“I think we should lie low somewhere safe for a little while and regroup,” Priyanka said, coming up behind us. The sedative was starting to take effect, and her feet were dragging through the dust. “It’ll give Max time to prepare for fishing. If anyone has any suggestions on where that mythical place might be, I’m all ears.”
Oklahoma…As far as I knew, there wasn’t anyone in the old Children’s League network that lived out here. But—I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner. Ruby’s friends Sam and Lucas had moved out to Kansas after Ruby had disappeared, falsified identity documents in hand. They’d left an address with us to memorize, in case we ran into any Reds who needed their help.
I just wasn’t sure I could bring myself to interrupt what little peace they had.
Desperate times, I thought. When were they not, though?
“I know a place,” I said.
After the hell the last few days had brought, the next few hours unfolded with surprising ease. Once I was done driving my leg of the trip, I passed the wheel—and Sam and Lucas’s address—to Roman. In our exhaustion, we just kept heading north, until the sun was up and we were in Kansas.
“Wake up, Dorothy,” Priyanka said, giving me a slight shake. I sat up from where I’d been sleeping against her arm in the backseat. “We’re over the rainbow and in Kansas.”
For one disorienting moment, I heard a different voice.
I’m Gabe. This is Dorothy.
“Don’t call me that,” I said, rubbing my face.
“Aw, but Dorothy suits you, now that I think—”
Dorothy—Guess we…shouldn’t have left Oz….
“Priya,” I said, letting an edge of that old pain into the word. “Don’t ever call me that.”
“All right,” she said softly.
“That has to be it, right?” Max said, pointing through the windshield. A small farmhouse with some kind of detached shed or barn took shape in the distance. As we turned up its long driveway, I saw a few cows grazing, a handful of overexcited goats, and a separate sty for the two pigs.
“Looks all quiet on the home front,” Priyanka said as Roman parked the car.
I stepped out first, trying to see through the house’s windows. Thick white curtains completely blocked out the interior. The others waited by the car as I stepped up onto the porch and knocked.
No answer. I pressed my ear against the wood, trying to listen for any movement inside. Clearly someone was home. There were fresh footprints leading from the house to the pigs’ trough, as well as to the chicken coop on the other side of the barn. A lone rooster strutted by us, heading toward the small, noisy structure. His path overlapped with another set of tracks, this one heading for the barn door.
“Zu…” Roman began, reaching for his gun. I waved him back, motioning for them to stay where they were. Sam and Lucas probably didn’t get many visitors. We could have scared them into hiding, uninvited and unannounced.
I reached for the barn door, angling myself back as I walked it open. When no one jumped out, I stepped inside, slowly searching the darkness.
Only to be met with the hard jab of a gun’s barrel against my back.
“Keep your hands up,” a familiar voice said. “Back up nice and slow—”
Recognition lit through me, surging until I thought my heart might explode. Somehow, I managed to turn my head to look back at him.
“Christ!” Beneath his beard, his face paled. He lowered the shotgun. “I could have killed you! You about scared the life out of me—”
I launched myself forward, and threw my arms around Liam’s neck.
Three Years Ago
WE BEAT THE SUNRISE TO Blackstone, a sleepy little town that had yet to wake up from the country’s financial slump. Nature seemed to have overtaken a number of the neighborhoods we’d driven through, looking for the mural that was mentioned in Liam and Ruby’s coded message.
“All right,” Chubs muttered. “This is getting ridiculous….”
Back in the Betty days, we used to relish mornings like these, where our chances of being seen and reported dwindled enough for us to find a place to park and rest for a few hours. But it seemed to be having the opposite effect on Chubs. He shook his head at each abandoned house, sighed at the potholes we hit. It was clear that what I saw as a blessing, he saw as unfinished work.
There’s so much left to do. The more I thought about it, the heavier the realization sat in me. It seemed insurmountable; how many roads, how many neighborhoods, were exactly like this one? How were we ever going to get to them all in our lifetime?
“There—” I said, pointing. There was a small road sign barely hanging on to its post. It was twisted and bowed backward, but still readable. “We have to go right to find ‘Historic Main Street.’ That sounds promising.”
For all those hours we’d spent driving in circles, once we were on the right road, we found the mural immediately. A saintly hooded figure held out both of his hands, welcoming us. Compared to the dirty brick exteriors, the paints were bright and fresh. The image seemed to glow with the sheen of the drizzle on this overcast day.
A few cars were parked in front of the shops along the street. They had their choice of a grocery store, a pharmacy, and…
“There’s the coffee shop.” Chubs pointed to it. “All right, they said what again?”
“We’re supposed to write a name on the wall and leave a rock?” I said, reading from the sheet again. “And then they want us to go in and buy tea.”
He looked at me. “Why tea?”
“That’s the part you find strange?” I asked. “Do you have anything to write with?”
We searched the car, eventually turning up an old pen in the center console. After looking up and down the street to make sure no one was watching, we got out and walked over to the mural. Cold air bit at me as I stared up at the towering image.
“This is ridiculous,” Chubs muttered, trying to scratch his name onto one of the painted bricks. It was so faint, I didn’t even bother trying to write my own when he handed the pen to me.
I told him before that this wasn’t a scavenger hunt, and I still believed that. Clearly, the address wasn’t going to suddenly flash across the wall because we’d completed the mysterious steps. If anything, the steps probably didn’t matter as much as being seen attempting them did. Someone nearby must have been keeping an eye on this spot. If they didn’t have the address, then maybe they were notifying Liam and Ruby we were here, and were ready to be picked up?
“He should have just given us a stupid address,” Chubs said. “I feel insane doing this. Come on, let’s go back to the car—”
“Wait,” I said, searching the ground nearby. “The rock—”
I picked up a broken chunk of brick, turning back toward the mural. But that had been the end of our instructions. With no other place to really put it, I set it do
wn against the wall, just under the painted figure’s feet.
“This is ridiculous,” Chubs said again, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
“You need to go buy tea,” I said. “Remember?”
I wanted to go in with him, but I also didn’t want the questions or looks I’d get from the others, especially if there was a chance that it would spook Liam and Ruby.
Chubs sighed, but started to trudge across the slushy street anyway.
“Hang on,” I told him. He let me pull his hat down a little more and adjust his scarf so that it covered his identification pin. I took his glasses off too, just for good measure. I didn’t think he’d even been photographed without a pair.
Chubs gave me a slightly unfocused, but definitely irritated, look.
“Just this once,” I said.
Waiting for him in the car was pure torture. When Chubs finally appeared again, two steaming cups in his hands, he looked even unhappier than before.
“Nothing?” I asked.
He passed me my usual hot chocolate. “After making incredibly creepy eye contact with everyone in that café, I can only assume that they’re either going to show up, or the local police will beat them to it—ah, shoot—”
Hot water from the tea spilled down his front. Chubs started to blot the stains with a napkin. The cup tilted dangerously again.
“Give me that,” I said.
As he passed it over, the protective sleeve slipped down.
I set my own drink aside, sliding the sleeve off completely. I turned the cup so he could see the address scribbled there.
Chubs leaned back against his seat, letting the napkin fall to the floor.
“All right,” he said. “Let me see the map again.”
In the end, the address didn’t even lead us to a house. It took us down a small back road and onto a cleared lot of land. I would have picked it out as the address even if I hadn’t seen the numbers spray-painted onto the tree at the edge of the road, or the red truck parked just out of sight.
Chubs pulled up alongside the truck and killed the ignition. For a moment, we simply sat there, listening to the rustle of rain falling through the nearby leaves. It glazed the windshield, blotting out our view of the world.