Authors: Robin Wasserman
He had waited for the ghost to return; part of him was still waiting, hoping that it had not been the drug. That it had been Nick.
Nick was gone.
Jason was a substitute for something he could no longer have; but Jason was also Jason, and Jeremiah needed him for himself. They were at a tipping point, and he didn’t know which way things would go. For now, with Jason’s warm body leaning against his and Nick’s memory as close as a stone you could trace with your finger, following the granite curls and loops of his name, things felt right.
“He couldn’t wait to leave, after high school,” Jason said. “Sometimes we talked about dropping out, just running away in the middle of the night, finding a better place.”
“But you never did.”
“We ran out of time,” Jason said.
he didn’t have to.
“I didn’t force him to stay. I didn’t even know he was thinking about going.”
“You didn’t have to force him. You just gave him a reason.”
Jeremiah didn’t want to say
you? Am I
He didn’t want that responsibility – didn’t want to be the reason another person stayed. He didn’t want the blame for whatever happened next. But he equally didn’t want to remind Jason that he had a choice. Because then Jason might leave.
“I never hated it like he did,” Jason said. “I just didn’t want him to go without me.”
“He wouldn’t have. He didn’t like being alone.”
Jeremiah took his hand. It was bandaged with a layer of white gauze. Jason refused to talk about the things he’d done on that last day – what he’d done because he needed to survive, what he’d done because he wanted, and because it felt good. He’d been found in a gutter with a bullet hole in his leg, two corpses by his side, and a gun. The leg was still unsteady. But his battered hands, his bruised and slashed knuckles, they’d quickly healed. As soon as they did, Jason punched his fist through a window. Once that healed up, it had been a mirror. The next time, a car window. He always found something to break. “I like the reminder,” he said when Jeremiah begged him to stop. “Of what I was.”
“It wasn’t really you.” Jeremiah believed it. The drug had created monsters, not revealed them. He loved the town too much to believe the darkness had lived there all along. If he believed that, he couldn’t have come home. And he had to come home. “It
Jason let it pass.
It didn’t matter what he’d been, or what he’d done. Jeremiah believed that, too. As it didn’t matter what the town had become, now that it was something other – now that it was bare ground and ruins and possibility.
It hadn’t been the town he’d believed it to be. But next time, maybe it could be. That was why he’d come back. That was why he would stay. It would be different this time. He would be different. Jeremiah kissed the bandaged knuckles. “We’ll make it better,” he said, and knew Jason would understand. Not just the hand, but the boy, the man, it belonged to. Not just him, but both of them, together, and the thing between them that either would or wouldn’t be. And his family, someday. And his town, one house at a time, nails and beams and solid foundations. With his own hands, with his own will, he would reshape his world: different this time, and better. And whole.
Jule bit off the cheer just in time. It had taken hours to get Milo to fall asleep, and she wasn’t about to wake him up. Three hours of license-plate bingo, geography, spell-offs, and superhero factoid recitals was more than enough. She supposed she should be grateful that Milo had at least exhausted his desire to rehash the siege of Oleander again and again, never ceasing to complain about having missed out on all the action. Let him sleep. She could cheer all she wanted inside her head. She hadn’t stopped since they’d gotten into the car, loaded up with junk food, and set off.
They were chasing the sun. Speeding west, until they hit the ocean, and if that didn’t suit, they’d turn south, or north, or take on the ocean and go west some more. They had their please-don’t-sue-us settlement money. They had, in their newly purchased duffel bags, two shiny medals, which, among other things, had given Daniel the pull to get official guardianship of his brother. A lot of rules had been bent, in the last few months. Enough that Jule started getting the sense a few would soon be bending back, which was all the signal she needed to get out of Dodge. She hadn’t expected Daniel to suggest he come along. She hadn’t expected to be so relieved.
“You know we only get along during times of crisis,” she’d said. “We have no evidence that once life gets boring, we won’t start hating each other.”
“I’ll risk it.” Then he had kissed her, which seemed appropriate, since they were half dressed at the time, and tangled together in a storeroom at the “secure facility” while their minders helpfully looked the other way, another rule bent, more than once. “And I’m not expecting boring.”
“We’ll crash and burn by Nevada,” she’d predicted, but they were driving aimlessly, stopping on a whim at any roadside attraction or culinary wonder that caught their eye, and Nevada was a long way away.
“You think you’ll miss it?” Daniel asked.
It seemed like she was always trying not to laugh at him.
This time, he did it for her. “Stupid question,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Will you? Miss it?”
“The town, or the people?”
