viernes, 9 de marzo de 2018

NEMESIS 19

16

PROJECT NEMESIS

File: INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: NOAH C. LIVINGSTON (“NL”)
Date: OCTOBER 21, 2016
Specialist: DR. GERALD LOWELL (“GL”)
Subject: TEST PATIENT B, BETA RUN, SESSION 14-J3
GL: Take me through what you remember, Noah. Step by step.
NL: Do I have to?
GL: The direction of our conversation is always up to you. But it’s important for us to talk about your experiences, even the older ones. By discussing painful memories, we can draw some of the sting from them. Take away their power over you.
NL: [PAUSE] That one is . . . hard. It was the first.
GL: Do you remember falling asleep?
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD] But I remember that day like it was yesterday. I . . . I . . .
GL: Relax, Noah. Remember, this is your safe place. It’s just you and me here. Nothing can hurt you while we talk.
NL: [PAUSE] It was my eighth birthday. I was at soccer practice. No, wait—it was a game. I remember because my team wasn’t good that year, but we were winning. I set up Chris for an easy one, and I stopped Cash from tying it up.
GL: Who was there with you?
NL: Lupe, my nanny. Plus my first stepmother, Janice. Lupe was cheering for me, but she upset Janice by being too loud. So Janice sent her to get more ice from the car. Janice always brought a squeeze bottle to my activities, and she’d usually finish it a couple times while I played.
GL: But Janice was watching you?
NL: Not a chance. She had her magazine and her cup, and never looked up from either one. I think she actually wobbled to the bathroom right before . . . before . . .
GL: Go on, Noah. I know it’s hard, but this will help in the long run. I promise.
NL: [PAUSE] I must’ve fallen asleep on the sideline, or . . . maybe . . . I don’t know. But suddenly the game is over and he’s standing there. Black suit. Sunglasses. I . . . I . . . it seems so real when I talk about it . . .
GL: I know it does. That’s part of your condition. These dreams are so powerful in your mind that you struggle to differentiate them from reality. The sleepwalking component only reinforces this confusion. But they aren’t real, Noah.
NL: Then why do we have to do this? Why can’t I just try to forget?
GL: It helps. Do you trust me?
NL: [SUBJECT NODS]
GL: Then please, continue when you’re ready.
NL: [PAUSE] I walked into the woods next to the field, to retrieve a ball. There’s nothing back there. And . . . and . . .
GL: What happened, Noah?
NL: [SUBJECT SHIFTS] A bag dropped over my head. I . . . I couldn’t breathe . . . I was screaming, but . . . no one came . . . I couldn’t get it off, or break through it . . . Then it was so hot, so dark . . .
GL: [PAUSE] Noah? Do you need a minute?
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD] That’s it. I woke up in the cave for the first time.
GL: That must’ve been very traumatic. What did you do next?
NL: I ran home crying. When I got back, Janice ripped me a new one, even though she could barely stand up straight. Losing me would’ve gotten her in trouble with Dad. Worst part was, she’d fired Lupe and was blaming everything on her.
GL: Did you tell anyone?
NL: No. What was I going to say? I had no idea what had happened. I was in the park, then suddenly I was miles away in a cave. I wanted to talk about it even less than she did.
GL: You seem upset about Lupe. Did you like your nanny?
NL: I loved her. She’d been living with us for years, way longer than Janice. I found out later she was out looking for me while I was missing, even after getting canned. [PAUSE] She was the only person in the house who actually cared about me.
GL: That’s not true, Noah.
NL: [SUBJECT SNORTS] To Janice, I was this weird little troll attached to my father. I overheard her say I should be sent to boarding school right after they got married. She didn’t last much longer than Lupe. They divorced a year later.
GL: Janice was a narcissist. That much is clear. But your father cared for you. Cares for you.
NL: Sure.
GL: He does, Noah. You’re his only child. He loves you. Why would you doubt that?
NL: Know where my father was during all this?
GL: [SPECIALIST SHAKES HEAD]
NL: Out of town. As usual.

17

I felt the knife plunge into my heart.
My eyes snapped open. I hadn’t been asleep, but every time my lids closed, the dream came back to haunt me.
Black Suit was always there, lurking in my mind.
Promising relief this time, even as he executed me.
