Chapter 49

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"Alex? What happens if someone takes your brother or sister?"

The boy frowns. "Why would someone take them?"

It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday and they're seated at the kitchen table. Henry and Annabelle are playing in the next room while Alex's mother is sleeping, having finished her overnight shift at the hospital only two hours ago. The fourteen-year-old boy notices displeasure register across his father's face. Mr. Dash sits back at the kitchen table and studies his son. "You can't afford to be naïve, Alex. Think, damnit."

"Because..." begins Alex. "Because they're sick deviants. Perverts."

"That may be – and if that's the case, you will have to kill them. But there will be others...people who are slick, street-smart. It could be someone who's been watching you without you realizing it. Or it might be someone you've been travelling with – which I advise you not to do unless they have supplies you've run out of."

Alex stares into the other room, watching his siblings as they play with action figures. "And they'd take children that little?"

"Yes!" says his father. "People will be desperate. They will position themselves to gain the upper hand on their enemies and everyone will be an enemy. The twins will be a commodity, to be traded. The bad people will bargain for your food, weapons, anything. And they'll know you'll pay up because you care for your brother and sister. You cannot allow anyone to gain the upper hand because you'll lose."

Mr. Dash sips his coffee, then gently sets the mug back down on the table, his movements deliberate and calming. The boy has seen his father employ this method before and yet never feels ready for it.

"YOUR FOOD OR YOUR SISTER!"

Alex snaps to attention, his eyes darting back and forth to his father's. His gaze appears crazed as he leans forward, invading his son's space.

"Food!" yells Alex.

Mr. Dash bolts up from his chair, knocking it to the ground. "I WANT YOUR RIFLE, TOO!" He grabs Alex by the collar and yanks him out of his chair. Henry and Annabelle peer around the corner from the living room, their eyes wide with fear.

"MAKE A CHOICE!" yells his father.

Alex knocks his father's arms loose and steps backward, trembling. His mother, bleary-eyed, steps into the room. "What're you doing! Leave him alone!"

"He has to know how to take care of himself and his brother and sister if we're not here," says his father. "He must understand what it might take."

Mrs. Dash, with tears pooling below bloodshot eyes, stands in front of the twins. "Alex, take them outside."

When Alex leaves the room, he hears her say, "I can't do this anymore."

*********

Alex's head pulsed with pain; his temple throbbed with each heartbeat. His breathing was restricted, forcing him to inhale and exhale from his nose only. When his vision focused, he recognized the gray and white checkered floor beneath his feet and knew he was in the kitchen. But it was the farmhouse kitchen, not the kitchen from his youth where his father had trained him to become hard.

He raised his head and saw a man seated across the table from him. The man's head, enclosed in a rusty metal mask, was lying back against the chair. Alex wondered if he was staring at the ceiling, but after a few moments, heard the electronic sound of the man's breathing and decided that he was asleep.

When he tried to move, Alex found his arms were bound behind him. He glanced down and noted the heavy rope, wound around himself and the chair several times. His mouth was taped shut and he felt his head wrapped in something.

A bandage?

Before him on the table were bloody rags. The blood was dark, almost brown in color...he'd been sitting here a while. On one of the rags was a small, metal object, also smeared with old blood.

Glancing outside, Alex saw that it was still light and then remembered following the shadow into the yard and then a cloth put to his nose and mouth. Then all had gone dark.

When he turned back to the table, the man was staring at him.

Alex's heart skipped at the sight of the mask, with its glassy, domed eyes. He couldn't make out anything beyond them, just the light from the overhead hanging lamp glinting off the surface. There was nothing where the nose should be but a smooth, metallic surface. Serving as a mouth were five vertical slits, with some sort of fine mesh wiring inside. He supposed these must filter the air.

There was an eerie pause while the two men stared ahead.

"I'm at my end, so you need to listen," said the man in a voice that seemed more robotic than human.

"Who are you?" asked Alex. Through the tape over his mouth, however, his question was expressed as incoherent mumbling.

"That's why your mouth is taped, Alex. Shut up and listen."

How does he know me?

The man slumped forward and coughed, looking as if he might pass out, then straightened back up. He set gloved hands against the table in an effort to stabilize himself. "I've removed your implant," he said, gesturing to the object on the bloody rag. He pointed to Alex's head. "But...you'll have to behave as though it's still in there."

He rose and rounded the table, bumping into the corner. Withdrawing a knife from inside his coat, he said, "You will be able to think for yourself, now." He paused, coughed, then drew closer to Alex, raising the knife close to his face. "So, think about that once I cut your restraints. If I wanted to kill you, I'd already have done it."

Alex stared at the light bouncing off the wavering blade as the unsteady man maneuvered the weapon between his flesh and the tape. He winced as the slice was made and the adhesive was torn away. Then the man severed the rope and Alex was free.

The masked man made his way back to his chair and fell into it, the knife clanking to the floor. The man tapped his finger on a book Alex had noticed before; a small, black journal held shut by an elastic strap. It was badly tattered and frayed.

"This...will help..." the man spoke between labored breaths, "if I passsss...ssssuddenly."

Alex glanced at the journal, then the man. "Help with what?"

The man, struggling, leaned his elbows on the table. His head hung between what appeared to be emaciated shoulders beneath the coat. "With...finding..." His mask lowered and gently thumped against the table.

Alex went to his side and placed a hand on his shoulder. "With finding what?" He shook the man back to consciousness. "With finding what?"

The cadence of the man's electronic breathing had diminished, occurring every five seconds or so. After a long inhalation, he spoke. "With...finding...the twins."

Alex's heart hammered as his memory rocketed into overdrive. He saw Henry and Annabelle. He saw their struggles, their triumphs, laughing, crying. He saw then in the side car as the three of them sped along on the cycle.

"Where are they?" he asked the man. There was no response, only the dying wheeze escaping the vertical slits in the mask.

Alex stood by the man's side for a few minutes. He listened as the breathing finally ceased and the man's arms fell to his side, dangling just above the floor. Alex caught him as his mask slid from the table and gently laid the body on the floor.

Alex reached for the journal. He opened it and read the first line:

Bury me. Do it now. Before Isaac returns.


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