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       Starters, p.9

           Lissa Price
 

  After a couple of hours, Blake stopped his horse and dismounted. “Ready for lunch?”

  We were in the middle of nowhere. “Sure. But no flash food drive-thrus here.”

  He smiled. “Just follow me.”

  He took the reins and walked his horse around a bend. Under the shade of a large oak tree was a table covered with food: several kinds of sandwiches, grapes, fruit kebabs, brownies. He saw my expression and laughed.

  “I just asked for peanut butter and some chips.” He shrugged.

  He helped me dismount and we tied our reins to a tree. There were buckets of water and some hay for the horses.

  He pulled out his phone. “Come here.”

  A quirky smile formed on his lips. I hesitated a second, then stepped forward.

  He turned me around so my back was to him. Then he wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me close. His skin was warm from the sun and smelled of sunscreen. I held on to his arm with both hands, feeling his strength. He held out the phone with his other hand, aiming the camera at us.

  “So we’ll remember,” he said.

  Click.

  Without looking at it, he slipped his phone back in his pocket.

  “Aren’t you starving?” he asked.

  We sat at the table and filled our plates. I noticed a large picnic basket on the ground.

  “Who did all this?” I asked between bites.

  “The fairies.” He handed me a soda.

  “They’re artistic little folk. They even put out flowers.” I touched a small vase of tiny orchids.

  Blake pulled one out and handed it to me. “For you.”

  I took the flower and admired it. The petals were yellow with dark purple leopardlike spots.

  “I’ve never, ever seen an orchid with spots like this,” I said, touching the end to my nose.

  “I know. They’re rare. Kinda like you.”

  I felt my cheeks flush. I suddenly got very involved sipping my soda.

  “So who are you really, Callie, girl of mystery?” he asked. “How come I’ve never met you before?”

  “Then I wouldn’t be a mystery.”

  “What’s your favorite food? Don’t think, just answer.”

  “Cheesecake.”

  “What’s your favorite flower?”

  “This one.” I twirled the stem of the spotted orchid.

  “Holo this year?”

  “Too many to choose from.” Didn’t want to say I hadn’t seen any.

  “Animal.”

  “Whale.”

  “That came out fast.” He shook his head and we both laughed.

  “What about you?” I asked. “Let’s do you.”

  “Color: blue. Food: potato chips. Instrument: guitar.” He shot these out. “Cause: endangered species.”

  “That’s a good one,” I said. “Can I share that one?”

  He squinted, pretending to be seriously pondering it. “Okay.”

  We sat in the sun for a long time, chatting and getting to know each other. I could have stayed there with him forever. But it was getting cold. I rubbed my arms.

  “What do you think, should we go?” he asked.

  I nodded and started to pick up the plates.

  “Don’t.” He put his hand on my arm. “Someone will get it.”

  “Who, the fairies? It’s kind of mean to make them work so hard, don’t you think? Hurt their soft little fairy hands?”

  “They like to work. They like the fairy salary.”

  “This is your ranch, isn’t it?”

  He pursed his lips. It seemed to me that he didn’t want to boast. “My grandmother’s.”

  I sensed something else, some sadness. It must have belonged to his parents at some point, but then they’d died, like every Starter’s parents. I nodded. “Then we’ll definitely leave it for the fairy hands.”

  We untied the horses and rode back as the sun was setting over the mountains. It had been a long time since I’d had a day when I didn’t have to fight just to survive. My throat tightened at the thought of it ending. As if he could read my mind, he stopped and we watched the sunset together, our horses side by side.

  “Did you have fun?” he asked.

  I wanted to gush, but I stopped myself. “It was okay.”

  I glanced over at him sitting on his horse and flashed him a smile. He returned it with one of his own. Then he just stared at me, one side of his face red from the sunset. I felt an invisible warmth radiate from him. If it had been an airscreen game, there’d have been tacky heart icons floating between us.

  Suddenly a flash of guilt came over me about Michael. Even though we weren’t really boyfriend and girlfriend, there was something special between us. And there were other reasons I had to stop thinking about Blake. Where could this go? Nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere.

  I took a deep breath. Gave myself a mental slap. Stop analyzing and enjoy whatever time you have left with him, I thought as the last sliver of the sun slipped away.

  In the car, I was thinking about how to ask him for that favor I needed. But he wanted to stop at his grandfather’s mother’s home. She needed help with her airscreen.

  She lived in a tall condo building in Westwood. In the elevator, he explained that his great-grandmother’s name was Marion, but he called her Nani. She never liked to reveal her age, but she was probably two hundred, he guessed.

  When she opened the door, she wasn’t what I’d expected to see. She was tiny, and her hair wasn’t silver or bright white, but a soft off-white. She was wearing gray cashmere sweats. But the biggest surprise was that she wore her wrinkles with pride, skipping surgery and treatments.

  She held my hand as she walked me to a chair. She smelled like lavender.

  “Blakey, the airscreen won’t turn on.” She sat on a love seat near me. “He told me he might bring a friend over. I’m so happy to meet you.”

  Blake sat next to Marion and worked with her mini-airscreen in his palm.