I was sitting in a small copse of cedars bordering the gym, my back against one of the gnarly trunks. My eyes felt itchy and grainy, allergic to the sun. My whole body ached. I’d have traded my trust fund for eight good hours of sleep, but I didn’t dare risk it. I’d taken my pill only an hour earlier in Lowell’s office.
Who was this killer I’d created? Lowell never got into that. As I thought more about it, the things my psychiatrist didn’t ask me about made less sense. But I was too wiped to think straight.
I’d watched the Announcement by myself. Scared to death. My dad had sent me a single text message from Rome, telling me to adjust the sprinklers for fall. Insisting that all the asteroid hysteria was “total BS.”
And he’d been right. Which kinda pissed me off, as crazy as that sounds. A busted clock having the correct time by accident. Then the Nolans figured out my dad was gone, and the whole crew showed up at my door.
I couldn’t say no. It wasn’t worth the fight.
Which wasn’t all bad. It had been nice having company after being alone. Ethan and I played ping-pong while the girls watched Dubsmash videos. Toby told a bunch of crazy stories about the liberty camp while gorging on my chips. But then some of the others got rowdy and loud. I’d seriously considered slipping away from my own house.
I rubbed my face, wondered briefly whether I could get up if I wanted to.
What would happen if I just slept here?
The Nolan brothers had broken into my dad’s liquor cabinet, and before long half the group was tanked. Ethan had gotten colder by the minute, swearing he’d find out what happened to his Jeep. Then Sarah had stalked me like a carnival prize, as if our breakup the year before never happened. She’d suggested we take a walk down to the waterfront. I’d played as dumb as possible, even hiding in the bathroom at one point. She was still gorgeous, but something about her scared the crap out of me. There was a reason we’d only lasted two months.
When the fireworks started, we’d piled into the Nolans’ disgusting van and drove from place to place like circus morons. Toby and Mike started breaking anything within reach. It’d taken twenty minutes to convince Ethan that buzzing the trailer park was a terrible idea. I’d been stuck with them for hours. Yesterday had been just as bad. People too jacked up, right when I needed things to calm down.
An earthquake sure didn’t help. Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.
I closed my eyes again. Debated whether I’d even go to class. Nobody would say anything, except maybe Myers. But who was he going to tell? My father was busy getting loaded in another hemisphere.
I had the sudden impression of being watched. Opening my eyes, I spotted Min Wilder striding across the parking lot.
“Hey! Noah!”
What?
I scrambled to my feet, then felt foolish for doing so. Tried to act natural. Which was difficult, since the two of us talking wasn’t natural. Min didn’t mix with me and my friends these days at all. Not after the birthday party fiasco two years ago, when for some crazy reason I’d talked the girls into including her and then she didn’t even bother showing up.
Her gray eyes sparkled with intensity. I didn’t get a friendly vibe.
I yawned into my fist, a nervous habit I was powerless to prevent. Min always made me uncomfortable. I don’t know why, but I felt like she could see right through me. Her gaze had a penetrating quality that made me feel like a fraud.
Which I was. Which is why I avoided her. Which wasn’t possible right then.
“We need to talk.”
I answered without thinking. “We never talk.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Min ran a hand through her glossy black hair, then briefly pinched the bridge of her nose. She’s exhausted. The last few days had been rough on everyone, I guess.
There was an awkward pause.
“What’s up?” I blurted. Then wanted to kick myself for sounding like a jackass.
“You’re a patient of Dr. Lowell’s, right?”
I nearly jumped. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that.
“I don’t know who told you whatever, but I’m not supposed—”
“I know you see him, Noah. It’s a small town.”
I hesitated. “So what if I do?”
“Say ‘yes,’ for starters.” Her stormy eyes dug into mine. I could swear she was taking my measure, and I was coming up short.
I gave in. “Fine. Yes. Dr. Lowell is my psychiatrist.”
Min nodded, like an interrogator who’d forced a key admission. “I see him, too.”
That surprised me. Why would Min see a shrink? I remembered something vague about her running away when we were little, but didn’t know the details.
Another pause. My shoulders tensed. “Are you having problems with Lowell?” I asked, before I’d thought better of it.
Where’d that come from? I don’t want to have this conversation.
But my question broke the spell. “Do you trust him?” Min asked, eyeing me intently.
“Of course.” Flustered. “Why ask that?”
“Because I don’t.” She closed the distance between us. “I’ve been his patient since I was ten, and I don’t think I’ve ever trusted him.”
