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Or chapter 3? Read it here.
March 28, 1AE
San Juan National Forest, Colorado
I gasped as an unused part of my mind sparked to life. It seemed to shift and realign, jump-starting my true consciousness as if I’d been running on autopilot, but was now finally in control. Everything changed in the blink of an eye…I felt whole. At least more “myself” than I had since the others found me.
For a brief moment, among the torrent of feelings and memories flooding my mind, I thought the old me might resurface, too. “I think I’m—” Getting my memories back? It was almost too much to hope for.
As my mind spun, so did the onslaught of conflicting emotions—too random and unrecognizable to have been my own.
“Dani,” I breathed. My eyes met hers, and I used the comfort I found in them as my anchor amid the impressions of foreign lifetimes competing for space in my mind. “Something’s…not right.” Dizziness enveloped me, and I gripped Dani’s arm more tightly, automatically reaching for Jason, too.
“It’s your Ability, Zo,” Dani said, composed and reassuring. “Don’t fight it—you’ll only make it worse.”
Images of Jason and Dani flickered in my head, but instead of trying to push them away, I let them come, vivid and countless as they were.
With what felt like a breath of life, I inhaled, and everything in my mind’s eye sharpened. As unsteady as I felt, the clarity brought a sense of relief I hadn’t expected, and the dark recesses of my mind filled with colors and shapes and sounds—recollections of the past. Dani and Jason’s pasts, but not mine.
“I’m so sorry, Zo,” Dani said, her fingers brushing softly over the back of my hand. “This is all my fault. Stupid…so stupid…”
I could feel her guilt, and I shook my head, only vaguely aware of why she felt that way. Dani’s concern replaced my confusion, her curiosity and hope quickly following. Although I didn’t necessarily understand the onslaught, I welcomed it. Everything I saw—everything I felt—was new and unexplored; my mind, once an empty cave, suddenly housed echoes of the past, assembling them into an irrefutable truth that seemed to lighten the darkness and partially fill the lingering void inside me.
But as abruptly as the emotions assaulted me, they vanished, and I felt empty again—the images and feelings were nothing more than fading memories.
Disappointed, I turned to Jason. “You’re taking it away?”
He exchanged a skeptical glance with Dani. “Yeah?” he said, sounding unsure.
No longer needing to steady myself, I loosened my grasp on his arm and looked at him beseechingly. “Please don’t,” I said, self-conscious but needing this other part of me. “It feels…right.”
Jason frowned. “Well…it’s your choice,” he mumbled, and although he seemed baffled, he nodded.
In an instant, another flurry of guilt, frustration, and despair swirled around in my mind. I blinked, once again focusing on Dani as memories and feelings poured out of her. Like a camera shutter opening and closing, I saw Dani for the first time. Yes, she was a fiery, red-haired pixie with bright green eyes and a seemingly carefree nature, but she also felt lost and afraid and confused. I could feel everything—her undeniable love for Jason, and the relentless shadow of a not-too-long-ago broken heart. Inexplicably, I shared her longing to see the woman who’d raised her, her grandma who was gone, and her yearning to speak with her one last time. And then I saw an image of the dead little girl, haunting Dani and flooding her with guilt.
My best friend, who I only knew from her coalescing memories and our stilted conversations over the past week, stood in front of me, and now I understood why she seemed to cry at the drop of a hat. Her emotions were so raw, rampant, and fierce that they almost brought tears to my eyes.
Enthralled by the insight I felt bringing me closer to Dani, I vaguely registered Jason walking away.
I blinked again.
“Zo?” Dani’s hand rested on my shoulder, sending acute waves of anxiety and eagerness rippling through me. “Are you alright?” Her voice teetered between panic and remorse, and I could feel the questions practically jumping off her tongue. She was hoping that my memories had returned, but felt guilty for thinking it, and she was worried she’d accidently and irrevocably hurt me.
Forcing myself, I smiled, if a little weakly, and refocused on her imploring eyes. “Yeah, I am. I’m fine. Better than fine, actually.”
“Are you sure?”
Nodding, I tried to reassure her. “I can see and feel it all so clearly.”
“Like you can feel what I’m feeling?” A burst of apprehension flared inside her.
I bit the inside of my cheek, trying to articulate it. “It’s more than that,” I said, my voice tinged with excitement. “There are images…like memories, too…”
Dani’s eyes lit with hope. “You remember?”
