(20) By Democracy

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This isn't a decision I should be making.

That's the first thing that crosses my mind in response to Ember's plea. And a plea it really is. She's begging. Her eyebrows scrunch up with the helpless look that's come over her face, and she leans forward a little with the force of her hope that I'll say yes.

I don't even know what I'd do to help her and Oreo and the rest of this group. Pointing out the fire hazards, mold smells, and unsafe food storage I've already spotted here is unlikely to do anything against the Redding, even as a part of my brain whispers that damp in the rice bag in the hallway outside might be a Redding hazard in and of itself. I refuse to trust that voice until I've confirmed anything at all about how the Redding gets into food. Especially when Ember's already alluded to this place being short on provisions.

I could also point out how Oreo's lack of consultation with any of his teammates raised red flags for me back at the motel, but that's now tempered by Ember's assessment of her own group's survival skills. It doesn't matter, really, that I have different views about how a leader should act. I don't know the situation there well enough to judge.

Ember is still watching me, waiting on tenterhooks for my reply. I swallow against a suddenly dry throat.

"I'll have to ask the others," I say. I'm already scanning the room for anything that will give me an excuse to escape. There's no functional clock in here, but a glance out the window reveals a sky that's paled from black to royal blue. I'm tired again, but it's too close to sunrise now to get anything resembling a full night's sleep. The least I'll be able to wring out yet is a nap, which doesn't sound like the worst idea. "Can we talk more tomorrow? I'm kind of tired."

"Sure." Ember sags back in her chair. There's a long moment of silence. My heart twists with the knowledge that I've disappointed her, but it's not my fault she's put her faith in something—someone—that probably can't live up to the expectation.

"And stay healthy, okay?" she says, breaking the silence. "You gave me a scare when I found you outside that room upstairs. Don't make me regret letting you in without a screening."

It's not the first time someone's mentioned that, and I still don't know what it means. The clenched fist in my chest returns. I don't want to give the impression of naivety to Ember by asking now, potentially compromising our free pass here. I'll get someone who isn't being seen as our leader to ask instead.

"I'll try," I say. It's a hollow promise that makes Ember smile weakly. I can't promise anything when we still don't have the faintest clue why me or anyone in my group is alive.

I make my escape before Ember can say anything else. Our group's bedroom is silent when I ease the door open. I think Calico J tried to wait up for me. He's passed out on the mattress beside Patrick with his sleeping bag halfway unzipped and one hand on a book across his chest. Patrick is cuddled up like a cat against his side. It's actually adorable.

I brace myself for whatever I'll find by way of sleeping conditions, but it's not as bad as I was expecting. Ditzy has installed herself at the far side of our bed with her back to where I'll be sleeping. It's both a relief and, in the rebellious part of my brain, a disappointment. I change into pajamas in the dark, debate the merits of washing up and brushing teeth when it's an hour and a half to sunrise, and decide that performative hygiene loses to what little sleep I can still get yet tonight. I resign myself to the breakdown of routine and crawl into bed beside Ditzy.

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