“That can’t be it, Ember. I don’t believe that.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, then.”
Hayden stared at me silently, and I grew uncomfortable again. The way he did that made me feel like he could see right through me.
“I can help you,” he said finally. “There isn’t any action out there in the world that doesn’t occur without a thought—a want or need behind it. If we can figure—”
“No.” I shook my head. “You were told not to do this.”
He sent me a sly grin. “I don’t always do what I’m told.”
“Neither do I, but it’s my ass on the line. Not yours. I heard Cromwell. He’d send me away.”
“We wouldn’t get caught, and he wouldn’t send you away. He was just saying that to make the others feel better.” He paused as he saw my doubtful look. “Look, it wouldn’t hurt anything. Don’t you want to be able to touch someone? Hold your sister’s hand?”
“It’s not going to work, Hayden. I’m not like you.”
He swung his legs around so he faced me. “So you rather not do anything? Just give up?”
“Why do you even care?”
“Do you want to be sent away?” he said, instead of answering my question. “Because there are some here who are hoping you do screw up.”
“But if you could control your touch, then no one has anything to worry about.” He shifted closer, his knees pressing against mine. My stomach went all fluttery. “I never thought I could control my gift, but I did. You won’t know until you try.”
“I don’t want to try and fail.” The words came out. I wanted to stop them, but couldn’t. “And I couldn’t deal with hope and then failure. You know? ‘Cuz that’s what’s going to happen.”
An array of emotions flickered over his face, his eyes swiftly turning from brown to black. He reached forward.
I scooted back. “Don’t.”
He stopped, one arm extended. The heat from his skin blew back at me.
“I don’t want your pity.”
“I don’t pity you, Ember. If anything, I admire you. Not many people our age could deal with what you’ve had to. You know, my dad has always thought that Olivia was the amazing one, the one who has this remarkable gift. But I’ve always thought it was you.” He stiffened and looked away. “So yeah, I don’t pity you.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks. Compliments nowadays were so few I had no idea how to act. Part of me warmed, and not in embarrassment. Hearing him say that didn’t make me feel like so much of a freak.
I shifted awkwardly, and finally, I said something really stupid. “I’m remarkable because I can kill people. So I’d say you’re obligated to say that. Or else.”
Hayden gave that lopsided smile. A dimple appeared in his right cheek. I wondered if the left cheek had one, too. “It’s not what you can do, Ember. It’s who you are.”
“But you don’t really know me. Yeah, you saw me a couple of times. Whatever. But you don’t know who I am. Or what I am. The whole dying thing took something from me, I think. And…”
“Nothing.” Shaking my head, I pushed back from the table. “I don’t know what I was saying. Just forget it.”
He looked like he wasn’t going to let it go. “Okay, but we are going to try.”
I hugged my elbows. “But—”
“You have no reason not to. We won’t get caught. You won’t hurt me. I can control it. I’m like your kryptonite.”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?”
I let out a breath. “Why are you doing this? Why do you want to help me?”
Hayden’s eyes locked with mine, and his had this weird, magnetic pull to them. “I’m doing it because I want to.”
Some nasty-looking, dark circles had formed under my eyes—being held prisoner like this chased away any chance of sleep and left my thoughts in tangles. My eyes still felt swollen, and I was sure I had a zit the size of Canada on my forehead.
And I had to go to school—a new school.
Listing the ways my life currently sucked butt made me late. By the time I got downstairs, Ms. Liz had already taken Olivia to her new school.
Taking Olivia to school was my job—my responsibility. How dare she think she could take Olivia to school? To top off what was sure to be a wonderful day, Cromwell informed me I’d only have the keys to my car once I’d earned his trust back. His trust? Like I was the creeptastic person who whipped kids off the street and collected them like figurines?
What about my trust in him?
Give me the keys to one of the Porsches in the garage and I’d trust the hell out of him. Until then, he was more likely to have me call him “Dad” than trust him.
So there I stood on the porch—with my new backpack, wearing my new jeans and gloves and an old button-down sweater—waiting for my babysitter.
Hayden. Of course.
I jumped at the sound of his voice. Turning around, I saw that he stood right behind me. I hadn’t heard him come out of the house; he was that quiet.
He chuckled as he moved past me. “Come on. Even though we won’t get any tardy slips, I guess you shouldn’t be late on your first day.”
There went my pretty pink collage for Olivia.
Groaning, I followed Hayden back to the garage. He opened the door of the Infiniti SUV and motioned me in.
