Six boys. Six hearts. Six different life stories… And yet, something in the universe wants to bring them together… Something, somewhere, sees the one similarity between the six boys…
Geoffrey Wilson, age thirteen. Lives with his mother and stepfather in a modest, middle-class Texas home. His hobbies are normal for a boy his age; sports, girls, and video games. He is well-liked among his peers, but only has one close friend, Jack Miller. He is close to his stepfather and used to be close to his mother. When she started caring less and drinking more, Geoff noticed the changes in his mother’s personality and started to distance himself from her.
Jack Miller, age thirteen. His parents passed away when he was six, leaving him in the custody of his grandparents, who reside in a slightly older part of Austin, Texas. Jack isn’t as social as his best friend, Geoff Wilson, and enjoys spending hours in front of video games. Jack has a big heart and will go out of his way to make others happy. Jack doesn’t remember much about his parents, but he lives on knowing that his kindness and sympathy for others would make them proud.
James Fink, age twelve. Most people know him by Andrew, his middle name, as he prefers it over his first. Since his parents abandoned him at the age of nine, Andrew hasn’t had a place to live, and he is not yet old enough to get a job to get a home on his own. Andrew does his best to keep his homelessness a secret and still go to school regularly. Andrew wishes to give all homeless kids a home when he grows up, knowing what it’s like to have to survive with nothing.
Michael Davis, age ten. Widely known for his bad temper and his iron-will determination. After his loving mother passed away, Michael ran away from home, wanting to escape the abusive tendencies of his father. He manages to take care of himself by eating at school and sleeping under sheltered areas, but his lack of street smarts makes it difficult for him to get by. He sometimes stays over at his best friend, Ryan Boyington,'s house, but doesn’t stay long, as he thinks he’s a burden to everyone.
Ryan Boyington, age nine. Before his father walked out on him and his mother three years ago, he and his family used to live in a decent home on the wealthier side of Austin. However, once his father left, his mother couldn’t keep up with the cost of living in their old house, and they moved into a small, two-bedroom house that they could afford. Since his mom works three jobs just to pay the bills, he is often alone. He tries to convince his best friend, Michael Davis, to stay over, but the redhead normally declines.
And Daniel Smith, age nine. Five years ago, his parents moved him from the UK to Austin, Texas to get him a better life. His parents are wealthy, and they live in a nice, secure home on the nicer side of Austin, but he feels lonely because he doesn’t have any friends. His parents are normally away on business, so he doesn’t get to see them often, and spends his nights hiding in his bedroom or sitting in the playroom with his babysitter. Daniel is young but remembers the happiness his family shared before they got rich and realized that money can’t buy happiness.
So why, out of all the kids in the world, has fate decided to bring these boys together? They don’t know it yet, but soon, their destinies will all intertwine, and bring them closer than any friends have ever been. They all come from different backgrounds, but perhaps their meeting will bestow upon them the one need they have. The one similarity between all of them: The want for love, friendship, and belonging.
“Geoffrey Wilson, get down here and get this mess cleaned up!”
The brunette male sighed, rolling his eyes at his mother’s beckoning. Though it wouldn’t be the first time his mother had called for him to clean a mess that she’d made but was too lazy to clean. However, the frequency of these events had begun to increase. As much as he wanted to say something to her, anything to make her realize what she was doing, he stayed silent. “Coming, Mom!”
The woman did not respond after, which was how most of their conversations seemed to go. Anything beyond that was the quick relay of cleaning tasks or screaming matches between the two that would last for days. Geoff remembered the days before his mother began to deteriorate; the days his father was still around. When his father died overseas, Geoff’s mother began to shut him out, and eventually remarried. Gone were the days that Geoff would come home from school to a loving mother and fresh baked cookies. Gone were the days that his mother would attend his games back when he played sports. Though the good times would never return, Geoff knew there was no harm in being nostalgic.
Geoff nearly sighed in relief when he made it to the bottom of the stairs, only to see his mother slipping her coat on. [i Finally, some peace and fucking quiet,] he thought bitterly.
“I’m going to see my friends for a while,” she relayed without displaying emotion. “You know how the stove works if you get hungry. Your stepfather will be home in a few hours. And I want that mess in the office cleaned up before I get home, do you understand?”
“Yep.” If his mother had caught on to the irritation in his voice, she didn’t show it. Rather, she dismissed him and walked out the front door. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Geoff slipped into the office and switched the light on. “Holy shit.” His eyes widened as he scanned the room. There were boxes of probably important papers strewn all over the floor, the computer desk had been pushed to the middle of the room and the computer disconnected from the wall, and miscellaneous items from said desk were tossed aside, some broken. [i How did I not hear her do this?] Sometimes, he wondered if his mother did this stuff on purpose. But with a hefty sigh, he began putting papers and other assorted items into boxes. [i I guess I’ll never know.]
Jack grinned, his eyes flashing with a slight tinge of victory. After relentlessly playing Dark Souls for a straight two weeks, he had finally managed to complete the game and get all the achievements. He knew that, in a normal person’s eyes, he’d wasted a lot of time, but without many other hobbies, he found it just as enjoyable as hanging out with Geoff. With his grandparents gone for the month, he’d been given free reign of the house. Most kids his age would have thrown a party. Jack just spent time by himself. Sometimes, as he sat around an empty house, he wished he was like his classmates. Good at sports, or at least making friends. The teenager was lucky that he had Geoff.
With a huff, he put the controller aside, just in time to hear his cell phone ringing. The device stopped ringing as he picked it up, and he unlocked it to see a missed call from his grandmother and a text from Geoff. Opening the text first, he was greeted by a picture of his mother’s office, which was in a state of disaster. Under the picture, Geoff had written “My mom is crazy”, which forced a laugh from Jack. He sent Geoff a quick reply before calling his grandmother back. “Hey gram, sorry I missed your call. Oh, you’re on your way back? It’ll be good to see you. Is the house clean?” Jack looked around. The house wasn’t disgusting, but the floor was littered with old drink cans and plates. “Yeah, it looks great. What was that? You’ll be back in a few hours? Okay, great! Can’t wait to see you! Yeah, I love you too. Bye.” He hung up his phone and glanced at the untidy room. “Oh, fuck it, this isn’t that bad. Geoff’s got it worse.” Rolling up the sleeve to his hoodie, his face hardened. “Well, it’s not going to clean itself.”
An hour later, with a broken vacuum to prove his efforts, the house looked like it had never been lived in. Glancing at the clock, he realized his grandparents wouldn’t be back for a while yet. [i I’ll go see Geoff. He must be going crazy.] Slipping a note for his grandmother on the fridge, Jack threw his shoes on and walked out the door. Even if his mother was crazy, Jack couldn’t deny that Geoff’s home was easily his second.
Though the blonde was cold and wet, Andrew felt like he’d made a difference. It wasn’t every day that he was able to save a child from drowning in a local pond. Though the mother of the child he’d saved blamed Andrew, Andrew knew the truth about the situation, and refused to let the angry mother destroy his pride. It was all he had left.
It was due to be dark soon, though the Texas heat was removing the moisture from his clothing and relieving him from the chill the water had given him. Luckily, the water was relatively clean, and he’d be able to wear his hoodie to school tomorrow. He had another one, sitting in his bag of clothes, but it was dirtier than the one he was wearing right now. Andrew knew he needed to find a way to do laundry soon.
With a loud rumble, Andrew groaned. He was hungry, as he hadn’t eaten in a few days, but it was a feeling he was gradually getting used to. He would find something to eat before tomorrow, though. He couldn’t faint at school.
The blonde boy walked down the street, watching as cars passed by in a flurry of lights. The people inside of them were obsessed with their own lives, so much that they hardly noticed the homeless child walking beside them. Andrew knew that everyone had a set of hardships; he knew more than the average twelve-year-old should, but he was completely baffled by the insincerity that others held. Especially towards those who were less-fortunate. [i One day, when things finally get better, I won’t be like the others. I’ll help everyone that needs it, because I know. I know what it’s like to have nothing.] He refused to let the bad people crush his dreams.
Andrew was yanked away from his thoughts when a car drove through a puddle. The young lad was splashed, dampening his near-dry clothing. “Hey!” he squeaked. But as usual, the driver paid no mind to the child. It was as if Andrew wasn’t even there. “Stupid adults…”
Having been put in a sour mood, Andrew gave up his hunt for food, and instead ducked into the back alleyway he’d stayed in the night before. His bag of clothes was still there, hidden behind the dumpster, but he needed to stay on the move. If someone he knew saw him here… But he was tired, and he rested against the brick wall of the building that owned the dumpster. He only wanted to rest for a moment, but as usual, once he closed his eyes, he drifted into a light sleep.
“Get back here you little runt!”
Michael ran down the street as quickly as he could, holding a small bundle of bread in his arms. Stealing wasn’t something he liked to do, but he hadn’t had a chance to eat since lunch on Friday, and he was starving. The man chasing him, however, didn’t know about this, nor did it look like he cared. Luckily, Michael’s small body was much faster than the baker’s, and he managed to tuck himself away in a corner before he was seen.
The small piece of bread would seem meager and useless to anyone else, but Michael was quite literally a beggar, and he didn’t have the luxury of being picky. Instead, he devoured his prize swiftly. His hunger remained nearly untouched, but he was thankful anyway. He was young, but wise, and knew not to question things. Though he anticipated a hungry evening, he had school tomorrow, and he’d be able to snag a lunch.
Hearing the yelling from down the street, Michael realized he needed somewhere to hide. He then smiled as he was struck with an idea. [i I can go hide at Ryan’s house for a bit…] With his new plan in mind, Michael snuck out of the alley, but was instantly grabbed by a pair of strong, hairy arms. Without a moment’s hesitation, Michael struggled against the man’s grip. “Let go of me!” the redhead screeched.
“I don’t think so, you little brat! I don’t care if you’re just a stupid kid; people who steal from me don’t get away easily!”
The baker was big and mean-looking, and the angry look on his face was enough to scare Michael. Instinctively, the redhead wiggled so he would slide further down the man’s grip and bit his arm as hard as he could. “Eeaugh! You brat!”
When his grip slackened, Michael landed on his rear, but wasted no time in getting up and sprinting away while the shop owner was busy nursing his wound. Michael stopped at a corner to catch his breath, but he could hear the man cursing as he chased after him. His green eyes widened; he was far too winded to run anymore. He was sure he was a goner. What he didn’t count on, however, was for a different pair of hands to grab at him and pull him into a small, dark space. Michael opened his mouth to yell in surprise, but it was covered quickly.
“Shut up, or he’ll find you.”
The voice didn’t belong to Ryan, but Michael was as grateful as if it had been his best friend. “Who are you?” he whispered in a scared voice. “Where am I?”
“You’re in a dumpster outside an Italian restaurant,” the kid responded cooly. “And I’m Andrew. I’ve seen you at school, but I’ve never talked to you.”
“Why did you help me?”
Andrew scoffed. “All the racket you made woke me from my nap. If you hadn’t made such a fuss, you’d have been caught. But I’ve been in the same place you are; I didn’t want you to get caught and get in big trouble.”
Michael fell silent, listening as things outside began to die down, and he was suddenly brought back into the bright outside world. Andrew, who was a slightly taller blonde boy, climbed out with him. For a moment, Michael said nothing, and looked out at the street. The baker was gone, so he could finally talk to Andrew. “Did you just say you were napping? Why were you sleeping outside?”
When he didn’t get an answer, Michael turned around, but Andrew was gone. “But… I didn’t even get to say thank you…” With a disappointed sigh, Michael brushed the garbage off his clothes and made his way towards Ryan’s house.
Ryan’s face creased in sadness as he watched his mother gather her things. “Mom, do you have to go?”
“Sorry, sweetie, but you know I have to go to work.” Ryan’s mother ruffled his hair gently. “I’ll be back late, so make sure you go to bed on time. Dinner is in the fridge; it just needs to be heated up in the microwave.” She smiled at him. “And you can even play that new video game I got you.”
“Okay…” Ryan sighed, watching his mother leave. If there was one thing Ryan hated the most, it was being lonely. And lately, he was lonely a lot. It was hard having a mom that worked three jobs; she was only ever home to get a few hours of sleep, make food for way, and leave again. The small family couldn’t afford a babysitter, so Ryan found himself sitting in the living room by himself, watching TV or playing Halo. He didn’t blame his mother for his loneliness; she was doing her best.
A small knock on the door brought Ryan to attention, and he looked out the window to see who it was. “Michael!” Ryan’s eyes lit up as he opened the door, letting his curly-haired friend inside. “It’s getting dark! What are you doing out there?”
“I got in some trouble today,” he started. “But this weird kid named Andrew helped me. As soon as I turned around to thank him, he disappeared!” Michael threw his arms up in an exaggerated explosion-like motion. “He dragged me into a dumpster to hide, but now I smell really bad. But I could be in trouble right now, so it’s not so bad.”
Ryan giggled. “I’ll get you something that’s not stinky, okay? Turn on the Xbox and I’ll be right down!” Bolting into his room, he grabbed a plain black t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts before running back out to his friend, who was looking for the controllers. “I’ll find them,” Ryan offered. “Go change before you make the whole living room smell bad!”
“Thanks!” Michael wandered off, leaving Ryan to his thoughts for a moment. He knew that Michael didn’t go home anymore, and he knew why, but he wasn’t sure why Michael wouldn’t take his offer to stay at his house for even just one night. His mom wasn’t around enough to know, and even if she was, Ryan knew she’d never kick him out.
He’d finished setting up the game by the time Michael came back out. “Okay, we’re gonna play Halo, okay?” And while he knew what the answer would be, he asked “Are you gonna stay here tonight? Mama won’t mind.”
Michael shook his head. “I couldn’t do that. I’d be in the way.”
“No! Honest!” Ryan kept pleading, unlike previous times, because he was tired of being lonely at night. “Just for one night! Please?”
When Michael finally mumbled an “okay”, Ryan smiled. His friend was going to be safe, and he wasn’t going to be alone. What more could he ask for?
The new babysitter was boring, Daniel had decided, and he’d wasted no time in going into his room to hide for the rest of the night. It was like this every day; he’d stay home with his parents on days he didn’t have school and play in the playroom, but as soon as his parents left for parties or work, Daniel retreated to his room upstairs, choosing to read a book or sit on the windowsill.
The moonlight reflected beautifully on the dew-covered lawn, and the sparkling beauty forced a smile out of the British boy. [i I wish I had someone to play with,] he thought with a sad hanging of his head. [i If I had a friend, we could go outside in the middle of the night and play torch tag or hide-and-seek… I wouldn’t even care about getting in trouble for being outside too late…] The thoughts were wishful thinking, he’d decided. He went to public school, where lots of people had friends to play with, but most of the kids avoided him. Since Daniel’s parents were rich, he was viewed as the snobby kid that as too good to play with them. If only they knew how wrong they were about him.
“Daniel! Dinner will be ready soon!”
“Okay,” he responded quietly. His dark thoughts reminded Daniel of why he sometimes hated himself. He knew he shouldn’t be complaining; he had a nice house, a warm bed, clean clothes, and a lot of food. A few of the kids he went to school with had nothing, had to live outside, or had to take care of themselves. He had people to take care of him, but it still wasn’t enough.
The short Brit headed downstairs, not hearing whatever his babysitter was saying to him, and went out to the back porch to glance at the moonlight. Looking up at the sky, he sighed. [i Will I ever find what I want? Am I selfish to think that I’m lonely, even when I have more than others?]
“Daniel,” the female babysitter called. “You can daydream later. It’s time to eat.”
“All right.” Daniel glanced down as he headed inside, wondering if he’d ever get an answer. Right now, it seemed very unlikely.
Geoff simply grunted in response, keeping his head low as he passed through the hallway. His normally bright blue eyes were dull, and they appeared even more lidded-over than they usually were. “Thanks a lot, asshole. You’d look like shit too if your grandmother was even half as psycho as my mom.”
“Wait, what happened?” Jack tilted his head slightly. “I mean, aside from the messy office. Do you need to crash at my place for a few days to get away from her?
“I don’t know what’s going on anymore, dude.” Geoff released a heavy sigh. “My mom has been dumb as dicks lately, and I just don’t know what to do. Last night, she came home drunk. Nothing new, but she just up and started breaking things.” He shifted his feet. “She grabbed whatever she could reach from the moment she walked in the door and just threw it at the walls and on the floor. Dad tried to calm her down, but she screamed and chased him out. He hasn’t texted me or come home since.”
The slightly scruffy male shook his head. Jack had known things were starting to get bad, but this was a new low. “Are you okay?” When he received a glare from the blue-eyed male, he snorted. “I mean, did she hurt you?”
“I mean… Well…”
“Geoff. Did. She. Hurt. You?”
“Hold on a fucking second. I’ll show you.” Looking around to make sure there were no teachers in sight, Geoff pulled Jack into the faculty bathroom and locked the door. Setting his bag down, he took off his black t-shirt, revealing a fresh, poorly bandaged wound on his shoulder. “To be fair, I don’t think she actually meant to hit me with the bottle she threw. I’m sure she was just trying to scare me upstairs and misjudged her throw.”
Jack’s eyes widened. The white bandages were stained a dark red, though it looked dry. “Geoff… You must tell someone what’s going on. Your mom could kill herself. She could kill you if she keeps going on like this.”
Geoff shook his head furiously. “I can’t do it, Jack. I’ve fucking tried. She might be a psycho, but she’s still my mom. And I don’t want Dad to get mad at me for turning her in. He may be getting the abuse too, but he still loves her.”
“Geoff, I’m just worried about you.”
“And I appreciate it. I promise, if it gets any worse, I’ll call someone. Okay?”
Though Jack looked like he wanted to shake some sense into Geoff, he knew he wouldn’t be able to, so he simply let it go with the promise to keep tabs on it. “I trust you. Call me when you need to, okay?” Jack offered a smile. “If you want to get out for a few days, my offer still stands. Gram loves you.”
“Dude, your couch has now become my new best friend.”
