Liam. Where is Liam?
Through the swirling ash I saw the lines of black uniforms marching the kids from camp down the path to the cabins. I saw a girl thrown out of her cabin and into the dirt, only to be yanked up by her hair. Two kids I recognized from the camp’s security detail raised their guns at the PSFs, who blew them away in a cloud of fire.
“STOP WHERE YOU ARE!”
The air was knocked from my chest as Chubs dropped me to throw that same soldier up into a tree. When his arms circled my chest again, we were moving faster than before.
And then we were falling, tumbling down the hill. Chubs let out a surprised croak as we rolled, picking up brush and embers along the way. The back of my hand smacked against a tree, but I couldn’t see where we were going. The smoke blinded me.
I came to a slow stop at the base of the hill, sinking face-first in the muddy bank. My hands and legs all convulsed as the feeling began to return to them.
I felt hands on the back of my jacket. Chubs dragged me on my back, choking and coughing.
We are going to die. We are going to die. We are going to die.
Rabbits need to accept their fate, rabbits need dignity and above all the will to accept their fate, their fate, their fate, their fate—
The water was freezing and swallowed me whole. Shock cut straight through my limbs, waking them with a slap. I struggled against the water, flapping my arms to break to the surface. The orange-stained sky was waiting as I broke into the night, coughing up water and poisoned air.
Chubs found me again. One hand clung to a wood post, the other reached out for me. The dock, I thought, our dock. I kicked toward him and let Chubs draw me under the cover of the old wood. The helicopters flying overhead beat the lake into a frenzy of waves and patterns. I could barely keep my head above the cold water, but I was alert enough to see the searchlights from above dancing over the lake’s surface.
I kept one arm around Chubs’s shoulders and used my free hand to reach up and grab hold of the dock’s algae-slick supports. He did the same, and waited until the sound of boots and guns had cleared from overhead before whispering, “Oh my God.”
I moved my arm to draw us closer together, and hugged him as hard as my muscles could. We didn’t dare to speak, but I felt him shake his head. He knew what I was trying to say, I knew what he wanted to ask, and neither of us could find the words to choke out amid the smoke and screams.
MY LEGS WERE HALF FROZEN when we were finally brave enough to move. It had been silent for some time—since the sun began to warm the sky. The helicopters disappeared first, then the sound of gunfire. Between the two of us, there was only breathing and whispered fears about what had happened to the others—to Liam.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We split up. He could be anywhere.”
I had wanted to get us out of the water two hours before, but we kept hearing the sound of falling trees and the crackling remnants of the terrible firestorm.
My muscles were so stiff that it took me three times as long to pull myself onto the dock than it normally would have. Chubs collapsed beside me, shaking with each cold breeze that slashed over our wet clothes. We crawled our way back up the path, staying low to the ground until we were sure, positive beyond measure, that we were the last ones left.
Most of the cabins were gone—piles of charred wood and stone. A few still stood, burned out and hollow or missing their roofs. Ash flew around us like snow, collecting on our hair and sticking to our wet clothes.
“We should go to the Office,” I said. “Get inside. We can gather up supplies and then try to go out and search for Lee.”
Chubs’s feet slowed beside me, and I saw for the first time how red his eyes were. “Ruby…”
“Don’t say it,” I warned, my voice sharp. It wasn’t an option. “Don’t.”
I didn’t want to think about Lee. I didn’t want to think about Zu or the other kids who had gotten out of camp. We had to keep moving. If I stopped now, I knew I would never be able to start again.
The front rooms were clear. The boxes and tubs had been removed. I forced Chubs to walk behind me when I slipped into the storage room, but it was empty.
“Maybe they got him,” Chubs said, rubbing his head.
I grimaced. “When have we ever been that lucky?”
Upstairs, the bedroom was perfect. Before he left, Clancy had made his bed, put away the stacks of paper and boxes, and, it appeared, dusted. I ripped the white curtain back, joining the two halves of the room while Chubs fussed with the TV, clicking the power button on and off.
“They cut the electricity,” he said. “Want to bet they cut the water, too?”
I collapsed down in Clancy’s office chair and pressed my face against the dark wood. Chubs tried to peel Liam’s wet jacket off my shoulders, but I wouldn’t let him.
“Thank you for coming to find me,” I said, closing my eyes.
“You dumbass,” said Chubs affectionately. He patted me on the back. “Always running right into trouble.”
When I didn’t move, I felt his hand still on my shoulder. “Ruby?”
“Why did he do this?” I whispered. Everything in this room reminded me of Clancy, from the smell to the way he had organized the books by color on the shelves. “He just threw them all to the wolves.”
Chubs squatted down beside me, his knees cracking like an old man’s. His hand never left my arm, but he seemed to struggle with what he wanted to say next.
“Far be it from me to even approach untangling that hellhole of a mind,” he said, carefully. “But I think he just liked being in control. In charge. It made him feel powerful to manipulate people because he knew outside of this place he was just as vulnerable as the rest of us. There are some people like that, you know? The darkest minds tend to hide behind the most unlikely faces. He put on a good leader act, but he wasn’t like…he wasn’t like Lee—or Jack. He didn’t want to help kids because he believed everyone deserved to feel strong and protect themselves. Clancy was only ever thinking of himself. He would never have jumped in front of another person and…He would never have taken a bullet.”
At that, I sat up. “I thought Jack was shot escaping?”
Chubs shook his head. “Jack was shot protecting me, and he protected me because—” He took a deep breath. “Because he thought I couldn’t protect myself. He didn’t realize how much he had taught me.”