“It’s too late,” she barked, hauling Miguel toward the kitchen door. “Let’s go, while we still have time.”
“Ben?” Jacob said into the walkie-talkie. “Ben! Anyone? Can anyone hear me?”
He looked to Miguel in the darkness.
“They must have something jamming the frequencies,” Miguel explained. “Which means—”
“They’re well-trained and well-armed,” I choked out.
“We’ve drilled for this,” Lisa said. “We need to wake up the kids in the tree houses.”
“No,” Jacob said quickly. “We need to get them quickly and quietly. If we make a lot of noise alerting the kids, the intruders might attack immediately.”
The agitation on Miguel’s face broke as he nodded, moving to pull pieces out of each server. He dumped them all into a bag that had been stowed beneath the desk. As soon as Lisa opened the door, I heard the confused voices of the kids upstairs. She cupped her hands around her mouth, calling softly, “Free Bird! This isn’t a drill! Leave everything!”
In response, feet pounded down the stairs, heading our way.
“The escape hatch is in the laundry, under the dryer,” Lisa explained to me, catching Miguel’s arm again as he reached the doorway.
“I’ll get the kids in the tree houses,” Jacob said, looking to me. I nodded.
“Please be careful—please,” Miguel said, returning only long enough to lock Jacob in an embrace.
“I’ll see you soon,” Jacob promised.
After one last long look between the two boys, Miguel followed Lisa out.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…the phone…” I began.
Jacob gave a sharp shake of the head. “Even Miguel missed it.” Seeing my face, he gripped my shoulders. “You should go with Lisa and the others.”
The horror blanketing my mind was ripped away by his words.
I did this. I’d inadvertently brought the kidnappers here, and had been careless enough to think they wouldn’t track the missing phone. I wasn’t going to leave this place until every kid was safely away from whatever—and whoever—was coming for us.
“No,” I said. “No, Jacob. We need weapons—”
“They’re upstairs,” he said, already heading that way.
The kids who had been sleeping in the bedrooms ran down the staircase as we ran up. Lisa was in the hallway, waving them forward toward the laundry, counting them off as she went.
She called the last number just loud enough for us to hear: “Eight!”
“Nine in the tree houses?” I confirmed with Jacob.
“Four at the hole,” he said.
A string of white-hot cusses streamed through my mind. The hole—Priyanka and Roman were either sitting ducks, or the safest of us all.
We charged up into the attic. To Ruby and Liam’s bedroom.
Their room hadn’t changed at all since the last time I’d been there—it was almost disarming. There was the same tufted green rug, adopted from Ruby’s grandmother; and along the windows of the far wall—the one where all the lines from the tree houses connected—were the striped curtains she had made for them. Aside from the desk, the two nightstands, the bed, and a bookshelf, there was no other furniture in the room.
Which wouldn’t give anyone up here much cover, if it came to that.
The last two of the Haven kids were waiting for us up there. Jen and another girl with raven-black hair had already pulled heavy weapons cases out from under Ruby and Liam’s bed and were assembling the guns.
“What’s going on?” Jen demanded.
Jacob dropped to a crouch beside them. I did the same, only I moved to the edge of the room’s enormous windows, the ones that overlooked the tree houses. I kept my back to the wall.
“Is it a raid?” the other girl asked, unable to keep the note of fear from her voice.
“No,” Jacob said, sliding a pistol over to me. “Something else.”
A scream rent the air—somewhere in the darkness wood snapped, splintering loudly as it crashed to the ground. I moved onto my knees, scanning the shadows between the trees. “I don’t see anything—”
Thin red beams of light pierced through the underbrush. Gun sights, sweeping up over the ground to the front of the house.
“Take cover!” I shouted, throwing myself away from the wall. The two girls dove across the room and crouched defensively by the door. With a single sweep of his hands, Jacob upended the bed and bookshelves and sent them sliding our way, barricading us behind them.
“We need to check out the back and make sure they don’t have the whole house surrounded,” he said. “Jen, you’re with me. Zu and Ana, I need you to stay here and cover us.”
His voice disappeared beneath the battering hail of gunshots. They pierced the side of the house, spraying through the wood siding. Shards of glass and plaster whipped into a hurricane of sound and violence.
“Did they make it out?” I asked, smoke and debris filling my mouth. “The house kids?”
I didn’t hear any noise downstairs. They must have made it to the hatch. They had to have escaped.
But the kids outside…
The gunfire had stopped, but their screams hadn’t.
“Help! Help me!”
“Get out! Run!”
My next thought sent a chill deep into my core. If the intruders wanted the kids dead, they already would be.
“They aren’t going to kill them,” I told the others. “They’re going to take them!”
Jacob crawled through the broken furniture, dragging a rifle after him. He braced it against the blown-out window’s frame, looking through the gun’s sight. A gash on the bridge of his nose sent blood streaming down over his face.
I followed, bumping up against the other side of the window, the pistol gripped tight in my hand.
“Can you get a shot off?” I whispered, craning my neck to see out of the corner of the window.
He couldn’t. Not without hitting the kids being dragged out of the trees, kicking, scratching, hollering.
“Why aren’t they using their powers?” I whispered.
The other kids had to know these people weren’t friendly, and we could hear them trying to get away, even in the face of the intruders’ guns. Something else had to be preventing them from using their abilities.
Something we couldn’t see from up here.
The men in all black—they looked like monsters. They’d painted their faces to blend in with the green of the forest, and their body armor was as heavy as any soldier’s going into war.
Just like the men who had kidnapped us in Pennsylvania.
Horror gripped me. This place…it had been Liam and Ruby’s dream, and I’d turned it into a nightmare. The evil had chased me here, and now it was going to infect the lives of these innocent kids.
I switched off the safety and checked the cartridge, then slammed it back into place. I hadn’t felt the heavy, bitter kiss of a gun in my hand since I was a child myself, when Vida had given me the training no one else was willing to. After, I’d sworn I’d never hurt anyone, let alone kill them. There wouldn’t be any need. Not with the world we were creating.
We wouldn’t need to fear every stranger and their intentions.
We wouldn’t have to protect ourselves, or claim self-defense.
We wouldn’t feel the cold brush of death on the backs of our necks every time we stepped outside.
My hand tightened on the gun. You are not going to take these kids.
“Where are you going?” Jen whispered as I approached the doorway. “Zu! You can’t be serious!”
I shouldered past her, ignoring the protests of the others.
It was almost like the soldiers had sensed it, like they somehow knew the exact moment to truly crush me.
I only made it one step before the White Noise switched on.
The same second I realized I was still on my feet, I saw that no one else was.
The sound blared from speakers outside, enveloping the house like hurricane winds. It hummed and intermittently squealed. But it was just…there. Too loud, too aggressive in the way it invaded my skull, but there was nothing blistering about it.
Not for me.
Jen moaned, her legs curling toward her core, her hands jammed against her ears. Across the room, Ana was struggling to push herself up off the ground, swaying like she’d been drugged. A few feet away from her, Jacob craned his neck around, his face red and sweat-slick from the effort it took to push back against the White Noise.
“G-go!” he managed to get out.