Charisma, p.21
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       Charisma, p.21

           Jeanne Ryan
 
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  I grab his hand and squeeze until he grunts. “Actually, I think the term is douchebag.”

  We laugh for a moment. I feel the prickle of tears in my eyes.

  I say, “When we met, I’m sure I came off as stuck-up or something.”

  “Nah. I knew you were shy. Getting under people’s skin was just my way of getting noticed. It was stupid. I’m sorry.”

  I run my palm over his arm. “You’re nowhere as bad as you think you are. Pretty great, in fact. And always noticeable, trust me.”

  “Oh, hell, the CZ88 must be about to kill me if you’re singing my praises.”

  “Shut up.”

  “That’s better.”

  I start rolling up the torn sleeves of his shirt. “Maybe your fever isn’t from the CZ88. We’ve been going full speed all week. Your immunity is probably compromised. It could be the flu. Or a bad cold, or—”

  “No, Aislyn. This sucks too much for the flu.”

  I stifle a sob, gazing at this boy who’s been through so much with me. Who won me over in spite of himself. If I lose him too . . . No, that couldn’t happen.

  I grab a handful of his shirt. “Listen, Shane, you and I are the lucky ones. Our bodies can fight off the CZ88 for some obscure genetic reason. Believe it.”

  “I believe in your bad-assedness.”

  “Who do you think I learned bad-assedness from?”

  He chuckles and sings, “Happy birthday, dear badass . . . ”

  I think he’ll continue, but his cheek drops to the ground.

  “Shane?”

  No answer.

  I call his name ten more times as a huge lump grows in my throat. Shaking his shoulder, I yell, “Wake up!” I pound the hard-packed dirt. “You big, obnoxious, crazy jerk!” But he doesn’t stir. As if he knows there’s no hope for us. Maybe there never has been.

  I need to find help. Someone can still fix this. Shane and I are different from the others. We have to be. I just need to get him to a hospital. Now.

  I kiss his cheek. “We’ll survive this. You’ll see.” If he were conscious, he’d call me out for the doubt in my voice.

  With unsteady legs, I rise. Back on my feet, I find a large branch and drag it to the middle of the road to mark where Shane lies. It’s not like I’ll recognize the spot or he’ll be hollering for help.

  I fight against wooziness that begs me to just lie down and wait. To fall asleep next to Shane until it’s all okay. But I know better than to expect a miraculous rescue.

  The road is rough on my bare feet. I try jogging but stumble after only a few steps. Fine, I’ll walk.

  My feet chafe against the pavement as I trudge ahead. No telling what time it is or which direction I’m heading. Should’ve studied astronomy. I march on, praying for Shane, for Sebastian, Chloe, Jesse, Xavier, and everyone else who risked their lives for the chance to change themselves or were infected by someone who had.

  I’m so focused on the road and trying to determine if those specks ahead are lights that I don’t notice the rumble from behind until it’s almost upon me. Terrified it’s the same people who kidnapped us, I sprint from the road just as the edge of the high beams reach me. I crouch into the foliage, brambles scratching my arms and legs.

  The car screeches to a halt. Thankfully, it isn’t a van. Could it be a normal, good Samaritan who will help? I’m about to emerge from the leaves, but something stops me, probably paranoia from what I’ve just been through.

  A male voice calls out, “Miss? Are you okay?”

  He sounds ordinary, nice, if you can tell from four words. But as much as I need to get help for Shane, and myself, I hesitate.

  He calls out again, “I saw you run into the trees. It’s not safe out here by yourself. Are you by yourself?”

  His voice squeaks reedy on that last word, causing my belly to tense. I ache to trust him, to let myself be helped. The old me would’ve jumped up in impatience to let someone else fix everything, but the new me waits a moment longer.

  The car door clicks open and the overhead light illuminates the man’s face. He’s maybe thirty or so, short hair and soft cheeks. His face moves up into darkness as he steps out of the car, but before it does, I catch a certain something in his eyes. Something hard that chills me and keeps me from accepting what could be the only chance at a ride to safety on this God-forsaken road.

