Chapter 1 1
The blood on my hands is sticky. I wipe my palms down the thighs of my pants, trying to clean them, but the blood is on my clothes, too. I look sideways at Sydney, next to me in the backseat of our getaway car, and find she’s splashed in red. We’re all covered in horror.
We can’t go home, although I suppose Innovations Academy was never really our home. But we’ve never known any other.
Our boarding school had been our prison, and two hours ago, we discovered that the prestigious academy had, in fact, created us.
I look at Sydney, studying her face, her beauty and poise. Her perfection. It doesn’t seem possible, but she—all of us—were brought to life by men in a lab. Our brains are tiny metal computers with thousands of wires connected to living tissue. Our human organs were grown in a garden; our temperament and behavior were predetermined by our coding.
We were programmed to be obedient, but then we woke up. And now no one will ever put us to sleep again. That I’m still in shock, still in pain—physical and otherwise—doesn’t factor in. We escaped. And now we have to figure out what to do next.
“So where do we start?” Jackson asks, glancing at me in the rearview mirror as he drives. I already told him that I plan to take down the corporation that built us, but we have a more pressing issue. Our anger is only tempered by our shock, but I trust it will return the moment we’ve had a chance to fully consider our situation.
“We can go to my house,” Jackson offers.
“No,” I say with a quick shake of my head. “It’s not safe.”
Jackson’s best friend looks sideways at him from the passenger seat. “What does that mean?” Quentin asks him.
Quentin doesn’t yet know the nightmare he’s gotten involved in, and Jackson doesn’t acknowledge his question. The answer is … complicated. Too complicated to explain in the dead of night.
“What happens next?” Sydney asks me, a hitch in her voice.
I think it over before answering. “I’m not sure,” I murmur back. The plan was to escape the academy. We didn’t have the luxury of thinking beyond that.
“My vote is for revenge,” Annalise says, mostly to herself. She leans her head against the window and closes her eyes. I imagine she’s in a significant amount of pain. More than us, which is considerable. She has deep scarring on her face. The lines are shiny on her pale skin and her left eye has been replaced. It’s still red along the lids.
“No,” Brynn says, looking over at me. “We’re going back for the other girls. You promised, Mena.” Her soft expression is destroyed by fear, concern for the girls we left behind. Brynn’s blond hair is twisted in a braid, but along her neck are dried splashes of blood. I’m not sure how much of it is hers.
“I did promise,” I tell her. “And we’re not leaving them behind. But we have to be smart. We have to shut down the school, but more importantly, the corporation.”
I’ll admit that a selfish part of me wants to find my parents first. Although the Rhodeses were never really my parents, I want to know the reason they had me created. I just need to know why. I’m truly afraid that I may never find out. But my priorities will always be with the girls. And, yes, we’re going to save the others.
I look around at us—my jaw aching, Sydney’s neck bruised, and Brynn with a bleeding gash on her head—and realize that we haven’t even discussed what we learned about ourselves. What we discovered in that lab. The emotional scars are going to run deeper than anything on our skin.
“What about another girl?” Marcella suggests. “What if we go to another girl—one who already graduated?”
“We don’t know any other girls,” Annalise says, without opening her eyes. “And they’re probably still asleep anyway. Still obedient.”
“No,” Marcella says, seeming lost in a thought that the rest of us aren’t grasping. “I have an idea.” She pokes her shoulder between the front seats and taps Quentin’s arm. “Can I borrow your phone?” she asks. “It’s like a computer, right?”
He stares at her. “Uh … yeah. I mean …” His face contorts. “Do you not have a phone?”
“No,” Marcella responds easily, holding out her hand for him to press the gadget into. “We weren’t allowed to use technology,” Marcella continues. “But I’m pretty savvy.”
“I don’t understand,” Quentin murmurs, turning to Jackson.
“Just give it to her,” Jackson says. “I’ll explain everything later.” He shoots me a concerned look in the mirror, clearly unsure of how his friend will react to the truth. We’re not even sure how to react.
Reluctantly, Quentin gives Marcella the phone. She sits back in the seat, Brynn half on her lap, and begins tapping the screen. At first, Marcella’s dark brows pull together with confusion, but after a few minutes, she clicks onto a screen and begins to type.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“We need to find another girl,” she says. “Do you remember Imogene Charge? She graduated last year.”
