Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from Conjured

Chapter One

"Your name is Eve. Remember that."

She was supposed to call him Malcolm. Pressing her forehead against the cool glass of the car window, she stared at the house. Yellow and narrow, it loomed over the lawn. She traced the outline of the house on the window: a peaked roof, two windows with shades drawn, a front door dead center. "It's a face," she said.

The man and woman in the front seats checked their phones and then their guns. "You can't give her kiwis," the woman said to the man. Malcolm. And she was Aunt Nicki. "She'll think they're mice."

"Kiwis are nutritious," Malcolm said. Twisting in his seat, he leveled a finger at Eve. "I walk first, you second, Nicki last. Understood?" He didn't wait for her response, and she didn't give him one. He stepped out of the car and stretched.

"Start her on apples," Aunt Nicki said, opening her door and stepping out into the street. "Or bananas. Oranges."

"You could have shopped," Malcolm said. "Besides, it is impossible to eat an orange without it spitting at you. It's a hostile fruit."

"Oranges are classic. For centuries, soccer moms have been carting orange wedges to refuel their charming tykes on the field of battle."

Outside, they shut their doors. Eve let the blissful silence wrap around her for three seconds until Malcolm yanked open her car door. "You push the red button to release the strap." His voice was kind and soft, as if he expected her to cower or bolt. He pointed next to her, and she located the red button. It clicked, and the seat belt snapped out of her hands and flattened onto the seat behind her. "It's going to be okay," he said, and she was certain he wasn't talking about the seat belt. Not wanting to see pity in his eyes, she stared at the seat belt contraption for a second before she climbed out of the car and followed Malcolm toward the house.

The sky was a matte gray that washed out all shadows. She couldn't tell where the sun was -- or if this place even had a sun. A single brown bird perched on a scraggly tree in the middle of the front lawn. Eve watched the bird warily until her toes hit the front stoop. She looked up at the house. She still thought it looked like a face, intent on swallowing her whole.

"Inside now," Malcolm said. "Gawk later."

Aunt Nicki ushered her in.

"Wait here," Malcolm instructed. Gun drawn, he disappeared through a doorway. Eve strained to listen to his footsteps as he moved from room to room. She felt Aunt Nicki's hand on her elbow, as if the woman expected her to bolt. As if I had anywhere to bolt to, Eve thought.

The hall was as dreary as the outside world. It had faded, brown-striped walls and a worn carpet. A picture of a dead tree by a canyon hung on one wall. "Homey," Eve commented.

Aunt Nicki squeezed her elbow, and Eve fell silent.

She waited until Malcolm reappeared. He holstered his gun. "Clear," he said. "I like clementines. Easy to peel. But you can only buy them in crates. No other fruit comes in crates. What the hell do I need with a crate of fruit?" He tapped Eve's arm and then pointed. "Living room. Kitchen. Bathroom. Your room. Hers."

She memorized the layout. "Which is yours?"

"I won't be staying."

A sudden wave of panic crashed into her, and she wanted to grab his arm and say, Stay! But she didn't. Instead, she pushed the wave back, back, back, and said, "Oh."

"Clementines are a wussy fruit," Aunt Nicki declared.

"So says the champion of soccer moms."

"I'd rather face six drug dealers and an irate bookie than one overtired soccer mom with a screaming toddler in a minivan who has just been denied her parking spot."

"Point taken," Malcolm conceded.

He had been with Eve every day at the agency. She hadn't imagined that he'd abandon her with a woman she barely knew. Not wanting to listen to more banter, Eve left them in the hall and wandered into the living room. Green couches lined the walls. The cushions were worn with indents shaped to strangers' bodies. The coffee table sported rings from dozens of glasses. She stood in front of the cold fireplace and studied the photos on the mantel.

Her by a lake.

Her with Aunt Nicki at a restaurant.

Her in front of this house.

She had the same hair and makeup in each photo, but at a glance you wouldn't know that they'd all been taken the same afternoon inside a studio. She'd never stood in any of those places, never been here, never met Aunt Nicki before today.

Or at least she thought she hadn't.

