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       Enders, p.7

           Lissa Price
 
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  “He’s talking to Redmond?” I asked.

  “To make sure everything is okay,” Hyden said.

  When Ernie returned to the car to get the Metal, he slung her over his shoulder as if she were a duffel bag, her weight barely affecting his confident stride. He put her on a bed in one of the empty rooms not far from mine while we watched from just outside the door.

  “It’ll be best if you’re here when she comes to,” he told me, handing me the wallet he’d fished from her purse. “Her name is Lily.”

  I sat on the bed. I wondered how I’d feel, waking up in a strange place, having some girl I didn’t know staring at me. But better she see me than Ernie.

  After a few minutes, Ernie brought in a tray holding a turkey and cheese sandwich and a glass of apple juice.

  Soon, Lily started twitching and mumbling. Then she opened her eyes with a start.

  “What?” she said, disoriented. “Who are you?”

  “I’m Callie. And you’re okay. It’s safe here.”

  She struggled to sit up.

  “Just rest,” I said. “Are you hungry?” Food could turn an enemy into a friend … or at least buy a little trust.

  I brought the tray over. She picked up the sandwich and sniffed. Then she bit into it.

  “Have you got more?” she asked.

  I knew then we were going to be okay.

  Over the next couple of weeks, we brought many more Starters to the lab. We were able to convince most of them by talking instead of using force. But no matter how we brought them in, they all wanted to stay. We had a real dorm going, full of Metals with various skill sets. Some of those skills had been exploited when the Starters were rented, like wrestling or martial arts, and they continued to practice them if it was possible. But other skills, like cooking or making repairs, became useful in our community.

  Meals were taken in shifts to accommodate everyone in the dining room. It was just off the kitchen, a large, white-walled, bare-floored space with worktables, and dinner was the happiest time of the day. Breakfast and lunch were grab-and-run, but I wanted everyone to eat dinner together, partly because it made sense to share the cooking duties, but also because it made the Starters a community.

  I missed Tyler. Hyden convinced me that the risk of doing another airscreen-talk session was too great. And I wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t just make it harder on both of us in the end. It was easier not to hear my little brother’s voice. It kept me focused on what I had to do.

  Rescue Metals.

  Hyden and I got so good at it that sometimes we even did it without Ernie. If Hyden had to touch someone, he used a towel or a jacket as a barrier. We were both more relaxed around each other, but he still hadn’t told me what was behind his inability to touch.

  “Hyden, what happened to you?” I asked one day when we were driving on a stretch of highway, alone on a Metal hunt. “Why can’t you be touched?”

  He was silent for a long moment, then inhaled deeply. He held his breath as if considering whether to answer me. Then he let it out with a sound that I hoped was relief—but maybe was a huff.

  “I was working in the lab, with my father. This was back before we split. My mother was there; she’d just brought us cocoa with marshmallows.” He smiled. “I don’t remember most of that day, but I remember the marshmallows. Weird, right?”

  I shook my head. I knew what that was like, remembering some bizarre detail about my life before the spores. Before I became a Starter.

  Hyden cleared his throat. “There was an accident, an explosion. We never figured out why, but it happened. My dad was all right, but my mother and I were burnt.” His voice cracked on the word “burnt.” “We had treatments, surgeries, but there was pain for months.”

  “That’s awful.”

  “Once we were healed to the point where we could handle cloth on our skin, we still couldn’t handle touch. They tried skin desensitization therapy, where a therapist touches you skin on skin, but neither of us could take it. It was excruciating.”

  “When was this?”

  He gripped the wheel more tightly. “Two years ago. They said I was lucky to be alive, that in the past they wouldn’t have been able to fix me. Look at me—you can’t really tell.”

  He pushed back his shirt and held up his arm. The skin was perfect.

  “So if your skin has been repaired—”

  “And my nerves.”

  “And your nerves, then why—”

  “There’s a disconnect in my brain. My brain perceives pain when I’m touched.”

  I thought about that. “And when you touch someone else?”

  “I can only do it with some barrier, like gloves or my jacket.”

  “Like when you pushed me away at the bombing.”

  He nodded.

  “So it could get better someday?” I’d been feeling sorry for myself, missing my parents’ warm hugs. But Hyden couldn’t be touched by anyone.

  “If it’s determined to be a phobia, then yes. They’re not sure.”

  I stared out at the torn billboards by the highway that no one could afford to rent anymore. Then something occurred to me.

  “You wanted the mind-body transfer for you and your mother, didn’t you? That’s why you invented this.”

  He breathed in again. Only I didn’t hear the exhale.

  “I hoped it would have many medical applications.” He sounded so weary.

  “But what happened?”

  “She died of complications before I could get it going.”

  “And then your father had his own ideas?”

  “He lied to me about what Prime would be,” he said slowly. “And then it was too late.”

  We continued driving for another half mile before the scanner picked up a signal.

  “It’s south. Get off the freeway,” I said.

  He took the next exit and turned right. We drove about a mile. The scanner showed we were close.

  I pointed across the street. “It’s coming from that direction.”

  We looked and didn’t see any Starters. Just Enders.

  He turned right. “It’s from down this street.”

