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Table of Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter

13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15

Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Acknowledgements: About the Author

by Amanda Lance

Wanted Copyright 2013 by Amanda Lance. All rights reserved.

Limitless Publishing, LLC Kailua, HI 96734 First Kindle Edition: April 2013 Editor: Toni Rakestraw Cover Design: Eden Crane Designs Formatting: Streetlight Graphics

This eBook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors imagination or

are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual personsliving or deadis entirely coincidental.

To all of my imaginary friends.

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. Evil, be thou my good. Paradise Lost, Book IV, Lines 108110

Chapter 1

D id you know 30,000 people are kidnapped around the world every year? Ironically, part of the reason I was kidnapped had to do with the search for quality family time. In truth, there was no

need for us to drop Robbie off at the army base. We all knew he could have accepted an offer from one of his buddies to catch a ride with them. He could have even taken a bus if he wanted. I think Dad must have thought the short road trip was an opportunity to savor some of those sitcom family-style moments together. Although he wouldnt admit it, I suspected he was afraid it was the last time we would all be together. Granted, none of us thought I would be the one in mortal peril. As we drove to Fort Drum, Robbie and I took the immense opportunity to tease Dad about his growing sentiments. I bet you werent this emotional when you

fought in Desert Storm, Old Man, Robbie taunted. Now, now Robbie. I had put the marker in my book and kicked the back of his seat. Thats disrespectful. You know Dad prefers to be called Sir Gray Hair. Or, I corrected myself, He-with-theFuzzy-Inner-Ears. Robbie laughed his Robbie laugh. Mr. Receding Hairline. Dad laughed. You kids are just lucky I can hold my temper. When Robbie embraced him that last time at the entrance gate, Robbie repeated his if you were me argument once more. Through the entire sham of their debate, I

watched the sun lowering as cadets brought in the various flags for the evening the gold and pink commanding a stronghold over the sky and everything beneath it. Perhaps I should have been playing referee as Mom would have done and as I had been doing since her absence, but at this juncture, their arguments served less purpose than usual. Still, I thought maybe it was better for them to say it all out loud than have it be left unsaid. Im going to live my life the way I want to, Robbie said. You were lucky to make it through there once, it might not happen again. You cant expect me to just leave my

friends out there while I stay here I expect you to stay safe. Once they wore themselves out, we all engaged in the family tradition of substituting the seriousness of the situation with humor. If you were me, youd be doing the same thing, Old Man. If I were you, I would have joined the Corps sissy. As Robbie and I said our farewells, he gave me one of those awkward sibling hugs that we usually only saved for holidays or tragedy. Take care of yourself, Addie. I always do.

He sighed. Sometimes that might mean not taking care of everybody else. I just laughed at him. You can lecture me when you get home sissy. Dad and I got back in the car and I immediately began fiddling with the radio to avoid that narrow silence that settled between us. Even after we pulled back onto the freeway, it continued for miles, long into the evening hours until the local radio stations fizzled out and I had to change them to other, unfamiliar ones. Without music to distract me, my mind began trailing back to when Mom first got sick. Despite the politics, I was proud of Robbie for joining the army. It was

something he had mentioned long before Moms cancer and remained eager about despite our parents protests. Moms illness was a prime opportunity for exit. You cant just leave when things get bad, I said to Robbie. I cant stay here, Addie. Not like this. In time, I could see his point. On some level, I even envied his ability to get away so easily. Mom needed more care than she would admit, and once she was gone, Dad needed more time and attention than a kid. Treatment could offer Mom more time, yet it wouldnt be with the Mom we knew.

When offered her options, Mom had laughed what remained of her laugh. Thanks, but another couple months of this? I think Id rather eat my husbands cooking. Or my sons, for that matter It was only a few weeks later that she was on her deathbed, telling me she loved me, and teasing me because my socks didnt match. But now I slipped my feet out of my sandals and tried to stretch, tried to daydream, tried not to worry about my big brother. Get your feet off the dash, Addie. I dont want them to scuff the glove box. Reluctantly, I let my feet slide down

back into my shoes, my legs already missing the stretch the tall console provided. All around us, the meandering trees and woods seemed to suffocate us, and yet ahead was a clear, outstretched highway that promised freedom if you only stayed the course. I rolled down the window and felt my fingers dance against the wind. Briefly, I considered what it would be like to feel my whole body out there. How much longer until we get to the exit? I asked. Dad sighed. Maybe an hour. That accident back there took us off route by forty-two miles. Just be patient, Addie.

I smiled and flipped my sunglasses back on. Looking at the night through the dark lens was strange but not entirely unpleasant. If nothing else, they blocked out some of the brighter headlights coming from the opposite direction. I turned my attention back to Dad. There were very few things Dad hated more in life than falling off course. It was easy to see he was annoyed at having to drive at night, having refused my offer to take the wheel. Im really just concerned for you, Old Man. I know senior citizens run strict schedules for themselves. If we dont get home by eleven, you might miss out on a rerun of Green Acres.

Finally, he smiled. Watch it, Missy. He tugged on my ponytail playfully. Ill give you something to be concerned about. I laughed. Youre just cranky because you havent had your Metamucil today. Dad laughed at the old joke, but it was a tired, forced laugh, more for my sake than anything else. In return, I pretended not to notice the artifice in his demeanor. It was like a game of charades that I almost always let him or Robbie win. It was obvious his thoughts were still at Fort Drum with Robbiebut I wasnt going to call him

out on his right to worry. In my own way, I had attempted to make it up to him a few months earlier by finishing high school. Granted, an uneventful occasion for a homeschooled kid, but it seemed to make him happy for a minute. And while Dad buried himself in work projects, I threw myself into my studies as a college freshman. Usually we met at dinner or somewhere in-between. It seems like he just got home, Dad said suddenly. It was getting harder for me to stay positive. Then just think of how fast time will fly until he comes home again. My smile felt fake and it made me feel like a

liar. Dad laughed again. What would I do without you, Addie? Phh! Starve to death, run out of clean clothes, never get the car serviced. He mockingly bowed to me. Yes, Daughter, you are exceptionally important. I feigned a curtsy. Why thank you, Father, it is so nice to be appreciated. We stayed silent for a long time. This was one of those many moments where I was wishing I knew more about sports or accounting errors or anything else Dad was interested in just to keep a conversation going. When Robbie first

left, Dad would frequently spend his spare time pacing the hallways or working on things in the yard, just for the sake of keeping occupied. We were like that in a sense. To avoid thinking we put ourselves to work. But while his arena was his office, mine was the thick stacks of book in the library. I leaned back and looked at myself over in the side-view mirrors, my hair was a thick, blonde mess much like Moms had been before the chemotherapy. And although my features were symmetrical, I always thought my nose was a little too sharp for my face. My eyes were also as green as Moms had been,

with that same almond shape I was occasionally complimented about. Other than that, I was more ordinary than anything else. For whatever genetic reason, I wasnt long and lean like my parents. Instead, I was petite with a simple frame. If I had cared or put enough effort into it, maybe I could have been a dancer, but the motivation never came to me. I wrapped my wrists around themselves until I heard the dull pop of the joints. We had only been driving for three hours, but already I could feel the heaviness of the long ride setting into my body.

Intentionally, I put my feet back up on the dash. Dad saw me out of the corner of his eye, but he didnt say anything. I moaned dramatically and slithered as far down into my seat as my seatbelt would allow. Twisting side to side, I cracked my back until there was no sound left. For a moment, I thought I saw Dad smile, but I wasnt certain. I put my feet down and sighed loudly. Yep, I sure miss those days when I could feel my limbs. I sighed again and almost burst out laughing, but contained myself. I started playing with the power seating instead. Dad? Dad? Dad? Skating back and

forth on the chairs axis, I began to chant like a mosquito in his ear. Hey Dad, maybe we could make a stop? Dad? Hey, Dad? Dad? Dad? He was pretending not to hear me. Dad, my legs asleep, I cant feel spine, I must stretch properly. I reached out to him like I had seen so many dying heroes do in the westerns he liked. Although he still pretended not to see, he smiled. Were not scheduled for a stop. Oh. Come. On! I leaned over and glanced at the gauges. Theres less than half a tank left, and its better to fill up now than before its too late.

He glanced at me with a furrowed brow that told me I had won. It was already past nine, and like any practical parent, Dad wasnt particularly fond of gas stations after dark. Fine, but only because I need coffee. I turned my head so he wouldnt see my victory smile. And keep those feet off the dash. The next exit promised a taxpayerfunded rest stop as well as a gas station and a convenience store attached to a conglomerate of fast-food bistros compacted together. We pulled into the

singular entryway only to crawl around the parking lot, attempting to look for any open spot. As we did so, it was difficult to ignore the trash blowing around everywhere and the numerous people who didnt seem to care where they let their pets relieve themselves or where they let their children run. I unbuckled my seatbelt and secured my sling bag across my chest. Yikes. Dad rotated his neck and sighed. Okay, forget about the parking. How about you grab us some drinks while I fuel up? He reached into his back pocket for his wallet. Ill get extra caffeine for you. I

leaned over and kissed him on the cheek before hopping out. People all around us were honking and yelling. You have your phone on, right? I asked. Yes, Daughter. Okay, Father. I laughed. Dad stuck his head out the open window and shouted at the van behind him. Im going already! I hustled away to avoid the horns and dirty looks that were coming in my direction. The summer was all but over, so I was surprised there were still so many kids running in and out of the main entrance, or that there were so many

people there at all. Luckily, the crowds werent that difficult to navigate. I dodged hordes of babbling middle-aged women as they shopped for trinkets and used every excuse me and pardon me I had to navigate through the group of confused exchange students standing in the middle of the foyer. A toddler with a runny nose collided into my legs. He looked up at me with bloodshot eyes for a moment before a large woman grabbed his wrist and yanked him away. I decided to use the restroom before getting in line at the coffee shop, knowing full well that Dad would be vehement about not making another stop after this

one. I almost took a moment to brush out and fix my ponytail but remembered the tired Dad who was probably already waiting for me in the car, so I decided to skip it. Even as I glanced around, I felt an incredible urge to get out of the stuffy restroom that was being bombarded by all of those girls and womenI felt an overwhelming urge to escape. An automatic dryer blew in my face as I gave the door a violent shove. Despite the heat the machine gave off, I felt myself shiver, a feeling of foreboding coming over me. I continued to avoid the crowds until I saw the neon coffee cup that indicated my intended destination. The long line was

discouraging, but things seemed to be moving quickly enough, so I tried to keep my frustration in check. To occupy myself, I opened up my bag and withdrew the modest-sized coffee-table book on Da Vinci that I had been browsing through in my spare time. In the last several days, I had grown particularly fond of some of his unfinished pieces from the 1400s. To me they seemed mysterious and exotic. I frequently liked to envision how they would have turned out if he had finished them. Did you know the Vitruvian Man was named after General Marcus Vitruvian? Its sposed to be bout balance in man

and all that. The sound of another persons voice so close to my ear startled me. I think I must have given myself away with my reaction because the voice started to laugh a little. Sorry bout that, said the voice. Didnt mean to scare you. When I turned, what I saw was more than surprising. While I had been admiring the fine lines of Da Vincis self-portraits, I hadnt noticed the line growing behind me. In particular, I hadnt noticed the individual standing directly behind me. He was a man some years older than me, although I couldnt have immediately

guessed through the large aviator sunglasses he was wearing. It was only the very subtle creases around his mouth that actually gave him away as being any older than me. Even then, however, I had to second guess that theory when I saw the cigarette behind his left ear, where lush, dark hair was slicked from his brow to his neckline. His neck and shoulders were buried deep in the folds of a denim jacket, and his hands were firmly tucked in his jacket pockets. If I had been thinking properly instead of concentrating on the untraditionally handsome man behind me, I would have noticed how strange it seemedthe

unusual choice in wardrobe for the humid ninety-degree heat. But no alarm bells went offat least not then. For the moment I was preoccupied with the exceptional line of his jaw and the ideal brow above his sunglasses. I found myself wondering what color his eyes were, and if they would be different under this fluorescent light than in the sunlight. I actually had to remind myself to blink. Yikes. Huh? Hearing his voice again brought me back to myself. You didnt scare me. I turned back around so he wouldnt see me

blushing; I hoped it wouldnt spread to the bare flesh of my shoulders and cursed myself for not wearing a t-shirt instead of a tank top. I closed my eyes and counted to ten, willing the line to move faster. Behind me, I heard the distinct sound of male shoes shuffling around. Was that a Southern accent I had heard? I put Da Vinci away and kept my eyes straight ahead, trying now to focus on anything and everything but the person behind me. But as the seconds ticked by, my heart started thumping in my chest like a caged rabbit, and the enormous building seemed far too small. Was this the craziness so many other girls had for

boys? I felt myself blushing again when I thought of the stories my bunkmates used to tell at summer camp. And yet the person standing behind me was very clearly past his boyhood You all right? His voice was so close to my ear again it nearly knocked me over. It was strangely soft, a sort of whisper. I almost I thought I had imagined it. Just the way it startled me forced me to turn again. You look like youre gonna fall over. At least I managed my tied tongue. Ium, just seriously need coffee. He seemed amused by my response

and smiled for a second. I was grateful that I didnt make a complete idiot out of myself. Still, seeing him smile at me did nothing to slow down my wild heart. I think I felt his eyes on me for a few more seconds before I heard a phone ring. By the sound of his Southern accent responding, it must have been his. What? After a few more seconds, I heard him speak again. Yeah, I got it. I heard shoes scuffling away, but I didnt have to turn around to know he was gone. Can I help you?

Huh? What? What do you want, Miss? An angry cashier rolled her eyes at me. I couldnt honestly blame her; I hadnt even realized I was the customer next in line. But for the sake of my own sanity and just to reassure my self-consciousness, I looked behind me. Sure enough, the mystery man was gone. I decided it was just as well. Someone like that and the caffeine could have easily given me a heart attack.

Chapter 2

G etting the condiments for the coffee reminded me of the solitary occasion when Mom and I went shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I saw two older women fighting over the last artificial

sweetener and a man yelling in French to a cashier about the milk being too warm. Another man was demanding a free refill because someone had knocked his over. Meanwhile one woman furiously demanded to know if the muffins were organic or not. To avoid the chaos, I made the executive decision that Dad and I would just have our coffee black and proceeded to the exit. At the main entryway, however, two of the janitorial staff gathered with mops and industrial Caution: Wet Floor signs while a mother held a crying child and apologized profusely about some expelled fluids. I

cringed at both the sight and smell and started walking over towards the side door I had seen in the cafeteria, but quickly changed my mind when I saw a physically disabled senior citizen and their wheelchair being assisted into a power lift attached to the automatic door. I bit my lip and tried to look absentminded as I sipped my coffee. Maybe Dad was right and I needed to be more patient. Yet as much as I hated to be rude, I also felt increasingly guilty about making Dad wait for me. I reviewed my options. Looking around, I could see that most of the eateries had separate entrances and exits, but Id have to get

back into the herds just to get back out, and that didnt make much sense. I tapped my foot impatiently and began counting the seconds until the entrance ways were clear when I saw two of the convenience store employees veering toward the back of the building. When I stepped up closer, I could see the red neon of EXIT blaring just above the door. The two began taking off their red aprons and one employee handed a cigarette to another. I followed the two from a distance as they pushed the large door open. In the distance, I could see the smoke of their cigarettes and moths dancing around the street lamps of the parking lot.

I sighed with irritation. If I was annoyed, I could only imagine how agitated Dad was going to be. I opened the heavy metal latch and was greeted by the humid August air. I inhaled it deeply and tried not to think about the mysterious man in line. Why would he just walk away like that? Sure, there were a million different reasons, but it still nagged at me to know why. I tried to shove the potential explanations away. Plenty of time for daydreaming on the way home, I told myself. I set the coffee next to me on an upward groove of pavement and took my phone out of my bag. Despite the dark,

there was still enough light from the lamps of the parking lot that I didnt have a hard time rummaging around for it. I realized quickly that unlike where we first pulled in, this section of the lot seemed reserved for truck drivers and was fairly deserted. I jumped up on a torn piece of curb to catch a better look, and sure enough, there were only trucks and charter buses as far as I could see. As I was dialing Dads number, I heard a noise that almost made me lose my balance. It was a wet sort of sound, only lasting a few seconds, but still, it frightened me enough that I had to wrap my arms around myself when it ruptured

my ears. The echo of it seemed to unwillingly puncture the calm lot and fracture the night itself. Hello? I called All was silent. I laughed at myself. Reasonably, it was probably a cat that caught a mouse or some other unfair demonstration of nature. But then the noise happened again, only this time it was louder and ended with a most distinguished pop. Even thinking logically, the sounds frightened me, and the peculiarity of it had me thinking that something was terribly wrong or that someone might be hurt. What if someone was injured and couldnt

call out for help? I looked back to the busy side of the parking lot where Dad was waiting for me somewhere. I had been as quick as possible in the rest stop for Dads sake. Hopefully taking a minute to gander around now wouldnt bother him. I tried to make my voice seem louder and more confident. Hello? I stepped past the curb and straight into the lot. I walked slowly and with the precision of a hunter. Only unlike a hunter, I had no idea what I was looking for and no weaponry. I took a few steps past the shiny cab of a tractor-trailer and looked just beyond the edge of an enormous semi-trailer. With

every step I took I attempted to be stealthier. I couldnt see or hear any signs of troublelet alone anyone needing help. Still, the eerie feeling remained with me and stuck in my gullet, making my stomach churn. However, my curiosity was still dominating my sense of self-preservation, and I was still sure that if someone was in danger, it certainly wasnt me. I clutched my phone as though it were a beloved friend, only now noticing my sweaty palms. I laughed again and wiped them on my shorts. It was obvious I was just tired, and my imagination was overloaded from worry. I walked through the same way I

came, regretting having left my coffee behind. I made the resolution that I would cut back on the mystery novels, swearing off Hitchcock and Stephen King for a while. Still, I felt relieved I had been wrong about someone needing help or being hurt. I walked through the lot, wondering what other genres might be over-stimulating my brain, when I saw an abrupt flash of bright light. Hello? I figured it was just a set of headlights, another family looking for a parking spotmaybe it was Dad looking for me. I kept trying to reassure myself by glancing down at my phone. Sure enough, I

had one new message. But while I was checking its contents, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere as I started to realize the semi-trailers that surrounded me were unfamiliar. The nervousness I felt increased and a new tightness began in my chest, suddenly making it dreadfully difficult to breathe. I almost wanted to laugh; how clichd was it that I had gotten lost in such a short amount of time? Figuring it would lead to the parking lot I came from, I followed the direction of the headlights and turned the corner. It wasnt headlights, however. For the longest time I really, truly wished it had just been headlights. Instead, the light was

coming from a flashlight at the end of a tractor-trailer. It was hard to see who was holding it, but the holder kept shining it on several figures who were removing large crates from the back of the truck. Hurry it the hell up! A mans voice whispered. Another mans voice said something in a language I didnt understand. In just a few short moments, the men worked together to load the crates into two SUVs and another small truck. With an almost perverse fascination, I watched the gracefulness of the figures as they labored. It was a stage play featuring dark silhouettes that didnt seem to know they

were dancing. I nearly forgot my fear in the confident speed with which they worked, until the figure holding the flashlight left the light on two of the men lifting a particularly large crate together for enough seconds for me to see the handgun on one of their belt buckles. My heart leapt into my throat so aggressively it felt as though it were trying to escape my body completely. I could no longer hear anything but the sound of it beating it my ears. I didnt know anything about the criminal underworld, but common sense told me that guns were bad and shady doings in the night were extra bad. An

instant kind of terror overcame me that made me gasp out loud without realizing it and I had to cover my mouth. The urge to flee was instant. This place wasnt for people like me. I began to back away as quietly as I could. But then arms grabbed me and a hand went over my mouth. The arms pulled me right off the ground, their strength capable of keeping my own at my sides even though I thrashed and struggled. The arms couldnt keep my legs though, and I used this advantage with everything I had, kicking at everything and anything. Ultimately however, it didnt do any good. My last logical defense was to

throw my head back. Only unlike what you see in the movies, head butting someone is extremely painful. And when I felt my head contact with that object, it was actually so painful I thought: This is it. Ive been shot and Im going to die. Im dying. I began to scream with a shrill, piercing quality, muffled as it was through the hand. Unfortunately, this only increased the pain and confirmed my suspicion of impending death. A mess of thoughts came to me. I began thinking about all of the immediate events in my life and how they would be stolen from me. Ill never get to finish that book. Will Robbie go back to Iraq? Ill

never get to travel. But above all, I kept thinking about that stupid coffee. Ill never get to give Dad that coffee he needed so much. Hell be so disappointed. Shut up or Ill kill ya. The words came in with a subtle southern accent and the scent of aftershave and clove cigarettes. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill? Kill? It echoed through my head as though my mind were empty of any other thought. I felt myself start to shake and my torso went limp. My arms were practically glued to my sides, but I started to wish for fake fingernails to scratch with, or maybe pepper spray. Why hadnt I ever taken

self-defense courses? Voices were shouting back and forth to each other, although where exactly they were coming from I couldnt be sure. Abruptly I was pulled away. The arms were dragging me from the pavement and toward one of the SUVs. The panic set in then, and I began kicking harder, tried to scream even louder, telling myself that statistically, if I didnt get away now, I never would. Hot tears ran down my face, and I screamed in my head for help as if someone could hear me. The flashlight blinked out and an engine began to roar. Everything was dark until my eyes adjusted, so I never saw the

cargo door of the SUV open or where the bungee cords came from. The arms released me into the backseat with several crates. I instantly lunged to run from them, but he pushed me back down before I could let out a scream or do much else but slap at him. As easy as batting a gnat, he took both my wrists in his single hand and bound them in the bungees, then did the same to my ankles, using a separate cord. In less than a minute, I was hogtied. I blinked back the tears and felt the mucus pool in my throat. Poor Dad. He would make another stop to get himself some coffee, right? It wasnt likely he would fall asleep

at the wheel or anything, but it would be better if he had some caffeine in him. I was filled with self-loathing as I struggled against the binds. Why hadnt I just walked away when I had the chance? I felt distinct calluses on the hand that put the tape on my mouth. Were these the hands that would kill me? I looked into the face of the mystery man who had turned my heart into a caged animal, now wondering, what would he do to make my heart stop? I made myself concentrate. It was as though I were taking the SAT again and sitting in a classroom with two

dozen other overworked teenagers. I was now reminded of the stuffiness of some of those classrooms and the tiny wedges of those desks. Cramped and herded into such a tiny space, I remember feeling grateful for being homeschooled, imagining being incapable of going to school like that my entire childhood. But I had gotten through it and even thrived because I had concentratedI just had to do that now. So I closed my eyes and breathed, which was considerably difficult through the tears. There were two? No, three different doors opening. Obviously the drivers side had to be one of them, and both of the

passenger-side doors. The weight of the SUV shifted to my left when someone entered from that side and sweat quickly filled the air. It terrified me when I realized I was the only female in the vehicle. The reality of it was almost too much to handle. The SUV began moving. The engine was so quiet I only realized it from the way a crate shifted against me, forcing my head into an unnatural angle. When did I start to move away? Why hadnt Dad found me yet? Briefly, I thought about my phone and naturally went to reach for it. I thrashed against the bungees and winced as they pulled on my skin.

The voices upfront were whispering, arguing about something I didnt understand. My palms searched for something to clamp onto, something to defend myself with, or a way to get myself out of there. But all I felt was the cold metal of the cargo door and what I thought might be the frame of a crate. Headlights flew past the SUVs windows as the driver accelerated. I cringed and dug my nail into my palm. Even if the cargo seating didnt have a safety latch, the vehicle was moving way too fast for me to roll out with any hope of safety. The arguing was getting louder. When are we supposed to do that?

A second voice laughed bitterly. Yeah, we dont exactly have a lot of free time on our hands. My ears tuned-in to the conversation and I tried to turn my head to see beyond the seat. All I could really see, though, was the brief flare of a lighter or a match and the lights of the freeway overhead. Just gimme one goddamn minute to think. I stiffened in the cargo seat when I heard the voice of the mystery man. Youre going to get us all screwed, said the first voice. I flinched when I heard the leather disturbed and the loud sound of slapping. The second man began laughing again, and

it took me a moment to realize someone had just gotten hit. Im helpin is what Im doing. Youre lucky everybody in the state didnt come over when you got rid of that truck driver. I saw another flame and this time it was followed by the smell of the clove cigarettes. The second man spoke up. Hey, hey, hey! Hes got a point, Wally, and it could be a lot worse. When I lowered my eyes, I thought I saw the shadow of a hand slap someones back, but I couldnt be sure. The words got rid of were going off in my head like

cartoon bombs, and for a moment, I thought I might be sick. Thanks for the optimism, Polo. Hey, Wally? Wally? Wasnt that driver a connection of yours? What did you go and lose that guy for, anyway? the second man asked. Cause hes a damn fool. To hell with you both! That greedy bastard wanted more money, a bigger percentage next time for less merchandise. Bottom line is we had a problem, so I took care of it. Yeah, said the mystery man. Now we got a bigger problem. The one they called Polo laughed and

the first man joined in. Aint no problem, he said. Ill take care of that, too. I saw another flame and this time I could easily smell sulfur. I gagged at the stench and began to cough. Between the tears, mucus pooling in my sinuses and lack of air available, I was no longer capable of breathing properly. Fear took over. Even though I commanded myself to inhale and exhale normally, I failed miserably and my head began to ripple like waves. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look back at me, but it was only for the briefest of moments. I heard a deep exhalation of breath, then a button clicked,

and I felt an eruption of wind blast my neck and shoulders. Within a minute or two, my chest stopped hurting so much and my heartbeat somewhat returned to normal. Straightaway, I started counting the freeway lights in my head to calm myself down. I just had to get through this moment so I could make it to the next. Each time I got to one-hundred, I stopped and started over. One-hundred was a number I often felt comfortable counting to when I was upset. I think maybe repeating the action over and over tired out my brain enough so I couldnt cry anymore. My eyes felt like burning coals in the back of my head;

the mystery man and the ones identified as Wally and Polo had stopped their banter, leaving the vehicle in silence. My limbs went heavy against the cumbersome crates and began to tingle in their awkward positions. I had to close my eyes as the wind blurred my vision. Somehow, despite my fear and impending doom, I felt myself fading into the cool of the summer night.

Chapter 3

H ey! Hey, guys! Look! She died from fright! Polo was laughing again. I kept my eyes shut and remained as still as I could manage. How long had I been asleep? More importantly, where

was I? I had dreamed of dark caves and drowning in water I couldnt see. I must have awoken while the engine was slowing down, the change in movement jolting me awake. I scolded myself for not keeping track of how far Id been taken. Why didnt I think to count the turns or look for exit signs? Tears threatening to well up in my throat, but when the engine shut off, I willed myself to stop. If the SUV stopped, that meant I had an opportunity for escape. And while I couldnt exactly run away, I could at least try and attract attention to myself, leading to a potential rescue. Although I couldnt see them, I could

feel sets of eyes on me. The doors slammed again. I prayed I was at another truck stop or anywhere that might be wellpopulated by human life. Like a rabbit in a trap, my heart was thumping mercilessly. I could hear the shuffling of shoes on gravel and the flare of a lighter being lit, but I still made myself keep my eyes shut. Slowly, as though time was being pushed backward instead of forward, I heard the cargo door beep and felt a breeze of fresh air invade the small space. I blinked; my eyes stung against the brightness of day. I discovered new levels of self-hatred for sleeping so long. How had I slept for so many hours when I

should have been trying to escape? I pushed my way past the man standing in front of me, no longer caring if I harmed him in any way. I only wanted to get as far away as possible. My arms and legs were stiff and my torso felt tingly from being cramped so long, but I managed to thrash past the mystery man and onto the crushed gravel. My shoes were missing. I reached down to rub my feet. Someone swore, and I think Polo started laughing. I straightened up and kept going. Another hop and my ponytail came loose from the tie, my hair cascading around me like a blonde curtain. The seconds were painfully slow. In

reality, I only made it two or three steps away from the SUV before the mystery mans arms closed around my torso and he effortlessly tossed me over his shoulder. I flailed my arms, hitting him as best as I could, thinking back to the few times I had attempted to lift free weights with Robbie. If I had stuck with it, I might have been able to defend myself better. Now, every ounce in me fought with what felt like the meaningless efforts of a child. Any remote hope I had of saving myself began to slip away. Think you can manage? I lifted my head. Wallace smiled. Polo was doubled over in laughter. Behind him, I could see

nothing but hordes of trees and shrubbery. A new fear grew within me and I began screaming through the gag. Knock it off, already. The grip of his forearm tightened around my knees, making them impossible to move. Steadily, he moved toward my doom. Behind me, I could hear something being stacked and another vehicle pulling into the gravel. I screamed and screamed until I thought the sheer force would make the tape come off my mouth. Maybe someone had seen something and was coming to helpbut then I remembered the other SUV and the small truck. My despair spread, seeping into my organs and

ceasing their ability to function properly. Inside, I was yelling at myself. How I could have once thought this degenerate was attractive was beyond me. Whatever happened to female intuition? The shadow of a building appeared over us. I could feel the mystery man lean his weight then heard the swing of something ancient and wooden bouncing back against itself. We entered some kind of old house or barn. The smell of mold dust was overwhelming. I screamed for my life. Despite my powerlessness, I had to do something. There was very little light in the house, but when I tried to look past the

wave of hair over my face, I could see cobwebs in the corners of misshapen floorboards. Maybe this was where they were going to kill me and dump my body. It would take awhile before someone would think to look inside the closet of an abandoned house for a corpse. I screamed louder. Holy hell, will you stop that? He carried me up a flight of stairs before he finally put me down on a cold surface. Instantly I sprung up and tried to fling myself from the floor. Take it easy there, Vicious. He pulled my wrists to the side of a large metal object. I strained against him and

continued to scream, but it was as though my actions werent even registeringthey were hardly even an inconvenience against his brawn. Somewhere along the line, he had taken off his denim jacket, and I understood now why he wore it. Underneath he had been wearing a holster with two small-caliber handguns something I wouldnt have noticed in the rest stop with the jacket on. Without the collar of the jacket there to obscure it, I could see the lines of a large tattoo on the right side of his neck, something I imagined he was also trying to hide. Unexpectedly, he reached out a hand toward my face. So here it was. Hed

strangle me to death with one hand, or maybe hed smother me. Maybe it was shock setting in, but, I wasnt as afraid as I should have been. I tried remembering the steps of grief. Had I bypassed those first four stages and gone straight to acceptance? I closed my eyes and tried to think of something nice, maybe some place far away. Yet his hand didnt reach out to hurt me as I predicted. Instead, it brushed the falls of hair from my face, even attempted to place several of the more stubborn strands behind my left ear. I dont know why I expected his face to be different. I just did. He was a villain

now, after all. He had abducted me against my will and would probably kill me before the hour was through. But still, his face was as ruggedly handsome as it had been when I first saw him. All of the features were the same, even more enhanced now I could examine them at close range with him kneeling next to me. His expression changed as he took off his oversized sunglassesanother gesture I hadnt expected. I could see very clearly now the fresh bruise forming between his eyes and the slight swell of his nose. Had I done that? Good, I decided. I was glad Id hurt himeven if it had given me a splitting headache.

We glared at each other for moments that had no end. His stare was making me angry. If he was going to kill me, why not just get it over with? I hardly wanted to be ogled or have a staring contest. Meanwhile, I ran through the inventory list of known colors in my head to try and place the palette of his irises. He reached out once more and again I failed to flinch away, but this time his thumb touched my face, pulling away an eyelash that had been caked on by my tears. Briefly, I wondered if it had been with me since the rest stop. A voice called out from somewhere in the house, pulling him away from some

thought I couldnt read. He stood up, but only for a second, because when he looked back down at me, he made sure to secure the bungees to what I now recognized as an old radiator. Aint nobody gonna hurt you. His voice was a whisper and he looked over his shoulder as though we were having an intimate conversation he didnt want anyone else to hear. Just keep quiet. I was so angry I would have spit in his face if I could have. He stepped out of the room with four quick strides. As soon as I was somewhat confident he was gone, I went back to thrashing against the bungees, only now

that I had more room to work with, I scooted my legs against the radiator and pushed against them for leverage. I shoved against the cord with everything I had, but only felt the material gnawing against my skin. In frustration, I threw my bound hands against the radiator, instantly regretting it. The metal made my hands ache, and the sudden pain spread all the way up to my elbows. It forced me to refocus and take in my surroundings. Below me, I felt the grime of the linoleum floor. I imagined it had probably been yellow at one point. Now, however, it was a monotone of brownish-grays, covered in an array of large, male shoe

prints. I supposed I was in what used to be a kitchen nook of sorts, although it was difficult to tell, as the plastic sections that used to be pantries had been taken from their hinges and were lying in scattered pieces on broken sections of countertop. Fixtures, and what I guessed were water pipes, hung useless below a small window with a torn lace curtain that was now brown from years of neglect. Calm, I told myself, remain calm and think it through . I knew Id fit through the small window, but judging from the consistent lack of use, it would probably be incredibly hard to get open, and even if I did open it, where would I go from

there? I closed my eyes and tried to think beyond the forest I had seen in front of the house. Had I heard any other cars? Were there any other houses? Just outside of the window, I tuned in to the mens voices from the SUV and the mystery man. It sounded like there were two or three more voices out there, so I strained against the bungee cord and pushed my feet on the radiator again, only this time I turned my head in an attempt to see anything from the new angle. The frustration was building again, and despite my instructions, I screamed inside the tape, hoping the owners of the new voices would bring help. As I did, however, the

voices grew louder and more aggressive. One voice in particular raged above the others and seemed to echo in the stillness of the broken, old house. What did I tell you? What did I say? The door slammed and running footsteps trailed behind, getting closer. My hands shook as I pulled at the ropes, the logic of it not lost on mejust misplaced. My brain called out to me and told me to get out. Danger flared my head, commanding me to leave immediately, yet I was stuck. I broke out in a fresh, cold sweatthe new terror strapped to my chest like a paperweight. Suddenly, a large, muscular man stood

before me. Trailing behind him, I caught a brief glimpse of Polo and some others, but my attention was focused on the mans fist as it hit me. I flinched at the impending blow and covered my head as best as I could which was actually only raising my elbows like chicken wings. The pain would come. So far it had mostly just been awkwardness and fear, but now it would get physical. Really, it was almost a relief to know I wouldnt have to wait anymore for my demise. But it was difficult not to imagine if they would torture me before they killed me. I didnt want to think how painful this

would be for Dad; how much it would age him. However, the most remarkable thing stopped the fist just before it connected with my face. And I was completely sure the fist was coming because I even felt the breeze as it moved by. Then there was a lot of noise and several voices swearing all at once. My insides were shaking again and as I slowly opened my eyes, I realized my body was shaking as well. I was too afraid to turn my head, although I had an idea what I might see. I said no. Wallace was bent back behind some

of the broken countertop, his chest heaving. My abductor was standing in front of me, staring at him with a steadiness in his eye that both frightened and calmed me significantly. Charlies right, Wallace, said one of the men from the corner. I noticed how they remained at a respectful distance while my abductor and Wallace had their stare-down. Lets just wait to hear what Ben says. Polo pushed his way up to the front. Did I miss something good? Wallace smiled and stood up in one fluid motion. His eyes left my abductors and fell on mine, and although I wanted to

look away, I couldnt manage it. Briefly, I was reminded of the eyes of road kill or frogs that get dissected in science labs. Like them, his glare towards me was indifferent and empty. Im not embarrassed to say the lack of human acknowledgement in the moment frightened me more than anything else so far. Killing me would mean nothing to him a mere inconvenience, like stepping in something that might mess up the bottom of his shoes. Yeah, he scoffed. All right, then, boyswhatever you say. Although his fists remained clenched at his sides, my abductor said nothing as

Wallace stood up and brushed some dust from his pants. Standing at full height, I realized he was larger than I had originally thought, being easily over six feet tall. He was also abnormally shaped with muscles that didnt look fit for the human form. They even seemed to scope into the widows peak of his military-style haircut. I gulped and thought of Robbie. Would my big brother have heard by now that I was missing? As soon as the man left the room, the tension seemed to break, and someone sighed. I cautiously turned and saw someone lighting a cigarette. He needs to relax.

Really? I think his Charles Bronson impersonation is getting pretty good. Now that I could see them easily, I hardly felt comforted by the appearance of any of these strangers. One man who had come from the second SUV was leaning against the door frame. Like Wallace, he was muscular and rigid. But the main thing I noticed were the abstract scars on his forearms and wrists. Like lines on the pavement, they crossed and jagged on his raven skin. Next to him was a lankylooking man with dark hair and the shadow of facial hair to match. Although, he might have been average looking, it was difficult not to miss the

absence of his left index finger and the tip of his right thumb. In front of them stood Polo, a shorter man with reddish hair and a large smile. I looked up at my abductorthe one they had called Charlie. His face was flushed with fresh rage. Not understanding the source, the anger frightened me. Yet it was the way the rage so visibly coursed through him: his pupils dilated, his fists clenched. He seemed nearly as monstrous as Wallace. Then all at once, the terror I had felt blooming inside me reached a head when Polo flounced over and waved his hand in my face. Hi, my name is Polo. Thats Yuri and

Reid! He gestured to the men in the doorway, but it was difficult to pay attention as I flinched back so hard my wrists hit the radiator again and I cringed as the pain flooded my nerves. With the same kind of discipline one might show a puppy, Charlie slapped his hand away and glared at him with a stern look that suggested future bodily harm if he continued. The man with the dark hair, however, laughed. Bad Polo! Thats a very bad Polo! he said. He too had some sort of dulled accent I couldnt quite place. What? Polo asked. He seemed genuinely confused. While the sudden

movement had startled me, it gave me a unique moment to take a fleeting look at the bunch and observe them. While the man named Yuri lit another cigarette, the dark-haired man rubbed the space between his brows and tried to ignore Polo, who was all but dancing around him. What guys? I dont get it. Did I miss it again? What did I do? My breath came in and out easily now for the first time since I had left the truck stop. Charlie lifted himself onto what was probably the platform for a wood stove and took a phone from his pocket. I saw the bags under his eyes and the distinct

look of worry. What time is Ben supposed to be here? Yuri asked. Soon enough, he snapped back. It occurred to me then the complete lack of organization with only the anticipation of violence. These men werent kidnappers, they were only thieves. Any provocation they might have to hurt me would be directly related to what I had seenor what I might have seen. So there was still a possibility I might live through this. But what about Wallace? He could have easily done me in with little effort on his part. And yet this

Charlie person had put forth the effort to stop him, and he had also told me I wouldnt be hurt. But who was he? Why should I believe him? He had taken me against my will! What if preventing me from getting my block knocked off was all part of some elaborate ruse to gain my trust and get me to develop Stockholm Syndrome or something? I closed my eyes and began rummaging through all the case studies I had read in those abnormal psychology textbooks. My mind even sorted through those terrible made-for-television movies and tried to remember the statistics for human trafficking and

I counted to ten and then backwards twice more before the thoughts went away. As terrible as it was, the sophistication behind some elaborate trickery like that wouldnt be very cost effective and would require too much effort for guys like these. Just then, the squealing of tires broke up my thoughts. The guys jumped out of the room and the door banged once more. Most of them were yelling, swearing profusely about a screw up. I was reminded of children on a playground running to a teacher to tattle. Charlie was the only one who stayed behind.

Silence between us felt strangely comfortable. With just him in the room, I had the feeling I was less likely to be harmed than I was with the rest of them. I stole a brief glance and could see the rage had ebbed away while he smoked. He stared out the small window with such intensity that I thought maybe he was avoiding looking at me. It surprised me when he finally spoke. If I take that off, can you keep quiet? While I thought about the potential of screaming again and the possibility of rescue, a brief glint of annoyance in his eyes persuaded me that it wouldnt be wise. As it was, the skin around my mouth

was dried and chapped from the maltreatment. I carefully nodded my head twice. He approached me cautiously, like I was a wounded animal. I flinched when he reached out to remove the tape from my mouth. For a second, I could feel the calluses from his fingertips against the sides of my cheek. I thought maybe his thumb lingered there a moment longer than necessaryI shuddered. He ripped the tape away quickly enough so the skin didnt tear from my already chapped lips. Still, I harbored an instant wish for the lip balm in my bag. There was humor in his voice, but he

lacked a smile. Just like a Band-Aid. Thanks. My voice surprised me; I sounded just as cracked and dried as my lips felt. I coughed several times in an attempt to regain my voice. As I did so, he backed away abruptly, narrowing his eyes at me dangerously. I actually wondered if I had done something to offend him. But this bothered me too, and I was annoyed with myself that even in a situation like this I would retain so much awkwardness and still worry about what was expected of me. Thank you? Charlie mumbled. His expression had gone back to indifference, and he looked out the window from his

seat on the countertop. That sposed to be funny? I shrugged. The muscles in my shoulders and back were beginning to tense and stiffen up from the lack of movement. I found it incredibly uncomfortable. Theres no excuse for poor manners. Hopefully he would realize I wasnt being sarcastic, just trying to be civilized. I once saw on a talk show that the more likely an abductor is to see you as a human being, the more likely they are to treat you as onenot to mention the fact that you could live through the experience. If all I had to do was show a little decency, then I would be Miss

Manners. We remained in the quiet for quite awhile, which bothered me much more than I expected. Normally, I thrived in the stillness of things, getting some of my best work done in silent afternoons at the library. But the lack of knowing what awaited me next and what was currently happening was making the gears in my brain go haywire. All the potential scenarios of what could happen to me were colliding with my worries and fears for the future. More importantly, however, what about Dad and Robbie? Would Dad remember to take his blood pressure medication? Was he eating? This wouldnt

distract Robbie during his retraining, right? What are you going to do with me? I regretted the words the instant they came out. He had warned me to be quiet. Nevertheless, the buildup was unbearable, and the words just slurred out of me like dirty slush on a sidewalk, unwanted and unavoidable. My gaze found the floor and stayed there. I tried to mentally prepare myself for the tape again, but it didnt come. Instead, his voice was calm and steady. I dont know. He threw the filter of his cigarette against the wall. I shivered even though the afternoon heat was already

setting in. Luckily, my imagination didnt have any wind-up time before someone else walked into the house and interrupted my thoughts. He was someone new, and he carried himself with the attitude of an admiral, extremely stiff and stoic with an obvious air of authority. It seemed almost ironic that he was rather smallclassic Napoleon complex. He was also extremely well dressed in what looked like a tailor-made suit. When he walked through the doorway, he crossed his arms over his chest and smiled widely. Then he took a moment to look at Charlie and then me before taking out a large pair of

bifocals. If I was making a blind guess, I would have said this guy was one of my professors. Well, he said to Charlie. At least when you find a mess, you find a lovely one, dont you, Charlie Boy? He walked towards me, and although he wasnt as flamboyant as Polo, the same curiosity was there. Hello there, my name is Ben Walden. Whats yours? I felt very much like a child and hated it in the extreme. My teeth clenched as I repeated his name over in my head. It sounded familiar, but I couldnt quite place it anywhere. When I looked back up I realized Charlie was also looking at me,

and it made my stomach churn. But still, I kept my eyes on this new stranger when I answered. Addie Battes. Bens smile grew a little wider as he looked back at Charlie. Of course you are. My family isnt wealthy, I blurted out. Excuse me? He stood up and leaned against the door frame. He looked more amused than ever. I dont know anyone or anything, and I dont even know where I am. You could just blindfold me and drop me off somewhere so neither of us is

inconvenienced. There are many options here, gentlemen. I could tell my family I spontaneously went hitchhiking, so there was no crime even committed, no laws broken whatsoever. I was babbling and I knew it. Even I could hear how pathetic it sounded, how desperate and menial. But at this point, I figured my chances were about fifty-fifty of getting killed, and frankly, I no longer knew if presenting a logical argument would increase or decrease the risk for survival. Ben looked up at Charlie with some sort of musing on his face. They seemed to be communicating without saying anything. If it wasnt for their severe differences in

appearance, I would have thought they were brothers. Then without warning, Ben started laughing. It was strange to hear such a high-pitched sound coming from such a serious-looking man. While I waited for the sound to stop, I noticed Charlie was smiling a little bit, too. Seeing him smile did something to my insides again and I had to look away. Ben sighed and smacked his hands together. Okay, kids, here is what well do: well attempt to remain with our plan. Then, in a few hours after weve gone, well have some friends call the authorities about this lovely little thing.

He pointed in my direction with his thumb and then smacked his hands back and forth together. Again, I was reminded of an instructor wiping the chalk dust from his palms. Charlie said nothing. He nodded and pulled another cigarette from his pocket and put it to his lips. I noticed his distinct hesitation to light it. Okay by you? his words were oddly stifled by the cigarette. I looked around me to make sure he was talking to me. I think the expression on my face is what made Ben Walden laugh. Was Charlie actually asking my opinion or was he merely being sarcastic?

