Authors: Skye Malone
He shrugged. “So is there someone in your town who would come get us? If we run out of money, I mean.”
I tried not to grimace. Baylie might not be back yet. I still didn’t know how to explain this whole dehaian thing to her.
And I’d have to face them sooner or later.
“My parents,” I said, attempting to keep the reluctance from my voice.
He seemed to hear it anyway. “Would that be alright?”
“It’s awkward,” I explained. “They’re landwalkers. They adopted me. Never told me. Lied to me my whole life.”
I cut off, anger boiling up like a wound I’d forgotten about suddenly starting to bleed again.
“Last time I saw them… it didn’t go well,” I finished.
“You want to do this, then? Go back there?”
I shrugged. “Not much choice, right?”
Zeke paused. “We could come up with another plan.”
I looked over at him. It was tempting.
But I couldn’t run forever. And he needed to get home too.
“It’ll be okay,” I said.
A heartbeat passed before he nodded.
Drawing a breath, I put the truck in gear again. “So… not the main route.” I glanced to the nameless country road behind us. “We’re going to need a map.”
In the end, the gas and the money got us within two hundred miles of home before the truck started to sputter.
“So what does that thing say about the nearest town?” I asked Zeke.
Stabilizing himself while the truck bounced over another pothole in the road, he scrutinized the atlas we’d picked up at a gas station several states ago.
“Corwin, Nebraska. About ten more miles.”
I bit my lip. There was little chance we’d make it that far.
Though, considering we hadn’t seen a town in what felt like forever, that was still better than nothing.
We continued down the rough highway without a single car in either direction. Fields and flatlands surrounded us, with the occasional farmstead to break the tedium. The mid-morning sky was a brilliant shade of blue with barely a cloud to be seen, while a breeze drifted through the open windows of the truck, breaking the summer heat. We’d driven through the past day and night, stopping every few hours for breaks – wonderful, amazing breaks – while we tracked across state highways and alternate interstates from the one that led straight home.
A choking noise came from the engine. My pressure to the pedal resulted in a short burst of acceleration.
And then nothing.
I pulled the truck over and let it roll to a stop.
A sigh escaped me. I looked to Zeke.
“And now we walk,” he said, setting the atlas aside.
I nodded. With a glance to the empty road, I shoved the door open and then climbed from the truck.
Gravel crunched beneath our feet as we headed along the side of the highway.
“So this is the middle of your country,” Zeke commented.
I glanced to him. A considering expression on his face, he regarded the fields.
He grinned. “No. I’m just… I never thought I’d come here, is all.” He shrugged. “It’s interesting.”
I gave him a wry look.
“I mean it,” he protested. “It’s… well, it’s kind of like home.”
My expression became incredulous. “How?”
“Open. Sort of featureless, but still beautiful. And there
the big blue expanse overhead.”
I scanned the terrain around us. “You’re just being nice.”
He chuckled. “And?”
I shoved at him jokingly. He caught me and pulled me closer.
His arm around my waist, we kept walking.
“Thank you for coming with me,” I said.
“Glad I could.”
Past the grassland ahead, a forest came into view, with a town scattered inside it. A water tower rose above the greenery, though if there was a name painted on its side, it wasn’t facing us. Two-story houses like faded advertisements from a 1950’s magazine lined the street, with cars parked in front of them and a smattering of American flags dotting their yards. At the outer reaches of the town, a gas station sat, a rusting shelter over the pumps and strings of triangular banner flags in red, white and blue looping along its sides.
My brow furrowed, and then I realized that in all the chaos, I’d forgotten that the summer was probably creeping toward the Fourth of July.
With a quick glance in either direction, we crossed the road to the gas station and then walked across the empty lot. A cool blast of air-conditioning hit us when Zeke tugged open the door to the tiny building, most of the windows of which were covered by advertisements for pop and beer.
Behind the register, the twenty-something-year-old clerk glanced up from his gaming magazine. His gaze flicked from us to the empty station lot, and then his brow drew down at the sight of the bruises on us.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Um, yeah. Do you have a phone we could use?”
