The night air whips through her hair as they tumble down, residual shards of glass shimmering in the air around them. There’s a deep cut on her leg from where the jagged remains of the window caught her on the way out, and Zack smells like a charnel house, and Rachel Gardner feels alive for the first time in what feels like forever—feels alive for the first time since the fire, since waking up ‘safe and sound’ in protective custody, since the pills she started swallowing and the therapy she learned to lie her way through.
She won’t tell Zack about the therapy, she decides as he hits the ground in a thunderous crouch, her nose stopping inches from the institution’s neatly manicured lawn.
Zack hates lies, after all. Even if they weren’t lies she said to him, he might get mad at her.
“Quit it, quit it,” Zack cackles, shifting her from under his arm to over his shoulder as he bolts forward at a dead sprint. “If you keep grinnin’ like that, I’ll end up killing ya before we’re outta here, Ray!”
“…Ah.” Her hands rise to cover her mouth. Behind them, she can hear the faint wail of an emergency alarm. “Sorry, Zack.”
“What’re you apologizing for, weirdo?”
“For smiling,” Rachel tells him, as he nimbly leaps on top of the wrought iron fence surrounding the property and uses it to bound his way over a bus stop and land on the sidewalk, his inhuman pace never faltering once. Not for the first time, she has to wonder at his Quirk, for all that they’ve never really talked about it; enhanced strength, agility, functional immortality… Zack is amazing, in a lot of ways. She can hear the wail of police cars coming closer, but this sort of thing is old-hat to Zack; he hauls her across the street and ducks through a parking garage. It must be the way he came, because half of the lights and all of the security cameras she can see have been smashed up.
“You should. It still sucks.”
She sees yellow rubble littering the aisles—ostensibly the remains of a parking pole, and his ammo of choice for tonight—and wonders if he has found a replacement for his scythe yet. She wonders how he’ll do it; how he’ll finally make their promise come true. She wonders dreamily, dazedly, delightedly, how he’s going to kill her.
“Dammit, Ray! What did I just say about grinnin’?!”
“You said it sucks,” Rachel dutifully reminds him as they slip out of the parking garage and into, fittingly, the back alleys.
“It does, but less than it used to. So quit it!”
“Okay,” she agrees placidly, cupping her chin in her hands. To curtail her expression, she instead tries to wrack her brain for anything the nurses or therapists might have told her about the local Hero scene. She hadn’t been interested at the time, but from what she can recall the closest one has an office halfway across town. The state capital is thirty-five miles up the turnpike, so that’s where most of the interesting things happen. “…I think Gentelephantman and his Sidekicks are still in the hospital over in the city, so we just have to worry about the police tonight.”
“Who?” Zack shoots her a glance of pure confusion as they hustle down a labyrinth of progressively older and dirtier brick walls.
“Dunno anything about that,” he tells her, squinting at a particularly dilapidated billboard and then taking a sharp left, clambering over a low wall and jogging through what appears to be the back entrance to a bar or club of some kind. A man is passed out on the asphalt, and a woman is helping her friend heave into a particularly large, glittery, and dirty-looking bucket near the dumpsters; none of them pay the two of them any mind as Zack sets off down another tiny street.
“You aren’t worried?”
“Pfft.” Zack tosses a grin of his own down at her, smugness oozing from every tooth. Idly, Rachel wonders how they’re so white, given what she knows about his poor eating habits. “It’s not like any Hero ever caught me before, is it?”
“That’s true,” she concedes.
He continues on, but she pays no attention to the turns he’s taking, or the way the architecture gradually changes around them. After a long period of silence, she speaks up again.
“I’m sorry I got you caught, Zack,” she says, gripping his hoodie and staring at the ground. “I’m glad they didn’t kill you.”
“Like hell they could kill me,” he snorts, then lifts a hand to thump her firmly on the head. “I already beat a stupid electric chair, didn’t I? Already beat that crazy sadistic bitch’s weird poisons, didn’t I? …and like hell you got me caught. I walked outta that shithole on my own two feet, dumbass.”