I was reeling. I’d been seeing Lowell for almost the exact same amount of time.
And trusted him completely.
“Why are you telling me this?” Her presence was everywhere. Piercing eyes. Shampoo smell. The delicate curve of her neck. I began to sweat.
“I found something.” Min glanced around to make sure we weren’t being overheard. It should’ve been comical, but it wasn’t. “Last night in Lowell’s office. There are things you need to see. Something big is going on, and you and I are part of it. Maybe the whole town.”
I stared, unable to respond. My mind flashed back to that morning. Dr. Lowell, angry and off his game, shoveling files into his cabinet. Deep inside me, a voice was shouting in agreement. With a shock, I realized it had been there for years.
Min was standing close. Waiting. Needing something from me.
A connection was forming. I just needed to embrace it. Be as brave as she was.
But I never had the chance.
“There you are.”
Our heads whipped as one. Tack stepped onto the curb. Deep purple bruises ringed a black eye so complete it looked like a Halloween gag. “Missed you at the gate, Min. You walk in?”
“Sorry. I was in a hurry and couldn’t wait.”
“To see Noah, it looks like.” Spoken with a slight edge.
Her lips quirked. “That a problem?”
“Of course not. I just—” Tack looked at me, then changed what he’d been going to say. “We never discussed our next move.” Talking around me, but I was too confused to be offended.
“I said I was going to talk to Noah. I’m doing it right now.”
Something passed between them. Tack nodded tightly.
All my insecurities came crashing back. What did these two want with me?
A dark blur fluttered by my ear. Tack’s head jerked back an instant before something struck him in the face. He staggered back as howls of laughter erupted behind me.
I spun, winced inwardly. Ethan and some of the others were cutting through the parking lot.
“You can borrow that!” Toby pointed to his copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, now lying in the grass. “Actually, read it and tell me what happens. I thought we were asteroid meat and never bothered.”
Chris Nolan laughed, elbowing his twin brother, but Ethan remained uncharacteristically silent. His gaze bounced from Min, to Tack, to me. I looked away.
Great. The last thing I need.
“Noah?” Ethan said quietly.
“Yeah?”
“What are you doing over there?” He was staring a hole through my head. And not just him—Sarah was watching me as she chatted with Jessica and Derrick a few yards up the walkway.
Unconsciously, my shoulders hunched. “I was sitting under a tree. They came over to ask me something.”
Ethan glanced at Min. “Well? Why do you want Noah? Looking for arson tips?”
Looks were exchanged behind Ethan’s back. No one seriously thought Min and Tack had firebombed his Wrangler, but Ethan wanted it to be true. So to him, it was.
And yet . . . I actually didn’t know. I’d been there when Ethan punched Tack in the courtyard. I’d even tried to stop that nonsense, hoping to distract Ethan from going in for more damage. Thankfully, Myers had taken care of it.
Min had been furious with Ethan. I’d met her eye once, during the fight. As crazy as it sounds, part of me thought Ethan might be right. Min struck me as a person who’d get revenge without needing to take credit for it.
Not that I was going to voice that opinion. The hell I was getting involved. I spent my days avoiding exactly these types of situations.
“Did your fortune-teller say we did it?” Tack said. “You should’ve asked if your Jeep was in danger in the first place. Headed things off at the pass.” That kid never knew when to shut up.
Min winced. She knew it, too.
Ethan’s whole body went still, a bad sign. “Did you say something, Tack?”
Min intervened before he could answer. “Enough, Ethan. Go after him again and I’ll tell Myers. Tack covered for you last time, but I’m sick of it. Bullying is so lame. Nobody’s impressed.”
“You’ll tell the principal? Talk about not impressed.”
This was so tired. I glanced at Chris. He shook his head sharply. Don’t get involved.
When I looked back, Min was staring at me. Unnerved, I dropped my gaze.
Ethan didn’t miss the exchange. “What, you think Noah is going to rescue you? Is that what you want?” He slugged my shoulder, flashing a crooked smile. “Sorry, Trailer Park, but you’re reaching above your pay grade.”
Min’s face burned. She glanced at me again, this time with contempt.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“Come on, Tack.” Min grabbed her friend’s arm and pulled him toward the courtyard.
“See you guys later!” Ethan called. “Save me a spot in the far corner!”
