“On that poetic note,” Priyanka said, taking the can of gasoline from him. “I think we should head out before someone starts patrolling the highway.”
We followed Roman’s near-silent steps off the paved road into the wooded area that lined the right side of the highway. I’d expected him to take us just out of view of the central checkpoint buildings, but we continued walking through the trees long enough for blisters to form and then open on my feet.
At one point, I realized my eyes had adjusted to what had initially felt like a pitch-black night. The outlines of trees and Roman’s tall form sharpened in relief, until I could see the veins of their leaves and the folds in his T-shirt as it clung to his strong frame.
“Wanna see Roman’s magic trick?” Priyanka whispered, clearly bored.
I raised my brows.
“Hey, Ro, what time is it?” she asked, keeping her voice casual.
“No. I don’t like this game,” he told her.
“It’s not a game,” she swore solemnly. “I just want to know. For reasons.”
Roman gave her a suspicious look over his shoulder, his hands gripping the backpack’s straps. “Reasons.”
“Really, really important reasons.”
He gave her one last glance before turning his gaze up toward the sky. “One thirty-five.”
As soon as he had his back turned, Priyanka held up the flip phone, showing me the time on the screen with a gleeful look on her face. 1:36 a.m.
I snorted, which made Roman look back again.
“Swallowed…a bug,” I told him. “Haven’t we gone far enough? Are you looking for a particular section of the fencing?”
He hitched the backpack of supplies higher, then unhooked the bolt cutters from where he’d slid them through one of the straps. “No. Just hoping for a section with no fencing.”
“Why?” I asked. “We have bolt cutters.”
“Because,” he said quietly, “it’s a felony to tamper with government property and pass through zones without permission.”
Priyanka suddenly found the phone very interesting.
I crossed my arms over my chest, cupping my elbows as I tried to think of what to say. Of course he’d registered how uncomfortable that would make me. Roman missed very little, if anything. I’d been in front of cameras and audiences for so long, I’d come to think of that as being known. But this was being seen.
“That’s what you’re worried about?” I said lightly. “What’s trespassing to someone accused of murder, treason, and terrorism, right? Here, let me do it.” I gestured to the bolt cutters.
I meant what I said into the drone’s camera. Right now, with my friends missing and scattered, with my reputation shredded, I didn’t have much to lose. I could still go back to the government, I could still make things right—but that was eventually, and this was now. I just had to do whatever it took to keep going.
“I could do it,” he said. “I don’t have the control you do, but I could try, and at least then you wouldn’t have to live with this, too.”
“It’s all right,” I told him. “I want to.”
I couldn’t say exactly what made me do it. It was his worried expression, the way he clenched his fists at his side, the small kindness of it. The power rattling the chain-link fence. It all registered like tiny quakes in my heart.
I rolled up onto my toes to press my lips to his cheek. It was such an unfamiliar texture, the rough scrape of his scruff growing in. His skin warmed where I touched it, and I lingered there a moment longer than I’d meant to, taking in the smell of the car’s leather seats, of the sweet green woods surrounding us.
There was no resistance in his grip when I reached out and took the bolt cutter from him. I stepped back until the warmth faded and only that startling, gentle urge remained, still as confusing as the moment I’d first felt it. He didn’t say a word as I turned south, toward the place I felt the electrified fence calling out to me.
It was a simpler version of what we’d seen near the checkpoint, only eight feet high instead of twenty. But the electricity prowling back and forth across it was no less lovely or lethal. It turned frenzied at my approach, like an excited pack of dogs. The silver thread in my mind slipped out, connecting with it, guiding it away from a section of links in front of me.
All that mattered was getting to the other side. I was allowed to be angry right now. I got to be furious about the lie about the checkpoint closing, and that it was yet another thing standing in my way.
I brought the bolt cutters up and cut the first strip of metal before I could stop myself.