Id prefer to go home right now. Both men laughed. In all honesty, however, relief flooded through me. These people were talking about letting me go home, about allowing me to leave free and unharmed. I was overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of being back in New Jersey (and how often does one say that?), in my room, in my bed, and above all else, safe. Just as some of these thoughts began to seep into me, another question entered my mind. Um, excuse me? Just how long am I going to be here? Smoke and murky sunlight filled the

tiny once-upon-a-time kitchen. Till tomorrow, Charlie answered. My sigh was audible. Okay. Ben removed his bifocals and formally placed them in the front pocket of his shirt. Ill have a talk with Wallace. Charlie scoffed and I saw the glimmer of something dark I had seen earlier. If you dont, then Im gonna. Although he smiled and saluted Ben jokingly as he walked away, there was nothing playful about his expression. I thought that maybe there was a threat implied somewhere, but knew better than to ask. He left then, returning only a moment later with several bottles of water and a

bag of chips. He sat next to me and crossed his legs, and although I still should have been terrified, I confess that the sight of the water alone reminded me of some of my most basic needs, eradicating the fear from me. When he went to touch the bungees that held my wrists, I didnt even shy away. If you try somethin, Ill lock you in a closet. It barely took a second for him to untie my hands. I rubbed my sore wrists eagerly. I doubted he had been a Boy Scout, but maybe his knot tying skills were a part of Thieving and Kidnapping 101. I still smiled at the threat. Taking a

page out of the SLA Handbook? Huh? The chips popped open and he slid a water bottle towards me. Um, the Symbionese Liberation Army? When he didnt respond, I continued. They kidnapped a girl named Patty Hearst in the seventies. Kept her locked in a closet. I closed my mouth and kept it that way, remembering how most people didnt like a know-it-all. I tried to be discreet about checking the water for a torn bottle cap before taking a sip from it. He saw me, though, and scoffed. If I wanted to drug you, I woulda done it by now.

I shrugged and gulped. I dont know what you mean. He smiled and sipped his own water. Yeah. I reached my hand into the chip bag and helped myself to a handful of the crunchy BBQ. The simple joy of it delighted my senses and made me so happy I almost wanted to cry. I closed my eyes and slowly munched on every chip. I savored each bite like a precious morsel. I should have been dead, but I wasnt. I had somehow been spared and was also eating these wonderfully mundane chips. I laughed to myself and realized I was experiencing some classic signs of

Stockholm Syndrome. Whats so funny? I opened my eyes and took another sip of water. It was warm, but still incredibly refreshing. Normally I dont enjoy Ruffles this much. His head tilted to the side. Youre a strange one, aint you? I nodded, put another chip in my mouth, and chewed thoughtfully. An idea started nagging at the back of my head and throbbed there at the edge of my reasoning. Although I didnt want to acknowledge it, it still nudged at me to ask, taunting me with its incessant chanting until I would satisfy it.

Why are you being nice to me? He frowned, wiping the residue from his hands on his jeans. I aint. Yes, you are. Really? Was I really arguing right now with an armed man who stole for a living? But instead of getting angry like I thought he might, he only pulled another cigarette from a pack and lifted it to his mouth. Briefly, I wondered about that mouth, and if smoking cigarettes so frequently would alter the taste of those lips. I put my hand to my own torn lips but immediately pulled away, feeling the blush spread. Yikes, Addie, get a grip. I was

abominably grateful then that I had been allowed my bag, and again remembered my desire for my lip balm. Unfortunately, however, my abductor didnt feel the same way, as my sudden movements seem to startle him into grabbing my wrist with one hand while pinning his leg against my torso to effectively prevent me from going anywhere. Although the action wasnt violent and his grip by no means hurtful, the closeness and the aggression of his act made me catch my breath. Beyond the smell of the clove cigarettes, I could smell aftershave and dull soap. More faded than others, I could see a few scars behind the stubble of his jaw, and one particularly

deep mark along his left eyebrow. It was strange that his chest was moving so rapidly because such a small effort couldnt have been much for him. But sure enough, he was breathing as though he had been performing some intense exercise. Now I could clearly see what the collar of his jacket had been hiding. It was a rather large tattoo of a serpent, which seemed to dance under the bulge of his pulsing jugular vein. He pulled away instantly when he realized his mistake, slowly moving to pick up the cigarette that had fallen to the floor. Sorry, he mumbled.

My hands were practically shaking when I put the lip balm on, but I was well aware it wasnt from fear. Thats okay. He laughed and lit the cigarette; the sound filled the kitchenette and made my head spin like a poorly constructed roller coaster. I picked up my water bottle and looked at it, then the bag of chips. No, no. Besides, if I had been drugged, the side effects would probably have been far more different. I shrugged and tried to get the kinks out. Somehow I picked up our previous conversation against my better judgment. Thats what I mean, though. A real villain never apologizes. Insanity, thats

all it was. I was clearly just a crazy person who needed to be locked away in a tiny room somewhere so I could receive professional medical help. So you cant be entirely bad. His eyebrow went up. What do you know bout it? Nothing. I just Thats right. His finger came out at me, pointing in accusation. So just keep your damn mouth shut. Although he put his hand down, he glared at me for some time. His eyes were a kaleidoscope of colors as the clouds outside passed over the sun and tinted the indoor light. While his expression was

dark, there wasnt anything angry about it, nothing even within the realm of what I had seen earlier. But I wanted to test the waters, explore this unknown territory. My curiosity gushed from the inside out and gave me a rush. Yes, I decided. I was definitely crazy. Maybe youre right. I played with the bottle cap in my hands. If you were decent, you would let me call my Dad just to tell him Im all right. Forget it, he snapped and put out the cigarette on the edge of his boot. It was worth a try, I mumbled. Youre lucky youre even getting outta here. He scooted across the floor

and rested his back against one of the few cupboards still intact. From below us, I thought I heard the roar of power tools coming to life. Unfortunately, the noise did nothing to distract me and those pesky logical thoughts started creeping up again. I was beginning to hope that Robbie hadnt heard about my abduction at all. I quickly reasoned there was no way it couldnt sidetrack him. Even if I was home by this time tomorrow, I didnt want him to worry unnecessarily. With Dad, however, that was going to be unavoidable. What kinda girl goes running round a filling station after she hears gunshots?

He shook his head as though he was exasperated, but he wasnt even close to being done. Is that what those noises were? I mumbled to myself. Even if I had been asking, it was clear he was too consumed with his ranting to bother with me. Nobody minds their own business no more! Thats how folk end up in trouble half the time! Despite the yelling, I was less afraid and more enthralled by his behavior. People cant just do what their sposed to do. Just follow directions and listen! Then everybody wonders why everything gets messed up. He was

rambling now, ranting as though he were a lunatic. I frownedmostly because I only understood about half of what he was talking about, but also because I didnt understand the source of his anger. He sounded completely bent, his words streaming out of his mouth with only the slightest fragment of sense. We shoulda just skipped it and stuck to the schedule. Followed through as usual. I listened with a keen interest as he talked more to himself than anything. I realized that, just as before when he became enraged with Wallace, his accent became more pronounced. He was even misusing auxiliary verbs.

I done told them a million times beforea last-minute truck grab aint a good idea! Hey I tried to pull him from his raving, but I dont think he paid any attention. In a way it was cute, almost like a toddler having a tantrum. And under a different set of circumstances, I might have laughed, but I was fed-up and annoyed with this entire business. Frankly, the last thing I wanted to do was listen to him harp on. Hey! Finally, he looked at me with wide eyes. It was as though he had forgotten I was in the room. I scowled so hard I hoped he could

feel it. Maybe you could quit complaining for a minute and forget that youre not the only one here having a bad day. I pointed to the bungees still attached to my legs. Just imagine what my Dad is going through right now. At that my voice trailed off. I didnt want to think about Dad and the horrors that were probably going through his mind. With any luck, he wasnt being as imaginative as I had been in regard to my welfare. I always thought I got my creativity from Mom. I silently prayed that for the sake of Dads sanity, I was right. What bout your Ma? The sound of his voice interrupted my thoughts. I

noticed his tone was back to normal, his accent much more diluted. The mention of my Mom upset me without explanation. Maybe it was the many implications of death throughout the last few hours or just my constant attempts to avoid thinking about how much I missed her. Whatever it was made me angry enough to pick up the bottle cap from the floor and chuck it at him. Naturally it was off by about a foot and a half and bounced off the wall insteadnot that it would have done any damage, anyway. Shes deadbut thanks for bringing up happy memories. I sulked helplessly and pulled my knees up as high to my

chest as I could get them with tied legs. I remembered my Moms passionate dislike of sarcasm and her frequent reminders of it being the lowest form of humoryada, yada, yada. I heard his low chuckle erupt from across the room. Are youlaughing? I mentioned my dead Mother and this person was laughing? I wanted to claw his eyes out. Since that wasnt an option, I reached around me for something else to throw, but the empty water bottles were just out of reach. What were you trying to hit? His laughter grew louder, bubbling in the room around us and filling the kitchenette

once again. It even overpowered the sound of the tools from below us until they shut off altogether. I huffed and ground my teeth together. You. His laughter increased until he actually had to clutch his stomach to keep from falling over. I crossed my arms over my chest as best as I could, feeling uncomfortable by both his mocking and the fact that I very much enjoyed the sound of his laughter. It was a rich, fluid sound that was evenly tuned and entirely pleasant to my senses. It occurred to me that I was warped and should be deeply offended, but in reality I

was only slightly cross. Shut up, I demanded. He managed to get ahold of himself long enough to stand up and open the solitary window. It protested with a loud crack and a piece of wood split from the panel. I was glad I hadnt bothered with it. His laugh had now devolved into a rumbling chuckle that came in with a warm breeze. Now I get that saying throw like a girl. His face broke into a grin at my shocked expression. My last piece of patience had evaporated. And while I still wasnt as disgusted as I should have been, I was no longer willing to shield my

anger. Who do you think you are? I spat the words out like sour milk. You have no right to insult people, let alone kidnap them and worry their parents to death! He closed the distance between us and scrunched down, putting his weight on his heels. I told you. Excuse me? I aint a nice guy. I smiled and lunged at him, putting as much weight as I could on my confined legs. While it wasnt going to do any good, it took him by surprise enough to knock him on his backside. He put out his hands to steady himself.

That might be true. In all my nervousness, I still tried to laugh. But you seem harmless enough. Youre vicious. He sat back down. I attempted to laugh again. I try. He opened his mouth to say something else but was interrupted by the sound of his name being called in the distance. The noise startled us both, but at least he seemed to understand the source. I could hear firecrackers going off one by one and the voices of the guys shouting loud profanities all at once. Without explanation, he got up and walked away. Although it grossed me out, my curiosity was insufferable after about

twenty seconds, so I lowered my head to the dirt-caked floor, just touching my ear to the surface. I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, and the sound of doors slamming before I heard Charlies voice again. His voice was too muffled to make out the exact words, but knowing he was close-by gave me a strange sort of comfort. After a couple of seconds, I heard Polo cackling with laughter. I sat up and tried to listen for more sounds. From the urgency in the voices, I gathered that the men were downstairs doing something that was of relative value. More importantly however, it didnt sound like it concerned me and I

had a unique opportunity to evaluate my physical situation. Since I was alone, I could attempt escape and try to search for help. It was risky, but despite the agreement made, I had no intention of staying in that house for a moment longer than I possibly had to. If there was even the slightest chance I could be home by tonight, then I was going to take it. With more freedom for my hands, I worked my fingers against the bungees, pulling to get the knots free. It didnt accomplish much, as my fingers were much too soft against the frayed material, and it stung painfully on both my calves and fingers when I tried to break it. I

looked around but saw nothing remotely sharp enough that would slice through. I knew I had nothing in my bag that would be helpful, and I didnt have to guess if these guys had any useful cutlery in this room as they definitely didnt appear to be the cooking type. So I tugged and pried at the heavy knots. In a way it was kind of funny. Robbie or Dad would have probably gotten through this in about a minute. While I could quote Shakespeare, tell you the difference between a Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and speak a little Chinese (I emphasize the word little), I had no basic knowledge of any survival skills

that had the potential to literally save my life at this moment in time. Aint no point in that. I had been so distracted by my efforts I had forgotten to listen for anyone coming. At first the realization that I was no longer alone frightened me, but when I looked to the doorway and saw Charlie there, completely covered in soot and ash, I actually felt relieved. I pinched my nose shut. What is that terrible smell? He came over towards me and shooed my hands away from the bungees, answering my question at the same time. I struggled against him, but not being particularly eager to get him angry, I

gave up. Were you rolling in sulfur? He sighed. No. His voice was tight. I started to laugh at the baked-in flakes of ash and something else in his hair. It reminded me of the many years Robbie dressed as a hobo for Halloween because he didnt want to put any effort into a costume. Despite everything else, I felt better that he was no longer wearing the holster with the guns. I wondered where they were, but as long as they werent near me, I decided it didnt much matter. Seeing him ridiculously filthy also helped ease my apprehension, which may explain why

I reached my hand out to shake the flakes of dirt from his head. I understood now that they were mostly rust and some kind of powder. But it wasnt this that made me pause; it was my surprise at how soft the texture of his hair really was and how much I enjoyed the feel of it. He was equally surprised, shooting his head up from securing my bonds to stare his eyes into mine. How quickly his chest seemed to rise and fall. I was beginning to wonder if I made him nervous. What were you doing down there? I pulled my hand away from him like he was a lit flame. He gulped and then shook

his head, blinking several times. It was almost as though he were waking from a deep dream. Better if you dont know. His voice was quiet, sleepy even. You smell really bad. I know. I have to use the bathroom. Okay. And my foot is asleep. Okay. It amazed me the way he took considerable care not to touch me while he untied the binds around my legs. Unlike when he originally tied my wrists, he took his time, his fingers gingerly working at

the bungee cord so he wouldnt have to make physical contact with me. This couldnt have been easy for him. I was so excited at the prospect of standing up that I persistently tapped the toes on the foot that was still awake. The second I was free, I sprung up like a jack-in-the-box, completely forgetting about my useless foot and nearly falling over from trying to balance myself. Before my reflexes could even respond, Charlie effortlessly caught me by my elbows and pulled me back to standing. I laughed. Thanks. I guess no one could ever accuse me of being graceful. He smiled briefly, but then his face

went blank and his fists balled at his sides. Just up the steps. He pointed to the door of the kitchenette and then added for good measure, Dont do nothin stupid. Me? Stupid? Only at rest stops in the middle of the night. Although he was walking behind me, I could see him smile out of the corner of my eye. When I stepped out of the makeshift bathroom, he was waiting for me across the hall with a lit cigarette and a newspaper. The crude bathroom was only a half-bath with a large space where a tub had probably once been next to a filthy

sink and toilet. I did find some soap, which was slightly shocking, considering the proprietors of the house. Simply washing my face and hands refreshed me considerably, but it had also brought back some of my more reliable senses. As I stared at Charlie with the newspaper in hand, it occurred to me that I had an opportunity to extract some information. Does it, um, say anything in there, um, you know? I crossed my arms over myself and tried to focus on the pattern of fading daises from the drooping wallpaper. I just hoped my obvious inquiry wouldnt anger him somehow and lead to the retraction of

our deal. Charlie looked up at me with a hint of a smile. Through the smog his cigarette created, I could see the dark glimmering in his eyes again. I hugged myself tighter. What? Bout you? he teased. I shifted my weight to my other hip and tried to hold his stare. About anything of interest. His smile grew as he handed the newspaper to me very slowly and deliberatelyeven maintaining his grasp when I had it in my hand. Only interesting thing is on the front. His eyes had this primitive refusal to leave mine, and I no longer had to force

myself to keep his stare. On the contrary, I had difficulty looking away from his dark gaze. Now that his anger was gone, the colors in his eyes were shining, and the beauty was downright spellbinding. I wanted to shake my head and tell myself I was being much too literal. Yet he was content to keep me hypnotized, controlled with his stare. Finally, his eyes relinquished their hypnotic grip and he stood back. For this, I was both equally disappointed and relieveda combination I could not totally absorb. My fingers had to comb through the entire newspaper because it wasnt folded properly. I was glad it was current, but

felt like I was enduring a scavenger hunt that was designed for someone far more patient than myself. Finally, my frustration came to an end when I found the front page.

Teenager Kidnapped from Rest Stop New York, NY Adeline Battes, 17, was kidnapped last night from a rest stop just outside of Syracuse, New York on the return journey from Fort Drum, where her brother Pvt. Robert Bates prepares for his second deployment to Iraq. According to local reports, Michael Battes, Adelines father, contacted

New York State police when he could not locate his daughter and cellular contact with her failed. Additional details are coming in, but eyewitness testimony from rest stop employees claim a young woman fitting the description of Ms. Battes was seen leaving a rest stop exit approximately eighty yards from where her destroyed cellular telephone was discovered. Several hours later the body of a truck driver, whose name is not being released at this time, was found in the empty cab of his vehicle. At this time police are unsure if the incidents are related

I sunk to the floor and pushed the paper as far away from me as possible. Nausea ran through my stomach, and I estimated that if I read anymore, considered reading more, or even smelled the printers ink, I would be sick. Kidnappings, murders, and any other crime more deviant than going over the speed limit was something I had only ever read about or seen in movies. But here it was, right in the middle of my own little world. This wasnt the sort of thing I was meant to touch during my lifetime. Theyre really playing up the cancer thing.

I had never expected him to be so still next to me, nor the silence so comfortable. What? My voice didnt sound like my own. It was tired and worn, flat, like the air had been taken out. The other papers keep bringing up how your Ma died and saying that your brother is a war hero I cut him off with my laugh. Robbie is no war hero. Hes just I struggled for the right word, Robbie. He reached out a hand to me, which I stared at before accepting. How strange that his hands had gotten me into this mess and now they were offering me assistance. Once I was back on my feet, I followed

him to the kitchenette. It occurred to me to try and look for some means of escape, but all the remaining windows had been boarded up, and the short hallway back to the kitchenette revealed nothing but the smallest shards of broken glass in an array of colors. I mused that if the sun were around to touch them at a good angle, it might look like a stained window. I paused and looked down at my bare feet. I had been avoiding the fragments of glass, garbage, and anything else that I thought might be hazardous to my feet, but now I felt a sharp little pain pricking at my heel. I hopped up on one foot and revealed the culprit to be a shard of brown glass.

I pulled out the glass, chose not to comment about the lack of housekeeping, and continued to limp behind him. Ill get to go home tomorrow, right? Yeah. You know you really do smell, right? He smiled. Yeah. When we got back to the kitchenette, I took the time to stretch in front of the window. I tried to see if I could distinguish any smells in the distance factories, farms, or anything else the police might want to know. I also tried to identify the plant life that lay scattered and untamed through the forest beyond. When

the clouds in the distance finally faded, I thought I saw a mountain top, but decided it was just another cloud and my eyes trying to deceive me. I stayed there for a lot longer than the average kidnapper probably would have let me. Or really much longer than I had even realized, because when I turned back around, Charlie was sitting on the edge of the countertop with his eyes narrow and his face blank. He was staring at me, very intently, in fact. How long had he been doing that? A row of goosebumps formed on my arms and legs at the idea of him watching me, thinking about me. For a moment I was reminded of the individual

Id temporary lost my head over at the caf rest stop. It went away, however, when he spoke. Sorry bout this. His gaze left me and strayed to the floor. But ah He pulled out the bungee cords from behind his back and I didnt need to hear the rest of what else he was going to say. No. He smiled sadly. I aint asking. I made a run for the door, but got about as far as I did when I tried to run from the SUV before his long arms closed around me for the second time. Naturally, my mouth opened to scream, but his hand once again covered my mouth before I

could produce a sound. Dont do this, he whispered in my ear. His voice was a soft plea, and he seemed so unsure of how to handle himself that it was nearly pathetic. Please? I heard the desperation and tiredness in the word. The demonstration of emotion was enough to make me stop struggling against him. Once I did, the stench of sulfur again overwhelmed my senses and brought me back to life. Why was I being so compliant? He was obviously just trying to manipulate me with some lame show of emotion. I cursed myself for my naivet. Before I could do anything about

it, he overwhelmed me with his strength again. I know this sucks. In one swift motion he picked me up and sat me next to the radiator. Nothing about it was rough or even forceful, although it had become obvious that he was physically capable of making me do anything he wanted. I gotta couple things to do. He shook his head and sighed while he tied me back to the radiator. When I get back, you can just hang out. Without any of this stuff. He gestured to the bungees, but refused to make eye contact with me. Okay? I gulped, but couldnt think of a good

argument. My head was beginning to ache, and my brain was fuzzy with anxiety. You dont have to do this. He paused before he left the room. He wasnt looking at me, yet seemed to be reading my every thought. Dont worry. I aint gonna let nobody hurt you. His fists clenched at his sides and then he was gone. After he left me, the panic surged inside of me like when I first saw the bungees reappear. Seeing them again had led me back to the awareness of what was going on. I wanted to believe that Charlie would save me from harm and that I could

very well be home by this time tomorrow probably laughing about what a great college entry essay this experience would make. Except those other logical parts kept screaming that if I stayed there tied to that radiator, I would never see home again. Footsteps downstairs were moving quickly, and I could hear the loud maneuvering of something heavy below. I felt fortunate when it sounded like the owners of the feet walked out the front door; I was growing increasingly afraid of the decaying house and my own confinement without Charlies watchful eyes. I reconsidered the possibility that

being surrounded by criminals, who also happened to be male, could lead to terrible and unspeakable things happening to me. Now with Charlies strange protectiveness and my own deduction of their entrepreneurial endeavors, I was confident that at least I wasnt in danger from any sexual assault. Still, I wanted to remain unseen. The footsteps went up and down the stairs. I quietly tried to work the bungees from around my wrists. A cold sweat broke out across my face and heat enflamed my cheeks. It suddenly occurred to me at the base of my instincts, in my heart of hearts, that I had to get out of there before

something very bad happened. Hi there! I heard myself gasp at the intrusion of noise. Polo was standing just outside the kitchen window and jumping up and down, trying to get a view of inside the elevated kitchen. The bungees were fairly loose so I could lean forward enough to see him waving his arms up and down, trying to get my attention. Hi! He shouted again. I slowly waved back. It was looking less likely that these guys were professional criminals and more like a bunch of boys in a fraternity.

Polo! A voice called. Polo! How many damn times The dark haired man appeared within my view and grabbed Polo by the collar. He pulled him away from the window. Reid! I was just They argued off in the direction of the driveway, their voices becoming mere echoes as I worked at the bungees. I tried to imitate the motions Charlie had used to untie the knot before, but it only made the movement of my fingers more difficult. It was only upon closer examination that I realized this knot was completely different from the knot before. In actuality, it was only the front of the design that looked the

same. Frustrated, I began struggling at the bonds because I simply didnt know what else to do. I could feel my irritated skin burning and saw a thin flow of blood around my ankles where the flesh had began tearing away. My feeling of foreboding increased as the house grew eerily silent. Outside, there was a variety of sounds that I couldnt really identify, including Polo laughing and doors slamming, but even after a few minutes, they, too, faded away. I didnt know if I was terrified or if I wanted to cry. Eventually it was both. I threw my hands against the radiator again, somehow

forgetting how they impacted the nerves in my hands, flinching at the pain. The water swelled in my eyes but I gulped it back as best as I could. I had to think rationally again. Right now my fear was not logical. It was merely a symptom of claustrophobia, stress, and fatigue. In my head I recited the alphabet backwards. And then I drew the periodic table of elements in my minds eye just as I had memorized. It did help a little bit. But I confess it might have been more beneficial if most of my attention hadnt been spent listening for Charlie. I dont know how long I had been there alone. It might have been hoursit

could have only been a few minutes. But when I saw the shadow of a person cross to the kitchenette entrance, I knew I was in the serious trouble I had been afraid of all along. Before I had time to react, Wallace was there. I had been listening so keenly; why hadnt I heard him coming? Instinctively, I opened my mouth to scream, but his large hands were around my throat, prohibiting any sound and air flow. I gasped and clawed at the air, the space between us. Given our differences in size and strength, it wouldnt have mattered even if I hadnt been bound to the radiator. I understand now that it was only seconds, but during that time, when the

lack of air was so painful the tears fell from my eyes, I saw my lifetimeI saw Mom, Dad, Robbie, and oddly enough, Charlie. Once the darkness closed in, all I could smell was clove cigarettes and the feel of callused fingers over my own.

Chapter 4

W ith The Nothingness came an overwhelming feeling of obligation. I felt as though I had forgotten something terrifically important but couldnt remember what it was. And although I

couldnt see or speak, there was a voice asking me for some impossible movement. Other voices yelled, calling each other names. What exactly they were, I couldnt say. I wanted to settle back into The Nothingness; the dark murkiness. Without warning, The Nothingness faded and pain settled in its place. Every attempt to breathe was hot lava in my chest with fire bubbling in my throat. Dreadful sounds rang in my ears and made the pulse in my head vibrate. Where was that awful noise coming from? My mouth was full of soot. I turned to the side, but my limbs cried out in dull ache and begged for relief. I opened my eyes and

saw shadows dancing behind a dim light. I shut them again and tried to get back to the dark. Dad had burned the coffee. He hadnt done that for quite a while, but clearly hed outdone himself this time. The smell was really disgusting. It was so powerful it had actually managed to float all the way from downstairs to my bedroom and make me gag. He might want to commit me when I told him about my kidnapping dream and how vivid it had been. I circulated my ankles until they made a pleasant popping noise. All around me the air was filled with unpleasant sounds of banging, hammering,

and yelling. My lungs and limbs hurt but I didnt know why. Because it hadnt been a dream. I sat up in a dead rush, instantly regretting it as I felt all of my blood flood to my brain in a single instant and I had to put my hands up to keep from my head from caving in. Glancing around, I knew immediately I wasnt in a hospital like Id thought (or hoped, rather). Instead I was on a small bed in a room that could be compared to a jail cell. On the floor next to me lay large stacks of books and papers. Next to those stood a lonesome desk lamp without a table to stand on. I immediately noticed there were no

windows. Before I could panic, a figure rose from the corner and approached me. I pulled back. Something quivered all around me. Was the world ending? I put my hands down. No, I was just shaking. Charlie emerged from the darkness slowly and turned on the lamp. I wasnt sure if it was the light burning my eyes or surprise that made me turn away. But once I did, I turned my face to the wall and shut my eyes tightly. I felt like a creature from another world, some distant planet that only I knew about. This place, wherever it was, could not be walked or breathed upon.

His hand stretched out as he tried to examine something on my head. I flinched. He turned and reached back to the corner. He pulled out two Styrofoam cups of coffee. He handed me one, which I accepted, despite the smell. I sipped at the burned liquid and rejoiced as it slid down my throat. My throat. Memories grabbed at me, eager to remind me why I had lost consciousness. I gulped and felt the pain around my lymph nodes. Why was I still alive? I should have been a dead girl in the ground by now. None of it made any sense.

What happened? My hands shook worse than ever when I heard my voice and the way it cracked. Each syllable hurt to pronounce, and yet despite my efforts, the words still didnt sound right. He responded by slowly taking the cup from my hands. I didnt want it anyway. Its contents were threatening to spill. You probably shouldnt talk. His accent was thick. I guessed he was angry again. Tell me. I could feel his eyes on my neck, maybe surveying the damage there. I was just grateful he hadnt made another attempt to touch me. The idea of being

touched by anyone ever again was enough to make me retch. I looked at Charlie, too. He was no longer covered in filth. Hed changed his clothes to a button-down green shirt and jeans. It frightened me to realize I could have been out for that long. Even though Ben told him to leave you be His voice trailed off. Wallace thought you were too much of a risk to leave to chance. I turned away and shut my eyes. I knew what had happened next. Tears rolled down my face when I remembered my fear and helplessnesshow brief the pain had been.

Hey. I heard him swallow. Im, ah, sorry. He sounded heavy. That son-of-abitch Please. I cut him off. I just want to go home. He stood up and backed into the dark corner. When I was sure he was away, I felt brave enough to look at him again. Those slouching shoulders of his and the thumbs that dug into his pockets revealed more than he wanted to say. B-by the time I got there, Wallace woulda come back to finish you off. Didnt have much choice, did I? He stuttered through the whole explanation. And although I only caught about half of

what he was saying, it was enough to make the blood in my body feel like sludge. Charlie. It was the first time I had spoken his name out loud. It sounded like a foreign language within itself. I saw him stiffen and raise his head in my direction. Carefully, I slipped my legs off the bed and tested my weight on the floor. If I hadnt known any better, I would have said it was moving, but there was no way that could have been true. What are you saying to me? He hesitated again. We gotta make a delivery to Singapore in six days. Iwe didnt know what to do, so we brought

you with us. Although I heard the words, my brain wouldnt digest them. It was as though he was just saying random things strung together to make noisewhat he was explaining couldnt possibly be real. I was going home, wasnt I? My breath became shallow and rapid and for an instant I felt as though I were having an asthma attack. He must have seen my panic because his arms stretched out, his hands pointing downward. Justjust relax now. No. No. No. Where am I? I detested the way he straightened himself out and stood so rigid. There was

no hesitation now. The Diyu, he answered. A freighter just south of Canada. Wh-what? Like I said, Wallace was bout to kill you when I came in. I did all but rip his arms off but Ben and Reid had me back long enough that he crawled out the back. I covered my ears with my hands. My head was pounding and I didnt want to hear anymore, but he kept on talking. If I didnt hear, then maybe I could make it untrue; maybe I could make it go away. You wouldnt wake up and we had port to make His voice trailed off, but it still stayed tight; rough along the edges.

Then why didnt you just leave me there? I screamed. Or just leave me at a hospital somewhere? He shrugged. Cause we all kinda figured youd die, and nobody wanted a murder charge. I stifled a gasp. I didnt want to think of myself with murder, particularly as a murder victim. The entire concept made me shudder. No, I said firmly. This is not happening. No, no, no, no, no. He laughed. Again I couldnt believe it, thought I must have misheard the sound, but when I looked up, he was smiling. Thats a real funny way to say thank

you. I took my hands from my head. In the moment, the anger steadied me. I narrowed my eyes, trying to strike him down by sheer force of will. Excuse me? Well, I did save your life and all. His smile widened. My initial analysis had been incorrect. Here I was thinking that I was crazy for finding this person attractive, and then arguing with him, and even willingly conversing with him, suffering from the early stages of some madness. It was made clear to me now that I was the only sane person in the room.

Are you kidding? He laughed. I still liked the sound and hated myself instantly. You would be dead if it wasnt for me. I wouldnt be here at all if it wasnt for you. Thats what Im saying! I shuddered. Youre disgusting. Charlie glared at me, but said nothing and only broke his stare when he saw me stand up. I immediately went for the door. I was surprised to find it unlocked, but outside it only led to a narrow hallway with metal white pipes and linoleum floors. I considered that may have been some sort

of elaborate prison constructed for their victims, but then shook my head. I needed to find an exit. I looked left and right, but neither direction offered anything different. Taking a guess, I ran to the right and kept right on running. I passed a series of simple doors that were unlabeled, but I threw my fists on them anyway, hoping someone would come out and help. Below me the floor shifted and swelled, knocking me over. Guess you aint got your sea legs yet, huh? Charlie was standing above me then. I guess I hadnt gotten as far as I had hoped. My breath heaved with anger and

my head pulsed with pain. Take. Me. Home, I demanded. I. Cant. He seemed amused and held out a hand to help me up. Only this time I didnt accept it and picked myself back up. I glared at him with all of the mental daggers I could throw and continued walking down the hall. He followed at a distance he deemed safe. Fine, but you or one of your thieving friends will have to shoot me if you expect me to cooperate. Ill find my own way out of here. He laughed. What part of in the middle of the Atlantic dont you understand?

I dont believe you. That wasnt entirely true. It was more like I didnt want to believe him, but as my senses tuned in to the sounds of calamity above us and the floor continued to sway ever so slightly, I was beginning to fear it was true. He stopped laughing and became serious again. Wait here a second. He then ran back in the direction we had come from. Or at least I think it was the same direction. I reached up and grabbed a long strip of piping that had some kind of meshing attached around it. When I let go, my fingers were covered with grease and smelled of gasoline.

Dont touch nothin. I gasped and felt my hand at my chest. Dont creep up on me! He smiled. I didnt. Yes, you did! He laughed and handed me the denim jacket I recognized from the night before. Whats this for? Technically, youre a stowaway. You should try not to get caught. He handed me a red ball cap and watched intently as I put it on. Like the jacket, it was much too big, but I bundled up my hair and tucked as much of it as I could in the cap. What happens if someone finds me

here? They wont. What if they do? They wont, Addie. I wont let em. I tried to laugh, but it didnt come out right. Yeah, right. I followed him down a short set of halls and then up a bunch of painted stairs and more hallways. Although it felt good to move after so long, my body didnt appreciate the long walk. The muscles in my shoulders and legs ached, but I was slightly amazed that thin bandages had been wrapped around my ankles where the skin had begun to blister. There was also

a band-aid on my foot. When I was putting on the jacket I could smell a sort of ointment against the abrasions that circled my wrists. I felt instant hope at this realization. This meant there had to be a doctor on board. Someone had taken care of me, someone knew I was there. Maybe the Coast Guard was coming for me at this very moment. Once we reached the deck, I was grateful for both the hat and the jacket. The wind was downright ferocious, and when it bounced from the sea, the temperature dropped dramatically. I turned my head away as it made me shiver. Men, all wearing safety helmets and life vests,

were scattered around, some busying themselves with tools, others doing things with cables and wires that I didnt understand. I wanted to pretend they were all props in some great lie, that they were part of this practical joke being pulled on me, that maybe I was hallucinating, or had fallen down the rabbit hole. Beyond and around them lay the awesome, unending sea in rays of blue and black. He hadnt been lying after all. Overwhelmed with nausea, I ran from Charlie and over to the edge. One of the men looked at me strangely but didnt say anything. The sounds of hammering and

brushing were terrible. How did these people work like this all day? I tried to figure if Dad would go into the office with me still gone. Oh God, poor Dad. He must be worried out of his mind. I stared into the vague blue of the sea and tried to send him a psychic message. I knew that stuff wasnt real, but it was as good a time as any to doubt myself. You aint gonna jump, right? Cause I aint a great swimmer. I glared at Charlie. He was struggling to light a cigarette against the lashing of the wind. I yanked it from his mouth and threw it into the sea. He stared at me, slack-jawed and

silent. Did I hear you say Singapore back there? I hissed. Did I hear you say six days? He just smiled and pulled out another cigarette from his pocket. Unless youre a great swimmer, then I threw the new one as well. Yeah. He finished his thought and stared back and forth from me to his hands amazed by the disappearance. I put my head between my legs and tried deep calming breaths. It wasnt doing much good; I was officially freaking out and becoming dizzy from my panic. What then? I asked.

The American embassy is real close to the port. You can go straight there. I stood back up and looked him in the eye, wanting, needing to know the answer. How do I know you or someone else wont kill me before then? His eyes narrowed and he reached for a cigarette, but then smiled and put the pack away. Guess you dont. I wanted to say something else, but couldnt think of anything clever enough. That alone bothered me. Why should I care what this kidnapper, thief, whoknows-what-else, thought of me? Social norms dont apply when youve been taken hostage, right? Still, I couldnt

disengage that part of my psyche that searched for a better way to insult him. Instinctually, I felt as though I would be able to let go easier of those social properties if it wasnt for him. By offering me some safety, he was already taking away my option to feel like a victim. And like the topic of Mom, the mere idea of it made me uncharacteristically angry. Perhaps knowing how unreasonable it was made it that much worse. I tried to think back and remember when a single individual had riled me so much in such a short amount of time, but couldnt remember anyone. Shes alive! Shes alive! A pair of

hands grabbed me by the shoulders and almost sent me jumping out of my skin. Hey, take it easy. Charlie punched at the life vest Yuri was wearing and he took mock swings back. Oh, they are trying to kill me, I decidedby heart attack. Despite your peoples best efforts. I bundled the jacket around me, as it was much too large, and wrapped my arms around myself. I could feel the warmth of Charlie insideNo, Addie, no. Stop that. Yuri smiled and put his hand on Charlies shoulder. Hey, you were right about this one. I glared back and forth between them

but thought better than to say anything. Yuri took off his working gloves, which were black and rusty at the fingertips. You know, youre pretty lucky, Little Girl. I looked back at Charlie. His eyes offered no explanation. The way Wallace bashed your head in and had that chokehold on you, we thought you were worms meat. His laugh was menacing and it was enough to chill my spine. The only reason Ben agreed to let you come aboard was so that when you did keel over, we could just throw you overboard. Real easy. The loud snap of

his fingers at the end of his explanation was enough to make me nauseous again. We left so much evidence at the house we thought that would at least be a quick fix. Charlie punched him for real this time and Yuri stopped explaining. In all honesty, I wasnt paying much attention to either of them anymore. I reached a hand behind my head and felt the sting there, winced at the pain, and again felt for the newly formed knot. At least that explained the headache. But when had that happened? I cringed to think of what else could have happened if Charlie hadnt intervened.

Right. Well, like I said, youre lucky. Yuri put the gloves back on and walked away. I stared back out at the ocean and let it stare at me. Had I been so lucky? I reviewed some of my theories from before and tried to conclude if I really was being paranoid or not. I glanced over at Charlie, who had his arms leaning over the rails. Why are you doing this? What? Helping me. Why are you helping me? I knew what you meant. He smiled just a little, his entertainment was becoming an increasing irritation.

And he looked at me then and I could see the colors light up in his eyes for just a second before they dimmed. But it was only for a second and then it was gone. I dont know, he said finally. If you people are trying to mess with my mind or something, it wont work. His eyes tightened. I aint got a clue what youre talking bout. I gulped and started stammering. If he looked at everyone this way, it was understandable why they kept their distance from him. If this is some way to get me to trust you, or get Stockholm Syndrome, it wont work. Huh?

You guys probably set up the entire thing so Mister-Angry-Smash-Addie could almost kill me and you could save the day just in time and Id feel loyal or obligated to you or something. Thats how kidnappers do that sort of thing, right? For a moment he seemed confused, but then his grip on the ledge tightened before he reached for a cigarette. This time I did not deny him. And when the hardness set in his face and I remembered that dark edge I had seen him go over when enraged, I pulsated with the possibility that he might drag me over it with him. All anybody round here cares bout is profit. Messing with peoples heads

wouldnt do nobody any good. The darkness seemed to fade out and I was well-aware of my own relief. I saw his lips twitch up in a smile that promised something fantastic and warm. Sides, aint nobody around here smart enough to think of something like that anyhow. Isnt messing with peoples heads a key element in business? How is messing with your head gonna help me? Maybe youre holding me for ransom. Getting me to cooperate would make your job considerably easier. His smile turned into a full-fledged grin. Come on. I wanna show you

something. Back inside his cabin, Charlie pulled out a laptop from inside a plastic crate that was covered with worn stickers and labels that I couldnt read. He sat on the bed and gestured for me to sit beside him. We dont got access for much longer, so you better hurry up. I was reluctant to sit beside him for several reasons, the main one being how uncomfortable his physical presence actually made me and the other involved how part of me wanted to take that seat next to him. His fingers typed away at the keys. While still looking at the screen, he said,

I promise I wont biteunless you ask. I rolled my eyes to make it very clear I was disgusted, and then sat as far away from him on the bed as I possibly could. I didnt want him to know he affected me. At the same time I was glad the oversized jacket covered the blush that spread across my arms. I folded my legs while he handed me the laptop. I was amazed to see my name in so many of the blue links, most of them from trusted news providers. What He started to laugh. Youve been front page news for the last day or so. I scrolled down the page of the search engine and read the links. Most of them

were repetitive with titles like: Local Teen Gone Missing, Progeny Homeschooled Student Missing from Filling Station, and Kidnapped Teen and Murder in Syracuse. Beneath them in small print I saw my name, which Charlie had typed in the search engine. I clicked on a few, but they only relayed information I already knew. It was only the articles filed within the last few hours that really intrigued my interest.

Suspect in Battes Kidnapping Syracuse, NY With cooperation from local authorities, FBI officials have obtained video

documentation of missing teenager Adeline Battes recorded within an hour of her father reporting her disappearance. Miss Battes is viewed on security camera footage speaking with a male whom authorities have identified as Charles Hays, who is now wanted for questioning in the Battes kidnapping and whose arrest warrant is also being issued for numerous parole violations. Hays, convicted of voluntary manslaughter, felony theft, and unlawful weapons possession, is a well-known associate of alleged art thief and illegal tradesman Benjamin

Walden. Walden and Hays were both incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Walden was convicted of second degree murder in 1996. He was paroled in 2010, but failed to maintain contact with the state and remains at large. Hays, paroled in 2009, has also failed to maintain the terms of that parole agreement, and has now been positively identified by witnesses and camera footage as the male Miss Battes was speaking with. Both men are considered extremely dangerous and should not be approached under any

circumstances. Any citizen with any information should contact their local authorities or FBI office. I clicked the back button and looked over at Charlie. His expression of complete apathy made me tremble. Could I really be in the presence of a killer? Is that stuff true? He shrugged. You cant believe everything you read. Are you a murderer? His eyes searched mine for the right answer. When he couldnt decide what it was, he was honest instead. Only when I got to be.

My throat felt like it was closing up on me. Are you going to kill me? I thought I made it real clear I wasnt gonna do that. Why? Why was I arguing? I had no idea but the question blurted out of me before I had time to stop it. He seemed to enjoy my interrogation, Cause I dont kill girls. Thats sexist. I frowned. He started laughing. Are you complaining? I guess not. I couldnt help it. His laugh made me smile. Its still sexist. Sides, he said, taking the laptop, you make me laugh.

I wasnt sure if it was a compliment or insult. Um, thanks? And He stretched out the word in an exaggerated fashion and leaned over me just slightly. I pretended to flinch away. Under normal circumstances it might appear as though we were flirting. I suppose it was entirely possible that we were, though I was leaning more toward my lack of sanity. You cant kill a dead girl. He laughed at my expression and typed something else into the search engine. This stuff is hilarious. Then he handed me back the computer and waited impatiently for my reaction.

Kidnapping Victim Feared Dead Less than 48-hours after Adeline Battes was reported missing from a rest stop outside of Syracuse New York, FBI investigators discovered the body of auto body truck driver, Spenser Hanson in the empty cab of his vehicle. Investigators have also learned that nearly one-half of a million dollars in electronic parts being carried were now unaccounted for. From there, authorities gained descriptions of Charles Hays, who is now the prime suspect in relation to the kidnapping of Adeline Battes (see

above), and is now being investigated for charges related to domestic terrorism and murder. Early this morning, local authorities and FBI agents followed evidence that led them to an abandoned home in Staten Island, New York, where forensics teams found both the finger prints of Benjamin Walden and Charles Hays, in addition to the blood and hair follicles of Adeline Battes. Additional evidence also shows that the other individuals may have been working to create some sort of explosive device within the basement

of the house. An anonymous statement from a junior FBI agent says, Given the amount of blood found at the scene, it is unlikely that Miss. Battes is still alive. These arent the kind of people to leave witnesses. We need to make the explosives a priority now before more lives are lost. This is a nightmare. I ran my fingers through my hair. Walking around and the fresh air had helped my headache, but with this new bombardment of information, I could feel the sharp sting at the back of my skull flaring up again.

Really? Charlie said, I think its pretty funny. I glared at him. Oh yeah? Do your I chose my words carefully, colleagues think its so funny? Nah, theyre real mad. But theyll get over it. I clicked out of the link and tried to open up my e-mail. Charlie had the computer out of my hands and into his own before I could hit the caps lock. Hey, what are you doing? I have to contact my Dad. He has to be going crazy! He jumped up with the laptop and crossed the room, eager, it would seem, to

get away. Sorry, cant let you do that. Are you freaking kidding me? Was this another attempt at humor? If Dad hadnt had a heart attack by now, he almost certainly would if he didnt hear from me before the end of six days. The fear for my family instinctually overcame the fear for my personal safety and gave me a temporary dosage of bravery. He thinks Im dead. You cant do this to him. Its cruel! I reached for the computer, but anticipating my move, he prevented me from even coming close. He doesnt think youre dead. He laughed as I tried to grab for it, jumping for it while he held it above his head. I

dived for it when he hid it behind his back. It didnt help that his arms were so much longer and stronger than mine, but I still shoved and kicked against him. I knew he was a killer now, they all were. It didnt matter, I wouldnt and couldnt let Dad suffer like that. He knows you aint dead, okay? Just relax for a second. He was trying to keep his voice serious, but I could hear the laughter in his words. I stopped reaching for the laptop, but only because I wanted to hear what he had to say, not because I was actually following his instructions. What do you mean?

