“How far out do you live?”
My voice cracked. These were the first words either of us had spoken in over two hours, if the clock on Crabtree’s dashboard was set right. I hadn’t seen my phone since Simon kidnapped me.
We left school with me tucked below the front seat of my substitute teachers car. Crabtree wasn’t thrilled to have me travel like that but I wouldn’t have it any other way and eventually he’d given in. For over half an hour I watched the upper stories of buildings slip by the window, cataloging our progress from the floor as Crabtree drove us further and further away. Soon the buildings turned to tree tops and some of my fear lifted. No one had found me. No one was following. I began to feel safe, or at least see that I could be safe. Maybe I would be OK. I could get away. I could start over.
And then I fell asleep. When I came to we were still driving.
“A ways.” Crabtree answered. “It’s pretty dead out too. You can probably sit up if you want.”
“Thanks.” I crawled off the floor and buckled in. We were on a dirt road that traveled past acres of alternating woods and farmland. Nothing outside my window looked familiar.
“I am a fan of quiet and solitude.” Crabtree told me.
“Kind of lonely, isn’t it?”
“Isolation can be very rewarding. I would think a girl in your position would appreciate that.” I know he meant it lighthearted but it was too soon. I blushed. Crabtree let a moment pass before trying again. “We have time still,” he said. “In case you want to start explaining what’s going on.”
“It’s pretty complicated.” I dodged, knowing full well I wasn’t ready to tell my teacher the truth. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“The beginning is usually a good place.”
The beginning. When was that? When I learned I could force secrets out of people or when I found out my entire life had been a government plot to trap me?
“Oh dear. That doesn’t sound promising.”
Crabtree frowned and looked left. Then, a second later and without so much as a “hang on!”, he yanked the wheel over and drove straight into a thicket. I screamed. Branches scraped the sides of the car. I white knuckled the dash board as we careened through the woods out of control.
It took a sideways glance at my teacher’s grip on the steering wheel before I realized we weren’t going to die. He was still driving. There was actually a road underneath us. Less maintained than the one we left, but it was there all the same.
“Yep, that one gets a lot of people.” Crabtree laughed, watching the road and carefully following the vague sketch of tire tracks before us. “Guess I should have warned you. Kind of exciting though, wasn’t it?”
“Oh? Sorry, will you forgive an old man? Honestly, the thought of spending a day out here trimming the brush back from the road exhausts me. Don’t worry, it clears up just before the house. See?”
Sure enough the woods parted and in the middle of a grassy field stood the kind of cabin you would expect an old lonely man to live in. The shrubs around the house were wildly over grown. The porch, complete with rusty old axe resting against a simple plank bench, was under threat of evergreen consumption.
“Don’t be nervous.” He told me, parking the car directly in front of the rickety front steps. “I’m a better housekeeper than I am a gardener.”
He was right. Behind the padlocked front door was a clean and almost charming interior. Sunny curtains framed the windows and there was a doily covered couch that I desperately wanted to sit on. My fat throbbing ankle needed a rest. Crabtree gave me an odd look.
“Oh! Ankle, right. Goodness, I almost forgot. One ice pack coming up.” he jumped and scurried through a door I assumed led to the kitchen. When he returned a few seconds later, I was still standing by the front door.
“Please Violet,” he said, leading me towards the couch. “Make yourself at home.”
He seemed a lot calmer than he was when our journey started. He hadn’t pushed me to talk but for that one time and he hadn’t mentioned calling the cops since we left the school. Once I sat down he fluffed up a pillow, set it on his coffee table and beckoned for my leg. Then he laid a blanket over my knees.
An explanation of my situation, it seemed, was the furthest thing from his mind.
“Are you hungry?” He asked. “Can I get you something to eat or drink?”
He was so anxious to make me comfortable, the sweet old man. When was the last time anyone took care of me like that? When was the last time I ate? For either case, I could not remember.
“How about you take it easy while I make us some sandwiches.” He smiled and before I could tell him how awesome that would be, he was gone.
