Read an Excerpt
THE WATER FEELS THICK, SILKY ALONG MY SKIN. I TREAD easily, the way a bird might fly, lazily pushing down against the current. Even with Odessa’s ski jacket on, the water’s welcoming. It’s buoyant and warm and massages me softly.
Rob and Jo float nearby, and every few moments one of their hands brushes against mine as we tread, like we need to remind one another that we’re really here. I open my mouth to let some water in and swallow, tasting copper, like the earth, like our blood. My body shivers, craving more.
We’ve been in the water for a while now. Ten minutes maybe. We haven’t said a thing. It’s so quiet, like we’re drifting in a vacuum. The shore isn’t so far away, but I’m reluctant to move. I think I could stay here for days.
The basin we swim in is large, about the size of the lake that borders my prep school. I can’t believe that only two days ago I swam across that lake—under three inches of ice—and nearly froze to death. That feels like a lifetime ago now, though not a good lifetime. This place is something new and impossible and it makes everything I’ve ever seen or believed seem smaller. On the shore, some hundred yards away, there’s a haze of light, as if the ground itself is glowing. There are trees, plants, a full vibrant green forest leaning as far over the water as possible, as if the water itself were the sun. I peek above me, and can only see black. The darkness is complete and presses down on us. There’s no ceiling, no stalactites dripping over our heads. No stars twinkling through the haze.
Then there are the gates. Giant, beautiful, unreal. They jut from the foliage like Roman ruins. They must be two hundred feet high, suspended between massive gold pillars, the opening in a wall that I can now see stretches off in either direction and curves away from us, seemingly endless. The gates are open, beckoning, and between them are hulking shapes I can’t make out, the light is so weak here. A city, maybe? What else could it be? My mind is having a hard time processing the shapes, the gates, the endless room. It’s just too unreal, this whole thing. But what my mind believes doesn’t really matter because right now the light from the gates is real, and it shines brighter than the brightest building in my hometown of Fenton, Colorado, or the world.
“What is this place?” Rob says, finally breaking the quiet. A small part of me was enjoying that silence, that pause we were having. His voice floats along the water and disappears. It awakes the memory of why we’re here, of the lunatic we’re running from.
“I’m not sure,” I say, looking at my two best friends. They’re watching me, trusting. And why not? I guess I’m the one who brought them here. They actually dove into the well, following me, risking their lives on a hunch of mine that we should swim down and down and down through the water; now we’ve ended up floating in this underground cavern. I sort of can’t believe how amazing they are, how lucky I am to have them.
“How did you know what to do?” Jo asks. “You knew we’d show up here?”
I shake my head and picture the map, the wall of stone covered in paintings that my dad found all those years ago, with its vibrant colors and images and hints. The diving figure, the flowing well, the gates. “Not here specifically. Somewhere, yes. There were a few clues on the map.”
“What, clues to get here?” Jo replies.
“Remember that pale-skinned figure on the map? The one that was upside down and near the well?”
Jo laughs incredulously. “You jumped into the well because of that?”
I make a face. “We’re here, aren’t we?”
“You realize that we swam down, right?” Rob points at the blackness above. “When you swim deeper into water, you shouldn’t break the surface. This isn’t natural.”
I look once more at the endless space above us, like a vacuum of light.
“Yeah, this shouldn’t be possible,” I reply. We were being chased by Sutton and his men, running through the Cave and now I don’t know if we’re better off at all, or if we can even get back. “Come on,” I say, and begin swimming toward the shore. The winter gear I wear is bulkier than the drag suit I have to use in practice, but I’m soon far ahead of the others. I can’t help but swim fast, years of training refuse to go to waste. So it’s me who steps on the shore first, lifesaving water gushing from my pockets and squishing out of my boots. There’s no sand, only a very fine moss that carpets the earth. I kneel and rub my hand gently on the surface, and it’s so soft I almost want to take off my boots and go barefoot.
“I wish Odessa were here,” Rob says, splashing up from the water and grabbing at an overhanging leaf. It’s wide and thick, like a giant piece of iceberg lettuce. Almost as pale too. “She’d know what all this plant life was.” I try not to think of how Odessa and Jimmy might be captured already. Prep school townies, they escaped Westbrook with us, and now they’re stuck back in the Cave with soldiers-for-hire. Maybe they stand a chance; they’re fully grown adults now that they’ve contracted the virus and it’s aged them some. Weird how just one drop of water was enough to kill the virus in them. One drop was enough to halt their premature aging, saving them from dementia and a wrinkled death, like what happened to our teachers. To Jo’s dad. Weird to think that there’s probably enough water in this lake to eradicate all illness in the world.
