the whole thing secret.
I was a kid. Six years old, with a second cherry Popsicle. So that’s what I did.
But I’m not six anymore. I’m sixteen, under attack by a serial killer, and nothing my mother did that day makes sense.
We never learned more about the spill, yet we’d had blood tests at school every year since. Supposedly they were still checking for pathogens. The samples were always taken by the same company, but the results were never shared. As far as I knew, nobody else had been driven onto the government land like Noah and me. Others could’ve been told to keep it secret, too, but Fire Lake is a small town. I’m sure I would’ve heard something.
Noah. I’d never once talked about it with Noah. How was that possible?
Because we don’t talk at all.
What did they tell my mother? Why had she never mentioned it?
A dark suspicion took hold.
My mother knew things she didn’t share. I’d sensed that for years. Same with Lowell, and maybe Principal Myers too. How far back did it go? Was there really ever a chemical spill?
I stood frozen in the darkness, mind running wild.
A lunatic hunts and kills me every two years, yet I come back to life.
The adults surrounding me are hiding things.
Those facts have to be connected. Or am I really crazy after all?
I waited for Tack by the gatepost, breath misting in the brisk morning air.
He was on time, though yawning every second. A Hollywood-quality black eye offset the purple splotches blossoming along his chin. I almost asked what his father had said, but knew the answer. No way had Wendell been awake this morning.
A yawn escaped my own lips. I hadn’t been able to fall back asleep. So I’d dressed quickly in an old sweater and jeans, then snuck into the living room to watch CNN and witness the world’s hangover.
Twitter was alive with crazy hashtags—things like #TakeYourSecondChance and #followingdreams—the usual sparkly crap people spouted after a major scare. Stuff that would be forgotten by this time next week.
“So we’re going to live!” Tack quipped, never breaking stride. He wore cargo shorts and a red Machete Kills tee over a long-sleeved thermal. Somehow he never got cold. I fell in beside him and we headed up the rise. “Just long enough for Ethan to strangle us.”
“Not my brightest idea.”
“Relax.” Though Tack didn’t appear to be following his own advice. “There’s no way he can prove it was us. And who’d believe we’d really do that? I don’t even believe it.”
We hit pavement and began descending. The lake sparkled in the heart of the valley, unconcerned by mankind’s problems.
“The news said half of Reno nearly burned down,” I grumbled. “People lost their minds.”
“No doubt.” Tack pointed to where smoke was rising from the old paper mill. Flashing lights announced the fire truck’s presence. “Some idiots did crazy stuff last night, just happy to be alive.” He tossed me a significant glance. “Like, say, torching a shiny new Jeep in the high school parking lot.”
I pursed my lips. “Interesting.”
The timeline didn’t work—the Wrangler’s smoldering remains had been found well before the Announcement—but countless other acts of vandalism had likely occurred. The entire Fire Lake police force consisted of eight dopey officers—no way they’d investigate everything. If we were lucky, my mad impulse would get swept under the rug with all the rest.
When have I ever been lucky?
Reaching the village proper, we found evidence to support our hopes. Windows were smashed up and down the block. Someone had looted the display items from Buford’s Hardware. A police deputy was squawking into his radio as he stood over a fat, shirtless dude snoring in the gutter. It had been a big night.
We reached the school parking lot. I tried not to eyeball the crime scene, but my head swiveled on its own volition. Joey Alcorn, who operated the junkyard, was just then securing the scorched ruin of Ethan’s Jeep to the back of his flatbed wrecker. He waved a filthy hand; we guiltily returned the gesture. The Wrangler was a total loss, an acrid-smelling skeleton of blackened metal and melted fiberglass.
“Ho, boy,” Tack breathed.
Joey popped into his truck and pulled away, leaving nothing behind but a charred smear on the pavement. A spasm ran through me. If anyone ever finds out . . .
“Listen to that!” Tack pulled me toward the walkway. Music was thumping from the courtyard. “Who’s having a dance party without me?”
