Vengeful, p.8

Vengeful, page 8

 

Vengeful
 



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  But Victor—

  Some part of her had known.

  Had to have known.

  Sydney felt like she was going to scream. Instead, she left. Took the fire escape two stairs at a time, didn’t even care about the way her steps rattled as she crashed down floor after floor.

  She hit the street and kept going.

  One block, three blocks, five—Sydney didn’t know where she was going, only that she couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t look Victor in the eyes.

  She drew her cell from her back pocket and dialed June. They’d been texting for almost a year, exchanging small notes, anecdotes about where they were, what they were doing, but Syd had never called.

  The phone rang, and rang, and rang.

  But no one answered.

  Sydney’s steps slowed, the initial wave of shock settling into something heavier. She looked around. She was on a narrow street, not an alley exactly, but not a main road, either. People said cities didn’t sleep, but they did get quiet. And dark.

  Turn around, said a voice in her head, but it sounded like Victor, so Sydney kept going.

  Which was a mistake.

  The thing about mistakes was that they weren’t always big, or obvious. Sometimes they were simple. Small. The decision to keep walking. The turn left instead of right. Those few extra steps in the wrong direction.

  Sydney was trying to call June again when she saw them—two men. One wearing a black leather jacket, the other with a kerchief slung around his throat.

  She stopped walking, caught between turning around, which would mean putting her back to the men up ahead, or continuing forward, which would mean passing within arm’s reach. They hadn’t noticed her, at first, or at least they’d pretended not to, but now they looked at her and smiled.

  The men didn’t look dangerous, not like in the movies Syd watched with Mitch, but she knew that meant nothing—everyone who’d ever hurt her had looked safe. And the longer she stayed put, the more she felt the badness wafting off them like cheap cologne. Something she could smell and taste.

  “Hey, little girl,” said one, moving toward her. “You lost?”

  “No,” said Sydney. “And I’m not a little girl.”

  “Different time we’re living in,” said the second. “They grow up so fast.”

  Syd didn’t know how they’d gotten so close to her, so quickly, but as she shuffled backward, turned to go, a hand caught her collar. The guy in the leather jacket wrenched her back against him, one arm wrapped around her shoulders. “Aw, now, don’t be rude.”

  “Get off me,” she snarled, but he was squeezing too hard, and she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. She felt something hard dig into her ribs, realized it was a gun. She twisted in his grip, trying to grab it.

  “Careful,” said the other one, closing in. “She’s got spirit.”

  Syd tried to kick out at the other guy but he jumped back, wagging his finger. Her fingers skimmed the gun, but she couldn’t quite get it.

  The first man’s breath was hot and sour on her cheek. “Come on, now, let’s have some fun.”

  Syd slammed her head back into his nose—or tried, but her head only came to his chin. Still, she hit bone, heard the crack of a tooth, and she was free, stumbling to her hands and knees as the man reeled, the gun tumbling from his waistband. Syd lunged for it, fingers closing around the grip right before one of the men grabbed her ankle and pulled.

  The street bit into her elbows and scraped her shin as she twisted around and raised the gun, barrel leveled at the man’s heart. “Let go,” she snarled.

  “Oh shit,” said the man in the kerchief, but the other one sneered at her, blood spilling from his mouth.

  “That’s an awfully big gun for such a little girl.”

  “Let go.”

  “You even know how to use it?”

  “Yes.” Sydney squeezed the trigger as she said it, bracing for the recoil, the bang.

  But nothing happened.

  The man laughed, a short barking sound, and knocked the gun from her hands. It went skidding away.

  “Little bitch,” he said, raising his boot as if she were a bug, something to crush. He brought it down hard. Or at least, he started to, but his leg seemed to lock up halfway, and then he toppled, a single horrifying sound leaking from his clenched teeth. An instant later, the second guy fell, limbs seizing, as Victor walked toward them, his collar up against the cold.

  Relief washed over her, tangled with shock. “What are you doing here?”

  The men on the ground writhed in muted agony, blood leaking from their noses and vessels breaking in their eyes.

