by Esther Velez (March 2021)
The world was down to two people other than myself – and I wasn’t sure if I could trust one of them. It didn’t help that I needed her.
I watched as Ava stood near the window, carefully pulling the blinds back. The room was almost completely dark except for a dim flashlight beam. Even though I didn’t know Ava that well anymore, the expression on her face was clear. She wanted to keep moving.
Jordan broke the silence before I could say anything. “My flashlight is going out,” he said, clicking the fading beam on and off. I reached over and stopped him.
“That’s going to make it die out faster.” I didn’t know if that was true. I just didn’t want the flickering to catch the eye of anyone outside. “He’s going to need more batteries, Ava.”
She slowly closed the blinds. “Isn’t he 7 years old? Should a kid his age still be afraid of the dark?”
Jordan clutched the flashlight to his chest. “Don’t let her take it from me,” he whispered. I put my arm around him and he leaned into me. We had stopped in a random house once the sun started to set. By now it had to be 10 o’clock and he was fighting to stay awake.
“I’m not going to take it from him,” Ava said, coming over to us. She crossed her arms. “Listen, I will try to find him some batteries, but even if we can’t find any, we have to get moving.”
I shook my head. “We’re not leaving at night. You know he can’t travel in the dark.”
“We’ve been making some good time so far, Jade, but if we keep stopping, we’re going to run out of luck.”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To make sure that doesn’t happen?”
“I can’t do anything if we get caught.” She lowered her voice and looked down at Jordan. “The ARC patrol will kill us without a second thought.”
This was why she was here in the first place, to help us make it out of Aversano. She had found someone who would be waiting for us at the highway. I knew the town like the back of my hand. She knew how to fight and sneak around or whatever other random skills she had picked up over the years. But Ava was right. None of it would matter if the ARC patrol found us.
“Let’s see if we can find batteries,” I said. “Will a flashlight be too much for him to use outside?”
Ava frowned. “I wouldn’t chance it, especially not near the perimeter of town. They’ll probably have more guards than usual.” She sighed. “Honestly, can’t you just carry him while he’s asleep?”
“Have at it,” I said, forcing my tiny arms into an equally tiny flex. They were nothing compared to Ava’s toned arms. She shook her head.
“Not a chance. I’ll go look for some batteries and then we can figure out what to do next.” She disappeared into the next room. I slowly led Jordan to a couch in the living room.
“Why doesn’t Ava like me?” Jordan mumbled.
“What are you talking about? She’s your sister. Of course she likes you.” His feet were dragging. I wished I had enough strength to carry him the rest of the way.
I remember the first time I held him, when he was born. There are no hospitals in Aversano, just the medical doctors assigned to the Research Facility. My father and I stood in the tiny room with my mother when they brought him back in. He was so small and I felt like he could break in my arms.
Jordan collapsed into sleep as soon as he touched the couch. I took the dim flashlight from him and used it to explore the room. If Ava was going to half-heartedly search for some batteries, the least I could do was find some on my own.
With any luck, this house belonged to a doomsday prepper. I wanted to laugh at the silliness of it all. Everyone was caught off guard, even the most prepared. I can still remember Mr. Henderson, our resident Zombie Apocalypse survivalist, knocking on our front door when this first started. He begged us to go with him. But my father said no. The work was too important. It always was.
Look where that left them. The thought came suddenly and terribly. I tried to chase it away, but it wouldn’t leave. It wasn’t their fault, I tried telling myself. It wasn’t their fault.
If only saying it would make it so.
I crossed into the kitchen. Maybe there was something in here that we could use. We’d eaten canned beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner today because I had packed poorly. I dug through the pantry, hoping to find something that wasn’t spoiled. A box of cereal that was nearly 75% sugar. Pop Tarts. Yum. Jordan would love this.
I used the flashlight to look in the back of the pantry, trying to find something that anyone over the age of twelve would eat. Uncooked ramen. Oatmeal. Crackers. Vienna sausages. I almost gagged at that last one. But I was pretty sure Ava would eat most of this, so I took it.
The refrigerator sat like a death trap in the middle of the kitchen. The ARC started cutting off the power every night at six, hoping to frustrate the locals and get them to leave. That was before the quarantine. Anything in that refrigerator would be beyond spoiled by now and would smell up the entire house. I didn’t give it a second glance.
I heard Ava thumping around upstairs so I made my way back into the living room. Jordan was curled up on the couch, mouth open, deep in sleep. I sat next to him and ran my hand through his hair. How many times had I done this before? With Ava gone, older sister duties such as babysitting transferred to me. How many nights had he fallen asleep next to me, after watching The Time Travels of Tom and Hunter for hours?
“If we can change history, we won’t have to make believe,” I whispered the dumb theme song under my breath.
“Is that Tom and Hunter?”
I sat up suddenly. Ava laughed dryly and dropped to the floor in front of me.
“There were some little kids with us, so I know about that show,” she said. She motioned for my hand and placed two batteries into it.
“Thank you, Ava.” I was surprised she even found any. I figured even if she had found them, she wouldn’t bring them back.
“That’s not even the best part,” she said, holding up another flashlight. “This one has a special red beam.”
“How is that special?”
Ava turned it on and a soft red haze filled the room. “Just enough light for us to see but not enough to be spotted from a far away patrol.”
“Yeah, this guy was a hunter. It’s a shame he took all his guns when he left town.”
“You know how to use a gun?” I asked hesitantly.
She smirked. “I know how to do all kinds of things. A gun would’ve been pretty handy right about now.” Ava hardly talked about what she did when she was away. I didn’t push unless I had to, which was usually never.
“Would you kill someone if you had to?” The question came out before I could stop it.
“Maybe. They would probably just end up badly injured. I may know how to do many things but that doesn’t mean I can do all of them well.” Ava noticed the pile of food I had collected. “Okay, I’m going to eat because I’m starving.”
She didn’t talk for the rest of the night. Which was fine. I didn’t know how to talk to her about what happened. I wanted to tell Ava how difficult it had been to live without her and how glad I was that she had returned.
Mom said it wasn’t good to force her to relive the trauma. “Let Ava speak whenever she wants.” But Ava never talked about it. So I never told her about how it felt to know someone your whole life and for them to suddenly be gone.
I stayed awake long after Ava had fallen asleep in the middle of the floor. It reminded me of when we were younger and watched movies together in her room. She was always the one to fall asleep while I stayed up to finish it. In the morning, she never wanted to watch the rest even when I offered to watch it again with her. Instead, she would beg me to tell her what happened until I caved in.
But Ava wasn’t like that anymore. Now, I could barely get a full sentence out of her. I wished that I hadn’t listened to Mom. I wished I had kept pushing. Because then I would feel like I knew Ava a little better and I could trust her again.
I didn’t think she would actively do anything to hurt us. I knew she wouldn’t do that. I just wanted to know that she had Jordan’s best interest at heart. That if anything happened and she had to choose between herself and Jordan, she would choose Jordan.
She said she would help me protect him from the ARC patrol, but how could I know for sure? I didn’t want to find out through experience, but I couldn’t shake the unease. After years of having to take care of herself, of having to survive on her own, would she be able to care about someone other than herself?
I felt myself growing tired. I thought about our parents and how the last thing they told me was to protect Jordan. Even if my parents hadn’t asked, I would do anything to make sure he was okay. If that meant breaking quarantine, risking being caught by the ARC patrol, or getting sick, I would do it. If that meant trusting Ava to deliver on her promise to save us, I’d have to do that, too.
We got up just before dawn when the ARC patrol appeared to be thinnest. Before we left, I gave Ava the general layout of this side of town. Thankfully, the route to the highway didn’t take us through downtown. Anyone who was still around for the quarantine was there, either in a recovery clinic or one of the shelters inside Aversano High. If we had to go through there, someone would recognize us and turn us in.
But Ava was actually pretty good at the whole stealth thing. She took the instructions I gave her and carved a nice path through backyards and alleys. As the sun came up, the ARC patrol doubled and I held Jordan’s hand just a bit tighter. After an hour of anxious walking, we stopped abruptly on the side of a building. Ava motioned for me to get closer.
“Where to next,” she commanded in her low voice.
I looked down the road. A single guard was standing with his back to us near a gas station over to the left. The way I wanted to go was clear. I swallowed and took a chance.
“In a few miles, we’ll be coming up on the Research Facility,” I said.
“Wait, isn’t that where mom and dad worked?” Ava squinted, already seeing where this was going.
“If we go inside, we might be able to find out why the ARC patrol is after us.”