He gave a slow nod. “Sure.” He jerked his head toward the other side of the store. “Payphone in the back.”
“Thanks. Could you give me some change, then?”
From my pocket, I took out the last of the cash.
He opened the register and handed me quarters for the bills.
I smiled. Turning quickly, I threaded through the aisles with Zeke.
In an awkward little nook at the corner of the store, the payphone clung to the wall. A weathered phonebook had been shoved onto the shelf below it, while barely legible graffiti decorated the walls of its tiny booth. Exhaust from the glass-door refrigerators next to us heated the small space, though their fans provided just enough noise that I could hope that the clerk wouldn’t overhear me.
I pulled a few coins from my pocket and sent them clunking into the slot.
My hand trembled as I went to dial.
“Hey,” Zeke said quietly. He twined his fingers through mine. “It’ll be okay.”
I gave a tight nod. My gaze went to the clerk, who was still watching us with a confused expression. Drawing a breath, I returned my focus to the phone and punched in my parents’ number.
An electronic message informed me of the charge for the call. I shifted the phone to my shoulder while I dug more of the change from my pocket, not wanting to let go of Zeke’s hand, and then sent the coins into the slot.
Moments passed. A digital-sounding ring came from the receiver. Heart pounding, I waited for the call to connect.
I tensed. “Mom?”
There was a pause. “Chloe?” She made a choked noise. “Chloe! Are you– where are you? Are you okay?”
The genuinely concerned tone in her voice made it hard to breathe, considering how uncommon it was. “Y-yeah, I’m fine. Look, I don’t have long. I’m in Corwin, Nebraska. My, um…” I broke off, not wanting to explain about the truck. “I’m kind of stuck here. Could you or Dad come get me?”
“Nebraska?” she repeated.
“Please, I’m running out of change for the phone. We’re–” I caught myself. I didn’t want to mention Zeke either. That’d be its own trouble. “I’m at a gas station on the west side of town. Could you pick me up?”
She was silent for a moment. “Yes, we’ll be right there.”
A pause followed the words. “Chloe, I…” She cleared her throat, dropping whatever she’d been about to say. “Just… just please stay there.”
I waited a heartbeat, but nothing else came. She didn’t hang up. Didn’t say another word. Uncertain what to do, I hesitated and then returned the receiver to its holder.
“Everything alright?” Zeke asked.
Swallowing hard, I nodded.
I nodded again.
He reached over, putting his other hand to mine where it still rested on the phone. I blinked and looked up at him.
“What is it?” he asked.
My mouth worked, trying to find the words. “She just sounded so… worried. Like, really worried. Not just the stupid fake worry she always has about everything.”
His brow furrowed a bit, but he didn’t press the topic. “Come on,” he said with a glance to the clerk, “let’s wait outside.”
I followed him from the building. The warm air felt jarring after the ice cold temperature of the station, while the fields and town seemed nearly silent. A trio of parking spots lined the front of the building, with a yellow-painted concrete curb ahead of them. Walking a short distance from the door, we checked that the clerk couldn’t see us too well and then sat down.
Birds called to each other. I watched them flitting over the crops across the road.
I couldn’t figure out what might have worried her. It couldn’t be the Sylphaen. Or greliarans. Or anything else that’d threatened my life in the past week. And surely Noah had mentioned I’d survived changing. I mean, they didn’t sound like they’d thought I was dead, and however much of a jerk he’d turned out to be, he still would’ve had to say
when he came back without me.
“So how long will it take them to get here?” Zeke asked.
I flinched, his voice snapping me from my thoughts. “A few hours, maybe.”
A single car sped by on the road. I tensed, struggling not to feel like they might be watching us.
“We have enough change left to get something to eat?”
I glanced to Zeke.
He shrugged. “Couple hours to kill.”
I looked back at the cluster of trees called Corwin. Thanks to my weird dehaian metabolism, it’d been a day or so since I’d eaten anything.
