Dead Man Hanging
Darkness has never been a friendly thing. Not to me. But now, huddled behind a dumpster in the alleyway behind Dr. Roth’s apartment building, I burrow into its protective arms, pulling it around myself until I’m wrapped up as tightly as a swaddled infant.
Perhaps we should make a run for it. Sprint as far away from here as possible. But fear paralyzes me. I’m pretty sure it has the same effect on Luka, too, because we crouch there—me and him, this boy who has come to mean so much—holding our breath as if the police might hear the sound of breathing five stories up.
Raindrops begin falling from the sky—fat, cold globs of moisture that plop against the dumpster’s top and soak into the cotton of my sweatshirt. Luka wraps his arm around my hunched form and pulls me so closely to him I am unsure where he ends and I begin. It’s not enough. I want more. I want the things he makes me feel to carry me off into oblivion, some place where this reality we’re facing now no longer exists.
The clank of footsteps on the fire escape forces us to duck further back. A beam of light slices through the darkness, searching. My heart hammers against my chest. I’m sure Luka can hear it, maybe even feel it. They are looking for me, those people upstairs. They want to take me away and lock me up in Shady Wood with my grandmother, where I will never see my family or Luka again. I don’t breathe until the light finally goes away and the footsteps retreat.
The police are not coming down here, at least not right now. Dr. Roth is a smart guy. Surely he will find a way to throw them off our scent. Even so, we stay where we are, as still as statues, afraid to blink, afraid to think, until my legs cramp and the chill in the air turns my fingers numb. Northern California in January is not an ideal time for a night spent outdoors. For the first time since moving to Thornsdale in September, I find myself wishing for the balmy Florida heat I’d taken for granted back in Jude. But as cold as it might be out here, what other choice do we have?
We can’t go home. I’m sure mine is under surveillance and Luka’s isn’t safe. His father would hand me over the second we arrived. The two of us can’t be seen at all. I’m sure by now, my escape from the Edward Brooks Facility has been splashed on the news, along with my face. Nowhere is safe. Which means we will have to wait out the night behind this dumpster. Dr. Roth gave us specific directions to come back in the morning. He promised to explain everything.
The raindrops thin out into a misty drizzle. Luka loosens his grip around my waist and we stare at one another through the dark. He straightens his legs, as if his muscles are cramped too. I want to tell him to stop moving, but I’m doing the same thing.
“Are you okay?” he whispers so softly I have to strain to hear.
It’s a silly question. Of course I’m not. He knows it. I know it. Over the course of six days, my brother almost died, we broke into a high-security psych ward and discovered rows upon rows of patients in medically-induced comas, my deranged grandmother said I was “the key”, I was dragged out of school against my will by government officials, locked up and drugged in the Edward Brooks Facility, then rescued by Luka Williams and my psychiatrist, who turns out, isn’t who he claimed to be. All I can manage is an almost-silent, “I can’t feel my fingers.”
Luka takes my hands between his own and rubs until they are slightly warmer than frozen.
“Do you think they’re still up there?” I whisper.
“I don’t know.”
A shudder takes hold of my body and convulses through my limbs. Even in the thick of night, I can see the concern pooling in his green eyes. “I have so many questions.”
“Me too,” he says.
“What do you think he meant about there being ‘more of us’?”
“I’m more concerned about the part where we’re all in danger.”
A shudder ripples through my arms.
Luka sits against the brick wall of the apartment building. He pulls me beside him and wraps his arms around me. “Is this all right?”
I nod against his chest, too frightened and cold to be self-conscious.
“It’s going to be okay, Tess.” My body rises and falls with his breath. “We’ll get answers from Dr. Roth tomorrow. You can go to sleep. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Despite the chilly nighttime air outside and the cold fear inside, something about his nearness warms me. I am not alone. Luka is here—brave, handsome, confident Luka. I can almost believe it’s true—that he has the power to keep me safe. That I might really be able to go to sleep.
I curl up against him and wrestle my fear into submission. I don’t let myself think about my family or how much I miss my mom. I don’t let myself think about what my life will be now. I take deep, even breaths. I borrow Luka’s warmth. And I force all my attention onto one thing.
I’m not suffering from psychosis. Neither is Luka.