“I doubt anyone would know the plant life down here,” Jo says, taking off her jacket to wring it out. The nylon doesn’t make it easy, but she has the right idea. My jacket weighs a waterlogged ton.
I remember the story Dad told us about finding the well as a student some thirty-four years ago, spelunking on a class excursion. He tripped into the water, the same water that we just dove through, and he found out that it that heals everything it touches.
“Do we get to name everything we see?” Rob asks, wiping his face. His jet-black hair is plastered to his forehead, as if he gelled it to look that way. He blinks water away from his eyelashes, then pulls out his Warbys from an inner pocket and tries to put them on. Of course, with the water coursing through his body, his vision is perfect now and he doesn’t need them. He gives a goofish smile and puts them away.
We all stop and look into the underbrush. There’s a hum to the air, and the branches sway; something, maybe a bird, flits. I’m suddenly aware of the sound of nature, as if I hadn’t been hearing it before. Rustling underbrush, quiet chirps. A bug flies slowly by, its butterfly wings familiar but its cicada-like body an odd fit. There’s an entire ecosystem deep in the earth, one that’s never been seen before. It’s thick and impenetrable, like a rain forest, dense enough that standing here below the trees makes it difficult to see the wall and the gates.
“Check this out,” Jo calls, squatting near the base of a tree. She’s tied up her hair already, looking at ease even in her scrubs. It’s like she’s back in our dorm, pointing out some mistake on my calculus homework. If my dad had died two days ago, I’d be a mess. She’s not even fidgeting her fingers the way she does when she’s nervous or distracted. I know she has to be feeling it, that she’s purposefully pushing it away, but I don’t see it at all. Man, she’s impressive.
She’s hovering by a patch of tall flowers with long, shivering petals, their stems no thicker than a millimeter each. Almost like spaghetti, like tiny Medusa heads. The petals are white, incredibly white, enough so that they actually shine. Looking around, farther into the trees, I can make out another dozen clumps, some flowers even dangling like vines from the branches, illuminating the woods. They make their own sun down here.
Jo reaches out and gently plucks one from the ground, and immediately the remaining flowers in the patch go dark, shockingly fast, as if hurt. But the one Jo holds keeps its light. On a hunch, I squeeze my wet hair and put my moist fingertip to the broken stem she’s holding, and as the flower shines brighter, I can’t help but smile. I’m suddenly ridiculously grateful for these flowers and the light they bring. How awful it would have been to arrive here completely blind.
“What now?” Jo says, waving her flower around her head in fascination. She’s gone a few days without makeup, and she looks like a softer version of herself. Her lips are a pale pink and fade into her skin, her eyes still intensely blue, but without mascara, they seem more dominant.
They both look at me like I’ve got the answer. Sure, the map gave me clues, but I wouldn’t have had the guts to jump into the well if not for Sutton and his men chasing me. They’re probably up there right now, searching for us. My stomach churns, thinking of Brayden, how he might be there with them. What if he had found me, if he’d looked me right in the eyes and then shouted for Sutton? I don’t like the feeling, the churning, because it betrays me as much as he betrayed us. Brayden, new to Westbrook, the boy who escaped with us, who helped us. Brayden, with his scarred chin and his sly smile. I blink away the thought. He’s back in the Cave, helping Sutton get his supply of the lifesaving water. I wonder if they’ll leave Dad alone when they catch him. Does Sutton hate my father that much, to hurt him even now? Will he care enough to try to contain the outbreak at Westbrook, to distribute water to all of my classmates and heal them if it isn’t already too late? Does that fall into his game plan at all? He doesn’t know them. He doesn’t care about them. I think of the party where I met Brayden, how everyone there’s probably dead. I remember the infirmary, where the first infected went. Where our teachers died, their bodies piled on top of one another, their hair turned gray, their faces so wrinkled they were hard to recognize.
I bite my lip and pull my jacket closer, and I realize I’m not cold. The water keeps me warm as my blood paces through my body. I pull my own flower and it shines enough so that I can see through the webbing of my fingers.
