Melissa Parker was a little afraid of the Centre the first time she went there. In fact, she stopped moving in front of the stone stairs leading into the building.
Her mother stopped beside her, always sensitive to how she was feeling. "What's wrong?"
"I don't like it here," she said to her mother. "Can we go home?"
Sympathy rippled across her mother's face for a moment before the calm, quiet mask her mother always used with her father went back up again. "I wish we could, but your daddy will want his lunch."
Melissa nodded. One of the first things she'd learned was that Daddy always got what he wanted. And that was mostly okay. Mostly.
Her mother reached for her hand. "I'll stay with you every minute."
"You promise?" Melissa said warily.
Her mother smiled. "I promise."
Bolstered by her mother's firm grip on her hand, Melissa took her first step up the stairs.
"Angel!" Melissa's father held out his arms to her as they entered his office.
Melissa smiled, running to hug her father. She loved hugs, and it was important to hug her father when he wanted it, because he didn't always want it. "Hi, Daddy."
Her father looked at her mother. "Catherine."
Her mother held out the small brown paper bag. "You forgot your lunch on the kitchen table."
Melissa watched uneasily as her parents exchanged a Look. They were always doing that, and Melissa wasn't old enough to know what it meant, but she knew she didn't like it. It felt...uncomfortable.
After a moment, her father took the bag. "I'd forget my head if it wasn't attached to me. Wouldn't I?"
Melissa giggled. She liked when her father was like this--friendly and funny. "You're silly, Daddy."
"Don't let my boss hear you say that," her father said with a chuckle. "Would you like a tour?"
Her mother's mask flickered but didn't disappear. "Are you sure you have time?"
"I always have time for my girls!" her father said jovially, putting an arm around each of them. "Come on. I'll show you some of our experiments."
Experiments sounded scary. Like Frankenstein. Melissa wanted to take her mother's hand again, but her father was in the way.
Her father didn't notice. He never did.
Jarod always knew when he was being watched, and he was being watched now. He turned to face the dark catwalk on the side of the room. "Sydney, there's someone up there."
Sydney wasn't happy when Jarod got distracted during a SIM, and Jarod knew before Sydney spoke what he'd say. "Jarod, you have to concentrate."
"It's all right, Sydney," came a booming voice from the catwalk. "Let him have a few minutes."
Sydney clearly didn't like the idea, but as Jarod watched, Sydney did everything in his power to make his body and voice deferential. "Yes, sir." He nodded to Jarod to indicate that he could stop. "We'll pick this up another time."
Jarod wondered who could be so important that Sydney would stop in the middle of a SIM. "Hello! Who's there?"
"Curious young man, aren't you?" came the same voice as before.
Jarod shielded his eyes and tried to see. He thought he could make out a man, a woman, and someone his age on the catwalk. "I'm sorry."
"Nonsense! That curiosity of yours is a great gift, one that helps people every day." The man paused. "I'm Mr. Parker. This is my wife, Mrs. Parker, and my daughter, Miss Parker."
"Pleased to meet you," Jarod said politely.
"So tell me, Jarod, do you like it here?" Mr. Parker said.
Jarod didn't know enough about Mr. Parker to pretend to be him, but he could tell from the deference of everyone around him that this was a man used to power...a man it might be dangerous to be honest with.
"I like helping people," Jarod said, choosing his words carefully.
Mr. Parker laughed. "A born diplomat! Well said, Jarod. You'll do well here." He paused. "All right, Sydney. I just wanted to show my family a little of what we do. We'll leave now so you can continue your simulation."
"Thank you, sir," Sydney said, still exuding that eerie sense of respect.
Jarod waited until the Parkers were gone to ask a question. "Sydney, who was that man?"
Sydney paused, his eyes darting instinctively to the location of the nearest camera. "Mr. Parker is a very important man here."
"But what does he do?" Jarod pressed.
"That's enough questions, Jarod. You've had a break. Continue the SIM."
That was no answer...but Jarod suspected he wasn't going to get any kind of answer. Not with the lab cameras recording.
"All right," he said to Sydney. "I'm ready."
Jarod had completed the SIM when Jacob came hurrying into Sydney's office, which adjoined the simulation lab. Jarod could tell that Jacob was worried about something; he sometimes came to chat with Sydney at the end of the day, but never interrupted Sydney's work like this.
Sydney darted a glance at Jarod and then hurried into his office, closing the door. With the door closed, no cameras would be able to record Sydney and Jacob's conversation; Jarod thought it was strange that people who worked at the Centre had more privacy than people who lived there. Jarod knew he shouldn't listen to what Sydney and Jacob were saying...knew he shouldn't even want to listen...but as Mr. Parker had pointed out, he was curious. So he tiptoed to the door, pressing his ear against it.
"You can't come talk to me while they're recording, Jacob. You know this," Sydney said.
"Ask me why," Jacob said, and the panic in his voice was so obvious that Jarod flinched at the sound of it. "Go on. Ask me why."
Sydney sighed. "All right. Why?"
"I found a note under the windscreen wiper. It said Don't drive."
"Someone was trying to scare you," Sydney said.
"It worked. So I had the car towed to a garage to have a mechanic look at it." Jacob paused. "Someone tampered with the brakes."
"Why would anyone--?"
"You know why." There was accusation in Jacob's voice. This was apparently a conversation he and Sydney had had more than once.
"Yes." Sydney sounded tired when he spoke again, as though a weight he'd been trying to shrug off had finally landed. "I should have understood...I should have believed you before. I'm sorry."
"At least you believe me now," Jacob said quietly.
"But the warning. Someone wanted to help you. If we could find out--"
"Not here," Jacob said, a warning in his voice. "Later."
Silence for a moment. "All right," Sydney said.
