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[ Piano. Sirens wailing ]

//In a heartbeat, a person can just be there and then gone.//

//Now we’d ask you to take a good look at your screen. Port St. Lucie Police need your help to find this missing mother and her 8 year old son.//

[ Run Little Rabbit Run, Run ]

//He hid behind... He thought he could hide behind a door. It was a nice door - expensive door.//

//The shocking part about a lot of these cases is how various circumstances and situations can result in somebody just completely vanishing. In a second they’re gone...with no trace of what happened to them.//

[ Orchestral music ]

//If you don’t want it found, you can take it somewhere. You could bury it. Put it in the trunk of a car and have it crushed.//

//At this point, Baltimore Police are fearing the worst.//

//We’re not talking about Runaways, we’re talking about situations where we know the people are in significant risk of harm.//

//Detectives are now working with authorities in Parkland* and no where there have they seen this pair.//

You’re listening to Red Rabbits. I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

A little background in case some of you have been living under a rock for the past two decades:

On the night of June 12, 2004 Seattle PD arrested Nathan Wesninski, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, with possession of illegal firearms. The FBI were quickly called when the ballistics of one of the guns matched a cold case investigators had given up on. That was the break the FBI had been waiting for during their long-term investigation on the mafia boss dubbed ‘The Butcher of Baltimore’. A warrant was issued to search the Wesninski’s quiet suburban home and a suspiciously well-timed anonymous call tipped the FBI to a hidden basement on the property. What the FBI found has been described as a “Murderer’s Playroom”.

-

“I mean, do you really blame the women? They’ve obviously got something fucked up in the brain, but they’re just so attention starved that they want to fuck Ted Bundy in jail, you know?”

Unfortunately.

Neil didn’t want to be able to relate to the shit that came spewing out of Ashleigh’s mouth, but.

But.

He tried to ignore her, tried every trick in the book to block her out: earplugs, headphones, doing his actual work , glaring. One time he told her to shut up, but she looked so hurt that he took it back. Ever since then, he let her blab for as long as she’d like about whatever she liked. He thought maybe not responding would deter her but alas.

Alas .

“I just find that kind of mindset so intriguing, both the men and women. I think I’d know if I were being manipulated like that because fuck . How could you not, you know?”

You know? You know? You know? She was worse than an actual broken record sputtering at the back of the shop. In fact, Neil should really keep a tally: How many times could Ashleigh ask him if he rhetorically knew whatever the fuck she was on about?

“But I’m not pining after Charles Mason.”

Says the girl wearing an H.H. Holmes tee.

This was the sixth time he rearranged the animal bookmarks on the counter and he could feel a headache brewing behind his eyes. The old analogue clock on the wall behind Ashleigh’s head was eighteen minutes fast and they still had an hour until closing. He debated whether he could reorganize the sports section again, but he had just done it two hours ago. With all her true crime sleuthing, she was bound to catch onto the excuse. Then again, she was the girl that asked him:

‘Jeffrey Dahmer was kinda hot. He looked like Ryan Seacrest, right?’

He didn’t know who the fuck Ryan Seacrest was, but after she pulled up pictures on her phone of two similar looking white guys - yeah, he guessed.

The Book Nook was nestled in a quiet corner of Phoenix, Arizona. This was his fifth job in the past two years and his forty-fourth name in fifteen. Sounds like a lot, but when you’re a man with a price on your head, it was wise to keep a frequent rotation. That’s why this place was perfect for a guy like him. Despite the fact that Ashleigh was an absolute lunatic with a fetish for all things true crime.

‘I’m a murderino , Neil. You know, SSDGM? No...? Stay sexy and don’t get murdered?’

It was perfect. Quiet, hidden, few people in and few people out. The business was less than booming and he wouldn’t be surprised if Gary, the owner, couldn’t make the rent by the end of the month. He got paid, his face wasn’t on display to dozens of people a day, and when this business tanked he could disappear with little chance of leaving a footprint behind.

So far, so good.

-

Over the next six years, the FBI had convicted Wesninski of over twenty murders and another fifty assisted murders spanning over the past nineteen years, and the State of Maryland held no reservations about their oft times controversial death penalty.

The case held the American people captive for months. Despite the disgustingly popular series, Mob Wives, the general belief over a home-grown mob boss had been a thing of the past. Al Capone and the Roaring 20’s had been laid bare as the - quote-unquote - ‘Butcher’s’ empire was ripped apart.

-

As empty as always, today boasted a whopping nine customers - which, if Neil was frank, was a better turnout than usual. They couldn’t even blame the lack of business on location. Neil wasn’t very savvy in book retail, but considering the amount of times Ashleigh bitched and whined about the store tanking, he deduced it had something to do with the other bookstore that opened somewhere uptown. It had a bar attached and apparently hosted themed nights where book lovers and alcoholics could get together and scream about whatever it was alcoholic book lovers screamed about.

All The Book Nook really had going for it was the fact that it had been there for over 30 years. The previous owner died and passed it down to Gary, his grandson. Apparently, it had been quite the hotspot in past decades, but Gary ran this place like he ran his life - he didn’t.

The bookcases were old, the register ancient, record player broken, and the bell at the front of the store stopped ringing ages ago. Honestly, Neil sometimes wondered how this place hadn’t been condemned. But again, it was safe, it was money, it was a place where he could disappear just as the store eventually would - without a trace.

Being one of the only two employees meant he worked long days. Most, he switched off with Ashleigh. Sometimes he’d close and others she would. When he was particularly unlucky, they got stuck doing it together.

Like tonight.

She stopped talking about whatever popular killer she was into about a half hour ago and retreated to her side of the store. By her side, he meant the true crime, murders/mysteries, and horror section, all stationed by the break room at the back of the shop. It was probably the most organized part of this place, if not for the sports section where he went to escape her ‘who done it’ rants.

-

I want to preface before we move further. I will only refer to Nathan Wesninski by his name. Any time I use the Butcher, it is to emphasize the audacity that title entails.

It has been used as propaganda, a piece to either strike fear or sensationalism to the masses. Do not be fooled. This playground name, this name popularized by the media, is only that - a name.

Nathan Wesninski is only a man. Still in the system, still breathing, a hitman, a serial murderer with over 35 known victims. The Butcher gives him power, it gives him recognition, it gives him joy, validation .

Do not let it.

-

Nine o’clock finally ticked around and he had never been happier to go home to his small, empty apartment. Neil didn’t even bother calling for Ashleigh to let her know it was time. Instead, he counted cash, organized receipts, and went about his usual business.

Ashleigh appeared somewhere between Neil putting down the boxes of three-month-old ‘New’ Releases that he was to shelve in the morning and locking up. She had a new book in her hand, nose planted in it’s bindings. Neil fully intended on slipping out the door and letting her do the rest, but she was engrossed.

Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he twirled the keys around his finger and sighed, toeing Ashleigh’s bag by his foot.

“We’re done,” he spoke up.

She nodded and turned the page with a hum. Ashleigh was a short, waify girl. Her favorite colors seemed to be those you couldn’t decipher at night and she had a bobbed haircut that made her look like a flapper girl on one of Gary’s old records. Neil supposed she was fine to look at, but besides her proclivity for the macabre and some interesting fashion choices, she was just as ordinary as everyone else.  In fact, Neil didn’t really hate her. She talked a lot, sure, and sometimes she didn’t know when to stop, but he’d had worse coworkers in the past. Ashleigh let him be most of the time. She didn’t pry into his life and was decently pleasant when she wasn’t off on a tangent.

It was dark outside. Ashleigh was barely paying attention to what her hands and feet were doing as she grabbed her keys and bag from the floor. Hardly sparing Neil a glance and only just missing the glass door, she walked out and flipped another page.

The streets around them were quiet with stores and businesses closed for the night. Neil didn’t know where she lived, but he did know that she wasn’t putting that book down any time soon - especially since she had the flashlight on her keyring on, propped in her mouth, and hovering before the pages.

Neil pulled the glass door behind him and locked it with one of the two keys on his ring. Frowning, he stared at his hazy reflection in the dirty front window, listening to Ashleigh’s platformed footsteps tap tap tap in the opposite direction of his apartment. When he looked up, she was only but a receding spot in the distance, a glowing orb in the night, haloed in the dark and realized beneath the sparse streetlights. As unassuming and oblivious as ever, Neil’s flight instincts were pounding on the inside of his mind - not for his sake, but for hers. She looked like easy prey, a sign practically hovering over her head screaming TAKE ME!

Neil did not care about her. She was just his coworker and really, he owed her nothing. However, he would never forgive himself if something happened to her.

Afterall, Who else would bring coffee in the morning?

No. The real issue was in how comfortable he was getting; both here in Arizona and in general. He should go home. It wasn’t his fault she was stupid, it wasn’t his fault if she got snatched in the night without a trace, her body left god knows where and... and .

-

Speaking of sensationalism and validation, this year’s hit, and in my opinion, fetishizers wet dream, The Butcher, produced by Edgar Allan Productions, already has several Oscar nominations including Best Documentary Feature . It also topped the box office for 7 consecutive weekends.

-

Neil caught up with her easily. She didn't even look over her shoulder, no sign or inclination that she’d known he’d approached from behind. In fact, her eyes were still glued to the pages of her book, small flashlight held between her teeth. Morality won out and he rolled his eyes both at himself and her oblivion. Neil was half tempted to grab her, do something to prove a point. Instead, he gripped the strap of his backpack and sidled next her.  

Ashleigh looked up at him with her doey brown eyes. Not an ounce of fear crossed her face, instead halfway vacant confusion as she glanced over her shoulder and back at him. Removing the flashlight she asked, “Did I forget something?”

His mother must have been tossing in her sandy grave.

“No, it’s just...you’re doing a real shitty job at the whole DGM thing,” Neil said, eyes darting around to darkened corners and trees casting shapes of strangers. It was a habit ingrained in him from an early age. If only the rest of his survival instincts caught up.

Ashleigh’s own eyes were darting, but from between the pages of her book and Neil’s ruddy eyes. A smile pulled the sides of her lips as if Neil had just cracked a funny joke. “I’m fine. I’ve done this a million times before. I’ve got pepper spray.” She held up the flashlight and shook it. Hanging off a carabiner were keys and a pink bottle.

How could someone with a brain so big, be so fucking stupid?

Neil fought not to roll his eyes again as he nodded and glanced down at her ridiculous boots. “Cool. Pepper spray only buys you time. How the fuck would you run in those?” When he looked up, her eyes were amused and still wholly oblivious. The girl survived on true crime and horror flicks, how the fuck she lasted this long, Neil didn’t know. He looked forward in the direction they were walking and gripped his backpack tighter. “You should really start taking an uber or something.”

Ashleigh laughed softly, “Okay, Neil. Whatever you say.” When he glanced out of the corner of his eye, she was giving him a small smile as they passed beneath a streetlight. Yellow coated her features in a sick hue.

When he made no indication of turning around to go his own way, she hummed a sound to herself and said, “I’m perfectly safe. You don’t have to walk me home. I swear, I’m not as stupid as I look.” He begged to differ. “I mean - that is, unless... you want to walk me home.”

Neil raised a confused brow and changed the subject. She was so fucking annoying.

“What book did you get today?”

Ashleigh’s small smile turned wider and just as Neil thought, she started on a long tangent about the book. He let her talk while they walked and didn’t hear a single word she said until they got to her apartment building.

“Well, this is me. Thanks for walking me home.” She reached out a hand with black painted nails and squeezed his arm. Neil flinched out of her grasp and started to back away.

“Um, sure. No problem. Just... take a fucking uber next time.”

Neil turned on his heel and left, cursing himself the entire way.

Connections, trails, relationships. He was an idiot for caring, an idiot for allowing himself to stay in Phoenix for so long and even dumber for getting comfortable. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach - one day, this was going to come back and bite him.

For now, he could rest a little easier knowing tomorrow there’d be a cup of coffee waiting for him.

Stupid .

-

New Clips Play:

//The Butcher is being credited a documentary game changer after its debut last night//

//The Butcher by Edgar Allan Productions already in talks for Oscar Nominations//

//Critics are calling The Butcher a documentary classic and comparing it to such favorites as Grey Gardens and Bowling for Columbine//

Just to put that in perspective: Remember that stretch of time where everyone was losing their *beep* over blue people Avatar ? Then after three or so months in theaters, it came back for the entire month of August or some *beep*? In the documentary world, The Butcher is not only on par with Avatar , but it’s just as - quote, unquote - revolutionary. So much so, that streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, as well as major television network HBO, are working on their own docuseries cataloguing Nathan Wesninski’s court case, his childhood, and other unnecessary bull*beep*.

-

Nine AM was ticking dangerously close as Neil made his way to the Book Nook. His shift was to start any minute, but he found himself relishing in the pleasant ache of his muscles and the occasional tap of the shopping bag hitting against his leg. The sun was rising high in the sky and the air had a gentle bite in the early spring. It had been colder a few hours before - refreshing to his foggy brain when he’d dragged himself from failed sleep and forced his legs to push away the thoughts that kept him awake all night.

His run didn't work, nor did it help. His mind was still abuzz with all the things he had done and had been doing wrong. Tossing and turning in his cheap sheets, intrusive thoughts dug into his head and made themselves a humble fucking home. Neil was in trouble and it was all his own doing.

The fact of the matter was, Neil was making mistakes . Last night was a huge mistake . He should’ve turned around and ignored whatever shred of moral fiber he had left. So what if Ashleigh didn’t show up the next morning? That was one less person to remember who he was, what he looked like, and the fact that he liked straight black, medium roast coffee.

Neil wasn’t stupid. Oblivious at times yes, but he saw the way she looked at him. Like he was a friend , like he cared about her wellbeing. A bond had been forming by proximity alone, and now he had willingly stepped up to the plate and made her believe in something that wasn’t there. It was dangerous. Neil was playing a dangerous game and he knew it.

Which was why hanging from his fingertips was the shopping bag containing the coffee maker from his apartment. One of the few appliances he owned, he decided that he was going to ignore the fuck out of Ashleigh and her antics. No sense buying him coffee if they had a coffee maker at work. And if she wasn’t buying him coffee, then she really had no reason to talk to him and he had no reason to thank her or whatever else he did.

His lease was up next month. All he had to do was last three more weeks and some change before he could leave Neil Josten behind and finally move on. He’d outstayed his welcome and Phoenix was getting too close for comfort.

Speaking of: Ashleigh’s eyes were immediately on him as he pushed open the glass door bell-lessly.

“Hey! Whatchya got there?”

Her voice grated at Neil’s ears. He tried not to grimace as she peered over the counter at the bag in his hand and pushed forward his coffee cup on the counter.

“Coffee maker.” He acknowledged the cup on the counter because he felt bad if he didn’t and said a quick ‘thanks’ as he nodded towards it.

Ashleigh hummed and leaned her back against the bookshelves behind the register, arms crossed over her chest. “Why bring a coffee maker when there's a cafe across the street?”

Neil hadn’t thought of an answer to that. There was in fact a cafe across the street. It was one of those hip and trendy places where everything was vastly overpriced and the entire place was decorated like a niche paradise. However, he was good at lying and thinking on his feet, so he said, “I feel bad you’re spending so much money.” He set the bag on the counter and swung his backpack in its spot beneath the register.

“Nah don’t. The guy in there likes me. I get ‘em for free.” She grinned and took a sip from her own cup.

Neil glanced at her from the corner of his eyes and mumbled ‘right’ because what else was he supposed to say? Checking to make sure his backpack was  safely hidden from view with considerably less anxiety than what he used to feel, Neil grabbed his coffee and motioned vaguely over towards the ‘New’ Releases waiting to be shelved.

Perhaps that was stupid too.

-

My point is, there’s blood in the water and the sharks are hungry. People fall in love with the glorification of an objectively attractive, charismatic killer. Ted Bundy, Andrew Cunanan, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, Charles Schmid, must I go on?

No. Because there’s an elephant in the room that not only the critically acclaimed documentary failed to mention - but also the majority of this audience elected to ignore.

-

The day started quiet and Neil thought maybe he had gotten lucky. Coffee long gone and caffeine caches sustained, Neil finished organizing the ‘New’ Releases when a group of people walked in.

Since Neil was working the floor for the first half of his shift, it was technically his job to greet the customers and make sure they found whatever it was they were looking for. But because this was the Book Nook and the place was clearly handled with minimal care, Neil found himself picking up the collapsed boxes to bring them to the back room. They seemed to know where they were going anyway because Ashleigh hailed them down with an, “Ohmygod hey!”

He assumed they were friends because all five of them made a beeline for the register, already talking animatedly about something or other. Their voices faded into a blur of sound as Neil disappeared behind the dusty stacks.

Emerging from the back room moments later, he had full intentions of ignoring Ashleigh and her group in favor of triple checking the sports magazines he’d organized 3 times the day before. His luck seemed to still be running as he went unnoticed and no other customers entered for at least another hour.

Lounging between the magazine cases in an old bean bag chair with a tear threatening to burst beads with one wrong move, Neil flipped through an exy magazine - just waiting for the excited voices of twenty-something year olds to finally go away. Which, as luck would have it, they finally did. Un luckily however, Ashleigh found him with quick steps and that ridiculous smile on her face that only showed her top row of teeth. Her eyes were sparkling in that way they did when she had learned something new or found something to sate her morbid interests. Internally, Neil groaned. Externally, Neil groaned.

“Did you hear?!” she asked, way too excited for anything really.

Neil turned a page in his magazine and dragged his eyes up to meet hers. His silence was answer enough.

Ashleigh rolled her eyes in exasperation and said, “The new podcast finally dropped!” She held up her phone. The screen looked like a music app with a song already pulled up. There was a black box in the form of album artwork with some... red blob that he couldn’t decipher from down there, with blue dots.  

“The fuck is a podcast?”

Neil! Remember? I told you about this last week. That guy finally dropped the podcast about -”

When Neil nodded slowly and looked back down at his magazine, clearly confused - she just groaned and said, “Whatever. Okay, I’m going to play it. Do you mind? Or will it disturb your....Exy? Really?”

Neil shrugged, “You’re fine.”

Ashleigh leaned her weight onto one foot and tapped her phone against her thigh. “Do you play? Exy that is?”

Neil’s eyes flicked up at her again. She had that weird look on her face that she’d had last night and Neil had the knee jerk reaction to avoid answering entirely. “Your podcast, remember?”

She gasped, “Ohmygod you’re right! You should listen too! I’ll play it loud.”

Great. That, he considered to be his cue. Standing from the chair, he put away the magazine and followed Ashleigh to the register. There was an old iHome that she’d brought from her place docked on the counter. Grabbing his backpack from beneath the counter, he swung it over his shoulder, glanced at the clock, and said, “I’m taking my break.”

She just whined and said, “Suit yourself!” just as an eerie piano filled the store with the sound of sirens that he could still hear as he made it to the back room.

Just as he closed the door, the voice of a woman rose from the music:

//In a heartbeat, a person can just be there and then gone.//

-

The real reason Nathan Wesninski was arrested in Seattle Washington on the night of June 12, 2004, was due to eyewitness accounts of a fire fight against what was described as a middle-aged woman and boy.

-

Neil could abuse his lunch breaks. No one was there to check him and there weren’t customers to tend to. But the more he sat in silence brewing over his mistakes and what his life has turned out to be, the more he felt like he was suffocating.

The back room wasn’t big. Stacks of boxes rested on either side of a beat up couch that was long past its prime. There was a pile of used cardboard boxes in the corner, an inventory list tacked to the wall, as well as a schedule for the only two employees employed. Neil stared at that list now, hearing the faint hum of the podcast through the door.

Neil had been working there for little more than five months. His previous job was on the other side of the city, working in a warehouse for a glass company. It was a good job, but too risky. There was some sort of business happening from the back door, something quiet and most certainly illegal - and things were getting too close for comfort. Impending doom had felt like it was hanging over his head, so he relocated. That feeling was finally creeping back, just as he knew it eventually would.

He’d broken nearly every rule his mother had set in one way or another.

Don’t stay in one place for more than absolutely necessary.

He should have left the moment the warehouse went south. Lease be damned, it was the smart thing to do.

Things start turning, you run.

Instead, he was sitting in the back room of a beaten up bookstore with a self-proclaimed Murderino as his coworker.

“One more month...” he whispered to himself, crumbling up the seran wrap between his hands and tossing it in the bin.

Because that was what he thought was best. Neil Josten couldn’t just disappear into the ether. All the names he and his mother had used that poofed into nothing - with no excuse to cover their tracks - all came back to bite them.

Bite her .

Because the last time they tried to evaporate as fast as they had been realized, he found them. And she didn’t make it out alive.

Neil zipped his backpack and swung it over his shoulder. He’d let himself steep in solitude for long enough and used his shoulder to push the door open and get back to work.

The noise from the podcast had been reduced to mumbles from inside the back room. Now, it was so loud he felt as though the monotone voice could shake the stacks. It was deep and it was accusatory. There was quiet music drifting through his syllables in the background, but Neil did his best to block it out entirely.

-

The trial never clarified who these two individuals actually were, but investigators suspected - and suspect - they could be Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski, the wife and son of your Butcher .

-

What ?”

Ashleigh was lost in her own world and part of Neil wished he were lost somewhere too. Instead, he stood at the foot of the register, eyes glued onto the docked phone as if he could see whatever bastard was speaking his name from the speakers.

“Hm?” She turned in a flurry, a tack sticking out of her mouth from where she had been pinning up a poster on the empty wall beside a bookcase.

“What did he just say-” Neil pointed at the dock, then looked to Ashleigh’s confused face. Unfortunately, catching his attention from behind her head was a pair of cold eyes he had seen hundreds of times around the city.

They were icy. Sneering. Blue. And his own.

Neil had tried his best to ignore any and all Butcher propaganda in the past few months. His father's face plastered across billboards, taxis, buses, and movie theaters. He avoided television entirely when picking up dinner in diners and restaurants in case a trailer played and fear took hold. He put up with Ashleigh’s fangirling about how... Intriguing the documentary was, despite the fact that it seemed to play in favor of the man of the hour. Magazines ordered with any mention of the documentary and all parties involved ended up in the dumpster out back - money be damned - and questions as to where they had gone were quickly avoided with dozens of, I don't know’s .

But he always found a way back into Neil’s life. Whether it be years ago in the form of flying bullets, slicing knives, and burning cars; or now with the media frenzy, court cases, and speculation. Nathan Wesninski just wouldn’t fucking die...

He was immortalized right here in front of him, tacked to a dirty wall in a dirty store with a dirty fucking -

“Neil...?”

It was nearly silent but for the pound of rushing blood in his ears. That deep voice had stopped droning and the eerie music left a hollow space in this cursed place. Ashleigh had paused the podcast, her eyes watching him with a level of concern that would have had him running if he were not already ready.

“Rewind it.” His throat felt like his voice was being dragged over rough gravel. His head felt light and it was becoming hard to swallow. His lunch was turning to lead in his stomach, weighing him down to this spot, this floor, and he felt too heavy to move.

When Ashleigh stepped around the counter slowly, her hand reaching out to his arm, he flinched away from her grasp. Tearing his eyes from his father’s smiling face, the bold letters of The Butcher below and all the praise acting as a red backdrop to his father's morbidity, he looked to Ashleigh sharply.

“What are you listening to?” he asked, voice grating rougher and either he couldn’t hear himself over the pounding in his ears or he spoke just above a whisper.

Ashleigh looked at him weird, her chin pulling back as she looked to the phone in her hand, thumb hovering over the pause and back to him.

“Red Rabbits...remember? Neil are you okay? You’re not looking so good. What did you have for lunch...?”

He didn't feel good either. The lead in his stomach was growing heavier while his head only felt lighter. He fought not to wooz on the spot and swallowed down the bile rising in his throat.

“Yeah...must be something I ate. Could you just rewind that back? I missed the last part.”

Breathe in.

Ashleigh gave him a cursory look, her eyes absorbing every detail of him that made Neil feel as though he was being stripped raw.

Run now.

He couldn’t. Not as she regarded her phone and did as he asked.

His eyes were closing, darkness slowly sliding over his vision as he listened to the voice come back. Not as loud as before, but loud enough to set his teeth on edge and rattle his bones.

//- trial never clarified who these two individuals actually were, but investigators suspected - and still suspect - they could be Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski...//

Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski

Mary -

And Nathaniel -

-

They’ve been missing for the past 15 years.

-

Nothing mattered but the slap of his shoes against the pavement.

Slap, slap, slap.

Faster, faster, faster.

His feet listened to whatever voice could be heard over the blood in his ears.

Perhaps it was his own. Perhaps it was his mothers. All he knew was that it was telling him to push harder, push faster, push further.

Get away, away, away.

But he wasn’t fast enough, at least Neil didn’t think. Life slowed and sped, raced and dragged by. People were a blur, buildings obscured like a window wiper swiped over Phoenix.

Ashleigh had called after him. Her eyes wide as she followed to the end of the block, her voice worried with concern. “Neil!” She had called, “I’m sorry! What’s happened? Are you-”

He didn't bother looking to see if she was still there. Ashleigh was responsible, she wouldn’t have left the shop unattended. He couldn’t hear anyone chasing him, but then again, he couldn’t really hear anything at all.

-

No missing persons report was ever submitted, but FBI investigators assigned to Nathan noted the sudden disappearance of wife, Mary and son, Nathaniel. Let me repeat: FBI investigators assigned to Nathan noted the sudden disappearance of Mary and Nathaniel . That note was left unanswered, unsearched. From what I understand, they accepted this disappearance as if it were expected.

-

He ran so hard he thought his heart would give out. Part of him wished it would. The past few months had been so unreasonably hard . His past was being shoved in his face, exploited and played like it was nothing but a grab for money. Like the shit his father had done was something to be celebrated and revered.

Neil didn’t even realize he’d been running in circles. When he stopped, his stomach felt like it was lodged in his throat, his hands wrung his backpack straps and he found himself muttering incoherent nothings. Whomever might be watching would probably think he was insane - Ashleigh likely did too. He didn’t care. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe.

How did he let this happen? How did he let himself get so fucking settled and comfortable - especially now? With his father's face plastered on every fucking billboard, played on every goddamned commercial, talked about by anyone with lips to spit - how had he not fled somewhere else? The Butcher was a worldwide sensation, according to the Entertainment Weekly magazines he’d chucked last week, but there had to be one place Nathan Wesninski hadn’t touched. Right?

“No,” he heard himself whisper and shook his head quickly as if to expel any hope he tried to muster.

Don't you dare give up.

Did her voice even matter anymore? It wasn’t like he’d been listening. He ignored his mother so thoroughly, that he’d gotten used to his environment - his apartment with its too small windows and loud radiator, the market where he shopped, Mark, his grumpy landlord who thought his name was Stephan. Even stupid fucking Ashleigh. With her stupid fucking black nails and serial killer obsession for what? For the coffee she brought him every day? For the way Gary let her do the ordering, but she let him get the sports magazines he wanted?

Neil stopped and took a deep breath before he puked.

He did anyway.

-

So that leaves me here. With a million questions and even more rumors on the whereabouts of this mother and son.

Some say they’ve been dead for over 20 years. Others claim they ran, but died that night. Still more suspect that Mrs. Wesninski had ties to another crime family - which may bear fruit - or that she was the anon who tipped the authorities to the hidden basement.

All but death lead to the real possibility that Mary and Nathaniel very well may have been in witness protection this entire time.

If you want my opinion, I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think you will either.

-

Jittery and clammy, hot and cold, dizzy and every fucking sensation at once.

Neil wiped his mouth with a shaky hand and leaned backpack first against the brick wall in...whatever alleyway he was. Sliding down slowly, he pulled his knees to his chest, hung his head between his knees, and took a deep breath.

Think. You know how to do this. You’ve been here too long. Think.

First things first:

Get the fuck out of here. Now. There’s no time to go back to the apartment.

Everything important was strapped to his back and kept on him at all times for this exact reason. ID, passport, cash, binder. Normally, he had at least one extra set of clothes, a few protein bars, and bottles of water.

But again.

He had grown comfortable here. He’d let himself slack and now he was paying the price.

Neil’s breaths were only just starting to slow as he saw a plan form in his mind. Shutting his eyes tightly, he ground his teeth together and inhaled deeply three times.

Get the fuck out. Now.

He could hotwire a car, drive a few states over...

What if you’re stopped? What if a cop pulls you over in a stolen car and you end up in some county jail? Too risky. Be smart Nathaniel.

Plane.

Arizona’s a border state. You look like a fucking mad man right now Nathaniel. You’re shaking, you’re pale. They’ll grab you from security the moment you try to go through. It’s not worth the risk.

Bus.

Taking another deep breath, he pulled out his phone and checked the local greyhound schedule.

Panic is the mother of failure.

He could do this. This would be fine. No problem. He’d done this a million times before.

He swallowed whatever was left in his stomach back down.

There was a bus leaving in an hour to St. Louis. Perfect. But was St. Louis where he wanted to stop?

No, this person, whoever he was, was creating his podcast around him and his mother specifically. The Butcher was a botchery of actual events and Neil felt like that was the point . While that propaganda surrounded him, and though every time he saw or heard anything having to do with the documentary made his feet want to take flight - he’d learned to live with it.

But this? This was different. This was someone looking for him. He was perfectly happy keeping Nathaniel ‘dead’ and then this fucker comes around and decides to dig him out? Put him in the public eye? Forget about fear, Neil was fucking pissed. His nails dug into his palms and he lifted his head back against the wall.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

He had half a mind to contact whoever that monotoned ass was and let him know how he could end up dead in the trunk of a car with the shit he was messing with.

Don’t engage. Leave.

No. St. Louis wasn’t it. Neil was going to have to leave the country. If this person was serious and this podcast was ongoing, with a search into what actually happened to him and his mother, he couldn’t be here. He had to be where no one could find him.

So. He’d take the bus to St. Louis. From there, the train to Chicago (one he’d rode before, another major ‘no no’ in his mother's handbook), a plane to New York with a short layover, before he caught another plane the fuck out of the States.

You have a contact in New York. Get a new ID, passport, and documentation. Chris is a good name.

Neil stood, hitched his backpack higher on his shoulders, let his stomach decide to throw up one more time for good measure, then made his way to the bus station.

-

It doesn't take long when searching this case on any web forum to find sightings of Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski - some as recent as 2 years. Many describe a mother and son with different combinations of hair and eye color, but who still bear a striking resemblance to the Wesninski’s.

Speaking of which, a family photograph, likely dating sometime around 2000, can be seen on our website.

-

Neil was good at pretending, so he pretended he belonged at the Phoenix Greyhound station.

He didn’t.

He cursed himself again for not having a spare set of clothes and cursed even more for Arizona’s stupid climate. He was sweating through his shirt with surprising speed and only had a sweater to put over it. Not helpful.

Neil quickly bought his ticket while avoiding any wandering eyes and sat as far away from the general population as he could. He crossed his arms over his stomach and bounced his knee quickly. The bottom edge of his jean shorts were threading and he wrapped a longer piece around his pointer finger. His backpack, his lifeline, was wedged tightly between his feet.

A man in a black suit walked by with a cursory glance at him. The hair on the back of his neck didn’t raise, but maybe it was because it was too heavily slicked down with sweat. Then again, the man could have looked at him because Neil was sweating - he didn’t know. Neil narrowed at his eyes and let his mind wander with possibilities.

The fuck is a guy in a suit doing at a bus station in the middle of the day?

Don’t suited men work?

Why aren’t you at work, sir?

Neil grabbed his backpack and hid in the bathroom until boarding was called.

He was the last one on. Standing at the back of the line, he watched every single person that boarded, letting his eyes weigh and gauge the legitimacy of their ticket. Black Suit never got on.

Picking a seat at the very back, Neil pulled his backpack into his lap and clutched it against his chest. The airconditioning was loud, but nice, blowing cool air against his heated skin and calming the nerves ticking at his edges.

Black Suit could’ve just been passing by. Everything is fine.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

St. Louis, Chicago, New York, meet with contact, Europe.

He’d be in Chicago in little more than a day, out of the country in less than 36 hours. No one would remember he was here and hopefully, he’d forget, too.

-

This pair, on several accounts, have been reported as acting skittish, as if they suspected they were being watched. Even more claim what is assumed to be the mother, holding onto a boy of varying ages tightly with one hand, while the other grips onto some sort of bag. This isn’t me confirming said eyewitnesses, but rather what several Reddit and Websleuth users repeatedly allege.

-

The bus to St. Louis was over 24 hours long, with a million stops in between. He spent most of that time worrying about every person getting on and off the bus, overanalyzing the looks sent his way, and agonizing over how tight he could clutch his backpack without looking suspicious. Several times, Neil seriously considered getting off and hitching it with a truck driver. He’d done it a million times before, it wasn’t a big deal. But the likelihood of someone willing to take him and the probability of getting enough drivers to fall for his bag of tricks wasn’t worth it.

With whatever time was left, he turned his back to the public and pulled out his binder. Inside were his remaining trusts from what his mother had left him, pages of contacts long since dried up, notes of old ID’s he’d burned once they were finished, and whatever else it took for him to survive all these years. This binder and it’s contents were his lifeline. He searched through the names of whatever contacts his mother had that were left and jotted a few things down in the margins.

By the time they made it to St. Louis, Neil had narrowed down who to call once he had privacy, purchased the train ticket to Chicago, and checked flights out of the country, too aware of his dwindling battery life.

That was another thing he’d forgotten to pack - a charger. He made that a number one priority at the train station in addition to granola bars, water, and coffee.

-

// News Clip Plays:

Interviewer: So you claim to have spotted Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski?

Subject: I don’t claim. It was definitely them. They were at a laundromat in Toronto in January of 2001. It was 24 hour and I was there around midnight. They were sitting in a corner huddled together and Mary was whispering something to Nathaniel - Really harsh like, you know? Poor kid looked so defeated.

Interviewer: How could you be so sure it was them?

Subject: [ Sigh ] Are you kidding? I’m obsessed with the Wesninski’s. I followed that case so closely, just like everyone else. Nathan was a psycho, but he was hot to my teenage mind, you know?

Subject: [ Whisper ]  Please don’t put that in.

Subject: Anyway. They were trying to hide behind bad dye jobs, but I have no doubt. It was them. //

-

The train was nice and luckily, he had a car nearly to himself. He charged his phone as he finalized his decision to fly from Chicago to New York, and then after some deliberation, to Stuttgart instead of Berlin. After getting the email confirmation from his flight (and unfortunately, ‘his’ bank) - he went about going through the list of remaining contacts in the New York area.

The only one that answered was an old man named Frankie, who Neil remembered had three gold teeth and an uncomfortable looking beard. He answered on the fourth ring, right when Neil was ready to give in.

“Who’s this?”

The voice was exactly as Neil had remembered, if anything, a good deal rougher from years of smoking.

“Frankie. This is Alexander, Jane Benits son. Do you remember me?”

There was a long pause at the end of the line, followed by muttered, “Jane, Jane Jane...” Another stretch of silence followed, before Frankie wheezed and whispered, “I’ll be goddamned...you still kickin’ it?”

Neil always liked Frankie. ‘Alexander’ was 13 when they visited him on an off trip to Manhattan. From the brief period they sat in his office, he showed ‘Alexander’ how to ignite a lighter and light a cigarette. When his mother walked into the room and saw ‘Alexander’ blowing smoke out of his mouth, she boxed his ears.

He flinched with the memory and cleared his throat. “Yeah.”

“Holy shit! How you doin’ after everything? Your pops really kickin' up a storm from the box.” Neil assumed he meant the documentary. “You still here?”

“Not for long.” He didn’t want to be on the phone for too long. “Listen, Frankie-”

“God, couldn’t believe that shit when I heard it. Real balls he’s got. You too. Where you 'bouts now?”

“Hopefully out of here. I need your help and I need it fast. Can you do that for me?”

Frankie sighed on the other end. There was a clicking sound and lips blown together. “Fuck, I dunno kid...been out of that business for a while. On the straight and narrow as they say.”

Neil highly doubted that. Frankie had been notorious for his clean work in the underground. It was a lucrative business despite the risk, and besides his raggy appearance, Neil remembered his crisply tailored blue suit.

“I know it’s a lot to ask. But I need this Frankie. You said it yourself. He’s kicking up a storm and I need to get out.”

“Well-”

-

// News Clip Plays:

Interviewer: Can you tell us what you saw and why you believe it was the Wesninski’s?

Subject: Okay, so it was this lady and this kid. And she was like, yankin’ him by the wrist. He was just followin’ with his head down - but it draws the eye, seein’ a lady yankin’ a kid like that.

[ Pause ]

Subject: Anyway, you could tell they were tryin’ to be incognito, but I watched ‘em the whole time.

Interviewer: Where was this?

Subject: Gas station.

Interviewer: In what state? City? Town?

Subject: [ Redacted ] if I know. I drive trucks. I go alotta places - but, as I was sayin’. The lady kept callin’ him Chris, but I got a really good look at the kids face when I dropped somethin’. He looked up at me and it was definitely that kid from the picture. You know the one? With the whole family and everyone but the Butcher looks ready to jump off a bridge? //

-

Neil got off the phone with a promise of documentation waiting for him when he got to JFK airport. Frankie had been hesitant at first and originally requested $200k for everything with a three day delay.

I can’t wait that long. I need this ASAP. By tomorrow night - the next morning, latest.’

It’s gonna cost you, kid.’

No fucking kidding. After a back and forth, Neil wired him $300k with a swear he wouldn’t let ‘the kid of that cast iron bitch’ down. That was most of the remaining cash he had left, if he was being honest. But, so long as everything went well, he knew places in Europe his mother had kept stashes. He could replenish when he got there.  

There was a three hour layover according to his flight itinerary before the plane would leave for Germany. So, once he got off from Chicago, he’d have to run out of the airport, board the LIRR at Jamaica to Penn Station, and catch whatever subway line would get him to the Upper East Side fastest. Everything would be okay. He’d pick up his shit, then get the fuck out of the states.

You’re fine.

Neil felt like he could finally breathe. He had a solid plan set in motion and everything would be just that. Fine . Settling into his seat, he looked around at his surroundings and realized more people had boarded and were now sitting with him in the car than he’d realized. Swallowing hard, he pulled his backpack into his lap, locked the screen on his phone, and lifted his eyes arbitrarily. They locked with a guy sitting across the aisle. He was about his age, with tattoo sleeves on both arms, and gauge things in his ears that would have made Ashleigh swoon. The guy smiled at him and raised a brow.

What the fuck? Who the fuck are you?

Neil looked back at his phone and tried to ignore his neighbor. The screen was black and his hand slightly shook because really, what the fuck was he looking at?

Black Suit and now this guy? Tattoo Sleeves? Someone is following you Nathaniel. They’re onto you.

That was stupid. Black suit didn’t show up again and Tattoo Sleeves clearly had a screw or two loose, right?

He’s listening to something.

He was. There was a red wire gathered in his lap. What if he was listening to the podcast? What if he knew? What if he knows Ashleigh? Do all Tattoo Sleeves know each other?

What if he’s the Monotoned Ass? What if he’s working for him and Black Suit? Oh god, what if Monotoned Ass was working for someone higher up and this is all some big plan to get me murdered. 

That’s fucking stupid Nathaniel.

Tattoo Sleeves cleared his throat and Neil glanced at him sideways.

“Hey. I’m Charlie,” he said, holding out a hand towards Neil.

Neil stared at the hand in confusion. Did hit men usually introduce themselves? He’d only dealt with a few, but he didn’t remember any formal introductions.

“Charlie?”

“Yeah...Charlie Daniels. This is a long train ride.”

Long enough to murder someone. 

Neil grunted non-committedly.

“You can come sit with me, if you want,” Charlie offered. Neil felt like he was trying very hard to speak carefully and he couldn’t figure out why. “I even have a blanket we could use...together. To...cover us.”

Right. Neil unplugged his charger, stood, shouldered his backpack, and moved to find another car instead. There were about 4 hours left and he wasn’t spending it with potential hitman: Tattoo Sleeves.

“You could’ve just said no!” Charlie called from the back. “You have a great ass, though!”

Neil bit down onto his tongue so the venom didn’t start spitting. Responding was the exact kind of attention he didn’t need to attract.

Blend in. Don’t. You’re nothing worth remembering.

He found a suitable seat three cars down. No one around to bother him and everyone looked pleasantly distracted. Neil slumped against the window, put his ear buds in, and drowned out everything until his next destination.

-

This is what one might call chasing a white rabbit. And if you’re unaware of that term or confuse it with a once popular slang for chasing a high, a white rabbit is information or a lead in a criminal investigation that leads you down a rabbit hole to nowhere.

Nathan Wesninski is serving several life sentences and has been in prison for past 17 years. Additionally, if authorities have notified us correctly, whatever contacts or associates Nathan had been working with have been successfully snuffed out as well.

Assuming these reports are to be believed, then why haven't Mary or Nathaniel resurfaced in the past two years? What could these two rabbits still be running from? Do they have skeletons of their own to hide? Do they believe there are still people out to get them? Are they in witness protection? Or have they really just been dead all this time?

-

No one spared him a second glance. Moving through O’Hare International Airport was a breeze and Neil put that down to the nerves he’d clamped down after his second call with Frankie. Apparently, his $300-fucking-k papers were going along well. His new name, Chris Prescott, was in the process of becoming realized and should be completed by the time he got off this plane.

It was only a two hour flight, but he felt like time was taking its own time dragging by.

Under the seat in front of him, tucked away was his backpack. Unfortunately, with how late he had bought this ticket, he was squeezed into a middle seat - both passengers looking as happy as he felt. Curling in his shoulders, Neil - Or Chris, he supposed - was used to making himself as small as possible. In his lap was his phone, around him was the voice of the flight attendant going through protocol, and there was a nagging thing at the back of his head.

It wasn’t the fear that someone was watching him, not right now. He couldn’t see any Black Suits or Tattoo Sleeves around, nor did he feel the need to be on high alert.

Like you should be, Nathaniel.

Rather, the nagging came from his phone in his lap and the tangled headphones wrapped around it. He stared at the blank screen and refused the urge to do what his mother would likely advise against.

Or encourage. Someone is after us Nathaniel. You need to know what we’re up against. What does he know?

It would be the smart thing to do - might raise his blood pressure and send him into cardiac arrest, but he should listen.

After all,

What does he know ?

The plane was taking off. It was too late to listen now. Maybe on the way to Stuttgart.

Maybe.

-

That’s what I plan to find out. We have an objective and I’ve been following this case for longer than I’d like to admit.

Because of that, I pitched it to the team here at The Foxhole Network. I had planned on walking in and out with a commission check for my notes and ideas. Instead, I got roped into doing all the hard work. For that, blame them for my amazingly dulcet tone.  

I suppose there’s a person or two behind the scenes. Namely, Renee Walker, my co-producer, who is fortunate enough to do all the grunt work I don’t want to do myself.

The Foxhole put it’s misguided trust in me to get this *beep* out - so, I’m going to do it the way I want to do it.

-

Neil/Chris got off at JFK with a purpose. Backpack strapped to his back, he raced down the long terminals, into the shuttle, and then past the metro-pass point.

Jamaica Station was just as he remembered it, but somehow cleaner (which was shocking for New York). He stopped at one of the kiosks lined before the train terminals and glanced at the large clock standing in the center of the station. Night was creeping upon the city and it started to blanket the station despite it’s bright floodlights. The station was busy enough to allow him to disappear - which was imperative being back on the east coast. Neil/Chris felt comfort in at least that, as he purchased a ticket on the LIRR to Penn Station and a metrocard with it.

Ticket in hand, Neil/Chris heard a train coming in.

-

With all that being said, for however long this takes, I will find out what happened to Mary and Nathaniel Wesnisnki. I don’t expect it to be safe, I don’t expect it to be cheap, nor do I expect it to be easy . Considering various reports put these two in the middle of gang fights, I’m going to be chasing two very bloody rabbits.

Red Rabbits, you could say.

It’s fitting to be back at Palmetto State. I’m a fox again. I’ll chase these rabbits down holes and I won't stop until my tongue tastes blood.

-

If Jamaica was clean, Penn was disgusting. Neil/Chris’s phone read 7:22PM and though he was making good time, he had somehow gotten caught in an unexpected home rush. Black Suits stood around, staring everywhere but him as he looked down at the map on his phone to find the quickest subway station to E 81st and 2nd. The fastest route was the Q. Unfortunately, as he followed the directions stationed on the upper walls of the station, there was a false, bright blue wall blocking entrance.

“What the fuck ?!” Neil/Chris cursed under his breath and stepped back to look around. He hadn’t been in Manhattan for years, but the city still seemed to be inconveniently under construction.

Referring to his map, he quickly found another station as anxiety finally caught back up with him. His hands shook so violently that he nearly dropped his phone as he found another station, memorized the street/avenue.

If he didn’t make it to the contact within the next hour, he was going to be late for his flight. From what he remembered, it took at least an hour to get through JFK on a good day. And though it was conveniently night time and travel was usually sparse, he needed to plan for mishaps like this. Unfortunately, Neil/Chris didn’t have much of a choice.

Running through Penn Station, past the Black Suits, up one set of stairs, and through crowds of equally panicked and exhausted people, he took the last flight 3 stairs at a time before he burst into the cool, mucky, disgusting night air.

-

When this podcast airs, you’ll be able to visit our website, at redrabbitspod.tumblr.com, and social medias, all of which will be listed in the description of this episode. Additionally, if anyone listening has legitimate information or have sighted Mary and Nathaniel, let us know. You can post on our Reddit, at RedRabbitsPod; tweet us at RedRabbitsPod; make use of the ask box on our website, or email me directly at aminyard.foxhole@gmail.com . I’ll be combing through every legitimate lead to piece together a timeline of where and when Mary and Nathaniel have been spotted.

Renee and I will be going cross country and perhaps international if some of these foreign leads prove worthy of following.

-

There was a station somewhere around here. New York City may have a grid, but it wasn’t nearly as organized as people will have you believe. Not to mention, it was too fucking crowded.

You can do this. Pick up the speed. Don’t run, people will look. Walk like you belong, Chris .

He didn’t feel like he was disappearing here. His stomach was back in his throat and his blood was pounding ferociously in his ears as he weaved through clusters of people to the crosswalk right at the end of the block. His eyes were peeled for the two glowing orbs that signified the Q.

A throng of people cleared before him and there it was, like a beacon in the night, Neil/Chris ran - anonymity be damned. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he checked the time to see how much time he’d wasted rerouting himself, and found a missed call from Frankie's number.

“Shit-” He cursed to himself and skid before the subway stop to see that it said Downtown , not Uptown.

Breathe in, Breathe out. Calm down Chris . Don't draw attention. You’re fine.

Okay.

He held the phone up to his ear and looked around him. People passed and the phone rang.

“Alexander?” Frankie's voice was rough in his ear just as his eyes caught on the connecting subway.

“I’m on my way,” Neil/Chris replied gruffly and without thinking, ran across the street. No cars were coming anyway, the coast was clear.

“No, Alex-”

-

So that’s it. A quick overview on the *beep* we’ll be diving in. Now you know what you’re getting yourselves into and can make a decision whether or not you want to keep up. I don’t want to see in our inbox how morbid this *beep* is. Trust me, we know.

The next episode will be posted bi-weekly. That’s subject to change since Renee and I will be traveling. If we don’t find any leads, we may update, but I don’t want to post if we have nothing real to say. Again, keep an eye on our website and twitter for updates. I’ll be posting any evidence we find.

Tomorrow, we’ll have a full transcript posted - keep an eye out for that, too.

-

Pain flared on Neil’s right side and he felt the ground against his cheek.

His ears were ringing, sirens were wailing, something was trickling into his eye. It was hot and it stung.

A haze fell over his vision and Neil tried to blink through it, tried to see . The only thing he could make out were bright lights, blue paint, and the shape of -

Who the fuck drives a truck in New York?

-

Oh. Mary and Nathaniel? If you happen to be listening, drop me a line. I’m always open to information - direct from the source.

I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

Keep searching.

[ Outro ]

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand what’s so hard about this. Isn’t this your job? Don’t you do this every fucking day?”

The sky was darkening outside. 7 o’clock flew by, as did 8, and 9 was steadily creeping upon them. Early spring brought out soft rain pattering on the short sills of the Tower and Andrew debated whether or not to ditch everyone and just go home.

The podcast was already supposed to be up. Andrew had done his part. He’d gathered his research, put it together, recorded his segments, and gave everything to the team on time. Now he watched Seth and Dan with heads bent together, whispering instead of making shit happen.

Water splashed onto the inner ledge and dampened the air unpleasantly. Dan’s finger tap tap tapped in time with the drip drip drip and Andrew was trying not to flip flip flip the fuck out.

He took a drag of his cigarette instead and glared at the mixing booth while a fan whirred to the side of him, blowing his smoke out the open window at Dan’s insistence.

I hope you don’t smoke around King .

Of course he didn’t. The look he had on his face then, was similar to the one he had now.

“Andrew, calm down,” Dan said, sticking her head out of the booth. “Seth is going as fast as he can. We’re just making some last minute edits and putting on finishing touches, okay?”

Andrew blew a cloud of smoke in her direction. The fan blew it away.

He really shouldn’t be smoking and the disappointed look Renee had given him when he lit up, proved it. He kicked the addiction years ago at Bee’s insistence and for King’s sake. She wasn’t wrong. Andrew would kill everyone in this office and then himself if anything happened to that cat*. But, for the past few weeks, he just couldn’t resist. There was an itch that only nicotine and a cigarette between his fingers could fix.

He also shouldn’t be using the garishly orange area rug as an ashtray - which Renee also commented disapprovingly about as she sat on the opposite side of the table, phone face-up and vibrating with notifications.

Andrew glanced over the arm of his chair to the little pile and tried not to feel a personal victory. The feeling went away once he realized King could get to it. He made a mental note to clean it up before he left that night.

“Not okay ,” Andrew looked up and used the toe of his boot to pull the laptop closer to him on the table. The team dashboard gleamed a ridiculously oversaturated blue that stung his eyes against the white questions steadily coming in. “I’m over here answering stupid fucking questions like - oh for fucks sake. This one just says, ‘You’re so mean.’”  

Seth let out a loud laugh. “You are mean, you little asshole.”

“Is this you? Are you sending me fucking,” he airquoted, “‘anons’ right now?” Andrew dropped his feet from the white chair in front of him to the floor and sat up straight. “No one let Seth on the website. He’s enough of a fucking menace already.”

“Just for that, I’m getting on as soon as this is done,” Seth said, not bothering to look back.

Dan huffed and pushed away from the desk. “Both of you stop. We’ve got this. Just a little longer.”

Andrew flicked more ash onto the carpet. His eyes looked to the latest question:

What inspired the project?

What inspired this project...

-

Five weeks ago, Andrew was an acclaimed journalist, known for digging deep and pulling a story apart by the seams. Five weeks ago, he was fired by the Boston Globe. Five weeks ago, he was pissed, but not worried. Five weeks ago, he knew he had a solid story, a good story. One job down, due to what he assumed was Moriyama pressure on the Globe (if the well dressed Japanese man coming out of the CEO’s office meant anything), was nothing. He had other connections. After all, with his reader base and reputation, he didn’t think he would have any trouble finding a publication to take him and the Wesninski story on.

He was wrong.

If they didn’t outright turn him down, they didn’t bother replying.

He’d been blacklisted, discredited, shamed. Accusations based on what he assumed must have been unfounded lies, festered around his debatably good name.

Two weeks later, he aired his grievances through a much needed sparring session with Renee when she was in town.

Andrew didn’t really have friends , but Renee was likely the closest he’d ever get. They met during their undergrad at Palmetto and despite her calm exterior, she was the one of the only people he could/would tolerate. They bonded over a shared otherness that the rest of the Foxes could not even attempt to equate.

After years apart, Renee joining the Peace Corp and both getting Masters, they found time during their busy real life bullshit to get together again - even if it was only to throw a couple of punches.

When they were both sweaty, panting, slightly bloody, and exhausted, Andrew felt calm enough to tell her what had happened. Renee, as Renee was known to do, decided to take the opportunity to look on the ‘bright side’ and be ‘optimistic’.

“Have you thought about a podcast?” Andrew just stared at her. “Think about it. You’re not tied down to a publication anymore. You have more freedom now. With a podcast, you can actually tell your story the way you want to tell it - using your own voice.”

He’d heard of these podcasts - heard how they stirred trouble in the written world purely for the fact that people were too lazy to read anymore. Podcasts were not putting publications out of business, but they were making writers wary. That thought alone made the idea appealing, but it wasn't good enough.

He took a long drink of water from the bottle he’d been rolling between his hands and turned his thoughts to The Foxhole Network.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with the struggling communications department at PSU, would it?”

It was true. Renee worked under their old professor, Chair of Communications, and Director of The Foxhole Network, David Wymack. She still had a secondary job working as a columnist for South Carolina’s, The State , but served as TFN’s PR agent full time. Through their numerous meetings and sleuthing of his own, he’d heard that TFN was having a hard time staying afloat.

Not like he cared.

Renee gave him a small smile. “Partly, yes. I think a true crime podcast like this would really help invigorate the program and increase listeners.” ‘ True crime podcast .’ He tried not to groan at the sound of it. “But, I meant what I said. This could be a good opportunity for you.”

“Dayly Exy with Kevin Day just ain’t cutting it, huh?” He couldn’t stop the dryness in his tone from sucking the life from his words.

Renee shook her head, her expression solemn yet calm, despite the sweat plastering a few hairs to her forehead. “Kevin does a wonderful job, but we need more variety in our line up. This would be mutually beneficial.”

-

Andrew never intended to go back to Palmetto for any real length of time. Bee was still there, so he would visit of course, but she was the only reason. He wanted to keep moving, keep going somewhere new. Researching, following leads, and concentrating on outside environmental factors were the perfect distraction from those inside his own head. Staying in one place for too long made him ansty - reminded him too much of too long stays with foster homes when hope started to worm it’s way back in.

But, he couldn’t deny Renee was right. There was no confirmation but for the emails he’d collected and the feeling in his gut. All those years, all that hard work, amounted to nothing but the piss-poor idea of a podcast stretching before his dash. Reality hit him when he’d returned home that night after their session and it came with frenzied ideas that bounced around in his head.

Afterwards, he spent hours, days, listening to countless true crime podcasts - studying their format, their style. Some things worked for him, others didn’t. He didn’t want this to be Serial *. Not just a story to leave off at the end with no real answer. He wanted something definite, something different , something that may well reflect the reality of the case. Even if at the end, he found nothing; a nothing answer, was still something .  

He also didn’t want this to be a reenactment. No voice actors filling in for real people like they were characters, no dramatized scenes or cheap soundbites. Andrew wouldn’t botch this like The Butcher. This would be raw and uncensored and handled with the care and respect the victims deserved. But, there was a caveat that set him apart from the wildly popular podcasts that already existed.

While not by publications, these podcasts were backed by networks, radios, broadcasting channels, sponsors . He had very little money coming in from syndicated pieces, but nothing to pay for something of this scale.

Which meant, if he were going to do this, he couldn’t do it without backing. He needed money for travel, research, and bribes if necessary.  

Andrew had sat in his small home office for hours, rubbed the tiny bee tattoo behind his ear and sighed.

“I’ll think about it,” he’d murmured to himself, the buzz in his ear, and King in his lap.

-

One week ago, he was in the conference room of The Foxhole Network with his team; Wymack at the head of the table and Dan Wilds to his right, like they were the fucking Knight’s of the Round Table.

The podcast was discussed.

Andrew’s ideas were discussed.

His motivation was discussed.

His firing from the Globe was discussed.

And in the end, he walked out of that meeting with a promise to see this investigation through until the end, in exchange for a bi-weekly podcast, hosted by Andrew.

Now, here he was. At this table, staring at his laptop, missing Game of Thrones, and listening to Seth and Dan whisper, then go silent listening.

At almost 10:30PM, two and a half hours after the promised time thanks to Seth’s incompetence, the podcast was posted to cheers and claps of the four member team that made up Red Rabbits .

“Fucking finally,” Andrew muttered.

Rather than ‘pop bottles’, he fought temptation to light up again and continued answering questions while the team vibrated around him.

He answered questions about if he was a robot, about Dan bleeping out the curses, about Seth for some reason. After some contemplation, he decided to add the poster of The Butcher documentary. He wanted to point out to everyone how disgusting it was; how Nathan Wesninski was being portrayed as some charming, serial murderer - because even after everything, Andrew didn’t believe people realized what the media was shoving down their throats.


 I don’t want to share this, considering the fact that most of you have likely already seen it. Nor do I really want to share Nathan Wesninski’s face. But, it’s out there, you can fucking google him and he’ll pop right up.

The reason why I’m posting, is because I feel like everyone should see the mockery that Edgar Allen has made of this entire case.

Nathan Wesninski , stationed in the center as if he were part of some goddamned teen drama and he’s the heartthrob. It’s disgusting, it’s glorifying, and I sincerely hope none of you paid money for this.

I can write an entire dissertation on this and maybe one day I will. For now, I’m tired.

- A


 And he was done. He needed to go home, decompress, and watch Game of Thrones. He snapped the laptop shut.

“Where are you going, Minyard? Even you have to be happy about getting the damn thing out.” Andrew had always liked Wymack. He had been part of his ‘family’ since he took him under his wing. Dinners were often hosted at either his and Abby’s house, or Bee’s. He took a class with him on digital media when he was a freshman at PSU and it was one of his favorites. Wymack was gruff and blunt - didn’t take any shit. It was one of the many reasons why Andrew could tolerate him. That and he always had whiskey on deck.

“I’m going to fucking watch Game of Thrones and sleep. The rest of you carry on, but you better be ready for the next steps tomorrow,” Andrew said, grabbing his bag and ignoring the pile of ash he’d told himself to clean.

Someone else would .

He walked to his office on the other side of the lounge and opened the door. King had been napping in the armchair in the corner of the room, basking in the moonlight with her tail twitching side to side. She’d become the network mascot in the last week, but she was still his cat. He couldn’t stand the thought of her alone with the boxes in his apartment all day, so he brought her to the studio with him.

No other reason.

“I’m pretty sure I’m the one who’s supposed to give you orders,” Dan yelled from her spot across the room, drink in hand.

Andrew ignored her, ignored them all, and left with the only thing he cared to interact with at the moment. He and King made their way home.

-

Clean, small, empty - he’d been moved in for over a week and the place still echoed with unfamiliarity.

His apartment was located right at the edge of campus, in a similar building to the one Wymack used to inhabit before he and Abby moved in together. It was convenient, it was cheap enough, and it would likely stay as empty as it was right now. Andrew had put more effort into furnishing his office at the Tower* than he had in his new home. Boxes lay strewn from room to room and the only things properly unpacked were his essentials and all of King’s belongings.

There was a single cheap Ikea couch he’d brought from his old apartment, resting lonely in the living room with unpacked miscellaneous items acting as side tables, a boring black coffee table, and a tv half-assedly mounted to the wall. Books lay in a wide pile against the far side that led out to a small balcony and bordering the other side of sliding glass doors was a tall cat tower.

The kitchen was nearly empty but for two mugs, a coffee maker, and a small microwave. The fridge held takeout containers and a half-eaten carton of Cookies n’ Cream in the freezer.

His bedroom was abysmally simple, with a queen bed taking up more than half its space, two black nightstands, and his clothes half unpacked in the closet. The bathroom faired the same.

His office was the only thing even partially moved into. He spent most nights in there when the insomnia took hold - slaving over notes upon notes of Wesninski files, leads, and past accounts.

The only thing that remained consistent around the apartment, was the cat toys and essentials strewn from room to room depending on where Andrew kicked them and/or where King decided they needed to be.

This wasn’t really a ‘home’. Bee’s place was home, Abby and Wymack’s was home, his apartment in Boston had started to become a home . This? This was just a place he came back to after spending an entire day staring at work, to either sleep, shower, or stare at more work.

In tonight's case at least, he had something to look forward to.

Sitting on his couch in his comfiest sweats - the ones that were a bit too long, but he refused to roll up because they kept his feet warm - he steadily worked through the remaining half of Cookies n’ Cream while his mind occupied itself with trying to remember plot points in Game of Thrones. His phone rested beside him, and every so often he tweeted his thoughts upon Dan’s insistence for keeping up a social media presence - all the while ignoring whomever the fuck was texting him.

Naturally, he filled his Twitter feed with spoilers and then went to bed.

Or, he put himself in his bed with the intentions to sleep, while knowing it wasn’t going to happen.

Thoughts still seeped in and out of the conscious he was trying to make subconscious, preventing any relief from the blissful monotony that was supposed to be sleep. Instead, he thought about how from this point on, it would be forward forward forward. It was onto the next steps and he would have to just keep pushing, keep moving, keep searching.

Eventually, he’d have to listen to the entire episode and if sleep wouldn’t claim him now, he assumed then was as good a time as any.

Reaching for his phone, he sat up in the bed. His sheet pooled around his hips and King gave an annoyed meow at being shifted from her spot. Andrew placed his free hand on her curled back in silent apology. He ignored any and all text notifications that occasionally lit up the screen (half filled with emojis and congratulations from Nicky - and one backhanded compliment from Aaron once he finished his rotations at the hospital), turned his phone on Do Not Disturb, and searched for the podcast. After swiping away a new text from a (786) number, he grabbed a notebook out of the drawer and glasses from the bedside and settled in to take notes on what could be improved or missed from Episode 1: Pilot.

Andrew pressed play. He listened. Made a note about the opening. Listened. Made a note about how terrible his voice sounded. Then stopped.

Because something was missing.

He went back to the beginning. He had to be wrong. The alternative was not possible - was not what he was promised .

But alas, there it was.

Dan and Seth had cut his entire intro - his reasoning for doing this in the first place and his journey from publishing to podcasts.

Gone.

Like it never existed.

There was a sizzling beneath his skin, hot and insistent. He was livid, he was seething, he was -

Andrew stopped the podcast and put down his phone. Closing his eyes, he could hear a buzz and rubbed at the ink behind his ear while trying to take deep breaths.

What would Bee say?

-

At the young age of thirteen, Andrew established himself with the beginnings of a record and was sent to juvie in a desperate attempt to get away from the last foster family he would ever have, the Spears. That record lead to a series of unfortunate events - wherein he finally met his long lost identical twin brother Aaron, and Aaron’s abusive, drug-addicted mother Tilda. Tilda was a gem of a woman, who gave up one twin and kept the other.

They both lived in South Carolina, which by proxy, meant that Andrew moved there as well once he’d served half his time after his uncle Luther, Tilda’s brother, found a way to get him out. The caveat was that he would have to attend weekly sessions with a therapist once settled in. That therapist was Betsy Dobson, or Bee.

Long story short, Tilda liked to hit and Andrew liked promises. He’d made a promise to his brother that she would never lay a hand on him again.

She didn’t.

Tilda died in a terribly tragic accident and he was sure Bee knew .

When she died, Andrew and Aaron were left as two sixteen year old minors with no guardian. Their prying, loud-mouthed, compassionate, and caring cousin Nicky stepped in to take custody and help the twins get through high school. Betsy acted as a helping hand to do whatever she could from the sidelines to try and make the transition easier.

But, Nicky was only nineteen. He was young and driven and tried so, so hard . With his father, Luther breathing down his neck and threatening to take the twins away, and bills stacking up, he was out of his league even with Bee’s help.

Nicky worked two jobs - one waiting tables and the other bartending at a nightclub. His boyfriend Erik helped him buy a house so he could properly raise the twins, but food, shelter, and weekly therapy weren’t all it took to take care of two very troubled kids. He was a fine guardian, helped them with their German homework, and never tried to parent them unnecessarily. He did his best and it wasn’t like his best wasn’t good enough for them - it just wasn't good enough for him . Slowly, all the stress, all the work, all the worry took its toll.

Andrew and Aaron tried to help out. Bee advised against it, but they nonetheless got jobs at the same nightclub Nicky worked at as dishwashers in the back. It was technically illegal, but everyone kept their mouths shut and tried to help out in any way they could.

It was a good job, a good gig - that was until four homophobic assholes tried to lay hands on what Andrew considered his .

The night ended with those four fucks in critical condition, Nicky in the hospital, and Andrew in handcuffs.

That’s when Bee stepped in. Besides Nicky, she was the only adult he’d ever trusted. In their years together after his release from juvie, they’d grown close. She was unlike any other adult he’d ever met and understood him in a way he likely wouldn’t ever be able to understand. Bee was not simply just a counselor, a therapist - she was his rock that kept him centered and grounded after so many things tried to rip him apart.

The pigs wanted to send him back to juvie - he’d almost killed four men afterall. But, after Bee got a certain friend from college named Abby Winfield involved in his case, and some well placed security camera footage backing his claim of self-defense (as well as a good amount of finagling), Andrew was let off with a warning and mandated continued counseling. He’d dodged a bullet there and he only had those two women to thank.

He’d continue thanking them far into the future - especially Bee.

Because Bee stepped in even further. She knew how tired Nicky was and after  Andrew’s case, there was no way Nicky could safely, for his own mental health, continue raising the twins. So, with agreement from all parties, Bee took guardianship and removed the pressure off Nicky to allow him to live a normal life. Nicky ended up staying in South Carolina until the twins graduated high school - further growing a bond as a family. Nicky practically lived at Bee’s as well, soaking up the warm maternal waves that radiated from her.

In spite of Aaron’s drug addiction during his youth, he wanted to become a doctor, and Bee pulled together all of her resources to support Aaron’s goal. Andrew wasn’t going to let his brother out of his sight just yet, and together with Bee, Abby and her partner, Wymack’s support, they applied to every scholarship they could, eventually both earning full rides for their undergraduate studies at Palmetto State University.

Bee helped Andrew and Aaron work through a lot of trauma in that time, and she still did. Andrew didn’t think he would ever be a whole person, he didn't think he could ever have normal relationships like most people. Through Bee, he learned to be okay with that - he learned to not lessen his trauma or diminish what was done to him as a child, but rather accept that there were things that happened and try to find ways to build bridges and move on. She taught him that it was okay to not fit into societal norms and expectations, but rather do and say what he felt was right.

She was the bee in his ear - buzzing and guiding him through life. She was always and would always be there for him - even when she wasn’t.

-

Stop Andrew. Take a deep breath. Review, reflect, recharge .

He heard it now and he did what that buzzing said. He stopped, he breathed, he thought about the problem, and he decided what he needed to do.

He needed to let people know. Immediately. The longer he let this go, the longer Dan thought she was in the right.

He picked up his phone again, letting a bare wrist brush over King in the process, ignored the texts and calls coming in soundlessly and more frequently from that same number, and sent a text of his own.  

‘Why’

Dan replied immediately, ‘ Legality issues, according to Abby. I will not see this studio shut down.’

‘You just made a terrible mistake. Congratulations.’

Tossing his phone aside, Andrew resigned to no sleep, got up from his bed, grabbed his laptop, and booted it up. He searched for an ask in the inbox catered to this issue specifically. It wasn’t long until he found one:

What do you expect the outcome of this to be?...

Andrew did what he did best. He wrote. He explained. He committed to finding the transcript tomorrow that Dan had to have marked up for Seth’s instruction - and he would post that, too.

Because he’d be damned if he’d be silenced again.  

-

The next morning, Andrew took his time getting to the office. Anger still sizzled beneath his skin, but he breathed through any impulses. When he finally graced everyone with his and King’s presence, Dan was visibly tense.

His backpack hung off his back and King rested comfortably in his arms. Holding onto her helped him stay relatively calm when the breathing didn’t work and the buzzing went ignored. Andrew probably should have gone straight to his office, but instead he stopped in the lounge and looked to Dan.

“We’re going to talk about this. Not now - just know, the people will hear the truth, whether you like it or not.” He didn’t grit his teeth or raise his voice. He remained steady and calm despite the storm building in his chest - ready to break free.

“Andrew, there are legal issues at play here,” Dan stood and her shoulders slumped. She gestured towards him, “Go talk to Abby about this. She said we could be sued by Edgar Allen Productions, the Moriyamas, the Boston Globe. I’m not going to see this program go down over your opinions - which are not important to this investigation.”

“Not important?” Andrew narrowed his eyes and watched as Dan closed her own and fought the impulse to take a step back. He heard that buzz, felt King’s purr against his chest, and clenched his jaw for half a second. “We’ll see.”

Turning around, he retreated to his office only to find Renee waiting for him in King’s chair. Though she was the PR Agent of the company, she had stepped up as his Co-Producer for Red Rabbits. She also had her MA in Journalism and used it to help him research, plan, and she would be accompanying him on all their trips (if they could afford them).

Using his foot, he closed the door behind him and set King down. She padded over to Renee’s leg, jumped up, and claimed a spot in her lap. Andrew sat at his desk and booted up the desktop, not bothering to look at them.

The impulse to go back in the lounge and scream the Tower down was strong. His self-control was stronger.

He waited a few moments for his computer to fully boot and get his temper in check, before he asked quietly, “Did you know?”

“No” Renee’s answer was soft, but serious. “I would’ve warned you. I understand why Dan did it, but I do not agree with her.”
Andrew just nodded and focused on pulling up their documents.  

Moving on .

“Let’s plan. The first stop should be Baltimore,” Andrew said. “We need to check out the house and see if there are any leads we can follow there.”

King let out a small, whiny meow. Renee appeared next to him, partially catless with hair sticking to her clothes. She pulled over a small chair and her phone to take notes. “When do you want to leave?”

“Wednesday. We need to gather all the shit we can before the next podcast so we have more to discuss without giving too much away. We’ll plan and contact who we need today and tomorrow, then head out Wednesday.” He pulled out his own phone when it started buzzing, rolled his eyes, and silenced it.

“Same number?” Renee asked and Andrew nodded in the affirmative. He told her about it last night while they waited for the botched episode to drop.  “Who do you think it is?”

“I know who it is,” Andrew replied, opening the email he’d gotten in the early hours that morning and leaned to the side for Renee to read.

“Wow,” Renee said, as she kept reading. “Why are you ignoring this?”

“Because she’s a fraud. I looked into it. She’s a vapid, millionaire, trust fund baby who has no idea what she’s talking about.” Andrew clicked back to their file filled with scanned documents and external links.

“But it looks like she could have infor-”

“No.”

Renee hummed. “Okay. So, I’ll look up flights to Baltimore, Wednesday morning.”

“The house is for sale. Put down contacting the realtor,” Andrew added, checking the website inbox while Renee jotted down their to-do list and rose to retrieve her laptop. He was in a great mood to answer stupid questions, and people never disappointed.

-

The rest of the day was a blur of failed attempts and concrete plans. No leads came out of them, but for a slurry of questions and comments - endless, unsubstantiated claims, and a lingering tension that stayed in the air of TFN into Tuesday.

That tension dissipated when someone decided to come after Andrew and his ‘professionalism’ on the website.

Andrew had been minding his own business in his office, eating and drinking his weight in donuts and coffee while he answered questions and tried to nail down the location of closed Wesninski case files. One of 20 notifications lit up on his phone about a post to the website and decided to look for himself. What he found was something he expected, because he’d heard comments like this ever since he started pursuing journalism:


 Andrew doesn't seem particularly professional. Are you all sure that it's a good idea to have him being the main face of Red Rabbits? Surely such a complex, serious case like this requires people who are professional and are able to act both maturely and sensibly. Andrew seems to spend more time online answering asks, than he does doing research and actual hard work. Doesn't seem very adequate to me.


 His fingers itched to respond with words that would be no use.

Buzz .

Nonetheless, he hit the box to start his reply - wrote something scathing that he would likely regret, and hit send. Unfortunately, a dialogue popped up that said something to the effect of technical issues.

“What the fuck...” he mumbled to himself, refreshed the page and found the question gone. Quickly jumping to their dash, the question had been posted with a lengthy response. He started to read, only because he was pissed that he didn’t get to rip whatever anon’s asshole this was and that someone else took away his thunder.

That someone else was Dan and it was...


 I’m trying to answer this as fast as possible before Andrew beats me to it with something petty.

While I understand your concern, we’re not going to do this. Despite the fact that Andrew is a little menace, he works tirelessly on this case and has been for weeks here at TFN™ and months prior to that. He brought this case to us. After his termination from the publication he was writing for, Andrew reached out to countless names to try and take this story. We were his last resort and we’re happy he put his trust in us to do him and this case justice.

I don’t know why this means so much to him - especially if you know Andrew, so little does. But we need him here just as much as he needs us. And we’re really not going to answer any more questions on his intent, dedication, legitimacy, or credentials (Which, I assure you, surprised even us. If you’d like to read more on Andrew’s background, visit his About Me on the Team Page  for a brief overview).  

I mean? This is his first moment to breathe. Some mornings we’ll come in and he never left. Andrew does all the groundwork. And sorry if this is a breach of his privacy, but according to Wymack, he hasn’t even unpacked since his move from Boston.

You can question his methods, but we’ve come to learn that despite his madness, there’s always a reason. And I don’t expect any of you to know that if you don't know him. But we do. The years between graduation and now changed nothing. I assure you, we all thought he was going to do nothing with his life. And now he’s an acclaimed journalist - despite what’s been taken from him.

So, yeah. He might be unprofessional and yeah, sometimes we want to fucking throttle him (it’s a shame his office locks from the inside). But he’s our unprofessional little monster.

He’s a Fox.

-Dan


 Andrew decided that was enough for one day. He packed up his things, gathered King in his arms, and left the Tower with little more than a single nod towards Dan.

-

Wednesday morning, Andrew and Renee found themselves at the airport at 5:30 a.m. When Renee said she had booked their flight to Baltimore in the morning, Andrew had expected it to at least be after sunrise and not 5 fucking 30.

He’d already downed three cups of coffee and waited with a bouncing knee to be called for boarding.

It was nerves, it was anxiety, it was anticipation . All that stood between himself and potential answers was a single flight, with one stop, lasting for 4.5 hours. He could get over it and ignore the buzz buzz buzz in his ear to calm calm calm the fuck down.

Renee sat beside him, cheerful and ready as always. He didn’t understand how, but he didn’t understand how she did most things. Andrew pulled out his phone to distract himself, but only ended up having it confiscated by Renee when he started arguing with someone on twitter about drinking coffee before a flight.

“It’s too early to argue with people, Andrew. Talk to me. What do you want to do first when we get into town?”

So, they discussed. Andrew was successfully distracted and was only reminded of the nerves bundling in his stomach when their flight was called and it was time to board.

The things he did for justice.

-

Baltimore was gloomy, cold, and drizzling rain when they arrived. Andrew’s mood only soured more when he saw the rental car Dan reserved for them. Rather than in the garage like most of the rental cars, it was parked conveniently in the rain. Andrew glared at the old Chevy and the stickers half-assedly scraped away.

His top lip curled in disgust. “She did this on purpose,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“No she didn’t. This is just what they had,” Renee sighed beside him and motioned towards it. “Come on. As long as it drives, it’ll be fine,” she patted it’s grey paint and smiled towards him encouragingly.

“I’m not fucking driving this thing,” he scoffed. “What if someone sees me?”

“A lot of fans in Baltimore?” Renee asked, raising an amused brow. She lifted her hand palm up, “Give me the keys. I’ll drive.”

Andrew did not stomp his way back into the airport. He did not walk all the way to one of the Newsstands and buy a crappy Baltimore cap with a cheap, embroidered crab on the front - and he did not sit in the driver’s seat of this disgusting fucking chevy.

He wasn’t going to let someone else drive him around. The loss of control made him insane - it was one of the reasons why he refused to take taxis or Ubers.

With a last tweet directed at Dan, he pulled his hat low and set off for their hotel.

-

The rain picked up sometime around noon and part of Andrew’s mind noted how fitting it was.

Poetic .

The city was awash in grays as they pulled into the Hilton. The harbor stretched beyond and waves splashed against the big pirate ship anchored against the commercialized dock. Umbrellas dotted the landscape, covering and concealing faces and identities in a way that had Andrew taking second glances - because there were always what if’s nagging at the back of his head.

The hotel was as expected. Andrew made a note to bring up the fact that Dan could afford them lodging at some hotel in the harbor, but couldn’t cough up extra cash for the rental.

They at least had two rooms booked. Renee must have told Dan, because the receptionist handed them two keys, no questions asked and no further comment as they dropped off their few belongings and set out for lunch.

It wasn’t that he felt weird being in the same room as Renee. But the fact of the matter was, he had no idea how the meeting with the realtor would go and it was highly likely he’d be better off in a room by himself.

He also never knew when nightmares would hit, but stress triggered them and Andrew was silently grateful at Renee’s remembrance.

-

They made their way to the hotel restaurant for something quick to eat. Andrew felt wrung dry after the flight.

Bee tried to recommend him medication once - one that would help with his nerves. He never took it. Just the thought of having something chemical changing the process of his brain unnerved him; the loss of control set his teeth on edge. The most he ever allowed himself was cigarettes and alcohol, and when those were gone, King.

“What time is the meeting with the realtor?” Andrew asked. He knew the answer because he’d asked at least two other times since arriving in Baltimore, but it was like a tic he couldn’t help.

“Three,” Renee replied, forever patient. “She’s going to meet us there. She thinks we’re interested in buying it.”

His fingers twitched for a cigarette or soft fur to pet. Instead, he lifted his glass of water to his lips, but stopped halfway. “Why would she think we’re interested in buying it? We just need to see the inside.”

Renee shrugged. “I worry if we told her the actual reason we were there, she’d be less willing to give details. If she thinks we may buy it, she’ll show us every nook and cranny if we ask.”

Ah. This was why he needed Renee here.

-

After lunch, they made their way to the Wesninski house.

8620 Meadow Ct, Baltimore, MD 21207.

According to Google Maps, it rest on the outskirts of a park called Dead Run . Dead Run was connected to Leakin Park, aka Baltimore’s famous body dump site.

Fiting .

It was about a 20 minute drive - 20 minutes that would be filled with anxiety and anticipation bubbling in the pit of his stomach. He could already feel the uncomfortable frenzy beginning, so he lit up a cigarette and rolled down the window. Renee gave him a look of disapproval that he dutifully ignored. However, she didn’t comment and instead reached for his pack in the backseat. Once it was in her lap, she raised a brow to make sure it was okay, before she rifled through the front pocket and withdrew his voice recorder.

Yes, one of those blocky, black things. It was a safer option than working off his phone: advanced enough for excellent quality and archaic enough to avoid any sort of encryption - which, was more common than one would think.

“Wednesday, April 17, 2:36 PM. We should begin here. Where are we going? What are we doing? Why are we doing it?” Renee held out the device.

Andrew glanced at her. He took a deep drag and let out the smoke in a sigh out the window. Wetting his lips, he began.

[ Record On ]

-

They pulled up to a house that looked like every other home on the cover of American Dream Magazine. It was huge, made completely out of brick with dozens of windows - more than Andrew had at first expected. There was a large white door, framed by two ridiculous columns that helped support a white-trimmed blue roof that felt out of place in this simple suburb. An American flag stood sadly on a podium. The rain beat it down, just as it beat the realty sign holding on for dear life at the edge of the property.

Despite the undeniable beauty of the home, there was an obvious energy that permeated from it and Andrew felt sick. Perhaps it was the domesticity - the look of white-picket perfection, with its freshly manicured lawn and obvious facade of warmth. Or perhaps it was that, paired with the knowledge of what went on behind those closed doors, beneath it’s garage, and in the belly of the proverbial beast that used to reside within.

The realtor met them at the front door.

She shook out a dripping umbrella with one hand and with the other, she waved enthusiastically, “Good afternoon!”

Renee hurried to meet her underneath the protected entry way, while Andrew tucked the running recorder into his pocket to protect it from the rain.

“Good afternoon,” Renee replied, no disdain in her voice. She really was a wonder. “Thank you so much for showing us the house - especially in this weather. We really appreciate it.”

Buzz.

Andrew took off his hat and tapped the water off against his leg once he joined them.

“Oh, the pleasure is mine! My name is Shelly, it’s so nice to meet you,” she said, shaking Renee’s hand and holding it out to Andrew. He looked at it, looked at her, and raised a brow. Shelly cleared her throat and dropped her hand.

“Anyway! I’m so glad you two are interested. It’s such a great home for a young couple.”

Before Renee could open her mouth, Andrew answered for her. “I don’t fuck women,” then shouldered his way past the realtor and through the front door, which was already cracked open.

He ruffled his hair as he looked around and narrowed his eyes. Renee was apologizing for him on her way in, trying to offer explanations. “He’s a famous author, very eccentric. He’s looking for a home in the area and this seemed perfect.”

The realtor seemed appeased, glossy Barbie pink lipstick smile in place.

It seemed fitting in this home.

Shiny hardwood floors were obstructed by the dirt sticking at the bottom of his boots.

That felt fitting as well.

Welcoming them from the front door was a foyer, open to the kitchen and dining area. To the right of them was a set of oak stairs that matched the trim around the large windows, letting in gloomy light that clashed with the sterile chandeliers that hung stationed around the main floor.

“Okay!” Shelly said, clapping her hands together. “Here, you can see the main foyer. It’s an excellent space for greeting guests. There’s a fireplace just here in the living room-”

Andrew tried to envision a little Nathaniel walking down those stairs, sitting before that fireplace, eating at an absent dining room table.

“Bedrooms.” He didn’t want to hear about these particulars.

“I’m sorry?” Shelly pulled back her chin and looked to him. Renee sidled beside him, but he ignored her.

“I want to see the bedrooms,” Andrew repeated. Why was this so hard?

Shelly blinked owlishly, then nodded slowly and quickly regained her composure. “Ah - okay, yes. Bedrooms! They’re upstairs, follow me!”

There were scratches on these stairs from years ‘worn down’. According to the Zillow ad he’d found this on, no one had lived here since 2004. They also defined the Wesninski home as a fixer upper . He guessed that was how they hid the dark spot on the second floor landing - likely from blood connected to the depression in the wall above it.

Or perhaps that was just juice spilled by a toddler - a dent from rowdy kids.

Familiar .

The home house smelled like fresh paint. The floorboards creaked as they walked into the room at the end of the hall.

“So here,” Shelly said motioning, “is one of the smaller rooms. There are three more down the hall and a master on the third floor.”

Andrew looked around. Could this have been Nathaniel’s room?

Could that have been his blood?

It was painted a muted shade of grey, light and easy on the eyes. It matched the sky outside. The floors were better kept than those in the hall. There were two large, worn windows out looking the backyard, which was just as empty as the rest of the house.

Andrew walked over to the closet and opened the door. There was a cord hanging from an old, bare bulb dug into the ceiling. He pulled it so the light came on and stared at the empty space.

He could imagine it full of kids clothes, toys, and games - because families like these always had so many things.

They thought things could hide the rot on the inside .

He was about to turn the light off when something caught his eye. It was small, a marking against the wall, and nestled by the covered moulding. The smell of paint was heavy in the air, so there should be no reason for anything from then to survive. Perhaps a scuff from a workers boot or -

Andrew crouched down, leaned closer, and squinted.

Written in the wall, bleeding through the fresh paint, were messy words - like a small child had scribbled them.

don’t Be Bad

So tiny, so old , both b’s were capitalized in the wrong places. Andrew pulled out his phone and took a picture. The realtor hurried over.

“Oh, have you found something?” She asked, smile carefully in place.

“No,” Andrew said, putting his phone in the opposite pocket from the recorder. “Just wanted a reference for the paint color.”

“The paint color... inside the closet?”

“Yes. I want to see the master bedroom.”

Renee looked to him in question, but he shook his head minutely. Later. Because Shelly was here, but also because he needed a minute to mull this over.

don’t Be Bad

Andrew had been that kid once. Hiding in the closet and thinking, ‘ if only I were good. If only I weren’t such a bad kid. They wouldn’t hurt me like they do if I behaved .’ He had no proof that Nathaniel wrote those words, but no one had lived in the house since them - so it was likely. He’d been doing this long enough not to jump to conclusions, but still.

Still .

He stared around the master bedroom in a haze. There was nothing remarkable about it. Besides its obnoxious size, the paint in here was a sickly yellow and Andrew couldn’t stand being in there for very long.

“I understand there’s a bonus room, under the garage?” Renee asked. “We’d like to see that. Andrew is looking for a space with an abundance of privacy for his writing.”

The realtor's fake smile faltered, broke character the tiniest bit. Then was back in place like nothing was said.

“Absolutely! It’s such a great space. It’s unfinished, so it’ll probably need some work. But! It’s got such great potential.”

They followed Shelly back down to the ground floor. Next to the main staircase was a small set of stairs that led into a living/den area. Against the far wall was a door. Shelly led them into the garage, then through a second door that Andrew would not have seen if she had not shown him.

Down more stairs, lights turned on by themselves as they descended. The result was almost clinical - white, sharp light leading them to a murderer’s den.

Which was exactly what it looked like.

“Here we are,” Shelly said, her voice echoing. “As you can see, it needs work - as I said. But, it’s very spacious and there’s even an entrance from the outside so you can get in and out without going through the main house!”

Of course, there is .

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Renee said, stepping in front of Shelly. Like the genius she was, Renee engaged her in conversation and Andrew knew it was for his benefit. Turning around, he let his eyes pass over what could be kindly referred to as a morgue.

He floors were made up of smooth tile with drains stationed evenly -conveniently- around. The walls were cinder block and cold. There were hooks where something had been hung once and a large sink in one corner. Where there weren’t exposed walls with depressions and holes scattered about, there were cabinets built in.

Andrew pulled out his phone and opened one of them. Despite their emptiness, he took a few pictures, before extending his shots to the discolored spots on the floor where tables must have once been - and even larger stains that could have been nothing other than blood.

The door that Shelly had commented on was heavy and made of metal. Andrew pressed his palm flat against it and wondered,

What if .

He’d had enough. Nodding to Renee, he turned back towards the stairs.

She told Shelly they’d seen enough and together, they left the house and the demons inside it.

[ Record Off ]

-

The recorder sat in the cup holder between them as they drove back through the city.

[ Record On ]

“Are you going to tell me?” Renee asked.

His fingers did not shake as he took a long drag from his cigarette.

The rain had let up while they were inside the house, leaving behind a wash of grays and peaking sunlight that bathed the offensively disgusting car as they drove through the city.

“Not yet,” Andrew said, because he was still processing - or still trying to process. “Let’s get coffee. We’ll trade observations and get dinner later.”

Renee pursed her lips and nodded. “I’ll look for a place,” she said, looking down at her phone.

Andrew glanced out of the corner of his eye, down at the recorder blinking up at him.

don’t Be Bad

Andrew’s teeth played with his lip ring as he flicked half the cigarette out of the window and gripped the wheel.

“Can you turn that off?”

[ Record Off ]

-

Baltimore was both falling apart and flourishing. The majority was made up of crumbling buildings and deep poverty, while the minority was spread out in pockets of gentrification and insane wealth.

They drove down a long road dubbed North Ave. Panhandlers stood in the streets, walking up to cars and holding cardboard signs. Across from their red light was the complete opposite. Brownstones lined the way with trees budding spring blossoms. Privileged kids walked about with their fancy confections, completely ignoring the life that extended beyond their campus.

Renee pointed to a free spot at the side of the road and Andrew parked. When he got out, he slammed the car door harder than necessary. He told himself it was because it was ugly and he hated it - because he missed the old GS he had at home.

He knew he was lying to himself.

don’t Be Bad

The coffee shop was small and there was a line that extended to the door. Renee managed to squeeze inside, but Andrew stood on the front steps to wait for more space. He didn’t like being close to others and he knew he wouldn’t fare well in his state of mind. That much, he at least knew.

Buzz .

When it was their time to order, Andrew steeled himself and pressed his hands flat to the counter.

“Listen. This is not hard, but I need you to listen closely, okay?” Andrew said to the young teen behind the counter very slowly.

“Okay...” he said, brows furrowed.

“I need a caramel latte with extra caramel flavoring. I need you to put whipped cream on the bottom of the cup, fill it halfway, add whipped cream in the middle, fill it the rest of the way, and put whipped cream on top.” Andrew gestured, “Bottom, middle, top. Can you handle that?”

The teen said yes, but Andrew would be the judge of that. Nonetheless, he stepped aside to let Renee order and he paid for them both.

