The Remainders

“Cass, can we please stop?” Alice Wu asked, in between big, wheezing gulps of air. “I’m so tired.”

“We’re almost there,” Cassandra, the older Wu, replied. She hitched her backpack higher up on her shoulder as she trudged forward—through the muck and the mud and the pieces that used to belong to buildings. If she squinted, she could make out crumbled bits of pavement and foundation. Of course, that was much too depressing, and the day was already sad enough: overcast and gray, with enough humidity to make her wake up covered in a fine layer of sweat. “Gloom”—that was the word. Everywhere she looked, all she saw was gloom.

“How much farther?” Alice asked.

“I don’t know,” Cassandra said. “Not much.”

Alice was a few paces behind her. She was huffing and puffing along, carrying her own busted backpack. It was pale, powdery pink and covered with dirt. Cassandra had found it years prior in a pile of rubble and it seemed like a miracle, stumbling upon a useable little-girl backpack that would be perfect for her sister. Of course, then she thought of the little girl it had once belonged to and any excitement she’d felt had drained from her body all at once.

“Keep up,” Cassandra said now. “Don’t get too far behind.”

“I know.” Alice hurried to catch up, her sneakers—which were a bit too loose, some random pair they’d found recently in what had been a residential neighborhood—squeaking as she ran. “I’m so tired,” she said again, as she sidled up to Cassandra.

“I know.” Cassandra reached out and took Alice’s hand, squeezing it. She slowed her pace a bit. “We’ll be there soon.”

In the fading, late-afternoon sunlight, Cassandra saw her sister smile. It was feeble, and barely even noticeable, but it was something.


The encampment was a mess of tents, sleeping bags, blankets and pillows. There was a firepit where people would crouch around and laugh and tell stories. It all felt like summer camp—if summer camp was post-apocalyptic.

Cass hadn’t wanted to go back. Not after Tyler. If she closed her eyes, she could still picture him: his hands all over her, his leering grin. “What? You don’t like it?” The way he laughed after he said that . . . after he did those things . . .

It wasn’t summer camp. It wasn’t fucking summer camp.

But then there was Alice. Cass was carrying her now as they finally walked into the encampment. She was still such a tiny thing. Nine years old but could pass for younger. No surprise there, really—it’s not like there was much food to eat. Or good food to eat, the kind with protein and vitamins and all the things growing girls are supposed to consume. What did they have? What did anyone have, in this godforsaken, war-torn disaster zone of a country?

“You need to walk now,” Cass whispered. She stopped beside a raggedy patchwork tent and put down her sister.

Alice wobbled on her feet before regaining her balance. She looked up at Cass with tired eyes. “We’re here,” she said.

“Yeah.” Cass nodded. “We’re finally here.”

Alice looked around. On all sides, they were surrounded by those ugly tents, and torn, dirt-stained, frayed blankets, and people who were making conversation with each other like things were normal. “There’s no kids here,” she commented.

“Well, there’re some teenagers.”

“That’s not the same thing.” She looked back at Cass, wrapping her arms around her torso. She looked so fragile, standing there in her hastily-sewn, patchwork dress. Cass felt a pang of worry. I’m failing her, she thought, and she had to resist the urge to immediately burst into tears. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Not here. Not in front of Alice. “How long do we have to stay here?” Alice asked.

“Not long,” Cass replied, an airiness to her voice. You’d never be able to tell she was on the verge of tears. “C’mon. Let’s get set up.”

Cass took Alice’s hand and walked over to a patch of empty land. She then took off her backpack—ancient, torn in places, having faded into some nondescript color—and pulled out their one and only blanket. Next, Cass emptied out their water bottle and some of the protein bars she’d had the good fortunate of finding. “Dinnertime,” she said, handing one of the bars to Alice. She smiled. “It’s the one with chocolate chips. Your favorite.”

“Thanks.” Alice unwrapped it slowly. Her fingers were trembling slightly.

“Don’t eat too fast,” Cass reminded her. “Savor it, okay?”

Alice nodded. She took tiny, tentative bites, glancing furtively around the encampment as she did. “It’s strange here,” she said while chewing.

“I know.”

“Are you going to eat anything?”

“No, I’m okay.” As if on cue, Cass’s stomach growled. Luckily Alice didn’t seem to hear.

