Burning, burning… Every nerve in Griff’s body was ablaze. I’m on fire!
His eyes snapped open and he saw nothing but red. It wasn’t the flickering of flames, but a thick, liquid coating of blood. A surge of searing pain shot up his neck and traced a lightning-forked path across his skull. His lips parted to scream, but a hand clamped itself firmly over his mouth. His surprise rendered his cry a muffled whimper.
Reaching up with an aching arm, Griff wiped the blood from his face with his shirtsleeve. Tears flooded into his eyes, washing away what remained, and he blinked away bright sunlight. The first thing he saw was Francis’s tense, drawn face, laced with scrapes and cuts and dust, silhouetted against a backdrop of warm blue sky. Some abstract, disconnected part of his brain mused on the emotional contrast of what he was seeing. It’s a beautiful day, he thought. What’s got her so on-edge? And then a fresh wave of pain obliterated every positive concept from his mind for a span of several seconds.
The pain receded for a moment, the blue of the sky pulsing deeper and more brilliantly than before. Griff felt his lungs expand and contract, slowly, carefully. What a rollercoaster, he thought. Is this what dying feels like?
He tried to sit up, but Francis’s firm hand kept his head pressed against the ground. The protestations of his aching neck and back were enough reason to surrender to the pressure, so he relaxed and closed his eyes again. He became aware of blades of grass tickling at his ears. Concentrating on that helped him ignore the rest of his body. There was no pain, no dripping blood, just the grass on his ears and the warm hand covering his mouth… He heard a gentle wind, and Francis’s quick, even breathing.
Then someone said, “Anything?”
The voice was gruff, almost hoarse, but purposeful, not a voice Griff had heard before. It sounded like it was coming from a little ways away, but that could be due to the blood dripping into his ears.
“Nothing,” came the reply, and this voice was much closer. Much closer. But it definitely hadn’t been Francis’s voice, so who…?
Griff squeaked his eyes open again and tilted his head back, searching for the source. He had hardly shifted his view at all when an unfamiliar face entered his vision, looming over him, a man’s soft, pale face framed with long, straight brown hair. The man was standing only a few paces away, and was slowly turning his head from side to side, scanning. Griff saw that he wore a neatly plaited ponytail.
“Nothing at all,” the man repeated. He took one step forward, closer to Griff and Francis, then stopped again, frowned slightly, and turned to his left, continuing to survey the area around him with his eyes.
Francis’s hand, still covering Griff’s mouth, was beginning to tremble. She blinked very slowly, once, twice, three times. A single bead of sweat traced the length of her nose.
We’re invisible, Griff realized. Francis was channelling every ounce of energy in her body into maintaining their cover, sustaining this tiny field of protection.
Suddenly the entire situation swam into focus for Griff; his brain made the connection between the Now and the Previously. The birds had attacked the ERT van, smashing through the windshield with their bodies, forcing it off the road. There had been a crash, everything had rolled over and gone black…
But they weren’t in the van anymore. They’d either been thrown clear—not likely, the way those vehicles were built—or they’d climbed out of the wreckage after the fact. Had Francis dragged him out? Surely someone would have seen their escape, unless…
How long had Francis been keeping this invisibility field up? Had she even maintained it while exerting herself to get free of the crash? Could she possibly have that much strength and energy?
“They’re here somewhere,” insisted the gruff voice that had spoken first. “They have to be.”
“But how are we supposed to find them?” replied the ponytailed man. “Innis said she can—”
“Yeah, invisible, but not forever. We’ve got to wait her out, that’s all.”
“They should’ve reappeared by now. We can’t hang around much longer.”
The drop of sweat that had been clinging to Francis’s nose broke free and splashed onto Griff’s forehead. A booming echo reverberated through his skull, but somehow no one else seemed to hear it.
Griff realized he was holding his breath. Francis’s hand was shaking much more noticeably now.
The ponytailed man paced past again. “We should leave.”
“We can’t. Not until we take care of these last two.”
“If we want to get away and meet up with the others, we have to—”
“We don’t leave until we find them! Those are our orders.”
“What good will it do if we follow orders and get picked right back up and thrown in prison again? The whole point of this was to get us out!”
Another drop of sweat fell from Francis’s face into Griff’s eye. He blinked it away. Francis was gritting her teeth, eyes closed, visibly shaking.
Griff heard a car pull up and stop, its engine idling. Someone called, “Holy crap… Are you guys all right? What happened here?”
The ponytailed man turned to look, and the gruff voice replied, “We know as much as you do. Just got here a minute ago ourselves, stopped to check it out.”
“This is insane. Anything I can do to help?”
“I already called 9-1-1. They said they’re on their way.”
“Okay. Wow… Well, if everything’s under control, I’m going to be late for work, so…”
“Yeah, go,” said the gruff voice. “The pros will handle this.”
The car revved up and drove off.
“The next one’s going to stay,” said ponytail, “or someone passing by actually will call the cops. And then what will we do?”
The gruff voice swore and sighed. “Yeah, let’s go.” He swore again.
Ponytail turned his back and began to walk away.
Griff very gently reached up and lifted Francis’s hand off his mouth. She apparently didn’t have the strength to resist his movement anymore. Her other arm was hanging limply at her side, blood dripping from her fingertips. She looked to be at least as busted up as Griff was.
Gingerly rolling from his back onto his side, Griff raised his head to get a closer look at the two men who were looking for them. He had to suppress a gasp.
The person with the gruff voice was none other than the man who had been sitting beside Griff in the police van. The broken handcuffs were still dangling from one of his wrists.
And there wasn’t a single scratch on him.