There was an open table at the back of the shop squeezed next to the long counter and they sat while they waited for their drinks. Renee placed the recorder on the table, once she got a look of approval from him.

[ Record On ]

Finally, Andrew pulled out his phone and brought up the picture of the words in the closet.

When he showed Renee, her eyes squinted for only a second before they focused. Renee sighed, her bangs falling before her eyes as a frown tugged at the corners of her lips, “That’s... terribly sad.”

“Do you think this was Nathaniel?” Andrew didn’t realize he’d lowered his voice.

“I don’t think we can know that for certain. But, no one has lived in that house since them...”

Their drinks were called and Renee got up to get them, handing Andrew his phone back. He looked at the picture one more time and put his phone away. His teeth played with the piercing again, until he reached for the recorder.

[ Record Off ]

“Hey,” She said, setting his drink before him and sitting back down. She waited until Andrew looked up to meet her eyes. “We’re doing what we can for him now. Even if it’s just finding out what happened. We’re trying to get some justice for him and his mother.”

Andrew rubbed his bee; she was buzzing again.

“I miss King.”

“I know.”

-

In the end, they didn’t find anything else particularly useful. He’d had expectations but left with more unnerving questions than answers. Unfortunately, they were questions that would lead nowhere and didn’t really matter in the end.

What happened in the house before they left, was not the question.

What happened when they disappeared, was.

He just had to keep reminding himself that.

He and Renee had mulled everything over. They’d looked at the pictures Andrew took and they even allowed themselves to speculate on life inside that house. However, no matter how many horrific homes Andrew had been in and no matter how many experiences Renee might have had, they had no idea. With nothing to go on, there were a thousand different reasons why Mary could have decided to run and a thousand different possibilities of what had happened to Mary and Nathaniel since then. There was no point in guessing - everything was equally right and wrong.

Luckily, the flight home was scheduled for later the next day. Andrew could sleep in, he could record notes, he could call Bee.

-

“So, how are you feeling about that, Andrew? That had to be a bit gut-wrenching.”

The blanket he had wrapped around himself couldn’t hold him tight enough. Andrew closed his eyes and tried to let Bee’s soft, understanding voice upset the visions of the closet inside his head.

“Yes,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say.

“You know, it’s okay to feel a bit triggered Andrew. It’s okay to relate to this boy you didn’t know.”

Don’t.

There was a small stretch of silence and Andrew decided not to fill it.

“You’re showing empathy and that’s a wonderfully human thing to do. You know what that’s like and I think that’ll help you figure this case out in the end...”

He inhaled a slow breath and dipped his head to rub his eyes. Andrew decided he’d had enough for one night. “Have you talked to Aaron lately?

-

He hung up the phone feeling calmer. His brain was still racing, but it felt more like a quickly flowing river, instead of a roaring hurricane. He really did miss King. Having her weight on the bed with him had been such an adjustment. He’d startle awake every time she jumped on the bed in the beginning. Now? It was a comfort, she was a comfort. Bee had said it was good for him, that he’d learned to trust himself enough to know that King would not hurt him - that she would comfort him if he let her.

She was right.

However now, the consequence of that allowance, that acceptance, that bond , was he relied on her far too much. She was his salve, his anchor for when his anxiety was peaked or his head was a storm. When she wasn’t there, he felt off center, unbalanced, almost lost .

He would never admit to anyone out loud how much he loved that cat. He told himself that’s all it was.

-

By morning, he found a decent coffee shop somewhere on the outskirts of the harbor. It was dubbed The Bun Shop , and apparently, the thing to have was their Vietnamese coffee. Andrew had them add whipped cream despite the amount of sweetened condensed milk in it, and they evenly distributed it properly and everything.

That was almost enough to help him forget the nightmares that’d kept him up all night - almost enough to distract him from the plane he was going to have to get on.

Almost.

-

The flight back was horrible. The first leg of the journey there was turbulence and Andrew was sure he’d die so many times, he ended up telling Renee that she had to take King if anything ever happened to him. She agreed humbly.

The only good thing to come out of the flight was the lack of spammed (786) texts and a message from Dan with a picture of the podcast ratings.

Despite the redactions, Red Rabbits was at number two on the charts and Andrew felt a swell of vindication. Sure, he was almost positive their first episode rode the wave of The Butcher hype - but that was a strong start nonetheless. Thousands of people heard it. Despite the content that was left out, he was sure many would come back for another round. If anything, because of sheer curiosity.

That was more than enough for him.

Fuck the Globe. Fuck Edgar Allen Productions. Fuck the Moriyamas. This was happening .

He’d shown Renee and she smiled like she knew it was inevitable.

-

They made it back to South Carolina without Renee having to take custody of King and Andrew felt his phone vibrate almost as soon as he stepped off the plane. It was a text from Dan.

‘Need you here now. Come to the studio as soon as you land.’

‘Why?’

‘We’ll talk when you get here.’

Andrew huffed and Renee glanced over to him as they walked through the airport parking lot. “Dan is requiring our presence at the studio immediately.” He decided to act annoyed even though that was the first place he would’ve gone regardless. King was still there being tortured by Seth and he needed to air his grievances about the piece-of-shit rental he was left to drive.

“Alright,” Renee said. “I need to check on some things anyway.”

Andrew slid into the driver’s seat of his GS and took a moment to pat the wheel. She was such a good car.

-

Once back at the studio, Andrew tried not to look too eager to get inside. His fingers itched to hold King, to pick her up, and smell her sweet fur. Distractions had been helpful these past few hours, but his anxiety still sparked beneath his skin and he desperately needed his comfort.

When he walked through the TFN doors at the top of the Tower, his eyes were immediately looking around for a puff of black and white.

“She’s in your office,” Dan said, coming out from the booth. Her hands were on her lips and a tension similar to a few days ago still prickled in the air. “And so is your visitor.”

“Excuse me?” Andrew asked quickly, but quietly. His eyes glanced towards his office and he felt his brows furrow. “You let someone in my office?” You let someone in my office, with King ? His space was his space, his cat was his cat, and he didn’t like people around his things without his consent.

Dan sighed and pushed her braids off her shoulder, then gestured with that same hand. “Just go talk to her. She’s been here for hours and refuses to leave until she’s talked to you.”

She .

Fuck .

Andrew clenched his jaw and walked over to his office. When he opened the door, he was met with exactly as he feared. From the blond hair, the long dark legs, the vapid smile, and smug look - he knew.

(786)

Allison Reynolds had taken her exhortation to the next level.

Chapter Text

[ Piano. Sirens wailing ]

//In a heartbeat, a person can just be there and then gone.//

//Now we’d ask you to take a good look at your screen. Port St. Lucie Police need your help to find this missing mother and her 8 year old son.//

[ Run Little Rabbit Run, Run ]

//He hid behind... He thought he could hide behind a door. It was a nice door - expensive door.//

//The shocking part about a lot of these cases is how various circumstances and situations can result in somebody just completely vanishing. In a second they’re gone...with no trace of what happened to them.//

[ Orchestral music ]

//If you don’t want it found, you can take it somewhere. You could bury it. Put it in the trunk of a car and have it crushed.//

//At this point, Baltimore Police are fearing the worst.//

//We’re not talking about Runaways, we’re talking about situations where we know the people are in significant risk of harm.//

//Detectives are now working with authorities in Parkland and no where there have they seen this pair.//

You’re listening to Red Rabbits. I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

-

Don’t pass out .

He didn’t. That was very important.

Flight was so ingrained in him, in his blood and bones, that he fought against the haze that was threatening to throw him down a dark spiral. He had to go , had to run , had to be safe. Always.

But always was not today. Because there was a problem.

A man hovered above, dark skinned and dark eyed, with short dreads framing his face. Neil squinted up in confusion.  

“Oh my god, oh my god, I hit someone!” Dread Guy said, looking around.

Neil looked around, too. There was a big commercial truck off to the side of the road fucking up traffic. Neil was lying in the center lane (it seemed). Cars passed them quickly, obscuring any and all pedestrians from his view. Horns honked loudly in the already congested air, blowing out Neil’s ears as drivers changed lanes in the way only New Yorkers do.

His phone glinted on the ground, shards of glass shining in the passing headlights.

“Shit, shit, shit. Are you okay, man? I’m so sorry. We have to get out of the middle of the road. Someone’s gonna get this on their cell phone if we don’t hurry.”

Cellphone. Media. Exposure. Danger, danger, danger.

Get. Up.

“Fuck-” Pain radiated everywhere and nowhere all at once. Neil shot out his hand and grabbed his phone. His wrist screamed in protest and he hissed from his teeth. He then tried to jump up, tried to get his feet underneath him to run far and run fast. Time was running out, ticking toc, toc, toc. But his legs failed him, his balance failed him, his fucking throbbing ankle failed him. Dread Guy caught him before he fell and automatically started guiding him past the rushing cars and yellow light to get him in the truck that hit him. He couldn’t even dig his heels into protest, couldn’t say anything but, “Why the fuck are you driving a pick up in New York?”

Blood dripped into his eye and Neil wiped at his forehead to feel the familiar warm slick of it between his fingers.

“I was on the way home from a game in Jersey. Fuck you’re bleeding! Okay, okay ,” Dread Guy took a deep breath, “Get in, dude. Let me take you to a hospital or call an ambulance or something. It’s the least I can do-” With one arm wrapped around Neil’s waist and the other holding his arm, they made their way to the truck. Once inside, Neil did a quick assessment while the man walked around the car.

Everything’s fine. 7:45 . You can do this Nathaniel. Be smart. Assess.

Head wound. Wrist hurts. Ankle hurts. Nothing broken.

The man got in, pulled out his phone and started to dial.

“No!” Neil shot his arm out and knocked the phone from the guys grip. “Stop.”

Dread Guy held his hands up in surrender from behind the wheel and looked to Neil with wide eyes.

Breathe in.  

“No hospitals. No ambulance. I’m fine -”

“You’re bleeding from your head.” More horns screamed. The light was changing again. Yellow turned to red in the car.  “You can’t walk. I hit you, I hit you with a truck!”

“I’m fine . Just take me a couple of blocks down the road and drop me off. I have an appointment to keep.”

Appointment. Frankie.

Reminders flooded in quickly as he looked down at his phone. Cracked. He pressed the home button and it came to life. The call must have ended when he was hit. Neil clenched his jaw.

Breathe out .

Backpack .

He pressed his free hand to his chest and felt the straps.

Dread Guy watched him, all the while shaking his head with guilt written all over his face. “You’re hurt man. You can barely walk, your head is bleeding, you’re cradling your wrist like it might fall off, and I cracked your phone.”

Neil dropped his wrist. “I’m fine . It’s fine.”

“You’re not fine. It’s not fine. Can I at least drop you off at home? Or a friends house?”

“No, just drop me off a few blocks down.” Neil glanced away from the man and quickly tried to reorient himself in the city as pedestrians crossed the street safely (or as safe as one can get in this city).

Still midtown. Madison Square Garden stood tall above them, signs and billboards lit their landscape as the light turned green and they were finally able to go.

7:52 . You can do this.

Dread Guy stared at him for a few seconds before turning his eyes to the road, sighing, and rubbing his forehead. “Listen, you’re hurt. You were coming from Penn right? You traveling? If you don’t have anywhere to go, at least come back to my place. It’s the least I can do. I have a spare bedroom. You can rest for tonight. Take off in the morning. You can’t go anywhere with blood dripping down your face -” He spoke fast, like he couldn’t get the words out quick enough. He took a big breath and Neil wiped that blood away with the sleeve of his hoodie.

Great.

They came to another stop a few blocks down. The city was busy tonight, or maybe it always was. His ankle was throbbing worse, his wrist was swelling. Neil closed his eyes and tried to breathe again.

“I’m Matt, by the way. Let me help you.”

“Neil.” Automatic, wrong, fucked .

Stupid, stupid, stupid. You’re stuck with that name now, Nathaniel .

He clenched his jaw.

“What do you say, Neil?”

I say I’m fucked. Stupid. I’m going to miss my flight - Frankie.

He ran his thumb over his phone and felt a bit of glass dig into his thumb. He pressed harder.

Then sighed.

Matt didn’t seem like a mobster in disguise. His face was open and friendly and familiar somehow. Not in a way that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand, but familiar in that way that some people just are . And the fact of the matter was, Matt was right. He could barely walk and the pain in his ankle was now radiating up his leg. He’d never be able to get around the city on foot like this. His plane was to take off in two hours and he still hadn’t met up with Frankie. He’d missed his escape - he was tired, he was rubbed raw.

He was defeated.

“Fine. But I’m leaving in the morning.”

Stupid .

Matt smiled a white toothed smile just as the second light turned green. “Deal.”

-

Two weeks ago, in our first episode, we summarized the hype and stigma surrounding the Wesninski case. In that, we covered how the case itself revolved around one man and one man only. We discussed how any and all media - in addition to the authorities - have ignored not only the existence of Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski (wife and son of Nathan), but the disappearance of them as well.

What you did not hear in that episode, was my intro. After the delay in posting, I found out later in the night that my background, my reason for doing this, was cut completely. Apparently, according to staff here at TFN, it could have created legal issues with my former employer and Edgar Allen Productions - which, if you remember, are the creators of the disgustingly popular documentary we mentioned last week, The Butcher .

After several days, I released the original, edited, and final transcripts. If you have not seen them, a link will be provided in the description of this episode where you can read for yourselves. It will provide further insight and I will not repeat myself.

With all that being said, going into this podcast I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that my words would be taken out of context, twisted, manipulated to form something else. I did not, however, expect my own team to do the same. Going forward, you the listener can expect full transparency. Unedited. Uncensored. And I will be reviewing every episode before it is posted.

-

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid .

Neil had made a terrible mistake. It seemed to be a theme with him lately.

They were on the Upper East side, just where he needed to be. He could run, he could ditch Matt and try still .

But the clock read 8:25. It took over a half hour to get through traffic and in that time, he assessed more of the damage his body had been dealt.

It wasn’t looking good.

When they got to the high rise apartment building that apparently held Matt’s home, Neil knew he was filthy fucking rich. Trust fund baby? Wunderkind? Developer of a stupid fucking app that millions of people downloaded?

It was none of those things.

Neil limped into the apartment with Matt’s unwanted (but needed) assistance and was immediately on edge.

Fuck.

It was nicer than any building he could ever remember being in and he had not grown up poor, pre-escape, in the slightest.

The door opened to the foyer which lead straight down a long hallway with art hung on the walls like they were at a gallery. Simple, yet dappled with extravagance that looked necessary when they most certainly weren't. Everything was white with splashes of color and Neil was...was.

Immediately to the left was a bathroom with marble everything. And straight to the right was the living and dining area, which was open to the ridiculous kitchen. Matt walked them in that direction, taking his time and lifting some of the weight from Neil that made him feel uncomfortable. Made him feel positive that Matt could feel the scars beneath the heavy cotton of his sweater.

Not possible. Relax. You’re fine. Everything is fine.

With another steadying breath, he turned his eyes to the floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the entire city. Neil stopped trying to walk and pulled them to a halt.

“This is...” Neil started.

“A lot, I know. But, it has a gym and a giant hot tub, so I couldn’t resist,” Matt said, looking around fondly. Despite the extravagance of high ceilings, colorful art, and stupid shining floors that Neil was positive he was tracking his blood across - it was...simple. The furniture was modern with clean lines and looked like it had been chosen for comfort over style. Neil tore his eyes away from the Upper East skyline, turned his mind away from the thought that soon his plane would be lifting off, right when he noticed the pictures on the walls and the trophy case in the corner.

No.

He froze.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me .

Familiar, but familiar in that way that some people just are.

Wrong .

He knew Matt. He didn't know him, know him. But, he knew who he was. Some of the pictures were of an exy team mid-celebration. The trophy case held MVP awards, shiny and gold and harsh on Neil’s eyes. He swallowed hard.

What have you gotten yourself into, Nathaniel?

“Matt Boyd,” Neil breathed. Starting backliner for the New York Lynxes and one of the best in the game. “You... play Exy.”

Matt gently let go of Neil once he figured Neil could hold himself up and rubbed the back of his neck. His smile was sheepish and his shoulder shrugged, “Ah... Yeah, guilty as charged. Part of the reason why I wanted you out of the road so quickly...people and their phones, you know? We were bound to attract attention.”

Right .

Neil’s chest hurt and all of a sudden, his pulse sped. He was in the house of a famous exy player. He had been hit by Matt Boyd. He couldn’t deny that a little part of him was giddy about it. How many hours he had spent with his nose in an Exy magazine, reading this guy’s stats and interviews to get away from Ashleigh’s Who Done It bullshit?

Fuck.

Matt was right. Being seen with a famous exy player would be devastating for the whole “don’t get found” thing he was trying to do here.

Bright side. Optimism. Not good for survival, Nathaniel.

“Is that a problem?” Matt asked, when Neil continued to stare at him.

He blinked, shook his head, felt a twinge of pain and the blood start to drip more. He quickly pressed his wrist to the spot and Matt made a sound of disapproval as he helped Neil towards the ridiculous kitchen.

“No. No, it’s fine. Sorry. Just shocked how one of the best backliners in the league can have such poor defense...” Not meant to be a joke.

Matt barked a laugh and deposited Neil on one of the stools that sat at the large, white island. “Touché,” his smile matched the counter.

“Really. I’m leaving first thing in the morning. I’m going to have to reschedule my appointment.”

Matt nodded. “Yeah, man of course. Let me grab the first aid kit and show you the spare room and bathroom.”

Neil waved off Matt’s help this time and limped behind him out of the living area and back into the hallway with the art. There was a door to the right that Matt opened into a huge room with a queen sized bed and an attached bathroom. Neil was... suitably impressed.

Stop it. You’re in and out. Be smart not phased.

“Do you need any help with bandaging up?” Matt asked, pointing to his head where Neil was hurt. Neil shook his head.

“Is that backpack all you have?” Matt continued, nodding towards the pack on Neil’s back.

“Yeah. All I need.”

“Okay. Well, there are extra toothbrushes and toiletries under the sink. Do you need something to sleep in?”

Yes .

“No.”

“Alright, I’ll leave you to it then. I’m the door at the end of the hall. Holler if you need anything. Feel free to raid the kitchen.” Matt clapped him on the back and Neil managed to hide a flinch. Nonetheless, Matt said quickly, “Shit, sorry!”

Neil shook his head and Matt excused himself, closing the door behind him which Neil promptly locked and immediately pulled his phone from his pocket with his bloody hand.

Frankie .

He found the number and called.

No answer.

Fuck .

He had to get a hold of him. He needed to get those fucking papers to get out of the country. He’d already sent Frankie most of his money and there was no way he’d able to buy them so quickly off another contact. He’d missed his flight, he’d missed his appointment, what if he completely missed his chance?

Breathe .

Neil collapsed onto the end of the bed with his bleeding head in his hands.

Stop Nathaniel. Stop. Think. Reassess. This is a bump. Work around it. Loophole.

“Loophole...” he whispered to himself, then took a deep breath and ran his bloody hand through his hair. Blinking hard several times, he nodded and tilted his head back. With that hand, he felt around his ankle. It was sprained for sure and swollen. He couldn’t put weight on it without it hurting, but he’s had worse.

Ha .

He’d have a few days before he’d be able to get around efficiently.

Fine .

The wound on his head was dripping slower, staunching itself. That was a good sign and his wrist wasn’t that bad.

Right. Good things: You have shelter and food. This place is a runaways dream and the security? It’s a high rise, expensive, on the Upper East, Central Park outside the window. Rich people shit. Celebrity people shit. Politician shit. They pay not to be bothered. This is good. Good . You wont need to leave for anything until you get in touch with Frankie.

Tomorrow .

Tonight would have to do. Tonight he would stay, reassess, find his loophole , and figure out what his next step would be. For now, he stood, winced at the pain in his ankle, and limped to the bathroom.

-

Glad that’s out of the way.

This week, I feel obligated to thank you all, despite our hiccups. Not only has the reaction been unexpected, it’s overwhelming. I knew that to some extent, we would ride the proverbial wave of Butcher hype. But this has been consistent attention - consistent numbers. Last week, we not only hit #2 on the Top Episode charts on Apple’s Podcast App in the US, but in the UK we were #1. That is fucking insane and it seems like a lot of you have followed us on our social media. So thank you.

In addition to all that good shit, we also have had quite a few tips sent into our email (foxholenetwork@gmail.com). Renee’s told me to let you know that we read every email, every lead, every tip. If we have not responded, it is not for lack of your work, but us trying to figure what is credible and what is not. We appreciate the effort and help.

-

Neil woke the next morning to the smell of bacon and he nearly vomited - not because it smelled bad, but because it smelled so good and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten something other than stale granola.  He rolled out of the comfortable bed and limped around for his clothes.

Last night, Neil had taken a shower and washed days of travel and blood from his skin. Afterwards, he took real inventory of any scraps that he received from getting hit by Matt’s stupid fucking pick-up, then patched his head with a simple bandage. It wasn’t deep, the sprains weren't bad, and he’d be fine .

He had no other clothes but the ones he’d worn for the past few days. They weren’t really presentible, but he had nothing else. Pulling them on, he then opened the door and the warm, smokey smell hit him full in the face. He practically floated to the kitchen.

But mostly he limped.

Matt turned from the stove and smiled when he saw him. “You hungry?”

“Um, yes,” Neil said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”

Matt laughed. “You think I cooked this for myself? Sit down there,” he gestured with the spatula towards the island, “and I’ll make you a plate.”

Neil did as told and watched Matt cook. Matt bopped his head to whatever music he had playing on his iphone. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.

“Were you able to reschedule your appointment?” Matt called from over his shoulder.

Shit.

Food? All it took was food to drive this shit from his mind.

Nathaniel.

His mother would have grabbed him by the hair and pulled him out of here if he ever let -

Shut up, shut up, shut up.

“I’ll be right back...”

Matt waved the spatula over his shoulder in acknowledgement and Neil limped as fast as he could back to his room. His phone showed no missed calls, but he sat on the bed and called Frankie again. Then again. There was no answer. Neil wanted to leave a message, but he knew better. Do you?

Leave no trace.

He’d have to get rid of this phone soon. He told Matt he was leaving today, but leaving where? His ankle had him locked, stuck. If he did try to leave, walking around the city would only make it worse. Where would he go anyway? He couldn’t run with a hurt ankle and sprained wrist.

You could with a gunshot wound.

But that was with her help.

No. He’d used most of his money for the papers and he didn’t have enough for another plane ticket. He had an ID, a social security card, and a birth certificate, but he couldn’t get out of the country with any of those things since he didn’t have a passport for Neil Josten because... because.

Idiot. Stupid. Complacent.

Because he left it in his apartment, on top of the coffee table, next to his empty mug and... and.

Comfortable, Nathaniel. You got comfortable, sloppy.

He inhaled a breath so deep he felt as though his lungs would burst.

Stuck .

No. He’d keep trying Frankie today. Tomorrow he’d figure out what he was going to do.

Loophole.

Neil made his way back to the kitchen and back to his seat.

“All good?” Matt asked, sliding a few strips of bacon next to eggs on a plate.

Neil shook his head. “I can’t get a hold of my... appointment. Is there any way I could stay another night? I’m sorry to put you out, but I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”

Matt looked offended and Neil was suddenly afraid he’d be kicked out.

“Bro. Of course you can stay another night, you don’t need to ask. I hit you with my car . It’s the least I can do. I have practice today, so make yourself comfortable, okay? There’s food in the fridge and every channel you ever wanted on the TV.”

Neil didn’t watch TV. He was bound to see something he didn’t want to see and the last thing he needed right now was another panic attack. He was doing a pretty damn good job of keeping it together at the moment.

Funny.

“Thank you. I have a little bit of money, I can-”

“Stop,” Matt said. “I’m telling you, I’m happy to do it. This place is too big. It’s nice to have someone else here.”

He’s too trusting. What if I were a killer? You are.  How has he made it in the real world? Heart too warm, smile too big -

Mind your business .

“Okay, well...tomorrow I’ll be out of your hair.” One way or another. Today he was going to rest his body and his mind.

-

Housekeeping done. Speaking of Renee. I suppose it’s time to introduce my partner in crime, if you will. If you have been on our website, you likely know who Renee Walker is. Nonetheless.

Renee: Hello everyone! I am so honored to have the opportunity to join Andrew in the search to find what happened to Mary and Nathaniel. For those who don’t know, my name is Renee Walker. I am an alumni here at The Foxhole Network. I received my Bachelors in Public Relations and afterwards, spent two years in the Peace Corp. I received my Masters in Journalism, much like Andrew, when I returned. I am also a columnist for South Carolina’s The State as well as TFN’s PR agent. For this case however, I am acting as Andrew’s Co-Producer. My job here is to help him research, sort through leads, and anything else that keeps us on track.

Andrew: You will hear Renee over the course of this podcast. She will be my traveling companion and as Dan, our office manager and TFN’s Assistant Director, kindly referred to her as: the buffer between my brutal self and the general population.

Speaking of, here’s what to expect out of us and the next few weeks. As I am sure many of you are aware, last week we posted my Audio Notes from our time in the field. These Notes will be posted bi-weekly, between episodes. We will be traveling a lot with this case and aside from sharing our findings on Twitter and on our Blog, these notes will keep you updated on current events.  

Which means, most of you know we visited Baltimore and the Wesnisnki home this past week.

That’s where we’ll begin.

-

He tried Frankie all day with no success and grew more and more panicked. By 5:00, he gave it up. Frankie was gone. Probably ran off with his money.

Maybe.

The last time he called, the line was disconnected. It would be too risky to try and show up at the address. What if the feds caught wind of his backroom business and snuffed him out?

He tried not to lose it, tried not to crumble in the middle of Matt’s living room. With the floor to ceiling windows and the big screen TV and the pictures of an Exy Team where everyone was smiling and happy and, and, and . Could that have been him? If he hadn’t been born to his father? Could he have grown into a successful, happy, well adjusted adult?

Doubtful .

Neil couldn’t even fathom it, to be honest. What he could fathom, was the fact that he needed to destroy the phone.

So he did. Slowly and methodically. He took out the sim card, crushed it, then trashed it and the phone afterwards. There was another tucked to the bottom of his bag. He plugged it into a charger.

Frankie was gone. He was no longer an option. So, Neil needed a plan, a real plan, a start to this loophole he had yet to find.

The first part, he decided, was listening to the stupid fucking podcast.

He’d been avoiding it, afraid of what he would hear. But there was no other choice.

Knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, knowledge is security.

He needed to know what this person knew and what he planned to do.

Be smart, Nathaniel.  

Once the phone was sufficiently charged, Neil pulled his phone from the outlet and grabbed the earbuds he had forever ago stashed in a tangle in the front pocket of his backpack. Then, he would find the podcast. It wasn’t hard. The fucking thing was on the main fucking page.

Of course .

Taking a deep breath, Neil tried to find a comfortable position as he sat  against the headboard of the bed and put the earbuds in. He pressed play.

And decided immediately that he hated this person...

This Andrew Minyard. Who obviously didn’t know how to let the past stay there.

But, he listened nonetheless, because he decided he had to. He closed his eyes and unfortunately, that only made it easier to picture everything Minyard said.

On the night of June 12, 2004 Seattle PD arrested Nathan Wesninski, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, with possession of illegal firearms.

Neil remembered. Because he was there. He listened to this man describe how Nathan was arrested, how other crimes were committed, how the police found a “ murderer’s playroom” in the house Nathaniel had grown up in. The house he’d learned every exit to by the time he was five. The house he thought he would die in when he was six years old and hiding in his closet.

And then he listened to this man, this Andrew fucking Minyard , say with as much conviction as that monotone voice could muster, that he refused to call Nathan ‘The Butcher’ - refused to give him the satisfaction. And although Neil still hated this person with the passion of a thousand burning suns, he was grateful for that, at least...that small acknowledgement.

So, he kept listening because he had to and while he listened, he began to relax while Minyard talked about the documentary. He’d heard enough about it to know it was obviously inaccurate, that he and his mother were not directly mentioned...this was a somewhat safe topic - it had nothing to do with him.

Not until Minyard mentioned Seattle and the gun fight that almost killed him and his mother. Neil clenched his teeth, ground them together, and tried to steady his breathing. He could do this.

You can do this .

The real reason Nathan Wesninski was arrested in Seattle, Washington, on the night of June 12, 2004, was due to eyewitness accounts of a fire fight against what was described as a middle-aged woman and a teenage boy.

She was there...behind his closed eyes. Too thin, he remembered always thinking, even when he was very small. She was always too thin when they were on the run - her hair in disarray and her eyes wide.

Get down, Abram! Get into the backseat and stay there!

He could smell that car. The gasoline and cigarettes from his mother's chain smoking - hands over his ears and eyes squeezed tight, listening to the sound of screaming and gunfire. His mother jumping back into the car and peeling out on the road - taking sharp turns, all with Nathaniel curled into a small ball in the floor of the back seat.

We got away .

That time.

Nathan didn’t.

His mother cried when they heard Nathan had been arrested. And then, she told Nathaniel that this didn’t mean they were safe.

We do not stop. We keep going. Because anyone can find us, do you understand me Abram?! We do not stop. We never stop. We keep going .

Nathan’s men were still out there and as long as they were, they kept going .

So they did. Which led to all of these apparent sightings. The podcast played interview after interview of people claiming to have spotted this infamous mother and son.

Maybe they were true. They were all places he and his mother had been. Neil had no idea how they’d been spotted so many times. If his mother knew, she never shared it. He was suddenly very grateful for her insistence, her diligence, even her heavy handed love.

She’d be so disappointed .

He listened to the rest of the episode in a sort of trance. He heard the words, but they weren’t really settling. He hadn’t heard the names Mary and Nathaniel used together so many times and they were starting to lose meaning.

Until the end.

Oh. Mary and Nathaniel? If you happen to be listening, drop me a line. I’m always open to information - direct from the source.

That was it.

Monotoned Ass had some real fucking gall to call him and his mother out directly. He would like to call the fucker right now and tell him what he thought. If he’d ever considered the fact that maybe they wanted to stay hidden - that what he was getting into was more than he’d be able to handle.

But he didn't.

Because although this whole thing was fucked - although he wanted to smash another phone and he was on the edge of a panic attack, Andrew Minyard didn’t have shit on where he was now .

And that, at least, was a very little drop of comfort in his swelling sea of fear.

-

- Car -

[ Car rumbles. Rain patters against glass of a windshield, tin of the top ]

Renee: Wednesday, April 17, 2019. 2:36 PM - Baltimore, Maryland.

[ Dark music plays softly in the background ]

- Studio -

Andrew: The Wesninski house is located in a quiet suburban neighborhood on the edge of Baltimore City.

The drive is quiet, winding, and wooded - so unlike the city center, where poverty and prosperity clash. No, this is different, like another world - somehow, a darker one.

I drove us on the fastest route to the house. It just so happened to pass through the city’s infamous Leakin Park.

To those that do not know, Leakin Park is just that, a park - complete with playgrounds, running trails, ponds, etc. It would probably be nice on a sunny day and if one did not know it’s dark history.

Leakin Park is also a popular body dump site.

One of the most famous cases to come out of Leakin Park, is the murder of Woodlawn High School Senior, Hae Min Lee, in 1999*. You can hear more of that case on a number of different podcasts, from people that know far more than I. The point of my bringing it up, is to get you to understand what kind of place this is. Hae Min Lee’s murder is one of many - her body is one of hundreds that have been found over decades in that park*.

It’s the type of place that sends a chill down your spine, that makes you want to get away as fast as possible.

To get to the Wesninski house, you have to follow straight through, which will then lead you to a smaller section of the park called Dead Run.

Dead Run pockets the court where the house lies.

Coincidence? Nathan’s morbid humor? The rush of hiding in plain sight? Questions we’ll likely never have answered.

Questions I don’t care to have answered.

Dead Run acts as a backdrop to Meadow Ct. It’s trees stretch over roofs and their leaves stand witness to all that has happened at property 8620.

[ Rain patters harder. Tires roll into a driveway ]

-

When Matt came home that evening, Neil didn’t know what to do. Should he beg for another night? Or should he just get his shit and risk it on the streets?

Matt decided for him.

“Hey! I’m so glad you’re still here. Listen, I don’t know what your situation is and it’s none of my business. But, I know you have nowhere to go, at least for the time being, and probably not much money. So, I have a proposition for you.” Matt crossed his arms and leaned a hip against the kitchen counter where Neil had been sitting and staring at his phone.

His ankle hurt too much to pace.

“A proposition?” Neil asked, eyebrow raised.

“We need someone at the stadium - an extra hand in janitorial. Clean up at night after practices and after games. Nothing fancy, but it pays. You’re welcome to stay here until you’re able to save up enough to leave.” Matt was grinning ear to ear - like he knew he had Neil.

No, Nathaniel .

He did. How could Neil refuse? He had nowhere to go. He was just as safe here as he would be anywhere else - safer even. He needed money, he needed a place to blend in and hide. Here, Matt Boyd professional exy player, was offering him all of those things.

Don’t do it, Nathaniel .

Slowly, grudgingly, Neil agreed.

-

- Studio -

White picket perfection.

4655 sqft, 5 bedrooms, 6 baths, 4 car garage with another on the other side of the house - it was a family home. Completely made of brick, it had more windows than I would have expected to come from a murderer’s house. They were large, arched, and just as picturesque as the rest of this place.

Maybe that was the trap - if there was one. The facade of the Wesninski home that tricked almost everyone.

- Car -

[ Andrew clears his throat. ]

Renee: Here, take this. Put it in your pocket.

[ shuffling around. Audio becomes muffled ]

Andrew: Pretty sure this isn’t ethical.

Renee: It’s not.

[ Car door opens and closes for the first time ]

- Studio -

Renee was already ahead of me. She was the one that landed this appointment. I’d been trying for the past week, but apparently I was too honest. Just when I was starting to give up, Renee had done it.

She met the Realtor at the front door and she was just as fake as this place. Her smile was put on, her eyes were dead, she looked empty. To be honest, I couldn’t blame her. I would try to be empty too, if I had to show this house. The lies she must have to come up with, the stories to spin, to give this place a different history than the one it already has.

- Car -

[ Deep breath ]

[ Car door opens and closes ]

- Studio -

The front door was white and large. It was framed by two columns that supported a white-trimmed blue roof. An American flag stood sadly on a podium to the right of the front door.

-

That was how the next night, he found himself at the stadium of the New York Lynxes. He had ridden the subway there, wearing a new jacket with a hood he’d bought earlier in the day with other necessary essentials, and feeling grateful for the mob of people that made up NYC. He went unnoticed, just as everyone else.

An older man with graying hair and frown lines met him at the side door Matt had led him to, and showed him the stadium where he’d be cleaning.

It wasn’t too bad. When it was just practices, he’d have to clean the locker room and lounge areas, make sure the court was free of balls for them to buff clean again, and do a general sweep to make sure nothing needed to be cleaned or emptied in the boxes. Easy work. Mindless work. The type of work that may leave him to his thoughts, if it were not inside an exy stadium. Here, he could be blissfully distracted.

Maybe .

But, right now, he was on the court. Right now, he stood in the center. Right now, he sank down - careful of his wrapped ankle, and sat on the logo.

Was this what his future could have been...?

He used to play little league exy. Nathaniel was just a boy, but he was a backliner and the fastest player on the team. He used to dream about this - when things were hard and his father was on a rampage. He still did when he allowed himself to retreat into the mind of a child who wished this was all he had to worry about.

It stuck with him. All these years, the two decades that stretched between then and now .

He looked up to the stands and imagined what it would be like filled with people. Fans screaming and pounding their feet and rooting for the team, for the game, for him .

Children dream, children play pretend Nathaniel. You are no longer a child .

But Neil Josten was still playing pretend.

He sighed, looked down at his ratty sneakers that he had yet to replace and put  a hand over his chest, over his heart, over his scars, over the life that would never allow him to live a dream like this.

Neil got up, he hung his head, and he limped off to the locker room to empty the bathroom trash.

-

- Front of House -

[The sound of Andrew’s boots hitting the pavement fill the air. It’s backdropped by rain dropping on fabric and stone ]

[ Audio becomes echoed. The voices of Renee and Shelly emerge ]

Renee: Thank you so much for showing us the house - especially in this weather. We really appreciate it.

Realtor: Oh, the pleasure is mine! My name is *beep*, it’s so nice to meet you -

[ Realtor trails off. Rain Echoes. Something taps near the mic ]

Realtor: Anyway! I’m so glad you two are interested. It’s such a great home for a young couple.

- Studio -

Renee was good like that. Before we turned on the recorder, she let me know that she had told the realtor that we were a couple. If you knew us, that would be laughable and because of that, nothing I would have thought of. It’s why I need her. I’m told I’m too direct. She knows how to guide people past my less than personable personality.

- Entryway -

Andrew: I don’t fuck women.

Renee: He’s a famous author, very eccentric. He’s looking for a home -

[ Voices fade ]

- Studio -

We’d found the house on Zillow. It had been on the market for little more than a month and shockingly, no one had made a bid. The ad read that the price had been reduced for a quick sale and it was, I quote, a ‘fixer-upper’.

That was one way to put it.

Part of me still wonders why it’s on the market. For its size, its history, it is priced at $1.1 million. One would think after all the hype, all the mess that The Butcher had created, someone would have bought it by now...

Anyway.

According to Renee, it was previously owned by the bank. Which made sense.

Though the front yard was well manicured, the grass neatly cut and hedges trimmed, the inside was a different story.

- Foyer -

Realtor: Okay!

[ Clap. Echo ]

Here, you can see the main foyer. It’s an excellent space for greeting guests.

- Studio -

Andrew: Their poor guests.

Renee:{ Chastising } Andrew.

Andrew: It was large, but not overwhelmingly so. It opened into the kitchen, livingroom, and dining area in an open arrangement. A large island faced the front door, the cabinets were old and dated with out-of-place looking appliances that must have been added to sell this place faster.

It reeked of paint turned stale and something else.

While Renee and the Realtor talked, I wandered.

The floors were hardwood and shining in the grey light that poured in through the windows. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling and reflected rainbow fragments around the large room. Those felt out of place too, wrong. Whimsical in a place where whimsy was forbidden.

Briefly, I tried to imagine Nathaniel in this place. I closed my eyes and tried to envision a small, red headed boy walk down the oak stairs, eat at a dining room table, sit before the painted fireplace.

And then I remembered, that likely never happened - because it was easy to forget, with all its shining chandeliers and pristine floors, that a man tortured and killed people right beneath its boards.

- Foyer -

Andrew: Bedrooms

Realtor: I’m sorry?

Andrew: I want to see the bedrooms.

Realtor: Ah - okay, yes. Bedrooms! They’re upstairs, follow me!

-

That sunday, Neil was stretching his ankle and testing how it felt when Matt came in the room holding his laptop.

“Yo, have you heard this podcast? It’s insane!” His eyes were glued on the laptop as he scrolled through something. Neil’s heart sank into his stomach.

Not you, too.

“What podcast?” he asked quietly, not breathing as he waited for the answer.

“Red Rabbits -”

Shit.

“It’s this journalist guy, Andrew Minyard, and he’s trying to find the son and wife of the Butcher of Baltimore. You know that story?”

Fuck .

“Yeah. I know it.” He felt sick.

“Cool. So, he’s looking for the wife and kid and went to Baltimore, to the house where they lived-”

No..

“He posted the audio notes of the visit and yo, this shit is wild .”

Where are his fucking boundaries -

Yeah, he was definitely going to puke. “I’m going to take a shower.”

He made his way to his room and grabbed some clothes, and headed for the bathroom with his phone.

Leaning against the counter, he closed his eyes and breathed.

In and out .

He imagined the nausea as a ball he could just push away. Swallowing hard, Neil started the shower and sat on the tub. Then, with shaking hands, he rolled his aching wrist and googled Red Rabbits, found the website, and had to breathe through the crawling sick in his throat at the sight of his very young face at the top of the page.

It’s okay .

The audio notes were the first post on the page.

Above it was a picture - words written by a scared, six year old boy.

don’t Be Bad .

No it's not.

He lunged for the toilet and threw up, and threw up, and threw up.

-

- Studio -

At first, when I imagined that young boy, he was smiling. But as I walked up those stairs, looked down at it’s wood, I felt a sickness I still can't explain.

No one had lived here since 2004, but the scratches were deep and disturbed. At the top of the landing there was a large, dark stain. When I looked up, above it was a sizable depressed into the wall.

I try not to make assumptions. But that wasn’t juice staining the floor, nor do I believe that dent was made by rowdy children.

Nonetheless.

-

Press play, Nathaniel. Be smart. What does he know?

Breathing heavy, gripping the seat, he spit into the toilet and pressed play before he could lose whatever nerve he had left.

You need to know what he knows. You need to be ahead of him .

So, he wiped his mouth, slumped against the wall, and listened.

He listened to Minyard walk into the house he grew up in - the house filled with nightmares and demons. He listened to the realtor try and describe a house that was empty and cold - that had always been empty and cold. Heard them walk into his old bedroom, heard the realtor ask what Minyard had taken a picture of.

-

- Second Floor -

Realtor: So here is one of the smaller rooms. There are three more down the hall and a master on the third floor.

[ Heavy boots on old wood creaked beneath weight. Rain echoed on window panes ]

- Studio -

I wondered if this could have been Nathaniel’s room. It was freshly painted in a muted shade of grey - light and easy on the eyes. The floors were better kept than those in the hall and there were two large, worn windows looking out to the backyard. There was a door across from the largest window.

- Second Floor -

[ Footsteps stop. A knob turns and door creaks open. Metal beaded chain snaps, light bulb powers on with a hum. Renee and Realtor talk in background ]

-

He stopped the audio. He didn’t need to hear this - he knew it. He lived it. He walked down those fucking halls, listened to his tiny feet tap, tap, tap against the same floor Andrew’s thump, thump, thumped .

He didn’t need to hear this -

Except you do .

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t .

Because for a moment, for a very long moment - Neil was back in that closet, he was tucked in that corner crying - knees to his chest and hands in his hair pulling, pulling, pulling . He remembered. He remembered .

He remembered his father raging about some deal gone wrong. Nathaniel didn’t understand who, or what, or why, but he understood the look on his mother’s face when his father backhanded her - when she looked at him, eyes wide and silently screaming for him to GO, GO, GO NOW.

He went, because he was scared. He was halfway up the stairs when he lost his footing and slipped, banging his shin and crying out in pain.

The same pain flared through his shin now.

The noise stopped from the living room and Nathaniel couldn’t breathe when he heard his father’s slow, heavy footsteps.

The most terrifying sound in the world.

He tried to get up, tried to run, run, run . But his father had grabbed him by the back of the collar and yanked him back down. He could still feel each stair dig into the notches of his spine, could feel his little heels bump on each plank. He couldn’t breathe, he scraped and scratched at his neck in an attempt to breathe.

Nathan threw him to the ground and yelled in his face. Neil could remember the smell of his breath, the heat of it, the fear . He remembered squeezing his eyes shut and putting his hands over his ears and his mother's voice screaming in the background -

Familiar .

He opened his eyes to find her yelling at Nathan and his father spinning around and descending on her.  

He ran. What a coward he had thought he’d been for years following.

He made it to his room and shut himself in the closet - in his safe space. There were markers and crayons and stuffed animals with heads sewn back on in there, because sometimes, he stayed a very long time.

As he sat in that corner, he could only remember thinking ‘ Why does he hate me? Is it because I’m bad? If I wasn’t bad, maybe he would love me.’

How selfish.

He reached a small hand to a black marker and wrote on that wall as a reminder.

don’t Be Bad

-

- Studio -

The closet was empty. I wondered if it could have been filled with kids clothes, toys, and games. Families that lived in homes like these always had so many things.

There was no sign that life had ever existed here, but for a small scuff at the bottom of the closet. It was at the perfect height for a workers boot to kick - it was also the perfect height for a scared child to scribble.

- Second Floor -

[ muffled noise, disturbed microphone, click of a phone being unlocked and soft shutter of a picture being taken ]

- Studio -

The closet had been painted, just as the rest of the house. The fumes hung in the air and no matter how shoddy the job was, what was written bled through.

don’t Be Bad

It was in marker, a child’s writing with both B’s capitalized.

-

But it never mattered how good he was, how quiet and nice and small he tried to make himself.

His father never loved him.

Neil hated the part of himself that wished he did.

-

- The Foxhole Network Lounge -

Seth: Creepy as fuck.

Andrew: Wise input.

[ Shuffling sounds. Laptop drags across a table top ]

Seth: [ Whispered ] Fuck man...

Dan: If that was Nathaniel, how old was he? Most likely?

Renee: Five? Six?

Seth: It’s written in sharpie. The poor kid probably didn’t have actual markers.

Andrew: How do you know it’s sharpie?

Seth: [ Tapping ] There. Sharpie bleeds through everything. You can put a hundred coats of paint on top and it will still bleed through. S’why painters don’t sketch in it.

- Second Floor -

Realtor: Oh, have you found something?

Andrew: No. Just wanted a reference for paint color.

Realtor: The paint color... inside the closet?

Andrew: Yes. I want to see the master bedroom.

-

The next morning, Neil was resigned and angry.

Resigned to the fact that he had very little options. He’d tossed and turned, tried to think of any way out of this mess, before sleep finally took him.

Even if he had other contacts he could get in touch with, he had no money. He was more vulnerable out there with no money than he was here with Matt and a job.

You’ve said that before Nathaniel. Stop trying to convince yourself. This is a mistake. Stop making mistakes.

He was angry. Angry because who the fuck did Andrew Minyard think he was? Dragging up shit from Neil’s past that he was perfectly happy to never have to face again. This guy had no concept of a broken fucking home - of what it felt like to hide and hope and hurry, hurry, hurry when someone was coming for him.

No, this Andrew Minyard had no idea what he was fucking doing and Neil hated him for it.

That was it. Neil was done. He wasn’t going to listen anymore - not to the podcast, not to the audio notes. He was going to stay with Matt for as long as he had to, and he was going to work at the fucking stadium, and he was going to get the fuck out as soon as humanly fucking possible.

Even if Minyard managed to track him to New York, by then, Neil will have already been long gone.

Nice lying to yourself.

It wasn’t a lie. Neil lived his life like the podcast never fucking existed. He did what he would do in any situation - he worked the days he was supposed to work, kept to himself, and only talked to Matt when Matt spoke to him first.

He was fixing the mistakes he’d made in Arizona. This time would be different, this time would be brief, this time, this time, this time .

-

- Master Bedroom -

Renee: I understand there’s a bonus room, under the garage? We’d like to see that. Andrew is looking for a space with an abundance of privacy for his writing.

Realtor: Absolutely! It’s such a great space. It’s unfinished, so it’ll probably need some work. But! It’s got such great potential.

- Studio -

The money in realty must have been good on this side of the city, or the realtor had been doing this for a very long time.

Because unfinished was surely one way to put it. But to show this room in good conscience -

[ Deep breath ]

The demons that lurked in the house above were plenty and I could feel them clinging to my skin. But down there, in the room Nathan Wesninski had made his own, was something else entirely.

To call it a basement was kind. This was nothing of the sort. Upon descending the unfinished stairs, lights flickered to life to guide our way. The room that opened before us was large and dark with the white, clinical lights that glared from above. The floors completely made of tile could not even reflect them, for the grime of age and consequence was crusted to the surface. Spread evenly on the floors were large drains.

-

On Wednesday, Matt sat on the couch with his laptop open. Neil didn’t know what he was looking at, but he became curious when he heard Matt say, ‘damn’.

Weak .

“What?” Neil asked, unable to help himself and hoping it wasn’t Red Rabbits involved.

It was.

“Have you looked at the team page for the RR podcast?” Matt asked, not looking up at Neil.

Ugh. RR.

“No, I don’t have a laptop. I... haven’t really been following it.”

Not a lie.

“Oh-” Matt looked over towards him briefly and smiled that bright smile, “Hey, you can use mine anytime. I leave it here when I’m gone, you’re welcome to it. Anyway, look at this.” He turned the computer so Neil could see before Neil could make an excuse to leave.

It was a picture of a woman, dark skinned with long braids. She had a gold hoop in her nose and light brown eyes.

So...?

“Um, cool?” Neil tried. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be seeing.

“She’s fucking hot, man! Damn. And a professional. Twenty-eight years old, educated. Dan Wilds...” Matt said to himself, describing her like he was listing MVP stats - but in the most sickeningly dreamy way. “Think she’d reply if I dmed her?” Matt’s eyes were glued to the screen.

Neil almost said, ‘sure why not’ when his brain function finally kicked back in and he realized what a very terrible idea that would be.

At least you can do one thing right .

“I don’t know. Probably not. I don’t think you should really try to contact anyone from the podcast. Professional exy player? That might get around,” Neil said seriously.

It wasn’t a lie.

Mat sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right... Damn, she’s fine though. Don’t you think she’s fine?”

“Sure? I guess,” Neil shrugged.

“Oh, are you... not into girls?”

Neil gave him a confused look and Matt grinned that megawatt grin. “Hey, it’s no problem. I just won’t shove girls in your face anymore.”

When the fuck did the conversation change?

“No, it’s fine. I’m not...anything. I don’t swing.”

Change it again .

“Word. No worries man, this is a judgement free zone.” Matt reached and ruffled Neil’s hair. Neil ducked out of the way.

“They posted audio of the part they cut from the podcast, by the way. Why Andrew started it and how he lost his job and shit. You wanna listen?”

Get out.

“No, thanks. I’ll go pick up chinese for dinner or something...”

He fled the apartment as quickly as he could.

-

- Basement -

Realtor: Here we are. As you can see, it needs work - as I said. But, it’s very spacious and there’s even an entrance from the outside so you can get in and out without going through the main house!

- Studio -

Renee distracted her, gathering the Realtor into some conversation to give me time to explore this dungeon, this morgue.

When this room was found, authorities held a press conference. During, they mentioned tools were found - cleavers, knives, saws - and that some of them contained human DNA. They mentioned sterile metal tables and dark stains on the tile floors. They mentioned the term “murderer’s playroom”, and they were not exaggerating.

There were hooks hanging from above, holes coating the walls and where there weren’t, there were cabinets built in. They were empty but for dust and dead vermin.

Against one of the walls was a sink. It’s pipes and faucet were rusted, there were stains against the walls that dripped to the floor.

To the right there was a short hallway that lead to a large metal door. It looked almost medieval, the way it stood. When I pressed my palm to the metal, I felt more than I thought I would.

How many people must have tried to escape? How many people succeeded, but died before word could spread?

I was very quickly having enough of this place. You can find photos on our website. The few that I managed to take show you more than you can find on google - where the pictures do nothing to show what it is actually like. Those pictures are staged, editorial as if showing a movie set rather than a place that exists, a place where people were brutally tortured and killed. It is talked about as if a mother and son did not exist up those stairs. A son, that might have hid in a closet and reminded himself via writing on a wall, don’t Be Bad .

-

Neil’s first time cleaning after a game was Saturday. He and Matt took the subway together so he could check in early with the Janitorial supervisor, and was able to catch most of the game since his cleaning duties wouldn’t start in earnest until the stadium was empty.

It was incredible .

He’d never been to a professional game. He’d caught them on TV sometimes if he was lucky, if he happened to walk into a diner when one was on. But never like this.

All those dreams , they couldn’t even compare.

The New York Lynxes were a force - Matt was a force. The enthusiasm from the crowd was otherworldly. Neil soaked it in as much as he could. He watched the strikers run and pass and skillfully avoid the backliners - except Matt. Matt was almost always able to stop a striker from getting through to goal.

Amazing .

If only.

“Hey, Kid. Quit watching the game and get out here. Everyone’s about to leave and we need to scrub shit out of toilets so I can get home to my beer and TV.” Neil rolled his eyes.

Jerry, the janitorial supervisor and the same gray haired man that showed him around his first day, beckoned Neil to follow.

“We’ll do the top boxes last. The Moriyamas are here and they like to hang around, doing whatever it is rich business people do. Probably screwing us little people, am I right?”

Neil stopped walking.

What?

“Kid?” Jerry said, brow furrowed.

Breathe .

The Moriyamas .

Nathan was once Kengo Moriyama’s right hand man and favorite executioner - according to what his mother had told him. How had he not thought about the fact that New York was Moriyama territory?

It shouldn’t matter, not really...there was no reason for them to recognize him and even if they did, would they care?

His father was in prison, Kengo was dead and his son had taken over. Were they even still in contact?

Neil didn’t know. He didn’t care . It wouldn’t make a difference - but he still wanted to stay as far away as possible.

Smart Nathaniel. Finally using your stupid fucking head .

“Do the Moriyamas come to games often?” Neil asked, trying to keep his voice casual.

Jerry shrugged. “Not every game. Just whenever they need to impress someone I guess. Why, you think you can impress them with your business prowess?”

Laugh .

Neil forced a laugh. “Hah. Good one. You can take the VIP boxes tonight, Jerry. I know you like to filch the left over beer,” Neil said, trying to hold a smile. “I’ll take the bathrooms.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, kid. Filching beers? Me?” Jerry put a hand over his chest like he was wounded. “But, I won’t argue with you if you want to clean the shitters. Have fun!” Jerry waved over his shoulder as he made his way to the elevators leading to the VIP box. There was a separate janitorial closet up there with the fancy cleaner.

-

[ Sounds of a car rumbling to life. Rain has stopped. Car door slams ]

Renee: Are you going to tell me?

[ Lighter ignites. Deep breath fills silence that stretches. Engine hums, gravel grinds and something tap tap taps ]

Andrew: Not yet. Let’s get coffee. We’ll trade observations and get dinner later.

- Studio -

I had her turn off the recorder.

Half thoughts not yet formed raced through my head. And that’s bad, because thoughts are not solid. You cannot prove anything with just thoughts.

I can make as many assumptions as I’d like. I can wonder if Nathaniel ever had a chance to play in the park, run through Leakin’s woods, hide in closets, or be subject to his father's cruelty. I can assume Mary was not a part of Nathan’s crimes - that she was just a beaten woman stuck in something she could not control. That she was young and stupid and scared, so she ran with her son to flee whatever monsters were ready to swallow them whole inside that house.  

You can have your theories and conspiracies - that Nathaniel is the new Butcher, running his father's empire in his stead.

You can think whatever you’d like.

We can think whatever we’d like, but I am a journalist and journalism is not the business of whatever shit I have ticking through my fucking head - whatever shit some sleuths on the internet theorize. Journalism is the business of truth.

Then, I had no real truths.

What I did have, what I do have, is a structure that stands with history embedded deep in it’s foundation.

What I do have, is a photograph that shows far more than Nathan likely intended.

What I do have, is evidence that Mary fled with Nathaniel far before 2004.

Now, I just have to prove it.

-

As soon as the game was over, he made his way to the big yellow cart with the cleaner that smelled worse than the bathrooms. He pulled his hood over his head, rolled the cart towards the bathrooms, and crossed his fingers he wouldn’t run into any japanese crime lords today.

He didn’t.

Today .

-

I had more plans for Baltimore, but they all fell through.

Paid a visit to the city courthouse, tried to get my hands on documents that I couldn’t before. I would be lying if I had any real expectations. Baltimore’s corruption, their standards, were known far and wide to be fucked.

However, it stretches farther than that.

I’m not doing this podcast for Nathan. I’m doing it for Nathaniel, I’m doing it for Mary. So someone explain to me why there are no public records of their existence, but a handful of missing persons reports that lead nowhere. Nothing after 2004 - no evidence that anyone bothered to look.

Unless those documents are sealed, just like everything else?

It could be because they’re in witness protection. I guess I have to prove why I don’t believe that either.

-

Neil had Sunday off and he was sad to miss the money, but grateful for the reprieve.

His ankle was better - still stiff and occasionally ached at the end of a long day, but he was fine and it was fine .

Matt was gone for some appearance or other and wouldn’t be back until late. Neil was bored and was tempted to go for the risky run through Central Park that he’d been planning to take since he’d started to stare at it from Matt’s obnoxiously large windows all day.

But, he didn’t have the guts.

Just yet .

So, he settled on the treadmill. Matt had a whole gym in the apartment and if he couldn’t run outside, feel his feet pound the pavement - then this would have to do.

Running only lasted an hour. He attempted to watch TV, but that was overwhelming. He made himself a sandwich, he made his bed, he ran again.

Don't do it.

He eyed Matt’s laptop on the table in the living room. He’d said Neil could use it anytime he wanted, didn’t he?

Don't.

Do. It’s the smart thing, Nathaniel.

Neil opened it and after running his fingers absently over the keys, he did the absolute worst thing he told himself he could possibly do. He googled Nathaniel Wesninski.

The TV had been overwhelming. That didn’t come close to what this was.

The results were insane. All talking about the Red Rabbits podcast and Andrew Minyard . All the articles had titles like ‘ Mary and Nathaniel: Alive and Running or Dead and Resting?’ and ‘Nathaniel Wesninski: New Butcher?’

His six year old face was plastered everywhere from that fucking family photo his father had insisted on to keep up appearances. His father’s tie was crinkled in it. The only sign of disorder in the entire photo.

He was good at that .

It was because he’d just shaken Nathaniel within an inch of his life - told him to keep his mouth shut or pay the consequences. His mother had looked on, tight lipped, arms crossed over her stomach. She knew he wouldn’t hit Nathaniel, not right before a photo.

Dont .

A bubble of panic made its way back up into Neil’s throat.

He’d known Minyard was looking for him. For some reason, it escaped his mind that the entire country might be doing the same.

He threw the laptop back onto the table and stood to pace.

He ran his hands through his hair, rubbed his face, did a circuit around the couch five or six times.

It didn’t help.

Do it. Be smart, Nathaniel.

He knew. He didn’t have a choice. He wanted to ignore, ignore, ignore . He wanted it all to go away .

It wont.

People were actively listening to this, looking for him .

He wanted to cry. He wanted to sit and pound on the floor like a child. He wanted his closet -

He wanted to find Minyard first and show him what they would do to Neil if they found him .

But he didn’t.

Because none of that would be helpful.

You need to keep your head if you’re going to survive.

Neil went back to the couch.  He sat back down. He took another deep breath.

With clenched teeth and hands that he willed over and over and over not to shake, he unlocked his phone.

Episode 2 of the podcast had been posted.

He steeled himself before he pressed play .

-

When we landed I received a text from Dan, telling me to return to the office as soon as possible. As much as I would have loved to make her wait, my cat was at the office and she’s spent far too long putting up with foxes.

When I arrived, I was told that someone was waiting in my office.

I guess this a good time to let you all know, over that week - since the first episode dropped, I had been receiving dozens of phone calls from a (786), Miami number. If anyone follows me on our social medias, you will have known about this harrassment. It wasn’t the only one, however. Our inbox on our website, our email, have been filled with tips, leads, conspiracies as mentioned earlier, etc. Some contact us more than once - but this person had my personal number and they would not stop.

They went silent while we were in Baltimore. I assumed they finally gave up.

There’s something about assumptions.

When I opened my office door, there was a woman standing there. I knew who it was - just as I had known my caller.

Allison Reynolds is a tall, blond, persistent trust fund baby. If that name sounds familiar, it is either because she owns A/R, a fashion label that’s gained popularity in the last five years; she’s an instagram influencer; or because her father is the CEO of Reynolds Inc.

There she stood, pompous and invasive as ever, with claims I’ve yet to believe.

Nonetheless.

We need money. She’s offered to give it. I’m still considering that offer. So long as her claims pan out.

Apparently she has a photograph from 2002, of Mary and Nathaniel in the background.

We’ll see.

Stay tuned for Episode 3.

We’re going to Florida.

I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

Keep searching.

[ Outro ]

Chapter Text

“Get out.”

Andrew’s annoyance was bordering on anger. Allison Reynolds had been harassing him from afar for weeks and apparently, that was no longer good enough for her royal pain in Andrew’s ass. She looked at him now with a small smirk and it took the bee buzzing in his ear for him to not throw a complete, god damned tantrum.

Stop. Take a deep breath. Review, reflect, recharge.

King jumped down from the chair as soon as Andrew entered the room and made her way over to him. With his eyes still trained on the insolent blonde in his office, he picked King up and hugged her tight to his chest. She was his lifeline, his reason to keep himself from completely losing it.

“Nice cat, Minyard. She was good company. Didn’t leave my side the whole time I was here,” Allison said, looking at her nails and adjusting the glittering rings on her fingers. When she looked at him, her smile was all shining teeth and...silver grill.

Of fucking course .

“That’s because you’re in her chair, you stalker. Get out.” Andrew made his way to his desk, clutching onto King’s fur and feeling the thrum of her purr against him. Once his back was to Reynolds, he didn’t look to her again. He was intent on ignoring her.

“Not until you talk to me. Why are you fighting this so hard? You need me, Minyard.”

“I don’t need anyone.” He felt King settle comfortably on his thighs, leaning her body against him and scratching her face on the armrest of his chair. “Dan!” He yelled through the open door. Allison scoffed behind him and Dan groaned from the other room.

“Yes?” Dan appeared with a tight jaw and a raised brow. He wasn’t so sure the attitude was directed solely at him. He could tell she didn’t like having Allison here anymore than he did. Unfortunately, she also had ‘ reason’ and ‘but Andrew-’ , as if they needed Allison’s resources.

We do.

“Get her the fuck out of my office. Now.”

“Andrew, maybe if we just -”

“Out. Now.”

Dan sighed, rolled her eyes, and gestured to Allison. “Come on. Let him cool down and we’ll figure it out.”

Andrew could practically hear Allison’s hair flip over her shoulder. “Fine,” she replied. Her impressive heels clicked against the floor, flashing red with every step. She looked completely unbothered in her fur coat, blonde hair swinging. “But, I’m not leaving this studio until we talk,” she said, pausing at the door with her hand on the frame and eyes boring into him.

Andrew left his desk, slammed his office door behind her - into her, whatever - and locked it.

He’d been evading her for well over a week. She’d tried to contact him over one hundred times in a myriad of ways. He hadn’t answered a single one, so who in their right mind would decide to just show up? He obviously had no interest in what she had to say, so why waste all that money and time?

Andrew ignored the fact that it was completely something he would do before sitting back down. King, who he’d set on the desk when he’d gotten up, crawled back into his lap.

Powering on his desktop, he plugged in his harddrive and waited for it to load. He decided that he was going to stay where he was until everyone was gone. The thing was, he’d just gotten back from Baltimore - from having to bring himself back from memories of his own trauma after seeing the writing on the wall. He’d just gotten off a plane that he had been 85% sure he was going to die in and he hadn’t slept properly in days. He didn’t have the energy for this right now - he didn’t have the tolerance or the shits to give.

How Dan could have thought letting Reynolds into his office was a good idea, he would never be able to fathom.

So, he settled himself in to wait. He answered asks on the website while audio was converting for Seth and fed the masses because he was bored and enjoyed putting trolls in their place. He answered an ask about why he was in Florida, because he loved telling people they were wrong and then another about how King was doing, all with one hand typing and the other buried in her fur. It was going on 8pm at that point, with no end in sight to the sound of Reynold’s obnoxiously loud voice coming from the lounge.

When Allison started posting on the website, Andrew almost lost it. Rather than take the bait he was sure she was giving him, he replied to one of her posts with a picture of a Maserati. She wanted to talk? Let her think this was his condition. Maybe that would drive her away.

Two minutes after he posted, Reynolds and her stupidly loud voice shouted from the lounge, “Done, Monster!”

Whatever you say, Spoiled Psycho.

Now that Andrew was nice and annoyed, he did the one thing he’d been promising everyone he was going to do anyway. He posted the unedited version of the transcript, complete with the introduction Dan took out.

He was still mad about it and he had no doubt that he would always feel that sinking feeling of betrayal because of it.

But right now, at this moment, there was no simmering heat in his veins. Only a dull satisfaction as he watched the number of hits climb and the questions roll in.

Trust was always something Andrew didn’t take lightly - both when it came to trusting others and others trusting him. Dan had put a crack in the foundation he had here. She had severed part of the painstaking trust he had been building - had been promised would be upheld. He had been told that this was his chance to tell this story in his own words without someone trying to silence him and that, apparently, had been a lie. Part of Andrew wondered what else could have been lies, but decided not to dwell.  

So, this was his way of telling Dan, good luck with that .

Good luck with trying to silence me, because the Boston Globe couldn't do it and neither can you.

Five minutes later, Dan was pounding on his door. Andrew would’ve laughed if the noise hadn’t startled King.

“I thought we were going to talk about this!” She yelled through the door.

“You talked. I didn’t listen. Is Reynolds gone yet?” Andrew called back, scrolling through the reblogs, seemingly unbothered. He could feel her glaring at him through the curtained window that looked out to the lounge.

Andrew ignored her tapping on the pane until Dan groaned and said, “No, she’s as stubborn as you are.” Then another few knocks until he could practically hear her eyes rolling in her head. “Fine. Rot in there for all I care.”

Andrew absolutely would before he gave Reynolds the satisfaction of talking to her.

-

A few hours passed and the reaction was exactly as expected. The post blew up and Andrew watched the outrage unfold, the criticisms light up their inbox.

The redacted introduction was not only important to the case, to lead people into what they were in for - but it gave them an understanding as to why he was doing this. Despite any and all legal issues that might arise from this, it was important for the audience to hear. So, Andrew basked in satisfaction as his office grew darker and darker.

Eventually, however, there was a soft knock at his door.

Renee .

“Andrew? Allison is gone. Why don’t you come eat? We ordered food.”

Andrew stood with King in his arms to let her in. When she entered, he closed the door behind her and let King down so she could sit next to Renee on the big white chair.

Renee looked tired - she looked how he felt.

“Why are you still here?” he asked her, ejecting his hard drive and putting it in his bag.

“Waiting for you. Seth is gone, but Dan is still here. I think she was hoping we’d give her a run down of Baltimore.” Renee ran a hand down King’s head absently.

Andrew tongued at his lip ring and zipped his bag before he slung it over his shoulder. “Not tonight,” he decided. “I’m taking King home, she’s been here too long. We’ll talk in the morning. Did Reynolds go back to wherever she she came from?” Andrew knew she wouldn’t. He most certainly wouldn’t.

“She’s at a hotel. I don’t think she’ll leave until she talks to you.” Renee paused and took a deep breath. Andrew knew what was coming and set her with a blank stare. Renee was not perturbed. “Andrew, maybe just hear her out. What if she has credible information?”

“Like what? Her and Nathaniel’s rich daddies arranged a marriage when they were kids? They were part of the same polo club?” He barreled on before she could stop him, “I need real information. Why does she need to talk to me so bad? She could’ve told Dan, she could’ve told you, hell, she could have fucking told Seth. Why me ?”

Buzz .

Andrew rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses and took a deep breath to steady himself. He was tired, he was hungry, he was annoyed. Renee, unsurprisingly, waited him out.  

“I don’t think that’s completely fair. You’re working off assumptions and assumptions-”

“Ugh,” he groaned, “Renee-”

Buzz.

Renee pressed her lips together and nodded. She moved on, “She refuses to talk to anyone but you. I don’t know why, but it seems like you have that bullheadedness in common.” She let a smile mold to her lips and Andrew shook his head.

“I’m going home.” He motioned towards King, who jumped off the chair and climbed into his arms when he held them out for her. “I’m going to get some food, sleep, and try not to kill anyone. Maybe I’ll be more amenable tomorrow.”

-

Disappointment was something Andrew was familiar with. However, when he arrived at the office the next morning and saw Allison, he very nearly turned around to go back home.

Alas, he glared at her lounging on the couch in all her stupid glory and said, “You’re like herpes, aren’t you? Impossible to get rid of.” He kept walking to his office, King in his arms.

“You speaking from experience, Sweetheart?” Her voice was so fucking annoying . It called after him, light and nauseating and god damnit he hated Allison Reynolds .

He let King drop to the floor and hop onto her cat tree before taking off his backpack and tossing it onto the white chair. When he looked up, King was perched regally on the top platform and staring down at him.

“She’s fucking annoying, huh?”

Meow

“You only say that because you like her fucking talons.”

King lifted a paw to lick at it. It was as good as a shrug.

Andrew reached up and scratched at her face with both of his hands. Her face was soft, she smelled sweet, and she tolerated him as he kissed her pink nose. “Whose side are you on anyway...?” He whispered while King rubbed her face on his chin.

A knock at the door made him sigh and drop his hands.

“What?” he called, not even a little aggravated.

Buzz.

“It’s me,” Dan said through the door.

“Go away.”

“I have donuts.”

Fuck .

Andrew paused for a beat of silence, scratched at the bee behind his ear and cocked his jaw. With a deep breath, he gave in and opened the door to find Dan standing there with a box of donuts in hand. Andrew made a grab for them, but she yanked them away at the last minute.

“Ah, ah, ah,” she tsked. “You have to come into the lounge. We still need to talk about Baltimore and it’s time to start planning what we’re going to record for next episode.”

Andrew ground his teeth and cracked his pinky before responding. “Fine. But Reynolds doesn’t sit in. She’s not part of the team.”

“My ass is staying right here, Monster! You can come or not, but I’ll be here and I’ll continue being here until you decide to put on your big boy pants and talk. Don’t worry, I have time!” Reynolds yelled from the lounge. Seth was laughing somewhere in the background.

Bee wouldn’t fucking shut up, so Andrew had to close his eyes and count to five before responding, “Then no,” and moved to shut the door.

Dan blocked it with a foot, the bee buzzed louder, and Andrew debated closing the door anyway, but that wouldn’t be very adult of him.

“Listen,” Dan started, “I’m the director of this fucking thing and if we don’t get it out, it’s on me. Get your ass out here and discuss the fucking podcast you’re supposedly so passionate about, or I swear to god Minyard, I’ll spit on every one of these donuts.”

Dan was already dangerously balancing the box on one hand. He glanced towards them and narrowed his eyes, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Fucking try me .”

At the back of his mind, there was a part of him that respected Dan’s balls. He could’ve said that. Instead, he huffed and conceded, “Fine. But I’m not talking to her.”

“Oh, you’re going to act like you’re five? Quit the temper tantrum and get out here.” She turned around, donut box tipping dangerously to the side as she made her way to the lounge. Her haphazard treatment of them was the only reason why Andrew followed, King at his heels.

Renee was seated on one of the bright orange couches. Across from her was the white couch where Allison sat, self-satisfied smile dancing on her ridiculously glossed-up lips, the grill on her teeth shining in the midmorning sun.

“Who the fuck are you showing off to?” he asked, motioning towards his own mouth.

“You. So every time I smile, you’re reminded that I have your salaries worth of diamonds on my teeth.” She winked at him and he couldn’t roll his eyes hard enough.

Sitting next to Renee, King jumped up after him and climbed his arm to perch herself on his shoulder.

“That cat has a monster on its ass. Someone call a vet ASAP,” Seth crowed, laughing at his own joke before it was even finished.

Allison pulled her lips back from her shining teeth and groaned at the same time Andrew said, “Seth, your intellect truly knows no bounds.”

He ignored the semi-appraising look Allison gave him and moved on, “Let’s get this over with.”

Dan clicked her tongue, looking between everyone before she nodded and said, “Okay. Baltimore.” She set her laptop on the table next to the donuts, already opened and pulled up to a page. Dan then removed a recorder from her hoodie pocket and put it in the middle.

[ Record On ]

“I’ll add the pictures we have to the drive,” Renee said, tapping away on her own computer in her lap. Andrew leaned back into the couch and scratched at King’s head as he glanced to the screen and saw the morbid pictures he’d taken start uploading.

Dan sat at the edge of her seat and scrolled through as the images appeared on her screen. “This is the house?” she asked, but didn’t look up for a reply. “Holy shit...” Allison watched with more interest than Andrew had expected.

Seth leaned over for a better look. “Damn. You’d think a fucking murdering psychopath would want something a little more under the radar.”

Andrew shrugged. “I don’t pretend to know why Nathan did anything he did and to be honest, I don’t really care. The house was big and cold and has a feeling about it.” He motioned towards the pictures on the screen with an errant hand, “We did find one thing. Keep going and you'll come up on a picture of a closet.”

Dan’s eyes widened, Allison’s lips tightened, Seth pulled his chin back - Andrew assumed they got to it.

Dan whispered, “Does that say...don’t be bad?”

“Yes.” Andrew responded.

“Creepy as fuck,” Seth said from his spot as he moved to hover over Dan’s shoulder.

Seth was usually wrong in everything else, but surprisingly - not with that, “Wise input.”

Seth flicked him off and slid the laptop closer to himself so he could squint at the screen. Under his breath, he murmured, “Fuck man.”

“If that was Nathaniel, how old was he? Most likely?” Dan asked.

“Five? Six?” Renee offered. Everyone shifted uncomfortably. Andrew glanced at Allison where she tapped anxiously at her knee. At the last moment, she lifted her eyes to stare back at him. He shoved a donut pointedly in his mouth and she looked away disgusted.

But it was interesting. Because in the time that Allison had been here - and even in the time that she hadn’t - she’d inserted herself in every single thing Andrew was trying to do. Now, she sat silent, observing as if from afar with that little anxious tick ticking away.

Seth drew him from analyzing what exactly Allison was playing at as he declared, “It’s written in sharpie. The poor kid probably didn’t have actual markers.”

Andrew swallowed the piece of donut  and shot his eyes to Seth, “How do you know it’s sharpie?”

Seth tapped at the screen and turned it so Andrew could see better. “There. Sharpie bleeds through everything. You can put a hundred coats of paint on top and it will still bleed through.” Seth reached for a donut himself, “S’why painters don’t sketch in it.”

Andrew eyed him for a moment, then looked back to the screen. He couldn’t help but think - Huh. Not totally useless.

“Either way,” Andrew continued, “It’s safe to assume Nathaniel wrote it. No one has lived in that house since Nathan’s arrest, and this was obviously done by a small child.”

Allison finally tilted the laptop closer to her, using the hand that had been ticking to do so. She finally spoke, “That’s... really fucking sad.” She looked distressed and there was a bubble of laughter building in Andrew’s throat.

He swallowed it down and instead said with as much disdain as he could muster, “What did you think this was going to be?” He paused. The only reaction she gave him was a rise of one of her perfectly sculpted brows. “A happy family reunion?” he continued. “We’re looking for the wife and son of a mobster who used a secret basement to torture and murder people. We have no idea what they had to endure in that house.”

Allison cocked her jaw and said, “ Obviously , you asshole. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to help. If you would just listen-”

“I don’t have to listen to anything. This is my project. It doesn’t need you,” He replied calmly - which only seemed to irritate Allison more.

Good .

“You do need me, which you’ll find out soon enough.”

“Is that a threat, Reynolds?”

Allison smiled a serpentine smile, “No. I’m not that stupid.” Well . “If you don’t need me , then you most certainly need my money.”

“No. I don’t.” Andrew grabbed another donut and went to take an obnoxiously big bite.

“Um, we absolutely do need her money,” Dan said, facing Andrew. “Let me break this down for you. You want to be able to say and do whatever the fuck you want on this podcast? Fine. But we can't afford to pay for travel expenses and research without sponsors. Sponsors aren’t going to take us on if they think you’re going to cause legal issues because of that missing brain-to-mouth-filter  condition you have. Not to mention, the legal issues themselves.” She gestured towards Wymack’s office in the back, “Abby has all but assured me we’ll be hearing from Edgar Allen Productions or the Boston Globe - or both before this is over. A private donor is going to be the only way we get this done the way it needs to be done.”

“Yeah, Minyard. Lay off,” Seth eloquently said from his spot on the couch - chest all puffed out like an idiot.

“Shut up, Seth,” Andrew said, nodding his chin toward the blonde. “Just because you’re going to try and fuck her before the day is out, doesn’t mean your opinion matters here.”

Seth jumped out of his seat before Dan pulled him back down. Allison just smirked. “What’s wrong, Sweetheart? You want some of this, too? Is that why you keep trying to push me out?”

Buzz .

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, Sweetheart . Even if I held any affection for women in the slightest, I wouldn’t bother. A little too loud for my tastes. Sorry to disappoint.” Andrew threw his donut back into the box and after a second's hesitation, picked the entire thing up. He could feel King’s claws dig into his shoulder as he stood and she anchored herself onto him. “I need a break. We’ll reconvene after lunch.”

[ Record Off ]

Whether or not Allison gave him a look, or Dan rolled her eyes, or Renee gave him that familiar frown of disappointment, he didn’t know. Maybe Seth made a comment about the picture again, maybe Dan said something too. Andrew blocked them out as he headed back to his office because the fact of the matter was, Dan was right and he knew it. It was admitting to it that he had a hard time with. So, he locked his door, deposited King onto her cat tree, and sat in the white chair as he made his way through the remaining donuts while trying to figure out a loophole .

There aren’t any.

He knew they couldn’t keep going like this and while Andrew didn’t want to deal with sponsors, he also didn’t want to deal with Allison. He hated people like her. So fucking privileged and obnoxious and -

And.

He didn’t want to think about it now. When the last donut was gone, he sat at his desk and went through the rest of his notes from Baltimore to start a script.

-

Saturday was spent compiling his finalized notes for Episode 2. They wouldn’t start recording until Monday, but tomorrow was Easter and he thought for one of the first times in his life, he should attempt to be proactive.

The productivity was worth it. Seth showed him how to layer the Audio Notes he and Renee had taken from Baltimore, over the studio audio recorded here. He wanted to add extra information about Leakin Park, the feel of the house, and the way he could picture tiny Nathaniel from the family photo running down the stairs in there as well, so he needed Renee to make sure his wording didn’t feel overly personal. He didn’t need Dan, but she was there anyway because she always was and unfortunately, Allison was an ever-present figure lingering in the background.

He ignored her completely.

“Are you ready to talk?” she asked that afternoon, cornering him on his way out of the sound booth after working with Seth for over an hour.

“Nope. Go away.” He flicked his fingers at her as Allison stepped out of the way.

“You’re going to talk to me!” She yelled after him, “One way or another!”

“Hey, baby. I’m here if you need someone to talk to.” Andrew heard Seth say from the booth. He could hear Allison’s ‘ ugh’ from his office door. They were definitely going to fuck before this was over, Andrew had called it.

He had things to do before tomorrow, so he grabbed his bag and let King climb onto his shoulder before making his way to the GS - not bothering to tell anyone he was leaving.

-

When Andrew pulled up to Bee’s house the next day, he was the last to arrive. Wymack and Abby were here like they always were, and by the look of the Ford next to Wymack and Abby’s truck, Kevin was too. Aaron and Katelyn had arrived last night with their daughter, Bella.

Aaron and Katelyn had moved to Chicago after graduating from PSU to go to med school. They were doing their residencies now, but three years ago everyone received a surprise in the form of little Bells. The couple wasn’t yet married and as far as Andrew knew, they were in no rush - much to Nicky’s disappointment (he wanted to plan the wedding).

Andrew never really saw the point to marriage. However, despite his general distaste of signing your life over to someone else, he couldn’t deny that the relationship between her and Aaron had brought everyone a bundle of actual light and joy. Bella had made the world that much brighter and Andrew wasn’t afraid to admit that she was one of his few saving graces.

When he parked, he sent Aaron a text.

‘Help me get all of this shit out of my car’

Getting out, he stepped onto the freshly trimmed front lawn and figured Wymack must have cut it when he got here. The air still smelled earthy and green and Andrew wrinkled his nose as his fingers twitched for a cigarette. Instead, he fought the impulse and looked up at the house that he could truly call home .

It was a modest house, with white siding and blue shutters. Two stories high, the front door was also blue and there was a pastel easter wreath hanging from it - one of Abby’s creations. They must have already hunted for eggs. Andrew couldn’t see any hiding in the well-loved flower beds or tucked in the large oak’s roots, and something inside him was sad he missed it.

Make Aaron send the footage later .

With a steadying breath, trying to stifle down his addiction, loss, and nostalgia all at once, he let King out of the back then went around to the trunk. He heard Bee’s front door open and close. As the trunk popped, he watched his twin walk towards him, hands in his pockets.

Skipping formalities, he started handing his Easter goodies over to his brother once he was close enough. “Here.”

Aaron looked down at the large box in his hands, then back to Andrew. “You’re joking, right? I know you have a thing about being Fun Uncle Andrew, but a bouncy house?” Yes. “You went out and bought a bouncy house? Didn’t you just get fired?” Aaron asked, shifting so he could get a better grip.

“It was on sale. I had to get it.” Andrew grabbed the last of the bags and Bella’s Easter basket full of eggs, “And I don’t have a thing about being Fun Uncle Andrew. I am Fun Uncle Andrew. FUA for short.” King was already prancing her way through the grass to go chew at whatever plants Bee had budding in the beds. Andrew called to her and she quickly came over with only one backwards glance. She meowed at his approach and he could hear Aaron scoff behind him as Andrew followed her swishing tail up the small white porch.

As soon as he opened the front door, he was hit in the face with comfort and that newly warm, familiar feeling of love that he still hadn’t been totally accustomed to. He fought with the impulse to pause in the threshold, take in the photos hanging on the walls; the well-loved stairs leading up to the four bedrooms and two bathrooms; and the living room where he had spent countless movie nights with Aaron, Nicky, and Bee.

An errant thought flitted through his head, reminding him that this year would mark a decade since Bee had taken guardianship over him and Aaron. Something warm and sticky built in his chest and dripped slow like honey through his veins.

He needed this right now. After Baltimore, after being reminded of nights spent in closets and heavy hands and wondering what that meant for a tiny Nathaniel, he needed home and familiarity and family . He needed to be in this place, where everyone knew him and tolerated his presence anyway. Bee, who would forever be his safe space; King who followed him through thick and thin; Bella, who loved him unconditionally - even Aaron was a comfort, just knowing and seeing that he was safe and thriving. Wymack and Abby were a sort of extended family at this point as well, acting as pseudo Aunt and Uncle.

Kevin was tolerable most of the time.

Aaron passed him to take the bouncy house to the backyard and Andrew stopped his reminiscing to make his way to the kitchen.  

It was small, but somehow could fit the entire family at once. It was the room where he, Bee, and Aaron had stood around talking about their days while Bee made them dinner. Where they talked about college and Bee promised she could help them make it happen with scholarships and whatever else they could do (and did). It was where Andrew told Bee he was gay and Bee told Andrew she didn’t care what he was, as long as it included safe and happy.

He set his bags and Bella’s basket on the counter and was almost immediately folded into a hug. All it took was the quirk of the side of his lips for Bee to wrap her arms around him and Andrew didn’t just tolerate it, he welcomed it. He didn’t bury his face into her shoulder like Aaron did, or rest his chin atop her head (that he could not reach) like Nicky. Andrew hugged her warmly, with his cheek close to hers before pulling back. She held him at arm’s length to survey him, just as he did the same to her with his hands to himself.

She looked the same as always. Her honey skin was plump and lively and she had eyes as warm as the brownies he could smell baking in the oven - though they were sharp and focused too. She scrutinized him in a way that only Bee could and they both determined at the same time that they were both healthy and for lack of a better word, okay .

Bee’s eyes narrowed slowly though and she asked, ”Have you gotten more piercings since I last saw you?” Her eyes looking at his ears critically.

He didn’t bother to think it over in his head and instead shrugged a shoulder for the sake of being difficult. “Probably not, but maybe?” He’d gotten his tragus pierced since moving to Palmetto, but she didn’t really need to know that.

“Well,” Bee patted the shoulder he’d shrugged, “I hope you had a professional do it this time.” She squeezed after her pat and let go.

“That was only one time .”

“Yes! One time! Sixteen years old and I walk by the bathroom to see a sewing needle sticking out of your ear!” Bee turned back around to stir whatever she had cooking on the stove. “Abby, do you remember? I called you to ask if I should take him to the ER?”

Abby Winfield, TFN lawyer, laughed from her spot leaning against the counter. Andrew hadn’t had a second to notice her and didn’t bother smiling because, well.

She crossed her arms and replied, “As if I would know. I’m a lawyer, not a nurse.” She gave Andrew a smile, “Hello, Andrew.”

“Abby,” Andrew nodded, “Where’s-”

“UNKIE ANDWEW!”

Tiny feet pattered their way from the living room and Andrew immediately assumed position. He squatted down low, held out his arms, and caught the little fireball as she jumped into them.

Bella was the only other human on this earth that he could tolerate such closeness from. Perhaps it was because she was a child, innocent and pure and perfect. She could never hurt him like others had, could never dream of such horrors, and he was thankful for that.

This time, unlike with Bee, he squeezed her tight and buried his face in her red, curly hair for just a second, before pulling back to look at her.

“Wait...” he said, feigning confusion, “Who are you? You can’t possibly be Bells. You’re too big! My Bells is a baby!”

Bella giggled in that way of hers and Andrew’s heart seized.

When she was first born, he was terrified of her. Bee and himself flew to Chicago when they had gotten the call that it was time . Andrew initially intended on staying in the background, taking care of his brother’s dog and bringing his family food while they held vigil in the hospital. But then, Bells happened. Sweet and small, with her face all red but serene with the blondest wisps of hair atop her head. She was perfect, but he hadn’t even entertained the idea of holding her. What if he dropped her? What if he held too tight? What if he didn’t support her head properly or by proximity alone, his life ended up soiling her own?

Katelyn was the one that offered. Their history was tumultuous at best back then, mainly from college. But her eyes read trust and they were kind and his arms were out before he could convince himself to put them down.

Bella was soft and new . All swaddled, she fit into the crook of his arm. As he held her, he couldn’t help but think that he and Aaron were that little once. The same softness and newness and sweetness . He had been like this when his mother decided she didn’t want him. Abandoned, shuffled, forgotten between foster homes over and over and over and he hurt . His chest ached so badly as he looked down at Bella’s sleeping, content little face, and he thought this child, this baby that shared his blood, would never have to go through any of that.

Ever.

When he looked up at Aaron and they locked eyes, he knew that he had been thinking the same. For the first time, perhaps in their entire existence, they were in perfect understanding.

We’d die before we let something happen to this baby.

“Unkie Andwew! I Bells!” Bella laughed. She gave Andrew another hug as he lifted her off the ground and placed her on the counter. As he did, she took his glasses off his face and put them on her own. The wide circle lenses made her hazel eyes look huge and he laughed despite himself as he pulled back to take a picture.

That was another thing. A few years ago, he had no pictures in his phone but things necessary for investigations. Now? King and Bella dominated over half. When the fuck had he turned into that guy ?

“There you are,” he said and gave her a look. “I almost didn’t recognize you, you’re getting so big!” He slid his phone back into his pocket and plucked his glasses off her face. He could feel Bee and Abby watching him but dutifully ignored them as he held his arms out in question. When she mirrored him, he picked her up again to put her on his hip. “Do you want to see what I brought you?”

When she gasped and put her little hands over her mouth in a form of yes, he showed her the Easter basket. It was a giant see through egg made to look like a unicorn with her name on the front. It was filled with plastic eggs with chocolate and cash in them - because he was Fun Uncle Andrew and if Bella ended up liking him more than Aaron then, well...that was okay with him.

“And!” He said, really laying on the theatrics as he turned towards the back door, “I have something else outside for you,” he whispered into her ear. “Do you want to see?”

“Yes! Yes, now please!”

Andrew did not flinch. Measured and calm, cool and collected, he just smiled and nodded with finality.

Please was still something he had a hard time with, now and then. It was a word that had more weight than most and it sat heavily in his stomach. Bella used it to be polite, because her parents were really laying the manners on heavy. She meant no harm, of course, which meant now - after years of therapy, he could accept it from certain situations.

i.e. Bella.

“Hey!” Bee called from the stove, “What are you two whispering about over there? No secrets!”

“Momma Bee!” Bella said excitedly, clutching Andrew’s shoulders, “Unkie Andwew have a prize!”

That little lisp - he hoped it never went away.

Bee let out a gasp and walked over to pat Bella’s cheek. “Well. I most certainly can’t keep you from a prize . Shoo!” She waved and gave Andrew a wink, “Go find out what it is and then come back to tell me and Auntie Abby, okay?”

