I can’t tell if they believe me. Or if they’re afraid of me. Or both.
If they’re smart, the answer will be both.
“Okay.” Megan steps in, the voice of reason. “It’s late and we’re all exhausted. So let’s just go home, start fresh tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Noah says, not really agreeing. “Let’s go home.”
“Noah —” I say.
“Megan?” Noah interrupts without looking at me and Megan stops gathering her things long enough to face him.
“Are you still spending the night with Lila?”
“Good. I’ll walk you and Rosie home.”
As he starts toward the tunnel door, I catch his arm, hold him still.
“I’m not crazy,” I tell him. I don’t even stop to consider that that is what crazy people almost always say.
“I’m not saying you’re crazy, Grace. I’m saying you’re a liar.” His voice is almost a whisper, and I know my betrayal is deeper, more personal, to him than it is to Megan and Rosie. And it should be. He is my official best friend.
Or, at least, he used to be.
It’s quiet as I make my way toward the embassy. Megan and Noah are far up ahead. They have already dropped Rosie off at the German gates, and now they’re walking toward Israel. They don’t speak to each other. They don’t laugh. I expect one or both of them to look back at me, maybe wave good night, but they don’t.
I feel utterly alone when a voice says, “Hello, Gracie.”
“Hello, Alexei,” I make myself say.
Did he see us emerge from the tunnel entrance three blocks away? How long has he been watching? I find myself wondering what exactly Alexei knows, and I tell myself that is why I’m slowing down, letting him catch up.
“And how are you today, Gracie?”
I stop cold.
“I love Jamie. That’s why I let him call me Gracie.”
“I know,” Alexei says with a smile.
“You’re not Jamie.”
I don’t mean it as an insult, but it comes out like one. What a wonderful bonus. But the words slide off of Alexei. He is immune to me and whatever wimpy weapons he thinks I possess. He just shoves his hands into his pockets and falls into step beside me. “So where have you been keeping yourself?”
“I live in that one,” I say, pointing to where the US embassy sits just down the street.
“What have you been doing?”
“I’m sorry,” I say, spinning on him, “this concerns you why? And don’t tell me it’s because of some promise you made to Jamie. Jamie told you to keep me out of trouble. And I haven’t been in any trouble.”
He gives me the smirk again. “As far as I know you haven’t been in any trouble. But there’s a lot I don’t know, isn’t there, Gracie?”
At night, the sea air is chilly even in summer, and yet I feel myself start to sweat.
“Tell me what’s going on,” he says.
“Nothing to tell.”
“Hey!” he snaps. “I find you lying in the street in a ball gown, and you’re so sick that I have to carry you home. And then … you disappear. You’re never in the embassy when I come to see you —”
“You came to see me?”
“You don’t go to events with your grandfather. You haven’t even broken any bones as far as I can tell. So what’s going on?”
I don’t know what it is that stops me — his words or his tone. He’s not playing anymore. He’s not having fun. This isn’t about torturing the kid sister, teasing her for being too small, too slow, too female to run with the boys.
“You scare me, Grace.”
Alexei sounds like he doesn’t want to admit it. But he does.
“Yeah.” I take a slow step toward the embassy. “Sometimes I scare me, too.”
To Alexei’s credit, he doesn’t follow. I can feel him watching me, though, his blue eyes tracking my every move.
“You know I’m here if you need me, don’t you?” he calls out.
When I look back, there’s no trace of his cocky smile.
“Be careful, Alexei. The world is a dangerous place.”
When Alexei is gone, I know I should go inside. Go to bed. Rest. But I can’t face the embassy’s empty halls. My mother’s bed and her books and her photographs still tucked into the mirror’s frame. Or maybe I just can’t face the mirror. So I slip back into the tunnels instead.
Noah wanted to get different colors of string and wind them through the tunnels to mark the various paths, but that reminds me of the hallways of the hospital where I went after the fire.
They took me there for the smoke. They kept me for what I saw. Or what I said I saw. They even put me in what they called a “special room.” They didn’t try to come up with a soft, cushy name for the restraints that bound my wrists, though — for the drugs they pumped into my system to keep me calm. As long as calm equaled quiet. No one wanted to hear what I had to say.
So I said no to Noah’s string idea. Besides, we can’t risk letting the Scarred Man figure out that someone else has discovered this portion of the city’s tunnels. No tourists ever take tours here; the tunnels in this part of town are supposed to be abandoned, and we need whatever element of surprise we can get.
Or we did. Noah’s words still echo in my ears, and I have to remind myself that there probably isn’t a “we” anymore. I am alone. Again.
Small lines on the wall tell me what tunnels I’ve explored, so I set off down one of the branches that I haven’t yet marked.
It’s just like all the others. Rough walls and sloping floors. I turn the flashlight off and try imagining the space around me in the glow of the Scarred Man’s torch. I try to picture myself running away from it or toward.
I close my eyes, let them adjust to the black, and that is when I hear it. A low, steady whirling that I’ve heard once before.
The tunnels are so far underground in most places that the noise of the world outside disappears completely. You hear scampering vermin and dripping water, but nothing mechanical, modern, or man-made can usually permeate those old stone walls. Here, though, it’s different. The sound is like a siren song, and I don’t think. I just keep walking.