“The hostages are secure, Captain. All present and accounted for. Perimeter has been secured.”
Captain John Rogers pushed his helmet back a little on his forehead and regarded his subordinate. “Casualties?”
“Jamison took a bullet in the calf; medic’s with him now. Otherwise, no casualties on our side. Three dead, twelve injured on the enemies’ side so far, not including the poor bastard hanging on the whipping post. Shit.”
“What about among the hostages? Any injuries?”
“One of the men has what looks like a couple of broken ribs. Otherwise, bruises, a sprained ankle. Damn lucky.”
“‘Lucky’ has been what this whole operation’s been about, Lieutenant Pritzker.” Rogers sighed.
“You’re not kidding, Captain. It was a plain miracle that one of the Dutchmen had that experimental personal GPS transponder implanted. Best advertisement for his product you could ask for.” The lieutenant pressed his fingers to his headset. “Barracks secured. Last building is apparently the commandant’s headquarters. Had some fire from there earlier, but it’s stopped; either the shooter’s hit or fled.”
“Or holding out for a more effective resistance,” the Captain said cynically. “Everything’s gone entirely too textbook for my liking. I’d like a team to circle around back; approach the building with maximum caution. I don’t trust this luck.” He glanced at the handful of enemy combatants kneeling a few yards away, their hands clasped on their heads. “Ask one of them where the camp commander is.”
Pritzger went to stand in front of the one man that had been unarmed when they’d nailed him. “You. What’s your name?” he asked in Spanish.
“Ernesto Camillo,” he said dully.
“Where is your captain?”
The man jerked his chin at the far structure. “There, last I see of him.”
“Is there anyone else in that building?”
The man laughed, a brief, humorless snort. “Just his little dog.”
“What did he say?” Rogers asked. “I didn’t get that.”
“Perrito,” Pritzger said. “It means ‘little dog’.”
“He’s got a dog in there?”
“If he does, I doubt if it’s little,” Pritzger said dryly. “The camp commander’s probably the type that likes Dobermans or Rottweilers. These paramilitary types usually do.” He indicated the whipping victim, who was even now being eased down onto the ground by a pair of his fellow soldiers, their activities supervised by some of the combined American-Dutch forces who’d spearheaded this operation. “Fucking macho bastard. Let the teams know there’s the possibility of a guard dog….”
The little man laughed and said something. Rogers said, “What? I don’t understand this dialect.”
Pritzger said, “He said it’s not a guard dog.”
“Still,” Rogers said.
They waited until the teams had secured the building, and then went in. It was a simple two-room structure. The main room where they stood was an office; through the open door to the other room, Rogers could see a neatly made bed and another door already standing open from the other team’s entrance a few moments before. The office contained a desk, a laptop computer, file cabinets, a chair, and a wire dog crate—the big kind, made for large dogs like the Rottweilers and Dobermans Pritzger had mentioned. It was empty. Near the window lay a body that Rogers assumed was the commandant; he had fake gold bullion on the shoulders of his uniform, also typical with these paramilitary types. He’d been garroted with a thin strip of leather. It looked like a dog leash. “No one else in the building, Captain,” one of the guys who had been first in said. “Whoever did this must have cut out the back before we got here.”
“Take the laptop and what you can get out of the file cabinets,” Rogers instructed. “They’ll have all kinds of data on funding, activities, links to other groups, contacts…. The boys at Bragg will be short-stroking themselves over this stuff. They love them some paperwork.”
Pritzger nodded and detailed a couple of guys to start on the file cabinets near the desk. He himself moved around the dog crate to the file cabinets behind the cage.
Rogers saw it and went on alert. “Lieutenant?”
“Shh,” Pritzger said. “Everybody just… shh….” He moved slowly, going into a crouch.
Rogers shifted the crate and saw what Pritzger was looking at. He held up a hand to indicate that the others in the room should maintain their positions.
Wedged in between the far side of the file cabinets and the wall, beneath a shelf, in a space that should have been too small for it, was a bony, naked human figure with a thick mop of tangled black hair. It was curled up with its face hidden, its back arched, the spine and ribs sharply delineated and slashed with scarring. It was worse than thin; it looked like a skeleton with skin. Rogers wondered how long the body had been there—not long, he supposed, since there wasn’t any smell of decay….
