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I couldn\ stop the smile that spread across my face, even while I said, ’’You are so irritating sometimes.’’

’’Irritatingly adorable.’’

When I looked again at Sam, I caught some silent conversation going on between him and Nick. Finally Sam broke the stare-down and glanced over at me. ’’Cas and I are going for a walk. You\ll be okay?’’

I nodded, eyeing Nick. ’’Sure.’’

’’Since when do we take walks together?’’ Cas asked.

Sam ignored the question and pushed him toward the door. When they were gone, Nick came over and dropped into Sam\s abandoned chair.

’’Hey,’’ I said.

Nick folded his hands together and cracked his knuckles. ’’I remember,’’ he said, his voice quiet and raw. ’’I remember everything.’’

I sat up straighter. ’’Everything? How long? I mean...’’

Another pop of his knuckles. ’’Long enough.’’ He sighed, ran his hand through his hair. Not that it did any good. It settled back in place, waves of dark hair curling around his ears. ’’I remember the first time I saw you with a bruise on your face. You were just a kid. And you\d been crying, and you wouldn\ look at me. You wouldn\ look at any of us.’’ He shook his head. ’’Your dad was already breaking you.’’

’’Nick ’’ I started, but he cut in before I could finish.

’’It was my idea to wipe your memory. Back before the farmhouse. I told Dani she should let your uncle do it, make you forget the shit your dad put you through, because I wanted to forget, every single day of my life, what my dad had done to me.’’

I didn\ say anything, because I didn\ know what to say. My memory being wiped so often, at such an early age, was part of the reason I\d been so confused the night I\d killed my parents.

But none of this would have happened if it wasn\ for Will and the Branch he\d created.

I blamed him more than anything.

’’I remember making you a promise that day,’’ Nick continued. ’’I told you I would look out for you, and clearly I failed.’’

’’You don\ have to ’’

He held up a hand. ’’Calm down. I\m not going to start spilling my soul. I just wanted to say that I am sorry for being such a kon*** at the farmhouse.’’

I whipped the blanket back and lunged at him, wrapping my arms around his neck. Immediately, he stiffened, his arms stuck at his side, unmoving. But then he relaxed, and his arms came up, winding loosely around me.

’’Now lie back down,’’ he ordered. ’’Jesus Christ. You just got shot.’’

I smiled as he helped me into bed. I laid my head back against the pillows and closed my eyes.

I pictured the box of paper cranes still beneath the bed at our last house, the cabin we\d had to leave after we\d seen Riley on the grocery store security footage. I\d forgotten to grab them. Now that the Branch was broken, I wondered if it was safe to return there. If we could, I\d hang the paper cranes from the ceiling in my next room and watch them dance in the night.

34

USING CRUTCHES, I HOBBLED DOWN the hallway of Cherry Creek Manor to room 214. I peered inside the open doorway at a man sitting in an easy chair staring out the window.

’’Dad?’’ I said.

The man turned his head toward me. He stared at my face. Looked at my crutches. ’’Anna?’’ he said.

A renewed sense of hope and excitement came over me. ’’You remember me?’’ I asked.

He gave me a sheepish smile. ’’The nurse told me you were coming today.’’

’’Oh. Right.’’ I crutched my way into the room and sat in the chair across from him. His room was a generous size, with a private bathroom and deck that overlooked the massive gardens. The gardens were covered in snow now, of course, but I could see hints of what it would look like in the spring. Pretty enough to spend an entire day sketching it.

’’How are you?’’ I asked once I\d set the crutches aside.

Dad shrugged and then coughed, and then coughed some more. I pushed myself up and hopped to his side, patting his back. ’’Do you need some water?’’

Still coughing, he waved me away. ’’No. I\m fine. Just a spell, is all.’’

I sat back down. ’’When do you start treatments? For the cancer?’’

He lifted a shoulder. ’’I\m old. Why would I want to go through that? It isn\ as if I won\ die soon anyway. Dying is inevitable.’’

’’But it might give you a few more years.’’

’’Years full of treatments and nausea? And achy bones? No, thank you.’’ He looked at me for a long time, head tilted slightly. ’’How are you? Sam told me you were in the hospital recuperating from a gunshot wound. Who would shoot a young woman?’’

My own uncle, I thought.

’’I\m fine. Much better already.’’

He nodded, but the look on his face said my answer wasn\ explanatory enough. I just didn\ have the energy to go into further detail, so I changed the subject.

’’Are you happy here?’’

He thought for a long time before finally saying, ’’Yes. I think so. I like the people here. I feel happy.’’

Maybe Sam was right.

Maybe this was the best place for him.

We talked for a while longer about nothing in particular the weather, the food Dad was eating, the news. It was odd for me just sitting with him, chatting. My dad and I had never been big on small talk. But I enjoyed it now.

’’Well, I should go.’’ I slowly rose to my feet. ’’I\ll check in soon, okay? And if you need me, you have my number.’’

I crutched my way to the door.

’’Anna?’’ Dad called. I paused in the doorway. ’’I love you.’’

My eyes burned with the sudden need to cry. I sucked it up.

’’I love you, too.’’

He smiled before turning away and resumed looking out the window.