All around them, people were starting to stare. It was getting dark, but their eyes were visible. They were just . . . watching. Some seemed to recognize them. It made a fresh wave of anxiety crash right into Cass, but she kept her composure. She kept her head held high.

“Are they looking at us?” Alice whispered.

“Maybe a few,” Cass replied. She forced another smile. “It’s fine. We’re fine.”

“Were we supposed to introduce ourselves?”

“No, no. It’s fine,” Cass said again. She wondered if Tyler had ever come back. If he was lurking somewhere, in the shadows. She felt a chill. “You keep the blanket over you tonight, okay? No need to share. It’s shouldn’t get too cold.”

“Really? Because the temperature could drop low during the night. That happens sometimes.”

“It’s not so bad. It’s refreshing, kind of. Reminds me I’m alive.” She glanced over her shoulder. There was a long-haired, heavily bearded man in a blue shirt talking to a half-naked woman by a tent. They kept sneaking glances at Cass and Alice.

“Why are they staring?” Alice asked.

“Because they can,” Cass replied. “And because they have nowhere better to look.” She hoped that was true.


The night was a sleepless one for Cass. She couldn’t rest, not with so many strangers around. She had to keep watch over Alice—always. Alice, for her part, slept fine. She was warm enough, with that blanket around her. She’d eaten enough to get by.

Cass, on the other hand, was cold and hungry and too tired to even cry. Her stomach grumbled every few minutes. After that long walk, she wanted desperately to eat, but they were running low on their protein bars and she couldn’t trust they’d find more food before they ran out. She had to save them for Alice. Still, as the night wore on, her mind wandered. She thought of the restaurant around the corner from their old house, way back in the day, with its lengthy menu and big portions and good smells. It had been so long since she’d had real food, she’d almost forgotten the taste. But not quite. It was worse, in a way, to remember. To know exactly what she was missing.

In the morning, she briefly contemplated going off to find some answers and maybe some food by herself, but she couldn’t leave Alice there. Not with all those strangers sleeping nearby. So she waited a few more hours, until Alice woke up, before starting the day.

“Do I have to come?” Alice asked. “My feet are still sore from the walk yesterday.”

“Sorry. You have to.” Cass carefully re-packed her backpack as she spoke, leaving out one protein bar for Alice’s breakfast.

“How come, though?”

“Because it’s not safe,” she said without thinking. Realizing her words, she stopped packing, sighed and turned to look at her sister. “We don’t know the people here. I can’t leave you on your own if I don’t know who you’re surrounded by. I’m sorry.”

Alice nodded, resigned to another day of walking. Cass handed her the protein bar and, without a word, she began to unwrap it.


They spent the day wandering around the encampment, Cass approaching strangers for any semblance of help. After a while, the speech she gave them was so rehearsed, she could probably recite it in her sleep: “Hello, I’m Cassandra and this is my sister Alice. Because of my sister’s age, I’ve heard we’d qualify for rescue. Do you know where the rescue crews are currently? And do you have any food you could spare?”

Hearing so many negative responses wore on them both, but they kept going. “If we get even one scrap of food, or one lead about the rescue crews, it will have been worth it,” Cass asserted. She couldn’t tell if she was trying to convince herself or Alice.

Hours after they’d first set out, a kindly older couple took pity on them and gave them some stale crackers and a small bag of potato chips. Cass—by that point nearly ready to pass out—allowed herself exactly two of the crackers, which she ate in haste, forgetting the “eat slowly” rule she always imposed with Alice.

Later, they got a packet of uncooked pasta and some cookies from other strangers. No one seemed to know anything about the rescue crews.

It was starting to get dark. They’d wandered away from the main encampment, and looking back toward it, Cass heaved a sigh. It would be a long, painful walk. “Let’s head back,” she said, grabbing Alice’s hand. “At least we got some food.”

Alice nodded. They walked in silence. When they reached the main encampment, Cass could feel eyes on her again. “I hate the way they stare,” Alice whispered.

“I know.”

They went back to their empty patch of land, taking a seat amidst the weeds as Cass unpacked her backpack. “What are we going to do tomorrow?” Alice asked.

Cass shrugged. “Try again. We’ll just keep trying until we find out where the rescue crews are.”

“Rescue crews?” a male voice called.

