By Jennifer Rush
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Rush
All rights reserved.
Like clockwork, I woke after midnight and immediately had the urge to see Sam.
There was a moment, before I was fully alert, when I wondered if it was safe to sneak down to the lab.
And then I remembered: We weren't at the farmhouse anymore. There was no lab.
In order to see Sam, all I had to do was roll over.
He lay on his stomach, hands tucked beneath the pillow. In the murky darkness, I could just make out the black lines of his birch tree tattoo spreading across his back, the branches twining down his arms.
With my eyes, I traced the dimples made by bones and muscle in his shoulders. Imagined what pencil I would use to sketch him on paper. In the months since Sam, Nick, and Cas had escaped the Branch's lab, and I'd gone with them, I'd learned that nothing was permanent, not even my memories. Now I took every opportunity to savor what I had, just in case.
Waste nothing was my new mantra. And I wouldn't. Not when it came to the boys. They were my family, blood or not. Cas was like my brother. And in some ways, so was Nick, even if we didn't necessarily like each other.
And Sam ... well, I loved him more than anything.
I reached out to touch him, to check that he was solid and warm and real, but thought better of it. We'd all been on edge lately, and I worried that if I startled him, he'd go for the gun tucked beneath the mattress. And then point it at me.
As quietly and lightly as I could, I slipped from the bed and made my way down the stairs of our rented cabin. I found Nick hunched over the coffee table, a fire burning in the hearth beside him, silhouetting him in orange-and-red light. A dozen paper cranes lay in a pile at his feet. There was another in his hands.
He'd started folding them out of nowhere a little over a week ago and had given no reasonable explanation for it. The cranes he'd already made sat in a box beneath my bed because I didn't have the heart to throw them away.
"Hey," I said as I sat down across from him in one of the ratty leather chairs. "What are you doing up?"
He didn't look at me as he answered, "Why does anyone get up in the middle of the night? Because they can't sleep."
His eyes were dark and swollen with exhaustion. His black hair stood in raked waves and curled around his ears. A green flannel shirt hugged his biceps and hung open, exposing the hard plane of his stomach.
Like all the boys, Nick, even at his worst, was gorgeous. It drove me crazy. I didn't consider myself unattractive, but next to them, I was painfully average. They didn't know the meaning of a bad hair day.
I grabbed the origami crane closest to me. The folds were precise. The tail point was razor-sharp. Everything about it was perfect. Nick, like Cas and Sam, rarely failed at anything.
"Any idea why you're doing this?" I tried.
Nick formed the head on the crane in his hands. "I don't know. I ..." He trailed off, like he'd caught himself about to say something more revealing than he liked. He turned to me. "Why don't you run back to bed with your boyfriend and leave me alone?"
I frowned. The old me would have scurried away, but in the last few months, we'd made some progress on our relationship, if you could call it that. It helped that I knew Nick better now, knew the reason behind his cutting attitude. He'd grown up with an abusive father. But he didn't know that, not yet. The Branch had stolen those memories from him.
I'd wanted to tell him for a while now. I just didn't have the words to explain it.
"Sam isn't my boyfriend," I said, because it was the only thing I could think to say. "I mean, not officially." I grabbed one of the precut squares of paper and started to fold. "Besides, I'm not tired."
Nick grumbled. "Whatever."
Outside, the wind whistled through the trees and rattled the front door. Snow had fallen not long after dinner. It was now piling in the corners of the windowsills.
Nick finished his crane and tossed it aside. He looked over at me. Normally, his eyes were shockingly blue, electric, but in the firelight, they were leaden gray and guarded. "What's with that look on your face?"
"Like you have something to say."
In some weird way, not having a closer relationship with Nick made him that much better at reading me. His judgment, his gut instinct, wasn't clouded by petty emotions. It made it ridiculously hard to hide anything from him.
I swallowed. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He sighed, exasperated. "Don't play dumb."
I made another fold in the paper, thinking while I worked. Finally, I said, "There are some things about your past ... that maybe you should know."
"What, and you do?"
"I don't know much."
"But you know enough."
I stopped folding. "It might help you understand—"
"I understand plenty." He cracked a knuckle, then another. He avoided looking me in the face, and realization crept in.
"You're having flashbacks? About your—" I stopped myself, just in case. "The flashbacks are more substantial, aren't they? More detailed?"
Sam was the first one to experience memory flashes. Cas and Nick had been having only minor ones since we'd left the farmhouse nearly three months ago. And me, well, I was having them, too—mostly about my older sister, Dani.
When I'd first left home with the boys, I'd thought I was a normal girl swept up in their extraordinary lives, only to find out much later that I'd been altered, too, like them. That the Branch had buried all the important memories from my past life, thereby wiping my sister from existence.
