The Diplomacy of Youth by Vanessa S. Quest
Portland, ME, the early autumn sky around the tree-lined parks painted the accents of oranges and bright reds, forest green, and long expanses of grey over sea green…
A storm was going just off-shore, fishermen and lobster crews worked to diligently pull in their haul and get out of dodge, no different than any other storm.
Dr. Quest watched the moving truck pull into the long private driveway as Race ushered the boys back toward the lighthouse to explore- and keep them out from under Dr. Quest’s latest project.
As he handed them a score-sheet for a 20-item scavenger hunt in the lighthouse, he considered it mission accomplished.
The youngest of them all, Jonny, had ignored it only to run up all 113 stairs to the bell of the lighthouse, happily watching the thunderstorm wreaking havoc on the waterfront, he waved at his father before returning his attention to the storm.
Race had laughed to himself about that, had he known the storm would keep him out from underfoot, he’d have nixed the scavenger hunt completely. “Don’t go hangin’ out over the edge, Jonny…” He chided.
The blond rolled his eyes but followed the order, the rambunctious 11 year old leaned back inside and watched the near-constant lightning strikes and the ever-darkening clouds.
Hadji, a much calmer boy by nature, had systematically tracked down 19 of the 20 objects on the list.
“Race, is this the last item?” He held up a small figurine for Race to confer.
The trucks were pulling out of the driveway. “Yeah, you found all of them. Now, what do they have in common?” He turned to an impromptu lesson.
“See, Hadji! It was a trap.” The blond called down.
“It’s fun though.” Hadji called back, “They are all items from the original owner.”
“And when was that?” Race pushed.
“Eighteen eighty…” Hadji gauged Race, “…two. 1882.” Hadji corrected.
Race gave the boy a high-five, “Are you boys done exploring?”
Hadji nodded as Jonny climbed back down.
“Aw, I guess. Should we help dad unpack or is it fragile?”
Race shrugged, “There weren’t a lot of boxes, by the looks of it, but we should ask all the same.”
“Yes sir.” Both boys chimed.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Dr. Quest looked over the shipping manifesto and the inventory checklist to confirm the last of the materials were received as the boys helped move the less breakable objects into his study.
“What’re you building this time dad?” Jonny asked while lugging a particularly heavy box.
“A computer program with direct interface—virtual reality. It’s so I can try different experiments with applied physics that aren’t feasible to do in a lab setting.”
“Well that sounds fun…” Jonny deadpanned.
“Not all of science is Nobel Prizes and rocket launches, young man. Someday you’ll appreciate the toils of experimenting and building on knowledge.” Benton lectured.
“Sure thing, pops.” Jonny saluted, “If we’re done…?”
“We’re done. Wash up and ask Mrs. Evans what time dinner will be served.”
“Yes sir.” Jonny darted off, happy to avoid any more of his dad’s broken-record lecture.
“I swear that boy just doesn’t get it…” he mumbled, quieted as he saw Hadji still listening.
“Physics experiments? Like Quantum Theory?”
Benton smiled, excited, “Exactly! And more. We program in the basic ‘rules’ and ‘math’ and let it play through, see what matches predictions and the consequences of the actions.”
“Wow!” Hadji beamed, imagining the modeling of supernovas and black holes. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Dr. Quest laughed, “Of course, but not before dinner. Go on, catch up with your brother and get cleaned up.”
“Ok, sir.” Hadji left the study, eyes dreaming of the possibilities.
Benton let out a sigh, he wished both of his boys had that scientific spirit, but one was better than none, he supposed. Jonny tagged Hadji as the older boy left the study, he spotted his dad sighing absently and quickly masked his pout.
“Mrs. Evans said dinner’d be served at 6:30 sharp.” Jonny called back loud enough for his father to hear, and the fishing rigs at the wharfs for that matter.
“Jonny did you wash your hands?” Hadji asked, himself already headed toward the water closet.
“Yeah, with soap and everything,” He said sarcastically, he felt micromanaged by his goody-two-shoes older brother sometimes, especially when his dad made it obvious he had a favorite.
“Dad, we have another hour before dinner, can I explore the grounds some more? I promise I’ll be back and wash up before Mrs. Evans is ready…”
“You’ve explored all day, young man. Why don’t you explore your new school books instead, and then after dinner, you can take a walk as long as you’re back before curfew.”
“Yes, really,” Dr. Quest compromised. They’d only moved here a month ago, so much of the place was still new, he supposed fostering an explorer was better than nothing.
“Yes sir!” Jonny said, rushing off before his dad could renege upon considering a drenched 11 year old walking through the house. Jonny didn’t have to worry, though. His dad was absent-mindedly pondering his latest experiment anyway.
In his room, Jonny read through his history textbook for the first three chapters, it covered 50 pages – and the relationships and finances of the world prior to WWI, immediately after WWI, and immediately prior to WWII.
The reading went quickly, it was interesting—but it was also a narrow frame of history.
He’d never admit it, but he wanted to know more about other diplomatic activities in the eras around the great wars. Zoning out, he wondered how to become an emissary, or work with diplomats. Maybe Race knew how you did that? He’d have to ask him, if he wasn’t in a lesson mood.
He startled back to his senses as the door pounded.
“Jonathon Quest you are late for dinner!” Mrs. Evans bellowed in a scary voice. “You had better not be covered in—”
He opened the door, his open textbook on the bed, as were his notebooks and a pen.
“Sorry ma’am. I lost track of time—I washed up earlier, scout’s honor!”
“…W-well alright, then…” She said, softening. She too had thought the boy was goofing off. “Then go hurry down before your dad gets the mind to give you an earful.”
“Yes’m.” He dodged under her to rush to the dining room.
“Nice of you to join us,” Race said levelly.
Jonny paled, he didn’t want his exploration cancelled on him. He’d studied just like his dad asked—he caught his dad’s face with his peripheral vision. He wasn’t paying attention yet, Jonny let out an exhale.
“Well, Hadji magnanimously left you one drumstick, so you’d better claim it before he changes his mind.” Race concluded.
Hadji shoveled two large heaps of veggies on Jonny’s plate—broccoli with cheese, and glazed rainbow carrots, a roll, and a drumstick and chicken breast.
“Thanks, Hadji.” Jonny said darkly toward the broccoli and carrots, he tried to keep his face neutral, assuming diplomats would never offer offense at a state dinner.
Framing it like a game, he decided that’s how he’d get through this guck—pretending he was on a mission to make allies with a key diplomat, and that any disgrace would doom the alliance—if he could make it through dinner without a faux pas he’d go back and sign the key treaties.
He wondered if that library in town would have more books about the diplomatic treaties and relationships in trade regulation during WWII and post WWI, heck, even the great depression…
He looked down at his plate, he’d already demolished the broccoli and carrots!
He smiled politely across the table, the mission was practically in the bag.
“What did you study today, boys?” Benton asked as he sipped his wine and sliced his carrots.
“Race had us learn about the history of the lighthouse!” Hadji recounted animatedly. “And about mariner charts…”
“I read about the trade deficits that led the German mark to fail and led to Hitler’s rise to prowess.” Jonny said evenly, he didn’t want to come off as excited—that was undiplomatic, his non-plus tone came off as casual disinterest, but he’d have nerded out if anyone asked questions—
His dad asked, “What about the mariner charts did you learn, Hadji?”
Jonny deflated a little. Maybe he was too good of a diplomat.
“He taught us how they are topographical based on tide position and how sandbars shift after major storms—sediment…”
Jonny zoned out as he finished the chicken breast, the bird was dried out. He finished his drumstick, then lastly his roll, the closest thing to dessert they usually got.
“Hey kiddo, you polished that off, you want seconds?” Race asked.
Jonny looked down at his plate, “Can I get another roll and a little more carrots?”
Race touched the boy’s forehead. “Well you don’t seem to have a fever…” He joked.
Jonny politely pulled back, “Well, it’s healthy, dad doesn’t like me filling up on just bread.” He countered.
Race gave the boy a side-eye then gave him two rolls and two carrots, a far better deal than Jonny expected.
“You’re welcome, butter?”
Race handed him the dish. Jonny finished off the carrots and bread.
“May I be excused?” He asked, Hadji and Dr. Quest were still going on about marine mapping, the conversation shifting toward the challenges of undersea engineering.
“Sure, just bus your plates.”
“Yes sir.” Jonny smiled. He’d made it through and still had time to get to and from the library if he took his bike! He loaded his silverware, glass, and plates and returned them to the kitchen.
Quickly, he rushed upstairs to his room for his backpack and flashlight, wrote a note to the effect, ‘I’m exploring the local library, I’ll be back before 8:30 as discussed before dinner. – Jonny’ then made his way to the mudroom where he put on his shoes, helmet, and wheeled out his bike.
He was out the door in under two minutes, his exploration no longer endangered by his dad’s whims.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny closed his eyes to remember the routes Race had both the boys memorize.
Interstate 1 would drop them into town, Main Street ran parallel to the coast and the library was off it. There and back was 10 miles round trip.
Eyes opened, he pedaled toward I-1. The rain-wet asphalt smelled earthen, luckily the storm had already rolled past, though the sky stayed dark grey as the sun lowered toward the horizon. “It should be that first exit and then I’ll come onto Main Street…” Jonny reminded himself out loud.
A car drove passed him with their brights on, music blaring. The compact vehicle hit a puddle and sprayed him.
“Aw great!” Jonny hissed, soaked. The probability of his dad being furious with him just shot up 200%. He wondered if his dad would even remember their deal about exploring, sure he left that note, but he was definitely distracted—enough to agree to it even with the rain in the first place…
His dad would probably be mad he didn’t opt to abort with that information in mind, his dad always seemed to do that…
Jonny bit his lip, the more Hadji took after his dad, the madder he’d been getting at Jonny, too, he reflected. He wondered if that’s what it was like being the oldest? Sure, Hadji was older in calendar years, but he’d been in the family for less time, so maybe it was similar?
Or maybe his dad just wished he were smarter or more of a book-nerd… or less clumsy… He remembered how soaked he was. He’d be blamed on it for clumsiness.
He sighed, “Or at a minimum carelessness.” Jonny countered. As he started toward the ramp, a car sped toward him. Seeing it, Jonny narrowly avoided the oncoming traffic but in the process wiped out his bije and conked his forehead on a rock that skidded up between his head and his helmet.
Jonny gritted his teeth in a wince, let out a slow groan.
His arms and right knee were scraped up pretty good, too… With a rub of his eyes, he tried to remember the new house phone number… he didn’t see the car had stopped after running him off the road.
Jonny dusted off his jeans, “It’s 207… something, something… 7720… no. 207-277-2007…?”
“Are you alright Jonny?”
Jonny turned a whip at the unfamiliar voice, pulled violently from his reveries and to his feet by a strong, stout man.
“HEY! LET GO!” Jonny kicked unyieldingly, though it made no difference, he was tossed like a bag of flour into the trunk of the awaiting car. “NO! LET GO!”
The helmet was yanked hard forward until it slipped off, the man then clobbered him in the same spot as he’d scraped his forehead with a rock before tossing the helmet toward his abandoned bike then ripped the backpack off Jonny and also tossed it. Happy with his ministrations, the boy limply lolled back, mouth slightly agape and eyes screwed shut, he closed him into the trunk with a click, got back into the car, signaled to the empty road and pulled back onto the exit ramp.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Benton knocked on the door to Jonny’s bedroom. He had gotten carried away with Hadji, he knew how sensitive Jonny could get—he’d have to give him some attention, but compared to bored out of my mind and fascinated the topic guided itself! He looked into the room when no one answered.
He saw the notebooks, glancing at them, Benton felt like a cad. Jonny had been interested—very interested by the looks of it. Had his own bias distracted him from that?
He glanced at his watch, it was forty past eight… he saw the note. For an instance, his heart rate jumped, he didn’t run away did he?! He quickly read through and blew a sigh of relief, he was at the library… Benton’s eyes narrowed, but would be back before curfew—8:30… he might have lost track of time, Benton walked to the phone in the hall, he’d call the library, if he was still there he’d just give him a ride back and talk about finances of war or whatever about it interested the boy.
“Hello, my name is Benton Quest, is my son Jonny still in the racks? He’s late coming home.”
“Oh, I’ll check—what’s he look like?”
“Blond hair, blue eyes, about 4 feet tall—he’s 11.”
“One moment, I’ll see if he’s here.” The librarian put him on hold. The hold lasted for 10 minutes, at first Benton was impatient, but now as time stretched he began to worry if something else was at play—did he break something? Did he already leave?
He supposed that would be fine, though he’d deserve an earful for not calling to tell he’d be late home… unless he’d left on time and got lost? He couldn’t have possibly gotten lost, could he have?
No, Race would’ve made the boys memorize the town’s roads… and Jonny was very gifted spatially. He looked out at the slow drizzle, maybe he was stuck somewhere avoiding the rain… or maybe—the phone connected.
“Doc—yes. Yes, that’s me.” He caught himself.
“No one’s been in all day who matches that description, are you sure he came to the library?”
“He said he was going there—” he took a breath, “Thank you for checking, he didn’t just leave earlier?”
“No sir, he never came in.”
“Th-thank you…” He hung up, “Race!”
The white-haired bodyguard and confidante poked his head from the other hallway. “Benton, what’s wrong?”
He held up the note as evidence, “It’s Jonny—he’s not back yet… and I just called, they haven’t seen him!”
“Back? Who hasn’t seen him—?” He looked at the note and groaned, “You don’t think he ran away?”
“I have no idea what to think—did he lie or did something happen between A and B—and when was that, even?”
“Alright, alright, check to see if anything’s missing from his room, I’ll check to see if he’s in the lighthouse.”
“His backpack is gone, so is his bike and helmet.” Benton said to Race as he returned, soaked, from the lighthouse.
“Yeah? He’s not on the grounds. Call the police, and then hop in my car, we’ll go look for him.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny moaned as his eyelids batted open.
He hurt. All over. His arms and legs felt stiff and his wrist burned… he looked around, he was on his stomach, his hands stretched in front of him. They were ziptied around a hot water pipe, blinking, he could see the heat blisters forming on his tender wrist.
With a pull, he tried to tug away from the pipe.
“Knock it off, brat.”
“Where am I? Who are you? Why’d you grab me! How’d you know my name!” Jonny interrogated, he realized too late the last question was a mistake—he shouldn’t have confirmed he’d been right…
The man smiled darkly at him.
“Alright, how about a teachable moment, then?” He grabbed at Jonny’s leg, the boy kicked in panic, the man wrenched his leg and began to squeeze his calf impossibly tight, fingernails dug into bone.
Jonny winced his eyes shut, his breath stuttering sharp, pained sounds—and then he felt the bone give. “AHHH!” Jonny rested his forehead on the floor, panting, shivering, the pressure not relenting.
“St-stop! Please!” He cried, muffled against the floor. The hand released from his throbbing leg.
