The Epidemic

By: Suzanne Young


PART I


EVERYTHING IN ITS WRONG PLACE





CHAPTER ONE


MY ENTIRE LIFE IS A lie. I’m nothing more than a carefully crafted story about a dead girl—a recently discovered truth that’s left me questioning my existence. I was brought in to close out her life, but somehow I forgot mine along the way. I don’t remember my real name or my real family; I truly thought I was Quinlan McKee.

But now I’m nobody.

The tires roll over a bump in the road, rattling the windows of the bus, and I sway in my padded seat. The world moves past me in silhouettes against the darkening night. My fingertips tingle and my lips are numb. Cold sweat beads on my skin. I think I’m in shock.

Deacon sits next to me, the music from his earbuds playing loudly enough for me to hear a faint hum. We’re on an evening bus to Roseburg, Oregon—a poorly planned trip to find my identity. But now I know we’re heading toward an uncertain future. I thought Deacon and I had finally figured each other out, found a way to be together despite all the lies surrounding me. But the last twenty minutes have cured me of such naïve thinking.

I look sideways at Deacon and study his features, seeking out his misdirection. Instead I find the soft brown color of his eyes, which can read my soul, the perfect curve of his lips, and the sharp angles of his jaw—a face that’s so familiar I would know it in the dark. He gives nothing away as he subtly bobs his head to the music, staring straight ahead. Betrayal suddenly hardens in my veins, and I have to turn away from him. All of my relationships have been a lie too.

I face the window, my suspicion going unnoticed. My heart would surely be shattered by this if it hadn’t already been damaged several times today, maybe broken beyond repair. Because after finding out I wasn’t who I thought I was, I trusted Deacon—the only person left to trust. But twenty minutes ago a text popped up on his phone:

HAVE YOU FOUND HER YET?

There are only a handful of people who would have sent that text, none of whom I’d want knowing my location. Every time I try to find a rational explanation for the message, I remind myself that Deacon did find me. He tracked me down at the bus station because he knew exactly what I would do. He knows me better than anyone. And that makes me an easy mark for a closer. Trust and love are our greatest weapons for manipulation.

Deacon and I have both been closers, reading people and their emotions for a living. For years I willingly took on the roles of deceased girls in order to help their families through grief. I was a remedy for broken hearts, a tool for loved ones to use to get closure. But I had no idea that I was a closer for my own life. Quinlan McKee died when she was six. I was brought in by Dr. Arthur Pritchard to play her role. My father . . .

I close my eyes, cursing my sentimentality. Stop thinking of him like that, I demand. Tom McKee isn’t my father.

But despite my attempts to compartmentalize the pain, my breath hitches from the loss. He was my father, wasn’t he? I can’t deny that. Tom McKee raised me, even if he lied to me the entire time. When I was a little girl, he’d brush my hair and cook my meals. We’d watch movies together and, of course, train to be better within the department. Ultimately, what he needed was for me to help him get over the grief of losing his daughter. He kept me to avoid his own pain. In turn he caused mine. But he was still my dad.

Deacon’s fingers brush over my hand on the bus seat, startling me. I lift my eyes to his, struck down by how my heart swells when he meets my gaze. How my insides burn at the possibility that he’s deceived me more than anybody. And yet I still can’t find that betrayal in his expression.

“You okay?” Deacon asks, taking out one of his earbuds. I wait a beat and then press my lips into a sad smile—half acting, half pained. Determined to find the crack in his veneer.

“Yeah,” I say. “Just thinking about my dad.”

He winces sympathetically and slides his fingers between mine, squeezing them for comfort. “Don’t do that,” he says. “Don’t give him that. He doesn’t deserve your loyalty.”

He’s right, which is ironic considering the mysterious text Deacon received. I look down at our hands, so perfectly matched. He’s mine, I think, my chest aching. Hasn’t he always been mine?

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