MY FACE WAS EVERYWHERE.
Countless billboards. On the TV screens of homes we passed, in automated news alerts delivered to Priyanka’s burner phone, and on thousands of flyers posted on streetlamps, in the windows of stores, and in gas stations.
Roman had brought one back for us to look at during our last gas stop hours before. It was identical to the message and photo on the billboards, with one key difference: there was a second phone number to contact, and a small line of text at the bottom: This notice is brought to you by Moore Enterprises, in conjunction with the Moore for America campaign.
Later, we’d heard Moore issue the threat himself on the radio. “If Cruz can’t find Kimura, even with her vast resources, then I will.”
I’d looked up at the others and said, as calmly as I could, “I think I’m going to need a disguise.”
“Now we’re talking,” Priyanka had said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m dying to look like I didn’t just crawl out of my own grave.”
We entered the edge of the small town so quickly, I didn’t catch the name as we blew past the sign. Roman eased up on the gas, slowing down to get a better look at its potential as a stop. The station wagon let out a pitiful whine as he shifted its gears. It had been too risky to keep the sedan, and pure luck we’d found the new ride abandoned next to a rail yard.
After a series of neighborhood streets cradled in the shade of overgrown trees, signs of renewed life had appeared. Work crews were out fixing downed power lines or clearing dumpsters full of junk and shrubs away from newly painted homes. Cars were parked in driveways, not abandoned in ditches along roads. People stood out in their lawns, talking to neighbors or walking dogs.
It’s working, I thought, feeling some small bit of hope for the first time in days. The government, for all the criticism leveled at it every single day, was improving lives. As soon as I had cleared my name, I’d work even harder. Help even more people.
But that small touch of life clearly had passed over the old strip mall up ahead. It looked like a snake’s skin, frail and silvery in the disappearing light. Most of the glass storefronts were still boarded up, and the others had been halfheartedly blocked off with police tape and NO TRESPASSING signs.
I caught sight of a large bin and pointed to it. “There. That’ll work.”
Roman cracked a faint smile. I hadn’t gotten control of the wheel back since the diner incident, and I didn’t think I was likely to. Not when we were within reach of Virginia. In the end, it wasn’t worth fighting. They were welcome to drive themselves right into my trap, just like I was welcome to use them as two extra sets of eyes to keep watch.
“Seems okay…?” Roman said, guiding the car behind the massive bin.
Garbage bags of clothing had piled up so high, its lid was one strong gust of wind away from blowing off. Children’s toys and bicycles were piled up alongside it, collecting rain and dirt. Unwelcome memories. There was no way to tell how long this stuff had been sitting out here, ten years or ten days.
“We’ll wait here for you,” I told him, unbuckling my seat belt. As the only one of us not drenched in blood, Roman was in charge of getting gas—by bribing someone to give up one of their ration cards, or by bribing the station attendant to run the pump off the books.
Roman rolled down his window. “Just…be careful, okay? I won’t be long.”
“Don’t worry, Ro,” Priyanka said. “I’ll find you the fluorescent tie-dyed shirt of your dreams.”
It was his long-suffering look as he drove away that almost made me laugh. Almost.
Priyanka was already busy sorting through the nearest bags of clothes that had been piled up outside the donation bin. “Oooh…Now this is what I’m talking about.”
She used a box of books as a step stool, pulling down a tied-off garbage bag. The arm of a purple silk blouse dangled out of a tear in the plastic. She hummed happily, digging through it.
With my hands on my hips, I turned to assess everything else that had been dumped here. There were whole tubs of appliances, bedding, and decorations left out like ruined junk. The wastefulness was almost offensive. Then again, people always seemed to unburden themselves of belongings when they were trying to get out from under the weight of memories.
I went through the nearest bag of clothing, my hands stilling for a moment on a pink floral blouse. With a deep breath, I pushed it aside, reaching for the oversize Cleveland Cavaliers shirt beneath it. Digging past the dresses underneath that, I found a pair of jean shorts that seemed like they could work, as long as I used a belt or length of rope. I kicked off my battered heels, shoving them in the bag and taking out the white tennis shoes at the bottom of it. Only a size too big. Not bad.
