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       Starters, p.27

           Lissa Price
 
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  I rushed into the hallway and up the stairs. I wanted to scream at him to shut up. What did he mean, “no kid will be safe”? I passed Tyler’s room. The Old Man wasn’t there.

  You think you did it for the money. But I know you better than you know yourself. You also did it so you could live as someone else.

  “Oh, please.”

  Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth. Who said that?

  “You did.” I came to the landing and walked down the hallway, peeking into rooms.

  You didn’t go back to Prime when the connection was compromised. You wanted to be Helena.

  “Someone threatened me, said if I returned, I’d be killed.”

  And you wanted to believe that so you could live as someone rich, even for a short time.

  I stopped. There was some truth to that, I was ashamed to admit.

  I could give you that experience again, Callie. A life far more exciting than Helena’s.

  Did I want a new life? Yes. Another place, another time. Not with him.

  “No,” I said. “I don’t want to be anyone else, I just want to be me. Whatever it is you want me to do, I will never, ever, do it.”

  Your curiosity will get the better of you. I can afford to wait.

  “You’ll be waiting forever.” I looked in another empty room, holding the knife low, by my leg.

  Ah, Callie, if you only knew. You have it all wrong. I’m really the good guy.

  What? How dare he say that? I was at the point where I was hoping he was in the house. I wanted to confront him, tear off his mask, end all this, then and there.

  The last door was closed. It was my bedroom. I didn’t remember closing it.

  I crept up to the door and put my hand on the knob and turned.

  The sheer curtains waved in the breeze. Or had someone just walked past them? The French doors behind them were open. I walked through them, taking one step outside onto the large balcony, and looked out at the lawn, the lake, and Tyler. It was dusk, and even the birds had gone silent.

  Although he said nothing, I could feel the Old Man’s presence lingering in my head. I stood by the French doors and waited. It was the two of us, in a stalemate, in limbo, my own breathing the loudest sound, second only to my heartbeat.

  And then I felt him leave.

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  A week later, I stood outside the body bank and watched as the wrecking crew prepared to demolish the mirrored building that had housed Prime Destinations. The crowd, wrapped in coats and jackets, was mostly working-class Enders—guards and salespeople—who never had known the purpose of the building. There were some wealthy seniors, mostly ex-renters, and a few rich claimed minors. At the outer edges hung the unclaimed Starters, some ex-donors like me, some just eager to see the show of the wrecking ball.

  I saw several faces I recognized. Lee was there, as were Raj and Briona. They were no longer the inseparable trio. Each wandered around alone, not even recognizing the others. Madison, the teen with the short blond bob, stood several feet away, to my left. Our eyes met. A smile came over my face, I was so happy to see her. She paused, staring at me with a blank expression; then her gaze passed over me. I had to remind myself that she’d only met me once, the night everything had ended at the body bank. She might not have remembered me. Or maybe she did.

  I spotted her counterpart, Rhiannon, to my right, in her jolly, real body. She leaned on a walker and waved. I waved back and was about to join her when I saw Michael, way in the back of the crowd. He stared at the building, waiting, like the rest of us. Alone.

  “Michael!” I shouted.

  He was too far to hear. His attention was focused straight ahead. My spirits rose. He must have just gotten back into town. I turned and started to work my way back to him, but then I saw someone cutting across the silver-headed crowd on my left.

  Blake.

  My throat tightened. What was he doing here? He wasn’t supposed to know about the body bank. I hadn’t seen him since that day at his house, over a week ago. I looked back at Michael. He saw me this time, and his face lit up. He looked so good. He motioned for me to join him.

  I turned to Blake. Our eyes met and he gave me a small, tight smile. He was weaving through the crowd, coming toward me.

  I swallowed. I didn’t know what to do. Blake was too close for me to just walk away. I looked back at Michael. From where he stood, he could see what was going on, and it was like a gray film passed in front of his face. His smile faded, his shoulders drooped. It killed me, but I was caught there, stuck in the crowd, too far away to try to explain, even if I could.