When I’d finished, I kicked out the loose piece and stepped through. Keeping one hand on the fencing, I waved the others forward. Roman went first, stealing a glance at my face as he passed by. Priyanka only let out a long, impressed whistle.
When they’d both gone on ahead, I turned back once more to see what I’d done.
And saluted it with my middle finger.
“Can you see anything inside?” Roman’s voice crackled over the walkie-talkie as Priyanka and I walked across the pavement toward the dark blue sedan. Lisa had forced us to take one of their sets, and while I hadn’t wanted to, I owed her. Big-time.
“Not yet,” Priyanka replied. “Nothing moving, at least.”
The satellite view of the estimated address hadn’t been deceptive, exactly, but it hadn’t been accurate. Instead of an empty field, the vehicle was parked in the dead center of a large paved lot. The kind that might have been used for a supermarket or a mega shopping center. That should have been used for something. Instead, there was only the massive cement footprint of a building foundation, and a few scattered pieces of timber and cinder blocks in the nearby field.
“This is creepy, right?” Priyanka said. I had to jog to keep up with her stride. “A little creepy?”
The air was so thick with moisture, it seemed to hiss at us as we moved through it. My hair rose into waves, sticking to my cheeks and neck, and all I could taste was the leftover syrup from the Waffle House breakfast Priyanka had bought us. That, and my own sweat.
My body tensed more and more, even as the heat did its best to melt me down to my raw nerves. By the time we were close enough to make out the shape of the seats inside the car, I could barely breathe.
She’s not in the car. She can’t be in the car.
Roman had given me one of the guns from Haven, and it hadn’t left my hand since we’d stepped onto the lot. I raised it slightly, aiming at the car as we approached it from behind.
I nodded to Priyanka, and she moved to the passenger side as I approached from the driver’s. The car’s battery was dead. I wasn’t picking up any spark of electricity anywhere nearby, save the walkie-talkie in Priyanka’s hand. The part of me that had secretly feared this was some kind of elaborate trap almost relaxed.
The sedan was unlocked. The smell of stale, hot air greeted me when I threw open the door. A bag of what had formerly been M&M’s sat wilting in one of
the cup holders. Less than a foot away, a key was sticking out of the ignition. An empty water bottle remained in the door.
I slid into the driver’s seat, breathing in the heavy air. I closed my eyes, trying to picture Ruby there, in that same place. Green eyes staring straight ahead.
What were you doing here?
Why would she ever come to a place like this alone?
“Should I open the trunk?” Priyanka asked carefully.
“Oh God,” I whispered. “I didn’t even…I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I don’t know if this is going to make you feel better, but based on my limited experience with dead bodies, I think we would have smelled it by now,” Priyanka said. Sweat poured down over her face and neck, wrapping her thick, wavy hair into tighter curls.
I nodded, resting my hands on the steering wheel. The car rocked as she opened the trunk. It swung up in the rearview mirror.
Please, I thought. Please…
“Empty!” she called back. “Oh, wait—”
At her note of surprise, I shoved the driver’s door open again and jumped out.
Priyanka took my arm, tugging me forward. It was empty. The exterior of the car was covered with a light sheen of dust that had been spotted by recent rain, but inside was almost pristine.
“No, look—” She pointed toward the cover on the spare-tire well, which hung slightly open. Priyanka pulled it off and inside, there was a gun. Fake ID papers. And Ruby’s cell phone.
“I see dust, about five miles back,” Roman said. “Someone’s coming.”
I grabbed all three, pressed the cover back into place, and stepped away so Priyanka could slam the trunk shut again. Our footsteps pounded against the heat-cracked surface of the asphalt until we found the dirt road out again.
Up ahead, about a mile away, Roman was using the remnants of a burned-out gas station to cover our own car. Seeing us, he lowered his binoculars—judging our actual distance, no doubt—then pulled them back up to his eyes to gaze at the road behind us.
I threw a quick glance over my shoulder. Just long enough to see the flares of red and blue lights flashing through the screen of dust.