He gave a press release a couple of hours after that one came out. Called the cops a bunch of idiots, said there wasnt no way you were dead and the F.B.I was incompetent if they thought that. He laughed again. It was great. In spite of myself I did feel some relief. What he was describing sounded like typical Dad behavior. I was glad he knew I was still alive somehow. And I even felt a touch of pride at his fatherly denial. But I couldnt excuse the horror he was probably going through. He may have sensed I was alive, but he didnt know I was well. I instantly hated the helplessness that resided there. He didnt

even have Robbie to keep him in good spirits. Theyll be tracing any account linked to you, so you cant be contacting nobody. He pulled out the small Wi-Fi card from the side of the computer and placed it in his pocket. Sorry, but thats how it is. Something else and Ill try to help, if I can. Cant do nothing bout that one, though. Please, my voice was small, scrunched up from my insides. Justjust go away. I didnt know what to think when his eyes narrowed again and his shoulders tensed. I backed away as slowly as I

could and slid down to the floor. The fresh air had somewhat helped my aching head, but the pain still throbbed there, my pulse beating against the base of my skull. Charlie moved swiftly to the crate and forcefully yanked one of its drawers open. The sudden movement made the pulse ring louder in my ears and I felt myself wince at the sound. It was followed by a sort of rattling as Charlie produced a white bottle of tablets. Here, he said, tossing them in my direction I recognized the label as a popular brand of aspirin, one that we might have even had at home, but I was still reluctant

to pick them up. Maybe he was trying to poison me after all. No, thank you, I snapped He opened his mouth to say something but changed his mind. Instead, he just smiled and shook his head. I couldnt help but notice the few strands of hair that fell in front of his eyes. I had a very real urge to put them back into place or maybe run my hands through his hair once more. I turned away, ashamed of the compulsion and yet I could feel his eyes on me, boring holes through my flesh I wanted to scream, I wanted to run. Yet I knew there was nowhere to go. Please, I tried again, leave me

alone. After he left I waited a respectable amount of time before I let the situation sink in. I had to survive on this ship another six days. That could be easy enough, but these people had given me their word once before and that hadnt exactly turned out well. Six days was less than a single week, about 144 hours. I could handle that, right? I felt the self-hatred expand on my insides again. Normally I was so put together, so thought out. What in the hell had I been thinking? Or maybe more importantly, what could I have done differently to not have ended up here? I

should have tried harder to escape from the abandoned house, or fought harder when I first fled from the SUV. I rubbed my temples and considered the possibilities. I could have grabbed a piece of the glass from the floor, looked for something to write on the wall with so someone might have known I had been there but then after finding my blood they had already known I was thereI shivered at the idea of what the crime scene probably looked like. At least then I didnt give in to the tears. My anger was too ferocious to let me cry, at least not then. I could blame myself, and I probably would for the rest

of my liferegardless of how short it might be. But the true fault lay in the deviousness of my abductors. What did these people think a teenage girl could do to them, anyway? Even if I had gone to the police with what I saw, they probably wouldnt have taken a teenager seriously. I was gnashing my jaws together as I slid further down, adjusting myself so I was completely on the floor. Charlie was possibly the worst of them allshowing me some of what the media had to say, letting me in on the Internet access, only to deny me the smallest contact with Dad, which could be a great source of comfort to him in the days to come. Maybe it was a

sick kind of game to him, a way of getting peoples hopes up and then watching them sink like so many stones into the ocean. And why hadnt they just dumped me overboard when they had the chance? My family didnt have any money; they must know that by now. I was still somewhat confident that my body was safe, but my mind couldnt formulate reasons why they would bother keeping me alive at all if I wasnt any use to them. I considered what Charlie said about a murder conviction and trembled at the thought. I pictured Dad on the steps of some courthouse demanding justice for a dead daughter. So they hadnt killed me for any sort of

morality, but merely for practicalitys sake. None of them wanted to go back to prison. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the ship. The nausea had receded and for that I was grateful. I had hoped this meant I neither had a concussion nor seasickness, though time would tell. The coolness of the floor felt good against my scalp. And though my body begged for more sleep, the little switch of common sense in my mind told me to keep vigilant, reminding me I was not in a safe place. I opened my eyes again and stared

at the dim light of the desk lamp. Though it didnt offer much, I deemed it efficient for the little room. I sat up slowly and pulled the lamp up to the bed. I reached for the piles of papers and notebooks. I knew I shouldnt look through them, after all, what if they were some intimate correspondence and reading them guaranteed my death? Still, reason hadnt exactly been my forte in the last 24 hours. Yet I felt entitled to this. If they held information that could give me insight into my abductor, I had a right to them, didnt I? So even though I could feel myself biting my lip, a sign that something was

amiss, I reached for one. I did take a second and third glance at the door to assure myself no one would come raging in as I curled up with a notebooks. As I opened the front cover and my hand explored the thin paper, I understood it was actually a sketchbook. Inside, nearly every page was full of some image or another. It seemed strangely intimate looking through those drawingsalmost like seeing someone without their clothes on. The first was the intricate drawing of a sunrise, the ripples of the ocean were shadowed with whitecaps and some kind of bird was flying in the distance. The one that

followed was a field of trees that looked like they were just coming into bloom, then there was an antique car, an empty dock I traced my index finger just above the lines of each sketch and tried to imagine the picture in my head. I attempted to think about the artist and the great pride and detail he had put into every sketch. Or how he might have agonized over which line to make as a figure was shaped. It was better than thinking about how he must have been parted from his artwork. I had to figure Charlie had probably stolen these from a poor struggling artist on some other smuggling adventure. For

some reason, the idea pained me terribly. But it was only too easy to see him taking something he wanted for wantings sake. In the pit of me, I felt a pain rise at the knowledge. It was a shame beyond shame to claim something so lovely just for himself, to not share it with others. It made me angry; another offense to add to his list. But then I scolded myself. I thought perhaps maybe I was being too harsh. I turned over the back of the sketchbook and looked for a price tag or an artists label, anything that would suggest someone had given it willingly. There was nothing but a few smudges of lead.

I continued to look through the sketches; some of them appeared unfinished or erased beyond the point of no return, but no less loved in their loveliness. One in particular that struck me was a view of a ships deck with pouring down rain during the night. There were no people in the sketch, no animals or objects, just the dark and the rain. I adored how the edges of the drawing were curled from being wet and some spots of lead had clearly been smudged by the drops of water. Looking at it, I could almost feel the cold of the night the water on my face. After awhile, I picked up another

sketchbook and examined those sketches as well. I saw a variety of landscapes and abstract designs, what I thought might have been Reid face down on a table of cards, a baby wearing sunglasses and chewing a building block I looked at them over and over again, hypnotized by every point the pencil made and each specific aspect of the pictures. I stared at each one until my eyes hurt. Then I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and studied them more. I was looking through the fourth sketchbook when I saw the first one. I must have been in the deep throes of unconsciousness, as my eyes appeared

fastened shut by the dark shadows hed drawn. My hair was matted like fine pieces of string into the pillow beneath it. He must have sketched it from the all too recent events. The sketch that came after it was similar, only he had shaded in the background beyond my lifeless form, making it just as dark there as it had been when I first awoke in Charlies room. He had been drawing me while I lay in the Nothingness. Was it boredom while waiting for me to die that inspired him? The moment I thought it, I knew it couldnt be truethis drawing of me was something beautiful, something so unlike my true self image, that it seemed obscene

to compare the two. These criminals were practical. Beauty and practicality dont mix. It made me think that the media had exaggerated the things hed done, as I was so quick to do. Yet Charlie admitted himself that he intentionally had caused physical harm, ending lives when properly provoked. And above all, I couldnt forget that anger, the flash of rage when he was crossed the wrong way. I couldnt deny that the temper within him frightened me. It was some time later when I heard the knock at the door. At first it was so soft that I wasnt quite sure I had heard it.

I put my head back on the pillow and continued to look through the sketchbook. It was the fourth time I had looked at this one, but it was quickly becoming my favorite. It was mostly filled with scenic landscapes, and thanks to the talent of the artist and my own imagination, I could shut my eyes and easily transport myself there. I was about to go back to an unidentified winter wonderland when the knock came again, this time louder and more desperate. I bolted upright and accidently dropped the sketchbook on the floor. The moment it landed, the knocking stopped and I heard large, heavy steps outside the

door. They sounded impatient, eager. The options were flight or fight and I didnt exactly have anywhere to run. So I tried to be resourceful and look for a weapon. Where there were drawings there would be drawing utensils, right? Sharp things. My heart was throbbing inside me before I even understood I was terrified. Who would come for me now? Would they each take turns trying to kill me? I approached the door slowly. My pulse raged in my ears again and I shook my head, trying to ignore it as best I could, though it was exceedingly difficult. It seemed as soon as my hand was within reach of the door I saw a shadow from the

other side collapse slightly. I inhaled sharply and tried to steady myself. Someone was waiting for me to come out. I carefully put my ear to the door and tried to determine how many of them were out there. I already knew Wallace was good at sneaking around, so it was possible he was out there, but it was difficult to figure out who else. A heavy step came closer to the door, revealing the shadow of two large feet. As far as I could see there was only one person, not that the numbers made any difference. I had already proven I wasnt very capable of defending myself. I stifled

back another sob and covered my mouth to mask the sound. If nothing else, I wouldnt give whoever was there the pleasure of knowing how terrified I was. As I did so, I could smell clove and aftershave from the other side of the door. I nearly cried from relief. If Charlie was there, then I was safe. I played back the thought in my head, Charlie would keep me safe. I smiled and slid down against the door. Six days, I thought. Okay, I can handle this. With a great deal of amusement I watched the shadows of his feet as they paced back and forth past the door. I couldnt figure out what he was doing, but

every so often I would hear his boot smash up against the floor, followed almost immediately by the smell of a freshly lit cigarette. He continued to do this for quite some time. So much so, that I settled myself on my stomach on the bed and watched the feet shadows move, counting the number of paces I could hear before they stopped and started again. The steps were almost the same on each side, rhythmic in a way. It made me want to know if he was counting, too. I dont know how much time passed before the pacing stopped and the knocking started again. Although I felt considerably better about him, I still knew better than to let him in. And yes, I was

aware he could have easily broken down the door or used a key if he wantedbut I hoped he wouldnt. I had a very strong feeling he would stay away as long as I asked him to. It was strange that he was being kind to me, or at least as kind as a murderer and a kidnapper could be. There were some reasons I could gather as to why my abductors had allowed me to live so far. But this odd sort of protectiveness that Charlie watched over me with seemed to be something different. And while I wanted to continue questioning it, I also didnt want to push any remaining luck I had. I opened the door slowly with an

underlined caution that I knew Id have to keep with me for the next several days. A small slant of fluorescent light pierced the room and ruined any effect the shadows may have had. I took a deep breath and opened the door all the way. Charlie wasnt there. In his place was a small offering of a pre-packaged meal, a water bottle, and a snack cake. I smiled but quickly scolded myself in case someone may have been watching. Even though my stomach protested, I decided to leave the food there. Though I was over the suspicion of being drugged, I did this mostly because I didnt want to acknowledge that I needed his or anyone elses help. It was one thing to be a

prisoner, a hostage, but I wasnt going to be compliant. I wouldnt let them know how much I was truly indebted to their care. The other reason was more practical, though related to the first. I had no idea where any sort of facility was if I needed one, and while I would have to find a bathroom and even a shower eventually, I couldnt find it in my pride to do it just yet. So I shut the door behind me and locked it quickly, enjoying the sound of the click that left me to the pale light and sketchbooks. I felt secure with them. In our few hours together we had formed a sort of bond with each other, seen the same places and traveled the same roads.

I sat with one of them and flipped through its tapered corners. The illustrations I saw there made me think of Charlie Hays and the first words he had spoken to me about Da Vincis Vitruvian Man. Mans perfect balance.

Chapter 5

W hen I woke up later, I guessed it was morning, though it was hard to tell. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and stretched until I heard my back pop. I instantly felt the ache in my throat and the

thirst for water was nearly unbearable. I felt the back of my head and winced at the knot. My head was definitely bruised and swollen under my hair. I tried not to think about what a mess I really was and instead stared longingly at the locked door. Would the water still be there? Would Charlie? I feared the answer to both and yet my thirst begged to be quenched. The idea of food also made my stomach grumble at me angrily, a reminder that I hadnt eaten in quite a long time. How much longer could I continue to pretend like I didnt require basic necessities? I ran my fingers through the tangles of

my hair, watching some flakes of dried blood fall to the floor and wincing every time I combed through a tender spot. When I was somewhat satisfied that it was presentable, I walked to the door and opened it. The food and water were gone, but in its place, Charlie sat to the right of the doorway. His legs were folded under himself, his neck tilted off to the side. Although I wasnt surprised to see him, I startled anyway. It was strange to see him like that, smaller than himself, so still and settled. It took me a moment to realize he was asleep. At first I thought he might have

been faking it; trying to catch me off guard. But as I watched the slow rise and fall of his chest, I understood that the sort of concentration he would need to display would probably be too elaborate to fake sleeping. I knelt down beside him but kept my hand on the door knob just in case I had to run back in the room. There wasnt anyone else around that I could tell, but I wasnt going to be stupid about things either and throw all caution away. I looked him over from the edge of his brow to the end of his worn steel toe boots. He was wearing the same clothes from the day before (at least I thought it

was the day before). He also hadnt shaved yet and had the brim of a 5 oclock shadow starting to show. His hair was unbrushed, though not nearly as messy as mine. I shook my head and ignored the urge to straighten itattempting instead, to admire my handiwork with the slight bruise at the bridge of his nose. I bit my lip. I couldnt make myself be proud that I had damaged such a perfect nose. Sighing, I looked behind me and then back to Charlie. As far as prison guards go, I truly couldnt complain. He had been unmistakably gentle with me when the occasion called for it, not to mention

respecting my requests. I only hoped that when we docked, he and the others would keep their word and let me go home. If they wanted my silence, I was more than happy to let them have it. All I wanted was to get out of there. Hey. His eyes fluttered open. I gasped, taken aback by the specks of green I saw in them. Hey. My voice was still a croak. Did you know Twinkies dont really last forever? Twinkies? What in the hell was he talking about? Cant say that I did. I spoke slowly

and carefullybest not to make any sudden movements around the crazy man. Yep. The forever thing is urban legend. They only got a shelf life of a month or so. He frowned, and while he rose from the floor, I jumped back. He paused; his face blank. We stood facing each other and I could smell the musk of him so clearly it made me dizzy. I was starting to think you had kicked it in there. I scoffed. Well, I didnt. Im glad. I rolled my eyes. Wouldnt that make your life easier?

His eyes narrowed at me. What do you mean? No more overnight prison guard duty. Charlies face went tense. The veins in his neck bulged slightly with that not so far off fury and his eyes shot fire. I backed slightly into the door, caught by how quickly his temper had taken him. I I got the impression that he toiled with himself and the words, a testament to the anger he tried to control. He dropped his eyes and looked uncomfortable then, like I had caught him with something he wasnt supposed to have. He reached for the back of his neck

and rubbed the soreness there. It was easy to imagine how sore he probably was from spending the night sleeping in the hallway. I didnt want nothing bad to happen to you. I released the doorknob as a new sort of shame flooded me. It had never occurred to me that Charlie hadnt just been keeping me in. He had also been keeping intruders out. I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to smile. Oh. It was all I could think to say, but it seemed to be enough. Charlie relaxed considerably and smiled just enough to

show a flash of teeth. My heart skipped completely. Sides, seeing as how youre nothing but trouble and youre probably gonna do something stupid, I figure Im gonna have to chase after you anyway. This just makes it a lot easier for me. He had a point. I had caused a considerable amount of trouble for the both of us. What could I do now but stay out of the way as best I could until our time was over? At the least, I knew I had Charlie on my side, and I wouldnt do anything to mess that up. You dont have to chase me. I tried to sound resolved but my words came out

as a whisper. Planning on starving yourself to death then? I broke his gaze, the stare becoming too much for me. Those eyes of his were more than just kaleidoscopes, they were mind teasers, trying to seduce me with some corrupt pattern. I wasnt hungry. I crossed my arms over my chest, hoping somehow that they would help conceal the noise erupting from my stomach every so often. And yet he moved closer to me then, his face erupting into an openly crooked smile. Do yourself a favor, Vicious. Save the lying for the liars.

I smiled. I simply couldnt help myself. Fine, I am hungry. I confessed. But food isnt my priority right now. He pulled a phone from his pocket and glanced at it. We missed breakfast What time is it? After 11. Yikes. He smiled again and I felt myself quiver. I told myself it was from hunger. He put the phone back in his pocket and looked up at me. Food wont be round for while yet. Whatll you want til then? I put a hand in my hair and felt the

scrunch of dried blood there. Though I hated to mention it, I knew the obvious couldnt be avoided forever. Okay. I rotated my neck from side to side and tried to force a smile. Well, what exactly are the bathing accommodations? Astoundingly, the water was warm, even hot at some intervals, and it dulled my aching muscles so that I almost didnt feel them anymore. I had found some liquid hand soap that I decided to use as both shampoo and soap, and while it definitely wasnt ideal, it was better than nothing. Besides, Charlie had sworn he

would guard the only door of the community showers, and again I wanted to believe him. I blamed the head wound. Still though, the idea of being exposed around all these strangers made me uneasy. So I made record time through the entire showering process, barely taking in the smell of bleach or the feel of the slimy walls. It reminded me of the times at summer camp when we were advised to keep our water shoes onI left my sandals on in this shower, too. I didnt have a towel or fresh clothes, but I still felt better. I didnt want to be bare for any longer than I had to be, so I

quickly put on my clothes even though they were soiled and the back of my shirt was speckled with blood. My blood. Inspecting my tank top was a jolt. The color of the dried crimson looked so bleak against the white of the fabric. I ran my fingers over the small dots then touched the back of my head where water still freely dripped. It occurred to me that I should be very grateful to be alive, but I couldnt help but be mad at myself. Why hadnt I just kept walking when I heard those gunshots? A knock on the doors startled me from my stupor.

Okay in there? Charlie called. Umyeah, fine, I croaked. I opened the door and there he was, bouncing from foot to foot. I saw the end of a cigarette on the floor and the beginning of a second in his mouth. Better? he asked. Yeahthank you. He nodded and smiled at me, a gesture that made my heart beat faster than I wanted it to. I had to distract myself. You shouldnt smoke so much. I shook some of the water from my hair. You shouldnt wander round truck stops at night. I glared at him and tried to look mad

but instead wrung my hair out and flung some of the water out in his direction. Touch, sir. I followed him back to the cabin and tried to remember my way. Luckily, we didnt come into contact with anyone, although Charlie said that midday and midnight were some of the busiest times, so they were probably the safest times for me to be wandering around. Still, around every bend he insisted I stay behind him and he took the extra precaution of looking both ways to make sure there was no one coming when we crossed the stairways. Once inside the cabin, my eyes had to readjust to the pale light. In the hallway

everything was lit by fluorescent bulbs, but Charlies cabin only offered the stale lighting of the lamp. It made me feel cramped and confined. I stretched my arm to the wall and tried to picture a window there but my mind couldnt manage it. When I turned and saw him sitting on the bed next to his stack of papers, he seemed more relaxed than I had ever known him to be. He had a notebook on his lap and a pencil in his hand, furiously working away at the paper, doing something I couldnt see. Every few seconds he looked up at me. I stared back. Huh?

What are you doing? Nothin, just hold still for a minute. If youre doing nothing, then why do I need to hold still? He responded by scratching the tip of his nose and rotating his wrist. When I looked back at his face he had smudges of lead on his nose and chin. What are you laughin for? he asked when I started to giggle. I covered my mouth. Nothing. I quickly grew impatient and ambushed the notebook, which he tried to keep away from me. You had better not be doing what I think youre doing.

No! It aint finished yet! I sat next to him on the bed and settled for wiping the lead from his nose, an act that unsettled us both. He watched me with wide eyes that threatened to unhinge the frame of mein this light he looked kind; his irises were now a soft cerulean. Thanks. You looked ridiculous. Ive heard that afore. We both laughed. Youre movin your mouth too much. I almost choked. Excuse me? You cant talk if Im sketching ya. It messes it up.

I smiled. I thought you said you werent doing anything. Just stay still for five minutes, will ya? It was really much longer than five minutes, but I was desperate for a distraction. I focused all my energy on remaining as motionless as I possibly could, trying to pretend I was a statue or one of those ugly ceramic figurines Mom used to buy from yard sales. It was better than thinking of Robbie and if he would still deploy on time. Would the few acquaintances and professors I knew from school care that I was missing? Would Dad tell Aunt Maggie? Or would he avoid

it, knowing it would probably only deteriorate her health? I wanted to laugh it was probably the only time in my life that it was good to have so few people that cared about me. Are you done yet? Almost. His brow was furrowed and his back was hunched. He bit his lip with such concentration I thought he might bite a hole through it. As he worked, I thought about the other sketches of me. Though I wanted to ask him about them, I still didnt feel comfortable about it. I resolved to put it off until later, telling myself that I had enough time to get around to it.

How about now? He smiled. Yeah, Im done. I felt as though I had to be careful with the flimsy pages. It was easy to see he had done something amazing in such a short amount of time. Charlie had made an image of me. Well, almost me. And yet it wasnt me at allit was so much more than me, it was better than me a thousand times over. And while I could see pieces of my features at the foundation, every line and smudge was according to some grand detail that was beyond any genuine depiction of myself. Everything was illuminated by the shadows he created on the surface of the figures that made me up.

Wow. I was breathless. This is incredible. He stood up quickly and took a cigarette from his pocket. From the corner of my eye I saw that he looked at it for a moment but then put it back. Instead, he took a torn duffle bag from under the bed and began throwing clothes inside. Yeah, yeah. I mean it. I slid off the bed to get a better look under the lamp. How did you do this? Do what? I flipped the book upside down. It even looked amazing from this angle. Make me look this good?

His smile became sly, dangerously clever. I just draw what I see, is all. I swallowed hard and tried to pretend like I was brushing the hair behind my ears. There was no way he couldnt have seen me blush in that small space. I put the sketchbook down and reached for my sling bag hanging on the back of the door. I have never in my life been so relieved to have my hairbrush. I detangled the unruly mess of knots as gently as I could and wished for conditioner. It was only then that I noticed what Charlie was packing. Um, wh-what are you doing? A new, unequivocal anxiety found me with

the two concepts of Charlie and away combining. I didnt like the idea of Charlie going anywhere, at least, not without me. Even though he was the reason I was there and that my life had been put in serious jeopardy, my instincts told me he was honest. Wellas honest as a thief could be. And given that I had no other choices at that moment, those instincts would have to be good enough. Across the hall. Im takin Polos cabin. Youll, ahstay here. I froze. Wh-what about your other friends? I thought about Wallace and put my hand to my throat. Fear had no trouble climbing back into my heart. I realized it

probably had never left. I didnt even want to say his name out loudlike an urban legend, it might make him appear. He read my mind again. Wallace aint on this ship. Charlies voice was flat. A lot of things were leadin up to it, but he aint working with us no more. I breathed a sigh of relief without even realizing it. I smiled and tried to get back to the conversation. If you take his cabin, where will Polo sleep? It seemed like the next, most logical thing to ask. His smiled widened a bit. Who cares? Its just Polo. Charlie broke out laughing and threw

the duffle bag over his shoulder. Hes a little slow sometimes. But hes a good kid he wont hurt ya or nothin. Good to know. There was a visible hesitation before he walked out the door and for a terrifying instant I was afraid he would tie me up again. I tried to think of reasons for him not to. If I had to, I would plead a case for myself. I would probably beg if I had to. Am I a prisoner here? In the end I knew I would ask. No matter how foolish or obvious, I wanted a clear statement of intention. He paused again, his smile faded. I gotta say yeah.

A few minutes later I heard Charlies intense footsteps coming back. He had returned before I even had the opportunity to miss him, although during his short absence he had never left my thoughts. Again I blamed the head wound. As soon as I realized it was him I jumped to the door. Knock, knock. I tried to contain my smile. Whats the password? I heard something similar to a grunt. Im tryin real hard to be nice Sorry, try again. I could practically feel his eye roll while his patience evaporated. I knew I

was pressing my luck with his good humor, but I also liked the feeling of pushing the edge with him. It felt like a safe sort of dangerous, falling out of an airplane with a parachute. You wanna get some food? I almost ran into his arms, as this was, in fact, the password. Yes! Yes! A million yeses! I could eat tree bark, Im so hungry. I opened the door and tried not to appear too excited, but my smile gave me away. This answer seemed to please him, and I saw the creases around his brow relax. It occurred to me to ask about what had made his mood so sour in such a short

amount of time, but then I thought a part of me might not want to know. Soups on. I hesitated. But arent I a stowaway? Right now the first shift is on; most of the crew is first, so they wont be round the galley. You guys do stuff around hereon the ship? He led me down a completely different hallway from before, though to me they all looked the same. The halls were a boring white, but every few yards, beneath a glass undercarriage, lay a fire extinguisher, and every door was painted a mundane gray. It made me realize that

even if I tried to commandeer a lifeboat (even if I had the slightest clue about boats), I was sure to get lost before even reaching the deck. We got to, he laughed. Me and Ben got the shippin company in the pocket and Ben is technically part owner, but for appearances sake, everybody works. And that makes it easier to smuggle things from country to country, I said. He tapped the side of his head and winked, confirming my answer. We continued to walk down a long corridor with protruding electrical boxes. Just being near all that power made me nervous.

That truck I saw you guys stealing from, I began, what was in it? He frowned, then and looked around to make sure no one could hear what he was about to say. Mostly hard drives, graphics cards, fiber optic cables, some CPUs Wow, I whispered. Yeah, we only gotta make this trip a couple times a year. I guess you wouldnt need to do it every day. I didnt know very much about that kind of stuff but I did know it was worth a lot of money, and I could only imagine what kind of income a couple cargo containers full of that kind of

inventory could bring to ones bank account. He held open a large white set of sliding doors that were labeled Galley just above. No need to be greedy, he said. I smiled back. Funny, I never thought Id hear that from a thief Youll never know what youll hear from a thief, said Reid, with a mouth full of food. Thats the point. I was taken aback when I saw him sitting there at the cafeteria-style table littered by graffiti profanity. I knew there would be other people there, but Charlie had diverted my mind enough to forget

about the impending social awkwardness. Charlie shook his head and handed me a plastic bowl and a set of matching cutlery. On a set of industrial stoves, I could see steaming pots and oversized spice racks. I tried to seem brave while I walked along the outline of the galley. I watched as Charlie got himself some food and tried not to seem obvious about it. He had tucked a cigarette behind his ear and now his long fingers enclosed around the entire bottom of a bowl. Suddenly, he looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back but quickly looked away when I felt the blush spread. To keep it from going further I had to look

elsewhere. Around Charlie, there were a couple of countertops with grimy microwaves. On a large bulletin board there were laminated documents about safety precautions and avoiding food poisoning. Just outside I thought I could hear a jackhammerand I was desperate to focus on all of it instead of how much I wanted to look back at his face. Here I thought Yuri was screwing with me when he said you had made it through. Reids loud interjection interrupted my inspection. He was eyeing me with the same sort of annoyance as before. I took the lid off a pot of chowder.

Instead of thinking about how it might have been made, I scooped it into my bowl. Sorry to disappoint. Charlie scoffed then and stuffed a piece of bread into his mouth. I put the lid back on and took a seat next to him. The chowder, or whatever it was supposed to be, was pretty tasteless, but it was hot and filled my stomach enough to help me forget my troubles. I ate slowly and carefully, somewhat fascinated by the lack of table manners both boys possessed as they shoveled food into their mouths endlessly, bowl after bowl. I stifled a laugh as Reid wiped his mouth on a piece of bread. I lowered my

head and stirred my spoon around the remains in my bowl. Next to me, Charlie hit his chest and let out a belch. Unable to control myself, I burst out laughing. What? Charlie asked; wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Hey! Reid scowled at me. Not everybody went to charm school. It was with the harshness of his voice that I began to comprehend what my presence here meant to this group of renegades. While I was beginning to lose my fear of what they could do to me, their fear of me was increasing. Charlie made it apparent that he wouldnt allow me to be

harmed anymore than I already had. And his way around these meneven the way they had described him in the media, had portrayed him as a kind of leader. A sort of second-in-command to Ben Walden. As it was, I very much doubted they would go against him, even if they did think I would go flying to the authorities at the first chance. No wonder they hated me. If I were in their shoes, I would naturally hate me, too. I had the potential to ruin them, and currently there was nothing they could do about it. Exactly, I said, trying to make my voice sound brave. And its done Charlie a world of good, I patted him on the

head. Just think how uncivilized he might be with it. Charlie glanced over at me and before I realized it, I was smiling back. Reid swore under his breath and got up for another serving, kicking his chair in as he walked away. You guys act like youve been raised by wolves. He raised his eyebrows up and down playfully. Maybe we were. Ha, ha. The doors swung open, hitting the wall loudly. Polo and Yuri walked in, yelling something about a horse and someones mother. I figured it was a joke

I didnt want to hear the punch line to. Youre an idiot; you need to stop talking to me, Yuri said to Polo. They smelled like sweat and oil. I felt myself go still in my seat. I was just beginning to adapt to my environment. Why did things have to change every five seconds? Yuri got his wish when I turned my head and Polo saw Charlie and me sitting together. He gasped like a cartoon character and rushed at us, practically sliding into us both before Charlie held out his hands to keep him back. Easy there, boy. Hi, you guys! He knelt between us

and wrapped an arm around each of our shoulders. From the corner of my eye I could see Yuri and Reid glaring at us and whispering back and forth. Ive been wondering about you guys all day! Whereve you been? Causing trouble without me? His laugh reminded me of a hyena. Strictly a trouble-free zone. I tried to remove his arm without offending him, but he didnt even seem to notice. Charlie shot me a sort of apologetic look and went up for another serving. The moment he was gone, Polo stole his seat and scooted himself closer. Oh man, oh man, oh man! Its a real good

thing you didnt die! The unnatural enthusiasm in his voice was symmetrical with the tapping of his fingers on the table and the endless stomping of his feet on the chair legs. His energy was contagious and I felt myself bucking up. Thanks, Polo. I think so, too. No, but like, really! In addition to everything else, he started swinging his head back and forth. I thought with a couple of instruments he could be one of those one man bands carnivals are always advertising. If you had, I think Charlie woulda likekilled everybody! He spread his tapping fingers across the table for

emphasis. I nodded, but didnt really know what he meant. With his childlike demeanor, there was a strong possibility that he was probably just confused or exaggerating. Reid and Yuri came back but sat at the other side of the table as far away as they could get. Charlie sat on the other side of me. I was much more comfortable when he did. After a couple of minutes, the silence was getting to me. For this, I entirely blame my parents. They always insisted on those wholesome family dinners, the kind without television and lots of substantial conversation. I could get that these guys spent most of their day

together, but eating in complete silence like this was maddening. I crunched on the crust of my bread and tried to laugh. If any of you guys is the chef, I could give you some pointers. Yuri wasnt as obvious with his scowl, but Reid slammed down his spoon, having no problems expressing himself. Ungrateful little bitch! You really complaining I wasnt complaining. The eagerness to defend myself made me speak before thinking. Needless to say, I was surprised that it shut him up. As I looked away, however, I realized it wasnt my words that had made him

retreat, but the look on Charlies face. It made Reid back down instantly. I couldnt help but feel as though I had once again been the source of his anger. His eyes caught mine and softened slightly I most desperately wanted to see him smile. I didnt realize you boys were so sensitive. Even Yuri laughed then.

Chapter 6

S orry bout those guys. In his cabin, Charlie smoked a cigarette while sketching something in one of his books. Meanwhile, I was sitting in the corner working on my fifth, very sad

attempt to draw a smiley face with decent eyebrows. I waved him away and began erasing. I thought maybe I should go back to stick figures. No one should be anymore sorry than they have to be. I paused, considering the work in front of me. Well, thats not true. I feel pretty sorry for this smiley face right now. Again I felt Charlies smile on me. I dont blame them for hating me. I would, too, if I were them. Its me theyre sore at. He rubbed the cigarette butt out on the bottom of his boot. I looked up. Can you blame them?

Guess not. He took out a switchblade from his pocket and began sharpening the pencil. I tried to remember which pocket he had put the Wi-Fi card in, but for the life of me, couldnt. It was then I realized that I hadnt even batted an eye when I saw him take out the knife and begin working the point of the pencil. It was stupid of me not to be terrified of something that could kill me; I registered the fact in my mind. Yet it didnt weigh against meif given the choice, I knew Charlie alone wouldnt hurt me. Where are you from? I asked Why do ya wanna know? Because Im curious.

Curiosity killed the cat. Its not fair that you can look up almost anything about me, but I know almost nothing about you. Besides, Im just going to figure it out, anyway. I dont have to tell you how helpful the Internet can be. He sighed. All over. I looked at him and began tapping my fingers. I could wait. And if I couldnt, I could start listing the names of states, their capitals and cities, both major and minor, across the United States until he grew impatient enough to give it away. Youre right. It wasnt what I expected to hear him say and I guess my

confusion must have shown. When you go homenow that Im a big criminal and all, theyll be saying all kinds of stuff bout me. I shuddered at the thought. I dont want to imagine the kinds of things they might be writing about me right now. He suddenly burst out laughing and lit another cigarette. Youre kiddin me, right? Your Americas Sweetheart right nowpretty girl, good family, genius smart. The only bad stuff their sayin is bout your Dad, cause hes cursing out the cops. I turned my head and cleared my throat, trying to make it sound like a laugh.

Of all the information he had given me, I couldnt get over that he had described me as attractive. Had he actually called me pretty or did the media just describe me that way? Logic suggested that he was just using generalizations, but I still felt myself grow giddy at the idea. Or at least I think I didthat couldnt have been hope I was feeling, could it? Im not genius smart. I used air quotes for emphasis. I just graduated from high school early. He raised a single eyebrow. An IQ of 136? My Mom rigged those. Im sure of it.

He smiled and erased something from the sketch. I doubt it. I turned over my paper and started over. HmmIve never heard of all over, is that in the Northwest? He looked up from his sketch and grinned his Charlie grin. It gave me a flush of happiness to realize I could identify his grin from that of any other. You always gotta be such a smartass? I smiled. Only when Ive been abducted against my will. His smile fell then and I knew that Id hit a sore spot. But maybe that was a good thing. Realistically, we shouldnt have

been enjoying each others company, laughing at one another, and most especially, feeling so comfortable. While I did feel safe around him and I was certain he wouldnt allow me to be hurt, I had to remind myself of why I was here and who we were. For the next few days we could be cordial enough, but the fact remained that we were not, and could not be, friends. Youre putting me to shame over there, arent you? I tried to peek over the sketchbook, but he shielded it protectively. I went back to drawing a Christmas tree, the only thing I knew how to draw with any symmetry.

My hand sculpted some clich garland and somewhat circular ornaments. I always thought Mom had been a little disappointed that Robbie and I didnt really show any natural talent towards art. She never intentionally showed it, of course. But eventually her attempts at art and crafts became collages and a ceaseless end of birdhouses and papier mch abstractions. Besides, I was more prone to art history, anyway. Mom, who kept scrapbooks of all the museums she ever visited, would adore a talent like Charlie. I took my paper and slid over next to Charlie. I then immediately scolded

myself for liking his scent: clove, soap, and the salt of the sea. He flipped the sketchbook over so I couldnt see and took my drawing. Almost immediately he erupted with laughter. It was a sweet and hearty sound, crisp with its musical quality. What? I shrugged. I told you I couldnt draw! He flipped it over and looked at the smiley face attempt. You werent kiddin! Ha, ha. Now quit avoiding my question and answer me. He stifled his laugher. What? Where are you from?

Pausing, he eventually answered, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee Were you a military kid? No. The short simplicity of his answer suggested the conversation might be over, but I wasnt going to let him get away that easy. How long were you in prison? He hesitated before answering. Eleven years. So much for learning your lesson? I tried to laugh. He only nodded. What about your family? I asked. What do they think about what you do for a living?

Immediately I knew by the raw expression on his face that it was the wrong question to ask. His eyes became squinted lines in his facehe was trying to hold something back, my guess was rage. Dont got any, he said finally. But I wasnt going to let that go, either. On a technical level, everyone had to have the minimum of a biological mother and father, and the mystery that was Charlie Hays was only growing with my own personal fascination for him. I suddenly wanted to know everything about him. Why had he moved around so much? What led him to a life of crime? I was

sure the marvel of it all would kill me before he would. When I first saw you together, I thought you and Ben were brothers. He considered this. We kinda are. All of us are. I laughed. Were you always an orphan before you knew the guys? He pulled away from me then. Maybe he could see what I was trying to get out of him. He looked at me quizzically. His eyes seemed as though they were looking for something particular in mine. Why are you askin so many questions? I shrugged. I dont know. I think

maybe its the scientist in mebut it could also be because Im trying to understand. Ive never met anyone like you before. He laughed. A criminal, you mean? No. Well, yesbut I also mean you. His face became unreadable, completely expressionless. I tried to guess if he was angry at me or just plain annoyed. I didnt have an old man and my Ma took off when I was real little. I tried chewing over that information. Losing Mom was hard enough, I couldnt imagine not having at least one of my parents. Who took care of you?

The state sometimes He smiled at me as if I had been privy to an inside joke. Id get bored with the families theyd stick me with and run off after while. I smiled. The all over makes sense now. See, ya are a genius after all. I tagged him in the arm, feeling confident enough to attempt to change the subject. So do you guys kidnap people all of the time, or am I your first attempt in this racket? He glanced up at me, the corners of his mouth threatening a smile. This is a

trial run. I figure the next one will have to actually be worth some money, not ask so many questions I lost all of my humor and felt myself grow cold. That isnt funny. Dont worry. He looked me up and down. You aint got any competition. He laughed, but it was too hollow to have any heart in it. I also wanted to say something, but he beat me to it. Yeah, I know it aint funny. I put my arms over my chest to be defiant, but he just laughed and pushed some of the hair away from my face. I gave in again, laughing along with him

while trying to pull together the large mounds of locks. Its horrendous, I know. I wish I had a hair-tie. Id even settle for a rubber band if you have one Suddenly, a hair-tie appeared in Charlies hand. More amazingly, it was the same one that had fallen out during our initial struggle. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and dangled it as though it were a delicacy. I held out my hand as he centered it in my palm. The tie was covered in lead and dust, but I was still happy to have it. I closed my fingers around it with only a fraction of Charlies hand enclosed within my own. I could hear his breath increase, but for the

moment I was focused only on his hand. I saw small scars, some newer than others, with fresh cuts and scrapes on the surface. I felt the lead rubbing off on my skin from the same places where the calluses were at their roughest. And there was a satisfaction in knowing that it wasnt just ship work that had earned him these hands I cant believe you found this. I let go of his hand and set to work pulling up my hair. He coughed, picked up his sketchbook and started on a new page. My mane was in desperate need of attention and my heart was beating so fast I thought if I didnt get

some distance between us it might combust right there in my chest, so I stood up and went to my bag for my brush. At the bottom of my bag I felt something soft and familiar. Oh yes! I forgot all about this! I pulled out the fabric from the bag. It was only a t-shirt I had brought along in the likelihood that I spilled something on myself during the road trip and wanted to prevent embarrassment. Still though, it made me ridiculously happy to think I had something of my own here in this strange place. I could even switch shirts and wash my tank top while I wore this one. I inhaled the fabric and smelled the

detergent and fabric softener. Instantly it reminded me of home. I wondered if Dad would bother to get any of the laundry done while I was gone. Would one of the neighbors at least show him how the washer and dryer worked? How many episodes of trial and error would it take before he figured out how much soap to use? I put the shirt back and finally managed to get my hair into a decent ponytail. When I turned back around, Charlie was glancing up at me slightly but put his eyes back down when he caught me looking at him. Thanks for this, Charlie. I sat down

on the bed and leaned my head against the wall. His voice was soft but tight. Youre welcome. What time is it? I asked Late, he said finally. I was enjoying the sound of the pencil against the paper. Charlie increased the intensity in pressure he applied as he sketched away. I took pleasure in the way it took the silence from the room, filling it with the resonance of creation and something more intense than I could describe. Each time the point broke, he didnt hesitate to sharpen it furiously with the blade and get back to work.

As I listened, I felt my eyelids begin to grow heavy, so I kicked off my sandals and scooted my legs up under me. From the corner of my eye, I watched Charlie work the paper, his brow wrinkled in concentration. I could feel myself smile as I stared, it was as though he was in his own world there; unable to escape until the image did. Addie? A hand was shaking my shoulder. Hey, Addie? My eyes peeled opened and I saw Charlie sitting in front of me. Whatever he was drawing must be done now, because the sketchbook was closed and the pencils put away.

Im gonna take off. I stretched, Okay. He hesitated and looked over his shoulder. Ill be across the hall. Make sure you lock the door and dont go nowhere. I closed my eyes and think I might have nodded a bit. Truthfully though, I was only concerned with the potential of going back to sleep. Yeah, got it. I felt him smile through my closed eyelids and saw the lamp go dim. When everything went dark, a blanket was placed over my shoulders and I snuggled deep into its folds.

Chapter 7

S omething was tapping on my head. Naturally I tried to swat at ita fly perhaps. But it continued to come back, performing a sort of rap-tap-tapping on my forehead.

I turned over in the bed and tried to pull the worn quilt over my head, but whatever it was found me again and continued to dance on my flesh. Tap. Tap. Tap. I heard myself groan, and now tried using both of my hands to swat away the tapping, but it was relentless. Then Charlie began to laugh. I opened my eyes and saw him there, only one leg slung on the bed while still sitting next to me, and naturally his sketchbook and pencil in hand. I now understood the culprit of the tapping was a pencilI lunged for it in an effort to destroy it. However, with my lack of

balance, I misjudged my target and nearly toppled over the entire bedluckily, though, Charlie caught me. He seemed different today. There was no longer that resistance to touch me, and needless to say I was considerably surprised to see him be so bold as to be sitting on the bed next to me. I realized immediately that I didnt mind it in the least. But more than that, I was happy to see him in such high spirits. That is a very rude way to wake someone up! I had to inhale sharply to keep from laughing. He released my arms and pushed me back. I had to, he laughed. Your snorin was ruining my thinkin.

I stopped struggling against him, I do not snore! Charlie just laughed harder, Yeah, yeah, you do. Take that back! I kicked him with my foot. He went back to his sketch. Nope. You big jerk! I threw myself against him with the hope that maybe I could upset his drawing, but I managed to unbalance him enough that his leg slipped against the blanket and he went tumbling to the floor. Unfortunately, as I went to survey the hilarity he pulled me along with him, forcing us both to land in a crumpled heap

on the floor. With him beneath me, I could smell the dull remains of aftershave, soap, and the sea. I inhaled deeply. I could feel his heart pounding beneath me, sticks at the center of a drum. I could imagine the blood pumping in his body to every essential organ and limb, keeping him steady and sure. In that moment, my senses betrayed me with how attractive I found him. I wanted to kiss him so very much. I scolded myselfa psychologically healthy person shouldnt have been thinking that way. I still should have hated him, and because I didnt, I sincerely disliked myself.

Before I could embarrass myself further, I rolled away from him, instantly missing the feeling of his body against mine. For a moment more he lay there, swallowing hard before pushing himself back up again in a single motion. An idea occurred to me as I glanced back and forth between Charlie and the door. Hey. I looked at the door again. Wasnt the door locked? He flopped back down on the bed. It was. I rested my hand on my hip. Then how exactly did you get in here? He looked at me as though the answer

was obvious. Picked it. Being skeptical, I walked over to the door and examined it closely. The keyhole didnt appear to be damaged in any way. Even when I turned the knob over, the lock didnt turn with it, suggesting that it hadnt been tampered with. I lobbied for a more suitable explanation. No way. You just had a key. He smiled and sauntered over to the door, opened it, and closed himself outside. Okay, lock it, he called. The smile in his voice had me biting my lip in anticipation. I was eager to hear the sound of his voice again.

I followed his directions and heard the little latch clasp against the wooden door frame. Immediately I knelt down and tried to see through the keyhole, but it appeared to be barreled by the lock. If he was trying to trick me, he was doing a very good job. From outside the door I could hear Charlie breathinga fantastic sound all by itself. Then I heard a kind of jingling and within an instant of that, the unlatching of the door. See? he said from the doorway. Easy. A horrifying thought came over me. Reading my expression, Charlies own

smile receded and his smugness vanished. What? If-if you can do that, I looked at him, then why didnt you just go ahead and open the door that first day I was here? He let out a deep sigh. I guess I coulda easy nough, but you seemed scared enough; I didnt want to spook you anymore than I had to. Oh. I tried to appear indifferent. Truthfully, I didnt quite know how to feel about that. Will you teach me how to pick a lock? He laughed. Why would someone

like you need to know somethin like that? What does it matter? I shrugged. Its interesting, and anything thats interesting is worth learning. For a moment I thought he might laugh in my face, but instead he took something out of his back pocket and sat on the floor next to me. All right then. He locked the door with the two of us in between it so it couldnt latch. This is a tumbler lock. Its the most common lock round He watched my face while he spoke, as if waiting for me to interrupt or become bored with the process, but when I didnt,

he continued. To get one of these open, you need a pick and a tension wrench I raised my hand like a good student. Whats a tension wrench? He smiled again. If that was all I had to do to make him smile then I had to start thinking of more questions. One of these. He held out the tool he had removed from his pocket. You use it to put pressure on the inside of the lock so you can hold any picked pins in place while the others are bein moved. I tried to peer inside the keyhole once more. This is one of those things that requires a lot of practice, isnt it? He laughed, Yeah, generally.

