“And if we take a car?”
Kenji blinks. His surprise dissolves into an enormous grin. “Well, shit, Kent, why didn’t you say so sooner?”
“Watch your mouth around my brother.”
James rolls his eyes. “I hear worse stuff than that every day. Even Benny uses bad words.”
“Benny?” Adam’s eyebrows stumble up his forehead.
“What does she—” He stops. Changes his mind. “That doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to keep hearing it.”
“I’m almost eleven!”
“Hey, little man,” Kenji interrupts. “It’s okay. It’s my fault. I should be more careful. Besides, there are ladies present.” Kenji winks at me.
I look away. Look around.
It’s difficult for me to leave this humble home, so I can only imagine what Adam must be experiencing right now. I think James is too excited about the dangerous road ahead of us to realize what’s happening. To truly understand that he’ll never be coming back here.
We’re all fugitives running for our lives.
“So, what—you stole a car?” Kenji asks.
Kenji barks out a laugh. “NICE.”
“It’s a little conspicuous for daytime, though.”
“What’s conspicuous mean?” James asks.
“It’s a little too . . . noticeable.” Adam cringes.
“SHIT.” Kenji stumbles up to his feet.
“I told you to watch your mouth—”
“Do you hear that?”
Kenji’s eyes are darting in every direction. “Is there another way out of here?”
Adam is up. “JAMES—”
James runs to his brother’s side. Adam checks his gun. I’m slinging bags over my back, Adam is doing the same, his attention diverted by the front door.
“THERE’S NO TIME—”
“What do you—”
And we’re running, following Adam into James’ room. Adam rips a curtain off of one wall to reveal a hidden door just as 3 beeps sound from the living room.
Adam shoots the lock on the exit door.
Something explodes not 15 feet behind us. The sound shatters in my ears, vibrates through my body. I nearly collapse from the impact. Gunshots are everywhere. Footsteps are pounding into the house but we’re already running through the exit. Adam hauls James up and into his arms and we’re flying through the sudden burst of light blinding our way through the streets. The rain has stopped. The roads are slick and muddy. There are children everywhere, bright colors of small bodies suddenly screaming at our approach. There’s no point being inconspicuous anymore.
They’ve already found us.
Kenji is lagging behind, stumbling his way through the last of his adrenaline rush. We turn into a narrow alleyway and he slumps against the wall. “I’m sorry,” he pants, “I can’t—you can leave me—”
“We can’t leave you—,” Adam shouts, looking everywhere, drinking in our surroundings.
“That’s sweet, bro, but it’s okay—”
“We need you to show us where to go!”
“You said you would help us—”
“I thought you said you had a tank—”
“If you hadn’t noticed, there’s been an unexpected change of plans—”
“I can’t keep up, Kent. I can barely walk—”
“You have to try—”
“There are rebels on the loose. They are armed and ready to fire. Curfew is now in effect. Everyone return to their homes immediately. There are rebels on the loose. They are armed and ready to fi—”
The loudspeakers sound around the streets, drawing attention to our bodies huddled together in the narrow alley. A few people see us and scream. Boots are getting louder. Gunshots are getting wilder.
I take a moment to analyze the surrounding buildings and realize we’re not in a settled compound. The street James lives on is unregulated turf: a series of abandoned office buildings crammed together, leftovers from our old lives. I don’t understand why he’s not living in a compound like the rest of the population. I don’t have time to figure out why I only see two age groups represented, why the elderly and the orphaned are the only residents, why they’ve been dumped on illegal land with soldiers who are not supposed to be here. I’m afraid to consider the answers to my own questions and in a panicked moment I fear for James’ life. I spin around as we run, glimpsing his small body bundled in Adam’s arms.
His eyes are squeezed shut so tight I’m sure it hurts.
Adam swears under his breath. He kicks down the first door we can find of a deserted building and yells for us to follow him inside.
“I need you to stay here,” he says to Kenji. “And I’m out of my mind, but I need to leave James with you. I need you to watch out for him. They’re looking for Juliette, and they’re looking for me. They won’t even expect to find you two.”
“What are you going to do?” Kenji asks.
“I need to steal a car. Then I’ll come back for you.” James doesn’t even protest as Adam puts him down. His little lips are white. His eyes wide. His hands trembling. “I’ll come back for you, James,” Adam says again. “I promise.”
James nods over and over and over again. Adam kisses his head, once, hard, fast. Drops our duffel bags on the floor. Turns to Kenji. “If you let anything happen to him, I will kill you.”
Kenji doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t scowl. He takes a deep breath. “I’ll take care of him.”