As the cool ice coaxed my ankle back to a size closer to reality, I let myself relax. We were far from everyone. Better still, we were hidden. You couldn’t even see the house from the road. If you didn’t know it was there, you would drive right by.
Not one of the people chasing me knew I was here and Crabtree seemed fine with that arrangement. He seemed pleased even, probably happy for the company. He wouldn’t turn me in and that gave me an idea. Instead of running away to who knows what, maybe I could stay with him. Just for a while, not forever. Just until I healed and could figure out where to go next.
You don’t know him.
From out of nowhere, straight into my head, came Marco’s voice.
You need to be careful who you depend on. He said stamping the word caution on my brain in big red letters.
Marco and his lectures, his paranoia. He worked hard to suck the trust out of me. He wanted me full of doubt, fearful of everyone. How ironic that all along he was the one I should have been second guessing.
How he tricked me, used my ignorance to manipulate me would take a while to get over. Recovering from the damage he did to my heart would take even longer. How could I have been so wrong? How much more would I have to suffer before it was over?
Get out of my head Marco.
I fought back but he stayed with me.
People are rarely what they seem Violet.
No kidding asshole.
Most homicides and kidnapping are carried out by people the victims knew and trusted.
Thanks for the stats. Now go away.
At least the training was real. I could always hold on to that. The things Marco taught me had saved me already.
Which was probably why I was having such a hard time shaking his voice.
Why blindly believe? Why not verify? He said.
I rubbed my eyes, trying to squeeze Marco out of my brain. He wanted me to consider Crabtree was something other than a harmless substitute teacher? Well it wouldn’t work. So what if I hadn’t known Crabtree long, I knew him. He was just a goofy old man. A lonely widower who just wanted to help a friend.
Crabtree wasn’t the bad guy, he was my savior. If he hadn’t shown up when he did, I don’t know what kind of hell I would be in. I considered myself lucky we met. Mr. Crabtree came into my life…
Right when you needed him.
Were you always this crazy Marco?
“Ta da!” Crabtree was back with a tray of triangles. He set it down and immediately rolled into a lunch presentation. “There is turkey and cheese, peanut butter, some tuna, and then a couple just straight jelly. You looked so hungry and I didn’t know what you liked.”
I stared at the pile of food. Marco’s warnings, as much as I tried to blow them off, forced me to recall how Crabtree had become a friend. It started at my school. He had just taken over for my regular civics teacher who fell ill.
Suddenly and inexplicably, and eternally ill.
“Violet? Aren’t you hungry? I have canned chicken noodle if you’d rather?”
“You know those people you know? The organization your wife worked for?” I asked, telling the Marco in my head that checking Mr. Crabtree’s story didn’t mean I was wrong about it. “They’ll come if you ask them to, right?”
For a second he seemed confused. Then he recovered.
“Yes!” He assured me. “Yes of course. In fact you know the man I’m thinking of. You met him at the coffee shop.”
“Can we call him now?” I asked. My teacher was the guy I thought he was. But, there was no harm in proving it.
“Call…?” He frowned then once again bounced back. “Oh! Oh of course of course. You should eat though. You must be starving.” He waved a hand over the platter.
He’s not reaching for a phone, and what happened to contacting the police?
Doesn’t prove anything Marco.
“I’d really feel better if I knew your friend was on his way.” I told him. In my mind I pleaded with the universe to prove Marco a paranoid nut and Mr. Crabtree one of the good guys.
“Well, alright.” He stood slowly and reached into his pocket. Through the fabric I saw his fist clench. “If it would make you feel better, I’ll call.” His hand came back, clutching a cell and I exhaled as quietly as I could. “At least have something to drink.” He said, walking away. “You need to keep your strength up.
Crabtree called from the kitchen where I couldn’t see him or hear all his words clearly. I studied the food before me, starving but stuck because of Marco’s stupid voice.
The sandwiches could be drugged.
Why Marco? Why would he drug me?
I was here. In his house, in the middle of freaking nowhere, I was as good as captured. If that was his goal. If he wasn’t the sweet old man I let take me here. Which he was.
