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Chapter Twenty Seven

First came the shock.  The feeling like somebody had pulled the floor out from under my feet, and then thrown my stomach down into the pit.  They were going to erase Stacey's memory?  Like, all of it?


"Why?" I managed to ask through trembling lips after staring openmouthed at Mr. Wrogan in shock for a few seconds.


"Because we decided it was too dangerous for her to be so close to you," he answered, looking down at the floor.  Any other time, seeing the world's biggest man acting like a child who'd been caught with their hand in the cookie jar might have been funny.  Not now, though.  Not when they were talking about erasing me from my best friend's brain.


Throwing my sheets aside, I got up on my hands and newly-healed knees and crawled across the bed so I could look him in the eye. "Dangerous?  She's my best friend.  I'd never..."


My voice trailed off.  I had just tried to kill her earlier today, hadn't I?


"Okay, fine," I snapped, glowering at the giant man even though he hadn't said anything. "I lost control one time.  One freaking time!  That doesn't mean you have to tear me away from her!"


Mr. Wrogan breathed out slowly through his nose. "Amber," he said, his voice so heavy I was surprised my ears could support the weight, "that's not the only reason."


"Oh, what?" I demanded, sitting down cross-legged on the mattress. "You don't want her near me so she won't make a scene when I suddenly disappear to be your lab rat?"


Now a touch of annoyance showed itself on Mr. Wrogan's face. "I am a man of my word, Amber.  I told you you wouldn't be one of our test subjects—"


"Unless the one you have dies," I shot back. "Then it's open season on Ambers, right?"


"Regardless," Wrogan said, raising his voice just enough that the deep rumble drowned out my own, "there are more reasons than that to keep her away from you." I opened my mouth to argue, but he held up his hand to stall me. "Are you, or are you not, being hunted by a demon?"


I snapped my mouth closed again.


"Yes, I thought so," Wrogan said wryly. "Even if you could promise me with absolute certainty that you would never lose your temper again, could you also promise me that Stacey wouldn't get hurt by everything else you're going through?"


"I...  Stacey..." I stammered. "Hendricks hasn't bothered her yet.  What makes you think he ever will?"


Mr. Wrogan raised his eyebrow challengingly. "What makes you think he won't?"


This time it was my turn to look away.  He was right, of course.  It didn't matter why he hadn't touched her already, Stacey was an easy target.  She wasn't under Stark's or Majestic’s protection like I was.  If Hendricks really wanted to hurt me, he could just point Becky or the Octopus in her direction and tell them to go wild.  I shuddered at the thought.  What would be worse, I wondered?  Being torn to shreds by a giant hyena, or whatever the Octopus could think of with his psychotic little mind and disembodied hands?


"It's the right thing to do, Amber," Mr. Wrogan said, more gently this time. "If you really care about her, you'll let her go."


I bit my lip and stared intently at the mattress I was sitting on.  "You make it sound so easy," I mumbled at last.  "Throw away my best friend like yesterday's toilet paper because it's the right thing to do." I looked up at him, my eyes stinging. "Yeah, I'll get on that right after I take my dog out back and shoot it, okay?"


I choked on my words, and ducked my head again so he wouldn't see the tears rolling down my cheeks.  A few seconds later, a hand came down on my back that was almost big enough to wrap around my entire torso.  It was gentle, though, and it patted me comfortingly on the back.


"How old are you, Amber?"


Even though I couldn't imagine that he didn't really know already, I said, "Seventeen."


"Less than a month away from your birthday," Wrogan said, confirming my suspicions. "The day your time as a child ends, and your life as an adult begins."


My face turned red, and I glared down at the bed so hard I could have burned a hole in it.  I already knew what he was going to say, and I didn't want to—


"Part of being a grownup is doing what has to be done, even if you don't want to do it."


I stiffened, and then turned and put my legs over the side of the bed and stood up, making Wrogan's hand slide off my back.


