viernes, 9 de marzo de 2018

Nemesis 8

6

I sat in Dr. Lowell’s drab waiting room, thumbing through an old Us Weekly.
Tack had gone home. He’d promised to come by my trailer after the Announcement, whatever the verdict might be. I’d watched him hurry away down the sidewalk, scanning cross streets, still jittery about what we’d done to Ethan’s Jeep.
I could scarcely believe it.
Slouching in one of Lowell’s uncomfortable lobby chairs—sixty minutes after the fireball, my initial rage having long since burned off—I was growing more and more stunned by my actions. What had I been thinking? Blow up his freaking car? That’s juvenile-prison-level madness.
What would my mother say? What would Tack’s father do?
I shivered, and not from the arctic-level temperature Lowell maintained in the building. Destroying Ethan’s Wrangler was the most reckless thing I’d ever done. I truly, deeply, seriously hoped Tack and I hadn’t been seen. The alternative was too awful to contemplate.
We TORCHED his JEEP. In the high school parking lot!
Was I as crazy as everyone thought?
A door opened, and Dr. Lowell stuck his head out. He didn’t have a secretary or assistant of any kind. I guess he didn’t have enough clients to justify the expense.
“Ah! Min. Right on time.”
Smiling, he eased the door open and swept a hand inside. Beneath a thatch of red hair were flinty green eyes and a smooth, pale face dotted with freckles. Lowell wore his typically inoffensive, shrink-on-the-job garb—corduroy pants and a light blue sweater.
“Please come in. Would you like a soda? Water?”
“I’m fine.” Same offer, same response. Every time.
Lowell nodded amicably. “Okay, then. Please sit wherever you like.”
I took the same spot as always, a leather fainting couch beneath the windows overlooking the lake. As far from him as I could manage in the snug, wood-paneled office.
On script, Lowell spun a recliner to face me and sank into its depths. A notebook sat on a table to his right, untouched. He never wrote anything during our sessions, though a few times, returning soon afterward for a forgotten jacket or misplaced backpack, I’d caught him scribbling away like mad in its pages.
Lowell had seemed almost embarrassed on those occasions—quickly locating my belongings, asking if I needed anything else, then ushering me out with a hearty grin—as if I’d caught him doing something naughty. Who knows? Maybe I had.
I slumped down, eyes traveling the room. Bookshelves lined the walls, displaying various scientific tomes, objects full of psychological importance, and pictures of Lowell on his travels. He didn’t seem to have a family—no shots of a loving wife or kids, not even a slobbering Doberman. Landscape art filled in the blanks, bland and forgettable, probably rated “not likely to incite violence” by the Idaho State Board of Psychiatry.
A bulky, antique-looking wooden cabinet sat in the corner—banded with bronze, lacquered to a shine, and never opened during my visits. A MacBook Air was the only thing on his desktop.
“So,” Lowell began, hands folded, one foot resting on the opposite knee as he fixed me with his patented “I’m your friend” look. At first he’d tried to get me to call him Gerald, but I’d flatly refused. “How has your week been since our last visit?”
Visit. Always a visit, and never a session. My shrink didn’t want me to feel forced to be there, even though I was.
I shrugged. “Fine. Principal Myers said you wanted to meet today instead of Wednesday.”
“Sunday was your birthday,” he supplied, his relaxed bearing not shifting an inch. Dr. Lowell had a gift for stillness, to the point it was unnerving. “We always meet the day after your birthdays, just in case you feel a need to talk. To share.”
“I’m good.” Glancing out the window. “Nothing to report.”
Gunshots echoed in my head. I felt the sting of white-hot slugs tearing into me.
I drew my knees up to my chest. Could feel Lowell’s eyes. Observing. Assessing. Taking my measure.
A glance at the clock. Forty-five minutes to go.
He didn’t miss my reluctance. “Min,” he said softly, his voice heavy with compassion, “I hope I don’t need to remind you that you can trust me. Anything we say in this room will never be shared outside of it. I’m here to help. If something is bothering you, talking about it in a safe environment will almost certainly make you feel better. I promise.”
