Tess tried to catch her breath as the cleaners started to file in. One of them looked at her.
“Hey, kid. You can’t be in here,” he said. He noticed her distress and waited a moment before speaking again. “Go back to your room now and I won’t tell anyone you were in here.”
Tess wiped her eyes and let Scott’s body rest on the floor. She backed out slowly, suddenly realizing that she was seeing something she wasn’t supposed to, and struggled to force herself back to her room. She let the door close behind her and sat in the middle of the room.
Her light above her door was on all day, but she refused to leave again. Nate had even come by to knock on the door and plead with her to come out, but she wouldn’t. She had failed Scott and it had happened so suddenly.
It happened too quickly, she couldn’t believe it was real.
Tess finally got moving again when Nate slid a note under her door that said 8. She had to meet him in the chatroom and figure out what to do next. There was still Nate to consider.
Nate didn’t say anything when she joined him. She couldn’t muster any words either. She sat down next to him on the couch and let the emptiness engulf her.
“I think you should leave when the new level starts tomorrow. Get up early and get that tracker out. You’ll have a little head start before they realize you’re not in your pod. They also won’t act like anything is wrong because people will be watching.”
“Where will I go?”
“Stay with Cameron. I’ll get you after,” Nate said. “If I don’t make it, Cameron will know where to go.”
“Can’t you leave too?”
“There’s no way both of us could make it,” Nate said.
Tess didn’t have the energy to argue. Her heart ached at the thought of losing Nate too, but she still had to mourn Scott. She was still in shock.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Tess said. “We thought…”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Be safe,” Tess said.
Nate and Tess stood up and Nate gave her a hug. She was frustrated that it couldn’t be a real hug, but it would have to do. She had no idea when she would see him again.
“Keep going and don’t look back. Stick to the plan.”
Nate gave her one last look before leaving the room. When she arrived back in her room, it felt more lonely than it ever had. There was no way she was going to get any sleep.
Tess paced around until 7 a.m. hit. She reached into her pod and pulled out both the key and the pocket knife. Without hesitation, she dug the metal blade into her skin and pulled out the small tracker. She found some bandages in the bathroom and bound her wound up as best she could. She stood in front of the door, trying to figure out if it was the right time.
When Tess opened her door, she stumbled back into her room. Dr. Young grabbed the door before it could close behind her and motioned for her to follow him.
“We don’t have much time,” he said, frantically.
Tess saw that he was bloody and beaten, but he was a welcome sight. He felt like an old friend.
“What are you doing?” Tess hissed. “What happened to you?”
“I’m helping you,” he said, as he ushered her down the hallway, past all the contestants rooms. “They were worried I was growing too fond of you, which is why Dr. Tucker was assigned to you. Nathan sent me a message.”
Tess had a million questions swirling around in her head, but she just had to trust him. He was her only shot and they had to hurry.
She held her breath as he brought her down hallway after hallway and then to a dingy looking elevator. He used his ID to swipe them inside and tapped his foot impatiently as the elevator crawled to the first floor.
“Keep your head low and don’t move,” Dr. Young said. He reached up to the top of the elevator, pulled out a long white sheet, and covered her with it. He gathered her up in his arms and held her closely to his chest. “You’re dead.”
Tess knew she could certainly play the part. She had no idea how she had even been moving. Her whole body was running on adrenaline.
Dr. Young carried her out of the elevator, but Tess couldn’t see anything. She heard people walking around them and Dr. Young greeting them.
“Is that the last one?” someone asked. “Such a shame.”
“I was betting on him!”
“Such a sad way to go.”
Tess wanted to jump up and tackle them, but she stayed calm. She felt the cool breeze on her skin as Dr. Young stepped outside. He placed her down and removed the sheet. They were standing in the alleyway behind the building. She could see a large furnace behind her that smelled like ash.
She wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to stay warm. Dr. Young looked at her and pointed to the street that the alleyway emptied out onto.
“You burn the bodies?” Tess asked, feeling a wave of nausea overcome her. “Why…why would they do that—”
Dr. Young grabbed onto Tess’s shoulders and forced her to look at him. She felt stunned, unable to move on her own. Dr. Young spoke slowly.
“Listen, Tess. Stick to whatever Nate told you. Don’t come back here. Ever,” he said. He started to head back to the building, but Tess grabbed his arm. “I have to go.”
“What will happen to you?”
He stayed silent.
She gave him a hug and thanked him. He gave her a small smile in return. She had no idea why he would risk his life for her, but she would be forever grateful. Tess gave him one last look before taking off into the city.
The town felt much less familiar than she remembered it, but she felt free. Even if she had to hide, at least she was away from Never World.
Tess felt her arm throb as she ran. The pain was catching up to her, but she had to keep going. She didn’t stop running until she got to the boardwalk.
Since it was too early for people to be heading to work, the whole area was quite empty. Tess kept her head low as she approached her father’s house. There was no sign of him inside and she had no idea where he could have been relocated to. Tess headed to Cameron’s house instead.
She saw Cameron sitting on her porch as she approached. Cameron looked incredibly nervous, but she gave Tess a hug, and then told her to follow. They didn’t speak to each other. Tess knew they didn’t have long before someone would start looking for her.
Cameron kept checking her watch.
She stopped to hand Tess the backpack over her shoulder and pointed to one of the sewage tunnels near the park they used to hang out at.
“What’s that?” Tess asked.
“It’s the underground,” Cameron said. “I have to head back before my parents know I’m gone. I’m sorry. I can’t come with you.”
“It’s fine,” Tess said. “You’ve already put yourself in enough danger.”
Cameron reached out and touched Tess’s arm.
Cameron’s next words caught in her throat.
“No. I’m sorry for everything, but…I don’t think your father’s alive. I saw them removing a body from your house, but I couldn’t get close. I was keeping an eye on things…I couldn’t stop it.”
Tess couldn’t muster anymore words, but she nodded at Cameron. They hugged again before Cameron started back.
She stared at the tunnel in front of her, unsure of what to do. It was big enough for her to walk into, but it was too dark to see where it led. She knelt down and dug into her backpack. It was full of clothes, but there was also a flashlight inside and a crudely drawn map.
She clicked on the light and headed inside the tunnel. The water came up to her ankles, but it wasn’t anything to slow her down too much. After following the instructions, she came to an old rickety elevator that looked like it hadn’t been used in years.
Unsure of what to do, Tess knocked on it. Nothing happened, so she waited. There didn’t seem to be any way to access it or make it open up.
Tess sat down, feeling defeated. Maybe the people Scott knew would no longer help her alone. They had no real reason to trust her.
After about ten minutes of waiting, the elevator jolted to life and started creaking and groaning. A loud ring filled the air and the door slowly opened. She was surprised that inside everything looked new.
Tess stepped inside and waited as the door closed and the elevator started lowering her down. It felt like it was descending forever before it jolted to a stop and the doors eased open. Unsure of what she would find, Tess stepped out into the lights.
She was feeling dizzy at that point, barely able to stand up by herself. She leaned against the white wall.
The door opened on the other side and she saw Scott. She laughed a little and tried to focus her vision, but it was fading fast.
“Tess?” He said. “Are you okay?”
Tess kept her eyes on the little black blob that the figure had become.
“Scott is dead,” Tess said. “And my name is Tetsumi.”
“I know,” the voice replied. “I thought you liked to be called Tess.”
“My father is dead now. He liked to call me Tess,” she said. “So now everyone else can call me Tetsumi.”
“Okay. Whatever you want,” he said. “Just sit down.”
Tess felt her body fall forward and her head struck the hard floor. Her vision blacked out entirely.