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. 

Nothing. 

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. 

“Unless what?”

“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. 

“What happened?”

“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.