  Victor knelt to retrieve the discarded gun. “A little gratitude would be nice.”

  She rose on shaky legs, the anger catching up. “You followed me.”

  “Don’t try for the moral high ground, Sydney. You snuck out.”

  “I chose to go. I’m not a captive.”

  “You’re a child, and I promised to protect—”

  “A promise you can’t keep is just another lie,” she snapped. She was sick of everyone lying.

  Mitch had lied when he told her Victor was fine. Eli had lied when he said he wouldn’t hurt her. Serena had lied when she said she’d never leave. And Victor had been lying every day since his return.

  “I don’t want you to save me,” said Sydney. “I want to save myself.”

  Victor weighed the weapon in his hand. “All right,” he said, offering her the gun. “The first step is to turn the safety off.”

  Sydney took the weapon, marveled at the weight in her hands. It was heavier than she expected. Lighter than she expected. Her thumb slid over the catch on the side.

  “If you want,” said Victor, turning back toward the mouth of the alley, “I’ll teach you how to shoot.”

  Sydney wasn’t ready for him to walk away.

  “Victor,” she called, gripping the gun. “Did you do it?”

  Victor slowed to a stop. Turned. “Did I do what?”

  Sydney held his gaze. “Did you kill Serena?”

  Victor only sighed. The question didn’t seem to take him by surprise, but he didn’t answer it either. Sydney raised the gun, training it on his chest. “Did you do it?”

  “What do you think?”

  Sydney’s grip tightened. “I need you to say it.”

  Victor moved toward her slowly, steadily. “I warned you when we met, I wasn’t a good person.”

  “Say it,” demanded Syd.

  Victor came to a stop an arm’s length away, halted only by the gun against his ribs. He looked down at her. “Yes. I killed Serena.”

  The words hurt, but the pain was dull. Not a knife wound, or a plunge into ice water, but the deep ache of a fear realized, a suspicion turned to truth.

  “Why? Why did you do it?”

  “She was unstable and unquantifiable, a danger to everyone in her path.”

  The way he talked about her, about everything, as if they were just factors in an equation.

  But Serena wasn’t a factor. A problem to be solved.

  “She was my sister.”

  “She would have killed you.”

  “No,” whispered Syd.

  “If I hadn’t killed her, the cops would still be under her control. Eli would never have been caught. He’d still be free.”

  Sydney shivered, the gun trembling in her grip. “Why did you burn her body?”

  “I couldn’t risk you bringing her back.” Victor’s hand drifted up to the gun. He wrapped his fingers loosely around the barrel, not tight enough to stop the action if she pulled the trigger, just enough to keep the weapon steady. “Is this what you want? Killing me won’t bring her back either. Will you feel safer if I’m dead? Think hard, Sydney. We all have to live with our choices.”

  Sydney shuddered.

  And then she let go of the gun.

  Victor caught the weapon before it hit the ground. He ejected the clip, and then knelt so they were eye to eye.

>   “Look at me,” he said coldly, catching Sydney’s chin in his hand. “The next time you point a gun at someone, make sure you’re ready to pull the trigger.”

  He straightened, set the weapon on a nearby crate, and walked away.

  Sydney wrapped her arms around her ribs and sank to her knees on the pavement.

  She didn’t know how long she sat there before her phone finally rang. She drew the cell from her pocket with shaking hands and answered.

  “Hey, kiddo,” said June, sounding breathless. “Sorry, I was finishing a job. What’s up?”

  * * *

  TEN minutes later, Sydney was sitting in a diner—the kind that stayed open all night—clutching a cup of black tea.

  It had been June’s idea.

  The seat across from Syd was empty, but if she kept her eyes on her tea, and her ear to the cell phone, she could imagine the other girl sitting in the booth across from her. The sounds of another diner in another city—the bell of an order ready for pickup, a spoon stirring sugar in a cup—made a soft curtain of noise on the line.

  “You said you were working,” said Syd, making small talk. “What do you do?”