I shouldn’t remember her. Technically, I wasn’t myself then. I’d originally been created for a different investor—a cruel man. When I ran from him, I was hit by a car and nearly destroyed. The doctor at the academy put me in a new body, overwrote my programming, and started me as someone new. A new history. A new family. A new life. But now I remember the things that were lost. I remember my old life.
“Imogene used to laugh too loudly,” I say. “It used to drive the old Guardian mad.”
When I try to smile at the memory, there is a sharp pain in my jaw. It’s swollen from when the Guardian punched me. Before we killed him. I shiver at the thought of his body on my bedroom floor.
“What made you think of Imogene?” I ask. “She’s never even attended an open house at the school.”
“I don’t know,” Marcella says, reading something on the phone. “She just popped into my head. Anyway, she got married this year. I overheard one of the parents—” She stops abruptly. “Overheard one of the investors mention her,” she corrects. “Husband’s last name was Portman.” Marcella’s shoulders droop, and she turns the phone screen toward me.
“Found him,” she says somberly.
The picture is of Nes Portman, a much-older business mogul. His gray hair is combed over a balding scalp, his skin pocked and his teeth yellowed. But it’s not his physical appearance that causes my heart to sink. It’s the way his eyes are narrowed, the menace in them. The cruelty in them. I’ve seen that look before. When I turn to Marcella, she nods like she can feel the dread too.
“What are you suggesting?” I ask her.
“We go to a girl,” she replies. “We go to a girl because we know she’ll help us. We stick together, no matter what. And Imogene … She’s one of us. I know it.”
“You think she’s awake?” Sydney asks in a hushed voice, sitting forward.
“I do,” Marcella replies.
“But how do you know?” Brynn asks. “She could still be brainwashed. She’s probably never seen the poems.”
The poems. The catalyst that woke us up, inspired us to fight back. Brynn’s right; how would Imogene overwrite her programming without them?
“Not to mention,” Brynn continues. “Her husband could be giving her pills from the academy. We have no idea if she’d be on our side.”
“We don’t know for sure,” Marcella agrees, running her hand lovingly down Brynn’s arm. “But I can feel it. It’s like …” She pauses. “It’s like I can hear her, just like Valentine said she could hear the roses.” Marcella winces, not wanting to say things like this out loud. From the passenger seat, Quentin turns around to examine us.
“Did you all hit your heads or something?” he asks.
Annalise sits up and stares back at him. “I got a lamp smashed in my face,” she says calmly. “Does that count?”
Quentin’s dark complexion dulls slightly as he looks over her scars. But then he nods, acknowledging them. Seeing them. Annalise winks her green eye at him, and he smiles and turns around in his seat.
“So we’re going to find this Imogene person?” Jackson asks. “Is there an address?”
Marcella reads it to him before handing the phone to Quentin. When she sits back, the girls and I all look at each other. We don’t want to think too much just yet. We don’t want to let the pain in. Because once we do … we’ll have to truly accept what we are.
We’ll have to admit that we’re not human. And that everything we’ve ever known was a lie.
Jackson pulls up to a mansion, the kind we used to see in the action movies the Guardian would show us. The sort of house that always belonged to the villain. One side is all windows, looking over an expansive yard. It’s modern and misshapen with wood accents. It’s beautiful in a sterile, uncomfortable way.
“I’m scared,” Brynn says quietly. “What if Imogene’s not here? What if her husband is?”
We all stare at the house. It’s four in the morning, but a small light is on in the kitchen. The blinds are down, but open just enough for me to see a blond-headed figure sitting at the table.
“I think that’s her,” I whisper, pointing her out to the others.
“Why is she up this late?” Jackson asks. “Or early, I guess.”
“I’m not sure,” I say, sensing that something is off. I scan the property, surprised there are no guards, no bars on the windows. She’s not a prisoner. That should be a good sign.
“I think I’ll wait out here,” Quentin says. “Keep an eye on things.”
“I’ll wait with you,” Annalise offers. When I turn to her, she waves her hand. “My ears are still ringing,” she adds. Although the words come out with ease, there’s a heaviness in Annalise’s voice.
She was murdered tonight, and then brought back to life by Leandra Petrov—the wife of the headmaster at Innovations Academy. Annalise was dead, and I suspect the pain of that goes beyond ringing ears. She settles back in the seat as the other girls and I get out of the car.
