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“You must take her quickly and go.”
Agni’s bending over us, his face real bleak and his mustache and hands spotted with something disturbingly wet and brownish.
“We can’t risk the possibility that there are more takers nearby or that someone heard any of this. I will clean up here.”
“And then?” Dylan asks.
“I will catch up to you.”
Dylan pulls away from me, looks me in the face.
“Can you walk?”
I’m not sure that I can. My tears are gone but I’m real numb all over. I nod anyway.
Dylan’s not convinced. He unslings his bow and quiver of arrows and hands them to me.
“Put these over your shoulder. You’re just going to have to hang on this time.”
When he pulls me by my arms up onto his back, I wrap myself real tight around him.
“The bags?” he says to Agni.
“I’ll get them.”
“See you soon, then.”
When Dylan takes off sailing, there’s no danger of my falling asleep this time even though I wish I could. I’ve got too much in my head that I’d really rather wasn’t in there. The image of the life falling from that man’s face, the silence after the girl stopped breathing.
Being there for their last moments, I can’t make myself believe they deserved it even though they definitely meant me harm. Seeing death in movies is no kind of preparation for what it’s really like. I wish I could talk to Mom right now, feel her warm arms around me and just forget everything, but I’m stuck here clinging to Dylan’s back with nothing to do but think over all of it again and again.
I have to keep re-adjusting my grip around Dylan’s neck. The wind that’s rushing against us is pushing bitter cold into my face now and even inside my gloves my fingers are numb. My arms are hurting, I feel empty inside, and my head’s gone all swimmy again. I’m weary to my bones, heavy as stone, but I’m real aware that we need to keep moving. I want to get as much distance between us and those bodies as we can, so I’m trying my best not to let on that anything’s wrong.
Seems like we’ve been going for hours when I kind of lose consciousness for a second and have to snap my hands back together to stop myself from falling off.
Dylan grabs at my hands too—holds them there, tight against his chest—and his fingers are soft and warm on the skin of my wrists.
“You’re frozen,” he says with this note of guilt in his voice. “I was too focused on speed and forgot you can’t fight the cold.”
Then heat like a warm breeze starts to seep from his hands over my whole body.
“We can stop soon. Do you think you can hold on a bit longer?
“Mm,” I say in a sort of affirmation, but the warmer my body gets the drowsier my eyes become. My head’s already slumping down against his back and neck. With a real effort I manage to stay coherent for the next few minutes, but then before I can even feel it’s happening my gloved fingers just slip away from each other—slip out of Dylan’s grip—and I’m falling backward.
On reflex Dylan’s hands swing down to my legs and his momentum forward falters. Then he’s stopping completely and spinning around and grabbing at my flailing arms.
He’s quick to catch me, but by the time he does I’m already so far downward that it throws us both off balance and he’s falling right along with me. I feel this puff of air balloon up beneath us, which I figure is Dylan’s doing. It’s not enough to completely break our fall, though, and when his body hits against mine the pillow of air bursts and we smack into the snow with a thud.
White powder ruptures around us like a firework. The quiver and arrows crumple beneath me, but what really hurts is the simultaneous impact as my body absorbs the force of the earth from one direction and Dylan from the other.
He’s off of me in an instant, but I still can’t breathe.
“Nefsakes,” he says as he bends over me all worried. “Nefsakes, are you broken?”
I’ve got no air to speak so I just stare at him with my mouth gaping fish-like, waiting for my lungs to fill again while his hands are running all over me, checking for anything damaged.
“Calon tân, can you speak to me? Zanny?”
Maybe it’s just a relief not to be thinking about death for a minute, but this is when it all gets to seeming pretty funny to me. Dropping off him without warning like I did, the two of us scrambling at each other mid-air. Him flattening me.
The laughter comes out in these real wheezy gasps at first and Dylan obviously doesn’t understand what’s happening.
“Calon tân,” he breathes again, “Show me where you’re hurting.”
Finally my air starts coming back and my laughter starts sounding like what it really is, but Dylan looks even more perplexed by this. He sits back on his haunches and stares at me for a minute, and then a smile starts to pull at the corners of his lips and his face slides into a wry, lopsided sort of grin. He lets out this sigh of relief, and then another, and slowly he starts laughing too.
