We love you. If you need help, look for my parents—they’re using the names Della and Jim Goodkind—and tell them I sent you.
I startle when Della reaches in to squeeze my shoulder and say good-bye. Zu looks up, panicked, and quickly folds the notebook paper up and leans over me to give it to her.
“Stay safe, honey,” Della says, blowing her a kiss, “the both of you, please.”
“I’ll do my best,” I tell her, shifting out of park. She steps back so I can roll the window up.
I don’t really know why I look in the rearview mirror as we drive away. I still feel a little bit like I’m walking through somebody else’s good dream, like none of this is real. And I know I won’t get the story out of Zu, not the full one, anyway. That’s okay. We’re allowed to have our secrets. Starting now, I’m leaving the past alone in the past.
Growing smaller and smaller in the reflection, Della unfolds the sheet of paper. But I see her when she presses her hand against her mouth, when she slumps against the side of the sedan—overcome, in relief, I don’t know. Zu’s message is only three words, but they nearly bring the lady with a spine like steel to her knees.
Liam is safe.
I think about stopping for the night—finding some cheap motel room along the way to California and trying to get a little bit of shut-eye to recharge, but I can’t bring myself to. After using Della’s money to fill the gas tank as much as I could, I’m left with the same fifteen dollars I had before. Any place charging that little for a room is the kind of place where we’ll wake up and find our car gone in the morning.
Zu keeps her eyes on the green freeway signs as we zoom past. By the way she keeps tapping her fingers against her leg, I think she’s counting them. We can’t keep a steady radio signal this far out in the desert, and I think the silence is starting to unravel some of her confidence. The lightness I felt earlier talking to Della is slowly bleeding away, too, into the dark, barren landscape around us. For the first time in my life, I miss the trees up north. I miss being surrounded by the known and familiar, and having it tucked in around me like a blanket.
I can’t keep ignoring the fact that after I drop off Zu, that’s it. That’s the end of my current plan unless she and the other kids desperately need me to stay and help them. And while it’s a great plan, I need a little more than that, especially since I don’t have the money for any of the state schools in California that might be open. I could see if there are any jobs there as a fieldworker, or in construction. Maybe their police force would take me. If not, I guess there’s always the Children’s League. I doubt they’d be picky, and at least I know I’d be doing something real to help the kids. Something to think about.
I like that. There are choices now. Possibilities.
“This place you’re going,” I say, “is it nice?”
She already wrote the address down for me. Smart thing had it memorized, and realized, even before I did, that we could roughly navigate our way there by zooming in on the skip tracer tablet’s map until it showed the surface streets around San Bernardino. I’d only been to California a few times, enough to start feeling a bit nervous once we hit Quartzsite, one of the last few Arizona towns along the I-10 before the border.
“You’ve never been there before?” I press. “Even though it’s your uncle’s place?”
She weaves her fingers together, then rips them apart.
“Ohhh,” I say, “he doesn’t get along with the rest of your family?”
I get a thumbs-up for that. “Are you sure he’s…I mean, I know it’s your uncle, but he’ll be okay taking you in?”
Zu wraps her arms around herself, miming a big embrace.
“I hope so, kid, ’cause I don’t think you can stick with me if I go looking for, like, the Children’s League.”
It’s like I’ve slapped her in the face—the moment the shock passes, she looks visibly upset. At first I think it’s because what I’ve said was a little mean, but she’s freaking out, shaking her head, waving her hands. No—her mouth forms the words in the dark—not them.
“Why not?” I haven’t heard, you know, pretty things about their methods, but they do get their point and demands across in a way the parents sitting around on the steps of Flagstaff’s city hall never did.
She’s frantically looking around the different compartments of the car, pulling out sheets of paper, then putting them back when she sees there’s something important written on them.
“Dorothy, Dorothy—it’s okay, calm down.” I can tell she’s getting more and more frustrated—and just when I think she’s going to pull the Band-Aids off her face and write on the backs of those, she finally just settles on using the last of the ink to write the message on her palm.
NO!!! THEY ARE TERRIBLE! SCARY! YOU ARE BETTER THAN THAT!
I snort, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. For a few minutes, I can’t say anything at all. There’s a stone in my throat and I can’t swallow it. A few minutes ago, all I could taste in my mouth was the McDonald’s hamburger I scarfed down for dinner. Now it’s so dry my tongue sticks to the roof of it.
“All right,” I tell her. “All right. I’ll figure something else out.”
Because even if it’s not true, I want it to be.
You can see the border station from a good three miles away. The floodlights are cranked up so high they look like they form a solid white wall. It’s only when you get closer that you start seeing the lengths of barbed wire and the enormous military tanks and trucks they have haloed out around the freeway, and the small, old building where the border agents used to sit and wave you through.
We pulled over a while back to get Zu situated, but I still feel sick about it—really, genuinely sick with fear. I’ve got her folded down in the gully of space where the dashboard curves out, but she’s only covered with a blanket and a large duffel bag of clothes we picked up at one of those Goodwill drop-off sites. I wonder if she can even breathe under there, and I wonder what’s going to happen if they demand to search the truck, and I wonder if she’s somehow going to have to save me from this, too.
“Don’t say anything or move no matter what, okay?” I tell her.