Crap. I sighed and shook my head, feeling a tidal wave of excitement recede between the two of us. “No, I don’t remember,” I admitted, watching the light in her eyes dim. “I still don’t remember anything from before the golf course…but I see you, Dani. I see you and me…my dad and Jason.” I shook my head. “It’s the strangest, most horrifyingly amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Although I had no attachment to the memories themselves, Dani’s profound intimacy with each impression made me feel like I’d found a small piece of myself within them. “It’s like I was there…when you were sick and Jason found you…and then when you were alone and at Grams’s house.” I tried to shake away the overwhelming fog in my head. “There’s so much…”
Dani eyed me curiously, her fingers stroking the sling cradling her injured arm.
“I can feel your pain,” I said, studying her black removable cast. “I can see what happened at the Colony. I feel like I finally understand what’s going on.”
Dani’s eyes widened as fear replaced her curiosity, and the jumble of images focused, a tumultuous memory flashing prominently through her mind.
Dani stood in a stark office, a perfectly organized desk separating her from Dr. Wesley, who was sitting behind it.
The doctor eyed Dani warily. “So you know?”
Dani felt a pulse of rage. “That Zoe and Jason are your kids? Yeah…”
Another more vivid memory immediately followed.
In the same office, Dr. Wesley still seated behind the desk and Dani standing opposite her, the doctor’s features hardened into a frown. “If your actions kill my children, then everything I’ve done to keep them safe will have been for naught. That’s on you.”
Dani shook her head, so much hurt and anger filling her that she could barely speak. “Zo and Jason might blame themselves for everyone’s deaths if they knew about you, but I don’t. I blame you,” she seethed and stormed to the door.
“Would you rather I’d killed myself, thus killing the two people you love so dearly? Gregory would have found another geneticist to engineer his virus, and everyone would’ve died anyway.”
The memory faded, leaving in its place violent emotions tangled in my gut, nearly bringing me to my knees.
Dr. Wesley is my mom… I’d completely forgotten that.
Dani took a step closer. “We can’t tell him,” she whispered as her eyes darted around us. “He can’t know about your mom, Zo, not yet.”
I hedged. “But she’s our mom, Dani. He’ll be furious if we don’t tell him, won’t he?” Lacking any tangible connection to Jason, I still wanted to do what was right, and I’d seen enough of his silent tantrums in her memories to know this instance would be no exception.
“She’s your mom and she killed nearly everyone to keep you guys safe.” Dani closed her eyes and took a deep breath, her eyes pleading when she reopened them. “Please, Zo. Don’t say anything. He’s not ready. Can’t you see…can’t you feel it?” Dani’s acute panic and desperation were nearly overwhelming.
Rough laughter startled me, and I glanced over to the cart to see Jason and Carlos chatting as they sat on the bench, whittling. Although I had the impression that Jason wouldn’t want me to pry around inside his head, I needed to; I needed to understand why Dani was so adamant to keep the truth from him.
Focusing beyond her swirling emotions, I searched for Jason’s. While Dani’s were easy to access, an invisible wall surrounded Jason’s, cold and excruciatingly controlled. I focused harder. It was difficult with Dani so close, her emotions so intense, but I could see and feel just enough from Jason to understand. There had been too much heartache, and too many lies and surprises to unleash another tumultuous mess on him while he was already so distraught.
Like he could somehow sense my cerebral intrusion, Jason stopped whittling for a moment and glanced over at me. The instant his knowing eyes met mine, the invisible wall protecting his mind solidified, blocking me out completely.
Standing there, with only a brief impression of who he was fresh in my mind, I felt closer to him than I probably ever would have had my Ability remained dormant. And I understood; Dani was right. Learning that our mom was still alive, that she’d made the choice to leave when Jason was a young child, and that she’d been the cause of so much death would devastate him, especially while the real me wasn’t around to help bear the weight of the discovery.
Dani clutched my hand, silently pleading with me to keep quiet as Jason glanced between us.
With a quick squeeze in return, I reassured her of my silence, at least for a while.
Harper and Chris emerged from the nearest cluster of trees, chatting amiably as they made their way back to camp with armfuls of firewood. When Harper’s eyes found mine, his relaxed expression tensed, and he hurried over to us.
“You doing okay, Baby Girl?” His expression was pinched with worry—a look I’d grown weary of over the last few days. “You’re pale.”
“I’m fine,” I said, waving his concern away. There was nothing like a resurgence of forgotten memories and pitying glances to make me feel like the most pathetic woman in the world.