Is that what this is? A “safe environment”?
I didn’t know what to say. So, a lie. “Yeah. But nothing happened.”
My response sounded unconvincing, even to me. Too strident, as if by overselling a denial I’d confirmed the opposite.
“I’m not entirely persuaded, Min.” Dr. Lowell’s tone remained light and conversational, almost apologetic. “I think there’s something you’re not telling me.”
Not a question, so I didn’t answer. Though my flaming cheeks might’ve spoken for me.
Uncrossing his legs, my psychiatrist leaned forward, his face growing serious. A twinge of frustration had crept into his eyes.
“We’ve been having these visits for six years now, Min.” His voice was calm, but carried an undercurrent I couldn’t decipher. “I like to think I’ve gotten to know you well.” He paused, as if considering, creating an awkward moment I did nothing to disturb. Finally, “I sense that you’re holding back today. I’d like to know why.”
I hugged my knees closer, stalling for time. In all our “visits,” I couldn’t recall Lowell ever pushing me like this before. He rarely pried, and never directly called me out. I was always allowed to steer the conversation, or at least given the illusion of such control.
Say something, at least.
“Sorry.” Not meeting his eye. “Yesterday was boring. I hung out by myself while Mom worked, and then . . .” I trailed off, but the silence stretched, and I knew I’d have to break it this time. “I just wanted to be alone. So I was.”
His corduroy pants squeaked as he straightened. “Nothing unusual happened? No . . . bad memories? No lost time, or unexplained events?”
My feet hit the floor, defensive walls slamming into place. “No, Dr. Lowell. I didn’t have a psychotic episode yesterday. Is that what you want to know?”
Lowell leaned back in his chair. He schooled his body to stillness, but his entire being radiated . . . disappointment.
Uneasiness roiled my gut. Did he know something happened?
“Are you taking your medication?” Dr. Lowell asked abruptly.
The question caught me off guard. “What? Oh, yes.” Except for that morning. In my rush to make it to school on time, I hadn’t swallowed my little blue pill.
“You need to take it every day, Min.” As if he’d read my mind. “It doesn’t work properly otherwise.” His eyes crimped slightly at the corners. He’s angry. And hiding it.
The strange behavior made me bold. “What is the pill, Doctor?” In an inquisitive voice, wearing an expression of harmless curiosity. “I mean, what’s it made of? What’s it supposed to do?” In all our sessions, I’d never really asked before.
A slight tic, swiftly covered. But I saw.
“Neurotandal is a psychotropic compound used to treat patients who have mild-to-severe dissociative disorders of a complex nature,” he said smoothly. “But you know that. You’ve been taking this prescription since you were ten.”
I crossed my legs casually, leaning back against the wall and feigning nonchalance. We were wading into the deep end, broaching a subject that had bothered me for years. I knew I had to swim carefully.
“It’s just, I can only get the medication from you. It’s not at the pharmacy, or anywhere else I know of. I Googled it once and got zero hits, which never happens. I was just wondering . . . you know . . . why.”
Lowell answered effortlessly, as if reading from a manual. “Neurotandal is an experimental drug, which means it’s still stuck in the quagmire of FDA approval and therefore not publicly available. That’s why your mother had to provide written permission when you were little. We’d hoped that it would be right for you, and, thankfully, it has been.”
Then why do I keep seeing the black-suited man? Why do I still die?
Lowell was watching me steadily. Gauging my reaction to his words. This “visit” clearly hadn’t gone as he’d wished.
Did he sense I was covering up an attack?
He shouldn’t, because I’d done it before.
My deaths at twelve and fourteen? I’d never said a word about them. I’d had sessions just like this one after both days, but on those occasions he’d accepted my deflections. So why was today different?
Because he knows.
My instincts spoke with bone-deep certainty. I was suddenly sure Lowell knew things he shouldn’t. The notion more than unnerved me. I wanted out of his office immediately.
No. Don’t run. Set a trap instead.
“Honestly, this morning was way more eventful than yesterday.”
“Oh?” Lowell’s head tilted, warm lamplight reflecting in his eyes. “Something at home?”
