NOTE: The book is still going through copy edits, so please pardon any errors. :)
March 28, 1AE
San Juan National Forest, Colorado
Carrying a small bin of grooming tools under my good arm, I led Wings toward a retention pond beside the field where we’d set up camp for the night. We passed between one of the three carts and the replica pioneer chuckwagon that had been given to us by Georgie, the sole occupant of Colorado Trails Ranch. We’d stayed at the ranch only one night, wanting to put as much distance between us and the Colony as possible, as soon as possible. That single night was just long enough for us to redistribute our supplies among the packhorses and conveyances, convene for a quick strategic meeting, and for Harper and Jake to attempt a regenerative blood transfusion on Zoe—which ended up being the most anti-climactic fail ever. She still remembered nothing of her life before the golf course.
Georgie had seemed sad to see us go, but she’d refused our offer to join our band of survivors as we headed west, instead sending us off with fresh tack, the carts and wagon, and another dozen horses, including trained driving teams.
Zoe’s memory loss was proving to be as stubborn as my best friend was…or used to be. This new Zoe, this not-Zoe Zoe, was different; she was less closed-off, less severe, and every time she said or did something that emphasized just how much Clara’s violent mind-wiping had changed her, the thundercloud that had become my mood darkened. Just as it did every time I spoke to Jason—lied to Jason—avoided Gabe, or remembered my time in the General’s concrete interrogation room or the way the light had faded from the child Crazy’s eyes as she bled out from a bullet wound I’d put in her chest.
Maybe if I hadn’t burned out my telepathy again, and I could speak with Wings, Jack, and Ray, as I’d grown so accustomed to doing over the past few months, I would’ve been able to find comfort in their steadfast companionship and stave off the looming negativity. But my Ability was burned out, and missing my usually lighthearted, sometimes philosophical conversations with my animal friends only added to my doom-and-gloom mood.
I spotted Mase and Camille, sitting at the edge of the pond while they filtered water into large plastic jugs, and nodded a hello.
Camille’s remarkable recovery was the only bright ray of hope keeping the thundercloud from overtaking me completely. She’d woken up five days ago, the night after we found Zoe and left Colorado Springs, her memory in-tact but her ability to speak apparently gone completely. Harper’s best guess was that certain parts of her brain must’ve suffered permanent damage during her seizure and resulting coma, and he’d even proposed that she might have had a stroke, though he couldn’t tell for sure without some pretty high-tech equipment. But she was awake, and more whole than she’d been since she’d died…the first time. Her recovery, at least, was something.
I sighed and shook my head.
Zoe was following Wings and me, Shadow trailing behind her. The other seventeen members of our group were moving among the tents clustered around the campfire or through the scattering of trees lining the field, searching for firewood. Except for Jason; he was absolutely committed to the task of nulling Zoe, of keeping her Ability from surfacing and pummeling her shattered mind with foreign memories and emotions, and therefore had become her ever-present second shadow…or third shadow, if you counted her horse.
I snorted at my lame silent pun, and blinked rapidly as my eyes started to sting. I would not start crying just because I found Jason’s commitment to protecting my best friend—the sister he’d successful estranged through emotional and physical distance—so sweet, so admirable. It was like this tragedy had jump-started his brotherly instincts, making him realize all he’d missed out on over the years. His renewed devotion to her made me feel like such a crap friend in comparison, because the more time I spent with this Zoe, this hauntingly familiar stranger, devoid of everything that had made her my best friend, the less I wanted to be around her. Like I said—crap friend.
Reaching the edge of the pond, I set the small bin of grooming tools on the ground and waited for Wings to amble closer. She did and ducked her head down to slurp at the water.
Zoe and Shadow took up a position a few feet away, just on the other side of the bin, and Jason hoisted himself up and settled on the bench seat of the nearest cart. He pulled out a pocket knife and his latest whittling project—an as-yet unrecognizable hunk of wood about the size of a baseball.
My eyes lingered on him for a moment longer, tracing the angry red scar crossing his face from hairline to jaw and the hunched set of his shoulders, before I bent over to grab a soft-bristled brush and turned my attention to Wings.
“Thanks for teaching me all this horse stuff,” Zoe said from behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder to study her and frowned. I’d been doing that a lot lately, both studying Zoe and frowning. The setting sun gleamed a burnished purple off her and Shadow’s onyx hair alike. I’d offered to walk Zoe through the basics of horse grooming, hoping that doing something with her, something I always found soothing, might alleviate some of my infuriating aversion to her.
