I felt strong, calloused fingers lift my chin, but my eyes refused to focus. Even that lift of my head caused my senses to swim. I felt woozy. Like my skin was all too warm, way too soft and ripped in places; like a ruptured tire that blows out at highway speed. My whole world felt like that just then. Incomplete, split open, deflated, and disconnected.
When my eyes did finally focus, they locked onto a very familiar pair of deep green eyes.
"Jack?" I managed to croak out, my throat raw and rough from all my previous screaming. The sense of relief that washed over me almost drowned out the horror of the situation and my worries for Jack's own safety. If his maniac father found him helping me like this, the consequences for him could be dire.
"Carver," he replied, all cold and businesslike. I felt suddenly like I was very small with him standing over me. His fingers tilted my head so he was out of my view. Then something stinging and wet dripped over my head, right where the pain was. Then a gentle rubbing sensation, with more stinging, but in a good way.
"How… how bad?"
"Possible concussion. Definitely dermal abrasions and blood clotting. Fortunately, I don't think that any serious infection has had opportunity to set in. The peroxide should be enough."
"My eyes are all screwy. Balance is shot."
"Yea, likely effects of a mild concussion." His ministrations were irritating but I knew necessary. Still, part of me was wondering why we didn't just get out and leave. Plenty of time to clean my wounds once we were out of the mad house.
"Hold still," he admonished as he finished cleaning and disinfecting my face.
"So, whut's da plan?" I heard myself mumble, still feeling a bit woozy, but it was lessening.
"There is no plan. Not of my making anyways."
"But what, Carver. Do you imagine that I'm here to rescue you? To just break my father's commands and usher you out of here freely. You've seen his secrets now. He'll never let you out of here alive. Certainly not intact. You must realize that now."
I was stunned.
Stunned is actually too mild a word. When Jack's dad tossed me across the back yard and smashed my brain into the wheelbarrow, that stunned me. When Jack's dad backhanded me like Rafael Nadal smashing a cross court drive, that stunned me. When Jack's dad admitted to cutting off one of my Pop's balls, that really stunned me.
What Jack just said was a betrayal as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. And carved from nothing less stony. Whatever wooziness I felt at that time went completely away. Cold, hard, harsh, bright reality dawned on me. And in that light, I found clarity. Insight. Wisdom. And a whole Titanic's worth of sorrow and anger and depression and… and a lot of other emotions that I can't really put names to.
I had lost not only my only hope, but my first love, my closest human connection and my best friend, all at once. Now I know what Mom felt when Pops was killed. In that moment, I suddenly knew that true love is only real when it's balanced with pain.
I was going to be tortured, maimed, hacked on, experimented with, killed and then disposed of, right here, in this god-knows-where place, and the boy I had fallen in love with was not only going to let it happen, he was helping. Ain't life a bitch?
"Jack," I started to say, tears falling off my cheeks. Where I managed to find the moisture for tears is beyond me. My mouth was more parched than fresh dryer lint.
"It isn't up to me, Paul. I wish I could go against father's wishes, but I cannot. I think you know why now." His own eyes switched over to the banks of computer cabinets with the German writing on them. "I… I have no choice."
"You're more than just programing. Not just chips in your dip," I managed to squeak out. My voice felt thick and caked, like deep clay mud drying in the sun, with the edges of areas breaking and curling as the moisture steams away. "Get me outta here."
"I can't Paul. As much as I… as I love you, I can't break his control over me. I can't disobey."
"But, what about us? He's going to cut me up. Kill me."
"I know," Jack said, something like sadness dulling his green eyes for a second. "And you are the only thing I've ever really wanted for myself, Paul. I've learned so much from you. Changed so much because of you. Being around you was the first time I ever felt something other than just observation and experimentation."
"We can escape together," I pleaded.
Jack just looked longingly at me and then shifted his eyes to the cabinets of wiring and microchips and such. "I'm sorry, Paul. I truly am. But while I am connected here, I cannot be free to love you like you deserve. Nor how I might want to. Some things are written in plastic and steel, encoded in copper and gold. In many ways, that's deeper than flesh and bone, blood and stone." He turned back to me and I could actually see a single tear streak over his cheek.
"It is out of my hands, Paul. I'm sorry." He put down the first aid kit he had been using to fix my wounds and then leaned over and kissed me, ever so gently on the forehead. A flood of conflictions swelled in me. I mean, it was a kiss from Jack, which meant so incredibly much to me, but it was full of sadness, anxiety, a shock of pain from my temple, a warmth that sucked all the coldness of the room into me where his lips touched my skin, and a sense of finality. That Destiny itself had chosen this path and there was no way out.