  He calls out a few more times and then swears to himself before getting back into the car and racing off. Tears roll over my cheeks as I watch the car lights disappear far down the road.

  I wait a few more minutes before resuming my hike. This time I keep to the side of the road instead of marching down the middle. And I keep an ear open for the sound of an engine.

  My eyes become more accustomed to the dark. If only I could see like nocturnal animals. One day, with genetic engineering, that’s a real possibility. Because as much as people try to resist the technology, there will be those, like Dr. Sternfield, who can’t resist the temptation to enhance. And once they do, someone will go even further by modifying germ line cells that propagate to the next generation and beyond. Then our species really will have the potential to differentiate, the way the protestors fear. I sigh. But the solution isn’t to avoid genetic modification altogether. Too many people can be helped.

  It might be an hour or three when the specks of light I’ve been chasing are close enough to determine they’re attached to lampposts that line the road. Beneath the closest one is a small, squared-off structure that I realize is a mailbox. I almost cry. A gravel driveway leads to a home tucked within the trees. But a wire fence with a BEWARE OF DOG sign stops me from running to the door.

  And then I have the horrifying realization that the flinty-eyed man who stopped for me might live here. Or someone worse. How can I decide whether to take a chance on whoever lives here if I can’t read their face?

  I peer down the road. Every few hundred yards is another mailbox and I assume another home. Well, even if I can’t gauge the probability than an individual house doesn’t hold a monster, I have to gamble that not all of them do.

  So I find a spot between two houses, take a deep breath, and scream. And keep screaming as if I’ll never stop, like a dam has burst and my whole body is a whitewater river of endless wailing.

  Somewhere, there’s barking and eventually a porch light. I keep screaming. Moments later, a lady comes out carrying a rifle.

  Yelling and crying, I tell the woman I was kidnapped and that my friend is unconscious, down the road. Then I sink to the ground. She’ll either shoot me or fetch help.

  Thankfully, she scurries back inside and soon a siren wails in the distance. I say a prayer of thanks as the dog keeps barking.

  Medics load me into an ambulance even though I insist I can walk. “I need to be with Shane.” My throat burns from screaming.

  One of the medics places something cold onto my sore arm. “We’ll take care of it, Miss Tough Guy.”

  No, I’m Miss Badass. Just ask Shane.

  Another siren travels on to search for the branch I left in the road. As my ambulance slams shut, I shudder, and then break into a cold sweat when the medic plugs an IV needle into my arm.

  I sink into a daze, visualizing swarms of attackers in vicious pursuit. Their faces contort into rage and desire, clawing closer and closer. But I can’t run or hide.

  What seems like a long time later, I awake from the nightmare and find myself still in the ambulance. The medic says I was rescued twenty miles outside of Olympia, and Shane seven miles farther out. I cry in relief that they found him.

  Although there’s a hospital nearby, by order of the health department, CDC, and for all I know Homeland Security, the ambulance takes me to Florence Bishop Children’s, my home away from home.

  They roll me into the emergency department for stitches to my knee and bandages on my feet. Not s
urprisingly, Dr. Culdicott arrives within the hour.

  She picks up my chart. “Any fainting spells or other symptoms?”

  “No. How’s Shane?”

  “Very weak. He’s been in and out of consciousness.” Her eyes remained glued to the tablet.

  From the set of her jaw it’s clear what Shane’s diagnosis is. “Can I talk to him? Just for a minute?” I desperately have to tell him how much I need him to get better. How much I . . . I don’t know. I just have to talk to him.

  “We’ll see.”

  “Maybe Nova Genetics has something in the works you can use on him before it’s too late.” The ringing in my ears shifts pitch. “And I’ll take it too.”

  She sighs. “Dr. Gordon has kept us apprised of the research.” After a long breath, she continues, “Unfortunately, one of the chimps they’ve been testing their new drug on died the day before yesterday.”

  This knocks the breath out of me. Dr. Gordon should’ve said something. “Which one? Ruby?”