As I took a few steps toward Harper and Chris, I stumbled, the bombardment of their worries, memories, and emotions throwing me off kilter. Dropping his armful of firewood, Harper jogged the final few steps between us to lend me a supporting hand.
I snickered. Yep, I’m pathetic.
“I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just my Ability…it’s a little overwhelming, and my head’s frazzled…I think.”
“So, Jason’s not…” Chris glanced over at my brother. “A little advanced notice would’ve been nice,” she grumbled, though I didn’t really understand her spike of irritation.
“It was an accident,” Dani chimed in, sounding tired. She patted Wings’s neck. “I’ll send Wings and Shadow out to pasture with the other horses, then head over and warn”—Dani’s gaze flicked to me, and her cheeks reddened as shame emanated from her—“tell the others.” After a brief moment, the sound of lazy, clomping hooves retreated behind me.
Harper helped me over to lean against a lone tree trunk growing along the edge of the pond. His memories and feelings resonated within me, and I mentally waded through the streaming information, effortlessly absorbing pieces of who he was. He was so good and confident and calm; I couldn’t help but admire him.
“You sure you’re alright, Baby Girl?” he asked, scanning me as I gripped the trunk of the tree.
“Yeah. I’m okay, really.” I blushed at being the center of unwanted attention.
With a pat on my shoulder, Chris excused herself and headed over to join Jason and Carlos. I hadn’t missed her and Harper’s silent, charged exchange before she walked away. Their growing connection was impossible to miss, especially when I could feel their mutual attraction.
Harper glanced over at Chris’s retreating form, appraising her covertly, or so he thought. When he noticed me eyeing him, he smiled, a knowing glint in his peridot-colored eyes.
“Interesting,” I said, eyebrows raised in amusement.
He nudged my shoulder with his. “You see too much,” he said and waggled his eyebrows.
I knew that was true, so all I could do was shrug. “I’m still learning how to navigate this whole Ability thing,” I said.
He winked at me. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
“And in the meantime, you’ll all avoid me like I’m a leper?” I asked acerbically. Being bitter wouldn’t help, but it was hard not to be when people were suddenly running as far away from me as possible, despite their smiles.
“Everyone just needs time, Baby Girl, including you. You’ll get the hang of it, and if not, they’ll warm up to it eventually.”
“I sure hope so,” I muttered.
Tavis’s laughter rumbled on the faint breeze, and I could hear him and Sam bantering back and forth. After a quick glance around, I spotted them walking along the other side of the reservoir, water jugs in their hands. The still water began to ripple, and I realized I hadn’t noticed the wind pick up.
“Whatever,” Sam said.
I smiled as they drew closer. Their companionable chatter was familiar, the one feeling I yearned for the most. I welcomed the sense of comfort that came with the sounds of their voices.
“Not true,” Tavis said with a laugh as they approached. “You’d never beat me if it weren’t for your Ability, mate, and that’s a fact.”
Sam sighed, his annoyance making me smile. “You’re just using that as an excuse.”
“As if!” Tavis said with half a laugh.
“Even Zoe’s a better shot than you,” Sam said. “At least she was.”
Tavis stopped mid-step, appalled by Sam’s comment. “Not even true, and your Ability gives you an unfair advantage.”
Sam laughed. “You’re just mad because you don’t know what your Ability is yet.”
“What? Grayson doesn’t know what his Ability is either.” Narrowing his eyes to slits, Tavis tried not to smile. “Maybe we’re Crazies…”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Sam said.
Looking to me and Harper, Tavis shook his head. “Can you believe this kid? He has supersonic hearing and can see a mile away, and he thinks I’m using it as an excuse.”
Unbidden, a soft chuckle escaped from my throat. “I just don’t understand why you’re not improving your archery skills, Tavis. I mean, Sam seems like a good teacher. Maybe it is you.”
“I can’t bloody believe it,” Tavis said, peering up into the sky and spreading his arms like someone might actually care enough about his aiming issues to listen. “I taught the kid everything he knows, and suddenly I’m the one who needs to practice.” He tsked and shook his head. “Cheeky little bugger.” A wolfish grin spread across his face, and he and Sam sauntered closer, stopping beside Harper and me.
Harper rumpled my hair, messing up my ponytail. “If you’re alright, Baby Girl, I’m gonna head back to camp.” He glanced at Chris again, who was still standing with Jason and Carlos, before he turned to Tavis. “Her Ability’s back online,” he cautioned, and I sighed involuntarily. My presence warrants a warning now—great.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to remind myself that while others’ memories helped me feel a little more like a member of the group, being so emotionally exposed wasn’t something most people would appreciate.