Andrew had several reasons to be grateful that morning. Not only had his stuff, which he’d abandoned for the night, been kept relatively sheltered from the previous night’s rain, but he’d managed to sneak into a homeless shelter long enough to shower and remained undetected. His clothes, which had been worse for wear, were swapped with some cleaner ones. Currently, he was sitting on a swing on the far side of the playground, watching the other kids play. Through the corner of his eye, he saw the red-haired kid he’d helped the previous night run out to the playground with his friend and was glad to see that the curly-haired boy was doing okay. [i Maybe I should go and say hello…] But Andrew shook his head. [i No. I just took off without so much as a goodbye. He probably won’t want to talk to me.]
Andrew’s was forced to attention when he heard a commotion by the school doors. He couldn’t see well from where he was sitting; just a group of older kids a fair distance away, all standing around something. Upon further investigation, which required him to get off the swing and sneak closer, he saw that the older kids were surrounding a younger kid. The kid in the middle didn’t look older than nine or ten, and those who were surrounding him looked to be about Andrew’s age. Deciding that he wanted to observe the scene, Andrew remained in the background to keep from being seen.
“Please, just give it back…” the blonde boy pleaded.
“Aww, widdle Danny-wanny wants his pwecious kitty doll back,” one of the kids teased. Andrew recognized the voice; Joel Newman, douchebag extraordinaire. “Why don’t you just get mommy and daddy to buy you a new one?”
The kid – Daniel, Andrew learned – looked like he was about to cry. However, despite the odds, he remained strong. “I-I said please. She’s special to me, and I really want her back so… uh… please give her back?”
Joel snorted. “It’s a her? How cute.” He looked over to one of the other kids in the circle, making eye contact with Brian Gerrish, a renowned bully. “How about we make it disappear, Gerrish?”
“What a good idea,” Brian agreed.
“No, please don’t!”
“Hey!” Andrew had heard enough, and he shoved his way through the circle of kids, so he was standing in front of Daniel protectively. “Leave the kid alone, Joel. Just give him his toy back. You must really be desperate if you’re stealing toys from kids.”
“That stupid rich brat can get another one if he asks for it. He doesn’t need this one!” Brian snatched the stuffed animal from Joel and pulled at a weak spot in the already-worn seam. The tearing sound was quiet, but it was enough to emit a whine from Daniel.
Andrew felt his patience grow thin. “Grow up, Brian. You stole a stuffed animal from a nine-year-old because you’re jealous of his rich parents? He said that one is special to him, so quit being an asshole and just give it back before I make you.” He didn’t normally curse at school, but Brian had pushed all the right buttons. His blue eyes were hard. “I mean it, Gerrish.”
“Whatever. I didn’t want it anyway.” Scoffing, Brian threw the plush in the dirt. “Stay out of my business, Fink. You won’t win so easily next time.”
Andrew glared at the older male. “When your ‘business’ isn’t picking on kids smaller than you, I’ll stay out of it, Gerrish.”
With a huff, Brian grabbed Joel by the collar of his shirt and stormed away. The circle of kids disbanded after that, some of which followed Brian and Joel, and the others resuming their activities for the morning.
Sighing in relief, Andrew picked the stuffed animal up and handed it to Daniel. “Be more careful with your things, buddy. Those guys are huge jerks that like picking on the younger kids, and I can’t be getting in trouble for beating up bullies.”
“T-thank you, I’ll be more careful.” Daniel held the stuffed cat tightly. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Andrew. I’m Daniel.” The small child grinned happily. “Hey, Andrew?”
“Thank you for helping me and being so nice. No one’s ever really been nice to me before, especially not nice enough to scare away mean guys like Joel and Brian. So, uh…” Daniel looked up at Andrew nervously. “Can we be friends?”
Andrew just smiled. Though he and Daniel were a few years apart in age, and they’d only just met, he felt inclined to protect the younger child. And Andrew knew what it was like to feel totally alone. So, he nodded. “Sure, Daniel. I’ll be your friend.”
Daniel squealed in delight. “I’ve never had a proper friend before! This will be tippy top!” He giggled before turning away. “I’m going to hide my kitty before school starts. Bye, Andrew!”
“See you later, Daniel!” Andrew watched the young boy run back inside, and he felt warm. Not only had he stopped Brian and Joel from bullying Daniel, but he’d made a friend. Looking up at the bright blue sky, he smiled. Today, he decided, would be a good day.
As lunchtime rolled around, Michael and Ryan headed towards the front of the school, neither boy wanting to mingle with the other students in the crowded cafeteria. Michael yawned as he plopped onto the grass, the moisture from the rain already dried due to the Texas heat. “Man, I’m tired,” he grunted, laying back on the ground.
“Me too,” Ryan added, sitting next to his friend. “I can’t wait to get home and take a nap.”
“Maybe if we hadn’t stayed up half the night playing Battlefield…” Michael started, but chuckled all the same. Though the long night made him tired and more irritable than usual, he had to admit that it was more fun than looking for a sheltered place to sleep.
Ryan fist-pumped the air. “But Battlefield was so much fun! I got so many headshots; the other team didn’t stand a chance!”
The redhead scoffed. “I know. Most rounds I was on the other team.”
“I didn’t pick the teams; I just went with it.”
Michael stuck his tongue out at Ryan. “We still should have gone to bed earlier. I almost fell asleep in math!”
“Sorry. Mom didn’t come home on her break last night and remind me to go to bed. She must’ve been really busy.”
“You’re a dummy, Ryan. You know that?” Michael sat up, gripping the grass in his small hands. Last night had been fun, and Michael wasn’t sure he wanted to give that up so soon. “Hey, Ry?”
“-and then I-” Ryan paused at Michael’s interruption, laughing sheepishly. “Oh, sorry. I got carried away. What’s up?”
The redhead broke eye contact and glared at the dirt. “I don’t like asking, but can I stay over again tonight? If it was too much trouble last night, I understand.”
When Michael looked up again, Ryan looked about ready to explode with happiness. “You’re always welcome to stay over, Michael! You’re never any trouble!”
“Thank you, Ry. It means a lot.”
“Hey!” A loud voice boomed from the steps, causing both boys to jump. “You two shouldn’t be out here!”
Squeaking, Michael and Ryan bolted back into the school before they got in trouble. Michael laughed as he ran, annoyed that they were caught, but happy about his plans for the evening.
Jack grunted as the warm, humid air smacked him in the face. “What’re the plans for tonight? You’re still coming over?”
“Yeah, of course.” Geoff nodded. “I’ll have to go home and grab some stuff, but other than that, nothing’s changed.”
“Are you sure you’ll be good going back home by yourself?” Jack’s brow furrowed with worry. “You’ll call if something happens, right?”
Geoff waved him off. “Of course, stop being such a mother hen. I’ll be fine.” The older male threw the baseball to his friend. “Mom probably won’t even notice I’m there. I’ll just sneak in, grab a few sets of clothes and my Xbox controller, and sneak out.”
Jack sighed, tossing the ball back. “Okay, that’s a good plan, but what if she does notice you?”
“Then I argue with her, she’ll leave, and I’ll still come over regardless.” Geoff rolled his eyes. “It’ll be fine.”
“Or she’ll throw something else at you and hurt you again.”
“Are you ever going to let that go?”
“No.” The ginger male grumbled. “But I’ll stop bringing it up, at the very least. I’m sorry, Geoff. I just-”
“Worry about me, yeah I know.” Geoff smiled a bit. “I appreciate it, honestly.”
“You’re my best friend. It’s the least I could do.” Jack went to catch the ball, but was distracted by the ringing of the bell, and made a soft noise of discomfort as it connected with his chest. “Jesus, Geoff.”
His friend burst out laughing. “Sorry there, space case.”
Jack snorted but picked up the ball. He thought about throwing it at Geoff for unnecessary payback but decided against it and tossed it back in the barrel of sport balls. “Watch it, Wilson. I know where you’ll be sleeping tonight.”
“Dude, that’s creepy.” Geoff stuck his tongue out. “What’re you going to do, stare me down as I sleep?”
“Worse.” The ginger male’s eyes narrowed as he bit back a grin. “I’ll draw dicks on your face as you sleep, and you won’t be able to wash it off in time for school tomorrow.”
Geoff gasped, feigning offense. “You heathen! You wouldn’t dare!”
“Oh, but wouldn’t I?” He snorted, choking back his laughter. “Let’s get to class before we both get detention, yeah?”
“Come on, Michael! We’re gonna miss the bus!” Ryan looked back at his friend, who was running to catch up with him.
The curly-haired child growled. “If our stupid teacher didn’t keep us after the bell rang, we wouldn’t be late!”
The younger said nothing and continued running but groaned as he watched the bus sail by right as they descended the front steps. “No!”
“Well this sucks.” Michael groaned. “What do we do now?”
“I could always try calling Mom,” Ryan suggested. “She might not be home, though. So maybe we should just walk instead.”
“Doesn’t your mom get mad if you walk home by yourself?”
“Well, yeah, but what else are we gonna do?”
“We could find someone to walk with us. Maybe one of the older kids goes the same way, and we can tag along for a bit.”
Ryan sighed. “I don’t know. A lot of the older kids are stupid and mean.”
Michael pointed towards a group of trees. “What about him? He’s usually pretty cool.”
The younger followed Michael’s finger until he spotted who he was talking about. Ryan recognized him; he was one of the eighth graders, but unlike most of the others, he was relaxed and didn’t bother anyone who left him alone. “Oh, him? I think that’s Geoff. Are you sure he’d walk with us?”
“Well, no.” Michael looked sheepish. “But it wouldn’t hurt to ask, right?”
“I guess.” Ryan gulped, unsure of the plan, but walked towards the elder with a determined look on his face. As he neared, the other gave him a lazy look. “Hey, your name is Geoff, right?”
“Yep,” he responded. “What’s up?”
“We missed the bus, and I wanted to know if you live that way-” Ryan pointed in the direction of his house “-and could walk us most of the way home.”
Geoff snorted in amusement. “Yeah, okay. I can do that.”
Ryan clapped. “Thanks! You’re the best!”
“See?” Michael shouted triumphantly. “Told you it’d work.”
“No, you didn’t!” Ryan squeaked.
The blue-eyed male laughed at the exchange. “Come on, then. I’ve got places to be, so let’s make this quick, yeah?”
Ryan nodded and lead the way, Michael hard on his heels. Geoff followed slowly behind them, checking his phone every so often. “So, what should we do tonight?”
“Probably sleep,” Michael joked. “But maybe some more Call of Duty tonight.”
“I’m down with creaming some more people that suck at that game.” Ryan motioned as if he was looking through a sniper scope.
“You play Call of Duty?” Geoff suddenly seemed interested. “Aren’t you like, eight?”
“Nine, actually.” The short child huffed. “And I’m actually really good at it. Michael sucks, but provides good comic relief.”
The redhead glared at Ryan. “Not all of us are natural-born nerds, Ryan.”
“I call bullsh- uh, prove it.” Geoff carefully threw his words together. “What’s your gamertag?”
“RyGuyPigsty. Michael’s is MiMills.”
Geoff raised an eyebrow but sighed. “I can’t believe I’m saying this to someone four years younger than me, but maybe we can play a couple rounds sometime?”
“Yeah, sure.” Ryan and Michael stopped as they approached his driveway. “Uh, thanks Geoff. I know it was a weird request, but-”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. Jack will understand.” Geoff turned and walked the other way. “Later.”
Ryan’s eyes widened, and he watched Geoff walk away. “You mean you didn’t have to come this way?”
“Well, I did, but my house isn’t that far from here. Like I said, don’t worry about it!”
“You’re crazy!” he called back, but Geoff was gone. Ryan rolled his eyes and walked up to his house. “Do you think he’s our friend now?”
“I don’t know.” Michael shrugged. “Probably.”
“That’d be pretty cool.”
Daniel was glad the rest of the school day had passed without any problems. Thanks to Andrew, Brian and Joel had left him alone. His eyes fell on the torn seams on his cat plush and he frowned but was grateful that it just needed to be stitched back together. If Andrew hadn’t come around… Daniel shuddered thinking about it.
The small Brit had scanned the schoolyard for Andrew when school had let out, but his search ended with inconclusive results. [i He must’ve gone home already,] Daniel decided. Instead of taking the bus home, Daniel opted to walk, wanting to take full advantage of the warm spring afternoon. Though he didn’t walk home often, it didn’t take him long to arrive to his large estate. Surprisingly, Daniel spotted his parents’ expensive cars sitting in the driveway. Were they finally going to stay home for a few days?
“Oh, Daniel’s home, gotta go” was what Daniel heard upon entering his home. “Daniel, you’re late. Are you okay?”
“Sorry Mum. I walked home today.” Daniel beamed at her. “Something awesome happened to me today! I got picked on by these mean bullies but then this older kid named Andrew got up in their faces and told them to leave me alone and then we-”
His mother dismissed him with a wave. “That’s nice, sweetie. Anyway, your father and I are leaving for a trip. We’ll be gone for a few days, but we called Barbara to watch you, since I know she’s your favorite.”
Daniel’s enthusiasm dropped when his mother dismissed him, and he realized she didn’t want to hear about his day. With a drop of his shoulders, he nodded. “Okay, Mum.”
“That’s a good boy.” His mother grabbed her purse. “Now, Barbara won’t be here for another hour, but I know you’ll be okay by yourself for a little while. Be good for Barbara, sweetie. Bye!” She waved to him as she walked out the door and heard the telltale sound of cars being started. Daniel walked over to the window and watched the two shiny cars pull out of the driveway and speed off.
[i I don’t understand. Why don’t Mum and Dad want to spend time with me anymore?] Daniel missed the days he lived in England, before his parents got rich. He missed when his mother would give him hugs and kisses every day, and when his father would try – and fail – to teach him how to play sports. The days that ended when they moved to the US.
[i I guess it’s not so bad. I have a friend now.] The reminder of his new friend brightened up his mood a bit, and he went out to the back patio to wait for Barbara. Though his parents were practically a vacant presence in his life, he at least had Barbara and Andrew to keep him company. Perhaps, Daniel thought, things would finally get better.
Three days without so much as a text from his mother, asking where he was or how he was doing. Part of Geoff felt slightly guilty for not initiating conversation, but part of him wanted so badly for her to care.
Somehow, Geoff managed to sneak into the house in the early hours of the morning, hoping to any deity that existed that his mother wasn’t awake. Her bedroom door was closed, which was a good sign, but the silence was unnerving. He silently hoped that his mother had just thought he was cooping himself up in his bedroom like he usually did, but when he ascended the stairs and saw her standing in front of his bedroom door, all hope drifted away.
“Geoffrey Wilson, where the hell have you been?” His mother stayed firmly planted in front of his door, blocking entry. Her arms were crossed, and there was an angry scowl on her face.
“I was at Jack’s,” Geoff muttered under his breath. “Since when do you care where I am? Pretending to be a mom again?”
She scoffed. “Don’t start with me. You were at [i Jack’s.”] Her voice was almost mocking as she dragged out his best friend’s name. “You’ve been at Jack’s a lot lately, Geoff. Even if that’s where you really were, you could have called and told me where you were going. You’re just lucky I didn’t call the cops on your lazy ass.”
“You know what? [i You] could have also called [i me,] Mom!” The young male felt his nerves wear thin. “Communication works both fucking ways! If you really were as worried about me as you fucking say you are, you could have called first! Fuck, you could have texted me for all I fucking care!”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, Geoffrey! I am your mother, and you will treat me with respect, young man!”
“I don’t give a fuck if you’re God’s fucking grace, Mom!” His blue eyes were ablaze with fury. “Maybe when you start treating me like I’m a fucking human, and actually caring without the guilt trip bullshit, I’ll start giving you the respect you claim you deserve!”
The sound of the hand that connected with Geoff’s cheek seemed to echo through the whole house, but stony silence descended upon the two soon after. Geoff stood at one end of the hallway, his hand caressing his now-stinging cheek, and his mother stood in front of him, unmoving, her arm still raised in the air. “I told you not to talk back to me, Geoffrey.”
Geoff simply stood there, completely stunned. His mother had yelled at him, thrown things in his vague direction, and ignored him, but she’d never crossed the line to physical confrontation before. Geoff finally allowed himself to admit – completely in his mind – that his home life was taking a turn for the worse. He allowed himself to take a part of the blame; he hadn’t exactly been cooperating with her, but he couldn’t allow the tiptoeing game to continue. “What… Who the fuck are you? What-”
“I raised you better than that, Geoff.”
“You haven’t done shit to raise me since Dad died!” Geoff snapped, lowering his hand. “You stopped fucking caring about me! You’ve stopped caring about everyone but yourself!”
“Who do you think you are?!”
“Don’t fucking start, Mom! Who the fuck do you think you are?! Because it certainly isn’t my mother! I want my mom back, not this monster that you’ve become!”
With an angry huff, his mother looked at him for a moment. Without blinking, she said “You have twenty minutes to get your shit and get out of my house. If you don’t want me to be your mother, then I don’t want you to be my son.” She easily looked away and started down the stairs. “Life would be so much better if you’d died instead of your father.”
Geoff stood, frozen in time, as his mother disappeared down the stairs. Finally, his legs turned to jelly, and he slid into a sitting position on the floor and held his head in his hands. He didn’t cry, but he felt hot tears pricking at the corner of his eyes. [i It’s official… She hates me.] Though his mother hadn’t been loving towards him in a long time, he hadn’t wanted things to end like this. He truly hoped it was going to get better, but reality shattered his dream façade. With a sigh, Geoff rose and entered his bedroom for the last time. He scanned the area where he had grown up, taking every detail to memory. Knowing he didn’t have time to procrastinate, he filled his overnight bag with more clothing and a few irreplaceable possessions, forced to leave everything else behind.
As he walked by his mother’s office, he saw her typing away at her computer. Glaring at her, he said “I hope you’re happy.” Geoff waited for a response, slightly disappointed when he didn’t get so much as a glance and stormed out the front door.
Geoff took a deep breath before pulling out his phone, praying to any deity that was listening that Jack hadn’t gone back to sleep as he dialed his best friend’s number. The worn-out male allowed himself a small smile when he heard Jack’s overtired [i “Hello?”] on the other end.
“Hey, Jack…?” God, his voice sounded broken. “I know I just left, but… Something came up. Can I come back to your place for a while?”
[i “Of course. You’ll always have a place here. What’s going on, Geoff? Are you okay?”]
“I’ll… explain later. Thanks, Jack.” Geoff hung up before Jack could question him further and continued his walk, the silence of the early Austin morning giving him plenty of room to think.
