Chapter 1

 

PA SAYS we live in a Christian country.

I don’t know.

This poor kid, he won’t stop crying. He won’t talk to me, won’t even look at me. But he won’t let go of my hand either. He’s squeezing so hard my knuckles are starting to ache.

He won’t go away. I’ve tried to send him off to knock on a door, to get himself some help. He won’t go.

What do I do?

We’re walking, been walking a long time. I’m afraid to stop. I don’t know where to take him or what I should say to the little fella.

He’s five, maybe six years old, and he’s beat up something awful. A doctor or nurse is what he needs most right now. All I see are houses and more houses. Where would I find a hospital? This street is quiet and empty. Night’s coming on and shadows are closing in around us. I should go up to one of these houses and knock on somebody’s door.

No. Hell no. I can’t do that.

More sniffling. More whimpering. It seems the wet noises are never going to stop.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now,” I tell the kid again, leaning down over his sandy-blond head. In the dimming light, his little face glistens with tears and snot. His hand, the one holding mine, is shaking a little now. He doesn’t say anything. I don’t think he even heard me. And in a way, it’s good that he isn’t listening. Because I’m lying. He’s not safe. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

How long have we been walking? The sun was shining when we started out, so bright it hurt my eyes. We kept to the alleys mostly, until the sun went down. How many miles have we come to be here, in this neighborhood of houses big as cathedrals all locked down behind black wrought iron fences? How far away is home?

My feet hurt. The kid is walking slower with every step. His eyes are glazed. His whole body is shaking. He’s tired and scared. Poor little guy. I should pick him up. He can get some rest that way, which may calm him down. And we can move faster if I carry him. It’s not like it would break my back or anything. He can’t weigh all that much.

But I can’t pick him up. I’m scared, too, quaking all over, tremors chasing each other up and down my body. My arms can’t hold him. It’s too open out here, the sprawling, darkening sky dappled with early stars above, the ominously wide spaces of the lawns and streets stretching in every direction. My head jerks this way and that. By now, they have to know we’re gone. Pa and Bro, they’ll be so mad. They could be somewhere behind us right now. They’re both good at sneaking. You’d never hear them coming—until it’s too late.

I keep looking back.

Got to ditch this kid somewhere safe. Once I do that, I can go back. I can go back and, with the kid out of the picture, maybe it won’t be so bad. Pa and Bro don’t have to know about the kid. I won’t say anything about what happened to him. Just play dumb and everything will be fine. I need to be back in my room. I like it there, feel safe there. Most of the time, anyway.

What was that? I thought I heard a whisper, a scuffing noise behind me. But there’s nothing there, no one.

“Ow!” Kid’s squeezing my hand again, and his whimpering gets louder. He must’ve been startled by my sudden jumpiness. Sorry. “It’s okay.” Yeah. I’ve repeated that so much the kid has to know I’m full of bull.

I pull us over close to a towering, century-old tree with a massive trunk and a broad umbrella of thick branches. There, beneath the shelter of low-hanging leaves, I kneel down to the kid’s level. “Hey, fella, can you stop crying for a little bit and talk to me?” I’m trying to smile, trying to use the softest tones, trying to put a friendly light in my eyes.

None of it works. The kid still won’t give me a direct look. He’s yet sobbing.

I keep trying. “Where do you live? Is it anywhere around here? Does this neighborhood look familiar at all?”

He rubs his fists into his red, wet eyes. “I… want… to… go h-home,” he mumbles in a hitching voice.

“And I want to get you home, but you have to help me. Okay? What’s your address?” I’ve asked for his address about a dozen times already. And I still get no answer. It wouldn’t make any difference if he did tell me his address, since I don’t have any clue about where we are now. “You know your mom’s phone number? Or the name of your street? What does your house look like? Is it near a school or… a park or something?” Maybe he can describe his neighborhood to someone who lives around here and they can help him find it.

He’s still rubbing at his eyes, his little mouth trembling as the tears stream on and on. “I want… t-to go home.”

“And I want to get you there, but you have to help me. Okay? At least tell me your name. You can do it. I know you can.”

He can’t. He doesn’t. He just cries, and now I want to cry too. I can’t just walk away and leave him under this tree, and the longer I’m gone from my own home, the more trouble I’ll be in.

Damn. I don’t know what to do.

“Come on.” I start walking again. He falls in step beside me and takes my hand again. His palm is moist and warm, feels like our skin is pasted together.