Dr. Roth gave us a name. We are The Gifting.
* * *
Movement awakens me. It’s a twitch at first. Then something bigger, like a jolt. My eyelids flutter open. I am wrapped up with Luka, tangled into a knot on the hard cement. We are face to face, our bodies pressed together. Only his eyes are closed. His face twitches. Then his eyes fly open. Before he can make a sound, I cup my hand over his mouth, trapping the noise inside.
His nostrils flare.
“Shhh, Luka. You were having a nightmare.” Something I know all too well. My nightmares are what put us in this position. He stares down at me with pupils so large, his irises are nothing but the thinnest ring of green. Slowly, his breathing regulates. His pupils shrink.
I remove my hand.
And without the slightest warning, his fingers twine into my hair, he pulls my face close, and his lips crush mine. A quick burst of intense passion before he pulls away and hugs me to his chest, where his heart crashes against my ear. The whole thing happened so fast, I barely had time to register it, let alone kiss him back. Three times now he has kissed me and three times now, they have come as complete surprises. He springs them on me when I least suspect, like in a crowded locker bay at school or on the dirty ground behind a dumpster. Perhaps this is a good thing. His method leaves no time for agonizing over how awful I must be at it.
He untangles himself from my arms and sits up, propping his elbows on his knees, digging his fingers into his hair, staring at some arbitrary spot on the ground. A white-throated sparrow lands on one of the fire escapes and lets out a wavering whistle.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He avoids eye contact.
I should probably push him, but honestly? I’m afraid of his answer. Luka has had dreams about me long before we first met in September. In every one, I’m in danger. In one of his dreams, I actually died. I’d rather not know if it happened again. I sit up beside him. The faint glow of early morning filters into the alleyway, softening everything around us—the dumpster, the trash cans, the brick walls. The night has given way to dusk. And I am desperate for answers. “Do you think it’s safe to go up now?”
“He said the morning. He never said how early.” Luka stands and pulls me up with him.
His grip tightens around my hand as we tiptoe toward the fire escape and climb the metal stairs on silent feet.
We stop before landing on the fifth. Luka holds up his finger, his meaning clear. I am to wait here while he pokes his head inside the open window. We have a wordless argument with hand gestures. I don’t want to stand by while he puts himself in jeopardy, not when I’ve already put him in enough. But he refuses to let me go first. So Luka wins and I wait. When the coast is clear, he waves me over. He climbs through the window first, then helps me inside Dr. Roth’s apartment.
It’s too quiet. Too still.
Goose bumps march up my arms. My palms turn cold and clammy. What if this is a trap? What if Dr. Roth was arrested and the minute we open our mouths, the police will descend and the two burly men who dragged me out of Thornsdale High School will drag me away again. Only this time Dr. Roth and Luka won’t be around to break me out.
Luka pulls me forward, toward the bedrooms. I want to dig my heels into the carpet. Fear claws about inside my chest, scrapping and scratching for an exit. I have no idea why I don’t want to see whatever it is we are about to see. Until we round the corner and find him—the man with all the answers.
Hanging from a noose at the end of the hallway.
Footsteps sound outside Dr. Roth’s apartment door. Luka clamps his hand over my mouth to muffle my scream and wraps his arm around my waist. There’s a knock. Something like a squeak issues from the back of my throat. Luka tightens his grip around my waist and half-drags, half-carries me up the hallway, toward the still, hanging body, and into a room. The same one I woke up in not more than twelve hours ago.
Another knock at the door. “Rise and shine, Dr. Roth. It’s the police.”
The room looks untouched and unruffled. Nobody would suspect somebody had slept in the bed recently. In fact, it looks as if the guest room is perfunctory and really, the doctor hasn’t had a guest in years. Luka pulls me toward the bed and the two of us hide underneath. I cup my hand over my mouth to mask the sound of my breathing.
“All right, I’m coming in,” the voice says. There’s a pause, then a loud bang. I jump. Luka tucks me closer. Another bang, followed by a thud, as if the door has swung open and crashed into the wall. “You awake in here?”
Footsteps draw nearer, then stop. Whoever it is clucks his tongue. “Well now, Doc, why’d you go and do a thing like this?”
