If just the thought of the undead didn’t make me sick to my stomach, I might have described myself as a zombie the next morning during breakfast. The others weren’t faring much better. Our meal was uncharacteristically silent. Seb didn’t show at all.
No one so much as mentioned his absence, and when I finally brought it up, everyone at the table stopped eating to look up at me.
After a long pause, Tayo finally responded. “Seb, uh, didn’t get much sleep last night,” he told me. “We were up late questioning the adlet, seeing if she knew anything about Brother Barnes.”
“The what?” I asked.
“That’s what inhumans like her are called,” Eva explained. “You saw what she looked like, right?”
I nodded. It wasn’t likely I’d ever forget something like that. But I mean, who knew? Maybe in a few years I’d be every bit as jaded as Muri or Seb.
“So what, he’s sleeping in?”
“Yeah,” Tayo replied, staring down at his food. “He’ll probably be up soon.”
It was clear from the tone of his voice and the dour expressions on everyone else’s faces that they were through discussing Seb, so I ate the rest of my breakfast without making a peep before heading straight to Seb’s room.
I knocked lightly on the door, but there was no reply. When I tried the handle I found it was unlocked, and carefully edged the door open to peer inside.
“Seb?” I whispered into the dark room within. No response.
Not wanting to be caught standing out in the hall outside Seb’s room, I quietly crept inside and shut the door behind me. There was a soft glow around the curtains next to the bed, and I could just make out Seb’s slack features illuminated by the faint light. It was the first time I’d seen him look so…relaxed. Even on the plane when he’d napped, he seemed restless and ready to jump up out of his seat at any moment. Now he looked at ease, something that, despite all my misgivings about him, I was sure he didn’t have the luxury of experiencing all that often.
I wasn’t sure if I should wake him or just leave and try to find out more from him later, but the sudden stirring from Seb’s bed made up my mind for me.
“Who let you in?” he asked through a yawn. He stretched like a cat and rolled over to squint at me.
“I let myself in,” I told him, leaning up against the stack of suitcases next to the pile of crap he’d thrown out of them. “You didn’t come to breakfast.”
“Tired,” he exhaled. He seemed barely lucid.
“I can see that. Long night?”
He narrowed his eyes and raised himself up onto his elbows to get a better look at me. “Yeah. Interrogating someone will do that to you.”
“I got the feeling that interrogation was more Muri’s speed,” I said.
“You got the wrong feeling then.” He looked down at his wrinkled pillow and pushed himself up into a sitting position. “What do you want?”
“To know what happened.”
“You saw what happened.”
“Not after,” I pointed out. “Can I see her?” I asked, instantly regretting the question when Seb gave me a forbidding look in response.
“She’s not a sideshow freak, Peaches.”
“That’s not—” I started to say, and then stopped. “Sorry. Okay.” It wasn’t that I wanted to gawk at her or anything. I just wanted to help. Be the good cop to Seb’s bad cop. But there was no use in explaining that to Seb. I sat down in the chair at his desk. “Are you getting up now?”
“They’re cleaning up breakfast soon,” I continued, but he didn’t reply. “Look, I thought you were okay with this—” I gestured between us, “—as long as it didn’t get too friendly.”
Seb didn’t meet my eyes. “I’m just tired. Why don’t you go hang out with Eva? I want to go back to bed.”
As I walked out of his room, I felt the same way I did when I was scolded by a teacher or my boss for making a dumb mistake, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.
Seb wasn’t the boss of me. Screw him. If he wouldn’t take me to see the adlet, I’d just go talk to her myself.
Despite what I’d told Seb, I knew breakfast would still be out for at least another ten minutes. Maybe longer without me there, since I had no doubt the others’ silence in the mess hall had everything to do with my presence. I still didn’t know the inside of the lodge very well but I knew there were only so many rooms I hadn’t been in, so I decided to start with the south wing first.
I was halfway down the hall when common sense lamped me in the skull. Why would they keep a prisoner in the lodge? And then I knew exactly where she was.
I popped inside Genevieve’s room first, and when I reached the aid station, made of solid cement and heavy steel doors, I was prepared for the padlock on the outer door with Genevieve’s keyring. It took a couple tries but finally I got the lock open. I slipped inside the darkened room with a mixed feeling of relief and anxiety.
