Deliverance

Nine


Friday evening 5pm


"Joe?" Fingers lightly grazed his shoulder. Reacting instinctively, Joe reached up and grabbed the hand, twisting it around in a vice-like grasp. A gasp. "Joe, it's Sarah." The fingers wriggled. "Joe, you're hurting me. Let go."

"Sorry," he mumbled, memories of the morning working their way into his conscious thoughts. He released her hand and rolled over to his other side, hissing as his ankle turned the wrong way. "Reflexes."

"It's okay." She flexed her hand, and a stab of guilt washed over him. Seeing his expression, she stopped, her lips forming a smile. "Really. It's okay. I shouldn't have grabbed you like that. You're protecting them even in your sleep. It's sweet." Her eyes softened then narrowed. "Did you get any sleep? You look awful."

"Thanks," he said, his voice dry. He pushed himself slowly up on his elbow, doing his best not to jostle his ankle. "And no. Not much." Once sitting, he leaned against Benj's bed and rubbed his eyes. "Benj had a nightmare. Several, actually. Fortunately, I managed to get him calmed down before the screaming started. He didn't even wake up." He stretched his arms out to the sides, a certain pressing need suddenly making itself known. "Uh, Sarah, is there a bathroom I can use where I won't attract too much attention?"

She nodded. "That's why I got you up. Most of my floormates have gone to the D.C. for dinner, and..."

"Wait, D.C.? Like Washington"

"Sorry." She rolled her eyes. "UMASS lingo. No like Berkshire dining commons. Anyway, it's Friday night, so the majority of them'll be heading off campus when they're done eating. I thought it might be a good time for you all to get cleaned up. I've got towels and soap and stuff, and I can run your clothes through the wash while we eat dinner. We can get something delivered."

Joe eyed her uncertainly. "That's a nice offer, but we can't really sit around your room in towels."

Sarah raised an eyebrow at him. "Your client's covering your expenses, right?"

"Yeah." He rubbed his eyes again, wondering where the conversation was going and hoping it would be short as the sports drinks she had forced him to drink were now making a visit to the bathroom a real necessity. A sound attracted his attention, and he opened his eyes. Sarah was sliding a large bag across the floor to him.

"I stopped at the campus store on my way back from class," she said. "Sweatshirts, pants, and socks. No underwear, but at least it's all clean. I guessed at the sizes. The receipt's in the bag." She shoved a hand down into the bottom of the bag and came out with a small parcel. "Oh, and an Ace bandage." She broke open the package and held it out to him. "I figured you might need it."

Joe had never before been so grateful for a hot shower. Between the cold rain on the mountain and the mud they had slogged through on the way down, he had felt sure he was never going to be warm and clean again. It was good to be proven wrong. The doors to the bathroom had opened once, but whoever it was had simply used the toilet and left. Once his heart rate slowed down, he turned off the water and dried off, then pulled on the new clothes –which thankfully fit – and knocked on the tiles of Benj's shower. "Time to finish up, buddy. We've got to get back."

After they all returned to the room, Sarah collected the towels and dirty clothes in a wicker basket, then headed for the door. "I ordered a pizza. It should be here by the time I get these in the washer. I'll be back."

While Benj teased Sunny about how long she had taken in the shower, Joe relaxed on one of the beds. Having spent so much time over the course of the day trying to keep Benj's nightmares from exploding, now that he was warm and clean, he could feel himself starting to doze. As his head drifted toward his chest, something scratched at his neck. He shifted his shoulders to dislodge whatever it was and sighed deeply, hoping to enjoy a few minutes of uninterrupted sleep before dinner.

The scratching sensation came back. Without thinking, he grabbed the hem of the shirt, pulled it over his head, and started running his hands over the neckline. "Come on," he muttered, sifting the fabric through his fingers. "Just fall out."

"D.. did you say...?" Sunny's voice came from across the room. "What h.. happened t.. to your shirt?" Joe looked up and saw Sunny staring at him, a faint blush starting to cover her cheeks.

"Uh. Nothing." He pulled the shirt closer to his chest, suddenly conscious of the inappropriateness of being only half-dressed in a room with two kids.

Benj came forward, completely oblivious to Joe's discomfort, grabbed the shirt from his hands, and settled it on his lap. /It's one of those tag-holder things,/ he signed. /Mine had one, too. It's right there./ He pointed to a transparent plastic string piercing the cloth, then looked up, his head cocked to one side. /Hey, Joe, what's that?/ Benj's finger lifted from the shirt to the scar on Joe's chest.

