The Cage(2)

Her down parka and ski boots were gone. She was barefoot, with skinny black jeans and an oversized shirt for a band she’d never heard of, with thick black cuffs on each wrist. A punk look? She was more lace skirts and cotton dresses. The only concert she’d ever been to was her neighbor’s garage band, and she’d left with her hands over her ears after ten minutes.

Now, she ran the tissue-soft fabric between her fingers. A white strap flashed beneath it. She peeked down her collar, and fear bubbled up her throat. Beneath her clothes were a white camisole and white panties. Not hers. Whoever had put her here had first dressed her like a paper doll, and then left her for dead. Her stomach lurched at the thought of strangers’ hands all over her. But whose hands? Who would do this?

Don’t panic. Keep counting. Four . . .

She was unhurt, as far as she could tell, except for the sunburn. But would she stay that way? She needed her father’s security guards. Or Charlie. All those years when they were kids, while her dad worked in Washington and her mother slept half the day away, Charlie had looked out for her. He was the one person she could always rely on, if you didn’t count Sadie, which you couldn’t because she was a dog. He’d told her old episodes of Twilight Zone as bedtime stories. He’d taught her where to hide her lyric notebook from their snooping mother. And six months ago, he’d picked her up when she was released from Bay Pines juvenile detention facility. He’d even punched a reporter who shoved a microphone in her face and asked how an upstanding senator’s daughter went from straight As to eighteen months for manslaughter.

Three. Two . . .

She pawed at her necklace like a lifeline. It held a charm for each member of her family: a theater mask for her mom; a golf club for her dad; a tiny airplane for Charlie, who wanted to be a pilot. All she’d wanted was for them to be together again, as close as the clinking charms on her necklace. She’d been so near to the resort where they would all sip hot chocolate like a family again—but her fingers grazed only air.

The necklace was gone.

Sweat chilled on the back of her neck. She threw a glance over her shoulder, suddenly overtaken with the feeling that she was being followed, but the dunes were empty. Breathing harder, she climbed the final few feet to the top of the highest dune. Please, let there be a road. A telephone. A donkey. The only thing she desperately didn’t want to see was another dune, and another, and another, stretching forever.

She crested the dune with burning lungs, brushed the sand from her hands, and squeezed her eyes shut. She took a deep breath, and finished counting backward.


She opened her eyes.


HarperCollins Publishers




FROM THIS HIGH, CORA had a 360-degree view. The desert stretched in choppy waves behind her, but to her left was a field of rich black soil, and fruit trees stretching their branches toward the sun, and rows of rainbow-colored vegetables: purple eggplant, yellow squash, red tomatoes, golden corn.

A farm?

Cora crumpled to the ground as pain ripped through her skull. She cried out, squeezing her temples. Had she been drugged? Is that what the dream of her beautiful angel had been, a hallucination? She blinked furiously, but the farm didn’t go away.

Count backward.

Ten . . .

She forced herself to look to the right, and nearly choked. Opposite the farm, a stony outcropping covered with sea-green lichen sloped into a valley of windswept trees. Enormous oaks, and firs, and evergreens; all covered with a dusting of white. Not like the leafless winter forests of Virginia, but an arctic tundra. A cold breeze blew, carrying a snowflake that settled on Cora’s sunburned palm. She shoved to her feet.

Screw counting.

She shook her hand wildly, pacing. Even more impossible was the slice of water directly in front of her. Gently lapping waves stretched to an ocean bay that made her stomach plummet like she was sinking. She spit out the phantom taste of salt water. An ocean didn’t belong here. She didn’t belong here.

Sweat poured down her temples, despite the tundra wind. On the far side of the bay, mountains loomed, and even what looked like a cityscape. A desert, a farm, an ocean, a forest—habitats that couldn’t exist right next to one another. It had to be a secret government biosphere experiment. Or a rich maniac’s whim. Or virtual reality.

The granite-and-ozone smell clogged in her nose, and she steadied herself until the sensation passed. She wasn’t a little girl—she could handle this. She had to. As her breath slowed, a dark shape appeared at the bottom of the hill, where the ocean lapped against the farm’s edge.

Megan Shepherd's Books