“Do you remember us yet?” Sam asked as he crouched and picked at the burs in his shoestrings.
I bit at the inside of my cheek and felt my eyebrows draw together. “No,” I admitted. “Not yet.” I didn’t bother telling him that I knew he’d won his first blue ribbon in a relay race in third grade, and that his sister, Anastasia, had been born a year and half ago, and that his father had died from the Virus right before his mother had been raped and killed by Crazies. I knew all of that, but had no recollection of him from my past. “But do you think you can work with me on my archery? From what Harper tells me, I used be a decent shot. I could use a skill or a pastime or…something, at least until my memories get sorted out.”
Sam peered up at me. “Yeah, we might as well.” He paused, squinting one eye as he studied me. “Do you think you’ll really get your memories back?”
Shrugging, I said, “I’m not really sure. I’m still trying to piece things together. It’s weird to see myself with everyone…to watch their memories play out like a movie, but still not actually recall any of it.”
Tavis crossed his arms over his chest and stared at me, contemplating. “Why not stop trying to figure out the past, and try embracing the way things are now? You can’t change anything that’s happened, and you have no idea how long this ‘issue’ might last. You might never be your old self again,” he said matter-of-factly.
I looked into Tavis’s inquisitive blue eyes. “I haven’t thought about it like that.”
“Well,” Sam said, “I want you to get your memory back.”
“Yeah? And why’s that?” I asked.
Sam took a deep, thoughtful breath. “For starters, you can’t hold up your part of our deal like this,” he said somberly.
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “You’re supposed to teach me how to draw, and I’m supposed to help you with your archery.” Sam seemed annoyed by the inconvenience of my memory loss, but I could tell he was more disappointed than upset with me.
“Well,” I ventured, “I can try—”
Sam was shaking his head before I could even finish my train of thought.
He looked at me, a yeah-right expression on his face. “Do you even know if you can still draw?”
I feigned offense. “Well, no, not exactly. I haven’t thought to try. I can still do other things.”
“Just trust me,” Sam said.
“Well, you’re an…honest kid, I’ll give you that much. There’s no beating around the bush with you.”
Sam only shrugged again, and Tavis chuckled.
“Sam keeps things interesting,” Tavis said, his tone more affectionate than I thought he realized, and a great big smile engulfed my face. Being around them made me happy; it was a welcome distraction from the awkwardness I felt around the others.
“A girl could get used to hanging out with the two of you,” I said.
It was then that I noticed Jake and Cooper striding over from the other side of the pond. Jake’s gaze shifted between Tavis and me.
The look in his eyes sobered me instantly. There was something about him, regardless of the fact that I couldn’t remember him or the “us” I’d been told about, that made my insides flutter with anticipation. I took a step closer to him.
“Hi,” I said a little breathily. We’d barely spoken, and I always seemed to struggle with what to say to him.
Being around him made me want more than ever to have my memories back, to be able to understand the feelings I thought I could almost feel somewhere deep inside me whenever he was nearby. Or is it all just in my head? It was impossible to say, but I wished, more than was probably healthy, that one day I might know.
If we were a couple, I should just talk to him. I didn’t see any harm in that. He didn’t bite…at least not that I was aware of.
Jake’s eyes passed over Sam and Tavis to land on me, and a tight smile pulled at his lips. His dark gaze focused on me like he was trying to see inside me, trying to figure me out.
“Hey, Coop,” Sam called and shuffled over to the husky, patting the dog’s head and rumpling his scruffy neck. “Wanna play fetch?”
Jake smiled down at Sam as the boy fawned over Cooper, but I wondered what brewed beneath the surface of Jake’s composed demeanor. His eyes were telling, I just hadn’t figured out how to read them yet.
Just as I was about to push away from the tree I was leaning against, Sam jumped up to his feet, brushing his hands off on his pants. “Did you hear? Zoe’s Ability’s back.”
Jake’s smile faltered, and his gaze darted from Sam to me. “No,” he said. “I didn’t.” His hands flexed at his sides.
“Not her memory yet, but the rest of her.”
I thought I should probably talk to Jake about us before too much more time passed and the distance continued to grow between us. But just as I was about to ask him if we could go somewhere to talk, he turned and walked away, calling for Cooper over his shoulder.
Slouching back against the tree, I sighed. Or not.
Out Of The Ashes is coming out on August 23, but it will be available at a special, discounted price from Amazon on the 21st!