Jay meets a man about a job. Indie pays the price for Rat's ignorance. Jay fights back.
Jay squinted as he looked up from the sheet taped to the handlebars of Indie’s bike. The sun was setting now, and it burned his eyes. He counted the minutes until it set so he could pedal in relative comfort. The paper flapped in the wind rushing past him and he looked down again. On it he had scribbled the date and time and address of where to meet the man. His legs burned as the road curved upwards yet again. He would just be on time if he didn’t stop.
The sun finally glinted below the horizon as Jay entered Timmins. The highway, still rough pavement this far in the boonies, ran straight down the middle of the town. Several side streets peeled off from the main road and Jay peered into the fresh gloom as he looked for Penniton Avenue. He turned left once he found his destined street.
The location he was instructed to meet the man at was a small strip mall that had an automatic laundromat, some greasy mom and pop café, and a tiny office. The silver lettering on the frosted glass was flaked and faded. Jay could just make out “Law Offices of--” followed by what he assumed was a name.
He popped the kickstand on the bike and pulled the water bottle out of the rack on the frame between his legs. Jay leaned forward and poured a quick squirt of water on the back of his head and let it drizzle down his face. He shook out his curls, now nearly ear length and wiped off his face with a handkerchief, which he then folded up neatly and tucked in his back pocket. It was as neat as he could make himself given the circumstances.
He glanced at his watch in nervous tension. It was a very quiet part of the tiny town and with no streetlights and no lights in the tiny parking lot it was getting quite dark.
The door to the office popped open, startling Jay.
“Jesus!” he exclaimed, taking a step back.
“James. Glad you made it.” The man held open the door for his guest and stood aside.
“How did you know my name was James?” Jay asked, sidling past the richly dressed man. He glanced into the ice blue eyes of the other man. “I go by Jay. Ain’t nobody call me James but my Pops when I’m about to get the thrashing of my life.” He murmured.
“I’m sorry, I was told by my contact that your name was James. I will make note to call you Jay. Please, Jay, sit. Coffee?” He tilted his perfectly coiffed blond hair as he asked. Jay thought of how the man seemed tense and gruff the last time they met. The man seemed to be brighter, almost chipper as he made his way to a tiny kitchenette in the corner of the office. He frowned as the man pulled out a jar of ground coffee and a tiny coffee maker.
“At nine at night, sir?” he said, unsure what name to call the mysterious man.
“Would you prefer something harder?” He drew out a crystal tumbler and a bottle of whiskey. Jay’s eyes flicked to the amber bottle in hesitant desire and back to the man’s face. The smack of a belt reverberated in his mind. Finally, he nodded.
“Excellent.” The man poured him a few sips of whiskey and recapped the bottle. He returned the bottle to the cupboard and brought the heavy tumbler to Jay. He motioned for Jay to sit in one of the worn leather chairs in front of a huge dark wood desk. A micro layer of dust lay across the surface. The man drew a silk handkerchief with a flourish and had the grace to look ashamed. “I should have thought to dust. I apologize.” Jay half shrugged and took a sip of the whiskey, noting the man’s expensive suit and tie as the man sat himself across the desk.
“I ain’t bothered.” The alcohol scorched his chest, making him feel like a fire was burning in him. It reinforced his steadfastness.
“So, Jay. Tell me more about yourself.” The man said and folded his hands in front of him. Jay looked down and saw diamonds glint at the man’s cuffs and a large gold watch sparkled on his left wrist. The man hands were a creamy, pale color and bore no trace of having done any hard work.
“I dunno. I’m twenty years old, been working at the labor agency for two years. I’ve done all kinds of labor from the bakery to the garage to working on a farm outside of town. But I graduated with honors if that’s what you want to know.” He sipped the whisky again, assured that the man wanted a verbal resume.
“What made you join the work force instead of doing something you wanted to do?” the man asked, gently probing and curious.
“Well, I got four little brothers for one. And my momma don’t make much money as a seamstress. Pops does ok at the steel mill, but not enough to feed and clothe five kids.” Jay admitted unashamedly.
“What would you do if you didn’t have to be at the agency? If you were given a choice in what career you took?” the man asked openly. The questions made Jay draw a long and very loud blank. It was as though someone had just ended the music in the room. It felt like tripping and looking down and seeing nothing but empty air. His plans to leave home ended with him escaping the smothering, oppressive atmosphere at home. He had never had the opportunity to ask himself that, let alone had someone voice the question aloud.
“I guess I hadn’t really thought about it. I ‘spose I wouldn’t hate owning my own garage. I’m good with my hands and cars are ok.” He finally answered. He tossed back the rest of the whiskey and the fire in his breast gave him courage. “I ain’t never had the chance to figure that out.”
