Chapter One

 

PANTING. SWEATING. Running.

He threw his fists about, fighting off branch assailants that grabbed at his flesh as if they were trying to pull him deeper into the night. He didn’t know where he was going, but he had to keep running because, fast as he was, there was no telling how close his past was to catching up to him.

Don’t make a sound.

He had to keep quiet so the man wouldn’t hear him.

A glimpse of red beyond the trees, along the horizon, assured him what had felt like a few moments had been hours. Unless he’d been totally unaware of the time. Though his body—quivering, twitching, convulsing—seemed to agree that far more time had passed than his mind could account for.

He fell through the edge of the woods and collapsed into waist-high weeds. The orange glow of the rising sun illuminated his arms and crawled across his body. Though he wanted to take a moment to lie still and regain his strength, he didn’t have that luxury. Mental flashes, like a strobe light in a dark room, coupled with the nagging suspense, the sensation of metal creeping across his flesh, and the guttural sound of whispers against the back of his ear. He had to get up, if only to ensure he was as far from these horrors as he could get.

He pushed off the ground, forced himself to his feet, and scrambled through the field before him. Even though there were only woods and grass in view, he felt the impulse to shout for help. It was as if his body believed somewhere in the foliage was some unseen hero. But he knew better. He’d spent far too long in the darkness praying for a rescue that never came.

Don’t make a sound.

 

 

A SECURITY mirror hung in the corner of the store, allowing him to see a clerk who knelt behind the cash wrap. As the young blond pulled cartons of Marlboro cigarettes from a box, the sleeves of a red-and-black-striped flannel shirt expanded with his flexing muscles.

The night runner’s eyes flashed to the nuts and beef jerky displayed on the shelf before him. Saliva rushed down the sides of his mouth. His belly pinched, demanding he act soon. It had been several hours since he’d emerged from the nightmare. Since he’d discovered daylight.

He’d skirted around the edge of the woods, ducking in shrubbery and foliage to hide from the occasional passing car. Who knew what car he had to be suspicious of? Who knew what car could have been his captor’s?

His first task had been to acquire clothes. When he approached a series of shops—a convenience store, a thrift store, and a cafe—he busted through a window in the back of the thrift store, slipped inside, and lifted a tee, a black hoodie, a pair of jeans, and flip-flops. Though none of the articles fit, the jeans were the most annoying because they fell midbuttocks, and he had to continually pull them up as he moved around. He figured he’d lost weight since his capture because they were the size he’d worn before the incident. However, he was too concerned about being discovered to dwell on the size of the pants. While he was still inside the shop, he noticed a truck pull into the lot of the convenience store across the street. He watched it cautiously, fearing whoever was inside would spot him. He lay low as a blond entered the store. Surely they had food, and he was desperately hungry. Since he’d worried that making his way directly from the thrift store would alert the store clerk of his motive, he had slipped out the window he’d shattered and crept back into the woods, then made his way alongside the street some before walking back onto it and heading to the store.

Something in him suggested he reach out to this clerk for help, but a greater part feared he was somehow connected to the man who’d imprisoned him for what felt like months—though it could have been years.

Before that day he had never been a thief, but considering his circumstances, he didn’t regret his actions. He wasn’t taking advantage. He was surviving.

Just grab it and get out of here.

He glanced at the security mirror again.

The clerk now stood, shoving the cigarette boxes into a shelf against the wall. Surely he wouldn’t notice.

He snatched a pack of nuts and beef jerky, slipped them into the hoodie, and made for the door. When he opened it, it creaked.

“Hey!” came from behind him.

Dammit.

He raced across the gravel parking lot.

He wasn’t just afraid of being caught stealing. He was terrified this guy would tie him down and drag him off through the daylight, back into the night. How this clerk knew his abductor, he couldn’t be sure, but he’d learned the world was not what it seemed—that mankind had a sadistic streak he hadn’t fathomed until the night he woke in utter darkness, wrists pinching, feet freezing, the sound of wind beating against his imprisoning chamber.