“We already know why they’re after us. They want mom and dad’s research. They think we know something.”
“But we don’t actually know anything,” I said.
“And now you want to go find something, so the ARC patrol has an actual reason to kill us?” Ava shook her head.
“I just want to know what they were working on that was so important. Besides, the Research Facility has been abandoned since September. We can use it for shelter tonight if we want.”
It felt weird to lie to Ava, but I didn’t want to admit the real reason why I wanted to go over there. Ava gave me a weird look, like she suspected something, but then she shrugged.
“We’ve made a lot of good progress so far. We can afford to take a little detour and visit Dad’s office.”
“Yes!” Jordan suddenly burst out. I put my hand over his mouth. “I can’t wait to see his office again,” he mumbled through my hand. We looked down the street, but the guard hadn’t heard anything. We were too far away and the sounds of the day were loud enough to cover small noises like that.
“But we’re not staying there for the night,” Ava continued in a whisper. “That’s why I found the red flashlight for him.” She paused as if waiting for either of us to say anything. Jordan and I just looked at each other. She pointed to a building across the street.
“We’re going to cut over that way. Follow me.”
I grabbed Jordan’s hand and quietly ran behind Ava. I didn’t know what I expected to find in dad’s office. Maybe there’d be details on the many projects he was always working on. Or maybe I’d find out the reason why they were gone.
Ava pointed with two fingers to the parking lot of Marton’s Grocery. She crouched behind a blue van and Jordan and I huddled beside her.
“Okay, so there are two guards watching the entrance to the store. We need to get around them.”
“There’s a side door we could try,” I said.
“You have all this weirdly specific knowledge about this town, Jade,” Ava said with a slight smile on her voice. “Do you normally sneak around it all the time?”
“I used to work here.” It was one of my many failed attempts to make Dad angry. While all of my other classmates had either gone to Aversano Tech or one of the big Ivy League schools, I spent my mornings at Marton’s Grocery.
What a waste. It used to be Dad’s voice in my head that said it. Now I could hear Ava saying it.
“Let’s find that side door as soon as we do this.” Ava held up a rock and handed it to Jordan. “Throw this over there as hard as you possibly can.”
His eyes lit up. He looked at me. “Throw it far?”
“Yeah, and hurry up,” Ava waved her hand impatiently.
Jordan heaved the rock over to the left. We waited.
“What was that?” The first guard sounded like he came from one of Jordan’s video games with really bad voice acting.
“I don’t know. Let’s go check it out.” The second guard made a lot of noise when he walked. As soon as their sounds drifted to the left, we dashed around the right to the side door.
One of the guards’ radios let out static. “Come in again,” he said in the distance. We didn’t wait to hear what the static was saying.
“Good job with the rock, Jordan,” I said, patting him on the shoulder.
He gave one of his big smiles, one that you can see in his eyes. “They were so dumb, they fell for it!”
“Well, don’t get too cocky,” Ava said. She never stopped moving and her body never made a sound. She reminded me of the elves in movies that can walk on top of snow without leaving any footprints.
All of the lights inside were turned off, even though the electricity was still running. “Hey, why don’t you test out the red flashlight?” I handed the flashlight to Jordan, who eagerly clicked it on. Ava laughed.
“What?” I asked, but she shook her head and kept laughing.
I watched her as we navigated the dark aisles of Marton’s Grocery. Was it weird to say that she looked like Mom? She had the same stringy brown hair that hung just below her shoulders. Ava used the same gestures that Mom did whenever she talked. She used to have the same high-pitched voice like Mom, which had been extremely annoying if both of them were yelling at the same time. I guess her voice deepened with age because it didn’t sound the same anymore.
We made it through my old job without much problem. I wondered who had trained Ava to do all of these things. She had been gone for a few years – no, not gone, I corrected myself. She had been kidnapped for a few years and had come back with new knowledge. Thinking about how hard it must’ve been kept me from getting too mad at her when she did annoying things like laugh at Jordan and give me a hard time.
Ava turned around and stared at me. It was like she could hear me thinking about her.
“We’re almost at the Research Facility,” she said, finally.
I gave Jordan a high five, glad to get out from under her gaze. “Did you hear that?”
He nodded and carefully put his flashlight away.
We stopped at the edge of the store’s parking lot which was surrounded by a short wall. A dirt path behind it led straight to where our parents worked. Ava fished a pair of binoculars from her backpack and looked through them.
“I don’t see that many patrol guards around the facility but have a look yourself.” Ava handed them to me.
“Where do you think they are?” I asked as the facility came into focus.
“My guess is they’re with the clinic downtown. They don’t really have much going on at the research facility, so why bother securing it?”
“Can I try it?” Jordan asked, almost knocking the binoculars off my face.
“Wait a second.” I adjusted the lenses and handed it to him.
Ava grabbed my arm. “What are you hoping to find in there?”
I shrugged. This was probably the first she had touched me since she got back a few months ago. “I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to know the truth for once.”
I suddenly felt the urge to give her a hug. We had always been close. It bothered me that I even noticed she hadn’t given me a hug or a high five or anything in the past months since she’d been back.
Even though Ava seemed like she could read my mind sometimes, I was glad she couldn’t right now. Instead, she nodded and started for the wall.
“Well, let’s go find out the truth.”
Ava and Jordan stayed behind in the lobby of the research facility while I went up to Dad’s office to investigate. The entire first floor was well lit, albeit abandoned. I didn’t want Jordan to come up to the office. It was too soon since they died and I don’t think he fully understood what had happened. Jordan was happily explaining the research facility’s backup generator system to Ava while I slipped into the staircase.
As soon as I made it to the fourth floor, I noticed that something was wrong. The hallway felt different than what I remembered. For one thing, it was almost completely dark. A dim light pulsed from a nearby office. Someone must’ve accidentally left it on in their rush to leave. The green and white walls stretched beyond it into darkness. Boxes and empty gurneys were haphazardly pushed off to the side. I took another step. Someone had dropped a mug of coffee. The cup lay on the ground in pieces, surrounded by a thick, brown mess.
I knew why this felt wrong. Whenever I visited my father’s office in the past, these hallways were alive. Even now, I could almost see the excited interns rushing over to the lab. Or the scientists stumbling slowly to the parking lot after another long night with no breakthroughs. Now, the only sign of human life was a set of sticky footprints trailing away from me into the dark, endless hallway. That, and the sound of my own breathing.
My father’s office was a few more feet ahead. I pushed open his door and instantly smelled his cologne. It filled every room he walked into and now it was here, long after he was gone. I couldn’t breathe.
I shouldn’t be here, I told myself. This office was just like everything else in this place – abandoned. It felt wrong to intrude on my father’s space like this. But I had to know the truth. That was why we were here. I had to know the truth about what they were working on and why they died.
Dad’s office was a wide-open space. Half of the room was filled with lab equipment. The other half had his computer, bookshelves, and all of his work files. I tried the computer first. It hummed to life. My father always talked about how much he hated this computer.
“The ARC is a billion-dollar research corporation, and they can’t give me a new computer,” he said, shaking his head. The sudden memory of him surprised me. I could hear his voice almost as well as I could smell him.
His computer finally reached the starting screen. He kept the original desktop background. He wasn’t one for customization or making things “his own”. There was a right way to do things and no other way. When he was still here, I never thought about him like this. In fact, I was working at the grocery store just so I wouldn’t have to think about either of them at all. I wanted to stop the flood of memories so I clicked into his profile.
For all his genius and care, Dad was very simple when it came to passwords. Mom’s name with a string of numbers at the end got me into his computer in no time at all. I opened the desktop folder.
I clicked into “My Documents”. Still nothing. I looked around his desk. Maybe he kept everything in a portable hard drive? But there were none to be found. I tried to search through other folders on the computer but I kept coming up with the same result: nothing.
I wondered how it happened. Did he wipe it clean in anticipation of his own death? Or did the ARC do it after he was gone so no one else could have access to his research? Either way, I had hit a wall. I needed to try something else.
The bookshelf was filled with medical books. Dad was nothing if not a student. Updated editions of several books lined the top portion of the shelves, while the tried-and-true ones sat in the middle. Just underneath them, though, were a series of large black notebooks. I opened one. It looked like a journal of sorts.
I opened the one closest to the edge of the row. I recognized my father’s big, circular letters. He had never been so good with writing, but here he put in some effort. I read through a few lines. This was a development journal of sorts. He was writing out his thoughts and ideas for a project he was working on, something called the Watchtower Project. I’d never heard of it before.
