A/N: Hey! Been awhile, right? But less than a year, right? I really wanted this up by Thanksgiving, but I couldn't get that to happen. Unfortunately, I've got so many other projects going on right now. But I still love this fandom and this movie and its characters and, more so, you guys! So, sorry for the delay, those of you who still review (wow!), but here's a new chappie just for you. Plus, it's super long. Don't know how that happens. Hee. Hope you like.

Chapter 14

Ben

Of all the things I would've expected to see upon opening my eyes first thing in the morning, let me give an example of something that wouldn't have made the list: Riley Poole sitting curled up against the wall, head pillowed on his arms, asleep. I blinked. What in the…?

I didn't move. Just watched him for a second. Okay. This was weird. What are you doing here, kid? I wondered how long he'd been there like that. It couldn't be comfortable, but wow, he was out. I suddenly wondered if this was the first time he'd been really fast asleep since he got over that concussion. So why would he be sitting in here…? I sighed. Duh.

Nightmare, huh? I nodded to myself. Broke our deal, you know. Little twerp had a nightmare, and he was too stubborn or too embarrassed to wake me up but still felt the need to come in and check on me, which could only mean he'd seen me die. I held in another sigh. Ah, Riley. Like the kid took lessons on the most effective ways of breaking my heart. I sighed quietly. I knew the kid would be mortified if he woke up and realized I knew what happened. There was no need for that.

I let out a sleepy groan and rolled over to face the other wall, making enough noise to wake him but not so much that he would think I was in any way coherent. Sure enough, a second later, I heard the soft click of my door shutting behind him. When I rolled back over, he was indeed gone. Poor kid. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the week definitely hadn't gone as I'd planned. Should've planned on that. I buried my face in the pillow and moaned loudly enough for it to echo back in my ears. Then I rolled onto my back and muttered at the ceiling, "There's got to be a way to salvage this." Because, hey, if there's any way something can be salvaged, I'm usually the guy to find it. Seriously.

I reached over and grabbed the cordless phone off the nightstand, dialing without really thinking too hard, and waited until it was answered. "Mel." Always hire a salvage crew. Learned that the hard way off the coast of Massachusetts.

She'd answered on the fourth ring. I expected a cheery hello. What I got was, "Ben? Gah, do you have any idea what time it is?"

I looked at the clock. It read 7:49. She was in Minnesota. So that would've made it… "What, 6:49? That's not that early."

"I'm on vacation. Unless someone's dying, you never call me before noon from now on. Got it?"

I smirked and tucked one hand behind my head. She really did sound tired, which was funny because she's usually so happy song-bird in the mornings. "What? Stay up late watching reruns of Red Green with the fam?"

"I will kill you."

That made me chuckle a bit. "Okay. Sorry. Never again."

"Thank you."

There was a brief moment of silence. "But seeing as how you're already awake…?"

"Oh, just say what you're going to say," she said only a little grudgingly. I'm almost certain she was curious as to why in the world I'd be calling her. Actually, she's bright enough, she probably already had an idea.

I took a deep breath. "I've been confronted with a small problem."

"Small as in about 5'6", 135 pounds, soulful blue eyes, answers to Riley?"

"Wow. What else does your crystal ball tell you?" I asked dryly.

"That depends on whether you can pay my four bucks per minute." She cut to the chase then with a patiently asked, "What happened, Ben?"

So I told her. Most if not all of it. Dad, the nightmares, the Stepford Riley. "And frankly, I hoped it would just…go away. I figured Dad would've calmed down by now, which apparently was hoping for too much. Honestly, I'm not even completely sure I know what his problem is. I've explained to him that nothing that happened was Riley's fault. He says he gets it. But still he's acting like a jerk, albeit very subtly, but that somehow makes it all the more infuriating. For crying out loud, I don't think he's even spoken the kid's name. Not once. It's always 'the boy.' And since Dad hasn't calmed down, Riley's not only walking on eggshells, he's going back and sweeping them up and then smiling and taking out the trash. It's ridiculous. Ridiculous and pointless. There's no reason the three of us shouldn't be able to get along and have an easy, relaxing, fun Thanksgiving. And it's my fault because I'm the one who brought Riley here and told him it would be okay, and he'd be welcome, and…and I really just want to punch my dad a little." Admittedly, that last part may not have been completely true. But even so. I was so frustrated the idea wasn't completely unappealing.

"Ben…"

"And you know what? I don't care. I don't care what my dad does. This week was supposed to be for Riley. Kid deserves a week off, and he's not getting it because for some reason only he understands, my dad decided to pick this week to suddenly become a grumpy old man." And what I wasn't admitting was that that fact really hurt. "So that's why I'm calling you. For Riley. You…you get how his mind works a little I think. So how do I fix him? How do I break him out of this? How do I make him…him again? He won't really talk to me, you know?"

"You mean like he usually does?" This question was obviously not really a question. Melanie's one of the few people who knows I can be really slow. Most people will describe me as brilliant, eccentric, or crazy. But yes, I can be slow.

"What?"

"Ben, he's not going to talk to you. You want him to talk, you've gotta do most of the talking for him."

I shook my head. "That makes no sense."

She explained. "When you go awhile when you don't have anyone to talk to, you get way too used to not talking. It's not an easy habit to break, Ben. Bottling stuff up…you don't do it because you're stubborn. You do it because it's a defense mechanism. And then you get kind of addicted. It's…it's hard to quit."

"Okay," I said slowly. "The kid's an addict. How do we get him…off the bottle?"

"Well, if you're waiting for him to do it himself, you'll be waiting awhile. You gain his trust, which you're already doing. Then you make him comfortable. Then you pry."

That sounded like a horrible plan. "Melanie…"

"You ask him questions, Ben. You have to. The only way he's going to open up is if you care enough to ask. And he might fight it, and you might feel like a jerk, and he might even call you a jerk, but if you want him to open up to you, you have to find a way to make him trust you, find a setting where he'll feel comfortable talking to you, and then you need to ask him questions he needs to answer."

"What if he doesn't want to?"

"Ben, he doesn't want to. That's kind of the point. He doesn't want to, but he needs to, and if he really trusts you, he'll talk to you if you ask."

"How do you know?"

"That's the thing. Anybody can get anyone to spill their guts about anything so long as that person really trusts them. And Ben, I think Riley might really trust you. And if not, he's getting pretty close, and I know how scary that can be."

"Okay." I nodded. "So…how do I make him comfortable? He's not going to be comfortable here. Not with my dad being the way he is. And I can't leave early either. I would feel guilty, Riley would think it was all his fault, and my dad would wind up alone on Thanksgiving."

"Have you tried talking to your dad?"