The adlet wasn’t in the first room, but I hadn’t expected her to be. I opened the door to the examination room with shaking hands and at first, I didn’t even notice the adlet. She was sitting in a rolling chair in the corner behind the metal table, hands still bound behind her back and ankles tied together. I knew firsthand it wasn’t the most comfortable position to be in.
Her eyes were closed, but the ears on top of her head flicked toward me as I shut the door. I wondered if she had human ears too under her hair. I couldn’t figure out which option seemed more bizarre after considering it for a minute.
“Hey,” I said hesitantly. When she didn’t react, I tried again. “Hey.”
One eye opened, glaring lazily at me. “What do you want,” she asked flatly. Between her lips I could see the hint of canine fangs, and I tried not to stare.
“I’m just checking to see if you’re okay,” I lied. “If they’re not treating you right, I can always talk—”
She laughed, a rasping throaty sound. “Why don’t you tell that blonde twink of yours to ease up if he’s not going to finish the job? I mean, Christ. A girl can only handle so much.”
Was Seb…torturing her? Is that what they all meant by “interrogation”?
I blanched. “He hurt you to get information?”
The adlet’s eyes narrowed, and she looked me up and down before barking out another laugh. “Typical.”
“I never kiss and tell,” she replied in a sing-song voice.
Torture victim or not, I was starting to get pretty annoyed with her attitude. “Look, why don’t you tell me your name?”
“Why?” she asked. “So you can make an attempt to humanize me? No thanks. Why don’t you do me a favor and fuck off?”
“Fine,” I snapped, storming out of the aid station without looking back. I fumbled with the padlock, hands trembling from anger instead of nerves this time.
Try to help Seb? Fuck off.
Try to help the adlet? Fuck off!
“Fuck,” I breathed out, hands stilling over the lock as my anger quickly evaporated. I knew I had to swallow my pride and walk back in there. I couldn’t leave until I’d at least tried to get some answers out of the adlet. What was the point in even being here if I couldn’t help anyone?
“What?” I spat, whirling around to find Eva looking at me, her eyes wide and questioning. I realized I was still holding Genevieve’s keyring, and standing in front of the newly locked door to the aid station probably wasn’t doing me any favors. “I…uh….”
“Why don’t you put those back,” she said slowly, nodding toward the keys, “and then head back out so you can help me with some chores.”
I nodded firmly. “Yep. Okay.” I decided not to push my luck.
Eva didn’t say a word when I walked out into the clearing to find her standing next to Tayo, who was frolicking in the snow with the two giant wolves. Not having forgotten my previous encounter with the larger of the two animals, I waved to Eva but kept my distance until the animals were safely penned in once more.
“Everything in its proper place?” she asked mildly as I walked over to the pen where she was latching the door and testing to make sure it was secure.
“Mhmm.” I waved a hand at Tayo, who was dusting himself off. “So what are we doing?”
“Well, Tayo is going to go get Seb,” Eva said, raising a hand as Tayo started to walk back to the lodge, “so they can ask the adlet some more questions.” She gave me a meaningful look.
“Is that really a good plan?” I asked. “Seb didn’t look like he was in great shape when I went to see him and neither did…you know.”
Eva’s carefully blank expression shifted into a frown. “You went to see him too? No wonder Seb wanted to keep you locked up.”
“That’s not fair,” I said quietly.
She sighed and leaned against the door to the pen. “No, you’re right, it’s not.” She cast her eyes over to me, a weary look on her face. “But Pemberly…you’re going to get yourself in trouble one day if you continue to do things like this. And there might not always be someone to get you out of it.”
“Noted,” I said tightly. “Now can we talk about the whole ‘torture’ thing?”
Eva stared at me quizzically. “What torture thing?”
“Seb? The adlet?”
She cocked her head to the side in confusion. “Pemberly, he’s not torturing her.”
“Oh.” I felt foolish for jumping to conclusions. “She just said....”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” Eva told me. She straightened, brushing at her pants. “Especially not when it’s a non-human feeding it to you. Seb’s an accomplished interrogator. He knows what he’s doing. And Tayo’s been in there with them the whole time. Stop worrying so much.”
