by shukyou (主教)
Flashbulbs exploded like fireworks as they stepped past the customs gate into the terminal, the happy reunited family. They’d gotten permission to take the Millers behind the scenes a little, past the point where those picking up arriving passengers were expected to wait, so that the reunion itself might take place away from the media’s prying lenses. They were ready now, though, ushered forth by cops and social workers into the bright public eye.
Tim’s first thought was that he hadn’t expected America to be so small.
But this wasn’t America, or at least not a representative location. It was South Carolina, which couldn’t have found it on a map to save his life two weeks ago, except maybe if someone had given him a compass and North Carolina as a starting point. The air conditioning was blowing full blast, but he could feel heat radiating from the great glass doors behind the camera circus. Ordinary travelers stopped and stared as they passed by: What was all the fuss about? Was he a celebrity? Was this someone important? Could they maybe get an autograph?
The answers to the latter three questions were no, no, and sure, though Tim figured by the time they got the other two replies, they would have wandered off before pulling out a pen. The fuss, however, was going to be the subject of some nightly news. The cameramen hovered, great boxy rigs perched on their shoulders, while attractive anchors in smart skirt-suits made sure their hair was fluffed just right before extending their microphones in his direction.
A woman stepped between them, using her petite frame as a buffer between hungry journalists and weary civilians. “I’m Denise Velez,” she told their onlookers, “and I’m the Millers’ case representative from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As many of you know, there can be no greater blow to a family than to have one of its most vulnerable members, a child, vanish without a trace, leaving behind no clues as to his whereabouts. So many of the cases that the Center sees end in tragedy, which is why we’re overjoyed today to announce that Tim Miller has defied the odds and returned home.”
A roar of questions rose the second it was clear she’d finished speaking, making a wave so palpable that Tim nearly was knocked back off his feet. It was pure chaos and sound, and he didn’t know how Denise managed to point with absolute coolness to the source of the question she wanted. “Is there hope that this reunion might lead to the discovery of other missing children?” asked a prim redhead.
“Of course,” answered Denise, her face somehow hopeful yet grave at once. “This of course has been a trying time for Tim, and we don’t want to rush him. But when he’s ready, he’s agreed to tell us whatever he can about the individuals that abducted him — and yes, that’s all I’m prepared to say on the matter at this time, and without commentary from law enforcement.”
Another blast of chaos set on them, and Denise indicated the line of questioning she wished to follow. A tall black woman gave a practiced smile and asked, “How are you feeling, Tim?”
Then all eyes were on him. It was as unnerving as facing a mugger’s gun, only now instead of one chrome muzzle, he was staring down the bored barrels of a million eyes. He felt sick. “Ah,” he stammered as the question-asker pointed toward Denise’s podium and indicated he should take her place. His knees weren’t working. All the liquids had drained from his mouth. Maybe he should just faint right here and now, to make the kind of scene that usually got him out of trouble when he got into it. Of course, the last brilliant plan he’d hatched had gotten him here, so perhaps he should just remain upright.
Before he could respond, though, Denise smiled. “He’s been through a lot lately, but I assure you, he’s happy to be home.”
Tim smiled at the crowd. Yes, he was happy to be home. Home sweet home. So happy.
The cameras flashed again and again at the miracle boy, returned at last to his grieving family. He stood there in the midst of them all, his three younger siblings circling him with curious faces, his father with a grin so wide it all but cracked his bearded face open, his mother looking … well, of course, the poor thing, her son missing for three years and returned so suddenly, it was no wonder she looked like nothing so much as though she’d seen a ghost.
Tim had spent the entire plane ride waiting for the other shoe to drop, preparing his next great escape. It had only been a question of when, and where, and how far he could run and hide inside an unfamiliar airport. He’d run a thousand scenarios in his mind — all but the one he was facing now, the one where it didn’t drop at all.
Like so many things that turned out to be terrible, at the time, it had seemed like a good idea.
He couldn’t say where he’d gotten the thought from; the best he could trace was that American television was the white noise of the world, and it seemed as though every television that was left alone long enough would eventually start playing something from one of their networks. That was how he’d learned English in the first place, spending hours in front of the staticky little screens, repeating anything he could. He’d always been a quick study, and in the crowds of Bucharest, the knowledge served him well. There was always a traveler or two willing to tip for some English-language directions, and if he could relieve them of some of their traveling money at the same time, so much the better. All the news and papers said that Ceaușescu’s rule had been so rough on the country, but three years after his deposition and execution, things still at street level looked much the same as they always had.
Now the people who came arrived in spite of the communists, not because of them, but that distinction was academic at best. Bread wasn’t rationed anymore, but that didn’t mean it was available, and people still kept their wallets in the same places.
Of course, a life like his was the kind of life that caught the attention of the police, which was why he’d been on the move more or less his whole life, so far as he could remember it. The cops that caught you once were often willing to look the other direction, especially if you could do what he could do with his mouth. But catch you twice, or God forbid three times, and they were less inclined toward mercy.
He didn’t know how old he was, so he’d semi-arbitrarily set his birthdate to New Year’s Day, 1970. The limits of that approach had become clear, though, when he’d been picked up in March of 1988 and informed that he no longer counted as a juvenile in the eyes of Lady Justice. Terrified by the implications, he’d run as far as he could the second he’d been released, and he hadn’t stopped until he’d landed several districts beyond that office’s reach. From then forward, he’d used his slight build and boyish face to become the eternal teenager, whose mischief stopped just shy of adult criminality, at least in the eyes of the law.
And it had worked for four good years, until he’d picked the pocket of a French diplomat and found himself in front of the last honest cop in Bucharest, the one who’d responded to the offer of a blowjob with a bloodying smack across the mouth. No matter how young he played this one, as he sat behind bars in the closet-sized cell, it became clear that he wouldn’t get away with anything this time.
So just after shift rotation, he’d rattled the bars to get the guard’s attention, and when he’d had it, he’d said in his best English, “You need to let me out. I am American.”
“What the hell are you going on about?” answered the guard in Romanian, which was an eternal relief; if the man had spoken English himself, the whole plan would have blown up right there. But he was an older man with a bushy moustache, who probably had far more important things to do with his life than watch American television. His loss.
“I am American,” he said again, as though he hadn’t understood a word of the guard’s sentence. If his accent wasn’t perfect, so what? A guard that couldn’t understand English in the first place was in no position to judge if it was being spoken well. “Let me use a telephone. I am American child.”
The word ‘American’ at least seemed to need no translation, and the guard’s bushy eyebrows furrowed. He screwed up his lips like he wished he had a cigarette, but there was none to soothe him. “…American?”
“Yes, American.” He nodded. “American. I need to use a telephone. To call America.” He extended his thumb and pinky in opposite directions, then held his hand up to the side of his head, hoping the pantomime would get him somewhere.
When the guard finally passed the phone to him, he realized that ‘America’ at large did not have a phone number, or at least not one he knew. Instead, he rang the operator and asked for the number for the Missing Children Center of America. The woman on the other end had to put him on hold while she did some research, but when she came back asking if he’d meant the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he’d said that yes, that had been precisely what he’d meant.
The long-distance call had been answered on the second ring by a polite American voice whose English came fast enough to hurt his brain. He took a deep breath as he realigned himself to work in a language he’d only ever heard through a screen. “Yes, hello, I am Officer Isărescu from the police in Bucharest, in Romania,” he said, picking the name of a politician he’d seen give a speech once. “We find a boy here saying he is American citizen, stolen by criminals. He has bad memory, but I have description. I tell you and you see if he is a boy you are missing?”
“Oh, of course, sir,” answered the eager receptionist. “If you can just give me a description and some contact information, I can run his information through our files and see if he matches anything in our database, and then I’ll give you a call back just as soon as I have anything for you.”
He sent her off to her archives using the description he knew best in the world: 168 cm, 55 kilos, dark brown hair, light brown eyes, pale skin, sixteen or seventeen years old. And then he’d held his breath for the next hour, until he’d heard the far-off sounds of a fax machine sputtering to life and knew that there’d been a match. From the grainy black-and-white photo stared back the eyes of Timothy ‘Tim’ Miller, of Gaffney, South Carolina; born February 10, 1975; last seen November 6, 1987.
Beyond that, he’d had no plan.
No, that wasn’t right; it was more that he’d never had any plan. He’d had a germ of an idea that he’d been willing to ride to its logical conclusion, and he simply was still riding it. When the Americans at the consulate had asked him how he’d gotten from the East Coast to Romania, he’d picked the first thing that had come to mind: an international white slavery child sex ring. He’d mostly hoped that the obviously bogus answer would get him tossed out on his ass, where he could run away and live to steal another day. Instead, it was as though he’d said the magic words. The room buzzed, phones came out, men in suits arrived, a woman got him a blanket and some hot soup, and the entire universe seemed to spin up. Tim was being cared for in a way he’d never been, so in that moment, he became Tim.
Tim got three daily meals. Tim got a room with a television. Whenever Tim didn’t want to explain something, all he had to say was that it was too painful, and possibly start crying, and the inquiry would go away. Agents came to deliver tickets so that Tim could go fly in an airplane to the other side of the world. Grandmotherly secretaries cooed about what a poor, skinny thing he was in Romanian when they were sure Tim couldn’t understand them. Local cops no longer had any jurisdiction over Tim; Tim was an American, so the American law took care of Tim.
What could he have said? He’d had to have been crazy to admit to his hoax, not when the alternative was returning to the streets or jail, or one and then the other. Once he’d had a taste of being Tim, there was no going back. There was only going forward, even when forward was a direction that started west and didn’t stop until the other side of the ocean.
“Do you remember Tiggy?” asked Marie, holding out a tattered stuffed tiger.
“Yes,” answered Tim, who’d resolved to speak as little as possible, to hide his accent and his continued shakiness with English grammar. He was doing quite well taking language in, but still lacked the confidence to bring it back out again. Fortunately, terse speech was apparently a hallmark of children who’d survived sex trafficking, or so the helpful people told him, so at least he had that to go on.
Marie grinned and spun around like a ballerina with a plush striped partner. She was seven, which meant she’d been only three when her brother had disappeared — barely old enough to remember anything, and certainly not with enough certainty to question what she was told about his return.
In the corner of the room played Matt and Davy — thirteen and ten now, nine and six when Tim had vanished. Their memories of the time were surely more solid that Marie’s, but they were still young, and youth tended to accepted what adulthood placed before it.
“One time I lost Tiggy for three days,” Marie told him, still twirling aimlessly in front of him. She seemed to believe that it was her duty to fill Tim in on the events he’d missed, even if her sense of what considered important news was somewhat limited in scope. “He was underneath the TV cabinet. I think Mommy pushed him there with her vacuum cleaner, but it was an accident and she said she was sorry. And when he got out, he was all dusty and I had to pat him and blow on him to make him clean again!” She demonstrated the cleaning process, seeming neither to notice nor to care that Tim had to hold on for dear life to keep up with her rapid-fire speech and musical twang. He couldn’t recall anyone on American television ever sounding like this.
“Did they give you gross things to eat?” asked Matt, looking up from a board game Tim didn’t recognize. “What do they eat in Europe?”
“Monkey brains?” asked Davy with a laugh.
Matt reached across the board and flicked Davy in the ear. “They don’t have monkeys in Europe, stupid!”
Davy batted his hand away. “Don’t call me stupid, stupid!”
There was no way of knowing what they’d been told about Tim’s disappearance, though Tim suspected the gorier details had been sanitized for their protection, given how casual they seemed about the situation. It wasn’t that they were too young to understand — at thirteen, and even at ten, Tim had had a very good idea of what things awful men could make children do if they were so inclined. But this was America, and that didn’t happen in America, so it wasn’t talked about in America. The boys would just have to wait to find out about what the world contained, if they ever had to find out at all.
“Cabbage,” Tim answered, trying to keep this new set of pronunciation rules in mind. He’d claimed that being abducted by Romanians had made him forget how to speak English with anything but a Romanian accent, another ruse that had shocked him when no one had called bullshit on its obviously thin logic. “Cabbage, and inside you roll in meat. Then cook with tomatoes. You call them sarmale.”