Then he saw the ribs expand in a tentative breath, and he realized the thing was alive.
“Shit,” he murmured.
Pritzger said in Spanish, “Who are you? It’s okay—we’re not going to hurt you.”
The thing made a sound. It sounded like a dog’s whine. A dog….
Rogers looked back at the cage. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck, Lieutenant. The dog. The commandant’s dog….”
The tangled mass of hair lifted. A gaunt, pale face looked up and whined again. Then it gave a soft bark and tried to cram itself deeper into the corner. “Jesus,” Pritzger murmured, then, again, still in Spanish, “We’re not going to hurt you. Who are you? What’s your name?” He put out a hand; the creature flinched but made no move to bite or resist, even when Pritzger put his hand on its shoulder. “Come on, come out. We aren’t going to hurt you.”
“Is that a human?” one of the men behind the desk asked in disbelief. The creature’s eyes flicked in his direction. In the shadows, Rogers couldn’t tell what color they were, but by the reaction, he saw that he understood.
“He speaks English,” Rogers said flatly. The thing looked at him, a strangely steady, empty look. It was the look of someone who’d long ago forgotten how to care. “He understands English and I’ll bet my left nut he’s the one that killed the commandant.”
“I doubt if he could strangle an overripe banana,” Pritzger objected.
“Never underestimate the power of hate-fueled adrenaline, Lieutenant.”
The thing sighed and put its head back down on the floor. Rogers touched his headset. “Randy?” he said to the medic. “I need you in here. Jamison okay?”
“Yeah,” Randy said in his ear. “What’s happened in there?”
Rogers looked down at the figure on the floor. “You are not going to believe this….”
They found a pair of sweatpants with a drawstring waist; the legs were too short, but the man couldn’t stand up straight for more than a couple minutes anyway. He squatted in the dirt of the compound, his arms wrapped around his knees, staring into space. The T-shirt the medic had put on him hung in draped folds around his emaciated arms. Rogers had seen pictures of people like him coming out of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen after the liberation of the concentration camps in the forties. Pritzger knelt beside the kid, cutting off the studded collar with a pair of shears someone’d dug up. The buckle had been soldered shut. “I’d put his age at twentyish,” Randy Josten said, making notes on his clipboard. “American or European—good nutrition in childhood, luckily for him—healthy bones, teeth loose from malnutrition but all still there, and signs of past dental care. Camillo says he’s been here about five years, give or take. Once we’re back at Bragg we can go through missing persons reports from about then and see if we can figure out who he is.”
“Still not talking?”
“Barks. Whines.” Randy frowned. “Kid’s physically and mentally traumatized, Captain. He’s a fucking basket case. He’s been beaten; a couple of his ribs have been broken and healed badly; from what I can tell, he can’t take a deep breath without it hurting. Had a couple of fingers broken, his wrist, and God knows what else. And,” he said, taking a breath, “he’s been raped. I don’t know how often, but given that the last time was about an hour ago, I’d say pretty damn regularly. He’s got scars all over his legs and ass from the damn wire of that fucking cage, and you can see yourself he can’t even stand up.”
“So figure he’s been in that cage pretty much continuously for the last five years. Fuck.” Rogers shook his head. “Let’s get him back to Bragg and into the hands of the docs there; let the Dutch contingent handle cleanup of the remaining personnel. They know what’s going on and have better contacts than we do locally. Load the kid with the hostages and the computer and stuff we took from the office on the first chopper out of here.”
“Yes sir,” Randy said. Then, “What?” at Rogers’s suddenly arrested expression.
“Something,” Rogers said. “Something about computers. Did you say five years?”
“Yeah, that’s what Camillo said.”
Rogers stalked across the compound to the kid. Crouching in front of him, he tilted up the kid’s face to study it, narrow-eyed. Out of the dimness of the building where he’d been held, the eyes that looked back at him were a cold, crystal blue, their expression hard and wary. “Zach?” he asked.
“What?” Randy had followed him. “Do you know who he is?”
“Zach? Is that you?” Rogers asked the kid again. “Zach Tyler?”
The kid… barked. “Fuck,” Rogers said. “It is. Zach Tyler.”
