I make a harsh, involuntary sound.
She stands up. “This is going to be uncomfortable for you. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I’m afraid we have no choice. If this is going to work, I’ll need you to have a healthy, unpolluted headspace. We have to start fresh. When we’re done, you won’t remember anything but what I tell you to remember. Do you understand?”
My heart picks up and I hear its wild, erratic beats amplified on a nearby monitor. The sounds echo around the room like a siren.
“Your temperature is spiking,” Evie says sharply. “There’s no need to panic. This is the merciful option. Paris is still clamoring to have you killed, after all. But Paris”—she hesitates—“Paris can be melodramatic. We’ve all known how much he’s hated you for your effect on Aaron. He blames you, you know.” Evie tilts her head at me. “He thinks you’re part of the reason Aaron is so weak. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if he’s right.”
My heart is beating too fast now. My lungs feel fit to burst. The bright lights above my head bleed into my eyes, into my brain—
“Now. I’m going to download this information”—I hear her tap the silver box—“directly into your mind. It’s a lot of data to process, and your body will need some time to accept it all.” A long pause. “Your mind might try to reject this, but it’s up to you to let things take their course, do you understand? We don’t want to risk splicing the past and present. It’s only painful in the first few hours, but if you can survive those first hours, your pain receptors will begin to fail, and the rest of the data should upload without incident.”
I want to scream.
Instead, I make a weak, choking sound. Tears spill fast down my cheeks and my mother stands there, her fingers small and foreign on my face, and I see, but cannot feel, the enormous needle going into the soft flesh at my temple. She empties and refills the syringe what feels like a thousand times, and each time it’s like being submerged underwater, like I’m slowly drowning, suffocating over and over again and never allowed to die. I lie there, helpless and mute, caught in an agony so excruciating I no longer breathe, but rasp, as she leans over me to watch.
“You’re right,” she says softly. “Maybe this is cruel. Maybe it would’ve been kinder to simply let you die. But this isn’t about you, Ella. This is about me. And right now,” she says, stroking my hair, “this is what I need.”
The whole thing happens so quickly it takes me a second to register exactly what went down.
Delalieu is dead.
Delalieu is dead and Anderson is alive.
Anderson is back from the dead.
I mean, right now he’s flat on the ground, buried under the weight of every single piece of furniture in this room. Castle stares, intently, from across the space, and when I hear Anderson wheezing, I realize Castle isn’t trying to kill him; he’s only using the furniture to contain him.
I inch closer to the crowd forming around Anderson’s gasping figure. And then I notice, with a start, that Adam is pressed up against the wall like a statue, his face frozen in horror.
My heart breaks for him.
I’m so glad Adam dragged James off to bed hours ago. So glad that kid doesn’t have to see any of this right now.
Castle finally makes his way across the room. He’s standing a few feet away from Anderson’s prone figure when he asks the question we’re all thinking:
“How are you still alive?”
Anderson attempts a smile. It comes out crooked. Crazy. “You know what’s always been so great about you, Castle?” He says Castle’s name like it’s funny, like he’s saying it out loud for the first time. He takes a tight, uneven breath. “You’re so predictable. You like to collect strays. You love a good sob story.”
Anderson cries out with a sudden, rough exhalation, and I realize Castle probably turned up the pressure. When Anderson catches his breath, he says, “You’re an idiot. You’re an idiot for trusting so easily.”
Another harsh, painful gasp.
“Who do you think called me here?” he says, struggling to speak now. “Who do you think has been keeping me apprised”—another strained breath—“of every single thing you’ve been discussing?”
A horrible, sick feeling gathers in my chest.
We all turn, as a group, to face Nazeera. She’s standing apart from everyone else, the personification of calm, collected intensity. She has no expression on her face. She looks at me like I might be a wall.
For a split second I feel so dizzy I think I might actually pass out.