Closing her eyes, she called up the memory of taking these pictures. She'd waited in a cold room with a few metal chairs and a magazine full of pictures of women with parted lips. A photographer had arrived with Agent Harrington... Malcolm... and they'd set up a screen behind her.... Yes, that felt like a real memory.

"Lake Horace," a woman said behind her. Aunt Nicki, she reminded herself. "You spent summers there as a kid. Maybe you loved to canoe. Or swim. Or catch tadpoles. Whatever. You decide. That one, that's Mario's. Brilliant pizza."

"I like pizza," Eve said. She'd had it at the agency. Also, chicken lo mein.

Malcolm smiled at her warmly, approvingly, his eyes crinkling. She thought about smiling back, but then the moment passed. "You moved here..." Malcolm paused so she could fill in the blank.

"Three weeks ago," Eve supplied. "My parents had a job transfer to South America, but they're not ready to move me yet, so Aunt Nicki offered to take me in for the summer."

"South America, how interesting," Malcolm said. "Where in South America?"

Eve bit her lower lip. He'd drilled her on this. She should know it. Began with a P... Two syllables... "Pernu?"

"Peru," Aunt Nicki said. "And don't phrase it like a question." To Malcolm, she said, "I'll work with her. Stop mother-henning us." Her face brightened with a smile, and she wrapped her arm around Eve's shoulder. Eve stiffened. "Eve and I will be just fine. We'll be buddies. Rent movies. Pop popcorn. Flirt with the pizza delivery boy."

Eve held as still as stone. She reminded herself that she trusted them, sort of. Or at least she had no choice but to trust them, which was close enough.

Aunt Nicki released her.

Eve staggered back. "Do you mind if I just... I'd like to see my room."

"I'll show you--" Malcolm began.

She held her hands up, palms out to stop him. "You don't have to. I remember." She skirted around the coffee table and then backed out of the living room.

In the hall again, she felt as if the striped walls were leaning in toward her. She hurried to a plain white door and put her hand on the knob.

"Eve." Malcolm.

She didn't move.

"Eve, you'll be safe here."

She looked at him.

"I want you to feel safe here." He did. She could see it in his eyes. And for an instant, she felt as if he'd wrapped her in a cocoon and nothing could hurt her. But then she remembered he wasn't staying. She pushed the bedroom door open and entered.

Malcolm didn't follow.

Inside the bedroom, half of her expected a rush of familiarity to fold around her like a homemade quilt. But of course, it didn't. She studied the room: a bed with a checkered blanket and one flat pillow, a wooden dresser, a tiny desk with a chair. Eve closed the door and then sank down on the bed. Hugging her knees to her chest, she stared at the wall. The wallpaper had a swirl of leaves with birds perched on branches and caught mid-swoop in patches of blue. It was a nice bedroom, even if it didn't feel like hers.

She wondered how she even knew this was a bedroom when she didn't remember ever having one. She'd known what a car was too, though the seat belt had felt unfamiliar. She could recognize a few kinds of birds. For example, she knew that these painted ones on the walls were sparrows and the live one outside had been a wren. She didn't know how she knew that. Perhaps Malcolm had told her in one of her lessons.

Or maybe it was a memory, forcing its way to the surface of her mind. But the sparrows she remembered flew. She pictured their bodies, black against a blindingly blue sky. She didn't know where that sky was or when she had seen it. The birds had flown free.

Eve raised her hand toward the birds on the wall. "Fly," she whispered.

The birds detached from the wall.

The air filled with rustling and crinkling as the paper birds fluttered their delicate wings. At first they trembled, but then they gained strength. Circling the room, they rose higher toward the ceiling. They spiraled up and around Eve's head. She reached her arms up, and the birds brushed past her fingers. She felt their paper feathers, and she smiled.

Then she heard a rushing like a flood of water, and a familiar blackness filled her eyes.

* * *

I am alone in a carnival tent of tattered red. Music, tinny and warped, swirls around me. Fog teases my feet as if it wishes to taste me. A trapeze swings empty above me, and then it's not empty. A broken doll dangles from it.

I hear a man's voice. Loud, as if to an audience, he says, "Choose a card."

The trapeze vanishes, and I am standing in front of a table covered in red velvet. Cards lie in front of me: seven of spades, queen of hearts, jack of diamonds, a castle caught in thorny vines, a man hanging from a tree...

