THE BLOOD WOULDN’T WASH OUT.
It ran red, red, red, down over my hands, curling over the bruises on my wrists and the scabs on my knuckles. The water pouring from the faucet, hot enough to steam the mirror, should have diluted it to pale pink and then clear nothing. But it just…wouldn’t stop. The dried stains on my skin became fresh again, blooming from a rusted brown to sickening crimson. Snaking lines of it ran down the basin while the drain struggled to drink it all up.
The darkness of the tight room crept up on me, feathering the edges of my vision. I fixed my eyes on the flakes of dried blood stuck to the porcelain like loose tea leaves.
Hurry up, I ordered myself. You have to make the call. You have to get the phone.
My knees bobbed and the world tilted sharply down. I half leaned, half fell into the edge of the sink, catching its smooth edge with my hands. The caulking that held it to the wall crumbled with my added weight, groaning out a warning.
Hurry up, hurry up, hurry—
One by one, I pulled at the spots where blood had dried my blouse against my skin, trying not to choke on the vomit that threatened to come up.
The pipes shuddered inside the walls, the clanging coming faster and louder, until one final bang sent a hard vibration up through the sink.
Shit! I felt around the countertop, searching for something to catch the remaining hot water in.
“No, no, no—come on—”
Those timers—those stupid timers measuring out the room’s supply of clean water, not leaving a single drop to waste. I needed this. Just this once, I needed them to bend the rules for me. The blood, it was on my tongue and teeth and coating my throat. Every swallow brought the metallic tang deeper into me. I needed to get myself clean—
With one last dull beat from the pipes, the water trickled to a thin stream. I picked up the motel hand towel, stiff from being bleached too many times, and shoved it under the faucet to let it absorb whatever water was left.
I clenched my aching jaw and leaned forward unsteadily, bracing my hip against the sink. After wiping a stroke of condensation off the mirror, I used the damp towel to dab at the scab on my lower lip, where it was split and swollen.
The crusts of dirt and blood packed beneath my broken nails hurt with the slightest pressure. My gaze fixed on those dark red crescents that showed through the chipped nail polish. I couldn’t look away.
Not until the clump of hair landed with a wet slap against the sink.
The cheap fluorescent light fixture buzzed, flaring dangerously bright. It fed the snarling static trapped inside my skull. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. The small, jagged piece of flesh. The shape of the strands curling against the wet porcelain.
Not long black hair.
I opened my mouth, but the sob, the scream, locked inside me. My whole body heaved as I frantically twisted the faucets on and off, trying to wash away the evidence, the violence.
“Oh my God, oh my God…”
I threw the wet towel down into the empty sink, whirling toward the toilet and dropping onto my knees. As much as my stomach churned, nothing came up. I hadn’t eaten in days.
I tucked my legs under me on the cool tile, reaching up to work my shaking hands through my hair, yanking at each sticky knot.
This wasn’t working—I needed—I clawed my way up off the ground, reaching for the towel I’d abandoned in the sink. I scrubbed at my hair as the bathroom spun around me.
I closed my eyes, but all I saw was another place, another burning wave of light and heat. I threw out my hand, catching the empty towel rod and using it as one last anchor.
As I touched the thin metal, a sharp snap of static passed up my arm, prickling each individual hair. By the time it raced up the back of my neck, a frisson of power had already gathered at the base of my skull. Behind my closed eyelids, the bathroom’s light flickered again, and I knew I should let go.
But I didn’t.
I pulled on this silver thread in my mind, coaxing it across my nerves and through the thousands of bright, sparkling pathways in my body. The blue-white heat, like the heart of a flame, burned away the dark thoughts in my mind. I clung to the feeling of familiarity racing through me like unstoppable lightning. Inside the walls, the wires hummed in acknowledgment.
I can control this, I thought. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t my doing.
The smell of smoldering drywall finally forced me to release my grip on the bar. I pressed my hand to the scorch marks on the dingy floral wallpaper, directing the power out of the wires and cooling the insulation before it could ignite. The insensible murmuring of the television cut off, only to snap back on a second later.
I can control this. In that moment, I hadn’t been frightened, or even angry. I hadn’t lost control.
It hadn’t been my fault.
In the few days I’d known Roman, his quiet, calm voice had only broken a few times—in anger, in concern, in warning. But there was an edge to it now that I didn’t recognize. Almost as if, for once, he’d let fear shape my name.