“Summer-lay?” Davy tried to echo, landing vaguely in the neighborhood of correct. “You had to eat those every day?”
No, not every day. He hadn’t even eaten every day, much less a rich, home-cooked dish like that. Pork scraps from the butcher’s, raw eggs stolen from farms, watery stew from the kitchens of kind churches — these had been the regular fare. “Every day,” Tim said, nodding. “And sandwiches,” he added, aiming for something a little more familiar to the siblings.
“I like sandwiches,” Marie said. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I could eat them all the time. Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, dessert.”
“Me too,” Davy said. “Did you miss real American food?”
Tim drew a great blank. What was American enough to miss? “McDonald’s,” he said, hoping they wouldn’t ask him for details beyond that. He knew from television the golden-arched restaurant, but he couldn’t have listed a single thing on the menu.
Matt laughed at that, making Tim’s heart freeze momentarily. “You missed McDonald’s? You hated McDonald’s! Whenever the rest of us wanted to go, you said no, you didn’t want to!”
“Ah,” said Tim, forcing a grin, “I had to miss it before I could like it.”
Such was the way reminiscing went with the three younger children. When one of them asked a question, usually starting with ‘Do you remember,’ Tim would say yes whenever he could reasonably do so, hoping that they’d then chime in with further explanation. On the occasions where he got something wrong, he’d either bluff, as he had with the McDonald’s answer, or let them correct him, which they seemed to enjoy. No vague reply or misremembered family trivia seemed to alert the Miller siblings that anything might be amiss.
The Miller parents, however, were a different matter entirely. The caseworkers had warned Tim gravely that this was a lot of stress for his mother and father, and that everyone would need a lot of time to adjust; therefore, he shouldn’t be concerned if, at first, they behaved a little oddly toward him. He just needed to remember that they loved him, and everything would be all right after everything got settled.
At first, this had been a comforting message, since Tim barely had any sense of how to relate to parents, period, and hoped the mutual awkwardness would cover any missteps on his part. It had nearly been a week now, though, and ‘cold’ was still too high of a temperature setting to describe Ginny Miller’s attitude toward her long-lost son.
The weather was nice that day, the sun high amongst the fluffy white clouds, and the younger children eventually ran out to play in the land that surrounded the family’s house. This was nothing like the houses they showed on American fiction, bordered by small green yards and contained by white picket fences, just like every one right next to it all down the road. The Miller house was lost in a great wilderness, where if Tim walked the driveway to the main road, he could see where the other houses would be located, though the neighbors themselves were invisible. On all sides, a forest pressed in — but not one of lush, ancient trees, the stately old-growth timberlands of his youth. Those were to this brush as a prize guard dog was to a starving, unwashed street mutt. The coverage was short and dense but wild; trees grew out in every direction, their branches dripping with vines and moss. Somehow they looked as hungry as that proverbial mutt as well, Tim thought, as he stood on the porch and watched the younger Miller children be swallowed up into its great green mouth as they scampered off, laughing.
Left alone, Tim walked through the house, trying to gain his bearings — or regain them, he should say. They weren’t a millionare family with gilt furniture and crystal chandeliers, but they clearly had no difficulty with money, at least as far as Tim could see. Everything in the house was tidy and worked well, from the plumbing to the air conditioning to the locks on the bedroom doors, which Tim had absolutely flipped the first night he’d been there, and jammed a chair under the door handle to boot. If anyone had noticed he slept under such heavy guard, no one had mentioned it.
He turned into the kitchen, not because he was hungry, but because he thought he should get used to having food available whenever he wanted it, to say nothing of the means to cook it. When he rounded the corner, though, he nearly jumped out of his skin to see Ginny Miller standing there in her nightgown, her wild brown hair unwashed and unbrushed, her dark eyes staring back at him from inside her pale face. Tim cleared his throat to hide his surprise. “Hello, Mother,” he said, because he thought saying nothing would have been stranger.
Her hands clutched around a coffee cup, Ginny looked up at him, eyes brimming with tears. “Hi, Timmy,” she said, forcing a smile she obviously didn’t feel. “Do you want lunch? I could fix you lunch. I could make you something to eat, anything you want.”
“No, I–” Tim raised a hand. “I ate lunch. A good lunch. Not hungry. Thank you,” he remembered to add.
She nodded, and her knuckles went white from her grip. “Do you need anything else? Can I get you anything?”
That had been her entire strategy since Tim’s return: appeasement. Did he want food? More blankets? Better clothes? A different bed? What would make him most comfortable? What was he missing in his life now? What was the price of his return?
Because Ginny had to know this was bullshit. She had to know. There were pictures of Tim Miller around the house, the real Tim Miller, and the present Tim had spent enough time looking at them to know that while he was a reasonable facsimile to the outside observer, he was a rough body double at best. A person’s frame changed a lot between fourteen and seventeen, but it didn’t erase a small mole at the corner of a boy’s chin, or point a widow’s peak down his forehead, or disconnect earlobes from the side of his face. If he had noticed such small discrepancies, surely they had not escaped the watchful eye of a mother.
Those eyes tracked him now, but if they saw anything but the son she’d lost four years ago, she made no mention of it. “I’m very fine, thank you, Mother,” Tim said, smiling back at her with the same unfelt intensity.
She reached across the kitchen counter to him, to take his hand in her ice-cold one, and it was all he could do not to shriek and pull back. “But you’re back to stay now,” she said, and it wasn’t a question.
No, he wasn’t back to stay. He had settled first on the idea of hitchhiking, except that everyone in their small area surely would recognize the returned son now, and no one would ferry him away. On a trip to town, then, surely there had to be visitors passing through — though he didn’t know how far the television news story had spread, and couldn’t risk having his face recognized. He needed an opportunity in a much larger city than Gaffney, but the family made no noises about travel, and Tim was in no place to suggest it. And he was absolutely, completely, certainly not going to take his chances walking into the wild green expanse and hoping he’d come out the other end somewhere better.
And truly, every time he thought about running, he thought about Ginny’s face. Poor Ginny, who had clearly been through so much. Even in the pictures before Tim’s disappearance, she’d had a haunted look to her; now, she wore that trauma the same way she wore her nightdress, hanging off her bony frame. What would it do to her if he vanished again? She wasn’t his mother, but she was a mother, and he didn’t relish the thought of hurting her any more than he already clearly had.
“Yes, Mother,” Tim said, keeping his hand in place as though it had been nailed through to the counter.
Ginny gave a bitter, hollow little chuckle at that. “‘Mother,'” she echoed. “That’s … that’s right, I’m your mother.”
The other children called her ‘Mom’ or ‘Mama’, but Tim had made the guess before he’d ever heard them say a word to her. He’d erred on the side of formality, and it remained to be seen how much of an error it was. He figured it was the least of his discrepancy sins, though, and if this poor woman was so traumatized by the loss of her son that she was willing to embrace an imposter as being better than nothing, well, he was hardly one to judge.
Richard, on the other hand, scared the shit out of him.
He wasn’t a huge man, not too tall or too broad, but there was something terrifyingly dense about him, the way the wilderness around the house was dense. When he entered a room, he seemed to cast a shadow on everything, and when he grinned, Tim felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. And Richard grinned all the time.
If Ginny was too cold to Tim, Richard seemed determined to make up the temperature difference. He outright embraced Tim time and again, pulling Tim close to his chest for a crushing, back-slapping hug. He had the rough knuckles and short-cut nails of a man who’d spent a great deal of his life outdoors, but for recreation instead of hard labor. Tim could already see the evidence of Richard’s sturdy stature in Davey’s and Matt’s shoulders, the blueprints for the adult bodies they would someday inhabit. Even before he’d disappeared, Tim had never looked anything like that, and his return hadn’t made the resemblance any stronger.
Nonetheless, Richard beamed every time Tim entered a room. “Hey, there, Timmy!” he barked, never spoke, as he walked in the back door while Tim was washing up before supper. “Did you have a good day?”
Tim became grateful for the waist-high counter marking the distance between the two of them. “Yes, I did, thank you,” he said. He’d spent time trying to match his pronunciation of basic words to the way the Millers spoke, in order to feel more confident saying them. “Did you have a good day also?”
“I did, in fact.” Richard hooked a finger in his tie and pulled it loose. Tim couldn’t imagine he wore a suit like that by choice. “Made some sales and landed a new client. So your old dad did good, huh?”
Tim had no idea what Richard did for a living or what services he was able to provide said client, but as with so many other mysteries, he was going to ride it out until he could determine the answer from context clues. “Yes, good,” Tim said as he dragged a hand towel between his fingers long past the point they were dry.
The younger children believed him because they were too young to know the difference. Ginny embraced him because a grieving mother might embrace the wrong son over no son at all. But what the hell was Richard’s excuse?
The worst part of it all was that Richard was obscenely attractive. He had a handsome enough face, sure, and the threads of silver through his dark hair and beard gave him a certain gravitas that was appealing, but it was something else, something almost primal. It was the way he smelled, the musk that Tim inhaled every time Richard snatched him up for a fatherly embrace. It was gross and undeniable, and it didn’t help Tim’s wariness that some deep instinct told him every time they got close that he should fall to his knees and start sucking Richard’s cock. Those were dangerous fantasies he couldn’t risk indulging, so of course they flooded his brain every time Richard came near.
His tie now undone, Richard shrugged off his suit jacket. “Your mother say what’s for supper?” he asked.
“Meatloaf,” Tim said, hoping he was pronouncing it correctly. He didn’t know what it was, but the other children had seemed excited and it made the whole house smell good, so Tim had decided to look forward to it.
“Mm, good. I love her meatloaf.” Richard nodded at Tim. “Yep, there’s nothing in the world like that woman’s meatloaf.” The way he said it, Tim wasn’t sure they were talking about food anymore, and he didn’t know how to feel about that. “You get some good meatloaf while you were away, huh?”
Nope, definitely not food. “Ah,” Tim managed, unsure what the proper response would be. “No?”
Everyone but the cops had steered far clear of Tim’s story about the sex ring, and even the investigators hadn’t asked for anything approaching details of Tim’s treatment, meaning Tim hadn’t even had to plan out a story about what real captivity along those lines would have entailed. At first he’d thought it couldn’t be much worse than the all the tricks he’d turned for cash or food or freedom from jail — until he’d realized that, no, being trapped and forced into it would have made his street-level sex career look like a walk in the park. But at least he had an idea of the kind of work it entailed, though he wasn’t sure now that Richard did. Did Richard believe there were entire criminal enterprises dedicated to abducting young men so older women could have sex with them? Tim couldn’t tell, and was certainly in no position to ask.
Richard just laughed at Tim’s obvious discomfort, though. “Well, there’s plenty of it now that you’re back,” he said, leaving Tim again unsure what they were talking about. “Better eat your fill. There’s still time left to get a few more inches on you. You take after your mother, though. Built like a bird. Should’ve made you play more sports when you were young. Maybe that would’ve changed it.”
All Tim could do was shrug and nod in equal measure. He filed away, though, how strange the comment seemed — after all, pictures of Tim in a Little League baseball uniform featured prominently in his pre-abduction gallery. Maybe the regret was that it only had been baseball? He’d need more context clues for that later.
“Oh yeah,” Richard added, with all the falseness of a man suddenly ‘remembering’ something he’d meant to say all along, “did your mom tell you Joe’s coming in tomorrow night?”
Oh, shit, who was Joe? Tim kept his face neutral. “No. She didn’t tell.”
“Yeah, he called today. Said his flight gets in around six and he’ll be renting a car, so he should get in pretty late.” As he spoke, Richard got a beer from the refrigerator; he placed its neck against the edge of the counter and gave it a sharp thump with his fist, popping free the cap. “You know, I haven’t seen him in about as long as you have.”
“Oh?” Tim asked, trying to egg Richard into saying something that would clear up things.
“Yeah,” Richard said, then took a long drink from the bottle. “You see, he got this funny notion in his head. Made a lot of noise about it. Said that maybe I might’ve been the reason you took off. Or even worse.”
Tim now had a deathgrip on the damp towel. There were three exits in the room, and Richard was between him and two of them. The block of knives was on the counter, equidistant to their positions. The bottle could be used as a weapon; the towel, not so much. It was the kind of survival calculus he did almost without thinking.