Okay, then what? The tension wrench goes in first and you turn it the same direction you do the key. He demonstrated on the door as I hovered over his shoulder. Youll feel it give way on the plug. Then you use the pick His face was all concentration again. I was glad I was good at multitasking so I could both admire him and observe the refined motions he made with his wrists. try and listen for when the pins fall back into place. If you get real good at it, you can just feel it and it becomes easy. With a final move of the pin, the door unlocked. He grinned, looking more smug

than usual. I want to try. I felt like a child again. It had been a long time since I had been challenged with a skilled task. Go for it. He handed over the pick and wrench, but he kept his smirk. I bit the inside of my cheek, feeling quite nervous to see him move from my front to behind menow he was hovering over my shoulder. I locked the door then inserted the tension wrench. I was sure I had screwed up already until I felt the end of the lock plug just as Charlie had said. You got it? He pushed up closer against me, trying to get a better look.

I coughed, cleared my throat, and hesitated. Umyeah, I think so. I told myself to focus, to pretend it was for a mark of some kind, but the illusion did little for me and in actuality only made it more difficult to concentrate. The pick went in easily enough, but I had difficultly pushing the pins up into their positions. It was only after several minutes of hard work and eventual frustration that I finally heard the click of a pin give way. I was well aware that as I worked, Charlie had been scooting ever closer to menow his chest against my back. I could feel the taut muscles of his torso

touching me just slightly, and the urge to lean back completely and test his strength was almost unbearable. His breath quickened just a little as his arms reached up and came for the pick and wrench. Instinctively, I went to let him finish the chore, but his hands pulled me back. Here. His voice was considerably strained. His hands became mine as we worked the lock together. His right thumb and index finger overlapped mine completely, but he was strangely gentle. Come to think of it, he was always gentle with me. Even now, I could feel that as he rested the

weight of his own arm against mine. By accident I brushed my thumbnail against the inside of his palmhe jolted and another pin came undone. Do you feel that? His voice was hoarse. I coughed again. Yes. Yes, I do. It took dozens of tries and strings of cursing that I wasnt even aware I knew before I was finally capable of getting the lock picked on my own. Really, it was something of a bittersweet moment, because while I was excited at having learned something new, I felt a little wretched that I had lost the excuse for Charlie and I to be so close.

Okay, now what other kind of lock can I learn? He began to chuckle. It was nice to hear him let go of whatever it was that was holding him back. I rolled my eyes. And why exactly am I a source of comic relief? You like to learn, huh? Yes. Do you think thats strange? I guess, yeah. He shrugged and then put the tension wrench in his back pocket and answered my unasked question. Cause girls tend to be all crying and stuff when bad things happen, not wanting a school lessonits weird. First, not all females panic in

stressful situations. Second, lock picking is hardly something my parents would have taught me, let alone something they teach in public schools. And third, if you recall correctly whenwe met, I originally did cry and stuff. I stuck my chin out and tried to be smug but the out loud mention of the situation seemed to put tension between us again. He stared at me. His gaze was intense, as if he was considering something. Thats right. He took out a pack of cigarettes from the plastic crate and placed one in his mouth. You were homeschooled. You liked that? I shrugged. I cant imagine a better

education. While it was somewhat closed minded, it was true. Mom and Dad had given us the opportunity to attend high school like other kids, mostly because Mom was nervous that we werent socializing enough. Robbie jumped at the idea, joining every team and sport he could, but I was irritated at the idea. Why would I want to do that when I could learn at home? You went to public school? Sometimes. I watched the flame of his lighter brighten his irises as he smiled. They seemed to be a combination of light green and blue todaya turquoise, I decided.

That worked out well. Charlie shrugged and considered my response. I picked up things I wanted to. What does that mean? He lay down on the bed and blew smoke at the ceiling. I aint smart like you, but I always managed to learn things I wanted to know. I fiddled with the lock of the door. I guess were both like that. He smiled at me again. What did you say the name of this ship was? He smiledit was slow and coy and forced me to sit down low against the wall. If he was unaware of the effect he

had on me, I would have been grateful. The Diyu. I thought so. Got it secondhand with the name, never bothered changin it. Do you know what diyu means in the traditional Chinese? I questioned. Its really kind of funny when you think about it He shook his head. Its the equivalent translation for hell or underworld. When it comes to the afterlife, some Asian cultures revolve around Buddhist beliefs, and some ancient traditions say that before the spirit can be reincarnated, it must be purified or

punished in the different levels of diyu. I looked at him and waited for a response, any kind of a response, but he just took another drag of his cigarette and continued to stare aimlessly at the corkboard ceiling. I became slightly afraid that I was boring him with my random knowledge, but I was also revved up by the familiar trivia and couldnt help myself. It got me thinking about the myth of Persephone. I felt a little excited as I began reciting the tale told to me so many times. Truth be told, I hadnt even thought about it in a long time. Hades was in the Underworld one day, and when he saw

Persephone picking flowers in a field, he instantly fell in love with her. He tore a hole through the earth and carried her to his palace in hell to be his bride. And when Persephones mother, Demeter, found out what happened, she refused to continue nourishing the earth so all of the mortals would die. If this was the underworld, then what did that make Charlie? Well, without mortals, Zeus would have no one to worship him, so he told his brother (Hades was one of his brothers) to return Persephone. But being Hades and everything, he tricked Persephone into consuming six seeds of a pomegranate.

The seeds tied her to the Underworld forever so even though she went back to earth, she always wanted to be somewhere else. Then what? Finally, a response. His voice was so abrupt it ruined my line of thinking. Ohum, well, For every seed she ate, Persephone stayed a month with Hades, and the other half of the year she had to return to earth. The months that shes on Earth is supposed to account for the spring and summer monthswinter is when Demeter is too upset to let us mortals harvest. I tried to laugh. Thats lousy, Charlie said after a

minute. I became defensive. What do you mean? He put out his cigarette and sighed. Think bout it, Addie. Nobody got what they really wanted and so nobody was really happy. I considered his words and weighed them. Well, sometimes I guess you have to compromise in life. If may not be fair, but thats the way it is. Nah, Charlie shook his head. I mean yeah, I get what youre sayin, but it shouldnt have to be that way. The good stuff should be all or nothin. Either you get what you want or you get nothin at all.

Otherwise, wanting somethin doesnt mean much of nothin to begin with. Theres a difference between want and need, Charlie. I was still feeling defensive about my myth retelling, the desire to explain how it was relevant to our situation was made more intense by how he tried to change the subject. Only now, Charlie was looking at me differently than before, and I felt as though we werent just talking about mythology. Nah. He shook his head fiercely. Need is somethin right round the corner from want. Itll creep up on ya when you think you got all your want under control. And then they end up being the same thing

aint no different in the end. The conversation was quickly making me uncomfortable, and I knew if I didnt change the subject right away, he would get the best of me again. It wasnt so much that I wanted to be in control of the dialogue as I didnt want him to be in control. As it was, I didnt like the control he had over me; the way he made my body feel, the way he made me question my instincts Ive never thought about it like that. Fine then, if youre an expert on stories, you tell me one. One what? He laughed. A story.

He smiled his Charlie smile. Okay, he said. I think I can do that. He cleared his throat as he began. Once an old farmer found a viper halffrozen to death in the snow. He put him in his coat to warm him up. When he did, the snake bit him. So the farmer died. I looked at him and smiledhe was staring at me again. Thats an Aesop fable. The point is to mind your own business or else get bit. I think thats lousy. And completely inaccurate, I added. Not every act of kindness results in disaster. He put his head back down and,

shrugged. I heard it at a bar in the Maldives once. I sighed dramatically and threw myself to the floor in a likewise fashion. The Maldives? Im jealous. He sat up and laughed. You never been? Ha, ha. My laugh was equally sarcastic. The only beach Ive seen is on the coast of New Jersey. He scoffed again and slid down to the floor beside me, lying down so our heads were adjacent to each other. That aint no beach. I knowdont remind me. I began to laugh.

He laughed too. It was a musical sound that was parallel to my ear-lobe and it made me want to smile just at the thought of it. Maybe after Im done in Diyu Ill show you a real beach. What, you mean in the next life? His smile grew. Yeah, youd like it a lot. He closed his eyes as if trying to remember something. The water is so clear and blue you can see the reefs right through it I tried to picture the image in my head. I like the sound of that. The coral comes in every sort of color you can think of: pink, purple, and

yellow. Did you know corals get their color from this stuff living in their tissues? No. I smiled. I didnt know that. We stayed that way for a while, just looking at each other in a way that said something without having to be said. It was nice to lie beside him and have the quiet closeness of the moment. I questioned if this was what Dad had so often missed with Momtheir late night conversations at the end of a busy day. I had to confess that if nothing else, I felt comfortable in the confines of his companionship. And I had the most terrible feeling that I would miss it when

it was gone. A query came to me and I considered the possibilities: Hey, Charlie? Yeah? Do you really think youll go to hellwhen you die, I mean? I dont know. His expression remained indifferent. I can tell you I dont want to think all them people have been wrong all this time. And sides people like me should have somewhere just for us so we cant be hurtin pretty girls. He laughed, but it was bitter and disheartened. I turned and stared at him with my mouth agape, searching for the right

words, but my blush took over. I gotta do lookout tonight. His announcement was abrupt. You wanna come with me? Um, okay. He nodded to the ceiling. Okay. Before I could say anything else, he jumped up and lit another cigarette. I stayed on the floor and watched him walk to the door. He seemed different than usual, and although I couldnt put my finger on it, he did seem happier. Addie? Hmm? Wh-what do you think bout that kind of stuff?

The afterlife? He shrugged. Yeah. I stood up and rested my weight on my elbows. I dont know. No happily ever after? I could tell he was mocking me again, but this time he seemed genuinely sad about it. I smiled back. Maybe its a wait and see sort of situation. After I spent most of the day creating origami animals, I did some sketching before I quickly grew bored. I did, however, manage to amuse myself by working in some standard yoga and flexing my body into contorted shapes to help my circulation. The exercise helped

get my mind back into working order after the perplexing series of conversations I had with Charlie. I made myself laugh repeatedly while trying to balance in different positions in that awkward little room. Despite his temper and occasional foul disposition, Charlie had been tender with me when it wasnt necessary, making me think that maybe there were these levels of him that overlapped into a complexity that made it difficult for him to function. He thought himself a burden on the world, this much I understood. But he was also sexist, violent, and lacked a formal education. But still, there was that

otherworldly attraction that I couldnt deny or take myself away from. And based on some of his behavior, I had to wonder if he felt the same way. I could at least tell by the way he looked at me that there was some attraction there, but other than that Charlie returned as promised several hours later and looked quizzically at my accomplishments for the day. Got bored, huh? I pulled at the tail of my origami swan and watched his wings take flight A bit. He smiled and my heart began beating a little faster. I wondered if hed always have this effect on me. You should talk to the concierge

about getting a room with a balcony, I joked. I dont understand how you manage to spend all this time in here without any windows. The lack of a view is crippling my imagination. He took the ball cap and placed it on my head, his kaleidoscope eyes staring into mine. I dont need any windows. This cabin already has the best view possible. For once I kept out of sight as instructed. If any of the deckhands saw me, they didnt say anything while Charlie and I rushed through the corridors and up the stairwells labeled Deck B. Every

surface, pipe, and floor piece was painted a bright, endearing red. The color was only made more spectacular by the aggressive sunset. Once we were there I could already see the orange globe making its way to the end of the horizon and working its way to retirement into evening. Everything, even the lowliest machine, was paved in a wave of pink and gold. I sighed and breathed in the ocean. Is it always this nice? He laughed at me. No. Sometimes the weather gets real bad. You can have an entire trip where it does nothing but rain or its real cold. Other times other ships

bother ya, people lookin to steal your stuff. I laughed as he struggled to light his cigarette through the wind that whipped off the ocean. Finally fed up, I covered the flame of his lighter with my hands. He glanced up at me; again my actions seemed to surprise him. You mean pirates? I could hardly contain my excitement. I spose. I noticed his effort to blow his smoke away from me. Thats kind of ironic, isnt it? He looked at me curiously. Thieves stealing from thieves Everybody steals from everybody,

Addie. Thats the natural order of things. I laughed. Dont be so morbid. Its true, he said. You know, survival of the fittest and all that. I dont think Darwin intended the laws of evolution for crime. Its all the same. Well have to agree to disagree. He began meandering about the deck, mostly staying close to the handles. And although I was reluctant to just blankly follow him, I did so because I was anxious to be left alone in a place that was so strange. But on another level that I wasnt quite ready to admit, I also enjoyed spending time with him in a way that went

beyond companionship. Distracted by his movements, I felt my feet slip on the deck. I swore under my breath and clasped onto the railing. Be careful, he called from behind his shoulder. Gotta watch out for oil, seaspray, grease everything round here is slippery. I grabbed him by the wrist. His laughter stopped, but mine had just started. If Im going down, I giggled, Im taking you with me. He rolled his eyes. Promises, promises I stared out at the waves while the darkness rolled in. Slowly, he reached out

and touched the bruises around my neck. I cringed at the reminder of the familiar wound and closed my eyes against the memory of it. Sorry. Its not your fault. I could barely get the words out, though we both knew it was. He rested his weight against the wall of the deck and puffed. Yeah, it is, he laughed. But Im still sorry. You heal real fast. His tone was tight. That cut on your foot is probably all but gone. I scanned my memory trying to think of when I had told him of that. I knew I

hadnt. In actuality I had been extremely careful to conceal that small detail while in the abandoned house. But he had warned me about the dangers of being a stowaway, so if there were medical professionals onboard, it may not have been wise to enlist their help anyway. You-you looked after me wh-when Wallace tried to kill me, didnt you? He said nothing and stared into the waves. I looked over at him and poked the flesh beneath his black eye, our hands still attached. Hey, I want you to know Im almost sorry I did that to your face. I heard myself laugh slightly as he smiled

and rubbed his hand along his nose. It was as though he was trying to wipe away the bruise of his ego instead of the literal pain I had caused him, though I doubted it could have been much. He laughed. Been a long time since somebody got the better of me like that. Its not like you didnt deserve it. I was beginning to feel smug. I aint gonna lieyoure not the way I thought youd be. I shrugged. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Staring back out at the waves he smiled and said, I forgot how to be surprised.

I smiled back. Well, youre welcome then.

Chapter 8

W hen I woke up, the feeling of confinement overtook me. I had the need to open a window or a door, but there was no way to relieve the stuffiness of the room. Everything felt stiff and recycled,

like it had been dug up and buried time and time again. I needed to breathe fresh airI needed to get out. Of course Charlie didnt have a clock anywhere, and I neglected to charge the laptop, so I didnt have any sense of what time it was. However, by the sounds of silence in the hall, I guessed it was still night. I traded my soiled tank top for my clean t-shirt and put on the denim jacket Charlie had left behind. I wondered if he did it on purpose, but tried not to put too much thought into it. I decided I would only go out for a minutejust one minute, sixty seconds, then retreat to the safety of the cabin. I knelt in front of the plastic

crate and looked around for something to cover my face. In the second drawer it was easy enough to find a couple of ball caps. I picked the cleanest one I could find, which seemed to be one that was never worn. I unlocked the door and cautiously looked both ways before taking the route to the deck that Charlie had showed me the day before. The fluorescent lighting hurt my eyes at first, but I kept my head down and propped the collar of the jacket up to keep my face covered. While it was obvious I wasnt a member of the crew, I hoped I could at least blend in a little bit should the situation call for it.

I kept my pace steady as I made it through the final stairwell to the deck. I could smell the salt of the ocean and limestone being unloaded nearby. Taking a moment to breathe it in, I never imagined I could feel so happy from such a simple combination. My pleasure was easily broken up, however, as I leaned against the deck entry door and heard laughter and the voices of people I didnt recognize speaking something I didnt understand. I cant say that it didnt scare the hell out of meI unexpectedly couldnt breathe. I was being a complete idiot. Did they have brigs like they did in those old war movies? Would anyone understand me

when I tried to explain I was here against my will? I tried to think of the Chinese equivalent for taken or stolen and translated the verb, but my head wouldnt work properly. With the voices coming closer, I pushed myself onto the deck. Although it was still dark, thin tufts of pink were floating on the horizon, pushing their way upward. I must not have slept longI felt the chill of the sea and the night instantly. It was both wonderful and overwhelming at the same time. I took a few steps forward and saw a door latch marked Safety Equipment in English and maybe ten other languages, marked like so many

other doors with stenciled numbers and penciled lines. Inside I found an oilstained life vest that I put on, if for nothing else than it would add to my disguise. I couldnt see anyone around me, although on the other side of the deck I could see welding sparks and hear more voices. When the wind blew I could smell some kind of chemicals in the air that made me gag. I closed my arms around myself and took a few steps forward. I didnt want to be too far away from the door in case someone spotted me and I needed to make a quick getaway. But the closer I got to the sea, the more I wanted to see the morning waves. The pink in the

sky gave way to shades of yellow and orange, each lovely in their own respect. They took out the dark of the night and those pearly stars like they were made of nothing. My family had never been big beachgoers, but when we had gone, I was the one crazy for the water. Even now I watched the miniature waves collide with the side of the boat. It fascinated me that they would still be here, millions of years from now, long after we were gone and this misadventure was through. I sighed and rubbed my temples. Where would I be when all of this was said and done? Where would Charlie be?

I dismissed the image from my head, but it kept popping in there, reappearing when I least wanted it to. It was his fault I was here in the first place and that I had nearly been killed. I couldnt justify that no matter how sweet he had been to me over the last couple of days. Even he had stated that if hed really had to, he might very well have killed me, sparing me originally only because I was a girl. Still, I had to acknowledge the way he made me laugh and made my stomach flip-flop. I understood he was a thief and that I would probably be psychologically damaged to some extent because of him, but I couldnt help but care about him. As long as no one

else was hurt, I truly didnt want him to be punished for abducting me. Morning set in easily, as though the night had never been, and as much as I hated to leave, I remembered what Charlie said about the morning being one of the busiest times of the day. Sure enough, just as I was crossing over to the other side of the deck, Polo and another deckhand came around the corner. I swore to myself and leaned against a wall with an arrow that pointed to something called Hold 6 & 7. I made a mental note to research ship terminology if and when I ever got the chance. Polo was laughing his Polo laugh, and I had to smile

because I had the feeling that Charlie was rightI couldnt even begin to imagine Polo hurting anyone. Addie, Addie, Addie, Addie! Once I heard his voice I knew I had been caught. Hi, Polo. He jumped in front of me, bouncing on his heels. I thought that was you! I shushed him. Hey, keep it down. I looked over his shoulder, but whoever he was with must have gone the other way. Oh, right! He mimicked my whisper but continued to bounce. I was nervous his behavior might draw some very unwanted attention in my direction. I had to admit that without Charlie around, I was more

than uncomfortable about my safety. However, most of the deckhands were on the other side of the deck and seemed rather preoccupied with their work, so I tried not to fret. Despite his erratic movement, I could still see the dirt and grit all over Polos face and clothingit was actually kind of hard to miss. Umwhat were you doing just now? I reached and swiped a smear from his safety helmet. Sure enough the new dirt on my fingers smelled like Charlie when he came up from the basement the other day. Doing stuff in the engine room. Im going now to make breakfast for the crew.

Oh! Come with me! I thought about sitting in the cabin all day long and being stuck with my thoughts of Charlie; I shuddered. Sure, Polo. Why not? Although he didnt spell it out, I understood that the galley wasnt supposed to be open before seven in the morning when breakfast was ready. And while the shipping companys employees ate in the mess hall, Charlie and the rest of the unofficial crew ate in the galley. A second meal was cooked by noon and another around five in the evening. I could see that the main food supplies were

stored in a large industrial freezer and refrigerator just below the galley. Next to them were rooms that served as pantries with industrial sized cans of fruit, vegetables, some dried meats, and oils for cooking. It was explained to me, though, that if you wanted something special, you had to bring it yourself and label it or else someone would consume it in a heartbeat. The guys say they dont know what Im talking about, but I think theyre lying to me. I think theyre messing with me. Polo was bouncing, telling me about the snack cake conspiracy that all those around him seemed to be in on.

Im sure theyre not eating your food on purpose. It was taking all of my strength to hoist the huge industrial-sized skillet from a cupboard. I was hiding the last box of cupcakes in my room, under dirty coveralls! I stifled a laugh, but it was difficult and it came out more like a snort. I recalled the Twinkie outside the cabin door and laughed outright. I tried to figure out what to do next when Polo began emptying liquid eggs in the skillet. The aluminum pan was visibly abused, scratched and dented from maltreatment. Hey there, Polo?

Yeah? Yeah? Yeah? Did you cook yesterday? He threw his head back and forth violently. Duh! Thats my job! I tried to approach the subject delicately. Um, why dont you take a little break and let me help you out today? Before he could answer, I took the skillet and dumped the contents in a mixing bowl. I then put some much needed cooking spray in the empty pan and set it to low heat. Ah! He smacked himself in the head. I always forget that part! I laughed. Thats okay. At least you

managed to turn on the oven. Thats further than my Dad or brother would have gotten. I sighed. It had been a couple of years, but maybe I could pretend this was summer camp and this was the same sort of homesickness I was feeling. Concentrating on the egg batter, I whisked it with some salt, pepper, and milk, feeling the beginning of an idea sprout in my brain. Hey, Polo, are there any open cans of vegetables in the fridge? He ran from the room screaming, Time me! Time me! Seven seconds later he came back

with the two large open cans, left again, and returned in eight seconds with another can. Howd I do, Addie? I just nodded at the clock and started scooping in diced tomatoes. Nice. After some broccoli, cheese, mushrooms, and cloves, I even found the lid for the skillet that Polo claimed had been M.I.A. forever so the food might stay warm without burning. It felt good to accomplish something for the first time in several days, even if it was only making eggs, and I felt revitalized enough to try something bold. Polo, where are we right now

exactly? He shrugged and started whistling some loud tune. Beats me. Ben keeps track of all of that stuff. The mention of Ben Walden unsettled me a little. I had gotten the impression he was a ringleader, and if what Yuri had said was true about throwing me overboard, then it was surely the logic of a leader that had promoted the idea. I struggled with several breaths when I remembered how cordial and polite he had been at our first meeting, but it was clear that Ben Walden would kill without reservation if the situation required it. It was frightening how completely different

two sides of the same coin could be. You guys all take jobs around here, right? I grabbed the broom and dust pan and started sweeping the floor. Polo jumped on the table and used it as a step to get to some hanging pipes. From there he started doing pull-ups. Yup. Yup. Yup. What do Charlie and Ben do? Oh! Right, Charlie works with the guys in steering. He makes maps and stuff to drive around the Coast Guard check point. Hes real good at it cause hes good at drawing. Ben does business things with the inventory, ours and other peoples. Reid is like an electrician, and

Yuri is a mechanic for stuff in the engine room. Im just a steward, but Ive got my projects in the engine room. What kind of projects, Polo? I emptied the dust pan full of dirt and tried to remain nonchalant, but the answer to this question was important and I had a feeling it had to do with the noises Id heard coming from the basement and the smells I couldnt place. He jumped from the table onto the floor and tried to skid across. Im not supposed to talk about it, but if Charlie says youre okay, then youre okay. Come on! Without any warning he grabbed me by the hand and yanked me out the doors.

The most frightening part of this was that he wasnt as cautious as Charlie. The sudden pull on my arm hurt my shoulder immensely, though he hadnt intended me harm. As we descended a staircase, painted yellow for caution, I pulled back on Polo and held onto the ramp for leverage. Polo! Hold on a second! Stop! I practically had to yell over his incessant whistling. What now? He seemed genuinely confused and even a little hurt. I almost felt bad for my harsh tone. What would happen if I was caught as a stowaway, Polo?

His foot tapped the ground impatiently. Well, unless Ben said so, the Captain would probably have you locked in the confessional until we made port. But its cool because Charlie just gave everybody a pay out to make sure that doesnt happen. I swallowed hard. There were so many questions I hardly knew where to begin. Wh-what are you talking about, Polo? I thought about the way Charlie had avoided answering my question about the consequences of being found aboard the ship, but on every other subject he had been frank and honest with me. What was so horrific about being a stowaway that he

thought he couldnt tell me about? Whats this confessional youre talking about? I tried again He smacked his hands together and laughed. Its almost the coolest thing ever! Its this old thing from a church that we use like a brig. Charlie rigged the locks real good. I shivered. Umhow about you just show me your projects, Polo? And then we were running again. Yeah! he shouted back to me. Because these are the coolest things ever! We walked into an endless area that was incredibly noisy and covered with the filth of a thousand trips. The heat was

instantly stifling and I had to remove the denim jacket to keep from suffocating. There were large electrical outlet boxes and exhaust fans fitted into the walls, but if they were for ventilation, it didnt feel like they were doing much good. Polo was pointing excitedly to some of the larger machinery, but I could barely understand him over the all of the noise. Fuel pumpboilerdieselturbine I was fascinated that the few men who were working with tools and various other things somehow refused to acknowledge my presence. It all seemed so strange. Back here! I followed Polo to the back end of the

engine room where there was a separate set of doors leading to a different room. Inside, there were large slates of fold out tables covered from end to end in what looked like the remains of a science fair. Beneath them, some large wooden crates were covered by tarps. Everything from bundles of wires to beakers, cylinders, funnels, and plastic cords were scattered all over the place. The room was exceptionally bright with fluorescent lighting in the ceiling, so I could see everything well enough. I picked up a rack of sulfuric powder and immediately recognized the smell. Next to it was a large container filled to the brim

with fertilizer. Almost everything was harmless by itself, but when combined I knew it could cause some damage. What do you do down here, Polo? He looked at me like I was a fool. I make the knockers. The knockers? His eyes rolled at me. Explosives to get into stuff. He reached for a crate under the table and pulled out a plastic capsule. It was completely plain and ordinary looking with no markings and no bigger than my fist. He shook it fiercely, making something rattle inside. Terrified of what might go off, I covered my head with my

arms and dived under the table. Polo began laughing as though he might never stop. Its not active yet! I stood up and wiped the sweat from my face. My hands were shaking, but I couldnt make them stop. Can we go back up, Polo? I think Im getting seasick. Amongst other things, I learned that the large, metal fixtures that protruded from the front of the ship were part of the cranes that were dismantled before leaving port. I understood they were important, essential. But to me they looked like obscure pieces of art, disfigured

sculptures too rusted for even the most eccentric to love. The occasional bird would land at their tops, fly away, and disappear. As I watched the clouds pass over, I kept trying to picture the most innocent uses a group of thieves could use bombs for. But my imagination betrayed me, and I continuously only came up with images I had seen from the news and action movies, seeing in my head only suffering and physical pain. The sun felt good on my arms and I willed myself to soak up as much of it as possible. There wasnt anyone around, and with my head inflated with this new

knowledge, I had every intention of going back down to Charlies cabin and only emerging if it was absolutely necessary. It had become clear that exploring the ship would only cause me grief and future headaches that I could easily avoid by just staying where Charlie instructed. I felt myself smile at the thought of him and examined the denim of his jacket with my fingertip. If I was even remotely normal, I would have been frowning instead. But I couldnt, and something growing inside wouldnt let me. And just like that, I heard his voice on the wind. It was soft at first, but then the low

echoes of his baritone floated back to me once more, this time the sound was heftier, so I knew I hadnt just been hearing things. Charlie? I turned and watched him jog up the same corridor Polo and I had just come from. Charlie looked frayed as he rushed to get to the deck, his eyes eagerly searching for something he couldnt see. He ruffled a hand through his hair and swore, kicked a lifeboat, and placed his hands on his knees for leverage. All the while I watched him from behind a large pillar on the side of themain part of the ship? I told myself I would truly have to learn some terminology before I left.

He walked toward the edge of the deck and took hold of the rail. I had to carefully scoot around to the other side of the pillar to prevent him from seeing me. And while I very much wanted to see him up close, it was more fun to see him this way, and without question more interesting. He was like some rare and wonderful creature, and I was privileged to have the opportunity to observe him. Staring at the sea, he closed his eyes and mumbled something under his breath, though what it was I never knew. He was wearing the same fuel-stained jeans from the day before but had on a fresh navy blue t-shirt with a cut that showed not only

the lean muscles in his arms, but also the serpent tattooed on his neck. For a moment I stared at it and it almost seemed to stare back at me. I made myself wave the notion awayeverything about Charlie had a life of its own. He took out a cigarette from his pocket and put it to his mouth but then stopped to reconsider. He looked at it for a minute, frowned, and threw it into the sea. I bit my lip to keep from smiling and thought that I might jump out and try to sneak up on him. Suddenly, however, he became possessed with the frenzy of a madman as he began hitting the railing with a pounding fist. Simultaneously, he

kicked the side panels, and a growl emitted from the depths of his chest, though these were difficult to hear through the slur of profanities that erupted from his mouth. Finally he let loose a scream into the ocean. I was unable to stand it any longer. Seeing him so unmistakably miserable brought tears to my eyes and I knew whatever was disturbing him so incessantly had to end before my heart collapsed on itself. Charlie? He stopped instantly. It was actually so abrupt that I thought he might have hurt

himself. He remained so completely motionless that it only increased my fear. I ran up behind him and placed my hand on his shoulder. Are you okay? When he turned to me his face was red and his eyes bugging. He looked me up and down. He seemed confused, almost disorientated; it did nothing to alleviate my worry. Addie. His mouth moved to say something else, but the words didnt come. I smiled, although it was more from nerves than anything else. Thats my name, dont wear it out?

His expression became detached with a thin outline of anger he was trying very hard to suppress. What happened to you? I tried to decipher his frenzy, but nothing came to me. I knew I needed to tread around any potential answer carefully. If I said the wrong thing, would he have another tantrum? Would he hurt someone, or himself? I, umwent for some air and ran into Polo. I helped him in the galley and he gave me a tour of the engine room. He looked back to the sea, his jaw stiffened. I told you to stay in the cabin. Was this the reason he was so upset,

because I hadnt followed an instruction? I felt my own glimmer of anger rise within me. He had no right to dictate my movements even if he had saved my life. Hey! Im not your property. If I want to go out and explore, thats my prerogative. Curiosity is one of the most natural human instincts You got any idea what coulda happened out here? How a lotta the guys out here think? He shouted it more at the ocean than me, but it scared me enough that I kept my mouth shut. Once more I could hear his accent coming through revealing he was genuinely upset. It seemed like such a silly thing to get so

worked up over. But I understood he was worried, anxious that something bad might happen to me. I moved from where I was so that I could stand beside him. I could see clearly enough that his knuckles were white from clenching the railing. Feeling courageous, I slowly ventured my hand on top of his. Using every caution imaginable in case he had a fit, or perhaps worse, in case he didnt want me to touch him, I was very careful not to touch any other part. I felt his grip on the railing relax almost instantly when my fingers slid over his. The fire-hot feel of his skin made my pulse increase and made me dizzy.

After awhile, our forearms met as well, moving just enough so that they might be touching, too. I felt the anxiety in me go slack and a new sort of calm take over my body. Maybe he was activating some kind of pressure pointbut even I knew I was stretching for explanations on that one. Other things were getting through the filter now, and I liked the way it made me feel. Did anybody bother you? he asked eventually I considered the question carefully before answering. Polos whistling got to me after awhile. At last he smiled. That aint what I

meant. I know, I confessed. No, no one bothered me. It was like I was invisible. He nodded, pleased with my response. The remainder of his tension evaporated into a sigh. Polo said you umpaid off some people to leave me alone? He wasnt supposed to do that. He shook his head. I gnawed my lip. I wasnt sure if I should be grateful or appalled. So its true? Charlie stared out into the nothing of the ocean, but I knew the answer. I tried to laugh. And here I thought I

was blending in so well. He looked back at me and grinned until my heart flipped. Not with those legs. I pulled my hand away and tried to seem indifferent, but Im still certain he saw my blush. Mistaking my awkwardness for displeasure, I could feel him tense up beside me. I looked back and saw him shuffling his feet again. He had taken a step away from me and was now staring with a certain intensity at his boots. I hesitated to touch him again lest it cause him further distress, but the urge for this simple affection and the feel of his

skin unhinged me. I leaned my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes. Instantly his body became rigid, though I could feel his neck craning down to look on me. I felt like a foola complete imbecile. I should have just been grateful I was alive. Bothering him with my petty attempts might only irritate him further. But just as the thought came through, he began tousling my hair. To my complete amazement he even leaned forward and buried his face in the remains of my ponytail, slowly removing the hairtie and letting loose my hair. I curled my toes and inhaled deeply as I reminded myself of my name, street address, place

of birth He took the tie and placed it around my wrist for safekeeping. I thought he would have surely felt the pulse there, threatening to explode at any second. What was scary wasnt the physical reaction of my rapidly inflating and deflating lungs, the heartbeat in my ears, or even the pleasant dizziness that his closeness gave me. It was the awareness that at this very moment I would have done anything for this manignored all logic and common sense, and moral decency if he had asked me to. I wasnt aware people were capable of feeling that way. Its going to be okay, you know. I

dont know who I said that for. He sighed into my hair. I felt him smile there. Thats real easy for somebody like you to say. I only pulled away enough so that he could see my face. I didnt quite know what he meant by that, but I had a general idea and I didnt like it. No, it isnt. His confusion was transparent through his furrowed brow. I may not understand the stress of the criminal life or anything, but I worry about my brother every day, and I know what its like to watch someone you love get eaten away by disease. I

I sighed and leaned back into his shoulder. I hadnt meant to preach. Just because life sucks sometimes doesnt mean you have to be so angry all the time. Life isnt easy for anyone, Charlie. You just have to look at things logically, thats all. Stay sensible. He was eager to redeem himself. If I was mad, and I aint saying I was, then maybe I couldnt help it. At least youre admitting it, kind of, anyway. I laughed. I pulled away and looked into his eyes. The shirt he wore brought out the blue. Why are you so mad, Charlie Hays?

He hesitated. Sometimes my head gets all mixed up. I start thinkin bout old stuff, jail, and the bad things Ive done. He sighed again and I felt his breath on my neck. I shivered against him. He reached for a cigarette; this time he smoked it without any delay. I let the wind blow my hair wherever it wanted to. I was busy trying to contemplate what Charlie had just told me. Knowing that he had a reliable conscience was reassuring, but it disturbed me that he was so clearly agitated by his past. I wouldnt have wished that for him, not for anything in the world. At the same time, it also made him seem more human, more mortal, to have a

past. While it may have been selfish, I wanted to know everything about him, every detail that had led him to kidnap me. There was no more caution left as I reached up and traced the outline of the serpent on his neck. I didnt see earlier how the black outline of the body blended so well with the dark green, or how the eyes were shaped like diamonds and a faded sort of red. He shivered visibly when I pulled my hand away. I saw his breathing increase and the muscles on his neck flex, but he didnt look at me, not just then, anyway. He smiled weakly instead. Yeah, its a kinda job killer. He used his free hand to rub his neck right

over the spot where the serpent lay. I suspected something was bothering him again. He seemed self-conscience all of the sudden, wanting to hide away. I pulled his hand away and laughed. Well, if its any consolation, I like it. He looked down at our hands and smiled. How long have you had that? A few years. Did you get it when you were in prison? I could tell my question took him off guard. Maybe he had forgotten what I already knew about him and our earlier conversations. Or maybe that was just a

part of the past he wanted to forgetmy constant reminding becoming an annoyance for him. I decided I wouldnt ask him about prison anymore, because while I had every confidence he wouldnt harm me, I still didnt want to risk him losing his temper again and hurt himself or someone else. While we hadnt known each other long, I could see that it was one of the main sources of his suffering. You gotta be a different person in therelookin different helps. Not having much to contribute to the conversation, I tried to make it less uncomfortable with humor. Hasnt anyone ever told you that appearances

arent everything? He looked at me but didnt smile. Yeah, he said. Youre right. Sometimes you gotta act different, too. For the rest of my life Ill always remember what happened next. Without the slightest hesitation, he turned over his arm and put out the remaining end of the cigarette directly on his inner arm. I screamed but covered my mouth when I heard the echo of it on the sea. He remained completely calm and unflinching as he damaged himself, really more like some kind of a robot than a man. It was only when he heard me shout that he pulled it away.

Stop that! I hit his arm as hard as I could until I was sure the offending weapon was away. Once that was done, I took his arm to inspect the damage. He gave it to me willingly, seemingly unaffected by the burn he had just given himself. I could see the seared flesh in a perfect little circle where he had branded himself. The damage was already done, the blistering edge of healthy skin sheltering an angry red center. My lower lip began to tremble as I looked closer at the burn and all the rest that surrounded it. Placid white scars ran up and down his arm as evidence of his self-abuse. I could

only guess how old some were. What was upsetting was how easily I could imagine him doing that to himself in an attempt to act like a lunatic. I placed my thumb over some of the faintest and smeared my tears that had fallen there. He lifted my chin very slightly with the same delicacy one might treat a porcelain doll. But seeing the unrelenting tenderness he showed me side by side with his clear lack of self-regard just made me cry harder. The crazier you act, the easier it is to get by in there. Thats all, he tried to reassure me with a smile, but I wasnt having it.

No! My voice was so firm it extinguished the smile from his face. I dont care what the social etiquette is amongst criminals! I dont want you to hurt yourself anymore, okay? I was practically yelling, but it didnt matter as long as I got my point across. Promise me, okay? I know you dont owe me anything, but I want you to promise me, Charlie, okay? Even if its a lie, promise you wont do that ever again, or anything else like that! He silenced me by pulling me into his arms and letting me collapse there. Feeling my head against his chest and hearing his heart beating as fast as it was

could have been enough to stop my tears, but his arms belted me in and offered a safety I had never experienced. It made me never want to leave. And honestly, if he offered me a lifetime pass to stay there I would have happily accepted right then and there. I promise, okay? His voice cracked. Maybe he thought I was hysterical. I promise. I promise. I promise. I promise He kept whispering the words in my ear until I settled down. If it makes you happy, Ill promise, okay? He sounded completely desperate but managed to laugh a little of his Charlie laugh for me.

I breathed in the scent of him, feeling all at once ridiculous and relieved. He probably thought I was a nutcase who needed constant supervision or I might run wild on the ship. As long as I didnt have to see him hurt himself intentionally ever again, that would have been fine with me. Did you know that almost all colors have some red, blue, and yellow in em? His voice was cracking so I just let him talk onthe sound of him was all that mattered in that moment. Midnight green doesnt have any red. And the green and blue are as close as bout two colors can be while still being separatethats what this color is, he

indicated to the serpent, or was supposed to be. I could feel myself smiling. You drew it yourself, didnt you? Of course. I pulled away and basked in his grin.

Chapter 9

E ven before the door was closed, Charlie was hard at work in his sketchbook, feverishly laboring at something he bluntly refused to let me see. Dont you haveI dont know,

sailor stuff to do? I pulled out the laptop and began playing solitaire. While it wasnt exciting, my artist skills hadnt magically revealed themselves and I wasnt going to get my hopes up about it. He laughed and took out the switchblade. Seeing it reminded me hed also put the Wi-Fi card in one of those pockets as well. While I doubted I could get an Internet connection this far out at sea, it made a sickness rise inside to think of home and all that Id left behind. Seeing me blanch, he asked, You all right? Yeah, I lied. Just tired, I guess. Anyway, I hoped he wouldnt see how

pathetically I tried to change the subject, you didnt answer my question. What, the sailor stuff? Yes, I imagine theres plenty of that to do around here. He ran his fingers through his hair to move it from his vision. Loose strands would float in front of his eye every so often and he would brush them away without thinking about it. But he never took his eyes from the paper. Yeah, theres a lot to do. But since youve made it real clear you aint gonna be still for real long and cause all kind of mischief, I figure I should just keep an eye on you.

I rolled my eyes. Excuse me, but Ive been very well-behaved. You werent supposed to, but you managed to make your way down to the engine room. I almost fell off the bed. Though it made me nervous to mention it, I knew I couldnt leave without knowing the answer. Hey, Charlie, what does Polo make down there, anyway? Charlie smiled down at his paper. Nothin but trouble, he mumbled. He looked up at me again for a moment. I think maybe he was deciding something. I could only hope it was a decision in my favor. He makes all the explosives we

use to bust into latched storage spaces, trucks, whatever. Most of the time we only gotta put one knocker on the main door. I interrupted. Right. Thats why the knock, knock? He smiled. Funnythat guy can barely read, but he makes those things go boom without any smoke or noise. You mean the bombs. He stopped stretching and his smile disappeared completely. They aint bombs. You use them for blowing things up. Nah, not really. Polo said I clicked to start a new game.

You really gonna go listenin to Polo? He sighed. I saw him gnash his teeth, but I didnt say anything else. Instead of continuing the sketch, he twirled the pencil in his fingers. Well, what are they for, then? It came out all slurred and I wasnt sure if he heard me. What? You heard me. I figured he probably hadnt, but I wanted to sound aggressive. There could be no compromising stand concerning the lives of others. What are they for? Now that he understood, he smiled and casually began sketching again.

Distractin people sometimes, playing pranks Do you No. His voice was stern, giving me a warning I knew not to cross. I would if it came down to it, but none of us aint done nothing like that yet. Polo basically makes smoke bombs down there. Its real good if we cant break into a truck or a warehouse and we need to buy some time. Other kinds we set off in the storage houses after were done with em, burns away evidence we were there. I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadnt realized I had been holding my breath the entire time. While Charlie and the guys

had great potential to hurt others, their ability to do so was within their realm of necessity. And for some reason that brought me little comfort. What if the others had agreed with Wallace about the need to hurt me? Would I have been mere ash in that house? Were just thieves, Addie. He looked up at me then ,and although the corner of his lips turned up, I could sense a lie there. I could see something that wasnt right. Nobody hurts nobody unless we gotta. And yet youve killed people before? I sensed he was getting annoyed.

Maybe I was treading on territory he didnt want to talk about. I needed to be very clear, though. If I was going to know as much about him as I wanted to, then I was going to have to be. I told you I wasnt a nice guy. I meant that, Addie. I killed people before that I didnt have to. We both let that sink in. As horrifying as it was, I didnt have any difficulty believing him. I could see in my minds eye the rage of a moment taking him over and snuffing out a life before the sensibility of the situation allowed him to do anything rational.. In other scenarios, I could justify self-defense and I could tell

myself that taking life during times of war was also permissiblebut what Charlie and the others did was hardly a matter of survival. For them it was about profit, about how much money they could make while still avoiding punishment from the law. And yet, how could I be allowed to judge? Charlie did have a point. My family was fortunate enough to not have to worry too much about financial matters. We lived in a good community, we were happy, and right up until Mom became sick, our biggest problem was running out of space on the bookshelf. I had switched out the last two summers of summer camp

for waitressing at my Dads golf course but it was the sort of employment that was designed to build character. I had always been provided for and never wanted for anything. With a different sort of life, whos to say that I wouldnt have been capable of far worse than anyone else? I closed the laptop and picked up one of his sketchbooks. I began flipping through it page by page, taking my time with some of the drawings I found particularly beautiful. Toward the middle of the book was an incredible grandfather clock, sketched in afternoon light over an intricate Persian rug.

Do you hate me now? His tone was soft, on the verge of being broken. I flipped the book closed and sat on the floor beside him. It marveled me how dangerous he could be one minute and how very much like a child the next. How could I hate you? I rested my head against him This has been, and statistically speaking, probably will be, the greatest adventure of my life. The moment I said it, I realized it was true. It wasnt just something I was saying to bring him comfort, something to make someone else feel better. For once, I was having an experience of my own, and while it had been terrifying at first, it had

also been a wonderful thrill. Charlie tensed against me. I was afraid Id said something wrong, but I cut him off before he could ponder it further. Remind me to thank whichever one of the guys it was who wanted coffee. He chuckled warmly. Youre supposed to be seventeen, right? I laughed. Yes, why? Ya dont seem like it. He smiled. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? He paused; his smile lapsed into a frown. Addie, youre just a kid. I might be young, but at least I can control my temper. You should be old enough to know better.

How old do you think I am? I looked up at him and pretended to examine his face. Truthfully, I had already spent numerous moments considering this question. Im not sure. Enlighten me. It was obvious he was indecisive about whether or not he wanted to answer. I was about to remind him that when I got home I had every intention of doing the most extensive research on him available. Twenty-nine, he said finally. Hmm. It was good to know that I hadnt been too far off. He laughed a little, although it sounded a little uncertain. You probably

gotta set an age maximum for your beaus. I bet you start turning them away around twenty-five just to narrow em down. I hit him on the arm, although it wasnt with much effort. Not that its any of your business, but Im not the sort of girl that has guys. I felt the blush creeping up in my cheeks and cursed myself. Ive never had any guys. That I aint believing. Vigorously, he worked to shade in something on the sketch. Not possible His pressure on the paper became intense enough to break the point. Your old man and brother probably killed more men than me tryin to keep em away.

