Chapter Thirteen: The Ties That Bind
In no way did I expect these people to keep a normal schedule, but since it was Twitch who had brought me breakfast, and since I considered him the most "normal," I could assume it was some time in the morning, or at the very latest some time around noon.
If Arthur slept during the day, that meant I could count on at least six or seven hours by myself. Completely alone. I never would have thought being a captive, or hostage, or abductee—whatever I was—could be so dull. I spent half of my time terrified out of my wits and the other half bored out of my mind. No wonder everyone in this house had a few screws loose. I was on my way there, too.
I wondered what Twitch and the others did during the day…what jobs they did in order to stay in this crackpot house. Twitch's was apparently cooking . . . and Trenton's . . . maybe his role was just scaring the shit out of people. And Milo drove that bus, collecting victims.
But why? What was with the bus?
And why did Arthur sleep only during the day?
Why did he run his nose along my neck and whisper yummy?
I forced myself to stop speculating. I wasn't that bored, and not yet that crazy. Monsters like that weren't real. Only human monsters were, and they were twenty times more horrifying.
Twitch had left the light on, so I looked around the room again, to find that, unsurprisingly, nothing had changed. Same nondescript room, same plain door, same—
The blood drained from my face as my thoughts ground to a halt.
I hadn't heard the lock!
When Twitch left the room, I hadn't heard the click of the lock after the door was shut. I had listened for it every time—clearly it wasn't an automatic lock…it had to be pushed.
And Twitch had not pushed it.
It resonated in my mind for a moment, thrumming and swirling and slowly dissolving into a calculated form of awareness. Past the shock, now. It had to be a trick. Maybe I was imagining it—had missed it when I was absorbed with what Twitch had said. Maybe it was a test.
But I had to check. I couldn't not do it. It wasn't an option to sit still on my bed like a good little boy, not when there was even a chance.
My approach was slow—I still didn't dare to believe it—and when I got there, I pressed my ear against the door before even touching the handle. No sounds, but did that really mean anything? Of course I wouldn't be able to hear anything if they were downstairs. I tried to recall if Twitch or Arthur had mentioned Trenton's or Milo's sleeping habits, but I just couldn't remember. A lot of it seemed to me a blur of fear and confusion, and even now, it was hard to think through the extraordinary pain in my ankle. For all I knew, the whole lot of them could be sitting right in the living room.
Or in the hall even, right outside my door.
The knob filled my hand. I felt it turn as if the hand exerting such force did not belong to me. I watched the slow progress, so slow, expecting resistance at any moment…
But it didn't happen. It turned easily in my hand, until it could turn no longer, the bolt retracted fully, waiting for me to swing open the door.
The sudden rush of my sigh made me realize I had been holding my breath. I eased the door open, cringing at the creak of the hinge, which sounded like a freight train in my keyed-up state but was probably barely audible.
The light in the hallway was off, which immediately made me reach over to flick my light off so that it didn't give me away. I could see one door midway down the hall, on the opposite wall—closed, with a strip of light showing underneath. Another door was immediately next to it, dark. I knew that couldn't be Cecelia's room because hers was the door at the end of the hall, but that didn't help me figure out who had that light on. Most people slept in darkness, but when was Arthur ever a normal person, really?
Mine was the closest to the staircase. I slid through the gap and found myself standing in the hallway, staring at that staircase.
And then I found myself walking the opposite direction, down the hallway, and stopping outside the door with a light. With the blood pounding in my ears, I didn't expect to hear anything, but I gently pressed my ear to the door.
And fell inwards as it opened. Fingers folded themselves into my shirt as I cringed, clenching my eyes shut.
"Why are you—" The low, solemn voice stopped before it completed the question, and that was enough to make me open my eyes. Milo's appraising eyes were skimming over my face. As he opened his mouth, drawing breath, I cut him off with the first thing that came to mind.
"My shorts are ripped."
He slowly slid his eyes downward. "Yes," he acknowledged, after a tense second. There was a marked blankness in his voice, despite the tight clutch of his fingers. I didn't know what the hell he was thinking.
"I just…can…do you have anything else?"