  We saw a dark-haired Starter, average height, good-looking, wearing an unbuttoned plaid shirt over a T-shirt. He leaned against a concrete planter and drank from his water bottle.

  Hyden slowed down and pulled over while we looked at the Starter.

  “His clothes look shabby,” I said.

  “What are you, the fashion police?”

  “You know what I mean. He doesn’t look like an ex-donor, a Metal.”

  “Most of them went back to the streets,” he said. “Not like you. They didn’t even get paid when Prime came down.”

  He was right. I felt so stupid. I wasn’t judging him, just looking for clues. But only their appearance could really tell us, and now that I had a better look, this one was close to perfection. He closed his water bottle and slung it over his shoulder.

  Hyden parked the car. “Stay here. Don’t get out.”

  Before I could say something, he was out and walking toward the Starter.

  Hyden tried to be casual, but the guy wasn’t returning Hyden’s smile. Instead, he looked nervous, shaking his head at Hyden’s questions.

  Suddenly the Starter pushed him and ran down the street. Hyden flinched in pain but took off running after him. I climbed over the console to get to the driver’s seat and followed them.

  I didn’t know what Hyden was going to do when he caught the guy—he obviously couldn’t touch him. The Starter ran into a dead-end alley and saw that he was cornered. I pulled the SUV in right behind Hyden. The Starter turned his back to climb a wall, but Hyden reached up and held something small to the back of the guy’s neck so that only the item made contact. The Starter fainted.

  Hyden wrapped his jacket around his hands, and together we picked the guy up and put him in the SUV. An Ender at the end of the alley yelled at us, but we ignored him. Hyden climbed into the back with the Me
tal while I got in the driver’s seat.

  “Go,” he said.

  I started driving. “Where?”

  “Head to the freeway.”

  I set the navigator and concentrated on the road.

  After some rustling around from the back, somebody climbed up to sit in the passenger seat next to me. Only it wasn’t Hyden. It was the guy with the plaid shirt.

  Panicked, I accidentally swung the car into the next lane. “What happened to Hyden?”

  I turned around and saw Hyden’s body sprawled out in the back of the car.

  Plaid Shirt guided the wheel with his left hand. “Careful with my car.”

  I looked at him. He smiled, and something about him seemed familiar.

  “Hyden?” I asked.

  “Yes,” Plaid Shirt said.

  It was so weird. “Is that really you?”

  “In the flesh. Well, actually, in the borrowed flesh.”

  “What do you think you’re doing? You jacked that guy.”

  “It’s for his own good. He would have fought us.” He took his hand off the wheel but nodded toward the road. “Focus.”

  I climbed the freeway on-ramp. Hyden put his hand on my right arm. But it wasn’t his hand—it was the plaid-shirted guy’s. The whole thing was so weird. I wasn’t even sure I trusted Hyden. How well could you know someone who could be anyone they wanted to be?

  “Are you really okay back there?” I craned around to get another look at Hyden’s body in the back.

  “Don’t worry.”

  “What’s his name?” I asked.

  “Who?”

  “The guy you’re in.”

  Hyden started patting his pockets. He pulled out a wallet and looked at a photo ID of himself.

  “Jeremy Stone.” He looked through the wallet. “Not much cash. Either he was one of the donors at the end who didn’t get paid, or he ran through the money.”

  “How did you get in Jeremy so fast like that?” I asked.

  “Guess.”

  I thought it over. “You have a chip in your head.”

  “I was the first one. To test my invention.”

  His hand remained on my arm, sending its warmth through me. I didn’t want to like it. I refused to like it. But the warmth was undeniable.

  “This isn’t so different from your father,” I said. “He wears a mask, and you’re wearing a whole-body mask.”

  He stared out the windshield. I suspect he was a bit ashamed. If he wasn’t, he should have been.

  “You wouldn’t want to be me, Callie. Can you imagine hating your own body? I’m a prisoner inside it.”

  I’d been a real prisoner, inside Institution 37, and it had been the worst time of my life. Much worse than being a squatter. But I had been able to escape.

  Could Hyden?

  “All the Metals are prisoners,” I said. “Until we can defeat your father.”

  CHAPTER NINE

  Hyden guessed that Jeremy had not eaten for a while because he soon got very hungry and wanted flash food from a drive-thru. He started to order for just us.

  “No!” I shouted at the order machine. “Make that thirty of everything—burgers, fries, and chocolate shakes.” I turned to Hyden. “We can’t just bring back food for ourselves. Food will make them trust us.”

  When we drove back to his place, he hesitated before getting out of the SUV. “Listen, I don’t want the Metals to see me in a borrowed body. Too weird.” Then he told me about a private room where I could meet him. We went up separately, me carrying the large bags of food. The Metals were so thrilled to see the food that they didn’t bother to ask why I wasn’t sitting and eating with them.

  Hyden’s secret room was about the size of two of our dorm-type rooms, with a bed and a desk.

  “So this is where you hide out sometimes,” I said, admiring the decor. “Nice of you to share it with me.”

  He pulled a sheet from a shelf and spread it on the floor.

  “Picnic?” I asked.

  “Why not?”

