As soon as the door shut behind him, I set my mind to remaking his bed, refolding the top blanket one or both of us had managed to kick off at some point. My heel brushed something warm—something that wasn’t the cold tile.
I bent down, retrieving the piece of paper that had fallen out of Liam’s pocket. It had been folded over once into a smaller square, but it had opened as it hit the ground. My eyes were already taking in the neat letters carefully printed there before I could spare a thought to it being wrong.
Your name is Liam Stewart. You are eighteen years old. Your parents are Harry and Grace Stewart. Cole is your brother and Claire was your sister. You were in a camp, Caledonia, but you broke out. East River did burn. You were lost. You’re in Lodi by choice because you want to stay with Chubs, Zu, and Ruby. You want to be here, helping them. Do not go, even if they tell you to. DO NOT GO! Ruby can take your memories, but what you feel is the truth. You love her, you love her, you love her.
I read the words again, and a third time trying to make sense of them. Because the words were ones I knew, I recognized I was reading sentences, but my mind disengaged. It up and left the picture before my heart could make the connection.
Ruby can take your memories...
It was a note to himself—to a future self, one he apparently was so sure would fall victim to my mind again. This was a cheat sheet. Security; because, clearly my word wasn’t going to cut it. I could promise him over and over again that I’d never touch his mind again, but it meant nothing. I had done it once. The trust between us was already broken.
I went cold to the core. The shock of it—jumping from his warm touch to this—it was too much. I was the ash brushed aside after the fire had finally been blown out. You are so stupid, so stupid, so stupid. He doesn’t trust you, no matter what he says.
“Stop.” The world broke me out of the free fall I dropped into, and all at once the sensation of falling, sinking eased. I said the word again, forcing my heart down out of my throat, stilling my thoughts. I said it again, and one more time, until my voice sounded like my own again, not some dry rasp.
I paced the length of the room, trying to stop the torrent of thoughts shooting through my mind. Quick steps were moving down the hall, bare feet slapping against the tile. I panicked, shoving the note inside of the CD case just as Liam swept back into the room.
He was drenched in random places—his left shoulder, down his right side, the back of his sweats, the fabric below his knees—and the expression on his face was the resigned look of someone nominated for sainthood against his will.
I plastered a smile on my face, holding my breath in the hope it would keep me from crying. Just seeing his face was enough to start unraveling the binding I had wrapped around the hurt.
“Soooo,” he said, wiping his damp hair off his face, “apparently I have to stop telling people I know a little bit about plumbing. Because a little bit is how to twist the knob to get the water to turn on and off—what? I look that pathetic?”
“No—no, not at all,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” He took a step toward me. “Your voice sounds—”
“I just realized it’s almost seven,” I said. “Cole wants us upstairs to talk through the plan for the camps. We should—we should go.”
His brow creased but he stood back from the door, opening it for me. Just as I passed, he caught my shoulder and turned me back toward him. A droplet of water worked its way down from his hair, mapping out a trail on his cheek, over his jaw, down his throat as he swallowed hard. I couldn’t meet his eyes as he studied me, and managed not to cringe as he leaned forward and pressed a sweet kiss to my cheek.
The others were only just starting to mill into the computer room, joining the Greens who were rearranging the desks out of their usual, tidy rows and dragging them against the walls so they lined the room instead. Nico had reclaimed the laptop and was sitting at one of the desks along the rear wall, his back toward us. Everyone else faced the old, marker-stained white board and the map of the United States taped up next to it on the opposite end of the room.
Chubs was standing in front of the map, pushing in small red pins as Vida read something—city names?—off a printed list.
“Nicely done with the brain voodoo, boo,” she said when she saw us. “Consider your ass forgiven for not coming down to help us haul shit around the garage.”
Chubs glanced back over his shoulder, one hand still splayed out on the map. “If we’re going to try picking some of these groups up, we have four good options. There are at least ten kids in Wyoming alone.”
“If they haven’t already moved on,” Liam pointed out.
“Now who’s Mr. Doom and Gloom?” Chubs shot back.
Whatever Liam was about to say was preempted by his brother sweeping into the room like a tornado of energy, a visibly pleased Senator Cruz at his side. The rare glimpse of happiness on her features made her look ten years younger. She smiled when she caught my gaze, giving a small, affirmative nod.
She’d done it, then. She’d managed to secure some supplies for us.
Zu, Hina, and Kylie were the last to appear in the doorway, and carefully made their way through the field of kids on the floor to come sit beside us.
“Okay,” Cole said, clapping his hands together. “So. Thank y’all for all of your ingenious planning and scheming. I reviewed everything, and I think we’ve landed on a winning strategy.”
He walked back toward the white boards, picking up one of the markers. A blue line was drawn down the middle of the board. At the top of one half he wrote, THURMOND. On the other, OASIS.