He stared me down with such intensity—he could see straight through me, and wanted me to know it. His fingers tightened before they loosened. He let go of my shirt and took a slow step backwards. Then he turned to the side, swinging one shoulder into the room on a pivot, so that I could hobble past him.
My nerves lessened somewhat, but I still stood there in the middle of the small room with knots in my stomach as he walked to a corner and opened the dresser. He pulled out a shapeless gray bundle of fabric and tossed it to me. I grabbed it and busily unfolded it to discover a pair of grey sweatpants. The material was a little scratchy, but I was pleased to note that they were closer to my size.
"Uh…thanks," I said, swallowing nerves. I held up the sweatpants briefly in a sort of salute, just in case he didn't know what I was referring to, and turned away. "I'll just go back to my—"
"How did you get out?" His voice stalled my footsteps.
"I wasn't going to leave."
"That doesn't answer my question."
I turned back to him, trying to set my face into a hard expression. "Are you going to tell him?" I knew the answer, of course, but I wanted to know what he would say.
He paused. "Tell who?"
"You know the answer to that."
I shook my head. "I can't tell you."
He stood there, looking at me. The vibe I got from him was different than that of the others. He seemed apathetic to my situation. Even now, he wasn't angry. His face was a blank. He dropped his eyes, before saying, "I need to you stay here for a moment."
He closed the door behind him and immediately I heard a knock on the door next to this one, and Milo's soft voice, calling, "Arthur?"
I hugged the sweatpants tightly to my chest and listened.
Another soft knock, and, louder, "Arthur, wake up."
A moment later, I heard footsteps, and the door opened. I approached the inside of Milo's door to listen.
"What is it?" A sleepy, slurring voice, unmistakably Arthur's.
"He got loose again."
There was a long pause, but when he spoke, his voice was more alert and slightly panicked. "How long ago?"
"He's in my room. He didn't run."
"He just asked for some pants."
There was another long pause.
"Okay. Lock him in again. Thank you, Milo."
"Do you want to see him?"
Another long pause, in which I swear I could almost hear both of them breathing.
"Do you think that's a good idea?"
"I would enforce the positive at every opportunity," Milo's measured tone returned.
The next sound I heard was not a response from Arthur, as I expected, but the sound of the door closing with a weary sigh. I quickly backed away from the inside of the door, just in time to avoid getting hit with it as it swung open. I caught only a glimpse of Milo as he withdrew his hand and stepped aside, and then Arthur filled the doorframe.
He wore what could only be described as an elderly woman's nightgown. It had a sparse pattern of strawberries, and hung limply, the material worn and stretched, the color faded to a tragically pale blue. It was too wide for his frame, so that the armpits hung too low and the bottom hemline, though it ended at mid-thigh, folded during certain movements to hang at his knee. It was so thin, yet so billowy, that every slope and line of his shoulders and upper chest were perfectly visible, and the rest was lost to oblivion.
Arthur was pale, covered in a clammy sheen of sweat.
"Good morning, Honeybear," he said, nodding to me but, thankfully, not stepping into the room. His enthusiasm was unusually reserved, and I had to wonder, by that and by his appearance, if he was sick.
In a way that wasn't mental.
"We were going to get you some clothes tomorrow tonight," he continued. "I'm sorry that you had to ask for them." He stopped speaking then, and even though he was looking at the floor, eyelashes shadowing his cheeks, I knew that he expected me to say something.
I replied cautiously, prepared for anything. "Thank you."
"So I'll see you later." He smiled, a quick, darting glimpse of his usual cocky self and then he disappeared from sight, and the door next to this room opened and closed once more.
How bizarre. No threats? No assaults? No requests that I stab him?
Maybe it was an off day in psycho-land.
Milo re-entered the room, and if he was disappointed in Arthur's sorry attempt at positive reinforcement, or whatever the hell that awkward little encounter was supposed to be, his face was like stone and gave nothing away.
Again, he angled his body in a way that suggested he wanted me to step outside into the hallway, without ever making a move to usher me in that direction. I stiffened slightly after I passed him, because he immediately fell into step behind me, so swift that it startled me. If I had any doubt, this dispelled it. He could catch me with ease if I bolted. My ankle twinged loudly when I put any substantial pressure on that foot, but I had the feeling that even without the injury I would stand no chance.