With each page that I turned, he became almost human to me. Someone so perfect, so incapable of weakness, of shame, had suddenly become vulnerable in front of me.
I don’t know if this is the right way, he wrote in one entry.
What if I can’t get this to work? If this entire project is a failure, then it’s my fault.
His handwriting got smaller as he continued: Why did I even try in the first place?
Those were my thoughts, my insecurities. How did he have them, too?
I must keep going. If this doesn’t work, something else will. With this team, I know we will get this done.
That was it. The end of the journal. I looked at the date at the top. August 21, 2018. This was only a few months ago. It seemed like The Watchtower Project was the last thing he had worked on. If I wanted to know any more, I’d have to search through his work files.
Everything was organized alphabetically. A thick folder with The Watchtower Project printed in bold sat toward the bottom of the cabinet. I sifted through a stack of articles and other related pages.
A list of what appeared to be different vaccines was stapled to results for each of the test subjects. Every single one had a negative result. Except for one. ARC 01X vaccine tested positive results in 95% of test subjects.
Several newspaper articles were folded in the center of the pile. I opened one of them. “Major Breakthrough in The Watchtower Project” read the headline. It was published in March 2015. A group of smiling volunteers, as they were identified, stood next to Mom and Dad holding the Machine. I didn’t know what it was actually called, but I had heard both of them talk about this thing for years. It was the only project they had ever worked on together. I didn’t know it had anything to do with The Watchtower Project.
Honestly, I still didn’t quite understand what The Watchtower was, only that it involved a vaccine of sorts and it was very important to Dad. “Without The Watchtower, we won’t stand a chance,” he had written in his development journal.
But something was wrong. The next page was a printout of an email. I scanned the page as quickly as possible.
Subject Line: Resignation Letter. “Dear Director Olivia Melendez, please accept this letter as formal notice of my resignation… in light of the recent incident, I think it only wise for me to step down from this position… Losing the Machine was the greatest mistake of my career… I wish you all the best for the future as you attempt to fix this problem that is solely my responsibility…”
What was Dad talking about? How did he lose the Machine? And what were they trying to fix?
Stapled to the email was Director Melendez’s response: “Your resignation letter has been rejected… I can think of no better person to help clean up this mess… Since everyone else is off-site, you are being assigned to head up an additional project. See attached for more details.”
But other than a short report of vital signs, there were no attached details. That was the last page. I checked the date on the email. October 2, 2018. That was last week! This didn’t make any sense. Why would the director set him up with a new project if the ARC was just going to kill him off in a few days? What changed?
It didn’t seem like I was going to get any new details. I was starting to put back the different files when one of the articles caught my attention.
“Dozens of Local Children Missing.” Why was this here? I had never read it before, but I remembered that event all too well.
“The first 24 hours are the most crucial in missing children’s cases.” Director Melendez was always the first to talk to the press. I remembered her now, a small Hispanic woman who looked at you like she could see into your soul. She was at our house for the first few days, trying to keep Mom and Dad calm while also trying to keep the state cops from coming into Aversano.
I kept reading. “We will do anything we have to in order to make sure our daughter is alive, to make sure she is safe.” That was Dr. Kimberly Kelmor. Mom. It had been hard to see her cry. She was a strong woman who ran the entire engineering department at the research facility. She wasn’t supposed to cry.
“Officer Campbell insists that state law enforcement is not going to give up until all of these kids have been returned to their families.”
What a joke. It would be another seven years before Ava returned, and even then it wasn’t because of any police officer or private investigator.
One final sentence caught my eye, with a detail that I hadn’t remembered. “Ava’s bedroom had been ransacked in an apparent struggle while her younger sister slept quietly in the room next door.”
If only I had woken up, I thought to myself. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I wondered what would’ve been different about our lives if Ava had never been kidnapped.
And then a new thought came to me: What if I had been the one to be kidnapped? The sudden rush of guilt was strange to me. It felt almost unfair, like I had managed to escape a dangerous fate through no action of my own. When the kidnappers broke into our home, why did they take her instead of me? Had they already chosen her?
I felt the anger now, this time against my parents. Why had they let someone walk into our house? Why hadn’t they done a better job at securing our home? It could’ve been me instead of Ava. It could’ve been me and Ava. Instead, they were so preoccupied with work, with their Watchtower Projects and their Machines. They didn’t care enough about what was going on at home until someone came and invaded it.
I didn’t want to be in here anymore. It felt wrong to be angry at the dead, but I didn’t know how else to feel. I should’ve listened to Ava, I thought. I went looking for something and now I wish I had never found it.
The walk down the stairs was eerily quiet. I listened for the sounds of Ava and Jordan in the lobby. They were either whispering or not talking at all. The latter seemed more likely. Ava had expressed no interest in getting to know Jordan since she returned to us earlier this year. Mom was already pregnant with him before Ava was kidnapped. Ava had even helped decorate the nursery. So why did it seem like she didn’t care about him at all?
But when I made it downstairs, I saw the two of them working on a Rubik’s cube together. Ava had it in her hands and Jordan was trying to show her which side to turn so the colors would match.
She looked up at me briefly, then her eyes returned to the cube. “This thing is the devil,” she said, twisting the colors in frustration. “There’s no way to actually beat it.”
“That’s not true,” Jordan laughed, trying to take it from her hand. “You just have to know how to do it right.”
I smiled. “Jordan’s the only person I know who can do it.”
“Well, have at it.” She handed the cube to Jordan. He happily accepted and set to work completing it. I sat down in the receptionist’s desk and Ava slid her chair over to me.
“Did you find out anything helpful?”
“Not necessarily.” I sighed. I wasn’t eager to talk about it. “I read about something called The Watchtower Project. Have you ever heard of it?”
Ava raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, but I don’t know what it’s about. Mom and Dad talked about it a lot when I got back.”
“It’s some sort of vaccine, but I don’t know for what.” I shrugged. “I went in there hoping to find out why they died, but I didn’t find anything useful at all.”
“We know the ARC killed them because of something they were working on. I’m going to guess it was this vaccine. Do you think it was for the virus?”
“I don’t know. The earliest date I saw was three years ago, 2015. There’s no way they could’ve been dealing with the same virus. Unless…” I suddenly thought of something.
“In his resignation letter from August, Dad mentioned something about him losing the Machine and him making some sort of mess.”
“So you’re saying Dad is responsible for the spread of the virus?”
“Maybe not him, but what if the Machine is why the virus got out in August?”
Ava tilted her head in thought. “I don’t know, Ava. Mom and Dad have been working on the Machine since we were children. You don’t think all this time they were making something that could hurt people, do you? Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. She was right. But the fact that they were now dead didn’t make the timing of this look any less suspicious. I wish I had paid more attention to their work when they were alive. I was just too busy trying to stay away from them and their expectations to care about what they were working on. But it was too late to wish. They were gone and I had to focus on the ones that were still here in front of me.
I wanted to talk to Ava about the night she’d been kidnapped, but I heard Mom’s voice in my head again. “Let Ava speak whenever she wants.” I wanted her to know that I was sorry that I didn’t wake up that night. I wanted her to know that I was sorry it wasn’t me. But the words wouldn’t come.
Jordan bounded over with the completed Rubik’s cube. “All done!” He said, placing it in my hand. “It took me a few minutes to fix it after Ava messed it up.” Poor kid. He had been done for some time, but probably stayed away because he didn’t want to interrupt our conversation.
I immediately scrambled the cube, just to mess with him.
“Jade! Why did you do that?!” He shouted and tried snatching it from me. I held it just above my head where he couldn’t reach it.
“You can fix it again,” I said, laughing. “You’re a little genius.” Ava shook her head and would’ve smiled if she still remembered how to.
Then suddenly, everything changed.
The shrill shriek of an alarm. Flashing lights near the exits. This is it.
“I don’t know, it seems like the alarm just tripped.”
“We have to leave, right now!”
A door burst open from across the lobby. We couldn’t see anything, but we could hear the ARC patrol shouting. They knew we were here. Somehow, they knew.
“There’s an exit around the back,” Ava was saying, but I wasn’t listening. I grabbed Jordan’s arm and began pulling him somewhere, anywhere that was away from here. We made it out of the back door, but a new alarm began to sound. If they didn’t know where we were then, they would know now.
“My leg hurts and it’s dark,” Jordan said, crouching and clutching his leg. I tried to pull him up.
“Jordan we have to keep going.” I felt him resist, but I pulled him harder. “Use your flashlight. We can’t stop.” I could feel them gaining on us, even though I couldn’t see anything. Ava was running ahead, looking for something to use to defend us with. But she couldn’t find anything.
