“What do you mean?” Chubs demanded.
“Jackson Pollock don’t got nothing on that windshield,” she said simply.
“You didn’t…” Jude began.
“No,” she said, and I could hear the regret in her voice, “the trees and steering wheel get credit for that masterpiece.”
“You know Jackson Pollock?” Chubs’s hands actually stilled, just for that instant.
“Surprise, ass**le,” she said, “I can f**king read.”
“Chubs!” It sounded like the word had been ripped raw from Liam’s throat. It was naked with fear, and my heart actually lurched at the sound of it. “Tell me she’s okay!”
“O…kay,” I rasped out.
I felt myself drifting, gliding out on a wave of numbing ice that stole the feeling from my hands, my legs, my spine. All it took was Chubs pressing the tip of the needle to my skin for the pain to reach up and drag me back down into the dark.
IT FELT FAMILIAR AND WRONG ALL AT ONCE, waking up. Like one memory had become tangled up in another, and both were struggling under the strange weight of déjà vu. Solid, flat, cold—I was on the ground. Hard, solid earth. It was all damp earth and something uniquely human that filled my nose, not the fake lemon smell from Black Betty’s past life as a cleaning service’s van. It wasn’t the drone of a radio host reporting the day’s horrible news drifting to my ears, but the steady, deep breathing of four others fixed fast into sleep.
Finding consciousness was like hauling myself up from the bottom of a thick-slimed swamp. It was only when I broke the surface that the pain hit me. It started in my lower back and shot up and down my right side, tightening every muscle and tendon to the point of snapping along the way. All at once, the ground, the blankets, the dark became too much. I felt the phantom grip of the leather band around my head, tasted the bitter tang of metal in my mouth. I realized then it was possible to choke on a memory, to feel it close tight and fast around your throat. Leather. All I could smell was leather.
Chubs’s tent, I realized. It had been real. They had found me.
Jude, Vida… I pushed myself up, ignoring the protest of stiff muscles and the wailing pain in my back. There they were, sleeping lengthwise over our heads, practically on top of one another. Chubs. Liam.
A freezing wind blew up the back of my shirt, but it felt refreshing compared to the stale, warm air inside the tent. I had the dim thought that I needed to find my boots, but it didn’t seem half as important as just getting away. Finding a place to be alone, to release the scream working itself up from my core. Just ahead were the smoldering remains of the campfire at the center of the clearing—an old, public campsite, maybe—and a clothesline scattered with shirts and sweatshirts that were strung up and frozen into stiff clumps.
It felt colder than it had been when we first arrived in Tennessee. They had found a flat clearing to park the car, but a quick glance around told me the hills here were more ragged than they had been before. The dead grass was finer, longer, buried beneath old, browning clumps of stone. Definitely not Nashville, then.
I took several deep breaths in through my mouth and circled back around to the pile of charred wood and ash that had been their campfire. Chubs had left a canteen out, but both it and the plastic water bottle next to it were empty.
My socks were wet and grimy, slick against the mud. I stumbled forward, muttering a few choice cuss words under my breath when my legs decided to give out. It took me longer than I would ever admit to reach the SUV, but once I careened into the passenger side, I had a chance to catch my breath. I had left a water bottle under the front seat. I remembered feeling the plastic butting up against my heels every time Chubs made a sharp turn. I just needed a sip. One single sip to get rid of the disgusting taste coating my tongue.
The doors were locked. I stepped off the car rail, shaking my head as I moved back toward the fire pit. There was a thin gray wool blanket draped over a well-used tree stump, and I claimed it, wrapping it tightly around my shoulders.
We got no place for you, here or anywhere. The only place for you is in those camps or buried with the rest of them.
I shook my head hard to clear the unwanted voice, throwing my loose hair around my cheeks and shoulders. It felt clean. Soft, even, against my cheeks. I slipped a hand out from under the blanket and felt for its straggly ends. No leaves or tangles. Someone had brushed it.
Jesus, I thought, wrapping the blanket tighter around me. That guy… He had dragged me after him, had dragged me straight to—
My throat ached. I could hear the blast of static stronger now over the rising pulse in my ears. For one terrifying second I was sure Rob was back, that he’d brought a White Noise machine with him. But this sound was low and distant, not at all painful.
I followed its rushing noise out from the clearing, spotting the old hiking trail immediately. Snow blanketed the uneven ground, hiding sharp rocks and unforgiving holes, but I saw the curved path, clear of trees. I braced my hands against the steady bodies of white oaks and maples. The sun was just beginning to touch the horizon; the first rays of pale yellow light fanned out against the snow.
By the time I made it down to the pool of water, I felt stupid for ever having thought it could be something so terrifying and awful—something as unnatural as White Noise.
Waterfalls. Tumbling, roaring waterfalls in what looked like a miniature canyon. The water jettisoned over the curling lips of the rocky cliff, branching out into smaller falls alongside the bigger one. The dark rocks circled in around the pool and leaned forward, almost like a body hunching its shoulders against the cold.
The path connected with what looked like a wooden deck, which had been built out over the edge of the small body of water. I stepped over a small creek that had split off from the pool, breaking the crust of thin ice that lined either side of it.
The deck was damp, covered in scattered patches of snow. I brushed aside a small glittering pile of it and planted myself right at the edge, where I’d have the best view of the wild, roaring water as it came tumbling down.
The waterfall cast a fine mist over the pool’s glinting surface. I reached down and scooped the blisteringly cold water into my hands and splashed it against my face.
I slipped a hand up under the blanket and the sweatshirt, trying to find the one source of white-hot pain. The lump of neat, even stitches only stopped stinging when my stiff, icy fingers were there to numb it.