The boy shivered as he huddled against the damp cinder block wall in the subterranean darkness. Aside from a slight whistling noise when he inhaled, the chamber was quiet. He imagined snakes—big snakes, small snakes, green ones and black—slithering on the floor around him, their flickering, forked tongues waiting to strike. Waiting until the time was right to converge on their defenseless prey. He tried to shake off the nasty thoughts and focus on happier times. Times on the playground, playing tag, chasing girls, or kicking a soccer ball. Those days seemed long ago. Part of a different reality.
Now his reality was punishment. Darkness. Hunger. Mustiness and the odor of things better left unexamined. Peeing on the dank floor and having to smell the urine for hours. All terrible things, but waiting was the worst. One of these times, his father wouldn’t come back for him, he was certain. One of these times, his father would just let him wait and wait and wait. Until…
The seven-year-old boy shifted positions and stretched his legs. The right one had gone to sleep. He rose gingerly and tried to walk it off, cringing at the tingly pricks of the pins and needles. Keeping one hand on the wall, he followed it until he reached a corner of the room. Carefully placing one bare foot in front of the other, he measured the length of the wall. Seventy-eight “footlengths.” Last time he measured, it was seventy-nine. Of course, that was months ago—maybe his foot had grown since then. The thought of growing and getting bigger and stronger encouraged him. If he were bigger and stronger, he might be able to stand up to his father, prevent the punishments. But he was only a kid, doomed to suffer for many more years.
This time it started with a cookie. A single Oreo. He’d been hungry and couldn’t wait until dinner. So he snuck into the kitchen and climbed onto the counter to get into the cabinet. He’d snatched a cookie from the package and was preparing to jump off when he slipped, ever so slightly. Trying to regain his balance, he jackknifed his leg right into his father’s antique radio, which sat on a special display stand next to the counter. The stand teetered for what seemed like an eternity, then toppled over, and he discovered how fragile antiques could be. The resulting noise brought his father as fast as any fire alarm would have—the boy didn’t even have time to plot an escape or make up a story.
He paced the wall again, this time starting from the opposite side. Still seventy-eight footlengths. With the heel of his palm, he pounded the wall. That stupid radio! If he’d been caught swiping a cookie, he might have gotten spanked, but breaking the radio…that was what had sentenced him to the cellar.
The boy knew his father was crueler than his friends’ fathers, but that didn’t mean his father loved him any less, did it? His father always said these punishments were for his own good. If that were true, then why did he hate his father?
A scritch-scratch from the far side of the cellar attracted the boy’s attention. He squinted to see the source of the noise and thought he could make out some shifting shadows, but realized his mind was playing tricks on him—there was no light whatsoever to actually see anything. He knew rats were nocturnal, but wasn’t sure if it was now day or night—he’d taken a nap when he first was locked in his dungeon. He didn’t know how the rats could tell day from night either, in the inky blackness.
He strained to listen for their attack, but the boom-boom-boom of his runaway heart filled his ears. Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, the rats advanced to the beat. Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, the rats approached, their formation crisp and clean and ever closer. The boy began to stamp his feet, marching in place at double time, then faster, faster, determined to smash any critters that scampered underneath his bare soles.
And then, just when he thought the hungry rats were inches away, just before their whiskers grazed his toes, he screamed, a loud, piercing shriek, meant to scare off the rodents, the snakes, his father, and all the other real and imaginary demons haunting his soul.
He screamed for a very long time.
Colby Walker swung his pale bare feet up onto the wooden deck rail as he watched a small skirmish develop on the sand below. Forty yards to the south, two young children fought over a red plastic shovel, each strangling it in a two-handed death grip. They tugged and twisted, trying to capture the prize. After about a minute of strained stalemate, the smaller child—a boy—removed one hand, pointed at the ocean, and hollered something, terror on his face. Immediately, the girl let go and tore through the sand, racing away from the water, beanpole arms and legs pumping furiously. With every third step, she glanced over her shoulder as she escaped from some invisible sea monster. The boy, shovel in hand, watched her run for a short while, then returned to his excavation, now a solo contractor.