I had left my door cracked when I left, so I grabbed the edge and pulled it open. I expected Milo to lock it as soon as I stepped inside, but he grabbed the edge to keep me from pulling it closed behind me.
"If you had any consideration," he said, "you would remind Twitch to lock your door when he leaves."
I was gobsmacked. I tried not to let it show on my face, but I knew that my initial shocked expression had given me away.
I couldn't even ask him how he knew, because he continued before I could gather words. "You're lucky that he didn't wake Trenton."
My stomach churned as I realized what had happened: when Twitch raised his voice in defense of Arthur, even though I had been referring to Trenton, Milo had heard. "Where is he? Can he hear us talking right now?" I had visions of technological bugs, cameras watching my every move.
I made my voice as quiet as his, and unexpectedly, he snorted. His teeth were as stark-white as I remembered them from when he'd smiled at us on the bus. "They're both probably asleep again."
"Probably," I asked flatly. That wasn't much of a reassurance.
"Arthur, definitely. He sleeps like the dead. And I'd be surprised if Trenton didn't go back to sleep as soon as he nudged Arthur awake for me." He stopped talking then, suddenly enough to suggest that he had said too much. "Twitch could use some contact with others…I won't begrudge him that."
I nodded to show I understood—he wouldn't tell. At least, not until I gave him a reason to do so.
I stepped backwards, expecting him to close the door, and waited for him to do so, but he merely tilted his head slightly as if he were trying to figure me out.
"Have a seat. I'll check your ankle."
"Oh." I hadn't realized he was planning that. Hadn't Arthur told him just to lock me in? "Now?" I asked, glancing back at the bed, the only place to sit, thinking of my torn shorts.
"I can postpone it for as long as you object. Most bones that heal crooked can be rebroken."
"Now's fine," I hurriedly assured. "Just…let me change?" I didn't mean for it to come out as a question, but he nodded his consent anyway.
"I'll return shortly."
Since "shortly" was a pretty general measurement of time, and I didn't know how long he would be gone, I shed my pants as soon as he shut the door. Comparitively, it took me forever to change into the sweatpants. I tried to step into them, but quickly discovered the stupidity of that before my ankle suffered any more pain than walking caused it.
I ended up sitting on the bed and easing the pant leg over my foot, guiding each fold of cloth with my hands, like a game of Operation where my foot was the tool and the tunnel of the pant leg was the buzzy bit that I always hit no matter how steady my hand or careful my movements. I was luckier in this case, maybe because the stakes were higher. Pain was always a high motivator for me.
I had just managed to get the band pulled up to my waist, and scooted into a more comfortable position on the bed, when I heard a knock on the door.
After closing the door behind him, Milo reached down to scoop up the torn shorts in the middle of the floor, and tossed them down the hidden laundry shoot. Then he sat the objects he carried in with him on the foot of the bed, and sat down next to them.
I tensed when he grabbed my foot, even though he did it gently, but I let him pull it closer.
"Is there anything I should do?" I asked, disconcerted when he just sat there, warm, dry hands on my foot, completely still.
Wondering if he was anything like Trenton. Feeling that sinking dread as I asked myself why he was sitting on my bed, why he was touching me. Never mind that I knew that already, and that his every expression, word, and movement was cold and detached. My mind told me something entirely different than my logic.
"Waiting for you to relax."
"Sorry." Like I could help it. Regardless, I tried to force myself to relax, and he began to unwind the ace bandage from around my ankle. He did it quickly, with extreme care, but it seemed to hurt anyway. As the bandage came off, my ankle absolutely throbbed with pain. I grimaced at the pain and looked away when the last of the bandage came off, because my foot was swollen, my ankle purple and a dark, bloody-looking red beneath the skin. I whimpered when he touched it and gently skimmed over the area with his fingertips.
"It helps if you talk. Distract yourself from the pain. Tell me about your family," he said as he did this.
"Um…my dad…well, I honestly don't really like my dad." I pointedly looked away from my foot. Just the look of it was honestly making me a little queasy. "He's one of those men who don't believe they should have to put any effort into a family, that they go to work and come home to sleep, and they shouldn't have to deal with anything else. He doesn't know me at all."