“Alrighty, I did as you asked.” Crabtree was back, a shallow smile on his face. “My friend is on his way.”
“Thank you.” I mumbled, once again embarrassed by how shifty I behaved. Once again he’d been there for me, even when it went against his idea of right. He sat on the coffee table, opposite me, the phone in his hand.
“We will fix this for you Violet.” He assured me, every part of his face gentle and honest. “I promise. I won’t give up until I know you are taken care of.”
I was right, not Marco. Crabtree was really going to help me get away. Silently I screamed, cursing my ex-boyfriend for his suspicion and twisted mind games that made me so unreasonable.
“Now,” Crabtree said softly, “are you ready to tell me what is going on?”
Marco was insane. Mr. Crabtree wasn’t someone I needed to fear. He wasn’t even someone I needed to lie to.
It was time to come clean.
“Who do you think is after you?”
“Um…” my head spun, working out how to explain the situation.
“It’s alright Violet,” Crabtree nudged. “I’m on your side.”
“I know it’s just hard…” I stumbled then took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you something that sounds crazy, but I promise you it’s real.”
“Sometimes people are born with…talents, right? Rare talents. Talents that only come around once in a dozen lifetimes.”
“Talents…” He thought it over. “You mean like a wonderful singing voice or a sixth sense?”
“Closer to the second one, but yeah, like that.”
“Alright, go on.”
“Well, as you can imagine, if that talent is really amazing, then some other people, some bad other people might want to take it.”
“Control it. Control the person with the special skill.”
“Like an agent or a manager? That sort of thing?”
“Sure…” I said, “except the agent or manager, in this case, would be evil.” He nodded, eyes scrunched up behind his glasses trying to stay on course. “Well that’s kind of what’s happening to me.”
“OK,” Mr. Crabtree took a deep breath. He set his phone down in the space between his hip and my wounded ankle. “So you have a talent. Someone else wants to control you and you don’t want any part of it?” He asked.
“I’m guessing the someone after you is powerful? That’s why you can’t go to the police?” I nodded. “I see. And your mother? Won’t she protect you?”
“She’s,” I pulled in my lip to steady myself. “She’s on their side.”
“Oh Violet,” Crabtree whispered now, seeing the pain in my face at the betrayal. “I’m so sorry.”
I mumbled a thank you. He was trying to be kind but I didn’t want to visit that place yet. I stared at the floor.
“Violet would it be OK if I asked you about your talent?” Crabtree asked. I nodded. “You said I would think this is crazy and that’s got me wondering, your ability, is it extra sensory?” Watching him close for his reaction I nodded again. “I see.”
“I swear to you I’m not making this up.” I said.
“Violet,” he sighed. “I’ve lived too long to think I know everything there is to know. Don’t worry. I believe you. And, I’ll help you.”
Suddenly I felt so light I thought I might faint. I grabbed a sandwich and stuffed it into my mouth.
“Thank you.” I told him. “Thank you so much.”
“Of course.” Crabtree smiled. He watched me eat for a minute then said “Can I ask you something else?”
“Sure.” I answered between mouthfuls.
“After you get away do you have a plan?”
“When you are in your new life, you will still be you. Are you going to hide who you are?”
“I hadn’t thought about it much. I suppose so.”
“From the world? Forever?”
“I’m not sure I have a choice.”
“Violet, this special way about you, have you ever considered there is a reason for it?”
“I don’t understand?”
“You have a talent, something only you can do. Could you use that to help other people?” I thought it over briefly then shook my head.
“I don’t see how.”
“Try for a moment. Try to imagine a situation where your unique talents,” he leaned forward, “where the skill only you have, could make the world a safer place.” I stared at him. “Go ahead, close your eyes. Think about something evil in the world and think about what you could do to make that evil go away.”
“I’m not sure I can.”
“Try…” Crabtree sat in front of me and closed his own eyes. “Think of the news this week. What happened?”
“Well that guy got murdered at the coffee shop.”