Cass felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She knew that voice.

Reluctantly, she turned her head in the man’s direction. Sure enough, there he was. Ryan. He still looked the same: brown hair he kept cropped; a cleanly shaven face. One of the only people who hadn’t let himself go to shit once the rest of the country did. “Hey Cass,” he said with a smirk.

“Who’s that?” Alice asked her.

“Nobody, Alice. Ignore him.”

“Ah, c’mon. Where are your manners?” He walked over to them, still with that stupid, swaggering walk of his. And that smirk—all sickening and snide. “I missed you, Cass. You were the funniest person around here. Always kept things light, even when the world seemed so fucking dark.” He glanced at Alice. “Uh, sorry. So freaking dark, I mean.”

“Go away, Ryan. I’m not in the mood.”

“She’s gotten big, hasn’t she?” he asked, meaning Alice. He pushed his hands into his pockets, almost sheepish. “Hey, kid. You remember me at all?”

Alice shook her head. Her eyes—dark and inky, like Cass’s—had gone wide.

“Yeah, well, that makes sense. You were pretty young back then.” He looked back at Cass. “Listen, about the—”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cass cut in.

“No, seriously, I know wh—”

Stop. Okay?” She let out a big breath. “What Tyler did . . . there’s no moving past it. You knew what he did, and you could’ve stopped it and you didn’t. So you just have to live with that. I can’t absolve you of your guilt, and nothing you can say—nothing you could ever, ever say—will make it right. So don’t bother. Especially not with Alice here.” She turned away, letting a sheet of black hair fall across her face. She reached out and grabbed Alice’s hand, squeezing it—this time for her own sake more than Alice’s.

“Well, okay,” Ryan replied. “But that wasn’t what I wanted to say.”

She looked at him sideways, a glare in her eye. “What, then? What could you possibly want to say?”

“The rescue crew. I know where they are.”

Cass let go of her sister’s hand. “What?”

“I know where they are. And I can tell you how to get there.” He grinned. “I’ve got a map.”


The next morning, as Alice slept, Cass sat over her while Ryan sat across from them both. She was staring at him—cautious, utterly silent, her eyes looking him up and down. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“Why would I lie?” He shrugged. “It’s really as simple as that, I guess.”

“But why would you tell the truth?”

“Because I feel bad,” he said. “Okay? And I know you don’t care, and you don’t need to care, but—shit, Cass. I felt bad. I still feel bad. I shouldn’t have let him do that. He was my friend, and—I don’t know. I really don’t. But he’s not my friend anymore.”

“Yeah, because he left the encampment.”

“No,” Ryan asserted, “he came back a few times. I didn’t give him the time of day. Ask anyone.”

“I told you I didn’t want to hear your excuses or your attempts to make amends or whatever else.”

“And that’s fine. But I want you to know I’d never lie to you. The rescue crew is right where I say it is, and the map’s the real deal. I want to give it to you.” He chuckled humorlessly. “Not like I could use it anyhow. I tried, but they said I was too old. They’re only saving the kids.”

“I know.” She glanced over at Alice, still sleeping soundly. “I just need her to be safe. Everything will be fine once she’s safe.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good way to look at things.” He was quiet a moment. “He’s dead now, you know. Tyler.”

She glanced up at him. “Really?” Her voice was a whisper. She could see her breath in the cold, crisp morning air.

Ryan nodded. “Died a while ago. Don’t know the details, but I heard through the grapevine. Anyway, the point is . . . he can’t do it ever again. To anyone.”

“That’s good,” she said. The words were barely audible. Her eyes drifted toward the ground. She said it again, louder this time, more confident: “That’s good.” A pause. Then: “Do you think there’s a hell?”

“If there is,” he said with another of his smirks, “then we’re living it.”

She smiled faintly, nodded. “I guess you’re right.”

It was quiet after that.


It was a long walk to the rescue crew, but that hardly seemed to matter. Alice was in good spirits, hopeful for the first time in a long while. “Do you think we’ll get to go on a plane or in a car?” she asked as they walked.

“A plane,” Cass replied, “and probably a car too.”

“What’s it like, flying in a plane?”

“It’s nice,” Cass answered, a dreamy smile on her face. “Especially the view. You get to see the clouds right out your window. They’re so close, it’s like you can feel them.”

