Never Fade Page 139

Those agents…the kids…their bodies that we had to leave behind, whose families would never know what happened to them, who didn’t get a chance to escape, who might have still been clinging to life when—

The sob stuck in my throat, and I couldn’t cough it free. I wasn’t crying, but my body was shaking violently, hard enough that Liam wrapped his arms around me from behind. I felt his heart racing against my back, his face as he buried it against my neck.

He was solid and here; all of us, alive. Alive, alive, alive. We had made it out. But still, I couldn’t stop seeing it, the way the ceiling must have caved, the falling glass, the floor that suddenly wasn’t there, the darkness sweeping down.

Focus, I commanded myself. There are still kids behind you. You’re still not out of this. Don’t let it take you, too. Liam, Chubs, Vida, and Jude. Liam, Chubs, Vida, and Jude.

“Just breathe, just breathe,” Liam said, his own voice shaking.

The steady pattern of it, the rise and fall of his chest beside me, was steadying enough that my grip on his side relaxed. He pressed his lips against my forehead, more out of relief than anything else, I thought.

“We’re okay,” I said. “We’re okay. Just keep going.”

My mind caught the words and carried them forward in the dark. Just keep going. The longer we walked, the harder it became to tell the difference between my fear, my anger, and my guilt. They were a swollen mass in my chest, a rising sore. Someone ahead of us was either laughing or sobbing; the noise was so unhinged, I couldn’t tell the difference.

The biggest fear, the one that kept my heart firmly lodged at the base of my throat and my knees sliding forward, forward, forward as the cement gripped at my shoulders, was knowing that, at any point, the whole thing could come down on top of us.


It should have been comforting to feel Liam pressing close behind me. We finally reached a section of the tunnel that was whole and where we could stand at our full height. It felt better to be moving that way, like it was a sign we were almost through. But it was still so impossibly dark. No matter how many times I tried to look back, I couldn’t see anything past the vague shape of Liam’s face.

Keep going—Head down, arms in, only going forward, forward, forward as fast as I could move my feet. I lost track of time. Five minutes passed, ten minutes, maybe. Fifteen. The mildew smell changed to an all-out rancid stink as the drains constricted again. I kept my hands out on either side of me, letting them glide along the slick, dripping cement. Liam let out a strangled grunt as he cracked his head against the sloping ceiling, and a second later, I had to duck.

The standing water was thick and reeked of rotting things and mold. I heard someone start to retch, and it was like it always was—once one person started, everyone else’s stomach was heaving, too.

I clawed blindly at my face, trying to clear the hair that stuck in clumps to my cheeks and neck. It snuck up on me, the suffocating—the thick, sticky air seemed to vanish, the tunnels constricted, and I couldn’t see a thing, not one damn thing.

We are not going to die down here. We were not just going to disappear.

I tried to stay focused on the rhythmic, slow shuffle of skin against concrete and the way the water seemed to recede with the ceilings. How was it possible that the tunnel felt so different heading out than it had coming in? I felt it widen again, dipping down; it might have been my eyes adjusting to the dark, but I could have sworn it was getting lighter.

I wasn’t imagining it. The change had been gradual at first, a hint of a glow, but it was bright enough now that I could see Liam’s surprised face as it turned down to meet mine. The tunnel filled with sounds of relief. I stood on my toes, trying to see over the heads in front of me. The smallest pinprick of light was staring us down the long tunnel, and it grew just that tiny bit larger with each step. A sudden burst of energy kicked my legs up, moving them faster, and faster, and faster until I could see the ladder, the figures climbing up out of the crippling dark and into the light.

For a long time, there was nothing beyond the smoke.

It hung around us in a curtain of graying brown, warmed only by the setting sun. The debris that had been blasted in the bombing still hadn’t settled. It floated down through the open door, a fine, crushed cement that swirled as we stirred it. My arms shook the entire climb up the ladder. Cole was waiting for us at the entrance to the tunnel, gripping my arm and hauling me out before turning back to get Liam.

“Goddammit, you stupid kid!” he cried, shaking him. His voice was hoarse, and he seemed to choke on each word. “You scared the shit out of me! When I say stay behind me, I mean stay behind. Why didn’t you just leave when I told you to? Why can’t you just listen to me!”

He wrapped his arms around his shoulders, and Liam, in all of his relief and exhaustion, let him. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other as they stood in front of the door, but Vida’s “Some of us are still trying to get out, ass**les!” shattered the moment.

Another agent guided us down the embankment of the Los Angeles River, to the spot where the others were huddled beneath the center of the bridge overhead. I pulled my shirt up over my nose and mouth to avoid breathing it in, but the chalky taste was already in my throat. I had already swallowed the day’s poison down, letting it mix with the smoke and bile.

The sights of Los Angeles and the warehouse district were too much for any of us to take. No one was willing to turn around and face the wreckage in the distance. We knew, all of us, that the city had been attacked, but to actually see the burning skyscrapers on the horizon, watch the black smoke funnel out and up and into the clear blue sky, was sickening.

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