“Well, let’s skip that one for now. Think of a lesser crime.” Suddenly I saw Margaret, in the hospital bed, her brain crazy as it worked its way through enough tranquilizers to take down a mountain lion.
“There were some kids,” I began. “In my neighborhood messing with a tranquilizer gun. Someone got hit.” I choked, not realizing how raw the memory was. Margaret had deceived me for years, but she had cared for me. Part of me would always love her for that. There was a long moment of silence. “Mr. Crabtree?”
“I’m here.” He replied. “Oh dear that’s terrible. Was the injured person alright?”
“Yes. In the end, yes.”
“Did the authorities find the people responsible?”
“No. Not a clue.”
“Good. I mean, this is a perfect place to imagine yourself. Put Violet into the story. You, and all your skills, are with the police trying to find the gun.”
What could I have done that wasn’t already tried? The kids had hidden, probably tossed the gun. The only way we would have found the gun was if there was a witness, or if someone came forward with specifics, or if the kids confessed.
I guess there I could have helped. I’m great at confessions. But what was I supposed to do? Steal the secrets of everyone in the neighborhood hoping one of them had information?
“Can you see a way you could have helped?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Alright, try another. What’s a problem you see in today’s world, a wrong you would like to right?”
Straight away I thought about my own situation. It was all sorts of wrong. People chasing me, lying to me, trying to lock me up, all for their own gain.
“Kidnappings.” I said flatly. “People being held against their will.” Crabtree coughed.
“Well, you sure know how to make an old man feel self conscious.” He said. “You do want to be here, don’t you?”
“Not you,” I replied. “I didn’t mean you and me. I meant like little kids snatched out of their bedrooms.”
“Phew.” He chuckled. “And? Could you make a difference to those kids?”
If there was a suspect or a lead, I might. I could bring out their secrets and maybe get a bead on the child. I bet even innocent people would line up to touch my head in the hopes that some clue would turn up. And, if it meant getting a kid home with his family, I would have no problem stealing everybody’s secrets. Some things are worth it.
“Yeah. I think I could.” I said. “And I think I see your point.” I opened my eyes. Crabtree was staring at me with renewed interest.
“Violet,” He said, “if instead of running you were put in touch with people who would help you use your skills to help others, would you be interested in that?”
“You can do that?”
“Not me.” He replied. “I’m just a teacher. But, I know people.”
“How? Because of your wife?”
“Yes that’s right,” Crabtree said, looking me straight in the face. “Because of my wife.”
Before I could ask any more questions a car pulled up to the house and slammed on the breaks. Outside the window a cloud of dirt rolled over the tangled greenery surrounding the house. Crabtree twisted in place, anxiously surveying the yard.
“Who is it?” I sat bolt upright, his apprehension infecting me. “Who’s here?”
Crabtree turned back and put a hand on my swollen ankle.
“It’s the man I told you about. The one come to help. Remember?”
“That was fast.”
“He doesn’t live far from here.” He replied, switching his attention outside again.
“Oh.” I followed Crabtree gaze, trying to see the man. Suddenly I was nervous. “What do I do? What do I say to him?”
“Nothing.” He said quickly and stood.
“You stay here.” His words were terse.
“Wait, shouldn’t I be the one to tell him…” I began but Crabtree turned back to me with a finger over his lips.
“Yes of course,” He said, shaking his head and confusing me even further. “But first let me talk to him. Outside. Your situation is… different than he’s used to. I’d like to break the ice, so to speak. Before you meet. Yes?”
“Yeah, OK. I guess that makes sense.”
He moved towards the door. “Violet, about my question,” he said. “Would you?”
“Be interested in using your talents. For the right people.”
I pictured myself in a small dark room with nothing but a table and two chairs. On one side of the table was me flanked by two beefy thugs ready to do my bidding, on the other side of the table was Simon.
“Yeah. I think I would.”
Crabtree smiled. Outside his friend was bounding up the porch steps. Just before rushing out the door to meet him he stared at me, eyes glistening.
“Everything is going to be fine.” He said. “I promise.”