“We can talk in the kitchen,” he said. “I’m sure you must be hungry.”
Before I could pull myself away from the room, I heard Olivia speak. “Mommy?”
I stopped. My heart fluttered in my chest. I just wanted to hear her voice, that’s all. Then: “Yes, baby?”
“Why don’t you talk to Emmie? It makes her sad.”
There was a moment of silence. “Baby,” Mom said softly, “I can’t talk to her. Ember’s in heaven with Daddy.”
* * *
We sat in the type of kitchen my mom would’ve given her firstborn child to have before she had lost her mind.
“Your mother is very ill, Ember. Possibly one day her memories will resurface.” Cromwell frowned. “It must be hard for you to have your own mother believe that you’re dead.”
I rolled a can of soda between my palms. It felt weird to be around people and not have my gloves on. Untouched plates of cold cuts and cookies sat between us.
“How have you managed to take care of her and your sister? You were only fifteen at the time of the accident.”
My irritation level rose, as did my suspicions. “How do you know about the accident?”
Cromwell smiled. “We know a lot of things, Ember.”
My appetite dried and shriveled up. “How do you know so much? Why am I here? And where is here, anyway?”
His blue eyes seemed to shine in the bright kitchen. “You’re in Petersburg, West Virginia.”
A hysterical laugh bubbled up and broke free. “Where? I’ve never even heard of Peterstown or whatever.”
“Petersburg,” he corrected. “Not many outside of this state would. We are at the base of Seneca Rocks.”
I stared blankly. Was I supposed to know what that meant?
His expression was one of parental patience, but it was off somehow—wrong even. “You’re remarkably calm.”
“Oh, trust me. I’m freaking out inside.” I glanced up and met his eyes.
“Maybe I should start at the beginning.” He leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms. “I think that would help you understand there is nothing to fear.”
I seriously doubted that.
“There are two kinds of people in this world, Ember. There are ones who are mundane, ordinary. Those people are like outsiders to us.”
“To us?” I said, wanting to laugh again.
The patient look didn’t fade. “Yes. You’re different. Just like your sister.”
Lying was like second nature. I didn’t even think about it. “There’s nothing different about Olivia.”
“Ember, you and I both know better than that. Like I said, there are two kinds of people in this world: outsiders and the gifted. You and your sister are far from normal.” Mr. Cromwell leaned forward and rested his hands on the table. “Look at what happened to that boy. He died from simply touching you.”
Ice coated my insides. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. A rush of cold air went down my spine.
“It was an accident. I understand that,” Cromwell said gently. “But it’s a shame for someone so young to perish.”
Tears clogged my throat and burned my eyes. “I didn’t mean to… to kill him.”
“What happened to his… body?”
“It’s been taken care of.”
“But this isn’t right.” I squeezed the can so hard the sides dented, spilling soda over my fingers. “I need to turn myself in. I should be punished or something. I need to be pun—”
“What has been done is done. And I cannot allow you to turn yourself in.” He leaned back, folding his arms. “Your… touch would expose all who are gifted. We cannot risk that.”
I stared at him, reeling. This man knew I was capable of killing—had killed—and he was more worried about me exposing people than what I could do to him? He was insane. I was insane for sitting here, listening to him.
“No one will ever find out about the unfortunate accident. Everything that has happened is in the past now. You’re safe here.”
“No. That man… the one in the cowboy hat wanted to hurt me.”
Cromwell clucked his tongue. “Kurt meant you no harm. He can be rough around the edges, but he’s a good man. I trust him with my life and that of my son.”
The urge to laugh came again. “So he’s not dead?”
“No. You gave him a good knock on the head, but he survived.”
I guessed I should feel good about that.
“Ember, I want to help your family. Your sister has gifts that need to be controlled, but we have to be honest with each other and not play games.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’m not playing games. I don’t even know who you are. You kidnapped us.”
“You also tried to kill Kurt and my son,” he replied bluntly.
“Your son? Hayden? He was stalking me! And he hurt me! His touch or whatever did something to me.”
“Hayden is unique. His touch drains the power of others, if he wills it. Such a remarkable boy. But even as gifted as he is, your touch would’ve still affected him if he hadn’t used his gift.”
I rubbed my forehead. None of this made any sense to me. I needed to be plotting a way to escape from this lunatic.
Cromwell rested his elbow on the table and cupped his chin. “We have been tracking you and Olivia for two years.”
I choked. “What?”
“To be able to bring back the dead… Then you? There was nothing about you which indicated your gift until Olivia brought you back.”
