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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If she squinted, the shape looked like a person.
“Hey!” She tumbled down the path. Her feet tangled in the grass underfoot as the trail led between rows of peppers bursting with ripeness.
“Hey! I need help!”
The path gave way to a small beach. The person—a dark-haired girl in a white sundress—must have been panicked, because she was curled in the sand, frozen with fear.
“Hey!” Cora stopped short at the edge of the sea, as black-deep water and reality caught up to her all at once. The girl wasn’t curled in panic. Facedown in the surf, hair matted, water billowing around motionless legs.
“Oh, no.” Cora squeezed her eyes shut. “Get up. Please.”
When she opened her eyes, the girl was still motionless. She forced herself to step into the surf, wincing as it swallowed her ankles, and dropped to her knees. In Bay Pines, one of the delinquents had suffocated herself with a plastic shopping bag. Cora had been writing song lyrics in the hallway as the police wheeled the body away: glassy eyes, blue lips.
Just like this girl.
Except this girl also had angry bruises on her shoulder, like someone had grabbed her. For a few moments, all Cora could hear was blood pulsing through her ears. A tattoo flashed on the girl’s neck beneath the bruises, a collection of black dots that meant nothing to Cora and never would, because she could never ask the girl about them. Behind her, the forest was perfectly silent, with only the soft falling snow to tell her that the world hadn’t stopped.
She stood. The water seemed colder. Deeper. Maybe those bruises meant the girl had been murdered. Or maybe the girl had drowned trying to escape. Either way, Cora didn’t want to be next.
She raced out of the water. Stay in one place. Don’t fight back. That was the advice she’d gotten as a kindergartener. But how could she stay in one place, with a dead body?
Footsteps broke the silence. She whirled, searching the spaces between the trees.
White clothes flashed between the branches. Two legs. A person. Cora’s muscles tightened to run—or fight.
A boy trudged out of the forest.
He was about her age. Cute, in a messy way. He wore jeans and a rumpled white shirt beneath a leather jacket, looking liked he’d stumbled out of a pool hall after a night of loud music and beer. As out of place as Cora—though he was barefoot, like she was. His dark hair fell around brown eyes that looked as surprised to see her as she was to see him.
The boy broke the tension first. “Aren’t you . . .” His words died when he saw the body. “Is she dead?”
He took a step forward. Cora scrambled backward, ready to bolt, and he stopped. He popped a knuckle in his left hand. Strong hands, Cora noted. Hands that could have held a girl under water.
“Back away,” Cora threatened. “If you touch me, I’ll claw your eyes out.”
Sure enough, that stopped him. He dragged a hand over his mouth, eyes a little glassy. “Wait. Do you think I killed her?”
“She has bruises on her arm. She struggled with someone.”
“Well, it wasn’t me! Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but I didn’t kill anyone. My clothes are dry. If I’d done it, I’d be sopping wet.” He paced to the edge of the surf, where the water brushed his toes—not afraid of the water, like she’d been—and rubbed his temples. “She must have fifty pounds on you, so I doubt you killed her, but someone did. We should get out of here before they come back. Find a phone or a radio. We can try that barn.”
A phone. She longed to hear her father’s voice on the other end, telling her that it was all a misunderstanding . . . but a girl was dead. Whoever the girl was, those bruises were more than just a misunderstanding to her.
“I watch TV,” Cora said. “I know how this goes. You act all friendly and then strangle me behind the barn. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He rubbed a hand over his face, digging deep into his scalp, as though his head splintered with pain too. “In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t TV. There’s no one but me and a murderer, so I suggest we help each other.”
Cora eyed him warily. Her first day in juvie, a gap-toothed girl had offered her a contraband Coca-Cola—a welcome present, the girl had said, to help her adjust. Two days later, the girl had punched her in the ribs and stolen her iPod.
You might have grown up in a rich-girl bubble, the gap-toothed girl had told her, but in here you have to learn the rules of the real world. First off: never trust a stranger—especially one who comes offering help.