The others laughed dutifully. Even me. Then Sarah snaked my arm. Flashing white teeth, she guided me up the walkway. “Hey, Noah. What’s new?”
“What? Oh. Nothing.” My pulse accelerated, and not in a good way. “You?”
“Not much.” A few classmates were loitering by the flagpole, but most had gone inside. Yet Sarah leaned close and spoke conspiratorially. “I was thinking of going to the park after school, just to hang out for a while. Do you want to come with me?”
I strolled along beside her, playing it casual, secretly as uncomfortable as I’d ever been. I felt like a surfer who’d spotted a dorsal fin in the waves, then lost sight of it. I didn’t know how to discourage this new attention.
“Who’s going?” Stalling. We were ten yards from the door, where I could pull away without looking like a prick. “Jessica and everyone?”
Sarah flashed her flirty smile. “I haven’t asked anyone else. We never do stuff alone anymore.”
Red alert! I could feel the noose tightening. Groped desperately for an escape.
“I’d hate to leave the others out. They always include us.” Before she could object, I pivoted, called out to the first people I saw. “Chris! Toby! You guys want to hit the park after school? A bunch of us are going, I think.”
The two boys looked at each other, then shrugged, nodding in mild surprise. I was never the one to make plans. I glanced back at Sarah and nearly missed a step. Anger flashed in her eyes before disappearing behind a plastic smile. “I guess that settles it.” She released me abruptly and went inside.
All I felt was relief. I was sorry to hurt her feelings—and, frankly, a little worried about what she might do—but I wasn’t interested. Sarah was gorgeous and smart, the only daughter of two doctors, but she was also cold and manipulative. When we’d been dating, I’d watched her slyly orchestrate fights among the girls. Potent words dropped here and there, untraceable, that caused major rifts down the road.
Min crashed my thoughts. She was completely different. A raging fire where Sarah was ice. Why am I comparing them?
“Hey, space cadet!”
I spun. Ethan waved me over to where he was huddled with Toby and the guys. Charlie seemed worked up about something. “You heard?” he asked excitedly, scratching at his pimply cheeks. I shook my head along with the rest. I’d come straight from Lowell’s office and hadn’t checked my phone.
“The earthquake?” Ethan said dismissively. “Who cares? It was in Wyoming. I barely woke up.”
Charlie puffed, excited to share fresh gossip. “That was just the start. There’ve been six more since then!”
“They’re called aftershocks,” I corrected absently. “They couldn’t have been much if we didn’t feel them.”
Charlie’s head wagged. “No! Six more earthquakes. The biggest was in South America—it set off some volcano in Peru. The news guys can’t explain it.”
“Like the bees,” Toby chimed in.
Derrick squinted his way. “What?”
Toby ran a hand over his shaved scalp. “Something like a million bees in Tennessee all dropped dead at once. It might even be a billion. One second, they’re buzzing around, stinging people like a bunch of jerks, then boom. All dead.” He shrugged. “Apparently that’s bad.”
Chris laughed. “Nobody believes those conspiracy sites, man. The Anvil is gonna miss, so now they need a new problem to geek out about. You liberty campers are freaking gullible.”
Toby shot him a wounded look. “That story was on Buzzfeed, bro. My mom’s Facebook timeline, too. Real enough for you?”
First bell rang. Ethan rolled his eyes. “How many more years of this? I swear, working at the grocery store is less painful.”
Toby grunted in agreement as we trudged inside. “Graduation can’t come fast enough.”
Sarah reappeared in the hallway, and my anxiety spiked. I felt my chest constrict for no reason. I stumbled on my feet, suddenly unable to control my breathing. Derrick gave me an odd look, but I played it off, testing my shoe on the floor. Then I ducked into a bathroom when no one was looking.
Alone, I splashed water on my face. Things were always bad after one of my dreams—plus I’d missed two pills—but this was the worst I could remember. I couldn’t shake a feeling of dread. The scar on my shoulder was aching. I was a mess.
“Go away,” I whispered to the mirror, embarrassed by what I saw there.
“Whatever this is, please go away.”

18

PROJECT NEMESIS

File: INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: NOAH C. LIVINGSTON (“NL”)
Date: JANUARY 4, 2017
Specialist: DR. GERALD LOWELL (“GL”)
Subject: TEST PATIENT B, BETA RUN, SESSION 15-A1
NL: I . . . I think . . . it was the worst.
