The rest of the morning took on a strange, almost unreal quality. The tunnel was lit by strings of Christmas lights, some of them blinking, some of them out completely, but only ever revealing a small section of path at a time. It was all stark, unforgiving cement. The low ceiling and narrow walls amplified each and every voice, carrying whispers and sighs back through the darkness like ghosts. I sucked in shallow breath after shallow breath, feeling the blood actually start to pound out a low beat behind my eyes. This really was the prototype for HQ in Los Angeles—on a much smaller scale, and partly aboveground if what Cole said was true, but similar enough to send a shudder through me.
My mind was playing catch and release with the sights and sounds around me, filtering everything through a milky lens. It made me feel almost like I was seeing it all happen through someone else’s memories. The smell of sweat and damp clothes. A grunt of pain from Vida. Chubs’s bleak, hopeless expression as he stared down the dark. Zu, passed out against Liam’s back, her arms wrapped around his neck as he carried her in. We walked for so long, there were moments I forgot where we were heading.
Up ahead of us, Cole climbed up a half flight of stairs and banged on something metal—a large, rusted square that must have been a door. There were no handles facing into the tunnel. We’d need to be let in from the other side.
“What if no one’s here?” I heard Chubs ask. I pretended, for the sake of my heart, that I hadn’t heard him at all.
He pounded his fist against it for another minute before the kids behind him crowded at his back and started banging against it with him.
No one is here, I thought. They didn’t make it.
I couldn’t breathe. There was nowhere to go—the walls were so close on either side of me, the kids behind me were blocking my route out. I felt Liam wrap an arm around my shoulder, but the weight of it made my chest feel even tighter. My feet tripped over themselves, backward, just as there was a loud groan, and the pathway was flooded with light.
I shielded my eyes, trying to make out who the figure was, when Cole sang out, “Hello, Dolly!”
“Oh my God!” There was a faint note of some kind of accent in her voice—maybe New York? New Jersey. “Hurry up, get in here—my God! We thought...we were worried we were going to have to go out and find you.”
Liam guided us forward, up the stairs, into the light. I hadn’t realized how cold I was until a delicate wave of warmth rolled over us. I stepped inside, blinking against the flood of fluorescent light overhead.
Dolly blew out an aggravated sigh, moving down the line of us, blinking as she reached where I was standing beside Liam. She glanced between him and Cole. “Oh, God, there’s another one of you? How has the world survived this long?”
“Pure, dumb luck,” Cole said. “Is everyone here?”
Dolly visibly hesitated. “Well...not exactly.”
“Cate?” The word came out of Vida in a na**d rush of hope.
“Conner’s just fine. She’s been worried sick about everyone.”
Liam’s arm tightened around me as he glanced down, his expression so sincerely thrilled on my behalf as I leaned into him that my faint smile was almost a reflex. It surprised me, though, that the first feeling to flood into the hole that fear had left in me wasn’t elation or relief. Those came only on the heels of a sudden, sharp ache that radiated out from my core. She doesn’t know. Cate had survived, made it up here in spite of fiercely skewed odds, and she’d been waiting. The only message Dolly would give her is that we were here; she wouldn’t know about Jude. I would have to keep from throwing my arms around her and crying long enough to tell her. She doesn’t know anything.
And now she would.
“What do you mean, not exactly?” Cole said, looking around. “Ten of you came to open the place, right? And Conner brought her dozen—”
Dolly’s sneakers gave a faint squeak as she shifted uncomfortably. She was saved from having to answer by the sound of bare feet slapping against the tile. My heart jumped into my throat as a head of pale blond hair rounded the corner of the hall at full speed—Cate.
Vida launched herself toward her, tearing through the mass of kids that stood between them, nearly tackling them both to the ground.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Cate was saying, “we were just outside of the attack zone and couldn’t get back in through all of the barricades that were set up—”
Cate looked past Vida’s shoulder to where I stood, a relieved smile on her face as her eyes met mine. Oh God, oh my God, she doesn’t know—I couldn’t get the words to my mouth, couldn’t move. Heat flooded beneath my skin, the sweat bringing the guilt and shame and anger and sadness up from every pore. And then she wasn’t looking at either of us, but at the empty space at my other side. She was looking at the whole hall, her eyes tearing from one person to another, all the while holding Vida to her tighter. She was looking for him.
In the end, I didn’t need to say anything at all. She had to have known, the first second she saw my face.
Liam’s hand found mine, tightening around my fingers as he pulled me away, bringing me in close to his side. I pressed my face against his good shoulder, listening to his heart pound against my ear, trying to catch my breath and stop the rising tears.
“How about...” Dolly put a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “How about I show you guys where the bathrooms are and where you can sleep? All of the rooms are open. Just pick which one you’d like. We’ll have to figure out sheets and blankets tomorrow, I’m sorry.”