Authors: Marie Rutkoski
He sighed. It was a tired sound, and so brief that I might have imagined it if that breath hadn’t brushed against my mouth. If I hadn’t inhaled it, tasted it, and made it mine. Then Conn pulled me into his arms, and I was invaded by an emotion as fierce as fear. I touched the prickle and velvet of his shorn hair.
This is what it means to kiss,
This is what it means to—
Conn shifted. His lips hardened, grew eager. Almost angry. He grasped my fingers, lowered them to his waist, and seized my upper arm. Gripped it to the bone.
Yet I didn’t pull away. I couldn’t. He crushed me close. I strained closer. Our kiss was a deep, dark well, and I fell into it, and never wanted to see the sun again. It didn’t matter that my arm hurt. It didn’t matter that Conn’s other hand was reaching behind him, searching for something in his back pocket.
Something that flashed through the air and bit into my wrists.
A pair of handcuffs.
“You’re under arrest, Shade.” Conn tightened the cuffs. “You have no rights.”
What had he called me?
Why was he acting like a cop?
Were those handcuffs made of
My mind groped for something that made sense. Nothing did. I lifted my cuffed hands and stared at the transparent device that chained them together. An orange light coursed through the cuffs and the links between them. “What the
,” I hissed.
Conn was silent. Stony. A suddenly menacing stranger.
I wrenched away from him and raised my hands high.
“No!” Conn’s eyes filled with horror. He moved to stop me.
Too late. I smashed the handcuffs against the edge of the desk.
My hands burst into flames.
I screamed. My fingers curled into fists of agony. The ends of my hair caught on fire. An acrid smell filled the air, and I remembered it from my nightmares. Now I knew what that stench was. The smoke of burning hair, of burning flesh.
Conn snatched the X-Acto knife from where it lay on the desk. He barreled into me, shoving me onto the bed.
“Don’t!” I cried. “Please!” My breath came in heaving sobs as he tried to pin me down and the waterbed rocked beneath us. I struggled, but struggling didn’t help. He was heavy, and I was on fire.
Conn raised the knife. Terror beat its wings inside me, and I heard my voice begging him not to do this, to let me go, to stop, please stop—
He drove the knife down, slashing into the mattress.
Water gushed over us. Conn flung the knife away, ripped the mattress wide open, and pressed my body into the wet ruins of the waterbed.
I choked, coughing up water that tasted like moldy plastic. The fire was gone, but I still twisted beneath Conn. His chest was a hard weight against mine.
“Darcy?” His face dripped water onto my cheeks. “Are you all right?”
His hold loosened.
I hitched up my knees and kicked him in the stomach. He slammed onto the sodden carpet, and I was up, I was free, I was careening toward the door.
He seized my ankle, but before I fell against the desk I wrapped my scorched fingers around a weapon: the stylus.
Conn scrambled to his feet, but so did I. He inched closer, hands empty and low, signaling that I should calm down and drop the stylus. Some of my fear had burned out with the fire, and the thick smoke in my lungs began to taste like anger as I listened to him gasp, trying to speak. I had knocked the wind out of him.
Well. That wasn’t much, but it was a start.
I swept my arm against the sculpture and flung it at him. The four glass panes split apart, the plaster man broke. Conn reeled as I drew my hand back and drove the stylus deep into his bicep.
He cried out. As much as I hated him then, I hated myself more, for my last move had been stupid. I had just given him possession of my only weapon.
But maybe he was stupid, too. Shuddering, he yanked the stylus from his arm and tossed it into a far corner of the room. Blood seeped through his sweater.
“Listen,” he rasped, but I had already thrown open the bedroom door.
I ran into the living room and had made it halfway to the front door when Conn snagged the waist of my pants and hauled me back.
“Listen,” he said again, this time into my ear, his breath hot against my neck.
Depending on your point of view, this was either the best or worst time for Marsha to come home early.
Conn swore, but didn’t let go. He snaked an arm around my waist and cinched me close.
