I squeeze out of the bathroom, the door swinging the wrong way, and into the main room that has two large beds and a small vanity. Nothing else. No television, no dresser. The scents of old carpet—probably peed on by animals and humans—stale smoke and overwhelming cleaners burn my nostrils. Rae couldn’t have chosen a crappier motel if she tried. She sits on one of the moldy mattresses, searching for something on her computer. She pays me no attention when I exit the restroom.
Kay sits on the other bed, giving me a look over the book she found in her bag that was in the Jeep. I nod, and her shoulders relax imperceptibly. I pad toward Rae, crossing my arms over my chest before standing in front of her. She glances up from the computer, warmth and love seeping from her gaze. Recoiling might hurt her feelings, and it takes everything in me not to do so. Seeing that love, it’s nothing compared to the love I saw in Cadmar’s eyes minutes before he left us. The last time I’ll ever see him. I don’t want to see love from anyone, anyone, else.
Telling Conner that Cadmar was dead was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was admitting that the best man, the best dad, in the entire world no longer exists. His light was snuffed out and we didn’t even get to say good-bye. Didn’t even get to see that the light was really gone.
What if he’s still alive?
My mind haunts me with the thought, over and over, every single day. He couldn’t be. There’s no way he could be, but that doesn’t keep me from wondering if he really got shot.
“What’s up, Reiley?” Rae asks with a concerned look.
“I, umm.” I clear my throat. “I want to know when we’ll be headed to Los Angeles. This is the fourth hotel we’ve been to, and it’s been a week, an entire week since Payton was taken. You promised Cadmar. You promised him you would get her out.” I look to Kadence for support; she nods her encouragement, her gaze hard. “We haven’t gotten any closer to California. I need to know what we’re going to do next.”
Her eyes shift back and forth for a moment. “If you want me to be honest, we’re not going to California.”
She holds a hand up to keep me from interrupting, apparently unable to sense the fury writhing through me. “I understand that I promised, but some promises have to be broken. I just got my only daughter back. There’s no way I’ll risk your life any further. We’ll go into hiding. Now that you’re older, it’ll be easier for you to be with me.”
“I will hate you for forever,” I spit, my fists clenching at my sides, unmanicured nails biting into skin. “You made a promise. You said you would get her out.”
“To be clear, I said I would try. I never said I actually would.” She takes a deep breath. “I understand you’re just a teenager. You may be angry with me, but you’ll forgive me when you’re older, when you understand why I’m not going to put you in danger.”
“She will not,” Kay says. I didn’t even notice her get up to stand next to me. She takes my hand, for support, for strength. Instead of yanking away from the contact, I hold on; we stand together as we never have before. “You let Cadmar leave because you wanted her for yourself. He’s dead because of you. And now you refuse to help us save our sister.”
“She isn’t even really your sister,” Rae argues. If it weren’t for Kadence holding my hand, I would smack her. “Neither are you, Kadence.”
“Then you know nothing of sisterly bonds. You must have lived a very lonely life over the past fifteen years.” Kay looks down her nose at Rae, lips pursed.
“Six days ago, I thought you were this amazing, strong woman. My mom! But you’re just a coward. You’re just like all the other adults in my life, besides Cadmar that is,” I spit.
Rae sets her computer aside and stands before us. “You have to understand that I’m doing this to protect you two. I’m not doing it to hurt you. I’m not like that monster, Scarlet. I want to keep you safe.”
Kadence grips my hand harder. I keep my mind there, at that connection, because I may tackle my mom otherwise. I have no other words for this woman. I wanted so badly for us to have an awesome mother-daughter relationship, but there was no way I could ever predict things going this way. Kay and I already knew she wasn’t going to take us; she was heading in the opposite direction of California, as if to get us as far away from that trouble as possible. That’s why I told Conner just Kay and I would be coming. My hopes of her changing her mind, of her deciding to help, were just turned to dust.
Kay releases my hand, and I storm back to the bathroom, unable to think of any other words to say.
“You should reconsider,” Kay’s muffled voice comes through the door. “She holds a mean grudge.”
My love for Kay skyrockets, but it isn’t enough to fill the gaping hole in my chest, which feels raw around the edges. The confrontation with Rae only made it worse. I can’t handle losing anyone else, but if she isn’t going to help, I have no other choice. After a while of pretending to sob—I’m too cold inside to really do so—there’s a light tap on the door. I turn the sink on, get my eyes wet, then open the door to find Rae about to walk away.
“What?” I demand.
“I understand you’re upset—”
“You don’t understand shit,” I snap, shaking my head.
