No one said a word, and it was only because of that silence that we heard the branch snap. In the next instant, a voice barked out, “Drop it!”
Six figures, their faces obscured by black ski masks, poured out of the trees behind us, an array of rifles and pistols in their hands. They were camouflaged in dark shirts and slacks, and while none of it was military grade, it was good enough for an evening ambush. They’d used the distraction of Lisa’s slow approach across the lake to surround us while our backs were turned.
One of them, a tall teen, stepped out in front, moving his finger to the trigger of his rifle as he said, calmer this time, “Drop it.”
Roman had the gun in his hand before I’d managed to look behind me. That horrible, emotionless mask was back over his face as he shifted his gaze from threat to threat, assessing.
He could take them. The realization was like a knife to the gut. Roman wasn’t the type to take chances. If he was ignoring the order, it was because he knew he’d win.
I reached out, putting a hand on the barrel of the gun. He glanced toward me, and there was nothing there, just ice. I pushed it down slowly, watching him swallow hard.
Finally, he switched the safety back on and tossed it toward the young man out front. I didn’t like the look he shot Priyanka, or the message buried in it. I put my hands behind my head, kneeling on the ground.
“Just so there’s no misunderstanding,” I said, “I’m armed.”
Check them for more weapons.
Lisa nodded at a different masked teen, and the girl stepped forward, briskly patting me down. Finished, she kicked me square in the back, forcing me to catch myself before I ate dirt.
“Don’t touch her again,” Roman warned. To my surprise, the gun was all he’d had on him. The only thing they pulled from Priyanka was the two phones. Lisa caught me watching them and shoved them in the pocket of her flannel hoodie.
Separate us, I begged silently. Get me away from them long enough to find out what’s happening. Separate us. Don’t bring them to the house.
“I can explain,” I began.
The boy gripped my arm, hauling me back onto my feet. “You’re damn right you will.”
Priyanka took a menacing step forward, ignoring the guns pointed her direction. “Now, that’s no way to talk to a lady, is it?”
I held up a hand, trying to mask my own surprise. “It’s fine—it’s okay.”
The masked teen squeezed my arm. Reassuring, not threatening. “Take the others to the hole. We’ll question this one.”
“No!” Roman surged forward, forcing two of the teens to grab him and a third to point their gun directly in his face. “Don’t—please—”
That one word took the air out of my lungs. Please. I forced myself to look back at Lisa, who watched the scene unfold, her expression pained. The game I’d been playing was starting to splinter around me.
The anger burning in his expression was real. The fear in his voice was real.
The others turned to Priyanka. She held up her hands. “I’m not going to be dramatic about it.” Then, with one last nod toward me, she added, “But if you so much as scratch her, I’ll redefine that word for you.”
The boy drew me over to Lisa, to the boat, steadily guiding me into it. He made enough of a show of flashing his gun that I felt like I couldn’t see what was happening to the others, not without exposing the whole charade.
He dragged the small boat back into the water, and, somehow, the three of us fit comfortably on it. As we drifted away, I took in a deep breath of the cool, moist air rising from the moon-bright water. The more the distance grew, the less I understood what had just happened. I’d expected them to try to fight being separated, knowing they wouldn’t want their tool out of sight before they could use me, but…
Not like that.
The opposite shore was a few dozen feet away before the boy pulled off his mask and took in a steadying breath of his own. Jacob.
“That was something else,” he said.
“Seriously,” Lisa said, a bit shakily.
“You all right?” Jacob was a good foot and a half taller than I’d remembered. Even sitting in the boat, he still had to duck slightly to look me in the eye. He’d been the quietest of the original three, almost painfully shy. At the time, I’d thought he resembled Chubs, both in appearance and in his energy. Now he looked like he could bench-press him.
“Zu?” he said, a bit more urgently. “You did want us to pull you away from them, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. I had to fight the urge to keep from looking back.