After a pause, though, Richard just laughed. “But that’s bullshit, because everyone can see, you’re back. I mean, you’re standing right here! If that’s not proof positive, I don’t know what is.”
Marie and Danny burst in then, under orders to set the table, and the rest of the house bustled its way into the routine of family dinner, including what was indeed a very tasty meatloaf. Tim was quiet throughout, and every time he had a moment to think, all he could think about was how he’d forgotten something awful.
He’d been so concerned with saving his own skin that he’d been willing to wear someone else’s, perhaps past the point of good sense or reason. But in doing so, he’d forgotten his new skin’s original inhabitant. The whole time, he’d been treating this new identity the way he might have treated a coat found tossed in the trash, an ill-fitting outer layer he was determined to make work regardless.
But children who went missing weren’t just like jobs at a company, where the departure of one employee left an anonymous gap waiting for the next qualified person to fill. As fortuitous as the absence had been for him, he’d been so caught up in his own concerns that he’d never once stopped to ask why there’d been a vacancy. If all his explanations for his absence were bullshit, then what was the real answer? What had happened three years ago to Timothy Miller?
That night, Tim locked his door and steadied the chair beneath the handle, then stayed up half the night anyway, listening intently for the sound of footsteps in the hall, coming for him. But why would they? His presence answered questions people wanted others to stop asking. The fact of his existence and return put a period at the end of the discussion. All other questions and circumstances were secondary parts of the explanation; he was the key.
Everyone could rest easy. Tim Miller was home.
The cabinet beside the living room fireplace turned out to be where the photo albums hid, and Tim drew out the earliest ones he could find in the relevant period. There were no dates on the spines of the albums, but some individual photographs had numbers scrawled on the back, so he gingerly peeled back the cellophane to orient himself every so often. At least they appeared to be in chronological order; he didn’t know if he could’ve managed otherwise.
He found his way back to 1975, and there was a picture of an exhausted but beaming Ginny in a bright hospital room, holding a blue-swaddled blanket to her chest that Tim realized was supposed to be him. Just behind her, though, stood an unfamiliar boy of about six or seven. He had none of the dark features Tim had come to associate with Richard or his children; he was fair-haired and freckled all across his nose and cheeks. The back of the photograph might say who he was, but Tim had no trouble telling: The boy’s sweater had a visitor name tag sticker slapped over one side of his chest, on which someone had written BIG BROTHER JOEY.
So Tim had a big brother. Interesting that no one had mentioned that until the night previous.
The more he flipped forward in the albums, the clearer it became that Joey — or Joe now, Tim supposed — was Ginny’s son, but not Richard’s. His looks, of course, distinguished him from Richard, but so did their distance in all the pictures. When the two of them did appear in the same photograph, they were like magnets, repelled to the far sides of the frame.
As he got to the critical 1987 album, Tim’s first thought was that Joe vanished from the pictures around the same time Tim did. But that wasn’t quite right — pictures disappeared instead. Birthday celebrations and first-day-of-school poses and Christmas mornings, Tim’s disappearance took them all away, and when they finally returned, they were down two sons instead of one. Joe had ceased to be a regular in the images, of course, following several pages of his smiling face in a high school cap and gown, but he’d been there for holiday celebrations and what looked like the occasional summer picnic. But after November 1987, he was just gone.
Tim went back a book to look at pictures of the boy who’d vanished, squinting into often grainy or blurry prints to see what he could see. He didn’t even know what he was looking for, or if there was anything there to see. Tim looked … fine. Normal, happy, just fine. Maybe he sometimes had the surly gaze of one heading straight into teenagerhood, but that was only to be expected. He seemed healthy and well-fed. Photographs of the family at the beach showed him in only swim trunks, with no marks of self-injury or drug use on his bare, slender arms. If there were clues in the pictures that he would disappear in a few months, Tim couldn’t see them.
It was Saturday, so everyone was home and Tim barely had a moment to himself once the rest of the household woke. After lunch, Ginny asked him if he wouldn’t sit at the table and mind the younger children while they did their homework, and Tim said of course he would. He was glad none of them asked him for help, though, because even Marie’s assignments were far more formal than any schooling he’d ever received, and he had no idea what was happening with the numbers and symbols on Matt’s algebra worksheets. Someday Tim would probably be expected to continue his schooling. He hoped he’d never been a good student in the first place, because lowered expectations were all that could save him now.
The knowledge that Joe was on his way made supper an excruciating event for Tim. Was his older (it seemed half-)brother in on this with the rest of the adults in this household? Why was he showing up so late, and not at the airport with the rest of them? What did he expect Tim to do or say? Anxieties flooded his brain as Tim picked at his pork chop and mashed potatoes. He wasn’t hungry; his stomach was too full of butterflies.
After the dishes were put away, they all gravitated toward the television, which was oddly enough the most familiar thing in the household to Tim. He stayed out of the fights over what programming they’d watch; he really didn’t care what it was, so long as it was noise that he didn’t have to care about or generate.
When the doorbell finally rang, it stopped Tim’s heart. Ginny looked like what little blood was left in her face had rushed out too, but Richard just grinned his usual grin from the comfort of his reclining sofa chair. “Why don’t you go let your brother in?” he said to the kids, pointing in the direction of the front door. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you.”
The younger siblings scrambled on ahead, and Tim followed, holding his breath as the front door swung wide, revealing the man on the other side.
Tim’s first thought was that he was tall — taller even than Richard, though that had been tough to gauge when they never stood by one another in photographs. He had a kind face and a strong jaw, and when he bent down to hug his younger brothers and sisters, his sandy hair fell across his forehead. When he stood and his hazel eyes fell on Tim, he faltered only for a moment before his face fixed into a bright smile. “Oh my God, Tim!” he exclaimed, crossing the floor between them in three great strides and drawing Tim up in a fierce hug.
Tim had no idea what to do or say, so he just hugged back. He became aware of movement behind him and realized that Richard and Ginny must have come to see the reunion as well. All eyes were on them.
“God, it’s so good to see you, buddy,” said Joe at a suspiciously loud volume. He was lean, but clearly strong, as Tim could tell from the way Joe’s arms held him in an iron grip. He shifted his hold, and Tim felt for a moment that he might be loosed — only to find himself drawn even tighter, as Joe put his mouth closer to Tim’s ear. “Just keep smiling,” he said in a voice so low no one else could hear. Then with one great final slap against Tim’s back, Joe let him go.
As they parted, Tim did keep smiling, his face stuck in a mask that told nothing of the cold sweat running down his back. Joe gave him one more broad grin, then moved on to embrace his mother and shake Richard’s hand. Everything was bright and happy, because Tim was finally home, and surely they could all come together over that.
They made small talk standing there in the hallway, with Joe telling about how the flight and the drive from the airport in his rental car had been. “I’ve got reservations at the Best Western just up the road,” he explained before anyone had even offered to find him a place to stay. “I figured I might take Tim with me so we can catch up while I get things settled. How about it, Tim? Everyone else’s gotten to see so much of you, I figure it’s only fair I get to steal you for a bit.”
Tim’s eyes darted to Richard, but Richard looked as genial as he ever did — which was to say, with a great deal of danger behind it. But at least for now, that danger appeared to be on standby. “It’s pretty late, Tim,” Richard pointed out. “You sure you’re up for it?”
In that moment, Tim realized he had to make a decision: Richard’s frying pan, or Joe’s fire. On the one hand, Joe was an unknown quantity, and Tim knew all the aphorisms about the devil one knew versus the devil one didn’t. But on the other, Richard clearly didn’t like Joe, and in Tim’s estimation, that was a big mark in Joe’s favor. So Tim did as he was told and, smiling, nodded. “I want to go,” he said cheerfully. “I miss my brother Joe.”
“I’ll have him back before too late, don’t worry,” Joe promised. “It’s just down the road. And then I’ll come over tomorrow and we’ll all catch up. Sounds fun, huh?”
The other Millers agreed that this indeed sounded like a good plan, and with another round of hugs and handshakes, Joe headed back out toward his car with Tim following along behind. The night was warm and swampy, and the songs of insects had risen to a deafening trill with the temperature. Tim didn’t have to worry about hearing over them, though, because Joe said nothing; he opened the door for Tim, then went around and got into the driver’s seat without comment. The engine growled to life, turning Tim’s sweat to ice as a blast of cold air shuddered forth from the vents. The car’s tires growled on the gravel drive as Joe turned the car toward the road and took off.
Tim sat in stock silence, gazing out the windows but seeing only the black, lightless expanse of the surrounding trees. The headlights seemed to illuminate so little; no one could possibly know where they were going on this road unless they knew it already. Joe drove it like he’d grown up here, which is how Tim should have known the area. He should have known a lot of things.
A few minutes down the road, Joe jerked the car to the side, and for a moment, Tim was terrified that Joe was about to crash them into a tree or drive them into a ditch. But no, there was simply a little outcropping there, a parking lot for some trailhead down to the lake. Joe threw the car into park, then turned to look at Tim. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice empty of the familial warmth that had colored it earlier.
He could have lied. He should have lied. He had the whole story made up, and even if it was thin, it was believable. He should have at least tried, just to see how far he could take it. But one look into Joe’s eyes, and he knew he couldn’t. Joe wasn’t just confronting some imposter; he was talking to the man who was sitting where his brother should be. There had been no surprise at the door — Joe had flown across the country knowing that his long-lost sibling wasn’t on the other side of it. He was here, and he deserved that much.
Tim sighed. “I’m not him,” he said.
“No shit,” Joe spat. “He would have called me. Not them. The second he got to a phone, he would have called me. So who the fuck are you? Did you know him? Do you know what happened to him?”
“Please, stop, I–” Tim waved his hands in front of his face. “My English, is only so good. Slow. I tell you everything, but please, slow.”
Joe nodded and took a deep breath, then sat back in his seat and exhaled slowly. He dragged the back of his hand across his eyes. “Okay,” he said after a minute to compose himself. “Jesus Christ. Fuck. Okay. Fuck. Shit. Are you hungry?”
After the burst of profanity, Tim almost didn’t realize the last bit as a question. “Yeah. Little bit, yeah.”
Without further comment, Joe jerked the car back into gear and set off again down the road. After another minute or so, lights became visible through the trees, and then they were on the main road heading to the town. Joe turned into the drive-thru lane of a McDonald’s and ordered without asking Tim what he wanted. The girl behind the window handed them three big bags, though, so Tim assumed he hadn’t been left out of the order. Joe parked the car at the Best Western long enough to check in, then came back to grab his things from the car. “Come on,” he said to Tim, who followed, the McDonald’s bags in his hands.
The room was small but clean, with two beds. Joe sat on one and indicated to Tim that he should take the other. “Eat,” Joe said. “And talk.”
So Tim did both. He picked his way through cartons of fries and boxes of chicken nuggets, and even a little pastry that looked like poale-n brau, but tasted like sugared apples when he bit into it. As he ate, he talked, giving Joe the abridged version of running from the law, calling the Center, and getting swept up in a con he hadn’t expected to last four minutes, much less almost four weeks. Joe asked no questions, just listened as he ate a hamburger of his own. Tim kept expecting he’d stop short, or at least pull back here and there to make him sound like less of an asshole in places, but really, it felt so good to unburden himself of the secret that he left in all the bits about his culpability in the deception.
At the same time, however, he made it clear that he knew his deception wasn’t good, something he noticed Joe wasn’t going to argue. He laid out his confusion about Ginny and Richard, and why they were willing to play along well past the point they should have noticed something wasn’t right. At last, he popped the last fry into his mouth and pointed to the phone. “You can call police. I will tell them what I tell you. I promise to Jesus Christ.”
Joe shook his head. “No. You owe me, but that’s not how you’re going to settle this one. You owe me way bigger than just fessing up to the cops.”
Tim bit his lower lip. Did this debt involve his death? He didn’t think feeding someone before killing him was a standard thing, but what did he know? He was no killer, only a liar, and even then not a very clever one. Merely lucky.
Joe pointed toward the wall, and Tim realized he was indicating the direction they’d come from, back to the house. “You’re going to get back in there and help me prove my stepfather is a murderer.”
