The message is still there.
And then my legs decide to stop supporting me. I sink to the floor and press my hand against my forehead and I start to laugh and then I start to cry.
I lower my hand and look up. Rhys and Cary are at the end of the hall. They rush to me, asking questions, what is it, what happened, what’s wrong. They try to guess. Are you hurt? Is it the barricades? They’ll never guess. I wipe my eyes and hold my phone out to them.
“Do you see it?” I can barely get the words out. “Do you see the message—”
Rhys takes the phone from me. Stares at it. He hands it to Cary wordlessly. Doesn’t he see it? I can’t tell if he sees it. Cary frowns and then his mouth hangs open in disbelief. I think he should be as ecstatic as I am in this moment—the girl he loved is alive and doesn’t he want to see her of course he’d want to see her—but instead he says, “This is old, Sloane.”
“It’s not that old,” I say. “We have to stop there before we go to Rayford. We can get her and then we can all go to Rayford—”
“You don’t even know if they’re alive—”
I rip the phone out of Cary’s hand. “It says it’s safe. It’s safe. We can stop there and we can get her and we can go to Rayford. My dad—he has a car—”
“They could be gone if they’ve heard the radio—”
“No. They’re still there—she wouldn’t leave if she came back.” She went out of her way to leave me. If she came back, she means it. She means it this time for good. She has to. “She wouldn’t leave if she came back this time. She wouldn’t do that to me—” They exchange a glance and I want to grab them both and shake them, something. “It doesn’t matter! We’re going to Rayford anyway—we can stop there. Why can’t we stop there?”
“No one said we couldn’t stop there—”
“Why am I asking you permission?” It hits me so hard. We don’t have to do everything as a group. “I don’t have to ask you if I can go to my home. I’ll just go there myself—”
All I wanted to know was if they saw it, if the message was real. It is and I’m packed. I can leave. Cary grabs my arm and it’s the wrong arm, the one Trace kicked and something about that brings me to my senses, turns me back into the Sloane I was and have always been, except I don’t want to be her because she fills my head with this thought immediately: even if we find each other again—
“Calm down,” Cary tells me. “We can go, Sloane. Of course we can check it out.”
She still left me.
I push the thought out of my head.
We decide to leave in the morning. There’s no point in waiting anymore.
Cary asks me if I want Trace to come with us, like it should be up to me, like I would even think of leaving him behind when he’s Grace’s brother and they’d already decided to go to Rayford, where their family might be. He has to come.
“If she’d said no, were you just going to leave him in the nurse’s office?” Harrison asks.
“He’s coming,” I say. “Stop.”
“Someone has to tell him what’s going on,” Cary says. “Harrison, that’s you.”
“What? Why me? I don’t want—”
“Christ.” Cary buries his face in his hands for a long moment and when he finally raises his head, he looks ready to kill Harrison. “If I’m dragging your sorry ass through Cortege, you can just do what I fucking tell you. You know why you’ve never done anything that matters? Because you never do anything. Tell Trace. Now.”
Harrison leaves the room with tears trailing down his cheeks and I understand why he’s afraid to see Trace. Trace’s grief and anger mark him now. But Harrison made his choice.
“I’m going to divide Grace’s—” Cary takes a breath, trying to collect himself. “Her book bag. I’m going to divide everything inside it between us.”
He goes to the library and thinking of him opening up her bag, everything she was going to take with her, makes me so sad and I try to think of Lily instead, seeing Lily, but it doesn’t help. Rhys watches me from his side of the table. There’s nothing in his eyes. His mouth is pinched.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m happy for you,” he says.
“I hope she’s there.”
“She will be.”
He nods but he doesn’t say anything and I know he doesn’t believe me, but I don’t care because I know it’s true. Lily will be there.
“When we went outside,” he says, “if it had worked out the way you wanted it to … you would have never seen the message. Or her. So I guess it’s good it didn’t work out.” I look away. “And your father’s there. You’ll see him.”
“He’s dead,” I say.
“How can you know that?”
“He’s dead to me. If he’s alive, we’re not taking him with us.”