Flopping onto his back in the snow next to me, he flings out his arms like a snow angel and lets his laughter grow deeper and free, as if he hasn’t laughed like this in a long time, like he loves the feel of it in his chest. When he turns his head to look over at me, the smile on his face is so wide and contagious that I start laughing even harder myself.
“Shh,” he says through his own laughter, rolling up onto his side and clapping one hand over my mouth. “Shh.”
But this just makes the moment even funnier, and he knows it. So he gives up and rolls back into the snow, and the two of us lie there with our heads together and laugh like total idiots until we’ve used up all the humor and we just drift off into a friendly sort of silence.
The problem with silence, though, is it gives you time to think, and today there aren’t too many pleasant things to think about.
“What’s a gindge?” I ask, turning up onto my side now so that I can look at him.
My question has an immediate effect. His expression goes real sour and he asks, “Did those takers call you that?”
I nod a little bit, and he looks away, taking in this real long, tense breath.
“It’s an ugly term for a body once the essence and the shadow have left it. It’s a detestable word used only by detestable people.”
“What are the words that you use? The ones that sound like nev-sakes and cah-lone tahn?”
He almost smiles again and glances at me.
“It’s Painter slang, minor expletives. The first one’s a mash of Welsh and English. We do that sort of thing a lot. Usually you use your own language with a more common one. Nef comes from the Welsh word for heaven and sakes is just sakes. In English. Calon tân is Welsh too. Translates roughly to ‘heart of fire’ or ‘fiery heart.’”
I think of that warmth in my chest when I knew to trust Agni and Dylan and when I decided to follow them and leave my mom. I wonder where Agni is now.
“There’re going to be more, aren’t there?”
Dylan slides his eyes over to me again. “Hm?”
“People that are going to die because of me.”
Turning toward me completely now, he props himself up on his elbow so he can look me full in the face.
“Those two did not die because of you.”
“Yeah, but they did, though, really.” I try not to sound petty about it. “I’m sorry, by the way.”
He just raises his eyebrows, questioning, and I pick at my sleeve a little bit, suddenly not real sure how to proceed.
“I’m sorry that you…had to do that.”
Kind of sighing and dropping his head back, he scratches at the hair peeping out of the front of his hat and even in a moment like this I can’t help noticing how cute he is.
“It’s not the first time I’ve had to do it,” he says without any bravado. “It won’t be the last. Those people are starting a war with us. Whether it’s to protect you or to protect someone else, we’ll have to do harm. You’re meant to save lives, and that’s what you will do. If you’re going to make it through all this without going crazy, you’re gonna have to focus on the lives saved instead of the ones lost.”
At the moment I don’t feel like the sort of person who saves lives. I don’t know what that’s like. Right now all I know is the death part. I don’t say that, though.
“How far until we reach Daxa?”
“A day, maybe.”
It’s hard to know whether to be excited or anxious about it. On the one hand it means a little bit of rest maybe, but it also means more change. It means a brand new life, a brand new me. It means being this Way Reader person becomes even more of a reality.
“We can’t keep lying here,” Dylan says, getting to his feet. “The day’s almost over. Let’s make camp.”
He helps me stand up, looks down at the pieces of sticks that used to be arrows and gets his dry little smile on his face.
After he’s cleaned up all the traces of us left in the snow, we head into the trees to find a good place to stay for the night, Dylan erasing our tracks as we go. Even though that awful buzziness seems to be gone for good, I start to get all trembly and weak again, and Dylan has to grab my hand and help me along until we find a workable little clearing.
He makes me sit down while he builds another lean-to and prepares dinner, saying, “You haven’t eaten all day and you emptied your stomach pretty thoroughly this morning. I should’ve thought about food earlier.”
He sets up another sort of invisible barrier right around our lean-to “to keep the heat in,” and with that and some good food in me I do feel a lot better.
Dylan must not think so, though, because he studies my face and says, “You’re tired. You better sleep while you can.”
Any other day this’d probably be a pretty appealing suggestion but right now, sitting all cozy with Dylan in our bubble of warm air, the last thing I wanna do is close my eyes and invite the nightmares again.
When I start to protest Dylan says, “I’m not sure when we’ll have to be on our way again.”
“What about Agni?”
“He’ll find us. I’ve left clues for him along the way.”
He grabs a bunch of pine needles from the foot of some of the nearest trees and throws them in a pile near the lean-to.