Betrayed by a kiss. How Biblically inappropriately ironic.
He turned and left the room, quickly, small bits of post-it notes and labels on lab equipment lifting and rustling in the wake of his passing. I didn't get to see his face as he ran from me, but I believe he was crying more. I called after him, my voice drowning in my own tears as I struggled to draw in breath. But it all seemed to desperately empty.
I felt desperately empty.
More time passed. I'm not really sure how long. What I do know of that time is that my brain kept coming up with scenarios to explain why Jack had sad and done all those things. I drifted in the tide of memories, being over at his brother's house, the garden, teaching him skate tricks, him showing me around town, discussing different things in the news and things he'd read. That night on the couch. That one stayed with me a lot, analyzing the events there over and over in my head.
None of it made sense with what had just happened. He said he loved me, but he was going to let me die. He was going to let his insane evil fucking mad scientist father cut me up and use me for his own eternal youth sports drink crap. He knew what was going to happen and he still wouldn't lift a finger against his father or to just set me loose to escape on my own.
He was going to simple do as he was told, not what he wanted. And that thought seemed to be the only thing that broke through the despair crushing my chest in. He didn't want to help the old nut-job out, but he had no choice other than to help him. Or at the very least, to not oppose his father's bad intentions. He could not. Not that he didn't want to, but he could not.
As crazy as it sounds, I suddenly knew what I had to do. Jack had almost as much as told me. The computer banks. He'd looked at them significantly while talking about how he couldn't go against his father's commands. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I certainly can be the heaviest hammer in the toolbox. If the computer banks were destroyed, if the control whozie-mawhatsiz was no longer a factor, Jack would be free to just be Jack.
Simple, right? Just get loose from the chair I was strapped to like a prisoner awaiting electrocution, bust up the machines, get Jack out of there, call the cops on his dad and then live happily ever after. All in a days work.
Problem was, I still was strapped down so I could barely budge at all, much less just muscle through the thick leather straps. I glanced around to see what was around me. Maybe something could be useful. Something, anything.
The nearest object was the big slab of aluminum table, near a long shelf of chemicals in tubes. In fact, that table was where the flask had been when Jack's dad had left me before. Curiously, I realized that the flask was gone. And that my mind seemed clearer. Maybe whatever wispy vapors had been coming out of that flask had been keeping me groggy. The fact that it was gone now, after Jack had come in to clean me up, seemed to indicate that. And it also indicated that Jack was trying to help, without directly violating his father's command. I drew hope from that.
I also flashed to his exact phrasing when looking back at the computer cabinets. "Some things are written in plastic and steel, encoded in copper and gold. In many ways, that's deeper than flesh and bone, blood and stone." That somehow wound its way into my brain as I sought some way to either cut or loosen the bonds at my wrists and elbows. I was confident that if I could wiggle out of just one of them, even slightly, that I could manage to get loose and bust outta that joint like it's the last day of school.
Plastic and steel, he's said. Copper and gold. Deeper than flesh and bone, blood and stone. He was giving me hints. If only I could piece them all together and see what he'd really meant. The parts where he was referring to the cabinets and computers and stuff like that was kinda obvious. I'm not that big of a dummy to recognize that. But stone? That part didn't fit, at least not as far as I could tell.
Still moving my eyes around the room, I tried to use my feet to move the chair about. For some reason, I couldn't get the chair to twist but I could get it to wiggle a little. I thought maybe if I tipped it over it would give me some leverage or maybe break the chair, weaken it enough for me to just struggle through on muscle power alone and maybe break loose. So I wiggled the chair, got it tipping up on one side, then to the other, building momentum and then…
I didn't really think that the other shelves in the room were that close. Apparently, they were, because when I finally got the chair tipped over, the angular rotation was enough for me to conk myself on the head again. Not sure how long I had passed out, but I awoke to find myself on my side, still securely strapped to the chair, and now at an angle where the lab tables and such blocked most of my view. Some large tome had fallen off the shelf when I'd impacted it violently with my cranium and it too blocked my view now, being so close to my face. A small pain on my nose told me that the hardbound corner of the book had at least marginally impacted my face on its way down.
Clearly there is a lot more to being an escape artist that just what you see on TV. You suck, Chris Angel!