At the question, Sunny's eyes turned to Joe as well. "It l.. looks like..."

"A scar. Yeah. I had to have some surgery a while ago." He grabbed the shirt from Benj's hands, the plastic string still in place, and pulled it back over his head.

"Y.. you said you d.. didn't have a heart c.. condition," Sunny said accusingly, one hand tracing the location of the scar on her chest. "B.. but that scar..." She stood up, glaring at him. "What h.. happened? And d.. don't t.. tell us 'nothing'. There's an.. another scar on y.. your shoulder. S.. Something caused those."

Joe sat for a long minute before answering, his lips pressed together. He'd forgotten how similar Sunny's powers of observation could be to Frank's. He swallowed, not wanting to lie to them after everything that had happened, but not wanting to tell the whole truth either. He settled for the short version of the story. "It wasn't my heart. It was my lung. I got shot."

/On a case?/ Benj's hands fluttered in front of him like nervous birds.

"Yeah." He wished the room wasn't so small or that they would move on to another topic of conversation, but he knew he wouldn't be that lucky.

"Wh.. what w.. were you d.. doing?"

"Protecting someone." His lips twisted into a bitter smile.

Benj stepped back. /Like you're protecting us?/

Joe shrugged. "Sort of."

"Who?" Joe's head swiveled around. Sunny had managed to ask the question without stuttering. Which meant she was either really angry or really frightened.

"A client. It doesn't matter." He shifted his gaze to the poster-covered walls, trying to signal the conversation was over.

"You t.. took a bullet for a c.. client?" The tone of surprise in her voice irritated him.

"No," he shot back, unable to stop the words from coming out. "It was someone else."

Sunny jumped to her feet. "Then who?" The question rang out in the room like a challenge. This time the anger was evident. "How do we know you're not lying if you..."

"It was Frank, all right?" The words exploded out of his mouth, leaving him momentarily breathless. He didn't want to be thinking about this. Not now when he didn't know where his brother was. "Some lunatic was trying to kill him, and I pushed him out of the way." He watched as Sunny sank back onto the bed as if her legs wouldn't hold her. Joe could see her hands shaking.

/Frank?!/ Benj's mouth formed a circle. /Why did someone want to kill Frank? He's harmless./

Joe barked out a short, harsh laugh. "Harmless isn't a word most people would use to describe Frank." He looked in Benj's eyes. "The guy you know isn't who Frank really is." He took a deep breath. "Frank's really good at undercover work. He can take elements of himself and just... become someone else. I've seen him do it hundreds of times, and it still blows my mind every time. Frank Hardy isn't clumsy. Or quite as socially inept as Frank Tennison. All of the awkwardness you've seen – the stammering, the tripping," he snorted, "the spilling things on me every chance he got – was carefully calculated to make everyone see a specific person. The part that's really smart and good with computers? That's Frank Hardy." He lifted his eyes to Sunny for a moment. "The book club was all him, too. I have no idea why, but he really does read Jane Austen." He scratched absently at the collar of his sweatshirt, his gaze drifting back to Benj. "There are elements of him in Frank Tennison, but that's not who he is."

/But why was the guy trying to kill him?/

"He was crazy. He thought Frank was trying to... to hurt him, so he pulled out a gun. I shoved Frank into a wall to get him out of the line of fire."

/And you got shot instead? Why did you do that?/

Joe nodded. "He's my brother." His voice faltered, the worry he was feeling coming out in his words. "I couldn't let anything happen to him."

Benj turned and abruptly walked toward the window, his movements stiff, his hands close to his chest. Joe caught a few signs – brother, hurt, why? – before the boy's back obscured the rest of of his words.

"You're a d.. different p.. person than you p.. pretend to be, t.. too, aren't you? I thought I knew J.. Joe Miller, but if you d.. did that, you're n.. not really like him." Sunny had pulled her legs up onto the bed and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees. Her voice was subdued, and he saw her hands still shook slightly. The way she was looking at him made him think of a blind person gaining the ability to see for the first time and is unable to believe what is happening.

"I don't think I acted that different from who I am normally." He grimaced, remembering a few of their orchestrated incidents. "Most of the time, anyway. I think it's mostly how we're perceived by other people." He took a breath, grateful for the change in topic. "You saw someone who leaned towards being a bully, a guy who liked to pick on someone weaker than himself. I think others saw me as a bit of a twit, a joker who didn't take anything too seriously." He watched as different emotions played across her face – anger, disappointment, embarrassment. "When we're undercover, our job is to make sure people see what they expect to see, not the person who's really there underneath."