“How–” Tim swallowed. “Why do you know he is?”
“It’s never added up. Tim was my best friend, and I was his. We told each other everything. So when they said he ran away, I knew it was bullshit. Three days, and he hadn’t called me. He knew all he had to do was call me, and I would’ve dropped everything to come get him.” Joe ran his fingers back through his hair. “I was in my last year of college when he disappeared, out in California, but we called all the time. I was going to fly back and see him for Thanksgiving in just a couple weeks. He wouldn’t have run off, not without telling me.”
“Did you tell this to police?” Tim asked.
Joe nodded. “And they said, well, you know, teenage boys run away all the time, maybe he didn’t tell you everything. But he did. We did. We both understood each other like nobody else did, because we’re both gay.”
Tim’s eyes went wide at that. “Both?”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “He was about the age I was when I started figuring it out. He even had a friend he used to go off into the woods and jerk off with, even suck each other off sometimes. See, I told you he told me everything.”
Tim had to agree, as adolescent secrets went, they didn’t get much bigger than that. “Did you tell that to police?”
“Fuck no,” Joe said. “They were already only half-assedly looking for a runaway in the first place. Tell them he’s a faggot, and that effort would’ve dropped to zero. So they still think he ran away. But here’s the thing: Richard did too. He couldn’t stop talking about how the boy must’ve taken off to see the world and go be a man, and how the cops all needed to look out there.”
That did indeed look suspicious, but Tim felt there was a large logic gap between hearing a man talk about his runaway teenage son and accusing him of murder. “Why kill Tim?” he asked, figuring that motive was a good place to start.
“I can’t prove it, but–” Joe exhaled hard. “I think Richard must’ve caught them in the woods. He always had it in for Tim. For me, too, but I’m big, and I played football and dated girls all through high school, so at least he could let that slide. But Tim never even wanted to. He hated sports, even Little League. He liked art and math. He was trying to be a vegetarian, for fuck’s sake, and do you know how hard that is in South Carolina? So he was a sissy disappointment already, and … well, let’s just say I have no shortage of nightmares about Richard beating Tim to death with his bare hands.”
Tim exhaled slowly. He wished he had a drink, but he knew of nothing in the motel room stronger than the Cokes in the sweating paper cups, so he sipped one of those through the straw. “But the police. They looked?”
Joe nodded, a bit chagrined. “Yeah, they looked. But you don’t understand: You could comb through those woodlands every day, all day, for a whole year and still never come across half the places to hide a body. Some eyewitnesses said they saw Richard’s truck pulled off by the side of the road. He said he was looking for Tim, but it’s too early, before anybody even knew Tim was missing.”
It was all coming together to make a horrible sort of sense. Tim may not have known Richard well, but he had no trouble imagining that the man was capable of murderous violence, especially against a disappointing firstborn son. Even so, it might have been the most obvious explanation, but it wasn’t the only one. “What about other men?” asked Tim. “Other killers.”
“Could be,” Joe admitted with a shrug. “So let’s rule out Richard and move from there.”
“How?” asked Tim.
Joe let out a long sigh through pursed lips. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “I don’t know, but … you’re the closest thing I have right now to finding out what happened to my brother. I will play along as long as you need me to, but I need you to play the lead role.”
Tim was quiet for a long moment, focusing on his breathing. No, he wasn’t a good liar — but that was only because he was working with only a sliver of the available information. What had just driven up to the house was everything else he needed to actually get it right. “He feels guilt,” Tim said at last.
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “He’s kind of a fucking psychopath, and I don’t know how much guilt they feel. But … yeah, I mean. I know he loved Tim. I mean, Tim was his son, right? That had to count for something. He was there when Tim was born, and he took him out fishing and went to all his baseball games, and–” Joe had to stop for a moment and compose himself. “Jesus Christ, how do you kill your own kid?”
Tim had no answer for that one, so he sat with his hand folded in his lap. “Then he feels something, so he feels guilt. He can feels guilt. Feel guilt.” Much of the difficulty Tim was finding with the language was that he often only noticed his mistakes after they’d left his mouth. At least with Joe, he could make those mistakes past the fear of discovery. “You want him to say, I did it?”
Joe shook his head. “Confess? No. He could confess until he’s blue in the face, and all he’d have to do was take it back. Say we threatened him, or tried to blackmail him, or something. Remember, we’re the more easily provable liars here.”
How could Tim forget? “The body. Where is it?”
“I don’t know. If I knew, I’d tell the police immediately. I’ve even been out there looking, but … nothing.”
“No, I–” Tim bit his lips together and tried to think of the phrasing he wanted. “He says, where is the body. He shows police.”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Joe said. “Got any idea how the fuck we make him do that?”
A small smile curled at the corner of Tim’s mouth.
Almost an hour later, Joe dropped Tim back at the Miller house, complete with a bear hug across the gearshift before letting him out of the car. Richard was waiting on the porch in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe and exhaling sweet-smelling cloud into the night air. He didn’t even wave to Joe as the car pulled back out down the drive. “You two boys have fun catching up?”
Tim nodded, beaming like he had indeed just enjoyed an emotional reunion. “Yes,” he said, choosing his words carefully and forcing the sounds as close to Joe’s as he could manage. “I had a good time, sir.”
The sound of ‘sir’ made Richard pause visibly, his hand halfway up to the pipe. He recovered soon after, but that little quaver was all Tim needed to see. “What’d you boys talk about?” Richard asked, exhaling wisps of pipe smoke as he spoke.
“Catching up,” Tim said, standing so the porchlight was at his back, casting his face in shadow. “Man to man.”
“That so.” Richard cleared his throat. “You just be careful with what kind of a man that one turned out to be.”
“I know, sir,” Tim said, taking a step a little closer — close enough that the difference between his standing and Richard’s sitting became awkward. There was no getting around what and what, precisely, were now at the same level. “I have a good father. He saves me from becoming that kind of man.”
Richard cleared his throat twice more, neither time seeming to help with the blockage. “It’s late,” he said. “You should get to bed.”
But Tim stayed in place. “He save me from being on my knees. From sucking the cocks of dirty old men.”
The words got the desired effect; Richard’s eyebrows rose nearly into his hairline. “Don’t fucking talk like that,” he snapped.
“It’s true,” Tim insisted, his voice cool as he loomed closer, letting his shadow fall across Richard’s lap. “A boy should not be on his knees, sucking men’s cocks, letting them fuck his ass. Letting them come in his mouth and ass. Wanting to fuck men. A boy like that needs saving. Thank you, sir.”
Richard’s teeth clenched visibly around the mouthpiece of his pipe. “Go to bed,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Tim said, letting his voice rumble sweetly through his chest as he stepped back and headed for the door. He gave a little wave. “Good-night, Daddy.” And without sticking around to see a reaction, Tim stepped through the front door and went upstairs to his room.
Once inside, he stripped naked and locked the door, then lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. His heart was racing and he was half-hard. Of all the stupid, dangerous things he’d done in his life, this had pushed this whole charade all the way to the top. He was probably going to end up as dead as the missing boy, but he owed it to Tim at least to try. The con was over; the haunt had begun.
That following morning, Tim was in a good mood — or at least that was the impression he was dedicated to giving. He smiled as he came downstairs for breakfast and hugged his siblings as they would let him. He gave Ginny a quick kiss on the cheek as he took the bowl of oatmeal from her hands and sprinkled brown sugar on the top, and pretended not to notice as she halfway jumped through the ceiling at the touch.
If this was to work, he would have to belong. There was no more room for skittishness; he would walk through the house and through his life like he had always inhabited both without interruption. He was Tim, happy to be home at last. Now home would have to be happy for him too.
A little after lunch, two men in suits knocked on the door and identified themselves as FBI. “They’re just here to ask you a couple questions,” Richard explained, though his smile looked a little thin. Obviously this visit hadn’t been scheduled.
The agents sat down in the living room. They introduced themselves as Agent Rebhorn, who was dark-skinned and wore glasses, and Agent Crovetti, who looked like every Italian TV cop Tim had ever seen. Rebhorn seemed to be the one in charge, since he was the one who looked at Richard and asked him if he wouldn’t mind giving them a little privacy. From the way Richard’s shoulders stiffened, it was clear he did not like the idea of having this turn out without his direct supervision, but he smiled and told them just to holler if they needed anything. Tim didn’t quite know the full definition of the word ‘holler’, but he knew enough that it didn’t seem like something either man would do.
Crovetti leaned forward on his knees and smiled. “How you settling in, Tim?” He had thick, meaty fingers, one of which was circled by a gold wedding band.
Tim nodded. “Good,” he said, then added, “thank you.”
“Now Tim,” said Rebhorn, “we’re just here to get some information. It’s important to us because we want to catch the men who took you. We want you to know that you’re not in any trouble.”
Oh, he was in trouble. He was in a mountain of trouble, and from where he stood, he could see neither its base nor its summit. “Okay,” Tim said, nodding, trying to rein in his language as much as possible. He was nervous, and nerves made him sloppy. Plenty of other people had already more than bought the idea that being abducted and kept in Romania could have changed Tim’s accent, but he didn’t want them to question how that might have affected his grammar.
Rebhorn glanced down at his notes. “So we’re trying to get a timeline about the day of your disappearance. How much do you remember?”
Tim supposed he could say ‘nothing’ and have it be the truest answer he could give. “I’m sorry, it’s … my head, I forget.”
“Of course, that’s understandable. Do you mind if we walk you through a few things to refresh your memory?” asked Crovetti. Tim nodded. “We’ve been through the eyewitness statements, trying to put together as best we can what happened. It says you and another boy, Duncan Pearson, were seen walking away from town after school that day.”
It rankled Tim to his core that he couldn’t even begin to approach ending this interrogation by offering to suck someone’s dick. “Duncan,” Tim echoed, putting together some very interesting pieces between this information and what Joe had told him earlier. But for the same reasons Joe had mentioned, he didn’t see any reason to go into detail. “We were friends.”
“Yeah, you were,” Rebhorn confirmed. “He moved away with his family not long after you went missing. People who saw you said you were headed into the woods. What were you going to do out there?”
“Smoke cigarettes,” Tim said, certain that no matter where he could go in the world, teenage bullshit was still the same. “Talk about girls and school.”
Crovetti nodded and jotted down notes as Tim talked, though Tim had no idea how helpful that nonsense might be. “And then what happened?”
“And then … I don’t know.” Tim hoped his trauma-amnesia story would serve him well here, at least over the parts where there were corroborating witnesses. “Maybe Duncan left. I don’t remember.”
“Did you see anything or anyone suspicious around that day?” Rebhorn asked. “People you didn’t know hanging around town, or unusual vehicles?”
Tim shook his head. “Did other people see these things?”
“No, they didn’t,” Crovetti said, “which is odd, for traffickers. Usually they’re not that good at hiding themselves. So they tend to stay in cities, big places, where lots of people come and go, and no one misses them when they do. We’ve worked a lot of these cases, the two of us, and you’re the first one who’s sent us this far off the beaten path.”
And here Tim had suspected that a rural landscape might have been an easier place to swipe kids. He supposed things ordered themselves a bit differently over here. “I … hitchhikered,” he said, jutting out his thumb in case he’d gotten the word wrong.
The brows of both agents folded into frowns. “Now why would you go and do a thing like that?” asked Rebhorn.
“Just … stupid kid,” Tim said. “Stupid idea.”
“Can you remember anything about the driver you went with?”
Tim shook his head. “A truck. A big truck. A big road highway truck.”
“A big rig?”
Sure, that sounded right. “A big rig. Driver with a hat. And then I don’t remember.”
“Some people around here said that they saw your dad fighting with you sometimes. Is that why you ran off in the first place?” asked Crovetti.
No wonder they’d asked Richard to leave the room. It was a bit of a gamble, to cast even a shade of doubt on the people under whose roof he was now living, but as reasons for becoming a runaway went, he didn’t have any better. Tim nodded. “Stupid fight. I get mad. I run away. I want to come back. But they take me away. Bad men take me away.”
