The bed is stiff beneath me, the room a dim, miserable place. Kadence sits next to me, surprised I’m awake. I don’t know how long I slept, but I needed it. Cadmar looks like a zombie, but that’s understandable since he’s always there when the horrors invade my sleep. He probably needs a few days of sleep, too.
I still can’t believe he’s here. That he’s alive. That’s one of my recurring nightmares—he never came, and they killed Kay before me. But he has to be real, because my imagined Cadmar coming to save us didn’t ever look like the unshaven caveman currently staring at me.
Conner looks almost as bad, leaning against the wall across the room, watching everyone with a weary gaze. They all seem to be waiting for something—for me to fall back asleep? To start screaming again? I could probably sleep some more. A vacation would be amazing right about now. But I need to know what’s being done for Payton. At least that, before I go back into the abyss that is a constant beckon.
“What’s with the tension?” I ask, but it sounds horrible.
They all start at the sound of my voice. It’s the first words I’ve uttered since my last few to Kay before they started torturing me.
Shock after shock.
The abyss beckons.
I don’t have to remember in my sleep.
Cadmar rubs his neck, moving closer to my side.
Kay shifts on the bed. “Are you hungry or thirsty?” she asks, but gives Cadmar a pointed look.
“Hungry? No.” I croak. Clear my throat.
“You should try to drink something,” she pushes, offering me a glass of water from the nightstand.
It’s so fresh-looking, and it will help my raw throat. I accept it and drink greedily until it’s empty. Kay takes the glass and goes to refill it, but stops in front of Cadmar on her way. “You need to tell her,” she demands, and I somehow know she said it loud enough so I would hear, so I would be me and push.
Cadmar’s eyes widen, but he nods before she leaves the room, the sink sounding in the bathroom.
Did something else happen? Is Payton okay? I want to know, but I’m so tired.
No! Stay awake.
Cadmar moves to my side as Conner shifts his feet back and forth, looking anywhere but at us. This can’t be good. Cadmar bends to my level and takes my cold hands in his warm ones.
He meets my gaze, and I force myself not to squirm, not to look away.
“I called your mom right after this last… this last time.” He pauses. My heart sinks to my gut. His eyes shift back and forth, full of sincerity. “She was already in LA looking for you two. She’s going to come get you, take you somewhere safe.”
My breath hitches, my heart pounding in my ears. I stare at our joined hands. “But we just got you back. You’re alive. And we have to save Payton. You said you wouldn’t go anywhere, but that… that’s a lie. You’re sending me away. You said….” Gasp, gasp. “You can’t….” Gasp, gasp. “I can’t go with….” Gasp. “She doesn’t care….” Gasp.
“Reiley,” he snaps, squeezing my hands.
I should just go back to sleep. Then I won’t have to care. I shake my head, trying to pull my hands away, each gasping breath harder to drag in. He grips them tighter. Kay returns with my water, setting it on the nightstand before sitting next to me and putting a hand on my leg.
“I am not sending you away,” Cadmar pleads. “I’m trying to do what’s best for you. We’ll get Payton out, but you, you need to heal. You weren’t built to endure stuff like this, and I’m going to make sure you never end up in their hands again. I cannot save Payton if I’m worrying about you, too. Rae agreed to stay in my home in Northern California. You won’t be far and you will be kept in the loop the whole time. I just need you safe. I need my Reiley back. We all do.”
I look at Kay, her eyes pleading. Conner’s are, too. All of them want me to go. They don’t want me here.
You know that’s not true.
They had to watch while you screamed.
I flinch. They did.
“Fine,” I say, taking a deep breath, trying to get my breathing under control. “I’ll go with her. But… but please don’t forget me.”
“Never,” Kay and Cadmar say together.
Kadence gives me an awkward side hug, and then Cadmar wraps his giant arms around both of us. I wish I could stay here. I wish I could help. But there’s no way I could handle any more awfulness. And I did just think about how nice a vacation would be. Maybe staying in one of Cadmar’s mansions wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
As if talking about her summoned her, a small tap sounds on the door. Maybe I should go back to sleep, if only to avoid this reunion. I’m sure getting to really know her finally will be good for me, but the way things were left, how Kay and I just took off, kind of sucked.
Well, not kind of. It really did.
Conner is the poor soul who answers the door. “Hello, ma’am,” he greets her all formal.
And she shoves past without a greeting. A blur of red hair and black leather storms for me. She has my face in her hands, smoothing my hair off my cheeks, saying she’s sorry over and over. My mouth just hangs open.
Kay, Cadmar, and Conner stand off to the side, watching our little reunion. I almost beg them to get her off me, but I already gave her a pretty hard time. She probably deserves better. Her apologies finally register with my fog-ridden mind.
“Wait. You’re sorry?” I wonder aloud.
She drops her hands to her sides, eyes brimming with tears. “This was my fault. If I had just brought you girls here, you never would have gone on that side trip. I was so blind with keeping you safe that I didn’t realize the damage I was doing… to both of you.” She looks at Kay, who nods as if all is forgiven. “We’ll stay here in California, just a safe distance away from this. Please, just let me keep you safe and help you heal. I want to help you heal.” Her eyes shift, searching mine. She almost looks as much a wreck as the rest of us.
It must have been hell, waking up to find us gone. A kind of torture in itself, not knowing if something happened to us. I tortured this woman enough.
“Okay.” I nod and the whole room appears to sigh.
After moving my things from the Jeep to the small sedan she acquired, including the bag I packed at the castle, I say my good-byes, starting with the easiest. Kay and Cadmar talk with Rae by her car when Conner approaches me.
