Contamination | Invasion Survivor Book One | Chapter Three
River managed to catch up with Paige on her way toward the locker rooms.
“I’m sorry about before,” she blurted with a sigh. “But I think you two would make a cute couple.” She pouted imploringly, a gesture guaranteed to make her case better than words ever could.
Paige knew she couldn’t stay mad at her, no matter what.
All her previous anger had dissipated, anyway, because River wasn’t the one she was truly mad at. “It’s fine.”
She was angry at herself for not being able to talk to AJ, plain and simple. The locker room wasn’t as full as it should be, but Paige brushed the thought away.
River continued to chat while they changed, talking about her vacation and what she did and Paige wanted to hear everything about it.
“It was only the three of us and the captain.” She beamed, and Paige understood why this was such a big deal.
Her parents, because of their hectic schedules, rarely had the opportunity to travel together as a family. And even when they did, their assistants and an entire hoard of other people joined them as well.
River once joked that they moved around like a carnival, so this was a nice surprise and Paige was really happy for her friend.
“We did the whole Aegean Sea tour, cruising from one island to the next, and it was amazing.”
Paige sighed wistfully, wishing she had been there with them. River had invited her, naturally, like she had every year before that, but this time, she chose to stay close to Willow and study.
But to see some of the ancient cities in person would be a dream come true.
“Mostly, we stayed on the boat, but we visited some of the larger islands as well,” River continued.
“Were there any cute boys?” Paige asked rhetorically because when River was involved, there were usually boys involved as well.
Her answering smile was sly as she brushed imaginary hair off her shoulder. “I did have a hot scuba instructor. He showed me the best reefs.” Her eyes grew misty for a moment as if she remembered something wonderful that had happened to her.
“I bet he did.” Paige couldn’t help but tease her and River squeaked in outrage, throwing her shirt at Paige.
Paige dodged it with ease and threw her towel at River in return.
“So, was George a good kisser?” Paige continued to tease, and River skidded to a halt even though she was in a process of retaliating for the towel.
“How did you know his name was George?” she asked in wonder.
Shrugging, Paige replied. “Lucky guess. It’s the most common name in Greece.”
River rolled her eyes. “Only you would know that, you nerd,” she replied playfully, and she pretended to take offense.
“He was rather good,” River added nonchalantly, and Paige burst out laughing.
“I knew it,” she exclaimed.
Settling down, they changed quickly and headed for the tracks. River hugged her along the way.
“I wish you had been there with me, Paige. The bookworm in you would die, seeing all those ancient sights...”
And she was right. “I know,” she replied, grinning. “I would probably bore you to death with all the facts.”
“You could never bore me. I am too awesome for that,” her friend joked, assuming a diva pose. Anyway, I took a lot of pictures.”
Paige responded with a hug of her own. “And that is why I love you,” she proclaimed.
“We’ll have the whole summer to make up for the lost time.”
And suddenly remembering their talk about summer and their plans, Paige stopped in her tracks. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
River shrugged noncommittally, suddenly very interested in her cuticles. It was all for show. Paige was aware of that. “I don’t know, maybe...”
She grabbed her by the shoulders. “Don’t play with me now, River.”
“But it’s so fun,” she replied, pouting theatrically.
“River,” she snapped but without rancor.
“Yes, I spoke to my dad who spoke with the people who organize his charities, and we’re in.”
Paige literally jumped up and down. This was the best news ever. River joined in. Clearly, the enthusiasm was rubbing off on her.
“Can you imagine,” River continued, still in high spirits. “Just us, for three months. It’ll be epic.”
“River, you do know we’re going to volunteer. It’s going to be a lot of hard work,” she reminded her. Honestly, Paige couldn’t wait to start.
She loved learning but was passionate about practical experiences. Those three months ahead of them during which they would travel around the world and help build houses for people who’d lost theirs during natural catastrophes would provide more than she could imagine. A lot of experience she couldn’t get from a textbook, plus, it was for the noble cause. All in all, it was a win-win kind of a situation.
River waved her hand. “Sure. But we both know that all work and no play make me cranky,” she added and winked, and Paige could only shake her head and smile.
Her heart is in the right place, even if she is a little wild at times.
Paige loved her friend to bits and spending the whole summer with her was truly epic, just as River said.
Out on the track, they could see their coach in the distance blowing her whistle in rapid succession, which meant she wasn’t too happy about something. They rushed over to meet her.
“You’re late, girls,” she snapped at them and they both sobered instantly.
“Sorry, Mrs. O’Brian,” Paige replied immediately, and River echoed the apology. As soon as the coach wasn’t looking at them, though, she made funny faces, and Paige couldn’t help but laugh. She tried not to make a noise, but it was too difficult.