“We don’t have our supplies so I’m going to have to make do.”
He holds his hands over the pine needles and they start to shimmy and jiggle against each other in this cartoon-like sort of dance, changing shape and melding together until they transform completely into a brown little pillow that looks inviting enough even if it is real plain.
He makes another of these and then two big wool blankets. With a signal from him I move out of the way so he can throw one of the blankets across the floor of the lean-to and then the pillows on top of that.
“Do you mind if we share?” he asks, holding the second blanket. “I’m too tired to make more of these and we’ll stay warmer that way.”
He does look like he’s about ready to collapse.
“Choose your side,” he says, and I crawl onto the blanket, asking him, “How does painting work exactly? I mean, if even normal people—sorry, Particle-Blinds—have an essence, what makes you—us—different from them?”
Throwing the second blanket over my legs and crawling in next to me, he says, “We’ve got another set of nerves in our nervous systems, and an additional component to our brains. That bit’s called the essensus, and you’ve probably already felt it prickling back here.”
He waves his hand toward the back of his head.
He’s leaning across me now and pulling at the blanket to give more leeway on my side, and I don’t even think about it before touching his neck at the point that he’s indicating—the same spot where I keep feeling that weird tickle myself.
As soon as I touch him, though, there’s this flash of energy that passes between our skin, through my hand and right up my arm to my chest like an electric shock. It’s a surprise to me, but it’s Dylan that’s jerking away so fast you’d think I’d tried to stab him to death. The look on his face—all dismayed and violated—makes me feel immediately and totally imbecilic even if I’ve got no clue what it is I’ve actually done.
“I’m sorry,” he says, recovering quickly. “You caught me off guard. For Painters, touching someone there is very…intimate.”
My face flares as hot as a furnace. “I didn’t know.”
He waves it away, lying back and settling onto his pillow.
“There’s a lot we should probably prep you on before we get to Daxa. You’ll see that when family members or very close friends greet each other, they use ramu—palming the nape of the neck—as a sign of endearment. But people also use it as a way of expressing, you know, romantic affection.”
I’m trying real hard not to feel rejected. I guess I’d started to think of him as a real friend, like Logan or Sara or Melodie, but his reaction makes me think maybe we’re actually not. I slide all the way up to my nose under our shared blanket, making real sure not to bump against him or crowd his space in any way, while at the same time trying not to make it obvious that’s what I’m doing.
He’s not even aware of me, though. His breathing’s already gone all steady and soft, while I’m left wide awake with a mind so full of ugly thoughts and images that I don’t even want to risk sleeping.
Lying on my back, I stare through the boughs of the lean-to up into the star-dusted sky and I wallow in the mountain nighttime. The sounds, the smells—even the chill in the air—are real close to what I’ve known all my life, but it’s the subtlety of the differences that makes it so lonely.
I’m finally starting to fade off into sleep when I get a tickle of energy at the back of my neck, in what I guess is called my essensus. I’m barely aware that it’s there before it explodes, bursting through my entire body and burning at the ends of my fingers and across my palms. It’s scorching and alive, like lightning coursing through my veins.
Then, with the stroke of a slap, my world changes.
A flood of shapes and colors goes tumbling through my head. Some I know from my recent delirium, but none of them are things I have a name for. Through my wide-open eyes I realize I can still see the towering pines rising up to frame the deep purple sky. All these other images bombarding my mind are getting to me by some other means, and they’re coming in bigger and more hurried waves.
My body’s lit up like a light with all that energy, and pretty soon I lose myself so completely in the rush of chaotic patterns that I can’t even make out the earth beneath me. It’s like I’m pitching down a never-ending water slide, speeding topsy-turvy toward some unknown destination until with a jolt—I arrive.
All the shapes and colors swarm into one fluid shape. With this hot, hot heat in my chest, I know I’m sensing somebody. Somebody moving real fast, right toward me. It’s only a matter of minutes before they’ll be here.
Bolting upright, I push all these new senses to the back of my mind, I don’t even know how. I’m grabbing hold of Dylan, shaking him, hissing at him to wake up. He rises like someone poised to attack.
“What’s wrong?” he hisses back at me, gripping my shoulders.
I must’ve been shaking because at the pressure of his hands I feel my body try to go still.
My throat’s tight with the reality of it.
Previous: Chapter 6
Next: Chapter 8
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