Meeting her eyes, I forced a tight smile. “No problem. You used to like helping me with grooming them, back when we were in high school, so I thought…” I shrugged. “I don’t know.” I returned my focus to Wings, running the brush over a coffee-brown patch on her shoulder. “I just thought you might still like it.” I didn’t tell Zoe that I was searching for some remnant of my best friend, some sliver of hope that she was still her.
There was a long moment of silence, and then Zoe exhaled heavily. “I’ve been thinking about that…about me before and me now. Do you think—” She paused. I could hear the sound of soft bristles running over Shadow’s coat as Zoe started brushing him. The black gelding was still recovering from the neglect he’d suffered at the hands of a couple of Crazies, and the six-day trek through the southern Rockies with only a half-day and night’s rest at Colorado Trails hadn’t done him any favors. Although he was doing better than when Zoe’s group had first found him, he was exhausted and hurting, much like the rest of us. I didn’t need my Ability to know that.
When Zoe didn’t resume her question, I looked at her. “Do I think…?”
She stopped brushing, turned to lean her shoulder against Shadow, and sighed. “It’s just that, if I don’t have any memories of what made me me, do you think I’m even still me?”
Am I even still me?
Zoe’s question seemed to echo in my mind, burrowing deeply, mostly because it was pretty much the same thing I’d been wondering since we first found her. Was Zoe still Zoe if she had no memory of experiencing the things that made her the loyal, guarded, and determined person I loved? A dull, incessant ache spread through my chest, a yawning void created by her mental disappearance.
My eyes stung—again—and I cleared my throat. “You know, Zo…I think knowing who you really are is hard for a lot of people.” Yes, I was avoiding answering her question completely, but I meant what I said. After all, I hardly recognized myself anymore. My frown reemerged. Anyone who cracked me open in an attempt to find out what made me me would discover a rancid, tangly wad of guilt. And self-loathing. And plain-old misery.
My best friend—who, thanks to a psycho with the Ability to alter people’s perception, even erase their memories—had no idea that she was my best friend. And the reason she’d fallen into Clara’s manipulative little hands?
I’d been stupid enough to get ambushed and abducted, and thanks to my bad judgment, Zoe wasn’t really Zoe anymore. My frown deepened into a scowl. I really hated myself sometimes.
After a few more strokes over the Paint’s sculpted shoulder, which I was pretty sure soothed me more than it soothed Wings, I glanced over at Jason. If he noticed me watching him, he didn’t show it. It was like we’d traveled back in time ten years, to the days when I’d spend every possible moment stealing glances at him, and he’d spend just as much time ignoring me.
Before my stint in the Colony, I’d thought I had him figured out, but now he was even more of an enigma to me than he’d been during my teen years. He was still a classic Adonis, all lean muscle and chiseled features, but now his masculine perfection was marred by an angry red scar slashing across his face. It added a layer of menace to the confidence and sense of carefully honed power that he usually exuded. He’d always been guarded, just like his sister, but since my abduction, he’d withdrawn further into himself. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why, and I didn’t know how to draw him back out. Even though he was never far from my side, he was miles away, emotionally. I missed him.
I turned around, facing Zoe, and leaned my head on Wings’s shoulder. My need for girl-talk, for Zoe to listen as I spilled out all of my gnawing worries and to offer up her usual, no-nonsense advice, was becoming overwhelming. Should I just talk to her like everything’s normal? Can’t I just pretend she’s her? I really needed my Zo…
“You’re staring at me,” Zoe said. She lowered her brush hand, and using her opposite fingers, tucked a flyaway that had escaped from her ponytail behind her ear. “Are you okay?”
I blinked several times, noticing the excessive moisture in my eyes, and forced a smile. “I’m fine…I think.”
Zoe shifted her feet and looked down at the dirt. She swiped ineffectively at a dark smudge staining her jeans. “You can cry…if you need to. I don’t mind. In fact, you can consider me your official shoulder to cry on.” She shrugged, meeting my eyes only briefly. “It’s the least I can do since I’m pretty much otherwise inept…at everything.”
The thundercloud thinned, just a little, and I started chuckling. That was something Zoe would have said; she’d always looked out for me, always been the first to comfort me when I needed it and the first to defend me when I couldn’t defend myself. Not that I didn’t try to defend myself. It was more that I was just so damn small that nobody was intimidated by me. When I made a point to stand up for myself or—shudder—lost my temper, I was pretty sure people saw me as the human version of a viciously snarling Chihuahua. Not. Scary. At. All.