Shouting for help while being on my side like this seemed counterproductive. After all, the only ones in the house were Jack and the crazy-fucker he called Father. Neither seemed likely to help me escape at this point. The idea of getting disciplined by Jack's sadistic father didn't exactly thrill me either.
I was running out of ideas, options and the thin ray of hope that Jack had left me. I was also hungry, hurting, dehydrated, depressed, cold and cramping. That and was having a hard time feeling anything other than my pulse in my right arm, partly trapped under my weight. In short, things weren't going so well. I started to doze off, again unsure how long I had lain there on the floor, still strapped to the chair.
That's when I saw something that had to be a dream. It wasn't possible. I mean, I was probably still loopy from the multiple blows to the head, the possible chemically intoxication, and the perils of my own overactive imagination, not to mention that I hadn't had anything to eat or drink in what felt like a long, long time.
So to see a portion of the wall lift up like a drape, just the wall part and shove to the side like a doggy door, well, that must obviously have been my mind playing tricks on me. I wanted to escape, so the leftover bits of my brain that were left over from all the fear and suspense I was in, all the thoughts of what crazy insane tortures lay ahead, so like, all that just fed into my desire for a miracle rescue or something, right?
I mean, walls don't lift like that, especially not when lifted up by a hand. Certainly not by Kenny's hand alone. Nor could Robby be walking around with goat legs and just manhandle me up and out of there like nobody's business. I mean, I've got a couple inches and several pounds on him. There's no way he can be like picking me up like a fireman. He shouldn't be that strong, right? I mean, he couldn't be.
I must have passed out, because next thing I remember was laying down between them in the back seat of a minivan of some kind. It was dark out, but with the light sort of low like sunrise or sunset. I looked around and saw Robby watching out the back window of the vehicle, and Kenny leaning over me, offering me a sip from a bottle of water. I managed a few sips before the darkness folded me up for keeps.
When I woke again, I was lying in a bed I didn't recognize. Kenny sat next to me on the bed, apparently changing a wet rag that was on my forehead. I heard him say something like "he's comin' around," and then footsteps on a hard wood floor. I tried to sit up, but Kenny's apparently a lot stronger than he looks. Or maybe I was apparently a lot weaker than I felt.
Lot of apparently's going around.
"We were kind of hoping you could tell us," Kenny said, smiling. "Welcome back, by the way."
He was joined by Robby and Juan from the fencing class, and a girl I didn't recognize, and then there was Kenny's dad and three other adult guys. Must be a really big room. Despite all this apparent support (there's that word again!) there were two people missing and I wanted them right then more than ever before in my life.
"Where's my Mom? Aunt Sarah?"
"Slow down, Paul," someone said. I tried to sit up again and this time two hands shoved me back flat, Robby and Kenny's.
"But they're in danger!"
"How izat?" Robby asked, his eyes narrowing.
"It's Jack's dad! He's… oooh," and I suddenly felt completely knackered. No energy at all. The last time I felt this wasted was when I had the flu. My stomach gurgled and my stomach clenched tight.
"First thing's first, guys. Let's get him some food."
"I'm on it, Poppa," Kenny said, hoping up and racing out of the room.
"My head's all spinning," I admitted.
"That'll happen when you conk your noggin on a bookshelf," Robby replied. "You said something about Jack's dad?"
"Yeah," I managed to croak out. "He's Dr. Stamos."
The look that passed over Robby's face told me he clearly didn't get it. But just behind him, I saw Kenny's dad's face go three shades paler.
"What did you say?" Kenny's dad said, his words coming out almost jumbled together, with a level of intensity I've rarely heard in an adult's voice, like, ever.
"My mom and aunt were gonna go talk to Jack's dad so that he'd let me and Jack see each other cuz he said we couldn't anymore and then I went to the class at the Y and they went to see him and when I got home from the class I overheard them talking about Jack's dad being some Dr. Stamos guy and him doing…"
"Experiments on kids he'd infected with a super virus," Kenny's dad finished for me.
"Uh huh, and then… before I could go see them, he tossed me like a pebble, brought me someplace and had me tied up." Kenny nosed his way through the crowd and handed me a glass of OJ and a triangle of toast with bacon and jelly in it. I immediately devoured it all. I felt so hungry, if they'd have brought me roasted toad on a stick, I'd have asked for seconds, maybe thirds.
Kenny's dad stepped away from the group and the others watched him as he seemed visibly shaken by my information. That's when it hit me. Aunty and Mom had talked about Kenny's mom also being one of the kids that Dr. Stamos had done things to. Juan and Robby helped me sit up as Kenny actually walked to his dad and hugged the tall man from behind.
