Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 3Shannon Messenger
“Is that wrong?” she asked, not liking the worry etched between his brows.
“I have no idea.” His eyes narrowed, like he was trying to see inside her head.
“What are you doing?”
“Are you blocking me?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“I don’t even know what that is.” She stepped away, wishing the extra space could stop him from reading her private thoughts.
“It’s a way to keep Telepaths out. Kind of like putting a wall around your mind.”
“Is that why I can’t hear you?”
“Maybe. Can you tell me what I’m thinking right now?”
“I told you, I don’t hear your thoughts the way I do with other people.”
“That’s because humans have weak minds—but that’s not what I meant. If you listen, can you hear me?”
“I . . . don’t know. I’ve never tried to read a mind before.”
“You just have to trust your instincts. Concentrate. You’ll know what to do. Try.”
She hated being bossed around—especially since he wasn’t answering her questions. Then again, what he wanted her to do might be the only way to find out why he looked so concerned. She just had to figure out what he meant by “listen.”
She didn’t have to tell her ears to hear—they just did. But listening took action. She had to concentrate. Maybe mind reading worked the same way—like an extra sense.
She focused on his forehead, imagining that she was stretching out her consciousness like a mental shadow, feeling for his thoughts. After a second Fitz’s voice swept through her head. It wasn’t sharp or loud like human thoughts, more of a soft whisper brushing across her brain.
“You’ve never felt a mind as quiet as mine?” she blurted.
“You heard me?” He looked pale.
“Was I not supposed to?”
“No one else can.”
She needed a few seconds to process that. “And you can’t read my mind?”
He shook his head. “Not even when I try my hardest.”
A whole new world of worries pressed down on her shoulders. She didn’t want to be different from the other elves. “Why?”
“I have no idea. But when you pair it with your eyes, and where you live—” He stopped, like he was afraid he’d said too much, then fumbled with the crystal on his pathfinder. “I need to ask my dad.”
“Wait—you can’t leave now.” Not when she had more questions than answers.
“I have to. I’ve already been gone too long—and you need to get home.”
She knew he was right. She didn’t want to get in trouble. But her knees still shook as he held the crystal to the sunlight. He was her only link to the amazing world she’d seen—the only proof that she hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
“Will I ever see you again?” she whispered.
“Of course. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“How will I find you?”
He flashed a small smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll find you.”
THERE YOU ARE!” HER MOM SHOUTED. HER panicked thoughts battered their way into Sophie’s brain as she entered their cluttered living room and found her mom still on the phone. “Yes, she’s home now,” she said into the receiver. “Don’t worry, I will be having a very long talk with her.”
Sophie’s heart jolted.
Her mom hung up the phone and reeled around. Her wide green eyes glared daggers. “That was Mr. Sweeney calling because he couldn’t find you at the museum. What were you thinking, wandering off like that—especially now, with the fires making everyone nervous? Do you have any idea how worried I was? And Mr. Sweeney was about to call the police!”
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Sophie stammered, struggling to find a convincing lie. She was a horrible liar. “I . . . got scared.”
Her mom’s anger faded to concern, and she tugged nervously at her curly brown hair. “Scared of what? Did something happen?”
“I saw this guy,” Sophie said, realizing the best lies were based on truth. “He had the article about me. He started asking all these questions and it was freaking me out so I ran away from him. And then I was scared to go back, so I walked to the trolley and took the train home.”
“Why didn’t you get a teacher or a museum guard—or call the police?”
“I guess I didn’t think of that. I just wanted to get away.” She tugged out an eyelash.
“Ugh—stop doing that,” her mom complained, closing her eyes and shaking her head. She took a deep breath. “Well, I guess the important thing is that you’re okay. But if anything like that ever happens again, I want you to run straight to an adult, do you understand?”
“Good.” She rubbed the wrinkle between her brows that always appeared when she was stressed. “This is exactly why your father and I were upset about that article. It’s not safe to stand out in this world—you never know what some weirdo is going to try to do once they know where they can find you.”
No one understood the dangers of standing out better than Sophie. She’d been teased and tormented and bullied her whole life. “I’m fine, Mom. Okay?”
Her mom seemed to deflate as she let out a heavy sigh. “I know, I just wish . . .”
Her voice trailed off and Sophie closed her eyes, hoping she could close out the rest of the thought.
You could be normal, like your sister.
The words slipped a tiny pin into Sophie’s heart. It was the hardest part of being a Telepath—hearing what her parents really thought.
She knew her mom didn’t mean it. But that didn’t make it any less painful to hear.
Her mom wrapped her in a tight hug. “Just be careful, Sophie. I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.”
“I know, Mom. I’ll try.”
Her dad came through the front door and her mom let her go.
“Welcome home, honey! I’ll have dinner ready in ten,” she called to him. “And, Amy!” she added, raising her voice so it would be heard upstairs. “Time to come down!”