I rolled my eyes. "Have you tried talking to my dad? The man can be pretty impossible."

"Really? You know there's a saying that involves apples and trees…"

"Mel."

"Ben. If you need to talk to Riley now, if you don't think it can wait, then you need to fix this thing with your dad. I don't know the man real well, but he can't be completely unreasonable. Or, even if he is, he can't be completely heartless. Isn't there something you can do to get him to…make his peace with Riley? Something to let him know how special this kid is?"

I thought about it. I didn't like that I had to prove to my dad that my friend was worthwhile. Not when it was already so blindingly obvious. But then maybe that was the key. Maybe if I just got them both away from the house. Got them somewhere where Riley could be Riley regardless of whether or not my dad was around. Something both of them would enjoy. Like what? The two were polar opposites. What was I going to find in Hartford, Connecticut that was going to magically bring everybody together? Pretty sure the Mark Twain House wasn't going to cut it. Or the Museum of Connecticut History. Or even the Bushnell Park Carousel. I gave a frustrated sigh. "I don't…" And to this day, I have no idea where I got this idea. It was the kind of idea that's so far out in left field it just sort of drops down and takes you so much by surprise you think it must be the answer. Sometimes I forget I'm an idealist. "I think I've got an idea."

"You usually have several. This one does have something to do with what we're talking about, right?"

"Yes. Thanks, Melanie. You're brilliant."

"If you think I'm too sleepy to remember you said that, you're sadly mistaken, Ben Gates. I will remind you of this every chance I get."

"As well you should. I've got to go."

"Wait, wait, wait; aren't you going to tell me what this inspired idea of yours is?"

"I'll call you later and tell you if it worked. Thanks for listening. You can go back to sleep now if you want."

"Ah, bless you."

"Bye." I set the phone down and sat up, stretching and psyching myself up for the day. This would work. This was crazy enough to work. I get a lot of mileage out of the whole "it's just crazy enough to work" line.


NTNTNTNTNTNT


"So you really aren't going to tell us where we're going?" my dad asked for the umpteenth time since I'd announced at breakfast that I had an idea of what we should do that day. I hadn't given him any clues, either, which had annoyed him. Which…I enjoyed a little.

"Nope," I said easily. Riley was in the back, sitting straight and looking like a thirteen year old trying not to look sick of his parents' arguing. The bruises on his face had done a good job of healing, which made them that faded yellow-green color. Mine were about that stage, too.

"Well, are we almost there?" Dad demanded.

"Yes." Because we were, actually. It only took about another minute before I was pulling into the parking lot. The lot was surprisingly full. I wouldn't have thought so many would be up for this sort of thing on the day before Thanksgiving. But maybe their families were as dysfunctional as mine, and they needed something to do that would keep their minds off whatever their problems were.

My dad was looking out the windshield, peering at the sign over the old, converted warehouse. "We're…stopping here to ask for directions, right?"

"Well, we'd look like idiots seeing as how this is the place I was looking for."

Riley was sitting forward, now, confusion scribbled all over his face. "Whoa. Seriously?" First words he'd said the entire trip that weren't the result of a direct question.

I shrugged. "It sounded fun. I've never done this before."

Dad snorted. "That's probably because it probably hadn't been invented when you were young enough for it to be appropriate," he told me, gesturing at the place like he does when he believes he's superior/right. "This place is for children. Why don't we just spend the rest of the day at Chuck E. Cheese?"

"Well then what would we have left to do tomorrow?" And with one of my little grins that really make him grind his teeth, I opened the car door and got out. The sky was gray and overcast, and there was definitely rain in the forecast. All the better that we'd be inside. Riley stood next to me, fixing me with the most suspicious-looking gaze I'd ever seen from him. I'm pretty sure he was trying to figure out if this was my idea of a joke, if I was clueless, or if maybe I was just a little insane.

My dad crossed his arms, still planted firmly in the passenger seat, peering at me through the open driver's side door. "Well, I'm not going in there." The funny thing was, he kind of sounded like a pouting ten year old.

"Fine. Stay in the car. I'll crack a window."

"Ben…"

"Or you could quit acting like you're ninety and try something new. I think you'll like this."

Riley looked less sure. Ever the peacemaker, he said, "Ben, maybe we should just go somewhere…"

"Ah!" I cut him off with an index finger raised in warning. This surprised him.

"Ben…"

"Ah! No."

"B…"

"Shh." He gave up and scowled at me, crossing his arms. I looked back through the car at my dad. "So are you coming or not?"

His eyes never leaving mine, he reached down and pulled the handle to open the door. He stepped out. "This is absurd." With that, he slammed the door and headed for the building.

With Dad's back safely turned, I glanced at Riley and grinned. The kid shook his head, watching my dad go. "He looks…rather unhappy," he observed. He was trying so hard not to grin, too. He did a decent job; I'll give him that.

"He'll get over it."

"Mm-hm." He looked at me. "Just tell me this isn't some mid-life crisis thing for you. 'Cause if it is, might I suggest buying a Harley or something?"

"Quit pretending you're not excited about this." Mid-life crisis. Young punk. I gave him a little shove and followed after my dad. "We gotta go get in line!" I clapped my hands. "Get our guns! Right? Blast some serious…other…stuff! I bet you anything I'll win something."

He trailed behind me, and I could hear the smile he was trying to keep out of his voice as he said, "You don't even know what laser tag is, do you?"


NTNTNTNTNTNTNTNT


Patrick

There was a line. We had to wait in line to do this thing. We got to the front where they gave us these gadgets that fit over our chests and plastic guns that made blasting sounds, and then they pushed us into a large dark room full of neon lights and obstacles and tunnels and such with some kind of overloud heavy rock musing blaring from high-mounted speakers. I tried to remember if I still had that bottle of ibuprofen in my car. There was a red team and a blue team, identifiable by the colored lights on our equipment. Ben and I were both on the red team along with Ben's young guest and four or five other kids around his age with their parents. Our team entered the room first and was allowed twenty-five seconds to disperse and find sufficient cover. It really was quite a tactical advantage, I thought.

I knew the entire idea of being in that place was ridiculous. But I found myself there nonetheless, and I am a competitive man by nature. In fact, it's probably that competitive nature that has lost me so much in my lifetime. But that's neither here nor there. I had twenty-five seconds to devise a strategy to win the game. So I directed Ben and the boy toward a structure at the east side of the room. I had Ben climb up to the top of this structure, assuming it was sturdily made—there were foot and handholds that went up the side, so this assumption was well-founded. I placed myself below behind a sort of pillar. By that time, the blue team had already entered. We spent that round with a sort of mutually understood stratagem in which the boy would run out, draw the fire of a few of the blue team members, and lead them back to where Ben and I were ready with an ambush. Ben and the boy would holler nonsensical comments to each other trying to sound like soldiers, and using terms like "RV point" and "collateral damage" and, I'm pretty sure one of them used the word "stat!" at one point, their smiles glowing under the black lights. Once I had relaxed a little, I even joined in with the comments some myself. To my surprise, and though I'd never admit it, the game wasn't completely unenjoyable. Loud music aside, the experience was sort of exciting. That and, strictly speaking, we dominated that blue team in there.

