A few hours later, the bus pulls up to its last stop.
"Alright," says the bus driver, "everyone off."
I wait for Maggie to get up, still weak from her breakdown, until I stand myself. I give Ethan a sidelong glance as I step behind him in the isle. Daniel shuffles into place behind me, rubbing his eyes. He must have been sleeping.
When we're all off the bus I sigh, looking up and down the street. "Where are we?" I ask.
"Somewhere on the edge of Florida, I'm guessing," Ethan answers. "We need to keep going north."
"Can we eat first?" Daniel asks, holding his stomach.
"We just had breakfast," I counter, eager to get a move on after spotting that white van. I can tell Ethan about it later, but I don't want to worry the whole group.
"I just need a hot dog, I promise," Daniel says, pleading with his eyes. I scowl at him and then wave him off and sit down on a bench nearby. Maggie sits beside me while Ethan stands on the opposite side, his arms crossed. He's watching over me now, I realize. Waiting for when the attack strikes. I hope it will wait until night.
I look down at Maggie, who is still slumped down and silent. It's like something inside of her has been crushed. She's not strong enough to carry on from here. She needs someone to reassure her. She needs a friend.
"Maggie?" I ask quietly.
"Hmm?" She asks, keeping her eyes downcast. Again, her gaze is fixed on her covered hands.
"We're going to Kentucky," I say strongly, looking out across the street, but not really fixing my gaze on anything.
"Why?" she asks, looking up at me. I give her a tiny smile, happy to see her eyes again.
"Because that's where you're family is."
Maggie's face freezes. She doesn't even blink. But then she asks, "My… what?"
I bite my lip, realizing I've promised her something without meaning to. "I used to live in Kentucky, in a foster home," I start. "They were my family; Mrs. Clearwater, Jamie, and Corey. And I'm sure they're all still there."
"So you're saying…"
"Yeah. You guys can live with us. I don't know about all the legal stuff, but we'll find a way," I assure her, nudging her with my shoulder.
Of course, I probably won't make it to Kentucky, but there's no reason to ruin this for Maggie right now. Letting her know I believe in my future allows her to do the same.
Maggie reaches over and hugs me. It scares me for a minute-I can't remember the last hug I got. And I certainly didn't picture getting a hug from her-but then it comforts me. I relax and end up hugging her back. It feels nice.
"Okay, break it up, you to," Daniel says over a mouth full of hotdog. I pull back and look up at him. He smiles at me and hot dog crumbs land on my face.
"Keep it in your mouth, please," I say, giggling. But then something moves against my spine and I freeze.
"Jordan?" Ethan asks, taking a cautious step forward. I hardly hear him, though, and my vision begins to darken. I close my eyes and try to chase the dizziness away, but it invades like a swarm of bees. For a few terrifying seconds, the numbness fades and I can feel, full on, the pain that I should have been experiencing. It feels like someone dragging a rusty blade down my spine.
Someone puts their hands on my shoulders, but I can't tell who. And then people are shouting, but I can't hear what. I fear it is the end, and I realize I didn't even get a chance to watch the fireworks.
But God must be in my favor, because the dizziness begins to fade. I can feel the metal bench beneath me again, and I can hear what people are saying. Daniel's hands are on my shoulders and Ethan is trying desperately to pull me up and carry me away without causing a scene.
"I'm fine," I say, my eyes still closed. I worry if I open them everything will still be black.
I feel Ethan slide off me, but Daniel keeps his hands in place. "Are you sure?" he asks.
"Yeah," I say, slowly edging my eyes open. The light from the noon sun hits me in the face, but then recedes to a bearable point. I look up at Daniel and then back down at the ground, emabressed. He slides his hands off my shoulders, but keeps his focus on my face.
"We should get inside," he says, and I know he thinks I'm going to be 'transforming' or whatever soon. He's the only one that doesn't know I'm really dying.
"No, it's okay. I can go on for a few more hours. Plus, I really want to get out of Florida. I think once we do that we'll be safe for a while," I say, looking over at Ethan. He keeps his face expressionless, but nods his head ever so slightly. He knows I can hold up for a while.
I look over my shoulder and up and down the street for another bus stop, but realize there won't be one for a few blocks. "We better get walking," I add, standing up. Daniel, Maggie, and Ethan follow, watching me closely. I know they're all going to be paranoid for a while, but to be honest, the attack didn't really scare me. I was beginning to think this wall all like the calm before the storm. Like once the time hit, I would be totally drowned in the pain of death. But that attack showed a break in the storm.
After a few minutes, we reach one that will take us into Georgia. It's not scheduled to come for another hour, though.
"Well, we're low on supplies," Daniel says, pulling the backpack off his back. He opens the zipper and looks inside. All that's left is the lighter, the box, and our dirty clothes. Not even enough money to get on the bus.
I look over at Maggie, and see that she's still pretty distraught. She probably wouldn't want to come with me.
"I'll go," I say.
