After evading Sophie for two days, I finally summon up my courage and go out to look for her. Hopefully I’ll be able to undo the damage.
Evening has just started to set in when I find Sophie talking to Courtney just outside Town Hall. I pause just out of earshot -- I’d feel even more guilty if I’d ended up hearing something that I’m not meant to hear.
Once the conversation dies down, I shuffle up to the pair, keeping my eyes on the asphalt. “Uh... hi, Sophie. Hi, Courtney.”
“Hey, Saket,” Courtney responds, sounding slightly surprised. “Why’re you here? Is there supposed to be a meeting?”
I shake my head. “No. I, um... I was just looking for Sophie.” Gosh, that sounded bad. I cough to hide my embarrassment.
An amused glint enters Courtney’s eyes for the first time in days. “All right, then. I’ll just leave you two here.” Wiggling her eyebrows at me, she grins and slips into Town Hall.
I fidget with the hem of my shirt, unsure of what to make of Sophie’s silence, still not daring to look at her. “Uh, are you...” Suddenly very self-conscious, I let my voice evaporate in the darkness.
Sophie doesn’t look at me. “Still mad, you mean? No, I’m not. But I don’t really want to talk to you, either.”
“Listen, I’m sorry about... you know,” I stutter. “I just--”
“It’s all right,” Sophie says quickly. “I know you meant well. But let’s just be friends.”
“Okay.” I fake a smile, even though my gut is twisting into a jillion knots and my soul feels like it’s slowly shriveling up. “That’s okay.”
As an excuse to remove myself from the awkward situation, I grab the handles of Town Hall’s double doors. “I have to talk to Suchet. See you around.”
I turn around and drag the doors open, wincing at the ancient creak they make. My sneakers make squeaky sounds on the tiles as I step in.
“Hey, guys.” I greet the three people seated around the table in a friendly tone.
The heads of Courtney, Ramya, and Suchet swivel around to face me, and I realize I must’ve just interrupted an important conversation. Desperately trying to backtrack, I stumble back towards the door. “Sorry, I’ll just go and--”
For the second time today, someone cuts me off. “It’s okay, take a seat!” Ramya says cheerily, patting the chair next to her. She’s always so bright and sunny; I can see why Suchet likes her.
“Yo, Saket, what’re you here for?” Suchet inquires.
“I don’t know. Guess I was bored,” I answer.
“Well, join us!” Ramya exclaims. “We’re talking about our next plan of action.”
I slide into the seat between her and Courtney. “Why just the three of you?”
Suchet shrugs. “We didn’t want to let too many people know, since the plan is only in its first stages.”
“Makes sense.” I lean my elbows on the table. “Can you let me in on it?”
“Well, we want to lead Christy away from the fortress so Leo and Jack will be able to escape easily,” Suchet explains. “We’re planning a grand distraction, basically.”
“So, what are your ideas so far?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s the problem,” he sighs. “There isn’t really any obvious move that Christy would expect us to take. She wouldn’t take anything seriously.”
I frown. “There is.”
“Enlighten us, then.”
“Christy doesn’t know that we have over forty survivors fighting together; she thinks we wouldn’t risk an attack without first getting weapons. So, she would expect us to raid a weapons stronghold, like a gun storehouse or something.” I sit back in my chair and smile. “How’s that?”
The three of them exchange glances, and Ramya gives me the thumbs-up. “Sounds good. Now what?”
“We should come up with our plan and put it in action as soon as possible,” Courtney advises. “Jack and Leo don’t have forever.”
I nod in agreement. “How big is this operation going to be?”
“Well, it will have to be fairly noticeable if it’s going to serve as a diversion for Christy,” Suchet muses. “But it can’t be too obvious; otherwise, she might smell a rat.”
“Four people, then,” I say. “And they should be people who she’s encountered before.”
“That narrows down the list,” Suchet murmurs. “Who are our options?”
Courtney’s eyebrows knit together. “Me, Nidhi, Sophia, Sara, Chris, Alisha, and... Sophie.”
Wait a moment.
My scalp prickles with foreboding. If Sophie hears about this, she would go.
And if she goes...
Will she ever come back?
As my second day as Christy’s “assistant” nears its end, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on at home -- and what’s happening to Leo. I haven’t seen him ever since Christy led him away, and all I’ve been able to do for him is pray that he’s all right.