That done, a second list began to sketch itself from memory. Food, water, containers, blankets…
I set three piles aside, starting with the blankets, then took what pillowcases I could find. They always made useful bags for carrying things when backpacks weren’t available. One small pot for boiling, one small pan for cooking or additional self-defense. Knives, always good. One fork and spoon for each of us. More than that, and they’d clatter inside our bags, keeping us from moving silently. No batteries. One flashlight that seemed to be working for now, even if the beam wasn’t strong. The real coup would have been canned food or toilet paper, but those were truly one-in-a-million finds.
“Did you forget to tell us that you’re taking us camping?” Priyanka stared down at me, brows raised. “I’m all for roughing it as long as that entails air-conditioning and a nice view.”
Blood heated my face. I looked away, back at my orderly piles of supplies.
I had only wanted to stop to find new, clean clothes. I didn’t need to grab any of this stuff, especially since we were heading toward Haven. I knew I was tired, but this…this was something else. It was like I’d slipped back into a pair of shoes I’d thought I’d outgrown. The donation bins, the empty street…The familiarity of it had overwhelmed me.
“Sorry,” I muttered, forcing myself onto my feet. “Old habits.”
I felt…Embarrassed wasn’t the right word. The months we had all spent on the run, surviving on stolen vending-machine food and siphoned gasoline, weren’t ones I really cherished.
Every day had been shot through with desperation and hunger. The only small slivers of light I’d been able to cling to were those flashlight-illuminated memories of my friends: Liam telling stories or singing off-key to his endless stream of favorite classic rock songs. Working out the clever little math problems Chubs wrote for me in the notebook we had to share. Wandering through the dark husk of a Walmart with Ruby, finding something I actually wanted to wear. Feeling safe. Feeling hopeful. Feeling loved.
When I thought of them now, it was like seeing sunlight come through a stained-glass window. Each memory had its own color, its own feeling, and together they created something beautiful held together by a dark frame.
Priyanka looked at me again, her gaze different from before. There was no longer any suspicion there, or even that impatient edge she got whenever I talked about my work. For once, she wasn’t taking the measure of me.
If things had been different, I might have called it understanding.
“No, I mean…this is good,” Priyanka said. I resented the kindness in her voice as she crouched down to gather one of the piles into a waiting pillowcase, how it made me feel almost feral for having done this. “You never know, right?”
“Right,” I muttered, abandoning the piles of supplies for the bags of clothing I’d bypassed before. “Whatever.”
Priyanka lingered behind me for a moment, watching. Why did it have to feel like this—like I was some wounded animal being released back into the wild? My head ached with the need to rest it against something, with the pressure building behind my eyes.
This is ridiculous, I thought. You’re fine.
To prove it to myself, I let my mind reach out, searching for the faint voltage of the working phone’s b
attery. It was like turning out an empty pocket. She must have left it in the car. The only electricity nearby was the streetlamp.
“Here,” Priyanka said, passing me a bundle of cloth. “Hang on to this.”
After a long beat of silence, I took it.
The shirt was made of soft denim. I shook it out, revealing bright embroidered flowers with looping vines at the shoulders.
“This is cute,” I said, trying to smooth the wrinkles against my leg.
“The embroidery on it is gorgeous,” Priyanka agreed. “Check it to see if there are any holes or stains I missed….”
I ran my fingers softly across the seams and turned the shirt inside out, giving it a thorough inspection. In that moment, I wished more than anything that I’d found it first.
The boys had tried so hard to find clothes for me when we were traveling in Betty, and they hadn’t understood what a difference it had made to me to be able to pick out something I liked for myself. As unhelpful as it was to wear bright pink on the run, it had let me feel some small bit of power to present myself the way I wanted to, in a world that was trying to render me powerless. It had made me feel like one of the magic girls in the manga I grew up reading, with their bright colors and beautiful costumes. Back then, that’s what strength had looked like to me.
“You still with me, Sparky?”
I blinked. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“That top would look cute on you with a bright skirt, but it seems sadly impractical for running and beatdowns.”
“Wait,” I said. “You pulled this for me?”
“Oh no, I’m doing the overwhelming thing again,” Priyanka said. “Sorry. I just thought the colors would look great with your skin tone. It won’t hurt my feelings or anything if you want to toss it back. I’m so used to having to look after Roman, I sometimes forget other people are actually capable of taking care of themselves.”
“No, I love it,” I said. I was just…surprised she had somehow perfectly nailed my taste. “I already grabbed clothes.”