Hunter and Leyland studied her, measuring her, waiting.
Mallory's cheeks still burned from the dressing down they'd given her. They had wasted no time reasserting their authority, yelling twelve hours of freedom right out of her head. They gave her no apology or chance to explain, nothing to eat, no time to rest. They made her change into her spare set of Black Level fatigues—still stiff, still smelling of her own sweat and campfire smoke. Then they force-marched her across the river, through icy water up to her knees, all the way back to base camp, the exact place where Pérez had started shooting. Now she stood at attention, her pants cuffs freezing to her ankles, the wind making her eyes water.
It was crazy, pigheaded stubbornness for Hunter to bring her straight back to this clearing, as if nothing had happened, and offer her a solo hike the same day she'd returned from running away.
But she understood why he was doing it. Changing in the lodge, she'd overheard bits and pieces of his conversation with Leyland—about the police, the FBI, her mother. She knew Hunter was trying to protect her—to keep her in the program. And she wanted that. She wanted it badly.
She didn't even mind their drillmaster abuse. It was reassuring compared to running from Pérez, or being with Chadwick—feeling so afraid and angry she'd almost confessed what she half remembered about the night Katherine died.
She wasn't safe—not here, not anywhere. At least in the woods she felt as if she were being given charge of her own fate. Hunter's word—accountability. Mallory liked the fact that Hunter had jogged her out here before giving her the choice, too. It made it clear what he expected her to do.
Footsteps crunched in the woods and Olsen appeared, jogging up the path from the main lodge, out of breath, a supply pack in her hands. No one acknowledged her, but Mallory could feel Hunter's disapproval radiating toward the counselor. Back at the lodge, he'd said her name through gritted teeth, wondering where she was, why she was late, as if Mallory's return was an appointment they'd planned for. Mallory realized they probably blamed Olsen for letting her get away in the first place—the chaos when Smart was shot, Olsen leaving her to tend him.
Hunter kept his eyes on Mallory. “Well?”
“I want to log the solo trip, sir.”
Some of the tension in the air dissipated. Hunter nodded.
“Miss Olsen,” he said. “Prep her and get her on the trail.”
Hunter and Leyland retreated toward the river.
“At ease, Zedman.” Olsen forced a smile, but she looked like she hadn't slept any more than Mallory had. “We've got a lot to do.”
“How is Smart?” Mallory asked.
The skin around Olsen's eyes tightened. “He'll be fine. His parents pulled him out. He's on his way back home to Iowa.”
Mallory stared at the remnants of the shelter Leyland had built as a demo the night before. She told herself Smart's absence wasn't her fault. He wasn't her best friend, or even a friend at all. But the few weeks she'd known him seemed as important as all the years she'd been at Laurel Heights, and his absence hurt. After getting his mouth taped, getting his ridiculous torch hairdo shaved off, slogging through the obstacle course and the barracks-building and the ropes course—after all that, Smart had been whisked back home to goddamn Des Moines. He'd gotten shot because of her, and she had run in the other direction.
She wanted to cry. She hated the fact that she'd gone outside the program, caused a part of it to unravel.
“Come on,” Olsen told her gently. “I've got a new piece of jewelry for you.”
Olsen led her to the burned-out fire pit. She opened her pack, told Mallory to hold out her hand, then snapped a metal cuff around her wrist. The thing was dull gray, with a single, green blinking light the size of a pencil point. There was no visible latch, and it was too tight to slip off.
“GPS locator,” Olsen told her.
“In case I run away again,” Mallory guessed.
“All the black levels wear them for the solo trip.” But Olsen's tone made it clear that the runaway factor had been discussed. Hunter's decision to send Mallory out hadn't taken so much trust, after all.
“We'll track your position,” Olsen continued, “make sure you're moving in the right direction. But mostly this is in case of emergency—a broken leg, something you absolutely can't handle alone. If that happens, press the light. You'll need to use something pointed to do that—a stick, or your knife. The button will turn red, and Dr. Hunter will send somebody to extract you.”
“Extract me,” Mallory said. “Fun.”
“It would mean starting survival training over from scratch. Not graduating with your team. And it might take us up to half an hour to reach your position, so the button is no substitute for being careful.”
Mallory pulled at the bracelet, already wishing she had a hacksaw, but Olsen didn't give her time to dwell on it.
They started reviewing the basics of the solo trip—the first-aid pack, the emergency procedures. Mallory remembered it all. She knew how to use the snakebite kit, the epinephrine pen. She could dress a wound in her goddamn sleep. Her backpack would hold nothing but one ration bar, her med kit, and an ultralight Polarguard sleeping bag. She would be alone for twenty-four hours, heading east, directly away from the only public road, into the heart of Hunter's empty kingdom. She would cross the river once. And if she did everything right, sometime tomorrow mid-morning she would come across a small dirt access road used only by Cold Springs. That was her goal. Someone would be waiting to pick her up.