He thumps her again. “‘But’ nothin’. If you’re just going to spew crappy apologies at me, can it.”
Rachel obediently cans it, keeping her head down until she sees Zack’s feet slow to a walk. She glances up in time to nearly get brained by a loose plank of wood as Zack ducks into an abandoned, half-built, half-decayed building. From the smell of it, this is is his latest hunting grounds; she sees a few tattered and dismembered bodies piled up as they drift through the bare concrete hallways and dusty scaffolding. She doesn’t have much time to dwell on what he can apparently accomplish in the span of a few hours, because the next thing she knows they’re outside again, and Zack is letting her down.
She smooths out the white frock the institution had given her, and when she looks up her breath catches in her throat. Behind the abandoned building is an abandoned lot, caged in by similarly deserted and dark half-built structures and overrun with tangled grass and weeds.
And flowers. A veritable sea of small, white flowers, practically glowing in the moonlight.
“You like crap like this, right?” She glances back and catches Zack looking away, rubbing the back of his neck. “You had a bunch of fake ones on your Floor.”
“Yeah.” She squeezes her hands in front of her, feeling her lips curve into another smile.
“…Not bad,” Zack tells her, his mismatched eyes lighting up in approval as he ruffles her hair. Without looking away, he uses his free hand to tug a knife out of some hidden holster under his sweatshirt. It’s a little similar to the one he had originally leant her as they were making their escape, but she doesn’t know much about the types of knives out there. She assumes it came off the corpse of an armed guard or Hero, so it must be decent quality if it was expected to do anything against the notorious Isaac Foster.
Her heart quickens as he steps towards her, and her throat goes tight.
It’s happening. It’s happening. It’s finally, finally happening.
“Ready,” she says, taking a deep, relieved breath.
“You got three seconds to run,” Zack tells her, hand still gently laced in her hair. Neither of them has looked away yet. “No more, no less.”
“I’m a swell guy like that,” he jeers. His fingers drum against her scalp, like an eager kid barely holding himself back from grabbing a toy off the shelf. “One.”
She lets her hands fall loose by her sides, pulse quickening in anticipation.
They both know she won’t run. They have a promise to keep.
He’s too fast. She only sees a flash of moonlight on polished metal, and then a faint chilling-burning sensation that blooms into sudden pain as a spray of red splashes between them. The force of the swipe knocks her off her feet, sending her to the ground with a puff of white and red-spattered petals. Movies and books always make it seem like time slows down in situations like these, but he’s just too fast; he’s on her before she can fully appreciate her sudden view of the night sky.
He kneels over her, grinning in a way that utterly outshines the bright moon behind him, and slams the knife down with his normal brutal strength. She feels something crack, feels a wet, gushing heat, and a choked cry is forced out of her lungs. But Zack doesn’t falter, doesn’t slow down; he hauls back and stabs her, again and again and again. Reflexive tears flood her eyes, but even with her blurred vision she can see the way her blood splashes onto him, soaking into his clothes and bandages.
She’s so happy. It’s finally over. It hurts, but it’s just what she wanted, exactly what he promised her; that’s why her smile hasn’t faltered, even as the knifework gets sloppy and high, reckless laughter bounces and echoes around the empty lot. Her vision grays out around the edges, like an old, broken television. The last thing she sees, before her vision fails her entirely and the cold begins to seep over her, is Zack’s jubilant grin.
Her eyes flutter open, and the first thing she sees is Zack’s thunderous, furious scowl.
“What the fuck?!” He bellows, right into her face, and presses the knife to her throat for good measure. “Have you been lyin’ to me again, Ray? You know I hate that shit!”
“…” Rachel blinks up at him. “…I don’t understand,” she admits after a long moment. She glances down, and finds her shift stained and peppered with more slashes than she can count, but… beneath it, there’s only pale, unbroken and unstained skin. “Zack… you killed me, didn’t you?” He did. She knows he did. She felt her ribs break, felt things puncture and spill and splatter. She can still see some of it staining him.
Her pulse—which she felt slow and weaken, she knows she did—jumps as panicked dismay slowly hatches in the pit of her stomach and worms its way up her throat.
