Connor

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10 - Thursday

Jake found me in the woods.

The path that led from the hole in the middle school fence to Jake’s backyard teed with a path that led away to the pond. Maybe it was a creek, but we called it a pond. It wasn’t very big, and it was swampy. We used to catch frogs there.

I found a heavily shaded spot on an old log. There was a branch that jutted out at just the right angle and if you sat just right, it cradled your back. When we were smaller, we believed it was the most comfortable spot in the world. We were bigger now…I was bigger. The branch didn’t curve around my back and cradle me the right way. Not anymore. But I didn’t sit there for comfort. I didn’t even lean back against the branch. I leaned forward and straddled the log and whittled a thick stick to a point with my pocket knife. It was the perfect weapon if a vampire attacked. But I wasn’t carving vampire stakes, at least, not on purpose. I only sat there because nobody knew the place existed. Well, except for a few others, Jake included. But the ones who knew of it were at school. I only whittled because it gave my mind something to focus on. The last thing I wanted to do was think.

I didn’t go to school. I sat next to the pond whittling vampire stakes and contemplating the best escape path. Not from the forest. From my life.

My parents had been mumbling through the walls for weeks. My mom said not to worry about it. That when she was ready, she would tell me. This morning, she was ready.

The wind blew through the trees, rocked the leaves to sleep on their branches. I listened to the few birds that chirped, tried not to listen to the conversation that played in my head. I tried to concentrate on the stake’s point. Tried to ignore my parents’ voices in my head. Tried to ignore their words. It was too much to bear. What with everything else that was going on lately.

As they spoke, quiet and uncertain, I felt my entire body begin to ache. Slowly, my heart felt like it would explode.

I thought about their words, the looks on their faces. “Connor,” my mom said. Patty Woodson said. “Connor, you know we love you.”

“You’re getting a divorce,” I said. I felt the crushing weight begin to settle on my chest, but I didn’t expect it to fall so fast.

“No,” Craig said. I used to call him dad. Back when he showed me the stars and told me their stories. “Son, listen. This isn’t easy to say, and we’ve probably waited too long already.”

Patty started to cry. I didn’t understand.

“Waited too long for what?” I said. My mind went back to what Jake said, selling my twin brother. That couldn’t be it. But what…?

It was the pain that brought me out of the memory first. I was whittling harder, faster, being clumsier. I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t paying attention. The blade sunk into the meat of my thumb. Felt like I hit bone. I jerked the blade back on instinct, and it glistened red, like cherry syrup. I tossed it into the leaves, mashed my other palm as hard as I could against my thumb. Craig Woodson had taught me to slow the blood flow by applying pressure. Remembering his advice only made me angrier. I stuck my thumb in my mouth, sucked the blood, tasted the rusty tang and let out a string of swears in my own head that would make Patty Woodson blush. Maybe I did it because it would make her blush. Then for good measure, I said a few words out loud, hoped maybe she could hear.

I swore too loudly for too long, didn’t hear Jake’s footsteps on the dried leaves. I didn’t realize he was in the forest with me. He knew where the place was, but he should’ve been at school.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” he said.

I didn’t look at him. “What are you doing here?”

“You weren’t in first hour,” he said.

I turned to him.

“Nobody had seen you by third hour. The latest rumor is Ken was discharged. So I knew you weren’t at the hospital.”

I looked back down at the log, pulled my thumb out of my mouth and applied pressure with the heel of my hand.

“I stopped by your house,” Jake said. “Your mom said you just took off. She seemed, I don’t know, tired or something. I figured you’d be here.”

“It’s easier to think here.”

“Is everything okay, Conman?”

I looked at him. Maybe he saw my red-rimmed eyes, the fingerprints of my pain. I’m sure I looked haggard and worn.

“Dude, what happened?” Jake asked, concern and care that he seldom showed forced its way to the surface. He didn’t stand well; he teetered. Hesitated, unsure whether or not to remain where he was to offer distance or rush forward to offer support.

I said nothing, only stared at his face, searched his eyes. Slowly, my gaze drifted back to the water.

“Am I okay?” I said. “Everything I know is a lie.”

“What are you talking about?” His voice was slow, smooth.

“Craig and Patty.”

“Your folks?”

“Don’t call them that,” I snapped.

A few times, Jake started to say something, stopped, teetered.

“They sat me down,” I said. “I was on my way to school this morning. It couldn’t wait. They’d already kept it from me for nearly eighteen years. It couldn’t wait a few more hours.”

“What was it?”