They all jumped as the door flew open behind them. "Dinner's here!" Sarah's cheerful expression stilled as she saw their faces. "I interrupted something, didn't I?"

"It's okay," Joe said. "We were just about done. What's on the pizza?"

After dinner, Sarah put on a movie for them to watch, but no one spoke. All four sat wrapped up in their own thoughts. Joe tried to figure out the next step. It was all well and good to keep the kids hidden for a day or so, but he was going to have to find a way to get them back to the school or to contact Kara. And Frank. Where are you, 'bro? He damped down thoughts of Frank having been captured by the guys on the trail and forced himself to focus on the others.

He knew that Sarah was worried about their safety, and Sunny's thoughts were on Frank, trying to merge Joe's description of his brother with the man she thought she had known, but he wasn't sure what was bothering Benj. Throughout dinner, the boy remained silent and withdrawn, picking at his food and keeping his eyes focused on other things. Joe was worried about him. Sunny was resilient, but he wasn't sure about Benj. Whatever the past trauma was in his life, it had left him mute, and Joe could only hope what was happening now wouldn't leave additional psychological scars.

When the movie ended, he sighed and called for lights out, hoping – but not honestly believing – they would all get some sleep.


Saturday afternoon 3pm


Friday night passed with relative peacefulness. The sounds of Sarah's floormates returning from their nights of revelry had woken Joe in the wee hours of the morning, but no one else seemed to have heard the noise and off-key singing coming from the hallway. Sarah and Sunny had slept through it all, and although Benj hadn't moved, Joe wasn't sure he had actually been asleep as there hadn't been any nightmares. By the time the sun rose Saturday morning, Joe wanted nothing more than to leave the dorm room; it was starting to feel like the walls of the z-shaped room were closing in on him.

The problem was he didn't know where they could go that would be safe. Until he knew where the information leak came from, going back to Pocumtuck was out of the question, and he didn't know the area well enough to know where else he could go with an Asian girl and a young African-American boy without attracting attention, so he gritted his teeth and stayed put.

After breakfast Sarah tried every charger in her room to see if one of them would fit Joe's phone, finally finding success with the fourth one, which made Joe wonder just how many portable devices one person needed. The victory was short-lived, though. Within ten minutes, a popping sound came from the phone, a sound Joe recognized as the circuits being fried from too much electrical current. Clenching his jaw to keep from swearing, he pulled the phone apart trying to salvage the SIM card, but it was no use. The card was blackened and useless. Sarah spent the next ten minutes apologizing until he finally barked at her to stop. Then he apologized. Up until that moment, he hadn't realized exactly how much he had been hoping for a message from his brother. Now he was stuck until he could figure out where Frank was. Or until Frank figured out where he was, which – Given Frank's brains, he thought – was more likely.

The day went downhill from there. Since their conversation the evening before, Benj had been taut as a strung wire. He jumped at every sound coming from the hallway, but turned away each time Joe tried to talk to him, spending all his time sitting on the bed and staring into space. Joe was worried about him, but decided to let the boy sit and process what was happening. On the other side of the room, Sunny sat at Sarah's desk, staring out the window at the rain, so caught up in her own thoughts she barely spoke, and Sarah was sprawled out on the floor working diligently on homework. In the silence, Joe's mind played a repeating tape loop of every possible thing that could have happened to his brother.

When mid-afternoon approached, Sunny and Sarah headed off to the bathroom for showers, leaving Joe alone with Benj for the first time since the day before. The boy was still as a statue, his knees drawn up to his chest, his face half-turned toward the wall, his eyes distant. Joe sat down on the bed next to him, listening to the springs protest as he put his weight on it.

"Benj?" No response. The boy might as well have been frozen. "Benj, look at me." Still nothing. "You're scaring me, buddy. Please. Just look at me." Benj's eyes flickered toward him, and Joe let out a relieved breath. "Look, I know this is scary, but it's just for a little while longer. I'm going to get you somewhere safe. I promise."

Benj shifted to face him, his expression blank. /Did it hurt?/

"Hurt? Did what...?" He stopped as the meaning behind the question hit him like a runaway locomotive. Benj was asking about the shooting. Of its own volition, Joe's hand moved up to his shoulder, his fingers curling around the scar hidden under his sweatshirt. "Yeah. It hurt." He swallowed. "A lot."