Everyone in school was outside, hugging and high-fiving, hands in the air as they bounced to the beat. Juniors and seniors swarmed the low-walled stone patio—unofficially off-limits to underclassmen—while sophomores surrounded the flagpole where the youth group usually held morning convocation. “Turn Down for What” was blasting from a speaker propped on a Nolan twin’s backpack. Principal Myers was going to have a heart attack.
“That’s my kind of prayer circle,” Tack said. “Hopefully this is a permanent change.”
We’d never actually joined the showy student devotional that took place before first bell. Most of the group spent the entire silent minute with their eyes cracked, keeping track of how many classmates were witnessing their piety. Few got anything spiritual from it, I suspected, although Hector Quino did his best to keep the mood solemn.
But today everyone seemed jacked up on Red Bull. Bro-hugs were rampant. Relieved smiles were paired with machine-gun bursts of laughter. Boys were chasing girls, who screamed prissily before allowing themselves to be caught. No one seemed to care about class.
Derrick Morris, skyscraper tall and one of the four black kids in our grade—we all knew the count; welcome to northern Idaho—had his shirt off despite the chill. He reared back and howled, “I’m alive!” while extending both middle fingers skyward. Toby snuck over and lifted him up from behind. They both started laughing and jumping up and down, chanting something I couldn’t make out but had to be stupid. As they broke apart, I saw Toby swig something hidden inside his jacket.
“We should get inside.” I was already crossing to the main building. “Last thing we need is—”
Too late. Ethan came storming over, half our class at his back. I saw gleeful eyes and hurried whispers. Bile rose in my throat.
“Don’t say a single word, Tack!” I stepped in front of him, mind racing.
Ethan charged to within a foot of where I stood, his gaze lasering over my shoulder at Tack, who glared back defiantly despite his trembling arms. Ethan’s face was flushed. There was a glassy aspect to his eyes I didn’t like. I suspected he’d been trading sips with Toby.
“You torched my Wrangler, didn’t you?” Ethan’s voice was soft, almost monotone. He pointed a finger at Tack. “I know it was you.”
“That was your Jeep?” Tack replied, all choirboy innocence. “I thought Spencer’s dad had dropped by for a cookout.”
Scattered snickers. Spence Coleman’s father ran Pig House BBQ, and threw massive tailgates for every Boise State football game. His half-ton outdoor grill was legendary—wheeled, monstrous, and smoke-stained jet-black by hundreds of hours of use.
Ethan smiled unnaturally. “A joke! Like your life, only less sad.”
More chuckles. The crowd was enjoying Round Two. I spotted Chris Nolan whispering with Sarah and Jessica while his brother, Mike, watched silently. Noah was slouching behind them, oblivious. He squinted over at us for a beat, then looked down at his phone.
A flash of disgust. Why had I been thinking of Noah lately? He was useless.
“Nice face!” Toby called, rubbing his cheek where Tack’s was a bruised mess.
“I had that Jeep for two weeks,” Ethan said matter-of-factly, but a pink stain was creeping up his neck. “Two. My golf clubs were in it.” He shifted to include me. “You guys destroyed it. I know you did. Nobody else would dare.”
Play dumb. It’s the only way.
“Someone lit your Wrangler on fire?” I asked in a startled tone.
“You know someone did.”
I crossed my arms. “Why would we burn your car, Ethan? And how?”
“I don’t know how. Or care. But it’s not hard to figure out why. I kicked Thumbtack’s ass and he couldn’t handle it.”
I spoke calmly, but made my voice carry. “You’re being ridiculous. Tack and I didn’t blow up your Jeep in the school parking lot, in broad daylight. Because that’s insane. We’re not Navy Seals.” Gulp. Then inspiration struck. “There were electrical storms up and down the canyon yesterday. Maybe your Jeep caught a stray bolt. Probably because of that ridiculous gun rack you screwed to it like a lightning rod.”
