I thought she was the one trembling until I looked down at my own hands.
Olivia bit her lip. “And of course—of course, he takes the kids in the White Tent, the ones no one would know to miss. He knows I can’t do anything about it and that they can’t fight back. The one time I tried, he took two kids out instead of one.”
“What about that kid—Brett?” I asked. “He stood up for you. Could you…”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Olivia said. “He’s different than Michael, but Michael’s second in command. Brett might bring me things for the kids here every once in a while, but if Michael were to catch him…he’d be the next one gone.”
The White Tent was exactly that—a large, crooked tent strung together with stained white tarp, set off from the others. The stench of it reached us almost before the sight of it did. Olivia lifted the red bandanna hanging around her neck to cover her mouth. The air was heavy, so thick with the stench of human waste that breathing became almost impossible.
“You just have to take him and get out while he still has a chance,” Olivia was saying. “As long as your friend is in the warehouse, you won’t be able to get her. But you can take him, at least. I can help you. You might be able to overpower the patrol together.”
Jude’s hand clenched around my upper arm. “It’s okay,” I told him. “It’s not an option. We won’t leave her behind.”
He nodded, his face pinched with worry as he glanced back over his shoulder to the warehouse. “Are they going to hurt her?”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m a lot more worried about what she could do to them.”
“Olivia?” Chubs called softly. “Are you okay?”
She had stopped just outside of the tent, her hands bunching up the fabric. She bowed her head forward, resting it against the flap.
“He’s…I’m sorry, I tried, I’ve tried so hard, but…” Olivia’s voice was anguished. “I’m the only one who will help them. He tried for a while, but…”
“He,” I repeated, feeling my heart go very still. “Who?”
Olivia blinked, her confusion marred by the scars on her face. “Aren’t you… You aren’t here for Liam?”
I don’t remember pushing past her, but I do remember my hands, as pale as the fabric of the large tent, shoving aside the old bedsheet serving as the door. The stench intensified inside, combined with the sickening scent of mold and foul water. I blinked, forcing my eyes to adjust to the low light. The pallets underfoot creaked and groaned as I stepped inside, one snapping altogether.
There were so many of them—at least twenty-five kids, in rows on either side of the tent. Some were curled up on their sides, others tangled up in the thin sheets around them.
And there was Liam, right in the center of them all.
I lied before.
To Cate. To the others. To myself. Every day. Every single day.
Because here was the truth. Here it was, tearing up and out of me, drawing my feet toward the far corner of the tent, rising like a whimper.
I regretted it.
Seeing his face now, the way his cracked and bruised hands curled softly around the pale yellow blanket draped over him, I regretted it so much, with such a sharp ache, that I felt myself begin to double over before I had taken a single step toward him.
For months, his face had lived only on computer screens, his scowl captured forever in digital files. It was locked in my memory—but I knew firsthand how memories warp and fade as time passes. It was so selfish of me, so terrible and sick, but for three long heartbeats, all I could think was, I should have kept him with me.
I missed him. I missed him, I missed him—oh my God, I missed him so much.
The tent was still and so quiet around us. I brushed a finger against the edge of his blanket’s pilling fabric. Someone had stripped him down to a gray T-shirt. His bare feet stuck out toward me, pale, tinged the faintest blue. I felt my breath go out of me in a single blow. The last time I had seen him, his face had been mottled with bruises and cuts courtesy of one bad escape attempt from East River.
But this was the face I remembered, the one I had seen that first day in the minivan. The one that could never hide a single thought. My eyes drifted aimlessly from his broad, clear brow, along the edge of his strong, unshaved jaw. That full bottom lip, chapped and cracked from the cold. His hair matted and darker—too long, even for him.
The air that filled his chest went out in a terrible, wheezing rattle. I reached out, trying to stop my hand from shaking as it settled against his chest. I wanted to count the space between breaths, reassure myself the shallow movement was still movement. It was only a faint touch, but his eyes blinked open. The sky blue had taken on a glassy quality, fever-bright against his otherwise dirty face. They drifted shut again, and I could have sworn the edges of his lips curled up in a faint smile.
If a heart could break once, it shouldn’t have been able to happen again. But here I was, and here he was, and it was all so much more terrible than I ever could have imagined.
“Lee,” I said, pressing my hand against his chest again, harder. I brought my other hand to his cheek. That was what I was afraid of—they weren’t red from the biting cold. He was hot to the touch. “Liam—open your eyes.”
“There…” he mumbled, shifting under his blankets, “…there you are. Can you… The keys are…I left them, they’re…”
There you are. I stiffened but didn’t move my hand.
“Lee,” I said again, “can you hear me? Can you understand what I’m saying?”
His eyelids fluttered open. “Just need a…”
The pallet creaked as Chubs knelt beside me. “Hey, buddy,” he said, his breath hitching in his throat as he reached over to place the back of his hand against Liam’s forehead. “This is some mess you’ve walked your idiotic self into.”
Liam’s eyes drifted over to him. The tension in his face seemed to drip away, replaced by a goofy expression of pure joy. “Chubsicle?”
“Yeah, yeah, wipe that dumb-ass look off your face,” Chubs said, despite the fact he was wearing an identical look on his own.
Liam’s brow wrinkled. “What…? But you’re… Your folks?”
Chubs glanced over at me. “Can you help me sit him up?”