“Holy shit,” Randy said. “Tyler Technologies? But Tyler’s kid got kidnapped from fucking Costa Rica. We’re in eastern Venezuela—a couple thousand miles from there!”
“So tangos can’t travel?” Rogers asked sarcastically. “But it’s him. I remember the description, the pictures—hell, it was all over the TV, particularly after they paid the ransom and didn’t get him back. Five years. Shit.”
Zach whined. Rogers looked down at him and released his chin. “You said it, kid. You said a fucking mouthful.”
I have forgotten what kindness is. I keep waiting for something to happen, for me to wake up from this oh-so-pleasant dream, but I don’t wake up. It can’t be reality; I know reality—it’s a cage, and table scraps and beatings and pain and rape and hunger. For so long I’ve known exactly what to expect; I’ve kept my sanity by being hard inside, meeting cruelty with indifference when I can, and hatred when I can’t. I haven’t had a lot to be proud of, but every day I was still alive after five years of Esteban gave me a kind of strength to keep going. Hate can make you strong; I know it did me.
But people who give me food and water, who are gentle when they put clothes on me and lift me and carry me to sit in a cushioned chair and even buckle me into my seat confuse me, and I don’t know how to deal with them. This is not reality. It scares me, even if it’s kind of nice.
When they first put the sweats on me, I finger the fabric endlessly, and rub my cheek on my knee. It’s so soft, and clean. It smells as good as it feels.
I don’t like the helicopter ride. I don’t like the noise, or the vibrations, or the way it lurches in the air. It scares me, and I haven’t been scared for a really long time. I’m out of practice. There are other people on the helicopter ride, the other freed hostages and the soldiers to protect them, but they’re mostly excited and happy. I don’t know what to think about them. They don’t know what to think about me, either. A couple of them stare, like they think I’m some kind of animal. I lift my lip and snarl at them softly, just to let them know they’re right.
It seems like I’m scared forever, but finally the helicopter touches down at an airport, then there’s more noise and confusion, but there’s also more of the unexpected gentleness, and pretty soon I’m sitting in the cabin of an airplane.
Again, I’m scared—not because I’m afraid to fly, I’ve been in planes lots before, but all I can remember is that last terrible flight to Costa Rica, landing and walking off the plane and looking for the driver my aunt would have sent to meet me and then nothing until I wake up in the jungle and Esteban is looking at me. I break out in a cold sweat and one of the soldiers nearby asks if I’m okay. I don’t answer him, of course.
I shouldn’t be feeling this way, shouldn’t be remembering like this, because I’m in an Army troop transport, not first class in a luxury jet. The other hostages aren’t on this plane. Just me and a bunch of soldiers; not the same ones as before except the lieutenant who cut the dog collar off back in the compound. He’s standing up near the front of the plane, talking to one of the pilots.
My legs hurt, and my back. I rub my thighs through the grey sweats. It hurts, and I try to hold back a whimper. I’ve had lots of practice at keeping quiet, but for some reason this time I don’t succeed.
“Hey, lieutenant,” the guy who’d asked if I was okay calls. “Your passenger here’s upset about something.”
The lieutenant turns and comes back down the aisle. He smiles at me. “Hey, you doin’ okay, Zach?” He hesitates a little before he says my name, like he’s not sure if it’s right. I’m not quite sure, either.
I rub my thighs again. He frowns, and then says, “You aren’t comfortable in the seat, are you, kid?” He’s more comfortable with “kid.” “Bet your muscles are all wonky from that cage.” He straightens, glances around, then goes in the back of the plane where I can’t see him. A minute later, he comes back and unbuckles me. “It ain’t exactly protocol, but I think you’ll feel better here,” he says, and lifts me out of my seat. “Damn, kid, you can’t weigh a hundred pounds soakin’ wet.” He carries me back a few rows to where he’s folded up some seats on the half-empty transport and put the cushions on the floor. He sets me down on the cushions. “There you are. Is that better?”
I look up at him, meet his eyes for the first time. They’re brown. I feel my lips move, twist, and realize I’m smiling. I don’t think it’s a snarl because he grins back at me.
I curl up on the cushions, so soft and comfortable, and sleep for the rest of the trip. When I open my eyes again, it’s to the lieutenant shaking my shoulder. “We’re about to land, kid, and you gotta be buckled in for that. Sorry.”