“Hey, dude!”

He glanced over his shoulder. Through the glass door, above a laminated Open sign, he saw the clerk leap over the counter and dash for the door.

The virgin thief raced around the store, heading for the woods, where he believed he could find cover again.

The clerk continued calling out, but the thief didn’t turn back. Just kept running.

A force hit his back and knocked him to the ground. The gravel pricked at him through the hoodie barrier as he rolled onto his back. The clerk’s fierce gaze looked like that of a predator about to snatch its prey. He knelt and reached for the thief.

What would he do to him? Hurt him? Beat him?

Not this time.

The thief lunged at his assailant, thrashing about, his fingers curled to form claws. He hissed like an animal and tackled the guy to the ground.

“Jesus Christ!” the clerk exclaimed. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

As they wrestled, the clerk managed to wind up on top. He positioned his knees on either side of the thief’s hips, seized his wrists, and pinned him to the ground. The clerk’s hands, cupped around his wrists, reminded the thief of his bondage. He jerked his head about as he searched desperately for a way out. He wasn’t just battling the clerk. He was battling the unbearable suspense as cool metal slid up and down his body, the patter of footsteps that paced around him, the claws that dug into his flesh in moments of throbbing pain. When he saw his opportunity, he bit into the clerk’s wrist.

“Shit!”

The clerk released him, made a fist, and bashed it into his attacker’s temple.

Pain swelled in the thief’s head. He couldn’t see straight. The clerk’s fist hit his face again just before everything went black.

 

 

MUFFLED VOICES.

Darkness.

Where am I?

The thief woke with a start.

He glanced around, terrified his escape had been a dream—a fanciful vision—as had sometimes been the case.

He lay across something soft, and as he scanned his surroundings, he realized it was a bed.

The comfortable mattress reminded him of the bed he’d had when he’d lived with his parents, before they’d discovered his transgression and cast him out of their home, preventing him from infecting their sanctuary with his wicked impulses.

A bed?

He figured he would have woken up in jail. Or worse.

His head, his cheek, his lips swelled with pain. As his blurred vision cleared, he noticed a window on the wall behind the bed.

“Call the police!” a voice said outside the room. It sounded like the clerk.

No, no!

He hadn’t done anything wrong! He’d just needed food and clothes.

Knowing he had to escape before these people hauled him off to a new cage, he slid off the bed and dashed to the window.

“Just be quiet, Jake, will ya?” another voice said. The voice sounded close. Too close for him to make a getaway. He returned to the bed, collapsed onto the mattress, and positioned himself so he’d appear asleep.

A creak. Then footsteps.

“He was stealing, and he fucking bit me,” the clerk said.

The voice was in the room. His muscles tensed.

Don’t make a sound.

“Just relax, okay?” the other voice said.

The thief felt the mattress depress as one of his captors sat beside him.

He tried to remain still so neither would suspect his performance.

Something small, like a finger, brushed against his side. An impulse, too powerful for him to ignore, took over—just as it had when the clerk pinned him down. He balled his hands into fists, sat up, and punched where he believed his captor was. He opened his eyes just in time to see a face speckled with gray hairs. Above them, eyes behind glasses expanded as the thief’s fist slammed against the man’s cheek.

The man fell off the mattress and collapsed onto the floor. The clerk stood behind him, his teeth gritted. As he pulled his gaze from his fallen comrade, his face turned red, and he raced for the thief. Acting fast, the thief leaped up and punched the clerk across the face. His blow knocked the clerk to the door. He scrambled to the window, opened it, and stepped over the sill.

“No, you don’t!” the clerk shouted as he wrapped his arms around the thief’s waist and yanked him back inside.

The thief moaned and whimpered as he struggled to pull himself free of his attacker’s grip, but soon the clerk had seized both his hands and wrapped his legs around his hips. They were locked in a sort of post-wrestling position, breathing intensely as the thief writhed about like he had in the chains. Again he was bound, powerless, defeated.