"Maybe I don't want to grow up," I whispered, facing the other way and crossing my arms. "I've done enough growing up over the past few months.  What's wrong with being a kid just a while longer?"


I heard the chair creak as Mr. Wrogan stood up as well.  His shadow fell over me, but I still didn't turn around. "Sometimes we don't have a choice in the matter, Amber.  Sometimes life forces us to make hard decisions, whether we want to or not."


"Don't you dare talk to me like that," I hissed, gripping my upper arms so hard my nails dug little cuts into the skin. "Don't you talk to me about growing up and accepting responsibility.  This all your fault in the first place."


Mr. Wrogan hesitated, and I saw his shadow wilt a little. "Yes, yes it is.  I take responsibility for that and I'm doing everything I can to make things right.  There's only so much I can do, though. Only so much anyone can do."


"And that includes plotting to kidnap them and—"


"Amber, enough of that!  You need to think about your friend right now, not about yourself."


I snorted and shook my head.  Yeah, of course he didn't want to talk about that any more than he had to.  Let's focus on why I'm the bad guy here, am I right?  But... he still wasn't wrong.  I had to think of what to do with Stacey.


"If you erase her memory," I said slowly, "what will she be left with?"


"Our mindwipers are very good at what they do," Wrogan answered. "They will touch nothing except the memories that pertain to you, and those memories will be replaced with false ones that will leave no obvious holes in her experiences.  It really will be as if she never knew you."


"She's my only friend.  You know that, right?"


"You have your pack."


"Yeah, because that's exactly the same thing, right?  I've got my mom, an old guy who killed my dad, and a five year old girl.  What else could I possibly want?" I finally spun around to look at him again, my face burning red and angry tears running down my cheeks. "It's like a party that never freaking ends!"


If Mr. Wrogan was moved by my emotions, he didn't show it.  His face remained as impassive as a boulder, and that only pissed me even more.  He didn't really care about any of this at all, did he?  For all his comforting words and condolences, he was still a businessman trying to keep his company out of trouble.  This was just an annoyance.  What Stacey meant to me, and what this would do to both of us... he couldn't care less.


But he still wasn't wrong.


I'd already watched one of my friends die because they got caught up in my problems.  I wasn't going to let it happen again.


"Okay," I said softly, bowing my head in submission. "Fine."


Wrogan nodded in approval. "Very good.  I'll have Dexter bring you home."


He got up to leave, his chair groaning with relief, and turned for the door.


"Wait," I said, reaching out to grab his elbow.  He stopped. "Let me see her first."


"Amber," he rebuked me, "you need to—"


"Whatever," I cut him off.  His eyes opened a little wider in surprise.  As a big business director, he probably wasn't used to being talked back to like this, and that made me feel more confident. "You can still wipe her memory.  Just let me see her one more time first."


Mr. Wrogan puffed out his chest a little, ready to deny my request.  But then he hesitated, and seemed to deflate a little. "Very well," he finally consented. "Come with me, her room is this way."


My heart jumped a little when I heard this.  I don't know what I was thinking, ordering one of Majestic's directors around, but I'd had no reason to hope he'd actually do what I said.  As I followed him out into the hallway, though, my heart stopped skipping and sank into my stomach when I remembered what I was on my way to do.


The two of us made our way down the corridor, which was painted just as blindingly white as my room had been.  Just like the last time I'd been here, doctors in white coats were milling around the hallway.  Mr. Wrogan's sheer size was enough to get them to clear a path for him, but the way they nodded and gave polite greetings to him as he passed told me they respected him enough to have moved out of the way even if he'd been a smaller man.  I could feel their eyes crawling all over me.


How much do they know? I wondered, shuddering. Do they know about the Silverblood project?  Are they thinking about all the needles and hoses they'd get to stick me?  How much silver acid I could take before—


Mr. Wrogan stopped so suddenly that I almost ran into him.  I peeked around his enormous backside to see were standing in front of another room, this one with a long window looking into it.  I gasped a little when I saw Stacey sitting on the bed, staring wide eyed at some kind of contraption that sat in her lap.  It was made of a lot of small metal bars that spun, looped, and rotated around each other in an endless hypnotic cycle.