When the buzzer sounded, both teams filed back out to the ready room and removed the gear. They gave us score cards on which they'd given us stats on both personal and team performance. Of the three of us, I had the highest accuracy score, Ben had fired the most shots, and the boy had been hit the most times. Though to be fair, that probably reflected as much on our modus operandi as anything else.

We had to wait before we could go in for another round as the next group took up their arms and were ushered in. I followed Ben out into a larger part of the building where there was a video game arcade, concessions, and a sitting area full of tables and chairs. It was this sitting area that Ben directed us to, insisting the boy sit down. The teenager rolled his eyes, but I did notice he'd been favoring his right leg. I didn't know what was wrong with him, but thinking back, in the past few days, he would develop a bit of a limp after a moderate amount of walking. Of course, I had to assume it must be part of the seemingly endless list of injuries my son and his guest had walked through my door with a few days previously. Still, all that running around in there couldn't have been good for his condition.

"Ben. I'm fine. Seriously." The boy looked embarrassed by the attention as he sat, his eyes darting around to see if people he didn't know had noticed and were watching. I had to smile a little at that. I looked at Ben, suddenly remembering the young man he had been. My son at that age had been all confidence and determination until his mother would show up in front of his friends with little Ben stories. From what I remembered of his whining tone, it nearly matched the one I'd just heard from the boy. Ah. To be a paranoid teenager.

"What's the matter with your leg?" I heard myself ask with no small measure of concern. It was a sudden, unexpected kind of concern.

He looked at me the way he always did when I spoke directly to him, which admittedly hadn't been often. It was a surprised, nervously blinking, downward glancing kind of look. Like he had a hard time maintaining eye contact. Like he was afraid I would see something in his eyes I wasn't supposed to. One of the things that rubbed me wrong about him. "I just…scraped it," he answered.

Ben snorted. "Scraped it. Uh-huh. How many stitches are holding you together right now?"

The boy raised his eyebrows at Ben with a little grin. "Too many?"

"Fourteen." Ben looked at me like the answer was for my benefit, though there was almost a note of pride in his voice definitely directed toward the boy.

I wasn't sure what I was supposed to say to that. I believe I said "Ouch."

"Exactly." Ben slapped his hand on the table and stood up. "So. I'm going to get us some…nachos."

The boy went to stand up. Without even looking, as though he had some sixth sense, Ben caught the boy by the shoulder before he'd risen halfway out of his seat and pushed him back down. How did Ben do that? The boy seemed to wonder the same thing. He blinked his eyes. "Don't you…need help?" He nodded, trying to get Ben to nod with him, obviously leading the witness. The boy didn't want to be left alone with me.

"Nope. Thank you, though. Rest your leg. We'll need you fit for the next round." The hand Ben had on the boy's shoulder squeezed for a moment before Ben was suddenly off toward the concession stand.

I looked back at the boy across from me just in time to catch him staring at me with that nearly fearful expression. He quickly dropped his attention to the tabletop, rubbing something imaginary off the surface with his index finger. There was a moment of silence that wasn't at all comfortable. He opened his mouth, but shut it quickly and swallowed.

I knew I should say something. I cleared my throat. "You were excellent at drawing their fire," I opened awkwardly. Honestly, I don't even really know where that came from. That's what happens when I'm forced to make up words on the spot like that. They come out sounding like nonsense.

His eyes glanced up at me. "Thank you. Uh…rare gift." He scratched the back of his head, and gave this tiny smirk that was almost a smile but not quite.

I opened my mouth again, resigning myself to whatever idiotic string of words would no doubt come pouring forth, but was interrupted by a lovely young teenage girl who'd found her way up to our table. She gave me a quick smile, but then her eyes were on the boy.

"Um…hi," she said, casting a quick glance down at the floor before they raised back to his with a shy smile.

I looked at the boy. He was staring wide-eyed at her like he wasn't entirely sure she wasn't a hallucination. He shot me a look, perhaps checking to make sure I saw her, too.

The girl quickly held out a hooded jacket. "Is this yours? I found it in the other room." It obviously didn't belong to him. For one thing, he was still wearing his jacket. I held in a smile. Very smooth, little girl.

He tilted his head a bit, like he hadn't heard her question.

Oh, now, this was ridiculous. I stuck my foot out under the table, pressing down on his instep and cleared my throat loudly.

He nearly jumped. "What?" He looked at me, nearly shocked. I simply gave a pointed tilt of the head toward the girl. He swallowed, and his eyes jumped back to her. "Oh. Ah…no." He shook his head. "Nooo. Actually. It's not. But…um. Thank you. Though."

She smiled again. "Oh. Sorry. Um. Well, then. I'm gonna go. Maybe we'll be on the same team next round."

He was nodding dazedly. "Yeah." He watched her go. Not in a sick sort of way. In a confused sort of way. He turned to me as though I might have the answer to some unspoken question. "That…never happens. Ever."

I offered him a small smile. It probably really was more of a smirk. But it was an encouraging smirk, I thought. I turned toward the retreating girl. "Young lady?"

She turned, several yards away. "Yes, sir?"

"That coat belongs to my son." I nodded over to where Ben stood in line.

The boy sat up a little straighter. "Oh. Yeah. Oh." I believe it really just then occurred to him. "That is his." He waved his hand in Ben's general direction. "Sorry."

She smiled and set the coat on the chair with a little chuckle. "Don't worry. I could never pick anything my dad wears out of a crowd either. It's like all men kind of dress the same at this stage." Her face reddened slightly as she looked suddenly appalled. I think maybe we all were. "Wow, that sounded… Not that your dad dresses…I don't even know your dad. It's…it's a great coat. Yours, too. Um. Never mind." She deliberately closed her mouth before starting over with an embarrassed smile. "I'm just gonna go again." She pointed with both index fingers back toward her own table. "O-kay."

I waited for him to correct her as she turned. As she made her way back to her family. He didn't. He sat there stunned, staring at the table, his face suddenly pale, hands limp on his lap.