Walker chuckled to himself. Seven years ago, those two could have been his kids. And he wouldn’t have put it past Ryan to yell “Shark!” at his older sister to get something he wanted, either.
Where had the time gone? Now fifteen, Patty cared more about boys than any monsters rising from the sea. And Ryan, at twelve, wanted to spend every waking moment hanging out with his “peeps.” Of course, not everything had changed over the years; Ryan still needled Patty every chance he could.
Walker flexed his left shoulder, trying to work the kinks out. Earlier, he’d felt—and heard—something pop as he unloaded the van and hauled the bags up the narrow flight of stairs to the beach house’s living area. Angela was always telling him he was getting old and recently he’d started believing her. Mysterious aches and pains were commonplace now, but he couldn’t point to age as the sole culprit. He’d been out of shape for a while. Over the past few years, he’d been spending more and more time navigating the growth of his company, and less time on the other necessities of life. Some things had gotten a lower priority, and Walker harbored quite a few regrets about the choices he’d made. A typical case of Workaholic’s Remorse. It was little comfort knowing that offices all across the country were overflowing with similarly afflicted executives.
Enough wallowing—that was history. He’d sold the company for a more-than-tidy sum. Time to start anew. He needed to reconnect with his family, become involved in their daily lives. Roll up his sleeves and immerse himself in the nitty-gritty of blissful domestic life. In his spare time, he could even get into shape.
The sound of the glass slider opening caught his attention. Angela had changed into a clingy black swimsuit and, with a glass of iced tea in hand, stepped onto the deck. She lowered herself into a well-weathered Adirondack chair next to him. “Howdy, sailor. How’s it hanging?” She’d lowered her voice an octave and spun an unrecognizable accent over her delivery. One hand fiddled with the spaghetti strap of her bathing suit.
Walker grinned at his wife’s silliness as something stirred within. He lifted an eyebrow. “Where are the kids?”
“The boys are unpacking and setting up their room exactly like they want it. Patty’s on the front porch, stewing about something.” Angela returned his leer. “Why, what’d you have in mind, big boy?”
“This sailor’d like to get to know his wench a little better, that’s what.”
“Take it easy, matey. Plenty of time for hanky-spanky later.”
“Arrggh. Promises, promises.” Walker watched her take a big sip of iced tea. A couple drops of condensation from the outside of the glass dripped onto her swimsuit. Splot, splot.
“This is so peaceful.” She kept her gaze on the ocean.
“Really? I didn’t think you liked the beach as much as I do. I thought you preferred living in our comfortable Northern Virginia suburb. Soccer moms, book clubs, yoga twice a week.”
“The atmosphere’s very soothing. Calming. I can feel my stress already melting away,” she said.
Walker eyed her. “What’s in that iced tea, anyway?”
“What do you think? Should we buy a house on the beach?” Walker had broached the subject before, with no luck.
Angela blew her breath out. “I don’t know. I like the beach. But I don’t know if I could live on one. It might seem like we’re always on vacation. Year-round.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” After so many years without one, a life-long vacation sounded pretty good to Walker.
“Doesn’t seem right. You can’t be on vacation unless you have something to go on vacation from.” She cocked her head to the side. “Know what I mean?”
Walker knew in broad strokes what she was getting at, but he still didn’t know what was wrong with being on vacation all the time. Isn’t that what $5.6 million dollars can buy us? A perpetual vacation? “Let’s relax and enjoy ourselves. Pretend we don’t have a care in the world. Because, really, we don’t.” He clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back, the picture of a carefree beach bum. Except for the missing tan. But give me time, baby, give me time. “Hey, that was a great idea you had, inviting Jess along. Maybe having a friend to hang with will keep Ryan occupied so he doesn’t tease Patty so much.”
“Why thank you. It’s nice to have my genius appreciated. For a change.” She tipped her glass in his direction.
“I appreciate many things about you, your genius among them. Jess seems like a nice kid. Quiet.”