I took a deep, shuddering breath, fought through it. I willed myself not to cry. But I did anyway. “They told me...that I’m not their real son. They said that they found me on their doorstep one morning. They said it was a blessing...from God. She couldn’t have kids. And they said they love me . . .” I sobbed. “Like their own. I don’t . . .”

Jake said nothing, just stood there, teetering. It almost enraged me. I could only see him as a dark figure through the blurred, distorted tears. “You don’t get it, do you?” I asked him. My tone was accusing. My rage built, overcame the tears, suppressed my sorrow. If for only a moment. “I’m ADOPTED! Jake. Craig and Patty Woodson are nothing but . . .”

I collapsed into silence, gazed out over the muddy pond water. In my head, I threw myself into the water, flailed around in it, gulped huge amounts into my lungs and floundered until I stopped moving.

I felt Jake’s hand on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry man,” he whispered. He sounded hurt.

“For what, Jake? That everything I’ve ever been told about my family, about my past, is a lie? Or maybe that they never told me sooner? Is that what you’re sorry for?” I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, turned to face him. My voice was calmer, but hostile. “Or is it because my real parents didn’t care about me? They dropped me off on the street...on someone else’s doorstep! Do you know how unfair that is? To me? To the Woodson’s? Where was my say in all this?” So many questions had been running laps in my head. Like, where did I come from? Who were my parents? Were they rich? Were they poor? Did they love each other? Would they be proud of what I’ve become? Would they approve of my dreams? Did I pass them on the street? And, if so, did they recognize me? Did they see something of themselves in me? I realized then that it had grown awkwardly silent, and I looked at Jake. I tried not to cry again. “No one can ever tell me I have my father’s eyes...or my mother’s smile.”

I shook my head and a single tear rolled from my cheek. “You know, Jake, I’ve been sitting here for hours, just thinking. About my life. Wishing I had a warm past, full of warm memories like cotton candy and jellybeans, circuses and birthday parties: Memories that you can recall countless times, and every time they make you happy.” I fought a smile at the thought, but it dismally soured. “Not memories of a life that shouldn’t be yours. Of a life you stole.”

“You had a good life,” he said.

“My memories are borrowed. At least, that’s how I feel. And I had no control over any of it. I’m just so…angry. And maybe I shouldn’t be. I know Craig and Patty – it even sounds weird to call them that, but it’s not like they should be Dad and Mom. I know they loved me. I know they provided for me. But…” I stopped, took heavy, labored breaths. “I don’t even know what I’m feeling right now, Jake. All these memories in my head feel dirty. Unwanted. Wrong. My life was supposed to be something else, and…”

“You wouldn’t have met us,” Jake said. His voice was quiet.

I shook my head. “That’s just it, though. My only happy memories are of you guys...of us. All of the things we used to do. The games we used to play. And even the trouble that we caused.” I smiled, briefly, as the memories swam around in my mind. “But the family get-togethers, the Christmas parties, the birthdays, the visits to Grandma… They’re not real. Thinking about them makes me think of what my life should have been. The stuff that we did…you, me, Scott, Ken. Those are my only warm memories. Everything else is a lie.

“My family abandoned me. And what hurts even more is that they couldn’t even take responsibility. They just left me on a freaking doorstep. I could have died! They didn’t care what happened to me.”

“You don’t know that, Connor,” Jake said. “I mean, what if it was an extreme circumstance? What if they did love you? What if they did care? And that’s why they did what they did. Maybe they couldn’t take care of you?”

I didn’t say anything. My heart cried, but my eyes were out of tears. There was so much pain inside, and anger...so many questions left unanswered...so many left unthought of. But what if Jake was right? Could I ever forgive them? My parents for abandoning me? The Woodsons for betraying me...lying to me?

“Jake, I need to be alone right now.”

“Are you sure? I mean, it might help if we talked it out or . . .”

“Jake, please. You don’t know what this is like. Please. I need to think.”

“Fuck you,” he said. His voice was low, and he was quiet for a minute, took a step away, and turned back. “I don’t know what pain is like? I don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent? You serious right now? I’m listening to all this crap you’re spouting off about nobody loves you and your life is just a lie, and I just wanna friggin smack you. No happy memories? You kidding me? You act like, after everything, Craig and Patty weren’t saints to give you the life that they did. They loved you, dude. When nobody else did or could or would…they accepted you when you were abandoned, and you’re just gonna… Really?! Because the way I see it, at the end of the day, you have two people who love you. My mom is gone. She’s dead, Connor. She’s not coming back from that. It’s not betrayal the way you see it, but it’s loss. And it’s worse because it’s forever. And my dad? Forget it. He’s useless. My mom died, and he just gave up. Most nights, if he’s even home, he just friggin ignores me.”

