Never Fade Page 104

All along, President Gray had been insistent in his weekly addresses that Americans were pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and taking care of themselves and their countrymen. He made it a point, time and time again, to nail the United Nations for the economic sanctions they put on the country. No one did business with us, so we would have to do business with one another. No one would send in financial relief, so the few people who hadn’t lost the bulk of their fortunes when the markets crashed were the ones who would have to donate. Americans would help Americans.

The United Kingdom, France, Japan, Germany—they just do not understand the American way, he once said. They weren’t affected by IAAN; they didn’t feel the razor’s edge of our pain. I watched him on one of the TVs in the atrium, back at HQ, his face looking older and grayer than it had just a week before. It looked like he was sitting in the old Oval Office, but Nico had pointed out the glow around the edge of the image, which pointed to the use of some kind of green screen. For a guy with endless opportunities for protection, he hadn’t been back in DC since the first bombings—he just moved from one Manhattan high-rise to the next.

They do not understand that certain sacrifices must be made in times like these, Gray had continued. That we can rise above it, given time and dedication. We are Americans, and we will do it our own way, as we have always done.… And it was like the longer he talked, the more words he used, the less they came to mean anything. It was an endless stream of ideas that were as flat as his voice. All they did these days was spin, and spin, and spin us around in circles until we were too dizzy to listen to what they were really saying.

“What about you?” I asked Liam. “Hungry?”

Time and silence and obvious embarrassment about his earlier breakdown had softened Liam just a tiny bit—first toward Jude, who, despite everything Liam had flung his way earlier, was watching Liam the way a kid might gawk at his favorite baseball player. Then toward Vida, whose charming personality didn’t let anyone ignore her for long. I could see he was still angry with Chubs, but even that was draining away now that the initial shock had faded. I was glad Vida and Jude were getting a glimpse of who he really was—without the strange, battered armor he’d sewn himself into.

“Yeah…whatever is fine.” He didn’t glance up from the small black booklet in his right hand.

I reclaimed my seat next to Chubs, letting him fuss over me without hearing a word of what he was saying. To my right, Jude was building a miniature snowman, using the M&M’s from his own trail mix to make its grin—though it was lopsided enough to look more demented than cute. He was humming a soft, breathy version of some Springsteen song.

“Joseph Lister?” Liam said suddenly, cutting through the silence. “Really? Him?”

Chubs stiffened beside me. “That man was a hero. He pioneered research on the origins of infections and sterilization.”

Liam stared hard at the faux leather cover of Chubs’s skip-tracer ID, carefully choosing his next words. “You couldn’t have chosen something cooler? Someone who is maybe not an old dead white guy?”

“His work led to the reduction of postoperative infections and safer surgical practices,” Chubs insisted. “Who would you have picked? Captain America?”

“Steve Rogers is a perfectly legit name.” Liam passed the ID back to him. “This is all…very Boba Fett of you. I’m not sure what to say, Chubsie.”

Say it’s okay, I thought, remembering the fear in Chubs’s voice when he’d confessed about turning that kid in. Tell him you understand that he had to do this, even if you don’t.

“What?” Chubs scoffed, his voice just that tiny bit too light. “For once, you’re speechless?”

“No, I’m just…” Liam cleared his throat. “Grateful, I guess. That you came looking for me and you had to do…this. I know it wasn’t…I know it couldn’t have been easy.”

“Just shut up and start sucking each other’s faces already,” Vida grumbled, leaning awkwardly against the stump. She would never admit it aloud, but I knew the burns on her back were eating her alive with pain. “I’m trying to make up for the sleep I lost when you started screeching at each other like cats in heat.”

“Miss Vida,” Liam said, “has anyone ever told you that you are positively the whipped cream on the sundae of life?”

She glared at him. “Anyone ever told you your head is shaped like a pencil?”

“That is physically impossible,” Chubs groused. “He’d be—”

“Actually,” Liam began, “Cole once did try to—What?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Chubs said, “apparently the middle of my sentence interrupted the beginning of yours. Do continue.”

“I’m going to guess you probably don’t want to hear about the time he pushed my head through the neighbor’s fence.…”

“Was there a lot of blood?” Vida asked, suddenly interested. “Did you lose an ear?”

Liam held his hands up next to his ears, indicating both were still firmly attached to his skull.

“Then, no,” she said. “No one wants to hear your boring-ass story.”

Night settled in quickly overhead. I tracked the movement of the sun through the trees overhead. The faint orange glow swept across the forest’s snowy floor until it finally faded away into a sleepy gray, and the cold forced us back inside the tent.

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