Alice looked up toward the sky, reaching one hand out to the clouds. “I’d like to feel them,” she mused.

“Yeah. Me too.”

They walked through the remnants of a playground, and Cass had to keep Alice from testing out the still-standing ghost of a slide. They crossed overgrown fields, passed by a series of abandoned houses that had been partially reclaimed by wildlife, and the caved-in remains of a store. “It should be about two days before we get there,” Cass noted.

“Where is ‘there’?”

“Well, it used to be a big city,” Cass explained. “You would’ve liked it. It was beautiful and exciting and there was so much to see. But now, it’s . . . well, like this, kind of.” She gestured toward the mess of wildlife and civilization leftovers around them.

“That’s sad,” Alice said. She paused a moment. “Can you tell me about Mom and Dad again? What they were like?”

“Again? Really?” Cass smiled. “Well, all right. Whatever you want. Mom and Dad . . . they really loved each other. They could finish each other’s sentences. They were always such a team, a united front. And they saw everything—if I dropped something, they’d see; if I broke a rule, they’d see. They always knew what I was up to.” She got a foggy, faraway look on her face. “They adored you. Both of them did. They thought you were magic. Just . . . just the best thing ever, really. They were so excited to meet you, when Mom was pregnant. They looked through so many baby name books, and they got all of these toys, and you had this beautiful nursery . . .” She stopped, tears welling up in her eyes. It took her a moment to regain her composure. Once she did, she finished with, “They loved you before you were even born. And you would’ve loved them, too.”

“I do love them,” Alice said.

“That’s good.”

“I think about them a lot,” she added. “All the time.”

Cass nodded. “Yeah. Me too.”


They spent that night in an abandoned house. The foundation had been greatly weakened, so Cass was cautious. “Take small, careful steps,” she warned Alice. “Like you’re walking on thin ice.”

The house was in surprisingly decent shape. Much of the furniture had been desecrated or taken, but a chaise lounge remained in the living room. That was a treat: they almost never got to sleep on a soft surface. It wasn’t big enough for both of them, but Cass gladly ceded it to Alice, who curled up with their blanket and passed out almost immediately. Once she was out for the night, Cass then got to work looking through the kitchen. Much of the food had been taken, but she found a box of breadsticks on a high shelf. She pulled one out and tested it, taking a small bite. It was incredibly hard, barely chewable, but it was something. She put it with the rest of their things, then managed to get a few hours of sleep next to Alice before the morning arrived.

They set out for the day quite soon, not bothering to linger. Alice seemed a bit sad to leave: she stared at the house as they walked away from it, watching it until it faded from view with a frown on her face. “It’s okay,” Cass assured her. “If this works, you’ll be going to a place with lots of houses. And furniture. You’ll always have a roof over your head, and a bed, and—”

“What if it doesn’t work?” Alice stared up at her, lower lip quivering. “What if we walk all this way and they’re already gone? What if they won’t take us? What do we do then?”

“Well,” Cass started, searching for the right, most reassuring words and coming up empty. “We’ll figure it out, okay? We’re going to get through this.” She glanced off, toward the ground. She couldn’t bear to lie to her sister’s face.


Soon, their walk through residential neighborhoods started to look more urban. They passed by a pile of rubble that had once been a high-rise building, and shortly after, they decided to stop for the night. They found another abandoned home, this one in worse shape. It was filled with debris and all the furniture was gone—destroyed or stolen, it seemed. They made do on the floor, sharing their blanket. At least we’re indoors, Cass thought. She couldn’t complain.

In the morning, Cass decided to let Alice have a treat and opened the bag of potato chips they’d been given back at the encampment. “You can have a third of the bag,” she said, handing it over.

“What about you?” Alice asked.

“I’m okay.” They had enough food to last until they got to the rescue crew, but, since Cass wasn’t sure how that would go, she thought it best to still be conservative. She hadn’t been able to find anything in the kitchen of this home, which was a potent reminder of just how scarce food had become.

That made her think back to Tyler. She wondered how he’d died. Starvation, probably. Maybe exposure. He couldn’t have been killed by enemy forces—they hadn’t struck in a long, long time. There’d be no point in striking again, really. They’d already more or less killed off the country, and whoever remained would die on their own.