I experiment with that smile again and lift my arms for him to pick me up. He does so, laughing. “I got a little nephew does that, but he’s three. What’s your excuse?”
I rest my head on his shoulder. He’s kind, and he smells good. I don’t even mind him waking me from the first good sleep I’ve had in years. I didn’t even know you could sleep in dreams.
He buckles me in and I wait for the plane to land, and stop, and for him to come and fetch me again. This time he only carries me to the front of the plane, where a couple of men in white are waiting with a stretcher. They put me on the stretcher, but when they start to move away, I reach out and grab his sleeve, and whine. He pats my shoulder and says, “I’ll see you at the hospital, kid. Don’t worry.”
His smile is warm and makes me want to trust him. He’s the only one so far, but I trust him. I let the stretcher men carry me away to the waiting ambulance, but now I’m scared again. I don’t know what’s waiting anymore. I knew, with Esteban, what was waiting, but I don’t anymore, and I’m scared. I remember a saying: “Better the devil you know….” but Esteban wasn’t better. Just… familiar.
Nothing is familiar anymore, and I’m scared.
Richard Tyler picked up the ringing phone on the desk in his cubicle. The number on the phone’s screen was the receptionist’s. “Tyler,” he said absently, his attention on the computer in front of him.
“Rich, there are a couple of people here from the State Department,” Abby said. Her voice trembled.
Richard’s stomach dropped. This was it: the news he’d been expecting since the ten-million dollar ransom had vanished into the jungles of Central America five years ago. Numbly he replied, “Put them in the small conference room. I’ll be right there.” He set down the phone and stared at it a moment.
It could be just another one of the interminable interviews that he’d sat through off and on throughout the last half-decade, State Department suits looking for things that might lead to capture of the terrorists that had kidnapped Zach from the airport in Costa Rica, supposedly one of the safest spots in Central America. The abduction had shaken the business world and tightened up security in the little tourist-friendly country, but it had come too late for Zachary. Richard rubbed his forehead and took a deep breath. This time, though, it felt different, and Richard suspected he knew why. This was it. The end of the waiting. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t expected it. Best to get it over with. He closed down the program he was working on and left his cubicle.
Barry Genelli, his vice president in charge of research and development, was in the cubicle next to him—everyone worked on the floor; no corner offices in this company, one of the largest in revenue in the world, but one of the smallest in terms of officer perks—and he looked up as Richard went by. “What’s up, Rich?”
“Another visit by State—probably on the Zach thing,” Richard said dully.
“Maybe not: maybe they’re looking for something like the locator chip Davey designed that that Dutch company bought. Gotta be at least thirty thousand State Department employees abroad; be a hell of a sale.”
“Except that Dutch company bought the manufacturing rights, Barry. They’ll have to deal with them.”
Barry shrugged. “We still own the patents. We’d still make a killing in royalties.”
“Yeah.” Richard nodded disinterestedly. He raked his hand through his graying hair and walked through the maze of cubicles to the reception area and conference rooms.
The pair of men that waited for him weren’t the usual suits. One of them was, with the obligatory briefcase, but the other was a man in an Army uniform with captain’s insignia. Richard stopped in the doorway, his gut hurting. This was it. “Gentlemen,” he said, and closed the door behind him, then leaned on it, his hands in the back pockets of his jeans.
“Mr. Richard Tyler?”
“That’s me. What can I do for you?”
“It’s regarding your son Zachary.”
“Yeah. I kind of figured.” Richard walked across the room to the floor-to-ceiling windows. They framed a spectacular view of the Colorado Rockies in the distance. “You found him, didn’t you.”
In the window, he saw the reflection of the two men as they glanced at each other. The suit said, “Yes, sir. You may have heard about the joint American-Dutch rescue of ten hostages from a Venezuelan paramilitary group last week?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Is that where he ended up? Venezuela?”
Richard let out a breath. He could not deal with this, not now. He’d thought he could, but no. Curtly he said, “I suppose he’s been positively identified?”
“Yes, sir,” the captain said. “You had registered his fingerprints with that child-protection database some years ago….”
“Jesus,” Richard said over his shoulder. “There was enough left after five years to match fingerprints? No”—he held up his hand to forestall an answer—“I can’t deal with the details right now. Just tell me—when can we bring him home?” He didn’t say “the remains” though that was what he was thinking. But it was Zachary. His pride, his brilliant boy, his loving child. Not some grisly “remains.”
