Friday morning 5am
It was just before sunrise when Joe woke Benj and Sunny and bundled them off the bus.
Benj rubbed his eyes, then blinked a few times. /How come we're at the university?/ he signed. /Are we catching another bus back to Deerfield?/
Joe shook his head. "We're staying here for a while." He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and flipped it open.
"Are you c.. calling Frank?" Sunny's gaze traveled up the skyscraper-tall residence halls, then back down to their doors where hundreds of college students were emerging for breakfast and classes.
"No. His phone may have been compromised. I can't take the chance that we might alert the bad guys to our location." He blew out a frustrated breath, shoving the phone back in his pocket. "Damn. The battery's dead. Piece of junk. My phone can go three or four days between charges." He looked around at the dorms. "Which one?" he muttered.
"Y.. your phone?" Sunny's eyes narrowed. "T.. that's n.. not your ph.. phone?"
"It's a pay-as-you-go," he said, his gaze steady. "I picked it up at the store in the center of town my first week here. Frank and I didn't want anyone tracing us through our real phones."
/Then who are you trying to reach?/ Benj's stomach growled. /Can we get some breakfast here?/
Joe's lips quirked up into a faint smile. "Soon, buddy." He sighed. "I'm trying to reach Sarah. I don't remember what dorm she lives in. I remember her saying it wasn't one of the low-rises, so that narrows it down to these five." He rubbed a hand over his face then gestured to the towers in the center of the area. "I'm just pleased I remembered she lived in Southwest."
"J.. JQA," Sunny said. "F.. fourteenth floor." Benj looked up at her, and she shrugged her shoulders. "I asked. I f.. figured it would drive my m.. mother c.. crazy if I went to UMASS and l.. lived here. She's expecting me t.. to g.. go to MIT like she and dad d.. did."
Joe's smile grew wider as he considered that. "You're probably right." Despite the hour, music started blaring from a window high above them. "I'd try a different part of campus though. I imagine it's hard to get a lot of studying done here." He rolled his eyes as what he had just said registered in his brain. "Great, now I sound like Frank." He sighed and shifted his weight to relieve the pressure on his ankle, which was starting to throb as again. "We need to get in before too many people see us. Which one's JQA?"
Benj pointed. /That one. See the banner?/ He tugged on Joe's jacket and pointed up to a large burgundy banner attached vertically to the side of the building. /Come on. I'm hungry./
They walked to the dorm's main entrance, and Sunny reached out a hand to one of the double doors. "L.. locked." She pointed with her chin to a small, black box attached to the building's brick facade. "You need a swipe c.. card."
Joe's shoulders sagged, and he shifted his weight off his foot again. "All right. Professionally, I appreciate the upgraded security, but right now I was hoping for something a little easier to get into." A motion inside the darkened vestibule caught his eye, and he straightened. "Here's our chance. Benj, get a few steps behind me. It's dark enough, we might be able to get away with this. Pull up your hood, and put your hands in your pockets. Try to look sullen." He turned to Sunny. "Do you trust me?"
"What?" Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Just pretend you're into me." He slung an arm around Sunny's shoulders and pulled her closer.
The door swung open, and Joe grabbed the handle with his free hand. The guy coming out stopped, blocking the entry. "You gotta swipe your ID, man." He looked to be in his late teens, with disheveled black hair and blue eyes bleary with not enough sleep.
"Dude, can you give me hand?" Joe slurred his words and slouched against Sunny, doing his best to imitate someone who'd been doing a bit too much celebrating. It wasn't hard; he was getting tired. "I'm.." he swallowed hard, pretending he needed to think about his next words, "visiting. My sister lives here, and I'm trying to dump the kid brother" – he indicated Benj with a dismissive motion – "so I can get some alone with this lovely lady here, you know?" He was relieved when Sunny giggled, sounding like she didn't have a brain in her head, and leaned in closer to him.
A gleam appeared in the student's eyes. "I understand completely. After you, madmoiselle." Sunny gave him a bright smile as he held the door open for her.
Joe turned around to Benj. "C'mon, runt," he said, grabbing the boy roughly by the arm. He could feel Benj starting to tremble.