GL: That’s understandable. You were only ten years old. You’d dreamed of this man before. You feared him.
NL: [SUBJECT RISES, BEGINS PACING]
GL: How did the day begin?
NL: [SUBJECT PACES] The neighborhood park. I walked there by myself.
GL: You were alone?
NL: [SUBJECT NODS] We were between housekeepers at the time, and my father had divorced again. Tiffany barely lasted six months.
GL: How was your relationship with your father?
NL: Relationship? I barely saw him. [PAUSE] [SUBJECT RETAKES HIS SEAT] It got worse after Tiff left. Dad drank a lot, and the house went to crap after he fired the staff. No food. The yard was a jungle. We never had clean laundry until I learned how to do it. He’d skip weeks of work, traveling by himself. Or just sitting in the media room, watching movies in the dark.
GL: How was he the morning of your birthday?
NL: [SUBJECT SNORTS] He forgot. I don’t think he came out of his bedroom the whole day. Honestly, that was a gift all by itself.
GL: Your father was going through a difficult time. His wife had left him.
NL: Second wife. That’s what happens when you treat people like possessions.
GL: Let’s move forward in your day. Tell me about the park.
NL: Not much to tell. It’s three blocks from my house, down the hill like everything else. I hung out by the swings and played with my Transformers. [PAUSE] The weather was nice. I remember . . . having fun. It was a good morning for me. Until . . .
GL: You saw him.
NL: [SUBJECT NODS]
GL: Where?
NL: On the . . . Walking home. I was heading up Palisade, which is pretty steep. I wasn’t looking around, because I had toys in both hands and didn’t want to drop them. The next . . . he was at the corner . . . [PAUSE] [SUBJECT SOBS]
GL: Noah, we can . . .
NL: He was sitting in a black car. Watching me. No expression on his face. I . . . I just froze. I couldn’t believe it.
GL: Do you have any idea when you fell asleep?
NL: [SUBJECT SHAKES HEAD VIOLENTLY] None. I don’t remember lying down, or resting, or anything. It must’ve been at the park, but the memory is seamless. I don’t understand how—
GL: Your brain seems to erase the moment you fall asleep. That brief period of time before powering down and falling into a dream state. A low-level narcolepsy, perhaps, not uncommon in these situations. The main problem lies in your body not shutting down its higher functions, such as movement. For some reason you remain active on a subconscious level, and sleepwalk.
NL: It doesn’t feel subconscious. Everything about it seems real.
GL: Tell me what happened next.
NL: He . . . he got out of the car. I tried to run, but he was already too close. He grabbed the back of my shirt. I spun . . . begged him not to . . . He tossed me down. [PAUSE] I rolled . . . tried to run again. Something hit the back of my head. I remember how much it hurt. I . . . If I close my eyes right now, I can still feel . . . I can hear my skull cracking—
GL: Noah. Calm your breathing.
NL:—my head caving in! But I didn’t die right away. I struggled, but my arms wouldn’t move! Then he hit me again—
GL: That’s enough, Noah. Look at me. Noah, look at me! [SPECIALIST PLACES HIS HANDS ON SUBJECT] You’re safe. We’re in my office. It was all just a dream. Understand?
NL: [PAUSE] [SUBJECT NODS]
GL: Let’s take a break. Would you like something to drink?
[SESSION SUSPENDED—4:36 PM]
[SESSION RESUMED—4:48 PM]
GL: What happened when you regained consciousness?
NL: [SUBJECT SHRUGS] Nothing, really. I woke up in the cave. Ran home again. [PAUSE] And then you were there, Doctor. Waiting for me in my house.
GL: That’s right, Noah. You didn’t know, but Tiffany had asked that I visit you on your birthday. No one answered the door when I arrived, but it was open. I wanted to make sure everything was okay, and you walked in the second after I stepped inside. A most fortuitous coincidence, since you clearly needed help.
NL: Tiff. [PAUSE] It’s still so weird. I barely knew her, to be honest, and she’d been gone for almost a month. How did she know to make an appointment for me? I never told her anything, and I’d only been your patient for a few weeks.
GL: She must’ve sensed you needed help, if not exactly why. As for that afternoon? Sometimes we just get lucky. I’m thankful for her intercession every day.
NL: You told me everything was going to be okay if I started taking the pills.