“I sure as hell did!” Zack tells her hotly, sitting back on his heels and tossing his arms in the air. Apparently, he’s satisfied that this isn’t some sick joke she planned on pulling. “You were stone-cold gone, for real. Cut your throat to make sure you weren’t pulling a Danny on me an’ everything.”
She pats her neck, chest, and belly down, but finds nothing amiss. “…Maybe… maybe the knife has some trick to it?”
“…don’t think so,” Zack said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder back at the building they came through. “None of the other bastards I offed with it pulled this shit.”
“I… don’t understand,” Rachel says again. She grips at the grass and flowers beneath her, suddenly dizzy in a way that has disappointingly little to do with blood-loss. “Zack, I don’t understand. Why?” She stares up at him, eyes wide with an emotion she can’t calm down enough to identify. “Why? Zack, why am I alive?”
Zack is silent for a long moment, staring down at her impassively.
Rachel stares back, desperate and afraid—but not of him.
Something in his expression shifts. “Hey, Ray,” he says slowly. “You told me… you were Quirkless.”
“I am,” she reaffirms. It had been one of the many, many reasons she had been a burden and to blame for the ruined state of her family, according to her parents.
“That’s the legit diagnosis?” It would be wrong to say that Zack speaks in a careful tone, because very little about him has anything to do with being careful, but there’s a strange undertone to the way he’s speaking, a weird look in his eyes. He’s puzzling something together, bit by bit.
“…No,” Rachel says. Her mind won’t let her fill in the blanks of where this line of conversation is headed. Not on her own. Not now, not when she had been so close to what she had longed for, not when she was finally going to die. The words drift out of her without any real cognitive input on her end. “When I was little… a purse-snatcher ran over my feet on a bicycle. He… had a gravity Quirk of some kind, I think. Dad arrested him for it, but my toes were crushed. At the hospital… they reconstructed them easily enough with one of the doctors’ Quirks, but they had to guess about my pinky toes. So, when my Quirk never manifested… we figured that I must have had the extra joint to begin with after all.”
“I have no idea what the hell broken feet are supposed to do with you havin’ a Quirk or not,” Zack tells her bluntly, “but if this ain’t a Quirk, I don’t know what it is. When I kill people, they stay dead. Full stop. You’re the only weird one. …Except for Danny,” he allows, eyes narrowing to slits at the memory. “But he cheated, and he’s gone now. But you’re still here.”
“I’ve never had a Quirk before,” Rachel murmurs, staring up at the moon. The numbness is fading rapidly now.
Zack shrugs, almost lackadaisical now that her honesty is no longer in question. “You’ve never been murdered before,” he points out.
“True,” she has to admit. After a moment of blinking up at the night sky and just… absorbing that sudden swerve in the road of her life, she eases herself up into a sitting position. It’s easier than it should be. More than just not feeling as brutalized as a lobster after a fancy dinner, she feels excellent; energetic and fully rested. She also can’t feel the stable, cool fog of her medication ghosting around the edges of her mind. She has enough to digest for the night, so she decides to worry about that set of implications later.
“So,” Zack says, propping his cheek on his fist. “What’re we gonna do?”
Ray blinks at him. “We?” She echoes.
He reaches over, flicking her square in the middle of her forehead. “You’re the brains of the operation here, remember? What’s our plan? Am I supposed to try again?”
“Yes,” she says firmly. “I don’t think I’ll be able to smile very well right now, though,” she admits, as he reaches for his knife again. “So, it doesn’t have to be tonight. We… should probably get out of town as soon as possible, though. I don’t want you to end up in jail again.”
“Me neither,” Zack nods and nimbly hops to his feet, hauling her up as well. He pulls a disgusted face at the way the motion tugs at her ruined shift. “You look gross as hell, though, so we oughtta get you some new clothes before we split.”