Daniel perched himself on the front steps of the school, waiting for Andrew to appear or for school to begin. Other kids made fun of Daniel as they walked by, or just plain ignored him. For the first time in his life, Daniel couldn’t care less about what they thought of him. He had Andrew now; there was nothing for him to worry about anymore. It had been a few days since Daniel had seen his new friend, and he hoped that Andrew was okay.
As Daniel stood to go into the school, he scanned over what looked like a confrontation at the bottom of the steps. As he took a better look, he noticed Michael Davis and Ryan Boynton, two other kids around his age. Ryan was in Daniel’s class, and Michael was a year ahead of them, but Daniel hardly saw one of them without the other.
Upon further inspection of the situation, the Brit realized something was wrong. He saw the older kid that was bothering him a few days ago – Brian, if he remembered correctly – tormenting Michael and Ryan. He couldn’t hear what Brian was saying, but it was upsetting Ryan and making Michael angry, so it couldn’t have been good. Even though Daniel didn’t know the two younger kids that well, he refused to stand by and watch it happen.
“Leave them alone, you big bully!” Daniel shouted, rushing down the steps and throwing a rock at Brian’s leg. “They didn’t do anything to you!”
Brian glared down at Daniel as he approached. “What do you think you can do about it, shrimp? Your aim is awful, and you needed Fink to defend you last- OW!”
In the few moments Daniel had borrowed to distract Brian, Michael had worked up the courage to jump up and bite Brian on the arm. Instead of just letting go, however, Michael hung from the area he was biting, clamping his jaw as tight as he could.
“Get off of me, you stupid kid!” Brian shook his arm as hard and as quickly as he could, and Michael eventually dropped to the ground. Though Michael managed to avoid injury, Brian wasn’t so lucky, as he watched the fresh bite wound on his arm bleed. “Little brat! You’ll pay for that!”
“You don’t scare me, Brian!” Michael’s eyes were alight with rage. “Go away, you dumb bully! Leave Ryan alone!”
Brian scoffed, but nodded to his friends. “Whatever. I have better things to do than waste time on you three.” Without another word, the curly-haired brunet stormed up the steps, his friends following closely behind.
“Then why did you?!” Michael challenged, but as expected, he didn’t receive a reply.
Daniel just stood in his spot, wide-eyed. “Wow! That was awesome!”
“I’m scarier than big, dumb Brian ever will be,” Michael bragged. He nodded to himself and turned to Ryan. “Right, Ry?”
“Yeah!” Ryan bounced in place. “Sometimes, we call him Mogar when he’s angry, because it sounds way cooler than Michael!” He giggled. “Anyway, thanks for helping us. Your name is Daniel, right?”
The blonde nodded. “Yeah. We’re both in the same class, but we’ve never really talked before. You’re Ryan, if I remember correctly, and your friend is Michael?”
“That’s us!” Ryan grinned goofily. “You’re pretty cool. I’m surprised we’ve never talked before. Wanna be friends with us, Daniel?”
Michael gave Daniel a thumbs up. “Yeah. Anyone who will stand up to Brian is kinda cool.”
“Can I? That’d be tippy top!” Daniel bounced around excitedly.
The ginger snorted, but laughed as he walked off, Daniel and Ryan following him into the courtyard. “You’re stupid.”
“Shut up!” Though his words were sharp, they were tinged with a lighthearted tone. Daniel was more excited than before; he’d made a friend three days ago, and today, he made some more. [i Maybe], he thought [i I’m not so bad after all.]
Andrew hadn’t been to school in three days.
If he was being honest with himself, Andrew shouldn’t have gone anywhere in the past three days, but his lifestyle kept him moving frequently. Having caught a nasty cold due to the rainy weather a few days prior, he’d avoided the school like the plague, wanting to avoid the school nurse and the attempts she’d make to call his parents. Normally, missing a few days of school wouldn’t cause his mind to scatter, but Daniel was on his mind. He hadn’t spoken to his friend since the day he’d helped him get his stuffed cat pack and wondered how the small boy was faring.
Though his cough still lingered, the fever was gone, and his voice had returned, so Andrew chose to brave the school day. He watched the string of busses speed towards the school and followed slowly behind them.
As he entered the courtyard, he spotted Daniel almost immediately. His young friend was hanging around two other boys that looked to be his age. Andrew immediately recognized Michael from the night the baker had been chasing the small boy but didn’t know much about the brunet that stood next to them. Though he was uncertain what Michael would say after he disappeared and didn’t know what the other boy would think of him, Andrew was sure Daniel would be thrilled to see him, so he walked up to the trio. “Hey Daniel.”
The small British boy turned around at the mention of his name and smiled at the friendly face. “Oh, hi there Andrew! I made some new friends today. This is Michael.” Daniel wrapped an arm around the feisty redhead’s shoulders and dragged the other boy into the hold with his free arm. “And this tosspot is Ryan.”
Ryan feigned offense. “Hey!”
Daniel giggle-snorted at Ryan’s lighthearted retort. “Anyway, where have you been? You’ve been gone for a while!”
“Sorry, Dan. I got sick.” As if to back up his point, Andrew let out a wet cough. “Didn’t want to give you my cold.”
“Hey, wait just a minute.” Michael pushed Daniel away and stalked up to Andrew, staring straight up at the older lad. “I remember you. You’re the guy who saved me from the angry baker!” The redhead’s face squished up in disbelief. “I wanted to say thank you, but before I could, you ran away!”
Andrew shrugged, though he felt internally guilty. “Sorry, Michael. I had somewhere to be. And don’t worry about it; I’d do it for anyone who needed help.”
Daniel looked quizzically at Michael. “What are you on about?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Michael waved the Brit off. “But! I have to pay you back somehow, Andrew.” He grinned triumphantly at the taller blonde. “And that means we have to be friends now. And you also must be friends with Ryan and that dummy that walked us home the other day. What was his name again? Geoff?”
“Geoff? That tired-looking guy who always hangs out with Jack Miller?”
“I don’t know who Jack is, but sure.” Michael nodded.
Andrew bit back a laugh. “Geoff and Jack are two idiots in the class above me. We’ve only talked a few times, but they’re cool. And if Ryan wants to be friends, I don’t see why not.”
“Yay! We’re all friends now!” Ryan fist-pumped the air happily. “Anyway, we were talking about going to the park after school. Wanna come along?”
Andrew nodded. “Sure, if I won’t be in the way.”
“What? No way! We’d love to have you there!” Daniel jumped happily, before the screeching chime of the bell caused him to wince. “Aww, bugger. Class is starting. We’d better go. See you later, Andrew?”
“Yeah.” Andrew headed for the stairs. He turned back, noticing the lads were behind him. “See you guys later!”
Jack felt like he was walking on eggshells.
Ever since Geoff had returned to his house that morning, both boys were uncharacteristically silent. Jack had initially tried asking him what had happened, but Geoff had refused to give him an answer. He had periodically disappeared throughout the course of the day, and whenever he returned, his face was red, and his eyes were puffy, signaling that he’d been crying. The mother hen side of Jack wanted to pry for answers and help his friend, but he didn’t want to push Geoff into talking before he was ready. He decided to carry on with the day, pretending he didn’t notice the tear tracks on his friend’s face, or the way his breath hitched every so often.
Geoff had continued his silent vigil throughout most of the school day, occasionally breaking the silence to release a hollow laugh at a joke or answer a question in class, and before long, it started to grate on Jack’s nerves and make him anxious. During their last period, which was a P.E class the two shared, Jack pulled Geoff into the corner and asked “Geoff, what the fuck happened this morning?”
Geoff sighed, looking up at Jack. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to hide the truth any longer, he muttered “Mom kicked me out this morning…”
“What?!” Jack felt his heart twinge in sympathy. “She just decided to kick you out? No warning?” He raised an eyebrow. “Did you guys get into a fight about something?”
“She got mad at me because I didn’t come home for three days, and I didn’t call her.” He huffed angrily and glanced at the wall, avoiding eye contact. “I may have been a bit of an asshole, but I told her that communication was a two-way street and that she could have called me, too. We got into a huge fight and she slapped me.”
Jack hissed under his breath and felt rage bubble below the surface. He chose not to show his anger, however, and said “I’m sorry, Geoff. That’s awful.”
Geoff nodded. “We got into another fight after that, and she told me I had to get my shit and leave. But…”
“But what, Geoff?” Jack’s voice was gentle.
“She said she wished I’d died instead of my dad.” The elder male’s voice cracked as he recalled the memory. “Hearing her say that… It really fucking hurt. I should have been expecting something like this to happen, but I…” He put his head in his hands, shaking slightly as a few silent tears shed. “I just… wasn’t ready to hear that.”
The ginger male put his hand on Geoff’s shoulder. “You never would have been ready for that, no matter how bad things had become.”
“Geoff, she’s your mother. No matter what had happened between you two, the last thing a child would expect to hear is ‘I wish you were dead’. You should never even think about her saying something like that.”
Geoff snorted. “God, you sound like a therapist.”
Jack laughed softly. “Well, as your resident therapist and best friend, may I propose we ditch P.E and head back home? My Xbox and a round of Call of Duty are sitting there with your name written all over them.”
“Yeah, I’d like that.” Geoff offered a smile in return and wiped a few stray tears from his eyes. “You’re the best, Jack.”
“That’s what friends are for, Geoff. I’ve got your back, no matter what.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks.”
Ryan was sat atop Andrew’s shoulders, laughing manically as Andrew sprinted away from Michael and Daniel. “Hurry up, guys!” Ryan yelled. “Mad Scientist Andrew’s escaping! Help me Daniel! Help me, Michael!”
“Stop right there, Mad Scientist! You’ll never get away with kidnapping Princess Ryan!” Michael launched himself forward, grabbing one of Andrew’s legs and clinging to it like a leech. Taking the action as a cue, Daniel latched onto Andrew’s free leg, rendering Andrew immobile. Ryan took advantage of the pause in motion and hopped off Andrew’s shoulders, landing in front of the older male.
“You’ve been defeated, Mad Scientist!” Daniel screamed. “We have the princess! Surrender while you still can!”
Ryan grunted. “Why am I a princess!”
“Because boys can be princesses too!” Michael snapped. “Now shut up and don’t break character, dummy!”
Andrew shook his head furiously, cackling evilly. “I’ll never surrender! Princess Ryan will be mine once I’m free!”
“I’ll never let you be free, Andrew!” Ryan jumped up and tackled Andrew to the ground, bringing Michael and Daniel down with him.
“No! This cannot be! Two wannabe superheroes and a princess cannot defeat the great Andrew!”
“Evil never wins!” Michael rolled out from under Andrew and pulled Ryan to a standing position. “Princess Ryan is safe, thanks to Michael and Daniel!”
Daniel jumped up and down with glee. “Hooray! The princess and the world are now safe!” He grabbed a hold of Michael and Ryan and locked them into a hug.
Ryan giggled. “Even though I had to play the role of the princess, that was a lot of fun. We should play again, and make Daniel be the princess.”
“Fine with me!” Daniel agreed. “I’ll be the best princess anyone has ever seen!”
“You’re dumb.” Ryan gazed around the somewhat-overcrowded park, stopping in his tracks when he spotted a patch of flowers. “Oooh, zinnias! Mom loves these!” He clambered over to the bush and looked for the perfect flower.
“Be careful,” Andrew warned. “Don’t get stung by a bee.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I do this a lot.” Ryan waved off the concern and carefully grabbed the biggest zinnia, brushing off some dandelion seeds. “This one is perfect. Mom will love it.”
“You know,” Andrew started. “I know someone who grows those.”
“Yeah?” Ryan lit up. “I know it’s kind of girly, but I love flowers. Not as much as Mom, though. They’re so pretty to look at.”
“If you want, I can get a bouquet of them for you when I see my friend, if you want.” Andrew smiled. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“That’d be awesome!” Ryan cheered.
Michael stuck his tongue out and giggled. “Ryan the flower boy.”
“Says the person who says that boys can be princesses.” Ryan rolled his eyes.
“Boys can like flowers AND be princesses!” Daniel chimed in.
Ryan nodded. “Yeah.” He squinted as he looked at the sky, frowning when he noticed that the sun was setting. “It’s going to be dark soon. I should go home.” He glanced over at Michael. “Are you gonna stay over again tonight?”
Michael shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Your mom finally has the night off, so spend some time with her. I’ll be okay for one night.”
Though he was disappointed, Ryan nodded his understanding. “Okay, but you have to promise to come over if you get into trouble.”
“Of course.” Michael nodded.
“Good.” Ryan grasped his flower and waved. “Bye guys! See you tomorrow!”
Michael desperately wished he’d accepted Ryan’s offer as the sun finally sank below the horizon and the night began. He was beginning to feel lonely but convinced himself that if he continued to stay over, Ryan would get sick of him, and he’d lose his best friend. No one needed a freeloader around. He was starting to feel scared; he’d tried following Andrew around for a little while, feeling better in his older friend’s company, but lost him after crossing the street. All Michael wanted now was to find a place to hide for the night.
The redhead wasn’t afraid of much, and especially not the dark, but there was a sinking feeling in his gut that was causing an increasing amount of anxiety. It felt, to him, like something bad was going to happen, and it was racking his brain to not know what. Feeling ridiculous for being so on-edge, Michael avoided hiding in an alleyway and settled for sitting on a bench on the outskirts of town.
[i I wish Ryan and Daniel were here…] Michael huffed to himself, watching a few cars drive by in a quick pace. [i I really should have said yes to Ryan… Maybe I’ll go see if he still wants me around.] With a quick shove, Michael lifted himself off the bench and began walking in the direction of Ryan’s house.
As he walked down the street, his anxiety grew worse. He caught himself constantly looking over his shoulder and speeding up his walking pace even though he didn’t see anyone following him. He was borderline running when he heard footsteps behind him. Gulping, he made the mistake of looking over his shoulder.
“D…Dad?” Michael froze in his tracks, fear racing through his heart. “H-how did… How did you know-”
“That doesn’t matter.” The man smiled a wicked smile. “I’ve finally found you. You’ve been a real pain in the ass to find. When we get home, you’re going to pay for all the trouble you’ve caused.”
Michael snapped viciously at the hand that drew near him, causing said appendage to temporarily shrink back. “No! Get away from me! Leave me alone!”
“You little shit.” The elder before the redhead began to grow irate. “I said, come with me, you brat-”
“Hey, grandpa! Leave him alone!”
Michael, as well as his father, snapped their heads in the direction of the new voice. The curly-haired child sighed in relief as he spotted Geoff and someone he didn’t recognize. “Geoff!”
“I gotcha, kiddo.” Geoff shot a quick smile at Michael as he caught up, and then glared at Michael’s father. “Get the fuck out of here, or you’ll regret it.”
“Fuck off, kid. He’s my son, and I’m taking him home right now!” The angered male grabbed Michael’s wrist, ignoring the shrieks and scratches that emerged from the small boy. “Make me, if you can.”
“You know,” Geoff started, cracking his knuckles menacingly. “You and my mom would get along great; neither of you knows the first thing about taking care of their kids. But here’s the deal; I’ll give you three seconds to let him go, and if you do, I won’t break your jaw.”
“Geoff-” The ginger male beside him warned, but he was quieted by his friend.
Geoff knew Michael’s father wasn’t going to give up quite that easily; with a quick thought, Geoff ripped Michael out of his grip. “Jack!” he called, shoving Michael in his direction. As Jack wrapped his arms around the now-freed child, Geoff reared back and punched the offender in the jaw. The action caused the older male to fall back and land roughly on the pavement.
“Thank you, Geoff!” Michael wiggled out of Jack’s grip and latched himself to Geoff.
“No problem. Let’s go!”
As the trio ran off, Michael looked back. He saw his father get up, glare at them as they ran, and then walk in the opposite direction. Michael felt a sting in his heart; he wanted his father to love him, but he knew it wouldn’t happen. He was better off without his father. After a few moments of running, they slowed down to catch their breath. “How did you find me?”
“I didn’t. Jack did.” Geoff pointed at his friend. “We were on our way home and Jack saw you. Told me that you looked like you needed help. I didn’t even know it was you until I got closer.”
“Well, uh…” Michael looked at the ground. “Thank you, Jack.”
Jack smiled. “Of course. A friend of Geoff’s is a friend of mine.”
“Come on, kiddo.” Geoff knelt and pulled Michael onto his shoulders. “Let’s get out of here.”
Michael gripped Geoff’s head gently. “Where are we going?”
“My house,” Jack answered.
“Yeah. I don’t have a home anymore either, buddy, and I’m not going to let you stay out here by yourself. Friends gotta stick together, right?”
Michael giggled as Geoff smiled at him, and he nodded eagerly. “Yeah. Friends gotta stick together.”
Two years had passed since Geoff had been kicked out of his house. While the act itself had sent him into a minor depressive episode, he was finally ready to admit that he was the happiest he’d been in a long time. After being given the okay by Jack’s grandparents, Geoff had officially moved in with Jack. Though Jack and his grandparents had expressed that they loved having him around, Geoff felt like a freeloader and a nuisance, and as soon as he turned fourteen, he got a part-time job to give them a hand.
With the scattered pieces of his life finally falling into place, thanks to the kindness of Jack and his family, Geoff was comfortable calling his house a home.
For half a year after the incident with Michael’s father, Jack and Geoff had taken Michael under their wing, refusing to let him wander the streets by himself. Michael had refused to officially move in, and eventually decided to stay with Ryan. “I’d just be in your way” had been Michael’s official reasoning, and though both Geoff and Jack didn’t agree with the statement, they decided not to put up a fight. If Michael had somewhere to go and wouldn’t get caught by his scumbag father, then Geoff’s mind was at ease.
Reasoning with Andrew, however, had been a whole different kind of battle.
Michael, Daniel, and Ryan had introduced Geoff and Jack to Andrew a year and a half ago, and in that time, Geoff discovered that Andrew was also homeless. Unlike Michael, however, it was much harder to get the fourteen-year-old to break down. Andrew tended to avoid the conversation of his homelessness all together – especially if Daniel was around – or tell Geoff that he was doing just fine on his own.
Geoff knew better; he could tell that Andrew was lonely, scared, and hungry, and longed for a place to call home. But the blonde’s pride, though bruised and damaged, was intact, and would not allow the younger to admit he needed help. He wasn’t willing to lean on someone else were support. Geoff knew that he couldn’t force Andrew to stay with them, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try. At least Andrew had accepted the offer of clean laundry and a shower whenever Geoff asked.
