When I looked back at him, he almost seemed to startle, but it was such a small gesture I might’ve imagined it. “Lucky for you I brought a pair of thick socks, just in case.” I pulled the balled-up socks from my jacket pocket and tossed them at him. He caught them and turned them over in his hands.
“What would you have done if the boots were too small?”
“Cut off my toes,” I said flatly.
Finally he cracked a smile, looking up at me from under his thick, inky eyelashes. His hair was swept off his forehead per usual and a few raindrops had splattered across his skin when I’d jumped into the car. As he swallowed, the dimple in his cheek appeared, then vanished from sight.
I hated what that did to me. A tiny carrot should really not overpower the instinct in my dumb bunny brain screaming, RUN.
“Ready?” Gus said.
I nodded. He faced forward in his seat and pulled away from our houses. The rain had slowed enough that the windshield wipers could squeak across the glass at an easy pace, and we fell into a fairly comfortable rhythm, talking about our books and the rain and the blue punch. We moved off that last topic fairly quickly, neither of us apparently willing to broach Yesterday.
“Where are we going?” I asked, an hour in, when he pulled off the highway. From my online search, I knew New Eden was at least another hour off.
“Not a murder spot,” he promised.
“Is it a surprise?”
“If you want it to be. But it might be a disappointing one.”
“The world’s largest ball of yarn?” I guessed.
His gaze cut toward me, narrowed in appraisal. “That would disappoint you?”
“No,” I said, heart leaping traitorously. “But I thought you might think it would.”
“There are certain wonders that no man can face without weeping, January. A giant ball of yarn is one of those.”
“Okay, you can tell me,” I said.
“We’re getting gas.”
I looked at him. “Okay, that is disappointing.”
“Much like life.”
“Not this again,” I said.
It was another sixty-three minutes before Gus pulled off the highway again near Arcadia, and then another fifteen miles on wooded two-lane roads before he pulled over onto a muddy shoulder and told me to stuff my computer in the dry bag.
“Now this is definitely a murder spot,” I said when we got out. As far as I could tell there was nothing here but the steep bank to our right and the trees above it.
“It’s probably someone’s,” Gus said. He leaned back into the car. “But not mine. Now change your shoes. We have to walk the rest of the way.”
Gus pulled on the bigger backpack and took one of the flashlights, leaving me to grab the other bag once I’d gotten the socks and shoes on. “This way,” he called, climbing straight up the muddy ridge to the woods. He turned to offer me a hand, and after I slipped in the mud thrice, he managed to hoist me up onto the path. At least, it appeared to be a path, although there were no signs or visible reasons for a path to start there.
The forest was quiet apart from our tromping and our breaths and the underlying drizzling of rain speckling the leaves. I kept my hood up, but in here, the rain mostly made it to us in the form of fine mist. I’d gotten used to the blues and grays of the lake, the yellow-golds of the sun spilling over the water and the tops of the trees, but in here, everything was rich and dark, every shade of green the most saturated version of itself.
This was the most at peace I’d felt in two days, if not all year. Whatever weirdness was between Gus and me was placed on hold as we wandered through the silent temple of the woods. Sweat built up around my armpits, along my hairline, and through my underwear, until I stopped and took the jacket off. Without a word, Gus stopped and peeled his off too. I watched an olive sliver of his flat stomach appear as his shirt caught around his shoulders. I looked away as he pulled it back down.
We picked our backpacks up and kept walking. My thighs began to burn, and the gathering sweat and rain plastered my tank top and my jeans to my skin. At one point, the rain picked up again, and we ducked into a shallow pseudocave for a few minutes until the showers let up. The gray sky made it hard to tell how much time had passed, but we must have spent at least a couple of hours marching through the woods until the trees finally thinned and the charred skeleton of New Eden came into sight ahead.
“Holy shit,” I whispered, stopping beside Gus. He nodded. “Have you seen it before?”
“Only in pictures,” he said, and started toward the nearest smoke-blackened trailer. The second fire, unlike the one from the lightning strike, hadn’t been an accident. The police investigation had found that every building had been doused in gasoline. The Prophet, a man who called himself Father Abe, had died outside the last building to catch flames, leading authorities to speculate that he’d been the one to light the place up.
Gus swallowed. His voice came out hoarse as he pointed toward a trailer on the right. “That was the nursery. They went first.”
Went, I thought.
Burned, I thought. I turned to hide that I was gagging.
“People are awful,” Gus said behind me.
I swallowed my stomach bile. My eyes stung. The back of my nose burned. Gus glanced over his shoulder at me, and his gaze softened. “Want to set up the tent?”
He must’ve seen the face I made, because he added quickly, “So we can use our computers.” He nodded toward the darkly churning sky as he slid his backpack off. “Don’t think this is going to let up any time soon.”
“Not here though,” I said. “It feels wrong to put a tent in all this.”
He nodded agreement and we kept moving, hiked off until the site was no longer visible. Until I could almost pretend we were in a different forest, far away from what had happened at New Eden. As Gus pulled tent poles from the bag, I came forward to help. My hands were shaking, from both the cold and the unease of being here, and I poured all of my focus into piecing the tent together, blocking out the memory of the burned remnants of the cult.
The distraction only lasted a few minutes, and then the tent was finished, all our stuff tucked safely inside, except the little notepad and pencil Gus pulled from his pocket as we made our way back to the site.
He shot me a tentative look I couldn’t interpret, then started toward one of the trailers, or rather three that had been cobbled together with plywood-and-tarp hallways. I swallowed a knot and followed, but after a few steps, he stopped and turned back to me. “You can go back to the tent,” he said gruffly. “You don’t need to see this.”
A knot rose in my throat. Obviously I didn’t want to see this. But it bothered me that he’d say I didn’t need to while still planning to explore it himself. I could tell he hated being here too. And yet here he was, facing it.
That was how it always was. He never looked away from any of it. Maybe he thought someone had to bear witness to the dark, or maybe he hoped that if he stared into the pitch-black long enough, his eyes would adjust and he’d see answers hiding in it.
This is why bad things happen, the dark would say. This is how it all makes sense.
I couldn’t go hide from this. I couldn’t leave Gus here alone. If he was descending into the darkness, I was going to tie a rope between our waists and go down with him.