“Kay!” Bella wiggled her way out of Andrew’s arms and after offering her hand, he took it to let her tug him to the sliding door. It was already open and Andrew could hear Aaron and Kevin talking outside.

“Daddy!” Bella let go of Andrew’s hand and ran down the few steps, across the porch, and into the grass to bound into Aaron’s legs. Before she could make contact, Aaron scooped her up with practiced ease and showed her the box with the picture on the front. Andrew watched as she squealed with delight and demanded it to be set up immediately.

Aaron laughed and tickled her belly. “Soon, baby. You have to be patient, okay?” She wiggled in his arms and Aaron bounced her on his hip as if she were still a baby.

She is

“What do you say to Uncle Andrew?”

Bella threw her head over her shoulder with the brightest, fully baby-toothed smile she could muster, “Thank you!”

He will not be sad when she starts losing those baby teeth.

Andrew stopped between Kevin and Aaron and poked Bella’s little nose as a ‘you’re welcome’. She giggled, then wiggled in Aarons arms to be put down.

When Aaron obliged, he asked, “Can you go in the house and tell mommy Uncle Andrew is here?” Bella gave him a nod far firmer than any three year old had a right to give and ran back to the house.

From Andrew’s spot next to Kevin, he heard her yell, “MOMMY!” from inside.

He did not smile to himself.

“Really?” Kevin asked. “A bouncy house?”

“It was on sale ,” Aaron said mockingly. “You spoil her, you know. Katelyn’s going to shit when she sees this thing.”

“Shit at how amazing it is? How I am the best uncle for her daughter that she could have ever asked for? Yeah, I figured,” Andrew shrugged. “You probably make her eat vegetables and go to bed on time. Let her live a little, Aaron.”

Kevin sighed exasperatedly beside him, “Of course he makes her eat vegetables. You know, I keep telling you. You’re going to get an iron deficiency if you don’t start eating more greens. I don’t even know how you stay so fit?” Kevin surveyed him. Andrew just raised a brow. “Do you work out just to ward off the obesity waiting to creep up on you?”

Andrew gave him a hard stare and waited for him to stop.

Kevin was something of an enigma to Andrew. The famous “Son of Exy” came to PSU Andrew’s freshman year, after his “brother”, Riko Moriyama, broke his hand with an exy racquet. The media, Edgar Allen, Kevin, they all tried to play it off as a skiing accident, but Andrew wasn’t a fucking idiot. Eventually, he managed to get the real story out of Kevin and it was worse than he initially thought. Kevin had come to PSU to join Wymack and the communications department under his tutelage once it was confirmed that his career was over. Andrew never fully understood why he chose PSU of all places, or why he went straight to Wymack, until it came out not even a year later that Wymack was Kevin’s father. Everything started to make sense then. Kevin had nowhere else to go - no family, no friends. His life had been the Nest and the Nest did what it does best.

Destroy.  

That’s how Kevin came to be a part of Andrew’s small family and subsequently, to have his own exy podcast. With the support of Wymack and Abby, he was able to piece himself back together and get his shit under control. Dayly Exy with Kevin Day had been a staple at TFN since Kevin’s graduation.

As far as Andrew knew, Kevin hadn’t heard from the Moriyama’s since he left the Nest. As long as he wasn’t playing exy, it seemed as though they were no longer interested.

Believable

Kevin realized Andrew was still staring at him. “What?” He asked, pulling back his chin.

“Are you going to stand there yapping about shit I don’t care about or are you going to help me put up this bouncy house?”

Kevin rolled his eyes, but set down his drink and made for the box.

-

“This is your contribution to dinner?” Wymack asked him, gesturing to the array of ice cream sundae toppings on the counter.

“I brought dessert. You’re welcome. Ungrateful.” Andrew shook his head and stole a piece of cheese from over Bee’s shoulder where she was grating it.

She shot him a playful glare and waved the grater, “Out! Go play with Bella. I’m sure she hasn’t been spoiled rotten in the last five minutes.”

With an argument so compelling, he found Bella at her small table in the living room, coloring. Wymack joined Kevin to watch of course an exy game. Andrew had no idea where Aaron and Katelyn were, but if they were smart, they were taking advantage of a few moments where there were five other adults in the house to keep an eye on their kid.

King was on Bella, her back paws on the floor and her front paws on Bella’s lap so she was standing. Bella had one chubby arm wrapped around King’s middle while she colored with her other hand.

“Whatcha doin’, Bells?” he asked, lowering himself to sit beside her.

“I’m drawin’ a pichure of the famlee,” She said matter of factly. Andrew pursed his lips and looked over her shoulder. He could tell which one he was, only by the glasses. He was also very pleased to find that she’d drawn him taller than Aaron. Of course, that was wholly accurate.

“Wow...” he said quietly, and pointed his finger on the table, right next to the paper so he didn’t disturb her meticulous process. “You are such a good artist,” he praised. “Can I have it when you’re done?”

“Uh huh.” She didn’t bother to look up. Her little tongue stuck out from the corner of her lips, “It’s for you. I can have chocolate?” She asked with the confidence of an adult. It read I know you will anyway.  She didn’t even have to give him wide hazel eyes or a little pout. No, she knew the power she had and she was right.

“You absolutely can.”

From his pocket, Andrew pulled out his Emergency M&M’s which he always had stashed away just in case, and took out two for Bella and a handful for himself. Bella tapped the table for him to put them down, then ate them one at a time as she continued drawing.

Just then, Wymack and Kevin both yelled in dismay in unison.

Andrew looked up to see them still glued to the screen. Both were leaning forward on the couch, elbows on their knees and hands over their mouths. He had no idea how it took Wymack so long to realize Kevin was related to him.

Andrew rolled his eyes.

Abby walked into the room, all lawyer with her hands on her hips.

“What are you two doing?” she asked, “It’s Easter! This is family time!”

Kevin motioned towards the screen, “This is family time. We are both sitting and watching together .”

Solid logic. Andrew had to admire the effort.

Abby leveled him with an oh really? Look.

Wymack sighed and stood. He popped Kevin on the back of the head on his way.

“Ow!” Kevin yelped, rubbing his head, “What was that for?!”

“It’s family time , son! Turn the game off!” Wymack winked at Abby when kevin wasn’t looking.

Kevin rolled his neck and waved at the game, “But this is for work! This is an important game!” Kevin was indignant, his gestures grew wider.

Wymack shook his head in mock shame. “ Minyard isn’t even working today!”

Andrew feigned confusion at the sound of his name and said with a mouth full of chocolate, “What?”

Bella giggled and Andrew gave her a chocolatey grin. She only laughed louder.  

“Matt Boyd is about to break a record here! This is history in the making!” Kevin guffawed and opened his mouth to continue explaining.

“No one cares about Matt Lloyd, Kevin,” Andrew picked out a crayon and new piece of paper for himself to draw a picture of him and Bella. “Watch the highlights tomorrow.”

“Matt BOYD,” Kevin said.

“Who?” Andrew couldn’t help it. Kevin did this to himself.

Despite all the teasing, Andrew didn’t hate Kevin. His passion was easy to pick on, but he was a good man with a good heart. While cowardly and annoying at times, there was a rocky understanding between the two men that grew from their time in college.

Kevin threw up his hands in frustration, “Fine!”

“Good man,” Wymack said, clapping him on the back. Kevin grumbled and followed him into the kitchen where Andrew could hear Abby and Bee laughing about something.  He turned back to his picture and started coloring in Bella’s red hair.

“That for me?” She asked, looking at Andrew’s picture.

“Do you want it?” Bella nodded. “Then it’s yours Bells.”

She smiled the sweetest smile at Andrew then and Andrew couldn’t help but send one her way, too. He was growing soft with age.

Or perhaps mentally, he was just getting better . Whatever the fuck that meant.

Bee called dinner from the other room and Andrew held his hand out for Bella’s.

“Can I hold your hand?” He asked, because he always did. Whether it was just in an offer for her to decide for herself or something verbal, he always gave her the option. That was something he hadn’t been given growing up. He wanted her to know that her body belonged to her and her alone.

Bella nodded and she and Andrew made their way into the dining room together. He helped her into her booster seat before sitting in his own chair. Katelyn walked behind him and gave him a short pat on the shoulder once he acknowledged her presence, before taking her seat next to Bella, who was stationed between her parents.

Everyone immediately started serving themselves - no prayer or fanfare. Easter was strictly a food and chocolate kind of holiday in this house.

“So, Andrew,” Bee said from her place across from him. “Tell us about your podcast! I haven’t spoken with you since you got back from Baltimore.”

This was something else he had been getting better at. Filler conversation.

“It’s fine,” he shrugged, scooping potatoes onto his plate. “Didn’t find much in Baltimore. Putting together that episode now.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Wymack said from the other end of the table. “Red Rabbits is already top of the charts in the US and UK. I’ve seen what he has for the second episode and it’s just going to get bigger from here. He’s done a good job - the whole team has.  Don’t let him do that humble ‘it’s-the-story-not-me’ shit he likes to do.”

“It is the story,” Andrew said through a mouthful of ham. “You think the people would give a shit about what I have to say if it wasn’t interesting?”

Bee rolled her eyes with that little smirk on her lips as she nodded, “Yes, well. I’m sure you’ve brought your special brand of Andrew to the table for the listeners.” Bee turned her attention to Kevin, “How’s the exy podcast going?”

“Fantastic,” Kevin said, only the slightest hint of bitterness. Andrew had knocked Dayly Exy down from the number one spot at TFN and Kevin was being so... Kevin about it. It probably had something to do with being second best . Honestly, as much as Andrew didn’t like to admit it - he couldn’t blame him.

Completely.

At least the 2 that had been inked into the skin beneath his left eye was gone - all that was left nearly faded, but for the remnants of something that used to be .

“I’m trying to get in touch with Matt Boyd’s people to see about getting an interview with him. I’m positive he’s broken the record for most blocked attempts by a backliner by now.”

And so it went. They heard about Aaron and Katelyn’s residencies and how exhausted they were. They heard about Abby trying to preemptively research legal basis for sharing information that exempts it from being slander.

No idea who that could be for .

And they heard about how Bella had a friend named Lucy in her preschool class and how they always play Dora on the playground. Bella’s story, naturally, was his favorite, because she said Lucy like ‘ Yucy’ and come the fuck on - of course it was.

Once dinner was finished, the only sensible course of action was the bouncy house. So, between he and kevin, they completed getting it set up in the open patch of grass of Bee’s backyard. He then retrieved Bella and covered her eyes as he carried her out to see it. Katelyn was grinning with her phone out and when Andrew took his hand away, Bella’s reaction trumped every other in her very small lifetime.

Hands clapping, voice squealing, she gave him one quick hug before demanding to be put down. Immediately, she ran to get in, but Aaron made her stop to take off her shoes before helping her up.

Andrew watched as the bouncy house started moving erratically and smiled yet again at the sight of Bella trying to so hard to jump as high as she could - pink tutu bouncing around her and red curls an absolute tangle in the air.

Katelyn came to stand beside him, watching on with her arms crossed and smile wide, “You’re good with her, you know,” she said, glancing at him from the corner of her eyes. “She loves you.”

“I love her, too.” And the answer was automatic, natural, real, true . Everyone knew it anyway. It was nothing he could hide or would ever dare to try. Something about Bella made him feel okay with being emotionally open. He didn’t know if his subconscious was trying to set an example for her, or if it was the fact that she didn't know or care about any of the fucked up things that had been done to him - and that he’d done himself. There was no judgement from Bella. Only love.

“Have you thought about it?” Katelyn started and Andrew turned his head to look at her in confusion. “Having kids?” She clarified but that made it no better, not really.

Andrew scoffed, “Sure, I’ve thought about never having them. Come on, Katelyn. You know better. I’m not fit to be anyone’s father.” The idea was so absurd, he couldn’t even begin to picture it.

With his lifestyle? His job? It was risky, it was dangerous. No.

“Not even Bella’s?” Aaron asked, walking over to join the conversation.

Was he being ambushed?

“Especially not Bella’s. She deserves a hell of a lot better than me.”

Aaron cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck. He looked at Katelyn, who gave him a small nod, and Andrew fought back a groan of whatever the fuck they were planning.

Andrew was good at reading people, reading between the lines, but by fuck he was blindsided by this one -

“So, we wanted to ask you. We’re doctors so we’re always thinking about this shit, I guess.” What? “But, we’re putting together our will. If anything happens to the both of us, we’re going to give guardianship to Bee.” What, what, what? “But, our lawyer suggested having a backup, just in case. So, we were wondering if you would be our backup?”

Andrew was suddenly very panicked.

Buzz.

He lifted his hand and pressed two fingers to the bee behind his ear and asked, “What about Katelyn’s parents? Or Nicky and Erik?” He knew she didn’t have any siblings, but her parents seemed like the normal upper-middle class happy family he used to dream about adopting him.

Before he figured out dreams were useless.

Katelyn shook her head. “They’ll always be a part of Bella’s life, but they’re retiring soon and want to move to the Keys. They were never the most involved or attentive parents, and I don’t think retirement and a child would suit them. Nicky and Erik don’t know her as well as you do, and we wouldn’t want her to have to leave the place she’s familiar with or expect Nicky and Erik to move again. Also,” She paused for a minute, looking over him as a tentative smile danced again on her lips, “She loves you...so much. And we know more than anyone, even more than my parents, you would protect her and make sure she’s safe better than anyone.”

What the fuck .

Andrew looked from Katelyn to Aaron. He stared stoically back, completely blank because his brain was short circuiting and this kind of emotional input was going to be too much, real fast. He pressed harder into the bee.

“UNKIE ANDWEW! COME JUMP!”

Andrew swallowed hard and was knocked completely out of his own head by Bella’s little head poking out of the doors of the bouncy house.

Impulsively, he called back, “Okay!” then looked to Aaron. The same word that left his lips was more sure, more serious, more firm and honest and and and, “Okay.”

-

Andrew woke up Monday morning feeling more hopeful than he had in weeks. His head had been so stuck on the writing on the wall in the closet, that he hadn’t really let himself remember what his purpose was. Bella reminded him. Not because of her red hair and tiny-big smiles. But because she gave him a strength he couldn’t really explain. A purpose that drove him to doing this in the first place.

To help. To get justice for Mary and Nathaniel.

When Renee had tried to remind him, he rebuffed her because he didn’t want to hear it. At the time, all he knew was that there was another person, someone his age, who had gone through childhood trauma - maybe worse than what he had endured. The fact of the matter was, he had no idea. But, if he played his cards right and if he really got to the bottom of this, he’d be able to help.

That’s all he wanted. To help .

How strange...

So, he got up. He worked out. He showered. He dressed. He ate breakfast. He went to work with the words keep searching echoing in his head.

When he pulled up to the studio, it was to find Reynolds leaning against the hood of a black car in a short leather skirt and steel toed heels (which, Andrew secretly loved, but would never admit to her ). She swung a set of car keys around her finger and Andrew rolled his eyes. Come to flaunt her wealth, he supposed.

As he got King and himself out of the car, he was determined to ignore her until she threw the keys his way. Andrew caught them on reflex with all the skill of a goalie protecting his precious GS behind him. King jumped out of his arms at being rustled, but stuck close to his legs as he shut the door in annoyance and locked it.

“You resorting to throwing things at me now?” He asked, brow raised. “Wow, Reynolds. Just when I thought you couldn’t get any more obnoxious.”

With confidence only Allison fucking Reynolds could muster, she smirked and said, “They’re yours, Monster.” She walked towards him and flipped her long, blonde hair behind her. Andrew looked down at the key fob marked with a trident in his hand, before looking back up at the car.

No she fucking didn’t .

His eyes went wide involuntarily.

It was the Maserati he posted on the website. The black GranTurismo Sport he’d been drooling over since he saw it in a showcase on his way down to Palmetto. He jokingly posted it to the website in a response to a question, just to fuck with her. He didn’t expect her to actually - No.

“Is this a fucking joke?” he asked, angry that she would bring this beautiful specimen of a car all the way here just to torture him.

Because that’s all this could be. A big fucking joke.

“No joke. You want a Maserati before you listen to me? Here’s a Maserati. It’s paid in full, non-refundable.” She glanced back at it and waved her hand as if it were nothing. “I have six other cars. What do I need this for?” She put that hand on her hip and stared down at Andrew, head cocked to the side.

“So, what’ll it be, Sweetheart? Still want to send me packing? Or, do you want to drive this Maserati out of here today and add me to the team?”

This is bribery. You can’t accept. There’s a code about this shit. Ethics.

Andrew looked back to the car. “I was joking...” he said weakly because...

This is unethical... V8 engine... 186mph... 454hp....

“Well, I wasn’t. What’s your answer?”

Andrew squeezed the keyfob in his hand. He ground his teeth together and gave her the most venomous glare he could muster. “Fine. Fine. Get everyone in the lounge and we’ll talk.” He bent and picked up King.

Allison’s light brown eyes sparkled just as much as the stupid fucking grill shining on her teeth, “Going to drive it?”

“Yes.”

-

Great mood made better. Even the listeners submitting asks to the website noticed. Andrew really couldn’t help himself. That drive had been the best of his life - he’d never let the GS know -. It was smooth and exhilarating and mother fucking hell, the Maserati drove like a fucking dream. It was like everything was culminating to make today better and better and even the sprinkle he’d found in his ear that morning from sharing a sundae with Bella hadn’t even dampened it.

When he entered the office, King was chewing at one of the catnip plants he’d placed strategically around the office and he had to smirk.

Rather than go straight to the lounge where everyone was waiting, he went to his office and gathered together his notes and plan of action before joining them. King was bouncing somewhere around with loud yowls of excitement. Dan’s eyes were anxiously looking over Andrew’s shoulder to try and see her as he settled onto the couch unbothered. He set the recorder in the middle of the table like a few days ago and pressed the button.

[ Record On ]

He gestured towards Allison “Talk.”

Allison raised a single brow, but took a deep breath to settle the anxiety he could see swimming in her eyes. Andrew wanted to laugh at her. After all this time of harassing him and insisting she was important, now she was suddenly unsure?

“I saw Nathaniel and Mary,” she started. Everyone opened their mouths to talk at once, but Andrew beat them too it.

“Where and when,” he demanded and opened his moleskin to jot it down.

“In the Keys, 2002. My family has a vacation home in Islamorada. I have a picture with them in the background.”

Picture.

“Show me,” He could hear his voice in his ears, hard and stern.

“I don’t have it with me,” Allison shot back, as if this should’ve been obvious. It wasn’t. “It’s at the vacation house, in a box with some pictures. But, it’s them.”

“Okay,” Dan said, skeptical. “So-”

“So you’re telling me, you’ve been harassing me for weeks and you didn’t think to actually bring the picture with you?” Andrew cut Dan off. But Dan pushed on as Allison scoffed and opened her own mouth to respond.

So , say this is true-”

Allison was the one to cut her off this time, “It is true, sis . I expected you to be the reasonable one.”

“I’m reasonable,” Seth interjected, wagging a brow. Allison pointedly ignored him.

Dan rolled her eyes, “Fine. It’s true. Why would this one sighting make you want to come all this way and demand to be listened to - without the actual picture?”

Andrew tapped his pen on the paper and Allison tried to refute, but Dan cut her off.

“Why would you want to fund this entire podcast, based off one thing that happened when you were a kid?” Dan finished.

“Why would you buy me a Maserati? Not that I’m complaining,” Andrew helpfully added.

“Excuse me?!” Dan exclaimed, ignoring the gasps and shouts of Renee and Seth. “You bought him a fucking Maserati?!”

“Sure did,” Allison leaned back in her seat.

Renee turned towards Andrew, “Andrew, that’s not ethical. It goes against -”

Allison continued and Andrew dutifully ignored the facts he already knew, “And now look. We’re all here, actually talking about this shit instead of everyone but Seth trying to pretend I’m not here.”

“I got you, Queen,” Seth said, getting up to sit next to her. She looked over at him with thinly veiled annoyance.

“Ugh,” She flipped her hair in his direction. “I hate a man who thinks they need to tell me what I already know. How boring .”

Questions aside, Andrew’s mood stayed elevated just by the look on Seth’s face.

“Look,” Allison said, turning back to the group. “I’ve been telling people this for years and they either don’t believe me or don’t give a shit. I know what I fucking saw. That kid looked miserable and the lady looked fucking insane. I want to be able to prove it.”

Andrew fidgeted with his lip ring momentarily, studying her with a narrow of his eyes. “So you’re doing this for vindication? So that everyone knows you’re not crazy.”

“On the nose, sweetheart.”

Andrew nodded. That, at least, was familiar territory.  “I can get behind that. Fine. Now is it just stupidity that you decided not to bring the picture with you as proof, or do you have something else up your tight sleeves?”

Allison eyed the black armbands sticking out of his big sweater. A single, well-manicured brow rose.

“Perhaps a bit of both.”

His eye twitched in annoyance, but he stifled the feeling and nodded. “Welcome aboard.” Andrew snapped his moleskin closed.

Dan scoffed and shook her head. Renee, though approving of Allison on the team, still looked at him with vague disappointment again .

“Andrew, you can’t keep the car,” she said in that soothing voice she always had. The voice that told much more than she let on.

“Like fuck I can’t.” He mumbled, then looked at her. “What’s going to happen? My name will be tarnished? Validity gone?”

She pressed her lips together.

He heard Seth say, “What about me, baby? Little Monster gets a car - but really, I do most of the work.”

Allison didn’t bother looking at him, “Get yourself a sugar Daddy, baby.”

Seth sputtered, but Andrew cut him off.

“Anyway. You’re paying for this mess and any extra expenses we need. We had plans to go to Florida anyway because of the Port St. Lucie and Parkland sightings, so we’ll add the Keys to the trip.”

“Cool. I’m coming with you,” Allison said immediately. “If I’m paying for this, I’m coming.”

Andrew wasn’t going to argue. He knew nothing about the Keys and it would be easier having Allison there to show them where she saw Mary and Nathaniel and to find the picture she supposedly had. Even if she were lying, it wouldn’t be a complete waste.

He hoped .

“Fine.” He said, “We’re leaving Wednesday. That should give us time to get Episode 2 recorded and make travel plans. Renee, Reynolds and I will go. Dan-” He pointed with his pen towards her, “Get with Reynolds to make the plans since she’s footing the bill.”

Andrew stood and gathered his things with him. Renee sighed and he shook his head. “You wanted me to consider her,” he said quietly, “Consider this, considered.”

He looked over at Allison. “Get your credit card ready, Reynolds.”

Allison smiled, all white teeth and shiny diamonds, “Black card on deck, Monster.”

[ Record Off ]

-

The rest of Monday and most of Tuesday was spent getting Episode 2 recorded. Seth was able to add the Audio Notes like Andrew wanted, and it turned out better than he thought it would. He still hated the sound of his voice, but at least he had something to say.

I guess .

Allison wasn’t in the studio that day. She was busy getting things ready for the trip - whatever that meant. Apparently, she had a number of people to call. Andrew couldn’t imagine having to call an entire team of people when he wanted to go somewhere. But alas -

He and King made their way out to the Maserati on Tuesday, Renee by his side, chatting about the trip and adding things to the mental to-do list Andrew was keeping.

“So,” Renee changed the subject, “What are you going to do with the GS?” She still wasn’t too jazzed about his decision - claiming that it went against all ethical standards of journalism.

It did.

But she came around purely because he ignored every argument she attempted. Eventually, she gave up and moved on.

Speaking of, the GS was parked at his apartment complex and if there was anything he felt truly guilty about, it was the fact that he got into the Mas and not the GS. That car had been with him through college, through his masters, through moving all over the country, through getting fired and ending up back here - back home .

“You could probably get a good amount of money if you sell it.”

Excuse me? Andrew was personally offended and he let her know with the disgusted look he threw her way. Shaking his head, “Absolutely not. I’m going to put it in storage. There’s a place not far from the apartment where I can keep it.”

“Keep it for what?”

You’re getting soft.

“Bella’s going to need a car one day,” he said, shrugging and ignoring the voice inside his head. “I have an extra car that’s paid off. I’ll hang onto it for her. Keep it tuned up. Maybe refurbish it when she’s old enough.”

“That’s a very long time to hold onto a car, Uncle Andrew.”

It was. He knew that. He also knew it may be a little ridiculous - but, he didn’t like the idea of anyone else driving it. He would never be a rich guy, doing what he does. So, in a  way, being able to give Bella a car for her 16th birthday would be something he could do to help. And if it drove Aaron crazy, he wouldn’t mind that either.

Soft, soft, soft.

“It’s not so long.”

-

Why the fuck does everyone insist on getting flights that were so god damned, mother fucking early?

Andrew found himself behind the wheel of the GS. No offense to her, but he wasn’t going to trust the Mas in the airport parking lot and he refused to let anyone else drive. So, she was tucked away in the apartment parking lot, hidden underneath a cover and he was only a little worried about leaving her alone for so long.

Speaking of, it was 5:30 in the fucking morning and they were on their way to catch a flight to Florida. Renee sat beside him, Allison in the back - far more awake than she had any right to be.

King was at the studio again. They all decided that she would stay there while Andrew and Renee went on their trips. It was better than leaving her at the apartment. Despite being a cat, she was far more sociable than most and prefered to be around someone . So, it was better that she was there. Dan, Seth, Wymack, and Abby could keep her company, give her attention and love - it was, in a way, the perfect solution. Nonetheless, he hated being apart from her for too long - both for her and for himself...especially since they were going to be gone longer this time, until Sunday.

They had several stops on this trip. Key West, Parkland, and Port St. Lucie. He wasn’t looking forward to all of the traveling, but his interest in what Allison might have and the ability to cross Port. St. Lucie and Parkland off his list was too tempting not to take advantage of.

Once at the airport, Andrew was not surprised to learn that Allison had booked herself and Renee in first class (There was a weird thing going on between them that Andrew couldn’t quite pin. The first day Allison had shown up at the studio, Renee had apparently made Allison feel so guilty about the mink coat she was wearing, that she ended up dropping it at a homeless shelter and donating 250k to WWF). He was, however, surprised that she’d booked him in first class as well.

He couldn’t deny first class held a certain swank appeal. That is, until the plane took off. It seemed no matter how fancy the seats may be, it was still a tin can deathtrap.

“So,” Renee said, unbuckling herself when the fasten seatbelt sign turned off. “Allison, when we get to Miami, what happens?”

Allison put down the magazine she’d been reading - which apparently had one of her designs on the cover - and turned to face them from across the aisle.

“My assistant will pick us up and take us to my place. We can chill there, get some food, whatever you want. Then, we’ll leave from there and drive to the house in Islamorada. It’s about two hours away.”

Two hours.

Two hours that Andrew would be stuck in a car with Allison. He wanted to complain, wanted to say something slick, but the thought of spending one minute in the little puddle jumper plane that would have taken them to the Keys originally, was enough to keep his trap shut.

“Do you remember where you saw Mary and Nathaniel initially?” Andrew asked instead.

“Yes, god. I remember everything,” She said, looking to the roof of the plane. “I remember what he was wearing, the look on his face when I talked to him-”

What?

“You spoke with him?” Andrew asked, heart beating double time.

An actual encounter?

“Yes, we were-”

Shut up.

“Stop.” Andrew held up a hand. “We’ll get your full account when we get to the house in the Keys. I want it fresh and unrehearsed.”

Allison shrugged, “Whatever.”

-

Most of the flight was spent in relative silence. The WiFi was fine on the plane, so he busied himself on Twitter and a bit on the website, while Renee organized info on her laptop.

They were met at baggage claim in Miami by a very tall, very thin man who gave Andrew a once over and a smirk. Allison introduced him as Dion.

“You can call me D,” he said, still looking at Andrew. “All my friends do.”

Andrew rolled his eyes, ignored him, grabbed his bag from the conveyor belt, and made his way outside. Somewhere in between the door and the parking lot, he pulled out his cigarettes and lighter from his bag before lighting up. The first hit relaxed him immediately. Renee walked beside him and sent him a disapproving glare that Andrew again, dutifully ignored. They had a lot of driving ahead of them. It was either this or losing their funding due to stress-induced murder.

Andrew didn’t attempt to wrestle the keys from Dion because he was a civilized adult. He did, however, get into the front seat and ignored Allison’s protests. If he couldn’t drive, he wasn’t sitting in the back, that was for sure. From what he remembered of Miami drivers - if he was going to die, he wanted to see it coming for him. Not obscured by Allison’s stupid, blonde, head.

Speaking of stupid, after 45 minutes of Miami traffic and inane conversation,   Allison’s house revealed itself as just as ridiculous as Andrew assumed it would be. It was gigantic with a pool fit for Miami and a gardener in the front doing a whole lot of nothing, as far as Andrew could tell.

Dion opened the front door, Allison’s bags in hand, and Allison breezed in with sunglasses on and high heels clicking on the tile. Andrew and Renee followed her to a kitchen with a marble countertop and three different fucking ovens for some reason. She threw her 5k or some shit bag onto the counter like it was nothing, and gestured around them.

“Welcome home!” Allison said, spinning around and encompassing the entire house. “Make yourselves comfortable. I’m going to go make some calls and see if there’s anything that needs tending before we leave again.” She turned to walk down an arched hallway that probably lead to ten different bedrooms and a spa.

“Dion!” She called on the way, “Bring my calendar. I need to call Duckie and reschedule our fitting. I want to be there to see how the piece looks in person.”

Allison clacked away, Dion following after sending Andrew another glance. Andrew, again, ignored him and went about raiding whatever gerbil food Allison had in this place.

“Sandwich?” he asked Renee after rifling through the contents of Allison’s fridge.

After getting the affirmative from Renee, he set about making said sandwiches. He knew Renee didn’t like mayo, and that she loved crust like a crazy person. He knew that she loved pickles and turkey and made the sandwich with all of that in mind and with what Allison had in the fridge. Surprisingly, there was more fatty shit than he had expected from her.

Respect.

Once he was finished with both of their early lunches, he set Renee’s infront of her on a paper towel and found a bag of Takis in the cabinet.

Double respect .

No.

Fuck Reynolds.

Ripping open the bag he settled beside her and started to eat. When they were both halfway through, Renee said, “So. When we get to the Keys, how do we handle this? Does Allison come with us when we’re talking to people?”

Andrew fiddled through the chip bag to find the perfect one as he deliberated, then answered, “I think she has to. We don’t know the area. I don’t know how well known her family is, but it might help us to have someone who knows the place.”

Renee nodded. Allison reappeared in a completely different outfit, headscarf tied loosely around her face with her sunglasses atop her head, and with a new suitcase.

“Did you change?” He asked, incredulous. “We’re about to get in a car and drive for two hours. Why bother?”

Allison pulled back her chin, “I need to be in car clothes.”

“Airplane clothes are so different?”

She rolled her eyes, gave him one of her ugh’s and said, “Don’t bother me. Why are you eating off paper towels?”

Andrew looked down at his half eaten sandwich on the crumb-filled paper towel. “Because they were there? What else do you use them for?”

“UGH!” She said louder, then lowered her voice to hiss, “Fucking peasants.” She made her way to the cabinets, “For cleaning shit. Like normal fucking people. I don’t think that’s a rich-bitch thing.” She got out two plates, “Who raised you? Fucking barbaric...” Setting them down, she pushed them across the island towards them and said, “Can’t believe you have my girl eating off a napkin.” She gave Renee a wink and Renee hid a smile.

Oh?

Andrew raised his brow at Renee, but it was Renee that ignored him this time as she transferred her sandwich to the plate.

“How do you know she doesn’t have me eating off a napkin?” Andrew countered, pushing the offered plate away, just to be difficult.

“Because she would never.” How matter of fact. “Hurry up and finish. I want to get out of here before fashion changes trends.”

-

Once they finished their food - Allison eating the entire bag of Takis as substitute along with a salad of what Andrew was fairly certain was just kale, lemon juice, and tahini , they made their way to the five-car garage.

“We’ll take the Porsche,” Allison said, leading them to the far end. Andrew couldn’t help but let his eyes pass over the irritatingly gorgeous cars splayed out around him. A Benz, Rolls Royce Wraith , Bently, Lamborghini, a fucking McLaren - Andrew’s mouth was watering and his fingers itched to just touch . He shoved his hands into his pockets until Allison stopped in front of said Porsche . It was hot pink, convertible, shiny and so fucking Allison it nearly made him sick, if it weren’t a fucking Porsche .

Allison went to open the driver door and Andrew stopped her by stepping in her way.

“I’m driving. Keys.” He spoke with the same confidence Bella had when she knew she could get Andrew to do whatever she liked, and held out his hand.

“You’re going to drive my pink car? My Barbie pink drop-top Porsche?” Allison looked disbelieving.

“What?” Andrew asked, “Will people think I’m gay? Oh no!” Andrew put his hand over his mouth in a gasp, then looked at Allison blankly again. He wiggled his fingers, “Give me the fucking keys. I drive or I don’t go.”

Allison scoffed. “Fine, you little shit. But I’m taking the Maserati back if you wreck it.”

Andrew blinked once, then let himself smile a small, sarcastic smile with the barest of quirk of his lips. “No, you won’t.”

-

The drive to Islamorada was excruciating. Florida drivers didn’t know how to fucking drive, so he spent a good portion of his time dodging blinkerless cars. The other part of that time, was listening to Renee chat with Allison - because she could talk to anyone. They talked over the backseat about earth-conscious fashion, organic cotton, and vegan leather. The only thing that made any of this slightly tolerable, was the fact that he was driving a fucking Porsche .

At least when they’d reached the Keys, things got much smoother. It was different than what he’d expected, to be honest. When he thought of the Keys, he thought commercialized vacations, rich people, and that stupid Netflix series he’d given up on one episode in. But, this was different. Sure, there were hotels all over, but the islands were made up of mom and pop shops. The only remotely commercial thing was a single Wendy’s, McDonalds, and Starbucks that Allison made them stop at because  ‘There’s not another fucking Starbucks until we hit Key West* ’.

They passed through Key Largo on Overseas Highway (the only way in and out of the Keys), into Tavernier and things started to change. With the top down he could smell salty air, the sun was shining and it was, actually, really fucking nice.

Don’t fucking @ me.

Tavernier was connected to Islamorada by a drawbridge that was up . Allison spent the entirety of its rise and fall, by being oh so interested in the ways in which recycled materials can not only be high quality, but blah fucking blah blah blah.

Once they crossed the bridge, if they weren’t close enough to the house, Andrew was going to drive this pretty pink Porsche straight into the goddamned ocean.

The Reynolds family vacation home was located in some exclusive fucking neighborhood on The Ocean Side . Whereas most expensive homes are built on the canals that ran through the Keys, this neighborhood was made up of private beaches and homes that were perhaps a bit dated, but for - of course - the Reynolds.

It was modest, in comparison to Allison’s Miami mansion, but it stuck out from the rest. With a private gate and a winding driveway that led to a house resting on one of the exclusive beaches, the house was simple in that charming way, he supposed. It was a white home with the walls made up of shells, with a flat roof and wrap around screened porch. Palms bent in the wind, the gardens were vibrant and well maintained, and there were a few iguanas bathing in the sun.

They got out of the car, stretching themselves, and Andrew took a sip of his caramel frappuccino as he very briefly took in the smell and sound of waves crashing in the background.

It was not nice.

Then, he took out his phone and asked Renee to take a picture of him in front of the pink Porsche.

“Sure, Uncle Andrew,” She smiled and snapped a single picture.

Allison stood to the side and shook her head saying, “What about the rest?” Then walked away with her bag over her shoulder. “You have to take several and pick the best one. Who fucking raised -” her voice faded as she made her way to the front door and unlocked it.

Andrew smirked only to himself, Renee most certainly did not see, and he sent the single picture to Aaron with instruction to show it to Bella.

Grabbing his and Renee’s bags from the trunk, he looked down at his phone to see:

‘Where the hell did you find that thing?’

‘Rich Bitch Barbie. Just show her.’

The house on the inside was very...New England. Nautical in that way beach houses were, it had that smell to it too. Fresh and airy, salty, yet sweet. It was all tile floors for easy sand clean up and large windows for the sun to let itself in. How this place made it through hurricanes, he didn’t fucking know and didn’t care enough to ask. Nonetheless, there was a large pool in the back and a few feet beyond that, the ocean.

“Why would you have a pool when the ocean is right there?” Andrew asked.

Allison gave him a look, her lip curled, “You swim in the ocean?”

Andrew shrugged. “No, but I don’t swim in pools either.”

“Okay well, in this house, we don’t swim in the ocean. It ruins your hair. And though I wear wigs, I’m not letting my curls get fucked up. Thank you, next.”

Renee was busy exploring the main living area with a little smile on her lips. Andrew rolled his eyes and asked, “Where am I sleeping? Let’s decompress before we get into anything serious here.” Andrew needed to just be by himself for a few hours.

It wasn’t like he didn’t want the information as fast as possible. Of course, he did. There was unsettled energy vibrating through his veins - wanting to search and gather information, learn more and piece together this ever growing puzzle. But, he needed to be in the right frame of mind. No impulses, just sure, calculated steps forward. Something as simple as interviewing this Blonde Barbie would take that extra care.

Allison showed them to two rooms next to each other. More tile, more windows. As soon as he closed the door in Allison’s face, he shut the curtains to get the god damned sun out in an attempt to make the room as dark as he could. Once that was finished, he kicked his boots off and laid on the bed, checking Twitter and Tumblr on his phone.

-

Several hours later, he was started awake by a knock on the door.

“Andrew?” Renee called through.

“What?” His voice was sleep rough and he cleared his throat. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. Turning his head, he slowly sat up and rubbed at his eyes from beneath his glasses.

“Do you want to come discuss the rest of the trip? Allison is looking for the picture now.”

He looked up to the ceiling for a moment, before rolling out of bed. Somehow, he was more tired than before. When he checked his phone, there was a text from Aaron.

It was a video. Bella was showing the camera a pink toy car she had. Her little voice came through his phone and it was like music to his oversensitive, sleep warmed ears.

‘Unkie Andwew has a pink car like me’

‘I know baby. He sent that picture just for you’

Bella looked at the camera and held up her little pink car with the flowers, so it was right in front of her. The car obstructed his view of her completely.

‘Look Unkie!’

The video stopped and Andrew smiled at his phone until he heard Allison’s voice from the main room.

“Found it!”

He found her and Renee sitting on the couch surrounded by boxes full of pictures. Allison was holding one and staring at it intently.

“Lord, I forgot how sad he looked...” She whispered softly.

Andrew hurried over and snatched the picture out of her hand. It was of a very young Allison, sans blonde hair and grill, but a big smile in its place. She was with what looked like three friends, and they were posing with peace signs. If he hadn’t been looking so closely, he would have missed it - but it was there, right in the back.

Mary and Nathaniel were facing the camera, walking towards where Allison and her friends were. Mary’s head was turned towards Nathaniel and she had one hand gripping his arm. He was looking straight ahead, eyes just as startlingly blue as Andrew remembered, even when photographed at this distance. His face was blank. He looked only a little older than in the family photo.

Buzz.

“What year did you say this was?” He asked, eyes still locked on Nathaniel.

“2002. I remember because I was going through my Brandy ‘Full Moon’ phase. Look at the hair,” he glanced up at her with a brow raised. “Don’t look at me like that, Monster. Don’t pretend you didn’t go through a white boy scene phase.”

That was beside the point.

“Okay,” he started, “So you saw them in 2002. This is definitely them.” Andrew ran a finger over Nathaniel’s face. “What were they doing here? Were they hiding or were they here for a reason?”

Renee interjected, “How about we get some dinner. Then, we’ll get into a deeper discussion about this,” she suggested.

Andrew begrudgingly agreed, while Allison just shrugged her shoulders.

They went to a restaurant called Marker 88. It was exactly as Andrew would have expected. Everything was overpriced and included fish in some way or another. But, the drinks were good and the atmosphere was nice, but for the acoustic singer, rattling away some faux reggae song. Nonetheless, they sat by the water and a few cats walked by - which wholly changed his entire mood (according to Allison, the Florida Keys has a cat problem. A million strays that just wander around. Andrew didn’t see that as a problem at all).

He closed his seafoodless seafood pasta, with a slice of the Chocolate Toffee Mousse Cake - which was excellent and he enjoyed making Allison pay for.

On their way out, Allison bought a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine as they were leaving and somehow dodged a conversation by an old couple sitting at a table they passed.

Once they got back to the house, they found themselves on the back porch as night stretched above them. One of the maids lit torches to ward off the few bugs that stuck around despite the ocean breeze and the light was just enough for Andrew to make out the three of them seated around the circular table.

The recorder sat between them on the table, a large microphone attached.

[ Record On ]

He began. “Andrew Minyard, interviewing Allison Reynolds. April 24, 2019 - 7:21PM.”

Allison, without being prompted, leaned towards the recorder and said, “Allison Reynolds, fashion designer and bad bitch. Twenty-eight years old with skin as if she were eighteen. Rich beyond measure.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Thank you, your highness. Tell me your story. You say you saw Mary and Nathaniel in Key West, 2002. You would’ve been eleven years old. What happened?”

Allison took a sip of her wine. Her sparkling rings tinged against the glass. When Andrew raised a brow, she gave him her signature smirk before turning serious. “I had three friends with me here that year-”

“Here as in the Keys, correct?”

Her eye twitched in a slight challenge, before she lifted her chin for a nod. “Yes. I had three friends with me here in the Keys. We always stay here, at my family’s home in Islamorada - but we would go to Key West for the fun touristy shops. So, it was me, three friends, and my au pair. We were in one of the shops that sold jewelry and trinkets. You know, the kind you find at every beach shop. Puca shells, hemp necklaces, etc etc. Anyway,” She took a deep breath, “My friends were in one corner, looking at this display of really hideous butterfly clips. I was on the other side, looking at some bracelets that were on a spinning display. But, when I tried to turn it, it wouldn’t move. So, I looked to the other side and there was a boy there.”

Andrew fought the impulse to crack his pinky. Instead, he bit down on his lip ring for half a second before asking, “Can you describe him for us? His appearance, his demeanor?”

“He was small, like you,” Buzz. “Could’ve passed for seven, but I would say eight. Darkish red hair and these eyes that were just... so blue. Thick black lashes-”

“They were auburn,” Andrew said, then barreled on when Allison and Renee looked at him. “From the family photo. If you blow it up, they were auburn.”

Buzz .

Allison raised a brow but continued. “Anyway, his skin was a few shades darker than yours and he had freckles. A real cute kid. He seemed alright when I saw him, but when I told him the bracelet in his hand would look really pretty with his eyes, you would’ve thought I just told him I killed puppies.” She tapped a long nail against her glass. “His mom must’ve seen us talking. She marched over and yanked him out by the arm - told him he wasn’t to talk to anyone. Her skin was darker than his. Not as dark as mine, but still like... toasty, I guess. Her hair was a dirty blonde. Her eyes...she looked insane, to be honest.”

Andrew’s pulse sped ahead of itself and he tried to clamp it down. “Okay, so what happened after you saw them in the shop? Did you see them anywhere else?”

“I only saw them one more time that day in passing, but that’s it. I didn’t even realize they were in the picture until we had them developed.”

“So, when did you realize it was Mary and Nathaniel?” Renee asked, taking a sip of water while Allison nursed her wine. Andrew had a glass of scotch that Allison had produced from a very dusty bottle of Johnny Walker.

“Not until 2004. It was when the Butcher was arrested and it was all over the news. I saw that family photo pop up somewhere and I knew immediately. All the news ever said was that they had been missing and no clues to their whereabouts were ever found.”

“Did you tell anyone?” Andrew knew she had. Most of the reason she was even doing this was to prove everyone wrong.

Allison rolled her neck and waved her glass, “I told everyone. No one believed me, said I was crazy. Even after I tried to pull the picture out one summer and show my parents.” She drained the remaining wine in one go and poured herself another glass - pinky up.

Andrew nodded slowly. “Okay...so tell us why you want to do this. To help us find Mary and Nathaniel and fund the project in the process.”

“I told you why,” Allison said, annoyed.

“In your own words.”

She huffed and set the bottle down. “Because I’m not fucking crazy. I saw them and they were here, in the Keys, 2002, and they looked fucking terrified. I know they were running from something. It was a chance meeting, inconsequential, but it never left me. I want to prove I’m right, but I also want to help that kid. I know he’d be grown now, but if they’re still out there, if they’re still running, I want to help.”

Andrew reached for the recorder. “Okay.”

[ Record Off ]

-

The next morning, they left bright and early for Key West. It was another long drive in the car, but this time, not only were they able to discuss where they needed to go and what they needed to do, but it was a calm drive as well. There was little traffic in the middle of the week and they stopped somewhere in Marathon Key to pick up coffee and something to eat.

Once they arrived in Key West, they parked in a designated parking area and made their way to the location where Allison had seen Nathaniel and Mary with no delay.

There were a shit ton of touristy shops with all the crap one would see in any beach town and Andrew was certain people didn’t need an entire store dedicated to Crocs.

Allison led them to one in particular that held surfing equipment, themed towels, and jewelry. It wasn’t a small shop, but it was connected to several others on Duval Street.

“So, this is the shop you saw them in?” Andrew asked.

Allison pulled her sunglasses up and squinted in the sun. She nodded and sighed, “Yes. It looks different, but this is it.”

When they entered, neither of them bothered to look around but instead made a beeline for the checkout counter. A woman sat behind, flipping through a magazine. She looked up at Andrew and his black armbands and piercings and was very obviously confused.

“Can I help you?” she asked. She wasn’t too young, not too old. She must have been in her mid-forties with curling hair and sunglass tan lines.

“My name is Andrew Minyard and I’m a journalist working on a story. Do you mind answering a few questions?”

The woman stood a little straighter and tried to flatten her curls.

Renee took out the recorder and placed it on the counter with raised brows. “Is it alright if we record? It’s for continuity.”

The woman nodded and smiled as if she were on camera, then asked, “What’s the story about?”

Andrew let his eyes pass over the place. “We’re looking for some people that went missing a number of years ago. They were spotted in this area.” He tried to be as vague and as honest as possible.

“Oh! Well, I don’t know if I can help, but I’m happy to try.” She pushed her magazine off to the side and leaned forward on the counter.

[ Record On ]

“First, what’s your name and how do you spell it?” He asked. Renee held the recorder up between them to try and bypass the noise of shoppers and tourists in the background.

“Deborah Watkins.” She spelled it out.

“Right. How long have you worked in this store?”

“Well, my husband and I own it, actually. For about ten years now.”

Fuck .

So they weren’t here when Allison spotted them.

Nonetheless. “Do you know the previous owners?” he asked, “Are they still in the area?”

Deborah got a weird look on her face that quickly turned conspiratorial in that way some women get when they’re about to gossip. “Ah, well. That. Turns out they were running some sort of illegal business out the back of the store.” She waved her hand errantly towards the wall behind her. Buzz . “Feds came in and shut them down. We bought the store when it went up for sale, some years later.”

Illegal business?

“Do you know what kind of illegal business? Drugs maybe?” he suggested, glancing at Renee to find her brows raised and looking back at him.

“No, no. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure it was counterfeit money and documents. We found a bunch of weird paper in the back and there was ink everywhere. Apparently, a federal investigation doesn’t also mean clean up.”

Andrew’s stomach did a little leap like it always did when he knew he was onto something important. Bee buzzed in his ear and he quickly scratched at her to quiet down because he knew. Taking out his phone, he zoomed in on the image he’d snapped of Allison’s picture of Mary and Nathaniel.

“These people were seen here in 2002. Were you here then? Do you recall seeing them?”

Deborah paused for a long moment. Her eyes squinted and she hummed to herself, before shaking her head. “Mm...no. We were here then, but they don’t look familiar to me.”

Well.

“Okay.” Be polite. “Thank you for your time. Do you happen to know if there are any other shop owners that have been in the area for longer? Twenty years or so?”

[ Record Off ]

The woman gave Andrew the name of a few shops which he jotted down, and they made their way out of the store.

“That was good...” Renee started once they exited.

Andrew grunted in agreement. He had to admit, “It was really good.” He decided not to look at Allison as she popped her sunglasses back over her eyes and hummed self-satisfied.

“So,” she started, hooking her arm with Renee and steering them down the street to head to another location. “What does all this mean?”

Andrew sighed. “It means, your highness, that if we can confirm this is true - it’s entirely plausible Mary was in that store trying to get papers for her and Nathaniel. Fake ID’s, passports...who knows. But it’s all on the table.”

Allison’s eyes widened from beneath the shades. “Oh. Oh. That makes sense if they were hiding...”

Yeah. It does.

They spent the next hour contacting other shop owners. There was only one person who had been there under a different store name a number of years before that recalled seeing them.

“I remember, only because they were so damn twitchy. They came in the store, it was a kind of sundries store back then, and asked if we sold hair dye. We didn’t and she was not happy about it. Dragged that kid out of here and I didn’t see them again.

“So, they were trying to disguise themselves,” Allison said later, picking at the food they were sitting down and eating. “New looks, new identities. They were  determined not to be found, it seems.”

“It does seem,” Andrew said.

The next stop was the Monroe County Library. Andrew looked through all the local news he could find from the last seventeen years until he found what he needed. According to the article, the shop was shut down in 2005 after an undercover investigation revealed a forgery business being run out of the back. Andrew printed the article and stuck it in his notebook.

This is fucking huge .

Now, they knew. They weren't just looking for Mary and Nathaniel - no. They could be looking for literally anyone , which made this infinitely harder.

Are they still even in the country?

Suddenly, this entire thing grew exponentially larger.

-

Friday morning, they drove back to Miami. Thankfully, once they arrived, they left Allison to sort out whatever it was she said she needed to sort out, and drove the Wraith to Parkland.

In a way, Andrew was incredibly relieved. Not to be driving to Parkland, to feel the heavy souls that hung around that place after horrific recent events, but he was done letting Allison play investigator. For something like this, he needed to keep his head screwed on straight - needed to have a clear mind and a set goal so he didn't fly off the rails. Not to mention, he couldn’t handle listening to Allison jabber on about how she had a fitting with someone named Duckie Thot (who he was sure could not be a real person). Nor could he put up with the house she was renting in Palmetto, along with the consequences that brought forth.

Nonetheless.

After Renee and Andrew dropped Allison off, they ate a quick lunch and drove the hour or so drive. By the time they arrived, they would have plenty of time to meet their contact -

Which, was a woman named Sarah Johnson. She was a well-known journalist and handled the coverage of the missing mother and son, way back in 2002.

It was a simple Starbucks, but it was the middle of a school day and mostly empty. Sarah was a woman that Andrew was familiar with through various connections and they both graduated from Columbia’s Journalism school. Of course, she was double his age, but still tried to chat him up about professors and other bullshit that Andrew was trying his best to cut through.

“Yeah, Professor Whelty was an ass.  But moving on.” He motioned towards Renee where she had taken out their trusty recorder and placed it on the table with a smile.

[ Record On ]

He went through the usual set up - name, how to spell it, the time and date, etc etc, then jumped right in without any further precursors.

“What can you tell me about this case? The mother and son you reported on in 2002?” He began.

Sarah smiled a shining smile with too-straight teeth that could rival even Allison’s. Her brown eyes glittered tightly, just as much as the rest of her face, and she took a sip of her coffee before saying, “Not much, honestly. We got the report from Port St. Lucie. They were there before and were traced here - to Parkland. We know the child had red hair and blue eyes, around seven years old. Port St. Lucie gave us the names, Mary and Nathaniel Abrams.”

Renee and Andrew looked to each other.

Buzz .

“So,” Andrew started, “Were they actually spotted here? Did someone physically see them?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I think they were traced here using financial transactions or something. A rental car maybe? I’m sorry, I don’t have anymore information than that. It wasn’t a big case and they weren’t locals.”

Renee gave the smile Andrew could not (would not). “You’ve helped us so much,” she said. “We appreciate your time.”

[ Record Off ]

-

They didn’t bother interviewing anyone else and they had nowhere to start anyway. Milling around the town for a bit, they then had dinner before driving to Port St. Lucie, which was little more than an hour away. Once they arrived, they found a hotel to crash in that night and woke the next morning for an unappetizing hotel breakfast with even worse coffee.

No whipped cream in sight.

The person they were meeting this time was also a journalist, with graying hair and a belly paunch, named Bob Roberts. That’s right. Robert Roberts. Andrew wondered what kind of psychopaths his parents were, but quickly realized how ridiculous that was when searching for a mother and son who’s husband/father chopped people up for a living.

They met him for lunch this time and he had far more information than Sarah did. There were article printouts involving the mother and son, and he’d emailed Andrew the news clips. Bob Roberts was honestly here to help.

[ Record On ]

“We think they came from Orlando,” he said, scratching at his thin beard. “They drove to Port St. Lucie in a rental car that they ditched as soon as they got here.” He took a deep breath and as he let it out, he continued, “Anyway, no one knew who they were, of course. But local PD got a call from someone claiming that Mary and Nathaniel Abrams were here. We have no real idea  what tipped this person off to their whereabouts.”

“Why Orlando?” Andrew asked.

“We were able to locate the rental car they drove down and it’s registered ‘home’ was the Orlando International Airport. We don’t know where they were before that.”

Andrew considered this. Did they actually fly into Orlando? Andrew had a feeling if anyone looked for Mary and Nathaniel Abrams flight records, they wouldn’t find any. That was federal territory anyway and the feds have proven that they don’t care.

So, they went from Orlando to Port St. Lucie to Parkland to Key West to meet their possible contact for even more possible fake ID’s. Somewhere along the way, they must have changed their appearance and their names if the ID route panned through.

Okay .

“Did anyone physically see them?” Andrew asked.

“Yes,” Bob said, taking another stack of papers from his bag. “Here are the interviews we have of the sightings. There are only a few, but they seem pretty reliable. The descriptions match, at least.”

[ Record Off ]

Andrew nodded his thanks and paid the bill before they left. As Renee shook Bob’s hand (Andrew’s remained in his pockets) Bob said, “I love your podcast, by the way.” He looked between them. “I know you’re probably trying to stay under the radar, but when I heard Andrew Minyard was calling for me - I admit, I was excited.”

Andrew just stared. “Why would someone be excited about a journalist looking for missing people?”

“Thank you!” Renee interjected. “We appreciate that. Episode two is dropping tomorrow, we hope you listen!”

Bob smiled the type of smile that must come easy for men like him. “Oh, I will. And good luck with everything. I hope you find them.”

As they exited the restaurant, Andrew heard Bob call after them, “ Keep Searching!”

-

Andrew and Renee drove back to Miami that evening.

Allison’s house was in disarray. Boxes were everywhere and Allison was on her knees in the living room, tossing things about.

“What the hell are you doing?” Andrew asked, dropping his bag at his feet and taking in the mess around him. “Surely you’re not taking all of this shit to Palmetto?”

“Of course not, Monster,” She mumbled, her hair piled atop her head in a messy bun. “I’m just making sure I don’t leave anything important behind.”

“Don’t worry, baby,” Dion said, coming around the corner. He brightened at the sight of Andrew and flashed him a smile that said more than just ‘welcome back’. “Hey, you. How was the trip?”

Allison looked up and between them.

“No,” she said with finality.

“What?” Dion asked, not taking his eyes off Andrew.

“Absolutely not, Dion. You can’t fuck him. Understand? This shit is complicated enough without you putting your dick where it doesn't belong.” She tossed something at him, which he caught with surprisingly good reflexes. “Keep it in your fucking pants.

Dion pouted his plush lips, “You’re no fun...”

“Wow, it’s almost as if I’m not here,” Andrew said, unclamping his teeth from grinding together. He turned his eyes to Allison. “You don’t tell me who I can and cannot fuck, Reynolds. Let’s get that straight first.”

Dion smiled brightly before Andrew looked to him and said, “Secondly, it was never going to happen. Sorry to disappoint.”

Not that Andrew hadn’t considered it - he most certainly had . Dion was attractive in a very Miami kind of way. Tall and fit, with light brown skin and dark brown eyes. Oh, he’d thought about it. But, the fact of the matter was, he was in no state of mind and he hadn’t enough time to figure out what kind of guy this Dion is. His hookups were always carefully considered - he didn’t know this guy, didn’t know if he knew how to keep his hands to himself or follow instructions. Right now , it’d be more trouble than it was worth.

The look on Dion’s face must have been what set off Allison’s laughter that followed him into the kitchen. Renee was already digging through the fridge. When she looked over her shoulder at him, she smiled serenely and Andrew rolled his eyes. “Make sure you get a god damned plate this time,” he muttered.

Renee just hummed as she pulled things out and went about making something.

“So,” she said, after a moment of silence. “We got a lot of good info this trip.”

“Mm,” he hummed, “We did. Now we need to figure out where they went after the Keys. They could’ve gone overseas with fake passports... or across the country. Who fucking knows.” Andrew grabbed a handful of chips from the bag Renee had thrown on the counter.

“We haven’t delved too deep into Europe.” Renee washed the container of grapes and placed them pointedly on a paper towel with a wink at Andrew. “Maybe we should look a little more into that? Try and see if there were any sightings after 2002. We’ve received a few emails that could possibly give us some leads.”

Andrew nodded and chewed some more.

Silence stretched between them.

Eventually Renee asked, “Where are you at right now?”

“We’re going to find them,” Andrew replied quietly. “I can feel it.”

-

The flight on Sunday wasn’t as terrible as the flight there. However, Andrew was more than glad to be back in South Carolina. He missed King and the few videos Dan had sent him did nothing to dull his anxiety from being away for so long.

After landing, all three of them piled into the GS. It would have been four, as Dion came with them this time. However, he got himself a rental car to do errands or whatever the fuck for Allison’s move.

As soon as they got themselves onto the road for the two-hour drive to Palmetto, Andrew’s phone rang. It was Dan.

He answered with every intention in asking how King was, but Dan cut him off before he had the chance. “We have a problem.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “We always do. What is it this time?”

Dan’s voice was tighter than usual. He could hear how hard she was trying to keep her cool. “We received a cease and desist today from Edgar Allen Productions. Abby received a certified letter with your name and The Foxhole Network on it.”

Finally .

“Took them long enough,” Andrew replied. Honestly, he’d been expecting this since he was fired from the Globe.

“Andrew,” Dan used that tone. “This is serious shit. We could be sued if we defy this order.” He could hear paper rattling in the background, like Dan was shaking it at the phone.

“Yes, yes I’m sure we will be. Tell Abby to start looking for ways around it and I’ll be there soon.” He hung up without waiting for her reply and kept his eyes on the road.

“Edgar Allen finally got around to it, huh?” Renee asked.

“Look’s that way.”

“Well, Monster,” Allison said from the backseat, grinning in the rearview. “Guess you’ll have to make your case without them.”

Buzz .

“We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

[ Piano. Sirens wailing ]

//In a heartbeat, a person can just be there and then gone.//

//Now we’d ask you to take a good look at your screen. Port St. Lucie Police need your help to find this missing mother and her 8 year old son.//

[ Run Little Rabbit Run, Run ]

//He hid behind... He thought he could hide behind a door. It was a nice door - expensive door.//

//The shocking part about a lot of these cases is how various circumstances and situations can result in somebody just completely vanishing. In a second they’re gone...with no trace of what happened to them.//

[ Orchestral music ]

//If you don’t want it found, you can take it somewhere. You could bury it. Put it in the trunk of a car and have it crushed.//

//At this point, Baltimore Police are fearing the worst.//

//We’re not talking about Runaways, we’re talking about situations where we know the people are in significant risk of harm.//

//Detectives are now working with authorities in Parkland and no where there have they seen this pair.//

You’re listening to Red Rabbits. I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

-

Neil watched his feet as he walked. He listened to the sound of his worn sneakers slap slap slap the pavement underneath and hoped, with his bowed head, he could fade into obscurity. This was one of the rules in the long list he and his mother had while running.

Don’t make eye contact.

Don’t stand out.

Don’t talk to anyone.

Don’t stay in one place.

Don’t get attached.

Don’t, don’t, don’t.

Even in New York City - a place where no one stood out, no one made eye contact, no one talked, no one stayed, and no one attached - the rules still applied. Because that is what had been ingrained beaten into him.

Though he recited the list in his head like a mantra, even he could not fool himself into thinking he was following them.

Once upon a time he’d been so good at it. Lately, like last-couple-of-months-kind-of-lately, he’d gotten really good at breaking every single thing his mother had desperately tried to instill.

This was going on three weeks that he’d been at Matt’s place and only today had he decided to do something that he should’ve done the moment he’d been hit by Matt’s truck.

Nonetheless.

The mantra continued and he repeated the words, syncing each syllable to the slap of his feet that melted into the hundreds of those around him. It created almost a song; a song of beats and horns and words and lies and attempts and failures and slap slap slaps and - and it was his mother’s lullaby. A song of running , a song of survival , a song he neglected and pretended didn’t exist. Instead, he used it as white noise to fill the cracks in his crumbling facade.  

And so, that was his list of rules.

He was getting close now.

Little more than two weeks ago, Neil had decided not to call Frankie again. It was too risky - what if someone tapped the phones? What if someone, not Frankie, was waiting around for that phone to ring? He was compromised, Neil knew that much. But the level to which he was fucked, he didn’t know. And not for nothing, but Frankie was his last chance to get the fuck out of the States and start anew somewhere else.

Because that’s what needed to happen.

Don’t get attached.

The past few weeks had been good and that was the problem.

Don’t stay in one place .

One day turned into two, two into three, and an end was nowhere in sight. Neil had gotten comfortable in the security net that Matt Boyd had become. He was good company, as much as Neil hated to admit it.

Don't. Get. Attached.

He wasn’t . But Matt really was a good thing, a good level of insurance until Neil got his shit together. His apartment was secure, he provided him with a job. And not only that, but even though Matt’s obsession with Red Rabbits had been disconcerting at first, it helped Neil stay updated with new releases. The only issue was making sure he kept himself in check enough that Matt didn’t catch the little twitches Neil couldn’t hold back whenever Matt spoke his birth name or brought up events of Neil’s childhood out of the blue.

You have to stay one step ahead, Nathaniel.

Know what’s coming for you. Know what’s after you. Get out before it’s too late.

Neil’s heart beat in his ears and it joined the lullaby his mother was screaming in his head. Slap, slap, slaps turned to ba-bum, bum, bums that grew louder and louder as he came up to Frankie’s shop. He forced himself to take a deep breath, drown out the noise and look up at the storefront window.

Empty.

When Neil had been here with his mother all those years ago, it had been a Realty office. Pictures of buildings hung in the windows and there used to be a desk with a receptionist and everything. He and his mother were quickly shuffled to the back where the business took place and that was that.

Now, however, the shop was empty . Neil didn’t want to linger - the voice in his head was doing everything it could to tell him to turn around and don’t look back, but he couldn’t help but peek.

Taking a step closer, he held up a hand to block the sunlight glaring through the buildings and looked through the dust collecting on the glass to see discolored carpet where furniture once stood and a poster with similar high rises to Matt’s half hanging off the wall.

Frankie had said he was done with all illegal mess. He’d said that he’d moved on, had been riding the ‘straight and narrow’. Was that true? For a place to be raided like this, with nothing left but a shitty clean-up job, Neil didn’t know.

What he did know, was that the song, the noise, the blood racing through his body, and one voice that was telling him to turn around and don’t come back - while another was advising him to figure out what the fuck happened.

He chose the second as panic started to creep up from his stomach - hot and tingly and working its way to his throat and eyes. What if it was just rivals? Another business coming to snuff Frankie out and squash competition. In that case, Neil should probably figure out who they are. In another, it could have been the feds, which was much more likely. Wiring several hundred thousand dollars to some Realtors office in New York, on second thought, didn’t seem like the best fucking idea in the world. But, hindsight was 20/20 and Neil would have to be much more careful from now on.

Calm down. Focus.

Neil paced away from the shop and scanned his surroundings. It was just like every other upper Manhattan street. There were shops and people and cars and people and dogs and more fucking people. He closed his eyes, leaned his back against one building and reminded himself how to breathe as another possibility crept into his head.

What if Frankie really was done with this life? What if he saw Neil as a good opportunity, took his money, and ran?

No. No that makes no sense.

Frankie had been the one to call him. He’d been the one to say something before Neil was hit by Matt’s fucking truck.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Swallowing down the acid that had collected in the back of his throat, Neil grit his teeth and looked across the street to a small bodega that looked as empty as bodegas get.

Be smart. Calm the fuck down.

Balling his fists, Neil nodded to himself, pushed off the wall, jaywalked past honking cars across the street, and entered. Quarters were close inside. Shelves upon shelves of cheap food closing in on him as he shook his hands to try and get the numbness to leave his fingers. He felt claustrophobic, which didn’t help the panic attack making slow work on his psyche. Nonetheless, he had a goal in mind and ignored the isles ready to collapse on him as he made his way to the register. Behind it was a bored looking guy about his age, watching something on a small portable TV.  

“Excuse me,” Neil said, blinking the dryness away from the cheap new brand of contacts he’d ordered from a small shop in Brooklyn a week ago. When the man looked up, Neil barreled on. “Do you have any idea what happened to the realty office across the street? I had an appointment with them and they’re gone.”

The guy looked at him like he was slow before saying, “You not from here?”

Neil was confused. “I don’t really see what that-”

“They got popped by the feds. Saw them couple weeks ago carryin’ shit out and puttin’ it in trucks.”

Neil dug his nails into his palms. “What kind of shit?” They were starting to sweat.

“Like, computers and papers and shit. I don’t know. Probably embezzling money or somethin’. Anyway, your people got popped. Sorry. Probably locked up on Rikers by now.”

Neil somehow managed a weak ‘thank you’ before stumbling out of the shop and around the corner. He wedged himself against a wall beside a dumpster in an ally and allowed himself to finally fall apart.

Not here, Nathaniel. Get your shit together.

It always started in his hands. The tingling in his fingers only grew. It crawled up his arms to his shoulders and all the way until his lips were numb and he felt like there was cotton in his ears. His eyes burned as tears threatened to come free, wetting the dry contacts uncomfortably. Neil clenched his eyes shut from allowing one to fall out and felt as hot and cold sweats wracked his body. He was shivering, teeth clacking and the back of his shirt stuck to his skin. He let it all come. Let it wash over him like a tsunami as he detached himself from the brick and the dumpster and the city and the noise and smells and everyone slap slap fucking slaps of their stupid fucking shoes on the pavement.

You’re fucked .

The feds didn’t have anything on him but a name...a name that -

No. He wasn’t truly fucked. Neil Josten was anonymous in NYC. He’d be fine. Everything was fine . All he needed to do was get it all out now so that this never happened again.

In through your nose, out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth.

Slowly, he started to come back down. He may have been in that ally for one minute, five, an hour, he didn’t fucking know. But the panic was ebbing.

They used to be a part of who he was as a person. Neil was generally one giant ball of anxiety and if he wasn’t, he was just too comfortable. He’d learned that the hard way in Arizona.

Now, look where he was.

Neil took one last steadying breath, wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, and got up to his feet. No more of that. It was time to move forward and continue what he’d been doing.

Frankie was no longer an option.

-

These past few weeks have been hectic, to say the least, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t actually feel accomplished. Not only have we been receiving consistent tips, but some of them seem to not be bullshit. That, surprisingly, is progress.

Which is as good a segway as any, I think, to say thank you. Thank you to all those emailing in with evidence, articles, photographs, and credible leads that can help us get somewhere. It’s also a good segway to lend a sincere, genuine, and honest fuck you to those that are treating this as a joke. Of course, we expected a level of trollery to come into this, but know that I’m pretty good at sniffing out bullshit. Any of you who are thinking that you’re sending myself and my team on a wild goose chase - you aren't. You’re just getting yourself deleted and laughed at your attempt. So. There’s that.

A lot has happened since the last episode. I have to say, after years of writing for several major publications, researching high profile cases, and weeding out sources all on my own - this has been the most effective way of receiving information that I have ever used. As many of you know, I went into this podcast with deliciously low expectations. But the reaction has been enormous and in turn, we are moving along faster than I’d expected.

With that being said, we appreciate the ratings and comments that we’ve received on every episode and audio addition. Your contributions on iTunes and Spotify have been what’s kept us not only on the Top Charts, but our relevancy high, which is most important in such a case as this. Tell your friends, your coworkers, your family. Get people involved. You never know who might know something.

Fortunately, that’s something I’ve learned in this episode. And without any further delay, that’s where we’ll start.

-

When Neil found himself entering Matt's apartment building and nodding to the person at the front desk, he tried not to dwell on how normal it all felt. Pressing the button to the elevator, looking at the same painting that may or may not have been a genuine Mondrian (probably, judging by the money in this place), and waiting for the familiar ding of arrival to bounce in his head. It all felt familiar and comforting in this odd way. Neil convinced himself it was just because of the security. Being inside this High Rise modern Fort Knox with security milling around at all times, made him felt safe and that’s all this feeling was.

His mother would have called it a trap.

As he walked into the apartment using his own key, he was automatically hit in the face with the smell of cooking cheese and the sound of Matt’s voice on the phone.

“Just tell him he’ll have to wait a few days,” Matt was saying. “I know who he is and that’s great for him, but I’ve already got like 10 other interviews booked about the stupid record and I don’t have time to just squeeze him in.”

Neil walked into the kitchen to see Matt leaning on the stove looking annoyed. He brightened at the sight of Neil and waved him over.

“Yeah, that should be fine. He just has to get in the back of the line,” Matt rolled his eyes at Neil. “Sounds good. Text me the details.” He hung up the phone and tossed it on the counter.

Neil raised a brow as he tried to calmly seat himself in his usual spot at the island.

Fucked.

“Sorry, man. My fucking agent trying my life right now. You hungry? I’m making lasagna.”

Neil blinked at him. Matt was holding a spatula in one hand and wearing a white apron, all while the kitchen was suspiciously clean. “Did you...cook?”

Matt’s eyes widened quickly and then he grinned, on the brink of a laugh as he shook his head, “No! Not really, but I like to get in the mood you know?” He gestured towards himself. “There’s this old lady named Mrs. Rehwinkle who likes to give me food and pat my cheek.”

Neil didn’t know how anyone could even reach Matt’s cheek. Let alone a little old lady. Matt was easily 6’4, 6’5.

“She made us a lasagna, so I just popped it in the oven. It’s almost done heating, I think.” Matt opened the oven and peaked in. “Cheese is bubbly as fuck, my guy. Don’t tell my dietician.” Matt winked over his shoulder.

Neil couldn't help but grin back. That was the thing about Matt. His perpetual optimism was both annoying and infectious. Neil tried really hard to stay inside his head and remain consistently grumpy as a defense mechanism. People tended to avoid you if they thought you were an asshole off the bat. That’s how he had avoided most personal interaction with - well, she wasn’t important.

You’re fucked.

Matt was not people though, apparently. He was warm and he never stopped smiling. He was kind and he was so unbelievably giving and honestly, Matt Boyd was just a big fucking idiot because of it.

“Why the apron and the spatula if you didn’t do any actual cooking?” Neil leaned forward and plucked an orange from the bowl on the counter.

Matt shrugged. “Getting in the spirit. Plus, I look really good in this apron.” He paused and waved the spatula at Neil, “You gonna eat that? It’ll ruin your appetite! Eat some fucking protein, man. You’re too fucking skinny.”

Neil took the last of the peel from the orange and popped a piece in his mouth. “This orange won’t be the thing that kills me.”

Trust me .

“So,” Neil changed the subject. “Why is your agent trying your life right now?”

Matt sighed dramatically and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. He put mitts on before opening the oven and moving to take out the lasagna. “I kind of broke a record recently. Most blocked attempts by a Backliner? It’s really not a big deal.”

“The fuck it isn't-” Neil started. Because it was a bit deal and Neil knew it.

The one thing he’d never been able to fully let go of while on the run was Exy. His mother would box his ears every time she caught him looking at anything related to it. He didn’t even really know why. It’s not like he was playing. He supposed she didn’t want him to get himself noticed if he were lingering somewhere too long. Later on, of course, he’d found out why but at that point it was long gone and nothing was ever set in stone.

Anyway.

“Anyway,” Matt continued, looking for something to cut the lasagna with. “I’ve had to do all this press for it and apparently Kevin Day has been harassing my agent to get an interview. He used to pl-”

“I know who he is,” Neil said quickly.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

It was back again. The tingling, the heart racing, the shortness of breath. Neil tried to will it away, to swallow down the bile rising in his throat with the growing numbness in his body as he forced himself to keep a blank face.

Kevin meant nothing to him anymore. Nothing. He was six the last time he’d seen him. And even though he’d know Kevin if he saw him in the street, that didn’t mean that Kevin would know him . And it wasn’t even from their upbringing or anything. No. Neil would only recognize Number 2 because he’d somewhat followed his doomed Exy career. There was no reason to panic.

No fucking reason.

“Neil?” He snapped his eyes up to Matt and willed his racing pulse to slow. “You okay? You look pale.”

“Hm?” Neil started, then shook his head and tried to force a smile, “Yeah, sorry. Just thinking about...Kevin Day. Why would he want an interview with you?” Neil was digging his fingers into his orange and he hadn’t even noticed. It was bleeding juice all over his hand and Matt furrowed a brow before handing him a paper towel.

“He has an exy podcast now,” Matt said slowly, digging out forks from a drawer and sliding a plate of steaming lasagna in front of Neil. “Pretty popular, too. So he wants me on for an interview.”

Neil nodded silently and shoved a forkful  in his mouth.

It tasted like ash.

-

If you have not listened to the Audio Notes from last week, I highly recommend going there first, before continuing forward. Don’t skip any of our releases and try to stay updated on our website to do so. For example, last week, we posted a comprehensive Timeline that illustrates where we are so far. It’s complete with interviews, outside information not yet mentioned in the podcast, and quote unquote “facts” that to the public, should be common knowledge. We’ll be updating it with every confirmed lead we get. I highly recommend pulling that up while you listening, as it plots where we’ll be going.

Additionally, the Audio Notes are very important and act as a prelude for each coming episode. I say this because last episode we ended with the mention of the very blonde, very rich, unbelievably stuck up, and entitled heiress, Allison Reynolds.

Allison Reynolds:

Which is me. Hi everyone, my name is Allison Reynolds and I am proudly, every single thing Minyard has called me. I’m also 28, a fashion designer, personal stylist, influencer, and CEO. I graduated from Cornell with a degree in fashion and designed my own clothing line . I am an heiress to Reynolds, Inc, but unlike what most would think, I went completely against the grain of my family and decided to make money on my own. I don’t use my daddy’s credit card, I didn’t receive a small loan of 1 million dollars, but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say my father's name helped my success. Nonetheless, I-

Andrew:

Anyway.

She’d been following me for the better part of a month. Getting hold of not only my business email, but my personal one as well - in addition to my phone number. She texted me, called me, emailed me, harassed me until she got so fed up with the idea of rejection, that she showed up in my office two weeks ago with bold claims and quite literally nothing but her money and a fucking grill to show for it.

Here’s our first interview.

-

The next day, Neil sucked up his anxiety and finally went for a run in Central Park. For the past few weeks, he’d been staring at it. At the vast stretch of manufactured green that had been calling him from Matt’s windows. He thought about going down there several times, but each one he’d convinced himself that it was too much of a danger.

Maybe it was his anxiety, maybe it was him forcing himself to do something his mind didn’t want him to do, but he slipped on his beat-up shoes, a comfortable pair of shorts and shirt that covered his scars, and left the apartment before it was too late to tell himself no.

Central Park sees tens of thousands of people a day. If there is anywhere to get lost in New York City, to remain anonymous and be able to run , it was there.

It started fine. It was neither empty nor crowded. Filled mostly with moms and nannies with babies and other runners like himself. He never wore headphones to run, so all he heard was the slap, slap, slap and the breaths in and out of his lungs. Here, he could hear no car horns or angry drivers, no police sirens or bickering pedestrians. It was, for lack of a better word, nice.

But.

It started out fine .

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? He’d gotten comfortable with his discomfort as he ran the winding paths, past fountains and statues and pigeons and hundreds of breezy trees. But eventually, his eyes wandered from the path before him to look at everyone and everything . He went into this run with an intent not to scrutinize all that was around him, but of course, that little voice in his head would come back and tell him exactly what he did not need to hear - of realities that likely weren’t even fucking there.

But that didn’t matter. Because there was a man in a hat by a tree that watched him as he ran by. A woman in a jogging suit with a stroller, her ponytail bouncing and a Bluetooth earpiece in her ear. She watched Neil as they approached each other and Neil held his breath as she passed. Then, there was a police officer talking to a person who he was positive had pointed at him - and it was too much.

Neil turned around and headed back to Matt’s as fast as he could. Too many faces of people he didn’t recognize, with motives he didn’t understand and couldn’t detect. They could’ve been anyone, but they were looking at him , pointing at him , probably speaking of him, and there were too many risks that he could not fucking take and other nonsense that he allowed to flood his mind as he ran with fire at his heels back to the apartment.

Sometimes, he was glad his mother was dead and didn’t have to keep living like this. Others, he was glad she didn’t have to see him consistently fucking fail.

Neil took a roundabout way to get back to the apartment in an effort to make sure he wasn’t followed. It was only once he was positively certain he was alone, that he entered.

-

ANDREW:

Talk.

ALLISON:

[ deep breath ]

I saw Nathaniel and Mary.

ANDREW:

[ demanding ]

Where and when.

ALLISON:

In the Keys, 2002. My family has a vacation home in Islamorada. I have a picture with them in the background.

ANDREW:

[ demanding ]

Show me.

ALLISON:

I don’t have it with me. It’s at the vacation house, in a box with some pictures. But, it’s them.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

Yes. Allison Reynolds, brought up with the best education money can buy - Cornell Graduate, Fashion Mogul, Personal Stylist, previous Board Member of several major Galas and Balls - woman who had been harassing me for weeks; even going to far as to fly all the way to South Carolina to track me down and try to convince me of her story in person -

Didn’t have the fucking foresight to bring the fucking photograph with her.

Which had me thinking, is this a trap? Is this just a way to promote a new line of hers or a project in need of a new audience?

I questioned that for a while. Because truly, it seemed unbelievable that she could be so fucking dense.

Well, I’ve concluded - yes. She really is just that fucking stupid.

RENEE WALKER:

Andrew, that’s not fair...

ANDREW:

Our conversation carried on.

-

Once Neil was back from the park and in the safety of Matt’s apartment, he showered, he changed, he wasted time. He did his laundry and watched Exy highlights, paced the floor and felt restless.

Night was darkening the apartment. Blues and purples stretched across white surfaces, staining them with shadows and shapes that Neil took a sort of unexpected comfort in. There was also the type of settling darkness that was impossible in the city - a kind accompanied by light that polluted every facet of this place, so Neil was never fully submerged in black.

Maybe it helped the oncoming anxiety. Maybe it didn’t. He was off from cleaning the stadium tonight since the team had a meeting that would run late. He was due there in the morning, but morning was not now and all distractions had been attempted. Neil supposed he could eat, since there was nothing left to fill the growing spaces in his burgeoning mind, so he went about reheating the leftover lasagna.

10PM was creeping upon him. He knew because as he ate, he stared blankly at the clock above the stove. His mind really stood testament to the effort he was putting into not thinking about anything of importance. He kept it going for a good part of the day after his run, and only now was his composure finally cracking as the fork lifted to mouth and lasagna slid off to splatter back down onto the plate.

Andrew Minyard really has some fucking nerve .

Making a podcast, pretending it was all to find justice for this missing mother and her fucking son. Who did he think he was?

A Columbia graduate, oh ho ho isn’t he just so fucking smart .

Really fucking stupid if you asked Neil.

He’d listened to the podcast when it came out a few nights ago and he wanted to laugh at how wrong some of the shit he said was.

Because that’s all he really could do, right? Laugh?

If he didn’t laugh, he’d cry. And if he didn’t cry, he’d scream. And the cycle would go on with other verbs and bullshit that he didn’t care to think about. So instead, he picked up the piece of lasagna that had fallen off his fork, blinked at the time ticking on the stove clock, and let the things he would have hypothetically laughed at if he could , breeze through his mind for the millionth time.

Andrew had talked about Leakin Park in a voice filled with such dread and morbidity. It was a fucking joke. For someone so smart, so accomplished and acclaimed, you’d think he’d know.

You don’t shit where you eat, Minyard.

His father was not stupid. There was no way he would’ve hidden bodies there. Neil had only been six when he and his mother had fled, but he still knew that much just from talking to her.

Besides. There were no bodies to find if there was nothing of the bodies left.

Then, hearing someone describe the house that had been his own personal hell for six years as a ‘ family home ’, even if he didn’t necessarily mean it that way, had set Neil’s teeth on edge.

He did laugh when one asshole said, ‘ Poor kid probably didn’t have markers’ . That wasn’t the case. Neil had every marker. He had markers and crayons and colored pencils and an easel and a little smock to paint in. In fact, he had everything a kid could ever want. Because if he didn’t, in a family with so much money, that would raise red flags.

Growing up, he thought maybe all the things were his mother's attempt to make up for the horrors that his father had committed. All the abuse and the fear...but now, looking back, he didn’t know if that was true. Guilt may have driven her to many things - it most certainly drove her to run with him, he was sure - but to soften his father’s blows? To sooth the scars that ran deep into his skin and psyche, unable to ever heal? He didn’t know. Her driving force may very well have been to just keep up the facade. Because Neil was never really allowed to play . Not like normal children, at least.

In the end, nothing Andrew spoke of was anything he didn’t already know from listening to the Audio Notes. He did however, realize that he was going to have to keep track of this now. No matter the pain, no matter the mental exhaustion and nightmares that followed, he was going to have to search for his own clues to try and suss out where Minyard was. He had to attempt to stay ahead of him. That was literally imperative to his survival now that he knew Frankie was gone, the feds were sniffing around, and Minyard was flying too close for comfort.

Neil finished his lasagna, put his plate in the dishwasher, and pulled out Matt’s laptop.

The very first post on the RR page, posted at 9:42PM, was totally, utterly and completely uncalled for. Andrew said they’d be posted in the podcast, but he guessed he just assumed that the impact wouldn’t be as strong. However, seeing his father’s basement hit him so hard he could scarcely breathe.

They were dark, and when Neil closed his eyes to block them out, he could smell the must and the metallic twinge of blood. The checkered floors were more familiar than anything else. More than the stairs, or the table where bodies had been stretched across - the sink where the water always ran red. No, the checkered floors were plastered behind his eyelids. When he was little, he used to stare at them, at the blood running into the grout, trying to distract himself from his father looming above.

But that never worked. Because his father would kneel down, place his hand on his shoulder and squeeze so hard Nathaniel could feel his bones creak. With his other hand, he’d tilt Nathaniel’s head so he could see their mirrored eyes and say with breath warm on Nathaniel’s face, “ You will be my legacy”.

What a legacy I’ve become .

At some point, Neil sat back on the couch. The laptop lay abandoned on the coffee table as Neil bowed his head and plunged his fingers into his hair. He pulled and pulled, just like his mom would do. And when that didn’t work, pushed his fingers roughly through knots and tangles to the nape where his hair was shorter. His fingers grappled until they gripped, and he pulled there too. And pulled, and pulled, and pulled.

Stop it, Abram. Don’t be a fool .

But he couldn’t. Not this time. He hadn’t fought it in the ally, but he fought it now. Now it was not garbage and trash filling his nose, now it was the smell of blood and fear and -

He did need to stop. He couldn’t do this. Not here, not in this place. But it was coming, regardless. Numb fingers and numb lips - he was going to empty his stomach all over Matt’s nice white rug.

Breathe, breathe, breathe

“Neil!”

He was shaking, or maybe he was being shaken. He lashed out blindly and connected with something. The impact made things a little less fuzzy, a little less like his head hadn’t been dunked under water and his father's grip on the back of his head wasn’t pushing him deeper and deeper and deeper and -

Someone was cursing.

Neil was on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. He couldn’t remember how he got there, but his body was curled tight around itself, with one hand still in his hair and the other lashing out blindly at whatever was trying to attack him.

“Neil! It’s me! It’s Matt! Come on, man. I think you’re having a panic attack or something.” Neil still couldn’t breathe. And though his father’s grip was almost gone, Matt still sounded like he was underwater.

Matt.

Neil lifted his head slowly and blinked a few times. Slowly, his fingers unlatched themselves from the hair at the back of his neck as Matt’s face swam into view. His other arm dropped into the soft white carpet.

Matt slowly sat back on his heels like he was afraid to get too close and then turned to look at the computer. He cocked his head and furrowed his brows. The pictures of the basement were still up.

“No...” Neil managed, weakly. He tried to sit up, but Matt closed the computer before leaning forward again with an offering hand.

“Hey, hey. Slow down. Are you okay?” Matt asked, eyes full of concern. That offering hand placed itself on Neil’s shoulder. It was steadying and grounding and Neil didn’t understand why.

“M’fine,” Neil mumbled and Matt rolled his eyes. “I just...I have anxiety.”

“No shit. I know what a panic attack looks like. What set you off? Was it the pictures on the Red Rabbits website?” Matt glanced back towards the computer and Neil swallowed.

Be smart.

“No, no. It just...happens sometimes. I’m sorry, I’m fine...really.” Neil sat up on his own then, waving Matt away as if to prove his point.

He wasn’t sure it entirely worked.

Though Matt leaned away again, his eyes were carefully watching Neil. There were no calculation behind his eyes or really any overt assumptions. But they were steady and soft, concerned and well - just as grounding as his hand had been.

“Does it happen a lot?” Matt asked, voice low.

“Just sometimes,” Neil managed to shrug. He turned his head away. He didn’t know how to properly evade this, but Matt seemed to...get it?

After eying him for a minute, he nodded and said, “Go take a shower and get some sleep. And for fucks sake, eat some fucking protein...” He stood and held out a hand. Neil, surprisingly, took it without real thought and something within him was glad for the help.

-

-Interview-

DAN WILDS:

Fine. It’s true. Why would this one sighting make you want to come all this way and demand to be listened to - without the actual picture.

[ tapping of pen on paper ]

DAN:

Why would you want to fund this entire podcast, based off one thing that happened when you were a kid?

ANDREW:

[ interjecting ]

Why would you buy me a Maserati? Not that I’m complaining.

DAN:

[ shocked ]

Excuse me?! You bought him a fucking Maserati?!

ALLISON:

[ self-satisfied ]

Sure did.

-Studio-

ANDREW:

Okay. I feel as though I should explain myself for integrity’s sake.

So, Monday morning, the 22 of April, I may have pulled into TFN to see a shiny new Maserati sitting in the parking lot. It may have been the exact car that I had teased about on our website, just to piss Allison off - make her believe those were my terms. Perhaps an oversight on my part, but in my defense, I didn’t think she’d actually go and buy it. Because it’s a fucking Mas and no one should really have that kind of extra cash on hand.

But alas, yes. I now have a new car. Allison did buy it for me. And I’m not going to fucking hide it, or make excuses, or cover it up. Allison Jamaica Reynolds bought me a Maserati just for the chance to have a single conversation. It wasn’t to take her on or accept her sponsorship. Just to hear her speak, because I’d refused for weeks.

I didn’t trust her. Not completely.

And I still don’t. Even after all that’s happened.

But, if she wants to drop serious cash just to fucking talk? Fine.

The way I see it, this is just a downpayment for dealing with her.

And you know what? It worked out.

-

-Interview-

RENEE:

[ slowly ]

Andrew, that’s not ethical. It goes against -

ALLISON:

And now look. We’re all here, actually talking about this shit instead of everyone but Seth trying to pretend I’m not here.

SETH GORDON:

I got you, Queen.

ALLISON:

[ groan ]

Ugh. I hate a man who thinks they need to tell me what I already know. How boring.

Look.

[ pause ]

I’ve been telling people this for years and they either don’t believe me or don’t give a shit. I know what I fucking saw. That kid looked miserable and the lady looked fucking insane. I want to be able to prove it.

[ pause ]

ANDREW:

So, you’re doing this for vindication? So that everyone knows you’re not crazy.

ALLISON:

On the nose, Sweetheart.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

That’s something I can get behind.

Growing up, no one believed a word I said. It wasn’t until certain people came into my life that my words started holding weight. It took a while, for a trust to build and for others to start seeing me as more than just...well. If you keep up on the website, you know how most of the team views me.