I take a breath. They’re waiting for me. Even if I don’t have the answer, it still falls on me. “I saw the well in the map, and I’ve seen the gates there too—”
“Look,” Rob shouts, interrupting me to point down the shore. My instinct is to jump back into the water, where I’m safe and confident I can outswim anything, but I force myself to get a grip and follow his finger. There’s a lump of something out of place on the beach, something blue and familiar.
My stomach sinks, knowing what I’m seeing before my mind does. I hurry over, maybe twenty, thirty yards, and realize halfway there that those are scrubs, like the ones we’re wearing. The only person I can think of who could have had those on and made it here is my dad. I pick them up, as if I might find him underneath, maybe a smaller version of himself—maybe the water shrunk him, maybe I’m going crazy. The shirt is wet from the lake, but it’s also stained red, a smear of blood.
“Whoa,” Rob says. I flare up inside. Whoa doesn’t really cut it. Apparently, my dad came before us, and now he’s gone. Hurt too. I can’t see any blood on the beach, though. What exactly happened here? Did he know about this place all along? Why didn’t he tell us? Why didn’t he tell me?
I look toward the gates, wondering whether I can see him, whether he’s only a few hundred yards ahead of us, limping in pain. But he’s not there. The forest has broken, and there’s a clear path from the lake to the gates, which are gaping and bright, but no naked Dad. Tall shadows loom beyond the gates, like burnt-out skyscrapers. I don’t know what Dad’s doing here, but I know where he’s gone. If we hurry, maybe we can catch him.
“We should go back,” Jo says.
“What?” I have to stop myself from shouting. “You’re kidding, right?”
She’s taken a few steps toward the lake, and stares out over its black surface. “We should wait a halfhour for Sutton and his men to clear the room, and then dive back down and swim wherever the hell we need to go to get back out.” She turns and looks at us. “We have to save Fenton, and Odessa and Jimmy and Todd and my mother and Rob’s family and everyone, if we can.” I fight down a sense of panic. I never expected this from Jo.
“What about the map?” Rob says, digging into his pocket. “It’s a gigantic golden gate, Jo. We can’t not go check it out.”
“Forget the gates, what about my dad?” I say, still incredulous, holding up the bloodstained shirt for them to see.
“There’s no blood on the ground, Mia,” Jo says, trying to sound soothing. “That’s an old stain.”
I rub my fingers against the fabric, unsure.
Rob, meanwhile, pulls out his OtterBoxed phone and starts messing with it.
“You won’t get a signal here,” I say, clenching my teeth.
“Duh,” he replies in a way that I know doesn’t mean any harm. To Rob, everyone’s a step behind. He flicks his screen a few times and then holds it up for us to see, his face smug. I remember now, in the Map Room, when he was taking pictures. His obsessiveness pays dividends, because he’s holding up an image of the map. Even from here, on the tiny screen, I can see the painted gates. He points to them. “The gates are here, so all these other things must come after.” He waves at the remaining images: a city, a waterfall, a cup, a prone figure in white, a spear-like thing sticking right through another pale figure, the strange objects we’d have to decipher if we don’t turn back. I can’t help but notice that he’s at 23 percent power.
“The well. This lake. Dad clearly figured out the map like I did, so he’s probably just following the clues. The same ones that led us here.”
“To what?” Rob asks. “I mean, I understand that this place is crazy. It’s a miracle. Yay. But there’s a virus outbreak and you were in the Cave. Why would he come here right now, especially if he knew Sutton was about to break in?”
“I don’t know,” I say uncertainly. “But he wouldn’t come here for no reason.”
“That’s not good enough, Mia,” Jo says, insistent. “We have to go back.”
I can’t believe this. I know she’s mourning her father, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon mine. “You know I can’t do that. He’s my dad.” I hold up his scrubs and wave them at her. “Why’d he strip? What if he’s really hurt?”
