Authors: Kate Brian
Tags: #Fiction - Young Adult
Copyright © 2012 by Alloy Entertainment and Kieran Viola
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.
For my mom, without whom I wouldn’t be the person I am today
His hands felt like ice. He rubbed them together, the dry scratching an even tempo in the otherwise quiet woods. The chill in the air was unacceptable, especially for so late in the spring. After he finished this, he would move to a warmer climate. But for now he was here, and the sun was starting to make its descent. She would be along at any moment. Then the cold would no longer matter. Soon his hands would be warm. He blew into them and hummed “The Long and Winding Road,” a tune that always made him smile.
He heard a crack. A crunch. His skin began to purr. He lifted himself ever so slightly from his crouch, just enough to peer from behind wire-rimmed glasses over the craggy boulder that shielded him from view. A sigh escaped his throat at the sight of her. So small, so pert, so completely, utterly oblivious. Her blond hair lay in a thick braid down her back. It was the hair that had seduced him. So thick, so soft, so many varying shades of gold. She had no idea how beautiful it was. How beautiful she was. He loved her for it.
She was skirting the dying oak tree, about to step over the wet crag full of slick, slippery, water-worn rocks. It was time. He ensured that his gray canvas messenger bag was properly camouflaged by a pile of leaves and stepped out from behind the rock. A thin branch that had fallen from a nearby birch cracked under his heavy boot.
She froze. He could feel the fear radiating off her. She whirled around, her eyes wide, but didn’t see him. Hugging herself, she took a few quick steps, her heavy backpack banging against her spine. He stepped on another branch, purposely this time, snapping it clean in two. She stopped again. Now he could
her fear, and he swallowed it whole, savoring the tangy saltiness of it. She started to run. The moment she looked behind her—they always looked behind them—he stepped out into the path in front of her. When she slammed into him, he didn’t flinch. She weighed practically nothing. She screamed, and his chest filled with unadulterated joy.
He put his hands on her arms, steadying her. She pulled back, her eyes wide, her skin taut, her complexion pale. Then she saw him. Really saw him. And her body sagged in relief.
“Mr. Nell! Oh my god!” Her hand was on her heart. Everything was fine. She knew him. She felt safe now. Silly girl. “You scared me! What’re you doing out here?”
He let her go for that one, brief moment. Gave her that moment of confident security. Then he licked his lips.
That was all it took. The fear returned, hotter and faster this time. She took a step back, but they were right at the edge of the crag. She wobbled, just as he knew she would. Reaching out, he closed his fingers around her wrist and used her own momentum to fling her around, ripping the backpack to the ground with his free hand. She tried to scream again, but he clamped one arm around her neck and the other over her mouth. He dragged her backward off the trail, her hair, her delicious hair, brushing his lips.
She struggled, of course. They always struggled. The only variable was how long she would last. How long she would fight before she realized the inevitability of what was going to happen. Before she accepted it. Some fought until the very end, clawing, kicking, biting, slamming their tiny fists against him until he strangled all the strength right out of them. Others simply begged. It didn’t matter what they did. The ending was always the same.
Rory Miller would probably plead with him. He had watched her for months and knew she was not a spirited girl. Aside from her passion for science and her ability to come in third in almost every cross-country race she’d ever run, she didn’t have much fire in her. In fact, there was almost nothing special about her at all. Except for the hair. Her beautiful, golden hair.
He opened his mouth and took some of it under his tongue.
She tried to scream again, but his grip was too tight to let the sound escape. The boulder was mere inches away. He pictured slamming her temple onto the razor-sharp edge, cutting a ragged wound into her scalp. But then this would be over far too quickly.
As he reached the edge of the boulder, his heel came down on a wet leaf, and he slipped. For a fraction of a second, he fought for balance, and his grip on her loosened ever so slightly. It was the minutest of mistakes, but it was enough. She let out a screech and slammed her sharp elbow into his solar plexus.
He doubled over, trying to breathe, but the air wouldn’t come. His vision clouded over. His hand pressed against the cold surface of the rock, and he blinked until his eyes began to clear. That was when he saw the jagged, broken end of a branch thrusting upward toward his face.