35

DESPITE THE WEEKS THAT HAD PASSED since I\d killed Will, since the Branch had broken itself into nothing but scattered pieces, I was still finding it difficult to order a cup of coffee without overanalyzing the people in the shop. Without placing the exits and alternate exits in my head.

Of all the habits one could form, those weren\ so bad.

The barista behind the counter handed me my coffee, and I turned to the bar to add a few packets of sugar and cream when I nearly ran into someone who\d been standing directly behind me.

’’Excuse me,’’ I said. ’’I\m sorry.’’

’’It\s all right.’’

I looked up at the sound of the familiar voice.

’’Trev.’’

’’Do you have a minute?’’

I glanced out the front windows at the sedan sitting across the street. Sam, Nick, and Cas were waiting inside. I could see Cas dancing to the music that must have been blasting from the stereo system. And Nick scowling at him.

Sam stared at the coffee shop.

’’How did you get past Sam?’’ I asked Trev.

A prideful smile teased at the corners of his mouth. ’’I\m not as useless as you seem to think I am.’’

I checked the car again.

’’It\ll just take a second,’’ Trev said.

’’All right.’’

He led me to a table along the far wall. We both danced around each other, trying to claim the seat that faced the door. I won.

’’What do you want?’’ I said, clutching the paper coffee cup in my hands. It was nearly scalding, but if I needed a weapon quickly, burning coffee was my best bet without drawing too much attention.

I didn\ know what this was or who Trev might have with him, so I wanted to be prepared, even if my heart said to calm the hell down. He\d helped save me, after all. More than once. Things had been so good these last few weeks that I couldn\ help but expect something bad to happen.

’’I just wanted to see you,’’ he answered, adjusting the cuffs of his wool trench coat. The collar stuck up high around his neck, like a shield. His hair was shorter than when I last saw him, trimmed neatly, swept to one side.

’’See me for what?’’

’’To say good-bye.’’

I frowned. ’’Are you going somewhere?’’

He tapped lightly at the table, as if to stall while he rehearsed what he wanted to get out.

’’After you guys first escaped headquarters back in October, I started digging into my past. Do you remember me telling you about the girl I thought I was working to keep safe? That she was the reason I was with the Branch?’’

I nodded.

’’Well, I went looking for her. And I found her. She was real after all.’’

I straightened. ’’And?’’

’’She barely remembered me. And while I spent all those years being treated with anti-aging serums, she aged normally. She got married. She had a kid.’’

He looked away, toward a couple at the table across from us. They seemed oblivious to everything around them.

When he turned back to me, I saw the old Trev, and I saw that look on his face, the lightbulb moment that meant he\d found a quote in his vast collection that would fit perfectly for the moment.

But as quickly as it\d come, the expression faded, and I realized that I was no longer the person he liked to share his quotes with. Whatever this one had been, I would never know it.

’’I ruined what I had with you guys for a girl who had moved on. And now...’’ He trailed off and pulled his hands back, tucking them in his lap.

I suddenly went on alert.

’’There\s that, too,’’ he said, gesturing at me. ’’It doesn\ matter how many times I try to prove my loyalty to you. You\ll never trust me again.’’

He was right, but I said, ’’I\m sorry,’’ anyway.

He shook his head and pulled a cell phone from his pocket. ’’I have a gift for you.’’ He tapped something into the screen before turning the phone around so I could see the image. It was a button that said simply DETONATE.

’’What\s this?’’

’’An end,’’ he said.

’’To what?’’

’’The Branch.’’

I frowned. ’’I don\ understand.’’

He leaned forward and lowered his voice. ’’Push the button and you\ll see.’’ He swept out of the chair, came around the table, and hugged me. It was a tentative hug for a timid friend. I let go of my coffee to return it.

’’I miss you, Anna. Every single day.’’

When he pulled away, a part of me, the part that had been best friends with him for so many years, seemed to pull away, too.

I didn\ want him to go, but at the same time, I knew he couldn\ stay. He couldn\ ever be part of our group again.

’’Take care of yourself,’’ he said.

He walked out the front door, as if to prove to Sam he still had the ability to move around without him noticing. As if to say, See, I could have done something terrible, but I didn\ .

When Sam saw Trev, he got out of the car and raced across the street.

I hurried out the front door. ’’It\s fine,’’ I said.

Trev kept going, hands tucked in his pockets. He didn\ look back.

Later that night, I set the cell phone Trev had given me in the center of the table. We gathered around and stared at it. The red button was just an image on the screen, but it was so much more than that.

We knew the risks were huge. We knew it could be a trap.

’’Ready?’’ I said.

The boys nodded.

I pressed the button.

36

SAM TUGGED ME CLOSER, HIS ARM TUCKED beneath my head. I snuggled into the crook of his neck, breathing in deeply. He still smelled like autumn, even though it was mid-May and everything was drenched in fresh air and new life.

I ran my hand up his bare stomach, tracing the lines between his abs with my index finger. He shuddered, which only fueled my need to keep going. I crawled on top of him, pinning him down.

A lazy smile crept on his face.

’’I fully plan on taking advantage of you, and you don\ get any say in the matter.’’


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