I tried to pass the blouse back to her, but she only looked at the Cavaliers shirt like it was crawling with lice.
“It’s supposed to be a disguise,” I said, wondering why I felt like I had to defend the choice.
“That thing is at least three sizes too big for you. Can’t we just find you a big hat or something?” Priyanka said. “I mean, if you’re going to be a fugitive on the run for your life, shouldn’t you at least be wearing something you feel good in?”
I pushed it at her again, hating the way my throat tightened. The humor drained from her face as she finally took it back. Instead of returning it to one of the bags, she folded it and added it to her own pile.
“In case you change your mind,” she explained.
Priyanka shrugged. “Anyway, bless you for thinking that wouldn’t be a crop top on me. What about this for me, though?”
The blouse she held up was a dark floral pattern, slightly sheer, with long sleeves. There was just enough color to bring out the amber in her eyes. But after seeing her in the bright yellow dress, it seemed almost too subdued for her.
“Find high-waisted jeans and tie them off. If it wasn’t a thousand degrees out, I’d say layer it with this—” I tugged out a soft violet sweater.
Her face lit up as she took it. “Maison de Dumpster is a treasure trove. This is vintage Dior!”
“Très Trash has a surprisingly good variety,” I said, watching as she happily tried on a long vest, before adding that to her pile, too. She returned to the bag, digging something out from the bottom. “Usually it’s just NASCAR shirts and baby clothes. Who is that for, though?”
Priyanka looked down at the faded floral T-shirt in her hands. It wouldn’t have fit either her or Roman, but she didn’t hand it over to me. Instead, it went into her pile, too.
A pile with enough clothes for three people, not two. Priyanka must have seen the moment I put it together, because her expression didn’t just shutter, it shut down.
And I snapped back to reality.
Those last traces of warmth were stomped out by the silence that followed. It was a relief when she turned her back on me. I didn’t have to hide the growing, bitter anger that was twisting me inside out.
You did it again, I thought vehemently. I’d gotten too comfortable. I wanted to blame her, cling to the idea that it had all been a careful manipulation to get me on their side.
But I was ashamed. I was ashamed that, at least for a few minutes, I’d welcomed it. I’d let that easy exchange soothe a deep, quiet hurt in me I’d been struggling to ignore. The one that, in all of its ugly truth, I couldn’t bring myself to admit might be loneliness.
“Who are those for?” I asked again.
The station wagon swept into the parking lot, its brakes whining as Roman pulled up beside us.
“If I wanted you to know, I would have told you,” she said, each word harder than the next. “Are you finished?”
“Yeah,” I said, gathering up what supplies I could carry. “We’re done.”
In the backseat, I dreamed.
Distant roads roared at me like thunder, wrapped in ropes of snarling electricity. Familiar faces circled around me, choking off my view of what was coming in the distance. Each time I reached out to touch them, they blew apart like ash.
I heard Mel’s voice, the words echoing on a crushing loop: Should we move the event? Should we move the event?
None of the people would move. None of them would let me search for Mel….
Even when I opened my eyes, it was like peering through fogged-over glass. Light sliced through the darkness inside the car. My head rested against the seat belt strap, hair plastered to my forehead with sweat.
“All I’m saying is that if the Psi who supposedly was the poster girl for how reformed and ‘human’ they are does this, then we should be a hell of a lot more frightened of what the others are capable of. The Psion Ring is about to step out of the shadows and into the light now that their obvious leader has been revealed.”
“You’re so right, Carol. Think about how much government information she’s been feeding them. We’re lucky that the Ring hasn’t perpetrated anything worse than the Penn State attack, and that it’s only been vandalism and theft of public property until now. But, clearly, their behavior is escalating. The precautions in place aren’t enough. Cruz’s assurances about their good behavior aren’t enough. It’s all very sad what happened to them, but deviants are prone to deviant behavior. I’m not saying President Gray was a perfect person, but even imperfect folks can be right some of the time—”
Someone let out a noise of disgust and turned the radio off. The numbing drag of sleep caught me again, and I shut my eyes, but the voices didn’t stop. Their words fell like embers, burning out before they fully reached me.
“—so close, can’t trust—”
“—we should just tell,” the boy insisted. “We have to—”
“So close—” was the response. “It’s not safe for her—”
I needed to remember this.
I needed to ask….But the heavy darkness was claiming me again.
Who wasn’t it safe for—me, or Lana?
MAIN STREET IN BLACKSTONE, VIRGINIA, looked as if it had been lovingly painted from someone’s dream of what America had once been. It looked so perfect, in fact, that if I’d seen it in a film, I probably would have called it clichéd: striped awnings, brightly painted brick buildings, and old-fashioned streetlamps. Flags and patriotic bunting from the Fourth of July still crowned the street six weeks after the holiday, and a sign announcing the return of the local movie theater was strung between the two sets of stoplights.
The worst thing you could say about Blackstone was that it was a bit out of the way of Petersburg and Richmond. Its small size meant it h
adn’t merited the high-tech security cameras that had been installed in the bigger cities, and there weren’t the telltale UN symbols on the dumpsters and fire hydrants. But those were hardly faults when it came to finding a place to hide a secret halfway house for Psi.
“Are we just driving in circles?” Priyanka asked. “Or are we waiting for something—or someone?”
I’d woken up in a bad mood, and nothing about the day had done anything to take the edge off it, least of all the extra six hours it had taken us to reach the town with all the roadblocks and police checkpoints in place across the state.
Just as I’d expected, the closer we got to what they wanted, the tighter the leash became. Priyanka came with me if I needed to use a restroom. Roman stayed in the passenger seat, marking our progress on a stolen map. I’d finally been able to regain control of the wheel earlier in that morning, but only after lying that my friends would need to see me driving to know it was safe to let us in.
I was never going to be able to get away from them; once I’d gotten in the car at the motel, I’d sealed my fate, the same way they’d sealed theirs now. Everything else had been hope and delusion.
The day-old gas-station hot dog I’d eaten for breakfast sat like a brick in my stomach. “I’m just making sure that we haven’t been followed. They prefer night arrivals.”
It was easy to lie now. Just a simple matter of shutting down every stray feeling and keeping my focus sharp. Of course Ruby and Liam didn’t prefer night arrivals. They also had a step-by-step process for kids in need to make contact with them. I still remembered it from my last and only visit.
But we weren’t going to use it. We were going to make our arrival as suspicious as possible.
Priyanka’s fingers danced along the backs of the two seats. Roman took the last sip of his coffee, his eyes on the street. The wind tore one of my WANTED flyers off a nearby streetlamp and skimmed it across our windshield. I would have laughed, if I were any less anxious about this. Instead, I reached up to pull my baseball cap lower and push my sunglasses up.