  “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

  My heart thuds at the thought of losing any of those sweet animals. “But just because Nova Genetics’ preliminary cure didn’t work in chimps doesn’t mean it won’t work in humans, right?”

  Her gaze is steady. “Aislyn, we’re doing everything we can.”

  Mom bursts into the room, almost barreling the doctor over. In the past few days, her face has become even more gaunt. God, what I’ve put her through.

  She squeezes me so hard I think the IV might pop off. “Oh, sweetie. What happened?”

  Where to begin?

  A tall policeman joins us and asks if I’m ready to answer his questions. Of course. The sooner they find these vampires, the better to prevent them from blood-jacking someone else, or worse, using Shane’s and my blood to spread the CZ88 to more victims.

  I give as complete an account as I can while Mom hovers to the side, her face going paler with every new detail of my story. When I get to the part where the creeps forcibly drew my blood, I think she’ll faint.

  “I’m okay, really.” The IV drip has done wonders. My mouth no longer feels dry and my energy is rising.

  The policeman eventually excuses himself and I hug Mom again. Dr. Culdicott returns to tell me Shane’s condition is too serious for anyone but immediate family to visit him. By now, I believe I should qualify as family, but the docs don’t see it that way.

  Dr. Culdicott also says she’s going to keep me here under observation until morning. No arguing.

  An orderly wheels me to a room a few floors above, where I’m able to peel off my tattered party dress and take a sponge bath before putting on a hospital gown and robe, which feel luxurious in comparison.

  I say to Mom, “I really need to see Shane.”

  She inhales deeply and pulls me into her arms. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. While you were in the bathroom, Dr. Culdicott stopped by to say he’s gone into a coma.”

  My rib cage seems to implode. I can’t believe the gene transfer has taken such a drastic turn in Shane too. After all this time, I’d almost begun to believe he and I might have a less lethal version. Maybe his health nosedived because those assholes stole his blood, putting his body through too much trauma. If they’re ever caught, I’ll throttle them until their leader’s silky voice shatters.

  Mom tries to comfort me, but all I want is to dive under the blanket. After a while, she lets me be, and I doze off for a few hours, dreaming dreams where I’m held down and stuck with needles.

  In the morning, Mom hands me a change of clothes that she picked up. I take a careful shower, letting the steam empty every pore before I pat my pink skin dry.

  When I’m done, the policeman has returned, along with a table full of pictures from the fundraiser. He asks me to point out anyone who seemed suspicious, and I immediately zero in on the guy who lasered me with the evil eye. The policeman thanks me and takes off.

  With that taken care of, Dr. Culdicott releases me from the hospital with the usual warnings. Of course, I avoid telling her about the whistling in my ears. And, after I beg once again to see Shane, she finally allows me to spend a minute with him.

  In the ICU, his family hovers around with puffy eyes. Shane, who’s always loomed so large, appears small against the mountain of machines hooked up to him.

  I swallow back tears and take one of his hands. “You better get up. The Shane Show and all its stupid girls need you. So do I.”

  His face, which I’ve come to know so well, doesn’t register anything. That’s perhaps the most frightening of all, seeing features that are normally so animated now unbearably still. I’d kill for one of his smirks.

  A nurse informs me it’s time to leave.

  I inform her I need to see the rest of my friends. After some hurried discussion with family members, I’m allowed to visit everyone except Xavier, but only for a moment each. That’s long enough to painfully remind me they’re all still lost someplace far away.

  Mom leads us from their ward through a winding set of corridors in the basement to the parking garage. As we drive off, we pass at least a dozen news cameras. I duck below the window line until we’re well on our way.

  We only stop for a moment to pick up Sammy. But when we pull up to our house, I wish we’d camped out longer at my aunt and uncle’s. A horde of reporters lurks in front of our yard. Mom honks for them to make room for the car. They do, just enough, but their cameras butt up to the windows as we roll by.

  I shrink from the commotion, a bolt of panic shooting through me. Are all these people really reporters? What if someone is out to steal me away again and drain the rest of my blood?