When I entered this field, however, that credibility started to wane. Because I’m not nice and I don't hold back and when I speak. I perhaps don't emote enough, but my words are true. I know how I come off. I know how people view me. I know that my methods are questionable and that people are shocked when I give a fuck about other people's lives - like fighting for justice when it comes to children in foster care or trying to find a missing mother and son.

I understand the want for vindication. To rub your accomplishments in the faces of those who doubt you.

And though that is not my driving force here, I get it.

If that’s the only thing driving Allison fucking Reynolds to help me? That’s fine. Because I believe the want to prove people wrong, much more than I believe in the goodness of people’s hearts.

-

The next day, Neil had to be at the stadium twice - once in the morning to clean up from the night before, and again that night to clean up after today's practice.

He was the last one there that night, as he usually was. Neil was used to being alone, living in solitude and left for his own thoughts. But really, he just liked to linger on the court and locker rooms. Jerry didn’t mind.

Neil was just finishing up and getting ready to leave when he heard the door to the locker room open and his heart very nearly jumped out of his fucking chest.

“Neil?” For a man so fucking large, he moved so fucking silent. It was Matt, of course, and Neil was left with his heart beating against his ribcage.

“Jesus Christ, Matt,” he said, coming around the corner. “You scared the shit out of me. What the hell are you doing here?”

Matt held up his hands and smiled that big dumb smile. “Sorry, sorry. I just know you’re always here later than everyone else and I thought you could use some fun.”

Fun?

“Fun?” Neil didn’t do fun .

Fun was not on the list, nor was it necessary for survival. Then again, neither was sitting on the court and imagining a life that would never be...

“Yeah, fun,” Matt’s smile dimmed just a little as he looked at Neil seriously. “I know you’ve been having a hard time.” He held up his hands in small surrender, “I don’t know what your story is, but I want to help. And I just so happen to know that you’re Exy obsessed - No,” he said as Neil opened his mouth to argue. “I’ve seen you. Watching replays over and over and on this court. Neil. I’ve seen you out there when you think no one is looking.”

Neil suddenly felt very exposed. Exy was a weakness. It was something he’d held on to all these years - something he felt guilty about indulging in when his mother had always been so adamant about leaving it behind...but Matt was not wrong. He loved Exy, he loved the thrill of the game and the energy of the fans. He loved watching backliners push back the strikers and he loved watching the goalies dive for a save. He also loved those strikers - watching them run and spin and dodge out of the way, just to get to the goal.

He loved, he loved he loved -

He was Exy obsessed. And for just a moment, he hated Matt for seeing it.

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything. Come on. Lets go ho- to your place. Let’s go back to your place.”

Stupid .

Matt took a step closer to Neil and crossed his arms over his chest, looking down at him with a smirk that made Neil very nervous.

“Wouldn’t you rather play first?”

Neil’s heart seized. “What?”

No, Nathaniel.

“Come on,” Matt said. He moved down to a locker at the end of the row and opened it up. Haphazardly, he started taking out gear and throwing it to Neil who did his best to catch them as they flew towards his head.

“You want to play? With me? On the court...?” Neil asked, staring down at the padding and protection in his arms in disbelief. His mother was buzzing in his ear, flying by and impossible to swat away as he shrugged his shoulders to try and block her out. When that didn’t work, her voice invaded his head, screaming to

Don’t get attached, don’t get attached, don’t get attached.

But fuck, it was far too late for that.

“Yep. Change. I’ll help you with the gear.” Neil backed up as Matt came towards him.

“No, it’s fine. I can manage. I used to play...when I was younger.” No way was he letting Matt help him with the pads. His scars would raise even more questions in Matt’s mind and if he was being truthful with himself, he just really fucking hated them.

Locking himself in the bathroom stall, he started the process of getting the padding in order in such a small space.

Neil hadn’t been lying when he said he used to play. He did . Once when he was younger, for a little league team when he was only a child. He was supposed to play for years after that in the school he attended, but didn’t get the chance. Then, after his mother died and he had to leave her behind in California, he made his way to Arizona. They’d been there before, but there was something about the place - something about their time there that made him want to go back for even just a little while.

He ended up in a small forgettable town called Millport and played Exy in his ‘senior’ year under another false name. His mother’s voice inside his head was relentless then. She must have been rolling around in her fresh, sandy grave.

Maybe even more than she was now -

He played as a Backliner in little league, but a striker for the Millport Dingos.

He wasn’t bad. Truly.

And he loved every second of it.

Which was why he couldn’t have it.

Exy was a dream for another kid, another time, another name, and family, and history.

Neil managed to get undressed and put the shoulder pads on. It was like muscle memory. He hadn’t done this in eight years, but he still remembered the feel and the movements. He left the stall once he had his shirt on and proceeded to gear up the rest of the way.

Once Neil was ready, he moved awkwardly to the court. The pads weren’t quite his size and took some getting used to after so long without them. After the first five minutes though, he felt comfortable enough to warm up a little and jog around the court with Matt.

“Okay, so this is just a fun scrimmage. I know you haven’t done this in a while, so don’t worry about rules or how you’re playing.” He waited for Neil to nod in the affirmative, before jogging to place in front of the goal box. “Okay,” Matt said, signature manic grin curving into place. “Come at me, bro.”

Don’t you dare, Nathaniel.

Neil ran.

Nathaniel, stop.

He had a racquet in hand with the ball and he went straight for Matt before trying to feint around him. But, Matt was not a record breaker for nothing. He moved with Neil and pushed him back with a shove from the racquet he was holding in both hands. Neil laughed and jogged back to his starting point.

This is a horrible idea.

Shut up.

He was smiling . He could feel it, right there on his face and it felt strange. His cheeks twitched at the unfamiliar feeling, but he couldn’t stop - couldn’t hold it back. Neil was fucking flying , both with quick feet and euphorically he was in the fucking air. He ran at Matt again and again, and he spun and twisted, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get around him.

Even then, he couldn’t find anything in him that cared. Matt was laughing and pushing and Neil was laughing and pushing and somewhere in the high, he thought this was a bit like a dance. A give and take between two people. Push, push back, push, push back - until the end. Until they were both exhausted and sweating and Neil thought he might pass out, but he still pushed.

And he finally got around him.

He swung around Matt and knocked him to the side to throw the ball in the goal. It didn’t light up, but Neil imagined it did. Somewhere, the child that had all the colors, all the markers and pencils in the world but no ability to imagine what to do with them - he saw the goal light up bright and red in his mind's eye.

It was a feeling unlike anything else.

You can’t have this .

Neil raised his racquet in the air and ran around like an idiot. He, for the moment, was happy .

Impossible .

He sank to the floor of the court, heaving for breath and bracing his arms on his knees with his head dropped between them. Beside him, Matt collapsed panting, but not nearly as winded as Neil.

“How the fuck did you get to be so quick?” Matt asked. Neil looked up at him to see him wiping sweat from his forehead.

“I run a lot,” Neil answered.

Not enough, it seems .

“Yeah? Well, you would’ve made one hell of a striker.”

Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.

“So, did it help? The playing?” When Neil looked towards him blankly, Matt continued, “With the anxiety, I mean. Working out really hard always helps me when my mind is fucked.”

Neil thought about the answer before he spoke it out loud.

“Yeah,” he finally decided. “It helped.

-

-Interview-

ANDREW:

[ considering ]

I can get behind that. Fine. Now is it just stupidity that you decided not to bring the picture with you as proof, or do you have something else up your tight sleeves?

ALLISON:

Perhaps a bit of both.

ANDREW:

[ pause ]

Welcome aboard.

[ snap ]

RENEE:

[ quiet ]

Andrew, you can’t keep the car.

ANDREW:

[ mumble ]

Like fuck, I can’t. What’s going to happen?

[ sarcasm ]

My name will be tarnished? Validity gone?

[ pause ]

SETH:

[ background ]

What about me, baby? Little Monster gets a car - but really, I do most of the work.

ALLISON:

Get yourself a sugar Daddy, baby.

ANDREW:

[ loud ]

Anyway. You’re paying for this mess and any extra expenses we need. We had plans to go to Florida anyway because of the Port St. Lucie and Parkland sightings, so we’ll add the Keys to the trip.

ALLISON:

Cool. I’m coming with you. If I’m paying for this, I’m coming.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

And I agreed. It would be easier to have someone that knows the area to show us around and the appeal of an in person account of what may or may not have happened in Key West was appealing. So appealing, that I agreed to spend an extended amount of time with Reynolds.

No one better question my dedication ever again.  

-

On Sunday, Neil found himself alone in the apartment. He debated going for a run again, but eventually decided staying in was best. Playing on the court had helped Neil with the near constant anxiety, but it was still there - lingering in the background and waiting for its next moment to strike. Neil was beginning to think there would be nothing to help it, so he stifled down any thoughts that could trigger him. He didn’t want to worry Matt any more than he already had.

After all, worrying led to questions, and questions were a thing Neil couldn’t have answers to.

It was midday, the sun had passed its highest point in the sky and was making a lazy arch over Central Park. Neil watched as it’s light crawled across the stark white carpet as he worked through yet another Sudoku book when he heard the door open and Matt walk in.

“Is it up yet?” he asked, tossing his wallet on the kitchen counter. Neil looked up at him, confused.

“Is what up?” He asked, propping himself up on an elbow.

“The Audio Notes! It’s Sunday, they’re supposed to be up.” He walked around the couch and smacked Neil’s legs to get him to sit up. Pulling his laptop towards him on the coffee table, Matt leaned forward and focused on the screen.

“I’ve no idea. I haven’t really been following it.” Matt glanced at him from the corner of his eye. He knew Matt saw the pictures of the basement - knew he realized what it was. He had no idea what Matt was thinking in regards to it, or what he thought, or figured, or surmised. But Neil was going to act like it was nothing for as long as he fucking could.

Idiot .

Matt scrolled through the website and after a minute he sighed, “Ah, it’s delayed. Damn, I was really excited about it, too. I think they went to Florida this time.”

Florida.

Neil closed his eyes for a moment. He’d forgotten, forced himself to forget. At the end of last podcast, Minyard had said they were going to Florida. He’d had a great fucking panic attack over it too - or maybe that was after...

Things are getting blurry .

He could sit for a minute and think about it. Think about how frantic his mother was, how scared and confused he’d felt. He could think about the men following them, chasing them, running them down the coast of Florida and into the Keys before they raced back up to the other locations they’d fled to. At that time, he’d only been seven. That was two years shy of twenty years ago. He could see only snippets and snatches of sunshine; a backroom of a beach shop; the grip of his mothers hand wrapped around his arm; and that sharp, metallic taste of blood and fear.

So familiar now.

Familiarity of then and now fell in line as he let his mind briefly wonder what the fuck Minyard could have scrounged up this time. He had no idea if the info of them being there was easily traceable or not, but if it was and Minyard got his hands on it - Neil knew what that meant. It meant that they weren’t as careful as his mother had thought. It meant that Minyard could establish a timeline, a map, and follow it. It meant that if this guy was serious, he would be able to track Neil like a fucking animal.

Familiar.

Neil opened his eyes slowly and that whispering voice flitted back into his head - weaved it’s way through his intrusive thoughts and reminded him, stay ahead, be smart, find the loophole .

Matt sighed and the slide of his laptop being pushed back onto the table made Neil snap back into focus. “I’m going to go shower. Think about what you want for dinner.”

Neil gave him a nod and pulled the computer close to himself. Once he heard Matt’s bedroom door close, he began scrolling through the websites posts.

Most of it was just Andrew being an asshole and sighing posts as ‘A’, like he was some mysterious deity.

Please.

He was a sarcastic jerk as far as Neil could tell. Besides that, he scrolled and scrolled, looking for any clue that Andrew might have any more information, when a name suddenly jumped out at him.

Kevin.

Someone asked a question - ‘Have y’all heard of a little sport named exy?’

Which was a terribly stupid question and one Neil thought deserved a stupid answer. But the one Andrew gave made Neil’s stomach plumett.

‘Exy is a sport? Kevin is even more of an ass than I thought.’

It couldn’t be...could it? No.

No.

No, no, no.

Impossible. It was too much of a coincidence - that Kevin day, who he actually did have real contact with as a child...was friends with, or at least knew Andrew Minyard. The sarcastic asshole currently spearheading a manhunt for him.

No.

Neil kept searching because he forced himself to. He was near frantic as his eyes flew over the screen, looking for any more hints or mentions.

There was another ask about the friendship between Kevin and Andrew and Neil stopped. Opening up google in a separate tag, he searched Kevin’s name.

One of the first links that popped up was a wikipedia page. Below that was a website called Dayly Exy. It read that it was under maintenance, but there was a smiling picture of Kevin in the center with his all white teeth and number 2 tattoo nowhere in sight. Below a small description of the podcast was where he saw it .

The Foxhole Network.

The same network that hosted Red Rabbits.

Neil removed his hands from the computer like he’d been burned.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Kevin would tell him. Kevin would tell him that he’d had contact with Nathaniel fucking Wesninski and why and how and the circumstances surrounding it and, and, and .

Neil had managed to get up somehow and was heading to his room when he ran into Matt in the hallway. Matt grabbed him by the arms to steady him and looked into his face with concern.

“Neil? You okay? You’re pale as shit.”

His normal response was at the tip of his tongue. ‘I’m fine’ just waiting to be opened and released to excuse himself from the panic settling deep in his bones. But Neil wasn’t okay and he could feel himself slowly sinking into his black pit of despair. He tried to get a hold of himself. All he needed was to get to his room so he could break down properly, so he could cry and do whatever he needed to do to come to terms with how incredibly fucked up his entire life was. But, that wasn’t going to happen because Matt turned him gently and led him to the kitchen. Neil, for some reason, allowed it to happen. Arguing wasn’t an option because he couldn’t even open his mouth.

Matt sat him at his normal chair at the island and dug through a cabinet. He came back with his hand held out. “Eat it.”

Neil looked down at the thing in Matt’s hand. It looked like chocolate. Neil stared at it in confusion for a few seconds.

“Eat it ,” Matt said again. “It’s dark chocolate. It’s supposed to help with anxiety. Just try it,” he started to unwrap the chocolate and held out the bar by the wrapper. “Please?”

Neil didn’t like chocolate or sweets, in general, all that much. But, he took it anyway - an automatic response from a brain that was trained to take orders when it was in panic mode. He bit off a piece and chewed slowly. Matt disappeared again and came back with a glass of water.

When Neil had finished the first piece of chocolate, Matt broke off a second and by the time he had eaten that too, he felt like he had regained some semblance of control. Matt leaned forward onto the counter across from Neil and crossed his arms.

“You okay?” he asked. Neil didn’t have an answer for that besides the reality was that he had no choice but to be okay. Instead, he just nodded and Matt took that as ample enough answer as he asked, “What happened? You were fine before I left. I was gone only a few minutes. Did...did you see something? On the Red Rabbits page again?”

No.

Neil shook his head. Probably a little too quickly, but he didn’t care. “No, no. It’s nothing like that.” His voice sounded croaky and distant to his own ears. “It just happens. I’m fine.”

Matt sighed and shook his head. “Sure you are.”

-

ANDREW:

Now, this is where things may get confusing. If you’ve listened to the last Audio Notes, then you’d know we went from Miami, to Islamorada, then Key West, all before we made our way back up to Parkland and Port St. Lucie. But that is not the order in which we believe Mary and Nathaniel traveled.

For this podcasts sake and for your understanding of their trajectory, we’ll be going according to the timeline. So keep up. Things may get confusing.

We’ll start in Port St. Lucie.

      //Now we’d ask you to take a good look at your screen. Port St. Lucie Police need your help to find this missing mother and her 8 year old son.//

This was one of two mentions on the Port St. Lucie’s local TV News station, WPTV. The second was merely a repeat of the same showing.

I’d had this clip saved for months. In fact, it was one of the first actual clips I’d gotten my hands on when I first started this investigation. I didn’t know what Florida or Port St. Lucie had to do with it at the time, nor did I know if this was actually about Mary and Nathaniel. The amount of information I’d had was limited, saved in a small folder on my desktop in Boston.

However, when I started investigating with Renee, we took a look at websleuths.com - a website used for those interested in mainly cold cases and unsolved crimes to post updates on their own findings. Websleuths became instrumental in our research and still is, to this day. Many of the people posting there are just armchair detectives, but there are many personal investigators, as well as journalists taking up the website as well.

That’s where Renee found Bob Roberts.

Upon searching the Wesninski case, Bob’s name seemed to pop up quite often. He wasn’t like most of the other posters. He wasn’t trolling, or sending what usually come off as false leads. Instead, he was still looking into this case and many of the things he’d found were things that I’d already figured out.

Renee decided to email him, find out more.

RENEE:

Like Andrew said, he seemed credible. We’d shared several emails back and forth and he said that he used to be a freelance journalist. The Wesninski case was only a small part of his career, but something that had still bothered him to this day. Upon looking him up, everything he shared seemed to be true and checked out.

Therefore, our next step was to set up an interview. This worked out perfectly in accordance to our Florida trip and another interview we had planned, so Andrew gave the go ahead.

ANDREW:

He was good. Despite his interest in our podcast, and despite the fact that his name was Robert Roberts, he had valuable information that both raises and answers several of our questions.

Here’s that interview:

RENEE:

Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Port St. Lucie, Florida.

[ restaurant noise ]

ANDREW:

First, what’s your name and how do you spell it?

BOB ROBERTS:

Bob Roberts - B O B, R O B E R T S

ANDREW:

What can you tell us, Bob?

BOB:

We think they came from Orlando. They drove to Port St. Lucie in a rental car that they ditched as soon as they got here.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

Now, we’re going out of order, but if you listened to the Audio Notes, you heard in one of our other interviews, from a journalist for Local 10 News named Sarah Johnson, that Nathaniel and Mary may have taken a rental car from Orlando.

That was the first time we’d heard of it. However, her knowledge of the car and its relevance was limited. It’s honestly not worth going over when Bob has more information on that, which you will hear soon.

What she did say, what did stick out to us more than anything in that entire interview, was her recounting of the report of Mary and Nathaniel’s sighting.

For the sake of relevancy, and understanding - here is that interview from Parkland. Our second location on the timeline of Mary and Nathaniel’s journey through Florida.

-

RENEE:

Friday April 26, 2019

Parkland, Florida

[ cafe noise ]

ANDREW:

First, what’s your name and how do you spell it?

SARAH JOHNSON:

Sarah Johnson - S A R A H, J O H N S O N

ANDREW:

What can you tell me about this case? The mother and son you reported on in 2002?

SARAH:

Not much, honestly. We got the report from Port St. Lucie. They were there before and were traced here - to Parkland. We know the child had red hair and blue eyes, around seven years old. Port St. Lucie gave us the names, Mary and Nathaniel Abrams.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

Bear with me for a moment. That is probably the most important information we heard from Sarah. Bob repeated it later, as well as the rest of our interview with Sarah, but this was the first time we’d heard of the use of that name.

Mary and Nathaniel Abrams - not Wesninski. Abrams.

It stood out to us. Why?

Because Nathaniel’s full name is Nathaniel Abram Wesninski.

Was this a way to cover their tracks? An attempt to hide in plain sight? Or was it a name given to the police.

I find it hard to believe Mary would announce her name for the world to know - especially while they’re on the run. So what does it mean?

Just one name in a long list of possible pseudonyms? Or... something else?

Jumping back to our interview with Bob in Port St. Lucie, now that we have context, here might be the start to an answer.

-

BOB:

[ deep breath ]

Anyway, no one knew who they were, of course. But, local PD got a call from someone claiming that Mary and Nathaniel Abrams were here.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

Someone.

Why would Mary call local PD to spread her own whereabouts, with her son’s middle name?

Was this a taunt? A threat that they were being followed? Watched? That someone knew where they were?

That may be it. Bookmark this in your head. We’ll touch on it again later on.

For now, none of this occurred to me until a few days ago, upon relistening to our notes. Which is why I didn’t question it and instead focused on Orlando.

-

-Interview-

BOB:

We have no real idea of what tipped this person off to their whereabouts.

ANDREW:

Why Orlando?

BOB:

We were able to locate the rental car they drove down and it’s registered ‘home’ was the Orlando International Airport. We don’t know where they were before that.

ANDREW:

[ pause ]

Did anyone physically see them?

BOB:

Yes.

[ papers rustling. Background noise ]

Here are the interviews we have of the sightings. There are only a few, but they seem pretty reliable. The descriptions match, at least.

-

Neil was making his way home from cleaning the stadium on Tuesday when his phone rang. His body jumped just a little, but he hid it well as he quickly fished in his pocket and glanced at the screen. No one ever called him - there was no one to call him. Not even Matt, usually. But alas. Matt’s name lit up on the screen with an incoming call.

Neil could ignore him. Pocket his phone and find out what he needed when he got ho- to Matt’s apartment. But the possibility that it had something to do with Neil, like someone showing up at Matt’s door, or, or or or

He answered it, just in case.

“Hey! You on your way home?”

“Yeah, why? What’s up? You need me to pick something up?” Neil was coming up on a bodega they usually frequented when they needed something fast (or a chopped cheese).

“No, just checking,” Neil could hear the smile in his voice and he was immediately on edge. “I’ll see you soon!”

He has someone there, Neil thought. He has someone there and they’re going to recognize me.

Run.

No.

He could do it though. Turn around, hop on the subway, and go somewhere that wasn’t Matt’s apartment. But that wasn’t thinking smart. No. Matt’s place was the safest space for him to be in and all of his stuff was still there.

So, he made his way in the building, up the elevator, to Matt’s door.

Once inside, he made his way into the living room with his heart beating out of his chest. The only thing that kept his feet moving forward and not to his room to grab his shit and get the fuck out of there, was the fact that he didn’t hear any voices. Instead, he found Matt standing there, grinning ear to ear.

There was someone, or something, in the room with him. But it wasn’t a person.

“You got a cat?” Neil asked. It was a fat, gray tabby with green eyes and an unimpressed stare.

“Yeah, I thought she’d be good company for...us. Her name is Sir,”

Sir?

“-and just, ugh. Neil, look at her -” Matt rubbed his face into her fur, then lifted to put her on his hip as one would do with a baby. “And look at all this shit I have for her.”

Sir apparently came with a number of items. Cat carrier, cat bed, cat toys, cat tree, cat bowls, cat food, cat, cat, cat. Neil just nodded along stoically as Matt set her on the ground. Sir came up to him, sniffing along and then attempted to rub up against his legs.

Neil didn’t have a fondness for animals. He never got attached, because he knew better, and by now, attachment was something his mother advised against.

Yeah. Sure.

It wasn’t hard, however, to stretch his mind back to remember a time when he was very small, maybe 5, and he had a pet rabbit. He loved that rabbit. It’s name was Spiderman and it was brown and soft - another one of his mother’s attempts to make up for all of the abuse from his father (or, another attempt to conceal the life they lived with the guise of another).

One day, he came home from school and made his way up to his room. His father was sitting on his bed with Spiderman in his hands. Neil was only 5 at the time, but he remembered it so clearly. Remembered stopping dead in the doorway and watching as his father slowly stroked the rabbit from head to tail.

He’d never been that gentle with me .

He’d asked Nathaniel how school was and when Nathaniel said fine, he squeezed the rabbit until Nathaniel could hear it squeak.

‘Then why did your teacher call here to ask about a bruise on your arm?’

His father did not kill Spiderman. He didn’t even hit Nathaniel that day. He didn’t have to. The threat was clear, even to his 5 year old self.

Nathaniel let Spiderman go into the woods behind his house the next day. He’d held him gently, as gently as could be. He felt his soft fur and wondered, in his young mind, if this would be the last time he would ever feel something so soft again.

Ever since then, he’d been wary of animals. Not because his father was around, able to threaten to do... whatever he’d intended to do to that rabbit. But because there was a small part of Nathaniel that feared for a long time if that gentleness he had learned with his pet rabbit was something he’d lost in the years he’d been on the run.

“She’s already trained and everything,” Matt was saying when Neil came back to himself. Matt pulled Sir back into his lap from his spot that he’d taken up on the floor. “Come pet her, she’s really sweet.”

“No, I’m good. Thanks though.” Neil escaped to his room as quickly as he could and he tried to ignore the look of disappointment that flashed across Matt’s face. What had he expected to happen? For Neil to become best friends with the cat or something?

He didn’t come out until Matt yelled from down the hall that he was hungry and ordering pizza. The smell of food drove him into the kitchen and Matt pushed a slice of cheese his way. The fact that Matt knew him well enough to know that he hated vegetables on his pizza made Neil squirm.

Matt made his way to the couch with a plate and Neil followed. They sat and Matt found Exy highlights for Neil on the tv, before opening his laptop. Neil knew he was checking for the Audio Notes that were supposed to be released on Sunday.

“Ah,” Matt said between a bite, “Andrew posted that they’ve all been sick.”

Neil hummed in response and kept his eyes glued on the TV. His heart sped like it always did when this subject came up, but Neil was glad that they weren’t out yet. That was more bullshit he didn’t want to deal with.

Loophole, Nathaniel. Loophole.

Neil shut out the voice in his head when Matt said, “Oh shit. Dan’s sick,” leaning closer to the computer like that would give him more answers.

“Who?”

“Dan. Dan Wilds. The director. Remember? The gorgeous woman with the braids? I hope she’s okay...”

Ah. Yes. Neil rolled his eyes. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

“Yeah...yeah you’re right. She’s probably fine.” Matt stared at the computer, tapping his fingers on the keys, but not actually typing.

Great.

Neil sighed. “What, Matt?”

There was a moment of silence, before he said, “Maybe I could send her flowers? You know, as a get well soon.”

NO.

Neil dropped his pizza in his lap. “No.” he said firmly, picking up the pizza and trying to clean up the grease with less firm hands.

“But I mean, think about it. What better way to get in the door, you know? She’d know I was a fan of her work and that I’m a fucking amazing guy.”

NO.

“Matt, no. ” Neil could only stare at him in horror as he pushed at Sir who had jumped in his slightly grease-stained lap, but she didn’t seem to want to move. Laying down, she purred deeply. Neil gave up with a groan and put his plate aside. “She’ll think you’re a stalker. She’ll be like, ‘ Wow what a crazy stalker sending me flowers when I don’t even know him. Athletes are such assholes.’

Matt chewed his lip, eyes still set on the screen. With a loud forlorn sigh, he mumbled, “You’re right.”

Neil let out his own sigh of relief and decided to try again to push Sir off his lap. She stood up with a waving tail and took up Matt’s instead.

“I’m just obsessing I guess. I don’t even know why...” His voice was so quiet, so distant as he tapped his pointer finger on his laptop, Dan Wilds face smiling back at him.

Neil rolled his eyes once more and stood to get a new slice.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

He was good. He was really fucking good. The interviews he gave us were short and didn’t say much. But from Bob and Sarah alone, pairing with what we’d found in the Keys - we were well on our way to piecing together the early years of this timeline.

Speaking of the Keys. It’s time to jump to the first leg of our trip and the last known sightings of Mary and Nathaniel in Florida.

[ Interlude Music ]

ANDREW:

Reynolds, Renee, and myself stopped in Islamorada, at Reynolds family vacation home first so she could look for the apparent photograph.

The house wasn’t ostentatious, like many of the homes we’d passed in the Keys and especially Miami. But it had a homey feel that one would attribute to New England, rather than the typical Florida style. Without the boxy, sturdy structure, the outside was made of seashell walls and navy furnishings. It was nice to be honest - despite the heat and the fact that it was Allison’s. It also raised many questions as to how the hell it lasted several hurricanes, the latest of which still bore its destruction the Florida Keys coastlines.

A private beach stretched in the backyard, with a pool overlooking the waves that crashed in the background.

[ Waves in the background, low and soft ]

We were to stay there for one day and head to Key West early the next morning to retrace Reynold’s supposed steps.

It took several hours before the photograph was found. In that time, I retreated to the bedroom I would be staying in and thought about what would happen if Reynolds was lying.

The first thing I thought, was that I was definitely keeping the Maserati.

The second, was of the time wasted coming here.

I didn’t have any real space to think of the possibilities of her telling the truth, however. Because after letting the exhaustion take over, Renee was knocking at the door, and letting me know that the photograph had been found.

-

[ Interlude Music ]

-

ANDREW:

There was always the possibility that this was all just a lie. I think my mind wanted to believe that - wanted to believe that Reynolds was just some stuck up, rich bitch, with nothing to really show for this investigation but a small lead and money to go around.

But this was big. Bigger than the family photo, bigger than ‘don’t Be Bad’, bigger than the basement and the house - because in the grand scheme of things, those were all before and this was proof of an after. It wasn’t just words or supposed sightings, this was real and it was tangible, and it was in my fucking hands.

The photograph was of Allison and three other girls looking towards a camera with peace signs and wide smiles. It was clearly 2002, shown by young Allison sans-grills and blonde hair, instead with permed bangs and early 2000 clothes. They were standing in the middle of a road. The sun was shining directly down, perhaps midday, and they were clearly in Key West, with its iconic buildings and tourists milling around.

None of that was important though. Because behind Allison’s head, and to the right, was a woman dragging a young boy behind her.

She had dirty blond hair, a bag on her shoulder, and a white shirt. Her face was turned down and away from the camera, instead looking to the boy she had gripped by the arm.

The boy.

Who’s hair shone red in the sun and piercing blue eyes focused straight towards the camera, just as they had in the family portrait. He looked only a little older, but he was still small. Though the photo was slightly blurry, there was no denying it.

Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski were in fact the people in this photograph. And Allison had not been lying.

[ Pause ]

I had so many questions. All of them were piling on top of each other in my head, and I didn’t know which to ask first.

Renee, I think she could see it.

So we broke for dinner.

RENEE:

I wanted to give you time to sort through your head. I could see the questions. You were ready to pounce. But I knew that the result you’d get from that, wouldn’t be the one you wanted.

ANDREW:

You were right.

Because when we got back from dinner, I was ready.

We sat on Reynolds back porch. Night stretched above and the breeze was calming, comforting. All I wanted was to drill the answers out of her. I could nearly feel myself jumping out of my fucking skin.

But I waited, set up the recorder, and the result was worth it.

Here’s that interview.

-

[ background noise. Waves crashing. ]

ANDREW:

Andrew Minyard, interviewing Allison Reynolds. April 24, 2019 - 7:21PM.

ALLISON:

Allison Reynolds, fashion designer and bad bitch. Twenty-eight years old with skin as if she were eighteen. Rich beyond measure.

ANDREW:

[ tight ]

Thank you, your highness. Tell me your story. You say you saw Mary and Nathaniel in Key West, 2002. You would’ve been eleven years old. What happened?

[ pause. Background noise ]

ALLISON:

I had three friends with me here that year -

ANDREW:

Here as in the Keys, correct?

ALLISON:

Yes. I had three friends with me here in the Keys. We always stay here, at my family’s home in Islamorada - but we would go to Key West for the fun, touristy shops. So, it was me, three friends, and my au pair. We were in one of the shops that sold jewelry and trinkets - you know, the kind you find at every beach shop. Puca shells, hemp necklaces, etc etc. Anyway -

[ deep breath ]

My friends were in one corner, looking at this display of really hideous butterfly clips. I was on the other side, looking at some bracelets that were on a spinning display. But, when I tried to turn it, it wouldn’t move. So, I looked to the other side and there was a boy there.

ANDREW:

Can you describe him for us? His appearance, his demeanor?

ALLISON:

He was small, like you.

[ pause ]

Could’ve passed for seven, but could’ve been eight. Darkish red hair and these eyes that were just… so blue. Thick black lashes -

[ pause ]

Anyway, his skin was a few shades darker than yours and he had freckles. A real cute kid. He seemed alright when I saw him, but when I told him the bracelet in his hand would look really pretty with his eyes, you would’ve thought I just told him I killed puppies.

[ tapping ]

His mom must’ve seen us talking. She marched over and yanked him out by the arm - told him he wasn't to talk to anyone. Her skin was darker than his. Not as dark as mine, but still like…toasty, I guess. Her hair was a dirty blonde. She looked insane, to be honest.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

If you recall the family portrait, Mary Wesninski did not look insane. She looked terrified.

In the photograph, it was just the same.

When I try to imagine Reynolds encounter, I can’t see anything but terror come over Mary in a situation like that - knowing what we know.

But then again, what do we really know?

We’ll let you decide for yourselves. We’ll be posting the picture when the podcast drops, and you’ll be able to see Mary and Nathaniel in Key West for yourselves.

-

-Interview-

ANDREW:

Okay, so what happened after you saw them in the shop? Did you see them anywhere else?

ALLISON:

I only saw them one more time that day in passing, but that’s it. I didn’t even realize they were in the picture until we had them developed.

ANDREW:

So, when did you realize it was Mary and Nathaniel?

ALLISON:

Not until 2004. It was when the Bu-*beep* was arrested and it was all over the news. I saw that family photo pop up somewhere and I knew immediately. All the news ever said was that they had been missing and no clues to their whereabouts were ever found.

ANDREW:

Did you tell anyone?

ALLISON:

[ exasperated ]

I told everyone. No one believed me, said I was crazy. Even after I tried to pull the picture out one summer and show my parents.

ANDREW:

Okay.

[ pause ]

So tell us why you want to do this. To help us find Mary and Nathaniel and fund the project in the process.

ALLISON:

[ annoyed ]

I told you why.  

ANDREW:

In your own words.

ALLISON:

[ sigh. Background noise, waves crashing ]

Because I’m not fucking crazy. I saw them and they were here, in the Keys, in 2002, and they looked fucking terrified. I know they were running from something. I want to prove I’m right, but I also want to help that kid. I know he’d be grown now, but if they’re still out there, if they’re still running, I want to help.   

ANDREW MINYARD

Okay.

-

Thursday night, it happened.

The Audio Notes were finally dropped and Andrew’s trip to Florida was finally revealed.

The only reason Neil knew was because he heard Minyard’s voice coming from Matt’s laptop while he was in the kitchen getting a glass of water.

He nearly dropped it - frozen in place with eyes wide and blood rushing in his ears. Sir came from nowhere and slowly wound her way through his legs, meowing up at him. Neil swallowed hard and forced himself to calm, to listen for just a moment, and try to see if he needed to be worried.

Loophole .

They were asking about the Baltimore house again. That wasn’t so bad. Well, it was bad , but it was information Neil already knew they had and had over a week to process. It gave just the right amount of time to force himself to talk and take a gulp of water. Sir sat on top of his feet. He didn’t push her away.

Instead, he stayed and listened.

And ran once he heard someone named Allison Reynolds talk about how she saw him in the keys in 2002.

No.

Fuck.

No, no, no.

Neil beelined for his room and it was only when he was safely behind the locked door that he realized Sir had followed him in. He didn’t care enough to kick her out. He pulled out his phone and his earbuds and found the Audio Notes. When he pressed play, someone named Allison Reynolds detailed their encounter.

Which he remembered.

He didn’t think he would. Florida came back in few sights and smells and feelings, but this? As she spoke, he could see the store he’d been in when his mother was talking to the person at the counter. He remembered how she’d told him that they had to go to this place for people to help them - people he’d never heard of - all in order to stay safe from his father.

‘Your Uncle Stuart gave me the name of someone there who can help us, Abram. They’ll be able to give us papers so we can fly far away from here, where your father can't get us.’

Neil had asked his mother once why they didn’t just go live with Uncle Stuart. He seemed like he had everything they needed. After all, whenever they were in a tight spot, his mother would call Uncle Stuart and he would send her money or a name. Once he’d gotten older, she told him it was because she refused to trade one crime family for another, or to have Neil grow up in one either. He never questioned her after that.

Perhaps you should’ve.

Neil listened to Allison Reynolds describe him as small, heard her describe how she talked to him. It was the first time in a very long time someone besides his mother had spoken to him. He was shocked into silence. Back then, they’d been on the run for just over a year and he’d be lying if he said he yearned for someone other than his mothers sometimes harsh, stern words pushing them forward.

When the audio notes finished, Neil rolled over and buried his face into his pillow. Sir jumped onto the bed and lay down at his side.

She was warm.

We’d been spotted more than once.

That was obvious enough. And he thought, with a feeling in his throat that bordered on pain, Andrew Minyard was going to do this.

Loophole.

He was going to find Neil. He was going to track him across the entire country and maybe even Europe, where he and his mother had spent two years. He really was going to follow the crumbs and eventually, Andrew Minyard was going to find him in New York...where Neil was still desperately trying to find that god damned, mother fucking loophole .

He did not go into full panic mode. He didn’t know how at this point. Instead, he buried his fingers into Sir’s fur, squeezed his eyes closed, and breathed through it. Something was slowly becoming even more achingly clear. And it was that Neil had to keep his wits about him - he had to stay steady on the course.

Another thing that became abundantly clear was that this was still the best place for him. Matt, New York, this building - it was the safest place he could hope to be in. Right now, he still had a good job where he was making steady money and putting what he could away. Bit by bit, he soon may not only be able to afford papers, but perhaps he may find another contact and get the hell out of the country soon.

The only question was, could he manage that before Andrew found him?

The only thing he knew for sure was that he had to keep listening - he had to keep track of what was going on and where they were.

He had to stay one step ahead.

And hopefully, that would lead him to his loophole .

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

It was okay. That was enough for me. Her intentions were clear, but as I said earlier, I could care less, so long as I get the information I need to solve this.

And more information came. Allison fucking Reynolds was delivering on her promise. More so than I think I gave her credit for, or expected.

Because our next stop was Key West, to a small gift shop on famous Duval Street - to where Allison claimed she saw Mary and Nathaniel.

It still stood. The building was old like everything else was old there. But inside was filled with updated merchandise. Like surfboards, beach bum bullshit, sandals, bathing suits - you can imagine. When we stepped in, I guess I could picture them here, but not really. My thoughts surrounding Mary and Nathaniel were always so dark - hiding in closets and pushed down stairs... Leakin Parks and the darkness of basements. Not here, not this. Where people milled around with sunburns and bleach white smiles, the constant smell of sweat and sunscreen in the air. To me, it was near unfathomable to see small, 7 year old Nathaniel looking at bracelets.

[ pause ]

I headed to the back of the shop where the register was. There was a middle aged woman seated behind it, flipping through a magazine. She looked old enough to be here back in 2002, but not by much, not really, and that wasn’t very encouraging.

She didn’t need much encouragement to talk though. Once I’d introduced myself and our purpose, she was eager to share what she knew. Considering the fact she was reading People Magazine, that shouldn’t have been surprising.

-

Neil was at the stadium late Saturday night after a game, which the Lynxes won easily with Matt on the team. He was behind the plexiglass of the court picking up any trash left behind when Matt came out, calling his name.

He waved from where he was and attempted to pick up a napkin with an unknown substance sticking it to the floor.

“Team meeting over?” Neil asked, standing straight to talk.

“Yep. Come with me. I want to show you something.” Matt gestured for Neil to follow and turned around.

“I have to finish this!” Neil called after him.

“No you don’t. I talked to Jerry. He’s going to send someone else out here. Come on!” Matt kept walking, unconcerned. Neil looked around himself, then down at the stuck napkin and sighed. Dropping the trash bag, he threw the gloves he’d been wearing on top before following.

Matt led him to a set of stairs he’d never noticed before. They climbed up, up, up, until Neil was sure they were at the roof of the stadium. Once they reached the top, Matt led him down a dark hallway and stopped at an opening.

When he turned to Neil, his bright smile nearly glowed in the darkness as he said, “Come look.”

They were in the rafters, he realized. Where the lights were set and banners were hung - he looked out and took an automatic step back.

Matt laughed, “Come out here with me. The view is incredible.”

Nathaniel.

Neil followed after Matt carefully. There was a narrow walkway above the lights. He assumed it was so they could be serviced easier. Slowly, Matt sat down and Neil took his time slowly lowering himself to sit next to him.

He was right.

The view really was incredible.

“This is...” Neil didn’t know what to say. The entire stadium was laid out below him. He could hear the screaming fans if he closed his eyes - could hear the sticks clacking and the bodies colliding. It was beautiful, this view...maybe the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Pretty great, right? One of the senior players took me up here when I was a rookie and panicking about our first game. It puts shit into perspective, you know? How small we are in the scheme of things.”

“Yeah...” Though Neil had felt small all his life.

“So,” Matt started with an exhale. “How have you been? With the panic attacks, I mean. You doing okay...? And,” Matt held up a hand, “don’t say you’re fine or I swear, I’ll push you off.” He didn’t look at him when he asked the questions though. His warm brown eyes still looking down at the court he’d just played on. Neil was grateful.

He even smiled a little. His shoulders felt relaxed, no tension in his legs or an itch at his heels begging him to run. “I’ve been okay.” His voice was quieter than he’d meant. He didn’t bother to raise it. “I’m sorry to be a bother. But, playing with you has helped,” he nodded with his words.

They’d played twice more, since then and every  time, Neil could only get around Matt once or twice.

Matt nodded too. “What about Sir? How do you like her?”

Neil thought it was an odd line of questioning, but went with it. “She’s...good, I guess? She won’t leave me the fuck alone. She follows me around like a shadow in the apartment.”

Matt did look at him then and his smile, this time, was sheepish. “I got her for you. I thought she might help.”

What..?

Neil blinked. “You got me a...cat? To help...?”

Matt let out a loud breath and shifted so he was facing Neil. “Okay, just hear me out.” He inhaled a bigger one, like he was steeling himself, before saying, “She’s an ESA. I did some research and found a lady in Brooklyn who trains cats to be comfort pets.”

“What...Matt, what the fuck is an ESA?” Neil was so confused that he didn’t know whether to laugh or leave.

“They’re emotional support animals. They help people who have anxiety. You can’t really train cats that well, you know. But this lady said her cats are really good at detecting when people are in distress. It’s why she’s been following you around. You’re a walking anxiety disaster and I think it’s like catnip to her.”

Neil decided on laughing. He laughed loud and it echoed in the stadium. Matt ended up laughing with him and only when they’d caught their breath and Neil’s chest ached from it did Neil say, “Matt, how have you survived in this world, as nice as you are? I guess if someone tried to mug you, you’d just give them your wallet and ask if there was anything else you could do for them.”

Matt laughed again and shook his head. He looked back down at the court, smile still lingering on his lips. “I don’t know, man...like I said, I just want to help. I know there’s a story to you. I know there’s something going on more than just you being another unfortunate runaway. I’ve been through shit too, and I’ve seen bad things.” Neil visibly tensed. Matt noticed and he glanced at him from the corner of his eyes. “I’m not going to ask. If you want to tell me, you’ll tell me. But while you’re here...I just want to help.”

Neil didn’t know how to process all of that...but he felt himself nodding as his mind spun and ended on one thought - how odd it was that he was 25 years old and he only just realized that some people in the world were just good people. That some people didn’t want anything in return.

Even if they deserved it.

-

RENEE:

Thursday April 25, 2019.

Duval Street, Key West, Florida.

[ tourists, people speaking in background, faint music ]

ANDREW:

First, what’s your name and how do you spell it?

DEBORAH WATKINS:

Deborah Watkins - D E B O R A H, W A T K I N S.

ANDREW:

Right. How long have you worked in this store?

DEBORAH:

Well, my husband and I own it, actually. For about ten years now.

ANDREW:

Do you know the previous owners? Are they still in the area.

DEBORAH:

[ conspiratorially ]

Ah, well. That.

[ lower voice ]

Turns out, they were running some sort of illegal business out the back. Feds came in and shut them down. We bought the store when it went up for sale, some years later.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

You heard that correctly. Whoever was running this place back in 2002 was running an illegal business out of the back of this shop.

-

-Interview-

ANDREW:

Do you know what kind of illegal business? Drugs maybe?

DEBORAH:

No, no. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure it was counterfeit money and documents. We found a bunch of weird paper in the back and there was ink everywhere. Apparently, a federal investigation doesn’t also mean clean up.

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

I know what you’re all thinking. Keep fucking thinking it.

When I looked at Renee, she had the same look on her face that all of you must have right now.

Counterfeit money and documents - now, at the moment, we didn’t know how true this was.

Deborah seemed like a gossiper. She had that conspiratorial light in her eyes, that excitement that showed more about her character than anything else ever could. She had an investigative journalist in front of her, with a recorder - I wouldn’t be surprised if she made something up or if she tried to make her story much more interesting than it actually was. This was probably the most interesting thing to ever come into her shop besides drunk Harry or Ian or whatever to stumble in from the dozens of bars down the street.

Which means that as a journalist, I had to be on my guard. I had to confirm every lead that this woman was giving and I couldn’t skimp on the details or be lazy. No matter how long it took, no matter how frustrating or aggravating, I had to find something to substantiate her claims. Because though what Deborah was saying was exciting, could fundamentally change our investigation and help propel us into further finding where Mary and Nathaniel went next, she could also be lying through her teeth for the sake of seeing her name in an article or the chance to hear herself speak on a podcast.

I didn’t know if that was the case. Nonetheless, I had one more question.

-

-Interview-

[ pause. Background noise ]

ANDREW:

These people were seen here in 2002. Were you here then? Do you recall seeing them?

DEBORAH:

[ pause ]

[ hum ]

Mm… No. We were here then, but they don’t look familiar to me.

ANDREW:

Okay. Thank you for your time. Do you happen to know if there are any other shop owners that have been in the area for longer? Twenty years or so?

-

-Studio-

ANDREW:

The first step to confirming if what Deborah was saying was true or not, was seeing if there was anyone else in the area that knew anything of the shut down of the previous owners.

Deborah wrote down several other shops and owners that may be able to help us and after lunch, we went about visiting every single one. Only one person had seen Mary and Nathaniel, and he confirmed to us that Mary was trying to buy hair dye.

Looking to go incognito, it would seem.

Receiving confirmation from several other people in the area that the feds had come in and shut down whatever back-store business going on back then, let us know that we were at least on the right track.

Now, the only thing to keep in mind is that this is a small town - where most of those people had most likely been there for decades. Gossip spreads quickly, and I’m not partial to trusting several individuals with the same light shining in their eyes that Deborah had at the mention of ‘Investigative Journalist’ and ‘missing persons’. I’d be doing a disservice to this case and you listeners if I didn’t do my own research.

Well. I ended up doing just that.

After going through the entire list, we stopped at the Monroe County Library to go through their archives, to see if there was anything to confirm what we’d found.

There was.

We found several local articles detailing the undercover investigation that revealed a forgery business being run out the back of the shop in 2005.

We’ll have that posted sometime this week or the next.

This was quite possibly the most important information we’ve received yet. That includes anything we may or may not have found in Baltimore...it includes the Toronto Interview and it connects what we would eventually find in Parkland and Port St. Lucie - which we already covered.

Why is this?

Because now we know that Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski went to Florida with the possible intent to buy illegal documents. That can be money, IDs, passports, you name it. Mary was also trying to hide their appearance.

And knowing that they were outed, by some mysterious source to the police under Abram may say more about their need to get the fuck out of here than we’d initially thought.

This is big. This is bigger than just the photograph. And while this answers several of our questions, like where Mary and Nathaniel went after they disappeared, and the possibility that people were after them - it raises even more questions than what’s been answered.

Reynolds was really proving her fucking worth.

-

Sunday morning, Neil slept in. It was a rare occurrence. He was used to waking up at 6AM. Perhaps it was something left over from his life on the run, he didn’t really know. Either way, he woke up at 11 and realized something he’d been trying to shove away for the past few weeks. But it was there and it was becoming more and more achingly obvious that he was getting comfortable here - his deep sleep only proved it.

And the fact that he was comfortable didn’t bother him as much as it should’ve.

This is bad, Nathaniel. Nothing good can come of this.

Well.

It seemed like it was slowly becoming too late by this point. Neil was tired of running. He was tired of being scared and briefly, last night, he wondered if this was the future that he could have, if only he were smart about it. Keep on running, keep on hiding, keep on evading a future that was surely coming? Or finally say enough is enough.

Wasn’t that what you were trying in Arizona?

He and Matt had a Sunday routine at this point. Usually, he’d wake up and they’d eat breakfast together. Then, they’d go to the bodega, deli, or even Trader Joes on the other side of Central Park - because carrying shit back was easier with the two of them. Neil would insist on paying half, Matt would argue, and then Neil would pay half anyway. They’d get back to the apartment and Matt would work out while Neil ran on the treadmill. They showered, they ate lunch, hung around if neither of them had errands to run. Sometimes, if Matt didn’t have plans, they’d order in for dinner because neither of them were great at anything beyond eggs or sandwiches. Then, they’d close the night sitting in front of the TV and Matt would have his laptop open on the Red Rabbits page, waiting for the audio notes or podcast to drop.

Tonight, it would be the podcast. Neil didn’t really want to listen, deeming it just to be all of the same. He’d heard the audio notes from the trip, so there was no point, right?

Don’t be an idiot. Stay one step ahead.

He should. So, he forced himself to stay on top and waited in anticipation for Matt’s whoop of excitement to come.When it did, he asked if Neil wanted to listen together. Neil, of course, said no and excused himself to his bedroom. Sure, that may be obvious, but the voice inside his head was right. It just lead to the realization that Andrew might say more than what was in the Notes in this Episode, and Neil didn’t know how he’d react to whatever the fuck that hypothetical thing might be.

Sir jumped off the couch when Neil stood and he held his bedroom door open for her before he shut and locked it. When he collapsed onto his bed with his phone, she jumped up after him and Neil allowed her to climb onto his lap before putting in his earbuds.

Maybe he’d need her.

He pressed play.

-

Speaking of ‘proving worth’, we’ve received emails and asks about sponsoring Red Rabbits and sending in money to the studio. Even a twitter account where I clearly told someone ‘no’, and I have a sneaking suspicion they sent in money anyway.

I don’t want your money.

We’ve already got a sponsorship through Reynolds, and it’s more than enough. We don’t need this money. But there are plenty of others that do.

With that said, we’ll be posting links on the website with charities you’re welcome and encouraged to donate to. After receiving the extremely serious and important Cease and Desist from Edgar Allen Productions, we’ve already donated $200k to these charities under EAP’s name.

Oops.

All that out of the way, we’ve had several leads that have pointed to Europe being the next stop on the timeline for Mary and Nathaniel. So, to Europe we go. Keep an eye out for the next set of Audio Notes, which will be about our trip there and what we find out.

I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

Keep searching.

Chapter Text

It really couldn’t be said enough, but Andrew really fucking hated planes. Cramped, compact, and a metal fucking box in the sky - he fucking. Hated. Planes. First class, economy, it didn’t fucking matter. The only thing that changed the front of the plane to the back, was the fact that he didn’t have to worry about a stranger pushing into his side and there was room to stretch his legs. Nothing could change the fact of what a plane was - a flying death trap that could malfunction at any moment. They could just fall out of the god damned sky and -

Andrew took a deep breath, stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back in his seat. He laced his fingers together over his stomach and closed his eyes, trying not to think .

Renee nudged him with an elbow and Andrew cracked one eye open to give her a look of something akin to annoyance.

She was not deterred.

“Don’t give me that look,” she said, smile in place. “Sit up. You don’t get to sleep to try and ignore this flight when there’s work to be done.”

Work. Who’s fucking idea was this anyway?

Andrew ground his teeth lightly together for half a second and closed his eyes again. He wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway, but it was nice to pretend that the acid in his stomach wasn’t slowly creeping up his throat with his steadily growing anxiety; nice to imagine that sleep could take him all the way from one continent to the next in the blink of an eye.

The two of them were on their way to Stuttgart, Germany and all together, the trip was 20 hours with layovers. That would be 20 hours of nausea, anxiety, elevated heart rate, and absolutely no fucking sleep. He wasn’t sure how he was going to manage not doing something regrettable in that amount of time, so he knew despite himself, that Renee was right. There was work to be done and it would provide a (hopefully) good distraction while they soared across the Atlantic and however many fucking countries until they reached their destination.

Renee sighed and shuffled beside him.

Andrew peeled back his lids to watch as she got out her laptop from the corner of his eyes. Sighing, he sat up and mumbled, “Why are you so mean to me? After all, we’ve been through...?”

“Yes, yes. I was there the time you made a fool of yourself in front of Charlie Daniels,” She waved a hand as if she were shooing away a fly. “That makes us family, I know. Let’s go over the plan for when we land. I’ve never been anywhere in Europe before and I want to make sure I’m prepared.”

They’d gone over it a few times. However, Renee, Seth, and Dan had been sick at the beginning of the week. Andrew used that time to stay in his apartment and avoid whatever was plaguing the office, drawing up an itinerary of this trip on his own in their absence. That meant their normal detailed planning, wasn’t as in-depth as usual.

He lowered the tray table from the seat in front of him, pulled out his laptop, booted it up, then opened his planning document.

Early on in their investigation, they’d received a few leads to their email. The first claimed there had been a sighting of Nathaniel and Mary in Scotland, which kicked this trip off. After several discussions and a handful more tips, Andrew had decided to bite the bullet and just do it. Thankfully, the sightings seemed solid and legit, so this potentially-fatal flight wouldn’t be completely useless and Andrew could kill two birds with one stone.

So to speak.

Really, it’s just been too long since he’d been to visit Nicky and his husband Erik. Nicky had been bugging him for the past few years to come, but after his last 20 hour fucking trip to Stuttgart, he’d been trying to hold it off for as long as he possibly could. In that time, Nicky made the trek to the US - once when Bella was born and again two years later for Christmas to surprise Bee. At least now he had actual incentive to visit (not like Nicky wasn’t enough...), something to push him across the ‘roughly’ 3,399 miles of the fucking Atlantic again.

It seemed, lately, that Andrew’s incentive always had something to do with Nathaniel and Mary.

Strange.

“Our first stop will be Strasbourg, France,” he started, checking over his notes. “There’s someone there claiming to have seen them at some big music festival they hold in the city every year. It’s only about a 2 hour drive from Stuttgart, so we should be able to do it in one day.”

“Okay,” Renee said, making a note across her own keyboard. “Will we need to rent a car?”

“I’ll take Nicky’s,” he replied, scrolling through the notes he’d attempted to refine the night before. “We’ll do that Monday. Tuesday,” Andrew paused, tonguing his lip ring for a moment as he reviewed what he’d written silently, then continued. “We can do Hanover. We’ll need to stay overnight and Friday we fly to Scotland to talk to the woman from the email. We’ll head back to Stuttgart the next day and fly home on Monday.”

“Got it.”

And so it went. Once they were done planning, there was really nothing left for Andrew to do but stress about the flight - so, he used the plane wifi to waste time on the website and try to take his mind off how high they were at the moment.

“So,” Renee turned towards him in her seat sometime later. She waited for him to pull out a headphone. “Do you think Allison will be able to do it?”

“Do what? Stop herself from fucking Seth in the sound booth again? Probably not.” His body gave an involuntary shudder. The two of them honestly were the worst.

Renee’s purse of her lips didn’t go unnoticed and he raised his brows at her.

“Something to say, Walker?”

“It’s not serious between them,” Renee said quietly. She was perfectly normal and composed, but Andrew rolled his eyes anyway. So this was how it was going to be? For the past couple of weeks, Renee and Allison had been circling each other and while it was really none of his business, he wanted to tell Renee she deserved better.

Then again, he didn’t think it would matter who ‘better’ was. No one would be good enough for her, in his opinion.

Nonetheless.

“Serious or not, they should take their fucking elsewhere.” Something in his tone might have insinuated for Renee’s sake in that. But. “As for your question, I assume you mean getting the Nathan interview?” She nodded.

Andrew had asked Allison before he left to make herself useful and use her connections in the entertainment industry to get him an interview with Nathan in the prison. This was partly so he could tell her to do something other than making calls and antagonizing Seth in the office. In his opinion, if she wanted to be here and be a part of this, great. Then get to work.

However, that was only partly . Because although he didn’t give a shit about Nathan and whatever his motivations for a public interview would be - he wanted to hear about Nathaniel and Mary straight from his mouth. He wanted to hear whatever version of Nathan’s truth in regards to what happened to them; to see if maybe he had been wrong this entire time and Nathan’s people really had caught up to the pair.

Though the issue with something like this was that it had to be handled properly. Hypothetically, if he did land this gig, there could be no room for error. If done incorrectly, he could easily fall into the trap that others had - sensationalizing a killer's actions, giving a platform for said killer to continue spitting whatever trash they had already. It would be risky and he had to be smart about every single word he fucking said. But, if Andrew couldn’t do it, then he seriously doubted that anyone else could. That wasn’t him being big-headed or conceited, it was just the truth. He’d done countless interviews over his career, many from established, important, deplorable monsters (of a different sort). He was good at choosing his words, saying what needed to be said and nothing more.

Still didn’t mean he wasn’t nervous. The audience of Red Rabbits had only grown and there was no slowing down in sight. What he may see as a completely reasonable line of questioning, others may not. There was a lot of room and possibility for error. That thought put an uncomfortable lump in his throat that Andrew had to swallow down.

Cracking his picky, he inhaled a deep breath and thought instead of the opportunities this interview (if achieved) may bring. Like the ability to tell Nathan to his face what a giant piece of shit he was.

Yeah.

That was good.  

“You’re probably right,” Renee eventually agreed, snapping him out of his thoughts. “She’s stubborn, that’s for sure...”

He focused on her face to keep his mind in the present, rather than the future, and he didn’t miss the small smile that tugged at the corner of Renee’s lips as she stared down at her keyboard.

Averting his eyes, he decided he’d looked his fill and left Renee to whatever thoughts ran through her head. Instead, he went to browse through his email to find a new one sitting at the top. It was from Abby and the subject line read, “Don’t be a Headache”.

Inside were reminders about the cease and desist.

“Don’t reference the M family at all or EAP. Don’t write about them, don’t post about them, don’t talk about them to anyone you come in contact with. In fact, don’t even think about them.-”

He could practically see Abby glaring at him. She honestly knew him too well.

“We can get around this if we comply, but it’s not going to do us any good if we have to go to court over something that has minimal impact on this project anyway.”

Minimal impact? Andrew huffed.

They’d see about that, he supposed. He suspected the Moriyama’s played a bigger role in this entire mess than it seemed, and it was only a matter of time before it came to light.

He could feel it.

-

By the time they finally landed in Germany, it was Saturday morning and Andrew was (as the kids say) ‘hella’ fucking annoyed. He was tired, he was hungry, he was cranky, and Nicky’s chipper attitude and megawatt grin did nothing to quell the feeling.

“Andrew! You’ve grown!” Nicky laughed and put both hands on Andrew’s arms to briefly give a light squeeze. He knew that was as much of a hug as Andrew would allow and took it in stride. Meanwhile, he scooped Renee into a proper hug while Andrew sent Erik a nod. He was standing behind Nicky’s shoulder with an indulgent smile at his husband's antics. Erik was too fucking tall and blond and happy and Andrew mentally groaned at the theatrics of this entire greeting.

He needed a nap.

“Okay! Let’s get your bags!” Nicky said with a clap of his hands. “Then, we can get home and you guys can crash. I know you must be exhausted.” He sent Andrew a pointed look, but all Andrew could give in response was a grunt of assent.

After Andrew and Renee collected their bags, Nicky handed Andrew the car keys once they got outside without having to be asked. Andrew, despite his exhaustion, took them gratefully. Although Nicky was one of the only people he (surprisingly) trusted behind a wheel, he didn’t think with his leftover anxiety from the flight that he’d be able to handle it. Andrew needed something solid and familiar beneath his hands. The wheel of a car and a path on solid ground would have to do.

Nicky, Renee, and Erik kept a polite stream of chatter all the way to the house. Perhaps if this were a few years ago, Nicky would have attempted to pull Andrew into whatever conversation they were carrying, or given unnecessary directions while knowing full well that Andrew remembered the way. This time, however, he let him be, almost as if he were trying to direct attention away from Andrew so as to give him space.

The driveway was small, fitting only one car, and it was attached to a beautiful, old townhome. The siding was painted a baby blue that stood in contrast to the other pastel homes attached. There was a small garden following the path to the front door and all the flowers were in full bloom under Germany’s shining sun.

Nicky had talked about gardening in their many skype calls over the months - often either on his way out during Andrew’s mornings to spend time in his little gardens, or coming back during Andrew’s early evening with an even darker bronze to his skin. He saw that Nicky’s labor paid off. Even in his sleep deprived, anxiety-ridden, cigarette needing mind, he could see that. Somewhere in the depths of his hollowed out chest, he felt a swell of happiness for his cousin. Everything about him read content .

Andrew put the car in park, took the keys, and let himself into the house. Bags be damned, he couldn’t be bothered getting them out, carrying them in, or even changing into other clothes as he trekked himself through the house to the small guest bedroom. He locked himself inside, collapsed on the bed, and slept the anxiety away.

-

Andrew was already awake by the time Renee came knocking to tell him they were going out for dinner.

He’d been asleep for most of the day, leaving only unwelcomed nightmares to stir him awake. It may have been minutes, an hour, several , that he’d been lying there, he didn’t know. The small house was filled with creaking warmth that only a well-loved home had. Its walls were paper thin and he could hear Nicky and Erik moving about their day.

They sounded happy. Andrew could practically feel the domestic bliss leaking through the walls, and perhaps that was why he stayed lying in bed. He didn’t want to disturb them, ruin their moods with his unpleasant attitude. The flight, the nightmares, the case , it was taking a lot out of him and although he would never admit it out loud, he didn’t want to put that on Nicky - not now. They hadn’t seen each other in a long time and he owed his cousin more than just sour looks and quick remarks.

But, he couldn’t hide forever, nor could he ignore the ache in his stomach.

Sitting up, he looked around the small space. The sun was slowly setting, leaving everything awash in oranges and pinks. Andrew slowly rolled himself out of bed and headed to the door. Renee had walked away already, but when he opened the door, his bags were standing in her place.

Andrew redressed, splashed cold water on his face, and brushed his teeth. Once he deemed himself as ready as he’d ever be, he made his way to the kitchen where everyone was waiting on him.

“Hey, you look great!” Nicky said.

“Yes, I know. Where are we going?”

Nicky rolled his eyes good-naturedly and grabbed the keys Andrew had tossed on the kitchen table on the way to ‘his’ room hours before. “Essenzaile, naturally. We have reservations, so hurry!” He led the way to the car and waved the keys with a questioning look sent in Andrew’s direction.

Andrew could take the offer, but despite how he’d woken, he felt centered enough to allow Nicky behind the wheel.  

Once they were situated at the restaurant and Andrew had a plate of fritters in front of him, he was in a considerably better headspace - which Nicky immediately pounced on.

“Okay, so spill. How’s the podcast going? Got any like...really amazing leads? Do you think you’ll find them?” There was barely a pause between the onslaught of questions. Andrew supposed he couldn’t really blame him, considering Nicky did allow Andrew the luxury of sleep for most of the day. “Are you seeing anyone? Honestly, Andrew. You’re wasted on single life. You should find a boyfriend and settle down.”

Spoke too soon.

Andrew stared blankly at Nicky for a second and spared a glance for Erik, who was trying very hard to stifle a laugh. Andrew sighed, tampered down what he really wanted to say, and started from the top.

“Podcast is fine. We’ve had a few good leads. Yes, I think we’ll find them. No, I’m not seeing anyone and you know better than most, I will never have a relationship .” He grimaced a little, as if the word itself was distasteful.

Because really to Andrew, it was. The idea of a ‘boyfriend’ was so fucking ridiculous that he couldn’t even picture it. In the past, he’d had guys that he trusted to get off with, but that was about it. At the moment, he had one guy - an improvisation really, since Roland was frustratingly and monogamously claimed.

Dion wasn’t such a bad consolation prize. Once Andrew had gotten a better read on him and determined what kind of person he was, Andrew went with his want - and his want, at the time, was getting off with Dion in the back of the Maserati (carefully, those seats were precious). Since then, it hasn’t been regular , per sé, but it was enough . Andrew needed something and Dion was the perfect whatever to fill that need. For now, it was working and Dion seemed more than willing to remain in ‘gross South fucking Carolina’ with Allison.

For now.

Which made the arrangement all the better. Dion would eventually leave town altogether and Andrew could move onto whatever next, next was.

“Waste,” Nicky tsked again, shaking his head. “You would be the best boyfriend...all broody and protective and shit. I don’t know why you would deny the gay popu-”

“Stop,” Andrew said, holding up a hand. “I’m done talking about this now. Change the subject.”

Nicky just smiled a little, almost in a way that said he knew he was nearing Andrew’s ‘bullshit threshold’, then shook his head. “Fine. You’re a catch, that’s all.” He moved on. “So tell me about the podcast. Renee, how are you handling traveling all over with Mr. Sunshine?”

Renee, who’d been watching on with a small smile on her lips, laughed lightly and put down her fork. “He’s actually a great travel companion. Super low maintenance and as long as he’s fed before midnight and you don’t get him wet, all is well.”

“What about sunlight?” Erik asked. “Is that also one of your rules?”

Andrew cocked his head at him. “Nicky made you watch Gremlins, didn’t he?”

“I absolutely did and he loved it,” Nicky held up his glass of wine and smiled that megawatt smile again. It quickly changed soft as he focused his attention back on the podcast after taking a sip. “So you said you think you’ll find them. Are you close?”

“Probably not.”

“No like...recent sightings?”

“No.”

“Ah...” Nicky looked torn between optimism and confusion. “What makes you so sure then?”

It was a good question, a reasonable question, a question that Andrew had only one answer for.

“I just have a feeling.”

-

Sunday morning Andrew woke up to the smell of coffee.

It was 8AM Stuttgart time, which meant 2AM Palmetto time. Andrew was still jet-lagged, but he learned early on in Nicky’s move to Germany that he would have to try and force his body to adjust to local time. Otherwise the rest of the trip would be miserable, which meant anyone and everyone around Andrew would, in turn, be miserable too.

He padded out to the kitchen, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses and running a hand through sleep-tousled hair. Nicky sat at the kitchen table, his shoulder-length brown hair pulled up in a messy ponytail. Whisps hung down in his face as he scrolled through his phone and took a slow sip of coffee. When he noticed Andrew down the hallway, he looked up and smiled.

“Morning sunshine,” he set his phone down and nodded his chin to the countertop. “Coffee’s all yours.”

Andrew shuffled over and pulled out the mug he always used when he was here. It was black with a white skull and said, ‘A Nice Hot Cup of Fuckoffee’ .

He sat at the table across from his cousin after pouring copious amounts of cream and sugar into his steaming mug. He winced when he took a sip, even let out a small groan of disgust. He had a love/hate relationship with German coffee. It was both better and worse than the coffee they had in the US in the sense that it was much stronger, so the caffeine kick was fantastic. However, because it was stronger, it also tasted like shit.

He added more sugar.

“So,” Nicky started. That one word was much softer than he’d spoken the night before. Andrew didn’t have the automatic inclination to steel himself for a ridiculous line of questioning. Instead, he sipped his coffee and waited for Nicky to continue. “How are you...? Really? I try to pry info out of Betsy, but she doesn’t tell me anything.”

Andrew set down the mug, closing his eyes as he relished in the warmth it carried down his throat. Much better . “That’s because she’s not a gossip like you.”

When he opened his eyes, Nicky gave him a look .

He sighed. “I’m fine. Really,” he added after Nicky raised a brow. He continued, “It’s been...good. This case. It’s helped take my mind off getting fired and it feels like I’m fighting back in my own way. I miss writing some. I’m writing the podcasts, but it’s not like writing a piece, you know? I get lost, but in a completely different way.” That was more than Andrew would have ever given anyone , if this were five years ago. It left him feeling exposed in a way that had him itching to close back up, but he pushed passed it as Bee buzzed comfortingly in his ear.

Nicky’s hum accompanied the buzz in acknowledgment. Not only was Andrew getting better with talking , but Nicky was easier to talk to, now that he was older and settled. Before , Nicky was just a ball of insecure energy. He was loud and boisterous and always happy because he felt like he had to always be happy - for his parents, for society, for the twins. Andrew didn’t recognize it at the time, but after living with Bee, after having a family home where Nicky was a constant presence until he moved, he’d realized how much Nicky initially had to sacrifice in order to take in two 16-year-old assholes. He put everything he wanted aside in order to try and give Andrew and Aaron the life they deserved and he would have gone all the way if Bee hadn’t stepped in. He would have kept them until they were eighteen and probably longer, just to make sure they had family around...

The credit Nicky deserved wasn’t always given. But maybe that was also why Andrew sat there, giving up answers with far more detail than he would have to most others, allowing himself to be questioned - it was to thank Nicky for all he’d done.

Andrew was proud of him, he was thankful for him, he was happy for him. No more too-big smiles, self-deprecating jokes, prying questions, and the need to be liked. No, this Nicky was centered, he was calm, he was everything Andrew had ever hoped he could be. He was one more person Bee had helped to live a better life.

“Do you think you’ll go back to writing when you’re done? Or do you think you’ll stick with this platform?” Nicky looked at him seriously over the rim of his mug. Rich brown eyes, light brown skin, everything about Nicky was warm . Even the small lines that creased at the corners of his eyes, the lines that crinkled when he smiled - they weren’t there before, but they made Andrew feel warm too. They’d come so far.

“I don’t know. Probably. I can’t imagine doing this for anything else and this is a special case, I think. If I were to do it again, it would have to be for something big.”

Nicky nodded and put his cup down. “You should write a book.”

Andrew almost laughed. A huff came out instead and as he shook his head. “No, I shouldn't. I don’t have anything to say that would fill a book.”

“Mm...” Nicky hummed. “I think you do. I think you have a lot to say and I think a lot that you do have to say, would be really important to people. For those who grew up in foster care, for gay teens, for people who’ve struggled with self-harm.”

Andrew clenched his jaw and Nicky stopped talking immediately. He stayed silent while Andrew cleared his thoughts.

Nicky knew, of course. He hadn’t always worn the black armbands he did now and they had lived together, for a time.

Nonetheless, the bands had been a staple for the last decade. A suggestion from someone else that understood. They gave Andrew a type of confidence, assurance, protection even, once upon a time. They didn’t make him feel strong per sé, but they helped him in ways he really couldn’t even attempt to explain.

Nicky knew some of the abuse Andrew had faced, but not all of it. Still, it wasn’t something he discussed and it surely wasn’t something he thought would be helpful in a book.

“I’m not going to write a book. I went through what I went through and it’s not like I handled it particularly well. Change the subject.”

So, Nicky did.

“Well, I’m proud of you. The podcast has been amazing and I love seeing you on the webpage, making everyone crazy.” Nicky smiled again, his eyes crinkling once more as he lifted his mug to his lips. “And I love sending you anonymous asks, just to see if you answer them.”

Andrew’s head shot up from where he’d been looking into the depths of his coffee - finger idly running across the edge of one of his bands. “You send in asks? Have I answered any?”

Nicky shrugged one shoulder and took another sip of his coffee in an attempt to hide his smile to no avail. “A few. I’m not telling you which ones. But, man. You eviscerated me. It was fantastic. I keep coming back for more.” Nicky laughed then and Andrew, he couldn’t help himself.

He laughed a little too.

-

Later in the day, Nicky was determined to get them all out of the house. The only issue with that plan was that it was Sunday and shops weren’t open in Stuttgart on Sunday.

Andrew was just settling himself into a day spent doing nothing but lounging before they had to leave tomorrow when Nicky suggested the Mercedes-Benz Museum.

Andrew had been there before, of course - more than once in fact, while visiting Nicky. But who was he to deny his cousin the opportunity to look at pretty cars for a couple of hours?

Andrew was so benevolent . The joy he got from noting that his Maserati was better than all the cars in that museum was just a secondary perk, really.

By the time they got home after looking at cars and taking pictures of cars and stopping for food at the first cafe they could find, Andrew was done. He needed a few hours to recharge, gather himself and his composure before facing his family again. So, he retreated to his room to nap and woke up just in time to demand to be fed dinner.

Erik made potato pancakes (except he called them kartoffelpuffer , which seemed excessive) because he knew Andrew would riot if he didn’t get any before the trip was over, and served them with powdered sugar and applesauce. Even Andrew had to admit he’d eaten too many, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. Sometimes (all the time), indulgence was good.

After dinner, they all piled on the couch and chairs like a proper family to watch a movie. Andrew had the big soft chair to himself and he kicked his legs up over the arm and let himself sink down, feeling full, sleepy, and in a way, content. They watched the first Harry Potter in German with english subtitles for Renee, and Andrew definitely didn’t read them too.

The movie was nearing the Forbidden Forest and he heard a soft laugh. Shifting his head just slightly, he saw Nicky and Erik whispering on the couch together. Nicky was curled into Erik’s side and Erik had an arm around his shoulders. He was looking down with a smile stretched happily on his lips before he kissed Nicky on the forehead.

Andrew looked back at the movie.

Maybe it was the copious amounts of potato pancakes, but Andrew tried - if only for a moment - to picture it. Having a partner. Maybe Andrew would come home after work and he would be there. Andrew would be able to talk about his day to someone besides King - not that he minded talking to King. She knew all of his secrets. But maybe, just maybe, it’d be nice to have an honest opinion from someone who respected Andrew. Someone who cared about him and his well being. He knew he had Bee, but it would be different, he thought, with a partner.

He shook his head to clear it. Because the fact of the matter was, it would never happen.

Relationships required give and take, a push and pull, and Andrew didn’t want to do any of those things. He didn’t want to share his past and he didn’t want to answer questions. He was better off alone if he was being completely honest with himself. It would be cruel to subject someone else to him with the plethora of issues and baggage that came with the Andrew Minyard package.

Getting off was fine. It was easy and uncomplicated, most of the time.

This was fine.

He was fine.

He could feel Renee watching him from the chair across the coffee table.

He ignored her.

-

Monday morning, Renee and Andrew set off in Nicky’s car to Strasbourg, which was right over the border in France. Erik biked to work and Nicky had taken the entire week off, even though Andrew and Renee would be gone most of the time.

Seemed like as good excuse as any to take a vacation, he supposed.

The woman they were meeting was named Anais Arnaud. She was 27 years old and claimed to have had contact with Nathaniel when she was 11. She’d sent them an email a few weeks ago, detailing this possible encounter, so she was the first stop on their list.

They met her mid-morning at a cafe called Cafe Bretelles. Renee and Andrew beat Anais there (he assumed. He had no idea what she looked like, but he figured she’d be able to spot the tourists). Andrew ordered a chocolat chaud and twixx maison, while Renee ordered a cappuccino and some granola. Andrew gave her a look , which she ignored in favor of eating her food neatly.

Anais walked in ten minutes later. She spotted them right away and headed to their table to sit across from them.

“Bonjour!” She said brightly, peeling off her jacket and placing it on the back of the chair. She had a long blonde ponytail and big blue eyes. They reminded him a bit of Nathaniel’s.

But not as bright.

“Parlex vous anglais?” Andrew asked, right away. They were close enough to the German border that he could get away with it here, but this girl was obviously French and the German dialect was different depending on where you were anyway. English would allow him to better detect the subtle nuances she may have while she was talking.

“Oui! Thank you for meeting me here,” She said, smiling at them both. A heavy accent tickled the edges of her words, but she was easy to understand. “I must admit, I am extremely excited to meet you. I’m a big fan of the podcast and when I saw the pictures of Nathaniel, I couldn’t believe it.”

That was one thing Andrew usually cautioned himself with. The excitement over the podcast, the light in the interviewee’s eyes when they saw him. He had to gauge these things properly, tread carefully, so as to make sure he wasn’t being played for a spot on the podcast. It was usually something he could catch during email correspondence, but not always. That was only the ‘first line of defense’ if you will.

The second was reading the person when they met. Sometimes smiles could be too big, lies hiding behind their eyes. He’s encountered a few people like that on his travels - even just people that wanted to talk. Sarah Johnson was like that. Though she was a credible source, she had little to nothing to tell them - nothing at least, that Bob Roberts didn’t have already. She was a waste of time spent talking about Columbia University and shitty professors, rather than actual information they could use. And though Bob Roberts was also interested in the podcast, excited even, he had shit to back everything up.

Anais didn’t give off that vibe. She was all open eyes and bright smiles, but there was a serious air about her that gave Andrew assurance to her intent in being here.

“Do you mind if we record?” He asked, pulling his recorder out of his bag and skipping pleasantries.

“No, no. Whatever you need to do. Just let me get a coffee first and we can start.”

Renee and Andrew watched her make her way to the counter to order. He couldn’t help himself.

“She’s...bubbly,” he noted, watching her ponytail swing.

“I think she’s nice. She said she was a fan, so you have to be on your Bee’s house behavior, okay?” she said, looking to him seriously.

Andrew pushed his glasses up on his nose and stared back at her. “I’m perfectly capable of being a normal human being when I feel like it.”

Banter was so easy with Renee.

“Well, start feeling like it. She’s coming back.”

Anais sat across from them with her cup topped with heart-shaped foam, and took a long sip. “Okay. We can start.” She smiled and sat her cup on its saucer with a ting .

He pressed record.

[ Record On ]

He started with the usual: Location, Date, Name, How to spell it.

Then, he got into the meat of the story.

“So, tell us, in your own words, about the day you saw Nathaniel.”

Anais took a deep breath and laced her fingers on the table.

“Well, I was 11 years old and I was with my family at le Fête de la Musique-”

“Tell us about that,” he interrupted.

There was no hesitation. She flowed into the explanation easily.

“It is held here in Strasbourg, every June. It is a large music festival where performers line the streets to play their music. It is a family event. Many people and children running around, enjoying the day.”

“Okay,” Andrew nodded. “So, what happened when you were 11? What year would this have been?”

“2003. I was running around with my older brother and some of his friends. They were playing a game of tag and chasing each other through the crowd of adults. I was running too, but I was just the little sister. No one noticed me very much.” She shrugged a thin shoulder and lifted her cup again. She took a small sip before her eyes slightly hardened. Anais continued, “I was swerving around someone when I ran straight into a boy.”

Buzz.

“A boy.” Andrew paused. There are plenty of kids, it could’ve been anyone. “What did the boy look like?” He leaned forward a little in his seat, arms on the table.

The cup tinged again when she set it back on it’s saucer. Anais mimicked her stance and leaned forward too. “He was small. Maybe eight or nine. He had dark brown hair and brown eyes.” She shook her head as she barreled on, “I know the coloring is wrong. But, I know it was Nathaniel. And...I know I said in the email that his name was Stefan, but it was him.”

Andrew cracked his pinky. “How do you know?” He asked. “How can you be so sure if the coloring is different from what he is naturally?” He’d known, of course, that Nathaniel and Mary had altered their appearances in an attempt to hide. That made vetting what was a real lead from a fake one all the more difficult. Nonetheless, there were a few giveaways that helped and she hit them.

Anais shrugged, her eyes closing for a moment as if she were seeing the young boy again. “It was still his face,” her voice was far off. When she spoke again, it was with more conviction. “He still had the freckles, the dark skin. He still had those lips that made him look as if he were pouting, even when he wasn’t.” She opened her eyes. Andrew watched as they focused back on him as her head idly nodded. “When I saw the family portrait and the photo from Florida on your website, I knew it was him.”

Buzz .

Andrew inhaled a deep, steadying breath. He knew it was him too. He believed her.

“Tell me, what was it about him that made him so memorable? That all these years later, you would recognize him?”

Anais smiled a little. “Well, when I ran into him, he grabbed my arms like he was trying to steady me. He was very nice.” She tapped her finger against the side of her cup. “Spoke french very well, even though I could tell he was a foreigner.”

French?

“What did he say?”

She shook her head and shrugged once more. “He just said ‘pardon’ and tried to leave. But, I grabbed him by the arm and made him stay.” She tilted her head, “I wasn’t lonely. But as I said before, I was the little sister, so no one really played with me . I played with everyone else, if that makes sense? Anyway, I wanted a friend, so I asked him to be on my team so I could finally catch my brother and his friends. He didn’t want to at first - kept looking around, like he was trying to find someone. But eventually, he agreed and we ran around for a while, laughing and playing. It was a lot of fun. I remember being very happy that day.” She smiled softly and looked down at her coffee. She took another sip.

He repeated what she just said in his mind.

I remember being very happy that day .

Andrew’s stomach did a tiny flip. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact emotion, but he was glad - he thought. He was glad that Nathaniel had even that small moment to play and be a normal kid. The picture he had of Mary and Nathaniel on the run, was of a mother and son who talked to no one and didn’t stop moving for very long. The family portrait was filled with horrors that he could scarcely imagine. But, if what Anais was saying was true, it meant that for a moment, just a moment...Nathaniel had a bit of reprieve.

Bee was buzzing in his ear. It wasn’t bad. It was a comforting hum that numbed the anxiety that threatened to settle in his bones. He lifted his hand and rubbed at the tattoo as he cleared his throat and moved on. “What happened then? When you were done playing?”

“Well,” Anais started, sitting a little straighter. “We were only done because Mary came. Her hair was different, too - a weird brownish red color...? She,” Anais pressed her lips together for a moment, but carried on. “She yanked him right as he was running by. I was surprised she did not pull his arm from the socket.” She sighed and looked between Andrew and Renee. “She dragged him away, then. I could not hear what she was saying, but she was angry. He looked back at me once and gave me a sad little smile. I can see it so clearly...” her brows furrowed and she looked out of the window for a moment, lost in her thoughts.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

“That’s really helpful,” Renee chimed in. She leaned forward in her seat and asked, “Is there anything else you can tell us? Maybe where they were staying, or where they were going next? Did Nathaniel talk to you at all? Tell you anything?”

Anais looked back at the two of them, shaken from her thoughts. “No. We were running and playing, not talking. He was very quick. Helped me catch all of my brother's friends that day.”

Renee smiled sweetly at her. Andrew couldn’t manage even an attempt at a smile and turned the recorder off.

[ Record Off ]

“Thank you so much,” Renee said, holding out her hand. Anais took it and they shook briefly.

“Of course. I hope this was helpful to you. I really do love the podcast. And I hope you find them. They, or Nathaniel at least, deserve justice.”

Andrew didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything at all. Instead, he gave her a short nod and made his way to the door. Renee closed the conversation for him as he felt the fresh spring air hit his face. He inhaled deeply, his fingers itching for a cigarette. Somehow, he resisted. At least for now. He headed to the car, threw his bag in the backseat, and sat behind the wheel. His fingers restlessly tap, tap, tapped, and he stared down at the keys in his hand, while his tongue fidgeted with his lip ring. He only realized Renee had gotten in the passenger side when the door closed shut.

“At least he had a moment of fun,” Renee finally said, echoing Andrew’s earlier thoughts.

He grunted in agreement and blinked the dryness out of his eyes. “We now know for certain that they changed their appearance. Probably regularly in case anyone was following them. And, we have a name they used.”

Stefan.

Renee nodded.

It was still a few more minutes of contemplative silence, before Andrew finally put the key in the ignition.

-

Nicky was waiting impatiently for them when they got back to the house.

“So? Did you find anything? Any leads? Were they really here? What year would that have been? I studied abroad remember, maybe I met-”

“They were spotted in Strasbourg, not Stuttgart,” Andrew reminded him. “And the woman we met saw them. That’s all you get to know. Otherwise, it’ll be all over twitter before tomorrow.”

Andrew was tired. The entire ordeal took a lot out of him and all he wanted was to curl up in bed, wish King were here, and sleep for hours. First food, then he’d do just that.

Nicky slid is phone back into his pocket and had the good grace to blush when Andrew looked at him on his way to the kitchen.

“I am insulted you think I would ever do that. I was just...checking my insta, that’s all. Not everything is about you, cousin.”

He at least had the energy to scoff. “Since when? Are there any potato pancakes left?”

-

The trip to Hanover took longer than Strasbourg. It was over five hours away and while Andrew wasn’t excited about driving, it sure as fuck beat flying.

The person they were to meet was a 25-year-old man. He claimed to have met Nathaniel at a small school in Wunstorf, a suburb of Hanover.

Admittedly, Andrew was something close to excited for this interview. This would be a person that had an experience with (perhaps) Nathaniel, that stretched farther than just a one time encounter. According to the email, it spanned over several weeks and Andrew was itching to hear more.

And it was that excitement, that anticipation, that likely staved off his anxiety the entire drive there. Instead, he and Renee spent the trip going over what information they’d already received since being in Europe, and how this interview may be the most important one yet.

They were to meet at Herrenhousen Gardens, a monolithic stretch of aestheticized greenery that went back for centuries. Andrew wasn’t really into the history of the place (that was, shockingly, more Kevin’s area), but when looking up this location, he’d realized that the guy chose this place purely so Andrew and Renee could see how beautiful and wonderful Hanover is. Honestly, if there wasn’t food nearby, Andrew would have refused altogether.

But, upon entering, he had to admit that it was...well. It was beautiful. The air smelled sweet and the sun shone down on them in an oddly comfortable way, as a gentle breeze blew by.

The walk to their agreed upon meeting place was short and Andrew did not find it in himself to enjoy it through the excitement.

As it was, Karl Weber stood beneath a statue of some naked woman next to a lot of very bright flowers. Andrew realized then, he probably looked ridiculous here. All the green, all the color and the springiness of it all was ruining the all-black aesthetic Andrew had donned today every day.

There was a wrought iron table and chairs that they sat around, and after initial introductions (Renee shaking Karls' hand, Andrew refusing, Karl discussing the beautiful weather and location all in German and blah, blah, blah), Andrew pulled out his recorder.

“Sprichst du Englisch?” he asked. Karl nodded in the affirmative, so Andrew continued. He set his recorder on the table between them and hit record.

[ Record On ]

They went through the same introductions they had with every other interview. Date, Name, Location, the whole bit.

Once that was out of the way, Karl asked in thickly accented english, “This will be on the podcast?”

Not an uncommon question, so he replied, “Most likely.” Then jumped right into it. “So, you claim to have had contact with Nathaniel. Tell us about it.”

Karl nodded again and leaned towards the mic. Andrew wanted to tell him that was unnecessary, but he didn’t mind if this guy made an ass of himself.

Not like he deserved that. He seemed nice - but. Well.

“I was ten years old and I think he was as well. It was 2004.” 2004. “ He went by the name Ben, but I am sure it was him.”

“How can you be so sure?” Andrew asked. Already, Bee was starting up.

“The pictures of when he was a child look just like him. He had brown hair and brown eyes, but it was him. I know it. I recognized his mother too, from when she would drop him off and pick him up. We went to a small community school together in Wunstorf, but he was not there very long.” Karl rubbed his chin like he was trying to solve an unsolvable equation.

“How long is not very long?” Renee asked, making a note on her phone.

“Three months, maybe?”

“Alright. So in those three months, what did you learn about them? What were they like?” Something odd was chewing at Andrew’s center. The tips of his fingers itched and Bee buzzed incessantly in his ear. The buzz wasn’t for caution or emotion, but it was for an odd...bundle of excitement growing within him. He felt close. So, so close. To what? He didn't know.

Karl pressed his lips together as if trying to remember, before saying slowly, “Ben was...very quiet. Never rude, but he didn’t really play with the other children. No sports with the other boys, no nothing. We used to play exy in a field behind the school during free time, and he would always sit under a tree and watch...but he never joined in.”

An exy fan.

“What else?” Bee was getting louder. He pressed his fingers into the tattoo to try and quiet her down. He wanted to hear everything Karl was saying.

“He was very good at math, I remember.” Karl lifted his brows. “The other boys would ask to copy his work and Ben would always let them. He was a kind kid...” He nodded and rapped the table with his knuckles briefly, then a frown pulled down at the corners of his lips. “We had a field trip one time to a lake. It is called Steinhunder Meer. He went on the trip, but refused to swim. He would not take off his shirt in front of anyone else. Only his socks and shoes to put his feet in the water, while everyone else was splashing around. I thought,” his brows furrowed, “It was weird at the time...but now, I am thinking it was just sad.”

It was sad. But, Andrew had to admit (perhaps to get his mind away from little Nathaniel off to the side from the other kids), he was surprised Mary even let him go on a trip - let alone an actual school, even if it was in a small German suburb.

Idly, he wondered what drove them back to the US. Because according to the timeline, whatever happened in Seattle, happened in July of 2004.

