“Almost,” I whispered, but didn’t think he could hear me.
Even before they found a connection to hook into, Cate had sent a message through the Chatter. It turned out that when you got snapped by a profiler, the device the PSF snapped in my face, it not only brought your listing up for the PSF or skip tracer’s viewing pleasure. It also automatically updated that same listing with time and location stamps on both the PSF and skip-tracer networks.
That’s how Rob knew to look in that area, I thought.
“But how did you know to look for Rob in the first place?”
“We didn’t at first. He was under a fake name.” Chubs glanced down at where his fingers were laced together. “He updated the skip-tracer network to say that you were recovered. Once that happened, I could look up his profile—see what car he’d registered and the license plate. We weren’t too far from the area, but I’m still amazed we kept it together long enough to find you. After we found you we came here—we’ve been camped out for almost four days.”
“Thanks,” I said after a small stretch of silence, “for not giving up on me.”
“You seriously thought we would?” he asked. “That we wouldn’t have done everything and anything we could to find you?”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “It’s just…” Maybe it would have been better if you had let them take me. The buzz in my ears drowned out the world, and I felt the first touch of panic creep back in. “If he’s this unhappy with us around, it might be for the best to split up.”
“No. It doesn’t make sense,” Chubs said. “I can’t keep up with his moods. He was freaking out when we found you—it was a full-on meltdown. I’ve never seen him like that before. Maybe some part of him figured out you guys were League before you told him…that’s the only thing I can think of that would explain why he’s acting like this. The Liam I knew wouldn’t have wanted to abandon a bunch of kids if he thought we all could get along—I mean, you’re proof of that. But it’s like, ever since he started feeling better, he’s been jumpy. Irritable.”
“He has no reason to trust us,” I said. “I understand why.”
“Look, I’m not going to choose,” Chubs said. “I can’t let him go on his own again, but I’m not going to leave you, either. So you have to find a way to make this work, got it? You have to get him to trust you. Wait—why are you shaking your head?”
“I meant what I told him,” I said. “It wasn’t the full truth, but it’s the best I can do. I’m going to help you guys get wherever it is you decide you want to go, then head back to Cole to finish this.”
Chubs’s grip on me tightened, but it was the shock and hurt and fear he let off that choked me up while I struggled to speak.
“You know…you know how important this is. I feel like if I’m not there to make sure it happens, if I don’t see for myself what caused this”—I motioned between us—“I’ll never forgive myself. If I can’t…if I can’t be around Liam anymore, I can at least do that for him. That was his dream, remember?”
“No,” he whispered, “I can’t do this again—it can’t be the way it was with Zu, the way it was the last six months. I know it’s selfish, but I have to know you’re safe, and you’ll never be safe with them. At least think about that, okay? Give me a chance to change your mind, too.”
No, I thought, giving him a weak, reassuring smile. Even if Liam didn’t look at me with such hate in his eyes, even if he had kissed me down by the falls, none of it would have mattered. I wasn’t the blank slate I’d been when Liam, Chubs, and Zu found me. I had done things I was ashamed of then, sure, but now I’d gone to a place I couldn’t come back from, and there was too much light in them to drag them there with me.
“We’ll see,” I said, squeezing his fingers, “we’ll see.”
Despite the fact he had no maps and no way of downloading any kind of update from the skip-tracer network to navigate us, Chubs still pushed to have us move out of the park as quickly as we could. We’d have one more night to rest, then start driving west again first thing in the morning.
I doubted it was because he was in any hurry to get to California. Chubs had reached his absolute breaking point for being able to handle this kind of cold—both physically and on an emotional level. I wasn’t sure what Vida was going to do if she got one more lecture about hypothermia, but I imagined it probably involved holding Chubs, the fire pit, and one well-aimed push. She hadn’t figured out that it wasn’t himself that he was worried about.
The cold weather was wreaking havoc on Liam’s lungs. He was huffing, and puffing, and hacking, and coughing every time he tried to increase his pace above a hobble. Instead of trying to gather the scattered supplies, he crouched down next to Jude and helped him stoke the fire, debating whether Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. was a better album than Born to Run.
Finished with that, they went to the backseat of the SUV to fish out more layers to pile on. Without a second thought to it, Liam reached down for his old leather jacket and slipped it on over the thinner dark gray one.
“But that’s—” Jude started to protest. I shook my head sharply in his direction and ducked away before Liam could turn and see what caused him to clam up. I made it a point to give him space after that, going right when he’d go left, always keeping the fire between us. By the time Jude started hinting strongly he needed to be fed dinner, Liam seemed to have relaxed. Enough, at least, to crack a smile when Chubs tripped and went down with a squawk, sending the food rations in his arms flying.
“I was wondering what happened to this stuff,” I said as I helped him gather up the foil packets again.
“We had to leave most of it behind,” Chubs said as we made our way back to where the others were hunkered down around the fire pit. “It was mostly what we could stuff in our pockets. It’s been enough—okay, who wants what?”
“I’ll take one of the Chinese fig bars if you see one,” Jude said.
“The French trail mix,” Vida said. “Silver packet.”
“Did anyone ever figure out where this stuff came from?” I asked. “Or why it was just there, going to waste?”