And just who’s fault is that, she doesn’t quip, because neither of them is up for a silly argument like that tonight. “Okay,” she says, closing her eyes briefly to compose herself. “So… we need new clothes for me,” she raises a finger, “a way to leave,” up goes another finger, “and probably some cash or supplies, depending on how long we need to hide out.” Bringing the total to three. Rachel stares at her own fingers, moist from the bloodied soil. A place where all three of those are available would be ideal, but is there a place like that?
After some thought, her head snaps up.
“You got an idea?” He asks, watching her with palpable amusement.
“I do,” she confirms. “Zack, did you see any high schools around this area?”
“Hell if I know,” is the immediate reply. “What does one of those look like?”
It takes a bit of back-and-forth before Rachel can communicate what she wants. The first place he takes her is an elementary school, to give him credit, but there’s a sign for Kincaid High School six blocks up. There’s a grassless baseball field and a cracked and faded quarter-mile track out back, so she assumes the gymnasium is the large building closest to them. Zack kicks in the door, with its faded and peeling paint, and they make their way across cheap, faded wood floors. It’s summer, now, and the neighborhood they’re in doesn’t seem to be doing the best, overall; it’s not likely that there are any alarms. She tries a series of dots until she finds one that is locked and lacks a window.
“Zack,” she says, and he almost yanks it right off the hinges.
“What?” He asks, blinking as she stares at him.
“That… was easy,” she notes slowly.
“’Course it was,” he scoffs. “S’not like they made these things to stand in my way.”
That sounds about right, she reflects. Reverend Gray had probably had to reinforce everything when he first decided to bring in Zack. She shakes off her surprise and heads into the office. It’s dark—everything is dark—but it’s the middle of summer, so there’s a faint layer of dust that gets disturbed as she rummages through the desk. She gets Zack to yank open a few locked drawers, snapping the relatively weak metal mechanisms in the process, before striking gold.
There are three sets of keys. One is on a flimsy key ring, barely twisted together and holding a single silver key; there’s a tattered ribbon of masking tape folded over itself around one curve of it, with ‘UNIFORMS’ scrawled out in cramped, blocky letters. It looks like it corresponds with the large metal cabinets in the corner, so she tosses it to Zack and continues examining her haul.
The second set is heavy in her palm, and nearly full all around with keys; extras to the school, she deduces, after squinting enough to read room abbreviations on the heads of the squat, dingy bronze heads. She flips her way through it to the one marked ‘CAF.’ and sets the whole thing to one side. The final keyring, however, is what she’s been looking for from the start. The key itself has a hard plastic fob, and the ring also sports an old luggage tag.
She can just barely read ‘Driver’s Ed’ behind the foggy and scratched plastic casing.
“Bingo,” Zack says from behind her, tossing open the cabinet doors with an unsettlingly loud amount of clattering. Rachel sighs, but moves to see what he’s found all the same. Stacked on the shelves in cardboard boxes are various sports uniforms. The school colors seem to be black, white, and red. The mascot, from what she can tell, is apparently a killer whale despite the school being nowhere even remotely close to the ocean. Rachel forgoes the mascot-printed jerseys in favor of taking several sets of the smallest white t-shirt and black running shorts she can find. She also pulls down some large sweatpants and t-shirts that look like they’ll fit Zack when she holds them up to him.
“Quit it,” Zack tells her, smacking her on the head with something red, white, and covered in crinkly plastic. She pulls it off and opens it, and finds herself looking at an un-lettered letterman jacket. “Put that on when you get changed,” Zack tells her. “You won’t have any pockets, otherwise.”
She takes a moment to stare up at him, deeply impressed at that sudden spurt of forethought and logic on his part.
“The hell’s that look for? Pockets are important, dammit.” He scowls, vigorously ruffles her hair into a mess with both hands, and stomps out of the office. “Just hurry up and get changed already, smartass!”
Ray obediently changes, putting her torn and bloodstained shift into the plastic bag that the jacket had come in. The jacket itself is warm and smells faintly of chemicals, and the t-shirt is a little creased and stiff, but the shorts have a drawstring she can tie off and everything fits. She finds a few cheap pull-string backpacks in the bottom corner of the cabinet and stuffs them with the remaining clothes, then takes the empty ones that remain and shuffles out into the hallway with the whole load. Zack shoots her a flat look and takes all of them from her, hoisting them onto one shoulder.
They head to the cafeteria next. There’s no cash in the registers, Rachel knows without looking, but the refrigerators and freezers do yield juice pouches. Rachel stops Zack from taking any of the frozen food, but lets him grab all the chips, cookies, and pint-sized sports drinks he can fit into their remaining bags. There’s a half-empty plastic bag filled with small apples that she grabs on the way out as well, as an afterthought.
They spend the next fifty minutes looking for where the Driver’s Ed car is actually parked, since the main lot is empty, but once they find the tarp-covered carport on the other side of the property, half hidden by an encroaching copse of trees. It’s a nondescript station wagon, an older, boxier model than some of what Rachel has seen on the streets, but all the right lights flash when she hits the fob keys to unlock it.
Zack unceremoniously yanks open one of the backseat doors and dumps their haul inside, uncaring of the crackling sound of the chip bags cushioning the fall. Half-recalling some of her father’s griping from years ago, Rachel circles around to the back and carefully peels off the STUDENT DRIVER decals off, crumpling them up into one sticky wad and tucking it away in one of her deep jacket pockets. Finally, she scoops up a handful of soil and smears it over the license plate to obscure a few of the digits, making a mental note to snag another one if and when they leave the state. That done, she claps her hands clean and jogs over to the driver’s side, slipping in and carefully pressing the lock button once Zack has obligingly slouched down into the passenger’s side.
“Do you have pedals on your side?” She asks as she begins experimenting with the seat and mirror controls.
“Uh…” Zack bends forward and squints at his feet, before perking up. “Hey, yeah I do! That’s weird.”
“Don’t touch them,” Rachel advises, once she’s oriented in a way that… feels right. The mirrors are giving her a pretty good view of the pile of filthy and dented traffic cones behind them, at least, so she’s taking that as an indication of success. “Not yet, at least.”
“Tch.” He folds his arms and slouches harder.
She slots the key into the ignition and turns, then takes a deep breath as the engine rumbles to life. She also takes a moment to familiarize herself with the controls, because she’s never seen a car from this perspective. Windshield wipers, headlights, radio, turn signals…
“Okay,” she says. “Ready. Let’s go.”
“Fucking finally,” Zack grumbles, but his eyes are gleaming in excitement.
Rachel carefully shifts into drive, and eases her toe against one of the pedals.
‘I AM HERE - FOR A RECOUNT!’ cries the front page of the tabloid by the register, backed by the beaming visage of All Might she half-recognizes from an old social studies textbook. Exit polls show that the Number One Hero is also the Number One Write-In Candidate - and has been for years! the coverline explains.
“Will that be all today?” The gas station attendant has finished ringing up the various snacks, drinks, and travel-sized toiletries while Rachel was browsing the latest nonsense.
Rachel lifts up her sunglasses, which probably cost somebody a pretty penny once upon a time, just enough to squint at the total, dimly flickering at the top of the register in green pixels. “That, and twenty dollars on Pump 7,” she says, digging out her wallet—or rather, the wallet of the late Barcelona Davis, pink leather and rose-gold accents with a brand impressed, smooth and glittery in the corner—and leafing out the right amount of cash.
She loops the plastic bags around one wrist, tosses her change in the tip jar, and shoves the receipt into her pocket with the wallet. Oregon isn’t as hot as Las Vegas had been, so her hair is gathered up into a fat, messy bun and the jacket has been left zipped at the very bottom and pooled around her elbows to leave her shoulders and torso free. Her t-shirt is knotted snug at the waist and with the sleeves rolled up, and by some funny coincidence is actually an All-Might shirt, patterned after his Silver Age costume. Her wardrobe in any given town depends on the stock of the local Good Will, what Zack’s latest victim has immediate access to, and how recently Zack has given murdering her the old college try.
They’re up to about thirteen attempts, and while none of it has really stuck, they’ve at least learned a few things along the way.
Actually, Rachel has learned quite a bit in the past few months.