\How bad was it?\ Benj's eyes moved down to his lap.

"I almost died if that's what you're asking." The boy started, making the mattress squeak beneath them. Joe's hand clenched, and he realized where it was. Slowly, he moved it back to the bedspread, using it as leverage to slide back so he could lean against the wall.

Benj's hands moved slightly, flickering in front of his chest with delicate motions, but his eyes stayed downcast.

"What? I didn't get all of that, buddy."

/Were you scared?/

"Of dying? No. I was scared if I didn't do something Frank would die." Benj's head popped back up, disbelief showing on his face, and Joe shrugged, feigning a nonchalance he didn't feel. "It all happened pretty fast. There wasn't really time to think about it. It's not something I want to repeat, but when I woke up in the hospital and saw Frank was okay, I knew I'd done the right thing."

The boy turned his head back toward the wall, but not before Joe saw tears forming in his eyes. /My brother would have let the guy shoot me. He hates me./

"I don't understand. What do you mean 'he hates you'?" Joe asked.

/He came home once when I was little. He yelled at me. I didn't understand a lot of English then, but I knew the words were bad./ His hands faltered. /When my mother came home and heard him, she told him to stop. That if he couldn't be nice, he should leave. He went kind of crazy. I thought he was going to hit her./

"What happened?"

Benj took a shuddering breath. /He said something about not being their son anymore. And that it was my fault./

Joe's mouth dropped open. What kind of asshole would say something like that? This guy has some serious problems.

/My mom was crying. I was scared./ Tears started leaking from the corners of the boy's eyes. Joe put a comforting hand on his shoulder, and he seemed to calm down. He sniffed once and looked up at Joe. /I think he contacted them last year. Dad got really angry and slammed the phone down. Mom just looked at him, but I could tell something was wrong. The next fall they sent me to Pocumtuck./

Voices came from the other side of the door, and Joe saw Benj jump. "It's okay. It's just the girls."

Benj sat up straight and wiped his eyes. /Don't tell them I was crying. I don't want them to think I'm a baby./

"I won't." Joe made and 'X' over his heart with two fingers. "Cross my heart. Lie down and pretend you're asleep. That'll keep them from asking any questions."

The boy complied, curling up under the covers and closing his eyes. As Sunny and Sarah entered the room, Joe put a finger to his lips, then pointed to Benj. Both girls nodded. Sarah went back to her homework, and Sunny grabbed a book from the desk and started reading. Within a few minutes, Benj's breathing deepened, and Joe could tell the boy really was asleep. I never realized how lucky I was to have a brother like Frank. Poor kid. He put a hand on Benj's leg and settled in to watch him sleep.


Sunday morning 9am


By the time the sun came up the next morning, Joe felt like he was going crazy. He hadn't been stuck in one place so long since getting out of the hospital, and then, at least, it was his apartment. And Kara was with me. After two days stuck in Sarah's room he knew the location of every crack on the walls, how to get on the bed without making the mattress squeak, and that at least one of the people who lived on the floor was in desperate need of an education in good music. What he needed right now was a message from Frank, a long run, and Kara. And the order in which these things came didn't matter.

He had woken up at six-thirty in the morning, turned on Sarah's television and started flipping channels, hoping to get some sort of information. At seven, two local channels out of Springfield had local news broadcasts, and although he kept switching between them, neither ended up having any information of interest. Channel Forty made a brief mention of the North Korean nuclear tests but didn't give enough details for Joe to know if they were still in process or not. At eight, local news gave way to national morning talk shows that focused on feel-good stories from different parts of the country, none of them in New England. With a groan of frustration, Joe threw the remote at the pile of pillows on the floor.

"Channel Twenty-two does a local broadcast at nine." Sarah peeked out from under a blanket on the floor. "I always check it for the forecast."

Joe looked at his watch, then grunted. Forty minutes. He didn't think he could last that long.

Sarah stood up and stretched, watching him with concerned eyes. "You need some exercise.

"I need to figure out what the hell is going on," he said, an edge in his voice, his hands clenching into fists.

"You look like you're going to explode," Sarah said, her voice quiet. "And that's not going to help them." Her eyes went first to where Benj lay curled up in a ball, then to Sunny's still-sleeping form on the other bed.

Joe let out a breath, his shoulders slumping. "I know. You're right. I'm sorry."