  Blake was just a few bodies away. I’d promised his grandfather I wouldn’t reveal anything about our past, so what was I supposed to say?

  No time to think. He was there.

  “Callie.” He nodded. “Your housekeeper told me where to find you.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away. “My friends tell me that I’m too serious. Maybe it comes from being a senator’s grandson.” He shrugged. “My dad was the serious type. My mother, she knew how to have fun.” He gave a wistful smile.

  What was he talking about? It sounded like he’d prepared a speech.

  “Anyway, everyone says that I’m a bookworm, that I don’t get out much, unless my friends drag me.” He shuffled his feet, glancing at his shoes. “What I’m trying to say is this.” He pulled out his phone and showed me a photo on it. “I saw the photo.”

  I looked at the picture I had told him about. The one of us taken the day we went riding. Except poor Blake was never really there; it was the Old Man. He was standing behind me, his arm across my shoulders, his head resting next to mine, me clinging to his arm with both hands. We had just gotten off the horses—happy, hot, and a little sweaty.

  We both radiated pure joy. It was hard for me to look at, but Blake would never understand why.

  “I don’t remember any of this,” he said. “But I look so happy. I’ve never looked that happy before. Ever.”

  His eyes met mine and didn’t look away. “Whatever we had, in those lost weeks that for the life of me I can’t remember, I want it again.”

  I searched his face. He wasn’t kidding. He meant it.

  “Do you?” he asked me. “Do you want it back too?”

  My stomach fluttered. I wasn’t sure we could regain what was never ours to begin with.

  “It’s okay, you don’t have to decide now,” he said.

  He held out his hand to me. I froze.

  “You know what really happened, Callie. I need you to help me remember.”

  He had the face of a floating astronaut who had lost his tether and had only one chance to grab a lifeline or forever drift away into endless black. I knew that feeling, the sense of panic that stretched time, turning seconds into years, and the deep pain that came from being hurt by not one person but many, a gang of bullies that expanded into a neighborhood and then into a community, until you questioned the whole world. And your last thought, as you stretch your arm until your fingers are inches from that lifeline, is how if you survive, you’ll find a way to help fix what was broken, so you can say that yes, you want to be part of the world again.

  I moved my hand halfway toward his.

  I wasn’t going to let the Old Man win. I wasn’t going to let him strip away my sweet memories of the time with the boy I had thought was Blake.

  He took my hand and linked his fingers with mine. His skin was familiar—the smoothness, the shape of his thumb. His touch transported me back to the times we’d spent together in his car. I’d missed all this so much. More than I realized.

  It wasn’t the Blake I knew. But it looked like him; it felt like him. He was lost, and I was the only person who could help.

  We would have to see.

  Then I heard the sound of someone breathing. In my head.

  My heart quickened.

  Cal Girl.

  I hadn’t heard that voice for a long time.

  When hawks cr
y, time to fly.

  My father? My head whipped around, even though I didn’t expect to see him. The sounds of the crowd faded away.

  Blake gave me a curious smile. “You all right?”

  I searched myself. Listened, but heard nothing more.

  Blake squeezed my hand as the wrecking ball smashed through the reflective façade of the body bank.

  LISSA PRICE has studied photography and writing, but the world has turned out to be her greatest teacher.

  She has walked with elephants in Botswana, swum with penguins in the Galápagos, and stood in a field at sunset amid a thousand nomads in Gujarat, India. She has been surrounded by hundreds of snorting Cape buffalo in South Africa and held an almost silent chorus with a hundred wild porpoises off the coast of Oahu. She has danced in mud huts at weddings in India and had tea with the most famous living socialite in Kyoto.

  When she sat down to write, she found that the most surprising journeys were still inside her mind.

  She lives in the foothills of Southern California with her husband and the occasional deer. Visit her at LissaPrice.com.

 


 

  Lissa Price, Starters

 


 

 
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