He threw himself onto his belly in the leaves and kicked and beat his fists against the ground and cried out in a whiny voice, “Boo hoo hoo. I’m Connor Woodson. My life is so hard. Boo hoo.”

He kept going, but I didn’t listen. I applied pressure to my thumb and looked away. Eventually, he stood up, dusted himself off, and said, “That’s how you sound right now. You’re ridiculous. You sound like an idiot.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even look at him.

“You wanna be left alone?” he said. “Okay, Connor. But when you’re done with your little pity party, give me a call.”

With that, he turned and walked off.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but the quiet was suddenly unsettling, when before it had been my comfort. I couldn’t ignore that there was some truth to what Jake had said, but the thoughts and emotions that wormed their way in and out of my head…Sure, he knew loss, and I was stupid to say that to him, but I couldn’t believe he knew what I was going through. Hell, I didn’t understand it myself.

I loved the Woodsons for raising me, for caring for me, but I hated them because they lied to me, felt betrayed by them. I’d trusted them with my entire life, and they weren’t even who they said they were. They only pretended to be. All the times Patty threatened me with the phrase, “I brought you into this world…” Hollow, empty lies.

The same went for my real parents. Whoever they were. Wherever they were. I hated them for abandoning me. But I was so curious as to why they did it. And who they were. And where I was from. Did I look like them? What was their last name?

By the time I stood from the log, my thumb had stopped bleeding. I found my knife in the leaves, and put it back in my pocket. I just walked for awhile.

Eventually I wandered back to the house, waited until I knew nobody would be home, got my car. I went inside just for a minute, but only because there were no cars in the driveway. A note on the table said, “Connor, we love you. That has not changed, nor will it ever. We understand that you’re hurt right now and want to give you time, but we’re here to talk if you have any questions.” Signed, the Impostors.

I took the note. I wasn’t sure why. I guess part of me wanted them to know that I had seen it. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I wanted to get away. If I didn’t come home that night, I wanted them to know I’d seen the note.

I emptied my school books from my backpack and threw in some clothes, a toothbrush. I packed my music player, laptop, some notebooks. I packed my journal, thought it might help to work out some emotions. Packed a few of my favorite paperbacks, Salinger and Vonnegut. I didn’t know where I was going or for how long, just that I didn’t want to be there anymore.

I knew where Patty stashed some cash for emergencies. In a jar in the kitchen. Usually, there was only about twenty bucks. I found about two hundred, with another note: “Take what you need.” I took it all. I’d put back what I didn’t spend.

Craig’s dad had been a farmer. Craig was taught to hunt. He’d taught me how. I knew where the key was to the gun cabinet. I knew how to shoot. Was overcome with the sudden urge to destroy something.

I left with one of his twenty-two caliber rifles and a paper grocery sack of empty pop bottles and Craig’s old beer cans. I filled up the tank on my sedan, stopped off and picked up a couple boxes of ammo, a bite to eat, and drove out past the light pollution of the city. Drove for a while. Maybe even to Wisconsin.

Drove until there was only farmland and found a field somewhere. No buildings anywhere around. Just a big apple tree in bloom, half-rotten crabs strewn around like mines. There was half a brick wall about a hundred yards from the tree. Maybe the remains of a foundation. Maybe a barn or a house or something had been on the spot. Maybe it burned down.

I lined the cans and bottles up along the wall and retreated to the tree. I loaded the gun and stood, remembered my stance, secured the butt of the gun against my shoulder. I lined up the sights. Took aim. Breathed slow. But I was angry, emotional. My hand shook, and when I pulled the trigger, the shot went wide.

I wasn’t the best shot anyway, but I was worse when emotional. It didn’t matter.

I wiped the tears from my eyes, pulled the trigger a second time. The sound echoed over the flat farm land like a jet taking off. It sounded far too loud. It made me nervous, made me think someone would hear, come and find me on their property blowing off steam. But there was no one around, no buildings, no cars. Maybe not for miles. The ground was pretty level. I could see the road curving away into the clouds on the horizon.

I lowered the rifle and glared off at the row of bottles. They seemed to taunt me. It made me feel lousy to know I couldn’t even shoot a gun right. Made me angrier.

I pulled up to take another shot, sighted, tapped the trigger twice. Missed.