It was at least summer now, much to Geoff’s enjoyment, so he knew that Andrew would be all right for a while longer. Summer also brought school vacation, which meant three straight months of busting his ass to make money and dicking around with his friends whenever he wasn’t working. When approached by an old classmate, he was often teased for his choice of friends – especially Michael, Ryan, and Daniel – but he was quick to defend them. He made it a point to say that “those kids are the most intelligent and understanding kids you’ll ever meet”, and he meant it, even when they were acting crazy. They were just kids, after all.
The summer also brought the temporary departure of Jack’s grandparents, who had opted to go to their summer home for the duration of the season. Though they’d invited both Jack and Geoff to go with them, the teenagers had declined, unwilling to leave their friends behind. In the end, it had left Geoff and Jack with the house to themselves after long goodbyes filled with “Be good, Jack” and “Call us if you need anything, Jackie.” It had left Jack flustered and Geoff in stitches. Once their car had left the driveway, Jack and Geoff had high-fived; total freedom for three months.
In the current moment, Geoff was alone, walking alongside a back road on the warm Austin evening. In the back of his mind, he was hoping to run into Andrew, but knew that Andrew was only found when he wanted to be. At least the streets were quiet that night; not only would his friend be less likely to get into a scrap; he was soothed by the peaceful sounds of the evening. The sky was clear, and the air was dry; the best kind of night for a walk.
Geoff passed by the spot where he and Jack had rescued Michael two years ago, and it brought a smug smile to his face. The rambunctious redhead had been so terrified, but now, he feared nothing, and scarcely mentioned his father. Both Geoff and Jack had been on guard for months after the incident, fearing the elder would try and take Michael again, but it never happened. Eventually, Geoff just let it go.
The sound of a car driving by was brought Geoff back to attention, but he didn’t think much of it until the car slowed down beside him. It wasn’t completely dark outside, but it was too dark to see inside the vehicle. It continued to follow Geoff for a short period before it sped off again, shrinking as it drove further and further away. He shrugged and went to continue his walk, but something unnerved him about the interaction. Instead, he turned in the direction the car went and walked that way.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, other than the quick interaction, so Geoff was uncertain as to why he felt so unnerved. He tried racking his brain to see if he remembered seeing a car like that before, but nothing came up. What was causing the seemingly unreasonable paranoia?
Geoff stumbled when he tripped over what looked like a brick. As he caught himself, he glanced back at the offending object. It was a large rock rather than a brick, and it had a piece of paper attached to it. His heart pounded suddenly as he took the paper off the rock, and he had to swallow his anxiety to calm himself down. The action proved useless, however, as he read the words on the note.
[i You think you’ve won, but the battle’s just begun. I will get what I want, no matter what I must do. He will return to me, one way or another. Just you wait.]
Geoff resisted the urge to scream and instead took off down the road, his feet taking him towards Michael and Ryan’s house. He had to do something.
Had to keep Michael safe.
Michael felt as though his newfound happiness was not going to last.
The redhead was pessimistic by nature due to the events in his life, but he felt as if the world was trying to get him to lower his defenses, so it could swoop in and take away everything he’s gained. It all seemed too good to be true; Jack and Geoff saving him two years ago, Ryan and his mom being so willing to take him in, all the friends he’s made in such a short time… But if it was a dream, Michael decided he’d rather stay asleep.
As wary as he was of the changes in his life, they were welcome, nonetheless. He had never felt so wanted, so loved… He never wanted it to end. Spending every night playing video games with his best friend and getting gently scolded for being awake at 3 am… There was a word for the feeling it gave Michael, but he wasn’t sure what it was.
The redhead hummed a song to himself as he waited for Ryan to come home. His friend had an appointment and had offered to bring Michael, so he wasn’t all alone, but the child had politely declined. Michael wasn’t keen on sitting in a stuffy waiting room full of other snot-nosed kids and adults who would try to tell him how cute he was. He cursed the baby face he adorned; adults would treat him like a child well into adulthood.
Michael glanced at the wall clock; 6 pm. Ryan would be coming home soon, and while Michael wanted to wait for his friend, he had the itch to get up and move around. The curly-haired male scribbled a few words on a sticky note, stuck it to the fridge, and walked out the front door.
The song he was humming; a lullaby he remembered his mother singing to him, harmonized nicely with the slightly chaotic sounds of the nature that surrounded him. He giggled internally; he almost felt like Snow White as the birds chirped alongside him, though their tune was different from his own. His feet made soft crunching noises in the gravel he walked through; the path he’d chosen was in the opposite direction of the main road, so his journey was quiet. The only thing missing, he decided, was the sounds of his friends walking beside him.
As Michael drudged along the quiet back road, a feeling of unease washed over him. He was quick to brush it off at first, dismissing it as an unexplainable bout of paranoia, but the feeling lingered. The anxiety that had started as a seed quickly grew into thriving tendrils, wrapping around every vein in his heart, and squeezing with steadily increasing pressure.
His heart rate continued to climb as a car drove past him, headlights on full blast. He nearly jumped as the noise increased but laughed at himself when the vehicle passed by without a slight interest in him. [i What a stupid thing to get jumped by,] Michael thought, brushing off the scare as a temporary moment of weakness. He had no reason to be worried.
He was fine.
Put off by his own unease, Michael turned around to head home. While Ryan’s mom had to go to work, Ryan was sure to be back, and his short friend was all he would need to feel secure. The sky steadily darkened around him, making the redhead grateful he knew the way back to the house like it was mapped out for him. He glanced up at the clouds that littered the sky in small tufts, the simple action calming to his frayed nerves.
His reprieve, however, was short-lived as the sound of an engine roared behind him. Michael took a deep breath, chanting in his head that he was sure nothing was going to happen, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t calm himself. Especially as the engine grew louder. The redhead picked up his walking speed; not necessarily running, but at a slightly faster pace than his walking speed.
The vehicle behind him sounded like it was speeding up to take off, which should have put Michael at ease, but as it neared him, his heart sank. It wasn’t veering away from him – it was headed right for him! The twelve-year-old tried to dive for the side of the road and avoid the collision he knew was coming, but his reaction was too late, and he felt pain flare up his back and throughout his entire body.
Before his world faded to black, he felt a pair of rough, bony arms wrap around him, and the sensation that he was floating…
“Be good, Ryan!”
“I will. Bye, Mom!” Ryan waved at his mom as she pulled out of the driveway and sped into the evening. As he turned to face the house, a frown etched its way into his features. The house was completely dark; had Michael gone out?
He shrugged off his worry and walked inside, flipping a few light switches as he walked by them. Ryan switched on the light in the kitchen and spotted the pink sticky note on the fridge.
Went for a walk. Be back before dark.
The scrawl was almost illegible; lucky for Ryan that he’d known Michael long enough to translate it. He took a glance outside and sighed; it was nearly 7 pm now, and it would be dark soon. He snatched a flashlight off the kitchen counter and exited the house; he wasn’t sure if Michael had remembered to bring a light with him and knew his hotheaded friend would appreciate it.
As Ryan stepped outside, he had to suppress a shudder. There was something uncharacteristically grim about the darkness, and it put Ryan on edge. Still, the short brunet trudged forward, only stepping to the side to let the light neighborhood traffic pass through. It was a quiet enough night; surely, he had nothing to worry about?
When he didn’t spot Michael a few houses down, Ryan frowned. Surely Michael wouldn’t have gone into town by himself at night? It was possible, Ryan figured, that he could have contacted Geoff, Andrew, Jack, or Daniel, but found it unlikely due to the sheer fact that the redhead would never want to “inconvenience” his friends. The pieces weren’t fitting together.
With an irritated huff, Ryan turned to head back. Maybe Michael’s already home waiting for me, he thought hopefully, but somehow felt that wasn’t the case. The short child was convinced of the worst when his flashlight reflected on something that had fallen on the ground, and upon closer inspection, he discovered that it was Michael’s iPod.
Michael never left his things laying around; after getting the device for his eleventh birthday, he’d cherished it carefully. The delicate touchscreen now had a crack in it, though it still powered on. For the curly-haired male to leave it laying around was out of character for him, but the damage done to the device had cemented the idea that something was wrong in Ryan’s mind. Something bad had happened to his best friend.
Ryan shone his flashlight onto the road, looking for more evidence to support his theory, and spotted light tread marks on the tar. While the brunet couldn’t confirm if the marks had been there previously, he took it as the only lead he had so far. Had someone nabbed Michael? And if so, who? His scared brown eyes widened as he was struck with a realization. Michael’s father had come after him once, and had most likely done it again, this time succeeding.
While Ryan had no idea where to start looking, he veered off the road and started running through people’s backyards to avoid being spotted. There had to be someone who knew something about what happened to the Davis family after Michael’s mom died. There to be someone who could help him find his friend.
Ryan knew he couldn’t go alone and risk getting lost. He considered asking Andrew, Geoff, or Jack, but he shook his head. They wouldn’t understand. They’d just want to go to the police and file a report. Ryan needed someone that would follow him without any questions asked.
And he knew just who to go to.
An hour. Geoff had promised that he’d only be gone for an hour, and Jack realized that it had been nearly three since his friend departed. Jack knew Geoff was fully capable of taking care of himself; his friend wasn’t weak or stupid, but he had a feeling that something was wrong. Very wrong, and yet, he couldn’t place it.
The sound of the front door being thrown open brought Jack back to reality, and it took him no more than a nanosecond to turn around. “Geoff, I swear to fucking god, you can’t- Holy shit, are you okay!?”
The slightly older male was panting and covered in a thin layer of sweat. Geoff took a few deep breaths before shouting “Michael and Ryan are gone!”
Jack felt the world crumble around him. “What… What do you mean, they’re gone? Where did they go, Geoff?”
“I don’t fucking know, Jack, but they’re gone!”
“Geoff sit down before you have-”
The blue-eyed male shook his head fiercely. “I can’t just sit down, Jack! Two of our friends are missing and I got a threat from Michael’s dad this evening and-”
“Sit down so we can fucking think for a second!” Jack’s commanding voice caused Geoff to plop down on the floor where he was previously standing. “Now, let’s backtrack. Tell me what you know.”
Geoff closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. “Okay. I was out on my walk, just minding my own business, when a car sped past me. Other than it being weird, I didn’t think much of it and just kept going. But up ahead, I found a rock with a note attached to it. I was a bit sketched out, so I read it. It said ‘I will get what I want, no matter what I must do. He will return to me, one way or another. Just you wait.’ I can’t be sure who it was from, but…”
“It sounds a lot like Michael’s dad, yeah.” Jack scratched at his chin. “It could have been for anyone, but it’s oddly specific.”
“So, I went to Ryan’s house to try and warn them, yeah? The lights were on, so I thought they were home. But I knocked for a few minutes, and no one answered. The door was unlocked so I went inside, and it was dead quiet. You could have heard a pin drop. I saw a discarded note from Michael on the floor, but nothing else.”
Jack nodded. “Ryan must’ve found the note first and went to catch up with Michael. But where could they have gone?”
The elder shook his head. “I don’t know. Michael could have been kidnapped, or have been threatened like I was and ran away again… I don’t know what to do. I know Ryan went after him; that’s the only explanation for his disappearance. But why wouldn’t he come to us, Jack?”
“I don’t know. He must’ve had his own reasons. Don’t take it personally; this is a potentially stressful situation, and he was thinking on the fly.” The ginger pulled Geoff off the floor. “Who do you think Ryan would have gone to before any of us?”
The black-haired male thought for a moment. “Daniel, maybe? They were friends before we were, so it would make sense. Daniel would probably go straight to Andrew.”
“Okay, so this is the plan. We need to go out and find Andrew. He can help us track Michael and Ryan, and potentially Daniel, if he was dragged into all of this.”
“Andrew might be hanging around the park; we can check there first.” Geoff sighed. “I really hope Michael’s hiding, and Ryan found him. I just want them to be okay, Jack.”
“Me too, Geoff. Me too.”
If there was anything Daniel wasn’t expecting, it was the sounds of rocks pelting his window at 8 pm. Grumbling, the blonde ventured over to his bedroom window, where he saw Ryan frantically waving his arms. He forced the window open and glanced out at his friend. “Ryan?”
“Come down here!” the shorter male hissed. “Quickly!”
“Daniel?” The Brit winced at the sound of Barbara’s voice. “Is everything okay up there?”
“Everything’s fine! Sorry!” Daniel called back. He turned to his friend, who looked frazzled. As quietly as he could, he climbed out the window and turned to the ladder by his window, sliding down with practiced ease. “What are you doing here, Ryan? Where’s Michael?”
Ryan looked like he was about to cry. “Michael’s missing, Daniel. I can’t find him anywhere. He was home alone for a few hours but wasn’t home when I got back!”
Daniel’s eyes widened. “Where could he be?”
“I don’t know. But I found this-” Ryan took the cracked iPod out of his pocket. “-as I was looking for him. You know Michael; he’d never leave it laying around on purpose, especially outside.”
He nodded his agreement. “That’s really scary.”
“I think his dad might have come after him again.” Ryan looked frightened. “I don’t know if Michael is hiding or if his dad got him, but either way, he’s missing, and we need to find him.”
“Yeah, definitely.” The Brit turned to the house. “I can get Barbie to-”
“No!” Ryan’s voice was a low hiss. “All she’ll do is call the police and they’ll file a report and maybe look for him for a few days. The police know he ran away once; they’ll just think he ran away again!”
Daniel looked torn. “Can we at least ask Andrew for help?”
“We don’t have time to track Andrew down, and Geoff and Jack will just want to go to the police too!” Ryan sank to the ground. “Please, Daniel, you gotta help me find Michael.”
“Okay, Ryan. I’ll help you.” Daniel nodded, determination in his eyes. “Hold on just a second.” He brushed past his friend and climbed back up the steel ladder, landing back in his bedroom with a soft thud. With a feigned yawn, he padded downstairs, rubbing his eyes. “Hey, Barbie?”
The blonde woman turned to Daniel from her place on the couch and smiled. “What’s up, Dan?”
“I’m going to bed, okay? I’m really tired.” Daniel forced another yawn to try and drive his point.
Barbara frowned. “Are you feeling okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired, I promise.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.” Barbara lowered her defenses slightly. “Good night, Daniel.”
“Night!” Daniel headed back upstairs, but not before sneaking away with Barbara’s cell phone, which had been sitting on a table next to the couch. Thinking quickly, he entered his bedroom, closing and locking the door. He placed a few stuffed animals under his blanket, trying to make them vaguely human-shaped, before stepping back to admire his work. It was a shoddy job, but it would work for now.
Daniel glanced at Barbara’s cell phone and hit the home button, grateful that she kept it unlocked. He silenced the device and put it in his pocket before climbing out the window again and walking over to Ryan. “Barbie thinks I’m going to bed, so she’ll leave me alone until she notices I took her phone.”
“What do you need her phone for?”
“A map, silly.”
Ryan frowned. “But phones have tracking. And we don’t even know where we’re going, Dan. The map won’t help.”
“Oh, sorry then.” Daniel lowered his head dejectedly and pulled the phone out of his pocket, turning the device off.
Ryan sighed. “No, you were just trying to help. I’m sorry. It’ll be helpful if we need to call someone, right? And we can use the map to get back here once we find Michael.”
Daniel’s eyes brightened a bit, feeling like his idea was good after all. “Yeah, we can.” He turned back to the house, frowning a bit. “We should go before Barbie decides to check up on me.”
“Yeah. Come on, Dan. Let’s take the back roads so we don’t get caught.”
“Right.” The Brit held his head with a new determination. “Let’s go, Ryan. We’ve got a best friend to save.”
The night was clear and quiet, allowing Andrew to take a step back and breathe. The school year had finally ended, and with it, the excuses Andrew had to make in the absence of his parents. “Why don’t your parents come to your extracurriculars?” “Why don’t your parents come to the parent/teacher conferences?” “Why don’t your parents…” He’d grown tired of teachers asking him about his parents, but knew they were just trying to do their jobs. If they knew the truth, however…
He shook his head, the thought being unimportant, and glanced out at the scene before him. Where it was late at night, no one else occupied the park, leaving Andrew to his own devices. He pushed at the ground with his feet, moving the swing he sat in slightly, but not enough to cause a disturbance. He was feeling lonely; he hadn’t seen any of his friends since school let out. [i Maybe Jack and Geoff will be up for some company…]
With a huff, Andrew hopped off his swing, landing gently in the soft grass. Having tossed his shoes aside before getting on the swing, the grass tenderly tickled his feet and poked up between his toes. He giggled at the sensation and slipped his sandals on before walking out of the park and onto the sidewalk. Nothing was happening, and yet, Andrew felt as though excitement was right around the corner.
The twelve-year-old had barely made it halfway down the block before he saw two blurred objects in the distance. With a bit of night vision adjustment, he recognized the shapes of Geoff and Jack running towards him. Why are they in such a hurry? Andrew waved at them to flag them down and felt a pang of anxiety as they neared him. They looked frazzled. “What’s-”
“Have you heard from Daniel, Ryan, or Michael?” The words spilled out of Geoff’s mouth before he’d even come to a full stop.
“No. Was I supposed to?” Andrew tipped his head and looked at Jack. The ginger’s brow was furrowed, but he looked much calmer than Geoff. “What’s going on?”
Jack frowned. “Everything’s a mess. Geoff went looking for Michael after he got a vague threat earlier, and now Michael and Ryan are missing.”
“Michael’s either been kidnapped or is hiding, but we just don’t know where to start.” Geoff looked shattered. “The note I got seemed a lot like Michael’s dad threatening us for helping him.” The elder handed Andrew the note. “But it’s super vague, like Jack said.”
Andrew’s eyes widened. “His dad would only want him, right? So where would Ryan go?”
“Either Ryan found Michael in hiding or is going to look for him. But we think he’d go to Daniel before the rest of us.” Jack took a breath and glanced at Andrew. “That’s what brought us to you. Daniel practically worships the ground you walk on; we were hoping he’d come to you for advice.”
“No, I haven’t seen any of them…” He shook his head. “How long ago did you discover Ryan and Michael were missing?”