She turns to me, her face anguished. “Don’t you think I know that, Mia? Of course I do. I want to find your dad too, but you aren’t looking at the big picture.” She pauses, gathers herself. I can see how hard this is for her, and an ounce of my disbelief fades. “The virus broke out two days ago. It’s already infected our friends. We know that the quarantine didn’t work. That the virus managed to infect soldiers in hazmat suits. It’s spreading, Mia. And the only thing that can stop it is this water.” She rubs her thumb and forefinger together, still slick from our swim. “Even if this place is like Narnia, even if there’s a magical talking bird that spits water from its mouth and teaches you the secrets of the universe, we don’t have time. We have to get back and figure out a way to get past Sutton and bring the water to Westbrook and Fenton. If we don’t, the whole town dies. Maybe more.”
“Jimmy and Odessa can handle him.” Even as I say the words, I know I don’t believe them at all.
“Are you serious? Jimmy and Odessa? They’ll stop Sutton all by themselves?” she asks, eyebrows raised. “Mia, do the math. Every second we’re here, the greater the odds that we won’t have a home to go back to. Not only that, you said yourself Mr. Kish came here on purpose. He came here for a reason, without you. He knows what he’s doing and he knows how to get back. The town doesn’t have the luxury of seventeen years of planning.”
We’re quiet, all of us. Breathing deeply. My skin tingles I’m so angry. I’m angry because she’s right. Dad came on purpose. He’s fine, with or without clothes.
Rob seems to agree; after a moment, he looks at me apologetically and I’ve lost. “She’s right, Mia.”
His parents live in Fenton too, and he must be just as concerned for their safety, but it doesn’t make his siding with Jo sting any less.
I take a shuddering breath. “I mean, what’s down here? What’s he walking into?” I say out loud, but Rob and Jo have the sense not to answer. He’ll come back, of course he will. I stare at the giant wall spreading out before me, and feel sorry for myself. Until I see something move.
“Mia, I’m sorry,” Jo says, but I cut her off, grabbing her arm and squeezing hard.
There’s something bobbing up ahead—many somethings—coming through the gates. Rob puts a hand over his eyes, as if to shade them from an imaginary sun.
“There are six of them,” he says.
“Six of what?” I reply.
“Mia, we should go,” Jo pleads.
Suddenly, the shapes become tall pale figures moving at incredible speed. I remember the images from the map. The white characters, the brilliant blue eyes. I take a step backward, my foot sloshing in the water. They’re only fifty feet away, and it may be a trick of the light from the gates, but their eyes seem enormous, too big to be real. They each have something in their hands, knives or spears or something.
“Oh shit, hurry,” I shout, and turn to the water. The others follow and we dive in. The skiwear is problematic, but I don’t want to waste any time shrugging it off. I buzz across the surface, letting my adrenaline push me. I hear sounds, one two three six splashes behind us as they follow us into the water. I swim possessed, the water guiding me, until suddenly I’m there. I can feel a suction below me, as if there were a drain. I stop, look around for my friends, but I’m alone.
“Rob, Jo!” I shout, treading water.
“Mia, go!” This from Jo, who I can see now, being dragged out of the water. I couldn’t tell how tall they were before, but her captor’s gotta be seven feet. Rob’s there too, held by another one. I feel the tingling beneath me. I could get away. I should. Jo’s right, I need to save Fenton.
But then I hear it, too late. A swish in the water. I spin around and he’s there, eyes like softballs, blinking wet and curious in front of me. I scream, and don’t stop until he’s dragged me all the way back to shore.
THEY TIE OUR HANDS WITH ROPE, LOOPING THE ENDS together and then around our waists so that we’re connected, and we’re forced to walk single file. They’re giants, my head only reaching their chests, and they walk on either side of us, sometimes staring at us but not saying a word.
After I was dragged out of the water, thrown together with Rob and Jo in a pile on the shore, I finally got a good look at them. They’re human, I think. Some sort of long-divergent relation. Their bodies are built the same as ours, with their disproportionately enormous eyes and stature the noticeable difference. Their eyes probably adapted for the dark long ago. I wonder if they can see the end of the blackness above our heads. These beings are unreal, but then no figment of my imagination has ever picked me up like a rag doll and tossed me onto shore.
“I guess we’re not going home,” Rob says.
A part of me is relieved. Now I can find my dad. The rest of me is in shock.
“Do not speak, little one,” says the guard at my shoulder, looking back at Rob.
“You know English?” I blurt out, unable to help myself. The guard lifts a hand as if to strike me but a different guard shouts him down in another language, his voice so sharp it echoes.
