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“But I been a good worker,” Harlan whined. “I done nothing wrong since I got here.”


“Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure,” Yeager recited. “You bear Azazel’s mark. We will not be pure again until you are gone. From this time forward, you are Banned.”


“No. Please. At least let me stay the night,” Harlan said hoarsely. “For God’s sake, it’s already late afternoon. It’ll be dark soon!”


“Then I suggest,” said Yeager, “that you run very quickly.”


51


“We need to find her,” Alex demanded. Kincaid and Chris sat with her in Jess’s kitchen. A golden slant of late-afternoon sun sliced through a window as Jess silently doled out cups of hot tea. Lena, Tori, and Sarah were out at their respective jobs, for which Alex was grateful. The last thing she needed was more of Lena’s mouth; she was tense enough already.


Peter had elected to escort Harlan out personally, and from the look on his face, she thought that Harlan would be very lucky to make it through the next hour. She wished she felt sorry for Harlan, but she didn’t. “You heard him, Chris. They were a day south. That’s what … twenty, thirty miles?”


“A day south two weeks ago. We didn’t have the manpower to search for Tom, and that was nearly the same distance. It’s not a straight line, Alex. It’s twenty miles and who knows which direction,” said Chris.


“You guys go out all the time.”


“Yes, but that’s with specific objectives in mind. We know where we’re going. A search is very different.”


“But she’s only eight.”


“I’m sorry, Alex,” said Chris. “We can’t.”


“You mean, you won’t. She’s Spared, but she’s not valuable enough.”


Chris opened his mouth to reply, but Kincaid broke in. “Alex, Chris is on your side. He’s the one who got Peter to go out after your friend. He can’t change what his grandfather decides, or Peter. It doesn’t work that way.”


“What makes Yeager so right? You make it sound like he’s some miracle guy. Why’s he in charge, anyway? Don’t you guys ever decide anything for yourselves?”


That got to Chris; she could smell that sliver of ice splinter his darkness. “Listen,” he said, “you don’t know everything. You just got—”


“Chris.” Kincaid put a warning hand around Chris’s wrist. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? Maybe it’s best you head on home now.”


Chris wanted to argue; Alex could see that in the set of his jaw. But all Chris did was give a curt nod before sliding out of his chair. Shrugging into his coat, he said, “I’ll be by for you tomorrow.”


“What? Why?” she said.


“You need an escort,” said Chris.


Before leaving the village hall, Yeager had suggested she work with Kincaid at the hospice, a suggestion that was an order. Probably to keep an eye on me, she thought now. “I can escort myself.”


“That’s not the way things work here, girl,” Jess said.


“But I don’t need him,” she said.


“Sometimes you don’t know what you need until it’s gone,” said Kincaid.


She felt a twinge of disquiet. Chris didn’t seem to be a bad guy, but all these stupid rules, a guard outside the house, and now an escort? Were they going to watch her around the clock? What had she gotten herself into? “Look, it’s nothing personal,” she said to Chris. “It’s just that I—”


“No, it’s fine.” The skin around Chris’s mouth was white. “I’ll get someone else to do it. I wouldn’t be able to do it every day anyway.”


“But I don’t want anyone.”


“It’s not my call,” said Chris.


“Well, he’s your grandfather. Talk to him.”


“It’s not that simple. The rules are the rules. You have to follow them.”


“Or what? You’re going to kick me out?” She pushed back from the table. “Fine. That’s what I want anyway. I’ll leave now. Just give me back my gun and a pack, and I’m out—”


“Oh, for pity’s sake, put a plug in your jug, Alex,” said Jess. “I’ve aged five years just listening to you.”


Alex felt her neck heat. “I’m just saying—”


“Jess,” Chris began at the same moment, “if she doesn’t want me—”


“Be quiet, both of you. Honestly, you two are like cats in a gunnysack. Alex doesn’t know what she wants.”


“Wait a minute,” Alex flared.


“You only want to brawl. You want a fight. Fighting tricks you into believing you can change the past, even when the past is dead and gone and all of it ashes,” said Jess.