The whitewashed walls seemed to spin around me again.
Cromwell sighed. “Ember, when someone dies, they don’t come back the same. You know this, don’t you? Some would say it’s unnatural. Wrong.”
I started to stand, but sat back down. My heart was thundering in my chest. Unnatural. Wrong. Those words cut through me like a hot knife.
“I don’t mean to be so blunt, Ember. But you must know what you can do is only a product of your death, and of your sister’s natural gift. You brought something back with you—an ability even rarer than your sister’s.”
“I’m not bad—I’m not evil,” I blurted out. But then it hit me.
Maybe I was. Good people didn’t kill.
He smiled evenly, but something about it made me shudder. “I know, my dear. But what happened was inevitable. It could’ve been Olivia or a boy who got too close to you. Your friend, for example—what’s his name? Ah, yes. Adam. It was bound to happen. Truth be told, I should have intervened long before this. The incident could’ve been prevented.”
I was confused and scared, really freaking scared. This man knew about everything, even Adam. And what he’d said was true. It could have been Olivia or Adam.
“There are other people here like your sister. Others who are gifted in a way the world could only fantasize about. Here,” he said, “she is not alone.”
I sank a hand into my curls and pulled them off my face. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.”
“I know. Things are terribly confusing for you,” he said. “You’re worried about Olivia, about your mother. Why a strange man would bring you into his home.”
I laughed then. It sounded a bit rough. “No, really?”
“But you don’t have anything to worry about anymore. We’ll take care of your sister. And we’ll try to take care of you.”
I looked up, trying to sound braver than I felt. “Do you even understand how creeptastic this sounds? You’re a complete stranger to me. You keep talking about gifts and stuff that makes no sense.”
“I can help your sister, Ember. Her gift of giving life and healing needs cultivation. And she needs to be around others like her—others who will understand.” Cromwell drew in a deep breath, and his eyes met mine. “Then there is you, and frankly, I’m not sure what to do with you.”
Tiny hairs on my neck stood up. “What do you mean?”
“When I was Olivia’s age, I had no one looking out for me. I’ve made it my life’s mission to make sure no other gifted children face what I did.” A dark look stole away the warmth in his eyes. “Both you and your sister are valuable for different reasons. There are people out there who would seek to manipulate what your sister can do, and abuse what you can do. I intend to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Really?” I glanced around the kitchen for an exit. “That really didn’t answer my question.”
“Your sister belongs here, Ember. For that reason alone, I am willing to take a risk on you.”
There were a lot of doors—escape routes—in the room, and Olivia was upstairs, but I was a weapon of mass destruction. I could take the weirdo. “Is that so?”
“This is your new home,” he said like it explained everything, like he wasn’t a delusional, kidnapping freak holding my family prisoner.
“Huh?” I looked at him.
“You will be staying here from now on.”
Needing no other reason than that, I shot across the table. The edge of the oak table cut into my stomach for a nanosecond, and then I was flying backward. My sneakers skidded across the floor. A second later, an unseen force pinned me against the wall.
Cromwell’s expression didn’t change, but he sighed. “That’s enough, Gabriel. Let her go.”
I hadn’t even noticed someone else was in the kitchen. He stood in the archway—a boy about my age, maybe a year younger, with a head full of blond curls and the prettiest face I’d ever seen on a guy. He had his hand raised in front of him; a look of concentration wrinkled his brow.
“Gabriel,” Cromwell said again. “Let her go.” Gabriel looked like he’d rather toss me through the air some more, but he lowered his hand.
I slid down the wall, stumbling to the side.
“She was going to touch you,” he said, his voice surprisingly deep. “This was a mistake.”
Cromwell pushed away from the table and stood. He turned to the boy. “Gabe, is there something you need?”
Gabe finally pulled his eyes off me. “Where’s Hayden? He didn’t wait around after class. I figured he came right home, like he has every day since you brought her into the house.”
“He’s not in the kitchen, now, is he?”
Gabriel narrowed his eyes at me.
“It’s okay. Go. If you happen to find my son, please tell him I need to speak with him.”
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “All right, but if she kills you, I warned you.” With that, he turned and left the kitchen.
“Oh. My. God,” I whispered, heart racing.
“Gabriel is one of my children. There are several kids here your age. They’re a bit concerned, but don’t think they cannot protect themselves.”
I frowned. “I don’t run around touching people for the fun of it.”
He smiled tightly. “I know this is a lot for you to take in, but I will not tolerate you attacking anyone. Do you understand me?”