“There’s a town back here,” I shouted, pointing toward the left. “We should be able to find coverage there.” It had probably been abandoned, like our town, but it was worth a try.
Ava grabbed Jordan’s other hand. “Lead the way,” she said. I reluctantly let go of my brother’s hand and charged forward. He would be fine with her, I told myself after a brief second of hesitation. She’ll keep him safe.
I pushed through a few hedges, feeling my lungs start to burn. I hadn’t used these many muscles in years. The lights from the town were just starting to show above the trees. This was the second of three towns that sprung up to house the ARC employees and their families. Ours was called Aversano and this one was Tarkine Falls. It originally consisted of janitorial workers and receptionists. The scientists got a fancy town, but the rest had to figure it out in the facility’s backyard.
“Here, Jade, use this.” Ava tossed me a very large and thick branch, which could’ve passed as a two by four if it didn’t still have leaves on it. I was going to ask her what it was for when it hit me. I felt foolish. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that I knew my way around these towns, I’m pretty sure Ava would’ve left me behind a long time ago. We reached the edge of the town and I hesitated for a moment.
“What if the ARC patrol is here?” I asked. “Are we just going to walk straight into a trap?”
“That’s a chance we’ll have to take.” Ava didn’t stop moving, walking ahead of me, and pulling Jordan along with her. She disappeared into the dark street below. I could barely make out the red haze of his flashlight from this distance. I hurried down to meet them. Ava had stopped moving for some reason.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. She looked around the street and shook her head.
“Something isn’t right here. Everything feels too alive.”
I didn’t feel any difference. It felt exactly like the rest of Aversano, abandoned, empty, and dangerous. Ava pointed at a house ahead of them. “Let’s go inside and rest for tonight. I think that Jordan’s had enough of the dark, haven’t you?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. I took Jordan’s hand and let her find a way into the house.
“I’m sorry for pushing you, Jordan,” I said, kneeling down next to him. “We had to get away quickly.”
“That was scary,” he said between gasps for air. He held up his flashlight. “But at least it wasn’t all dark.”
“This way.” Ava propped open the screen door of the house and we went inside. I noticed the television and a few other lights were on.
“You sure no one’s here?”
“Positive.” Ava set down her pack and started helping Jordan with his. She fished a Gaia chocolate bar – the one with all the nuts that get stuck in your teeth – from his pack and went into the kitchen. Once I had given Jordan a granola bar and switched the TV to a familiar channel, I followed her.
“Hey, Ava, can I talk to you about something?”
She nodded, still chomping on the Gaia bar.
“Ava,” I said carefully. “I read an old article about the night you were kidnapped.”
Ava looked away, but I couldn’t have read any emotions in her eyes anyway. I swallowed and continued.
“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry that I didn’t wake up. I’m sorry that you were taken. I’m sorry that none of us protected you.”
“Don’t do this, Jade,” Ava said, finally looking up. “You didn’t know what was happening. No one did. There’s no one to blame for it, except for the people who took me.” She paused.
“You know, for years I blamed myself for it, like I somehow let it happen. And then I finally understood that I was never in control of my life. I didn’t get to choose what I wore, what I ate, what I did, what I said. That was determined by our parents at first, then by the people who kidnapped me. So if I was going to be angry at anyone for where I was, I needed to be angry at them. Either that or do something about it. So I did.”
“What happened to you?” I asked. Ava’s eyes narrowed and I knew it was an off-limits question. “Never mind, I’m sorry,” I said quickly.
“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s just something that I don’t like to think about, much less talk about.” She sighed and looked away. “They were called the Morland Order. Religious fanatics. They wanted something Mom and Dad were building. So they kidnapped me to get it. Not just me. There were a bunch of kids from the towns they took. Some of them were rich. Others were like me, with parents who were making something in here.”
“So they took you because of what our parents were doing?”
“They wanted that thing, the Machine, and they traded me for it. But it wasn’t working at the time. So they held onto me for seven years while Mom and Dad finished it for them. They did things to me, Jade, things that I don’t ever want to think about again.”
Ava set her unfinished Gaia bar on the counter. She looked at me for the first time since we started talking. For a moment, she looked like the Ava that I remembered.
“When they released me, I didn’t feel like myself. I had been trying to survive for so long, I forgot what it was like to be normal. And I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be your sister and their daughter again. I tried. But I couldn’t do it.”
So that’s why she was so different. “They never told me what happened. You never told me what happened, either.”
“Because how could I? They didn’t want you to know that they traded my life for the Machine, so they made me lie.” She shook her head. “Just earlier, you asked me about the Machine and I lied. They’re not even alive, and I’m still under their power.”
I didn’t know what to say. My mind was reeling. So this Machine went missing, but it wasn’t because Dad lost it. He traded it for Ava’s life. They were being blackmailed by the people that kidnapped her. But if the Machine was the reason for the virus, then that means…
“Did our parents cause the outbreak back in August?”
“Who knows? Probably. They never really cared about us.” Ava’s voice wavered. “Even when they were supposedly trying to save my life. They only ever cared about their experiments and never what happened to anyone else after.”
“But that still doesn’t explain why the ARC patrol wants to capture us. I mean, there was nothing in Dad’s office that showed why they would want us. Maybe if I had checked Mom’s office, I would’ve found something.”
“I know that look. We’re not going back there. There’s nothing more to find out. We have our mission: escape Aversano.” She rattled off the rest like a general giving orders. “My contact near the highway should take us to safety. We’re going to rest here for a bit, and then in the morning, we’re going to continue. You know the way through this next town, right?”
“Of course,” I said. I reached out and quickly grabbed her hand. “I’m glad we got to talk,” I said. “I feel like it’s been forever.”
“Seven years and three months to be exact,” she said, and squeezed my hand ever so slightly.
“So how are we getting through this town?” Ava pulled up to my side.
“I’ve only ever been here once,” I said, looking ahead. Tarkine Falls was situated at the base of the great waterfalls and the forest just below it. During my senior year, a few boys left prom and claimed they climbed to the top of the falls. I didn’t believe it. It was too dangerous to go alone and too expensive to hire a tour guide through the forest.
“The most important thing to know is there’s a fountain in the center of town and a bridge that leads to the forest. If the town was busy, we’d have to worry about tour guides at the entrance -”
“But since everyone is gone, the only thing we have to worry about is staying out of the line of sight.” Ava finished my scout report. She wiped her brow with her sleeve. “Let’s take a minute to rest and then we’ll head down.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I tried to find the binoculars in my pack to get a better look. I remembered the first time I came to Tarkine Falls. A group of my friends were hanging out here to celebrate graduation. As soon as the year ended, they were off to colleges and careers and lives that extended beyond the Aversano Research Corporation. And I was left behind.
“Here are the binoculars,” Jordan said, pulling them from an outside pocket of my pack. I smiled. He was the reason I wasn’t able to leave. My parents were always working and Ava had just returned so she was in no shape to keep a little boy company. I still worked and studied and tried to figure out what to do with my life. But at least I was around for Jordan.
“You’re doing pretty good,” I said, adjusting the binoculars. “We’re going to be out of here in no time.”
“Jade, I’m sorry that I can’t run fast enough and that I’m scared of the dark.”
“Hey, man, like I said, you’re doing fine.” The town came into focus in front of me.
“But Jade, I’m too slow and we’re never going to make it out of here if we can’t travel at night.”
My eyes started to swim. Those were Ava’s words, not his. I removed the lenses from my face. “You don’t have to worry about any of that. You’re doing as much as you possibly can.” He avoided my gaze, but I pressed on. “I love you, Jordan, and I will do everything I can to keep you safe.”
He was silent for a moment and then started to cry. His small voice cut through sobs: “But what if you can’t?”
I didn’t know what to say. I never wanted to consider it but the thought haunted me from the moment I promised to keep him safe. But what if I can’t?
“Then I will keep you safe.” Ava’s voice was clear and without hesitation. “You’re my brother, too. We will make it out of this alive. I guarantee it.”
I wanted to hug her right then. She didn’t have to say anything. She didn’t even know Jordan. She didn’t need to reassure him. But she was strong when I could not be. She was confident and told him what he needed to hear – what we all needed to hear. I couldn’t hug her because I knew she wouldn’t accept it. I met her eyes and whispered my thanks instead.
Ava cleared her throat. “All right. It’s time to go. Let’s get through this town so we can get to the highway and be free of this place.”