“I think it was seven… So, three hours?”
Andrew hissed. “Shit. If Daniel was going to come find me, he would have. But I’m never in one place, so maybe they didn’t bother looking…” He glanced at the ground. “Stupid.”
“Stop, there’s no time for that.” Jack’s tone was steady. “We have to start somewhere. Do you know where Daniel lives? We can check there first. They can’t have gone too far, right?”
“I’ll take the lead.”
Though the walk from the park to Daniel’s house was only a few short minutes, but the tension in the air made it feel much longer. “Okay, wait here.” Andrew shooed them into a bush. “I know how Daniel escapes at night; if his window is unlocked, he’s not in there.”
Geoff and Jack nodded, hiding in the large bush just outside the two-story house. They watched Andrew scale a simple metal ladder up to a window on the second floor and pushed up on the window. When the glass pane cracked open, the two elder kids cursed. Daniel was gone, too.
When Andrew approached them again, he frowned. “He left a dummy in the bed, it looks like. He must’ve lied and said he was going to bed…” He glanced back at the house. “When Barbara goes to check on him and notices that he’s not there, this’ll become a shitshow.”
“Then we need to find them before anyone notices.” Geoff gulped. “But it won’t be easy.”
“Well, Ryan would try to find out where Michael would be taken if he was kidnapped,” Andrew suggested. “So, if we find out where Michael used to live, we can head in that direction. Let’s go while we still have the cover of night. We have until tomorrow morning at the latest to get a clue on where they’ll be.”
Andrew nodded, his blue eyes blazing. “I know someone that can help us.”
“If we get caught, we could get in a lot of trouble.”
“Well then, let’s not get caught.”
“Oh, you’re good.” The sarcastic tone dripped from the speaker’s mouth. “Nice and easy, right?”
Andrew rolled his eyes as Geoff and Jack continued to bicker. “You know, we’ll get caught anyway if you two don’t shut up.” When his friends stopped to stare at him, he huffed. “I know we’re under a lot of pressure right now, but if you two could not get us caught before we can do anything, that’d be great.”
The two finally nodded, dropping into an uneasy silence. Before long, Jack broke it by asking “So who are we meeting up with anyway?”
“My friend Sadie,” Andrew replied. “She’s pretty good at breaking and entering, and we’ll need her to look something up for us.”
Geoff raised an eyebrow. “What are we breaking into?”
“The school’s records.” Andrew glanced back at the elder male. “If Michael’s father kidnapped him, he might be taking him back to one of the last places Michael’s lived. I don’t think his dad would be stupid enough to keep him in Austin, and Michael’s not from here. His records will have all that information.”
The two following him only nodded, watching as Andrew walked up to an apartment complex and hit the speaker button for an apartment.
[i “Who’s there?”] spoke a voice on the other end.
“It’s Andrew. I need your help.”
Silence. And then [i “Okay, I’ll be right down.”]
Geoff waited for Andrew to take his finger off the button before asking “Wait, is that the same Sadie who goes to the other high school now because they were threatening to expel her for kicking some dude’s ass?”
Andrew nodded. “But it was for justice, so I totally stand by that.” He said nothing more about it as the door opened. “Good to see you, Sadie.”
“What the fuck are you doing here? It’s almost midnight.” Sadie turned to face Geoff and Jack but didn’t directly address them. “It’s good to see you too, but what’s going on?”
“I need you to help me break into the middle school.”
The female’s eyes widened. “That escalated quickly. Do these two not know how to pick locks?”
Geoff snorted. “I do, just… not very well.”
“Sorry, I have too much of a guilty conscience for that,” Jack responded.
“All right, I’ll help you. But only after you tell me why.”
Andrew nodded. “I’ll do my best to make a long story short. Our friends Michael, Daniel, and Ryan are missing. We have reasons to believe that Michael’s dad kidnapped him and took him back to his childhood home, but Michael’s not from this area. I don’t remember the details exactly, but I think it was because his mom didn’t like the schools in his town or family or something. Regardless, the school would have all his information on file, including the school he went to before he moved here, and the house he lived in for that short period of time. We need that address.”
Sadie let the information sink in. “I’m not sure, Andrew. I could get arrested if I get caught, and what makes you think that some other family doesn’t already live in his old house?”
“Please, Sadie, you have to help us.” Geoff was practically pleading. “I know you don’t really know Jack or I, or even the kid we’re trying to save. But he could get killed if we don’t get him back.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll even play lookout, and if it looks like someone’s about to catch us, we’ll make sure you at least get out of there.”
“The school is closed for the summer anyway, so we should be okay.” Andrew looked away, making eye contact with the ground. “Sadie, please.”
The blonde female just sighed. “How can I say no to that? I’ll help you get the information and get your friend back.”
“Thanks, Sadie. But you don’t have to stick around after you get us the address, you know.”
“I know I don’t. But if three idiots are willing to risk being arrested for breaking and entering, and possibly get themselves hurt to get a friend back safely, how can I resist? It’s very noble.” She smiled at them. “I want the full story on the way, though. None of this abridged shit.”
Andrew nodded. “Yeah, of course. Thank you so much!”
“As much as I’d love to stay here and talk, we don’t have a lot of time.” Jack looked reasonably impatient. “We should get going.”
“Right.” Geoff nodded and lead the way. “I hope we run into Ryan and Daniel on the way. I hate not knowing where they are.”
“Me too.” Andrew sighed. “But we’ll find them. And we’ll find Michael, too. We won’t stop until we do.”
“I’ll kick your asses back into gear if you get too discouraged,” Sadie offered. “I know how stressful a situation like this can be.”
Geoff smiled at her. “Thank you. I guess this officially makes you part of the family, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
The world was blurred around Michael as he woke up. He couldn’t see his surroundings; it was completely dark, save for a tiny shred of moonlight filtering in through the window. He struggled to sit up and failed, sharp pain searing through his entire body. It was after the wave of pain passed that he remembered what happened.
[i Walking outside. Getting hit by that car. But… where am I?] Michael started to feel panic bubble in his chest; who hit him, and where was he? The material under him was slightly soft; it wasn’t very comfortable, but it wasn’t the floor, and smelled heavily of cigarette smoke. The room he was in was humid and hot, making him feel sweaty and sticky.
Wanting to get a better look at his surroundings, he forced himself to sit up. The redhead took a deep breath and pushed up on the spongy material he was laying on, ignoring his body’s protests to stop. The feeling slowly lessened, as if all he needed to do was stretch and he’d feel better. Unfortunately, he still couldn’t see his surroundings well enough to identify anything in the room.
“J-” Michael tried to speak, but his throat was so dry after being unconscious for who knows how long that he broke into a coughing fit. Once it subsided, he opened his mouth to try again. “Ryan? A-are you out there?” He wasn’t sure his friend was going to answer; this didn’t seem like a place Ryan would go. It wasn’t his house. So, where was he?
He was jolted out of his thoughts by the sounds of footsteps, and he grew frightened. Someone was here, but who? He backed up until he felt himself hit a wall, feeling like a trapped animal in a cage.
The door to the room opened, and a shadowed figure before him held a flashlight. The figure shone the light right on Michael. “Huh. So, I didn’t kill you after all.”
Even though Michael was blinded by the light, the voice sent chills down his spine. It was the same voice that haunted his dreams. “D-dad?”
“You’re gonna wish I’d killed you,” the man continued, as if Michael hadn’t said anything. “Y’see, Michael, I don’t take kindly to runaways. And you’ve been runnin’ for a long time.”
As his father drew near, Michael swung at him. “D-don’t touch me! W-where the fuck did you take me?!”
“Tsk. Such foul language for such a young boy. That mother o’ yours never did teach you any manners, did she?” He grabbed a hold of Michael’s wrist and held tight. “Maybe I should try and correct some of her bad parenting.”
“Answer me, dammit!” Michael felt tears fall from his eyes as he trembled in fear. “Where did you fucking take me!”
He laughed. “I couldn’t take you back to the house in Austin; that’s the first place those pesky friends o’ yours would look. But they’d never know to look here.”
A house his friends didn’t know about. I’m back in Georgetown?! While Ryan knew Michael wasn’t from Austin, his other friends didn’t have much background on him. His father, for once, was telling the truth. “W-why can’t you just l-leave me alone?”
“Because I’m not done with you, boy.” He squeezed Michael’s wrist harder, causing the younger boy to gasp in pain. “I’ll never be done with you. You’ve caused me hell since your mother died, and I’m going to cause you the same hell.”
“Geoff will do what, Michael? He doesn’t know where to find you. Hell, I bet he doesn’t even realize you’re missing.” He grinned in the darkness. “He’ll probably just write you off as a runaway, and hell, he’d be right. You’re just a runaway. A coward.”
Michael shook his head. “Y-you’re wrong. Geoff and the others c-care about me!” He tried to pull his wrist back, but it only resulted in his father gripping even tighter. It almost felt as if the bones would snap any second. “F-fuck off!”
“Those boys don’t even think about you when you’re not around, you useless pile of shit!” His father’s tone was angrier than he remembered it ever getting. “No one cares about you! You’re lucky that I spent so much time trying to get you back; I’m the only person who will ever care about your useless ass!”
Michael felt his wrist fall as his father let go, the throbbing dulled out by the harsh words. “N-no… You’re wrong.” He clutched his hand to his chest. “They care about me. They do…”
“We’ll see about that, kid.” With a huff, his father stood up and left the room. All he heard was the click of the door closing, followed by what sounded like a door lock.
Michael didn’t bother trying to go after him, his movements stilled by shock. [i Geoff cares about me… Ryan’s my best friend. The others wanted to be my friend… They wouldn’t pretend.]
The redhead slumped against the wall, holding his wrist and letting the tears flow freely down his face. Would they?
Daniel began to grow tired as he walked along the back trails of Austin. “Ryan, where are we going?”
“I told you before, we need to find Michael’s old house.”
Daniel grunted in annoyance. “But we don’t know where Michael’s old house is! We’re just going in circles!”
Ryan glared at the British boy. “I can’t just give up, Daniel. I won’t leave Michael behind.”
“I don’t want to give up, idiot! I just want to find him before my parents realize I’m missing!” The blond rolled his eyes. “Do you know what town his old house was in?”
The brunet shook his head. “I don’t remember. But I do remember that he said it’s less than an hour’s drive from Austin.” Ryan’s eyes widened. “Daniel, turn that cellphone on for a minute.”
“I know I said before that your map idea was stupid, but what if it isn’t?” Ryan saw confusion glaze over Daniel’s eyes, so he carried on. “We don’t have an address to put in the GPS, but what if we kinda do a reverse search?”
Daniel started to put the pieces together. “Oh, like try to find all the towns within an hour from here. That’ll take forever!”
“I might remember the name if I see it, Daniel.” Ryan sighed. “I know it sounds stupid, but it’s the only thing I can think of to get us closer to Michael.”
“All right. I’ll pull up a map.” Daniel turned Barbara’s phone on, only to be bombarded with voicemails. “Ryan, someone’s tried calling this phone already. Barbara must’ve realized I’m gone and called the phone to try and reach me.” The “missed calls” section was full of calls from the same number; his house’s phone. “I’d listen to them, but I don’t know Barbie’s password.”
“The voicemails don’t matter right now; we need to pull up a map and find a town before they try to track us!” Ryan took the phone from Daniel and opened the map. “How do you use this?”
Daniel groaned. “We’re never going to find Michael at this rate.”
“Don’t say that!” Ryan snapped. He frowned when he saw Daniel shrink back. “I’m sorry for yelling at you.”
“It’s okay. I’m sorry I said that. I should’ve thought about it before I said it.” Daniel shook his head. “Here, give me the phone back.” The Brit took the device from Ryan and started typing. “I’ll start us off at Austin and zoom the map out. Just tell me if anything looks familiar.”
Ryan hovered over Daniel’s shoulder as he slowly moved around the map. “No, nothing- wait! Stop!”
“What? Do you see it?”
“Maybe.” The brunet pointed to a name. “Georgetown sounds really familiar. Search how long it’d take by car.”
Daniel nodded and typed in the information. “It says… 38-45 minutes. It fits!” He looked hopeful. “It’ll still take us forever to get there, but are we going to try it?”
“Yep.” Ryan’s eyes hardened. “We’re going to Georgetown. Turn off the phone, Daniel. We’ll use it again if we need to, but we can’t risk getting caught.”
He nodded, turning the device off again and tucking it away. “Well, from our location, it seems like Georgetown is that way-” Daniel pointed north. “Let’s go. We’ll figure out how to cross the interstate when we get there.”
Sadie frowned as Geoff finished his story. “So, Michael ran away from home three years ago when his mom died? Poor kid’s been through a lot for someone so young.”
“Yeah. From what Michael’s told us, his dad’s a real fucking asshole.” Geoff’s words were laced with venom. “Two years ago, Michael’s dad tried to take him back forcefully. Luckily, Jack and I were there to help him. But this time…”
“Don’t do that, Geoff.” Sadie shook her head. “You can’t blame yourself for not knowing what was going to happen. If you’d known, I’m sure you’d have done everything you could to stop it. Michael’s lucky to have you guys.”
“But…” He glanced up at her. “Why are you defending me? You don’t even really know me.”
She shrugged. “The way you talk and hold yourself tells me a lot about you. You’re willing to take the blame for me breaking into the school if you get caught. Your only objective is to get Michael, Daniel, and Ryan home safely. It’s admirable.”
Geoff blushed and said nothing.
Sadie patted his shoulder. “I can tell you’d do a lot for those kids. And I know they know that, too. Even if I’ve never met them.”
The elder male grinned. “Thanks. Sadie.”
“Are you two done flirting?” Jack asked from the back. “We’re almost at the school.”
Sadie and Geoff seethed. “We’re not flirting!”
“Mhm.” Andrew just rolled his eyes but silenced himself as they approached the middle school. Save for the outside lamps, the school was near pitch-black. “It looks like it’s completely deserted. Let’s get this over with.”
“Right.” Sadie pulled out one of her hairpins and started working on the lock. “This shouldn’t take me long.”
It felt like an eternity before Sadie hummed in affirmation, and the door opened. “You’re good,” Jack praised.
“Thank you.” She grinned. “Come on, then. We’ve gotta get to the records room quickly; if someone notices any movement in here, we’re all toast.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll stay here and keep watch. Be prepared to fucking run if I say someone’s coming.”
“Got it.” Geoff patted Jack’s shoulder. “Be careful. We shouldn’t be long.” He turned back to Andrew and Sadie, who were already halfway down the hall, and ran to catch up. “Where would they keep everything?”
“Probably the main office,” Andrew replied. “It seems like the most obvious choice. If they’re not there, I can try to hack a computer.”
Geoff and Sadie paused to glance at Andrew. “Wait,” the female started. “You can hack? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think it was important.”
“Guys? Not the time.” Geoff walked up to the office door and jiggled the handle. “Locked. Sadie, would you like to do the honors?”
The blonde rolled her eyes. “As if you have another choice.”
Once the door was open, the three spread out. “We can’t turn any lights on,” Andrew warned. “We’ll increase the risk of getting caught.”
“I know that, dumbass.” Geoff shook his head. “It’s just gonna be hard to-”
“Hey guys, I think I found it.” Sadie beckoned them over to an unlocked door. “Why the fuck would they keep the door unlocked?”
Andrew sent Geoff a smug look. “You were saying?”
“Oh, shut up.” Geoff snorted at Andrew and stalked up to Sadie, the other boy behind him. “Holy shit. Look at all these filing cabinets.”
“It’s a good thing they’re alphabetized.” Sadie started searching through the first D cabinet she found. “There’s one more D; why don’t you guys search that one?”
Andrew took a stack of files and began looking at the names on the folders. “How many people can actually go to school here with their last names beginning with D? For fuck’s sake.”
“Austin’s not a small town, stupid.” Geoff pulled out a file and grunted. “What kind of last name is Dieudonne?”
“It sounds French,” the female responded.
“It sounds stupid.”
“I’m 90% sure you’re saying it wrong.”
Andrew laughed. “Just fucking make out already.”
Geoff threw a small object at Andrew’s head, grinning triumphantly at the small ‘ow’ he got in return. “If you wanna make it out of here alive I suggest you can it.”
Sadie said nothing and laughed.
After twenty minutes, Geoff was ready to give up when he pulled out the last file. “Jackpot! I found it!” A snicker. “His middle name is Edward.”
“Who cares about his middle name? We found his fucking file.” Sadie closed the filing cabinet she was at, and Andrew put his stack of folders away. “Let’s reset this room so it doesn’t look like we’ve been in here, and then we can-”
The female was cut off by Jack, who ran up to the office. “Guys, someone’s coming. We gotta go!”
9:30 PM: Daniel Jacob Smith, 11. Blond, short hair. Blue eyes. Last seen at 8:15 PM in his home.
11:00 PM: Ryan Nicholas Boyington, 11. Brunet, short hair. Brown eyes. Last seen at 6:45 PM at his home.
11:00 PM: Michael Edward Davis, 12. Red, curly hair. Brown eyes. Last seen at 5 PM at his home.
This Amber Alert is for the area of Austin, TX and its surrounding cities. Updated at 11:00 PM]
Geoff couldn’t remember a time he’d run so fast in his life. Though Jack’s warning had ended up being unnecessary, the fear it had instilled in the four teenagers was real. Sadie had taken off first, as per their promise, and Andrew, Jack, and Geoff had followed shortly after. The incoming person had simply been a perimeter guard; a shitty one, Andrew had pointed out, but since he hadn’t seen anything inside the building, he carried on elsewhere.
Being as far from the school as they could possibly get, Geoff pulled out his phone and frowned. “Guys, they’ve put out Amber Alerts for Michael, Daniel, and Ryan.”
“Fuck.” Jack sighed. “That’ll make it harder to do this discreetly. Every fuckin’ cop in Texas will be looking for them.”
“Well, at least I’m safe from being added to that list,” Andrew noted. “My parents have been dead for a while now.”
Sadie smiled sadly at him. “My folks won’t care I’m gone as long as I text them occasionally.”
“And with my grandparents out of town until the fall, Geoff and I won’t have anything to worry about.” Jack pulled out his phone. “If Gram calls about it, I’ll just act like we’re still at home.”
