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Unhappy Families are All Alike

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It could have been a seven-hundred-million-dollar mistake. Thaddeus reminded himself of that as he turned out of the freeway and headed into Philadelphia. He gripped the steering wheel tighter. SCORA was nothing more than a fancy pile of silicon and circuits. The coders that programmed it had only a firm grasp on its input. The mathematicians that scribbled down numbers could only extend their algorithms so far. It was a machine, not alive but precise enough to pull numbers and theories and names seemingly out of thin air. An investment that calculated the possibility of a person becoming involved in magical incidents and nothing more.

No other name and location had been duplicated, no matter how long the lists got. Billy Batson had appeared three times. The names had first been apart only by six lines, before being repeated again nearly four-hundred lines later. Part of Thaddeus had expected his cell phone to ring and his secretary to tell him there had been another hit. Already, she’d called him twice that day to report on new findings and to discuss some new patients that had called in. One line of many was crossed off from the great cyber oracle’s list of predications.

The radio of his rented car was turned down low, and in the three hours that he had been driving, the sound only now reached his ears. It was an old song, a good forty years old or more. For a moment, he was a boy again, standing in a bakery eagerly eyeing a display of sweets. He shook the thought away.

Memories returned anyway. The city had gotten a face lift since he’d left, new stores and restaurants dotting the streets, but the skeleton was the same. It had been five years since he’d last ventured into the city, three since he’d sent his family a Christmas card. Now he was a teenager heading to the movies, only to be cornered on the sidewalk by Sid and a group of his friends. When he took a hard left, he was again a young man escorting his father to work, the two silent throughout the entire drive.

Thaddeus took a deep breath. The city housed over one million residents. So long as he stayed at a low-end hotel and ate simply, the chances that he would run into his father or Sid were lower than the Dead Sea’s shore. They certainly wouldn’t have been caught dead entertaining themselves anywhere near the part of the city that he was headed for.

Thaddeus ran the facts through his head again. Billy Batson, born 03 February 2003, was a four-year-old boy who had been in and out of three foster homes in the last seven months. The state was like a soccer player suddenly pulled out into the field, unsure of where to hit the ball. At this rate, he’d be halfway across the state in a few months. He’d gotten lost from his mother and the state had hit their limit trying to track her down. From what he’d read, the boy’s father had relinquished custody, and his records didn’t indicate he’d be able to win it back any time soon if he tried. Families were funny like that – sooner or later someone painted the paper trail red.

Still, tracking the boy down had been easy enough. Only three hours after his initial request, his secretary had brought him a pile of papers that he’d spent the night pouring through. Time had marched forward through a steady stream of phone calls and emails and faxing files. The flights to and from the city had been sparse, but necessary. Time was a luxury even he could not buy more of.

And then there was now. A day part of himself had never quite expected to come.

-

Billy twitched in his seat. Ms. Glover had been gone for five minutes, and in that time the silence of the room had seemed to crawl into his ears. His heart had been hammering since he woke up that morning. Did Ms. Glover really expect him to do this?

He looked down to the Magic Eight ball in his hands. Dr. Sivana had given it to him during his last visit. In the stream of toys and clothes that the man had bought him, something about it had stuck out. Maybe it was the chipped paint on one side, or the scratches near the end. Some nights, he would shake it for what seemed like hours, watching the blue triangle bounce up and down within some unseen ocean. He could decipher a few words from it. Since his last visit, Billy had read through the books Dr. Sivana had given him until the pages began to tear.

If he closed his eyes, he could still feel himself perched upon the man’s legs, hear his voice within his ear. He’d been insistent that they go to the library that day. A few times throughout that day, Billy had wondered if they would ever leave.

Billy looked to the Magic Eight ball now, to the floating “yes.” There was the answer but gone was the question.

“Keep it to remind you of me,” Dr. Sivana had said. As if Billy could ever forget. Ms. Glover was always eager to discuss him. Whenever the two were at one of their meetings, she always had some new tidbit on him.

Billy had smiled through those meetings. He grinned when Dr. Sivana had taken him to zoos and museums. Nor had he frowned when the man bought him ice cream or came to visit bearing a box of doughnuts. He smiled because frowns so far had gotten him nothing. Tears had only ever gotten him a face full of toilet water and bruises that dotted his skin like stars.

Billy ignored the way his stomach flipped and smiled when Ms. Glover and Dr. Sivana entered the room.

