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Fiction Mystery Suspense

The two men seemed safe.

No one was harmless, not entirely. Henry knew better than that, but Caleb and Angel were normal?

Caleb wasn’t the first person to ask him if he was alright, if he needed help or food or a drink, maybe a bed. He was getting better at deciding who could help him and who couldn’t. Who was safe, who could be trusted for a little while, and who looked like they would expect something from him in return. Those people who looked straight through him.

Caleb didn’t seem to expect anything from him. He didn’t ask a lot of questions, neither did his father. The two men gave Henry a little space once he had sat down at the bar, on one of those tall stools that made him feel like a kid in a booster seat again. Angel had excused himself into some back room to finish payroll, and Caleb was going through a list of tasks to get the bar ready to open. When Henry couldn’t decide what to eat, Caleb didn’t seem bothered by it. He’d thought for a moment, said something very quickly — Henry guessed it was in Spanish — then disappeared behind a curtain.

Five minutes later, the man reappeared with a bowl of something red and steaming. As Henry stared and sniffed a little — spicy, with stringy bits of chicken and something that looked like puffy oatmeal — Caleb filled a glass with ice and cola from a nozzle attached to the bar.

He pushed the glass and a clean spoon across the bar to Henry. “It's just tomato soup, I promise. Mom makes gallons of it and we keep it down here for dinner breaks during shift.”

“Thank you,” Henry said quietly, perhaps a little stunned. “It, um, it smells good.”

“I mean, it’s not a burger and fries, but I figured this would fill you up better than mozz sticks or poppers or whatever,” Caleb shrugged. He pulled a rag from somewhere and began wiping down the bar. Henry picked up the spoon and swirled it through the broths, watching the ingredients bubble up to the surface. It smelled sweet, a little spicy, like the pasta dish Sir liked so —

Henry jerked his head upright, spoon handle clattering against the side of the bowl. No, he would not think about him, about them. Either of them.

“Woah, hey. You alright over there?” Caleb was back in front of him, concern creasing his features.

Henry nodded rapidly, pushing that thought away. Bad thoughts, all of them. “Fine. I’m fine. Just… bad memories, you know?”

Caleb hummed in agreement. “Oh yeah, I do know. Bad dreams, bad memories, bad days. Been there, done that, have several tee shirts.”

Henry laughed, then caught himself. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. Wasn’t, um, wasn’t laughing at you.”

“Nah, laugh all you want. Life sucks sometimes, but what’s the point if you can’t laugh about it?” Caleb said. “No, I was just thinking… you look a lot like my brother-in-law. Like really. Give you some glasses, an Indiana Jones complex, and bump your age up about ten years, you’d be his twin…” Caleb raised an eyebrow. “Don’t let my rambling stop you from eating, Henry.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

“It’s okay, don’t apologize. You don’t know me from hole in the wall. You don’t have to listen to me wax on. Just… just, eat okay?”

“Yes, s—.” Henry coughed to cover the last bit. His bad habit, the one thing he hadn’t been able to totally get rid of after a year. Yes sir, yes ma’am, yes sir, yes ma’am… 

He didn’t like saying it, but it never left his brain. It wasn’t meant to leave his brain, meant to become reflexive, just like hitting his knee on a counter or saying “bless you” after a sneeze. Caleb didn’t mention it, even if he noticed. So Henry tucked his head and picked up his spoon, raising a hesitant mouthful to his lips. Caleb wasn’t watching him, wasn’t making sure Henry was eating. He was organizing and dusting the rows of colorful glass bottles lined up on the bar shelves. Henry smiled to himself, thinking about how nicely organized it was, and dug in.

The soup was delicious, plain and simple. Everything was delicious to Henry now, even the things he didn’t like, but this especially so. The tomato broth was thin but loaded with spices, tasting like an altogether better version of the pink rice he liked at Mexican restaurants. The pulled chicken was soft, soaked in the flavor of the brother, same with the funny puffy oatmeal. It made his nose run a little, his cheeks warm. It warmed his whole body up from top to bottom. Henry blinked and half the bowl was gone.

“Good right?” Caleb laughed at his surprise, a blue bottle of gin in his hands. Henry nodded, reaching for the glass of soda. “Mom’s the best cook in the family. June’s the second best, but she doesn’t always get home from the hospital early enough to cook, so I make dinner these days… Guess that makes me third best.”

Henry sipped his drink. “Who’s June?”

“Oh shit, sorry.” Caleb rolled his eyes. Henry guessed it was at himself. “Most people around here know us, so I forget sometimes. June’s my wife.”

“And she’s a doctor?” Henry’s stomach flipped. He didn’t like doctors. A doctor tried to give him back once.

“Nah, she’s a nurse, works with babies and little kids up in Hartford,” Caleb explained, replacing the gin bottle and pulling down one that looked like whiskey. “She gets scheduled for weird hours all the time, but she loves what she does and I can’t remember the last time I had to get stitches at a hospital, so. It all works out.”