"Of course I am," she shot back. "So, on the floor. Now."

Sarah had been right. The stretching routine hadn't given Joe the exercise his body craved, but it cleared his mind by forcing him to think about something else, which he had needed.

By the time they were done, both kids were awake and eating dry cereal. Sarah picked up the remote and clicked the television back on. "I'll get the forecast then do more laundry. The washers and dryers are usually available now." Her phone made a buzzing sound. She picked it up, glanced at the screen, shrugged, and threw it on the bed.

The TV hummed to life, the picture flickering once or twice before clearing up to show a news studio. One of the newscasters, a young Hispanic woman, was holding a piece of paper. "This just in," she was saying, "an Amber Alert has been issued for two students missing from Pocumtuck Academy." Blurry pictures of Benj and Sunny flashed on the screen. The woman read their names and a brief description of each. "They were last seen with one of the teachers from the school, a man by the name of Joe Miller. Mr. Miller is six-two with blond hair and blue eyes. If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of these children, contact the State Police at the number shown on your screen."

Sunny choked on her mouthful of cereal. "What...?" In the background, Sarah's phone buzzed again.

Joe slashed his hand in the air. "Wait."

The newscaster was still talking. "And in a related story, police are investigating the apparent beating of another teacher at the school. Frank Tennison was found at the bottom of Goat Peak with life-threatening injuries." A distant part of Joe's brain heard Sunny gasp. "He is currently being kept in a medically-induced coma at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. Police are hoping that doctors can bring him out of the coma sometime soon so they can question the teacher about the disappearance of the two students. Anyone who may have been hiking on Goat Peak on Thursday and may have seen anything are being asked to contact police. Now, onto other news."

Joe felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach. Life-threatening injuries? A medically-induced coma? No. He sat heavily on Benj's bed, his ankle protesting at the sudden shifting of his body weight. A frantic tugging on his arm captured his attention. He turned to see Benj signing, but his brain wasn't functioning well enough to understand the boy's words. He shook his head, trying to clear it, then looked over Benj's head at Sarah. "I have to get down there."

"They can stay here," Sarah said without hesitation. "I can protect them."

"No. I can't do that. They have to stay with me." From the bed, he heard the phone buzz again.

"Joe, that's crazy." Sarah hands punctuated the last word. "They just showed photos of them on TV. Anyone who sees the three of you together..."

"N.. no." Sunny's voice was quiet but firm. "If he g.. goes, we're g.. going with him." Benj stood next to her, his face drawn, his head nodding in agreement.

The phone sounded again. "Will you just shut up already?" Sarah grumbled at it. She pulled the device from the bed, and slid open the screen, her face growing pale.

In one step, Joe was at her side. "Who is it?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. I don't recognize the number." She showed him the screen. "It's the same one, though. This is the third or fourth call this morning."

"Turn it off," he barked, watching as she fumbled with the power button. "Phones can be used as GPS trackers." He ran a hand through his hair, his eyes darting to the window. "Damn it. Someone's made the connection." He locked his eyes on to hers. "And if that's happened, baseball bat or not, I can't leave you here unprotected. You'll have to come with us. I'm sorry."

She stared at him for a long moment, her lips pressed together. "Okay. We can take my car. I know how to get to the hospital."

He turned to Sunny and Benj, who were now standing by the door, shoes and coats on. "All set?" They nodded. "If the police don't know who I really am, it's going to be tricky getting in to see Frank." He scanned their faces, making sure Sarah knew she was included. "I need your word that once we get to the hospital you'll listen to me and do exactly what I say. No arguing, no back talk. Do you understand?" Sunny and Sarah murmured their agreement, and Benj nodded. "Good. Sarah, you and Benj go first. Sunny and I will follow in a few minutes. We've already been seen together. Don't get too far ahead. We'll need to see which car is yours."

Sarah took Benj's hand and squeezed it once. He nodded at her and they walked toward the door. "Toyota Camry. Dark blue." She rattled off a plate number. "We'll see you down there."

Joe kept his eyes on the clock on the desk, willing it to move faster. One minute, two minutes, three minutes. Finally, he put an arm around Sunny's shoulders. "Just keep your head down, and we should be fine."

"H.. he'll b.. be all right," she said, looking up into his eyes. "I'm sure of it."

A lump formed in Joe's throat, and he swallowed around it. "Thanks," he said, his voice husky. "Let's go. I don't want them out there by themselves for too long."

The door slammed shut behind them.

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