He heard the crack. Tasted the blood seconds before he felt the excruciating pain. His glasses flew off his nose. His knees hit the freezing mud, which quickly turned red from the river of blood streaming from his nose.
“You whore!” he screamed, blood burbling in his mouth.
But she was gone.
No. No. No.
This could not happen. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, covered his nose, and staggered forward. Twigs and brambles whipped his arms, underbrush tugged at his feet, the cold wind stung his face, but still he ran. He had tasted her already. He had to have her.
Everything was a blur without his glasses. Then, a glimpse. A flash. The white canvas lining of her hood. He ran faster. He could feel her again. Feel her terror. All he had to do was close the space between them and she would be his. His fingers stretched. They ached. Just one more inch and he would have her. Just one. More. Inch.
A blinding light flashed. A screeching of tires. He heard her scream before he realized what was happening. She’d reached the edge of the woods. She’d reached the road. And now she was either dead or saved.
Instinctively, he hit the dirt. His nose throbbed. His sweat congealed on his skin, freezing him from the outside in. There were voices. Shouts of alarm. Ever so slowly, he slunk backward. Slunk into the bushes, the woods he knew so well. He could hide here. He could disappear. He would be all right. But it wasn’t enough. Because he had tasted her. He had tasted her. He had tasted her. How could he ever survive knowing how close he’d come? This need would never be sated. Not now. He knew he would never rest until he had her.
he prayed as he slipped deeper into the oncoming darkness.
Please don’t let her be dead
If she was not dead, there was still a chance. If she was not dead, he would find a way. He always, always found a way.
The uneven end of a thin tree limb ripped the skin from my cheek. My lungs burned with every ragged, panicked breath. My eyes were so blurred I couldn’t see where I was going. My foot caught on a tree root, and I flew forward. I screamed as I imagined him right behind me, closing in on me, grabbing me off the ground, and dragging me to my death. I pushed myself to my knees and gasped for air. His breath was hot on my neck. His fingers grazed my shoulder. I let out another scream, my throat constricting, but when I whirled around, no one was there. I forced myself up and kept running.
I shoved aside a clawlike branch and leaped over a fallen maple trunk, almost tripping again as I hit the ground on the other side. This was not happening. It couldn’t really be happening. Mr. Nell was my teacher. He was a good guy. Funny. Everyone thought he was so cool in that retro, dorky teacher way. This had to be a nightmare, and any second I was going to wake up and laugh over the fact that I ever thought it was real.
I heard a twig snap behind me. A footfall. He was closing in. He’d looked into my eyes and licked his lips. He’d tasted my hair and moaned.
My throat filled with bile. I was not going to die this way. I was not going to let him have the satisfaction. I was supposed to go to college, become a doctor, get married and have kids, win awards, buy a beach house, and die surrounded by my loving family knowing I’d saved countless lives over the course of my storied career. Or, like my sister, Darcy, was always saying, I was supposed to die alone and surrounded by cats. Either way. But not like this.
With one desperate explosion of adrenaline I surged ahead, and suddenly, there were no trees. There were no leaves, no brambles, no underbrush. There was only asphalt tearing the fabric of my jeans at the knee and an SUV bearing down on me.
The last thing I saw before I flung my hands up was the gleaming silver grille headed right for my face. There was an awful, deafening screech, and the world filled with the scent of burned rubber.
I held my breath and braced for impact.
I blinked. Christopher’s face loomed over me. His beautiful, perfect, startled face. His dark hair was slicked back from his forehead, wet from the school showers.
“Oh my god, are you all right?”
I looked back at the woods as he grabbed both my arms and dragged me off the road. When I tried to stand, my knees gave out and I leaned into him, gripping the sleeves of his black-and-white varsity jacket with my dirt-streaked fingers. There was blood on the back of one hand, and mud soaked the cuff of my sleeve. Every single inch of me was shaking.
“Get in the car!” I yelled.
“What?” His brows knit in confusion over his warm brown eyes. “Rory, what’re you—”
“Get in the car, Chris!” I shouted again. “We have to get out of here!”
