Never Fade Page 108

I ran. Through the flurries of snow, the morning misty haze, the overgrown trails, until I found the highway. The blanket of snow on the road wasn’t nearly as thick-skinned as the layer covering the forest floor. I lost sight of his trail just as I skidded onto the icy blacktop, the stitches pulling so tight in my back it momentarily knocked the breath out of me. I staggered forward, lungs burning. The sun was rising in the east; it was the only reason I knew how to set my feet toward the south.

It was another twenty minutes, a whole lifetime of poisonous terror, before the small strip of businesses took shape down the misty highway and I spotted the gas station they must have passed on the way in.

I was out of breath, my lower back screaming in pain each time I swung my leg forward. The paved road disappeared into slushy dirt that splattered up onto my shins. The half dozen gas pumps had been knocked face-first into the torn-up pavement.

There were a couple of vehicles parked behind the station, one—a truck—with its hood propped open, as if someone had just taken a look. If he had found something wrong with it, there was a chance he was looking for a part in the service garage. Or food, I thought, turning back toward the building. Stocking up before he runs.

The back door of the station was unlocked; if I were being technical about it, the lock and handle had both been blown right off. It creaked as I opened it, and I slipped inside.

The store was bigger than I was expecting it to be but in worse shape. Someone had done a fairly thorough job of cleaning the joint out, but here and there were jumbo bags of chips, and a soda dispenser was still glowing and buzzing with last gasps of electricity. The gun stayed in my hand, cold and solid, trained on the glass doors of the drink refrigerators and the endless graffiti tagging that masked from view anything still inside.

I followed the line of the shelves as they flowed past the cash register and empty cardboard candy containers, around the front of the store to a fairly new-looking section of the building labeled FULL SERVICE.

The short hallway between the store and the mechanic garage was decorated with photos and posters of old cars with bikini-clad girls perched on top of them. I took in a slow, steadying breath. It was all rubber, gas, and oil; no amount of time or bleach was going to scrub that stench from the air.

There was another entrance into that section from the outside. The sign on the glass door was still flipped to OUT—BACK IN 15, and it directed visitors to kindly inquire at the back garage if it was an emergency. There were chairs, photos of vacant-eyed employees lining the wall, and model tires—but no footprints, no noise, no Liam.

A spike of fear cut through me as I shouldered the door to the mechanic shop open. I turned, trying to catch the heavy thing before it could slam shut, and that was the mistake—I knew it even as I turned, even as Instructor Johnson’s favorite saying rang out in my ears: Don’t turn your back on the unknown.

There was a tingling sensation at my back that I recognized a second too late. A burst of pressure slammed into me, throwing me forward as if someone had tackled me from behind. My forehead cracked against the door frame. My eyes flashed black, white, black as I crumpled. The gun clattered away, skimming across the cement, out of reach.

Then, a warm, familiar voice, pitched with fear: “Oh my God! Sorry, I thought—” Liam’s pale form burst out behind the hollowed-out car frame in the middle of the garage. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” I demanded, looking around for the gun under the workbenches and tables. There were tools and parts scattered everywhere, collecting dust and even more grime. “You came out here alone, without any kind of way to protect yourself—”

“No way to protect myself?” he repeated, raising a brow.

“You know what I mean!” I crouched down, blinking back the dark spots in my vision, and felt under the metal table until my fingers closed around the barrel. I waved it toward him for emphasis. “What were you going to do against one of these?”

He turned back to the car, his mouth pressed tightly into a line of disgust. “I disarmed you pretty easily. What would the instructors say about that?”

It stung more than I expected it to. I watched in silence as he flipped the hood of the skeletal car back open, the tool flashing silver in his hand. But he wasn’t working; instead, his hands were braced against the green frame. The leather jacket clung to his shoulders as he leaned forward, hanging his head. I kept my back flat against the door, a silent guard against anything that might come in.

“So you found me,” he muttered, his voice strained. “I suppose I have Chubs to thank for that?”

His mind was turning through a wild range of emotions, flipping between what felt like hot anger and murky guilt and crushing hopelessness in a matter of seconds. It felt like his mind was calling to mine, like it was screaming for me.

I pressed the back of my hand against my forehead. Ever since I’d given in and stopped trying to fold them away, my abilities had been quieter. Settled, even. Now was not the moment to lose that bit of calm.

“I know—” I began, licking my dry lips. “I know you can take care of yourself. But we don’t know anything about this town. We don’t know who could come by, and the thought of you out here alone…”

“I wanted to be alone,” he said, his voice gruff. “I just wanted…I just needed to clear my head. Away from them. Away from you.”

I stared at him, trying to take what he had just said and align it with the look of all-out desperation on his face.

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