Never Fade Page 71

“There was canned food, walls of it—and gallons of clean water. Toilet paper, even,” I added, because, let’s face it, there are some things you want but don’t necessarily need. “Clothes, blankets, you name it. You could stock this place nicely.”

By the time I finished speaking, it was so silent I could hear the plink, plink, plink of water dripping from a nearby leak in the roof.

“Oh, yeah? And where is this wonderland? Half past nowhere, straight on into your imagination?” Knox was pacing across the stage again, still blocked by the kids sitting at the edge of it. If he didn’t bite soon, I was going to have to jump up there myself.

“Why would I tell you?” I asked. “When you won’t give me what I want?”

That was how relationships worked these days. No one did anything for each other unless it benefitted them in some way. Knox had clearly seen enough of the world we lived in to have figured this out, too.

But he didn’t like it.

Come on, I thought, fuming. Come on!

With one jump, he was off the platform and I was shoved back by an invisible set of hands onto the cement. My teeth clacked against each other, and I just missed losing the tip of my tongue between them. Michael’s laughter boomed around me, like it was echoing off the timid, silent figures circling us.

“You think I need to trade you something?” Knox spat. “You think I don’t have other ways of making you and your friends talk?”

My hands pressed flat against the ground, wrists throbbing from the impact. This kid had more pride than greed—something I hadn’t expected. He didn’t even see that more food and supplies at his disposal meant more power for him. All he saw was a little girl who claimed to know better than him, who was giving him a solution to a problem he had created and stirring up unwanted questions in the kids around him. Even if the kids didn’t believe me, they wanted to.

“Sure you do,” came Vida’s voice. “But are you willing to risk waiting when the National Guard is going to be back to clear the joint out?”

She had made herself comfortable in Knox’s seat, to the visible horror of every kid nearby.

Michael whirled back around, fury rising from his shoulders like steam. “Knox! You gonna take that from her?”

“Don’t tell me you’re scared of a few little soldiers,” Vida continued, inspecting her broken fingernails. “Is that why you keep trying to prove her wrong? Because you’re scared of what’ll happen if she’s right?”

“C’mon,” came Brett’s voice somewhere near my right. “You have to admit it sounds too good to be true. We’ve been up and down the river a million times looking for food and never found so much as an empty bag of chips.”

“So you’d blow an opportunity like this?” I asked. “After you already saw the proof?”

For his rough exterior, Brett was surprisingly reasonable when it came to hashing things out. “I could go with her—make sure she’s not trying to pull a fast one. I’d be happy to take another trip back with a team and get the supplies—”

“Oh, you could?” Michael snarled. “You’d be happy to? Whose team are you talking about—mine? You think I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, dickhead? That I haven’t been watching your weak-ass attempts to steal my game—?”

Knox held up a hand, stopping them before they could start circling each other like starving feral cats. “The answer is no. Not now, not ever.”

“I should have known,” I said, pushing myself onto my feet. “You left those kids out in the freezing cold to die. Why would you ever care enough to give everyone here the food and supplies they need?”

You can push someone’s button over and over again to get what you want, but there comes a point when your finger slips and you finally hit the wrong one.

“Michael,” Knox murmured, suddenly very quiet. Vida had worked enough of a spell over the room that it took calling his name twice to get him to snap out of it. “Take these two…pearls of girls outside.”

“Knox,” Brett began. “What about the supplies…?”

Knox’s fist flew out fast, clipping the other boy under the chin. “Take them outside. If they’re so damn eager to be hunters, then they can prove it at initiation tonight, like everyone else had to.”

Vida pushed herself up off the chair and dropped onto the floor next to Knox. Whether he meant to or not, his eyes flicked down over her face and body, over every exposed inch of rich, dark skin. “If you get through it, you’re on. But if I see your faces one more time before I send someone to get you, I will burn them off myself.”

“Shake on it,” I demanded, fighting to keep the smirk off my face.

I stuck out my hand, my head trilling with anticipation of how it would feel, of what, exactly, I would do to bring him as low as he had brought everyone around him.

Knox came toward me, his face steeled, jaw clenched. He raised a hand toward mine, and just when his fingers came into reach, he shifted to grab the ends of my loose braid. It came down to him being just a second faster than my instincts. He pressed the burning red end of his cigarette into my palm, snuffing it out against my skin before shoving me away.

The pain was raw and blinding; I didn’t cry, didn’t so much as give him a gasp. But I knew, from the moment he glanced back over his shoulder at me with that smirk, I hadn’t gotten my hooks into him, either.

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