Jake could still feel the cold press of his mom's hands on his cheek as she had said, with smoky breath puffing against his face, "Always stick as close to the truth as you can. Makes things easier."
And so, with his robe-wearing, arms-crossed father staring down at him, Jake quickly let out a nervous laugh. "I think Logan wants me to move in."
"He is, " Logan added petulantly from halfway behind Jake, where he was gripping Jake's shirt hem.
And, like a charm, it worked when it definitely would not have worked with Jake's mom. So much for extra special Sentinel senses, right? Jake's father just sighed and chuckled, knelt down to their height, and dropped a big hand on each boy's head. "Let's save the unpacking for tomorrow, shall we?"
"Okay," Jake replied happily. He nudged Logan forward a little, hoping Sam—Dad—would take the hint and get the him out of the room. He did. With one swift movement, he swept Logan up into his arms and up into the air above Jake. Blue eyes stared down at him, suddenly filled with panic. "Night, Logan," Jake chirped to stop any waterworks.
"Night…" came Logan's whispered, upset response. He never blinked, watching Jake as Sam carried him out of the room and closed the door.
He waited and waited, ear pressed to the wall. Finally, he heard nothing but crickets and then went about, as softly as he could, sifting through his clothes. If his father didn't hear that, then he definitely heard Jake's heart thundering. But laying in bed would have been just as terrible.
How far could a bottle of pills get with a little kid tossing shit around? Logan's arms weren't even that long—he'd only managed to stuff the bottom drawer of the dresser. Close to tears, Jake made an even worse mess until he finally calmed down enough to check under the furniture. When his hand closed around the bottle, which had rolled under his bed, he had to bite back a loud yes.
He clutched the bottle. He opened it and stared at the two-tone white and green pills. Each capsule contained a white powder that he'd preferred to mix into his morning hot chocolate until his mom finally made him learn how to swallow pills dry.
Their house wasn't actually that much nicer than the one Jake shared with his mom before the thing happened. It had two stories; living and kitchen area on the bottom, and bedrooms on the top. But there were other hints that this family lived well. Their flat screen television took up half the wall, and there was a shiny espresso machine sitting on the kitchen counter. None of the furniture was shabby, and their two cars were obviously expensive.
Funded by the DSA (Department of Sentinel Activities) —Jake had remembered the brochure from a school assembly that was organized after some kid a grade above him had presented as a Sentinel.
He was examining all the packaged, scentless soaps in the bathroom when his father appeared, sliding into a suit jacket. "I gotta go," he said in a way that told Jake he was used to saying that, was tired of saying it, but also didn't expect any pushback or reply.
Which is, of course, why Jake said, "Where? Why?"
Sam looked slightly confused for a moment. Then he nodded. "Right, you're not six. I have some important business to take care of at work—they'd promised not to call me in, but you know how it goes…" He cleared his throat. "Anyway, Lisa has to come along so can you babysit Logan?"
Jake could tell Sam had thought this was a brilliant epiphany: a kid old enough to watch the smaller kid! It make Jake want to scowl. But he nodded and muttered, "Sure."
"I know, I know, stranger in a strange land. You just met dad and now he's leaving you with the half-brother and I'm sorry about that, Jake. Feel free to scrounge around, I know Lisa keeps microwave pizzas in the garage freezer, but just make sure you cook them out there, okay? I can't really…" He shrugged uncommitedly and disappeared.
But Jake didn't have to wait long. Lisa appeared next and she was a bit more informative. With a friendly and warm—yet somehow utilitarian—tone, she walked him through the house, emergency contact list, and extra set of keys. There was a car honk from the driveway before she finally stopped. "Please take care of Logan," she ended softly.
"Um, where is he though?" Jake replied.
Lisa's eyebrows rose. She smiled. "He's been napping in the guest—in your room."
With a nod, Lisa left, and Jake watched the SUV back out of the driveway, make a three-point turn, and zoom around the corner of the cul-de-sac. He didn't particularly feel like waking Logan, so he used the unexpected alone time to explore.
Obviously he found the locked door first. He assumed it was Sam's office, just because that seemed like the kind of thing that would be locked, but for all he knew there was an atomic bomb in there. He let it go. The backyard interested him most of all despite the chilly weather—it was huge. There was a swingset on steroids; two slides, a turret, and several rock-climbing walls. He had a hard time picturing Logan using all that. A hot tub was nestled in a fancy-looking deck with lights strung around it, but the cover was locked down. There was also a basketball court, and Jake was starting to think Sam had a lot of ambitions for Logan.