Careful.
Frowning, I ran fingers through my hair. Scratched at my cheek. My very best Normal Sullen Min impersonation. “Mom barely noticed me come in, and didn’t say a word until I was halfway back out the door. Sometimes I think she’s given up on me.”
“Your mother works very hard,” Lowell said gently, “but she’s always in your corner. During stressful moments parents can be just as tongue-tied and out of answers as their children. But it doesn’t mean they’ve given up, or love them any less.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
My slipup had been plain, yet Lowell hadn’t blinked.
He didn’t ask where I was coming from. Or why I’d been out in the first place.
The omission might seem innocuous—that he’d simply misunderstood what I’d said—but I knew better. Dr. Lowell never missed things like that. Six years of therapy had left me with little doubt on that account.
My mouth went dry. The implications were staggering. I needed out of there, now, but the hour was barely halfway gone. So I gritted my teeth and mentally closed ranks, determined to give as little as possible.
The rest of the session was brutal: Lowell asked questions, I gave terse answers, and neither of us was satisfied. Finally, he glanced at his watch. “It seems we’re out of time. I look forward to seeing you on our next visit.”
I grabbed my pack and beelined for the door. Through the lobby and out onto High Street, streaking away as fast as possible without drawing eyes. I glanced down toward the lake. Flashing lights illuminated the school parking lot. I saw the town’s fire engine and two of our three squad cars. Despite everything, the sight warmed my heart.
Like punching people now, tough guy?
I was hustling home as fast as I could—satisfied or not, I didn’t want to run into Ethan any more than Tack did—when a thought surprised me so much, I stopped in my tracks.
Lowell had peppered me with questions for nearly an hour. But never, not once during the eternity I was trapped inside his domain, had he mentioned the Anvil.
I stood in the middle of a crosswalk, face scrunched in disbelief. The potential end of the freaking world isn’t on my shrink’s radar? How was that possible? That wasn’t relevant to my mental health?
A horn beeped, and I jumped. Hurried to the sidewalk. Talking to myself wouldn’t yield any answers, and I was the perpetrator of a recent felony.
I needed to get my butt off the streets.

7

My body locks up with fear.
It’s the morning of my twelfth birthday, and I dread what’s coming. I’m certain I won’t survive this time.
I struggle to reassure myself. My eleventh passed without incident. I spent the whole day locked in my room, refusing to speak to anyone, not even Mom. She called Dr. Lowell, who came by the trailer and tried to coax me out.
Nothing will happen, he said. The past experiences are all in your head.
But I didn’t budge. I took my medication that morning, but with zero faith it would work. A pill can’t stop a killer. Can’t hold back my personal angel of death.
But it did.
Nothing happened that day. The black-suited man never appeared.
No fleeing. Or falling. Or dying. No waking up in the woods, cold and alone.
Maybe the medicine really did work, and the murders were delusions after all.
A knock on my door. Mom. She takes one look at me and sighs. “Now, Min.” Sitting on the edge of my bed, she brushes damp hair from my eyes. “You’re going to school today, and that’s a fact. I’ve already spoken with Principal Myers, and he’s expecting you.”
“You called the principal!?” Aghast. If the others find out my mother trades phone calls with Peg-Leg Myers . . .
“And Dr. Lowell,” Mom confirms, each word a dagger. “Everyone understands why you’re upset, but we’ve got to put that behind us. Today is going to be a normal, happy birthday, and it starts with school.” She forces a smile. “There’ll be a party for you and Noah Livingston. Isn’t that nice?”
“Right. Nice.” She has no idea.
I can picture it now: standing in front of the firing squad beside Noah—the cutest, richest, shyest boy in my grade—while his friends snicker and make fun of us, taunting him about his “girlfriend.” He’ll turn red and edge away, leaving me up there alone like a freak.
Mom snaps open the blinds, then clucks audibly. “Well, there goes the bus. You’ll have to walk in. I’ll let them know you’ll be a few minutes late.” She looks over, sees my pained expression. “I’m sorry, Min, but I have to be at work in thirty minutes, and not showering again won’t do. Thomas must’ve thought you weren’t coming. He got on.”