“Yeah, he is. Real quiet.” Angela lowered her voice, although with the slider closed and the waves crashing in the background the boys in the house couldn’t hear a word, even if they were trying to listen in. “I think he’s become Ryan’s best friend, especially since Matt left. They live over behind the new shopping center, in the old Dunwoody section. They had some classes together, and Jess seemed to come over after school every day. They’d work on their homework or shoot hoops or play Xbox—the usual stuff. This summer, they’ve been inseparable.”
Ryan had mentioned Jess many times, but Walker had never seen him until that morning. With the hours Walker kept during the past year, he’d barely seen his own kids. If this vacation was the debut of the new-and-improved Colby Walker, getting to know his kids’ friends was a good—and essential—first step. “How do his parents seem to you?”
“Never met them. I’ve talked to his father a couple times on the phone, but I’ve never actually spoken with his mother. Just got a message from her saying it was okay for Jess to come along this week. What was your impression?”
“This morning. When Jess got dropped off.”
Walker thought back. He was busy loading the van and Jess was simply…there. “I didn’t see his parents drop him off.”
“What? You were supposed to talk with them. See if they had any concerns. Tell them where we were going. Give them our phone number,” Angela said. Irritation crept into her voice, and Walker knew how pissed she got when stuff fell through the cracks.
“Sorry. If they didn’t stop to talk, I guess they were fine with things.”
“How long have you been a parent? Sometimes it seems more like fifteen minutes than fifteen years.” She fixed Walker with a withering look.
“What’s the big deal?”
“My God, Colby. Do you know how worried I’d be if Ryan went away with another family, and I hadn’t even talked to the parents? They probably don’t know anything about us. We could be axe murderers for all they know!”
“Hon, we don’t even own an axe.” One glance at Angela told him his attempt at humor fell flat. He swallowed. “Come on, we’re good parents, we’re not going to let anything bad happen to Jess.”
“I know that. And you know that. But they don’t know that,” Angela said, irritation now mixed with concern. “Some hosts we are. We left them totally in the dark with no way to reach us. We need to call Jess’s parents, pronto. I’ll be back in a minute.” She set her drink down on the deck and glared at him. “Don’t go anywhere.”
He watched Angela slip inside, admiring how she’d managed to stay in such good shape, feeling a stab of guilt for having let himself go. And another stab of guilt for botching the Jess handoff that morning.
Walker leaned back and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, after he’d entered a deeper level of relaxation, he sensed movement behind him.
“Okay, here’s the phone.”
Part of him considered feigning sleep. Just lie there and listen to the crash of the waves and the cries of the gulls. Let Angela deal with any upset parents. The inertia of the last few years seemed to keep his eyes glued shut.
Angela cleared her throat. “Paging Colby Walker. Paging Colby Walker. Will the new Colby Walker I’ve been hearing so much about please pick up the courtesy phone?”
Walker slowly sat up and cracked his eyes open. Angela loomed over him, holding the phone out. With a shrug, he extended his hand and she plopped the phone down into it. “Thanks,” he said. “And for the record, I am now involved in my children’s lives. I have transformed into, tada, Superdad!” Angela rolled her eyes as she sat, but he could tell she was proud of his decision. Not the decision to make the call—the bigger decision to reconnect. She was thrilled he had finally decided to put his family first. “Okay, what’s the number?”
Angela read the number from a scrap of paper and he punched it in. After two rings, a scratchy voice answered. “Hello.”
“Hello, is this Mr., um, is this Jess’s father?” Walker put his hand over the phone and turned to his wife who whispered the name “Hingle” to him. “Uh, Mr. Hingle?”
“Yeah. This is Buck Hingle. What do you want?” The voice was direct, devoid of phone manners. Maybe he’d caught Hingle at a bad time.
“This is Colby Walker. Ryan’s dad?” His voice pitched higher at the end of the sentence, as if he were a twelve-year-old boy too.
