Jenna ditched the scooter and is fast-walking down Tenth Street when the phone rings. It comes up as only a number, no name. It’s not in the scooter guy’s contacts. She answers.
“It’s me,” Simon says. “You’re sure?” He’s using a burner phone like they discussed when they made this contingency plan.
Their marriage is nothing like the cliché in the movies where the spouse is blindsided by their loved one’s secret history. Before Jenna agreed to marry him, she told Simon everything. Well, nearly everything. Enough for him to be clear-eyed and understand the risks of living the rest of his life with her. Actually, there was some cliché to it—he proposed on the promenade outside the Eiffel Tower. She said, Yes, but . . .
Using his overly analytical mind, Simon had weighed the costs and benefits. Probably made a spreadsheet of pros and cons.
“Like the movie Nikita?” he asked. “You were taken as a kid and trained to . . .”
“Not as glamorous, but yes.”
After digesting it all, Simon figured she was safe, that her former employer, a government contractor with no name that its employees called The Corporation, had no reason to come after her. But just in case, they developed an emergency plan.
Simon is an inveterate planner, an occupational hazard. They agreed on a code, something only they would know. Simon chose “Alas Babylon,” which is weird, but he said it was from a book he’d read when he was a kid. If either of them ever used the code, they would hightail it out to the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia. A cabin in Bath County that Simon purchased through a web of shell companies. A trail only a tax lawyer could untangle.
“Yes, I’m so sorry.”
There’s a leaden silence. He’s processing.
Jenna says, “You get Lulu. I’m on my way to get Willow. We need to be fast.”
Simon is still quiet. He’s breathing heavily into the phone.
Jenna hears the tapping of computer keys. He’s at his desktop. “Lulu’s at school, I can see her on the webcam,” he says.
Lulu’s kindergarten teacher has a live webcam parents can log on to. The high school teachers aren’t so generous, but to Willow’s consternation, she accepted their locator on her cell phone. “And Willow’s pinging at the school.”
“Good. Don’t bring your phone, it can be tracked. Use the burner. I’m sorry, I—”
“I knew what I was getting into,” he cuts her off. “We’ll meet you at the—”
“Don’t say it.” This time she interrupts, not wanting him to reveal where they’re headed. It’s unnecessary. Both phones are untraceable to them. But there are laser microphones that can pick up conversations four hundred meters away. And she’s learned over the years that survival favors the cautious. “I love you,” she says, and hangs up, not wanting to hear the pain and fear—and possibly regret at ever meeting her—in his voice.
She needs to get to Willow’s school. The scooter hipster’s phone will probably work for another fifteen minutes before he gets hold of his carrier and it’s disabled. She thumbs the Uber app, orders the car. She’s got no money, no credit cards, and soon she’ll have no phone. But she and Willow are going to make it to the cabin.
As she waits for the ride, Jenna surveys the area. Tenth Street is like much of downtown D.C.: glass office buildings filled with lawyers and lobbyists amid a smattering of redbrick old row houses converted into coffee shops alongside small roadside parks with benches occupied by the growing homeless population. No one is paying her any mind. Just another Washingtonian staring at her phone, waiting for an Uber or Lyft.
She tries to control her breathing, harness the fear and adrenaline ripping through her. Some of her colleagues at The Corporation loved feeling like this: the high from the chase, the epinephrine from the mission. That’s how they got you: The Corporation taught you to crave that feeling; it meant that you were alive, that you had a purpose in this world. But for Jenna, it’s always a Proustian moment, something that evokes a buried sensation—the deep sense of dread—rooted in the first time she ever ran for her life. What her stepdaughter Willow might call a trigger.
Her first night at Savior House.
At fifteen, Jenna’s heard of scary Chestertown—which is about three burgs over from her modest home in Linwood, Pennsylvania—somewhere her parents and the other grown-ups refer to only in whispers, a place you wouldn’t want your car to break down at night.
The social worker pulls to the curb. The group home looks like it was once a grand mansion from another era but now resembles a rundown haunted house from a black-and-white movie or Scooby-Doo cartoon. The social worker introduces her to the man who runs the place—Mr. Brood—a hulking figure who wears a cardigan that gives him the appearance of Mr. Rogers on steroids. It’s dinnertime, kids are shuffling to the dining room, but Mr. Brood says she can be excused from dinner, this one time. He’s stern but isn’t mean. More matter-of-fact. He and the social worker talk briefly before the woman shows Jenna to her room. Three beds are in a line, each with a large trunk at the foot. Jenna doesn’t say anything, just curls up on the mattress, buries her head in the pillow, which is lumpy and yellowed and has no pillowcase.
She barely had a chance to say goodbye to her parents. Mom and Dad always went bowling on Tuesdays. Jenna should’ve said, I love you, or hugged them. But she’d been talking on the phone with Gigi, stretching the kitchen phone cord so it reached the stairs where she could whisper and giggle and conspire with her friend without her parents eavesdropping. Everything changed in a split second when the police came to the door. No more Friday nights at Blockbuster searching for movies with her dad. No more road trips for Jenna’s gymnastics competitions with her mom. No more board games on rainy weekends. No more making dinners together or dumb jokes or the endless mundane things she took for granted and would give anything to get back. She squeezes her eyes tight and cries herself to sleep.