I slunk down against the tree, feeling defeated. I looked off at the sun, pumpkin orange and slinking toward the line where the sky met the earth. It would be dark soon, and that got me thinking about the stars. I thought about Orion. The way Craig said Orion was given by the gods to mortals. I thought how Patty said I was a gift from God, that they couldn’t have children. Orion was a great hunter. I couldn’t even hit a damn bottle on a wall. I felt even lousier still.

I set the gun in the grass, feeling hungry. Plucked an apple and sat down at the base of the tree. Bit into it. As I chewed, I looked over the field, the wall, the bottles that sat and mocked me.

I thought about where I’d sleep for the night. Thought about going back. Decided it was too soon. Thought about sleeping in the car. I could sleep here, or maybe a well-lit parking lot somewhere.

I glanced at my watch because I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t really need one. As I enjoyed the quiet evening, enjoyed being alone, I was glad I didn’t have one. I had my own landline. It was enough. Craig and Patty didn’t have cell phones either, didn’t see much of a point. They were old fashioned that way. They had rules, curfews. I thought about my curfew as I watched the sun setting. They’d be getting worried soon.

“Oh well,” I said out loud. To no one. I took another bite of apple.

They’d call Jake, eventually. Probably not until later. After they were really worried and hadn’t heard anything. Maybe after midnight. Maybe Jake would still be up, waiting for me to call him. I thought again how much of a jerk I’d been to him, felt bad about it.

Patty would be the one to call, not Craig. He wasn’t one for unnecessary conversations. She would hate calling so late, but would do it because she was worried.

He wouldn’t know what to say. He hadn’t seen me in hours. He was sorry. Where would he tell them to try? Ken’s, maybe? Audrey’s?

Maybe the phone call would upset Jake, make him worry. Part of me felt guilty for putting them all through this. But I knew I’d go back eventually. I just needed time. After all, where would I go? I only had about a hundred twenty bucks left after gas and ammo. That wouldn’t get me very far, and if it did, it wouldn’t keep me going. Nobody would hire a high school kid with no diploma, no address, and no experience.

I thought about my real parents. Wherever they were. I could look for them. Maybe even live with them. Maybe they regretted giving me away, losing me. Wasn’t I worth having around? Maybe they’d realized it and didn’t know where to look for me. If they had been poor, maybe they were in a better way now. Maybe they wanted me, thought it was too late. Maybe they’d be willing to make up for lost time. Sure, I’d miss Jake and Audrey, Ken, Rowen. Scott would be going back to Jasper in a week. Maybe I’d get a profile on one of those websites to keep in touch. Maybe my real parents lived close enough Jake could still come over on weekends. We could still hang.

I ate the apple idly as I sat there and thought. By the time I’d eaten down to the core, I’d realized I was chasing a pipe dream. I was even sadder. Felt even more lonely. Because the truth was simple and cold. I had no idea who my real parents were. I had no idea how to find them. There wasn’t an adoption agency or orphanage. There wasn’t a paper trail. I had nowhere to look. If they wanted me, they’d have to find me. But they’d had seventeen years to look for me. And they never did.

I looked back at my watch, removed it from my wrist, held it delicately. I turned it over, studied it: the silver design, the worn brown-leather band, the partially scratched lens. It was old and starting to show its age. Craig had given it to me a few months ago. Said it belonged to his father, the farmer, said now it should belong to his son. What a lie that turned out to be.

But I wasn’t angry. Rather, suddenly filled with great nostalgic pride. Craig had loved me. They both had. And I loved them back. But it didn’t change the fact that I didn’t feel like I belonged there.

So many thoughts ran through my mind and jumbled together. Confusion, fear. Once again, the tears came. I was tired and too weak to fight. So I cried.

Eventually, I became aware of a presence. I caught my breath, fought to regain composure. I cleared my eyes and looked out at the dusky field. I was alone. I looked back toward my car, expecting to see maybe a police officer issuing a ticket. Illegally parked on the shoulder. Abandoned car.

I heard something. Just a call. A bird. Above me in the tree. Just a normal barn owl. All white, little gray around the eyes. I watched it for a minute, and it seemed to watch me back, gazing down on me. Head moved robotically. I had an eerie feeling then, thought maybe it would poop on me.

“Shoo,” I said. Waved my arms at it.

It took flight, took off toward the wall where’d I’d set my bottles. That’s when I noticed the figure. Leaning like a broom against the wall, dark like a living shadow. The owl landed on an outstretched arm. I stood warily, and the figure approached with slow, meditated steps, maybe a slight limp.

