The air reeks. My gut lurches. I fall to my hands and knees, and what little food I have inside empties onto the train tracks. Burning tears rim my eyes, blurring everything, smearing the images into an opaque haze. Angrily, I wipe them clear, ashamed of my weakness. I feel splinters from the rail ties bristling against my palms. I grasp the largest one, and on impulse shove it deeper into my flesh until the blood flows, running across my wrist and down my forearm.
The pain focuses me, draws me back to myself. Gradually, I become aware of the sounds around me: distant voices muttering, the conflagration roaring from the engine, with jets of flame coughing as new sources of fuel catch fire, crows cawing as they circle the crash site, protesting the smoke, the fire, the noise and—I realize with fresh dread—our presence as well. Below them, the dead lie pallid and exposed, as if waiting for us to leave them to the crows’ ministrations.
The word forms in my mind and makes its way to my lips, but no sound comes out.
I stare at the birds, and cannot allow this to happen.
Becca might still be out there.
Becca must still be alive.
I push myself to my knees, then to my feet. One step, then another. I drag my leaden feet forward. Off the side of the rail bed, down to the remains of the first box car. Matthew appears in front of me. His lips are moving, but I don’t hear him. I look past him at the bodies. There are so many.
And so much blood.
Matthew pushes his forehead against mine until all I can see are his piercing brown eyes. “Katherine?”
My gaze starts to drift back toward the carnage. Matthew holds on, gripping my face with his hands. “Katherine! Focus!”
“Stay with me.”
I feel my heart quicken. I can’t get enough air. “Ho-how do we find her?”
He opens and closes his mouth before answering. “We don’t.”
I stare at him, unwilling to believe what I hear.
“There’s no way she survived this. No one has.”
“No!” I plead.
Above us, thunder rumbles, and the first drops of rain begin to fall. I can hear it sizzling against the ground. The crows turn mid flight and dive for the trees. Matthew swears and taps his earpiece. “All teams fall back!”
I try to move past him, but he grabs my arm and holds me fast. “Where d’you think you’re going?”
I tear my arm from his grasp. He reaches again, and I lash out, raking at his face with my fingernails. He catches my wrist. “Stop it! If it starts to pour, you’re gonna be caught out here with no shelter. And you can bet your arse that Sweepers will drop in as soon as it clears. Is that what you want?”
“I don’t care!”
He releases me then, staring me down. I take two steps away from him, turn and move toward the wreckage. I have to find Becca.
A sudden blow snaps my head forward, and lightning flashes behind my eyes—then darkness.
I awaken to the sound of muffled voices in another room. By the smell alone I can tell that we’ve returned to the Wolfs’ Den. A lumpy pillow lies beneath my cheek, and I’m covered by a ratty blanket. Thin rays of light glow dully through the blacked-out windows, casting pale shadows across the moldy walls and ceiling.
My head throbs. I press a hand to my eyes and sit up, pushing the hair away from my face. A clump of locks falls off, tangled around my fingers. I stare at the blond strands. They crumble in my hand, as if they’ve been burned. I run my hands over my head, tugging free everything that comes off easily. When I’m done, I’ve got a small pile of golden fragments lying on the floor before me. I wonder how bad the damage is.
The hair makes me think of Becca, and a fresh well of tears pushes its way forward. I bury my face in the crook of my elbow and shake silently.
I don’t remember falling asleep again, but I must have. When I awaken next it’s dark in the room and outside as well. Only a thin ray of light pierces the gloom from beneath the door. It’s barely enough to see by. The blanket has been tucked back over my body, and the pile of hair I scooped free is gone. A glass of water and a crust of bread on a plate lay beside my head. I straighten and sip the water, ignoring the bread. Hunger pains gnaw at my stomach, but I’ve no interest in eating.
Wrapping the blanket around my shoulders, I straighten and cross the room. The door is unlocked and swings open silently when I tug on the handle. Outside, the hallway is lit by a single, guttering candle dripping atop a wall sconce, casting inconstant shadows that throb against the floor and walls.
A rumble of voices spill from down the hall. I sniff and pad toward them, pausing as I reach the end of the passage way. I step around the corner and lean against the wall.
Daniel sits on steel chair in the center of the room. His hands are tied behind him, and his ankles have been strapped to the legs of the chair. In front of him, Matthew sits backward across a similar chair, his arms folded across the chair back. Around the edges of the room, Raptors stand or lean against the walls, alternately looking exhausted or bored. Only Maximus and Fox seem remotely interested in what’s going on. I hear Matthew saying, “What else can you tell us about the trains?”
“I’ve told you everything already.”
“Which is next to nothing.”
“Which is what I know,” Daniel shoots back. He doesn’t sound angry, though. Just tired, and a little frustrated.
“So they just go north.”
“I told you. I don’t know.”
“Just this place called ‘The Farm.’”
“But you have no idea what that is.”
“No more than I’ve told you already. The ones they take to the Farm don’t come back.”