And I didn’t want to just sit here out in the open the whole while.
There had to be a restaurant in there somewhere.
“Sure,” I agreed.
We stood and headed for town.
“So I was thinking we could get pizza at Deltorio’s for dinner. That sound good to you guys? Evening out on the town and all that?”
I looked away from the television as my mom popped her head around the accordion door to the sunken den. With her wavy, blonde hair swinging in her loose ponytail, she waited for our answer.
“Yeah, Sandra,” Baylie replied, shifting position in her place at the other end of the long couch. “That’d be great, thanks.”
Mom smiled and then she disappeared back down the hall.
Baylie propped her head on her hand and returned her attention to the television. She and I had gotten into town late last night, and we’d been here most of the morning, channel surfing for lack of anything better to do.
“I swear,” she sighed as the mid-morning news started, the screen flashing from fuzzy shots of the state capital to reports of some unexpected storm out near Hawai’i. She flipped to a different station. “Cable is so overrated.”
My lip twitched as I glanced to her. “Movie marathon?”
I pushed away from the couch. Stepping around Baylie’s yellow Lab, Daisy, who was asleep in a patch of morning sunlight nearby, I headed for the cabinet below the television. Tugging open the doors, I regarded the rows of movies.
“Comedy… action… what’re you thinking?” I offered.
“Whatever you want.”
I skimmed the titles in the cabinet. It was a tradition with Baylie and me, watching movies when I came to visit. There wasn’t much else to do in Reidsburg, and as activities went, it was a whole lot better than going to the gas station or the other random places people in this small town hung out.
It didn’t hurt that we had pretty much the same taste in films, either.
I tugged out a box set of The Godfather movies, and another of the Lord of the Rings. Either would eat most of the day, which wasn’t a bad thing. I wanted distractions, and we both needed anything resembling normalcy.
“Thoughts?” I prompted, turning to hold them both up for her.
She blinked, pulling her gaze from the glass patio door. I caught the flash of worry in her eyes, though she buried it fast. “Um, Dad and I watched the Lord of the Rings not too long ago,” she replied, her casual tone sounding a bit forced. “So…”
I nodded and turned back to the cabinet, struggling to keep from grimacing. We were right next door to Chloe’s old house and the awareness of that fact had sat between us like the elephant in the room ever since we’d gotten into town. We hadn’t mentioned it. For my part, I’d barely even looked at the house. I felt guilty for being grateful that we’d avoided the topic, but I really didn’t want to think about Chloe. I knew Baylie was worried; no one had explained why Chloe wasn’t home, why she’d really had to leave in Santa Lucina, or why, short of one phone call asking for a ride a few days ago, no one but me had heard from her in a week. We’d only said that Chloe had gone away with some family friends for a while, and that she was safe.
But I couldn’t figure out how to tell Baylie the truth. Her best friend wasn’t human.
And she wouldn’t be coming back.
I swallowed, forcing my attention to the movies. We’d done fairly well keeping up the pretense of things being normal. I wasn’t about to let that go. Not yet.
“Alright, well, you want to grab the popcorn?” I asked without turning around.
“Yeah, no problem. You want–”
She cut off as a knock came on the front door.
“Hey, Baylie, could you grab that?” Mom called.
Baylie sighed. Rising from the couch, she set the remote down and then walked out of the room.
I put the movies aside. Retrieving the remote from the coffee table, I scanned the buttons for the one that would switch the input feed away from cable.
Baylie opened the door. I heard her gasp.
And then the sound cut off.
My brow drew down. “Baylie?” I called, dropping the remote to the couch. “Everything alright?”
She didn’t respond.
“Where is she?” a familiar voice whispered.
My blood went cold. I ran for the hall.
Uncle Richard stood in the front room. He had Baylie pressed to the wall beside the door, one arm holding her there while his other hand was clamped over her mouth. Wyatt and Brock were just inside, and past them, I could see Owen and Clay watching the neighborhood from the yard.
Their mouths curled into smiles at the sight of me.