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HITTING THE GROUND is the hardest part. Nine times out of ten, it's dirt or grass. But all it takes is that one time on concrete or, worse, asphalt to send even the most experienced Shifter into a panic.
My feet slammed into cobblestone. Muskets cracked and echoed down the alley where I'd landed. Acrid gunpowder stung my nostrils, searing my throat as I fought back a cough and crouched down. The gunfire grew louder and louder, bouncing off both sides of the narrow passageway, so I couldn't tell which direction it was coming from.
Where was I? Valley Freakin' Forge?
Wyck had missed the target by well over two centuries! Good grief. How hard was a twenty-third to twenty-first Shift? And of all the Shifts, it would have to be this one. He'd pay for this when I got back. Don't get me wrong. I love a good transporter prank as much as the next girl, but plop me in the middle of Lex and Concord? I am not having that crap.
Puffs of fresh gunsmoke clouded the already-dim alley. Get it together, Bree. I slipped behind a barrel and pulled out my QuantCom. A Virginia address and instructions popped up: "Bree Bennis, pre-Tricentennial midterm. Deposit package contents on Muffy van Sloot's grave with following message: ‘There's no time like the past.'"
I squeezed the small white box before sliding it into my pocket. I tried not to think about the other object, the one hidden in my shoe. Guilt burbled up in my stomach, but I squashed it down.
Hard to believe so much could ride on one trip back to the past.
Also hard to believe any person would name their child Muffy van Sloot. It almost sounded like some rich person's pet.
Boom! The gunfire sounded right outside the alley.
So help me, I thought, if this is all for a dead cat, heads will roll.
Dr. Quigley could flunk me for all I cared. Okay, that wasn't even a teensy bit true. I couldn't afford a single red flag on this test. Still, I wasn't taking a musket ball to the head for anyone. But at least I knew which state I was in. Unless Wyck had flubbed that, too.
What I needed was to find somewhere safe to figure out my next move. Without a sound, I pushed myself up and prepared to dash to the street for a better look at the battle. But before I could move, I heard an unexpected sound. A digital beeping. A boy and a girl, not much older than me, had slipped into the alley. The girl held up a mobile phone. "It's Rachel," she said.
"Hey, where were you?" the girl said into the phone. As she talked, the boy caressed the back of her neck. She flicked his hand.
What? I ducked back down and glanced at my Com as it analyzed the phone's ringtone. Early twenty-first century. Right where I was supposed to be. Okay, maybe Wyck wasn't a complete idiot after all.
So what the blark was going on?
"I swear we were at the pub for like twenty minutes. No, not Ye Olde Tavern. Ye Olde Pub," she said. The boy nibbled her ear. She swatted his shoulder.
"Ah, c'mon." He kissed a path of pecks down her neck to her jaw. She hesitated a moment, then turned the phone off.
The fade timer on my Com blipped down second by second. I only had five hours before being pulled back to my own time. Tight for any assignment, but even more so with today's less-than-legal extracurricular activity. With a frantic finger, I tapped the edge of the round, smooth device—perfectly masked as a pocket watch to fit into most eras. Come on. It was taking forever to pinpoint my location, and my destination could be hours away. There was no more time to waste. I had to do something.
"Hello." I stood up from behind the barrel. The boy and girl jumped apart.
"You sh-sh-should … Th-th-this is … private," stammered the girl.
"Yeah, nothing says private like a makeout session amid musket fire," I said under my breath as I pushed my way past the lovebirds and stuck my head around the corner of the alleyway.
A sea of scarlet coats, side-holstered drums, and fifes greeted me. Crowds of spectators lined the street. Ahh, heck. Duped by a Revolutionary reenactment parade. I checked my fade timer again. I'd lost precious minutes. Then again, I couldn't see my transporter doing something drastic like force fading me as soon as the time limit was up. Not that I would let it come to that.