The last bit seemed to do the trick. I saw nods in the crowd. Whispers of agreement. Doubt even crept into Ethan’s eyes.
“Told you they didn’t have the balls,” Chris muttered to his brother, who shrugged.
“Somebody would’ve seen,” Toby agreed with a hiccup. “Plus, Tack’s too much of a wuss.”
I stepped on Tack’s foot to keep him from mouthing back. Ethan was still watching.
I met his eyes. Hoped he couldn’t see the lie in mine.
Ethan grinned without a hint of warmth. “If I find out you had anything to do with it . . .” Then, unwilling to simply let us go, he changed gears. “Why aren’t you guys happier, huh? I saw you lurking over here by yourselves, all emo and sad. Did you want the Anvil to kill everyone?”
“I was hoping you’d die,” Tack deadpanned. “Does that count?”
Ethan tensed, but then his gaze slid left. Principal Myers was hobbling into the courtyard.
“To be continued,” Ethan promised. He snatched up his bag from the grass near the flagpole and hurried toward C building. The crowd evaporated.
Myers looked like he hadn’t slept a wink. If he was overjoyed mankind wasn’t going to perish in a rain of hellfire, you couldn’t see it. “Get to class,” he ordered, leaning more heavily on his cane than usual. But the bell rang as he spoke, making us tardy. Myers turned and began limping toward the door. “Come along, then, and get a note.”
Mrs. Ferguson was sorting permission slips at the counter in the office, her graying black hair organized in a tight bun. Myers waved us into hard plastic chairs. “Delia, please write these two passes into class. No punishment this time.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Myers. You need coffee this morning?”
He forced a smile as he eased past her. “Bring the whole pot. But give me ten minutes.”
“I’ll make a fresh one.” She turned to regard us as Myers disappeared down the corridor to his office. “Tack and Min. Min and Tack. Always the pair, like a couple a’ bad pennies. What you done this time?”
She chuckled low and deep. “Oh, I’m sure.” Then her voice hardened. “You wouldn’t know anything about the act of terrorism that took place in our parking lot yesterday, would you, Mr. Russo?”
Tack’s eyebrows rose. “I was at the opera, milady.”
I covered my eyes, but Mrs. Ferguson snorted. “Enough cheek to mold a newborn baby. You’ll have to wait while I get this brew going. That man is running himself ragged these days.” With a loud tsk, she walked into the break room.
“Think she bought it?” Tack whispered.
Rolling my eyes, I rose, began pacing the waiting area. Being this near the principal’s office stirred memories of my dream the night before. Myers, huddled with Sheriff Watson and those strangers in suits, poring over documents in our elementary school. Myers, ordering Mrs. Thompson to release Noah and me into some doctor’s custody.
What had he said to my mother that afternoon? Could I trust him now?
Was he a part of what happened to me on my birthdays?
I stopped pacing. Myers’s office was in the rear of the administrative suite, around a corner from the front counter. On impulse, I pushed through the swinging door. I could hear Mrs. Ferguson humming as she fumbled with coffee filters in the break room.
Tack watched me curiously, a question on his face.
I snuck around the corner. Peered down toward the principal’s office.
My breath caught. Myers’s upper body was slumped across his desk. His shoulders shook. I was certain he was crying.
I stepped back, desperate to escape the awkward moment.
My heel clipped the wall.
His head snapped up. Myers pierced me with a watery gaze.
For several heartbeats, we stared at each other. Then his landline rang and he leapt to answer it, as if he’d been waiting for a call. “Myers! Yes, I’m here, damn it! Patch me through.” When he glanced back at me, it was like he’d forgotten I was there. With a grunt, he reached out and slammed the door shut.
I scurried back to the lobby. Tack shot me a look, but I waved him off, dropping into a seat as Mrs. Ferguson reappeared. My mind was racing as she wrote our passes.
Myers hadn’t stormed out to chastise me. Would he let me walk away without a word, after seeing him like that?