I stopped. Wow. That was surprisingly bitter. I hadn't even meant to say that much.
"And your mother?"
"Well, you know. She's okay." In reality, my mother was everything to me. She had been both of my parents. But I didn't want these people to know too much about her. For all I knew, she could become a target. "I don't get along with my parents," I told him. Then my voice hardened in memory. "And I believe you met my brother."
"The boy in the bus?" Milo asked mildly, still examining my ankle.
"And the girl, she's your sister?"
"No." I lost some of my bite, thinking about Kayla, wondering if she had gotten Lucas to the hospital in time. Wondering how both of them could abandon me like that, he my twin brother, she my best friend.
And that's when he jerked my foot and I felt something move inside. My head went dark with pain, though I didn't scream—couldn't scream. The sound that escaped me was more like a weak whimper.
"I'm going to wrap it up again. This time, you need to keep all pressure off of it."
I nodded, still gritting my teeth.
I glared up at him, but he wasn't looking. "Duh," I huffed. He ignored my tone.
When he was done, he gathered his supplies and this time it really looked like he was going to leave. I was somewhat reluctant to see him go. Milo wasn't the friendliest man, but he wasn't Trenton, and he wasn't Arthur, and despite his coldness, his presence relieved the tedium.
And he was cold because he didn't want me here. How could I complain about that? I didn't want me here either.
He paused at the door again, and I got an unnerving feeling for a second, half expecting him to think of another reason to stay.
"Why didn't you run?"
The demanding question shocked me. "I promised I wouldn't," I said to him, taking care with my tone to make it seem like I was saying the obvious, not using sarcasm.
He churned over that a few seconds, in which I truly wondered whether or not he believed me, and then he nodded and finally pushed the door closed, until a soft click announced the mechanism had caught, and another, more grating and audible click, signaled the pushing of the lock.
I listened to see if I could hear him open his door down the hall; but if he did, I didn't hear it.
As I sat there, his question returned to me: why didn't I run?
Too many reasons. Far too many. Simply running for it was no longer an acceptable solution.
It was maybe three hours until anyone came to my door again. I had taken a long bath, until my fingers, and the toes of my uninjured foot (for I kept the other ankle propped on the side of the tub), were wrinkled and my skin was rubbery. After I got out, I spent the rest of my time thinking. Maybe I thought a little too much, but it was the only thing to do.
I wondered what my parents were doing and if my brother was okay, but mostly I found myself planning and musing. I tried to imagine what was going in Arthur's mind when he gave me those calculating looks. I wondered why Trenton had stopped, and if Twitch's speculation had any merit. I wondered why Milo seemed to be so helpful this morning, when previously, it had seemed as if he was the one who was most opposed to my presence.
But no matter how many possible answers I came up with—and there were a lot of them, some logical and some entirely unrealistic—I couldn't be sure, so it seemed like a wasted effort. I had to wait for more information. And since information was something that didn't seem to be forthcoming, I had to find a way to get more information.
That was when the planning started. Instead of asking myself questions about Twitch and Cecelia and everyone else, I asked myself questions about myself. And when I heard and saw my doorknob slowly turn, I had, amazingly, come up with some answers.
I felt a moment of fear in which I steeled myself, ready for anything.
The door opened slowly, and I saw a mess of curly brown hair edge into the room, followed by big brown eyes. When he saw that I was sitting on my bed, alert and waiting, he cleared his throat a little with false bravado, almost like he was embarrassed to be caught peeking. He stood up straight and pushed open the door.
"H-hello," he said. "U-um, I brought sheets. And lunch." In his hand was a plate with a sandwich, cut in half from one corner to another and spread apart like in the commercials. Not even my mother did that.
"Hey, Twitch," I greeted him. "Thank you. It looks delicious." As he came forward to give me the plate, I asked, "Could I possibly speak to you for a minute before you leave?" Not wanting to make him nervous, I didn't put any real urgency in my voice, but I could see just the simple request put him on edge anyway. "It's just something I want to talk to Arthur about, but I'm a little afraid. I want your opinion first."