“What about Mary?” Andrew moved on. “Did you have any interaction with her?”

“Not really,” Karl answered, leaning back just a bit. “All I saw of her was when she picked Ben up and dropped him off. I do-” he looked up for a moment and inhaled a quick breath. “I do remember her being very stern with him. Always speaking in hushed whispers. She never talked to any of the other parents.”

Of course not.

“Alright.” Andrew nodded. “So what happened? Why did they leave?”

Karl’s frown grew and his shoulders shrugged as he looked back to Andrew. “I do not know. One day he was there and the next he was not. I do not think the teachers knew either. They asked us all if anyone had seen him...no one had.”

Buzz...

Renee made more notes on her phone and Andrew played with his lip ring for a moment. Slowly, he felt himself receding back into his thoughts, trying to sort through all that Karl told him.

You’re not done yet.

No. Pulling himself out of his head, he bit down on his lip ring for half a moment and got himself back on track.

“Is there anything else you can think of? Anything odd maybe? Anything that stood out? Habits, the way he spoke, anything?”

Karl considered this. He saw whatever must have been written on his own face a few moments ago, reflected on Karls as he tried to remember. It took only a few seconds before his face drained slowly of color and brows gathered as a grimace shaped his mouth. Karl fidgeted in his seat, then leaned away from the recorder as he raised his eyes to look at Andrew. “There was one thing...” He nodded.

Buzz -

“Remember I said he wouldn’t take his shirt off at the lake?” Karl asked.

Andrew nodded. He scratched at his tattoo and felt the excitement that had once gathered in his center, turn to something dark and heavy. He didn’t like where this was going.

Karl nodded as well, small jerky motions. His eyes lowered a fraction. “Well, I know why.”

Something cracked. It was Andrew’s pinky.

“I saw him one time, when he thought no one was looking...” Karl shook his head. “He liked to run and we had a dirt track at school. You know, meant for runners. Anyway, he was running one day by himself before school, and a teacher sent me to tell him to come inside.” Karl wet his lips, paused, shook his head, took a deep breath as if he were steeling himself, then continued. “When I walked out, he had stopped and was just kind of...standing there, trying to catch his breath. He used,” Karl pinched at his shirt, “the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead. And when he did, his stomach was exposed.” Karl winced at whatever memory flashed before him. “And I saw them.”

“Saw what?” Renee asked and Andrew was glad she did. He thought he might be sick. He felt like his head was slowly being submerged under water. So far that Bee might not even be able to reach.

“Scars...so many scars. They looked like they were from knives...like he had been cut over and over.” Karl swallowed hard and he closed his eyes. Andrew followed because suddenly, the sun was far too bright.

“He saw me looking and dropped his shirt. He then walked away quickly and they left not long after that.”

[ Record Off ]

-

They didn’t talk until they were back at the hotel. Sitting in the small restaurant downstairs, Andrew idly stirred his melange with a spoon. He didn’t know if he would be able to keep this down, but determined he needed something warm in his stomach, so it was worth a try. Maybe it would keep the bad thoughts at bay, chase the darkness curling and spreading inside of him away.

“How are you?” Renee asked after a fair stretch of silence. He couldn’t hide from her.

Andrew scooped some of the foam and ate it as a test, before setting the spoon down on the saucer.

Rather than run and hide from his thoughts, he voiced them aloud and hoped that maybe, just maybe, it would help.

“What did he endure, Renee? Did Nathan do that to him...? Practice using knives on his small son? I-” he took a deep breath. “I’ve been through a lot of shit in my life and I’ve seen a lot of abuse. I just...” Andrew didn’t know what he was. Very rarely was he ever at a loss for words, but right now, he had none. All the thoughts in his head were jumbled and messy. Like a string tangled into knots, he didn’t know where to start to begin unraveling it all. And that was with knowing Nathaniel and Mary both faced abuse at the hands of Nathan. It wasn’t a stretch...why else would they run?

The dent in the wall. The blood at the top of the stairs.

dont Be Bad.

This, however, this felt different in a way. Revealing . Was Nathaniel tortured? Did Nathan hold him in that basement? Strap his small body to a table and methodically cut him while he s-

Andrew took his glasses off and flung them on the table. He rubbed his face roughly and left this hand there. Renee touched his arm lightly and Andrew couldn’t help his flinch back.

“I’m sorry...” She said quietly. Andrew heard the drag of her chair against the floor. When she spoke again, her voice was closer. “Remember what we talked about in Baltimore? Why we’re doing this?”

Andrew steeled himself with a deep breath and dropped his hands. Bee wasn’t buzzing, but she burned at her place behind his ear. He wanted to scratch at her, at her buzz - anything. He kept his hands in his lap and nodded instead. “Yes. I know, to help them. To tell the truth.” Andrew grit his teeth, then shook his head. Either to disagree with the thoughts pushing by or to dislodge whatever thoughts wanted to intrude , he didn’t know.

What he did know was, “Allison better get me that interview, Renee. I want to be in front of Nathan and I want to ask him. I want him to lie to me. I want to tell him what a worthless waste of space he is and how he'll always be just that, until he dies in prison.”

Renee was silent, only her breathing keeping him from going crazy. He knew her thoughts on emotion driving something so important as an interview with Nathan. But she at least had the mind to keep it to herself and instead say, “I hope you get that chance, Andrew. Allison has enough connections, I think she’ll  come through.”

“She better.”

-

He had nightmares that night.

They were dark and cold. With doors slowly opening while he hid under thin blankets, small beds, confined closets.

dont Be Bad

Footsteps echoing on wooden beams, walking slowly slowly slowly so they would not creak, creak, creak in Andrew’s head, his chest, his heart. There were hands that felt and touched, with hot breaths on his skin that had Andrew closing his eyes so, so tight.

But it didn’t matter, because none of it ever helped.

Not when the quiet whispers came, right in his ear, above his body - so close that it chilled his blood.

A.J.’

Andrew sat straight up in the bed, hand grabbing the sheets for something, anything . He needed a weapon, his knives - but it was just empty. The sheets were cold and slick and there was nothing, nothing nothing .

King .

He was alone in the dark. Halfway across the world, there was no King to warm his side, no King to climb on his chest and purr. Nothing but himself.

Andrew pulled his knees to his chest and hugged them tight. Bee was buzzing in his ear again, but it felt like his head was underwater once more. He couldn’t hear her, she couldn’t get through -

He plunged his hands into his hair and tugged. Tight grip, ripping strands, he tried to ground himself, come back to himself, help himself.

That darkness that had been curling inside of him was spreading throughout his body like the cold rush of fear that voice had sent through his veins. It was paralyzing, leaving him to do nothing but rock and pull and squeeze his eyes tight as inexplicable guilt festered in his chest.

I couldn’t help him .

Not the child Nathaniel had been. If he’s still alive, what kind of nightmares did he have to endure? The horrors -

Andrew lost track of time. The clock on the bedside carried on, the moon outside sunk back towards the horizon and Andrew finally found the strength to unwind himself from his mental bindings.

He took a hot shower, tried to ground himself and chase the cold that had settled over him. Only when he felt raw and stripped to the bone did he get out, and dress himself. He then sat in the chair by the window until Renee knocked on his door when it was time to go.

-

They made a stop for cigarettes on the way back to Nicky’s. He’d tried to go the entire trip without them - he failed. He was itching so badly he thought he may jump out of his skin.

Renee gave him a disapproving look that he ignored. He didn’t care. He didn’t care that he was smoking in Nicky’s car. He didn’t care that he had quit, picked it up again, then decided on a whim last week that he would try again. He didn’t care that cigarettes could kill him. And that was probably the main problem that he again, completely ignored.

He was retreating and that was dangerous. But alas.

When they got to the house, Renee went inside ahead of him.

Andrew stopped at the front steps and sat. He lit his fourth cigarette and looked at nothing as he inhaled deeply and focused on the warmth curling in his lungs. He heard the door open behind him and didn’t have to look to see Nicky lower himself to the step too.

“Can I have one?” Nicky asked, voice soft and...careful.

Andrew dragged his eyes to his cousin’s face and raised a brow. “Is that supposed to be a joke?” Nicky never smoked in the entire time Andrew had known him.

Nicky pulled back his chin and vehemently shook his head. “No! I want to try it. Is it as cool as you make it look?” He grinned and Andrew couldn’t help but roll his eyes. If Nicky really wanted to use this to try and bond, then fine. He’d choke and give it up anyway. So, Andrew let his lit cigarette dangle from between his lips while he pulled out his pack and withdrew one for Nicky. He lit it with the one in his mouth, then passed it over.

Nicky took a drag and held the stick up in front of him in contemplation. As Andrew expected, he coughed, then coughed some more - then gagged, spit, and coughed again.

It worked.

Andrew laughed. Really laughed. Nicky was right, this was a great way to bond.

Nicky spit again and Andrew’s chest hurt from the energy laughing had pulled from him. “That was a mistake,” Nicky choked out.

Andrew nodded in agreement. “I would say so.” He could still feel his smile lingering on his lips.

With a deep breath, Nicky let it out and made a sound. Shaking his head he moved on. “So, will you tell me what happened, now that I’ve made an idiot out of myself?”

Andrew flicked the ash off the end and took another drag before he shook his head as well. “No,” he said on an exhale. “I don’t think I will. It’s nothing to do with you.” He looked to his cousin's face and read the disappointed look he gave him. “It’s not mine to tell, I don’t think. Not this one...” He turned his eyes away and watched the smoke curl from the end of his cigarette. “I’m not going to put it in the podcast or the audio notes. It won't make a difference and it just feels...like it’s too much.”

“Hmm,” Nicky mused, then asked honestly. “What’s the difference then? Between this and the writing on the closet wall?”

Andrew thought about that for a moment. It was a good question and it slightly caught him off guard. What was the difference?

It was a question that shouldn’t require a stalled answer. The difference was that this was someone’s body. The difference was that Andrew just felt like it was different. He couldn’t explain it to himself and he wouldn’t even try to start with Nicky. That would require telling him what it was and that...

It just felt wrong.

“There’s just a difference,” Andrew decided. “That’s all you need to know.”

Nicky handed Andrew the still lit cigarette and gave him a small, non-intrusive smile. “Then that’s all I need to know.”

-

On Thursday, the call came - the one he’d been waiting for.

He stared at the name on his phone before answering, hoping this was the news he wanted and not just a ‘just because’ call.

It wasn’t.

This was it.

‘I got it, Monster.’ came Allison’s voice from over the phone. ‘Just you, the psychopath, and probably some men with guns. You’ll have half an hour with him and there will be two CO’s with you at all times.”

Buzz.

“When?”

Skip the conversation, skip the bullshit.

‘You have to call and schedule it, I’m not your assistant.’ She sounded disgusted.

Good.

“Speaking of assistants, how is Dion by the way? Has his voice come back or-” It was kind of like poking a really fussy bear. Allison had just landed him the interview of a lifetime and he was still here, finding ways to get under her skin.

‘You’re such a fucking prick. Which,’ Allison’s voice took on a new tone. It was light and he could hear her fucking smile. ‘Is why I have the absolute, great pleasure in telling you that there is a stipulation.’

Fuck.

‘My contact wants you on her sh-’

“Who.”

No.

‘Eager? It’s Kathy Ferdinand.’

No.

‘She wants to interview you about the podcast and your research for a segment.’

“Abso-fucking-lutely not. You expect me to go on TV? And do an interview? Are you insane? Abby will never allow me to get myself - and in turn, all of you - in trouble on television.” There was no fucking way. Cameras in his face? People trying to put makeup on him? Dress him? Kathy fucking Ferdinand?! Televisions resident bitch and the worst kind of gossip mongering whore Andrew could possibly fucking think of?

Allison would be friends with her.

‘Too bad, so sad. She’s already agreed and you have to do that interview before you can even step a toe inside the prison.’ Allison sounded very pleased with herself. Andrew ground his teeth in an attempt to hold back the venom he so desperately wanted to spit.

Buzz.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Buzz.

Calm down. Sacrifices have to be made. Nathaniel sacrificed so much. You can do the same for the chance to find him.

“Fine. Fucking fine. Just make it happen soon. I’ll be on a flight home tomorrow.” He hung up the phone and tossed it on his bed.

This was going to be a disaster, he had no doubt. But, he had to do it. He had to. He owed Nathaniel that, didn’t he...? To take whatever lead, whatever opportunity he could for just the slightest chance it may bring Mary and Nathaniel closer to justice?

He left his room to find Renee chatting with Nicky and Erik in the kitchen. She turned to look at him and caught sight of his face.

“She did it, didn’t she?” She asked. How she knew that’s what he was coming to talk to her about, he didn’t know.

Nonetheless.

“She did,” he nodded. “And in the process, promised me to a TV show for an interview.”

“What?!” Nicky screamed. “A TV show?! That’s so fucking cool, oh my god - what show?”

Ugh.

“Kathy Ferdinand.”

Nicky screamed louder. Erik put his hand on his husband's shoulder and was looking like he was trying very hard not to smile. At least he could read a fucking room. “OH MY GOD, ANDREW! I love Kathy! God, she’s such a petty bitch and I fucking love it. Ugh, I’m so excited. I wonder if I can get more time off for the taping. Do you think I could?” He turned towards Erik, then away again to drill Andrew some more in nearly the same breath. “When is this happening? Oh fuck, what am I going to wear...?”

“No. You can’t come. It’s bad enough with all the fucking random people that will be in the audience.” He cracked his pinky and fought against rolling the stress out of his neck. “It’s happening as soon as possible. I have to do it before I speak to Nathan.” Andrew finally walked the rest of the way to the kitchen table and collapsed in a chair. He was suddenly very tired.

Oh . She’s smart . Very smart,” Nicky nodded, wisely.

Andrew ignored him and directed his attention to Renee. “We need to change our flight. I know we have one interview left, but this seems more important. We can skype them, whatever. I want to get home as soon as possible. I need to research, prepare, figure out the logistics of the Nathan inte-”

“Andrew,” Renee interrupted. “We’ll fly home tomorrow. Everything's going to be fine. We’ll make this happen, okay? This is a good thing. This is what you wanted.”

Then why did he still have a bad feeling?

Chapter Text

Andrew woke up with one hand in King’s fur and the feeling of absolute dread churning in his stomach.

This was going to be a fucking shit show.

It was 4AM and the alarm on his phone was blaring. King huddled closer into him as if that would block out the sound. He wished he could do the same, but today was the day - the worst fucking day. He was going to sell his soul for an interview with Nathan Wesninski.

To Kathy fucking Ferdinand.

Andrew forced himself to sit up and turn his alarm off. The movement made King only creep closer, chasing the warmth that Andrew was leaving. His hand remained in her fur as he stared at the numbers and watched them turn from 4:00 to 4:01. He groaned to himself as he tossed his phone back onto the nightstand and pressed his thumb and forefinger into the corners of his eyes.

He’d agreed on this appearance on the stipulation that Kathy made the interview with Nathan happen.  Kathy, unfortunately, would be the one calling the shots. Which meant he had to comply like a good little soldier until the show was filmed and ready to be aired - which sounded fairly open ended but really, it wasn’t. Abby already told him several times that he would have to behave and keep that sharp tongue in check.

Whatever.

After several minutes of rubbing small circles into his eyes, he finally gave King one last pet, then rolled out of bed and made his way to the shower. Cold water shocked his skin, stripping away the exhaustion bit by bit as he stood beneath the stream and waited to feel at least semi human. When that felt partially achieved, he switched it to hot and felt his body attempt to shift to the dramatic change.

Once he got out, he shaved, brushed his teeth, did his hair, changed out a few of his piercings to be rainbow bright (because he was feeling particularly gay that morning), touched up his Essie Licorice polish, and made a to-go cup of coffee as King tiredly nibbled at the food in her purple bowl.

Same.

Once they were situated, he and King made their way downstairs to the Maserati and then to the Tower.

The whole team was due to meet there at 5AM so they could drive as a unit to Raleigh. Which was really fucking ridiculous, to be honest. Andrew didn’t need the entire team there, but they all insisted and his anxiety was strung too tight for him to really argue. The only person that would be left behind was Kevin. And since Bee would be working all day, he had the absolute pleasure to watch over King. Andrew would have taken her with them, but it was a long drive and she certainly wouldn’t appreciate being in a car for hours at a time.

There was, however, an added perk to being up at the asscrack of dawn. Kevin had to get up stupid early to be at the studio on time for no other reason than to keep King company. Really, she could’ve just hung out and napped on her chair in Andrew’s office on her own. But... well, she really preferred company and Andrew really preferred inconveniencing others.

When he walked into the studio, Kevin was nodding off on the couch in the lounge - head lolling to the side and cup of coffee tipping dangerously towards the floor. Andrew quietly walked up behind him with King purring in his arms and leaned down to his ear.

“Exy is a pathetic waste of time,” he whispered and took great joy in watching Kevin startle awake and spill coffee on himself.

Kevin spun around with a startling rage in his eyes that dampened immediately to defeat when he saw who it was. “Of course it’s you. You’re such an asshole,” he sighed and looked down at the coffee spreading on his shirt.

Andrew gave a small mock bow and retreated to his office. Setting King down, he watched her jump on her cat tree as he let his bag fall to the floor. Once she seemed situated, he reached up and took her face gently in his hands. “Feel free to torture Kevin, okay?” he said quietly. “He hates being licked by animals, as you well know, so feel free to do that an awful lot while you’re here.” He scratched behind her ears and felt the anxiety bundling in his chest slowly give way. “Also,” he continued, “you should hide at some point. Really well this time to make him think he lost you. I’m looking forward to getting a panicked text. You got it?” King nuzzled his chin with her face and Andrew couldn't help but nuzzle her back.

“Do you really think she understands you or is this some form of psychosis?” Andrew turned to find Kevin leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest and a giant coffee stain still wet on his white shirt.

“We’re just discussing your imminent demise, that’s all.” Andrew gave King one more scratch and rub, before turning around. “Is everyone else here yet?”

“Just arrived. They’re waiting for you in the lounge.”

Andrew nodded and picked his bag back up. Kevin stepped in his way as he tried to leave his office.

“Listen...” he started, holding his hands up, but keeping them to himself. “Do you know what you’re doing? What you’re going to say - Andrew.” Kevin’s eyes were... something Andrew didn’t wish to place. His face was pulled tight with worry. “I know you know this, but Kathy Ferdinand is a snake. She’s going to try and catch you off guard.”

Andrew rolled his eyes because that was his automatic response to everything. Was he nervous? Yes. But not because of Kathy , it was because of himself . Kathy could say all she wanted, it was her show - it was just a matter of how he would handle it. Because really, his reactions were all that mattered. She literally held his ability to advance this case in the palm of her hand. Which was why he said, “A gossip TV host is going to try and sensationalize this? Are you serious? I’m shocked.” His face felt blank and his voice deadpanned.

Kevin wasn’t deterred.

“I’m serious. I’ve done her show a couple of times and you really have to know how to get her in check and keep her on track.”

Andrew had enough. With a firm nod he forced out, “I’ll be fine.” Before moving to leave.

Kevin turned to let him past - if only so they didn’t touch.

-

Andrew and Renee took the Maserati while the rest of the team split up amongst their various cars. No one tried to ride with Andrew - not after seeing the look on his face when he entered the lounge.

Nonetheless, although he was dreading the taping, he was excited about the Mas’s first road trip. That, if anything, helped to calm him down as they made the long drive to the studio. It even allowed Renee to throw questions at him on the way to see how he’d respond. They’ve been doing this throughout the week, but he supposed extra practice wouldn’t hurt.

“So, Andrew. I hear you’re super gay. Tell me about that.” Renee started, watching Andrew’s face.

As it was, his brows furrowed and he tucked in his chin. “Are you kidding? She can’t do that.”

“Oh?” Renee raised a brow, “Why not?” She asked mildly. “She’s a gossip TV host, Andrew. She’s going to go for the throat. What if she did ask that? How would you respond?”

Ugh .

Andrew shook his head. “I’m not talking about it.” It wasn’t that he was ashamed or that he was hiding it. He wasn’t and he didn’t. He wore small symbols of his pride every day and that spoke enough. Everyone knew he was gay anyway. It was just a fact of his life. However, talking about it publically made it into something else. It made him into a role model, a spokesperson for the gay community, and that made the scrutiny that much worse. Not for himself , but as soon as he fucked up - and he would - it’d be a poor reflection on the community because that’s what the media did. He wasn’t going to entertain that.

“I swear, I’ll walk off the stage.”

“And lose the interview with Nathan?” she replied quickly. She was fucking right and he was stupid to not have thought about it before.

“Ask another one.”

-

By the time they arrived at the studio, Andrew’s nerves were right back to being bundled nice and tight in the center of his chest. Not even the feel of the Mas underneath him could completely make them stay buried underneath his emotional baggage where they belonged.

They walked in together as a team, Andrew in front with his sunglasses still on and a garment bag over his arm. A producer greeted them upon arrival and led them to the back where a tall woman with a blonde dye job and heavy tits spilling out of her shirt greeted them.

“Andrew!” Kathy called, shiny white teeth all on display. He was glad he kept his sunglasses on. “Thank you so much for agreeing to do the show! We’re all so excited to have you and to hear more about the podcast!”

I’m sure.

Buzz

Andrew swiftly stepped out of her way when she reached out with pink taloned fingers to grab him or hug him or maybe even neither of those things. It didn’t matter. He needed as much distance between them while he could get it, before he’d inevitably be pushed on a stage and forced to sit beside her.

Naturally, he didn’t respond and the only tell of her agitation was a slight tightening at the corner of her lips.

Allison made herself especially useful (again. Since when did she become so helpful?) as she stepped out of the group and effectively distracted Kathy.

“Alli!” Kathy squealed, “It’s been too long!” Allison smiled and hugged her, immediately pulling her into conversation.

Andrew briefly thought about Mean Girls, then turned to focus half of his attention on the producer gesturing for him to follow. “Andrew, you’ll come backstage with me. The rest of you can go ahead and make your way to the audience.” She pointed towards the signs posted in glowing pink letters above the doors. “Follow the signs.”

“Renee stays with me,” Andrew said, wrapping a hand around her arm as if daring someone to try and take her away. He felt her take a step closer.

“Fine,” The producer turned and the two of them followed, while the rest of the team made their way to their seats.

All except Dan.

She walked up to Andrew and kept pace with him as she lowered her voice, “Listen, I know you know this, but this lady is a fucking weasel. She says problematic shit all the time, okay? Don’t let her corner you.”

If one more fucking person tried to tell him what a horrible person Kathy fucking Ferdinand was, he was going to fucking lose it.

"Oh Captain, my Captain.” Andrew put a hand to his chest and bowed his head. “If you didn't want us to hit the iceberg, you never should have let Reynolds at the wheel. Have fun going down with the ship."

He turned to keep up with the producer.

They were led through a series of winding halls, up a short set of stairs, to a door with his name and the Red Rabbits logo plastered onto it. The dressing room was filled with racks of too-bright clothes, mirrors, makeup chairs, etc. Andrew took off his sunglasses and put on his regular prescription so he could see normally, handing the case to Renee when he was done.

“Hi!” A girl with equally big glasses and a nose ring skipped over to them.

Buzz.

He hated her already.

“I’m Meka! We never got a response on sizes for you, so I’ve got a big array here we can try. If you go ahead and strip down to your underwear, we can start finding the perfect outfit!”

Her enthusiasm was too much for 7AM in the fucking morning. Her loud voice was piercing through his carefully crafted psyche and her personality was a god damned exclamation point.

Before he could literally snarl at her, Renee positioned herself in front of him and explained, “Andrew has his own clothes. He won’t need any of yours. Where can he change?”

Meka’s smile faltered. “But... I’m supposed to dress him. He has to be in Kathy approved clothes...”

What the fuck is this place?

Andrew opened his mouth to say something completely regrettable, but Renee got there first. “You’re not going to dress him. Let’s just go ahead and accept that,” she said, sweet smile in place. Andrew watched her, brows slightly drawn together. Renee, with her rainbow tipped hair, serene face, button-down shirt and flowing skirt. He was delighted to see that sharpness that initially made him curious about her, gleam in her normally calm eyes. “Now,” her tone lightly flipped, “where can he change that has some privacy?”

Meka, with some trepidation, directed Andrew to a bathroom down the hall and he locked himself in a stall. He honestly wouldn’t have minded changing in front of just Renee. It was all the random stragglers seemingly passing in and out of this place that was the issue. He wouldn’t be surprised if there was a camera in there, set up with the sole purpose of catching guests scratching their ass or something.

Andrew pulled out his black pants and fitted, striped, purple shirt which he rolled up the sleeves to expose his black armbands. Once they were on, he let himself out of the stall and re-laced his boots, before checking himself in the mirror once, then making his way back to the dressing room where he’d left Renee. Allison was there when he walked in, standing a little too close to Renee and tugging on a piece of her hair.

“Why are you here?” he asked, setting the garment bag on the floor and crossing his arms over his chest.

Allison’s brow rose immediately upon seeing him. “Good lord, Monster. Get your fucking pecs under control.”

Andrew smirked. He knew he looked good in this shirt. It’s why he wore it. “Never.” His smirk dropped. “Now, why are you in here? Did you come to tell me what a horrible human being Kathy Ferdinand is like everyone else has today?”

Allison finally stepped away from Renee and up to Andrew. She liked doing this, as if reminding him that she was a head taller on a good day, and even more so in her heels - like that would make him cower. It’s like she had no idea he’d been short his entire life and could still break her windpipe if he wanted to.

“She’s not a horrible person.” Allison rolled her eyes. “She got me my start. Interviewed me when no one else would. Don’t be rude to her.” She punctuated this with a finger in Andrew’s face and it took everything he had not to grab her hand and twist it around to her back.

“Go sit down, Reynolds. I’ll be as rude to her as necessary.”

Allison opened her mouth to say something else, just as Meka walked over.

“Oh! You look great! Okay, so we just need to do hair and makeup next. If you’ll j-”

“No.”

Meka stopped short, pulled her chin back and blinked at him. She took a deep breath and tried again. “We really need to just add a little powder-” She was practically talking through her teeth in a poor attempt to keep her smile in place.

“No,” he repeated.

Allison walked to the vanity and looked through what they had to offer. “It’s not unmanly to fucking wear makeup, Minyard. Just put on a little so the lights don’t-”

“Allison,” Renee spoke up. She shook her head for Allison to stop. Allison glanced at Andrew and rolled her eyes once more as she put her hands on her hips.

Meanwhile, Meka’s veneer finally cracked and Andrew was quite pleased with himself. “Fine.” She nodded, “Look like a shiny idiot on TV. We’ll mic you and be done.” She turned to grab the mic pouch.

“I’ll do it myself,” he said, watching her trample around the dressing room.

Meka shoved the mic into his chest and left the room muttering to herself about how she doesn’t get paid enough.

He began the process of untucking his shirt, then running the mic underneath when he heard a huff. He looked up to find Allison still standing by the vanity. “What, Reynolds? Why are you still here?”

She sucked on her teeth for a second before saying, “Not that I care, asshole - but... just try and stay a step ahead of her.” She turned and stomped out of the room. Andrew and Renee watched her go.

“That’s the nicest thing she’s said to me since she told me I was invited to the barbeque,” Andrew said. Renee laughed and patted him briefly on the arm.

“I have to go get seated. Good luck out there, okay? If anyone can handle her, it’s you.”

-

Andrew found himself sitting on a white chair, twenty minutes later. Kathy walked out of the backstage area, going over notes on a tablet with someone as she sat in her seat. Her hair shone beneath the bright lights like she was in a fucking Pantene commercial, and her lips were painted a shiny shade of pink. He hoped it got on her pearly white teeth.

Once she waved them away, she finally turned to look at Andrew - bright smile on display and eyes shining with mischief.

Buzz.

“Nervous?” She asked.

Bee was quiet, humming softly in his ear that he took as comfort, rather than nerves.

“No. You?”

Kathy laughed and shook her head. “Oh, Andrew. We’re going to have so much fun today.”

“Can’t wait.”

Someone in the media ‘pit’ started counting down.

[ Action ]

Andrew heard the nauseatingly upbeat show music start. The lights really were bright, making it hard to see the crowd. Luckily, everyone even minorly important sat in the first and second row. Abby and Wymack sat behind Seth, Dan, Renee, and Allison. Andrew assumed they came because Abby wanted to make sure he didn’t do/say anything stupid and Wymack came because Abby did.

Whatever.

Andrew was pulled out of his thoughts by Kathy’s voice.

“Welcome back, lovelies! I told you I had an amazing treat for you today, and here he is!” She gestured towards Andrew and the crowd applauded louder.

Ugh. He fucking hated this.

“With me here, as you all know, is Andrew Minyard. Former journalist and host of the wildly popular, Red Rabbits podcast. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us!”

Andrew looked at her blankly. “I’m still a journalist,” he said, not missing that shady ass comment.

Bee was picking it up now, a soft and gentle buzz in his left ear.

“Of course, of course!” Kathy placated. “Why don’t you tell us a little about that? Now, you were fired from the Boston Globe. Are you doing the podcast because you’re no longer able to publish as a journalist?”

Oh. Hah. Oh, she was good. She thought she was fucking smart.

Andrew gave her a one-sided smirk. “Great question, Kathy. Is that what happened with you? You were a news anchor on your local station before sludging through gossip columns, right? Did you decide on this because you were no longer able to anchor real news?”

Kathy laughed while the audience tittered nervously. “I’ve worked my way up, that’s for sure!” Her smile was even more blinding. Andrew let his smirk die and his face go blank.

Kathy shuffled some papers on her desk and cleared her throat before continuing. “So, the podcast is all about the Butcher, correct?”

Andrew sighed before he answered. “No, it’s not about Nathan Wesninski . It’s about Mary and Nathaniel, his wife and son, and their disappearance.”

Kathy nodded seriously, resting her hand on her taloned fist. “Hmm... Yes, I see, I see. So, I suppose my next question would be, why bother? I could see doing a podcast about the Butcher, seeing as he’s so popular right now-”

“That’s why I’m not doing a podcast about Nathan. People like you in the media give him a disgusting amount of attention, and yet, no one is talking about his missing wife and son. I wonder why that is?”

Kathy’s jaw tensed for a moment. It seemed she didn’t miss his people like you’ comment. Good.

“Let’s talk about the fact that your team is seemingly, actively working against you.” She sat up straight and lightly tapped on the desk. She glanced at her cards just for show, then focused her brown eyes on him deviously. “I saw where a large part of your story was redacted from the first episode. Do you, by any chance,” she waved her hand, “think that’s because you’ve proven yourself to be so unstable with the loss of your job at the Globe?”

Buzz.

He ignored the unstable comment. “I think it’s because the truth is very big and that can be daunting for some people.” Andrew kept his hands in his lap, tightly clasped between his thighs as he resisted the urge to scratch Bee behind his ear.

Kathy nodded her head like she knew anything about anything. “So true, Andrew. So true. Now, how about the Moriyamas? You’ve basically insinuated that they purposely misconstrued the Butcher’s story in the documentary, and even suggested they were the reason for your firing. What can you tell me about that?”

He decided not to correct her again and instead answered, “Legally, absolutely nothing.” From the crowd, he could see Abby nodding her head fervently.

“Ah, yes. They’ve sent you a cease and desist, to stop you from slandering their name.”

Andrew tilted his head as if saying, eh .

“Well, fortunately, we have someone here who may be able to help!” Kathy said and tapped the table.

Andrew swung his head to look at Kathy, while the crowd went nuts. The opening notes to a melody, Andrew belatedly recognized as the overture for The Butcher documentary, began to play overhead.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Riko Moriyama to the stage!” Kathy clapped and stood to walk around her desk. Some stagehand from the pit brought another white chair up to hug the other side of Kathy’s signature glass desk, as the camera panned to Riko fucking Moriyama making his way from backstage.

You’ve got to be - buzz - fucking - buzz - kidding me.

Riko was all smiles and charm, looking fit and handsome in what was surely an outfit approved by Meka. Riko and Kathy clasped hands and he kissed her on the cheek before she gestured him to sit in the chair across from Andrew’s.

He looked at Andrew and Andrew couldn’t help letting out a sarcastic laugh.

Of course. Of course. He should’ve seen this coming.

“Have you two met?” Kathy asked, sitting back down behind her glass desk and crossing her legs. Her finger pointed between the two of them.

They hadn’t. But Andrew’s heard his fair share of what type of maniac Riko fucking Moriyama was.  

“Andrew, this is Riko Moriyama and Riko, this is Andrew Minyard. So wonderful to have both of you on the same stage!” The audience cheered again and Andrew turned his head to see the entire team in various states of panic. Renee was actually trying to get out of her seat, but Dan and Allison were holding her in place.

“Now! Riko... I know you were listening backstage. What do you make of what Andrew has suggested about your family?”

Riko took a deep breath as if he were steeling himself, then furrowed his brow and focused his entire attention on Kathy. “Well, Kathy. We’re all very concerned and quite frankly, confused. Edgar Allen Productions prides itself on doing the best work we can, and we always strive to report everything as accurately as possible in our documentaries. It really is a shame that Andrew,” Riko looked to him now, “didn’t reach out to us before starting this whole thing. I’m sure we could’ve cleared the air.”

Buzz.

It was growing louder. Andrew tilted his head and pressed his shoulder to the tattoo briefly before cutting Kathy off. “Who is we?” He raised his brows. “As I understand it, you play exy and have absolutely nothing to do with your brother’s business. Are you involved in the decision making at EAP now?”

That was another thing he’d gotten out of Kevin over the years. More pieces of the story that made up the fucked up life he’d lived, before showing up at the Tower. At some point, Kevin told him how the Moriyamas main family branch was stationed in New York, and they didn’t communicate with Riko beyond instructing him on what to do or say.

“I think the fact that I’m the one here, says enough,” Riko responded, his careful mask not slipping one bit.

Sure.

“If you say so.”

“Riko,” Kathy spoke up, “Would you be willing to sit down with Andrew and have a discussion? I’m sure this is nothing that couldn’t be solved with a nice chat and a hot cup of tea!” Andrew looked at Kathy incredulous as she pulled over her own steaming cup and stirred it with a small spoon and her pinky raised. Riko gave a low laugh from his spot across from him.

“I absolutely would have a sit-down, Kathy. I would love to pick Andrew’s brain about some of the pieces he wrote when he was still a journalist. The foster care piece was especially gripping.” Riko turned his attention to him. “Do you plan on writing anymore about traumatic childhoods? You really seem to have a knack for it.”

Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz-

He gripped his hands between his knees a bit tighter, but otherwise didn’t let anything show. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

“Thanks, Riko. That really means a lot. Do you plan on being involved in anymore documentaries about murdering psychopaths? You really seem to have a knack for it.”

Riko’s smile faltered for the first time, but he recovered quickly by letting out a laugh and shaking his head. “I see why the Globe had their hands full with you.”

“Yes, I’m a real loose cannon. Reporting on corruption and people who fetishize murder and violence,” Andrew responded pleasantly.

“Speaking of violence, how are the men you almost beat to death, all those years ago?” Riko’s eyes flashed something ugly and his brows rose. “One of them was in a coma for quite some time, weren't they?” The ugly look, Andrew realized, was triumph - like he had Andrew cornered.

Andrew turned a raised brow to Kathy, only to see her sipping from her cup and watching them eagerly.

He turned back to Riko.

“They lived, just like my cousin lived because I stepped in when they tried to kill him because of his sexual orientation.” Buzz, buzz, buzz - “Those kind of people don’t deserve any hesitation, I think. I’m sure you would agree, Riko. Or - Oh my, this is awkward...are you also homophobic?”

Andrew heard Kathy cough as quietly as possible as she put her cup down to it’s saucer.

She cleared her throat. “Well gentlemen! We’re running out of time. Is there anything either of you would like to add? Riko?”

Riko, calm as ever, turned back to the audience with his charm carefully pulled back into place. “I would just say, that I’m sorry Andrew did not reach out to EAP sooner. All of this is a misunderstanding. We would still love to have him in a sit-down meeting to discuss the documentary and maybe even help him on his mission to find the mother and son.”

“Mary and Nathaniel,” Andrew corrected. He cracked his pinky and tried to block out the buzzing still humming loudly in his ear.

Riko turned to look at him and gave him a nasty smile. “Right, of course. Mary and Nathaniel.”

“Andrew?” Kathy asked as Andrew stared blankly at Riko. “Anything from you?”

“No.”

“Okay, great! Don't forget to check out Andrew's podcast, Red Rabbits, which drops every Sunday and can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Next, we’ll be back with our special musical guest and you’ll get to see me attempt to bake a cake in ten minutes! Get ready to laugh!” The music started and Kathy stood to walk around her desk again. Riko stood too and they shook hands once more while the music played around them. Andrew stayed where he was, arms crossed and carefully stamped down rage boiling below the surface. Once it was properly under control, the director called it and he finally stood.

[ Cut ]

He was intent on getting the fuck out of there, hand already at the back of his pants where he’d attached the base to get rid of this fucking mic. Unfortunately, as he turned to walk off the stage, Riko blocked his way and forcefully grabbed his free hand to shake.

Andrew’s skin crawled and it took everything to not punch Riko in his pretty fucking face.

“I hear you have an interview with the Butcher,” he said quietly. Andrew tightened his grip, wanting to feel the bones in Riko’s stupid fucking hand break. A small consolation for Kevin. “Good luck with that.” Riko’s eyes flashed.

Andrew felt his top lip start to curl, but he bit it back as he tilted his head and asked, “Is that a threat?” He adjusted his grip a bit tighter.

Riko winced, if only for a moment, before loosening his own grip and pulling his hand away. “Not at all.” He flexed his fingers once Andrew let go and he regained his composure with that charming smile thousands fell for.

He turned to walk off stage, adding as he went, “Oops.”

Oops.

Andrew watched him leave, which left him with Kathy as she tried to corner him into a hug on the stage. He quickly dodged her (for her sake really) and Renee caught up with him immediately.

“What did Riko say?” she asked. Andrew could tell she was trying very hard to keep serene Renee in place. He ripped the rest of the mic off and tossed it to some stagehand passing by, without looking to see if they caught it.

“Not here,” he said through his teeth as the rest of the team approached - Allison practically storming over.

“That fucking bitch,” she hissed. “How dare she do that without warning me?!”

“Reynolds.” Allison turned her head to him, nostrils flaring. “I don’t give a fuck, but you better make damn sure I have my interview, understand? I will tear this entire fucking studio down if I don’t get a call from someone today .”

He finally lifted his hand and pressed two fingers to his tattoo. She didn’t quiet and the spot was burning. He rubbed at the spot and lifted his eyes to Allison’s when she said, shiny lip curled, “Oh. Oh ho, don’t you worry, Monster. I’ll be right back.”

She stormed off, rage simmering and red bottoms flashing.

Andrew suddenly realized he was really fucking tired . As if all the energy had been leached from his body. He ached for a cigarette, he wanted King, and he could feel his mood balancing on a hair trigger.

“Renee, go get my bag where I left it. I’m not going back there and risk running into Riko. One of us will be dead before we leave and it won’t be me.”

Renee nodded and disappeared, skirts flowing around her.

Andrew turned back to the team. Seth was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, looking around.

“Do you think I could get Kathy’s autograph? I fucking love that bitch,” Seth was still looking when Wymack shoved him towards the door.

“Get in the fucking car Gordon, if you’re going to be such an idiot. She just tried to take Minyard apart on camera...” his voice trailed off as he dragged Seth to the car.

“Andrew-”

“Not now, Abby. I said what I said and I can’t take it back and I honestly don’t give a fuck right now.”

Abby smiled a little, her warm eyes gleaming as she continued anyway, “I was just going to say you handled that well. Most people would’ve bucked, but you didn’t falter. I bet Bee is proud. I am. Great job.”

Andrew blinked at her as she turned to make her way after Wymack.

Bee suddenly stopped and he dropped his hand. Inhaling a deep breath, he closed his eyes, then opened them on the exhale.

And then there was one. Dan looked steadily at him.

“You make the most out of the Nathan interview, got it? You just put up with a lot of bullshit. Give Nathan hell in return.”

“It was never going to be any different,” Andrew replied.

Dan nodded and turned to leave. Allison and Renee returned at the same time.

“I just let Kathy know what I thought about that little stunt,” Allison said, neck swiveling. “I made her call her contact while I was standing there. You should get a call to set it up soon.”

Renee smiled up at Allison and only broke away to hand Andrew his bag.

He didn’t bother changing into his other clothes. He wanted to get out of there as fast as fucking possible, so they walked outside and Allison broke off to join Seth at her car.

Andrew’s fingers itched, his chest ached, and he mumbled, “I need a fucking cigarette,” as he leaned against the Maserati.

Renee took up the spot next to him and nudged him with her shoulder gently. “You did a good job,” she started quietly. “You showed a lot of restraint that college Andrew would not have shown.”

Andrew shrugged as he dug through the garment bag, into the pocket of his previous pants and pulled out his pack and lighter. “He knew about my past. The traumatic childhood comment. He knew I was in foster care.”

“So?” she said. “So what if he does? That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Andrew shook his head, closed the bag, and set it on the pavement. He fished out a cigarette. “But how much does he know, Renee? Does he know about... other things?”

Drake? Tilda? The cutting, the drinking -

“I don’t think you need to worry about that right now...” Renee said softly. “They don’t have any reason to use it against you, even if they do know.”

He put the stick between his lips and inhaled as flame flashed before his face and he watched the end ignite. He took his first long drag, feeling the burn in his throat, the smoke gather in his chest and radiate warmth down towards his center.

“Yet,” he finally said, letting the smoke out and watching as it curled up towards the clouded sky.

“Yet,” she agreed, nodding.

Andrew’s phone then buzzed in his pocket. When he pulled it out, it was a number with no caller id. He answered it, not able to help his curiosity.

This time.

“Andrew Minyard?” a voice asked.

“What?”

“This is Clarissa Gray with North Branch Correctional Institution. I understand you’re requestiong an interview with Nathan Wesninski?”

“Yes,” Andrew said, standing up straight and looking at Renee.

“The earliest you can come is Friday at 10AM. You’ll have half an hour with Wesninski and only you are allowed in.”

“No. I need one other person there,” he said. He flicked his eyes back up to Renee and she gave him an encouraging smile

Buzz

“You can bring someone else, but they can’t come into the room when you do the interview. Security purposes. It’ll be you, Wesninski, and two correctional officers. Take it or leave it,” Clarissa said, sounding bored.

“Fine. We’ll be there Friday morning.” Andrew hung up the phone and stared at his cigarette in something akin to... shock?

“We got it,” Renee whispered.

Andrew nodded and took one long drag, then flicked the rest of the cigarette away. He turned towards her, exhaling and nodding.

“We got it.”

He just hoped they could hold onto it.

Oops .

He was only able to properly breathe and let out a little laugh when he got a panicked text from Kevin.

‘Did you leave the door open on your way out?!’

Chapter Text

Andrew and Renee arrived late Thursday afternoon in Cumberland, Maryland. Both were silent as they made the hour long drive to their hotel in a much nicer rental than Dan booked them the last time they were here.

Andrew hadn’t relaxed in days. He felt drawn tight like a rubber band about to snap. Everywhere hurt. His head, neck, arms, back - anxious tension vibrated throughout his muscles and he didn’t know how much longer he could take it.

At first it was because of the show. Kathy and Riko had wrung him dry and afterwards, despite the positive call he’d gotten from the prison, he was exhausted. It was like in the past few days, everything was just go, go, go . He spent every moment he could focusing on questions to ask, questions not to ask, how to hold himself, what was imperative and what wasn’t. On a good day, Andrew did a great job giving off a bored, unimpressed facade. But he wasn’t quite able to hold it up. Not as Riko’s ‘ oops’ echoed through his head and the days ticked by - creeping closer and closer to the moment he would face Nathan Wesninski.

And now it was nearly here.

No amount of coffee could cut through the haze as he stared forward and repeated all they’d gone over in the past few days, over and over in his head. It wasn’t until Renee broke the silence that he blinked several times and glanced towards her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Are you ready?” She asked.

“Yes.” The answer was automatic. That was good. He didn’t have to think about it, despite the fact that he inhaled a deep breath directly afterwards and gripped the wheel a fraction tighter.

He was ready.

He had his questions and he had his counter questions when Nathan inevitably gave the answers he expected. He even had parts of this episode written out in his mind. He knew exactly what he wanted to say about all of this, before it even happened.

That meant Andrew was prepared, but that still didn’t stop the anxiety.

They finally pulled up on a Comfort Inn & Suites. The sky was gray and it fit the drab landscape stretching before them. The grounds were neat, but the flowers were poorly kept even as sprinklers sputtered over them. Andrew peered out the windshield as they parked and grimaced. Neither of them made a move to get out, so he slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes with his head tipped against the headrest.

“Why am I doing this, Renee?” he finally asked, turning his head to look at her only to find her staring stoically back at him.

“You’re the only one who can answer that question.”

He shook his head, screwing his eyes shut tight once more. “This isn’t going to help me find them.” When he opened them again, he directed his gaze back out the windshield. “He’s not going to tell me if he knows anything. He won’t tell me if they’re dead. He won’t tell me if he knows where they are.” His head shook with each seemingly obvious point he ticked off. “He’s going to smile that murderer’s smile and he’s going to evade. So why in the fuck am I doing this?”

Renee unbuckled her seatbelt and shifted so she was facing him. It only took her a few moments to say, “I think you’re doing this because you want to look him in the eye.” She leaned back against the door and threaded her fingers together in her lap. “I think you want to get insight into what Mary and Nathaniel went through. Does that sound right?”

Andrew chewed something painful into his bottom lip. It was brief, but he was on the cusp of tasting blood before he let go and nodded, “Yeah... That sounds right.” He then inhaled a deep breath, furrowed his brows and looked towards her. “Is it crazy that I think I’ll know if he’s lying to me? If I ask him point blank ‘Are Mary and Nathaniel dead?’ I feel like I’ll know.”

“Will you stop looking, then?” Renee asked. “If you ask him and you think he’s lying - and that he’s had them killed. Will you stop looking?”

Andrew shook his head again and finally pulled the keys from the ignition.

“I don’t think I can.”

-

Andrew didn’t sleep that night.

He tried.

He really did.

But the effort was as weak as it had been for the nights before.

At least this time he’d gotten himself in bed, made a valiant effort to try . But he couldn’t. He’d given up an hour or two into his attempt and spent the rest of the night trying to watch TV and read. He even tried a white noise app on his phone.

His brain just wouldn’t shut off. Subconsciously, he kept going over and over all the possible scenarios. The only productive thing that came from each failed attempt was a question he didn’t realize he needed an answer to, until now.

He wanted to ask Nathan about the Moriyamas.  

Even still, he didn’t really understand what their stake was in this except for the fact they had direct contact with Nathan, via the documentary. Andrew wanted to know what their angle was, where their interests lie and why. If anyone would know, it would be Nathan.

He then briefly wondered if Nathan had seen the doc. He was positive that was not something granted to prisoners, especially not when it could be such an ego stroke - but it seemed as though he may be getting granted things others may not. A documentary with several interviews over the course of however many years, and now another one to an (according to Kathy) ex-journalist? He just didn’t understand.

But playing devil's advocate, what if he had seen it? Was he pleased with how well he was portrayed? Did he even notice where there was barely mention of Nathaniel and Mary? Andrew wanted to crack open Nathan’s mind. He wanted to know the why’s and how’s and what’s.

But again, he would have to be smart about his approach and watch every single step.

Nathan wasn’t only called a monster for the murder he wrecked across the eastern border.

Andrew’s own nickname amongst TFN was Monster. It was something that had started in college when he was a little more reckless and a lot more angry. Allison had recently picked it up after it had fallen ‘out of style’ if you will, over the past few years. He never really minded it and still didn’t, really. It suited him at the time for people to think he was a monster. It kept them away and it weeded out the people who weren’t worth his time - still did on occasion.

But.

But.

Andrew knew real monsters.

The ones that go bump in the night and haunt your nightmares - the ones that never leave, even when you’re 26 years old and leading the life you’ve fought so hard to lead. The monsters who whisper in your ear and tell you things you wish you could forget, but he knew he never could.

Because Andrew never forgot anything.

The people who call Andrew monster would take it back, he thought, if they knew what was really out there.

That wasn’t why he was doing this though.

Anyway.

What mattered now, was that Nathan was a real monster. And by morning, Andrew would walk into his den, and ask him what the fuck he thought he was doing.

-

He’d been dressed and ready for hours by the time Renee came knocking at his door.

Today, she’d worn pants in lieu of her normal flowy skirts and Andrew was glad for it. He wasn’t sure why, but it must have had to do with the fact they were going to a max security prison today. Andrew was always one to think ahead, and he supposed if he put his mind to it, he’d want her to be able to run if they needed.

Irrational thought - but utterly practical.

They ate a quick and unappetising hotel breakfast, then drove the 20 minutes to North Branch Correctional Institution. Driving down the long, winding road, it was like they were pulling up on something from a movie.

Andrew briefly wondered if something like this would have been his future if Bee hadn’t found him.

That was a thought he quickly dispelled.

The compound was sprawling with a gigantic watchtower at the very center and out buildings ringing around it in four blocks. There were apparently outdoor rec areas bordering the center watchtower, but he couldn’t see much from the parking lot. Nonetheless, Andrew had done his research.

North Branch Correctional was not only one of the ‘toughest’ prisons in america, it was also one of the most ‘high-tech’ - whatever that meant. The pictures online looked barebone like most, but there was a color coding system that seemed to range from block to block. Andrew suspected he would see none of that. The prison would never escort visitors or interviewers deep inside, nor would they bring a prisoner so close to an exit. He presumed the room he would be lead to, would be somewhere in the middle, near the visitation quarters.

Andrew tapped the steering wheel as he parked and once the engine of the rental cut, he looked at the main entrance.

He had to admit, the photos online put a very clinical view on things. Now that he was here, with the institution looming over head, it was completely different. His skin felt like it was crawling and he had to shrug a shoulder to stop a nagging feeling at the base of his neck. Andrew cracked his pinky to dispel the angry itch his fingers twitched with to start a new piece about the US Prison system.

‘This is the place where monsters come to die, but all they do is fester and thrive...’

He and Renee were buzzed into the main office building where they entered into a surprisingly normal looking waiting room, complete with mismatched plastic chairs and wide windows. Andrew approached the front desk that was sanctioned off by a pane of glass and speaker. A bored looking guard sat behind it. Andrew told him why they were there and he gestured for them to have a seat as he picked up a phone at his desk.

Renee took one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs while Andrew paced as they waited. He gripped the straps of his backpack in his hands and reviewed once more the questions he had simmering around in his mind, before a woman no taller than he (but a lot wider) entered a few minutes later.

“Mr. Minyard?” He turned towards her quickly as Renee stood at his side and walked towards her. The woman stepped back to allow them to pass as she said, “I’m Clarissa Gray. I’ll be your liaison today. You’re going to come into this room right here to be patted down,” she gestured with one hand to a room on their right.

Buzz

They entered to find a male and female Corrections Officer waiting. Andrew was instructed to put his backpack on a metal table to be searched, before being led to the side where the CO’s patted them down for weapons. He had to bite his tongue and close his eyes to stop himself from punching his male CO in the fucking face. Once the man’s hands were off him, he searched his bag and Andrew watched with a tight jaw as they threw out the contents onto a table before haphazardly throwing them back in.

There was an order to these things.

An order , Andrew knew all too well.

Both of their phones were confiscated, but the CO that patted Andrew down somehow missed the small recording device in the inner pocket of his jacket. Andrew had to hold himself back from rolling his eyes at the insolence.

They really do a fucking bang up job here.

“You can both follow me,” Clarissa said, and they took off down another set of winding hallways. As they walked, Andrew kept his eyes as firmly forward as he kept his thoughts - straight and unwavering as he focused on one thing and one thing only.

The interview.

Meanwhile, Clarissa fed them a steady stream of information that he barely paid attention to, but Renee nodded when appropriate.

“We’re going to an office near the interview room. You’ll wait there until we’re ready.” She turned her head over her shoulder and looked towards Renee. “Miss...?”

“Renee. Renee Walker.”

Clarissa nodded. “Miss Walker will wait in the room,” she flicked her eyes towards Andrew, “While you go back for the interview.”

Though his stomach gave a lurch at being separated from Renee in such a dangerous place, he’s had time to stifle it down when Clarissa had said it on the phone. Nonetheless, he nodded his head as she carried on.

“Like I said on the phone, there will be two CO’s in the room at all times, and the inmate will be shackled for security purposes. You may bring a pad of paper and a pencil. Pens are prohibited. Your bag will remain in the office with Miss Walker.”

Andrew didn’t bother nodding this time, not as it looked as though they were coming to their stop. He just wanted to get this over with and he’d heard her nonetheless. That was enough.

She lead them through a door at the end of one of the endless white halls. It opened into a similarly stripped, bland room. There were two desks at two corners and a circular table in the center with white chairs stationed at it. There was one CO sitting at the desk, who got up to meet Clarissa in the hall. He took up post on one side of the door while Clarissa said, “I’m going to check the status of the inmate and I’ll be right back.”

She left the room, closing the door behind her and leaving Andrew and Renee alone together but for the CO stationed outside.

Andrew let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Tilting his head to the side, he felt it crack and he shrugged off his nearly empty bag to place it on the table.

“Can we just get this fucking done?” He muttered, pulling out his moleskin and pencil (he knew how this shit worked). As he set them in front of himself, he closed the bag and pushed his hair off his forehead while Renee looked between the items on the table, then back up to his face. He raised a brow.

“You still have your recorder, don’t you?” She asked, but it wasn’t really a question. She knew.

If he were in the mood, he would have smirked. Instead, he patted his pocket and said, “Real hyper-max fucking prison this is. Oh well.”

Renee smiled at him and shook her head. Andrew put his hand in his pocket and turned the recorder on. Just as he pulled his hand out of his pocket, Clarissa opened the door and popped her head in.

[ Record On ]

“We’re ready for you.”

Renee reached over and Andrew glanced at her. That was enough of a yes for her to squeeze his arm once. It was an odd lending of strength that Andrew was no longer surprised he appreciated from Renee, before he followed Clarissa.

The door closed behind him with a click and he didn't look back. Instead, his eyes were set forward once more as he was led down yet more hallways.

This time, he went over all that he planned to ask Nathan in his head. He tried to use it as another point of strength, something to draw from as he steeled himself for whatever sort of force Nathan would be before him.

Exhaustion crept on his rough, deprived edges, but he held it back as he took steadying breaths and felt the bee behind his ear start to buzz softly in time with his gaining pulse. Indifference was pulled across his face, but he knew his eyes were something wary mixed with a fierceness he could pretend he felt in order to get this interview done and done properly.

Make it clean.

Don’t let him get between your cracks.

Seal them up tight and catch him at his pathetic games.

He’s a killer, but he is just a man.

Just a man.

Just a man.

After Clarissa buzzed them through several sectors with a keycard around her neck, they ended their walk before a door fortified by what looked like thick, white, painted steel with two glaring CO’s standing at either side.

Ask about the Moriyamas.

Andrew didn’t even spare them a glance as he gripped his pencil and moleskin, and rather than push bee’s buzz away, let it fill his head like white noise to accompany the mantra of reminders repeating over and over.

The door opened to an empty metal room. He supposed, this is what a cell would look like if there were no cot, sink, toilet, etc. There was a high, thin window on the far wall that let in gray light. It bounced off the white walls, light gray cement floor, and metal table at the center. No fluorescents blared, nothing to accompany the buzz in his head.

The entire room smelled metallic.

“You can have a seat at the table,” Clarissa said from beside him, motioning with a hand in his peripheral to the metal table and uncomfortable pair of chairs on either side. He assumed the one away from the door was for him, since the other had shackles drilled into the floor in front of it.

An officer that must have come from one of the other rooms lining the hall, entered as one of the two stationed at the door followed after him. They took positions on either side of the room, facing each other in a formation that flanked Andrew with utter boredom and indifference.

Andrew would be lying if he said that didn’t make feel him more uncomfortable than safe.

“One of the CO’s will lead you back to Miss Walker when you’re done. You have thirty minutes,” she looked down at her watch. “It’s 10:12 right now.”

10:12

He made a mental note to write that down once she left.

“They’re preparing to get the inmate to walk him over. It’ll be a few minutes.” With no more comment, Clarissa left the room and Andrew was alone with two large men on either side of him. That prospect set bee buzzing louder as his anxiety rose and he cracked his pinky again in attempt to release some of it - any of it out.

Placing his moleskine and pencil down on the table, he opened to a clean page and wrote 10:13 at the top, before closing it with the pencil marking the page. He lined the notebook to be perfectly parallel with the edge of the table and settled in to wait with only Bee’s incessant buzzing to keep him proper company.

He waited.

Then waited.

And through the buzz and repetitive thoughts, he let his mind veer down a different path.

‘This is the place where monsters come to die, but all they do is fester and thrive...’

This is where the monsters live when they’re caught being bad.

Andrew was bad, once.

Or that’s what everyone said.

He’d been in juvie as a kid, before he lived with Tilda and Aaron - before Bee and Nicky and normalcy .

He’d thrown himself on a proverbial sword to escape, to keep his brother away from the one thing that would do more damage than a sword ever could.

But juvie was not like this.

The facility Andrew was committed to was a good one. It had open spaces for activity, classrooms with teachers, and a fairly well stocked library.  

Juvie was probably the second best thing that had ever happened to him - besides Bee.

And now Andrew’s own monster was in one of these places where monsters lived. Officer Higgins, who handled Andrew’s case when he was a minor in Oakland, had contacted him when he was 19 years old. At the time, Andrew was in college at PSU and trying to forget California and it’s demons altogether. But apparently, Andrew seldom got what he wanted.

Higgins wanted information about Drake. He’d said he wanted to put Drake away.

Andrew said no.

He said no, because he couldn’t go back to that place in his head - the place where he remembered everything. Every little detail, muffled scream, digging nails and -

But, Bee happened. And she was there. She talked about what Higgins wanted through to him and what it would mean for other kids, for his own closure. So, after an internal battle so severe he couldn’t bring himself to go to classes, let alone leave his room for two weeks, he finally agreed.

At 19, he wrote a witness statement with his name redacted that put Drake away for 15 years.

He only got 15 years for raping and traumatizing six different kids that they knew of . He should’ve gotten life - 50-60 years at least. But, that was the justice system, wasn’t it?

They saw six children with behavioral issues and the title, foster, hanging over their heads. How could such children, be reliable?

Especially when on the other side, they saw a good looking, white, distinguished marine, and thought, he made a mistake. He can’t be that bad. He’s so young with his whole life ahead of him.

It wasn’t a fucking mistake .

Monsters come in every fucking form.

The worst of them hide in the guise of what is supposed to be good and -

That was seven years ago. Although Andrew knew the Spear family was trying to appeal and do anything they could to get their sweet baby monster out of prison, Andrew could only hope he was murdered before he could ever make it out.

‘This is the place where monsters come to die, but all they do is fester and thrive. They eat and sleep and fight here - in this box that is home; in this place that is cold. It’s a place we think they deserve; a place we put them, in hopes of rehabilitation or whatever else. But this place , this lair , this hell , is where monsters only grow larger because they have each other. To learn, to conspire - it’s a place that is only temporary. A school for those that truly belong, until they’re let out and wreak havoc in a world they ruined in the first place.

It should be obvious that I only speak of true monsters. Those that -’

Andrew was startled out of his thoughts, not by a door opening like he’d been waiting for, but by an alarm so loud, he had to clap his hands over his ears to stop their ringing.

Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz

The guards were off the walls immediately and closing in on Andrew. He grabbed his moleskine and pencil, looking side to side as one guard tried to take him by the arm and lead him to the door. He wrenched his arm out of the CO’s grip, but his threat was lost behind his teeth as he was heralded quickly to the door that the CO on the other side opened and gestured for Andrew to quickly follow.

“What the fuck is happening?!”” Andrew yelled over the alarm and red flashing lights on the ceiling.

“Just come with me,” The CO yelled back over his shoulder, his pace so quick with his long legs that Andrew had to jog to keep up.

Renee.

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Andrew pressed his shoulder behind his ear and hissed at his tattoo burning there. A tight bundle of whatever gathered in his throat so high, he felt like he could choke. Swallowing it down, he shook his head as if to dispel everything as he tried to recall the way they’d initially come so he could calculate how long it would take to get back to her.

“Where is the woman I came here with?! I need to get to her!” Andrew yelled towards the CO’s back. When the CO didn’t turn around to answer, Andrew looked over his shoulder at one of the CO’s from the interview room following behind him.

Where is she, where is she, where is she

He went to repeat his question until they were paused in front of one of the locked sectors. The CO used his card to get them through and when the sliding doors opened, he recognized the hall and realized they were heading back to the office.

They stopped in front of the office door and Andrew was fully prepared to push his way past the guard to wrench it open himself, but it swung to reveal Renee sitting at the table with Andrew’s backpack clutched in her lap. She quickly looked over to him and when their eyes met, he felt the tightness in his throat leave.

He stepped into the room and let out a quick breath as his eyes quickly ran over her to check and see if she was okay (even though he knew she was), before he turned on the guard and opened his mouth to ask what the fuck was fucking going on again.

The alarm was quieter in here, but a red light still flashed in the corner and though the ringing was still blaring, the buzz in his ear and the fuzzy numbness of his senses was even louder.

“There’s been a breach somewhere in the prison,” the CO said, facing them in front of the door. “That could mean an inmate unaccounted for, a riot, or a number of other things.”

A number of other things. There was no fucking way there were a number of other fucking things that alarm could fucking mean. There were specific sounds for specific emergencies. The CO just wasn’t telling them and banking on the fact that Andrew was likely clueless.

He was.

“Grab your things and hurry.” The CO ended gruffly.

Andrew pulled back his chin. “No, this is bullshit. We’ll wait here all fucking day if we have to. Take care of whatever the fuck it is, gain control of your fucking prison, and do your job. I scheduled this interview and I intend to fucking keep it. We’re supposed to fly home tomorrow,” Andrew said through his teeth, gripping harder onto his moleskin as he felt his eyes fucking blaze.

Renee didn’t say a word from beside him, but she did hand him his backpack, which he threw over his shoulder.

“This is security protocol. You can’t stay here and quite frankly, you’re preventing me from doing my job.” He glanced over his shoulder where several other officers in blue and black hurried down the hall behind him.

Andrew narrowed his eyes sharper.

“Any outside visitors have to be evacuated immediately. There’s nothing we can do and if you don’t comply, you’ll be arrested.”

Andrew turned without another word. He threw his moleskine hard onto the table in a rare act of aggression, before wrenching his backpack off and shoving his shit into it. He grabbed the strap to his bag and stormed past the officer, Renee on his heels.

The officer hurried in front of them to lead them back towards the room they were patted down to retrieve the rest of their belongings.

Their footsteps slap slap slapped against the cement floor in time with the alarm picking up again in their ears. Andrew clenched his hands into fists, shrugged his shoulder to his bee that kept buzzing, and listened to that stupid fucking voice repeat over and over in his head,

Oops. Oops. Oops...’

-

[ Record Off ]

Chapter Text

Another sleepless night at the Cumberland Comfort Inn and Suites.

Andrew didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

He sat up in bed, back against the headboard with his feet the only part of himself under the covers. The warmth distribution was poor. He typically enjoyed being wrapped tightly in however many blankets he could find, but tonight, he felt like he was suffocating. The only thing that helped was this - sitting and watching the news zombie-eyed. He was trying to sate his need for answers, catch anything he could, whatever it was.

‘Oops .’

It wouldn’t stop ringing in his head - following the constant blare of the alarm that still reverberated back and forth from one side of his skull to the other.

Nothing got rid of it, nothing pushed the noise away.

Something happened.

Of course, something happened. But this something was big.

There was no news of escaped prisoners or anything of that sort. If there were, there would have been a manhunt stretched far and wide across every platform - especially from North Branch. But there was nothing. Not a peep.

So was the cause for unrest, for alarm, for discord, just some run-of-the-mill, normal, prison bullshit? Or was it something more?

Andrew knew the answer to that. He just didn’t know what more was.

So here he was. With the ringing, and the oops, and the questions with no answers. There he sat with the colors of the screen washing out his face and his dying laptop open beside him after spending two hours looking across anything and everything for an answer.

Nothing .

Hope was losing, but it was only 4 in the morning. Bigger news would come soon, surely. People would be waking up, dust would be settling, answers would come. He knew it because he needed to know it.

Besides. The prison said they would call him today and Renee had already changed their flight to Sunday as soon as they’d gotten back to the hotel. They had time. There was a chance to reschedule. Perhaps a phone interview, anything for answers .

There would be nothing. Because there was nothing to be found. I know that.

‘Oops’

He felt sick. Not even the Snickers on his bedside seemed appetizing.

‘Oops’...

Oops, oops, oops -

What did that even fucking mean?

Obviously that ‘oops’ was supposed to be a warning, a hint, something foreboding to dig itself into Andrew’s mind and set his teeth on edge (it did that pretty fucking nicely). But was there more to it? Why did Riko say it if there wasn’t? He wasn’t fucking smart enough to guess a catastrophic event like whatever this was. He wasn’t smart enough to stage whatever happened - Riko was nothing more than a talking piece. So, was he just a messenger? Someone, to let Andrew know that he was fighting a losing battle, playing a dangerous game?

Andrew’s brows twitched as that thought dug itself into his mind.

If Riko were a messenger, a talking piece, a pretty face to display to the masses - then what did the Moriyama's have to do with this ? If whatever this was had something to do with another thing they’d already invested interest in, then what did they do and why were they so stuck on Andrew digging in?

He dragged his eyes from the tv screen to his laptop. The battery power in the upper right-hand corner was colored red. His charger had fallen off the bed an hour ago and Andrew didn’t think he had the energy to pick it up.

10% left .

Enough to just see what comes up...

The laptop came to full brightness as Andrew pulled it onto his lap. The light made his eyes slightly sting, but he blinked away the pain as he cracked his pinky once, then tried researching the Moriyama's for the second time that night - this time with a different approach.

What was their stake?

Why make a documentary on Nathan?

Why would they possibly try to stop me from interviewing him?

He sucked on his teeth for a second and answered some of those questions with another.

The Moriyama's got me fired. They were at the Globe, in the office and speaking to the Editor in Chief. Why then, when they left, was I all of a sudden let go? Integrity ruined? Reputation tarnished?

Was it because they didn’t want EAP to catch any backlash for the documentary?

Or was it because they didn’t want anyone knowing the real truth - whatever that was?

What don’t they want people knowing?

There was something happening. All the rage Andrew had felt at being interrupted at the prison, came back to fuel him now. He could feel it start in his chest and spread to the rest of his body - uncomfortable energy simmering beneath his skin as his fingers flew across the keyboard and hit enter.

While it loaded with the shitty hotel internet, he flicked his eyes up to the TV screen to make sure he wasn’t missing anything, before looking back down at his laptop. That’s when an old headline caught his eye.

‘Moriyama Family Ensures Students At Raven Academy Are On the Fast Track to Success’

Andrew furrowed his brows at the computer.

Raven Academy?

Since when were the Moriyama's involved in another school beyond Edgar Allan’s Exy team?

He clicked the article open and read.

‘The Pre-K-12th grade boarding school, a vision of the late Kengo Moriyama and funded by the Moriyama family, boasts a 100% college enrollment rate from its graduates. Kengo claimed this is due to the excellent quality of teachers and the focus on team sports and personal success.’

His mind was just beginning to put this together when he heard the words ‘North Branch Correctional Institution’ come from the TV. He snapped his head up and scrambled to raise the volume. The clock in the corner of the screen read 4:46AM, while BREAKING scrolled across the bottom, and regular programming came to a halt.

A male anchor appeared in the center of the screen, microphone in hand and North Branch acting as a dark backdrop in the pre-dawn light.

‘Breaking News. WTOP has just received word that yesterday morning, a riot broke out at Cumberland’s North Branch Correctional Institution. Three guards and eight inmates were injured. According to our sources, three of those eight inmates are in critical condition and it’s being reported that the prison’s most notorious killer, Nathan Wesninski - the Butcher of Baltimore, was killed during the riot.

‘It is unclear -’

Andrew felt the remote slip from his numb fingers. The reporter kept talking, but Andrew couldn’t hear him. There was an ocean in his ears. Bees, and waves, and wind, and the rushing pound of his pulse that beat over and over and over again. The bees were swarming and the waves threatened to drown him as he stared blankly at the anchors moving lips, while Nathan’s mugshot appeared in the corner of the screen and scenes of The Butcher documentary briefly played.

His hands were shaking and once they couldn’t possibly shake more, it moved up his arms, to his shoulders, all the way to his chest where the all-consuming rage he’d felt at being denied his interview, only grew and festered.

They did it again.

They tried to stop him again. The Moriyamas knew he was getting close to whatever the fuck close was. It was so fucking obvious now. They killed him. They killed him because -

Andrew stood and slapped the lid of his laptop down. He paced in his boxers, scrubbed his face with his hands, and rubbed the bee behind his ear to try and quiet her down.

He wished King was here.

Research, figure it out. You always figure it out. Calm down, keep your head. You’re smart. You’re smart as shit and you’re going to do this.

He pulled off his glasses, tossed them onto the bed, and pressed his fingers into his eyes.

Why a school? Why did the Moriyama's have a school? Di-

He stopped pacing.

Realization hit him hard and he lunged back at the bed, opening his laptop quickly and went back to the initial Google page. His eyes narrowed, looking for the address of Raven Academy and saw exactly what he expected to see.

Raven Academy, K-12 Preparatory Boarding School. Towson, Baltimore County, Maryland.

Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimore

Nathan Wensinski’s stomping grounds

The Butcher of Baltimore .

‘Over the next six years, the FBI had convicted Wesninski of over twenty murders and another fifty assisted -’

The Moriyama's just so happened to have a school located in Baltimore County; not 10 minutes away from Baltimore city. Riko plays for Baltimore’s Exy team.

‘Nathan Wesninski is only a man. Still in the system, still breathing, a hitman, a serial murderer-’

Hitman

Andrew closed his eyes and breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth.

It seemed, in his mind, like all of this was a stretch. But it wasn’t, was it? Because the Moriyama's funded a multi-million dollar documentary based around The Butcher of Baltimore . They fired Andrew when he started this investigation, had Riko appear on a TV show to try and ward him away and butchered the very hitman Andrew was to meet. Now, Andrew finds out they have investments in the city... Investments that -

He was hit again. Something sharp stuck into his head and he was left scrambling around the sheets for his phone. When he found it, he had to clench and unclench his jaw as he aggressively tapped the screen and found Kevin’s name to hit the call button.

When he didn’t answer, he called again.

Then again.

Then finally,

“Andrew? Why the fuck are you calling me at 5AM?” Kevin’s voice was sleep rough. Andrew was glad to be his morning wake up service.

“Where did you go to school? Before Edgar Allen. Where did you go?” Andrew couldn’t unclench his teeth enough to speak, so everything came out as a hiss. At least he wasn’t yelling - waking up everyone else in the hotel.

He wanted to.

“Huh?” Kevin mumbled. Then, “ What? Why the fuck does that matter?” and Andrew could tell.

Kevin was trying very hard to stay casual.

“Just fucking tell me, Kevin. Or I promise you, I’ll fly back to South Carolina and make you tell me.” Andrew squeezed the phone and pushed it into his ear. The sharp backs of his piercings dug into his skin and he relished, momentarily, in the pain.

Through the receiver, Kevin sighed “It was-” Andrew could practically hear him trying to find a way around. When he couldn’t, he let out, “Raven Academy, okay? I went to Raven Academy with Riko when my mother died and I was sent to Tetsuji.”

Raven Academy.

Baltimore.

Andrew sat on the edge of the bed and dug his fingers into his thigh.

“There. Was that so hard?” Andrew asked, with all the sweetness of a viper. He could taste its venom on his tongue. “Now, just one other question for you.”

The Butcher of Baltimore.

“What, Andrew? I’m tired and I have to be at work in three hours.”

“Did Nathaniel Wesninski also go to Raven Academy?” Andrew knew the answer to this too. He could feel it. He dug his fingers harder into his thigh and missed the cool press of knives he’d once kept hidden in his armbands. “He would’ve been in Kindergarten, Kevin. He would’ve been younger. Did he go to Raven Academy with you?” Andrew held his breath and waited for Kevin to answer.

He didn’t. The line was silent and Andrew wished, for just a moment (longer), that he had Kevin here so he could choke the information out of him.

“Kevin-”

“No. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about that. I’m going back to bed.”

And I’m going to Baltimore.

Andrew hung up.

-

Two and a half hours later, Andrew and Renee were parked in front of Raven Academy, Preparatory Boarding school.

As soon as Andrew hung up on Kevin, he was scrambling. Throwing on clothes, tossing shit into his bag. He wanted to get out of the hotel as fast as possible. His mind was racing and he hadn’t even properly laced up his boots before he was banging on Renee’s door and barged in the moment she opened it.

“Nathan is dead. We’re going to Baltimore. Get your shit and let’s go.”  

He filled her in on the way there and she didn’t question him on his impulse or intent. She just sat in the passenger's seat, nodding her head with eyes narrowed and calculating. It wasn’t until they were halfway to Baltimore that she finally asked, “What do you need me to do?”

What did he need her to do?

Listen? Follow along? Pretend, spin a story, paint a pretty picture of him to the administration?

Andrew just tapped the steering wheel and ran his eyes over the neatly stacked bricks of the Academy.

“Okay,” Renee said, unbuckling her seatbelt and checking her makeup she’d applied during their trip in the mirror. The high collar of her shirt was modest in the growing summer heat, but she just rolled up her sleeves, then turned towards him. “One more time.”

It wasn’t going to work. He knew that and he knew she did too. Nonetheless, he nodded and unbuckled himself as well with a click.

“You’re an eccentric billionaire author and I’m your sister in law. You’re paying for your nephew to attend the school, so we want a tour of the grounds.” She raised her brows at him. “You do not talk and keep the scowling to a minimum. If that fails, we promise to donate enough money for a new library. Ready?”

“No.” He was running on no sleep for... however fucking long it’s been already. His head was pounding, his anxiety was at an all-time high, and the adrenaline pulsing through his veins was setting his teeth on edge in the way it did whenever he was getting close to something big.

This is it.

Nonetheless, he opened the car door and stepped out into the warm, damp morning air. Andrew grabbed his bag from the backseat and the two of them made their way to the large set of double doors. He patted his pocket to make sure his recorder was stashed away and when they climbed the stairs, he reached in and turned it on.

[ Record On ]

What greeted them was a camera under a buzzer. Andrew lifted his hand to press it, but Renee beat him to it. Instead, he watched the camera swivel in their direction and listened as a voice came through the intercom.

‘C-can I help you?’

“Hello!” Renee said brightly. “We’re here for a tour of the grounds. My son will be attending soon.”

Silence from the other end. Renee pressed the buzzer again.

“Hello?”

‘Mr. Minyard is not permitted on school property. Please leave the grounds.’

Renee and Andrew looked at each other and Renee had the decency to press her lips together as he rolled his eyes. The part of Andrew that was overly tired, needed a cigarette, and a cup of good coffee, let out a choked laugh.

Give me a fucking break.

“Guess you made an impression on all things Moriyama related,” Renee said. “Something tells me the staff watched the Kathy Ferdinand show.”

“Something tells me you’re right, and that we should’ve had the foresight to know that.” He narrowed his eyes up at the camera, then shook his head and turned away. “I’m getting into this school,” he mumbled. “We’ll regroup and figure it out, but I’m getting into this fucking school.”

They retreated back down the pretentious stone steps and headed towards the rental. However, halfway to the car, Andrew felt a prickling at the back of his neck. He rolled his neck to try and make it go away, but he knew what it meant.

Someone’s watching .

A man stood off to the side, tall and unhidden by the car that separated himself from their rental. He had dark hair and gray eyes that seemed nervous, but intent on Andrew and Renee. He was obviously a teacher of some sort, with a stack of papers in his hand, a strange look on his face, and a dark mark beneath his left eye.

Andrew wasn’t impressed. He leveled him with his best ‘get the fuck out of my way’ stare when the man spoke.

“Minyard? Andrew Minyard?” He had a slight accent that Andrew was too distracted to place. His mind was ringing alarm, recognition, reminder - his eidetic memory was failing him for perhaps the first time in his life.

Or maybe, he just didn’t care.  

“Name’s Aaron. You must have me confused.” Andrew moved to get into the car and shoved his hand in his pocket to turn the recorder off.

“No, no. Wait.” The main hurried over and Andrew turned, letting go of the device to run a hand over his left armband where he knew he had no knives waiting.

“I saw the show. With Riko. I...I think what you’re doing is right.”

Andrew froze. He didn’t straighten, turn around, look the man up and down, and put on a fake smile because of the compliment this guy gave him.  “Andrew Minyard.” He didn’t tell him his name either as he took in the 3 tattooed on his cheek.

Number 3. One of Riko’s. Jea-

“Jean Moreau.” The man confirmed, eyes quickly scanning the parking lot, before moving his eyes back to Andrew. The corner of his lips lifted slightly, but it wasn’t flirtatious - it seemed, in a way... relieved?

“Well, Jean,” Andrew started. “I’m glad you appreciate the work myself and my friend Renee here are doing.” He gestured to Renee and she gave Jean a small smile and wave. Jean blushed and Andrew tried hard not to roll his eyes again.

Play the part.

Inhaling a deep breath, Andrew furrowed his brows and said, “Hey, I wonder,” putting his pointer finger to his chin and looking to the sky. “Is there any way you could give us a tour? We’re really just curious about the school, and would love to see the campus.” He looked back to Jean who was shifting nervously.

“Ah...I probably shouldn’t-”

“Probably not,” Andrew agreed. “But you strike me as a rebel, Jean. Someone who likes to stick it to the man every once in a while. I’m sure they’re always trying to push you down in this place. Keep you in a box, nice and neat.”

Jean straightened his hunched posture at that and gave Andrew a level look before nodding.

“Follow me. We’ll take the side staff entrance so the admin in the front office won't see you.”

Renee gave him a bright smile. “Thank you so much. You’ve saved the day!”

Jean smiled back and gripped his papers just a little tighter. Andrew gave Renee a look , but she just shrugged.

The campus was much bigger than the pictures online made it out to be. Sprawling fields still wet with dew and freshly cut, landscaped islands of colorful spring flowers, Victorian lamp posts with the school's sigil waving proudly in the wind, it all honestly made Andrew sick. The Academy itself was a feat all on its own. This side entrance took them five minutes to get through, walking past several gardens and a high fucking spire on the west side of the building. The door itself was clearly mimicked off of something architecturally grand, but made of metal and cool to the touch when Jean keyed their access and let them in first.

If the outside was physically imposing, inside was just flat out, fucking ridiculous. Andrew couldn’t imagine in even his dizziest days, being a child and walking through here. Sure, some part of his attention-starved mind may have imagined this as a sort of castle, but it was intimidating nonetheless.

The floors were polished marble and the ceilings were high. Everything was painted in whites, blues, blacks, and reds. There was not a paper on the floor, not a trashcan in sight. He’d imagined the administrators around here probably have these children on a tight fucking leash, because what school doesn’t have a healthy amount of disorder?

It was only reflected as Jean led them to a small office with his name on the door. The office itself was tiny, but it was stripped clean of anything that seemed extra . There were a few pictures on the walls, a Raven’s Jersey with the number 3 on the back, but otherwise clear and almost militaristic.

Jean set his papers down on his desk, then asked, “Where would you like to start?”

“Class pictures?” Andrew asked, his eyes focused on a photo on the wall of the entire Raven’s team. If he squinted his eyes, he could make out Kevin standing tall beside Riko. He tore his eyes away and raised a brow. “Are there any around here? Displayed somewhere?”

Jean paused for a moment, but rather than question why Andrew would want class pictures instead of their agreed upon tour, he just nodded and walked past them. Renee closed the office door behind them as Andrew stared at the back of Jean's head to wherever the pictures must have been. He knew if he started looking around, reading signs and wondering where the wing for kindergarteners was, his mind would wander to places they didn’t want to go.

Like the fact that this was a boarding school and Kindergarteners would spend their entire week in this place - babies - before they were shipped back to their parents for the weekend. Andrew had grown up in over a dozen homes with over a dozen different traumatic situations, but he wasn’t dumb enough to think there weren’t levels of abuse and neglect going on here, too.

They eventually ended up in a wide hallway with doors leading outside and wide windows spreading light everywhere. For a place dubbed Raven Academy and looking like something out of medieval fantasy, the windows were overly large and he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a stained glass decorated hall of them. Jean turned them away from the doors to face a wall full of elegantly framed class photos and the school motto painted in silver above them all.

Pro Victoria Ut Non Excusat

‘Make No Excuses for Success’

Ugh.

Andrew felt his upper lip twitch to scowl, but he ignored the temptation as he stepped closer and began to hunt.

“So,” he said offhandedly to Jean, “how long have you been teaching here?” With a glance over his shoulder, he saw Jean watching him with his lips pressed together and eyes... something. It was the look of a man deciding whether or not to continue complying or to shut up as he’d probably been told.

After a seconds delay, Andrew looked back to the photos and Jean answered. “About nine years. I’m a former student though, so I’ve been here for a long time.”

A few things happened then. Andrew was both surprised and not. He could tell by the tattoo that Jean was a former teammate of Kevin and Riko - the 3 to their 1 and 2 , but that didn’t mean he went to school here .

He stopped and turned to face Jean. “A former student? Were you here in ‘99?”

Jean shook his head. “I came in my sophomore year of high school. I played Exy for Edgar Allen for a while, but couldn’t continue due to injury. The Moriyama's put me here instead.”

Andrew raised a brow at him. “The Moriyama's put you here?”

Jean looked around nervously, “I mean, that is...they gave me a job here. When I couldn’t play anymore. It was very kind of them, to make sure I was taken care of. So now I teach French and coach the exy team.”

Andrew stared at him just long enough to make him even more uncomfortable. “Uh-huh.” That didn’t sound suspicious as fuck at all.

Jean pressed his lips together and lifted his eyes to the wall to avoid more of Andrew’s scrutiny. Andrew dragged his eyes slowly back to the last picture he was looking at, until Renee said his name quietly and in a tone that Andrew caught.

“Andrew…”

She found it .

Renee lifted a slender hand and pointed to a picture of a Kindergarten class. The year was written in silver on a plaque that one of the children was holding. 1999 shone in the camera flash, but Andrew all but glanced at it before he followed the line of Renee’s finger.

And there, right in the front because he was smaller than the other kids, was Nathaniel Wesninski.

I knew it.

He was right there. So small, with his wide blue eyes and auburn hair that shone red underneath the bright sun above. He was bundled in the same uniform that the rest of the kids were, but it looked no less restrictive than the suit he’d worn in the family photo. Andrew fought back the temptation to touch the glass of the frame, and instead let himself feel the anger that had been simmering inside since this morning's news.

He directed that feeling towards one person.

“Kevin is such a fucking liar,” he muttered, before pulling out his phone and snapping a picture. The verbal lashing he was going to give Kevin when he saw him next would be one for the books.

“Kevin?” Jean asked from behind him. “Kevin Day, correct? You are friendly with him?”

Andrew lifted his eyes from his phone, “ Friendly is such a strong word. Especially at the moment.”

Renee, ever calm and level headed, interrupted. “Oh, did you know him? You would’ve played exy together at Edgar Allan wouldn’t you?” Jean nodded and Andrew shoved his phone in the pocket opposite to the recorder.

Keep looking. 2000. Perhaps Nathaniel briefly made it to first grade.

Jean and Renee spoke quietly behind him for a while, and he ignored them as he kept looking.

There was nothing. Andrew looked through over every single face in the year ‘00 photo and there was no sign of icy blue eyes and fiery red hair. At least now he knew for sure that he and Mary must have run before first grade.

That didn’t mean there weren’t more places to look, however.

“Yearbooks,” Andrew said, interrupting the conversation going on behind him. “Does the school keep old yearbooks?”

“Yes,” Jean said, a bit hesitant. “In the library.”

Before Andrew could open his mouth and demand to be shown, Renee cut in.

“Would you mind showing us? We’d be so grateful.” She gave Jean a sweet smile and he nodded quickly.

“Yeah... of course. It should be empty at the moment. Most students don’t bother studying in there on the weekends.” Jean looked from side to side quickly, then nodded his chin down the hall they’d just come from. “This way.”

Renee and Andrew followed behind him towards the library. It was down another series of wide halls and grand ceilings. There was a mural off to the side that looked polished over and fresh, as if it had just been painted or touched up recently. There was an imposing emblem of a raven in the center, with its wings stretched on either side, and the Latin motto arching above. The gloss polish over top was so reflective, Andrew could see himself walk by.

The library was just as ridiculous as the rest of this place. Perhaps, in another life, another place, a different situation, Andrew would’ve been able to see it’s beauty. The carved banisters and decorative frescos - floor to ceiling shelves of books upon books. He wondered if Nathaniel had ever been in here, even how young he was. Did he like to read? Did he like to escape to worlds outside of his own, like Andrew had? Did?

The place seemed never ending with all the stacks. Stretching on, it had the sense of illusion and infinity. When Andrew breathed in deep, he could smell aged pages and unbroken spines. Shaking his head, he focused on Jean and could feel Renee staring at him. He ignored her as Jean turned around and motioned towards a section to the left marked Academy Archives.

“Should be right over here.” Jean held out a hand and waited for Andrew and Renee to step in front of him, before following behind.

Andrew ignored him too as he walked down the stack and looked over the plaques attached to each shelf to guide him. When he came upon what seemed like the yearbooks, he let his eyes pass over each roman fucking numeral year, until he found MCMXCIX .

1999.

Pretentious fucks.

The book was thicker than it had any right to be for a private school. The binding looked as though it had only been opened once or twice, but the pages were still slightly yellowed. It had been 20 years after all, but the paper was laminated, so it looked as if it were designed to be old.

Even more pretentious. Assholes.

Andrew rolled his eyes and walked out of the stacks to place the book on one of the old oak tables. When he opened the front cover it creaked with not age, but disuse. He slowly flicked through the faux aged pages until he came to the individual kindergarten pictures. Swallowing hard, he turned each page until he came to ‘W’ and there he was.

So small, Andrew could relate - He’d been the smallest kid in class his entire life. But even Nathaniel’s smile was small, tiny, and put on. So young and he knew what sort of facade to uphold. Only the corners lifted, it didn’t reach his startling blue eyes.

Andrew tried not to linger, to feel something in his chest break knowing what sort of life the child in the picture had lived, and what he had likely endured years after.

‘Scars...so many scars. They looked like they were from knives...like he had been cut over and over.’

He scratched at a burning itch below his collar and grimaced. His teeth bit at his lip ring as he inhaled deeply through his nose and took out his phone again. Andrew snapped a picture of the individual kindergarten photo, then kept flipping. He was in the Team Sports section of the book when he saw it.

There he was again. Teeny tiny Nathaniel, right in front of the Little League Exy team picture, holding a small racquet and looking more genuinely happy than he had in any other photo Andrew had seen of him. Andrew wanted to linger, but he knew he’d be staring all day. Luckily, Renee came over his shoulder and hummed quietly. He hummed back, but it was cut off when they both saw it at the same time.

“Oh my god...” he heard her whisper. Renee had just taken her Lord’s name in vain and Andrew did not blame her.

Because there behind Nathaniel, standing side by side again - was Riko and Kevin wearing matching cocky grins and racquets in opposite hands thrown over their shoulders. Andrew ground his teeth together and quickly checked the list of names off to the side to make sure he wasn’t imagining things.

But no.

It was them.

Riko Moriyama #1

Kevin Day #2

Nathaniel Wesninski #3

He was five and he was number fucking three?

He glanced at Jean out of the corner of his eye, then shook his head and hissed under his breath, “Lying son of a bitch.”

No. No not only was he five and number fucking three - Kevin hadn’t said shit about knowing anything to do with Nathaniel. How long had he been researching this case? How many times had he brought it up and not a fucking word .