“I see. And your family, your brothers and yourself, you’re not very well off?” The man asked as gently as a rich, entitled person could possibly ask of a man clearly wearing his father’s hand-me-down clothes and in need of a haircut. Jay’s hackles raised and he slammed the tumbler down angrily.
“We ain’t poor. We eat every day and every single one of us has clothes. I work hard to make sure that each of my brothers can go to school every day with brushed teeth, washed faces and full bellies. I make sure that my momma never has to work more than she feels she can.” He heard his voice getting louder and took a deep breath. “I’m the reason we’re not poor. We ain’t well off. Obviously, we ain’t. But we ain’t poor.”
“I’m glad to hear that you’re a proud, hardworking individual, Jay.” The man said, taking the outburst with incredible ease. “It reassures me that my proposition won’t fall on deaf ears.” The man straightened his silver tie unnecessarily. Jay noticed that the man had perfectly matched his sapphire tie pin to his blue eyes.
“I’m here, so I’m listenin’.” Jay agreed.
“What would you do to get out of your current situation, Jay? No, I don’t mean getting out of the labor agency. I mean, what would you do for an amount of money that would allow your family to live comfortably for years? For you to perhaps start your own life?” He let the gravitas in the room fall all around them. The man’s eyes, so blue moments before were darker now. He held perfectly still as Jay stared at him.
“Look, Mister. I don’t know what kind of man you think you got here, but I ain’t no thug, I ain’t a criminal. I’m a decent man.” Jay stood up, fully angry now. He turned to leave.
“You’re free to leave, of course.” The man said quietly, stopping Jay. “But if you leave now you will walk home empty-handed. If you stay…” Jay heard two clicks and a soft, leathery creaking. “You will go home with two thousand dollars just for agreeing to meet me tonight and a promise of a lot more if you agree to the proposal that I have for you.” He turned around and saw a leather brief case filled with more money than Jay thought existed in the entire world. He felt his heart trip and a weightlessness that extinguished his anger immediately. Suspicion seeped into the lightness, staining his excitement.
“I won’t do anything illegal.” Jay said, drawing his line in the sand. The man nodded and held his hand out to the chair in front the desk again. Jay sat.
“I won’t ask you to do anything illegal. Everything I need is above-board and perfectly legitimate.” He calmed the younger man. “You have heard of the disappearances all over the state, yes?” The question was lobbed at Jay from so far out in left field that he didn’t really understand it at first.
“Disappearances?” He repeated. The man nodded.
“Over thirty children and young adults have gone missing in the last month alone. You haven’t heard of this?” the man clarified.
“Oh yeah, sure.” Jay still wasn’t sure what that had to do with the man. Then an idea came to him and his eyes opened wide. “I ain’t kidnapping no kids.” He said firmly.
“Oh, lord, Jay, no. No, I work for an organization that is actively trying to stop these kidnapping thieves. We know who is doing it and we are desperate to get them to stop.” The man disclosed and he moved the brief case to the side, careful to keep the top open and facing Jay. “My associates and I have been given information that leads us to believe that you might be in possession of something that might help us stop these bandits.”
“Me? I ain’t got nothin’. You said so yourself.” Jay reminded him.
“Yes, well, be that as it may, you are in contact with something of great importance to us. We have decided that your work ethic and tenacity are exemplary traits for aiding us.” The man said, and Jay shifted nervously in the leather chair. He said nothing, not sure what the man wanted from him. He lifted the tumbler and motioned for a refill.
“I see you’re still on edge. Tell me about your family while we talk more, Jay.” The glass was half-full this time and Jay pulled heavily on the liquor and let the hotness fill his gut.
The nights of drinking with the labor agency guys, drunkenly whistling at girls passing by, pissing on buildings flicked by in his memories. His mother had brought those nights to a devastating halt when he came home with lipstick all over his face and his pants half undone, still drunk. After she had slapped him sober, she woke his father who took the belt, buckle side up, to his flesh until he bled. Jay had just turned twenty and as it was less than year earlier it was as fresh in his mind as possible.
“Well, like I said, my father works at the steel mill. My momma is a seamstress part time from home. She worked at the tailors for a summer, but it was too hot for her. She’s a fainter, like Indie.” Jay explained over the rim of his drink. “I’m the oldest out of five boys. After me are the twins, Toe and Two.” The man’s eyebrows shot up in curiosity. “Oh, yeah, fuck. We never use their real names. Joe and Ben are eighteen. After the twins is Indiana, he’s seventeen.” Jay took another long drink, nearly emptying the glass. He felt his head swirling pleasantly and he sank a little lower in the comfortable chair.