The captain said, “Well, there are health issues that need to be dealt with, both physical and emotional. You’ll need to get a good physical therapist for him, and….”
Richard whipped around, staring at the captain. “Physi… are you saying Zach’s alive?”
“Yes, sir,” the captain said in surprise. “We found him in Venezuela, a prisoner of the same paramilitary group that kidnapped the group from Suriname…. Sir…?”
Richard bent over the conference table, his hands flat on the surface to support him. He fought to keep his breath even, to stop the hyperventilating that had become a regular occurrence in the last five years. But this time—this really was it. The real end of the nightmare. “Oh, my God,” he said, weeping, and drew his hands across his face to wipe away the tears. “My Zachary—my boy….”
“Sir, please sit down,” the suit said. “Can I get you a drink of water?”
“No, no, thank you,” Richard said. He wiped his face again. “God. I’ve got to tell his mother…. Is he all right? You said physical therapy—was he hurt?” His eyes went from the suit’s face to the captain’s. They were holding out on him….
“He walked out of the camp on his own two feet,” the captain said, “but I won’t blow smoke up your skirt and tell you he’s fine. He’s in rough shape, Mr. Tyler. I saw the conditions he was in and they weren’t pretty, plus he sustained some injuries that have healed kind of badly.”
Richard sat down. “What kind of injuries?”
“I think you’ll be better off talking directly with the attending doctor. I don’t know all the details. Zach’s at the civilian hospital in Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg. He’s still undergoing tests; we want to make sure he’s not hiding any bug we haven’t dealt with before. After all, he’s been in the jungle for five years in poor conditions, prime breeding grounds for all kinds of disease. There are psychologists working with him too; he’s been through a lot.” The captain drew a breath. “My name’s John Rogers; I was the commanding officer of the joint American-Dutch task force that went in to rescue the hostages. My men were the ones who found Zach.”
“Captain Rogers,” the suit said, “recognized your son and had him sent directly to Fort Bragg, where he was positively identified by the database we mentioned earlier. Since then, his passport and personal identification were found in the files that were removed from the site. The Venezuelan government, although not on particularly good terms with the U.S. at this point in time, has nevertheless been very helpful in assisting us in tracking down the kidnappers….”
“But ironically enough, the real help was that one of the Dutch businessmen who was taken was implanted with that GPS locator you designed,” Captain Rogers said.
“I didn’t design it,” Richard said shakily. “That was David Evans—my housekeeper’s kid. He was working for us when Zach was taken. He did it for Zach, worked on it the whole summer after…. He was obsessed with it. Said if Zach had had something like this….” He stopped. David. After everything, it had been David who’d made the difference. “He did save him. David. David saved Zach.”
“I’d say so,” Captain Rogers agreed. “Or at least made it possible for us to. We were damned lucky this mission.”
“Captain,” Richard breathed, “I hope to God you’re always so lucky.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Tyler? I’m Dr. Duffey.”
The man held out his hand to Richard; he shook it, as did Jane a moment later. Duffey seemed competent; a man of small stature with a shock of brown hair standing up on his head, too thick to lie flat. “I’ve been working with Zach since his arrival five days ago. Most of that was just trying to get him to relax a little; he spent the first two days in the fetal position, terrified out of his wits. But he’s shown vast improvement in the last couple of days.”
“You’re the psychologist?”
“Psychiatrist, yes. I specialize in trauma victims. Dr. McKinnon is the doctor handling Zach’s physical condition. Zach’s in poor shape, but it’s mostly a matter of severe malnutrition. We’re more concerned at this point with his psychological state. You’ll meet Dr. McKinnon later this afternoon.”
“When can we see my son?” Jane asked anxiously.
Duffey smiled at her. “Soon,” he said reassuringly. “But I need to tell you some things you have to know before you go in there. To prepare you.”
“Prepare us for what?” Richard demanded.
The doctor rubbed his forehead. “They didn’t tell you anything about him, did they?”
“They kept telling us to wait to talk to you. What’s wrong with Zach?”
“Aside from being very emaciated from malnutrition, he’s severely traumatized and nonverbal.”