“Aren’t you excited to go home with your father?”

Billy’s smile was so large that it took up half his face. He nodded.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to hear you say that.” Dr. Sivana removed a pen from his shirt pocket and filled out one last form. As he and Ms. Glover fussed over that final form, Billy let his lips slip.

-

Billy awoke in a heap of stuffed animals. His face was buried into the stomach of a tiger. The plush was so large that he hadn’t quite believed it when Dr. Sivana – his father – had bought it for him. A number of other plush dotted his bed, including the entire cast of the Hundred Acre Woods and a zoo’s worth of safari animals.

Sitting up, he surveyed the room. The flight to California the day (night?) before had been the longest seven hours of his life. While the two had sat in the airport the afternoon prior, Billy had struggled to think of some way to escape, to get Dr. Sivana to reveal that this was all some grand prank. All the while, he’d scoured the airport in search of his mother. It was a habit that he had taken to whenever he went out. In the flurry of people, no one had stuck out.

“Are you scared, William?” Dr. Sivana had asked once they’d made it through security.

Billy had looked to the ground.

“Have you ever been on an airplane before?”

Billy shook his head. Where had he ever had to go?

“While I can’t say they’re the most pleasant way to travel, they are interesting to ride.” He put his hand on Billy’s shoulder. “Just think – soon we’ll be out of here.”

Billy hopped out of bed. Aside from his bed, his room had been sparsely decorated. A bookshelf near his closet was so tightly packed with books that Billy half wondered how it hadn’t broken through the wood sidings. A small desk sat next to it, bare except for the Magic Eight ball which watched over him like some misshapen eye. Next to his bed was a large window. Sunlight drifted in through the large curtains.

Outside, the sun was bright, and the world was green. A bicyclist rode past on the curving sidewalk. A flock of birds, some looking no larger than a comma, flew overhead.

His door pulled open. Turning, Billy met Dr. Sivana’s eyes, the only part of his face visible thanks to the large mug of coffee he was busily gulping down.

“I thought I heard you.” He smiled, but Billy didn’t return the gesture. “What do you think, William?”

Billy’s shoulders tensed. He’d never been wild about the name, and when Dr. Sivana had first started using it, Billy had thought that he was talking to someone else. Their handful of conversations about it had always been tense. Something would pass through Dr. Sivana’s eyes and his face would tighten.

“It’s…” He’d waved his hands around, as if the answer were hiding somewhere in this strange new room. How spacious it was! There were no foster brothers to share it with, no kids to push past whenever he wanted to do something as simple as walk down the hallway. The same could almost be said for their apartment. Aside from Dr. Sivana’s study, which was locked so tightly that Billy could barely even move the door handle, the whole place was his to explore and use. The night before, he had only seen glimpses in the dark. All he’d really noticed was the size and the faint outlines of furniture.

So many answers hung on Billy’s tongue, none that he could bring himself to voice. Dr. Sivana was a nice man. How could he not be, for putting up with Billy? But he wasn’t his father, no matter what the man and Ms. Glover insisted. All Billy needed was his mother, his real, true mother, and he wasn’t going to find her out here.

Before this, they had only discussed her once. It had been late, Billy had been tired, and he had been stupid enough to ask questions. Dr. Sivana had never mentioned her; for all Billy knew then, the man hadn’t known that she existed.

“Why does Ms. Glover say you want to adopt me if my mom will find me and take me back?” The words had tumbled out of him so quickly that at first he hadn’t been sure if Dr. Sivana had heard him. Just as he was about to repeat it, Dr. Sivana had spoken.

That woman doesn’t want anything to do with you.” He’d heard it all before. It was a favorite talking point of Ms. Glover, and his older foster brothers had often said the same thing, albeit with a zestier wording. Something about the way Dr. Sivana had said it had made Billy’s stomach fall into the pit of his chest. “Since she left you, has she so much as sent a letter? Has she looked for you? Gone to the police and filed a missing person’s report?”

Billy hadn’t been sure how to reply. All he’d managed to muster up was a “B-but-”

“But what? Am I wrong?”

Maybe he was. For all Billy knew, ever since that day of the carnival, his mother had been looking. How would she find him now, though? Why would she think that he was all the way out here?

“It’s n-nice.” A hard lump had formed in Billy’s throat that he could barely push the words past.

“It’s all yours.” Dr. Sivana crossed the room and squeezed his shoulder.