"Stamos said he'd… done things to my old man. That he was surprised that I was even born. He was gonna amputate my balls for some eternal youth potion or something. And then… he said he was going to torture me and use what he learned from my body and the things he'd done to Jack to make some kind of…"
"Nazi super army," Kenny's dad said, again interrupting me, but with a voice like that, when he takes over, you let him. "Boys, we're in deeper than you know."
"Do we need to know?" Robby asked, gently.
"Yes. Yes you most certainly do. And so does Paul." He turned, clutching his son to his side. "Let's give Paul a moment to get dressed. When you're ready, young man, come upstairs and I'll tell the story. Do hurry, we don't have much time."
"What about Jack?" I blurted as the others started to file out of the bedroom.
"We'll discuss that upstairs," Kenny's dad said. The way he spoke kinda put the judge's hammer to any further points on the subject. Clearly, he was shaken about the revelations about Dr. Stamos.
The door closed, leaving me with just Robby in the room. His smile was comforting, yet I could tell he was holding something back. I started to move and found that I was stripped down to my undies as I lifted the covers a little. And I noticed that they weren't my undies. I started today with burgundy boxer-briefs on and now was in someone else's silky black boxers, and then felt a size too small. I looked over at Robby and he just shrugged.
"Uh," I managed to say.
"Don't sweat it, dude. Figured you didn't want to wake up with the mess. Anyone who went through that ordeal might be expected to have trouble like that. No dishonor."
"How did you guys know I was in trouble?" I asked, blushing about having crapped myself.
"Well, the smell was the first indicator that… Oh! You mean about, er, right. When we started looking for you, you'd already been reported as missing for a day. Your mom and aunt went looking for you when you didn't get home from Jedi practice. Then they called around, asking Master Mitch if you had made it to the Y for class. We all kinda got involved after that. The police had interviewed Jack and his dad, as well as about everyone else in your neighborhood."
He helped me get into my clothes, which seemed still warm from the dryer. Decided to keep the current underwear situation in place, even if I felt a little constrained, if you know what I mean. Tight through the legs and waist. And other places. I could feel my strength returning, but there was a moment there that I was glad someone stayed behind. I nearly fell over while trying to put on a sock, even while sitting on the bed.
"So, how long?" I thought guiltily. Mom and Aunty must be like crazy worried at this point, and all I could think of was wanting to call them and get home to them. And somehow save Jack and put his evil father behind bars, or better yet, just plain rip his head off for all the crap he's done.
The image of doing that somehow gave me strength. I'm not normally a violent person. I love a good action movie like anyone, and all, but I know I'm not capable of doing stuff like that for real. I mean, who is, right?
"You've been here about 7 hours. We haven't told your people yet," Robby replied. Instantly I felt my anger spike, again.
"Why the fuck not!?" I shouted.
"Because of the nature of what's really going on here. And because of how we got you here. Try to stay calm, man. There's things you probably need to know."
"And what the fuck exactly is that?"
Robby inhaled, his face going very grim. "Okay then, the easy way," he mumbled. He snapped his fingers, said "Here Boy!" and pointed across the room to where a few of the Jedi sword things were stacked in a corner, many of them with obviously broken poles, the wood showing jagged points where a section had either snapped off or was crunched.
The thing flew across the room to his hand! Not only did it fly over to him, it tumbled itself in the air so that the handle landed in his palm with a solid smack sound. The moment it was clutched in his paw, he spun around backwards and had the point extended at my throat, just inches from me.
"What the fuck?"
"It's not what you think, Paul. It's much, much more. Hold still and you'll understand in a moment."
"Robby, what are you…" and then he tried to stab me with the broken lightsaber blade. And when I say tried, I mean he really tried. I saw his arm pull back slightly as his entire body weight surged, about to jam the broken point into my chest by at least a good four inches.
But he missed. Something took a hold on me, some survival instinct or reflex, and I somehow ducked under the strike, sidestepped about three feet away from the bed. Instantly, by body felt warmer, stronger, every little detail in the room snapped into sharp focus with every sense at once.
"Hold still, willya, I'm trying to make a point," he said.
"What the hell, man?! What's going on here? Why are you trying to kill me after you just saved me?"
"If I wanted you dead, we wouldn't be talking," the little menace said, blocking my access to the door. "You have to trust me."
