“Oh, my God,” I murmured.
“Did you think your desire to see those files was all you?” he asked. “I put that need in you. I wanted you to see—to know—what they did to my sister.” He paused, and my temples started to pound. “Of course he scratched out everything about me. Couldn’t live with his greatest failure.”
“Get… out.” I struggled for air. My head felt like it would explode. His lips twitched, and the pressure eased off. “I can’t let him succeed. Not when he failed my sister. That’s the why of it, Ember.”
“Cromwell? But he didn’t have anything to do with the project!”
Theo barked a short laugh. “Cromwell lets you know what he wants you to know. It’s always a half-truth. That’s all he deals in. Cromwell was assigned to my sister at the Facility. He was responsible for her treatment—her Assimilation. He allowed my sister to die. Do you even know the kind of horrors they subjected her to?”
I tried to think quickly. I had a feeling I was running out of time, which wasn’t helping.
“They would make her touch things—living things, Ember. Animals. People. Do you know what that did to her?” he asked. “It slowly killed her. Day by day, they killed her. And Cromwell stood by. He allowed it to happen. So think of this as me doing you a favor.”
“You’re going to kill me so I don’t kill myself?” I pulled against the pipe again. “Do you know how insane that sounds?”
He stood slowly. “I gave you the coin so I could keep an eye on you. See what Cromwell was doing with you.”
I dragged in deep, musty air. “Why are you going to do this?”
“I’m going to kill you because Cromwell has always wanted a gifted who could bring death—one who could control it. Do you know what kind of power someone could wield with that? But he failed my sister. He’s not going to have you.”
Wincing, I continued to pull away from the pipe. “Cromwell will know this was you. He’ll figure it out.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Really? You think so? Cromwell was so wrapped up in my sister when we were at the Facility, he never looked twice at me. He didn’t even know about my gifts. Only the higher-ups knew what I could do, and it was kept secret. And we’ve passed each other several times. He’s never recognized me. Not once.”
I dragged in deep, heavy breaths. “You’re crazy.”
“Crazy?” he repeated. My eyes followed his movements. He was digging around for something. “Maybe I am. My sister was everything to me. Cromwell took everything. Now I’m going to take from him.”
I laughed, and it did sound a bit insane. “I don’t mean anything to him. He doesn’t even like me.”
“No. You mean a lot to Cromwell. You’d thank me if you knew what the future held for you.”
Something metal glinted in the light. Terror rolled through my stomach. “Then tell me! Tell me!”
Theo straightened and sent an amused glance over his shoulder. “Can I ask you a question?”
Panic clawed its way through me. “Sure. Ask away.”
“How does it feel to die?”
“Let me go and I can show you.”
He laughed at that, genuinely amused. “You’ve got spirit. I like that.” He came back to me, his hands behind his back.
“Wait. Wait!” I stalled. “If the accident was just an accident, what happened to my mom? She—she was wiped. Who did that to her?”
“Your mom? I don’t know. Does it matter? She already thinks you’re dead,” he said. “So are you going to answer my question?”
“Go to hell.”
Theo crouched beside me. “Are you afraid to die—to really die— this time? Because there’ll be no Olivia to bring you back.”
Nothing short of fear gripped me, because yes, I was afraid to die.
“Wait. I still—”
“Ah, I can tell you are. I’ve been debating how to do this. I could let you stay down here. Eventually you would slip away, either from hunger or the cold, but that seems unnecessary and cruel.” He shifted and moved his arms.
I saw it at once. It was the only thing I could see.
Theo held a gun in his right hand.
Instinct took over. I kicked out wildly. Instead of hitting his hand, my leg smashed into the side of his face. Startled, he recovered all too quickly. Rearing off the damp cement floor, he swung the gun around, pointed right in my face.
I didn’t want to die in this cold, hellish place. Not before I got to tell my mom and Olivia goodbye. Not before I told Hayden that I loved him—
His finger moved to the trigger, and I knew I was going to die, for real this time. “Nothing personal.”
“Please! Wait—” My voice cracked with panic. “Don’t do—”
A bright reddish, yellow spark blinded me, and I waited—waited for the inevitable feeling of metal tearing through flesh and bone.
Except the pain never came, and the screams tearing through the cellar weren’t mine.
Mr. Theo spun away from me, falling to the floor as flames engulfed the lower half of his body. Transfixed by the disturbing dance, I watched until he dove into a puddle large enough to extinguish the flames. He didn’t move after that.
Hayden stood at the bottom of the stairs. He looked rough—torn sweater, dark splotches staining the front. I think there was a hospital bracelet on his wrist. What looked like dried blood covered half of his face and his hair was matted to his forehead.