“It’s his car, isn’t it?”
“I don’t care.”
“I’m happy for you,” he says again.
But I think he means it less and less each time he says it.
Cary comes back and then Harrison comes back and tells us Trace has agreed to go but he wants us to pay our respects to Grace before we do and then I realize every time I envision us leaving through the library, she’s there. She’s with us, she’s alive. I erase her from the mental image but that feels so wrong so I let her stay, but I try to make her look like a ghost instead.
Which is worse.
I spend the evening on my mat staring at the skylights, watching it get darker and darker. I’m starting to feel everything Trace did to me and I’m afraid it will slow us down but I think if you want something bad enough it can be greater than pain, it can push you past it.
Rhys whispers my name. At first, I’m not sure I’ll answer him, even though I’m awake but then I think what if he dies? I’m trying not to consider all the things that could go wrong, but what if he dies and this will be the last moment I share with him. I owe him more. I roll onto my side to face him. He’s staring at me. I wonder how long he’s been staring at me.
“We should be asleep,” I say.
“Are you scared?”
I shake my head. It’s a lie and it isn’t. I’m not scared right now. I’m not scared in the way that he must be. He looks so vulnerable when I say no, so upset, like he’s the last scared person in the world and he doesn’t want to be alone with that.
“I’m jealous of you,” he whispers. “It kills me to look at you.”
“Come here,” I tell him. But there’s not enough room on my mat for him to just be close to me. He moves his next to mine and then we’re lying together. I bring my hand to his hair, which is soft. He smells like smoke. He curls into me, puts his arms around me. It makes me wince. He loosens his grip immediately.
I take his arm and I put it around me again. He closes his eyes. I let my fingers trace the outline of his face and his lips. His breathing is ragged, broken.
“Sloane,” he says.
“When we get to Rayford can I stay with you and her?”
“Of course,” I whisper. “Of course you can.”
He starts to cry. I pull him closer to me. He presses his face against my collarbone.
We fall asleep like that.
Trace stares at us through the window.
His eyes are hollow and his jaw is set. Cary unlocks the door to the nurse’s room and pulls it open. I stay behind Rhys and Harrison. If I’m afraid of anything right now, it’s Trace. I don’t want him to lose it on me again. When I woke up this morning, everything hurt a little more and I have to be able to run. He makes no move toward me. There’s no anger on his face but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
He steps past us and then he stops and I know we’re meant to follow. We make an unconscious line behind him, a funeral procession. The only thing missing is the coffin but I feel the weight of it. Her body inside. We shuffle up the stairs, our footsteps in eerie unison. We reach the second floor. He hovers on the landing. We hover with him.
The hall is dark.
He takes a deep breath and moves forward.
We are ten feet from Yee’s room when he stops again.
“If I go in that room,” Trace says, “I won’t come out again.”
Even though he hurt me, even though he thinks I killed her, I don’t want him to go in there because from here, I see her in him. I never saw it when she was alive but now I do. The shape of his face. His eyes. The way he moves. It’s not as delicate, but it’s her.
It makes me feel like she’s not dead.
He brings his hand to his mouth, considers it. I know he could easily stay here forever with her. He turns to us. His eyes fall on me and I shrink away.
“Lucky,” he says. It’s all he says.
We follow him back downstairs, to the library.
The barricade is down. It’s raining again. Cary says that’s a good thing. It will be an uncomfortable thing, but maybe the rain will mask our scent, keep us invisible when we need to be invisible. He hands out our weapons. Rhys and Cary and Harrison take the baseball bats but Trace refuses one. He lifts his shirt, revealing the gun, and then raises his chin, daring us to say something but we don’t. I take the crowbar. I need the weight. I lace my arms through the straps of my book bag. The other thing I’m taking—my note to Lily. I want it with me even though I don’t plan to die before I see her again. Not now.
“We’re going to jump the fence,” Cary says. “We’ll go through the trees until we’re directly across from the alley—” The alley. Where Mr. and Mrs. Casper died. “And we’ll just keep cutting across street after street, every goddamn shortcut until we hit Sloane’s house.”