"Uh, you're trying to shove three feet of pointed stick into my thorax. Yeah, that's trustworthy." I inhaled sharply to yell for help, not thinking that maybe they were all in on it… whatever it might be.
But Robby had other ideas. He came at me again, this time sweeping the point in low from the right. At the same time, he stepped left, kinda forcing me back towards the bed and the wall in that corner of the room. I did this unlikely limbo kinda move and bent over nearly backwards, using the bed to bounce back to vertical as the point sailed over my chest. How I knew how to do this was beyond me. But in that moment, I didn't have time to analyze it. I just felt it and went with it.
As he changed his footing to catch me on the return swing, I actually dove forwards, towards the same pile of broken Jedi sticks in the corner and somehow not only somersaulted across the intervening space, but came up with one of the broken practice weapons in my hand. Got to say, I felt a bit awkward having just done that, being weak as a kitten just minutes before. But at least I wasn't going to be a victim. Something in me was pleased that I would at least be able to take swings before he cut me down. After all, I knew how this would likely end up. He was the one hoping to do this sword stuff at the Olympics after all.
Not that I ever paid much attention to the Olympics.
"Impressive," he said, taking a step back to cover the door. I was still trapped in the room with the little sword fighter. And, the weapon I'd come up with was not only broken shorter than his, but I could see a crack in the remaining wood, right through the paint, that ran down into the handle.
"Why?" I said, feeling betrayed, again.
He put the point of his blade down, not taking it off my position, mind you, just letting it sag in his hand. "This isn't what it seems, Carver. And neither are you. I just wanted to help you."
"By jamming some oak through my chest?"
"What do you remember about when we rescued you?" he said, calmly.
"I… I'm not sure. My head was so screwed up at that point. I think he'd drugged me."
"Did you see us?"
"I saw… naw, couldn't be. But, I'm here so…"
"What did you see, Paul?" he asked again, a certain edge coming to his voice.
"Well, I dunno. It doesn't make sense. Like, Kenny was lifting the wall like just pushing aside. Or like, lifting it. Just doing like cartoon shit and lifting the wall like a curtain."
"It's called portal passage. Just one of our many tricks."
"I thought I was loopy and seeing things. Imagining help coming when I knew there was no way."
"Go on," he prompted.
"And like… there was a blue light. And you had on weird furry pants or something. And you picked me up like I weighed nothing. And…"
"So you saw me when I looked like this?" he said. And then he suddenly punched forward that broken lightsaber stick. The whole time I'd been talking, he had taken small steps closer and closer until he was close enough to ram the whole thing into my stomach, angling up.
It went in all the way, right up to the collection of plumbing parts that made up the front of the handle. I gasped in surprise. The sneaky bastard had done it. He'd stabbed me with that thing and it was so deep in my body that…
And then I looked around me. And I looked down at Robby's face. He didn't look crazy or angry or pissed or, well anything negative. In fact, while he did look different, suddenly, his expression was more, idunno, serene. It seemed like an awkward thing for someone to look like when they'd just killed a friend.
Light exploded, all around me, but with no sound. My senses must have all popped like soap bubbles. Smells in the room burst in my sinuses, bypassing my nose entirely. Ripples of air currents on my skin twisted and danced through the little hairs on the back of my arms. When the light faded back, my vision was really screwy. I mean, I thought for a moment that Robby had four small knobby things poking out of his forehead. And he had on some kind of armor, and his legs were dog-like. Well except for the hooves.
About this time, I realized that there wasn't a length of wood stuck in my guts. Robby stepped back and dropped the weapon, and it had no blood on it at all. I put my hand over my stomach where the thing should have penetrated me. It was like it normally was. Smooth skin under the shirt.
"Now do you see me?" Robby said, and he took several steps, clearing my path to the door. I watched, spellbound, as he moved on those legs, graceful as any cat.
"Wha?" was my response.
"You see me now in two ways. Robby, and now as Robyn the Blue. A satyr. A Changeling."
"I must be nuts. This is just my head playing tricks on me as I bleed out on the floor. You stabbed me, and I'm dying now."
"Oh, get the fuck out! Seriously, do you think I'd go through all the trouble to track you down, mount a rescue, bring you someplace safe and then nurse you back to health just to stab you with a stick?"
"I dunno. This is fuckin' strange."
"Look," he said, exasperatedly, "With what's about to happen, I need you fully aware of the truth."
"Yes, the truth."
"The truth is you fuckin' stabbed me!"