“And your youngest brother?” the man prompted. The question evinced a frown from Jay.
“Rat’s five. That’s twelve fuckin’ years between him and Indie. There ain’t nothing normal about that, if you ask me.” The empty glass was set down with a gentle tap. The man got up to refill it and Jay held out his hand. He still had to ride the bike all the way back home, in the dark, and he was already buzzed.
“That’s quite the age gap, indeed.” The man agreed. “It must make him a very special member of the family.” Jay scoffed so hard he snorted.
“Yeah, he’s the darlin’ child of Momma. If Pops liked kids at all he would probably like him, but he ain’t never seen one kid he didn’t want to smack.” Jay’s conscious was two steps behind him and he yelled at himself to shut up.
“I’m sure that’s very difficult.” The man said quietly. It wasn’t a question, but a statement and Jay felt a thankful tightness in his chest.
“It can be.” He admitted. “But we all deal with it.”
“That brings me back to my question from earlier. Would you want to escape that situation, Jay?”
“I ain’t even know your name or what you want from me.” Jay said pointedly as the whiskey hit him, emboldened him. The man didn’t answer right away but sat very still looking very intensely at Jay.
“You may call me Mr. Avery.” He finally said but did not continue. His gaze felt heavy as Jay sat there.
“What do you want from me, Mr. Avery?” whispered Jay as discomfort stole across him.
“I hear you have a brother that is special.” The man stated. Jay sat up and glared at him. The movement made the man’s face wobble.
“The fuck you hear that from?” he demanded.
“Several sources of unimportance. What makes him special, Jay?” the man asked intently. Jay’s mind was working as fast as the liquor would let him. He pleaded with himself to keep his mouth shut.
Jay remembered Rat telling Jay about being able to see the things that people were thinking about sometimes. He showed him one day on the way to school by guessing, correctly, all the things that Jay was thinking. Then Jay remembered seeing his baby brother grinning in self-satisfied glee in the moonlight of their room as he made a coin disappear in his tiny hands. Then, finally, the thin, fresh scar on Indie’s forehead.
“He’s just different.” He said stubbornly.
“How old was he when he could guess the words you were thinking, Jay?” Mr. Avery asked gently. “And that coin, did he ever retrieve it for you?” Jay’s heart thudded hard and uncomfortable in his chest. His birthday flashed across his thoughts.
“August, just like your youngest brother. September for the twins. October for Indie.” Mr. Avery recited as the dates flipped in Jay’s mind like pages. He jumped to his feet and backed up in terror.
“Sit down, Jay, I insist.” Jay felt himself being pushed from behind and he stumbled forward back into the chair. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Something in his voice flipped a switch in Jay and he relaxed. His eyes rested on the still open briefcase. The promise of even more money floated across his thoughts.
“What do you want?” he finally asked.
“Well, as I stated before, I am part of a singular faction. One important role of the party I belong to is the training and refining of those young people that have shown exceptional abilities. We are also actively looking to impede the criminal activity of which we previously spoke. I have reason to believe that your brother may be in danger due to his special gifts.” Mr. Avery explained slowly and patiently. He paused to see if Jay was following.
“Last night someone tried to take him.” Jay confided. The man’s crease-less brow furrowed in concern.
“What did this individual look like?”
“Rat just said a white-faced guy with stringy hair, eerie thin face and ice-cold hands.” Jay recited, trying hard to remember all the details that Rat had given the brothers the night before as they waited for the dawn to creep into their room.
“Yes, that’s accurate.” Mr. Avery confirmed. “Did they—” he hesitated. “Injure him? Did he have scratches or bitemarks?” Jay frowned in surprised confusion.
“Bites? Nah. Rat said he just knew that his hands were gonna be cold if they touched him.” Mr. Avery nodded and steepled his fingers in front of his face in thought.
“The people I work for would like to offer your family a considerable amount of money to allow us to take your brother into a safe place, to train him, and to help him hone his incredible gifts.” The man’s words were blunt now, businesslike and well rehearsed. “But he must first be tested by one of our Scouts and that requires both of your parents to be present, and to agree to the testing. If they don’t agree, I cannot guarantee his safety.”
Jay merely met his gaze and gave nothing away in his face.
“The two thousand dollars here you will take home tonight for yourself as a finder’s fee. Upon the testing, your parents will receive another two thousand. If he tests well, we will discuss then the proper course of compensation.”
“Wait a minute.” Jay shook his head and blinked, trying to will away the liquid waves in his mind. “This money here is mine? I ain’t gotta give it to my parents?” Jay asked in shock.