“Even still, I need you to know that I just want to keep you safe. This isn’t because I don’t care about Payton, or even… even Cadmar. I see the bruises on your face, saw the fear in your eyes when Scarlet was there. I can’t even consider endangering you again. I didn’t mean for it to happen this way. I didn’t actually want Cadmar out of the picture. You have to believe that,” she pleads, hands held out in an offering, but I can’t stomach it. I can’t accept her halfhearted apology.
“Whatever you say, Mom,” I spit the word. The first time I’ve said it aloud and it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and makes her flinch.
I can’t help myself from hurting her. This woman, she was supposed to be my ally, my saving grace, but she’s nothing but a coward. I should have known; why else did she give me up all those years ago?
“I’m going to get us some dinner.” She composes herself, lifting her chin. “I’ll be back quickly.”
She turns before I can say anything. She can get all the food she wants; it won’t magically bring my appetite back. When the door closes behind her, I let loose a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
“That was quite the performance,” Kay says but keeps her nose behind her book.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I shift my feet back and forth, toying with my eyebrow piercing.
“You haven’t cried since that first day. I’m certain a small confrontation with her wouldn’t suddenly break down your intricately built walls.”
She’s far too observant. Watching myself around her would be the smart thing to do, but she’s the only person I have left. My last hope in getting our other sister back. Well, her and hopefully, Conner. He has to have found a way to get in that building. I don’t even know what we’re up against, but from what Kay has told me in the last couple days, it’s next to impossible to breach their twenty-foot-tall, four-foot-thick, steel-enforced walls. We only have so much time to talk, since Rae only leaves us alone for the time she gets us meals. Whenever she’s around, we ignore each other, or play rummy five hundred repeatedly.
“You okay?” she asks, pulling me from my thoughts. She already put her book aside and grabbed Rae’s computer.
She wouldn’t let Kay get hers out of the Jeep that first day and hasn’t since, probably for fear that Kay will try to plan something using the flash drive. Her reasoning is that it’s dangerous and the only reason she can use hers is because she has some shadow encryption on it that makes it impossible to detect. I’m not convinced the thing is that well protected, since it only takes Kay a few minutes to break into it. Plus, that first night, she demanded Kadence hand over the thumb drive, but Kay refused and has every day since.
I blink, shaking my head. “What was the question?” I blink some more, trying to lift the fog from my brain.
“You need to actually eat when she gets back,” she chides, already working on Rae’s computer with the thumb drive plugged in. It sounds like a reprimand, but I understand her concern, her trying to take care of me. Not that I need taking care of.
“Sure.” I plop on the bed next to her. “What are we looking at tonight?”
She stops typing to meet my gaze. “I’m serious, Reiley. Even if you have to force it down like I do. You need the strength tonight. I need you to have your strength. We won’t be able to accomplish this otherwise.”
I nod. “Let’s go over the plan,” I change the subject. There’s only so much heartfelt conversation I can handle in my current state of mind.
“Yes. We’re here.” She points to a spot on the map she pulled up.
I look away, clenching my eyes shut for a moment. I knew we were headed in the opposite direction, but I never realized how far she had taken us. I should have noticed with all the driving that didn’t take us over California’s border.
“It’s okay,” Kay soothes, placing a hand on my leg, my eyes snap open. “The last six days have been a blur of fear and mourning. For both of us. By the time my eyes opened and I realized what was happening yesterday, she already had us halfway across the country.”
It was stupid for me to think I was the only one. Of course, she had mourned our dad. We may not have seen his dead body, but we had no reason to think he was alive. Kay had seemed so strong, moving me from motel to car, car to motel, trying to get me to eat something. I thought she was fine, that she was unfazed, but she was really just strong enough to keep going through the grief.
“So anyway.” She clears her throat. “We’re here.” She points next to Naperville, Illinois on the map. “It seems far, but we can make it to California in three days. Two if we take turns driving. Cadmar brought our fake IDs and documents for leaving the country. They’re all in the duffel bag,” she answers my question before I even ask it. “What did Conner say?”
“Not too much.” I shrug. “He kept asking questions I didn’t have time to answer. Anyway, all I got was that he’s at a Motel Eight in LA.”
“That’s perfect. We can keep in touch once we’re on the road.”
My heart skips a beat when lights flash over the window. “Put it away!” I panic, but Kay already has the history cleared and is logging out.
While she puts it exactly where it was after removing the thumb drive, I take a seat on the other side of our bed, fiddling with my iPod that I finally retrieved from the Jeep. I was glad Rae didn’t make us switch cars. That would be like giving our last piece of Cadmar up.