Well, he already knew that. He knew that his father thought Logan would be a Sentinel. Expected it.
Back in his room, he found Logan totally conked out and holding one Jake's shirts like a teddy bear. Just the slight tingle of contentment he felt wafting over told him it was time for another pill. Having decided against hiding the bottle anywhere weird in case Sam heard him digging around for it, he pulled the bottle from his other bathroom stuff and popped a pill in his mouth.
When he put everything away, and turned around, Logan was sitting up and staring at him sleepily.
Shit. Distract distract distract ! "Hey, dude, wanna play some video games?"
"We don't have any," Logan replied, but clearly Jake's gambit had worked—the focus had shifted to how unfair life was. "Dad says they're too loud."
"Hasn't he heard of mute?" Jake muttered, and then winced. But Jake just stared at him some more, this time looking kinda awestruck. Time to rally. "Okay. Um. Toys?"
"Yeah!" Logan swung himself off the bed and darted past Jake, but not before catching his hand and dragging him along. They ended up in Logan's room, on the floor, and surrounded by little action figures including train tracks, cars, and buildings.
Jake was quiet while Logan set up the scene, frowning as he caught sight of Center for Sentinels and Guides written in block letters on the front of a play...house(?) that opened up to reveal several levels and rooms. Logan was placing lab-coat clad figured inside, along with army men and people Jake could only assume were prisoners based on their clothes.
"Killer is gonna destroy the city," Logan said, tone somber.
A figure was placed between them. Jake was pretty sure the character was from some kids movie he'd seen trailers for recently. "Killer. He had secret poison that's gonna poison everyone. The Sentinels have to stop him, but head Sentinel Theo still doesn't have a guide."
Two more figures: a man in a suit, and a man in prisoner gear. "That's his guide, but he doesn't know it," Logan said.
Jake felt slightly sick. "Why doesn't he know it?"
"Adam is a bad guide."
At that, Jake let out an anemic laugh. Adam is a Bad Guide was a children's story read early and often at elementary school. His hand shook slightly as he picked the figure up and inspected it closely, finally recognizing the prisoner clothes for what they were: the scrubs Guides had to wear while training at the Center. "Why is he bad?" he whispered.
"Adam is a bad Guide because he ran outside," Logan replied automatically.
"Why did he run outside?"
"He ran outside because he wanted to hide."
Jake really didn't feel like continuing the story. He set the figure down. "So what's going on here? Everyone's outside."
Logan's face scrunched, but then he huffed with determination. "They need to find Adam."
"Why for Theo?"
This time, Logan shot his confused expression straight at Jake as if this particular plot had never been questioned before, and Jake was being a jerk. "Theo needs his guide!"
"But what does Adam need?"
That, clearly, was too much. Jake could practically see Logan shortwire. He shoved the figures aside and stood up, his face red. He stood there breathing heavily with his little hands clenched into little fists and just the tiniest specks of tears building up at the corners of his eyes.
And through the numbing haze of the pills, Jake distinctly felt his frustration. But not just that—he could feel the mixed, confused unhappiness of a child not old enough to understand the emotions boiling through him. Jake could feel how Logan wanted to answer but just didn't know how.
Jake shushed him. Palm on Logan's forehead, other arm at his shoulder, Jake pushed golden hair back and blew gentle, cooling breaths against Logan's skin. The anger seeped out of Logan like heat rising from the shower.
They both sat down, Logan looking slightly dazed.
"Okay," Jake said slowly. "Let's catch Adam."
Lisa and Sam came back a few hours later looking slightly chilled but not much else. They didn't say where they'd gone, and Logan didn't ask, so Jake assumed that was status quo. Immediately, Lisa went to cooking dinner and Sam went to that locked room, shutting the door behind him.
So Jake and Logan sat at the kitchen table, watching with twin bored expressions as Lisa made chicken noodle soup. Jake noted the lack of seasoning. He would have said something, probably, but his mom had warned him: bonded Guides follow the strict diet of their Sentinels. And so does the rest of the household.