It didn't sound all that difficult. It was hard to believe the high-and-mighty Survival Week had boiled down to just this—a lot of preparation for a single day and night alone.
“Trust me,” Olsen said. “It's enough.”
She offered one last item—Mallory's survival knife. Except it wasn't really Mallory's. It was new. Hers had been borrowed by Chadwick, buried in the side of a sniper.
Mallory fingered the new blade. She remembered attacking Olsen—stabbing her in the shoulder with that stupid dinner knife she'd found. That seemed like it had happened to a different person, long ago.
She slid the hunting knife out of the sheath, pinched the clean new point. She balanced it, the way Leyland had taught her, then threw it at the nearest tree. It bit into the wood at a bad angle, like a loose tooth, and immediately fell out.
“Knife-throwing is just for show,” Olsen promised. “You won't use it.”
Mallory almost asked about Pérez. What if he came after her? What good would a blinking light and a knife do her then?
Olsen seemed to misread her expression. “You still mad at me?”
Mallory wasn't sure what surprised her more—the question, or the fact that Olsen truly seemed concerned to know the answer.
She had been mad at Olsen, after that night at the ropes course. It seemed a stupid matter now—the torn strap on her harness.
She had blamed Olsen for that.
She had spent years blaming everyone for everything. Pérez. And Chadwick. And her parents. And Katherine—Katherine most of all.
I had reasons, part of her argued.
Her fears, her failures, her sorry excuse for a childhood—what if it was someone else's fault?
A small hard feeling started building in her—like Hunter's voice, like his crazy, pigheaded stubbornness. It didn't matter whose fault it was. She had no choice but to accept it and go on. She had a goal—Gray Level—and it didn't matter if they shot at her friends or made her father disappear or tried to kill her. If she didn't make this final trip, Katherine won, and she lost.
“I'm not mad,” Mallory said softly. “Not anymore.”
“That's good. I was worried about you, Mal. I'm glad you're all right.”
It sounded like cheap throwaway sympathy, the kind anybody could say, but Mallory could tell Olsen meant it. She remembered that tenuous thread of understanding that had seemed to link her to Olsen during counseling sessions—that closeness that she'd been so afraid of.
“Whatever happened?” Mallory asked. “I mean . . . about your stepdad?”
Olsen stared at her for a moment, as if translating her question from a different language. “My stepdad?”
“The story you were telling us. That day in counseling.”
Olsen bent down and picked up Mallory's knife. She looked at the blade, picked a tuft of splinters off the tip. “When I searched for my stepdad, I found out he was in jail, Mallory. He got a new girlfriend when he left my mom, and he was in jail for molesting a young girl, his girlfriend's seven-year-old daughter.”
Mallory blushed. In a way, she was sorry she had asked. But also, she was awed that Olsen would tell her. It wasn't the kind of thing you told someone . . . unless you really trusted her.
“You didn't want to tell your mom that?” she asked.
“No,” Olsen answered. “She would've gotten mad at me, refused to believe it. People like my stepdad, they don't become that way overnight. They repeat their pattern. Over and over. I didn't want my mother to know.”
“Because . . . Oh.”
“Not me,” Olsen said. “Not me. But I have a little sister . . .”
She paused, weighing the blade just as Mallory had. “I had a little sister about your age, Mallory.”
Mallory was silent, thinking about the story, liking Olsen sharing it with her.
“I need to tell you something,” Mallory said. “A dream I had.”
Olsen examined the knife absently. “Oh?”
Then Leyland's boots crunched in the leaves. “Time's wasting, counselor. Come on, Zedman—move! Long day ahead of you.”
Hunter and Leyland were both standing over her. The moment for secrets was gone.
Olsen rose, gave her one last look of encouragement. “I'll see you on the other side, kiddo.”
She turned the knife handle-out, and offered it to Mallory. Her hand was trembling, and Mallory knew it was from anger.
Ann Zedman didn't arrive on the noon plane from San Francisco.
When she finally appeared in the airport terminal, a little after one, she walked up from the wrong direction—from the ground transportation exit, trailing a small overnight bag on wheels. Her caramel hair was swept back in a ponytail, no makeup. Denim jacket. Green T-shirt tucked into faded jeans. She might've passed for a college student.
She stopped a few feet away, took off her glasses and folded them into the pocket of her T-shirt.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “They sent me to the other terminal.”
“The other terminal?”
Her eyes were puffy, hay-fever red. “I told you the wrong airline. It took me a while to figure out what had happened. I'm not thinking straight.”
Chadwick had planned on being reserved when he saw her. He had prepared himself all the way into town, rehearsing how he would be. But he reached out his hand, and she took it, laced her fingers in his.
He told her the news about Mallory—that she was safe, that Pérez had only meant to take her back to her father. He left out the parts where Pérez tried to kill him, and Chadwick released him without bringing him to the police.