I shook my head, biting down on the inside of my cheek. I don't know what that girl was thinking. Of course, people that young assume that anyone older… But that Ben could possibly be… Well, of course, technically, it would be possible, but… They don't even look anything… And even if they did…

Ben appeared then with a tray of nachos topped with beef and that yellow liquid fake cheese and he had a smile to match. "Hey. Making friends?" He nodded in the direction the girl had gone. Then he noticed the look on the boy's face. His expression morphed into one of concern, and his hand seemed to automatically reach out. "Hey. Are you…"

The boy jumped and shrank away from the touch, standing abruptly. "Yeah. No, actually…actually, I don't…I don't feel really good. I think, I just…I'm gonna wait. I'll wait out here. You two can go…go in there. I'm okay. I just…"

"Riley? What? What's wrong?"

He took another nervous step back, hands slightly raised. "Really, it's nothing. Don't worry. Please. You know. Just kind of…my asthma really. Acting up. I'm just gonna go sit down."

"You were sitting down." Ben frowned.

"Yeah. I know. It's…weird, right? It's…the air in here. It's really dry. I'm just gonna walk outside a little, actually. For a minute."

"You have your inhaler with you?" Ben asked the question slowly, like he was trying to calm a skittish colt.

The boy nodded quickly, pulling the little contraption out of his pocket and taking a quick puff as though offering proof, his eyes wide as could be. It was like he felt guilty. He felt guilty when that girl mistook Ben for his father? Why would that be? Unless the guilt stemmed from something else entirely.

Ben blinked, studying the boy for a moment. "Maybe we should just go…"

"No, no, no, no. Really," the boy insisted. "You already paid and everything. You've got another round…"

I cut in then. "I wouldn't mind going, either, actually."

Ben looked between the two of us, and the boy simply stared at his sneakers, shoulders bunched up nearly to his ears. Ben sighed, and only someone who knew him well would have sensed his disappointment. Which was why it surprised me when the boy nearly winced.

"Really, Ben, I don't…"

"No, no. Come on. Let's get you home."

The boy flinched on that last word, but didn't offer any more protests. Instead, he turned stiffly toward the exit. Ben shot an accusatory look toward me of all people. As though all this were my fault. I glared back at him. He rolled his eyes and followed after the boy.

That boy had some guilty secret. And there went Ben. Following blindly. Didn't matter that the boy's last secret nearly cost my son his life. It was at this point that I'd had about enough.


NTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNT


Ben

I pulled up to the house. The ride had been quiet. Painfully so. I didn't understand what had happened. Things had been going so well, I thought. There I was, patting myself on the back for the genius of my evil plan to get those two to talk to each other, and it all fell apart. I almost believed that Riley really didn't feel well. The kid looked positively ill. But even if his breathing sounded off, it wasn't the same kind of off that meant his asthma was acting up. I knew the difference. So if it wasn't asthma, what was it? I'd tried to put a hand on his shoulder earlier. Touch him. Let him know I saw him, that I cared. He'd gotten pretty good at accepting that kind of casual physical affection, but this time he shrugged me off. Nearly flinched. All I knew was that when I left him with my dad, he was fine. When I got back, he was not. It was hard to believe my dad would intentionally hurt Riley. But the man seemed to think Riley was an idiot and wouldn't understand the things he said. Suffice it to say, I was boiling.

It didn't help much that as soon as we got inside, Dad asked me, "May I speak with you in the kitchen?"

To which I shortly responded with, "No." Riley was right there, looking pale and nervous and miserable and…just kind of lost. And I didn't know why.

"Ben…"

"No, Dad."

"All right then. We could do it out here."

"We could not do it at all," I volunteered.

Riley had somehow maneuvered himself away from me and now stood at the bottom of the stairs. How did he do that? "I'm tired. I'll just go to bed. Thank you." I would've given him a thousand dollars if he could've named what exactly in the world he was thanking anybody for.

I started to say his name, but he was already most of the way up the stairs. Moved surprisingly fast for a kid who claimed his asthma was bothering him.

I turned back to my father. Shook my head. "No. Oh, no."

"Listen to me, Benjamin Franklin Gates…"

"I really don't see why I should. You haven't given me one good reason to listen to you since the moment you opened the door."

"That little boy is conning you," he suddenly claimed.

"That little boy. 'That little boy' is conning me?" It was so ridiculous I just…I hardly even knew what to say. I struggled to keep my voice low, remembering how sharp Riley's hearing was. "What? Dad, you don't even know him. Apparently, you don't even know his name. What is it about him you think is so wrong?"

"Aside from the fact that he got my son into a dangerous situation, one in which, I'd bet, you could've been killed…"

"Hey, whoa. First of all, I'm fine. Second of all, he didn't drag me into anything. He did everything he could to keep me out of it, but I wouldn't leave it alone."

"You never can."

"Apparently! If you ask me, I'd say you're the one who's hiding something. There's something you're not telling me. What is it exactly you can't stand about that kid?"

"I don't trust him, Ben."

"Yeah. I got that. Why? Why not? What's he after, Dad? Tell me that."

His eyes slid to the side before shooting back to meet mine. His version of an eye roll. "Of course, I have no way of knowing."

"That's kind of my point."

"He's hiding something from you. From both of us."

"It really surprises you that he doesn't trust you? That he hasn't spilled all his secrets in order to get your nod of approval? You've been practically hostile toward him since he got here! Good grief, you've practically locked up the silver!"

"He's putting on a show!" He waved his hands wildly in his anger. "Tell me you can't see it! He is playing you. He's after something, and I want to know what it is."

"You're right! He is putting on a show! For you! He's so worried he'll upset you or that he'll cause tension between us that he doesn't even know how to be himself with you in the same room!" I had to take a deep breath. I was so angry. He still thought he was right. What? Thought he was protecting me from that kid with the big blue eyes and the fourteen stitches? "Let me ask you this, Dad. Is it him you don't trust, or is it me? I brought him here. He's my friend. I told you he's okay. But you refuse to accept my word, because if you had for one second, if you'd opened your eyes and looked at him for one second, you would've see that I'm right. But it's my word you don't trust."

His lips thinned, and he pointed at me. "Don't be ridiculous, and don't make this about you."

"I'm making this about you."

"Fine! If you want to bring up the subject, I don't trust your judgment! Why should I? Ever since the day you left this house, it's been one avoidable accident after another. You never know when to say no, you never know when to stop! You take on a project, and you absolutely have to see it through to the end, no matter the cost. And then you come home, with your rolling eyes and your nonchalance, and I'm supposed to hold my tongue. I'm supposed to stay calm, not get upset, and not think about that day that will come far too soon in which I'll get a call and have to go to some dig site or salvage dive or apparently some inner city rent-a-kid program to claim whatever's left of you and hear the whispers of What a tragedy, and If only he'd waited, and What. A. Waste!" He reached out with angrily shaking hands and placed them on my chest. I don't know why. Maybe like he needed to reassure himself it hadn't happened yet. Then his hands fell back to his sides. "So you don't trust me, and I don't trust you. What else is new?"