As they entered the vestibule, the guy leaned toward Joe and stage-whispered, "Happy to help out, man. She's hot. Have fun." Then he left, the door clicking locked behind him.
Joe turned, dropping Benj's arm and waved. When he was sure the guy was out of sight he turned to Sunny. "Sorry about that. I'm really not a pervert. I swear." Sunny snorted and rolled her eyes at him. He swung around to Benj. "You did great," he said. He pushed the boy's hood from his head and was startled to see tears in his eyes. "Are you all right?" he asked, his voice full of concern. He knelt so he was at eye level with the child. "We're going to locate Sarah, and then I'll find you that burger I promised you. You're doing fantastic, buddy."
There was a pause before Benj responded, his lips pressed together tightly. /You sounded like my brother back there./ His hands were still trembling as he signed. /He doesn't want me around, either./
"You have a brother? And he talks to you like that?" Joe tried to remember if he'd even seen any photos of him in Benj's room. There were a few on the walls that showed Benj in various exotic locations with his parents, a handsome looking white couple in their late forties or early fifties – Joe didn't remember meeting them on move-in day – but no pictures of any other family members. "Then he's an idiot." The words came without any thought. Joe put his hands on the Benj's shoulders; he could feel the boy shaking. "I'd kill to have you for a little brother." Benj's eyes grew round. "Well, not literally kill," he amended, seeing the look on Benj's face. "I'm one of the good guys, remember? But you know what I mean."
Joe made an 'x' on his chest. "Cross my heart." He drew Benj to him for a quick hug. "When this is over, I'm going to have a talk with that brother of yours. Once that's done, if he's still being stupid, you can be my little brother. I've always wanted one." When he pulled away, he was relieved to see Benj's body relax, his eyes shining. "Come on. Let's go find Sarah." Joe felt one of Benj's hands slip into his own, and a fierce protective feeling surged through him, followed by an intense desire to find Benj's brother and whack him. Hard. With a two-by-four. Frank and I may have gotten on each other's nerves sometimes growing up, but I never felt like he wanted to get rid of me. This kid sounds like he needs his head examined.
They rode the elevator to the fourteenth floor. When they got out, Sunny looked at Joe. "How are we g.. going to f.. find out which one is hers?"
"We ask someone." She looked him up and down, sweeping over him with a gaze reminiscent of the one her mother had used at their first meeting. He leaned against the wall in what he hoped was a casual manner, the exhaustion he had been holding back suddenly rushing over him in a wave. "Do you have a better idea?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Yeah. I ask. Right now, you l.. look like a psycho k.. killer."
"I look like a what?" If he hadn't been so tired, he would have been seriously offended.
Benj giggled silently. /She's right, Joe. You're a mess./
"Thanks, you two. Remind me to say something nice about you sometime." He sighed and waved Sunny away. "Fine. Go. We'll wait here." He sank to the floor, tipped his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes. A few moments passed, and there was a tug on his sleeve. He cracked his eyes back open.
/Did you mean it?/
"Mean what, buddy?" Now that he had the kids somewhere relatively safe and they weren't moving, it was getting hard to stay awake. Right now, the only thing that kept him that way was knowing he'd have to stand up again in a few minutes.
/About being my brother?/
Joe blinked, suddenly alert. "Of course, I did."
Benj nodded. /Okay.../ His hands fell to his sides as they heard a noise.
Joe looked up, startled. Sunny had returned, sooner than he thought she would be and stood in front of them, a smug look on her face.
"It's room f.. fourteen f.. fourteen."
"How'd you find out so fast?"
Sunny twisted her hands through her hair, pulling it back into a shaggy ponytail. "There was a g.. girl in the b.. bathroom. I t.. told her w.. we had a c.. class together, and I n.. needed n.. notes for a test t.. today." She lifted her chin and took a deep breath. "I did it..." – another breath – "without stuttering."
Joe could see the pride in her eyes. "Good job. No one else saw you?" She shook her head. He forced himself to his feet, grinding his teeth together at the pain. "Let's go wake her up." He placed a hand on Benj's shoulder. "Can you give me hand getting there?" The boy's answering grin was like a burst of sunshine, and Joe made a mental note to ask him more about his older brother once they were settled. A voice inside his head was telling him there was something Benj wasn't saying. Or can't, he thought, but something's not right.
