I pushed away from the wall. I didn’t reach for him, even though I wanted to. God knew what other superpowers he had hidden in this house. “You can’t be serious. This can’t be legal. There have to be laws against this.”
“This isn’t against any law,” he replied calmly. “Your mother is here with you and Olivia. We did not remove you from her guardianship. And need I remind you that you have already broken the law by not reporting what happened to that boy?”
I ignored that. “Like my mom can even make those kinds of decisions.” My self-control cracked and shattered. “I don’t even understand why you’re doing this!”
“I’m doing this to help your sister, Ember. To help you.”
“How is this helping me?”
His hands dropped to his sides. “You’re seventeen and playing mom to a child. Who, by the way, deserves a life far better than what you can provide for her.”
Ouch. That stung all the way to my core, mainly because he was totally right.
“You’re a guest in my home,” he continued. “As are your mother and sister. But if you think of leaving, or if you harm anyone, I can no longer consider you a guest.”
My heart skipped a beat as I stared at him. “Are you threatening me?”
“I’m just telling you how it will be. The others are already wary of you being here. Don’t do anything to add to that.”
“Why did you even bring me here?” I yelled. “Because really, you don’t sound like you want me here.”
“Because your sister is gifted, and I have no desire to split her from you. I’m doing you a huge favor. There are places you could go to, Ember. Places—”
“You don’t have the right to do this!”
Mr. Cromwell slammed the palms of his hands on the edge of the table. He spoke through clenched teeth, and, like a mask slipping from his face, coldness filled his expression. “I have all the right, Ember. This is my town.”
Everything stopped as I stared at him.
“We have only your best intentions in mind. Nothing can be changed now.” Another perfect smile graced his lips. “We have already taken all the necessary steps to ensure your transition will be as smooth as possible. You will have the weekend to adjust and on Monday, you will start school.”
Just like that, I lost control of my life. Bile rose into the back of my throat.
“I expect that you understand I’m placing a lot of trust in you. Do not make me regret it. Even though I have no wish to separate you from your sister, if you give me reason to, I will.” He stood. “You’re excused.”
Upstairs, I struggled to gain control over the heady mess of emotions I was feeling. I wanted to cry and scream. I wanted—I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I stopped in front of the desk. My outdated, beat-up cell phone was plugged in next to the shiny laptop. I made a move for the phone, and stopped short. A brand-new set of charcoal pencils lay on top of my sketchpad, next to the phone. I cringed at the idea that someone had looked through it. My drawings were, well, private. No one would understand the dark twist everything took on when I sketched.
I guessed dying kind of warped my artistic flavor.
Unwillingly, my gaze fell back to my phone. I wanted to call Adam, but what would I tell him? I had no idea. So I took a shower, a really long, scalding hot shower. I washed my hair twice. Even after I’d scrubbed myself raw and ruddy-colored, I still had no idea what to tell Adam—or what to do.
Wrapped in a fluffy red robe that clashed horribly with my hair, I stood in front of the closet. Cautiously, I opened the doors… and then stared in open wonder while the girl in me squealed.
Mingled in with my old clothes were various shirts, dresses, jeans, and sweaters that I could never have afforded in a million and two years. Shoes and boots filled the closet floor, next to what appeared to be a new backpack—one that wasn’t as dirty and ragged as the one Dad had gotten me before the accident. I searched for it, but the one thing tying me to Dad was gone.
Feeling numb, I grabbed a pair of sweats and a bulky sweater. After changing, I picked up my phone, the sketchpad, and a new pencil. As I opened the balcony door, the breezy perfume of pine and earthy rich soil filled me. I took a deep breath and shivered. It was cooler, much cooler, than the last time I’d been outside.
Paying no attention to how the air attached itself to my wet curls, I took in my surroundings. The balcony appeared to wrap around the side of the house, but I wasn’t brave enough to explore where it led. I approached the railing and looked over. A strong sense of vertigo pushed me back from the railing. I hated heights, absolutely despised anything taller than me.
I planted myself against the wall before I looked around again. Trees and, well, more trees surrounded the house. Some were ancient-looking pines, and others looked like oak and maple, but I could never tell the difference between them. It wasn’t the trees that caused my grip to loosen around the phone, however. Rising up into the sky like a jagged set of uneven fingers was a mountain the color of sand and granite. The sheer size of the thing cast deep and unforgiving shadows over most of the thick forest, turning the woods into something desolate and intimidating. I could easily imagine people going in there and never being seen again—getting lost and then eaten by a bear or something.
I swallowed down panic and flipped open the cell. Several missed calls and voicemails greeted me. I dialed Adam’s number.