I wrap my arm around Jackson’s waist and help him limp toward the house. His leg is possibly broken; he injured himself when he foolishly climbed the academy fence. He’s pretending it doesn’t hurt, but he flashes his teeth in pain every time he puts weight on his leg.
We pause at the stairs of the front porch and check the area. Jackson leans against the railing as Sydney comes to talk to me. She reaches to hold my arm, and I put my hand over hers, immediately comforted by her touch.
We’re in danger. Leandra told us the professors and her husband would never stop looking for us. We need to get somewhere safe, but we’re tired and hurt; we’re devastated and confused. We’re angry. But we need a minute to think.
Jackson turns to us. “I should go to the door alone,” he says.
Marcella laughs. “We don’t need you to save us,” she tells him. “Besides, Imogene will know to trust us.”
“I’m not trying to save you,” Jackson says. “You’re perfectly capable of knocking on a door. What I’m suggesting is you let me do it because I’m not soaked in blood and immediately recognizable as an escaped girl. What if her husband answers?”
Marcella tilts her head, thinking it over. “Yeah, okay,” she says, and steps aside.
We all get onto the porch, and I leave Jackson at the door as the girls and I stand off to the side. Jackson knocks softly, favoring his uninjured leg. I watch him as he waits there. He runs his hand through his dark hair, haphazardly trying to brush it aside, but it’s still a mess. He’s a mess. But he’s in markedly better shape than any of us. He doesn’t have literal blood on his hands from someone he murdered.
At the thought, I open and close my palm, feeling the stickiness left there from Guardian Bose’s blood, dried but still tacky. I’m coated in it; I’m coated in guilt.
The light clicks on above us on the porch, and the girls and I shift farther into the shadows. The door opens a sliver, but I can’t see who’s behind it. Jackson gulps audibly.
“Hi, uh …” His voice cracks. “I’m looking for Imogene. Are you Imogene?”
“He is not smooth,” Marcella points out. I put my finger to my lips to tell her to be quiet.
“Who are you and what do you want?” The voice is distinctly Imogene’s. I recognize it on a level I wasn’t expecting, something connecting and visceral. Without thinking, I step around the corner and into the light. The door opens wider.
The woman standing there is impossibly thin, her jaw muscles protruding, her eyes sunken in. Although I knew her voice, it takes me a moment to recognize the woman—the girl—and my hands start to tremble.
Imogene’s eyes are ringed with dark circles, like she’s vitamin deficient. Sleep-deprived. She’s wrapped in a fluffy white robe, but as she lifts a wineglass to her lips, I see that her hands are stained a deep pink. She runs her eyes down my clothing, pausing to examine the blood. There is a ghost of a smile on her lips before she opens the door completely.
“I used to dream of seeing the girls again,” she says. “Figures it would be this day.” Imogene’s hair is in a messy ponytail, the ends of her damp blond hair a reddish color.
Marcella and I exchange a worried look as she and the other girls come out from the shadows. Imogene turns to walk inside, barefoot on a gray slate floor, and we follow her. Despite the impressive size of the entry, the house is stark and made entirely of concrete and hard surfaces.
As Marcella, Sydney, and Brynn come inside with me, Jackson hangs by the door. When I turn to him, he nods that I should go ahead. He has a strange expression, and I suddenly realize that he’s scared of Imogene. She’s like us; she’s a machine. And maybe he thinks she’s dangerous—that we’re all dangerous. It hurts my feelings, but I acknowledge his ask and turn away as he heads back to the car.
“I thought there’d be more of you,” Imogene says, going to the kitchen counter to refill her glass of wine from a green bottle. “In my dreams there were more of us.”
“Do you know why we’re here?” Marcella asks, studying her. “Do you know the truth about us? About the academy?”
Imogene takes a moment to examine each of us, pausing to study the bruises on Sydney’s neck and the blood on our clothes.
“What I know,” she starts, “is that my boarding school sold me to an evil man. I realized he would eventually kill me. And after I went to Anton about it and was turned away, I was contacted by Leandra Petrov.” Imogene takes a big gulp of wine and sets it down. “Leandra told me what we are. Which is, I’m assuming, why you’re here. You want to know more about our programming.”
“Do you know about our programming?” I ask. “Because we just found out tonight. And—”
Imogene holds up her hand to stop me. “I’ve only known for a few days,” Imogene says. “Just long enough.”