Saturday night 10pm
"You just don't care, do you?" Frank could hear the angry voice echoing through the halls as the elevator door opened. He sighed and resettled the overloaded backpack on his shoulder as he stepped out, pausing for a moment to decide if was worth heading to the room to change, or if he should just turn around again. Then more water dripped down his neck. He sighed again and started walking down the hall. If he hadn't gotten caught in that rainstorm, he'd be at the library right now, where it was quiet and peaceful rather than here where he could feel his blood pressure rising just by standing outside his door. One of his floormates passed by on his way to the bathroom and gave him a sympathetic grimace.
The tension on the floor and in his room was becoming more difficult to ignore. If it doesn't let up soon, it's going to start affecting my grades, Frank thought. In an effort to retain some measure of control over his sanity, he had taken to spending as much time as he could either in the library or the computer lab, returning to his room only to sleep, shower, and change clothes. As much as he hated to admit it, he was avoiding his roommate.
Roger had come back from the first-night party drunk and angry at the world. The drunkenness had passed, but the anger remained, constantly simmering just below the boiling point. Any effort to help with research or information was met with a snarling rebuff or a scathing comment about how nice it must be for Frank not to have to worry about the future. After three years of living together with no conflicts, other than an ongoing, friendly competition over their GPAs, Frank didn't know how to deal with this new, combative Roger. Frank didn't want to abandon his friend, but he wasn't sure how much more of this he could take before asking for a transfer to another room.
He took a deep breath and silently opened the door, the tension in the room rolling over him like fog as he entered. Roger stood, his back to the door, one shoulder hunched and holding the phone to his ear, the other hand gesticulating wildly.
"Fine! If that's how you want it, then don't call here anymore." The phone rang as Roger slammed the receiver back down. "Damn it!" He sank into a chair, pushing his head into his hands.
Frank stood for a moment, listening to his roommate's ragged breathing. With a start, he realized Roger was crying. "Rog? You okay?" Talking to his friend as if the past few weeks hadn't happened was difficult, but he pushed aside any feelings of discomfort, wanting to offer what help he could. "Who was that?"
"Parents." Roger's voice was muffled. Keeping his back to Frank, he lifted his head, surreptitiously wiping his face with the back of his hand. Frank pretended not to notice.
"Are they back in the states?" Roger shook his head. Frank eased his backpack to the floor and grabbed a towel. "What did they want?"
Roger let out a shaky breath. "To let me know they've chosen their 'pet project' over their son."
"What?" Frank froze, the towel halfway to his face. "That can't be right." Roger's words didn't mesh with what he knew of Peter and Emily. The Gardners' visits to the Utica campus were infrequent, but each time they came, Frank could see how proud they were of their son.
"Why not? Just because you have the perfect family," the mocking, angry tone was back again, "doesn't mean everyone else is as lucky." Roger stood, the chair's legs scraping loudly on the floor.
"Nobody's family is perfect." Even as the words left his mouth, Frank knew they were the wrong ones, just as he knew nothing he said right now would be correct. He watched as Roger's eyes widened, his friend's hands shaking as they formed tight fists by his side.
"You make me sick. You don't even know how lucky you are!" His left fist flew towards Frank's face, missing his chin by less than an inch. As Frank swerved to avoid a second punch, Roger barreled past him, pushing him to the floor as he ran out of the room.
Frank's mouth dropped open. He heard footsteps and voices in the hall. "Hardy, are you okay? What happened?"
"I'm not sure."
The number of people in the hall increased. "Sounds like Gardner went off his nut," one voice said. "Are you hurt? Do you need me to call campus security?"
"No." Frank shook his head, answering both questions. "He's... upset. He got some bad news. I'll talk to him when he gets back."
"Frank?" The voice sounded like it was coming from another room. "Wake up. You're going to pull out your IV if you don't stop moving."
"Chet? What are you...?" He stopped, his eyes taking in the hospital room. "Right." He closed his eyes and let out a breath.