“It’s Tack now.” Of course he thought that. I told him so myself, yesterday.
Moaning piteously, I gather my things. Begin trudging down the dusty lane toward the gate. The sky is leaden gray, as dark as my mood.
The road into town is strangely empty. Down in the valley, the lake is stirring and roiling. Though I can’t feel them yet, I know heavy winds must be sweeping its surface. A light mist creeps over the surrounding woods, punctuated by bursts of rain. Dully, I try to imagine more ominous weather for me to be out walking alone in. I guess it could be sleeting. At midnight.
High beams knife through the thickening fog. I move to the shoulder and wait for the car to pass—a dark, late-model sedan of some kind, moving fast. Idly, I wonder who was that far up Quarry Road this morning in anything less than a pickup.
The car snakes around a bend.
Something about it. I edge farther back onto the shoulder, but the drop-off is steep and slippery from the rain.
The engine revs. I catch a glimpse of the driver.
Sunglasses. Dark suit.
I scream, but it’s far, far too late.
The car swerves, its hood ornament zeroing in on my chest.
A flash of agony. The sensation of flying.
Colors explode, and the world disappears.
•   •   •
I stir well after nightfall. Pitch black, but I know where I am.
My brain shuts down. For a time I just sit there, unable to process.
I see his face through the windshield, an instant before impact. Feel the car slam into my side, crushing bones and tossing me through the air like a rag doll.
It didn’t stop. It’s never going to stop.
My leg brushes something and I recoil. But it’s only my backpack, fully zipped and undamaged. Of course. With nothing else to do or say, I stumble home.
My mother grabs me the moment I enter our trailer, her tired features twisted in a manic combination of anger and relief. A wave of déjà vu engulfs me. “Where have you been?!” Tears spill from her red-rimmed eyes.
Movement in the corner. Dr. Lowell is sitting in my mother’s rocker, drinking from a teacup. “Now, now, Virginia. Please. Let’s talk to Min calmly. I’m sure she’s just as frightened as you are.”
My hackles rise. What’s he doing here?
“I took the pill,” I blurt automatically. Then I regret speaking at all.
“I believe you.” Lowell’s voice is soothing. “Please, sit. Everything is going to be all right. Your mother did the right thing to call me when you failed to show up at school.”
Mom releases me, and I do as instructed.
Dr. Lowell assumes his “counselor” posture. His clothes are neat and dry, his red hair only slightly ruffled. It occurs to me that he’s been here, alone in the trailer with my mother, for quite some time. “Please tell us what happened today. In your own words. Take as much time as you need.” He smiles encouragingly, ghostly pale in the low light.
I don’t respond, hateful memories roaring back to life.
“This is a safe place, Min.” Dr. Lowell’s pleasant affect never wavers. “You’re home, with only your mother and me listening, and we both have your best interests at heart. I want you to treat this like one of our regular office visits.”
Something about the way he’s sitting. The false ease. A sharpness to his gaze.
His tone. There’s a hidden eagerness I don’t like.
So for the first time, I lie.
“I skipped school.” Eyes on our cheap carpet. “I didn’t want a party with Noah, or anyone else. So I hiked into the woods and hid. Read a book. But then I accidentally fell asleep, and woke up in the dark. Ran home.”
My mother slaps her thigh. “Melinda! How coul—”
“Let’s not judge, Virginia,” Dr. Lowell chides gently, one leg still resting comfortably across the other. “Min has had some very difficult birthdays in the past. It’s understandable she might not want to celebrate their anniversary.” He studies me thoughtfully, and though his bearing never changes, I feel added weight to his next words. “Is that what happened, Min? Is there anything else you want to tell me? Anything at all?”
I shiver, as if sinking to the bottom of a deep, dark pool.
But I made up my mind a long time ago. So I meet his eye. Shake my head.
“I have nothing else to say.”

8

The Announcement was set to begin in three minutes.
I flipped a few channels. The presidential seal filled each one. For the first time in history, Uncle Sam was preempting every station and network. If you wanted Game of Thrones, you were simply out of luck.
