Neil Josten was awake, but he didn’t know where he was.
Sometimes, when he jolted awake too quickly from nightmares, his body was stuck in a state of sleep so deep that he couldn’t move. Sleep paralysis would cling to him and press him down into the sheets like someone trying to strangle him. No matter how much he struggled, he couldn’t will his body to move, not even a little.
That’s what this felt like to Neil. Except Neil didn’t think he had woken up from a nightmare. He didn’t think he dreamt anything at all.
Awareness came to him slowly, but movement came slower. Neil tried to wiggle his toes and his fingers but all he could manage was a small twitch in his hand. His limbs felt so heavy he felt like he was being melded into the mattress underneath him. Finally, Neil was able to peel open his eyes, and squinting against the sudden glaring light, he realized that something was very, very wrong.
In the time it took for his eyes to adjust, Neil noticed that the buzz in his ears wasn’t really a buzz at all, but a slow, rhythmic beeping. All he could see besides the speckled white ceiling above him was a heart rate monitor in the corner of his eye, and assuming that Neil couldn’t move and couldn’t remember what had happened last, he was the one hooked up to it.
Neil jerked his head to the side and frantically kicked out his legs. His movements were still too sluggish but his heartbeat kicked up a desperate pace as he forced himself to sit upright. Immediately, pain exploded behind his eyes and the thud, thud, thud of his pulse throbbing in his temples accompanied the orange and red lights popping in his vision. The lights fizzled to black, and Neil crumpled forward over his legs. His head didn’t stop pounding, but he wasn’t about to let it deter him from getting away.
Any second now, someone could burst into the hospital room, stab a needle in his neck, and that would be the end of him. He didn’t know why he was in a hospital room, and there was no way in hell he was sticking around to find out. Neil’s fingers scrambled clumsily over his other hand around the IV stuck in his vein, intending to pull it out.
“Hey – No, don’t do that.” Hands grabbed at Neil and pushed him back down into the bed. Neil thrashed and swung an uncoordinated fist but the other person caught his arm and forced it back down. “Calm down. I said calm down – can I get some help in here?”
The world sparkled back into view as the headache subsided, and Neil could see the person he was struggling with. Neil didn’t recognize him as one of his father’s men – he was a lot bigger than Neil, with dark skin and purple hospital scrubs. He easily overpowered Neil, but instead of fighting Neil or forcing him out of the hospital room and into the trunk of a car, he gently pressed Neil’s arms to his sides.
“Do you know where you are?” the nurse asked. His nametag said Joseph. Two more people with scrubs Neil didn’t recognize crowded into the room, making Neil feel claustrophobic. He wouldn’t be able to take all three of them at once, but they didn’t try and touch him. Neil glanced past the shortest nurse to the hall behind her. If he could be able to slip past her he would be free and could take it from there. Joseph motioned for the other two to back up and said, “Mr. Josten?”
Neil startled. His eyes snapped to the nurse, but his expression was calm except for the slight downturn of his lips. Neil opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His tongue seemed to be glued to the roof of his mouth and he craved water like a man who had been stranded out in the desert for years. He didn’t know where he was, other than that he was in a hospital. He’d only been in Millport, Arizona for five months now – which was already far too long, and if his mother knew she’d beat him for this – but he knew that the closest hospital was nearly ten miles away in a nearby town.
And that didn’t explain how he had landed himself in the hospital. His head hurt, so did his ribs. But the last thing Neil clearly remembered was walking back from school to the empty house he was squatting in. Exy practice had just ended, and the sun hadn’t even begun to set yet, but the images coming to Neil were foggy at best and completely disjointed at worst. Neil shook his head and ignored the lingering pain.
“That’s normal,” one of the nurses said. She was tall and thin, with pale blonde hair, and her nametag said Kelly. “You sustained a major head injury in a car accident about a week ago. You were unconscious for six days but you were briefly awake yesterday before falling back asleep.”
Panic rose up in his chest at the words and Neil felt the itch to run, to get away. He didn’t like the thought of being unconscious for days without anyone watching his back and being completely at the mercy of whoever came into his hospital room. Neil also didn’t remember being in a car; he hadn’t been in a car since he had driven through California with his mom. He never let anyone drive him home after practice, no matter how many times they offered he would always staunchly refuse. Neil’s stomach tossed and he furiously beat back the image of a burning car and the acrid stench of gasoline and smoke. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the palms of his hands against his eyelids until stars replaced his mother’s body.