GL: Everything is okay, Noah.
NL: But the dreams haven’t stopped. I still sleepwalk.
GL: The important thing is that you know it isn’t real. We’re taking steps. By talking through your dreams like this, we’ll discover the key to controlling them. Trust me.
NL: I do trust you. [PAUSE] You’re the only one I trust. You didn’t tell my father what happened that day. I . . . I never thanked you.
GL: No thanks are necessary. You can always trust me, Noah. I’m here for you.

19

I picked myself up off the blacktop.
Ethan trotted to the top of the key and held up his hand for the ball. Derrick tossed it to him, his brown skin gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Toby stood beneath the basket, pale, pudgy, and annoyed at having to play on the “skins” team in front of the girls. His bald head only came up to Derrick’s shoulders, but he was trying to guard him anyway.
“Get your head right, Livingston.” Ethan set the ball on the ground, panting slightly as he tugged on his shorts. “It’s game point. You’re going down this time.”
“That was a moving pick,” Chris complained, tucking sweat-drenched red hair behind his ears. “You leveled Noah. That should be our ball.”
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Quit being a pansy. This is pickup basketball, not synchronized swimming.” Glancing at me, he adopted a singsong voice as he picked up the ball. “Did I foul you, Noah-bear? Are your feelings hurt?”
I shook my head. Ethan grinned, then fired the ball into my stomach. “Good. Check.”
I tossed it back just as hard. “Check.”
“Oh ho! Looks like somebody finally woke up!” Then he darted right, trying to muscle past me to the basket. Derrick and Mike backpedaled to give him room—it was clear he didn’t intend to pass.
Ethan is strong, but I’m quicker. We both knew I was the better player, but in the park I usually dialed it down. Ethan could be super-competitive, and these games meant nothing to me. I didn’t see the point in trying too hard.
But he was going at me harder than usual. I’d hit the deck three times, all courtesy of him. My competitive flame is slow to ignite, but that last forearm shiver had flipped a switch.
I snaked sideways and cut off Ethan’s drive. He tried to reverse his dribble, but I poked the ball away. Gathering it behind the three-point line, I turned to shoot.
Red-faced, Ethan lunged to block my shot. I head-faked and took a bounce to my left. Watched him fly by. Then I pulled up. Swish. The minute the ball zipped through the net, I knew it was a mistake.
“Game!” Toby shouted, slapping five with Chris before rushing over to me. He crouched down and tried to lift me up. “Noah schools Ethan for the win!”
Ugh. Thanks for nothing, Toby.
Ethan spat on the blacktop. “He traveled!”
Everyone looked away. I clearly hadn’t.
“No way, bro.” Chris was already walking toward the bench. “Game over.”
Mike followed his brother, ripping his shirt off and wiping his spiky red hair. He shot me a glance. Not smart. And he was right.
Derrick and Toby also drifted off the court, a subtle rejection of Ethan’s claim. Sensing he wasn’t going to get his way, Ethan turned and kicked the ball into the playground. “Cheaters can chase.”
I sighed inwardly. Walked after my ball. Ethan was exhausting sometimes.
I snagged it from under a jungle gym and trudged back to the group, thinking of ways to salve Ethan’s pride. At times like this, I honestly wasn’t sure we were really friends.
We were in the park beside town square. Everyone was playing it cool, like the Anvil scare never happened. The girls had shown up midway through the first game and were sitting in the grass, gossiping, voicing the occasional cheer when someone scored. Sarah had whistled for me after three made baskets. Ethan’s face got redder each time.
Reaching the bench, I was relieved to see Toby and Derrick taking off their basketball shoes. We wouldn’t be running it back. “I say we cruise by the trailer park,” Ethan said abruptly. “Noah can visit his girlfriend, and my good friend Tack might have more funny comments.”
This again? Ethan was obsessed. But I kept my mouth shut and let the jab slide, shoving the ball into my duffel bag.
“Had enough?” Ethan said. “Taking your ball and going home?”
Kind of stupid, since we were clearly done. Mike and Chris had changed into fresh tees, and Toby was slipping on his sandals. But I nodded anyway, grinning sheepishly. “Gotta quit before my luck runs out. You almost broke me in half.”
Ethan rolled his eyes, but chuckled. “Nice shot, by the way. I almost flew to Spokane.”