"Where's the blood? Where's the happy sting of death? I didn't stab you, Paul. I Enchanted you."
"Enchanted?" I asked, lifting my shirt to see the place where the broken wooden point supposedly entered my body, violently. Not a scratch.
"Yeah, it's how you can now see things from the supernatural side of reality."
"Supernatural?" I looked back up at him and the shimmering images sort of clicked into place for a moment. He looked, well, the same, but different.
"Yeah, I only pumped some magical Glamour into you so you can perceive the Changeling world."
"This is gonna take forever if you keep repeating what I say. Look, we'll get into the particulars later. Just accept some things as fact and we can get on with it. Jack has a computer brain, his father is a very bad man, you are much more than you seem to be, and me, and several others, are supernatural beings."
"Oh trust me, it's true. See this?" he said, pulling off the plate of material over his left shoulder, exposing the scar I'd seen at Jedi class. It looked even angrier now, and I could see a slight bit of bluish light leaking from it.
And yeah, I gasped at how raw and nasty it looked. He quickly covered it back up, partly turning away from me, an embarrassed blush coloring his face. I felt myself actually having to close my mouth.
"That wound was caused by Cold Iron. That's like soul leaching metal for my kind."
"So, Kenny?" I asked, feeling my heart rate returning to normal.
"Yeah, he is too. And Juan, and Bethy, and Kenny's dad."
"Your parents too?" I said, feeling completely out of my depth for like the fourth or fifth time since the Jedi class, apparently days ago.
"Naw, my folks are mages, but that's a different story. Let's stay on subject here. Fact one, there are lots of supernatural beings living in this area. Fact two, while you're not supernatural, looks like you're superhuman, at least in some significant ways. Fact three, whatever Jack's dad is up to, we have to stop him."
I shuddered as I realized all these things. Part of me was screaming "yes" to all of this. Like part of me knew all along, but all the stuff you get taught growing up limits your ability to believe. Like somehow when you grow up you lose that sense of the truly magical around you. And Robby/Robyn had just given that back to me.
"So, what I need to know is, are you with us, or do I need to lock you up here while we do what we have to do."
"What about Jack?"
"We'll do what we can for him."
"Not good enough. I want to help."
"Okay. The first step is info. We need to know what you know."
"But we have to hurry. If I was out that long, I mean, how long have I been missing?"
"Jedi class was on Thursday," he said, gathering breath to tell me. "It's early Saturday morning."
"Two whole days!?"
"No, more like one and a half. Dude, no one knew for sure you were even missing until like after ten o'clock on Thursday. Even your mom and aunt thought you might be out skating and lost track of time until the sun went down."
"Right, right, I'm sorry. It's just… two days? Mom must be going nuts. Again."
"I know the feeling. Are you up for this?" he asked. I could see a sort of after image of his weird satyr form and the kid I'd meet a couple days back sort of blurring, occupying the same space. Either that or my concussion was more than just "mild" in nature.
"Got no choice if I am or not, do I? I gotta help Jack. Holy shit, you were so right about the computers and stuff in the basement. It's like a super computer backup to his brain!"
"Right well, let's get upstairs and figure out our next move. Fair warning, you're about to see some freaky shit."
"After this and that crazy laboratory," I said, "I think nothing can freak me out."
I was wrong. Oh so very wrong.
The double image thing continued on just about everyone upstairs. Kenny's dad was like 9 foot tall and, I kid you not, blue. Juan looked like a scrawny leather goth kid with an evil flat toothed anime grin. Bethy was… well there's no other way to say it, she was fuckin' unbelievably gorgeous, almost elfin and glowing. And Kenny himself was like some Mediterranean prince from some old-timey movie or something. He even had like some kinda Egyptian make-up thing going on around the eyes.
I must have been stopped in my tracks while my brain rebooted. The whole room, hell the whole house took on a new appearance to me. Things were all more ornate, taller, the furniture heavier, the lighting fixtures all changed to candles and lamps, you know, like what the genie comes out of in Aladdin.
"Oh, this is new," I mumbled.
Kenny smiled and stepped up to me. "Don't worry, we wont bite."
Robby, from behind me couldn't help but put in his two cents. "Well, Croaker might, but he's housebroken."
"Oh, Ha-Ha," Juan replied, sarcastically. "Don't scare the norms, Robyn."
"I know this must be shocking for you," Kenny said, guiding me into the room with a hand on my shoulder blade. "But we really need to know what you know."