“Settle down,” the coach ordered.
Paige pushed River playfully, trying to make her stop goofing around as they started stretching.
Feeling pumped up after receiving the news about their summer, Paige was really looking forward to a good run.
Glancing around, she noticed that at least half of the squad was missing. She frowned, concerned now. It wasn’t like them to miss practice since they had a very important race that weekend. Besides, there were no slackers at Rosehill, period.
“Mrs. O’Brian?” she decided to speak up.
“Yes, Paige?” She turned to her but was still inspecting her chart, going over the plan for today’s practice.
“Where are the others?” Paige asked, and River nodded next to her, obviously counting heads.
Mrs. O’Brian sighed. “I was about to ask you girls that.” Checking her watch, she blew her whistle once again and all the girls present gathered around, knowing she wanted something to say.
“I’ll try to find out what happened to the rest of my team, but I want you to start the practice,” she warned and they all nodded.
“Once you’re finished warming up, do the laps. Paige, you can lead. And remember, nice and slow, girls. We only want your muscles all warmed up and ready,” she commanded, dismissing them.
They shouted agreement in unison and scattered to do as they were told.
After they had finished working through a specific set of exercises and stretches, they walked toward the tracks and, as instructed, Paige took the lead. They settled into a nice jog and soon, the girls started to chat amongst themselves. With the coach absent, it was a rare opportunity.
Even though Paige was in the front with River, she could still hear the chatter from the back.
“Did you see Mark today?” one girl asked.
“No, why?” the other replied.
“I heard that he completely spaced out during class and that his nose practically exploded,” the first one informed her with noticeable excitement in her voice.
Paige listened intently as they started the second lap.
“I heard one girl passed out in a pool of her own blood,” Stiv said, joining in the conversation.
“Really?” A chorus of girls wanted to know more.
“Yeah, they had to carry her in the infirmary.”
“That is freaky.”
Paige had to agree. She nudged River and gestured behind them.
“Did you hear all that?” she asked, more than a little concerned now. “I thought it was only Chen, but other kids got sick as well.”
River made a noncommittal sound. “I think it’s merely gossip.”
“What do you mean?” Paige asked, confused.
Moving a little closer to her, River explained. “Listen to what they are saying—they all have second-hand information. It was only gossip,” she concluded triumphantly.
But Paige wasn’t convinced.
They continued running laps and when she was satisfied with their progress, Paige decided to up their game a little. She picked up her pace and the rest followed. The only downside was that they couldn’t really talk any longer at a faster speed.
But it feels good, she thought to herself.
On their second round at the new pace, Paige almost choked on her own tongue when she spotted AJ at the bleachers. He never came to watch practice.
Even weirder, it looked like he was staring at her—and quite intensely, too. Almost, she thought absently, as if he wasn’t even blinking.
Unintentionally, she started to slow down, but River nudged her, and she snapped out of her stupor.
She wobbled a little, and that made her wish the earth would crack open so she could jump inside and disappear.
“River,” she snapped, not wanting to look like an idiot in front of AJ twice in one day.
That would be too much, even for Paige.
“What?” River replied, faking ignorance. “I only wanted to make sure you know your boyfriend is here to cheer you on.” She deadpanned and Paige immediately turned scarlet because she was certain her other teammates had heard her loud and clear.
A part of her was flattered he was there and watching her, but the rest...
I came here to get him out of my head, and now he’s here too. Why?
Trying to outrun her embarrassment, she picked up her pace, running even faster than before, and could hear River laughing behind her.
The rest of the team followed suit, and in no time, they did the full circuit. When Paige dared to glance toward the bleachers once again, AJ was nowhere to be seen. The feeling of disappointment that followed couldn’t be helped, but she ignored it, focusing on her training instead.
Still, something else forced them all to slow down.
A girl stood in the middle of the track, and at first, Paige simply thought she had a stitch and was trying to walk it off. But once they approached her, they could see she wasn’t moving. Worse, her nose was bleeding.
She is sick, just like Chen.
Maybe I should go back to my room and try to sleep it off... For some reason, AJ had not gone back to his room. Instead, he watched Paige run her laps. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember walking to the track.
He heard footsteps as someone approached. Something about the kid made his nape tingle, but what actually galvanized him into action was the glazed look on his face.
AJ recognized Curtis. They’d had English together.
He jumped all the way down the bleachers and tried to intercept him, but Curtis moved too fast. “Hey, Curtis,” AJ yelled after him, but he didn’t even pause. AJ jogged now, caught up with him, and stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“What is going on with you?” AJ snapped. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
Not taking his eyes from the tracks and Paige, Curtis said. “She’s my Seedling. I’ll finally leave this awful planet and this wretched body!”
