NEVER LET THEM suspect what you are.
Her mentor's warning, repeated innumerable times, rattled inside Gillian's skull. What am I, anyway? And aren't I somehow part of "them," too?
Waving at the van whose lights cut through the sheet of rain, she buried these thoughts beneath the need of the moment. Her mentor had often cautioned her against excessive brooding, too. Cultivating self-doubt would make her vulnerable.
Not thinking can kill you; on the other hand, thinking too much instead of acting can kill you just as quickly.
Oh, leave me alone! she ordered the ghostly whisper inside her brain. She'd made the considered choice to run away from her guardian, Dr. Volnar; why couldn't she stop thinking of him for more than five minutes straight? At the moment she'd better concentrate on improving her condition-tired, hungry, penniless, and wet. While the December rain didn't chill her, even in a lightweight jacket, she detested being soaked as much as any cat. And the money she'd pilfered from Volnar's wallet had paid for a bus ticket only as far as Richmond.
Besides, this is supposed to be an adventure. Her first chance to mix with-their kind-without her guardian looming over her shoulder. She'd better make the most of it while she could.
The van screeched to a stop on the shoulder of the on-ramp. When the driver, a lean, middle-aged man with a pointed beard, edged over to peer at her through the passenger window, Gillian heard him exclaim, "My God, it's a kid!"
Opening the door, he shouted to her, "Get in, you're drenched already!"
Gillian climbed into the car, shrugged off her jacket, and dropped her backpack between the two front bucket seats. "Thank you for stopping, sir." She stole a longer look at the driver. He wore a fur-collared leather coat and matching leather gloves. His hair, receding in front, was curly and abundant elsewhere, gray-streaked brown like the beard. She felt indignation mingled with curiosity in the stare he gave her.
The van roared onto Interstate 64. "I'm Adam Greer. Who might you be?"
Hands folded in her lap, she kept quiet. The less she revealed the better.
"Good enough-Gillian. Don't you have any idea how dangerous it is for a girl to hitchhike? Especially at night? Good Lord, I could be Jack the Ripper for all you know!"
"Impossible," she said. "He lived in the nineteenth century." Greer's answering chuckle reminded her of another of Volnar's warnings-not to take every statement literally. Fortunately Greer seemed to accept the comment as a joke.
"How old are you, anyway?"
She saw no reason not to answer that question truthfully. As Volnar had instructed her (Why couldn't she keep him out of her thoughts? What kind of independence was that?), minimizing the number of lies one had to keep track of made life less complicated. "I'm twelve."
"Tall for your age," Greer muttered.
And skinny, she could almost hear the man thinking. Gillian wondered if she'd made a mistake, if she should have claimed to be older. Yet she knew her slim, flat-chested body didn't resemble a teenager's. Better to present herself as an unusually tall pre-adolescent. She ran her fingers through her dripping red curls and sat up straight, trying to keep water off the upholstery.
Squinting through dark-rimmed glasses at the highway, shiny with rain, Greer said, "How far are you going?"
A potential trap? No, what harm could that truth do her? "To Annapolis."
He made a hmph sound of acknowledgement. "Heading in that general direction myself. I'm going to a convention in College Park-on the upper side of the Washington beltway, if you don't know the area."
"I have studied maps." The dubious glance he gave her worried Gillian. Her speech must not ring true for a twelve-year-old girl, but how could she remedy that problem when she'd had so little experience yet? Well, that's one reason I'm here, to get experience. "What kind of convention, sir?" Maybe she could get him to talk about himself instead of her.
Greer flashed her a smile. "It's a pleasure to meet a polite kid these days, but you don't have to overdo it. A science fiction convention-I'm scheduled to be on a panel about UFOs. I teach sociology at William and Mary, and along with more scholarly articles on the topic, I've published a few popular books on contemporary urban superstitions. Hey, there I go lecturing, as if you'd be interested. Sorry, besetting sin of us academics."
Gillian rummaged through the mental file of her nonfiction reading and came up with a vague picture of what he meant. "But I am interested, professor. Superstitions? Like alligators in the sewers of New York?"
He seemed surprised that she'd caught on so readily. "Right, and the tale of the Hook, the spiders in the imported cactus, the organ-stealing crime ring, and all sorts of wild stories that go around with nobody sure how or where they started. And other popular beliefs that don't strictly fit the urban label, like Bigfoot and UFOs full of little green men from Venus."
"There can't be humanoid life on Venus," Gillian said. "It is much too hot."
"Right you are." Professor Greer laughed. "Gillian, you're something else, as we used to say at your age." His amusement faded. "I hate to think of you out on the road alone. I've got a niece not much older than you. Listen, if you're running away, you can tell me about it. I won't turn you in to the cops."
Gillian heard sincerity in the man's voice. The deep pink halo of his aura didn't flicker. Maybe she could tell him enough of the truth, shaded with fabricated details to win his sympathy, to induce him to help her. Either that or she would have to find another ride farther up the highway, and she was so tired already. She hadn't slept all day. "I'm going to visit my father, and I ran out of bus money."
The professor radiated skepticism. "Your parents are divorced?" She nodded. "So why didn't he send you enough money to start with?"