I could only shake my head. I had tears in my eyes. Anger. Hurt. "You're wrong." It was all I could say. Everything, all I wanted for Riley, for my dad, for me, it was ruined. How could this be salvaged? How could I get that kid to open up to me now? Get him comfortable. Why should that be so insurmountable a task in the place where I grew up? He heard, I knew. I really wished I could've believed that Riley hadn't heard every word that had just been said.

"He doesn't belong to you," my father said. "He's not one of your projects, Ben."

"No. He's not."

"He's hiding something."

"I know. And it's none of your business."

"But you'll make it yours. Because you never know when to quit."

He really wouldn't let it go. I bit my tongue hard. But I couldn't stop the angry words. "I guess I learn from the best."


NTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNT


Riley

I sat with my back against the bedroom wall, my legs spread out in front of me on the floor. Listening. It's not really eavesdropping if they're talking about you, right? No, actually, I guess what I was doing was pretty much the definition of eavesdropping. Oh. Well. Oops.

I just…it was kind of a habit, really. One of those ingrained things. I'd learned it was good to know what was going on in the house I was living in. Especially if it involved an angry person. It was a self-defense thing, I guess. In almost five years I got pretty good at listening through walls.

I felt terrible. At least I hadn't been lying to Ben when I'd told him I didn't feel good. I didn't. The asthma thing though…that was a blatant lie. But…still.

It shouldn't have freaked me out like that when that girl thought Ben was my dad. The fact that I can't carry on a decent conversation with a pretty girl should've bothered me a lot. But that she'd thought Ben was my dad…why should that be a big deal? Really, it was a natural thing to assume. Ben was far away at the time, too far to see him clearly. He was older. I didn't really think of him as that old, but…whatever. It shouldn't have freaked me out. But it did. Right on the edge of that nightmare, it definitely did. But that…I didn't want to think about that.

And now him and his dad were shouting at each other. Or…kind of whisper shouting, really. Saying awful things. And it was all my fault. I sighed. Happy Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving's a family holiday. I shouldn't have let Ben trick me into coming. I let him because I wanted to go with him. I could've backed out. I could've said no.

Mr. Gates thought I was a liar. That I'd get Ben hurt again. Maybe he was right. I'd just lied, hadn't I? Right to his face. Told him my asthma was bothering me when it wasn't. And it wasn't even like that was the first time I'd lied to Ben. And maybe I would get Ben hurt. Bad things just…they just happened to me. I couldn't guarantee that Ben wouldn't get caught in the crossfire again. He'd almost died last time. A guy shot him. It was dumb luck the gun was empty. A guy shot him while I was just standing there. I just stood there. I always just stood there.

This was crazy. It was the day before Thanksgiving. The Gates family should be laughing about something that happened like ten years ago and eating things they weren't supposed to and talking about how close Christmas was and doing whatever traditions belonged to them. Not yelling at each other because of me.

And maybe…maybe I was just kind of like a project to Ben. I mean, not like in a bad way. I knew he…sort of cared about me; he'd already proved that, but…maybe he thought I was just another mission to take on. Like he had to fix things for me, make sure I was okay. I could convince him I didn't need that, and he'd let it go. If I didn't convince him I was really okay, maybe he'd never let go, just like the way he would never let go of that treasure until he found it.

I swallowed. It was the right thing to do. I knew that. But man, it had been so nice. It was still nice, knowing he wouldn't leave unless he knew I was okay. But this was the right thing to do. There was one foster mother, she said, "You always know the right thing because it'll be the hardest." This was definitely the hardest.

I stood up. The small guestroom was just big enough for a double bed and an old wooden writing desk. I opened the top drawer and found a pen and notepad. There was a way to do this right. If I did it wrong, it'd just worry him. I think I wrote a couple rough drafts, but ended up with this:

Hey, Ben.

So…I just got an e-mail from an old foster mom I had. Blew me away. She's really amazing, and I know you'd love her. Makes these chicken pot pies that are so freaking good. Anyway, she asked short notice if I'd come up for a Thanksgiving visit. Haven't seen her in years. Don't even know how she tracked me down. How cool is that? It's late, so…didn't want to wake anybody up. She lives in East Longmeadow, so it's not all that far. I'm just going to get a bus ticket. You and your dad have been great, and I'm sorry to skip out on you. I'm just really excited. I knew you'd understand. Thanks for letting me crash here for the week. Tell your dad hey. And happy Thanksgiving.

P.S. If we ever play laser tag again, don't keep rambling about which Revolutionary War battles our round most resembles. Time and a place, man. Time and a place.

Casual. Believable. It'd work. I rewrote it fast so it would look like a last minute thing and tucked the throwaway copies in my bag so there'd be no evidence.

A knock sounded at the door. I quickly slipped the note in the desk drawer and slid it shut. "Yes?" I called. Like I didn't know who that would be.

"Mind if I come in?"

"Sure."

Ben pushed the door open. He suddenly looked older. It startled me a little.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

He shifted a little. "You okay?"

"Yeah." I could do this. Why was it so hard with him right in the room? Probably because really anything I said would be like a lie. I really didn't like lying to him. True story. "I'm feeling a lot better actually." Good enough to hypothetically make it to the bus station and get a ticket to East Longmeadow. I don't even know why I came up with that particular place. I'd never even been there.

"Good." He bit his lip. "You…probably heard all that."

I raised my eyebrows and shook my head, playing dumb. "All what?"

He shook his head but let it go. He knew I'd heard. And he knew I knew he knew. "I just…I want you to know something."

Oh, don't do this to me, Ben. "What?"

"I like having you around. In the span of a few weeks, you've become one of the best friends I've ever had. Which I have to admit is a surprise even to me. Especially in light of how we met." He gave a small teasing smile, and I knew I was supposed to return it, so I did. "I want to make sure we're okay. That you're okay."

"I'm okay, Ben. We're okay." Yeah, Ben. Everything's okay. Wait. I should ask, too. "Are…you okay?"

He leaned against the wall with a tired smirk. "Nah."

At first I thought maybe he'd misunderstood my question. Like maybe he'd thought I'd said "Is something wrong?" Because that's how he'd answered. Like "Nah, it's no big deal." But when I looked at his face, I realized he'd said exactly what he'd meant to. He wasn't really okay. I blinked nervously. "What…what should I do?" I'd never been in this situation before. When someone asks you if you're okay, you're always supposed to answer yes. Right?