Tears filled his eyes. He whimpered. It wasn’t anything like a sound he would have made before his capture. It reminded him of Patch, a Labrador he’d grown up with. Patch would wait at the edge of the lawn for when he would return home from school, then assault him with sloppy licks and the cool chill of his wet nose. One afternoon, as the bus passed, a truck from the house across the street pulled out before the bus, which swerved and veered off the road. Patch rose from his usual resting place, but the bus slammed into his leg and threw him to the ground. He recalled the dog’s whimpers and cries as he cradled him in his arms, his face tear-stricken, his breathing constrained by the fit of spasms that overtook him. His whimper reminded him of Patch’s. Desperate, hopeless, afraid.

“Jake, what are you doing?” the old man said as he rose to his feet, his hand to his head.

“This fucking thief attacked both of us!”

“Let him go!”

“Gary, call the police!”

“That boy wasn’t stealing more than a bag of ninety-nine cent peanuts and two ninety-nine beef jerky. And if you tell me you were innocent in that bite, I’ll tell you you’re a liar. Now, I’d think if anyone could understand that we don’t have to be calling the police on every kid who done something they shouldn’t, it’d be you. So let him go and calm down.”

Jake snarled.

“I let you go, you gonna freak the fuck out?” he whispered so his breath hit the back of the thief’s ear.

The sensation evoked memories of a familiar voice, one that lingered, whispering, “You’re so pretty…. You’re gonna die in here…. This is your fate.”

“Will you watch your mouth?” Gary asked.

“You gonna freak out?” Jake asked.

The thief breathed in and out intensely, as if he’d just finished a race.

Jake released him and shoved him against the wall beneath the window.

The thief glanced between the two men, confused, like a mouse that’d been cornered.

What was he going to do? Who were these men? Why were they acting like this?

A part of him told him they didn’t have ill intentions, but another part of him—one activated by his capture—felt it necessary to be suspicious of everyone.

Gary knelt before him, massaging his head. “Kid, we ain’t gonna get you in trouble or nothing. So if you’ll just calm down and talk to us, maybe we can help you, alright?”

He understood the words, but he didn’t understand who this man was and why he was offering to help him.

“Alright?”

 

 

HE DEVOURED a ham and cheese sandwich Gary had fixed. He sat at a green bar that protruded from the kitchen wall. Two stools were placed on either side. A rectangular column that reached to the ceiling acted as a divider between the kitchen and a living area, creating entries on either end. On the kitchen side, an oven had been constructed against the column. On the living-room side, the thief had noted as Gary led him out of the room he’d been in, a fireplace had been built into it.

“Oh, slow down, boy,” Gary said, setting a glass of water on the bar beside the thief.

Jake sat on the opposite side of the bar, his face locked in a grimace, glaring at the intruder through predatory green eyes, which sparkled with what light came from a minichandelier that hung over them. He still wore the red and black flannel shirt the thief had seen him in when he’d first gone to the store. His blond hair, appearing darker under the chandelier light, was tousled, the thief presumed from their various confrontations.

“Lord,” Gary continued. “You like that, just wait till Luce gets home.”

As tall as the seated Jake, Gary had a short gray beard and a thick head of matching strands. Behind the reflection of the chandelier in his glasses, warm brown eyes gazed at the thief, eyes that made him feel less defensive than when he looked at Jake.

“He’s not staying here,” Jake said.

“Calm down. There’s no harm in him being here for a while, now is there?”

The muscles along Jake’s jaw shifted as he clenched it. He tightened his fists, which rested on the bar before him.

The thief continued eating the sandwich. It was so good… so amazing… unlike the crap he’d been fed for so long before this moment. Bits of ham and cheese slid out from the bread and fell onto the edge of the plate before him.

“Whoa, whoa,” Gary said as he sat on the stool beside him. “We’re not gonna take it from you.”