Jarod scurried back to where he'd been when Sydney had left the room, mind working. Someone had tampered with the brakes of Sydney and Jacob's car...which meant someone wanted to hurt them. But someone also wanted to keep them from being hurt. Who could those people have been? Jarod itched to run a SIM to find the answers, but he didn't have enough information. He didn't even know the reason they were in danger, though Jacob and Sydney seemed to, and he couldn't ask Sydney. The cameras were always recording in the labs and in his room, and he rarely went anywhere else.
Sydney opened the door to his office again; Jacob appeared to have gone. "All right, Jarod. That's all for now. Back to your room."
Jarod nodded. "Sydney? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Jarod, thank you," Sydney said smoothly.
But Jarod knew when Sydney was lying.
Melissa was beginning to get used to the Centre. She couldn't decide whether she felt happy or worried about that.
Her father had asked her mother to help out with the children at the Centre--"You're so good with children," he'd said--and now that it was summer vacation, that meant Melissa was left to her own devices in the cavernous building. Sometimes she saw other children in the halls, but they were always on their way to or from somewhere, so she didn't get the chance to talk to them. It wasn't exactly that she wanted to make friends at the Centre...but she wouldn't have minded. If she was going to be here this much, it would be nice to have someone she could look forward to seeing again.
The one bright spot was the bunnies. Melissa's mother took her to see the bunnies on their second visit to the Centre, and once she knew where that room was, Melissa would sneak back there while her mother was busy. She'd been told to go only when no one else was in the room where the rabbits were kept, and she always checked before she went in. Well, she checked for adults, anyway. It never occurred to her to check for kids, which is how she found herself in the rabbit holding room with a boy about her age, dark haired and curious.
"I'm sorry," she stammered, backing away from the rabbit enclosure. "Please don't tell on me."
"Who would I tell?" the boy said, looking mystified.
"My dad." Her father was different when he was angry; all the kindness and warmth slipped away and instead...well, she didn't want to make him angry. That was all.
"I don't know your..." But then the boy seemed to understand. "You're Miss Parker, aren't you?"
So he did know. "Please don't tell. I just came to see the bunnies."
The boy smiled. "Me too. They're nice, aren't they? You can talk to them about anything."
Melissa looked at him. Now that she was less worried about him telling on her, she was sure she'd seen this boy before. Yes--he'd been in the SIM lab when her father had given them the tour of the Centre. Jarod, her father had called him. "Is that what you do?"
Jarod nodded. "Nobody here wants to talk about my mom and dad. They died in a plane crash."
"I'm sorry," Melissa said. She couldn't imagine how she'd feel if her mother were gone and nobody let her talk about it.
"I don't really remember them," Jarod said. "It's been a long time. But I remember my mom had red hair."
It seemed impossible not to remember your parents when they were...well, your parents. "You don't have any pictures or anything?"
Jarod shook his head. "I asked that too. They said there weren't any."
That seemed equally impossible. "There have to be some somewhere. Maybe they're saving them for you when you're older."
"I'd rather have them now." Jarod stared at the floor.
Melissa reached out, offering her hand in case Jarod wanted to take it. Holding her mother's hand always made her feel better; maybe holding her hand would make him feel better. "What's your name? Maybe I can find them." She wished she could ask her father. He could find the pictures much more quickly than she could...but given that she'd just asked him for a bunny and he hadn't been happy about it, she didn't want to ask him for anything else so soon.
Jarod looked at her hand as if he wasn't sure what to do with it. Then, carefully, he reached out and took her hand, looking at their joined-together hands for a moment as if they were something new to him. "Jarod."
Melissa made an exasperated face at him; she knew that. "Jarod what?"
"I don't know," Jarod said. "People here just call me Jarod."
Well, that wasn't going to help. This was a bigger problem than Melissa knew how to solve.
"I'll ask my mom," she decided, adding mentally, sometime when Daddy isn't there.
"Really?" Jarod sounded like he didn't believe her.
"Really," Melissa said. Then she puffed herself up in imitation of her father. "We Parkers never tell a lie."
Jarod laughed, and Melissa did too. Then she heard footsteps and panicked, pulling her hand away from Jarod's.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I have to go. But I'll come back. I promise."
Jarod nodded. "Okay."
She slipped out the door before whoever was coming could see her. She'd almost forgotten how much trouble she could be in if she were found in the wrong place.
But she had something else to think about now. She was going to find a way to help Jarod.
Melissa waited until she was in the car with her mother to ask. "Mama, do you know Jarod?"
Her mother gave her a startled glance, then turned her attention back to the road. "Of course. We met him the day your daddy gave us the tour, remember?"
"I saw him today," Melissa said. "I didn't mean to! But he was in the room with the bunnies and we started talking and he doesn't even remember what his mother looks like anymore and I thought maybe you could help me find a picture of her so he could have one."
Her mother didn't answer right away; she just stared at the road as they drove. Melissa squirmed in her seat, wondering if she'd done something wrong.
Then, finally, her mother laughed a sad little laugh. "I don't know why I thought I could keep you out of this."
"Out of what? The Centre?" Melissa said.
Her mother nodded. "Everything the Centre is. All it represents. I'd hoped you wouldn't ever have to know about it."
Melissa frowned. "Why?"
"Because it's dangerous," her mother said. "It's a dangerous place, and the more you know, the more danger you'll be in."
"I just want Jarod to have a picture of his mom," Melissa said, bewildered. "How can that be dangerous?"
Her mother was quiet again for a long time. "What do you know about Jarod's mom?"
"She died," Melissa said. "His dad too. In a plane crash, he said."
Her mother nodded, looking unsurprised. "That's what he was told."
"You mean it isn't true?" Melissa was utterly shocked. Why would anyone ever, ever tell someone their parents were dead when they weren't? That was the worst thing you could ever do to anybody!