Oh ho. He was caught now. There was no more lying, no more evading. He couldn’t even try - couldn’t say he didn’t know because Nathaniel was younger.

Hah.

Hah.

“What?” Jean emerged beside him, leaning over Andrew’s other shoulder to look. “Oh... mon dieu...”

“Did you know?” Andrew asked him, not turning to look again. “That Nathaniel Wesninski went to school here?”

“No!” Andrew turned around then to gauge his reaction. “No, I swear - this is crazy, I had no idea.” He shook his head and Andrew believed him. “As I said, I didn’t come until much later. I knew Kevin and Riko as we all played exy together, but that’s it...” He leaned forward to stare at the picture again, muttering to himself in french.

Andrew reached for his phone to take another picture. “Jean, do you mind looking to make sure none of the staff is out there? I don’t want to be spotted on the way out.”

Jean nodded dazedly and as soon as he was far enough away, Andrew stood and shoved the yearbook into his bag.

“Andrew,” Renee whispered. “You can’t do that!”

“Watch me,” he hissed through his teeth. Zipping up the bag, he threw it over his shoulder and looked to Renee’s face, “I want to be able to shove this down Kevin’s throat when I see him.”

A second later, Jean came back and gestured toward them.

“All is clear,” he said, then looked at the empty spot on the table with his brow furrowed. “Where is the book?”

“I put it back.” Andrew said. “I snapped some pictures with my phone.” Jean watched him closely for a minute. His eye gave a minute twitch as if he were weighing whether or not to believe him. In the end, Jean must have either decided he was telling the truth or that he just didn’t care, because he turned and lead them out of the library, then back to the side staff entrance.

Once they got there, stupid metal door stretching high above, Renee stuck out her hand to shake Jean’s as she said, “Thank you so much for your help.”

Jean gave her a small smile and a nod, before holding his hand out to Andrew.

Naturally, Andrew ignored it and forewent any smile he would’ve given at the beginning of this exchange. He had what he needed, he didn’t need to be nice anymore.

“You’re welcome. I really do think what you’re doing is important,” he focused on Andrew. When he spoke next, it was a bit softer, “I hope you find them.”

Andrew nodded and turned to walk to the car.

“Andrew-” Jean called. “Tell Kevin I said hello, will you? He was...a good friend in school.” Andrew looked back to see Jean slouching slightly again, hands in his pockets.

‘If Kevin survives, ’ Andrew wanted to say in response but kept his back turned as he unlocked the car.

Renee answered for him anyway with a, “We will.”

Once they made it inside the rental, Andrew was already shaking his head and Renee was already giving him that look . With a sigh, Andrew shut off the recorder and resigned, “Go ahead.”

[ Record Off ]

“I didn’t like taking advantage of him. He was nice and you shouldn’t have stolen the yearbook. What if he gets in trouble? It’ll be our fault.”

Andrew waited a few seconds after she was quiet.

“Done now?” he asked. She nodded. “We didn’t take advantage of him. He wanted to help. It’s not your fault he was smitten with you. Don’t ever let a man make you feel bad because he felt some type of way.”

Renee grinned a little and nodded towards Andrew’s bag. “I still don’t think you should’ve stolen the book.”

“Yes, well. I’m a heathen.” He pulled out his phone as he spoke and opened the picture he had taken of the exy team. He sent it to Kevin.

‘Wish you were here.’

Chapter Text

[ Piano. Sirens wailing ]

//In a heartbeat, a person can just be there and then gone.//

//Now we’d ask you to take a good look at your screen. Port St. Lucie Police need your help to find this missing mother and her 8 year old son.//

[ Run Little Rabbit Run, Run ]

//He hid behind... He thought he could hide behind a door. It was a nice door - expensive door.//

//The shocking part about a lot of these cases is how various circumstances and situations can result in somebody just completely vanishing. In a second they’re gone...with no trace of what happened to them.//

[ Orchestral music ]

//If you don’t want it found, you can take it somewhere. You could bury it. Put it in the trunk of a car and have it crushed.//

//At this point, Baltimore Police are fearing the worst.//

//We’re not talking about Runaways, we’re talking about situations where we know the people are in significant risk of harm.//

//Detectives are now working with authorities in Parkland* and no where there have they seen this pair.//

You’re listening to Red Rabbits. I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

-

Neil sat in the middle of the bed with his knees pulled to his chest and his arms wrapped around his legs. His eyes stared into the depths of his closet - his phone and earbuds lie next to him on the bed, and pressed against his opposite thigh, Sir curled flush against him.

He wished he could wind himself that tight.

-

They say honesty is the best policy.

So here it goes.

The past three weeks have honestly been a clusterfuck.

Most of it feels like a waste of time. A waste of your time, a waste of my time, a waste of time on the invisible clock that seems to be ticking down to nothing.

I’m sure you’re all saying, ‘But Andrew! You’ve gotten so much done! So much happened in the time you’ve been gone! You went to Europe, you were on TV, Nathan Wesninski died!’

And where has any of that gotten me? What can I use? What has any of it done to push this case forward, propel us closer to having answers?

Honesty is the best policy.

Here’s my honesty.

I feel like I’m at a standstill. Because maybe I’m being hard on myself. Maybe there has been progress, maybe I’m just not seeing it because everything feels so wrong right now.

There are things that I’ve learned in these past few weeks that I cannot share. There are things that are not mine to expose. I cannot, in good faith, speak of them without feeling dirty, like I’m overstepping a line that has no right being crossed - not by me, not by you, not by anyone but those they involve.

Additionally, though the things I’ve learned are big, they may jeopardize the people around me. Now that I’ve said that aloud, I hope you understand why I am where I am. Why in moving forward with today's episode, there are going to be missing pieces. You will, most likely, be confused. And much of this is going to be a very brief recap because truly, I cannot be fucking bothered.

I feel like I’m a lawyer, presenting evidence in front of a jury - evidence that must be approved by an outside source while leaving out crucial pieces because they are not admissible.

This is not me hiding information or lying, this is me trying my best to protect those involved. So, I’m going to try to stay as clear and concise as possible. With all that being said, understand that I am also thoroughly done with this episode and I just want to move on.

So strap the fuck in, I guess.

We’re going back to Europe.

-

Her warmth seeped through his shorts and into his hip to spread throughout the rest of his cold, cold body. She gently purred into the silence and it grounded him just enough to keep him from floating away.

Neil had just finished listening to the Audio Notes Minyard had collected in Europe. It was a short release, shorter than the rest had been - but his drop was long and winding as he recalled the statements from Anais and Karl over and over in his head. His mind was conflicted about how to feel, how he was supposed to feel. Because although that life seemed so far away, he remembered -

-

[ interlude ]

-

One could say Europe was productive.

The more I think about that, the less I believe it.

But it’s still important. It’s important because, in the line of events, it gives us a further understanding of what was happening not only inside Mary’s mind but Nathaniel’s as well. We learned more of the child Nathaniel was and what horrors he may have endured - more of what a mother Mary is/was and a small piece of what she is/was up against.

We learned that at some point, Nathaniel may have had a bit of reprieve.

If you’ve listened to the Audio Notes, then you will understand. On our trip, we met with two people who claimed to have met Nathaniel at some point between the years 2002-2004 .

One was from Strasbourg, France.

Anais is a young woman, mid to late 20s. You can listen to the audio notes to hear the full interview, but she described how when she was a child attending the annual music festival, Fete de la Musique, she ran into a young boy who resembled Nathaniel.

-

ANDREW:

So tell us, in your own words, about the day you saw Nathaniel.

ANAIS:

[ deep breath ]

Well, I was 11 years old and I was with my family at le Fête de la Musique-”

ANDREW:

Tell us about that

ANAIS:

It is held here in Strasbourg, every June. It is a large music festival where performers line the streets to play their music. It is a family event. Many people and children running around, enjoying the day.

ANDREW:

Okay.

[ pause ]

So, what happened when you were 11? What year would this have been?

ANAIS:

  1. I was running around with my older brother and some of his friends. They were playing a game of tag and chasing each other through the crowd of adults. I was running too, but I was just the little sister. No one noticed me very much.

[ pause. Glass tings ]

I was swerving around someone when I ran straight into a boy.

ANDREW:

A boy.

[ pause ]

What did the boy look like?

ANAIS:

[ glass tings ]

He was small. Maybe eight or nine. He had dark brown hair and brown eyes. I know the coloring is wrong. But, I know it was Nathaniel. And... I know I said in the email that his name was Steffan, but it was him.

-

He remembered Anais because it was one of the few times in what seemed like a very long life, that he could recall feeling carefree enough as a child to run and laugh. He remembered how nice she was, he remembered how her blond hair danced in the wind as she ran and how her crystal blue eyes shone with mischief. It was the light in those eyes that Steffan had found impossible to resist when she’d asked him to help her catch her brother.

He remembered running and playing and bumping into adults who would shake their fists or laugh indulgently.

He remembered laughing, too.

-

I believe her.

We know from Florida, that Mary may have purchased fake ids, passports, money, and whatever else is sold out of that backend counterfeit shop in Key West. We also learned from a shop owner that Mary was looking for hair dye, leading us to believe she was trying to hide both her and Nathaniel’s natural appearances. Colored contacts weren’t and aren’t recommended for children, especially back in the early 2000s, but I would imagine when you are that desperate, you’d bypass just about anything you can to keep yourself and those you love hidden.

ANDREW:

[ soft crack ]

How do you know? How can you be so sure if the coloring is different from what he is naturally?

ANAIS:

[ pause ]

It was still his face. He still had the freckles, the dark skin. He still had those lips that made him look as if he were pouting, even when he wasn’t. When I saw the family portrait and the photo from Florida on your website, I knew it was him.

-

From our knowledge of the current timeline, paired with our second interview in Europe, leads me to believe she was right. Mary likely tried to alter the appearance of Nathaniel as much as one can with a child. Darken his hair, his eyes, hope he passes as someone different, someone else.

Then comes the matter of language. Anais claimed that she had played with Nathaniel. She also claimed he spoke French.

-

ANDREW:

Tell me, what was it about him that made him so memorable? That all these years later, you would recognize him?

ANAIS:

Well, when I ran into him, he grabbed my arms like he was trying to steady me. He was very nice.

[ tapping ]

Spoke french very well, even though I could tell he was a foreigner.

-

Blending in, doing what you can to seem as though you belong - stay anonymous, anything .

-

He remembered his mother yanking his arm and pulling him away - remembered how she held onto him after that, for days and days and days on end. She didn’t let go and by the time she relaxed enough to, he had bruises in the shape of her fingers purpling the skin of his arm that lasted for a very long time.

Breathe Nathaniel .

He tried - he really did.

But those bruises were nothing compared to what happened when Karl saw his scars. Neil closed his eyes and tried to feel the air move in and out of his lungs - tried not to choke as something caught in his throat. He bowed his head and closed his eyes tight as he ran one hand through his hair over and over, while the other dug deeper into Sir’s fur.

Go for a run. Run, move, go go go - don’t stop. Don’t look back -

Never look back .

-

Which leads us to our second interview.

On one of the last legs of our trip, we met with a man named Karl in Hanover, Germany at the Harrenhousen Gardens. What he told us was not crucial in the sense that it propels us further in our case or gives us a clear idea of how they were to allegedly end up in Scotland next. It does, however, give us an idea in how they stayed and when they decided it was the time to go.

KARL:

[ amplified voice ]

I was ten years old and I think he was as well. It was 2004. He went by the name Ben, but I am sure it was him.

RENEE:

How can you be so sure?

KARL:

The pictures of when he was a child look just like him. He had brown hair and brown eyes, but it was him. I know it. I recognized his mother too, from when she would drop him off and pick him up. We went to a small community school together in Wunstorf, but he was not there very long.

-

This is important. It’s important because it tells us that Mary committed. Enrolling your small child that you are smuggling cross-continentally into a private school is a commitment to a guise that could only be held for so long, as Karl said.

-

ANDREW:

How long is not very long?

KARL:

Three months, maybe?

-

We don’t know what she did in the time that Nathaniel was in school, but we do know what he did.

-

He forced a breath in and out before he lifted his head and peeled open his eyes. The bedroom had transformed, turned into a dirt track and crisp morning air - the smell of cut grass and the metallic tinge of sweat after a hard run . In his mind's eye, he saw the landscape slide by as he turned his head to see Karl standing only a few meters away, staring at his torso as he wiped the sweat from his brow using the bottom of his shirt. Something ugly and heavy stirred in his stomach and the Neil that was here, right now, felt as though he might be sick for so many reasons.

He hated his scars. He hated how they puckered and transformed his skin, his own landscape, his entire being. He hated how they ached, stiffened, drew his body tight in a constant reminder of who and what had put them there. He hated how they brought forth images of his father, knives, life on the run, and pain... So much pain for such a small body.

Neil felt himself flinch and tried to grasp the loud purr from Sir’s body, the way she sent vibrations up his wrist, arm, shoulder, to his chest.

Sometimes, when his father was on a roll and Neil could tell he was losing himself to the bloodlust, Neil would lose himself too.

Stop screaming. Stop crying. Close your eyes and float away.

It can’t touch you here, Abram. You’re okay. It’s almost over.

But will it ever be over? Will there ever be a fucking end? Even if after all of this, even if there was an after in Neil’s impossible life of never-ending pain and misery, he would still have these scars, this pain, this mark spread red and stark across his life.

-

ANDREW:

Alright. So in those three months, what did you learn about them? What were they like?

KARL:

[ pause ]

Ben was...very quiet. Never rude, but he didn’t really play with the other children. No sports with the other boys, no nothing. We used to play exy in a field behind the school during free time, and he would always sit under a tree and watch...but he never joined in.

ANDREW:

What else?

KARL:

He was very good at math, I remember. The other boys would ask to copy his work and Ben would always let them. He was a kind kid…

-

Nathaniel was smart. He was private. His mother kept him on a tight leash and I’m not yet sure if it wasn’t justified. They were running for their lives from a force that could not be reckoned with.

Karl told us of a story when their school went on a trip to a local lake. You can hear the rest of it in the Audio Notes, but it’s not important, not in the grand scheme.

What is , is that something happened at the school that Karl witnessed. S omething that I cannot and will not say, something we cut from the Audio Notes. It was exposed and because of it, Mary and Nathaniel fled shortly after. Where they went is unknown. We do know, that their trajectory may have led them to Scotland - according to an email we received and had planned to confirm.

-

That day only proved it - proved that there would be nothing but this for Neil for the rest of his life.

Because the look on Karl’s face was shock, disgust, revulsion and it all came barreling back. He remembered carefully schooling his face into the blank mask he’d been so accustomed to pulling on and walked away, went to class like nothing was wrong, and felt sick all day at the prospect of telling his mother. He’d fought with himself over it. It wasn’t like he was particularly attached to the school or the other kids or Germany.  

I just hate leaving. Hate going. Hate running away.

Which is exactly what happened when he finally told her - when the guilt was too much.

His eyes blinked slowly back to reality, only to be swallowed by the dark room he’d started to call his own.

His own .

Neil slid his clammy hand from his hair to his cheek and rubbed at the burn. His mind was in a place that could almost convince himself that if he looked in the mirror, he could still see the red print her hand made that day.

How could you be so careless? Do you want to die, Abram ? Do you want your mother to die?

No...

He didn’t want her to die. Not then and not when he buried her bones on the California coast.

He swallowed down the lump in his throat, the blood from a bite in his mouth he hadn’t realized he’d made, and the taste of ash sticking on his tongue.

Breathe. Focus. Where are you?

“New York City, upper east side. The apartment.”

His voice sounded empty, so empty it could echo in this room of stuff .

Stuff and things and attachments and anchors .

He tried to focus. Another breath in and out, he tried to see his clothes hanging in the closet - more clothes than he’d had when he came here. Some Matt just bought because he thought they’d look good on him.

More than would fit in a backpack, a duffel bag.

He dragged his eyes away, but they landed on the basket of laundry he’d been putting off doing. Even more clothes, more things,  and stuff and more, more, more.

When his eyes pulled away, they inevitably landed on the New York Lynxes paraphernalia he’d collected on the table beside his bed, then at Sir, still against his hip and still purring. Neil wet his lips, sighed, and ran his fingers through her fur.

This is all a mistake. It’s dangerous. You’re being careless.

He knew that.

He just couldn’t find it in himself to care very much anymore.

-

But, as you all may know, we ended up cutting our trip short. Scotland is still something on the table, a possible stop on a timeline that makes no real difference to where we must go next.

In any event, we left Europe to fly directly home. Because before leaving, I’d decided that it was important to the investigation and my own mental sanity, to interview Nathan Wesninski.

-

He was running.

Outside, in a park.

He was in Queens.

And the sun beat down on him. He could feel the heat on the top of his freshly dyed brown hair and through his shirt at his shoulders.

He’d been scared of going out after the first time he tried running in Central Park. There had been too many people, too many people that all looked suspiciously suspicious. However, the more dangerously comfortable he grew here, the more he felt like he needed to get the fuck out of the apartment. Sure, there it was suitably safe and the treadmill was fine enough. But he needed to feel the ground beneath his feet - he needed to feel like he was moving somewhere instead of staying in the same place.

So, now he was in Queens. Sometimes it was Brooklyn and sometimes when he felt sure enough, he tried Central Park, but his general rule was to never go to the same place twice in a row. It was a precaution.

Just in case .

This park was small, but it suited his needs. The buildings here were smaller, the streets less crowded and it felt like it gave him a tiny moment to breathe. Everything was awash in greens and off whites with yellow compliments. The city was always so gray . At least here it was something new. Dirty, but fresh in a way that was hard to explain.

That was something he needed.

The Audio Notes were still playing in the back of his mind and he felt himself reeling. They weren’t even that important - not really. It’s not like they were telling in a way that would get Andrew closer to finding him. No, all they did was expose Neil’s wounds a little more; dig a little deeper; slice in just the right places.

Like giving Minyard and the general public and himself more ammo to demonize his mother. He knew she could be harsh and that she could be demanding on a very small child, but she was his mother. She tried to protect him the best she possibly could in such a shitty situation.

She could’ve run. She could’ve left him with Nathan. She could’ve given him over to his father when the going got rough to be killed or worse - to become the next Butcher.

But she didn’t. Because she was his mother. And she fought tooth and nail to keep him safe, to make sure he survived. In life and now death... It felt like she would never stop.

Because I won't.

None of those people who were interviewed knew who Mary Hatford was, nor did they understand what she had to endure or sacrifice.

Neil ran faster. He didn’t stop until he was doubled over, hands on his knees, and gasping for breath. His legs were weak and he collapsed under a tree to stare up into the boughs. Afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves, creating a kaleidoscope of warmth on his skin and he tried to relish in the solace .

Maybe he would stay here... Stay until Minyard incredibly found him.

Maybe he would live here... Under this tree with the squirrels, the sparrows, and the sun.

In the end, he only stayed until his legs could carry him home.

Because against his best efforts and better judgment and every honed, sharp instinct - Matt and his apartment here home.

Home .

-

[ interlude ]

-

Tuesday morning eventually rolled itself around. While Neil was cooking a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast (it was his turn to cook that day), he heard Matt call to him from the living room. He must have finally woken up after a late practice and team meeting the night before.

“Give me a minute,” Neil called back. He slid two eggs on Matt’s plate and one on his then added bacon and toast before carrying both plates into the living room. He sat one on the coffee table in front of Matt and then took one for himself as he folded his legs beneath him on the couch. Setting his plate in his lap, he asked, “What were you calling me for?”

Matt’s dreads were spiked in every which way at the top of his head. Neil wanted to fix them, but he didn’t think Matt would particularly appreciate it. When he whipped his head towards Neil, they flopped in more disarray as he pointed to the TV with his remote.

“Look,” he said, eyes flicking back to the screen. It was the guide description for something called ‘The Kathy Ferdinand Show’. Neil had no idea who she was or why Matt cared until he read the description.

Special Guest, Andrew Minyard from the Red Rabbits Podcast. Musical Guest, Trainwreck. Kathy bakes a cake.’

Fuck .

“Do you want to watch?” Matt asked, side-eyeing Neil.

The really unfortunate thing about Matt was that he wasn’t fucking stupid. He knew something was wrong and he knew, or at least suspected, it had something to do with this stupid fucking podcast.

Act natural.

Neil gave an unconcerned shrug while studying his bacon. “Sure, if you want.”

As the channel switched, commercials were still playing. And it was then, that Neil realized, he’d never actually seen who the fuck Minyard was. He’d heard that infuriatingly monotone voice more than he cared to, but he’d never tried to put a face to the name, nor had he taken time to really explore the website after the basement panic attack. He supposed he should know who it was that was trying to ruin his already ruined life. That’s what a smart Neil would do.

But Neil evidently wasn’t the smartest.

When commercials cut, the show started and a theme song played. The host was a lady who looked like she’d seen a few too many nips and tucks, and who desperately needed a friend to tell her what she actually looked like.

He made slow work through his eggs and barely touched his bacon by the time the third commercial break in this half hour fucking show finally ended. He wished he hadn’t eaten at all, because when the show returned, a short blond man was sitting on a white chair beside Kathy’s glass desk. The camera wasn’t focused on him, but Neil thought he looked right, for the part of uncaring asshole.

This Andrew fucking Minyard wore big black combat boots and black painted fingers to match. A pile of blond hair was tousled at the top of his head like he’d run his fingers through it over and over.

Probably took him an hour and a shit ton of product to look like that .

Piercings shone from all over his face and the big round glasses he wore did nothing to hide hazel eyes - almost like molten honey under the lights of the studio and -

Neil stopped breathing for just a second.

He watched closely. Eyes narrowed. Breaths shallow. Listening. Waiting.

‘I’m still a journalist.’

Neil set his plate on the table beside Matt’s, keenly aware of how Matt gauged his every move. Swallowing hard, he desperately tried to keep the eggs in his stomach as he leaned back against the couch and Sir promptly jumped in his lap. Mindlessly, he wrapped his arms around her, but couldn’t find it in himself to tear his eyes away from the screen.

Andrew answered a question about the podcast.

‘No, it’s not about Nathan Wesninski. It’s about Mary and Nathaniel, his wife and son, and their disappearance.’ The camera zoomed to a close up of Minyard’s face, and Neil felt the breath leave his body.

His wife and son, his wife and son, his wife and son

and

honey colored eyes.

Neil stood, abruptly sending Sir jumping out of his lap with a discontented meow .

Matt turned to look at him or maybe he didn’t turn at all . “You okay, man?” he asked, looking closely too closely.

Neil’s skin felt itchy and he could feel pressure at the balls of his feet - weight shifting, ready to bolt to his room.

He felt pain at the inside of his lip.

Tasted blood.

He swallowed again and tried to listen to that voice in his head demanding for him to

Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re fine Nathaniel .

“Yeah, yeah. I’m good. Just gonna go grab some water -” he might have muttered. His feet took him all the way to the kitchen. Somehow, a glass was in his hand and water filled it. The cool press of it against his skin was calming as he finally breathed another deep breath, then forced himself to turn back to the living room.

Neil stayed to the back, made himself to stay, to watch, to learn. Matt glanced over his shoulder but ultimately kept his focus on the TV where Andrew looked like he would very much like to shut Kathy Ferdinand’s mouth for her.

Why would he even agree to do this?

A shiver started at the base of his spin and traveled all the way to the back of his neck - like his body was warning him, telling him that something worse was to come.

And it did.

Because Kathy’s lips formed around the name ‘Riko Moriyama’ and his hand gripped the glass tighter.

Don’t look back. Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

Riko was just as cocky in his late twenties as he was when he was eight years old. He swaggered onto the stage with a level of confidence Neil wasn’t sure he would ever be able to attain and smiled a white-toothed grin as he greeted Kathy and sat in the chair across from Andrew’s with his ankle crossed over a knee.

Neil shivered again and forced himself to breathe once more. He shrugged his shoulders to try and chase the feeling away from his neck. His mind traced a path leading to the past to remember the Riko he’d known before .  

Riko Moriyama was the starting striker for the Baltimore Krakens and all around exy darling. His face was splashed across billboards for expensive underwear ads and sports attire. If there were comparison, he was the Michael Jordon of not only exy, but contemporary sports in America and Japan. Neil didn’t think of him like that though. Every image of Riko or utterance of his name that Neil had come across in the years between then and now have been unavoidable and Neil did everything he could to not engage.

Because that seemed dangerous.

And you’re so good at avoiding all things dangerous.

He didn’t read the articles, he didn’t watch the commercials or focus on Kraken games. He didn’t look at the stats.

He didn’t want to know.

Because Riko was too close now. Neil knew in the vaguest sense, that Riko had something to do with the documentary about his father. For some reason, that didn’t bother him as much as their past had. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was because the world had a funny way of fucking with Neil his entire life and it seemed only right that the Moriyama's would do something so ludicrous as to make a documentary about their right-hand man, The Butcher.

Really, he didn’t want to remember Raven Academy and exy practice. He didn’t want to remember what it was like then, what his life could have been, what his life was now. He didn’t want to remember how proud of himself he had been back then - at five years old and able to play with the big kids because even though he was small, he was fast . He didn’t want to remember playing with Kevin and Riko, nor did he want to remember the black marked numbers drawn on their faces. He didn’t want to think of how much he wanted that. Even at five years old, he wanted it. And when Riko told him ‘you’ll be number three one day’ Neil thought all his problems would could disappear.

But it never happened. It never could, not with his life. And Neil knew he was much better off, even considering everything he’d been through.

And now here Riko was. On the stage with... Andrew. Talking about him and his father and his mother and was this fate? Was this the universe again? Was this someone pulling strings and tying knots and cutting threads?

There’s no such thing as fate.

-

Selfish, perhaps.

Stupid, certainly.

Before we left for Europe, I took the liberty of giving Allison Reynolds something to do. She’s been a constant presence at the studio since we went to Florida, so I decided to put her to work.

I asked her to get me an interview with Nathan using her connections in the entertainment industry. I wanted a face to face. I wanted to tell him what a piece of shit he was. I wanted to be able to look him in the eye and see if he would lie to me, because for some reason - I felt like I would know. I felt like if I asked him what happened to Mary and Nathaniel, that I would be able to tell .

Reynolds came through. She secured me an interview with Nathan, but the price was an appearance on the Kathy Ferdinand show. A tiny piece of my soul for an interview with a killer. I took the deal.

I’m sure by now everyone has seen the shit show that ensued, so I don’t need to rehash it.

I’m probably not allowed to anyway - cease and desist and all that shit.

So.

Kathy Ferdinand was just as one would expect her to be. A loud, obnoxious, conniving little snake. She invited you-know-who to the stage, knowing it was going to cause drama - because that’s what she does - and everything popped off from there.

The interview devolved from discussing the podcast, to dragging up my own past, into things that I’m not sure I’m at liberty to discuss. You know. CnD and all. That. shit.

Anyway.

-

Neil didn’t hear the rest of the interview - not really. Something about the documentary and Andrew almost beating some guys to death or something. It all seemed inconsequential.

He walked back to the couch and sat beside Matt again with his water when it was over. Sir resumed her position in his lap and Neil put a hand to her head, taking a sip, and praying Matt couldn’t hear the way his heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest.

“That was some crazy shit,” Matt said, muting the TV and turning to look at Neil. Neil nodded in agreement and continued to stroke Sir, avoiding Matt’s gaze. When Neil didn’t respond, he continued.

“I don’t even know why they had Riko on the show. He’s a fucking prick. Thinks his shit don’t stink just because his family has a fuck ton of money.” Neil could practically hear Matt’s eyes rolling in his head as he relaxed further into the couch. “My family has money too, but you don’t see me walking around like that. I just assume I’ve seen and done worse shit than anyone else in the room.”

Neil swallowed, but his mouth was suddenly very dry.

If only he knew .

“Yeah,” Neil found it in him to manage. “He seems like an asshole. I’m going to go shower and run some errands.” Neil started to stand, but Matt stood with him - still watching, assessing, monitoring.

“Cool, I’ll come with.”

Neil might have nodded, he might not have. He did, however, end up in his room, in the bathroom, with the glass of water clinking on the counter when he set it down. He avoided his reflection as he turned the shower on.

Somehow, he ended up from point A to B because he felt the water beat on his skin as he sat at the bottom of the shower. It was warm, steam surrounded him and he breathed through the steam as he closed his eyes - only to see a pair of honey and hazel staring back at him.

And for some reason, Neil laughed into the emptiness.

-

I left that studio feeling disgusting. It was a spectacle and I was angry that I was made to take part in it. Bringing her ‘special guest’ out should not have been a surprise. I should have seen it coming.

I should’ve seen it all coming.

This is what I get for expecting basic human decency, I guess.

But, in spite of all of that, in spite of the spectacle, and the guest, and the general bullshit I had to endure, it worked.

I received a call before I even left the parking lot, confirming that I was scheduled for an interview with Nathan at 10 o’clock Friday morning, at North Branch Correctional Institution. Renee and I readied ourselves and made our way to Cumberland, Maryland.

What happened when we got to the prison was more ammo for that clusterfuck I mentioned earlier.

-

Thursday, Matt had a rare night off from practice, which meant Neil didn’t have to be at work to clean the stadium. They ate a dinner of take-out chinese and sat on the living room floor, across the coffee table from each other. Sir was seated in between them both, her tail swishing on the floor as she looked back and forth between their plates. Once or twice she put her paw on Neil’s arm as he lifted his fork to his mouth, little nose twitching as she sniffed the air.

Neil had just given her a tiny piece of the center of his chicken, when Matt asked, “Truth or dare?”

Neil looked up at him quickly with a brow raised, only to see a grin splitting Matt’s face mischievously, one corner higher than the other.

“Absolutely not, Matthew.”

“Aw, come on. Don’t be boring. Truth or dare?” Matt’s smile was infectious. Neil had spent all Wednesday trying to talk himself out of a spiral. It wasn’t working - not until Matt insisted on an Exy game after Neil was done cleaning the stadium. When he was properly worn out, bending over his knees with no breath left, he was able to feel himself breathe again.

Neil found himself grinning back now, despite his best efforts.

“Fine.”

Fucking idiot.

YES . Okay, truth or dare?” He pointed his chopsticks in Neil’s direction, “You have to pick one and you have to follow through.”

Neil sighed and rolled his eyes. “Dare.” That seemed safer, somehow.

“Oh ho, a brave one! Okay, let’s see...” Matt adjusted his chopsticks in his hand and put a finger to his chin as he looked around the room. “Okay, I’ve got it. I dare you to drink all the pickle juice from the jar in the fridge.”

Neil raised an eyebrow and dropped his fork in his empty container. “Are you joking? Pickle juice?”

“Thems the rules, my guy. Do it or take the consequence.” Matt was leaned forward on the table now, chopsticks abandoned and hands clasped together. His grin turned wicked and he looked like the world’s nicest fucking villain.

“What’s the consequence?”

“You have to play the rest of the game blindfolded. I got a real nice one in my room. Silk. I used to go with this girl that-”

“Okay, fine. Please stop talking.” Neil stood and made his way to the kitchen. When he opened the fridge, the pickle jar was pushed towards the back, one lone pickle spear floating in the depths of the juice.

“Hey, yo! Let me get that pickle!” Matt called from the living room between fits of laughter. Sometimes Neil wondered if Matt were a man or a child. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why he liked Matt - his ability to let go and live . Neil rolled his eyes and took the whole jar back to the coffee table with him. He opened it and fished the pickle out for Matt.

Germs be damned.

Matt didn’t seem to give a fuck anyway. He crunched into the pickle and used the rest to gesture to Neil in a clear signal to get on with it .

So, Neil did.

Is this what life would have been if you grew up normal? In high school, with friends and connections and -

He tipped the jar to his lips, closed his eyes, and held his breath. The entire jar went down in three big gulps and Neil slammed it onto the table when he was done, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth.

Matt was looking at him wide-eyed, pickle spear halfway to his mouth.

“God damn, Josten. You’re hard as fuck. Not even a wince... I’m suitably impressed.”

Neil grinned and took a mock bow. The truth was, he’d had to eat and drink a lot worse than that when times were hard on the run with his mom. Pickle juice was champagne in comparison.

“Okay,” Neil cleared his throat and replaced the lid on the jar. “My turn.”

Matt sat up straight as if steeling himself. “Do your worst, little buddy.”

Little buddy.

Neil snorted. “Truth or dare?”

“Truth.”

Of course.

With a slow nod, Neil didn’t need to think of a question. He knew why Matt was doing this, and he couldn’t find it in himself to stop it. So, he slowly started opening the can of proverbial worms.

“Okay... why are you so fucking nice all the time? Like, what happened in your life to make you not suspicious of anyone, ever?”

Matt laughed and shook his head. His eyes didn’t move away from Neil, not as a dread fell in his face and he pushed it back. Open honesty shone across his face and Neil briefly wondered what that felt like.

“It’s not that I’m not suspicious. Sorry, dude. But you’re suspicious as fuck.”

“I really am.”

Shut up, fucking idiot .

“You really are,” Matt nodded but didn’t push. Instead, he continued with a shrug, “I guess I  just try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I used to be a drug addict. Heroin.” He stopped to gauge Neil’s reaction.

Neil just blinked. “I... I’ve seen the track marks, Matt. I kind of figured-”

Matt cut him off. “Yeah, well... I don’t really try to hide it.” One of his fingers traced over his forearm, But he continued. “I’ve been through a lot of shit. I come from money. My parents were divorced and didn’t speak. I lived with my Dad in high school and it was just party after party after party. Like, a constant fucking flow. Drugs and women and men and whatever made me feel good, you know?”

Neil didn’t know, but he nodded anyway. He’d never been allowed to do anything just because it made him feel good.

“Anyway,” Matt tapped the table. “I was in a really bad spot - hit rock bottom. If it wasn’t for people still believing in me enough to get me help and make sure I stayed sober, I’d be dead... Or in prison. And when you look like me, it’s usually both.” Matt smiled sadly, just a lift at the corner of his lips, but it was consequential. His warm eyes still held Neil’s and his entire face softened even further, if possible. “So, now I try to pay it forward. I try to assume the best in people. I want to help like I was helped. That’s all.”

Neil nodded slowly and said quietly, “That makes sense. I guess I’m just so used to questioning everyone and everything.”

Matt looked at Neil for a moment longer before asking, “Truth or dare?”

Neil had broken his gaze for half a second, but they went right back to Matt’s warm eyes at the question. He felt something stir in his chest. It was light and fluttery and terrifying.

“Truth.”

Fuck it.

Matt cocked his head, but there was no alarm or excitement. It was just steady calm as he asked, “What are you running from?”

Neil swallowed hard and looked to Sir as she pawed at his empty takeout container. Wetting his lips, he gathered the container and pickle jar before standing to bring them to the kitchen. However, before he could take a step, he looked to Matt’s eyes, held them for a moment as everything inside him screamed to keep his fucking mouth shut.

“Everything.”

-

FEMALE SPEAKER:

We’re ready for you.

-

All that preparation, all the hours, the anticipation, the anxiety, all of it. For this.

-

FEMALE SPEAKER:

You can have a seat at the table

One of the CO’s will lead you back to Miss Walker when you’re done. You have thirty minutes. It’s 10:12 right now.

-

For a couple of sentences, a series of white hallways, and an empty room.

-

[ blaring siren. commotion ]

ANDREW:

[ yelling ]

What the fuck is happening?!

MALE CORRECTIONS OFFICER:

Just come with me

[ heavy steps. constant siren. unintelligible noise from walkie talkie ]

ANDREW:

Where is the woman I came here with?! I need to get to her!

-

For a fucking riot to suddenly break out, send sirens blaring, and ultimately, kick Renee and me off the premises.

-

[ heavy door opening ]

[ siren muffling ]

MALE CORRECTIONS OFFICER:

There’s been a breach somewhere in the prison. That could mean an inmate unaccounted for, a riot, or a number of other things.

-

Yes. A number of other things.

-

MALE CORRECTIONS OFFICER:

Grab your things and hurry.

ANDREW:

No, this is bullshit. We’ll wait here all fucking day if we have to. Take care of whatever the fuck it is, gain control of your fucking prison, and do your job. I scheduled this interview and I intend to fucking keep it. We’re supposed to fly home tomorrow.

MALE CORRECTIONS OFFICER:

This is security protocol. You can’t stay here and quite frankly, you’re preventing me from doing my job.

[ stubborn pause ]

Any outside visitors have to be evacuated immediately. There’s nothing we can do and if you don’t comply, you’ll be arrested.

-

That’s it.

Hours upon hours of preparation, sleepless nights -

That’s as far as I got. A room and an alarm.

We had no idea what happened when we left - all we knew was that there was some sort of security breach. So, Renee and I extended our stay to Sunday in hopes of getting a call saying we could come back and proceed with the interview.

That didn’t happen.

-

Friday afternoon, Neil was running again. This time, a Brooklyn park stretched around him. The colors around were darker than queens, but it was quiet and the trees were more densely packed. Neil weaved down the path and let his mind go back to the night before.

Matt asked no questions after Neil’s answer last night and Neil went to bed after cleaning up. Really, Matt was too good, too kind, too trusting for his own good. And even though Neil now knew why, he couldn’t help but feel like he was taking advantage of his kindness. Especially when this entire thing could end very badly.

Fuck.

But that was the thing, wasn’t it?

‘What are you running from?’

Everything.

His past, his non-existent future, and the now - where he was in a place he was cozy and ‘safe’ and it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Everyone.

It seemed like Minyard was doing everything he fucking could to make sure he could be followed.

Neil wound his way back uptown and to the apartment. His legs were numb, his feet ached, but it felt good to wear himself out. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his arm when he was finally in the building.

He’d learned his lesson about using his shirt.

Neil stared at his reflection in the shiny elevator doors and for a moment, just a moment, he contemplated it .

What would Matt think, he wondered, about his red hair and blue eyes? It’d been so long since Neil had really seen them. His hair was still freshly dyed and he tried not to look when he took his contacts out. Would Matt kick Neil out if he knew the truth?

He shook his head at himself.

Of course, he would. Who in their right mind would keep you around?

-

[ interlude ]

-

Once he was showered, changed, and feeling a little more human, he grabbed an apple and sat on the couch. Matt was already at practice and it was a few hours before Neil needed to be at the stadium. He flipped channels - something he rarely did. He was reminded why when he came across a flashing BREAKING NEWS headline.

Too curious for his own good, he stopped, and immediately wished he hadn’t.

‘We’re receiving reports that there was some kind of security breach at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. It appears as if some guards and some inmates were both injured. Those are all the details we have at the moment, but we’ll update as soon as we learn more.’

Security Breach? What the fuck did that mean? Like a riot? Or an escape?

No. An escape would be bigger news, wouldn’t it? Especially if it was his father? That news would fucking be everywhere - there’d be a nationwide manhunt. So, maybe it was just a riot...? Maybe someone did him a favor and beat the shit out of Nathan.

That’s it. That’s all it probably was.

But what if it wasn’t...?

No no no

Not an escape.

Never an escape.

It couldn’t be an escape.

-

I saw the news close to 5AM Saturday morning. As you can imagine, I was only the teensiest bit annoyed. Because... It all just seems so convenient , doesn’t it? For Nathan to be murdered literal minutes before our interview was scheduled?

I have my theories.

So, here’s where things get sticky.

I had a hunch. I researched that hunch. I made a call. The hunch was proven correct.

Renee and I made a detour and learned a few things about Nathaniel’s childhood that suddenly made shit a lot clearer.

That being said, I can’t share any of it with you. Not my hunch, not my confirmation, not even my theories.

I’m sorry listeners. I really fucking am. Because as a journalist, transparency is something I hold dear. It’s something I treasure - something I’ve based my entire fucking career around.

But.

And that’s a big fucking but .

I will not risk the safety of those around me, as a means to an end. I will not report on something that, while infinitely intriguing, ultimately does not add anything to the case. It doesn’t move us further, doesn’t get me any closer to finding Mary and Nathaniel, it doesn’t deny you the chance to keep searching.

Are you sensing my frustration?

-

It wasn’t.

Saturday night Matt had a home game, so the two of them were back at the apartment late.

Neil was exhausted. The team the NY Lynxes played were from Miami and they had the worst fans imaginable. The stadium was a wreck by the end of the game and it took himself and an army of janitors over two hours to clean the entire place.

-

Here’s another bit of honesty for you. While I am now feeling much more myself, those two weeks took everything out of me. If felt like my soul had been sucked dry by dementors, looming and haunting and ready to pounce - by shark toothed gossip show hosts, and maximum security prisons, and conspiracy theories proven not to be conspiracies.

It was probably the first moment in my entire time researching, and traveling, and interviewing, that I felt like I was getting nowhere.

All of this is to say, I had to regroup. I didn’t stop after Ferdinand’s to process what happened. I should’ve. Because you-know-who tried to use my past against me. He tried to bring up something that happened when I was a minor , to throw me off and turn you - the listeners - and the media against me.

The truth is, as much as I talk about transparency here, I haven’t been completely transparent about myself - my past.

This is mostly due to the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with this case. It adds nothing and it does not help in the search. However, I think it would help explain part of the reason why I take this case as personally as I do.

So, here it fucking goes.

-

Matt waited for him though, because Matt always did. They rode the subway together and Neil wondered if they looked weird standing beside each other. Matt was a foot taller than him at 6’3 and Neil had to crane his head back in order to be able to see him when they were talking. It was... nice though. Despite the fact that Neil was constantly looking over his shoulder and traveling with Matt was like traveling with a fucking flag post, it was nice to know that he had someone again.

Stupid.

-

I grew up in the system. In foster care. The woman who birthed me, gave me up when I was born and for most of my childhood, until I was 13 years old, I was moved around from home to home. At that point, I ended up how many kids like me do - in juvie. The how’s and why’s aren’t important. What is , is that during that time, I met my brother via a police officer who contacted my birth family. After I was released, I lived with him and the woman who gave me up - until she found herself indisposed.

At that point, my older cousin stepped in. Yes, the one who lives in Germany. He was only a few years older than us, but he was legal and did the best he could to take care of the both of us and see that we made it through high school, while the man he loved was waiting for him across the Atlantic.

It was during this time that the fight you-know-who alluded to, happened.

We, my brother, cousin, and I, worked at a local club. One night after closing, four men cornered my cousin and attempted to beat the shit out of him and possibly kill him for, as they so eloquently put it, ‘being a fag’.

I didn’t hesitate.

I didn’t stop to think.

I did the only thing that felt right at that moment. And that was to protect my family.

So I did.

All four men ended up in the hospital and it was only through the help of an incredible lawyer and therapist, people very close and very important to me, that I didn’t end up not only back in juvie, but tried as an adult.

In the end, I ended up with more family and a new guardian who knew how to handle the various traumas and mental instability my brother and I dealt with in our childhoods. I will forever be grateful to my cousin for doing his best, for trying to step in and give us a family. But, I will also be forever grateful to the new guardian - for lifting the burden off my cousin and allowing him to live his life as a normal 19-year-old should.

-

When they got back to the apartment, Neil went directly to the kitchen. He flipped on the coffee maker and heard Matt turn on the TV as it brewed.

Ever since the breaking news yesterday, he’d been avoiding the TV. Part of him didn’t want to know what happened and the part that did, he stifled down because wasn’t it better to stay in the dark?

No.

-

I think it’s important to say, that I would do it all again in a fucking second. I would protect my family and I would put the four of those fucks right back in the hospital. I need you all to understand that, moving forward. Because I know there have been questions about you-know-who's comments, and I want to make my intentions clear.

I also mention foster care because it’s part of the reason why this case is so personal. Although, no, Nathaniel was not in the system - he was still a child of abuse and neglect. He was still a child of trauma and unimaginable pain.

This case is hard for me to swallow sometimes - when I see things like ‘don’t be bad’ or a school picture of a child who has all the outward appearances of a normal kid.

I looked normal, too.

I just want to help. I just want to make sure wherever they are, they’re safe and have what they need. I want to tell their story in their own words if they’ll let me.

That’s my motivation.

That’s my story.

-

Logically, he knew whatever the news had been it likely had nothing to do with his father. There were probably hundreds of insane inmates in that prison and the possibilities were endless.

Still.

Neil poured himself a cup and didn’t bother with one for Matt (he didn’t like to drink caffeine so late at night). He took a small, cautious sip and felt the steam wet his skin as it lifted into the air. The burn was expected and welcomed. With a small hum to himself, he made his way to the living room and stopped just behind the couch.

-

[ interlude ]

-

Because there it was.

On the screen.

His father’s grinning mugshot, his father’s icy eyes, his father's face - Nathaniel’s face .

‘...to report that the Butcher of Baltimore, Nathan Wesninski, has been killed in a prison riot at North Branch Correctional Institution…’

Neil didn’t feel the smooth warmth of the mug slide from his fingers. He didn’t feel the hot liquid as it splashed over his bare legs and feet. Didn’t feel Matt’s hands around his arms, shaking him to try and get him to come back from wherever he went.

Run.

He wrenched himself out of Matt’s grip and ran for his room - Matt’s room - the room. He slammed the door, or at least he thought he did, before Matt could get to it and flipped the lock.

His body was on autopilot. Hands shaking, light-headed, shallow breaths, racing beat beat beat of his pulse in his ears.

No no no no no no no no no no no

Get your shit and go.

You shouldn’t have stayed.

Dangerous - too dangerous.

There was a bag in front of him. He started throwing anything, everything his hands landed on into it.

Matt was pounding on the door.

“Neil! Neil, what the fuck?! Talk to me, what’s going on!?”

Neil ignored him. His hands kept moving, kept shoving things into the bag as he tried and failed to keep his mind blank.

He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s fucking dead. He’s gone. Someone killed the killer.

Gone, gone, gone. And he’s not coming back.

Neil made a sound in his throat that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

Nathan was dead.

The Butcher was dead.

His father was dead.

And Andrew?

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew .

With his hazel eyes and sharp tongue.

Andrew was getting closer. Andrew would find him. Andrew would lead them here.

His father’s men.

They’re going to want revenge .

Lola was still out there. Lola had killed his mother. Lola was all red.

Red, red, red. Lola was all red and she would come.

She would follow Andrew because Nathan is dead now and she would be angry.

Romero and Jackson.

They would all come with guns and knives. They would come here, to this place, that was a home and this person -

-

I regrouped. After we got back from Maryland, I took a few days to facetime my niece, and cuddle my cat, and be a fucking potato. Because self-care and knowing your own mental boundaries is important. I hope everyone listening knows that. And I hope you all are able to get the care and help we all sometimes need - no matter what have or have not been through.

You’re all valid.

-

Matt. They would come and they would kill Matt to get to Neil.

No.

Neil would give himself to them willingly before he let that happen.

Matt with warm eyes and kind words and eat some fucking protein bro .

Neil screamed.

He screamed and threw his bag and fell to his knees and clutched the back of his neck with both hands. It wasn’t tight enough, it wasn’t grounding. He was floating away.

Mary and Nathan and Lola and Kevin and Riko and Andrew and Matt.

He heard a crash in the distant part of his mind that wasn’t actively trying to shut down and hands were on him. He tried to fight back. He tried to get away.

Don’t take me.

Please, don’t take me.

-

Anyway.

That’s it from me. That’s all she wrote and that’s all I can get out right now.

I’m tired, but over the hump of this... delay, there is something big beyond it. I can feel it.

Next week, Renee and I are heading to the west coast. We don’t know what happened after Germany, but we do know that Mary and Nathaniel were allegedly spotted in Seattle, June 12, 2004. According to our timeline, that’s next on the list. Luckily, we have a few leads that may lead... lead to something.

-

But the hands did not relent - did not let go. Big arms wrapped around him and he was pulled into a hard embrace. An embrace that was warm and smelled like Matt. All shea butter and coconut oil and -

Neil didn’t deserve this. Didn’t deserve the strength Matt was trying to ignorantly to give. But he was powerless. Neil was powerless to fight against it. He closed his eyes and buried his face into Matt’s chest - felt his hands lift to clutch at Matt’s shirt.

“Tell me,” Matt said, and Neil had never heard him sound so determined, so demanding. “Whatever it is, tell me, Neil. So I can help you.” He squeezed Neil tighter, put his chin on top of his head.

I’m so tired , he wanted to say. Just let me leave this place. Let me keep you safe.

But all that came out when Neil moved his face to speak, all he could manage to say was something he couldn’t remember speaking aloud since he was a very small child.

His fingers twisted tight in Matt’s shirt and the words formed around his lips.

-

But until then, I’m your host, Andrew Minyard.

-

“My name is Nathaniel Wesninski,” he whispered. 

-

Keep searching.

-

“And my father is dead.”

-

[ outro ]

Chapter Text

Posted 9:26PM @ssdgm-u-know


 

I’m not crazy. Crazy people probably claim they’re not crazy. But I’m not. I fucking swear, I’m not.

These past two months have been wild. I’ve been trying to put it into words, but it’s been really fucking hard, so you’re all (if anyone is reading this) going to have to bear with me.

I’ve tried contacting the Red Rabbits team and Andrew Minyard several times to no avail. No emails back, barely any consideration - I sent another message last night and received the expected Minyard™ response. And like, listen, I get it. They probably get shit like this all the time. People claiming to have met, seen, whatever whatever with Nathaniel Wesninski. I’m sure a lot of them are real, but more of them are just plain fucking fakes.

I’m not a fucking fake. I know I’m not. This isn’t me trying to garner attention and say LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME! I’ve stayed far away from the fandom, have not engaged in any chats, or really reblogged anything red rabbits related. Because although, if you know me, it seems like it’s something I would totally fucking do and sure, I would most certainly be on. Top. of. This. shit. I don’t find it fair to the guy I know/knew.

Because I’m positive, without a shadow of a doubt, I worked with Nathaniel Wesninski.

-

I know that sounds weird. ‘I worked with Nathaniel Wesninski’, ‘I brought coffee every morning for Nathaniel Wesninski’, ‘Nathaniel Wesninski walked me home’. I’ve probably repeated those lines a million fucking times, just trying to get it through to my head, and it still catches me off guard every time.

But it’s true. Or at least I think it’s true. If it’s not, this is certainly a fucked up series of events, following the drop of the first episode of Red Rabbits. Like. That’s for fucking sure.

And if I’m wrong, I’m totally okay with being called crazy. Maybe I am? But I don’t think so.

Here’s why.

-

I guess I should start from the beginning. Context and all that.

I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. You don’t need to know what my parents did or if they’re still together, you don’t need to know that one embarrassing thing I did in middle school, or how I totally became a ‘This is not a phase, mom’ meme. What you do need to know, is that I’ve been here for all 24 years of my life - never even left Arizona. I know what people are like here and I know when someone doesn’t belong.

Well, he didn’t belong and I can’t even really explain to you why. Keeping to yourself isn’t exactly a character trait not shared by fellow Arizonians or, you know, other fucking people. But this was different. This wasn’t even need-to-know basis, this was borderline ‘you don’t know me, I don’t know you, let’s keep it that way’. Does that make sense?

Anyway, I’m getting out of order here.

For the past 5 years, I’ve worked at this bookstore called The Book Nook. I knew the previous owner - a really sweet old man that had the place stacked with anything from rare titles to NYT best sellers. He hosted author signings, meet-and-greets, book events, you fucking name it. About 3 years into my job there, he retired and passed the place down to his grandson. I don’t think I need to name him, but let’s just say, ‘G’ wasn’t the best boss in the world. He ran the place into the ground, laid off more than half our staff, and despite how hard those of us that remained tried, the place fell into utter disarray.

7 months ago, we got a new application for a guy I won’t name. If he’s not Nathaniel, I’m not going to call him that. So, let’s just say his name is NJ. NJ was probably a year or two older than me. He was short, brown hair, brown eyes. I’m positive he wore contacts. I don’t know what color was underneath, and maybe he just had glasses, but preferred not to wear them. Considering how he dressed, I don't think it would’ve been a style choice - but, maybe I’m just getting into conspiracy territory. Anyway, NJ needed a job and my other coworker was about to move. It was perfect. He started the next day.

Right off the bat, NJ was weird. Not weird in the sense that he had an oddly heavy interest in true crime (me), but weird in the sense that it kind of seemed like he just existed. Does that make sense? He spoke only when necessary, would barely smile, and he never made eye contact. Honestly, he gave off a vibe that he wasn’t all that comfortable. With what, I didn’t know. I thought, maybe he was just out of his element. I could tell he wasn’t from ‘round here, so maybe he was new to town, or he’d just undergone something serious. Parents dying, drug addiction, I don’t fucking know. Just something. It was in the way he held himself. Like he was ready to bolt at any second.

To be like. Completely upfront. I thought he might have been selling drugs or something. He seemed like he was caught up in some risky business. Only because whenever he entered the shop, he’d scan the place every morning from the register. His eyes would take everything in, before he went about his day. And when he left, he would look both ways, like he was making sure the coast was clear, before he went home - which, that's a whole other story, we’ll get to later.

But you know. That’s not fair on him to just assume he was in risky shit, so I thought maybe that’s just how he is. I never questioned it. I just tried to be as nice as I could. Maybe this guy just needed a friend, someone to talk to, someone that he could feel... I don’t know. Safe? With?

And maybe I’m not the best person for that. As you can clearly see if you’ve been following me for a while, I like creepy shit. I like witches and vampires, horror stories and ghosts, I love murder mysteries and I’m a complete slut for true crime. Not that fucked up shit, let me like. Make that clear. In the past two weeks of trying to see what’s going on in this fandom (Red Rabbits) I’ve noticed that some of y’all are seriously fucked up. I guess for myself, I just find things like true crime interesting. I think it’s more of how people overcome such horrors. How they pick themselves up after something horrific happens or how fucked this country is when a killer is not only on the loose, but doesn’t get tried for half the shit they committed. I don’t know. I think it’s interesting. The human mind is a fucked up thing and it’s wild how shit turns for some.

Anyway, tangent. I’m known for those.

So like I was saying, maybe my interests aren’t the best to try and befriend a guy clearly hiding something. But, I will admit, I’m maybe not as observant as I’ve been giving myself credit for. Which, you’ll come to see why in a few paragraphs (if I ever get there. ugh).

Nonetheless, I tried. I tried to make the guy comfortable, feel welcomed. I’ve always found the Book Nook to be an escape from the shit outside it’s doors. I kinda hoped it would be the same for him and I think, maybe, it was at some point at least.

I’d bring him coffee in the mornings (wasn’t hard. He’d just drink it black. Gross but respect), help him close, try to give him hours that seemed best for him because for some reason, I felt like he needed either the distraction or the money. And like, he was a good worker too. Came in on time every morning, was there to every shift, never called in sick, he’d get all the shit we had to do done, and when I didn’t feel like doing something, or he could tell I didn’t want to do it, he’d take care of it himself. NJ, though weird, was a good fucking guy.

So weeks pass, then months. We weren’t really friends I don't think, but I’d like to believe he was at least comfortable with me. I mean, he’d contribute to conversation more, even if he wasn’t listening (if you’re reading this. I know you weren’t. You weren’t very convincing - or maybe you are... considering I’m making this blog post wondering if you are who I think you are. -, but I appreciated the effort. So, thank you). Every time I’d go off on my tangents, he’d go to the sports section of the store and reorganize the shelves a million times. Idk if he knew I knew this, but I could tell. Considering the amount of customers we had every day (10 if we were lucky), the sports section could only get so fucking messy. Anyway, when he’d go there, I laid off. I think it was sort of his safe space? Anyway.

Weeks, months, we had a comfortable sort of coexistence. Then, one night it changed - I thought, for the better.

It was the 14th of April. We were due to close up together and I’d just gotten my hands on a really good book. I was engrossed - like, completely fucking sucked in. So NJ was closing up and I was getting shit together. He handed me my bag and I walked out to leave him to lock the door behind us. I was already onto the next block before NJ hailed me down and offered to walk me home. He said I’m not doing a great job DGM-ing - which like, if you’re not familiar, I like to live by the phrase SSDGM, Stay Sexy Don’t Get Murdered (from My Favorite Murder the podcast). I mean, first it was really clever coming from someone I thought was just nodding along to whatever the fuck I said, and second, was he calling me sexy? Anyway, not really important. What is, is that he offered to walk me home. So I agreed and the walk was nice. He let me talk about my book and dropped me at my apartment.

The next morning, he came in with a coffee maker? Said it was so I didn’t have to buy him coffee anymore and maybe that was rejection - I don’t know. It’s besides the point because that day, April 15, is when shit went weird.

If that date sounds familiar, it’s because April 15 is the day the Pilot episode of Red Rabbits dropped. It’s also the day I found out about the podcast in general. 

Everything started out fine. You know. Opening up the shop, organizing, waiting around like always. A few of my friends came in to make sure I knew. NJ escaped to the sports section while they were there and everything was pretty chill? When they left, I wanted to play the episode. So, I went over to ask NJ if he knew about it/wanted to listen, and if he didn’t, if it was okay for me to play it out loud. He didn’t seem to have any real opinion, so I went back to the register to play it from the iHome. I was. So fucking excited. Like. Ugh. Fuck guys, I was so excited to see what Andrew had to say. I watched to doc in theaters, but like, idk. It was interesting, but it rubbed me the wrong way, you know?

Anyway, he went to go have lunch in the backroom. Meanwhile, I was listening, thinking oh shit Minyard is doing this. Like, it kind of blew me away? So my friends also dropped off a poster of The Butcher and I had full intentions on hanging it up and throwing darts at his ugly ass face. But as I was hanging it, NJ came out from the back room and it was just weird.

I wasn’t really paying attention, so engrossed in the podcast, when he asked me what Andrew had just said and to rewind it. I was like, what? Because that’s a fucking weird reaction/response. Now, what happened next I only got from going over this again. But when I moved away from the poster, NJ froze. Like, deer in headlights kind of thing. His eyes went really wide and I could tell, he was heading towards a panic attack. But, next thing I know, he’s grabbing his fucking backpack and bolting out of the shop. Like, full speed, panic, get the fuck out of here leave.

I didn’t know what was wrong so I followed him. But he was running and the guy was FAST. I couldn’t catch up to him, not in fucking Jeff Campbells, and I couldn’t leave the shop unattented. So I sort of just.. Left him? I followed for a block or two, then went back to the shop and called G to let him know what just happened. G said I couldn’t leave the shop (as if anyone was going to fucking come in), so I didn’t. I stayed and I wanted for NJ to come back.

He didn’t.

Not then, not the next day, or the day after that.

-

A full week passed. I didnt end up finishing the episode until the next Sunday rolled around. There was no sign of NJ. No call, no appearance, nothing. Obviously that's reason for worry, but more than that, how he left was even more so. So I started to wonder, and think, and look back. I never finished the episode, paused it when I got back to the shop after chasing him, so it was near the same part when he bolted. I rewound the entire thing and had to guess what triggered him by subtracting the five minutes it took for me to follow him two blocks down and then the two blocks back.

Heres what I think it was:

The trial never clarified who these two individuals actually were, but investigators suspected - and suspect - they could be Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski, the wife and son of your Butcher

They’ve been missing for the past 15 years.

No missing persons report was ever submitted, but FBI investigators assigned to Nathan noted the sudden disappearance of wife, Mary and son, Nathaniel. Let me repeat: FBI investigators assigned to Nathan noted the sudden disappearance of Mary and Nathaniel . That note was left unanswered, unsearched. From what I understand, they accepted this disappearance as if it were expected.

Yeah. see that shit? I’m not sure which part exactly. Whether it was the first line, the second, or the mention of Mary and Nathaniel, but whatever it was, he heard that and ran. He heard that, saw the poster I was hanging, and ran.

Weird, much?

I mean. I brought this up to my friends and they said I was fucking crazy. I was starting to believe that too. But something about it just didn’t fucking feel right. If he wasn’t Nathaniel, why would he have run? If he wasn’t Nathaniel, then why was he so triggered after hearing that name? After seeing the Butchers face?

I know. I sound like a conspiracy theorist. But I’m not done.

First and foremost, I was worried about someone that I considered to be a... friend? Good acquaintance? And like, the thing is, the night before he ran, he was worried about my dumb ass, so he walked me home to make sure I got there safely (not like his 5’3, skinny ass could defend me. But still, the gesture was nice). What kind of person would I be, to not worry about him? To not want to do something to help? To not pay him the same fucking respect he gave me?

So I went to the cops. I tried to file a missing persons. The issue is, hes in his mid-twenties, he lives - I’m assuming - on his own, no family that I know of, and he left on his own volition. It isn’t exactly the easiest case to solve, nor is it even a dip on the cops fucking radar. They told me that. But I didn’t want to accept it. I made my white ass kick up a huge fuss at the precinct and eventually, a detective pulled me over and asked me to give him all the information I knew. I brought the application NJ had submitted to the Book Nook with any personal information, and the detective promised to look into it.

And look into it.

And look into it.

Two weeks passed. I called back every fucking day. Because I feel like that’s something NJ would do for me if I suddenly disappeared (or maybe not. I don’t really know. Maybe I’m just projecting). Eventually, I got a call from the detective while I was helping pack up the Book Nook (because surprise surprise! Good ol’ G ran the place into the ground and had to close its doors).

He finally updated me on what he found. And that was a whole lot of nothing. NJ didn’t show up on any searches, which means that he was never arrested and processed. And it seemed like that’s all he could do for me. He said that my ‘friend’ most likely left because of emotional issues or whatever. I don’t know. The guy was a fucking dick. He made it out to be like he would help me, but gave me a whole lot of nothing in return.

It was four weeks then, since the day he ran. Four weeks of absolutely no sign of him. I got his papers back from the detective, because evidently, they don’t keep shit like that, and filed it away on my own.

-

This shit kept me up for weeks. What could’ve happened to NJ? Is he Nathaniel? If he is, where was Mary? What’s going on?

I got the idea of going to his apartment a week later. The address was on the sheet, but there was no apartment number. It was part of a small complex - buildings pressed together on the edges of the city. It was on the iffy side of town. Everything was run down and silently crumbling in the way that neglected sections of cities do. Anyway, so I walked around and eventually, happened upon an old woman walking her dog. I asked her who the landlord was and she gave me his number from a phone book that was falling apart at the seams (that’s what I felt like).

I ended up going home because time was running out for me to find a job and that, unfortunately, took precedence.

Luckily, I locked down a barista spot at the cafe across the street from the old Book Nook (may she rest in peace) and finally got around to calling.

The landlord sounded like a slimy guy that probably smokes 2 packs a fucking day. He told me to meet him at the apartment and he’ll take me to NJ’s. I laughed in the fucking receiver, quickly apologized, and agreed.

I know what you’re all thinking.

ASHLEIGH. NO. SSDGM. WHY AREN’T YOU SSDGMING?!

Dont worry, jesus fucking christ. I did, I was, I may be an idiot 80% of the time, but cute-barista-boy-with-the-biceps™ (CBBWTB™ for short) wouldn’t let me go alone.

CBBWTB™ and I got there the next day and the guy was exactly as I expected. His hair was thin and he had several teeth missing as he smiled. I got a chill running up my spine when I realized that NJ fucking lived here. Anyway, he was wearing a suit that barely concealed his beer belly, and he escorted us to the last building. It was small - 6 floors and NJ apparently lived on the second. CBBWTB™ and I took the elevator and i made sure to stand p close to him, before we were let out and lead to the last room at the end of the hall. Slimy-Geezer tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. His key wouldn’t even fit? He tried to knock it down and when his beer-logged self couldn’t, CBBWTB™ was going to attempt before Slimy-Geezer stopped him. He grumbled that he was going to have to call a locksmith (with more colorful words) and disappeared.

And I don’t know what happened. We were waiting around for an hour, then two, and eventually night was falling and I wanted to get the fuck out of there. CBBWTB™ and I left.

I never fucking wanted to go back there again. I think i got my answer of NJ just enough. There was no smell, I don’t think he was in there dead and/or rotting. When we knocked, there was no answer. So that just leaves questions that answer what I originally was asking.

If NJ is Nathaniel, big if, then it explains why he didn’t put an address on his resume, why when i tried the number he gave, it was out of service - why the locks on his apartment were changed why he kept his distance and bolted the moment he heard that name out of Minyard’s fucking mouth.

It all just... makes sense?

The only thing really left to do was listen to the rest of the podcast. So, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. I’ve been obsessed. I’ve listened to every episode 5 times, trying to put shit together. I’ve started at the photos that have been put out on the website a million. Fucking. Times. And it’s HIM. I KNOW it’s him. And I have a fucking picture to prove it.

You hear that Minyard? I have a PICTURE to prove it. Read my emails. Get back to me. The picture is in the last one I’ve sent and I swear to god - I know you cant see all of him, but it’s so clearly him. Freckles and all. That would make my encounter the most recent sighting. Isn’t that important to you? To your investigation? I even have the name he went by, what he wears, how he takes his coffee, what his fucking sneakers look like. I know how he smiles, I know how he rolls his eyes, I know that one of his bottom teeth are slightly crooked.

My number is in the last email. Call me and I’ll give you everything.

Chapter Text

Kevin jumped when Andrew threw the open yearbook on the table - sports spread with the picture of Raven Academy’s Exy team smiling up at him.

They were at Kevin’s apartment. Andrew made his way there as soon as he dropped Renee off at her place after landing back in South Carolina. He needed answers.

Now.

“You want to tell me why you’ve felt the need to lie to me this whole time?” Andrew couldn’t pry his teeth apart. He was seething through them. “Why you didn’t bother to let me know that you knew Nathaniel?”

He was angry. So fucking angry. Bee buzzed and she buzzed and she buzzed, but he didn’t want to listen - didn’t want to acknowledge that there was something more beneath all this anger , something else driving it forward.

He was hurt.

It sounded silly, immature. But he was. Andrew was hurt. Hurt by the lies, hurt by the secrecy, hurt by the fact that Kevin couldn’t even fucking look at him.

“It doesn’t matter.” Kevin murmured, staring at a spot on the table beside the yearbook, arms crossed over his chest. “It doesn’t help you find him.” He sighed and lifted his eyes a fraction. “He wasn’t there very long, Andrew. I was eight years old. It doesn’t matter.” When their eyes met, all Andrew could see (admit to seeing) was defeat.

“Bullshit.” Andrew couldn’t cap it. His control was starting to wane. “You knew I would want to know this. You know more about this, I know you do. Why wont you just fucking tell me ?” he spat, hands balled into fists by his sides and his voice rose slightly at the end.

Kevin closed his eyes, sighed again and shook his head as he leaned forward, “Keep it down, Andrew. Brianna is asleep and I don’t want her waking up to this.” He looked to the door behind him as if expecting to see her there. When his eyes returned to Andrew, he said, “She doesn’t know... about Nathaniel.”

Hah. Perfect.

“Oh, well. I am so glad I’m not the only one.” Andrew used the toe of his heavy boot to shove a chair out of his way so he stood closer to the edge of the table. You know. Just incase he had to fucking flip it . “Tell me what you know. What do the Moriyamas have to do with this Wesninskis? I’m not a fucking idiot, Kevin. This is too much of a coincidence. I just don’t understand why-”

“You are an idiot,” Kevin hissed back. “You keep pushing and pushing and this is going to get you killed, Andrew. Do you not realize that yet? Do you not have an inkling of what you’re dealing with?” His thick brows furrowed and he uncrossed his arms. “You could die . I didn’t tell you anything to protect -”

“Don’t.”

“What? It’s true. I didn’t tell you to protect you because the less you know the better. Do you -” his eyes squinted and he pulled back his chin, “Do you honestly think I would be okay if something happened to you...?”

Buzz

“Did you ever stop to think,” he continued quietly, hands curling in his lap, “What this might mean for me? If they found out I told you anything? What that would set in motion. Andrew, I’ve been free for so long-”

Andrew couldn’t take that kind of talk. He took two long strides around the table to Kevin and kicked his chair so it was facing him and not the table. He stepped between Kevin’s legs and as Kevin raised his hands to cover his face, Andrew grabbed his wrists and pulled them down. “Do you think, for one second, that I would let anything happen to you?”

He couldn’t even fathom. Yes, Kevin was a pain in the ass. Yes, he loved to give Kevin shit. But, facts were facts. And the fact of the matter was, Kevin was Andrew’s family. Pseudo uncle, aunt, and cousin - Wymack, Abby, and Kevin were all part of the circle of people Andrew cared about most. How the fuck could he think Andrew would do anything to put him in danger?

Kevin looked up at him. The remnants of the 2 tattoo, little bits the laser couldn’t completely remove, stood out against Kevin’s normally warm skin. “You can’t protect me if they try to come after me, Andrew. You can’t save anyone, if that happens... Not when they’ve made up their minds. That includes yourself. You’re insan-”

“Babe?” Andrew quickly lifted his head to the bedroom door behind Kevin and saw Brianna standing under its arch. She wore one of Kevin’s old shirts, which went down to her knees, and her corkscrew curls were smushed flat against one side. She rubbed at pale green eyes and squinted at Andrew. Her light brown skin darkened in the cheeks just a bit when she noticed how he was standing between Kevin’s knees.

“Oh - Hey, Andrew. Sorry, I heard you guys talking...”

“No, Bri. It’s fine. We’re just talking and Andrew’s being an asshole as usual. He’ll be leaving soon, go back to sleep.”

She spared one more glance for Andrew who gave her a tight nod, before turning. “Okay... Love you,” she called over her shoulder.

“I love you too.” Kevin loosed a breath when she turned away and rubbed his palms on his flannel pants.

Andrew didn’t move from his place. Instead, he just raised a brow as he looked down at him. “I liked Marcus better, you know. He didn’t walk around half naked in your clothes.”

Kevin rolled his eyes and looked like he debated smiling at the incredulity of Andrew fucking Minyard. Deciding against it, he sighed and said, “You just didn’t see him do it. Anyway, you liked Marcus better because you two spent an hour talking about ‘ the genius that is Africa by Toto’. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make someone a good partner.”

Andrew snorted. “Says you.” He then nudged Kevin’s leg with the toe of his boot. “Don’t change the fucking subject.”

“There is no subject. I’m not talking to you about this. Yes, I went to school for a short time with Nathaniel. From what I remember, he was good enough at five to play with the older kids. That’s all I’m telling you.” Kevin went to stand, but Andrew kept him in his seat with a hand to his chest.

“No.” Andrew shook his head. “You don’t get to do that.” He leaned forward and moved his hand from Kevin’s chest to the back of his neck. With a tightening grip, Andrew lowered his voice seriously, “Nothing will happen to you-”

“You don’t know that!” Kevin all of a sudden yelled, emotion bursting from his eyes right in Andrew’s face. “You don’t fucking know that! And you can’t fucking know that, Andrew!” His chest was rising and falling quickly. Andrew tightened his grip harder and grit his teeth.

Why was this so fucking hard?!

Kevin shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as he raised his hands back to his face and pressed his fingers into the corners of his eyes. His face was screwing up and Andrew rolled his own neck.

“Look at me, Kevin.” When he didn’t, Andrew raised his voice a hair, there was more force behind his words. “Look at me!”

Buzz, buzz, buzz

When Kevin dropped his hands and lifted his eyes, there was a line of silver trying its hardest not to break and trail down his cheeks.

Andrew didn’t relent.

He stared hard into bright green and with all the authority and conviction he could muster, he said, “I will never let anything happen to you. I’m not going to put this on air - are you listening?!” That silver was growing and wavering and threatening to overflow. “I’m not going to put this anywhere . But I need to know, Kevin . If what you’re saying is true and I’m walking into something big, I need to know . To keep you and myself safe.”

There was a small break. With quick blinks, Andrew knew Kevin was biting into his tongue. But, he saw it the moment it happened - the moment Kevin’s resolve broke. It reflected bright and honest in his eyes and Andrew could see the trust staring back at him.

Kevin took a deep, steadying breath and nodded as he whispered, “Fine...”

With a firm nod of his own, Andrew let go of Kevin’s neck, backed up, and dragged a chair forward to sit in front of Kevin, knee to knee. He leaned forward, elbows at his thighs, and waited.

It took a few moments and he let Kevin have them with slow blinks and deep breaths. When Kevin was ready enough, he began.

“The Moriyamas are Yakuza... Japanese - you know.” He shook his head and looked to be battle with something for a split second before he moved on. “The exy... the productions company? It’s all just a front. Nathan was Kengo’s right-hand man; his assassin on the east coast. Nathaniel was sent to Raven Academy so the Moriyamas could keep an eye on him - see if he was a worthy investment.”

What the fuck?

“Investment? What the fuck does that mean?” Bee was burning behind his ear. He raised a finger to press against her wings so he could hear before the buzzing took control - because every suspicion he’d had up until now was being confirmed by the man that had been next to him this entire time.

For years.

“It means they would have... kept him.” ‘ Like me’ was silent. “Groomed him for exy and taken his earnings for themselves. He would’ve been a commodity. Like Jean... Jean’s parents owed the Moriyamas a debt. They paid it with their eldest son.”

Andrew wanted to puke.

“But Mary left with him before that could happen?” Andrew asked.

She knew then. She had to have known what Nathan had in mind. Why else would she leave?

“Yes,” Kevin nodded. His eyes wavered between both of Andrews, to his hands, around the room, then back at Andrew. “She took Nathaniel and she ran before any kind of agreement could be reached. Or at least, I assume that’s why she did it, but I have no idea. That’s all I know. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since then and I probably wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him today.”

“The Moriyamas never mentioned him? Never mentioned them running? Or being owed a debt for him?” Andrew sat up straight in his chair and watched Kevin carefully, but Kevin was already shaking his head.

Shit .

“I wasn’t privy to their inner workings, Andrew. Everything I know, I got second hand from Riko and even then... You know Riko. Who knows if he’s lying...” Kevin pressed his lips together and looked down at his pants. There was a string from the side seam and he pulled at it. “As far as I know,” he sighed, dropping it and lifting his head once more, “They weren’t that bothered. They kept using Nathan, I think just giving him bigger and bigger jobs to make up for it.”

To make up for a failed investment. A fucking child -

Kevin was quiet for a moment. “That’s all I know, Andrew. That’s all I know and that’s all I’m saying and I never want to discuss this again. I try really hard to not even think about it.”

Alright.

Andrew just nodded and stood. Kevin stood, too, but didn’t move from his spot. He was a good foot and change taller than him, so Andrew had to tilt his head back to see him properly.

“What are you going to do with this information...?” Kevin asked. “Who are you going to tell?”

Andrew felt a pang of sorrow for him. He’d been stuck in the circle of mental abuse for so fucking long. And now, here he was, living a good life - the best life he can live, really. With his family and his girlfriend and his podcast and his friends . And yet, he still had to worry about this ... Still had to relive his trauma every time the Moriyamas were mentioned anywhere.

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Andrew said quietly. “I told you that. Now, I know the story; now, things make more sense. I’m going to keep looking for Nathaniel, but I won’t involve the Moriyamas. I don’t need them to find him - as long as I concentrate on that, it’ll be fine.”

Right?

“And if it’s not?” Kevin looked to Andrew’s face and shook his head slightly. “If they come after you? What about our family, Andrew? Or... or me?”

Our.

Buzz, buzz, buzz

“Then I’ll stop.” The level of conviction in his voice felt hard and real and true. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you or them over this. Do you understand? I will never let anything happen to you if I can help it. Do you trust me?”

Kevin stared at him for a second that felt like forever. Eventually, he nodded and sighed. The tension in his shoulders didn’t leave, but they did lower as he sat back in his chair. Andrew watched him, making sure nothing major was lingering beneath his surface, before he nodded too.

“Good.” It was just a murmur. “I have to go get King. I’ll see you at Bee’s for dinner tomorrow night.” He glanced over Kevin’s shoulder towards the bedroom doorway. “Don’t bring Brianna. King doesn’t like her.”

That wasn’t true but.

Whatever.

Kevin simply nodded again anyway and stayed where he was while Andrew left the apartment.

-

One week later, Andrew found himself on yet another airplane with Renee - this time, flying to Seattle fucking Washington.

He’d spent the past week regrouping and trying to get his head straight. Most days he felt like he was stuck under water. King helped, but when it was dark and it felt like light was nowhere in sight, he facetimed with Bella. Now, however, he was off again, all the way across the country to follow their timeline to wherever this may lead them next. There was something daunting about that - daunting about going to the place where the line goes silent and the questions really start rising.

In the back of his mind, Kevin’s news lingered. None of it was really a surprise, but it did add an extra element. It was something that Andrew would have to consider with every move he made. Like navigating a minefield. He was never one to tread lightly on any subject he breached, but this was different... somehow. Because Kevin was right. There was real danger involved here. And perhaps, he hadn’t been the most careful.

Perhaps.

At least now, he knew he’d been right. Without a doubt, the Moriyamas were responsible for his firing. They put out a piece about Nathan Wesninski, showering him in a positive light in order to move the public’s attention away from anything that might implicate them. It all. Made. Sense now.

Andrew didn’t lie to Kevin. He wouldn’t share the information. The really vindictive part of him was annoyed that he couldn’t - couldn’t let the world know who and what the Moriyamas really were. But, the bigger part acknowledged the danger that he was skirting and the repercussions of misstepping. No. No more impulsions, no more snap decisions, no more hard hitting shit. From here on out, it was the investigation and that’s it.

Perhaps, after this. I’d love to take the Moriyamas down.

No.

Moving forward.

When they touched down in Seattle, he and Renee were due to meet with an ex police officer named Michael Thomas, Jr. He claimed he was on the case when the shootout between Nathan and what was suspected to be Mary and Nathaniel happened in 2004. Allegedly, he saw the woman and boy in the reports with his own eyes and apparently, when he pushed the case of his own eyewitness account, he was fired. Andrew figured he was a great place to start.

“Where do we go from Seattle?” Renee asked. “We know what we find here will mostly be what happened in 2004. If we don’t get any other leads, where do we go?”

Andrew turned his head on the headrest of his seat to face her. He contemplated her question for a moment, before saying, “I don’t know yet. The next sighting we have is 2017 in Wyoming, but I’m pretty sure that one’s bullshit. I don’t want to waste time on it if we can find something more concrete.”

Renee nodded, unlocking her phone and pulling up her notes. “And if we don’t find something more concrete?”

Of course.

Andrew sighed, “Spit it out, Renee. What are you trying to say?”

“I’m just trying to figure out the game plan here.”

Andrew leveled her with a knowing stare.

She rolled her eyes. “Okay. Honestly?”

He blinked slowly.

“I’m a little worried about you...” a frown tugged at the corners of her lips and her shoulders sunk half an inch. “You know I’ll follow you anywhere - in general and to get to the bottom of this. But, I don’t want you running yourself into the ground in the process.”

Bee was buzzing in his ear and her wings were burning at his skin. Raising a hand, he rubbed absentmindedly at her mark behind his ear. “I’m not,” He replied and when Renee gave him a skeptical look, he dropped his hand and reiterated. “I’m really not. Bee has been on my ass about taking care of myself and I hate it when she worries. I’m not going to give her more of an excuse to do it.”

Renee took a moment to really assess him. Her eyes burning a hole in the side of his face was the same burn behind his ear and he hated appreciated it. Eventually, she nodded. “Okay. I’ll take your word for it.” She turned her attention to her phone. “Now. Let’s go over this guy’s story one more time.”

-

Monday morning. Seattle was chilly compared to what Andrew was used to putting up with in South Carolina. It reminded him of Boston, just damper. He hated it.

He and Renee were out of the hotel they were staying in by 8AM and slipped into an Ihop near Seattle University where Andrew promptly ordered stuffed French toast with two orders of bacon and a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream. Renee said nothing. She knew better than to question him by now.

“So, we’re meeting this... Michael Thomas, Jr. at a cafe on campus called Café Presse,” Renee said, thumbing through her notes on her phone once more. “He works at the university as a security guard.”

“Café Presse?” Andrew asked, looking down at his half-eaten food. “Did you pin down the time?”

“12:30. That’s when he has his lunch break.”

“Oh, good.” Andrew nodded, taking another heaping bite and once it was halfway down, he continued, “I have plenty of time to digest.”

Renee laughed, “You have to be nice to him, you know.”

Andrew waved his fork in her direction. “What exactly are you implying, Walker?”

She raised her bleached brows, “I’m implying that you hate authority - cops in particular. If we want all the details exactly as he remembers them, you have to be cordial and not piss him off.”

Andrew hummed in response and took another bite.

-

12:30 eventually rolled around and Andrew found himself seated with Renee in what turned out to be a French café, once again.

“It’s called Café Presse. What did you expect?”

“A burger,” Andrew mumbled gloomily. “I hate this guy already... Strike one, Renee.”

She rolled her eyes, something that was becoming more and more common on her usually sweet face. Nonetheless, she sat up smiled as she waved at someone behind Andrew’s head. When he turned to look, a tall man, maybe in his mid-40’s, was headed towards their table. He wore a campus security uniform and had thinning brown hair with a five o’clock shadow at noon.

Renee stood to greet him. “Mr. Thomas?” She asked and when he nodded in the affirmative, “I’m Renee Walker - the one you’ve been emailing. It’s so nice to finally meet you.”

“Michael Thomas, but please, call me Mike.” His smile was wide, tired, and crinkly. Andrew supposed it was supposed to be a nice or comforting smile. He hated it. “It’s nice to finally meet you, too. I’m glad you decided to come out here. I’ve been trying to tell people this for so long and no one will listen.” He turned to Andrew then, who was still seated. “Mr. Minyard, it’s nice to meet you, too. I appreciate what you’re trying to do with the podcast.” He held out a hand which Andrew stared at until Renee cleared her throat in a very ‘ be nice’ manner.

Sucking on his teeth, Andrew cracked his pinky and nodded his head, rather than shaking the man’s hand. That would have to be enough and it seemed as though it was as Mike nodded back and sat down.

As if on cue, a waiter appeared to take their orders. Renee made small talk like small talk wasn’t the worst thing in the world, until their food arrived. Andrew didn’t want to start the interview until they’d all at least had a bit of something in their stomach. As he ate, he couldn’t help but think that Renee was, of course, right. He was naturally distrustful of cops and eating gave him a chance to get a feel for this guy before the interview even started.

He appeared fine, Andrew supposed - unassuming, which Andrew admittedly liked. However, he had a very distinct cop air about him. Something about the way he spoke, like he was in charge of the conversation even when he very clearly was not.

Andrew checked his emails while he waited for the waiter to clear their places and saw a recent email with the subject line ‘ Nathaniel Sighting two mths ago’. He sighed and put his phone away. It was nothing new. The amount of leads that either didn’t make sense with the timeline or were obviously bullshit, was fucking ridiculous and he was tired of reading them, to be completely frank. They would have to wait until he was in a better headspace. For now, he had to save room for all the animosity he could muster for Mr. Mike.

“Andrew?” Renee asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. “Are you ready?”

Taking a last long sip of his hot chocolate, he nodded and pulled his bag towards him. Directing his attention towards Mike, he asked, “Okay if we record?”

Mike nodded and Andrew pulled out his recorder, along with his moleskine. He clicked his favorite purple pen, then pushed the button.

[ Record On ]

“Name?”

“Michael Thomas, Jr. But Mike, since we’re friends.”

Ugh.

Mike smiled at his own joke and Andrew stared at him blankly until he put that smile away where it belonged.

“Tell us your story,” he began. “You were a police officer and on the scene when Nathan was arrested, correct? Walk us through it.”

Renee had her phone out, as per usual. Her notes stared up at her as she tapped away with quick thumbs.

Mike sat back in his chair and went contemplative before replying, “I was young. In my twenties back in 2004. I didn’t understand how the system could be.”

Yeah well, welcome.

“Meaning what?” Andrew asked. “Just start from the beginning when you were called on the scene.”

Mike nodded. “Right, right. I was in the Rainier Beach area on June 12, 2004 and got the call that there was a reported shooting taking place nearby. It wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary - rough neighborhood and all. I’d been called out there plenty of times before.”

“What did you do when you got there?” Andrew asked.

“A car fleeing the scene with a woman in the drivers seat and Nathan Wesninski shooting at the car as it drove away.”

Buzz -

Andrew looked up from where he was jotting down his own notes. “Only a woman?”

Mike nodded. “Only a woman. I can’t say if it was Mary Wesninski or not, but I didn’t see a kid with her.” He pressed his lips together and shook his head as his eyes squinted. “Doesn’t mean much, of course. If it was my kid and someone was shooting at us, I’d have them down on the floor.”

That makes sense.

Andrew nodded. Nathaniel would’ve been ten, but he was small for his age. He could’ve easily fit in the foot space of the front and back of the car if needed. “Could you tell what the woman looked like?”

Mike pressed his lips together for a short moment, then sighed. “No, not really. She was thin, brownish hair maybe? I couldn’t reliably identify her. But, there were witnesses who could.” He looked at Andrew with his brows raised conspiratorially.

First thing’s first.

“What happened with Nathan?”

Mike tapped his hand on the table idly. “I drove up on the scene and a few other officers had gotten there as well. We were able to surround him and he surrendered.”

“Just like that?” Renee asked skeptically.

He shrugged. “If you want to call it that. I mean. There wasn’t exactly anywhere he could go so... yeah. Laughed, in fact, when he saw he was surrounded. Dropped his gun, hands behind his head, and fucking laughed. Creepiest shit I’ve ever seen.”

‘Yeah, that’s for sure,” Andrew mumbled as he took a sip of his water, then moved on. “So, can you tell me why the charge against Nathan was illegal firearms? There were obviously multiple witnesses to say he was shooting at someone. Why wasn’t he charged with something related to that?”

“Ah...” Mike said, picking up the wrapper to his straw and tearing it into tiny pieces. “That’s the thing, isn’t it?” He rolled up the spare pieces between forefinger and thumb, “After we took Wesninski to the station, things started to get weird.”

Buzz

“Weird how?” Renee leaned forward in her seat, still typing away at her phone.

Mike dropped the paper and looked between the two of them seriously. “We all have to write reports when we’ve done a scene. Mine had all the details in it. The woman driving away, Wesninski shooting at the car, the laugher - all of it. I filed it away with all my other paperwork to be reviewed and the next day, I got a call saying there was a problem with it and I needed to come in asap to resubmit it.”

“Did you?” Andrew asked.

“I did.” Mike nodded. “I went in and asked what the problem was. Because to the best of my knowledge at the time, I gave everything I could. A detailed, firsthand account of what happened at the scene - just as we’d been told to do but...” He shook his head. “There were two feds there waiting for me when I arrived,” his voice lowered. “Wanted me to completely change my statement.”

“To say what?”

“That we came upon Wesninski when someone called in a suspicious vehicle.” Mike’s tone was hardening and he pressed his palms flat against the table. “That when we got to the scene and searched his car, we found illegal firearms. That we arrested him on that charge alone . Any mention of the other car and the woman driving it were completely fucking scrapped.”

Andrew remembered watching those reports on the news. Nathan’s arrest, his initial indictment and eventual sentencing. What Mike was telling him now wasn’t anything he hadn’t already assumed to an extent . However, the explicit FBI involvement in covering this up? That was new.

Bee buzzed louder as the pieces started falling together in his head.

The Moriyamas were trying to spare their right hand man, but then - what exactly did the FBI have in this? What was their stake? Was it actually to finally crack down on the infamous Butcher? Or, was it something else...

“If that’s the case and the feds were trying to cover up what really happened, then why charge him with anything at all? Why not get rid of the guns and the case altogether?” It was like a puzzle piece that wouldn’t fit. Andrew was trying to connect dots that seemingly didn’t want to connect. Why would the Feds cover this up? Did they just want their guy, or did they want something else for someone else?

Mike leaned forward then, arms on the table and hands moving to clasp together. “That’s the real question. In my opinion, there were too many witnesses. I wasn’t able to get a good view of the woman, but there were civilians in the area who were - multiple people even, who saw Nathan shooting and camera crews were on the scene before we could finish clearing it.” Mike shook his head, brows furrowed so deeply they almost touched. “There’s no way they could get away with not charging him with something . You wanna know what I think?”

When Andrew just stared at him, waiting for him to continue, Mike looked to Renee where she nodded him on.

