But instead, she had done this. Andy had done this.
I ripped up the tickets before Jude could wake up and see them. I didn’t want to give him the false hope that these people were anything other than lone candle flames in a sea of never-ending black.
Jude was still singing—literally singing—the praises of his new hero, Andy, when we saw the first signs for Wilmington. Just after he’d dropped us off near Richmond, he’d given us detailed instructions on the right highways to avoid on the way down. I’d been too flustered and annoyed with the delay to thank him at the time. Now, every clear road our little stolen car flew down filled me with a sharp pang of regret.
Wilmington kissed the Atlantic on one side and a river on the other. It surprised me to see how similar it was to the parts of Virginia that I knew—the style of the houses, the way the neighborhoods were laid out. Even the way the sky grayed out over the roofs, darkening until the clouds finally burst and it began to rain.
The address Cole gave me, 1222 West Bucket Road, Wilmington, North Carolina, was in a little neighborhood called Dogwood Landing, not too far from what I assumed was a university campus. It was a quiet part of the city, surrounded by frosty woods and filled with a good number of empty lots and crooked, weathered FOR SALE signs. I picked one and parked the green Volkswagen we’d stolen after parting with Andy in front of it.
“Is that it?” Jude asked, peering closer at the nearest house.
“No, it’s a ways down, I think.” I took a deep breath, wondering how it was possible to feel excitement and dread in the same breath. “I want to approach from the back in case anyone is watching the front.”
That had been the reason why Liam and the others hadn’t gone straight home after escaping Caledonia, right? I was torn about it. Alban’s advisers were always reminding us how overstretched the PSF forces were, but Liam was a priority catch. What were the chances that the government would still have someone posted here, watching Liam’s parents a good nine months later?
God. Liam’s parents. What the hell was I going to say to them?
I signaled for Jude to follow me around the side of one of the houses. Most were on the smaller side, just one story, with gray slanted roofs, brick faces, and white trim. I pulled Jude closer behind me as we made our way through the trees, following a small dirt access road that ran alongside the houses’ backyards.
Liam’s house was nestled deep into a pocket of trees set a ways off from the other houses on the block. It was a similar creature to the other homes around it, with sweet blue shutters and a long driveway leading up to the garage. What I really needed was a view of the front.
I held Jude back and forced him to crouch down beside me, and we watched. We looked for surveillance cameras, for footprints and tire tracks, for the undercover PSFs to come strolling around on patrol.
“It looks…” Jude began, hesitating.
Empty, my mind finished. It looked like no one was home, and the way the gutters were clogged with fall leaves and grime made me think they hadn’t been back in some time.
“Maybe they just ran out to do some errands?” he offered.
“At four in the afternoon on a Thursday? Seems sketchy,” came a new voice behind us.
The girl was a snake. It was the only explanation for how silently she slithered up through the leaves.
“Leader,” Vida said, nodding as she crouched down behind us. “Judith.”
Jude actually fell over.
“What are you—” I began. “How did you—” She couldn’t have just guessed where we’d be. She was good, but she wasn’t that good. I must have missed a tracker, something…
“The collar of the undershirt,” Vida said, nodding toward Jude. “Next time you decide to cut it and run, make sure you get all the damn trackers.”
“Trackers?” Jude repeated, looking between us.
“Jude fried the car,” I said, “and everything electric inside of it.” Including, I had assumed, the trackers in his clothes.
“That would be why they coat all of the Yellows’ trackers in rubber,” she said, shaking her head. “God, you didn’t know that?”
She was clearly proud of herself despite looking like she had just been ridden hard and put away wet. Her blue hair was twisting into its natural curly texture.
I hauled Jude closer, unzipping his coat to feel around his undershirt’s stitching. Sure enough, I felt the small bump, no more than the size of a grain, sewn into the collar. I cut it out with my Swiss Army knife and held it for him to see. Before he could grab it, I crushed it with the hilt of the knife.
“They…put trackers in our clothes?” Jude looked between us in disbelief, though it was clear he was talking to himself. “Why would they do that? That can’t be…”
Vida looked like she was about to burst into her particular brand of cruel laughter, but her expression changed—narrowed somehow. Her full focus shifted behind us, and she rose back onto her feet, swinging her gun up out of its holster in one smooth motion. I turned, my hair tumbling down around my face as I scrambled back onto my knees for a better look.
The world dropped.
I actually felt it cave under me, felt every bone and muscle in my chest fall with it. I don’t know how I managed to pull myself back up or how I came to be standing, but I was too numbed by shock to care that I was in full sight of whoever might have been watching.
Then, I was running. I heard Vida and Jude call after me, but the wind and rain carried their voices up and away, and I wasn’t hearing anything over the thrum of blood in my ears. I shoved my way down the slight roll of the hill, through the tangle of tree branches, through the collapsing fence, through to him.
He slipped out of the window, climbing through the torn dark screen one leg at a time until, finally, his shoes sank into the mud below. His hair was longer than I remembered it, the bones in the profile of his face sharper. He had gotten larger, or I had become smaller, or memory really was a lie—it didn’t matter. He heard me coming and spun around, one hand going for something inside of his heavy camo jacket, the other for something in the waistband of his jeans. I knew when he spotted me—every part of him froze.
But then his full lips began to work, silently, until they finally settled on the tiniest of smiles. My feet slowed but didn’t stop.
I was breathing hard. My whole chest heaved with the effort to keep the air moving. I pressed a hand hard against my heart. Exhaustion and relief and the same bitter terror I had felt the afternoon I’d lost him came flooding in. I just didn’t have the strength to fight them back anymore.