She has learned, on roads and highways, when to merge and how to passive-aggressively discourage tailgaters, where the most likely places for speed traps are and what curses she should say when she gets cut off. She has learned, in mini-marts and at roadside stands, how to find good, cheap produce and how many vegetables they should be eating each week. Zack doesn’t enjoy it, but Rachel firmly insists on salads from diners or fast food joints at least two or three times a week, and he has yet to sway her from it.
The image of an abandoned bowl of cereal in his old room, soaked in Coke, haunts her to this day. Never again, she swears. Not on her watch.
From libraries, and their wonderful public internet access, Rachel learns so much more.
She learns that the pills she isn’t taking anymore are called Haloperidol, and that two milligrams twice a day isn’t an unreasonable dosage, for a girl in her situation. She learns that there’s a manhunt back east for her, but mostly people assume she’s already dead. She learns Reverend Gray is alive, and a very popular and lucrative preacher, based down in Georgia as of a month and a half ago. She learns how to best treat old burn wounds, and how to wash out bloodstains. She prints off Easy Reader homeschooling materials, and teaches Zack the basics little by little in motels and parking garages and off TV ads and street signs. She learns that what her father did to her mother is called uxoricide and would have likely been deemed first-degree murder if he had survived to be convicted. She learns that what she did to her father is called patricide and would have likely been deemed voluntary manslaughter and perhaps justifiable, if Dr. Danny had never had any ulterior motives and the truth came out.
She learns that Zack is considered a serial killer, but occasionally branches out into spree killing when the mood takes him. What he did for Rachel is called deicide.
“Gimme,” the serial-sometimes-spree-killer grunts, making grabby hands from where he’s reclined in the backseat. She obligingly passes back his nice, cold Coke since he’s been waiting in the heat while she shopped, and drops the rest of the bags in the passenger seat so she can pump the fuel.
From Zack himself, she has learned how to handle a knife in a fight, how to keep to shadows, and how to scope out a building that is either abandoned or close enough that it can be made abandoned in very little time. She has learned how to spot a druggie or mugger or rapist, and how to block off an alley and silently trail after targets. She has learned how to properly run—though Zack to this day still mocks her top speed—and how to keep a blade sharp.
She has learned—they both have learned—that Midwest Drive-In Movies are always a good way to kill an evening when Zack isn’t jonesing for an actual kill, that it’s impossible to avoid hearing Buffalo Soldier at least once a week while on the road, that Titanic is not actually a horror film even if most of the people die—and that they both agree the door was definitely big enough for Jack too, the entire scene was nonsense—that established local Villains can be very kind to wide-eyed, waifish blond-girls that look like the baby sisters so many of them have lost to the Hollywood dream, and that the fact that she rises again in the end doesn’t invalidate the relief and enjoyment they both respectively find in through the act of Zack killing her.
…Ah. That’s right, her Quirk.
Rachel has learned that death, while fleeting, turns out to be a reset button of sorts for her. Once her heart and brain stop, her body automatically regenerates or reassembles itself or some combination of the two—whichever is most feasible at the time—back into the very pink of health.
The pump beeps as the counter hits $20.00 and she reholsters the fuel nozzle, clicking the cap into place and swinging the little door shut.
Zack belches as she clicks her seatbelt into place and turns the car on, and they both let out a chorus of soft, quiet sighs as the air conditioning kicks back to life. No, Oregon isn’t nearly as hellish as Las Vegas and the stretch of Nevada and Arizona that came before it, but if this road trip has instilled anything in them, it has taught them to eagerly look forward to the cooler autumn months looming just out of reach.
“—a total travesty,” one of the hosts says as the radio pops back on as well. “A complete miscarriage of one of this country’s most sacred institutions!”
“So, I take it you voted for him this time?” His co-host asks, laughter clear in his voice. “Jim—”
“Given the listed choices? You’re damn right I did—”
“He’s a patriot and a wonder!” Jim howls. He sounds unsteadily distanced, as if he has left his seat and begun to pace. His co-host is now nearly crying with laughter. “A testament to his country!”
