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       Starters, p.26

           Lissa Price
 
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  They could tell I didn’t believe it, so they repeated it for me. And explained the details. But all I heard was one word: “home.”

  So. Helena had kept her word.

  I looked at Lauren. She nodded; yes, it was all true. Her eyes glistened as tears welled in them. Me, I closed mine, and somehow the tears came out anyway.

  A home.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  That morning, I took Tyler to live in his new home. I knew I would never forget the look on his face when we walked into the mansion, escorted by Lauren and her attorney. While they took Eugenia aside to explain the conditions of the will, Tyler stared at every piece of furniture and decoration with wide eyes.

  He paused at a bronze statue of a dog on a side table. “Can I touch it?”

  I nodded. “You can do whatever you want. It’s yours now.”

  He picked it up and cradled it to his chest. Although it must have weighed a couple of pounds, he insisted on carrying it around with him. When I tucked him into the big bed in the master bedroom, he still had it in his grasp, determined to sleep with it. I put it on the end table, inches from his face.

  “Where’s Michael?” Tyler, his lids heavy, caressed the dog’s head.

  “He’s getting his stuff from the building.”

  “He’s coming to stay here, right?”

  I smiled. “Yup. He’s going to turn the guest cottage into an artist’s studio.”

  “I wonder what he’ll draw now. Now that we’re not on the streets.” Tyler’s voice slowed.

  Then he closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

  Over the following days, our lives were rebuilt.

  With Lauren as my legal guardian, I was protected from anyone contesting the will on the grounds that I was an unclaimed minor. Half of Helena’s estate and her two homes would be mine forever. The other half was being held in trust for Emma, once I found her. I would find her. I owed Helena that.

  The money was far beyond what I had hoped to gain by signing up for the body bank, and I was profoundly grateful. Tyler was getting the best medical care money could buy, and growing healthier every day. I had my tooth replaced, and my cuts and bruises would heal in time.

  Michael moved into the cottage on the property but immediately took off. He didn’t explain, so I went into the cottage to see if he’d taken his belongings. I knew he was coming back when I saw the walls covered with the drawings he’d created from our year of living on the streets. Starters and renegades, sad and mean and hungry—they were all there, in his special style. So much emotion; he’d captured it all. Spread out on all four walls was my life after the Spore Wars. My past life.

  I figured he must have left town to see Florina. I was disappointed, but I didn’t have a right to be. Losing Blake had left a huge void in my heart. It wasn’t until things calmed down that I realized just how big.

  A week after we moved into Helena’s house, I heard on the news that Senator Harrison was recovering from a “hunting accident.” The fallout from the Prime body bank scandal would play out in the coming months. After the elections, we’d know whether Enders could reelect a man prepared to doom teens to a living death.

  The senator was keeping Blake on a short leash. I tried sending messages, tried calling. He never responded. I decided that before I gave up on him forever, I would go see him in person. If I could just explain everything, I might persuade him to give us a second chance. If not, then I would move on.

  It wasn’t hard finding the senator’s home. I had to drive by it several times before I found Blake’s sports car parked outside. When I finally spotted it, I felt my heart race and had to calm myself before getting out of the yellow rocket.

  I looked up at a stately Tudor mansion and took the long walk from the curb down the rose-lined path to his front door. I stepped onto the porch and the bell sensor rang before I could decide to back out. The door opened.

  An icy Ender bodyguard, complete with uniform, pulled out his gun and aimed it at my head.

  “Call the marshals,” he shouted to someone in the house.

  “I’m not here to cause trouble.” I put my hands up. “I just want to see Blake.”

  Blake came to the door. The guard stepped between us. “Stay back.”

  “It’s all right, I’ll talk to her,” Blake said.

  The guard pressed his earpiece. He was listening to someone and responding with a “Yes, sir.” Blake and I exchanged a look. He shrugged.

  The guard’s demeanor changed. “Looks like it’s your lucky day,” he said to me. “I’ll just do a search, if you don’t mind.”