He smiled. "I got a deck of cards," he suggested. Then he shrugged. "We could pop in a video?"

I had no idea how that was supposed to fix anything or make anything better for him. But if it's what he wanted…I couldn't stop my eyes from glancing over at the desk, thinking about the note in the drawer. I should… But then if I was leaving tonight, it would be okay to hang out with Ben a little first, right? It was still early. His dad had already gone to bed. I couldn't mess anything else up. And besides, Ben needed the company. This worked. Gotta be flexible. I looked at Ben and pulled a face. "Can we at least watch something that's not in black and white this time?"

He chuckled. "No promises."

I rolled my eyes. "Fine."

I had to walk past him to get to the door. As I got close, though, he surprised me by tugging me by the wrist into a full on hug. I froze. He's taller than me, so with my head kind of bent a little, it fit right under his chin. He just sort of held on for a second while I tried not to panic. I didn't want this. I didn't really want him touching me at all right then. It was the first time he'd ever really hugged me when one of us wasn't in life-threatening danger, and it just…reminded me too much of…of before. The last person who held onto me like this…didn't make it. "Ben? What…?" My voice came out all high and shocked.

"Nothing, kid." He pulled away, and I realized the hug was for him. Because he needed it. So that was okay, then. It had nothing to do with me. I shouldn't take my issues out on Ben. Geez. Relax, Riley. I shook my head, mostly because there was too much going on inside it.

"Um. Okay. So. For Christmas, I vote you get your dad a DVD player."

"I'm not shopping on black Friday."

I looked at him, horrified. "Well, yeah. Geez. We've already established that you value your life."


NTNTNTNTNTNT


We ended up watching the Wizard of Oz, which is mostly in color. Digitally remastered it was not. But hey, I hadn't seen it since I was like six, and it's an all around classic, so…couldn't argue. Somehow we ended up putting together some kind of anthropological study on flying monkey culture. It involved like, perceived social norms and class infrastructures… It was pretty much the most ridiculous anthropological study ever. Ben can be freaking hilarious. People don't know. But he'll have the most serious look on his face and say the most random, crazy stuff.

The movie ended at like quarter till eight, and we played a couple rounds of speed. Ben really sucks at speed. Then we switched to crazy eights because it's a childish, lazy kind of game that no one cares about winning. Before I knew it, it was 8:30. Still early, yeah. But I knew if I wanted to get any kind of decent place for the night, I'd need to go early. I yawned and stretched a little.

"I'm kinda tired."

He shot me a look. "Really?"

"Hey, I ran around. A lot," I defended. "All you had to do was sit tight and wait for your targets to come to you."

"If we ever go again, I'll promote you to sniper."

"If we ever go again, it'll probably help if you don't try calling out tactical maneuvers in ye olde English."

"I knew those kids wouldn't understand it."

"To whom it may concern: I am one of those kids."

"So noted." He grinned and nudged me as he stood up. "Night, buddy."

My smirk disappeared as I followed him upstairs. "Night, Ben."


NTNTNTNTNTNT


It was a Wednesday night. Lucky thing. Church night. So Hartford, Connecticut's not exactly in the Bible belt, but still. It didn't take a whole lot of walking with my laptop and my couple bags to stumble upon a church. Wednesday nights are best because for most churches that's youth group night, and, especially when there's no school the next day, a lot of youth groups have some sort of something till at least 9:00. I hadn't actually ever been a part of a church group. I know all this for different reasons.

So there was this average-sized little non-denominational church, with the occasional teenager trickling out at half past nine. I slipped right in the front door. The thing to do is act like you belong and like you've been there at least a dozen times. Now, sneaking into a house of worship to save your own hide is not something I'd recommend—especially in light of that whole immortal soul deal. But it was awfully close to winter. And I've got asthma. I figured God would let it slide. Heck, Jesus'd probably understand better than anybody else. His first night He spent in a barn.

Their sanctuary had a balcony. Also ideal. See, the guy who locks up doesn't usually do the most thorough job checking the place over. Usually, he'll holler "Anybody there?" in the bathrooms and the sanctuary when he turns the lights out. I've found it's best not to answer.

I sat down on a pew in the front row behind the sound equipment because the door to the balcony was farther toward the back. It was all wood, no padding, but there was this bench behind the soundboard that had these cushion things like people take to football games for the bleachers. I laid them out so they'd be under my back and my butt and tucked one of my bags under my head. Crossed my feet at the ankles. Not too shabby. It was warm, and I felt safe, and it was all pretty nice.

I was feeling pretty good. Not too much later, I heard the voice. "Anybody up here?"

I tensed up and went real still, and, like the genius I am, made no claims to be present. The lights went off, and I relaxed. Then the lights suddenly went on again. Uh-oh. I heard heavy footsteps coming down toward me. No. That guy couldn't know I was there. I didn't make a sound. So what was he doing? I looked over. The soundboard. Somebody had left the soundboard on. I felt my eyes get huge. Oh, no, no, no, no. There was nowhere I could go. If I stood up, the guy would spot me for sure. I did the only thing I could. I rolled off the edge of the pew, quiet as I could manage, and rolled underneath it. As far as stealth moves go, it was pretty impressive, I gotta say. Or it would've been if there wasn't a squeak in the floor.

The footsteps came to a halt. I froze. No way could I have planned for a squeak in the stupid floor. This is God's house, people. Craftsmanship, anyone?

"Somebody there?" The voice meant business. And if the heaviness in the footsteps were any indication, this guy was not exactly in my weight class. He moved forward again. "Hey. Get up here." I didn't move. Maybe he didn't… "I see you under there. Get up."

I swallowed and managed to bang my head on the underside of that all-wood pew as I shot to my feet as quick as I could. "Ow." I came face to face with an older guy standing at the end of the pew in a sweater and khakis with a bit of a stomach and a look that didn't exactly scream peace be with you. "I…I just…I was going to…" My eyes shot to that accursed soundboard with its evil little green lights. "Let me get that for you." I flicked off the power. That's me. Helpful. Being helpful kind of counteracts at least one count of breaking and entering, right? Though, technically, I'd only entered. And there was a welcome mat in the foyer.

He looked from me to my stuff and then back up at me. Unreadable. Guy probably didn't gamble. But if the deacons played for gum or something, this guy would be a contender. "You need something?"

I couldn't shake my head fast enough. "Nope." If this man called the police, I was done. I'd use my one phone call on Ben, and I didn't even want to think about how that conversation would go. I'd probably do a little lying, a little truth-telling, and a lot of stuttering. I tried to gather up my bags. "I'm just gonna go. It's a lovely church. Um. There's a squeak in the floor. Thank you." Thank you?