“This just makes it much more important to get them back as soon as possible.” Geoff’s normally relaxed features were stoic and stern. “Andrew, have you found anything in Michael’s paperwork yet?”
Andrew hummed in affirmation. “I have an address in Georgetown listed here. The other one is an emergency contact address; which I guess we could use as a last resort.”
Geoff opened his maps app. “Okay, what’s the address?”
The sandy-blond male showed Geoff the paper and watched him type it in. “I hope this works.”
“Well, it’s giving me directions,” the elder noted. “But the map says the house is condemned. So, if Michael’s dad is using it as a hiding spot, he’s smarter than he lets on.”
“Well, to be honest, he’s playing his cards really fucking well.” The female in the group seemed frustrated. “Going back to an old address which [i also just happens to be] a condemned house is fucking smart. It’s so obvious that the cops will never look there first.”
Jack shook his head. “If he knows that, this can’t be the first time he’s done this.” The ginger male handed his phone to Andrew. “Let’s get moving. Andrew, try to find out any information on Michael’s dad, or cases like this one.”
Geoff looked at the route on his phone. “I have a bit of money with me; if we walk for most of it but hop on busses to get through busy intersections and major highways, we should get there within a day or so.”
“We should keep a low profile,” Sadie suggested. “There may not be an Amber Alert out for any of us, but cops may find it suspicious if a group of teenagers is walking around busy roads after dark.”
“Yeah, good point. We can hide somewhere at night, and then stay on the move during the day. And don’t forget; we need to keep an eye out for Ryan and Daniel.” Jack sighed. “I hope we get to them before the police do.”
“Hell, I hope anyone gets to them before the police do.” Andrew spat on the ground. “The cops around here are fucking good for nothing.”
Geoff widened his eyes; Andrew didn’t get bitter too often. “Bad blood?”
“I’ve been homeless for five years. You could say that.”
Sadie yawned as they walked along a sidewalk. “I’m beat; those little shits better be grateful when we find them.”
“They will be, once I kick their asses for not coming to us first.” Geoff frowned. “I’m still shocked that they didn’t think they could come to us for this.”
“Try not to take it so personally, Geoff.” Jack put a hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “They’re eleven. Neither of us were great at last minute decisions at eleven.”
“Especially with something so big.” The female glanced at Andrew, who was expertly dodging obstacles as he glued himself to the phone. “Find anything useful?”
The younger male shrugged. “Kind of? I’m not sure its linked, but there were a few kids that went missing in the past two years. All turned up within a month of their disappearance, murdered. The cops have no leads. Michael’s dad’s name didn’t come up in any searches, save for a link to his Facebook.”
Geoff seemed interested. “Did you check his page out?”
“Yeah, but it’s all stereotypical alcoholic white dude stuff. Shirtless pictures with a can of beer, public posts because he doesn’t know how to change privacy settings, posting about everything he does… Nothing that’d help us.”
“Fuck.” The black-haired male wanted to throw himself into traffic. “Well, thanks for trying. I hope Michael’s disappearance isn’t linked with those other cases.”
“Me too.” Andrew handed Jack’s phone back to him. “I really want Michael to just be hiding, and for Daniel and Ryan to find him and bring him home. This is just some hellish nightmare, right?”
“I wish.” Jack frowned.
Sadie sighed. “Me too.”
Silence fell on the group for several fleeting moments, before Geoff gasped, pausing his forward movement.
“What is it, Geoff?” Jack inquired.
“Those other cases Andrew talked about…” The elder shuddered. “If they really are linked to Michael’s dad…”
Andrew went pale, as if he saw a ghost. “Then those other kids would’ve been the test subjects…”
“We have to hurry, so that doesn’t happen.” Sadie picked up her pace, thankfully jolting the others back to reality with her. She may not know Michael, Daniel, or Ryan, but she’d be damned if she’d let anything happen to them. She was invested now.
“We’re going the wrong way, idiot.”
“How do you know? We don’t know which way the bloody right way is!”
“The sign back there said Georgetown was to the west.”
“I thought we were going west!”
Ryan threw his arms up in aggravation. “This isn’t getting us anywhere, Daniel. Why don’t you turn the phone back on so we can make sure we’re going the right way?”
Daniel shook his head furiously. “The last time we turned the phone on, we saw that there was an Amber Alert out for us and Michael. If they weren’t tracking Barbie’s phone before, they have to be now.”
“I know. This sucks.” Ryan poked his head out of the bushes they were hiding behind, grateful that no one had seen them. He plopped into the dirt and glanced at the ground. “I just want Michael back… I should’ve made him come to my appointment with me. He wouldn’t be gone if-”
The brunet felt tears prick at the corners of his eyes. “But… We were always scared of something happening… And we let our guards down one time, and our nightmare came true. And now we’re ‘missing’ and my mom is probably crying right now.”
“-and Barbara is probably worried to death about you. I should’ve done this by myself so you wouldn’t get in trouble-”
“For god’s sake Ryan, shut up!”
The brunet stopped talking, his tear-filled eyes wide with shock.
“You didn’t know this was going to happen, idiot.” The blond sat down next to Ryan. “But you’re doing what you think is right to try and make it better. We messed up, but we messed up together. We’ll find Michael together. And we’ll go home together. If I get grounded, so be it.”
Ryan sniffed, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Thanks, Dan.”
“What the fuck are you two doing out here?!”
Ryan and Daniel screamed, frantically looking in the direction the voice was coming from. Who they saw didn’t make them feel any better. “Brian Gerrish?!”
“You two do know that there are cops looking for you, right?!” Brian crossed his arms and glared at them. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Ryan snarled at him. “None of your business-”
“We’re looking for Michael!” Daniel didn’t care that he was talking to Brian – someone he knew was here, and they needed all the help we can get. “He’s missing and we might know where he is but-”
“Woah, kid. Slow down.” Brian looked over his shoulder. “Look, this isn’t the safest place to talk. Come with me.”
“No way!” Ryan stood up. “How do we know you’re not going to turn us in?!”
Brian rolled his eyes. “I really don’t want to look like the guy who took off with you. We have a not-so-great history, remember?”
“Ryan, wait.” Daniel glanced at Ryan, then nodded to Brian. “We’ll talk. But if you’re not going to help, we can’t waste too much time.”
“I’ll make it quick, then. So, follow me.” Brian turned away from them and headed towards a truck parked a few feet away. While wary, the two younger children followed him. While Brian was right – they didn’t have the best history – he was someone they knew, and someone that potentially could help.
Ryan still had his doubts. “What if he’s leading us into a trap?” he whispered loudly.
“Then we kick him in the shins,” the Brit replied.
“You guys suck at being quiet,” Brian retorted. He opened the back door of the truck. “Get in.”
The two children nervously obliged.
Brian got into the front before turning to face them. “Now, what the fuck is going on? You said Michael was missing. He’s the curly-haired redhead that bit me two years ago, isn’t he?”
“I was sort of hoping you’d forgotten about that.” Daniel chuckled nervously. “He’s missing, yes, and we sort-of know where to find him, but we’re having trouble getting there.”
“We think his stupid dad has kidnapped him and brought him back to his old childhood house to do who-knows-what to him.” The fire in Ryan’s eyes died. “We need to find Michael and bring him home.”
Brian nodded. The older brunet looked to be in deep thought. “And how did you guys expect to get to Georgetown on foot? It’s like, a ten hour walk if you don’t hit any traffic.”
Daniel looked away. “I know, but…”
“But we can’t give up! We need Michael back!” Ryan felt himself tear up again. “We can’t waste any more time.” The small boy reached for the door handle.
“Wait.” Brian sighed. “Okay, so I might regret doing this, but… I’ll help you find Michael.”
“Why?” Daniel was awestruck. “You don’t know him. And last I checked, you hated us.”
“Okay, yeah, I was an asshole when I was younger.” The older male looked away. “And… I’m sorry. I was jealous because of your parents’ wealth, and then I got jealous over the friendship you guys, Geoff, Jack, and Andrew formed. You looked so happy, and I didn’t have that.” He started the truck, and it roared to life with a soft purr. “So as my apology, I’ll help you get to Georgetown.”
Ryan nodded. He wasn’t sure if this was too good to be true, but he would take it. They needed all the help they could get. “Brian, thank-”
“Don’t thank me until we get your friend.” Brian put on his seat belt. “Also, I’ll need you two to stay as low on the floor as possible. I can’t drive with other people yet, and the police are looking for you two. Got it?”
“Yes.” Daniel and Ryan nodded to each other and crawled partially under the seats.
Brian nodded and pulled away. “You guys are braver than I could ever hope to me,” he muttered softly. “Michael’s lucky to have friends like you.”
Michael’s body was sore all over.
He could feel the blood on his cheek drying; as he blinked, the already-dried blood flaked apart. His wrist, which he was sure was at least sprained, was definitely broken. He couldn’t move it without fire-like pain shooting up his whole arm.
Michael should’ve just stayed quiet when his father came in the second time; perhaps he’d have gotten off a little easier. But the fiery redhead had mouthed off just a bit too much and had paid the price. At least his old man knew he wasn’t going down without a fight.
In the corner of the room sat a plate with half a sandwich on it, but Michael wasn’t too keen on eating it. Who knew if his father had poisoned it, or spiked it with a drug to make it easier to kill him? Even with hunger clawing at his empty belly, he left it untouched. He would rather die.
He silently wondered if this old house would be the last place he’d see. The window, which was mostly covered by wood, allowed a tiny sliver of sunlight to peek through. The only ray of hope he had in this arid, dark room. The only thing keeping him from giving up.
Michael knew his friends would do everything they could to find him. But… he thought bitterly. [i They wouldn’t even know where to look for me…] He chuckled dryly and coughed, the dust from the room agitating his dry throat. [i I’m really going to die here, aren’t I?]
His friends would come for him, whether it was too late or not. His friends cared about him and wouldn’t stop until he was found. But would it be worth it? Michael couldn’t fathom one of his friends getting hurt trying to find him. He made the decision that he’d rather die than watch his friends get hurt.
And besides, Michael thought. [i If I die, I’ll get to see Mom again…] However, he continued to glance at the sunbeam on the wall, using it as his ray of hope.
His friends wouldn’t give up on him, so he couldn’t give up on himself.
Andrew, Geoff, and Jack were more and more thankful for Sadie with each passing moment. When the trio had fallen asleep on one of their busses, she had woken them up moments before they had to get off. She pointed them in the best directions for cheap food the easiest places to hide while they waited for their next bus.
While it had taken them some convincing, they’d managed to get her to take a short nap on a park bench while they came up with their next move. “It’s only fair,” Jack had said. “You let us nap earlier, after all.”
With a curt ‘thanks’ and a yawn, she had sat down on the bench and closed her eyes. Sadie was asleep in minutes.
“We’re almost in Georgetown,” Geoff pointed out, showing Andrew and Jack the map. “We should be able to walk most of the way there, too. We’re not in Austin anymore, at least.”
“Good. Hopefully this is almost over.” Andrew stretched. “I want to get back home and for things to be normal again.”
Jack nodded his agreement. “Me too. Thank fuck Sadie’s here, though. We’d be a wreck without her.”
“Agreed. We’re all too stubborn to agree on anything.” Geoff snorted. “At least she’s been keeping us in line. I really hope she doesn’t just ditch us once this is over.”
Andrew laughed. “You’re just saying that because you’re crushing on her.”
The brunet turned red. “I am not!”
“Seriously, though. I don’t think she will.” Andrew shrugged. “She wouldn’t voluntarily go through this hell just to ditch us after. The people that crossed her might think ill of her, but she’s an amazing person, and a loyal friend.”
“How sweet of you.”
The three boys jumped at the sound of Sadie’s voice. “W-when did you wake up?”
“Just as Andrew started being a sap.” The female chuckled. “I feel much better, so we should get going again. If we make it to the edge of town within the hour, we can catch the next bus out of here, and hopefully make it to Georgetown before dark.”
Geoff nodded. “Right.” He looked at his phone. “The bus stop is this way; let’s go.”
“I’m gonna kick that fucker in,” Jack hissed. “Michael’s dad picked the wrong group of assholes to fuck with.”
Andrew nodded his agreement. “I’m really worried about Ryan and Daniel. We haven’t so much as seen a trace of them.”
“The Amber Alert is still in effect for all three of them.” The ginger male scratched his head. “Unless it’s behind, that means they’re still missing.”
“At this point, I’d be happy if the police found them.” Andrew sighed. “I wish they’d come to me. Daniel knows how to find me.”
“Like we said before, they’re emotional kids. They weren’t thinking.” Sadie shook her head. “There’s no use beating ourselves up. Lets just get this over with.”
Geoff nodded. “Honestly, no news isn’t the worst news, either. If the Amber Alert is still active, that means none of them have been hurt or killed.”
Jack t’sked at Andrew. “Don’t be so pessimistic. We need to remain hopeful.”
The sandy blond kid sighed. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Geoff looked back at Andrew and offered a small smile. “We get it, dude. It’s hard on us, too. I was in a panic when I found out about everything, and it was Jack that kept me sane through this whole thing.”
“And as we said before,” Jack interjected. “Sadie’s been our shining beacon for this whole operation. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
“Aww, guys.” Sadie felt her cheeks heat up. “I’m just being a good friend. And besides, if I needed Andrew’s help, he’d have-”
[i Beep beep!]
“What was that?” Jack whipped his head back. He saw a black truck headed towards them, with the driver signaling to them. “Who is-”
“That’s fucking Brian Gerrish!” Geoff exclaimed.
The four stopped their forward motion as the truck pulled into an empty parking lot. “Brian?!” They saw him turn around in his seat for a moment before exiting the truck and heading towards them. “What are you doing here?!”
“Well hello to you too,” Brian responded dryly. “I could ask you guys the same thing.”
Geoff seethed. “If you must know, we’re-”
“I know what you’re doing.” Brian’s expression was oddly flat. “I’ve had some help figuring it all out.”
Jack tipped his head in confusion. “What?”
“Look, I’m not the enemy here. Let’s forget our past for a second, okay? I know time is of the essence.”
Sadie glared his way. “How could you know?”
Brian smiled proudly. “I picked up some hitchhikers along the way, and I think they might be happy to see you.”
“You don’t mean…” Andrew lit up.
The male tilted his head in the direction of the truck. “Why don’t you hop in and see for yourselves? I’ll even be nice and take you where you need to go.”
“Y’know, you’re awful stubborn.” Silence. “Or stupid, I can’t really tell.” More silence. “You should respond t’ your elders, Michael. It’s the respectful thing to do.”
The redhead spat. “You d-don’t deserve respect.” He did his best to keep his voice even. “You’re a monster.”
The older male smirked and stepped closer to Michael, putting his foot on the boy’s chest. “A monster who is completely in control, child.” He removed his foot and walked over to the half sandwich he’d left. “You should eat. I don’t want you to die yet.”
“Fuckin’… make me.” Michael’s brown eyes blazed.
The man grew agitated and threw the food in his son’s direction. “Every time I try and do somethin’ nice for you, ya do this shit.” He stomped back over to Michael and grabbed him by the shirt collar, lifting him off the old mattress. “I want you to die on my terms, dammit! I don’t want ya to die without sufferin’ first!”
Michael gagged as the garment tightened around his throat. “W-what…” He coughed as he tried to take in air. “What did… I ever do… to you?!”
“You were fuckin’ born!” He dropped Michael, causing the redhead to hit his head off the wall. “I didn’t want no kids, dammit. But here I am, stuck with an ungrateful shit like you!” He spat on the floor. “You are the reason yer mother and I stopped bein’ in love. I never wanted you, but she fell right in love with you.”
Michael said nothing as his agitated father walked out of the room, slamming and locking the door. Though his words were to be expected, he felt tears start to slide down his cheeks. He’d known his father never cared for him. But to hear it? He wasn’t ready for that.
With the little strength he had left, he forced himself to stand up. Though Michael was desperately waiting for someone – anyone – to save him, he couldn’t just sit still anymore. The redhead limped over to the door and jiggled the doorknob. Locked from the other side, he seethed internally. The window, he knew, wouldn’t be of any use. There was wood on the inside and the out; even if he managed to remove the planks from the inside, the outside would be a whole new set of challenges.
There was a doorless closet in the room; if he remembered the house correctly, this room was his old bedroom. It was hard to tell; mold and leaves covered nearly every square inch of the floor, save for the old mattress. It was too dark in the room to see into the closet, but he was sure all he’d find were mice and spiders. He laughed humorlessly; he feared spiders before. But spiders were like gold now, compared to the hell he was going through. If he made it out of this alive, he’d have to start being nice to them.
For a moment, Michael allowed himself to be consumed in a memory. Though he was only four when they moved out of this house, he had a few fond memories of the place. Back when his father wasn’t quite as bad as he was now, and when his mother would give him all the love he could ask for when his father wasn’t around. When she would pick him up and spin him around, telling him how much she loved him and how the move to Austin would be good for them. If only she’d been able to predict the future. If only she knew she was going to die.
Shaking his head. Michael’s thoughts drifted back to Geoff, Jack, Andrew, Ryan, and Daniel. He remembered Geoff’s promise from two years ago, and it echoed inside his head. “Friends have to stick together…” Michael muttered the promise out loud. “Friends have to stick together…” He choked back a sob as he repeated it; he could only hope that Geoff truly cared enough to come help him. But if he didn’t, Michael understood. The redhead, as his father said, was a burden. His friends would be better off without him.
He hoped Jack and Geoff could get Andrew to finally move in with them. Daniel could help by yelling at him until Andrew relented; after all, Daniel had himself wrapped around Andrew’s finger. And Andrew deserved happiness, just like the others. He worked so hard to make sure other kids were taken care of. He defended people who couldn’t defend themselves. He aided those in need. Andrew deserved the world. Unlike Michael. Michael didn’t deserve Andrew’s help when he was saved from the angry baker. Andrew should’ve let him get caught. Michael deserved it.
Maybe, in return, Andrew could help Daniel open up to his parents. Daniel could finally tell his mom that he missed her, tell his dad that he just wanted to play catch in the back yard again. Daniel was lonely, even with everyone around him. His parents loved him, and he knew that, but they were so wrapped up in their new lives that they barely noticed their son anymore. Daniel was an amazing friend; he deserved better. Michael wondered how he could have ever gotten so lucky. He didn’t deserve Daniel as a friend.