It didn’t take long to reach the town’s main entrance. The first thing I noticed was the sound of a car engine rumbling in the distance. Ava heard it, too, and motioned for us to join her near a group of bushes. The closer we got, though, the louder everything became. I grabbed Jordan’s hand. Voices filled the air and they weren’t the squawks of radios. This time, real human voices carried in the wind.
A man appeared suddenly, singing and dancing to himself. He wore a bright red hat and a brown overcoat. It wasn’t cold enough for the coat yet, but he seemed to be comfortable enough. Ava glanced at me and then quickly approached him.
“Ava!” She couldn’t hear my whisper. Jordan tried to follow but I yanked him back.
“Good morning, sir,” she said, lifting both hands slightly so he wouldn’t be concerned. He smiled and waved at her.
“Good morning to you, young lady.” He tilted his head. “What’s with the mask?”
Ava avoided his gaze. “I have trouble breathing sometimes,” she said with her quiet voice, the one she used to try to convince everyone she was just a child.
“My daughter was like that,” he said. “My wife took her away a few weeks ago.” He sighed and continued walking, lost in his own thoughts. Ava came back to the bushes.
“Masks off. Now.” Since the quarantine, wearing a mask everywhere had become almost like an instinct.
“But the town’s not abandoned. We can’t just waltz in there with no masks!”
“You heard the man. He had no idea why I was wearing one. That means he doesn’t know about the ARC patrol and he probably doesn’t know about the infection, either.”
“Or maybe he does and he doesn’t care,” I said, trying to get her to stop. But I was supposed to trust Ava. If I trusted her, I had to follow her, even here. If not, then it’d make everything else we did worthless. I hated that I was always fighting against her, always coming up with the most ridiculous excuses. Ava knew what she was doing and I needed to accept that. Now, I was just here to help Jordan.
“Grab your pack,” I told him as he pulled his mask down to his neck. “We’re going in.”
The town was alive. From the moment we stepped through the ornate entrance, I knew that these people didn’t know about the infection. They lined the streets with faces uncovered, touching everything. Vendors sold food along the sidewalks and people ate happily, licking ketchup and crumbs off their fingers. Kids ran around pushing each other, coughing in the air.
The first thing we had to do in Aversano was wear face coverings. There were the usual complaints about them, of course. Once the quarantine was put in place and most people left town, face coverings and masks were mandated in general areas. I had gone so many months with a mask on outside that I hardly noticed I was wearing one anymore.
As I walked through the crowds in Tarkine Falls, I felt exposed without my mask. I held my breath as much as I could, but eventually, I had to breathe normally. I knew it as well as anyone – if this infection was going to get you, it didn’t matter if you were wearing a mask. It was going to infect you. But I couldn’t get the months of hearing the same thing out of my head.
“So the infection hasn’t spread here?” I asked Ava, trying to keep up with her.
“I honestly don’t know.” She stopped and pulled us over to the side of a building. “Listen, we need to figure out what’s going on in this place. Why don’t we split up and then meet at the fountain in about an hour?”
“And since we can’t afford a tour guide, the best thing we can do is find out from the locals.”
“Now we’re talking.” Ava hit the side of my arm. “Make sure you’re at the fountain on time!” She disappeared into the crowd as though she had been part of it all along.
“Can we get something to eat?” Jordan tugged at my sleeve in that annoying way I told him not to.
“Give me a second,” I said, swatting his hand away. I looked at the man I was talking to. “Sorry about my brother, he’s just a little tired from all of our shopping today.”
The man didn’t seem to notice. He was dressed in light clothing for the weather: a long sleeve baseball tee, black pants, and red shoes. “They’ll tell you that it’s necessary to wear a mask, but what do they know?” He gestured around. “Not a mask in sight. Only people enjoying a nice festival after weeks of being told they couldn’t see each other.”
People were gathered in the park, food trucks lining the entire left side. If I hadn’t just come from Aversano, I wouldn’t have realized that we were still under the mask mandate. I didn’t expect to see this many people disregarding caution completely.
“Anyway, what do I even know? The government officials are sitting in their offices too scared to go out but will gladly order food from one of these trucks.” He pointed to a woman on the line in front of us. “You see her? She’s the mayor’s assistant. So maybe they know something we don’t.”
The woman collected her order and hurried along. He suddenly turned to me.
“Listen, I work for Livingston Mobile and we’ve had to do some weird things the past few days.”
We all took a step forward in line.
“What kind of weird things?”
“About two months ago, before everyone started freaking out about infections and masks, I was working at the ARC Facility a short way from here. I’m a truck driver and we deliver all kinds of samples to and from the ARC Facility and other labs.”
A man on the line in front of us turned around randomly. He seemed to be hearing our conversation, so the man I was talking to lowered his voice.
“We had to deliver over twenty trucks worth of whatever they were moving to a special government facility. Never been done before. We don’t transport things to the government.”
“So the ARC was shipping something to the government? What were they moving?”
“Who knows?” The man shrugged. “All I know is what I saw and I knew I had to keep my mouth shut. Then, less than a month later, the world falls apart because of the infection and everyone is freaking out.”
“So, you’re saying that the ARC and the government had something to do with it?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened. You remember the bird flu? You remember the Ebola outbreaks? Let’s go back even further. Remember the Spanish Flu?”
“You mean back in 1918?” I asked, this time unable to hide the incredulity in my voice. “That was literally 100 years ago! You’re saying the ARC was involved in that, too? The company was created like 50 years ago.”
“That’s what they’re telling you. Listen, the truth is that the ARC and the government have been in bed together for a long time and their illegitimate children are about to be born and destroy everything.” The man was now next in line to order his food. “It was nice talking to you. I hope you enjoy the festival. I just can’t help but expose this kind of nonsense.” He turned away, finished with our conversation. He had a lot to say, but I wasn’t sure if it was the kind of information that Ava was hoping to find out.
“Now can we eat?” Jordan asked again.
“Of course, let me just find my money.” I was glad I brought some with me. In the rush to leave the house two days ago, I noticed the pouch where Mom kept her stash of money. I grabbed it before Ava could see and chastise me from bringing useless things with us.
“What do you want?” I led him in the direction of the food trucks. “There’s anything that you want to eat, for some reason.”
“I want pizza!” Jordan skipped happily ahead, his pack suddenly weightless.
Why am I not surprised? I smiled as he ran ahead. This was the Jordan I was used to, joyful, energetic. Not the frightened, paralyzed boy that couldn’t take two steps in the dark without freaking out. If I could stay here with him I would. Everything seemed fine here.
“Excuse me, miss,” a man said suddenly. I turned to him. He was sitting at the tables next to us and was wearing a red scarf. I noticed him earlier when we were talking on the line. He had seemed very interested in what we were saying.
“Yes, how can I help you?” I put my hand on Jordan’s shoulder, keeping him from running away.
The older man seemed a little nervous about talking to us. He wrung his hands and kept looking from left to right, seeing if anyone was watching us.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation earlier,” he said, fidgeting with his scarf. “That man was going on about conspiracy theories,” he added, almost to make sure that I knew what he was talking about.
“Yeah, I don’t really believe in conspiracy theories,” I replied, shaking my head. “Everyone always thinks there’s a conspiracy but no one ever says what for, you know?”
The older man nodded slowly. “You know, there’s some truth to what he was saying.”
I figured as much. This guy wanted to give me some more theories. I didn’t have time for theories. I was going to move on, but he seemed to notice and changed subjects quickly.
“Would you like to see what this one is for?”
He pointed in the direction of the forest. “Would you like to see what this conspiracy was for? What they’re really hiding back there?”
“Why do you want to show me? Why lead me to knowledge that I can’t do anything about?” I was on a roll. “That’s what I dislike the most about conspiracy theories.”
“You don’t understand,” the man said. “I need to show you so you two can leave this place and never come back.”
And with that, he strode off in the direction of the forest. We had some time left before we had to meet Ava. We could afford a small detour. If nothing else, I was curious with what was happening in this place.
“Sir! Wait a moment!”
“This is where we put them,” he said. He had led us to an old bridge, close to the forest. It overlooked a small river on one side and a giant hill of dirt on the other side.
I held on to Jordan, who didn’t seem to understand what was going on. I looked at the hill where he was pointing.
“I’m not sure I follow.”
He frowned and grabbed a stick. “I would dig this up for you, but I think you’ll get the idea. The town knows what’s going on. The infection was here in August.”
“What? That was around the same time that it hit Aversano,” I said without realizing what it revealed about me. The man didn’t seem to notice or care at all. “I thought this town didn’t have the infection.”