Sophie followed her mom into the kitchen, feeling unease twist in her stomach. Worn linoleum, pastel walls, tacky knickknacks—it all seemed so ordinary after the glittering cities Fitz had shown her. Could she really belong there?
Did she really belong here?
Sophie’s dad kissed her on the cheek as he set his shabby briefcase on the kitchen table. “And how’s my Soybean?” he asked with a wink.
Sophie scowled. He’d been calling her that since she was a baby—apparently, she’d had a hard time pronouncing her name—and she’d asked him hundreds, no, thousands of times to stop. He refused to listen.
Her mom took the lid off one of the simmering pots, and the smell of garlic and cream filled the room. She handed Sophie the silverware. “It’s your turn to set the table.”
“Yeah, Soybean. Get crackin’,” her sister said as she scooted into the room and plopped into her usual chair.
At nine years old, Amy already had the annoying little sister role mastered.
Amy was Sophie’s opposite in every way, from her curly brown hair and green eyes to her lower than average grades and incredible popularity. No one understood how she and Sophie could be sisters—especially Sophie. Even their parents wondered about it in their thoughts.
The silverware slipped through Sophie’s fingers.
“What’s wrong?” her mom asked.
“Nothing.” She sank into her chair.
How could she and Amy be sisters? Amy was definitely human. Her parents were too—she’d heard enough of their thoughts to know they weren’t hiding any secret powers. And if she was an elf . . .
The room spun and she lowered her head into her hands. She tried to concentrate on breathing: Inhale—exhale—and repeat.
“You okay, Soyb
ean?” her dad asked.
For once she didn’t care about the nickname. “I feel kind of dizzy—must be from the smoke,” she added, trying not to make them suspicious. “Can I go lay down?”
“I think you should eat something first,” her mom said, and Sophie knew she couldn’t argue. Skipping dinner was definitely not acting normal—especially on fettuccine night. It was her favorite, but the rich sauce did not help her sudden nausea. Neither did the way her family stared at her.
Sophie ignored their mental concern, trying not to tug on her eyelashes as she chewed each bite and forced herself to swallow. Finally, her dad set his fork down—the official end of dinner in the Foster house—and Sophie jumped to her feet.
“Thanks, Mom, that was great. I’m going to do some homework.” She left the kitchen and sprinted up the stairs before they could say anything to stop her.
She raced to her room and closed her door, stumbling to her bed. A loud hiss shattered the silence. “Sorry, Marty,” she whispered, her heart pounding in her ears.
Her fluffy gray cat glared at her for sitting on his tail. But she reached out her hand and he slunk toward her, settling into her lap. Marty’s gentle purring filled the silence and gave her courage to confront the realization she’d made downstairs.
Her family couldn’t be her family.
She took a deep breath and let the reality settle in.
The strange thing was, in some ways it made sense. It explained why she always felt so out of place around them—the slender blonde among her chubby brunette family.
Still, they were the only family she knew.
And if they weren’t her family . . . who was?
Panic closed off her chest and her lungs screamed for air. But another pain throbbed deeper, like something inside had ripped apart.
Her eyes burned with tears, but she blinked them back. It had to be a mistake. How could she not be related to her family? She’d been hearing their thoughts for seven years—how would she not know that? And even if it was somehow possible, not being related to them didn’t change anything, did it? Lots of kids were adopted, and they were part of their new family.
Her mom poked her head through the door. “I brought you some E.L. Fudges.” She handed Sophie a plate full of her favorite cookies and a glass of milk, then frowned. “You look pale, Sophie. Are you getting sick?” She pressed her palm against Sophie’s forehead. “You don’t have a fever.”
“I’m fine. Just . . . tired.” She reached for a cookie but froze when she noticed its tiny elf face. “I need to go to bed.”
Her mom left her alone so she could change. She stumbled through her routine and crawled under the blankets, wrapping them as tight as they would go. Marty took his place on her pillow, next to her head.
“Sweet dreams, Soybean,” her dad said, kissing her on the forehead. Her parents always tucked her in—another Foster family tradition.
“Night, Dad.” She tried to smile, but she could barely breathe.
Her mom kissed Sophie’s cheek. “Do you have Ella?”
“Yep.” She showed her the blue elephant tucked under her arm. She was probably too old to still have a stuffed animal, but she couldn’t sleep without Ella. Tonight she needed her more than ever.
Her mom turned off the light, and the darkness gave Sophie the courage she needed. “Um, can I ask you guys something?”
“Sure,” her dad said. “What’s up?”
She hugged Ella tighter. “Was I adopted?”
Her mom laughed as her mind flashed to the twelve hours of very painful labor she’d endured. “No, Sophie. Why would you ask that?”
“Could I have been switched at birth?”
“No. Of course not!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes—I think I would know my own daughter.” There wasn’t a doubt in her mom’s mind. “What’s this all about?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering.”
Her dad laughed. “Sorry, Soybean, we’re your parents—whether you like it or not.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
But she wasn’t so sure anymore.