I wondered if it would work. By admitting that I was afraid, I was making myself vulnerable, and by asking for his opinion, I was showing that I valued it. I hoped it was enough to dissipate the loaded question—a question, I was sure, that nobody wanted to hear, especially someone as prone to anxiety as Twitch.
I scooted towards the head of the bed to give him plenty of room if he chose to sit. To my relief, he did, cautiously, setting the plate between us so that it was closer to me. He kept the neatly folded sheets clutched in his lap, however.
"Why do you want me?" he asked, looking down at the sheets.
"You know him a lot better than I do."
"I don't know him that good," he mumbled, but I could tell he was pleased. That was good—I had wondered if he would get bashful and helpful, or defensive, thinking that I was trying to trick him into giving up information.
I thought of the best way to begin and ended up reaching to take a bite of my sandwich. Chewing gave me extra time to think.
"I was hoping I could start helping you clean. Arthur told me that's what I was supposed to do, but he hasn't brought it up since then, and being stuck in this room makes me feel like I'm not really…earning my keep, you know what I mean?"
"Oh," Twitch said. "I understand. You're getting claustrophobic." He nodded wisely. I smiled a little, unable to help myself. The sage tone of his voice, exaggerated by realization, was cute. If I weren't smiling, I would be worried—that was unusually astute of Twitch. I had not expected him to guess that, and if he saw through my casual request that easily, what other things did he see?
It was unnerving to think that maybe I wasn't being as crafty and calculating as I thought I was. That all of these people, even little Twitch, saw straight through my plans and "manipulations," and were humoring me while they laughed together in secret.
Maybe I really was in a hopeless situation, with no power to free myself.
I couldn't let myself think that. I had to have hope or else I'd trap myself here more effectively than they could. I needed to look at this as a lesson: not to underestimate Twitch, even though he was a child, and even though I suspected he was, in most ways, a victim just like me.
After all, maybe he just automatically jumped to the conclusion because he assumed fear as a motive for everything. If I were as perpetually nervous and afraid as he was, it would be something I might do.
Twitch looked me straight in the eyes, and in an unusual display of confidence, assured me, "It's okay to tell him. He'll still love you."
"Well, that's not really what"—
"You can tell him tonight at dinner! It will be just the three of us, and I'll be so quiet it's like I'm not there at all; I'm good at that."
Faced with his enthusiasm, there was nothing I could really do but agree.
"Hello there, Muffin. I missed your pretty face." There was still something off in the way Arthur acted when he came for me later that night to bring me downstairs for dinner. He hovered above me on the bed, his hands on my face, one thumb caressing my bruised cheekbone and the other smoothing along my eyebrow. He whispered his greeting so closely to my face that I smelled his breath, minty with toothpaste, and felt it tickle my skin. He was gentle, subdued, and when I brought my eyes to meet his at such close range, his pupils were dilated so that the pretty green-gold of his irises were nothing but thin outlines.
"I'm so hungry, baby," he said slowly, leaning forward as his eyes drifted shut. He parted his lips, and that was my cue to twist out of his way, standing up to balance on one foot. My heart was pounding.
"Okay, let's go." I swallowed nervously when he swiveled his head to look up at me with dull eyes. He remained bent over the bed as if I had never moved, his reactions too slow to accommodate my change in position. He smiled after a moment and giggled childishly.
He straightened and reached out to put his hands on my shoulders, still grinning like a fool. "Okay okay. Hold on to me. I won't let go. I would never let you go." He wrapped one arm around my waist and grabbed one of my hands to pull it over his shoulder.
Is he on drugs? Seriously? I know I had thought that he must be on drugs because he acted so insane, but he had never acted like this. Before, he had been so bizarre that, to me, drugs were the only answer, because it was impossible that a person could be so insane. Now, he stumbled as if he were the one with the broken ankle, jerking me along as I tried my best to keep my foot out of his way.
"Arthur, I'll just walk by myself," I told him when we got to the top of the staircase and I looked down with a churning anxiety. He ignored me, taking a step down and pulling me with him. I desperately grabbed onto the banister as he dragged my body down another step—but that was as far as he got, because he slipped on the next step and fell on his ass. I pulled myself out of his hands as he laughed at himself. He didn't seem to be hurt.