"I'll go with you," Ethan says quickly. I glance over at him and sigh. I forgot.
"Okay, we'll be back soon," I say, and then turn my back on them all. Ethan catches up and starts walking a few paces behind me. It feels awkward, so I slow down a little until he's walking beside me.
I can't think of anything to say-that is, anything happy to say. I mean, there's still so much more I want to know about him and about, well, everything, and time is running out. If I don't ask him now, I won't ever get to.
"What happened to you?" I ask, looking at the ground.
"What do you mean?" he asks after a moment's hesitation. I begin chewing on my lip, trying to decide if the fact that I'm dying tonight justifies totally invading his personal life.
"Before Jane and Mark- something put you in foster care. What happened?" I ask, almost cringing when I say it. I don't think my dying justifies anything.
Ethan just keeps walking. I realize we are going nowhere in particular, just up the street. Eventually, he stops and turns to face me. I stumble to a stop as well, surprised. But then I look into his eyes and I can tell he's about to say something important. He takes a deep breath and then opens his mouth.
"This conversation is not meant for here- but since time is running out I'll give you the short answer," he looks down at Ethan and Maggie, making sure they're not within hearing distance. Then he gives me a sad look and answers, "Abuse."
I'm stunned. I can't move. I've heard of child abuse before, but I've never known anyone that's gone through such torture. The thought of someone doing that to Ethan… powerful, tough, Ethan… is scares me more than anything. And I can't figure out why. Shouldn't something else like that dream about him scare me more than this? Or the fact that I'm dying? Shouldn't that matter more?
But it doesn't. I just can't believe it would happen to him.
"Jordan?" Ethan asks, afraid I've been taken under by another attack. I shake my head slowly, my eyes still glazed over. Pictures of Ethan being beaten and gagged-sleeping on the ground and starving to death every day run through my head. I try desperately to stop them, but they just keep coming.
"Jordan, answer me," Ethan says, grabbing my arms. I ignore the shock that runs up my shoulders and down my spine, my mind fixed on the horror in front of me. "Jordan, not here…" Ethan says, his voice cracking. And it's then that I realize he thinks I'm dying.
"Ethan," I manage, my own voice catching on the tears coming up my throat. I focus in on his eyes and the tears fall away, almost instantly. His gleaming yellow-green eyes. Like a wolf.
"I'm… I'm fine I just… I can't believe…" I say, my eyes still trained on his pupils. I can't seem to tear my own away from them.
"I know," he says, dropping his arms and lowering his eyes. But I grab his chin with my hand and pull it back up, once again looking into his eyes. They're so beautiful.
Ethan's mouth falls slightly open as he stares at me, his breath rolling out across my lips. I open my own mouth and edge it closer to his, unaware of everything around me. The horror of Ethan's past melts away as I become lost in his eyes, and I wonder how nice it would be to just stay here like this, forever. Something opens inside of him, then, and I can see for once what he is truly feeling. And it shocks me.
Because it is love.
I pull back, my shallow breaths becoming thicker. I look down at the ground ashamedly, lowering my head. He's in love with a dying girl.
"I'm sorry I just…" I say, so lost in thought I can't even finish my sentence.
"Jordan, it doesn't have to be like that," he says, his eyes pleading.
I just shake my head. "But I'm… I'm not even going to be here tomorrow. I probably won't even make it tonight. You saw me back there-I thought I was done for." I take another step away from him and feel something in me break. Then I realize it's my heart.
"You don't know that, you still have a chance," Ethan says, taking a step after me. I glance up at him, his words ringing clear, and for a second, I allow myself to hope.
"You said I was going to die…"
"I said there was a chance you would. But Jordan I've seen you take out three full-grown workers all at once. You can handle it," he tells me, his voice right above my ear. I can feel his breath on my neck, and it sends goose bumps down my arms. "And I've also seen you fight off every attack you've had. I could hear your heartbeat… you slowed it down."
I tilt my head up gently, and turn around to face him. He's never been like this before. He's someone new. He's not the reserved, tough-hearted Ethan I used to know. He's amazingly smart and so incredibly… incredible. It's this Ethan that I can't be without. It's this Ethan that's drawing me closer. It's this Ethan that I want to spend every last minute with, no matter how short that is.
So I reach up and grab the back of his head, pressing his lips against mine. Slowly, he wraps his arms around my waist and presses my chest against his. Time seems to slow down as we stand there, lost in our own world, listening to music no one else can hear. Winding my fingers into his soft hair, I feel my heart skip a beat. I open my lips just a bit and feel his fangs scrape against my tongue, reminding me of the nature of things.
Suddenly I pull back. And then I laugh.
The fact that I'm standing here, staring death in the face, and kissing a wolf… is just amazing. But it's what my life has come to. As so I grab Ethan's hand, meld it with mine, and start walking again.