Her mother's grip on the steering wheel tightened. "Jarod was stolen."
Melissa stared at her mother, trying to make sense of all this. "You mean kidnapped."
Her mother nodded. "Yes, I mean kidnapped."
Melissa tried to think her way through what she'd just been told. "Did they lie to him so he wouldn't try to go home?"
Her mother nodded again.
Then something terrible occurred to Melissa. "Daddy doesn't know, does he? He wouldn't have let them do it."
Her mother took a deep breath. "Your daddy helped them plan it."
No. No. "I don't believe you," Melissa said, although she had this horrible crawly sensation in her stomach that meant maybe she did.
Her mother nodded. "I understand. I didn't want to believe it either, when he told me."
"He told you?"
"He was proud of it. He thinks they're doing great things." Her mother sounded sad and a bit lost. "I used to believe that too."
"There are other kids at the Centre," Melissa said, slow horror rising in her. "Lots of other kids. Are...are they all...?"
"Not all of them," her mother said in a voice that meant far too many of them were.
Her father was a kidnapper. Her father was a thief in a building full of kidnappers and thieves. No wonder her mother didn't like to go there. No wonder it felt like an awful place.
Melissa swallowed hard. "Are they...are they going to steal me away from you?"
"Never," her mother said, in a tone that left no room for argument and made Melissa feel better immediately. "I would never let them take you from me."
"But all the other kids," Melissa said, her voice shaky. "They all think..."
Her mother was quiet for a moment. "If I tell you the truth, you have to promise it doesn't leave this car. You can't tell your father; you can't tell anyone."
Melissa nodded slowly, still shaken. "I won't."
"There are people in the Centre working on a way to get the children home," her mother said.
"There are?" That was the first good thing about the Centre Melissa had heard today. "Can I help?"
Her mother glanced at her, and although she only looked away from the road for a moment, there was pride and love in her expression. "No. But it's very brave of you to ask."
"Can I tell Jarod the truth about his mom and dad?"
"Do you trust Jarod?"
Melissa nodded. "Yeah. You should've seen him today. He was so sad."
Her mother's face softened. "You can tell him, but he can't tell anyone he knows the truth."
"I'll tell him that," Melissa said.
Her mother pulled into their driveway and parked the car, turning to look at Melissa. "This is a lot of secrets for one day. How do you feel?"
"I don't know," Melissa admitted, looking down at her shoes. The idea of a place that would steal kids from their parents was awful...and knowing that her father thought it was a good idea made her feel sick. "Bad. But I want to help."
Her mother smiled. "Good girl." She leaned over and gave Melissa a kiss on the forehead. "Come on. You can help me with dinner."
"Great!" Melissa loved any time she got to spend with her mother, just the two of them. She scrambled out of the car in excitement, setting aside (for now) thoughts of Jarod and the Centre.
For the next few days, as he anxiously awaited news from Miss Parker (what was her first name? He'd have to remember to ask sometime), Jarod knew he was worse than useless in SIMs. He did manage to provide the appropriate amount of insight into the situations he was asked about, but it took him longer than usual, and his concentration was...well, he didn't have much ability to concentrate. He was going to see his mother, to be reminded what she looked like; how could he focus on anything else?
The one thing that saved him in the SIM lab was that Sydney seemed almost as distracted. Jarod couldn't tell what was happening, but Sydney's mind certainly wasn't on his work. Jarod hoped Jacob was all right; he hadn't seen him lately. Maybe he was sick? But no, whatever was bothering Sydney felt more serious than having a brother at home with a cold. There wasn't enough information. With Sydney, there was never enough information.
Jarod checked the rabbit holding room every day, hoping that Miss Parker would be there. On the third day, she was.
"Did you find it?" Jarod asked eagerly. "Was there a picture of her somewhere?"
Miss Parker looked at him with...what was that look? Nervousness? Excitement? He hadn't known her long enough to be able to read all her emotions from her facial expressions yet. He could tell she was tense, though, when he looked harder. He felt himself deflate. "You didn't find a picture."
"I didn't," Miss Parker said, keeping her voice low, "but I found something better."
Jarod frowned. "What do you mean?"
Miss Parker moved very close to him, cupping a hand over her mouth and leaning so that she was whispering right into his ear. "Your parents didn't die. They're still alive." She pulled back, waiting for his reaction.
At first, Jarod didn't have one. The words refused to enter his brain, and he stood still, looking at Melissa.
"You're making fun of me," he said finally. But...could that be it? She'd never made fun of him before.
Melissa shook her head. "No. It's true."
Jarod repeated the thought to himself. My mom and dad are alive. Alive meant out there. Alive meant...meant he could someday find them again, someday have his mother hug him, have his father rumple his hair. Breakfasts and lunches and dinners, all there, all together, and model planes in the backyard, and laundry hanging on the line, and all the things he half-remembered, except this time, he'd be able to remember them all, every last bit of them, because they would happen over and over again, all the time. He could go home.
His legs didn't seem to want to hold him up anymore, and he found himself on his knees on the floor, staring at nothing and shaking as though he were in a cold-weather SIM.
Melissa was beside him on the floor in a moment, touching his shoulder. "Jarod? Are you okay?"
"I can see them again?" he whispered to her, his voice choked.
Melissa's eyes filled with sympathy, and she nodded.
Jarod, whose job it was to feel everyone else's feelings, suddenly felt his own overpower him. He couldn't keep himself from crying, and he didn't want to. In another minute, Melissa's arms were around him, warm and sure, and she held him as he cried his heart out.
When he'd finished crying, he pulled back, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Miss Parker reached into her sleeve and pulled out a square of white fabric.
"Mama says always carry a handkerchief," she said with a small grin, handing the handkerchief to him. "Here."
"Thank you," he said, his voice still watery-sounding to his own ears.