  A pause on the line. “Do you really want to know?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I kill people.”

  Sydney swallowed. “Bad people?”

  “Sure, most of the time.”

  “Do you like your job?”

  A soft sound, somewhere between an exhale and a laugh. “What would you think of me if I said yes?”

  Syd looked up at the empty booth. “I’d think at least you were being honest.”

  “What happened tonight?” asked June. “Talk to me.”

  And Sydney did. The words just spilled out. She couldn’t believe how easy it was to talk to June, how good it felt, amid so many secrets, to share some truth. She hadn’t felt that ease with someone, not since Serena died. It was like taking a deep breath after being underwater.

  Talking to June made her feel normal.

  She told her about Victor, and Mitch. About her sister, about the day they drowned, the way they came back, her slowly, and Serena all at once. She told her about Serena’s powers, and about Eli.

  “Is he like us?” asked June.

  “No,” growled Sydney. She took a deep breath. “I mean, he’s an EO. But he’s not like us. He thinks we’re wrong. That we shouldn’t exist. So he started killing us. He killed dozens of people before Victor stopped him.” Sydney’s voice sank until it was barely a whisper. “My sister . . . she and Eli . . .”

  But it wasn’t all Serena’s fault.

  Her sister had been lost for a really long time when Eli found her.

  Sydney had been lost too, but Victor had been the one to find her.

  It wasn’t Serena’s fault that Sydney got the hunter and she got the wolf.

  “I know what happened to Serena,” said June.

  Sydney stiffened in her seat. “What?”

  A sigh. “In order to take someone’s face,” said June, “I have to touch them. And when I do, I see things. Not every-thing—no room in my head for that much useless memory—just the bits that make them who they are, the ones that matter most. Loves, hates, important moments. Mitch—I touched his arm that day in the park, right before you and I met—and I saw him standing before a fire. There was a girl’s body in the flames. But all I felt was his regret.”

  Sydney closed her eyes, swallowed hard. “Mitch didn’t kill Serena,” she said. “Victor did.”

  “Why would he do that?” asked June.

  Sydney let out a shuddering breath. “My sister could control people. She had this hold on them. Could make them do anything she wanted, just by saying the words. She was strong, powerful. But . . . she was like Eli. She thought people like us were lost. Broken.”

  “Maybe she was right,” said June.

  “How can you—” started Sydney.

  “Hear me out,” pressed June. “Maybe we are broken. But we put ourselves back together. We survived. That’s what makes us so powerful. And as for family—well, blood is always family, but family doesn’t always have to be blood.”

  Sydney felt hollow, worn out. “What about you?” she asked. “Do you have a family?”

  There was a long pause. “No,” said June softly. “Not anymore.”

  “What happened to them? Did they die?”

  “No,” said June. “But I did.” A long pause. “You see, they wouldn’t recognize me.”

  “But you were you first. Can’t you just . . . change back?”

  “It’s complicated. What I can do,” she said slowly, “makes me invincible. But only as long as I’m someone else.” June hesitated. “I buried someone. So did my family. There wasn’t a grave, but I’m still gone. And it needs to stay that way. When I came back, I decided that no one would ever hurt me again. I gave up everything—every one—in exchange for that.”

  Sydney frowned. “Was it worth it?”

  A long silence.

  And then June said, “Yes.” The sound of a coffee mug shifting on a table. “But hey, like I said, not all family is blood, right? Sometimes we have to find a new one. Sometimes we get lucky, and they find us.”

  Sydney looked down into her tea. “I’m really glad we met.”

  “Me too.”

  Neither spoke for a few minutes, the ambient noise of their respective diners collapsing the distance. June hummed softly, and Syd wished she were really there, sitting across the table.

  Sydney closed her eyes. “Hey, June?”

  “Yeah, Syd?”

  Her voice cracked. “I don’t know what to do.”

  “You could leave.”