"Young Jack's life may be in the balance," Kenny's dad said, his voice suddenly having such a deeper, rumbling tone. I swear, I could feel the vibrations of it in my chest like a sub-woofer. "And we cannot allow Stamos to get away again."
"Yeah, well, I'm all for saving Jack."
"He is precious to you," Bethy said, her voice strong and pure like notes from a bell. "Isn't he?"
"Am I that obvious?"
"Only to those who understand," she nodded, sagely. "You wont find censure or judgment here."
"He feels the same for you, doesn't he?" she asked again. All I could do was nod. I couldn't even look at her, that piercing, elfin gaze of hers seemed to be reading deeply into my thoughts.
"Then our mission is clear," she said, glancing at the pale, slender comic book villain looking Juan. He nodded, grimly. I felt intimidated by that, and I don't know why.
"If we could begin," Kenny's dad said. I got to sit in a chair that was oversized when seen normally but seemed fit for a giant when I sat down. I felt almost like a 5 year old having to climb up into an adult sized recliner. Bethy and Juan sat close together on the couch, hands intertwined. Robby and Kenny were squeezed side by side in another big recliner.
"Children," Kenny's dad began, saying it more like a compliment than an adult asserting authority. "When I was but a little older than you here, I had friends much like you do, and I knew then the girl who would be the love of my life. Kenny's mother, Margarita.
"We were only sophomores in high school. But even back then, we knew who and what we were to each other. Then the sickness came. Half the school got sick that March. More than thirty of our classmates died, and the local doctors couldn't find out why. The town went into quarantine. Even the trains diverted around the city. For nearly three months, food was airlifted in by cargo helicopter. Many of you have probably seen the pictures of the helicopters hovering over the football stadium, lowering pallets of food.
"Your parents were among the sick, Beth. As were yours, Paul. We were good friends in school, and your father was in the same recovery room with me at the hospital. He was very susceptible to the virus. He was such a bad case that my parents nearly pulled me out of the room with him. I argued that he was only holding on so well because I was there helping him. My father understood. Ryan was my buddy, he needed me.
"When it was revealed that the doctor who came in to save us was the same one that had engineered that virus in the first place, and then much later revealed that Dr. Stamos had been a Nazi scientist under Dr. Mengele, the authorities started looking into what he had done while supposedly curing us.
"What we found out was that he'd done unnecessary surgery on more than 90% of the afflicted students. Most had been the victims of surgeries done to their genitals. The disease spread rapidly and he claimed that many of the victims needed surgeries to remove necrotic tissue. Almost all of those also had operations that affected internal organs. Primarily samples had been removed from adrenaline glands, livers, lymph nodes and in a few cases, brain matter and cerebro-spinal fluid."
"He took parts of their brains?" Juan asked, the first to interrupt.
"He also," Kenny's dad started, then he choked up for a second and had to stop. Kenny wiggled out of his seat by Robby and leaned on his father's chair, resting his head on his father's shoulder. Something about that just seemed so right in that moment.
When he could continue, Kenny's dad drew in a deep breath, and patted his son on the head before giving him a forehead kiss. Kenny chose to sit beside his father, just spinning in place and winding up sitting cross-legged beside the large chair.
"Stamos did more than just remove parts of genitals from many of his victims. He apparently raped over half of the female patients while they were under anesthesia. Twenty-five of the girls became pregnant as a result of this. Girls who were very young, many who were not sexually active. Three were freshmen, barely 14 or 15 years old.
"I know such things aren't as shocking now as they were at that time, but these girls only became pregnant during the three or more months that they were undergoing treatment for the virus. The boys and girls were on separate floors of the hospital, and because of the quarantine, the hospital was under heavy police protection. And to be honest, speaking as a victim, none of us were in any condition to even attempt sexual contact. I didn't even touch myself in that manner during my entire time in the hospital. I could not… perform."
"My god!" Robby breathed out, his face a mask of mixing emotions, and none of them happy. "So he raped the girls, even as he was performing unnecessary operations?"
"Yes," was all Kenny's dad replied. The air seemed to resonate with the silence after he answered. There were a lot of exchanged glances around the room. Kenny got up and walked into the kitchen, out of my sight, just seconds before a timer went off in there. It reminded me of how Jack would do the same. Which reminded me of Jack and brought a tightness to my gut.
"And he would take unnecessary liberties with the boys as well. At the time, we didn't know what was going on. He referred to the process as milking the prostate, claiming that he needed to know what the virus was doing in various different fluids. It was later learned that the samples he took from us had vanished."
