“Should we get out and take a look around?” I suggested, my hand already on the door.
“Guess so,” he said.
We wandered the lot, passing each other as we circled it. As I moved closer to the far edge of the field, the rain sounded different. Louder. I moved deeper into the foliage, pushing a shrub out of the way until I saw why.
“Zu?” Chubs called.
“Over here!” I waved my arms big and wide so he’d see me. “Look!”
Chubs looked all right. And he did not like what he saw. The only word to describe his expression was grim.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Before he could answer, a dark shape appeared in the haze, moving in a quick, smooth path across the silver surface of the lake. Plaid shirt. Baseball cap. Whistling the Rolling Stones.
He turned on the small rowboat’s bench, finally noticing us. The drop from the trees to the water was steep—too steep to run down and greet him like I wanted to.
“Damn, I can’t believe you guys beat me here!” he called up, turning his boat to bring it alongside the edge of the water. “There’s a little beach-y area over this way, a few hundred feet. It’s easier to grab you from there…unless you want to swan-dive into my arms, Chubsie? You know how much I love a dramatic reunion.”
Chubs started in the direction Liam had pointed. From down in the boat, Liam shot me a questioning look. I shrugged. We both knew Chubs. Sometimes he needed a little time to warm up to a situation.
The curve of the hill was rockier than I’d expected. Chubs turned back to help me navigate it, steadying me as we climbed over a downed tree.
“Really, I’m fine,” he whispered when he saw me studying him.
By the time we made it down to the flat, even ground, Liam had pulled the boat up onto the shore. I released my grip on Chubs’s hand, and Liam hopped out just in time to catch me as I took a running leap toward him. His laughter was slightly breathless as he swung me around until both of us were dizzy.
“Now that’s a proper hello!” he said, tugging my askew hat back down over my ears.
As soon as my feet were back on solid ground, I punched him in the stomach. His laughter burst out of him as he doubled over.
“Don’t you dare ever leave without telling us again!” I said, letting the last six months of worry and anger into the words. “It wasn’t right—it’s not right.”
Liam straightened, the mirth slipping from his expression. “You’re right. It wasn’t. If there was a way to get you guys a message without risking someone else finding out…I should have tried harder. It was just so nuts at the end, especially with what happened to Ruby’s dad. We had to get out before things got worse, no matter the consequences.”
Those consequences being that they were now fugitives in the eyes of the government. Ruby had been more carefully monitored with curfews and check-ins than any other Psi, and when she and Liam had disappeared, she’d broken her word to the interim president and United Nations that she’d follow those strict arrangements. We weren’t allowed to live outside the system the government had methodically set up for us anymore. At least not legally.
“It’s not—” Chubs began to say, then cut himself off. His hands were still tucked into his jacket’s pockets, but the fabric was thin enough for me to see that his hands had curled into fists.
Liam opened his arms wide. “I’m up for round two, buddy. Don’t fight the twirl.”
“Could we possibly get out of the rain first?” he said, taking off his glasses and wiping them clean on his undershirt.
The rain dripped off the brim of Liam’s beat-up hat as he stared at Chubs. His arms fell back to his sides, and he glanced toward me again. I gave him a pained smile.
This wasn’t acceptable. I knew there might be a little weirdness, and Liam pretending like nothing had happened wasn’t exactly helping, but there was no reason for it to be this awkward.
I walked over to Chubs and planted my hands on his back, pushing him forward until, finally, he relaxed enough to fold Liam into a quick, hard hug.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m just tired. We had an early start.”
“I do recall how much you love your early rises. I also seem to recall having to carry you out of one motel room bridal-style to get you into Betty before sunrise.”
Chubs took his glasses off to clean them again, even though they weren’t wet at all.
The tense silence was back, winding through us.
“Is Vi still in the car?” Liam asked, glancing behind us.
“She had to work,” Chubs said.
Liam’s expression fell. “Oh. Maybe next time, then.”
“Maybe,” Chubs said. He nodded toward the rowboat. “Are we all going to fit in that? I’m guessing we have to go back across the lake to get to your hideout.”
