Ma’s frightened voice woke me suddenly from a deep sleep. My eyes flew open but I didn’t move. Instead I was still, waiting for the panicked beating of my heart to slow. Both my sisters lay motionless in their beds as if they were still asleep and giving no indication they’d heard Ma. The only light came from the moon through the thin curtains though, so it was difficult to be sure.
Throwing my blankets off, I put my feet on the icy floor, my heart still racing. Even though everything was silent now, I was unable to remove the sound of Ma’s scream from my mind. I was certain I hadn’t been dreaming and didn’t want to think about any of the reasons that might make Ma scream that way.
I told myself to lie down, to curl up under the warm covers and go back to sleep. Yet somehow, I couldn’t. Something was pulling at me, urging me to get up, to go check on her.
Sliding from my bed, I searched the cold floor with my hands for a pair of shoes. A shiver ran through me—the shack was always freezing at night, no matter what time of year it was, although tonight my shiver had nothing to do with the temperature.
Emily Jane, get back into bed.
I jumped as my eldest sister, Lillie, thought talked to me. Turning to face her, I tilted my head to one side in silent question. We were never to thought talk, Ma had made us promise, and we’d agreed. But Lillie was breaking that promise.
Thought talk was my family’s Gift. We could speak to each other using only our minds and most of the time, no one else would know we were talking.
Not keen to break one of Ma’s rules, I whispered into the darkness. “I thought I heard something. I’m going to check it out. Go back to sleep.”
“No! Stop!” Ma’s voice pierced the silent night air, and the hair on my arms stood on end.
Lillie was beside me before I’d drawn a breath, her hand gripping my arm firmly. “Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”
I pressed my lips together. That much was already clear. “Ma needs help. We can’t hide away in here while someone attacks her and Jamaal.” I wasn’t nearly as brave as I sounded. Part of me was hoping Lillie would offer to go out there without me. She was far braver than I’d ever be.
Lillie’s fingers tightened around my arm. “It is Jamaal. He knows.”
She’d hardly said anything, but I understood. Shaking my head, I wanted to deny what she said. There was no way it was possible. “He can’t. He can’t know.”
Lillie swallowed, the sound audible in the silence. “He does. I heard them before…before Ma started screaming. Plus…”
She stopped mid-sentence but didn’t loosen her grip on my arm.
“Ma thought talked to me. Right before that first scream.”
I was suddenly dizzy and sat down hard on the edge of my bed. “Are you sure? Maybe you were dreaming?” I was clutching at straws. If Ma had thought talked with Lillie, Lillie would know—it wasn’t possible to confuse the two.
The day Jamaal had moved in with us, Ma had banned us from using thought talk—not because anyone else could hear it, but because she thought he might grow suspicious if we never used our voices to speak. Ma hadn’t thought talked to us at all in the last two years. The fact that she’d spoken that way now meant something was very wrong. “What did she say?” I hardly dared to ask.
Lillie was jiggling on her toes, a nervous movement that she only used when she was worried. “She wants the three of us to climb out our bedroom window. To run, and never come back here.”
“She said that Jamaal knows we’re Drifters. And that he’s going to turn us in. All of us.”
I shook my head, wishing I could unhear her words. Jamaal couldn’t know our deepest secret. He just couldn’t. Swallowing, I forced myself to ask, needing to know what would drive a man to condemn his family to a life of imprisonment and torture. “What does he want?”
Lillie’s voice was low and flat. And she sounded as shocked by what was happening as I was. “Money. To cover his gambling debts.”
“Good luck to him.” My words were light, but my chest filled with ice as reality sunk in. We lived in a tiny shack on the edge of the village of Jones. If we had money, we wouldn’t choose to live here.
Exposing our secret would set Jamaal up for life. The bounty on a single Drifter was high. The bounty on four of us would be like winning a lottery. All his gambling debts would be covered, plus some.
I sank to the ground, searching for the black jeans and white T-shirt I’d thrown there before climbing into bed. “Get Maddie.”
Lillie didn’t move. “You have a plan?”