Walker made a face at Angela hoping to get some sympathy. Of course, he realized, she had absolutely no idea about the other side of the conversation. “I wanted to let you know that we arrived safely. And Jess is a pleasure.” Never hurt to throw in a compliment. Developing rapport was a basic tenet of Communication 101.
“What are you talking about?”
“Jess. On vacation. With Ryan. We arrived here a little while ago.”
“You got Jess?” It was a cross between a statement and a question. To Walker, it sounded a lot like an accusation.
“Uh, yes. He’s here. With us. On vacation.”
“We’re in Sandbridge, near Virginia Beach. At a house right on the ocean.” He was met with silence on the other end of the line. Walker waited. It seemed as if this was the first Hingle had heard of it. Didn’t the man talk to his wife?
“Who’s Ryan, anyway?” A smoker’s hack followed the question.
Walker tried to keep his voice steady as his pulse quickened. “Ryan and Jess are friends. They were in some of the same classes this past year. Jess never mentioned him?”
“No, guess not. When are you coming back?”
“Next Saturday. We’ll be here a week.”
Again, no immediate response. Walker imagined Hingle nodding off to sleep in the middle of their conversation.
Hingle coughed, louder this time. “That’s too long, I’m afraid. You’ll have to bring him back sooner. How’s tomorrow?”
Tomorrow? What kind of vacation would that be? Turn on the charm, Colby. “Mr. Hingle. May I call you Buck?”
Another long pause. “Guess so.”
“Thanks, Buck. Is there a problem? I assure you we’ll take good care of Jess. And it won’t cost you a cent, we’ll spring for everything. While he’s here, we’ll treat him like one of our own children. We’ll even make him bathe once in a while.”
“So you’ll bring him back tomorrow?”
Now Walker paused. He thought about passing the phone to Angela and washing his hands of the problem. But that was the old Colby Walker’s style. “Buck, is there some specific issue you’d like to discuss? I mean, is there something you’re especially concerned about? Whatever it is, I’m sure we can handle it here.”
“Listen up, buddy. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I want my son back. Who do you think you are anyway?” Hingle’s tone had taken a decided turn for the worse.
Walker’s jaw dropped, but no sound came out. So much for civility. None of his children’s friends’ parents had ever spoken to him like that before. Ever. At least not sober. Maybe Hingle was soused. That might explain the hostility. Angela stared at him as he tried to come up with a response. If only she knew how strange the other side of the conversation was.
“Hey. You still there?”
Walker took a deep breath, struggled to keep his calm. “Listen, Buck. There’s no need to get nasty. Let’s talk this out, okay?”
“You some kind of lawyer? I hope not, ’cause I hate lawyers.” The words slurred together.
“No, I’m not a lawyer.” Walker needed a better strategy. Time to regroup and confer with his counsel. Angela would know how to handle this. “Can I call you back in a few minutes to discuss this further?”
“What? You snatch my kid and now you want me to wait around to find out when you’re going to bring him back? You got balls, buddy.”
“Hang on a sec.” Walker covered the phone and whispered to Angela. “You won’t believe this guy. He thinks we took Jess against his will or something. He wants us to drive him home tomorrow!”
Angela’s eyes widened for an instant, then she clicked into problem-solver mode. “Maybe I should talk to his wife. Remove the testosterone from the equation.”
“Good idea.” He exhaled, wondering if his relief was obvious. Angela’s smug expression provided the answer.
Walker brought the phone back to his mouth. “Buck. You there?”
“’Course I’m here. Stop dicking around. You want me to call the cops on you? You said you weren’t a lawyer, but even a non-lawyer knows you can’t just take someone’s kid.”
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding here. A big one. Your wife said it was okay for Jess to come along with us. In fact, my wife would like to speak to her, if she’s available.”
“My wife? Who put you up to this?” Hard to believe, but Hingle’s tone turned nastier.
“Nobody put me up to anything. We’re simply trying to take a little vacation, and we invited your son to join us.” If this was a preview of what it was like to become more involved with his family’s day-to-day life, returning to the eight-day workweek looked pretty good. “Buck, please. Is your wife there?”