Luka cups his hand over mine, whether to provide an extra sound barrier or as a gesture of comfort, I’m not sure. The frayed hemp of his bracelet bites into my skin. With eyes buggy and unblinking, I stare at the police officer’s shoes in the hallway. He pivots and walks out of eyeshot.
“Hey-a Manny, it’s Jake. Patch me through to the Chief, would ya?” Officer Jake is on his phone, calling the chief of police, which happens to be Leela’s uncle. How long before this place is swarming with cops? The floor creaks. It doesn’t seem possible, but my eyes grow wider. “Yeah-a, Bill? Looks like the doc offed himself … No, he’s hanging right here in front of me. Apparently, the threat of losing his license did a number on him.”
I picture Dr. Roth’s limp body hanging from the noose, his neck bent at a weird angle. I’m not sure I will ever be able to scrub that memory from my mind. He’s dead. The man with all the answers is dead.
More floor creaking. Officer Jake’s shoes come back into view. “Suicide’s a pretty safe bet, but the medical examiner will need to verify.”
Another pause, longer this time.
My mind buzzes in the silence. It doesn’t make sense. Dr. Roth would not have hung himself. He was waiting for us to return. He told us to come back. He called himself “a believer”. He said he had been gathering evidence.
“So now what? I can’t exactly question a dead man … No, there’s no sign of the girl, but I’ll look around. See if there’s any evidence that she’s been here.”
I swallow another squeak and press back into Luka. His grip tightens.
“A national alert, huh? I don’t understand why she’s so important. Have to imagine a teenager can’t be much of a threat … Right, I understand … I have a jump drive. I can copy all the files and bring it into the station. Hold on a tick.” His shoes shuffle past the doorframe. Beneath this bed, with my hand cupped over my mouth and Luka’s cupped over my hand, sound seems to be magnified. A chair groans. Computer keys clack. He’s accessing Dr. Roth’s computer files.
Luka nudges me, then points toward the nightstand. A crate holding two thick manila folders sits on the ground, as if Dr. Roth had been preparing for our visit.
More computer clacking. “Bill, there’s nothing here. His computer’s wiped clean.”
A memory floats to the surface. It all feels like a lifetime ago, back when my biggest problems came in my sleeping hours and Dr. Roth was nobody but a psychiatrist at the Edward Brooks Facility. I had questioned his archaic record keeping.
“Pen and paper doesn’t crash. It’s not nearly as accessible, either.”
A flood of gratitude toward the man washes over me. He knew all along that something like this could happen. That digital files were not safe or indestructible. He was protecting me from the very beginning. But as soon as the relief comes, so does the panic. Because all Officer Jake has to do is walk into this room and he’ll see the files that are not more than five feet from our heads. Not only will he come into possession of extremely confidential information, he’ll see us as soon as he bends down to get it.
“Either he erased them or somebody else did … Yeah-a, I’ll look around … is the medical examiner on his way?” Something snaps shut, like a laptop. “Ten-four. I’ll be waiting here. See ya at the station.”
A chair squeaks, followed by a stretch of silence.
I feel immobilized, paralyzed. Even my thoughts are frozen. I wonder if Luka feels the same way, because he does not move behind me.
“Tut, tut, Dr. Roth. Just what were you hiding?”
My heart thuds so loud I’m terrified Officer Jake will hear it. I can cup my hand over my mouth to silence my breathing, but there’s nothing to silence my heart.
“You don’t mind if I use your bathroom, do you? I didn’t think you would.”
The man is having a conversation with a dead body. A psychiatrist, to boot. If I weren’t having a silent panic attack, if Luka and I weren’t in such horrible danger, if our only ally wasn’t the one hanging out in that hallway, the situation would be laughable.
“Now, you stay there. Don’t move. I’ll be out in five and we’ll see if I can’t find where you hide your secrets.”
Officer Jake’s shoes appear in the doorframe again.
Please don’t see the crate … please don’t see the crate …
His shoes keep going, followed by a soft click of a door latch and a tuneless whistled melody from the bathroom beside us.