The thief took a breath and drank from the glass of water so quickly it rushed down his chin and spilled onto his hoodie. He set it back down, wiped his face with his arm, and continued demolishing the sandwich.

Gary eyed him curiously, as if he was taking a moment to imagine the situation this boy had come from.

“My name’s Gary Wilkes. You got a name?”

The thief gulped down a piece of the sandwich and looked to Gary.

He did have a name, but something was wrong. He wasn’t sure how to respond to Gary. It was as if he’d completely forgotten how to communicate at all.

Gary’s eyebrows rose to suggest he was waiting for an answer, but the thief couldn’t do more than stare.

“You understand what I’m saying?”

He shifted his gaze between Jake and Gary.

Yes, I understand.

Gary’s forehead wrinkled.

“He knows what you’re saying,” Jake insisted. “He’s just being a dick. If he can’t even appreciate your help, I don’t see—”

“Don’t you need to clean out that shed?”

“Yeah. I’m totally gonna head out so he can beat the crap out of you. Whatever.”

“Then keep quiet.”

Gary took a prolonged breath, as if he was trying to figure out how to handle the situation.

“Kid, I know something’s up here. And you need some help. But I need you to be straight with me. Are you in any kind of serious trouble? Do you need me to call the police?”

The police? I just needed food and clothes!

The thief pushed off the bar. He and his stool flew back and hit the floor. He crawled across the hardwood kitchen floor, onto the carpet of the living area. As his back pushed up against a door, he shook, convulsed, but still didn’t offer Gary a response.

“Okay, okay. No police it is.” Gary approached him slowly, as if the thief were a wild animal, and in many ways, that’s what he felt like. Gary knelt beside him, resting his wrinkled hands against the thighs of the camouflage slacks he wore. “How about we just take this real slow, okay? You just feel free to stay here as long as you like. Until we can straighten some of this out.”

The thief relaxed. He wanted to acknowledge Gary’s words. He wanted to let him know he understood, but it was as if the means of communicating this had been wiped from his memory.

After a few moments of struggling to come up with a way to reach him, he mustered a nearly indiscernible nod.

When he finished his sandwich, Gary took him back to the room he’d woken in and left him to rest. The thief lay in the bed, his nerves shot. He looked around the room, as if he was certain a dark figure was about to leap out for him. As if he was about to hear a distinct, familiar whisper against his ear.

Gary’s hospitality confused him. An impulse urged him to escape, but he wondered if that just lingered from his previous imprisonment. Something in Gary’s manner, in his kindness, assured him this was the safest place he could be.

But would he call the police? Would he report him for stealing?

Perhaps cops were already on their way, and he had just kept him here to distract him.

Some time passed before he heard muffled voices outside the room.

“And I tried to call three times.” Gary’s voice came from the other side.

“It’s not my fault. You know how that phone is. Never works.”

“’Cause you have to charge it.”

“Will you just tell me what’s going on?”

“Just wait.”

There was a gentle knock on the door.

“Can we come in?” Gary asked, but he pushed it open before any response could be offered.

“Who is it?”

A woman towered beside Gary as she stepped in behind him, wobbling on legs that arced to either side. Her waist stretched black slacks. Her chest swelled in a periwinkle blouse. She dug in her purse, searching for something before glancing up. Unlike Gary, her gray hair was so thin the thief could see her scalp in several spots.

Her gaze fixed on the visitor, and she smiled a gentle smile as welcoming as Gary’s.

“Hello there,” she said, approaching the bed. She sat down on the edge, resting her hand next to the visitor. Gary’s eyes widened as she sat, as if he was concerned about how he would react to her forwardness.

The sincere look in her eyes, the friendliness of her approach, reminded him of when he’d first arrived at Gay Youth Resources, the organization for kids like him—the one he’d looked up after his parents had kicked him out.

“I’m Luce,” she said.

“Not sure if talking to him will do much good. He hasn’t said a word since I brought him here.”