  One wall was covered with an image of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and I could practically feel the brisk spray on my face.

  “That’s beautiful,” I said.

  “It helps.” He shrugged. “But it’s not the real thing.”

  I put the food on the cloth on the floor. He remained standing, so I did too. He moved closer to me than ever before, about a foot away. He put his hands out toward me, palms to the ceiling, in an invitation to touch.

  “Callie.”

  I placed my hands over his. He closed his eyes, as if he was savoring the sensation.

  Finally, he opened his eyes. He gently held my hands, caressing them, then turning his palm until ours matched, in front of us. He slid his fingers down to meet the crooks of mine, and we were grasping each other’s hands.

  My heart was beating faster. I unclasped my hands and pulled back.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

  Jeremy’s face looked puzzled. I had to get used to a whole new set of expressions now that it wasn’t Hyden’s eyes, brows, and mouth.

  “It’s too weird,” I said, motioning to his body.

  He moved closer to me. “Please.” He touched the back of my hand lightly with his fingers. “Come on. This is the only way I can touch you.”

  I didn’t move. I wanted to see what he’d do next.

  “Let’s check out his body.” Hyden lifted his shirt. “Hey, abs!”

  He pretended to be surprised at Jeremy’s toned physique. He grinned and then let his shirt fall, covering it again.

  He took my hand and gently placed it over his shirt, over his abs.

  I let it rest there a moment. Then my mouth went dry and I pulled away.

  “What?” he asked.

  “It’s not you,” I said. “I don’t want to be part of this.” I shook my head. “You stole his body.”

  He hung his head. I couldn’t see his face, but his hesitation suggested he was conflicted. “This is the best I can do. I’m the same inside. It’s me in here. You know that.”

  I knew it, but I didn’t know how I felt about it.

  “The me inside this shell is still me. What defines me? Skin? You know you can change that with the wave of a laser. Muscle? EMS can build that. Fat? It can fade away with freezing. I hope I’m more than that. Than this.” He swept a hand in front of Jeremy Stone’s body. “That I am what I think, what I believe. What I feel.”

  He brought his hand to my face. Slowly, he traced his finger along my temple, to the side of my cheek.

  “I miss touching,” he whispered.

  He ran his finger down my jawline. I closed my eyes and felt the caress.

  “Nice.” It was so faint, it was like a breath.

  I moved closer. Our lips inched toward each other, pulling together in a kiss. My head spun, feeling the electricity.

  We kissed until our lips burned. I traveled to another place, a place that would never have anything as mundane as a name. And then I remembered. …

  “Your body.”

  He pulled back to look at me with sleepy eyes. “What about it?”

  “We left it in the car.”

  I’d heard of people leaving babies or dogs in cars by accident, before the war, but this was a first. We rushed to the garage.

  Hyden unlocked the car and opened the back door hatch. We looked at his body lying there.

  “You’re still breathing,” I said.

  “Of course I am.”

  It felt so bizarre to see it lying there. Hyden cradled his body with a blanket.

  “I look so sweet,” Hyden said.

  “That’s not funny.”

  “I’ll take the top part if you can handle the feet,” he said.

  We carried the body, me behind Hyden. It wasn’t hard at first, but after a minute he became ten times heavier. Hyden leaned against the wall so he could press the code to open the door in the garage.

  As we entered the elevator, Hyden bumped his real body
, the one we were carrying, against the wall.

  “Careful,” I said. “It’s still your body, remember?”

  “I know.”

  “No matter how many people you jack, you can’t change who you are,” I said.

  He had no answer for that.

  My arms began to burn from holding him, but I couldn’t bring myself to put him down.

  Finally, the elevator doors opened to the lab level.

  “No one’s here,” I whispered.

  “They must still be in the dining room,” he said quietly.

  We took his body to his private room and rested it on the couch. Hyden put the blanket over the legs.

  “How long will you be asleep?” I asked.

  “Hours.” He pointed to a disc patch on the neck. “Or longer.”

  “You’re not thinking of keeping that body?” I asked, gesturing to Jeremy’s torso.

  He stared back at me. I didn’t know if I was giving him a new idea or whether he’d been considering it all along.

  “It would solve a lot of problems, wouldn’t it?”

  “You can’t.” I said this with the firmness I remember my mother using with me at crucial times.

  He rubbed his forehead and looked down. “No,” he said finally. “I’d never do that to Jeremy.”

  My shoulders relaxed. “Good.”

  It was so weird, talking to him in Jeremy’s form but staring at Hyden’s real body, resting there on the couch.

  “We’re going to have to explain this to the group,” I said.

  “You tell them.”

  “Why not you?” I asked.

  “You’ll do it so much better. They like you more than me.” He forced a smile with Jeremy’s lips.

  “That’s because I listen to them,” I said.

  My phone rang. I looked at it and saw it was Michael. Michael?

  The rule was not to call each other so that the calls couldn’t be traced.

  “Don’t answer,” Hyden said.

  “It’s got to be important.” I pressed the talk button. “Michael?” I said into the phone. “Where are you?”

  “I’m in Flintridge,” Michael said. “Outside the old library.”

  “Where’s Tyler?”

 
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