THAT NIGHT SOPHIE DREAMED THE Keebler elves were holding her hostage until she perfected all their cookie recipes. Then she told them she liked Oreos better, and they tried to drown her in a giant vat of fudge. She woke in a cold sweat and decided sleep was overrated.
When morning came, she took a quick shower and threw on her best jeans and a shirt she’d never worn—buttery yellow with brown stripes. It was the only item in her closet that wasn’t gray, and she’d always been too self-conscious to wear it. But the color brought out the gold flecks in her eyes, and today she would see Fitz again. As much as she hated to admit it, she wanted to look good. She even clipped part of her hair back and toyed with the idea of lip gloss—but that was going too far. Then she snuck downstairs to check outside for him.
She crept into the front yard, blinking to keep the falling ash out of her eyes. The smoke was so thick it stuck to her skin. Seriously, when were they going to get the fires contained?
“Looking for someone?” her next-door neighbor asked from his perch in the middle of his lawn. Mr. Forkle could always be found there, rearranging hundreds of garden gnomes into elaborate tableaux.
“No,” she said, hating how nosy he was. “I was checking to see if the smoke was any better. I guess it’s not.” She coughed for added effect.
His beady blue eyes bored into hers, and she could tell from his thoughts that he didn’t believe her. “You kids,” he grumbled. “Always up to something.”
Mr. Forkle loved to start sentences with the words “you kids.” He was old and smelled like feet and was always complaining about something. But he was the one who called 911 when she fell and hit her head, so she was obligated to be nice.
He moved a gnome a fraction of an inch to the left. “You should get back inside before the smoke gives you another one of those headaches you’re always—”
Loud yapping interrupted him, and a ball of fur with legs streaked up the sidewalk, barking its tiny head off. A blond guy in spandex jogging shorts chased after it.
“Would you mind grabbing her?” he called to Sophie as the dog raced across her lawn.
“I’ll try.” The dog was quick, but Sophie managed to step on the leash with a clumsy lunge. She kneeled, stroking the wild-eyed, panting creature to calm her down.
“Thank you so much,” the guy said as he ran up the path. As soon as he drew close, the dog growled and strained against the leash, barking like mad.
“She’s my sister’s dog,” he shouted over the noise. “She hates me. Not my sister—the dog,” he added. He held out his hand, displaying several half-moon bite wounds, fresh and still bleeding. One was so deep it would definitely leave a scar.
Sophie picked up the trembling dog and hugged her. Why was the dog so afraid?
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to carry her back to my sister’s house. It’s just a few blocks away, and she seems to like you better than me.” He winked one of his piercing blue eyes.
“She most certainly will not,” Mr. Forkle yelled before she could open her mouth to answer. “Sophie, go inside. And you”—he pointed to the jogger—“get out of here right now or I’m calling the police.”
The guy’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t asking you—”
“I don’t care,” Mr. Forkle interrupted. “Get. Away. From. Her. Now.”
The barking grew louder as the guy moved toward Sophie. She could barely think through the chaos, but there was something in his expression that made her wonder if he was planning to grab her and drag her away. And that’s when it hit her.
She couldn’t hear his thoughts. Even with the barking—she should’ve heard something.
Would Fitz have sent someone else in his place?
r /> But if he had, why wouldn’t the jogger say that? Why try to trick her?
Before she could react, Mr. Forkle stepped between them, stopping the jogger in his tracks. Mr. Forkle might be on the old side, but he was a large man, and when he straightened up to his full height, he made quite an intimidating figure.
They stared each other down for a few seconds. Then the jogger shook his head and backed off.
“Sophie, let the dog go,” Mr. Forkle ordered. She did as he said and the dog raced away. The jogger glowered at them both before he took off after it.
Sophie released the breath she’d been holding.
“You’re okay,” Mr. Forkle promised. “If I see him again, I’ll call the police.”
She nodded, trying to find her voice. “Uh, thanks.”
Mr. Forkle snorted, shaking his head and grumbling something that started with “you kids” as he returned to his lawn gnomes. “Better get inside.”
“Right,” she agreed, moving up the path on shaky legs.
As soon as the front door closed, she leaned against it, trying to make sense of the scattered questions racing through her brain.
Why would that guy try to grab her? Could he be another elf? Fitz had some serious explaining to do—whenever he decided to make his next appearance.
THERE WAS STILL NO SIGN of Fitz when she got to school, and now she wasn’t sure what to do. He might be waiting for her to be alone before he appeared, but after the dog incident, she wanted a few eyewitnesses around. Unless Fitz had sent the jogger to get her. . . .
It was all so frustrating and confusing.
She headed for class when the bell rang, lurking a few steps behind the other students.
A hand grabbed her arm and pulled her into the shadows between buildings. Sophie stopped her scream just in time when she recognized Fitz.
“Where have you been?” she demanded—a little too loudly. Several heads turned their way. “Do you have any idea what I’ve been going through?”