  She’d thought about it. She was so tired of moving, of living out of a backpack, of chasing down lead after lead, only to find dead ends. Sick of watching Victor suffer, of knowing it was her fault. But that was exactly why she couldn’t go. Victor had killed Serena, yes, but Sydney was killing him. Over and over. She couldn’t abandon him. She wouldn’t abandon Mitch. They were her family. They were all that was left—they’d taken her in, given her hope.

  “Syd?”

  “I can’t.”

  “Well, then,” said June. Sydney heard coins drop on the table, June pushing back her seat. “I suggest you go home.”

  XVI

  ONE YEAR AGO

  EDGEFIELD

  IT was too hot for Halloween.

  They were in a college town somewhere down south, the air still sticky, the streets crowded with groups of teenagers heading to parties, and Sydney had decided to go out.

  She stood at the bedroom mirror, adjusted the dark brown bob, put on the darkest lipstick she could find, traced black lines around both eyes. But the older she tried to look, the more ridiculous she felt. Syd tore the wig off and slumped back onto the bed.

  She took up her phone, read the last few texts from June.

  June: So go out.

  Syd: I can’t.

  June: Says who?

  June: You’re 17.

  June: You can make your own decisions.

  June: They can’t stop you.

  Syd rolled to her feet, and began again.

  She’d gone into a costume shop the day before with Mitch, found a generic anime schoolgirl getup. If looking older wouldn’t work, maybe she could pass for someone trying to look young.

  Syd combed her blond hair, pulled on the pleated skirt, and adjusted the bow at her throat. She slipped the gun—these days, she never went anywhere without it—into a tiny backpack, then marched out into the apartment.

  Victor sat at the kitchen table, poring over profiles, Dol asleep at his feet. Mitch was on the couch, watching a college football game. He sat up when he saw her. “You dressed up.”

  “Yeah,” she said, starting toward the door. “I’m going out.”

  Mitch crossed his arms. “Not alone, you’re not.” He was already pulling the deck of cards from his back pocket. Anger whipped through Sydney at the sight of t
hem.

  “This isn’t a stupid game,” she said. “It’s my life.”

  “Sydney,” said Mitch, a new firmness in his voice.

  “Stop treating me like a child.”

  “Then stop acting like one,” said Victor without looking up.

  Mitch shook his head. “What’s gotten into you?”

  “Nothing,” she snapped. “I’m just sick of being cooped up.”

  “Let her go,” said Victor. “She’s giving me a headache.”

  Mitch rounded on him. “You’re not helping.”

  “She can take care of herself.” His eyes met hers. “Isn’t that right, Syd?” She bristled at the challenge in his voice. “Well,” he sneered. “What are you waiting for?”

  Sydney stormed out, slamming the door behind her. She made it down to the street before she stopped, folding onto the steps.

  What’s gotten into you?

  She didn’t know—but she knew that she couldn’t stand another minute in that apartment. That cell. That imitation of a life. It wasn’t just the heat, or the constant moving, or even having to watch Victor’s life force wane like a candle. Sydney just wanted one night of feeling normal. Human.

  A car flew past, a teen hanging out the window, smiling a rictus skeleton grin. Girls laughed as they stumbled by in too-short skirts and too-tall heels. Across the street, a group of guys in wolf masks threw their heads back and howled.

  Sydney got to her feet and made her way to the corner, where a dozen flyers had been tacked to a telephone pole, advertising parties at clubs and frat houses. Monsters Ball! said one. Scream Fest, promised another, the letters dripping blood. Heroes and Villains, announced a third. Underneath, in parentheses, the disclaimer: No Sidekicks.

  Sydney pulled the last flyer from the post and started walking.

  * * *

  SHE could hear the music from the street.

  The heavy bass poured through the open front door, where a guy in a cape was making out with a girl in a horned mask. The house beyond was filled with strobe lights, the staccato flashes paired to the music so the whole place looked like it was moving.

  It was the kind of party her sister would have been at. The kind of crowd she would have had wrapped around her finger. That was the thing about Serena. By the time she got her powers, she was already used to being in control. Serena didn’t bend to the world. She made the world bend to her.

 
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