A door opened inside the suite. Cringing, I prepared to have my skin peeled off, but instead I heard another door open and close. I glanced at the office phone on the counter. Line One was blinking, then went solid. Myers had placed his call on hold, then picked it up somewhere else.
The conference room? That was the only logical space back there.
My instincts blared in warning. The world might’ve been “saved” last night, but that didn’t satisfy Principal Myers. What could still be bothering him so much? Who’s on the phone?
“No side trips, you hear? Those passes are good for five minutes.”
We nodded. But out in the hall, I turned left instead of right, following the wall twenty yards down.
I shushed him, examining a door. The conference room was on the other side.
A hasty scan of the hall, then I pressed an ear to the wood.
Tack began stroking his chin. “I see. You’ve lost your mind.”
“Shh.” I could hear Myers talking, but couldn’t make out the words. I listened intently for a few seconds, then dropped to my stomach, flattening on the ground and pressing my ear to the gap at the base of the door. Suddenly, his voice became less muddled.
“It’s happening soon,” Myers said curtly. “A matter of days. We’re done here, and there’s nothing more to say.” A short pause, then Myers clearly interrupted. “I won’t. I won’t do it. It’s sink-or-swim time. That’s all there is to it.”
The hair on my arms stood. What was he talking about?
A longer pause. When Myers spoke next, his tone was low and dangerous. “Then let me make myself clear, General. I won’t allow a single Nemesis man on campus. Watson will back me on this. The project is nearly complete. Everything is in motion. I won’t rattle the cage right at the end.”
A voice boomed from somewhere behind me. “What are you two doing?”
I scrambled to my feet. Mrs. Garcia was striding toward us, arms laden with exam books. “Min Wilder! Why are you lying on the floor?” She glanced at Tack, who waved inanely.
“Sorry!” I hitched my backpack, nearly tumbling in the process. “Dropped my necklace.”
I swallowed. “Well what?”
Nodding like a bobblehead, I grabbed Tack’s arm and dragged him down the hall. “Oh! Yes, thank you! Gracias. Sorry, I mean. For the confusion. Lo siento. Adios!”
Reaching class, we slipped inside. “What was that about?” Tack insisted, but the lesson had already begun. We held up the passes, but Mr. Hayles just waved us to our table. He looked awful—a red-eyed, unshaven mess—but was gushing about Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the exhilaration of eluding certain death.
I didn’t pay attention. Ignored Tack’s impatient glances. My mind was still on tilt.
That word again, after all these years.
The shots. The tests. My secret ride into the woods.
This wasn’t about some pesticide spill. It never had been.
Something big was going on. So big the Anvil didn’t enter the equation.
Myers said the project was happening now. Here. In Fire Lake.
We were sitting in the crosshairs.
I have a plan.
I’m crouched on the southern shore of the lake, lurking behind one of the summer camp’s wooden outbuildings. I’ve been thinking about dying since the moment I woke up.
All morning I stayed glued to Mom’s side. I made her walk me to the bus, then sat next to Tack and covertly held his hand all the way to school. He didn’t understand, but didn’t break my grip, either. Three periods later, I snuck out the back door.
Starlight’s Edge Fellowship Camp. The tired old facility is closed until next month. I’ve never been on the grounds before, but that’s the point. The black-suited man can’t possibly know to find me here.
And if he can’t find me, he can’t kill me. I could still make the party.
I’ve given up trying to figure out why, but Sarah and Jessica included me in their plans for Noah’s birthday celebration. Cake. Bowling. They even rented out the back room so we can dance afterward. Everyone in our class is going, and, incredibly, it’s half for me. The invitation says “Min Wilder” right on the front. It’s a miracle.
Hide here until nightfall, then straight to the Seven-Ten. This can work. It will work.
Leaves crackle behind me. My whole body tenses as I whirl. A doe steps from the trees, regards me cautiously. She nibbles a patch of clover at the edge of the woods.
My eyes close. I take a breath. Suddenly, I worry I’ve miscalculated. I could’ve planted myself at Dale’s Diner, or the public library. Lots of people at both. Too public for an execution.
