(1) The I-Word

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In my defense, Ditzy started it. If I'm going crazy, at least she had a hand in the process.

We're all hanging out in the safe house at some hour of the evening when she gets that funny kind of look in her eye. You know the kind where someone's just gotten an idea and they're not sure yet if it's genius or lunacy? Yeah. That. It's the kind of look we all think we've gotten used to from Ditzy, until she gets it again.

Patrick sees it. He shoots her a wary look from across the room, where he's pillaging the fridge for some kind of milk product that hasn't gone sour. He found cereal in the cupboards when we moved into this place, and hell would probably freeze over before he let that pass without a shot at the real deal. Anyway. He spots Ditzy's look. And he gets this pained twist to his face, like I've won the bet I made when I told him whatever milk-like thing he found would have gone sour and he wouldn't know until he'd eaten it. We lost all electrical reliability five weeks ago.

"No cat litter this time," he says. "Please?"

Ditzy gives him an offended look, then prims up and tucks a strand of her long blonde hair behind her ear as she turns to me. She tilts her head just a little, and I swear she knows how well it works at disabling my arguments, because my brain turns to scrambled eggs when she looks at me like that. All doe-brown eyes and long lashes, and her perfect little mouth crimped up at the corners. She has her thinking look on.

"Meg," she says, "I just got an idea."

"You know saying it like that only makes it sound more dangerous," says Patrick.

"I'm not talking to you. Meg's in charge anyway."

That isn't true. I wish she would stop saying it, because everyone here knows she and Calico J are the real leaders of this group. I'm just good at identifying safe houses. And I'm only good at that because I grew up camping and therefore understand that human beings need water and a safe place to take a dump if they're staying anywhere for longer than half a day.

Even if I'm not our leader, though, I still feel a survival obligation to at least listen to whatever Ditzy has to say. Even if it turns out to be crazy. And even if I only do it because I want to see the little smile she only gets when the i-word strikes her.

Patrick's words, not mine.

"I'm listening," I say.

"Morse code."

Calico J takes that moment to give a long snore from the opposite couch, making us all jump. Patrick looks nervously out the window. It's dark outside. Even if the Redding is out there, he won't see it anyway.

"Explain?" I say, and my face goes hot the moment it leaves my mouth. I've never been the eloquent one here, but I still feel like a dunce any time I hit Ditzy with a one-word answer. Like I expect myself to spout poetry instead.

"We're not allowed to say our names, right?" says Ditzy. "But writing's safe, so what if it actually has to be spoken? If we all learned Morse code, we could talk to one another without worrying about saying a name by accident, and it'd work around the Sleepers, too. No more risk of waking one."

"None of us even know each other's real names," says Patrick. "So what good is it then?"

"That still leaves the Sleepers."

"Stop it, both of you," I say, as Patrick opens his mouth for another retort. "Let me hear myself think."

Ditzy talks fast, and my brain processes it with a lag time that only gets worse when there's ambient noise around me. Especially people talking. The room falls silent, and my thoughts miraculously reorganize themselves into something resembling coherence.

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