I tried Twitter, but couldn’t get a signal. Everyone in America must’ve been clogging the towers. Mom was pacing our kitchenette, wiping dishes that were already dry. Her hands shook. I worried she’d drop one and cut herself.
I rose and walked to her side. Gently took the rag away. She tensed, eyes squeezing shut as her chin dropped. “I’m fine . . . Everything is . . .” She shook her head, as if clearing it. “It’s just not fair to you. To young people. You don’t deserve to have your lives snuffed out before you can even—”
“Why don’t we sit?” I guided Mom to her rocking chair, then dropped onto the couch beside it. Her pessimism rattled me, but I was determined not to show it. “Let’s wait and see what NASA has to say first, okay? Who knows? Maybe the Anvil is made out of toilet paper.”
My mother snorted wetly, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. She got a faraway look. “Did you know, when the preschool tested you as a toddler, your IQ was through the roof? Highest number they’d seen in years, the lady said. I don’t remember what it was, but it was very good.” Then her frown returned. A beat later she surged forward, grabbing my hand.
“I want you to know something. And I want you to remember it. Always.”
“Okay.” I swallowed. “What is it?”
“Everything I’ve done. All the . . . hard . . . all the . . . hateful choices I’ve had to make.” Mom paused, as if searching for an inner strength that had clearly fled. “I did what I thought was best,” she finished, releasing my hand. “Always that.”
She looked away. I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
“It’s okay, Mom.” Though I wished she wasn’t doing this now. “I know what—”
“No!” Her eyes closed. “You do not. But there was no other way. I believe that, at least.”
I stared, baffled. But at that moment a voice blared from the TV.
“Please stand by for the president of the United States.”
The Announcement was beginning. All other thoughts flew from my head.
Am I about to be told the exact moment of my death?
The seal disappeared, replaced by a live shot of the Oval Office. The commander in chief was sitting behind her desk, a grave expression on her face. Without preamble, she said, “I’ve just been informed that NASA, seconds ago, completed its final calculations regarding the path of Asteroid 152660-GR4, more commonly known as the Anvil. Neither I nor anyone on my staff has yet heard their conclusions. Therefore, we go live to NASA headquarters in Houston.”
I sat forward on the couch.
A lonely podium on a simple black stage, in what could have been any auditorium in the country. A breathless man in a white lab coat practically sprinted toward the microphone.
Adrenaline flooded my system. This was it. The moment.
The gangly scientist seemed barely able to speak. “It’s going to miss!” he finally wheezed, then shouted full-throat into the mike. “The Anvil will bypass Earth at a range of thirteen thousand, eight hundred, and twenty-seven miles!”
Pandemonium. The auditorium erupted in thunderous cheers. Flashes strobed. People were hugging and screaming with joy. The feed cut briefly to a network studio, where the lead anchor was shaking uncontrollably in his seat, gasping in relief.
My mother slid from her chair to the floor.
I dropped to my knees beside her and grabbed her hand. “Mom? Mom?!”
“Praise God!” she mumbled, rolling to her back to stare at the ceiling. “This wasn’t it. It’s not time yet. I was so sure . . . so convinced . . .”
I pulled her upright, my heart nearly beating out of my chest. “It’s going to miss, Mommy! We’re okay! Everything is okay!”
She tensed so abruptly, I released her in surprise. Sadness crept back into her eyes, but this time Mom tried to cover it. She patted my hand. “That’s right, Melinda J., that’s right. God is good. Everything is going to be okay.” But the raw honesty was gone. I was disappointed by her clumsy attempt at placating me.
The president reappeared onscreen, smiling broadly, but I couldn’t hear her words. Outside, explosions began echoing up and down the valley. I ran to the window. Fireworks were lighting up the night sky, punctuated by sharp pops and booms that could only be gunshots. I heard exultant screams and shouts. Running feet and raucous laughter. Fire Lake had been given a death-row pardon, and its people were celebrating. Hard.