“No more talking, no more noise, no more pulling—you’re staying here until I change my mind.”
Jonny nodded frantically, quietly, he bit his lip to keep his sob silent. His arms involuntarily shook from the pain at his wrist.
“What’s your phone number?”
Jonny let out a shaky breath, “Th-three… three—” He paused, tried to focus which was admittedly harder than it would’ve been only a few minutes earlier, “No… that’s th-the old one… it’s t-two, oh, seven… two… seventy-seven… t-two… oh-oh…s-seven.” He finally recited.
The man pulled Jonny’s head back with a handful of blond hair. Jonny’s wet, shiny eyes made out dark features—shadows, the man was pink in color from continued sun exposure, but his dark eyes and hair, thick lips, and narrow nose burnt into his mind as much as the pipes did into his wrist. He blinked hesitantly.
“Are you sure?”
“Y-yes sir…” Jonny cracked, his head dropped back to the floor. Jonny winced his eyes shut, he needed to focus his senses, not get lost in pain.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Race pulled over at the off-ramp to interstate 1. A helmet, book bag, and bike were pushed off the soft shoulder, accompanied by a stray tire track.
He pulled a camera and his sig sauer from the glove box. “Benton, wait here a minute.”
Race walked around the scene, careful to avoid contaminating it. He took a photo of the blood on the helmet, not much, maybe a nasty scrape.
“Kiddo, you hear me?”
He looked over the brush seeing nothing, and no signs of life, he placed his holstered sig near the tread for reference and returned to the car.
“Benton, call the cops. This looks like an abduction.” He scanned the scene again as he recreated it, “He wiped out, there’s two swerve patterns—he was run off the road, he got up, dusted off, footprints show the guy approached him from behind and then tossed his stuff. Probably thought the rain’d get the physical evidence before cops got to it. There’s blood in trace amounts on the helmet but nothing extreme, bike frame isn’t bent either so I don’t think he was hit by the car.”
Benton swallowed hard. “Okay, we need to get back to the compound.”
Benton dialed the police from the car-phone, he relayed what they saw, what Race took pictures of, and that he didn’t touch any evidence. Promises of a car coming out to the scene and another to the house were quickly exchanged. Benton hung up, Race dialed Bennett.
The field-hand let out a slow breath, “My, boys… not even a month in. How do they find you? Adverts in the local paper? I’ll have my guys head down. How long has he been missing?”
“He left the dinner table at 7:05, by bike he’d have gotten to the abduction site by 7:30 if he left straight-away, and with his plan to get to the library and back by curfew, that matches his plan.”
“And someone else planned different.” Bennett clicked his tongue. “Random approach, but targeted abduction?”
“Probably, sir.” Race relayed, “We have several active threats and the doctor picked up a new project recently that kept us on the grounds. Opportunity would therefore by very narrow.”
Benton leaned his head back, “I didn’t even think, I just said yes…”
“Benton, we know what to do in these cases, it’s not like you can keep the boys cooped up all day, every day, but this should’ve been cleared. Jonny knows well enough to tell us where and when he’s going. He probably thought a note was just as good so if it started to rain he wouldn’t have his fun canceled on him.”
Dr. Quest shook his head, “I didn’t even consider the weather.”
“Well, you’re distracted with the new project, the kiddo’s just being a kid.” Race added, “Moving can be hard on kids, he probably just wanted to make new friends.”
He pulled back into the driveway to an awaiting Mrs. Evans and Hadji at the doorway.
Race shook his head, “We’re dealing with an abduction, Intelligence 1, and the Police will be here within the hour, Hadji—bed.”
Hadji nodded and high-tailed it to his room, he knew sleep would be elusive but he also knew not to get underfoot at a critical time.
“Jonny… why did you go off without me?” He asked himself, of course he knew everyone needed alone-time, but they were brothers and best friends! And to think his brother was all alone with a kidnapper was scary. Even when they had each other it was scary, but as least they had an ally then—a commiserater, a spring-board… “Please don’t do anything reckless or stupid, Jonny…” Hadji prayed.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny looked down at his leg, the motion pushed a new spot of his wrist into the pipe, his worried lip filled his mouth with a metallic taste.
He returned to his previous position, the pain in the welts were starting to throb deeply toward numbness. The agony in his leg on the other hand was the loudest noise in his mind.
The slow, steady stream of tears made his whole body feel dry, including his shirt that had been soaked earlier in the night by that puddle. He felt exhausted but sheer terror and pain had been staving off sleep, in the few moments he’d doze off, he’d near immediately awoken.
“Wha time’s it…” He asked himself tiredly.
He howled in pain as a fierce stomp came to his broken leg. The son of a bitch ground his foot into the break.
Hyperventilation choked out the scream, his panicked gasps wheezed through tight bronchi. The grinding stopped.
“My, Dr. Quest’s kid sure is slow.” The man mocked. Jonny clenched his jaw, tried to regain control of his breath. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
“Probably…” Jonny mumbled, a hard kick to his already stiff shoulder blade was his thanks. He bit down hard to keep quiet. The man looked at his watch.
“It’s 11PM, they’d notice you’re gone by now, wouldn’t they?” Jonny kept his jaw clenched. The stocky man kicked him again, “Well?”
Heavy, fresh tears bubbled, “M-maybe! Dad’s w-working on a new p-pr-project… S-sometimes he spaces out!” He felt his arms shaking again, did he really even stop shivering? Suddenly he realized he did feel cold, he didn’t understand why his mind was playing tricks on him.
“Oh—so they might think you ran away?” He laughed, “Well, time to shatter that fantasy of theirs.”
Jonny squeezed his eyes shut, his dad probably did wish that sometimes, but then again he’d look like a bad parent then.
“Keep your mouth fucking shut unless I give you the say-so, got it, brat?” Jonny nodded painfully. He laughed at the boy. “Fifth time’s the charm, huh stupid?”
He nodded again, anything to keep the monster from hurting him again.
There was a dial-tone, the phone rang twice then just as it started on the third ring a voice sounded.
“Quest Residence, who is this?”
“I don’t like to leave names. Missing something?” He dug his foot into Jonny’s broken leg. He bit his lip hard, a fresh torrent of red filled the vestibule of his mouth.
“Something?” Benton asked incredulously, “Do you mean someone?”
He stomped hard.
Jonny bit out a cry, “Oww!” He clenched his jaw again, he couldn’t let him play his family. He couldn’t!
“Do you know my son is?”
“For the right price.” He looked at the boy in disdain, “Say 100K by 6 AM tomorrow.”
“How do I know you even have him?” Benton stalled.
The man grabbed Jonny’s broken leg and dug his fingers in. An involuntary, curdling scream filled the two rooms connected by the phone.
Race wrote ’30 more seconds.’ Benton nodded, “Oh, are you watching a scary movie?”
The man let go of Jonny’s leg. “Being coy? I can just kill him now—”
“I’m simply asking to hear his voice. If you really even have him, put him on the phone, have him say something.”
“Oh, it looks to be past his bedtime, we’ll call back later to arrange the drop-off.” He hung up. The blond had passed out, out cold no matter how much the man smacked him around or rung his neck. “Damn it, you fucking brat.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“Did we get it?!” Dr. Quest asked while pulling off the headset.
“No, but we have the radius to a three-block area. We’ll start the scan from there on the next one, we’ll have him before 10 seconds.”
Benton wiped tears from his eyes, “That scream… it was awful.”
“But was it him?” Bennett asked, “Whackos crawl out of the woodwork.”
“It is.” He nodded, “But one-hundred-thousand and by 6AM? I have that, but only in a bank account…”
“We have to stall him, make him know the only way he’ll have what he wants is with Jonny’s safety.”
Benton shook his head, “He isn’t safe, I’ve never heard him scream like that in fear, but in pain? I’ve heard that sound.”
“Benton, we have to get him to agree to more time—it’s not about a ransom, it’s about catching him AND making sure Jonny gets through this.”
He rubbed his temples, Race was right, “I know that…”
“Alright, you need coffee. Race, you have the good stuff?” Bennett asked.
Race nodded, “Yeah, Korvin beat that into me.” He made his way to his room, he returned with a bag of high-end coffee, the kind with a warning label of ‘excess’ caffeine and arrhythmia. “You could probably use 2 cups.”
“I’ll have you know, I’ve stayed up for six days on decaf in grad school on a dare during finals week.”
“Yeah? How’d that pan out?” Race asked, measuring his friend.
“Wonderfully, I’d tested out of those finals and I made $2000 from the people who hadn’t realized it.”
Race nodded appreciatively, “Genius as usual.”
Shrugging Benton sat down. “What is the 3 block radius? Is he nearby or far away?”
Map extended, Bennett read off street markers from the screen and Race pinned them. “He’s nearby Macworth Point, but it’s suburbs. Cops and unfamiliar cars stick out.”
“I still have boots on the ground, just cops who live out that ways.” Officer Lehigh said coolly, “And every car coming and going from those streets are getting flagged.”
“Thank you…” Benton looked down the hall towards the stairs, “I should check on Hadji, there’s no way he’s really asleep.”
“Benton, park it, I’ll go.” Race said, tossed the bag to Bennett.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny blinked his eyes awake, he felt heavy and bone-chilled. Craning his neck, he took in his surroundings. He was in a brick-framed house, or at least it’d become a house eventually. He was bound to a heating element, but to his side there was an uninsulated window—and below it street lights and other houses at various levels of construction AND a few with residents.
Realization dawned quickly. He was being kept quiet so they wouldn’t find him… He turned to look around for the monster.
Over time, the once clear image of his kidnapper’s face had instead transformed into some grotesque gargoyle of a creature. He hadn’t tried to forget the man’s features, but now all he could recall was fantastical—scales in stone, coal dark eyes, a bat-like nose, teeth sharp and pointy, a devil. He didn’t see anything like that in here.
He licked his lips, dried blood chapped them. “…help…” He tested his voice, more forcefully, he screamed, “SOMEONE HELP ME! HELP!”
He thought it looked brighter for a moment, he wasn’t even sure how long he’d been yelling, but just as suddenly as he’d made his realization the gargoyle was on him, crushing his throat.
He struggled feebly only to feel a sharp blow to his already aching head. He stopped yelling, unable to push more air through the constriction at his neck.
“Awake at last, hm?” His hand moved from his throat to his hair to yank Jonny up by it with a glare.
The young boy’s lips trembled at the thin teeth surrounded by too-large lips. “Don’t eat me!” Jonny shouted, petrified by the image he’d conjured.
The man smacked him, “Shut up and come back to your wits, you nit. You need to call your father.”
Jonny locked eyes with the coal orbs and blinked. “Why’re you hurting me… Gargoyles’re supposed to protect people…”
The brute narrowed his eyes angrily. “Maybe pain helps you focus.” He squeezed Jonny’s broken leg. Jonny’s eyes fluttered upward but he kept conscious barely. The man growled, “Fine, he’ll just have to put up with nonsense.”
He dialed the phone number, this time, on the first ring it was answered.
“Hello? Who’s calling?”
Jonny blinked at the voice filling his ear. “Dad…? Is dad there…?” His eyes rolled up, “I’m scared… th’rs a monster… he’s hurtin’ me… I’m in a—”
“Believe me now? Price just went up to a quarter million or I’ll draw and quarter him. Put it on the ferry!”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
The line went dead before Benton could utter a response to his son or the man who’d interrupted him so quickly. He blinked in shock. After a long eternity, he asked the room, “Do we have it?”
“Wheels up—we do.” Bennett said, gesturing to his team.
“Doc what’re you…?” Race asked as he saw Benton pull on his jacket.
“Like hell I’m not going. Are you driving or am I?”
Race shook his head, “I choose life, I’ll drive.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny shifted in absolute anguish, his arm felt ablaze, his leg ached in a strobe up and down his spine, his head hurt, his throat hurt, his body hurt… he hurt.
Motion at the corner of his periphery drew his attention, two white trash bags were lied out next to him. He felt a hot hand grab at his injured leg and pull it taut. “NO! STOP! Let me go!”
Jonny pulled violently, the response was even more forceful. His ears rang as he reeled from the punch, the teeth of the hacksaw pressed into the denim below his knee. A thrust forward and back, Jonny’s attention returned in spades.
Thrashing both legs, Jonny kicked unrelentingly.
A hand yanked down hard on his arm. Jonny shot out a shrill scream, “YAHHHHHHH!”
A prodding thumb dug into his burns. Eyes rolling into their whites, Jonny shook his head fighting desperately to stay awake—alive.
He kept hearing bells ringing, or maybe they were sirens? Too tired to be sure, his only recourse was to keep kicking. He felt something metal contact his shoe then felt it slide away.
“You little fucking bastard…” The man swore, he yanked Jonny’s hair back exposing his neck, “The damn neighbors called the cops because you kept screaming—I’m going to kill you!”
Not needing to be told twice, Jonny screamed at the top of his sizeable capacity, “I’M UP HERE! HE’S TRYING TO KILL ME! HELP ME!”
A too-strong hand grabbed his jaw and began to squeeze. Fingers and thumb digging into his carotids, Jonny couldn’t force himself to stay awake, fainting after four seconds under the intense grip.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny’s limp body was painted a pale blue-white by search beams, his eyes fluttered without progress in the rapidly filling room.
Race and Benton spoke simultaneously. Race, always a faster draw, had a knife out to cut the boy free.
He winced as he saw the oblong shaped burn marks that had blistered from the heat. Benton was stabilizing Jonny’s neck while Race helped turn him over to assess the damage.
With a breathy moan, Jonny’s eyes maintained a rapid fluttering, focus slowly returning behind them.
Dr. Quest gently pressed Jonny’s face to the left to examine the mottled bruising just above his eyebrow then tilted his head back to center to wipe the dried blood from his bottom split lip.
Blinking into focus, Jonny stared at the two blurred faces in front of him.
Race wrapped a thermal blanket over the shivering body. It had gotten down to the upper forties, in the semi-insulated room it was about 55°F, but the boy’d spent 10 years of his life in tropical and sub-tropical conditions, most recently in the Florida Keys over summer.
Jonny croaked out, “M’leg…”
Dr. Quest squeezed his palm reassuringly, “Okay, we’ll check…”
A slash just below Jonny’s right knee was gently probed, Benton’s fingers traveled lower as he saw the unnatural divot in Jonny’s leg.
Jonny howled in pain at the contact, back shooting stiff upright.
Benton raised his hand back, his non-offending arm steadying Jonny’s shoulder so he wouldn’t crash backward. The clarity that had been in the boy’s eyes was shaded over.
Jonny leaned his head backward until it connected to Race who’d crouched behind him protectively, “We’ve got you kiddo.”
“…A gargoyle attacked me… but he’s gone now… flew away…”
“A gargoyle?” Benton probed gently, carefully.
Jonny nodded meekly, color returning to his cheeks as he warmed up.