This guard has high cheekbones and curious eyes. He reaches out his hand and I flinch, but he tsks at me and uses the sleeve of his shirt to wipe the water of the lake from my face, like my dad used to do at the pool when I was young. “I am only trying to be of assistance,” he says, his voice softer than the other one’s, almost bashful. “I have never seen one of you. A Topsider. He should not have threatened you.” The fabric is cashmere-soft and form-fitting. They all wear the same thing, this red long-sleeve shirt that hugs the body and tight pants. They look like they’re ready for a slumber party. My guard has short black hair that curls tight on his head, like a Roman emperor. On the bridge of his nose there’s a smear of paint, also red.
I have to bite my tongue, afraid to speak but now filled to the brim with questions. How’d they know we’d be here, especially if they’ve never seen one of us before? They’re calling us Topsiders, they’ve given us a name. They know of us but they haven’t seen us.
Turns out that the gates are kind of far away, which means I totally miscalculated the size of these things. They’re as tall as skyscrapers, and as we approach them, I have to crane my neck to get a better look. There’s an odd buzz in the air and it takes me a second to realize that it’s coming from the gigantic columns the gates are hinged to. As if they’re plugged in somewhere.
“Stop there, friends.” The voice isn’t from one of our guards. Another pale man, dressed in the same tight-fitting night wear—except his sleeves are bright yellow and his pants and the chest of his shirt are blue—stands by one of the columns. His arms are crossed and his pale head is shaved. Across his face, covering his eyes, is a band of blue paint. I wonder if the paint indicates rank. Jo shoots me a look. Something’s going on here.
“What is this, Keeper Straoc?” my guard asks, hand reaching up to take hold of the thin spear he has strapped to his back.
“I am to take the Topsiders from you.”
My guard shakes his massive head, his ringlets shivering. He says something in their native tongue and the bald new guy, Straoc, interrupts. “No, keep to the Topsider language. I want them to know what you are ordered to do, so that they might better understand who are their friends.”
My guard glances our way, and when he continues, it’s back in their hesitant English.
“It matters not, because we were instructed by Keeper Arcos to search for other Topsiders and to escort them to the Lock. We have searched and we have found. They will join the other, they will stand and be judged.”
That was English, maybe, but I understood almost none of what he said. Either way, it didn’t sound good.
Straoc looks me up and down, then smiles, flashing brilliant white teeth, as polished as a movie star’s. “Of course, friend, but it is from Keeper Randt himself that I have orders to take these. We must separate the Topsiders. They cannot be kept in the same place.”
My guard hesitates. He looks to his friends for help. One of them shrugs.
“Friend Keepers,” says Straoc, “I will not have Randt waiting. Thank you for your service and please return to your normal duties.”
“We cannot,” my guard says, almost apologetically. “Our Keeper Arcos tasks us to bring them to him.”
“Do I mishear you?” Straoc replies, in mock confusion. “I believe you were tasked to escort them to the Lock. Now you say Keeper Arcos asks for them himself?”
My guard stays quiet, chastised.
“Arcos and Randt rule the city now,” Straoc says, speaking confidently. “Keeper Randt requests the Topsiders and will send them to the Lock in due time where Arcos may have his personal interview, so leave them and go back to your side of Capian, where you and Arcos belong.” Straoc pulls a long yellow ribbon from his belt and lets it drop, hanging from his hand like a whip. The guards surrounding us immediately draw their weapons and tighten their grips on our arms. Jo even squeaks in pain. I can hear the creak of leather against skin. This guy’s either crazy or that ribbon isn’t used to decorate birthday presents.
No one moves for several moments. I hear the sounds of rustling in the forest, of birdcall. Finally, my guard clears his throat. “You make idle threats,” he says, openly reluctant. “There are six of us. You cannot take the Topsiders.”
Straoc sways the ribbon back and forth. What is that thing that they’re so scared of? He smiles, a strangely gracious smile. “It is not you, friend, or your men that I would worry on. I have my own orders, and if I cannot take them to my Keeper Randt, then neither shall you.”
“Did he just say he’ll kill us if they don’t let us go?” Rob asks.
No one answers. My guard rocks forward and back. Another dips his fingers into a small pouch at his belt and leaves them there, like he’s ready to pull something out and throw it.
“I don’t want to die here,” Jo says, her voice soft but carrying.