All this time, Christy has been assigning me menial tasks, such as polishing the floors and oiling the gate hinges, as if I were some obsequious, dim-witted servant. But then again, she probably sees me as just that. I haven’t really done much more to prove myself, and no opportunities have arisen anyways.
For the past hour or so, I’ve been busy scrubbing flecks of dirt off of the tall stained-glass windows. My arms ache from holding the bucket of soapy water aloft; my fingers feel as if they’re about to fall off.
Footsteps ring out behind me, harsh and metallic on the silver-tiled floor. “You can stop now, Jack.”
I turn around to face Christy. “Thanks.”
She scowls. “Don’t thank me; your next task is even worse.”
“I can handle it. I can handle anything you throw at me.”
“We’ll see about that.” Christy smiles sadistically, and I internally kick myself for goading her into testing me.
However, before I can fix the mistake, Christy starts walking down the hall, the way she’d come. I have no choice but to follow her to my fate.
We’ve walked for five minutes or so when Christy stops abruptly outside of the door of something that resembles a prison cell. It’s about seven feet tall and made of obsidian, like the walls of the fortress.
“What is this?” My voice quivers slightly as I tremble under the door’s ominous shadow.
Christy gives me the same deranged axe-murderer grin. “Leo’s temporary asylum, of course.”
“Wh-- what do you want me to do?” I stammer.
“Bring him out,” she responds. “I’ll show you what to do after that.”
I can’t exactly argue with her; I’m supposed to be loyal and obedient. So, having no other choice, I push open the door and step in.
We’ve decided to make our “target” the Chen-Pandit Firearms Dealership, a gun shop in a neighboring city approximately five miles away.
All forty of the survivors, myself included, are gathered in Town Square for a meeting Suchet has just called.
“Quiet, guys!” Suchet shouts. “I’ve gathered you all here today to inform you of our next move.”
At these words, utter silence falls.
“A team of four people will travel to the city of Obcasa,” he continues. “There is a gun dealership there. We’re going to raid it.”
Whispers and murmurs arise as people take this in. None of us have ever been to Obcasa; it’s a city shrouded in mystery and enigma.
Suchet raises a hand to quiet the crowd. “The team will leave at the end of this meeting. We need to decide who the members will be.”
A voice interrupts his speech. “Is it open for everybody?”
“No,” Suchet says with a shake of his head. “We need people who have been to Christy’s fortress before.”
I hear a few querulous mutters, but no one comes forward to express dissent.
“Nidhi, Sophie, Courtney, Sophia, Alisha, Sara, and Chris -- step up.”
I’m the first to do so. Slowly, the others follow.
“Would any of you like to volunteer?” Suchet asks.
I have to do this. If I stay here waiting for Jack, I’ll go mad.
My hand shoots up. “Me.”
Suchet merely nods. “Anyone else? We still need three more people.”
Sophie’s hand joins mine in the air. “I’ll go.”
Saket darts out from the crowd. “No, Sophie, you can’t! Please!”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Saket,” Sophie says softly.
Saket’s face falls. “Sophie...”
“I will go,” she says more resolutely. “You can’t stop me.”
Saket looks crestfallen, but before he can interrupt again, Suchet clears his throat. “Okay, two more people.”
Sara and Chris look at each other and seem to come to a tacit agreement. They step forward together, fingers intertwined.
“Us. Both of us,” Chris says.
Suchet doesn’t look surprised in the least. “All right. You four know how to get to Obcasa from here?”
“I do,” Sophie says.
“Great,” Suchet says, clapping his hands together. “Go now, and hurry! The rest of you, go back to whatever you were doing before.”
As the crowd disperses, Suchet leans in towards the four of us furtively. “There’s something else,” he whispers. “There’s a gang in Obcasa, one that I’ve heard of only from legend. I don’t know what they’re called, but they’re reputed to be strong in numbers and skilled in combat. If you could find them and get them to help us...”
He doesn’t need to continue. “Got it,” we all respond.
“Okay, then,” Suchet says with finality. “You have to hurry if you want to make it there before nightfall.”
“Let’s go,” I say to the others. “Sophie, you lead.”And, just like that, we were off to Obcasa.