“No I don’t,” I insisted. “Sometimes I side with Vida.”
He didn’t laugh like I’d hoped. He didn’t switch on the radio, either, which bugged me less than I thought it would. Liam always had to have a song or news on in the background, like he couldn’t stand empty air.
Chubs leaned an elbow against the door, resting his head against his palm.
“It’ll never not be weird to see you behind the wheel,” I told him.
“If I’d been able to hang on to my real glasses I could have taken over for Liam in Betty at least part of the time,” Chubs said. “Though I doubt he would have let me. You know how he gets about driving.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “See? That was me siding with you.”
Finally, a faint smile.
“I wish I could drive,” I told him. “It’s so stupid I have to wait.”
“Such impatience,” he said, reaching over to briefly drop a hand on my head. He hadn’t done it in years. “Do you know how many things can go wrong when you’re behind the wheel? And that’s not even factoring in other drivers—actually, let’s talk about something else that doesn’t involve vehicular manslaughter.”
His grip on the wheel tightened as we left the limits of DC and reached the beltway. Through the blur of rain pelting the windows, we could just make out the shapes of the new highway lights and cameras that would be installed over the next few months. Right now, though, our only real sources of light were the car itself and the glow of the capital’s light pollution.
“Did I really always side with him?” I wondered aloud. “I swear I didn’t mean to….”
Chubs risked a quick glance at me, then fixed his eyes back on the road. “It’s not about choosing sides. I shouldn’t have ever said that. I’m sorry. You know how I get when my blood sugar is low. He’s Lee—he’s funny and nice and he dresses like a walking hug.”
“He does wear a lot of flannel,” I said. “But you’re those things, too. Don’t make that face just to try to prove me wrong. You are.”
“I don’t feel that way,” he admitted. “But I always got that you guys had something different. I respect that. I’ve never been…It’s harder for me to open up to people.”
The headlights caught the raindrops sliding off the windshield and made them glow like shooting stars.
He was making it sound like one friendship was better or more important than the other. That wasn’t true. They were just different. The love was exactly the same. The only difference was that Liam had lost a little sister; a part of me had always felt like he wanted to prove to himself that he could save at least one of us.
“I always understood you,” I told him. “Just like you always understood me.”
Chubs glanced over, swallowing. By his nature, he ran at a slightly higher frequency than the rest of us, but looking at him now made my whole chest hurt. The suits he wore seemed to hide how thin he’d gotten, and the shadows of the dark sky seemed to drag his face down.
I hated the selfish part of me that had been so excited to see our friends I hadn’t even stopped to realize how much planning Chubs and Vida put into this. How careful they’d had to be, to make sure that no one else picked up on the hidden messages, or their arrangements.
Chubs had the most at stake if we were caught or followed. Vida would lose her active-agent status, but Chubs would be raked over the coals. He’d be made out to be a self-serving liar. Congress could claim he had knowingly misled them, and he could go to prison for lying under oath. The Psi Council was still in its infancy. It wouldn’t survive the loss of its visionary.
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“Of course,” he said, too quickly.
“We’re not in DC anymore,” I reminded him. “No one’s listening.”
“You never used to lie to me,” I said, holding my hands over the hot air blowing through the vents, “so please don’t start now.”
Chubs sighed, rubbing a hand back over his hair. He usually kept it short, but it was clear to me that he’d gone several weeks longer than usual without getting it cut. “It’s…hard. All of it. I’m sorry you haven’t seen me much, and if I’ve been out of sorts lately. It just never stops. We make some people happy, we enrage another group. We try to change people’s minds about us, and they only get set deeper in their ways because they don’t like to be made to feel wrong. I’m trying to make sure everyone on the Council is organized and that we read absolutely everything, but we keep having to bend our original goals to fit with the rest of the government’s. It’s maddening, and those awful people who are on the news with their disgusting protest signs, those people who killed that Psi boy in California and claimed self-defense…it’s…it just never stops. If we could just get some movement on reparations…”
The court system had already dismissed any number of civil suits brought against the government by families who had lost children to IAAN, or who had children who’d survived it only to end up in camps. Each and every time, the judges would cite the same reasons. The administration and Leda Corp had conducted reasonable testing to make sure Agent Ambrosia was safe. The intention on the part of the government had been to introduce the chemical to prevent biological attacks on our water supply. The government had reasons to believe that we were an imminent threat, given our powerful abilities and the fear that IAAN could be spread by contact.