“My clan leader does not want you to either, Topsider,” my guard says, and apparently this means he’s given in, because hands release weapons, fingers slip out of pouches. “Keeper Straoc, take them as you will. Keeper Arcos will be looking forward to seeing them placed in the Lock soonest.”
“Of course,” Straoc agrees.
The guards separate from us and hurry through the gates at a sprint, their long legs moving them ridiculously fast. The nearby columns hum and we’re left alone, still bound, with the new guy who just threatened to kill us.
“I am sorry about the confrontation. Keeper Arcos and my Keeper Randt have not been entirely friendly of late. And I am sorry for the rope.” Straoc smiles sadly. “But until I take you to Keeper Randt’s tower, it would do well for you to have the appearance of having been captured.”
I catch Rob frowning at what he just said. There’s clearly something bad going on between the leaders of these people. Why would we need to only “appear” to be captured?
He moves toward Jo, and I can see that it’s taking all her willpower not to pull away. He’s not just a strange man approaching her, he’s a strange man. He doesn’t touch her, but it’s clear that he’s checking out every inch of her body—it makes me feel sick just watching. He walks in a circle and finally crouches, looking at her feet.
“Leave her alone,” I say, trying to make my voice as intimidating as possible. I strain in my bindings, as if I could stop him.
He stands in a hurry, hands up in apology. “I am very, very sorry. It is just that I have never seen a Topsider before. So delicate. You do not have the water, and yet you somehow survive. You are different from me, but the same.” He pokes Rob’s arm, and Rob flinches. “I am interested in how you are so small. I just wanted to see. I do not mean any harm.”
“Who are you?” Jo says, scrambling back as far away from him as physically possible, which, with the rope, isn’t very far.
“I am Straoc, a friend. And you are lucky I was ordered to come. You would be otherwise on your way to the Lock. Nothing good would come of it.”
“Right,” Jo says. “And we’re lucky we’re not dead now either.”
“Yes, that is true,” he replies earnestly. My skin crawls.
“Is that where my dad is, the Lock?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Dad? Yes, the Topsider who came earlier.” Straoc whistles. “He is your father?”
“Yeah, is he okay? Is he hurt?” My mind flashes to the blood on Dad’s scrubs.
“He is perfectly healthy at the moment.”
“What do you mean, ‘at the moment’?” I say, panic rising in my throat. It’s like talking to a puzzle.
“I am sorry—did I say that wrong?” Straoc asks, “We believe we know your language, but without a Topsider to teach us, it is hard to be sure. You have a father, and he is alive and well at this exact moment. Come now, we must go.” He pulls on the rope, forcing us ahead. I let myself get pulled, almost exhausted with relief. The blood must have come from something else. He’s okay.
We move quietly, each mulling our own fate, moving closer to the towering columns and gate.
“Look at that,” Rob says, talking half to me, half to himself. He’s pointing at a massive hinge—six feet high, just the hinge. The gate is completely open and lined with long, cylindrical bars that reach to the sky. They’re on such a scale that Straoc seems puny. Where are the lumbering giants who built this?
“It’s moving,” Rob says, his voice unsure.
“What do you mean?” I ask. Straoc gives me some slack on the rope, apparently carrying an insatiable curiosity regarding his new prisoners and how they’ll react to his world. “I don’t see that.”
“Feel this,” he says, placing my hand on the giant hinge.
“Is this gold?” I ask Straoc, trying to imagine its value. Gold is, what, twelve hundred an ounce? This hinge alone must be worth a few million dollars.
Straoc doesn’t say anything. He’s looking beyond the gates now. Scanning the horizon.
“Isn’t gold too soft to be functional?” Rob asks.
“Shh,” Jo says. “Mia, you have to feel it.”
I try to shove Fort Knox from my mind and focus. I close my eyes and almost instantly I know Jo’s right. There’s a tug, a very gentle tug, like the sway of a boat on a still lake. The gates aren’t just moving.
“That’s why the water stops,” I say, alarmed. “They’re closing.”
“Of course they are, little Mia,” Straoc says over his shoulder. I don’t like that he uses my name so familiarly. “It is the cycle, though the water will always run on this side of the gates after they close. The source provides. Now we must hurry onward. I would like to allow you more time to discover us, but I cannot wait any longer.”
“When do the gates close?” Jo asks.
