The door to the cabin popped open. They were silent as they came in, lining the narrow space between the nearby bunks.
The PSF came in, counting them off. Then, with a faint smirk, she turned and added me to the tally. The others knew better than to move before the uniform left and locked the door behind her, but nothing could have surprised me more than seeing Sam whirl around, something like hope on her face.
Her honey-blond hair had been hastily braided back, and her face was streaked with black dirt. She looked tired, pushed past the point of exhaustion; but her stance, the hands on her hips, the expectant tilt of her head—that was Sam. That was all Sam.
“Oh my God.” Ellie, one of the older girls. She and Ashley had always tried the hardest to take care of the younger girls. Without her best friend standing shoulder to shoulder with her, I barely recognized her. There was a beat of stillness and then she was rushing toward me, climbing over the bunks that separated us. A good thing, too. I’m not sure I could have moved if I’d wanted to. How was it possible to be bursting with happiness at the sight of them, and still terrified about what they’d think?
“Oh my God.” Those three words over and over again. Ellie crouched down in front of me, her green shirt splattered with rain. She took my face between her freezing hands, a light touch that turned into a fierce grip once she seemed to accept I was real. “Ruby?”
“I’m back,” I choked out.
The other girls bottlenecked the path between the bunks, and some, Sam included, simply crawled over the mattresses and frames that stood between them and me. Vanessa, Macey, Rachel, all of them, reaching out, touching my face, the hands that were limp in my lap. Not angry. Not accusing. Not afraid.
Don’t cry, I told myself, smiling even as my eyes burned behind my lashes.
“They said that you died,” Ellie said, still kneeling in front of me. “That it was IAAN. What happened? They took you away that night, and you never came back—”
“I got out,” I told them. “One of the nurses planned the whole thing. I met other kids like us and...we hid.” The abbreviated truth would have to do—for now. I’d never bothered to ask Cate if the cameras could record sound in addition to video, but the sight of them gathered around me would be dangerous enough. We weren’t supposed to touch each other.
“But they found you?” This from Vanessa, dark eyes still wide with disbelief. “Do you know if they took Ashley, too? Have you heard anything about her?”
“What happened?” I asked, careful to keep my tone measured.
“They pulled her in to work in the Kitchen...maybe two months ago?” Ellie said. That wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. If there were specific, small tasks, or if they needed an additional hand somewhere like the Kitchen or the Laundry, they would pull from the older Green kids, thinking they were trustworthy, I guess. “That night, they wouldn’t let us eat in the Mess. And then she just didn’t come back. Do you know if someone got her out?”
They were all staring at me, and the hope in their eyes was unbearable. What would the truth do to them? I don’t know if it was kindness or cowardice that made me say, “I don’t know.”
“What was it like?” one of them asked. “Outside?”
A faint laugh escaped my lips as I looked up. “Strange and so...loud. Terrifying, violent...but open, wide open and beautiful.” I looked up into each of their faces, starving, desperate for something outside of the fence. “Almost ready.”
“For what?” Ellie asked.
After we ate the bread and tasteless soup they served in the Mess Hall for dinner, we made our way back to the cabin again, a Red shadowing our every step, arms swinging at his side. They’d shaved his hair down to dark fuzz beneath his uniform cap, let his tan skin go sallow. There was nothing in his eyes, not a trace of emotion in his face. During dinner, I’d had to look away to keep my heart steady and caught Sam doing the same. He’d stopped behind her at one point. She’d dropped her spoon into her bowl and stopped pretending she wanted to eat. But afterwards, I saw her look at his back, eyes devouring his shape...and I wondered.
Up until that moment, I had managed to clear my thoughts of what was happening to the others. What they were doing. If they were safe. Whether or not they were actually coming. I couldn’t let it distract me from what needed to happen here. Just thinking of Liam out there alone, trying to find his parents to tell them what had happened...
As we walked, I shifted my thoughts to sweet, small memories instead. Laughter at dinner. Firelight on Zu’s smiling face. Jude falling over himself and Nico when one of their handmade toy cars worked. The way Pat and Tommy had worshipped the ground Vida walked on. Seeing Chubs in North Carolina for the first time in months, and knowing he was alive. Cole’s easy smile as he reached over and smoothed down my hair. Liam. Liam in the driver’s seat, singing along. Liam kissing me in the dark.
I am going to walk out of here.
I am going to live.
Sam was tracking me now out of the corner of her eye; the skin tightened around her lips, pulling their corners down. There was still a hooked scar, a faint pink line curving to connect the chapped upper lip to her nose; but that, like the rest of her, had faded. And when I turned to meet her gaze, she only looked away.
I knew Sam, though. A year apart, three years since I’d blanked out every memory she had of me, and I still could read her face like it was my old, favorite book. She got braver as time went on, less uncertain about my presence. The thoughts were working behind her light-colored eyes, and she watched me from the moment the morning alarm went off at 5:00 A.M., through the entire ten minutes we were allotted to eat oatmeal in the Mess Hall, and then next to me, as we made our way through the damp, freezing morning air to begin the day’s work.