I don’t want to think about this—to bring Dad into it now, when I’m already feeling this low. The virus-disease-whatever hit these kids at a young age, but my dad carried his sickness with him his whole sixty years of life, through the good years and the bad ones, and the terrible ones after he lost his restaurant. Until the weight of it finally sank him.
I want to laugh when all the characters start delivering the moral of the story, that all these things they’re looking for have been inside them all along—that that’s where goodness and strength live. They want you to think that darkness or evil is only something that gets inflicted on you by the outside world, but I know better, and I think the freak does, too. Sometimes the darkness lives inside you, and sometimes it wins.
“Now I know I’ve got a heart,” the Tin Man says as I shut my eyes and roll away from the screen, “because it’s breaking.”
The girl has nightmares. It’s the only time I hear her talking, and it scares the shit out of me. I sit straight up in bed, fumbling in the dark for the knife I left on the nightstand. I think a wild dog’s broken in, or one of those feral cats I always see lurking around the motel’s Dumpsters. My brain is still half asleep—well, three-quarters asleep. I don’t remember about the kid sleeping on the floor until I’m basically stepping on her. I don’t even assume the noise is human, because it can’t be. No way. The words that come crawling out of her mouth aren’t words at all, but these gut-wrenching, god-awful moans.
I stand over her, and stand there and stand there and stand there, and I think, Wake her up, Gabe, just do it, but that feels like a line that shouldn’t be crossed. That means I care.
I don’t. No matter what she does or doesn’t do, no matter how hard she makes this for me, I won’t ever care.
The bed creaks as my weight sinks back down into it. I half hope the noise will wake her and get me out of having to make the decision. One hour drives into the next, and I lie there, as still as I can force myself to be. I listen to her cry all night, and it feels like a punishment I deserve.
MORNING comes in a blinding burst of white light as the thick motel curtains are thrown aside, their metal rings screeching in protest. The flood of sun into the dark, musty room is so sudden that my body reacts before my brain does. I drop off the side of the bed and stagger onto my feet, throwing up a hand to shield my eyes.
Shit—shit! I slept too long, what time is it, where’s the—
A few things come into focus quickly. First the pile of clean laundry sitting on top of my duffel bag, just to the left of the door. I can smell the fresh scent from here and take a step toward it, confused. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a small form at the desk, sitting in front of two plates of food—powdered doughnuts, some fruit snacks, and pretzels—with my jar of peanut butter open between them. Clear plastic wrappers are dangling over the edge of the room’s small trash can, caught on the lip. I know exactly where they came from: the vending machines in the laundry room.
Carefully coating each pretzel on her plate with a delicate dab of peanut butter, she keeps her back to me as I walk to the table. The zip tie is gone, and so are the handcuffs. She’s changed, too, out of her dirty, bloodied clothes into a baggy pink Route 66 T-shirt and jeans she’s had to roll up a few times at the ankles. I stare at them until I remember there’s a donation box in the laundry room that no one’s ever done anything with, filled mostly with kid stuff.
With the exception of the bed I just fell out of, the room is impeccably tidy. The trash is gone, and she’s even cracked the window open slightly to get fresh, cool air flowing in. I storm to the window and throw the curtains shut. The room is pitched into darkness, but I don’t care. It makes it easier somehow.
“Are you stupid?” I yell. “You think this is going to work on me? That if you play nice with me, I’ll be nice right back? Are you really that big of an idiot that you think I want to help you?”
She shrinks a tiny bit in her chair, but she doesn’t look away. She doesn’t even blink, and I can’t help it—I know she’s a freak, I know that I shouldn’t be talking to her at all, or acknowledging this, or letting her get me this worked up, but it all explodes inside me until I feel anger making a mess of every other thought in my head.
Even if she wasn’t trying to play that game, she obviously thought I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone her. And this was her way of throwing it back in my face, wasn’t it? Mocking me. Why else wouldn’t she have run when she had the chance? Clearly I don’t know how to latch the handcuffs, I don’t know how to restrain her, and I can’t even keep myself alert enough to know when she’s left the goddamn room.
Why did I think I could do this? The freak won’t say a word, but I just look at her and I know the dialogue running through her head. He sucks, he’s dumb as roadkill, he’s better off scrubbing trailers. Same script as everybody else.
But I’m not. I’m not. I swear I’m not.
I can be better than this. I know I can be. These freaks, they all know the right way to mess with your thoughts, make you doubt yourself, but I won’t let her. Not anymore. The clock says that it’s only eight in the morning. They’ll be open. I can get rid of her now and be done with this. Get the ten-ton weight off where it’s caving my chest in.
“This isn’t Kansas, Dorothy,” I snap at her. “People here aren’t nice. They aren’t your friends. I’m not your friend.”
She ignores me, swinging her legs back and forth on the desk chair as she chows down on her breakfast. I get the look—the one I’m starting to think of as that look—in return. One eyebrow raised, lips pursed, eyes blazing with Give me a break, buddy.
I leave the food there and take her arm, ignoring her wince as I yank her up from her seat. I fasten two zip ties around her wrists this time, not caring when she makes a small noise of surprised pain. We’re leaving. Right now. I’m going to show her how serious I am. She’ll finally see she should have run when she had a chance.
She’s wrong about me.
I decide to risk driving up to Prescott without doubling back down to Camp Verde for gas. Now that they’ve started drilling in Alaska, tankers have been showing up on the highway again, but the station in Camp Verde is the only one that gets reliable shipments. It’s not that I’m afraid those skip tracers will still be there waiting for me on the highway; I just want to get this done and over with so I can start hunting kids for real.