Agent Cooper didn’t have to worry. There would be no crying. No emotional mess to mop up. Half the poison these people churned out with their signs, their radio shows, on their news programs was lies, and the rest of it was nonsensical. Freak was an old insult—sometimes you heard a nasty word so often it lost its fangs. That, or I guess your skin eventually could grow too strong, too thick to cut. My heart didn’t bruise the way it used to—they were way too late to get in that particular blow.
I swallowed the thickness in my throat, squeezing the phone’s case in my hand.
If they’re human…
I cleared my throat again, looking out my window. The group of protestors was thinner on the ground, but growing in number again as we left the construction zone. “Everyone’s entitled to stupidity, but they really abuse the privilege, don’t they?”
Mel gave a weak laugh at that, reaching over to smooth back a strand of my hair that had come loose from its twist.
“Still, better call it in,” Agent Cooper said, taking his hand off the wheel to nudge Agent Martinez. “It’s not a direct threat, but they need to know they’re one step away from taking it too far.”
“Agreed,” Agent Martinez said. “We need to start documenting everything, no matter how small. Build a case.”
“Actually,” Mel cut in, now reaching back to adjust the pins she’d used to help secure her locs into a bun, “it’s probably best not to give that fire any air. It’s what they want—we shut them down and they’ll jump on a narrative about us violating their right to free speech. Our job is to tell the truth about the Psi, and the polls show that we’ve been hitting that ball out of the park. The people are on our side.”
That was a small comfort, but it did help. Sometimes it felt like I was talking to everyone and no one at the same time. I never saw the words leaving my mouth reflected on the audience’s faces, good or bad. They just absorbed them. Whether or not they internalized them was another question.
I glanced down at my phone again.
“I should tell you before we get to the venue,” Mel said, turning more fully toward me. A bead of sweat rolled down her cheek, glinting on her dark skin. She reached down to adjust the air-conditioning vent toward her. “I received an e-mail from Interim President Cruz’s chief of staff this morning saying that they’re going to be sending along some new language for your speech. I’m not sure when it’s going to come in, so I might need to add it directly to the teleprompter.”
I didn’t care if my sigh sounded petulant. They had to realize how annoying it was.
“Aren’t they done tweaking it yet?” I hated not having time to practice new material and straighten out my delivery. “What kind of new language is it anyway?”
Mel slid her laptop back into her satchel. The battered leather case tried to spit up a few of the overstuffed folders inside it to make room. “Just some finessed points, from the sound of it. I know you could recite the speech backward and half-asleep at this point, but just keep an eye on the teleprompter.”
I’d repeated different versions of the same speech a hundred times, in a hundred places, about the nature of fear, and how the Psi had reentered society with only a few ripples. But the added responsibility was a good sign that they trusted me more and more. Maybe they’d even add dates and use me again in the fall, for the big election.
“All right,” I said. “But—”
It was the suddenness of the movement that caught my eye, more than the woman herself. She pulled away from the cluster of sign-wavers and bullhorn-shouters lined up along the shoulder to our left. Long, stringy gray hair, a faded floral shirt, a blue scrap of fabric decorated with white stars tied to her bone-white arm. She could have been anyone’s grandmother—if it hadn’t been for the flaming bottle she clutched in her hand.
I knew we were speeding, that there was no way it could be happening, but time has a way of bending around you when it wants you to see something.
The seconds slowed, ticking in time to each of her running steps. Her lips pulled back, deepening the stark lines of her face as she held the bottle high over her head and flung it toward the SUV, shouting something I couldn’t hear.
The small firebomb hit the cement and billowed up with a loud, sucking gasp. It flared as it devoured the traces of oil and chemicals on the highway, blasting my window with enough heat and pressure for it to crack with a high, suffering whine.
My seat belt locked against my chest as our car swerved sharply to the right. I craned my neck, watching the road blaze with a wall of red and gold.
“You guys okay?” Agent Cooper bit out, slamming his foot onto the gas. Mel and I were both thrown back against our seats again. I reached out with one hand, gripping the door to steady myself.
Up ahead, one of the cop cars swerved and blared its sirens. The crowd of protestors scattered into the nearby woods and fields like the cowards they were.
“Holy shit” was Mel’s response.
Fury stormed through me, twisting my insides, clawing at them. I shook with useless adrenaline. That woman—she could have hurt another protestor, Mel, the agents, or one of the police officers. Killed them.
Heat writhed inside me, giving form to my fury. A sharp chemical smell burned the inside of my nose.
It would be so easy to get out of the car and find that woman. Grab her by the hair, throw her to the ground, pin her there until one of the officers caught up with us. So easy.
The charge from the car’s battery seethed nearby, waiting. You think that’s enough to scare me? You think I haven’t had people try to kill me before?
Plenty had tried. A few had come close. I wasn’t prey anymore, and I wouldn’t let anyone turn me into it again, least of all an elderly woman dabbling in a bit of bomb-making with her unpleasant friends.
A single cooling word got through my scorching thoughts.
I forced myself to release my hold on the door. I clenched and unclenched that hand, trying to work out the tension still there. That would be exactly what they wanted. Get a reaction, prove that we’re all monsters only waiting for the right moment to break out of our cages.
She’s not worth it. None of them are.
She wouldn’t be the last one to try to hurt me. I accepted that, and was grateful for the protection we all had now. There was no room for ghosts in my life, whether they were living or dead. Ruby used to say that we’d earned our memories, but we didn’t owe them anything beyond their keeping. I guess she’d know better than most.
We were moving forward, and the past was best left to its darkness. Its ashes.
“It’s all right,” I said, when I trusted my voice to be calm. “It’s okay.”
“That was the definition of not okay,” Mel said, her tone brittle.
“I think you have your direct threat,” Agent Cooper said to his partner, never taking his eyes off the road.
I flipped my phone over from where I had pressed it against my leg, ignoring the pulse pounding at my temples. Even with its rubber case, the screen flickered as a single lance of electricity crawled out of my finger and danced over it. I dropped it back onto my lap, silently praying for the phone to turn itself back on.
Damn. I hadn’t done that in such a long time.
Finally, after another agonizing second, the screen flashed back up again. I swallowed against the dryness in my throat, opening the same text thread as before. My message was still there, still waiting for a response.
“About ten minutes now,” Agent Cooper said. “We’re almost there.”
The phone buzzed in my hand, making me jump. Finally—
I glanced down, fingers flying over the screen to input my password. The thread opened.