“Well, what happened to you after you left the country is more someone else’s business than ours,” Rebhorn said. “And people are looking into that right now, I promise you. Our job is mostly to make sure that what happened to you, doesn’t happen to anybody else. Which, right now, it looks like we are doing our job, because yours is the only story we’ve heard like that.”
Did they suspect something? Their faces and words were so guarded, Tim couldn’t tell. He imagined this was quite a puzzle for them: After all, not only were the Millers vouching for him, he had actually been found in Romania. A runaway might tell an elaborate story, but it was hard to embellish it by appearing on the other side of the world. Besides, it didn’t matter if he lied to them, did it? If their job was to stop international child abduction rings from working out of a small South Carolina town, then Rebhorn was right — their mission had been well and truly accomplished. This shady cabal of Romanian sex traffickers would kidnap no more children from Gaffney; Tim would stake his whole life on that.
“Good,” Tim said, nodding gravely. “It is … very bad. Very evil men. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Rebhorn said, standing and extending his hand for Tim to shake; Crovetti followed suit. “You’ll let us know if you hear anything else, won’t you?”
For a strong moment, Tim felt like screaming to them to please protect him, like throwing himself into their arms and begging them to take him away from this house, that it was too much, that he felt like a nut between a cracker’s jaw. But that wouldn’t help anything. He’d resigned himself to the fact that no matter which way this ended, he’d be screwed — but right now, it’d only be him. They’d cart him off to jail and then out of the country, and Tim Miller would go back to being the Missing Person he’d been before, and no one would ever know what happened or pay for what they’d done. He couldn’t do that. He owed that much to Joe. He owed at least that much to Tim.
Tim took their business cards and tucked them in the pocket of his jeans, then saw the men out the door. When he turned, Richard was behind him, at an intimidating distance. “What did they want?” he asked.
“Questions,” Tim said with a casual shrug. “About what I remember. But I tell them, I don’t remember.”
Richard’s stance softened, but he still looked to be on guard. “Right,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “It was so traumatic, you being taken away by those maniacs. Easy to understand why you don’t remember anything.”
Tim nodded. That was right, let him think they were co-conspirators, at best using their lies to protect each other. “They say, people saw your truck, sir.” Of course, the FBI hadn’t said a thing about that; that had been Joe’s detail, but Tim kept the source vague. “You came looking for me.”
“Of course I did,” Richard said, putting his hand on Tim’s shoulder in a way that could almost be paternal, except that it landed with a controlling force, reminding Tim exactly who was in charge here. “You’re my son. You were lost. I went looking for you.”
“I’m happy you found me,” Tim said, beaming up over the half-foot of height difference between them. Would Tim really have grown to see eye to eye with his father? The question was academic now. “Thank you, sir.”
He reached out a hand and placed its palm flat againsts Richard’s chest. Deep inside, his guts felt like they were made of ice water, but he willed his arm not to shake so that Richard wouldn’t feel even the slightest hint of his nervousness. It was all worth it, too, when he saw a shade of color drain from Richard’s face. A quiet, traumatized boy who doubled as an alibi for murder was one thing, but this was quite another.
Despite how he could hear the TV and the younger siblings in the other room, and despite how he had no idea where Ginny was in all of this, Tim stepped closer, making Richard shuffle a half-step until his shoulder hit the wall. With his hand still perched on Tim’s shoulder and Tim’s on his chest, they looked as though they were engaged in some awkward ballroom step; all they needed was to clasp their free hands and they’d be ready to dance the night away. Of course, their free hands could also do something else, and the night would be spent quite differently.
“I’m glad I came home,” Tim said softly, feeling Richard’s heart hammer under his chest. He had little doubt what he’d find if he stepped forward again, letting their lower bodies meet. From what he’d learned from firsthand experience with men like Richard, their line between violent anger and animal lust was barely as substantial as a spider’s web. “Now we can do things we could not do. Make up for lost time,” he added, using Joe’s phrasing.
Richard gave him a light shove, one that might seem enough to drive away someone as slight as Tim; but Tim’s feet were planted, and he had years of practice in knowing how not to be moved. “Stop kidding around,” he said, his tone playful for how deadly serious his expression was.
Tim smiled back. “We can go fishing. Lake Whelchel. You remember, first fish I caught?”
“Stop,” Richard growled, this time giving Tim enough of a shove that Tim’s back landed against the other side of the wall.
“A bass,” Tim said. He’d seen the picture in one of the albums, though he’d had to ask Joe for the name of the fish. “Green and yellow fins. It tasted good?” He let his voice darken. “I tasted good?”
At that moment, Ginny all but wafted into the hallway, still wearing her nightgown and robe. Tim had begun to wonder if she owned any other clothes, or if it was the dress she’d worn to the airport and then nightgowns in every other drawer. Her eyes widened as she looked at Richard, his hands balled into fists at his hips, and she drifted right between them, until she was facing her husband and her son was at her back. Tim had to wonder how many times she’d done this before, how much good it had done in the end. “What do you boys want for dinner?” she asked, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to ask about food just after becoming a human shield. “I have some ground beef I could make into spaghetti or hamburgers, or — or I could get a pot roast going. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
No wonder Tim’s efforts at being a vegetarian had been such a struggle. He reached out and put a gentling hand on her arm, though his eyes stared straight over her and bored holes into Richard. “It all sounds good,” Tim said. “What do you want to eat?”
Ginny paused as though she’d never been asked that question before. “Well, I– She took a quick breath. “Really, I don’t mind. It’s whatever y’all want. I just want to start fixing it so nobody’s hungry come suppertime.”
“Is Joe coming?” asked Tim.
“Well, of course he can come if he wants to,” Ginny said, moving so she now faced her son. Turning one’s back on Richard didn’t seem the smartest move to make, but Tim trusted that Ginny’s sense of the scene; she’d been doing this a lot longer than he had. “He’s part of this family, after all. And it’s so nice, I never thought we’d have our family all–” Tears started to well in her eyes, choking the words from her voice. It took her a moment to pull herself together again. “Well, it’s just nice,” she concluded, giving Tim a loving pat before walking off toward the kitchen, presumably to make whatever she deemed it appropriate to make.
Was this kind or cruel, what he was doing to her? Both, Tim had to believe. It was cruelty that would turn into the worst kind of kindness, someday. But until then, there was only forward.
“It was a bass,” Tim said when they were left alone in the hallway, and then he took a deep breath and made an educated guess: “And I did not like killing it. Did not like the hook in its mouth, how it breathes in air. But you took me again, again. Told me to be a man.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Richard growled under his breath before stomping off, but Tim could see it wasn’t anger that deepened the lines of his face. It was fear. He’d scored a direct hit, pulling from a combination of photographic evidence and Joe-aided logic to come away with a memory only Richard and his eldest son would have shared. And even if he’d been a little off, so what? All he needed was just enough truth.
Dinner that evening was a jovial affair, filled largely with Joe’s tales of law school and his internship at a big Sacramento firm that specialized in children’s rights and immigration law — which explained why the partners had been so sympathetic when Joe had told them why he needed a couple weeks off to fly home. It was a filling topic of conversation, one that took the whole meal to have, saving them from awkward pauses. Even the younger kids were interested as Joe told them obviously sanitized stories of some cases the firm had taken, spinning heroic tales of saving children from exploitative labor practices and being thrown into adult jails when they were even younger than Matt was. Only Richard added little to the conversation, but Tim didn’t even glance at him again that evening. He didn’t matter.
As the evening wound to a close, Joe offered to help put the kids to bed, to which Ginny eagerly agreed, using the excuse to turn in early herself. Tim watched as Joe directed the bedtime routines, making sure they all washed what needed to be washed and brushed what needed to be brushed and cleared their beds of whatever distracting media — mostly comic books and flashlights — might have snuck in. Seeing him like this, it was clear how much he loved those kids, and how much his separation from them had left a hole in his life. Tim supposed he couldn’t blame Joe, though, given what it would have taken for him to stay and make peace with a murderer.
When the younger siblings were all tucked in, Tim saw Joe’s eyes linger on the door to Tim’s room. “You want to go look inside?” asked Tim softly, and Joe nodded.
He hadn’t seen the room before everything happened, but he supposed it now existed in some weird in-between state, halfway left just the way Tim himself had kept it, halfway turned into a shrine. There were rows of short baseball trophies and school awards lined up along various flat surfaces. The walls were mostly bare blue wallpaper, but Tim had tacked up a few things here and there, mainly glossy images of bands cut out from magazines. Tim had liked The Cure and Fleetwood Mac and Queen, and in particular had a number of pictures of a triumphant, tight-pantsed, moustachioed Freddie Mercury wailing into a microphone.
“He loved music,” Joe said, his voice low enough that they couldn’t be overheard talking about Tim in the past tense. “I sent him a lot of tapes, once I went to school. I’d go into the record store near campus and find some new band to send him, and he’d listen to it until the tape broke. And when it broke, he’d put the dead tape in a shoebox. I bet they threw that out,” he said with a bitter chuckle. “Not worth keeping a box of trash, even to keep up appearances.”
True, Tim had looked around the room but hadn’t found anything fitting that description. “I like Queen,” he said. “We are the champions, my friends, yes?”
Joe grinned. “That’s them, yeah.” He walked over and tapped one of the Freddie Mercury pictures, where the singer, wearing a yellow jacket, had a fist raised toward the sky. “He said Freddie was his first crush. This is so weird to say, but I’m kind of glad Tim didn’t have to hear that Freddie died. Would’ve broken his heart. I mean … I’m not glad he’s gone. But if you’re going to try and look on the bright side, well, that’s one bright side for you.”
“I understand,” Tim said, and he truly did. No one was ever grateful for tragedy, but something couldn’t be helped, then there was no sin in trying to make something better out of it.
The more time he spent with Joe, in fact, the more Tim regarded that as Joe’s defining feature. He didn’t believe in the lie that all bad things could be eliminated. He believed it wasn’t worthless to try, of course, and that there was a lot of value in trying to save others from suffering. At the same time, though, he recognized that when — not if, but when — bad things did come to pass, someone needed to be there to help set the world right again. It was clear every time he spoke about his chosen profession why it was he’d decided to become a lawyer: because the breaks in the world could not be undone, but the cracks could become starting places for something new.
“I haven’t seen this since–” Joe started, and he didn’t need to finish the sentence. They both knew exactly how long it had been, and they both knew exactly why. Tim stepped closer and put a hand on the back of Joe’s shoulder, a comforting gesture. He had only just stepped into this grief, but Joe had been living it for years, dealing with a hollowing loss that colored everything he did. One of those breaks in the world had broken right inside of him, and he was trying to make something good of it, but it was hard. It never stopped being hard.
A sound at the doorway made them both jump, and when they turned, they saw Richard there, leaning against the frame. “You two boys walking down Memory Lane?” he asked with artificial cheer. “Get lost along the way?”
“Just talking about some of the things we used to share,” Joe said, answering with equally false good humor. “Like taste in music.”
Richard snorted in a way that let Tim know he disapproved of Joe’s preferences, listening and otherwise. “Should’ve taught him to like football instead. Maybe he wouldn’t have turned out so little.”
The way Joe bristled gave Tim the sense that this wasn’t a new complaint; in fact, he was surer by the moment that it had predated Tim’s disappearance. “I never liked football. I played football. There’s a difference.”
“You don’t have to like something for it to be good for you. Like eating your greens, or going to the dentist.” Richard chuckled at his own little joke, not caring that the two boys didn’t join in.
“Well, it’s getting late. Tim, will you come lock the front door behind me?” Joe nodded in Tim’s direction, then headed for the door. He stopped just at the exit, though, halted in his tracks by the heavy bar of Richard’s arm across the doorway. For a moment, Tim was afraid this would come to blows, or something worse. But Joe stood straight ahead, looking into the hallway without even acknowledging Richard’s presence, except to accept the reality of Richard’s arm blocking his way. He did not rise to the bait, but neither did he step down from it. He simply waited.
After what could only have been a few seconds, but felt like years, Richard relented and stepped back from the doorway with a wide, feral grin. Joe walked right out and Tim followed suit as fast as he could, before Richard could decide to lower the blockade again. He made it out without incident, though, and scurried down the hall past Joe, whose pace was measured and even as he made his escape.
