"Shawn, where are you?"
"I don't know, Dad, Gus and I went into the forest behind his house, and—"
"I told you not to go back there, Shawn!" Henry had exclaimed. Shawn heard his father sigh on the other line. The phone connection was fuzzy and Shawn was worried it wouldn't hold much longer. He looked around as the light began to dim in the sky. His heart drummed in his chest. Another twig snapped under his feet, the sound making him jump.
"I don't know where we are," said Shawn, unable to hide the nervous trill in his voice. He didn't know if he should blame it on his fear or his thirteen-year-old, maturing voice. "Dad… I'm scared." Shawn looked wildly around as he stumbled through the forest, Gus right behind him. They didn't mean to wander this far into the forest. They didn't mean to get lost.
"Shawn, listen to me, and listen well." said Henry, and Shawn clutched the cell phone tightly, pressing it hard against his ear, not about to miss a word his father was going to say. Despite everything he'd ever felt about his father, despite the endless lectures and lessons from the detective, his father's voice was the only thing Shawn wanted to hear.
"Okay. I'm listening." said Shawn, stopping in his tracks, another twig snapping underneath his sneakers. Gus stopped a moment after Shawn, running into his friend, not having been paying attention. Shawn grabbed Gus' wrist, catching him before Gus lost his balance. Shawn could feel Gus' rapid heartbeat through the touch.
"I want you to calm down," said Henry, his voice even. Solid. Strong. "Take a deep breath, relax. You're safe. You're not in danger. It's just your imagination telling your mind every possible bad thing that can happen. Understand? Breathe, Shawn." Shawn took a deep, shaky breath. He looked around the forest, trying to ignore the hair sticking up on the back of his neck, the fear of being trapped in the darkness, waiting for the animals to come out…
"Dad, I can't," said Shawn, clutching the phone harder, hearing Gus' fast breathing in line with his own. "We're going to be eaten, Dad—"
"Shawn," said Henry firmly, and Shawn vaguely heard a car door slam on Henry's side of the phone conversation.
He was coming
His dad was coming.
"Shawn," said Henry. "Take a breath. Right now." Shawn complied, taking another breath, trying to calm his nerves. "Again," said Henry. Shawn took another breath. He breathed for a solid thirty seconds before he felt his heart start to slow down. "You're okay, Shawn," said Henry. "It's all in your head."
Shawn looked around. The leaves in the trees rustled softly in the wind. There were no animals in sight. "It's all in my head," repeated Shawn. "Okay."
"Understand this," said Henry firmly. "No matter where you are, no matter what's happening to you, you have a choice of how you respond. You can't control what you're afraid of, but you can control what you do with it. Bravery is not lack of fear; It's being terrified, but doing what you have to do in spite of that."
"Okay," said Shawn, watching the sun dip lower in the sky. He took another breath, steadying his nerves. Gus seemed to notice the darkening of the sky at the same time Shawn did. Shawn saw the worry crease his face. "Dad," said Shawn slowly. "What do I do?"
"Close your eyes."
"Dad," sighed Shawn. "There are no hats here!"
"Do it, Shawn," said Henry firmly.
Shawn did. He shut his eyes, diving into his own world of darkness.
"Now," said Henry's calm, steady voice in Shawn's ear. "How many left turns did you make walking into that forest? How many rights?"
Shawn considered. He remembered walking into the forest. He remembered the eighteen trees they passed, the strange moss that grew on all except two, the squirrels hiding in the center of an old Oak, the eight branches he and Gus moved out of the way—
"Ten. Ten lefts." said Shawn. "And four rights."
"Do you remember it well enough to retrace your steps?"
Shawn hesitated, images flashing through his mind. Moss. Rocks. Branches. Hills.
"Yes," said Shaw, opening his eyes, his confidence there, but running thin. "I think so. But—it's getting dark—"
"Do not let fear control you, Shawn," said Henry, the words heavy.
Shawn swallowed. "I won't."
"Stay on the phone with me. Retrace your steps. Do not leave Gus' side."
"Gus," said Shawn, taking his friend by the arm. "This way."
"But, Shawn, it's dark—" said Gus, fear deep in his eyes. Shawn saw his friend's hands shake.
"I know," said Shawn, gazing around the forest, spotting a familiar tree. "Breathe. We're getting out of here."
Gus hesitated. "Aren't you scared?"
Shawn took a breath, looking back the way they'd come. Something stronger than the fear pulsed through his veins.
"Nah," said Shawn, a smile crossing his face. "Relax, Gus. Fear is all in your head."
Shawn shut his eyes, closing them tight for the millionth time. He still couldn't remember how many left or right turns the van took. All the motions just blurred. His mind seemed lost.
"Here?" asked Javier to the driver, his boss.
Shawn blinked his eyes open. It took him a moment to register that the van had stopped moving. His head was throbbing viciously—for all he knew, the van was still moving at full speed.