“I am not one to tell you what to do with your money, Jay, but I have paid this money to you for your part in this matter. It does not belong to your parents unless you give it to them.” The words fell on Jay’s ears like a tumbler in a lock. He saw himself packing his few belongings and buying a tiny car and just driving away. He saw his father’s enraged face and his mother’s tears. They dissipated before they could materialize fully, and Jay nodded.
“Yes. Test him.” He said.
Jay left a few minutes later, with his finder’s fee in a soft cloth bag that he tied to the bike’s handle bars. He got on the bike, wobbly but sure that he could make it home just fine and glanced into the frosted window. Mr. Avery had picked up a phone and was talking to someone. He looked first smug and then annoyed. Finally, he laughed and hung up. Jay shook his head to clear it and rounded the bike toward home.
Jay was nervous to tell his parents about the meeting and Mr. Avery’s offer, but his primary concern was finding a safe place for his money. He had no personal space inside the house and no access to a bank. He finally decided to wrap it up in a couple of plastic bags and bury it by a shrub in back by the shed. When he raked his fingers over the small mound, trying to make it look more natural, a lightness stole into him. He could escape soon, he knew it. He just had to find a way to convince his parents to have Rat tested.
The next morning, he got up early with his brothers and got ready for work. He idly wondered how many more days of labor he had to endure before he could pack up and leave. Indie caught him smiling and sidled up to him as they waited their turn for the bathroom.
“How did the meetin’ go?” he whispered.
“Shut up.” Jay said and looked around the corner into the kitchen. His momma was humming and swaying while she fixed their breakfast. He could smell bacon, a treat they hadn’t had in months.
“At least tell me if you’re gonna take the job.” Indie insisted. Jay nodded and pounded on the door.
“Let’s go, Rat. I’m late.” He called. “Guess you’re a turtle now, if you’re so slow.” he tacked on. It was uncharacteristic banter for him but he was in a good mood. His littlest brother opened the door immediately and ran out as fast a rat.
“Sorry, Jay!” he called as he jumped into his chair at the table. Jay paused at the bathroom door and nodded at Indie again.
“I’ll tell you more if you want, just stop fuckin’ talkin’ about it.” Indie’s smile made Jay roll his eyes.
While Jay brushed his teeth, he thought about his money, hidden safely, and what he could do with it. A good quality whiskey would be the first thing he bought. He would bring it home and after their parents went to sleep, he would wake up Indie and get him drunk for the first time. He smirked at his image in the mirror the thought of Indie, usually strait-laced but fierce, smashed out of his mind. He reached a hand up and tugged on his hair. It fell back into his eyes. Maybe the first thing would be a real haircut at a real barber.
Jay shaved quickly and not very carefully, nicking himself. He hissed in pain and saw a drop of red blood land in the white basin. He thought of what Indie had said about Rat healing his head. He frowned and shook his head. He put the razor to his cheek again and felt dizziness wash over him.
I can fix that, Jay.
It was Rat’s voice. He spun around look behind him. It had come from the bathroom, he was sure. But Rat was in the kitchen. If he held his breath, he could hear him laughing with Indie as they washed their plates.
“That’s not nice, Rat.” He heard Indie say and Rat answered with a giggle.
Jay faced the mirror again and put his razor to his cheek. He steadied his shaking hand and pulled the razer down slowly, carefully and felt the scrape of it against his stubble. He rinsed the head of the blade and eyed himself in the mirror again. His narrow, cat-like hazel eyes were wide with terror. His heart raced but the dizziness was gone.
Promise it won’t hurt.
The dizziness this time threatened to topple him. He gripped the sink and watched his dark knuckles turn white. He lifted his head and looked at the tiny razor nick in the mirror. He saw darkness edge his vision and felt a tingle in his jaw. A tiny pip and his face stopped bleeding. A crumpling thud came from the other side of the wall. He heard his mother scream from the kitchen.
“Indie!” Jay grabbed the towel on the sink and wiped his face off. He dashed into the kitchen, his heart already racing and a cold fear drenching him in sweat. His mother was at the table with the twins, their father at the counter. Indie was on the floor, a pool of blood welling under his head.
“What the fuck happened, Rat?” Jay roared and grabbed the boy by his shirt, lifting him from the stool at the sink. “What did you do?”
“Let me down! I gotta help him!” shrieked the boy, and he kicked out at him. Jay dropped him and spun around, kneeling by his brother. He turned Indie over to see that he hadn’t hit his head on anything but that his nose was bleeding and badly.
“Call an ambulance, Momma!” Shouted Jay but the boy countered him.