Alex felt the hot burn in her chest dim. Jess was right, damn her. Fighting back had been drilled into her from day one of her diagnosis. For her, accepting the monster meant giving up, succumbing. If you didn’t fight, you died. Had that changed when she walked away, cut school, and headed for the Waucamaw? No. She’d fought back in a different way, that was all: pushing back at the doctors and the tests and the treatments in favor of calling the shots herself. Since the Zap, she’d been fighting to stay alive every day.


So, now what? Accept what was happening here? No. She hadn’t chosen this life; this wasn’t her home. These were not her people. They were nice enough, but they had their reasons for keeping her here—she was sure of it—and by God, she wasn’t going to stop fighting now. She was getting out of here, and she would find Tom and Ellie. She just had to figure out a way.


Aloud, she settled for something that was also true. “I’m just mad about … you know. Everything.”


“I know that,” said Jess. “You’re only human, but you need to start thinking about the greater good. As for you, Christopher, you need to get over yourself and lighten up. Now, you’re young, you’ve been thrust into a position of responsibility well before your time, and you’re scared. But sticking to rules just because they’re there does not make them right. You need to learn when the rules should be broken.”


“Yes, ma’am,” Chris said. If anything, his dark scent grew even blacker—not anger, Alex thought, but embarrassment. Chris’s eyes bounced from Jess to Alex and then to the table. “An escort’s probably overkill.”


Yes. Alex squashed a quick spurt of triumph, afraid it would show on her face. Now, if I can get them to loosen up a little more …


But Kincaid was shaking his head. “You let her go without an escort, you’re gonna have to change the rule for everybody then. Not sure you want to go there without a lot of thought. Gonna have to go up against Peter on that one, and probably the Council. I don’t think you’ll win.”


Chris threw up his hands. “There’s no satisfying you guys. First, Alex fights me, then Jess tells me I should break rules, and then you turn around and tell me I shouldn’t. I mean, Jesus.”


“Language, young man,” said Jess. “Matt is right. If you want to make an exception, you’ll need a good reason. Charting your own course isn’t the same as being impetuous. Right now, Alex is just complaining. She could be Lena all over again.”


“Hey,” said Alex. The fact that she was trying to figure out a way to escape didn’t make her any less pissed. She was so not Lena.


“So this is what’s going to happen,” Jess continued. “Christopher, you will take her when you can and if your duties permit. Get to know Alex. If you feel that she can be trusted to come and go on her own, then let her. Tell Peter why. Heavens, if it’s a question of protection, let her prove that she can take care of herself.”


“And how am I supposed to do that?” asked Chris. His pale skin was a patchwork of white and scarlet, and his dark eyes were glittery with anger. “Give her a gun? Let her get in some target practice? Ride with us?”


“Yes,” said Alex. “I’ll bet I can shoot just as well as you guys.”


“For so is the will of God, that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” Jess threw Alex a look. “And foolish girls. Until you know what you’re about, Alex, hold your tongue.” To Chris: “You are a very smart boy. Figure out what is right and then do it.”


“Jess, it’s not as easy as that,” said Chris.


“Nonsense. You want to be a man? Start acting like one.”


“Jess,” Kincaid said, “the boy’s doing the best he—”


“I can defend myself,” Chris snapped. That icy edge was more pronounced now, cleaving his shadows in two. Alex felt a squirt of sympathy. She could handle Chris, but she didn’t really want to watch him getting hammered by a woman old enough to be his grandmother.


Jess said, “Chris, you have survived this long by being both very lucky and very smart, but eventually, you must follow your own path, however frightening.”


“I am,” said Chris. His face was ashen. “I am.”


“No, you’re not. Obeying orders just to obey is the mark of a person who has ceased to think. Remember, it is better to suffer for doing what is right than for doing what is wrong. Don’t fool yourself, Christopher. Peace comes with a price.”


What was going on? Alex had the feeling that they—Jess and Chris and even Kincaid—were talking over her head somehow. This was not about Chris’s playing bodyguard, but an argument over a question she hadn’t yet asked. She thought Chris would say something, but his hands fisted, grabbing back whatever had been on the tip of his tongue. Then he stalked out, flinging the kitchen door shut with a resounding clap that made the glass chatter.


“That went well,” said Kincaid.


“Sow the seeds of righteousness,” Jess murmured.

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