"No!" I jerked awake so quickly, it took a moment for my mind to get a handle on reality. There are a lot of people who don't know what that's like, I bet. Good for them. Because those are some of the worst moments I remember, waking up that way with my heart hammering in my chest and my mind being pulled in two different directions. It's almost worse than the nightmare itself. Because upon waking, there's part of the mind that knows it wasn't real, but there's this deeper, persistent…fear that once the world rights itself, instead of finding things as they should be, I might find that the lies in my dreams are the truth and the truth that I know is the lie. It's very confusing, very disorienting, and would've been unbearable if it lasted any longer than a moment.
I flopped my head back onto my pillow, rubbing the back of my arm across my sweaty brow, and I closed my eyes, waiting impatiently for my heartbeat to slow a little. I hadn't dreamed at all the night before, so I'd optimistically thought I was done with them. Most of the time I like being an optimist. Occasionally it's a little disappointing.
I shivered slightly, probably from a combination of the cold night and the adrenaline leaking from my body. I got up, telling myself I was just going to adjust the thermostat. My dad hated it when I did that, which I didn't mind at all. Apparently I can be a little vindictive when I'm frightened, angry, and depressed. I slipped my robe on, noticing as I tied it my hands were not as steady as I would have preferred. I also noticed that it really had gotten chilly in the house.
The thermostat was, of course, downstairs. In order to reach the stairs, I had to walk down the hall. And it would've been impossible to walk down the hall without passing by the guest room. Riley's room. I shuddered.
Sometimes when I dream, it's not in color. I'm not sure if that's unusual. Maybe it's because I grew up watching black and white videos with my dad. I've never had any interest in the science—if that's what it is—of dreams, so I'm not really qualified to give an account for what my subconscious does while I'm asleep. In any case, that nightmare I'd just had, the one that just left me breathless and paranoid and trembling like a child, it had contained a lot of blacks and grays. But there was red in it, too. And even if I'd wanted to walk by that kid's room without stopping to make sure everything that was supposed to be inside his body was still inside his body, well, that was too bad. I didn't have a whole lot of choice in the matter.
My hand was on the doorknob almost before I even realized what I was doing. And even after I realized what I was doing, I did nothing to try to stop it. Riley may have broken our deal, but I wasn't about to.
Sorry to ruin your sleep, buddy. But I figured hot chocolate would make up for it. I opened the door quietly. The last time I'd come in to check on him, even that much noise was enough to wake him up. He's a jumpy sleeper.
"Riley," I said softly. "It's me." I almost had the believable excuse I knew he wouldn't believe fully formed in my mind, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized his bed was still made up. My recently-slowed heart started beating all the faster. "Riley?" I flicked on the light, blinking furiously as my eyes protested the sudden brightness. I scanned the floor, over to the closet. Nothing. He's not here.
I immediately turned, stumbling out and down the stairs, flicking on lights as I went. Coming down off that nightmare, every kind of irrational fear about what could've happened to that kid buzzed through my head until I could practically hear his screams. He wasn't in the living room. Or the kitchen. "Riley?" I checked the porch. I checked the study. "Riley, answer me right now." I was checking closets by then. That kid was gone.
My dad came shuffling in then, belting his robe, squinting through his glasses. "What's going on?"
I held up a hand to make him quiet, unwilling to deal with him right then. I jogged up the stairs, back to Riley's room, begging my mind to get out of panic mode and go into solving mode. I wanted to make a career out of finding things. I could find this kid. He was fine. There was an explanation. There was always an explanation. I stopped in the doorway of the empty room. It was too empty, wasn't it? I stopped. It was too empty.
"His things are gone," I said quietly. Not to anyone in particular. My dad hadn't even caught up with me yet. I stepped into the room. Riley's bags were gone. His shoes and the coat I'd given him were gone. You didn't, Riley. Tell me you didn't. He'd run off, hadn't he? Would he do that? He didn't even have a place to go. Would he still leave? I thought back on everything I knew about Riley. Keeping his mouth shut about his roommate, convinced he could wait it out on his own. Trying to help out at the food drive, ashamed someone might think he was a freeloader. Refusing to tell anyone when he hurt. Hiding his fears. Certain that he was a burden. This kid who was all too eager to keep everyone else comfortable. This kid all too determined to stay out from underfoot. Would he leave? I sighed. Stupid question. "I'm going to kill him."
As they surveyed the room, my eyes finally caught on the sheet of paper sitting atop the desk. I picked it up. A clue. I scanned the lines of hastily-scrawled script, eyes widening slightly. After reading it for the third or fourth time, I heard my father's confused voice in the doorway behind me.
"Where's the boy?"
"He left," I answered hollowly.
There was a moment of silence. Then, "Oh, for heaven's sake…" My father is a smart man. He got it. If it had been anyone else, I would've been outraged by the seemingly careless tone. But Patrick Gates…that's how he sounds when he's starting to feel a little guilty. He gets very annoyed when he feels guilty. "Why would he do that?" he demanded softly.