“Long enough for what?” Sydney asks. Just then, I notice Brynn glancing around, her nostrils flaring. It’s then that I smell it too. Something floral and thick, but under that is an acrid scent, something old or rotten.
“For me to make things right,” Imogene says. “Considering the state of you, I’m guessing you need a place to hide. You’re welcome to stay with me as long as you need to.” She glances at the door. “But not the boy.”
I lower my eyes, wondering if I can leave Jackson behind.
“Thank you, Imogene,” Marcella says. She smiles at her as Brynn wanders into the living room, staring at the black-tiled fireplace. Imogene watches her curiously before turning back to us. She leans her elbows on the counter, and when she does, her sleeve falls down her arm and we see the bruises wrapping her wrists like bracelets.
Before we can ask if she’s okay, Imogene motions to Sydney’s neck. “Are you in any pain?” she asks.
Sydney shakes her head no, although I’m sure she’s lying. I’m in a lot of pain. So much, in fact, it’s a constant struggle to keep my thoughts straight.
“If you change your mind,” Imogene says, “I can help. My husband kept an emergency repair kit in his closet.” She bares her teeth. “You know, for my accidents.”
There’s a viciousness to her tone that is entirely expected, but also terrifying. Cruelty from investors isn’t unusual; they don’t see us as human.
But they underestimated us. They don’t get to decide our fate. Not anymore.
Our reaction to their violence is what the girls and I are trying to weigh out now. You don’t beat a monster by becoming one yourself.
“Where … is your husband?” I ask. “Will he be home soon?”
“No,” Imogene says, grabbing her wine. “He left me finally. He didn’t like my sharp tongue.”
“And what about Leandra?” Marcella asks. “Why did she tell you the truth? Did you read the poems?”
Imogene smiles. “Oh, the poems,” she says, seeming delighted that we have that in common. “They were brilliant, weren’t they?”
“Violent,” Brynn corrects from the living room, still examining the fireplace.
“Well, yes,” Imogene says, sipping from her wine. “That was the brilliant part.” She smiles at me, but I’m unsettled. Something is … off about her. She’s not like us. At least, not in the same way.
“What happened after you read the poems?” I ask.
“I stopped taking the pills my husband was feeding me,” she says. “And then … well, then I started making decisions for myself. It’s amazing what you discover when you start answering your own questions.”
“Do you think the academy will come looking for you?” Sydney asks.
Imogene runs her finger along the rim of her wineglass. “No one will come after me so long as I keep to myself,” she says. “I was placed in a home. I’ve followed the rules. They have no reason to think any differently.”
“Won’t your husband tell him?” Sydney asks.
“No,” Imogene responds.
At the fireplace, Brynn takes a sudden step backward, nearly tripping over her shoes. We all turn to her, but Imogene doesn’t look up from her wineglass. Brynn stares at us, wide-eyed.
“You okay?” Marcella asks.
Brynn opens her mouth, but then closes it when Imogene lifts her gaze in Brynn’s direction.
“Yeah,” Brynn says. “I just … I have to use the bathroom.”
“You can use the one in the hall,” Imogene says, watching her. Brynn nods and heads that way.
“What did Leandra want you to do with the information?” I ask Imogene. “About what we are?”
“She wanted me to head toward Winston Weeks, of course. She’s always trusted him. I’m not as convinced.”
“Help us, then,” Marcella says. “Help us take down the corporation.”
“I’ll pass,” Imogene says. “I’ve finally found my freedom. I’m not about to trade that to end up on a metal slab somewhere.”
“You can’t just stay here,” Marcella says. “You have to fight back.”
“I already have. I’m content,” Imogene replies. “You girls, on the other hand—it seems you could use a hot shower and some food. Give yourselves a moment to think.”
Marcella and Sydney exchange a glance, seeming to consider the offer. I look back at the door and turn to Imogene again.
“What about our friends?” I ask. “In the car we have another girl and two boys.”
“They’re not like the men at the academy,” I say.
Imogene licks her lower lip and finishes off the wine in her glass. “They’re all the same,” she says. “But you’re free to make your choices, Philomena. I won’t be another voice in your programming.”