“And how did he—”

“Jake had a little run-in with him in the shop today.”

“In the shop? A run-in? Like a fight?” Her expression shifted to concern.

She shook it off.

“Well, you just rest, dear, and let us know if you need anything. Alright?”

They headed out of the room, closed the door, and the muffled voices came again.

The visitor slid off the bed, approached the door, and pressed his ear against it.

“We can’t just keep him here,” Luce whispered.

She must’ve thought she was quiet enough that he couldn’t hear them, but even if he’d been sitting on the bed, he figured she was loud enough eavesdropping wouldn’t have been a difficult task.

“He’s very young. What about his parents? Shouldn’t we just call the police and ask—”

“I mentioned the police to him. He didn’t seem all that keen about approaching them.”

“You think he’s a criminal?”

“Maybe.”

If they thought he was a criminal, would they turn on him, as his mother and father had? Surely that’s what everyone did to those they believed were evil.

“Gary, we can’t just—what if he’s injured? What if he needs a doctor? Are we harboring a fugitive? What if his parents are looking for him? Have you even thought this through?”

“No, he hasn’t,” Jake’s voice came from outside.

“I haven’t thought it through,” Gary said, “but that kid was in the store today, stealing a pack of nuts and some beef jerky, so all I can see from here is that he needs some help. Now, you gonna turn away a kid that just needs—”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about,” Luce said. “I don’t have any problem with him staying here. I’m just saying there’s a whole lot more here that needs to be thought about, and I don’t think you’re being very rational about what needs to be done.”

“Well, tell me what we should do. Where are you going?”

“Just give me a second.” Her voice was softer, as if she’d moved away from the door.

“What is that for?”

“I’m gonna see if he can talk.”

“What?”

Footsteps grew louder as they drew near.

He returned to the bed and lay down so he wouldn’t appear as if he’d been snooping.

A knock.

“Coming in….”

Luce opened the door and peered in.

“You mind?” she asked.

The visitor shook his head.

She shifted her weight between her arced legs as she headed in, carrying an envelope and a pen. Jake and Gary followed after.

“I wanted to see if you might be able to write.”

She handed him the pen and envelope. The envelope was addressed to the Wylow Medical Center, Financial Department.

“You have a name?” she asked. “Can you write your name?”

He stared at the paper. What did she want him to do with it? He looked back to Luce.

“You know what to do, sweetie? If you can, just write on the envelope. Can you do that?”

Yes.

He could. He’d written before.

Letters flashed through his mind, as if they were objects he’d never seen before. He pulled them out one by one and jotted them on the back of the envelope until it read:

cal

“Cal?” Jake asked. “That’s not a name.”

Cal pressed the pen back against the envelope, wrote vin after cal, then scratched it out. He glared at Jake, wanting to mentally project to him Of course, you dumbass.

“Oh,” Jake said.

“Where’re you from?” Luce asked.

Cal started to write down his hometown, Werrington, outside of Athens. As his wrist rubbed against the envelope, the sleeve of his stolen hoodie pulled back.

Luce’s face turned white. Gary appeared equally disturbed. Even Jake looked concerned.

Cal followed their looks to the black marks around his wrist. They were from the chains he’d been kept in.

“Jake, did you—” Gary began.

“Hell no. They’re fucking black. They didn’t happen today.”

“Cal,” Luce said. “I think we need to take you to the police.”

He glanced around uneasily.

They were going to have him arrested for stealing. He was sure of it. He needed to get out of there.

“No, no. Not to get you in trouble,” Luce said.

His expression must’ve revealed his worry.

“It’s just clear something’s happened to you… something you need help with. Do you understand?”

Some part of him did, but another part was afraid. These people seemed friendly, but how could he be sure? How could he trust them? What if this was a trick?

He reflected on their conversation in the hall. They sounded like they wanted to help. And everything they’d done so far had been friendly. He decided to take a chance and trust them… if only because in that moment, it seemed like his only option.