I pretended to look at something on the wall, but really I was concentrating on getting my blush under control. From the corner of my eye I could see him smiling, which was doing nothing to help my cause, and that only gave me more difficulty concentrating. It was something of an oddity to think that Charlie found me attractive. I considered that maybe he was putting me on, but I had caught the way he looked at me and didnt think he could fake a reaction like that. While I was nothing much to look at, Robbies friends had shown some interest in me over the years, much to Dads distress. But unlike girls

my own age, I hadnt had much interest in socializing with people. The only solace I had ever really known I got from books and studying. Not knowing how I felt about something was like being in a foreign countryexciting and scary at the same time. All at once the sound of the pencil snapping interrupted my thoughts and brought me back to Charlie. He threw them across the room. In one straight motion they hit the wall. Im not, I He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. It was like watching a man drown. I reached my hand out and tried to touch his forearm, but he flinched

away. I was beyond hurt. Im a bad person, Addie. You shouldnt be so good to me. I felt my heart stiffen. To some extent he was right and I knew that. I did know that, right? Well, I dont care, Im going. No, youre not. Bye. It was hard to keep serious through my laughter. Get. Back. Here. The words were almost grit through his clenched teeth. I just laughed and ducked under his arms, which were blocking the door. I think we were both shocked I managed to

evade his grasp, but he was behind me, quickly trailing me with long strides. I began a full on jog ahead of him and he chased after me willingly. It wasnt unlike two days ago, only this time I was endeavoring to let him catch me. This aint a good idea! He was only a few steps behind and I anticipated the moment he would reach out for me. That realization within itself gave me a sense of glee, and I wanted the seconds to close in already so he would just take me in his arms. The anticipation of feeling his skin on mine again made my stomach flop after its standard flip. Lighten up, Charlie, youll live

longer! We had been arguing for a solid hour about whether or not it would be wise to go to the recreational room for the crews card game. Charlie had instantaneously decided it wasnt, while I had decided the opposite. He also decided he hated himself for accidently mentioning it at all. I wont even bother you guys. Ill be a silent cheerleader, I swear. He sighed. It aint you Im worried about. I tugged on the sleeve of his shirt and jumped up and down. It will be fun. Come on!

He grinned down at me and shook his head. No more spending time with Polo. He tangled his arms around my waist and lifted me into the air as though I were no more than a paper sack. I was glad the melancholy that had gotten hold of him earlier had only been temporary. He now seemed restored. Gotcha. His voice was hoarse in my ear. You can run all you want. He laughed. I like chasing ya. I laughed and protested but still let him carry me all the way to a smaller set of doors labeled Rec Room. From underneath the sliding doors, smoke billowed in small tufts. It almost sent me

panicking until I recognized the smell the roasting tobacco generated. The door to the Rec Room stuck so badly that even Charlie had trouble opening it, but it effectively blocked the noise of poorly selected rock music blaring from a radio and the voices of excited men blathering about the days events. When I walked in, I was hardly stunned to see the dirty look Reid gave Charlie and me, but I was in such a good mood I let it roll off my back. What did surprise me slightly was seeing Ben Walden there at the folding table with the rest of the guys. Seeing him there so ordinary, the head of a mild criminal

enterprise, with a cigar in his mouth and playing cards in his hand, was quite comical. He was entirely out of place wearing a crisp button down and what looked like a very expensive watch. Meanwhile, the guys were still wearing their soiled work clothes and were mostly dirty and unshaven. We were beginning to wonder when you kids would show up, Ben said. His gaze lingered on me, though for a moment I saw his eyes dart at Charlie questioningly. Reid mumbled something to Yuri that I couldnt hear, but I was almost certain it was inappropriate. I tried to pretend I

didnt feel extremely awkward by staring at my feet. At this point, my shoes were graying from the dirt and beginning to fray at the ends. Hey, hey, hey! You guys are just in time, we were about to start a new game! Polo slapped the table, causing Reid and Yuri to groan simultaneously. Knock that crap off, Polo! Yuri smacked him upside the head and picked up his fallen plastic chips from the floor. I noticed Polo had the least amount of chips and hoped they werent taking advantage of him too badly. Charlie shook his head and grabbed two folding chairs from the side. From

what I could see, the recreational room wasnt much more than some tables and chairs with an old television and DVD/VHS player hooked up in the corner. Both were dusty and looked unused. On the wall there was a relatively new dartboard and a decent stereo system, blaring music. I sat in the seat Charlie offered, and the men continued their conversation as though I wasnt even there. I was immensely grateful for this exclusion, because if they could speak freely around me then maybe it would help me feel less awkward. After a moment I realized this was an unrealistic expectation and

concentrated on avoiding Reids glare while trying not to spend too much time staring at Charlie. Yuri took the card deck and split it into two halves, shuffling it expertly. I tried not to look impressed, but when the most extensive card playing experience you have involves War and Go Fish, its easy to be impressed. I watched with quiet fascination as he threw the cards out like so many small Frisbees. My only protest came when I realized that for each rotation of the circle he had included a place for me. Oh, um, I cantIm not playing. I instantly hated the way I sounded so small and finite. I

wanted to take the words away and make them sound like they belonged to someone who was older and more sophisticated. But whoever gets what they really want? Why not, Addie? Polos concern was so over ambitious that it would have been comical if it hadnt been so sweet. You would have thought Id just told him I was dying. I was embarrassed to admit I didnt even know the basics. I just, uhI dont know how. Reid looked like he had fallen just out of the scope of irritation while Polos face suggested the notion was impossible. I could feel the light-heartedness of my

good mood starting to slip away just a notch. I shrugged and looked for a way out. Thats fine. Ben looked at Charlie with a bemused expression. Its even better, actually. Usually everyone comes in with their own falsified rules and regulations, now youll learn how to play properly. He nodded to Yuri, who continued dealing to include me. First things first, Charlie whispered in my ear. You gotta know the hands. A flush beats a straight every time. A royal flush is a straight flush with an ace as the highest of the five cards, like To show me an example he stole up the remaining

cards and laid out an ace of spades, a king, a queen, jack, and a ten. Reid swore, but Ben just gave him a warning glare and Yuri reshuffled the deck. Charlie continued, A straight flush is all the same numbers in the same suit. If two happen in the same hand, the highest card wins it. Four of a kind is the third best hand, which is just the same number from every suit. The highest four is four aces, then four kings right on down to four twos. A full-house is three of a kind and two of a kind! said Polo, eager to get his end in. If theres two during a game, then the biggest of the three wins it!

Now it was Bens turn to break in. A flush is just five cards of the same suit. In the event that two flushes occur during one hand, the highest card wins. What if those cards are the same? He smiled. It keeps going right on down to the very last card. If both hands are the very same, they split the pot. With a straight, you only have five cards of any suit in order. Ben continued Similar with other hands, when there are two straights, the highest card wins. Aces can be used as a high card above a king or a low card below a two to make a straight. Three of a kind is three of the same,

said Charlie. Reid slammed a pack of cigarettes on the table. Theyre called sets! No, theyre not. Just call them three of a kind like everybody else, Yuri retorted. Charlie smiled at me. Two pairs is four cards of two ranks like two jacks, one spade and diamond, with two sixes, one heart one spade. One pair is the same thing. And the highest pair wins? Ben pointed his cigar at me. Precisely. I picked up my hand and kept my cards close. What happens if no one even

has a pair? Thats called high card! Then the hand with the highest card is the winner! Okay, thanks, Polo. I stifled back my laughter as best as I could but found it difficult. From the corner of my eye I could see Charlie was making no effort to keep his eyes from me. I was told it was a friendly game, although I got the sense that things could get competitive, particularly when Reid and Charlie started fighting over the odd number of green chips. The ante up was the easiest part. Charlie took one of the white chips from my pile and tossed it in the center. I

smiled gratefully. Then, since Reid was at Yuris left, he went first, putting a red chip in the center of the table. I endeavored to read his expression but saw little there beyond his own impatience. Polo threw in one red chip of his own. I call! I feel like my luck is turning around now, you guys! Shes lucky. Under the table, Charlies foot kicked mine. Reid scoffed, Bad luck, maybe. I ignored him and threw in one black chip. I raise. Ben smiled and Charlie tried to peek at my cards, but I held them close. Are you sure you wanna to do that?

he asked. Probably not, I whispered back. He shrugged. Okay. He threw in one black chip. Ben became quiet, contemplative. You all have so much to learn. He tossed in one black chip and two green chips. Switch out, anyone? Yuri asked. Charlie leaned into me and I felt a shiver come on. After the first bet, everybody takes a draw. You can switch out two cards or keep em. But dont let nobody see. I nodded and slid a single card across the table, trying to look like a

professional. I imagine it was a fairly pathetic attempt. Reid drew his cards and so did Charlie and Ben. The plastic chips started piling up on the table like colorful little centerpieces. Polo began pounding his feet against the steel legs of the table. Hey! Hey! Hey! Now its getting interesting! Damn, Yuri said. I fold. Whoo! Ben put out the remainder of his cigar. Take it easy, Polo. I was having a very hard time not giggling. The uneasiness I felt was fleeting as I watched them come to life. Ben, Polo,

Yuri, Reid, and Charlie were full-grown children. I thoughtfully put my chips in the pot and kept my face blank. I looked back at my cards and re-questioned my strategy. I hoped being an amateur would excuse how badly I was about to embarrass myself. After a moment of studying his own cards, Charlie considered his options. I fold. Ben straightened in his chair and looked back and forth from the plastic chips to his hand. I tried to decide if that meant anything similar to how Reid started using two hands to hold his cards and put his elbows on the table. It was

difficult to multitask here and not be distracted by the smug way Charlie leaned back in his seat and rested his hands on his abdomen. The way he watched me was aggressive now, and although I couldnt say I didnt like it, I couldnt help but wonder what it meant. Ben offered the same amount into the tables center. He wouldnt take his eyes off Reids cardshis only real perceived threat. The two locked eyes and sent some silent warning we could all sense. Ah geez! I guess I fold! Polo whined and threw his cards down. Charlie laughed and leaned against me. What are you gonna do?

I raised my eyebrow and shielded my cards. Raise. I threw in an additional red chip. Well, goddamn. What do you know? Yuri and Polo started cackling simultaneously and Ben put in his bet. After a slur of profanities and throwing his cards across the table, Reid decided to fold. I hate you bastards. He then took out his anger by kicking Polos chair and shoving him to the ground. Charlie tossed him the pack of cigarettes from his back pocket then bent to help Polo up. Thats the sportsmanship we all know and appreciate! I wanted to laugh and join in, but Ben

was staring me down. Strangely, it was like he was trying to read my thoughts, boring a hole directly into my head. I once again got the feeling this game wasnt very friendlyit was downright intimidating to the point where the room literally started closing in. Counting down from ten wasnt helping. Reciting lines from sonnets wasnt helping. I thought maybe it was just how guys behaved when in groups, but then again, maybe it was an indication of something more hostile, something more dangerous. Whatever it was continued to loom over me as Ben stared me down warning me. I clutched my cards, telling myself

mentally over and over not to bite my lip, play with my hair, or do anything else that might reveal me as the inexperienced child I was. I knew I had an extremely weak hand, but from what I already knew about poker, bluffing was a major part of the entire game. I realized I would lose this hand and many, many more after this, but I figured I would learn from my mistakesa trial and error kind of thing. Besides, it was fun in a suspenseful sort of way, almost like living out an action scene from a movie. Everything went very quiet when Ben threw in another black chip. I saw Charlie tense, Reid smiled, and then nudged Yuri

in the arm. Ben and I were deadlocked with our eyes on one another. I call. The smile that widened Bens face could have started a riot. No one looked surprised when he threw down a very handsome straight. I put my cards down one by one. I was amazed my hands were steady enough to keep the cards from bending at the corners. I might have even seemed confident. I did my best to commit the different hand values to memory but was only somewhat sure I did it correctly. For all I really knew, I was completely off and truly making a fool out of myself. Luckily, I somehow managed to put

down five heartsa full flush. I understood instantly that I had won by Polos seal clap and the way Charlie pushed out his chair with his fist out shouting, Yah! Yuri gave Ben a slap on the back. I cant believe she beat you, boss. Ben looked skeptical. Are you quite positive youve never played before? I smiled through my blush. Yep. Reid reached across to gather up the cards. Charlie Boy just knows how to pick em. I quickly lost track of how many games were played, the number of plastic

chips I lost, and how many times someone or other would get frustrated and knock over poor Polo. But as the night wore on, the amount of fun I had steadily grew, and before I realized it, I was laughing with ease and even joining in on the conversation. You really think that The Stranger was Welles best movie? I feigned offense. Excuse me, I could hear my voice raising a few notes but the laughter revealed me, but that is exactly what Im saying! You really dont think Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, do you? Let alone his best work?

Charlie took me by the shoulders and pulled me towards him playfully. Careful, Yuri, I cant hold her back much longer.

Chapter 10

I t was after midnight when we all scattered off to our separate dwellings. Ben shouted down to us from a loading covered in cables and hanging wires, Dont you kids get lost now.

Charlie shook his head, completely exasperated. From down the hall I heard Reid laughing. Its too nice to be inside, too early, I declared. I was so excited I could feel the rush of the night cooling in my bloodstream. Lets go do something, I teased Charlie as he walked me back, threading his arm with mine and pulling on his elbow. He already had a cigarette in his mouth and was reaching for a lighter, patting his pockets. Every few seconds I would try to bat the cigarette from his mouth, but he clenched it with his teeth and swiped at me.

He mumbled through the stick, Like what? There aint exactly a drive-in round here. I took him by the elbow and dragged him up a stairwell I recognized led to Deck B. Ha, ha, very funny. Come on! He feigned annoyance but was all smiles as I tugged him along. Youre outta control. I stopped momentarily and smiled back at himI could barely see through the shroud that was my hair. I know. Isnt it fantastic? Other than bright flood lights at the ends of each deck station, there was very little light on the deck itself. And for those

first few seconds until my eyes adjusted, I could barely see my own shadow. Charlie hadnt been lying about it being one of the busier times of the daythere were more people in their life vests and safety helmets wandering about than I had seen so far. Several individuals were working with large wrenches on a piece of machinery that I couldnt have named if my life depended on it; others were loading barrels into a crate, while some were stringing cable. It was really quite eerie the way they had that ability to ignore me. Reading me, Charlie said, Its a good thing, trust me.

I do. My eyes searched his, but I saw some sadness there I didnt care for. It made my own heart twinge with hurt to think of him in pain, so I smiled and tried to change the subject. What is this called? I gestured to the back of the ship. Without the Internet or a library, I was going to have to do research the old-fashioned way. Charlie smiled and smacked himself in the head. You aint never been boating, have you? Only in books. His smile grew wider and he turned me around, wrapping his arms around my torso and resting his chin on top of my

head. From an alternative perspective I thought we must have looked like a totem pole. He reached his hand out and touched the side of the ships back. This is the keel. The I reached out and ran my fingertips over his, making him stumble incoherently. So it would seem that he was allowed to touch me but I wasnt allowed to touch him? I would have to test this hypothesis further. After a brief interval he cleared his throat. The body of the ship is the hull. The keel is designed round it. I leaned back and rested the weight of

my head against him. I felt him swallow and his heartbeat increased. His breathing became shallow. What about the port and bow and all of that good stuff? I was testing the limits, putting his temperament and my good sense at risk. What if he didnt want to take that chance with me? What if he didnt want me? Ah, um, port is facin forward centerline; anything to your left is port. And then bow is just the ahfront of the ship. He closed his eyes and sighed so deeply I felt his stomach clench against me. As he exhaled I could smell the clove and musk of him. I suspected it might set

me off, cause me to do something stupid. I buried my face in the soft stubble of his neck, nuzzling the warmth and solace there. Addie? His fingers danced on mine, in my hair, the edge of my face. Yes? W-would you be real mad at me if I tried to kiss you right now? I smiled and looked up at him, every one of my senses buzzing. I would be madder if you didnt. He wrapped one hand in my hair and the other around my hip to pull me close. And in one of those instances that last eternities and only immortals are aware

of, our lips anchored on the shores of each other. We separated only when the need for air became unbearable. Even then, I clutched onto him as though he were the center of the universe and rested my forehead against his for leveragemy entire world was spinning. He sighed in my ear. Oh, what ave you done to me? For the first time in my life I didnt have the proper answer. This wasnt something I could study for, a formula I could memorize, or a textbook I could refer to. Instead, all of my reason and facts were failing me, and the blossom of an

emotional experience was taking hold. I laughed to myself, maybe I was in more trouble now than ever. Charlie smiled against me. Whats so funny? I pulled away, despite everything my body was telling me. It was good to know there was still a little self-control remaining after all. Here I was only coming out here hoping to see some constellations. I heard Charlie snicker. I aint seen nothin but stars since you got here. My neck craned upwards at the glimmering specks of fire in the sky. I imagined that was how the tiniest pearls at

the bottom of the sea would sparkle. Individually, each was only a singular star that glossed over the night skybut when looked at together, they reminded us of how insignificant and small our planet really was. I tried to trace the outline of a familiar shape with my finger and recognize an image there, but Charlie was trailing his hand up and down my forearm, making it extremely difficult to concentrate. Is that one somethin? he asked without looking up. I laughed a little and pushed his arm away. Its hard to tell. We dont exactly have stars like this in New Jersey.

He pulled me back instantly; I knew I wouldnt have the strength to resist again. Tell me bout it. I hardly saw nothing like this before I came out here, either. His comment had me thinking again and before I had the sense to stop myself, I starting blurting out questions. Hey, Charlie? He had buried himself in the crook of my neck and seemed content to stay there. Hmm? How did you get here? How did you end up becoming a thief? I could tell it was the wrong thing to ask. He released me and his arms moved as far away as they could get while I still

tried to cling to them. Im sorry if That was a long while go. It dont matter now. The gruffness in his tone scared me. Not because it was violent, but because it sounded as though he was turning away from me. Desperate and in a gesture of good will, I ran my fingers through his hair and messed it about his face. Doesnt a girl have the right to ask a question every now and then? Maybe Ill be a journalist when I grow up. He leaned into me and smiled. You are a serious pain, Addie Battes. I leaned forward just enough so that

my lips touched his ear. I felt him quiver at the slow, deliberate movement, and it felt like his chest tightened. Just when the action became too much for us both, I shouted into his ear. Takes one to know one! I snorted with laughter at his reaction. He began ringing out his ear with one of his fingers like he had just been swimming and tilted his head like a dog after a fireworks show. Im real glad you think that was funny. He feigned annoyance, but I could hear the smile in his voice, and after a second he pulled me back to him. We were two clumsy dancers, stumbling over

each other and our laughter. What I think is funny is how I smell like something out of a cigar club. I feel like Im in desperate need of a shower. He paused. You aint going alone. I can handle myself. Charlie gave me a Charlie smile and sighed. While I bought some safety, I bout trust a sailor on this ship as much as I trust myself. I consider that an endorsement, Charlie Hays. I dont. He frowned. I laughed nervously and hoped he wouldnt catch on to how embarrassed I was. Well, youre not coming in there

with me. Correcting his posture, he stood straight and tall then held out his hand as if taking an oath. Ill be my usual gentlemanly self. I swear. I put my weight against my hip and considered his proposition. Of course, I still trusted him to be watchful and respectful at the same time, but could I trust myself? I was no longer taking the time to consider whether or not I was attracted to Charlie. The pull I felt toward him was an overwhelming urge that coursed throughout my whole being. And I was now afraid of what being alone with him might mean in terms of my ability to

control myself. I had never been physically tempted before and I found it downright frightening. But Charlie was looking out for me he had since the moment wed met, and I would see to it I didnt do anything we would regret. I took his hand. I would expect nothing less. The silence ebbed into a steady stream of things left unsaid, things that remained to be said, and what was meant to come. After some time, he took my hand in his and curled his thumb around the index finger, pointing them out to the sea. See the foam at the end of the waves?

Feel how warm the air just got? Itll storm tomorrow for sure. Probably for days Charlie lent me a faded gray t-shirt and some blue gym shorts, which, in truth, I was just as excited about as the shower itself. And while I had to roll up the shorts at the waist a few times just to get them to stay up, they were immensely comfortable. I adored the Charlie smell they had, and spent a few minutes before getting under the water trying to commit the scent to memory. I spent a lot of time washing my hair and doing the little things like scratching the grit out from under my nails.

Showering always gave me a lengthy excuse and a private realm in which to think, and I was in desperate need of some serious meditation. I tried to picture what would happen when we got to Singapore. If the ship arrived on schedule, I would have to go to the embassy and talk to the police. But that was if Charlie kept his word this time. And as I wondered beforewhat if he didnt? What if he didnt let me go? Yet even if Charlie wanted me on some kind of regular basis, I couldnt just leave my family and disappear off the face of the earth. As much as I wanted it, the lack of responsibility in running away

with Charlie was beyond meeven if he asked. I giggled at the memory of our kiss. He had held me so zealously; it had to be more than just the physical attraction between us. The highlights of my life seemed duller to me now. I didnt care if my books were alphabetized or my grade point average was a 4.0. As I massaged the soap from my hair, I laughed as I realized how very little it all really mattered. Yes, I had been abducted, threatened, and even assaulted, but I had also fallen in love. It sounded so brutal by comparison to my feelings for Charlie, and yet if this was Stockholm Syndrome,

then I decided that everyone should have it at least once if it made them as happy as it was making me. Charlie had said repeatedly that he wasnt a good person, and it was true that I couldnt condone some of the things he had done. Still, his remorse had to count for something, right? While he could never make up for the things he had done, he couldnt fool me, either. I had seen him in those moments with his friends, his dedication to his art, and that compassion for me that led to my feelings for him. If I could understand that he was so much more than a thief, then why couldnt he?

In the cabin I pretended to be annoyed and covered my flaming cheeks with my cold, wet hair. It was a minimal but welcome relief against the heat of the blush. I crossed my legs over each other and sat down on the bed while Charlie continued to stare me down and sketch. The days activities had hit me and I was overwhelmed by my own tiredness; my body feeling the weight of it all. Charlie smiled at my yawn and sat down next to me. I should let you sleep. No! I hadnt meant to sound so desperate, but I pulled him by the arm before he had the chance to get up and

leave. I wanted to soak up every moment with him I could, integrate him into my bloodstream. There was a wave of separation anxiety dropping into me at the mere thought of him leaving. My organs felt as though they would shrivel when it happened; I would simply die. Will you stay? I pleaded. His eyebrows nearly hit the ceiling and a grin spread across his face at the suggestion. Just until I fall asleep? He nodded and kicked off his boots, taking his time to lie out on the bed with his back against the wall. Here you go gettin a guys hopes up

I hit him lightly in the chest and lay out next to him. Since the bed was only a twin, we were basically on top of each other, on our sides so we could face one another. We shared the only pillow, but neither of us complained. I reached out and played my fingers over the serpent on his neck as though it were a keyboardit was becoming increasing difficult not to imagine playing other parts of his body. Charlie must have felt it too because he clasped my hand in his to prevent it from going any further. Th-that probably aint such a good idea. I was hurt by the instant rejection. The

horrible idea came to my mind that maybe I had been completely wrong about his reaction toward me. Maybe he had only been showing me kindness out of the goodness of his heart, a way of keeping things civil between us. And could our kiss have been a moment of pity? Im sorry if Im being a nuisance. He scoffed, propped himself up on his elbow, and looked me over. Can I tell you something? I was almost afraid to hear the answer. I guess. That blush of yours is bout the most beautiful thing Ive ever seen. I groaned into the pillow while he

laughed. No! Come on, I was covering it so well! He gushed with laughter. If you say so. We laughed together until he pulled me forward by the chin, our faces only inches apart. You gotta be the greatest thing I ever stole. Once more our lips collided and sent me gliding across the surf. It started out simple and tender, but the current took us both within a matter of seconds and we became like two desperate swimmers, reaching out for more. Abruptly he pulled, almost shoved, me

away. Stop. He was breathless and flushed, barely able to get the word out. I closed my eyes to keep the room from spinning. Why? Cause Im a real bad man, but I cant do that, Addie. The confusion was beginning to beat me down. What do you mean? Ive done a lot of bad things in my day. But if we do thisif I took that away from you, Id roast in hell for sure. Youre too good to be here with me, Addie. You gotta get yourself somethin a lot better than me I put my finger over his lips to silence him. Being here with you has been the

greatest moment of my life. There is nothing better than this. Pulling me as close as our two bodies could be, Charlie rested his mouth against my ear and laughed when I shivered against him. I wish I could keep you. I slept the deep, dreamless sleep of lovers who carry no worrieswaking only occasionally to remind myself that Charlie was still with me, and to snuggle up more closely against him. As we drifted off into a world of sleep and stars, I felt his arms reaffirming their hold on me with a gentle tug. At some point during our

unconsciousness, our legs entangled and snaked around each other as if the natural need to be together grew to be too much for them. The sound of his soft snoring in my ear soothed me in a trance of my own. I could hardly picture doing this with anyone else during my lifetime. What had Charlie intended when he said I should get something better? Now I was confident that he wanted me as much as I wanted him, but there was still something holding him back, keeping his happiness at bay, and I would be damned if I didnt discover its origins and obliterate it completely.

Chapter 11

W hen I awoke I fully expected to be greeted with some smart comment in a low southern drawl. I reached out with my eyes still closed, hopeful my hand would latch onto his, or that I might tease his hair

before he was even awake. Unfortunately, none of these things came about as he was gone before I woke up, his scent still relatively fresh on his side of the bed. I quickly brushed my hair into a bunponytail hybrid and headed for the galley. My only mission was to find Charlie and scold him for leaving me alone. I was only really aware of a few locations on the ship, and since the rec room seemed unlikely, I figured that hunting for food would be the next most logical choice. I could also feel my own stomach complaining with the occasional gurgle so I decided Id head there first and take it from there.

Without any clocks around, it was difficult to tell what time of day it was. Judging, however, by the lack of anyone in the corridors, I guessed that it was midmorning to early afternoon. I laughed a little as I jogged up the stairwellonly days ago not knowing the exact time (or at least not having access to it) would have made me freak out. Today it felt like the guess was good enough. I was cautious about going into the galley by myself. If Charlie wasnt there, then it would probably be pretty awkward. Luckily, he was already sitting at the cafeteria tablefreshly showered and everything.

I spent a few minutes watching him through the bay windows of the galley doors. He and Yuri were laughing heartily about some jockey and a horse that seemed to cause them a great deal of amusement. Meanwhile, Polo was trying to find an alternative for coffee filters while simultaneously rummaging through the drawers and cupboards for some he swore he had. Charlie and Yuri tossed the filters back and forth to each other while Polos back was turned. If I hadnt known him up until that moment, I would have said he was an average man with the same amount of struggle as anyone else who was just

enjoying the moment. His immature humor made him seem familiarly brilliant, casting a bright hue over him I couldnt take my eyes off of. If I didnt know any better, I may have guessed he was a newly freed man, basking in the carelessness that came with that epiphany. I pushed open the door and ambushed the group, managing to grab the coffee filters in mid-air as they were being tossed back to Yuri. Here, Polo, look what I found! I looked down on the laughing duo and shushed them. Really? Shame on you two. Charlie snorted. You really want that

boy havin caffeine in his system? I looked at the filters as I considered his argument. That is a good point Addie! Addie! You found them! Oh man, Ive been looking everywhere for those things! Where did you get them? Polo rushed over and hugged me gratefully. I was already beginning to regret my kindness. Yuri laughed at my expression. Lets see if he cant burn it again, ah? I cursed myself over their laughter and took a seat beside Charlie. While I was tempted to wrap myself up in him, the need for public decency won out over

basic desire. Still, I felt a light squeeze of Charlies hand on mine when they met under the tablean inconspicuous lovers greeting. I wanted to stay in my daze, to remain wrapped in those few moments we were sharing, but the loud clamoring of falling objects took us away from each other. Polo! Yuri bellowed. What the hell you doing over there? The red top of Polos head appeared over the top of a counter. I cant find that one frying pan for making sandwiches! Its the best one! If I dont have it, the grilled cheeses wont taste the same. I rested my hand against my chin and

looked at the mess over Yuris shoulder. I put it back in the pantry above the stove, Polowhere I found it. I rolled my eyes at Charlie and laughed. Aint no point trying to clean up Polos messes, he said and grinned at me. I wasnt. Rather, I was cleaning up after myself after we made breakfast. Yuri leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. You made those omelets yesterday? Charlie nodded slowly, but I looked back at Polo, who was struggling to carry about ten different things in his arms at once. Well, I just helped

Yuri laughed. Right. I jumped as something else crashed to the floor. I got it! I got it! Polo called. Well maybe you can go help him again before we all starve? Charlie laughed. You think hes gonna kill himself in here or down in the engine room? Yuri frowned as he glanced from Charlie to me. Apparently he didnt realize I knew about the knockers. It made the atmosphere tense enough for me to know that maybe I needed to disappear for a while. Reluctantly, I let go of Charlies hand and walked over to the kitchen nook. Hey

there, Poloneed some help? Almost as soon as my back was turned, I heard swearing and hushed whispers. It made me uneasy immediately. Even though I tried to ignore it and muddle through the tasks of slicing tomatoes and chopping lettuce, it was difficult to discount the underlying anger that boiled in Charlies voice. Polo leaned over me to collect the loaves of bread I had put aside. His sudden action, combined with my lack of attention, nearly caused the surgical removal of his pinky finger. Oh God, Polo, Im so sorry! I dropped the knife and stepped away from

the cutting board. My lack of ability to keep myself out of harms way was one thing, but I didnt think I would be capable of forgiving myself if my clumsy actions caused someone else to get seriously injured, too. He just shrugged it off, becoming, like I, more interested in the growing argument at the table. What do you think theyre talking about over there? I whispered. Polo laughed his Polo laugh, unnerving me more. You, Addie! Duh! I cringed and turned back around to the storage space where I thought I might pretend to look for something. I had very

few options but to look away and just try to make-believe I didnt know what was going onalthough I suppose that wasnt entirely untrue. It seemed like Charlie was trying to stand up for me. Yuri was clearly very angry. But hadnt he and the other guys come to realize by now that I would never speak a word against them if it meant hurting Charlie? Didnt they understand by now I would do everything I could to keep them from the trouble of the law? I blamed myself. I simply hadnt been clear about my intended loyalty. From outside the pantry, both Charlies and Yuris voices rose to new octaves. I cringed at the

thought of them coming to blows. I would give them a minute to work it out for themselves before telling Yuri myself I had no desire to say anything to law enforcement. Hopefully, that would clear everything up and there would be no ill will between us. With any luck, Charlie wouldnt lose any of his friends as a result of my poor judgment. I would go back to life as I knew it. We would remain in one piece. The concept brought back the complications my feelings for Charlie carried. By protecting Charlie from the law, I was also protecting his friends, which I didnt know if I should

necessarily do. My mind evoked the nameless truck driver Wallace had killed to save money and the family he might have left behind. I knew Ben and Charlie were killers. Polo incapable, but Yuri and Reid were violentso what were my responsibilities here? If I didnt say anything to the police when the time came, then any deaths or injuries that occurred after this because of these guys would also be partially my fault. Still, the briefest image of Charlie spending twenty or so years behind bars on my account made me nauseous. I could see it all very clearlyif the police caught one of them, Charlie would

turn himself in. He would never let any of them go to prison for him. I could only hope that any of them would do the same, though I didnt know any of them well enough to know if they would sacrifice for him. So what was I going to do? I waited a few minutes, looking through large cans of vegetables, running my thumbnail over the ripple of the tin cans. The last thing I wanted to do was drive any sort of wedge between Charlie and his friends. Given the way they interacted together, it seemed as though they had not only worked together for a long time, but had endured one of those

long-term friendships that was only made better over the years. I had seen Robbie come home from his deployment with a few friendships like that, and he seemed like a better man for it. If Charlie was endangering his relationship with his friends even a little bit because of me, then I didnt want to be a part of that. Hey Addie, there you are! Polo bounced into the storage area, practically at a gallop. Hi, Polo. I hoped he wouldnt catch my sad smile. What are the boys up to? He rolled his eyes. Yuri is all up in a tear about something. He got Charlie in it too for a minute, but I think its okay now

that Ben broke it up. Polo, what exactly was the fighting about? Polo tapped his head, struggling to remember. Um, something about what wed do when we got to port and ah, ah Yuri said Charlie needed to get his head straightened. I held my hand out to keep him from anything more. Okay, Polo, I think Ive got it. Umwhen are we supposed to get to Singapore? I tried not to sound too obvious. Is everything on schedule, I mean? I twisted my thumbs around themselves anxiously; I no longer knew what I wanted the answer to be. More

time on the ship meant more time with Charlie, but it also meant more time that I kept Dad and Robbie worrying. Oh, um, we should get there, like, the day after tomorrow, I think. Only two more days? I only had two full days left with Charlie. It seemed unbearably unfair. I swallowed my feelings and headed back to the kitchen. Is Charlie still in the galley? Yeah, yeah, yeah! Ben told Yuri to take a walk, though. So we get first dibs on sandwiches. I pretended to be enthusiastic. Thats really good, Poloreally great.

Charlie was no longer sitting with the same light composure I had come across when I first walked into the galley. Instead, he was bent over his chair, his neck craning to see the floor as though there were something intensely wonderful only he could see. He was frowning now and it pained me to see it. I walked over to him quietly while he wrung his hands togethertrying to shake something out. Hi there. I sat in his lap, leaning back while he caught me in his arms. His face lightened up considerably while I reclined back and pretended to swoon. Whats with all of the drama? My overdrawn southern imitation managed to

make him smile just a little. Nothin I cant handle. His voice was quiet, bordering on anxious. I straightened myself up and wrestled his nose between my index and middle finger. It was a lame but effective enough interrogation technique that was applied often enough on Robbie and me when we tried to cover up a misdeed. You better get talking, sir. I did the best imitation of an authority figure I could manage. He flinched and pulled himself away. You vicious little thing. Remind me not to get on your bad side. I pulled him closer by the sleeve of

his shirt. Dont change the subject. Is everything okay? He sighed and wallowed in the crook of my neck. Maybe I should have harped him further about what was going on, but I couldnt pull him away from mehe simply felt too good. Slowly, he began to kiss the base of my collarbone, the lobe of my ear, and I felt myself slipping away. I like this spot, he whispered in my ear. I think it might be my favorite. My legs quivered against his and clenched at his waist. If he was trying to distract me it was working much too well. You dont play fair. I tried to laugh, but the sound came out as a labored

breath. Hey! He pulled away abruptly. I was gonna do some work with the container gear. You feel like helpin a guy out? I bit my lip and simulated consideration. Well, Id have to check my schedule, but I think after my spa treatment I might have some time. As we laughed, black smoke began wafting from the stove to the remainder of the galley in heavy tufts and a major stench. Oh man! Oh man! Polo grabbed a towel and hopped up on the counter to begin waving at the smoke detector.

Dont worry, Charlie said. This happens all the time. I nodded in agreement, thinking of home. I completely understand. Although the work was mundane, it felt good to stretch out in the sun and kick off my sandals. Charlie had assigned me the task of staining some old antenna holders that had just been rid of their rust, and I was more than happy to be of any kind of use. The waves below were particularly forceful today, throwing themselves against the side of the ship loudly enough to even drown out the noise of power washing. I held on to the side of

the deck and looked over into the ocean it seemed more menacing today than it had in the days before. Charlie came to stand beside me. Itll storm later. It was worrisome the way he repeated himself. He was distracted enough to stare out beyond the long waves, and I could see that cumbersome weight on his shoulders again. That should be fun. I like the rain. He glanced over his shoulder. I saw his brow crease. Depends on the kind of storm. Could put us hind schedule if its real bad. I picked up one of the brushes and

dipped it in the thick, protective coating. Yeah, Polo mentioned the ship would arrive on time He turned away from me and began hammering away at a bolt. Youll be home before ya know it. Thats really good. My voice cracked a little, but I tried to count the brush strokes and stay focused on the task in front of me. If I meditated on it enough, then maybe I wouldnt have to think about how sad the idea of being away from Charlie really made me. He began working on a set of boards opposite me, resting his back against mine. I had the sense he wanted to say

something but didnt know how. I heard him sigh and open his mouth to speak multiple times before he eventually spoke. Addie, I wish that things could be different. But when ya get off this ship, theres gonna be a lot going on, people are going to be asking you all kinds of questions You dont have to say it, I interjected. I know Ill have to say something, but if I start practicing now, maybe I can get myself to cry on cue and at the very least No, Addie. He turned around swiftly and grabbed me by the shoulders with such ferocity that I lost the grip on my

paint brush. No! He tried again. I dont want you to lie for me. The guys, they He sighed and loosened his grip. Still, his accent was incredibly thick, and I was now knowledgeable enough to understand that meant trouble. they want me to get ya to lie or stay with us long-term. I tried to digest the information he was feeding me. I couldnt do that, Charlie. The staying part, anyway His voice caught in his throat. It wouldnt be an option. I threw myself into his arms. What was he saying? Was I still in some kind of physical danger? No. No. I knew better Charlie wouldnt hurt me. He simply

couldnt. You wouldnt do that, Charlie. I know you, and I know you wouldnt. Addie, ya aint listenin. There are a lotta things ya dont know. Ive done awful things He squeezed me tighter, clutched me as though he could seep the information into my skin without ever having to say anything out loud. You keep saying that, Charlie. And maybe you have done some things in your past, but youve been good to me and I know you that way. It doesnt have to be anything different. Again he took me by the shoulders, only this time he shook me, and I could

see the anger in his face beginning to surface, the danger threatening to erupt. Youre wrong, Addie! Damn it, you dont get it! You wanna know what kind of guy I am? You wanna see what I can do to ya? Ill show ya! He took me then by the wrist, forcefullyjust enough to hurt me. I hadnt seen most of these hallways before, and fear flamed inside as we passed the crewmen. Some of them looked up at us, but the majority of them kept on working on their assigned tasks. Whatever Charlie had done had been effective, because I was still as invisible as ever; people moved out of the way but refused

to look at me. Ill show ya. Ill show ya. Ill show ya He muttered the mantra over and over to himself. But I was still sure it was only him he was trying to convince. We passed by the Radio Room and another labeled Supplies, then one more that said Gym. I tried to memorize the different angles and sides of the halls that led to each place in case I didnt have a guide to get back, but my legs were having a hard time keeping up with Charlies long strides down the hall. He seemed to be unaware I was struggling. Finally we reached a huge set of metal doors Charlie said led to Hold 6. He was

speaking so quickly I could barely understand what he was saying. He halfdragged me through the doors and I understood vaguely why he was so excited. I stood in awe of the web-like structure that framed the sides of the hold. In-between each segment of containers were hefty ladders only connecting more cargo containersit was like they plowed straight to the gray of the sky. The sight of the container crates themselves was overwhelming. They also stood towering, in the holds center, stacked one by one on top of each other, and covered in the graffiti of five or six languages, and some with a barrage of

labels. They came in a variety of colors like orange and lime green, brown, and graythough some of them were so rusted their original color was unidentifiable. Walk long the side here! I watched him disappear onto a plank to the left, but I was hypnotized by the view of the containers and the long winding path they made. Wait for me! I had trouble keeping my feet steady on the metal bridge with only my sandals as leverage for my ankles, but I focused on distributing my weight evenly so I didnt fall overhere in the hold it was much easier to feel the shifting of the ship and

moving of the waves from outside. Finally, I saw Charlie jumping up and down on a platform on the other side of the bridge, waving his hands to get my attention. I was both amazed and annoyed that he had managed to reach the end of the plank so quicklysome of us were not equipped with such accurate gross motor skills. I sighed and waved the loose strands of hair from my face. What are you trying to prove, Charlie? I followed him to the end of the platform where a darkened booth sat in cobwebs and shadows. I felt myself grow cold when I realized what it wasPolo

hadnt been using a metaphor or exaggeration. The booth was literally an old-time confession booth with a dividing section and a door for each side. Charlie demonstrated to me how both doors were chained and had large padlocks as I hopped off the end of the final plank. When opened, the dividers and veiled window that should have separated a priest from the confessor had been knocked out to create a slightly bigger space. He laughed as he demonstrated it, and it was anything but his Charlie laugh. Charlie? My voice was shaking and I had to start again. Wh-what is th-this for?

I touched the engraved wood of one of the entry doors. It felt like something earthy, aged by time and dragged down by the experience of many different kinds of sorrow. These were gonna be yer accommodations, darlin! He used his hands for emphasis, imitating the enthusiasm that could be compared to a car salesman. It aint been used in a real long time, but the last time was when me and Ben caught a steward tryin to steal inventory for hisself afore we got to port! You know what we did to him in there, Addie? Ill give ya a hint: it involves pliers and fingers.

Nausea rose in my stomach and I clenched at my abdomen to prevent the sickness from coming. The idea of someone being tortured was enough to make me ill, but knowing full well that I was within the area of said torture was horrifying. I was not nave enough to think that these things didnt happen, but seeing it in reality and being able to envision those who had done it disturbed me greatly. I didnt want to know Charlie was qualified to hurt people like that. Hanging from the confessional were strings of velvet tapestry, stained with some brown fluid. I cringed.

Stop it, Charlie. No, Addie. He was back to being stern. His face was like a stone, hard and smooth. For the first time since I had woken up on board, I was truly afraid. This is how it is. He pointed to the confessional. This is what we do with stowaways. The tears began to swell, and in spite of the humidity, I wrapped my arms around myself as though they could keep the words away. I dont care what youve done in the past, Charlie. It cant be undone, so theres no point in dwelling on it. It aint just the past. Violently he

reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card of plastic. It took me a moment to realize it was the Wi-Fi receiver for the computer. He then stepped up to me, slowly and deliberately, each of his steps more heavy than the last. I lied bout not havin reception. Every word slithered in my ear. This ship aint that old, he continued. Only the real older ones cant get the satellite signals My insides recoiled, my intestines welded to the sides of my body and pulsed to be released. I cupped my hand to my mouth to prevent the sickness from coming and closed my eyes. Though I begged them

not to, the tears began to fall freely. He had lied to me the entire time, let me lie in worry about my family without any contact with them for days. Had I been so very wrong about him, about who he was? He threw the card at the ground and stomped on it until it was no more than a few pieces of plastic and bits of shiny metal. Those moments of dark that were always lingering were no longer threatening anything. They worked their way over him freely now, making Charlie pace back and forth along the panel, tearing at his hair, raging at me, himself, and no one.

Ya know what I was thinkin bout when I tossed you in the back of that SUV? I stood motionless and silent. I was wonderin how much money a pretty little thing like you mighta made over here. I backed away. The crowded compartment was closing in and my tears were suffocating me from the inside out. What he was saying wasnt true, it couldnt be. Alotta money in girls anymore. His steps began following mine as I backed out of the hold. I needed to get away from there, away from these lies he was telling

me. Been thinkin bout it for while. Lot more profit and fewer trips every year. Could retire in less than a year or two if we did it rightcourse we couldnt take girls like you, wed have to get runaways or junkies. But theres a lot of em out there who dont have nobody lookin for em. The only reason you aint disappeared is cause you get us so much Gawddamn attention! I reached the end of the aisle and turned the door desperately. By now I was sobbing, panicking openly, but I couldnt keep myself from looking at himthe exterior of his handsome face was cold

and glazed over with a cruelty I had let myself believe was only crucial for when called for. Yet I had been fooled, duped by a thin layer of charm and humor. I fell into the hall and even tripped over myself as I tried to get back up. On the way down, my ankle became caught under my weight and twisted at a funny angle, sending a twinge of pain up my leg, but I ignored it and bolted for the direction of the crew cabins. I ran as quickly as my body and blinding tears allowed. He didnt bother to run after me as I feared, but I did hear jarring noises, one after the other echoing behind me. I ran faster, terrified with the sudden notion that he

was now throwing things at me. I didnt stop to lookI only pushed my body harder, not stopping until I reached the safety of Charlies cabin. After I locked the door, I pushed the crate in front of it so it was leaning against the knob. It was stupid to even be in that cabin when Charlie was probably the most dangerous person I could encounter. But I was also relatively unfamiliar with the ship and didnt know where else to go. The terrible things he had said to me were ricocheting in my head. I detested how much sense it all made. I knew just from watching the news that horrific things happened to young women every day and I

had had enough sense to worry about this earlier, so how could I have been so stupid? I wasnt safe here. I had never been safe here. And I must have been out of my mind to have thought otherwise. With all of my frustration and grief, I tried pushing the makeshift bed and mattress up against the door barricade, but only ended up causing further strain on my already sore ankle. Whatever kind of wooden boards were being used as support beams were much too steady for me to even budge, much less move across the room. I compromised by dragging the mattress to the barricade and sliding myself against it. In reality, however, I

knew it was useless. If someone really wanted to get in here it wouldnt be too difficult. All I had really done was maybe buy myself some time. I tossed my head against the mattress, letting the tears flow freely. More than anything I felt like the worlds greatest idiot for simply believing him when he told me there would no longer be an Internet connection when we got to a certain point. Why hadnt I pestered him about it further? Why didnt I try to think of something to get the Wi-Fi card? Because I had been stupid, thats why. I had let myself fall and get wrapped up in something that was so far off from reality I

hadnt even realized what was really going on. Charlie had admitted the only reason I was alive at this point was because of the awareness of my abduction in the media. In that I wanted to be gratefulI had read that the media knew who he and Ben were, and Charlie had revealed Dad was making a lot of fuss about my kidnapping. In the face of all of his lies that one held the most potential truthDad and Robbie would never stop looking for me, even if they thought they had to find Charlie himself. I almost wish they wouldnt. I wished no one was looking for me

and I would quite literally fall off the face of the planet and never be seen again. While I was far from perfect, nothing had made me feel less intelligent than trusting in Charlie. It was almost unfathomable that I could spend a lifetime relying on my intelligence as a main source of my identity when clearly I was so daft. I felt like he had taken a bulk of me away from myself, leaving the remaining pieces filled with charred holes and burned ends.