“I don’t have a wife. Not anymore. She died over ten years ago.”
Walker stepped into the boys’ bedroom and surveyed the scene. Next to him, Angela gasped as she laid eyes on the mess. Clothing, books, magazines, Frisbees, and who knew what else covered every available surface. In less than an hour, the boys had managed to give their cramped quarters that lived-in look unique to tweener boys. With the blinds down and the curtains drawn, the room had all the ambiance of a moss-covered cave.
A bunk bed had been pushed against one wall and Ryan sat on the top bunk—legs dangling over the side—while Jess reclined on the bottom. Loud hip-hop music thundered from the TV, which was tuned to MTV or VH1 or some other hormone-fueled station. Three bikini-clad vixen writhed on top of a bright yellow ’Vette. Walker rapped on the doorjamb, and when he got the boys’ attention, he spoke. “Somebody’s got some explaining to do,” he said, a hard edge to his voice. “And turn off that racket.”
Ryan picked up the remote and pointed it at the TV. The volume spiked, and the latest rap star assaulted Walker, complaining about being dissed. Ryan stabbed at the remote and the tube flickered off. “Sorry. I’m not used to this remote.”
Walker couldn’t even find the remote half the time, let alone get used to it. “I just got off the phone with Jess’s father. And he didn’t seem to know anything about our vacation. What gives?”
Ryan spoke up. “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? I mean he didn’t know Jess was coming along with us. That’s what I mean.” He addressed the boy on the bottom bunk. “Jess, did you tell him?”
Jess maneuvered his body so he could glance at Ryan before he spoke. “Um, I thought I told him. But maybe I forgot.” He turned his attention back to the TV, although it was dark.
Out of the corner of his eye, Walker saw a look of disbelief cloud Angela’s face. But she kept quiet, probably waiting to see how he handled things. “Come on, Jess. Did you tell him or not?”
“No sir, I guess I didn’t. I’m sorry.” He bowed his head and examined a spot on the floor.
“What were you thinking? Did you sneak out?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly sneak. I just left. Without telling my dad where I was going. I was going to call him.”
“Jeez, don’t you think he’d be worried, not knowing where you are?” No wonder Hingle was so pissed on the phone.
Jess took a minute to consider the question, then mumbled something under his breath.
“What was that?”
Jess spoke louder. “No, not really. He never knows where I am. And I don’t think he cares too much, either.”
Walker and Angela exchanged glances. “I bet that’s not true,” Angela said, moving closer to Jess. “I’m sure he was quite worried. I know I’d be frantic.”
“Ryan, what do you know about a message we got from Jess’s mother?” Walker arched his right eyebrow.
“Message? What message?” Ryan’s eyes dilated, like Bambi’s.
“There was a voicemail message saying it was okay for Jess to come with us. From his, uh, mother.”
“I don’t remember any message like that,” Ryan said.
Angela started to say something, but Walker stepped forward, trying to look as grave as possible. “Unless I get some answers, we’re going to cut this vacation short. Real short. So pack up. We’ll head out in fifteen minutes.” He spun around and started to leave the room, winking at Angela as he passed.
Walker stopped, turned back. “Yes?”
“About the message. We did it.” Ryan’s expression now reflected guilt.
Nothing like a threat to get a confession. “Okay, explain what happened.”
“Well, Jess didn’t think his father would let him come, so we made up our own message from MP3 sound bites.” The words spilled out. “We put it all together on my iPad. Then we called in from a noisy pay phone at the mall to make it sound real. And hard to hear, too. Sorry.” Ryan shrugged, and Walker detected a slight smile.
He knew Ryan was proud at having engineered the whole ruse, especially its success. But he wasn’t so sure his son felt any remorse for deceiving them. Walker turned to Jess and tried to wash the anger from his voice. “Jess. Your father told me that your mother isn’t with you anymore. I’m sorry.”
“Um, thank you Mr. Walker. She died when I was little.” Jess still didn’t make eye contact, preferring to continue his inspection of the carpet.
