Dad cut me off with a single sharp jerk of his head. “We are not discussing this right now,” he said. “The new security system will be installed tomorrow. Your mother and I will be staying home to oversee it, and we will review our new household rules before one of us drives you to work. One of us will also pick you up. You will come straight home after your shift at the shelter is finished. This will continue for the duration of your punishment.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, too bewildered to be really annoyed. Annoyance would come later, when I was alone in my room with time to think about what had just happened. “Are you grounding me?”
“Yes,” he replied coldly.
“You can’t ground me. I’m an adult.”
“We are your legal guardians. I don’t care how old you are: while you are under our roof, you will live by our rules,” he said. “If you have a problem with those rules, we can discuss adjusting them after your punishment is complete.”
“How long is that going to be?”
“The foreseeable future,” Dad said. He held out his hand. “Give me your phone.”
Too stunned to do anything but obey, I dug my phone out of my pocket and dropped it into his waiting palm. He closed his fingers around it, pulling it out of my reach.
“Now go to your room.”
Through all of this, Mom didn’t say anything at all. She just watched me, with an expression of such profound disappointment on her face that it made my chest ache. I looked between them, my shoulders sagging. I had the book; I had the scrambler. I could have told them everything without any fear that SymboGen would overhear.
All I said was, “Goodnight,” before I turned and walked down the hall to my room.
Joyce was standing in her own doorway, watching my approach with dark, sad eyes. She shook her head as I passed her, and mouthed, “You f**ked up,” silently before she vanished into the shadows of her room. I sighed and kept walking.
Beverly was curled up on my bed when I stepped into my room. She raised her head, tail thumping twice against the mattress. I closed my door, dropping my bag on the floor and setting the copy of Don’t Go Out Alone carefully on the desk. “At least someone’s glad to see me, huh, girl?”
Beverly’s tail thumped the bed again.
I was exhausted and overwhelmed by my day. I climbed into bed with my clothes still on. Beverly shifted positions so that her nose was tucked into the curled palm of my hand, and I fell asleep feeling her breath against my skin.
When I woke up the morning after our visit to Dr. Cale’s secret lair, I found myself a prisoner in my own home. The new security system not only controlled the doors and windows; it extended to the side gates, and it could be locked down hard by anyone who controlled the master codes—specifically, my mother, father, and Joyce, all of whom were deemed “responsible enough” to decide whether poor little Sal could be allowed to go wandering around the neighborhood unprotected. The sliding glass door to the backyard had been replaced with a wooden one. Beverly now had an electronic collar keyed to the brand-new doggie door, and she could use it to come and go during the hours when no one was home. From the perspective of the security system, I was no one.
The new security extended to the wireless network and even the television, both of which had been locked down. I couldn’t get on the Internet at all, and I couldn’t access any of the news channels—just movies, children’s shows, and endless reruns of nostalgic sitcoms made before I graduated from high school.
“This is insane,” I’d objected, only to have my father look at me with cold eyes, like he was looking at someone he didn’t even know.
“You should have thought of that before you ran off without telling us what had happened here,” he’d replied. “You made your bed, Sal. Now you get to lie in it. Next time, you’ll consider your actions before you commit to them.”
“I’m not ready to talk to you yet. Have a nice day.” Then he’d been out the door, heading for the car where Joyce was already waiting. I never even saw Mom that day. She was up and out before I got out of bed; she didn’t come back until after I’d gone to sleep for the night.
The scope of my punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime that had inspired it. I’d disappeared with my boyfriend for a day, following the sort of traumatic event that probably should trigger that sort of behavior. They were acting like I’d killed somebody. As one day faded into the next, they kept shutting me out. Dad was constantly leaving for the office, or at the office, or not coming home, and Joyce was with him. After the second night, she stopped coming home at all. When Mom came home from her own errands, she made herself scarce, speaking to me only in generalities. All the while, I paced the house like a caged animal, reading Nathan’s copy of Don’t Go Out Alone over and over again like it was going to teach me something new.
The story never changed. Every time, the little boy and the little girl—neither of them with a name, neither of them ever shown fully out of shadow, so that they could have looked like anything, they could have looked like Nathan, or like me—went into the forest, searching for the broken doors. Every time, they found them, and found the prize they’d been searching for: eternity in the land of monsters. That was where the story ended, every time. There was nothing about their parents, beyond “they chased the monster away, and the journey began.” But wasn’t that what parents were supposed to do? Chase monsters away? It seemed like they were just doing their jobs, and yet somehow that was enough to justify them losing their children forever.