“Get away from there!” my mother admonished, regaining her composure. “Damn fools firing their rifles into the air! Liquored up to boot. People are going to get hurt tonight, mark my words.”
I stepped back from the glass. News coverage had switched to live shots of major cities. People were pouring into the streets, dancing, as if everyone had won a championship at once. I checked my phone again, but still couldn’t get a signal.
I was surprised to discover that I didn’t share the euphoria. Couldn’t connect to the wild celebrations. Why not? Did I want an asteroid to kill the planet?
“I’m going outside. Need some air.”
Mom’s head whipped to face me. “Not a step into town, though. People will be off their rockers tonight.”
Nodding, I stepped out into the cool evening. Barely made it three steps.
Blood rushed to my head. The ground tilted. I staggered, dropped into a lawn chair beside our fire pit. Dark thoughts were choking me. Paralyzing me.
The planet wasn’t going to explode after all. My life would continue as before.
And in two years, it would happen again.
A hand rose to cover my face. Ran its length. The weight of the world resettled onto my shoulders. The madness would continue, and I didn’t even know what was real.
My eyes popped open.
Proof.
There had to be something. Here. At my house. Some tiny piece of confirmation that the black-suited man existed—if only for my own sanity.
I rose, reconstructing the event in my mind. He would’ve assumed I was inside when he arrived. It’d been early, on a weekend. But did he check to make sure? How would he do that?
I began circling the trailer, looking for the slightest indication someone else had done the same. I rounded one corner, then another, reaching the outside of my grimy bedroom window.
My breath caught.
There. In the mud.
I dropped to my knees to be sure.
A single boot print. Low-heeled, with a waffle tread.
Images flickered in my mind. Me, sprawled on my bedroom carpet. A smoking hole in the door. The searing brightness of my fluorescent lights. The black-suited man, standing over me, his boot inches from my face.
Shiny. Black. Low heel. Waffle tread.
This was evidence. Undeniable, concrete fact.
A shallow boot print wouldn’t convince Mom. Or Lowell. Not Sheriff Watson and the Fire Lake PD, all of whom knew about my two previous “adventures” as a little girl. It wouldn’t persuade a single solitary soul that I’d recently been murdered.
But it was enough for me.
Hot tears streaked down my cheeks, falling like raindrops from my chin.
I’m not crazy. The black-suited man exists.
He wore heeled boots, left footprints, and had prowled the perimeter of my trailer before shooting me to death. I stumbled back to the chair and collapsed into it.
The murders were not delusions.
But . . . then . . . what were they? How did I die and come back to life?
Why that clearing? How did I get there? Where was I during the time in between?
I’d spent a lifetime avoiding these questions, part of me secretly convinced I really was insane. It was the only answer that truly made sense.
No more. My experiences were real. Mud doesn’t lie.
So what the hell am I supposed to do now?
Pine straw crunched. I flew from my seat as something large pushed through the hedges behind me. “Easy there, Rousey.” Laughter played on Tack’s lips as he brushed leaves from his long-sleeved Black Keys T-shirt. “Since when did you learn how to box?”
I glanced down. Discovered my hands were curled into fists. I released them, wiping my eyes, face reddening in embarrassment.
Tack misunderstood. “Hey, hey!” He swooped over and gave me a hug. “It’s cool! We’re okay. The Anvil was just a huge boogeyman after all, like you said.”
I nodded, shivering. Automatic gunfire sounded in the distance, followed by several loud booms. The front door to my trailer flew open and Mom’s head poked out. Tack released me and dropped into a lawn chair.
Mom pursed her lips. “Those idiots in the liberty camp are gonna shoot each other full of holes tonight. Can’t say I’ll miss them.” She nodded to my friend. “Evening, Tack. Looks like I’ll be seeing more of you around.”
“Yes, ma’am. My asteroid deflector sure did the trick.”
Mom chuckled. “I’ll let the neighbors know who to thank. You two stay close.”
“Actually,” Tack said, popping to his feet, “we were thinking of heading up to Tip-Top Grove. It’s like a dozen Fourth of Julys down by the lake, and I want to see the show. From a safe distance,” he added hastily.