“What are you thinking about?” Alice asked as she munched on a chip.

“Nothing. We should get going soon.” Cass packed up her backpack and got to her feet. Once Alice was finished, she neatly folded up the bag of chips—to lock in whatever freshness remained—then put it with the rest of their things. She helped Alice off the floor and the two got to walking.

“We should get there by the end of today,” Cass said.

“If the rescue crew has gone already, can we go back to that other house we stayed in? Where we found the breadsticks?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Cass replied. After a pause, she said, “Spell that for me: ‘breadsticks.’”

“B-R-E-A-D, space, S-T—”

“No space,” Cass cut in.

“It’s one word?”

“Yep. Let’s try something harder—armadillo. Spell that.”

“Armadillo?” Alice made a face. “What does that mean?”

“It’s an animal.”

“Okay . . . armadillo . . . A-R-M-A-D-I-L-L-O?”

“That’s right.” Cass smiled. “You’re a good speller, Alice.”

“T-H-A-N-K, space, Y-O-U.” Alice grinned. “I had a good teacher. T-E-A-C-H-E-R. I still remember when you taught me that word, during the walk to the mountain spring.”

“Oh yeah. I remember, too.”

“So these armadillos—what did they look like?”

“Well, kind of like a big rat, but with a shell over their body that looked like armor.”

“Wow. I bet they looked tough.”

“They did,” Cass said. “We’re kind of like armadillos that way. Hard exterior. We’re tough, we can protect ourselves. But I guess the animal we’re most like is a cockroach.”

Alice’s eyebrows shot up. “A cockroach? Ew.”

“No, not really. Cockroaches are resourceful and strong, and they can live through anything. Even this.” Cass gestured around them.

“They’re not cute, though,” Alice pointed out.

“Well, ‘cuteness’ is subjective. But you’re right.” She chuckled softly.

Looking up ahead, Cass saw a couple of still-standing high-rise buildings—a rarity. It reminded her of how things used to be, how they used to look, and she smiled slightly to herself. Then she noticed something else, some dark shapes slouched in the bushes. She squinted, trying to make it out. “Uh, let’s turn this way,” she said, guiding Alice away from the shapes and off the path, through some weeds.

“What? Why?”

“Just because,” Cass said, grabbing her sister’s hand. She glanced back over her shoulder and gave one last look toward the figures in the bushes—three dead bodies, partially concealed from view but still easy enough to make out. Alice started to look back as well, but Cass tugged her hand. “Come on. Let’s keep going.”


“Is this the city?” Alice asked, looking around them at a few crumbling apartment buildings. “The one you told me about?”

“No, not quite,” Cass replied as she perused the map. “This is a city, but it’s not the city. We won’t get there until later. And even once we do, we still have to walk a ways to get to the meeting point.”

“Where is the meeting point?”

“It says here that it’s—” She broke off, chuckling. “Wow. I didn’t even realize.”


“Well, the place that’s circled here—the meeting point—I didn’t notice the name of the building. It’s his. That bad man I told you about.”

“It’s his building?” Alice’s eyebrows drew together. “Will he be there?”

“No,” Cass assured her. “You don’t have to worry about him. He’s dead. He’s been dead for a while now.”

“Oh,” Alice said. She paused. “But it’s his building—”

“Was. It was his building, a long time ago. Anyway, that’s where the rescue crew is. It makes sense, I guess. Lots of people went to the building after the war started. They vandalized it or, once things got really bad, broke in and started living there. Some people—the people who still had faith in the man, the bad man—they’d go there to lead counter-protests. Speak his praises. Worship there like it was a church or something.” She laughed bitterly. “Anyway, for a while, a long while, it was a hub of activity. Good, bad or ugly, people flocked there for years. I never went—never saw the appeal. It’d only make me mad, you know? But other people . . .” She trailed off. “I guess the rescuers still think people are coming and going over there. But I doubt it. That was years ago—no one cares anymore. And there’ve been many, many strikes since then. The building might not even be standing anymore.”

“Oh,” Alice said again. She was quiet after that. So was Cass.


