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Mom laughed. It was a joyful, tittering, purely artificial sound. “Oh, how cute. She’s willing to step in and save you, darling. Such loyalty—and such a pretty girl, too. Is she sweet on you? So many of the pretty girls have been. Not that you ever paid them any attention. Not that your sainted sister, may she rest in peace, ever let you. Do you think things would have gone differently if she hadn’t been so selfish?”

“Don’t talk about George,” I said, gritting my teeth to keep my calm from slipping away. “She moves, shoot her, Becks.”

“With pleasure, Boss.”

“It seems we have a standoff, son,” said Dad, raising his hands. It felt almost unfair, letting him be the only one in the room without a gun. Good thing I’ve never been too hung up on playing fair. “So what now?”

“Now you stay where you are.” I took a deep breath before asking, “What did you do, Mom? Who did you call?”

“No one a concerned citizen doesn’t have the right to call,” she replied, in the same happy, artificial tone. “You shouldn’t have come here, Shaun. I’m glad you did—it was nice to see you—but you shouldn’t have come.” For a moment, I thought I heard genuine regret in her tone. As hard as I’d tried, I’d never quite been able to stop myself from loving the Masons. Maybe, difficult as it was to credit, they had the same problem.

Maybe they hadn’t quite been able to keep themselves from loving us.

“The house logged our arrival, didn’t it? And you let the information upload. You didn’t have to. We’re not residents, and no one saw us come. You could have scrubbed it, and no one would have ever known.” That’s what I’d been counting on when I suggested coming here. I knew what that security system could do. “Why didn’t you?”

“Be reasonable, Shaun,” said Dad. He shook his head, looking almost contrite. “People are saying you may have had something to do with what’s happening right now in the Gulf. We can’t even get passes to go into the restricted zones. Other journalists with similar credentials have managed to at least get around the edges, but we’re being shut out. Bringing you to justice would counter that. It would show we weren’t working with you.”

“I’m sure the ratings wouldn’t hurt, either,” said Becks sourly. I risked a sympathetic glance her way. I’d been disillusioned by the Masons years ago. She was getting her disillusionment in one lump sum… and like anything that shows your heroes in an unpleasant light, it had to be bitter. So very bitter.

“No,” Mom admitted. “It’s been harder to keep the numbers up since we lost that family dynamic. We got a few spikes when things went bad in Oakland, and a few more when your names started coming up in conjunction with the tragedy, but nothing lasting. Nothing that would bring in the numbers remotely like an act of selfless heroism.”

“So you’re going to sacrifice us for ratings,” I said.

“Now, son, it’s not like that—” Dad began.

“Isn’t it?” I lowered my gun, slowly turning to look at Mom. Feigning curiosity, I asked, “So if you’re willing to trade one son for a better market share… what really happened to Phillip, Mom? Did he just happen to get in that dog’s way, like the official story says? Or were you afraid your fifteen minutes of fame were already over, and just searching for anything that could make them last a little longer?”

Her eyes widened. There was a moment when I wasn’t sure whether she was going to shoot me. Then she was striding across the space between us, Becks forgotten, gun dropping to her side. I could have ducked away from her hand. I didn’t, and the sound of her palm hitting my cheek rang through the room like it was the loudest thing in the world. Becks stood frozen, staring. From the silence behind me, Dad was doing much the same.

Mom’s eyes were filling with furious tears. “Don’t you ever, ever say something like that to me,” she snarled. The anger in her voice may have been the most honest emotion I’d ever seen from her. “You don’t get to talk about him.”

“Well, then, you don’t get to talk about Georgia,” I countered. “How is this different, Mom? I’m your son. You didn’t give birth to me, but you raised me. You’re the only mother I’ve ever had. And now you’re selling my life—my life—because you want better ratings. How is this different from what happened to Phillip? Give me one good answer. Please. Just one.”

She stared at me, seemingly unable to decide whether she should get furiously angry or break down and start to cry. Becks was still holding her pistols aimed at Mom’s head, standing in an easy hip-shot stance that I knew she could hold for hours, if she needed to. I also knew she wasn’t going to need to. Someone was going to break this standoff before much longer. I just hoped it would be someone in the room, rather than someone driving an official vehicle and commanding an urban cleanup squad.

“It was an accident,” said Dad. I didn’t turn. I didn’t want to take my eyes off Mom. “Marigold wasn’t supposed to be in our yard. Phillip was unlucky. This is different.”

“Why? Because it’s premeditated? Because you pulled me and George out of some state orphanage somewhere, and that gives you the right to decide how I’m going to die? Don’t kid yourselves. If you keep us here, we’re going to die. Someone’s going to be careless, someone else is going to say we moved for a weapon, and we’re going to be so much sterilized ash by lunchtime.”

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