"Choose a card," the Magician says.

He's a shadow in the mist.

I study the cards. Perhaps the castle, I think. I reach for it.

The Magician catches my wrist. "Not for you." His voice is soft, nearly a purr in my ear, and I want to ask why not. No sound comes out of my mouth. I touch my throat. I feel bumps in my skin, even, in a row, straight across my neck.

My scream is silent.

* * *

Lying on the bed, Eve sucked in air. Her hands flew to her neck. Smooth skin. She swallowed and felt her throat throb as though she had screamed it raw.

The birds were on the floor, lifeless as paper.

She heard a knock on the bedroom door. "Food's ready, if you're hungry." It was Aunt Nicki. "Sandwiches. Microwave soup."

Eve jumped up and scooped the paper birds off the floor. They lay limp in her hands with feathers spread and beaks open. She shoved them into a dresser drawer just as the doorknob turned.

Aunt Nicki stuck her head into the room. "You okay?"

Eve nodded. Leaning against the dresser, she wet her lips and wondered whether she could speak. Worst vision yet, she thought.

The woman sighed. "This is the part where I say something all touchy-feely about how it's all going to be okay and this will feel like home in no time and you have a wonderful opportunity to reinvent yourself and your life..."

"You can skip that speech if you want," Eve said. Her throat felt rough, as if she'd swallowed sand. She licked her lips again.

"Awesome," Aunt Nicki said. "Come out and eat so you don't faint."

Eve's eyes slid to the bed. Anyone could see she'd been lying there. She didn't know if Aunt Nicki noticed. "In a minute, okay?"

Aunt Nicki closed the door.

Eve sagged. After a moment, she recovered and peeked in the dresser drawer at the limp birds. The branches in the wallpaper were bare now, and the leaves fanned out against an empty blue sky. "Sorry," she whispered to the birds. She wondered if they'd liked their taste of freedom or if they'd been scared. She shut the drawer again, gently this time.

Eve left the bedroom before Aunt Nicki could return to fetch her. She found the two agents in a tiny kitchen. They sat at a table squeezed between the refrigerator and a wall.

"Ham, chicken, or turkey?" Aunt Nicki asked without looking at Eve. She pointed to bags of cold cuts on the kitchen table. "Or do you want to be a vegetarian?"

Eve selected a roll and picked at the crust. She sat at the table, a little closer to both of them than she liked, but there wasn't much choice.

"Vegetarians don't eat meat," Malcolm explained. "No hamburgers. No sausage. No steak. No bacon. No pepperoni." He helped himself to a stack of ham slices and shoved them into a roll. "Instead, they eat a lot of beans. Also, fruit. This is a kiwi, by the way." He speared a slice of green fruit with a fork and ate it.

He was being kind again, acting as if he could heal the holes inside her if only he were helpful enough, and Eve had to look away, studying the kitchen instead of him. The kitchen was sparse but clean. The yellow walls were nice. The counter had been scoured bare in spots. Not all of the cabinets hung straight. The lace curtains drooped over closed shades. She interrupted a discussion of the pros and cons of vegetarianism to ask, "Can we open the shades?"

Malcolm and Aunt Nicki exchanged looks.

"We could," Malcolm said slowly.

"You said I'd be safe here," Eve said.

Both of them nodded. "So long as you follow the rules," Aunt Nicki said. "No witness who followed the rules has ever been harmed in the history of the witness protection program."

Malcolm studied her with narrowed eyes. "Repeat the rules."

Eve put down her roll. The crumbs felt like dry dust in her mouth. "No contact with anyone I used to know. No phone calls. No letters. No smoke signals. And if telepathy miraculously becomes possible, no telepathy either."

"And?" he prompted.

"Don't tell anyone about my past," Eve said.

"And?"

"Don't discuss the case."

Malcolm nodded. "Good."

Eve crossed to the window and raised the shades. She looked outside at the brown lawn with the crooked tree, the black agency car with the tinted windows, and the dull gray sky.

"Feel better?" Aunt Nicki asked.

Eve didn't answer.

 

Available now from Bloomsbury / Walker Books for Young Readers.

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ISBN: 9780802734587

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