Rachel didn’t show up till the very last minute. Her teammates sent curious glances her way but the set of her jaw and her closed off expression caused everyone to let her off the hook and kept their distance.
The buzzer went off again and a round of cheers passed through the crowd. The Dragons scored again. They had a five point lead and it was the last quarter. This was a win for them through and through. Everyone was already beaming and Charlotte and her team members had scowls of frustration on their faces. Mark was driving the ball towards their basket, Charlotte blocking him. As he leaped to take a shot, she jumped and caught the ball from him, passing it to Rick, a short but aggressive player from the orange cabin.
He passed the ball but it went out of the court and the referee blew his whistle. Connor went behind the line to throw the ball back into play and Rachel caught it. She could have tried for a three pointer but Rick was blocking her, an evil sneer on his face. Rachel really wanted to be the one who made the final shot, deciding quickly, she passed the ball to Charlie. She drove the ball down the court and dunked. It fell through the hoop and Charlotte gained control of it. The whistle blew and she dropped the ball, sighing.
The audience erupted in applause. Rachel beamed at Connor and searched for Joey, Gavin and Nate, who waved at her, proud. She nodded and left for the locker rooms. Rachel was the first one there and was the last one to leave. She waited for the last of the showers to go off and for the room to fall silent, indicating that she was alone and hopefully everyone else was in the Rec Center, celebrating.
Rachel hoped Joey wasn’t leaning against the wall outside and headed for her favorite place in the institute: the clearing.
She didn’t bail on the game because she promised the Cabin a win, and she was glad she didn’t let them down. It had provided a nice distraction and she vented out her anger on other players, even committed her first two fouls in this place. Now that she was out on her own, Rachel let her thoughts wander, letting the tears build up and burn and eventually trace a path down her cheeks.
She ran past the Cabins and the Teacher’s lodging, her mind faintly noticing the lights on in Wesson’s living room. Her feet hit the ground hard and fast, sending pain spiking up her legs but she couldn’t care less. She never really cared when she was in pain.
Maybe something was wrong with Rachel, the way she found any physical pain comforting in the presence of greater emotional pain. Perhaps she thought if the destruction inside was mirrored outside; everything would make sense or seem comparatively less … chaotic.
She pushed the branches aside and jumped over the roots the protruded from the ground. Rachel stumbled and cursed, getting up to run again but noticed to some relief, that she had reached the clearing.
The water was calm, the silence was eerie, almost scary. Then, as if nature was listening to her thoughts, a few crickets started chirping, breaking the uneasy silence. Rachel bent over the edge, dipping her hand into the water and watched the ripples in the water distort her reflection. She was furious.
Her godfather kept the existence of her father a secret for fifteen years and her father had been close by, watching and ever present for the past two years, and Rachel never knew. Part of her was mad at herself too.
A frustrated grunt fell from her lips and she kicked her feet out in front of her, leaning on her arms and starting thinking, about all the times, all the signs, that made sense now.
He was there on the day of her tryouts, he even showed up at the first match. The library…
“Just like your mother”
“Your parents.” He hesitated, “I knew them. We were … really close. Kinda like family.”
“Your mother … she was beautiful. You look a lot like her, you know?”
“Your father,” he snorted, “He, uh, he liked playing the tough guy – total softy at heart though … he was abnormally intelligent – good with numbers … And he took his job way too seriously. I mean, yeah, he owned the company but … I think he let the company destroy him…”
“You guys were close, then?”
He was so concerned with her grades. Rachel almost smiled at that thought. She thought back to the night she ran away.
“What the hell are we to you, then!?”
“Rachel, you have us!”
“Told you he just cares too much” Joey mumbled as he walked out.
Shaking her head she let out a small laugh. Connor. He was watching to two of them like a hawk. Ruining their Christmas plans, taking their phones … Rachel wouldn’t be surprised if he gave Connor the “If you hurt her, you’re a dead man” talk.
“Mind if I join you?”
Rachel jumped, it was Davis.
She glanced up at him and stood up, walking out on him.
Rachel texted Gavin to meet her outside. Her phone beeped almost instantly.
Gavin: Umm, I’m sort of in your room.
Rachel glanced up from where she was hiding and spotted the lone light in the Blue Cabin: What are you doing there?
Gavin: We’ve been looking for you since after the game. You vanished.
Rachel: Meet me in your room. Do NOT bring anyone else with you.
Be there in five.
Gavin reached his room and found Rachel sitting cross legged in the middle of the bed. She glanced up when he entered, looking confused and torn apart at the same time.
“Hey.” He made his way over and sat down on the bed.
“So you know what happened…” she stretched out on the bed, sighing at the ceiling
Gavin nodded, “Yep, the dead guy’s not dead.”
Some minutes passed before Rachel voiced her thoughts, “What do I do?”
“What do want to do?” He turned his head to look at her. She smirked.
“Punch him? Never talk to him?” Rachel suggested
Gavin smiled, “You need to stop punching people.” They shared a small, breathy laugh, “Go to him for answers and hear him out?”
Rachel looked at him thoughtfully, “Why are you the voice of reason?”
He shrugged, “Because, you actually listen to me. You’re a handful when you’re mad.”
“Exactly. How will I refrain from smart mouthing and yelling my way out of the conversation with him?”
“Try and hear him out, Rachel. Give him a shot. He’s probably right about having his reasons.”
Rachel eyed him jadedly, too exhausted to snap at him.
“Well he is at least half a century old, he isn’t stupid.”
“Coulda fooled me.” She whispered
“Bite your tongue. And remember to breathe.”
“Thanks, Dr. Phil.”
They were quiet for a little longer.
“Are you going to go to him?” he finally asked
Rachel pulled down the pillow and set it beneath her head, “Maybe after a nap, let him stew in his misery for a while.”
