Lucas Darby stumbled through heaving waves of neon signs and drifting shadows, straining to make sense of the muffled whispers he heard. Drugs had forced him to endure a neverending silence, where even the music in his head had died. But now the voices had emerged and quenched a killer thirst in his soul. Even though he couldn't make out what they told him, simply hearing them brought light to his shadows.
Unable to focus his eyes, he ignored the blur to concentrate on what he heard in his mind. Most of the words were too garbled. The few messages that came from deeper inside him, those words felt like his thoughts, but they were in voices he didn't recognize.
I hear you now. Don't stop.
Even when he let his thoughts reach out, he had no idea who "the others" were or if they heard him. Without drugs to cloud his brain, the voices had returned, and with fresh eyes, he saw the colors, too. Beautiful prisms of fluid light radiated off ghosts without faces. Bodies drifted in front of him in colors that wavered like heat shimmers off hot asphalt.
"Watch where you're walkin', kid."
Lucas got shoved. An old man's face leached from the darkness before it got swallowed by glistening ooze that bled down his world.
He didn't know if he said the word aloud. Even at fifteen years old, speaking didn't come naturally to him. His mother told him that as a baby he hummed a strange melody before he ever spoke. One day, the music stopped and he felt as if he'd lost an arm.
He missed the music. Nothing felt right without it.
Over the years, drugs had invaded his body like poison, but as the meds drained, new sensations finally came. Strong perfumes mixed with body odor and the smell of alcohol, fryer grease and hot dogs wafted on the night air. Images spiraled in front of him. Shapes of people emerged from a rush of colors and made shadowy obstacles as he kept his feet moving on a sidewalk that didn't end.
Don't stop. Stop and the Believers find you.
Lucas didn't know if those thoughts were his. He only knew he had to obey.
The Copperhead ClubWest Hollywood
Rayne Darby kicked back at the bar drinking alone, nibbling on stuffed olives and nursing a watered-down pineapple juice with extra cherries and an orange slice. She scrounged for food wherever she found it. Not because she had to. Three squares and the food pyramid had never been her thing, but her lame excuse for dinner had triggered thoughts of her mom. Her parents would hate how she lived, especially if they knew she had her seventeen-year-old butt in a bar.
But with both of them deadkilled in a private-jet crash five years agothey never knew how she turned out. Some kids might envy that she didn't have anyone waiting up for her and no one argued about the choices she made. Living on her own for the past six months, she did whatever she wanted, whenever. Sometimes she liked how freedom tasted. Now just wasn't one of those times.
Liquor bottles on mirrored shelves were awash in green spotlights with two bartenders eclipsing the eerie glow as they worked. Rayne had moved her bar stool into the shadows near a stockroom. Avoiding the light made her feel invisible. Hunched over her drink with her head down, she wore what she had on earlier that day, not bothering to changefaded jeans, her favorite black Led Zeppelin T-shirt and an old brown leather jacket that was too big for her. Something she'd inherited from her father.
Everything about her said, Don't mess with me.
She'd come to hang with the band, but when a sudden rush of dark wrapped around her mood, she didn't feel like playing nice. She found the nearest shadow and morphed into it. With school out, forgettable jobs by day made the Copperhead something to look forward to...most nights.
Raising a finger, she got the attention of Sam, her favorite bartender, and fished cash from the pocket of her jacket. Sam had given her that squintyyou're full of shit look until he carded her last year. She had the cred. Her ID looked totally legit. At first she thought he'd turn out to be a real tool and boot her ass anyway. But after he saw that she didn't abuse the privilege by ordering alcohol, he let it go.
Besides, beer tasted like horse piss. Not that she had firsthand knowledge of that. She only knew she didn't like beer. One night of puking into a nasty public toilet in another bar had cured her of wanting a repeat. After she visited the capital city ofSpewcanistan on a not-so-temporary barf visa, she decided to lay off the booze bullet to the brain and make a change in scenery. Here, she felt at home, especially with Sam watching over her like a big brother. The guy turned out to be seriously cool.
"With all the fruit juice you're downing, I'd say you're fully immune to scurvy. That could come in handy if you were a pirate." Sam shot her his signature deadpan expression.