Luka goes from statue-still to a flurry of silent motion. He releases my waist and my mouth, then quickly and silently shimmies out from under the bed. I want to pull him back under, because—is he nuts? We can’t be seen. If we’re seen, we’re dead. I will be locked up in Shady Wood and he will be put into prison and our keys will be thrown away. There will be no escaping this time.
“Luka,” I hiss.
But he pulls me out alongside him, grabs the two manila folders, takes my hand and leads me out into the hallway. A strip of light shines beneath the bathroom door, the man’s whistling muffled by the droning of a fan. Without hesitating, Luka pulls me toward the window. We climb out. I hold my breath while Luka shuts it as quietly as possible and we tear off down the steps.
Away, away, away … as fast as we can.
* * *
Not until the entire length of the alleyway is between us and Officer Jake do I dare talk. I huddle against the brick façade of a building, my words escaping in huffs and puffs. I’m not used to sprinting. “We need … to get … out of here.” And by here, I mean Thornsdale. In five minutes that apartment is going to be crawling with police, which means we need to put as much distance between us and this place as possible. Much easier said than done when all we have is our feet and our backpacks, and now, these two folders containing who knows what.
Luka swings his backpack off his shoulders, unzips the zipper, and pulls out two baseball caps and a pair of sunglasses. “Hide your hair in there and put these on.” He pulls his hat over his hair and stuffs the folders inside his bag.
I do as he says, stuffing my hair up in the hat and putting on the glasses. I try not to think about Officer Jake’s words about me and a national alert. I can’t process that right now. Or Dr. Roth’s death. All I can think about right now is making it to safety. Wherever that is.
“All we have to do is make it across this street. Walk normally. Do you see that alley over there?” Luka points to the other side of the street, toward an alleyway between an insurance building and liquor store.
“I’m pretty sure it will lead us to some more. Once we’re out of Thornsdale, we can find a motel and figure out what to do next.”
“What if somebody recognizes us?”
“They won’t. Not if we stick to the alleyways.” He grabs my hand. “And not if we hurry.”
“Luka,” goose bumps march across my skin, “that wasn’t a suicide.”
“I know.” He squeezes my hand and we step into the hazy sunlight.
Following a labyrinth of alleyways and side streets, some tighter than others, we walk until the morning haze turns into afternoon storm clouds. We run across stray cats and the occasional homeless person, but neither gives us any hassle. Questions and what-ifs spin through my mind, each one worse than the one before, but I do not voice them. Luka and I journey in silence.
I am hungry and cold and filthy and then it starts to rain, so I’m wet too. If only this was the worst of it, I could deal. But it’s not. I’m not sure if I’m extra thirsty from the heavy doses of drugs that were pumped into my system or what, but the thirst is unbearable. Luka packed two water bottles, one for each of us, and he insisted on letting me have half of his. I find myself tipping my face up into the drizzle and letting the moisture fall over my tongue. Had he known we’d be on the run like fugitives, he would have packed provisions. But he didn’t. He had thought we could stay at Dr. Roth’s, where we’d not only get answers, but food and water too, and then be on our way—well rested and properly fed. We did not expect to be tossed into the night mere hours after my escape.
The drizzle turns into a heavy rain. In a matter of seconds, Luka and I are soaked through and my entire body has gone numb. We come to the end of another alley. He peeks out to survey our surroundings. “It’s a motel.”
My teeth chatter. “Wh-where?”
Sure enough, there it is—a flashing neon sign that reads Motel California. If the owner used the name as a play on the popular oldie, Hotel California, hoping the cleverness would entice guests, it didn’t work. The place looks rundown and abandoned. The O and the T on the sign don’t work, so from afar it looks like M e l California. To my eyes though, it might as well be paradise. “Do you think it’s s-s-safe?”
“As safe as we’re going to get. You need food and water. And we need a place to rest for the night.”
“You stay here.” He looks around and spots a couple tin garbage cans. “Hide behind these. I’ll go get us a room.”
I don’t want him to leave me. I don’t want to separate. I’m convinced if we do, we won’t find our way back to each other again. But I know Luka’s plan is best. I can’t walk into the front office of that motel. Not if the police are out looking for me. So I do what Luka says. I squat behind the garbage cans and watch as he jogs across the street, dodging puddles, and disappears inside.
