Never Fade Page 30

“Beta Team is a good group,” I said finally. “They’ll treat you right as long as you follow their orders. Alpha doesn’t give a damn, so try to make sure you’re paired with another kid who can watch your back. Delta’s run by Farbringer, and he likes kids.”

“Yeah?” Jude said, but the life had gone out of his voice. He was studying the stretch of black fabric clinging to his knees. “Ruby,” he said, so softly I almost didn’t hear him over the roar of the plane. “Did Rob pick me for this Op so he could kill me?”

I met Rob for the first time right after Cate had gotten me out of Thurmond. The two League agents had planned to rendezvous at an abandoned gas station, both bringing with them any kids they’d managed to free. He had claimed he couldn’t get his batch of kids out and had to escape alone to avoid being detected by the camp controllers. Cate, who was so tangled up in him, had believed it instantly. But one slip, one careless touch, and his mind had opened to mine. I had seen the truth of it.

On the nights I didn’t stay awake terrorized by thoughts of what had happened to Liam and Chubs and Zu and the girls I had left behind at Thurmond, Rob’s memories came slithering in. I would see the hooded boy in the ground, his entire body convulsing as the agent shot him at point-blank range. I saw the girl’s face, saw her lips move to beg for mercy, and the way the Dumpster had rattled when Rob had thrown her body into it. And by the end, I would wake up feeling sick, not just for the loss of life, but because it had felt like I had killed them myself. Talk about knowing someone’s shadow—try being his shadow.

“I can’t stop thinking about Blake. I think about him every day, all the time. We should have told someone,” he said. “Jarvin and the others would be kicked out—the League would go back to the way it was before…before all this happened. They’re the bad ones. If you get rid of them…”

That wasn’t always how infections worked. Sometimes the rot spread too far to be removed with one single cut. Rob and Jarvin and the others might only be a few of many. I was so tempted to tell him the truth then, everything Cole had told me, but panicking him just to make a point was by far the stupidest course. If this was going to work, he couldn’t know what the plan was in advance. I couldn’t give him any chance to slip up and give us away to Rob and the others.

“You’ll be fine,” I told him. “I’ll be there the entire time.”

He was shaking; I don’t think he heard a single word that left my mouth. “How could they do this? What did we ever do to hurt them—why do they hate us that much?”

I closed my eyes at the sound of Rob’s booming laugh cutting through the air.

“Why don’t you try to sleep?” I said. “We’re going to be flying for a few more hours. There’s no reason we both have to be tired.”

“Okay,” he said. “I just wish…”

“You wish what?” I asked.

“Can we keep talking instead?” He confessed it to his knees, awkwardly drawing his feet onto his seat.

“You really can’t stand sitting in silence, can you?” I asked. “It actually kills you a little bit, doesn’t it?”

It was a long time before he replied, as if he were trying to prove me wrong. “No,” he said. “It’s just that I don’t like the quiet. I don’t like the things I hear there.”

Don’t ask. Don’t ask. Don’t ask. “Like…what?”

“I hear them fighting, mostly,” he whispered. “I hear him screaming at her and the way she used to cry. But it’s…I hear it through closed doors. My mom, she used to put me in her closet, you know, because his temper was better when I was out of sight. I don’t remember what she sounded like normally, just the way she sounded then.”

I nodded. “That happens to me sometimes.”

“Isn’t that so weird? It’s been, like, eight years, and I hear them, and I think of how dark and tight it was, and it feels like I can’t breathe. I hear them all the time, like they’re chasing me, and I can’t escape them, not ever. They won’t let me go.”

I knew he was exhausted, and I knew firsthand what exhaustion did to your mind. The tricks it played on you, just as your defenses were dropping one by one. Ghosts don’t haunt people—their memories do.

“Will you talk until I fall asleep? Just—I mean, just until I fall asleep. And can you maybe never tell anyone about it, like, ever?”

“Sure.” I leaned my head back against the seat, wondering what on earth I could say to calm him down.

“There’s this story I used to really like as a kid,” I began quietly, just loud enough that he could hear it over the roar of the plane’s engines. “About these rabbits. Maybe you’ve heard it before.”

I started at the beginning, the escape. Fleeing through the forest, meeting a new danger at every turn, the desperation that came with trying to protect everyone when you could barely take care of yourself. The boy with the bottomless dark eyes, the betrayal, the fire, the smoke. And by the time I realized I had told him my own story, Jude was fast asleep, tucked firmly into dreams.

Here’s the thing about places like Boston: no matter what they were before, no matter the look of the population, no matter what businesses had flourished once, no matter what great person was born there, the city that people knew was gone. It was the loved one you saw in a rearview mirror, growing smaller and smaller the more time and distance you put between you, until even its shape became unrecognizable.

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