As they stepped out the front door to the house, Joe exhaled and caught himself against the railing of the front porch. He stayed there for just a second, catching his breath, then walked out toward his car, gesturing to Tim to join him. Tim followed, and when they were far out of range of anyone’s earshot, Joe laid a hand on his arm. “I’m worried about you,” he said.
Tim shrugged. “It’s fine, it’s–” Well, no, it wasn’t fine. But it also wasn’t worse than it had been beforehand, either, and so Tim didn’t want to raise any alarm about it. “I can take care of me.”
“Yeah, but I wish you didn’t have to.” Joe exhaled through clenched teeth. “You know, I changed my mind. We can call this whole thing off–“
“No!” Tim said, a little louder than he had intended. He balled his fists by his sides and lowered his voice again. “No. I can take care of me. He needs to be in a jail. I want to help.”
“Yeah, but…” Joe ran a hand through his blond hair, brushing it back from his forehead; the second he let go, though, it flopped back into place. “I’m worried about you,” he repeated. “When I asked you to do this, I didn’t think about what it would be like, being in that house with him.”
“It’s fine,” Tim said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. “He is a bad man. You are a good man. I am a bad man. Maybe, if I help you, I can be a good man too.”
A pained look crossed Joe’s face. “That’s not how — that’s not how badness or goodness works.”
“So what?” asked Tim, deploying an English phrase the television characters were so fond of. “I am fine. Please. I see you tomorrow. Do not be worried about me. Okay? Good-night.”
“Night,” said Joe, who sounded less than confident about any of this. But he didn’t stop Tim, who walked back into the house and, as promised, locked the front door behind him. He stayed there for a minute, just behind its wooden shelter, until he heard Joe’s car roar to life, then disappear down the gravel drive. That done, he hurried back upstairs and locked himself in his room as fast as he could. No matter how effective it might have been, he didn’t have it in him to needle Richard tonight.
Instead, he did another search of the room. The box of broken tapes was truly nowhere to be found, but there was still a little carrying case that held a dozen cassettes, tucked back behind an boxy silver dual-deck tape player. Tim had no idea how long it had been there or in what condition it had been during its last use, so he was pleasantly startled to find that when he pressed a button, the machine spun to life.
He’d been ready to look through the carrying case and make a selection, but it turned out there was already a tape in the deck — Mirage, by Fleetwood Mac. The music started halfway through a song he’d never heard, where the only word he could make out from the female singer was ‘gypsy,’ and even then he wasn’t sure he was hearing that right. The words mattered less than the rhythm and the sound, though, and he decided that Tim’s taste in music had been pretty all right.
He lay there on the floor until the tape ran its course, and then he lay there in the silence that followed. “Hi,” he said, to no one, to nothing, to Tim. “Hi there.”
There was, of course, no answer — because Tim was not there to hear in the first place; because he was, in so many ways, talking to himself. If he was alone, though, then no one could hear him making a fool of himself anyway, so what did it matter?
“Hello,” he said again. “You have a good brother. Three good brothers. A good sister. A mother who–” He exhaled and draped his forearm across his eyes. “A mother who wants to be good. A good family. A good home. Thank you for … I can wear them. Like a coat. For now.”
He waited a moment, then continued, “But a bad father. So … I will need to tell lies about you. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.”
He received no reply, but as he stared up at the band pictures on Tim’s walls, he got the sense that Tim would’ve understood. Or at least, he wanted to believe that Tim would’ve understood, and that would give him the confidence to do what he needed to do for justice. And for Joe. What came after that, he would have to wait and see.
Matt, Davey, and Marie had been allowed to miss the first few weeks of school owing to the excitement of having their brother returned, but even that couldn’t last forever, and come Monday morning, it was time for them to return. Joe offered to drive them, and suggested that Tim should come along too. They could look into what it would take to re-enroll him in high school, Joe explained to Ginny and Richard, and see what tutoring options were available for what he’d missed. It was as good of a reason as any to get out of the house, and TIm took the front seat while the younger siblings piled together in the back.
At first Tim found the noise deafening, all five of them crammed into the tiny rental car, but once they were gone, he found he missed the noise. It was bright and alive, the sounds of children living happy, loved lives. He didn’t spare a thought of what it would’ve been for him to grow up like that; that was so far from the possibilities his life had presented him that it was on another map entirely. But he was growing fond of the three children, and he was happy that they were happy.
Joe looked at Tim from across the front seat. “You want to go to high school?” he asked with a wry grin.
“No,” Tim said, then paused to think. “Yes. Maybe. I have no school.”
“None?” Joe recoiled from that statement in the way only a public-schooled American could. “But you can read and write, yeah? And you speak pretty good English.”
Tim pointed to his chest. “Learned by me.”
“By myself,” Joe corrected.
“By myself,” Tim echoed. “Learned by myself. And learned English by television. But could be better. I need–” Tim took a deep breath and moved some grammar around in his head before he spoke again. “If I want to speak English right, I am slow. I need to think. If I want to sound right, I am slow. If I go fast, I make mistakes. No practice.”
Joe shrugged as he pulled out of the middle school parking lot and onto the main street. “Well, you can practice with me. That ship has already sailed.” He drummed on the steering wheel as they drove past the high school, but didn’t turn down the streets that would lead them to its main gates. “So tell me about yourself.”
Tim frowned. “I told you. Hotel room, I said it.”
“No, I–” Joe shook his head. “I mean about you. If you want to practice, I figure it’s good starting off by talking about the thing you know best, right?”
As approaches went, it had its merits. “No school,” Tim said. “No family. Did not know my father. Did not remember when mother died. On the street, sometimes people work together. If you work, they let you stay, they protect you. Children are … you can use them, they are useful,” he said, remembering the word. “Small child goes to bakery, says, I have only enough money for one roll, mother is very sick at home. Baker is not a monster! He puts in two rolls, maybe three rolls, or a pretzel, or sometimes burned bread, into a bag.”
Joe laughed at that. “So what you’re saying is, you’ve been working cons for a long time.”
“A long time,” Tim agreed. “I take pockets, too.”
“You take — you pick pockets?” Joe asked, and Tim nodded. “Is that how you got into trouble in the first place?”
“First place, second place, fifth place, all the places.” Tim sighed as he stared out the window, watching all the buildings go by. “Only foreigners have money. Foreigners and party members, and now party is gone. Also, sex for money.”
Joe’s eyebrows shot up at that. “Really?”
Tim nodded. “Sex for money and sex to stop trouble. From police, from gangs. Is easy.”
“Christ,” Joe swore under his breath, which Tim wished he’d stop doing. He wasn’t religious at all, and had all but abandoned the idea of a loving God long ago, but he’d spent many nights sleeping under the eaves of churches, and he felt uncomfortable at the idea of being so disrespectful to the houses’ owner. “So when you’re telling the cops about this crazy sex ring thing, you’re not just making it up?”
Tim see-sawed a hand back and forth a few times. “Real things happen, bad things, sex with children slaves, give them drugs, keep them in basement. I hear things. I am never a slave, but I know bad men who want sex. Together, the story is easy to tell.”
Joe nodded as he pulled into the motel lot, then paused before he turned off the car. “I’m sorry, I — do you want to go back to the house? I can take you back there. I just guess I figured you liked getting the hell out of there as much as I did.”
“This is good,” Tim said, nodding toward the door of Joe’s room. “I can stop lying for a time.”
They got out and went in, and Tim took up the spot on the bed he’d sat on the night before. He stretched himself out with two pillows under his head, thinking how scratchy the pillowcases were. Wasn’t that rich: He’d spent most of his life without pillows, period, and now that he was used to them, some weren’t even good enough? It was amazing how spoiled someone could get so fast. But they weren’t that bad, he supposed. In fact, they were downright nice. In fact, they–
He woke up with a snoring jolt to find Joe sitting on the far bed, surrounded by papers and what looked like a thick black dictionary, except that Tim could see that it opened up to reveal not pages, but a screen and keyboard. “Oh, hey, you’re up,” Joe said.
Tim rubbed his eyes and face. “Sorry, I–” He looked around for a clock, but there was none to be seen. “Sorry, how long I was asleep?”
“About three hours,” Joe said, chuckling. “Guess you’ve been having trouble sleeping at night.”
Tim sat up and stretched his arms above his head, listening to his various joints crack. “A little,” he admitted, not wanting to go too far into how nerve-wracking it was to know Richard might be no farther away than the other side of the bedroom door.
Joe nodded. “Me too. Ever since Tim disappeared, I’ve had these weird, awful nightmares. Not like the ones psychics have, when they say they’re going to solve the case based on whatever their subconscious barfed up last night. I mean, sure, some are specific, but the worst ones are just awful things that don’t mean anything. They’re not useful. They just make me see impossible things I wish I didn’t have to.”
Tim leaned forward on the bed. “What kind?”
“Like–” Joe shrugged. “Tim falling from an airplane and screaming for me to catch him. Tim with part of his face replaced with a mass of insects. Tim with all his arms and legs and head hacked off, but he can still talk and feel how much it hurts. Just … bizarre shit like that.”
Those dreams didn’t seem to strange to Tim; in fact, they seemed pretty reasonable, given the open wound of his brother’s disappearance and likely murder. But it wasn’t his place to say, so he just nodded. “Sleep is hard.” Tim frowned, considering his vocabulary choice. “Hard difficult. Not hard–” He rapped his knuckles against the wooden bedside table. “Sleep is soft, too.”
Joe smiled at him, the lines of his face softening. Just as he could look younger when he wanted, Joe could look older, straightening his shoulders and drawing himself up to his full height. Tim could see the resemblance to Ginny in Joe’s face, but he wondered sometimes what Joe’s father must have looked like. Tall and fair, certainly, and very handsome, to have a son like that.
Joe was exactly the kind of man Tim never got to be with. His tricks were seedy older men — sometimes attractive, sometimes repulsive, sometimes both at once, but never as clean-cut and kind-eyed as Joe. Men like that didn’t seek out men like him. At best they pitied him, tossed a few coins into his hat if they saw him crouched by a steam vent on the street corner. At worst, they led campaigns against him to clean the streets of vice. But they didn’t look at him like he was a person, and they didn’t smile when he told a joke in a language he only half-understood, and they didn’t worry about him at night, alone.
All of which was why he stood up from his side of the bed and walked over to sit next to Joe. He put his hand on Joe’s thigh and left it there for a minute, waiting for Joe to pull away. To his surprise, and intense relief, Joe did not.
“You are a good man,” Tim said, echoing what he’d told Joe last night to drive home how much he meant it. “I am not. I am sorry to meet you because of my lies. But I am happy to meet you.”
Joe reached down and took Tim’s hand in his, wrapping his larger fingers around Tim’s smaller ones. “I was so mad when I met you,” he said with a smile. “I couldn’t imagine who would be enough of — well, of an asshole to take my family for a ride like this, to spit on my brother’s name. It didn’t occur to me that you might be in trouble. Not targeting us deliberately, but just doing what you needed to do to survive. And I think … this is so weird, but I think that if Tim could know about this, he wouldn’t be glad to be dead, but he’d still be happy it helped you out.”
Another one of those bright sides Joe liked to look on, Tim supposed. He looked up at that handsome face and he couldn’t help himself; he leaned in slowly for a kiss, giving Joe all the time in the world to pull away. Joe did not.
When their lips met, he was pleased to find that Joe’s lips were warm and soft, and more than that, they were waiting for his. He sighed as Joe leaned closer to him, deepening the kiss. After weeks now spent knotted up in fear, the ability to just melt into Joe’s arms was so much of a blessing he could nearly have cried. Instead, he moved his free hand so it cupped Joe’s cheek. He wanted Joe to know that this wasn’t just about physical attraction, not entirely. More than what his body liked, he liked Joe.
At last, Joe drew back from the kiss and pressed their foreheads together. “You know,” he chuckled, “this is kind of weird for how much you really do look like a pretty reasonable grown-up version of my little brother.”
Tim laughed and squeezed Joe’s thigh. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Joe promised. “As long as you don’t take away from this that I actually wanted to kiss my little brother.”
For all the horrible things that he’d had to contemplate about the structure and history of the Miller family, he was glad to say that possibility had honestly never crossed his mind. “No, no.” Tim shook his head. “You are a good man and a good big brother. That is why I want to kiss you.”
