There were seven other teens, and they all shared Kara’s look of joy.
But maybe they were too relieved. What if everything was backward? Maybe the army told the Positives that they were actually Negative, so that they wouldn’t try to fight and escape? Right now Jack could be on his way back home, and Aubrey and Kara were headed to prison—or worse.
“Are you okay?” someone asked.
Aubrey looked to her left. A boy—probably three or four years younger than Aubrey—was watching her.
She shook her head.
“We’re safe,” he said. His face, still round and babyish, was shining with optimism. “My sister told me back there: if we’re Negatives, we get to go home.”
Kara jumped in, giving Aubrey a reassuring look. “Soon, I’m sure. Maybe not today.”
“My sister told me that they couldn’t keep us here long,” the boy continued. “She said it’s illegal.”
Another girl, who Aubrey recognized from the warehouse, laughed. “It was illegal to kidnap us in the first place. Why would they start following the laws now?”
The truck came to a stop, and there was a long, uncomfortable pause before the back hatch opened and sunlight poured into the vehicle, followed by a gust of wind and sand.
A soldier stood in the hatchway, his hands on his hips. Aubrey knew almost nothing about the military, but could tell that this man wasn’t a normal infantryman. He didn’t wear a helmet—he had a camouflage cap—and his jacket had quite a few more patches and markings than most of the soldiers’ she’d seen.
He took a step closer to the vehicle and rested his hand on the door. He spoke, but his words sounded memorized, and he looked bored—almost annoyed. “All of your test results have come back negative, and the United States Army, on behalf of your country, extends its gratitude that you’ve been willing to submit to these procedures. I’m sure you have questions, and I can promise you that they will all be answered. But first, we need to get you through decontamination.”
The young boy spoke up, looking concerned. “What’s that?”
“You’ve all been in close proximity to people who have a serious illness. You need to be disinfected before you go any farther.”
The boy said something else, but the man talked over him. “Now, if you’ll all exit the vehicle, we’ll get this taken care of quickly and easily.”
The nine teens carefully filed out of the armored transport, ducking their heads as the ceiling was too low for all but the boy to stand. Aubrey was the second-to-last out, followed by Kara.
They were standing in front of another long chain-link fence topped with razor wire. On the other side, stretching out for what seemed like miles, was an endless row of enormous canvas tents, desert camouflage and buffeted by the wind.
Just like at the warehouse, the fence was guarded with watchtowers.
Aubrey touched Kara’s arm and whispered, “It doesn’t seem like they’re sending us home.”
Kara frowned, and brushed her long blonde hair from her face. She looked sick. “I’m sure it’s just temporary.”
The soldier led the small group across the dusty road to a wide canvas tent that appeared to be the only entrance through the fence.
“This shouldn’t take long,” he shouted, to be heard over the wind, “provided you listen to instructions and do as you’re told.”
He stepped up onto a low wooden platform, and opened the door to the tent. “Males on the left, females on the right.”
The first in line—an overweight boy—nervously peeked his head in the door.
“Come on,” the officer snapped. “Hurry up.”
Aubrey grabbed Kara’s elbow again. “Hey.”
“It’ll be okay,” Kara said, though her face was pale.
“You’re not actually a Positive, are you?” Aubrey asked, trying to keep her voice low.
Kara looked surprised. “No! Are you kidding?”
Aubrey forced a smile. “I just wonder if they made a mistake. Maybe they think we’re Positives.”
Kara glanced up at the door ahead of them, and the officer standing grimly beside it. “I’m not a Positive.”
They reached the door and entered a small, cramped room. The boys—there were six of them—were in a line heading left, and the three girls were waiting for a door on the right.
“Where are you from?” Kara asked. Aubrey guessed she was trying to make conversation to keep her mind off the situation.
“I love that area,” Kara said, putting on a big nervous grin. “I have an aunt in Manti.”
“Did you know anyone else back there?” Aubrey asked, keeping her voice low. “Back at the warehouse?”
Kara looked embarrassed, and shook her head. “No. I’m from Park City. I don’t know where they took my friends, but—” If the door hadn’t opened, Aubrey guessed that Kara would have started to cry.
“Come in,” a woman said, holding the door for them. “Quickly, please.”
Aubrey glanced back at the boys, still waiting in their line and anxiously watching to see what happened to the girls. Her eyes met the young boy’s, and she smiled.
“Hurry,” the woman said.
Aubrey turned and entered the room.
The soldier couldn’t have been very old, but her face was grim and uncompassionate. She asked for the girls’ names and personal information, and checked them against a paper on her clipboard, and again against the girls’ bracelets. Kara was eighteen, which surprised Aubrey—Kara looked younger than that. The other girl—a fifteen-year-old from Roosevelt—was named Betsy Blackhair.
The soldier hung the clipboard on a hook. She then opened a cabinet and pulled from it three garbage bags, and three tiny bars of soap, each about an inch square.
“Strip down,” she said, handing the girls the bags and soap. “Put everything you have in the bags, leave them with me, and then go in the next room for a shower.”
“What will happen to our clothes?” Betsy asked.
“They will be disinfected,” the soldier answered. “You can keep any metal jewelry, but you’ll have to scrub it in the shower. There’s a clock in there—you’ll need to wash for fourteen minutes, and that means really washing, not just standing there. If you don’t scrub yourselves, Corporal Smith will do it, and she uses a stiff brush.” The soldier smiled at that, but the girls didn’t laugh.
Aubrey removed her clothes and shoes and stuffed them haphazardly into the bag, not bothering to fold them the way Kara was doing. The situation was uncomfortable enough, and she wanted to go straight into the shower rather than stand and wait naked.
The soldier made Kara cut off a cloth bracelet that was tied around her ankle. Not waiting, Aubrey cracked the door to the next room, peeking inside to make sure it was safe to go in.
The room had a single pipe in the center, with four shower heads branching off of it. A wide plastic sign hung on one side of the room, giving directions for how they should shower, with simple illustrations beside each instruction. Corporal Smith, a matronly woman wearing a green rain poncho over her combat fatigues, motioned her in.
The water was lukewarm, and the soap was gritty and harsh. Aubrey followed the sign step-by-step, watching the clock as the directions told her to scrub her hair for two minutes, then her face and neck for one minute, and so on. By the time she was finished she felt like her body had been rubbed with a cheese grater, and she smelled of ammonia.