Keeping my eyes on the woods, I staggered toward the passenger-side door. The trees dipped and swirled in my vision, and the ground beneath me began to tilt. I pressed my hands against the hood to keep from going down, breathing through the dizziness. I couldn’t give up now. Not when I was so close to safety.
“I’ve got you,” Christopher said in my ear.
He helped me into the car and slammed the door. I jammed my trembling fingers down on the lock button over and over again until it finally clicked. Something moved in the corner of my vision and I seized up, but then I saw the flick of a bushy tail and realized it was just a squirrel scampering up a tree trunk.
“Rory, what’s going on?” Christopher asked, getting behind the wheel. “Why are you covered in mud?”
“Just drive, Chris. Please,” I begged. My body started quaking so violently it hurt. I tried to hold my breath, tried to control the shaking, but it wouldn’t stop. Even when I shoved my hands under my arms, clamped my knees together, and clenched my jaw. It just wouldn’t stop.
“But my house is right—”
“Please just take me home,” I begged. “And call nine-one-one.”
“Why?” Christopher asked. He looked me up and down, his face pale. “Rory,” he said, his voice tense. “What happened?”
“Mr. Nell,” I stammered through my teeth. “Mr. Nell attacked me.”
“Mr. Nell the
?” he blurted, taking the turn at the end of his street too wide and nearly hitting a car waiting at the stop sign. My stomach swooped as the other driver leaned on his horn. My hands flung out and braced against the door and the side of Chris’s seat.
Chris pulled the car over onto the shoulder. He cupped one hand over his mouth, a worry line forming just above his nose. When he looked at me, my heart stopped beating. His eyes went from stunned, to resigned, to murderous in the space of five seconds. It was only then that I understood how he really felt about me. Right there, in that awful moment, with cars whizzing by fast enough to make the car shudder.
Why had I ever turned him down? If I had just said yes, if I had just blown off Darcy’s feelings like she’d done to me so many times in my life, Chris and I would have been a couple. We would have left school together today, and he would have driven me over to his house to tutor his sister. If I had just said yes, I never would have been taking that shortcut through the woods, and none of this would’ve happened.
“He didn’t—” Red splotches appeared along Chris’s neck and moved up his face. “Rory, he didn’t—”
My stomach hollowed out as I realized what he was asking. I shook my head. “No.” A sob escaped my throat, and I covered my face with both hands. “No.”
Chris sank back in his seat. “Thank god.” He reached for the Bluetooth button on his dashboard.
Suddenly, a man’s voice filled the car. “Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
“My girl—my friend was attacked,” Christopher said, his voice cracking.
“Is your friend with you?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Christopher replied. “She’s here. She’s…okay.”
He reached out and took my hand, clasping it so hard it hurt.
“What’s your location?”
“We’re in my car on Seventeen, right near Fisher’s Crossing,” he said. “But the guy’s still out there. Mr. Nell. I don’t know his first name. He works at my school. At Princeton Hills High. He’s still in the woods.”
“And your names?” the man asked.
“Christopher Kane and Rory Miller.”
“All right, sir. Don’t move. We’re sending someone right to you.”
“Okay,” Christopher said, swallowing hard. “Okay.”
Rain began to fall in huge drops, splattering across the windshield. He hit the button to end the call. For a long moment, neither one of us said a word, or moved, or breathed. Then he got out of the car, walked around to my side, and squeezed in next to me. I crawled into his lap, and he shut the door and just held me. Burying my face in his chest, I breathed in the deep woolen scent of his jacket, closed my eyes, and tried to stop seeing Mr. Nell’s face. I tried to think of something else. Anything else. My mother smiling at me a few months before she died. My father taking me on my first run. My sister twirling around in a red tutu and heart-shaped sunglasses, putting on a show for the family at Thanksgiving. But the image of Mr. Nell obliterated the memories one by one. That ugly, puke-colored corduroy jacket. The chip at the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. The watery eyes. The yellow teeth. The thin, dry lips. The slick tongue. It just. Wouldn’t. Stop.
I let out a pathetic-sounding groan, and Christopher held me tighter.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
But I knew in my heart he was wrong. Nothing was ever going to be okay again.