Liam swore loudly. I was too numb by the account to do anything other than listen.
“Was he one of the ones you mentioned before—he needed to turn one kid in to start? Can you tell us about him?”
Zu nodded. “He was old—not old-old, but definitely in his twenties. Maybe twenty-seven?”
Alice gave a faint laugh. “Twenty-seven’s not so old.”
She shrugged before continuing. “We were in Arizona...I think he must have been from Flagstaff or Prescott, I’m not sure. He was really angry. Something really sad happened to him, I could tell, but he didn’t talk about it. He was someone who just wanted to get out of his life, but he couldn’t do it without money. No matter how many times he told me he was going to turn me in, I knew he wouldn’t.”
“How could you tell?” Alice asked.
Yes, I thought, how on earth could you have trusted this person?
“I told you, he was a good person. He was...really struggling. It ate him up inside. No matter how many times he tried to treat me like I was a freak, he always gave in. There were two chances to turn me over to the PSFs, but he couldn’t do it. Not only did he save me, but he helped save another kid and got him back to the people who were caring for him. He was the one who got me to California.”
The pieces of this were coming together for me now—those people she was talking about were Liam’s parents. That must have been the moment that she crossed paths with Liam’s mom.
“What happened to him?”
“He...his name was Gabe, did I say that? His name was Gabe, and he was...he was really kind.”
“What happened to him?” Alice asked again.
Chubs released the breath he’d been holding, and scrubbed his face with his hands. I’d known how the story ended, but it was still devastating. Seeing her face, hearing those two words...
“What happened to him?” Softer this time, more hesitant. Alice looked back at Liam, as if to ask if it was all right to continue to head down this path. He nodded; he understood too. She wanted to talk about this. I had a feeling she agreed to this specifically so she could talk about Gabe and what he’d done for her.
“The kids I was traveling with before? They beat us to California and were waiting at my—at the meet spot we agreed on. We didn’t know that, though.”
“Gabe made me walk behind him as we looked around. It was really, really dark—we could barely see anything. When we opened the doors to—to one of the nearby buildings, the other kids were hiding in there. They saw him and recognized him from Arizona, and they thought he had followed them. One of the girls panicked and shot him.”
I looked at Liam the exact moment he looked at me, absolutely stricken.
“He was a good person, and he was just trying to help—it was a mistake, but there was nothing we could do. They thought he was going to hurt them. They didn’t know what I did. He died because he helped me instead of helping himself.”
“That’s terrible,” Alice said, still looking for the right words. “That’s...”
“Everyone is so afraid of each other,” Zu continued. “I don’t want to look at a grown-up and assume they’re thinking of how much they can get for me. I don’t want them to look at me and think of how badly I could hurt them. Too many...too many of my friends are in pain. They’ve been hurt very badly by what they’ve been through, but they’ve taken care of me. That’s the other side of everything. Because there are people who are afraid, and then there are people who are so brave. We only survived being hungry and scared and hurt because we had each other.”
Alice let the camera keep recording for several more seconds before finally switching it off and sitting back. “I think that’ll do for today.”
Zu nodded, standing up and setting the notebook down on her chair, and came straight toward Vida. “Did I do okay?”
Vida held out her fist for a bump. “You killed it, girl.”
Liam was half listening to whatever Alice was saying to him, half listening to hear what was passing between Zu and Vida—he caught me watching him, and instead of looking away, he offered up a small smile. I felt myself return it, but the moment passed as quickly as it had arrived. What was important here was Zu; the small blip of happiness I’d felt at that small cease-fire was nothing compared to the joy soaring inside of me as she talked to Vida, her hands moving to emphasize her words. And as I listened to the sweet way the pitch of it rose as she got excited, a thought began to stir at the back of my mind.
I touched Chubs’s arm to get his attention. “What part of the mind controls speech?”
He came out of his daze like I’d thrown a pitcher of ice water in his face. “It’s a whole system, remember?”
“Right, I understand that. I guess my question is, is there something in your mind that could leave you silent or unable to process words, even if everything else seemed to be working fine?”
Now he just looked confused. “Zu didn’t talk by choice.”
“I meant Lillian,” I said. “Like all of the lights are on in the house, but she can’t get the door unlocked—she can pick up a few words here and there, but she can’t understand us and we can’t understand her. Have you heard of anything like that?”
He thought about it. “I can’t think of the medical term, but it’s been known to happen sometimes with stroke patients. My dad had someone come into his ER once who’d been in the middle of teaching a lesson on Shakespeare and then, two minutes after stroking out, couldn’t communicate at all. It’s...expressive...aphasia? Or is it receptive aphasia? I’m not sure, I need to double-check. One indicates damage in the Wernicke’s area of the brain.”