Walker glanced again at Angela, who now was leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Observing. He flashed her a quick smile, then knelt, so he could look directly into Jess’s face. “There’s something else I need to tell you. In this family, we don’t lie. We tell the truth. Even if the truth is going to hurt us.” Walker rocked back on his haunches and caught Ryan’s eye for a moment, then continued speaking to Jess. “So while you’re on vacation with us, I expect nothing less from you. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir. I understand.” Jess’s voice cracked slightly.
Walker stood so both boys could see him better. “Mr. Hingle is pretty mad. And I can’t say that I blame him. He wants us to drive Jess back home tomorrow.” Fear played across the boys’ faces. Fear of losing out on their vacation, or was there something else?
“Come on, Dad. That’s not fair.” Ryan’s voice turned nasal when he pleaded.
“Not fair? What would be fair? Before you answer, put yourself in Mr. Hingle’s shoes.” He stopped a beat, for effect. “So, what do you think your punishment should be?”
“I don’t know. Just don’t take us home tomorrow. Please. Maybe Jess could talk to his dad and tell him everything is okay here. And we’ll apologize to him for the fake message, too.”
Walker considered this. “Well, that sounds like a plan. And if we can get things worked out, then I’m sure we’ll be able to find some chores around here for you two to do, as penance. How does that sound, Jess? Can you talk to your father and tell him you’ll be fine here?”
A surge of energy seemed to course through Jess’s body as he popped off the bed. “Sure. I can talk to him. I’ll tell him how nice you are and what a great time we’ll have. He’ll understand. He has to.”
“Okay. Tonight after dinner, Jess will call his father and try to ease his mind. And I’ll talk with him again too.” Walker was confident that after Hingle sobered up, he’d be able to reason with the man and persuade him to let Jess stay. After all, Hingle would want what’s best for his kid, wouldn’t he? Things were going to work out fine. A growling from his stomach reminded him what time it was. “Who’s ready for lunch?”
Without waiting for an answer, Walker pointed at the door theatrically and boomed, “To the van, boys.”
The boys clambered out of the room, eager to fill their bellies. Walker fell in behind them, but Angela grabbed a fistful of his shirt.
“That’s it? That’s the punishment they get for deceiving us? Hamburgers and fries?” Angela shook her head.
Walker thought back to his childhood, full of countless pranks and tons of typical “boy” mischief. He got caught a lot and his cruel father punished him severely, often for the smallest of transgressions. He vowed he’d never treat his own children like that. If he erred on the side of leniency, so be it. “Well, what did you have in mind?”
“We should drive Jess back right now.”
“I don’t think—”
Angela threw her hand up. “Hang on. It’s great that you’re going to be around more to ‘help me out’ with the parenting. But it’s a collaborative effort. You can’t just make unilateral decisions like that without consulting me. We’re a team, remember?” Angela’s face darkened. “I think we need to drive Jess home. Then we can come back for the rest of the week.”
“Drive him back?” Walker stared at her stone face. “You’re serious?”
“That’s what I’d want, if it happened to us. It’s not always easy, but parents are supposed to be parents, you know.”
“And kids are supposed to be kids,” Walker blurted out, before his brain caught up. He licked his lips. “Look. I’m sorry. I just thought this would be a good opportunity for me to get involved. I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds, maybe I’m a little rusty. But come on, Ange. They apologized. And when Jess apologizes to that father of his, everything will be all right and we can get on with our vacation.”
“Ah, so that’s it.” Angela nodded as if she just figured out a riddle. “Hingle pissed you off and now you’re being stubborn. You don’t want to take Jess back out of spite. You want to show ‘that father of his’ who’s boss. Jesus, Colby, you know how I feel about macho shit.”
Walker held up his hands. “Whoa. You’re way off base. Listen, I’ll talk to Hingle tonight and get this whole thing straightened out. You’ll see. I can be very persuasive. I talked you into marrying me, didn’t I?”
“Don’t remind me,” Angela said, before she turned her back on him and left the room.