The town had been drained of its life some time ago, that much was clear by the complete and total lack of upkeep of its businesses and homes. It was a sight I’d grown used to over the past year, to the point that I didn’t feel the creeping sense of dread that came with seeing empty playgrounds, or fresh dirt in graveyards, or homes that had been chained and boarded up. So not even California, which had run independently from the rest of the nation under the Federal Coalition, had been immune to the new normal of economic strife that the rest of the country had been clawing through.

“People could be staying here,” I said. “They would stake it as their territory—”

“Look at the cars here,” Cole said, “the amount of dirt on them. They’ve been sitting here awhile. I haven’t seen any movement through the hotel’s windows or around the perimeter, have you? Park. Pull up right there, next to that gray Toyota.”

I turned off the engine as he double-checked that Clancy was still out and still secured with zip ties. He went to inspect the other cars to find a working one with gas, and I jumped down from the driver’s seat and all but ran around to the back to untie the tarp. The three of them sat up in unison, blinking against the dull light.

Cool rain streaked down my face and neck as I helped the others down from the back. The air was thick with that strange, wonderful, indescribable smell that was unique to storms in the desert.

“Hey,” I said, my hands closing around Liam’s arms to steady him as he slid down off the bed. “Are you all right?”

Liam nodded and squeezed my shoulder as he passed by. “Chubs—wait—dammit, buddy—” Without his glasses, the kid couldn’t see a thing. Chubs caught his toe on a pothole in the pavement and went down before Liam could reach him. After he used his good arm to get his friend back on his feet, he led Chubs toward the edge of the motel’s parking lot and they disappeared around the corner. By the lack of explanation and how quickly they were moving, I took a guess about what kind of business they were conducting.

“Was it as special up front as it was in the back?” Vida asked, hopping down next to me. Her joints popped as she stretched her arms and back.

“No one’s killed each other,” I said. “Was it terrible back there?”

“Nah,” Vida said with a shrug. “A little uncomfortable and cold at some points. You took a sharp turn somewhere and Grannie copped a feel by mistake. He looks like he wants to die of shame each time I bring it up. Basically, I’m going to milk that shit for all it’s worth.”

“Do you have to?” I asked pointedly.

“Whatever. He was more pissed off by us playing a game of who could think up the worst nickname for him.”

“Let me guess, you won?”

“It was Boy Scout, actually. I mean, come on. Even I couldn’t top Chubby Chubby Choo Choo. I almost pissed my pants laughing.”

I made a mental note to give Chubs a good, long hug before we set off again.

Glancing over to make sure the boys were making their way back toward us, a pop of color caught my eye. Shielding my eyes against the rain, I took a step toward the two small cement homes that were oddly positioned a short distance from the corner of the street. A crude array of graffiti marred the cracked cement wall that separated the side of the house from the nearby parking spaces.

“What?” Vida asked. “What’s with that face?”

Most of the art wasn’t really art at all, and a good portion hadn’t been spray-painted. I wiped the rain from my face, tucking my wet hair out of the way. There were names scrawled there in permanent marker—a Henry, a Jayden, a Piper, and a Lizzy all written in great looping letters under a large, black, outlined circle with what looked like a crescent moon inside of it. Vida trailed me as I walked over to it to get a better look.

My eyes skimmed over the wall, vaguely aware of the steps coming up behind us. One of the tags, this one done in blue spray paint, was fresh enough that the letters there—what looked like a K, L, Z, and H—were running, drooping down to the ground. I pressed my fingers against it, unsurprised that they came away sticky and stained.

“Oh. Wow.” Liam let out a startled laugh, stepping up next to me to get a better look.

“Oh, wow, what?” Chubs asked.

“It’s road code. Remember? At East River?”

I glanced at Chubs as his brow furrowed, clearly as confused as I felt. Liam had dived into camp life headfirst, befriending anyone and everyone, but I had kept mostly to Clancy, and Chubs had kept mostly to himself.

“Well,” Liam said, undaunted, “it was the system they worked out for safe travel. We used it to mark how to get back after going out on supply runs, and it was taught to all of the kids who left and went out on their own.”

He flattened his palm against the crescent moon. “I remember this one. This means that this is a safe place. To sleep. To rest. That kind of thing.”

“And the names are what, kids who have passed through?” Vida asked.

“Yeah. They were supposed to do that in case they had to split up, or they were trying to leave a trail for another group to follow.” The rain was coming down harder, forcing him to stop and wipe it off his face. “There are different ones for places to pick up food, where you can find supplies, a house of friendly people who might be willing to help you, and so on and so forth.”

“Clancy thought of this?” I asked.