Frank chose not to answer the question. The dream had been so vivid, he was shocked not to find himself in his dorm room. "Any word on Joe?"
"No." Chet's tone made Frank open his eyes. "It's pouring out there right now, and the temperature's dropping. If he's out there with those kids..."
"She's in charge of the search. She's having to keep it small so word doesn't get out before her time is up on that Amber alert." Chet stood, a flat paper bag in his hand. "Anyway, Dr. Finley suggested I get you this. Actually, he suggested a laptop. Kara picked it up for me, but I don't know your password, and I wasn't sure... I figured low-tech would be okay for right now." He emptied the package on the wheeled table by Frank's bed; it contained a notebook and mechanical pencil. "I know you prefer those for writing."
"How...?" Frank started to shake his head, wincing as his collarbone protested the motion.
"I'm your office manager." Chet's tone was patient. "You order a box of these every few months. Generally after Joe loses them all." He smiled. "And I went to school with you for twelve years. I may not be in your league when it comes to brains, boss, but after all that time even I couldn't help noticing what kind of writing implement you like."
Frank picked up the pencil. "So what do I do?"
Chet shrugged. "My guess is he wants you to let your mind wander. See what's in your subconscious."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Frank pushed the paper off the table with a frustrated gesture. It landed with a thump on the floor. "I feel stupid. I should be out there looking for Joe, not sitting here doodling."
"No." Chet's voice took on an uncharacteristic note of command. "This is your job, and you're going to do it. Even if I have to sit on you to keep you here." His lips quirked up into a half-smile. "I know that's not as big a threat as it used to be, but with that broken leg and those ribs, I may stand a chance."
"I need to be out there. I need to be doing something." Frustration was starting to turn to anger.
"You are doing something. You're working on getting information out of that oversized brain of yours." Chet leaned down and picked the notebook up from the floor. "This is where you'll be doing the most good."
"No. It's not." The words came from between Frank's clenched teeth. "I should be there. I know how Joe thinks."
"So does Kara."
The calm tone of Chet's voice set off Frank's temper. "Not like I do." He was practically shouting now. "Just get me there, and I'll find him myself!"
Chet took a deep breath. "I'm going to be blunt here, Frank. With your injuries, you'd be a liability. Getting you there and around would waste time Kara needs for the search." He placed the notebook back on the table. "Look, I know how much you want to help..."
Words shot out of Frank's mouth without any thought. "If it was Iola, you'd want to be there, liability or not."
He heard Chet's sharp intake of breath, saw his hand freeze over the notebook, watched as his friend's expression darkened, shifting from shock to a momentary grief before hardening into a mask of blank neutrality. All traces of compassion and patience were gone. A small part of his brain registered the fact he'd just said something unforgivable, something that never would have crossed his mind in normal circumstances. But this wasn't a normal situation, and Chet didn't seem to understand how badly he needed to be there. For himself as much as for Joe.
Chet's hand dropped to his side. "I think I'll go for a walk. Get some air." His voice was devoid of emotion. "I'll check back later." The door closed silently behind him.
Frank sat for a moment, his breathing uneven. "Fine," he shouted at the door. "I don't need your help. I'll get there myself."
His hands moved quickly and methodically, removing the sensors from his chest, the cuff from his arm, the IV tube from the blue plastic holder taped to his hand. He shifted and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed, grunting as his leg bumped against the mattress, the velcro of the navy blue soft cast getting caught on the cotton slubs of the blanket. Ribs protesting and shoulder screaming, he forced himself into an upright position, almost falling face first as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He closed his eyes and focused on trying to regain his equilibrium.
Images flashed through his brain – Joe running toward the burning car the day Iola died; Joe lying pale and still on a floor, blood pouring from wounds in his chest and shoulder; Joe shouting something at him in a forest, an Asian teenaged girl and a younger African-American boy standing behind him, their faces shocked and frightened. He stumbled back against the bed, his breath coming in short gasps, his mind whirling from the sudden onslaught of memories.
The door flew open, and the male nurse from the previous evening rushed into the room. "What the hell is going on in here? Your friend practically ran past the desk then you flat-lined." He regarded Frank with suspicious eyes. "Just what do you think you're doing out of bed?"