“Black beady eyes… a demon-bat nose… an’ peg teeth… buh his mouf was huge… so wide, like a linebacker buh short… so tired…”
“Well, it is past your bedtime, certainly.” Benton tried to offer.
“’m sohry I missed curfew… an’ lost my bike…”
Benton brushed his fingers through Jonny’s bangs, the delirium of 3AM stolidly encapsulated him.
Blue eyes fell behind a curtain of blond eyelashes until they were finally closed, soft breathy noises purred through his parted lips.
In a fierce whisper Benton asked Race heatedly, “Where is the son of a bitch?”
Race shook his head.
“Not here, he had a bug-out plan for this location though, we made it here in under ten minutes.” Race looked over the kid, “Does he have a concussion, you think?”
“We’ll certainly check, but that sounds like delirium… or a coping mechanism.”
Race touched his earpiece, “Ambulance is here, I can carry him down, then I’ll follow you both in to whichever hospital they think is best.”
Benton nodded, “Thanks. Will Bennett update us?”
“And Mrs. Evans is still at the house with Hadji, do you think an officer can drive them to the hospital?”
“I’ll ask.” Race carefully laced an arm under Jonny’s knees and around his ribs, “Alright, upsy-daisy…”
Jonny’s head lolled back, exhausted, the shift caused him to blink open his eyes. Scanning the moving images, the boy let his eyes fold closed, the blurs of light a cacophony kaleidoscope he couldn’t distinguish. He felt something soft on his back, another blanket was wrapped on top of him, he was still shivering—he wondered why he was so cold.
The straps on the gurney locked down, Jonny groaned as he was bumped when loaded into the back.
“We’ll be there in no time, buddy, you just hold on tight.” The older of the paramedics said while his partner worked on drawing Jonny’s arms from under the blankets.
“Ouch… those burns look painful,” He shifted the boy’s wrist, a light dressing went over it before being taped down. An IV line was inserted into Jonny’s left elbow, his pupillary reactions measured. The paramedic paused as the boy’s eyes swam over the ambulance, silently observing as the pupils failed to focus but traveled toward light. “Jonny, my name’s Leon. Do you see my hand?”
He held up his hand in front of the boy’s face by 18 inches. Jonny searched for the source of the noise.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“I dunno where yer hand it mister… where’m I?”
Benton focused on his son’s face.
“Okay, do you wear glasses normally?”
Leon brought his hand 12 inches in front of the boy’s face. “Do you see my hand now?”
“I see something purple…”
“Yeah? What about now?” He brought his hand 2 inches closer.
“Great! Now, keep looking straight ahead, tell me when you see my thumb.”
“…Now.” Jonny said as the left hand crept toward his periphery 2 feet away.
“Okay, how about now?”
Jonny blinked in confusion. “I think now…”
“You think so?” Benton asked.
“…Oh, that was a trick… tha’s a pen.” Jonny said as the pen was a foot to his right.
“Sorry, that was mean of me, I like to play pranks.” Leon said coolly.
“M’leg really hurts.”
“Okay, buddy tell me if this makes you feel better.” He gave a small shot of fluid into the boy’s saline IV, within a minute Jonny’s tongue felt thick as he tried to enunciate.
“Tha makes me fee—l dizz…”
“Did he fall asleep?” Benton asked.
“Oh, he was helped. What caused the burns?”
“Hot water pipe. Do you know how bad they are? Second degree?”
“It’s on the cusp from first to second, but they worsen over time.”
“He can’t see, can he?” Benton asked in a false stoicism.
“Oh, he can, but he can’t focus, the doctors will need to do a work-up, but his vitals are strong, he’s in stable condition. Not all our bus rides are that smooth.”
Benton nodded to that, the paramedics parked in the ambulatory bay at the ER.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
In waves of semi-consciousness and unconsciousness, Jonny vaguely felt his trip to different rooms and swaths of long corridors, his hands, feet, lips, and groin tingled after one injection—and then he’d been wheeled into a room with a long cylinder that he’d been strapped down to. While the sights were a blur, the colors projected above his face had been relaxing shades of greens, yellows, and blues.
He woke up in agony as his leg was pulled back into an aligned position.
Shot upright, he felt hands pushing him down while cold goop touched his aching leg. Attempts to shake off the hands were for naught, eyes closed he passed out as his leg was set and casted.
The sounds of the ocean, of waves crashing muddled the other conversations around him.
As his eyelids were pushed up and bright lights and lenses pressed close to his eyes, the boy dreamt of looking out over the sea, his brother and dad on a ship working to install cables as he drifted further and further back from them.
He felt the sting in his eyes and wondered if he was crying.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
The eye drops burned, but as he blinked more of the periphery came into focus.
He rapidly blinked his eyes as he saw a physician lean away from his face. The woman put down the eye drops.
She was out of focus once she fully extended to upright, Jonny kept blinking his eyes in discomfort.
“Edema of the lenses and flare cells, he had signs of strangulation, those drops will help reduce the edema, his vision will restore once his lenses return to their normal shape, but eyes are sensitive. I want him to undergo a full exam in three days to ensure the coloration and blood supply is intact.” The woman ordered, her assistant wrote the chart notes.
Additional pokes and prods on his sore wrist came and went, as did a burst of cool liquid in his veins that made everything just go numb and calm.
He felt a heavy blanket get placed on him, more than half asleep by then, and felt the gentle sway of waves stop as he was rolled into a dim room, curtains drawn closed around him.
The next sensation he felt was something moist dabbed on his swollen lips, the fragrance of cocoa butter tickled his nose.
He curled toward the feminine hand and slightly to his left as he dozed. Eyes half-lidded he looked at the woman, “Where’m I?” He fell asleep before hearing the answer.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Shadows casted around the ICU suite, pleasant pictures adorned the walls, a thick, colorful quilt rested atop of Jonny keeping him particularly warm and cozy.
Humming his throat, he shifted, blinked his eyes to adjust to the low light. Jonny’s left hand rubbed at his eyes to remove the sleep dust.
“Huh…? Where’m… Race, is ’at you?” he croaked quietly.
“Hey kiddo,” came the gentle pull of Race’s voice, he pulled his chair in a little closer making sure to stay within Jonny’s visible range. “Yeah it’s me, how’re you feeling?”
“Like garbage.” The boy huffed, he closed his eyes then seeming to think better of it, pried them back open, “How’d I get here? Where is this? Hospital?”
“Are you still achy?” Race bypassed his questions, he knew Benton and the police needed to be here to conduct a proper interview.
“Really sore…” Jonny’s eyes opened wide, he began to rapidly scan the room suddenly more alert.
“You’re safe, kiddo.” Race offered gently.
“Where is he?” Jonny asked, just as panicked as Race had been calm. Race turned on a pocket recorder.
“Where’s who, Jonny?”
“Th-the gargoyle… man…” Jonny cradled his head with his right arm to avoid jarring the IVs in his let arm.
“The man who looked like a gargoyle…” he tried again, his head was swimming and he felt jumbled up.
“Who is that, Jonny?”
Jonny’s eyebrows scrunched as he frowned, “I don’t know who… but he’s the man who hurt me.” He concentrated, tried to remember what exactly happened. The staccato of his heart rate filled the room, Jonny’s eyes tried to source the sound but it was too far from his field of vision to make out.
Jonny swallowed thickly, his heart racing, “W…why can’t I see properly?” He forced himself to sit up, wincing at the pain in his wrist.
“Hey, calm down. You’ll have a panic attack at this rate…” Race eased him up, positioned his pillow better. Jonny’s head drooped, tired from the minimal exertion.
With a touch of the call button Race signaled for a nurse. A man in his mid-thirties came into the room to check on the ward.
“Good morning,” the nurse said in a bright voice.
“Is it morning?” Jonny asked mutely, he shivered.
“No, kiddo, it’s about 5.”
He nodded tiredly, lips parted, “W-where’s dad and Hadji?” He looked around the room, which as he was coming to realize meant nothing to him. “Am I blind, Race?”
“Not exactly, but your eyesight’s been injured. It’s supposed to get better with medicine and time.”
“Of which, Mr. Quest, may I give you your eye drops?” The nurse asked politely. Jonny tucked his chin to his chest.
“…I g-guess so…”
“Your dad and brother are just picking up some things for you so you’re not too bored.” Race relayed, “Are you getting hungry?” The boy shook his head, his features were muted, sad.
“Lean your head back, please.” The nurse interjected. Jonny blinked then complied. A hand touched the thin skin just below his right eyebrow. “Okay, look straight ahead, we’ll count to five.”
Jonny saw the tip of the dropper, he shivered, “N-no… I don’t wann—”
Race squeezed his hand. “Calm down kiddo. You need to take this medicine.”
His lips trembled.
“1—2—3—4—and 5!” The nurse let go of Jonny’s eyelid as the boy began to blink rapidly. Before he could lower his head, the same motions were done to his left eye.
Jonny’s lips quivered in a tumultuous frown, “They burn it hurts…!”
As his eyes teared up, the nurse kept his head tilted back. “Just another minute, we have to let the medicine do it’s job.” The nurse soothed, he increased the pressure in his hand as Jonny fought him. “You’re very brave. You’re being such a trooper.” The man added.
Jonny stilled, he let out a shaky breath. The hand let go, Jonny lowered his chin and looked around the room. Blinking, he turned toward the door, Hadji and Benton were standing there, waiting for the nurse to finish.
He blushed bashfully, unsure of how much they’d saw. Hadji smiled brightly and rushed to Jonny’s side.
“You are finally awake!”
Jonny looked to the foot of his bed, “Y-yeah… was I asleep that long?”
“No, they kept you up until about 6 this morning.” Benton keyed in. “Do you remember that? You were a bit out of it.”
Jonny’s eyes drifted toward his dad’s voice, locking on, he could see how tired he looked even that blurrily. He lowered his head again. “I… think so.” He paused, “Some of it. There was a green and yellow light that felt really calming…”
Benton smiled, “In the CT scanner, they put a projected image up. That was Acadia National Park.”
“Oh. I thought it was just colors…” His voice went small.
His father brushed his cheek, “That’s okay, it’ll come back soon.”
Jonny frowned, his shoulders shook as he remembered even earlier, the feeling of claws digging into his leg. He doubled over shaking uncontrollably.
His wrist hurt, his leg hurt, his head hurt, his chest hurt, it was hard to focus on breathing in and out.
“Jonny?” His father’s voice boomed in the deafening, still room.
“I-I l-lost my b-bike… he c-clobbered m-me in th-the head af-fter running m-me offa th-the road…”
His father squeezed his hand. “Who did? What did they look like?”
“H-he put me in-n the tr-trunk… I… I fell a-asleep!”
“…” Race and Benton glanced at each other then back to the boys.
“I was g-going to th-the library… I got s-splashed by a puddle w-when a car drove by…” He thought about the memories, trying to draw them together. “He b-broke my leg with his bare hands… I k-kicked him… an’ the pipe was hot… h-he had black eyes an’ a thin, n-narrow nose… huge lips and cracked pink scales… an’ a mouthful uh p-pegged teeth…” shivering, he remembered more and more, “He was stocky… sh-short… a monster… he was a monster…” He looked around the room, uncomfortably. “It’s cold.”
“Is it?” Benton asked, squeezing his hand reassuringly.
“I-is the storm b-blown over? From this morn—yesterday?” he rubbed his thumb next to the knot in his head. Why couldn’t he focus? He had an important diplomatic mission to perform… didn’t he? Jonny shut his eyes, “I…I can’t…”
“…Can’t what, son?”
Jonny shook his head, he tried to stand up- push himself off the bed. Race caught his shoulder and kept him from toppling over the side. “Okay, you need to calm down. You’re in the hospital kiddo. It’s okay if things are jumbled up, we’ll piece it together, but you need to try and relax.”
“I AM TRYING!” He shouted, he hicked as tears began to flood down his face.
“Right, Benton, Hadji and I are going to step out and let the doctor come in.” Race suggested.
“Stop it… it hurts…” He pulled at his own hair, “…it hurts…” his voice went smaller.
Race steered Hadji from the room. The boy gave his brother a concerned look, “Why is he still in so much pain? Can’t they give him medicine?”
“They are, but fear makes pain worse, and I think your brother’s still scared.”
Hadji nodded, “I’m scared too. Will he come after him again?”
“He might, but let’s not talk about that in front of your brother, okay?”
An older doctor, about 50 or so, walked past the two in the hall and into Jonny’s suite. Hadji and Race took a turn down the hall.
The older man ran through a physical examination as Jonny tried to push back his crying.
Jonny whimpered as the doctor pushed up his jaw and palpated his neck. “Swallow for me.” Jonny looked at the doctor from his strained position and swallowed back saliva. “Good.” He pressed behind Jonny’s ears to lower his head, “What is your name?”
“J-Jonathon Quest, sir…”
“And what is your phone number?”
Jonny’s pupils shrank, he began thrashing to get away from the gargoyle, spilling half-off the bed. The doctor pressed the call button and two orderlies rushed in.
“N-no! Get away from me!”
A hard shove in his shoulder followed by the prick of a needle and his body went still. The doctor considered his level of consciousness and continued palpitating.
“Mr. Quest, do you have any pets?”
Jonny blinked at the tears, “A dog… Bandit…”
He nodded, “Where do you find flour?”
“And where do you buy socks?”
“…A department story.”
“One more then, what do you put in a toaster?”
“Bread.” Jonny blinked sleepily, “C’n I go to sleep? I’m awfully tired…” He leaned his head back into his pillow, already asleep.
Benton watched the doctor scribe notes into the chart, silently fuming at the man’s loathsome bedside manner.
“Well he passed his neurological examination, but he clearly had a psychological response. We may need to secure him so he doesn’t injure himself inadvertently.”
“That hardly seems necessary, besides, we could take him home. He’d rest better there…”
“He’s past his required observation period, but schedule the follow-up exam with the optician. A nurse will bring in medication instructions if you’re certain.”
“Oh, I am.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“Benton, are you sure about this? The place isn’t set up for crutches…” Race asked, he kept eying Jonny in the rearview mirror.
Jonny leaned back trying to get comfortable. He shifted to ‘look’ out the window with his head aching from headlights and the lit street signs. Honestly, he felt carsick. The vertigo from not seeing the directions made him groan to himself. He closed his eyes and rested his head on the window.
Hadji watched his brother fall asleep again and frowned. He knew his brother was usually a bundle of energy, even when injured he was usually antsy, this was unlike him.
He asked quietly so not to disturb Jonny, “Dr. Quest, why is Jonny so tired still?”
Benton thought for a moment, determined the best way to word it, “Well, he’s on a lot of medicine and that medicine can make people sleepy, did he fall asleep already?”
Hadji nodded, “Yes sir.”
“…Great.” He mumbled absently, “He really needs to eat something, it’s almost 8PM…”
Jonny’s eyes darted from under his lids, he jumped in his seat, eyes scanning before spotting Hadji. “Hadji?”