“Right. Okay.” I kicked at the frost beneath my feet uncomfortably.
Eva placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Don’t worry about any of that. I need to grab some feed from the supply shed so we can bring it down to the cages later, and I could use your help.”
I nodded. “Sure, lead the way.”
I followed her over past the south wing of the lodge to a rickety wooden building that looked like it was in imminent danger of collapsing.
“Sorry about the mess,” Eva said as she held the door open for me.
I slipped inside as carefully as I could and tried not to touch anything while I waited for her to place a large rock in front of the door to keep it propped open.
“We just need to get those bags down from the top shelf there,” she said, pointing to an aged wooden plank nailed into the wall a foot or so above my head. “I figured with you on board we wouldn’t even need to break out the stepladder.”
“Just one of the many advantages of being tall,” I said, and reached for the topmost burlap sack. I sagged under the weight, just barely managing to stay upright as I pulled it down. I handed it off to Eva, who carried it with ease and set it down near the doorway. We repeated the process until the shelf was empty and my arms felt numb.
“Can we take a break?” I asked, sitting down on the workbench behind me and trying to look less exhausted than I felt.
“Sure,” Eva said. “I’ll text Tayo and let him know we’ll be done loading everything up by the time he’s finished with Seb.”
I watched as she walked out of the shed to get a better signal on her cell and then closed my eyes for a minute. I must have zoned out completely, however, because when I opened them again, Eva was standing in front of me, her hips between my knees and her face just a few inches away.
“Wha—” I barely managed to get a single syllable out before Eva crushed her lips to mine. Taken by surprise, it was several seconds before I gathered enough sense to react, and by then she was already pulling away.
“Well that was—something,” she said with a brief exhalation, more to herself than me.
“But your fiancé—” I said, breathing loudly into the space between us. Even inside the shed my breath was a white cloud of smoke, almost corporeal in the cold morning air.
“We’re not exclusive,” she said quickly, laughing a little as she looked up. “It’s not practical with our jobs and everything—Sorry, sometimes I forget most of the world isn’t quite on our wavelength.”
“Oh,” I replied. “That’s a relief.”
I leaned in to kiss her again, this time focusing on the taste of her citrus-flavored chapstick as she deepened it. Somehow, I’d never really stopped expecting every girl I kissed to taste sickly sweet, like cotton candy and bubblegum and vanilla, all mixed together.
Joel must have known what Lila had tasted like too, I realized, and the thought made me want to vomit. No part of Lila, then, had ever really belonged to me.
I kissed Eva harder, willing the feel of her thick black hair under my fingers to chase away the memory of fine blonde curls.
Finally she pulled away, and I let my hand slowly slide through her hair, trying to prolong the connection between us for as long as possible.
“As much as I’d love to stay in here all day,” she said quietly, “despite all the dust, we should really finish getting this ready for Tayo.”
“Yeah,” I said dumbly, not fully processing her words until she turned to pick up the bags we’d left lying on the ground near the door.
In a daze, I helped her load up a rickety metal trolley and then pushed it down the path back to the lodge with her steering from the front. I was still reeling from the kiss by the time we stopped, not really sure how to feel about it.
Eva was older, more experienced than me, and she was engaged. On paper, it wasn’t a good fit, even if you didn’t factor in all the fucked-up-ness in my life. And then there was Lila. Kissing Eva had brought everything rushing back, the bad and the good, and I still felt off-balance, like none of my thoughts were coming to me in the right order.
“You need another break?” Eva joked when we got to Tayo’s truck, and I shook my head, forcing a smile.
There was only one more bag left when Tayo ran over to us from the back of the north wing, looking more panicked than I’d ever seen him, including the previous night. “Eva, go get Cece and get in there,” he said in a no-nonsense tone, quickly moving to take the bag of feed from both of us and tossing it into the bed of the truck himself.
“How bad?” Eva asked, starting to look a little frantic herself.
“Now,” he replied insistently, holding out a hand to stop me when I tried to follow. “You’re with me, Pem. Get in the truck and we’ll drive this down to the cages.”
