Strapped to an exam table. Eyes closed. Nix forced the memory to the surface of his mind, like a man jamming his fingers down his throat to hurl.
“You can drop the act,” he said, loathing and longing battling for supremacy in his tone. “No one will ever find you here, and there’s no one within range for you to use.”
“Use? What are you talking about? Use how?”
Don’t, he told her silently. Don’t pretend you don’t know. Don’t act the innocent, unaware of the effect you have on everyone and everything.
Don’t pretend you don’t know what you’re doing to me.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Her voice was a whisper—tentative, scared—but the expression on her face didn’t match. Her nose was scrunched, her head tilted.
Claire is … Claire is … puzzled, Nix realized, giving name to the expression, which he hadn’t seen on the canvas of her face before. Claire finds me puzzling. I am puzzling Claire.
He rolled the thought over in his mind, letting her question go unanswered until the ugly, sordid truth—I am nothing—she’s pretending—so stupid to think that—clawed its way back into his brain, digging in deep and holding on.
His whole life had been a nightmare, and she was playing with his emotions like a cat batting at a piece of string.
If she didn’t talk, she couldn’t lie—not with her mouth. Just with her body and her eyes—
“I won’t stop talking.”
There were question marks in her voice, and hesitations, and she didn’t have a right to either of them. He wanted to rip the mask off her lying face.
He wanted to touch it.
“I … I … won’t stop talking until you … until you tell me what’s going on. Who are you?”
She matched his emphasis with her own. “Who. Are. You.”
Tell me, tell me, tell me, her eyes seemed to say.
He cursed. He cursed her, and he cursed himself, and she pretended to flinch at the profanity that streamed from his mouth.
Nulls don’t flinch.
To flinch, you had to feel fear. To be afraid of someone, your energy had to be marked by theirs. This Null was playing him. Again.
He needed weapons.
He needed her dead.
He’d left his knives and needles and poisons in the kitchen, out of sight. He had to stop her, before she pretended to flinch again.
Hands. Just my hands.
That was the way to kill this Null. His hands had bathed her temple. His hands had fed her. And in doing so, he’d committed a great evil—risked all the good he’d ever done, just because a Null had deigned to look him in the eye. To ask him for his name. To react to his presence—puzzled, flinching—as if he was the kind of person who could have an impact on anyone, ever.
Like he could affect a girl like her.
“I. Am. Nobody.” The words came, not in answer to her question, but in answer to the ones he was asking himself
Who do you think you are, to look at her that way? You’re nothing. She’s everything. Kill her. Now.
“You’re … you’re … someone,” Claire said. “You’re the one who brought me here. You’re the boy from my dream.” She went very pale, the blue of her veins standing out like a pattern on porcelain. “You’re the one who kills me.”
He took one step toward her and then another. She sucked in a breath and watched him move. And then, without warning, the girl he’d held and helped and saved dove back under the covers.
Like she could hide from him.
Like she could escape him.
I’m hiding under a blanket. Claire’s heart beat viciously against her rib cage. I’m who knows where with who knows who, I just reminded the boy who brought me here that he intends to kill me, and now he’s coming toward me, murder in his eyes, and I AM HIDING UNDER A STUPID BLANKET.
I am a deficient human being in every way that matters.
Claire wished that she could blame it on the fact that she’d been hit by a van, but in reality, she deeply suspected that she had always been deficient. Never said the right thing. Never made friends. Couldn’t even get someone to hand her a towel.
Really, given the sum total of her life as evidence, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that she sucked at being kidnapped, too.
He’s looking at me. He’s going to kill me. I’m going to die.
Claire couldn’t move. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t think of anything but the boy stalking toward her. Claire didn’t want to think about him. Didn’t want to anticipate the killer’s touch, her own last breath, but there was a tiny part of her—the Romeo and Juliet part, the Heathcliff and Catherine—that thought for the briefest second that maybe this moment was what she’d always been meant for.
Maybe she’d been born to die by this boy’s hands.
Situation: What would it be like to have an out-of-body experience? To watch someone kill you? When she was dead, would he put flowers on her grave? Would she haunt him, now and always?
“The game ends now.”
The words brought Claire back to the present. To the terror. To the chilling understanding that death was never romantic; there was a difference between being stalked and being wooed.
He was closer now, close enough that she could feel the heat of his body on the other side of the blanket. Her heart beat faster. Her side ached like someone was splitting the bones with an ice pick.
You need a weapon. A way out. Something. Anything.
Slowly, her killer peeled the blanket away from her face. His features—each severe in its own right—came together to form an expression that was somehow gentle, full of longing. It made him look like someone who wanted something, wanted it as badly as Claire had wanted just one person to scrawl a private joke on the pages of her yearbook.
Me. He wants me.
Claire had read about this kind of knowledge—the kind you felt in your bones, from the tips of your toes to the top of your skull.
She’d read about it, and she’d believed in it, and she’d imagined it. But she hadn’t spent even a second wanting it herself, because she’d been too busy trying not to long for simpler things—smiles from strangers, someone to eat lunch with, parents who took her picture on the first day of school.
He’s going to hurt me. I’m going to die.
Claire couldn’t hear herself think over the sound of her body’s terror—the certainty that be it kiss or kill, there would be no escaping the predator stalking her now.