Most importantly, Michael thought of Ryan. The best friend he’s ever had. The only person to do so much for him without asking for anything in return. The first friend he made when he moved to Austin all those years ago. He thought of the nights he and Ryan would stay up late and play video games together. Of getting in trouble at school and ending up in the principal’s office together. Of Ryan’s mom lighting up when Michael asked her to foster him. Michael sighed shakily and sat down on the floor. He hoped that, if he died here, Ryan would be able to move on with the others. Ryan didn’t deserve a shitty friend like him.
He saw the small sliver of sunlight on the wall turn to shades of gold. Though the sun wouldn’t set yet, it wouldn’t be long before another night passed. Another night of waiting. Another morning of waking up in this hell to a father who never wanted him; a father who only wanted to see him suffer.
“It’s not fair…” he muttered to himself. “I didn’t ask to be born…”
--[A/N: To avoid confusion, this goes back in time by mere minutes from where I left off with Sadie, Jack, Geoff, and Andrew.]
“Briannnnnn,” Daniel whined. “It feels like we’ve been going forever!”
“It’s barely been half an hour,” Brian responded. “But we’re out of Austin now. We’ll be in Georgetown in no time.”
“I’m glad.” Ryan allowed himself to feel relief. “But… aren’t you worried about getting caught?”
“Honestly? I’m fucking terrified.” Brian glanced into the rearview mirror. “But if you two are doing this, despite the odds being against you, why can’t I? I told you before; this is my apology for being an asshole to you guys. I don’t care if you guys talk to me again after this, but it feels like the right thing to do.”
Daniel blinked. “Why wouldn’t we talk to you again? You’ve done nothing but help us since you picked us up. You even gave us some food!”
“I’m not exactly best friends with Geoff or Jack,” Brian reminded them. “And last time I talked to Fink, we got into a fight.”
“They’re stubborn, but not stupid.” Ryan then chuckled. “Okay, so they’re a little stupid too. But they’ll get it. They won’t shun you if they find out you’ve been helpful.”
Brian hummed to signify he heard him but said nothing.
Ryan turned back to Daniel. “We’re gonna need a plan to get Michael out of there. He’s probably going to be locked away somewhere.”
“He might even be hurt!” Daniel cried. “We’ll need to be careful.”
“We’ll also need a distraction if his dad is there…” Ryan’s brow furrowed in thought. “I mean, we could stake it out until his dad leaves; if he’s trying to look normal, he’d have to resume his life as is.”
The Brit nodded. “Yeah, that’s…” He trailed off as he watched the buildings in the windows stop moving. “Brian, why are we stopping?”
“I’ll be right back. You two stay here and stay down.”
“Okay!” the two squeaked.
After listening for the door to shut, Daniel’s eyes widened. “Where do you think we are? Why did he stop?”
“I don’t know… Do you think he’s really going to bring us to Michael?” Ryan sounded scared. “What if he just tricked us into coming with him so he could bring us back home? Maybe someone’s paying him and we’re going to get in trouble!”
“Ryan, stop! I’m sure there’s a good reason he stopped.” But Daniel could hear his hear thumping in his ears. Ryan could be right. But he shook his head. He couldn’t think about that right now. Think about Michael. Focus on Michael. “Maybe he needed to pee.”
Ryan blinked. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”
Daniel and Ryan jumped when they heard a ‘bang’ on the outside of the truck but settled when they heard Brian open the door. “Hey guys,” the elder started. “I’m back. And I brought some backup.”
“It’s not the police, right?” Daniel inquired.
“No, Daniel, look!” Ryan’s eyes were wide with excitement as the back door to the truck opened. “It’s Geoff!”
“What?!” Daniel crawled out of his hiding spot. Sure enough, Geoff stood in front of the door, eyes wide with surprise. Behind him stood Jack, Andrew, and a woman they’d never met before. “How did you guys get here?!”
Geoff collapsed to the pavement, holding his head in his hands. His shoulders shook. “You… you guys are okay…”
“What the hell were you guys thinking?!” Andrew shouted, tears running down his face. “We were worried sick about you!”
Jack put a hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Quiet. What matters is that they’re okay.”
Brian coughed. “So, uh, guys. Hate to interrupt, but if you didn’t realize this, I have two children in my car that are missing right now, and I’d rather not be framed for kidnapping them. Get in, and then you can talk. Just… lay low, if possible.”
Daniel and Ryan shuffled so that Andrew, Geoff, and Jack could squeeze in the back with them. The woman sat up front with Brian. “Who’s that?” Daniel asked, pointing to the front seat. He barely noticed Brian start the truck again but could feel them peel out of the parking lot. “She’s really pretty.”
The woman chuckled. “Aww, thank you.”
“That’s Sadie,” Andrew responded. “A good friend of mine who helped us get this far. How did you guys get this far?”
“I stole Barbie’s iPhone.” Daniel held up the powered-down device. “We’ve only turned it on a few times to make sure we were going the right way.”
Geoff glanced at Jack and took a deep sigh of relief. “These idiots are smarter than we gave them credit for,” Geoff started.
“But don’t ever do something like this again without coming to us first.” Andrew wiped the tears off his face. “We would’ve helped, Daniel.”
“It’s my fault!” Ryan started. “I went to Daniel first and asked him to help. He wanted to find you, but I said no, that there wasn’t enough time. We were worried you’d just go to the police and forget all about it. I was stupid.”
Andrew shook his head. “No, I understand. You guys were only thinking of Michael.”
“But we’re your friends,” Jack added. “And we’ll always help you, no matter what.”
Daniel looked up at his older friends. “Promise?”
Geoff nodded. “Promise, buddy.”
Sadie chuckled from the front seat and glanced back at the group. “Looks like our little fucked-up family is almost complete.”
“Almost,” Brian mirrored. “We’re only missing one person.”
A grim silence of agreement swept through the entire vehicle.
“Here, Brian.” Geoff handed the curly-haired male his phone. “We found Michael’s old address after Sadie broke us into the school. The GPS will take us right to him.”
Brian hummed in affirmation. “You guys broke into a school for Michael? He’s lucky to have you guys.”
“I promise, after this is over, I’ll take back everything bad I’ve ever said about you.” Geoff looked over Brian’s shoulder. “Thank you. For helping us get back together. Maybe you’re not so bad after all, Gerrish.”
“I guess you’re not so bad yourself, Wilson.” Brian glanced back at him for a split second before putting his eyes back on the road. “And as I told your friends, don’t thank me yet. We may be on the right track, but we still haven’t gotten Michael back. And that won’t be easy.”
Jack sighed. “No, it won’t be. But no matter what, we will get him back.” He glanced at Ryan and Daniel, who were relieved to see their other friends, but still tense. “Right, guys?”
Ryan nodded, noticing Daniel mirror his actions. “Right.” He glanced out the window, watching the buildings and trees fly by. [i We’re coming, Michael. Just hang in there a little longer.]
Geoff felt anxiety claw at his heart as they neared the destination on the GPS. There was no way he was going to back out; Michael needed him. But he couldn’t help but wonder what would be waiting for them. Would Michael’s dad be there? Would there be anyone left to rescue? His mind was swirling at a thousand miles an hour, and it made the brunet nauseous.
“Geoff.” Sadie looked back at him; her eyes were soft. “Take a deep breath. We can’t think the worst before we get there.”
He was stricken with her accuracy. “How-”
“I’ve told you before, I’m good at reading people.” She shrugged and turned back around. “Worrying is your best, and worst, trait.”
Geoff said nothing to her and glanced at his friends. Ryan and Daniel were talking amongst themselves, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. Jack was glancing out the window, a hard look in his eyes. This journey had taken a lot out of them both; he’d be glad when they could act like normal teenagers again. Andrew was staring at the floor, watching Ryan and Daniel converse. He truly hadn’t grasped how worried the sandy-blond boy was until they’d been reunited with the two youngest members of their group. Andrew cared a lot more than anyone realized.
“Geoff?” Daniel squeaked. His voice was so quiet and small that Geoff had barely registered it. “Can I ask you something?”
“What if we can’t save Michael?”
The older boy felt his heart shatter. Daniel’s grasp on the situation was incredible, but he was still only a child. Of course, he was going to think the worst. “Well, like Sadie said to me, we can’t think like that. We can’t lose hope now. We’ve come too far.”
“Geoff is right,” Jack added. “And don’t tell me that thinking negatively is what brought you this far. You and Ryan were determined, and you should be even now.”
“I’d go as far as to say you should be proud of yourselves.” Andrew meekly added his own voice into the mix. “I’m super fucking angry at both of you for not coming to us, and I’ll probably be mad about it forever. But… You guys were also very brave. Not a lot of adults would risk so much for someone.”
Ryan beamed at the praise. “Thank you, Andrew. For believing in us even when you were angry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad we’re all here.”
Brian laughed softly from the front. “I’m… glad I was able to reunite you guys, honestly. I think, once we’re back home, we should…” He felt his cheeks grow warmer. “We should start over…”
The boys in the back kept silent for a moment, taking in Brian’s words. Then, after a moment, Geoff nodded. “Yeah, Brian. We’d like that.”
“Guys.” Sadie’s voice, filled with grim determination, broke the enlightening conversation. “We’re here.”
The silence that fell amongst them was deafening as they all got a look at the house. Daniel and Ryan gasped as they rose from their hiding spots, no longer at risk of being caught. The house looked as if it had the potential to be beautiful but being abandoned for so long had worn on the outside, giving it an almost horror movie cliché look. A few of the windows were broken in spots, and most of the wooden paneling on the outside was missing. Paint was chipped off the exterior in a consistent manner, and shingles were falling off the roof steadily. There was a sign on the front door that said ‘CONDEMNED’ in bright red letters, with red caution tape covering the door. Where the seal on the tape hadn’t been broken, Geoff assumed that, if Michael was here, his father was using the back door or a different entrance.
Brian did a quick perimeter scan. “Well, from what I can tell, no one else is here. Michael’s dad would have to have a vehicle to get from here to Austin every day. Which means Michael should be alone.”
“I don’t want to be here.” Daniel’s eyes were wide. “Michael must be so scared.”
Jack nodded his agreement. “Well, we’re here to get him so he won’t be scared anymore. Let’s make a plan, yeah?”
Sadie nodded. “Here’s an idea; Brian, take Geoff, Jack, and Andrew around the house to look for hidden entrances like cellars or underground hatches. I can take Ryan and Daniel in the house and look on the first floor.”
“Now wait-” Geoff started, but Sadie held a hand up to silence him.
“I say this because it’ll be safer.” She leveled her gaze with Geoff’s. “If the younger boys and I are on the first floor and we hear someone coming, we can book it out of there a lot quicker and easier than if we were in a basement or a shed. And if there’s less of us, we have a better chance of remaining hidden if we can’t escape right away.”
“She has a point.” Andrew nodded.
“We’re more capable of kicking ass to escape,” Jack added. “Sadie is perfectly capable of defending herself, but Daniel and Ryan are so young. Being able to run and hide is a better option for them.”
“But… Okay.” Geoff relented. “You’re right; it makes the most sense. Just… be careful, okay?”
Daniel grabbed Geoff’s hand. “You too, Geoff. We just got back together.”
“Yeah, and we’ll stay that way!” Ryan looked determined. “I promise that I’ll find you and kick your ass if you go missing this time!”
Geoff laughed quietly. “Big words for a shrimp.” But he nodded. “Same goes for you guys. Now, are we going to sit here all day, or are we going to save our friend?”
Michael felt hopeless.
The ray of light that he clung to so dearly was faded from view as the sun began to set. Though it was still light outside, none filtered through the hole in the window. He felt more alone than ever before.
He wondered when his father would return. Michael had really pissed him off by not eating that sandwich. Even now, he glanced at it as it lay on the floor. He couldn’t tell if bugs had already started crawling on it, but he guessed they were.
Michael’s ears perked when he heard voices outside, but he couldn’t distinguish them. He shrugged. It didn’t matter anyway. He’d be dead soon or forgotten.
It just… didn’t matter.
“Stay behind me,” Sadie warned. Without saying anything, Daniel clung to her waist, Ryan then clinging to Daniel. “That works.” She jiggled the doorknob to the back door. “Locked.” She laughed. “He picked the wrong girl to lock out.”
Ryan watched Sadie wide-eyed as she used a hairpin to pick the lock. “Woah, where did you learn to do that?”
“Practice makes perfect.” Once she heard a click, she dropped the pin and opened the door. “I don’t want to see either of you guys practicing that trick. It could get you in a lot of trouble.”
“Have you gotten in trouble for it, Miss Sadie?” Daniel asked.
She nodded. “More than you’ll ever know, kiddo. Now be quiet; we’re going in.” When Daniel and Ryan looked ready, she walked into the house with the boys still attached to her waist.
The room was a kitchen at one point, though Sadie could argue it was more of a wasteland now. The stove was rusted and unusable, and the sink full of murky water. There were leaves and patches of mold throughout the room – likely due to the broken windows – and a fridge in the corner that Sadie decided she’d rather not open in this lifetime.
“Woah…” Ryan took the condition of the room in. “Someone’s been living here?”
Sadie shook her head. “I only think he’s been keeping Michael here. We think that his dad must be going back and forth between here and his old house in Austin. Either way, no one should be staying here.”
Daniel squealed in terror as a mouse ran by, the action causing Ryan to become detached from his friend. “Daniel!” the shorter child whined.
“Sorry!” The Brit took a deep breath and let go of Sadie. “I just… Got scared.”
“I don’t blame you,” Sadie added. “Come on; we have more ground to cover.”
Ryan and Daniel nodded. “I hope Geoff and the others are okay.”
“Me too.” Sadie said nothing after that and lead them out of the kitchen and into what looked like the living area. From the entrance of the kitchen, they saw a few doors. One was directly to their right; the door was open and lead to a room with a tile floor. “Looks like a bathroom.”
Daniel parted from the group and stuck his head in, instantly gagging and coming back out. “Smells like a bloody bathroom.”
“Get back over here!” Sadie snapped. “What if Michael’s dad had been in there?!”
“Sorry.” The Brit lowered his head and walked back over to Sadie. “Michael wouldn’t be in there though, would he?”
The elder female shook her head. “Not a chance. He’d be locked away.” Sadie saw two doors to the left of the kitchen, separated by about ten feet of wall. The first door was closest to them, and it had a locking mechanism on the wrong side. The second door was closest to the taped-off front door and was a set of double sliding doors. One of the doors was slightly cracked open. “If he’s here, he’d be in this room.” Sadie held out her arm. “You two, hold my hand. Now.”
Ryan and Daniel nodded. Daniel grabbed her hand tightly, and Ryan held onto her wrist.
“On the count of three, we go in.” Sadie looked at the boys, and then back to the door. Her free hand was on the lock. “Ready? One…”
“Two…” Daniel counted.
Ryan gulped. “Three!”
At the final count, Sadie unlocked the door and flung it open. “Oh my god.”
“Michael!” Daniel let go of Sadie’s hand and ran into the room, Ryan following suit.
“Wait!” Sadie hissed. She partially closed the door and entered the room. “What… what did he do to you…?”
The redhead, though injured and dazed, seemed shocked to see someone besides his father in the room. “Daniel? Ryan? Is… Is that… really you guys?”
“Yeah, Michael, it’s us.” Daniel smiled, tears rolling down his cheeks. “We’re here to take you home…”
Brian watched Sadie, Daniel, and Ryan disappear into the house with a frown on his face. “I hope they’ll be okay.”
“They have each other,” Geoff reminded him. “Sadie will take care of them. And those two aren’t exactly useless; they survived a day and a half just relying on each other.”
“I know.” The older male laughed bitterly. “To think, just two years ago I was telling them how stupid they were. If only I knew how wrong I was.”
“Hey guys!” Jack called. “I didn’t see a shed but look!” He pointed to the end of the house. “There’s a cellar!”
Geoff fist-pumped the air. “Score! Great work! Let’s break in and see what’s down there.”
Jack walked up to the cellar doors, Brian, Andrew, and Geoff in tow. “There’s no lock on it.”
“Which mean its unlikely Michael would be down there.” Andrew hummed. “But we should look anyway. We can’t afford to leave any stones unturned.”
“Right.” The ginger male opened the cellar doors and signaled to the others, turning his phone’s flashlight on and walking down the steps. The metal stairs creaked, but Jack was grateful the steps were otherwise sturdy. “Geoff, is your phone still alive?”
“Barely.” But he followed suit and turned the flashlight on. Brian mimicked the motion. “I don’t hear anyone down here. But let’s see what we can find.”
Andrew forced himself to the front of the group; being the only one without a flashlight, he opted to investigate ahead of the others. “It looks like someone’s been down here, though. But not in a long time.”
“Yeah, almost as if it was only a transfer ground.” Jack shrugged. “If it has anything to do with those missing children’s cases you looked up, it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
“Well no, but it’s dirt on the fucker if we get him caught.” Geoff cast the flashlight beam around the entire back of the cellar. “Either way, besides dirt, old paint, and canned food that expired in 2002, there’s not much here.”
Brian groaned. “Looks like this was a colossal waste of time.”
“No, not really.” Andrew shook his head. “We’re covering all of our bases.”
Jack nodded his agreement. “Yeah. And now that we’ve covered this base, we should meet up with Sadie, Ryan, and Daniel inside. Hopefully they’ve found something.”
As the four boys climbed out of the cellar, they remained on alert. They were fairly closed off from the outside as they were underground, but now that they were back above ground, something was amiss.
“Do you hear that?” Andrew’s voice was a whisper. “Listen.”
Silence. And then “Yelling,” was Geoff’s answer. “Something’s wrong. Let’s go!”
“Poor kid.” Sadie glanced sadly at the redhead; he was bruised and covered in dried blood. But he was alive, and that alone was enough to lift her spirits. She pulled her phone out of her pocket to text Geoff that she’d found Michael but hissed in annoyance when the device wouldn’t power on. “Fuckin’ shitty battery.”
Putting Geoff and the others in the back of her mind temporarily, she walked over to Michael and knelt on the debris-covered floor. “Hi there, Michael.”
The redhead was dazed but knew he didn’t recognize the female before him. “…the fuck are you?”
Sadie admired that Michael still had enough fire in him to curse at her. “My name is Sadie. I’m one of Geoff’s friends.”