"I'll keep that in mind if I see Johnny Depp."
"You ready to switch up to OJ, live on the edge?" the young bartender asked as he wiped the counter and gave her a fresh napkin.
"Think I'll have the main course. Dose me with spicy tomato juice, straight up."
"At the risk of sounding like I'm stalking you, you want extra celery?" Sam crooked his lip into a smile.
"Good one. LMAO," she said with her serious face. "Yeah, whack me with extra vegan sticks. Thanks."
"Coming right up, moneybags."
Sam tolerated her and never questioned why she racked up frequent-flyer miles at the Copperhead. Even during the school year, she came to hang. The truth was that she hated being alone in her apartment. She needed the noise, but tonight she had more of a reason to show. She knew the band.
Archimedes, Watch Out was a pop-punk band with solid gang vocals, on tour out of Texas. She followed them on MySpace and Twitter and had seen them before at the bar. Austin, the keyboard guy, had a fierce stare online that gave him edge, but in person he had soft marshmallow for a heart. The front man, Dalton, had an amazing voice that would take them far, and Tommy played sweet riffs on guitar that matched his eye-candy good looks. All the guys were totally hot looking. That worked for her. She needed the distraction of being in a crowd with a drool-worthy boy buffet on stage, guys who knew how to dish out a heaping side of decibels.
With a fresh tomato juice in front of herand practically a whole thing of celeryRayne tossed a bill onto the counter for tip money, then noticed her cell phone light up and felt the vibration on her fingertips. She recognized the number. Her jaw tightened as she debated answering. Against her better judgment, she nudged her head to Sam and gestured to let him know she'd be in the storeroom, the only quiet place to take the call. Being a regular had its privileges.
After she got behind closed doors, the music dulled to a belly thump as she said, "What's up?"
Her older sister didn't waste any time pissing her off. "What's that noise, Rayne? Where are you?"
"It's my stereo. I've got it cranked to brain bleed." Rayne didn't have a stereo. "Why are you calling, Mia?"
"Where's Lucas? Is he with you?" Mia got her attention by going full-on parental. If Rayne ever felt the need for drama from another mother, her only sister knew how to pile it on.
"What are you talking about? Why would he be with me? You've got him under lock and key, sister dearest." When she heard only a deep sigh on the other end of the line, she dialed back the smart-ass and asked, "What's going on, Mia?"
"Haven Hills called. He's not on the grounds. They can't find him."
"What?" Rayne slumped against a metal utility shelf. "That's not possible."
"Well, apparently, it is." Mia's voice carried a razor's edge. Typical. "He can't do this. I'm responsible. If you're hiding him, I swear I'll find out."
"Damn it, Mia. Why do you always.?"
She didn't see the point in arguing. Her sister was as flexible as concrete. Rayne had learned that the hard way. Haven Hills Treatment Facility on Sunset had been the home for their younger brother, Lucas, for the past three yearsa real suck fest for Lukebut Mia got off on being in charge after their parents died. The private mental hospital had ties to Mia's employerthe Church of Spiritual Freedom.
I never should have let her take you, Luke.
Losing her baby brother to guys in white coats had broken something in Rayne. Even though Lucas needed serious help, Mia's rushed decision to commit him had shattered what remained of their family, and Rayne had never seen her sister's betrayal coming. She felt stupid. And worse, she'd let her brother down in a way she could never make up for, not when Mia had restricted her visits to him. In his condition, she never could explain, either.
That had been the last straw before she'd moved out. Rayne couldn't fake being okay with her sister using Lucas as a pawn between them. He became the main reason Rayne had put everything on hold. How could she get on with her life when his was in the crapper? Luke didn't have anyone else who really cared about him. He couldn't even look after himself.
She was the only one who loved him the way he turned out.
"Will you call me when they find him?" Rayne grimaced, hardly believing she actually had to ask. Instead of answering her question, Mia had one of her own.
"Will you let me know if he contacts you?" When Rayne didn't say anything, her sister sighed. "Yeah, didn't think so."
She tightened her jaw when the silence between them got too loud.
"Mia, he's my brother, too. Please." This time, her sister had something to say. "If you get arrested for drinking, don't call me to bail you out."