From the way Zoe was watching me, it was obvious that she was unsure how to respond to my abrupt shift from verge of tears to genuine, if gentle, laughter. Her eyebrows drew down, and the corners of her mouth twitched. She smiled weakly. It was like she was trying to figure out how I wanted her to react—how the old Zoe would have reacted—and for a moment, the disquiet I felt around her melted, and the only thing that mattered to me was making her feel comfortable.
I pushed off Wings gently and stepped closer to Zoe, nudging her arm with my shoulder. “Don’t try so hard, Zo. Just do what feels natural and stop worrying about the rest of us and what we expect from you.” I flashed her a half-hearted grin. “We’ll figure it out as we go.” Empty platitudes for the most part, but from the way the tension around her eyes relaxed, the words meant something to Zoe. Apparently even crap friends could pull through every once in a while.
Just as I was turning back to Wings to resume brushing her, I heard a dog barking. I craned my neck to see around Zoe and Shadow and spotted Jack trotting through the overgrown field beside our camp. He barked several more times as I watched him draw nearer.
Without warning, something inside me snapped. A whoosh, like the most intense ear-popping imaginable, knocked the air out of me, and I doubled over. Thousands upon thousands of sparks of awareness burst to life in my mind’s eye, a glowing galaxy representing all of the life forms around me. It was glorious. And unexpected. And so far beyond too much that I thought I might be crushed under the enormity of what I was sensing.
Several things happened at once: Jack reached me, dancing a circle around me, his tail hanging low while he whined and chanted, “Mother? Mother! Mother?” in my mind; Zoe’s hand wrapped around my upper arm, the support she offered the only thing keeping me from doubling over completely; and Jason appeared before me, crouching and placing his hands on either side of my head.
“Red?” Jason said. “Look at me, Dani. Open your eyes.” His hold on my head tightened.
I hadn’t realized I’d squeezed my eyes shut until he told me to open them. I obeyed, clenching my jaw. Inches from my face, Jason’s was carefully blank, but his eyes held a concern so wild and intense that it verged on panic.
“What’s wrong?” His voice was low and even—too even. “What do you need?”
I swallowed, despite my mouth and throat feeling unbearably dry. “My…Ability…too much,” I managed to say through gritted teeth. Something like this had happened once before; I’d overextended the reach of my telepathy, and nearly lost myself to the collective pull of the minds around me. I should have been stronger now, especially after the painful but productive electrotherapy session I’d accidentally experienced back in the Colony. I should have been able to control my Ability, to pull back, to shut it off…to do something. But I couldn’t.
As he’d done the last time, Jason acted as the grounding wire to my telepathic lightning rod. Using half of his Ability, he boosted mine, giving me back the control I so desperately needed. The magnetic lure of the minds around me waned, fading into the background until I could actually breathe.
I took a deep breath, then another. Smiling, I filled my eyes with as much warmth as I could and placed my hand over one of Jason’s, giving it a gentle, grateful squeeze. “Thank—” My voice caught in my throat, and my chest clenched. Something was wrong.
I couldn’t sense Jason.
I looked at Zoe, feeling my eyes widen. I couldn’t sense either of them. I could sense the animals all around, but I couldn’t sense any human minds at all.
“Red…?” Jason’s voice was soft, cautious.
“You’re gone,” I whispered, feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. “You’re all gone.” I looked into Zoe’s piercing blue eyes. “Gone.” My voice sounded hollow.
Zoe’s grip tightened on my arm. “Um…”
Jason swiped the pads of his thumbs under my eyes, wiping away the tears of strain streaming down my cheeks. “Do you have control of it?” The concern filling his eyes intensified, and his calm expression cracked. “I’ve got to stop boosting you—Zoe…”
Oh God. No. Reality slammed into me like a slap across the face. Jason’s Ability had two parts: he could amplify others’ Abilities, like he was currently doing for me, or he could nullify them completely, but he couldn’t do both at the same time. If Zoe’s empathy kicked in as violently as my telepathy just had, and she started feeling other people’s emotions and seeing their memories without knowing how to control it…
I nodded vigorously. “I’m good. Help Z—”
Without warning, Zoe gasped, and her hand clenched. Her fingernails dug into my arm.
We were too late. The floodgates had opened.
Keep an eye out for chapter 4 coming Friday, August 15!