"Wait." The guy put up one hand, and I stopped. As I'd already noticed, the guy was wider than me. Not huge. But wider than me. And he sort of had my only exit body-blocked. Unless I wanted to vault some pews. Which I considered doing stitches or no stitches. "What's your name?" he asked.

I peeked over the edge of the balcony and calculated my odds. Fifteen feet, maybe. How high was my threshold for pain? Was running on a couple broken legs really that unfeasible?

"I really…I…I wasn't gonna take anything, I just…"

"What's your name?" he repeated.

I didn't want to lie in a church. That seemed like too much. So I just asked a stupid question. "Are you with maintenance?" I asked hopefully. Maybe he was the mean old janitor that nobody liked. Or…believed.

"Associate pastor," he answered evenly. Of course. It had to be a pastor. I didn't know exactly what he meant by associate.

"Is that like…second string?"

He looked kind of amazed. I was kind of amazed, too. Seriously. My mouth gets so messed up when I'm nervous. "Okay," he drew out slowly, like that was the only answer he had because he honestly didn't know how to answer such a ridiculous question. He shook his head. "What are you doing here, son?"

"Not stealing," I said quickly. "I swear." Oh. Don't swear in church! "I mean, I promise. Honestly. I was just…just gonna sleep. For a minute or…some minutes. I…I don't know how long exactly." I was just gonna wait until somebody opened the place up again in the morning. I'd seen the alarm keypad, so I knew if I opened the doors the police would probably show, unless I wanted to deactivate it myself. But I didn't know what the rules were on churches and alarms, morally speaking, so I figured I'd just wait it out. Although, tomorrow was Thanksgiving. But still, it was a church. It had to still be open on Thanksgiving, right? "Pro-probably several minutes."

"Calm down," he finally said. "You just about gave me a heart attack."

"I didn't mean to scare you," I said quickly.

"I meant just watching you. You look like you're about to start turning blue."

I tried to take a deep breath. "My heart is beating very fast, sir."

"So I guessed." He pointed at the pew. "Sit down."

"Are you calling the cops?"

"Haven't decided. Sit down."

I looked at the seat. Sit down? Then I glanced real quick back at him. Oh, no. No, no. He was going to talk to me, wasn't he? He was going to sit me down and…pastor me. "Sure you wouldn't rather just call the police?" I ventured. "I…I could be a thief."

He gave a fast, smirky smile, so fast I almost missed it. I was thrown off enough to be a little annoyed. People write me off as harmless so quick all the time. "If you try something, I think I could take you."

I think I almost pouted even as I sank to sit on one of the cushions. "I'm…wiry." And bruised and stitched and asthmatic. Who was I kidding? Gray hair or not, this guy could probably take me to the moon.

He made a sound that was almost a laugh but not quite. "Uh-huh. Got a name yet, slick?"

My knee bounced nervously. "If I tell you anything, are you sworn to secrecy under your preacher vows?"

"This isn't confession," he told me. And he sounded kind of smug. "And I'm not Catholic." Loopholes.

"Riley," I sighed.

"Virgil." Perfect. I was being held hostage by a slightly-overweight, second-string, Protestant minister called Virgil. I doubt anyone's even been named Virgil since, like, before the actual moon landing—if that even really happened. "Why aren't you at home?"

I could lie. I knew I could. I knew I wasn't all that bad at lying. But lying to a minister, even a second-string one, in his own church… So I just tried to explain it gently—without looking at him. "Not everybody has one of those."

"You can afford to buy a laptop, but you have no place to sleep?" He sent a pointed look toward my laptop case. Sharp guy, Virgil.

"I'm just passing through. I go to school at MIT." That was probably a dumb thing to say. How many Rileys could there be at MIT?

"So how does a boy with nowhere to go end up all the way out in Hartford for his Thanksgiving break?" Relentless.

I pressed my lips together. "I…have a friend. Here."

When I said the word friend, the man's eyes narrowed slightly. Like he couldn't think much of this friend of mine who'd let me spend my night seeking sanctuary in his sanctuary. "Uh-huh." He sent a glance over his shoulder for effect. "Where is this friend?"

"He's at home. With his dad." I shrugged. "'s where he should be. Thanksgiving's a family holiday. He was great and everything, but he shouldn't've invited me. His dad…well you don't…you don't know the whole story. It's long and…involved."

"How about a Reader's Digest version?"

"Does it really matter that much to you?" I asked, irritated.

"You'd really rather I called the police?" he asked with his eyebrows up. And yes. That, ladies and gentlemen, is blackmail. How many people get blackmailed by a preacher in their lifetime? Check that one off my list.

I gave a resigned sigh and tried to sort out what was in my head so it'd make some kind of sense. That's not easy to do. "Ben is…the best friend I've ever had, okay? And I like that. I don't really do friendships real well. But for some reason, he just…he tried so hard, even when…even when I wound up getting him killed—hurt." I shook my head quick. "He didn't die. He could've, though. And it would've been my fault, like before. And his dad knows that. So I can't really blame the man. It's not his fault. Really, he's right. I'm just…I'm dangerous. Bad things happen when I'm around. That's why I had to go. If I don't back off and convince Ben to stay away…it's just…something else'll happen."

"Something else like what?"

"My parents both died," I said flatly. "You can call the police if you want. I'm not gonna talk about it."

"All right. That's up to you." He already knew better than to press that. "So this Ben. Your best friend. This rare person in your life who cares about you. You're protecting him."

I nodded. "Yeah."

"From you."

I nodded again. Good. He got it. It was kinda depressing. But he got it.

He was silent for a moment. Then he said all at once, "That's a load of hooey."

My head spun to look at him. He couldn't say that. How could he say that? He didn't even know me. He had a summary of what was going on, and even I know I suck at summaries. But whatever the heck hooey was, this was not a load of it. Last time I share personal feelings with a minister, coerced or otherwise. "How is that…"

"Bad things happen," he said simply. "It's a fallen world. If you think you can protect your friend from the horrors that go along with that, you have some kinduva high impression of yourself. In this world, people die. All people. The death ratio is, as a general rule, one to one. You, me, him. We'll all have our time. 'Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?'"

I shook my head. "But…how can you be so casual about that?"

"Because I know that this life isn't all there is—thank God. I'm getting old. You have no idea how nice it is to be sure of your eternal salvation about the time you throw your back out for the fourth time." I raised my eyebrows. Guy had back problems. Maybe I could take him. "It's Thanksgiving. A time for realizing what we been given. Best place to start is realizing the gift Jesus gave us when he made a way for us sinners to have the hope of a future after we're done here. It's a gift way too many people overlook."