"You can't tell anyone that you know," Miss Parker said. "The truth, I mean."
Jarod snorted. "Nobody wants me to talk about my parents anyway. It won't come up."
"Okay." Miss Parker was quiet for a minute. "I don't know when I'll be able to come back. Sometimes I'm here a lot and sometimes we don't come for weeks and weeks. But when I come back I'll always come here, if it's empty."
"Me too," Jarod said. "This can be our meeting place."
Miss Parker smiled. "Like a clubhouse."
Jarod recognized the word but not the meaning. "Clubhouse?"
"You've never been in a club?" Miss Parker looked dubious.
"Like a nightclub?" Jarod tried. The only other club he knew was a weapon, and he didn't think you could be inside one of those.
"No," Miss Parker said, giving him a look that said she thought he was ridiculous. "A club is when you and a bunch of people you like get together and decide to do stuff. So you could be in a club because you like doing the same thing, like skiing, or you could make a club out of all your friends."
"I only have one friend," Jarod said. "His name is Kyle, and he lives in the room next to mine. Can two people be a club?"
"Three people," Miss Parker said, "because I'm in it too."
Jarod couldn't help smiling. "You want to be in a club with me?"
Miss Parker shrugged. "We're friends, right?"
She wanted to be his friend. She could be friends with anybody, in or out of the Centre, but she wanted to be his friend. That meant a lot to Jarod.
"Right," he said, a huge grin spreading across his face. "We're definitely friends."
Miss Parker smiled too. Then she glanced at the door, looking regretful. "I should go before somebody finds me here." She got to her feet, trying to brush the dust off the knees of her tights.
"Okay," Jarod said, getting to his feet as she started for the door. "Uh...Miss Parker?"
She turned to look at him.
"Thank you," he said. "For what you did for me today."
She smiled at him. "My name is Melissa."
Then she was gone, but Jarod didn't feel alone anymore. He had friends. He had parents. He even had a club, though he would still have to figure out what the point of that was.
Even so, it was a good start.
Jarod woke with a start, looking around his room. It was dark, and felt like the middle of the night. Someone stood in the doorway, and Jarod tried to force his eyes to focus so he could see who it was. "Sydney?"
"Get dressed," Sydney said, all business.
"Don't argue, Jarod," Sydney said, finality in his tone. He was worried about something, Jarod could see that much. Maybe someone had tampered with his car again? Maybe he finally wanted Jarod to do a SIM about who had done it, or who'd left him the note. Jarod hoped that was it, and he got out of bed, shuffling to get his clothes as Sydney closed the door. Jarod could almost feel Sydney's impatience even though Sydney was all the way out in the hall.
"No questions," Sydney snapped at Jarod as Jarod emerged from his room. "Just follow me and do as I say."
Jarod nodded, glad he could keep from asking questions aloud even though he couldn't keep from asking them in his own mind. Why was Sydney being so strange and formal with him today? What was the hurry to get him ready? Was there an emergency somewhere he had to help with?
Jarod's eyes widened as they approached the employee exit, where a security officer was stationed.
"You're not seriously thinking of taking him with you," the guard said, glancing at Jarod.
"I have my orders," Sydney said briskly. "It's a special SIM. They need him in the field for the best outcome."
The security guard looked uneasy. "I don't know."
Sydney raised an eyebrow at the security guard. Jarod suspected that only he, and not the security guard, could see the anxiety Sydney hid behind the calm, collected facade. Sydney was taking shallow breaths, as though there weren't enough air for the three of them.
"I'm acting on the authority of Dr. Raines," Sydney said. "If you'd like to tell him why I didn't comply with his instructions, then by all means..."
The security guard seemed to come unglued at the mention of Dr. Raines, whoever he was. "Oh! If...if it's Dr. Raines...that's different. Please." And the guard gestured them ahead.
Sydney walked Jarod to a car in the parking garage. "Get in."
Jarod did as he was told, wondering what could possibly be important enough to let him outside the Centre...a place he had been certain Sydney would never let him go.
It wasn't until they were well clear of the Centre grounds that Sydney began to breathe in his usual way.
"My God," Sydney said. "I didn't think we'd make it."
"Make it where? Where are we going?" Jarod asked.
"To meet friends," Sydney said. "Friends who can take you to your parents." He glanced at Jarod as if he expected the sort of emotional reaction that Jarod had had in the rabbit room with MIss Parker.
"I'm going to see my parents?" Jarod said, surprised but not upset.
Now it was Sydney's turn to be surprised. "You know they're alive?"
Jarod thought fast. "I figured it out." He apologized silently to Melissa, but since he didn't know why Sydney was doing this, he didn't think it was safe to mention her name.
Sydney chuckled. "Of course you did." He sighed, the humor ebbing away from him. "I hope one day you'll be able to forgive me for my part in all this."
Suddenly, one aspect of Jarod's past came sharply into focus. "You took me from my parents."
"Yes," Sydney said.
Jarod shook his head. "But why wouldn't I remember that?"
"The mind often blocks out traumatic memories," Sydney said. "You may recover them, in time. Or they may be lost to you."
"That might be okay," Jarod said. It made him nervous to think about having memories of being kidnapped. But wait. "Are you sure your car is safe?"
Sydney gave Jarod another startled look, but this one resolved more quickly. "You overheard."
"I had to," Jarod said. "Nobody ever tells me things."
"No. Well, that ends today," Sydney said. "I'm not sure my car is safe. That's why we didn't take my car."
Jarod's eyes widened. "Then whose...?"
"Dr. Raines," Sydney said, a look of grim humor about him. "It's not as if I can go back to the Centre. I might as well make my departure mean something."
Jarod found himself almost staring at Sydney--Sydney, who had been so strict about running simulations, but who had also protected and cared for him when no one else at the Centre had. Sydney, who had played the good doctor long enough to steal Jarod back from the people he'd stolen Jarod for.