“This town is pretending it doesn’t have the infection because of what they had to do.” He pointed at the hill. “This is a giant funeral pyre, covered by tons of dirt. They couldn’t wait to dig a pit, so they piled everyone and burned them here.”
“We’re not even that far from town. How come no one in there knows about this? Wouldn’t they have seen the smoke?”
He shook his head. “They didn’t need to see the smoke to know. They were all part of this. Every last one of them. The conspiracy. This is what it was for. To hide the truth that they know.”
He touched the scarf he was wearing, the red pattern striking against the dark coat he wore. “They let me keep this. They said that the infection doesn’t carry through things. I could keep Camile’s scarf and I wouldn’t have any problems.”
“My daughter,” he said, the sadness in his voice hardened to anger weeks ago. “They burned them, buried what little remained, and then we all moved on. The infection was gone, they said. In fact, they made it so that the infection had never come in the first place. We opened businesses, schools, parks, festivals. We went back to life as usual. The deaths were the sacrifice so we could live like normal again.”
“But who would do this? You say it was “the town” but who is that? The government officials?”
“It’s the government officials, the people of Tarkine Falls, the ARC, the Morland Order – everyone that you can imagine. They’re all working together to destroy us and they’re going to pretend like it never happened. When this thing gets out of control and covers the state, know that it started here. This is how they’re going to handle it. Pretend it never happened in the first place, sweep the deaths under the rug, and get back to life as “normal” as soon as possible.”
I wanted to ask him more, but he looked at Jordan. “Camile had only been sick for a week. I never thought something like that could happen to a person.”
“What happened to her?” I asked quietly. His eyes turned glassy.
“It was almost like she wasn’t a human anymore.” His voice caught in sobs and he walked off in the direction of the town, the last memory of his daughter clutched tightly to his chest.
We stood there in the silence, Jordan’s hand in mind. I felt like I never knew what to say anymore. I kept thinking about the fact that our parents were dead, too. I tried not to think of how they went out, especially since Ava said they were killed by the ARC patrol. Although I wasn’t pretending like they were off on a trip somewhere, I also wasn’t acknowledging that they were actually gone. If they were truly gone, who would I have left to be angry at?
Jordan squeezed my hand in his and I knelt down beside him. “Are you okay, Jordan?”
He nodded sadly and hugged me. He hadn’t said anything about their deaths, either. He never asked where they were or when they were coming back. He never mentioned them, except when we were heading to the research facility. One day, when he was older, I could ask him how he felt.
I didn’t think that I could handle this much more. It was easier to pretend like nothing had happened, like the infection hadn’t spread and our parents hadn’t died. Could I live in a lie like that?
After a few moments of us sitting there on the edge of the bridge, Ava appeared. She was more upset than I have ever seen.
“What is your problem, Jade?!” She shouted, towering above me.
“What are you talking about?” I stood up and moved Jordan slightly behind me.
“You didn’t tell me why you went into Dad’s office. Why didn’t you tell me about the code?”
“Ava, I don’t know anything about a code. Why are you yelling?”
“You were supposed to meet me at the fountain but I had to find you all the way out here instead.” Ava pointed her finger in my face. “They were right about you. I never should’ve trusted you in the first place!”
“Whoa, Ava, calm down,” I said. “Start over because I really don’t know what you’re so upset about.”
“I found out about the Machine from one of the guys who helped physically build it. He said that in order to activate it, you need a code. So where is the code?”
“I don’t know anything about a code, Ava, so calm down. You don’t get to yell at me for something I know nothing about!” She had never reacted like this before. I put my arm around Jordan. I honestly wasn’t sure what she was going to do and could feel my heart starting to race.
“Jade?” Jordan tugged on my arm, but I couldn’t respond to him.
“That’s the reason why the ARC wants to find you guys. They think that one of you has the code.”
“Honestly, Ava, if you ask me about the code one more time -”
“When you went to Dad’s office, did you find it?”
“Listen, Ava, I don’t know anything about a code. Why are you freaking out about it? Isn’t this a good thing? If we don’t have it, then there’s no reason for the ARC to come after us.”
“You don’t understand,” Ava said calmly, for the first time since she reappeared. “It’s not just the ARC that wants to find you anymore.” Her voice trailed off.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Jade?” I felt another tug on my shirt, but I kept my focus on Ava.
She dropped her shoulders in despair. “It’s the Morland Order, the people that took me. They have the Machine but not the code that activates it. They must’ve found out that we were here and they’re coming for us, too.”
“How do you even know that?”
“You may know your way around these towns, but I know how to get information. And what I have is enough for me to know that we have to leave – now!”
“Wait one second, Ava,” I said, trying to figure out what was going on. “Since we don’t have this code, what are they going to do if they capture us?”
“The ARC will kill us without a doubt,” she said, not bothering to censor herself for Jordan’s sake. “And if the Morland Order catches us… Jade, I don’t even want to imagine what they’ll do to us.”
We both looked down at Jordan, who was now yelling at the same volume as the two of us.
“What is it?” Ava said rudely. I turned around to look at him.
“It’s about the code, Jade,” he said, slowly. “Mom and Dad gave it to me before they died.”
“They did what?”
“It’s a little chip, right inside of my skin,” he said, lifting up his arm to show me.
“This is insane,” Ava said, putting both hands on her head.
“They told me to protect it at all cost.” He paused and looked away from me. “And they said not to tell anyone, not even you, Jade.”
I felt the truth hit me in the chest. What were our parents thinking? I swallowed a few times.
“Jade, I’m so sorry for lying to you!” And then he was crying and trying to hug me. I held onto him and looked over at Ava.
“So there it is. Your info about the code was right.”
She wasn’t her usual put together self and that seemed to make her even more angry. “I can’t believe they would do something like this. He’s just a child!”
“Okay, Ava, so what are we going to do about it? The ARC and now the Morland Order are both trying to capture us. And if they’re half as bad as you say, we need to stay far away. But where are we supposed to go? Is there any place that will be safe from them?”
“The Watchtower is safe,” Jordan said, his voice suddenly low and deep. “Mom and Dad told me to go there once we escaped.”
“The Watchtower?” I remembered back to the files I found in Dad’s office. It didn’t seem like there was a physical place associated with it, just a random name for the project they were working on. “But we don’t even know where that is! And anyway, isn’t the project run by the ARC?”
Ava shrugged. “I don’t know, Jade, but our parents mentioned it for a reason. Why would they tell Jordan to go there if every single ARC installation was dangerous? There has to be a reason. Do you have any better ideas?”
“Let’s deal with one thing at a time first,” I said, suddenly feeling the urge to keep moving. “We need to make it to the highway. Then, your contact is supposed to take us somewhere safe. From there, we’ll figure out where The Watchtower is and bring the code there.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Ava said, giving me a mock salute. She paused for a second. “Jade, I’m sorry for yelling at you. I should’ve trusted that you would tell me everything that you knew.”
I didn’t respond. She shouldn’t talk about trust. Right now, it felt like there wasn’t anyone I could trust. Not Ava, not my parents, not even my little brother! Everything was getting out of control. I just needed us to keep moving so I wouldn’t have to think about this anymore.
But Jordan’s silent footsteps next to mine as we crossed the bridge wouldn’t let me forget. How could Jordan keep a secret like this? Was it because he didn’t trust me? Why wouldn’t our parents tell me the truth? Why had they chosen him for it? Was it because I wasn’t good enough? Or did they not trust me, either?
I thought over every single negative interaction I had with them, every single time I lied to them or wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Surely those were petty. Why would those things disqualify me from something as important as this? Giving this code to Jordan was extremely dangerous. How did they think he was going to survive on his own? Or did they expect him to die, rendering their Machine useless?
Jordan looked up at me. “Jade, are you mad?”
I was. But not at him. “It’s okay, Jordan,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“But I didn’t tell you about the code,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “They told me to lie about it, but I shouldn’t have listened. I’m sorry!”
As much as I wanted to be angry at him, I couldn’t. I pulled him close to me while we walked. “Jordan, it’s not your fault, okay? You were being an obedient child. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
I couldn’t be angry at him but I could be angry with our parents. I spent most of the last seven years being angry at them, and now that they were dead, it hadn’t brought it to an end. I wanted to yell at them, to ask them what were they thinking? But I knew they wouldn’t be able to hear me and we really needed to get away from this place.