The sky is darker now, the night deeper. Windows are lit in the houses we pass, many without curtains, offering glimpses of rooms furnished in expensive styles like those I saw in a couple of my movies. At one house, people are gathered around a fancy table, a family enjoying dinner. They look secure, happy. Despite the tearstains and bruises, this little boy would fit right in.

I need to get the hell out of here.

We stop, and I study the gathering. They pass food around, talk, laugh. This family doesn’t seem to be missing any small children. We move on.

It’s only hopes and prayers now. I’m hoping the kid sees a familiar landmark. I’m praying we’re in the right neighborhood.

On instinct, I turn left at the corner. Bad move. Immediately I see this lady in a lavender tracksuit, ponytail swinging back and forth as she jogs right at us. Oh shit. I freeze, and the little boy stops with me. We should turn around, cross the street, run, but I just stand there shaking. Sometimes I’m so stupid.

The woman sees us, of course. She slows her pace, her face a pale moon of suspicion as her gaze goes back and forth between me and the little boy. Taller than me, she’s fit like a boxer or something. She marches right toward us.

“What is this?” she snaps at me in a demanding tone. “What’re you doing with that boy?”

I’m just another neighborhood tree, rooted in place.

She’s close now, only a step or two away, and I see the moment the little guy’s battered face and bruised arms become clear to her. Her eyes bulge, shock followed by violent outrage. “How could you? How could you hurt him like this?” The boy ducks behind me, pressing against my leg, and he squeezes my hand tighter than ever. The woman quivers in her fury as she shoots out a hand and grabs the boy’s arm.

It’s pure hell. The woman screams at me, her words blasting in a roar that makes me cringe. She tugs violently at the boy, trying to snatch him away and undoubtedly adding fresh bruises on top of the ones already decorating his little arm. She drags him from behind me, out into the open, his grip on my hand slipping. The boy lets loose in a high-pitched wail of pure terror that cuts across the shattered night like jagged glass. He fights the woman’s pull, fights to maintain his manic grip on me.

The woman stops her shouting. She looks awfully confused. I think she’s astonished that the little guy is afraid to leave me and go to her. To be honest, I’m astonished by that too. After what he’s been through, he ought to be flying away from me like a bird out of a cage. I want to kneel down, calm the kid, and maybe then I can talk him into going.

It’s a good plan. It might even work—if I weren’t paralyzed all over, standing with my mouth slightly agape and my eyes twitching. I get this way when people scream at me or hit me. The kid takes advantage of the woman’s momentary daze and yanks his hand from hers. He ducks behind me and locks his arms around my waist.

Something seems to snap inside the tracksuit lady’s mind then. The blaze returns to her eyes. I know what happened. She saw the back of the little boy’s pants, the dark spot of blood seepage. She’s not just furious; she hates me. I’m deathly afraid of this Amazon now, afraid of what she seems so close to doing with her trembling fists. I back away slowly, pushing the boy back with me.

“Don’t you dare try to leave with that child, you sick pervert!” the woman yells. Her next explosion is worse. Her moves are so quick, I barely see them. The side of my head burns and my ear rings from the lightning slap she delivers there. Next I’m choking from the crunch of her fist slamming into my Adam’s apple.

Hands flying to my neck, I gasp, gag, and stagger. The little fella’s legs tangle with mine, and we both fall to the ground in a wriggling heap. Tracksuit lady reaches down, pulls mightily, and in a blink, she has the kid standing next to her, holding him by the wrist.

The kid huffs, hitching in breath after breath. I get to my feet, and the scream the boy has been working up comes keening forth. He lunges toward me as the woman simultaneously pulls him away and kicks hard at my knees. She’s shouting at me again, words so profane even Bro would be impressed, and Bro can really cuss. The kid’s screams and the woman’s curses stab me all over. I cover my ears, breathing hard and fast against the lingering ache in my throat.

Jesus! There might as well be a helicopter chopping away overhead, shining a megawatt spotlight down on me. Doors open at the houses around us. People are stepping out, alarm on their faces as they try to sort out the who and the why behind the brouhaha.

Those people… they’re pointing, pointing at me… they’re starting to shout things, ugly things. Their faces, pasty ovals in the gaseous glows of their porch lights, twist with anger. They’re calling me names. Two… no, four… five of them are coming off their porches, big tall men who cross their yards in quick, furious steps, coming for me.

I freak out completely and run like hell.

“Come back here!” the woman yells. “I’m calling the police! You won’t get away! Somebody stop that pervert!”

Oh God.

Don’t know where I am. Don’t know where to go.

Just keep running, no looking back.