The blond shifted his leg, it ached. He looked around the car. “Where’re we going now?”
“Back home, we’re almost there. The lighthouse is just up ahead.” He pointed, Jonny looked down and scratched the back of his head.
Hadji lowered his hand, “Want to see a magic trick?”
Jonny bit his lower lip anxiously. “…Not right now, thanks.” He wiped at his tired eyes, scrubbing back the tears.
“What do you want for dinner?” Dr. Quest asked, breaking into the lull of the conversation.
Jonny turned his face back toward the window, “I’m not hungry though…”
“I know you don’t feel hungry, but you haven’t eaten all day.”
Jonny countered, “I’m tired.”
“Young man,” Benton paused, he didn’t want to lecture him, it wouldn’t be productive. “After dinner, you can rest up for the night.”
“I’m thirsty… c’n I have some chocolate milk… ‘r maybe hot cocoa?” he curled toward his side already half-asleep.
“Sure, I bet Mrs. Evans knows how to make Mexican hot cocoa, you’d love that.” Race threw in.
Benton looked at his friend.
“…It’s made with whole milk, it’s calories and good for bones.” He said quietly so to keep the conversation to the front side of the car.
“He needs more than that to eat.”
“But it’s a start. You know full-well a stomach in shock isn’t hungry.”
“Fine, fine…” Benton said to Jonny, “You can have that, but you still need real food.”
Race pulled the car to the front of the house and put it in park. As Jonny pushed on his door, Hadji slid out the other side and brought over his crutches.
“Hadji, could you carry those inside? I’m going to help him in.” Race intercepted. Jonny swung his legs out of the car and inched forward, he rubbed his eyes. “Alright, just like last time- one, two—” Race hoisted Jonny up, “three.”
Jonny locked his arms around Race’s shoulders as the man tucked under his waist and knees to carry him.
“C’n I go to my room?”
“Not just yet.” Benton injected, “Dinner, medicine, bathroom then bed. In that order.”
“Hhr…” Jonny groaned inarticulately.
Race climbed the half-flight of stairs and sat Jonny on the couch in the family room.
Jonny curled on his left side, hid his face in the corner of the couch while Race walked to the dimmer switch to lower the light. “Is that better, Jonny?”
“Y…yeah.” He turned back toward the room, the strange layout made him feel anxious.
“How far can you see?”
Jonny hugged his waist shocked by Race’s question. “…I can’t see the whole room. About 10 feet away it’s too blurry to tell what I’m looking at.” He answered bluntly, he chewed his knuckle in an anxious gesture. “I feel dizzy, I think it’s from the drive…”
“You haven’t eaten anything kiddo. It could be that too.”
“Maybe.” He closed his eyes, “You told them what I said? About what he looks like?”
“Was he really just sloppy or is this a game to him?” He asked solemnly.
“When we catch him, we’ll ask.” Race said firmly. Jonny frowned.
“He had really strong hands… why am I still so cold?”
“A few reasons come to mind, shock and sugar.”
“Lack thereof, you’re incredibly pale right now. I bet soup would go down easily.”
“Like pea soup or clam chowder?”
“Yeah, that would work. I could ask Mrs. Evans—”
“Don’t leave! Please, Race… I don’t want to be alone in here.”
“Alright, but you’re not alone, we’re all here.” Race turned toward the entryway, “Your dad’s getting your room ready and Hadji’s just outside.”
“He is?” Jonny peered, tried to focus his eyes to no avail, “I don’t see him… Hadji, are you there?”
“I am, Jonny. Did you want me to come in?”
Jonny bit his lip, he stopped when he felt it bleed a little. “Why’re you out there?”
“He’s helping your dad, Hadji, can you ask Mrs. Evans to make some clam chowder?”
“Jonny, you can say what you’re thinking. I know you’re holding something in, but I can’t fathom why.” Race said softly, “What is it? You trust me, right?”
Jonny nodded, “Why’re my thoughts all jumbled up?” He pointed to his head where the knot was.
“Shock, you took one to the head and had some scary things happen, and well… it just happened to you. You haven’t processed it at all yet.”
Jonny nodded again, “He burned me on purpose. He knew it was really hot.” Jonny fidgeted.
“Did he hurt you in any other way?” Race asked stolidly.
Blue eyes looked far away as he relived the moments again, slowly he nodded. “…His hands were really strong… he squeezed my neck till I fell asleep, but not like a choke—I could breathe… he… did that three or four times I think… I can’t really remember clearly…”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He smelled bad. Like rotten meat or fish?”
“Like rotten fish?” Race took notes, “It didn’t smell when we found you.”
Jonny laughed, “He didn’t stay in the room with me though… he only came in when I was loud.”
“Do you know when your vision gave out?”
“When he squeezed my jaw and I passed out… when I came to he looked… warped. Like in a funhouse mirror, like a real monster.”
Race pat Jonny’s hair. “Did he ask you anything, tell you anything? Rant…?”
“He knew my name, about dad… but he made me tell him the phone number.” Jonny clawed at his stomach, “…He took out a hacksaw, a-and white garbage bags…” Jonny licked his lips, “That’s how I got a cut on my leg.”
“He did that when you were awake?” Race looked at the boy aghast.
“Yes sir…” Jonny swallowed thickly, “I kicked it away and then he choked me again… and then he was gone and you and dad were there…”
Race squeezed Jonny’s bicep. “Oh kiddo…”
Jonny shook his head, swallowed thickly, “H-he probably thought I was t-too stupid to notice…”
“What?! Why’d he think something that off-base? Kiddo, you’re a smart kid.”
Jonny shook his head, wiped at his tired eyes.
“I mean it, Jonny. You’re bright, you’re your dad’s son.”
“Don’t patronize me!” Jonny turned away angrily, “It doesn’t matter why he thought it, I’ve thought it plenty too… where’re my crutches?”
He panted in deep breaths, “My stomach hurts, I need to go to the bathroom before I get sick…” he pleaded.
Race hoisted him up, “Alright then, I’m coming with you.”
Jonny gagged, pressed his hand into his mouth to hold it down. They made it halfway there before Jonny lost the battle, a mouthful of red and clear landed on the hardwood floor. Race let Jonny down to his knees to double over. “Damn…” he muttered, “Jonny are you okay?”
He parted his mouth as his stomach constricted again, with a pant he crashed his head into Race’s knee.
“…sor…ry…” his hand clutched Race’s shirt tail, “I… can’t get up from here.”
Race helped pulled him off the floor. “Let’s get you hosed off and some water.”
Jonny nodded, the bags under his eyes pronounced.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Dr. Quest carried a large bowl of clam chowder, several packs of oyster crackers, and hot cocoa on a tray over to Jonny’s room. The young boy wore his thickest plaid pajamas and a pullover sweater as he sat under his covers, propped up by extra pillows. A fluffy towel was wrapped over his shoulders as a catch for his wet hair.
“So there’s where you went off to…” he said soothingly.
“I made a mess…” he said miserably.
“It’s not that bad,” Benton set down the tray, “Let me dry your hair son.” Jonny brooded as his father ruffled his hair with the soft towel. “Are you ready for some soup?”
He could feel his mouth water as the smells wafted from the bowl. “Uh-huh…” he picked up the spoon and dipped it into the soup. He closed his eyes as the first bite went down smoothly. “It’s really good…” Jonny said in a small voice. He shoveled down another twenty spoonfuls before he put the spoon down and touched his hands to the warm bowl.
Benton thought he looked half-asleep. Jonny touched the bowl to his lips to sip down the rest, then returned the bowl to the tray.
“You didn’t have any crackers…” He acknowledged, Jonny looked at him through half-lidded eyes.
He picked up the hot cocoa and drank the full glass in giant gulps. “I finally feel warm now…” Jonny mumbled.
“Good. You still need to take your medicine, how about we talk for 30 minutes then you can take your medicine and go to bed?”
“Talk? What about?”
“Anything you want to.” Benton opened. Jonny clenched his jaw, it felt like a trap. “We could talk about the weather, or a subject you like—about the library—”
“Am I in trouble?” Jonny asked in flat affect. “You said I could go explore if I read for an hour before dinner… I didn’t know this would—”
“No! You’re not in trouble, of course you’re not!” Benton bit, he softened his tone, he had to remember how sensitive Jonny could get sometimes—and how at other times he was as sensitive as solid concrete. “I just want you to talk to me about something you’re interested in, for once.”
Jonny was grinding his teeth, “You’re mad though.”
He exhaled, “You can be exacerbating sometimes, young man. I’m not mad at you, you’re not in trouble—why didn’t you say you liked your history textbook? Why can’t you be honest about your interests every once and again!”
Jonny scowled. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Well that’s a shock.” Benton pinched himself, damn it Race was right, he was being an ass. “What do you want to talk about then?”
“How long do I have to keep the cast on?”
“You’re kidding, that’s your first concern?” Benton touched his forehead, “That you can’t run around for 4 to 6 weeks like a hyperactive maniac—”
In silent fury, Jonny glared at him.
“…And how long do I need to use those drops for? When will my eyes be back to normal?”
“About a week.” He said back in equally as petulant a tone. Jonny turned to look out the window. Everything felt dreary, blurry or no.
“Can I just take it now? I’m tired.”
His father let out a disapproving sigh, “No, you’ll get sick again.”
“When did you notice I was gone?”
Depreciatively Jonny asked, “Was it you who even noticed first?” Benton blinked, shocked by the sentiment.
“So it wasn’t? He had a hacksaw, did Race tell you? He pulled out trash bags. At least he was into compost.”
He felt fingers dig into his shoulder, “How can you say that so nonchalantly?!” Realizing the strength he was putting into his grip, he released it.
“You didn’t catch that monster yet… don’t you have some theoretical physics you could be doing instead of wasting your time with a hyperactive brat?”
“If you just want to be alone just say so!” Came his sharp response.
Jonny shivered, he didn’t want to be alone—he just felt like he already was.
“Can I have my crutches so I can at least get to the bathroom?”
“Like you managed last time? Of course.”
Jonny’s lips trembled, “Just leave me alone then!” His eyes were watering, he knew his dad blamed him.
“Damn it… I didn’t want to upset you…” Benton sighed, “Jonny, look at me—please.”
He glared eyes red and puffy.
“What did you like about what you read yesterday?”
Jonny pulled his blanket over his head. “I’m going to sleep.” He put a vice-grip on his blanket. Benton rubbed his temple.
“Fine, take your eye-drops!” He pushed the container into the proximity of Jonny’s hand. His hand reeled back, taking the covers with it.
“THAT HURT!” He cradled his wrist to his chest, his other hand snatching the eye-drops. Container in hand, he raised the dropper to his eyes but flinched.
Benton looked at him expectantly. He gave his dad a pleading look. “What? Can’t do it?”
The tone he used, Jonny frowned as he squeezed the drops into one eye and fought the urge to rub it out of his eye, then he did the other eye—hand trembling.
“That wasn’t that bad—”
Jonny threw the container at his dad, it hit his chest. “Of course it is! They burn!” Jonny hissed, “Just leave me alone!”
Benton blinked daftly. “Don’t go having a tantrum…”
“Tantrum?!” Jonny squeezed his hand over his chest, “That’s what you…” he shook his head enraged. “I should’ve just given him the wrong number…” He shoved off the covers, tray included as he grabbed his crutches before his dad could make sense of the mess.
“Where do you think you’re going?!”
“Away from YOU!” He growled.
“What in sam hill is going on in here?” Race said quickly reading the room. “Jonny, did you make this mess?”
“Of course I did, I’m always the one who does anything wrong!” He tried to muscle past Race, which really, was just another miscalculation on his part.
“Bed. Now.” He said turning the boy, “Doc, take a walk?”
“Doc,” He reasoned, eyed the vulnerable boy.
“Clean up this mess, first, Jonathon.”
Race let out a sigh, “Benton,” he waved to the door.
Begrudgingly, he brushed past his son and Race. Jonny’s shoulders shook. Race waited for the man to be out of earshot. “What happened?”
Jonny ground his teeth as he kneeled, picking up the tray and scattered dishes.
“Jonny…” Race took his forearm, softly, “Get in bed. You’re trembling.”
“He hates me… that’s why the kidnapper ran away, he wasn’t going to get anything for me.”
“That’s not true, your dad loves you, he just—”
“Wishes I was anyone else.” Jonny interrupted. “Who starts a conversation with a timer? ‘I can only stomach talking about your boring interests for x value,’ and wonder why I don’t want to talk about it suddenly?! He never times Hadji!”
Jonny shrugged off Race’s hand. Two arms wrapped around him in a hug. “That’s not how he meant it, Jonny. You look exhausted, you’ve been through something awful and he wanted you to talk about something positive.”
“Like how I’m a hyperactive maniac?”
“What?” Race looked at him incredulously, “He didn’t say that, did he?”
“He did, he also grabbed my arm.”
“Jonny, why did he do that?” Race asked in a steely voice.
“I asked him when did he notice I was gone… that monster roughed me up and wanted to know if he’d put up with me long enough for my dad to know I was missing… and I had to tell him maybe.” Jonny wrapped his arms around his chest, sobbing. “And if the sirens didn’t scare him away he would’ve carved me up alive to put into the trash…” As he sobbed, Race rubbed his back soothingly. “I fought him off by kicking him with both legs… I was so scared… and I c-can’t see further ‘n ten feet on my left side—my right side’s maybe six feet… and he’s out there, somewhere…”
“…and I’m so cold, and I don’t wanna talk about something important to me…” he hiccupped, “It’s not some stupid neat fact, it’s important.”
Race hoisted him up and put him on the full-sized bed. He tucked him in then sat on the bed, he looked at the door.
Benton knocked twice gently.
“Just leave me alone!” Jonny sobbed, he turned onto his stomach and pressed his face into the pillow to muffle his crying.
“Jonny,” the voice was gentle. Race gave Benton a measuring look. “Listen to me, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Shoulders shook as he sobbed painfully.
“I lost my temper, the thought of you hurt and scared—I reacted horribly. I’m so sorry, son.”
Jonny held his breath trying to feign sleep, anything to make him go away.
“Did you hear him, Jonny? He apologized.” Jonny nodded. “Alright, Benton, he heard you. Now I think you should both get some sleep.”
“You haven’t slept yet, Race.”
In a voice hedging no arguments, “I can sleep on the floor in here. The kiddo doesn’t feel up to being alone.”
“Then I should—” The look the man sent his way said this was a done deal. Benton’d already cast the di. “—let you both get some much needed rest. Let me carry in a cot at least?”
“I’m fine without it,” Race shrugged, “But I’d take you up on a sleeping bag and pillow.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
The night sky was pitch black. Jonny heaved, gasped for air. He felt claws dig at him and pull, it was impossibly cold except where the fiery claws dragged through his flesh.
He felt eyes on him, he couldn’t breathe or he’d be seen—he clamped his hand over his mouth, clenching his teary eyes shut. ‘Don’t see me… don’t see me…’ he begged.