  A dark-haired guy with the same build as the skinny guy in the woods yells, “Hey, Aislyn! Did they catch the people who abducted you? Have the doctors found a cure?”

  I bury my face in my hands and huddle low. In jerky starts and stops that have my belly churning, Mom pulls into the garage. I don’t realize I’ve been holding my breath until the door clangs down behind us.

  Inside, several wrapped gifts sit on the dining room table. Mom places her hands on my shoulders. “I know this is horrible timing, but happy birthday, sweetie, one day late.”

  I hug her for the hundredth time. “Oh, Mom.”

  Sammy hugs me too. “Too bad seventeen doesn’t make you legal for anything.”

  Not that that’s stopped me recently.

  Mom clamps me to her again. Finally, I pull away and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can open presents. Not today.”

  “I understand.” Her gaze is forlorn.

  I excuse myself and stumble upstairs and into my bed. The room and my ears are almost quiet. Or maybe my inner anguish out-roars above all else. I burrow between the sheets and escape into a deep sleep.

  It’s late afternoon before I return to consciousness with a start. Instinctively, I tug at my wrist and dart my head around, expecting to be horse-tied or abandoned at the side of a road. It takes a full minute to calm down in the knowledge that I’m home, safe. Well, as safe as I can be with CZ88 lurking in my cells.

  Since my phone was stolen by the sickos who turned my blood into smoothies, or whatever they’ve done with it, I scoot to the landline in the hallway and leave voicemails for Jack and Evie, letting them know I’m okay.

  Downstairs, Mom serves a curry chicken and rice dinner. The birthday gifts are no longer in sight, but Sammy’s eyes keep darting to the china cabinet.

  Dinner’s spicy aroma takes me back to memories of sitting snugly around the table with Mom, Dad, and Sammy, the diving accident in an unimagined future, along with killer DNA and blood-jackers. Even Sammy rarely coughed in those days, since his lungs were still relatively undamaged. I shake my head sharply. Dwelling on the past only makes the present more painful.

  After dinner, the phone rings, and it’s Evie. Breathlessly, sh
e asks a thousand questions at once. I bark, “Get your butt over here and I’ll give you the full rundown.” I give Jack the same message when he calls a minute afterward.

  Evie and Jack arrive together an hour later. We hug silently before climbing to my room, where we sit knee to knee on my bed. The constant looks between them make it clear they’ve been discussing their crazy friend, but Jack tries to keep things mellow by asking about a pair of wooden shadow puppets hanging on the wall.

  “From when I went to Indonesia.” I wonder for the thousandth time if the microbes I picked up on that trip saved my life.

  Evie stabs a finger at me. “Well, you aren’t going anywhere else or talking to strangers for a long time. You hear me?”

  Jack grabs my wrist, right where fresh bruises bloom from the ropes. “You stick with us.” So much for staying mellow.

  My torso seems to shrivel. “I’m not planning any foreign travel, if that’s what you guys mean. But I was hoping one of you would come with me to Cle Elum.”

  Evie wrinkles her nose. “Where’s that? And why are you whispering?”

  “It’s a couple of hours east and is where Dr. Sternfield’s mother lives.”

  Jack’s grasp on me becomes too tight for comfort. “You’re still on that? Aislyn, look what happened after you and Shane went off on your latest adventure.”

  “That wasn’t an adventure. We were raising money for a cure.”

  Evie’s gaze is skeptical. “C’mon. I saw the pics of you, all dolled up like Cinderella and mixing with the glam crowd.”

  I remove Jack’s hand from my wrist and rub where it aches. “There was a time you would’ve paid me to go to a party.”

  She says, “That was before people stole your blood.”

  Jack adds, “You need to stay home and get better, not chase down someone you think is lying about someone else who’s dead.”

  I drop my eyes from his face, not wanting to read what’s there. In a small voice, I say, “But what else can I do to fix this?”

  Evie, after giving Jack a lightning-quick glance, says, “Why not call the researchers and see if they have any sane ideas? I bet there’s a lot you can do behind the scenes, out of the limelight.”

 
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