Tack shot me a wink. Whatever. I had to admit, watching the shenanigans taking place around the valley would be more interesting than sitting here beside a cold fire pit. I could use a distraction.
Mom gave me a stern look. “You two stay this side of Quarry Road. Folks in town will be blowing off steam for God-knows-how-long. There’ll be trouble, I’m sure of it. Tomorrow’s gonna be an asylum at work.”
“Don’t worry.” I started after Tack, who was already skipping down the row like a six-year-old. Mom flashed the rueful smile she reserved just for him before disappearing back inside.
“Yo, Doofus! Slow your roll. Why do you want to visit Tip-Top?”
Tack waited on the common that divided our trailer park. “I was telling the truth, actually. Crazy stuff might be jumping off in the village, and I want a good view of the mayhem. Who knows? Maybe someone will accidentally blast Ethan before he can kill us.”
With a sharp shock, I remembered the crime we’d committed that afternoon.
Jesus. What had I been thinking?
Exiting the gate, we took a rough trail to the base of Miner’s Peak, a towering stone monolith that conveniently blocked our neighborhood from view. If it hadn’t existed naturally, Fire Lake’s citizens would probably have had it built. Tip-Top Grove was a glade of evergreens crowning its rocky point, a ten-minute, mostly vertical hike from the trailer park. From there you could see downtown, the lake, pretty much everywhere in the valley. I was puffing hard by the time we reached the summit.
The Grove is a popular hookup destination, but we found it blessedly empty. I was about to sit down when Tack slapped the trunk of the one giant oak. “Let’s go old-school.” He stared up into its tangle of thick limbs. “How high do you think we can climb?”
“Seriously?” Then I thought, Why not? I’m not too cool to climb a tree. I reached out and rubbed the gnarly bark. Childhood memories flooded back. “As high as it goes, of course.”
Tack grinned and hoisted himself into the lower branches. He lowered a hand to pull me up, but I slapped it aside disdainfully. “Keep moving.”
“Ho ho!” Tack chortled. “Sorry, Katniss! Forgot you were a hard-core survivalist.”
“Damn right.” Drawing level with Tack, I selected an alternate route and shot past him. “I bet we can still reach the Ski Lift.”
Twenty feet up, a group of intersecting branches formed a comfortable basket. I hadn’t thought of it in years. We settled in. The valley spread out below us like a picture book.
A smile split my face. I had to hand it to Tack—this was a good idea.
Moments later, fireworks exploded in rapid succession, blooming like molten flowers before sizzling into the lake. A round of pops carried across the water. “The libertarians are expressing their right to bear arms,” Tack noted drily, pointing to a cluster of lights just visible on the far side, “even though it’s a crime to fire live rounds so close.”
“That whole camp is illegal.” The unsettling bangs and snaps continued for a few minutes before petering out. “Mom says Sheriff Watson doesn’t have the guts to clear out the squatters.”
“The Plank is quiet, at least.” Tack was peering in the opposite direction, at the narrow suspension bridge spanning Gullet Chasm. Fog filled the ravine below it, obscuring the bottom and giving the crossing a ghostly feel.
“Hard to believe that’s the only way in or out,” I said, eyeing the delicate lattice of metal cables. “What happens if the bridge fails?”
“It did, once.” Tack propped his feet on a knotty branch, visibly pleased to know something I didn’t. “In the sixties. My granddad said it was a huge mess. About half as many people lived up here, but they were trapped in the valley for something like two months. The National Guard had to airlift supplies.”
My eyebrows rose. “How’d they finally rebuild it?”
“With metal and concrete. Duh.”
I laughed, settling back against the trunk. I was glad to be there with him. This little trip had rescued me from a miserable night of anger and paranoia. I could always count on Tack to make me feel better.
So why not tell him everything?
The impulse was so powerful, I inadvertently relaxed my grip, wobbling a moment before steadying myself.
Why not tell Tack? I needed to trust someone, didn’t I?
But will he believe?
Inexplicably, Noah Livingston’s face popped into my head. I pictured him sitting in the tree next to me, gazing out over the valley. Which was nuts, since we’d never done anything like this together. So why did I think of him now?
