That gets my attention. “You thought wrong,” I say. “I was happy to hear you were dead.”
“Are you sure?” He tilts his head. “You’re sure you didn’t shed a single tear for me? Didn’t miss me even the tiniest bit?”
All it takes is a moment of hesitation. The half-second delay during which I remember the weeks I spent caught in a prison of half grief, hating myself for mourning him, and hating that I ever cared at all.
I open my mouth to speak and he cuts me off, his smile triumphant. “I know this must be a bit unsettling. And I know you’re going to pretend you don’t care. But we both know that your bleeding heart has always been the source of all our problems, and there’s no point trying to deny that now. So I’ll be generous and offer to overlook your treasonous behavior.”
My spine stiffens.
“You didn’t think I’d just forget, did you?” My father is no longer smiling. “You try to overthrow me—my government, my continent—and then you stand aside like a perfect, pathetic piece of garbage as your girlfriend attempts to murder me—and you thought I’d never mention it?”
I can’t look at him anymore. I can’t stand the sight of his face, so like my own. His skin is still perfect, unscarred. As if he’d never been injured. Never taken a bullet to the forehead.
I don’t understand it.
“No? You still won’t be inspired to respond?” he says. “In that case, you might be smarter than I gave you credit for.”
There. That feels more like him.
“But the fact remains that we’re at an important crossroads right now. I had to call in a number of favors to have you transported here unharmed. The council was going to vote to have you executed for treason, and I was able to convince them otherwise.”
“Why would you even bother?”
His eyes narrow as he appraises me. “I save your life,” he says, “and this is your reaction? Insolence? Ingratitude?”
“This,” I say sharply, “is your idea of saving my life? Throwing me in prison and having me poisoned to death?”
“That should’ve been a picnic.” His gaze grows cold. “You really would be better off dead if those circumstances were enough to break you.”
I say nothing.
“Besides, we had to punish you somehow. Your actions couldn’t go unchecked.” My father looks away. “We’ve had a lot of messes to clean up,” he says finally. “Where do you think I’ve been all this time?”
“As I said, I thought you were dead.”
“Close, but not quite. Actually,” he says, taking a breath, “I spent a great deal of time convalescing. Here. I was airlifted back here, where the Sommerses have been reviving me.” He pulls up the hem of his pants and I glimpse the silver gleam of metal where his ankle should be. “I’ve got new feet,” he says, and laughs. “Can you believe it?”
I can’t. I can’t believe it.
He smiles, obviously satisfied with my reaction. “We let you and your friends think you’d had a victory just long enough to give me time to recover. We sent the rest of the kids down to distract you, to make it seem like The Reestablishment might actually accept its new, self-appointed commander.” He shakes his head. “A seventeen-year-old child declaring herself the ruler of North America,” he says, almost to himself. And then, looking up: “That girl really was a piece of work, wasn’t she?”
Panic gathers in my chest. “What did you do to her? Where is she?”
“No.” My father’s smile disappears. “Absolutely not.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means absolutely not. That girl is done. She’s gone. No more afternoon specials with your buddies from Omega Point. No more running around naked with your little girlfriend. No more sex in the afternoon when you should be working.”
I feel both ill and enraged. “Don’t you dare— Don’t ever talk about her like that. You have no right—”
He sighs, long and loud. Mutters something foul. “When are you going stop this? When will you grow out of this?”
It takes everything I’ve got to bite back my anger. To sit here, calmly, and say nothing. Somehow, my silence makes things worse.
“Dammit, Aaron,” he says, getting to his feet. “I keep waiting for you to move on. To get over her. To evolve,” he says, practically shouting at me now. “It’s been over a decade of the same bullshit.”
Over a decade.
“What do you mean,” I say, studying him carefully. “‘Over a decade’?”
“I’m exaggerating,” he says, biting off the words. “Exaggerating to make a point.”
For the first time, something uncertain flashes through my father’s eyes.
“Will you admit it?” I say quietly. “Will you admit to me what I already know?”
He sets his jaw. Says nothing.
“Admit it,” I say. “Juliette was an alias. Juliette Ferrars is actually Ella Sommers, the daughter of Evie and Maximillian Som—”
“How—” My father catches himself. He looks away and then, too soon, he looks back. He seems to be deciding something.
Finally, slowly, he nods.
“You know what? It’s better this way. Better for you to know,” he says quietly. “Better for you to understand exactly why you’re never going to see her again.”
“That’s not up to you.”
“Not up to me?” Rage flashes in and out of his eyes, his cool mask quickly crumbling. “That girl has been the bane of my existence for twelve years,” he says. “She’s caused me more problems than you can even begin to understand, not the least of which has been to distract my idiot son for the better part of the last decade. Despite my every effort to break you apart—to remove this cancer from our lives—you’ve insisted, over and over again, on falling in love with her.” He looks me in the eye, his own eyes wild with fury. “She was never meant for you. She was never meant for any of this. That girl was sentenced to death,” he says viciously, “the moment I named her Juliette.”
My heart is beating so hard it feels as though I’m dreaming. This must be a nightmare. I have to force myself to speak. To say:
“What are you talking about?”
My father’s mouth twists into an imitation of a smile.
“Ella,” he says, “was designed to become a tool for war. She and her sister both, right from the beginning. Decades before we took over, sicknesses were beginning to ravage the population. The government was trying to bury the information, but we knew. I saw the classified files. I tracked down one of the secret bunkers. People were malfunctioning, metamorphosing—so much so that it felt almost like the next phase of evolution. Only Evie had the presence of mind to see the sickness as a tool. She was the one who first began studying the Unnaturals. She was the reason we created the asylums—she wanted access to more varieties of the illness—and she was the one who learned how to isolate and reproduce the alien DNA. It was her idea to use the findings to help our cause. Ella and Emmaline,” he says angrily, “were only ever meant to be Evie’s science experiments. Ella was never meant for you. Never meant for anyone,” he shouts. “Get her out of your head.”
I feel frozen as the words settle around me. Within me. The revelation isn’t entirely new and yet—the pain is fresh. Time seems to slow down, speed up, spin backward. My eyes fall closed. My memories collect and expand, exploding with renewed meaning as they assault me, all at once—
Ella through the ages.
My childhood friend.
Ella, ripped away from me when I was seven years old. Ella and Emmaline, who they’d said had drowned in the lake. They told me to forget, to forget the girls ever existed and, finally, tired of answering my questions, they told me they’d make things easier for me. I followed my father into a room where he promised he’d explain everything.
I’m strapped to a chair, my head held in place with heavy metal clamps. Bright lights flash and buzz above me.
I hear the monitors chirping, the muffled sounds of voices around me. The room feels large and cavernous, gleaming. I hear the loud, disconcerting sounds of my own breathing and the hard, heavy beats of my heart. I jump, a little, at the unwelcome feel of my father’s hand on my arm, telling me I’ll feel better soon.
I look up at him as if emerging from a dream.
“What is it?” he says. “What just happened?”
I part my lips to speak, wonder if it’s safe to tell him the truth.
I decide I’m tired of the lies.
“I’ve been remembering her,” I say.
My father’s face goes unexpectedly blank, and it’s the only reaction I need to understand the final, missing piece.
“You’ve been stealing my memories,” I say to him, my voice unnaturally calm. “All these years. You’ve been tampering with my mind. It was you.”
He says nothing, but I see the tension in his jaw, the sudden jump of a vein under skin. “What are you remembering?”