Chapter 12

I cried until my eyes burned and the walls became blurry. I started thinking of Dad and Robbie, which was a mistake because it only made me more miserable. Here I was, this selfish little girl wrapped up in

my ridiculous infatuation, and I had completely forgotten the hardships my father and brother were probably going through. Only a true monster would encourage the pain they were enduring nowwhat we all were enduring. The last genuine hope I had to cling to remained with the knowledge that we would arrive at port any time now. If that was still true, then Charlie, the guys, and the remaining crew only had a limited number of hours to change their mind about what to do with me. But what did I know about truth? Maybe what I had heard from Polo had been a lie to begin with. Obviously Charlies affections toward me

had been a lie. Despair pinched my insides as I relived it again. How nave could I have been to have believed that true love could be conceived and consummated in less than a week? I recklessly paced the room. I felt like a caged zoo animal. Really, a better description would be to say that I was a bird that was never meant to fly, practical and intelligent like a penguin or fowl. So even though all of my parts were there, from an evolutionary standpoint I was defective. Thats why it had been really quite silly of me to think someone like Charlie could ever love me. He was an untamed beast in the wilderness who

needed his pack. Meanwhile, I was designed to function in solitude as I always had. This was my fault, I decided. I should have known better. A light tapping sounded somewhere outside the cabin. At first I thought it was the rapping of someone outside the door and panic clutched at me. But the tapping was more widespread than that, and I remembered how erratic the waves had been and what Charlie had said about the impending storm. At least he hadnt seemed to be lying about that. The tapping increased into a steady

sheet of rain that I could hear bouncing from the ships sides like they were flimsy pieces of scrap. Every few minutes, I could hear a thunder clap in the distance as well, but it sounded too far away to do any damage. I was glad the storm had come when it did. I still didnt know anything about being on a ship, but I imagined there wouldnt be a whole lot of time for a crew to kill and dismember its stowaway when the weather was disagreeable. Hopefully, Charlie was far away from the cabin, doing something productive to keep the ship and its cargo safe. I looked down at my swollen ankle

and grimaced. It looked worse than it probably was, but it still hurt. The ball of the joint had become swollen and gained an abnormal crimson color. I should have been putting ice on the sprain, but that wasnt an option now. I could only hope it would be okay in case I had to run. Odds were I would have to do a lot of running. I listened to the rain, a constant pummeling on the outskirts of the ship. I became somewhat concerned at the intensity of the storm. The ship would be capable of handling this sort of weather, right? I began pacing again and considered my options. Concentrating on the sharp pain above my foot helped to keep me

centered, helped to keep the fear away. When the storm passed, there was a very real chance they would come for me. Then again, it was still possible that they wouldnt. It could only be just one more day until the ship landed somewhere where I could find an American embassy, or at least someone to help me. But what would I do until then? These guys had to know I was in here by this point; I could give them that much credit. What was my best move here? Once they considered their options and realized I would probably repeat everything I saw and heard to the first law enforcement official I came into contact with, they

would probably cut their losses and toss me overboard, laughing as I struggled for breath. I shuddered at the notion. Okay, so what to do? If I stayed bunkered, at least I was familiar with my surroundings and could hold out here for a day or so if need be. On the other hand, I was a sitting duck. I had turned myself into a prisoner that they had access to anytime they wanted, and that could only mean their advantage over mine. I was going to have to get out. If I was smart about this, I could hide quietly somewhere and then sneak off during what I hoped would be the chaos of getting to

port. With any luck, my new talent of being invisible would pay off here, and maybe I could just slip off without much trouble. I put my brush back in my bag and secured it tightly to my back. I was just trying to psych myself up when an idea occurred to me. I glanced over at Charlies stack of sketchbooks and picked one up. This one was unfamiliar to me the one he never let me look through. Without looking at it, I put it in my bag. I decided I wanted to take a piece of him with me, even if it was only something as inconsequential as a couple of drawings. It was a souvenir, I told myself. Besides,

the F.B.I might want it to profile him or something. It didnt take much for me to justify myself. It took longer to slide the mattress back over than it did to move it in the first place. But once I did, I was particularly careful to put my ear to the door to listen for voices or footsteps. If someone was waiting to intercept me, I at least wanted to be prepared. The only thing I could really hear, though, was the sound of my heart beating in my ears and the rain pounding on the deck above. After a few agonizingly long minutes, I decided it was safe to remove the crate and unlock the

door. As I hoped, the door opened without any issues and I slipped out quietly, closing it behind me. I hobbled out into the narrow hall, not failing to realize how much my ankle hurt now. Still, I tried to be as cautious as possible. I noticed some tool boxes and cables hanging from the pipes and rafters, which concerned me a little, but I tried not to focus on them and kept my senses on the direction I had come from last. I distinctly remembered what Polo had mentioned to me about Hold 6 and how it was the last place to get unloaded. I anticipated that even if someone tried to find me there, I could

hide away amongst the containers and then run out when an ideal opportunity presented. I heard some voices charging down a stairwell to my right as I descended a corridor, but I slid behind a large metal frame where I managed to squish myself up enough against the wall so the group didnt see me. At what felt like two hundred miles a minute, I was certain my pounding heart was a GPS of my location beeping me away to everyone. But they jogged past and headed in a completely different direction, not having seen me. I entered the hold, which was still unlocked. Although it was dark and the

rain poured through the webs of the crates, it still felt safer than Charlies cabin. My eyes took more than a few minutes to adjust, however, as soon as they did, I began hobbling on the planks and used both hands to hold onto the sides of the railing. My hands shook as the planks squeaked from the rain and the motion, but relief still welled within me. If nothing else, I had gotten somewhere I could buy myself some time. I felt proud of my resourcefulness and began thinking that maybe I could get through this after all. I had to pause every few steps and rest my weight on my good leg. It was frustrating, grueling work, but I kept

telling myself it was necessary and I had to be practical. The daunting part was at least relieved by the rain coming through the ceiling. I opened my mouth and let it fill with the freezing water. Within a matter of minutes, however, I was drenched. I briefly considered going back, but knew that being already halfway across the hold and in the midst of the maze of containers, it wasnt very smart. Besides, I didnt have anywhere else to go. I stopped once more, a few steps before the final edge of the passage. The wind was crisp and roared against the metal containers, making them echo in a

song I didnt understand the lyrics to. In another circumstance, I might have liked the noise, I might have thought it was nice, but it only gave me a headache now. I looked up at the wall of the great ship and saw an anomaly in the metal flanking. I reached my hand up to touch the abnormality. It was as though a hole had been made in the wall, only it hadnt come through all of the way. I pulled myself closer and examined the deformity in an attempt to figure out what it was. Strangely enough, it was misshapen in its center and squared at its ends. I hadnt noticed it my first time here. As I squinted, I thought I saw smeared red blotches in the

center of its core. When I realized what the red was, I was almost in a full-on run to get to the platform. Once I did get there, the pain running through my ankle had me out of breath. I looked at the dark sky as my lungs heaved. I leaned against the back of one of the containers, no more than a few feet from the confessional itself. I took off my sling bag. Already it was completely soaked. Even its Velcro straps threatened to come undone from the sogginess. I cursed myself and my unusual lack of planning. With everything else, I didnt want to lose Charlies sketches. They were the only part of him that I would really have when

everything was said and done. I wanted to cry at the thought of him. Though I may have memories of him, they were false and tainted by lies. And when the time came, they wouldnt even be mine. I would probably have to share most of them with the F.B.I. He had never really cared for me. That had all been a lie to keep me placid. But maybe I could look back on these someday and lie to myself, pretend like I had mattered to him in some way or another. My eyes ballooned with tears and I began to laugh at the same time. How completely insane! Here I was in serious bodily danger and I was worried about

some stupid sketches? Calm, Addie, calm. Take a deep breath and relax. I had to keep it together for a little while longer. I could lose my mind later when I got home. But until then, what about those these sketches? I clasped my bag as close to me as possible, although I knew it wasnt doing much good. Even putting it under my shirt probably wouldnt make much of a difference at this point. My eyes scanned the room for a solution In the end I opted to enclose the sketchbook inside the Da Vinci coffee table book in the hopes the inventor would protect my lying love. My hands combed over the various contents of my bag, the

few scattered bobby pins at the bottom, some coins, a charger for my phone, the frayed ends of my wallet. All practical parts of a life that was probably about to end. My eyes wandered over to the confessional again. It was just as dark and ominous as when I had seen it last. I could never forget what Charlie had told me about the sorts of things that had gone on in there and what he truly thought of me. My mind could see it all very clearly now in the cold and the rain. I wanted to banish the images away, but they kept replaying themselves in my head. My tears melded together with the rain and ran together into

the sketchbook. I curled deeper into myself, making myself impossibly small. I had drastically underestimated the cold and how it would affect my time hiding in the hold. I shivered uncontrollably, my teeth chattering until my jaw hurt, my flesh a never-ending row of goosebumps that stung at the touch. I recited poetry in my head and the capitals of every state, but it did nothing to quench my growing fear. After everything I had been through these last few days, would I now die from hypothermia? I reluctantly removed one of my hands from in-between my knees and examined the

numb fingertips. Through strained eyes, I could make out a lovely shade of violet that began at the nail and stretched to the base of the knuckle. I laughed and tried to rub my shoulders. What was better, I wondered: dying sooner or later? Freezing to death or dying by the hands of the man I loved? The tears were hot on my face compared to the icy rain water I could no longer avoid as the wind blew it in without reprieve. Charlie had been my only protector here, the only one defending me. Even the sweet and oblivious Polo might be accepting to my sudden demise if his close friends had

been the ones to cause it. Without Charlie to speak for me, I was as good as dead. I squeezed my eyes and prayed the rain would stop so I wouldnt turn into a human Popsicle. Maybe I could hold out and tolerate the cold until they made port at Singapore. It would be a lot more difficult to kill me at one of the busiest ports in the world, wouldnt it? I continued to clutch my bag and tucked my hands under my arms, hoping to seek some warmth there. I didnt want to think of Charlie, but I kept picturing his kaleidoscope eyes, wondering what color they might be projecting just then. While it probably would have been significantly

easier if he wasnt so close by, the idea of knowing he was near made it that much worse. My memories were still so fresh, the pain of the lies he told me raw and festering, without anything to distract me. If I was at home I would just go to the library and straight to the reference section. I would probably stay until the librarians politely kicked me out. I had done something similar in those first days after Mom died. But now I had nowhere to escape and I hated him for that. Instead, I tried to escape the cold through ceaseless memories, living through them one by one as if they had just occurred. I remembered the first time I

drank coffee and all the annoying consequences for Mom. I thought of Robbie showing Dad Angry Birds on the phone and his subsequent addiction thereafter. But as much as I hated it, I thought mostly of Charlie and every one of his endearing traits, the smell of his skin after he had just lit a cigarette, the random facts he would share, how his accent thickened when he was angry. Charlie. Fewer than twelve hours ago he had kissed me and held me like there was nothing else in the world. I slid deeper into the metal floor of the hold and began to sob. Something fragile and beautiful inside me began to wilt away,

the cold taking over a willing body. When my eyes began burning and blurring over to the point that I could no longer see my own self-pity, I shut them with the hope of taking a brief rest. If nothing else, sleeping would kill time and get me out of my head for a little while. I heard the rain continuing to beat on the outside of the ship and it had almost become soothing. I had even begun to count the number of pitter patters from one to one hundred before starting over again. When the dark closed in, I was actually somewhat comfortable on the metal floor; it brought back memories of broken bunk beds at summer camp and camping with

Robbie and his friends. I tried to focus on stuff like that while I drifted off. I thought of a few summers ago when Dad passed out after tree trimming in the hammock, and Robbie and I painted his toe nails. The time when Robbie jumped from the trampoline trying to dive into a snow pile (Mom had practically lived in the E.R. that day). I laughed to myself and wrapped my arms around my body, trying to keep the memories as close as I possibly could. As I slept, I dreamt of strange and ominous things. On top of everything else, Ive never really had dreams before and when I did dream, I usually forgot them by

the time I finished my breakfast or brushed my teeth; strange now in the last few days that I would have more than one dream that I could actually remember. It wasnt just the imagery that shook me, it was a feeling. They became etched in my head, a permanent part of me. The dream gave me venom-producing snakes slithering their way up walls, trying to get to an unknown destination. How I knew they were poisonous but not where they were going is beyond me. Instinctually, I just knew they were dangerous, deadly. There were dozens of them, all sorts of different colors and sizes, though equally terrifying with their

proportions. I couldnt see myself, but I knew I was nearby enough to be in some serious danger. With the loud hissing coming closer and a hundred tongues and attached fangs approaching, I wanted to call out, to scream for someone, for anyonefor Charlie. And yet I couldnt. I had no voice, no lungs, and no mouth. I watched them gain momentum as they increased their speed up the wall. When I opened my eyes, my face was wet from fresh tears and my legs shook from the intensity of the dream, so much that it took me several minutes to stand up straight again. I tried to remember the last time I had even had a nightmare, but I

couldnt. Nightmares were for children, or people who ate too much junk food before bed. It was just a dream , I told myself. Just a dream. I dont know when I stopped acting like an idiot and calmed down. When I finally gave in to the claustrophobia and the cold, I couldnt do anything more than lie back down and shiver into myself. I was too busy waiting for death. I was curled against the web of the hold, alone and quaking as the wind continued to ransack its exterior walls, sending in the occasional splash of rain to provoke me. I tried to go back to those

places of memory that made me so happy before: Mom and Dad trying to ride a tandem bike, attempting to help Robbie pick out a Christmas gift for some girl he liked. And even though I didnt want to, though I tried to avoid it, I also thought of Charlie. I tried to push him out of my head. I didnt want my final thoughts to be of him; he didnt deserve them. But eventually, I gave in and recalled every word, every smell, and every sound that was ever him. As the night gave way, so did my mind What a funny sort of way to die, I thought.

Chapter 13

I pulled away from the arms at first. They were so unusually warm I was sure they must have belonged to the Devil himself. So I had died and gone to Diyu. I was burning, burning. I was going to be

punished for not accomplishing any of my goals, for leaving everyone behind. I called out, though the words didnt come. Please dont hurt me! Im sorry. Im sorry. Im sorry. But that didnt sound right at all. I was, in actuality, cold. So very, very, cold. I wanted to tell my body to do something other than shake. Maybe I should have been moving, screaming, or even fighting. Yet all my body could do was settle back into the Devils arms. It was bizarre how perfectly I seemed to fit there and how easily I gave in to the sound of the drums that demons played just for

me. As much as I wanted to, in the end I could do nothing else. Something familiar and desperate called out my name. Its voice was pleading aggressively, begging for something I couldnt understand. It reminded me of being choked to death and I wanted to laughhad I met the Devil then, too? Addie? Addie! Warmth touched my face. I pulled away. Hey, Addie? That was my name. Of course the Devil would know my name. That would make sense. I tried to think it through, but the drums were pounding in

my head, making my ears ache miserably. I wanted it to stop more than I could describe. And the Devil was babbling incoherently, making things that much worse. All of his words were incomprehensible, clouded by a fog of pain and cold. What did the Devil have to be so miserable about? All at once, I had to know. Though he continued to say my name through sobs and what I thought might be profanities, it made my heart hurt to think he could suffer so much on my account. Perhaps if I did his bidding, though, he wouldnt be so disheartened. But when I tried to open my eyes they were fastened shut. Maybe it was a trick?

At the very least, the drums were beginning to fade a bit and my head didnt ache so much. I could hear other voices now, and the Devil was angry with them. Im not certain why, but I heard him yelling, bellowing like the great monster every legend depicted him to be. I hoped not to make him angry. I tried to open my eyes again. This time I focused on the shadows that lay just beyond my eyelids. There was something strangely comforting about them. And while my surroundings felt familiar enough, I couldnt give them definition. When my eyes finally did open, everything was blurred by my swollen lids. I could

see the outline of shapes and figures clearly enough, but I could hardly see any detail. The only thing I could really retain as the images became clearer was the side of the Devil and serpent gaining momentum. Ch-Charlie? He turned so quickly at the sound of my voice I wondered if the serpent had been there at all. Addie. He sighed my name as though it brought some great relief. The shapes of the other people vanished through the door. It was only as I squinted that I recognized them as Yuri and Reid. So I wasnt dead? Or were we all in

hell? I was very cold. Only corpses could be this cold. I reached for something that was wrapped around me, but Charlie got to it before I did and tucked it in more closely around my neck. I still heard the drums, though they were skimming out into the distance, fading out in the darkness of bad dreams. Are you all right? His hand held out a glass of water, except I flinched at the sudden movement. The hurt in his face was evident. In an attempt to regain my self-pride, I tried to sit up. I was in Charlies cabin again. The mattress had been put back in

its frame and the crate was in its original corner. But before I could do much more of anything else, Charlie had me by the shoulders and gently pushed me back on the bed. As his touch registered, everything he last said to me rushed in as an extraordinary combination of memory and heartache. Dont overdo it, Vicious. Everything about him was clenched now: his stare on me, his voice, every muscle. I quickly shoved him from me and retreated as far away on the other side of the bed as I could possibly get. With my back against the wall, I huddled with my knees against my chest and pulled the

blanket up to my neck. It was the only protection I had, and I was miserably aware of how pathetic it all was. Get away from me. The words felt like lather in my mouth but they were effective enough because he stood up from the floor and moved across the room to be as far from me as he could be. I must have disgusted him with my attempted escape. I figured it was the reason he wouldnt look at me now, why he stared passionately at the floor. I hated myself intensely. Not only had my plan failed miserably, but I had also earned Charlies hatred in the process. I turned my head away and dug my nail into

my palm to keep myself from crying. It would have been so much better if he had just let Wallace kill me when he had the chance. How much longer would it have taken to freeze to death? Though now I could feel my fingers, my toes were just starting to thaw. I tried to assess the danger of my situation. If I didnt have any food to fuel my muscles, didnt consume any water and just let myself fall asleep, it might have only taken a day. You gotta tell me what happened. Charlie had interrupted my selfloathing. Only then did I look up to realize he had been watching me all along. His face had again become ravaged by anger.

The darkness that held him wasnt showing any restraint and Charlie was ready to do damage. Whether it was upon me or not wasnt going to matter. I figured I had already inadvertently tried freezing to death. Maybe being killed by someone I loved was the better way to go after all. At least he would be the last thing I saw before the Nothingness caved in. I narrowed my eyes. I wanted to be very clear about my newfound revulsion for him. What do you care? There wasnt a chance I was going to give him or anyone else the satisfaction of knowing the idiocy of my plan or how I had pathetically failed.

His brow furrowed, but he remained silent, only kicking some imaginary dust at the end of his boot. You should have just left me there, I whispered. Maybe this response surprised him because his head jolted up and the stare in his eyes changed yet again. I didnt know whether or not I should be afraid. Unfortunately, as usual when I was with Charlie, my mouth did the thinking for me. Youre just going to kill me anyway. So what was the point in delaying the inevitable? If you changed your mind about the whole ransom thing His fist slammed down on the plastic

crate with such force that its lid flew open. I trembled and tried to pull myself away from the displayclosed my eyes even, but Charlie wouldnt let me escape. Addie, Im sorry. He came over and knelt beside the bed. His voice cracked with every word. Addie? He paused, then tried again. Addie? I couldnt look at him. I wouldnt. Everything got so messed up, Addie. He sniffled and buried his face into the mattress. When Yuri told me what was goin on, I freaked out. I said all that stuff, but it wasnt true, Addie. I swear to God No. No, I would not look at him.

I heard you crying in here and it was tearin my guts out, but everybody said I did the right thing. Then when the storm started, I had to go to the steering hold. But when I got back, the place was all messed up and you were gone. We didnt think there was no way he could get down here. I thought youd be okay in here. I thought youd be safe. He struggled to continue and instinctively I wanted to reach out and pull him closer. He seemed to be hurting so much and if I could do anything to alleviate that pain, I wanted to do it, but I knew it was a ruse. I brushed away a tear and cradled my knees to my body. I hated

him for making me feel this way. I had everybody looking for you everywhere all night long. All night? What time was it now? We searched everywhere, Addie, every crew cabin, the lifeboats, the engine room. It was only round dawn that Reid was saying you went overboard. I scoffed. Into the ocean? Now why hadnt I thought of that? Then again maybe it was a good thing I hadnt. If I had, I might have seriously considered it for a moment. Or, like an idiot, I might have attempted to take a lifeboat out by myself. Of course what I had done wasnt a genius move, either.

But I had given in to my panic and let it take over my rationale. I closed my eyes and tried to will the humiliation away. I gave in and turned my head around to see Charlie seething. It killed me to see his hands ripping at his hair angrily, nearly taking it by the root. I didnt think when I reached my hand out to stop him. No, Charlie. He looked up, stopped instantly. You promised. It was a weak argument, but it was the only thing I had to work with. His smile was almost enough to break me. I knew I shouldnt have looked at him, his eyes were weary and sunken. It wasnt

difficult to believe he hadnt slept. Every color that normally shone in his eyes was dulled by sadness and a gloss of tears that wouldnt spill. He hadnt shaved yet and his body seemed fatigued and obstructed by frustration. He let me pull his hand away, but I could see instantly that hed already caused some serious injuries. His pinky and ring fingers of his left hand were swollen, and the knuckles were bruised severely enough that I flinched at the sight. God, Charlie, what did you do to yourself? He seemed confused, but then followed my gaze to his hand. I-I got

angry. The image of the punched-in wall in Hold 6 came to my mind. I put his hand down as gingerly as I could to wipe away my tears. Charlie saw them and nearly became hysterical with regret. Im sorry, Addie. Im sorry! Im sorry! Please dont cry! Im gonna find him and Ill make him regret any second of his life he spent hurting you. Ill make it up to you, okay? I promise Ill make it right. I tried to find the words, tried to find the feeling. Yet everything was mush in my brain. I reached for the glass of water

and chugged it in a single gulp. Charlie, I pleaded. You have to slow down. Dont pull a Polo on me. He looked up and smiled. It was without question the greatest thing I had ever seen. I ran my hand through his hair and wiped at my own tears. After a moment I started again. I-Im not really sure what youre talking about, Charlie. He frowned again. I could sense he was worried for my mental well-being. Wallace. I pulled away, coiled myself into the blankets and made myself as small as I could. I hadnt thought about him since

Charlie all but promised he wasnt on the ship. What was it he was saying to me now? Charlie saw my fear and reacted. You gotta tell me what happened, he repeated. His face went stoic again, his voice all stone. No. Addie No. My voice was stronger now, more resolute. You have to tell me what happened. Are you saying that-that person is here? What? How? The room began to close in on me and the air became nonexistent. He stared at me with a new sort of

confusion and concern mixed together. I could see by the way his brow furrowed that something deep was disturbing him, though I wasnt entirely sure what. Yuri heard through some old friends that Wallace was sneaking around the dock when we left port in New York. He called Yuri bout it cause it seemed strange. What seemed strange? Wallace was rummaging through the shipping containers. When hewhen you He swallowed hard and hung his head. I took his face in my hands to make him look at me. Ben told him he wouldnt be working

with us again, but he also said he wouldnt be getting paid, neither. Ben and Wallace aint never liked each other. Actually, nobody ever liked Wallace, but Wallace said hed be getting his fair share whether we wanted him to or not. What, so he might be on this ship? What do you mean might? The abrupt rising of Charlies voice startled me. I felt him slip from my hands as his body slumped to the floor. How else did you get yourself in that hold? II was trying to bide my time, I confessed. You went in there by yourself? He sounded shocked by the mere suggestion.

I nodded. Nobody made you? I shook my head. I was trying to stay a step ahead. Its stupid, I know, but it was the only advantage I had You were hiding? I nodded. From me. Charlie looked at me then. His lip wavered and his eyes were damp with new tears. I could never I know. I couldnt ever I know. No, you dont. He pulled himself

up, sighing, and sat on the bed. I let him, trying to deny how good it felt to have him that much closer to me. When the storm started dying down, I came back up here. He stifled a laugh. I didnt care what the guys said, I was gonna beg you to forgive me, ask you to come away with me when we made port. My emotions were going to betray me. I could feel them begin to give way, and it was all I could do not to throw myself into his arms and just make him hold me for the rest of my life. But when I got here the place was a mess, more than usual, anyways. He produced one of his Charlie grins for me. I

swear that he must have known it would undo me. My books were all ripped up, the computer broke. I aint real sure what he was looking for. He was here? My heart stopped altogether. He ruined your sketches? Charlie seethed. I dont care bout that, Addie. Damn pillow case got stabbed, and the lamp looked like Polo did something to it! I thought for sure you were a goner, too. I looked over Charlies shoulder. Large pieces of paint and plaster were missing from the wall where it had been smooth and flat. I could see the smallest shards of glass and plastic that someone

had missed during the clean-up. I guessed it was from the laptop, though it could have been from the light bulb of the lamp. In the lamps place was a work light with a high fluorescent bulb. I was grateful it was shining away from me, as my eyes still stung from my pity party. I still dont understand, I confessed. While I was grateful Charlie was safe, and that I had miraculously missed Wallaces visit, my main priority was the throbbing ache in my chest. Why would Charlie pretend to care about me when it was so much easier to break me? If you didnt mean any of those things, then why did you say them? I

shifted uncomfortably in the cocoon. Maybe this was something I didnt want to hear. I knew I had to, though; this would keep me from being stupid in the future. Everybody knows who you are now, he explained. Even when you go home, you aint gonna be safe from people like Wallace. Our competitors are going to wanna know as much bout us as the cops are. I figured if you hated me, then maybe you would just tell everybody whatever they wanted to know and theyd leave you alone. Hell, have a press conference. His eyes grew a little darker as he gripped the bed sheets. He seemed to be

somewhere else in that moment, a place I couldnt touch even if I wanted to. What are you saying? Are there people out there who are going to hurt me? It had never even occurred to me before that my safety would still be in jeopardy when I got home. Not if I can help it. His eyes narrowed as he stared at a point on the wall. I reached out and laid my hand against the crook of his elbow. His flesh was rosy warmth compared to my icicle fingers, and I had the strongest urge to coil my entire body around his, to smother out the fire that burned him inside. With Charlies temper enflamed, I

knew he could cause considerable pain to himself and others. And while I wasnt going to be an advocate for a person who had tried to kill me, someone who would hurt Charlie if given the opportunity, I didnt want Charlie to reveal himself either. If he gave in to that darkest piece of him and let his anger take over, he might make a move that would result in his undoing. The idea was like a fuzzy kind of terror, itching at my insides and willing me to tear it apart. I didnt want to imagine what sort of trouble Charlie could get into if his rage had a mission, a target. Charlie, please The sound of my voice seemed to

bring him back to me. He turned and smiled sadly. It wasnt a Charlie smile, but it would have to do. You have to keep your promise, I whispered. No matter what happens, you cant let yourself get hurt, especially on my account. In the swiftest of motions, he scooped me in his arms and enclosed me there; the same strength that once held me captive was now keeping me safe. Listen, I dont want to be without you. He whispered the words in my ear, a secret just for us. As long as I got a breath in me, I aint ever gonna let anybody hurt you.

I laughed into his shoulder. Thats very sweet, Charlie, but not very practical. He started untangling the ends of my hair. Not everything in life is sensible. Sides, aint nothing practical bout being alive if you aint alive, too. Please dont say things like that. I pressed my face into his chest. I didnt want to see his expression while he said that. I was too afraid he could mean it. A knock at the door interrupted. I could feel Charlie tense against me, his body rising to shield mine. A part of me wanted to smile at the gesture, while the remaining part of me worried at his

natural response. What are we up to in here, kids? Ben Walden stood in the doorway of the cabin and cleaned his glasses with the end of shirt. It was the first time I had ever seen him dressed down. And although he still wore a collared shirt, I couldnt help but notice it was slightly wrinkled and untucked. Charlie only pulled away from me enough to consider Ben in the door. I shielded myself from his intentional affection though, and huddled myself back in the blankets. Anything? Charlie asked him. Ben placed his glasses back on. Every

movement was slow, strategic even. The captain has been gracious enough to lend us some stewards who are re-searching the cabins, the bow, and stern storage, but there hasnt been anything so far, Im afraid. Charlie swore under his breath and tried to clench his broken fist. He winced at the pain and I reached for him. I cradled the broken hand in mine and looked it over. You need to ice this. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Ben Walden smiling. Charlie brushed a piece of hair back from my eye. Though I adored his touch, I

also felt self-conscious as Ben observed. You do know what this probably means? Yeah. Charlie never took his gaze from mine. Yeah, I know. I pulled away, then, and looked directly at Ben Walden. There was still something that hadnt been shared with me, a piece of the puzzle that I hadnt been privy to. Um, what does this mean? Ben smiled at me with a certain sort of sadness and certainty in his expression. I felt a twinge of fear. What was it that I didnt know? If our dear friend stowed away on a container and we cant find him onboard,

and if he is in fact onboard, which is looking more and more likely, then hes probably biding his time. Im gonna find him. Charlie finally looked at Ben as he acknowledged the solution out loud. There was once again something unspoken between them, and I doubted it was anything good. He got that VFC between shifts? Charlie asked. Ben nodded grimly. Presumably, at some point yesterday evening with all of the confusion. I imagine its why he used Addie as a distraction. Briefly his gaze flickered on me, but I turned away, desperate to take the focus off me. I was

far too embarrassed to admit the truth of my own self-inflicted near death experience just yet. What is a VFC? A marine kind of transmitter, Charlie said. As I looked back and forth between the two men, I had some difficulty understanding the problem. I could barely stand being cooped up in the cabin for a few hours at a time. If they were suggesting that Wallace was in a potentially smaller space, and had been for nearly a week now, then he surely must have been going mad. I began biting the side of my nail.

Perhaps that was part of the problem. Instead of cooling off, Wallace had nothing but time to sit and stew over the money he had lost, focus on the blows he and Charlie had exchanged, and the loss of future income. Just like I had meditated on favored memories while I froze in Hold 6, Wallace had probably been revving himself up, thinking of every insult or foul play he imagined the gang had ever given him. Has he been there, in the container, this entire week? I asked. Likely. Given that we cant find that damned radio anywhere, and with todays destruction, I do suspect that day was his

first emergence from the hold. But how could he stand it? Ben smiled again. This time it was a genuine smile, light around the edges. It only takes a few rudimentary needs and a great deal of motivation for a man to subject himself to difficult conditions. As I looked at Charlie, I was worried again. The subtle sound of his teeth gnashing together was simmering in the room, and though I held his hand in mine, he still remained tense. Okay. I nodded. If hes in one of those things, then I couldnt believe what I was about to say. And though I did feel some shame at saying it, it was also

the first idea that had come to mind. Why dont you just leave him there? Now that you know hes there, what damage could he do? Ben sighed. Unfortunately, it isnt that simple. Now that our soon-to-be departed has a VFC, it will only be a matter of time before he can get a signal. With that, hell be able to contact anyone on the mainland, including the authorities, who would probably be quite delighted to deliver a missing girl to the embassy and extradite wanted felons. Charlie experienced my horror as I clutched his arm. I felt his muscles strain there, but he offered me no comfort and

continued to stare ahead. Why would he do that? Theyd extradite him, too. Wouldnt they? Well, he might not do that. Even if he did, however, Wallace doesnt have a criminal record in the United States. His offenses are elsewhere. I very much doubt the Singaporean government would bother with him. Wallace is probably aware of that as well. Ben sighed again. He seemed very tired suddenly, very old. A better case scenario is that he doesnt use the radio at all and just intends to keep us here, offsetting any profits for us for a time. Well lose our drivers, the ship will be

confiscated by the authorities, but if we manage to stay out of Changi, then well be stuck here for some time, Im afraid. Thats what he was looking for, wasnt it? Charlies smile was wicked in that moment. It made me shiver. Looking for what? I sounded shrill, and while I hadnt intended to, my voice had come out almost as a scream. My frustration had merged with my evergrowing concern for Charlie, and my heart and head couldnt take much more. What are we talking about when you say keep us here? Out of Changi? And what in the hell was he looking for? The room went silent. Ben Walden

looked slightly taken aback, but still no less dignified, while Charlie looked up at me with his small Charlie smile. Relax, Vicious. He took a moment to cup my cheek in his broken hand. I saw a visible flinch of pain there as he unclenched the knuckles. He looked at Ben and smiled. And she says I got a temper. Ben Walden rolled his eyes. After he couldnt find them in here, Wallace found all of our artificial documents in my cabin. Even when we do make port, it will take a considerable amount of time to return home without those documents. Of course thats a better case scenario. Changi Prison is obviously not one of the best.

We heard the sound of cackling and voices down the hall. Charlie rose to stand by my side, but after glancing down the corridor, Ben motioned for him to sit back down. As Charlie and I looked at each other, Ben ducked his head back in the room and smiled. It seems Polo is having trouble trying to convince our stewards to comply with the search. Why dont you go help motivate? Nobody follows captains orders? Ben laughed. It seems not when theyre ambiguous and repetitive. Were sending them on a search and they have no idea what theyre looking for.

I aint leavin. Abruptly, his eyes were on me then, no longer asking permission. Telling me he would stay forever if he had to. Im certain it will only take a moment. No. Go on. I promise I wont go anywhere. I smiled as best I could, but I had the feeling he could see through it. See, there you are! I gazed back at Charlie while Ben Walden pretended to check his watch. Its okay, I mouthed. Charlie blinked rapidly and rose, his glare now focused on Ben. You stay here

with her. He pointed his finger at each party as if to make the command more clear. Ben nodded firmly, but then turned back to me and winked. As Charlies footsteps echoed away from me, I felt cold reality seep in. Wallace was deadset on causing serious damage, not only to Charlie, but to Ben and the rest of the guys as well. He had subjected himself to living in a shipping container just to exact revenge. I feared whatever he had in mind was going to be momentously worse than just leaving them deserted in Singapore and causing their criminal enterprise to take a dive. Dont worry about him. As Ben

Walden walked into the cabin his face relaxed somewhat, but his posture remained rigid. For a moment I wondered if we were playing cards again. He looked at the abused crate with its open handles before dragging it over to the side of the bed, then using it as a chair. Once he settles down, hell start thinking properly. Hopefully at that point, we can figure out what to do. He removed his glasses again and rubbed the space between his eyes. Why is he doing this? I stared down at my hands in dismay. My question clearly intrigued Ben Walden. He looked at me and leaned

against the wall, his hands folded over his knee. Because he adores you. My head shot up. Simultaneously my heart forgot to beat. That, umI meant I swallowed hard, though my mouth felt dry. I wanted more water, but I was much too shy to ask. Why does Wallace hate you enough to do this? Im afraid this entire trip has been an ongoing disaster. He sighed. I dont know if Charlie Boy made you aware of this or not, but we werent even supposed to take that final truck. It was a last minute decision perpetrated by Wallace. I dug at the imaginary dirt under my

nails. How could I forget that first demonstration of Charlies temper? It was almost a happy memory, knowing how it would lead to the others. But what also amazed me was the coincidence. Charlie had never meant to be at that rest stop. I marveled at the sheer idea of it. What were the odds that he should have been there? What were the odds that I should have been there? In a way it was comical; without Wallace insisting on that final stop, I may never have known Charlie at all. This is my fault. The words were so soft I hardly even heard myself say them. If I had just minded my own business that

night I tried to laugh. Charlie should have just let him kill me. You cant say that. Ben Walden leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He stared me down now, only this time he wasnt playing. I mean it, young lady. Or if you do, dont ever let Charlie Boy hear it. Hell tear the limbs from anyone he thinks put the idea in your head. This was the Ben Walden that reflected the thieving and smuggling ring Charlie was a part of. His eyes were violent in the same way I knew Charlies fists could be. I wondered what that mind of his was truly capable of.

You have to understand, for as long as Ive known Charlie, he hasnt ever expressed a want for anything. That seems to have changed with you. I made myself look at him. I was shivering again and wished Charlie were there to hug the cold from me. I had hoped your spell over him would dissipate, or at least waver when we got to port. But when Charlie couldnt find you Ben Walden rolled his eyes again and crossed one leg over the other. With each of his movements, I could see the weariness. Had he been part of my search party, too? And Reid opened up that big mouth and started with the mermaid

jokes. I looked away, ashamed. I remembered what Charlie had said about my going overboard during the storm. Could I really have caused so much trouble? Ive never seen him like that before. Ben Waldens voice changed. He was quiet now, more contemplative. When he gets upset, things tend to happen, people get hurt or objects get broken. Ben rubbed the end of his chin. I wished he would stop talking, I didnt want to hear what he was about to say. The syllables would form sentences I didnt want to touch, reveal truths I didnt want to

acknowledge. This was entirely different, though. The four of us had to hold him back from throwing himself in the ocean after you. Stop. I couldnt take it anymore. The idea that my stupidity had nearly made Charlie kill himself made me queasy. I saw dark spots in front of my eyes when my mind envisioned the scene. I grabbed onto my stomach. Though it was empty, I thought I might be sick. Ben Walden sighed. Id like to blame you, though it wouldnt be very factual. He laughed and stretched his legs out in front of him. He began talking again, though I couldnt hear him. I ignored him

completely, fearful that he might contribute more to the all-too-clear picture I had of Charlies end in my mind. Wallace stole from me once before. Of course I couldnt prove it. Bens voice came in and out, static with the fuzz in my brain. Which is partly why I informed him he wouldnt be paid this time. Frankly, however, his lack of obedience in regard to what we were going to do with you was just the excuse I needed to terminate his employment. He laughed then, a low, bitter sound. After Charlie defended you, I should have just paid Wallace. I certainly underestimated how badly things could get

out of control here. A kidnapping! He smacked himself in the forehead. I tried to smile. No one can predict the future. I never considered that Charlie might want you, nor that you would live. His laugh increased, grew heartier, livelier. Thats right. But we can try. My prediction is that if Wallace doesnt kill me, hell most certainly kill Charlie Boy! I didnt know what to say. How could Ben Walden be so casual about someone he considered a friend? All I knew was that, no matter what happened, Charlie had to be okay. In the end, Charlie had to be okay.

I-I dont want anything bad to happen to him. I dont care about how you guys make your living or how you have to justify yourselves. I rubbed both sides of my temple to ward off the impending headache. I just care about him. Ben Walden leaned forward again and smiled. This time it was a Ben Walden smile. He reached out and patted the end of my blanketed foot. It was strange to witness him trying to be a source of comfort. If I didnt already know that, dear, do you think you would still be alive? I nodded through the shiver. As terrifying as it was, I did, in fact, know

that. An idea occurred to me then, an almost insane notion, though as it turned in the wheels, it was not quite out of the realm of possibility. Thats how it was supposed to be, though, wasnt it? Ben Walden wasnt stupid. Even Yuri had said that I was evidence in their long series of crimes, something left behind in an otherwise carefully organized plan. I considered the abandoned house and how easily Ben Walden agreed to let me go free. If what he said now was true, then the organization of his plan had already been destroyed by Wallaces greed. I doubted he would have ever taken the risk

of leaving me alive, regardless of any promise I may have made. Pardon me? You never intended to let me leave that house. He smirked. Think about it, though. His laugh was almost indecisive. If you had been here when Wallace rummaged through the place, youd surely be dead by now. Sort of funny, isnt it? Yeah. I grimaced. Hilarious. You really are too smart for your own good, young lady. The words hung in the air like something heavy. I didnt know what else to say. How could I respond to something

like that? Perhaps Ben wouldnt hurt me or order anyone else to do so for the sake of Charlie. But that very well could be the only reason for his mercy. I went slack at the sound of Charlies footsteps. I knew they were his just from the swiftness of the steps alone, and I was monumentally grateful that he was coming back to me. Charlies eyes darted from me to Ben before settling on Ben. What did you do? I felt myself light up, ready to dive into him if he would let me. Ben looked me over and returned his glance to Charlie. Oh nothing. We were

just discussing things. Outta here, he instructed. Now. Ben smiled at me and took his leave. While I was glad for his honesty, I was even happier to see him go. There was only so much honesty I could handle in a single sitting. After a moment of shushed whispers and more profanity, Charlie returned. I was practically bouncing on the bed, overjoyed to have him to myself. Are you okay? He smiled as he sat next to me. Right as rain. I looked toward the sky. His smile grew wider. What did I

tell you bout lying? I nuzzled myself against his arm and felt the muscle go slack there. What did I tell you about getting angry all of the time? He tensed again, but pushed himself closer to me. Everybody round here talks too much. I walk in here and you look like youre bout to keel over. He pulled my face away from his, squaring my chin between his hands so I was forced to look him in the eye. Ben telling you things he shouldnt have? I shrugged, tried to seem indifferent. Only true things. He growled low in his chest and

pulled me back to him. I oughta start welding lips shut. Its okay. They were things I needed to hear. We were silent for a few moments and I enjoyed the feeling of his heartbeat aligned with my own. I listened and waited, only after several moments realizing that I hadnt been counting them. You sure youre okay? I laughed again and nodded into his shirt. I could smell the fresh scent of soap and cigarettes. I squeezed him tighter. Yes. I quivered as I felt his lips on my forehead. You know, if the circumstances were different, you

wouldnt have to be so protective of me. He laughed. That aint hard to imagine. You got more than enough in that pretty little head of yours to take care of yourself. I pulled away and sat up. It felt good to stretch the muscles that had gotten cramped. What were you and Ben talking about just now? Charlies eyes followed my expression. Theres some food missing from the pantry, kind of stuff nobody would think to look for. I froze. So Wallace definitely was here. There was no denying the danger Charlie was in now.

I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth. I see. He stood up then, wrapping his arms around me when he saw me shiver. Its still okay, right? I nodded and leaned into him. Im sorry, Addie. I wont let you be afraid of me again.

Chapter 14

I sat back on the bed, bundled up in one of Charlies sweatshirts. I zipped it all the way to my chin and pulled the hood over my head, basking in the Charlie smell. It was helpful, as my clothes were still

soaking wet. I also sipped from time to time at the water Charlie brought for me, trying not to chug it all and hear the swooshing in my empty stomach. Im sorry your sketchbooks got trashed. Every few minutes I would plow my brush through my hair, desperately trying to detangle the mess. Charlie watched me as I paced the room. I saw his eyes lull as he sat on the bed, hesitating to reopen after blinking. I dont care bout that, he repeated. He smiled at me lazily. He was losing his fight against sleep. I sat next to him and wrapped my arms around his waist. Well, I do. In fact, I

care so much, I actually The sketchbook! The only thing I thought I would have left of Charlie. Had it been lost in my stupidity? My bag, where is it? I tried to dive from the bed but Charlie caught me before I could secure a landing. Concerned, he plopped me back on the bed and stood up, but he never took his eyes from mine. I held out my hands like an expectant child while he handed me the soaking bundle. I clapped my hands excitedly. Although the cover was wet, and the edges of the first few pages were damp, the sketches themselves were still intact. What?

I wanted to take something of yours with me, I admitted sheepishly. Though I was embarrassed, it was minimal compared to the amount of relief I felt at knowing I hadnt destroyed the last sketches Charlie had on board. Charlie looked down at the floor. He seemed sad again, although I didnt understand why. I half expected laughter and pointing, but sadness seemed like the last response. This is my favorite I was more confused than ever until he flipped open the back cover of the sketchbook and handed it back to me. I was taken aback by the first drawing with

its abnormal shading and underlined attention to the figure at the center of the page. Charlie had drawn me, sitting on the bed almost as I was now, in perfect detail. The page before it was similar, like a distant black and white photograph. I was staring off the deck into the sea. When had he done these? In other instances I was sleeping on my side or untangling a knot from my hair, but they were all me. All of them were me in various moments wed been together over the last few days. Those first sketches you drew of me, when you first brought me here? He nodded, but looked down at his work. Yeah, I think I ready knew then

that I loved you. He smiled and pulled the sleeve of the sweatshirt away from my face. I know when you leave here, I aint ever gonna see you again. Youll be in the papers and TV and stuff, but that aint the same. He laughed and sat back down on the bed beside me. So its funny. I guess I wanted to take something of yours with me, too. The blush took over before the words even came out. You kind of had that opportunity last night. I aint gonna ruin you. The remainder of my will was gone. I threw myself into his arms, leaving the rest of the blankets behind. The sudden

rush of air that hit me made me start to shiver again, but he hugged me tighter, holding me about as close as someone can hold another human being. I seized the back of his neck and held on for dear life. I never wanted him to let me go. You should have just told me what was going on, with Wallace being here and everything, I whispered. He squeezed me tighter. Nah, its better if you hate me. I laughed, kissed his tattoo. I tried and couldnt, you fool. I couldnt hate any of you. Not even Reid? He pulled away to look me in the eyes.

I laughed again, all at once feeling ecstatic and overwhelmed at Charlies proclamation. Listen, though. He tried to get serious again. Well make port in a few hours, and if we dont find Wallace by then, we could be in for some trouble. Only a few hours? Though I was ashamed to admit it, I didnt know which prospect seemed bleaker: the idea of going home without Charlie, or the idea of Charlie being in danger. He nodded grimly. You were gone all night. I never thought to look in that hold again after I left there, and all the other ones were searched. His face

became dark again. His glance lost mine. Truth be told, I only started rummaging round there when I heard your teeth chatterin. He took my mouth and inspected it like a dentist. Other than that, Addie, you were so still and cold. Your lips were blue. I thought maybe you left for good. He shook his head as if unable to complete the thought. I pushed my forehead up against his. Hey, Charlie? Yeah? Im really glad you found me. Addie, you maybe He smiled, kissed me on the nape of my neck. Im real glad you found me.