But he was, in that moment, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
He was at my side before I could even respond. His expression held a striking mix of terror, pain, and relief. Hayden grasped my face. I didn’t even care that it hurt. “Ember, oh God, Ember, please say something.”
I started to cry and blabber at once, telling him things I was sure he already figured it out while he shrugged out of his sweater and tried to tuck it around my shoulders. Beyond him, I saw Kurt in his cowboy duster poking at Theo with his booted foot.
“Holy shit,” Kurt muttered, shaking his head. “Isn’t he an English teacher at the high school?”
Hayden peered behind me and swore violently. “Kurt, get over here. Em, just hold on a little while longer and we’ll get you out of here.”
“How… how did you find me?” I asked, shivering uncontrollably.
“Parker traced you, with Phoebe’s help.” His breath felt exquisitely warm against my chilled skin—something I thought I’d never feel again. “When I woke in the hospital and found out you weren’t there—that you weren’t even at the accident—I knew something was wrong. I got ahold of the twins, who called Kurt. They picked me up and we started driving around until they could feel you.”
“Jesus,” Kurt muttered again. “These are metal. There is no way we’re going to get them off.” He slid out of the duster and dropped it over me. “Jesus. Ember, stop shaking. You’re ripping the skin off your wrists.”
“I… I c-can’t help it.”
“It’s okay.” Hayden tucked the edges of Kurt’s coat around me. He stroked my face and my forehead with quick brushes of his fingers. A strong shudder ran through me as he brushed back my hair. “Em, I need you to open your eyes and look at me.”
I didn’t realize I’d closed them.
“I need to melt the metal to get you free.” He paused, his eyes sharpened by a protective shine. “I need you to be perfectly still.”
Hayden glanced over at Kurt and nodded. “Make sure she doesn’t move.”
“You got it.” Kurt shifted closer and groaned. “Dammit—rats. I hate rats.”
“M-Me too, b-but I think they h-hate me more,” I said.
Kurt laughed, a real honest-to-God laugh. “Trust me, that’s a good thing.”
I rested my head against Hayden’s chest as he felt around behind me. His body heat felt marvelous, so much so that I ignored the first flare of intense heat, but then I felt pain. Real pain.
“Don’t move,” he whispered. “You helped us find you, did you know that?”
I flinched and squeezed my eyes shut. I should’ve thought about it more when he said he needed to melt the metal. The kind of heat needed to do that had to be ridiculous. My wrists felt like they had been shoved in an oven. Pressing my face into his chest, I whimpered.
“Em? Did you know?” he asked again, coaxing a response from me. “
“Yeah, you kept thinking about Mr. Theo and being in a basement. We wouldn’t have known to check down here if it hadn’t been for you. You did really good, Em.”
Searing, red-hot pain shot through my arms, but I managed not to move. Melting metal stung like holy hell. But it was working. The cuffs were already loosening.
“It’ll be just a little bit more, and we’ll be done.”
“She’s pretty messed up, Hayden,” Kurt said like I wasn’t right there. “You need to hurry up. Her leg is bleeding real bad.”
Probably due to my heart rate skyrocketing. Between the burning around my hands and everything that’d happened, I was pushed to my limits, but I needed to make sure that, if they failed, they wouldn’t take me to my sister. “P-Promise me, you won’t take me to Olivia. If t-this doesn’t work—”
“This will work,” Hayden said. “And if it doesn’t, I’m not losing you.”
“Y-You can’t use Olivia again. I-I won’t allow it.”
“Dammit, don’t argue with me about this!”
In that instant, I realized Hayden would risk anything—anyone—to make sure I lived. But I couldn’t expose her to this. Not again. The handcuffs melted enough that, with Hayden and Kurt’s combined efforts, they broke apart. My muscles screamed in protest, but I ignored them.
I grabbed Kurt’s hand, the raw flesh around my wrists bubbling. His mouth dropped open, a mixture of fear and disbelief crawling across his face. “Don’t let Olivia see me like this. D-Don’t let her touch me. Please.”
Kurt’s gaze bounced to Hayden, then back to me. “Okay. Okay.”
“Dammit, Kurt,” Hayden roared. “I won’t let her die!”
But Kurt was on his feet the moment I let go of him, digging in his pocket. “Jonathan has connections at the hospital, Hayden. He’s already on his way. I’ll call him.”
The heat of his anger poured off him. “If anything happens to her…”
“I know. You’ll kill me.” Kurt pulled out his cell and cursed. “I have to go upstairs. I’m not getting a signal.”
“I’ll get her. Just go.” Hayden turned back to me, already dismissing Kurt. His gaze traced every inch of me, enduring every cut, scrap, and bruise. His voice turned husky. “Em, I thought—I thought I’d lost you.”