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.”