Their private plane had landed at a tiny airport, just a series of covered pads, one long landing strip, and a little building that served as a terminal. Although he couldn’t see much through the thick mist, he finally found an open fence and a road leading away.
He took it.
Michael walked for an hour, his mind a factory of thought. The mist crept through his clothes, soaking them, chilling his skin. He couldn’t stop shivering, and spent the walk rubbing his arms for warmth. Items on either side of the road suddenly appeared out of the gray fog, looming over him, only to vanish quickly as he passed by. Hulking trees, random parked cars, mailboxes, and a gloomy pedestrian here and there.
Michael kept walking. Kept hurting. Kept thinking.
Countless questions, zero answers.
Why? That was the question that dominated them all. Why?
Gabby, forced to help the VNS bring them to her. Weber herself, a complete mystery. Did she and Agent Scott really represent the entire VNS? Was the whole organization corrupt?
He saw her blood everywhere he looked. In the mist, in his mind, on the wet surface of the road. Everything around him looked red. It hurt so much.
Then he stopped. That’s it, he told himself. The more he thought about it, the more it hurt. The solution was simple: no more thinking about it. He had to stop or he’d just keep sinking deeper and deeper into something he might never claw himself out of.
Lights appeared in the mist up ahead, growing brighter every second. There was some small part of him, still logical, that told him he needed to be careful. He had enemies. How many times had that been proven? He slowed but headed toward the lights, taking extra care.
The first thing that revealed itself was a simple convenience store, with glass doors and windows, a bright interior stocked with shelves of bread, snacks, other goods. It was small, but quite a few people were inside, walking its aisles. Michael, hoping that his encrypted currency credits were still safe, decided to go inside and look around. Buy something sweet. Lots of things. Maybe gorge himself. He deserved a break, and he assumed Helga would pick him up at any second.
An electronic bell chimed when he walked through the door.
A few people—a man, two women, a couple of kids—looked over at him as he entered, then went back to their browsing. He watched the man pick up a tall carton of bean chips, study its ingredients as if somehow, magically, he’d discover that they were good for his already bulging waistline, then tuck it under his arm as he moved along. Michael glanced at the cashier, a teenager who looked as if he’d rather eat rocks than ring up the line of customers waiting for him.
Michael turned toward the wall of cold drinks and stopped. A boy, maybe ten years old, was standing in his path, staring straight at him with that same unsettling blank gaze he’d seen on the people in the car at the chicken restaurant.
Abruptly, the boy spun on his heels and walked in the other direction, disappearing around the bread shelf. Michael took a deep breath, wondering if he should get out of there.
He was sick of running. He was the First, after all. Right? If there were Tangents in the store, they could just look on and admire from afar. He wanted a snack and something to drink, and that was that. He walked to the first panel of drinks, the many flavors and combinations flashing across the glass in silly animations. Michael moved to the second panel, then the third. There he saw some weird combo of grape and pomegranate with a shot of caffeine and chose it. A whoosh and a puff of mist later and his drink—ice-cold in a tube of ReSike—appeared in the dispenser.
As he picked it up, he glanced to his left. A man stood there, his hand frozen halfway to the shelf in front of him to pick up a candy bar. He was clearly watching Michael out of the corner of his eye, but he went about his business as soon as he realized he’d been spotted. Michael quickly looked in the other direction, sure a woman had been staring at him before jerking her head away. Then the boy appeared again, gave Michael a long, lingering look, and walked on.
Michael shook it off. He headed straight for the spot where the man had gotten his candy bar and grabbed the exact same brand, giving the stranger a wink and a smile as he did so.
“I feel like someone’s knocking around in my head,” he said to the man, who gave him a worried look. “Sometimes I’m just not myself. Candy helps. You?”
The man turned and hurriedly walked away.
Michael wondered if maybe he’d finally snapped from the stress.
He grabbed another candy bar, a bag of bleu chips, and some beef jerky, then headed for the cashier. His thoughts were a cyclone—it felt like he could no longer tell the difference between a casual glance and a glare. Who was watching him? Who wasn’t? Who might just be wondering how one person could need all that junk food?
Sweat trickled down his forehead. He felt like every single person in the store was staring at him now. He looked down at his feet as he waited in line, suddenly afraid to meet anyone’s eyes. He should never have come into this store. The world was too dangerous, and his face had been plastered all over the NewsBops. He had no way of knowing who was on his side and who was against him, who’d been taken over and who hadn’t. Surely the folks in this tiny convenience store on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., had escaped the Mortality Doctrine. Right?
He suddenly had an undeniable need to get away. He wanted Helga and Bryson and Sar—
He swallowed, and all the pain came crashing back in.
“I’m sorry,” he said out loud, though he had no idea who he was talking to. “I’m sorry.” He stepped out of the line, looked down at the goods in his hands. It felt as if they’d suddenly quadrupled in weight. “I’m sorry.” He rushed to the nearest shelf and shoved all of his items next to a bin of MoonPies. “I’m sorry,” he said for the fourth time.
He ran to the door, opened it, heard the chime, stumbled out, and almost fell. A car was in the lot, its lights on, cutting luminescent barrels through the fog. It pulled to the entrance and the window rolled down. Bryson’s face appeared, and somehow Michael managed the slightest of smiles.
“Hop in, man,” Bryson said. “Head-clearing time is over. Time to be with your friends again.”
Michael had never been so happy to see Bryson. Never, not even after seeing him for the first time here, in the Wake.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, so quietly that he barely even heard himself say it; then he went to the back of the car, opened the door, and got in. Walter was driving, of course, and Helga sat next to Michael. They nodded at each other, saying so much more than they could have with words.
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