“Don’t! I can fix him.” With a calm, steady hand, he reached out and put his palm on Indie’s chest. The giddy darkness washed over Jay. He grabbed the boy’s hand away and stopped him. He immediately felt better. It wasn’t fear that had him feeling the breathless pressure, it was…outside of him, pulling on him. Something inside him connected and he pressed his brother’s hand to Indie’s chest with his own adult hand over top of it. He looked at the boy and nodded.
“Now do it.” Jay steeled himself, and immediately felt the dizzy pull in his head. He pulled back, fighting back the blackness on the edge of his vision. His breath stalled in his chest and his heart thudded painfully. “Stop, Rat. Stop!” The blackness faded.
They all looked down to Indie who now had his eyes open. His nose had stopped bleeding. He rolled over and vomited, the sick clinging to his shoulder-length ringlets.
“Rat…” Jay began, taking his brother’s tiny shoulders in his hands. “You can’t…you can’t do these things anymore. You’re gonna kill Indie.” Shock washed over the boy and he started shaking.
Jay glanced up at his father, still standing at the counter. His face was unreadable, but his mother’s face was pale and had a sheen of fear. She tried to stand but her legs would not let her, and she flopped back down. The twins were boulders, silent and unmoving. They met his eyes one at a time and gave him the briefest of nods. They had felt it too.
“When you do this, Rat, you’re taking from Indie somethin’ he doesn’t have to give you. I don’t know what it is, but I feel it and the twins do, too. But it’s hurtin’ Indie. You can’t do this anymore or you will kill him.” Jay said gently. It was the most patient he had ever felt with any of his brothers and the seriousness of that alone made the boy start sobbing.
“I heard you think-talkin’ about your money under the shrub and how you wanted that whiskey and then I told Indie that you cut your face and he said that I could probably fix a razor cut no problem so I showed me fixin’ Indie’s head but you didn’t hear me so I had to think-talk ask you and then…” his voice trailed off as he ran out of air. He drew in a new breath, but nothing came out but a long, thin moan. His mother finally found her legs and stood to comfort him.
Toe got up quietly, helped Indie to his feet and took him to get cleaned up. Two started to clean up the sick on the floor, holding his breath as he wiped up chunks of bacon that Indie had wolfed down without chewing. Jay stood and looked to his father. He was staring into space, devoid of any emotion on his face. He sipped his coffee absently. Then his eyes flicked up to meet Jay’s.
“If I hear one fuckin’ word about this I will belt you all. Even you,” he said and nodded to Jay. “You still remember how that feels?” Jay felt the anger in him rising, burning in his chest like hot liquor. He nodded once, confirming that he heard and understood.
“What money was he talkin’ about?” his father continued icily. Jay’s stomach dropped out. There seemed much bigger things to focus on and he had been praying that his father had missed that part.
“Just some cash I have saved up.” Jay evaded and turned away to give his reply some sort of natural nonchalance. He heard his father’s mug set down with a chink on the counter.
“What cash you got saved up?” Jay shrugged and moved to leave the kitchen.
“Just a few dollars I was savin’ for things like a hair cut or a new pair of shoes.” He felt his face flush. He hated lying to his father, to his face.
“Where you get this money? Sellin’ your brother, like a whore?” his father asked and Jay frowned. He turned back to his father.
“The agency, Pops.” His confusion was mistaken for lying and his father reached out and slapped him hard across the face.
“You lie to me again, I will belt you.” Rage flashed in Jay’s eyes and took a step backward.
“I ain’t lyin’!” He defended himself.
“I was told by one of the guys at the mill that you’ve been peddlin’ your brother as a side show freak. You makin’ me look like a fool so you can have a new pair of shoes?” His father’s voice was steady, but Jay saw his nostrils flare and braced himself.
“I ain’t!” he said guiltily. He couldn’t move fast enough, and he got a fist to his nose.
“You wanna try that again, boy?” his father said as Jay doubled over in shock.
“I ain’t a boy!” he bellowed and for the first time in his life he swung back at his father. He had surprise on his side and his fist collided solidly with his father’s nose. The rest of the family in the kitchen heard a crunch and blood shot out of his broken nose. Something snapped in Jay and he attacked in full force.
“I ain’t a boy! And I’m leavin’ first chance I get!” He punctuated each word in the statement with a box to his father’s ears. His mother screamed again, and he felt the now-familiar heavy dizziness sap his strength. But this time he felt it pull away and it slithered off him like a satin sheet. He whipped around to see his youngest brother covering his mouth in horror. He could tell that Rat was keeping in mind what Jay had told him about Indie.