Zack lets out a long, droning groan as Rachel eases back out onto the Interstate. “I am so fucking sick of hearing about stupid All Might! Change the channel already, Ray!”
Rachel obediently changes over to the next non-talkshow station, which happens to be halfway through a jaunty rendition of Bad Moon Rising. She frowns, thoughtfully, and absentmindedly speeds up and flips off a Corvette that gives every indication of wanting to get in front of her in order to swerve around the truck in front of them, earning herself a loud, angry horn-blare to complete the transaction. “Why is this such an issue?” She wonders, brow wrinkling faintly in thought. “I don’t think it’s possible for him to be President. Wasn’t he born in Japan?”
“…Nah,” Zack says after a long moment. “That doesn’t sound right. He’s all about the red, white, and blue and screams out state names and shit in his fights, right? Sounds pretty American to me.”
He has a point, and Rachel is also a little tired of hearing about All Might, so she hums agreeably and lets the subject drop. A man in a pick-up truck with a horse trailer actually uses hand signals to indicate his desire to get over, and apparently concerned she can’t see his active blinker. Rachel, duly impressed, eases up to let him in.
The Corvette blares its horn again, now directly behind them.
Rachel has learned the proper response to this, too. She sticks her own hand out of the window, one finger extended in a ‘wait’ gesture. She makes sure the car and wheel are as stable as they can be at this speed, then sticks both hands out of the window, middle fingers prominently on display. The Corvette swerves slightly and immediately looses speed, dropping back. She calmly places her hands on the steering wheel and keeps going, switching lanes to get in front of the truck that started it all. As they pass him, she notes that horse-trailer man is laughing convulsively, apparently having witnessed the exchange.
She gives him a respectful nod, and ups her speed. They have about thirty more exits between them and the next city they circled on their roadmap.
Eugene is a name that apparently ticks Zack off just by hearing it, but the city itself doesn’t seem too overwhelming. It looks like any city they stop in, which means it’s easy to fall back on habit. She drops him off by a suitably shady looking alley, then parks at a strip mall two streets over with a 24-hour laundromat. There are two black garbage bags filled with dirty clothes and a tub of detergent pods in the trunk, so she hauls their sack of loose change out of the glove compartment and manages to drag everything inside. She lays claim to an entire row of five washing machines overall and heaves herself up to sit on the middle one, pulling out a book she had found abandoned at a bus stop in Kansas, somewhere along the line.
It’s a weathered paperback copy of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with a broken spine and the tentative annotations of a middle or high schooler who had likely been very upset to have lost the basis for a book report. It’s not a novel that Rachel particularly enjoys reading, but none of the clothes need to be mended and this laundromat doesn’t seem to have a television provided anywhere, so it will at least help her while away the time until Zack is done or the clothes are ready to dry.
Becky the schemer is in the middle of entertaining the prince when the rumbling under Rachel’s legs cuts out, so she marks her page and hops down to transfer the soggy clothes from the washers to the dryers stacked against the interior wall. She realizes, shortly after all the clothes are moved and the quarters are loaded, that she forgot the dryer sheets in the car.
She sighs, and heads back out.
There are sirens in the distance, just like every other city they’ve visited, but perhaps a bit more than average. If Zack’s been unlucky, or gotten carried away, then it might even be because of him. It’s happened before; several times even, down in Louisiana.
Rachel isn’t worried.
If anything, she’s a bit annoyed, but only at herself; she searches the whole trunk, to no avail. After shutting it, she tries the backseat. About five minutes of half-blind groping by the weak light of the laundromat finally yields the squashed, cheap cardboard box. It was jammed underneath the driver’s seat, and the sheets inside have a notable crinkle in them. The soft floral scent doesn’t seem to have faded, though, so all in all it’s fine.
The fact that the sirens have gotten closer and closer, the red and blue lights swerving into the strip mall parking lot…
That’s not fine.
Rachel looks between the squad cars—one, two, three, with four and five coming down the road—and slowly blinks behind her sunglasses.