  She patted his hand. “He’s such a good boy. I don’t believe all this negative talk about the young people. You know, the ones who don’t have good homes like you two. Everyone says all they do is fight, steal, and vandalize. That’s not all they do, that’s just what we hear about. I don’t believe in putting them in institutions. It’s wrong. How will they ever become contributing members of society if we don’t integrate them?”

  All I could do was nod. If only she knew my real story.

  Marion leaned toward Blake and pointed at the air display. “You got it working already?”

  “The cell was loose,” he said.

  “Have you met my son? Blake’s grandfather?” Marion pointed to a painting on the wall.

  I shook my head.

  “He’s a senator, you know.” She beamed. “Senator Clifford C. Harrison.”

  “Really?” I looked at the portrait of a serious Ender. “You look like him,” I said to Blake.

  “He does, doesn’t he?” Marion said.

  “Nani …,” Blake said.

  “Why shouldn’t I be proud of my own son? And my great-grandson?” She pinched his cheek. “He’s so good to me, calls me all the time. And comes whenever I need him. How many grandchildren can you say that about?”

  He blushed. Cute.

  In the elevator on the way to the ground level, I looked at Blake with even more envy.

  “You didn’t tell me your grandfather was a senator.”

  He slipped his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “Now you know.”

  I liked that he didn’t feel he had to brag.

  “She’s great,” I said, nodding back to his great-grandmother’s condo.

  “Nani’s a gem. I only wish my grandmother was like her.”

  The elevator stopped, and we walked out to the front of the condo. Blake gave his ticket to the valet.

  “She doesn’t see things the way Marion does?”

  He shook his head. “As long as she can shop at Tiffany’s, everything’s right with the world. What abo
ut you? What’s your grandmother like?”

  I looked down at my feet while we waited for the valet. “Kind of like yours.”

  “Too bad.”

  I purposely didn’t ask him about his grandfather. He didn’t seem comfortable with the fact that he was this big senator.

  It was dark by the time we made it back to Bel Air. He parked the car on the street, just outside the gate, and shut off the engine. The interior of Mrs. Winterhill’s house glowed with dim golden lights.

  “I had a really good time,” he said.

  “Me too.” I had to ask him, but I didn’t know how to say it. So I just blurted it out. “I need you to do a favor for me.”

  He looked at me for a second. “Whatever you need.”

  “Do you have some paper? And a pen?”

  He opened the glove compartment, pulled out a pen and pad, and handed them to me. I drew the map as best I could from memory.

  “I need you to go here.” I pointed to the building.

  He peered at my drawing. “What kind of place is this?”

  “It’s an abandoned office building.”

  “Are you kidding?”

  “Please. I have a friend who’s had some trouble. He needs this money.” I emptied my purse of cash. “When you get there, park on the side street. Don’t get out of the car if you see anyone. If it’s clear, go in this door and go right to the third floor. As soon as you’re on the floor, call out his name—Michael—and say ‘Callie has a message for you.’ Wait for him to come out, don’t go into any rooms.”

  I held out the cash but Blake didn’t take it.

  “You’re joking, right?” He gave a nervous laugh.

  “I’m serious.” He reminded me of Michael. Apparently I was doomed to deal with stubborn guys. I pushed the cash so it touched his hand. He still wouldn’t take it. “Once he comes out, give him the money. And this.” I handed him the folded drawing. “He’ll believe you once he sees this. Ask him if everyone is okay, he’ll know what that means. If he won’t take the money, call me and I’ll talk to him.”

  “Don’t you want to come too?”

  “I really wish I could.” It would have been great to see Tyler. “But I can’t.” Not without Prime knowing I went there.

  “Sounds kind of iffy.”

  “It’s not exactly safe there. So leave as soon as you can.”

  He took the money with reluctant fingers. “Don’t worry, I will.”

  “Thanks, Blake. For doing this.”

  “Hey, it’s important to you.” He looked into my eyes. “So it’s important to me.”

  He was doing so much for me. I was used to going to places like that, but he wasn’t. They’d know instantly that he was an outsider.

  But that money could buy food and vitamins for Tyler.

  “And thanks for not asking any questions.” I got out of the car. Before I closed my door, he leaned over.

  “But I don’t guarantee I won’t ask them in the future,” he said. “Questions.”

  I smiled. It felt good to hear that word … “future.” Then I felt guilty because poor Blake didn’t know that we had no future, the prince and the poor peasant. But all that shifted to the background as something very real started happening to me.

  My hands went icy cold.

  Numb.

  Dizziness washed through me, as if someone had spun me around ten times. Like Alice chasing the rabbit, I was falling into a deep, black hole.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  When I came to, I had a gun in my hands.

  What?

  A gun?

  Why?

  Was I defending myself? Sweat beaded on my forehead. My heart pounded so hard, I swore I could hear it.

  Who was after me? I gripped the gun with both hands, my finger on the trigger.

  My ragged breathing echoed in my ears. I was ready to shoot.

  But no one was there.

  I was alone, standing in the middle of someone’s bedroom. Large, plush. Looked like a museum. I recognized it.

  Helena. It was Helena’s bedroom.

  What had happened?