We'd found out she'd been killed by the Branch, and since then, I'd tried so hard to remember her. She came to me in fleeting images and ghost feelings that I later tried to sketch and make real. I hadn't been successful yet. And lately, the flashbacks had been giving me the worst kind of headaches. Enough to send me straight to bed. I hadn't told Sam that part yet. I didn't want him to worry or treat me differently.
"So what are they about?" I asked Nick. "Tell me."
He clenched his hand into a fist, knuckles rising and turning white. "I'm not telling you anything. So stop asking." He said it matter-of-factly, like no earthly force would pry the details from his head. With Nick, it was probably true. In some ways, he was more stubborn than Sam.
He swept out of the chair, breezed past me without another word, and disappeared upstairs, his bedroom door shutting a second later.
The fire in the hearth snapped.
I set aside my half-folded crane and took the last one Nick had made, suspended it between my fingers. That's how Sam found me a minute later, motionless, staring at that stupid crane.
He ran his hand up and down his arm as if to ward off the cold. "What happened?" he asked.
I let the crane fall to the table. "I pissed him off."
Sam sighed as he sat. He looked so tired, even though he'd been sleeping more than all of us lately. It was so unlike him. "What was it about this time?"
I hadn't told anyone else the details I knew about Nick's past. It should be up to him who he shared it with. So I just shrugged and said, "Who knows." A yawn made me pause, then, "I think I'm going to lie back down."
Sam nodded, and I knew that meant he wasn't coming.
"If I'm not up by dawn, will you wake me?"
I started for the stairs, but as I passed him, he reached out, snagging me at the wrist. He pulled me down onto his lap, wrapped a hand around the back of my neck, and put his lips to my forehead. I closed my eyes, breathed him in. He smelled like Ivory soap and fresh air. He smelled like home.
I love you, Anna. He didn't have to say it for me to know that he meant it.
I met his gaze. I love you, too, I thought as I pulled away and headed upstairs.
WHEN I WOKE A FEW HOURS LATER, I could hear Cas singing a Celine Dion song in the shower down the hall. "My Heart Will Go On," from the sound of it.
I threw on a baggy sweater over a tank top and black leggings and headed downstairs. Sam sat at the small table tucked in the back corner of the kitchen, and Nick stood at the stove, scrambling up some eggs.
"Is there enough for me?" I asked.
"Yes," Sam answered before Nick could comment.
After fixing myself a cup of coffee, I sat beside Sam. He was on the laptop, presumably reading over the files we had procured from the Branch. Many of them spanned our entire involvement, from the time we entered the program to right before we left the farmhouse lab. It was going to take us more than a few months to read everything inside, but we were making good progress. Not that we'd found anything substantial yet. Sam's files were bigger than anyone else's. He'd been with the Branch the longest, sold into it by his mother. They started experimenting on genetic alterations with him and expanded from there.
"Anything new?" I asked, squashing the urge to read over his shoulder.
Nick sat across from me a minute later, his plate overflowing with eggs, two pieces of toasted bread beside the pile. He dug in without a word.
"I'll grab our plates," I said to Sam while shooting Nick a scowl. When I got to the stove, I found the pan nearly empty, so I divided what was left into three equal parts, leaving enough for Cas when he came down.
"We're out of eggs," Nick said. "Who's on grocery duty this week?"
"Me," I answered. "And you."
I would have gone alone if Sam would have allowed it, but we'd agreed a long time ago that it was best if we traveled in pairs. Grocery shopping was always done with someone else, and we tried to stick to a constant rotation.
Sam downed the rest of his black coffee. "I'll go."
"No." I shook my head. "It's my turn. You and Cas went last week." I took a bite of eggs, silently hoping he'd insist he go in my place.
But he didn't. I'd asked him to treat me like an equal. Apparently, I was now getting my wish.
"We'll go this afternoon," I said to Nick. "So don't disappear on me."
He tossed his empty plate in the sink and left.
My day was looking up already.
It'd been over two months since we'd escaped the Branch and encountered any of its agents, but that didn't mean we could lower our guard. Everything we did was calculated and thoroughly planned out. Like who went grocery shopping and when. Who checked the perimeter and when.
But it couldn't be too planned out, because then the Branch would be able to predict our movements.
Sometimes just taking a shower seemed like far too much work. At Sam's insistence, I always locked the bathroom door behind me, made sure the window was unlocked for a quick alternate exit should I need it. And my gun stayed loaded on the vanity.
Living a normal life didn't seem possible, not with the Branch still out there. It was why we were always on edge. We couldn't relax. Ever. And the longer we went without seeing a Branch agent, the more we felt like our time was running out.