I'm a historian. Real historians are scientists. They make hypotheses based on facts and then find every available piece of data they can to prove or disprove those hypotheses. Me, I take that a step further. That makes me an applied scientist. Treasure hunters don't merely study facts to build an accurate picture of times past. Treasure hunters have to gather clues and make connections and leaps of logic that no one else has ever made. Treasure hunters have to be historians and psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists and archeologists all rolled into one. As a whole, we don't do well with coincidences. Coincidences can't be tracked or predicted. And the fact that this note was a result of a foster mother from a happy home Riley had never spoken of, and she'd e-mailed him the same night my father exploded…it was too much of a coincidence for me.
Not to mention, it was barely half past ten. Riley must've left minutes after my bedroom door had closed. He'd planned this. Except that I wasn't supposed to read this note until morning. "Why do you suppose he would?" I asked evenly, turning to face my dad.
He shook his head, removing his glasses to clean them. "Fool," he muttered.
I tread around him and out into the hallway, speaking over my shoulder. "I'm going to go find him."
He stayed right behind me. "How?"
"Don't worry about how. Just believe that I will."
"Is that a note in your hand?"
I nodded. "Yes. It is."
"It's a lie. He lied. He does that sometimes. Usually when he thinks he's protecting me from something."
"Are you sure he's not just protecting himself?"
I entered my room and abandoned the robe, pulling on a pair of jeans in its place. "I'm pretty sure at the moment, he thinks he's protecting both me and you."
He bit off something he'd wanted to say and shook his head, looking off away from me. When he looked back, he asked, "What would he be protecting us from?"
I slipped on one shoe and then the other. "Isn't it obvious?" I said as I stood and shouldered past. "Each other."
I splashed down on the concrete floor of the tunnel with the sound of the rain all around me. I was standing in maybe a couple inches of water that kept coming in from the street above my head and running off in the opposite direction I needed to go. I shuddered deep. Then, gripping the flashlight like it was a lifeline—which it pretty much was, considering if I lost it, I'd be so done—I started walking toward where they said that kid was supposed to be. "Tyler?" I called, mostly just to hear a voice. My voice bounced off the walls but couldn't overtake the sound of the water. "Tyler! Can you hear me?"
Then from down the tunnel, over the roar, I heard him screaming for somebody to help him. I started moving faster, keeping my elbows tucked in tight, my heart pounding. I don't like being underground in the dark. Getting shut inside the trunk of a car is less scary to me than being underground in the dark. I'm also not a fan of water. Water kills people. My breath started to catch.
"Help me, please! Somebody! Trey! Help!" The sound of him screaming through his sobs brought me back a little. Come on, Riley. Stop it. I could help this kid. I could. I could do something. I worked my inhaler out of my pocket and took a puff.
"Keep yelling, Tyler! Okay? Can you hear me? I'm coming!" I'm not sure if he heard me or not, but he kept on shouting and pleading for someone to save him. He sounded hurt. Hopefully it wasn't so bad. At least he could still scream. I listened to him shouting. It's hard down in sewers. Sound echoes off everything so that it sounds like it's coming from every direction. Ironically, it's the water that helped some, I think, absorbing some of the sound or whatever. That, and I hear pretty good through walls. I had to make some decisions, take a few turns, but finally, I came up on a light.
It lay in a puddle of unmoving water, and my light caught a flash of red jacket in the darkness. I tracked upward with my light to take in the damage. And almost dropped it.
"Oh," I said dumbly. And, I mean, I was scared before. But that moment right there, that was the moment where it occurred to me in some weird, calm place I didn't know was in me, that it was very possible I could die down there. "Huh. This is kind of a problem, isn't it."
Ben had nearly worked himself into a panic. And it occurred to me that I really wanted all of those fears to be unfounded. But my son is not a man who acts on unfounded fears. And the fact that I knew this about him made his panic all the more contagious. Even if I refused to let it show, just watching him throwing himself together and tying his shoes with shaking hands caused a sense of…urgency I suppose, to begin tugging at me inside my chest.
"Wait," I told him as he gathered blankets from the closet. He rounded on me with a look that clearly said How dare you? and shoved the blankets into the nylon holdall he'd brought with him. I was reminded—mercilessly—of that girl's words at the paintball arena. The mistake she'd made. Her wild and baseless assumption. In the face of Ben's anger and worry and determination in that moment—and the fear that wove beneath all of it—her error seemed less unforgiveable. "Wait for me."
No, had already begun to form on his lips, but he stopped himself. Faltered a moment. And I think, even if my company was unwelcome, there was part of him that still saw me as his father. The man he'd grown up imitating. Part of him still believed the fairy tale that I could solve any problem he brought to me because I was his dad, and dads are supposed to be superheroes. He was taller than I was. Stronger. But I was his father, and that meant I could help him when he needed help. "Hurry," was all he said. And I suppose it was possible that it was I who still believed in fairy tales and he simply thought an extra pair of eyes wouldn't hurt.