He takes my hand, and we disappear into the streets.
The roads are packed with pedestrians trying to escape. Adam and I hide our guns in the waistbands of our pants, but our wild eyes and jerky movements seem to give us away. Everyone stays away from us, darting in opposite directions, some squeaking, shouting, crying, dropping the things in their hands. But for all the people, I don’t see a single car in sight. They must be hard to come by, especially in this area.
Adam pushes me to the ground just as a bullet flies past my head. He shoots down another door and we run through the ruins toward another exit, trapped in the maze of what used to be a clothing store. Gunshots and footsteps are close behind. There must be at least a hundred soldiers following us through these streets, clustered in different groups, dispersed in different areas of the city, ready to capture and kill.
But I know they won’t kill me.
It’s Adam I’m worried about.
I try to stay as close as possible to his body because I’m certain Warner has given them orders to bring me back alive. My efforts, however, are weak at best. Adam has enough height and muscle to dwarf me. Anyone with an excellent shot would be able to target him. They could shoot him right in the head.
Right in front of me.
He turns to fire two shots. One falls short. Another elicits a strangled cry. We’re still running.
Adam doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t tell me to be brave. He doesn’t ask me if I’m okay, if I’m scared. He doesn’t offer me encouragement or assure me that we’ll be just fine. He doesn’t tell me to leave him behind and save myself. He doesn’t tell me to watch his brother in case he dies.
He doesn’t need to.
We both understand the reality of our situation. Adam could be shot right now. I could be captured at any moment. This entire building might suddenly explode. Someone could’ve discovered Kenji and James. We might all die today. The facts are obvious.
But we know we need to take the chance just the same.
Because moving forward is the only way to survive.
The gun is growing slick in my hands, but I hold on to it anyway. My legs are screaming against the pain, but I push them faster anyway. My lungs are sawing my rib cage in half, but I force them to process oxygen anyway. I have to keep moving. There’s no time for human deficiencies.
The fire escape in this building is nearly impossible to find. Our feet pound the tiled floors, our hands searching through the bleak light for some kind of outlet, some kind of access to the streets. This building is larger than we anticipated, massive, with hundreds of possible directions. I realize it must have been a warehouse and not just a store. Adam ducks behind an abandoned desk, pulling me down with him.
“Don’t be stupid, Kent—you can only run for so long!” someone shouts. The voice isn’t more than 10 feet away.
Adam swallows. Clenches his jaw. The people trying to kill him are the same ones he used to eat lunch with. Train with. Live with. He knows these guys. I wonder if that knowledge makes this worse.
“Just give us the girl,” a new voice adds. “Just give us the girl and we won’t shoot you. We’ll pretend we lost you. We’ll let you go. Warner only wants the girl.”
Adam is breathing hard. He grips the gun in his hand. Pops his head out for a split second and fires. Someone falls to the floor, screaming.
“KENT, YOU SON OF A—”
Adam uses the moment to run. We jump out from behind the desk and fly toward a stairwell. Gunshots miss us by millimeters. I wonder if these two men are the only ones who followed us inside.
The spiral staircase winds into a lower level, a basement of some kind. Someone is trying to aim for Adam, but our erratic movements make it almost impossible. The chance of him hitting me instead are too high. He’s unleashing a mass of expletives in our wake.
Adam knocks things over as we run, trying to create any kind of distraction, any kind of hazard to slow down the soldier behind us. I spot a pair of storm cellar doors and realize this area must’ve been ravaged by tornadoes. The weather is turbulent; natural disasters are common. Cyclones must have ripped this city apart. “Adam—” I tug on his arm. We hide behind a low wall. I point to our only possible escape route.
He squeezes my hand. “Good eye.” But we don’t move until the air shifts around us. A misstep. A muffled cry. It’s almost blindingly black down here; it’s obvious the electricity was disconnected a long time ago. The soldier has tripped on one of the obstacles Adam left behind.
Adam holds the gun close to his chest. Takes a deep breath. Turns and takes a swift shot.
His aim is excellent.
An uncontrolled explosion of curse words confirms it. Adam takes a hard breath. “I’m only shooting to disable,” he says. “Not to kill.”
“I know,” I tell him. Though I wasn’t sure.
We run for the doors and Adam struggles to pull the latch open. It’s nearly rusted shut. We’re getting desperate. I don’t know how long it’ll be until we’re discovered by another set of soldiers. I’m about to suggest we shoot it open when Adam finally manages to break it free.
He kicks open the doors and we stumble out onto the street. There are 3 cars to choose from.