After the line went dead, Rayne resisted the urge to hit something. Nice, real nice. No chance in hell her only call from the gray-bar hotel would be to Sister Buzzkill. Even though Mia knew how to flip her switch, anger wouldn't help Luke.
She stashed her cell in her jacket pocket and headed out the storeroom door. She had to go home in case he called, but if he didn't, then what?
Oh, God. Would he even know how to reach me? Did he keep my number?
Imagining Lucas on the streets of L.A., messed up and alone, made her sick. In her mind he was still a kidand in serious trouble. With everything piled against him, she had no idea how he'd left Haven Hills in his condition, but a worse question screwed with her head.
Where the hell would he go?
When Lucas saw his reflection in a restaurant window, the face of a stranger stared back. Hunger had drawn him to the smell of hamburgers and fries, but once he got a look in the glass, he stopped dead. With bruised smudges under his gray eyes and his tangled hair, he didn't recognize his own face, but he saw something more in his reflection. He'd soon be drug-free for the first time in years, and the electric blue shimmer that radiated off his body had returnedfortified by something new.
Something more powerful.
You're the one, aren't you? A girl's voice came from nowhere.
The sound of her jacked with the hair on his neck and sent a slither of cold down his arms. The way she whisperedfrom inside his earmade him look around, expecting to see her. Her whisper lingered like soft breath on his skinsomething intimate and purebut no one stood next to him.
The one? What are you talking about?
He concentrated hard, listening for her, but nothing came. Hearing her, he felt even stronger, connected to something bigger. The muffled voices reminded him of an orchestra tuning its instruments, but her voice rose stronger above the din like a haunting violin solo. He sensed her in his head. In his body. In every strand of his hair.
Why can't you hear me? With his mind reaching out to her, he pleaded for an answer, but whenall the voices stopped, he felt sure that she'd punished him.
Don't stop. I'm listening. You can talk to me, he told her.
The comforting murmurs returned, but the girl stayed silent, even though he still felt her with him. Lucas turned back toward the glass window. He didn't need to see his own reflection to know what had happened.
He felt it.
Brilliant spears of white shot through cobalt-blue and magnified the energy inside him. In blinding glimmers of pearl, the pulsing light made him want to smile, but he didn't. The colors that grew stronger were nothing more than a ticking time bomb that had been masked by the drugs he'd been given to control him.
A countdown had startedand the girl had sensed it, too.
Because of what you are, the Believers will hunt you down.
"What am Iexactly?" He said the words aloud, not to her this time.
It wouldn't take the Believers long to realize he was missing. Once they found out, they'd track him. If they caught him, they'd never let him get away a second time. What he'd done to escape them felt like a stupid accident. Hours earlier, he opened his eyes to see he'd hidden in a delivery truck leaving the hospital. Because of the drugs, he didn't remember actually doing it. He'd left the facility without much of a plan, dressed only in slippers and hospital-issued stuff. When the truck stopped at a streetlight, he got out and never looked back.
After his head cleared enough for him to figure things out, he knew he had to find something different to wear. When a drunk, homeless guy took his eyes off his stash, Lucas stole spare clothes and grabbed a handful of coins the man had panhandled and kept in a lidded cup. Now everything Lucas wore stank. He hated it, but he fit the part of the invisibles that haunted the streets of L.A.
Lucas knew his escape had been nothing more than dumb luck, or a cosmic shift of the planets, or some other freak anomaly. To stay free wouldn't be easy. The Believers had money. Lots of it.
Don't trust anyone. No cops. The girl's voice mirrored what he'd been thinking, except for one thing.
Lucas needed to find a phone.
Outside a 7-Eleven, he found what he'd been looking for. He fumbled through his pockets for spare change and the crumpled piece of paper that he'd brought with him from Haven Hillsthe one his sister Rayne had given him with her phone number on it. When he heard the ring, he shut his eyes to picture her face. He wanted to imagine her happy, but that was too hard.
Come on, Rayne. Pick up.
As the phone rang, he tried to remember if the number she gave him had been her cell or where she lived. Soon it would kick into voice mail.A message. He'd have to talk for real and say something. With things screwed up, what the hell would he tell her?Damn.