"Leave him here," said the driver. "Trent, come with me. We're heading into that station."
The cab station. Shawn's crippled mind vaguely pieced together what was happening. He was taken from the cab. They thought he was working for the cab driver—Juan. What did Juan do again?
Right, thought Shawn, struggling against the zipties binding his wrists. His father mentioned something about zipties… But that had been a lifetime ago. Shawn shut his eyes, willing the memories to come back, but his mind was too clouded; it was as if his thoughts were wrong puzzle pieces he was trying to jam together. Shawn tried pushing himself up, but didn't get two inches off the ground before Javier's hand was around his throat, slamming him back to the floor of the vehicle. The gun was back to Shawn's temple and Javier's eyes burned into Shawn's. Shawn's breath caught in his throat, fear freezing him.
"You stay put," hissed Javier, "and you stay quiet. You scream, and I swear I'll kill you right now."
Shawn stared at Javier, the man who so literally held Shawn's life in his hands. Shawn felt his fear creeping up his veins.
"You can't control what you're afraid of, but you can control what you do with it."
Shawn slowly drew in a breath. Breathe. He glared at Javier, a newfound burst of determination clearing some of the haziness from the concussion from his mind. Everything suddenly became… vivid. Shawn examined Javier. The man's gun was a 9mm NATO. A military weapon, Shawn thought vaguely. Javier held the weapon with a practiced hand. This was a man who'd used the gun in the past and was not afraid to do so again. There was something in the man's eyes. It wasn't fury. It wasn't hate.
It was… nothing.
The man seemed nearly emotionless. Exhausted. His hands were strong, calloused, and a tattoo was showing under the sleeve of the man's t-shirt—something Shawn thought he recognized. Muscles bulged underneath the material. The man had a rugged beard and mustache, black hair that contrasted starkly against his tanned skin, a scar that dragged down the side of his face, and he favored his left arm. Though… Shawn looked at his right hand, the one pinning him down.
Calloused middle finger.
Knuckles were more pronounced.
This man was right handed, yet held the gun with his left.
It clicked in Shawn's head.
"You fought for this country," said Shawn slowly, the hand near his throat making him slightly nervous to speak. "You fought for it and now you're stealing from it."
Something changed in Javier's eyes. Something very close to disbelief. But the flare of emotion changed just as quickly as it had come. The gun pressed harder against Shawn's head, making him cringe. "We're not stealing anything," said Javier in a low voice. "That money is ours. Not stealing. Now shut it."
Shawn slowly raised an eyebrow. "Maybe not… But selling weaponry you took from the Forces is."
The hand crept closer to Shawn's throat. Shawn fought to keep his heart from speeding.
"I knew you were working with him," growled Javier. Shawn hesitated; he didn't know what would prolong his life. Lying and saying that he was working for Juan, or telling them the truth; he was a psychic.
Or well, a version of the truth.
"I—" began Shawn, but Javier cut him off.
"So what if we stole them?" asked Javier. "They wronged us. All of us."
Shawn thought back to Javier's hand and shoulder. "You were injured," said Shawn. "They let you go."
"They took me off duty because I got shot. They wouldn't let me fight. I gave up everything to fight for this country. We all did."
"So," said Shawn, piecing together the story. "You and your friends stole weaponry and decided to make a profit."
"We found a black market salesman acting as a cab driver," said Javier. "Juan. He was supposed to deliver the weapons and grab our money for us. But he never showed. And I thought I told you to shut it." The gun slid back up to Shawn's temple, cutting into his skin. Shawn winced.
"He thinks someone found the money," said Shawn, ignoring the gun. Ignoring the fear snaking through his veins. "At the cab station. He said that they switched his cab and that the money was inside. It's there. You don't need me." His eyes met Javier's. "Let me go."
"The money better be there," said Javier dangerously, his hand pressing Shawn further into the floor. The harsh metal bit into Shawn's back. His wrists burned in pain from the tight plastic ties. Javier's voice dropped when he spoke again. "Because I'm starting to think you know a little more than I'd like you to know." He tapped the gun against Shawn's head, awakening the dull throb of his concussion. "To be honest," continued Javier, "we really don't need you anymore." He smiled a twisted grin. "Do you know what that means?"
"That means…" said Javier quietly, "that you're officially disposable." The cold metal skimmed the side of Shawn's face, sending a shiver down his spine. The muzzle stopped under his chin, tilting his head up, a small gasp escaping Shawn's lips.
"Dad… I'm scared."
Javier slowly pulled the trigger back on the weapon. The hand around Shawn's throat pinned him to the floor of the van. He couldn't move. Shawn's heart pounded in his head. The man's finger shifted to the trigger.
"Don't let fear control you, Shawn."
Shut his eyes.
And he waited to die.