His bicycle was gone, all of his gear was missing and he was disoriented on the strange road.
A claw grabbed his leg, Jonny screamed as he flung himself back.
He landed hard on the ground, jarring his wrist but somehow managed not to reinjure his leg.
Gasping, Jonny couldn’t catch his air as he wheezed in a panic.
Race shot off the floor, “Kiddo! Are you alright!?”
“C-can’t…” he dug at his throat, “b-breathe…”
“It was just a nightmare, you’re home, let’s breathe together—inhale with me.” He demonstrated, Jonny forced himself to breathe in for five seconds then exhale, repeating it for several iterations. He slumped into Race’s shoulders after two minutes, his wrist to his chest, cradling the burn.
“Okay, up we go…” Race helped him up, though he was on sea-legs, he swayed as his knee buckled.
“I’ve got ya, c’mon… alley-oop!” Once back on the bed, Jonny began rubbing his arms for warmth. “Are you still cold?” Jonny nodded, teeth chattering. Race touched the boy’s forehead then back of his neck. “Dang it, you’re burning up.”
Jonny heard the door open, glossy eyes scanned the room but were unseeing.
“Help me—there’s a gargoyle… he’s goin’ to kill me—”
“Doc, he’s got a fever.”
Benton put his hand on Jonny’s forehead, “You’re right, I’ll get some cold compresses and water.”
“I’ll bring him downstairs.” Benton nodded.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny felt cool water on his lips, he gulped down the liquid greedily.
“Easy now, you’ll make yourself sick.” Benton warned. Jonny finished off the glass.
“S-s-so c-cold-d…” He chattered.
“You’re not really cold, son. You’ve got a fever.” He pressed the ice packs into Jonny’s armpits, backs of his knees, and stomach.
“St-stop—it’s too c-cold!” he whined.
“You’re at 103°F.”
“Are you thirsty still?” His dad asked to derail him. The boy nodded. “Okay, have some more.” He pressed a cup to his lips, the boy drank two large gulps then pulled back. “Better?”
“My head hurts… an’ my back’s sore…” he leaned back into his father. Benton nodded, he read over the medication instructions. Nothing was contradictive to Motrin or Tylenol. “Race, could you see what we have on hand for kids Motrin?”
“Sure, I’ll be back in two jiffies.”
“Do you want me to rub your back? Would that help?” His dad asked softly.
“Uh-huh…” Jonny keened, leaned into his dad’s chest with his ear resting on his dad’s collar bone. Tracing concentric circles, he rubbed gently between Jonny’s shoulder blades and up his back from the small of his back. “He was chasin’ me… in th’ woods… th’ gargoyle… he was gonna eat me…”
“That sounds like a very scary dream.”
“It kept gettin’ darker ‘n darker ‘n then I couldn’t see anything… ‘n then he grabbed m’leg… he bit it… I was so scared…”
“Found some, Benton. 15mL?”
Race pulled out a measuring tablespoon, the kind pharmacists used to dispense.
“Alright, down the hatch…” Race touched the spoon to Jonny’s lips and tilted it back. Jonny drank down the cherry-flavored goo. He leaned back into his dad, asleep within minutes.
Benton pet the back of his neck still checking for fever. After two hours he was hovering at 99.8, he pulled the icepacks off and gave him children’s Tylenol—bubble gum flavor.
The cycle repeated until a little after 10AM as he started to wake up.
“Good morning, how’re you feeling?”
“Thirsty…” his voice cracked, “n I need th’ bathroom…”
“Alright, let’s settle that first.” Benton helped him steady himself on his crutches, though it was clearly painful for him to grip them.
“Would you rather have me help?”
The 11 year old frowned, conflicted. “That’s too embarrassing…”
Benton gave an expected sigh, “How’s that embarrassing? I’m your dad.”
“Exactly! I’m not a baby.”
He sighed, “Suit yourself.” He held in his comment about pride before the fall, but regardless, hovered as Jonny teetered through the narrow, only vaguely familiar layout of hallways to make it to the loo.
The sound of Jonny bumping into things and being an amplified version of his clumsy, rough-and-tumble self was self-evident as he waited outside for the boy. He heard the crutches clatter to the floor followed by the toilet flush and Jonny mumble some PG-version of an expletive or another, then heard the sink going and then cut off.
Benton rubbed his eyebrows, reminded himself not to get frustrated that he’d soaked his bandages while washing his hands—and half the counter.
Jonny made the clumsy progression back to his room with his father acting as his escort, then heard him leave, a minute later returning with a cup of water and some cylinder of off-white.
It was on his right side, which only made it harder for him to see… He reached his hand toward the glass, almost knocking it.
“I’ve got it.” Benton instructed, he steadied the glass into Jonny’s hand, kept hold of the bottom and let the boy steer. He sucked down the contents then, still holding the glass asked an unnerving question.
“…Is there more?”
Benton looked at the pitcher just off a few feet on the dresser then eyed Jonny suspiciously. He’d said he could see ten feet around…
“Did you take your eye-drops this morning?”
“Not yet, I just woke up…”
“Okay, you take care of that and I’ll get more water.”
Jonny grabbed the eye-drops from the nightstand on his left with less difficulty, though he still fished a little bit.
“After that, I need to rewrap your wrist.”
“Oh.” Jonny said, finally placing the cylinder as gauze. He sucked it up and put in his eye-drops, he mired some wincing but obviously couldn’t mask all the discomfort. Benton put the glass back into Jonny’s hand, still holding the bottom and let him drink his fill, then set down the glass and worked on redressing his burnt wrist.
The underskin was brown with weeping that may well have been causal to his fever. “I’ll be back to check on you later. Do you need anything else right now?”
Jonny shrugged, not quite hungry yet, “I’m okay for now, thanks.”
“Alright, when I come back in, I’ll bring something for you to eat.”
“Yes sir.” Jonny leaned back, tiredly, into bed.
He recited different eras of history, conjured in his mind as he daydreamed about forging relations, embargoes—the outrage, all manufactured of course, over a tariff or indignity of a bad deal.
He didn’t realize Hadji had come in until he was about three feet away.
“Good morning Jonny!”
Jonny turned toward his brother’s voice, “Hey, Hadji…” he didn’t dare ask when he’d come in.
“Were you daydreaming?”
“Yeah… it’s about all there is to do.”
“Oh? If you are bored, I could show you that magic trick—”
Jonny frowned, “…I’m not really in the mood for…”
“Are you still moping?” Hadji asked curiously.
Jonny’s face darkened, that’s what he thought he was doing?!
“Oh, I saw a really interesting chrysalis outside, Dr. Quest said it looked like a hawk-moth cocoon. Would you like me to show it to you?”
He was grinding his teeth, “No thanks.”
Hadji sighed at him, “You cannot still be tired, are you Jonny? It has been two days of you just sleeping and sleeping—how can you still be—” Hadji smiled mischievously, though Jonny couldn’t see the expression. “—We could explore, the lighthouse or the attic for instance have a great deal of historical artifacts!”
“Hadji, I’m not really interested in that right now…”
“Oh, but how could you not be? The pictures of the old wharf had huge sail-boats and merchant ships, let me get them, you will see just how interesting it is!”
“Hadji!” Jonny groaned, “I said I’m not interested!”
“Fine, we could go watch a movie then? Or check out some—”
“No! Quit it, already!”
“I knew it, you are still moping, are you depressed?” Hadji thought, “Did you want to talk about it?”
“I am NOT moping!” Jonny fumed.
Hadji rolled his eyes, “You most certainly seem in a bad mood. Let us walk around, a change of scenery would be good for your mood.”
“No. Just leave me alone, Hadji…” Jonny pulled his covers over his head, turning away from his brother.
“Sim-Sim-Salabim!” Hadji began levitating Jonny’s quilt. He ripped the blanket down.
“I SAID LEAVE ME ALONE! I DON’T WANNA ‘GO LOOK AROUND’ NOW GET OUT!”
Hadji frowned, “…You broke it…” he held his jerry-rig for his levitation trick, “That was not very nice, I was simply trying to cheer you up, you know!”
“Oh? Really?! That’s what you call ‘rubbing it in,’ Hadji! Just get outta here, I wanna sleep.”
Hadji turned and headed for the door.
“Boys? I heard shouting, what’s going on?” Race asked as he approached Jonny’s room.
Hadji slipped out in time for Race to round the corner, spotting him- he looked upset.
“Hadji, what’s wrong?”
“…It is nothing of importance. Jonny broke my magic trick. He is more upset, Race, what is ‘rubbing it in?’”
“That means… how to say it… it’s like making fun of someone, teasing them for something like if you won a sprint and got a prize and showed it off to the loser of the race.”
“I do not understand, why would Jonny say I was teasing him?”
Race shrugged, “I’ll go ask, was that what he was shouting over?”
“I do believe so. I did not mean to tease him.”
“I’m sure you didn’t, either, just like I’m sure he didn’t mean to break your toy.”
“Let me check up on him and I’ll let you know what I think happened, okay?”
Race watched Hadji mope to his room down the hall, once he was inside, he squared himself, let out a sigh and knocked gently on the door.
“Go away!” Jonny hissed from under his covers, obviously crying.
“No can do, kiddo. You gonna tell me what just happened?”
“I’m a Grade-A Jerk, just like dad!”
Race’s eyebrows shot up, he’d put that pot on the back burner for now, though. “What were you two fighting about? It’s not like you both to bicker.”
Jonny sniffled, still buried under his covers.
“Well?” Race sat on the side of Jonny’s bed.
“He kept sayin’ these mean things… ‘n I know he didn’t know they were mean, but-- but it was so frustratin’ and he wouldn’t take the hint…”
“Mean things?” Race prompted.
“Of COURSE I wanna go and see something, watch a boring documentary or read or anything but it’s all BLURS—I can’t go EXPLORE—I can’t tell if that GARGOYLE is in the corner of the same ROOM I’m in—but no, lemme just lace up my sneakers and we can go run around outside, then we can sneak in a hike or swim or climb a tree or something!” His shoulders shook.
Race touched his back to anchor him. “Did you get it outta your system now, sport?”
Jonny turned on his side, toward Race but still under the covers, he could tell the boy was swiping at his face. “…A little…”
“Better air it all out, now, then.” Jonny nodded. “Can you take this blanket off yer head?”
He nodded again, pulled it down as he made himself sit up, his eyes were puffy.
“I’m a jerk… m’leg’s broke ‘n hurts awful… I can’t see clearly past my bed and can’t see at all to the door… ‘n I got all frustrated ‘bout somethin’ he sure as heck can’t control ‘n I yelled at him anyway.”
“He probably didn’t realize what he was saying came off that way, that is true, but you asked him to quit it?”
“Yeah… but he didn’t lay off it.” Jonny frowned, “He said I’ve been moping for two days.”
Race’s eyes shot up at that.
“I’m not moping. I’m not being whiny, am I, Race?!”
He grimaced, “Well, honestly, not given the circumstances, but compared to your usual pluck? A little. Well within reason, though. Hell, if I broke my leg like you did, I’d be insufferable.” Jonny leaned toward the bodyguard. Race sidled closer and let the boy rest his head on his arm. “You know you’re safe here, don’t you?” Jonny gave a half-hearted nod. “That son of a …brick layer… he’s not in the house OR on the grounds. I can promise you that.”
“…But we don’t know who he is or where he is. He could be the mailman…”
“No, he couldn’t be. For one, I’ve got that job still, no one comes on these grounds without clearance.”
“I hate it here, though! I wished we were back home—our real home, in the Keys… I’d know my way around, there’d be people to talk to…”
“You can always talk to me.” Race said without hesitation. “Is that why you think your dad’s being a jerk?”
“Well, yeah, partly… He didn’t even ask us if we wanted to move here, it’s ALWAYS about him and his projects… well great, now he can study Aurora Borealis and planetary radiation from space storms or whale migrations or how to cook a perfect lobster for all he cares…”
“I actually agree with your dad about the move, kiddo. It wasn’t about work. He’s a genius, he can find thousands of ways to kill time and invent something. He just didn’t tell you boys much about his motives.”
“Then what was it about?! It’s not safer here…”
“You’re right, it isn’t. It also isn’t isolated, not nearly like the base was.”
“That wasn’t isolated at all! I had lots of friends there…”
“Yeah, all but one at least double your age.” Race sighed, “Kiddo, you’ve been homeschooled your whole life, you’ve never had a normal sleepover—believe me, you don’t normally adopt the kid after one. We moved here so you could make friends your own age and broaden your horizons. It’s not all spy missions, diplomatic dinners, and curing ancient plagues.”
“I like diplomatic dinners.”
“And that’s okay, it’s not like the invitations’ll dry up to those, but for once you should be able to go to some unhealthy fast food joint, suck down a milkshake, burger, and fries and talk to a girl that you’re in classes with. To go, get bored outta yer mind on Main Street and have nothing to do but window shop or feed ducks, your dad loves you. He knew it wasn’t fair to you to stay on an island just so he would know where you were at all times.”
“But then this wouldn’t have happened…”
Race put a firm hand on Jonny’s shoulder. “Kiddo, listen carefully to me, you’re a smart, caring kid, and I know you were hurt and scared, but there’s things that get said that can leave all sorts of nasty scars. Don’t you ever tell your dad you blame this on moving—on him, believe it or not, he blames himself plenty for the danger his work has put you boys in. But that’s not his fault. It’s not your fault. It’s the sickos who do bad things’s fault, and theirs alone.”
“Right now your dad’s setting up a few doctors’ appointments for you. All four of us’ll go into town, is there anything you can think you’d like to do in there while we’re out?”
He shook his head.
“No music shop, no ice cream parlor, no sitting on a beach—there’s lots of things you can do, even with a broken leg, Jonny.”
He shook his head again. “I don’t feel safe out there.”
“Even with me right next to you?”
“But I can’t see, Race—I couldn’t even say if he pulled up right next to us and drew a…” he shuttered, “…No…”
“Okay, okay take a breath.”
“W…what about a boat ride? They have those, right? We could be on the ocean…” Jonny closed his eyes, “And they have all sorts of those that aren’t by fishing piers, don’t they?”
“Yeah, yeah we could find that.”
Jonny closed his eyes. “That’d be nice… hearing the water…” his breathing slowed, “It’s be just like the private beach… the diesel, the salt water… the wind…” he was half asleep as his imagined it.
“Yeah, you wanna lay back down?”
Jonny nodded slowly.
Race tucked him in then headed over to talk it through with Dr. Quest.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“Jonny?” Benton asked, gently rapping on the door. “I have some soup and crackers for you.” He pushed the door open.
Jonny stirred, groggily awakening, “…Dad?”
“Yes, I’ve brought your brunch… I probably should have brought you some oatmeal earlier, you aren’t famished are you?”
He shook his head, “Not really, but I’m a little hungry now.” His stomach gurgled.