I reluctantly climbed into the passenger seat and waited for him to start the car. “What’s going on?” I asked. Tayo didn’t relax his grip on the steering wheel until we’d almost reached the end of the path.
“Nothing,” he said, and then grimaced. “Shit, it’s just…. We finally got the adlet to talk.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
Tayo gave me a sideways glance. “We’ll see. It’s not the greatest news. She told us the location of her group: where they’re keeping Brother Barnes and Charlie—the thunderbird.”
“Why isn’t that a good thing?” I inquired, confused by the resigned tone of his voice. Wasn’t their biggest worry that Barnes was already dead?
“It’s the actual location that’s the problem,” Tayo informed me as we pulled up to the paddock. He yanked the key from the ignition and hopped out of the truck in one fluid movement. When I attempted to jump down from the passenger seat, I nearly fell face-first into the dirt.
“Where is it?” I asked, meeting him at the back of the truck.
“Out there,” he said with a cock of his head toward the south. “They wrecked the trailer they were using to transport Charlie during the storm and decided to hole up in the mountains. The adlet gave us the coordinates but the mountains are almost inaccessible this time of year.”
“But if they managed to get there on foot, shouldn’t you guys?” I asked, helping him move the feed from the bed of the truck just to have something to do other than just stand there, even though it was clear he didn’t need my help.
“Yeah, but on foot is the issue.” Tayo sighed. “We don’t want to lose anyone else out there, and we already have limited enough options as it is when it comes to dealing with this. Seb said—” He grunted as he shouldered one of the bags. “Seb thinks someone at the executive level is blocking his requests on purpose. Because they suspect Brother Barnes.”
“Really?” I said disbelievingly. “They think he’s in cahoots with the kidnappers?”
I just watched as he carried over another bag to the food crate and dropped it in. “But why would they think that?”
Tayo rolled his neck and cracked his knuckles before picking up another sack. “A lot of reasons, I guess. Bureaucracy breeds inefficiency, and inefficiency breeds suspicion when things don’t go the way they should. Plus, there was already a lot that was atypical when Charlie disappeared. It’s not the first time someone’s tossed out the idea that it might be an inside job.”
“But it wasn’t, right?”
“Of course not,” he replied quickly. “Brother Barnes loves these animals; he loves his job. He would never do something to put them in danger. It’s just standard NIMA bullshit. We’ll have to deal with it our own way, like we always have. Pass me the toolbox from the back, would you? Padlock’s stuck again.”
I carried it over to him and watched as Tayo fiddled with the lock before finally securing the lid on the crate. He turned back to me with a half-smile. “It’s too bad we can’t keep you around full-time. I could use an assistant every now and again.”
I laughed at that. I thought it was pretty clear that my discomfort with the animals made me rather unsuited for a job like this, but Tayo was probably just trying to lighten the mood.
“What time is it?” I asked, peering up at the sun’s deceptively low position in the sky.
Tayo glanced down at his watch. “Nearly eleven,” he said with a frown. He hummed pensively to himself, tugging at his left ear lobe. He turned to me with a smile that looked like it’d been painted on. “It’s Cece’s turn for lunch, but I expect she’s still tied up with Seb, so what do you say you and I do a little cooking instead?”
“Sure,” I agreed.
“You like Chinese spring rolls?” he asked. I nodded. “Good, then you’ll like the ones I make. I’m just gonna pop in on the birdies before we head back. You can stay there,” he cautioned.
There was no real need for the warning. My feet were firmly planted on the ground as he walked over to the pens to open each door and pet the individual heads of every thunderbird while making soft cooing sounds that the creatures eagerly returned.
Even from where I was standing, I could make out distinguishing features between the four gigantic birds. It helped that I wasn’t being attacked by any of them. They were all red-eyed with iridescent black feathers, but the coloring patterns, only truly visible when the light hit them the right way, were different enough that if I knew their names I could probably have told them apart.
When Tayo reached the pen on the far right, an empty stall between it and the next bird over, a terrifying shriek rang through the air. He opened the door without flinching, murmuring, “I know, I know,” as he petted the thrashing creature’s feathers while its eyes rolled around its head.