Daniel and Ryan both nodded in agreement when Michael slowly looked at them for confirmation. “She’s really cool!” Ryan cheered. “She helped Geoff, Jack, and Andrew find this place.”
“Even big dumb Brian helped us!” Daniel relayed. “Turns out he’s not so big or dumb after all.”
Sadie went to add to Daniel’s comment, but she felt a chill up her spine. A noise in the distance called to her, and she instinctively stood. “Ryan, Daniel. Help Michael up. We’re leaving.” Her crystal blue eyes were stone cold.
“Actually,” a voice boomed from the kitchen. “Y’all aren’t goin’ anywhere.”
Sadie backed the younger children into a corner and shielded them. “Who’s there?”
“Why, who do ya think, sweetheart?” From the doorway emerged a tall, scraggly-looking man. “Your worst nightmare, that’s who.”
“That’s...” Daniel’s eyes widened in fear.
Ryan gulped. “Michael’s dad.”
Michael used Daniel to shield himself from his father’s view. “Don’t… Don’t leave.”
“We’re not going anywhere, Michael.” The Brit wrapped his arms protectively – but carefully – around the redhead. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
The man laughed. “Fat chance.” He walked closer to Sadie, meeting her eyes. “You’re a pretty little thing, ain’t ya? What’dya want with my useless kid?”
Sadie didn’t bother to answer.
“I don’t think you heard me.” The male cupped Sadie’s chin in his hand. “When I ask a question, little lady, I expect an answer-”
“Don’t touch them!”
“Geoff!” Ryan squealed in excitement.
Michael looked above Daniel’s shoulder, unable to believe what he heard. Sure enough, though a bit blurry, Geoff was now in the doorway, as was Jack, Andrew, and who he assumed was Brian. “See?” Michael felt himself grow stronger, relieved he was wrong. “I told you… I told you they’d come for me.”
While Michael’s father was distracted, Sadie headbutted the man in the nose. “Don’t lay your filthy hands on me or anyone else!” she hissed.
The male screeched and stumbled back, knocking himself into Brian before being shoved away. “You little bitch. You’ll pay for that.”
“Try me.” Sadie only kept her defensive stance. “Give up you old fuck. You’re outnumbered.”
“Y’all forget that I’m bigger than-”
[i “Mr. Davis, this is the City of Austin Police Department. Come out with your hands up!”]
His eyes widened. “How…?”
Daniel snickered, pulling out Barbara’s phone. The screen was alight. “It’s been on since we got here, and I know they’ve been tracking it since I’ve been missing.”
“Daniel!” Jack’s eyes widened. “I’m impressed!”
Ryan smiled at his friend. “I guess I was wrong. Barbara’s phone came in handy after all.”
“You little shit!” He stomped back towards the bedroom, a pocketknife in hand.
“No!” Andrew lunged at the man, clinging to his back. It wasn’t long before the older of the two had Andrew turned around, the blade at his throat.
“Andrew!” Geoff stepped forward but was held back by Brian and Jack. “What are you guys doing? I need to help Andrew!”
“If you try to help Andrew, he’ll die!” Jack snapped.
Brian nodded. “Besides, hold up. Andrew’s not stupid; I think he’s plotting something.”
With Andrew in his grasp, Michael’s dad dragged him to the front door and opened it, tearing the caution tape. On the lawn were several police cruisers and an ocean of blue-clad officers. “You try anything, and I’ll kill this kid!” he yelled. “Get out of here and I’ll let him go free!”
“Fucking kill me then!” the sandy blond boy shrieked. “I don’t care what happens to me as long as Michael’s safe!”
“Shut up, Andrew!” Geoff muttered.
“Shh, he’s stalling.” Brian looked nervous. “Or, that’s what I hope he’s doing.”
Jack glanced over to Sadie, Daniel, Ryan, and Michael. Now that the immediate threat had moved, Michael was being hoisted up on Sadie’s back. “Be careful with him, Sadie.”
“Got it,” she responded. Michael was easier to move now; between the fatigue of the past few days and the relief of being found, the boy could no longer keep himself upright and had passed out. Sadie had initially panicked but had checked his vitals and declared him stable enough to survive being moved. She made a voiceless signal to the two children behind her, who quietly booked it out of the room. Once they had ducked into the kitchen, she followed behind them and signaled for Geoff, Jack, and Brian to do the same.
Jack and Brian went to follow but noticed Geoff didn’t move. “Geoff, come on,” Jack urged. “Andrew’s smart; he’ll be all right.”
With one last look at the scene in the front door, he nodded. “All right.”
Andrew squirmed in the man’s tight grip. “If you’re going to kill me, then do it! Michael will escape!”
“Shut up!” the man hissed. “I’ll kill you and then I’ll kill all yer friends, too!”
“That seems unlikely!” a voice chided.
Andrew and Michael’s father snapped their heads in the direction of the voice; while Andrew had Michael’s dad distracted, Sadie and the others managed to escape with Michael in tow. “See? We fucking won!”
“No!” The elder male screamed.
While he was distracted by the sudden loss of his other hostages, the pressure on Andrew was lessened and the knife was lowered. As if he knew what was going to happen, Andrew pushed on the older man and launched himself backward – just in time for a police officer to fire a bullet at Mr. Davis’ knee to cripple him.
Andrew ignored the screams from the man as he collapsed down the front stairs; he dove through the sea of officers to make it over to where Geoff and his friends stood. “You all made it-”
“Why would you put yourself at risk like that?!” Geoff snapped. “You could’ve died!”
The sandy blond shrunk back. “But I-”
“Geoff, let it go.” Jack smiled. “We’re all okay, and we have Michael back.”
The brunet sighed and wrapped Andrew in a hug. “Thank you, Andrew. You saved us all.”
The next series of events passed in a blur for the group. Upon the detention of Mr. Davis, the police confirmed the identities of Daniel, Ryan, and Michael. Though the entire group was on thin ice due to the circumstances of their disappearances, the police let them off easy. Geoff would later say that it was because “they looked like a bunch of homeless children with puppy eyes” and “couldn’t bear to see them separated again”.
The sun had almost completely set when the ambulance arrived.
“You should all go, too,” an officer suggested. “Michael Davis’ care will be prioritized, but you all look worse for wear.”
“I’m fine,” Daniel argued. “Right, Geoff?”
Geoff shook his head. “We should probably listen to him, Dan. We’re in enough trouble as it is.”
“The department is in contact with your guardians, and they will meet you at the hospital in Austin.” The officer bowed. “Get a move on.”
Ryan lead the way to the back of the ambulance, climbing in and sitting as close as he could to Michael. He could see that the redhead was starting to stir as an EMT stuck an IV in his arm. “Michael!”
“Ryan…?” The curly-haired child seemed confused. “Where… where am I? Where are the others?”
“We’re right here, kiddo.” It was Brian who spoke. “We’ll explain everything later, but… You made it.”
“We’re in an ambulance bound for Austin,” Jack relayed. “Daniel’s parents and Ryan’s mom will be meeting us there.”
“I… I’m alive.” Michael allowed tears to roll down his face. “I’m going home.”
The ride to the hospital was thankfully short-lived, and the staff at the hospital polite and professional. While the staff had to split the group to give them a once-over, they cooperated with the promise to be herded back together as soon as Michael was cleared for visitors. The odd group sat in the waiting room, Geoff talking to a nurse while they waited.
“So, I got an update,” Geoff announced, walking back over to the group. “Michael’s gonna be okay. He’s got some bruising, a few cuts, a broken wrist, and a very slight concussion, but he’s on the road to recovery.”
Ryan released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “I’m glad.”
“Me too,” Andrew agreed. “When can we go in and see him?”
“The nurse said whenever the doctor is done with him. So literally any minute now.” Geoff shrugged and went to sit down, but never got the chance.
“Friends of Michael Davis?” All the bodies in the waiting room rose. The doctor chuckled. “As we promised, I’ll take you to see your friend. Follow me.”
The crew wasted no time in hurrying after the doctor, Geoff leading the way. The doctor pointed to a room and said nothing more, instead ushering them all inside. “Michael.” He smiled at his friend. “It’s good to fuckin’ see you.”
Michael giggled, likely under the influence of some good painkillers. “You shouldn’t swear around kids, Geoff. You’re a bad fuckin’ influence.”
Ryan and Daniel ran up to the redhead and hugged him gently. “You’re looking better!” The Brit chirped.
“Apparently my wrist is broken,” the redhead explained. “But I can’t feel it.”
Sadie laughed from the back of the room. “You’re on painkillers and also wearing a cast, silly.”
Michael followed her voice until his eyes met hers. “I still don’t really fuckin’ know who you are, or why Brian is here.”
Before Brian could speak, Geoff said “Brian picked up Ryan and Daniel as they were trying to find you. It’s only thanks to him that we made it when we did.”
“Oh.” A shrug. “I guess you’re only a little bit of an asshole now.”
“Ha-ha, funny.” Brian rolled his eyes, but Geoff caught the newfound fondness in them. “Good to see that you’re still you.”
Andrew snorted. “Anyway, Sadie is my friend. We met… well, you don’t need to know that, but she helped us find you.”
Michael blinked. “Y’know, I think I remember her saying that to me.”
“Don’t strain yourself, kiddo.” Jack smiled fondly. “We all know your brain doesn’t work on the best of days.”
“Fuck you too, Jack.”
Ryan’s head whipped around at the voice, and his heart almost exploded. “Mom!” The short brunet ran up to the woman in the doorway, clinging to her as if she’d disappear if he let go. “I’m so sorry, Mom.” He began to sob into her legs. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shh, Ryan. I’m just glad you and Michael are safe.” Ryan’s mother walked over to Michael’s bedside, Ryan still attached to her legs, and put her hand on Michael’s. “My boys are safe.”
Michael smiled at her. “Sorry for the trouble, Ms. Boyington.”
“I suppose I have all of you to thank, for bringing the boys back.” Ms. Boyington held her hand out to Geoff. “Thank you.”
Geoff took her hand and shook it. “We’d do it again if we had to.”
The room was silent for a moment; enough to hear a few sets of footsteps approach the door. A soft knock was followed by “Daniel?”
“Mom? Dad?” Daniel looked over to the door. “Barbie?”
Barbara was in the room first, wrapping Daniel in a hug. “You scared me so badly, Daniel. I thought you were gone forever.” Her eyes were bloodshot, and her cheeks wet; she’d been crying. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Sorry, Barbie.” Daniel hugged her back before reaching into his pocket and giving her the phone. “I’m also sorry for taking your phone without asking.”
“Keep it.” The blonde smiled at him. “I’ll get another one. If anything like this ever happens again, I want you to call me. Understand?”
“Yeah.” Daniel wiggled out of her grip and looked over at his parents, who were standing in the doorway. “I’m… I’m sorry-”
He was unable to finish his sentence; his mother scooped him up and squeezed him tight. “Oh Daniel, I’m sorry. We should’ve been there that night, but we weren’t.”
His father hummed an affirmation before joining their little hug. “We’re glad you’re safe, Daniel. I don’t know what we’d have done if we’d lost you.”
“I’m guessing these are your friends?” Daniel nodded to his mother. “I’m grateful you have them, Dan. Would you… tell us about them when we get back home?”
Daniel’s eyes lit up. “That’d be top!”
Andrew, Geoff, Jack, Sadie, and Brian shared a look of contentment. “It’s nice,” Jack started. “To see them reunite with their parents.”
“Yeah.” Andrew’s eyes shone with unshed tears; he was truly happy that things had gone so well in the end. “I’m glad we were able to help.”
Brian smiled and looked at his phone. “Well, the tow guy is here with my truck; I’m going to head home and tell Mom what happened.”
“Bye, Brian. Be safe.” Sadie waved him off. “He’s soft as a teddy bear.”
“Oh yeah. It’ll be so easy to pick on him for it later.” Geoff laughed.
The blonde female nodded her agreement. “Yeah, for sure.” She stretched. “I should go home, too. My phone died a few hours ago and I’m sure my parents will be wondering where I’ve been.”
As she walked off, Geoff grabbed her hand. “Wait!” His face was red, and he only made eye contact with the floor. “Thank you so much. For everything you’ve done.”
“You’re welcome, Geoff.” She smiled at him. “See you soon?”
“Yeah.” Geoff waved as she walked out of the room.
“You owe me ten bucks, Jack.” Andrew smirked. “I told you he was crushing on her.”
“God dammit Andrew.”
Geoff turned to them both, his face a shade of red. “You idiots bet on me?!”
After the laughter in the room died down, Michael looked at everyone that remained. Daniel was babbling to his parents, and Ryan was giving an over-exaggerated account of the journey to Georgetown. He felt himself start to cry but made no attempt to wipe the tears away. He felt so foolish thinking that his friends wouldn’t be there for him. But none of that mattered now. He was free. He was safe.
He was home.
[i The Amber Alert for the three children who disappeared from Austin, TX is no longer in effect. All three children have returned home safely.]
A year had passed since Michael’s rescue, and the bond between the boys grew stronger with each passing day.
Geoff and Sadie had officially gotten together six months after bringing Michael home, and have practically been inseparable ever since. Geoff felt the final piece of his heart being put in place, and Sadie was officially accepted into the group.
Brian formally apologized to the group for the past, though he was instantly forgiven. “After all,” Michael had said. “Anyone willing to risk everything for a kid he barely knew couldn’t be a bad person.”
With a push from his friends, Andrew finally agreed to move in with Jack and Geoff with Jack’s grandparent’s permission. The elderly couple got one look at Andrew’s baby face and couldn’t say no. Though he had to put up with the constant babying from them, he decided it was a worthwhile sacrifice.
Michael had officially been adopted into Ryan’s family, but he had opted to keep his last name. “I want to prove to the world that my family isn’t all bad,” he had said when Ryan inquired about it.
After a long talk with his parents, Daniel was finally happy at home. His parents were still away from home often, but when they returned, they always made time for Daniel. He finally felt like he did in the UK; he had his parents back.
Currently, Geoff, Jack, Andrew, Michael, Daniel, and Ryan found themselves in the park, watching the sky as the afternoon transitioned to evening.
“You know,” Geoff started. “Who could’ve guessed that our lives would bring us to this very moment?”
“I don’t think I could’ve ever foreseen this,” Daniel answered. “I thought for sure I’d be alone forever. But I was wrong.”
Andrew hummed his agreement. “I didn’t think I’d ever get off the streets, but I’m glad I did. I wonder where I’d be right now if I hadn’t protected Daniel that day at school, or saved Michael from an angry baker that night.”
Michael snorted. “Well I’d probably have been baked into a loaf of bread. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how angry that fucker looked.”
“Would they name the bread ‘angry asshole’ in your honor?” Ryan asked with a snicker.
“Shut the fuck up, Ryan.”
“I wonder if we could’ve done anything to prevent what happened to you, Michael.” Jack leaned against a tree and glanced at the sky. The sudden subject change caught the group’s attention. “Is it something that had to happen, or is it something that we could’ve stopped?”
“I get what you’re saying,” Ryan responded. “I ask myself that a lot. But despite everything we went through, we made it to the other side, right?”
The redhead shrugged. “I don’t honestly care about that anymore.”
Jack glanced quickly at the redhead; he didn’t look like he was lying. “Care to elaborate?”
“I mean just that; I don’t fucking care about that anymore. I don’t think that we could’ve prevented it but look at how much we grew because of it. Fuck that asshole that calls himself a father; I’ve got better family now than I ever did before.” He sighed and smiled at the sky. “Mom would be proud of me. That’s all I care about.”
“I think my parents would be proud of me, too.” Jack shared a look with Michael. “They were always the type of people to help those in need; if they knew what we all did last summer, I honestly think they’d be proud of all of us.”
The group fell into a comfortable silence as hues of orange and pink filled the sky. The night was perfect; not too hot, not too cold. There were sounds of cars on the road, but they could barely be heard from the spot they chose. The only other soul that was in the park was an elderly couple walking their small dog. Everything seemed perfect, like a work of art in a museum.
After a few minutes of silence, Michael finally spoke. “I… I really want to thank you guys.”
Ryan was the first one to respond. “For what?”
The redhead turned to face his friends and smiled brighter than the sun. “For being my friends, and for helping me feel like I belong.”
With a hearty laugh, Geoff reached over to Michael and gave him a hug. One-by-one, the rest of them followed suit, until they were one giant human pile. “You’re welcome, Michael.”
Geoffrey Wilson, age sixteen. Lives with his best friends Jack Miller and Andrew Fink in a modest home in Austin, Texas. He is well-liked amongst his peers and has five incredible friends who will back him up no matter what. Though he still misses his mother, he has pushed forward to find his place in the world.
Jack Miller, age sixteen. Lives with his loving grandparents in Austin, Texas with his best friend Geoff Wilson, and recently Andrew Fink. Through the hardships he has faced, he has blossomed into a vocal, confident young man with an iron will. Though he still craves solitude from time-to-time, he finally feels as if he truly belongs.
James Fink, age fifteen. Goes by Andrew to those who know him, and even to those who don’t. Though he was once homeless, he’s finally found a place he can call home, and good friends to share it with. His dream to shelter homeless children has not changed, and with the friends he has by his side, he knows he can accomplish anything.
Michael Davis, age thirteen. Widely known for his determination and ability to accomplish anything he sets his mind to. After being accepted into his best friend, Ryan Boyington’s, family, he finally feels as if he’s less of a burden and allows himself to act like a child. Though shadows of his father still haunt him, he knows that nothing, and no one, can touch him.
Ryan Boyington, age twelve. Lives with his mother and adopted brother, Michael Davis. With strength Ryan didn’t know he possessed; he was able to overcome his fear of being alone. Part of Ryan wishes his father would come home, and though he knows it won’t happen, he knows he’ll be okay. He has his friends by his side.
And Daniel Smith, age twelve. Five years ago, he was moved from the UK to Austin, Texas, and though the road ahead was a bumpy one, he has overcome the potholes and made it to smoother plains. With a newfound strength, Daniel was able to break down to his parents and spend more time with them. He knew it wouldn’t have been possible without Geoff and his other friends.
Fate has funny ways of bringing people together. Though these six boys don’t have much in common in the beginning, they all have one thing they share; the want for love, friendship, and belonging. And though the journey was a difficult one, they finally found their way.
Their stray hearts have finally found peace, and a place to call home.
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