Nope. “You take Maddie some place safe. I’ll go help Ma.” Ma’s screams had me terrified. As a Drifter, she was far stronger than Jamaal. She should have been able to knock him out cold with a flick of her wrist. But she hadn’t done it. Even though I couldn’t see her, hadn’t thought talked with her, every piece of me knew he had the upper hand. If there was any way for Ma to come and check on us, she would have.
“No.” Lillie crossed her arms over her chest.
Locating a trainer with my left hand, I sat back on the bed to put it on. “We don’t have a choice, Lillie. We can’t stay in here and wait for him to come and get us.”
“Ma said we had to leave. All of us. Together.”
I bit down on my lip. Leaving without Ma wasn’t an option. She’d never go anywhere without all of us.
“He’s immobilized her.”
The speed of my heart rate ramped up a notch and my chest grew tight even though my thoughts had been slowly heading in this direction. It was the only possible way for Jamaal to have gotten the upper hand over Ma.
I hadn’t let myself think it. Because if Jamaal had done that to Ma, he meant business. He really was going to hand us over to the Armed Guard. All of us, if he possibly could.
Still I didn’t move.
Lillie turned to face me, gripping my arms so that her fingers dug uncomfortably into my flesh. “We have no weapons. And we’ve hardly ever tested our strength. Jamaal’s a big man, we’re just girls. Drifters yes, but we don’t know for certain that we’re stronger than him. Are you willing to risk Maddie’s safety when you don’t know if we could beat him?”
I looked at our four-year-old sister, asleep in her bed. Her black hair was fanned across her face and her hands were curled into tiny balls. I’d been with Ma on the day Maddie was born. I was the first one to hold her—Ma had been too weak with blood loss. I’d hugged her close while a midwife tended to Ma, letting my new little sister suck on my finger until she fell asleep. I’d been the proudest nine-year-old in our village that day, wanting to show my baby sister off to anyone who’d look. Somehow, it felt like only yesterday and a hundred years ago at the same time.
The answer to Lillie’s question was easy. I’d never risk Maddie’s life. Not in a million years. But that didn’t make walking away from Ma any easier.
Lillie’s grip loosened. “It’s only for a bit. We’ll get out of the house, find ourselves some weapons, then come back and help Ma. Okay?”
I nodded. That, I could do. We weren’t leaving Ma for good. We were just getting Maddie to safety before coming back for her.
Lillie stood up and slowly drew back the curtain, trying not to make any noise. Then she fumbled with the window catch. “Get Maddie.”
There was a loud crash from the front room followed by Jamaal’s angry voice. “Don’t even think about it!”
I jumped, a tiny noise escaping my throat. I’d never particularly warmed to Jamaal, not in the way Maddie and Lillie had. He was so big and his voice so deep, that I was often on edge around him. My sisters teased me because they’d lost count of the number of dishes I’d broken when Jamaal had walked into the room and started ranting about something or other. Although I’d always assumed Jamaal loved us, I’d had a hard job trusting him, especially where Maddie was concerned. Because I was always scared that he might somehow hurt me, I was scared for her too and never left her alone with him. To be honest, I didn’t really understand what Ma saw in him.
Hundreds of thoughts ran through my mind about what Jamaal might have done to Ma; broken bones, suffocation, gushing blood. It was all there every time I closed my eyes, and it made me want to curl up in a ball with hands over my ears. I wanted to run away from here, but I was almost too scared to move.
Forcefully, I pushed the thoughts away, concentrating instead on picking my little sister up out of her bed and drawing her head against my shoulder, the way I’d done so many times before. Maddie didn’t wake, instead letting out a little sigh and breathing the name she always called me—Emjay—before snuggling in close. But even with Maddie in my arms, I hesitated beside the window. Walking out on Ma was almost impossible to do.
As if she sensed my indecision, Ma’s voice was suddenly in my head. Emily Jane. Take your sisters and run. Don’t ever come back here. It had been years since she’d spoken this way with me and I’d forgotten how it felt. Ma’s words were bundled up in all the courage and belief she felt for me. It was like a soothing toy that a baby would hold, and I drew her words close. Plus, she’d taken the decision out of my hands, she’d told me what to do and all I needed was to follow her orders.
I could leave now because Ma had told me it was okay. I passed Maddie through the window to Lillie, then folded myself through the tiny window and out into the cold night air.