“Ten days,” I say grimly. Ten days is how long my dad said the water flowed. Then the gates will shut, and cut off the water. Cut off our way back.
“Days, Mia,” Straoc says, taking the rope in his hand and pulling us along. “We do not have those down here.”
JIMMY WAKES THIRSTY. HE SLAPS HIS HAND AGAINST the dresser, trying to find a cup of water, but nothing’s there. He always keeps a cup of water near the bed; the dorms at Westbrook are just so damn dry and he isn’t about to get a humidifier for the room; he’d never live it down.
It’s dark, Jimmy can barely see a thing, but he can see enough to know this isn’t his dorm room. He’s dazed. Where is he? Not at home either. He’s on a couch, must have fallen asleep. But there’s someone here, snuggled up behind him. Jimmy blinks, and remembers.
“Odessa,” he whispers, and she wiggles a little, down for the count too. Jimmy cranes his neck backward to look at her, but it’s too dark.
“Odessa,” he says again, louder this time.
“What?” she says groggily.
“I feel weird.” It’s true, he realizes. He does feel weird. He tries to move his arm and it’s clumsy, as if it’s not fully listening to him. He takes a breath, and even that feels strange, the air sifting into his lungs in an unfamiliar way.
“That’s because you’re an old man, remember?” Her lips are near his neck, and her breath is warm and comforting. Her arms give a reassuring squeeze around his waist; they feel good.
The squeeze releases the last gasps of his selective amnesia. He remembers it all. He had the virus, the one that’s killing everyone. The one that ages you to death, wrinkles you up and takes you down. But Jimmy had it for just a short while, so that he only aged up into an adult, not a decrepit old man. Odessa’s joking about that. He’s older looking, sure, but fit as can be. He wiggles his arm and it buzzes with a familiar pain; the arm’s just asleep. Jimmy’s still finding it hard to remember that his big body is now even bigger. He takes another breath, deeper this time, and lets the air settle in his lungs.
“Not sure I’m gonna get used to this.”
“What about me?” Odessa replies, fully awake now. There’s an undertone of a grin in her voice. “I’m, like, thirty-two. Guys just get sexy. Me, I’m already going downhill.”
Jimmy rolls over to face Odessa. She’s definitely aged, but even in the dark he can tell she looks amazing. Her freckles, something he had teased her about just a few days ago, feel new and exciting. Her chin has sharpened, her eyes too. Her curly red hair floats around her in the dark like seaweed, but Jimmy loves that.
He touches her cheek. “I don’t think so. I think you look better than ever.”
He hears her smile as much as he sees it. And then he hears something else. A crack, muffled. Then another. Like a string of Black Cats going off.
“What’s that?” Odessa whispers.
Jimmy sits up, bringing her with him. “You hear that?” he asks the others. But no one says anything. “Guys?” he says, speaking louder.
It’s too dark to know, but he knows. His stomach sinks. They left him and Odessa. They’re out there right now, and they left him. Jimmy hops up and runs to the wall, tripping over a chair. He gets to the light, and in the brief moment before he flips the switch, he wonders if he shouldn’t. If he should crawl over to the couch and snuggle up with Odessa and forget everything.
There’s another crack. Jimmy flinches, turns the light on, and reality sticks. He’s in the rec room, a bomb-shelter lookalike that is really just part of the Cave, Mia’s dad’s fortress that he and his Westbrook alumni friends built in order to protect and research the water. Odessa’s still on the couch, but she’s got deer eyes at the noise. There are four sleeping bags, empty on the floor. Mia, Jo, Rob, Brayden.
“Where’d they go?” Odessa asks. “Why didn’t they wake us?”
Jimmy’s not sure he wants to know, but they’ve come this far, thanks to Mia, and if she’s out there and those are gunshots, then she might need help.
“Come on,” Jimmy says, slipping on his fluffy booties, the ones Mr. Kish gave him to replace his winter boots. He feels ridiculous.
Odessa opens her mouth to argue, but thinks better of it. She’s changed in more ways than her looks since they left Westbrook, Jimmy realizes. Normally she’d be sulking right now, or hiding in a closet. Now her eyes are set and she’s tying back her hair. Maybe getting shot in the leg will do that to you.
“You do realize those are gunshots, right?” she asks, joining him at the door.