Suddenly Jay’s ear felt like it was on fire. His father had taken his distracted attention and used it to counterattack. Jay whirled back around to see his father’s belt whiz by his face. He reached up and caught the leather strap. He wound his hand around, drawing his father in closer as he pulled. He jerked the belt free from his father’s fingers and swung in at his face. A multitude of arms, thick and strong, wrapped themselves around him from behind. Toe had him around the middle, and Two had him around the shoulders. He tried to shrug them off and relented. They were too much for him to fight off. The twins relaxed and Toe’s arms retreated from his torso.
His father saw him powerless and took the opportunity to punch him in the stomach, smashing the air from his lungs. He doubled over again, gasping. His father bent down, face to face with him and wiped blood from his own split lip.
“You ain’t fuckin’ goin’ nowhere, boy.”
Indie lay in their bed, his eyes closed. He looked pale and unwell. He looked dead. When the door creaked as he pushed it open, Indie’s eyes fluttered open tiredly. The boy stood in the doorway guilt, shame, and a horrible dread on his face. Was he really hurting Indie when he did his tricks? Has he always been hurting his brother? Indie, never a one to deny him comfort, held out a hand weakly and motioned him over. The boy rushed to his side and stood over him.
“Is Jay right, Indie?” he whispered softly, afraid that somehow even using his voice would hurt him.
“I think he might be.” Indie replied carefully. “I don’t know what you’re doing when you do them tricks, but I know I don’t feel right. I’ve been tellin’ you.”
“I know, I know! I’m so sorry.” The boy agreed, repenting on the spot. He sniffled and flung himself at his brother only to stop just before landing on him and slowly lowered his head down to his chest. He listened to his brother’s heart, steady and strong and sobbed.
“We gotta figure this out somehow, Ratty. You need help with this. Do you think Jay was handed Daddy’s keys and told he could drive?” he asked gently. The boy on his chest shook his head. “It’s the same for you. You gotta have practice in a safe way first before doing things like zippin’ up my face or think-talkin’ to Jay.”
“I don’t want to use it anymore, Indie. I don’t want to hurt you.” Declared the boy and stood up to show that he meant it. Indie’s face was sad and a little angry.
“It don’t work like that, Rat. You got it inside you, so you gotta use it. And now we know you can help people. If you don’t use your gifts now that you know that, it’s selfish. You ain’t a selfish kid, I know that.” Indie remonstrated. He lay quiet for a minute and then scooted over in the bed, allowing a small space for the boy to sit.
“How can I learn to use it safely, though? I don’t know what it even is.” Bemoaned the child as he plopped next to Indie. He had been in touch with these parts of himself for as long as he could remember but he recently found he could do more if Indie was around, or even more if all the brothers were near him. He always thought it was confidence and the excitement in showing them something special. Now, he wasn’t sure.
Indie chewed his lip, thinking.
“Well,” he mused. “Do you think you could talk about it without using it? I mean, if I asked questions about it could you answer them without using it?” The boy held his breath, gently probing the special thing inside him that let him do tricks. He watched Indie’s face carefully, looking for any signs of distress. Finally, assured that Indie felt nothing, he nodded.
“I can touch it without hurtin’ you.” It felt weird to talk about his abilities without being secretive.
“Ok. Let me think of some easy questions to start with.” Said his brother. He pulled himself into a sitting position and winced. He grabbed his temple and closed his eyes. The boy laid a tiny hand on his arm and squeezed gently. “I’m ok,” Indie reassured him.
“I’m sorry…” the boy’s voice was so quiet that Indie’s eyes snapped open.
“Are you ok, Rat? You gonna fall down?”
“I’m fine. I’m just sad.” He kept this tiny hand on his brother’s arm and nodded. “Ask me somethin’.”
“Hmm.” Indie looked around the room for inspiration. “Ah, ok. This one is easy.” Indie drew in a deep breath and smiled kindly. “Ready?”
“I’m ready.” The boy nodded again and clenched his fingers tightly on Indie’s arm.
“How old were you when you first did something special?” It wasn’t a question the boy expected, and he relaxed. That was easy to answer.
“I was hearin’ Momma’s thoughts when I was in her belly.” He said proudly. Indie just frowned.
“No, Rat, I mean really remember. Like, clearly.” He explained.
“Yeah, when I was in her belly, I could hear her thinkin’ things about me and about the babies that she lost. She was very sad but very happy. She would talk to me sometimes, but I didn’t answer then, I wasn’t sure how to.” Rat insisted. “It’s very fuzzy because I was a baby, and honestly babies are kinda dumb, but I do remember her talkin’ to me.”
Indie listened carefully and then nodded, seeming to accept the explanation.
“Ok, so forever. What about hidin’ things? When did you learn to do that?”