She scrambled for a plausible explanation. One sprang to mind from the soap operas she watched as part of her education. "He doesn't know I'm on my way. I couldn't get in touch with him." She injected a tremor into her voice. "He would have contacted my mother about the arrangements, and if she knew about it-" She paused, pretending to choke on suppressed tears, and watched the man's reaction.
Greer exuded sympathy. Her technique was working. A tiny thrill tingled along her nerves. So this is what we cultivate them for! And it wasn't as difficult as she'd feared either.
"She'd stop me. You see, her husband-" Gillian covered her face with her hands, afraid to volunteer anything specific for fear of striking a false note.
"Poor kid-you don't have to go into details." His voice rough with distress, Greer reached over to pat Gillian's shoulder. A rush of warmth suffused her. For a second she felt energized despite her fatigue and hunger. She wanted more of this!
"I couldn't tell my mother about it. She'd believe my stepfather, not me." Gillian groped for the professor's hand. The touch of his fingers sparked another delightful surge of electricity.
The van swerved. Snatching his hand away from Gillian's, Greer whipped the wheel around to steer the car back into its proper lane. "God, I must be more tired than I thought! Better take a break, get some coffee. I bet you'd like a snack, too."
"I would like a glass of milk," she said.
"Fine, I'll treat you to one." He glanced at the sign coming up. "There's an exit in two miles. Oh, I forgot all about this-" He dug into the pouch below the dashboard between the front seats and fished out a chocolate bar. "Be my guest."
She gave the standard excuse she'd been taught. "No thank you, I'm allergic to it."
With a shrug Professor Greer unwrapped the candy and started eating it. "No wonder I'm beat, grading exams until late this afternoon. Stupid of me not to wait until tomorrow to drive up, but I wanted plenty of time to meet with a few colleagues in the area. And a good thing, as it turned out, or I wouldn't have met you."
Gillian tensed. What did he have in mind? Could she accept help from him without compromising herself?
"I'll take you all the way to your father's. It's only an extra hour of driving time, no problem. You said he lives in Annapolis?"
Gillian decided to accept the offer. Wasn't there a saying about the teeth of gift horses? Once convinced that she was safe with her father, Greer would vanish from her life with no harm done. "Not exactly in Annapolis," she said. "Across the Severn River in an area called St. Margaret's near Route 50."
The van slowed for the exit ramp. "Have you ever been there?"
"Only once, when I was very little, so I hardly remember it. But I have studied-"
He laughed, "Yeah, I know, maps. So you can give me accurate directions?"
"I believe so." She told him the street address.
"Okay, it's a deal." He peered out the windshield at the deserted, wooded county road. The downpour had changed from rain to sleet. "I wonder how many miles to civilization?"
"I don't know how to thank you," said Gillian, quoting a line she'd often encountered in books and TV dramas. She was enjoying the way she manipulated this creature so easily.
With a dismissive wave he said, "Forget it. I'll feel better knowing you're safe. You can thank me by promising not to do anything this dumb again."
"Yes, sir." Partly to divert him from his too-solicitous interest in her and partly out of genuine curiosity, she asked, "Isn't it unwise for you to pick up strangers too? Aren't you afraid?"
"Not of a twelve-year-old-no offense," he chuckled. "And I do carry a pistol in the glove compartment on these trips. Probably against some law or other."
Having read in the newspaper about armed conflict in California traffic jams, Gillian wasn't surprised to hear that the professor had a gun. "How many people have you shot?"
He burst out laughing. "None. I'm not what you'd call the desperado type-" He glanced at her, taking his eyes off the tight curve he was negotiating. At that moment the tires skidded on the ice-glazed pavement. The professor spun the wheel wildly from side to side. Gillian heard his heartbeat shift into overdrive. Her own pounded out of control. The van slid across the curve and onto the shoulder. Its right front bumper collided with a sapling and rebounded.
Gillian felt her safety belt strain against her chest. Greer's panic flooded her. She couldn't gather her wits to brace against the jolting of the car. She felt the brakes catch. The van fishtailed, plowed into a leafless clump of bushes, and stopped.
Gillian's vision went dim. Something more than the wind howled in her ears. Her skin felt on fire. She leaped up, lunging against the belt and barely noticing it snap. Her bones were cracking open, her body turning inside out, her very essence boiling up from her heart and bowels.
She doubled over, forehead on the dashboard. Abruptly the burning pain metamorphosed into a convulsion of ecstasy immeasurably beyond what she'd absorbed from Greer's touch.
It ended too quickly. Her eyes cleared. Meeting the professor's dumbfounded stare, she glimpsed in her peripheral vision what held him transfixed.
She saw the tips of her wings.
What did he see? Only wings? Or also dark fur sprouting on her skin, the fangs and pointed ears of some feral creature from legend?
His terror pierced her between the eyes. Or was it her own? This can't be-I'm too young-I don't know how! And then a still more terrible thought hit her: He saw me change!
She fumbled for the door handle, jumped down from the van, and launched herself into the air.
Fear-driven instinct made up for her ignorance. Buffeted by wind and sleet, she soared above the trees. Blindly she flew northward until exhaustion forced her to the ground. Landing in a wooded area a few miles from Interstate 95, she huddled in the midst of a stand of evergreens with her head buried in her arms, shuddering with tearless sobs.