What was it, she wonders as the first officer gets out, that tipped them off? Had she left hair or something at a crime scene? …No, she always took care to sterilize any place where Zack killed her. Was it the license plates? They were about due to change the current one out, so perhaps. Were they becoming predictable in their route? Impossible. Zack literally pointed to random places on the map, and Rachel navigated them there however she could. There was no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever.
He doesn’t look much like her father, she notes. This officer is dark skinned and well-built, his head close-shaven and his neat beard grass-green. She thinks she might see little white flowers in it, though he’s too far away for her to tell, in this light. But he looks kind, and competent, and the product of healthy living, so really, very little like her father. He’s big, but he knows how to move in order to keep that bulk from seeming threatening, even as he carefully draws closer.
“Miss? Is your name Rachel Gardner?”
It’s her that’s gotten their attention, somehow. Her, and not Zack. She’s not sure why, or how—maybe there was some television special she missed, and somebody recognized her in passing at the gas station—but that’s the reality in front of her.
She has some options here. She and Zack had discussed them at length, just in case they were ever separated and this happened.
Number one is to deny everything, but that has some immediate drawbacks. If she says she isn’t Rachel Gardner, they’re going to want some manner of I.D. just in case, or a contact number for a guardian she doesn’t have. Number two is to bolt, right this second. She could try, and Zack has certainly gotten her used to roaming around dark areas in strange cities, but she’d be leaving a lot behind and there’s no guarantee the police wouldn’t catch and restrain her immediately.
Number three it is. Zack doesn’t like number three, and Rachel isn’t too fond of it either, but it’s the best way to keep things simple.
“How do you know my name?” She asks just as the officer draws breath to repeat himself again.
His expression softens. “My name is Asterius Miles,” he tells her as he sinks to one knee in front of her. His smile is very sad, and very gentle. She wonders if he’s ever had to practice to get it right, the way she has. “My friends call me Terry. I’m… I’m with the police. Like your daddy was.”
Oh. That’s right. She’s off her meds and has been for months; that’s why he’s treating her so gingerly. She hasn’t had any stitching episodes, or at least none that she remembers or Zack has thought to mention, so it hasn’t been much of an issue. But, given what the police think they know about her case—a traumatized young girl, allegedly kidnapped by a serial killer who might also be the cop-killer responsible for her parents’ brutal murder—this level of kind caution is probably highly recommended.
Terry Miles must be very good at his job, she thinks to herself.
“Oh,” she says out loud, partly as an answer and partly because she can see the shape of Zack, half melded into the shadows of an alley on the other side of the street. She can’t see his expression at this distance, but she knows he has to be scowling or furious. He’s always hated talking about option number three, even if he does see the logic to it. She blinks slowly, and he’s gone.
…She isn’t too fond of it either, not by a long shot. But it keeps them too distracted to hunt for Zack before he can go to ground, so she’ll do it all the same.
“Rachel, do you think you could come with us?” Terry asks her. This close, she can see that there are flowers in his beard, like tiny little daisies, and it emits a soft, fragrant aroma. Chamomile, she’s pretty sure. “We’ve been real worried about you, and we’d like to ask you some questions, too.”
Rachel pretends to think about it, sliding her sunglasses up to rest on the top of her head. The flashing lights are near-blinding without them, but better than than having to stare at that empty alley. “Okay,” she says at length. “Let’s do that.”
She thinks Terry is smiling at her, brighter this time, and lets him guide her a few feet before stumbling to a stop.
“Rachel?” He sounds so worried. What a nice man. He’s probably a nice father, too.
“I can’t leave the laundry,” she says, pointing over her shoulder. “I put in about six dollars, but I haven’t started it yet. It’s all soggy.”
He laughs a bit, breathless. “I think we can take care of that.”
And, because he’s a nice man who doesn’t want to stress out a girl he believes to be both fragile and kidnapped, they do. They even use the dryer sheets. Rachel only hopes that she stalled them long enough for Zack to get a decent head start.
As she’s settled into Terry’s squad car, she wonders when she’ll see him again.
She hopes she’ll be able to offer him a good smile, when she does.