That was harder to answer. The boy wasn’t sure he could explain to Indie what he did without touching the special space inside himself. He carefully turned inward and nudged the power that he was holding onto. It felt like a cold current of icy electricity. He dipped an invisible finger into it and looked at Indie. He could do that much on his own without borrowing from Indie. Slowly, he reached a whole hand into his secret place and pulled out a frost covered pebble. Indie showed no signs of feeling what he was doing.
“It was cake.” He said simply and Indie smiled. His brother knew that he liked sweets.
“Cake ain’t an age, Rat.” He teased.
“Chocolate cake from your birthday. I ‘member wantin’ to save my slice for later because I wasn’t hungry and I knowed that if I left it the twins or Jay would eat it. So, I tried to hide it in my special place. But later when I took it out it was frozen and then it thawed out into a soggy mess. I was so sad.” He said as he effortlessly hid the pebble again. Indie closed his eyes and drew in a sharp breath. The boy bit his lip and apologized.
“That was only comin’ up on a year ago.” Indie said, more to himself than to the boy. The little one shrugged, unsure of the time frames. “What about what you call mind-talkin’? Is that the same as hearin’ or seeing what I’m seein’?” Again, the boy reached inside him, carefully containing his invisible hands to his own person. He extended the incorporeal hand and touched Indie’s face and then dove into his mind.
Is he trying it now? He looks like he’s concentratin’. Rat, if you can hear me, nod. The boy nodded once, still trying to keep the invisible part of him from interacting with Indie too much. Indie’s eyes widened.
Holy shit. Holy shit. This is nuts. The boy smiled widely, used to the reaction. It was so funny to him. Then he tried to put his mind into Indie’s.
Does this hurt you, Indie? He whispered gently with his silent voice. Indie’s body started to shake, and the boy immediately withdrew his hands from the current inside him and took his hand off his brother’s arm.
“I stopped.” He held his hands up. “I’m sorry.”
“Ok, buddy. That’s enough for today. I’m so tired. Climb into bed with me and let’s take a nap.” Indie suggested. The boy nodded.
When he lay next to his brother, this time he held Indie, comforting him and apologizing with his gentle pets and tight hugs. He felt his older brother relax and tears pricked his eyes. This was all his fault. Indie being sick, Momma sad, Jay…
He drew up short and he couldn’t breathe. Would Indie talk to him about their eldest brother or was he still going to tell him no, not yet?
“Indie, I’m scared for Jay.” His brother sighed and swallowed hard.
“Me, too. He made Pops real mad, Ratty. I ain’t never seen Pops so mad.” Indie agreed.
“He hit Daddy.” Stated the child. Indie just nodded. “Daddy deserved it.” Whispered the boy. After a beat Indie nodded again.
“But if the twins hadn’t stopped him…” Indie left off the end of his thought. “Things are going to be hard for a little. Stay out of Jay’s way and don’t bother him. Listen to everything Daddy says. Don’t give either of them a reason to hit you.”
“I could stop them if they tried.” The boy said, anger rising his voice.
“No, Rat. You gotta promise me you won’t use your tricks until we can work together on them more. You promise me?” he held out a pinkie to his brother and waited. The boy looked at his brother’s pinkie and hesitated. He loved to do his tricks, but the teen was right. He was going to hurt someone, probably Indie. He linked his pinkie with his brother’s and agreed.
Once his initial adrenaline-fueled rage dropped away, Jay felt the heaviness of what he had done to his father. It hung around his neck like a leaden weight and pulled him into a darkness he had never been in before. His father had dug up his cash and taken it. He was back to square one and he was unsure if he could ever bring up Mr. Avery and his offer to his father. He decided to talk to his mother about it and leave it up to her to talk to him. It would be out of his hands from there.
Jay took an afternoon off from work and stopped at the grocery store near the bakery. He bought his mother dish soap, which she had said they were nearly out of, and a six pack of cola. It was such a treat that he wasn’t sure that Rat had even had it before. On a whim, he also bought a pack of gum for his littlest brother.
He walked home slowly, feeling the ache in his muscles from the day’s work. The sun was hot, and his hair stuck to his sweaty face. When he got home his mother was in the kitchen, singing loudly in her lovely alto voice while she chopped up carrots. It was still early, and his father would not be home for hours, so Jay felt safe and relaxed. He set his purchases on the counter and kissed his mother’s cheek.
“Hey, baby.” She said, surprised. “You done for the day?” He nodded and gestured at the paper sack.
“I picked up a few things for you and the boys.” He pulled out a cup from the cupboard and looked in the fridge for the milk. He noticed they didn’t have much left and sighed. “I should have gotten milk, too. Sorry, Momma.” He shut the fridge and filled his cup with water from the kitchen tap.