I was quiet for a minute. "So…you're saying, even if I do get him killed, that's just…okay?" That could never be okay.

"No. I'm saying he'll die just fine on his own without losing his best friend. And so will you, and keep on this ridiculous trail you're on and all you'll have really done was miss out on all the good times and the memories that make the here and now fun." He leaned toward me a little and looked me right in the eye. "Just because you get hit on the head with an apple, Chicken Little, it don't mean your sky is falling."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "That's not a Bible story."

He shrugged, unconcerned. "It's a nursery rhyme. I'm meeting you where you are."

I smiled a little. The way he said things…they made sense, sort of. A funny, weird kind of sense. Like, if Einstein had said, 'e equals mc squared—duh.' My logic—maybe did seemed kind of…hooeyish now. Now that I'd voiced my fears and heard them for what they were. It didn't make the past better. But it made the present seem…really really important. I glanced at him. "You know, they should probably promote you to first string."

He waved the thought away. "I like where I am. I preach every other Sunday night and turn out the lights. And I talk to people."

"Oh. So that's what an associate pastor does."

"I associate with folks."

"I get it." I looked sideways at him. "Am I allowed to go?"

"That depends. Are you really going? I'm not gonna find you sleeping on the couch in my office, am I?"

They give you an office to talk to people and turn out the lights? I didn't say it. I do occasionally have some control. I nodded. "I really am." I had a friend. A good friend. It was important. And I almost messed it up.

"Need a ride, Chicken Little?" He'd have given me one. I got the feeling he was the say-what-I-mean, mean-what-I-say type. But I shook my head and stood up.

"Ben's house isn't that far." They'd never know I'd left. And that was good. Nothing there would be different. Patrick Henry Gates would still hate my guts. But I could deal with that. I could try to help Ben deal with it, too. Ben chose me as a friend. He didn't have to. He just did. I could feel guilty about it or deny it or just enjoy it. Why didn't the last one make sense till just now?

Virgil didn't let it go. "It's pretty chilly out," he warned.

"So you think by worrying you can add a single hour to my life?" If he could get snarky, so could I.

"You know, in some translations, it says, 'Who by worrying can add a single cubit to his height?'" He looked me up and down. "This worrying thing must be kinda chronic with you, huh?" He gave a lop-sided smile. I glared at him. He just used Scripture to call me short. Guy was good.

"You know, for a guy who's supposed to associate for a living, you're really not good at playing nice with others."

"I apologize from the bottom of my wretched old heart." He winked at me. "Be careful out there, Riley."

"Thank you." I gathered my stuff and walked to the door. Then I turned back and winced. "And also thank you for not calling the police."

He shooed me away with one hand. "Happy Thanksgiving, criminal."

"Happy Thanksgiving."


NTNTNTNTNTNTNTNTNT


It wasn't that long a walk back toward Ben's dad's. I hummed a little. I play the bass guitar. My musical talent ends there, by the way. The sidewalk was dark, save for the occasional streetlamp. The first raindrop I felt hit me right on the nose. I looked up at the sky. Why do people do that? And I caught another in the eye. Great.

They started falling at a light sprinkle, and I pulled my—well, Ben's—coat closer as best I could, laden down as I was with my stuff. It was a little after ten, so it wasn't like the world was asleep yet. But the street I was on held mostly shops and stuff that were all shut up for the night, though I could see the glow from houses in the neighborhood a few blocks away.

It took awhile for me to figure out where the shouting was coming from. Under a street light a few hundred yards down the street, I saw these couple kids, maybe nine or ten—I can never tell how old kids are—and they were yelling and crying. It kind of made me go on alert. I'd seen people use kids to lure in good Samaritan types. The only thing of any value I had on me was my laptop, but seriously. I'd guard that with my life. But it's not like I couldn't not go see what was going on. Not after I'd just met a guy like Virgil, who really probably should've called the cops on me.

I jogged over. Before I got all the way there, I called out so they'd know I was coming. "Hey! You guys okay?" Two boys, clutching at flashlights. A black kid and a redhead. Crying. Not like regular hurt crying. This was scared crying. I knew the difference. "What happened?"

The redhead just shook his head, and then the black kid, hiccupping and sobbing a little, told me. "My brother," he took a heaving breath, "Tyler. He's caught. You gotta help us. We couldn't move it. He's stuck."

"Hang on, hang on. Where is he?"

He pointed behind him, and my breath hitched in my lungs, and I made a kind of hiccupping sound that was sort of close to his. The manhole cover was pulled up. The kid was pointing down at the sewer. The rain was starting to pick up. The freezing cold rain that wouldn't take long to fill up those tunnels. I set my bags down by the open manhole cover, even my computer. "Are you sure?"

"Yes!" he sobbed, angry mostly because he was terrified.

"Which way down the tunnel?" I demanded. I was so not cut out for this. Why wasn't there anyone else around? What the heck were these kids doing?

He pointed down the street in the direction I'd come. "Part of the wall down there…broke. He's screaming so loud. We couldn't move it." Something collapsed down there? At least I knew the kid was still alive. But with the rain getting stronger, there couldn't be that much time. My worry must've shown on my face or something, because he was still sobbing and trying to explain, "We were just gonna play like we were ninja turtles, and…" he cut off. Of all the stupid, dangerous… Not to mention, there were only three of them, and there were four ninja turtles. Somehow I just got elected to play the fourth. What'd that make me? Michelangelo?

I took the flashlight from the redhead and looked at both of them. "I need you to go get me some help. Okay? Run. Run and find help."

"You gotta help him…"

"I'm gonna help him. But you need to run. Find somebody with a phone, and call 911. Okay?"

Both boys nodded through tears and took off. I looked down at the hole. Down in the dark. I shakily turned on the flashlight. It looked…looked a lot like a basement down there. With its echoing walls. Echoing the sounds of rushing water. I took a step back, shaking my head dizzily. I can't do this. I looked around, hoping a hero would pop out of nowhere. That's what heroes are supposed to do, right? They're supposed to show up in the nick of time. There wasn't anybody around. Just me. And I was so scared I could hardly move. But I couldn't just do nothing. Not this time. No. Gritting my teeth, I tucked the flashlight under my chin and stepped down onto the first rung. With shaking knees, I went lower, until the darkness completely swallowed me up.


A/N: Is that a cliffhanger ending? Oi. I hate those. Truly. Why would I do that? I really tried not to, honestly, but it just sort of happened. I do know what's going to happen next. And I'm excited to write it. So my next update is kind of at the mercy of my life. It's now...2:12 in the a.m. It may take a few of these kinds of nights. Yeesh.