I retreated down the hall to get dressed. I didn't say any words to him about how, in all likelihood, the boy was fine. That there was no cause to worry. It would have done no good. As little sense as it made to me, I recognized the look in his eyes. Even if it didn't sit well with me, I recognized the look in his eyes. His fear was the same kind that left me weak and winded every time I got a call from a hospital or a salvage team. Your son's been in an accident… Or There was a cave-in. We got separated… Or The structural integrity of the hull was weaker than we originally…
When I hunted treasure, I got headaches from spending too many hours hunched over books. When Ben hunted treasure, he got concussions from things falling on his head. And even when those voices on the line would rush to assure me He's going to be fine, my mind would immediately and unhelpfully tack on the words this time. And thus I would resign myself to waiting for when next time would inevitably arrive. It aged me. Every time. And it was some of that aging fear I'd seen in my thirty-two-year-old son.
The boy. The stupid, childish boy who'd been foolish enough to run off without telling a soul. And maybe that was partly my fault. But that that boy could scare my son the way my son scared me…there was something significant about that. Something that made me reevaluate my dislike of him. I like to think I'm a good judge of people. And that the boy was hiding something I still had no doubt. I could see the secrets he hid every time I looked at him, and I could see his fear that someone would find them out. My position on that hadn't changed. But every time I'd looked at him, I'd asked him wordlessly to leave. And he had. What changed was that I realized that wasn't what I wanted.
When I'd dressed in a flannel button-up and corduroy pants, I pulled my coat from the closet and met Ben in the kitchen. He had a high beam flashlight in one hand and his holdall in the other. There was a note on the counter. Ben's writing. We're out looking for you. Call me, and his cell number. Call me, had been underlined twice.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"We look for him. I don't think he would've had much of a head start. I'd imagine he'd start heading in the direction of the school. I know…two people he could've called." He sighed. "But I doubt he would've called either one of them."
"Do you think he would've gotten a bus ticket? Called a cab?"
"I suppose the bus station should be the first place we look." He said it like he didn't really believe we'd find him there.
"There shouldn't be too many people there this time of night. If he's been there it shouldn't be difficult to find someone who'd have seen him." It was a small piece of encouragement. He nodded his appreciation.
I followed him out to the garage and slid into the passenger seat of his car as he placed his bag in the backseat and then got behind the wheel. He pulled out, and rain battered the windshield. "Keep your eyes on the sidewalks," he told me.
"Surely he wouldn't be out walking around in this." The boy hadn't even recovered fully from his injuries. He had asthma. Ben had mentioned he was just getting over a bout of pneumonia. Surely he wouldn't…
Ben pressed his lips together as he switched the wipers to a higher speed. I caught his uneasiness. "It's really starting to come down out there," he said quietly.
Water builds up fast in the sewers when it rains. Scary fast. And water is very, very heavy.
"Tyler!" The kid blinked at me, the light from my flashlight reflecting back at me from his eyes as full of tears as they could be. He yelled a little—just a small, hysterical sound that was relief because someone was there with him and fear because he didn't know who I was. "Hang on, buddy. I'm gonna get you out of here, okay? Just give me a moment to…assess." Man, my voice sounded weird. This is bad. I'd tried to keep the fear out of my voice so Tyler would stay calm, but that was stupid. This kid—he was maybe eight—he already knew it was bad.
The tunnel had collapsed on one side, concrete and rebar and general debris piled up to chest level. It was damming up the sewer, stopping all that water that was flowing downhill toward me. Dams are supposed to be a whole lot stronger than a pile of broken concrete. This thing was going to break. Soon. Water was already flowing through the chinks, loosening the debris, taking smaller chunks with it. There was a lot of water on the other side of that wall already. This was bad. Water is stronger than people.
"Who are you?" the kid asked through his teeth. He was on the ground, curled around his arm. An arm trapped under the rubble. Trapped under rubble that would unleash a wall of water if I moved it.
"Um. My name's Riley. Hello. Your brother told me you were stuck." I knelt down next to him, tried to get a read on the damage. Felt my stitches pull a little. Dang. Wasn't supposed to get those wet.
"Trey," he whimpered his brother's name. The kid shook all over with cold and pain. That arm was broken. There was blood. Worst thing about it was that was the least of his problems. "Are you," he panted, "a firefighter? Or a cop or somethin'?"
Wow. Me? Really? It was dark. But I wondered if he had a head injury or something, too. Honestly, I was impressed he was still conscious. If he'd passed out, he'd be dead. "No." I wasn't about to tell him his would-be rescuer was actually a computer geek with a track record of being useless during emergencies. "But…my dad was an EMT."
"Somebody who saves people."
"And he taught you?"
The irony of where I was hit hard. I smiled grimly. "Yeah. He taught me." I couldn't compare this to that. I'd be worthless if I did. "You ready to get out of here, big guy?" He nodded, eyes wide even with the lines of pain around them. "Okay. When I move this, you have to get your arm out. Okay? It's going to hurt. But you gotta do it anyway, as fast as you can because you're strong, and the sooner you get your arm out, the sooner we can get back up to the street. Okay?"