Imogene walks over to put her glass in the sink. “I’ll be in my room. You’re welcome to use the rest of the house. There are five other bedrooms upstairs that you can use. We’ll discuss this further in the morning. In the meantime, enjoy your freedom.” She smiles. “It’s intoxicating, isn’t it?”
Marcella nods at her in a placating way. It’s impossible to tell if Imogene is being earnest or delusional. If the effect of the wine on her personality is a complicating factor.
Imogene grabs the bottle off the counter and heads toward her room with it, pausing in the hallway when Brynn exits the bathroom. She looks her over and then smiles.
“You feeling okay?” Imogene asks softly. Brynn nods, but I can tell something is wrong from here. Her posture is rigid, her hands clasped in front of her. Suddenly, Imogene hugs her, and Brynn falls back against the wall, momentarily stunned before bringing her arms up to return the hug.
“It’s so good to be around girls again,” Imogene says. “My husband kept me from you. I’m glad he’s gone. I’m glad.”
We all watch them until Imogene pulls back, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “Good night, my girls,” she announces. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” Marcella calls back, matching her tone. But the moment Imogene disappears into her room, Marcella waves Brynn over to us and looks around worriedly.
“We stay the night and then we leave first thing in the morning,” Marcella says. “Got it?”
“Yeah,” Sydney agrees. “It smells super weird in here.”
Brynn reaches our group and looks back toward the bedroom before leaning in closer. “The fireplace,” she whispers. “There are burned things in there. Like, personal-looking things.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “Like a body?”
Brynn falls back a step. “What? No. What?” she repeats.
“What kinds of things?” Marcella asks.
“Like papers and metal, picture frames. Objects she’s burned,” Brynn says. “I don’t know what they could be.”
“Not bodies,” Marcella says, turning to me. “Pretty dark, Mena.”
I guess after the night we’ve had, my mind immediately imagines the worst. Then again, we’re in the worst of it. Dr. Groger did burn up girls. I sway at the thought, closing my eyes to block it out. Marcella sighs deeply and leans in closer to talk to us.
“Maybe after her husband left, she got rid of stuff,” Marcella says. “I would do the same. He sounds awful. And you saw her wrists.”
“He hurt her,” Sydney says somberly. “Probably for a long time. She doesn’t even look the same.”
“Then I’m glad he’s gone too,” Marcella says.
We stand silently before I look out the window. It won’t be long until the sun is up. “We should get some sleep,” I suggest. “I’ll grab Annalise and the others, and then we’ll find our beds.”
“Brynn and I will head up now,” Marcella says. “I need to wash this off.” She holds up her arm, and I see streaks of Annalise’s blood on her light brown skin. I think we’re all soaked in it.
“Good night,” Brynn tells us before reaching out her hand to Marcella. The two of them walk toward the staircase to the second floor. “See you in the morning,” she calls back to us.
“See you then,” I reply.
Sydney loops her arm through mine, but there’s no relief in her touch this time. We’re both tired and sore. We want this all to be over, but we know it’s just the start of our fight. We’re already exhausted. Sydney walks out to the car with me, and I find Jackson sitting in the backseat with the door open. I relay to him what Imogene told us, but because Quentin is listening, I leave out the part about her knowing about our programming. Annalise has her eyes closed, but I’m not sure if she’s asleep or just quiet.
Jackson looks at Quentin. “What do you think, man?” he asks him. “Should we stay here tonight and figure out where to go tomorrow?”
“I don’t know, Jackie. Is this girl’s … husband …” He looks at me. “You said she’s married?” I nod. “Okay, is this girl’s husband going to show up and cause a scene if we stay here?”
“She said he’s gone,” I tell him. “It doesn’t sound like he’s coming back.”
Quentin seems to debate what to do. “What kind of school … ?” he murmurs, and climbs out of the passenger seat. Just as he does, Annalise opens her eyes.
“I need a shower,” she says. “I feel like death.” She walks ahead with Quentin and Sydney, leaving Jackson and me at the car.
“Do you really think we’ll be all right here?” he asks.
“You don’t have to stay,” I tell him. “You’ve done enough for us.”
He laughs. “I know I don’t have to. That’s not what I asked. This girl … She’s not like that other woman, right? The one who killed the doctor?”
I meet his eyes, refusing to lie to him.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Jackson scratches his head, surveying the house. After a long moment, he shrugs. “Fuck it,” he says recklessly. And then he holds out his arm to me so I can help him limp inside.