"I wish I could've known you longer," Jarod said quietly.
"I'm glad you didn't," Sydney said, just as quietly.
Melissa woke suddenly from a sound sleep to find her mother sitting on the edge of her bed. She opened her mouth to ask what was happening, but before she made a sound, her mother shook her head. Melissa frowned, and her mother pressed a finger against her own lips to signal that Melissa should be quiet.
Then her mother mouthed the words, "Let's help Jarod."
Melissa nodded, scrambling out of bed in her eagerness to get dressed. She didn't know how they were going to help Jarod, but it didn't matter. She was glad to be asked to help at all.
They'd been driving for an hour when Melissa's mother finally spoke. "I thought you'd be bursting with questions."
"I wasn't sure when I was allowed to talk," Melissa said truthfully.
"Oh," her mother said, surprised. "I'm sorry. I should've told you."
"It's fine," Melissa said, dismissing it with the ease of a person who was already focused on something else. "How are we going to help Jarod?"
Her mother smiled. "We're going to take him home."
Melissa's mouth fell open. "Home home? To his parents?"
"Exactly," her mother said.
They drove for another hour, finally stopping by a nondescript wooded area. The sun wasn't up yet, and ordinarily Melissa wouldn't have loved going into the woods in the dark, but she was on a mission, and if she was on a mission, she could do anything. She followed her mother out of the car and through the trees.
Melissa saw him first. "Jarod!" she shouted, running to him and catching him in a hug.
He hugged her back. "Miss--Melissa! You're here!"
"This is my mom," Melissa said, gesturing to her mother.
"Mrs. Parker," Jarod said with a nod.
"Hello, Jarod," her mother said warmly. Then her gaze shifted to someone Melissa hadn't even noticed. "Hello, Sydney."
Sydney smiled. "Hello, Catherine. Glad to see you."
"Any trouble?" her mother asked.
Sydney shook his head. "I did as you suggested. Dr. Raines's name is a powerful motivator."
Her mother nodded. "Where will you go now?"
Sydney shrugged. "Jacob and I will find someplace. We always do." He checked his watch.
Melissa looked at Jarod. "Know where you're going?"
"Sydney said I was going home," Jarod said. "I wasn't sure if I should believe him until you got here."
Melissa nodded. "We're taking you the rest of the way. But I don't know why we're standing around in the woods instead of getting back in the car."
"Maybe your mom needed a break," Jarod said.
Melissa found the suggestion ridiculous, but Jarod didn't know her mother like she did, so she'd humor him for now. "Maybe."
There was a rustling sound as someone--two someones--made their way to the wooded meeting spot. One of them looked exactly like Sydney--maybe this was the Jacob Sydney had been talking about--and the other Melissa didn't recognize at all.
But Jarod did. "Kyle!"
"Jarod!" Kyle grinned at him. "They didn't tell me you'd be here."
"Are you going home too?" Jarod said.
"You're both going home," Jacob answered. "The same home."
Kyle and Jarod frowned at each other, and then at Jacob.
"I don't understand," Jarod said. "Are his parents dead?"
"No, Jarod," Sydney said. "His parents are your parents. You're brothers."
Kyle and Jarod looked at each other, eyes wide, and for the first time, Melissa felt a little jealous.
But she didn't have long to feel jealous, because her mother clapped her hands. "Come on, everyone. Kyle, Jarod, you'll be riding with Melissa and me. Jacob, Sydney..." She touched each of them on the arm. "Thank you for everything."
"We'll keep in touch," Jacob said with a smile. "Come on, Sydney. We'll take my rental car. No sense leaving Dr. Raines any clues."
Jarod pulled himself away from Kyle and crossed to Sydney. "Bye, Sydney."
"Goodbye, Jarod," Sydney said, his voice very solemn. He held out his hand for Jarod to shake. Jarod looked at it for a moment, then shook it.
"I don't know if I forgive you now," Jarod said to Sydney, "but I think I will someday."
Sydney looked unexpectedly touched. "Thank you, Jarod."
Her mother touched Jarod gently on the shoulder. "Come on, Jarod. Let's get you home."
As they pulled away, Melissa watched Jacob and Sydney grow smaller and smaller in the side mirror until they disappeared completely.
"Oh, Kyle, I forgot to tell you! We're in a club," Jarod said as their car pulled away from the trees.
Kyle frowned. "A club? Like a big stick?"
Jarod couldn't see Melissa, but he knew she was making a face. "No. A club's like a group of friends. You and I and Melissa are in a club together."
"Who's Melissa?" Kyle asked.
Melissa turned around to wiggle her fingers at Kyle in a wave. "Me. Hi, Kyle."
"Melissa, sit down," Mrs. Parker said.
Melissa did as her mother asked. "Sorry, Mom."
Kyle was still grappling with the idea of a club. "What does a club do?"
"Just be friends, I guess," Jarod said. He didn't think they had the kind of club that went skiing.
"Oh." Kyle was quiet for a minute. "That's nice."
"We could be pen pals," Melissa suggested. "I don't know where your parents live, but my mom does. So I could write letters to you and you could write letters to me."
"That sounds boring," Kyle said.
"No, it doesn't!" Jarod said indignantly. He'd never had a pen pal before and wasn't going to let Kyle refuse on his behalf. "It sounds fun. I'd like to be pen pals."
"That's because you're boring," Kyle said, rolling his eyes.
Mrs. Parker looked at the rearview mirror to look at them. "Boys. Behave."
"Sorry," Kyle and Jarod said simultaneously. Then they grinned at each other.
