The next morning Venus knocked on Zaren and Dervinias’s bedroom door. “You guys, we need to talk. Right away.”

“It’s six in the morning. Give me another couple hours,” Dervinias griped. 

“Be right there.” Zaren sounded like he’d been awake for hours.

“It’s important, Dervinias. Get your lazy butt out here.” Knowing Dervinias and Zaren would be reading her mind, she scanned through Michael’s memories. In less than sixty seconds both guys were seated at the tiny kitchen table barreling questions at her.

Frustrated, Venus counted backward. Three. Two. One. “This is a disaster. Who would kill his mother? Why?” Sorrow pierced her heart for Michael. “And where did his father take him? He must be so upset.” She slid down in the rickety black chair, feeling torn. Not only would Michael be devastated, maybe unable to ever love, but Venus felt sorry for herself, too. “I only have a few days left.”

Venus struggled not to cough. Stress was an understatement. Her heart pounded against her ribs with such fervor she supposed it could be seen through her white tank top. A day ago she’d considered giving up. Now she didn’t want too. But what could she do if she had no idea how to find Michael?

Dervinias had his chin in his chest. It looked like he’d fallen asleep. Not helping.

Zaren said, “At some point Michael’s mind will give us a clue.” He wore his serious face. She knew he was trying to figure out what their next move should be.  

Venus focused on her fear, on the way her body cried out in pain, and in her difficulty to breathe.

“Yes, but when. What if he’s too far away? My body isn’t working properly. It’ll give out soon. I can sense my organs breaking down, turning to mush.”

Proving the point, a fit of coughing erupted. When she covered her mouth, a large amount of blood drenched her hand. A metallic taste, like liquid silver, filled her mouth. The tang upset her stomach. Reaching for a napkin from the middle of the table, Venus discreetly wiped her mouth and hand. Then she balled it up. 

“Blood? How can that be? It’s too soon.” Zaren placed his warm hand over hers, gently prying the napkin away and wrapping it in another one.

She stood and rinsed her mouth out in the sink. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I keep taking off the boots. Clearly they are attached to my changing, but I think it’s more than that.” She sat down and placed her left ankle on top of her right knee. The position made seeing inside the clear heels easier. The red heart still thumped, but it’d slowed.   

“Why do you say that?” Zaren asked, moving his chair closer to hers. He leaned over, glancing at the heel. As an automatic reaction, Venus moved her foot under the seat of her chair, nervous about sharing her weaknesses with anyone. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” he said, shaking his head and sitting back. 

It’s Zaren. If anyone can know, it’s him. “It’s all right. I want you to look. Maybe you can tell me what the symbols mean.” She returned her heel to her knee and pulled him toward her. Their eyes met.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“No. Go ahead.”

She watched him touch the heel, turning it back and forth a little. After a few moments, he sucked in his breath. Venus wasn’t ready to hear what he had to say. Didn’t want more bad news.

“The heartbeat has slowed a lot since my birthday.” She released a sigh. “I shouldn’t have removed them. Ever. Its—”

“What?” Zaren asked, grasping her arm and caressing it with his thumb. It made the tiny hairs on her arm stand on end. The sensation almost pushed away all of her fears. Almost. But not quite. 

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