  He holstered his gun and patted me down. Then he pulled a weapons detector out of a leg holster and waved it over my body. Finding nothing, the guard stepped inside and disappeared from view, leaving Blake in the doorway.

  “Hi,” he said, smiling.

  “Blake.” I smiled back. It was so good to see his face again. And smiling at me. This was hopeful.

  “What do you want?” he asked.

  “I thought maybe we could talk.”

  “What about?”

  “About everything that’s happened. There’s a lot to explain.”

  “This a joke?”

  My heart stopped for a second. “Blake?”

  He cocked his head. “What’s your name?”

  “Don’t pretend you don’t know me.”

  He rubbed the back of his neck. “One of my friends put you up to this?”

  “Oh. I get it.” I folded my arms. “You haven’t forgiven me.”

  He just stared. Wasn’t going to give an inch.

  “I thought maybe you’d understand,” I said. “After everything came out.”

  His expression became serious. “Sorry, I …” He shrugged. “I don’t know you.”

  My hands went cold. To see the face that I knew so well looking back at me with that blank expression … it cut me to the bone. What had happened?

  “Blake? You really don’t remember? Any of it?”

  He shook his head.

  “Riding? The park … the Music Center?”

  He continued to shake his head. He looked like he felt sorry for me.

  “I’m not crazy. Look at your cell phone. Our picture’s there.”

  His eyes narrowed like he was reaching into the past but coming up empty. He didn’t remember me.

  I don’t know if anything could have hurt more.

  I was invisible.

  Senator Harrison came to the door, one arm in a sling. “Callie.”

  I took a step back.

  “You know her?” Blake asked.

  The senator came toward me. I pulled back. He patted my shoulder. “It’s all right, Callie. Come inside.”

  He put his good arm around my shoulder and guided me into the large foyer. The bodyguard stood stiffly to one side. I could see the living room through an archway, a fire in the fireplace.

  The senator turned to Blake. “I need to speak to my guest alone.”

  Blake nodded. Before he headed off, he took one last glance at me over his shoulder. I hoped, ached for him to show some small flicker of remembrance. Anything. But his face said I was just a curiosity.

  Senator Harrison took my arm and led me to the study. He motioned to a leather chair and closed the door. I preferred to stand behind the chair. I wasn’t sure whether to trust him. I took in the room, which was decorated with antiques.

  “So now you’ve met my grandson,” he said.

  “What’s happened to him?” I felt my lip quivering.

  He pointed back to the door. “That is my actual grandson. The real Blake Harrison.” He winced as he sat at his desk and adjusted his sling.

  I heard his words. But they made no sense. “The real Blake?”

  Then, as if someone had turned down the volume, everything became quiet.

  Only the antique clock in a glass case on his desk dared to make a sound. It ticked away as the three gold balls inside spun back and forth, back and for
th. It was dizzying, sickening, how fast it whirled, confused about its direction.

  Someone gasped. It was me.

  The senator’s eyes narrowed. He nodded.

  “It was never him before?” I asked.

  He shook his head. “Only his body.”

  My hand rose to my mouth.

  He nodded again.

  I leaned on the back of the chair. “So someone else was inside Blake … using his body.”

  “That is correct.” The senator waited for me to absorb it.

  Who? Who would want to use Blake’s body all that time? And then it hit me. No. A chill ran through my entire body. The thought was too horrible to speak.

  “The Old Man,” the senator said.

  I put my head in my hands. No. Not him. In Blake? My mind was spinning faster than the gold balls inside the clock.

  “But I saw the Old Man when he came to the institution,” I said. “How could he be in two places at once?”

  “That was after the government deal was done. He left Blake then.”

  “What about the airscreen announcement? It was shown before that.”

  “That was prerecorded.”

  I stopped to take in a deep breath. “Why would you let this happen?”

