And then Zu shoves the door open as hard as she can, right in the lady’s smug face.
The skip tracer goes down in a limp, unmoving heap. Zu, meanwhile, is all action. She shoves the door open the rest of the way and steps over the woman to get to the van. By the time she wrenches the sliding door open, I have enough sense to start crawling after her.
The woman is out cold—you’d have to be to stay on the burning asphalt that long willingly. I glance around, horrified that someone’s witnessed this, but Zu only has eyes for the small figure that’s curled up in a little ball of leather straps and chains in the middle of the van. She waves me over impatiently, like, Can you catch up with the rest of the class, please, and I jump from our car to the other, only bending down to pluck the keys from the unconscious woman’s hands.
The kid—this boy who’s twelve, maybe thirteen at the most—stops struggling the minute Zu takes the blindfold off his eyes. I’m not really believing what I’m seeing. The van smells terrible, and it’s clear from the stain that the boy’s gone and wet himself like the baby he really is. He’s shaking, screaming something at her around his gag. I let Zu take the keys and undo the handcuffs around his wrists and ankles herself.
I see it out of the corner of my eye, resting on the front passenger seat next to a small handgun—a shiny black tablet, the kind they only give to registered skip tracers.
“Oh my God,” the boy cries when she’s able to untie the gag. His chest is heaving with every breath he takes, and he’s crying the way I used to when I was a kid and I came home with a bad grade or after a lost soccer match and my mom would tell me not to be so goddamn pathetic about such stupid things. He’s sobbing the way I did the night I found my dad’s body.
“Thank you, thankyouthankyou,” he sobs, clinging to me.
The boy’s legs don’t seem to be working, so I lift him into my arms and carry him to my truck. I already know it’s not going to be this one, either.
I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore.
I hit the I-10 and all of a sudden I’m just driving, going as fast as I can without catching any attention I don’t want. Every time I look up into the rearview mirror, I expect to see some kind of military SUV gaining on me, streaking down the freeway with guns blazing. Or at least a white van with a frizzy-haired woman sporting a new shiner leaning out her window to fire at me mid-chase.
I’ve seen too many action movies.
Zu calmly holds the boy’s hand, and he actually lets her. I guess that’s the difference between kids these days and the kinds of kids I grew up with. They don’t have much pride—at least not enough pride to act like a punk and be rude because he’s secretly humiliated about having pissed himself and cried in front of a girl. I guess they can overlook these things, given their circumstances. It’s kind of sweet, in a way…like normal puppy love, only with the addition of freak superpowers and hormones.
I have to hand it to him, too. Now that he’s calmed down, I think he might be trying to flirt with her. He keeps asking her questions, but she only nods or shakes her head.
“She doesn’t talk,” I explain finally. “But she understands what you’re saying.”
I look at him out of the corner of my eye—ginger, an explosion of freckles across his face, dressed in nice enough clothes to tell me someone out there cares enough to know he’s missing. He fidgets and shrinks back against the torn leather seat.
“What’s your name?”
“Are you like the woman?” he asks instead of answering. “A skip tracer?”
At this point, I am the exact opposite of whatever a skip tracer is supposed to be. Zu points at me and gives a big thumbs-up, and I feel like she’s just singlehandedly elected me the next president of the United States.
“Oh,” he says again. “Okay. My name’s Bryson.”
“Nice,” I say. “I’m Gabe. This is Dorothy.”
She reaches around Bryson and punches me in the arm again. “Ow. Fine. Zu.”
“Zu?” Bryson grins. “That’s cool.”
Okay. It is a little cool. Better than, like, Pauline, I guess.
“How’d you get picked up?” I ask. After two days of talking to myself, it feels weird to be having a conversation.
He sighs, banging his head back against the seat again. “It was really stupid. Della’s gonna kill me.”
“Della being your mom?” I didn’t start calling my mother by her first name until I turned twenty and was embarrassed to have the word associated with her.
“No, she’s…she’s watching me and my brother and a couple other kids. She and her husband are really nice and they’re taking care of us until things get better.”
“She’s hiding you?” I ask. Wow. The lady must have balls of steel. I should know. Terror’s got mine in a viselike grip. “Then yeah, I’d say Della is probably going to kill you.”
The whole setup is really fascinating. This woman, Della, and her husband, Jim, had recently moved to a quiet neighborhood in Glendale—one that was still hanging in there while the streets and cities around it started vacating with foreclosures. They didn’t have children of their own but were the friendly kind and, more importantly, were open enough with their views on Gray to be immediately trusted by the others. It started with one kid in Bryson’s neighborhood disappearing the night of his tenth birthday. Then, a few months later, another kid vanished. Finally, when it was Bryson’s birthday, his mother woke both him and his brother up in the middle of the night and brought them over to Jim and Della’s house, telling them only that they needed to be good and stay hidden until she came back for them.
“You didn’t like it there?” I ask.
“No—no, Jim and Della are the best. She’s a really good cook and Jim’s been teaching us how to fix cars in the garage. It just sucks to have to stay in the attic a lot of the time. We don’t really get to go outside, either.”
“And you got caught because you got sick of it?”
Another sigh. “Because they said they were going to take us to California, to a place there that was safe, and my brother, he’s such a baby—he didn’t want to go without this stuffed bear he used to sleep with. I just thought…it’s not so far between our houses, and if I snuck out during the night I could be real quick, you know?”