I'd been rubbing the eyelash of a scar at the base of my skull without even thinking about it. Enough. Focus. I flipped my Com to the geolocator. Williamsburg. A good 150 miles from this Chincowhatever place on the other side of Virginia.
Contrary to public opinion, time travel is not an exact science. Whenever I need a good giggle, I'll watch an antique movie where the hero zips back twenty years, mere minutes before an explosion, to save the heroine in the nick of time. Or, for an even bigger laugh, watch one where he Shifts forward to meet his grandkids. Snort.
When Shift came to shove, getting me within two days and two hundred miles of my goal wasn't shabby transporting. Not shabby at all. Not that I'd admit it to Wyck's face.
I stepped into the bright street and disappeared into a mob of strollers and camera-wielding dads. I stood on my tiptoes, a necessary measure given my small stature, in search of …
Bingo. School buses.
It wasn't like I got extra credit for being frugal on missions. But then again, nobody handed out medals for blowing a big wad of era cash on a three-hour cab ride. A few bonus points for resourcefulness might even push me up a grade if I was teetering on the line. Up until six months ago, I never would have worried about a measly midterm. Then again, there were a lot of things I never would have considered before six months ago.
Temporal smuggling, for one.
Stop it. I had precious little time as it was. And certainly not enough to waste on a squeaky conscience. Everything had to appear completely normal on this assignment or I could get caught.
I jogged across the street, into the sea of buses. Up and down the rows, I searched. Blark, there were a lot of them.
"Come on, come on, come on." I raced down the final row and let out a sigh of relief. The last block of buses said "Accomack County School District," my destination. I staked out a hiding spot near them, behind an old oak.
A swarm of elementary kids clambered past. Too bad I couldn't hop on their bus. I was short for sixteen, but I wasn't that short. Rule number one of Shifting: Don't stick out.
Okay, technically, that would be Rule number two, the first one being: Don't bring anything from the past back with you. But that one's a no-brainer. Fiddle with the past all you want, fine. It's not like you can change it. Not really. (That's what I had to keep reminding myself to go through with the extra job I'd been hired to do today.)
But the future? No one wants to mess around with that.
A familiar voice drifted toward me, and I leaned deeper into the tree's shadow.
"No, not the tavern. The pub." It was the phone girl.
"Well, you should have been in the bathroom covering that hickey," said her friend.
"Everyone knows it's not a hickey until the blood vessels break. It's a love bite."
"Yeah, well, guess what you can bite?"
They stepped on one of the other buses with a group of high schoolers. Sweet relief. Their insipid banter was going to give me a headache.
I reached for the base of my skull.
My head wasn't hurting. At all.
Most Shifters called it the Buzz—those painful twinges that scrambled your thoughts and blotched your vision. Like mosquito bites in your brain. Some Shifts were worse than others. But it was always present. Until now.
I pulled out my vial of Buzztabs. God bless the Initiative. Without their Assistance Fund I couldn't afford the pills, and they were the only thing that quashed the sensation. Of course, if today's side mission went well I'd never need their help again. I shook the tube. I wasn't sure if I should take one even though I felt fine. But why did I feel fine?
A soft hand brushed my shoulder before I had a chance to pop a tablet in my mouth.
"You need to give those back to the nurse, dear. We're about to leave." The chaperone, who thankfully appeared to be a frazzled mother rather than a teacher, nudged me along without making eye contact. I put the pills back in my pocket.
Chincoteague Island, here I come.
While I hadn't taken any formal classes like some of my friends, I considered myself a master of social camouflage. A pulled-down wisp of bang here, a curled-up slouch there, and I was all but invisible. As the bus filled, I fixed my eyes out the window and splayed my arms out so that I took up exactly two-thirds of the seat. Not so much that the chaperone would come and make a fuss. But enough to make it clear I liked riding solo. No one in their right mind would choose to sit by me.
Unless it was the last seat left.