“I think the feds were there to get rid of the attempted murder charge. I think they were there to make sure no one knew the identity of the woman. I’m not sure they could’ve stopped the snowball that happened once one of the guns he had was matched to a string of other shootings. Not without being completely obvious about it. It was just a short skip to a search warrant for his home and from there, prison for the foreseeable future.”

“So if the feds were followed all these connections, again, why the cover up?” Andrew still wasn’t getting it. But his mind was moving faster than his lips and he realized -

“Because they put all their energy, I think, in getting to Seattle. Once the search warrant was passed, Maryland state was on top of it too quickly for proper information, maybe, to reach and shut shit down. Too many people, too many states were involved. Finding out many of the disappearances of high business officials around the country may have connections to the Butcher? They couldn’t cover that up.”

“But a missing mother and son, they could.”

Mike took a sip of his coffee and from beside him, Renee sighed out of her nose.

Andrew tapped his pen against his marked up page. “I want to see the site,” he said after a few moments pause. “I want to see where it happened.” He looked to Mike, eyes daring him to disagree.

He only nodded. “I can take you this evening. I get off at 5:00. Rainier Beach isn’t far, so we can meet here and I’ll show you the way.”

“Perfect,” said Renee, starting to stand. Andrew followed her lead, shutting his moleskine with a snap and turning off the recorder.

[ Record Off ]

He shoved both into his bag and made their way to the doors. His mind was still running, racing, trying to catch up and connect everything Mike had said as Bee started to calm but his fingers started to shake for a cigarette. He cracked his pinky again.

He was pulling his pack out from his back pocket as Mike asked Renee, “You have my number?” She nodded her head and he turned his attention to Andrew. “Again, it was nice to meet you. I hope I can help. There’s more to the story that I think you’ll be interested in.”

I fucking hope so .

Andrew just stared. “We’ll see, Officer Mike. You can fill us in at the site.”

“I’m not an officer anymore. You can just call me Mike.”

Andrew shook out a cig, then with the unlit stick he gestured to Renee to follow him to the car. Putting the filter in his mouth, he said around it in a call over his shoulder, “Once a pig, always a pig, Officer Mike.”

When the lighter ignited and the end lit, the first drag did nothing to help.

-

A few hours, three cigarettes, and two cups of coffee later, Andrew and Renee were standing on the outskirts of Rainier Beach Playfield in the Rainier Branch neighborhood. It was a park, small with metal playground equipment and a weathered basketball court. There were open fields, maybe baseball? But the paint was nearly gone and houses surrounded the perimeter of the park. Perhaps, at a time, maybe this place was nice. But the area smelled like the sea and rust, and Andrew’s head couldn’t help but confuse it with the salt of sweat and metallic tang of blood.

Digging his recorder out of his bag, he turned it on.

[ Record On ]

“Here?” Andrew asked quietly, trying to hide the slight disbelief. “Nathan opened fire here ?” All his research, all the articles and news clips and files he’d sorted through and the fact that Nathan opened fire on a fucking playground never hit him.

Officer Mike, now in regular clothes, shrugged his shoulders and looked around. “Like I said, he was insane. I don’t know if he’d been trying to find them for a while or what. But, we had multiple witnesses who saw it. Again, their accounts never made it into official reports. But, I do know that some said they saw a woman with a boy who could’ve been anywhere from 8-10 years old, right here. He was,” Mike pointed to an old swing set, “swinging on the swings, not playing with the other kids. Said that the woman snatched him up when the car Nathan was in drove by and tried to get away before he saw them. Unfortunately, he was already shooting. Fortunately , with all the flying bullets, no one else got hurt.”

No one else .

Andrew crossed his arms and covered his mouth with a hand. He tried to picture it - tried to picture a little Nathaniel enjoying his time in the park, swinging when shots started firing. Nathaniel must have been terrified- “Show me.” He turned towards Mike. “Where was Nathan? Where was the other car?”

Officer Mike obliged. He walked them through it. Where each car was, what he saw with his own eyes, where they had Nathan lying facedown on the pavement before cuffing him and shoving him into a cruiser.

They made their way to a nearby picnic table and sat. It too was metal, uncomfortable, nothing that one would think was meant for children or parents with their kids. The rust left a brown residue on his hands that he tried to ignore as he put a little too much effort in focusing on the task; rather than the smell, feel, and what connections his brain could make between oxidized metal and oxidized blood.

Buzz

“Tell me the rest,” Andrew forced out. “You said there was more to the story?”

Mike studied him for a moment, then looked between him and Renee before nodding. “Well, as you know, I’m no longer an officer. I changed my report when they asked me to. I was young with a wife and I didn’t want to make waves. I didn’t want to get into trouble - but the entire thing ate at me. It nagged me and kept me up all hours of the night for weeks. This guy, this psychopath,  was shooting at a woman and kid, in a park filled with children , and we were trying to cover that up?” Mike shrugged his shoulders, but something in his face darkened. “So, I pushed,” his tone had a hint of defeat. “I went to my superior officer and he basically told me to leave it. Then, I went to his superior officer and I was told to pack my shit and get out.”

“So, someone knew something and didn’t like you snooping around?” Andrew wiped his hands on his pants, then took off his glasses to clean them on the edge of his shirt. This sounded familiar .

“Exactly. So, I was fired and cut off from the investigation all together.” He turned his palms up and pressed his lips together. When they relaxed, he shook his head, “But I didn’t stop looking and I didn’t stop asking questions. I have family in law enforcement - friends. My father was a police officer, so I knew a lot of the guys on the force. They gave me some stuff but the real info came from a cousin I have in Oregon, in a small town called Brookings. He’s still an officer there and in 2010, there was a shooting that sounded a lot like what happened here.”

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Andrew’s shoulder twitched to press against the tattoo behind his ear, but he took a steadying breath to block the impulse. His pulse was speeding and he leaned forward.

“How so? Nathan was in prison in 2010,” Renee added.

“No, it wasn’t Wesninski.” Mike started.

2010, 2010, 2010, 2010...

“But, it was a woman and a boy, older. 16 or 17 years old-”

Buzz

“-Brookings is small and the crime rate is higher than average, but it’s usually property crimes, theft, that sort of thing. This? This was a shooting between a woman and a boy, and another woman. They all left the scene before cops could get there, but witnesses say the woman and boy were both of a slight build with brown hair. The woman shooting was taller, with red hair.”

His body was thrumming. 2010, 2010, 2010... Nathaniel would’ve been 16 years old. Was it really them?

2010, 2010...

“Nathan was convicted in 2010,” he heard himself finally say. “One of his supporters maybe... Someone part of his circle.” He looked to Renee and found her frowning, but nodding as she put that together in her head too. When he turned his attention back to Mike, his heart rate spiked and he had a burning question at the tip of his tongue. “And they got away? They all just got in their cars and got away unscathed?”

Mike’s eyes bounced between Andrew and Renee. When he replied, Andrew’s stomach dropped. “Apparently, one of them was shot. Mary or Nathaniel...assuming it was them.”

Andrew sat back on the bench. Officer Mike sure seemed unconcerned about this.

“One of them?” He heard himself ask. “Which one? No one saw them? How is that possible?”

What the fuck does this mean?

“Someone said they saw the two of them hunched over and thought there was blood, but there was no blood left at the scene. That’s it. They both got in the back, but one must’ve climbed behind the wheel. The other woman had already driven off after a witness came out yelling with his own gun. My guess is they’d already drawn too much attention and she, whoever she is, assumed she’d gotten at least one of them.”

No no no

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Andrew stood from the bench and paced. He felt like he was going to jump out of his skin. Bee was burning and he scratched absentmindedly at his collar as he shook his head and tried to think.

What if they were both shot? What if they were both dead?

He needed more information - needed to see, needed to know.

“I want to go,” he said, stopping short. “We need to go to Brookings. Talk to Officer Mike’s cousin-”

“It’s just Mike-”

“Shhhhh,” Andrew hushed him, resuming his pacing. “We’re having a conversation here, Officer Mike.”

Renee looked between them and sighed. “How far is Brookings from here?” She asked.

Mike spared a glance towards Andrew, as if making sure it was okay for him to speak, then said, “It’s about an eight hour drive. There’s an airport nearby in California, but it’s small and I doubt you’d be able to get a flight very soon.”

Andrew stopped pacing. “Then we drive.” He pointed to Mike, “You’re coming with us. You’ll get us a meeting with your cousin, where we can read the reports ourselves.”

Officer Mike stood, “I can’t just call out of work. I could lose my job.”

Andrew shrugged, “Tell them you’re sick. I don’t care. You said you wanted to help?” He raised his brows.

“Of course I do! I lost my job over this, I want justice for them just as much as you do.”

Doubt it.

“Then make it happen. Text Renee your address and we’ll pick you up at 8AM. Be ready.”

[ Record Off ]

-

Officer Mike was ready. They picked him up outside of his apartment and Renee handed him a cup of coffee and a bagel from the bag they’d picked up on their way there.

Andrew sat behind the wheel of their rental and he was itching to go. He’d been up for the majority of the night, trying his hardest to not think and make assumptions on everything Mike had told them the day before. His midnight mental ramblings went from which one of them was shot, to who the fuck the other woman was. He’d drawn several theories ranging from the woman being an associate of Nathan’s, to a connection to the Moriyamas. It couldn’t just be some random, unless the pair had kicked up shit between 2004-2010... Which was entirely possible. But that didn’t feel right .

What did feel right, was the fact that Nathaniel would have been 16. That was the oldest sighting they were able to partly confirm as legit, with Nathaniel almost an adult. Something about that was... Andrew didn’t know. What he did know, is that he needed to know what happened with that shooting. Which one got hit?

The drive to Oregon took them down I-5, along the coast of Washington and into Oregon. There were so many trees.

So many places to hide.

It seemed like every hour or so, there was a new sign for some national forest or other.

They stopped when they got to Portland to grab food and stretch their legs. Renee offered to drive, but Andrew refused. His mind was still working, reeling, running a mile a minute and driving helped him not only center his mind, but keep himself calm - on track.

Once they were back in the car, Andrew put on the (oddly accurate and well curated) playlist Seth had made specifically for him. He didn’t know how Seth had done it, but he managed to capture every song Andrew loved, and a few new ones he didn’t know. First on the list was Africa by Toto, and Andrew took it upon himself to reply it five times, before Officer Mike said something.

“Why are we listening to this song on repeat? It’s so overrated. Don’t you have anything else? Maybe some Journey?”

Andrew heard Renee let out a small gasp, before he slammed on the breaks and pulled over to the shoulder of the road. He wasn’t in the mood for Officer-Smart-Fuck right now, so with one hand on Renee’s headrest, he twisted around to look into the backseat.

“Listen, Officer Mike-”

“It’s just Mi-“

LISTEN , Officer Mike. You can listen to the overplayed and hyped-up trash heap that is Journey on your own time, do you understand? I’m driving. I control the music. And if I ever hear you disparage the sacred name of Toto again, I don’t care what information you have, I’m putting you out of this fucking car.”

Officer Mike’s eyes narrowed and Andrew could see the cop in him then. He wanted to argue - to bring Andrew to heel. But, Andrew held his gaze until Officer Mike looked out the window instead. Satisfied, Andrew pulled the car back on the road and continued their NOT journey.

-

As it turned out, Officer Mike’s cousin didn’t live in Brookings. Instead, he lived about 45 minutes north, in a small coastal town called Gold Beach. It was tiny - tiny, tiny . There was absolutely nothing and Andrew didn’t understand. It was nice, sure, in that way small town america was, but -

They arrived at a nice, two story house at around 5PM and were greeted at the door by a man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Mike Thomas. His name was John Thomas and Andrew had to fight hard not to roll his eyes as introductions were made. John waved them inside and told everyone to make themselves comfortable.

The inside was as nice as the outside in that picturesque way one would expect of an oceanside, small town home, and Andrew briefly thought it was nicer than he thought a police officer could afford. He wondered what his wife did as he looked around.

The home backed up to the beach and while it was a house that screamed ‘outdoors’, it wasn’t in the way that Allison’s beach house in the Keys had. The wood floors were dark and shining, and the ceiling was paneled wood as well. The living room had floor to ceiling windows that looked out on greenery and forest, with a peek of the ocean in the background. Dark slate floors covered where hardwood wasn’t, and there was a wood burning fireplace tucked into a corner of the room. There was a healthy bit of disorder that comes with a family and Andrew deduced he must have one or two children.

Nodding to himself, he was about to jump right into things when he heard the unmistakable sound of children shrieking coming around the corner.

“MIKE! MIIIIIKKKE!” Two children, around 4 and 6 years old, came barreling around the corner and slammed into Mike’s legs. He bent down to hug them both and they pulled away to show him something or other in another part of the house.

I miss Bella.

“Sorry about that,” John said. “We haven’t seen Mike in a while, but the kids love him. They’re excited he’s here.”

“It’s fine,” Andrew said. “It’s you we need to talk to anyway.”

John nodded. “Let me go ahead and get you what I have then.”

Sounds of children laughing and Mike making silly voices came from the other room. If Andrew closed his eyes, he could make-believe things weren’t so fucked up - he could remember that there was still happiness, still children that were well loved and content and safe .

Bella.

He inhaled deeply when John came back a few moments later with a stack of files in his hand. “This is everything on the shooting in Brookings,” he looked down at it and then back up to Andrew. “I’m not supposed to have this here. In fact, I’m not supposed to be talking to you or anyone about this. But, I believe Mike when he says something else is at play here, and I believe this is Mary and Nathaniel Wesninski.”

“Do you mind if we record our conversation?” Andrew asked. “This doesn’t have to be aired on the podcast, if you want to remain anonymous. I understand your job could be put in jeopardy.”

John nodded and glanced towards where his kids disappeared with Mike. “Yeah, I’d like to remain anonymous. I want to help since I think it’s a shame that no one looked into it further but,” his eyes trailed to the wall behind Andrew’s head. Andrew glanced over his shoulder to see a hanging photo of a family of four. “But, I’m a widower and I can't afford to lose my job with two kids.”

“Oh...” Renee said, putting a hand to her heart. “I’m so sorry to hear that. It must have been devastating...”

“It was,” John replied, backing up into an armchair and sitting heavily into it. “But, everyone has to move on with life when hard stuff happens. You can stay in one place, never moving, or push on like they’d want you to.” He tore his eyes away from the frame, then smiled at both of them sadly. When he spoke again, his voice was slightly lower. “Stassi died after a two year battle with cancer, not long after Madison, my four year old, was born. She doesn’t even really remember her. But, that’s life. You have to take the good with the bad and I’d marry Stassi a thousand times with the same ending if it meant sharing a life and those two kids with her.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Andrew cleared his throat. “Right. Well. Can you tell us about what you have?”

Nice, Andrew.

“Yeah - yes. I’m sorry, I got sidetracked. Here,” he held out the stack of files and Andrew took them on his way to the couch. He spared Renee a glance as she looked to all the pictures stationed around the living room, before sitting beside him. He placed the files on his lap as he got out his recorder, then hit the button and set it on the table.

[ Recorder On ]

“Like you said, you wish to stay anonymous. So, your voice will be altered drastically and any personal information you give, background noise, will be redacted to keep your anonymity safe.”

John nodded gratefully, the wrinkles lining his eyes deepening as he gave Andrew a small smile.

Andrew ignored it and motioned for him to begin.  

“Right. So, what you’ll find there are the police reports and witness statements from the shooting. Brookings is a small town. I grew up there. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s not so bad.”

“If it’s not so bad,” Andrew asked. “Why did you decide to move and commute 45 minutes to Brookings every day?”

John shrugged. “Once Stassi and I got married, we just wanted something a little more open, a little safer maybe, for the kids. So, we moved here. Gold Coast is smaller than Brookings, but the community is amazing. This house belonged to her grandparents before they passed away, so it was just here waiting for us.”

“Right,” Andrew nodded, “ Then, while I’m looking through this,” Andrew said, for the recorders benefit, “Why don’t you tell me about the shooting? Were you on the scene?”

Andrew set the recorder onto the coffee table next to a barbie doll with hair sticking every-which way and only one shoe on. He did not smile at it, thinking about Bella, before he flipped open the folder.

“I was, but there was nothing to see by the time we pulled up. We chased one of the cars for a while, but lost it in the traffic going north on the 101. The other car was just gone - the one with the woman and the boy.”

“Do you have a description of the car?” Andrew asked, shuffling through the papers.

“Yeah, uh-” John leaned forward to where Andrew was rifling through papers, ” there’s one in there.” He pulled out the folder beneath the one Andrew was currently working on and placed it on top. “Here. It was described as an older model Volvo, around 2000 or so, S70 model. It was navy blue with Oregon tags, but no one was able to get a tag number.”

Andrew looked at the paper John handed to him and the pictures of a comp car that matched the description.

“Walk me through that day.” Andrew’s voice was quiet. He didn’t realize he was nearly whispering until Renee shifted beside him and he cleared his throat. “What call did you get? What did you see when you got there?”

John leaned back in his chair again and crossed his legs. “I received a call that there was a shooting in progress on Chetco Ave, right in the parking lot of Goldilocks Antiques. It was around 7PM, so the store was already closed, thankfully. There was no one else in the parking lot, but Chetco Ave is a pretty busy street, so there was still activity on the road.”

Andrew went quiet while looking through the information. He stopped at a witness statement. “So, this…Shirley Johnson. She was across the street?”

“Yeah, Shirley works over at Forecastle Books. She was leaving and locking up the front when she heard gunshots. Looked out the window and saw two women shooting at each other and a boy crouching in front of the car. Said the boy ran to one of the women and it looked like either he or she were shot. She couldn’t tell which - said they both screamed and basically fell into the car.” John straightened as if he could see the witness statement Andrew was currently skimming over. He continued, “Couldn’t tell who was in the drivers. She called the cops right away and as soon as they heard sirens, both cars bolted. We were only able to follow the black one, the one the lady with the red hair was in. We lost the other right away.”

Of fucking course.

Andrew ground his teeth together in frustration and felt his blood pressure spike. With a deep breath, he cracked his pinky and glanced up at John, “But there was no blood? No way you could tell which was shot?”

John shook his head. “No.” He opened his hands palm up, as if in offering, “But, I followed the case. We’re right on the California border, so we alerted all the surrounding towns in Oregon and California to keep an eye out. Of course, communicating across state lines is always a pain in the ass. But I followed up. A car matching this description was found burned up on a beach in Crescent City, California.”

Burned.

Andrew’s head shot up to look at John.

Burned.

A car burned. Was anyone in the car?

“Burned, how? Like it was in a wreck and caught fire?”

John shook his head. “No, like someone intentionally started a fire in the backseat, where it appeared there was a body.”

Andrew dropped all the folders. The papers fell to the ground with a smack and Renee put a hand to his arm.

Burned.

No. Like someone intentionally started a fire -

Where it appears there was a

Body

Body

Body

Burned

“Whose body?” Andrew may have said that, he didn’t know. There was a buzz in his ears and pounding at his head. His vision seemed to be acting up. His throat hurt. Maybe he was the one that said so hard his chest, his teeth hurt, “Whose. Body.”

John looked up at Andrew with something like concern on his face or maybe not, Andrew didn’t know. “I was just trying to find the report for you. Here -” He handed (or tried to) Andrew (Renee) a piece of paper. “We didn’t have anything to identify it with. The bones were gone - blood and hair burned up. Not even any clothes.  Someone had to have burned the car, then pulled the remains out.” He pointed towards the paper, sliding to sit at the edge of his seat as Renee looked over the paper for Andrew. “But you can see in the report here, the pattern of the burns on the seat indicate there was someone sitting there when the car caught fire.”

Andrew couldn’t breathe. He grabbed the paper from Renee’s hands to see it for himself, but his head was swimming. The beach outside had made its way into his lungs and he was drowning.

At least one of them is dead.

Which one though? Which fucking one was it? What did this even mean? Were they both dead somewhere?!

No.

Andrew stood and Renee followed. “Andrew,” She said quietly. “Andrew, listen to me. One of them is still out there, okay?”

No no no no no

His fingers ached, his ear burned, his head swam and all he wanted was King, King, King .

Andrew stopped, forced himself to, as he turned his head to look at her and somehow got out, “But which one? Who are we even looking for?”

Renee raised her brows. “It doesn’t matter. We keep. Looking.” Andrew just stared at her brown eyes and sweet face. He didn’t know how to make her understand.

“I want to go there. To Crescent City. I want to go to the beach and talk to someone about the car. Change of plans, we’ll drive there tonight-“

“There’s no point,” John interrupted, looking between the two warily. “It’s almost 6PM. Everything administrative will be closed. Wait until morning, and Mike can ride with you into Crescent City. I have to go to work in Brookings, but Crescent City is only a half hour drive from there.”

No. I need to go now.

Andrew shook his head, but it was like Renee saw the argument before it even worked its way out of his mouth. She said quickly, “He’s right, Andrew. We’ve been driving all day. We’re both tired and hungry. Nothing is going to change between today and tomorrow. Let’s go find a hotel and crash, so we can leave first thing in the morning.”

I don’t want to fucking wait .

He wanted to drive to Crescent City immediately and get to work. He wanted to see the beach. He wanted pictures of the burned car. He wanted to scream .

But, when he looked back at Renee, there was exhaustion written between the cracks of concern settled on her face. She was tired - Renee who never complained, not once in the entire time they’d been on this path.

The roaring in his head, his blood, his ears, his veins, didn’t quiet - but something inside him did settle. Eventually, he murmured, “Fine.” Then sighed as he bent to turn the recorder off. “Let’s get some food and crash.”

[ Record Off ]

John stood, shaking his head, “No, no - you two are welcome to eat dinner and stay here. It’s June, there’s no way you’re going to find a hotel room. And even if you do, it’ll be an insane amount.” He motioned around, “We have plenty of room. The kids can stay with me and you two can have their rooms. Mike can take the pullout in my study because he’s family and it doesn’t matter if he’s uncomfortable.” John looked like he was trying to smile, eyes bouncing between the two and gauging whether or not it would be appropriate to do so with Andrew’s... outburst.

It was a tempting offer, only because exhaustion was settling into his own bones, but he attributed that to the adrenaline going away and sucking all of his energy with it. He looked to Renee one last time and just nodded. He didn’t want to drag her around anymore than was necessary. That’s not what friends do.

“Fine,” He agreed. “We’ll leave in the morning. Someone go get Officer Mike and tell him the news.”

-

Mike agreed to accompany them to Crescent City the next day. He had an in with the local PD there (since he’d been following this case so closely) so it worked out perfectly. Or as perfect as this shit storm could get. They made plans over dinner, which turned out to be pot roast with potatoes and carrots, and Andrew was a little less annoyed about not leaving until the next morning.

Somehow, he ended up across the table from John’s two kids. Madison was 4 and Jax, 6. They were both dark haired and dark eyed and they stared at Andrew like he was a fascinating bug.

“Why you got so many earrings?” Madison asked. Jax’s mouth opened in a little O and he looked at his sister, scandalized.

Maddie ,” he whispered. She looked at him with her tiny brow furrowed and Andrew couldn’t help a small smile.

“I have them because I like shiny things,” he told her.

“Like a niffler!” Jax said, pleased with himself.

Andrew laughed, and Renee gave him a little grin. “Yes, exactly like a niffler. I can’t help it.”

Much of the dinner conversation went on like that. ‘Did they hurt?’ ‘How many earrings do you have?’ ‘Do boogers get caught in your nose earring?’

Andrew lay in the twin sized bed that night. The room was painted yellow with Dora stickers on the walls and he stared at them before he closed his eyes. He tried not to see burned out cars and charred corpses, bullet wounds and so much blood - but it was no use. It was all he could see, all he could wonder.

Which one. Which one. Which one.

Eventually, Andrew gave up. He threw the blankets off himself and put his feet on the floor. As he was about to stand, the door opened and a small brown head appeared.

“Sowwy, Mister Andwew. I need to get my Pooh bear,” Madison said and welcoming herself in, she padded over the wooden floors with tiny bare feet, to get a small stuffed Winnie the Pooh from the table by her bed.

Andrew smiled at her and shook his head. “It’s your room.” He then asked, “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

She hugged Pooh to her chest and her toes wiggled against the floorboards, “I had a bad dream. I don’t wanna wake Daddy. He’s tired lots.”

Andrew nodded at her seriously. “Do you want to know a secret?”

Madison gasped, eyes wide and shining in the dim hall light. “Yes!”

“I have nightmares sometimes, too.”

Her tiny brows furrowed and she tilted her head, “Really?” When Andrew nodded, she took a few steps closer and said, “Sometimes, I have nightmares ‘bout monsters. They come and take my mommy away.”

Andrew’s heart broke into a million tiny pieces. The breath left him and his lungs squeezed as he thought back to earlier that day - what John had said. Stassi Thomas probably loved her kids, cared for them, wanted them. Tilda Minyard had not wanted her kids, didn’t give a fuck about them, and she was still allowed to be out in the world - an abusive, drug addicted monster before her accident.

But this woman? She was taken away from her loving family, and that is why Andrew didn’t believe in fate.

Pressing his lips together for a moment, he thought and then asked, “You know what helps me sometimes? Reading a book. When I was little like you, I would sneak a flashlight under my pillow and a book into the bed, and I would stay up all night and read if I was scared.”

She stood up on her toes and rocked back on her heels as she quickly looked to her little bookshelf on the far wall. “I love books!” She then frowned as she looked back towards him. “I don’t read good yet...”

Andrew smiled - it felt easy for children’s sake. He thought of Bella and asked, “Would you like me to read you a book?”

Madison’s eyes grew wide once more and she ran for her shelf without saying another word. With Pooh held in one arm, she pulled out a book with the other and brought it to Andrew.

“These are good monsters.”

His stomach gave a lurch when he looked at the title - ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ . It was his favorite book as a kid. He dragged it from foster home to foster home, until some kid or other ripped it to pieces for reasons Andrew still didn’t really understand.

Madison climbed onto the bed and Andrew stood. He knew better than to be on a bed with a small child in a dark room. Memories threatened to crash against the wall he fortified every single day.

“Let’s go to the living room, okay?” he suggested. “That way, if your daddy wakes up to find you, you’ll be right there.”

Madison nodded and led the way. She sat on the big leather sofa Andrew and Renee had been on earlier and Andrew sat next to her. She curled into the back of the couch with her little knees pressed against his arm as he put the book in his lap and opened to the first page.

‘The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind

and another’

Once upon a time, Andrew used to pretend he was Max - that he was a wild thing once. Always running, running, running to get away from foster parents and foster kids and foster homes. He would ride like the wind on his stolen bike to a filed in a park in Oakland, and roar his terrible roar, and gnash his terrible teeth in the middle of the tall, tall grass as loud as he could. It was like he was calling his monsters to him.

He used to pretend he could dream his way into being King of the Wild Things, just like Max.

His dream died like that book, in a thousand little pieces.

‘Oh please don’t go

we’ll eat you up

we love you so -’

When he was finished reading, Madison was already half asleep.

“Hey, you,” Andrew whispered quietly, nudging her with an elbow. She looked up at him and smiled sleepily. “Go on to bed now, okay? Dream about being a wild thing. That’s what I used to do.”

With a fist rubbing at her eye and the other clutched onto Pooh, she nodded her head and made her way back up to John’s room. Andrew watched her go and hugged the book to his chest - hoping the pressure could keep himself together.

He really, really missed Bella.

-

Wednesday morning, Andrew was up at a ridiculous hour. After Madison went to sleep he didn’t drag himself back to the bed until he physically couldn’t keep him awake any longer. His sleep was light and short and eventually he got sick of trying to get anything deeper and instead, pulled himself from the sheets.

It worked out anyway, because Chicago was two hours ahead of where Andrew was - so he was able to facetime Bella before she left for school.

‘Unkie Andwew! I got a haircut!’

Andrew sat outside on the porch that overlooked the Oregon coast and gave Bella a gasp. “Bells! It looks so good!”

Her hair, once down her back in red curling waves, now brushed just below her shoulders. Katelyn (or Aaron) braided the sections that framed her face and pulled them back so she could see.

Bella giggled and Andrew’s heart sang. He was in such a bad headspace - he knew he was, and he was trying his fucking damnedest to keep it the fuck together. At least until he had more information.

Which one?

‘You need haircut Unkie. You should cut like daddy since you twins.’

“Hmmm, I don’t think so. Your Daddy looks like a mean librarian with his haircut.”

I heard that, ’ Andrew heard Aaron say in the background. ‘ Bella likes my haircut, don’t you baby?’

Bella nodded enthusiastically, looking off screen at Aaron. ‘Daddy looks handsome like Prince Eric.’

Andrew laughed. “I’ll take your word for it Bells.” He heard the glass french door beside him open and Renee stuck her head out. He nodded and looked back at the screen to see Aaron’s hands help Bella put on her pink backpack. “I have to go, but did you like the book I sent? ‘The Book With No Pictures’?”

‘Yes! Daddy and Mommy have to say all the words and IT SO FUNNY!’

‘Yeah, thanks again for that,’ Aaron mumbled.

“Anytime. FUA to the rescue.”

Once Andrew hung up with Bella, he made his way into the kitchen to hunt for coffee. He felt just a little bit lighter, like a pressure had been lifted from his chest. The weight was featherlight, but it was a relief nonetheless. When he entered the kitchen, he found Renee and Officer Mike already there and waiting for him.

“Hey,” Renee said, passing him a cup from a pot they’d already made. “How’d you sleep?”

“Like shit. Is there creamer?” Andrew opened the fridge and dug around until he found some French vanilla. Not mocha caramel, but it would have to do.

John came into the room a few minutes later, clad in pajama bottoms and a plain white shirt, and blinked at them all, as if wondering what they were doing there.

“Hey! Sorry, I’m not used to sleeping with the kids. I was up and down all night. I’ll make some breakfast.” He headed toward the fridge to start pulling out eggs and bacon.

Andrew glanced at Renee, then to John. “No, it’s fine. We need to get going soon.”

“No, we don’t,” Renee followed quickly, and Andrew looked towards her again with as much betrayal as his eyes could fucking muster. “It’s still super early and some breakfast sounds really lovely.”

Traitor.

“Great! Just give me a few and I’ll whip something up. Kids should be up and running around as soon as they smell it cooking.”

They were.

Andrew ate breakfast quietly while making faces across the table at Madison and Jax. Mike and John chatted about family and Renee searched for hotels on Andrew’s phone to try and pin down some place to stay in Crescent City. John offered for them to come back and stay the night again, but Andrew wanted to be there . He wanted to be in Crescent City - to soak in whatever info he possibly could and be able to leave in the middle of the night to search for... whatever . Just in case.

Mike said he would drive down with them to help get in touch with his contact, but after that he had to be back at work. Andrew agreed to buy him a plane ticket out of Crescent City and back to Seattle for Thursday morning. Reynold’s black card could handle it.

They were finally on the road at around 10AM, but not before Andrew left two origami swans on the kitchen table - one with Madison written in purple pen and the other with Jax.

The drive to Crescent City was about an hour from Gold Coast and only a half hour from Brookings, where Nathaniel and Mary would’ve driven from.  

When Andrew saw the sign for California up ahead, Renee looked over at him and he finally realized why she made them stay for breakfast. It was for his sake.

Taking a deep breath, he shook his head shortly and said, “I’m fine.” Because he was. He knew she worried for him on a good day, and now he realized she was probably thinking about all the terrible things he’d had to endure while growing up in this shit state. This was the first time he’d come back since leaving - and he was relieved to find that he didn’t want to raze the entire fucking state to the ground.

After Drake’s trial, after Andrew had put forth a statement detailing the abuse at Drake’s hand, and after Drake was put away for fifteen years, Andrew received a letter in the mail from Cass. He had no idea how she had gotten his address at school. He did however, remember holding the letter and staring at her handwriting. He remembered it , of course he fucking did. She would write him notes and leave them in his lunchbox for him to find at school. He looked at the loopy A and the curly 2 ... and felt nothing. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t sad, he wasn’t triggered.

He was nothing.

And because he was nothing, he threw that letter into the trash without reading it. That didn’t mean, of course, that what happened with Cass and Drake had no effect on him - it did plenty of fucked up things to his psyche and would for the rest of his life. But it meant that he was dealing with it in the best, healthiest way he could. And in a way, giving his testimony to save however many other kids from going through the same thing he did, was enough to give him some sort of closure .

That was probably what made it possible for him to set foot in California.

That and

And.

They pulled up to the Crescent City Police Department and Officer Mike led the way into the building. While in the car, he called his contact and she agreed to meet with them on her lunch break. Renee and Andrew sat in cheap, uncomfortable chairs, while Officer Mike asked the woman at the front desk to let his contact know they were there.

A few minutes later, a woman with dark hair and caramel skin appeared from the back. She greeted Mike with a friendly handshake, before he introduced them.

Andrew nodded as non-assholeish as he could manage. He was teetering, here. His mind was doing an okay job of compartmentalizing. His talk with Bella had helped this morning and if he was being honest, reading to Madison the night before helped put things into clearer focus - in a way? At least he wasn't reeling like he’d been the day before. The buzzing was kept at bay, his rushing pulse was calm and smooth and -

This one fact will not derail this entire investigation Andrew.  

But which one was it?

He needed more details. Which, is why he needed this Detective Christina Alfonso. She greeted them pleasantly enough, then motioned for them to follow.

“We’ll go down the street to a diner. The food is shit but they have a great chocolate milkshake,” she said, as she led them to what was obviously an unmarked police car. Andrew hesitated for half a beat before Renee placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a little push. He inserted himself into the passenger seat before Officer Mike could.

The diner was called Sally’s and it really was right down the road. It was a hole in the wall with worn leather sweets and a checkered tile floor. It reminded him of Sweeties .

Once they were seated and Andrew ordered a chocolate milkshake as his meal, they got down to business.

“I know Michael’s theory on the car,” Detective Alfonso said. “But let me just start this by saying, I cannot confirm any of those details. I can tell you what we found and show you the public police report - that’s it. I don’t know anything about the Wesninskis or what happened in Brookings, besides what I have been told from law enforcement up there and from Michael.”

Andrew nodded. “Fine. I just need to get your take on what happened in your own words. Is it okay if we record?”

“Sure, but I would prefer not to use my name or position in the department,” she looked at Andrew calmly and raised a French fry to her mouth, taking a bite while still watching him.

Andrew liked her. Even though she was a cop.

He pulled out his recorder and set it in the middle of the table.

[ Record On ]

“Regarding the car that was found on the beach in Crescent City. Were you on the scene?” Andrew began.

“I was called to the scene, yes. I prefer not to say in what capacity,” she munched another French fry.

“Can you tell us what you saw, when you got there?”

Detective Alfonso wiped her hands on a napkin and sat a little straighter.

“When I got there, the shell of the car was immediately apparent, as was the fact that it had been on fire at some point.” She gestured with one hand absentmindedly.

Right.

“If the car was on fire, how was it that no one noticed? It says here in the report,” Andrew motioned toward the piece of paper he had been skimming while the Detective was talking, “that the car was not discovered until the next morning when the fire had already died out.”

Detective Alfonso nodded. “It was on a remote part of the beach,” she started. “We put feelers out and received a few witnesses who said they saw what they thought was flames, but assumed it was a bonfire. The gas tank didn’t rupture - the fire didn’t even reach it, so there wasn’t an explosion large enough to alert the public.”

Andrew narrowed his eyes, but nodded. “Were you able to look closely at the vehicle? Could you describe it?”

The detective looked to be thinking back. She took a second or two before saying, “We could tell it was a Volvo S70.” She tapped the paper in front of him. “According to forensics at the scene, the fire had been set inside the car, so the outside wasn’t completely destroyed. However, looking at the inside, the car was a husk.” She sat back in the booth. “Whoever set the fire, soaked the backseat and then must’ve splashed gasoline wherever it could reach inside the car. Presumably, they then ran out before they could completely douse it.”

“And how did you come to that conclusion?” Andrew asked, taking a sip of milkshake.

She looked between them, then seemed to say fuck it , inside her head. “Well,” she gestured again at nothing, “We found a gas can a few feet away - like someone tossed it. It was empty and the fingerprints we found, weren’t in any system. The only thing we were able to really determine was that the fire had been started by gasoline. Which wasn’t rocket science.”

Andrew dried his fingers off from condensation from the glass, then rifled through the papers a bit more, but didn’t find the forensics report. Raising his eyes towards the detective from beneath his glasses, he said, “I don’t see the report in here. Yet, I was told there was evidence of a body found in the back seat?”

Detective Alfonso stared at Andrew for a moment before reluctantly nodding.

“So, there was evidence of a body?”

“Yes-”

Buzz

“- It’s not in the public report, but forensics said that the pattern of the fire in the back seat and some fragments found in the car, point to evidence of a body.”

Andrew looked back down at the papers so he wouldn’t have to look in her face. He chewed on his lip ring and closed his eyes for a brief second to breathe in deep through his nose.

Keep it together.

“What kind of fragments?” he finally asked.

“Bone fragments. They were very small - but unmistakably bone.”

Andrew sat up a little straighter, opened his eyes, and lifted his head. “If you found bone, could you not tell if it was male or female? Extract DNA from it?”

Detective Alfonso was already shaking her head before he could even finish the sentence. “It was too badly degraded. When bone is severely burned like that, it’s almost impossible to get a clean, reliable DNA sample from it. So, no, we couldn’t tell if it was male or female.”

Andrew could feel Renee scoot closer to him in the booth. He took another sip of his milkshake to try and calm himself, but it tasted like dirt and he had to force himself to swallow.

A few seconds of silence stretched between them as Bee buzzed and he cracked his pinky.

“What else can you tell us?” he finally asked quietly.

Just finish this. Just finish the fucking interview.

He could feel the detective burning holes into where she was staring at him. He tried to seem unaffected. It seemed to work enough , for she replied, “Nothing, really. It was a Navy blue Volvo S70 with Oregon plates. I can’t confirm it was the same car that was in Brookings. I’m sorry I can’t help any more than that.”

Which one. Which one. Which one.

“No, it’s alright. We really appreciate all of your help,” Renee was saying, might have said? Everything sounded strangely muffled again. He watched the condensation drip down his glass, making a slow descent as Renee continued. “Would it be possible, do you think, for you to show us around the area where the car was found?”

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Like a cold bucket of water had been splashed upon him, Andrew lifted his eyes and felt untethered, very suddenly. He’d forgotten - he’d completely forgotten he even wanted to see the fucking scene.

“Not today, unfortunately,” Detective Alfonso said, checking her watch. “I have meetings all day. Will you be here tomorrow though? If you come by at the same time tomorrow, I should be able to show you. Fair warning, there’s nothing there but beach now. It was nine years ago that the car was found, the evidence has been pretty thoroughly picked through.”

That’s not enough.

He could hear the smile in Renee’s voice as she lay on a pleasant tone. “We know, we don’t expect to find anything new.” As she shook her head, her rainbow-tipped hair flew in his periphery. “We just want to see the place. We’d really appreciate it-” she said again and Andrew was so, unbelievably, glad for her. He was thankful, so fucking thankful to have someone next to him who understood that he wouldn’t be able to get words out right now. No pleasant ones at least.

[ Record Off ]

They (Renee, Officer Mike, and the Detective) shook on it and left the diner. Andrew smoked through three cigarettes before he allowed himself, Renee and Officer Mike into the car. They then drove to the hotel Renee had found and Andrew went to his room and didn’t plan on coming out until morning.

That night, or evening really, he was three hours behind South Carolina and his internal clock was fucked from the night before, Renee asked if he wanted to get something to eat, but he told her he wasn’t hungry - nor did he want to explore the city. To be honest, he didn’t want to do anything. His mind was fucked in so many ways and he needed this time to attempt to screw his head on straight - especially before tomorrow.

Which one?

It was nagging at him, burrowing itself inside his psyche and fucking with every little thought that brushed past his mind.

At least he was strong enough to decide that he wasn’t fucking leaving here without answers. He didn’t want to leave without knowing . The knowing would help him, he told himself. The knowing would help him sift through tips and move on . It would help him sift through any tips they’d received after 2010 - right? Help him figure out which were false leads depending on who said what about who they saw. So... he’d stay here. For now.

At some point, Andrew found himself on his laptop, surfing the internet for articles on bone deterioration and car fires. He hopped over to the webpage where there were suddenly a slew of asks regarding this Ashleigh Miller . Andrew furrowed his brows and checked his email.

Ah.

There was something there. They’d gotten it on Monday and he hadn’t had the time to look at it yet. It was already buried beneath the hundreds of emails he’d received since then and took a moment to measure his own mental stability tonight. Determining it wasn’t the best idea, he didn’t open it - he couldn’t. Because tomorrow something big rested on the horizon. Something that could make or break -

He didn’t want to get excited about a lead that might not be anything at all. He didn’t want to let himself hope or whatever the fuck anything in that email might have. Possibilities were just that - possibilities. And he couldn’t let possibilities take over when a reality was going to hit hard tomorrow. It just depended on what kind .

Instead, he looked back to the website and suddenly felt a surge of annoyance so strong, he was answering asks before he could stop himself.

Did people really think he’d ignore a legit tip? Did they think he’d be so flippant about this whole thing that he didn’t look at every fucking email they received, to try and weed out the bullshit? Did they think this was just so fucking easy?

Yes, apparently. They did.

Eventually, he’d had enough. On a post that was circulating around and read a bunch of words he couldn’t really comprehend in his anger, he explained himself as well as he could, then turned his phone onto the moon. It was 7PM California time. Andrew had’t eaten, he hadn’t slept, and he couldn’t find one fuck to give.

He didn’t sleep that night either.

Which one?

-

Andrew watched Thursday morning rise from the horizon. He watched the grays in the room turn to pinks, blues, and eventually sunshine. His hand brushed against the duvet and felt the hollow absence of King ring loudly in the spaces between his ribs.

He was still dressed in the clothes from the day before, sans boots, and he sat in the middle of the bed with his knees pulled to his chest and one arm wrapped around them. He stared at the room, stared at the closet - empty.

Empty, empty, empty.

Like that car and like that beach and like his chest right now.

Eventually, he sighed, took his glasses off, and rubbed his face on his knees before picking up his phone and taking it off do not disturb . Notifications started filing in and he immediately realized that was a mistake.

With whatever energy reserves he managed to have left, he made a last ditch attempt to get people off his fucking case, then decided he was done communicating with people for now, and tossed his phone to the side again.

He dragged himself out of bed and into the shower in hopes that if it was hot enough, he would feel it burn .

-

[ Record On ]

Later that afternoon, Andrew found himself on the California coast. They were at a string of connected coves, collectively called Pebble Beach. Andrew stood at the edge of the water, taking in the salt mist that stuck to his face and the clouds stretching over the gloomy sky. He looked down and lamented his black boots for just a moment.

They were going to be hell to get clean later.

He watched the water touch the edge of his toes and willed his mind to stay perfectly stagnant - perfectly in place. Motion stopped, churning stopped, the spiraling stopped.

“Andrew!” Renee called, from a little further down. “Come on, we’re going to the scene.”

With one last look out at the waves, Andrew obediently moved his feet in her direction.

Detective Alfonso was dressed in a dark, lightweight coat that flapped around her knees as she walked and the ocean breeze brushed by. Her hair was pulled up into a tight bun, but whisps still whipped around her face as she turned to face them while she walked backward.

Motioning, she said loudly so she could be heard over the waves, “Here’s where the car was found.”

Andrew looked around. It was a small bend where great flat rocks jutted up from the water. Andrew wondered for a moment, why whichever one of them was driving, didn’t just send them straight into the ocean and let themselves slowly drown with their dead family member in the seat behind them.

He probably would’ve.

Ignoring his train of thought, he asked, “Which way was the car facing?”

“This way.” Detective Alfonso motioned with her hand to indicate the front was pointed towards the water. “They were in a hurry, we think. Drove through a parking lot that had a wood fence around.” She turned and pointed towards a chicken wire fence and a parking lot behind it. “Crashed right through and ended up stopping here.” They must’ve changed it after the crash.

Andrew raised a brow. “And no one heard that? Or saw it?”

Detective Alfonso sighed. “The thing you have to understand about Crescent City, is that with all the water and sometimes tsunamis, people go missing.” She spoke louder as a wave crashed one of the jutting rocks. “It’s an easy place to hide or dump a body. Shady things happen at the beach. It’s completely possible someone saw something and didn’t want to get involved.”

Andrew chewed his lip ring and looked out to the water - at the remnants of the waves cascading down the dark rock face. “There were no footprints?” he asked, directing his attention back towards her. “No sign of another person leaving the scene?”

The Detective shook her head. “The wind blows the sand around at night. By the time we got here, there was nothing.”

Andrew just nodded. Renee stepped next to him then so that their shoulders were touching, and Andrew was grateful for the warmth.

“Well, thank you Detective, for showing us out here. I know you must be busy,” Renee smiled, or she might have - Andrew didn’t really know. She probably did, it was Renee after all.

The detective nodded and looked at Andrew for a long moment. “There’s… something else I can offer.” She said after obvious deliberation.

Andrew’s eyes snapped to hers.

Her back straightened and she shoved her hands into her pockets. “I have a friend… a colleague. She’s a forensic scientist that specializes in crime scene investigation and I’ve called her in to help out on a few cases for us, when our own team is stuck - or, when I feel like we need a second opinion.” She paused and removed one of her hands to push a lock of wet hair behind her ear. With that hand, she gestured towards them in offering. “There was an incident about three years ago...” Her lips pressed into a thin line and she looked away, shaking her head. “I can’t get into the specifics with you, but she isn’t technically employed by the department. She’s a free agent. So, she may be willing to talk.”

“Yes. Yes, we’d like to talk to her,” Andrew said immediately. Anything. Grasping, grabbing, reaching. Anything to hold on.

The detective nodded. “Okay. I’ll get in touch with her and see if she’s amenable. Is it okay to give her your contact information if she agrees?”

Andrew agreed and gave Detective Alfonso his cell, his email, Renee’s email, and the number of the hotel they were staying at. She raised a brow at him, but he didn’t care. This was a phone call he didn’t want to miss.

[ Record Off ]

-

An hour later, he and Renee were back at the same diner they had eaten at the day before. Andrew had a plate with a burger and fries in front of him, but couldn’t find it in himself to take a bite just yet.

“You need to eat,” Renee chided gently. “You haven’t eaten a proper meal since yesterday morning. You’re going to pass out and then you’re no good to anyone.”

Andrew shrugged and took a bite of a french fry. “Just not really hungry I guess.”

She sighed, “You’re brooding.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

Andrew rolled his eyes and dropped the rest of the fry onto his plate. “I’m just… trying really hard here, Renee. I’m trying not to spiral.” He stared at the sad fry soaking in the blood from his medium-rare burger. “One of them is dead,” he heard himself whisper. “One of them is already dead and I was too late to stop it from happening.”

Which one?

“You can’t seriously be blaming yourself for this.”

“I can and I will and no one can stop me. It’s my super power. Ridiculously taking on unnecessary guilt until I am crushed beneath it.” He threw a fry at her, which she dodged neatly.

“You’re right. I can’t stop you. But even if one of them is dead, the other one is still out there. Alone, now.”

Andrew closed his eyes and imagined a 16-year-old Nathaniel, burning the car with his mother’s body in it and then walking off that beach alone - walking into the world alone... Trying to survive.

Then, he imagined Nathaniel as a corpse, burned beyond recognition and hidden away somewhere by his mother.

Stop. Stop. Stop.

It was too much. This was why Andrew’s mind was trying its damnedest to shut itself down. Because if he let himself really think about it, really get worked up, he was going to fucking lose it altogether.

And if that happened...?

He was going to have to step away from this case or risk years of work, meticulously crafted by Bee’s gentle hands. He was going to slowly unravel from the inside out and -

And.

He shook his head. “We’ll wait to hear from this forensics lady. Then, we’ll see what else we have to go on. I can’t think ahead of this, right now.”

Renee nodded and paid the bill.

-

Andrew got a call from a doctor named Alisha Jefferson, Thursday night. She told him she’d be willing to meet with them Friday afternoon, and they agreed to meet in Idlewild, CA. Apparently, she was a teacher at Southern Oregon University, and she was in Idlewild working a case for the local PD.

Idlewild was about 45 minutes northeast of Crescent City, and Andrew and Renee made the drive in silence.

He’d managed a few hours of sleep last night - willing forcing himself to shut down because he knew that if he didn’t, whatever this doctor had to tell him, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it together during this interview if he didn’t.

They arrived at the agreed meeting location. Another small coffee shop that looked like the only thing that existed in this (fucking millionth) small town. Alisha was already there, Andrew knew her from the picture he’d seen on the SOU website.

Alisha had deep dark skin, the kind that stood out in this sort of very white environment. Her hair was shaved close to her head and she had a small gap in between her front teeth, which showed when she smiled at them with red lips.

Although Andrew was a perfectly self-respecting gay man who was, in fact, very gay, he could recognize the appeal.

“Mr. Minyard?” she asked, standing and holding out a hand which Andrew looked at, debated, took a deep breath, and very briefly shook when Renee shot him look .

Behave. You need this.

Andrew swallowed the lump that’s been lodged in his throat all morning and gestured towards Renee. “This is Renee Walker, my colleague.” Renee smiled and held out a hand. “Nice to meet you.”

They all sat after ordering coffee, and Andrew gave himself a mental pat on the back that he didn’t pounce on this woman immediately for answers upon entering the shop.

Growth, Andrew.

“Do you mind if we record?” he asked her. “If we use your name and credentials?”

“Not at all,” she replied, shaking her head and setting down her cappuccino. “I’m a free agent, so it’s not like there’s really anyone to fire me for talking.” She smiled.

Andrew nodded, grateful for at least one person on this trip willing to go on record. He pulled his recorder out and set it up.

[ Record On ]

“Right. So. Can you state your name for us, how to spell it, and your credentials?”

“Doctor Alisha Jefferson,” She spelled her full name, “forensic scientist specializing in crime scene investigations and current professor at Southern Oregon University.”

Andrew got right to it.

“Our contact at the Crescent City PD told us that you may have more information regarding the burned car?”

Doctor Jefferson nodded. “I told them this when I found it, but no one really took it seriously.” She clasped her hands on the table. Her nails were painted red, too. “A lot of bodies wash up in Crescent City. I think the local law enforcement is a bit immune to it at this point.”

Buzz

“What did you find?” Andrew urged.

“About three years ago, your contact called me in to look at some evidence that had washed up on the beach. When I got to Crescent City and into the lab, it turned out to be a backpack.”

“A backpack?”

“Yes.” She nodded down, but her eyes remained locked on the two of them. “Full of bones that had been very badly burned and as a result, broken from the fire and saltwater.”

Andrew’s stomach dropped.

Buzz, buzz -

No, no, no

“Bones? You said bodies wash up on that beach all the time. Why would this have anything to do with the burned out car?”

Alisha wet her full lips and took a deep breath. She shook her head and replied, “I know it seems like a stretch, which is why I don’t think people really took me seriously. But, I looked into the case of the car when it happened. At that time, I was still working on my PhD and did a short stint in the forensics lab there. That,” she motioned to herself and no one, “is how your contact and I know each other.” She paused and her demeanor shifted. Like a wall coming down, her shoulders slightly hunched and her brow furrowed. “It just seems quite the coincidence, that a car that was determined to have a body in it at the time it was burned, should show up in Crescent City. No bones ever found. No evidence of where the body went. Then, years later, a backpack washed up on the beach with badly burned bones in it. I tend to trust my gut and my gut tells me these are connected.”

Bee was buzzing, blood was rushing - Andrew tried to breathe steadily.

Eventually, he managed to get out, “Then, the question is, could you tell if those bones were male or female?”

“No.”

He stopped breathing altogether.

‘No.’

No. no no no no no.

Andrew dropped his head and leaned back in his seat. He was about to push away from the table, before Doctor Jefferson continued speaking.

As she riffled through her messenger bag, she said, “There was, however, more in the backpack. I don’t know if it would help you or not.”

“Please,” Renee quickly said. “We’ll take any bit of info you have.”

Doctor Jefferson nodded and finally pulled out a yellow folder. She flipped it open on the table, then turned it around so they could see. It was filled with pictures of the contents of the backpack.

“These are my own pictures. The CCPD would have copies, of course. But,” her voice lowered, “I imagine they would be difficult to get.”

Focus. Look at them. It might not -

Andrew and Renee scooted closer, heads together. Andrew looked and he wanted to laugh. Or scream. He wasn’t sure which just yet.

Because, yes.

This was them.

Passports... There was a whole stack of passports that had been burned like everything else. Nothing useful seemed to remain - the insides destroyed along with the pictures. Andrew lifted a photograph and there seemed to be a corner of a date left on one, but that didn’t really do anything to help him. The picture after that were ID’s, melted, warped, and twisted.

The next picture.

The next picture had Renee gripping Andrew’s arm and he picked the paper up for no other reason than to hide his face.

It was an exy magazine. Burned all around the edges, and the only thing clearly visible, was Kevin Day’s face - number 2 standing out stark and clean.

It was him.

No it wasn’t.

No no no no no no no no no-

Buzz-

He was broken out of his reverie when Doctor Jefferson said, “You can take those, if you want. They’re just copies and lord knows I’ve looked at them enough times.”

Andrew might have nodded and put all the pictures back together in a stack, then into the folder - which he might have slipped into his bag.

Then, he stood abruptly and felt his feet quickly heading out of the coffee shop and leaving Renee to handle the pleasantries and end the recording.

The sky was overcast and the air was so damp, he was finding it hard to breathe. He couldn’t breathe in the first place.

Andrew found his way to the car, but he didn’t get in. Instead, he leaned against the passenger side and tried several times to light a cigarette.When one wouldn’t work, he pulled out another, and when that wouldn’t either - he tossed both it and his lighter across the parking lot, before wrenching open the door and sliding himself in. He slammed the door shut, then leaned forward as far as he could, folding himself in half and crossing his arms over his head.

He felt like he was choking, like something in his throat was expanding and suffocating him.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Bee burned and he pressed his fingers into her so hard, he could feel his pulse fight past the pressure and echo loudly in his ears. His other fingers gathered tightly in his hair and he pulled harder and harder and harder and harder and harder -

The drivers door opened and shut however long later. And he finally came up for air, gasping.

“It’s him,” he wheezed, feeling his eyes burn and blur and sting and - “It’s Nathaniel. He’s dead. He’s the one. He’s dead Renee. I was too late. I was too fucking late he’s been dead this entire time-”

Andrew felt insane. He felt unhinged. He felt dangerously close to tears and he didn’t even care.

“Hey,” Renee said, trying to grab Andrew’s flailing hands. “ HEY !”

Andrew paused and Renee caught him, forced him to look at her.

“Stop it. Right now. Stop this and breathe. Think . This is not the end. You don’t know it’s Nathaniel, and even if it is, Mary is still out there. She could still be in need of help, she could still be waiting for someone to tell their story. For you to tell their story.”

Andrew shook his head. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t fucking understand .

“Let’s go back to the hotel and regroup, alright? Andrew-” When he didn’t nod, she leaned in close over the gearshift. “This isn’t the end. We have a ton of emails we need to sort through, and that one girl is annoyingly adamant. Okay?”

Andrew stopped.

Stopped moving, that is. He froze and put his hands over his face, fingers beneath his glasses and pressed . There was moisture beneath the pads, but he ignored it as he forced himself to take a few deep breaths - as he tried to remember what Bee had taught him when he was an angry 16-year-old who didn’t understand why the world was actively working against him.

Breathe in. Slowly, now. Not too fast, Andrew. Good. Now hold it to the count of three. Perfect, you’re doing so well. Now let it out Andrew. Let the air out and let it take those thoughts with it.

Andrew sat back in his seat sometime later and put his seat belt on. Renee took that as assent and began the drive back to the hotel.

-

That night, Renee was in his hotel room. She hardly ever bothered when they traveled, knowing that Andrew preferred his own space, but she was trying to coax him to eat something with chocolate while he robotically filed through emails. Like a laser focus, his eyes glued to the screen.

I need something.

Anything to hold onto.  

Andrew’s phone rang, loud and piercing in the near-silent the room, and he answered it without looking to see who it was. Dan’s voice came over the line.

‘Have you seen the post on the blog from this Ashleigh girl?’ she asked.

“I skimmed it,” his voice sounded dead to his ears.

‘It sounds pretty legit. Are you going to try and follow up?’

Closing his eyes, he prayed to whatever false god to give him strength. With a deep breath that had become easier as the night wore on, he replied, “I’m going through emails right now. Everything sounds like bullshit. I’ll let you know when I get to hers and what we find.”

‘Okay. You okay out there? You seem pretty stressed on the webpage.’

Be nice.

“No. I’m not okay out here. I’m trying to find the most legit tip I can and get the fuck out, so I can figure out what the fuck is going on. I’ll fill you in when we get home tomorrow.” Andrew scrolled down in his email until he found the one from Ashleigh Miller.

‘Right... Okay, then. Sounds good. Take care of yourselves.’

Andrew hung up the phone before she finished speaking, and opened up the email.

He read it twice.

Oh.

“Renee,” he said. “Come read this.”

Okay. Okay okay okay okayokayokayokay -

Renee appeared over his shoulder and read. Eventually, she whispered, “What do you think?”

He shook his head, cracked both his pinkies and pressed his shoulder behind his ear. “I think it’s the best lead we have in a giant pile of bullshit. We’ll follow up and see where it goes. Once we get home tomorrow we’ll contact her and plan.”

Andrew was about to close the page when Renee stopped him with a finger pointed at the bottom of the screen. “Wait,” she said. “There’s an attachment.”

Andrew’s heart sped up as he opened it and then, it froze completely in his chest.

Fuck.

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Fuck

He leaned forward and squinted his eyes.

It wasn’t a very good picture - obviously, he didn’t know it was being taken, but Andrew couldn’t deny the similarities. Skin a deep tan and freckles on his face, slight build, short looking.

“Is...is it him?” Renee asked.

Yes.

No.

“I don’t know.” He couldn’t tear his eyes away. “But change of plans. We’re going to Arizona tomorrow. Get in touch with this girl and tell her we’re coming.”

I have to know. Are you Nathaniel?

Renee nodded and typed the contact info into her phone, before retreating to her room to solidify the change of plans.

Which one?

-

That night, Andrew lay on the bed on top of the blankets and stared at the picture zoomed in on his laptop.

Is this you?

He touched a finger to the face on the screen and let himself hope .

His phone buzzed, and when he picked it up, there was a text message from a blocked number.

‘let California die with her. Don’t put it on the air.’

Chapter Text

‘My name is Nathaniel Wesninski. And my father is dead.’

Matt and Neil sat on the sofa, side by side and staring down into their mugs. The air smelled like coffee and the cleaner that was soaking into the stain Neil had spilled on the carpet. The TV was off. The only thing Neil could hear was the ticking of an offset clock Matt had shining on his mantle, the sound of his deep breathing, and the slowing beat of blood in his ears.

After Neil had finally revealed the truth to Matt and then proceeded to bury his face in Matt’s shirt for the better part of an hour, Matt managed to coax him into the living room to sink into the deep cushions of the couch. He disappeared only long enough to make a fresh pot of coffee and came back to shove a cup into Neil’s cold, numb hands, and sit beside him.

They’d been quite for a while now. Neil didn’t know how long. It was very late and the night doused the white apartment in hues of blues and purples. It painted everything over, gave the place a new, softer life, and Neil was thankful - because ringing loudly across its crisp walls was the truth.

His truth.

Stupid. You’re so fucking stupid, Nathaniel.

“So,” Matt finally said. “You’re really…I mean…you’re him, then?”

What was he supposed to say...?

No? I’m lying. Psyche! Jokes on you!

“Yes,” he heard himself whisper. It was so soft, not even his coffee rippled from his breath.

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

Matt took a deep breath and let it out in a puff of air so loud, it felt like it could’ve shook the room. “Okay.”

Okay?

Neil looked up at him for the first time. The blues and purples colored his dark skin in a way it could never color his own. The cool tones didn’t leech the life from him, no, they gave him life - made his perpetually warm brown eyes look only warmer. Neil shook his head, “Okay?”

Matt nodded, ever oblivious, ever kind, ever so fucking stupid , “Okay.” He turned so he was facing Neil on the couch and pulled his long legs up so they were crossed in front of him. With only a beat of silence between, he let his shoulders hunch as he looked to Neil as if he were the stupid one.

You are .

“I knew there was something , Neil. I know you think I trust too easily, but I’m not an idiot. I knew there was something and I knew it had to do with the podcast. I just didn’t think… this .”

Ah...

Neil felt his lips pressed together. He looked back down into his coffee. It was too dark to see his own reflection. “ This.. .” he sighed and closed his eyes, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m just used to hiding - used to kind of playing a part.” When he looked up, Matt was staring at him in that open, honest way he was so good at. It’s why Neil kept talking. Stupidly . I’ve done it for as long as I can remember. My mom and I…we just kept moving and kept changing roles.” The coffee was turning cold. He soaked up all the warmth he could from it, and all that was left behind was a cool, smooth mug.

Neil closed his eyes and tried not to think about what his mother’s reaction would be to him coming clean like this.

What are you bloody thinking Abram?! Do you want to get us killed? Do you want to -

No.

She would beat the shit out of him and then forcibly drag him away. He wouldn’t ever be able to talk to another person on the outside again.

“Your mom. Is she…?” Matt asked hesitantly, lowering his voice a few octaves.

“Dead,” Neil’s voice sounded the same. Dead. “She’s dead,” he tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling. “One of my father’s people killed her in California when I was sixteen. I went to Arizona after that and stayed too long. I left when I heard the podcast and got stuck here when I sent most of my money to a contact for a new ID to get out of the country. He was picked up by the feds before I could get to him.”

“Ah,” Matt said, swirling in the contents of his cup. Neil realized then that neither of them had taken a sip. “Your appointment?”

Neil nodded, then steeled himself for something that should’ve been done a long time ago. With a deep breath, he leaned forward and put his mug on the table. Rubbing his hands on his legs, he shook his head and stared at his knees, “I’ll be gone by morning...” When he lifted his head, Matt’s brows were tightly furrowed and his chin pulled back.

It’s the right thing to do.

Neil barreled on, “I didn’t mean to drag you into this. But, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything. For letting me stay and getting me a job. I was safer here than I would’ve been anywhere else.”

I don’t want to go.

You have to, Nathaniel.

“Gone?” Matt shook his head, “No, no, no, no, no. Back up.” He set down his own mug and held up a hand. “You’re not leaving. Are you crazy?” Yes . “Listen, your father is dead. You can stop running now, right? Isn’t that who you’ve been hiding from this whole time?” Matt’s eyes were hard, daring Neil to disagree.

But Neil had to, didn’t he?

Yes. You have to leave. If you don’t you only put him in Danger.

He shook his head.

“It was him,” Neil admitted. But, “But it was also his men. They were still tracking us when Nathan went to prison, and I don’t see why they would’ve stopped. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re going to ramp it up now.” Lola. “There’s a woman…she’s insane.” Neil debated for half a second whether or not he should explain, but the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Stupid . “When my father was finally convicted and sentenced, she came after us. They’d all left us alone for the most part in the years between... But when Nathan got life - she came after us.” When he closed his eyes, he could see her face... Red hair, red lips, red red red -

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Matt didn’t interrupt him. He remained quiet until Neil continued, “She’s the one who killed my mom and…Matt if anything happened to you because of me, I’d never be able to forgive myself.”

The silence was deafening. Truth rang loud before, but it was muted by Neil’s desperation to leave to stay.

He watched as Matt rubbed his face with both hands before dropping them back in his lap. Matt’s voice remained low, but there was a sureness about it that made Neil feel - he didn't know. “You said you’re safe here? Safer than you would’ve been anywhere else?”

That’s not the point, you idiot.

Rolling his neck, Neil replied nonetheless, “Yeah,” nodding. “I mean the security here alone is a runaway's dream. But I don’t trust it now. Not with Nathan dead and his biggest players still out there.” He frowned, “I’m not staying here, Matt. I’ll keep in touch. Let you know I’m okay. But I’m leaving.”

Matt slapped his hands onto his knees and shook his head, standing up. He paced from one end of the couch to the other. “No. No, I think you should stay here.” He pointed down at the floor and looked to Neil as he paced. “You’re right, you’re safe here where the security is good - fanfuckingtastic even,” he nodded, eyes growing a bit wide. “I’ll hire people - some guards or some shit. They can hang out outside the apartment to keep an extra eye.” He continued, bare feet and their muffled thuds as he trekked across the carpet. He lifted his thumb to his lips and chewed on the side, brows furrowed. “Maybe I should get a gun-”

Matt-”

Matt waved a hand at him. “No! Listen! I know it’s hard to get a permit in the city, but I could get a premise license, so we could just have one here in the apartment - just in case. If you add that,” he gestured side to side with both hands, “and extra security posted outside-”

“We’d be drawing even more attention to ourselves!” Neil raised his voice just a bit. Was he actually serious?! Closing his eyes, he held up his own hands as if to calm this big idiot down. “Just... listen to me.” When he opened his eyes, Matt was squinting towards the front door as if imagining it. “ Matthew.” He didn’t continue until Matt tore his eyes away and finally focused on him. “Listen. You don’t know what I’m dealing with here. The kind of people that would gladly take me apart if they could, just to avenge my insane father. Honestly, I appreciate you being so concerned, I really do. But this is the only thing that makes sense.” Neil hated not staying. He hated the thought of leaving and never seeing Matt again. He hated that he had just outed himself and then basically let Matt hold him through his panic and anxiety and now was ready to bolt.

He hated how undeserving of all of this Matt was.

He hated how Matt sat on the couch again, crossed his arms over his broad chest and said very plainly, “No.”

No?

“No?”

“No. Simple as that. No. You’re staying here, and I don’t want to hear any arguments about it, okay? Let a motherfucker come to this door looking for you. I wish they would,” Matt had a gleam in his eye that promised violence.

I trust you.

Trust no one, Nathaniel. Never. Especially not this bumbling oaf.

Neil wanted to laugh, he wanted to cry. How the hell had his life turned into this...?

Sweet Matt. Kind, trusting Matt. Literally willing to get a gun and kill someone for trying to get to Neil.

Neil opened his mouth to argue, but Matt cut him off. “I’ll follow you. I swear Neil. You disappear and I’ll follow you wherever you go next. Stay here. Please. Let me keep an eye on you. I’ll be worried every fucking day that your father’s people or hell, even Minyard will find you. Don’t do that to me, man.”

What the fuck was he supposed to say to that? What was he supposed to do with this ? Someone caring, someone willing to hold onto him - to protect him. His mother was willing, of course. She died trying to protect them both... But sometimes, he wondered if that was the only reason she did it. Because she was his mother... He didn’t know if she sincerely loved him and cared for him because he was worthy of being loved, or because she was his mother - because that title was the only thing driving her to keep moving, keep going, keep them safe.

Matt didn’t have any of that. He had no hand in this. He could easily let Neil leave right now and wipe his hands clean of the whole situation.

But he didn’t and deep down, Neil knew he wouldn’t. Because Matt was stupid, he was a dumb idiot that loved too hard and cared too much and - is this what a real, loving friendship was? Is this what people do for each other? Is this what selflessness really is...?

No, Nathaniel.

Yes .

“Fine,” Neil said, regretting the words before they even left his lips, but he couldn’t take them back. They were there, hanging in the air and he doubled down, made them real and solid and - “Fine. I’ll stay. For now . At least until Andrew gives up stalking me.” That’s it. “Once he loses the trail and loses interest, I’m leaving, okay? I’ll keep in touch like I said, but I have to leave then.”

Matt stood again only to stop directly in front of Neil’s spot on the couch and looked down at him. “We’ll see,” he said, that smile blooming large and white on his face. “This is why you’ve been telling me not to contact Dan, isn’t it?

“Partly.”

“Partly? What do you mean partly?”

“I wasn’t lying, Matt. That shit could get real creepy real fast. But also, yeah. You would’ve outed me.”

Matt shook his head. “Ah well. It’s for a good cause I suppose. In another life, Dan Wilds and I got married and had babies.”

“Sure, Matt. If you say so.”

-

The two of them pretended like nothing was different. Matt wanted him to quit his job at the stadium and basically become a recluse - stay locked up in the apartment with the half-gone coffee stain and Sir and all of the stuff he’d accumulated. But although Matt’s apartment started feeling like home something good, Neil couldn’t do that. He’d become stir crazy and reckless and it was in everyone’s best interest for him to leave at least sometimes.

So, everything stayed pretty much the same - with the exception that Matt knew the truth and that changed more than Neil would probably like to admit. But they were little - small things that had been slipping here and there. Things like the fact that Matt now knew (probably had the entire time) that Neil was hiding his appearance.

Two days had passed. Everything around Neil felt so right, yet so out of place at the same time.

It was early evening. The sun was still high in the summer sky, but it was covered by a thick layer of clouds. Neil had gone for a run earlier in the day, but the air was thick with a coming storm and a headache had finally gone away from the pressure change.

The two of them sat in the living room. A movie Neil didn’t know the name or understand the plot of, was rattling away forgotten on the TV. Sir lay on the coffee table, her tail swishing back and forth, creeping closer and closer to the glass of moscato Matt was currently working on like one of those fucking housewives on that show he liked to TiVo on Tuesday nights.

Neil was blinking his contact back in place because the topic finally came up.

“You’re eyes are fucking gorgeous,” Matt said, almost incredulous. “I mean, I get why you hide them. But fuck...”

Neil shook his head, feeling his face heat as he bowed his head and blinked several more times. “Yeah, well. They’re his .”

Matt didn’t say anything else after that.

He did, however, set up a kind of fucking Red Rabbits Command Center in the living room. The next day, Neil woke up to rain pattering harshly on the wide windows in his room. When he finally made his way towards the kitchen, he was stopped by the... absurdity? Ridiculousness? Obsession? Of what was fucking waiting for him.

He must’ve been up the entire night. Neil knew Matt was hooked on checking to see where Andrew was in the timeline and what information he had. He knew that Matt was serious about keeping tabs on the podcast in order to try and keep Neil safe. But this?

Matt stood in front of the partial wall that acted as a separation between the living room and dining room. It had open space on either side, but stretching over the whole width were papers and pictures tacked up with a fucking red string connecting one to the next.

“This is what he knows,” Matt started seriously as soon as Neil turned the corner. “Look, here is the evidence-” he pointed towards a cluster of pictures. “Here are the pictures he has. I don’t think he even has a clue where you are.” Matt rubbed his hands and laughed delightedly. “He’s on a wild goose chase. Maybe we should send in false sightings.”

This is why you need to leave, Nathaniel.

You’re being stupid.

Look at him. He’s going to fucking expose you.

You’re He’s in too deep.

What the fuck was he supposed to say...? “Matt…just…. no .” ?

Oh.

Matt shook his head, “But look ! We’ll update it as new info comes in! We’ll be a step ahead of him!” He was practically jumping up and down, hands motioning to the wall. He even pulled over one of the side tables. There was a skein of red yarn, scissors, and -

“I know what you’re trying to do and I appreciate this...” But - “But to be completely honest, seeing it all laid out like this kind of makes me want to puke.”

Matt ended up acquiescing good naturedly, but Neil had a sneaking suspicion he’d just moved everything to his bedroom.

-

The next podcast drop was Sunday, and Matt and Neil actually listened together for the first time. It was strange, but comforting to have Matt’s large presence in the room with him. Something about it was grounding - made him feel less like he was hiding and more like he could actually parse through this shit.

Luckily, most of the episode were things he already knew from the audio notes, so the impact wasn’t as jarring - just a rehashing Europe and The Kathy Show. However, when he got to the part about Nathan’s death, Neil could feel himself tense up. It was... odd. Because Nathan’s death was a good thing. Neil was glad his father was dead... But...

But.

Matt squeezed his wrist lightly and Neil forced himself to relax.

And then he laughed. Because of course .

“He had an interview with Nathan,” Neil said, barely containing himself at the insanity of it all. “He had an interview with Nathan and then he was killed while Andrew was there .” He could feel tears stinging at his eyes and he had to bow his head and press his fingers into the corners of his eyes. “Oh my fucking god -”

“That’s a fucked-up coincidence,” Matt said grimly, shaking his head.

Neil shook his own and took a deep breath, “Oh no, it’s no fucking coincidence,” with a little sniff, he tilted his head back against the cushion of the couch from where he sat in front of it. “No. Whoever killed him didn’t want him talking to Andrew. I don’t know who it was or why.”

But I can take a guess.

The Moriyamas, obviously .

Even more interesting than that, however, was Andrew’s story at the end. Growing up in foster care - landing in juvie... long lost brother... putting four men in the hospital single handedly. Fuck . And his reasons for doing this in the first place? Neil didn’t know how to feel about that.

He didn’t know how to feel about any of it.

I also mention foster care because it’s part of the reason why this case is so personal. Although, no, Nathaniel was not in the system - he was still a child of abuse and neglect. He was still a child of trauma and unimaginable pain.

This case is hard for me to swallow sometimes - when I see things like ‘don’t be bad’ or a school picture of a child who has all the outward appearance of a normal kid.

I looked normal, too.

I just want to help. I just want to make sure wherever they are, they’re safe and have what they need. I want to tell their story in their own words if they’ll let me.

That’s my motivation.

That’s my story.

Neil could feel Matt looking at him, but he couldn’t find it in himself to look back.

Is that all, Andrew Minyard?

He managed to make it through the rest of the podcast - hear about them heading to the west coast. When it was done he told Matt he was going to bed.

He didn’t sleep that night.

-

Obsessed.

Matt was fucking obsessed with checking the Red Rabbit web page - looking for updates, for leads, anything. On Monday, he announced with the air of a town crier, that Andrew was in Seattle.

“He said he was going to follow up on the shooting. We didn’t spend any real length of time there,” Neil replied as he walked over and sat next to Matt on the couch to look at the computer screen. It was open on an ask someone sent asking, ‘How’s Seattle?

Andrew’s answer made Neil’s skin crawl.

‘Seattle has been…enlightening.’

“What the hell does that mean?” Matt asked. Neil rubbed his forehead.

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

“I have no idea. I can’t imagine what he could find there.-”

Yes you do.

“-The only thing Nathan was charged with, was possession of illegal firearms. But I know there were witnesses who saw what happened. We…we were on a playground. I was never allowed to play like that again. But there were plenty of people around who saw. It’s the worst best kept secret on that case.”

Neil tried not to get lost thinking about it. About his mother yanking him off a swing. Shoving him into the backseat of a car. Gunshots going off.

‘Get down, Abram! Don’t get back up until I tell you! STAY DOWN!’

He tried not to think of the loud noises, the bang bang bang as shots fired all around. He tried not to think of the engine revving below him, or the all consuming fear, or his mother panting in the front seat as she drove them away.

He tried not to think of the shot so loud it still rang in his eardrums... or the pain - the sharp, searing pain; the warm slick of blood; the realization that I might die.

Neil rubbed at the scar at his collar, felt the puckered skin long since healed and tucked - thankfully - no where vital.

“Shit,” Matt whispered to himself.

Yeah...

Nonetheless, even though it was odd telling him all this, odd having him here and listening - it was... Neil didn’t know. It didn’t really feel odd, if he was being honest with himself. It felt nice - nice to have someone who knew everything... Who knew and still wanted him around.

Matt really was an idiot.

I told you.

“Maybe he thinks he found something with that?” Neil wondered aloud. “Who knows. It doesn’t put him any closer to New York. Let him run around in circles.”

Matt nodded in solidarity. Then printed the ask out for what Neil assumed was the super-secret Red Rabbits Command Center in his room.

Neil didn’t care, so long as he couldn’t see it.

-

Thursday night, Matt and Neil played exy at the stadium. Neil thought he was really improving. He could get around Matt five out of ten times now, and he was less winded when they were done. It was moments like these he wished he’d had an older brother growing up.

No. I would never wish this life on another kid.

They were back at the apartment hanging out, when Matt called Neil from the living room.

“Hey, come here a sec. There’s a post from some girl on here saying she knows you.”

Neil snorted and thought join the fucking club. Rolling his eyes, he made his way to Matt with a brow raised on his face and a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips.

No one knows me. I’m invisible.

Idiot .

Leaning over Matt’s shoulder, one hand moved idly to Sir who laid out on her back beside Matt’s leg. He stroked her soft fur as he read the short ask on the Red Rabbits page. He got about halfway through before he felt his dinner rise from his stomach. Clamping his hand over his mouth, he backed up right when Matt looked over at him and immediately got to his feet.

“Neil? What? What is it? Don’t fucking bolt on me again - just -” He pointed to the screen, “Do you know her?” He’d come around the couch and stood infront of Neil. His hands lifted to take Neil’s shoulders, but thought better of it as Sir jumped onto the back of the couch and looked up at Neil expectantly.

Like a bucket of ice cold water had been poured over him, Neil felt the blood leave his face and his head turn light. He could only imagine how pale he looked.

No, no, no, no nonononono...

Turning away quickly, he swallowed hard and pushed his fingers through his hair. Stopping at his neck, he gripped at his own skin hard as he forced himself to calm down and breathe.

“Yes,” Neil finally forced out quietly. “I worked with her in Arizona. We…she…” Neil shook his head to try and clear his thoughts. “She was there when I ran. She played the podcast and that’s the only reason I heard it. I freaked out and bolted.”

When he looked back, Matt looked like he had something to say, but felt bad about it. Neil groaned quietly and said, “What, Matt? Spit it out -”

Matt pressed his lips together and leaned his hip against the couch. “I mean.. Yeah. That does sound an awful lot like you...” A small smile tickled the corner of his lips, but was extinguished the moment he saw Neil whine and walk around the couch.

Falling back into the cushions, he groaned, “ Fuck -’ then a louder, “ Fuck, fuck, FUCK - I should’ve seen this coming -” he took another deep breath. “She’s fucking obsessed with this sort of shit. I knew she listened to the podcast. I should’ve known she’d get involved and try to contact them-” he bowed his head into his hands and tangled his fingers in his hair again.

I told you, Nathaniel. You should’ve just run. How could you be so fucking stupid?!

“Hey-” Matt started, walking around again so he stood in front of Neil. “Hey, Neil. Calm down. Relax - does she know where you went when you ran? Does she know you’re here?” He asked, finally committing and placed his hands on Neil’s shoulders to force him to look up.

No. She doesn’t.

“No.”

“Alright, so, you’re fine!” Matt said, shaking him a little. “Forget about it. She don’t know shit.”

She don’t know shit.

He wanted to believe that.

Andrew’s answer was at least comforting. It seemed like he wasn’t terribly concerned with getting in touch with her right away. He seemed distracted with whatever was happening in Seattle.

Neil just didn’t know if that was a good or a bad thing.

-

Bad.

It was very bad.

Horrible.

Terrible.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Matt had alerts set up on his phone, so every time a new post was made on the website, he would be notified. Neil thought it was overkill and every time Matt’s phone went off, he cringed internally. Matt meant well, he knew that. He also knew that this was for his own good. He needed to know what was going on, whether he liked it or not.

He just really didn’t fucking like it.

Wednesday night, someone sent an ask implying Andrew shouldn’t be sharing his whereabouts with everyone, to which Andrew replied:

‘What whereabouts? Crescent City, California? Which is right near the Oregon border? On the coast? Those whereabouts?’

“What the fuck is wrong with him?!” Neil exploded. He was angry this time - no. He was pissed. Andrew was too close - so fucking close . He was there where she was. Right where Neil had left her - “Why doesn’t he just stop ? Why won’t he stop?!”

Matt shook his head. They were sitting at the bar in the kitchen and Neil slammed his hands onto the counter. “I don’t think he’s going to. He seems pretty damn determined. What’s in Crescent City? Something that could lead him here?”

Worse , Neil wanted to say. But that wasn’t true. It was just him being emotional, he supposed.

Stop it.

But he couldn’t.

Not as Matt raised a brow and asked, “What’s worse than him ending up at our doorstep?”

“My mother,” Neil said before he could stop himself. “My mother is in Crescent City,” he buried his face in his hands.

They smelled like blood and dirt, gas and fire and sand and salt and sweat and metal and pain and fear and and and -

“I thought you said she was dead?”

“She is,” Neil groaned and rubbed his face before dropping his hands and sitting up straight to face Matt. He was going to tell him.

Don’t.

He might as well.

No, Nathaniel.

He was going to tell him and then Matt would kick him out like he should’ve done ages ago.

good .

“We were caught by Lola in Oregon-” he started.

“Lola... She’s the one you talked about before?”

“Yeah...” Neil nodded and took a deep breath. Letting it out in a huff, he continued, “I still don’t know exactly how she tracked us, but she did. She ran us off the road into an empty parking lot. She was shooting at us, so my mom got out of the car and started shooting back. I got out too…I don’t even know why - It’s so stupid now that I’m thinking about it.”

“Hey,” Matt said, and Neil looked up at him. “You’re not stupid. It was a fucked up situation and you were a kid.”

“I was sixteen...” Neil whispered, his eyes squinting. Shaking his head, he wet his lips, chewed on the inside of one, then found it in himself to agree. “I mean... I guess,” he shrugged. “Anyway, I got out of the car to try and pull her back in. But I was halfway around the front before I had to duck. When I finally got to her… Lola fired one more time and hit her in the stomach. I managed to shove both of us in the backseat - I have no fucking clue how . But,” he closed his eyes and he could hear it - hear them. “There were sirens in the distance so Lola bolted. I jumped to the front and got the fuck out of there too. We made it as far as Crescent City before I had to pull over. But-” He bit so hard into his bottom lip that he heard the skin break in his ears and he relished, for a moment, in the sting and the faint saltiness of blood. Pressing the tip of his tongue against the wound, he quickly moved on, “But, I knew. Before I even looked in the back seat, I knew she was dead.”

Neil remembered everything. He remembered shaking her. Calling to her over and over.

‘Mum... Mum, wake up! Mum, please... Please don’t do this... Don’t leave me alone out here-’

Mary didn’t wake up. She didn’t move, she didn’t breathe. All she did was bleed... Bleed blood so red, he could see it in the darkness. It covered everything. It was sticky and it was slick and it was dry and it was fresh and and and -

Neil remembered climbing into the backseat. He remembered making himself as small as he could - curled up on the floor, laying his head on her stomach where all he could smell was blood and all he could feel was the wet warmth of it. There was no heartbeat, no rattling of her breath - nothing but his cries until he couldn’t tell the difference between the salty sea air and his own tears.

That’s when her voice came. It was in the back of his head and a constant reminder to keep going. Stiffen up that upper lip. Move move move and never fucking stop, Abram.

He couldn’t stay. No. They had a plan . He knew exactly what to do if anything happened to her. He knew what she wanted and he would not let her fucking down.

Too late.

With a kiss to her cooling forehead, he closed her eyes and set to work. He pulled the gas can out of the trunk, poured it all over her and splashing the rest of the car. He dumped out their bags, leaving all the passports and IDs in the car to burn along with his mother's body. An exy magazine fell out, Neil remembered, when he was shaking out his bag. It had Kevin Day on the cover. His mother didn’t know he had it. He’d nicked it from a convenience store a few states back and kept it hidden for the rare moment when his mother was busy. He tossed that in with the passports. He didn’t deserve to keep it.

Then, he did what she wanted him to do. He lit the car and all of its contents on fire - lit her on fire... And when morning came and the fire had burned itself out, Neil took his backpack and filled it with his mother’s still warm and crumbling bones, the passports and IDs that were mostly destroyed, and that exy magazine. He dug a hole with his hands in the pebbly sand. His nails broke, rocks dug in. It was only when his fingers were bleeding and the hole was deep enough, that he buried them all on the beach.

Numb and void, tired and cold , he slung his mother’s bag over his shoulder with his remaining possessions and a new ID. They were all he had left - everything fitting in a Jansport bag and a binder with a 4x6 tucked in its pages. He made one stop, before beginning his long trek to Arizona.

When he was done telling Matt, done fighting his tears, done tasting ash on his tongue, he dared to meet Matt’s eyes - eyes that were wide and awed and brown and warm.

“Wait. Wait, wait, wait.” Matt took a deep breath and Neil waited. “Your mom got shot, you drove the getaway car, you burned the car and her body, and then buried her fucking bones on the beach and just…kept on? Like you literally held your mother’s bones in your hands?”

Neil just nodded. “Well when you say it like that…”

“How else is there to say it?! My god, Neil...” He stared at him for a few more moments and seemingly, when Neil felt like he couldn’t take it, Matt whispered, “You’re such a fucking hard mother fucker.” Then breathed a breath of a laugh. Neil glanced up at him. Matt continued, “I’m a little scared. Not gonna lie. Like if someone kills me, don’t burn my body and hide my bones, okay? I’m super famous. Andrew Minyard would have to do a whole new podcast about what happened to Matt Boyd.”

Neil smiled slowly despite himself.

This is why Matt’s good.

Despite the pain and memories and the smell of gasoline and fire and salt and blood and brine and all of it , he smiled a small smile.

Wetting his lips, he eventually nodded and felt something lift from his chest. “Matt, I swear to you, if you’re killed I will leave your body here to be found by your neighbors when you start smelling up the joint. Sound good?”

Matt feigned a relieved sigh. “Perfect, thank you. You’re a good friend.”

Friend.

They stared at each other seriously for a second before both their faces broke into laughter. It felt good.

-

Neil still dreamed of fire that night.

-

On Thursday, Neil knew something had happened.

He relied on Matt for Red Rabbits related news, mostly because he knew Matt would tell him and it saved him the dread that came along with checking it himself.

But something happened.

And Matt didn’t show him. Not until they were back from the stadium that night.

Sighing, Neil flopped on the couch and decided he couldn’t take it anymore. “What?” he finally asked. “What happened now?”

Matt shrugged, nonchalant. “Nothing new... Just thought you might want to see this.” Matt had a frown tugging down on his perpetually smiling lips. He sat beside him and removed his phone from his pocket. Thumbing through very briefly, he mumbled, “That Ashleigh girl wrote a whole post about you…”

“She what ?” Neil grabbed Matt’s phone out of his hand. They’d only read the ask she sent before. He had it opened on her post. It was long and Neil started to read, feeling himself getting paler every second.

No no no no no nononononono

’Did he call me sexy?’ Jesus Christ she’s still an idiot -”

She’d gone to the cops.

The fucking cops-

She’d gone to his apartment.

My fucking apartment -

She’d contacted the podcast.

Stupid fucking Andrew mother fucking Minyard .

Neil threw the phone down in disgust. It wasn’t fear running through his veins. No, he was pissed all over again. Standing up, he put his hands on his hips and he was the one that started pacing this time.

“So, she thinks we’re fucking friends and decides to fucking contact everyone under the fucking sun to try and track me the fuck down?!” he scoffed. “Suspecting I’m…who I am?! Did she not think that maybe the reason I fucking ran so fucking quickly was because I didn’t want to be fucking found?” he threw his hands up, “She’s a fucking genius.” Then crossed them tightly over his chest and felt very much like a petulant child.

I don’t care.

Why can’t anyone just leave me the fuck alone?!

Matt shrugged. “I don’t know, man... Maybe she was just worried...? Seems like her intentions are…mostly good?”

Mostly good, my ass.

Neil stopped pacing and put his hands on his face. Tilting his head back towards the ceiling, he groaned loudly and with it, felt some of the tension leave his body. It felt good. Good enough at least to be able to say, “She’s going to tell him everything. She’s going to give him all sorts of information on me that just happened , Matt. He’s one place away from New York with this.”

Like all of his energy had been leached from his body, he sunk back down into the couch. He felt rather than saw Matt turn towards him.

“Yeah...” Matt said slowly, “but still. She doesn’t know where you are now .”

Right.

“No,” Neil said. “She doesn’t. But she’ll give him the name Neil Josten. How long do you think it’ll take him to track me with that?” He turned his head and stared at his big stupid friend.

“With just a name? And zero online presence? A minute. He’d have to have like…federal connections to track you. All he’d really be able to look for is where you work through the IRS if it’s reported.”

“And what if he does?”

Matt leveled him with a look. “He doesn’t.”

Neil shook out his hands and wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans. “Maybe I should contact her...” he mused. “He hasn’t talked to her yet... Maybe I can get a hold of her and tell her to shut her fucking mouth.”