Marsha let the front door swing wide until it banged against the outside of the house and cold air poured into the living room. She stood, staring. She sucked in a huge breath, and I could feel uncertainty in Conn’s body against mine. Then Marsha did something very sensible. In a voice as shrill as a train whistle, she yelled, “
Maybe a neighbor would hear. In the meantime, I rammed my elbow into Conn’s ribs as hard as I could, and heard something crack. He staggered back, and everything might have turned out differently if Marsha hadn’t done something very
sensible, which was to run into the kitchen, grab a knife from the butcher block, and throw it.
I knew she meant to hit Conn, yet even though the knife spun through the air like it had been thrown by a ninja, Marsha’s aim was really, really bad. The blade was whirling straight toward my chest.
For a moment, every sensation and thought was a sharp, clear crystal. The sound of Marsha’s scream. The blistering ache of my hands. A bitterness on my tongue. Conn stumbling toward me. The shining blade.
My heart shrank, curling into itself. But a knife couldn’t hurt it more than it already had been.
Then, just as the knife should have pierced my skin, I vanished.
I had been looking down, unable to tear my eyes away from my soaked shirt and the blade about to rip through it, when suddenly I wasn’t there anymore. I was gone. I was air. I was nothing.
The knife cracked into the fish tank behind me. The glass broke, spilling water and panicked angelfish onto the patch of carpet where my feet had been.
“No.” Conn whispered. “No, no, no.”
Was I insane? Had my mind snapped during Conn’s attack? Maybe my five missing, forgotten years, and the ones that came after that, the times when I appeared in one foster home only to disappear months later, had led to this. To believing that I had truly become a ghost.
Conn stared at the place where I should have been. Not in disbelief. More as if everything was lost.
“Darcy?” Marsha’s voice wavered. “Where are you?”
I didn’t understand what had happened. But I knew this: I needed to get away from Conn.
Could I run? Could I do that, without legs?
I leaped over the sofa and rushed out the front door. I had made it to the street when something dragged me down. My own feet. They flickered into being: solid, heavy. I tripped, and fell onto the heels of my brutalized hands. Shrieked.
I tried to bite back the sound, but Conn had heard me. He had seen me. He was racing across the brown grass.
Then I was running again, slightly ahead of him. My legs blurred and vanished once more.
It was dizzying, being invisible. Staring at the ground as I ran gave me vertigo, and I didn’t have the courage to look back at Conn, so I kept my eyes trained on the wide streets. The pastel houses. The cars parked neatly in their driveways.
The neighborhood was deserted. Everyone was tucked inside on this chilly Saturday, playing video games or watching TV or doing anything except noticing a bloodied young man chasing nothing at all.
The quick thud of Conn’s footfalls stopped. I glanced over my shoulder. He wasn’t there. Had he given up?
The roar of a motorcycle.
No. He hadn’t.
I sprinted through the narrow spaces between houses, zigzagged through backyards littered with toolsheds and swing sets. I turned a corner, and an unexpected fence loomed in front of me. I tried to slow and stop, but apparently that wasn’t necessary. I flew through the wooden wall.
Some small kernel of me was fascinated and thought that maybe Conn didn’t have a chance if I could zoom through solid objects. But I remembered how my feet had materialized beneath me, and realized that I couldn’t control this. This thing. Evaporating. Ghosting. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to be in the middle of a wall when it stopped working. So I skimmed through open spaces.
Then it happened: quiet. No more motorcycle. Only the scratchy rustle of a squirrel stealing from a bird feeder.
Maybe Conn had driven off in the wrong direction.
Or maybe he had parked somewhere and was hunting among the houses.
I skirted an aboveground swimming pool and slipped through an open gate to a front yard. Hugging the driveway, I moved slowly toward the street. I looked left. I looked right. I didn’t see Conn or his motorcycle.
I felt weak and heavy with relief.
heavy. Heavy, solid.
My body had returned. My damaged self. The misery of my burned fingers.
I saw my reflection in a car window. This was what Marsha had seen when she’d come home, when she’d parked her rusted Camry and strolled toward the front door, completely unaware of the wreckage inside. She had seen a girl soaked from head to toe. A girl with burned, jagged hair. Torn clothes. Hands red, puffy, blackened in some spots and oozing blood in others. A welt on her chin from where it had hit the desk. Neck smeared with Conn’s blood. Eyes wide, black, animal.