“What time is it, anyway?”
“11:30, you napped for about half an hour.”
Jonny worked to carefully sit up, “Did Race tell you Hadji an’ I had a fight?”
“Argument at most, more like a misunderstanding though—and no, he didn’t.”
“It happens, son. All families argue sometimes.”
He shrugged, “I was mean… I didn’t mean to be, but he said mean things too, on accident.”
“Well, you’ll both have to shake hands and put it behind you then.” He smiled, brushed Jonny’s hair back. “So, do you want the oyster crackers or not this time?”
“Alright, after this, I have a few things we’ll need to get to in town. A 12pm appointment with a pediatrician and a 12:45 with the optician from the hospital, and then a coast tour at 2 after a light lunch. Think you can manage that much activity? It’s a pretty heavy docket all things considered.”
“As long as I don’t have to crutch around too far, I think it’ll be okay… but I really can’t see good.”
“Well—you can’t see well.” He corrected, “Are lights still hurting your eyes if it’s too bright?”
Jonny nodded, “…Wait! I didn’t tell you that… how did you—”
“You were wincing at headlights, that’s why I papered the windows in here—oh, you may not have realized they were. It’s filter paper so you wouldn’t get in any glare.”
Benton kissed the boy’s forehead, “You’re welcome, but there’s really no need to thank me about that. You needed it.”
He poured two packs of crackers into the soup and stirred it. “Race did say you wanted to hear the ocean…”
He drew the soup onto a tray over Jonny’s lap, handed him the spoon.
Jonny started to dig into the chowder.
“The wind and waves… the smell of salt water… I don’t really need to see to experience it… plus maybe you guys’ll see some dolphins or whales…” he laughed, “They’re pretty big, so maybe even if it’s blurry I’d see it too…” he frowned.
“Your eyesight will come back, son… the optician might just need to try some extra therapies.”
Jonny blinked back a few tears.
“…Y…yeah… I… well I’m used to my eyes being really good—Race said I have ‘eagle eyes’…that’s better than 20|20, right?”
“It is. Race always jokes with me that you’d be a great sniper, as long as it was shooting tranqs or paintballs…”
“Will it come back like that or will I need glasses?”
“…I’m not sure, sport. But there’s other advancements, like contacts, lasik, you’d be able to see properly, once they’re healed we’ll just have to check.”
Jonny polished off the soup.
“…That’s the scariest part.”
“I know, that’s quite a vulnerability to step into out of the blue.”
“…I’m sorry I’ve been being stubborn—”
Benton laughed, “Well, that’s heredity for you, it’s just more proof that you’re mine. Goodness knows you lucked out and took after your mom in looks.”
Jonny blushed, “…Who’d I take after for smarts?”
“Best of both worlds, you have Rachel’s people skills, that’s called emotional intelligence—and book-wise, well, you definitely focus on stuff like I do. Hard to say which genius gave you the other parts specifically, your spatial smarts are definitely past mine.”
“You think I’m better than you at something?!”
Benton laughed, “Of course, we all have strengths and weaknesses, as I said—spatially, and people-smarts, you’ve got great instincts. I had to teach myself those, not intuit it naturally.”
Jonny tucked his chin, Benton could see he was blushing though.
He really did need to do more to build up both boys’ confidence.
“You also have an incredibly warm heart. It scares me sometimes, since it can get a person hurt, you’re a darn good kid. Even when you’re being a stubborn pain in the you know what.”
Jonny smiled. “So you love me even when I’m being a pain?”
“I never stop loving you. Ever.” Jonny felt tears run down his cheeks to his own horror. Benton wiped them away silently. “If you didn’t know that already, it’s because your old man’s a fool. Having you is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and your mom.”
“Shucks, dad… now you’re being mooshy…”
Benton rolled his eyes playfully, rubbed Jonny’s hair to give the bashful boy an out.
“Alright, well it’s time for you to get dressed. There’s some sweat pants that will slip over your cast, I’ll help you with the socks and shoe. What shirt do you want to wear?”
“A sweater and loose t-shirt.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Race helped Jonny hop down the stairs and put on a pair of welding goggles. They looked like aviator masks from when war planes were open-cabins.
Benton smiled at the sight, though his silly attire also made his chest pang. No one deserved to have violence performed against them, no child doubly so. He owed it to the boy to make him smile, make him feel secure.
Hadji was already in the back seat as Race helped Jonny situate.
Jonny looked at his best friend and brother, he frowned slightly. Hadji cocked his head at his best friend and brother. Simultaneously, they started—
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be mean—I was just frustrated!”
“I am sorry! I did not mean to tease you, I did not know I was!”
They both sucked in a breath, continuing in sync, “No! You don’t need to say sorry—I should’ve—”
“Do not apologize! I was to bl—”
They started laughing together. Jonny shot out his hand. “Still best friends?”
“Forever!” Hadji squeezed carefully, Jonny firmly, but equally as careful of his burned wrist.
“Now that that’s settled—boys, what’d you like for lunch?”
“Let Hadji pick!” Jonny shot quicker, “You’ve all been eatin’ soup for days cuz of me, right?” Benton gave him a worried look. “I know it’s that we eat the same dinner, an’ I know it’s not my fault…” he said, predicting his dad though the glasses did stretch his vision to good at three feet away versus two. “But it’s okay. I want Hadji to pick. I probably won’t be able to eat too much anyways.” He reasoned.
“In that case, can we try the lobster rolls that they say are a local delicacy?”
“Can we dad?” Jonny seconded.
“Sounds like motion carries.”
Hadji gave Jonny a low-five as his brother cued him up.
“After the doctors’ appointments, we’ll head over.”
Both boys smiled. Race eyed Jonny, Hadji, and then Benton.
All of them were trying to overcompensate, it was easy to fall for any of their acts, and arguably Hadji was the smoothest, if he didn’t keep eying for the proximity of strangers.
Race noted how pale Jonny looked.
Sure his mannerisms were on pointe, but whether it was pain, panic, or both, his color was off.
He glanced to Benton who mouthed silently, ‘I notice too.’
Jonny kept his focus intently in the back of the car, the blurs outside the window simply a frustration to avoid. “Hadji—which rooms’ve you explored so far? Tell me everything!”
“Well, I went through the walk-up attic—I believe there was a haunted doll—”
“—Hadji.” Benton warned levelly, “There’s no such things as ghosts.”
“Oh, he’s just trying to spook me a little—it’s okay!” Jonny countered, “Only babies play with dolls.”
“No baby I know would be so brave.” Hadji said solemnly, “It moved on it’s own.”
“Hadji!” Benton rebuffed.
“But it really did! Like it had a heartbeat in a box…”
Jonny frowned. Both adults eyed him nervously. “…Dad, do you think the attic has RATS?” His face soured at the thought.
“God, I hope not, it’d more likely be squirrels anyway—but a nest of rodents, regardless, by the sounds of it.”
“Maybe you should take Bandit up to investigate later!” Jonny beamed, “He needs exercise… an’ I clearly haven’t been giving the poor boy his walks…”
“Oh, I am taking very good care of him in your stead. Dr. Quest said he has been sleeping on the foot of his bed, too, while you recover.”
“Is that true?”
“When he doesn’t sleep-walk over my face, yes.”
Jonny laughed, “Is his snoring bothering you?”
“Not in the least, but my snoring is probably why he’s sleep-walking over me.”
Jonny giggled into his palm then let out a cough that persisted into a hack. “Ow! Wrong pipe…” He choked then leaned back, eyes emptily landing on the ceiling. Jonny took a deep breath. “Wow… that smells really good—what is that?”
Hadji sniffed the air, he smelled something chocolatey, he looked out the windows, there was a sign for a bakery. “I do not recognize it, but there is a bakery out your window, it smells like cocoa in something.”
“It smells divine, Hadji, remember that place’s name for me, would ya?”
“Of course, Jonny!”
Benton gave the boys a smile.
“B’side the squirrels in the attic messing with ya… what else’ve you found?”
“Oh, there was also a chest of model sailboats inside glass bottles. They were very intricate looking… like pirate ships but without the right flags.”
“How many masts and sails?”
“Hmm, some had two, others had three, and many, many sails. I did not count.”
“That’s really cool.”
“One had fishing net, it looked like a model crabbing boat.”
“Yeah? What a weird thing to build a model of…”
“No stranger than a model of a common car.”
Jonny shrugged, “I guess…” He winced as the car slowed. Race pulled to the front and put the hazards on.
“Hmm, I should see about a temporary handicap placard, come to think of it…” Benton said.
“We don’t need that—” Jonny said defensively, “Once I can see, it’ll be way easier anyway…”
Benton sighed, “Son, there’s nothing wrong with getting help when it’s needed. Race, I’ll wait inside with the boys.”
He nodded, “Okay, boys, you heard ‘im, time to unload.” Race helped Jonny from the car, stabilizing him as Benton lifted his right arm to drape his shoulder, his warm hand snug to Jonny’s left hip helping him navigate inside. Hadji went ahead with his crutches and held the doors.
Once they were inside, Race killed the hazard lights and went to park.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny sat up with his sleeve rolled up past his elbow on the exam table, Benton next to him to make sure he didn’t manage to fall off. Hadji sat in the chair in the corner reading National Geographic.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Quest, Dr. Quest, my name is Dr. Hammond, I hear you just moved to the area.”
“I did, a month ago.” Jonny said politely, “I’m usually in way better shape, though… you prob’bly heard details on the news?”
Benton squeezed his shoulder.
“Sadly, I did. Your dad said you had a fever—a pretty high one.”
Jonny shrugged, “I don’t remember, I just felt cold.”
He nodded, “I see, I need to run some tests including a blood sample. First, can you say ‘awe’ for me?”
With a sigh, Jonny opened his mouth, “Awe…”
Jonny kept his eyes shut as the pen light was near his face, suspicious of how well his goggles would do.
“Are these goggles a necessity?” He asked Benton.
“We’re headed to the optician next, but it has been helping.”
He nodded. “Alright, can you squeeze my hands?” He asked, taking his fingers and putting them in Jonny’s hands. He then pushed on his knees carefully to test his reflexes and strength. “Now let’s take a peek at those nasty burns, shall we?”
“Hm,” he prodded the tender, red tissue surrounding the glistening portion of the welt. “Hmmmm…”
“That sounds like a bad hm…?” Jonny asked.
“I’m going to swab this, give you a few shots and clean it up a bit. It’ll be as right as rain.”
“That was a bad hm.” Jonny pouted.
“Let him do what he needs to, son…”
Sighing at the indignation, Jonny said, “Yeah, I know… OW! Ow… c’mon, at least give a guy some warning—” Jonny winced as the swab touched the sensitive tissue.
“My apologies, this part will hurt, my boy.” He warned. Cold irrigate was flushed over the burn, and hurt it did—Jonny’s eyes rolled back as the sting of peroxide touched live skin.
“Woah, there!” Benton caught Jonny and eased him onto his back.
“Goodness—” the doctor checked his pulse and blood pressure, “He’s fainted. Let me raise his legs.” The exam table head went back to almost 170°, the foot rose to 30° as he continued to debride the burn and inject several local antibiotics. “My records show he’s on a broad-spectrum antibiotic in addition to a cocktail of pain killers?”
“I’d like to switch that to ciprofloxacin, has he ever had a quinine?”
“No he has not.”
“Well, it works well for skin infections such as this.”
Benton nodded, still scanning over his youngest. “Alright.”
“The local injections were beta-lactams, very similar to amoxicillin. Check this daily. If it starts to sweat again, or if he has another fever take him in to urgent care or the ER straight away.”
“Is it that severe?”
“Not currently, but I’ll run the cultures, we’ll know what’s infecting it and what antibiotics it responds to well in a few days.” He checked Jonny’s pulse again. “He’s coming back around. Let’s give him some sugar water and get him back up and about.”
Benton gently supported Jonny’s back as the table was inclined to 45°.
“…Huh… where… the room’s spinnin’…”
“This’ll help, it’s juice.” Benton said as he pressed the straw to Jonny’s lips. He took two small sips.
“Th-that’s not juice…”
“It’s punch, it’s okay, you can drink it.” Benton informed.
“…If you say so.” He drank more of the saccharine solution, he wet his lips, “…Why’s my mouth feel dry?”
“There’s a lot of sugar in that, here, would you like some water?” the doctor handed Benton a paper cup of cool water. Jonny drank that down greedily. “Is the room still spinning on you?”
“Not as much now, Dr. Hammond. I still feel a little light-headed though.”
“Just lean back for a few more minutes, you’ll feel better soon.”
“Okay…” Jonny closed his eyes for a five minute nap, and just as promised, afterwards he felt better.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“Sorry we’re a little late, the previous appointment ran long…” Benton apologized, shook Dr. Webber’s hand, she shook his back as she glanced toward the two boys.
“Given his current state, it should’ve run about fifteen minutes or so longer.” She smiled, she brushed Jonny’s hair. “Do you remember me, Jonny? I saw after you a few days ago in the ER.”
“I’ll have them bring over a chair.” She said levelly, the boy had been hell-set against a wheel chair at the end of his stay, but he still looked green from his earlier appointment downstairs.
Race winked, “Already beat you to it.” Jonny lolled his head toward Race’s voice.
“Hey… where’ve ya been?”
“Parking.” He said, not a hint of betrayal to his surprise in the car. “Sit down, would ya?”
The boy complied tiredly. “Ugh, the room’s movin’ again… Dad?”
“It’ll be okay, just give it a minute.” The advice seemed to pay off, the room stopped moving, he was in a dim office.
“Jonny, I need to take your goggles off for a little bit.”
She handed them to Benton. “Can you lean forward until you feel a chin-rest and forehead divet?”
“Okay…” he complied.
“Alright, hold still.” Jonny saw several strange blobs that focused into a hot air balloon then into blobs of colors again. Then he saw strange colors in a circle close in, vanish, then reappear in the center.
“This is making me feel really dizzy…”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, it’ll just be a few more moments, keep looking ahead.” He saw a bright, too bright in fact, of a light. He reeled back, holding his stomach and mouth.
“Stop! I’m gonna be sick—”
He squeezed his eyes shut. The vertigo was too much… A cool icepack touched the back of his neck as he took a stuttering breath.
“Th-that feels a lot better…”
“Good. Can you continue or is it too much? It’s only another 15 seconds.”
“…I… I’ll try…”
“Good boy!” He pressed forward. It wasn’t as intense this time, though he still felt dizzy by time they dimmed from bright lights to off. She reviewed the printout.
“Jonny, in the dark, you can see further can’t you?”
“I need to take a look at your lenses, it’s unfortunately going to make you feel yucky again. Will you put up with it for a few more minutes?”
“…If it’ll help me get better, yeah…”
“Good, let me help you to the other exam chair.”
This ‘chair’ was more like the fancy recline chairs at massage parlors, Jonny noted, except it didn’t do shiatsu kneading.
