About the Author
Delilah S. Dawson is the author of Hit, Servants of the Storm, Strike, the Blud series, Star Wars novels and short stories, a variety of short stories, comics, and essays, and the Shadow series as Lila Bowen. She lives in Georgia with her family and a fat mutt named Merle. Find her online at WhimsyDark.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The thing about faking your own death is that it kills a little part of you while setting everything else free. It would feel great if not for the blood under my fingernails and the knowledge that I have nowhere to go. Everything I did, I did for my mom, and I have no way of knowing if they killed her anyway. My dad could be dead too, for all I know. I haven’t seen him since he walked out when I was a little kid. All I want to do is go home, and I can never go home. My entire world is in this car: me, Wyatt, my dog, Matty, the clothes in my backpack, and the laptops I took from a double agent’s burning trailer.
He told me the password before he died. He wanted me to help take down Valor, the bank that now controls the government and sent me out on a killing spree. So I guess I should use it.
I type “Adelaide,” and a green glow fills the car as the laptop flickers to life.
“What is that, the Matrix?” Wyatt asks.
He’s driving too fast, but I wish it were faster. The green lights flash over the dark interior of his old Lexus, and when I glance at him, the green dances over his face, leaving his eyes black slits. It’s hard to see on this curving country road, and I’m grateful for every second that passes without Hummer lights blinding us from behind or the thump of helicopter blades overhead. Because soon Valor will know what we did. And they’ll come after us.
I sigh. “You’re such a nerd. And I don’t know. The green numbers are moving too fast.”
I hit return a few times, hoping something will happen, but nothing does.
“You look good in green. Like the Hulk,” I say quietly, so he knows I didn’t mean the nerd thing and so he knows I’m not still in shock.
At least not on the surface.
The numbers on the screen slow and stop, but even frozen they make no sense. There are no windows, no icons, no white background with discernible navigation. Not even that tooly little paper clip on my mom’s old Dell. It looks like you’re trying to hack into a conspiracy network. Want some tips? Just a black screen with rows and rows of green nonsense, ending in a blinking cursor.
“It’s code,” Wyatt says, and the tires eat gravel as he swerves back into our lane. My heart stutters, but will it ever stop stuttering?
“No shit, Mario. Keep driving.”
He slows and corrects the car, flashing his brights in the shadowy spots where there aren’t any streetlights. Deer eyes gleam green before their white tails bounce back into the darkness, and my heart can’t speed up any more when Wyatt slams on the brakes because it’s already going full tilt. Crashing the car over a deer in the middle of nowhere after all I’ve done would be an ironic end to my story. I’ve killed nearly a dozen people in the past few days, and now I have no idea where we’re going, how we’ll live, where I’ll manage to get clean underwear when this pack of cheap white ones from Walmart runs out.
I thought the laptops would . . . I don’t know. Have all the answers? Maybe a file labeled VALOR PLANS or WHY I PRETENDED TO BE A VALOR MURDERBOT AND THEN HID IN AN OLD SINGLE-WIDE or something from Alistair that explained what we’re fighting and why we were chosen. Why I was chosen. I want to swing by my old neighborhood so bad, but I know we can’t. I just have to hope Wyatt has another hiding place for us tonight, somewhere we can go and sleep off the adrenaline and drink another milk shake.
Except—shit. He can’t use his Valor credit card anymore. They can track us. Every time it slides through a machine, they’ll get a little ping. And I’m almost out of cash. I’ll barely be able to cover his four-hamburger minimum tonight. I’m used to being poor but not completely bankrupt, and it’s easy to see how the entire country got so accustomed to using credit cards. I’d give anything for comfort tonight, even if it meant paying it back double next month. I can’t imagine living through the next week, so maybe the lack of cash won’t matter. It’s not like we can get jobs. No one can know who we are, or Valor will kill us—and maybe everyone around us too. That seems to be how they work.
We’re on a road I drive every day, and yet suddenly I’m a million miles from home, and I slam the laptop closed to keep the torrent of tears from electrocuting my lap. All this week, and I’ve barely cried. All that blood, all those eyes going flat. Explosions, fire, bullets, stitches, fights with Wyatt, running and running and running. I came within inches of being shot tonight. Inches. By this boy I’ve known only a few days but who I trusted enough to almost shoot me, even though I killed his dad. And—I’m so soft inside, so mushed up and broken and trampled. I push the laptops onto the floorboard, pull up my knees, and uglycry so hard that Wyatt’s music is almost drowned out. In the backseat, Matty whines in solidarity, her tail thumping.
