The roar of the restarting bus engine makes some of the passengers mumble grumpily. The interior smells like onions, musk, and sweat, and it’ll only get worse over the next 12 hours when mouths get slimier and people get sweatier. It reminds me of the pathway to Franco’s office—that crawling feeling you get knowing that something is in the air that isn’t supposed to be there.
I feel alive again, but also even more cautious about touching Regulars now. The paranoia that I feel as a Death Leader feels familiar—preferred, even, over the unfamiliar feeling of not having the power to do anything but die.
I glance at Tracy, sitting several rows ahead of me. Her head rests on the back of her seat, and from what I can gauge, her arm is sitting comfortably on the armrest like she is holding something. We’re on our way to Atlanta, Georgia, but God knows where we’ll end up inevitably. Between wanting to get Franco back and being paired with an inexperienced Death Leader, I have my hands full. I need to get away from Chicago to think. Besides that, I need to keep my promise to Nat to run and not look back.
A whiff of tangy cologne plops down in the seat next to me. An overweight man with slicked hair and a pink short-sleeved shirt lets out a happy sigh. I let out a small annoyed one. I was hoping that he wouldn’t come back from the bathroom or that his stop was in the middle of one of the cornfields that we rode past.
“You know, we’ve been riding all this time and I don’t think I got your name. I’m Lee,” the man says. He reaches his hand out toward me and I wince.
“Jason,” I say, scooting closer to the window. My long sleeved shirt and gloves must stand out, and Lee probably thinks I’m crazy, but at least that’ll keep him from talking to me too much.
“Good to meet you,” Lee says smiling and taking his hand back. His eyes trace down to my gloves and the ratty shoebox that I’m holding, and then he looks ahead again.
I look down at the shoebox. Before I left, I had promised Nat that I would wait until I was a long way from Chicago to open it. Something in it, she had told me as I left, might make me turn back.
I turn the edge of the box toward Lee so that he can’t see the inside. For hours I’ve felt the thumping of something inside every time the bus made a stop or hit a bump. I crack the box open, just enough to see what’s in it.
It’s a small, leather-bound book. There is no writing on the front or back covers. A book? All this time I had to wait on a book?
I reach in the box and open up the book. My father’s name, Charles Rush, is written on the inside cover at the top left hand corner. My hand starts to shake. Something from my father. Every single page is filled with handwriting. I flip the book to page one and start to read:
October 5, 1921
I am growing older and tired, but none less the wiser. Today we had our father over, who was adamant in expressing his admiration for at least one of his sons becoming an Overseer.
My brother smiles at the honor—one that I could have easily had, but have done without. I also see the way he looks at me. He scoffs at me when he sees my bones growing stiffer. He laughs when I fail at an assignment or two. I can feel that he means me harm, but I pose no threat to him.
The words that he wrote echo in my mind: He laughs when I fail at an assignment or two. The Untouchables. My father hadn’t known the full story about either the Untouchables or the Movement. Instead he had died thinking that he had been a failure at “an assignment or two.”
I close the book and slump back in my seat. My father never mentioned that he had the opportunity to become an Overseer. Had he accepted it, I would have been one too. But my father had always spoken ill of Overseers, saying that they were all power hungry gods without morals.
My father had also never mentioned a diary. What else was Nat keeping from me about my father? I open up the diary and read the next entry:
October 30, 1921
I am certain now that my brother means me harm. I walked into Frank’s office today, unannounced—his staff knows me well— and saw him doing something suspicious with a bottle of liquid. He tried to hide it when he saw me, and he wouldn’t answer any questions about it. Now I find that he’s inviting me to a barrage of events—all hosted by him and none previously brought up before today. I feel it. He wants to do something to me, but not the others. I’ve done nothing to offend him, but it becomes more and more apparent to me that his title is worth more to him than the life of his own blood brother.
I feel like I’ve been splashed with a bucket of ice water. I’m frozen. Shell shocked. I skim the words of the last entry again: Frank’s office, staff, title, blood brother. Franco was my father’s blood brother.
It’s no wonder he wants me dead. I am the next successor for Overseer of Chicago. That also explains the potion that prolongs life. How old was Franco, really? Had Franco been trying to perfect the Death Leader potion just to try to kill me and my father?
Millions of questions bombard me. I look up ahead at Tracy as though she can hear my thoughts.
“Hey, are you okay? You don’t look so good,” Lee says.
“I’m fine,” I say. Or at least I will be. I realize now why Nat wanted me to be far away before I read the journal entries. If I had stayed, I might be tempted to become one of the power-hungry Overseers that her and my father despised.
Lee keeps talking, but I tune out what he is saying. Three and a half hours into this trip, I wonder if it’s too late to turn around. Maybe the fact that my uncle is an Overseer, gives me enough power to kill him. Maybe that’s where I’m meant to be—head of all Death Leaders. Maybe I can change things or—
A huge bang from the bus’s engine interrupts my thoughts. I glance at Tracy out of instinct to make sure she’s okay. She’s no longer sitting back comfortably, but she appears to be fine. The passengers on the bus grumble and moan in protest as the bus driver shouts: “Alright, alright. Hold your horses. Should just be a basic engine problem. We shouldn’t be that much off schedule. Please stay seated.” The driver fiddles with the bus, trying to start it up again, and everyone stays seated as told.
I look again in front of me at Tracy and then in back of me. My eye catches a boy who looks to be a teenager. The shine from his bald head contrasts with everything else on the bus which looks either dingy or dirty. The teenager glares at the bus driver without breaking his concentration. My stomach knots as I see him raise both hands to his temples and rub them. I stare ahead of me again so as to not draw attention to myself. That motion is something that Crime and Accidental Death Leaders are known for doing right after they’ve fulfilled an assignment. The Book of Agonis says it’s a method for renewing the mind since mind control can be draining. I say it’s more ritualistic than anything now, since the United States Death Leaders use throaters and computers to implement mind control.
I start to look around for anyone else who might be doing the same thing, but only the boy does. Could he really be a Death Leader? He certainly wasn’t one from Chicago. Could he be one from somewhere else? Did Franco have the authority to send a Death Leader from another city after me? Was he even after me? Was the boy somehow the cause of the bus breaking down? My mind overflows with ‘what’ and ‘what if’ questions. If I was an Overseer, I’d be over everyone and maybe I wouldn’t have to be so paranoid about everything all the time.
I quickly stare back at the boy and see that he is rubbing only one temple now. He uses the other hand to pop a small white pill into his mouth and takes a swig of water. Aspirin. The knots in my stomach disappear and my face flushes red. No Death Leader needs to take medicine, especially not for a headache or any other type of pain. ’You’re paranoid,’ I tell myself. Get it together, Chris. Franco doesn’t even know that you’re alive. You’re not in Chicago anymore. You’ve left. Relax.
The sudden roar of the bus makes my head jerk to the front again.
“Alright folks, we’re up and running again,” the bus driver yells. “Sit tight.”
As the bus slowly pulls away from the open cornfield that we’ve pulled next to, I start to wonder what my next 900 years will be like, and if the 100 years that I’ve had as a Death Leader even count since I technically died as a Death Leader once.
I lean back in my seat, eager to get even further away from Chicago. I wouldn’t mind getting rid of Franco for good, but that would mean that I would automatically become Chicago’s new Overseer. And if I don’t accept, who will take my place? Do I even want anyone to take my place? I realize one fact now more than ever—revenge on Franco involves careful consideration of two things: 900 years of possibly filling Franco’s shoes and the crafting of a very, very meticulous plan.