“Thank you.” She said affectionately. He turned to face her and looked down at her caramel face. He could see how beautiful she had once been, before five births and several more pregnancies had taken her figure. Before her eyes were hollowed by a loveless marriage to an unkind man. He frowned, thinking of the dark hatred boiling inside him toward his father.
“Momma, we gotta talk. Today, before he comes home.” He refrained from calling his father Pops, too hurt to allow the man that tender term.
“About what?” she went back to chopping up carrots. Her knife cut the silence easier than it did the root vegetables with its loud chop, chop.
“I talked to a man that helps kids like Rat.” He let his words simmer in the air. He saw her swallow hard and knew her knee-jerk reaction was to deny anything wrong or different about the youngest. It was too late now, though.
“Pops won’t like that.” She warned.
“That’s why I’m tellin’ you, Momma. You gotta listen to me.” He felt an annoyed anger strike against his breast and catch flame. He pulled himself away from the anger and took a deep breath. He rolled his shoulders and tried to relax.
“I’m still your mother. You don’t tell me what to do.” She retorted and tipped the wooden cutting board, dumping the carrot bits into a pot of boiling water on the stove. She wiped her hands on her apron and picked up an onion.
“Momma, this isn’t about me. It’s about Rat. He needs help. You saw what he did to Indie, and the twins and I can feel when he does it. It fuckin’ hurts, like bein’ car sick and drunk all at once.” She glared at him.
“Watch your mouth.” she was being willfully obtuse, and it made Jay lose his temper.
“I am a goddamn man now, Momma. I’m gonna fuckin’ say fuck if I wanna. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. Listen to me.” His sharpness made her round on him. She had the presence of mind to lay her knife down before starting after him.
“James Junior, I am not going to listen to you if you use that kind of language.” She wagged a finger in his face, and he grabbed her hand and shushed her.
“Shut up, Momma.” She looked shocked but she shut her mouth and glared at him. “This man wants to help Rat, but he needs to have your permission to test him first. He’s offerin’ us money just to talk to him.” He let go of her hand and went to the paper bag on the counter and emptied it while she stood in silence.
“He’s gonna put him in a place for crazies?” she whispered in a defeated sadness. Jay put the cola in the fridge and the soap near the sink. He pocketed the gum for later.
“No, Momma. He knows what Rat does is real because he can do it, too. He showed me.” He explained carefully.
“He gave you the money, didn’t he?” she said finally. He nodded once and crossed his arms.
“I’m going to talk to Rat about it today, but you gotta talk to him.”
“What happens if they like what Rat does? They take him away?” she sounded on the verge of tears and Jay steeled himself. He would not play the comforting man right now. He wanted her to talk to his father and to agree to this.
“I don’t know, but he said we would be made an offer based on his results.”
“Who are these people?” she demanded. He merely shrugged again and shook his head.
“I ain’t asked that much, Momma. He just told me what I’m tellin’ you and said that only Rat’s parents could agree to the test. If you don’t agree though…” he trailed off, realising with a spark of imagination that he had the leverage to make his mother agree. She had turned back to the pot on the stove and was adding spices and other diced vegetables but when he stopped talking, she looked behind her.
“What?” she demanded.
“He said that someone would take Rat, like they’re takin’ the other kids around here. If you don’t agree to have Rat tested, he’s gonna be missing one day.” The twisted truth fell from his lips without a trace of guilt. He didn’t feel the usual flush when he lied and he was even able to put a serious, but worried expression on his face.
“He said that they’re takin’ the kids?” she asked for clarification.
“No, he said that the only way to keep Rat safe was to have him tested.” That much was true, Mr. Avery had indeed said those words, but Jay added his own pressure to the statement. “He said that the people takin’ kids will come for Rat any day now. In fact, just the other night we saw someone trying to get in our window. Ask the boys, we all saw it.”
The pressure, once applied, didn’t need much help. His mother’s countenance was stony. She stirred the pot slowly and finally took the wooden spoon out and rested it on the chopping board.
“I’ll talk to your father tonight. What do we gotta do?” she agreed. Jay felt elation bubbling in him, and it was a struggle to turn his selfish relief into a show of thankful worry for his brother.
“I have Mr. Avery’s number. I can call him as soon as you both agree.” He opened the back door and looked back at his mother and finally felt a pang of guilt when he noticed tears falling down her cheeks. He braced himself again and closed the door, quickly shutting himself off from his feelings of compassion. He had to keep moving forward if he was to make it out alive. If he tripped on his own feelings for his mother or even his brothers, he would end up dead. Or his father would.