I couldnt help but giggle. Charlie laughed in my ear. I love when you do that. Stop trying to change the subject. What were you going to say? He laughed even louder and threw his head back. It was good to see him happy. It made me warm on the inside. You aint gonna let me get away with that, are you? Nope. I was saying that I wanted you to call your family. It can only be for a few seconds, but you need to do it. Theyve loved you your whole life and youve been gone for days. Ive just loved you for

the better part of a week and losing you just bout drove me crazy. It aint no wonder why your old man is making such a fuss My mouth silenced his by plummeting the two together, an act that he accepted and actively participated in. I could taste the fresh flavor of clove, tobacco, and mint while I eagerly took his lips as my own. He latched onto me, desperate and grateful to touch, to please. Any remainder of a chill that lingered in my body immediately fled as my muscles seemed to melt in his hands. But once again I cursed my functional lungs when they begged for breath and pulled away when they pleaded

for release. What, he gasped, was that for? I smiled at the shadow of his rapidly growing beard. Just to make sure you understand how you inspire me. He sighed and shuddered all at once. You got no idea what that means to me. For a while we just held each other in the blankets and shredded quilts that consumed most of the bed. With his fingers, he attempted to untangle the mess of my hair while I forced him to elevate his damaged hand and keep it unmoving. Doesnt this hurt? Im used to it. I remembered the cigarette burn and frowned. I didnt like

the sound of that at all. Charlie, why does it have to be that we cant see each other after all this? I felt him tense up instantly. Addie, I dont expect you Again, I put my finger to his lips to silence him. Just hear me out, okay? He was still clenched, bracing himself. Things will probably be crazy for awhile. Im not nave enough to not know that. But after some time when things cool off, we could meet somewhere. He opened his mouth to speak again, but I wouldnt let him. There are colleges and universities all over the world, Charlie. I can find one and be anywhere

you are. It aint that simple, Addie. Im a thief. Thats who I am, thats what Ill always be. I dont know how to do nothin else. Thats not true and you know it. You shouldnt be stupid for me. Just listen! Im not asking you to do anything else, Charlie. I dont like how you make your money, but all you have to do is be you and Im going to be around. Have you ever heard any of those stories about crazy, stalker people? I pointed to myself dramatically. Well, I, sir, intend to be one of them. I pulled him close while he smiled.

Im going to have you whether you like it or not. His eyebrow shot up. Youd chase me? I attempted my best imitation of an angry Charlie. It wouldnt be an option. We kissed once more, our laughter blending in together like so many shades of blue and green. We compromised about calling Dad, deciding that calling Robbies cell phone would be less dangerous for everyone involved, as the odds were it would go right to voicemail and there wouldnt be a trace on it. Even if there was, keeping the

phone call less than fifteen seconds wouldnt be enough to secure our location, while at least telling Dad and Robbie I was alive. After that, Charlie would throw the cell phone into the ocean and we would be in Singapore within a few hours. I tried to straighten myself up as best I could. My ankle still throbbed a little, but the swelling was down significantly from the night before, so I knew it was only a sprain. Charlie lounged on the bed, his hands clasped behind his head, watching me thoughtfully. Do you want me to carry you? I smiled wistfully. Im okay.

What if I wanted to carry you? He reached his long arm behind my knees and pulled me over to him until I fell over his shoulder. I heard myself laughing. No way. Though I tried my best, I only managed to hobble out to the stairwell about halfway before Charlies arms tangled around me and lifted me off the floor. Oh, come on! I aint waiting round forever. Thats ridiculous. I feigned annoyance and crossed my arms over my chest. But neither one of us could pretend I didnt enjoy being in Charlies arms. I

wasnt going that slowly. I felt the morning sun on my face and flinched at the brightness, though I was glad to see the sun had finally gotten through. Youre right. He grinned. Sides, I would wait forever. He took my hand and led me to the same edge of Deck A, where he had first held me in his arms and I had been so grateful for the touch. He dug into his pockets and presented me with a small flip phone that was almost false-looking from its thin plastic veneer. Remember He hesitated in handing it to me. Fifteen seconds. Okay, okay. I was bouncing on my

toes. I dont need a lecture. Charlie was reluctant in handing me the phone. I could sense something was amiss when the flesh of his fingers touched mine, though what it was exactly had not become quite clear to me just then. I suspected a great deal of his stress had to deal with his tiredness. When Im done with this, you should go take a nap. No. His voice was firm. I smiled. He sounded like a stubborn child. Why not? He shrugged. I only get so much time with you. I dont want to spend it sleepin.

I was overwhelmed with Charlies open fondness for me. It caused a feeling of warmth in me. While I had always been a member of a loving family, it had never exactly been an expressive one, and now someone who I cared for immensely brought no hesitation to the table to show those same emotions toward me. It was more than a little intimidating. Without the proper words to express myself, I brushed the stubble back on Charlies chin, kissing the peak of his bottom lip. Robbie picked up on the first ring. This alone put me off because I knew they didnt allow him to have phones at the

base. I figured Dad might pick up, but if I got lucky enough, I would get voice mail. Hello? Robbie? Addie! Addie, where are you? Are you okay? Although he was shouting, I struggled to hear him over the shuffling of something in the background. The sound of an object crashing reached my ears and I heard Dads voice. Robbie, Im okay. Tell Dad Im okay before he hurts himself. It sounded so good to hear their voices again, I felt my innards ache to be home. Addie, just tell us where you are and Dad and I will come and get you. Dad

and Robbie were trying to shout into the phone, asking questions and saying my name. I smiled, I could easily picture them fighting over the receiver. I cant do that, Robbie. They both went silent. Why, Addie? Are you hurt? Just Im okay, Dad. Im completely unhurt and Ill be home soon. You have to take my word on this one. Addie, please, just tell us where you are. I promise everything is okay. I love you guys, please dont worry. Then I hung up before they could say anything else.

I handed the phone to Charlie, unaware my hand was shaking from the short interaction. Maybe what set me off the most was knowing how far away I was from it all, how much had changed in such a short amount of time. Charlie threw the phone into the dark waves, though it was easily lost by the rays of the sun and I never saw where it landed. I nodded and smiled stiffly. I could feel the sun and salt in my skin and suddenly I felt gross and repugnant, dirty and unclean. The need to refresh myself was almost unbearable. I think I need to get cleaned up.

Charlie only nodded and we walked across the deck hand in hand, this being my only comfort as I thought of my worrisome dad and brother who were probably more worried than ever. I only hoped my calm demeanor hadnt worried them further. After I used the restroom, I washed my face and hands, then brushed my teeth, using my finger and some toothpaste. It was far from ideal, but I did feel better. I then pulled my hair up, even taking the time to use the bobby pin in my pocket before looking at myself in the mirror. The bruises around my neck were all but gone faded yellow markings, that bordered

on healed. As per our routine, Charlie was standing outside the door, yet he stared at the floora third cigarette in his mouth when there were two smoked to the butt already on the floor. The second you step off this ship, youre gonna come to your senses. He smiled at the floor, the weight of the epiphany too much to keep his head up. Im real grateful, dont get me wrong. He laughed then, a sprained sound that choked on itself. I flinched at his sadness and pulled the sweatshirt closer around my neck; he wasnt even being sarcastic.

But the second you realize how crazy this is, youll get your head back. Its already started, hasnt it? Pretty soon, Ill just be a bad memory. Youre gonna live the rest of your life not even remembering you were the greatest thing that ever happened to me. No, Charlie, no. I took the cigarette from him and stomped it out with my shoe, though truthfully it was somewhat pointless, considering it was all but gone anyway. Im not leaving you behind. I closed my arms around his waist as tightly as I could and stretched until I could feel my wrists touching on the other side. I wanted to squeeze all the doubt

from him, comfort him as much as he would let me. I plan on loving you until the day I die. I felt him flinch at the mention of potential death, so I retreated. So there! I stuck my tongue out at him, and made the strangest facial expression I could manage. I was grateful that he smiled a little for me, though I had to admit, it wasnt much. Will you stay with me for a while? he asked. His voice seemed so small then, nearly inaudible. I smiled against him. You know I will. Once inside, I made him take his boots

off and lie down. His eyes fluttered shut within a matter of seconds. Despite my efforts, I too, felt the heaviness of sleep drift against my eyelids. Outside the cabin, I could hear men walking around, chatting in different languages while whistles went off, signaling who only knew what. In his sleep, Charlie pulled me closer, possessive even in this state. I listened to the rhythmic heartbeat in his chest, thinking I would only let him sleep for a little while so he wouldnt be angry, but enough for him to actually rest. I was having a flashback. Wallace. The fear. My impending end.

Dying. I was dreaming again, right? This was just a nightmare, another awful, terrible expression of my overworked imagination? I shouted out, though it was cut short as he hit me in the face. When the pain came, it was harsh, forcing my vision upside down as my head lulled to the side. Shut up! A sharp pain reached me again at my scalp. I could smell the stench of body odor, grease, and fuel. It was everywhere as he yanked me by my hair, dragging me across the room and out the door. I tried kicking my way out, feeling one

of my sandals slip off as I did so. Charlies cabin edged farther away as I was pulled down the hall. I screamed out again while trying to scratch at the hand that held me. His spare hand hit me again. I could taste blood, though where exactly it came from I wasnt sure. I heard whimpering, and felt instant shame when I realized the sound was coming from me. I was so pathetic, unfocused, and unsure. I reopened my eyes and tried to make myself aware. Even my worst daydreams had never felt this real. Why wasnt Charlie waking me up? It could have been like my favorite of Poes poems, A Dream

within a Dream, without the romance. I retraced the dream in my head. It hadnt been a long one, and it was simple enough. The sound of the storm returning had awoken me from my sleep, and I squirmed my way from Charlies embrace, thinking I could get some water and be back before I had to wake him. But then something, someone large and terrible, grabbed my arms. I was pulled into a familiar entryway with container holds. You shut the hell up! Once inside Hold 6, Wallace pulled me up only to shove me back down to the floor. I picked myself up, still tripping

over my bare feet and sprained ankle. Wallace pushed me back down and laughed. As I landed, the air was knocked from me. I was sure my lungs were broken, deflated balloons that could never inflate again. I was confident I was going to die from that single act alone. I felt the tears on my face; the salt they produced stung something on my mouth. Cant believe this crap! He delivered a kick to my side. Cause of you Im out of a job. And if Walden thinks he isnt going to pay me for this gig, hes got another thing coming. Stop, please! He laughed and pulled me by the hair

once more across the maze of containers and past the first deck of webs. He was yelling about something, calling me names that were lost in the wind and the sound of the blood rushing to my ears. I shut my eyes and turned off my head. I tried to scream again, yet the sound didnt come. I envisioned Charlie, but his image was fuzzy against the pounding of my skull. The most ominous feeling of dread fell over me that no one would be coming to save me. No one was coming to rescue me this time. I was just going to snap this pretty little neck. But given the way that hillbilly

looks at you, Im going to make sure to finish you off nice and slow. His laugh rang in my ears, echoing against the metal containers. I looked away from him then, his face an easel of bruises and scabs that Charlie had painted. The best part, he ranted on, is that Im going to make him watch. Too bad Waldens old lady and kid arent here. I fell from his hand and heard the jingling of chains as they fell from somewhere close by. I tried to scream again, but he grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me inside the confessional. I screamed until my throat felt like roaring acid, then tried to shout it out, the tears

getting stuck in my throat. Yet for all my efforts, the sounds caused no effects. Dont worry, Im going to go get your boyfriend right now. The sour of his breath came to me. And just then it was easy to imagine him in the dark, just waiting and planning for the perfect time to strike. By the time Im done with you, youll wish I had done you in right the first time. No way Im getting shoved out cause of some stupid little bitch! No, no, no, no. Whether I called out loud or whether the words remained in my head is unclear. Ironically, the most helpful element was the dark, which prevented me from seeing any blood or

other stains of body fluid which I knew had to be caked on those surfaces. Instead, my head was stuck on more current events, like my worrisome Dad and that wonderfully handsome jerk above, who I prayed would be okay. I could deal with dying. I had figured that was going to happen before my time with Charlie was through, but despite everything, I couldnt stand the idea of him being hurt. I knew now what was worse; I could live a life without Charlie. If I went home and couldnt find him later, I could at least envision him happy somewhere in the world. But if he was dead, then there would be nothing left to wish for, no hope.

Standing up, I tried leveraging myself against the door. There wasnt enough light in the booth to see anything but shadows, and even through the heavy faucet of tears, I could smell the rust of the rainwater. Still, I tried not to think of Charlie. Keeping my focus allowed me not to panic. I could feel how tender my face was without having to look at itthe swelling of my lip with my bleeding gum. The wind continued to throw itself against the sides of the containers walls. The confessional began to creak as a particularly harsh gust of wind came through the bellows of the holds ceiling. I glanced up just as the invisible enemy

rocked the entire booth on its back. Immediately I tried to kneel forward. The pain on my ankle was severeI had forgotten myself and put all of my weight there. No, no, no. I pushed and pushed some more, but the hatch from the outside refused me completely. Rain poured in from the intricate patterns on the door. And though I leaned on my toes in an attempt to see the door handle and what might be preventing it from opening, the rain and the dark blocked any potential vision. Horror gripped me. What was I going to do now? How was I supposed to get out

of here? Any chance for survival was nil if I waited around until someone let me out. I braced myself and leaned on my good ankle, ramming all of myself into the door with my shoulder. I called out with the pain. Worse yet, the door hadnt even moved. On the opposite side, I wanted to try the other door, but it was against the steel panels of the floor and refused to move. I found myself having some difficulty breathing. Where had all of the air gone? Like a wild woman, I began beating my fists on the door. I think I was screaming, too, because later my throat hurt, but I dont remember for certain.

Even if someone had been around, I doubt they would have heard me over the rain and the wind. Every so often, thunder and lightning crackled in the sky. I had been buried alive and the weather was drowning me out. But I had to get out before Wallace came back. I would be lucky if I had four or five minutes. Something tore my hands, and my ankle throbbed, but I continued to hit and throw myself at the door. My feet kicked at the floor of the confessional, hurting both my damaged and undamaged ankle. Still, nothing gave way. I felt the time pass as the sun was making its meager attempt to break through

the sky. And while I probably should have felt relieved, I couldnt help but wonder why I was still alive. Did torturing me no longer appeal to Wallace? Or had something else occurred? What if something had happened to the ship during the storm? What if Charlie was hurt? I pulled my hands out of the sweatshirt pockets, rubbing them together. Overall, neither of these methods was very effective, as I could now see the shady underline of purple at the end of my fingertips. Everything about me was numb except the possibility that Charlie could be in trouble. In the midst of it all, I saw a

kaleidoscope in varieties of blue and green, midnight green to be exact. If there was even the slightest chance that Charlie needed me or my help, then I was going to be there. Now that there was a little light available to me, I strained my eyes and pried my hand through the carved patterns of the confessional door. Even with my slim hands, I could only manage to reach through with my thumb and first two fingers. The fit was tight but I tried not to focus on that and concentrate instead on the cold metal lock. The rain made my fingertips slip, and the cold made me think at first that the

lock itself may have been a block of ice, keeping me inside. But as I arched my back forward and used my weak torso for further leverage to see lower, I could see it was a padlock. My mind raced while I remembered what Charlie had said about tumbler locks being the most common kind of locks. Though the odds were unlikely, I thought maybe I could pick it without a wrench, or without seeing the keyhole properly. I was half-tempted to start crying again, knowing how unlikely I was of success. Still, in spite of the hopelessness, my inner overachiever wouldnt be satisfied until I gave the task everything.

I took the bobby pin from my hair and held it between my thumb and forefinger. If there ever was a time to concentrate, now was the time. Although the worst of the storm was over, the rain continued on through the slants of sunlight. I silently cursed the rain for blocking the warmth, for making my teeth chatter. But at the same time, I counted the hollow sound of the pitter-patter as it echoed through the hold. I counted backward from one hundred and began again. As my thumb and ring finger escaped from the confessional, I continued to count, but I also tried to channel Charlie. Although his large hands would never be

able to conquer this, I could imagine him thinking up something clever. A very small piece of me hoped he would be proud of me when I escaped. If I ever did. I found the bottom of the lock where the keyhole was. This was the easy part. My hand wouldnt stretch any farther. A sob escaped me with the frustration, but I pushed my hand forward, watching my knuckle claw its way to the outside, leaving fragments of flesh as a sacrifice to the ancient wood. I bit down on my tongue to keep from crying out. I didnt know why Wallace hadnt come for me yet, but for all I knew

he was right around the corner and all he needed was a reminder that I was in here. So I kept my mouth shut and ignored the pain, clenching my fist to try and shake the pain loose once my hand was safety free. I sighed. Now if I could only get the rest of my body out of there. I held the bobby pin in my free hand and arched my back once again to help get a better look at what I was doing. Within moments, however, my torso and back hurt considerably and the pain caused my free hand to shake. I swore at my lack of situps and lay back down. I counted back down from one hundred. What if Charlie was dead? What if the

others had decided it would be funny to let me rot in here? How long would it take me to starve to death? What if? What if? What if? I tried again, this time propping myself up on my elbows and trying to rest some of my weight on my good ankle. As the bobby pin entered the keyhole, I heard an audible crack and I gasped, thinking I had broken it. I remained completely still for twenty-seven pitter-pattering drops before I braced myself and began moving the end. With a sigh, the last of the pins came undone. I wasnt even sure I had done it until I heard something like a click ring

out against the wind. I pulled back the hairpin and reeled in my hand as well, wincing but otherwise ignoring the pain. Excitement doesnt even quite begin to describe how I felt as I worked my way out of there. Even though my ankle stung with fresh pain, I kicked the door with both feet. I kicked with the same viciousness one might use to hit a piata, laughing and no longer caring if anyone could hear me or not. I felt dominant, victorious. I pushed with both arms, though they felt like weak string, and my legs, putty. After endless moments, I managed to create enough space between the open

door and the chains that held it shut to maneuver myself out. I arched and wiggled forward, my clothes and bare flesh sticking to the wood and velvet tapestry beneath me. I shuddered. It really could have been a coffin. Once outside of the confessional, I collapsed to my knees. My legs felt sore and stiff from lying flat for so long, but the pain was not unwelcome. I reached for my face and felt the wet there. I was crying and hadnt realized it. Pulling the hair back from my face and neck, I craned my neck to the sky and tried to stretch that out as well. It seemed the rain had stopped and only leftover water

dripped from the containers above. Clouds moved freely in the sky, tufts of white hovering around the blue and gray. I put my hand to my chest and counted the beats. How was I so fortunate to escape death multiple times in a single week? I pushed myself up with my hand, instantly regretting the act. Though it was still hard to see, I could make out the cuts I had given myself. Ironically, the damage I had done to myself seemed to be the worst of it. My head ached considerably, though it could have been from hunger in addition to being hit. And my ankle still ached.

I stood up and tried to walk. Dizziness overcame me immediately and my body threatened to black out. I took another step and felt the grinding pain in my ankle slip up my leg. I clenched my empty stomach. I hadnt frozen, so didnt need thawing out, but I could feel how weak my body had become. I reached out for something to hold onto, my fingers tingling when I tried to wrap them around a pillar in the hold. They felt slightly more comfortable as they gripped the pillar, though my shaking failed to stop. I tried to count the pitterpatter of leftover rain off the webbing, though it didnt help in the slightest.

Now I was free, but where was Charlie? A stampede of noise answered my question. I heard my name being called from outside the hold, and bellowed laughter. I hated to hear Charlie so distressed, and at the same time, I was so grateful to know he was still alive and capable of speaking. I dropped to the floor, not caring that I was soaking, and crawled beyond the pillar and past a segment of containers that was only stacked a few yards high. I felt water slow me down, stretching the cotton of the sweatshirt. The fear that Wallace or even Charlie might have seen me as they

barged in was overwhelming. Addie! The clanking of metal accompanied the laughter. Charlie called out for me again and again. I bit my tongue to fight my own tears. I could taste the blood from my assault on my swollen lip. Relax, loverboy, she isnt far! I peered around the corner, carefully insuring the hood of the sweatshirt was well secured over my head and face. Although I exposed one of my eyes, I saw Wallace pointing in the direction of the confessional, muttering something into Charlies ear. The worst of it was the knife pressed at his back; I could see it

glimmering in the light that struggled to get through. Bastard! Ill kill you! I knew calling out would give me away. And then what? Wallace might put me back in the confessional and that was if I was lucky. I had to stall. If I kept quiet, I could sneak out and get help. Where in the hell was Ben Walden or those brutes Yuri and Reid when a girl needed them? He called out for me again. I closed my eyes and felt the tears slip. I tried not to focus on the sadness I heard there, but he sounded so completely shattered that I couldnt stop it from breaking my heart. Damn! Something metal slammed again. I was hoping to drag that out. He

laughed some more. Must have hit her harder than I thought. A growl emerged from the depths of Charlie, though I knew he wasnt Charlie anymore. He had become that darkness inside of himself. He was letting the beast take over now, not caring about himself or the consequences of his actions. With my peripheral vision, I saw the clashing of limbs and a torso against a metal side, but I lunged myself from behind the container and began running down the gangway. If either of them noticed me, they didnt acknowledge it. Again, I was completely grateful for my ability to be invisible. Or maybe they did

see me and I was too consumed with getting help for Charlie to realize it. I knew I could only be helpful to him this way. I didnt feel the skin on my foot splitting open against the metal planks or the wind ripping against my face. I ignored the cramp in my side when it began and tried to pretend like the world wasnt moving agonizingly slow until I got to the door of the hold. I clamped onto each end of the large spinning wheel door and tried to budge it. The only thing that resulted was a groan that erupted from the lips of the door and my own divine swearing. Behind me something struck. I could

hear it echo as it landed on the metal floor; the sound of a body was unmistakable. I could see Charlie against the floor. He seemed quick to move, but his body only dodged more blows. Wallace had been slowed by his own injuries, and my eyes searched for some kind of hope. I didnt have to look far, finding it within shielded glass; I released the fire extinguisher from its cage with my elbow. It was only after the adrenaline wore off that I would feel the pain there, but the extra clothing prevented any skin from breaking. With whatever I had, I swung at Wallaces knees. Having his back to me,

he never saw me coming, never even expected me to be anywhere near him. So although I may not have bruised him as much as inconvenienced him, it was enough for him to turn his attentions away from Charlie. During their brief argument, my love had done something horrendous to the side of this mans face, as the muscle tissue and bone no longer fit into place, but rather slid off at the end of his left eye socket and draped down to his lip. I gasped when I saw it, felt my fingers grow weak with the weight of the fire extinguisher and it fell from my hands. As it landed and echoed, Charlie

pulled himself from the floor and charged at the small glint of light in Wallaces hand. Logic told me to try and hit him again, but both bodies were scrambling on top of each other at such rapid speed, I knew I could never be fast enough to target just one. Failing anything else, I ran back to the door and tried it again. This time I screamed, putting all of my weight into it as I pulled. Mid-scream I fell to the floor. The door was opened from the outside and I had less than three seconds to cover my head before Reid and Polo practically stepped on top of me.

Frankly, though, they could have stepped on me and I still would have been completely ecstatic to see them. Polo managed to brush by me with his Polo laugh, noticing somehow in the chaos that I was there. Hey! Hey! Sorry, Addie! More limbs and fists entered the tumbleweed of violence and I had to look away. As I did, Yuri ran past me, nodding in my direction. Ben Walden came through the doorway behind him, as placid as ever. Are you all right, dear? I nodded frantically, to which he patted me on the shoulder and walked into the chaos. For a brief moment, he turned

back to me. You should probably wait outside. I hardly needed to be told twice and stumbled my way out the door on shaky legs. Waiting.

Chapter 15

E xactly whatever Yuri and Polo did with Wallace, I never asked about, and no one ever volunteered the information. As the noise settled and only the pitter-patter of a gentle rain took its place, I knew the

danger was over. I slumped against the wall and pulled my knees against my chest to rest. My mind echoed in and out to the sound of boots stomping and Polo laughing, but I blocked it out as best I could. I wanted to count, but I didnt know how. I wanted to go home, but I didnt know the way. Hey. Charlies hand was warm against my cheek. I could feel myself relax. Let me take you home. Considering the company I was keeping, I guess I shouldnt have expected anything less than the personal luxury plane that had been commandeered for our

travel. Despite my lack of knowledge, I had to figure this was a leading-edge aircraft. Even judging from my brief glimpse at the engine span, I estimated that it was probably worth more money than I had ever seen. I reminded myself to ask questions later and keep my mouth shut for now, a trait that other people seemed to acquire when Ben or Charlie were around. I struggled to keep my legs steady as I soldiered up steps to the planes entrance, my ankle was still slightly swollen and my knees as steady as Jell-O. When I finally made it inside, Yuri was shouting something in his native language and Reid was already in the

cockpit, trying to adjust a headset and a number of switches and gauges that seemed far too complicated to follow. Oh man, oh man, oh man! There wasnt much of the narrow aisle left, but Polo still managed to pace diligently in the small space between the cushy, white leather seats. I guessed the plane could probably fit ten people comfortably. Did they own this? What happened back there? Later, Charlie said. He eased himself into one of the seats, his knuckles growing white as he clenched his abdomen. It was only now that my relief was wearing off that I noticed how pale he

was, how slow and winded his movements were, as they had been since limping from the hold. Charlie? He smiled at me, but it was thin and worn. He reached out for my hand and let his fingers dance on my wrist. The fear began when I saw how much they shook. And now that it occurred to me why they were all so eager to get back to the States and out of Singapore, the terror erupted in me as well. Its just a scratch. Promise. I sat next to him and began preparing myself. Leave lying for the liars. His smile looked more like a grimace,

but I pulled the hand away as gingerly as I could, careful not to aggravate the injury further. It was startling how the blood gushed freely without the barrier of his hand, and how it now began to seep into his shirt at a horrific speed. What in the hell were you thinking? I whispered. He reached for a lock of my hair and smiled. I was thinking bout you. I reached for his hand, but it went limp, the multicolor of lights in his eyes flushing shut when he closed them. I became frantic. Charlie? Charlie? His lack of movement stopped my breath, yet if he would just speak, or

move, even for a moment, then I knew that I could breathe again. Reid began cursing into the headset and kicking the co-pilot chairs. I hardly heard all of the noise over my own silent panic. He would be okay, right? This bleeding would stop and he would wake up and be fine? I took his wrist and clutched it to me desperately, brushing his fingers against my cheek and keeping my thumb and forefinger against his pulse. Youre not allowed to die, Charlie Hays. Its simply not acceptable. I bit my lip to keep my tears from spilling. Who else is going to keep me out of trouble? Despite the orchestrated alarm, Ben

Walden was at ease. It was eerie the way he walked around the cabin with his shirt sleeve drenched in the blood of the man I loved. Unlike Reid and Yuri, he was completely composed, almost indifferent to the possibility of his friend bleeding to death. Somehow they had managed to hide Charlies wound from me during the bedlam of Singapore and grabbing the nearest taxi. The realization angered me. I had been so eager to get off the ship and back on land, or perhaps eager to ignore the blood, assume it didnt belong to anyone I cared about. Damn it! What is it, Reid? Ben confirmed

Charlies pulse and sat in the seat adjacent to him. Why havent we taken off yet? I cant get confirmation that were clear. Wallace was the only one who could speak Mandarin. Most of the air traffic controllers speak English, but I cant get a goddamn one to clear me. Just go! Yuri yelled And crash into something else coming in? I hated it with every inch of me, but I let go of Charlie as gently as I could manage. The idea of leaving him even just to walk a few yards ahead was putting splinters in my heart, but at the same time I also had the feeling we werent going any

place at this rate, which meant he wouldnt get the medical care he desperately needed. So I whispered in his ear, Ill be right back, promise, and made my way to the cockpit, practically jumping over Polo. What do you have to say to them? I sounded much braver than I felt. Reid whirled around and glared at me; I had done nothing but cause him trouble. Get the hell out of here. While it may have been late in coming, the adrenaline was coming down on me hard. I didnt have time for Reid and his pettiness; Charlie was hurt and

needed help. If Reid was going to get in the way of that, then I would figure out a way to remove him from this current equation. I yanked the headset from him before he had time to respond. The only advantage I genuinely had was his underestimation of me. Furiously, he lunged for it, but was already buckled in his seat, so I just took a step back, completely stoic and waiting. I spoke the words into the small microphone and wrote down a series of numbers on a pad of notebook paper. A woman on the other end laughed at me, but spoke patiently enough that I sensed she

sympathized with me. Thank you. I spoke into the headset. If nothing else, I knew my basics well enough and there seemed to be plenty of individuals at air traffic who spoke Mandarin and well as Chinese. The other end beeped four times as she had directed and I pulled it from my head and pushed it back in Reids face. Youre good to go. I was positively seething. He gawked at me. Before we took off, I reclined Charlie back in his seat to elevate him. From an overhead deck, Ben pulled out a large tackle box and dropped it in the aisle.

He cleared his throat. Hes had worse. Nervously, Ben laughed and surveyed the menagerie of supplies that lay in the box. In actuality, it was a first aid kit stemmed together from what looked like all kinds of sets and various household items. I undid my seatbelt and slid back into the aisle. I could remember first aid and CPR training from summer camp. The anatomy I had learned from textbooks I could only hope would be useful to me now. Its okay. I tried to reassure both of us.

Whatever fears I had looming in my mind disappeared with the effort of the task in front of me. The scissors were easy to operate, and with them I removed Charlies shirt. If the situation were different, I might have enjoyed that very much, but I couldnt give myself the luxury of thinking on those things now. Having an assignment gave me the ability to be unbiased and focused. I ran through the first aid safety checklist in my head and put on a pair of dusty latex gloves after I scrubbed my hands with scorching hot water in the restroom. It seemed like such a stupid thing at this point, but it made me feel sturdy and professional, so much

unlike myself that I was even borderline confident. Small strips of loose fabric from his tshirt had somehow managed to get caught in the smallest fragment of the wound. With the most careful precision I think Ive ever maintained, I removed those loose threads. Ben flicked on the single passenger light above us and sat back down. With the newfound light, I could see his injury appeared to be fairly orderly in terms of its shape. I didnt know much, but I did know that anything jagged wouldnt allow the wound to close properly. Ben went back to talking with Yuri

and I went back to work. I cleaned the area with a mild disinfectant, also checking the expiration date, and being careful not to aggravate the injury further. Every so often I would glance up at Charlies face. I didnt want to think about why he was still unconscious and why every so often the core of the abrasion would gush with fresh blood. I taped down sterile gauze pads with an equal amount of pressure on both sides to try and keep the bleeding down. From there, I enclosed the wound in a tight bandage. It wasnt great, but it would have to do for now. Wherever were going does have a

doctor, right? I said to no one in particular. Ben nodded seriously. Everything will be taken care of. I stood up and wandered into the aisle. Is there any water around here? Eager to be active, Polo unbuckled himself and headed to the back of the jet where he made a ruckus of noise. Water? Water? Anybody water? He frantically started tossing the bottles to everyone. I was lucky enough to catch one just before it landed on Charlies head. Yuri caught one of the wild throws. Polo, youre the ugliest flight attendant Ive ever seen.

We all smiled, but it wasnt very heartfelt. Charlie was still unmoving, and as pale as anything I had ever seen. I sat back down beside him and unclasped the water, forcing some into his mouth. Even though he coughed reflexively, it was good to hear some kind of response from him. Every few moments I made him drink a little more. I rested my hand against his chest and continued to periodically feed him water. His eyes were sunken in and dark against the white of his normally tan complexion. But that wasnt what bothered me. What truly disturbed me was his lack of response to my touch. I brushed my hand

against his cheek, his forehead, and silently prayed for the flutter of an eyelash or the twitch of a lip. But the only movement came when I forced him to drink. I began whispering in his ear. Did you know that tigers have striped skin, not just striped fur? Did you know that the average person blinks about twenty-five times per minute? I brushed the hair from the side of his face and leaned against his shoulder. Did you know the human heart beats 100,000 times a day? I choked on my own words. You still have lots and lots to go today. How long until we get there? I

asked Ben. He looked to Reid for an answer. Youll have to ask that one. We finally caught a break, Reid answered. No reports of bad weather, going as fast as we can. Should be there in about fourteen hours. Fourteen hours? And that was a short amount of time? I tried not to seem disappointed, but I couldnt help it. Who knew how Charlies condition could be by then? Its usually like eighteen hours, Polo said. Its the worst. A couple of hours less is a lot better, right, guys? Bens focus seemed to be on a point

on the floor. Hmm? Oh sure, Polo. Absolutely. He stood up then and walked to the back of the cabin. When he returned, it was with a small humidor. Yuri and Polo declined the offer of a cigar, but Ben lit one up almost immediately. I checked Charlies pulse again. It was weak but steady. It was really his shallow breath that began to concern me. Put that out, please? I nodded to the cigar. The glare he gave me was almost threatening, daring me to ask again. Still, he produced a crystal ashtray from a side compartment and put out the butt without

complaint. As I watched his strangely graceful movements, I realized the unique opportunity I had at that moment, as it was very possible Charlie would never allow me to know any more about his past than I could read in a newspaper. But Ben Walden had known him for years, and Charlie was hardly in any position to object to a friendly interrogation. You and Charlie met in prison, right? Yuri craned his head from the window. At last the conversation seemed to interest him. Thats correct. Ben seemed unsurprised by the question, almost as if

he expected it, even. I remembered what the articles had said about their sentences and what they had done. I figured if Ben wasnt going to volunteer any information, then I was going to have to choose my questions wisely enough to gain as much data as possible. W-were you doing this kind of stuff before then? He smiled. I was doing work along these lines, yes. But Charlie Boy was still doing that mettling childs play. He waved the phrase away as though it disgusted him. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and

tried to prepare myself. I take it you arent referring to hopscotch? I like hopscotch! Polo jumped up and started jumping from one foot to the other in the aisle. As a young man he acted as a bit of a motivator for some of the less refined groups of the south. Ben scoffed at what seemed to be a fond memory. I could see the potential here He kicked Charlies leg fondly. So I took him under my wing. What was I supposed to say to this? I knew Charlie was capable of hurting people. I had seen and felt his anger inflicted on others. It was only too easy to

picture him as a brooding teenager, working as a leg-breaker (or whatever it was) because he thought it was his place. And while I only had a vague idea about jail from Hollywood and the media, I understood that gang life was something of a necessity. Still, the idea of some twisted Aryan ideals and Charlie looking toward them made me sad. Maybe he was young and stupid, I told myself. I looked at him and smiled. Was that what he had meant when he said I wouldnt love him after awhile? Im going to prove you so wrong, I whispered to him.

You need to stop taking people under your wing, Yuri mocked. You took Wallace under your wing, and cause of him, we got two dead people, a kidnapped girl, and Charlie got a hole in his gut. True, true. He weighed his hands out in mock balance. However, we also have one less share to split, Charlie has a girl, and we have rid ourselves of a troublemaker. Yuri began counting off the items. Life sentences for everybody, and all kinds of unnecessary heat. Ben groaned into his fist. Hmm, well, well take care of all of that when the time comes.

I didnt know whether or not it would be appropriate to apologize, but I had a compulsive desire to do so. I hated to be an inconvenience to people. Heck, I even hated asking the librarian for help finding something at the reference desk. But on the other hand, I hadnt asked to be kidnapped, either. And there wasnt any chance I would apologize for the way I felt about Charlie. Polo poured a handful of colorful candies in his mouth. The police wont be a problem, will they? No, Polo. The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them Not because of me, anyway.

I pulled my knees to my chest and created a veil with my hair, though it was impossible not to see the glare Reid gave me. I looked Charlie over and reached for the pulse at his neck. Though he was still abnormally pale, his pulse seemed stronger. I counted the beats there and remembered to breathe. The serpent bounced beneath my finger: one, two, three, four Does anyone have a phone I can borrow? Yuri eyed me suspiciously. The internet. I hoped my stare would shatter him.

Ben rolled his eyes at us. You kids play nice now. He then tossed a sleeklooking device in my direction, naturally I dropped it. My blush increased dramatically. Sorry, I muttered. I squished up into a tiny version of myself and concealed myself beside the shield of Charlies arm. He was feeling warm but not abnormally so; I hoped a fever wasnt threatening to settle in. It was peculiar to see myself right away when I tapped on the browser. The homepage was linked to a popular news site and there I was on a string list with a half a dozen of the days headlines.

No New Leads on Missing Honors Student The Federal Bureau of Investigation is actively pursuing the possible abduction of Adeline Battes, 17, missing since last Tuesday after she was last seen speaking with convicted felon Charles Hays, 29. Although no ransom demands have been made, Battes destroyed cellular phone was found several yards within a crime scene involving the death of truck driver Spenser Hanson, 46, and the theft of an unidentified number of computer staging equipment.

I clicked out and searched for a new link. I already knew most of that information. What I wanted to know, what I needed to know, had to be around here somewhere.

Suspect in Kidnapping now on 10 Most Wanted List Wanted in connection with the recent alleged kidnapping of Adeline Battes and murder of Spenser Hanson in Syracuse, New York, Charles Hays has been added to the Federal Bureau of Investigations Ten Most Wanted List. While the search for Adeline

Battes continues, investigators have few indications as to the teenagers whereabouts and consider her to be in extreme danger. The FBI is offering a reward up to $100,000 for information that leads to the arrest and capture of Charles Hays, who has now been charged with felony theft, gross parole violation, and assault. We believe Hays could be anywhere in the United States and we are concerned for anyone who comes into contact with him or his associates, said Junior Deputy Agent Adam Harpsten.

Hays was last seen on August 13 just before the disappearance of Adeline Battes. He has brown hair, green eyes and is 5 11. He weighs between 170 and 200lbs, and may be identified by a unique series of tattoos as pictured below. Hays may also have connections in Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and Georgia. He is considered armed and dangerous. I almost wanted to laugh; that description didnt even come close to doing him justice. But now he was one of the most wanted people in the country. There were probably professionals out

there looking for him just for the reward alone. But I wished I knew more about criminology so I could have a better idea about how they were investigating. I told myself that if and when everything did sort itself out, I would have to look into taking some sort of criminal justice class as an elective, maybe buy some outdated law books. Most of the articles were repetitive in nature, relaying the same information in different formats. Others were embarrassingly exaggerated, featuring bloated or outdated pictures of me from my childhood. Those articles were human interest in nature, not relaying any real

information, just going on about what a tragedy it was. From there they just continued to get more ridiculous. There were some articles that suggested Charlie Hays was part of a political conspiracy, concocted radio commentary from activists who thought I was being used for secret medical research because of my IQ test scores, an interview with a psychic who said I was already in the underworld. Wow, really? I like the ones that say you were abducted by aliens, said the voice in my ear. My heart ricocheted in my chest.

Charlie! I threw my arms around him to embrace him, but he flinched instantly. Oh, sorry! Sorry! To my amazement, he laughed, or at least tried to. It was clear even that movement caused him considerable pain. If it were anybody else His broken hand reached out for me. I finished the sentence for him. You wouldnt have so many problems. He smiled my favorite Charlie smile. Just think bout how boring life would be. I dont see your life being anything close to ordinary.

An empty water bottle flew in our direction and landed on my head. Within moments, a barrage of candy wrappers and water bottles were soaring in the air like an army of flaming arrows. Charlie gauged the attack and broke out laughing. Hi, guys. Jackass, Yuri mumbled. Hey, Charlie! That was a crazy mess back there, man! There was like blood all over the place and everybody was yelling at everybody. If you were awake it would have been even louder, man! Hey, you want some candy? I found some candy How are you feeling? Ben interrupted.

He leaned his head back, Like Ive been shanked. Ben smiled. Makes me feel young again. Charlie tried to laugh but winced in pain. I immediately flicked him in the arm with my fingers. Its not funny, Charlie. I didnt think I mean, with all of the blood and everything. I couldnt finish my sentence. Just remembering the small pond of crimson that had collected in the seat around him, the life that sustained him just draining, like it meant nothing, made me want to die on the inside. I had wanted to become some sort of statue or robot that

never felt anything ever again. He reached for me, pulling me close. I didnt object. Instead, I nuzzled myself against his arm and breathed in the scent of him, wishing we were alone so that I could hold him closer. Im sorry, he whispered. I aint used to having somebody care bout what happens to me. I kissed him quickly in the crook of his elbow so no one could see. He told me you were in there and I kept seeing all the stuff that ever happened in there. I didnt think Goddamn right you didnt think! Reid called from ahead. Could have

gotten us all sent to Changi. Im not going to a Singapore prison for your sorry ass Easy, kids. Charlie ignored them both, sliding down enough so that he could speak directly into my ear. In the dark, Addie, I heard your voice. I think youre bout the only thing that kept me from going straight to Diyu, the real one. I clutched at him. My stupidity almost got you killed, Charlie. He tensed in my hands. No. That greedy, yellow-bellied, piece of crap Wallace is what almost got you killed Not me, Charlie! You!

Let us not get ahead of ourselves, Ben said. I dont know about any of you, but until I get home, I will hardly be capable of very much brainstorming. Home? Is that where we were going? What exactly was home to someone like Ben Walden? A hundred different ideas came to my mind. Now that I knew Charlie was all right, I was beginning to concern myself with the logistics of the journey in front of us. We couldnt have been flying for more than an hour or two, so that had to have put us behind half a day. Where are we going, anyway? I asked Charlie.

He smiled at me. They didnt tell you? He grinned at them. Do I look like information? Yuri crossed his arms over his chest and went back to staring out the window. Charlie ignored them and turned his attention back to me. In the wine country, theres a little town that makes everybody fall in love with it. His voice was a whisper in my ear again. I shivered and clutched at him. Oh, really? He nodded briskly. Yup. Everybodys got their own place nearby, but we usually just bother Ben at his house.

I was skeptical. Where exactly is this place, anyway? Northern California. You know a lot of other wine countries? He was mocking me, but I didnt care. It was just good to hear his voice again. I rolled my eyes. For all I knew, you were taking me to a cave in the middle of Italy. Hmm. He stroked his chin. That aint a bad idea, either. I only faked my annoyance but Charlie could see that I was near giddy with excitement. California was only one of the many places I had wanted to travel. And while these werent fantastic

circumstances, I was glad I would get to see a little piece of it, anyway. Polo couldnt stand it any longer. Oh! Oh! Oh! Hey, Ben? Ben? Is Elise making pancakes for dinner today? Because that would be really great. Who is Elise? I mouthed the words to Charlie. Bens old lady. I nodded, but it took a moment for the fact to really register. It had never occurred to me that someone like Ben Walden could have a significant other, or at least not in the traditional sense. Vaguely I pictured Bonnie and Clyde and The Lonely Heart Killers. Considering his

occupation, what sort of relationship did they really have? I began to wonder what life was like for her: did she spend her nights worrying about the day Ben was shot and killed by a rival? Did she practice alibis for him in case the FBI came looking for him? Then it occurred to me that maybe she was constantly prepared for all of those things. If she was with Ben, didnt she have to be? A life half-lived, waiting for some terrible secret phone call or news report on the television that would reveal her other half would spend the rest of his life in prison? I looked at Charlie for some comfort

but he was resting with his eyes closed. A fear rushed through me. I couldnt even be near him without being afraid of losing him. Charlie? Charlie? I shook him. He opened a single eye. Yup? I sighed. Nothing. Just making sure. Dont worry, Vicious. He rested his broken hand on top of mine. I aint going anywhere. While he napped, I periodically iced his hand and torso, which didnt seem to bother him enough to do anything but try and bat away the ice pack. Every so often I would hear his breath increase or see his nostrils flare, and in those moments, when

it became obvious he was dreaming, I would rest myself against him and hear him mutter only one word continuously, Addie.

Chapter 16

H e had said it was a small town, but small was hardly the way I would have described it. When any area is popular and populated enough to contain its own airport (of whatever size), then I hardly

see anything small about it. And while the airport of Healdsburg, California was a municipal one, it was explained to me as we were landing that massive sums of money given to the right people throughout the year can help overlook the international flight that comes in every so often and the individuals on board. This also helps avoid security checks that one would have to endure at an international airport and those pesky little things like being wanted by the law. I was abundantly relieved when we finally touched ground and all of us were still intact. Charlie had slept for most of

the trip while I watched every flutter of his eyelashes, the twitch of his fingers, everything. I refused to risk something happening while I was away. You should rest, Addie, Ben said to me at one point. Singapore is fifteen hours behind California. Essentially we just time traveled. The sun was continuously coming up and we only seemed to catch up with it when we maneuvered with the tangled effort of many to get Charlie off the plane and on top of the landing ramp. Not having walked in the better half of a day, his legs were like rubber. Reid was equally dead on his feet, but at least had napped while

the plane was on auto-pilot. He made short calls, after which a small army of men came out of an unmarked building to help not only Charlie, but to load fuel and other gizmos into the plane as well. I really like all the attention, Charlie joked when we rode in a large black SUV. If I had to guess, I would have said they were Bens vehicle of choice. I really couldnt do much complaining thoughsitting in the backseat with Charlie was significantly better than lying in the cargo seat. Dont get used to it, I warned, because if you worry me like this again, Ill just kill you myself.