“She sounds nice.” Henry swallowed another mouthful of cola . He smiled at the fizzy-popping against the roof of his mouth. “Um, I know this’ll sound dumb, but what? What’s Indiana Jones?”

Caleb did a double-take, mouth falling open. “What? You don’t know about Dr. Jones?”

Henry shook his head, feeling stupid.

“It’s only the greatest movie series of all time. Lord, kid, where did you grow up? A cult or something?” Caleb’s expression flickered with realization. “Oh, wait. You said handlers earlier…”

Oh no, oh no, oh no, he knows… Henry’s heart plummeted into his stomach. He should drop his glass and run. Drop his glass, grab his backpack and run as fast as he can. Henry could outrun him. Henry could outrun most everyone — out jump too.

He could run. He could run, he could. 

He should run, he should, he—

Caleb leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Are you running away from a cult? Is that why you need help, Henry? Are they looking for you, is that what you meant by ‘handlers’ earlier?”

Henry swallowed hard and nodded quickly. Yes to all of it. He can’t find his voice anymore. It’s trapped, stuck fast behind his teeth and he’s too terrified of what it might say to try unsticking it.

Caleb doesn’t pressure him for more. In fact, just the confirmation is all the man seems to need to put together the thoughts in his head. “Did you run away recently, Henry? You can nod or shake your head if you’re too scared, Henry. That’s a-okay.”

Henry shook his head.

“You’ve been running a long time?”

Henry nodded. He’d been gone for a year. A year all on his own. It didn’t really feel like a long time, but he knew it was. 382 days exactly. He kept a tally going in the one book he had.

“Do you know where you are?” Caleb asked next. His voice was gentler now, quiet and patient and Henry found himself leaning into it. He shakes his head. No, he really had no clue. “Okay, so you’re in Hallford, Connecticut. Near Hartford, okay? Ever heard of us?”

Henry shook his head. He knew Hartford, he knew about Connecticut. He’d never heard of Hallford. Even though he did read it on a brick building earlier — Hallford College, founded 1834. He read slowly, but he still could. He still had that, and ma’am always told him to be thankful they didn’t ask for that taken away. The thought made him feel sick.

“Don’t worry too much about it. No one does unless they’re applying to the school.” Caleb brushes it off. “Alright, last question. Do you need a place to sleep?”

Henry hesitated. Caleb is safe, he understands that much, but can he be trusted? For a whole night or even longer? And, moreover, did Henry trust himself around a man who he had just admitted had a nice face, nice eyes, and a comforting voice? 

That was the truly terrifying part. Henry was good at balancing, had become very good at running the line between what he had been built for and what he wanted. He bit his tongue and played with the damp edge of his glass.

He wanted a warm bed and another good meal. That’s what Henry wanted, what he needed.

So he nodded. “Y-Yes, please. If it isn’t, you know, too much trouble?”

“It is definitely not too much trouble, Henry,” Caleb tapped the counter. “Is that backpack all you have?”

“Yes, but I —.”

“We’ll get it and whatever clothes you have cleaned up tonight. Same with you, get you a shower and some clean clothes.” Caleb talks, thinking out loud more than talking to Henry. Making a to-do checklist out loud. “Maybe a new toothbrush, sneakers maybe. Hmm, okay. Finish your food and I’ll take you over to the apartment okay?”

“Don’t you have to work?” Henry said in a rush.

“I mean, I do but dad will understand. We have students we keep on call just in case,” Caleb shrugged and walked in the same direction his father had gone minutes earlier. “This seems like a just in case kind of time, Henry.”

~*~

The apartment was small and lovingly cluttered. The kind of colorful clutter that builds up from years of family memories and history. Family photographs, piles of books and notebooks, children’s drawings, flowers in painted vases set next to walls painted light colors, and plants trailing along window sills. Right at the top of the steps coming up from the street was a little niche shelf cut into the wall, a delicate cut-silver candle holder displayed on it.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven candles.

Henry knew he had seen one just like before, knew it meant something to the brain kept just behind the wall in his mind. But he didn’t try to push the memory too much, didn’t force it. He didn’t really want to be sick in front of a stranger.

“So, this is it. Not much, but there’s only four of us,” Caleb said, sweeping an arm around as he stepped backwards into the living room. Henry, hands still clenched around his backpack strap, shifted his weight from foot to foot and took it all in. Plenty of windows, not too many doors. Not many places to hide but plenty of ways out —.

Henry pushed the thought away. “Wait, four?”

“Mhmm, just me, June, and the kids, who you’ll meet in a second…” Caleb glanced out a large window and nodded to himself. “Yeah, right now. That’s their bus. Two secs.”

The man smiled at him as he ran back down stairs and out the bright green front door. It took another minute before Henry felt secure enough to step forward into the home. That’s what it felt like — cozy, lived-in, well-loved home. The drawings in frames and scattered coloring books made sense now. Caleb had a family. Caleb was a father.

The gentle voice made sense now too.