Interim President Cruz was working behind the scenes to cut a deal, but it would be years before anything definitive came out of it. Almost every single family in the United States had been affected, and the country was still drowning in debt and depression—there simply was no money to pay any kind of settlement.
They had issued an official apology on behalf of the Gray administration for not intervening. That had been a start, at least. But when Chubs had gotten a bill on the floor of the House that would have funded a memorial, the Speaker had axed it, explaining that the nation “needed time to reflect on the tragedy before they could properly mourn it.”
“Chubs…” I began, reaching over to squeeze his arm. In all the time we’d spent traveling together, I’d never seen him like this. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because this is what I signed up for.” He shook his head. “Wow, listen to me. I’m sorry, Zu. It’s not as bad as all that. I’m just frustrated. I keep having to remind myself that the work is good, even if it’s hard. A year from now, I’ll look back on this meltdown and laugh at myself.”
Things would and could get better. I believed that with my whole heart. But he needed help. He needed more of us to take some of the weight of the load off his shoulders.
“I think that optimism is going to get you kicked off Ruby’s Team Reality,” I said lightly.
“I’m tired of Team Reality,” Chubs said, his voice tight. The car picked up speed, flying past the workmen repaving the other side of the highway. “I’m done with it. I’d rather be the fool who hopes and works toward change than the cynic who does nothing and laughs when his doubts are proven right.”
I nodded. “I agree with you on that, too.”
He smiled. “Thanks for listening. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking just to myself.”
“We can all hear you,” I told him. “You speak for all of us.”
That same smile faded. “Not everyone.”
With no one listening in, I could finally ask the question that had been festering in me for months.
“Did they ever hurt you?”
“They didn’t bother to hurt me before they left,” Chubs said, struggling to keep the bitterness from his voice. “They didn’t even tell me they were leaving.”
“I meant the people who questioned you about their disappearance,” I said quietly.
Chubs had been questioned by the FBI in a way that I hadn’t. Those same men who harassed him for weeks, following his every move, never turned to look at me. Two FBI agents had stopped by Cate’s apartment to a
sk me a few questions about the last time I saw Ruby and Liam, but Cate had been present the whole time. And, after an hour, she’d made them leave. That was it.
At first I’d been almost angry about it. Like, of course, what would a little girl know about anything, right? But I’d seen what the investigations had done to Chubs.
I’d watched him sit in front of Congress, testifying under oath he had no idea where his “so-called friends” were, and answering all of their questions with “I don’t know. I hadn’t spoken to either of them for months.” I was there when agents showed up during family dinner to ransack his apartment for evidence, seizing whatever they wanted, including his books, just to intimidate him. I witnessed the harassment his amazing parents had received from reporters, investigators, and people who just despised Psi until they were forced to move out of Virginia entirely.
The reality was, for once, my youth had protected me.
“No,” he said after a while. “They just asked questions I still don’t know the answers to.”
I plucked the folded map from one of the cup holders. He’d marked our route to Blackstone, a small town I’d never heard of in the southern, central part of the state.
“It should be about a three-hour drive,” he said, sounding more like himself. “Let me know if you get hungry. I packed some water bottles and protein bars. Is the temperature okay?”
“Everything’s great,” I told him. “Do you want me to turn on the radio or anything?”
“Actually, if you don’t mind,” he said, “I kind of like the quiet.”
I smiled, sitting back to watch the rain. “Me too.”
NO ONE TOLD ME.
I took the worn path up to Haven at a brisk, hard pace, my arms crossed over my chest. The otherwise smooth, packed dirt was interrupted by a few scattered leaves and footprints that had been stamped in during the most recent storm. Each time I passed one heading the opposite way, back toward the lake, I wondered if it had belonged to Liam or Ruby.