The car slows, and Wyatt reaches for me.
“Keep driving,” I say. “I’ll keep crying. No big deal.”
“That’s a band, you know. From Georgia.”
I stare at him, eyes hot and wet. “What?”
“Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. It’s a band. They do ‘Honeysuckle Blue.’ ”
“Jesus, Wyatt. How does that even matter?”
“Uh. I’m driving. You’re crying. This blows? I don’t know. I’m just . . . It’s so surreal, right? Where are we even going? We never discussed that part.”
I fit each eye into a knee and press hard to keep from flying apart. “Take us to another one of your ex-druggie hangouts. Somewhere with no lights, where the car will be hidden, where no one would ever think about looking for either of us. Somewhere with milk shakes and money trees and day-long mosh pits. I don’t care anymore.”
Wyatt puts on his blinker and turns onto the main highway, four lanes buzzing with late dinnertime traffic. Calm as a damn Buddha statue, he says, “Yes, you do. You say that, but you do care. That’s what makes you different. You care, but you keep going anyway.”
My crying falls off after that. He’s right.
I’m not surprised when he turns in to the McDonald’s, but I am surprised when he pulls a twenty out of his backpack. “Get whatever you need. Dad’s emergency fund. Not like he’s going to need it, right?”
I wince and mutter, “Milk shake.”
I wish we still had the mail truck with the bed in back so that I could slither between the seats and lie on the hard bed beside Matty. It’s easier to cry when Wyatt’s not looking at me, when I’m not this broken object on display. He still thinks he can fix things, fix me, somehow. But now the backseat holds an aquarium full of snake and a big black dog who’d love nothing more than to lick all the tears off my face. I don’t even have a sweater to wrap up in or yarn to knit a new one. In all the world, I have nothing but my dead uncle’s dog and this messed-up boy who has no business caring about me because I’m the one who killed his dad.
And then he buys me three milk shakes, one in each flavor, and it’s okay again.
I’m finishing up the vanilla milk shake when Wyatt turns the car down a gravel road. Branches brush the roof, and Matty springs up from the floorboard and sniffs the air.
“Where are we?” I ask.
Wyatt swallows half a cheeseburger and grins. “Just another place Mikey and I used to hang. Land that the county bought to make a park and then ran out of money.”
A NO TRESPASSING sign flashes past, filled with bullet holes.
“Is it safe?”
Wyatt shrugs. “Is anything now?”
I go quiet as he navigates the overgrown road. Asphalt fades in and out. Sometimes it’s just two bumpy red-dirt ruts, and I have to put my milk shake down so my teeth don’t clack. Matty’s pressed to the window, panting like crazy. Monty the python remains creepy and still. The lights flash over a half-blackened concrete block that might’ve once been a crappy apartment in the middle of the forest. Ancient barns and rusted cars pop out of the trees like sleeping dinosaurs caught in the headlights. Finally, Wyatt eases his car in between an old boat and a topless Cadillac and parks. When I squeeze out and look back, stretching until my fists brush the branches, his car has a sort of camouflage. Funny how I hadn’t noticed the worn-off paint on its hood until now.
I open the back door, and Matty bounds out of the car as if she’s forgotten the bullet wound in her neck and starts sniffing around. The big shadow looming over us is a huge, creepy house, one story and all spread out like they made them when my mom was a kid, before people realized that land was a finite sort of thing. Wyatt rummages in the trunk and hands me a flashlight as he hefts his backpack and a sleeping bag over his shoulder.
“Go ahead. Ignore the signs. The key is under the mat.”
I stare up at the house. It looks haunted. “Seriously?”
“Unless you want to sleep in the car with Monty. He loves warm snuggles.”
With a shiver, I grab the fast food out of the front and hurry to the house as if Valor guys are stalking us through the woods. We’re in a clearing, and overhead the stars are as glittery as broken glass. The moon is higher and smaller than it was when I walked up to Wyatt’s door in my postal service uniform just a few hours ago, mostly expecting to get shot, whether by accident or on purpose. I feel like part of me stayed buried with my Valor camera, under my friend Amber’s body in Wyatt’s front yard. The moon watched me then, and it watches me now, distant and cold as a frowning judge robed in black. The moon knows I walked away alive, and by now surely the Valor suits have turned Amber over and realized she’s not me. The question is: Do they care enough to hunt me down?