“You didn’t use the normal procedure, but we weren’t sure if you just…didn’t remember it,” Lisa said, hesitating over the last part. “It’s been a while.”
“That was smart, using the X symbol,” Jacob said. “Miguel figured it out right away. We rowed out behind the house and circled around the long way to meet you. Good call with the stalling.”
I wanted to feel proud of that, or even just acknowledge that this insane plan had worked. Somehow, it was just…
“I’m all right, and yeah, that was what I was after,” I said as we bumped into shallow water. “Safe to assume my new reputation has preceded me?”
I barely knew these kids; we’d only met once, and that had been minutes, not even a full hour of interaction. We all just happened to fall inside Ruby and Liam’s bright constellation.
In that moment, though, with their sympathetic eyes on me, that automatic assumption of my innocence, I could have hugged them both and never let go.
“Listen,” Lisa began uneasily, “before we go in…”
The boat rocked against the water, but neither Jacob nor Lisa moved to get out. Then I remembered.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Didn’t Charlie tell you? Ruby and Liam left two weeks ago to do a pickup,” Jacob said, “and neither of them came back.”
Three Years Ago
I REALLY HATED TUESDAYS.
It was like the world had decided that Mondays were for easing into the week, but Tuesdays—Tuesdays were fair game. It was the start to the apartment being empty and quiet, when my phone went silent as a sudden rash of meetings swallowed my friends whole. Worse, it was the day Mrs. Fletcher had decided should be our math day.
I had no problem with math. I liked it, actually. It was straightforward in a way nothing else seemed to be in life. There was only one right answer, and usually only one right way to reach it. It had none of those uncertainties of writing and reading, where a single word could change the meaning of a sentence. Math was fine.
The problem was, this was math Chubs had taught me a year and a half ago, and Mrs. Fletcher refused to skip ahead because true understanding can only be reached by adding one building block after another.
Somewhere in the nearby living room, the text alert on my phone went off with a cheerful ding.
I sat up straighter, leanin
g back in my chair to peer around the edge of the breakfast bar.
Where did I leave it…?
From that angle, all I could see was Nico’s back. He sat on the couch, noise-canceling headphones plugged into the computer as he typed away on whatever program he’d spent the last week coding. There was no way to get his attention, to have him check to see who it was from—to see if it was finally them, after months having nightmares about the worst.
“No.” Mrs. Fletcher didn’t look up from the work sheet she was grading. Her red pen moved down the algebra problems, checking off the correct answers, crossing out the few that were incorrect. “Finish your equations.”
I set down my pencil, giving her my sweetest smile. The one Vida told me should be illegal.
“What if—?” I began.
“It’s almost lunch anyway—”
I clenched my jaw. My bare feet bounced against the tile until I could feel the static snapping against my toes with each small movement. What if they only had a second to send a message, and they needed a response right away? What if this was the only time I was going to get to talk to them before they disappeared again for months?
What if…this was Chubs calling to tell me that it was the worst?
I didn’t mean to let so much frustration into my voice, but it bled through anyway. “You do know this isn’t real school, right? I don’t need a hall pass.”
Mrs. Fletcher finally looked up, setting her own pen down. The phone let out another ding from the living room, somehow sounding more urgent the second time.
Sorry, Mrs. Fletcher, I just need to see if that’s one of my friends—yeah, the ones who went missing six months ago? You know, the wanted fugitives?
“Do you think I’m wasting your time?” she asked, finally.
That was an easy answer: No. But I couldn’t force the word out of me.
She looked across the room, her watery gaze moving from the pots hanging on the wall of Cate’s kitchen—still unused after months of takeout—to the living room, where Nico was ignoring us.
I couldn’t tell what she was staring at, exactly. Everything in the apartment had this strange quality to it; it was too new, too perfect. It reminded me of the dollhouse I had when I was younger, where all the decorations and furniture came prepackaged, perfectly toned and sized to fit the miniature rooms.