“What do you mean ‘nonverbal’?” Jane asked.
“He doesn’t talk.”
“We know what ‘nonverbal’ means,” Richard said impatiently, “but what does it mean in Zach’s case? He’s got something wrong with his throat? He ignores you when you talk to him? Makes funny sounds? Doesn’t make sounds at all?”
There was silence in the little waiting room, then Richard said quietly, “What the fuck do you mean, ‘he barks’?”
“He barks. Whines, occasionally whimpers. He responds as if he were a dog.” Dr. Duffey shook his head. “From what the lieutenant who brought him in says, he was treated as if he were a dog for the last five years. Kept in a cage, with a collar, fed table scraps, occasionally walked with a leash—though not often; his leg muscles are atrophied, and he’ll need physical therapy for a good long time before he’ll be able to walk more than a few steps unsupported.”
“Oh, God,” Jane said, her hand on her mouth. Under his breath, Richard said, “Fuck.”
“There’s worse,” Duffey warned. They both looked at him. “I’d suggest you both sit down.”
“Fuck,” Richard said again, and they obeyed. He reached for Jane’s hand and held it tightly.
“He was raped, wasn’t he?” Jane asked. Richard blinked and looked at her. She looked back and said simply, “He’s beautiful, Richard. Of course someone would hurt him that way. Evil people want to damage beauty—they don’t understand it.”
“Yes. Physical indications are that he was sexually abused over a long period; there is scarring in both the genital and anal areas. There is nothing to indicate permanent damage, though, aside from the scarring; there’s no sign of STDs. Once he’s recovered, he should function normally.”
Richard snorted. “It’s the recovery part that’s the question, isn’t it? How do you recover from something like that?”
“Slowly, I’m afraid.” Dr. Duffey shook his head. “The fact that he’s still not speaking after five days in care is not a good sign. I’m hoping that now that you’re here, his condition will improve considerably.”
“I doubt it,” Richard said savagely. He stood and walked away from them, staring out the window much as he had in the conference room in the suburb outside Colorado Springs. The view was less inspiring here—just the hospital parking lot.
“Richard,” Jane murmured.
“Well, Jenny, it’s true. He has no reason to love us. He was in love for the first time in his life, and how did we deal with it? We put him on a plane and sent him alone into the hands of that bastard that raped and ruined him—all to keep him out of the hands of someone who loved him. Someone who fucking saved him. Jesus, Jenny. We should have let him be with David—at least then he would have been happy and whole.”
“I take it Zach is gay,” the doctor said delicately.
“I thought it was just being fifteen,” Richard said miserably. “David thought so too. He said he cared for Zach, but that he was too young for a relationship; he had told Zach they’d have to wait. I thought it was just… just hormones or something, that he had a crush on David. He’d known him his whole life, he’s older, more mature…. David was just out of high school, saving money for college, working with my company, but he’s the housekeeper’s son and lived on the estate, they saw each other every day. David used to drive him around until Zach was old enough to get his driver’s license… Jesus. He doesn’t even have a driver’s license….” Richard buried his face in his hand and wept.
Jane went to him and put her arms around him, her cheek laid gently on his shoulder blade. To the doctor she said, “My sister lives in Costa Rica, and she’d been asking for Zach to come down and visit her. We thought it would be a good idea for him to spend some time away from David, if it was just a crush, you know? David agreed. He said Zach needed to know his own mind, that he needed to be older before he’d be ready for a relationship with anyone, male or female. We all sent him away. It was all our faults. Richard blames himself, but it was all our faults.”
“It’s not your fault at all,” Dr. Duffey said. “Let’s cast the blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of the man that did this, the so-called General Benito Esteban.”
“Have they caught him? Is he in jail, that bastard?” Richard demanded, wiping his face irritably. “I want to see the face of that foul, stinking….”
“He’s dead,” the doctor said in surprise. “Didn’t they tell you?”
“No. Was he killed in the raid?”
“No. Zach killed him.”
The hospital room door opens and I jerk, startled. I should be used to the abrupt comings and goings of the doctors, but after living so long with only the sounds of human voices and bugs in the trees outside—not to mention the occasional gunshot—I’m finding the banging and humming and squeaking and beeping disconcerting. No, scratch that—downright annoying, irritating, scary….