When they finally made it to the city—the real city, not the smaller cities around it—they found a confusing metropolis. Some buildings remained standing, albeit shattered, often unsteady, vandalized and ruined. Others were totaled, leaving only piles of debris and remnants of plaster in their wake. In some places, there were only big, gaping holes or empty space where flourishing businesses and apartment complexes once stood. “From the strike,” Cass explained as they passed, while Alice stared, wide-eyed and rapt. In other places, things looked almost normal: a long stretch of buildings would be intact, and it was only when you looked closely and noticed the broken windows and lack of human activity that things suddenly seemed a bit strange, a bit wrong.

There were some people here and there: wandering souls like Cass and Alice, mostly middle-aged adults. Some were alone, a random passerby keeping his or her head down, and others were distraught-looking couples or, on one occasion, a family with a teenaged boy.

The family caught Cass’s attention. They were coming from the direction Cass and Alice were headed. “Hey!” she called. “Did you find the rescue crew?”

The family stopped in their tracks, looking startled to hear another voice. Cass trotted over to them, Alice trailing behind her. They were average people: the father was reasonably tall, bearded; the mother was on the shorter side, with light brown hair pulled back from her face; the teenaged boy had acne, and a large bag—carrying, Cass presumed, all of the family’s belongings—slung over his shoulder. Their faces were sad, defeated. That wasn’t unusual, of course.

“We met with the rescuers,” the woman replied. Her voice was hoarse. “They . . . they wouldn’t take him.” She looked over at her son, eyes teary, and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Oh,” Cass said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right.” She smiled feebly. “We’re doing okay.”

“We’re surviving,” the husband added.

“Did they give you a reason why they couldn’t take him?” Cass asked.

“They said he was too old,” the woman replied.

Cass nodded. “How old is—?”

“Nineteen,” the boy answered, cutting her off. He met her gaze for the first time. His eyes were blue, sad. Pained. They hurt to look at.

“I’m so sorry,” Cass said again, directly to the boy this time.

He shrugged. “It is what it is.”

Around them, the wind whistled. It made Cass’s hair lift and drop. She shivered.

“We should get going,” the husband noted, grabbing the woman’s hand.

“Thank you for talking to me,” Cass said. “We’re headed to the rescue crew now. My sister, she’s only nine.”

“They should take her,” the woman said. She smiled down at Alice. “Be strong. Okay, sweetie? Help’s on the way.”

Alice nodded slightly. She and Cass stood and watched as the people walked away. When they were gone, Cass let out a breath. “That was intense.”

“I feel so bad for them,” Alice said.

“I know.” Cass grabbed her hand. “Come on. Let’s walk a little farther before we call it a night.”

They kept going, even as the wind picked up and the darkness crept in. After thirty minutes, Alice started to get antsy. “I’m exhausted,” she said. “Can we stop now? Please?”

“In a minute. We’re so close now.”

“What about over there?” Alice asked, pointing to an old diner in relatively good shape. “We could sleep there for the night.”

Cass stopped, mulling it over. If they kept walking, she couldn’t guarantee they’d find better shelter—and, if she was honest, she could use the rest. “Okay,” she said. “That’ll do.”

They hopped in through a shattered window and made quick work of settling in, setting themselves up at one of the booths. The seat was blue, the material worn and partially ripped, but it was comfortable. They slept across from one another on either seat, their backpacks resting between them on the table. It was a long night, but Cass slept well enough, knowing that they’d finally reach the rescuers the next day.


“Manhattan,” Cass said softly, musingly, as they walked the last of the way to the meeting spot.

Alice looked at her sideways. “What’s that?”

“That’s what this area used to be called.”

“Before the bad man ruined everything,” Alice filled in.

“That’s right.”

Alice was quiet a moment. Then: “You never did tell me exactly how it happened.”

“It’s a pretty depressing story.” Cass grimaced just thinking of it. “I could tell you something else, something happier.”

“No,” Alice said. “I want to know why everything is the way that it is.”