It was pretty dark by this point, and only the moon shone down. Had it not been bright and full, I wouldn’t have had such a clear image of the figure. He wore a trench coat, buttoned up to mid-chest. What looked like black sack-cloth shone out from underneath. He also wore a round hat on top of an aged and weathered face, dignified, sunken eyes, a hawkish beak of a nose. The nose was crooked, maybe broken. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Maybe I’d seen him on one of those Catch a Predator shows. When he spoke, his voice was dry like a tomb, the squeak of an old door. He sounded like a haunted house, and there was something else, something that came across like hostility. Maybe suspicion.

“What are you doing here, boy?”

“I...I’m sorry,” I said. My eyes scanned the ground for the rifle, just in case. “I didn’t realize I was on anyone’s land.”

“And eating food that does not belong to you?” the man asked, referring to the apple I’d eaten.

“I’m sorry. It’s late. I didn’t mean to cause any harm.”

“Calm yourself, boy. You are in no trouble. I am just a traveler, the same as you.” The more he spoke, the more I took note of his strange accent. It was almost English, yet the way he pronounced some of the harder consonants was almost Russian. I didn’t recognize it. It didn’t make him sound foreign, though, so much as really old fashioned. Archaic.

“So…wait. This isn’t your land?”

“No,” he said.

I watched the bird on his arm, its eyes watching me, almost piercing me. “Is that your owl? How does he…?”

The bird flapped its wings once, and the man held his arm out. It took to the sky, flew to the tallest branch in the tree, called out into the night.

The man didn’t answer. He took a few steps closer, removed his hat. When I saw his silver hair and the light fully held his face, I recognized him. From the hospital gift shop. From outside the video store. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

“Are you following me?” I asked. I found the rifle by the tree, took a slow step toward it. “That’s not cool, man.” I regretted, then, not having a cell phone. Not that I could give directions to the 911 operator. Not that they could reach us in time.

“Following you?” the man said with a laugh. “I thought, perhaps, you were following me. Until I realized you were the one I was looking for. The Creator has been allowing our paths to cross, and now I am sure of it.”

His words barely registered as I took another step toward the rifle. “Is this some kind of sex thing?” I asked. “Are you going to molest me? I’ve got a tiny penis. You can do better, man.”

“What?” the man said and stopped. “No.” He stared at me for a moment, his eyes looking large and glassy in the moonlight. He didn’t look dangerous. If anything, he looked homeless. Maybe he was crazy. He was a war vet. In Vietnam. I looked like someone he toured with. That had to be it. I looked like his pal, back in the war. But his pal was dead, blew up on a gook landmine. I was just a ghost from his past.

I turned away, grabbed the rifle from the grass. I checked the safety, shouldered it. Made sure it was visible. I started heading back to the car, hoped he didn’t try to follow. I’d never shot a person before. Probably couldn’t hit him anyway. My hands were shaking pretty bad.

“Wait,” he said. “Connor, wait.”

I stopped, didn’t turn. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

“Connor…Woodson, is it?”

“How do you know my name?”

“I work for your parents,” he said. “My name is Garek Sandama. They have sent me after you.”

I turned. “Sandama? What kind of name is that?” He didn’t say anything. “You a P.I., or something?”

“A…P.I.?”

“A private investigator. Look, don’t I have to be missing for like twenty-four hours before you guys can even lift a finger?”

“I am afraid you do not fully understand.”

“No. You don’t fully understand, all right? I just found out that I’m adopted. ADOPTED! Craig and Patty Woodson are not my parents. So, you can just pack up your trench coat and your old English dialect and go back to wherever they found you. I’m not going back.”

“I did not say your foster parents, boy.”

“My...what?” I thought about it for a second, stared at the man’s face, this…Sandama. Looked for something there, a tell, maybe. That’s what they call it in poker, right? A tell. Something to hint he was bluffing. “How the hell do you even know about my parents? I didn’t even know about them until today. Did…did Jake put you up to this? He went to return the movie, saw you again, thought he’d punk me ’cause I treated him like crap earlier?” I turned away. “Unbelievable. This is crossing the line, even for him.”

“I have known your father his entire life. I held you while you were still a babe.”

“Nice try, mister. But I’m not buying it. You do community theater downtown? Is that what this is?”

He didn’t say anything. Seemed confused. Like he was trying to catch up with what I was saying but just couldn’t. What’s more, the look was almost convincing.

“My parents abandoned me. They don’t care.”