Jarod didn't know how long it would be before they got to his parents' house, but every time the car slowed down, even a little, he felt a surge of excitement. Was it here? Was this home? But it hadn't been yet. They'd been driving for an hour and a half, but to Jarod, it felt like hours...days...weeks. Would they ever get there? Kyle was quiet too, but Jarod could tell that he was thinking about something else.
"Melissa," Kyle said finally, "you don't live in the Centre, do you?"
"It only feels like it," Melissa said. Mrs. Parker made a stifled sound that Jarod thought must be laughter.
"Then you know what it's like out here," Kyle said. "Will we have to do SIMs out here? How does it work?"
"You don't have to do SIMs," Melissa said. "But you have to go to school."
Kyle and Jarod exchanged a look, but Jarod shrugged; he didn't know either. "What's school?"
"Um..." Melissa thought about it. "You go to a building and sit down and learn about stuff. Like science and reading and cursive and multiplication tables."
"Why?" Kyle asked suspiciously. "What's it for?"
"So you know things. And later on there's a school called college where you can study what you like the best."
"But you boys won't be going there for a while," Mrs. Parker added, voice amused.
"It sounds fun," Jarod said, hardly able to believe it. He looked at Kyle. "Doesn't it?"
Kyle nodded. "Yeah."
"You guys are weird," Melissa said. Then she giggled. "Maybe that should be our club name. The Weird Club."
"But you're not weird," Kyle said.
"I'm weird enough," Melissa said, managing to sound smug and mysterious at the same time.
Jarod laughed. "Okay. The Weird Club."
Mrs. Parker stopped the car beside a small, cozy-looking blue house. Jarod looked out the window, and Kyle, who was on the side of the car furthest from the house, almost climbed across Jarod to get a better view.
"This is it," Mrs. Parker said.
"I don't remember it," Jarod said, feeling an odd heaviness in his stomach.
"Neither do I," Kyle said, sounding discouraged.
"You wouldn't," Mrs. Parker said gently. "Neither of you ever lived here. After you were taken from your home, your parents were afraid Emily would be taken too. So they moved here."
"Oh." Jarod felt a little better. But Emily, who was...oh! "We have a sister?"
"You do," Mrs. Parker said.
Jarod was almost afraid to get out of the car. A sister and a brother, a mom and dad...he was getting so much family all at once that it was kind of scary. Once Melissa was out of the car, he reached instinctively for her hand.
She took his hand in hers and smiled at him.
"I'm a little scared," Jarod admitted.
Melissa nodded. "I know."
Then Jarod felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Kyle there.
"I'm scared too," Kyle said. "Come on. Let's be scared together."
They followed Mrs. Parker slowly up the walk, walking three-wide up the wooden steps to the porch. As Mrs. Parker rang the doorbell, Melissa let go of Jarod's hand, and Jarod glanced at her, beginning to panic.
"I'll be right behind you," Melissa said. Jarod nodded, trying to be brave.
A woman came to the door. "Catherine! It's good to see you again. What did you find out?"
"I think our visitors should tell you that," Mrs. Parker said, stepping aside so the woman could see Jarod and Kyle.
The woman had red hair.
Jarod took a step forward. "Mom?"
The woman's eyes widened. "Jarod?" She looked at the other boy. "Kyle?"
"Yeah," Kyle said. "Hi, Mom."
The woman turned and shouted, "Charles!" before she burst through the door and onto the porch. Then she caught Jarod and Kyle in her arms and held them tight. Jarod closed his eyes and took a breath, and the scent of his mother's perfume and the red of her hair and how safe her hugs were...he remembered. He remembered her.
Then a man was at the door, a little girl in his arms. "What's the matter?" Then he saw the boys, and was pushing through the door, adding himself and their sister--Emily--to the hug, rumpling Jarod's hair, rumpling Kyle's hair, and they were laughing and crying, and Jarod felt something empty inside him slowly growing very, very full.
"Thank you," Jarod's mother whispered. "Thank you, thank you."
"You're welcome," Mrs. Parker said. She cleared her throat delicately. "We should go."
Jarod opened his eyes, a sudden instinct pressing him. "Mrs. Parker?"
Mrs. Parker looked surprised that Jarod would want to talk to her. "Yes?"
"Don't go home," Jarod said. "He's there. And he's angry."
Mrs. Parker looked sad for a moment, but only for a moment, and then her facial expression smoothed out. "Thank you, Jarod."
Jarod looked at Melissa. "Don't forget to write."
Melissa took her mother's hand. "You either."
And Jarod closed his eyes again, both because he didn't want to watch Melissa and her mom go and because he'd been dreaming of his family since the Centre had taken him.
"You're home now," Jarod's father whispered, and finally, finally, Jarod relaxed.
They traded the car for an ugly old Volkswagen bus, had a quick lunch at a burger place, and then got back on the road.
Melissa broke the silence this time. "Are we really not going home?"
Her mother shook her head. "It's not safe there anymore."
Melissa thought about that...about never seeing her room, her clothes, her school, her father ever again. It wasn't exactly a comfortable thought...but it was a lot more comfortable than the idea of going back and knowing how angry her father would be that Jarod and Kyle were gone. He might stay angry forever after that. It was strange knowing she'd never see him again--it didn't feel real, but at the same time, it felt...not terrible.
"Can we get a bunny?" she asked her mother.
Her mother laughed. "Maybe. If we live somewhere there's room for us to take care of one."
"I'll take care of it. I promise," Melissa said.
"We'll see," her mother said.
Melissa looked out the window. It seemed like they'd been driving for years, and suddenly, she realized she didn't know what state they were in anymore. "Where are we going?"
"The kind of place I used to go when I was younger," her mother said. "Somewhere safe."
They pulled onto a dirt road that made the bus bounce so much that Melissa thought she might be sick. When they finally stopped moving, Melissa was relieved.
"We're here," her mother said.
