Never Fade Page 80

Olivia shook her head. “He set up a couple of signals so the message could be broadcast as far west as Oklahoma. I guess he didn’t think it was important to shut the rest down.”

This was the first time we had gathered everyone into the warehouse, and it was the first time I was able to get some kind of a head count. Fifty-one kids stood in a half moon around the small device, riveted by the words and bursts of static.

Finally, when it was clear that Olivia couldn’t stomach the thought of listening to it play through again, she switched it off. The spell of calm and curiosity went with it. Voices sailed up to the rafters, questions were shot back and forth, ricocheting off the water-stained cement walls. They wanted to know who the voice was, where the boom box had come from, why the kids from the White Tent had been moved inside and the fire barrels dragged closest to them.

“Does this prove it to you?” I asked them. “Knox was never the Slip Kid, at least not the real one, and this isn’t East River.”

I was annoyed we even had to do this at all; it was clear that most of the kids had believed what I said the night before, but a few holdouts from the hunting parties were clinging stubbornly to their loyalty to Knox. Maybe it wasn’t even that—I think they were just afraid they wouldn’t get the lion’s share of supplies now that Knox wasn’t there to enforce his bullshit rules.

Or maybe they really had deluded their hearts into believing that this was East River.

I sat next to Olivia on the edge of the stage. With the spread of kids laid out in front of me, I could see other traces of Knox’s cruelty. Burns. That bulging-eyed hunger. The jumps when the wind moaned through the cracks in the roof.

“Is that enough for everyone?” Olivia asked, turning to the kid in white who stood directly in front of the old device. Brett was no longer one of Knox’s little watchdogs. He was a seventeen-year-old, born and raised in Nashville, who had never once stepped foot in a camp and, apparently, was slow to process important news.

“Play it again,” he said, his voice hoarse. “One more time.”

There was a quality to Clancy’s voice—confidence, I guess—that made you listen to every last word when he spoke. I rubbed the back of my hand against my forehead and finally let out a breath when he drawled out the final Virginia.

“How do we even know that’s the Slip Kid?” Brett asked. He had been the one to call in the three other hunting teams and their leaders—Michael, Foster, and Diego. He had also been the one who insisted on watching us when we went through the crushing routine of putting Mason to rest. He hadn’t offered help or comfort, even as the blisters on my palms burst with the effort of trying to break the shovel through the frozen ground.

I understood, though. We were outsiders. We’d broken the system. I was only nervous he’d be so put off and angry about our little revolution, he’d convince the others not to make the supply run. Even now, I caught him tossing glances over his shoulder toward where Chubs knelt, tending to the sick kids.

It was becoming clearer to me that he was a key link in the community’s chain. If he came our way, the others would follow naturally. But we were running out of time. I could tell by the tight press of Chubs’s lips every time he took Liam’s temperature.

“I’m not here to give you anything but the truth,” Olivia said. “I’ve kept quiet about it long enough, thinking he’d get better or change his ways. He didn’t. He just got worse, and if Ruby hadn’t sent him away…I don’t know what he would have done next, but I know none of those kids over there would have survived it.”

“He really traded those kids? Knox said they tried running away, and he took care of them.” This from the same girl who had been draped over Knox’s lap on the day we were brought in. She had been one of the first kids I gave a blanket to out of the storage room. We’d pulled everything out of the cramped building, laying it out in the middle of the warehouse for everyone to see what was left. Some kids, the older ones, had been brave enough to go reclaim their things, but most had stared blankly at us, not understanding.

The murmurs rose again when Olivia nodded. “There were eleven of them, at least since I got here.”

“He did what he had to do to get food,” Michael snarled. “We have to make sacrifices. That’s what’s fair.”

“How is it fair for a sick kid to starve because he’s too weak to work, and because he can’t work, he can never get better?” she shot back. “How?”

Olivia pushed herself up so that she was standing on the platform. She tossed her limp blond hair back and stood straight and tall. “Look—it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been to East River, and I’ve seen all that it can be. I’ve lived through winters there, and summers, and everything in between, and I never went hungry, not once. I never felt scared—It was… It was a good place, because we took care of one another.”

I waited for the ax to fall, to see their faces when she told them how that same little slice of heaven was gone and the person behind it all nothing but a mask. But Brett, who’d clearly been struggling to process and accept all of this, was watching her, the tension in his face relaxing with each word until he was nodding.

“We can have that here,” she continued. “I know we can. There’s room to grow food, ways to set up better security. The Slip Kid doesn’t have to be one person, and East River doesn’t have to be only one place. We can make our own East River.”

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