As we walked into the forest, I thought about what Ava said earlier, about not being angry at things that are outside of your control. I would have to do something about this instead. And the only thing I could think of was getting Jordan out of Aversano and bringing him safely to The Watchtower, wherever that was.
I would have to do this if it was the last thing I did on earth. If our parents were going to send Jordan like a lamb to the slaughter, I was going to snatch him out from under the knife.
I could never tell Ava, but I had never actually been to Sorrow’s Creek before. I knew it connected to a forest and that the highway was just beyond it. But I only had a few stories from Mom and Dad to go on. That, and the sound of rushing water.
“The creek should be that way.” I pointed ahead. Jordan fell in line behind me, with Ava taking up the rear.
“Hey, it’s a fox!” Jordan said, tapping me on the back. I followed his hand and there it was. A fox, staring at us with a smaller animal in its teeth. It seemed ominous, almost foreboding.
I looked up at the sun. Daylight was starting to run out. We would have to keep up a good pace if we didn’t want to be caught out here in the dark. Then, it wouldn’t matter if the ARC or the Morland Order or whoever else found us. We’d have all the animals in here to worry about.
The sounds of the creek grew louder. I pushed aside several branches, hoping to get closer. Once we reached the creek, we needed to follow it north to the gravel road. At least, that’s what Mom had told me when she was describing it.
I wonder why they never brought us here if they knew it so well.
Maybe they really were paranoid after losing Ava. Jordan was a baby and I was a semi-rebellious teenager. I guess they didn’t want to take the chance.
It didn’t take long to finally break through and reach the creek.
“Can I go inside it?” Jordan asked, tugging my arm. How many times did I have to tell him not to do that?
“Alright Jordan, give me your pack,” I said. “But you have to step on big rocks or something.”
“Okay, so my feet can’t get wet, got it.” He wasn’t paying attention anymore. He wriggled out of his pack and dashed for the creek.
“That kid has way too much energy,” she said, setting her pack down next to a log and sitting on it.
“It’s better this way.” I sat down next to her. “Just before you met up with us and started yelling at me-” She looked away. “We were talking to a man who said that the infection reached Tarkine Falls.”
“But everyone seemed fine.”
“That’s because they killed everyone who was infected before it spread.”
“My goodness.” She let out a long sigh. “Did Jordan understand?”
“I’m not sure.” I crossed my arms. “Honestly, I don’t think he totally gets the fact that Mom and Dad are… dead.” Even though I understood, it still felt weird to say.
We sat quiet like that for a bit.
“You know, I feel like I missed out on Jordan growing up,” Ava said. She was watching him play at the edge of the creek. He was so preoccupied in throwing sticks into the water that he didn’t notice us sitting off to the side.
“Jordan’s a good kid,” I said. “I know you didn’t get a chance to see the early years, but we’re here together now.”
“Yeah,” Ava said slowly. She drew on the ground with her foot.
“What’s wrong, Ava?” I asked.
She let out another deep sigh. “I just hate that I wasn’t here all those years.”
“You know it wasn’t your fault.”
“But me being cold when I got back was my fault.”
I could tell that being vulnerable was hard for her. I put my hand on her arm and that seemed to help. She swallowed and then continued.
“You know, when I first came back, I thought that maybe you guys didn’t want me.”
“Oh no, Ava.”
She didn’t seem to hear me. “Jordan was born right after I was kidnapped and he completed the family again. It seemed like when I got back, everyone wanted things to go back to how they were. But I couldn’t be the old Ava anymore, the one that you knew. That Ava was long forgotten. I also didn’t want to be the new Ava, who was traumatized and depressed and couldn’t do anything. I needed to be something else.”
She looked down the river to where Jordan was playing. “And even though they didn’t pick me to protect Jordan, I still want to make sure that you guys are safe.”
“I’m not sure you even want to be picked by them for anything,” I said, miserably. Ava shook her head.
“Honestly, Jade, you have to let them go. And I know what I’ve said before, so you don’t have to say it. I may be upset at some things that they did, but ultimately, I had to let it go.”
“I understand that, and I think it’s true. What I don’t get is why they would choose Jordan to carry this very important code.” I knew I was whining. I could feel myself starting to tear up. “Why didn’t they choose someone who could actually make it to The Watchtower?”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “Look, Jade, the things our parents did weren’t always great. I’m a testament to that. But there was always a reason for everything they did. Maybe, in a way, the job they gave you is more important.”
“You’re the one who has to protect Jordan, to bring him to safety. Without you, he can’t get to The Watchtower and they will have died for nothing. I’m the one who doesn’t belong here, not you.”
“You might be right,” I said, wiping away a few tears that had managed to slip out. One of those half crying-half laughs escaped me. “Who knew you would be so good at uplifting speeches?”
Ava shrugged. “I was the oldest of the kids that were taken, so I always had to be the big sister. I had a lot of practice giving talks.” There was a sadness to her voice when she said it.
“Well, when you first got back, it was a little weird.”
“Just a little?” She said, smiling softly.
“But now that we’ve had a chance to talk, I see that you have become different, but in a good way.”
Sitting together like this reminded me of when we were younger, before the kidnapping, before Jordan, when it was just the two of us. We would sit for hours talking about school, boys, or whatever. We couldn’t have those days anymore, but I was glad that we could have this. I reached forward and gave her a hug.
“Oh!” At first she seemed to stiffen. I could feel the bones in her back and it reminded me of Mom again. But then she relaxed and let me hug her.
“I love you, Ava,” I said quietly, for the first time in years.
She paused for a few seconds. “I love you, too, Jade.” We sat like that for a full minute before I stood up.
“We’ve been at the creek for a while,” I said. “I am going to check a little further downstream on where to go next.”
“I’ll stay here and watch Jordan,” she said, heading over to him.
I smiled as I walked away. I hadn’t expected to get to talk to Ava so much. When she first returned, I was so afraid to ask her any questions. Mom insisted that I leave her alone, that I give her space, which was fine. But I shouldn’t have been afraid of her. I shouldn’t have been worried that she wouldn’t still care about me, even though she’d been hurt by our parents.
I followed the creek a few feet upstream. I could see the road I was looking for into the clearing. I knew about it from stories that Mom and Dad had talked about for years. I turned back down the creek to join up with the others.
I guess still being angry at them was ridiculous. It didn’t matter if I felt like they thought I wasn’t good enough. They made me promise to protect Jordan because they knew that I could do it. That was all the confidence I needed from them.
I suddenly stopped moving. Everything had gone quiet. I couldn’t hear trees moving, branches snapping. I couldn’t hear Ava or Jordan. I could feel my heart starting to race in my chest. My mind was going through every possible reason for why they were so quiet. I ran back to the creek as fast as I could.
Right at the edge of the water stood Jordan. He was crying and holding his arm.
He turned to me and started to shout and point. “Over there! They have her over there!”
I looked over to my left, to the rest of the stream which was now visible now that I was out of the forest. Ava was being attacked by two men. One had her in a hold and the other was struggling to get some restraints on her.
I didn’t have time to plan. I ran over to them and threw myself at the first attacker. He seemed surprised to see me.
“Ava!” I shouted, hoping she would see me and know that she wasn’t here alone. “Get off of her!”
I hit the attacker with all of my strength but he pushed me aside like I didn’t weigh a thing. I fell to the ground and then tried to get up, but he’d knocked the wind right out of me. He lifted the bat he’d been holding with his other. He was about to strike when Jordan tossed a rock at him from across the way. It bounced on the man’s hand and drew his attention away.
“Leave my sisters alone!” he shouted, joining the shouts, grunts, and yells. Ava was still struggling with the man who had her in a hold but looked like she was making progress.
While the man was distracted with Jordan, I made a move to wrestle the bat from his hand. I just needed to get some leverage and get Ava out of her situation. She was the better fighter, but she was pinned down.
“Let go!” I said, pushing against him with one last burst of strength. I managed to get a little way with the bat and dug my fingernails into his hand. I was going to get desperate and try to bite him but didn’t have to.
The bat gave way from his fingers and I took it. I hit him with all of my strength. While he stumbled away, I turned to the man that was holding Ava and gave her the opening she needed. She used it to get free from the man and swung at his face. She kicked him in the stomach and reached for the bat.
“Give it to me,” she said breathlessly. She looked like she had done this before. I watched in awe as she managed to take on both men. Now that she didn’t have Jordan to worry about, she could handle them better. Between the bat, her punches, and her kicks, she had both men on the ground, clutching their heads, their eyes, and the rest of their bodies, unable to decide which part hurt more.