A scrawny redheaded kid who was being devoured by a backpack twice his size shuffled up the aisle. His thick, concave glasses squished the sides of his head in like an insect. Everyone else on the bus appeared the typical sixteen or seventeen years old, but I doubted the increasingly flushed kid had seen the better side of fifteen yet. He gripped the back of the padded seat two rows up in desperate search of another vacant spot. When the chaperone began calling out names, he gave up and slumped down next to me.
"Here," he responded to the name "Finn Masterson," saving me even the most basic of pleasantries. He watched me out of the corner of his eye with a look of part anticipation and part curiosity as we neared the end of the list. When the bus pulled out onto the highway, he broke down and said, "They didn't call your name."
"Nope," I said.
"Why didn't they call your name?"
"Probably because it wasn't on the list." I rubbed my thumb against some graffiti on the vinyl seat in front of us.
"What is it?"
"My name? Bree."
"Oh." He stared past me out the window, either deep in thought or avoiding eye contact, I couldn't tell. Or care. I wasn't even sure why I'd given him my real name, especially right now. Most of the time on Shifts, I doled out fake ones. But this kid had a sweet earnestness about him that kept the lie off my tongue.
Plus, he might prove useful when we got to our destination. A little civility never hurt anyone. On occasion, it made the difference between getting home to the twenty-third century to sleep in my own bed and standing in line at a nineteenth-century soup kitchen while I figured out an assignment.
Today it might be the difference in life and death.
Finn dove into a comic book. I pulled out my mission package. There was no point in thinking about the extra job if I didn't finish the assigned one. Nothing special with the wrapping. I shook it, and whatever was inside rattled around—probably a long-forgotten wedding ring or some other sentimental crap. It never ceased to amaze me the stuff people sent back to their ancestors. Lost love notes, baby teeth, underwear.
Oh, the undies.
And for what? Shifters saw it for what it was—pointless. It was always nonShifters who wanted to forge some imaginary connection to their past. So they could know that they were the ones who returned Great-Aunt Gertrude's precious applesauce muffin recipe when it mysteriously showed up tucked in her front door after she'd misplaced it all those years before.
Something bothered me now as I stared down at the box. Something amiss. Muffy van Sloot. The name oozed money. Rich people never used the Institute for deliveries, any more so than they'd walk into a barber school for their next haircut. They used professional chronocouriers. Ehh. Maybe this was a feeble attempt to make amends for losing the family fortune.
Or maybe it was all for a dead cat.
Finn tucked away his comic and pulled out a dinky action figure. At first I thought he was engrossed in putting it together, but without looking at me he said, "You a new student?"
"Kind of." Vagueness was usually the best policy on missions. I hated lying, and technically, I wasn't. I was a student. Just not of this school. Or century.
"You weren't on the same bus before."
"Do you live on the island or inland?"
"You're just a bundle of questions, aren't you?"
Finn's cheeks flamed, and he snapped the last piece onto his toy. "I'm collecting the whole set." He held up his little treasure and examined it before unzipping the leg pocket of his cargo pants. "I've seen the movie three times already. Seen it yet?"
I looked at the action figure before he put it away. "Yeah." And all three horrible sequels as well. Plus the franchise reboot that came out forty years after the original.
I pressed my forehead against the window and watched trees whir past in a blur of green and brown. There was something comforting about forests, sticking around from one lifetime to the next. The cool glass rattled and thrummed against my temple, sending Buzz-like vibrations all the way to my teeth. But it wasn't real. I still felt fine—better than fine. Did it mean something was wrong? A startling thought addled my mind: Maybe Mom stopped getting the Buzz before …
She would have mentioned something like that. Mom wasn't reckless, no matter what people whispered.
Six months of what-ifs had seared me with a perpetual paranoia. But I needed to stay focused, especially today. Everything about this midterm had to appear absolutely normal. The sky started to peek through the foliage in a blipping Morse code, and the next thing I knew the bus began kathunk-kathunk-kathunking across a bridge. A long bridge.