"I'm leaving." Frank's voice was as hard as he could make it through the gulps of air.
"Really?" The man raised an eyebrow. "Okay, don't let me stop you from trying. What's left of your clothes are over there." He nodded to a small chest of drawers to the right of the door and folded his arms across his stomach.
Frank pushed himself off the bed, and shuffled forward a few steps, the exertion making his breath come hard, the motion exacerbating the pain in his ribs. He glared at the nurse and wrapped his left arm around his chest. One foot, two feet, five feet. A sense of exultation filled his brain; he was going to make it. Then, without warning, the room started growing blurry, the floor suddenly seeming much too close. He felt hands grabbing his upper arms and was dimly aware of being half-dragged, half-carried back to the bed.
"Stubborn kid, aren't you? Made it farther than I thought, though." The nurse reconnected the monitors to Frank's chest and arms. "You all right?"
Frank turned his head to the window, his face red with anger, his jaw tight. I can't even walk across the damn room. Who do I think I could help?
"I'll bring you some pain meds in a few minutes, the man said. "I imagine you need them after that stunt."
As the door closed, Frank could feel hot tears forming and squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to keep them from falling. After two or three shaky breaths, he opened his eyes and looked at the empty room. Now I know how Roger feels, he thought, powerless and angry because of it. He thought of Chet, of the look on his friend's face as he left the room. The knot in his chest tightened, a sense of shame beginning to creep over him. And I'm treating him the same way Roger's been treating me.
Frank lay in bed and stared out the window into the darkness, the pencil grasped loosely in his right hand, the notepad open on the table in front of him. The medication the nurse had given him had not only dulled the pain, it had dampened down the intense anger he had felt, leaving him feeling drained, empty, and deeply ashamed of himself.
The door cracked open, and Frank could see Chet's reflection in the window. He swallowed, his throat suddenly feeling like it was full of sand, and looked down, not knowing what to say.
"You all right?" Chet's voice had a tentative quality Frank hadn't heard since they were teenagers. "That nurse, Tom, grabbed me on the way by the nurses' station. He told me what you did."
Frank shrugged, keeping his eyes turned away. He wanted to answer, but each time he tried, he could feel his face turn red with embarrassment, so instead he kept his gaze on the window, his hand idly moving across the paper.
"When did Roger grow a beard?" Frank turned his head. He hadn't realized Chet had moved so close. Chet picked the notebook up from the table and stared at the open page. He looked up at Frank. "And why didn't I know you could draw? I've known you since we were... what, five? How could I not know you were an artist?" His tone was light, but Frank could hear the strain under the words.
"Please, Frank." He handed the notebook back. "I know I only met Roger a couple of times, but that's him." He pointed at a figure in the middle of the page. "I just don't remember him with a beard. Did he grow it the summer before senior year?"
Frank ran a hand over his forehead, then moved it down to rub his eyes, which felt like they were on fire. "No. He's still clean-shaven. I don't..."
"Maybe it's got to do with those dreams you've been having. Or maybe you're remembering something about the guy who attacked you?" Chet picked up the notepad again. "Look at him. He looks like he's about to rush you."
"I don't... I don't know. I don't remember." The angry tone started creeping back into his voice.
Chet pressed his lips together, then let out a long breath. "Look. Frank..."
"I'm sorry." Frank's voice was barely above a whisper.
"I said, I'm sorry."
"It's okay." The words were clipped, brittle.
"No. It's not. I had no right to say that to you." He took a deep breath. "I can't seem to control my emotions. I can't..." He took another breath, trying to keep his voice steady. "I hate this."
Chet let out a soft snort. "You don't like anything you're not in control of. You never have." His shoulders relaxed, and a faint smile lightened his expression. "Look, you've had a long day. Why don't you try to get some sleep? I told Kara I'd call and let her know how you're doing." He turned off the light over Frank's bed. "I'll step into the hall so you can rest. I'll come back as soon as I'm done."
Frank leaned back against his pillow and closed his eyes. Before Chet had even left the room, he was asleep again.