“What do you guys want?” She asked, putting her foot on one of they guys’ head. He groaned and turned over.
“Ava let’s get out of here,” I said. “We don’t need to be around when they get their strength back. We don’t need answers from them.”
“You might not need answers, but they attacked us out of nowhere. I need to know who you’re working for!”
“Ava, if we don’t hurry up, they’re going to get us.”
The man who had come after me reached in his pocket and pulled out a small whistle. Before I could say or do anything, he had blown on the whistle. Ava and I locked eyes with each other. This can’t be good. He could’ve been signaling for anyone.
Ava grabbed my arm. “Jade, you have to carry him out of here.”
“But Ava, I can’t! I already told you I’m not strong enough, my arms -”
“We don’t have time for this! You heard him blowing the whistle. You two need to get to the highway as fast as possible!”
“What about you?”
“You need to run fast, so you might lose me. But don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you.”
“Follow the stream to reach the gravel road,” I said, pointing further up north. “Then it’s a straight path to the highway.” We took off our packs and tossed them aside.
“I’m going to try holding them off as much as I can.”
“Ava!” I shouted. She’d just come back to us. She couldn’t be leaving already. Ava looked at me fiercely, expecting me to protest. I couldn’t. “Be careful out there!”
She nodded, then dashed off without saying a word.
“Wait! I need my flashlight,” Jordan said, reaching in his pack to grab it.
“Come on, Jordan.”
I felt every single one of his seventy pounds. Holding him tightly, I ran as fast as I possibly could. I could hear the men behind us whistling again, calling for more reinforcements. I didn’t care who they were and what they wanted. I just knew that we had to run.
As we ran through the forest, I was terrified. I could only imagine how bad this was for Jordan. He was silent as he held tightly to my body, his arms squeezing around my neck. I wanted to talk to him, to tell him this was going to be okay, but I couldn’t get enough words out. I couldn’t say anything at all. So instead, I ran.
Seeing Ava get attacked by those men told me one thing: I never wanted to see her hurt again. I would do crazy things like attack random dudes just to make sure it would never happen again. But right now all I had to do was keep on the gravel road, straight to the highway. Once we were there, everything would be fine. We would get Jordan to The Watchtower, where Jordan and the code would be safe.
I pushed on for a little while longer and the trees broke in front of me to a clearing. I could see lights from the highway in the distance.
“We’re here!” I shouted, dropping Jordan on the ground. He used his flashlight to look behind us. I turned around. Ava burst onto the clearing behind us.
“You made it,” I said, collapsing on my knees, trying to catch my breath.
“You think we lost them for good?”
“We better have,” she said, looking back where we came from. “That was a pretty long distance for them to have followed.”
“I’m sure they got confused at the creek,” I said.
“Yes, let’s hope.” Ava grew silent. I looked up at her.
“My contact was supposed to be here on this side of the highway when we arrived. He’s supposed to have a car waiting and everything.”
“Wait, he’s not here?” I pulled myself off the ground. “Ava, what’s going on?”
“I’m going to go check on the other side, see if maybe he ended up on the wrong side of the highway.”
“But what about us? What if those men decide to double back and come through here? Jordan and I will be exposed and there will be no one to help us.”
“Wait, you think you actually need help?” Ava laughed.
“I’m serious. We need you.”
“And I’m serious, too. You saved my life back there. I’m forever thankful.” Ava looked down. “That’s what makes this so hard.”
“Makes what hard?”
Ava reached over and snatched the flashlight from Jordan’s hand.
“Hey!” He shouted. I stood up.
“Ava, what are you doing?!”
“You will never understand,” Ava said, shaking her head as she took the flashlight apart. “You’ll never know what it was like to be there for all those years.” She threw one of the batteries into the field far away. “Only to come back and find out that I’ve been replaced by him.”
I could feel my chest starting to grow tight. My head was pounding. “Ava, what’s going on?”
“Wait here. I have to go find my contact.”
“What makes you think-”
Ava squatted next to Jordan. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought this kid couldn’t travel in the dark.” She poked him in the chest. “It’s too dark for you to see, right?”
“Don’t touch him, Ava!”
She turned to me. “Or what? It’s not like you can do anything to me.”
“We fought against those guys-”
“Who I hired. You really think that two little women like us could take on men like that?” She laughed. “Honestly, Jade, you are the most ridiculous person I have ever met. For all your supposed lack of trust, you sure do trust very easily.”
“Ava, why are you doing this?” I couldn’t understand what was happening, but I was starting to see that I wouldn’t have much longer.
“I’m not going to waste my time on a long speech. But I will tell you that it’s thanks to you that I know where the code for the Machine is.”
“You’re working for those people, the ones that kidnapped you!”
Ava’s face twisted in anger. “Don’t you dare tell me that I’ve been brainwashed. I know exactly what I’m doing. They may have unconventional methods, but with the Morland Order, I have seen the truth.” She leaned closer to me. “Would you like to know how the world is going to end?”
“Ava, you’re crazy!”
“That’s what our parents said, too.” She shook her head. “Imagine that being your last memory on earth, telling your daughter who you’re supposed to love, that she’s insane.”
What was she saying? “Ava, were you there when the ARC patrol killed them?”
She started to laugh then, a grating laugh that moved from shock to anger. “Is that what you think? The ARC is not after you. They don’t even know that the code exists! I only found out about it after I had killed them both. I’m glad you only went to Dad’s office because that would’ve been bad for me!”
Everything shifted in front of me. I nearly lost my balance. I held onto Jordan and fought the urge to run away. We couldn’t do that. Not yet. This woman wasn’t my sister anymore. I couldn’t be sure what she was going to do next.
“It’s such a shame that you turned out like this. You know, we could’ve used someone like you. Instead, you squandered your genius on your daddy issues. Going on and on about ‘why didn’t they choose me?’” She laughed. “And I thought I had problems. You’re pathetic, Jade.”
“So what’s the point, Ava?” I had to stall for as much time as I could. We had to figure a way out of this. I had to figure it out. “Why bring us all the way out here, just to tell us this?”
She shrugged. “Now that I know Jordan has the code, I don’t need you anymore.” She put her hand on my shoulder. It was all I could do not to push her off. “Aw, do you feel betrayed? What, are you going to cry now?”
“Ava…” I could barely find breath, much less the words to describe what I felt.
“Actually, you know what? I don’t care. You’re irrelevant to this story, you know? You always have been. He’s the important one.” She narrowed her eyes. “When I get back, we’re going to take Jordan. If you try to stop us, I will do what I have to.” Ava’s voice was cold. “Do you want that to be Jordan’s last memory of you?”
“Get away from me!” I said, pushing her away. She laughed.
“I’ll be back, Jade. And you’ll be here waiting for me because you have nowhere else to run,” she said, walking away.
My mind was racing. I couldn’t stop the thoughts. Ava playing with the Rubik’s Cube. Her telling Jordan she would take care of him. Our conversation at the log. Me telling her that I loved her. Ava saying that she loved me. How could it all have been a lie?
I couldn’t process it. I didn’t have time.
“Jordan, we’re not safe here.”
“But we can’t go anywhere!” He was crying now, full sobs that made him hard to understand. “Ava destroyed my flashlight and now I can’t see anything. Jade, I don’t know what we’re going to do!”
I wanted to cry, too. I wanted to feel the pain that was in my chest. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t believe that she put us in danger like this. I couldn’t believe she was working with the Morland Order all along. I couldn’t believe she was the one who killed our parents.
“Jordan, we need to move. I know, I know it’s dark, but we can’t stay here.”
“Ava’s going to be back and she’s not going to let me come. I can’t let her take you away, Jordan. I promised.”
“But Jade, I can’t go in the dark.” He threw himself into me. His tears were starting to wet my shirt. “Jade, I’m so scared!”
“Jordan.” I knelt down next to him. “Jordan, I know this is scary, but we have to do this.” I wiped his face. “I have to keep you safe. We can’t be here when she gets back.”
“Where are we going to go?”
I didn’t skip a beat. “Without The Watchtower, we won’t stand a chance.”
“But where is it?” Jordan’s sobbing had slowed and he was taking deep breaths. I pushed his hair out of his eyes.
“I don’t know, but we have to try to find it.”
“It’s too dark, Jade. I can’t.”
“Jordan, you will have to trust me.” I touched his face. “Can you do that?”
He hesitated. It was hard to read his eyes in the dark, but I could tell he understood how important this was and that it was our only choice. He nodded and said, “Yes,” in his little voice.
I grabbed his hand and, without another word, we both took a step into the darkness.