AJ was rendered stupid for a few heartbeats because what this kid had said was all kinds of crazy, and he needed a moment to sift through it.
Seedling … Planet … Body.
The word “seedling” stuck in AJ’s head. That was what the weird voice in his hand had said.
“You are not getting anywhere near her,” he said firmly.
Curtis looked at him then and frowned. AJ didn’t like the way he stared at him. There was something really creepy about the fixed, almost vacant look.
“Why didn’t you get the Seedling?” Curtis asked. But, not waiting for a reply, he continued, his eyes narrowing, “Never mind, she is mine now, and you can’t have her.” He practically growled, but AJ held his ground, knowing he could take him even if he was a bit mental.
“No,” he replied simply.
That confused Curtis for about a second, then he tried to move away but AJ was quicker.
“The Seedling is mine,” Curtis repeated stubbornly.
“You have to stop him,” the voice in AJ’s head yelled. If he hadn’t been too busy with Curtis, he would have rolled his eyes. Then decided to do it anyway.
It had to be a cold day in hell, he reasoned, since he was actually doing what the voice wanted him to do.
“She belongs only to you, AJ, no one else!”
AJ shook his head as if the motion could dislodge the voice. He wasn’t sure if it had worked, but he concentrated on the kid in front of him once more.
Curtis tried to fight him off, but AJ overpowered him easily. It was as if he could anticipate his every move. He tried to hit him with his left hand, but AJ ducked.
He then came at him with a quick sequence of moves but he simply avoided every single one of them.
“I am like a ninja, bitch,” he exclaimed, starting to goof around. He rather liked what seemed to be his new powers.
Finally, AJ annoyed Curtis, and he came at him with everything he had. He kicked him in the shin, but AJ didn’t feel it. If anything, he actually felt stronger.
Curtis didn’t stop. He swung at AJ, seemingly wildly but with a look of fixed purpose that was almost uncanny.
AJ ducked out of the way. If the younger kid had connected with his jaw with that kind of determination behind the shot, he would have been knocked out. AJ twisted and, catching Curtis off guard, punched him in the chest, putting everything he had into the blow.
The force of the blow pushed his opponent away, the air escaping from his lungs in a loud whoosh. He was practically airborne a few seconds before hitting one of the metal pillars of the bleachers.
He lay still, semi-conscious and bleeding from a gash on his head. AJ wasn’t even winded, and with sudden clarity, knew he could finish him off if he wanted to.
“Do it,” the voice urged.
“No,” AJ said out loud, shaking his head.
Instead, he grabbed Curtis’ legs and dragged him off to the outdoor toilet.
Locking him inside, he found a discarded out of order sign in the janitorial closet and hung it on the outside of the door, making sure nobody went in it and released Curtis by accident.
At first, he wanted to leave the track altogether, but then something occurred to him.
What if others try to get to Paige too?
All he could think about was her as if the fight hadn’t happened. Which made him feel more than a little uneasy. He had just beaten Curtis up and didn’t feel any remorse.
Why did Curtis call Paige his Seedling? AJ wondered. He’d need to ask him when he woke. He also needed answers to what the hell was going on.
AJ returned to the bleachers to watch Paige. This time, however, he hid in the shadows under the stands.
That girl can really run, he thought to himself, impressed. Even when she wasn’t trying too hard, she was the best.
“Take your Seedling,” the voice urged again. AJ felt the now familiar pull as well, vibrant and strong, compelling him to action. Though he didn’t know why, he ignored it more easily and remained in his spot.
You know, he thought conversationally, you sound just like my childhood nanny. I really didn’t like her, and she also had an irritating voice just like you.
Bossy as hell, too.
Her name was Francis. I think it suits you perfectly, Francis.
There was no reply to that, of course, and AJ couldn’t help but grin.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” A voice—this time a real one—asked from behind and AJ turned to see Mr. Jones, a science teacher, approaching.
“Just checking out the practice. I have a break in my schedule,” he explained.
The teacher frowned. “Your nose is bleeding. You should go to the nurse’s office,” he ordered.
Even before he’d finished his sentence, AJ shook his head.
“I’m fine,” he insisted, wiping the blood with his arm. It was only a few specks like last time, and he managed it easily. “Crap,” he mumbled, not wanting to deal with this again on top of everything else.
“That’s it,” the teacher said impatiently. “You are coming with me.” He took AJ by the arm and practically dragged him to the infirmary. He knew, somehow, that he could overpower the teacher, but that didn’t feel right. Mr. Jones only wanted to help him. AJ stole one last glance at Paige, needing to make sure she was all right.
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