“You’d be correct in that assumption, my dear Chubston,” Liam said, turning back toward the water with his hands on his hips. “It’s not as big as Lake Lee is a ways up the road, but, then, all lakes should have something to aspire to. I feel lucky that we found this place.”
“It does have that certain…comfort of familiarity,” Chubs said slowly.
Another confused look dimmed Liam’s smile, but he recovered quickly and moved to help me step into the boat. It actually was a tight squeeze. In the end, I had to nestle down into the foot well beneath them, using Chubs’s sweater as a cushion. Liam pushed us back into the water and jumped in with the ease of someone who’d done it countless times. I passed the oars to him.
“Aaaand we’re off.” Liam pushed up his sleeves as the boat coasted. He didn’t seem bothered by the chill or his soaked shirt. If anything, he was beaming. There was this…ease to him, one I hadn’t seen before. The brightness was back in his eyes, and his face had filled out again. I remembered looking at him in those last tense weeks before the camps fell and not recognizing him at times. The strain of everything, his grief over losing his brother, the constant threats on Ruby’s life, it all slowly broke him down and carved away at his health.
“Sorry about the cloak-and-dagger routine,” he said. “We’re working out the kinks for making contact. It all feels complicated now, but I don’t think the old network will have any issues getting the instructions out in the next few weeks.”
“Wait, who are you getting the message out to?” I asked.
Liam pulled the oars back through the water, smiling. “This isn’t just our new home. Ruby and I decided that we’re going to turn it into a safe place for other kids who need help. We’ve already gone to get three kids based on tips from some of our old Children’s League friends.”
“That’s great,” I said. And it was very them. I could easily see the two of them out navigating back roads, stepping in to help out the kids who needed it most. “Are they runaways?”
Liam glanced over at Chubs, who’d turned his back to us and was running his fingers through the water. “Actually, the three we have now had been returned to abusive households.”
Chubs’s hand stilled.
“Well,” I said, too brightly. “That’s…great. That is super great.” The awkward silence was back. “How did you guys end up here?”
As Liam told the story, he relaxed back into his task. After he and Ruby had disappeared, they’d spent weeks simply camping out, until Harry, Liam’s stepfather, was able to meet them. And when the apartment above her coffee shop came up for purchase by the bank, Mrs. White sold them her old house. It became too much for her to get back and forth to work, Liam explained, because the house was only accessible by crossing the lake on boat, or navigating through miles of the wild, tangled woods that surrounded the house. They spent most of the summer updating the house to comfortably fit more kids, and digging out an escape route through the basement.
The boat bumped up against the opposite shore and Liam jumped out again, dragging it up on land. While Chubs and I waited on the bank, he returned the boat to a small shel
ter, covering both with a tarp to help keep out the rain. It gave me the perfect opportunity to pull Chubs aside and level him with a look.
“A secret hideaway for kids in the middle of the woods, nestled beside a lake, under the protection of an Orange,” Chubs whispered back at me. “No, this doesn’t feel familiar at all.”
I cringed. “Please don’t repeat that to them.”
“Believe me,” Chubs said, looking over to where a dirt trail curved out from the cover of trees. “I’m not going to say anything.”
That seemed incredibly unlikely.
“This way,” Liam said. “It’s just a quick walk, and Ruby’s standing by with hot chocolate.”
I almost resented Chubs for bringing East River back into my mind. This wasn’t the same at all—with Ruby and Liam running the show, this was going to actually deliver on what East River had promised to be. Plus, instead of many little cabins, there was only one big friendly-looking house. It came into view quickly, as did something else.
“Is that a tree house?” I asked, pointing up at the platform that had been built into a nearby tree.
Liam chuckled. “Yeah. It doesn’t look like much yet, but I thought it would be fun, you know? And if the kids want time alone, they can go there.”
The screen door banged open as Ruby stepped out onto the covered porch. She had an exasperated expression on her face as she held up two umbrellas.
Liam gave her a sheepish look. “I was in a hurry.”
“I set them right by the door,” she said.