Her smile falls just that tiny bit.
“Oh—no, I mean, no I don’t mean it like that,” I say quickly. “It’s just, the world, you know? Nothing changes if you don’t take a risk.”
“That also sounds like him,” she says dryly. “Do me a favor and save your mama the heartbreak of joining up with the Children’s League to see that particular thought through.”
Della is illegally harboring kids in her own home. Of course her kid joins an underground group that seems hell-bent on making Gray’s life miserable. It lights a fire at the back of my mind, burning through all the other vague possibilities I’d been slowly working through. I want to ask her more about it—more about her son—but she turns her attention to Zu, who, I swear, has not blinked once the entire time she’s been watching her.
“Hi, hon, how are you doing?”
She manages a shy smile that Della returns twice over.
“I have that gas money,” she starts, shifting her gaze back to me. “Where are y’all headed? Do you need a place to stay for the night?”
“We’re going to California,” I tell her, ignoring Zu’s surprised expression as she whips her head around. Of course we’re going now. “Her uncle has a ranch out there I’m bringing her to. Then I’m going to see if I can find some work.”
“You got your papers all in order? A plan to cross the border?”
And just like that, my heart’s in the pit of my stomach. “What do you mean?”
Della’s expression softens, but there’s something sharp working behind her eyes. “It’s the whole mess with the Federal Coalition and the League—they’re based out of Los Angeles, so Gray’s been tightening border security in the hope he can starve them out by not letting imports or exports through. You need special permission from the government to cross state lines.”
Well…shit. I press my lips together, trying to fight back the sting of disappointment. I’m sure there’s another way in that doesn’t involve driving. Or walking a couple of hundred miles through the desert in the summer.
“Do you need to get there soon? Would you have any way of getting the paperwork for it?”
“I mean…I guess we could…” My mind is fumbling for a way we could possibly sneak into California. On the back of a semi-truck? Could I bribe someone?
“Well.” Della drags the word out, running a hand back through her hair. “I guess you’re in luck, hon. A little bit in luck, at least. I have papers you can use, but they might be more of hindrance—and you’re going to have to figure out a way to hide her as you cross.”
Della smiles. “My husband, he’s a special kind of mechanic. He works for one of the companies that maintains the canals and aqueducts that bring water out of the state, so he has paperwork to cross state lines. I think they’re just in the dash.…”
Such is the force of Della that I don’t even remember getting out of the truck and walking around to meet her in front of the sedan. She points out the two special foil stickers affixed to the window. “I can’t give you these, unfortunately, but if you hit the border around midnight, they have fewer soldiers posted and they’re far more likely to be lazy and just wave you through. If not, show them these papers.…” She leans in through the open window, pops the glove box, and hands me a neat bundle of papers. “The company is on the auto-approvals list. If they ask for an ID to match against the name on the paperwork…well, you’ll have to get a little creative or say a little prayer and floor it.”
I swallow hard and nod.
Della puts a hand on my shoulder, smoothing out the front of my shirt like it’s the most natural thing in the world—but she catches herself and gives a rueful little laugh. “Force of habit, sorry. Two boys will do that to you.”
I didn’t mind it all that much. Honestly, it was kind of nice.
“Are you sure?” I ask quietly. “I mean…your husband, doesn’t he need the papers?”
She waves it off. “He’ll understand. Honestly. I want you to take this car and I want you to get that little girl someplace safe, okay? You understand that’s your job?”
I feel a little lightheaded at the weight that comes thundering down on my shoulders, but I nod. It is my job. I’m doing this.
“You’re up for it, aren’t you?” Della lifts her sunglasses again. “I know you are. I do. And you know how? Because you’ve made it this far. You called me, not the PSFs, not any of the skip tracers. There’s so much evil in this world, and you brought just that tiny bit of light back into it—not for the money or the credit or anything other than to help another human being out. And that’s rare, real rare. You’re a good man, and you should be proud of yourself.”
And it’s like when she says it, I do feel good. Genuinely good. I can’t remember the last time I felt so light. All the blood rushes to my face, but I’m not embarrassed. It’s just that my chest gets tight, and I have to hold my breath or else I’m going to burst out crying all over this stranger. I feel like if she touches me in that caring, simple way again, I’m going to explode into stardust.
And that’s when I realize it: not since Dad. No one’s told me something I’ve done is great or right or even worthy—and maybe it hasn’t been up until this moment. Before he took his life, he used to tell me that sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for until we find it. I’ve been so angry, at him and at everyone else, that I don’t know how to handle the way I feel now. Because I think I might be happy. I think I might know what I’m supposed to be doing.
Bryson and Zu share a quick hug and he gives me this little fist bump before he climbs into the sedan, settling there like he belongs. I reach over to buckle my passenger in when she seems preoccupied with shaking the last bit of ink out of the dying pen I provided.
As Della gives me her directions for the fastest way to find the freeway and get to Southern California, I can see Zu frantically scribbling something down on that same sheet of notebook paper she and Bryson wrote their notes on the back of. I see the same handwritten message I caught a glimpse of before, only now I know Zu wasn’t the one to write it. The penmanship is too neat, too careful to be hers. When her arm moves, I can finally read the whole thing: