My chest hurt all over, like I was being strangled by a boa constrictor, if those still existed. I realized I was crying, crying for somebody I’d always strived to avoid, to not cross paths with as best as I could. I rocked back and forth, my eyes peering mistily over my crossed arms as it hit me: my whole world was falling apart—not just at the seams, but all over. And there was nothing I could do about it.
Then Shadela raised her head.
“I’m sorry, Emma.”
“Wuhfor?” I blurted, muffled by my “arms” of defense.
“Making everything you know fall apart.”
Behind my tears and wracking sobs, I mumbled, “Whatcha talkin’ about?”
Shadela wiped her nose on the back of her grimy hand, pulling her legs closer in. She leaned against the trunk of the tree behind her, sideways enough that we could see each other. She pushed her black, tangled hair back against her head and told me.
“I never shoulda been so hard on you. But I had to. You’re too nice.”
I stared blearily at her, waiting for more.
“If you’re ever gonna make it, you hafta be tough. An’ you’re not tough enough. Not even close. Not against them.” She shook her head, and her dark wings flickered to match. We sniffed at the same time, but only Shadela gave a small smile.
“Who’s “them”?” I asked through my stuffed-up nose.
“The gov’ment. You know about the High Order? How they’re s’posed to protect the city with the Watchers an’ stuff?”
I nodded. “Yeah, my dad’s one.”
“Mine, too. But anyway, all that’s…well, it’s a load of turds in a punch bowl.”
I couldn’t help but bust up laughing at the image. This time it was only me. Shadela’s eyes glinted with a relentless fire, reminding me of the fragment in my heart that still told every bone in my body not to trust her. But I still asked her.
“They’re liars. They don’t protect the city from anyone. It’s all bogus. It’s just a cover for their secret programs. An’ don’t think I read too many conspiracy stuff, ’cause I don’t.”
I, in fact, did not think that she read too much. In fact, until that moment, I’d convinced myself she couldn’t read at all.
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