I gripped the seat in front of me and leaned as far from the window as possible.
Finn scooted away and finally tapped my shoulder. "Welcome to my lap," he said.
"Sorry. I don't like the water." I inched back toward the window.
"And you moved to an island? Sucks to be you."
Dirt, asphalt, concrete … heck, I could land in a vat of Jell-O for all I cared. Just not water. Anything but water. Asphalt carried the risk of being seen. Water carried the risk of never being seen again.
After the bridge's last bump, my muscles unclenched. A sea-and-sun-cracked sign welcomed us to Chincoteague Island. The shuttered motels and deserted crab houses screamed "off-season." It reminded me of Spring Break two years before, when Mom and I had thrown a suitcase each in the back of the old beat-up Pod Grandpa left her after he died. Right before it died. We took off up the coast and stopped in every brine-caked tourist trap we could find, ate so much chowder we thought we'd explode. I liked this town already, not that I intended to stay long. The faster I finished the midterm, the faster I moved on to the other delivery, the faster I could put this whole business behind me.
At the school parking lot, a stream of parents circled the block to pick up their children. Older students chattered a play-by-play of the trip on the way to their cars. Finn hung back and eyed me as I twisted my finger around a lock of hair. A cab ride was out. Public buses were unlikely. We really were in the middle of nowhere. Ugh. I was down to an hour and a half, and I had no idea how far away the cemetery was or how big it might be. I'd already made up my mind that I would finish the assignment before I dealt with the contraband item hidden in my shoe. Any red flags and school officials would swarm this place and investigate. I couldn't afford any chance of getting caught.
"Would you like a ride?" Finn dug his hands into his pockets and scraped a rock across the ground with his foot.
"That's okay." The last thing I needed was to be trapped in the back of some crusty station wagon while his mom pried me for information. I'd rather hitchhike. "I wouldn't want to put your parents out."
"I drove myself. My car's right over there."
I followed his finger to a black Porsche SUV. "You drive?"
"You can't be more than fourteen years old."
"I'm fifteen." He straightened up to his full height, still barely reaching the top of my head. "And I have my hardship license."
"Hardship?" I looked at the Porsche emblem again and scoffed.
"Both my parents work, and the bus leaves before I get out of soccer. I can drive myself to school and back." He pulled the keys out. "Look, do you want a ride or not?"
Given the long walk back to the highway, I didn't have any other options.
"Do you mind if I sit in the back? I need to stretch out. Umm, leg cramp."
He gave me a look that let me know my excuse was as pathetic as it sounded, but what did I care? It wasn't like I would see him after I got to my mission site. I settled in and twiddled with my QuantCom until the geolocator came up.
"Is that a pocket watch?" he asked.
"Family heirloom." Again, not a total lie. It did connect me with the past. It just had more in common with his car's GPS than his wristwatch.
"Let me know where to turn," he said.
"No problem. Take a right at the main road."
Finn tapped his foot timidly on the gas, and we snailed forward through the parking lot.
My mission timer beeped. "Umm, I'm in a bit of a hurry."
Finn shot me a really? look in the rearview mirror but sped up. We turned onto the main road. Right. Left. Right. Right. No, I meant left.
A few times, Finn double-checked my directions. "This street? How much farther?"
After fourteen excruciating minutes, we pulled into a long, brick driveway. I had expected a graveyard or a church. It was a mansion. Or at least the biggest house I'd ever seen. After all the quaint shake-shingled cottages, it seemed especially daunting. But whatever. As long as there was a dead Muffy under the sand or dirt somewhere, I didn't care. I was within spitting distance of finishing this midterm; then I could get to the real business at hand. I snapped the Com shut and opened the door.
"Thanks for the ride."
Finn flipped around to face me. "Do you realize where we are?"
"Yeah, Thirty-four Seventy-one Woodman Estates."
"I know. We're at my house."
Copyright © 2014 by Karen Akins