“Yeah,” he replies unhappily.
She stands on her tiptoes and kisses him lightly, with his dry lips, bad breath, and all. He’s so surprised he forgets to kiss back. It’s over in a second, broken by another gunshot, but it happened.
“What was that for?” Jimmy asks, distracted in the best of ways.
She shrugs. “I like that you care about them.” She frowns. “What are we gonna do?”
“I have no idea,” he replies, and opens the door.
The hallways are empty, just like earlier, but this time it reminds Jimmy of an abandoned spaceship, one Kirk might run through before self-destructing the Enterprise. Jimmy doesn’t remember where anything is; that was always Mia or Brayden’s job. And he’s not about to look to Odessa for help—she’s awful with directions.
There’s a short but sustained push of gunfire, but the sound echoes from either direction and doesn’t help guide them at all. So he just runs, pausing near corners, checking open doors, seriously considering calling out for help but not wanting to draw the wrong kind of attention.
They turn a corner and see a T junction up ahead. Maybe fifty yards away. And then someone in scrubs like theirs runs by, from the left to the right, disappearing as fast as they materialized.
Odessa yelps, as much from surprise as fear, and Jimmy doesn’t blame her. He almost did the same.
“Who was that?”
“I didn’t see,” he confesses, but he pulls Odessa along after the fleeing figure. That someone was in scrubs, so she or he wasn’t one of Sutton’s men. Good enough for Jimmy.
They hit the intersection and turn, but after another twenty yards or so there’s already another junction. A maze. Jimmy stops and listens.
He hears footsteps, clomping fast, up and to the left. But he hears something else too. Very faint, coming from the walls, the floors, everywhere. Creeping into his skin.
“What the fuck?” Odessa says, squeezing his hand.
They keep running, and Jimmy catches a glimpse of someone up ahead, but then whoever it is takes a turn and is gone. No more footsteps, nothing. There are doors on either side, just like in most of the hallways. He assumes they’re locked. Maybe from the inside.
“Hey,” he ventures, risking a semiloud voice. “It’s Jimmy and Odessa. We need your help!”
“Please—we don’t know where we are.”
A door on the right pops open, and a woman pokes her head out, looking both ways. Her dark hair is in a frayed bun and her pale skin is somehow paler, like she’s just got out of a frigid lake. It’s Veronica, one of the Westbrook alumni who run the Cave. She always seemed to be Mr. Kish’s number two. She helped Odessa, fed her some of the last of their special life-water. She was poised and calm and sure of herself. But now there’s nothing in her twitchy, red-rimmed eyes that inspires the least bit of confidence.
“I thought you were them,” she says, and she hops back into the hallway and takes off running. Jimmy and Odessa hurry after her, sprinting through the gray halls. He hears the thunking of footsteps somewhere far away. Jimmy hates not knowing what’s going on.
And then Veronica stops so quickly that she slides past the door she wants. She enters a code into a keypad and motions them in.
It’s a control room. Monitors everywhere. On one of them there’s a tank, an actual real-life cannon-wielding tank, aiming at the Cave doors. It’s not firing, though. And there are some soldiers in hazmat suits, but they’re facing the other way, toward the road, where Jimmy can see three sheriff cars have pulled up, men standing behind their doors, talking, waving. The deputy who gave him a ticket for riding his bike on the sidewalk. Prick. Guess the secret’s out. Fenton knows about the quarantine by now. Jimmy’s veins freeze. Maybe it’s spread farther. Maybe his parents are sick.
“What’s going on?” Jimmy asks. Veronica has tossed herself into a seat and is flipping through channels like his roomie on a rainy day.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “But it isn’t good.”
“Where is everyone?”
“Don’t know. Don’t know anything.”
She stops at a still image of an open vault, the map shining bright in the center of its domed room. Chuck, the other Westbrook alum, lying on the floor. Veronica curses, but keeps going. “Where are you where are you where are you?”
Then she pauses again, at a feed from the greenhouses, where Jimmy and the others had snuck in. The back entrance to the Cave. The door’s open. How’d that happen? The greenhouses filled with hybrid creations are a tattered mess of broken glass and steam. Odessa—the botanist—lets out a moan. She, more than he, understands exactly what’s being lost. Veronica keeps flipping, slower now, almost resigned, like she knows what’s coming.
Maybe she does.