That’s it—that’s the thing that does it. A room full of extremely powerful people and yet, it’s this moment, this brief, barely there moment of shock that ruins us all. I feel the needle in my neck before I even register what’s happening, and I have only a few seconds to scan the room—glimpsing the horror on my friends’ faces—before I fall.
I’m sitting in my office listening to an old record when I get the call. I worry, at first, that it might be Lena, begging me to come back to her, but my feeling of revulsion quickly transforms to hate when I hear the voice on the line. My father. He wants me downstairs.
The mere sound of his voice fills me with a feeling so violent it takes me a minute to control myself.
Two years away.
Two years becoming the monster my father always wanted me to be. I glance in the mirror, loathing myself with a new, profound intensity I’d never before experienced. Every morning I wake up hoping only to die. To be done with this life, with these days.
He knew, when he made that deal, what he was asking me to do. I didn’t. I was sixteen, still young enough to believe in hope, and he took advantage of my naiveté. He knew what it would do to me. He knew it would break me. And it was all he’d ever wanted.
I sold my soul for a few years with my mother, and now, after everything, I don’t even know if it’ll be worth it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to save her. I’ve been away too long. I’ve missed too much. My mother is doing so much worse now, and no doctor has been able to help her. Nothing has helped. My efforts have been worse than futile.
I gave up everything—for nothing.
I wish I’d known how those two years would change me. I wish I’d known how hard it would be to live with myself, to look in the mirror. No one warned me about the nightmares, the panic attacks, or the dark, destructive thoughts that would follow. No one explained to me how darkness works, how it feasts on itself or how it festers. I hardly recognize myself these days. Becoming an instrument of torture destroyed what was left of my mind.
And now, this: I feel empty, all the time. Hollowed out.
I didn’t want to come back here. I wanted to walk directly into the ocean. I wanted to fade into the horizon. I wanted to disappear.
Of course, he’d never let that happen.
He dragged me back here and gave me a title. I was rewarded for being an animal. Celebrated for my efforts as a monster. Never mind the fact that I wake up in the middle of every night strangled by irrational fears and a sudden, violent urge to upend the contents of my stomach.
Never mind that I can’t get these images out of my head.
I glance at the expensive bottle of bourbon my father left for me in my room and feel suddenly disgusted. I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want his opiate, his preferred form of oblivion.
At least, soon, my father will be gone. Any day now, he’ll be gone, and this sector will become my domain. I’ll finally be on my own.
Or something close to it.
Reluctantly, I pull on my blazer and take the elevator down.
When I finally arrive in his quarters as he requested, he spares me only the briefest look.
“Good,” he says. “You’ve come.”
I say nothing.
He smiles. “Where are your manners? You’re not going to greet our guest?”
Confused, I follow his line of sight. There’s a young woman sitting on a chair in the far corner of the room, and, at first, I don’t recognize her.
When I do, the blood drains from my face.
My father laughs. “You kids remember each other, right?”
She was sitting so quietly, so still and small that I almost hadn’t noticed her at all. My dead heart jumps at the sight of her slight frame, a spark of life trying, desperately, to ignite.
“Juliette,” I whisper.
My last memory of her was from two years ago, just before I left home for my father’s sick, sadistic assignment. He ripped her away from me. Literally ripped her out of my arms. I’d never seen that kind of rage in his eyes, not like that, not over something so innocent.
But he was wild.
Out of his mind.
She and I hadn’t done anything more than talk to each other. I’d started stealing down to her room whenever I could get away, and I’d trick the cameras’ feeds to give us privacy. We’d talk, sometimes for hours. She’d become my friend.
I never touched her.
She said that after what happened with the little boy, she was afraid to touch anyone. She said she didn’t understand what was happening to her and didn’t trust herself anymore. I asked her if she wanted to touch me, to test it out and see if anything would happen, and she looked scared and I told her not to worry. I promised it’d be okay. And when I took her hand, tentatively, waiting for disaster—