Gavin gave her a glowered at her.
“Twenty minutes. I’ll go, promise.” Ignoring the gaze that was intensifying by the second, “Your bed is super comfy by the way.”
He shook his head, “Can’t do anything about you.”
“Fifteen minutes.” She promised.
Even after those fifteen minutes, Gavin had to all but throw her out of his room and consistently remind her to go easy on her old man. She walked back towards the clearing, wondering if Davis was still there.
He was. Rachel bit back a groan in exasperation.
She sat down beside him without a word.
A light wind blew through the forest and Rachel drew her knees up to her chest and hugged herself. She heard rustling as Davis took off his coat and draped it over her shoulders. Part of her wanted to rip the coat off of her but the other half of her wanted to snuggle into it.
Rachel pondered over how she should respond, snarky comment or a pointless “it’s okay”? He continued before she could do either of those things.
“I admit that our last conversation could have gone better.”
“It wasn’t easy, you know. Spending everyday with my daughter and her not knowing who I was … and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“You could have.” It really was that simple.
“No, Rachel, I couldn’t have! I did all of this to protect you.” He sighed, “All of this to protect you.”
Davis ripped out a huge clump of grass and took a deep breath, “Your brother didn’t die in an accident, and your mother didn’t die of natural causes either. They were murdered. And you were going to be the next thing they’d take away from me … I couldn’t lose you too.”
He had her attention now.
“They? Who are they?”
“This place, this institute was supposed to be a safe space until the smoke cleared. Me, your mother, and a few other friends of ours … this place was built to protect our children. Everyone here, all the kids, they’re orphans and know nothing of their parents. The internet fills in those blanks for plenty of them but something bigger was going on … something bigger has been going on for a very long time.”
“Could you try not to be so … vague?”
“Alright, I … grew up on the streets; my dad was shot dead by a thug because he owed him money. I became part of this … gang. We snatched purses and picked pockets, you know an Oliver Twist kind of situation.” He gestured, waving his hands about.
Rachel’s eyes flitted to Davis, before retreating to the lake.
“As I grew up, so did they - when I was about your age, they handed me a gun and gave me a target. They wanted me to kill someone who owed them money … like my father. I refused and they beat me up and threw me out.
“They probably thought I was dead when I didn’t return the next day, but a family took me in, I got my education, and became a well respected man. I married the girl I had a crush on since I was 12, had two gorgeous children and established my own company. I had everything I could have ever dreamed of, except for the fame, which was unexpected … and unwanted.”
“When did that head downhill?”
“The gang … they found out and since I “ditched” them, they wanted payback for my betrayal-“
Rachel shook her head in annoyance, “But they threw you out.”
“Well, clearly they don’t think like you and me. Anyways, they swore revenge.” Davis wasn’t wearing the glasses or the lenses. The water reflected in his blue eyes as he gazed into its depths and continued his story, “They were whack jobs intent on ruining me and so they started by burning down my office and ruining my work but that I could recover.” He glanced at his daughter to see if she was following, “We caught the gang leader.” He finished.
“End of story?” Rachel asked
“I wish” she heard him say under his breath before adding, “Ever hear the name William Bryce?”
It had been in the newspapers her entire life, “Big shot business tycoon?”
Davis tilted his head in a ‘not really’ manner, “Sworn enemy.”
Ah, “Of course.”
“Bryce hired the leader’s son to watch us, see what we’re doing, steal plans – all that … but the boy had a vendetta against me in particular for lockin’ up his old man. Started taking down people.”
“Bryce didn’t know the killings were his doing but when he found out, he made no attempt to stop them. He urged them on, gave them money, supplies, whatever they needed.”
Rachel didn’t hide her shock or disgust, “Guy’s a psycho.”
“He is.” Davis nodded, “… I may have dissed his company or him a few times in interviews.”
Rachel rolled her eyes, “Smart move.”
“He wanted to take away everything I had. Everything we had.”
“Where do your friends come into this?”
“I made friends in high places … we were all developing a new plan for the city and hopefully, eventually make it a worldwide thing. It was more eco-friendly and it involved shutting down companies like Bryce’s.” Davis finished. His shoulders had slumped in relief as he finished his story.
“He’s still after you?”
“He thinks I’m dead. We made sure you stayed in a small town with Nanna and Nate, kept you away from him. That’s the deal with a lot of the kids here. The new kids usually lose their guardians to natural causes or Bryce. We investigate to be sure.”
He ran a hand through his hair, “So … yeah. We moved and I ran. I came to this place and started teaching. Kept an eye on things; dyed my hair, grew a beard, wore lenses and even these ridiculous Clark Kent glasses”
“And put on a few pounds.” Rachel remarked.
“Really?” Davis glanced down at his stomach, “hmm” he made a thoughtful face and they shared a laughed.
He smiled, the last moment he spent with his daughter as himself was when she was three. She was giggling as he tried to put her to sleep. He tucked her in but she was running about the next minute.
They quieted down and Rachel asked again, “When did the institute become an idea you were all on board with?”
“Once we lost your brother and Joey lost her sister, we decided that we had to do something-“
“Yeah, your best friend’s mother was also your mother’s best friend.” He waved that fact off dismissively, “We knew he wasn’t going to stop at anything, so Jameson was our project, a hideout. We lost people in the process, but we kept going till this was finished. And the day it was finished was the day the first kid was orphaned.”
“So … everyone who was part of this project is dead?”
“No. I’m alive, so is Nate … a few others as well but their kids can’t find out. We can’t risk this. If, say, word gets out that we’re still alive … that’s gonna put you guys in danger. It’ll defeat the purpose of this institute. Everyone that works here and almost everyone in that town twenty minutes over is part of this.”
Rachel arched her eyebrows, “Well you can’t hide forever…”
“We can try.”