“I am sure that is what it must seem like to you. But that is the furthest thing from truth. Giving you up was the hardest thing that either of them ever had to do. But they had to. For your sake.” He spoke with such conviction and confidence that part of me couldn’t help but believe him, no matter how alien the words were.

“I don’t understand.”

“You would likely be dead now if they had not given you away. It is a long story, but I assure you it is truth. Now your parents need you. And they have sent me to take you to them.”

“Is this like a kidney thing? Next of kin. Compatible donor. Old man’s gonna die, huh? That’s what all this crap is about. He contacted Craig and Patty first. They wanted to be the ones to break it. That’s why it couldn’t wait.” I couldn’t help but smile. Not out of humor so much as relief. The puzzle was coming together. The timing of it all. Maybe they never would have told me.

“Die?” the man said. He considered the words for a moment. “Creator forbid,” he said. “If we hurry, we might prevent such loss.”

“Right,” I said. “Okay. Say I bite. How long of a drive is it? We going downtown then? We don’t have to be there long, right? I’m getting so tired of hospitals lately.”

“I am afraid it is far. Farther than you could imagine. It is doubtful you will be allowed to return.”

“Far, huh?” I considered his accent again. “Like some little eastern European country?” He didn’t say anything. His words sounded like the kind of scam found in a spam email. Someone in a foreign country trying to launder money. Just reply with your bank account information. “Sure,” I said. “But what’s it going to cost me? I don’t have anything. I’m broke. I haven’t worked in months. I’ve got nothing of value. My laptop, I guess, but I’m not giving that up…”

“Do not misunderstand,” he said. “This requires nothing of you but your time and attention. If you look for value, you have only to come with me. Your father will reward you with more gold and precious stones than you can certainly carry.” There was a disconnect in his voice, I could tell. Between what he was saying and what he was thinking. “They are your parents. Should you not want to help them for that alone?”

“Dude, I don’t know my parents. Turns out, I don’t know either set. Not the way I thought. So, no. The pleasure of their company isn’t exactly a perk.”

“Are you not curious?” he asked. No, pleaded. “Do you not wish to know the truth about your birth? About the circumstances and events that lead to your separation?”

I considered him for a moment. I didn’t trust him, but there was something in his words that I found compelling. However bizarre his words, his voice, his appearance, there was sincerity in his eyes. However weird the things he said, at least he believed them.

“You can’t just tell me that now?”

“It is not my story to tell,” he said. “I played only the smallest role.”

“You’re telling me I have to go with you to learn why my parents discarded me like garbage?”

He nodded.

“And that if I go with you, I might never come back?”

He nodded again.

I thought about it. I actually considered it. To leave everything I’ve ever known. For what? The unknown. A chance to meet the parents that had abandoned me? Gave me up so willingly? Discarded me on the steps of some strangers’ home?

A few hours ago, I’d considered leaving. Just to disappear from the hurt. To fade off into the sunset like the hero of some old Western. Leave it all behind, start over. And I didn’t know how. Now I had a way out, but I wasn’t sure I wanted it. There was too much to consider. If I really thought I could leave Craig and Patty, that was one thing, but there were other people I would have to give up as well.

“But...my friends. I can’t. I can’t go. I don’t think...I mean, I need time. I have to weigh my options. And even if I said yes right now, I’d need time to say goodbye. I can’t just disappear. You don’t know my Mo…Patty. She’d be hysterical. She’d call a nationwide manhunt. They’d set up road blocks, call out amber alerts.”

“Time can be allotted. Not too much, mind. I take a great risk as it is just by being here. It must not be long.”

“And as pissed as I am about Craig and Patty, at least they were there for me. I mean, years went by, and my parents never thought to come look for me? Do you know how that feels? I’m just supposed to drop everything now? That’s crap, man. That’s abuse. They’re using me. I don’t know…”

“You must go, Connor. Your parents need you. You must put aside your hurt. All the pain through the years cannot be greater than your will. You do want to see them?”

I didn’t say anything at first. Slowly, I nodded. “Obviously, I’ve got questions. I don’t…”

“Then you will come?”

“You have to friggin give me time, dude. This is a lot to drop on a person.” I turned around, looked at my car that was barely visible in the gathering night. “This has got to be the most surreal day…like, ever.”

“I can give you time,” he said quietly, almost sadly. “If that is what you require. It would be better to arrive a bit later than not at all.”

“Alright,” I said. “But I’m not making any promises. Alright?”

He was silent for too long, and I turned to look at him. But he was gone. The owl, too. And I was alone.

Somehow, I felt lonelier than ever.

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