“You need to come see this,” he called. “Right now.”
I stripped off my ruined blouse and threw it into the trash can, then wiped my face one last time with the soiled towel before tossing that in, too.
My tank top wasn’t as tattered or stained, but it did nothing to protect me from the damp chill of the motel room’s window AC unit. I limped forward on my broken heels, well aware that the split up the back seam of my skirt was growing with each step. There hadn’t been time to ditch our clothes and find somet
hing more suitable for traveling. In a way, it seemed right to look as wrecked as I felt.
“What is it?” I croaked out.
Roman stood directly in front of the TV, his dark hair falling across his forehead. He was in his usual pose: his hand clenched into a fist, his knuckles resting against his mouth, his brows drawn together in thought. The sight of him there, carefully working through some plan, was actually reassuring. One steady thing in this mess, at least.
He didn’t answer. Neither did Priyanka from where she sat on the bed, staring at the television screen. She had stripped a pillow and bunched up its pillowcase to stanch the flow of blood from a cut over her left eye. The sleeves of her yellow silk dress had been shredded, the fabric drenched with sweat, blood, and what had to be gasoline. The tattoo of a star on her wrist was dark against her brown skin. As she stared straight ahead at the flickering television screen, her free hand struggled to reload the pistol she’d stolen.
“Just…watch,” Roman said tightly, nodding toward the screen.
The newscaster was a middle-aged white woman. She wore a bright pink dress that clashed with her look of severe concern. “Investigators are combing the scene of the incident, and the search is still on for the Psi responsible for the deaths of seven people. The victims are slowly being identified—”
The static was back, buzzing in my ears. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Roman turn to watch my reaction, his ice-blue gaze never wavering, even as the screen began to click on and off, matching my quickening pulse.
My own face stared back at me.
No…no. This wasn’t right. The words drifting along the bottom of the screen, the angle of the footage they kept playing over and over again—this wasn’t right.
The deaths of seven people.
“I need the burner,” I choked out.
I did this.
“What burner are you talking about?” Priyanka asked. “The one you took is dead—”
I didn’t have time for this. “The one you found in the manager’s office and conveniently forgot to tell us about.”
She opened her mouth to argue.
I cut her off before she could begin. “I can feel the battery’s charge in the pocket of your jacket.”
The dead. All those people…
Roman turned, stalking over to where the other teen had dumped her ruined jean jacket on the room’s desk.
No. I can control it. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me.
My hands curled into fists. Outside the motel, the power lines whispered back to me, as if hissing in agreement.
I didn’t kill those people. I needed to talk to someone who would believe me—who could fight for me. If I had to take the phone from Priyanka by force, I’d do it.
“Come on,” Priyanka grumbled to him. “This is ridiculous. You know I could just shut—”
“You won’t,” Roman said sharply to her before passing over the old flip phone and fixing me with a long look. “Tell me this is someone you trust with your life.”
I nodded. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.
I only knew three numbers off the top of my head without the crutch of my cell phone’s contacts list, and only one of those was likely to answer on the first ring. My hands shook so badly, I had to enter it twice, squinting at the small black-and-white display, before I hit CALL.
Roman cast a cold glare at Priyanka and she returned it with fire. I had to turn my back to them; I couldn’t take their uncertainty, and I didn’t want them to see mine.
The phone only rang once before it was picked up and a breathless voice said, “Hello, this is Charles—”
The words burst out of me. “It’s not true—what they’re saying. It didn’t happen like that! The video makes it seem like—”
“Suzume?” Chubs interrupted. “Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I knew it!” Priyanka made a cut motion with her hands. “You called one of your government buddies? Are you really this brainwashed? They’re tracing your call!”
“I know,” I snapped back at her. The risks were real, but Chubs would have a plan. Would know who I should talk to. He knew everything, and now everyone. I could picture him in his office in DC so clearly, flanked by that enormous window and a view of the newly finished Capitol Building.
I could see other things, too. The cameras installed in the ceiling monitoring his every move. The tracking device he wore as a watch. The security detail outside his door.
The years of saying yes, okay, all right sped forward, slamming into me now. I almost couldn’t breathe from the pressure of the realization—the knowledge of how quickly every small agreement had added up to this moment.
“I need you to calm down and pay attention to what I’m saying,” he said sharply. “Where are you? A safe place? Somewhere hidden?”