From the passenger seat, Ben laughed. Ah yes, you and Elise should get along splendidly. As we drove deeper into the countryside, Bens voice seem to change, his posture slackened and he removed his bifocals, resting his head against the neck rest. He seemed to be a different person as we approached this place he called home. At first we passed a slew of homes and buildings typical of any American town. It was only after a few miles that the allure of the region genuinely took over when the housing developments and condos faded into hills and scenic horse farms. Just beyond them I could see the mountains making the land feel timely and

unkempt. Even the bustles of late blooming wildflowers that grew untouched in the occasional field couldnt seem to be tamed. Every so often we would see the oldworld attempt at an advertisement for a local vineyard at an intersection, followed by signs that were decorated with balloons pointing the way to someones wedding or party. I tried to take in as many details of the land as possible. I rolled down the window and took in the perfumed orchards, the incomprehensible freshness of the air; even the sky seemed different from home. At first I didnt see the house when we

began rolling down the dirt road. It looked like something Gatsby would have purchased if he had lived on this coast. It was the sort of mammoth I envisioned when I first read Wuthering Heights , only instead of a stone template or gothic features, this place was a combination of some old world villa and a vision of modernization. It sat on acres of land, much further than my eyes could calculate by themselves. As we traveled along the road I could see orchards maintained by figures in the distance. The trees themselves seemed to surround everything. The house itself mainly consisted of

large windows encased by semi-circle divides, which created a balcony structure along the entire upper level. Where there were no windows, there was a rich cream color that brightened the folds of the exterior walls. The structure was sorted into three separate sectionsperfectly centered among themselves. I understood how it was easy for everyone to just stay together. Once we reached the garage of the house, it only appeared larger. I was intimidated, not only by the massiveness of the house and its grandness, but also by the surge of welcomers that rushed the SUV before it was even in park.

It usually aint this bad. Charlie tried to reach over me to open the door but forgot himself, clasping his torso and seething at the burst of pain. Are you okay? He nodded, but I could see how quickly the color left his face. Are you? His thumb brushed against my bruised cheekbone. Before anything else could happen, a portly looking gentleman opened our door and stuck his head into the vehicle. Which one of you is hurt? I recognized his dialect from either Jersey or New YorkI would have to remember to ask later.

Polo started jumping and pointing at Charlie. This one is! This one is! I got out of the way as quickly as I could. It wasnt difficult to see that I was a fish out of water here, but I refused to make a nuisance of myself. Among the greeters was a young woman with long dark hair and the healthy complexion of someone who might have spent just the right amount of time in the garden on a daily basis. She eyed me instantly with olive eyes that seemed to sparkle in the chaos. Oh, hi there! She came at me with open arms that embraced, and a heavy but not entirely unpleasant perfume. You

must be Addie. She forced my hand in hers and vicariously shook for the both of us. Im EliseIve heard so much about you. You poor thing, I bet youre just aching to get yourself cleaned up I smiled and nodded, and although I didnt want to be rude, my only real focus was on Charlie and I didnt bother hiding it. From over her shoulder, I could see Yuri and Polo struggling to carry his weight while Charlie stubbornly struggled against them; calling them names and swearing. I had become completely unaware she was still talking. Excuse me. Um, just one second.

I stepped away and used my hands to call out to the awkward bunch, Charlie! He stopped his squirming and glanced back at me. Let them help you. His eyes darted from across the veranda. Before he could challenge them again, Yuri tripped him across the knee, forcing him to fall forward. I called out, but they managed to catch him before he fell flat on his face and carried him the rest of the way into the house. Wow. Elise came up from behind me. Ive never seen him listen to anyone.

The interior of the house was all high ceilings and pallid white walls. Crisp, blue marble countertops created an island in the circular kitchen, which led directly to a large open living area, where an array of large abstract paintings lined the walls. Youhave a lovely home. I crossed my arms over myself, feeling immediately out of place in such glamorous surroundings. Oh, thank you. She put her arm around my shoulder in what I guessed was an attempt to alleviate some of my discomfort. I cant believe youve been on that terrible ship with those boys all week long! If that had been me, I would

have lost my mind within hours. It wasnt so bad I glanced over at Charlie, who was hobbling to a room around the staircase. Though he continued to swear under his breath, he was no longer putting up the same fight as before, now allowing Yuri to take most of his weight on his injured side. Elise saw the direction of my glance and laughed. Benjamin mentioned you were a good sport. Im happy you decided to come along. Ive been hearing nothing else but about you all week long and Ive just been on edge to meet you. Oh ummthank you? It was strange to be welcomed with

such pleasantness. I suppose I had expected the same amount of bitterness I had received from Reid and Yuri. And while I had never had many female friends, Elise seemed to be genuinely friendly. I followed them into another pallid white room that seemed to be fixed as a sort of guest room. The chestnut fringed dresser matched the bed frame and subsequent night stands, which had been decorated with matching blue vases filled with carnations of every color. In the doorway, I bit my lip while I watched the portly man put an IV into Charlies arm. I hate those things, he grumbled.

I came up beside him and sat next to him on the bed. Dont be such a baby. This is your fault, you know. You said I got into trouble for not keeping my nose out of other peoples business, and then you turned around and did the same thing. He leaned and kissed my forehead. That aint the same. Its exactly the same! Nope. I broke first with a smile. I was too relieved to argue and he knew it. The main thing is that everybodys okay now. I looked up at the man who was administrating some kind of needle into the IV. Everybody will be okay, right?

The fear was creeping through my voice and it made Charlie scoff. Hmm? Hmm? Yes? What, young lady? Yes, sorry about that. He tapped at a bag of saline solution impatiently. Its just a flesh wound. Charlie found my expression even more amusing. Its all right, Jimmy knows what hes doing. Once the doctor had successfully managed to set up the IV, he gave Charlie a mild anesthetic, and warned that it would knock him out for a few hours. At the mention of unconsciousness, Charlie clasped at my hand and enclosed it within his own. You wanna hear

something stupid? I rolled my eyes. Always. Already his voice was beginning to fade out, I-Im kinda scared you aint going to be round when I wake up. I smiled. Kissed his cheek. Nothing is going to keep me away from you, remember? At the insistence of Elise, I followed her up the elliptical staircase, but only because she promised she would have me back down to Charlie within the hour. As we walked down the hall with lush golden carpets and pale blue walls, she tangled my arm in hers like someone might

a lifelong friend. I wondered how much she had been prepped for this messy situation or if she just took to being a hostess naturally. First of all, lets get you something to wear. I was trying to picture myself in your shoes, stuck in that place without so much as a toothbrush! I just couldnt do it, Addie. You do prefer Addie, yes? Or is it Adeline? Addie is better, thanks. Fair enough. I always like to ask because I know Benjamin wishes I would call him Ben like everyone else. Though to be honest, I started doing it just to get on his nerves. But now I cant call him

anything else. I laughed. I like that very much. We walked through a large bedroom suite with the most delicate bronzed furniture and sponged painted walls. A light breeze tossed white curtains around an antique spinning wheel, not far from where a vase of sunflowers sat perched on a desk. I thought it all blended nicely together and again it made me glad to be on land. But the warmth of the room also reminded me of home and re-ignited the homesickness I was feeling for my family. I was back in the country now, still three thousand miles away from home, but on the bright side, I was that much closer.

I have so many things She opened a large walk-in closet where a thousand different garments seemed to lay. Honestly, Ive never even worn half of these things, but shopping is my worst weakness. She seemed giddy as she spoke; it was hard not to be entranced by her warmth. And really, since Ive had Tyler, I dont see myself wearing any of these things again. It doesnt feel very Mommy-ish. I looked at Elise as she piled various items of clothing on my arm. She was slender in figure, but her red sundress revealed the fresh curves of motherhood that wouldnt have been given away if she

hadnt mentioned it. She shooed me towards one of the massive bathrooms with my hands overflowing. Now you go along now and freshen yourself up. Take all the time you want and please help yourself to anything you might need, okay? Thats really generous of you, Elise, but you dont have to I insist now, go, go! Before I could protest any more, she politely pushed me into the bathroom and shut the door. I took the moment to smell my hair and the skin beneath my arms. I didnt think I smelled or anything, but

maybe my perception had been altered by my time on the sea. Like everything else, the bathroom was a grand design in granite and marble. Along with the antique tub, there was an oversized shower which practically begged to be used. Once I took a sniff of the small ivory soaps, it wasnt hard to do as instructed and take my sweet time scrubbing every inch of me. I hadnt realized it until then, but my knees and elbows were layered with light patches of dirt and grimeblood, mine and Charlies, had dried on various parts of my body. I watched the drain swallow the scalding hot water, dirt, blood, and stray

hair that fell from my head. I wrapped a large white towel around myself and reveled in its lushness. The room was overwhelmed by barrels of steam that I had to wipe from the mirror before I could see any sort of reflection of myself. Some new bruises had formed over the old, but other than that, none of it made any sense to me. I still looked about as plain as any other girl. Throughout the week I had gotten some sun, which seemed to strengthen my complexion a little. But everything else was still the same: eyes, hair, lips; and for whatever reason, Charlie seemed quite fond of it all.

From everything Elise gave me, I selected a simple navy blue dress with a beige ribbon just above the waist. Just as she said, it still had the tags on it and I was reluctant to remove them, but I enjoyed the feel of the cotton-silk too much to pass it up. When I stepped out of the bathroom, Elise was sitting on the divan, cooing at a bundle in her arms. For a moment I watched them, fearing I might interrupt if I made my presence known. The little feet within the blanket kicked and squirmed as she tickled them with the tips of her manicured nails. The bundle within the blanket giggled at the attention and its tiny

fingers reached out for Elise. Hi. I walked over and sat beside her. I felt like a useless piece of furniture, but Elise was a face of smiles. As I peeked over her shoulder, I could see the face of the little boy and instantly remembered one of Charlies many sketches. I smiled at the thought; it was nice to know he was just downstairs and relatively safe. Hes beautiful, I told her. I could faintly see the same nose that belonged to Ben and tuffs of the crisp dark hair that belonged to Elise. How old is he? Just four months now. Elise gazed at

him with the utmost affection. Hes growing so quickly it feels strange to me, she admitted. On the other hand, its hard to believe my world ever even existed without him. Ive seen a lot of sketches of him. But I didnt realize She laughed and hoisted Tyler so he was over her shoulder. Yes, Ty loves posing for his Uncle Charlie. I smiled awkwardly, remembering how the photograph-like drawings of Tyler were so easily demolished by Wallace and what he had said when shoving me into the confession booth. Wallaces only regret at the time was that

he couldnt have Elise and Tyler there, too. She eyed me curiously but I pretended not to notice. Instead, I focused on the little eyes that bugged out at me, surrounded by all of his pudginess. I couldnt even begin to imagine hurting either of them, let alone being angry or vengeful enough to even have those thoughts. Are you feeling well, Addie? Elise crossed her legs and swayed her feet against the divan. Yes, umIm fine. May I ask you something a little personal?

I nodded, only imagining the other wide assortment of questions she must have been asking herself. I had, after all, neglected to mention to Ben Wallaces comment about his wife and son. But Elise seemed like an intelligent personshe had to wonder if she and Ty were also in danger. Why are you here exactly? Im sorry for imposing, I offered. It was never my intention to be a bother to anyone. She waved me away. Oh please! Youre no bother at all, besides its nice to have company. I meant why did you come along with the boys after the ship got

to port? I have a vague idea of what happened from what Benjamin told me, and the news, but Im still not entirely sure I understand I wanted to be with Charlie, I cut in, and he wanted me with him. I didnt really think much beyond that. She lit up with excitement. Awesome! Im so glad! Huh? She put the baby down in the bassinet and strolled to the dresser. Well, she brought back over a hand brush and a few other items I couldnt see. Benjamin said a couple of days ago that Charlie was completely undone by you,

but frankly, I just didnt believe him. Im glad that not only was he right, but you seem to be quite taken, too. A couple of days ago? She sat behind me and began brushing my hair. Um hmmI think it was Wednesday morning before the ship left for Singapore. The information left me feeling stranded. Charlie and I had only first laid eyes on each other the day before that. Had Ben been exaggerating, or was it possible that Charlie loved me long before I knew I loved him? It was the same with Benjamin and me, Elise confessed. I was working for

a catering company in Chicago, and one night, when we were working this big benefit bazaar, Benjamin and Yuri crashed the event, trying to gauge security for a shipment they wanted to steal the next day. When he left three days later, he asked me to marry him and I said yes. She clasped a barrette in my hair. It all sounds pretty romantic, but it was really pretty stupid, she admitted. I dont regret it, though. They say you should try to live without regrets, but if that were the case, life would be boring, wouldnt it? She giggled a little. I tangled with my thumbs. I think youre probably a lot more adventurous

than I am. Not from what I hear. Is it true you spent the night in one of the holds? I was a little surprised to hear Elise would know about that. She seemed too feminine to understand the ins and outs of the ship. It wasnt exactly intentional. I was really being an idiot about the entire thing. She sighed and clasped another barrette in my hair. Love does that to everybody. I laughed awkwardly as I tried to guess Elises age. Although she appeared young in some aspects, she was also wise

in some very distant ways. I guessed based on her skin and style choice that she couldnt have been older than her midtwenties, but maybe associating with criminals distorted the aging process. From somewhere downstairs, Polos hyena laugh echoed. I swear, Elise sighed. You must have the patience of a saint to put up with those boys all week. I love them all, but geez. She pointed her thumb downstairs. Polo especially gets on my last nerve. I laughed. Theyve grown on me. Wh-when you first knew Ben did any of the guys ever give you a hard time about it?

Her back stiffened then and her face turned into a frown. I thought maybe she didnt understand; or worse, I had offended her. But then she broke out into a light, cynical laugh. You mean Reid, dont you? she snorted. How did you know? She turned serious for a moment and stopped to consider her words. He cant help the way he is. And I think after everything else, hes just cautious about all of the possibilities and those potential liabilities. Does he think youre a liability? Her voice tightened. It was the closest she had yet come to being angry. Tyler

and I, yes. Oh, boy. Hmm. I know. Dont get me started. You really cant take anything he says or does personally. It was good to hear what I already suspected. Still, I didnt like the idea of knowing I had put a strain on the friendship between Charlie and Reid. I began to wonder what other long term effects our relationship could have. I was really quite amazed with the end results of Elises hair experiment. She had managed to make a decent updo out of the mangled mess of my hair. And I have to

admit I liked the look and feel of it. See? she said as she picked Tyler back up. With fifteen minutes to spare, too. I glanced at a large glass clock on the wall. Sure enough, I had only been away from Charlie for forty-five minutes. I cant thank you enough, Elise. Youve been so nice to me Think nothing of it! Im just happy to help. I followed her back downstairs, where Yuri and Polo were playing what appeared to be a game of Rummy. Elise handed a squirming Tyler to Ben, who accepted the boy eagerly. They both

smiled at the sight of each other, and again I could see the resemblance. It was terrible to think that anyone could dislike the idea of Ben having a family. It was so obvious how much they adored each other. Have you been behaving yourself for your poor mother? He swooshed Tyler over his head playfully and made his eyes go cross. Tyler cooed and giggled at the expression, reaching for his fathers face with his tiny hands. No, he certainly hasnt! Elise laughed. He hasnt slept a full night since youve been gone. If I didnt know any better, Id swear he was trying to give me a nervous breakdown.

I do suspect he might get that from me. He reached for Elises elbow unsuspectingly as she bent to pick up one of Tylers pacifiers from the floor. She giggled like a school girl and sat beside him compliantly. Dont be a bad influence on him. He laughed lightly and Tyler released a large bubble of drool on Bens shirt. Oh sure, take her side. I smiled; the sight was a welcome one. They seemed genuinely happy in their dynamicand although the thought was only beginning to cross my mind, I pondered if Charlie had even considered the sort of direction his own future was

going to take. Where did he see himself this time next year? In ten years? He looked peaceful enough sleeping there. I was glad someone had drawn the curtains shut, although it did very little to keep the bright California sunshine out. I was wishing Charlie was awake to tell me if it was always like that herebright and warm. Or if descriptions of the West coast were exaggerated and it wasnt as lovely as I had imagined. I tiptoed to the side of the bed and sat beside him, taking my time and being very careful not to wake him, just in case the anesthetic was wearing off. On the table beside him I saw a prescription bottle

without a name or pharmacy address, just the standard label of a familiar antibiotic. The IV was still attached to his arm, steadily giving him the fluids he needed to stay hydrated. I questioned how much it would cost to have a private doctor on staff in this day and age, and how much more it would cost to have that doctor not ask any questions. Beside the night stand was a small wastebasket nearly overflowing with soiled gauze and antiseptic threads. The sight of the dried blood turned to a dark brown stain made me tremble. I had to repeat to myself that everything was okay, deflecting the possibility that he was still

in danger. I pulled the cotton sheet gently from the wrapping across his torso. Without question, it looked more professional than mine and I felt glad that everything seemed to be in order. I wondered how many stitches and how long it would take to heal would I stay here until then? Elise had made it clear I was more than welcome. And I was confident Charlie would want me around, but what about my family? How would I deal with them and how would I explain myself once I returned home? I looked back at Charlie; hopefully we would figure it out together.

The faint voices coming from the living room interrupted my thoughts. I could only make out every third or fourth word but I could tell none of the voices belonged to any of our party. It made me instantly nervous. Todaydiscoveredinwhile Before I opened the door, I ascertained the source of the voices were coming from the large flat screen television located on the wall. I peered at it from the doorway. I could see vague clips as they appeared on the news network in succession, including photos of my family and I and images of law enforcement officials wearing FBI gear

outside of my house trying to shoo the cameras away. Behind the newscaster, I caught a glimpse of Dad talking with a man who had the sleeves of his shirt cuffed up, his tie loosened, and a shiny badge pinned on the sports jacket he carried in his hand. I may not have even noticed him, except that his copper hair appeared illuminated as he stood talking next to Dad. I wanted to see more of Dad, but the image changed again so I leaned forward a little to try and hear better. Thats right, Bethany; we have just received insider news that the kidnappers of Adeline Battes have made contact with her father, Michael Battes, just a few

hours ago That didnt happen at all! Ben yelled. Shh Elise shushed him. when asked for an update, Mr. Battes had this to say: We have every confidence that Addie is safe Dad? That was definitely Dads voice I was hearing. and that she will come home to us soon. Mr. Battes and his family have no other comments at this time and respectfully request that the police continue with their investigation Reid! Turn that off right now, Elise demanded. If Addie hears that, she might

get upset. I quietly slid back into the room and shut the door. Elise had a knack for knowing people I was upset. Now that Charlie was out of physical harm, I had no choice but to do the logical, responsible thing and return home. I had not only promised Dad, but I was putting everyone in danger by staying there. With each and every second that the authorities were looking for me, and by association, Charlie, they were getting closer to Ben, his family, and the guys. And whether or not the guys would go to jail was hardly a question. My presence was beyond inconvenient and downright

catastrophic for everyone involved. I lay down beside Charlie; taking every precaution not to touch any part of him I thought might hurt or be damaged. No matter how badly I wanted it, and no matter how much I tried, I couldnt stay here with himnot then, anyway. I tried to think of ways to stall, ways to avoid going home until the very last minute. At the least, I could wait until Charlie woke up and we could talk figure out some sort of strategy to meet up again in a few weeks when things were less chaotic. In my mind, I tried to think of different things, but nothing was really coming to fruition. I reasoned that maybe

Elise would be willing to help But before my will could leave me, I left Charlie.

Chapter 17

I n a small white room that had a border of ugly yellow flowers, I swayed my feet against the doctors examination table, not unlike I used to when I was a little kid. Since I had refused to be examined for

sexual assault, a series of doctors, some friendly, while others not so much, had subjected me to a series of brain scans, coordination exams, blood tests, x-rays, and a variety of other unnecessary procedures that were grueling and invasive. Throughout the entire process, however, I kept my mouth shut and went along with it because the only thing I could really think about was whether or not Charlie was okay and how mad he probably was at me. I think they were checking my blood pressure for the third time when I finally said something. Excuse me, but can I use a telephone so I can call my Dad?

The head doctor guy looked at me as if I had asked him for an endangered animal to eat. A nurse patted me on the arm and spoke in soft, slow sentences. Hes already been contacted, honey. Hes on the way now. I mimicked her and spoke in an equally condescending tone, Well, I would hope so. But Im not cooperating with any of you further until I have an opportunity to speak with him myself. Whether they thought I was traumatized or my attitude itself was effective, none of the hospitals staff gave me anymore problems.

Hi, Dad. Addie! Are you okay? They wouldnt tell me anything over the phone. I sighed. Yeah, Dad. Just some bumps and bruises, no worse for wear. Im on a plane right now. Ill be there in three hours. Dad, you dont have to do that I brought you clothes and a new phone. Okay, Dad. I love you. He was clearly surprised by my admission of affection. You too, Addie. I-Im glad youre okay. So there I sat, every so often icing my face, which I could tell from the brief

glance in the mirror, was not going to be pretty by the morning. While I was trying to be nice to all of the doctors and nurses, I was also on the brink of not sleeping for 24 hours and my patience had all but run out. So when two gentlemen and another woman entered the doctors office, I had all but had enough of it. Hello, Adeline, said the woman. My name is Dr. Dayton, and these are agents Brian Norton and Adam Harpsten. She gestured to the two men. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions? I was almost stupid enough to say to the copper haired man about how I recognized him from television, but I

caught myself. Instead, I just said, Addie, you can just call me Addie. She smiled. Her teeth seemed bleached in the bright room. Luckily, the FBI agents were less intimidating than I thought they might be. Agent Harpsten wore a dark blue suit and looked like he did on television and Agent Norton was a shorter man with a bronzed complexion and a gray suit. They both appeared tired and soft around the edges of their eyes. I wondered if they had been up as long as I had. You guys should sit down. I pointed to the worn plastic chairs at the corner of the room kept for the patients family.

You look like you could use a break. Dr. Dayton made some kind of menacing mark in a notebook while Agents Norton and Harpsten looked at each other questioningly. Though it was encouraging to see Agent Harpsten smile a little when his partner looked away. Relax everybody. I tried to smile. It isnt the end of the world. Or was it? If they had caught Charlie or if he was injured beyond repair, then it most certainly was the end of the world. Addie, Dr. Dayton began, can you tell us a little bit about what happened? So I told them about the crowded rest stop, the sounds from the parking lot, and

how someone had come up from behind me and put me in the back of an SUV. And I told them about the abandoned house, leaving out Charlie and the boys I was blindfolded most of the time after that, I lied. I dont remember a lot Agent Norton removed several items from a large envelope and placed them in front of me. Do you recognize any of these individuals, Addie? It was all I could do not to let my eyes bulge from my head. Of course I recognized almost everyone. There were six photos there, all of them mug shots, but the three that stood out the most was one

of Polo and an extremely young photo of Ben. I made my eyes stay on each photo for exactly four seconds before moving on to the next. N-no. Ive never seen them before. I was sure they didnt believe me, but they moved on anyway. Maybe it wasnt good etiquette to interrogate kidnapping victims within a few hours of being rescued. Norton took out another photo. It was of Charlie that night I had first seen him. It was black and white, grainy with shadows. It must have been a piece of camera footage from the rest stop.

Do you know who this man is, Addie? I pretended to study the face of the stranger, though in reality I already knew every detail, every feature. No. Am I supposed to? Harpsten answered, His name is Charles Hays, and you spoke with him a few moments before you were abducted I looked at the photo a moment longer. I didnt want them to put this one away. Oh yeah, he ummhe asked me for the time. You never saw him again after your abduction?

I closed my eyes, rubbed my brow. I dont think so. After you were assaulted in the house, do you remember? The sigh came from deep within me. I closed my eyes again and tried to breathe. This was the part I had practiced in my head while Reid drove me. When it came down to it, I implored his help because I knew he wouldnt hesitate to be rid of me. Elise might try to convince me to stay, and one of the guys might try to force me to stay. Everything is kind of hazy. I didnt lie but I didnt tell the truth, either. I said that I remembered being in a small room,

lots of cigarette smoke, different voices talking about card playing Everyone made notes on their pads of paper. I marveled at the autocracy of it. How did you get in contact with your father? I also marveled at Reids creativity. When I reached for a suggestion he had been surprisingly helpful. This Norton was like a puppy with a new bone. And while I needed an easy out, it wasnt as though I was lying when I became overwhelmed. I felt the tears welling up but tried to keep them back. Someone dropped a phone and I took it. I thought it was to prove I was alivea

ransom thing. But when they caught me with it I pointed to my face and gestured to the bruises there. My hand inadvertently wiped away the tears. I marveled at the wet on my fingertips. Because while I had planned to make myself cry, I had never intended to do it for real. Listen, I dont want to talk anymore. Thats quite all right, Addie, Dr. Dayton attempted to comfort me with lame smiles and pats on the back, yet it did me little good. I wantedneeded Charlie there. You dont have to if you dont want to. But Norton ignored us both. Do you

know how you got from New York to California? N-not really, I lied. I switched the ice pack to the other side of my face, hoping it would cover up any inconsistencies in my expression. I slept a lot. Another part of the lie I had prepared for. Im a terrible liar, I warned Reid. Yeah, I got that. Well, then, Im open for suggestions Here. He violently yanked my wrist and forced my palm open, shoving two

small blue pills inside. Take these. When they ask, just say someone spoon fed you them all day long. I laughed in his face. Im not taking these. Dont trust me? he mocked. I fastened my seatbelt and scowled back, About as far as I can throw you. Look! Those people are professionals, they wont believe you if you just outright lie. They see some sleeping pills in your blood and maybe maybe theyll believe you dont know anything, that you just slept all week. I squeezed the tablets in my hand. And if they dont?

Then I know where you live. Norton opened up his file and began reading off a sheet of paper. Yes, your tox screen is positive for diphenhydramine, but the head neurologist says your head CT is clear. You dont remember how you got three-thousand miles from home? If only this one knew how far from home I had really been. At some point I ate the food they offered me, I sniffed. I know it was stupid, but I didnt want to starve to death, either. After that, a man named Wallace would give me blue pills every few hours.

He said they wouldnt hurt me, but hed do a lot worse to me if I refused. I then described Wallace with every possible detail I could, right down to the angle of his hairline. I could tell Harpsten was impressed by how intricate some of my answers were. But before Norton could ask anything else, Harpsten shook his head at him and took the remainder of the files. Agent Harpsten and Norton were looking at each other as they put away the photographs. They didnt quite have the answers they wanted but they were still somewhat satisfied. Thank you, Addie, said Agent Harpsten, youve been really helpful.

By the time we got back to New Jersey, thirteen different newspapers had thirteen theories about what had happened to me and what had occurred between New York and California. Robbie had collected most of them, obnoxiously waving them in my face (which had for the most part healed), and been about as annoying as any brother could be. Kidnappings Happy & Mysterious Conclusion? Nabbed Teen Escaped Captors? Can you believe this stuff? Anything about alien abductions? I asked. What?

Never mind, Robbie. I went back to my crossword. The days and weeks that followed my return home were long and brought the kind of dull ache that one might feel after having run on the treadmill too long. The monotony of the same place even though it felt like I never stopped moving, though I confess the days were mostly just long. It didnt bother me that the FBI and local police were always around asking questions I kept pretending to not know the answers to, listening to our telephone conversations, and checking our mail, following us around. I had checked it off as a mere nuisance, only feeling bad that it

inconvenienced Dad. It didnt bother me that Adam Harpsten had been temporarily transferred to the Trenton office and ran weekly reports on our family so that the FBI headquarters could be prepared for any other impending threat. Honestly, it didnt even bother me that the media was hounding us day and night, wanting interviews and exclusives to our story. Dad and I actually found an advantage in it, since reporters had swamped Robbie at Fort Drum so relentlessly that the ranks actually rerouted his contract until the end of the following month. So while Dad pretended to be annoyed by the pretty female

reporters in the parking lot of his work, I think deep down he was exceptionally overjoyed at having both of his kids back home and safe. The only thing that ever got to me was not having Charlie. A lot of the newspapers said that when I mysteriously showed up at a bus stop (little did they know it was of my choosing) half passed out, drugged, and a face covered in bruises, I might have been dropped off there by a sympathetic cohort of my kidnapper. Some of them were even eager to point out how the authorities could have been off base about their original theories. I guess they liked the wild potential in the

fiction they could sell. Meanwhile, I couldnt help but be miserable about being away from Charlie. I knew I was being stupid, selfish even, in my misery, yet I couldnt help myself. When night fell, I was reminded of his lips on mine that first time. I half hoped to see him every time I stepped out of the bathroom, his arrogant smile waiting for me. I wondered how he might sketch nearly everythingI spent my days hoping he was keeping his temper, that he wasnt hurting anyonemostly himself. Inside, it chewed away at me not knowing if he was injured or if he was taking care of himself. I didnt even know what country he was

in. I didnt even know if he was alive. Dad walked into the kitchen with a pizza and a bottle of soda. He looked worn. It was hard to deny that he had aged since my disappearance. Not knowing where I was, or if I was alive had clearly wrung his nerves raw, turning his skin ashy and his remaining dark hair gray. I felt responsible for this, since in many respects I could have avoided the entire ordeal. But at the same time, it was the only element I could truly regret. My adventure had allowed me to know and love Charlie, and that was worth any pain or inconvenience I had gone through.

Hello there, my adoring fans. I have brought tidings of great joy! The aroma of pepperoni filled the dining room but still couldnt tempt my stomach. I knew Dad and Robbie had noticed I hadnt been eating, and while I tried to smile and go through the motions for their sake, most of it made my stomach hurl. Robbie jumped from the table. Its about time, Old Man. Ill grab some paper plates. I started stacking up the piles of newspapers and pushing them to the side. I could feel Dads eyes on me, his constant worry. Although he had never come out and directly asked me about what had

happened, I had assured him time and time again that I was Okay. Fine. All right. And I think he tried to take me at my word. Say, Addie, Dad pulled out a chair beside me. That one social worker and the psychologist from California called again. She uhthinks maybe you should make an appointment with an associate of hers over here. You know, like talk to someone about what happened? I smiled. I hated the falseness of it all. Dad, weve been over this. I dont need therapy or anything. Im okay, honest. He tapped his fingers on the table. He had no idea what he was doing. It might be good for you to talk to somebody,

though. I patted him on the hand and did my best to be reassuring. Its okay, Dad. Im okay, everything is okay. If you need to talk, he said. Im here. You know that, right? Yeah, Dad. I took the plates from Robbie, who bounced into the room. With the onset of attention toward our family, he had several young ladies seeking his affections and it was complimenting his ego more than usual. I know. Dad was anything but stupid. I could lie all I wanted but with all the extra sleeping I was doing, he suspected more than anyone that I was depressed.

Sleeping had become my greatest new pastime since I was now capable of dreaming on a regular basis. I blamed it entirely on the head trauma I had endured, but I loved every fleeting second of it. And I abused the ability as frequently as I could, often coming home from class and staying awake for as long as was socially acceptable before taking a nap or going to bed for the evening altogether. When I dreamed, I could see Charlie as plainly as any given day. While unconscious, I didnt know that everything was unreal and I would have to wake up and go back to a reality without himI didnt have to acknowledge my heart was

broken. Sometimes the images were fainter than others. Other times, they were incredibly detailed, like one of Charlies sketches, and I could make out every detail of his tattoos and feel his smile with my fingertips. There were some nights when I could only hear his laughter like something erased in the shadows, but even those nights were decent enough and I could make it through another day. I munched on the pizza, feeling the cheese go rubbery in mouth. Life preCharlie, I would have consumed it happily. I looked over at Robbie, who was taking up the slack with the remainder

of the slices without hesitation, shoving them in his mouth one after the other. I made myself laugh. Dont they teach you any manners in the Army, Robbie? He dabbed at his face with a paper napkin. I happen to be very sophisticated. Dad rolled his eyes but it had me thinking again about how well he and Charlie would probably get along and I felt my heart slacken. It seemed as though I genuinely couldnt get through anything without thinking of him. I began to think that maybe it was time to put my plan of choice into actionor at the very least, begin the process.

Hey, Dad? I put the beaten slice back on the plate. It was clearly defeated. Hmm? I had to sound casual about this. If I appeared as desperate as I really was then he wouldnt even bite. What would you think about me um maybe going away to school next semester? I swirled a hill of garlic salt around with my pinky finger. Judging from the way he pulled the cheese straight away from his slice of pizza, I could guess how he felt about it. While less than two years ago Dad would have been okay with me going away for college, with recent events he

was definitely not going to agree to it without some serious convincing. Since my return home, he had become uncharacteristically overprotective, even taking a leave of absence to drive me to and from class every day, the library, or anywhere else I might have wanted to go. He even memorized my course schedule so he could call between classes to confirm I was okay and still on campus. Luckily, I had convinced him that he was driving more attention toward me than diverting it. Even Robbie had lent a hand in arguing that he was causing more harm than good. After a couple of weeks he weaned himself of the new habits and

returned to workreluctant to let me return to a new kind of normal. Ive already started applications for a few schools Im thinking about, I began Ive also sent out a couple. I mumbled the words into my glass, unsure if I really wanted him to hear them or not. Dad coughed. I think maybe he was trying to figure out how to play this one out. This was one of those moments he was probably wishing Mom was still alive so he could tag her in and he could just sit this one out on the sidelines. Addie, dont you think maybe you should wait awhile? Youre kind of going through a lot of stuff right now.

I smiled, tried to seem confident. Life is too short to wait around, Dad. Besides, I should take advantage of my situation and see if I cant get a free ride somewhere. She has a point, Old Man, Robbie added. She wont be the flavor of the month forever.

Chapter 18

I mplanting the idea was the first of several steps I had commissioned to ensure Dads confidence. While that conversation ended without any real conclusion, I was pleased he hadnt

completely banished the idea. In truth, I would go no matter what he said. In a few months I would be eighteen, and there would be little he could do to influence my decision. Unfortunately, the next stage of my plan was to mention that I was looking to study in California, although that sounded suspiciouseven to me. Yet, it was the most likely place I knew Charlie would be, and going to school there was the only reasonable explanation for me residing there that both the authorities and Dad might believe. One night, soon after I started hinting

about the Western seaboard, I fell asleep on top of a stack of applications and a few beloved resources like the thesaurus, Admission Matters handbook, and a half a dozen copies of my transcripts. It was one of those rare occasions that I was trying to stay awake past eight oclock. I wanted every certifiable detail of my California applications to be perfect in every respecteven if that meant straining my eyes on the same words over and over again until I was borderline crazy. I was having the most pleasant dream about Charlie when it happened. In the dream he was holding me and kissing my collarbone (his spot). And although I

couldnt see him, I knew he was there enough to feel safe and content. It was only the cold that made me uncomfortable. It was mid-October and already the nights were filled with the chill that promised a snow white winter. It disturbed my body to the point where my brain couldnt concentrate on the imaginary Charlie and I cursed out loud as I reached for my comforter. The imaginary Charlie laughed. What a fantastic soundI could have listened to it for the rest of my life. I miss you. I told my hallucination. It pulled me closer. I miss you, too. Somewhere in my minds eye, I heard

the sound of sirens echoing past our house loud and puncturing, they made me flinch and jolt up in my bed. Yikes, what the hell? Sure enough, I awoke to an empty bed and my room scoped with its usual shadows. I bit my lip to keep from crying, those vivid dreams were crueler than the ones I knew to be artificial. At least with those, I knew they were only a false reality. But with the realistic ones, my minds eye could fool me at any time. A soft rapping began at my door. Umm, yeah? Dads face peeked in from the hall and brought in the bright light with it. Are

you okay? Yes, fine. I tried not to sound too annoyed. Oh good. I just heard on the police scanner that there was a bomb threat or something at the municipal building. Not everything bad means Im in danger, Dad. Im sure its just some kids making prank callsbeing stupid. He flushed, I had read his mind. Well, I was just checking on you, thats all. I know. Good-night, Dad. He feigned a smile. Night, Addie. I fell back into bed and continued fighting back the tears in case Dad was

listening. The last thing I wanted was him worrying more than he had to. I thought maybe if I could get back to my applications, I could recreate the same sleeping scenario and have the same dream againit was unlikely, but worth a try. I reached my hands around the bedspread for the books and papers but felt nothing. When had I moved them? And when had I turned my lamp off? Familiar eeriness crept over me and I slowly slipped my feet out of bed to examine the situation further, nearly tripping over a neatly stacked pile of books and papers on the side of the bed.

I picked up the top piece of paper, which appeared to be blank at first, nothing more than white parchment. But there was also something oddly familiar about it that I couldnt quite figure out. It was only as I was going to place it down that I could smell the scent: Clove cigarettes. And at that I recognized the type of paper: sketching paper. I turned it over in my hands and saw a simple but complicated enough drawing of me leaning over the books and papers, chewing on the end of a pen while flipping through the dictionary. Did you know in 1880 this town only

had one cop? Charlie! Sure enough, my corrupted dreams had transformed into reality, because the entire upper torso of Charlie Hays was hanging from my bedroom window. Somehow he had taken out the screen from the outside and had worked his way up the vinyl siding of the house. One cop I could deal with, but now Summit has 46 uniforms, detectives, and a kiddy program. Whats the world comin to? I used the bed as a trampoline to propel myself to the other side of the room. This was a practice I had

commenced since I was tall enough to reach the end of the bed frame, so I was somewhat safe in not hurting myself. He only had about half his body in the room but I didnt care, I threw myself into his arms anyway. When did you get here? How did you get here? Where have you been all my life? I was half whispering, half yelling, but it was difficult to hear over the blood pounding in my ears. He laughed into the crook of my neck. Though he no longer smelled of the sea, he did retain his scent of aftershave and cigarettes. Ive been round a few days. I drove here. And I was bout to ask you the same question. His arms went all the way

around me as he lifted me off the ground. I wrapped my legs around his waist and removed the ski cap from his headI wanted every possible proof that it was him. You shouldnt be here, Charlie. Every few minutes a state trooper drives by the house A little birdy told me those guys are gonna be too busy dealing with cherrybombs in some city hall to be botherin you. Please tell me you didnt If it makes you madthen no. I didnt do nothin. But Polos gonna be real proud of himself.

Mad? How could I possibly be mad with him at a time like that, when he was there and wonderful and so utterly adorableand here? What are you doing here, Charlie? I released myself from his hold and tip-toed to the door, locking it just to make sure. He must have seen my smile falter. You want me to go? What a ridiculous question. I jumped back into his arms, slamming into his torso and knocking the breath from his stomach. He sighed as he nuzzled my neck. Youre crazy, you know that? You should be screaming, tryin to kick me or something. I dont deserve to hold you.

My fingers found their way through his hair. I could hear myself laughing and for the first time in weeks I felt like myself again. Thats a terrible thing to say. Ive missed you horribly since California. Besides, you knew I was strange when you met me, you said so yourself. You seem all right, Addie, going to school, seeing movies with your brother, sittin at your favorite table at the library. And leavin the way you did was the best thin you coulda done. I couldnt have let you go again. Have you been watching me? I looked up at him and eyed him suspiciously. I was thrilled to see the

small cut in his hairline had faded to a healthy scar from the last time I saw him and his kaleidoscope eyes were still just as bright as ever. I told ya Ive been around a few days. Thats why I came over tonight. You gotta stop this California stuff, Addie. You gotta stop coming after me. I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Charlie, how could you say something like that? I was genuinely furious but was having some difficulty maintaining it through my happiness. Charlie was here now, and though I wanted his presence to be all that counted, I knew it didnt.

I crossed my arms over my chest. I told you that you couldnt keep me away. He pulled me back into his embrace. You have to stop trying looking for me, Addie. The cops probably wont be watching you so much anymore, but Did you know there are about 331 colleges and universities in California? No one will think twice about me living in California if Im going to school there, Charlie. You know Id never do anything to lead the police to you or Ben. It isnt that, Addie. Then what is it? Have you changed your mind about me? He scoffed. You kiddin me? Whatd

you think Im doing here? I couldnt hardly stand to stay away another day without seein you, even if it was from faraway. But Addie, since you met me, Ive nearly gotten you killed a bunch of a times. Seems like the more I love you, the more danger youre gonna end up being in. My instincts were right. He swallowed hard, pushing his forehead against mine as he closed his eyes. I aint no good for you. I tangled my arms around his neck and carefully considered what to say. Briefly, I wished for the meager physical strength to keep him captive in my room. And while I didnt think he would object much, I wanted him willingly. Still, he seemed

so certain. And it occurred to me that the wrong response could send him right out the window and out of my life for good. Im not exactly big on trusting instinct. I sighed, searching my head for the right words. But it seems like if you want to trust your instincts, then you should follow your first one and go with it. Charlie pulled away enough to gaze at me curiously. I saw the faint shadow of a Charlie smile outlining his lips, making it that much more difficult to concentrate. You knew you loved me right away? And that clich always go with your gut feeling? You might as well go with it,

Charlie, because Ive already made my choice. So far Ive been pretty good at making my own decisions, and Im not changing my mind. I understand the consequences that come with being in your life, Ill deal with them Maybe you can deal with em, but I cant. I rather not have you and know youre alive than be responsible for something bad happening to you. I pulled away, crossing my arms over my chest to keep the pain out. Crossing to the other side of the room, I tried to keep my shoulder back and my neck long. I thought if I didnt make this threat sound legitimate, he might call my bluff, either

way he would know how desperate I truly was. There arent many choices here, Charlie. You can leave, not tell me where youre going, but Im just going to come after you. Ill apply for a passport, go to the port of Singapore You wouldnt dare Bens house is somewhere in Healdsburg, California. If you arent there and Elise and the guys dont tell me where you are, Ill just wait there until you show up. Or if I get impatient, maybe Ill just start exploring some ports on my own. You aint bein funny, he snarled. I turned quickly, somewhat surprised

to find him directly behind me. Im not trying to be. You tried to get rid of me once, Charlie. It wont work a second time. He took me by the shoulders roughly, as though he were literally trying to shake the sense into me, though I wouldnt, couldnt be dissuaded. I knew what I wanted and it was right in front of me. As far as I was concerned, it was a done deal. Stop bein so damn stubborn. Your gonna ruin your life. Werent you the one who said all or nothing? Well I want all or nothing, Charlie. I pushed his hands back and

brushed my thumb against the new scar on his brow. And youre all I want. Charlie leaned into my touch, and his expression relaxed as he closed his eyes. Youre too much for me. I tried not to seem too arrogant in my smile. Then accept your fate. Just promise me you wont do nothin stupid. Promise me youll stick around. He tensed again. Damnit. Adam Harpsten is still in charge of my case. He updates Dad constantly, and still seems to think you were involved somehow. The next time you guys steal something, I just have to look for an

explosion within a few hundred miles He pulled me tighter and I could see a smile beginning to unfold. This is extortion. I prefer happy shakedown. Charlie smile bloomed into a full on Charlie grin. Nothin but trouble. I planted the ski cap back on his head, overwhelmed with the joy and relief at having him here in my arms, his promise that he would stay. Could I have been dreaming still? You know, I was just dreaming about you, I imitated. Oh, yeah? He kissed my collarbone. Yep. I outlined the serpent with my

fingertip then kissed it. What did you dream? I dreamt that we lived happily ever after, of course. He smiled at me skeptically but I could see all of the love and admiration he held for me written there on his face, sketched as clearly as anything hed draw himself. Sure. His eyes rolled. Whatever his doubts were, I could convince him. I would show him just like he had shown me the other side of the world and back. And regardless of how difficult it was bound to be, I had no intention of giving up on him or the

feelings we harbored for each other. Just you wait and see, Charlie Hays. I kissed him until we were both dizzy. Just you wait and see.

Acknowledgements: It might be awesome to say I did this all on my own, but then my pants would spontaneously catch fire. So let me give a special thanks to the wonderful Limitless Publishing team: especially Jessica Gunhammer and Jennifer ONeilla mother-daughter force to be reckoned with! Additional thanks to my author friends, the bloggers, and everyone else I spammed about this project. Without your support none of this would have been possible. My eternal appreciation goes to my very patient editor Toni Rakestraw for all

of her hard work and dedication. Enormous gratitude also to Eden Crane Designs for creating the face of Wanted, you guys are awesome. Thank you to Karlyn Thayer whose critiques remain a source of inspiration. All my love to Scottie, Mom, Kyle, Grandma, Grandpaand all the other lovely people and dogs in my life I ignore for my writing. Thanks for understanding and please know I make no promise for self-improvement.

About the Author A native of New Jersey and lifelong nerd, Amanda Lance recently completed her Master in Liberal Arts at Thomas Edison State College after her BA in English Literature and AFA in creative writing. As an avid reader of all genres, some of her favorite authors include Hemingway, Marquis de Sade, Stevenson, Bukowski and Radcliffe. When she isnt writing or reading, Amanda can found indulging in film noir or hiking with her other half and their extremely spoiled dog. She is obsessively working on her next book and trying to

tame her caffeine addiction.

Twitter: @alance07 Website and Blog: Goodreads: amanda-lance Amazon Author Page: Coming Soon

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