But I’d have had to move eventually. Mom might’ve tracked me down. Or Tack. Principal Myers could’ve gone looking for a truant. Our town is too small to hide in plain sight.
This way is better. No one knows where I am.
Engine noises. Tires on gravel. Creeping to the corner, I peek around. A mud-splattered SUV is sending up clouds of dust as it barrels along the lakefront road.
It abruptly slows. Stops. Tinted glass, so I can’t see inside. The vehicle idles fifty yards from where I’m hiding.
The driver-side door opens.
The black-suited man steps out.
I’m in the trees before my next breath, clawing up the mountainside like an animal. No plan. Nerves flailing like downed power lines. A single question burning in my brain.
How did he find me here, in the middle of nowhere?
There’s no path. No houses for miles. I chose this spot because of its isolation, and that may be my downfall.
I bomb through a copse of prickly cedars, then pause a beat, listening.
I heave myself over a boulder, throwing caution to the wind in a blind panic to escape. This section of mountainside is exposed, the ground broken and uneven. Scree tumbles downhill behind me, giving away my position.
I can’t calm down. Can’t think. I don’t want to die again.
The slope steepens. A voice in my head is screaming that there’s no escape this way. Soon I’ll reach the top—a granite ridge overlooking the chasm. Nowhere to run from there.
The voice finally breaks through. I stop, gasping, desperate.
Hide. Hope he’s unfamiliar with the terrain. Then slip past him, back down to the lake. His car will still be there.
I frantically scan for a good place.
There. Thirty feet up, a stone ledge juts from the mountainside. If I can get onto that shelf, the bastard can’t reach me. I could bash his head in from above if he tries.
I begin to ascend, trying to remember everything I know about rock climbing.
Reach. Hold. Extend. Gather. Reach. Use your legs. Breathe.
I cover the first ten feet easily, then the second. But the last pitch is trickier. I’m digging my fingers into a shallow crease when shards of rock explode beside my face.
I shout, nearly lose my grip. My head whips around.
The man is directly beneath me, holding a fist-sized chunk of stone. His suit is ripped and he’s breathing hard, though his sunglasses remain in place. As I watch, horrified, he rears back and throws again.
This one strikes me in the back. One toehold slips. The other. I grunt, shoulders straining as I cling to the cliff face, muscles stretched to their breaking point.
His third volley smashes my hand, and I’m falling, scrambling uselessly for purchase as I plummet to the boulders below. I land on my back and feel something snap.
A tidal wave of pain, then . . . nothing. Numbness. Lack.
I try to rise, but have no feeling in either leg.
A shadow falls across my face.
Woozy, I don’t even try to crawl away. Instead, I peer up at my killer.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Who are you?” Slurred. I’m fading, my mind swirling through black-lined vortexes.
Time slows. I hear an eagle call. A breeze stirs my sweat-soaked hair, granting me a last moment of comfort. “I hate you,” I whisper.
The man steps out of my field of vision. Returns with a larger stone.
Sunlight glints off his sunglasses.
His arms come down, and everything goes black.
• • •
Darkness. The clearing. Another tear-streaked walk home.
Something buzzes in my pocket and I yelp. Then feel stupid, remembering my new phone.
It hits me.
“No, no, no.” But Jessica’s text says it all.
“We include u & u don’t even show? Lose my #. Sarah says the same.”
My head drops. I don’t write back. What’s the point? The girls let me in for once, and I stood them up. They’ll never talk to me again. What will Noah think?
My mother is waiting outside in a lawn chair. Knitting. Looking a thousand years old.
I catch her sigh of relief at my approach.
I stop and stare at my shoes, too exhausted to even lie.
Mom watches me for a long moment. Then she rises without speaking and shuffles to the front door. Opening it, she gestures me inside.
I slip past her, straight to my room, and lock the door.
She doesn’t ask where I’ve been.
I don’t tell her.