I could feel all the hair on my arms stand straight up, and the air suddenly felt heavier, like just before a storm. I was relieved when Tayo finally shut the door and walked back over to me and the truck.
“What was that about?” I asked in a low voice, unnerved by the experience.
He shrugged kind of sadly. “That’s Charlie’s mate, Dexter. He misses her. The other three: Max, Nakita, and Zero—” He indicated the pens to the left of Dexter’s. “They’re handling it better than Dex, but it’s still hard since they’ve been together pretty much their whole lives. It doesn’t help that Brother Barnes is gone too, because he usually handles them more than Eva and me.”
I nodded sympathetically, not really sure what to say. Tayo gave me a friendly pat on the back and opened the passenger door of the truck.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s head back and start lunch before everyone starves, okay?”
We drove back up to the lodge and headed straight for the kitchen. I kept an eye out for Seb or Eva, or any of the others, but the entire compound felt like a ghost town all of a sudden.
“Where is everyone?” I asked as Tayo and I washed our hands before grabbing the necessary ingredients for our meal.
“They’re around,” he replied unhelpfully. He handed me the vegetables to wash too, and started in on slicing the chicken. “I texted everyone and told them lunch would be ready at noon, so they’re either working or dealing with the adlet still.”
“Yeah, I thought you and Seb were handling that.”
He raised an eyebrow, hand holding the knife hovering in mid-air as he stopped to look at me. “What, you think Eva and Cece can’t handle it?”
The sudden thunk of the knife striking the cutting board made me jump.
“You good on those veggies?” he asked as I carefully set each component out next to my cutting board.
“Sure,” I said confidently. “I’d rather do this than be responsible for burning any of it.” I eyed the chicken under Tayo’s hands skeptically. “Are we making two different batches?”
“Why?” he asked, concentrating on finely dicing the meat.
“Seb can’t eat any of that,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Oh. Yeah.” He glanced up at me briefly. “He’s not eating with us today.”
“Uh…just not feeling well.”
“Oh.” I carefully chopped the cabbage into the smallest pieces I could manage. “He didn’t look great this morning, but I didn’t think he was feeling that bad.”
Tayo made a noncommittal noise of acknowledgement and continued working on the food. After that, the conversation came to a near halt, the both of us only speaking to either ask questions or give directions to the other. By the end of the hour or so in which we worked, we fried over fifty fresh spring rolls. The heady aroma wafting through the kitchen made my mouth water.
After that, we had to package each batch of twelve so that we could easily transport them throughout the compound, as we weren’t going to be eating together in the mess hall like usual.
Tayo wiped a gloved hand across his brow and sighed. “Well, that’s us done, I think.”
“They smell great,” I told him.
He smiled. “Take these to Genevieve, if you don’t mind,” he said, handing me a tray with two tin-foil wrapped plates of spring rolls. “You can leave them in her room if she’s not around. I’ll get Eva and Cece’s.”
“Okay.” I carefully lifted the tray and walked out of the kitchen, focusing more on my feet than what was in front of me. Luckily, I’d come to know the stretch of hallway between the mess hall and the room I shared with Genevieve, and it wasn’t a difficult trip.
When I reached the door, I could hear music reverberating loudly through the walls from within. I knocked delicately, wondering if she was maybe working on something and didn’t want to be a disturbed, but there was no answer.
I pushed open the door just a crack, peering around the edge to see if Genevieve was inside. The desk was undisturbed. The only change from its normal, neat appearance was the presence of an MP3 player sitting in a docking station, blasting music through the attached speakers at maximum volume.
I slowly inched the door open a few more inches, about to slip inside with the food before the sight in front of me stopped me dead in my tracks.
Only the lamp on Genevieve’s desk was lit, but even in the dim yellowish light I could make out Genevieve’s sweat-streaked face, her dark brown hair spread out around her on the pillow like a halo, and the familiar tattoos covering the naked back of the man moving above her—
I turned and ran as fast as I could back to the mess hall, not even bothering to close Genevieve’s door behind me. I didn’t think either of them had noticed me but I didn’t want to take my chances. Standing outside the double doors, I took a minute to catch my breath and tried not to think about what I had just witnessed.