“Both,” she said. “Either.”
She had one hand on the gearshift, and he covered it with his own. She was always surprised by how warm he was. How alive.
That day in the woods, he’d felt so cold in her arms. And then, even awake again, alive and apparently unscathed, he’d still been cold, shivering against her in the helicopter, teeth clattering like she’d never seen outside cartoons, even his tears cold, and she hadn’t known what to do to stop him shuddering but kiss him. She’d done so, and he’d kissed her back, and she’d closed her eyes and seen the dead bodies in the grass and smelled the fire and the burned skin, and the tears against her cheek were no longer cold, but maybe they didn’t belong to him.
He didn’t have to say that he did and didn’t miss the Preacher, because she understood, in the same way she did and didn’t miss Uncle Scott. They had been fixtures, they had made sacrifices and made mistakes, they had caused pain and they had stopped it, and now they were gone. “I miss Cass,” he said. “I’ll never…” He swallowed. “I would have liked to know her better.”
“And Ellie. Whoever she really was.” It was still hard to say the name. Jule touched the scar on her cheek. There was too much she had to forget. But it was either forget, or find a way to forgive herself. Right now both seemed impossible.
Neither of them mentioned Grace. It was an unspoken rule between them. The name invited thoughts of what she’d done, what they should have seen coming, and what they could have stopped. It was too big.
Daniel twisted in his seat, confirming that Milo slept peacefully amid the empty takeout containers and half-drunk sodas. Jule wondered what would have happened if there’d been no Milo, and no reason for Daniel to want to save anyone, or put up any kind of fight. If there’d been no one to believe in superheroes, and force them all to don their capes.
“It feels wrong, leaving like this,” he said finally. She stopped breathing. It had never occurred to her that once they left, he would lose his nerve and suggest turning back. If he insisted on it, she would lose him. She couldn’t tell herself that it didn’t matter, but nothing was intolerable, she knew that now. Nothing but going back.
She realized the car was speeding up – she’d been bearing down on the accelerator without realizing it. Now that she did, she pressed harder. “I’m never going back there. I can’t.”
“I meant, I would never have wanted to leave like this. It’s not how I thought it would be.” He squeezed her hand. “But this is how it is. And this is all I ever wanted – to leave.”
“It’s not how I thought it would be, either.” But it wasn’t the destruction in their wake she was referring to. It wasn’t anything behind them. It was the warm hand on top of hers; it was the child curled up in the backseat.
She’d thought she would be leaving alone.
The prairie was as flat as ever, and Jule hated its endless sameness as much as she always had, more now, in the twilight, with the sunset casting its red light across the corn and making her think of fire. But a gray mist hung on the horizon, where the line of highway disappeared over the curve of the earth. This far east, it was probably nothing but an illusion, or a cloud, or a hope, but Jule chose to believe it was the faint outline of the mountains, the promise of a place where the earth erupted to meet the sky, and nothing stretched on forever except the weight of hands, the warmth of skin, and the highway that would carry them away. She drove faster, racing the sun, swallowing the miles that lay between her and a new life, where she could be Jule Whoever, where she could even, if she dared, be Juliet, where she could be anyone. You couldn’t run away from your troubles, her uncle had once told her, any more than you could run away from your family, or your fate, or yourself.
But you could try.
It’s terrifying to write a book. I imagine it would be even more terrifying to do so alone. Fortunately, I’ll never know, as this book – like everything I’ve written – survived its birth thanks only to the careful nurturing of people far wiser than me. Basically, it took a village.
For that care and nurturing – and for reading drafts and scribbling notes, smoothing rough edges and navigating thorny plots, plying me with caffeine and ego-boosting compliments, offering me soft couches and extra-long power cords, baking me brownies and talking me off ledges and even forcing on me the occasional hug – I thank Holly Black, Libba Bray, Sarah Rees Brennan, Cassandra Clare, Erin Downing, Maureen Johnson, Jo Knowles, E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, Dan Poblocki, and Marie Rutkoski. (True, they all refused to actually write the book
me, but I forgive them.)
Thank you also and always to my editor/cheerleader/therapist/guru Erin Clarke, for making the words right – and to designer Kate Gartner, for making them beautiful. I’m grateful to everyone at Knopf for their tireless support of my writing, and for making my dream of this book a reality. And speaking of dreams, I’m also deeply grateful to my agent Barry Goldblatt, who strongly suggested I should stop dithering about what to write and follow mine.
Finally, though Stephen King technically had nothing to do with the writing of this book, I’m thanking him anyway, for making me the person who could write it.