For several seconds I couldn't speak. Was I going mad? It was impossible, but there he was.
'Is it really you?' I said at last, my voice coming awkwardly, stupidly.
He nodded. In the half-light of the forest I could see the marks of the Change on his skin, the light of it burning in his eyes. 'It is.' His voice was flat, almost affectless.
I drew back warily. 'But how? Quarantine took you. You're . . . You should be . . . I thought you were dead.'
'I can explain later. We have to leave. Are you alone?'
I hesitated. None of this made sense.
'Yes. I mean no. Gracie, she . . .'
'Is she with them?'
He glanced back the way I had come.
'Please,' I said. 'You have to help me find her.'
He shook his head. 'You can't help her now.'
'But I can't leave her.'
'You have to,' he said, his voice gentler. 'She's gone.'
I stared at him. 'No, she can't be. If I can just find her, I can –'
'It won't help. She isn't Gracie, not any more. What matters is keeping you safe.'
I looked at him in confusion. How could he not care what happened to his own daughter? His face was so familiar, yet in the glow of the Changed trees there was something about him that was out of sync, something that went beyond the lights in his skin and eyes or his tone of voice. Was I making a mistake? Was this some kind of trick? Suddenly horror gripped me and I lurched backwards.
'No. You're lying.' But as I spoke I lost my footing and stumbled against one of the Changed trees. I landed hard. Stifling a cry, I tried to stand and slipped again. This time I didn't try to get up. I didn't know what to do. None of this made sense. He couldn't be here and yet he was, while Gracie was gone, and Matt . . . All at once grief overtook me and I began to weep, the mute awfulness of their absence washing over me.
My earliest memory of my father is of him swinging me up into the air, his hands releasing me so I flew upward to hang suspended for a moment or two before falling back into his grip. I remember the release of it, the safety. Perhaps that is why when he reached for me now I let myself fall into him again.
'I promise I'll explain everything later,' he said, 'but for now you have to do as I say and come with me. Okay?'
I realise now I was in shock, too confused and overwhelmed to make sense of what was happening. There were so many questions I should have asked, but instead I just nodded and, forcing myself not to look back, let him lead me away through the trees.
At first all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. Every few minutes the reality of what had happened struck me all over again. I would never hear Gracie's voice again, never hear her laugh or see her get any older. I would never hold Matt again, never feel his body next to mine, listen to his breath as he slept. Each of these realisations arrived with a new jolt of pain, a new flood of tears.
In front of me my father moved through the forest with the same noiseless tread as the Changed I had seen earlier. Although I desperately wanted it to be him, his presence here made no sense. How had he escaped Quarantine? How had he made his way north? Why wasn't he altered in the way the other Changed seemed to be?
Although it was five years since Quarantine had arrested him, he seemed both unaltered and like a stranger. Beneath the marks of the Change his face was the one I remembered but nonetheless he was different, and not just because of his distant manner or the unearthly light in his almond-shaped eyes. Was it simply that the father I had held fast to wasn't a person so much as a jumble of memories, some happy, like the feeling of being swung above his head; others more ambiguous, overlaid by the grief of losing him, the constant ache of his absence? Or was it something more than that? I didn't know, and now I was with him I realised I wasn't sure I would be able to tell anyway. All I was sure of was that I wanted him to be the man I thought I remembered.
YOU ARE READING
The Buried Ark: The Change Trilogy Book 2Teen Fiction
Read an advance preview from THE BURIED ARK by award-winning author James Bradley, out 29th May 2018. Available in ebook or print via links in bio! Callie risked everything to get her little sister Gracie to the safety of the Zone. But Matt, the boy...