I mumbled something halfway coherent and climbed into the car. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gabe and Phoebe jump into one of the Porsches. Gabe yelled something that earned a laugh from Hayden. Phoebe’s eyes lingered a few seconds too long on Hayden as he made his way around the front of the car.
“Where’s Parker?” I asked, curious.
“He’s homeschooled.” He backed out of the garage.
The way he said it left no room for questions, but I went there. “Why not?”
“It’s too hard on him.” He went on before I could push for more information. “You look tired.”
My pale reflection stared back at me in the side mirror. The pale blue of my eyes looked even more watered-down than normal. I sank down in the seat and faced forward.
“Have you’ve been sleeping okay?”
I nodded. The ride into town was one giant fail boat. Hayden tried to make small talk, but I ignored him and focused on my surroundings. Petersburg was the kind of town people missed if they sneezed. I spotted a McDonald’s, a couple of pizza shops, several strip malls, and little else on the way to school. After I got over my self-imposed bitterness, I could admit the town had a cute look about it.
I broke the silence. “How did you guys end up here?”
“My father is originally from here, but I’m from Montana. He wanted to come back home and he gave me an option to come with him. I’m glad I did.” He stopped as if he’d said too much. “I’m into hiking. The Seneca Rocks are a big thing around here. They’re the mountains you can see from the house.”
I shuddered. “I hate heights.”
“I guess rock climbing is out of the question, then.” He slid me a sly glance.
I ignored that. “What about the other kids?”
“Over the years Cromwell kinda found them.”
“What? He found them? Like he found Olivia and me?”
Hayden frowned. “Yeah, just like he found you and Olivia.”
“What about their parents?”
“They didn’t want them, Ember. If they had, Cromwell wouldn’t have taken them.”
“So none of your parents wanted to keep any of you? All of you are adopted by him?” I paused and pictured parents throwing their kids out by the handful. To me, something wasn’t right about that. “That sucks.”
Hayden gave a low laugh. “When you say it like that, then I guess it does suck, but yeah, we’ve all been adopted by Cromwell.”
“What can they do? I know what Gabe can do, but what about Phoebe and Parker?”
He nodded, his fingers tapped along the steering wheel. “Phoebe is an empath—she can sense emotions and sometimes control them. Parker is a telepath.”
I scrunched up my nose. “He can… read people’s thoughts?”
“When Cromwell first brought them home, Parker was a mess. Didn’t talk to anyone and screamed when anyone came near him. He couldn’t control it. Can you imagine always hearing people’s thoughts? Never being able to shut it out?”
“No,” I turned back to the window. “So that’s why he doesn’t go to school?”
There was a pause. “There are just too many people—classrooms so small and people crowding him. Liz is doing the whole homeschooling thing.”
“And Cromwell is helping him control it? Like he doesn’t do it all the time?”
“Yup. Parker still doesn’t talk much, but he can block most of the chatter out as long as he’s not around a lot of crowds.”
I let out a heavy sigh. Cromwell was just super. “What is he anyway? What can Cromwell do? Walk through walls? Fly? Leap tall buildings?”
“We aren’t superheroes, Ember.”
“Then what is the point of gathering all of us together? What does Cromwell want?”
“He just wants to help us.” A thoughtful look crossed his face as he concentrated on the road. “You’re having a hard time believing that, aren’t you?”
“Obviously,” I said.
“Cromwell has psionic ability,” Hayden said as the SUV slowed.
“What’s that?” My eyes grew wide as the school came into view. The one-story, brick building was surprisingly large for such a small town and looked newly built.
He was quiet for a moment. “It’s the ability to make someone… believe what you want them to, among other things.”
I twisted in my seat, facing him. “Are you kidding me?”
Hayden parked and cut the engine. “He doesn’t use it, Ember. Not on us. If you doubt that, then ask yourself why you are having such a hard time accepting him. He could have easily changed that.”
I admitted he had a point, but my stomach tipped over when Hayden opened the door. Cromwell was no longer my concern. School was.
Hayden dropped a crumpled paper in my hand. “I forgot. It’s your class schedule.”
I took it from him and looked over the schedule. It mirrored the one I’d had in Allentown. I clutched it to my chest and followed Hayden across the campus. Out of habit, I kept my eyes glued to the ground.
“You don’t have to do that here,” he said softly.
Flushing to what I was sure was an attractive shade of purple, I peeked at him through my lashes.
His eyes met mine. “You’re going to do fine, Ember. I don’t think you’re going to run around and start throwing people into chokeholds.”
Unable to help myself, I laughed at the mental image. “No. I guess not.”