Come back to me, Luka … don’t get caught … don’t leave me here …
The longer he is gone, the more horrendous the what-ifs become in my mind. I imagine Luka being cuffed and dragged to some place far away. I imagine him being tortured for the location of my whereabouts. I imagine sitting out here, forever and ever and ever, never to see him again—all alone without anywhere to turn. What did Officer Jake mean by a national report? Surely he’s wrong. They only broadcast people nationally when they are sociopathic murderers or highly dangerous criminals. I’m just a girl who misses her mom and her warm bed and her best friend.
I imagine her now, at school. Does she regret the way things ended between us? Does she miss me at all? Or is she glad I’m gone? A ball of heat gathers in my throat. I swallow it down and pin my gaze on the front doors of Motel California.
C’mon, Luka. Where are you?
As if sensing my desperation, the door opens. He steps out into the rain, looks over his shoulder, then hurries across the street and pulls me out from my hiding place. “It worked.” He holds up two plastic cards. “I got us a room.”
* * *
We climb the cement steps and hurry beneath the awning to the fourth door, the aqua paint peeling and chipped. Luka swipes the key card. The light flashes green and the lock clicks. He opens the door and motions for me to go first.
Inside, it’s dark and dank and smells like mothballs. Luka turns on the light. It flickers once, twice, then casts a yellowish-orange hue over the room, revealing dull, worn carpet, a rickety armoire with a boxed-set television that looks like an ancient relic, and a full-sized bed.
The door closes behind us and shuts out the rain. I stand there, unsure what to do next while Luka shrugs off his backpack and walks over to the heater and air conditioning unit. He hits a button and the unit rattles and clanks to life.
He holds his hands in front of the vents. “It should warm up in here soon.”
A weight I didn’t know I was carrying slides off my back. We are inside, where it is dry and soon-to-be warm. Far away from the police or anybody else who might recognize me.
“I saw a vending machine outside.” Luka squeezes my shoulder as he passes, then leaves again. Only this time our separation doesn’t cause me anxiety. He’s just slipping outside to find us something to eat. The thought has my stomach growling.
I slip off my waterlogged sneakers and close myself inside the bathroom. I turn on the faucet, bend over the sink, and drink gulps of lukewarm water from my cupped palm until the bite of thirst loses its sharpness. When I unzip my bag, I find neatly folded clothes and a bag of toiletries. I imagine my mom, carefully considering what I might need, tucking each item into the cosmetic bag. Did she wonder if she’d ever see me again? Did she cry? The same hot ball of emotion that came when I thought about Leela in the alleyway swells again.
Forcing it down, I slide open the shower curtain. A warm bath sounds heavenly, but one look at the mold growing on the grout between the tiles, the soap scum, the rust staining the tub, and I’m not touching any of it. I peel off my soaked clothes, ring them out over the bathtub drain, and hang them on one of the hooks on the back of the door. I turn on the water. The pipes hiss and groan before releasing a steady stream. Cold at first, but then almost scalding hot.
I grab my toiletries, step beneath the spitting stream, and let it soak my hair and my skin. I shampoo and condition, work the body wash into a lather and get to work shaving my legs. I’m not sure how long I stand beneath the shower with my eyes closed. I just know it’s long enough for the entire bathroom to morph into a dense steam cloud. I don’t move until my gurgling stomach convinces me its time. Reluctantly, I shut off the water, and when I do, I hear Luka shuffling around in our room.
I towel off as quickly as possible, dress in a pair of heart-dotted pajama bottoms and an oversized t-shirt with a monkey face on the front (thanks Mom), and step into our room. Luka is right. The musty smell remains, but the room is warm. He stops digging through his bag and turns around. He’s removed his rain-soaked sweatshirt and stands there with a t-shirt that clings to his body. My attention flickers to the muscles of his chest, the well-defined lines of his flat abdomen, and the air turns thin.
His smile doesn’t help. It’s a slow, crooked kind of smile. The same one that made all the girls at Thornsdale googly-eyed. And he’s aiming it directly at me. “Cute pjs.”
I look down at my bare toes—the same pale blue as my chipped nail polish. My cheeks are entirely too prone to flushing.
“Do you feel better?” he asks.
“A little more human.”