"You mean he…he took your stuff…your baby batter?" Juan asked, clearly unsettled by the idea.
Kenny's father nodded sadly, as if in that nod was an admission that it had happened to him. I suddenly understood why this big man looked so pale when I'd mentioned Dr. Stamos' name before. Everything about what made him a man, what had been part of his pride as a high school boy, about what helped define his own character as a male, this so called doctor had abused. It was such a base, foul abomination of the trust we put in doctors. I barely have words to describe the way I felt about this.
And this bastard now had his grubby, diseased, evil mitts on my would-be boyfriend. And he had been likely minutes away from doing the same, or worse, to me that he did to Kenny's dad. I was trembling with anger and worry about what might happen to Jack. About what might already have happened to Jack. My sense of urgency increased. My sense of disgust rose with it.
"This is the type of man we face here," Kenny's dad spoke, regaining his composure. "He is smart, he will be prepared. He will realize that once Paul is missing, his time will be short. Based on what we do know so far, it will be no simple task for him to move his operations, but he won't be caught. Escape is on his mind, but he won't leave all his hard work behind."
"So we gotta move fast," I said, standing up. "Jack just about told me the answer to freeing him. If we destroy the computers, we break the hold his dad has on him."
"These computers, they're kind of a problem," Beth said, getting the room to listen to her clear voice through some unknown power. It's like she's just so pretty and calm and stately that you have to listen to her. "They might represent Jack's freedom, but as connected to them as he is, they could wind up hurting him as well if we destroy them."
"You think so, Bethy?" Robby asked.
"My lord, we do not know. As a result of that not knowing, we should excise caution. Also, those computers may represent evidence. The police will want such evidence to…"
"We may have to do something more permanent in this case," Kenny's dad replied evenly. The other two adults in the room shared Kenny's dad's grim expression. "Men like this need to be stopped, permanently. Without digging up old wounds."
"I agree," the taller of the other two adults said, scratching at his salt and pepper beard. "Justice is one thing, the law is sometimes something different."
"I have no qualms about killing this villain," the shorter, slightly Arabic looking guy said. "Sounds to me like he's fouled the air by breathing far too long as it is."
"Well, I do," Beth said, standing. "I understand that he's done horrible things and gotten away with it for so long, but the fact is that killing him is too easy. He must be made to suffer for what he's done. Simply killing him will not balance the evil he's done."
"Oh, and having his every need cared for in some country club minimum security prison will?" the older dude with the beard said. "I'm sorry, Beth, but sometimes you just put down the rabid dog."
"Yeah, Bethy, I kinda agree with Capricus on this one," Robby said. "We can't let this go on, but this kinda guy, he gets away with things. He's a weasel. He squirms through the cracks in the law and wont ever stop until someone puts him down. He's about as evil as anything else we've faced, like ever."
"I bow to your authority, my lord protector, but I respectfully disagree."
"How can you want this joker to just get jail," Juan piped up. "He hurt your mom and dad."
"Beloved," she said, a lot of stress in her voice. "The hardest part of true justice is tempering it with mercy, compassion and restraint. Slaughtering a rabid dog to keep it from spreading its madness is one thing. Keeping a monster in the grasp to learn its wicked ways only helps us find ways to spot and stop such of similar kind in the future." And she walked over to the kitchen area, leaving the debate.
"And I thought I had my hands full," Robby smiled across at a dumbfounded looking Juan. The boy with the Spanish eyes simply nodded, smiling in what I can only say is a sad way.
"Chow's On!" Kenny called from the kitchen, bringing out a large pot of something that smelled salty and creamy at the same time. We all gathered around the oversized table and were ladled out dishes of steaming New England clam chowder, with chunks of potatoes, corn, thick milky fluid with buttery goodness and clams all shimmery with spices and tiny parsley flakes. Large chunks of buttery Texas toast fresh from the oven completed the meal. Every person at the Viking mead hall sized table had at least one full dish, even the diminutive Beth.
I have to admit, as anxious as I was to go save Jack, I needed that food. My body was a lot weaker than I thought, and I instantly felt enormously better after a decent fueling. The colors still were slightly tweaked thanks to Robby "enchanting" me, but my overall sense of being in balance was returning. And with it, my desire to go save Jack.
Little did I know that the plan to save Jack was already in motion. It's good to have friends who can get things done. But the events of the next few hours all landed on my shoulders. And it pretty much changed everything.
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