He nodded, biting his lip hard.
"That's right, pal. And as soon as your arm's free, we're going to have to move fast, and I want you to grab onto me with your good hand and not let go, okay?"
He nodded faster.
"Good." The roar of the water was deafening, and on my knees like I was, the water had already risen to mid-thigh level, swirling around and rushing down to the opposite end of the tunnel to join the rapids that were the main drag. It'd washed away the kid's abandoned flashlight. Tyler had to tilt his chin up a little to keep it above the water. His arm was pinned between two pieces of concrete, and I had to move one of them while disturbing the rest of the haphazard structure as little as possible. I set my light up on the "dam" and grabbed a piece of rebar, jamming it in the crack above his arm. Then I stood, straddling it, my back to the wall of crumbled concrete. If this worked too well, if I moved too much… Dear Lord, please let it hold. "Okay!" I yelled. "You ready?"
I groaned and he screamed as I pried the space open. It was hard. Those hunks of debris were heavy, and the water pressure had sort of packed them together—funny how that was working both for and against us. But the second he was free, I grabbed my flashlight in one hand and wrapped my other arm around his chest, heaving him up on his feet while he was still screaming, and it sounded hoarser than before. "Come on!"
He grabbed onto me like I'd told him, his chest heaving with sobs as we ran, the both of us nearly slipping a couple times as the swirling water tried to wash our feet out from under us. Water doesn't have to be deep if it's moving fast enough. We were running out of time. The moment my light caught on the rungs of a ladder, I almost cried. "Yes! Come on, buddy. Right over here. We got this!"
I got Tyler there and boosted him up, and he scrambled up there with his one good arm like the trooper he was, and I followed after. The ladder led to a manhole cover. Sweet, blessed manhole cover. I got up beside him on the ladder, and he pulled his hurt arm into his chest and wrapped the other around my neck, just shaking with fear and only crying a little. Hadn't expected that. I adjusted so I could wrap one arm around him, kinda awkward with the flashlight in my hand. With the other I clung tight to the top rung. We made it. We're good. Then I moved upward, ducking my head and pushing my shoulders against the manhole cover. It was supposed to come up.
I shoved hard, feeling my bones press against the solid, unforgiving iron until I could feel bruises rising on my back. Nothing happened. I put my legs into it, pushing against the ladder as the water rose beneath us, dark and loud and scornful. The cover was stuck. It wouldn't budge. "Argh! Really?" Couldn't go down the way we came. Water had gotten too high. Current would beat us.
My fingers were starting to get pretty numb. There was a little kid bleeding on my chest. I couldn't even reach my inhaler. And, oh yeah, when that dam broke and all that water came surging down toward me, I'd probably die of blunt force trauma before I even got a chance to drown.
Rain pounded the windshield, making it difficult to see, reflecting the lights of the few cars around me, and all I could really think about was Riley out there in it. Or where Riley would have gone to take refuge from it. That kid had no concept of his own safety, and I was furious and so, so sorry. The traffic around us had slowed to a crawl; there was a lane closed ahead, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles ahead signaling an accident or some such. I was in no state of mind to worry about anyone else's problems at the moment.
"Ben," my dad said, his hand shooting toward me out of habit to keep me from going forward as I braked hard, causing the car to bounce to a stop at the last second, far too close to the station wagon in front of me. There was a pause as Dad reclaimed his hand. "I'm watching the sidewalks," he told me. "Take it easy now and watch the road. It'll do no one any good if we wind up in the hospital tonight." Even though he was scolding me, there wasn't any harshness in his tone. Just a lot of worry.
"What are you really worried about?" I asked. And I'd been drained of my own harshness, too.
He gave an uncharacteristically one-worded answer. "You."
I kept my eyes on the road, which was convenient. "You don't have to be."
I heard a small snort, if that's what it was, but his reply held no humor. "If only."
I knew my dad loved me. I couldn't have doubted that. Even if I'd intentionally made the decision to believe he didn't care about me—and it would've had to be intentional—I couldn't have pulled it off for a second. He and I really were very much the same. Like I'd told Riley. Just opposite.
Right then, though, I didn't want his worry to be for me. I was fine. Safe and sitting right next to him. "He's just a little kid, you know?" I said quietly. "In a lot of ways. And he doesn't know it. Makes it worse."
"Really. I've said much the same about you."
I smiled without really feeling it. "Really? Because I've never said anything like that about you."
"But you've thought it."
"Frequently." A smile he didn't think I'd see reflected off the glass. "Dad."
That was how we did apologies. Without apologizing. Without either one of us admitting to being wrong. He didn't believe he'd been wrong. Represented his argument the wrong way, maybe, but not wrong. And I didn't believe I'd been wrong. Disrespectful, maybe, but not wrong.
Those non-apologies were usually enough for me. Not this time. I needed him to understand. "I wanted to give him a family this week. He doesn't think he needs that. I just wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted you to help me."
He sighed. "Ben." I never wanted to be the villain here.
