“What do you think?” I ask her. “I don’t see any lights on.…”
She unbuckles her seat belt, her mouth pressed together in a tight line.
“You want to wait here while I see if anyone’s home?”
I’m not going to lie. A big part of me was hoping that someone would be up, waiting for us. That her friends those skip tracers were chasing would be here to greet Zu and tell her all about how they gave the beards the slip. It wasn’t so crazy—I never saw them take those girls away. They weren’t in the PSF station in Prescott as far as I could tell.
They’re probably asleep, I think, smoothing my hair back. Yeah. It was just shy of midnight, an hour when nothing good can happen. We all should be in bed before then, I think.
Of course she doesn’t want to be left in the car, but she lets me carefully maneuver her behind me, at least. I feel her small hands gripping the back of my shirt to keep track of me, and the thought that she’s depending on me is steadying.
I ring the bell and knock, but no one comes to the door. We even walk the perimeter of the house, peering through the windows, but nobody’s there—only furniture covered in white sheets.
Maybe her uncle up and abandoned the place. Given how long it took me to drive the length of the driveway through the sprawling property, it seems like this place would take a monumental amount of work to maintain and keep thriving, even in a great economy. I thought I saw a few cows or horses in the far ends of the grassy field behind the house, but I think exhaustion tricked my brain. All I see now are rocks.
I reach around to take Zu’s arm, wondering how to explain this to her. It seems unfair that I have to be the one to break her heart over this—to point out that she fought so hard to get here for nothing. But just as the words start to form in my mind, we hear a muffled bang from the smaller building set off from the main house. Some kind of stable or garage, probably.
The doors are shut, but I see the line of warm, milky light under them—and I see it switch off as we carefully, quietly come up on it. Zu stays behind me the whole time, her hands clenching fistfuls of my shirt.
I take the metal handle in my hand and slide the door open slowly, feeling my pulse jump as it scrapes across the rocky dirt. And for a second, I’m confused, because the face that appears in the darkness is Zu’s—Zu the way I’d seen her in the skip tracer network, with long, silky hair. Her eyes go wide, and her mouth opens in a scream.
And then I see the blond hair behind her, the girl with the gun in her hand who doesn’t even hesitate before she fires it straight at my chest.
My mind blanks with the fiery burst of pain that tears through me, ripping me up from the inside out. I can’t—what’s—I don’t understand, the girls are yelling, the three of them from the valley, but the last thing I feel before my legs go is Zu at my back trying to hold me up.
Move—I don’t want to hurt her, but I can’t feel anything below my waist. I’m going to collapse back on her, I’m…
When my eyes open again, I’m on the ground and warm rain is spilling down on me from the clear river of stars overhead.
“—the man from the road, I thought he—!”
Zu flashes in and out of my vision. She shoves the girl with the gun, beats her hands against the teen’s chest. I hear “call,” “can’t,” “hospital,” and then nothing but the sound of my own heartbeat. I want to lift my hands, to apply pressure to the place in my chest she’s just cracked open, but I can’t breathe—I can’t—I can’t—I’m choking on air and the metallic bitterness coating my tongue.
One of them disappears into the dark of the stables. I can smell the place’s old musky animal scent, the sharp, fresh hay, but even that begins to fade. Zu’s face appears over mine, and her mouth is moving, her lips are moving, with a message for me and only me, but there are no pens here, no paper. I can read the desperation and fear in her face. I see her hands come down against my chest, but I can’t feel them.
“D-Dorothy—” My throat burns. It’s the only way I know the words are leaving it. “Guess we…shouldn’t have left Oz.…”
I feel myself drift back. Her whole body is heaving with sobs, snot and tears dripping down her face, and I want to say so much to her, and I want to tell her—Her face begins to dissolve into gray, and it takes my breath with it. My voice.
Stop it, you stupid kid. Jesus, stop crying.
Don’t you know I hate it?
Dorothy, it’s so stupid. Don’t be so stupid about this.