Cass sighed, deliberating for a moment. They passed by what used to be a jewelry store, now just an empty, abandoned storefront with the sign still hanging over the door. Cass peered in the window, imagining the old displays that used to be there: the diamonds and rubies, necklaces and bracelets. She could still remember how she used to look at window displays with her parents—window shopping, that’s what it was. Staring at toys that were too impractical, gadgets that were too expensive, as her mom and dad hovered nearby. Some kids would throw a fit if they didn’t get what they wanted, but Cass was always happy just to look and imagine.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll tell you.” She ran a hand through her hair as she coughed up the words—words she had, for so long, promised herself she’d never say, never let Alice hear. “Before you were born, this man—the bad man I’ve told you about—was elected president. He was . . . very unstable. Irrational. Narcissistic. Prejudiced. Completely idiotic. And he had a temperament like a toddler. He lied constantly, about everything. He couldn’t be trusted. And the leaders of most other countries thought he was a buffoon and laughed it off. But things got worse, and soon he started making enemies of other world leaders. He started making enemies of whole countries. And eventually, that led us to a war we never should’ve been in. He led us to war.”

“How did he become president?” Alice asked. “Why would people have voted for him?”

“Some people like to vote for buffoons. Some people liked that he said heinous things. Some people thought he was a truth-teller, a game-changer—someone who’d switch things up. And I guess they just wanted to see what would happen. But also, bad as it sounds, people respond to hate. People like having their illegitimate feelings validated. And this man, he validated every prejudiced, ignorant person in the country.”

Alice was silent.

“He made enemies of powerful people. Powerful countries. And soon, those countries were attacking us. All of those strikes—everything they could think of throwing our way, they did. America was ruined. So many people died. And then there were the lucky few, like us, who managed to avoid the strikes, who managed to survive.”

“Yeah,” Alice said. She stared off in the distance, a vague, empty look on her face.

“If this works,” Cass began, “then you’re going to go to another country, one that is flourishing and not like this, and you’ll be able to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and you won’t have to walk so far every day, or sleep in abandoned houses, or any of it. You’ll get to be normal, Alice. I’m going to make sure of it.” Right on cue, Cass spotted the meet-up building in the distance. “We’re nearly there. That’s it—you see? Just a little bit farther now.”

She picked up the pace, desperate to close the distance. Alice hurried to keep up. Grabbing her sister’s hand, Cass broke out in a sprint. Above them, the horrid building loomed large. Somehow, it had remained intact, if broken and abandoned. What a cruel joke that was, some awful act of irony. Cass could barely stand to look at it.

Directly across the street from the building, there was a little sign. We Accept Refugees, it read. Beside the sign were a couple of fold-out chairs and sitting in those seats were two people: a man and a woman. Volunteers, Cass supposed. They stood out due to their cleanliness, their new, undamaged clothing and washed hair and faces. When was the last time she’d seen someone who looked so alive, so normal? She couldn’t recall.

Again, Cass raced forward, pulling Alice along with her. “Hello,” she called to the volunteers. “Hello, can you help us? Please?”

The woman volunteer rose to her feet. She was full-figured, with brown hair, and smelled of nice, flowery shampoo. God, shampoo, Cass thought. What I wouldn’t give for some shampoo. “How old is the girl?” the woman asked, in heavily accented English. She nodded her head toward Alice as she spoke.

“Nine years old,” Cass replied. “We need help, urgently. We’re running out of food—”

The woman held up a hand, silencing her. She turned to her companion, the male volunteer. “Nine years—within our specified age range, yes?”

He nodded.

“All right then.” She turned back to Cass. “And you? What is your age?”

“Twenty-seven,” Cass said.

The woman frowned. “Oh, I am sorry. No adults. Not right now. Our country only allows children from here.”

“I know,” Cass answered. Her voice was quiet, a little dejected, but not at all surprised.

Alice looked up at her. “You mean I have to go by myself? You can’t come?”

“I’m sorry—”

“No,” Alice interrupted. “No! I won’t do it. I can’t. I’m not leaving without you.”

“Alice, you have to.”

“I don’t. I won’t.” Her eyes were teary, but her voice didn’t crack. She had her hands balled into fists at her side. “I’m not leaving you here, Cass. I’m not.”

“Alice, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“No!” she said again, louder this time. She was almost screaming. “I can’t do this without you. We might never see each other again.”

“I know,” Cass replied. “But it doesn’t matter. Okay? It doesn’t matter if we see each other again or not, so long as you’re safe. You aren’t safe here, Alice. You know that. You stay here, and what happens when we run out of food? What happens next winter, or the one after? What happens in five years or ten? You could die, Alice. You will die, if you stay here. And yeah, maybe we’ll survive another few years. But this . . . this isn’t sustainable.”