After breakfast, Sam and I got dressed for a perimeter check. He wore a thick black coat with a flannel shirt underneath, jeans, and black leather boots. I had bought a heavier coat a few weeks ago when winter settled in. It was graded for below zero temps. With it, I wore cold-weather leggings tucked into boots.
In the woods, we made our way from one checkpoint to another. I ducked beneath a pine branch and squinted as the sun appeared, the blinding rays reflecting off the snow-covered ground. I had sunglasses on, but they didn't help much.
If an agent attacked me right now, I'd be caught off guard, unable to see. I often found myself thinking about little things like that. And about how many weapons I had on me. Whether or not they were loaded or easy to grab. Right now I had a gun on my back and a knife sheathed in my boot. I could remember a time when one gun seemed like one weapon too many. Now I wished I had more.
Sam trailed behind me by a foot, his steps quiet despite the ice that'd formed on the snow overnight. Every step I took made a loud and annoying crunch.
"I've been meaning to talk to you," Sam said as we rounded a mammoth oak tree. "I think it's time we move again."
I glanced over my shoulder, pausing for a second as he caught up. "Already?"
He stopped beside me. "It's been four weeks."
We'd moved twice since we'd escaped the Branch. I understood why, but I was tired of settling into new places.
I wanted to have the opportunity to rebuild the life that had been stolen from me, and I knew that started with piecing together my past and learning more about my family. I couldn't do that if we kept moving, especially when it seemed like we were heading farther and farther away from Port Cadia, the town where I'd grown up. It was the place where my life and Sam's had been altered completely when he and I lost my sister.
I wanted to know how Dani died and what had happened to her body. I wanted to know why the Branch had killed my parents. I knew the Branch had put me in the farmhouse lab, in the Altered program, because I'd already had a connection to the boys, especially Sam. They'd used that connection and twisted it into something scientific, something they could reproduce and later sell.
But I still wasn't sure if they'd killed my parents so that I wouldn't have a family searching for me, or if there was another reason. We already knew they had the ability to wipe people's memories. So why not spare my parents and alter their memories instead?
We didn't know the endings to any of the important mysteries, and I desperately wanted to.
I needed to.
"Anna?" Sam called out.
I stopped walking. I hadn't even realized I'd moved. "Yeah?"
"You're two steps away from hitting that bear trap." He gestured at a lump in the ground.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Fine." I bent over to inspect the trap, looking for any clues that it'd been tampered with or set off. The cold bit through my leather gloves, numbing my fingers as I worked. "So, where are we going this time?" I asked.
"I was thinking Indiana."
"Maybe we should move north."
Even when I wasn't looking directly at Sam, I could still feel the full weight of his gaze. It lifted the hair at the base of my neck.
"No" was all he said.
I sighed and kept walking. I wasn't sure how I'd convince him that learning more about our past was a good idea, because when Sam set his mind on something, he generally didn't budge. His number one priority was to keep us away from the Branch and keep us safe. Obviously I valued my life, but it didn't feel like much of a life with so many of the pieces still missing.
And hadn't Sam been the one to finally break free of the lab, only to risk his safety and freedom again when it was his past he was trying to figure out?
Of course, there was one common denominator in all of this. The whole reason Sam had gone to so much trouble before the farmhouse, the whole reason he'd had clues to retrace in the first place.
The sister who had been stolen from me.
Sam's old girlfriend.
Dani was a huge part of Sam's past. I knew he was curious to fill in the blanks surrounding her death, even if he wouldn't admit to it. And finding out more information about her would also give me more information about my family and my past.
It didn't escape me, though, that I was in love with my sister's old boyfriend, and that if she were alive, Sam and I probably wouldn't be together.
What if digging into our pasts reminded Sam of what he'd lost with Dani? What if it brought on the guilt that was already creeping into my thoughts?
And what would that mean for us?
I wasn't sure if I was willing to take that risk.
NICK BACKED INTO A PARKING SPOT in the grocery store lot, facing the SUV toward the exit so we could escape quickly if we needed to. Out of habit, I scanned the lot and the street beyond, pausing on anyone who looked suspicious.
There was a woman hurrying a child down the sidewalk, both of them hunched against the wind.
A gray-haired man got out of his sedan in front of the paper goods store and raced inside. A small black truck with tinted windows crawled past the grocery store. It might have been suspicious, but the streets were slick with snow and salt, making traveling over thirty miles an hour almost impossible. Regardless, Nick and I watched as it rounded the next corner.
"Are we good?" I asked.
Nick checked his rearview mirror one more time before pulling the keys out of the ignition. "We're good."
I hurried toward the store, arms clasped tightly in front of me, trying to ward off the wind. Inside, I grabbed a cart as Nick sauntered up behind me.
Excerpted from Erased by Jennifer Rush. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Rush. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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