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Home > The Cage (The Cage #1)(4)

The Cage (The Cage #1)(4)
Author: Megan Shepherd

The barn was just feet away. He started for it, but she grabbed his arm. He flinched, not expecting her touch. Her fingers were smaller than he’d imagined. So fragile. Who would do this to a girl who’d already been through so much?

“Those markings on your neck,” she said. “The black dots. What do they mean?”

Lucky blinked. He had no idea what she was talking about, but her eyes dropped to the place just below his left ear. He reached up a hand that brushed hard bumps, like grains of sand embedded in his skin.

He dropped his hand.

For years he’d worn his granddad’s watch, even back when the strap had been too big, but it had vanished when he’d woken. He felt lost without its weight.

“I don’t know.” His eyes went to her neck. “But you have them too.”

4

Cora

CORA’S HAND FLEW TO her neck. Raised bumps, like a connect-the-dots game.

Pain throbbed through her head, and she doubled over in the sunflower patch next to the barn. She hadn’t imagined that anything could be more frightening than her first day in Bay Pines. Charlie had driven her there with the family’s lawyer, so that the press didn’t get photographs of Senator Mason checking his daughter into detention. The officers had patted her down for contraband and given her khaki clothes that smelled like they’d been washed with rat poison. They introduced her to the cinder-block dorm room she shared with a cornrowed Venezuelan, then threw her to the wild in the cafeteria. She’d been one of the youngest inmates, and the richest. They might as well have squirted a target on her back with ketchup and mayonnaise.

Now, as she felt the raised dots, she had a new bar for what qualified as “terrifying.”

“The dead girl had them too,” she said quietly.

Lucky let out a mirthless laugh. “That’s real comforting.” He tugged on the barn handle. “It’s locked. I might be able to take it off its hinges, if I can find something to use for a makeshift screwdriver.”

“I’ll look for another way in.” Cora circled the barn until she reached a large black window, six feet wide by three feet tall. The feeling of being watched felt like nails down her back. The window was in good repair, which was odd given the weathered state of the barn. She knocked on the glass. A hollow thud sounded. Something was wrong, like it lacked an echo.

She pressed her face against the glass, but a rip of pain tore through her head, and she winced and pulled back. It was too murky to see inside, anyway. More like a television screen than a window. Suddenly a shape moved, just a flicker, and she scrambled back. The tingling sensation down her back ran deeper, and she whirled toward the farm, half expecting to see a knife-wielding stranger rushing up behind her.

Nothing. Barely even a breeze.

Lucky came around, shaking his head, eyeing the window like it creeped him out as much as it did her. “Get this—the door isn’t real. The whole barn is fake, like a movie prop. We’ll have to go to that city.”

Cora glanced toward the sea, where the distant cityscape crouched on the far side of the bay. What if it was where their captors lived? Wouldn’t they be walking right into danger?

She rubbed her eyes. Exhaustion was catching up with her. “No. We should stay put and wait for help. My dad’s in politics. Once he realizes I’m gone, he’ll have the entire country looking for me.”

“I don’t care if your dad is the president of the United States. My dad’s a sergeant in Afghanistan. You think he just kicks rocks around while insurgents are firing at him?”

On the black window, the shadow keeled slightly to the left. Cora took another step away from it.

Lucky’s face softened. He cracked his knuckles, less of a threatening gesture this time, more like an old wound. “If we find a phone, your dad is the first person we’ll call. I promise. Here’s Plan C: we stay off the paths, and stay away from any more of these black windows. And if you see anyone—hear anyone—you run. Neither of us is going to end up like that girl in the water.”

She nodded. “I can live with Plan C.”

They set off down a path made of a material that looked like pavement but felt softer, almost spongy, through a meadow of tall grasses. It was all uncannily beautiful, but that only set off Cora’s nerves. Beauty had a way of masking something darker.

The path crested a rise, showing the far-off city, only it looked much closer now. The structures blurred together in a dizzying way that didn’t seem right at all. Was exhaustion making her head foggy? As they walked more, she could start to see details. First the rooftops, then glimpses of windows, pavement, flashes of color from potted flowers.

She stopped.

It wasn’t just exhaustion messing with her head. The buildings were real, but they were hardly the skyscrapers that they had seemed from a distance. They were between one and two stories high, and there couldn’t be more than ten of them. It was as though the buildings had been placed in just the right locations so that, from a distance, the rooftops lined up to give the appearance of something substantially bigger.

The shadows on Lucky’s face deepened. “I swear this looked like a city from far away. You think it’s in our heads, like virtual reality?”

“I don’t think so. My dad invests in tech, and there’s no virtual reality that comes close to this.” Her mind whirled, playing back conversations with her father, coming up with no explanation. “This must be real. Designed to make us feel a certain way and go certain places, like elaborate optical illusions. The same with the distances. It should have taken us hours to get here, and it’s been what, half an hour?” Sweat trickled down her forehead, though the temperature couldn’t be higher than the mid-sixties.

Lucky motioned for her to follow him to the nearest building. As they circled it, a neon sign flashed above the front door.

CANDY SHOP.

Cora had mentally prepared herself for anything—tanks and guns and terrorists—but not for a place to buy taffy. Could Lucky be right, that this was the set for some movie?

A dozen shops circled an eerily idyllic town square, all built in different architectural styles, with signs above the doors. The drugstore had intricate Middle Eastern designs over the windows. The hair salon was set up like an old-fashioned French burlesque. The flashing lights of the arcade looked straight out of 1980s Tokyo. An enormous weeping cherry tree stood in the center, like a pin stuck in the center of a map. No cars. No people. The only sign of life was a tall Victorian house flanking one side of the square, with lights blazing in the upper windows.

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