He answered on the second ring. “Ember! Where in the hell are you? What happened to you? I’ve called you a million times. Hey! Are you there?”
“Yeah,” I croaked out. “I’m here.”
A sigh of relief was audible. “Damn, Em, where are you? You disappeared from school on Wednesday—Wednesday, Em. Without so much as a heads-up. And I haven’t seen you since.”
“Sorry?” He paused, and I could picture him staring at the phone dumbfounded. “Em, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
The words just tumbled out. “No. I’m not okay.”
“What do you mean? Em, what is going on?”
“I’m in this place, Adam. With these people I don’t know, and I don’t know what to do.”
There was a stretch of silence. “Em, have you’ve been kidnapped or something?”
I started to laugh, because it sounded ridiculous, but what came out sounded more like a sob. Then I was crying, the kind of deep sobs that stole my breath and hurt. I never cried, not like this and not in front of Adam.
“Em, tell me where you are. I’m going to the call the police,” he said in rush. “Just tell me where you are.”
“You can’t call the police. You don’t understand, Adam,” I said, running my hand over my face. “You never knew. I never told you.”
“Knew what? You’re not making sense. Are you in danger?”
“I don’t know. Yes. No. Probably. But you can’t call the police, Adam. You have to promise me.”
There was another long gap of silence. “Okay. I won’t call the police. Where are you?”
“Um, in some place called the Dark Forest.”
I laughed weakly. “It’s a town called Petersburg. I’m in West Virginia, Adam—West ‘by God’ Virginia.”
“What?” he shouted.
“You know the place where that movie about the incest hillbillies was filmed? Remember, they like ate people or something. You said the one guy with the gross hands reminded you of our gym teacher?” I took a deep breath. It caught in my throat.
“Em? Are you still there?”
“What’s going on, Em? I went to your house. Everything is gone. The place is empty.”
Everything was in that house. The paperwork to the bank accounts. Pictures of Dad, of us together, before the accident were all there.
“Everything is gone?” I whispered.
“It’s like no one lived there. Ever,” he said. “It was the freakiest thing I’d ever seen.”
Cromwell hadn’t been joking when he said everything had been taken care of. Even if I did find a way to go back, there was nothing to go back to. No way to buy food, to pay for stuff, to do anything. How could I take care of Olivia or my mom now? My legs felt weak. I slumped down on the balcony floor and pressed my forehead against my bent knees.
I was trapped.
“Em? You still there?”
“It’s my mom,” I said finally, choosing the one lie I had always relied on. “She’s worse. I’m with friends of the family.” He didn’t respond. The silence stretched out for so long I thought he had hung up the phone.
“Adam, are you there?”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “How long are you staying there?”
“I don’t know. I may be here for a while.”
“You’re joking,” he said. “Right? Because people just don’t up and leave without any sort of warning.”
A sudden tightness clamped down my chest. “Adam, I’m not joking.”
“I don’t understand.” His voice sounded strained, choked.
The vise-grip spread to my throat and my eyes started to burn again. “I have to stay here for a while, Adam. I don’t want to, but I have to.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Ember.” He took an audible breath, and I could hear him moving around. Probably in his room—he was always in his bedroom. “What friends of the family? Whose house are you staying at?”
“Jonathan Cromwell,” I told him.
“I’ve never heard you mention them before.”
I closed my eyes and clutched the sketchpad to my chest. “Yeah, I know. Adam, please don’t worry. Everything is okay.”
“You don’t sound okay, Em.”
“Really, I am. It’s just been a… rough couple of days. I’m sorry I freaked you out and I haven’t had a chance to call. Look, I need to get off here. I’ll call you soon.”
“Ember, don’t hang up!” he yelled. “Something isn’t right. You don’t sound right.”
I shook my head, sending damp strands of hair against my cheeks. “I’ve got to go. I’ll call you later. I promise. Okay?” I stopped abruptly, having to take a moment. “Just don’t worry. I’m okay. Everything is okay.”
“Ember—don’t hang up the phone. Please! Just tell—”
I snapped the phone shut, and after a few seconds, I turned it off. I knew Adam would call, and if he did, I would answer. Then I would break and tell him I’d been kidnapped by the neighborhood Friendly Freak Association. I had a feeling that wouldn’t end well—not for me, my mom, or Olivia.
What would happen if I made a run for it? I couldn’t leave Olivia here, but what would I be taking her to? There was nothing out there for us now. Staying here meant I’d have to trust Cromwell. Could I trust a stranger? But I knew the answer. I’d do anything for Olivia.