“But what do they want them for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Matthew wipes his hand across his mouth. “Okay. Let’s talk about what you do know. Tell me about the trains.”
And so it starts all over again. I wonder how long they’ve been at it. All night, from the looks of it. Probably the whole time I’ve slept. I don’t know what else Matthew expects to glean from Daniel. At some point, he’ll probably start making stuff up, just to get Matthew to lay off. At least, that’s what I’d do.
I don’t have any interest in watching this. In fact, I don’t have much interest in anything anymore. In my heart, I refuse to believe Becca is dead, even though everything I saw at the crash site tells me different.
I didn’t see her body. She wasn’t on that train. She couldn’t have been.
I tell myself this silently, and every time I do, I see the bodies again—the blood and tangled limbs, and those God-awful wide open eyes staring, staring at the heavens. Even as the rain began to fall, hitting their faces, burning their skin with acid, those eyes remained open.
I turn away from the interrogation. I don’t know what Daniel knows or not, but I can’t stay here any longer. Every person in that room reminds me of what I’ve seen.
What I’ve done.
I slip away from the corner and hurry down the hall. In moments, I’m through the door and onto the street outside.
The night air hits me, washing through me like I’m not even there. I feel cold deep inside, almost like I’m the one chilling the night, and not the other way around. I hurry down the sidewalk without looking back, and it isn’t until I’m several blocks away that I finally slow down and start to walk.
It’s my fault. All of it. I killed Becca.
(She’s still alive!)
I took her to that store where the Sweepers lay in wait for us. I abandoned her at the Hut. I convinced the Raptors to stop the train anyway they could. I might as well have taken that tree and shoved it up that engine’s cab myself.
I am to blame.
I repeat this to myself as I walk, an endless cycle of shock, denial, guilt, grief, shock, over and over again.
Maybe an hour goes by before I realize I’ve been talking to myself. I stop and look up, the unfamiliar buildings frowning down upon me from the haven of their anonymous shadows. Beyond them, I can still see the stark glare of the distant signs flashing my image and their ridiculous warning like a beacon in the night. A gust of wind blows cold around me. I fold my arms across my chest. By chance, I glance at the street sign over the intersection. Most of the letters have corroded with neglect, but I can still make out most of the name.
I know this road. It runs through the heart of the city, dividing the Twenty-seventh into the unequal halves of a somewhat lopsided diamond. If I follow it eastward, I’ll cross more streets that I know, including the bridge that butts up against one of the buildings we once squatted in. It was an empty six floor apartment complex with plenty of rooms and adequate ventilation. It even had a working air conditioning unit at one time powered by solar panels on the roof, and a large tower beside them that collected rain water and pigeon droppings. We lived there with nine other families, Daniel’s among them. A tiny community, interdependent and self-sustaining. Almost like a tribe of our own.
The building was cleared by the Sweepers and our tribe scattered two years ago. They rigged the entrances with motion detectors to keep us from coming back. Of course, everyone made it out before the Sweepers arrived, alerted by Mother’s scanner. Her scanner not only picked up and descrambled REGA’s signals, it also gave us a fairly accurate reading of how far out the Sweeper teams were. I’m convinced it was the sole reason we evaded them as long as we did.
Mother keeps the scanner close at hand. I wonder if she’s been monitoring their reports about me.
The thought that she’s out there, waiting for me, wondering what’s happened to her girls is almost too much to bear. The building we live in now isn’t much farther off, only a mile or so past our old haunt. I can be there in minutes if I run.
I don’t think about how she’ll react or what she’ll say. I don’t consider the pain that’ll be in her eyes or the fear in her voice over where I’ve been. I don’t imagine the accusation what’s happened to Becca. None of that matters now. I only want to see her again, and believe her when she tells me it’ll be all right.
I have to hear those words from her, or nothing will ever matter again.
My feet pound over the pavement. The wind whistles in my ears. I run heedless of the dark or whether or not anyone can see me, or the drones in the sky that might be tracking me even now. We’ve evaded REGA before. We can do it again.
Abandoned city blocks sweep by. The world spins beneath me while I stand still, running in place. If I stop, I’ll slip behind and slide off, falling headlong into the nothingness beneath the earth.
Breathless, I stop at the sixth block and turn to the right. I duck between the gash in a chain-link fence and scamper across the empty lot, sidestepping the broken glass and concealed pits we dug last year. I’m in my home turf now, and I could walk this place blindfolded. In fact, on several occasions I’ve done just that, thanks to Mother’s vigorous training. A sad, hopeful smile creeps to the corner of my mouth. How I resented her ceaseless drills and constant nagging, hammering readiness into me like she was forging steel!
I slip behind a loose board barring the doorway to the basement, and I’m inside. Two turns and another false panel later, and I’m at the broken elevator. The doors are large, tarnished chrome. Formidable looking. It’s an illusion. I slip my fingers between them, and the one to the right slides noiselessly out of my way. On the other side, I close it again, dodge the coils of frayed wire that dangle uselessly from the mechanism high above, and reach for the rungs of the ladder that is the only way up.