She awakens with a fright—someone touching her arm. Her heart’s banging and she can’t see who it is at first and is disoriented. Then the crushing reality hits her again. This isn’t a nightmare. She’s at the group home. Her parents killed in a car accident. She has no one.
There’s a girl crouched at her bedside. In a whisper, she says, “We need to hide.”
Hide? Jenna doesn’t understand. But then from outside the room, there’s the sound of male voices. Laughing, heavy footsteps.
“Come out come out wherever you are.”
The tone isn’t playful like in hide-and-seek. It’s creepy. She thinks he’s imitating a line from a movie.
Jenna jolts up. She looks around, but there’s nowhere to go. The girl’s already gone. Jenna jumps to her feet, opens the chest at the foot of the bed. It’s small, but she’s limber. She balls herself up, closes the lid on top of her, the inside hot from her breath, loud from the banging of her heart.
But the lid juts open. The girl is back, shaking her head, silently telling Jenna that they’ll find her there.
The girl takes Jenna’s hand, then guides her out of the bedroom. In the upstairs hallway, Jenna hears more noise from downstairs. She’s not sure what time it is, but it’s dark and the place is otherwise still.
The girl—she has dark black hair and brown skin—puts a finger to her lips. Jenna is terrified now. What is happening? Why is this girl so afraid of them? Where is Mr. Brood?
They step gingerly down the hallway, fear seizing Jenna with every creak of the floorboards.
“Come out come out wherever you are.”
The voice floats up the stairs.
The girl stealthily moves into the other bedroom, Jenna following close behind. The room has three more beds in a line.
Three trunks in front of them. The girl goes to a closet at the far end.
The voices grow louder.
The girl opens the closet door. It’s empty save for a few clothes hanging on a mismatch of hangers. The girl sweeps aside the clothes and reaches inside. Jenna notices a small gap in the drywall about four feet long. The girl puts her small fingers inside the crevasse and pulls.
A slice of drywall, a makeshift hidden door, comes off and Jenna is startled by two round eyes looking back at them. The girl who led her there says, “Shit.”
The girl in the hidden section of the closet says, “You can fit, Marta. Both of you.” She pushes herself back, as if willing herself to be smaller.
But Marta clearly knows better.
Marta wedges the section of drywall back to its place and fans the clothes in front of it.
She’s starting to panic, Jenna can see. The voices are getting closer.
Jenna needs to take control. Take action. Her gymnastics coach always says, If you want to be a leader, lead. She runs to the window and looks outside. There’s a small slice of roof covering the porch. But the drop is far.
Jenna pries open the window. Marta is watching her. The voices grow louder. Like a pack of wolves going room to room, looking for food.
Jenna gestures for Marta to come to the open window. But the girl’s frozen. Jenna quietly races over, takes Marta’s arm, and steers her to the opening. Marta ducks through the window and stands on the small section of roof looking terrified.
“Come out come out . . .”
Jenna darts over to the bed, yanks a thin blanket from it, and climbs out the window, shutting it right as the bedroom light is slapped on.
They move away from the light to the edge. Marta is visibly trembling now.
Jenna hands her an end to the blanket. Gestures for her to grip it tightly. “I’ll lower you down,” she whispers.
Marta shakes her head violently.
But Jenna gives her a look that says, It will be okay.
Voices are coming through the walls. Jenna peers over the ledge. The front lawn isn’t overgrown, but it isn’t well cared for either. Like someone whips through every few weeks with a mower without regard to what they’re plowing over. She confirms it’s too far down to jump.
Still holding the blanket, the girl lowers herself so she’s sitting on the ledge. She twists her body around so she’s facing the house, balancing on her forearms as she grips the blanket.
Jenna plants her feet and begins lowering Marta, the girl gripping the blanket for dear life. Jenna’s foot slips, and she worries they’ll both go down, but she regains her footing as Marta inches closer to the ground. The blanket is long enough that with outstretched arms Marta will be able to drop without breaking a limb.
Jenna feels a rush of panic as the window makes a loud noise as someone jams it open. The weight on the blanket releases. Jenna makes sure Marta is safely on the ground and then tosses the blanket over the ledge.
A voice booms. “She’s outside.”
Jenna doesn’t look back at the window but instead runs across the roof and leaps to grab the gutter’s downspout above, which is old and rusted. She prays it will hold.
There’s more voices, but they trail off. They’re running downstairs. Trying to catch the girls in the yard. Jenna shimmies down, sliding too fast, the aluminum burning her hands.
Marta has waited for her. The two lace hands and run into the night.
“Are you Clark Stansbury?” The voice jars Jenna back to the present. The driver of a car with an Uber sticker on the side window is looking at her. She remembers she’s using the scooter guy’s phone, nods, and hurries into the vehicle.
While they drive to Willow’s school, Jenna finds herself returning to that first night at the group home, to the dark-haired girl thanking her for getting them out of the house.
“Those boys,” she tells Marta. “We need to tell Mr. Brood.”
Marta’s response takes the wind out of her: “It’s not the boys we need to be afraid of.”
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