Melissa looked around. Here didn't look like much of anywhere, really. It looked as though they had found a comfortable, slightly rundown old farm. There was a chicken coop to the left of the house, and a vegetable garden, and not much else. She dutifully followed her mother out of the bus and to the front door.
A nun answered the door.
"Good afternoon, Sister," her mother said. "My daughter and I need somewhere safe to stay, and we were hoping..."
"Of course. Come in!" the nun answered, her weathered face shifting into a smile. "You must've come a long way to find us. We don't get many visitors. I'm Sister Bernadette. You've come during chore time, so everyone is somewhere different, cleaning and tending and mending."
Melissa took her mother's hand as they walked into the house. She'd seen nuns before, of course, but always in church--never anywhere like this.
"You look a little confused, young lady," Sister Bernadette said to Melissa. "I bet you're wondering where you are."
Melissa nodded, looking up at her mother.
"This is a convent, Melissa," her mother said. "All the people who live here are nuns."
"We're a contemplative order," Sister Bernadette said to Melissa, "which means we live here and pray and work and study in the service of God. We don't often go into the outside world."
"But we're not nuns," Melissa said. "Do we still get to stay here?"
Sister Bernadette laughed warmly. "Bless you, child, of course! We have a guesthouse where women looking for a quiet place to think and pray can stay as long as they need to. You're safe with us."
Melissa had to admit that this place did feel safer than anywhere she'd been recently. There was a calm about the convent that she found soothing.
"I know I have--oh, here it is!" Sister Bernadette handed her mother a sheet of paper. "Our daily schedule. You're welcome to join us for all our meals, and for any of our prayer sessions. We tend to listen to the news on our radio at suppertime, but if you'd rather not, you can always take your supper back to the guesthouse."
"Thank you, Sister," her mother said, sounding grateful.
Sister Bernadette smiled at them both, making playful shooing motions. "You two get yourselves settled. I'll see you at supper."
There wasn't really anything to settle. Melissa and her mother hadn't brought much in the way of clothes, maybe to keep Melissa's father from knowing that they were leaving for good. The guesthouse was small but clean, with large windows that let in the sunshine.
Once they'd put their clothes away, her mother stood at the window, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Melissa thought that this might be the first time she'd ever seen her mother truly relaxed.
Her mother turned and smiled at her. "I thought I might go to evening prayers tonight. Do you want to come with me?"
Melissa nodded. She only had one parent now, and she wasn't letting her mom out of her sight.
I'm only writing to you and not Kyle because Kyle thought pen pals were boring. If he decides they're not boring, I'll write to him too.
How are you? Is it nice being back with your family? I bet it is. Do you do lots of things together? Are your mom and dad nice?
I'm living at a convent now. It's like a house for nuns, where they live and pray and garden and stuff. It's really quiet here. Sometimes I have to be really quiet too. But there's lots of time to read and write letters. Mom and I help with chores, since the Sisters share their food with us at meal times. I collected eggs from chickens today. It was really weird. I've never done anything like that before. Mom says she's going to teach me how to milk a cow, but there's no cows here, so I think she's kidding. But maybe we'll get a cow. Who knows?
We're going to have tomatoes here before long. Sister Bernadette says I can help pick them when they're ripe.
Write back soon! I miss you.
Weird Club Forever,
I was so glad to get your letter! It's the first letter I've ever gotten.
Kyle still thinks pen pals are boring. He tried to steal my letter and dance around with it though. Dad made him give it back. So maybe you could slip a little note to him into my next letter? Just so he gets something?
I'm good. It's so great being back with my family. Last week we went to the movies. Have you ever been to the movies? It's like a SIM but you don't have to do anything or be anybody. You can just watch what's happening. This one was called Cinderella and it was made of drawings and it had songs in it. It was amazing. Mom says if I want to draw I can get paper and pencils to practice with. I think that might be fun. Mom and Dad are really nice. They tell us stories before we go to bed at night. I've heard so many stories that I never knew before. And the library! Have you ever been to a library? There are so many books there I'll never read them all. But I can try!
The convent sounds nice, although I don't know if I could be quiet all the time. I hope you don't have to be quiet all the time. Is it nice there? Do you like the nuns? I don't exactly know how to write a letter, so if there's anything I don't ask about that you want me to know about, you can just tell me. And maybe tell me to ask about something specific next time. I could use the help. I'm glad you have lots of time to write letters. I do too so far, although I think I'm supposed to start school in the fall. Wish me luck. I'm very nervous.
Can you draw me a picture of a chicken? I've seen eggs but I don't know what a chicken looks like. I think I've had tomatoes though.
Write back soon! I miss you too.
Weird Club Forever,
They were eating supper with the nuns one night when it happened.
"...and in Blue Cove, Delaware, fifty people were arrested in connection with a corporation known only as the Centre. The fifty people and the corporation itself were charged with conspiracy against rights after local law enforcement discovered that the Centre and its employees were implicated in a shocking number of cases involving missing children. Police Chief Martin Cisco says that all the children taken by the Centre are in the process of being returned to their families, and that the Centre employees face life in prison. In other news..."
Melissa had stopped eating when she'd heard the words "Blue Cove, Delaware," and she listened openmouthed at the description of what had happened. She looked at her mother, who had set down her fork on her plate and was sitting there listening, tears streaming down her face. She touched her mother's sleeve, but her mother gave her an 'I'm all right' smile, gesturing for her to continue eating her dinner. Melissa didn't know how she could eat now that she knew the Centre was closed down for good. It was too exciting to eat after...well, almost. She did manage to eat a little.
"Did you know that would happen?" she asked her mother later, when they were back in the guesthouse.
"I didn't know," her mother said. "But I hoped."
"How did the police find out? Did you tell them?"
"There were a group of us at the Centre working to expose what was happening there." Her mother's mouth trembled. "And it worked."