Boring. He'd have to sneak out for some curly fries and Atomic Wings from WingStop at some point. He wondered if Logan had ever eaten curly fries. Probably not. He couldn't miss what he'd never had. But still… that kinda sucked.
"You two want some juice?" Lisa asked, her back still turned to them as she stirred the soup. Only then did Jake realize he was a little thirsty.
Nothing else broke the monotony until Sam came out of his office-thing. The soup had already been served, Lisa was sitting at one end of the table, and Logan was sitting right next to Jake. Sam took his spot at the head, and smiled benignly. "Smells good," he said.
Lisa nodded. "Thank you."
Although Jake didn't really have any experience with married parents or whatever, he distinctly felt like his father and stepmother shared a strained relationship. But there had been that little kiss the day before…
He tried the soup. It was bland, of course. "How was work," he asked, setting his spoon down.
Sam, who had been happily slurping away at his own bowl, seemed slightly lost for a moment, unsure of who had spoken and why, but then his gaze lowered on Jake and his eyebrows rose. "Fine," he said, lip quirking up. "It was fine. In fact, I'd say they hadn't even needed us. Wouldn't you agree, Lisa?"
And then, again, silence (except for the sounds of eating soup). Three weeks of this, Jake thought to himself morosely. Three weeks of awkward silence and unappealing food. And he didn't even know if he'd be getting presents for Christmas or not. Already he was formulating different ways he could convince his mom to come pick him up. Because seriously, would Sam even care?
"What did you two get up to?" Sam asked. He was looking at Jake.
"Oh. We, uh, played. With Logan's toys."
"Oh, his Sentinel Set? That was sent over about a month ago, when he turned six." Sam started stroking his chin thoughtfully. "I knew, from the testing, and from how the Center has been keeping a close eye, that they believe Logan will present as a Sentinel, but I wasn't expecting this level of support. It's truly astounding."
A creepy toy set was support? Jake didn't comment. He just murmured in agreement.
"Were you tested?" Sam asked.
Jake's heart thudded against his chest, and he coughed to give himself a second to recover. "No," he said. "I mean, yes. But I didn't come up as anything. I'm normal." All of that was a big, fat lie but thankfully Sentinels couldn't sense lies.
"I knew that, but I was curious if your mother had…"
Jake immediately recognized his mistake. Sam had already known he wasn't a Sentinel, and Jake's mom would never have gotten him tested anyway. He should have said no. "It was school," he said quickly. "Right before homeschool, they did testing on everyone… with a Sentinel in the family." The story came out flawlessly, and Jake mentally thanked his mom for giving him that Plan B.
"What about Guides?"
Another heartbeat hard against his ribcage. "Guides?"
Sam's eyebrows knitted, but he shrugged with a laugh. "Yeah, I guess that doesn't matter."
Whatever about that that didn't matter was unclear, but Jake didn't question his father. No, the next question came from Logan.
"What does Adam need?"
Everyone was quiet until Lisa spoke. "What, dear?"
Logan frowned. "What does Adam need?" He looked at Jake.
Jake was frozen. It took digging his nails into his palm to wake up. "Oh," he said, forcing out a laugh. "While we were playing with that Sentinel Set… we were talking about that old rhyme."
Sam shook his head. "Which one?"
Jake wanted to crawl under the table. "Adam is a Bad Guide. "
Making a sound of recognition, Sam leaned back in his chair. "Wow, they still use that one? Well, Logan, a Guide needs a Sentinel. That's why they go to the Center—so they can wait for their Sentinel to find them."
For some reason, Jake felt the need to look at Lisa. But she was just vacantly eating soup, expressionless.
"Oh," Logan said. "So Adam needs Theo?"
"Yes. And Theo needs Adam. That's how it works."
Jake, as if detached and watching from a comfortable spot above the table, cut in. "But they don't say that."
All eyes turned to him.
"They just say what Theo needs. Theo needs to find his Guide: Adam, who keeps trying to hide ." It was Lisa's scrutiny that really made his skin itch. For someone who had been so placid a second before, she was suddenly laser-focused on Jake.
But Sam was the one to respond. "That's true, Jake. That is true. But what Adam needs is kind of, you know, wrapped up in what Theo needs. Adam needs what Theo needs. They don't have to say it."
Bullshit, Jake's mom would have said, cigarette between her teeth. "Complete and utter bullshit. "
Jake really wanted to go home.