We bumped fists, and I relaxed. Collapsed on the bench. The air was crisp on my bare skin, just a shade north of chilly. I glanced at my phone. Nothing from Dad. The time was 4:14. With any luck, I could be home in twenty minutes.
Although . . . if we did go by the trailer park, I might see Min.
I’d been thinking about our encounter all day.
What had she wanted to tell me? A reason I shouldn’t trust Lowell?
Something about her had gotten under my skin. When the guys got Neanderthal drunk and started rating the hottest girls in school, Min’s name never came up. I thought that was crazy.
Am I the only one who sees it?
She’d shown guts defending Tack. Min didn’t back down from Ethan like everyone else. She definitely had more balls than me. Just like when we were little. When that weird doctor took us away from school.
I sat up straight. Where had that come from?
I ran a hand over my eyes, sweating anew as memories came roaring back.
The questions. Shots. Min had held my hand that day. Had been my buddy.
Principal Myers had ushered us into an SUV and shut the door, then argued with that doctor in the parking lot. The doctor had shoved two pieces of paper into his hands. Myers had yelled something at him, nose to nose, before limping back inside.
Then the ride. We’d gone to some building in the land reserve, and then . . . then . . .
I don’t remember what happened next.
How can that be?
My heart began to pound. Min said we might be involved in some weird project. She’d learned something important. And now she’s pissed at me.
I shot a hooded glance at Ethan. At times I almost hated him, despite how hard I tried to get him to like me. Then I blinked. Ducked my head.
You’ve got your own issues. Don’t go looking for more.
I never did. I might hate the cowardly voice in my head, but I always listened. It occurred to me that it sounded a lot like Dr. Lowell.
“Well, Noah?” Ethan boomed.
I started. The others were looking at me, wearing their typical Noah-zoned-out-again expressions. Chris seemed amused as he zipped up his bag, while Toby crossed his eyes. Derrick shook his head, muttering something about ADHD.
“Sorry,” I said, quickly pulling on a clean shirt. “What’d you say?”
Ethan closed his eyes, shook his head with exaggerated slowness. “What color is the sky in your world, Noah?” I forced a laugh with the others. “We want to hang out at your place,” he continued, obviously repeating what I’d missed. “Your dad’s still gone, so it’s cool, right?”
“When’s he getting back, anyway?” Derrick yawned, stretching all six and a half feet of his lean frame. “He’s been gone awhile, right?”
I shrugged. “Whenever he feels like it. Two weeks. Tomorrow. Who knows?”
Derrick sighed wistfully. “Man, you’ve got it good. Wish my parents would take off for a week. I’d throw a party every night.”
Chris bumped fists with Derrick. “Noah’s dad is in Italy right now, with a model half his age. Drinking wine and doing whatever the hell he wants. That guy is the man!”
Yeah. He’s great.
“So?” Ethan threw his bag over his shoulder. “Come on, Livingston. Let’s go to your place. I want to shoot pool.”
I tried to think of a way out. Blanked. “Sure. Okay.”
“Good.” As if he’d never considered I might refuse. Cupping his hands, he yelled across the park. “Hey, ladies! We’re all going to Noah’s house. Meet us there in twenty.” Jessica waved as the girls began gathering their things.
Irritation sparked. Typical Ethan, calling the shots, even when they weren’t his to call. My anger was so hot and unexpected, I gave voice to it before I thought better. “Is it your house or mine? Hard to tell.”
Ethan halted, surprised, then amused. “You got a problem with—”
He never finished.
The earth beneath our feet leapt. Everyone went tumbling as a groan echoed across the valley. Toby careened into the bench, opening a gash on his forehead. The others scrambled around like crabs, faces terrified as the ground shook like a living thing.
“Earthquake!” Chris shouted needlessly. His brother staggered over and threw an arm around him. I watched with sick fascination as a swing set shook off its moorings. There was an explosion somewhere up the block. Car alarms screamed as glass shattered all along Main Street. The lake roiled and hissed.
The vibrations stopped. I rose unsteadily, overwhelmed by all the alarms going off at once. The girls streaked over to where Derrick was examining Toby’s cut. Jessica was crying, holding her elbow. Everyone else seemed okay.
“Yo, look at that!” Chris pointed to black smoke rising from the docks. “Is that coming from the marina?”
Mike shook his head, jarred into actually speaking. “Mechanic’s shop next door. Oil drums, I bet.”