“On the ceiling, what do you see?”
“It’s blurry, but looks like the full moon, it’s a soft white.”
“Does that hurt your eyes?”
“Okay good, keep focusing on it.” She taped his eyelids up. Piercing light hit the backs of his eyes as a small jewel-appraiser scope passed in front of him next to a prism. His eyes watered.
“It really hurts—” Jonny whimpered.
“I know, I’m sorry, just hold on a bit longer.” He clenched his hands into the chair handles. She pulled back and added drops then repeated.
“Dad?” Jonny asked, his misery apparent. His dad took hold of his hand.
“I’m right here.”
Jonny squeezed his hand hard.
“Alright, that part’s over! I’m sorry, that felt awful, huh?” Jonny nodded mutely, crying with his eyes open wide. She removed the tape, he squeezed them shut reflexively. “There’s just one last thing to do today.”
“No! Please, I can’t—”
“—This won’t hurt, all it’ll do is make your eyes feel a bit dry.”
He frowned. “Dad, do I have to?”
“Jonny…” he said softly, “I’ll make it up to you. We’ll get something really nice—a reward for being so brave.”
“I don’t want a reward…”
He pet the boy’s cheek, Dr. Webber put on a strange pair of goggles, air started to blow into his eyes, the position of the lenses kept them fixed open.
“Five minutes, it’ll be done in five minutes.”
His eyes reflexively tried to blink but couldn’t against the headgear.
True, it didn’t hurt, but his eyes did feel dry. When she took off the goggles, she used wetting drops that helped, then returned his welder’s goggles over his eyes. “You just rest in here, we’ll be right back.”
“Dad! No, I don’t wanna be alone—”
“I’ll stay with you, kiddo.” Race volunteered, entering the small exam room. “Will that do?” Frowning, he gave a slight nod. “Close your eyes for a bit?”
Jonny nodded again.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“So how bad is it?”
“It’s not great, but they are improving, the edema is tamped down, but he has corneal hypoxia—oxygen treatments and shading his eyes until they are more healed will help. Until then, his vision is severely impaired. With correction, he’s at 20|70—which is not legally blind, but is low vision. I can give you a prescription for inserts so he can see better than he can now while he heals, and a prescription for a medical device to saturate his lenses with oxygen, that, and the wetting eye drops. In a week, his vision should improve, and within a month he should fully recover, or, you can bring him in daily for oxygen therapy, either way we can make arrangements.”
“Let’s schedule follow-ups for tomorrow—through however long he needs, that way you can monitor the progress.”
She nodded, “Perfect, did Amy get the measurements for his goggles?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Let’s schedule those to be fitted tomorrow and let him recover. He had several damaged areas on his retina, so be very careful letting him move about. The right side was most pronounced.”
Benton nodded. He went back into the exam room. “Shall we head out?”
Jonny nodded, his eyes closed under his goggles, “…Can… I use a wheelchair? I don’t have it in me to get up right now.”
“If you’re sure, certainly.” His dad and Race exchanged a look.
Jonny nodded, he felt exhausted, “…I’m really tired, I know y’ wanted to get lunch ‘n do something… but …I’m just… really…” he yawned sequentially, “really… ti…”
Race picked up the boy.
“We can pick up some lobster rolls to go, is that alright with you, Hadji?”
“That is fine, or we could postpone.”
“He’ll be able to sleep in the car, Race—we’ll need to make this trip daily for the foreseeable future, maybe a couple of weeks.”
“For that oxygen bath?”
“At least that wasn’t the painful one.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Car idling, Benton slid from the backseat to head into the pharmacist’s office and nearby deli.
He and Hadji returned several minutes later with provisions as Jonny slept, reclined in the front seat, Race flipping through the radio for a classic rock station.
The ride home was uneventful, Race carried the sleeping youth back to his bedroom.
Dr. Quest, in an armchair next to the foot of Jonny’s bed, read several scientific journals while keeping the boy company. By 3, he began to stir.
“Waking up, son?”
“…Dad?” He say up a little.
“How about a late lunch?”
Jonny blinked as Benton stood, he set down the papers he was studying and brought over a tray with a lobster roll, whoopee-pie and punch in.
The boy looked over the tray, unsure. “It looks heavy, but it really isn’t son.”
“…But it’s all junk food…” Jonny said in disbelief. Dr. Quest smile.
“You can spoil your diet sometimes you know, Jonny.”
The blond smiled back, “Hadji got a lobster roll then? I’m glad…” He let his hands surround the roll, still hesitating. It smelled so good though! “…Can I have some milk?”
“Sure, chocolate or whole milk?”
Jonny frowned, he really was being spoiled. “Did you get beamed?”
Benton rolled his eyes, “You need calories, it’s okay if just this once it’s not all super healthy. Broccoli isn’t going anywhere.”
“Alright…” Jonny took a bite of solid food. His mouth watered as his empty, vacuous stomach seemed to kick in. He took bite after bite, ravenously, only stopping after he wolfed down the entire meal.
His stomach gurgled greedily, he say upright more pert than he’d been for days.
“Let me get that milk—chocolate, then?”
He shook his head, “Whole milk, please.”
“You’re a good kid, son, you know that? But you don’t have to act so grown up.”
Jonny blushed a little, “…Okay, then.”
Benton brought in a tall glass of chocolate milk and another half of a lobster roll. “Don’t rush, you might get an upset stomach, but if you’re still hungry…”
His eyes shone as the food was back in his narrow view range, he beamed brightly as he took up the extra rations and chowed down. Much more energetic after his meal, Jonny’s eyes traced the outlines of the blurry room.
His dad helped wipe the mayo off his cheek.
“Dad… do you have a pencil and paper… a sketch pad or notebook or something I can use?”
“Sure, which do you prefer?”
“…A… a sketch book.” He swallowed thickly, “…Dad, I remembered something about the car.”
Benton locked eyes with his son’s, though the boy’s were unseeing. “Go on?”
“…It was a white Buick, a sedan… it looked kind of old, like an early nineties make… and the paint… it was buffed off on the bumper and part of the trunk… greyish blue, and rusted over a little. Not a lot—” He gripped the sheets as he balled his fists.
“—I saw letters on the license plate… but I… I can’t remember all of ‘em…” He lowered his head a little.
“It’ll come to you. That’s a lot of really good information, can you repeat that to Race, too?”
“Okay, I’ll get that sketchbook while Race sits in here with you.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Race sat on the corner of the bed next to Jonny as he blindly sketched out a rough outline of his attacked, still describing the car.
“He had a novelty plate… Maine—it said ‘Lobstah’—but not spelled right, L- B- S- or maybe 5- T- A- H… I think, but it was definitely a Buick, it was white, had a little rust and buffed out paint on the back—and a scratch on the passenger’s side that went from the front door all the way to the wheel well in back… I saw it when I wiped out on my bije… I thought he hit me at first, but he didn’t, did he?”
“Not with the car, you avoided him just enough.” Race informed.
“The scratch was on the quarter-panel, low on the door… the inside was dark grey or dark medium blue, I think… there wasn’t a lot of light in it.”
Race pet Jonny’s shoulder reassuringly as he took notes.
“That’s all I can think of… except the trunk smelled gross—like fish guts, and it was dirty—stained.”
“That’s really good, it was probably his personal car then from what you told us before.”
“…I don’t think the plates were his, though.”
“No, maybe not.” Race agreed, “But the other details will help a lot.” Race affirmed, “What’re you sketching?”
Jonny’s hand shook a little. “…I’m tryin’ to draw him, but it’s prob’bly no good—can you hold it to my left for a second?”
Race looked at the sketch, it was clumsy but it wasn’t awful, especially done without looking.
“…That’s his face shape, but I messed up the position of his eyes and nose—and his mouth’s all wrong. C’n you turn the page, I’ll try again.”
“Alright, kiddo. Let’s focus on that next…”
Jonny nodded. With his right hand, he shakily drew a boxy face. He drew a median line and the nose slightly askew. The narrow beak curved.
The space between the tip of the nose and garish lips was pronounces. The fat, bulbous lips fit the boxy jaw, “Race, can I see it?”
Race moved the sketchbook to Jonny’s left side. He nodded.
“Turn the page. That part looks right, I don’t want to mess it up doing the eyes.”
“Kiddo, we could get a sketch artist in, if you think that’d help?” Jonny shivered.
“I need to do this first.” He scratched his left leg nervously, “It’s bad, I know… I’m not an artist… But it’s helping me remember—like a snowball gettin’ bigger and bigger…”
Race nodded. He turned the page, returned Jonny’s right hand to the center of the clean page. “His eyes were offset, his left eye was a little lower… not much, it was also smaller, beady… Bushy eyebrows… his skin was dry, sun damaged… he had burst vessels on his cheekbones…” Jonny’s left hand curled over his stomach.
“…I… can’t do more right now. Can you help me up? I need the bathroom… my stomach…” He explained.
Race gently carried him over.
This time he made it to the toilet before losing his quite large lunch.
That agony had been more painful than the previous, just on the basis of volume. “All done?” Race asked in a soothing tone.
Jonny shook his head.
“…I just wanna—” he gagged, “—stay here a bit…” His mouth watered in preparation as the vomit bubbled back up.
Race rubbed his back as he bowed, hovering the porcelain bowl. After a few minutes, he rested his sweat-drenched forehead on his arm.
“Definitely not as good coming up than going down…” Jonny joked through his anguish. He felt his eyes watering and leg cramping. “…Sorry, pushed myself too hard.”
“Don’t worry about it. You Quests don’t exactly have a ‘down’ notch.”
He let out a scratchy scoff. “Agreed.” He shifted stiffly, “It really is bright in here…” he noted in a pang of discomfort. “Help me up?”
“Sure.” Race hoisted him carefully, they stopped at the sink so he could rinse his mouth and brush the bile-taste from his teeth and tongue. He gagged but kept it down, instead he spit his mouthful of minty foam out.
A firm hold on his shorts kept him upright even with his right leg bent upward.
“…Is it dark out?”
“No, it’s only 6.” Jonny lowered his chin. “Did you want to get some fresh air?” Race pressed.
“…A little, yeah.” He steadied himself at the sink, “But probably later. It’d be nice to listen to the tide come up.”
“Okay, well until then, let’s get you back to bed.” He nodded, his energy stores from earlier back to a depleted status. If here were honest with himself, he knew the kid had pushed himself to the brink, was he envisioning the monster or the man though? Race couldn’t be certain. Maybe it was both.
Back in the bedroom, he squirreled away the sketchbook. Despite Jonny’s modesty, it was a decent sketch. Definitely enough to work off of; once the kid was out, he’d talk to Bennett and the Doc.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny slept straight through dinner, only half-awakening for his medicine. His father managed to get a large glass of warm milk into him, but that had been a struggle. His stomach was cramped from previous reverse-peristalsis exercises.
The eleven year old curled against his father as he brushed his hair with his fingers. Benton lulled a soft, pleasant hum of varying tones, some deep, some tenor, alto, and melodic, his fingers brushed his son’s neck lightly as the boy mewled sleepily.
By 10PM, he had woken up to stare blankly at the dark room, his dad was in an armchair, when had he brought that in?
The room smelled like disinfectant and hospitals, he hated that, the autumn leaves—the earthen, wet smell of sandstone and salt was what he craved.
“…Dad, are you asleep?”
“Hum, wha—I’m up!” He shifted, awakening rapidly from under the paperwork. “Jonny, what is it?” He said more alert.
“…I didn’t mean to wake you…” Jonny mumbled apologetically.
“No, it’s okay. Are you thirsty?”
“…A little, my stomach’s still sore though.”
“Some milk should settle it.”
“…Dad, can we open the windows?”
“The windows?” He looked around, “Are you overheated?”
He shook his head slowly. “I bet it smells like fall… You remember that time we went camping in Canada?” Jonny smiled faintly, “And the way the maple logs smelled on the campfire…?” Jonny curled upward, he rubbed the side of his right leg as it throbbed. “…And the wet leaves decomposing…”
“I do, we were radio-mapping—checking the timber wolves’ territories and their migration patterns. That was a fun trip.” Benton leaned over his son’s bed to crack open the window and sit next to him. “Do you remember that time we sailed the Gulf to track the pod of pink dolphins?”
“Yeah,” the boy giggled, “they sure were chatty on sonar! But the chum smelled so awful…”
Benton touched his arm.
“The stairs creaked so loud… there was someone down there…”
“I didn’t see the second person at all…” He was shaking.
“…A look-out…” Jonny gasped, “Dad! There was someone else there—not just one guy…”
“Hey! You’re home, you’re safe—no one can get in here, son—son?”
He was struggling to look around, his eyes had more clarity to them but looked frantic, he saw the sketchbook and grabbed it. The motion almost spilt him from the bed.
“Son, calm down—you’re going to hurt yourself if you’re not more careful—”
“—I saw their feet… by the door, talking… they were—they…” Jonny closed his eyes, forcing himself to recall all of it.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“Are you CRAZY?! What did you DO?!”
“I saw our chance, and I took it. The plan’s the same.”
“It CAN’T be though! We don’t have things in place—nowhere to dispose the body!”
“I’ll take care of it, he’ll be fish food…”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Jonny was shaking violently as Benton pulled him close. “Snap out of it, Jonny—wake up… please son.”
He was having a panic attack, it was obvious he was having a flashback, what wasn’t obvious was how to stop it.
“Race, I need your help in here—” Benton called back, he squeezed the boy carefully, the tight hug meant to ground him and restrain him from self-injury.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“How’ll we get the money—NOTHING is in place—”
“He gave me the number, we make him pay to get him back, if he doesn’t, I’ll dump the brat by the lobster traps.”
“You don’t get it, there were timelines, now we can’t get the access we need—we have to abort this!”
“He saw my face.”
“Idiot! You idiot… We’ll never get another chance at this—”
“No, I’ll fix it, just… whatever you do, don’t come in here, and ditch the car.”
The other man walked hurriedly down the stairs, then the car started and drove off. Jonny pulled on the zip ties at the pipe. “Knock it off, brat!”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“There you are—you went somewhere, huh Jonny?”
Jonny looked up at the ceiling, gasping, blinking. He felt the sting of his broken leg as the room came back into partial focus.
“There was an accomplice—they were gonna dump my body by the lobster traps…” Jonny spoke in numb affect, “After they got the money—he called it off cuz he messed up… the timing, their plan…”
“…” Both adults locked eyes, Benton livid.
“I’ll update Bennett, see how the investigation is coming.”
“…Dad, do we have to stay here? Can’t we go somewhere— somewhere far away, where they can’t find us?”
“…Like where, Jonny? Where would you like to go?” Benton said in a soothing voice, the rage behind his eyes cooled the room if Race could’ve checked the thermal scanners.
“Anywhere—Kilimanjaro, the Amazon… a kayak in the middle of the ocean…” Jonny wiped at his face viciously.
“We could get the prescription filled- go to—” Thinking aloud, Benton spoke.