He motions to the bed where an assortment of vending machine food sits in a pile. Chips and Hostess pies, animal crackers and Pop-tarts and candy bars. And on the nightstand, a bottle of chocolate milk. For me.
My cheeks flush hotter. “Did you buy everything in the machine?”
“I thought about it.” He grabs his backpack off the one-and-only chair tucked into the corner of the room. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”
He’s probably long past eager for a shower himself, only I stood comatose in the tub for who knows how long. How thoughtful of me. “Did you eat yet?”
“I’ll join you as soon as I’m also feeling … a little more human.” His hand brushes my arm when he walks past. “Go ahead and dig in.”
After the way we huddled together for warmth the night before, you’d think I’d be more accustomed to his touch. But I’m not sure Luka’s touch is one I’ll ever get used to.
He shuts himself inside the bathroom where the pipes make the same groan-squeak they made for me. Tucking my damp hair behind my ears, I shuffle over to the window and peek through the blinds—nothing but a sheet of rain. It’s good we found this place when we did. I climb onto the bed and sit cross-legged in the center, twisting open my chocolate milk and taking a long, delicious drink before searching through the feast. I pick up the remote near my knee and point it at the television. The power button doesn’t work. I give the remote a few whacks against my palm and try again. The TV comes to life, but the screen is mostly fuzz. I flip through the channels and settle on the one with the most clarity. A local news station broadcasting a seven-day forecast that looks abysmal.
I’m halfway through a bag of Cheetos when Luka comes out of the bathroom towel-drying his thick, dark hair. He’s wearing a comfy pair of sweatpants and a familiar white t-shirt and the glasses I saw on his nightstand all those days ago, when he first told me about his recurring dream. He must wear contacts. And he must have taken said contacts out in the bathroom. I bite the inside of my cheek. No boy should be allowed to look that sexy in a pair of sweatpants and glasses. And yet Luka does. Of course he does. He wears those sweats and glasses so well it’s distracting.
“That might have been the best shower I’ve ever taken.” He tosses the towel off to the side, joins me on the bed, cracks open a can of Mountain Dew, and holds it up in the air. “To Motel California.”
“To being out of the rain.”
We tap our drinks together and I lick the cheese off my fingers when a static-filled name from the television grabs my attention. I freeze with the tip of my thumb in my mouth. On the screen, a female reporter stands in front of an all-too-familiar apartment complex.
“Forty-six-year old Charles Roth, a renowned doctor in the field of psychiatry, most recognized for compiling several important anthologies on the human brain, was found dead in his apartment early this morning.”
Luka gets off the bed and twists the antenna until the picture is clearer.
“The medical examiner has declared the cause of death suicide. There was no note left, but it is believed that the threat of losing his license after helping a highly-deranged and dangerous mental patient escape from the very facility where he was employed prompted such a fateful decision.”
My school picture from Jude fills the screen.
My mouth drops open.
“Seventeen-year-old Teresa Ekhart moved to Thornsdale with her family in September of last year. A reliable source tells us that her family moved in order to give Teresa the help she needed after she experienced a mental breakdown. Take a look at this.”
The TV pans to Thornsdale High, where students mill about in the courtyard.
And there she is—Summer Burbanks—looking at the camera, beautiful and smug and hateful as ever. I want to jump through the screen and clutch my hands around her neck. “Nobody really noticed her at first. She was the quiet new girl. Looking back, I can see the signs. She was always fidgeting or staring intently at nothing. But then things started to go downhill really fast after we came back from winter break. Out of nowhere, she attacked me in the locker bay. My boyfriend, Jared, had to pull her off me.”
The screen pans back to the reporter. “Last week, Teresa was admitted full-time into the Edward Brooks Facility, a privately owned psychiatric center here in Thornsdale, where she was previously being treated by Dr. Roth. A team of doctors were working on getting her properly medicated so she could rejoin her classmates at school. According to a nurse there, she was not cooperative and had bursts of violence that required restraints.”
“They’re lying!” I may not be able to remember much about my two-day stint there, but I remember enough to know that they were pumping me full of so many drugs, I couldn’t have been violent if I tried. That nurse kept telling me Luka wasn’t real. That my grandmother was dead. She was lying to my face and now they are lying to the world.
