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aal

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“Cover for me,” Sophia hissed. “Or else.”

Zipping her backpack, she threw one strap over her shoulder. Sophia looked at me in that unquestioning way of hers, confident that I’d do whatever she demanded because I always did. Her threats were just that good. So good, actually, that I often took the blame for her bad choices. Mom, busy and stressed and wrapped up in her own stuff, jumped to conclusions that always seemed to favor my sister.

“I told Logan I was just coming back to grab something quick,” Sophia said. “Don’t let Mom find out I’ve gone. Or you’ll pay.”

“Wait—where does she think you are?”

“At Chloe’s, sleeping over.”

“Where’re you actually going?”

Sophia smiled and tilted her gaze. “While you’re sitting here grounded, I’ll be at the lake campground with my boyfriend.”

“It’s your fault I’m grounded!”

She shrugged. My sister had been like this for so long, it didn’t feel like we were true sisters anymore. It’s horrible to put that out there, but things really were that weird and awful between us. Nobody else had this problem; I was some kind of freak. Sure, my friends fought with their siblings, but they always got over it. My sister hated me. I didn’t know why. I’d only ever wanted to be just like her.

I missed being real sisters. I longed for the special ways we used to communicate that only we understood. My heart literally hurt just thinking about it.

Sophia didn’t glance back as she climbed out of our bedroom window. I watched her go until the darkness overcame her and she disappeared completely.

A few hours later, a deep rumble and shaking woke me. In the pitch darkness, I couldn’t figure out the disorienting sensations. A burning, gross stench made me cough. A flash outside lit up my room, and I heard a boom loud enough to wake the whole town. The window rattled. The walls shook. The smell worsened.

Mom flew into my room, coughing. “Zoë! Are you okay?”

“Yeah. What’s happening?”

“Not sure yet. The power’s out. I’m texting Sophia, but she’s not replying.”

“It’s the middle of the night. Her phone’s probably off.”

“When is her phone ever off?”

“Maybe it’s dead. She’s always forgetting to charge it.”

“I should call Chloe’s mom—”

“It’s the middle of the night! She’ll think you’re paranoid. Sophia will be really mad—”

“I’m sure she’s fine. I’d just feel better knowing she’s fine.”

“Don’t worry.”

Mom mock-laughed. “It’s what I do. God, I really don’t like that smell. What could be going on out there?” She coughed. “Okay, I’ll wait a bit for Sophia to reply.” Mom backed out of the room, coughing again, still looking at her phone.

I exhaled.

“But just a bit!” Mom called from the hall.

I sent two rapid-fire texts to Sophia and called her twice. Nothing. So I got dressed—as quietly as I could—and climbed out of the window and onto my bike. Gripping the handlebars, I seethed at Sophia’s selfishness. I can’t believe she’s ignoring her texts and now I have to go find her, I thought. She has to reply before Mom makes that call.

My eyes stung from smoke hanging in the air and my coughing was worse out here. The air itself suddenly felt hotter.

People appeared in the street in their pajamas, some with devices that blared local news. I slowed down, and that’s when I heard it. A runaway train—full of crude oil—jumped the tracks by the lake, and that awful boom I’d heard was a rail car exploding. More explosions were coming. Everyone needed to evacuate, now.

Adults yelled at me, “Turn around! Leave the area!”

I’ll be honest. My first instinct was to do what I was told like I always did. I turned back, thinking about Sophia and Logan. What if they don’t know? What if they don’t evacuate?

The heavy smoke made it hard to see and stung my eyes. I coughed. The gross smell turned my stomach. My skin felt wet and sticky. I pulled my shirt up and over my nose and mouth and pedaled. I heard shouting behind me.

A pothole got me after only a few minutes. Seeing the flat tire, I kicked the bike hard and said a word we don’t use near teachers. Just then the streetlights went out. I said the word again. Needing light, I felt for my phone. Not there. Probably lost it when the bike went down. No time to search. I ran. I ran and didn’t stop until I reached the campground.

Across the lake, tall, massive flames stretched around the shore. They lit up everything including three rail cars half-submerged in the lake. The rail cars looked all innocent, just sitting there still and quiet. How much time before they explode? Minutes? Seconds?

Sophia. I wanted this hole in my heart to heal. However long it took, I could hope. We were sisters; surely there was no time limit. Our blood bond wasn’t a coupon.

I focused my stinging eyes and saw pinpricks of light from some campsites. In the nearest, the light came from inside a tent. My throat was too parched to yell, so I boldly peered inside. Two empty, folded-back sleeping bags sat alone with a single lantern. I hated to do it without permission but I grabbed that lantern and took off for the next campsite.

A small car sat next to the fire pit with a man reclining in the driver’s seat. I pounded the window, rattled the locked door handle. The lantern lit up his open eyes, which were staring ahead like a stone statue. Sprinting away on shaky legs, I wondered if I would find Sophia in time.

At the next campsite, an animal prints backpack—just like Sophia’s—sat by the tent. Please, let it be hers. Two motionless bodies lay inside. Not the light, nor my loud coughing roused them.

The lantern light fell on Sophia’s favorite sneakers. Tears welled in my eyes while a rush of energy propelled me into the tent. That awesome feeling instantly became panic—she didn’t respond to my touch. I waved the lantern in her face and felt myself gasp. Her eyes and lips looked horribly swollen and red. How much longer do we have? Pulling her out of the tent feet first, my eyes darted toward the rail cars. How much longer?

Logan woke up, coughed, and rubbed his eyes. Dazed, he sat up on his knees and promptly threw up.

Suddenly Sophia’s pocket flashed. Mom! My heart raced and fingers stumbled as I texted.

its z
with s @ lake cpgrd

Instant reply.

u both ok??

Two letters in, the phone went dead. Of course. Classic Sophia.

I looked down and saw her cough, eyelids fluttering. There was no time to celebrate. I used the strongest whisper I could. “Explosion! Hurry!” She looked confused but for once didn’t challenge me.

A deafening boom and blinding flash jolted us. We all covered our ears with our hands and put our heads down. The flash revealed a long rock wall just steps away. Sophia shook and wobbled as she leaned on me and we started for the wall. In a minute the three of us had flattened ourselves behind its relative safety. When the second rail car blew up just moments later, quickly followed by the third, everything shook. It got hotter, and the sickening, burning smell made me horribly nauseous. I couldn’t get enough air, and my heart squeezed itself. For the first time, I wondered if we might not make it, and that made my heart hurt even more. The ringing in my ears would not stop—what was up with that? Don’t panic. Don’t panic. I’ll figure that out later. Just survive this...

When the shock of the final explosion settled at last, Sophia sobbed hysterically. Neither of us could get a single word out. I did the only thing I could think of—I grabbed her hand and squeezed twice, our silent way of saying it was okay, just like we did as kids. I squeezed my sister’s hand and she returned the squeezes, back and forth, back and forth.

A little while later the rain came. On a normal day, I would have said the rain got worse, but this was hardly a normal day. The rain got better and better. We were so thirsty we opened our mouths to the sky. It felt so good, I didn’t even notice the ambulance arrive.

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