I composed myself quickly and adjusted the tray so the spring rolls were no longer in danger of falling. And then, doing my best to look as casual as possible, I traipsed back into the mess hall, fully intending on eating alone inside and maybe calling Joel so I could feel a little less pathetic about it. I wouldn’t mind the distraction either.
Cece was already sitting at the middle table, however. “That’s a lot of food for one person,” she said as I set the entire tray down on the table.
“I couldn’t find Genevieve,” I lied. “Only one of them’s mine.”
“Hmm,” she replied, mouth full of her own meal. “She’ll come get them eventually. Tayo would be insulted if we didn’t lick our plates clean.”
We sat together in relative silence. Cece checked her phone in between bites while I tried not to look too interested in what she was doing. She was pretty, too, just as pretty as Eva and Genevieve.
Finally catching me looking at her, Cece raised an eyebrow. “What? Do I have something on my face?”
“No,” I told her, shaking my head in embarrassment. “I just like your hair.”
She made an odd face and then reached up almost unconsciously to touch the ends of her braids before saying, “Oh, the colors?”
I nodded. “I’d look ridiculous with blue hair, but it looks really nice on you.”
She laughed. “You never know until you try. I waited for years to dye mine because I thought it might look weird or draw too much attention, you know? My twin—Casey, finally talked me into it.”
“It seems like the two of you are close,” I noted.
Cece made an affirmative noise through her mouthful of spring roll. “You have any siblings?”
“Older brother,” I said, and then clarified: “Half-brother.”
“You’re not that close then?”
“No, no, we grew up together actually. I’m just used to explaining because we don’t really…look alike.”
She nodded knowingly. “A bunch of my siblings were adopted, I get it.”
“You have a big family?” I asked. I was always jealous of kids with tons of brothers and sisters growing up but I realized later that I mostly felt that way because I had such a difficult time making friends, and I wanted the companionship without having to make the effort.
“Eight kids,” she said with a bit of a laugh. “And Casey and I are right smack in the middle. It was kind of a circus when we were young. I think my parents retired early to make up for all the years we took off their lives. What about yours? They divorced or…?”
I breathed in deeply through my nose. “Never met them,” I confided. “Joel’s mom raised me my whole life. He doesn’t like to talk about our dad, so I really don’t know anything about him.”
Cece nodded sympathetically, but didn’t ask about my biological mother, for which I was grateful. “You old enough to drink?” she asked, hopping up off the table and skipping over to the kitchen. She emerged holding a dusty-looking bottle of red wine.
I nodded. “How long’s that been in there?” I wondered.
“Brother Barnes doesn’t like us drinking while in the compound, so Tayo sneaks some alcohol in when he goes on supply runs. Gen’s the only one who follows the rule, but I think that’s just because she’s new and scared.” Cece grinned mischievously and poured me some wine into a plastic cup. “Eva can really put it away, if you can believe that.”
As if saying her name had summoned her, Eva burst into the mess hall just as I was taking a gulp of wine from my cup. I choked, trying not to spray the drink everywhere while Eva smiled like she’d just won the lottery.
“Good news!” Eva chirped, and Cece gave her a skeptical look.
“What, besides the fact that you two had a ‘moment’ in the shed?” she asked.
I turned bright red. Eva stopped short.
“Oh, hey Pemberly.” Her voice dripped with forced casualness. “Didn’t realize you were hanging out in here.”
“Tayo had her help with an early dinner,” Cece told Eva. “We’ve got plenty for three.”
She shook her head. “I already ate. I just wanted to let you know that Seb got our ever so helpful informant to draw us a map, and Sara came through with a bunch of satellite images from the coordinates. Tayo says we can head out just as soon as the sun comes up.”
“I’m coming with,” I announced, deciding to preempt what was sure to be another argument once Seb decided I needed to take a backseat to the action.
“Of course,” Eva agreed. ‘I’ll tell Seb I can keep an eye on you.”
“Yeah, I bet you can,” Cece muttered, taking a swig of wine with a wry smile as both Eva and I flushed.