“Is he awake? Oh my God, Neil –” Neil’s eyes flew open to see a man dressed in an orange hoodie and jeans. His face was twisted in concern, but it couldn’t have been for Neil because Neil had no idea who this man was. The man maneuvered himself around Joseph to Neil and reached out for his hand. Neil jerked away and brought his knees up in case he had to defend himself, but the man withdrew like Neil had burned him. “Andrew said – Shit, you really don’t remember?”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen you before in my life,” Neil said, his voice raspy like sandpaper. The man flinched and ran a hand through his hair, but he didn’t try to reach for Neil again.
Neil swallowed nervously and eyed the exit again before flicking his gaze around the room. There was a duffel bag laying beside one of the plastic chairs, but it wasn’t Neil’s. Another bolt of panic speared him through the chest when he realized he didn’t have his things. The most important thing in there was his binder, with all his money and contacts. He scoured his memory, desperately trying to remember where it could be, but he came up blank. Neil never went anywhere without his duffel. If someone had gotten a hold of it, he was a dead man walking.
“What happened to me?” Neil attempted to smooth out the panic in his voice, but his words were shaky and edged with it.
“You were in a car accident –” Joseph began, but Neil shook his head again, he already knew that. He pinched his eyes shut and tugged at his hair and tried to remember. But it was like everything had been wiped blank, like there was a gap between now and what Neil remembered last that he didn’t have access to. It frustrated him to no end.
“Neil, are you alright –” the man started, but Neil shushed him.
“Get out,” he said, slanting his eyes open in a glare. The man’s mouth snapped shut and he stared wordlessly at Joseph. Joseph frowned but motioned for the man to leave. He, Kelly, and the other nurse followed after him and shut the door with a firm click behind them.
Neil ground his teeth together and tried to block out the beeping of the heart monitor. Scratching at the gap in his memory did nothing but worsen his headache and Neil threw his hands up in the air with a frustrated groan. He could figure out what he missed later, but right now he needed to find his way out.
There was no way he would be left completely alone without supervision. It was likely one of the nurses was stationed outside the door, ready to grab him in case he tried to make a run for it. Neil glanced at the window. It looked like he was only three stories up, and the window was big enough for him to shimmy through without too much of a problem. If he could force the window open and get on the ledge, he would be able to climb down and bolt before anyone could figure out he was gone.
Before Neil could move towards the window, however, the door swung open. Neil jumped as his attention snapped to the entryway where a short man with blonde hair stood with his fists clenched at his sides. Neil tensed as the man shut the door with a slam and stomped over to Neil’s bedside looking like he was about to commit murder.
But the man stopped several feet away and crossed his arms tight across his chest without a word. The corners of his eyes were tight and his mouth was pulled into a furious scowl. Neil noticed that the man had fading yellow bruises on his face.
“Get out,” Neil said.
“No,” the man said, never looking away from Neil. There was a defiant look in his eye that matched the jut of his jaw. Something about him seemed familiar, but Neil couldn’t place what.
“This is my room, and I said get out, so –” Neil was ready with an entire angry rant at the tip of his tongue; his head hurt too much for him to care that Neil Josten was supposed to be timid and quiet.
“Tell me you weren’t about to run,” the man cut him off.
Neil bristled and said, “I wasn’t about to run.”
“Liar. That’s why I’m staying.” The man carelessly plopped down into the chair and the look he gave Neil dared him to try and make him move. Neil seethed, ready for an argument, but his heartbeat was pounding behind his eyes and his throat hurt so badly all he could manage was a cough that racked his entire body when he took a deep breath, sore muscles be damned.
The man said nothing during Neil’s coughing fit, and when he looked up, he was met with a quirked eyebrow and an unimpressed look. Neil flipped him off and turned to the window again, determined to ignore the man.
Neither of them said anything as the man was content to let Neil stew in silent anger that he was somehow untouched by. A few minutes later, there was a banging at the door, but before anyone could answer, it flew open.
