Diana wasn’t surprised that Neil went far away for college. He was smothered at home, and four years of so-called normalcy couldn’t make up for six years in Hell. He still flinched from Dad sometimes, and he was too still and too quiet. With them, Diana knew, with Mom and Dad and Stevie and Diana herself, he was always Cameron-as-Neil. In his mind, he was still Cameron pretending to be Neil, and it didn’t matter that all the tests said he was Neil, had always been Neil, that Dad knew him from the moment he saw Neil in the hospital bed.
He still felt like Cameron, trying to survive.
Diana blamed Simmons for that. She would never forgive him for terrifying Neil just after Miller’s death. She saw the scars on her brother’s skin and the ones on his psyche, and hacked what she could about those horrible years he was Cameron. And Simmons—he was supposed to be a cop and help victims, and instead he persecuted a little boy whose only crime was surviving.
Diana had to help Neil with his homework those first few months of school. She was actually glad he’d been put in the same grade as her—it meant she could keep an eye on him, make sure nobody bothered him. She beat up three boys in the first two months, and Neil didn’t thank her, but he did ask Dad for self-defense lessons.
Neil quickly caught up with and soon surpassed Diana’s GPA. They graduated together and most people thought they were twins, Neil and Diana Lacey. And Diana went to a college only an hour away, while Neil went across the country, and then he joined the army, and he hardly ever came home.
Diana understood, she really did. Neil spent six terrible years as Cameron, and he still didn’t feel like he’d escaped. He sent them all postcards, a few emails, and even a couple handwritten letters.
And he called Diana, the night he left the army, and he said, “I killed four men.” Diana was sure he’d killed men before, but something was different. Something had changed in his voice.
She breathed quietly into the phone and she asked, “Did they deserve it?”
“Yes,” her big brother said, and hung up.
Diana moved back home, to an apartment in town, and went to work at the museum with Mom. Stevie designed computer games, Dad retired, and Neil traveled the world, doing something.
Mom and Dad, and even Stevie, thought he was working for the government, that he was a spook. Diana knew better, but she never asked and she never told.
And then two men grabbed her on the way home from work and took her to her old house, where her parents still lived. And they had Stevie, and three more goons, and they tied Diana and her family up, and they told Diana to cry while one of them called Neil on speakerphone.
“We found out your secret,” he said into the phone. “Listen.”
Instead of breaking down like Mom or demanding answers like Dad and Stevie, Diana shouted, “Stay away! Stay free!”
The big one slapped her. And they all heard Neil say, “You’re dead, Cooper.”
Cooper laughed and flipped the phone shut.
The five goons talked amongst themselves, and Dad calmed Mom down, and Stevie tried to communicate a plan to Diana with his eyes after the big guy slapped him for talking.
Hours passed. Diana knew Neil spent most of his time in Europe, so it might be awhile before he showed up, if he was going to at all.
She felt guilty for that that immediately. Neil had almost died saving Stevie after barely a week of being Neil again. Of course he’d come for them now.
At dawn, two of the goons collapsed simultaneously, blood and guts exploding out of them. The other two and Cooper separated, Cooper shouting, “Come out where I can see you, Arthur!”
Another goon went down, then the other, and only Cooper remained. He finally panicked, and Mom was crying and Dad praying and Stevie staring with wide eyes.
Diana was the only one who saw Neil stalk in, a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. “I warned you, Cooper,” he said, and threw the knife.
Cooper died and Mom sobbed louder. Neil quickly knelt by Diana and pulled another knife to saw through the rope. He gave her the blade to deal with Stevie and materialized a set of lockpicks for their parents’ cuffs.
“I’ll deal with the mess,” a British voice said, and Diana looked up with a gasp. The man—Neil’s height but broader—nodded to her, but his eyes stayed on Neil. “You help your family, darling. I can dispose of the waste.”
“Thank you, Mr. Eames,” Neil said, and sank back on his haunches to look at Mom with hesitant eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly as Dad and Stevie stretched out the kinks in their arms and spines, and Diana restrained herself from hugging the life out of them all. There’d be time for that later.