Melissa wondered if her mother was going to cry again. "Mama, what's wrong? Are you sad?"
"A little," her mother said. "But I'm happy too."
Melissa leaned against her mother. "They arrested Daddy, didn't they?"
Her mother nodded. "It's okay to be sad about that. However you feel is okay."
"I'm sad," Melissa said. After a long pause, she added, "But I'm not sorry." And it was true.
Her mother hugged her around the shoulders, holding her close. "We'll be all right. We can make a new start now, wherever we want."
"Just not with chickens. Chickens scare me a little," Melissa said.
Her mother laughed. "All right. Not with chickens."
Melissa closed her eyes. It really did feel as though they would be all right.
"Well," Jarod's father said, "I guess we should let you get the run of the place."
Even though he'd been planning his arrival at college for months, Jarod still had to fight the urge to ask his family not to go. He'd had time with them now...time to understand how precious having a family was, and time to panic about what it would be like to lose that again.
"Okay," he said, trying to look happy, or at least not miserable.
His father shook his hand and then stepped back, looking uncomfortable. "I'll bring the car around." And he was gone.
Jarod's mother shook her head. "Your father isn't good at goodbyes."
"I'm not sure I am either," Jarod admitted.
His mother smiled at him. "We're only a phone call away. And you can call us whenever you need to, especially at first."
"What if I don't like it here?"
"You can always come home," his mother said. "But give this place a chance first."
Jarod nodded. "I'll try." He hugged his mother.
"You'll be home for vacation, won't you?" Emily wanted to know.
"Of course," Jarod said, giving her a hug.
"I'll miss you," she whispered in his ear.
"I'll miss you too," he whispered back.
Kyle shrugged. "I'm just glad I get our room to myself. I'm painting it orange."
"That's horrifying," Jarod said, "but okay."
Kyle touched Jarod's arm. "Write to me every once in a while?"
Jarod nodded. "I promise."
One last hug, and then they were gone. It felt strange being alone in a room again after so many years with family...strange, and not very good. Jarod sat on his dorm bed, wondering how much courage it had taken for his family to bring him somewhere new and leave him. He wasn't sure, if he had been in their place, that he could've done it.
But he didn't have long to be alone. After a few minutes, a guy his age came through the door--Jarod's new roommate, probably.
"Uh, you Jarod?" he asked.
Jarod nodded. "You must be Charlie. Nice to meet you."
"Do you snore?" Charlie asked suspiciously.
"I don't...think so?" He'd shared a room with Kyle for years, and Kyle had never mentioned him snoring. Of course, maybe Kyle snored too.
"Good," Charlie said with a grin. "Then we'll get along fine."
Jarod hoped that was true, but whatever happened, he would figure out how to adapt.
"If you get any more nervous, you're going to bounce out of the car," Melissa's mother said.
Melissa shrugged. "As long as I bounce and don't crash."
Her mother laughed. "Is it college in general? Or someone specific at college?"
Melissa sometimes wished she were better at hiding her emotions...but, to be fair, her mother had eighteen years of practice reading them.
"I haven't seen him in a long time," she said. "What if we don't like each other?"
"You've been writing to each other since you were kids. I think you would've found out by now," her mother said.
"But what if he's annoying? What if I'm annoying? What if we're both annoying?"
"You'll figure it out," her mother said. "And you are not annoying."
"Thanks, but you're my mom. You have to say that." Melissa turned to look out the window. She and Jarod had applied to some of the same schools in the hope that they might be able to spend time together in person, but Melissa hadn't actually expected their plan to work. It had, though, and now her mother was driving her to campus, where she'd see Jarod for the first time since they were kids. Nervous was actually understating how she felt.
When they arrived, they found her dorm first, though they had to circle a few times to find a place to park.
"Well, here we are," her mother said.
Melissa didn't move.
Her mother turned to look at her. "Melissa, we've talked about this."
"I know," Melissa said, her voice trembling a little. "But...it's been the two of us for so long. I just want you to be okay."
Her mother's expression softened. "I'll be okay, even if you're not there. And you'll be okay when I'm not there."
"But how do you know?"
"You can't know," her mother said, shaking her head. "But you can have faith. And I have all the faith in the world in you."
Melissa gave her mother a shaky smile, reaching across the car to give her a hug. "I love you, Mama."
"I love you too," her mother said, holding her tightly. They stayed that way for a moment, and then her mother pulled back. "Come on. Let's get you moved in."
Melissa was taking her laundry basket out of the trunk when she heard him. "It's Miss Jameson, isn't it?"
Melissa smiled, turning to find Jarod behind her and feeling a pang of sudden surprise. She'd been imagining their reunion, but somehow it hadn't occurred to her that he'd look any different than the twelve-year-old she'd known back at the Centre. He wasn't completely different; he still had the same dark hair and the same emotional brown eyes...but everything else was new.
"You're tall," she blurted out.
Jarod smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "So are you."
Melissa sighed. "All the time I spent thinking about what I'd say when I saw you, and that's what comes out. Great." She gave him a rueful look over the top of her laundry basket.
"In all fairness, I didn't tell you my opening line," Jarod said.
"No. I think I would've remembered that," she said with a smile.
Jarod smiled back. "Do you need help bringing in your things?"
"Shouldn't you be with your family?" Melissa asked, looking around for them.
"They helped me move in earlier," Jarod said. "I'm all yours."
"You could grab that box of books, then," Melissa said playfully. "If it's not too heavy for you."
Jarod picked up the box, tucking it under one arm. "I think I can manage." He cleared his throat. "'Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'"
Melissa snorted. "You watch too many movies."
Jarod shrugged. "I can't help it. I got a late start."
Melissa smiled as she turned toward the dorm entrance. Maybe college would be fun after all.