I gripped the steering wheel hard. "Nobody wants him. And he thinks that's okay. That people are justified in how they treat him. Like he deserves it, and he doesn't. I'm just so sick of people buying into the assumption that he's not worth anything. He does that well enough on his own, and I didn't think I'd have to endure that with you."
He didn't say anything at all.
I adjusted the rearview mirror in my frustration and peered out the windshield as we got closer to the emergency vehicles. I didn't see any remnants of a collision. "What is going on?" I murmured to no one as we passed. They had cones and lines set up and rescue workers surrounding an open manhole cover. I felt a nudge in the pit of my stomach. A woman and a young boy stood by, gripping the perimeter with anxious, hopeless faces, and they were obviously crying even if the rain masked their tears, and it was all so real that my heart immediately went out.
"Ben, pull the car over."
I looked over at my father, but he didn't even give me time to form the question.
"Now. Pull the car over now." My dad has this tone of voice he rarely uses. I'm not even sure he's aware of it. But when I hear that tone from him, I obey automatically—no thought process involved at all. It's as if on cue he can speak directly and exclusively to that part of me that trusts him completely.
I jerked the steering wheel, and there were horns honking around us as I swerved onto the shoulder. It took me one second to process my thoughts and spit out the question a saner person would've asked before pulling over. "What? What's wrong?"
He had his face turned away from me, looking out the window toward the emergency scene. I couldn't tell what had caught his attention. Without answering, without even looking at me, he unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door.
And out he went. Into the rain.
"Dad," I called. "Hey." And suddenly I was a follower. I hurried around the car. "What are you doing?"
He held up a hand and kept moving toward the scene, and all I could do was stay with him, shivering as the rain soaked me. He walked all the way up to the perimeter the emergency teams had set up, stood right next to the crying woman.
"What happened?" he asked her, and I knew he already had an idea.
She looked at him. I saw her eyes as she gathered her strength to answer. She was broken. Grief had already gathered in her eyes, weighted them. The shock that dulled her face somehow couldn't cover her pain. "My son," she said over the rain, and her voice sounded husky. Like she'd been screaming. She pointed to the opening in the ground. New tears formed in her eyes.
Oh. If her son was down there… With the rain coming down like it was… I felt for her. How could I not? Everyone there knew her son was dead. There really wasn't anything anyone could do.
"A guy went after him," the kid next to her said, his voice trembling, trying to find some hope. "He…he told me to get help…"
"There's another man down there?" Dad cut in.
The boy nodded. "He said he'd help him. He said."
And my dad looked sick. He looked at me for a split second. And something in his expression made me feel sick, too. "Ben."
He was looking away, toward the emergency teams, all those people bustling around and really doing nothing because what could they do? I followed his gaze. Saw what he'd seen. And my heart quit.
On the ground near the manhole, looking like they'd been kicked out of the way, lay three bags. A green and yellow backpack. A plaid duffel. A black computer case. Three bags. Three mismatched, horrifyingly familiar bags sat by that uncovered manhole. "No," I whispered. It couldn't really be. There was just no way. There were things that were impossible, and that had to be one of them, or it…I couldn't…
I felt myself moving, and a moment later, the barricade was behind me, and there were people trying to make me stop, and someone was shouting Riley's name, and, oh, it was me.
"Sir! Sir, you're going to need to move back behind that line…"
"My kid's down there!" That made them quiet for just a moment. And I looked down that hole in the ground, and all I could think about was a kid who was afraid of dark basements, and all I could see was water. I froze. No. Hands caught my shoulders, tried to push me back, but I went to those bags, and I went to my knees. I pulled the computer case toward me. There was a tag on it. I flipped the tag over. The words blurred in front of my eyes.
This case and everything in it belongs to Riley Poole. If you find it and don't return it, I will not hesitate to reap vengeance upon your household, down to the third and fourth generations.
Suddenly there was a woman in uniform kneeling in front of me, trying to talk to me. I couldn't hear her.
I jerked away, turning around and covering my eyes, feeling them start to burn. God, no. Please. Riley Poole, that eighteen-year-old kid, my best friend, little brother…his life could not end like that. Not down there. Not alone.
I turned back to face the woman, my jaw clenched so hard it must've hurt, but I didn't feel it. Let the rain act as camouflage. I stood, the laptop case gripped in my hand. She rose with me. "My name is Benjamin Gates. I've got formal dive and salvage training from the United States Navy. Tell me what's happening and what I can do." It wasn't too late. Not for Riley.
Her lips thinned, and she looked away for a moment before she could look at me again, far too much sympathy in her gaze. She'd given her answer with her face before she ever spoke a word. Something in me went still. I noticed she had a patch on her shirt with her last name. Lewis. Like Lewis and Clark. Meriwether Lewis, born August 18, 1774, Albemarle County, Virginia.
"I'm afraid, at this point, Mr. Gates…"
Served in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant before becoming an aide to President Thomas Jefferson. Later to be chosen by President Jefferson to lead the expedition…
"…that we're trying to figure out where they'll be…where they'll come out. I…"
He was a Freemason. Became governor of…
"…I'm very sorry."