“You really think that would help?” Matt asked, skeptical.

No.

“Probably not,” Neil admitted.

Matt chewed his lip for a minute before speaking. “This is going to sound crazy.”

“Crazier than the shit I’ve told you the past few weeks?”

“Maybe?”

Neil sighed. “What is it?”

“What if you just…contacted Andrew? What if you just talked to him and explained it. He really does seem like he wants to help. Maybe if you just told him what kind of shit-“

NO.

“I can’t,” Neil said, getting up and he turned his back on Matt.

Absolfuckinglutely not.

Neil headed for his room.

“Why?” Matt called after him.

Stopping in his tracks, he heard that question bounce around in his head over and over, louder and louder. He spoke just to shut it up. “I just…can’t. It’ll only make things worse. He could sell me out. She could sell me out.” He turned his head so he was barely looking over his shoulder. “You’re the only one I trust right now.”

He locked himself in his room.

-

On Friday, Neil finally reached his breaking point. He hadn’t seen the post Andrew made underneath Ashleigh’s, absolutely, positively, hadn’t read what he said about people giving him shit for not following up with her. And as he most definitely didn’t read it, as he didn’t feel the fucking frustration and stress and maybe even a little desperation , he knew.

Andrew had found something in California.

‘I’m in California right now. I’m trying really hard here to compartmentalize the things I’m learning and use it to move forward. Figuring this out one way or the other will help me to weed through what’s real and what is not regarding these sorts of emails.’

Neil felt sick.

“He found her,” he whispered to Matt, when he had finished not reading.

“Found who? Ashleigh Miller?”

Neil shook his head. Worse . “No. My mother. I don’t know how, but he found her. He knows she’s dead. That’s why he’s saying figuring it out will help him weed through the tips. Any of them that say my mother after 2010 will be false. Fuck .”

FUCK.

Matt came around the kitchen counter to sit next to Neil at the bar. “So what does this mean? It still doesn’t lead him here, does it?”

“Not directly, but what if someone here has sent in a tip Matt? Of me traveling alone? What if I’ve been recognized? He found my mother’s bones . He’s going to put it out there. There’ll be an investigation. He’s going to tell everyone Mary Wesninski is dead and her bones were burned and the search will get even crazier and they’ll display pictures of her on the news and-“

Neil jumped out of the chair and ran his hands through his hair. He could feel his fingers going numb. They were starting to shake. It was spreading up his arms and to his chest - he couldn’t feel his lips.

“Hey,” Matt said, coming to stand next to him and folding him into his chest. “We’re not doing this right now, okay? We’re not panicking. Let’s talk about this.”

Neil just nodded into Matt’s chest and let the vibration of his deep voice fill his head as the soft warmth of Sir’s body and the steady thrum of her purring wrapped around his legs.

“Alright...” Matt whispered, one hand at the back of his head and the other firmly between his shoulder blades. “I know you don’t want to... I know you really don’t want to... But, I think you should contact Andrew. I really think he’ll listen to you, if you tell him.”

No. I can’t-

Neil started to shake his head, but Matt squeezed tighter. “Listen to me, will you? You don’t even have to talk to him directly. We’ll get his number. You can text him - block your number. Or fuck, I’ll fucking call him and tell him to back the fuck up before I punt his pint-sized ass into next year.”

Neil let out a choked laugh at that. “No, I think that’d make things worse.” He gripped onto Matt’s shirt tighter.

“That’s it...” His hand rubbed small circles into Neil’s back. “Then let’s get his number. We don’t even have to use it right away, okay? But let’s get it, just in case.”

It took several moments for Neil to gather himself before he pulled away and sat back down, nodding. When he felt strong enough, he asked, “How would we even get it? I don’t want to send anything through the website or the email. I want to talk directly to him, if I decide to do this. I don’t want anyone else to see it.”

Matt just grinned, and Neil thought how inappropriate that grin was at this moment when his lips were still numb... But also how welcome.

“I have Kevin Day’s number,” Matt reminded him.

Oh.

“They know each other. He’s bound to have Andrew’s. I never gave him that interview he wanted. Leave it to me.” Matt reached for his phone and Neil took it from him.

No-

“No,” Neil said quickly. “Let me call him.”

Matt raised a brow, “Why? That seems…counterproductive for staying hidden.”

Neil willed his hands to stop shaking with a few deep breaths as he shook his head, “It’ll have a bigger impact if it’s me. He escaped the Moriyamas. He’s not going to tell anyone.” Neil searched through Matt’s contacts before finding the one that read Kevin Day. He mumbled, “Besides, it’ll be a nice reminder to keep my name out of his mouth.”

Matt only looked at Neil for another moment, before leaning his hip against the counter. “Okay...”

Neil inhaled one deep breath.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

You can do this, Nathaniel.

He hit the call button before he could talk himself out of it. Kevin picked up on the second ring.

‘Matt!’ he said, sounding excited. His voice was deep and familiar in only the sense that Neil’s seen him so many times on TV... No hint of the boy that once was left behind. ‘I’m so glad you called! I’d love to still do that interview-‘

“It’s not Matt,” Neil interrupted. Kevin stopped talked and breathed into the confused silence.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. This is the number I have in my phone for Matt Boyd. Is this his manager or…?

Neil took a deep breath and steeled himself.

You can do this.

He looked up towards Matt’s face for strength.

Good enough.

“This is Nathaniel Wesninski. I need you to give me Andrew Minyard’s number.” Neil was not going to puke.  

‘Nath… is this a fucking joke? Who is this? Did Andrew put you up to this?’

Of fucking course.

Neil snorted. “Wow, that Andrew sounds like a real asshole.” He didn’t give Kevin a moment to respond, “Listen to what I’m saying. This is Nathaniel Wesninski. Andrew is treading dangerously close and I need to get to him before he says something on the air that he shouldn’t.”

‘I…how do I even know this is Nathaniel? How do I even know this isn’t Riko or someone fucking with me?’

Neil squeezed the phone. He didn’t really have a reason to be mad at Kevin. He hadn’t seen him since he was five years old. It wasn’t like he was even involved in the podcast - not really . But... he still couldn’t stamp down the bit of anger that came boiling up at Riko’s name.

“Okay, Kev,” Neil said, using the nickname he remembered from school - the nickname he used and felt like one of the big kids from just being able to. “How about this?” He took a shallow breath. Good enough. “When I was finally told I could play exy at Raven Academy with the big kids - when I finally got to put the uniform on and I walked on court that first day, do you remember what you said to me?”

Kevin was quiet for a moment. ‘ Yes ,’ he almost whispered, Neil could feel it sitting in the air stretched however many states between them.

He continued, “You said ‘Riko is mean sometimes, but it just means you’re his friend. Don’t cry, okay Nathaniel? Because he’ll just do it more. ’”

Remembrance, nostalgia, something coated his tongue and he couldn’t tell what it was. Fear and pride and sadness and blood and sweat and excitement and desperation.

‘Fuck-’ Kevin’s voice broke. ‘ Fuck. Oh my god, Nathaniel - We thought you were dead. Everyone thought you were dead by now and - How the fuck have you survived this long?’

“By staying fucking hidden, which Andrew is trying to ruin for me. I need his number, Kevin.”

‘Yeah, yeah okay fine um-,’ Kevin started, sounding frazzled and out of place. ‘ But, you didn’t get this from me, okay? I don’t know how he’ll react, but I’ve been trying to stay out of it.’

Stay out of it...

“Does he know?” Neil asked, before he could stop himself. “That you knew me? Does he know we went to school together.”

Kevin’s silence was all the confirmation Neil needed. Right. “Guess you haven’t really been staying out of it then.”

‘No - Nathaniel, he figured it out! I didn’t tell him anything! He came to me when he figured it out and I told him what I knew, but he swore to me he wouldn’t put it on the air. He just needed to know what the Moriyamas are capable of, ’ Kevin said, desperately.

“Sure Kev,” Neil sighed, suddenly very tired. “Whatever you say. The number, now.”

Kevin gave it to him, and when he was done, right before Neil hung up him, he managed, ‘I’m glad you’re alive. I’m glad you’re okay.’

Sure.

“I hope it helps to ease your guilt.” Neil hung up the phone and stared at the number written on the post-it in front of him.

Matt looked at him expectantly. “That sounded…productive? So, you knew Kevin Day? You went to fucking school with him?”

Breathe in

“A lot of kids went to that school, Matt. Kevin is only noteworthy because of his connection to Andrew.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Right. So…you gonna use that?”

Neil looked down at it and crumpled the paper in his hands. “I don’t know yet.”

-

That night, lying in bed, he stared at Andrew’s number. Could he even really do this? Would Andrew actually listen to him? What if he recorded their entire conversation and posted it? Or put up screenshots of his texts?

Risky, Nathaniel. This is very risky.

But I have to do it.

Neil bit his lip and stared. It was late. Really late. He couldn’t sleep. Everything was catching up to him now and it was all he could do to keep his word to Matt and his feet firmly in place - to not pick up and run and hide and live his life like a fugitive, like he’d been doing since he was five...

No.

Since longer. He’d been a prisoner in that house, with his father.

What if I stop running? What if I just face this head on and do something to take care of it for once? Instead of hiding and running and lying -

Neil sat up in bed. He pulled a sleeping Sir into his lap and rubbed her head for luck. She meowed softly, but burrowed into him and he soaked in her warmth for extra strength as he pulled out his phone, turned off his caller ID, and typed in Andrew’s number. He didn’t even realize what he was texting until it was in black and white, staring up at him.

He hit send.

Watched it deliver.

Then closed his eyes against the ensuing panic.

‘Let California die with her. Don’t put it on the air.’

Chapter Text

“Eat it.”

“No.”

“Andrew, eat it or I swear I’ll pin you and force it down your throat.”

Rude.

He looked towards Renee sadly, letting a frown tug at the corner of his lips.  “You’ve been around me too long. It’s rubbing off. What would your lord and savior say, Walker?”

“He would say he doesn’t want to see one of God’s children starve himself to death just because he’s a stubborn ass. Now, eat it.” She pushed the plate of eggs and bacon closer to him and Andrew sighed.

“Fine. But it’s not for you. It’s for God and Jesus... And Judas, who was only mad because he wanted to fuck Jesus, but Jesus turned him down after months of flirting because he had that thing going with Mary Magdalene.”

Renee raised a brow at him. Andrew shrugged.

“Bedtime stories are fun.”

They sat in another diner in Crescent City, trying to kill time until they needed to board their flight to Phoenix. Andrew needed to eat - he knew he did. After everything that had happened, he’d been so fucking stressed and locked inside his head this week, that he could barely stomach anything. On top of it all, he was running on a scarce few hours of sleep, stretched between several days and it was only getting worse. A new type of anxiety was eating away at his insides and it took up too much room in his stomach for him to get any food into it.

Perhaps it was anticipation, impatience. Maybe, even though he hated to admit, it was hope. He didn’t fucking know. What he did know, however, was that it was much lighter, in a sense, than the heavy dread that sat like a weight in his gut from Seattle to here. That had been all consuming in a way that he never wanted to feel again. This?

This.

He wasn’t completely sure if the man in the picture was Nathaniel, but he felt -

Those freckles looked familiar.

Andrew picked up his fork and took a bite of the eggs. They were disgusting, but he gave Renee a big eggy grin just to appease her. She nodded towards him approvingly, before going back to the notes on her phone.

Andrew dropped his grin, the fork, and forced himself to swallow. The only thing that seemed minorly appetizing on the table was his coffee, sweetened and lightened with whole milk.

It was no fucking Ihop, but

It’ll do.

“So,” Renee started. She set her phone down and pulled her own plate closer towards her. “We’ll get into Phoenix around lunch time. I told Ashleigh we’d call her when we got to the hotel and we could try to set up a meeting then.” She glanced up towards him, “Do you want to try to meet with her today or do you want to just rest and meet with her tomorrow?”

He stared at her blankly and picked up a piece of bacon to nibble.

Renee tried to suppress a smile. “Today it is, then. Is there anything else we need to do in Arizona, besides talking to her? I’ve been keeping Dan updated. I think she’s starting to worry since our plans keep changing and we haven’t made it home.”

Not even bacon could keep his attention. He dropped it and wiped his hands on a napkin as he nodded, “Mother Dan will survive. Tell her we should be home Monday - assuming nothing else comes up. Which it might.” He paused and folded his napkin twice, “You know what? Just tell her we’ll keep her posted.”

“Posted. Got it.” Renee tapped away at her phone.

His own phone rested beside him, face up on the table and with the screen black. Andrew felt an odd sense of disappointment wash over him like a cold rush of water. It’d been that way since last night - since the text from the blocked number - The one that said to ‘Let California die with her’. It was like that since his own subsequent text back, typed away with shaking hands and absolutely no breath:

‘Let California die with who? I’m sorry, I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.’

He didn’t know who it was from, nor did he want to ask just yet. His mind told him to lure them out a bit - keep them on a line and use it to his advantage. He had his suspicions though, all as unlikely as the next.

There is no next.

No, there is. It could be multiple people. Like someone from the Moriyama camp. Maybe they’d been tailing Andrew and knew he found the bones or at least something of interest. Maybe they thought it would bring more attention to the case and by proxy, more attention to them. Maybe it was even the woman with the red hair - perhaps she worked for them and all together, they were trying to keep it and Mary buried.  

Or, it could be someone they had contact with on the west coast. Officer Mike, even. Maybe he was having cold feet now that he realized what they’d found. Maybe he was worried about losing another job, but - No . That makes even less sense. He didn’t know they’d found bones, let alone Mary’s...

But the first thought, the first person that crossed his mind couldn’t possibly be Nathaniel . How would he know where he was? That he was close? That he found her? Something about that thought felt right.

There was the possibility that... Assuming this tip was legit and those bones did belong to Mary, perhaps he deduced that Andrew had found something - purely based on location. Perhaps he was worried that if it was released to the world, the media attention would make hiding harder.  

It can still be Nathaniel’s bones. It’s still a possibility.

No. That doesn’t feel right.

The initial text had lifted something off his chest, just as it settled something else on his shoulders. The feeling of it sort of confirmed, in a way, Ashleigh’s email. It made their next step hold more weight, like it meant something more than everything they’d already done.

Andrew knew he was onto something. He felt so fucking close - so. Fucking. Close -

Come out, come out, little rabbit.

Maybe Andrew was getting ahead of himself, ahead of the entire endeavor. It would be a lie to say that fantasies about Nathaniel contacting him, talking to him, and finally figuring out what the fuck happened to him swirled in his mind and it was taking a toll. He shouldn’t tolerate that kind of fuckery from himself. He shouldn’t allow himself to sink into his mind and stay with what he wanted to happen, rather than what was.

Keep your head straight and eyes open.

Keep searching.

He hadn’t received a reply yet. The thought of not getting one was something he couldn’t even process at the moment. So, for now, he kept vigil by his phone - heart leaping every time it lit with a notification.

-

By the time they landed in Arizona, Andrew was practically vibrating - not only from the plane, but the prospect of Arizona . Nonetheless, he determined he needed coffee. Or whiskey. Or coffee with whiskey in it.

Calm down.

Bee was restless behind his ear. He told her to calm down too.

They stood to file off the plane with the rest of the passengers. He pulled his phone out and turned it off airplane mode as quickly as he possibly could. His hand shook, his breathing was shallow and he completely ignored Renee behind him as he stared a fucking hole into his screen as he waited for notifications (anything) to come through.

His phone rang with a notification - just one.

From a blocked number.

He tried not to gasp out loud, to not look eager. But, he stared at his phone, the green little box and the 1 Message staring up at him.

Buzz, buzz, buzz -

Bee burned. Someone nudged him in the back. Andrew turned to tell whoever it was to fuck off, when he remembered it was Renee.

“Line’s moving,” she said, nodding her head towards the people making their way off the plane. Andrew bit back something he’d regret saying and somehow picked his feet up to file off the place - one eye trained in front of him and the other on his phone.

‘you know exactly what I’m talking about asshole. Think about someone else for once.’

Andrew bristled. Think about someone else? That’s all he’d been fucking doing - thinking of nothing but other people since he started this entire god damned thing. Nathaniel, Mary, Kevin, Jean fucking Moreau.

Gotta be fucking kidding me. Who’s the fucking asshole now, you fucking -

“Andrew! Renee!”

Andrew’s eyes flicked up, confused. He hadn’t even really realized they’d made it out of departures, too caught up inside his head and on his phone. Who the fuck...?

Oh jesus fucking judas.

“Is that…” Renee started.

Fuck.

“Yes. Yes, Renee. That’s Ashleigh fucking Miller - the nuisance we have the great pleasure of spending the weekend with.” Something bitter coated his tongue. He grimaced and cracked his picky as he pocketed his phone once more.

Ashleigh wove a hand high in the air to get their attention. She wore a short black skirt and fishnets with... familiar boots...

“Andrew,” Renee said through a giggle, coming in close to his space. “She’s wearing your boots!”

She was upon them before Andrew could even answer.

“Hey! Oh god, I can’t believe you’re actually here! How was the flight? Have you eaten? Let’s go get your bags-” she pointed towards whatever sign must have been above their heads. “Then we can go!” She was brimming with wide-eyed excitement - dark blue painted lips stretched back from her teeth and black bob swaying against her chin as she looked between the two of them expectantly.

You fucking owe me.

Andrew didn’t know who you were, but whoever answered thoughts or whatever-the-fuck, fucking owed him big time.

Pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, he refrained from rubbing at his eyes to try and relieve the tension already building. When he opened his lips, he forced out, “How the fuck are you here? I thought we were meeting you later? How did you even know what flight we were on?”

Ashleigh rolled her eyes at him and didn’t even have the decency to look at least the littlest bit embarrassed. “Well, Renee,” She looked beside him and smiled wide at Renee. He’d wager to bet she was probably fucking smiling back.

Yeah, I bet you’re amused. Kind of fucking friend are you?

“Ugh.” He groaned.

Ashleigh continued. “Told me what time your flight got in. So, I figured I’d just wait here until I saw you and I thought we could have lunch! I have a car -” she pointed a thumb over her shoulder, “so you don’t have to rent or take a cab. No sense in wasting money, carpool, keep the world green, you know.” She fucking winked and he rolled his neck on his shoulders.

Right as he opened his mouth to say something particularly scathing, Renee cut him off. “Thank you, Ashleigh. That was really thoughtful. We were going to go to the hotel to rest first-”

“No,” Andrew cut her off. “It’s fine. The quicker we get this done, the better.” He couldn’t believe he was about to say this, but, “lead the way.” He wanted this done and filed away so he could get back home to his bed and his cat and his fucking hookup because he could really use the fucking stress relief right fucking now.

Ashleigh clapped her hands together. “Perfect! Let’s get your ba-”

“This is it,” Andrew indicated to his and Renee’s carry-ons. “We’re journalists, we travel light. Let’s go.”

Ashleigh, thankfully, didn’t say another word. Instead, she just nodded with a small ohhh... before turning around and leading them out of the airport.

The heat was scathing and Andrew resented his fucking color choice. It was even hotter in her dark green Prius with stickers scattered about the back bumper and windshield, ranging from things like:

Stay out of the Forest!

In a cult? Call your Dad!

SSDGM

Vegan!

Hail Yourselves!

Check Please!

We gotta - NERD ALERT!

and

Valar Morghulis

He couldn’t roll his eyes eyes far back enough.

Valar Dohaeris - fuck! Shut up.

He hated her even more.

Shockingly, he didn’t snatch her keys out of her hands and claim the car to drive himself. Instead, he surprisingly fit himself into the backseat and automatically pulled his phone out of his pocket to stare at again. Luckily, Ashleigh kept up a steady stream of chatter all the way to wherever the fuck they were going. He barely heard her and Renee kept up conversation anyway.

He honestly didn’t think he could focus if he tried. No - He was busy, mind racing as he stared at the last message. Chewing on his lip ring, he closed his eyes and tried to come up with a response. He needed to figure out who the fuck this was you know who. He worried if he pushed too hard right away, they’d stop communicating all together and if this was who he thought knew it was, that was a likely possibility. He had to be careful.

‘Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. I can promise you, as charming as I find myself, I do occasionally think of other people. I’m going to need a little more to go on, however, if I’m going to consider your request.’

Andrew hit send and watched it pop up on his screen, green and vivid and real.

This is contact.

With a deep breath, he went back to the other texts he’d received before they lifted off from California. Dan was bothering him for the audio notes and he was trying to figure out how to ward her off - tell her they would be delayed. He’s already done this several times before, but there was no way... Not now - not when things were so gray.

Besides. He didn’t know who this was stop fooling yourself , but if there is a good reason for him to not release their findings about the remains on the beach, then he wouldn’t do it. Therefore, Mother Dan would just have to wait.

“We’re here!” Ashleigh sang, pulling into a small parking lot outside a clearly niche establishment. There was a glowing sign in curling letters at the top reading The Grind , outside seating with two customers on their laptops, and the smell of coffee practically permeating through the car windows.

“This is where I work,” Ashleigh continued - maybe saying words between, Andrew didn’t fucking know. “We can get free food as long as CBBWTB is working.”

Looking down at his phone one last time, his mind finally pushed back all the sassy retorts he could’ve given, and realized what she said. CBBWTB, Cute Barista Boy With The Biceps from that ridiculous blogpost.

Ugh.

Renee gave a short laugh and Andrew had to get himself out of that car asap. How Renee managed to live her life so pleasant, find the good in stupidly annoying people, Andrew would never understand.

Closing the door behind him, he followed behind the two - who he just realized were polar opposites. Renee with her bobbed, white, rainbow tipped hair and long skirts, then Ashleigh with her black bob and mini skirt. If he were in a better mood, perhaps he would have laughed. Instead, he took solace in the thought that answers were soon to come - as well as coffee.

The inside of the place was exactly what one would expect. Colored in whites and warm browns, there were fake ‘rusting’ pipes decorating the place and subway tile lining the walls. A few customers milled around, creating a light chatter that wasn’t wholly unpleasant and several comfortable looking booths tucked on one side of the cafe.

Andrew made for the secluded one in the back corner and sat facing the door. Renee slid in beside him and Ashleigh smiled far too widely for both her wardrobe and his tolerance as she planted herself across from them both. Twisting around in her seat, she waved black-tipped nails (not black enough. Clearly not Essie Licorice ) towards the guy near the front counter. He nodded at her and made his way over.

“Do we need to go up to order?” Renee asked.

“No, no,” Ashleigh lowered her voice and leaned forward. “This is CBBTWB, aka Will. He’ll get us what we need.” She glanced over her shoulder again to make sure he was still far enough away. “He’s totally into me,” she smirked, “He’s doing this whole aloof thing, but the looks I get...” She fanned her face with a hand.

Andrew glared at Renee.

This was a bad idea.

“Hey, Ash,” The CBBWTB Will said as he got to their table. He glanced toward Renee and Andrew.

“Hey, you,” Ashleigh replied, squeezing his wrist with that too-big smile, before dropping her hand to gesture towards them. “This is Andrew and Renee, from the podcast I’ve been telling you about? Andrew, Renee, this is Will.”

Will looked back at them and Andrew had to give Ashleigh at least a bit of credit here. Will was indeed a cute barista boy with biceps - whose gaze was lingering on Andrew’s for a beat too long. Andrew raised a brow at him and Will gave a sly smile in return.

Oh... Huh.

No.

Andrew shook his head and broke eye contact.

No time, Minyard.

“Nice to meet you,” said Renee, and Andrew knew she didn’t miss that look.

“Will, do you mind bringing us some food please? We can go up front and order if you’re too busy,” Ashleigh batted her prius-green eyelashes at him and Andrew was astounded at the cluelessness.

“Yeah, sure. No problem.” He put his weight on one leg and looked to Andrew first. “What can I get you?”

Bad, Will.

No. Time. Minyard.

Reeling himself back from anything he could potentially say or do, he gave his order and while the others placed theirs, he removed his backpack and dug for his recorder.

“See what I mean?” Ashleigh asked when Will was gone. “The tension kills me sometimes,” she whimpered.

Andrew stopped digging and looked up at her, then at Renee who was equally as confused, then back at Ashleigh.

“Sure, Jan,” he said, then continued his search. One he finally found it, he looked up to see Ashleigh’s face, clearly confused and he didn’t bother giving her a chance to speak or question it.

“Do you mind if we record?” he asked, setting the recorder in the middle of the table.

Pulling her chin back, he could practically see the question computing in her head before she shook her head. “No, of course not! Honestly, I’m just so glad you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ve been so worried about him,” the concern was, in fact, swimming in her eyes. He believed her. This wasn’t, perhaps, one of those grabs for clout/attention. “I don’t know if he’s in trouble or what, but he was a good guy. Super quiet, but he was good . I hope you can find him and help him...”

Renee smiled gently. “We hope so, too. Thank you for sending us the info and we’re sorry it took us so long to get to it. As you can probably tell,” She motioned between herself and him. “We’ve been extremely busy trying to make headway. So thank you, really. Yours is the most recent sighting we’ve heard, so hopefully we’ll gain some good insight.”

Andrew hummed non-committedly and checked his phone again, before placing it face up on the table beside him where he could see it.

Will came back with their food and drinks and turned his hand just so when Andrew took his glass, their fingers brushed. He heard Renee try to cover a giggle with a cough and he shot her a look. After all, he couldn’t help how incredibly attractive he was after days of practically no sleep, very little food, and anxiety under his belt.

“Eat first,” Andrew said. “Then we’ll start.”

He hated trying to eat during interviews. It was annoying concentrating on two things at once and the feedback noise was awful. That - and it broke the ice, usually.

Not like Ashleigh needed it.

As Renee and Ashleigh ate, Andrew picked at a roast beef sandwich. His stomach and anxiety apparently decided that the few mouthfuls of egg he had earlier today was clearly enough and he didn’t want to push it. Not now. Not when he was standing at the edge of answers .

In the meantime, he tapped the screen on his phone every few minutes, making more progress on his coffee during that time. It was nearly finished when Renee finally asked, “Are you expecting a call?” She glanced down at his notification-less screen. “I told Dan I’d keep her updated so she wouldn’t bug you.”

“Dan Wilds, right?” Ashleigh cut in. “It’s so weird being here with you guys after following online. Granted, I was late to the party but Seth made my day after several nights of sleeplessness over... well, everything. Like, his taste in music is exactly my taste. It’s like we were crafted by the same person, you know?”

Ugh.

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” Andrew said. Cut from the same cloth, those two. Insanely annoying with astonishingly good taste in music. And boots. And piercings because she had a septum that was like... two hoops and he wanted to ask her where she got it, but he didn’t want her to think he was interested .

“Okay.” He’d had enough. “Let’s get this going,” he said, shoving his plate aside and pulling out his moleskine. Reaching over, he turned on the recorder and glanced up at Ashleigh to make sure she was ready. When she took one last sip of her coffee, she nodded and cleared her throat.

[ Record On ]

“Give us your name and spell it.”

She did.

A s h l e i g h, fucking ridiculous.

He moved on.

“We know most of your story from your post, but give us a synopsis. Let’s start with NJ,” he looked over his notes unnecessarily, clicking his purple pen. “What does NJ stand for?”

Andrew was prepared for any number of responses. If CBBWTB was anything to go by, then did it stand for Nice Jeans? New Job? Not Joking? Neurotic Jumper?

“Neil Josten,” Ashleigh said instead. “He went by Neil Josten.”

Neil Josten, Neil Josten, Neil Josten.

Andrew felt, rather than heard, himself go quiet. He stared down at his notebook, not really seeing anything. Renee cleared her throat and Andrew inhaled a quick breath as he looked up to find Ashleigh looking at him expectantly.

Right.

“Tell us about the time you had contact with... Neil.”

So, Ashleigh did. Most of what she told them, they already knew from her post. They worked together at the bookstore; he was polite, but quiet; did his work well; went home at the end of the day. She never saw him outside of their hours besides the one time he walked her home. He liked the sports section of the store, didn’t entertain her murdernerd talk.

Sane, at least .

“You said you went to his apartment,” Andrew tapped the bullet he’d made the night before once. “Were you ever able to find anything there?”

She shook her head and put her chin on her hand. “The landlord said Neil changed the locks.” Her shoulders shrugged.

Changed his locks? Why would someone do that?

“His lease was almost up when he bolted, but I guess it’s an auto renew thing? You know, you just continue month to month until you sign something saying you’re not renewing?” He could see the invisible, I guess , fly past her eyes. “I mean, I guess since he already paid, the landlord wasn’t fussed about it. To be honest, he’s kind of a slumlord anyway.” She dropped her hand to the table with a slap. “I don’t think he cares what his tenants are doing, so long as he has to deal with them as little as possible.”

Interesting...

Andrew chewed on the end of his pen for a moment. “Can you show us? His apartment, I mean.”

Ashleigh shrugged, but her face scrunched up for a moment. “I mean, sure - but no one can get in. The landlord doesn’t have a key that works.”

“I know, I’d still like to see.”

Ashleigh didn’t even take a moment to consider. She just shrugged her shoulders and nodded. “It’ll have to be tomorrow, if that’s okay? My shift here starts soon and I’m closing.” She pointed behind herself towards the door. “I can take you to your hotel now and pick you up tomorrow?”

Andrew almost said they’d walk, having no idea how far or where the fuck it was, but Renee agreed gratefully for him - like usual.

Turns out, the walk would’ve been miserable in this fucking Arizona heat, so Andrew didn’t complain.

-

Once they were safely ensconced in Renee’s room after Andrew dropped his things in his, he was able to finally relax at least a bit.

There were no new notifications on his phone, but there was something else that lifted itself from his anxiety - and it was that Andrew believed Ashleigh. He believed that the guy she knew was Nathaniel. Which meant...  they were on the right path. He was making progress - getting closer and closer. And if she was right, which by proxy, meant that he was - it would mean that the bones were in fact Mary and the slight possibility that he was wrong , would go away.  

However, what would be left in its place would be the thought that Nathaniel had to burn his own mother's body, walk off that beach alone and... whatever else after that. He had to swallow hard to force the lump in his throat back down.

Shaking his head to himself, he sunk deep into her bed that he’d collapsed into the moment he entered the room. He felt Renee’s eyes on him and tried to ignore her as he removed his glasses and pressed his fingers in the corners of his eyes.

“You believe her,” Renee finally spoke, disturbing the silence. It wasn’t a question.

Inhaling a deep breath, he dropped his hands and wiped his glasses on his shirt. With a slow nod, he murmured, “I do. Her story makes sense. She’s annoying, but she doesn’t seem like a liar.”

“You only think she’s annoying because she’s you in female form... With a better attitude. “

He flicked his eyes up towards her and sat up in bed, “Excuse me?”

Traitor.

Renee’s lip twitched. “She’s literally you, in style anyway.” That twitch turned into a smirk. “I can’t believe she bought your boots...” She pressed her lips together and when she couldn’t hold it in any longer, let out a laugh. Andrew rolled his eyes and laid back down.

And then sat back up.

Because Renee was right.

He found Ashleigh annoying because he found everyone, save a very few select people, annoying. But, her style was, in fact, fantastic... Andrew thought for a moment that this would be what having a little sister would be like - irritating and copying him.

Ugh.

Renee said lightly, “Told you. She looks great though, so don’t feel bad.”

“If she’s taking cues from me, of course, she looks great,” he mumbled. “Anyway, that has nothing to do with anything. What does have to do with something , is that tomorrow we’ll go see the apartment and we’ll see what we can find there. Maybe a hint of where he went after he left...”

Renee’s brow furrowed. “How are we going...”

Andrew raised a brow at her.

“You’re going to pick the locks.”

Ding, ding, ding

“I’m going to pick the locks,” he agreed, then swung his legs over the side of the bed before standing. “I’m going to go take a shower. Look and see what’s around for food.

-

That night, as Andrew lay in his uncomfortable hotel bed, not sleeping, his phone buzzed, Bee burned to life, and his heartbeat doubled.

He hadn’t heard back since he sent his last text. Whoever this was, they were taking their sweet time - keeping Andrew on the hook.

‘Maybe I would tell you more, if I wasn’t sure you’d put it out for the world to see. Some of us don’t crave attention. Also, your opinion of yourself is so inflated. I don’t know how you’ve managed not floating away.”

The sound that left him nearly started him. He laughed at that. The sass on this person. He started to type back before he thought twice.

Would it seem too eager?

He gave himself a look he couldn’t see, because what the fuck was this? A Grindr date? Of course, he was fucking eager.

Pressing his shoulder to his tattoo, Andrew stared at the screen, trying to think of something to say - some way to assure whoever this was that he wasn't going to put any information out if it was important not to - if it put him closer to finding Nathaniel.

So, with slow fingers at first, that grew faster as he typed out honestly:

‘I don’t know who you are, but I can promise you, that I wouldn’t put out what we found, if someone gave me good reason not to. I don’t break my promises. You can always call and we can have a nice little chat about it, if you want. I’m in Arizona now, but we can meet when I’m done here.’

Andrew hit send and slept with his phone under the pillow.

-

“Here we are,” Ashleigh said. She wore black high-waisted shorts and dark green patent leather platform pumps today, complete with thigh highs and a crop top. Andrew sighed internally. He would really love a pair of dark green patent leather docs.

Anyway.

He stepped up to the door, apartment number 10, and pulled off a piece of paper letting Neil Josten know his rent was late. Folding the paper up, he slipped it into his bag and while there, pulled out a tension wrench and a pick. Leaning forward, he got to work.

Ashleigh giggled nervously, “ Oh my fucking god.”

Renee just sighed. “Where do you even get those? Did you take that on the plane? Do you carry them everywhere we go? I’ve seen you do this before, so why does it still surprise me?”

Andrew heard a click and stood, pushing the door open slowly. “I don’t know, Renee. But by now, you should be impressed by my prowess.”

I’m impressed,” said Ashleigh, coming up behind him. “That was so fucking rad .”

Ughhhh

“Yes, I learned how to do it to impress the ladies,” he mumbled, standing in the doorway with his eyes trained on the light filtering in through the far window. Dust danced in the air.

Breaking his gaze away, he looked to the confusion written plainly across her face. “Aren’t you gay...?”

“Incredibly. Let’s do this quickly.”

He stepped aside to let all three in, before closing the door behind them. When the door clicked, it practically echoed in the hollowed emptiness. He breathed shallowly, only because he felt like he couldn’t get in anything deeper, before turning around and nodding his head to the silent thoughts in his head.

The apartment was small. There was a kitchenette to the right and the living room straight ahead. He walked slowly, the dirty carpet underfoot muffling his steps, into the living room. The air around him smelled just as empty as the place felt - like air hadn’t been run in a while or a window hadn’t been cracked open. He was tempted to do something about it, but just stood in the center of the room, looking around. Turning slowly, he tried to take in everything he could: a few cabinets in the kitchen with necessary appliances, dishes long dry in the rack; there was no tv, some magazines and books lay on a small coffee table. Walking slowly towards them, the first thing he touched left a thin streak of cleared dust behind. Swallowing hard, he ignored it and thumbed through to find they were all exy related. Besides the magazines was an old cup of coffee that had gone moldy - like he’d left it there one morning and never came back.

Like everything else.

Renee made her way down the short hallway and Andrew followed her. There was a small, but clean bathroom to the right, then a small and messy bedroom to the left. Blankets were tossed around on the bed and a few clothes were left on the floor. Andrew walked over to the bedside table and opened the drawer. A couple of pens, sudoku books... Andrew filed away the details.

He likes math games. Coffee wasn’t congealed so he takes it with no sugar. Exy fan.

Andrew stood straight to look around the room and into the open closet. When he pulled back the door, he found that it was mostly bare no words on the walls . There was an exy racquet that looked a little banged up in one corner, and a duffle bag that looked old and outdated as fuck in the other. A box lie on the top shelf. Andrew could barely see it, it was shoved so far back into a corner. But, he could see the corner sticking over the lip of the shelf and he used the stool he found in the room to get to it.

Short boy solidarity.

Pulling it down, he found that it was an old shoe box. Setting it on the bed, he lifted the lid and found papers upon papers stacked inside. Rifling through, he found an ID, a passport, drivers license, even a social security card, and birth certificate. Andrew looked at the drivers’ license and his breath caught. Bee stuttered back to life and he relished, this time, in her buzz and her burn .

It’s him.

Brown hair, brown eyes, but Andrew could tell... The name read Chase Rowan.

“You don’t look like a Chase,” he mumbled to himself.

“What?” Renee asked. He didn’t realize she’d come up behind him. He silently lifted the ID for her to see.

“Oh...” She whispered. “That’s definitely him...” A moment of silence stretched as she looked closer, then down to the box. “I wonder why he wouldn’t have this somewhere more secure than a shoe box?”

Andrew froze.

Buzz -

No.

He dropped the ID like it had burned him, then shoved the box back into the closet.

“Andrew?” Renee asked, “What’s wrong?”

This- ” he shook his head. “This isn’t right,” he murmured, rubbing his hands on his jeans like he could wipe the feeling away. “This isn’t okay -” he turned around to face her. “What are we doing? Why are we going through his things...? This shit is private and I’m just pawing through it like its nothing -”

“You’re looking for answers, Andrew...” she said slowly. “You’re trying to see if this could lead you to the next location. You’re trying to help.”

He cracked his picky, then pushed his glasses up on his head to rub his eyes.

No. No this is wrong. This isn't the way-

“Let’s get out of here,” he mumbled, already heading out of the room. “I don’t want to do it this way.” Renee nodded and he heard her follow him out of the room, closing the bedroom door quietly with a click behind them.

He found Ashleigh standing in the kitchen, flipping through one of the abandoned magazines. She looked up when she heard them come in. “Find anything?” Her brows rose and her back straightened.

Andrew walked into the kitchen, hoping to find a bottle of water or something to try and keep him from throwing up his breakfast. “No,” he managed through his teeth, reaching for the handle.

What...?

He stopped before he could get it open. There was a 6x4 postcard on the fridge. Andrew took it down slowly, his heart pounding so hard against his chest, he could feel it rattle his ribs. On the front of it was a picture of the Grand Canyon with the words Wish You Were Here scrawled over it. The edges were bent and worn, two corners ripped off completely. Lines of demarcation covered the postcard from being folded too many times. There was a brown spot that looked like it could be blood splattered under the W in Wish. He flipped the card over and read the back, then slipped it into his bag before Ashleigh or Renee could notice.

Just then, his phone buzzed, startling him so hard that his heart felt like it could burst. Closing his eyes tight, he counted to three, before he pulled it out of his pocket.

‘Of course you’re in Arizona. Tell Ashleigh she’s an idiot.’

“Ashleigh,” Andrew said quietly, still staring at his phone.

“Yeah?” she replied, turning from Renee to him. He looked up at her and her face fell. He must look insane.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Andrew,” Renee scolded.

Another text pinged on his phone.

And I still don’t trust you. I’ll call. We can talk, if it’ll keep you from putting what you found on the air. I’ll call when I think I can stand to talk to you without throwing my fucking phone through a window. I’m fond of this one.’

Andrew choked a laugh and Renee’s stern expression changed to one of concern. “Hey - Everything okay?”

Andrew tapped his phone against the palm of his hand and nodded to the thoughts inside his head, before nodding up at her. His tongue played with his lip ring, before he looked back down at his phone and pulled up Allison’s number. He shot her a quick text and when he hit send, he finally answered. “Yes. We’re leaving.” He then directed his attention to Ashleigh, who looked minorly hurt.

God damnit.

“You’re-” he forced out. “Not completely an idiot. Sorry. Give us a ride back to the hotel. We have everything we need from you. Thank you.”

Good job, Andrew. Pat on the back.

-

“The fuck do you need $900 for?” There was music playing in the background. Andrew didn’t know if Allison was in the studio or if she was back in Miami. Both sounded the same.

“Super top secret shit, Reynolds,” he replied, sitting at the crappy hotel bar. He told Renee to go upstairs while he got something to drink. The whiskey was shit, but he finished it anyway. Running his finger around the rim, he heard the music quiet down as she either told someone to quiet it, or found another room.

“Am I privy to what this ‘super top secret shit’, is?”

“No.”

There was a beat of silence. “Does Renee know?”

Andrew debated lying, but the something that was obviously between those two, would probably result in Reynolds figuring out he was lying and whatever would come from that, he didn’t know. So, instead, he replied, “Nope.” Emphasis on the ‘p’.

Another stretch of silence. He could practically see Allison squinting at her phone, tilting her head side to side as she debated. Finally, she responded, “Whatever. You need my credit card number or something?”

“Yep.” Another emphasis.

The bartender raised a brow at him and Andrew slid his glass over.

Once she was finished reading off the number, security code, and expiration, he stored the information away in the back of his head and hung up with a promise that it was something important and definitely not diabolical.

It wasn’t.

Next, he removed the notice that was tacked up on Neil Josten’s Nathaniel’s door, and called the landlord.

Those were his things. Nathaniel’s. No one should go rifling through them but him.

-

That afternoon, Andrew finally found his way to his room.

He felt... not good, persé, but better. His invasion of privacy still lingered like a film on his skin, but knowing that no one else would do as he had, made him feel a bit better. At least now, if Nathaniel wanted to go back, he could. Everything would remain safe.

Hopefully .

Now, it was onto other things... bigger things.

Andrew paced back and forth. When he got in he had sent Renee a text to let her know that he was fine, but otherwise was left to his own devices. With his phone held tightly in his hand, he waited, staring holes into both sides of the room as he turned his back from one to the other while he paced - while he waited.

What if he didn’t call? What if Andrew was completely wrong? What if it wasn’t him and everything was just some elaborate joke and Andrew was getting his hopes up for no reason?

Relax. Breathe.

He sat on the bed and pulled out the postcard. Bee had been quiet, but her wings burned and there was a soft buzz that vibrated in his ear. Pressing his shoulder to it, he flipped the card over and read it again - ran a finger over the potential bloodspot.

Unlocking his phone, he checked a few things, then abruptly stood. Without a second thought, he made his way over to Renee’s room and knocked on the door.

She answered, already dressed - like she’d been expecting him.

“We’re going to the Grand Canyon.”

“Alright.”

-

One hour and one shitty rental car later, they were on their way.

The Grand Canyon was about a three and a half hour drive from Phoenix - which was probably good for Andrew. It allowed him to center himself a bit, get his mind in check. It also helped him get a few things out, explain his plan and well, everything. So, he talked and Renee nodded and she listened.

“So,” she finally said. “The Grand Canyon?”

Andrew pulled the postcard from his pocket and handed it to her. She ran her finger across the front, then turned it over and read the back. Sighing heavily, she nodded and said, “Ah... Well, this makes much more sense now.”

Chewing on his lip ring, he tilted it back and forth and said, “I think it’s him, Renee... That’s been texting me. I really think it’s him. He said he would call me and - what do I even say?” He gripped the wheel harder than necessary, his eyes scanning signs to lead him to where he needed to go.

“Andrew,” she started. “You’ve been thinking about this moment for months. Just... just tell him the truth. That you want to help - tell him you want justice for his mother. For him, too.”

Andrew went quiet as they approached their destination.

About twenty minutes, and a $35 entrance fee paid with Reynold’s money later, they pulled up on the South Rim and got out of the car. Together, they made their way in silence to the closest viewing point and Andrew? He stood alone - Renee right beside him, tourists milling about - he was alone.

The sun was sinking in the sky, temperature dropping as the blue above darkened to something deeper, somehow brighter , more vivid. The canyon began to disappear into shadows.

His phone vibrated in his pocket and bee vibrated with it.

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Pulling it out slowly, he looked to the screen and showed Renee the Blocked Number . Without a reply, she nodded, lifted her hand so he could see, and gently squeezed his shoulder. She walked away, disappearing into the crowd.

Wetting his lips, he took one deep breath and slid to answer.

You can do this.

“Hello, Nathaniel.”

Chapter Text

Andrew was on a plane.

This time, he didn’t mind.

His thoughts were racing and as they lifted into the air, he felt anticipation gather tightly in his chest and crushing hope accompany the pressure popping in his ears.

He was distracted - too distracted to feel the fear of flying and the possibility of falling, because

this is it.

Here, now. This was finally the moment - the moment where he flew to New York, the moment where he was on his way to see Neil . It was like resting on the Arizonian horizon and stretching towards Manhattan, was his own salvation, repentance, penance.

And he was doing it alone. This was something he had to do by himself, without Renee as a steady guide or someone to lean on. No. He had to face whatever lie at the end of JFK’s terminal on his own. So, he sent Renee back home to South Carolina. She understood because she always did. If he had not asked her to go, she probably would’ve suggested it herself.

The plane leveled out and whatever tension he was still feeling dissipated. His shoulders relaxed, and he finally put in his headphones. Closing his eyes, he hit play on Seth's playlist.


The sun was sinking in the sky, temperature dropping as the blue above darkened to something deeper, somehow brighter, more vivid. The canyon began to disappear into shadows.

He realized at that moment that sometimes, when one is very small, everything looks very big. But, when we grow and learn more about the world, we start to see that things which were once so big and scary - are not so big and scary anymore. Childhood bedrooms and childhood hiding spots, childhood monsters and childhood nightmares, seem so small in the face of an adult world.

It was odd, being back here - where everything around him was just as big and just as vast and wide and open and beautifully terrifying as it had been when he was a kid. But those that were here with him back then, were no longer very real Boogie Men, lingering in the background and ready to pounce.

No.

Now, he was 26, not 13. He was alone, without Cass and the rest of the Spear family to drag him from one place to the next. There was no guise of a fun camping trip! , that set so much in motion for him then - and still had him reeling, moving, turning, dancing on the winds of distance, remembrance, and oddly now, finality.

His phone vibrated in his pocket and bee vibrated with it.

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Pulling it out slowly, he looked to the screen and showed Renee the Blocked Number . Without a reply, she nodded, lifted her hand so he could see, and gently squeezed his shoulder. She walked away, disappearing into the crowd.

Wetting his lips, he took one deep breath and slid to answer.

You can do this.

“Hello, Nathaniel,” Andrew answered. “Or, I guess I should say Alex?”

The responding laugh was soft, quiet, but there in his ear.

He closed his eyes against the squeeze of his heart.

‘It’s Neil now, actually.’

-

September, 2006

 

Andrew stood at the viewing rail, looking out over the canyon. It seemed like a very long way down... He probably wouldn’t survive it. His eyes just cleared the top of the railing and he stood on his toes to move closer to the edge, leaning as far as he could get. There was a clench of fear in his stomach and he used it to push him onward. He wanted to feel it - wanted to feel the terror that he’d forced himself to lock up tight so many fucking times. Maybe it would help, maybe it would change things. It sat still, at the bottom of his belly, but he wanted it to rise into his throat - just for a moment.

No, Andrew. Don’t feel anything. Turn it all off.

But I want to

It usually worked. He’d gotten really good at it now. Especially when night darkened the curtains and the only thing that his small mind thought could save him was a thin blanket and a simple word.

They never did.

With creaking footsteps and echoes down the hallway -

Andrew closed his eyes and leaned over even further.

“AJ!” Andrew took a startled step back. He looked up to see Cass Spear making her way towards him, soft brown hair glinting in the sunlight. “What are you doing, silly boy?” she smiled at him. “Get away from the edge before you fall over!”

She wrapped a hand around his forearm and Andrew tried to hide a flinch at her touch, a hiss at the pain of her hand squeezing the fresh cuts on his arm beneath the sleeve of his shirt.

“Come on, let’s find Drake and Richard. There’s a tour starting soon.”

No-

Andrew extracted his arm from her grasp and refrained from holding it to his chest.

He knew she didn’t mean to pull so hard or hold so tight. Cass cared about him. She was kind and soft and she wanted to keep him. That... that meant more than Andrew would perhaps ever admit. And he? He wanted to keep her, too. Even with the price so high and the real possibility that he wouldn’t survive the cost.

But he followed behind, because he loved her and he watched her bright white tennis shoes become even brighter in the direct sunlight.

He tried not to relish in the coming burn.

“There they are!” she said and Andrew raised his head a fraction to see Richard Spear, a tall, lanky man with a too-wide smile and too-crinkly eyes. That was a man that spent an entire lifetime smiling - probably at his perfect son’s accomplishments. He was smiling now, a camera held up as he tried to usher said son into taking a photo. Instead, Drake stood, talking to... someone. Andrew furrowed his brow and walked a bit faster to see who it was because that person was neither tall, nor an adult.

“Oh look, AJ! Looks like Drake found a friend for you! He looks about your age,” she smiled at him indulgently and Andrew tried his hardest to give a tiny smile back. He might have managed it, he might not have. All he could feel was a cold wash of dread pulse quickly through his veins as he turned his full attention to Drake.

Why the fuck is he talking to a kid?

Andrew narrowed his eyes and watched closely. He tried not to run when Drake pushed the hair back from the kid’s forehead, tried not to sprint when he saw the kid visibly flinch.

Maybe he didn’t try hard enough, before he stood in front of whatever his name was and faced Drake. “ No,” he hissed.

Drake’s brows rose quickly and a smile spread across his face, big and wide and welcoming, but his eyes narrowed, just a bit. They sharpened on Andrew - a predator sizing up his prey.

Always the prey.

“AJ,” Drake said, as if surprised to find him there. “Hey,” he gestured behind Andrew’s body standing protectively before the other boy. “This is Alex. Tell him he should come with. The three of us can make a day of it together. Maybe hike some trails?”

Don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t puke.

He swallowed hard and clenching his jaw tight, stopped himself from saying anything he would surely regret. Turning around, he instead grabbed Alex’s shirt sleeve and dragged him away. Where? He didn’t know. But anywhere but there .

Drake called after him, but Andrew ignored it.

Breathe, just try to fucking breathe Andrew-

Shaking his head, he forced Drake from his head and instead tried to focus on the bounce of his brand new polaroid i-Zone against his chest. He put his free hand on it to stop it and tuned back into the chatter and excitement of tourism and families.

“Where are you going?” He heard Cass call.

He had to respond - just had to. Turning his head over his shoulder he replied, “To hang out with my new friend. I’ll be here at the end of the day,” and sped up his steps before someone could try to follow.

-

“Neil,” Andrew said, tasting it on his tongue.

Neil

“I’m at the Grand Canyon right now.” He tapped his hand on the railing and looked down. He could still feel that fear he wanted so badly to take in and the sun still warm on his skin. Spreading his fingers out, he turned and pressed his back against the warm metal to look at the spot where they first met.

‘Bullshit,’ Neil responded.

Andrew tried not to smile.

“It’s true. You know I never lie.”

‘Hmm, well. It’s been a long time. I don’t know you at all.’

You probably know me better than most.

-

“Hey,” Alex said, trying to twist out of Andrew’s tight grasp. “HEY!”

Andrew stopped and turned around, immediately letting go of Alex’s shirt.

It was then that he was finally able to take this... kid in. He was small. Andrew didn’t know how old he was, but Alex was a hair shorter and Andrew was a very small thirteen year old. His hair was black and... Andrew couldn’t see his eyes. He kept them down, darting around the pavement and Andrew bent down a little to try and get him to look him in the face.

“Yes?”

Alex’s eyes shot up to Andrew briefly and Andrew took a physical step back. They were very, very blue. Like Howl, from Howl's Moving Castle blue. The sunlight beating on the back of his neck suddenly felt hotter.

“Why’re you dragging me around?” Alex asked, clearly annoyed. He crossed his arms over his narrow chest and glanced over his shoulder, before glaring at Andrew. Andrew didn’t even try to hide his glare right back. Alex continued as he bounced on his toes for a minute and slid his glare to those around him. He said through his teeth, “I’m supposed to be waiting for my mum -”

Mum. You don’t sound english...

“I have to go back.”

You can’t go back. Not when Drake-

Andrew looked over Alex’s shoulder. People milled between where they were then and where they are now and he could still see Drake looming over heads. Clenching his hands into fists, he took a deep breath and directed his eyes back on Alex’s bowed glare. Frustrated, he asked, “When’s she supposed to be here?”

Alex suddenly looked very unsure. His eyes darted back to the ground and he took hold of the hem of his shirt. “I... She said just before dark.”

Just before dark? He’s a kid. It’s only noon.

There was only one choice.

“Fine,” Andrew acquiesced. With a firm nod to the thoughts in his head, he said, “Then you’re coming with me for now. Just... trust me okay?” he gestured behind them. “We’ll just go somewhere and hang out until she gets back.”

Alex’s face scrunched up, darkish brown brows gathering together. “Why should I trust you? I don’t even know you - just that your name is AJ-”

No

“It’s Andrew,” he cut him off. Shaking his head he glanced over Alex’s shoulder once more and felt the unsettling feeling that was curling there only moments before, start to lessen. “Don’t call me AJ. I hate it.” He then shrugged as Alex twisted the hem in his hands. “Hey, I guess you’ll just have to trust me. Come on,” he turned and hoped with everything inside him that Alex followed.

-

Quiet stretched between them. Andrew, though nothing was being said, relished in it. The quick, yet steady breath that was coming in through the receiver and knowing that somewhere, Nathaniel stood just as he was - with phone to ear and something unsaid passing between the distance of the two.

-

“Where’re we going?”

His voice wasn’t quite unsure or scared, but there was an edge of demand to it. Nonetheless, hearing the question sparked something hopeful in the center of Andrew’s belly.

He’s following. I can get him away. Keep him safe.

Andrew raised a brow back at him. Alex was still looking at the ground, but his eyes lifted every now and then as he hurried on equally short legs after Andrew.

“Something wrong with your eyes? Like, does the sun hurt? You got that photo-something disease? Where you can't be in the sun?”

Alex looked up at him, startled. Andrew nearly felt startled too, at the shock of icy blue staring back at him. “What? No! I don’t even know what you’re talking about. It’s just... the dust I guess...” he mumbled.

Andrew stopped walking and Alex almost bumped right into him. Andrew took off his sunglasses from where they were on top of his head and held them out. “Here.”

Alex stared at him for a moment - pupils small like pinpoints in the light. His chin pulled back, but his hand lifted hesitantly, before he took them and stared at them for a minute, as if confused. The sunglasses were black Ray Bans with purple arms and Andrew thought they were pretty fucking cool. Cass had given them to him a few months ago when summer started. He kept them in perfect condition, without even a scratch. He hoped Alex appreciated it.

Which, it seemed like he did. Because as Alex slid them on and looked at Andrew through them, Andrew could see his shoulders immediately relax.

“Thanks,” he said, and Andrew felt himself almost sorry that he couldn’t see his eyes anymore.

Weird.

Shaking his head, Andrew mumbled, “Whatever,” and pointed to their destination. “There’s a snack bar up there that’s closed. Come on.”

The Hermit’s Rest Snack Bar was a small little shack with a locked door to get in and a sign on the window that said, ‘closed for maintenance’ . Andrew spotted it about an hour or two earlier when his stomach was growling for attention and Drake was busy taking pictures with Cass by a sign that read something Andrew didn’t give a fuck about.   

“Why’re we here, if it’s closed?” Alex asked. Andrew decided not to answer. Instead, he looked around to make sure no one was looking their way and went to his knees. Pulling a paper clip and a bobby pin from his pocket, he set to work.

“Oh my god ,” Alex hissed in a whisper. “The hell are you doing?! You can’t just-”

Huh?

Andrew glanced up at him questioningly, but Alex just groaned and shook his head. Andrew rolled his eyes and set back to work, pressing his ear close to the lock and waiting to hear it’s click . When it came, he stood and pushed the door open. Brow raised he said, “Looks like I can.” He motioned inside. “We can hide in here for a while. The sun is fuckin’ killing me...”

Alex studied him for a moment or two, full lips pressed tightly together, before he sighed out of his nose and shook his head. Walking in, Andrew filed behind him. He had a distinct impression that Alex just wanted to see where this went.

The room was even smaller on the inside than it looked on the outside. Thin shelves lined the walls, a cooler hummed in the corner, and a small counter with a plethora of snacks arranged upon it was pressed against a wall with a sliding window above it. Andrew hummed to himself because, jackpot , then dropped to the floor. Pressing his back against the cooler, he motioned for Alex to follow.

“We have to stay down,” he said. “People’ll see us if we stand.”

“Someone could see anyway, idiot,” Alex mumbled, pressing his hand to the door as if to make sure it was closed. “God, if I get caught my mum is going to kill me,” the mumble turned to almost a whine, but he sat down nonetheless and backed up so he was pressed against the counter cabinet. Pulling his knees up, he took off Andrew’s glasses and closed his eyes to take a deep breath in. It was then that Andrew realized his hand was shaking - a little thing at first, but grew as his shoulders shrugged up and the tension there returned.

No, no, no

He was panicking, Andrew thought. Something inside of him felt bad about it, but that bad feeling was dwarfed by what could’ve happened if he was left in Drake's presence. So, instead, he scooted next to Alex and asked quietly, “Can I touch you?”

Alex’s head shot up and he looked to Andrew warily. His bottom lip quivered for half a second, before those brows dipped defiantly and he asked, “What?”

Andrew had to fight to keep himself from the attitude that was usually primed and ready to strike. Taking a deep breath of his own, he shrugged his shoulders. “Because you’re freaking the fuck out, which is like, fine... I guess. But,” he glanced at Alex’s shaking hands. “Trust me, leaving you out there would’ve been 100 million times worse.” He bit his lip, debating whether or not to follow through.

Stop thinking so much. It’ll help. Help him.

“There’s this thing-” he motioned towards his own neck. “It’ll help. Promise. Can I?”

Alex was practically panting by now. His chest rose and fell quickly and Andrew could see the pulse beneath his ear beating double time. Alex closed his eyes tight and took one deep breath, but it caught and he opened his eyes to scrutinize Andrew for a moment longer. Then, he nodded, tiny little motions.

Swallowing hard, Andrew lifted a hand, making sure Alex could see it, before setting it firmly on the back of his neck and pushed him forward, just a little.

Beneath his hand, Alex tensed up for only a moment. Then, slowly, he began to relax, head bowing and eyes falling closed as he fought to catch his breath. Eventually, seconds passed and his pulse began to even out, his breathing became steadier, smoother, deeper, and Andrew nodded to himself.

Letting go slowly, he wanted nothing more than to stay seated beside whoever this boy was. Instead, he slid back to his spot on the other side of the tiny shack so they were seated across from each other. From there, he watched - for only a moment, really... He watched while Alex had his eyes closed.

His skin was darker than Andrew’s - a tan that he could never hope to achieve, with his pale skin and blond hair. There were freckles all over his face, his arms. Whether they were sunspots or not, he didn’t know. There was an especially dark one on his ear, Andrew noted with some small fascination. His black hair curled just below it, which, all together, seemed out of place. It wasn’t curly, persé, but wavy and... wrong?

Alex opened his eyes and Andrew snapped his own away, feeling an odd heat crawling up his neck and to his face. Luckily, distractions were something Andrew was particularly good at.

“Thanks,” Alex whispered quietly, rubbing the back of his neck.

Say you’re welcome.

Andrew grumbled something unintelligible and set his sights on the cooler behind him. Turning on his knees, he did manage a nod at least and slid back the top of the cooler to find ice cream hidden inside.

“What’re you doing?” Alex asked.

You’re fine. The cold is nice.

The cold air from the cooler rose up and made his face feel less hot. He could’ve been a bit nicer, but he said, “What does it look like I’m doing?” over his shoulder, before hissing, “Oh fuck yes-” He pulled out a fudgesicle and held it up for Alex to see. When he looked, Alex seemed wholly unimpressed. “Ice cream!” Andrew explained unnecessarily, but Alex just nodded slowly.

Groaning to himself, he closed the case, then slid back down and ripped the wrapper open and threw it to the side. “What? You don’t like ice cream?” Andrew took a bite and ignored the sharp pain in his teeth.

Worth it. Great distraction Andrew.

Alex slowly shook his head, “I-I don’t really like sweets...”

WHA-

“What?” Andrew furrowed his brow. “What kind of kid doesn’t like sweets? Do you also kick puppies in your spare time?”

Alex was slow to shrug. “I mean... If they kick me first, I suppose.”

Andrew couldn’t help it. He laughed out loud and quickly clapped a cold hand over his mouth in surprise.

When was the last time I laughed?

It felt weird and wrong and he cut it off quickly. Taking another bite, he felt a tension rise in his own shoulders, hoping Alex didn’t think he was crazy. “So,” he swallowed and continued, “No sweets?”

Alex shrugged one shoulder, then the other. “I mean...” he started. “I like fruit. Fruit is sweet.” Alex turned his head this way and that, looking around.

Oh, poor poor kid...

Andrew’s lived a horrible, short fucking life, but he didn’t find happiness in fruit .

“God, you’re sad...” Andrew mumbled to himself, putting the fudgesicle in his mouth to hold it as he sat up and dug through boxes until he found a pack of skittles. Biting into his ice cream, he tossed it to Alex and relaxed again against the cooler.

Alex looked startled when it landed in his lap and gingerly picked it up like it might explode. Smoothing out the package with a thumb, he raised a brow at Andrew. “Skittles?”

Andrew gestured his ice cream towards him. The popsicle stick was finally poking out of the top. “Yeah, it’s fruit. See?” He nodded towards the package and Alex just looked at it, unconvinced. “It’s just candy, jesus christ, kid. Live a little.”

Something about those words made Alex bristle. Andrew thought, perhaps, he’d said the wrong thing, but Alex raised the package to his teeth, stared Andrew right in the eye and ripped it open. Andrew raised his own brow, then nodded in impressed approval as Alex took a few and popped them into his mouth.

“Mmmmm,” he hummed. “I can feel my teeth rotting right out of my fuckin’ head.”

Ah, there it is.

Andrew didn’t try to hide his smile this time as he nodded. “That’s how you know it’s good.” He tilted his head to bite the side of his ice cream, but kept his eyes trained on Alex for a bit longer.

“How old are you, anyway?” he finally asked, curiosity getting the better of him as he let the ice cream melt in his mouth.

Alex grimaced down at the skittles and looked as if he were going for more, then shook his head and made a ‘bleck ’ sound. “Twelve,” he said, folding the corners of the package over. “I’ll be thirteen in January, though. You?”

You’re small for a twelve year old.

“Thirteen. I’ll be fourteen in November.” Which, Andrew thought, made him sound very old.

Turning the popsicle over, he bit the other side and said, perhaps... playfully? “You’re shorter than me.”

Alex raised a brow at him, “Congratulations?” then took a skittle out and threw it at Andrew. It bounced off the cooler beside his head. “I’m shorter than most people. You’re not special.”

You’re funny...

Andrew fought back another smile and instead, shrugged. “I just don’t find kids my age shorter than me, often. That’s all,” amusement tickled his words and he was surprised to find that he did not wholly mind it. It felt... good. He felt light .

“Well,” Alex started. “Here I am,” he said, spreading his arms wide, bag of skittles still in his hand. “It’s fate. We met just to boost your ego.”

I like this .

Andrew snorted, “There’s no such thing as fate.”

Alex dropped his arms and stretched his legs out in front of him. Something about that made Andrew feel... accomplished maybe? He was uncurling himself, something comfortable drifted between them and Andrew felt like he was doing something right. He was drawn from his thoughts as Alex asked, “You don’t believe in fate?”

“Of course not,” duh? “You do?” he asked as he finished off his ice cream and tossed the stick aside. “How quaint. Do you also believe in fairies?”

“No, but I think things happen for a reason. Even bad things.” He shrugged and his knee twitched. Alex looked down at it, like he wanted to curl back up but was actively telling himself not to. “Makes it easier when you have to face ‘em.”

Andrew didn’t like that. He didn’t like that because the idea that the shit that had been done to him was done because of some almighty fucking purpose. In fact, dark anger curled and he clenched his hands into fists. A part of him liked it, the other part...

“That’s bullshit,” Andrew mumbled and moved onto his knees. “Nothing happens for a reason, Alex. Everything is random and shit happens because the world and the people in it are shit.” He leaned forward and reached an arm close to Alex’s head to get a package of Reeses. Alex went to grab his arm with a sudden movement, but Andrew flinched away quickly, retreating to his side of the room and clutching it to his chest.

Alex eyed him, then his arm, then trailed his eyes back to his face. “What happened to your arm...?” he asked quietly.

Andrew clenched his teeth together and ground them slightly. It sounded loud in this small space. With a slow breath, he dropped his arm to his lap and looked down at it. His sleeve had ridden up and some cuts were visible - red and angry where Cass had squeezed earlier.

Lie.

Andrew looked up at Alex slowly and saw the moment when Alex’s breath caught in his throat - saw when those blue eyes widened just a little.

I can’t lie.

“Shit things happen, Alex. Sometimes all we can do is hang the fuck on and do the best we can,” he shrugged a shoulder and mumbled, “Or something...”

Alex was quiet, stayed quiet. The pack of skittles were forgotten in his lap, a few pieces pushing past the flimsy fold and rolling out. Alex bit the inside of his lip, a little indent as indication as he chewed slightly. When he finally spoke, he asked, “Do you want to die?” very quietly. “Is that why you do that?”

No-

Andrew shook his head and closed his eyes. This was something he’d never talked about with anyone... Cass didn’t know, even though sometimes, Andrew pushed his long sleeves up just a little - just to right above his wrist where the bottom of them could be seen. He guessed, to an extent, he wanted her to see. But she never did.

She didn’t see a lot...

Coming up with an answer was hard and he didn’t owe anyone anything. But, a part of himself wanted to try and put words to the feelings and the impulses and the needs . Wetting his lips, he heard himself say, “I do it because I want to live.” It was quiet, just a whisper - perhaps below it even.

Move on.

With a deep breath, he lifted his head and said, forcing his voice to sound strong. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Alex looked like he understood. His nod ended with his own eyes on his lap. His finger poked at one of the escaped skittles and unexpectedly, he responded, “I have scars too.” It was a whisper, just like Andrew’s. The tone the same, the meaning... similar?

Shared.

“I didn’t give them to myself, but I’ve got them.” When he lifted his head, their eyes met and Andrew slowly stretched his own legs out.

Their feet touched.

“Oh yeah?” He asked, sounding a lot more steady than he felt, a lot more uncaring than he felt.

Maybe, part of him was angry that Alex could see what Cass never fucking did.

Finding a bit of strength he didn’t know was there, he nudged Alex’s foot with his own. “You saw mine, show me yours?”

It seemed as though Alex had already made up his mind. A bit of determination shone behind his eyes as he lifted a hand and pulled the collar of his shirt.

“Holy shit...” Andrew whispered.

Nestled in the little divot of his shoulder and clavicle, was a round scar. It was healed, but it was still red and puckered. Andrew felt his eyes widen and his body leaned forward. He raised his own fingers and pressed it against the same spot on his own shoulder. “You were shot...?” He asked.

Alex nodded and looked down at it, before letting go of his shirt. “Nowhere important, thankfully...” he mumbled, then moved his hands to the hem of his shirt. He paused, for a moment, then twisted it in his hands like he had before and settled back against the shelves after some decision was made in his head.

Andrew scratched at the spot on his own shoulder and shook his head. “Wow, okay... you win,” he mumbled.

Alex, surprisingly, laughed albeit, sadly , and shook his head. “It’s not a competition.”

Alex tossed him the pack of skittles. A few slipped out, tap tap tapping against the floor and bouncing every which way. When Andrew caught the pack, a majority was left and he shrugged his shoulder, sucking on an orange as thoughts circled in his head and he finally asked, “So, you think that happened to you for a reason?”

While Alex thought of an answer, Andrew moved back into the cooler and found two water bottles. Throwing one back towards Alex, he heard him catch it. Andrew set his own beside him as he watched Alex’s small hands crack open the seal, but he didn’t drink.

“I think,” he eventually said, looking from the bottle to Andrew, “If nothing else, it didn’t kill me. Taught me a lesson, I guess... ‘Bout people and what they can do.” he finally took a small sip.

Andrew tried not to watch.

He tore his eyes away and poured a few more skittles into his hand. “And what’s that? What are people capable of?” He bit into half of a red and crushed the other half between his thumb and forefinger.

He knew the answer to that question. He just wanted to hear someone else say it...

“Destruction of the smallest things,” Alex answered too quickly, too quietly - like he’d thought about it a time or two...


Destruction of the smallest things .

That, at the time, sounded so smart, so deep. Now with Neil’s voice in his ear, Andrew realized it was really something too advanced, too specific, too sad for a twelve year old to know and understand.

It all makes sense now.

He didn’t show him all his scars then. Andrew remembered the contemplation, the mental battle he saw going through Alex’s head at the time. He remembered his small fists twisting in his shirt, before ultimately deciding it wasn’t for Andrew to see - the dozens of scars scattering his torso. Or so Karl claimed.

I believe him .

And then -


Andrew’s insides seized and the skittle in his mouth tasted wrong . He felt sick, all of a sudden. Slowly, he set them down on the floor and stared at Alex as he pulled his own legs to his chest and rested his chin on his knees. Wrapping his arms around himself, he gripped onto his sleeves and tried to close himself in tightly.

Hold everything together.

“Who did that to you...?” Andrew eventually asked, just as soft, just as quiet. It was like he didn’t want to disturb the air - the silence that was ringing so loud between them, he wanted to cover his ears and try to block it out.

Someone who understands?

Alex watched him, eyes too keen and smart and sharp. With a hard stare, it took nearly a minute before Alex decided Andrew was worth telling whatever it was he wanted to say.

“My father,” His voice was... strong? It had a force, a determination Andrew admired. “My mum took me and left when I was five, but...” he stopped, strength not waning, but deliberating whether or not to continue.

“But what?” Andrew urged. He didn’t want Alex to stop. He wanted him to keep going, he wanted to relate, he wanted to understand and be understood .

Alex shook his head and glanced at the door. “Nothing... I shouldn’t even be telling you this.”

Don’t stop-

“I won't tell,” Andrew replied, perhaps desperate, perhaps not. “I promise and I never break my promises.”

Alex pulled his chin back. “How do I know that?”

Andrew mirrored him, “Because I just told you, idiot.”

Alex swallowed, pressed his lips back together and looked down at the floor. A few beats of loud silence followed. With a deep sigh, Alex continued, “She took me and ran when I was five, but we’re still running.” He motioned with a hand to the door, then dropped it to his jeans. He picked at a fraying hole at his knee, “She’s meeting with someone right now... someone who can help. But, she didn’t want him to see me for some reason. So,” Alex shrugged. “She told me to stay here... or there, I guess... and hide out ‘til she could get back.”

Andrew felt his eyes squint and his brows gather. “So,” he started, shaking his head. “You’ve been running this whole time?”

Alex shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. Always moving - we don’t stay in one place for long.” He chewed on his lip, then let go. “I don’t even know what that-” he looked again to the door, “would be like. Like your family out there? Vacations and shit? That just seems weird to me.”

“They’re not my family,” Andrew said quickly, then reeled back. “I mean... Cass wants to adopt me. But...” he shook his head. “I don’t know...”

“Oh,” Alex said, cocking his head to the side. “So, you’re like…an orphan or something?”

Andrew had never thought of himself as an orphan, but he supposed that was as good a descriptor as any.

“I guess, yeah. A foster kid,” he loosened his arms around his legs. “I mean, I’m always moving, too. From place to place, family to family. I’ve been with this one the longest so far.” Andrew finally dropped his knees and let his legs stretch out in front of him. His feet and Alex’s were next to each other now. They could tap shoes again, if they moved their feet just right.

“Do you want them to adopt you?”

Yes.

No.

I don’t know.

Andrew just shrugged, not willing to speak further, not willing to think more, not willing to stop now - not when he felt like he was on the precipice.

“I-” Andrew took a deep breath and let it out as he continued, “don’t really want to move again. But, I don’t want to stay,” he could say it. He could tell Alex. No . Instead, “Because people are shit and love the destruction of the smallest things.” He couldn’t meet Alex’s eyes.

Alex went quiet anyway. He didn’t ask any questions, which Andrew was glad for. Andrew didn’t think he could handle answering them - he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to help himself.

Finally, Alex broke the silence. “We’re both pretty fucked, huh?”

Andrew laughed again before he could stop himself.

It was a good laugh, starting from his belly and rising up. He felt that warmth again and something about this, about Alex, felt okay .

Feeling his smile slowly fade, he finally let his eyes raise as he replied, “Yeah. I guess we are.” Then looked back down at his finger tapping on his leg. After a beat or two, Andrew suggested, “We could run away,” like he was asking Alex if he wanted more skittles, or water, or something.

“What?” Alex asked quickly.

The words were at the tip of his tongue and Andrew didn’t want to hold them back even if it was just a silly thought. “We could run away. Right now.” he nodded to himself. “There are so many fucking people here, no one would even notice.” Yeah, that sounds good, Andrew. “I have a little money in my wallet. We could take a cab to the nearest truck stop and just hitchhike until we’re like, a thousand miles away.”

When he looked up again, Alex’s lips twitched. “Where would we go, a thousand miles away? Florida?” He was giving in, letting the two of them to live the fantasy for just a moment.

I like this.

Andrew gave him a grossed out look. “Gators and meth? No thanks. Maybe Pennsylvania? The Hershey factory is there.”

“Why do I give a shit about the Hershey factory?” Alex asked. “No, let’s go to Wisconsin. They have a lot of farms and stuff,” he nodded, as if trying to convince Andrew. “We can work on a farm and get paid illegally or something, so we can get food and a place to live and stuff.”

I don’t want this to end.

“What kind of farm?” Andrew asked.

“A dairy farm, duh. It’s Wisconsin.

Andrew’s nose wrinkled. “What about New York?” he asked. “They probably wouldn’t even notice a couple of random kids. We could panhandle in Times Square.”

“Hmmmm,” Alex said, rubbing his chin. “I could do New York. They have a really good exy team.”

“They have really good hot dogs, too,” Andrew added, nodding to himself. “So, we’ll hitchhike to New York.”

“And we’ll watch exy.”

“And eat hotdogs.”

They stopped talking only long enough to catch each other’s eyes and start laughing, this time together. It felt so fucking good . To laugh and relate and pretend and hope and wish and Andrew didn’t want this to fucking end.

Nevertheless, they only quieted when they heard voices outside the window. He looked back to Alex, who was surveying him sadly.

“We can’t really do that, can we?” he asked.

Andrew looked down at his hands. “No. We can’t.”

“I don’t want to leave my mum alone.”

“I don’t want anymore kids to come into the house.”

“Hey,” Alex said, and he tapped Andrew’s shoe with his own. “I don’t care what you say. Fate is a thing. Maybe us meeting like this is fate.”

Andrew rolled his eyes and mumbled bitterly, “It’s not.” Because maybe, a piece of him very deep down wished it was.

“Maybe not. But maybe it is.”

“It’s not,” Andrew said again, almost frustrated this time.

Don’t give me hope.

Alex sighed, watching him with a steady eye. “How about this. If we’re ever in a position to help each other, we do it. Okay? Even if it’s twenty years from now. If we can find each other again, we’ll do it and we’ll help and we’ll make sure the other is okay.”

I want that.

“Yeah?” Andrew asked. He couldn’t imagine himself being anywhere twenty years from now.

But I want that.

“Yeah,” said Alex.

It’s okay to hope.

Andrew wanted to believe that. He wanted it so bad... So, he nodded. “Okay. I promise.”

“You never break your promises,” Alex reminded him.

No.

“I never do. Here,” Andrew started, “We’ll pinky swear on it,” he held up his pinky.

Alex looked confused. His head tilted to the side just so, black hair falling over his forehead. His nose wrinkled, freckles blurring together. “Pinky swear? What the hell is that?”

Oh my god, he’s so stupid.

Andrew rolled his eyes and patted himself on the back for patience. Bending his legs, he scooted forward and leaned in. “Just give me your pinky, idiot.”

Alex looked between Andrew’s hand, his face, and then his own pinky. With a second's hesitation, he held his own out and Andrew hooked them together.

This -

“Like this,” He tugged Alex’s hand as he leaned forward. Then, Andrew pressed his lips to his own fist. Alex raised a brow, but he followed Andrew’s lead -

- And, for one short second, their eyes locked. It wasn’t from either side of the shack or in the open where people could see. No, they locked inches away and Andrew felt them breathe the same breath. Light filtered in through the wide window above and caught Alex just so . The blue, it was so - and... and though he was certain he’d never seen that color before, it was something else that took that shared breath away. That something was a reflection of a thing Andrew couldn’t explain, but understood deeper than he would ever admit. Alex’s eyes widened just a bit, like he saw it, felt it, too. Seconds suspended, time stopped, Andrew felt like he couldn’t pull away if he tried and Alex? He looked like he couldn’t either.

But time must move on, and good things must come to an end because that was Andrew’s life and good things scared him.

So, he pulled back, confused and lost and found and he didn’t like it - didn’t like things he couldn’t name. He didn’t want to anyway, right? Not now.

Looking back at Alex, he saw that pulse pounding in his neck again, and swore it beat in time with his own.

-

A sigh. It was soft and broke the loud silence.

Andrew could feel it - could feel Neil remembering that hot day, so many years ago... Huddled together and skirting on the edge of secrets.

‘What are you doing, Andrew...?’ Neil finally asked so quietly - almost desperately.

“Keeping my promise,” automatic, right there. That’s what Andrew was doing, what he always intended to do - keep his promise... Because so much time had passed by the time he realized it was a promise that could be kept.

‘This is a little extreme, don’t you think?’

Yes.

“I don’t do subtle,” He responded instead and felt his pinky crack. Looking down, he realized his hands were shaking and he had to take a deep breath to settle the nerves. It didn’t help. Swallowing hard, he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. One handed, he slid one out and used his lips to take hold of it. With a flick of his lighter, he inhaled a deep drag and closed his eyes against the burn and the silence and Alex, Nathaniel, Neil .

The smoke filled his chest - filled the spaces that weren’t full of questions and declarations and secrets kept all these years.

-

“So, it’s settled then,” Alex said, when they were both back in their respective spots and the moment had come and gone.

Gone, gone, gone

Andrew nodded, because he had to. But something inside of him tugged and he took the feeling and ran with it. Turning over onto his knees, he crawled the short distance to a postcard stand and pulled one down. Peeking over the counter, he grabbed a pen near the register and scribbled on the card to get the slightly dried ink to go. Sitting back in his spot, he briefly read over WISH YOU WERE HERE scrawled on the front, then turned it over and pressed the 6x4 card flat on his leg before he wrote down his name, address, and phone number. He handed it to Alex.

“Here,” he said. “I live in California. You can write to me... if you want - or call” he shrugged a shoulder and tried to act like it didn’t matter if Alex did or didn’t.

Alex slowly reached a hand out and took it, flipping it over to read the back.

“Andrew Doe,” he read out loud before looking up questioningly.

Spear

Andrew shrugged. “Orphan,” he said simply, because that was... what was right. He knew that deep down, no matter how much he wanted to hold on .

Alex just nodded, accepting it. “I,” he started and frowned at himself before taking a deep breath and continuing with a shake of his head. “I won’t write. I want to-” he said quickly before Andrew could tell him to fuck off. “But, there’s no way my mum would let me... She’d rip this up and beat the shit out of me if she saw it.”

No-

“Fine,” Andrew forced himself to say, reaching forward to try and take it back. “Forget it.”

Alex snatched it out of his grasp and held it to his chest, “No! No, I want to keep it-” he shook his head and pressed his lips together again. His shoulders sunk a bit, chest deflated as he said, “It’s just.. I’m sorry If I never call or write.”

It’s okay, Alex.

Andrew shrugged and forced himself to seem unbothered.

Maybe, I’m not.

“At least you have the option, if you find out you can.”

-

‘Andrew.’ Not soft, chastising.

Andrew watched the ash fly on an errant wind as he tapped it away. Guilt sat in his stomach and he wanted it to be taken away with the ash.

“I have something of yours,” he said, trying to distract himself. Dropping the cigarette he was fairly sure wasn’t allowed in the park, he ground it into the dirt with the toe of his boot and pulled out the postcard instead.

When he turned it over, his own 13 year old handwriting stared back at him - Cass Spears’ address and phone number in Oakland, California accompanying it.

“You never wrote,” he said.

Neil sighed again. A second passed and Andrew knew he was debating with himself. ‘I told you, I wouldn’t.’

“I suppose you did.”

-

We’re close.

Andrew realized just then. He had leaned forward again. His hands on the floor between them and so, so close . Andrew thought they were both caught, for just a second. Two boys who knew what the world really was, face to face, matching breaths and heartbeats and thoughts and pain? .

They were both startled by a buzzing in Alex’s pocket.

Andrew sat back with a thump and Alex quickly pulled out a Nokia phone.

“Hello? Hey, mum,” his eyes met Andrew’s again, or they tried because Andrew sat back on his heels and flicked one of the skittles across the floor. I don’t want this to end . “I’m hiding out right now... Okay... No, no. I’ll come to you. Okay. I’ll be there in just a second.” He shoved the phone back in his pocket and moved to stand, but paused. “I-“

“Have to go, I know. I heard.” Resentment tasted bitter on his tongue. Andrew, all of a sudden realized he hated Alex’s mother very much.

“Right...” Alex nodded slowly, hesitantly. He stood and looked to the door, then back to Andrew. “Okay, well…I guess it was nice meeting you.”

Don’t go

“Wait,” Andrew said quickly, standing up too. He pressed his hand to his chest, just remembering. “Here let’s take a picture,” and held up his camera.

Alex chewed on the inside of his lip for a moment, probably weighing pros and cons Andrew barely understood. He looked towards the window, then back at Andrew before finally nodding.

Something beat hard in his chest that Andrew refused to acknowledge. He tried his best as he took the camera from around his neck and moved to stand next to Alex until they were shoulder to shoulder, but not touching. Nonetheless, Andrew could still feel his warmth through his shirt.

Ever so slightly, they both tilted their heads toward each other in unison, and Andrew turned the lens to face them and snapped the picture.

There was a flash that printed itself on Andrew’s eyes as he blinked quickly and looked down to pull the small polaroid out. “Do you want a copy?” he asked, shaking it. “I can mail it to you, if you give me your address.”


 

He didn’t have one.


 

“No…I mean yes, but…we move around a lot, like I said. I wouldn’t be able to keep it.” he pressed his fingertips to Andrew’s hand and pushed it towards him. “Keep it for me okay? Bring it next time we meet.” Alex gave him a small smile.

Next time we meet.


 

Next time we meet.


 

“Sure,” Andrew said. “Hot dogs in New York.”

“And exy.”

Andrew rolled his eyes.

Alex just smiled bigger. “Bye, Andrew.”

“Bye, Alex.”

-

Andrew could hear something through the receiver. When he closed his eyes, he almost knew what it was - Neil chewing on the inside of his lip.

‘Come find me then,’ he finally decided. The purr of what Andrew could tell was a cat rattled not far from Neil’s phone, he bet. Neil continued, ‘I’m in New York-’

New York?

‘I’ve been staying with… a friend. Come find me and we’ll talk. But it has to be alone. You can’t tell anyone else... Not yet.’

“You’re in New York...?” Andrew asked.

What kind of fuckery -

‘Do you still think fate is bullshit?’

Andrew blew out a breath and wished it were a stream of smoke. He stared at the crushed cigarette on the ground and rubbed his forehead with his spare hand.

Don’t.

He was unwilling to go down that road right now. So, instead, he nodded his head and said impulsively, truthfully, wantingly , “Okay. I’ll be there as soon as I can get on a plane. Text me the details and I’ll respond with my flight info.”

Is this it?

Yes.

Is this happening...?

Yes

‘Okay,’ Neil cut him off. ‘I’ll... I’ll see you then.’

See you then

‘Bye, Andrew.’

“Bye, Alex.”

-

Andrew watched him walk through the door - watched him walk away through the window. When he could no longer see him through the crowd and distance and and and and , he finally looked down at the picture in his hand. Slowly, the image faded into view like a hazy dream coming to fruition when one is half asleep.

Andrew wasn’t smiling, but Alex... he had a very small one lifting at the corner of his mouth.

He pulled out his wallet and slipped it inside before he got stuck staring at it before he ran after him . With a deep breath, he looked up and prepared for leaving himself. Raising his hand to his head, he remembered just then, that Alex had taken his sunglasses with him.

He realized he didn’t mind, very much.

Eventually, Andrew made his way out of that little snack bar and he knew, without a doubt, that he would never see Alex again.


 

Andrew pulled his wallet from his bag on the seat beside him. Opening it slowly, he took out the very small, very old polaroid he’d kept there - that he moved from wallet to wallet ever since he was 13... That he looked for as soon as he was released from juvie and had been given back his things... That he looked at whenever things were hard and life uncertain -

That he refused to look at since this entire thing started. Because it brought about impulses and feelings, and it brought about hurt and hope that he couldn’t let himself have - not when he was trying so fucking hard to find out what happened to him. The boy with the blue eyes; the boy who liked fruit, not sweets; who had scars and understood pain, like Andrew.

The boy who Andrew promised he would help.  

And broke that promise... For so many years.

No. He didn’t look because he knew if he did, everything would rush back and he would move too fast, too eager, too quick and start making assumptions when he should be thinking critically.

Finding Alex was something that couldn't afford mistakes.

Andrew ran a thumb over Alex, Neil, Nathaniel’s small smile and he felt the same thing he had back in that small snack bar.

That was the first time he met someone who might have an inkling of understanding of what life really was... And though Andrew didn’t realize it at the time, that was the first time a boy made him feel .

He wasn’t ready, not at 13 to think about it. He’d come to terms with his sexuality in juvie, when he was finally away from his abuser and with the help of therapists.

But he had.

And when he had, he was able to look back at that encounter with Alex and confidently say, ‘that was my first crush’.

But, crushes were stupid and none of that was worth the price of bread because that wasn’t the reason why he was here.

No, it wasn’t like after all these years, he was still harboring some weird attachment that he couldn’t let go of. Not like that .

He was here because he had to be. Because promises were important, they were everything . All of this was because Alex, Nathaniel, Neil deserved justice and he deserved freedom. He deserved someone to remember him - properly. He didn’t deserve to be brushed aside and only acknowledged when that fucking documentary came out.

When listeners asked him why he was doing this, Andrew never lied. It was all the reasons he said. Justice and truth and helping the forgotten. He just had extra motivation behind his reasons.

Because that’s what this was... wasn’t it?

Andrew, he pushed Alex aside. He told himself that when he was in a position to help, he would - but how can you help when you don’t know where to fucking start?

But that is what happened. The documentary came out and everything fell into place. Everything made sense and the pain from that realization was -

Perhaps it was resentment - resentment towards the Moriyamas, towards himself. He hated that it took a stupid fucking documentary about a stupid fucking monster to see who Alex really was. To see that the horrors he endured were far worse than Andrew could have ever expected.

It took the family photo to really get it - that Nathaniel and Alex really were one in the same.

And Andrew hated that...

Because so many years had passed. So many years of Andrew getting his own life together while Alex’s was continuing to fall apart.

All these years, he’d been running and suffering and whatever fucking else.

I failed him .

I’m trying to make it right.

-

The plane was landing at JFK before Andrew even knew what was happening.

He had to force himself to blink back to reality, to gather his things and file off with everyone else.

It wasn’t until he was on one of the terminal trains when he realized that it was late afternoon on Monday, and Andrew had absolutely no fucking plan. He had no idea where he was staying no clue when he’d see Alex Neil. He barely knew where he was fucking going - just following the crowd as he gripped his carry-on over his shoulder and watched as everything changed around him while he walked to... Wherever.

Eventually, he assumed he came to the end. The light outside was waning, but filtering through the wide, two story windows in blues and oranges and purples. There was a NEWS STAND off to the side, Metro gates separating him from... Jamaica station.

His feet took him to the candy shelf before he could really tell himself no, and a pack of skittles was bought and paid for in his hand with a smile stretching over his lips. He caught himself when some announcement came overhead and jarred him from his thoughts.

Andrew didn’t really hear what was said, but he did shove the skittles into his bag and took a deep breath as he looked to the gates and prepared himself for whatever lie beyond.

With steps that couldn’t move fast enough, he felt the metal press against his stomach, then slip away as he passed into the station. Doors opened for him, automatic and revealing a chaotic rush of bodies and coats and rolling luggage and -

Honey and blue, blue ice

And a million miles and years and

Fate.