Go to the Covenant.

A tingle ran along the back of my neck. The Covenant? Could I seriously go back there after three years, not even knowing why we’d left? Mom had acted like it wasn’t safe there for us, but I always chalked that up to her paranoia. Would they allow me back without my mother? Would I be punished for running away with her and not turning her in? Was I fated to become what I’d avoided all those years ago when I’d gone before the Council and punt-kicked an old lady?

They could force me into servitude.

All those risks were better than being chomped on by a daimon, better than tucking my tail between my legs and giving up. I’d never given up on anything in my entire life. I couldn’t start now, not when my life seriously depended on me not losing it.

And by the way the bed looked and how I smelled, I was officially losing it.

What would my mom say if she could see me now? I doubted she’d suggest the Covenant, but she wouldn’t have wanted me to give up. Doing so was a disgrace to everything she’d stood for, and to her love.

I couldn’t give up.

The storm inside me stilled and the plan began to form. The closest Covenant was in Nashville, Tennessee. I didn’t know exactly where, but the whole city would be swarming with Sentinels and Guards. We’d be able to sense each other—the aether always called out to us, stronger from the pures, more subtly from the halfs. I’d have to find a ride, because my butt wasn’t walking all the way to Tennessee. I still had enough money to get a ticket on one of those buses I usually wouldn’t consider riding in. The terminal downtown had been closed ages ago and the nearest bus stop going out of state was at the airport.

That was one hell of a hike from here.

I glanced at the bathroom. No light shone through the window. It was night again. Tomorrow morning I could take a cab to the airport and get on one of the buses. I sat down, almost smiling.

I had a plan, a crazy one that may end up backfiring on me, but it was better than giving up and doing nothing. A plan was something and it gave me hope.

***

After waiting till dawn, I caught a cab to the airport and lingered in the near-vacant bus terminal. The only company I had was an elderly black man cleaning the hard plastic seats and the rats that scurried along the darker corridors.

Neither were very talkative.

I pulled my legs up on the seat, cradling the spade in my lap while I forced myself to stay alert. After existing in the void of nothingness for days, I still wanted to climb into my favorite jammies and curl up in my mom’s bed. If it wasn’t for every little noise causing me to jump out of my seat, I would’ve fallen out of my chair in a dead sleep.

A handful of people were waiting for the bus when the sun rose outside the windows.

Everyone avoided me, probably because I looked like a hot mess. The motel shower hadn’t even been working when I’d finally tried it, and my quick rinsing in the sink hadn’t included soap or shampoo. Standing slowly, I waited until everyone got in line and looked down at the clothes I’d been wearing for days. The knees of my jeans had been torn open and the frayed edges were stained red. A sharp pang hit me in my stomach.

Pulling myself together, I climbed the steps to the bus and briefly made eye contact with the bus driver. Right away, I wished I hadn’t. With a head full of bushy white hair and bifocals perched on his ruddy nose, the driver looked older than the guy who’d been cleaning the chairs. He even had an AARP sticker on the sun visor and wore suspenders. Suspenders?

Gods, there was a good chance Santa Claus was going to fall asleep at the wheel and we all were going to die.

Dragging my feet, I picked a spot in the middle and sat down beside a window. Luckily, the bus wasn’t even half full and so the body odor usually associated with these buses was below the norm.

I think I was the only one who smelled.

And I did smell. A lady a few seats ahead of me turned around, wrinkling her nose. When her gaze landed on me, I looked away quickly.

Understanding my questionable hygiene was the least of my problems, it still made my cheeks burn with humiliation. How at a time like this could I even care about how I looked or smelled? I shouldn’t, but I did. I didn’t want to be the stinky girl on the bus. My embarrassment flashed me back to another horrendously mortifying moment in my life.

I’d been thirteen and just started an offensive training class at the Covenant. I remembered being thrilled to do something other than running and practicing blocking techniques. Caleb Nicolo—my best friend and an all around awesome guy—and I had spent the beginning of the first class pushing each other around and acting like monkeys on crack.

We’d been quite… uncontrollable when together.

Instructor Banks, an older half-blood who’d been injured while doing his Sentinel duties, had been teaching the class. He’d informed us that we’d be practicing takedowns and paired me up with a boy named Nick. Instructor Banks had shown us several times how to do it correctly, warning us that, “It has to be done this way. If not, you could break someone’s neck, and that’s not something I’m teaching today.”

It had looked so easy, and being the cocky little brat that I’d been, I hadn’t really paid attention. I’d told Caleb, “I so have this.” We’d high fived like two idiots and gone back to our partners.

Nick had executed the takedown perfectly, sweeping out the leg while maintaining control of my arms. Instructor Banks had praised him. When it came to my turn, Nick had smiled and waited. Halfway through the maneuver, my grip had slipped on Nick’s arm and I’d dropped him on his neck.