Rae brings Panda Express in, not showing an ounce of suspicion. We eat in silence, me with my earbuds in, blasting Bon Iver to accompany my internal depression. I push my food around as I have for every meal for the last six days, until Kay elbows me in the ribs. I almost elbow her back, but I promised her I would try and I actually keep my promises. I shoot an undetected glare at Rae before taking a couple bites of orange chicken. Rae tries making small talk with Kadence, but this entire situation is so far from small talk, it dies before it even gets started. Luckily, I have my music to help me through the awkwardness.
After only a few more bites, my stomach turns, going sour. I run to the bathroom and lose what little I got down. Rae taps on the door, checking on me, but I ignore her while I heave. My love of food has been dampened by my lack of appetite. I avoid the mirror again while rinsing my mouth. Kadence and Rae stare at me as I make my way back to the bed. Instead of having another confrontation, I put my earbuds back in, get under the covers, and pretend sleep.
Cadmar holds my face in his hands, but they’re wet. I can’t help noticing they’re wet while he bares his soul to me. When he wipes the tears away, it feels like he smears wet all over my face. He walks away, blood dripping from his hands, but he doesn’t look at them. I wipe at the dampness all over my face, my hands coming away covered in dark red blood. I yell and yell and yell for Cadmar to come back, but he just keeps walking, leaving a trail of blood on the ground.
I gasp awake when someone shakes me, blinking away the horrible images of my latest nightmare. Kay’s face hovers above mine as she holds a finger over her mouth. “We have to move now if we’re going to leave,” she whispers, barely loud enough for me to hear.
We grab our already packed bags. Kay takes the keys from the dresser before rubbing lotion on the door hinges. She cakes it on, then opens the door. It doesn’t make a sound. We have it closed and are to the Jeep in seconds. She changes the license plate to one stored in the back while I hop in the driver’s side and put it in neutral. We’re lucky the parking lot is empty of pedestrians. She pushes with all her might while I steer. It only takes a few minutes for us to get far enough away to start it without being heard by Rae. At least, that’s the hope. We switch seats and are on the road. We share a smile—the first in a week—after releasing a breath we were both holding.
We’re silent for the first twenty minutes of the drive, as if we’re afraid we’ll be heard.
“We did it,” Kay breaks the silence, beaming at me.
I can only nod. I’m so glad we did it, but I wish we weren’t forced to do so.
“We had to, you know that.” It’s a statement from the mind reader, not a question. “She tore us away from our sister after we just lost…. We had to leave. You were withering away, and I couldn’t stand the thought of never seeing your spark again.”
My mouth opens and closes a few times. “Thank you. For not shutting down, too. For staying strong when I couldn’t.”
“You’re welcome.” She smirks but keeps her attention on the road. “But that’s enough. We both loved him, Reiley, and we mourned as much as we can afford. He wanted Payton freed, so that’s what we’ll do, but we have to focus now. You have to start eating again or you won’t have any strength to complete this mission.”
Funny how I hungered to hear those words for years, but now, they make me sick to my stomach. This is a mission. There’s the possibility to fail. “I said I’ll try,” I tell her, but there’s no heat behind it.
“Good. You should call Conner. He deserves the full story after waiting around for a week. It’s barely nine where he’s at.”
I dial him, watching the city lights pass by. I’ve never been on this side of the country, but I’m too weary to pay attention to it.
“Hello?” he answers.
“Conner!” I exclaim, his familiar voice like music to my ears.
“Reiley? What the hell is going on? Please don’t hang up on me before you’ve given me the entire story.”
My heart breaks at the desperate tone in his voice.
He had to care. I know he looked up to Cadmar. I basically told him he was dead and hung up on him. I take the time to tell him everything, every fiber in me aching when I tell him what happened to Cadmar.
“So we just left and should be there in a couple days,” I tell him when my story is done.
He’s silent for so long, but I know he’s still there, processing the story. He releases a breath. “And you’re sure? You’re certain he’s dead?”
“I can’t…. I don’t…. We don’t….” I can’t hope for anything else is what I want to say, but I can’t even get those words past my lips.
“I get it, Reiley. I’m sorry. So so sorry.”
“It’s okay. Kind of. Anyway, we’re on our way to help.”
“I’m so glad! I was going insane, but I have a plan now. I think with Kadence’s brains and your bravery, we may actually be able to pull this off.”
“Okay. We have some information we can show you when we get there. I’ll call you at every stop to keep you posted.”
We disconnect, and I lean back in the seat after filling Kadence in. Somehow, in the chaos, I’m able to rest.