“I want to kiss you too,” Joe said. “Because you are a good man, no matter what you think. Most people would have bailed on this long ago, just taken the first chance to run to the cops, or just run away, period. It means something that you’ve stuck around.”
Tim shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise, considering how little he’d done to deserve it, and how much he’d done to deserve so much worse — to say nothing of what he knew he was going to have to do, if he really wanted to bring this to an end. Joe leaned in for another kiss, but this time Tim turned his head just a fraction to the side, sighing as Joe stopped in confusion. “I want to kiss you,” Tim said, “but you should have a good man. I need to be a bad man now. I need to do things a good man would not do.”
Joe looked sad to hear that, but he nodded. They’d talked already about what this would entail, the effort needed to shock Richard into needing to see the body he’d hidden four years previous. Baiting Richard there would be something he didn’t want Joe to think about him doing. The man Joe deserve to kiss was not the kind of man who could do something like that.
Tim took Joe’s hand in both of his. “When this is over, can we go to a date?”
“A date?” Joe laughed. “Where do you want to go on a date?”
“I don’t know. I never go on a date. Anywhere. McDonald’s.” Tim shrugged, shaking his head. “I want to meet you as a different man.”
“I like the man you are now,” Joe said with an earnest smile.
Tim shook his head with greater emphasis. “No,” he said, squeezing Joe’s hand tight. “You don’t know the man I am. I need to be that man. And when this is over, I will be the man you can go with on a date.”
Joe smiled. “To McDonald’s?”
“Anywhere,” Tim said.
“Anywhere it is,” Joe agreed, his voice full of promise. Tim looked at his smiling face and felt his heart throb in his chest. Now he that he finally had something to live for, he just had to concentrate on staying alive in the first place.
When it all finally came to a head, it was a miserable, rainy night. The rest of the house had said their good-nights and turned in for the evening, Tim included. He’d brushed his teeth and put on pajamas and locked himself in his room, the way he did every night. Instead of tucking himself into bed, though, Tim placed his ear to the crack beneath the door and listened. He heard the various patterings up and down the hall of children’s feet, getting their last-minute business finished before they tucked in for the night. He heard Marie get a drink of water and Davey ask his mom where she’d put the comic book he’d been reading, then waited after their bedroom doors were closed until he was sure they weren’t going to open again. He heard the door of the master bedroom close as well, and some conversation on the other side that was so muffled he couldn’t make out words, or even tone. Finally, he heard the sound he was waiting for: the master bedroom door’s opening, followed by the tromp of Richard’s footsteps down the stairs.
Tim had paid enough attention now to know that this was the routine: The house would go to bed, and Richard would go out to smoke his pipe on the porch, taking in the peace and quiet at the end of the day. That had been how Tim had found him when he’d come back from that first night at Joe’s, though it had taken him some observation to realize that Richard hadn’t been waiting up for Tim, so much as he’d been sticking to his habits. Tim even learned to lift the glass of the window in his room so he could catch the faintest whiffs of pipe smoke.
But there would be none of that tonight. The rain came in blown at a sharp angle, and the way it hammered on Tim’s window let him know it’d be blowing just as hard straight up onto the porch. He made himself wait and count to a hundred, then a hundred again. Then he took a deep breath and opened his door as silently as he could. The clatter of raindrops made a good cover from the noises he couldn’t avoid as he shuffled down the hall, then slipped down the stairs, step by careful step.
Despite his great caution, when he walked into the den, he saw a look of only half-surprise on Richard’s face. Maybe he hadn’t been as quiet as he’d intended, or maybe they’d both just known this kind of confrontation had to come. “It’s you,” Richard growled, the pipe caught in the corner of his mouth. It was unlit, but Tim supposed the smoking itself was only part of the whole pipe experience.
“Yes, sir,” Tim said, stepping forward. He considered the situation for a moment, and then did the dumbest, most dangerous thing he could have and shut the door behind him.
“Good,” Richard said, watching from the heavy armchair where he sat. “So you want to have this out now? We can have this out. How much do you want?”
Tim cocked his head lightly to one side, as though the offer didn’t make an ounce of sense.
Richard scoffed. “I don’t care who you are. Do you do this professionally? Is this, like, a regular scam for you? Whatever, it doesn’t matter. What I’m asking is, how much to make ‘Tim’ a runaway again? I can get it in cash for you by tomorrow.”
“Why would I leave?” Tim frowned, working an expression of deep hurt between his eyes. “I’m home.”
“Fuck, you’re a real extortionist, aren’t you?” Richard’s body language spoke of trying to keep things cool, of being in control of the situation, though the way he gnawed at the end of his pipe showed how much of a lie the rest of it was. “We can say you fucked off to San Fagcisco with that brother of yours. We never have to see him; we can get used to never having to see you again either. What I’m asking is, how much?”
Tim softened his facial features as he stepped closer. “I know you feel bad.”
“I don’t feel shit,” Richard said, though the distance between them was obviously giving him some pause. “I feel like I want you out of my house, and I feel like you need to give me a number so I can make you do it. This has gone on long enough.”
“I know you feel bad,” Tim continued, as though Richard hadn’t said a thing, “but you shouldn’t. I forgive you. I love you, Daddy.”
Richard was a bastard, that much was certain, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d gone into this conversation ready to have it out with a con man, to be the one in charge because he held the checkbook and he could see the cracks in the lie. But the ground he’d thought was so solid had started to shift under his feet.
Tim smiled as he reached for the hem of his pajama shirt and slid it up, exposing a little of his belly. “Did you see me sucking his cock?” he asked in the sweetest voice he could. “Or you see him suck me? No, not that. Real men get cocks sucked by anyone. Only faggots suck it and like it.”
All good humor was gone from Richard’s face now; he was all but plastered to the back of his armchair. “What the fuck?” he growled. “I told you, I’ll give you money. Name a price so you can fuck off.”
“But you saw me, and I liked it.” Tim let his hand slide up a little higher, riding his shirt up with it. “I liked his cock. Your son wanted to suck cock.”
A sneer began to curl at the corner of Richard’s lip, letting Tim know he was on the right track. “I swear to God–“
“Do you like me, Daddy?” Tim asked, hooking his other hand in the waistband of his pajama pants and sliding them down over the tops of his hips. “Because I like you, Daddy. I like men’s big cocks. Big strong men. Real men. I want to get fucked by them. Men like you, Daddy. You saw me, and you thought, he could suck my cock. Didn’t you, sir?”
It was a hell of a hand, but he’d played it right, and Richard now looked up at Tim in horror. At the same time, the crotch in the front of his jeans was bulging noticeably. The sight of it was making Tim hard as well, which he felt more than a little strange about, considering the circumstances. But he’d surely fucked worse men in his life, and he hadn’t let that stop him then, and he wasn’t going to let it stop him now.
“Who the fuck are you?” Richard asked, or at least started to ask. The question lost air, however, as Tim peeled his pajama top over his head and let the bottoms push to the floor, until he stood there, naked and erect only a few feet from where Richard sat.
“I’m your son, Daddy,” Tim purred, looking and sounding as sweet as he could, a sharp contrast to his bared body. “Don’t you remember me?”
“You’re not him,” Richard growled.
Tim laughed as though this were a wonderful game they were playing. “You’re silly, Daddy. Did you forget how you saw me? How I looked on the last time you saw me? I can help you to remember.” And just like that, he dropped to his knees in front of Richard and went straight for the fly of his jeans.
“Holy shitting fuck–” Richard gasped, but he didn’t move. He was trapped, not by any physical force Tim was exerting; with their positions like this, Richard absolutely had the superior position and leverage, and if he’d wanted to, he could have knocked Tim over and been out of the room before Tim had known what’d hit him. But he didn’t want to, clearly, not when the boy in front of him was going straight for his cock.
And what a cock it was, Tim thought as he pulled it out. It was a massive piece of meat, average in length but deliciously thick. Circumstances had forced him to become a good cocksucker, but it hadn’t taken him long to develop an actual taste for it. Smiling, he licked at the head, tasting the salty precome at the tip. “Oh, Daddy, you taste good,” he said, beaming upward at Richard.
Richard was flattened against the back of the chair, as though he might be able to escape by sinking through it, but there was no denying how the touch of Tim’s tongue made his cock jerk. They’d never gotten to this point, Tim was absolutely certain; Tim would never have considered it on his own, and for all Richard’s potential for rage, he had enough self-control not to actually fuck his own kid. But he’d thought about it, and the thought had made him hard and disgusted in the same breath, and from that had risen enough rage to murder the boy who’d made him feel like this. Then the boy had been gone forever. Problem solved.
Except the problem was back, and it was currently moaning and licking his dick from root to tip. Tim gasped with pleasure at the taste. “Daddy, Daddy,” he gasped as he mouthed at the underside of Richard’s cock. “Oh, Daddy, you’re so hard and big.”
He could almost hear the cracking sound in Richard’s brain as Richard’s hand flew toward him, and for a real moment, Tim thought that this was it, he was dead. In a way, he’d settled himself for it, considering it fair payment for everything he’d done. Richard would go down for a different murder, but he’d still go down for it, and in the end, justice would work either way.
What Richard’s hand went for instead, though, was Tim’s hair. He grabbed a rough handful of it and shoved Tim’s head down onto his cock with surprising force. The edges of Tim’s teeth grazed Richard’s dick as it was forced toward his throat, but the sound Richard made suggested that wasn’t a bad thing at all. Richard held him there, his nose jammed into Richard’s belly, his lips all the way buried in the wiry hairs at the root of Richard’s cock. “You fucking cocksucker,” Richard spat. “Little faggot boy.”
The second Richard released his grip, Tim withdrew, gulping for air. “Yes, Daddy,” he moaned, his lips slick with spit and precome. “I want to suck you, Daddy.”
This time Richard grabbed his head with both hands and forced him down again. Tim had to focus on his breathing as Richard fucked his face, using Tim’s mouth as just another hole. Tim grabbed at Richard’s thighs to steady himself, though the most it provided was leverage to stay upright on his knees; Richard was in control of the blowjob here, and it would go on as long as he wanted it. Tim closed his lips and let his tongue work where it could, but mostly he opened his throat as wide as it got and let the head of Richard’s cock slide inside. He’d long worked past any gag reflex, so instead his throat just became a hot, tight place for Richard to fuck.
That kind of intensity was hard to maintain, though, and Tim was hardly surprised when, only a few minutes later, Richard shot his load straight into Tim’s mouth. Tim barely tasted it as he swallowed, then sucked some more, making sure Richard was drained dry. The second Richard’s grip went slack, Tim shimmied out of it and hopped up onto the chair, straddling Richard’s lap. His cock pushed hard against Richard’s belly as Tim bit and sucked at his earlobe. “You taste so good, Daddy,” he whispered. “I don’t want other boys. I always wanted to suck you.”
The postorgasmic haze was starting to wear away, Tim could tell from the way the tension had started to ratchet back into Richard’s body. This time, however, he had Tim’s full naked weight on him, and that made escape far more difficult. That was just the way Tim wanted it.
Tim pressed his hips against Richard, rubbing his cock against the fabric of Richard’s shirt. “You didn’t have to kill me, Daddy,” he said, his voice an indulgent whine. “You just had to ask. I would suck Daddy’s cock. But you killed me.”
Richard’s hands came to grip on Tim’s sides, trying to dislodge him, but Tim’s arms were wrapped around Richard’s neck, holding him in place. “What the fuck?” Richard muttered even as his cock tried to jerk to life again beneath the pressure of Tim’s ass.
“You killed me, Daddy,” Tim said again, sucking on Richard’s earlobe and nuzzling his stubble. “You thought you killed me.”
Richard’s body jumped as though he’d been touched with electricity. “What are you–“
Tim giggled childishly, pressing his lips to Richard’s throat and letting the sound vibrate through. “Did you look before you leave me, Daddy? Before you leave me in the forest? Do you know I was dead?”