  “He held my grandson hostage, although Blake never knew it. Only his grandmother and I did. He did it to force me to introduce the agreement between the government and Prime Destinations.”

  “Blake never signed up at Prime?”

  The senator shook his head. “The Old Man kidnapped him and had the chip inserted. Blake doesn’t know about any of that. He thinks he was ill for those weeks.”

  I ran my hand through my hair. The whole time, I had thought I was the fraud, the peasant masquerading as a princess. But it was the prince who’d been in disguise. He’d been the ogre all along. In my world, nothing was what it seemed. And I didn’t know if I could ever trust anyone again.

  The senator put his hand on my shoulder. “Callie, I want you to know that I’ve put pressure on the prosecutor to drop the charges against you.”

  I had forgotten all about myself.

  “And I have a favor to ask.”

  “What?” I couldn’t imagine what I could do for him.

  He moved his face close to mine, his eyes big and pleading, his breath bitter with tobacco. “Don’t say anything to my grandson about any of this, ever.”

  I left Harrison’s house without seeing Blake again. I walked down their path with the bright roses mocking my every step. Stupid girl. Why couldn’t you see it?

  My knees crumpled. I fell to the ground as a horrible, hollow canyon formed inside my gut. I clasped my stomach to stop the pain. There would be no reunion with Blake ever. He wasn’t real. Nothing we had done or felt was real.

  Blazing hot tears gushed from me.

  He was gone forever. Like Mom and Dad.

  Dad.

  Oh, Daddy, I miss you so.

  I spent the whole night replaying in my mind every single thing Blake had said and done, but reimagining it coming from the Old Man. Club Rune, the ranch, the awards gala. After I’d relived those moments over and over again, I wanted to get as far away from those places as I could. So the next morning I took Tyler to our new vacation home in the San Bernardino Mountains. We bundled up in our fleeces and jackets and headed north.

  Helena’s second home was a large, two-story chalet set on two acres with panoramic views of the lake in back. Unlike at the mansion, there were few reminders of Helena or Emma; no portraits or holo-frames. I wasn’t trying to forget them, but not having to see their faces made us feel like the house really was ours.

  Tyler practiced casting in the lake while I sat on a rock and thought about how much I had gained and how much I had lost.

  It had started with the Old Man using Senator Harrison to push his body bank deal with the government. To make the senator cooperate, he’d had to kidnap Blake and use his body as a hostage. Helena hadn’t known any of that, but she’d learned that the senator had plans to make the government deal. So she had rented my body to kill him. She wanted to stop the deal and to expose Prime for the first time publicly, in the worst light possible, by showing that a donor body could be used to kill. When she had Redmond alter our chip, turning off the stop-kill switch, the Old Man picked up on the changed signal and discovered her plot. Since the Old Man was already in Blake, he used Blake’s body to find out more about Helena’s plan.

  That was when he followed her to Club Rune, spoke to her at the bar, and set up the date at the ranch. But when Redmond tampered with the chip, he also made it unstable. That made Helena black out at the club, and the Old Man, inside Blake, saw it happen.

  Then I met him. He started a relationship with me to keep tabs on Helena, to make sure we didn’t kill the senator before he saw the president. And to see how I adapted to changing the stop-kill switch. Once we had the communication link and Helena got into my head, he would have seen what a valuable resource that could be, especially for the government.

  Every single thing he’d done was a pretense. Pretending to be a real teen visiting his great-grandmother, pretending to like me so I would trust him. The time we spent at his ranch, in the car—all lies. He’d done more acting than any award-winning superstar. Pretending to want to touch my cheek, hold my hand, kiss me.

  I put my hand over my mouth. But there was no way to wipe away the memory.

  I was sick. I loved my time with Blake. But I felt I should hate it, now that I’d learned it had been the Old Man playing with me. I was torn. One moment, I wanted to keep those memories stored in a precious box. The next, I wanted to torch them to ashes.