An ugly feeling planted itself at the back of my mind, taking root there and sending a shiver down the ridges of my spine. The words poured out of me, and as much as I tried to stop them, slow them, shape them, they came out nonsensical. “Tell everyone that I didn’t do it. He tried to—These men grabbed me before I could get away—I don’t know how. It was an accident—self-defense.”
But I remembered Roman’s voice, the way he’d spoken so softly in the uncertain darkness of the truck: For us, there is no such thing as self-defense.
The truth of it suddenly crystallized around me.
Legally, I couldn’t claim it. I knew that. Some part of me had recognized the danger in the new order when the government had issued it the year before, but it had felt so abstract—so reasonable.
The Psi could harness their abilities like weapons, drawing out their deadly sides. The balance of power between a Psi and non-Psi in any given situation would always be unequal. The government had enacted laws to prevent us from being targeted or hunted by anyone. We had special protections. It was only right the others had certain legal protections, too. After all, I’d seen it for myself countless times. Not every Psi had good intentions, and fury at the way we’d been treated in the past was never in short supply.
Every day, we lived at that crumbling edge of civility and cooperation with the interim government. The only recourse was to work together, because the other option was no option at all. We couldn’t let things spiral back into chaos. That would finally force the government’s hand, and the cure would no longer be a choice, but the only way to claim our futures. And that was the marker that things had gone too far—that was the line we had all agreed upon, years ago.
My pulse was thrumming again, sweat breaking out along the back of my neck.
Chubs was so calm, the order so crisp: “You need to drive to the nearest police station or zone checkpoint and turn yourself in. Let them put you in restraints so they know you won’t hurt them. All I want is for you to be safe. Do you understand?”
I could barely get the word out: “What?”
My whole body, everything I was, recoiled at the thought of turning myself over to be handcuffed and led away. This didn’t make sense. He knew what it felt like to be trapped behind barbed wire, at the mercy of guards and soldiers who hated and feared us. He promised—they all promised—that we would never have to go back to that, no matter what.
The plastic cracked in protest under the force of my grip. I tried to keep my eyes focused on the faded art print on the wall, but it kept blurring.
They’re not going to take me.
“This is a serious situation,” he said, carefully crafting each word. “It’s very important that you listen to exactly what I’m telling you—”
“No!” My throat ached as it scratched out the words, “What the hell is wrong with you? I want to talk to Vi—where is she? Put her on the phone—call her in, I don’t care!”
“She’s on assignment,” Chubs said. “Either stay where you are, Suzume, and tell me where that is, or find the road to a safe place where you can turn yourself in.”
My hand was icy as I press
ed it against my eyes, taking in a shaky breath.
“Did you hear me?” Chubs said, in the same measured tone he’d adopted for every council session he was asked to speak at.
That was our lives now, wasn’t it? Even. Steady. Accepting. Never allowed to get mad, never allowed to threaten, or even be perceived as a threat.
For the first time in my life, in all the years I’d known and loved him, I hated Charles Meriwether.
But in the next heartbeat, through the anger buzzing in my head, I heard him.
Find the road.
Did you hear me?
A small static shock traveled from Roman’s fingertips to my shoulder as he brushed it. I glanced back, taking in his apologetic look as he pointed to the phone. Behind him, Priyanka didn’t bother trying to stifle her groan of frustration.
“Okay,” I said. “All right. I got it.”
He was right. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before now. I wasn’t so far away from the place he was hinting at; if I could get past the cameras and drones monitoring the highways, it would only take half a day to get there. Maybe less.
Will you meet me? The words slipped through my mind, each quieter and smaller than the next. Do you even care?
Before either of us could say anything else, I hit END on the call.
Priyanka unfolded her long legs and practically leaped off the bed to take the phone out of my hand. She broke it into little pieces, taking out the battery and SIM card, all the while muttering, “Using my last phone to call the damn government. You don’t just need help, you need full-on reprogramming. Deprogramming.”
“Who was that?” Roman asked, his gaze piercing. “What’s ‘okay’?”
The last few days had threatened to kill me in a thousand different ways, with a thousand different cuts. But if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was smother the fear just long enough to keep surviving.
In darkness, you only needed to see just as far as your headlights extended. As long as you kept going, it was enough.
“I need a car,” I told them calmly. I moved toward the motel’s windows, pulling back the curtain to survey our options. I couldn’t use the one we’d stolen before. The truck’s engine was on its last legs, in any case, and it was almost out of gas. No way could it get me as far as I needed to go.