Shaken by the sight of myself, I had nearly turned away when I noticed something. There, lying on the passenger seat of the car, was a cell phone.
I should hide. Now that Conn might see me, I should hide.
I weighed temptation and risk. Call for help? Or find some dark corner to hole up in?
First get the phone. Then run and hide.
Holding my breath against the pain, I tugged at the handle of the passenger door. Locked. The windows were closed.
I scoured the area for some kind of tool, and my gaze fell on a stone garden gnome in the front yard, dressed in a painted blue coat and hat. I scooped up the gnome and hurled him through the car window. It smashed, the car alarm blared, and I reached through the shards to grab the phone. Then I ran down the street, away from the scene that would surely catch Conn’s attention if he was still nearby. I ducked into a backyard and saw that the door of a toolshed had been left wide open. I hurtled into the shed, slammed the door behind me, and took stock of what was inside. Bags of dirt. Fertilizer. And weapons: a rake, a shovel, a trowel.
A good place. A safe one. Safe enough, at least, for now.
Wishing the door had a lock, I peeked out its tiny square window. I saw nothing, so began to punch numbers into the cell phone. My fingers shook as they bled onto the keypad. I looked at them and realized that my hand really
disappeared, that day in the art room. I remembered telling Conn. I remembered how he hadn’t laughed.
Because he had believed me.
I pressed the phone to my ear and listened to it ring. And ring. And ring.
“Hello?” Lily’s voice had that suspicion everyone gets when an unknown number appears on her cell phone.
“Lily, I need your help.”
“Darcy?” Her tone instantly sharpened. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s Conn. Raphael was right. I don’t know Conn. I never did. I didn’t know anything about him. He attacked me, and—”
you? Are you hurt?”
I touched my mouth, still swollen from that rough kiss. “Yes.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“You need to call the police. I’ll help you, I promise. I’ll do anything I can. But you’ve got to hang up right now and dial 911. Then talk to Marsha before you call me back. I’ll be waiting.”
“No!” I began to pace. “I can’t talk to Marsha. You don’t know what happened. You don’t know what she saw. She must think I’m some kind of … demon. I broke things. Her fish tank. She loves her fish. And I destroyed her carpet. And then … I disappeared,” I finished, unsure how to explain what had occurred in Marsha’s living room. “I can’t go home.”
“Wait. You’re not there now?” Her voice took on a new urgency. “Whose phone are you using? Where
“In a toolshed in somebody’s backyard. Conn chased me, but I vanished, and I ran, but I’m sure he’s still out there, searching—”
“Tell me where you are,” Lily demanded. “The exact address. I’m coming for you. Then hang up the phone and dial 911!”
I turned away from the door and leaned against the wall opposite it. I pressed my forehead against the wooden surface, racking my memory of the past several minutes, trying to figure out precisely where I was. “I think—”
The door flung open behind me. Before I could wheel around, something struck the back of my head.
I blacked out.
When I woke up, I was lying on my side, my cheek pressed against a rattling metal floor. I opened my eyes and winced.
I was stuffed in the back of a large, moving vehicle with padlocked doors, and my bandaged hands were handcuffed.
. My ankles were also bound, with one of those chains usually reserved for cannibalistic serial killers. Except this chain, like my handcuffs, was made of glass. I watched the flames flicker inside the cuffs and decided that I wasn’t going to question this bizarre technology that seemed designed to contain me—
, with my terror of fire.
No. No questions. I didn’t dare open my mouth. I wouldn’t even move. If I did, that would definitely catch the attention of the three hulking men in gray uniforms who surrounded me, armed with dull metal tubes shaped like nightsticks.
And then, of course, there was Conn.
My nerves sang with fear. Conn stood as far away from me as possible, back turned, facing someone who sat before him on a long bench screwed onto the wall. Conn’s body blocked him from sight. I could see only the sitting man’s hands as he riffled through a thrown-open medical kit stocked with syringes and gauze.