"Arthur," I yelled to catch his attention. He stopped laughing abruptly and looked up at me with hazy, adoring eyes. "I can use the banister to get down the stairs. I'll meet you in the dining room, okay?"
"You don't need the banister. I'm here." He reaches for me again.
"No, I…Arthur, I don't need you. I can do it by myself."
I looked up when he didn't make another move toward me, to see a blank expression on his face. Then he turned and descended the stairs. He stopped there, though, and looked up at me, waiting, with that same dead expression.
I took my time getting down the stairs, and with each step, I became more certain that I'd made the right choice. If he'd tried to drag me down these steps, we both would have fallen. I would be worse off than just a broken ankle—maybe even dead.
He resumed his hold when I reached him. I held my hand out to him when I was in range, as an attempt to soothe his burned feelings, but he ignored it and latched onto my waist, rubbing his forehead very briefly across my chest before dragging me towards the dinner table. I tried to compensate for his rough treatment—he wasn't even walking very slowly, now—by placing an arm around his shoulder and hauling myself up, forcing him to take my weight; as well as hopping.
Twitch was indeed the only person in the dining room when we entered. Arthur surprised me by commenting on this: "Just us tonight, Bumblebee."
The look Twitch directed at me as I took my seat was blatantly encouraging.
"Where is everybody?"
Arthur hummed absently. "Preparations for tomorrow night," he offered.
Dinner was chicken, I discovered. It was covered in some sort of caramel-colored glaze that tasted absolutely delicious when I took a bite. I played up my enjoyment, all too aware of Twitch analyzing my reaction. He smiled, secretly pleased with himself. When I shot a glance at Arthur, I halfway expected him to be watching, to notice what I was doing and show either approval or jealousy. But he was zoned out, his eyes unfocused and his fork gripped loosely, inches from his mouth.
I glanced at Twitch, wondering if he knew what was wrong with Arthur, but he was absorbed in his meal. He didn't seem to notice anything amiss.
As if he could feel my eyes on him, he looked up and smiled at me. Then his eyes slid to Arthur and his smile shifted in a subtle way, intensified and softened at the same time. He definitely didn't seem to think anything was unusual about Arthur's behavior. "Do you like it?" he asked.
"Yummy," Arthur replied, startling me. He was still staring off into space. I hadn't expected him to respond. But as I watched, his eyes focused—and when I say that, I mean it was like I could almost literally see him pull his mind back from where it had wandered. I saw his thoughts, previously nebulous, reform into a more secure awareness. When he focused, he turned to me.
"Twitch says you have a question for me."
I shifted my eyes to Twitch, who graced me an intensely encouraging and supportive nod. He was apparently so encouraging that he'd jumped the gun a little. But that told me one thing I needed to know—conversations with Twitch weren't private.
"Yes, actually. On"— I cut off, realizing that my sense of time was so off-kilter that I had no idea what day it had been—"The other day, I got the impression that I was to be given a job. And so far I haven't done much of anything. It's…kind of boring, you know?"
Arthur searched my face. "You're bored?"
"Yes," I admitted bravely.
"Twitch seems to think the room is making you claustrophobic."
I looked back to Twitch. Not private at all. I wondered if he had also offered Arthur a detailed account of my expressions and body language. Lying would get me into trouble later, I knew it, so I replied with a simple "Yes."
Arthur dabbed at his mouth with a napkin and leaned back in his chair. He appeared finished with his meal, though he had eaten barely half of the chicken. "He also explained to me why he removed your bindings the first night." He leaned forward again, quite suddenly. I was shocked by such a quick movement when all I had seen so far was sluggish apathy. The interest in his eyes, too, was unexpected. "What do you feel, when you're tied up?" he inquired.
"Scared," I answered honestly, too caught off guard to say anything else.
"Is it exciting?"
"No." I glared. "Not at all."
He smirked. "I think it's sexy."
I thought about Cecelia's chains and got a squirming sense of discomfort—the beginnings of the fear surfacing, at just the thought. Arthur wouldn't do that to me, would he?
I didn't know what he was capable of. That was the whole point, wasn't it?
"Arthur, I would hate you," I told him, as seriously as I could with my suddenly dry mouth. I wanted to quell the ideas I could already see forming inside his head. "I would hate you forever, and nothing you could do would make me stop."