"What did you do to her?" I demanded, dodging around Mr. Wrogan to go stand in front of the window.  As I watched, a thin trail of drool spilled from her mouth, onto her pant leg. I spun back around to glare at Mr. Wrogan. "You already did it, didn't you?  Did something go wrong?"


Mr. Wrogan came to stand beside me, calmly clasping his hands behind his back. "What makes you think something is wrong with her?"


"Look at her!" I yelled. "She's freaking brain dead!"


In my anger, I raised my fist and pounded it on the window.  The sound seemed to shake Stacey out of her stupor, and she jumped, dropping the weird thing onto the floor, and looked around.  I lowered my hands.


"Oh," was all I could say.  Stacey must not have been able to see me, because she looked around the room and then went after the swirly thing.


Beside me, Mr. Wrogan chuckled. "Dexter was kind enough to keep her conscious when he brought her here.  It turns out, that was a mistake.  Your friend doesn't know a thing about magic, but she is fascinated with it all the same.  The whole way to her room, she was babbling on about everything she could see." He began to motion with his hands. "Is that light magical?  How much mana does your wand need?  Have we renewed our vows to Mother Gaia recently?"


"Oh, dear Lord," I whispered, putting my head in my hands. "Yeah, that sounds like Stacey all right."


"Eventually we gave her that," he nodded into the room, where Stacey was picking up the weird contraption again.  She flicked it with her finger, sending it back into its crazy cycle of movement. "It's just an office decoration, not magical in the slightest.  We told her it was, though, and she hasn't taken her eyes off of it since."


Despite the situation, I had to smile and shake my head.  The smile fell from my face pretty quick, though, and I took a deep breath.  Poor Stacey.  Not only was she my only friend, I was her only friend too.  Wrogan was right, I would be fine without her.  But what about her?  Nobody else in school would put up with her weirdness.  Even the other goths couldn't stand her.  It was just me and her.


"When are you going to do it?" I asked, staring at her through the glass.


"Immediately," Mr. Wrogan answered. "The process should only take a couple of hours, at the most.  The sooner we get it done, the sooner we can release her."


"Will it hurt?"


"Only if the mindwiper doesn't know what he's doing. "He paused, and then added, "Which ours do."


I sighed, but nodded anyway.  "And she won't remember me at all?"


"Even if you were to sit down right in front of her, she wouldn't recognize you."


We stood side by side, watching Stacey for a few minutes in silence.  She never once took her eyes off that stupid thing in her lap.  My eyes started to sting again. I sniffed and wiped my nose on the back of my hand. Wrogan patted me on the shoulder, and turned and lumbered toward the door.


"Wait," I said, putting my hand on his elbow. He stopped. "Let me talk to her."


Mr. Wrogan's eyebrows drew low, and I knew I was quickly reaching the end of his patience.


"She's my best friend," I explained as quickly as I could. "I don't want her to find out she's getting her memory erased by some stranger.   Let me talk to her.


My hands started shaking when Mr. Wrogan's expression turned even darker. I had gone too far.  I had gone too far, and now Mr. Wrogan was going to break his promise and lock me up to be a lab rat, and he'd probably turn Stacey into stone and sell her to some rich guy to put in his garden.


"Fine," he spat.


I blinked.  Was I still alive?


Turning his back on me, Mr. Wrogan pulled out a key and unlocked the door.  Through the window, I saw Stacey look up from her spinning gizmo when she heard the gears turn.  Wrogan opened the door, and then motioned for me to go in.  I took a deep breath, and stepped into the room to talk to my best friend.


The last conversation we would ever have.



NEXT TIME: Guys, is this really it?  Is this really the end of Amber and Stacey’s friendship?  Or maybe a better question would be, should it be the end of their friendship?


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