“Before doctors could help the young girl, Dr. Roth broke her out of the facility. So far, his motivation for doing so is unclear.”
I wait for them to mention Luka, because surely they have put two and two together by now. Surely reporters have dug into history and realize that Luka was once a patient at the Edward Brooks Facility, too. All of our classmates saw him fight to get to me when those two burly bodyguard men dragged me away.
“Teresa is currently at large and is considered highly dangerous. If you think you might now know of her whereabouts, there is a bounty for any successful tips or leads. Please call the Thornsdale Police station.”
A number flashes on the screen.
“And now back to you, Jeff, for a look at sports.”
I stare with mouth open, unable to think. I was just televised over the entire Thornsdale viewing area. I have a bounty on my head. They’ve labeled me as highly dangerous. But Luka, somehow, is still in the clear. He jabs the power button on the remote.
The television screen goes black.
Guilt digs in its claws. Despite my good intentions, I have done exactly what I promised myself I wouldn’t do. I dragged Luka into this dark pit right alongside me. His father was right. He should have stayed away. My life will never be normal again. Never. But Luka? He still has a chance. It’s not too late for him. “You need to go back.”
The words cause me physical pain, but I have to say them. “They aren’t looking for you. There’s not a bounty on your head. They must not know you’re involved. You can still get out of this mess.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Dr. Roth is dead. He’s dead because he helped me.” What if next time, Luka’s the one hanging at the end of a rope? My head begins to shake of its own volition—back and forth, back and forth in a panicked, jerky fashion. “You should have left me in the Edward Brooks Facility.”
“Tess, look at me.” Luka steps forward and takes my face with firm hands, giving me no choice but to look at him. “They would have taken you to Shady Wood. I never would have seen you again. I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
“The entire town is looking for me. Maybe even the entire nation. I won’t be able to get anywhere. I’m going to be caught.”
“There’s a Walgreens a couple blocks up the street. I have plenty of money. I can go there and buy hair dye and a phone. We’ll figure out what to do.”
“You’re throwing everything away.”
“Throwing what away? Don’t you understand? You are everything.”
As soon as the words hit, they quickly bounce away. Because they’re too unbelievable to stick. I sink onto the edge of the bed, my vision growing blurrier by the second. Luka doesn’t know what he’s saying. He is committing suicide, and what’s worse, I’m letting him do it. I should insist he return. I should demand it. But I’m too weak, and deep down, I don’t want him to go. “We don’t have IDs. We don’t have a car. We can’t call my family or yours. Their phones will be tapped. And if we’re caught, you’ll be locked away too. We’ll both end up at Shady Wood.”
“We won’t be caught. Listen, Tess, I don’t know why I wasn’t on the news. I have a feeling it has to do with my father’s connections. But it’s a good thing. Nobody’s looking for me. That gives us options.” The confidence in his voice is so strong, so sure, I almost believe him. “I need you to trust me.”
It’s something I’ve never fully done before. There was always a smidgen of doubt. A pocket of fear and uncertainty holding me back. Sure, the man with the scar warned me against Luka in my dreams before I knew the man was no good, and there were other things that muddied the waters. Deep down though, I know it was never about those warnings. Deep down, in my most honest parts, I just couldn’t believe that a boy like him would go out of his way—risk everything—to protect a girl like me. Not without ulterior motives. Deep down, I believed that the man with the scar made sense. Turns out, the man with the scar is malevolent and unreliable. It’s time to stop believing his lies. I look into Luka’s eyes and for reasons I will probably never understand, I know that he will stand by his word, with or without my cooperation—he will not leave me. I give him a small nod. For now.
“You should eat something else.”
The pile of food that looked so appetizing moments earlier no longer has any appeal. I know my body needs more than a bag of Cheetos, but my appetite has gone into hiding. He picks up an orange and peels it in the same way he did in the cafeteria. I’m mesmerized by the slow, even, unbroken way he removes the peel. When he finishes, he splits it apart and hands me half. I break off a slice and put it into my mouth. It’s bitter and dry, but there are vitamins, so I force myself to chew.
“The first thing we need to do is look for some answers.” Luka grabs the two thick manila folders from the nightstand and plops them on the bed.