He frowned. "Would you?" It did nothing to reassure me, though, because the frown was contemplative. Like he was considering it. Considering doing it, and wondering if the consequences were acceptable to him. "Hmmm. What made you this way?"
I searched my memories. "It was a specific event. Happened when I was really young."
"What was it?"
"Why do you want to know?" I demanded. "So you can recreate it?"
"I want to know everything about you." There was something in his stare that forced me to look away, uncomfortable.
"You know the stow-and-go seating they have in the minivans? With the little storage compartments under the seat?" I stopped, realizing he probably wouldn't know, but he nodded as if he understood. Though I suspected he didn't. "When I was six, one of my Dad's friends came over while my brother and I were playing in the backyard, and he had one of those compartments in the back of his van. He opened it to get his toolbox, to help my father with something, and left it open. Left the back of his van open, too.
"Lucas and I were playing hide-and-seek. I saw the compartment, folded myself inside, and closed the hatch. It was more like a grate than a solid hatch, but I figured that if it was closed, Lucas would never think to look." I sighed. "I was small for a six year old, but even still, I barely fit, and it was really uncomfortable, so I decided to find somewhere else to hide. But the latch wouldn't open from the inside, and I couldn't fit my hand through the holes in the hatch."
I was met with silence as he processed this. It was broken, at length, by Twitch, who had remained so quiet I had forgotten he was there.
"How long were you trapped in there?"
"It was about two and a half hours before the guy decided to leave and came to put his toolbox away."
"Didn't your brother…?" His face was distorted with pain and empathy. Arthur's was contorted with the beginnings of anger.
I laughed. "No. Lucas got bored after ten minutes and went inside to watch TV."
"Didn't you scream?"
"Of course I did. My dad and his friend didn't hear me from inside the garage. They were running the generator."
"Wow." His voice was one of horrified awe.
"And then," I added—because this was the real kicker—"when my dad finally let me out, he yelled at me for getting into his friend's truck without permission, and told me to stop acting like a hysterical sissy." I hadn't even known what the word meant, but that was what I was—hysterical. Scared to death that I was going to be crushed in that tiny space. I'd gone inside to my mother, but I couldn't explain what had happened. I was crying too hard. She'd coddled me, as was her habit. But she hadn't seemed too concerned. Just her quieter son, mama's little boy, having a fit.
"And you miss these people?" Arthur demanded.
I turned from Twitch to see his jaw set in a hard line. "Of course I do."
He was blatantly sarcastic as he fluttered his lashes. "You must love them."
"Of course I do," I repeated, a little indignant. "They're my family." He had no right to judge them. He didn't know them at all—just formed an opinion on one incident, one of the worst incidents. Every child had those—moments from their youth where they just knew they had been wronged.
"Oh, well since they're your family, that makes it okay."
"They have their flaws," I admitted, "but so does everyone else."
"And that's what happens when you love someone," he cooed. "You blind yourself to all of their faults, and love them for who they are, no matter how imperfect they may be. It's bullshit!" His sudden yell startled me and had Twitch cowering with his head ducked, his hands twisting together under the table. "Family is just a big excuse. The biggest excuse I've ever heard. Nobody can treat you like shit as thoroughly as a family member and keep you coming back for more."
The table wrenched, its legs scraping across the dining room floor, as Arthur stood, threw down his fork violently enough to chip his plate, and stormed away.
After a moment of stunned silence, Twitch reached out to take a sip of his drink, and his gulp was loud in the silence.
Family was apparently a touchy subject.
I rose to my feet. Twitch froze, looking up at me in horror, and I wondered what was going through his head to make him look like that.
"Dinner was very good. Thank you, Twitch." I pushed in my chair and started to follow Arthur.
"Where are you going?" Twitch asked, in a hushed sort of whisper. Perhaps he was worried I would bolt, since there was nobody in the room big enough to stop me and the door was mere yards away.
"I still need to talk to him."
Clearly, this was unthinkable. "But he's angry!"
I turned my eyes upwards, where I could faintly hear the slamming of a door. The corner of my mouth twitched, though I fought down any sort of visible evidence of my intentions. "I know."
It was time to test myself.