It hits me then that I’m bait now, that they’re going to get my dad, and it’s all going to be my fault. Because I did this, and when he comes and gets trapped, he’s going to blame me.
I don’t go toward the neighbor’s property. I hang up on Kezia. I stop in front of our house, and I think for a few seconds. Somebody broke the front window, and the curtains are blowing in the cold breeze off the lake. Rustling like dry leaves. I dial my dad’s number. He doesn’t answer. I get voice mail, and I tell him not to come, but to text me when he gets the message.
Minutes go by. Long minutes. I keep checking. No text from Dad. No calls. Kezia keeps calling, but I just keep sending it to voice mail.
Fifteen minutes. Kezia won’t take much longer to get here, even if the Norton police take their time.
I dial my dad’s number again. Come on, come on . . .
It goes again to generic voice mail, and I blurt out, “Dad, please don’t come, I’m sorry, don’t do it, please don’t, the police will be looking for you—”
The phone rings, and the phone asks if I want to hang up and accept the call. Kezia. I ignore it, take the phone, and run forward, to the edge of the slushy lake. I try Dad’s number again. Again. Again. When I get voice mail the last time, I say, “I’m getting rid of the phone, Dad. I don’t want them to find you with it! Please don’t come here!”
I throw the phone as far as I can out into the lake.
It lands, then breaks through the hardening crust on top of the water. It disappears without a sound, and without a ripple. It’s too cold for ripples.
I hear a car engine. I think, The police are here, and I turn around, ready to take my punishment. Boot has gone still at the end of the leash, and he’s facing the road.
It isn’t a police car. Not even an unmarked one, like Kezia drives. It’s a white van, a big, long one with no windows on the sides. It’s got muddy stains all up on it, like it drove through a lot of slush.
There’s a man in a black coat with the hood up behind the wheel. He parks on the road and gets out, and I can’t see his face, but I know who it is. Who it has to be.
Time slows down. I know time doesn’t really do that, but that’s how it seems, like I’m in one of those movies where everything goes slow motion and the hero steps out of the path of a bullet. Only there’s no bullet.
I can’t think what to do. Part of me says run, and that part is strong enough to make me take a couple of steps back, but where can I go? The lake’s behind me. I should run left, around the van, and head for the neighbor’s house, like Kezia said. But the other, bigger piece of me says, Stay. It’s your dad.
The man stops about five feet from me and puts down his hood.
It’s not Dad.
The man’s old, with thick white hair on the sides, bald on top. His eyes are a mean, muddy brown, and when he smiles at me, it’s just teeth. “Hey, there, Brady,” he says. He has a Tennessee accent, like he’s from somewhere close. “Your dad sent me to get you. You just come on with me now, and I’ll take you to meet him.”
I hear a distant wail. A police siren. This is all wrong, and I don’t know why Dad isn’t here. Was he scared? Didn’t he trust me? Maybe he was right, because I screwed it all up by leaving that note. This is my fault.
The sirens seem a long way off.
Boot growls. It’s a low, rumbling sound I’ve never heard before, not like this. The growl he gave us back at Javier’s when we first came was just playing, but this isn’t. When I look at him, he’s staring at the man, and Boot’s lips are pulled back from his long, strong teeth.
“Son, you need to tell that dog to stop.” The man tries a smile. “I done told you, your dad sent me. But I’m not going to fight that dog. I’ll kill it if it comes near me.”
He has a gun. I see it now, shoved in the waistband of his jeans. He puts his hand on it.
Boot lets out a loud, scary series of barks and lunges to the end of the leash. He’s big, and strong, and I can’t hold on.
“Boot, no!” I yell, but the dog isn’t listening to me. He’s jumping forward, hitting the ground, jumping again. Like flying.
The man jerks his gun out, but it isn’t a gun at all, because when Boot lands on his chest, he puts it up against the dog’s chest and I hear something like sizzling, and Boot yelps, high-pitched and awful, and rolls off. He falls, all his legs twitching and his head jerking. His eyes are wild and round.
I scream and run toward him, but the man is right there, in the way, and he grabs my arm and swings me around. His fingernails are long and dirty, and he isn’t my father, and something’s all wrong, Boot’s hurt, and I can’t get in that van, Mom always told us to never get in anybody’s car, to shout and yell and fight every step.
I try to pull free, but he wraps me in both arms and lifts me off the ground. I’m struggling, but he has my arms pinned under his. I kick at him. Boot’s still twitching, yelping like he’s in pain.
“Shut up, you crazy little shit,” the man shouts. I can smell toothpaste on his breath, and coffee. “You shut the fuck up or I will knock you out, you hear me? Cops are coming! We got no time for this. Don’t you want to see your daddy?”
I keep kicking. He can’t cover my mouth if he’s going to keep my arms pinned, and I start yelling again, but the man is rushing me toward the van, and even if someone hears, they won’t get to me in time, and I have to do something.
Mom wouldn’t let this happen to her. I don’t think about Dad at all. I remember my mom, who always, always stood between us and danger. She wouldn’t give up. I’m not giving up, either.
I kick again, harder, and this time, my boot heel connects hard with the man’s groin. I hear my knee click, and I get a flash of pain, but I don’t care, and when he yells and lets go, I start running. I can hear the sirens. I can see dust coming up in the air just on the other side of the hill. They’re almost here.
He hits me from behind with something before I’m more than half a dozen steps away. I stagger a couple of steps, and then I fall down.
Everything goes gray and soft, and then red with pain, and I can’t think. I can feel him dragging me by the feet.
I hear the siren get louder and louder, and I think it’s just in my head until I see Kezia’s black car come flying over the hill and barrel toward us, with built-in blue-and-red lights flashing in the front grille.
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