Toby winced as Derrick pressed a sock to his scalp. “They better get on that blaze, or the whole waterfront might go up,” Derrick said. As if in response, a siren joined the clamor.
“Busy week for those guys,” Chris joked. Ethan glared at him, and the smile vanished.
Commotion down the block. People had gathered in front of a broken store window, their backs to us as they mobbed something we couldn’t see. Cries erupted from the group. A woman spun away, hands covering her mouth.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
“I don’t want to know,” Jessica whined, hugging her body tight. I was surprised to discover I felt the same. I was past my stress limit. I wanted to go home and hide in my room.
Ethan began jogging across the square. After a slight hesitation, we all followed. Approaching the storefront, I swallowed hard, certain we were about to see something horrible. A crushed body, or some poor sap impaled by a lamppost.
But it was much, much worse.
Valley Home Entertainment Specialists is a tech shop owned by Charlie Bell’s mom. Half the display screens were busted, but a 65-incher still worked, tuned to CNN. Onscreen, in vivid 4K OLED, was a nightmare.
The devastation in Portland defies comprehension,” a shaky voice said as a helicopter flyover filled the screen. “Officials believe the epicenter of the massive 9.2 earthquake was twenty miles offshore, along the long-dormant Cascadia subduction zone. As you can see, very little of downtown remains standing. After the initial destruction, a tsunami swept in from the coast, washing all the way to the I–5 corridor. It’s already being called the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Fires are burning in the neighborhoods of—
A second voice broke in as the feed cut to another city. Seattle, people whispered, their faces slack with shock. A helicopter zoomed in on the remains of the Space Needle, which had snapped in half like a chopstick and lay in ruins on the streets below. The rest of the city looked like a war zone. In hushed tones, the narrator reported similar scenes of destruction in Tacoma, Vancouver, Astoria, and a dozen other places, with tens of thousands feared dead, drowned, or trapped beneath the rubble.
“Holy crap.” Toby was staring, wide-eyed. “The Pacific Northwest just got smashed.”
I didn’t want to see any more. A familiar panic was rising in my chest, squeezing the breath from my lungs. I slipped to the back of the crowd, then ducked down an alley toward the lakefront.
Smoke billowed along the wharf as the fire department battled near the marina. Thankfully the fire appeared small, and the millions of gallons of available lake water gave our volunteers the upper hand. I walked west for three blocks, then turned back uphill, planning to bolt home. I’d lock myself in, and if the others came by, I’d pretend I wasn’t there.
Instead, I stopped dead.
Stared.
Halfway up the alley, Principal Myers was huddled with Sheriff Watson. The two were arguing heatedly, Myers pounding a fist into his open palm as he made some point. Then a shift in the breeze cleared more smoke, revealing several others.
Dr. Lowell was standing beside Myers, frowning with his arms crossed. Beside him loomed a tall, thin-faced man in a bow tie—Dr. Fanelli, the town’s other psychiatrist. The two shrinks were rumored to dislike each other, and I’d never seen them together before.
Myers cut off abruptly as another man raised a hand. Though his back was to me, I could tell he was wearing a military uniform. The others listened with varying degrees of impatience as he spoke. When he finished, everyone started talking at once.
My instincts warned me not to be seen. I was witnessing a conference no one was supposed to know about, I was sure. So I slunk back to the corner and took cover, then peeked around again. Min’s warning echoed in my head.
A cell rang. The officer removed a phone from his vest, listened a moment, then hung up. “We need to wait. He’s coming now.”
I stared, torn between curiosity and a deep impulse to leave and forget the whole thing. Why get involved in something I could avoid? I hesitated, unable to get my feet to move. Then another man joined the circle, and my world collapsed around me.
Polished boots. Silver sunglasses.
Black Suit strode from the whirling smoke, a nightmare come to life.
He was here. He was real. He was speaking to my goddamn psychiatrist.
I’m not asleep. God help me, but I’m really not this time.
I collapsed to the curb, then scrambled out of sight. My stomach heaved and I vomited on the pavement. Dazed, I rolled over and lay there, staring up at the char-stained sky.
I was never asleep. Not for any of it.
Everything Lowell told me was a lie.
Then another thought exploded in my head.
GET OUT OF HERE NOW OR HE’LL KILL YOU AGAIN.

Staggering to my feet, I ran as fast as I could.

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