It’s Fluffy Duffey, my personal shrink. He’s little and unintimidating, with fluffy brown hair and nice, patient eyes. “Hi, Zach,” he says. “How are you feeling this afternoon?”
Same as ever, Fluffy.
“How was your lunch? The nurse said you polished everything off.”
And would have eaten the tray, too, if it had been organic. My stomach shrank, they tell me, so I don’t have much capacity for food, but I’m hungry now. I wasn’t hungry the first few days, but I’m making up for lost time.
He takes my hand and checks my pulse. He’s a shrink, but apparently he’s a real doctor too; he seems to understand the monitors and charts and whatnot. Whatever my wrist tells him he’s apparently happy with. “You have visitors,” he says.
I blink, not understanding at first.
“Your parents are here.”
For a minute, I don’t know what he means. What are parents? Then my heart starts pounding and I’m terrified. No, not them. Esteban told me that they didn’t care about me, that they never sent the ransom he’d demanded, that they’d replied that they didn’t care what he did with me, that they had sent me to him on purpose…. I start hyperventilating, and Fluffy puts an oxygen mask on my face. “Breathe slowly,” he says over the hiss of the oxygen. I can’t breathe. I’m so afraid. This is a dream and I know what happens next: they come in and they’ve got the faces of monsters and they slaughter Fluffy and start eating my feet and then I wake up and it’s Esteban again, only this time he’ll know what I dreamt about and he’ll start telling more stories about my parents and the monsters they are and how they’ve eaten everyone I knew. I’m crying in fear now, when I haven’t cried in years, and I can’t catch my breath and Fluffy’s upset; not as upset as he will be in a minute when they come in and tear his throat out….
They come in and they’re just people, strangers with frightened faces. I suck in a breath and wait for them to turn into the monsters, but they just stand there. The woman is crying and the man has his arms around her. He’s got black curly hair like mine, but there are silver strands in it; his eyes are dark and there are lines on his face that only get deeper when he looks at me. The woman has blonde hair, sleeked back in some fancy knot I used to know the name of, something French, but I can’t see her face because she’s got it buried in his shoulder. “Jane,” he says, and then I recognize him. The silver and the lines confuse me, because my dad didn’t have silver hair or lines on his face. He does now.
I stop hyperventilating; I’m still crying but it’s just tears falling, the sobbing stopped. I take a couple of steady breaths and pull the oxygen mask away. Fluffy goes with it. “Are you all right?” he asks in an undertone. I just look at him, then over at the people. My parents. Dick and Jane. I wipe the water from my face. I’m calm now, that cold, empty calm I’m good at; I can look at them and hope that just this once they aren’t going to turn into monsters and eat everyone.
“Zach?” Dad says uncertainly.
I don’t answer, but I meet his eyes. They’re red and tired-looking, but he’s smiling a little. It hurts, somewhere deep inside, and I blink. I thought I was used to pain, but this is a different kind of hurt, one I don’t know quite how to deal with.
The woman turns then, and I look at her. She has blue eyes, like me, but they’re red and tired, too, like his. Right now, they look more like each other than either of them does like me. Both old and tired and sad. I feel old and tired and sad too. It hurts. I sigh and close my eyes.
Something touches my hand and I open my eyes again. It’s Mom, Jane of Dick and Jane. She used to get so mad at me when I’d call them that. It’s from the old reading books kids got in school years ago—“Fun with Dick and Jane” or something like that. Their dog was called Spot, though, not Zach. Mom’s hand is cold and very small. I can feel little bird bones in it. I could crush those bones without thinking about it, even as wasted as I am. After a few days of food and rest, I’m feeling a lot stronger, stronger than when I choked the life out of Esteban. If I could do that, a few little bones is nothing. But I don’t crush them. She’s so little and frail, much smaller than I remember. I whine in dismay, and her eyes widen. She doesn’t say anything, just stares at me in horror, as if I had been the one to turn into the monster and start eating people’s feet. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s me that’s the monster. After all, neither of them has strangled anyone with a leash lately, right?
She starts crying again. “Oh, Zach, my baby,” she says, and she puts her arms around me and hugs me gently, as if she thinks I’ll break. Her hand is cold but her arms are warm, and I feel like a bird in a nest.
God, I wish this wasn’t a dream.