“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?”

“What?”

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.”

“Camile?”

“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.”

“Jade!”

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. 

“Jordan -”

“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.