The blood in Neil’s body froze, making every vein and artery go cold when he saw who had entered the room. Even with the black two that marked his face covered up, Neil would recognize Kevin Day anywhere. They hadn’t seen each other for over eight years but he could never forget Kevin. He could only hope Kevin had forgotten him.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Kevin looked from the man to Neil so quickly Neil was surprised he didn’t break his neck. He finally settled an incredulous look on Neil that made Neil squirm uncomfortably. He searched every inch of Kevin’s face, looking for the surprise and recognition, but instead found something that Neil didn’t understand.
The first man slipped in behind Kevin, looking sheepish and apologetic. “You really don’t remember, do you, Neil?”
Neil wanted to scream. Other than Kevin, he didn’t know these people, and he didn’t like how they seemed to know him – or at least, know Neil Josten. And besides his father, Kevin was probably the last person Neil ever wanted to see. He hated not knowing what was happening, he hated not remembering.
“Did you think I was lying to you, Nicky?” the blonde man said, looking bored despite the tense line of his shoulders. He addressed the other man, but never took his eyes off of Neil. It suddenly clicked why the man looked so familiar. Neil had seen him alongside Kevin in magazines and newspaper tabloids for nearly a month now.
“Wait, you’re Minyard.” Andrew Minyard raised his eyebrows at that but said nothing. “Kevin’s bodyguard. I’ve seen you in the news. Aren’t you supposed to be drugged?”
Neil had searched Andrew’s name as soon as it started to appear next to Kevin’s. He was the starting goalie for the Palmetto State Foxes, and he was also supposed to be on court-mandated drugs for nearly beating four men to death outside a nightclub.
The other man – Nicky, Neil assumed – gaped at Neil and let out a strangled noise. “Kevin’s bodyguard. Neil, he’s your –”
“Shut up, Nicky,” Andrew said with a low growl. He glared at Nicky for several seconds before he turned back to Neil. His hand was curled into a fist against his leg. “I’ve been off my meds for almost a year now.”
That didn’t make sense. The confusion must have shown on his face because Andrew rolled his eyes. Nicky shuffled closer and shot a hesitant look at Andrew. “Neil, how much do you remember?”
Neil looked at Kevin, but he wasn’t telling the entire world that the Butcher’s son was still alive, so Neil guessed he didn’t know who Neil really was. He turned back to Nicky and smoothed out his face as not to give anything away. “I’m a senior in high school. I’m nineteen years old, and my mom –”
“Your mom is dead. Try again,” Andrew interrupted with a drawl. Neil tried not to flinch, but he wasn’t sure if he succeeded.
“She’s not. She’s out of town with Dad –”
“Wrong again. Your parents are dead, Neil. They’ve been dead for a while.”
Neil grit his teeth. Andrew leaned forward across his knees and stared Neil down. Neil refused to look away, but he didn’t know how Andrew was calling his bluff. Unless he was guessing.
“How would you know? You don’t know me,” Neil snapped. Andrew’s eyebrow twitched. Neil saw Nicky grimace and shift uncomfortably.
“Your name is Neil Abram Josten. Your mother died in California and you burned her body along with the car. Your father was executed by your uncle last March, and you survived him. You –”
Neil didn’t wait for him to finish as he bolted out of the bed. He barely hesitated to rip the IV out, ignoring the twinging pain as he wrapped his bleeding hand in his hospital gown. Andrew had expected it and was already blocking the exit to the door. Neil tried to swerve around, but Andrew blocked him just as easily as he could an Exy ball. Neil threw himself toward the opposite wall instead and desperately clawed at the window to get it open, but Kevin intercepted him and pulled Neil away. Neil tried to elbow him in the gut or kick him in the knees, but Kevin was stronger than him.
Nicky stayed several feet away, but he had his hands up in a placating gesture. “Neil, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
The door opened again and Joseph and another nurse grabbed Neil from Kevin and plopped him into the bed. Neil kicked out, aiming for anything; knees, shins, face, but the nurses held down his flailing limbs. Someone yelled something and there was a loud bang like a body thumping against the wall, but Neil couldn’t see who it was.
Joseph murmured something to the other nurse and then someone stabbed a needle in Neil’s arm, making him dizzy and off-balance. The grip on his panic and desperation slackened until it faded away and he slumped against the pillows and lost consciousness.