Never Fade Page 92

The sky overhead was blue behind the patches of towering white clouds. I could just make it out through the naked gray arms of the trees. I drew my brows together, taking in the sharp stink of body odor. There was a grunt of effort as a large, rough surface passed under my back. Then it was smooth earth, a dip that came quickly, without warning, like the initial dive of a descending airplane. My stomach and eyes shifted down.

The man wore a deep red puffer jacket, one that had been worn and frayed by the decades. The hem by his hip was torn, the white stuffing pushing through the hole. His jeans were too tight. They protested every time he turned to get a better grip on my leg.

“D-Don’t—” My voice was gone. I tried to bring my other leg up to kick his grip off, but none of my limbs were responding.

The man must have felt me strain, because he glanced back over his shoulder. “Awake, are you?”

I was seeing two of him, then three, then four. Focus, I ordered myself. The guy looked about as threatening as a mall Santa—he wore his beard long and patchy, but the gut was there. Dad used to read me books that talked about the twinkle in Santa’s eye and his rosy red cheeks. Well, this one’s eyes were glinting, all right. With dollar signs.

“Try anything funny and I’ll snap that neck of yours. You hear me?”

Move. I tried to lift my hips. Instructor Johnson had taught me how to break out of a hold like this, several times over. I tried feeling for a rock I could throw at the tender spot where the base of his skull met his neck, for the Swiss Army knife that was no longer stashed in my boot. My body wasn’t responding. I had hit my head—not that hard, right? The night before was cast in shadow. I remembered the long walk, Jude resetting the security system, all of those boxes and crates stamped with flags and strange languages. And Knox. Knox had been there, hadn’t he?

The headache exploded behind my eyes, and I squeezed them shut again. The sun was shining—why was I so, so cold?

“There’s someone here who’ll be super interested in meeting you,” the man continued. “Came nosing around this morning askin’ questions ’bout whether or not we’d seen any kids. Said there was a big bust up by the airpark, a few might have gotten away. And I thought to myself, Joe Hiddle, this man could be crazy or he could be right. So I went out hunting, like usual, and what do I find!”

I dropped my hips, trying to create as much drag as possible going down the next hill. Maybe I couldn’t fight back, but I wasn’t going to make it easy on him.

“What,” he began, twisting my ankle at an unnatural angle, “did I just say?”

I used what little mobility I had in my neck to crane it forward as we came down that last hill. Tents, more than I had even seen back at the warehouse. Most were white or printed with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. ARMY. A jolt of terror went through me, powering one solid kick to the back of the man’s kneecap. The burst of pain that ripped down my right side was nothing compared to the man kicking me square in the ribs.

I went quietly because I had to. That barest hint of energy I had felt dripped out of me, and I could almost imagine it trailing behind us like a smear of blood.

“Sandra!” the man shouted. “Sandy, that guy still here?”

There were feet and faces around us from the moment we entered the line of tents. The smells here came in bursts—smoked meat, dirty laundry, stale water. It was all mud around the entrances of the tents, but inside were rugs and candles and piles of old mattresses and bedding.

“Joe, is that…?” someone began.

“Back off, Ava,” Joe warned. “I found her. Sandra!”

“He just left,” came another woman’s voice, her accent almost undecipherable. “I’ll go see if his truck is still on the highway. You—you just keep that one here.”

My sweatshirt had pulled up in the back, and the mud there felt as slimy as it was freezing. Something—someone—touched my left hand with the side of his foot. “Is she… Is that kid…”

A middle-age woman’s flushed face leaned down close over mine. She pulled one of her mismatched gloves off and started to put the back of her hand to my forehead. Joe all but growled at her, forcing her back a step. My eyes drifted shut again, and by the time I had worked them open, there were other faces in place of hers. It was a gallery wall of unrestrained emotions. Portraits of weary fear, landscapes of sadness, miniatures of curiosity. I tried shifting again, but I couldn’t ease the gripping pain in my head.

“She’s shaking,” one of the men said. I saw his yellowing Nikes, not his face. “Let me get her a blanket.”

“Is she sick? She’s so pale!” A woman this time. “God, she can’t be older than sixteen—look at her, Joe. You’re going to give her to that man?”

Here’s the thing about guns—they were like the talking stick my first grade teacher used to pass around during class. Whoever held it was the only one allowed to speak. “Get back to your damn tents.” Joe’s gun was a shiny silver revolver, and no one was willing to test to see how many bullets were left in the cylinder.

A woman—Sandra—let out a shriek of “Here he is! Here he is!” and it was carried straight to us by the wind. The unmistakable sound of a car engine followed, the growl of its engine louder and louder as it drove around the sunken perimeter of the tent city.

I licked my chapped lips, trying to drag in a deep breath that wouldn’t come. This man, whoever he was, was like a stone thrown into a lake of still water. Even the people who had questioned Joe scattered. My leg was dropped back to the ground. The blood that rushed back into it felt like it was filled with glass.

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