The Replaced by Derting, Kimberly
TO HUDSON JAMES
YOU MAKE THE WORLD A BRIGHTER PLACE!
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“’Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.”
—Mary Howitt, The Spider and the Fly
Silent Creek Camp
Or rather, like I was dying.
That’s the way I felt, watching the screen go all black like that. Like my lungs had gone from two functioning things that were pink and plump and filled with life, to shriveled-up hunks of useless meat that could no more pump air from them than I could sprout wings from my back and fly.
It had been seventeen days since I’d watched the guy I love be plucked from the ground by aliens and then vanish in a blaze of light. The same night I’d lost my dad in that very desert. And now the first actual hints of the two of them being out there had just flashed across the screen, right before the computer shut down.
That was the worst part of all this, that I still had no idea where my dad or Tyler were. That was the thing that was driving me utterly-madly-insanely crazy.
For the past seventeen days I’d been consumed by thoughts of them, convinced I might never see either of them alive, all while I’ve been trapped here, in the mountains of nowhere, Oregon, in a camp for the Returned—others like me, who’d once had normal-ordinary-regular lives, but who’d had the rug pulled out from under them the same way I had when I’d been taken. Abducted and experimented on by aliens. All because I’d had the dumb luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Like them, I’d come back different. Changed.
And now people around me got hurt. Even my own mother had said as much—I was a danger to others.
I’d spent the past seventeen days living with the proof of just how deadly I’d become. I mean, how many normal girls had poisoned their own boyfriends simply by accidentally cutting themselves?
None. That’s how many.
I get how crazy it sounds, the whole idea of alien experiments, and I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t seen the proof with my own eyes—including the part where Tyler had almost died right in front of me.
If only I’d been one of those normal girls when I’d sliced my hand with that box cutter, then I’d never have needed to take Tyler to Devil’s Hole that night, hoping those same aliens who’d made my blood toxic to him in the first place would whisk him away, too, and undo the damage I’d done to him.
Maybe then Tyler would still be alive and safe, and my dad wouldn’t have gone missing the way he had, before I’d even had the chance—a real chance—to tell him how sorry I was for doubting him and his “crazy” abduction theories, and to tell him how much I’d missed him. Him, the dad he’d always been . . . always, even when I’d been missing for five years and he’d never, ever, not for a second, given up on me. Not even when everyone else had, including my boyfriend, Austin, my best friend, Cat, and my mom—whose betrayal hurt most of all because mothers shouldn’t ever stop believing their children are out there, somewhere, wanting to come back to them.
But my mom did. She gave up on both of us, me and my dad. She left us behind and started a new life, with a new husband and a new son—her new family. And I tried to forgive her, to understand her motivations, but I wasn’t sure I could, not entirely.
But none of that meant I didn’t love her, or that I didn’t miss her or even my new “brother” in the same way I sat here missing my dad.
They might not spend every minute of every day thinking about me, but that didn’t change the way I felt about each and every one of them.
Especially after seeing the message that had popped up on Jett’s screen . . . seventeen days after Tyler and Agent Truman . . . and my dad had just . . .
“Does someone want to explain what the hell just happened?” I was surprised I’d even been able to force the words from my mouth at all, considering those messed-up lungs of mine. I whipped around to face Jett, who was already leaning over my shoulder and punching frantically at the keyboard in front of me. He tried his best to boot the computer back up, but I could already tell there was no point. Everything we’d been looking at a moment earlier was just . . . gone, and now we were left staring at a big empty field of nothing.
He shook his head. “Someone shut us down,” he muttered, but he wasn’t talking to me now—his comment was directed at Simon. He lifted the computer from my lap and dropped it onto his own as he hunched over it, his fingers gliding in a way that made it look effortless while he got lost in a series of commands and functions I’d never understand. Jett handled a keyboard the way I handled a softball, like it was second nature. “They knew we were in their system and they locked us out.” He unconsciously rubbed his arm and I recognized the gesture. It was Jett’s tic whenever he mentioned the No-Suchers, as he called the NSA. Even though they hadn’t directly been responsible for branding him back in the day, when the government had begun covertly hunting for the Returned, and even though he’d healed from the firefly image they’d scalded into his skin—the way we all healed from our injuries—his hand instinctively stroked the spot.
“They,” I repeated. Of course it was them. We’d intercepted one of their classified emails right before that cryptic message had popped up, and somehow they’d caught on to us.