Never Fade Page 102

With that, he shouldered past Chubs and me and started heading back down the same path to the falls. Chubs glanced sideways at me, but I kept my eyes on Liam as I lowered myself down onto the stump, rubbing absently at the row of stitches on my lower back.

“You really think he wants me going after him this time?” I asked.

Chubs sighed, rubbing his hands briskly over his arms, and followed his friend down the trail. Neither of them got far; if I stood on my toes, I could see where Liam stood, leaning heavily against a tree. At first, it looked like Chubs was keeping a careful distance, not wanting to provoke Liam’s temper again. But he must have said something, apologized, because in the next moment, Chubs was standing close to him, one hand on Liam’s back, the other pointing back in our direction.

“I can’t believe he said all that bullshit,” Vida groused. “This kid has more mood swings than a toddler’s birthday party.”

“I didn’t realize he hated us that much.…” Jude said.

“He doesn’t hate you,” I promised, still watching the boys. “He hates the League. He thinks we’re better off without them—that we don’t need them.”

“Well, he needed us,” Vida said, “right around the time when he was drowning in his own mucus.”

Jude was quiet, even as he watched me watch the others. When I glanced back to ask him what was wrong, he only looked away and busied himself with digging Chubs’s coat out of the tent. I forced myself to sit on one of the tree stumps around the fire pit, my entire brain throbbing in time with my pulse.

It was ten more minutes before Chubs and Liam made their way back over to us. Chubs was still shaking his head, clearly frustrated. Liam kept his own face down, avoiding all of us. The biting wind or embarrassment had turned the tips of his ears red. He kept his hands shoved in his pockets as he shuffled forward, past us, toward the tent.

“He agreed to stay for now,” Chubs said. “He does want to go to California to find Zu, but he doesn’t want any of you to be able to tail us—we’ll probably have to split up before we hit state lines.”

“That kid’s a few colors short of a rainbow, isn’t he?” Vida said, rolling her eyes. Jude huddled in close to the two of them, passing the coat over to a grateful, shivering Chubs. “Be sure to send us a postcard when you get your asses caught and hauled back into a camp.”

“I’ll keep working on him,” Chubs promised. “He just needs to cool down.”

“I know,” I said. “Thank you.”

But I knew it wasn’t going to be enough.


NATURAL FALLS STATE PARK was located in Oklahoma, in what most considered the highlands of the Ozarks—right up in the northeast corner of the state, where it was really freaking cold in December. Chubs gave me a brief tour of the campsite as we made our way back to the others. A few picnic tables here and there, RV parking, a number of hiking trails that looped around one another. The only thing that really mattered was that the campsite was deserted.

“Are you in any pain?” he asked, tossing another branch on the growing fire.

“I’m fine. I just want to know what happened.”

I scooted, giving him half of the stump so he wouldn’t have to sit in the snow, and threw one end of the blanket over his shoulder, drawing him in close. He still smelled faintly of laundry detergent and hand sanitizer, only now I could pick up earthy scents, too—the kind that gave away just how many nights he’d slept on the ground without a shower in between. The poor kid probably felt like he was dying.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath.

They knew, right away, that something was wrong when Olivia’s half of the team came back alone. She and her group of ten had made it back mostly unscathed, with as many supplies as they could carry over the water. Brett didn’t appear for another two hours, struggling through the soaking parking lot with Jude still draped over his shoulder. His team hadn’t fared so well—only five of them had made it back, and I wasn’t included in that total.

“I showed Olivia how to give the kids the medicine the right way, dosed Lee, and then we carried him out to the car. We spent most of the night driving around, trying to pick up an Internet signal to download an update from the skip-tracer network. We all were so sure the PSFs had grabbed you.”

“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.”

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