I’ve climbed this ladder dozens of times, often carrying sacks of pilfered food across my shoulders, following Becca as she inches her way up. It’s usually slow going. Tonight, unencumbered by food and without my sister’s careful steps, I fly up the rungs. My feet barely touch the steps as I hurtle to the second floor. A moment later, I’m out of the shaft and racing down the hall to the room where Mother waits.
The door hangs open. The jamb clearly splintered from a recent impact. I should see this, but it doesn’t register.
I burst into the room. Furniture is upended, and our few possessions and clothes have been strewn around the room. Already I know it’s empty, but I push further in regardless. “Mom!”
Shadows brood on the walls and in the corners, their emptiness the only explanation they offer. My chest heaves as the impact of what isn’t here presses in on me.
My mother is gone.
I’m sitting in the corner now, self-indulgently crying my eyes out. The whole building is vacant, with no sign anywhere that she got out, or sought to leave me a message. In fact, everything around me screams Sweeper raid.
It doesn’t make sense, though! Mother is too careful for this. She wouldn’t have gotten caught by Sweepers. Not with her scanner. Not with the careful preparations we laid together. Not with her endless training.
I feel weak and alone, bereft of every one and every thing that ever mattered to me. Nothing makes any sense any more.
A shard of glass glistens on the floor, just out of arm’s reach. It’s been lying there for some time. I spied it as soon as I dropped into the corner for my cry. Identifying potential weapons in any room I enter has become something of a second nature to me. I’ve ignored the glass, pushing the thought of it out of my mind.
Still it beckons, whispering silently—an offer of sweet, liquid release. Its sharp edges would easily carve an unstoppable flow, and within a few short minutes, everything would be finished. No more pain. No more loneliness. No more loss.
I could do it. It won’t even hurt that bad. Probably a good deal less than what I did to Becca in my stupid attempt at rescue.
Sure I could do it. Maybe it’s even what I deserve.
I reach for it, and then I hear the sound. I freeze. Somewhere on the floor above me, someone is crying.
Thoughts of hurting myself subside. I push to my feet, and go to investigate.
The passage between the second and third floors is a lot easier than from the first to the second. For one thing, the stairs are still intact. They do, however, make a lot of noise if you don’t know where to step.
I inch my way forward, still listening for the sound. For a while I hear nothing, and I’m beginning to think that I imagined the whole thing, hallucinating echoes of my own grief.
But then a whimper breaks the silence, and I know I’m not making this up.
At the top of the stairs, I can see myriad boot prints in the patina of dust that covers the floor. Sweepers, no doubt. But there, just to the side, a smaller print that was not made by any of REGA’s thugs. It might be a girl’s.
Or a child’s.
Leave it to REGA to leave a kid behind to fend for herself. I push to the floor, and momentarily forget where I am. My foot comes down on a loose board, which announces my presence there with a loud creak!
The whimpering stops immediately, followed by a rapid scurrying from the far room. I’m at the door in four quick strides.
Like the door to our apartment below, this entry has been shattered. I don’t know the names of the people who used to live here, but I think it was a single family. The Dad had somehow managed to avoid mandatory service in the war. I don’t know if he was a draft dodger, or if he’d gotten out on some kind of disability. Regardless, they’re not here now.
But someone is. The only question is who.
I gently push the door open, letting it swing wide into the room. Just then, a rock sails through the air and hits the door right where my head would have been, had I been presumptuous enough to enter. I jerk back as it gouges the wood and drops to the floor.
“Don’t come any closer!” a voice screeches.
“I won’t,” I answer. “I just want to talk.”
“Who are you?”
“Katherine. Katherine Holt. I used to live downstairs.”
There’s a moment’s silence, then, “I don’t believe you. Why should I believe you?”
“If I show my face, you gonna pound me with a rock?”
I decide to risk it and move into the doorway, my open hands in front. “I just wanna know what happened. I just want to find my Mom.”
After a heartbeat, a young figure slips out from the shadows. He has curly brown locks over a round, curious face. “I’ve seen you before.”
“Probably. I lived downstairs with my Mom and my sister, Becca.”
He shakes his head. “No. Out there.” He points toward the window at my face still glowing on the tower in the heart of the city. “You’re the one they’re looking for.”
“Yeah. I suppose that’s me. Are you gonna turn me in?”
He shakes his head. “You’re why they came. Why they took my Mom and Dad away. They were looking for you. Weren’t they?”
I press my lips into a thin line. Just what I need: something else to be my fault tonight. “Maybe. But I had nothing to do with it.”
“Are you what they say you are? A terrorist?”
“Do I look like a terrorist?”
He shakes his head.
“The truth is, I’m just want to see my Mom again.”
He turns around and looks out the window. “Guess that makes me a terrorist, too.”
My brow creases. This kid can’t be more than nine years old. I wonder how long he’s been alone here like this. “So how about it,” I say. “Can you tell me what went down here?”
After a moment, he nods, and says quietly, “I’ll tell you everything.”