After we come back with supplies, (toothpaste, money, a switch blade, and gum) we wait for a few more minutes for the bus to come. When it finally does, we hurry on and pay upfront. Then we shuffle back to our seats and quietly look out the windows. None of us really have much to say. By now, everything is out there. I mean, Maggie and Daniel don't know about me and Ethan, and Ethan and Daniel don't know about Maggie, and no one knows what's up with Daniel or why he's here, but still, we all know a lot.
I look over at Daniel across the isle and motion for him to sit next to me. It's time I figure out his story.
Once he sits down, I give him a small smile. He returns it five times bigger. I haven't really talked to Daniel since that first night, and I realize that he doesn't even know about my possible dying. So this conversation is going to be a lot lighter than the past few. At least, I hope.
"So, Daniel, I have a question," I say, trying to decide where to start.
Daniel gazes up at me with admiration, like I'm going to ask him to marry me or something. "Anything," he says.
"Okay, well… I want to know… what was it like before The Institute?"
Daniel's face falls a little bit, and then his eyes glaze over. His eyes fall from my face to his hands, which are suddenly twisting around each other like snakes. My stomach falls a little bit, as If I've just been dropped five feet unexpectedly. I thought things would have been different for him. He doesn't seem like he's gone through anything traumatic, but I guess I'm wrong.
"You don't have to answer," I say, worriedly. I should have even asked.
"No," he says, "it's okay." Then he takes a deep breath and starts chewing on the edge of his lip. It takes him a while before he starts. Finally, he says, "I was given away as an infant, which didn't bother me really. I mean, I'm sure she had a reason. But then she came back to get me when I was five." Daniel's face twists into a strange expression I can't read. "I was overjoyed, of course. And the day she came to get me I was sure my life was going to change. And it did. But not for the better."
I feel my stomach clench. It's like that feeling when you know something bad is about to happen, only mixed in with regret and confusion. Regret because I should have asked him about this sooner, or even payed a little more attention to him. If something bad like this happened to him he certainly deserves a little of my company from time to time, but this whole trip I've been ignoring him. Confusion because I can't believe something so horrible could happen to someone so happy.
"She was ill. Mentally. One day she would love me and feed me and give me hugs, the next she would treat me like a stranger and kick me out on the streets. And sometimes she would go in cycles," he continues. "She would wake up and act normal for a day, then go to sleep and wake up do the exact same thing. But it got to the point where she was sending mail she already sent, and buying food she already bought. She wouldn't remember the day before and then she kept reliving it, for weeks, sometimes. It was killing me, and it drained all our money. Within months we were bankrupt."
I can't do anything but sit there and listen, astounded. I've heard about people with short term memory loss, but never anything that bad. I can't imagine living like that.
"They took away our house and then sent my mom to a loony bin. They took me back to a foster home, and I wasn't adopted again until Jane and Mark. By then, I was twelve," Daniel finishes. Then he shrugs and looks up at me again. "You know, it's life. Some people get it easier than others. But I don't let it drag me down."
I give him a side-ways smile. It makes me happy to hear that he doesn't let it get to him, but I can't get over the fact that such horrible things can happen to such innocent children. I mean, nothing super horrible happened to me. I was just taken from foster home to foster home for years until I met Mrs. Clearwater. And even though I never got adopted she didn't let go of me. Everything was fine until Jane and Mark.
"That's tuff," I tell him, which is a compliment in my book. He's not as weak as I thought he was. Maybe under his small frame there's a steady heart beating towards something great. He's all about being in the future. And I can tell he's going to be someone amazing when he grows up. He just has that sort of attitude.
"But it's not that important. And I've been meaning to talk to you…" Daniel trails off, looking at his hands again.
"About what?" I ask, almost cautiously. I really hope he doesn't ask if we can try that kiss again.
"I actually know a lot more about the transformation than you think I do," he says, his eyes lighting up.
"You do?" I ask, my own eyes widening. I quickly look over at Ethan and catch his eye. I get control of my emotions and nod carefully at him, telling him everything is fine. Then, in a quieter voice, I add, "But you were only at The Institute for, like, a month."
"But I was the one they planned on giving the injection, too, remember?" He smiles a little, happy he's caught my attention with his knowledge.
"So what do you know?" I ask almost giddily.
"Well, for starters, I have an idea about what type of DNA was in it." He pauses for a moment, thinking. "See, they gave Ethan attributes of a wolf, because that is one of the fiercest land animals. Then they gave Maggie attributes of a fish, because that is the swiftest sea animal. So… what's left?"
"Just about two million other animals in the world," I say, annoyed.
Daniel shakes his head. "You need to look at the big picture. Land… sea…"
The word falls out of my mouth like smoke, burning my tongue. It seeps into my brain with the consistence of oat meal and slowly registers, bringing all the clues into place.
The hollow feeling in my bones is really just the actuality of what is happening. And when I was running… it felt like my legs were useless. Because they're not taking me as fast as I could be going. Because I could do so much better in the air. Because the giant bump on my back… it's not a tumor.
It's my wings.