  I focused on Tyler tossing his line into the water. His casting was improving. At least when it came to Tyler, I felt peace. It was a comfort to know that he would never go hungry, would never again have to sleep on a cold, dirty floor, that he wasn’t going to die. I breathed in the brisk piney air. It felt so clean. I was lucky to be there, grateful to have the two homes. I decided to stop thinking about everything except how beautiful it was up there.

  “Tyler!” I shouted. “I’m going in to make cocoa. Stay there, okay? Don’t wander.”

  He nodded.

  I went up a few wooden steps to the back deck and entered the warm kitchen. Tyler was visible from the window over the sink. I took off my jacket and put it on a chair. I opened the cabinet and took out the cocoa and two mugs. I spooned the cocoa into each mug and turned on the filtered hot water. Endless water. Forever.

  I filled the mugs and put them on the counter. That was when I noticed something odd. Something that didn’t belong, lying on the counter, to the right of the sink.

  A stem of yellow orchids. With the purple leopard spots.

  My chest tightened. It was the same kind of orchid Blake—the Old Man—had given me when we’d had the picnic at the ranch.

  How did it get there? How long had it been there?

  I looked out the window. Tyler was gone. His fishing pole lay on the ground. I felt panic rising in my throat. I was about to yell when I moved to the edge of the window and saw him. He was bending down, getting bait out of a bucket.

  I let out a sigh of relief.

  Then I heard a voice in my head.

  Hello, Callie.

  Just like Helena used to talk to me. But this was a man’s voice: the Old Man’s. That creepy electronic voice that set my teeth on edge.

  A shiver ran through me.

  You’re a big success, Callie. Prime is now closed and scheduled for demolition.

  “Where are you?” My eyes scanned the lake where Tyler was fishing. “How can you be in my head?”

  I have a backup, of course.

  “A backup?”

  In another location.

  I wondered if it could be a portable drive. Could he be close? “Where?”

  Would you like a tour? I can show you.

  “So why are you in my head?” I didn’t see him outside. I began quietly o
pening the kitchen drawers.

  Come join me, Callie.

  “Join you? What do you want with me? I’m just a girl.”

  Not anymore. That chip in your head is one of a kind, altered by one of the best. I’ll offer you a top salary to come join my team.

  “I have everything I need now.” I tried to sound strong, but my voice betrayed me with a nervous break.

  You don’t know what you need.

  I pulled out a large butcher’s knife from the drawer. My hand trembled.

  Wait until you taste power.

  “I’m not interested in tasting anything with you.”

  I won’t give up so easily. As I told you before, you’re very special to me.

  I breathed out a soft half laugh, but the words stung like acid. “You just want to rip open my head and see how he altered the chip.” Tyler was still fishing. I left the kitchen and slipped into the hallway, looking for where the Old Man could be hiding.

  I want you on my team. And you need a cause. You’d be in good company.

  “You think I’d fit in with your team?”

  Your friend Redmond is one of them.

  Then I realized. “He was the one on the heli.”

  You like him.

  “Yeah, I like him. He uses his brains to help people, not hurt them.” I wanted to keep him talking as I crept down the hall. “So all that time, the things you said to me, did you mean any of them?”

  Much of what I said to you was true. But not everything. If you want to find out which parts were real, come join me.

  “You lied to me. The whole time, you pretended you were someone else.” I looked in the living room; he wasn’t there. Through the picture window, Tyler was still okay, still fishing outside.

  And isn’t that exactly what you did?

  I stopped. He was right. “I had to.”

  No, you could have walked away. But you would have forfeited the money.

  “I needed it for my brother.” I clutched the knife, walking across the living room to a closet. I opened it. He wasn’t there.

  If you really want to protect him, you’ll join me. I promise you, in the coming months, no kid will be safe without protection. You never know when your life could dissolve. An earthquake could destroy your home. Or a fire. Your legal guardian could die in a car crash, and then the government will confiscate the estate. Everything can be taken away from you in an instant. Nothing is reliable—except power. I can give you that.

 
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