…of the whole of the Louisiana Territory.
"What is your son's name, Mr. Gates?"
He died. November…no. October. October 11. 1809.
"I'm sorry," I said, looking up at her, and I couldn't understand my confusion. "What was the question?"
"We-we're gonna…die!" If the kid was hysterical, that was a little bit okay. Heck, it was past due really. Because I wasn't sure he'd be wrong.
"We're not gonna die," I said. And I don't know where I got the nerve to tell him that. He was still clinging to me. I couldn't see his bad arm, but I knew it was pretty mangled. Like our chances of survival. "Hey, which turtle are you?" I asked, trying to distract him. Come on, Riley. Plan. I wanted Ben there. Ben never lost control. I had to think like Ben.
"When you were playing with…Trey? Which ninja turtle were you?" I felt along the edges of the manhole cover, trying to find something wedged in there, or whatever it was that kept the stupid thing from letting us go.
It was no good. Thing would not move. Plan B. Gotta be a Plan B. I looked over. The drain made for an opening a little taller than a street curb. It was to the right of the ladder. It'd take some maneuvering. I wasn't even sure it'd work at all. Didn't have a whole lot of other options. "Cool. Is he your favorite?"
"No. I…ah," he hissed but kept going, "I wanted to be Raphael. But Trey said that Connor…" He trailed off and squeaked as his arm got jostled a little.
"All right. Listen, chief. You gotta be Raphael for me right now, okay?"
"He's the strongest," he recited immediately.
"That's right. You gotta be the strongest. And I'm gonna be Leo. Because he's the leader, right?"
He nodded, very solemn.
"Good call. Okay. So here's what I want you to do. See that opening right there? We gotta squeeze you through that."
He shook his head quick. "I can't."
"You can. You're Raph. You're tough, right?"
"It hurts!" he cried.
"I know, buddy. I know it hurts. But you gotta be Raph. You gotta be stronger than the pain. Then you can go up there and see your brother, and it won't hurt so much anymore."
"What about you?"
I couldn't fit through there. No way. I doubted I could get the little guy through without hurting him some. But being hurt some was better than being dead some. "I'm gonna wait here. You just…just tell somebody where I am, okay? Let 'em know where I'm stuck. Send them for me, okay, tough guy?"
He buried his face in my collar bone. "No," he whimpered, and it was a defeated sound.
"It's okay, Tyler."
He squeezed with the hand that was gripping the back of my shirt and took a deep, determined breath. "My name's Raphael," he said lowly. It surprised me I could still smile.
"All right Raphie boy. Let's hit it."
There are things a father never wants to endure. The agony of seeing his child in pain—that would have to be the second thing on that list. Right then, my son looked…devastated—in every sense of the word. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he didn't move.
"Riley. His name is Riley," I said, partly in answer to the woman's question. Partly because I needed to say it, to myself and to Ben. That I knew his friend, that I knew his name. That I saw him as a person. And that her assumption that he was part of Ben's family was not incorrect.
Ben looked at me. My son is a good man. A strong man. Strong men rarely react well when they're told there is nothing to be done for someone they love. That it's over. "I should've been there," he whispered.
Guilt, hard and painful swelled in my stomach. Ben was wrong. He shouldn't have been there at all. Because the boy should never have been there. If I hadn't…if I'd been a better man, that boy—Riley—he never would've been on this street to begin with, would he? The weight of what that meant settled on me, and I felt wretched, and I knew I couldn't be the same because a boy was dead because of me. "I'm sorry."
Perhaps Ben hadn't yet realized it was all my fault. Because he hugged me. And he cried because he'd known Riley. And I cried also. Because I hadn't.
It took some serious doing. Not like we had the best angle to work from. And, oh yeah, he'd crushed the heck out of his arm. But I shoved him through that drain. And even with his littleness, he'd probably scraped his chest and back a bit. He laid there a second, moaning and trembling.
"You're there!" I breathed, starting to wheeze a little, and I clutched at my burning chest. "You did it! You're there, buddy! You're okay. You're okay."
He sniffled, reaching in, and touching my outstretched fingers. "I'm gonna…help…you, Leo," he said, too exhausted to put more than a couple words together without stopping to breathe. I loved that kid right then. "Which…way?"
"Follow the sidewalk. Go that way; follow the sidewalk back to where you went in. Okay? Here," I handed him my flashlight. "Put this on the top there so they'll know where to find me. And you just go get warm and don't worry about anything."
"Go find your brother. You're safe. Just find your brother."
He nodded and somehow managed to stand up. Then he was gone. I couldn't even hear his footsteps because of the rain and the echoing water. I leaned my head on the rung of the ladder. He was safe. He got out. I did it. I took a breath. I did it.
It was hard to breathe all the sudden. My chest felt tight with fear and cold, but I was scared if I tried to get my inhaler out I wouldn't be able to hold onto it. I was alone. And it was very dark. I looked down and couldn't see how far away the water was.