She ignored Mr. Eames with a garbage bag, to focus on Mom, her tearstained face and red eyes, and the bruises and blood where she’d fought the cuffs.
“I’m sorry,” Neil said again. “Mom, please.”
Mom took a deep breath, wiped her eyes, and threw her arms around Neil.
“Neil,” she said. “Neil, oh my baby.”
Diana took that as her cue and hugged Neil and Mom both, then Dad hugged them all while Stevie asked Mr. Eames if he needed help.
“No, thank you,” Mr. Eames replied. “Your brother would beat me bloody if I let you touch a body.”
“Here,” Neil said, pressing a note into Dad’s hands. “Take them here. I’ll come tomorrow and I’ll explain. Everything will be taken care of, I promise.” He paused, looking at them. “I’m sorry I keep ruining your lives.”
“Oh, Neil,” Dad said, and pulled him in for another hug.
Diana and Stevie ran upstairs to pack a quick bag for their parents. When they got back, all but two bodies had vanished into garbage bags. Neil asked Mr. Eames a question in a language Diana didn’t know and Mr. Eames nodded.
Neil turned to Dad. “Follow those instructions. A quick family getaway. Everything will be taken care of, and it’ll be like this never happened.”
Stevie said, “You won’t show up, will you.” Neil ducked his head, and Stevie continued, voice bitter, “You’ll just vanish again, send postcards and emails when you remember. You won’t tell us why they called you Arthur or kidnapped us.”
“They went after you because of me,” Neil said quietly. “They know me as Arthur because that’s the name I work under.”
Neil looked at Diana, at Mom and Dad, then back at Stevie. “And no,” he added. “I wasn’t going to meet you there. I’ve made a deal with someone to erase all records of me, to destroy all connections to you, so no one else will come after you again.” He glanced at Mr. Eames, and finished, “Neil Lacey will have never existed.”
Diana yelled, “No!” She strode forward and grabbed Neil’s hand, pulling him in close. “I don’t want to lose you again, Neil.”
He sighed, lifting their clasped hands. “It’s the only way you’ll be safe,” he said, and pulled her in for a hug, then Mom, Dad, and Stevie, and then he backed away.
Mr. Eames leaned in and whispered, so quietly Diana barely heard it, “Arthur, are you sure?”
“Maybe in a few years,” Neil said, then again, helplessly, “I’m sorry.”
Diana stared at him for a long moment, trying to memorize his face. A decade since she last saw him, a few months before he left the army, and nobody had ever gotten the full story on that. He looked older, of course, but leaner and harder, too. Dressed in a suit, like Dad when he still went to court, except with a few drops of blood dotting him.
“You’re not a spook,” Diana said softly.
Neil smiled and shook his head.
“I’ll see you later, son,” Dad said, guiding Mom out. Stevie followed, not looking at Neil.
“If you don’t visit,” Diana told her big brother, “I’ll track you down somehow.”
Neil kissed her forehead and said, “I promise.”
Diana noticed that he didn’t say what he promised, but she left anyway, meeting her parents and kid brother in the driveway.
The instructions sent them to a nice hotel, telling them what name to use. They spent a week there, trying to calm down and forget. No authorities ever called about the kidnapping or the bodies, and when they went home, there was no evidence at all.
A month after, Diana received a postcard, signed Neil&E.
I’ll be home on my birthday, Neil wrote. See you then.
But he didn’t show up on his birthday. Instead he knocked on Diana’s door on the anniversary of the day he saved Stevie and remembered who he truly was.
“Neil,” she said, pulling him close and trying not to cry.
Mr. Eames stood to the side quietly, waiting with a smile, and he slipped his hand into Neil’s, lifting them both to kiss Neil’s knuckles.
“Shall we, then?” Mr. Eames asked. “I hear there’s a birthday celebration waiting.”
“Yeah,” Diana said, wiping her eyes. “Let’s go.”