“Yes,” said Richard, his voice an eerie quaver. Tim could feel the pounding of his heart through his chest. “I checked, you–“
“Do you?” Tim asked, again with a lilting laugh. “I came back, Daddy.” His hand slid down Richard’s chest to curl around his exposed cock, which was already growing hard again. “Fuck me, Daddy. Fuck me with your big cock. Fuck your little boy. I need you, Daddy. I came back because I need you. You killed me, but I need you. I need my big Daddy’s big cock.”
Richard’s cock jerked in Tim’s hand as he spoke, and Tim gave the too-sensitive shaft too hard of a squeeze, making Richard yelp half in arousal, half in pain. “This isn’t real,” he managed, though he sounded not the slightest bit convinced.
“I’m real, Daddy,” Tim promised, pressing a kiss to Richard’s ear, then licking away one of the beads of sweat that rolled down his temples. “You left me but I came back. You killed me but I don’t care. I’m not in the forest. I’m back. And I never leave again.”
Something snapped again inside Richard, the same way it had before he’d thrust his hand into Tim’s hair, only this time it gave him the power he needed to shove Tim off him and to the ground. He stood, cramming his cock back into his jeans with what must have been painful force. “This is bullshit,” he said, though not to Tim; he was speaking to himself now. “This is fucking bullshit. This isn’t real. This isn’t here. You took care of it.”
“Daddy?” asked Tim, looking up from the floor. Richard looked back at him, and looked hard — except it was plain on his face that what he saw now wasn’t the strange con man who’d showed up at just the right time to deflect suspicion. He saw what Ginny wanted to see, what the younger Miller children had been told they were seeing, what Joe acted like he saw. He saw Tim, his son, the one he’d killed, back from the grave and still doing what had gotten him put there in the first place. Tim reached for his cock and stroked it, then spread his legs. “Help me, Daddy. Save me, like you saved me in the forest. I need you, Daddy. I come back because I need you.”
Richard turned on his heels and tore for the door, scrambling for the handle before managing it open. As he ran off through the house, Tim jumped to his feet and grabbed his pajama pants, pulling them on as a concession to decency. Barefoot, he darted out of the room just in time to hear the garage door slam and the roar of a truck engine. By the time he made it to the front door, the car’s taillights were streaming out down the driveway, half-obscured in the downpour.
Tim didn’t stop, just hauled out to the center of the driveway — where he found himself caught in the sudden flood of headlights of a car Richard had never even noticed. Agent Crovetti reached over and pushed the passenger door open. “Get in!” he shouted.
Already sopping wet, Tim didn’t waste any time. “I don’t know where he going,” he admitted. “The forest, but–“
“It’s okay,” Crovetti said, starting off down the driveway at a much more reasonable pace than Richard had taken. “Rebhorn’s out there at a cutoff about a mile down, and he’s got the receiver for the tracker on the truck.”
A tracker, right. Why hadn’t Tim thought of that? Well, partly because it hadn’t been his job to think about that. The rest of the plan had been Joe’s, and he’d obviously put all the pieces in place just so. Tim’s job was over already, and it had been done well.
Crovetti reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small, foil-wrapped roll. “Breath mint?” he asked non-judgmentally.
“Yes, thank you,” Tim said, taking the roll and chewing three at once. He didn’t want to think too hard about the smells that must be lingering on him, much less the taste still coating his mouth, so he let the sweet peppermints destroy what remained on his tongue. “Is good, thank you.”
In the distance, Tim could see a single pair of taillights through the driving rain; as they got closer, he realized there were actually two, one parked close to the road, and the other pulled farther off into the underbrush. Crovetti looked over at Tim. “That all you got on?” he asked, though the answer was obvious. “Okay, stay here. Hunker down. Lock the doors and don’t open them for anybody.” He pulled his car in behind the first vehicle, then shut it off and took the key from the ignition. “As God is my witness, you better be here when I get back. You got it?”
Tim nodded. “Promise,” he said. This was the end of the line, and he wasn’t going to bail before seeing this all through, no matter what it cost him.
Crovetti gave him one more appraising look, then nodded. He put the car keys in one pocket and put his other hand on the gun strapped just beneath his ribs. “Wish us luck, kid,” he said before heading off into the storm.
Tim didn’t have a chance to say anything before Crovetti left, so he pushed his nose to the window and watched as Crovetti’s form, red-lit by taillights, disappeared into the trees. As his adrenaline high began to subside, he began to feel cold, something being wet didn’t help. There wasn’t much in the backseat of the car, but there was a small duffel bag, and Tim rooted around in it before he found a wrinkled button-down shirt stuffed in one of the side pockets. It was far too large for him, but it was better than the chill. He would just have to apologize to Crovetti later.
He waited there for nearly an hour, according to the clock on the dashboard, focusing on his breathing and being patient. This was the smallest, strangest cell he’d ever been in, and the strangest part about it was how he could, in fact, just walk out. The weather was terrible, sure, but the harder that made it for him to get away, the harder it’d make for the FBI to follow him. At worst, he could just hide in the woods until morning and formulate a plan from there. He’d been willing to get transported to the United States to escape police custody, after all; he could surely manage spending one night under a tree.
He stayed put. He’d promised, after all. He’d made a lot of promises here, and not just to Crovetti. He took deep, calming breaths, and waited.
At first, he thought the light might be an illusion, a trick of reflections of car lights off the rain. It was deeper from within the woods, though, and it bounced around with the pace of a man walking. Then there was a second, and a third, and in the headlights of the truck, Tim saw four men walk out from within the clutch of trees. Three were carrying flashlights; one was walking with his hands caught at an unnatural angle behind his back. He sighed with bone-deep relief, and in that moment, as surely as he’d taken on the role, the identity of Tim Miller washed off him and poured down like rain on the windshield, leaving only himself behind.
“Where’s your lunches?” Joe asked, bending down to tie Marie’s shoes for her.
Davey cleared his throat as he held up not one but three boxes for inspection.
“Excellent.” Joe couldn’t see the contents, but he trusted that Davey wouldn’t leave himself or his siblings to starve. And if the ratio of cookies to carrots was a little heavy-handed, so what? Cookies were good for the soul, and that needed as much attention as the body.
“I can’t find my cleats!” Matt called from upstairs.
Joe glanced over at the shoe rack by the back door. “They’re down here!” he called back. A thunderous rumble of adolescent footfalls followed, and a moment later, Matt was standing the kitchen with his backpack over one shoulder and his gym back over the other. “Don’t forget to take out your uniform tonight so it can get washed.”
Matt fired off a short salute, then took one of the boxes from Joe and stuffed it into his backpack. Her shoes tied, Marie hopped down from the chair and took the other, and Davey wrapped his hand around the handle of the third. Satisfied that they wouldn’t go hungry today, Joe opened the back door and bundled them all out into the car.
To say that they’d been through a lot was an understatement, but to Joe’s eternal gratitude, they’d all reacted with strength and maturity. They clearly missed their mom, and Joe wasn’t sure any of them knew what to think about learning that their father had killed their brother, but all three of them seemed willing to work together to get through this.
It hadn’t been easy for him to transfer schools, to say nothing of his internships and connections, but once Joe had explained the circumstances — stepfather arrested for murder, mother being charged as an accessory, three young half-siblings with no one else to take care of them, to say nothing of the national news stories that proved he wasn’t making a lick of this up — the university and the firm had both been above and beyond accommodating.
He dropped them all off at their schools and kissed each of them on the head, then told them all he loved them. Marie said it back easily, and Davey made a childish face about it, but Matt had begun to respond with a simple, “Yeah, I love you too.” Joe supposed he’d had it the worst, being the oldest and having the biggest amount of Richard’s poisonous masculinity pumped into him. Perhaps there was no antidote for such a thing, but there were countermeasures that could be taken. At the very least, Joe could be a different example for them and hope that was worth something.
That done, he headed for the police station.
The media had delighted in the gruesome story of a child-killing father and an accomplice mother, but Joe felt the story was shifting around her, and rightly so. He’d always wanted to believe she’d been ignorant of the crimes, and it stung to learn that, no, she’d known Tim was dead from the night Richard came home with bloodstained clothes for her to destroy. But now the journalists were telling a different story, one that painted her less as a cold-hearted woman who chose her husband over her son, and more as a victim herself, trapped by the knowledge that her actions might have put any of her other children in danger. That sympathy, combined with an agreement to testify against Richard, might just be enough to get her out with time served. At least, Joe had to believe it was true.
He wasn’t here to visit her today, though, in part because she’d recently been transferred to Leath Correctional Institute, almost two hours away; he’d have to bundle up all the kids for a visiting day at some point, though not on a school day. Joe was at the station because he had a delivery to pick up.
The young man actually looked his age, dressed in a dark suit and bright blue tie. He might have been there to represent one of the inmates, in fact, had it not been for the handcuffs that kept his own wrists bound in front of him. He stood against the wall, eyes darting to and fro, taking in everything in the room with a nervous glance.
And yet, it was Rebhorn who saw Joe first. “Hey!” he called, giving Joe a wave, and the young man’s face melted into a grateful smile as he laid eyes on Joe.
Joe crossed the room in a few quick strides. “Hey,” he said back, addressing the agents but looking straight at a pair of familiar dark eyes.
Crovetti nodded at Joe and handed out a clipboard. “Got a couple things for you to sign, and then he’s all yours. ID and everything. Even got him a driver’s license.”
Joe glanced at the forms, then looked back up. “Ciprian Constantinescu?” he asked.
The young man — once Tim, now Ciprian — smiled. “Like ‘Smith’ in Romania,” he said with a wry smile. “But over here, makes me sound important.”
“I’m never going to be able to spell it,” muttered Joe, putting his signature to papers that would official identify him as the sponsor for the green card of this unaccompanied minor who had arrived from Romania under completely mundane circumstances and had absolutely no connection to the unknown con artist who’d disappeared without a trace right after Richard Miller was taken into custody. As far as official statements from the FBI indicated, the two incidents were unrelated, and the mysterious man pretending to be Tim Miller had simply taken off when it became clear that his cover would not hold up any longer.
At last, he handed the clipboard back to Crovetti while Rebhorn undid the handcuffs. “I’ll be seeing you at the trial, I suppose,” Rebhorn said, before turning to Ciprian. “And don’t get me wrong on this, but I hope I never see you again.”
“The feeling is the same,” Ciprian said, shaking both agents’ hands. He then turned to Joe. “Can you escape me?”
Joe surely could. They walked back out to the car together and climbed in without saying a word. Joe started the engine, then turned to Ciprian. “Want to go see him?”
The drive to the cemetery was short, though the land past its gates was vast and the road through it wound slowly through green fields of tombstones and statues. Joe made a familiar set of turns and twists until he pulled the car to the side and got out. Ciprian followed, and together they paced halfway down the row to where a small stone rectangle marked the final resting place of Timothy Richard Miller.
Joe felt Ciprian’s hand curl around his, threading their fingers together as they stood there. Ciprian looked up, squinting into the cloudless sky, then back around the grassy expanse surrounding them. “It’s nice,” he said at last. “Tim would like it here.”
Maybe it should have been strange to hear something about his brother’s preferences from a man who’d never met him, but as far as Joe was concerned, Ciprian had been closer to Tim than anyone. He’d lived inside Tim’s skin and solved his murder, and if there was a more thorough way to know someone, Joe didn’t know what that was.
Joe squeezed Ciprian’s hand. “Well, we can come back any time you like,” he said. “Hell, you can come back any time you like. They got you a driver’s license? Do you even know how to drive a car?”
“No,” said Ciprian, laughing. “But I learn fast.”
That, he certainly did. Together, they stood at the grave, breathing in the sunny morning air. After too many years, the nightmares no longer stalked Joe’s nights. Tim Miller was home at last, home for good, and now the rest of them could find their places as well.
“You know,” Joe said after a long moment, “I still owe you a date.”
Ciprian grinned. “McDonald’s?”
“Only the finest in quarter pounder technology,” Joe said with a smirk. “Served atop our best china that I just took out of the dishwasher this morning, at a table set for five, so that all of us can meet this new man, Ciprian Constantinescu.”
Smiling sheepishly, Ciprian gave Joe’s hand a squeeze in return. “I hope you will like him.”
Joe nodded at Tim’s grave, then at the blue heavens above them. “I already do.”