I realized Tack was watching me. “Something wrong?” he asked.
Tell him. Do it. You’ll feel so much better.
High beams scythed through the branches like a scalpel, nearly blinding me. I glanced down, blinking, as a line of xenon headlights appeared at the far end of the bridge.
“What the hell?” Tack rose up, craning for a better look. “You seeing this? There must be forty trucks crossing to our side!”
Tack was right. A tightly packed convoy was traversing the Plank and continuing toward downtown. Vans. Jeeps. SUVs and Humvees. All were an unobtrusive gray, manned by soldiers in uniforms.
“Who in the world . . .” Tack was leaning farther out than I liked, legs wrapped around a quivering limb as he snapped pics on his phone. I doubted he could get a decent shot from this distance. “See those big rigs?” He pointed to a pair of eighteen-wheel trucks rolling along in the center of the formation. “What’s that painted on their sides?”
Squinting, I could barely make it out in the darkness. “Looks like . . . black triangles. Maybe a starburst? I can’t see from here.”
Tack sat back and zoomed the images. “These jokers have to be military, but I’ve never seen that unit marking before. Which is kinda nuts, because I’m good with this stuff.”
I trusted him. Tack’s father had been Special Forces before being discharged for an incident in Afghanistan. We never talked about it, but, judging from the look on Mom’s face whenever the subject came up, it hadn’t been an honorable end to his service.
The motorcade snaked through town—never pausing, despite quite a few gawkers and drunken catcalls—exiting the opposite end and swinging onto Old Fort Run, a little-used dirt road that dead-ended on the eastern side of the valley.
“Oh, wow!” Tack glanced at me. “Only one thing over there.”
“Yep.” I watched the formation slip from the village lights. “Supposedly nothing.”
Like everyone else in Fire Lake, I’d heard rumors about the government land. An old internment camp. A defunct nuclear testing facility. Training grounds for Seal Team Six. Plenty of speculation. But the property had been abandoned since before I was born, with only a chain-link fence and a few warning signs. KEEP OUT.
We watched the convoy disappear into those woods. When it failed to emerge over the next few minutes, the answer was clear.
Tack slapped his leg. “Something’s up. That’s never happened before.”
“Maybe it has. It’s late. What if they always move around at night?”
Tack shook his head firmly. “I’d have heard. My dad wouldn’t have missed something like this, I’m sure of it.”
I held my tongue. Though an ace mechanic, Wendell Russo wasn’t considered “reliable” by most in town, unless you were Mr. Kappel at the liquor store. But despite the rough treatment he received at his father’s hands, Tack revered his old man.
“Let’s head home.” Tack was suddenly energized. “My phone isn’t getting a signal, and I want to Google that symbol. What do you think is back there, anyway? Looked like a lot of soldiers in those trucks. Where are they all going to sleep?”
Tack dropped to a lower branch, then stopped short, peering back up at me. “Wait, did you want to say something earlier?”
I took a breath. Shifted so he couldn’t see my face. “No. I’m good.”
•   •   •
An hour later, I was alone in my bedroom. Mom was already asleep.
When Tack had finally been able to connect, image searches had turned up nothing. Which he couldn’t believe. I could sense an obsession forming in his mind, but this time I was just as curious.
Something didn’t smell right.
The timing.
An unidentifiable military unit arriving in our sleepy valley on the same night the Anvil news went public? I don’t like coincidences, and that felt like a big one.
But to what end? The Anvil will miss, so why does it matter?
I slipped into an old tee and boy shorts. Drank a glass of water. Brushed my teeth and washed my face. Then I saw it. There, on my nightstand.
The little blue pills.
I’d taken one every day for the last six years.
I stared at the bottle. Then I walked to the bathroom and turned it upside down over the toilet. Flushed. I trashed the container and hopped into bed.
Dr. Lowell.
He’d fed me a story of delusions and disorders.
But I saw a footprint.
Weighing courses of action, I settled on a plan.
Dr. Lowell must keep records. About me. About my treatment.

I was going to find them.

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