“Benton, he’s not fit to fly.” Race said in a quiet voice, “…I daren’t risk a blood clot.”
Equally hushed he conferred, “—What about a schooner? We could take a turn down to Bermuda then head back while they follow the leads?”
“It’s your call, but a medical emergency on the open seas?” Race gave the boy a careful once-over.
“He’s stabilizing.” They continued their hushed conversation, “And his limited mobility wouldn’t be severely impacted on a boat.” In a more conversational- louder tone Benton asked, “What about a coastline journey? Go around Nova Scotia, avoid any hurricanes… And then sail down the river-ways?” Benton rubbed his beard, “Would you be up for the navigation?”
“I think it’d be better than headed over dicey seas.”
“—Jonny, would you like to go on a sailing expedition? We could make arrangements.”
He was nodding repetitiously.
“Alright. We can do that if you think that will help you recover.”
“…” Jonny continued to nod, shivering in terror as he imagines another unknown monster lurking.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
“I have the Compound on lockdown, Bennett has some agents posted on the ground, too—I’ll make the preparations, you three just stay put till I get back. I’ll have that oxygen mask back before 11.”
“I’ll pack up the equipment I’ll need to keeping building the software, then have Hadji help pack up the boys’ supplies.”
“Benton, are you sure this is the precedence you want to set with him? I know I’m not exactly in line here, but—”
“I know. I do, but imagine how helpless he has to feel—he can’t move, he can’t see, he can barely remember, and each time another piece clicks into the puzzle, it’s just gotten that much larger and more terrifying; he endured it alone—”
Race agreed, “But he’s pulling back, he withdrew—he was near catatonic, and you and I both saw that once before. Only once.”
Dr. Quest nodded, his son had witnessed Rachel’s murder. He’d been alone in that he was so far away when his wife and child were grabbed, Rachel shot before the boy when Benton had been just barely out of distance to curtail the tragedy. Remembering his son with caked red hair as his mother bled over him, folding over to protect him as she died… It had made him at the ripe old age of 32 shut down. For a 6 year old? The terror, the guilt, no wonder he’d withdrawn then.
He remembered the bruises over Jonny’s leg as it was cast, the bruises still visible under his swelled jaw. “How he doesn’t have severe trust issues just speaks to his resilience.”
“And his low self-confidence the sign of his childhood trauma?”
“Touché.” Benton sighed, “I’m his dad. I have to make him feel safe. We’ve discussed moving here, and it’s absolutely important for his development, but if he shuts down entirely he can’t develop at all.”
“We could get an extra man—give us time to allay that…”
“He wants the isolation of a boat, a stranger would just set him off. I know we’re stretched thin for such a long coarse, who were you thinking?”
“He wouldn’t know them, it’s alright. We’ll make it work. We always do.”
“And it’s always thanks to your efforts.”
“Stow it, Benton. Do not leave, if anything comes up call me and I’ll get back here within minutes.”
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Just as Jonny had managed to get up onto his crutches and navigate to the bathroom, he heard Hadji clattering around in the attic. He smiled thinking about the haunted squirrel nest.
The idea of being on a boat—away from the threats of the unknown—had revitalized him, that and the antibiotics kicking in. Not to say he wasn’t still a nervous mess every time he heard a door open or shut, but he did feel as if he finally was somewhere secure, or at least about to be!
His dad said he’d be packing up, so was Hadji—Bandit busied himself with exorcising the attic.
Jonny made his way carefully to the kitchen. Mrs. Evans said there was grilled cheese and tomato soup. In the bright sunlight, Jonny’s vision had drastically reduced as he found his bowl and fumbled for the sandwich.
By time he’d finished, the whole room beyond the table had blurred back out to near indistinguishable.
He hoisted himself up on his crutches and fumbled clumsily to the French doors to the living room, his wool socks over his feet as he edged the door open.
Jonny heard a door shut that made him pivot.
“Hullo?” He asked, “Hadji, was that you?”
He crutched toward the sound. Maybe it was his dad carrying the lab equipment?
“Jonny? Get upstairs on the double!”
The blond blinked, he didn’t recognize that voice.
“Dr. Quest—get the boys, there’s someone on the grounds—”
Jonny began hobbling backwards. He touched a door, threw it open—he wasn’t running per se, but he was moving at as fast of a clip as he could, given conditions.
“Jonny! Not that way—kid—get back inside!” The agent made a fast track, scanning the perimeter he saw a hostile, he yanked Jonny toward him. “Not that way! In the house—In the house!”
The crack of a rifle was clear as day as it echoed the air. Even worse was the all-too-familiar feel of hot, metallic spray as it splattered Jonny’s neck and face.
His open mouth tasted metal.
He heard screaming, he wasn’t sure if it’d been the agent’s or his own as he crumpled to his knees grabbing his ringing ears. His scream was cut short by a rough arm hoisting him up.
“Move it—MOVE IT! You’re in the open, idiot!”
In a fugue state, being shoved away from his crutches, pulled further and further outside, he heard yelling- it was too hard to place the sounds. His eyes locked with beady demon eyes.
He fell to the ground in a heap.
There was more gunfire, more screaming, yelling—and then a quiet calm, the deafening silence was what gave him enough of a center to stand.
He felt a claw digging into his aching wrist, another across his shoulders pinning him.
He smelled chum, muck, hatred…
“You’re coming with me.” The man yanked him hard.
Not one to be pulled, Jonny struggled against the grip.
“Let go of him you son of a bitch!”
He heard his dad’s voice, an anger in his tenor that floated over him, it was a familiarity that made him feel strangely safe despite growing evidence to the contrary.
“Move it, idiot, I can break the OTHER leg—”
Mouth agape, he still could taste blood, now much cooler, on his lips and tongue. He closed his eyes, they were useless right now anyway.
“You’re not taking him anywhere!” Dr. Quest howled, he leveled his service pistol he practiced with at a minimum of one hour a week with.
Jonny heard the snap of twigs behind them, felt the wet of soil as he was being dragged toward the wood line. He’d run outside—the unknown voice, he’d been so disoriented he ran from a securable location… he was an idiot!
He wondered if he was stupid enough not to feel what he was about to do.
He clenched his eyes tightly shut and wrenched his arm free. He picked up his legs with an oblique crunch, grabbed the forearm at his shoulders and slammed his legs back hard into his tormentor’s groin.
The vertigo of the sudden drop was surreal.
There was a crack of a pistol fire that hurt his ears as the giant dropped on top of him. He felt a rough hand in his hair, he also felt his leg signaling fire to every nerve ending from toe to hip. The feel of cool metal made him stop struggling.
“You just shot my brother—your kid’s DEAD—!”
It was a knife, Jonny realized. He felt a knife encroach his side. Jonny elbowed back with all his might. It gave him just enough a head start that he could drag himself up two arm lengths as the stout beast pounced.
He screamed in panic, dropped to the ground as he felt metal thrust at him only to feel knuckles graze his back, missing, and the weight of a fat bulldog hop from his shoulder and launch off his back to maul his attacker.
He dragged himself another arm-length away, he heard Bandit snarling, growling—biting.
“Sick ‘im boy! Sick ‘im real good!” Jonny coaxed hoarsely, trying to gain more distance, get out of his dad’s direct line. He knew the only reason his dad wouldn’t shoot would be that alone. That was right, ‘running’ or more aptly crawling in his case wouldn’t cut it! He shoved himself over hard into a roll, with four rotations he gave the command. “BANDIT, HERE boy!”
The dog moved to his master’s command and the sound of a pistol loose a round never sounded so good.
There was another shot, then the air went still, minus the tinnitus in his ears, his heart bounding in his throat. He opened his eyes to see blue, cream, and orangy-red mere inches above him in a blur.
The warm hand under his neck, and at his hip hoisted him up.
He smelled his dad’s breath, aftershave—felt prickly beard hairs dig into his cheek as he was pulled away from his attacker.
“en you ear me? Un, en you?”
“Great shot, dad!” He said back, exhaling a wince. From the decibel of the compliment, Benton was sure he couldn’t hear him.
He pulled Jonny tight to his chest, not sure how far the boy could see, knowing full well what he shouldn’t see though. The dead federal agent’s interior skull surfaces high on the list.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Inside the Compound, Benton braced the doors, anxious as all get-out for Race to race back.
“Son, can you hear me? Are you hurt anywhere—?” He kept repeating, looking over the boy in sheer horror.
Hadji handed him a wetted dish towel.
“Thank you, Hadji—have Bennett’s men come in?”
“Yes, two agents are right outside, they called Race. He is on his way back post-haste.”
“Hadji, can you check Bandit? And give that good dog a biscuit.”
“Yes sir—is Jonny?”
He couldn’t think of anything worse for his boys to see, each other hurt, three dead bodies—he needed Hadji distracted but he also needed his help.
The blood wiped off, smeared, but there was no more coming up to replace it. No shortage of small miracles! He kissed his son’s cheeks, forehead, looking him over top to bottom.
He’d chipped his damned cast clobbering that brute.
Jonny was blinking up at him dazed.
Unapologetically, he pulled Jonny into a bear hug. His boy’s arms curved up his back in reply.
“I’m okay… I think.” He said quietly to his dad’s ear. “Well, not any more un-okay.”
He nodded his understanding into his son while still burying his face into the boy’s clavicle hugging him. A probing hand found a snag but not a slice in his sweater. “Thank goodness for that.”
“Dad…” Jonny whispered, “C’mon dad, cut it out… you’re being all embarrassing…” He said as the hug stretched to three minutes and counting.
“Jonathon, you get to be embarrassed.” He gave another squeeze then pulled back to look him over for the umpteenth time.
The sound of the door opening and closing echoed the house, Race shouting for them ended the moment.
“We’re in here. We’re okay.”
Benton helped Jonny to his feet, Race looked them both over.
“What in the sam hill happened?”
“They apparently decided to stop in.” Benton deadpanned.
Race let out a shaking breath. Bennett had called him about finding the car, and it’s registration, while he was at the marina.
Apparently, the brother had heard his name and cut out. They’d doubled back to finish the job—and for what?!
“Dad shot ‘im!” Jonny said proudly, though his father was anything but proud of that.
“Hadji used a glass to blind that bastard—the agent…” he swallowed in horror, “I think he was aiming for Jonny—but Bennett’s man took the round. Hadji blinded him while I got my shot.”
Benton nodded solemnly.
“…Th-they killed someone?!” Jonny parroted, “The guy who…” his hands went to his mouth.
“It’s—Jonny, that wasn’t your fault—”
Jonny’s hands reached for his hair, acutely aware of the drying mat in his hair. Race gripped Jonny’s hands keeping him from soiling them.
“What about the other one, Doc?”
“He grabbed Jonny before we could get to him… son, I’m so sorry—you…”
“…I thought he was an agent… all I could smell was blood, but then he grabbed me rough ‘n I knew too late.” His affect was flat. “Why’d they wanna kill me, what’d I ever do to them?!”
“Oh son…” Benton pulled him right back into that bear hug.
Race grit his teeth. “Because they’re devils, Jonny. You were right all along about them being monsters.”
Jonny curled tightly into Dr. Quest.
“Upstairs. Everyone. We’ll have a talk.”
Nodding, Jonny slipped his arms around Benton’s shoulders.
-Diplomacy of Youth JQ-
Hadji and Jonny, both freshly showered and in pajamas sat on Benton’s California King mattress.
He took a seat at the foot while Race leaned into the wall closest to Jonny. “Sometimes people do awful things because they’re desperate. They do bad things instead of hard things and try to make others sacrifice for them.”
Hadji hugged Jonny with a solidifying arm. The blond leaned into his shoulder tiredly.
“Their business was floundering. They wanted a quick buck and thought taking it was easier than working for it. The house you were found in? It was one of their failed ventures to turn a quick windfall. Security footage from their bank showed they were denied a loan just while your dad was discussing his capital transfers. Their avarice killed a very good agent, and hurt an amazing, good kid.”
Hadji hugged Jonny tighter as he shuttered.
“But if I’d—if I’d stayed upstairs… if I didn’t come down for lunch… or want to run away from here—”
“You’re not in a gilded cage. You’re not the one who chose to take instead of earn.” Benton corrected.
“But if I didn’t get all turned AROUND—”
“They blinded you. You’re not to blame for being victimized.”
“Is it really not my fault that agent died?” He sobbed.
“I’ll be eternally grateful for his sacrifice. He did the most noble act any agent can do in sacrificing their life for an innocent who couldn’t defend themselves—he died a hero.” Race put a hand on Jonny’s shoulder.
“He knew he was doing everything in his power to save you. He saw a scared, disoriented—hurt boy and he had to help. I know I couldn’t live with myself if I was in that same spot and not try. That’s not a fault, that’s a value.”
Benton joined the group hug around the youngest.
“…I don’t want them taking away your hard work… I don’t wanna leave here… you want me ‘n Hadji to stay here so we can meet kids an’ go to school, an’ acclimate, right?” He sniffled, “Then I don’t want them to take that. I wanna stay… is… is that okay?”
“Anything you want, champ…”
“Th…then I wanna meet his family. Race… did he have a mom ‘n dad or a wife ‘n kids or…?”
“He had a little brother and a mom. His brother’s also an agent. I can arrange it, but what did you want to say? You have to be sensitive about this kind of thing…”
“I wanna thank them. He saved my life. He didn’t have to but he chose to.”
“I also want to shake their hands and thank them for his heroicism. And help them in any way they may need.” Benton said solemnly.
“I’ll speak with Bennett, then.”
“As for you, we have a doctor’s appointment, and then I would like all of us off the grounds while they do the necessary investigations.”
“Shall we take the boat ride as we discussed yesterday?” Hadji asked.
“It sounds like the perfect way to get out from underfoot, Race, Jonny, any objections?”
Jonny shook his head slowly.
“…I’m still really shaky.” He said as an observation more than an objection.
“So am I, son.”
“The water’ll do us all some real good, that and fresh air. Boys, I’ll bring over a change of clothes for you, stay put.”
“Yes sir.” Both boys responded.
Hadji uncoiled his hug. “Jonny…?”
“You really kicked that creep’s butt! I’m very glad you are unharmed. I was very scared he would hurt you bad, or worse.”
“Me too, he was really scary.” Jonny faltered, he hugged his brother back, “’n Bandit did such a good job—he musta tasted gross, huh boy?”
The dog jumped to Jonny’s lap. He rubbed his ears assuredly, “Good boy!”
The bulldog puffed his chest, recognizing the due praise, licked Jonny’s neck then blustered with more bravado. He snuggled his dog, Bandit worked eagerly on cleaning his face of tears, a perpetual task.
“Kids, after the boat ride, let’s take a long drive too. Enjoy the fall foliage.”
Jonny nodded as did Hadji.
“Bandit will come too, yes?”
“Of course, we have to keep around such a loyal pup.” Benton gave the dog a good ear-scratch.