At least I got Tyler out. That was the important part. He'd be safe, and I felt good about that. Felt really good. But that good feeling did surprisingly little to make me less paralyzed with fear. With the dark and the walls and the noise, and nobody else to tell me it was okay, nobody else to convince it'd be okay except myself, I felt alone. The kind of alone that...echoes. I wondered if my dad had had time to feel alone like this before…
I shook my head quick. No. No, don't think about that. Ever. Tears came to my eyes. I wouldn't give up. I wouldn't. I had to make it. Ben. Ben was my best friend, and if I died down there like that, the last thing I ever would've said to him would be a lie, and I couldn't let that stand.
But then the world, as it so often does, chose that moment to mock me. Mercilessly. A sound like a gunshot echoed from down the tunnel, and there was a roar. Not like, the "ocean roar" relaxation sounds they play in the lobbies of dentists' offices. This roar was sick. Deafening. Deadly.
That flimsy little makeshift dam had finally broken. Like I'd known it would. Amazing how things you already know can still terrify you.
I really didn't believe it could be true. Which didn't make any sense because I couldn't stop…weeping. Riley couldn't be gone. He was too young. There was too much he could do. Too much he had to offer. He couldn't just be taken like that.
It didn't seem possible I could become so attached to that smirking, lonely kid in the span of a few weeks. It was far too little time to come to love someone like a brother. Far too little time. But he was gone, and there was loss, and I could feel that loss in all its wrenching, twisting, painful being. And while the rain poured, and my tears soaked into my father's already soaked shoulder, and I numbed to everything except what hurt, the very idea that I didn't love that kid would've been absolutely ridiculous.
A sudden flurry of movement pulled me a little closer to the moment, and I pulled away from my dad. I heard that mother scream, but it wasn't a mournful sound, and I heard her son shout.
My head whipped around. A young boy stood several yards off, stumbling his way closer to the lights of the ambulance, clutching his arm. He was swarmed immediately. "Mama! Trey!"
His family ran to him, surrounded him. Crying. Wanting to hold and trying not to hurt. There were shouts. He was okay. The kid. He was okay. The kid got out.
I walked toward him. He was speaking. All his tears were in his voice, but he was remarkably calm for everything going on around him. He couldn't have been older than eight. "He's still down there. He's still…"
Riley. I only vaguely registered a mother and brother's joy, and a little boy's brave, urgent words. Because everyone was moving again. This had ceased to be a funeral. This was a rescue again.
He's still alive. Riley's still alive. The boy made it out. Riley will make it out.
"The flashlight. He told me to leave the flashlight on…" That's what he said. Giving directions even as they were trying to load him into the ambulance, his eyes wide, his hand anchored to his mother's.
I started running.
My heart was somewhere in my esophagus as I looped my arms and legs through the rungs of the ladder and waited for the inevitable. I squeezed my eyes shut tight. Guess I must've thought it'd be bad. But bad's such a subjective term. Sometimes bad even means good. This was not good. Not by any stretch.
It was like getting punched by a giant.
I rocked against the side of the ladder, knocking the air out of me, the rungs digging into my arms and legs as the water tried to break my hold. Fire shot up my leg as my stitches ripped out, and I would've shouted if I could. The water was halfway up my back, and it was full of hard little pieces of junk, and I got pelted, but I guess I was lucky, too, because if any of those big chunks of concrete had hit me, I wouldn't've stood a chance.
Groaning and trying to breathe through my teeth, I clung to the ladder, and I could feel the tightness in my muscles already trying to relax as fatigue and exhaustion got close, and I fought it, and I had no idea how long I could, and I had no idea how long it'd been. I knew pain right then. And I knew cold.
Come on, I thought, and I would've said it if that'd been possible at the time. Come on. People are up there. They'll find you. Fight. And they'd save me and take me back to Ben, and he'd be so mad, and I didn't care because, even mad at me, Ben was nicer even than anyone I'd ever known who wasn't mad at me. Except my parents.
I knew pain. And I knew cold. And I knew I wanted home. Those three things—at the time they were all I knew.
The flashlight was right where the little boy said it would be, looking abandoned, lying there, illuminating the heavy drops of raind that fell around it. There. Riley was there. Right there. He had to be. He was a fighter. He'd fight. He'd hang on.
My dad was next to me, jogging, keeping pace next to me, his eyes sparking with hope, and he looked young then. Younger than I'd ever seen him.
The rescue workers were converging on the spot with quick purpose, and they kept telling me to stand back, and I never did realize it until I played it back in my mind later. I went to my chest at the opening of the drain, and there was only blackness, and I screamed into the blackness, praying he'd hear me, "Riley!"
The water pounded me relentlessly, threatening to break my grip, suck me under, sweep me away. I couldn't even raise my head anymore; my strength was totally drained. It took everything in me just to hold on. I was so tired. Even the freezing water wasn't doing anything to lift the weights on my eyelids. If it wasn't for the fear-inducted adrenaline pumping through my body…I could have seriously fallen asleep and never known it. It would've been that easy to stop fighting. To relax. Let go. What really scared me was that my body might make that decision for me.