“I’m glad you’re awake, that you got to decide this,” he tells me, keeping his arms crossed over his chest, his gaunt face tight with sorrow. “And I got to see you conscious before you left. I missed you. I miss normalcy and our nights at the Pub. We’ll always have those simple days, Jen.” He winks with a smirk, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. He gives me a quick side hug when Kay walks over and hurries away as if bringing up something about Payton brought back too many memories.
“I won’t bother with apologies,” she says when Conner goes back in the room, pulling on her braid. “Just get better and don’t worry about Payton. We’ll get her out, and then we can start a new life for all of us. A better one.”
I can only nod when she pats my shoulder, my heart sinking even lower with the approach of my final farewell. He stops a foot away from me, still looking as miserable as he did half an hour ago. I wonder if he’ll ever get back to his brooding self, looking at the world like it owes him simply for being graced with his presence.
“You really need to stop moping,” I tell him.
“You need to focus on getting better and nothing else,” he demands with a grunt. “I appreciate you not throwing one of your epic fits over this.”
My turn to glare.
“Seriously, Cadmar, you survived imminent death. You saved two of your three cool daughters. Get a little rest, pat yourself on the back, do something to celebrate. You deserve it.”
He squints. “I’ll celebrate when you’re all safe. Until then, I’ll be a grumpy zombie. But I will get her back.” He pauses, looking at Rae who stands next to her little car with a longing I don’t understand. “I’ll see you soon. In the meantime, kick up your feet and don’t give Rae too hard of a time.”
“I won’t.” I shrug. I won’t promise anything; even with how drained I am, I may find my fire at some point. I hope I do.
With that he helps me into the car, Rae getting behind the wheel after thanking him for saving me for the millionth time. Once the door shuts, I don’t spare any of them or the motel room another glance. I curl up in a ball on the seat and let the abyss devour me whole.
While I wait for Cadmar and Kadence to come back in the room, I very carefully transfer the solution I’ve been working on into the special container I prepared, following my dad’s exact instructions. Seeing Reiley fall apart like that, then watching her give up so easily was like watching a nightmare play out before me, which is why I excused myself before she even left. To watch her drive away with her real mom would have been solidifying that she’s changed so greatly. That we all have changed so irrevocably. I can’t stomach that.
“That was a bit easier than I thought it would be,” Cadmar is saying when he and Kadence come back through the door.
“She’s had a very rough couple of weeks,” Kadence tells him before they both turn expectant gazes on me, as if I’m to make the decision for our next move. “Is everything ready?” she asks with a new spark in her eyes.
Are we all relieved that Reiley is somewhere safe, then? It’s so much better this way.
“It is.” I nod while they settle by the door, their arms crossed. “But I still think you need rest, Cadmar.”
“Nice try,” he deadpans. “We won’t take the supplies this time. I want to get a look from a good distance away. They know even my build too well to get as close as I’d like. Once we take a look, we can go from there.”
When he said “a good distance away,” I didn’t realize he meant on top of one of the tallest abandoned buildings in the city that was a good three hundred yards away. I also didn’t realize my aversion to heights until he took me to the edge of the building and asked me to show him the area of the wall I thought would work best, while looking through his binoculars that had to cost as much as his Ferrari.
“Look about fifteen yards from the underground entrance gates,” I instruct, handing over the binoculars. “It appears to be a blind spot. We can’t be sure, but it’s the best I can do.”
“We can be sure,” Kay interjects. Our gazes snap to her where she’s standing next to Cadmar, staring at the never-ending wall. “I’ve hacked in before, and I’m certain I could access their surveillance. Since I won’t be rushed, I won’t be detected this time. I could even freeze their screens for a minute or two so we have time to do what needs to be done without being seen.”
My mouth hangs open. The things Cadmar’s girls know how to do will never cease to amaze me.
When back at our motel, Kadence shows us exactly what she meant, bringing up the entire security system on her laptop in only thirty minutes. “This is the area you wanted to go in.” She points to a very visible spot on the screen and my heart sinks. When her gaze meets mine, rather than being full of disappointment, there’s hope in her eyes. “There aren’t really any blind spots, but like I said, we can freeze the frame for a couple minutes. As long as someone stays behind, we can get in and out without any problems. Whoever stays behind can keep an eye on the ground. We can do this.”
The surety in her tone makes me a believer. We can do this! We can get Payton out of there. “The formula is ready. We can do this tonight. At least get it started.”
After Cadmar states his dismay and negative thoughts of every way this could go wrong, we finally convince him to get started. Since he’s so recognizable, we come to the conclusion that he should be the one in front of the computer, with much grunting and groaning from him.
Kadence appears about as excited as I am to finally be doing something. Geared up and out the door, Cadmar drives us to just a few blocks within the facility and parks in an abandoned neighborhood. He says it’s safest to stay close so we’re able to use the walkie-talkies he brought.
My heart pounds in my ears, adrenaline pumping through my system the second we’re out of the car. I’m thankful for our unstated agreement for silence. If Kadence did say anything, I probably wouldn’t hear it over Payton’s name pounding through my brain, my blood, my entire being. Her name drowns out the sounds of the passing traffic, the noise of the city, when we come into view of the wall.
Cadmar gives us the go-ahead. After fishing through my pack and pulling out a bottle for each of us, we move in. We do as we agreed and spray a uniform circle on three different areas of the wall. We do the job and Cadmar calls us back. Back in the car, back to the room. All the adrenaline, all the victory and success I felt fades into nothing. We’re back to waiting. Doing this same routine every day will still take weeks, at best, to get through.
The need to get shitfaced is overwhelming.
I need my girl.
I need her to be okay.
I need things back to the way they were before I lose my freaking mind.