As soon as Cass finished her speech, Alice burst into tears. Loud, messy, uncontrollable sobs that shook her whole body. She crumbled in half, then to the ground, collapsing on the sidewalk. “I won’t go,” she shrieked through her tears, “and you can’t make me!

The volunteers looked on, bewildered. The woman turned to Cass. “You have to fill out a form if you want to sign her over. But perhaps not?”

“No,” Cass said. “Give me the form. She’s going with you.”

Alice looked up at her from the ground and, in between sobs, breathlessly choked out, “I told you I’m not going! Why are you doing this?”

Cass ignored her. The woman handed over a clipboard and a pencil. The form was neatly laid out, asking the child’s name and birthdate and any other relevant information. Please answer to the best of your knowledge. Leave blank any field you are unsure of, it noted. Cass had to reread the questions several times, tears blurring her vision. She hastily wrote down Alice’s full name and birthdate as her sister wailed in the background.

The woman volunteer made an awkward attempt to comfort the girl. “It really isn’t so grim,” she said. “You’d like our country very much. It’s nothing like this.

“Yes, there’s much for a child your age to do,” the male volunteer—in even more heavily-accented English—added.

Alice ignored them. She was inconsolable, her whole body convulsing on the ground with each huge, loud sob. Her face was contorted with fear and grief.

“There,” Cass said. With a shaking hand, she returned the form and clipboard and pencil back to the woman. “That’s all of it.”

The woman looked from Cass to Alice and back again. “The next plane leaves tonight. I can take her now to get ready for it. We have our kids in a safe zone until we depart. But it can wait until you’ve said a proper goodbye?”

Cass nodded. She turned to Alice—

—who, in turn, glared up at her. “Why are you making me do this?” she asked, letting out another strangled sob on the word “this.”

“Because I fucking love you, Alice,” Cass said—and, despite her best efforts, she began to cry, too. “I love you so much that I’m not going to let you say no to the only chance you have of getting out of here. You need to do this, and I need to make you. I need you to be safe, Alice. I need you to have a life, and a good one, and not be stuck here with me. And God, if I could stay with you forever, I would. But I can’t. You have to go.”

Still crying, Alice glanced over at the woman volunteer, a desperate look on her face. “Can’t she come with me? Please? She won’t take up much room. Please, she has to come.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman replied, spreading her hands. “There is nothing I can do.”

Alice let out another sob. Cass bent down, scooping her up off the ground in one smooth move. She wrapped her arms tightly around her sister’s quivering, too-thin torso, feeling her heartbeat, smelling her hair. “I love you so much,” she said again—whispering this time, so only Alice could hear. “And I’m so proud of you. Because you’re strong, and you’re tough, and you’re brave and you’re smart—and that’s why you’re going to get out of here. That’s why you’re going to go with this woman, and not look back. Okay? Okay, Alice?”

For a moment, Alice said nothing, just leaned into Cass’s stomach and cried—quietly now, her tears muffled against Cass’s body. But then she nodded. And Cass breathed a sigh of relief.

When they pulled away, Alice’s face was red, her hair matted to her tear-soaked cheeks. She looked a mess—an adorable, perfect, wonderful mess. Cass stared at her harder than she ever had before, committing the image to memory. She refused to forget what her sister looked like—no matter what.

“You’re going to do great,” Cass told her. She squeezed her shoulders. “I love you,” she said again.

“I . . . love you . . . too,” Alice replied, struggling to catch her breath.

Cass turned to the woman volunteer. “Okay,” she said. “We’re ready. You can take her.”

The woman nodded and took Alice’s hand. Cass remained standing there until they’d walked out of view. She couldn’t seem to take her eyes off them. And Alice—to her endless credit—did exactly what Cass told her to do: she never looked back.

When they were gone—absolutely, undeniably gone—Cass broke down. The tears flew almost as freely as her sister’s had, and the sobs were nearly as deafening. The male volunteer offered her some halfhearted words of support, but mostly kept quiet, allowing her to grieve. For that, she was grateful.

She didn’t know exactly how long she stood there, crying and shaking and thinking of Alice’s face. But after a while, she was ready to move on. She took a deep breath, wiped her cheeks, and started walking back the way she came. She felt lighter—almost weightless. I’ll be okay, she told herself. And so will Alice.

That was all she needed to keep going.