Cursed - Page 41

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Once, twice, three times—that was how many times I read it before my brain accepted the words written there. “Oh, my God,” I whispered.

Hayden hadn’t been removed from his parents’ home because they’d been afraid of him, but I could understand the lie. The truth would hurt too much—provoke too many questions, too many memories.

He’d just been a kid—God, only five. Way too young.

And he’d killed his entire family.

Chapter 26

An old newspaper clipping, dulled to faint yellow, had been shoved between page two and three, detailing the horrifying events without a trace of the heavy emotion involved.

The house had burned. It’d started in an upstairs bedroom, spreading downstairs and engulfing the entire home. There had been only one survivor—Hayden.

I wiped under my eyes with the back of my hand and started to close the file. But toward the end of the page, I stopped. The times Hayden struggled for control flashed before me. The day Kurt had pushed me, and when I’d found the car in my locker and the trashcan had exploded. The times we’d argued and I smelled the distinct odor of smoke—like the smell of ozone burning—not fire. Had that been one of the reasons he’d backed off from me? Maybe it hadn’t just been my suspicions. Maybe he feared losing control again because of me, like both Parker and Kurt had warned me.

I swallowed past the lump in my throat and closed the file. Sorrow burned through me. I couldn’t even begin to understand what he’d gone through—was still going through. My heart felt like it would rip open. The guilt I carried with me over Dustin’s death was nothing compared to what he must feel.

After reading about Hayden, I didn’t care what Cromwell thought about me or the Assimilation program. If anything, it gave me more reason to figure out a way to control whatever it was I had. I’d always thought I had it bad—that what’d happened to me was the worst thing ever. Now I knew that wasn’t the case.

God, I felt like a douche.

Leaning forward, I put Hayden’s file back and started to close the drawer when I saw another file labeled only with initials: “J. G.” I pulled it out and flipped it open. There was a picture of a girl about my age, but the photo looked old and grainy.

Whoever she was, she’d been a pretty girl with long brown hair and glasses resting on the tip of her nose, but the photo also captured an intense, frightened look in her eyes. Now even more curious, I shuffled through the file, stopping on a paper with notes written in Cromwell’s hand. Most of it, like the chick’s full name and any info that would reveal her identity, had been blacked out like in the other file. There was still enough left for me to read, and what I learned shocked and confused the hell out of me.

Cromwell had really, really lied to me.

This girl had been a part of the Assimilation program, which had turned out to be a complete failure. She’d been unable to control her gift and had committed suicide at the Facility.

She’d only been sixteen, and she’d been able to kill with a touch.

I closed her file, hands shaking. I really didn’t know how to process that. Someone else had been gifted like me? She’d killed herself because she couldn’t control it? I started to put her file back, but a cluster of papers slipped out and fell into my lap.

Just like with Hayden’s file, I didn’t really believe what I saw at first. But then, like everything else, it sank in slowly. Dizziness and nausea rushed through me. I dropped the file.

Newspapers clippings about Dad and his work at the hospital before the accident, articles I couldn’t bear to read after he’d died. A schedule was attached to the clipping—my sophomore year class schedule. But that wasn’t all; there were directions to my house, to Dad’s hospital, and… Oh, my God.

Attached to the newspaper clippings was a menu to Salt of the Sea, the restaurant I’d insisted on the night of the accident. Scribbled on it were several dates—the last of them, the date of the accident, was circled. Realization crept over me like cold fingers tracing down my spine. The papers slipped from my fingers.

Static filled my ears. For several long minutes, I couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe as my world fell out from underneath me.

No, no, no.

The handwriting—all of the stuff written—looked like Hayden’s scribble. He’d been watching way before he’d admitted—he had written the schedule, the directions, the date of the accident. It hadn’t been just Kurt or Cromwell. It’d been the three of them, maybe all of them.

Time seemed to stop, and then I sprang forward and gathered up the papers. My breath came out in short, little gasps. I needed to get out of here—get Mom, find Olivia. The buzzing in my ears made it hard to think, but all I knew—

“What are you doing?”

I shrieked, jumping to my feet and spinning around.

Hayden stood in the entrance of the study. Little streams of rain dripped from his hair, traveling down the side of his face. The ends of his hair curled around his temples and cheeks.

“Ember?”

My heart pounded so fast I swore my shirt fluttered.

“What are you doing in my father’s office?” He took one step into the room, then another. “Why did you leave school?”

I eyed the door behind him and tried to nudge the drawer shut. It wouldn’t budge. “I… I’m not doing anything.”

“Call me crazy, but I don’t believe you.” His gaze dropped over me, then behind me. His eyes narrowed. “You went through my father’s files?”