  Images ricocheted in my head. Faces, cars, smiles, flashing like leaping fish. The minute I tried to focus on one, it was already gone.

  I looked down at the gun in my hands. It was a Glock 85. I’d used one before, but this one was modified.

  It had a silencer.

  I checked to see if the gun was loaded. It wasn’t. I went to the dresser and placed it on top. As soon as I did, a searing pain hit me and I doubled over. Pressure rose up my neck to my forehead, as if my skull would explode like a volcano.

  Trying to stop the throbbing, I pressed my temples. I fell to my knees, rocking from side to side. The pain kept coming in waves. Just when it subsided and I thought it was over—bam—there it was again.

  After what felt like forever but was probably just minutes, it went away. I waited, afraid this was just a longer pause between waves, but it was over. It was as if a switch had been turned off. I was bent over on the floor, hands clammy, body drenched in sweat.

  The quiet in the room overwhelmed me. All my senses were heightened.

  I got to my feet and leaned on the dresser, my brain racing.

  What was Helena doing with a Glock in her bedroom? Protection? But it was heavier and larger than the usual nightstand security gun. It would be difficult for an Ender woman to handle.

  And why the silencer? This was not a good sign.

  I noticed that one of the doors to Helena’s closet was open. A case lay open on the carpet in front of it. I walked closer and confirmed it was a gun case. I brought the gun over and placed it in the indentation that held it perfectly.

  Inside the closet, the carpet had been pulled back, revealing a secret compartment under the floor. It was just big enough to hold the gun case. I closed the case, put it in the compartment, and replaced the carpet.

  Just getting the gun out of sight made me feel better.

  Then I tried to get my bearings. What had I been doing before the lights went out?

  Blake. I’d been saying goodnight to Blake. I’d given him the money for Tyler and gotten out of his car. It had been late. Now there was sunlight blazing through the windows. The clock read 3:00.

  Where was the leather purse I’d been using? I swung around and saw it on the desk. I opened the bag and pulled out the cell phone to check the date.

  It was … tomorrow. So I had blacked out for eighteen hours. And then, for some reason, I came to.

  I figured that whatever had caused me to snap into consciousness before, when I was in the nightclub, was what had caused me to return now. Questions flew through my brain. Was someone controlling this, or was it totally random? Maybe something was wrong with my neurochip? Did this happen to other donors, or was I special?

  As easy as falling asleep. Sure.

  Odds were, it was my renter who had regained control of my body. Helena had already owned that gun; that was clear from the hidden compartment in her bedroom. And when I came to, I was in that bedroom, holding that gun. If my theory was correct, that meant Helena had gained control of my body after I said goodnight to Blake. Had she said anything to him or just gone into the house? Had she said anything to Eugenia?

  I wasn’t sure how I should act. What to say, what not to. It was scary when you didn’t know what your body had been doing without you.

  And what about Tyler? Had Blake found him? I gripped the phone and sent Blake a Zing. He didn’t answer.

  A gun. Not just any gun. A Glock with a silencer. This wasn’t just target practice, this was way more than I’d bargained for.

  I had to return to Prime.

  In the garage, I bypassed Helena’s yellow rocket and went to the small blue sports car at the end of the row. It didn’t scream “notice me” the way the rocket did. From the outside, I saw a fuzzy green alien hanging from the rearview mirror. Not exactly Helena’s style. Probably a granddaughter’s car.

  The key hung f
rom a rack on the wall, on a chain dangling another little alien, this one much smaller. I got in the car and started up the navigator. She spoke with the voice of an old cartoon character.

  “Where to?” the navigator asked in that chirpy voice.

  “Prime Destinations, Beverly Hills.”

  A couple of seconds passed and then it said, “Cannot find that location.”

  Of course. Prime wouldn’t be listed.

  “New address,” I said, setting it up for a manual entry.

  I started to read out their address when the Voice came back.

  Callie … don’t … don’t go back … Prime. Can you hear? You cannot return.… It’s dangerous.… Extremely dangerous.…

  Goose pimples rose on my arms. “Dangerous,” the Voice had said, just like the first time. She was consistent. She was very clearly warning me about returning to Prime Destinations.

  “Why?” I asked the Voice. “Can you tell me why?”

  Silence.

  “Who is this?” I asked. “Helena?”

  No answer.

  Guns. Warnings. Danger. I didn’t like waking up with a gun in my hand—but at least I could handle a gun. I didn’t know what waited for me at Prime.

  I shut off the engine and went back into the house.

  I got on Helena’s computer to find out more about her. If that was her taking over my body whenever I blacked out, I needed to know everything I could. Why the gun? Maybe someone was after her, and I was now the target of that anger.

  How many of her friends knew she was renting? Other than the Zing sender who didn’t approve. If that was a friend.

  I looked through Helena’s computer files. Over a hundred years of memories, work, letters, and photos. I sifted through it and found out that her son and his wife had been killed in the war, like most people their age. They had a daughter named Emma, my age. That would be Helena’s grand daughter.

  I went to the CamPages, the portals to the parts of people’s lives they wanted to share. The truly self-absorbed recorded their entire day and played it in straight airscreen or in holo mode. The really crazy kids never shut them off.

 
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