Not good.

When he didn’t get up right away and had started moaning and twitching, I’d known I’d made a terrible miscalculation concerning my skill level. I’d put Nick’s butt in the infirmary for a week and had been called the “Pile Driver” for several months after that.

Up until now, I’d never been so embarrassed in my life. I wasn’t sure which humiliation was worse, though—failing in front of my peers or smelling like gym socks left forgotten in the hamper.

Sighing, I glanced down at my travel itinerary. There were two transfers: one in Orlando and the other in Atlanta. Hopefully one of those stops had some place I could clean up a little better and grab some food. Maybe they’d also have drivers who weren’t nearing their expiration dates.

I looked around the bus, smothering my yawn with my hand. There were definitely no daimons on the bus; I imagined they’d loathe public transportation. And—from what I could tell—I didn’t see any possible serial killers who looked like they’d prey on dirty chicks. I pulled the spade out and shoved it between me and the seat. I dozed off pretty quickly and woke up a few hours in, my neck cramping something fierce.

A couple of the people on the bus had these neat little pillows I’d have given my left arm for. Wiggling in my seat until I found a position that didn’t feel like I was cramped in a cage, I didn’t notice I had company until I lifted my eyes.

The woman who’d sniffed the air earlier stood in the aisle beside my seat. My gaze fell over her neatly coiffed brown hair and pressed khaki pants, not sure what to make of her. Had I stunk up the bus?

Smiling tightly, she pulled her hand out from behind her back and held a package of crackers out toward me. They were the kind with peanut butter in the middle, six to a pack. My stomach roared to life.

I blinked slowly, confused.

She shook her head, and I noticed the cross dangling from a gold chain around her neck. “I thought… you might be hungry?”

Pride sparked in my chest. The lady thought I was some homeless kid. Wait. I AM a homeless kid. I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat.

The lady’s hand shook a bit as she pulled back. “You don’t have to. If you change—”

“Wait,” I said hoarsely, wincing at the sound of my own voice. I cleared my throat while my cheeks heated. “I’ll take it. Thank… thank you.”

My fingers looked especially grubby next to hers even though I’d scrubbed them in the motel bathroom. I started to thank her again, but she’d already moved back to her seat. I stared down at the package of crackers, feeling a tightening in my chest and jaw. Somewhere I’d read once that was a symptom of a heart attack, but I doubted that was what was wrong with me.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I tore into the package, eating so fast I really couldn’t taste anything. Then again, it was hard to savor the first food I’d eaten in days when tears clogged my throat.

CHAPTER 9

At the transfer in Orlando, I had several hours to try to clean up and grab some food. When the bathroom was free and it didn’t look like anyone would be coming in, I locked the door and approached the sink. It was hard to look at myself in the mirror, so I avoided doing so. I stripped off my shirt, holding in a whimper as several sore muscles pulled. Choosing to ignore the fact I was kind of taking a bath in a public restroom, I grabbed a handful of rough, brown towels that were sure to make my skin break out. Dampening them and using the generic soap, I cleaned up as quickly as possible. Ghosts of deep purple bruises still marred the skin from my bra to my hip. The scratches on my back—inflicted when I’d wiggled through my mother’s bedroom window—weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be.

All and all, I wasn’t that bad off.

I was able to score a bottle of water and some chips from a vending machine before boarding the next bus. Seeing the remarkably younger driver made me feel so much more relieved, since it was starting to get dark out. The bus was fuller than the one from Miami had been, and I was unable to fall back asleep. I just sat and stared out the window, running my fingers along the edge of the spade. My brain kind of clicked off after I finished the bag of chips and I ended up staring at the college-aged boy several rows ahead. He had an iPod, and I was jealous. I really didn’t think about anything during the next five or so hours.

It was around two in the morning when we unloaded at Atlanta, arriving ahead of schedule. Georgia’s air was just as thick with humidity as Florida’s had been, but there was a smell of rain. The station was in some kind of industrial park surrounded by fields and long forgotten warehouses. We seemed to be on the outskirts of Atlanta, because the dazzling glow of city lights appeared a couple of miles away.

Rubbing my aching neck, I shuffled into the station. A few people had cars there waiting for them. I watched college boy rush over to a sedan and a tired-looking but happy middle-aged man climbed out and hugged him. Before my chest could tighten again, I turned away to seek out another vending machine to raid.

It took me several minutes to find the vending machines. Unlike the ones in Orlando, these were all the way back near the bathrooms, which I found gross. I pulled out the wad of cash and separated a few singles from the hundreds.

A shuffling sound, like pants dragging along the floor, caught my attention. I looked over my shoulder, scanning the dimly lit corridor. Up ahead, I could see the glass windows of the waiting room. After freezing to listen for several moments before I dismissed the sound, I turned back to the machine, grabbed another bottle of water and another bag of chips.



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