5 - The Skeptic Village (I)

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I

There wasn't much Reem could ask as they left the garage with the broken Viral girl. And she was broken. He could tell. Something was off. She wasn't quite Viral and she wasn't quite human, but she wasn't quite right either. It wasn't just because of the woman in that photo. It wasn't the only reason she was here. He didn't know how he knew it but he could sense it. And he didn't like it. He didn't like how Mikie seemed to tremble as they left. She acted like she was holding herself together, but he could see it there, the indecision, the conflict buzzing through her.

She needed to shoot something and they both knew it. But he didn't offer to be her partner. He didn't offer to lend her his gun, either. He wanted to keep that. And besides, they weren't friends. Not really.

He didn't know why, exactly, she had brought him to see that girl, Maria, in the garage. Why she hadn't taken Garrett or West or literally anyone else from camp, aside from maybe because he was new. Maybe he was so new that anyone else would have known Maria. Would have made a decision he hadn't. Maybe no one else would have listened to Mikie when she told them not to shoot. Maybe she brought him because he was just plain stupid.

Because he should have shot that thing. It wasn't normal. It wasn't right. It didn't belong so close to camp, either.

And yet he listened to Mikie. Like an idiot. Anyone else would have shot that thing and spared anyone the headache of figuring it out, or figuring out where people were disappearing to—that was if people started to disappear. And they hadn't, not yet. But there was only time. There was always time. And he had a sinking feeling as he followed Mikie back to the heart of the neighborhood that it was only a small matter of time before something big happened.

"Not a word of this, to anyone."

He eyed Mikie. She was sharp, pointed like a knife again, with the glint of gunmetal to her eyes, no longer warm. Because they'd been warm in that garage. They'd been friendly and sorry and sad. And yet out here, in the open, she was colder than ice. He knew that look, knew it all too well. She was wounded and Maria was her secret—or part of it. Maria was a part of her, a part she wished to hide. A part she didn't show to many, that warm part, that hopeful part. Because in a world like theirs, there was little room for hope at all.

"Who am I going to tell? No one trusts me anyway." He shrugged, slipping his gun into the holster on his hip.

He wondered if Mikie saw what he saw in her when she looked at him, that mask, the guard he wore tight like a blanket, like a second set of clothes. He wondered if anyone could see past his shell or if the walls he'd built in school yards and in foster homes were too thick to cut through anymore. He wondered if Mikie knew that they were similar, guarded, careful. He wondered if she thought she could trust him—and he wondered if she was right to, with this secret. Because he could go back to that garage and kill that thing before word got out. He could cross her.

And yet....

"Who is she, anyway? I mean, who was she, here?" He gestured to camp, hoping she'd trust him with that much.

She looked toward her house, toward West's house, and he watched Garrett cross the street to the single home they'd converted into a store unit. He didn't notice them down the road. There was something heavy to his shoulders, Reem could see it, a darkness lied there, a responsibility too heavy for him to carry, but he couldn't name it. Not yet. He didn't know enough yet. He knew that much, that he didn't know enough. He never knew enough. It forced him to be trusting, that lack of knowledge.

"Someone...important." The second word came out as a whisper, as if Mikie couldn't decide whether to say it at all or to leave Maria as simply someone. But the important meant something. Important to who? Mikie, obviously. They were best friends. But who else? Who was Mikie trying to protect by swearing him to secrecy? And were they worth protecting? Were any of them?

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