It would be beautiful out here if I weren’t terrified and shivering, if I weren’t constantly expecting to be shot. When Matty’s tongue slops over my hand and the oil-spattered bags, I go for the key and wrestle the door open. The sign to the right says DANGER: ASBESTOS. So that’s promising.
The door creaks, and I swing the flashlight around. Matty rushes past me and starts sniffing the floor. It looks like this place got burgled during an earthquake in the sixties and everything got left on the ground to rot. The smell is musty with an overlay of moss and the faintest sprinkle of skunk, and I wish to hell Wyatt hadn’t already exhausted his other, nicer hideouts. He’s so close behind me that I can smell his deodorant.
“You pick the best hotels,” I say.
“Five stars. You’re going to love the indoor pool.”
He trades his sleeping bag for my flashlight and leads the way down a narrow hallway with flimsy wood paneling peeling off the wall. Normally I would be too scared of getting in trouble or falling through the floor to walk into an abandoned, dangerous house in the dark. Now I’m checking for hiding places and escape hatches, should Valor come for us. After a few more turns and lots of weird crap that I barely see, we end up in a decently clean room that smells like cigarettes and weed. There’s a squashy sofa in the corner that might sprout mushrooms at any moment and a big pile of records spilling out of sleeves beside an army of empty liquor bottles filled with ashes.
“You and Mikey, huh?”
“Good times,” he says, kind of bittersweet, kind of sarcastic. “But no one ever came out here, not a single time. And this room is the only one that doesn’t leak. So there’s that.”
He arranges the sleeping bag, pulls another flashlight out of his backpack, and hurries outside for more stuff, and I sit down on the sleeping bag and poke fries into my mouth and try to remember how to chew. Matty creeps close on her belly, her head on my knee, like she wants to apologize for all my trouble. Wyatt tromps back in with Monty’s aquarium and hurries right back out. I keep eating. I go throw up in a cardboard box, just to make things interesting, because the floppy French fries remind me of dressing my ex–best friend’s corpse in my own shirt and hat tonight. Amber’s arms were floppy, just like the fries.
When Wyatt comes back, he drops his bag and hurries to my side. I’m curled up in a ball, shaking, making a weird keening noise. Soon he’s a big spoon, making me into the little spoon, holding me tight against his chest, murmuring stupid shit to me and raising my body temperature back up to the land of the living.
“It’s okay. Shh. C’mon. It’s going to be all right.”
That makes me snort. “It’s really not.”
“Is this . . . ? I mean, is this the usual stuff, or something different?”
“Wyatt, if you ask me if I’m on my period, I’m going to literally murder you. And you know that’s kind of my specialty.”
His hand stills on my stomach. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“I guess. It’s the best I can do. And it’s all the usual stuff. I thought I would feel better now, and I don’t. Nothing feels real or okay or better. It was supposed to be over, and it’s not over. I can’t go home.” A sob catches in my throat, and I ride it out, tucking my head into his shoulder. “I can’t go home.”
“Nope. You can’t.”
“You pointed a gun at me and pulled the trigger, and it’s got me all messed up, because I know what that feels like, and I thought I was hard inside. I want to be hard. But I’m all squashy and tangled. All it takes is a bullet in the wrong place. It’s over so much faster than it is in the movies. All the blood. And the eyes.” I dig my fists into my eyelids. “Jeremy’s eyes. God, they—he was Jeremy, and then all of a sudden, he wasn’t. And I was me, but now I’m not anymore. So who am I?”
“You’re you. And it’s not your fault.”
He’s so solid and real and honest that his words just double me up harder, and I am full of so many feelings that I can’t hold them all, and I’m going to explode, because seventeen-year-old girls shouldn’t have to kill people, and I have. A lot of people. They said that if I did what they told me to do, I was supposed to be able to go back to real life, to my house and my mom and my job and school, but here I am now, on the run. With nothing. Just a boy and a dog and a snake, lost in the woods. It was supposed to be worth it. I was supposed to get my life back.
But it’s gone. Just as if I really were dead.
I keep crying.
I cry until lights flash through the window, dancing across the peeling wood walls.
Someone else is in the woods.
My hand tightens around the gun.
I never let it go, you see.
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