"Riley!" My name. I heard it. And I knew I must've been hallucinating because the voice sounded a whole lot like Ben. "Riley, are you there?"
"This is Riley," I whispered through gritted teeth, and if it had been Superman he still wouldn't have been able to hear me. The water was almost up to my armpits.
"Hang on, okay? If you're there, you have to hang on!" It couldn't be Ben, though, right? Ben didn't even know I was gone.
I heard a clang and a loud scraping, and there was shouting, but all the words got washed away.
I couldn't feel my fingers real well anymore. A little longer. A little longer. Ben's coming. He said to hang on. That's what I would've told me if I'd been Ben. I still wasn't sure I could really believe Ben was up there. But I knew I wanted him there, and if believing he was kept my numb fingers from giving up, I was all for it.
There was a crack and a groan as the manhole cover broke loose, little rocks and debris raining down on my head. I wanted so bad to lift my head. There was more shouting, and there were hands on me, and something got looped under my arms. Then I had a vague memory of tug-of-war in sixth grade on field day. I remembered the rope breaking. I felt like the rope.
"Riley!" I heard Ben again. There were hands on my arms. Gripping tight. Brought me to other memories that weren't good. "Let go of the ladder!"
I managed to shake my head no, and sadness washed through me. It wasn't Ben. Ben would never tell me to let go.
"I've got you, buddy. Let go! I've got you. It'll be okay. I promise." There were other voices that I didn't know, but none of them were talking to me. Just the one that sounded so much like Ben. "I promise, Riley! Trust me!"
I took a shallow breath. If Ben promised, it'd be okay. I prayed it was Ben. I prayed I wasn't crazy. Because if I was crazy, I was dead.
"Now! Let go now!"
And I did. And the water felt like it was sucking my skin off, and I was moving up, the harness around me going so tight it cut off my breathing completely, and the hands on my arms pulling me, never letting go. And then a moment later, there was no more water.
My feet touched solidness that wasn't part of a ladder, that wasn't underground at all. That was pretty awesome up until my legs couldn't do much in the way of holding me up. But then those hands that had been on my arms so tightly were suddenly all the way around me, holding me up, and I collapsed into somebody's chest, and I knew I should've been embarrassed, but I was too tired to be embarrassed. The arms squeezed me tight, and then there was a hand rubbing my hair. My fingers gripped onto a jacket, I guess because my brain hadn't bothered to tell them they could quit gripping yet.
The chest I was pressed against was warm and shaking a little and rumbling. "Ben?" I whispered. If I wasn't crazy then this had to be Ben. And I wasn't dead. So I couldn't be crazy.
When I'd called to him and got no answer, it was like lightning in my gut. I wasn't too late. If I'd come this close and it was too late…
The cover was stuck, old dirt and gravel cementing it shut, and it took two men with crowbars to pry it loose, and all of that took precious seconds. But when I'd looked down, saw his shaggy head there, bent low, the relief hit me so strongly I nearly fell.
He wasn't responding very well, and I saw his arms trembling with the effort of fighting against those tons of water rushing past him. It took all of my strength not to try to drag him up out of there right then. To wait until they'd set up a tripod over the hole and get him harnessed to it. Then I got in there. I'm sure there were protests from the uniforms. If there were, I don't remember them.
When we pulled him out, I held on. Desperately. I got him up in my arms, and I held him tight, crying all over him because he was alive, though I don't think he noticed the tears right then. All my fears, all my grief, all that sorrow…it was overwhelming as it flowed out of me while I took all the reassurance I could get from the close contact with the kid I'd been so sure I'd never see again on this earth. Thank you, Lord. Oh, thank you.
He held on with a surprisingly tight grip. "Ben?" he asked, like he had to make sure.
I laughed a short, hysterical laugh. "Yeah, buddy. I'm here. I got you."
He let out a rattly-sounding sigh and burrowed his face into my chest. "Knew it," he murmured.
A/N: Hey everybody! Thanks ever and always to all you reviewers and PMers who never fail to make my day with the sweetness of your...sweetness! Just wanted to let you know that all the encouragement and kindness have fueled a little endeaver I've been working on the past several months. I just finished a YA novel I've been writing with my mom, and we sent it off to an agent to see if anything comes of it. I'm super excited. It's a brother story-what else, right? ::grin:: I'm trying to get a website together to post any updates with how that's going for anybody who's interested. ::second grin::
Also, I'm thinking at least two more chapters on this guy. Riley and Ben and Patrick definitely still have an issue or two. Not to mention, what the heck happened in Riley's past? Oh, I'm not quite finished with them yet. I'm almost sad to see this story wrapping up, actually. It's been so much fun. Then again...it's probably (way past) time. Heh. So yeah. Now that I finished that other project, I should have some time to devote to the fanfic world. I've got some other story ideas I've been wanting to dive into, too. Oh, fanfic. How I've missed thee.
Anyways, hope you enjoyed this chapter, Reader. Onward to the next!