It was a far cry from the last home Henry remembered, but Henry himself wouldn’t have even called it a home. Just a house. It was too clean, too pristine. He always wondered if he would get in trouble if he breathed too hard on the refrigerator, fog up the stainless steel with his breath. Everything there were crisp shades of white, grey, and icy blue; every room an exact 71.2 degrees; every window shined to obliteration; every floorboard and tile sporting a glossy finish. Where that house had seemed too perfect, too big, this one seemed just right. Like the little kid story he heard at one of the family shelters he got into that one time.

Too big.

Too small.

Just right.

Henry wandered around, inspecting everything. His curiosity propelled him forward as he looked over every photo, glanced over the jumbled words of book titles and movie cases. There were voices and loud footsteps on the stairs as he ran a light finger across the leaves of a vining plant. Pale green with white stripes, vines that looked like bamboo but it wasn’t bamboo.

“Who’s that?”

Henry spun, instinct kicking in despite knowing exactly who it was.

“That’s the new friend I was telling you about.” Caleb was holding the hands of two children, a boy and a girl, both school-age. Both with smooth tan skin and dark hair like Caleb, but only the little boy had blue eyes. Bright blue eyes, wide and interested.

Henry raised a hand in a little wave. Both children waved back.

“Alright, I’ll do all the work,” Caleb smirked. “Henry, this is Rosie and Gabriel. Rosie, Gabi, this is Henry. He’s going to stay the night with us.”

“Like a new babysitter?” The girl, Rosie, asked with a single eyebrow arched.

“No, mami and I will be here, but the same age as your babysitter,” Caleb answered.

“I like his hair. It’s soft like Kier’s…” Rosie mused. She looked him over once more time before smiling and absconding to her bedroom. The little boy, however, hovered next to his father’s leg until told he could go color or do homework if he wanted.

“How old?” Henry asked, trying to remember how to make conversation.

“Ten and six,” Caleb sighed. “Rosie’s a bit… stubborn, don’t let her bully you into things. She listens but you need to say it a few times first. Gabi’s the quiet one, which is nice. Do you have siblings?”

Henry shook his head. There weren’t any kids in his old house, and he couldn’t remember before. So the answer had to be no, didn’t it?

“Only child, okay… Sorry, I don’t mean to poke around. I’m sure you don’t want to talk about anything if you’ve run away from it all.” Caleb paused, chewing on his lip and crossing his arm. “Never mind. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. But if you do, I’m all ears. I thought cults were just a weird seventies thing, but I guess they’re still around huh?”

“Yeah, um… Plenty of us, I guess,” Henry answered meekly. He rolls his shoulders, worrying the skin between his fingers and playing with the cuff of his sweatshirt. He pushed his sleeves up to his elbows without thinking, immediately pushing them back down when he heard Caleb make a noise.

“Nice ink, kid.” The man looked impressed. Henry watched as shirtsleeves were rolled further up arms, revealing what looked like miles of carefully detailed tattoos. All in stark black ink. Like his, but not like his. Caleb’s were delicate and intricate, stylized scenes of flowers and birds and people. Henry feels like he’s seen something similar but can’t place it. Probably on one of those long days into the city with Ma’am, the art museums and galleries and antiquities dealers they would visit once or twice a month.

“You don’t have to hide it, if you don’t want to. As you can see, I won’t judge at all.” Caleb grinned, twisting his forearms so Henry could get a better look. “No, I was just. I just thought you’re way too young to have one, but I. I guess ages don’t really matter to cults the way they do for the rest of us.”

“I’m nineteen,” Henry blurted out. It’s automatic and he kicked himself for doing it. If someone doesn’t ask, don’t tell them.

Caleb tilted his head. “If you say so. I mean, maybe I’m just old as hell now. You look young is all. So, what’s it mean?”

“The um… this?” Henry touched the fabric covering the thin rectangle of black bars embedded in his wrist. “Oh, it’s um… it’s cult stuff.”

“Cult stuff. Got it. So you all have it?”

“A version of it, but yeah. All of us.” Henry yanked the sleeve down harder. He hates the thing, wished he had a better way to hide it. Drawing it over with sharpie looked crass and concealer makeup was too much of a pain, and both always washed off. So he stuck to long sleeves.

“Hmm… well, no more questions for now. I’ll let Junie hit you with the third degree later, but first things first.” Caleb jerked a thumb over his shoulder and started walking backwards again. “I’ll show you the guest room and then you can do whatever.”

“Okay.” A shower sounded nice. So did a pillow.

“But one rule.”

Henry froze. “What?”

“You have to take a shower so I can wash your stuff.”

“Oh. Alright, that’s okay. I’ll get it all back right?”

Caleb looked at him, confused. “Yeah of course you will. No offense, man, but I don’t really need whatever sixteen year old bullshit you’ve got in that bag.”

“I’m nineteen.” Henry said again, automatically. The other bad habit.

Caleb looked at him more closely, but let it go. Whatever he was thinking, whatever alarm bells Henry’s bad habit had triggered, the man let slide. He turned and motioned Henry to follow. “Uh huh, sure you are, kid.”

May 28, 2021 18:29

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1 comment

Tricia Shulist
14:30 Jun 05, 2021

Interesting story. Thanks.

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