"How can she hear you?" I whisper back. Cord has knelt next to the terrifying clump of a being - what's left of his grandmother - the grandmother everyone in the Grove thinks died after she was beheaded. Without a head, her ears are only a memory.
He takes her bony wrist and checks her pulse. "She can't, but I still talk to her. It's one of the things we do with recovering patients and it's been proven to increase the success rate of survival by fifty percent."
"I'm so glad she's alive." I try to build on his optimism, no matter how doomed the situation.
"Now you and I both have a dark secret," he says without taking his eyes off of the ghost-like body. It's true. Since Arnica swear an oath to save only those deemed worthy by the Grove, he has broken a law that would send him to the Sunangel injection chair, just like I would for saving Bud - if we're discovered.
I check the duffle getting kicked from within. "Moma?" The muffled shout is followed by actual crying. The deep bawling begins with a scream and then shakes out into a staccato performance. We have to keep him quiet.
I unzip the duffle and pull Bud up into my arms. But he howls like a tormented beast.
"Why won't he stop?" I have zero experience with tikes.
"He's hungry. Hold him in the light," Cord directs.
I do as he says and stand under the bright circle of the opening to this secret cave. Bud pipes down as the warm sun hits his forehead, his little arms, his rooty toes caked in moss. His tear-stained face and shoulders shudder with deep-breath aftershocks.
After a few minutes, Cord brings the water jug and lets him sip. Bud gobbles it down in little gasps like he can't get enough. Soil, sunlight and water are all we need to survive (if we've still got our heads). But he needs to charge too, in a soil bed like we do each night. I see the frame around the grandmother that marks hers.
"I'll make a bed for him here," Cord says, gesturing to the corner. "You need to get to your meet and act like everything's normal." He trades me the duffle for the kid.
"I can stay and help. I'll text Coach with an excuse." I whip out my phone.
"No, we can't have any red flags." He rocks Bud back and forth in one arm like a pro. Bud is mesmerized by his face and breaks into a giggle when Cord smiles.
"Okay, how do I get out of here?"
"Same way you came," Cord says as he pulls a rope ladder away from the gray Aspen-root wall with his free arm. He looks like a super dad with a hefty to do list: watch kid, dig crib, save grandmother.
"Do you have help?"
"What, like servants? Not in my family." I hadn't noticed before the color of his eyes. They are gray flecked with blue veins. Proud eyes.
"No, I mean, do they know your secret or did you save her all by yourself?"
He steps closer. "Our secret. And yes, they know. We take shifts so Mom will be here soon. I'll break the news to her that Grandma's no longer our only patient in hiding."
"Won't they be freaked?" I can't do that to him.
"They don't spook easily; comes with the job of healer."
"Thank you, Cord. I'm sorry to add to your troubles." I sling my duffle behind me and hop on the rope ladder. The guilt of our transfer weighs like water.
"Your welcome. When you're up I'll pull the ladder back in. Don't return here until you get my message."
"Okay," I try to be brave for him.
"Oh, and Fuchsia?" He looks into me - not his grandmother, not the baby - completely into me.
"Yes?" I blink.
"For the love of all that Mamma-Mia'ing, you better cream Rosehill High."
I'm halfway to the natatorium before I realize I forgot to ask, will the message he sends be by Trout or Cloak? Either way, I'll stay close to the water.
Coach shakes her head at me when I try to blend into the team already warming up. But my time makes up for it. I swim like I'm my own powerful current, stronger than air, brighter than light, rushing somewhere else so much more important. I imagine Cord watching.
I can't find Mom and Dad in the crowd. They are usually easy to spot with their embarrassing Fast and Furious Fuchsia! sign. But Lily's there cheering me on. She sits with Why and Scarlet, which a week ago would have been alarming, but under the circumstances seems normal. Is our class actually starting to bond like all those peppy adults promised? Or is Lily making a power play now that Lemon's spot at the popular bench is unoccupied?
Del is in the bleachers too, getting lots of sympathy hugs. Our eyes ignore each other, and anger at his underkiss proposal only fuels my performance in the second event. Coach gives me a rare clipboard pat on the back.
I dominate both of my events. Magenta, the Brook Primrose tribe member I consider a friend, wins her competitions too. We do cheesy fist bumps and sit together during final results. "Sad about Lemon," she says.
"Even if she was so awful, it's tragic. Do you think she'll live?"
"Arnica Tribe was there when it happened so Mom says her chances are better." I don't say Cord's family. He is part of my secret now and the less I talk about him the better.
"I heard Paintbrush Tribe members can't survive trauma without nutrients from a host plant," Magenta says.
"Then it's good her friends are so loyal. I'm sure Why or Scarlet will be glad to help."
"No, they can't. They're Paintbrush Tribe too. It has to be someone from a different species."
"Well then, Del can rescue her just like he wants to. That'll be his BIG MOMENT."
Coach is staring at us. Magenta looks at the floor like she's not talking to me.
"Sorry, I'm just a little peeved at him," I explain. Coach shushes me with her face but doesn't say anything. She's too proud of us to get mad.
Magenta whispers to me while Coach goes into a rant about some people not being ready for their events today. "I get it, he's a complete ass. But he can't save her either. Larkspur Tribe members carry poison in their veins. Her family's looking for a donor, but you know she was so bitchy outside of her Paintbrush clique, it's kind of slim pickins."
"Oh, right. I forgot." That's what makes him so desirable, his dangerous side. "He asked me to be his underkiss, if Lemon doesn't make it."
"What? What did you say?"
"Are you kidding? I'm not jumping in that shallow gene pool." I reference her joke from last week; that seems like a year ago.
After the meet, the team heads out for fro-yo. I want so badly to go to the hideout in the Aspen roots and tell Cord I won my events, but I need to wait for his message. The least I can do for putting him in even more danger is to follow his orders.
Magenta and I are getting in her car, when her mom turns to me from the driver's seat. "Fuchsia sweetie, your parents had to miss the meet. Your Mom asked me to tell you. She's - they're being held for questioning by the Columbine guards. I'm so sorry."
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to @Red_Harvey Red_Harvey who created the sparkling and captivating new cover for The Grove. Check out her sleek and sexy writing across genres of Mystery, Sci Fi, Horror and Spec Lit.
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The Grove is a Wattpad Featured Story. Fifteen-year-old Fuchsia speaks like an average teen navigating the usual drama, but her community of tribes called The Grove is an even more terrifying place to be than the halls of high school. The two major...