“N—no,” I stammered.

His eyes flicked up and bore into mine. “You went through our files, didn’t you?”

I didn’t answer, because really, what could I say at that point? So I stepped to the side, gauging the distance between the door and Hayden. I doubted I’d get past him.

“I wish you hadn’t done that.” There was controlled anger in his face, but there was also disappointment.

I needed time. I needed to ignore the way my heart was cracking open. The way I wanted to sit down and cry, because none of that would help. “Why does he even have files on all of us? Is that something normal? Is that what people do?”

“Do people skip school to snoop through stuff that isn’t theirs?” The coldness in his voice shocked me. Nothing reminded me of the boy from last night, the one who’d held me and kissed me like he… loved me the way I loved him.

I stepped back.

“Ember, what’s behind your back?”

I shook my head. Hayden stepped forward and I made my move. I don’t even know why I tried. I made a leaping run for the door, but Hayden caught me by the waist and hauled me back. “Let go of me!”

Capturing my wrists, he backed me against the wall and pinned me there, our bodies flush. The papers—the evidence—fluttered to the floor once more. “Not until you hear me out.”

“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say!” I struggled not to let the tears fall, but they kept building and building. The sense of betrayal, the hurt, cut so deep I couldn’t breathe. “How could you?”

“Listen to me.” He pressed forward and dropped his head. “I could never hurt you. Don’t you understand that?”

I clamped my lips together and turned my head. He had hurt me. He’d ripped me apart.

“Em—”

“How could you?” I whispered. “How could you do that?” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “It was an accident, Em. I didn’t understand what was happening—”

I pushed off the wall, but he pushed back.

“Listen to me, Ember. I couldn’t hurt you. I can’t.” Hayden settled his eyes on me. They were softer than I’d ever seen. “I love you—I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you.” I froze. Only my chest moved as I dragged in heavy gulps of air.

“I’d convinced myself for the longest time that concern drove me to keep checking in on you. Each time I left Allentown, I told myself I wasn’t coming back. But I did. I couldn’t stay away. For two years I kept coming back. I had to make sure you were okay.” Hayden’s eyes drifted shut. “Dealing with your sister and your mom all alone, but you were so strong and so determined to make it. And the day—the day you went to the bank, I wanted so badly to talk to you—to hold you.”

My heart felt like it was breaking and swelling all at once. It left me reeling.

“I know— I know how crazy it sounds, but it’s like I came to know you. I knew you sketched when you were upset. I saw how much you loved your sister. How brave you were to keep going to that damn school. And all those times I watched you, I grew to know every one of your fake smiles. I never even heard you laugh. All I’ve ever wanted to do is help you, because maybe then, you’d smile once and really mean it.”

I shook my head, willing him to stop— just stop.

“I thought being around you would make it easier, but once I got to know you, really know you? I thought I’d loved you before.” He pressed his lips together, but he never looked away. Not once. “I had no clue. Everyone knows. My father wanted me to stay away from you, because he knew how I felt. And Kurt thinks my judgment is skewed—that I’ll lose control again.”

Had I misread the conversation I’d heard between Kurt and Liz? I’d assumed Kurt had been talking about Cromwell, but he only mentioned his name when I stopped listening. Did it matter?

“But I realized I’d never lose control, because of you—because I love you. That’s what I was trying to tell you last night, Ember. I love you.”

“Don’t,” I whispered, pleaded really. “Don’t tell me that.”

“But it’s true. It’s always been true.” His fingers flexed around my wrists, inching the sleeve down and exposing my skin.

“Hayden—”

“I’ve killed,” he said, his face constricting. “You have to know the truth, Em.”

I let out a sob. It had been him, always him.

“You can hate me forever, but it won’t change how I feel.”

His mouth came down on mine so hard, it stopped whatever I was about to say. This—this was so wrong, but when he released my wrists, I didn’t touch him like I should have. A speck of illogical trust flared alive in me. I grabbed a fistful of his wet sweater and pulled him to me.

Hayden made a low sound in his throat before his lips suddenly found mine again. His hands slipped to my hips, under my shirt. Desperately, the smart part in my brain screamed that this was wrong, but I pushed myself closer instead of away.

Then, when I thought I’d seriously lost my mind, his fingers brushed over the scar above my navel. It was a like a bucket of ice water thrown on me. I pushed—pushed hard.

“No—stop. I can’t do this.”

Hayden was breathing heavily. Although he didn’t look like he wanted to, he let go and stepped back. “Em—”

“Don’t. I can’t do this!” I screamed, surprised by how pathetic I sounded. “You can’t love me. Do you know how twisted this sounds?”


Tags: Jennifer L. Armentrout Fantasy
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